Parasitical atheisms

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However, in addition to such logical and theological conditions, there are broader epistemological, psychological and cultural conditions to be met, if not so as to conform to formal criteria for validity, then at least as providing reasons for believing that it matters that proof of the existence of God is possible. If we begin from the proposition that there are no grounds in faith for supposing a rational proof of God's existence to be impossible, and if, as I argued in the last chapter, there are reasons of faith - centrally, of a Christological sort - for supposing that objections to rational proof must be removed, a proof, just in so far as it is proof, will prove by rational means alone, and will not rely in any form of dependence as an inference on any premises of, or on any other kind of assumptions about, the truth of faith's claims. If that is the case, moreover, it could reasonably be expected of a rational proof that whatever claims it makes on the human mind, it will make them with at least some theoretical power to convince the mind of the atheist, or that at the least it should raise a question for atheists, in as much as they too are committed to rational argument, about the rational adequacy of their position. That being so, having considered in some detail in the preceding discussion why Christian theologians in the majority are far from convinced that rational proof of God's existence is in principle possible, and even that it is desirable, it is worthwhile giving some thought to the question why non-Christians are equally unconvinced by, and even less interested in, any such possibility.

It is said that no one ever came to believe in the Christian God by way of a philosophical proof of the existence of God. It is not clear to me how one can be so sure of that,1 even if it is obvious that no one would live a life for a 'rational' God, still less die for one. But if it were true it would hardly be a surprising fact, given the hostility to proof among Christians themselves. More than that, even among those who, in our cultures and societies of the West, no longer profess any Christian belief, or even any theistic position at all, and who hardly know any longer what it is that they no longer profess, there are many for whom the question whether there is or is not a God seems not to matter, for on their account nothing hangs on whether there is or is not a God, nothing follows either way. It seems to be true that for very large sectors of the populations of Western countries, life is lived broadly in a mental and emotional condition of indifference to the question. And it is also true that, even among some intellectual elites, for many of whom it is fashionable to permit theism as an option within a generalised and vaguely post-modern relativism of thought (for which there can be no grounds for ruling out any fundamental beliefs anyway), the licence granted to theism can seem to amount to no more than a higher, if more theoretically relativist, form of this more generalised and popular indifference. But such mentalities represent a different kind of challenge to the theologian than that posed by the orthodox and plain atheist, who can seem today to be as much an anachronism as an orthodox and plain theist. But at the least the good old-fashioned militant atheists flatter the theologian to the extent of wishing to argue about the matter, seeing in the question of God a battleground of last resort, a final contest about the world, and about all that is in it, and about us.

Theologians, after all, are as easily seduced by the flattery of 'relevance' as are any other academics, and there are some of the theological company who yearn for the good old days - perhaps they survived until the late nineteenth century, perhaps until Nietzsche - when it was still agreed that everything depended on whether or not there is a God, when it was still relatively clear what it was to think the existence of God, hence, what was to count as atheism was to the same extent unproblematical.

1 Of course it will not be relevant if no one finds it attractive to have the truth of theism imposed upon them by argument. On the contrary, their dislike would be some sort of testimony to the argument's force. Being convincing is not a psychological matter of winning enthusiastic consent, but rather of bringing a person to acknowledge a truth whether she likes it or not.

In those good old days atheists knew what they were denying. For, once again, the Aristotelian principle holds: eadem est scientia oppositorum -affirmations and their corresponding negations are one and the same knowledge; hence, in the days when there was some clarity about the affirmations, it was possible to enter the atheistical lists on behalf of clear-minded denials. In the mid-nineteenth century Ludwig Feuerbach was one such atheist: everything, he thought, that the theologian says about God is true; his atheism took the form that none of what the theologians say is a truth about God - all are truths about the human 'species-being', as he put it, and so in their theological form they are alienated truths, truths projected from the human on to the divine. You have therefore only to reverse subject and predicate - turn God, the subject for theology, into the 'divine' as predicate of the human - and the alienated truths of theology become truths repossessed in humanism; thus, paradoxically, do you realise all the truth of theology in its abolition as atheism: atheism for Feuerbach is Christian theology done sub ratione hominis.2

That, of course, is true flattery to the theologian, for in Feuerbach everything depends on the logically complete, and overtly theological, disjunction: either God or the human, but not both. Hence, it matters as much to Feuerbach as to the theologian which is affirmed. Indeed, so craven did he think Feuerbach's flattery of the theological to be that Karl Marx wished a plague to be visited on the disjunction itself, that is to say on the houses both of the theologian's God and of Feuerbach's humanist atheism, equally complicit did he think them to be in a 'theological' view of the world. Feuerbach, Marx said, can no more get his humanism going without the negation of God than the theologian can get his theism going without the negation of man. For the socialist, however, the question of an alien being, a being above nature and man . . . has become impossible in practice. Atheism, which is the denial of this unreality, no longer has any meaning, for atheism is a negation of God, through which negation it asserts the existence of man. But socialism as such no longer needs such mediation.3

Karl Barth went even further than Marx in the exact specification of Feuerbach's theological parasiticalness, taking (it might be thought) unseemly pleasure in the recognition of Feuerbach as his own atheist familiar, for he belongs, Barth says, 'as legitimately as anyone, to the profession of modern Protestant theology':4 in truth, eadem est scientia oppositorum. Feuerbach is a distinctly Protestant atheist.

2 Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, 1.2, pp. 12 ff.

3 See Karl Marx, Early Writings, trans. Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton, London: Penguin Books, 1975, p. 358 (emphasis original).

4 Karl Barth, 'An Introductory Essay' to Feuerbach, Essence of Christianity, p. xi.

For this reason it is possible to sympathise with those theologians who long for a vigorous form of denial to grapple with, for it would reassure them in their hopes for a territory of contestation which has some sort of intellectual ultimacy about it; for theologians' interests of 'relevance' are served not alone on condition that God exists, but as much on the less exacting condition that there is thought on both sides to be some genuine argument to be settled as to whether God exists. Alas, for such today those good old times are long gone, and good-quality atheist opposition is hard to find. And if that is so it is perhaps because Christian theists have themselves abandoned the business of argument: if Christian theists themselves suppose that no argument is relevant to the business of religious belief, it can hardly be surprising if most atheists share their view of the matter, and pass theists by untroubled by theological challenge to their complacent agnostic indifference.

The converse is as evident, however: that what militant atheists there are today - a Richard Dawkins, or an A.C. Grayling - are unlikely to rouse many theists to the limits of their powers of contestation, and one suspects that Marx might be right after all, that the complicity between a certain kind of theist and the counterpart atheist, their common interest in the territory contested, is just too comfortable, too mutually parasitical, too like the staged contest of a modern wrestling match. There might be some little entertainment in the antics, but there is no real edge to the competition because little that matters hangs on its outcome.

And by way of illustrating this suspicion, a certain kind of generalisation suggests itself, derivable from the particular relation of Barthian theism with Feuerbachian atheism, whose character consists in that which obtains between an object and its image in a mirror: all the connections of thought are identical, but their relations are, as it were, horizontally reversed. The generalisation is that historically, many a philosophical, principled, not merely casual, atheism is the mirror-image of a theism; that they are recognisable from each other, because such atheisms fall roughly into the same categories as the limited theisms they reject; that they are about as interesting as each other; and that, since narrowly liberal or fundamentalist or conservative atheisms are no more absorbing than narrowly liberal, fundamentalist or conservative theisms, neither offers much by way of intellectual stimulus to the theologian.

And one reason for this atheistical failure of interest to the theologian is its failure of theological radicalness. Such atheists are but 'negative' theologians manque: in a sense which I shall shortly clarify, they give shorter measure than good theologians do in the extent of what they deny. It is indeed extraordinary how theologically stuck in their ways some atheists are, and one might even speculate that atheists of this species have an interest in resisting such explorations of Christian faith and practice as would require the renewal of their rejection of it. One supposes that it must be upsetting for atheists when the target of their rejection moves; for in so far as a moving Christian target does upset the atheist, it reveals, depressingly, the parasitical character of the rejection. An intellectually static atheism can have no wish for an intellectually mobile theism.

Of course, the contrary proposition is equally plausible. There have always been Christian theisms which are parasitical upon forms of atheism, for they formulate a doctrine of God primarily in response to a certain kind of grounds for atheistic denial. In our time, the ill-named 'creationists' seem to offer but a craven reactionariness, trapped as they are into having to deny the very possibility of an evolutionary world, simply because they mistakenly suppose an evolutionary world could be territory left vacant for occupation only by atheists. Naturally, to think that a 'place' has to be found for God somewhere in the universe entails expelling a usurping occupant somewhere from it; and since the parasitical theist and atheist agree that evolutionary biology, or historical evidence, or cosmology, occupies the space where, were there a God, God ought to be instead, they are playing the same game, though -alas for the theist - on rules of the atheists' devising. Hence, the the-ists play it on the undemanding condition that they play on the losing team.

That sort of argument between theist and atheist is entirely profitless to either side, and it would seem to be of some serious cultural value, in a society which no longer seems to know how to argue about anything which might matter very fundamentally, if atheists could be encouraged to engage in some more adequate level of denying, for thus far they lag well behind even the theologically necessary levels of negation, which is why their atheisms are generally lacking in theological interest. One could go so far as to say that such atheists are, as it were, but theologians in an arrested condition of denial; in the sense in which atheists of this sort say God 'does not exist', the atheist has merely arrived at the theological starting point. As we have seen, theologians of the classical traditions, a pseudo-Denys, a Thomas Aquinas or a Meister Eckhart, simply agree about the disposing of idolatries, and then proceed with the proper business of doing theology and of engaging with its more radical denials . And that is why it has seemed to me to be theologically necessary to demand, of theists and atheists alike - for eadem est scientia oppositorum - that they re-learn what it might be to deny the existence of God, and that they learn to distinguish what they deny from an authentically 'classical' theism, for which the existence of God is in any case understood only on the other side of every denial.

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