Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Atheism in 10 Easy Steps!

PREFACE: Begin with the medieval arrangement, a God radically transcendent from yet still present to the world, paired with Aristotelian physics that encouraged close observation and exact language about that world.

Amos Funkenstein (our guide in this fascinating process) explains. He suggests that "the question of how God exists 'in things' encapsulate[s], more than any other theological issue, the dialectics of divine immanence and utter transcendence." God's attribute of omnipresence "had to be guarded from pantheistic interpretations, but also from elimination by excessive emphasis on God's being nowhere. It had to be safeguarded against both too literal and too allegorical readings" (49).

Regarding Aristotle, Funkenstein suggests Foucault was wrong -
The seventeenth century did not initiate the demand to exchange 'similitudes' for exact comparisons. Aristotle's philosophy of nature - which became, with due changes, the physics and biology of the Middle Ages - was as committed to an unequivocal language of science as any of the seventeenth or eighteenth century biologists quoted by Foucault (35).
However, Aristotle's scientific precision occurred within a diverse, purposeful universe with many different natures, as opposed, for example, to the homogenous, pantheized Universe of the Stoics (the perfect backdrop for magic and astrology), or to the chance-driven Universe of the Atomists (37-41). The nature-deifying Stoics, and the purposeless Atomists, needless to say, were incompatible with the Christian doctrine of an omnipresent, providential God.

Preliminaries having been established, let the journey to atheism begin:

STEP 1: Think like a Nominalist. In other words, eviscerate mystery by requiring "univocal" [exact] language about God and the world. Funkenstein puts it plainly: "Thomas's doctrine of analogy did as much to restrict the medieval sense of God's symbolical presence as it did to promote it" (55). The Nominalists, however, "aimed at an absolute transparency of the language of every science... [they] had to reject the doctrine of analogy because they had already desymbolized the universe (as well as history) almost completely" (57-58). In short, Nominalists were guilty of epistemological greed. They wanted too much. They preserved knowledge about God, but at the cost of rationalizing his attributes.

STEP 2: Homogenize Matter. Contra Aristotle, the Renaissance turned multiple natures into "nature", and replaced forms with forces. The "animated universe of many natural philosophies in the Renaissance was homogenous in the sense that the absolute distinction between celestial and terrestrial matter was eliminated and the number of elements reduced to two or less" (67). This is not to say that Aristotelian physics was necessarily correct, but that the homogenization of matter (which is not correct either) had peculiar consequences. Nicholas of Cusa, turned the tradition of negative theology toward not only God, but nature. "The boundlessness of the world, though strictly speaking incomparable with God's simple, absolute infinity, is nonetheless an image of it, an analogy... the world is a contracted God (66). Other Renaissance thinkers - most not nearly as pious or subtle as Cusa - went further. They used nature's new homogeneity to return to the universe of the Stoics and Atomists. Telesius, for example, posited a universe with "no trace of goals, of a grand design." Aristotelian focus on detail continued, but without the accompanying teleology. [Incidentally, the Copernican revolution was, according to Funkenstein, not necessarily indebted to this shift (69-70).]

STEP 3: (not necessary, but very helpful) Stop believing in the Real Presence."Did the Reformation," asks Funkenstein, "help God to regain a body?"
Christian fears of pantheistic doctrines derived not only from the fear of deifying nature, but, more specifically, from the fear of diluting the meaning of Christ's particular, selective, real presence in the Host as managed by the priestly hierarchy. Protestant theology lost this fear. Even in its doctrines of the sacraments it could pursue, to the extreme, the utterly transcendent or utterly immanent image of the divine, claiming in either case it is true to the Scriptures. To Zwingli (and to Karlstadt and others earlier) the words 'This is my flesh' carried a symbolic meaning only... Luther's preference of the doctrine of consubstantiation over the doctrine of transubstantiation, though it relied on a minority tradition in Scholastic thought, may have been informed by the new sense of nature... Luther could never acquiesce to the strong locative sense of the real presence... The communion is only the occasion at which Christians are instructed by the word of God where to concentrate on finding Christ's presence [which is everywhere at all times]. Protestantism had much less to fear from pantheistic inclinations than Catholicism (70-71).
STEP 4: Merge steps 1 and 2.
Only in the seventeenth century did both trends converge into one world picture: namely, the Nominalists' passion for unequivocation with the Renaissance sense of the homogeneity of nature - one nature with forces to replace the many Aristotelian static natures. Protestant theology may have acted at times as a catalyst to the fusion. Once both ideals of science converged, the vision of a unified, mathematized physics could emerge, in which Euclidian space was the very embodiment of both ideals. Now, and only now, a clear-cut decision has to be made as to how God's ubiquity - to which the Lutherans added the ubiquity of Christ's body - had to be understood; to decide whether God must be placed within the universe, with or without a body, or outside of it (72).
The temptation of an embodied God (the heretical version, not the incarnate one) is now very near.

STEP 5: Think like Rene Descartes. That is, fuse your theological and physical arguments, and consider the constancy of God an actual law of physics. Cling to a residual medieval sense of God's transcendence, but exploit God's causality to the extreme (116), and good luck with the mind-body problems that will ensue.

STEP 6: Think like Henry More. While Descartes' Catholicism enabled him to grasp some aspects of transcendence, More's liberal Protestantism enabled him to go the whole way towards transposing panpsychism, even pantheism, into a "clear and distinct" Renaissance key (116). For More, God is a sort of "Spirit-in-Chief" "More admits, though not without initial hesitation, that [God] is extended; contrary to other spirits, however, his extension is infinite - it is space itself... More's concept of the divine amounts to the concept of a harmonious sum total of all mechanical and purposive forces in the universe. Such a God could not but be reasonable" (80).

STEP 7: Think like Spinoza. Slowly, after initially rejecting the idea, Spinoza would sign onto the embodied God as well, but this time without More's hesitations. Descartes' two substances - mind and matter - is thereby reduced to one: "In the Cogita, [Spinoza] seems to opt for one cognitive substance only, of which souls are presumably just so many modificatons" (83). Hence, Descartes' mind-body problem is solved, at the cost of pantheism. Why does God love us? For Spinoza, because we are a self-conscious portion of God, and "God loves himself with an infinite love" (Ethica 5 prop. 35, 1:266).

STEP 8: If you're not willing to go all the way toward pantheism with Spinoza, just Think like Newton. That is, demand the same level of clarity from Scripture and theology as you would from mathematics, and use God to explain the parts of physics you don't yet understand. As Newton "took God's spatial omnipresence more and more literally, he could burden God, the source of all power, with its conservation and mediation" (94). Furthermore, "Newton maintained that space and time are explicatory predicates to God's omnipresence and eternity, since these attributes should be understood literally and unequivocally... Space is indeed a sensorium Dei, a 'sense organ' of God" (94). Like Descartes, Newton had enough residual Christianity to keep from fully somatizing God, but the "new ideals of unequivocation and homogeneity" made this extremely difficult to avoid. The "God in the gaps" had been invented, a god waiting for advances in science to work him out of a job.

STEP 9: Let simmer, stir occasionally. Most of the hard work now is already done. A god who is
describable in unequivocal terms, or even given physical features and functions, eventually became all the easier to discard. As a scientific hypothesis, he was later shown to be superfluous; as a being, he was shown to be a mere hypostatization of rational, social, or psychological ideals and images... Once God regained transparency or even a body, he was all the easier to identify and to kill (116).
All that remains is to witness this god's "slow philosophical death - from Kant through Feuerbach to Nietzsche..."

STEP 10: Now, effortlessly fall in line with a supposedly "scientific worldview." Congratulations! You've arrived at the lockstep, group-think atheism based on the most basic of theological errors, and bound to the kind of Newtonian physics outmoded by contemporary science long ago. Here's a summary of the process:
The medieval sense of God's symbolic presence in his creation, and the sense of a universe replete with transcendent meanings and hints, had to recede if not to give way totally to the postulates of univocation and homogeneity in the seventeenth century. God's relation to the world had to be given a concrete physical meaning (25).
Science and this kind of god can't help but be at war, because they dwell on same turf.

ADDENDUM: Should one wish to avoid this process, simply refrain from STEP 1. Understand that one cannot understand normative Christian theology, which has long posited that God is spatially and temporally unfathomable. Brad Gregory, in a very fine article on the matter at hand, put it this way:
A radically transcendent God would be neither outside nor inside his creation. He would not hover beyond the universe (or multiple universes) at unimaginably enormous distances of billions of light-years. Rather, if real, such a God could be wholly present to everything in the natural world precisely and only because he would be altogether inconceivable in spatial categories. Divine transcendence would thus be not the opposite but the correlate of divine immanence. So too, God in this sort of view would be neither temporally prior to nor a cosmic observer of sequential events as they unfold, as if an extraordinarily remote cause of the Big Bang some fourteen or fifteen billion years ago were merely an updating of Voltaire's deistic watchmaker. Rather, God could be fully present to all events and every moment in time precisely and only because he would be altogether inconceivable in temporal categories. Divine eternity would then not be the opposite but the correlate of divine providence. [Accordingly] if God is real in a traditional, non-univocal way, then all legitimate religious language about God as God would have to be metaphorical in its intention and interpretation... This is the point of the apophatic discursive tradition in Christian theology, exemplified in the writings of the Cappadocian Church Fathers. It would then be a mistake born of dubious metaphysical assumptions to except or demand that God be rendered conceptually, linguistically, or scientifically accessible - as God is in the univocal metaphysics that underpins the "scientific worldview" (503-504).
So does one avoid the "natural vs. supernatural zero-sum game" between science and faith. "The findings of science," writes Gregory, "tend toward atheism only if one's theological conception of God presupposes [as in STEP 1] a univocal metaphysics" (507).

Thinking like that, however, would require one declaring independence from the self-imposed tutelage of the modern intellectual context traced above.