Saturday 1 March 2003

The Crisis of Atheism (2003)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXIX No. 1 Spring 2001

When Genghis Khan intended to exterminate the Chinese, a Mandarin persuaded him that his people would submit to his service without hate..

By Hugo Santander

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God. Yet the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, with his characteristic impartiality, wrote in 1965 that such sacrifice had been already proclaimed eighteen centuries before: Saint Paul had already founded Christianity on the idea that Christ died for our sins.

Nietzsche had, in fact, launched his attacks against the religious institutions of his generation. These institutions, as the state, as the philosophical schools, constrained personal freedom. Notwithstanding, Nietzsche's interest in the gospels drove him to praise the Messiah: in one of his passages he confesses that his ideal man, or superman, was a combination of Jesus Christ and Napoleon Bonaparte. Nietzsche believed himself to be an atheist, but his atheism was social. In his personal life he was inspired by the divinity.

Writing his poems Nietzsche replaces the Christian god for Dionysus, that is to say, for an anthropomorphic god. Nowadays, students of philosophy learn that after Nietzsche God has been replaced by man. But this happy discovery can be found in the New Testament as well. When the Jewish priests question Jesus of taking care of the sick on Sabbath, he replies, quoting the old testament, that all men are as gods.

From a rational viewpoint, to discuss God's existence becomes a paradox. His negation implies his affirmation. This way of thinking comes out from the dialectic of Hegel, who, as all the philosophers of German Idealism, was likewise inspired by Heraclitus' fragments: life, as a flow, is a struggle of oppositions: mortality contains immortality. In the sphere of the Realpolitik the concept of divinity is ductile - it fits every mind, even against its will. The rise of radical Islam demonstrates the urgency to discover the definition that each society builds about divinity.

After the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, our civilisation has witnessed the fragmentation of religion: the clerical hierarchies lose power as the number of priests and ministers dwindles. Meanwhile atheism cannot find a secure ground. Religion proliferates in the Third World, a fact that seems to corroborate Schopenhauer's saying that the belief in an eternal and happy life is the main consolation of the poor.

But his observation doesn't apply to the United States, the most prosperous country of the world, where, according to a Newsweek census, 89% of the people believe in a divine entity. England, France and Germany might be pointed out as the more secular countries of Europe: even so, the popularity of the Mother of God still dazzles materialistic intellectuals. France is the most visited country of the world, and its most visited city is not Paris, but Lourdes, where doctors have certified about one hundred inexplicable cures during the last one hundred thirty years.

In order to preserve an objective outlook, the media avoids religious debate. This is replaced by superstition, a sort of improvised social creed. We are reminded that Friday the thirteenth is an unlucky day, that wise buildings eliminate the thirteenth floor, or that American presidents are cursed to be murdered every twenty years. In the same vein, some journalists idolise nature, attributing an omnipresent wisdom to it but, contrary to Spinoza and all the pantheist philosophers, they shun reflecting about the purpose of a wise, generous and self-sufficient nature.

The popularity of alternative spiritual fashions, such as Buddhism, the Cabala and the Hara-Krishna reveals a metaphysical crisis. There is a will to believe, flourishing together with a deep distrust against religious institutions. There was a time when inquisitors condemned anyone who disagreed with an institutionalised dogma. It was followed by a time when absolute and nationalistic regimes prosecuted those who professed any dogma. In both cases political authority attempted to manipulate man's metaphysical drive. Spiritual manifestations are common to all the cultures of the world, and are often disguised by an atheist or anti-religious facade.

Atheism is founded in the denial of a creed and the search for a more consistent one as a praxis that prevents men against metaphysical stillness. Theism is its dialectical response. This process occurs at a personal, rather than at a social level. Through it the individual establishes his relationship with his generation and the universe. The divinity, in other words, is constructed in an ethical ground on the basis of a spiritual crisis.

Miguel de Unamuno writes in The Tragic Sense of Life that to live without a proof of God's existence might be tragic, but endurable and even healthy. Albert Camus replies in 'The Myth of Sisyphus' that a life without God is not tragic, but repetitive. The European post-war man embraced existentialist philosophy with enthusiasm. Without a proof of immortality man could choose between a struggle against anguish or an active life of sexual excess, an option that Freud had already anticipated in Civilization and Its Discontents. Camus, as Kierkegaard, faced a path of existential despair. Jean Paul Sartre tipped towards sensuality. His fundamental work, Being and Nothingness, analyses though several chapters the virtues of sadomasochism. Camus and Sartre took distance from each other, particularly after the former advocated the Human Rights chart during the Algerian war. Sartre suspected, no without reason, that such chart articulated the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

The intellectuals of the French Revolution were all consummated disciples of Rousseau, who wrote The Social Contract and Emile in agreement with the ideology of the gospels. As a result of a mystical and anticlerical rapture, Robespierre, the true maker of the French Revolution, founded a secular Church months before his death.

Sartre had discovered, as many other intellectuals of his generation, his creed in communism, until the horrors of Stalinism disappointed him. In one of his most famous conferences Sartre calls himself the father of atheist existentialism in France. The prophetic tone of his proclamation is one of the characteristic traits of philosophy ever since Parmenides: who accuses or defines God's wants, in fact, becoming God. Less messianic in his judgement, Immanuel Kant wrote that God was the Idea of the supreme good. His definition has been approved by theologians and sceptics alike. For a metaphysician such as Samuel Coleridge, God is an a-priori of our mind, whereas for 'archaeologists', such as Richard Leakey, God is a deformity of the mind.

Anthropological philosophy prescribes that each man lives in function of a horizon. Such horizon is, needless to point out, a euphemism of God. Who affirms that the modern god is science, accepts the existence of God. What he/ she discusses is God's definition. For the communists God was the proletarian; for the ecologists, Nature; for the Pharisees and the fanatics it was the pomp of the Church; for the capitalists it is money; for the Nazis, Husserl and Heidegger, the State; and for the anchorites, it is suffering. More precise, the book of Exodus identifies these horizons with idols that push men away from the Jewish God of the Ten Commandments.

Darwin wrote that only the vigorous survive. His opinion reinforced the positivist thesis of Auguste Compte, the slow agony of six million of human beings under the rule of Nazi Germany and the cold destruction of two Japanese cities in 1945. The great merit of J├╝rgen Habermas' work has been the insertion of compassion within philosophy through communicative action. Habermas refutes pseudo-intellectuals who long for the breeding of a super-genetic man. Christian theology, on the other hand, struggles against the selfish purposes of modernism.

The secular posture of the Western governments agrees with Christianity in terms of ideology. In 1929 Bertrand Russell, the philosophical consciousness of England, conceded importance to those men whose behaviour was inspired by the spirit. There are those who believe that:
'... acts inspired by certain emotions are good, and those inspired by certain other emotions are bad. Mystics hold this view, and have accordingly a certain contempt for the letter of the law. The sufferings of Auschwitz and Jerusalem have proved to humankind that impiety is the path to self-destruction.'
Buddha believed that happiness was possible by disengaging from goods and affections. His creed was based on resignation, and it might explain why the Eastern countries still approve the death penalty. The principal merit of Christianity has been to place ethics over religious rituals. Morality changes from one society to another according to political and economic factors, but the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth about unconditional love and forgiveness prevail over these changes.

Before Gandhi demonstrated the power of non-violent revolution, Christianity's philosophy of forgiveness conquered the Roman Empire. Persecuted by the Caesars, the Christians declined vengeance and retaliation against their oppressors. Accused by Nero of destroying Rome by fire, their blood was spilt over the sand of the coliseum, for the entertainment and enjoyment of the mass. Contrary to Nero's wishes, the sacrificed victims displayed love and compassion towards their murderers.

After two generations, their attitude turned a violent crowd into a pious Church. Forgiveness was also the ideology that appeased the cruelty of the barbarian hoards that scourged Italy during the coming centuries. Towards the end of the sixth century Pope Gregory asked his congregation to depose their arms and to sing in their churches and cathedrals. The melodies of the Gregorian chant preserved the unity of a civilisation on the brisk of destruction.

Primitive warlike cultures praised vengeance and despised forgiveness. The true injustice is punishment, as the lethal injection or the bombing of the Gaza strip has shown. During his lifetime Jesus of Nazareth nursed the unbeloved, without discriminating amongst them for their faith, past, or ethnic background. This attitude has not only inspired philanthropist such as Albert Schweitzer and Mother Theresa, it has become the backbone of Western sensitivity.

We may ask ourselves what could be the Western sympathies if a Palestinian state acquires F-16s to bomb the Jewish population? Forgiveness defeats, as Desmond Tutu also proved to our generation in South Africa. This forgiveness must be first ideological and social. The supporters of Mr. Sharon enumerate the monstrosities perpetrated by the Palestinians in order to justify their vengeance. A radical Palestinian man will act alike, as a terrorist from Congo, from North Ireland or Colombia. The thirst for revenge prepares their self-destruction - blinded by hate, the avenger believes that his attack might harm his enemies, without wondering about his self-inflicted harm. His arrogance is emulated by the humbleness of the martyr, who dies forgiving.

Paradoxically, Nietzsche saw in this passivity a force capable of defeating empires. Through several passages of his work, he denounces with anger the strategy of the martyrs, whom he called weak and cunning. Yet, beyond good and evil, human nature becomes closer to the martyr than to the warrior. Only a covetous mind admires the intrigues of Achilles and Napoleon.

Struggle, rather than forgiveness, is the cause of the decline and fall of civilisations. Towards the beginning of the thirteenth century, when Genghis Khan intended to exterminate the Chinese, a Mandarin persuaded him that his people would submit to his service without hate. Genghis' decree was derogated. We may interpret the fall of the Soviet Union as an act of forgiveness. Gorbachev could start a war in order to hide his finances - instead, he opted for reconciliation.

Our societies have accepted the Human Rights charter, but the greed of the very few procrastinates its full articulation. Today, as ever, the welfare of the minorities and the dominant are discussed in peace processes in Colombia, the Middle East, Angola, North Ireland and Chiapas.

Yet the conditions for a successful dialogue are just two: forgiveness and love.

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