Notes toward a theology of disbelief
This essay is written in the spirit of re-imagining the relationship of secularism and atheism to religion and God, but does not dismiss the existence of the Transcendent. It instead asks: Can "secular humanists"--ethical toward and respectful of humans and the natural world but skeptical and disbelieving of a Supernatural Being behind it all--still find a sense of the Transcendent that meets at least some of their objections to the existence of God, and to religion in general?
George Levine, in his introduction to his collection The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now asks if there could be a "positive" secularity that might be as spiritually satisfying and ethical as religion but without the supernatural, the "magical" and the sectarian. Is there a possibility, he wondered, of "Secular Enchantment" (in other words without the baggage)?
A theological/metaphysical experiment of sorts, this essay is not a tacit defense of any particular creed or denomination. There is no intention to convince the skeptic of the truth of any traditionally received religion, but rather of presenting a reasonable path that might convince the truly open-minded atheist (or agonistic) that such a path toward the Transcendent is not per se a cul-de-sac.
It is not justifying the ways of God to man but justifying a (possible) way to man's understanding of God (or gods). Unlike traditional theology the starting point is not the default assumption that a God or gods exist; instead it begins with the presumption that God or the gods may not exist. When it comes to exploring the uncharted wilderness of a post-traditional theistic realm, it pays to be bold.
James Woods, in an excellent New Yorker essay, called for a "theologically engaged atheism." This essay is a reply to that challenge. It is an atheistically engaged theology: an Extreme Theology.
I saw a slowly-stepping train-
Lined on the brows, scoop-eyed and bent and hoar-
Following in files across a twilit plain
A strange and mystic form the foremost bore.
Yet in another poem, A Darkling Thrush, Hardy revives hope amid hopelessness, as the metaphysical tramps "who can't go on but go on." This suggests hints of a surviving Transcendence implied by the song of the old thrush:
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
Peter Berger, the sociologist of religion, called such intimations of greater reality, represented by hope, signals of transcendence. Theological reflection should seek out these signs in the empirically given human situation, he argued. There, Berger said, "seems to be a death-defying hope at the core of our humanitas."
With death and despair on all sides humans continue to be beings who say "No" to that fate. (Examples--mine, not Berger's--would be efforts to ease suffering and prolong the hope of a happy long life through medicine and social programs.) And in this "No" humans find their faith in another world--and thus say "Yes" to hope. John Policing-home observed:
If the human intuition of hope is not a vain delusion...
then God must exist.
It is in these givens within human nature, leading us from nay-saying to yea-saying, that Berger finds the basis of an "inductive faith" that allows us to tune in to a "rumor of angels." Faith has a certain plausible grounding, and is more than just an irrational leap; but the inferences begin with human experience not from the larger cosmos as in the case of the Argument from Design. (There is a rough analogy here with the "Atomic Facts" once much touted by Betrand Russell and the early Ludwig Wittgenstein, in the sense that the "signals" described by Peter Berger are the discrete "facts" of human spiritual-cultural experience. …