Wednesday, March 9, 2011

"Practical Atheism" is bull!

I hear this now and then - the claim that most people who call themselves Christian are "practical atheists". The reasoning is that people call themselves Christian, but they don't go to church very much at all and tend not to make decisions in their lives necessarily consistent with their church's teaching. Ergo, they call themselves Christian, but in practice they act like atheists.

Frankly, I think this is bull. In fact, I'd be tempted to say that most people - even self-described atheists - tend to be practical theists. They act as if there are objective moral standards, even if they violate them at times or disagree on those standards. They act as if life has purpose beyond what we personally assign to it. They act, even think, as if the future is something more than oblivion. Put another way, a person may be a practical atheist in one situation or with regards to one attitude, but a practical theist in another situation or attitude.

Though the truth would be that labeling people as 'practical atheists' or 'practical theists' seems useless for the purposes of gauging actual belief, inclinations, and potential. It's a way to roughly and imperfectly evaluate one aspect of a multifaceted query.


J N said...

I think the bible describes those people as Laodiceans.

I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17 You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.

Revelation 3v.15-18

Crude said...

Laodiceans? That could be fair.

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

I think a better term might be practical polytheists. Have you seen the clip of Bill Maher interviewing that 'renegade' priest, the Vatican Latinist, for "Religulous"? (Maybe an extra clip not in the film itself.) The priest notes how a survey of Romans listed Jesus as fourth deity they seek for help. I'm not talking about deifying saints, as Protestants would like to imagine, but about the existential meaning of idols. Having little gods for little goods is what polytheism is all about. Jesus might then be like Zeus for a lot of Christians.

As for practical theists, I think in the best cases they belong in the category of pious pagans, which the Church has long discussed.

I believe I recall reading Pope B16 referred to many Christians as practical atheists and Karl Rahner has a famous-ish quotation about how in the future, the only choices will be to be an atheist or a mystic.

Crude said...

"Practical polytheists" would be fair too, as would the category of pious pagans. My only point would be that pious pagans and practical polytheists are many things - but atheists ain't one. Or to put it another way, you don't have to be a Christian to be a theist, something it seems a lot of people manage to actually forget.

A greater point I'd have is not only are a number of Christians 'practical theists' rather than 'practical atheists', but so too would be a number of atheists. My own anecdotal experience is "scratch an atheist, find a deist". And insofar as what little support popular atheism has derives from its faux-worship of science - and insofar as science is praised almost entirely due to its connection to technology - the trend of the *irreligious* towards deism at the very least strikes me as inevitable.

RD Miksa said...

Good Day Crude,

I could not agree more with your comment that when you "scratch an atheist, you find a deist." This has been precisely my experience as well. And this fact, interestingly enough, provides strong credence to the claim that atheistic objections to theism are primarily moral, rather than intellectual or evidencary. Indeed, a strong argument could be made from this fact, in order to show atheism as a moral rebellion to religion, rather than a rebellion of a different type.

Finally, it is simultaneously interesting that these are the same reasons that paganism/neo-paganism is so attractive to the modern Western man. You get all the "spirituality" required, as well as have your religious impulses fufilled, without the binding or restrictive moral code that traditional religion requires. And this, to sum up, is why the transition from atheism to paganism is so easy, natural, and almost inevitable. Which is why we will see the more secular countries start to revert back to their very old paganistic roots in a number of different "quasi-pagan" ways.

Take care,

RD Miksa

IlĂ­on said...

"... and insofar as science is praised almost entirely due to its connection to technology ..."

And, almost always, the technology comes first, while the 'science' to "explain" (and sometimes improve) the technology comes later.

Crude said...

Indeed, a strong argument could be made from this fact, in order to show atheism as a moral rebellion to religion, rather than a rebellion of a different type.

I'd be tempted to go further and argue that it's not even a rebellion to religion, but it's one religion versus another. Or at least that view can be taken, especially in light of Dan Dennett trying to pass off communism as a religion or proto-religion.

But yes, I often suspect paganism is what's coming, moreso than atheism. Granted, paganism in some new forms - I think the transhumanists are just the latest version of a very old religion, for example.

RD Miksa said...

Good Day Crude,

You said:

"But yes, I often suspect paganism is what's coming, moreso than atheism."

As much as atheists may wish to deny it, human beings are spiritual creatures, and as such, actual atheism (meaning materialism) will never be sufficient to fulfill the spiritual need that human beings have. Therefore, the next best thing is paganism: easy, flexible, and personally-adaptive. It is the natural fit once atheism becomes empty.

Next, you said:

"Granted, paganism in some new forms..."

Absolutely, and this is again the appeal of paganism: it is always changeable and transformable into whatever you personally want it to be. Paganism is a shifting religion, and that is why it is so appealing, for ultimately, it is morally easy and permissive.

Take care,

RD Miksa