The Obfuscation of the New Atheism | Dr. Jose Maria Yulo | December 31, 2007
"No man who is in fear, or sorrow, or turmoil, is free, but whoever is rid of sorrows and fears and turmoils, that man is by the selfsame course rid also of slavery." —Epictetus
"Men invent new ideals because they dare not attempt old ideals. They look forward with enthusiasm, because they are afraid to look back." — G. K. Chesterton
It has been the position of the current generation of atheism advocates (apologists does not seem the appropriate term), that belief in a transcendent divinity is not necessary for the development of a human system of ethics. Here, there is present an unspoken rebuttal to those who would argue that morality, as conjured in a space and time beyond transcendence, beggars most, if not all, likelihoods. As a substitute for a divinely inspired source of revelatory morality, the abovementioned advocates stress the theme of "human solidarity," the nebulous phenomena which is produced ex nihilo to promote the survival of the tribe and species. Crucial to this idea—one which bases itself on "scientific" analysis of the human condition—is the study of that condition within the landscape of human civilizations.
At an end of the semester Western Civilization class, and after many months worth examining Hammurabi's Code, the strategies of Alexander at Gaugamela, and the republican Roman virtues of Marcus Cato the Elder, I assigned a final primary text to be read and discussed: the New Testament's Sermon on the Mount. Ostensibly, the lesson was to walk through Christ's response to two major historical themes from antiquity. The first of these was the ancient law of reciprocal justice that was established in Babylonian law as elucidated by Hammurabi. The second was the seemingly inexhaustible lineage of would-be conquerors, who, like the Homeric Agamemnon, sought to gain the world regardless of both physical and metaphysical prices paid.
As most will probably surmise, Christ's admonition toward Pharisaic behavior extends as well to the Mesopotamian root of such concentration on legality for legality's sake. If righteousness beyond "that of the scribes and Pharisees" is called upon and necessary for salvation, then one may ask the question, "what is so un-righteous about following and keeping to the law?" Though Hammurabi will make mention of ensuring "the strong not preying upon the weak," his legal entity appears more punitive than redemptive. If considered a lawful society, Babylon certainly was not egalitarian in its prohibitions and punishments, since slaves and nobles did not receive equal reciprocal justice for the same offenses. An individual could technically keep to the king's and city's laws all his life, yet at the end of life not be considered righteous.
As C. S. Lewis made mention, there is a special infernal quality particular to the Pharisee, or "spoiled saint"—the individual whose lawful adherence degenerates to disdainful pride. In a bitterly ironic sense, if an ancient code of laws (for the sake of argument not divinely inspired, but necessitated for tribal survival) arose out of purely human need, its built-in checks to offenses actually lead to further human estrangement: a society with neither hope or solidarity.
In sacrificing Iphigenia at Aulis, the Mycenaean High King Agamemnon charted an oft-repeated course in the history of world conquest. Yet, if queried, he would probably defend his actions with the sentiment that the search for empire is actually for society's betterment, to spread a shared civilization throughout worlds known and unknown.
In this vein, Alexander sought to promulgate Hellenism as its champion, only to be later waylaid by this urge. Caesar followed the lead of the ambitious Lucius Catiline, who lusted beyond the balance of Rome's republic. In order to avoid Catiline's mistake in warring against his own city, Caesar split its population in two political blocs, winning the urban poor by seeking foreign conquests. The pax romana, where Virgil commanded Rome to "rule the nations with thy sway," may have spread a form of unity through Roman civilization. Yet this peace was initially won by sword and fire, hardly agencies promoting solidarity.
In contrast to the paradigm of Roman strength came the meekness and poverty of spirit spoken of in the Beatitudes, qualities not seeking to overcome, but rather to unlock. In laying down the earthly pride which, desiring power seeks dominion, true solidarity is forged by acts of mercy, humility, and charity.
But the topic that easily garnered the most attention in the class and generated spirited debate was a seemingly unlikely product of the Beatitudes. Christ warns His followers that they would be "persecuted for righteousness' sake," at the very least an intriguing notion. If the followers of Christ begin laying down the temptation of Agamemnon and all of those cut of the same imperial brocaded cloth, how could this lead to them being subject to ostracism, today often performed by the atheism advocate du jour?
The responses were not long in coming. The last tolerated prejudice was so because of a variety of causes. There was the apparent ubiquity of Christianity's flawed representatives. From picketers at armed forces funerals, to mega-church millionaires, there were abundant surpluses of straw men for this line of criticism. Next, came the hypocrisy which today's brand of congenital cynicism automatically assumes in persons of piety. Since those who aspired to the heavenly city were "just people," their rhetoric and practice of self and worldly denial became objects of mockery for the flippant humor which today is society's mark of sophisticated intelligence.
Two points of irony were soon evident in the midst of the Socratic discussion. First, by the vigorous explanations, or justifications, as to why Christianity is thus treated in today's culture, this only served to prove the two millennia-old Beatitude right. There need not be any rationalization for the ostracism of a societal group if said ostracism was not taking place at all.
Second, if Christianity is vilified because of some of its prohibitions, as well as its aspirations, then one must accept what the British philosopher Roger Scruton said regarding societies whose chief value was tolerance. In such societies, "it is vital to prohibit the prohibitor." However, this sentiment is not only illogical but ambiguous enough to descend to the immoral. Agamemnon conquered because, simply, he could. So did the Athenians at Melos. Isolating the Christian ethos betrays a similar paradigm; the absence of a moral framework begetting justifications for power. Along Socratic lines, in the absence of truth, strength prevails.
Lastly, there remains the clever obfuscation of today's advocates of atheism. As the Athenian sophists in mock piety charged Socrates with worshipping gods other than those of the city (while they in truth worshipped nothing), these authors claim Christianity is a source of division while they themselves perpetuate backhanded ostracism. The story of Western Civilization tells us that such souls, confused of where to search for righteousness or disavowing such an idea and its source, are seldom if ever satisfied.
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Atheism and the Purely "Human" Ethic | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Is Religion Evil? Secularism's Pride and Irrational Prejudice | Carl E. Olson
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C.S. Lewiss Case for Christianity | An Interview with Richard Purtill
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The Universe is Meaning-full | An interview with Dr. Benjamin Wiker
The Mythological Conflict Between Christianity and Science | An interview with Dr. Stephen Barr
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Jose Yulo, Ed.D. teaches courses on philosophy, western civilization, United States history, and public speaking at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. He has a Doctorate in Education from the University of San Francisco, with an emphasis on the philosophy of education. He also holds a Master's degree in political communication from Emerson College in Boston, as well as a Bachelor's degree in the classical liberal arts from St. John's College in Annapolis, MD.
Originally from Manila in the Philippines, his research interests lie in Greek philosophy, the histories of Greek and Roman politics and warfare, and the literature of J. R. R. Tolkien. He has written several articles for IgnatiusInsight.com.
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