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Eminem:Lil Wayne :: Theism:Atheism

Although I would normally not stick to pulling philosophical concepts out of Eminem, I couldn’t resist this one: a modern ‘parody’ of the atheist/theist debate. In the song ‘Talkin’ 2 Myself” Eminem gives a brief bio of his recovery, specifically in relation to his oscillation in popularity as a rapper. Of particular interest in this case is his reference to Lil Wayne, Kanye and TI, that is, competitors in the relevant business of rapping. As Eminem singles them out in the song he alludes to his hatred and jealously towards those who were ‘spittin’ and ‘buzzin’ when he wasn’t.

What I was going through growing pains / Hatred was flowing through my veins / On the verge of going insane / I almost made a song dissin’ Lil Wayne / It’s like I was jealous of him cause the attention he was getting’ / I felt horrible about myself, he was spittin’ and I wasn’t / Anyone who was buzzin’ back then coulda got it / Almost went at Kanye too

Again, in a verse latter on in the song, Eminem admits to the striking absurdity of going after other rappers simply because they were ostensibly better: “Are you stupid? You gon’ start dissin’ people for no reason? / Especially when you can’t even write a decent punchline even.” Elsewhere Eminem also refers to the unflattering presentation of himself for being an ‘egomaniac’ in this way. It simply ran contrary to the very style he affirmed. On the other side, Eminem comes to his sense and acknowledges the necessary condition of other rappers as the possibility for his own work. That is to say, he is only as good as he is insofar as he is pushed by other singers to continually improve. In this precise sense, he has more in common with other rappers than he admitted to earlier: they are more friends than enemies.

I’m back with a vengeance homie Weezy keep ya head up / TI keep ya head up, Kanye keep ya head up / Don’t let up, just keep slayin’ ‘em / Rest in Peace To DJ AM ‘cause I know what it’s like / I struggle with this shit every single day

In short, the resurgence of Eminem’s popularity was provoked by his perceived competition with other contemporary rappers. However, in the end, he admits to his own dependence on said singers who did him a favor by ‘spittin’ and ‘buzzin’ all the while Eminem was ‘recovering’. To simply ‘diss’ them after all that would be self-defeating.

On this basis, Eminem’s relation to other rappers is not far-field from the recent interaction between atheists and theists. We take our jumping off point with a quote from “God is Dead” and I Don’t Feel so Good Myself:

…the weaknesses of the arguments for the resurgent atheism are less to be taken seriously than to provoke theological self-criticism. Why have our accounts of who God is not produced a more interesting reaction? If we are to have an atheist the caliber of Nietzsche rather than Dawkins, we will have to do better with our reasons for faith (p. xv)

According to this view atheism is only as good as it is provoked by theism. Or again, to return to the previous example, the caliber of Eminem is only as good as his ‘interesting reaction’ to Kanye or Lil Wayne. In this way, it seems, theism is nothing by itself, nor is atheism anything without theism. Rather, they require each other. This is just as absurd as the ‘rigorously intellectual’ claim that God and the Devil need each other in order to produce the best of all possible worlds, implicitly assumed in the theodicy argument of ‘soul shapping’. According to this view, the trials that persons suffer under is required for discipleship, that is, so that their souls might be purified. If nothing ever went wrong in the world we would have no way of choosing the right attitude and becoming sanctified, i.e., holy. So the story goes. The point is that in the last resort God and Satan co-manage the ways of the world to give people the choice of how they want to respond. I’ll let the reader decide the persuasiveness of this argument.

No doubt, it seems entirely plausible and convincing that Eminem is only as skilled as his competition lets him be. This is more or less how all crafts and trades work; the passing down and tweaking of an established tradition. It appears less mandatory for religion on the hand. Is Nietzsche really as good as theism, in particular, moved him? It is entirely possible but this account seems overly reductionistic.

If atheism is an enemy, who needs friends?

In my undergraduate studies as a theology student I had a professor recount an experience he had on an Ash Wednesday while he was attending Oxford for his Doctorate in philosophical theology. As the story roughly goes, one of his classmates approached him inquiring what he was giving up for Lent. Being the bold Lutheran that he was, my professor responded: “My piety!” This strategy of internal interrogation in Christianity seems to be similar to the effort made by Merold Westphal in “Atheism for Lent” in ‘God is Dead’ and I Don’t Feel so Good Myself.

Christians understand that there are leaps of faith involved in their beliefs, otherwise it wouldn’t be a walk of faith, but they don’t consider that faith to be arbitrary or irrational. Thus the task of apologetics is to articulate the arguments of the faith that makes sense of belief. Moreover, atheists seem to make the same effort to prove their own disbelief in the existence of God. On both sides, then, we have strategies employed to convince supporters of the internal rationale for the respective positions. However, and I believe Westphal is correct in this suggestion, “psychological, social, and moral factors play a large role in both directions” (p. 67). In other words, personal experience counts much more than rational arguments when it comes down to choosing sides. Apologetics are merely a tool to shore up some lingering doubts after the decision has already been made.

With that said, Westphal takes an interesting direction in revisiting apologetics from a perspective that deals more with praxis than doxa. For Randal Rauser, another contributing author to the work, there are factors beyond persuasive theological arguments that “make Christians look comical, dangerous, innocuous, irrelevant, and generally unpleasant” (p. 135). Some prime factors that make Christians appear ridiculous include the following: church roadside signs with trite captions, pedophile priests, white-suited televangelists, Christian bumper stickers, disinterest in social justice, life coach pastors offering motivational messages, blind nationalism, kitsch art, and Bible action figures. What Christianity needs then is not more reason giving but more skepticism.

A good place to start this pruning process is with the masters of suspicion. According to these figures, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, we should be more suspicious of theistic belief because there is always something more basic to the motives and reasons than we externally give credence to. As we will see, the manifest meaning of faith can be a “lofty disguise” in which we deceive ourselves from the “actual operative motives” determining our actions (p. 70). Starting with Freud, religious beliefs work as disguised wish fulfillments. “What we would like is a God at our disposal, a powerful father figure who will take care of us, protect us from the indifference of nature’s forces, including both death and the rigid demands of society and culture” (p. 72). Therefore, according to Freud, we project our own desires onto an idol in order to justify and legitimatize our behavior. For Marx, on the other hand, it is ideology that provides this legitimizing role for society. “So moral, legal, metaphysical, and religious ideologies come onto the scene to provide theoretical justification of the political-economic system” (pp. 73-4). In brief, Marx suspects that the true function of the will of God is merely to justify the beneficiaries of exploitation and consol its victims. This ideology, after all, weakens the impetus of those exploited to rebel. Nietzsche’s suspicion of religion is different still. According to his popular “slave morality”, “slaves have no power, physical or social, with which to punish their oppressors, thereby wreaking their revenge and satisfying their resentment. So they use the only weapon available to them: language. They call their masters ‘evil’” (p. 76). Therefore, when believers speak of love and justice it is merely the “dark underside” of “resentment and revenge” (p. 76). In all three of these masters of suspicion we see the unmasking of religions that use self-deception to hide from others and themselves the true motivations of their beliefs and actions.

Where Westphal gets interesting is that he applies these hermeneutics of suspicion to Christianity itself. As moderns, we are really good at practicing critique on others, but “its proper function may be to practice it upon ourselves in a kind of Lenten self-examination” (p. 71). This is, however, not original with Westphal. Of course theologians have always been cross-examining their own tradition, but the prophets, Jesus and the apostles practiced internal investigation of their faith. To read the masters of suspicion, or atheism for that matter, for Lent is “to let ourselves, individually and collectively, be cross-examined so as to uncover the ways in which we are self-deceived about the social function of our piety” (p. 75). In the story I opened with, it seems that my professor was undertaking this precise task.

However, and Westphal ends with this caution, suspicion can easily become an end-in-itself which leads to cynicism, despair, and hate. Doubtless, religiosity has had a historical knack for putting divine stamps of approval on atrocities, but it has also played a significant role in resisting injustice. “Religion, it would appear, is Janus-faced. It can be used to do the devil’s work, and it can function as a prophetic critique of social sin” (p. 74).

The Parallax of Belief

I think it is pretty clear that the opposed movements of belief and unbelief are always-already a minimal difference inherent to one of the terms….which term that is happens to be a parallax view, to my mind. On the one hand, theology considers atheism to always be parasitic on some form of theism. The argument goes, according to continental philosophy of religion mostly, that there is no such thing as an unbiased, universal vantage point. Moreover, one is always-already socially interpellated to view the world from a particular perspective. As such, all interpretations of reality are situated within a horizon of taken-for-granted epistemological assumptions. In other words, every position depends on act of faith. Or, in less religious terms, every positions is contingent upon an absolute presupposition. Thus, nihilism–more popularly known as atheism outside of France–is somewhat of a theology; albeit an a-theology.

On the other hand, the tension between immanence and transcendence is considered to be a minimal difference/gap in immanence itself, according to various forms of materialist discourse. Theism and atheism, in other words, are not externally opposed but are rather characterized by internal overlapping; they are both inherent to a larger whole that encompasses them both. Žižek describes this minimal difference spectacularly:

The tension between immanence and transcendence is thus also secondary with regard to the gap within immanence itself: “transcendence” is a kind of perspective illusion, the way we (mis)perceive the gap/discord that inheres to immanence itself (The Parallax View, p. 36)

The split between the theism and atheism is merely the noncoincidence with finitude itself; so says Žižek. Accordingly, there is no rapport between one and the other; no synthesis or mediation is possible between the two. Instead, with this parallax view, one must constantly shift perspectives between the two points. Given this insurmountable gap, no neutral common ground is possible. They are two sides of the same coin, but can never touch.

A good example of this incommensurable dialectic is Jastrow’s Duck-Rabbit. Cunningham describes the deadlock of viewing the picture as follows:

One either sees the duck or the rabbit – never both at the same time. The mind oscillates between the two. But what must be remembered is that the appearance of two (God or Nature, duck or rabbit) disguises the one picture upon which they are made manifest. In this way there is only ever one, but this one picture is able to provide the appearance of two despite their actual alternating absences: nothing as something; the completely absent rabbit as duck, which is yet equally the completely absent duck as rabbit (Genealogy of Nihilism, p. xiv)

For another clarifying example, see the Moebius strip. We are dealing here, according to Žižek, with two levels that never touch yet are excruciatingly close.

…the paradox consists in the fact that these two series never overlap: we always encounter an entity that is simultaneously—with regard to the structure—an empty, unoccupied place and—with regard to the elements—a rapidly moving, elusive object, an occupant without a place….they are not two different entities, but the front and the back of one and the same entity, that is, one and the same entity inscribed onto the two surfaces of a Moebius strip (The Parallax View, p. 122)

This comes very close to the apophatic strand of Christian theology. While some people are more comfortable with rigidly classifying people along hard lines and lumping them into oversimplified categories–especially when it comes to religion and politics–the contemporary discourse scene is much more ambivalent. Jon Stanley has an excellent essay in the recently published “God is Dead” and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself entitled “Why Every Christian Should ‘Quite Rightly Pass for an Atheist'”. He begins with some apropos quotes:

Only an atheist can be a good Christian — Ernst Bloch

Only a Christian can be a good atheist — Jürgen Moltmann

I quite rightly pass for an atheist — Jacques Derrida

His best material emerges when he speaks to the fact that the early Christians were accused of being an atheistic cult because they did not worship Caesar. That is, a Christian would “pass for an atheist” by denouncing the official religion of the Roman Empire and all that it entailed; particularly its violence. Today there is very little tolerance for “blurring the boundaries” between belief and unbelief, but this was clearly an ambiguous category for the early Christians. For Stanley, Derrida is an unlikely (or is it likely?) ally in acknowledging this tension.

Derrida has also continually drawn attention to the “porous boundaries” between atheism and theism. Leaning on the apophatic tradition of negative theology, he speaks of a certain type of atheism that “at times so resembles a profession of atheism as to be mistaken for it,”… (p. 13)

A new kind of atheist (cont.)

In continuation of a previous (and popular) post that praised Žižek for his his superb handling of theism and philosophy I would like to reproduce a lengthy passage in The Parallax View that describes, accurately in my estimation, the challenge of being an atheist in light of contemporary critical thought. The first is a quote of a quote:

Someone asked Herr Keuner if there is a God. Herr Keuner said: I advise you to think about how your behavior would change with regard to the answer to this question. If it would not change, then we can drop the question. If it would change, then I can help you at least insofar as I can tell you: You already decided: You need a God (Bertolt Brecht, Prosa 3, p. 18, quoted in Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View, p. 97)

I think Brecht’s point is fairly straightforward: belief has no otherworldly dimension (even if it includes belief in the afterlife) but only has practical implications in this world. Žižek seems to think the same.

Brecht is right here: we are never in a position to choose directly between theism and atheism, since the choice as such is located within the field of belief. “Atheism” (in the sense of deciding not to believe in God) is a miserable pathetic stance of those who long for God but cannot find him (or who “rebel against God”…). A true atheist does not choose atheism: for him, the question itself is irrelevant….So what if the forthcoming ideological battle will be not religion versus science (or hedonism, or any other form of atheist materialism) but, cutting diagonally across this divide, the struggle against a new form of “evil” Gnostic spirituality whose forms are already discernible today in the “proto-Fascist” tendencies of Jungian psychology, some versions of Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism, and so on? (p. 97)

What Žižek means by saying atheism and theism are “located within the field of belief” is that transcendence is internal to immanence. Radical Orthodoxy makes some interesting headways by saying something like this in their panentheism, but Žižek is saying something else here. He means to say that the otherworldly and the supernatual are ultimately irrelevant even for believers because there only implications are this worldly and natural. For example, believing in God is not actually going to get you into heaven but it very likely might make you unproductive and ignorant in your daily life. Furthermore, pseudo-atheism is merely reactionary to theism and an indefensible position for being so. From an experiential perspective I would say that most crackpot-atheists become vituperative and defensive whenever God is brought up, whereas for the true atheist who is confident in the irrelevance of God this sort of extra-natural content is existentially benign to him- or herself.

So where does theology go from here? I think Ricouer’s insight, speaking on a separate but similar subject, can be applied to this situation in a healthy manner.

I must rather leave it where it is, in a place where it remains alone and perhaps out of reach, inaccessible to any form of repetition. It maintains itself in this place as my most formidable adversary, as the measure of radicality against which I must measure myself. Whatever I think and whatever I believe must be worthy of it (Conflict of Interpretations, p. 453)

I think that if theism is to survive it must pass through Žižek’s atheism. When it comes to atheism, Žižek is a respectable voice and any belief worthy of its name is going to need to go beyond his unavoidable postreligious critique. But surprisingly, what Žižek really hammers is not conservative theists or even the luke-warm-pseudo-atheists but the “proto-fascist” spiritualities that hijack the thoughtful consciousness of others. Maybe when I figure out why this is his target of choice I will add more.