On the heels of the government shutdown, it seems appropriate to reflect on our country’s polarized state and begin to wonder about ways that might allow for some increase in empathy and mutual understanding that would enable us to function more as a united country with a shared mission and values, as opposed to a deeply divided one that has groups with fundamentally different versions of reality. One of the greatest political divides in America can be thought of as the rift between the secular academic left and the Christian right, and I recently encountered a frame on the concept of God that I believe has potential to foster much needed understanding between these two groups.
Growing up, one of the books I most clearly remember reading was Atheism: The Case Against God by George Smith. It was a great book that reflected the ideology of our household. My father had had a religious awakening at a Billy Graham concert, and as an emerging adult became an Evangelical Christian who entered the ministry. However, just before he was ordained, the light flickered out, and he ultimately changed careers to study American history. By the time I came along, our family was essentially atheistic in the sense that George Smith meant the term. That is, we were without a belief in a theistic deity (which is subtly but importantly different from the claim that we had knowledge there was no such deity).
When I was about 13 or so, I had an experience that made me distinctly aware that this belief was not the norm. One day on the bus, I announced that I was an atheist and that I thought believing in a Christian God was akin to believing in Santa Claus. Although I fail to recall what prompted me to make the announcement, I have a distinct recollection of the reaction. I was immediately surrounded by a concerned group of students at the back of the bus who admonished me for such a belief and who indicated that I might burn in Hell as a consequence. My 14 year old daughter, growing up an atheist in rural VA, has had similar experiences. Unfortunately, discriminatory attitudes against atheists are common. Consider, for example, that although we supposedly have a secular government, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for a pronounced atheist to be elected to a high government office in the US.
And, yet, on the flip side, there is a strong sense among many Christian Americans, especially rightward leaning ones, that there is a growing secular movement that is hostile to Christian attitudes and that the place of Christianity in the culture is diminishing.
Indeed, there has been a large secular transformation in Europe, as well as the rise of the so-called New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. And it is obvious that the version of reality that Dawkins’ offers in The God Delusion is diametrically opposed to the version of reality espoused by Christians. Or is it?
The answer, according to scholar Karen Armstrong, is that it depends on how you think about God. And, in her fascinating book, The Case For God, she explains why both modern Evangelicals and atheists tend to think about God in an unproductive way, and in a way that is very different from the way the ancients tended to think of God. She argues that the modern claims about God on both sides of the debate are overly concrete and literal. Claims such as God is male or God has a plan or God wants you to avoid sin, and so on. Or not. Armstrong argues that to debate these questions or believe in them in a concrete, literal sense is bad theology.
Her claim is that the ancients had a clear understanding of two broad modes of thought, logos and mythos. Logos is the logical thought of pragmatic everyday living. Do those clouds mean rain? Should I mix the recipe this way? Is it best if we plant these seeds in the spring or fall? These pragmatic questions can be answered by systematic investigation, and ultimately science was borne out of this kind of thinking and certainly informs such thinking to this day.
Armstrong argues that mythos was a different kind or mode of thought. Mythos is a metaphorical way of engaging in life that awakens awareness and a subjective feeling of spiritual transcendence, of being one with things larger than oneself. Religious beliefs are stories that give rise to an intuitive appreciation for creation as a whole. She argues that the construction of the Bible makes it very clear that it was never intended in its original form to be taken as a literal historical document. That the opening two chapters of Genesis directly contradict themselves in the sequence of events is just one small piece of evidence of many that she offers that points clearly to the notion that the Bible was generated as mythos, in the sense of grasping at something intuitive and metaphorical rather than concrete and literal.
This analysis gives rise to her case for God (here she is on NPR). The current conflicts between the atheistic and literal religious folks are deeply misguided because both attempt to concretize God. That is, the debate is framed as a question that either God is an entity that exists with certain attributes or does not. The atheists say no and use scientific logos to make the case. Believers say yes and use all sorts of arguments to make theirs. According to Armstrong, this is poorly framed, and not how most of the ancient theologians thought of God.She claims that the concept of God did not describe a concrete entity that either exits or does not. Instead, God is that which you approach as you engage in artful religious practices that enable a subjective sense of spiritual transcendence. (Note that many of Armstrong's critics argue that she greatly exaggerates this claim, and that many, many pre-modern religious people did believe in a concrete, literal God or Gods).
Framed this way, what appears to be a completely unresolvable impasse between the atheistic and the deeply religious becomes one that is potentially far less divisive and much less either one or the other. As such, I believe both sides of our modern split regarding the God conflict would benefit from spending time thinking about God in the way Armstrong advocates. And doing so requires some significant shifts in both atheistic and literalist religious frames of reference.
I, for one, will acknowledge that my atheism historically gave me a sense of intellectual superiority. After all, if all my friends essentially believed in Santa Claus, then it does not take too much implication to say that I am seeing the world more honestly and clearly than they are. Anderson’s analysis changes that. Now, it is not so much that I am part of the Enlightened, but instead, maybe a tad smug. And it suggests that my skepticism closes me off to much ancient wisdom. This probably is the kind of thinking that leads someone like Oprah to say that atheists don’t feel awe.
On the flip side, modern religious folks who have concretized God and religious teachings also have some serious re-thinking to do based on Armstrong’s analysis. Claiming literal truth based on mythical teaching is, well, obviously fallacious. Her analysis suggests that all the direct claims about what God wants (i.e., homosexuality is bad, no work on Sundays, etc.) or about what happened and when (i.e., approximately 6000 years ago there really was a Garden of Eden) are essentially nonsensical. Religious teachings lay out metaphorical ways of thinking and feeling, and the truth of them is found in the extent to which they and the practices associated with them intuitively bring meaning and result in spiritual transcendence.
Armstrong rightly notes that one of the great challenges of modern times is the reconciling of scientific and religious worldviews. She intelligently points out that, to the extent that religious views are espoused to offer concrete literal truths that skeptics reject, we are bound to existential confusion. However, if we see God, as many of the ancients did, to be that which one moves toward as one experiences spiritual transcendence engendered by artful religious practice, we might find ourselves with a version of God that we all could live with.