“Unbelievers, Old and New”

by Sam Buntz

“And all must love the Human Form / In heathen, Turk, or Jew / Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell / There God is dwelling too.”  – William Blake

I’m continually amazed by the vast decline in the quality of atheist literature from the 19th Century to our present era.  (I’m not an atheist, but as a student of religious debate in the modern world, I keep up on the general trends of atheist literature, anyway.)  To begin with, in authoring this near-polemic, I’ll look at the controversial, contemporary end of atheism first—hopefully reeling in the prospective non-believing reader by sparking his or her indignation, and stringing him or her along with the promise of yet more indignation, until I start to speak admiringly of a 19th Century atheist, Ludwig Feuerbach, and things suddenly get very calm and contemplative… These are my plans, to be perfectly straight about them.  Of course, I require only the aid of the Deity to make them succeed…

First off, throughout the past eight years or so—up until his death—I’ve read a ton of Christopher Hitchens’ essays in Slate and the Atlantic, not to mention significant chunks of his books. While I admired Hitchens’ rhetorical zeal, and found him to be generally a very entertaining writer (in fact, he had a pretty big influence on my college opinion columns) I think it’s fair to say that, to the bitter end, he retained an essentially parochial intellect—as far as his anti-religious polemics are concerned, at least.  His atheism was that of a mischievous British boarding-school kid, eager to hock a few good loogies at the Established Truths of the local Church of England Chapel.  However, after class was dismissed, he was left to roam around the mansions of the world’s other religions.  Yet he had never been properly housebroken.

To get more specific, the chapter on Eastern Religions from God is not Great provides a representative instance of his typical tactics at their absolute worst: it proclaims itself to be a refutation of Hinduism and Buddhism (two religions so enormously diverse as to almost automatically withstand any non-believing pamphleteer’s twenty page assault), and proceeds mostly by way of lambasting two contemporary figures: Rajneesh—the “Sex Guru”, whose disciples launched a biological terror attack by spreading salmonella at an Oregon salad bar—and the Dalai Lama, who donated money to the Japanese cult leader, Shoko Asahara, who later launched a terrorist attack on the Tokyo Subway (the donation occurred before most people were aware of what Asahara was up to—for the record).   Given that the Dalai Lama said this was a big mistake and an accident, I think we can cut him some slack—considering the number of financial transactions his offices must handle in a given year.  As for Rajneesh (who changed his name to “Osho”, once he was deported from the U.S. after the salmonella debacle), I can say with confidence that he has almost nothing to do with authentic Hinduism or Vedanta—his brand of spirituality was a pure product of the hippie era, calculated to stoke the strange cravings of Westerners.  Aside from rightly criticizing certain Japanese Buddhists for supporting the Imperial aspirations of their nation in the first half of the 20th Century and then wrongly using that fact to discredit Buddhism as a whole, this basically constitutes Hitchens’ polemic against Eastern Religions: two ad hominem attacks.

At no point does Hitchens prove himself capable of wrestling with these religions’ ideas; he is capable of reciting unsavory anecdotes, but he is never able to make the cognitive leap and engage with the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism or the Vedantic insights of philosophical titans like Shankara and Ramanuja.  Moreover, while I comprehend what the Hindu and Buddhist luminaries were driving at—what they thought the end goal of a human being is or could be and what leads to the supreme joy—I could never quite put my finger on what Hitchens really wanted, what kind of happiness or final joy he was trying to get.  His non-belief was a purely combative and destructive project—he never much explained what vision of human happiness he would substitute for those he attempted to depose.

Richard Dawkins’ own schoolboy variety of atheism differs from Hitchens’ only insofar as Dawkins is an inferior writer.  I remember he once rebuked religious critics, who claimed that he didn’t know enough theology to be a worthy combatant, by saying that you didn’t need to become an expert on “leprechaunology” to argue against the existence of leprechauns.  But once the cheaply earned chuckles have died down, we begin to realize that this is yet another rhetorical flourish, without an actual idea at its kernel.  Most people have a pretty clear picture of what a leprechaun is—a little Irish guy who hides gold at the ends of rainbows.  But there are numerous pictures of who and what God is—or what, in Hindu terms, Brahman or Ishvara is, or, in Buddhist terms, what the Dharmakaya is—and Dawkins refuses to familiarize himself with pretty much any of them, asserting that a child’s-eye-view of the Old Testament Deity provides the world’s default notion of God.  He may have a clear idea of what a leprechaun is (though I’m even a little doubtful about that), but his idea of God constantly wavers, melting into the shifting, insidious element that constitutes the substance of his prose.

So, if I’ve succeeded in raising any unbelievers’ hackles thus far, they can start to relax, since I’m going to say some fairly nice things about Ludwig Feuerbach—the German atheist and materialist who wrote a classic work of philosophy, The Essence of Christianity (translated by George Eliot—who was Chris Hitchens’ favorite writer, incidentally).  The difference between Feuerbach and the “New Atheists” is simply that Feuerbach gives a damn about his subject—he doesn’t reject the mythology and theology of religions but, instead, tries to find psychological truths about humans hidden within them.  Whereas Dawkins and Hitchens tend to dismiss whatever religion they may, at present, be holding under the gun, calling them fairy stories and deluded fantasies and chunks of contemptible fudge and what-not, Feuerbach—like the late Bruno Bettelheim—looks for the deep psychological truths hidden in these “fairy tales.”

For Feuerbach, Christian theology is not wrong, so much as it is an awkward way of analyzing the character of human beings.  God, says Feuerbach, is really a projection of humanity: he is human nature writ large.  Of course, most atheists would dismiss God on just these grounds—he’s an anthropomorphic projection, a scam!  But Feuerbach takes the extra leap of trying to learn about human beings from this projection—the very leap that Hitchens and Dawkins are never willing to make, primarily because they aren’t respectful of the human beings who create and maintain these projections, and are hence unwilling to accord them that mild degree of dignity.  But Feuerbach wants to understand.  Additionally, he has an idea of what the ultimate aim of human existence is—it might not be a particularly exalted one, but unlike in Hitchens’ and Dawkins’ writings, it’s actually present.

When Feuerbach looks at the God of Christianity—the Holy Trinity comprised of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—he sees a vision of humanity’s own implicit beliefs and powers.  Whereas for the Christian and Jew, God makes humanity in His image, Feuerbach sees God as being made in humanity’s image, and since God is supposed to have supreme power and supreme knowledge, Feuerbach posits that these attributes are really our own physical strength and intellect stretched to the furthest limit we can imagine them attaining.  However, such a supremely powerful and all-knowing God becomes terrifying—since humans lack this kind of unlimited strength and intellect, they’re unable to live up to this God’s inflexible moral order, thus leading to the endless cycle of retribution and punishment we see in the Old Testament.

But human beings have more than intellect and strength—they have feelings. Love and sympathy play a greater role in the human cosmos than in the world of divine law, since the O.T. God seems preoccupied with using “an eye for an eye” as his principle of action.  In the Hebrew Bible the only human being who seems capable of retaining God’s love is King David—which doesn’t bode particularly well for the rest of the supporting cast.  Hence, says Feuerbach, the New Testament remedies this: it creates a God who actually is a human, who suffers all that a human suffers, and hence attains a supreme emotional intimacy with humankind.  He is a God who is perfect not just in strength and intellect, but in feeling and sympathy, as well.  He is now—in the form of the completed Christian Trinity—a full representation of the human being, a maximized version of our own brains, bodies, and (most importantly) hearts.

For Feuerbach, cultivating the heart and developing loving-kindness becomes the most important feature of religion—and of the secular culture he wants to succeed it.  It is the lynchpin that keeps everything together, that sets the human being completely at accord with himself or herself and with the idea of a greater human reality—the species itself.  If human beings can just flip their God-projection inside out, says Feuerbach, they can realize that they are the Deity they’ve been worshipping, and can live in sympathy and fellow-feeling, eating and drinking with a merry heart… But, at what point in their writings do Hitchens and Dawkins ever manage to spell out a similar conception of human destiny?  They probably would agree with Feuerbach—but they never had the strength or will to articulate their agreement, placing it front and center.  Their constructive project, their idea of what they wanted to replace religion, is vague—part of the background scenery.

As someone who does believe in God, in Brahman—though believing for me is a matter of seeing, as well (which is the point of meditation and prayer in Vedantic Hindu thought: the great Swami Vivekananda said, “See Christ first, and then you are a Christian.  All else is just talk.”)—I find Feuerbach helpful.  If I simply disagree with him on one crucial point—the idea that the ground of existence is material—and instead assert that the ground of existence is spiritual (thus bringing me back to the position of Feuerbach’s immediate forebear, Hegel), I can accept most of what Feuerbach is saying without losing any part of my religion.  There’s still a God—a living, creative Reality behind the scenes, Who, using the human mind as a tool, creates helpful projections and images of Deity—names and forms—which gradually guide humanity towards a transcendent apprehension of God’s undifferentiated and absolute reality, beyond the world of names and forms.  So—that’s my personal aside.

Feuerbach was an atheist who accorded enough respect to human beings to admit that anything they create—be it a painting or a comprehensive mythology—can teach us something about our own inner nature.  The “New Atheists” today lack this respect—it’s all jeers, without any qualified cheers…  Perhaps this is why they seem less relevant now than they were a couple of years ago: they mainly provide high-schoolers and college students with yet another opportunity to write obnoxious tweets.  That, on the whole, is the extent of their service to humanity.

But a more sensitive atheist like Feuerbach or Freud gives intellectual riches to believers and unbelievers equally.  Towards the end of The Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach writes, “The [human] species is not an abstraction; it exists in feeling, in the moral sentiment, in the energy of love. It is the species which infuses love into me. A loving heart is the heart of the species throbbing in the individual. Thus Christ, as the consciousness of love, is the consciousness of the species. We are all one in Christ. Christ is the consciousness of our identity. He therefore who loves man for the sake of man, who rises to the love of the species, to universal love, adequate to the nature of the species, he is a Christian, is Christ himself. He does what Christ did, what made Christ Christ.”

Even if you disagree with this, I hope you’ll agree that—considering the excessively and pointlessly combative tenor of our times (which I may have joined in a bit, penning the earlier part of this article)—it’s certainly got some soul to it… which is ironic enough, since Feuerbach didn’t believe in the literal existence of the soul.  Funny, right?