Profane Holiness: Why the New Atheism Is (Partially) Good for True Spirituality and Religion

Article excerpt

  I believe; help my unbelief!
                  --Mark 9:24

The New Atheists (TNAs) have seized the public's imagination, opening a new front in the American Cultural Wars against the Religious Right. But if we look closer we can see the wisdom of Simone Weil's powerful observation that atheism is a "purification of the notion of God." Let's call it Profane Holiness.

Conventional True Believers who chop the broad landscape of spirituality into fixed, little denominational plots, ringed with sectarian No Trespass signs, lead us to wrong turns and up cul-de-sacs. This is why the New Atheism should be celebrated, not scorned. It is a kind of Neo-Socratic midwifery, which, contrary to its own explicit intentions, frees true religious-spiritual energy from the old divisions, prejudices, and cliches of the past. Religion is then open to be returned to its original subversive and dynamic, not static, role. The New Atheism ironically offers a kind of cleansing--a tacit (though unintentional) defense, as well as enabler, of the religious life and mind. Of course, its avowed goal is the expose of Spirituality and Religion as the Great Delusions of History, but paradoxically the result is the opposite.

This essay could also be subtitled an "unbeliever's defense" because sectarian colorations of faith often conceal more than they reveal. Those attached to sects and particular doctrines, ironically are unreliable as defenders and explorers of the spiritual. This does not mean that every sectarian speaks only spiritual falsehoods; it only means that the spiritual truth is far broader than this or that particular religious doctrine or sect. As war is too important to be left to generals so spiritual journeys are too important to be left to the piously faithful. Non-sectarian unbelievers have their powerful uses: those who have a spiritual hunger unsatisfied by sectarian offerings may yet find--contrary to the conventional wisdom--that the unfaithful are their most reliable guide. The Hindu maxim that truth/God is one, though the sages call it by many names, has to include non-believers too.

I

Aldous Huxley spoke of the human "fear of labyrinthine flux and perplexity of phenomena ..." And complexity is not a message, Huxley noted, for the smug, well-heeled, wealthy, or complacent who variably want to "settle down in their snug metaphysical villa[s] and go to sleep." They want a comfortable, facile, one-dimensional world, which is precisely what the original founders of religion did not offer. Instead, Buddha, Muhammad, and Christ, after their own fashion, were restless, subversive, quasi-Socratic figures pushing humanity toward an uncomfortable confrontation with a turbulent, perplexing reality. And just as Socrates challenged the Athenian pantheon of morally unseemly Olympian gods, so the founders of the three major religions challenged their respective era's corrupt religious, social, and communal conventions and traditions.

Religion, in its robust, original sense, was no opiate for the people (though that might apply to the deracinated version peddled the last twenty years by the American Right, whose "God" resembles more the bogus gods of ancient Rome designed to bless the status quo's power center). Rather in its "pure" dynamic sense it shocked, and thereby centered the soul and mind on upsetting, wrenching concerns and questions regarding guilt, responsibility, God, death, the world, and the existence of evil. TNAs (who undeniably have their own sectarian unquestioned faith in the non-existence of God) reprise this quasi-Socratic role, forcing the conventionally religious to feel uncomfortable inside their cozy, metaphysical villas by facing the perplexity of existence.

John Shelby Spong has celebrated a new emerging Christianity in opposition to tired institutional creeds and symbols "that must be broken open so that the concept of God can be embraced by new possibilities. …