Carol Platt Liebau: An Atheist's View

Sunday, March 12, 2006

An Atheist's View

Here is a pitiful little piece written by one who advocates the resurrection of atheism as a way to oppose Muslim fundamentalism.

As atheists so often do, the writer states his case but doesn't support it: "Today, when religion is emerging as the wellspring of murderous violence around the world, assurances that Christian or Muslim or Hindu fundamentalists are only abusing and perverting the noble spiritual messages of their creeds ring increasingly hollow." Really? In what ways to they "ring increasingly hollow"?

He goes on to argue "the lesson of today's terrorism is that if God exists, then everything, including blowing up thousands of innocent bystanders, is permitted — at least to those who claim to act directly on behalf of God." But that clearly isn't true. At least those who state a belief in God have principled moral grounds for opposing what the terrorists are doing in the name of the religion they've perverted -- the grounds that what the terrorists are doing is contrary to the "true" nature of God and to God's laws. What do the atheists have? Nothing but their own, human decisions about what is right and wrong, based on nothing more than their own subjective theory of morality. And what sway would (or should) their personal opinions have with the terrorists anyway?

The writer likewise misstates the nature of Christian faith, writing: "Fundamentalists do what they perceive as good deeds in order to fulfill God's will and to earn salvation; atheists do them simply because it is the right thing to do." That's not true. Catholics believe in the centrality of "works" to salvation to some extent, but fundamentalist Christian Protestants believe through accepting Jesus, they are already saved; their salvation has been "earned" and assured through Jesus' death on the Cross. And again, at least the fundamentalists' idea of "good deeds" are grounded in a belief and a philosophy greater than the product of their own human will and/or puny minds; Heaven help us all if some atheists once again decide that the mass slaughter of Jewish people is "the right thing to do" -- as did the Nazis -- or that allowing 10 million of their fellow citizens to die is A-OK, as the Stalinists did.

In the end, perhaps the writer of this piece forgets that the bloodiest tyrants of the bloodiest century of all time were atheists: Stalin, Hitler, Mao. No doubt many fine people likewise are nonbelievers, but the fact is that, contrary to this writer's assertions, Dostoyevsky was right: In a world without God, everything is permitted, for without religion, there is no universal and principled vocabulary for meaningful moral discourse.

20 Comments:

Blogger stackja1945 said...

There is one God, do not have false gods before you. No god is a false god. God commands "Thou shalt not kill." No god says kill.

11:33 PM  
Blogger eLarson said...

The writer likewise misstates the nature of Christian faith, writing: "Fundamentalists do what they perceive as good deeds in order to fulfill God's will and to earn salvation;

Yes the writer is 180 degrees out of phase with the most fundamental portion of "Fundamentalist" Christian faith. Salvation is not earned in any way shape or form. It is freely given ("grace") and accepted (or not) by the people.

In that fashion the writer's atheists have that in common with "Fundamentalist" Christians: both do these good works because they are the right thing to do.

I'm not sure I've seen a lot of successful atheist appeals for charity, but that doesn't mean they don't exist.

6:10 AM  
Blogger Larry Who said...

I agree with you Carol, but at the same time, I am ashamed by what this atheist sees in our Christianity.

He lumps us Christians in with Muslim terrorists because he only hears our talking and doesn't see very much of Jesus in our walking out our faith.

Gandhi was asked, "What do you think of Jesus?

He answered, "Jesus I love; it's you Christians that I have trouble with."

Maybe we need to listen to critics like this atheist and change.

9:25 AM  
Blogger Paul_Jacobsen said...

First, Hitler was a Christian, and said he was doing God's work. The Pope saw Hitler's army as "the hand of God". Mao and Stalin were atheists, but they did not kill "in the name of" atheism, they killed to keep their power.

As far as "universal morality", you claim you have it and get it from your God. Others claim to have it and get it from their God. Until you can show yours is right and theirs is wrong, you can't have universal morality.

11:05 AM  
Blogger Cassandra said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11:46 AM  
Blogger Cassandra said...

Hitler was not an Atheist. In his early speeches, he lauds himself as a devout Christian. In addition, neither were his followers Atheists. The German people have a long history with Christianity-- Martin Luther of Germany began the Protestant Reformation. It is not fair to say that Atheists are responsible for such evils of the world by invoking the name of Hitler.

Neither is it fair to say that a belief in religion is the root of all evil either. However, I do believe it is fair to say that a belief in the supernatural-- in the Lord, in any Diety, does not necessarily make somebody do right. People are people and they will do what the will, regardless of religion or lack thereof.

11:46 AM  
Blogger The Commander said...

Interesting you mention Luther. He was as big a anti semite as they come. Here's a few quotes from tg\his protestant leader.

"The Jews deserve to be hanged on gallows, seven times higher than ordinary thieves"

"We ought to take revenge on the Jews and kill them."

"The blind Jews are truly stupid fools"

"Now just behold these miserable, blind, and senseless people."

So much for understanding and compassion.

And BTW why do Christians refuse to accept Hitler as one of their own?

11:57 AM  
Blogger flintpeople said...

Mr. Zizek does not advocate for the resurrection of as atheism is not dead.

If you read his article closely it is clear that he is merely acknowledging that atheism allows political, spirititual & religious space within which divergent religious expression can be expressed and resolved.

Without discredit to Mr. Zizek this is not an original idea as the United States founding fathers saw fit to constitutionalize this proposition by ensuring that:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

1:42 PM  
Blogger Patrick O'Hannigan said...

Anyone who claims Hitler was a practicing (as opposed to badly lapsed) Christian doesn't know his history, or his proudly pagan Hitler. Moreover, the only papal encyclical ever published in German was a strong condemnation of that Nazi party and its ideology, distributed to German Catholic bishops and their flocks at considerable risk to life and limb. See also the New York Times editorial of October 28, 1938, which praises the pope for his stand against Hitler. More here and here, if you're interested.

As to where good works fit in Catholic -- indeed, all Christian -- theology: yes, they have a place. But as Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft is fond of saying, "we don't do good to get to heaven; we do good because heaven has already gotten to us."

4:36 PM  
Blogger Paul_Jacobsen said...

Thanks for the references to _The Myth of Hitler's Pope_ If accurate, then I need to withdraw my comment about Pope Pius XII. However, as far as I know, Hitler continued to believe in God, he not an atheist.

6:55 PM  
Blogger Patrick O'Hannigan said...

Assuming for the sake of argument that Hitler believed in God, there's a world of difference between simple deism and Christianity. Please note also that the Nazis didn't kill just Jews-- they also killed many Christians. Any Hitlerian references to Christianity in early speeches were mere window dressing; he used anything handy to rationalize his own hatreds. By the time he was running the so-called Third Reich, he despised Christianity as a "religion of weakness."

Cecil "Straight Dope" Adams dealt with this question fairly and at some length in one of his columns.

I think it's fair to say that part of Carol's point is that modern atheism, in spite of its claims to the contrary, depends on Christian intellectual capital.

10:06 PM  
Blogger lycis said...

It's good to see that it's still not hard to get sidetracked with Hitler fascination.

I am amazed that anyone would dare to put her name, much less her picture, to criticism as facile as that of Ms. Liebau.

"At least those who state a belief in God have principled moral grounds for opposing what the terrorists are doing in the name of the religion they've perverted -- the grounds that what the terrorists are doing is contrary to the "true" nature of God and to God's laws. What do the atheists have? Nothing but their own, human decisions about what is right and wrong, based on nothing more than their own subjective theory of morality. And what sway would (or should) their personal opinions have with the terrorists anyway?"

This is a fine instance of begging the question: Liebau simply assumes that the major defect of religions which Zizek points out, their demand for uncritical obedience, is their strength. Adherence to ethical principle divorced from the supernatural is somehow just a "subjective" "theory" (note the Intelligent Design language). Does this mean that religious belief should withstand "objective" scrutiny? Can you show me how Yahweh, Buddha, Shiva, or Marduk are more than just "theories"? Liebau essentially admits that the truth claims of religion are no less "theoretical" than those of reasoned ethics, when she writes of what is "contrary to the "true" nature of God and to God's laws." The quotation marks give the whole game away: God and God's truth are only what someone says they are, and, as we can see, there are as many views as there are religious believers. Religious belief has no more secure basis than rationally-derived ethical principle. Actually, it is more subjective: rather than arguing from agreed premises and procedures, any believer can simply justify his or her opinions or actions by appealing to a supernatural experience unknowable to others which cannot be submitted to rational scrutiny (See Bright Eyes's "When the President Talks to God").

Liebau obviously senses the weakness of her argument, since she advances a fallback position:

"And what sway would (or should) their personal opinions have with the terrorists anyway?"

The question would be utterly laughable if it didn't have the sourness of the usual right-wing argumentative tactics. Does she imagine that "the terrorists" (let's assume she means Islamic fundamentalists) would ever be persuaded by the authority of a religion other than theirs? Even arguments from their own religious tradition gain little traction: Islamist fundamentalists have no problem dismissing or thorougly distorting the parts of the Koran that don't suit their methods or aims. This is the whole point if Zizek's argument: the imperative of doing whatever God whispers in your ear (yells from a burning bush, etc.) always trumps agreement among human beings on basic principles, including intellectual honesty.


This very fact lies behind the generalized intellectual fraud of Ms. Liebau and other right-wing propagandists. Take just the most obvious example. The President and Vice President have repeatedly lied to the American public. (The instances are countless, but consider one. Even their most hardcore supporters can hardly deny that statements by Bush and Cheney in the run-up to the war to the effect that "there is no question" that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction were lies: the information they received was equivocal at best (logically, since there were no WMD).) Ask yourself--why does a core of supporters stand with these people, even though they have lied and thereby violated the law by committing fraud in their conduct of the most important affairs of state, with disastrous consequences? Clearly, for most of these supporters, the end justifies the means. And for many that end is what they believe God dictates. So in service of "God's imperative," everything else goes out the window: law, the natural environment, the lives of others, international stability, fiscal prudence, civil rights, and adherence to any principle other than fidelity to the mirage of God's will. Because these right-wingers can't openly avow this position, they become steeped in fraud. Rather than practice intellectual honesty as fundamental principle, they adopt it as a defensive posture when other tactics fail, charging their enemies (invariably falsely) with dishonesty as if they themselves were ever honest. Ordinarily, it suffices to cudgel opponents with any trick in the 6th-grade rhetorical playbook (e.g. ad hominem attacks, distortion of opponent's position, pure fabrication. See further under "Swift Boat"), to verbally cheat and lie, to blow smoke and run out the clock. The religious imperative for unswerving obedience to an original idea without concern for other individuals or circumstances thus leads to a tolerance of lying and intellectual dishonesty. After all, if you should be ready to kill your own child for God (see "Abraham and Issac"), why hesitate to tread on a mere mortal conception such as truth?

Hence the vacuous arguments of Ms. Liebau, who succumbs to this state of mind as much as the majority of right-wing commentators (exceptions are the older-style conservatives who starting writing before the religious Kool-Aid was being passed around, including Buckley and George Will).

Before you give the intellectually lazy reply that all politicians are liars, consider the difference between liberal and conservative responses to the recent Dubai ports deal. The underlying truth is that it was difficult to decide whether the U.S. should allow its ports to be managed by Dubai Ports world. On the one hand, the Republican administration correctly pointed out that the company had a financial interest in keeping the ports secure, and was based in a country who has become a strong enough ally that it is the major port in the region for the U.S. military. It also helps relations with the Muslim world if we seem to treat companies based in the Middle East fairly. On the other hand, Arab governance of the ports undeniably creates possibilities for Muslim fundamentalist infiltration of port security which would not exist under other ownership, and we might need to get contol of port security generally before taking such a step.

Now, what were the responses to these circumstances? From the liberal side, there was a certain amount of demagoguery and oversimplification of the issue, notably by some talking heads. But by and large, the Democrats limited themselves to criticisms based on the facts. Consider this response from Chuck Schumer, senior Democratic Senator from New York:

"The question that needs to be answered is whether or not they [Dubai] can be trusted to operate our ports in this post 9/11 world."

In line with such statements, Schumer essentially called for a thorough investigation of the deal. Republican responses ranged from silence to strong criticism and threats to block the deal.

Now, can you imagine that if the situations were reversed any Republicans would have taken as moderate a tone as Schumer and many Democrats did? The same party that was ready to impeach Clinton for his sexual dalliances would have hung a Democratic president in this situation from the highest tree for treason. What restrained the Democrats? Or, as a corrupt questioner might put it, why didn't they "go for the jugular"? One word: truth. They still have some respect for it, some intellectual honesty, and so could bring themselves to spin the story only out to the limits of fact. The Republican fidelity to truth has withered to such an extent that they couldn't imagine trying to explain the deal to their constituencies in the simple terms given above, which the Bush administration tried to do (no credit to Bush, since he was paying off the UAE for vital logistical support in the misbegotten Iraq war), so they caused at least as much of a blind ruckus as the Democrats. The Democrats still feel the pull of truth; the large majority of Republicans can't even imagine anything apart from dishonest demagoguery. And the root cause is a willingness to compromise anything to get to the ultimate end, a mentality formed by the religious belief that dominates the party.

A final note on the misrepresentation of another commentator. Patrick O'Hannigan writes that

"I think it's fair to say that part of Carol's point is that modern atheism, in spite of its claims to the contrary, depends on Christian intellectual capital."

Whether she meant this or not, the claim is hard to justify. Begin from the fact that, as far as "intellectual capital" goes, Christianity owes just about its entire stock to pagan antiquity. There's not much theory in the Bible, just a lot of Jewish history, songs, fables, advice, and flights of fancy like Revelations. The church fathers developed Christian theology from the elements of Greek philosophy, so it's no coincidence that much of it resembles forms of Platonism and Stoicism. Although from our perspective we might say that these philosophical systems (to the extent Platonism can be called that) had supernatural aspects (e.g. both posited unseen originary causes), they were in fact formed from observation of natural phenomena which was as rigorous as possible for the day. The theology of Christianity is largely an attempt to render supernatural beliefs in these philosophical terms. Aquinas, the dedicated follower of Aristotle, is a good example. He posits dual causality, with God as the real cause and natural forces a second order. Here, as often, the supernatural is tacked on to an already complete system to make a hybrid which would not withstand Occam's razor if it were not for the perceived need for the supernatural.

Mr. O'Hannigan should note that a complete atheist philosophical system existed before the advent of Christianity, and in fact influenced it, namely Epicureanism. His qualification that it is "modern" atheism which owes so much to Christianity is a dodge. If you want to define a starting point for "modern" atheism, you'd probably begin with French anti-clericals such as Diderot, and arguably Voltaire, both of whom certainly knew their Lucretius. Or turn to Neitzsche, who was steeped in ancient philosophy.

7:38 AM  
Blogger Pete said...

Mr. Jacobson said he "...Hitler continued to believe in God".

First, do we know that for a fact?

Second, So what? According to Christian theology, so does Satan! Does that mean that God will, at the final judgement, allow Satan to return to Heaven? I think not, and I don't think Hitler will fair any better.

Just my opinion, as only God knows the heart.

9:25 AM  
Blogger Scott said...

...Christian Protestants believe through accepting Jesus, they are already saved; their salvation has been "earned" and assured...

This is one of the most disgusting beliefs espoused by Protestant denominations. Are they really saying that a person's conduct is irrelevant in whether or not he/she goes to heaven? All you have to do is believe the right story? This shocking ethnocentrism opens the door to hatred of 'others' who don't believe as you do. They can be 'damned' regardless of what kind of person they are. While 'belivers-in-your-particular-denomination' all get a free pass to heaven. This is so...utterly wrong...it just boggles the mind.

2:43 PM  
Blogger Scott said...

...Heaven help us all if some atheists once again decide that the mass slaughter of Jewish people is "the right thing to do"

Is it any better when someone decides to do awful acts because 'God told them to?'

2:48 PM  
Blogger Pete said...

"This shocking ethnocentrism opens the door to hatred of 'others' who don't believe as you do. They can be 'damned' regardless of what kind of person they are. While 'belivers-in-your-particular-denomination' all get a free pass to heaven."

Would you be so kind as to explain this to your Islamic friends, hillscottc? I think they need that lesson much more than any Christian I know! Thanks.

8:49 AM  
Blogger Scott said...

Pete,

I was responding directly to the comments made by the author about Protestant doctrine. She seems to espouse this poisonous belief.

By your response, I should understand that you agree that this is a disgusting doctrine, no matter who is practicing it?

10:48 AM  
Blogger Pete said...

Absolutely.

5:02 AM  
Blogger whatever singularity said...

One should recognize first of all the vast insight of Slavoj Zizek. Anyone familiar with his (numerous) works will recognize the sheer daring of his thought to break open the paradigms and conceptual categories of unreflective reasoning. He redetermines and refigures every argument he partcipate in - that is in fact his modus operandi.

Any response to his comments that does not start from this realisation, from this revelation of the inner fractures and aporia that inhere in the conventional categories of language, is - ipso facto - a null and void argument.

What shames most Christians is that Zizek probably has a better grasp of the philosophical nuances of Augustine's Confessions than they do, just as Agamben and Badiou have plumbed the depths of Pauline messianicity in order to present their arguments.

Christians as a whole tend to define the terms of their argumentation by either bible-thumping, which will have had little to do with faith in Jesus and more to do with the modern cravenheartedness that relies everywhere on "documentary evidence" to do one's reasoning for one, or reference to a wholly modern and commodified system of morality entirely interchangeable and indistinct from "democracy" itself (and which remains itself ill-defined and in no way related to the political tradition whose name it bears).

The well respected theologian Paul Tillich already, some forty years ago, demonstrated that the terms "atheism" and "theism" are not opposable in the truly religious life - at the peak of faith the thought of a god, and any hubris that might assume to know what that means, must be released. In faith one must despair and endure the death of god in any theistic sense. There is no epistemological difference therefore, between theism and atheism in their proper arena, which is not politics, but the existential encounter with meaninglessness, death, and nullity.

Religion has no connection to ethics, politics, or the day-today concerns of human interaction. The psuedo-religious life, which assumes to "integrate" itself with the day-to-day, on the other hand, is a very worthwhile target of critical thought. Bring it on Zizek.

12:12 PM  
Blogger Gordon said...

How come people have to come to the defence of a God? If your God really does exist and is unhappy with what other people are doing, then surely a God does not need the likes of anyone on this planet to do or say anything at all? The God can deal with it itself.

Surely, if something that has the power to create everything around us needs you or I to sort the other side out then in my mind either the God is out on vacation, or something does not smell right!

Believe in what you want, but do not force it onto others. And the saddest person is the person who uses their religion to justify their actions. No God is sittign nexct to you and askign you to go and do somethign for them, it's all in your head.

2:12 AM  

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