Saturday, 16 April 2016

If God is dead, what did you replace Him with?

The way I see it, atheism is an answer to a question - nothing more. "Do you believe a God exists?" If the answer is no, then you're an atheist. It is not an ideology, it does not inform anyone else about what the person believes and it most certainly isn't a religion. But that's not what most people mean when discussing "atheism." I was linked this video by YouTube agitator Stefan Molyneux because it summed up my friend's views on atheism. Watch it if you want, but I do need to tease out the misconceptions.

Here's the rub: almost everything we consider to be the institutions of the modern world haven't really changed since the Romans and before them, the Greeks. The only reason we're still talking about Christianity in 2016 is because it moved north from the Levant, picked up the tools of logic and rationalism thanks to a guy named Paul before being chosen at a whim by the Roman emperor Constantine -  an action which he thought helped secure him the throne.

Once Christianity became the official state religion of Rome, the structure of the church replaced (not introduced) the institutions already extant across the empire and into antiquity. Taxes became tithes, priests became clerics, emperors became popes, temples became churches, etc. In other words, nothing changed - only the hands controlling the puppet strings were switched.

As history moved on, Christianity splintered and atomised into thousands of sects, some of which were quite powerful. But the old regime of Greco-Roman social structure remained and evolved. At only a few points in time were a handful of new institutions introduced into the Western process of government. Essentially, lawmakers in Rome would understand exactly how to run USG or any Western government, even if their language skills might need a little updating. Today, the current iteration of Western government/social structure is conducted and organised by a group of people adhering to the ideology known as 'progressivism'. Almost the entire developed world (and many of the developing nations) structure government in pretty much the same pattern.

The legacy of Christianity has proven to be an incredibly effective coordinating ideology for humans, but the institutions of government were not formed by its adherents, they were only inherited. To understand the modern world, and to see how Stefan comes close but misses the critical truth, is to know that progressivism and modern atheism are simply the latest versions of Christianity.

If you unpack all the goals for both and overlay them , you might be surprised how well they match. In other words, progressivism is actually a post-Christian idea. Humanism and atheism are best understood as non-spiritual sects of Christianity. I would even go as far to say that ONLY Christians can become atheists. Other religious believers may lose their religion, but they will not become atheists or secularists. That occurrence can only be formed within a Christian context.

So, Stefan's threads don't quite pull together. On the one hand he complains about atheists and leftists, without comprehending that these are actually modern iterations of Christianity. However, he appears to appreciate standard Christianity - he uses examples of charity and compares killing records of both the official church and the state of the 20th century. But this is a contradiction, the two are the same - although one is an atavism of the other. He likes standard Christianity because it has no power today, but he wouldn't have liked it (I assume) in the past when it did have power and was connected to the institutions of the state. Today, the latest iteration of Christianity (progressivism) is in control of state institutions, which is why he identifies his hatred in this direction. But it is still Christianity.

Although I can sense he might notice something's wrong with his thinking and may soon pull his ideas together, the target of atheism here is not accurate for his goals. And deeper than this, his inability to frame the problem outside of politics is the cause of his myopia. The first step, if he wants to enact change, is to identify the problem. Otherwise he is probably only gaming for power and shouldn't be trusted.

To fix this, he needs to understand that there is no such thing as a benign form of Christianity. Then he must be prepared to question the necessity of the nation state structure itself and all its institutions. And finally (but before any of the other steps are taken) he must ask what he will replace those systems with. Remember, the institutions are the problem, not the force which governs or coordinates them.

Other than that, he appears to be sceptical of atheism because he's unconvinced that trying to bring about Nietzsche's "superman" for most people is a good idea. That's something few people are capable of or should even attempt. The reclusive German once said, "God is dead and we have killed him". But he was only half right. I prefer to add on one last piece to that sentence: God is dead and we have killed him, but what did you replace Him with?

This is what Stefan notices when he talks about the state as a proxy for God. It isn't a proxy for God, it is a proxy God. Humans, it seems, cannot live without some concept of the "omnipotent other." If it can't be found in church, then we make a new building to house it.

The key driver of this madness comes from a deep drive to never face a moment where we sit alone with our thoughts and truly contemplate how alone we really are. The "omnipotent other" gives us someone to blame/love/burden/command. So it's not surprise that people choose to believe the version of God that most aligns with what they already feel is true about the world. But the test for a true view of the world must be: if you kill Him, what will you replace Him with?

2 comments:

Timothy said...

Solely regarding your historical statements:

"Here's the rub: almost everything we consider to be the institutions of the modern world haven't really changed since the Romans and before them, the Greeks."

Firstly, there's the obvious problem of 'The Greeks and Romans'. 'The Romans' as a political entity could be argued to have lasted almost 2200 years (if we're counting the Byzantine Empire, but that's a different debate). During this time, the Roman State had many, many different forms and institutions. Some may have been more similar to modern governments, but many were quite radically different (on the assumption that Obama isn't Emperor of America).

Equally, 'the Greeks' is a term used for over 1000 different polities over a slightly shorter, but still very long time period. Some of these were like the Classical Athens everyone thinks of, but some were small monarchic or semi-monarchic city-states of a few thousand people.

Any statement that includes 'the Greeks and Romans' is normally committing a massive generalization that almost renders it meaningless.

As to your thoughts on the evolution of Christianity:

"picked up the tools of logic and rationalism thanks to a guy named Paul"

Paul really wasn't the guy that blended Early Christian thought and Greek philosophy. A better example might be Clement, who was an Alexandrian theologian in the 2nd/3rd century. Or perhaps Origen, who was (kind of) his intellectual successor.

"before being chosen at a whim by the Roman emperor Constantine - an action which he thought helped secure him the throne."

While it is certainly likely that Constantine saw Christianity as a useful political tool, there is reasonable evidence to suggest his conversion was genuine. He was at times involved in the Church in a way that suggests more than simple political necessity (I'm thinking of his patronage of the Church, the 50 Bibles he commissioned, and his death-bed baptism).

Certainly, Constantine seems to have had a view of Christianity that today seems a little odd (there seems to have been some conflation with the non-Christian God Sol Invictus in his early reign) but I don't think that means his choice of Christianity was 'whimsical'.

"But the old regime of Greco-Roman social structure remained and evolved."

Not really. For example, the feudal arrangements of the High Medieval Ages weren't really just a re-skin of Ancient Rome.

"Essentially, lawmakers in Rome would understand exactly how to run USG or any Western government"

Roman lawmakers couldn't even run Rome (seriously, it was a 1000 year long cluster-fuck that somehow ruled the Mediterranean).

Here's one for you. Could you tell me whether Cappadocia should be equestrian or senatorial, and if so what pro-magisteries are needed? Assuming you have no clue, that's the sort of level Roman legislators would be working on trying to work out how western governments work.

However, there's a 'nub' of legit history in here. I'm going to post a few very readable books for you to read if you want to get a better grasp of the link between Antiquity and today.

For general Roman government: SPQR (2015) by Mary Beard.
For the Development of Christianity: A History of Christianity (2010) by Diarmaid Maculloch.

They're both highly readable books (the latter's a bit long) and, despite a few simplifications, should do a really good job of showing you that history isn't as simple as you're trying to make it.

Thesmith said...

I understand there was many different parts of Greece and Rome. That’s why I focused on the institutions of those civilisations such as government agencies‎, government bodies, capitals, central banks‎, court systems‎, currency unions‎, emergency services‎, heads of government‎, heads of state‎, judiciaries‎, juries‎, legislatures, military‎, popular assemblies‎ and supreme courts‎. Neither civilisation was monolithic. But if you want to say the base structure of these institutions didn’t largely remain or at least evolve over time, then I submit it is impossible to say there was a Roman “empire” at all. I think you and I will agree that history suggests there was such an empire.

As I say further down my story, my observation is simply that Christianity is an ideology that inherited Roman and Greek ideas. This is the definition of the concept of the “Christian West”. Aside from a few new institutions in the two thousand years after Christ, and some that dropped out of utility, we are still using much the same base structure of the institutions invented by the Roman and Greek civilisations. If this is a “meaningless” statement then it is meaningless to talk about democracy as being a Greek idea or the Senate as a Roman idea. But this is absurd, we do discuss them in this way.

While my use of Paul was cartoonish, my point was that the present-day New Testament and modern Christianity was largely formed and invented by Paul. He was born Jewish in the Roman empire and used his knowledge of stoic philosophy to structure his message to the Gentiles. Your other scholars actually boost my viewpoint: the cult of Christ in the Levant was without rationality, but became Christianity after the influence of Greek and Roman thought made it acceptable and believable to those civilisations while adding rational thought. I submit that the influence of those thinkers, not the inherent “truth” of Christ’s message, is the reason we are still talking about the religion today.

My understanding of Constantine’s life is that he was a weak and worried elite, in no way similar to his pedigree of strong emperors. History appears to show Constantine experimenting with different religious beliefs before choosing to put his faith in Christianity before his battle at the Milvian Bridge. He saw a “vision” of Christian symbols in the sky, which was probably a phenomenon known as Sun dogs. Because he won the civil war after that decisive battle and took the throne, he made a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy and decided to stick with Christianity. And since he was emperor, it became the official religion of Rome. The alternative explanation is that the Holy Spirit did all this…

Whether Constantine was genuine or not is irrelevant. Christianity was only the new paint on an already built house (the Roman institutions). And as I said before, there were new additions to the Greco-Roman social structure such as your example of some feudal arrangements. But even within this pre-state structure there still existed many of the institutions of Rome and Greece. My point is that these evolved and were rarely replaced.

And I hope you’re kidding when you say “Roman lawmakers couldn't even run Rome”. The fact that you say in the same sentence that it “somehow ruled the Mediterranean” should clue you in that regardless of how much your modern eyes think the Romans were incompetent, they were probably doing something correct if the empire largely managed to control itself and expand for a millennia.

Thoughts?