On the Death of America’s God

One of the many things that Jim and I share in common is the fact that we are often assumed to be Christians because of the serious (I’m tempted to say reverent) way in which we approach questions of God and morality in discussions with believers.  As an atheist, you get much further in discussions about any particular religious puzzle when you bracket the BIG question of God’s existence in favor of the smaller questions that arise when you grant the assumption that the Bible (Quoran, etc.) is Divinely-inspired.  People are more interested in having a discussion about belief with you when you don’t start by taking a jackhammer to their epistemic foundations, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise to me that thoughtful Christians might use the same tactic in order to facilitate productive discussions with non-believers.  Still, I was somewhat shocked to come to the end of this essay which decries the shallowness of many Americans’ faith and concludes that “America’s god is not the God that Christians worship” only to find that that it was written by a man named the “Best American Theologian of 2011” by Time Magazine.

Stanley Hauerwas’s essay, “The Death of America’s God” is not one of the most philosophically persuasive pieces that I have read this year.  He makes at least a half-dozen assertions that I find questionable and a few more that seem plainly wrong.  That being said, his thesis is fascinating, and I find his predictions almost perversely exciting.  Moreover, it is genuinely comical that a man who is so thoughtful and observant as a social critic seems so plainly lacking in self-awareness when it comes to his own beliefs.

Hauerwas’s core assertion is that Americans view the relationship between God and Justice differently from the rest of the world.  His thesis is that America’s faith in God is threatened by America’s crumbling faith in the Justice and/or intrinsic Good of our society.   His prediction is that the current political climate will force a reformation of the Protestant Church.

I think much of Hauerwas’s characterization of American thought is roughly correct.  Politicians in other developed countries usually do not get elected by talking about their personal relationship with God, but in the U.S., politicians are more likely to be perceived as trustworthy and honest when they claim to have submitted their will to an all-powerful entity with whom they have a deep, interactive relationship.   Hauerwas is right that most Americans believe that they have free will, that freedom is the quintessential element of a just political system, and that this is unproblematically compatible with belief in and submission to an omniscient, omnipotent god.  I don’t know how we could possibly assess the causal direction between faith in God and faith in Justice/Freedom, but obviously Hauerwas is also right that Americans have a tendency to see these things as interconnected.

So, now to the fascinating-if-unprovable thesis:  Are we nearing the point in history where the failures of our political system will force a religious reformation?  I am skeptical.  I don’t think that revolutions of any sort occur just because people realize that the institutions they trust to make their lives better are founded upon false principles and full of corruption.  I think revolutions only take place when those institutions are so dysfunctional that they no longer provide people with enough protection/peace/order to justify their existence.  Still,  the idea that our religious institutions actually depend upon other types of American faith – faith in democracy, faith in freedom, faith in the basic virtue of the common person- in order to promote faith in God is really interesting.  And Hauerwas’s prediction that our crumbling political order will force a religious reformation seems urgent even if it so vague as to be ultimately unverifiable.

Hauerwas takes the standard historical account of how the Protestant Reformation and Enlightenment spawned the American Revolution and folds it back over onto itself.  According to this narrative, the failure of European Catholicism created the foundation for American democracy (and whatever it has become today), but the failure of American democracy (and, of course, by that I mean the failure of modern-corporate-oligarchy-disguised-as-republicanism) will bring about the decline of American Protestantism.   This is exactly the sort of analysis that I would expect out of a Marxist or someone who believed in historical inevitability, but I wouldn’t expect it from a theologian because the tacit implication here is that most Americans’ faith has nothing to do with God’s actual existence and everything to do with cultural affectation.

Hauerwas may be a Christian, but his assessment of American religious life as shallow, contradictory, and cultural (rather than considered) is as damning as anything an atheist could write.  I expect that Hauerwas’s own beliefs are more theologically-sophisticated and perhaps better justified than those of his American Protestant peers.    But there is still something deliciously ironic about the fact that Hauerwas knows that most people believe in God for bad reasons -his entire argument depends upon it- and yet he holds his own faith up as a solution to this problem, concluding with his hope “that God may yet make the church faithful.”   I don’t know if Hauerwas is correct that American atheists are not interesting because “the god most Americans believe in is just not interesting enough to deny,” but I am certain that his argument is more interesting because he is a believer.

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Terrorism, Humanitarianism, and Political Ideology

Recently, I have been thinking a lot about the overlap between political ideology and religious dogmatism because of a book review that I read. The book, The Terrorist in Search of Humanity: Militant Islam and Global Politics, draws some parallels between suicide bombers and Western humanitarians by arguing that the men and women who are inspired by Al Qaeda view Muslim suffering as a humanitarian cause and Jihad as a kind of activist justice. I cannot comment upon the quality of the argument because I have not read the book, but I find the thesis fascinating and eerily astute. It also has given me pause to reconsider the question of why people commit acts of mass killing for moral reasons.

Value is arational. We judge the rationality of a person by asking whether his actions are a good means of realizing his stated ends, but ends themselves cannot be evaluated on the basis of rationality*. I have assumed in the past that suicide bombers are irrational because their actions are motivated by some belief about God, God’s will, and/or Divine reward for righteous action. I have reasoned that it is irrational to calculate that suicide will yield a great reward in the afterlife because there is no good evidence for an afterlife, nor for an interventionist God whose will we can know and serve. The crucial point here is not that it is irrational for suicide bombers to value their service to God more than their own lives, it is that they have no good reason to believe that suicide will serve God. That is what makes the act irrational.

In contrast, I have generally refrained from labeling the acts of political martyrs as irrational. This is because the stated goal of many political martyrs is to change some state of affairs in the empirical world. They calculate that their deaths may save the lives of many others, help to promote some noble political cause, or create some positive legacy attached to their names in history, and they value this expected state of affairs more than their own lives. There is nothing irrational about political martyrdom, provided the martyr has good evidence that his death will promote his desired end.

Faisal Devji observes that many of the Al Qaeda suicide bombers who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks did not regularly attend mosque, nor did they conceive of themselves as particularly devout religious followers. Devji advances the thesis that these men viewed themselves as champions of a humanitarian political cause -justice for the Muslim world- rather than agents of Divine Command. It is very difficult to separate religious value from political and cultural value in the Muslim world because they are so tightly intertwined, but Devji’s idea resonates even if the distinction between religious value and political value is blurry. If the religious suicide bomber is motivated by a desire to change the face of this world rather than an irrational expectation that he will be rewarded in the next, then he is no more rational or irrational than a secular political martyr.

I am interested in the rationality of suicide-bombers because this issue has implications for how the United States and other Western countries should approach both internal and external violence in the Muslim world. The cultural war, which is both literal and metaphorical, is often seen as a battle between the secular West and the religious Middle East, and this is in no small part due to the fact that political leaders in both the United States and the Muslim world have couched it in those terms. In response, certain Left-liberal voices in the West have taken the opposite tack, arguing that violent Jihadists and extremely oppressive, authoritarian, theocratic regimes have emerged in the Middle East as a result of the political, military, and economic imperialism of the West.

Though I find materialist analyses of political and cultural phenomena informative, these types of economic reductions fundamentally discount either the sincerity or the intelligence of people in the Muslim world by asserting that their values, including their religious beliefs, are irrelevant to their current political and cultural structures. This is a mistake because beliefs about non-material values do matter. A foundational part of understanding socio-political rules is understanding culture, and we cannot understand a culture until we understand how the people within that culture conceive of values like honor, virtue, and justice. The materialist account that conceives of religious doctrine as a mere tool and cultural and political mores a mere byproduct of the struggle for control over material resources is not only cynical but predictively inaccurate and explanatorily weak. But so too is the account that privileges religious doctrine over all other cultural and political factors. It is obvious that religious texts have a significant influence on cultural values. But, the evolution of religious doctrine -the way in which religious teachings and interpretations of the same text change over centuries- demonstrates that cultural values also exert an influence over religion.

Defenders of moderate Islam speak of it as a “religion of peace” while detractors find passages from the Quran that extol the necessity of violence. It is perfectly reasonable for scholars to debate about legitimate interpretations of a sacred text, but these interpretations (even if one is much more accurate than the other) do not explain the contemporary socio-political climate of the Muslim world any more than interpretations of the Bible have ever adequately explained the socio-political climate of the Christian world. This is a key element to understanding the culture war, and it is what makes the idea of the suicide-bomber-for-justice so intriguing.

If a young man sees himself as a part of an unjustly oppressed group that is silenced, marginalized, and persecuted by a dominate and callous enemy, he may find more than comfort in a political ideology or a religious doctrine that confirms his world view, legitimizes his anger, and gives him a sense of purpose and a chance at honor. Under those circumstances it is not terribly difficult to imagine why he might find the idea of a suicide mission to be glorious because it imbues his life with meaning, even without the promise of Divine reward.

A person’s desire for violent justice and righteous vengeance can have equally awful consequences whether it is cloaked in secular or religious rhetoric, and I do not mean to suggest that the rationality of suicide bombers is any sort of defense for their actions. But if it is their perception of injustice that causes them to commit violent acts in the name of God rather than their religious doctrine which preaches that violence is justice, then it is dangerous and irresponsible to ignore the socio-political circumstances that create this sense of injustice. The “holy war” is fought, at least in part, for political and cultural reasons. Facts about geography, natural resources, military armament, and political economy may seem indomitable and opaque, but they are quite malleable and transparent compared to the will of God. People who disagree about the division and distribution of these things can reach compromise because they share values in common and they can recognize those values in each other. Insofar as the Muslim militant sees himself as an agent of justice and not an instrument of God, we may still recognize shared values with him, and it is possible to conceive of peaceful compromises.

*Clearly, Kantians will disagree here. That is worth debating elsewhere.

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