A new kind of atheist
Bertrand Russell once wrote a book called Why I Am Not A Christian and, for the most part, that is what the book was about. The arguments against Christianity are lucid and polemic, but many of them are outdated now. For instance, he cites the lack of evidence in support of theism as a reason belief in God should be abandoned, but this has ceased to concern many theologians years ago who are now much more interested in the power of religiously inspired imagination to shape reality. Furthermore, Russell highlights the evil acts performed in the name of God throughout history and the hypocrisy of many Christians in failing to live up to the kind of life they espouse, but these have both been absorbed by the Church as an impetus for renewal rather than renunciation. This does not mean theism has won out and atheism now bears the burden of proof, it just means the arguments have changed.
Brian McLaren once wrote a book called A New Kind of Christian and, for the most part, many of his ideas were not new. They are, however, a popular blend of theology-meets-postmodernism that is circulating around anglo-saxon academies today, albeit in a more erudite manner. These are the kind of arguments currently being debated in religion and ones any “new kind of atheist” would have to take seriously lest he or she fall into the quasi-agnostic majority. I will not repeat these compelling arguments in expanded detail here (look here and here instead for a review), but simply quote a text that brings us right to the contemporary deadlock.
Insofar as it is practical, reason demands completeness; but it believes in the mode of expectation, of hope, in the existence of an order where the completeness can be actual.
Let me briefly recap. After reason critiqued itself and fell on hard times it appeared as though some sort of extrarational standard would have to save the day by filling in the newly created vacuum. This extrarational or irrational stopgap usually translated into a kind of leap of faith or wager on the eternal. In the text quoted above, Ricoeur is saying that once reason has recognized its own limits in attempting to understand and explain existence then expectation in an eternal completeness is our only hope. I think that “a new kind of atheist” has to seriously grapple with this impasse and I would at least like to point out a of couple directions.
First, eschatology for me is only slightly better than natural theology. I think that eschatology saves the day when reason defaults, but it is still unable to provide the things most in need of explaining. Let me explain. Faith comes on hard times when it is put to the test using critical reasoning skills, but, as Ricoeur shows, it comes out stronger than when it went in, if it comes out at all. This has mostly to do with letting go of all the superstitious beliefs and retaining the elements of faith that are “practical” for lack of a better term. The primary way Ricoeur believes faith survives in this process is because hermeneutics, or biblical interpretation, makes it flexible. In other words, we can tease out many meanings—even contradictory ones—from the exact same text. Although we clearly cannot make a text say anything we want, a text certainly possess a wide interpretive base. One of the stronger interpretations in Ricoeur’s opinion is that we will eventually see the completed whole in eternity and need not impose a premature totalization of reality. But the sleight of hand Ricoeur performs is the apparition of a senseless double. Stated otherwise, Ricoeur believes our interpretive problems will be solved by making his own interpretation of how exactly the interpretive problems will be solved. It just comes down to another interpretation, even if it is a good one. Many people have different views of the afterlife. For some its oblivion, others believe there is a divine separation between the saved and the damned, perhaps its messianic universalism, and Ricoeur thinks it’s a beatific vision. Therefore, I think, even if life after death can be proved scientifically or theologically it still remains an empty, ambiguous, and unintelligible category in need of further content. I parallel this to natural theology because even if God can be proved, ontologically for instance, we are still unable to prove things about the character of God, which happens to be the most important thing in need of proof (see here for further elaboration).
Secondly, what if it could be argued that our overdetermined and inconsistent meanings are the whole truth of reality and not a lack of its completion? What if the flat contradictions and inconsistencies of existence and the difficulty of pinning down knowledge is the full revelation in purity? (For an analogous reading in Proverbs see here). Certainly this would make any paradox between rational atheism and irrational theism superfluous. Perhaps nihilism is not the boogeyman and maybe extrarational faith is not needed.