Atheism is Just the Beginning

Nietzsche once called Christianity Platonism for the masses. For some time now we’ve been trying to figure out — unsuccessfully — what’s atheism for the masses. Atheism is ungodly dry. But so, we are warned, is organized religion! The stale ceremonies; the obtuse rituals; in a world of diverse diversities, of particular persons with spontaneous passions, organized religion should persist at best, we are assured, only as one of many choices, as voluntary and contingent as any other of our social relationships. Which is as much as to say organized religion should be disorganized.

I don’t want to be glib about the real difficulties facing organized religion, or the real drawbacks. But I do want to suggest that what bothers many about organized religion is not so much the organization but what it’s organized around.

Consider Andrew’s recent post:

I finally read Hitch’s book on God a little while before my breather. I’m relieved to say I liked it much more than I was expecting to. A huge amount of his criticism of organized religion over the centuries is surely valid. I feel no hesitation in agreeing. […] Sam Harris is even more compelling an atheist to me, because of his obvious fascination with meditation, consciousness and truth. I’m not the only one to notice Sam’s spiritual side – he is, in fact, one of the more self-evidently spiritual people I’ve ever met. Here’s Stafford Betty in the Jesuit magazine, America:

Harris has kept company with contemplatives, men and women who know how to stop the whir of their own thoughts and tiptoe into an awareness that completely transcends their own puny egos. Paul Tillich called this the ground of being, and contemporary Buddhist writers, with whom Harris is in particular sympathy, use that phrase too. What does this ground of being feel like? Catholic mystics like Father Keating and Bede Griffiths, O.S.B., conceive of it as a joyous, compassionate, loving, powerful, boundless, light-filled reality that can be known intimately in the private sanctuary of their own mind. Leading American Buddhist teachers like Surya Das and Thubten Chodron would not disagree. Would Harris object to such a conception?

Forget Harris: would I? Consider Tocqueville:

Not content with the discovery that there is nothing in the world by one reaction and one Creator, he is still embarrassed by the primary division of things and seeks to expand and simplify his conception by including God and the universe in one great whole. If one finds a philosophical system which teaches that all things […] are only to be considered as the several parts of an immense Being who alone remains eternal in the midst of the continual flux and transformation of all that composes Him, one may be sure that such a system, although it destroys human individuality, or rather just because it destroys it, will have secret charms for men living under democracies. All their habits of mind prepare them to conceive it and put them on the way toward adopting it. It naturally attracts their imagination and holds it fixed. It fosters the pride and soothes the laziness of their minds.

Of all the different philosophical systems used to explain the universe, I believe that pantheism is one of those most fitted to seduce the mind in democratic ages. All those who still appreciate the true nature of man’s greatness should combine in the struggle against it.

Tocqueville knew what a thin gruel was scientific rationalism for the anxious democratic soul, which oscillates helplessly between emotional ambition and emotional sloth, between agitation and torpor. Joy without boundaries, accessible a la carte in your own Self, is as commodious for the Self-aware ‘puny ego’ as the titillating suggestion of love-based community that makes for organized pantheism. Eros lo Volt! Tocqueville didn’t quite glimpse how central would be a personal relationship with a pantheist God. But it seems to me that atheism is today largely a means, not an end; the idea that God isn’t anything readies the restless soul for the message that God is actually everything.

Yet here’s the catch: if God is everything, God is anything. Pantheism issues a standing invitation to create one’s own table of values. The only obstacle is a lack of ambition — the soft despotism of low expectations. And quite contrary to Tocqueville’s worry, Americans are more independent and self-creative than ever. The government is an atrociously large and meddling thing, but an omnicompetent tutelary state it ain’t. Our appreciation for that other boundless immanent experience — not of love but power — stokes a longing for aristocratic experiences of emotional distance that interact ambivalently with our democratic experiences of emotional solidarity. We’re developing a strange hybrid in America, a cross between the neo-Nietzschean virtuoso of the self and Nietzsche’s own despised practitioner of ‘European Buddhism’, the religion of pity. Organized religion, with its strictness about the nature of God and our relationship to Him as His creatures, has ambivalences of its own. But it stands against a certain kind of slippage that leads practical democratic moralists from atheism to pantheism to polytheism.