Sunday, April 14, 2019

American Atheism and the Lie of Conservative Christianity

Michael Knowles is a conservative American Catholic, a podcaster and columnist at Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire website. According to his Wikipedia page, Knowles graduated from Yale with a degree in history. More recently, he wrote a howler of a short article at The Daily Wire, called God Help Us: Atheism becomes Largest Religion in U.S.

Knowles laments that, “For the first time in history, atheists constitute the largest religious group in America.” According to the General Social Survey, those who say they subscribe to no religion have “increased 266% over the past three decades and now account for 23.1% of the population, just barely edging out Catholics and Evangelicals as the nation’s dominant faith.” The problem with this increase, says Knowles, is that, “As religiosity has declined, social ills have abounded.” Americans have seen an increase in mental illness, in the use of antidepressants, and in suicide. “American life expectancy declined again last year, as Americans continue to drug and kill themselves at record rates.”

Lest you think there’s only a correlation between the rise of “atheism” and of those social ills, Knowles hastens to add that, “Social scientists have long since established the link between religiosity and life satisfaction.” People who regularly attend religious services ‘are nearly twice as likely as those who worship less than once a month to describe themselves as “very happy.”’ And religious people are “more likely to engage in happy-making behaviors, such as getting and staying married.” Thus it’s “obvious,” says Knowles, that “the belief that God loves you and that you will live with him in eternity offers greater consolation” than the view of death as a dirt nap that stiffens you into worm food.”

Knowles ends by connecting a decline in the quality of American politics to the rise of “atheism.” Says Knowles, ‘A materialistic culture worships wealth; a licentious culture worships sex; a godly culture worships God. But “our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people,” as John Adams wrote to the Massachusetts militia in 1798. “It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”’ Thus, “A miserable politics awaits us when the irreligious rot flows downstream. Who but God can help us now?”

A Litany of Errors

I don’t believe the content of Knowles’ article merits refutation, since it seems written as a careless provocation—not so much to atheists but to American “conservatives” who prefer to view themselves as victims so they can feel as though their attitudes, values, and behaviour have something vaguely to do with Christianity. Knowles’ task is just to scare the gullible, not to argue with intellectual integrity. The statistics and the arguments he cobbles together are window dressing, since his rightwing readers don’t trust in fancy displays of rationality. The wisdom of this world is foolishness to God (1 Cor, 3:19) and all of that. Even the Catholic defense of reason is so much casuistry meant to use the devil’s weapons against him, to feign an interest in reason to prove to the ignorant faithful that there’s nothing to see here and it’s time to move on from the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Reason and to return to some dystopian theocracy that stands in for God’s kingdom. So Knowles’ foray into this foreign territory of rational argumentation is only for show, which explains the speciousness of just about every sentence in his article.

Here are just some of his errors, which I’ll list only to brush them aside to get to the more interesting issues. As many commenters on his article point out, Knowles confuses atheists with those who say they have no religion. As CNN’s report on the survey points out, ‘“Religious nones,” as they are called by researchers, are a diverse group made up of atheists, agnostics, the spiritual, and those who are no specific organized religion in particular. A rejection of organized religion is the common thread they share’ (my emphasis).

Moreover, Knowles confuses atheism with “materialism,” “irreligious rot,” and so on, ignoring the obvious semantic point that “atheism” is only a negative term, a word referring to what certain people don’t believe. Knowles, though, is quick to jump on the bandwagon and to demonize atheists, since everything is allegedly permitted to atheists, as Dostoevsky supposedly showed. All that the survey shows, however, is a decline in support for organized religion in the United States, a decline that began in the early 1990s. One likely reason for this decline is that American Christian churches disgraced themselves by allying with the Republican Party under Reagan, after decades of remaining politically neutral. The devil’s bargain between Evangelicals and President Trump should accelerate this collapse of America’s leading brand of organized religion.

Also, Knowles does indeed confuse correlation with causation. There may be a decrease in support for organized religion as well as an increase in social ills in the United States, including depression, drug use, and suicide, but that doesn’t mean the one causes the other. Even if there were a general link between religion, marriage, and happiness, that wouldn’t mean this link is a primary cause of this particular correlation that began a few decades ago.

There are, after all, economic factors that account for the social ills in question. Fallout from globalization, including the hollowing-out of once-bustling manufacturing centers in the United States explains the opioid epidemic and increase in suicide in adults. Along with their decline in economic prospects, the recent proliferation of smart phones and social media account for the Millennials’ lack of enthusiasm for sex and marriage, as this generation is being trained to be socially awkward. Not that his data should be trusted, but Knowles himself points out that the socials ills are “particularly acute among younger Americans. While depression diagnoses have increased 33% since 2013, that number is up 47% among Millennials and 63% among teenagers. Coincidentally, suicide rates among American teenagers have increased by 70% since 2006.” As for the suicide rates in teens and young adults, cyber-bullying is the more obvious culprit.

To blame these social problems on “atheism” is just lazy or disingenuous. But let’s move past these small-minded errors to the more instructive blasphemies.

Pragmatism and Theocracy

Let’s pretend that Knowles’ article was written in good faith and that it deserves to be rationally assessed. Pretend, in particular, that atheism causes mental illness, overmedication, and suicide. Notice that Knowles doesn’t follow up his thesis with the pragmatic prescription that we ought to reject atheism because of its disastrous consequences, as though whether theism is useful were more important than whether it’s true. Knowles doesn’t address whether God really exists, but again he declines to pitch something like Pascal’s wager. His pragmatism is only implicit, as he leaves it hanging what Christians should do about this dreaded rise of atheism. He asks rhetorically, “Who but God can help us now?” as though Christians were helpless in the face of this dark development. This seems designed to provoke his conservative Christian readers to wonder whether, instead, if the consequences are all that matter as opposed to the philosophical commitment to the truth, Republicans ought to push for theocracy along the lines of The Handmaid’s Tale. If the task isn’t to judge whether God is real, but just to note that atheism poisons society, surely Christians needn’t wait for God to rid history’s greatest country of this scourge, since they can attempt to outlaw “atheism,” by which they would sloppily mean secular humanism and progressivism. And isn’t this what the Republicans have in fact been busy doing by rubberstamping their “conservative” (reconstructionist, dominionist, or otherwise theocratic and authoritarian) judges, filling America’s criminal courts with these impostors from Regent or Liberty University?

Indeed, take Rousas Rushdoony, the founder of Christian reconstructionism, a fundamentalist theonomic movement which was essentially a Christian version of the Taliban according to which secular societies should be governed by divine law, including the laws given in the Old Testament. Rushdoony said that the American “Constitution was designed to perpetuate a Christian order.” Notice how similar that sounds to Knowles’ lazy, sloppy mischaracterization of John Adams’ statement that “our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people.” Of course, Knowles, wishing only to mislead his gullible readers, insinuates that Adams believed all Americans ought to be Christian or at least religious theists. Alas, the American founders were deists, pantheists, or Epicureans on their way to being “atheists,” as Matthew Stewart shows in great detail in Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic.

Thus, if you read the context of Adams’s statement, you find him identifying religion with morality: “we have no government armed with the power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion” wrote Adams. “Avarice, ambition, revenge, and licentiousness would break the strongest cords of our Constitution, as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other” (my emphasis). As is evident from his lack of reference to atheism along with avarice, ambition and the other vices, Adams was speaking of “religion” in a deflationary, civic sense just as the founders often spoke of “God” as being equivalent to nature, as Spinoza posited, and just as the atheist Stephen Hawking could title one of his books God Created the Integers or just as the pantheist Albert Einstein could quip that God doesn’t play dice.

Adams’ point was that those who are worthy of living in a free society, who are responsible for governing themselves and for choosing their leaders should be moral, not that they should subscribe to a certain theological creed. But there’s no need to speculate, since Adams was explicit in his letter to Thomas Jefferson, from December 12, 1816: ‘For the last year or two I have devoted myself to this kind of study, and have read fifteen volumes of Grimm, seven volumes of Tucker's Neddy Search, twelve volumes of Dupuis, and Tracy’s Analysis, and four volumes of Jesuitical History! Romances all! I have learned nothing of importance to me, for they have made no change in my moral or religious creed, which has, for fifty or sixty years, been contained in four short words, “Be just and good.” In this result they all agree with me’ (my emphasis).

Doubtless the Yale historian, Michael Knowles, knew all of this, but should he reply that John Adams would have agreed with the Dostoevsky meme, that only theists can be moral, Knowles would have to contend with what Matthew Stewart points out, that Adams also urged Jefferson not to staff his University of Virginia with European professors, since they “all believe that [that] great principle, which has produced this boundless Universe, Newton’s Universe, and Hershel’s universe, came down to this little Ball, to be spit-upon by Jews; and until this awful blasphemy is got rid of, there will never be any liberal science in the world” (112).

Return, though, to the question of pragmatism in the link between atheism and America’s present social ills. Clearly, atheism or more precisely philosophical naturalism could have unpleasant social effects. Most people would prefer to live forever than to fear the finality of their physical death in an amoral universe. But just as clearly, if you have overwhelming reason to believe, as Knowles put it, that death is “a dirt nap that stiffens you into worm food,” you won’t be able to force yourself to believe the opposite without generating other forms of mental illness and societal derangement. If even passing familiarity with the scientific knowledge that’s been established over the last few centuries shows that the notion “that God loves you and that you will live with him in eternity” is a child’s fairytale, you won’t easily dismiss the science in favour of the fairytale, not without damaging your mind, let alone your reputation. Someone who actually cares about other people in addition to feeling obligated to follow the evidence as far as possible would look for strategies for coping with the horrific truths of naturalism, strategies that don’t involve surrendering honour or integrity. The practical task, in other words, isn’t to make excuses for the infantilization of American culture; rather, we should be searching for how to live well with our grown-up loss of innocence.

American “Conservative Christianity”

But Knowles is far from pursuing that search. His article is so preposterous that he’s blinded to the irony of his claim that, “A materialistic culture worships wealth; a licentious culture worships sex; a godly culture worships God.” Knowles presupposes that a godly culture wouldn’t worship wealth or sex, but when has Christendom ever been godly? Christian monks and nuns managed to be godly by turning to asceticism, by withdrawing from the Christian cultures of Europe. The United States is too young to have had much experience with feudal monasteries, and the closest we come to godly American Christians, in the sense of those who are well-positioned to love God more than wealth or sex, are the Catholic priests who take vows of poverty and abstinence. And what have we learned about their godliness? The Catholic Church is one of the wealthiest, most secretive institutions on Earth. Moreover, this church systematically enabled pedophile priests to sexually abuse children for decades.

Needless to say, the Protestant sects that are more popular in the United States aren’t even nominally opposed to wealth accumulation. According to prosperity theology, for example, God rewards those who have strong Christian faith, by blessing them with earthly success and pleasures. The Christian God has been so closely aligned with Mammon in the “Christian” United States that Evangelicals could find themselves idolizing President Trump and making excuses for his manifest sins, even though Trump is a far stronger candidate for the Antichrist than Barack Obama ever was. Ironically, while failing to grasp John Adams’s deflationary use of “religion,” Knowles must have in mind only the Puritanical, moralistic notion of Christianity when he implies that a godly culture would be superior to one suffering from irreligious rot.

What conservative American Christians care about isn’t the substance of Christian theology, but a libertarian ethos that Ronald Reagan was able to frame with superficial theistic rhetoric as an extension of the Republicans’ southern electoral strategy. Nixon and Barry Goldwater appealed to racism in the southern states to politically realign those white voters. Reagan appealed, in turn, to their religion, by way of selling free market, trickle-down voodoo economics and opposing the soviet’s “godless” communism. That is, Reagan couched American plutocracy (unfettered capitalism that ends in monopolies, corruption, and self-destruction of the marketplace) in vaguely Christian terms as part of his propaganda in the Cold War. Contrasting Americans with the evil, unfree communists, Reagan lauded the American value of political and economic liberty, of democracy and capitalism (both of which actually become corrupted because nature isn’t divinely guided). Reagan could appeal to the constitutional freedom of religion as a reason that conservative Christians should support his efforts to strengthen the American empire against the imaginary diabolism of the soviets.

On the face of it, Christianity is antithetical to all of Reagan’s policies, not to mention to Nixon’s or Trump’s. Jesus was a pacifist who advocated the abandonment of efforts to achieve worldly success, on account of the alleged nearness of God’s kingdom which shall make worldly winners—i.e. the ancient Romans who lorded it over the captive Jews—look like foolish losers. The last will be first and the first will be last (Matt.20:16). Jesus said the rich should give away their possessions, since it’s hard for them to avoid the temptation of idolizing their wealth and worldly power.

And everything Paul said about what was misconstrued much later as “family values,” about how Christians should conduct their sex lives in a godly manner was said under the assumption that the world was soon to end. Behold 1 Cor.7:29-34! After talking on and on about the proper sexual relations between the married, the unmarried, the divorced, widows, virgins, and so on, Paul comes to the crux (with my emphases):
What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away. I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife—and his interests are divided.
So here we have a Michael Knowles pontificating about how the religious are happier and more moral than atheists. And then we actually read the New Testament and study some Christian history and theology (atheists know more about Christianity than does the average Christian, although reading only a page or two about Christianity suffices to refute a Knowles), only to discover that “American Christianity” is an oxymoron. We find even that “conservative” Christians are further removed from any way of life that Jesus or Saint Paul would have approved of than are the do-gooder American liberals who think of themselves as secular. We discover, in short, that Knowles is a blasphemer in his own terms, that his claim to speak from a Christian standpoint while simultaneously being a rightwing American is a monstrous obscenity.

Did you want to make Christian excuses for America’s military supremacy? Jesus said surrender your earthly right to strike back and to offer up the other cheek instead, because the whole world is soon to pass away and God is watching like a hawk. So tough luck!

Did you want to offer a Christian justification of American family values, such as of the proscription of sex outside of marriage? Jesus (Matt.19:10-12) and Paul said ascetic renunciation is more godly than marriage since married couples can have only divided loyalties, whereas God’s standards are absolute and eternity in heaven or hell is in the balance. So tough luck, family guy!

Did you want to make a Christian case for happiness in this life, against atheism which supposedly causes depression and anxiety? So sorry, but the Epistle to the Hebrews defines faith as “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see,” and draws out the implication that the faithful should instead suffer in this life like such biblical heroes as Moses who “died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth…But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.” Some heroes of faith “were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”

In short, the faithful, that is, the religious trust in a world to come, in something as yet unseen such as in a land of milk and honey to be enjoyed by their descendants or by their souls in the afterlife. So the author of Hebrews encourages the Christian reader to “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Obviously, the American Christian’s problem is that American superpower is the new Roman Empire; therefore, defenders of that superpower have no business claiming ownership of a religion that glorifies have-nots. To be sure, there are plenty of Americans who have nothing in worldly terms, such as the millions who are trapped in prison or with no home or job or livable wage. But in Republican circles you’re not likely to see or hear from these untelegenic folks who endure their cross, despising the shame. These impoverished, suffering incels would be the purest American Christians, assuming they could remain sober enough to formulate Christian beliefs as opposed to opting for opioids or alcohol or a more realistic worldview.

As far as its policies are concerned, the Republican Party represents the richest ten percent of the population, and so resorts to their self-serving ideology. The highest value of American conservatives is that of the individual freedom from coercion, or the freedom to do whatever you want as long as it doesn't detract from anyone else's similar freedom. This emphasis on individual rights to do things our way results in competition, since with just that open-ended freedom in view (which Isaiah Berlin called negative liberty), we tend to focus on our narrow self-interest; in turn, competition sorts humanity into winners and losers. Respecting our personal liberty means allowing us to reap the rewards or the punishments we bring upon ourselves. That means letting the rich enjoy their luxuries with minimal taxes, and letting the poor suffer as a result of their failure to excel. It means keeping the government small and preventing the rise of a welfare (“nanny”) state. Applying this logic to its bitter end would lead to anarchy and a return to the state of nature via the exclusive values of selfishness and the elimination of humanistic empathy and any public role for the government. That’s the social Darwinian ideology that Knowles and Ben Shapiro and other apologists for the free market myth defend in practice, their lip service to certain anachronistic theologies notwithstanding (although Shapiro’s Jewish pragmatism could more easily accommodate social Darwinism, owing to the practical irrelevance of God to Jews, given all their exiles, diasporas, pogroms, and holocausts). But when the practice of rightwing Americanism conflicts so grotesquely with the omega values of Christianity, it’s time to see through the works of these hypocrites, to ignore the content of their messages, treating them only as signs of the ugliness that’s bound to accompany natural developments (such as the reinforcement of American dominance hierarchies).

At this point, a Catholic like Knowles might be inclined to say that I’ve appealed too much to the Bible, since Catholics embrace their history of exegesis much as Jews embrace their Talmud in addition to the Torah. Catholics ended up with a Just War theory, for example, and that was due to God’s work in the Church in the form of the Holy Spirit which inspired the best Christian interpretations, that is, those that won the day, the rest being eschewed as more or less heretical. Respecting historical developments is fine—except when those developments comprise cover-ups and systematic cooptation of monstrous proportions. Saying that Catholics should accept as divinely inspired both the Bible and the history of Catholic interpretations of the Bible is like saying you can walk eastward for a while, turn around and walk in a westerly direction, then claim you’ve been walking in essentially the same direction the whole time, there being no inconsistency between going east and going west. And appealing to Jewish hermeneutics won’t avail the Catholic, since Jews prize clever, legalistic interpretations (Halakha and Aggadah), retaining their humanistic humility about the point of the enterprise, not rushing to claim that this or that saint or spiritual leader speaks for God. Jews are opposed to idolatry and so worship neither their scriptures nor their history; instead, they’re wont to treat everything in nature with a sense of humour.

Michael Knowles
The upshot is that whereas Knowles laments the rise of atheism or the collapse of organized religion in the US, he ought to have observed instead that the United States was founded on a civic religion (John Adams’ pragmatic moralism) that grew out of the deistic, quasi-pantheistic Enlightenment, which religion amounts to a noble lie meant to prevent the American masses from falling into Nietzschean despair over the death of God; that the founders ensured that Americans are free privately to worship any god they like precisely because they believed no god ought to be taken so seriously as to be deemed to have rights over the whole world, in which case the government would be obliged to impose the worship of that god onto everyone, as in a theocracy; that by the arrival of the era marked by President Trump’s idiocracy and con artistry, any decline in the “Christian” support for that fraudulent, Fox News Republican plutocracy should be welcomed as a lucky balancing of events; and that under these circumstances, an authentically spiritual American would be as appalled as atheistic naturalists by the state of those mainstream American religions (such as Evangelical Protestantism and Catholicism) that have made their peace with America’s superpower.

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