Blogging Orthodoxy continues with:
Chapter 6: The Paradoxes of Christianity
There are chapters of Orthodoxy that require a certain amount of self-examination, especially for Christians. So it’s ironic (and a bit relieving) that The Paradoxes of Christianity has very little to do with Christianity itself. More its opponents. Though one can learn quite a bit about a creed from its enemies, there are problems with this approach. It is often easy to set up straw men that ultimately illuminate nothing. Here, I think Chesterton avoids the pitfall by making the examination of atheism autobiographical. Like many in the church (myself included), Chesterton knows the opponents of Christianity since he had for so long been among them.
The Paradoxes of Christianity documents how Chesterton’s own disillusionment with atheism was achieved through many of the inconsistencies of its adherents. Certainly all creeds, including Christianity have their fair share of hypocrisy. But in the attack on Christianity, Chesterton notices a particular frenzy of critiques whose inconsistencies are not so easily explained. The critics seem less interested in damming the faith for a particular vice than using any given vice as a reason for objecting to the faith’s very existence. As Gilbert writes: It looked not so much as if Christianity was bad enough to include any vices, but rather as if any stick was good enough to beat Christianity with.
Of course the disorganization of the opposition does not make Christianity necessarily right. But the nature of the atheist objections suggest a quality in Western anti-theism that cannot easily be explained by the skeptic narrative. There seems to be a strong desire to replace Christianity with a brand of secular humanism. Atheists, by in large, seem to have less a problem with Christianity’s qualities than Christianity’s place at the heart of Western ethics. A place atheism itself would like to occupy. In fact, there seems an underlying conspiratorial quality in the endeavor of modern anti-theism. It is less a argument for the abolition of the monarchy and more a battle to replace the sitting king with a rival claimant.
But strangely enough, as Chesterton is quick to notice, even in victory, atheism seems unable to make use of the crown it has pried off the head of the Christian Church. It is, as if, once the king had be dethroned, his detractors remained orbiting the empty throne each unwilling to take the seat themselves and yet unable to continue as they had done before. Once again, the situation would not immediately support the original claimant, but it would make any onlooker ask himself some very particular questions about the rightness of the original conspiracy to unseat the monarch.
I know many cradle Catholics in the reading group who have never left the faith; whose Catholicism comes handed down in an unbroken chain since the 6th century. Needless to say, they got very little from The Paradoxes of Christianity. Still, I have long had a difficult time in general communicating to people with no experience of apostasy. Just as for Chesterton, the experience of non-belief was so central my journey that it remains very hard to discuss without a similar frame of reference. But I digress, while I can’t speak for others in the group, The Paradoxes of Christianity seemed to perfectly encapsulate my own experience with unbelief. It certainly wasn’t clear to myself why faith had a place in modern life without an involved experience with atheism.
I have often wondered how anyone could get through their adolescents without questioning faith. I certainly couldn’t. Even setting aside the numerous rules and miracles that my adolescent-self so detested, I remember rebelling against religion’s sonorous and self-righteous tone. The stiff wording of “thou”, “sin” and “heathens” seemed antithetical to critical thought and I was certain that, regardless of any incidental wisdom contained in Christian doctrine, no original ideas could be communicated in the laborious language of the Bible.
For seven years I remained an agnostic. However, as the years of the second Bush administration drew to a close, I found it more comfortable to identify with a kind of atheistic-skepticism popular to students of the sciences. I liked the cool attitude of de-bunkers like Penn Gillette and the increasing insatiable violence displayed by Islamic radicals in the wake of the Danish cartoon scandal solidified my opinion that faith was either soft-headed, violent or, very likely, both. I felt, more than ever, that what was needed was a strong skeptic movement that could confront the sloppy thinking of Christianity and the violent indifference of Islamism.
It was in late 2006 that my hopes were answered by the emergence what would soon be called the New Atheist movement. Richard Dawkins published the God Delusion and this book was followed swiftly by similar fare by Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. Naturally, I devoured these tomes, but, in spite of my hopes, I was deeply disappointed. In place of a reasoned skepticism I found the most simplistic arguments against faith I had heard since my years in Catholic middle school. Perennially fascinated by every misdeed of the Catholic Church, the atheists had blinders over any atheist massacre from Mao to Robespierre; all the while failing to elucidate any positive principle that could separate them from past atheist failures. Even from my anti-theistic perspective at the time, the objections from Dawkins and Hitchens seemed tainted with a kind of poisonous vain glory only found in tirades against rival religious groups.
But, despite being negative, it was, quite ironically, hard to determine what the New Atheists were against in principle. Fundamentalism to be sure, but beyond flogging the specter of Intelligent Design (which had been dead for years) or the Religious Right (which had been in decline for decades) the atheists, with possible exception of Christopher Hitchens, made only mumbled objections to the Islamic violence that had gripped the world between 2005 and 2006. The silence was made even more ironic in the wake of Pope Benedict’s address at Regensburg where a pontifical call for religious peace was criminally mangled by Islamic Clerics to sponsor an anti-Christian pogrom in the Middle East. Eagerly I awaited push back from the skeptic leaders. However, despite being the news regularly, Dawkins had no words against Islam, only condemnation for the Pontiff who at the time was making every effort to procure a reasonable end to the violence.
Here I found myself in much the same place as G.K. Chesterton a century earlier. The atheist hypocrisy was so glaring it could not easily be explained by skepticism. If Dawkins were upset with religious violence generally, why the focus on the crimes of Christianity? I had to ask myself whether the atheist objections were in fact more political than principled. The relative silence of progressive atheists towards Islam had the same cynical undertone of the infamous non-aggression pact between the USSR and Nazi Germany. It seemed Atheism was less a new idea than old rival faith seizing an opportunity to displace the ruling creed. For both radical Islam and radical atheism, eliminating Christianity was the first step in securing their dominance. Their rival in this endeavor, however detestable, could be ignored.
The problem only reemerged later when, attending a debate on God, I was able to talk to some of the new atheists converted in the wake of Dawkins book. I must confess that the interaction only confirmed my worst suspicions. In addition to voicing only the most juvenile stereotypes of believers (a group I was not yet associated with), the atheists seemed enthralled by a sort of magical thinking all their own. I met a group who sincerely believed that if religion were abolished (and here they meant Christianity) a new golden age of science would immediately erupt; a sort of atheist messianic age. I even met an atheist who, upon hearing a discussion of death, un-ironically commented “By the time I’m eighty death will likely be cured. I expect to live forever”. Atheism, it would seem, had its own millenarian afterlife. Once again none of these absurdities led to my reconversion, but I could feel many of my distastes for the old traditions creaking in their foundation.
One night, having these very frustrations much on my mind, I retired with a book of short stories. Clumsily thumbing through the volume, I chanced on a preface citing Psalm number two and written in the long archaic tone of the King James Bible. This time however the language, instead of offending, gave voice to my frustration. The old speech made the words ageless and carried with it the brevity of an avenging prophecy. The Psalm reads :
Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?
At that point no answer was forthcoming, though, like Chesterton, I was following quickly down the path of something greater.