After Atheism What?
How do we bookmark our place in our ‘secular age’? This is a difficult and complex challenge indeed. Charles Taylor writes (A Secular Age, especially Chapter 15 “The Immanent Frame”) that we must find our way in the midst of modernity with its various humanisms and antihumanisms, its conflicting narratives, mythologies and visions, even its anti-intellectualisms, political extremes and closed minds. There are many things (historical, cultural and philosophical) that have called into question the hard culture of atheism in the last hundred years. But there is no going back to a golden age. Is it possible to move towards rediscovery of faith after Nietzsche, to recover meaning and belief once again in an age of unbelief, to find God again after the death of God? Or are we lost in a sea of doubt, alienation, quoting the works of Masters of Suspicion, and yet bragging about our human technological prowess and our trips to the moon?
What does mature adulthood look like philosophically in late modernity? Where does courage lie at the edge of the abyss, at the end of man? Can we find such a future after Camus and his declaration of the absurdity of hoping for meaning in a universe that is deaf to our deepest human aspirations for happiness and a meaningful life? Is there a possibility of something more than self-authorization: the creation of our own needed meaning and values in a meaningless cosmos? After Schopenhauer, Marx and Freud, is it still possible to link with something greater than ourselves, to find what William James called ‘the more’? These are some of the tough questions raised and examined in a CBC Ideas series called After Atheism produced by the very thoughtful David Cayley. We found some real insight in this high dialogue, especially in the interviews with Richard Kearney, William Cavanaugh, Roger Lundin and to some extent John Caputo. There seems to be a tough, even disturbing, hermeneutical examination needed as we reflect on our journey with modernity.
Anglo-American poet W. H. Auden (Believing Again) is a recovering atheist who coined the phrase ‘believing again’ a kind of remembering (looking back) in order to see and move forward. Oxford’s Gerard Manley Hopkins found God within the immanent frame; he did not close himself off to the transcendent, but in fact discovered it within a secular world. After atheism, is it possible to hear the divine voice once again, to have the epiphanic encounter, to find that existential forgiveness that haunts us, to find a fresh language for our identity? It is suggested in this dialogue that many respected intellectuals have done just that, but not without digging deep into self and history. No one is offering an easy path, a painless journey. Professor Lundin noted that the nineteenth century was a particularly tumultuous period of faith and doubt, rethinking and struggling with the loss of God, the movement of faith to other ideologies. Emily Dickenson is one author who typifies this struggle.
Paul Ricoeur (The Symbolism of Evil) is someone who walked through atheism to faith, but not without immense struggle. Dietriche Bonhoeffer (Letters and Papers from Prison) endured the confusion, betrayal and will to power of Nazi Germany and found a relevant faith that mattered, sustained and ultimately helped him die well. Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who was imprisoned for four years, confessed Christianity in the face of doubt. We must not forget Alexandr Solzhenitsyn who found God on the rotting straw of his Gulag cell in Stalinist Russia. They knew first hand the sometimes bitter fruits of modernity, and yet they did not allow it to rule out the opportunity of divine encounter, of faith amidst nagging doubt and crushing experiences.
They were somehow able to recover their spiritual imagination, to transcend the culture of power, fear and cynicism, to find God once again. They had to rethink everything by tunneling through modern atheism. They rediscovered the deep structure of belief and prayer running through all of life, an opening of the self to the future. They discovered a call, a deeper and meaningful calling. Theologian John Caputo (The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida) believes that this was true to some extent in poststructuralist Derrida as well, a longing not fully articulated.
This is a fascinating conversation worth pursuing. Perhaps the story of the rise of modern social spaces need not to be given an anti-religious spin to be robust, that human flourishing, empowerment of agency and identity could be re-articulated within a space of divine presence in the world after atheism. In fact, one could even explore whether there are certain adaptive advantages to belief in God, to recapture issues and insights beyond the immanent frame of mere human flourishing. Perhaps it is not evil or naive to reach out for that something more.
See also: Merald Westphal, Suspicion & Faith: the religious uses of modern atheism.
Harold Koenig, Michael McCullough and David Larson, Handbook of Religion and Health (Oxford University Press, 2001).
Peter Hitchens, Rage Against God: How Atheism Led me to Faith.
Antony Flew, There is a God: how the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wlu0B0UFkB8 Christopher Hitchens debates William Lane Craig on Does God Exist?