Atheism in Christianity

Michael Harrington: cultural Catholic Perhaps it can be said that religion is not disappearing but only "relocating." But the new religions that the social scientists are so fond of are, almost without exception, personal rather than social. They are part of what Daniel Bell has called a "retreat to the private world where religions have authority only over their followers and not over any other section of the polity or society." That is the definition of the abyss which lies between religion as the expression of the values of a community and religion as a matter of private belief. The latter may well be profound and even holy, but it is not the organizing principle of a civilization. That is what Judeo-christianity was for several millennia. That is why it is so sorely missed now.

In the seventeenth century, the Catholic Church turned its back upon the possibility of winning over Chinese civilization--by converting its elite--because it insisted upon imposing its own theological terms upon a Chinese culture that could not understand them. The Holy Spirit was transliterated into Chinese as the "Superitsu Santo" and the Holy Office officially declared that the ancient Chinese were idolators; the moderns, atheists. Voltaire agreed with Rome on that last point and in the process committed its error under the guise of sympathy and tolerance. He congratulated the Chinese on being so much like himself. ... But the Chinese, "among all peoples, ancient and recent, primitive and modern, are apparently unique in having no creation myths. ... that is, they have regarded the world and man as uncreated, as constituting the central features of a spontaneously self-generating cosmos having no creator, god or ultimate cause external to itself." --Frederick Mote

I left the Catholic Church almost thirty years ago. It is relevant to my present attitudes that even though I rejected the Church, it provided me with my original idea of what religion is. And I clearly remain a "cultural Catholic," much as an atheist Jew is culturally Jewish. ... To complicate matters further, I consider myself to be--in Max Weber's phrase--"religiously musical" even though I do not believe in God. ... I am, then, what Georg Simmel called a "religious nature without religion," a pious man of deep faith, but not in the supernatural.
And to move now from autobiographical to the political, i think that in the late twentieth century serious atheists and serious believers have more in common with one another than with mindless, de facto atheists (who often affirm some vague and sentimental God) and routine churchgoers. Both have looked into the same void at the center of this incredible age. So it is, for instance, that the contemporary Catholic theologian Jürgen Moltmann concedes, even as he affirms the existence of a nontraditional God, that the tragedies of contemporary history corroborate the atheist argument from disorder, rather that the theistic argument from design. More to my point, the committed believers and unbelievers now have the same enemy: the humdrum nihilism of everyday live in much of Western society.

In the Enlightenment, geniuses deeply convinced of the political necessity of religion undermined the very foundation of faith by revealing the atheist implications of the discoveries made by pious scientists.

Yet, [Heinrich] Heine also said, Kant was more of a subversive than Robespierre. The Frenchman only executed a king; the German killed God. ... Heine said of the Critique of pure reason: "This book is the sword with which deism was executed in Germany."

... the search for a substitute deity to take over the social functions of the dying God of tradition.

In the process, Kant was one of the first theorists of that most popular of substitute gods, history. A series of important thinkers--Adam Smith, Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Marx--sought to secularize the notion of a divine providence. Where God once ruled there is now the invisible hand of the market, the hidden plan of nature, the cunning of reason, the socialist leaps from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom. To be sure, the acolytes of these theories often made them more "religious" than their authors (this is true, above all, in the case of Marx). And they are still one of the most important sources of consolation for the godless world of the last two centuries.

The politics at God's funeral (Viking Penguin: NY 1983/1987)

re. cultural/Catholic/Jewish/atheists, see Graham Greene, Charles Maurras, Miguel de Unamuno, Mordecai Kaplan, Sherwin Wine andAhad Ha-Am.

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created 1jun1996, revised 20mar98     |     comments on this site? tpkunesh@atheisms.info