Saturday, April 06, 2013

A/theism and Certainty

Patrol Magazine retweeted an article published last October on the modern history of A/theism. The two words theism and atheism are paired together, the article's argument goes, because modern theism cannot be understood apart from modern atheism, and vice versa. They 'emerged from the early modern world together, as two sides of the same coin', a claim which fits well with the portrait of modern culture painted by the intellectual authorities, including John Millbank (Theology and Social Theory) Charles Taylor (A Secular Age). The contest between theism and atheism in the modern age is presented by partisans as a zero-sum game. The winner must take all and the loser must be vanquished from the field.

The author of the article, Kenneth Shephard, notes a correspondence between late 20th century assessment of modern A/theism and 16th and 17th century attempts to cover the same intellectual ground. For so many of the persons involved in the discussion, theism and atheism go together like transcendent and immanent, each term in these pairing excluding the other, but also presupposing the existence of the other in their own need to exclude something. Atheism needs theism like science needs the straw-man of religion to knock down. Theism needs atheism like good needs something evil to vilify. In this sense, they are like children behaving badly.

Sheppard situates A/theism in larger 'processes of disenchantment, desacralization, and secularization'. Instead of seeing theism and atheism as opposed over matters of religion and science, the better thing to do is observe how theists and atheists make sense of the world as the language of scientific discovery drives fantastical claims from the public square. Instead of demonizing one from the vantage of its opposite, pause and take note of those cultural trends they commonly presuppose. The two sides may talk as if they share nothing in common. Historians like Sheppard, however, know better than to buy into their self-assertive, but partial, ideological perspectives. Where there exists contiguity in space and contemporaneity in time, ideologues are shown to be liars of the first order. All the talk in the world cannot hide the fact that some cultural currency is shared in common.

The analytic framework proposed is a helpful move in the right direction. Once one stops trying to measure the perspective of one's opponents against the measuring stick of History (with a captial 'H"), it should become a whole lot easier to have a conversation--in principle, at least. When the political left inclined towards atheism and political right inclined towards some variety of theism are divided from each other as past is from future, there is very little reason to talk. Conservatives are stuck in the past say the progressives, and progressives have forgotten the past say the conservatives. The measuring stick of History tends to distract from obvious truths: that all of our business with each other is transacted in that shared moment the past is no more and the future not yet called the present.

The purpose of the article, if I have understood correctly, was to do what is termed in very post-modern language creating space for dialogue where 'traditional religious believers, “nones”, and atheists can relate to and work with one another in spite of what can seem like our insurmountable differences.' This is all well and good, and I am all for having a friendly conversation on a level playing field. But the article's argument seems to thrust readers in the direction of abandoning their idols, all those things they hold dear, without actually interrogating why we hold onto our idols with the tenacity that we do.

Sheppard speaks very generally about historical processes, and very little about historical actors. That is a problem, it seems to me, because I have never encountered one operating apart from the other. He speaks very generally about what we believe about the nature of God and the world, and very little about what we have thought about ourselves.

If there is one thing that sets modern A/theism apart from its premodern manifestations, in my estimation, it's an ideal of certitude shared by all alike. The modern atheist rest assured that there is no God because the evidence is lacking, while the modern theist does the same because that's what the Scriptures say. The sorts of evidence to which appeal is made changes, but the constancy of conviction does not. The origins of the certitude might be traced to such luminaries as Martin Luther ('Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason...Here I stand. I can do no other.') and Rene Descartes ('This proposition, I think, therefore I am, is the first and the most certain which presents itself to whoever conducts his thoughts in order.'). The exposure of the baseness of all these simplistic appeals to certitude, e.g. in the work of Nietzsche and his post-structuralist disciples, might also be cited, though as proof of just how deep our certainty runs, now that we have become certain of our uncertainty.

So I will take my departure from Sheppard where he suggests we tell 'critical stories' about the 'conditions of our belief'. (Why not build a campfire and bring some guitars?) That suggestion sounds like an exercise in talking around the issue, which has instead to do with whether and in what sense we are certain.

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