So. There are a bunch of disenfranchised, self-ascribed “former believers” (as noted in the advertising bylines, like the ones bellow) who have acquired a substantial amount of funding to promote a message of humanism or atheism during this holiday season.
A Holly Jolly Christmas, indeed!
However, the reaction of certain self-ascribed “current believers” (a term I feel free to substitute for the various shades of “christian” represented by those unnerved by this new ad campaign) suggests that these humanist and atheist groups are really offering a “humbug” (á la Scrooge) to our yuletide cheer.
Which is it? A new addition to the holiday list, another festivity to compete with Christmas or Kwanzaa, or a more diabolical effort to usurp the faith of believers?
Well, I’m not sure, but I’m also not that concerned. Here’s why.
The arguments leveled against religion, particularly Christianity (the only faith tradition I feel comfortable speaking from, I leave the Jewish and Muslim responses to others), are done so with noticeably sloppy and rigor-less effort. Take, for example, the American Humanist Association‘s new campaign offering a “point-counterpoint” approach to highlighting how the holy texts of various religions “have no right to claim higher moral ground.” (Something that Sam Harris has also asserted recently with the publication of his latest book). It doesn’t take someone who teaches religious studies or theology at the college level (which I do) to realize that the textual excerpts are taken both out of context and treated without the proper textual analysis (historical-critical study, literary criticism, sociological analysis, synchronic and diachronic study – just to name a few), something which is standard for any scholar of religion. Take this example:
This weird sort of reading of scripture would make even the most literal biblicist uncomfortable. What does Jesus mean here? Is Jesus, as portrayed in the Gospel of Luke, advocating hatred? That would be awfully hard to posit. Nevertheless, the days of Glenn Beck-esque: “just asking the questions…I’m not saying that,” have undoubtably influenced even those who wish to promote godlessness (literally). One doesn’t need to justify his or her implied assertion if he or she never actually says that “Jesus promoted hatred.”
That’s my “simplistic” reason for why the atheist campaign is immaterial. It’s not very logical and isn’t well constructed. Those who would be “convinced” or “converted” to public advocation of the nonexistence of God by such advertising are most likely those who already espouse this outlook. In the meantime, it’s just a lot of commotion that will inevitably be made into something much larger than it deserves to be by people who get enraged by these sorts of things. Not a big deal.
My less-than-simplistic reason for why the atheist campaign is not a big deal has to do with transcendental theology. It’s curious that after reading the article about this in the New York Times this morning, I was answering some questions on the theology of Karl Rahner for someone preparing for a test. One of the things I was reminded of in that conversation was Rahner’s argument for how, essentially, “atheists” are self-defeating in that all this talk about no God (or “leaving God behind” or whatever) actually reinforces the transcendental significance of the term “God” as representative of the absolute mystery, or source of the infinite horizon of human subjectivity and personhood.
In other words, all this effort to “deny God’s existence” really only results in the assertion — albeit an unintended and indirect one — that God (whatever that word means) does in fact exist. Wouldn’t it seem much more logical to just not make a big deal about this at all? If you don’t believe that God exists and you are certain of that, why go through all this trouble (and money) to make that point?
Which gets me to, briefly, yet another theological concern I have with all of these shenanigans. That is, what is this “God” that these atheists and humanists are so keen to deny? I seem to think that this sort of atheism is quite possibly a mutated form of super-generic theism. There is a desire on the part of these folks to assert the value of some generic human value and morality, which consists of impersonal, yet universal meaning. Sounds a lot like theism to me (hence my use of parenthesis in the post title!)
Frankly, the “God” that these advertisers do not believe in is also a “God” that I don’t believe in. I believe in the God, YHWH, who is Deus Pro Nobis and deeply relational. I believe in a God that has created us Imago Dei, as subjects and persons, with freedom that arises from our ability to transcend the finitude of our creatureliness. I believe in a God that, from all time, desired to enter creation in a new and unique way in the Incarnation.
I also don’t believe in Old Beardy McBeard-God, who resembles a combo of Santa and Zeus. So maybe there is something to this comment in the NYT today:
Several of the campaigns are pitched not just to nonbelievers, but also to liberal believers who might be alarmed about breaches in the wall of separation between church and state. The atheist groups believe that people who are religious and politically liberal have more in common with atheists and seculars than they do with religious conservatives.
True – insofar as I also do not believe in their theist God, yet want social reform, civil rights and healthcare for all, and a host of other issues advocated by the principles of Catholic Social Teaching!
Ultimately, I think this whole advertising campaign is silly. It’s not really a big deal at all.