“By the term scientific is understood just what was formerly understood by the term religious: just as formerly everything called religious was held to be unquestionable simply because it was called religious, so now all that is called scientific is held to be unquestionable” — Leo Tolstoy
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Pete Townshend of The Who expressed a similar sentiment with regard to politics:
“I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution,
Take a bow for the new revolution,
Smile and grin at the change all around me,
Pick up my guitar and play,
Just like yesterday
And I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again;
Don’t get fooled again”
Pete Townshend can write thoughtful lyrics as well as play music. Who would've thought?
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With the onset of a more expressive atheism in society comes some new challenges, not so much for the Church, but the atheists themselves. In fact, you could say that a widespread rejection of all things religious in the West, not just any more at the intellectual/political level, as in the Enlightenment, but now much more at a popular level, is a spiritual improvement on former times. No this isn’t any of those Christian linguistic manipulations that claim comradery with the crowd in sharing a rejection of religion, pointing instead to ‘spirituality’ or ‘relationship’. As much as I value the idea of practice of commitment to Christ devoid of all things ‘religious’, I think there is also value in affirming religion, but that’s a-whole-nother post and I’m probably confusing the original intentions of this one. Rather, rejection of Christianity at a popular level is indicative of people actually thinking about and critically evaluating their beliefs rather than sticking with the other sheep¹. This rejection of Christianity is better in some ways than the former situation because instead of people implicitly denying their beliefs yet continuing to attend church and live an outwardly Christian life, the individual now has freedom to act on their implicit denial as explicit, and the Church can now more clearly see and care for those she missed in the first place.
But what makes an atheist a real atheist? One of the oldest forms of Christianity, which has been alive and well for centuries, is known as nominal Christianity. It’s an interdenominational movement that advocates averageness, uncritical thinking and just plain passive existence. Not surprisingly, it has wooed the hearts of many and spurred them all on to mass mediocrity. The real atheist, therefore, is a doctor who diagnoses the sick body they joined, the Church, by virtue of their parent’s faith, and abruptly quarantines their self, lest they too live a life limited by all those limiting factors of faith and unquestioning obedience to some anachronistic ethics system as one of the omni-nominal flock. The real atheist leaves the safe pasture of the sheep-church, to the boundless wilderness where the grass is sparse but the life is real. The real atheist is an individual.
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But how effectively can society/humanity handle the onset of ‘real atheism’? Is not the ‘real’ aspect of any ideology symptomatic of its pre-institutional form? Many Christians who know one or two things about church history will be quick to tell you of a pre-Constantine, organic, non-state, ‘real’ Christianity; Christianity before it became an institution, Christianity as a movement. The difference between a movement and an institution is dynamics: The movement is true to its name; it is fluid and striving against some ‘greater evil’, etc. The institution is stagnant; it is an establishment. The only movement the institution engages in is defending what it has already established.
Atheism as a popular movement is valuable as it questions Christian stances on ethical issues such as homosexuality and abortion, it critiques Christian theology such as that which puts more emphasis on the life to come than our current life, and provides alternate sources of meaning for people who have not found their place in the Church. Contrariwise, atheism as an institution sets up the same values it initially sought to dissemble: Following the crowd and an unquestioning acceptance of the new sacred knowledge, the scientific².
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I'm a closet Neo-Lamackian. True story.
During high school we had a science teacher who was a Christian. He made it clear to us that he would teach us the theory of evolution, but that he didn’t hold to any of its fundamental tenets. There is a depth of insight to be gained from the intellectual crisis that this situation presented me with in my adolescence. Imagine turning up to church on Sunday and the preacher saying that she was really an atheist so she’d deliver the material but she doesn’t really believe in it. Though now I accept evolution as it has strong scientific backing and I can’t see how it clashes with anything in the core of what it means to follow Christ, this science teacher epitomises the rebellious spirit of movement in the movement/institution dichotomy. He represents a dynamic denouncer of knowledge held sacred by the institution. It may be to the point here that there is so much evidence for evolution that any dissident voices can be classed as madmen, but this overlooks the spirit of the act. The point may be that to denounce evolution is counter-intellectual, but the spirit in denouncing evolution is counter-institutional³. How many people in society accept evolution not because they have examined the evidence and read a couple of textbooks on the subject, but because everybody else accepts it? Their is widespread consensus in the scientific community on the validity of evolutionary theory. The dissident who bemoans this is verbally lambasted rather than commended. Therefore the real atheist does not read about evolution to find evidence for what they already believe, but to examine the evidence and proceed from there.
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¹The use of ‘sheep’ here is intended as a pun.
²The scientific is just one example. Numerous liberal ideologies could also be included such as egalitarianism in all forms, which invites naysayers to a world of counter-criticism. Ironically, secular egalitarianism has a lot in common with Christians forms of the same.
³This is not to say that Young and Old Earth Creationism, Intelligent Design, etc are all anti-institutional as these movements often aim to set up another institution. In the same way that the scientific layman uncritically accepts evolution, the Christian may uncritically accept Creationism “because it’s in the Bible”.
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