To a Christian, there is nothing more frightening than the idea that he has been abandoned by God. Equally bad and no less stressful is the idea that he is beginning to show serious signs of falling away from his faith. The prospects of being burned for all eternity in hell is not one to be taken lightly! Yet, the evidence is that this is now what is happening to an increasing number of thinking people, in Europe and even in America, traditionally one of the most Christian countries in the "West". This is a point made by Ronald Aronson, in his book, Living Without God: New Directions for Atheists, Agnostics, Secularists, and the Undecided (2008) (LWG)
Aronson is the author or editor of 9 books, including Jean-Paul Sartre: Philosophy in the World (1981), The Dialectics of Disaster: A Preface to Hope (1982), After Marxism (1995), Camus and Sartre (2005) and is distinguished professor of the History of Ideas at Wayne State University. Peter Steinfels of the New York Times has this to say about the book: "If the label 'new atheists' has been accorded to a fistful of polemicists who set out to counter in-your-face religion with in-your-face atheism, then Ronald Aronson must qualify as something different: a new new atheists, perhaps...For Mr. Aronson, [Living Without God] is not the ideal of an autonomous individual striding confidently into the dawning future but the drama of an interdependent humankind...knit into networks of natural environment, historical legacies, social institutions and personal relations." His book is also praised by Cornel West, Professor of Religion and African American Studies, Princeton University: "As a Christian, I applaud my brother Ronald Aronson for his powerful defense of a courageous and compassionate secular world view. He is a religiously musical atheist I admire."
To Aronson, who prefers to call "secularists" all atheists (those who affirm that God does not exist), agnostics, skeptics (disbelieving but less certain), humanists, unbelievers and freethinkers, such secularists have been "living under the spell cast by resurgent, aggressive, fundamentalist-tinged religion" for the past generation and been "a timid minority, voiceless, on the defensive, routinely derided).(LWG 3-4) until 5 authors broke the spell and the taboo, "Don't speak ill of Religion": Sam Harris (End of Faith 2004 & Letter to a Christian Nation 2006), Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell 2007). Richard Dawkins (God Delusion 2007), Victor Stenger (God: The Failed Hypothesis 2007) and Christopher Hitchins (God is Not Great 2007). To him, Harris "excoriates religious moderates" for providing cover for fundamentalists at home and abroad by refusing to contest the extremists' premises which they share; Dennett places religion into a "natural" context which then enables it to be critically examined, just like any other natural phenomenon; Dawkins "bulldozes his way through every major argument and a great many minor ones for religious beliefs", whilst Hitchins "wittily and relentlessly catalogs religion's crimes and absurdities," showing that American secularists have become tired of "becoming a quiet, apologetic, invisible minority" (LWG 5). It wasn't always like this. In the 1920's and 1930s, people flocked to hear Clarence Darrow, which Variety described as America's No. 1 attraction, someone who'd proudly announce "I don't believe in God because I don't believe in Mother Goose".
Aronson says that since the 1960s, "the personal and wonder-working Judeo-Christian God grew less and less plausible to modern and sophisticated people" because religion has been undermined by "urbanization, science, higher education, individualism and materialism of consumer society" and become increasingly "irrelevant.". (LWG 6). God suffered an "eclipse" and became an almost "anonymous God" and in the April, 1966 edition of Time magazine, there was a cover story' "Is God Dead?" at about which time John Lennon's song "Imagine" climbed to the top of the pops chart, expressing the common longing for "no countries to kill or die for" and for "no religion, a world without heaven or hell, nothing above us but the sky" . However, according to sociologist Alan Wolfe, religion has made a remarkable come-back in the last two decades so that roughly "as many Americans accept the Bible's creation as they do evolution" (LWG 8). "Despite repeated defeats in the courts, efforts are continuing to permit teaching creationism--now recast as 'intelligent design'--in public school biology classes. The barrier between church and state has been growing more porous and church-driven campaigns have narrowed abortion rights and confirmed discrimination against homosexuals as public policy." (LWG 9). The Republicans has harnessed this political energy and made evangelicals its core supporters by opposing stem-cell research, gay marriage, abortion rights and asking for government funding for religious schools or faith-based social programs and appointing conservative judges.(LWG 9).
Americans were told the fib that "virtuously all" of them are "religious" ie. 90% of the population. Aronson asks how that can square with the 30 million adults ( or 14-16% of the population) who describe themselves in a recent poll as "without religion" or one in six Americans who say that religion is "not important" or the one in four Americans who declare themselves as "spiritual but not religious" or the same number who declare themselves "atheists, agnostics or "would prefer not to say" from different surveys? (LWG 10). This is how, Aronson explains: The Baylor Religion Survey (American Piety in the 21st Century) which bills itself as "the most extensive and sensitive study of religion ever conducted" adjusted the 30 million without religion downward by excluding those who do not belong to any religion but "believe in a God with some doubt" or "I sometimes believe in God" and "I believe in a higher power or cosmic force" as "believers". Only those who say "I don't believe in anything beyond the physical world" are NOT treated as "believers". Thus agnostics, skeptics, secularists or humanists are all treated as if they were "believers"! According to Aronson, the number of doubters and disbelievers rose from 73% to 85% amongst members of the National Academy of Scientists between 1914 to 1933 and as of 1998, 93% disbelieved in or doubted God's existence (LWG 214) According to the 2008 Pew U S Religious Landscape Survey, 16% describe themselves as atheists, agnostics and those whose "religion" is nothing in particular and of this, about 6% say they are "religious" but is unaffiliated to any religious institutions and that 56% say religion is "very important", 26% "somewhat important", 9%. "not too important" and 7% "not at all important". Aronson criticizes the figures as not having taking into account the "social desirability effect" i.e. the social psychological tendency that respondents may be reluctant to give an unpopular answer because they may appear to be "insufficiently religious.". Thus Newsweek/Beliefnet found that 24% describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious", 9% "religious but not spiritual" 55% religious and spiritual" 8% "not spiritual/religious or don't know". ie. 1 in 4 describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious". (LWG 11) According the the results of the Financial Times/Harris Interactive Survey of Europeans and Americans, which allowed respondent to describe themselves as follows" "Believer in any form of God or any type of supreme being", "agnostic (one who is skeptical about the existence of God but not an atheist)", "Atheist (one who denies the existence of God), "Would prefer not to say and "Not sure", 4% of the Americans were atheists, 14% agnostic, 6% prefer not to answer, 3% are unsure. In other words, 1 in 4 are secularists.
According to Aronson, one in six even amongst the formally "religious" regard religion as unimportant or not very important including the irreligious and we may perhaps add to their ranks those who "formally" belong to a religion but who effectively live without any active relationship either to it or to God and those who attend religious service only occasionally but who in practice live day in and day out with only token reference to God and those who are "too damn busy" to think about God. Even according to the Baylor survey, one in four Americans who "believe in God", do not believe in a "personal God", only a "distant God" that is "not active in the world and not especially angry either". They tend to think of God as a cosmic force who merely set the laws of nature in motion and as such God does not "do" anything nor does he hold any clear opinion about our activities or world events (LWG 13). He sounds like the God of the spiritualist or the deist God of "unbelievers" like Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. He concludes, that tens of millions of American secularists and the secular-minded thus help to explain the Pew Religion & Politics survey results that depending on the survey question, "15% to 49% of Americans are either secular on issues of church and state, religious but scientific minded, or troubled by the current expansion of religion in American life". (LWG 13). According to this survey, only 17% Americans want to see less religious influence on American life but a full 32% want less religious influence on American government. In 2006, 28% say that Bush talked too much about his religious faith and prayer and the same number denied that America was a Christian nation but 49% believed that Christian conservatives have "gone too far in trying to impose their religious values on the country" Thus these two "unnoticed" and "unreported" secrets underlay American society: a sizable minority of of Americans live their lives without a traditionally or organizationally defined God or religion and a significant proportions of religious and secular Americans are fed up with the politics of the American Christian fundamentalists.
In Aronson's view, both unbelievers and secular-minded believers felt themselves, despite their relative "invisibility" a coherent, essential but "beleaguered" part of American political life because they had to confront the increasingly dominant anti-scientific and anti-intellectual trend in American politics due to the influence of religious fundamentalists. But ironically, instead of advocating for more separation between church and politics, even the Democrats are wooing the electorate with their display of religious faith whilst on the other hand, the religious left are opposing the conservative Christian complicity with war and environmental damage. The increasing marginalization of the secularists is due, according to Aronson, not just to the strong religious revival empirically found but also to the weakness within the ranks of the atheists themselves because many secularists seem to have lost confidence and are unclear what exactly it is they want. Alistair McGrath, the Anglican theologian (The Death of Atheism 2004 & The Dawkins Delusion 2007) thinks that the atheists are on the defensive because they have aged, stopped adapting to the new situation and are thus becoming irrelevant. In McGrath's view, the atheists are now living the "twilight" of the great modern era of disbelief because "the religion of the autonomous and rational human being, who believes that reason is able to uncover and express the deepest truths of the universe, from the mechanics of the rising sun to the nature and final destiny of humanity, " has become less and less relevant to people's needs today. Personally, he converted because he discovered that his own earlier atheism and Marxism were "an imaginatively impoverished and emotionally deficient substitute for a dimension of life that I [he] had hitherto suppressed." and history no longer seems as "inevitable" as predicted by Marxism. Aronson thinks that the atheist's timidity and uncertainty today may be linked historically to the perceived failure of the Enlightenment idea of progress through the systematic application of human reason to materialize.To live comfortably today without God, Aronson thinks that we will have to "rethink the secular world view after the eclipse of modern optimism" (LWG 16). This is what he intends to do in the book.
Aronson asks an important question: compared to the religious enthusiasts' firm "belief in the coherence of the universe and the world, their deep sense of belonging to it and to a human community, their refusal to be stymied by the limits of their knowledge, their confidence in dealing with life's mysteries and uncertainties, their willingness to take complete responsibility for the small things while leaving forces beyond themselves in charge of the larger ones, their security in knowing right from wrong and above all, their sense of hope about the future, what has the atheists to offer? Whilst Harris may demonstrate admirable intellectual clarity in his thought by relying only on the evidence and Dawkins may speak eloquently for science and rationality against irrationality and self-delusion and both may deserve praise by their courage and tenacity in shattering the spell of religion, they have little to offer in substitution. To Aronson, "Religion is not really the issue". What is in issue is "the incompleteness or tentativeness, the thinness and the emptiness of today's atheism, agnosticism and secularism." (LWG 18) "To flourish, we need coherent secular popular philosophies that effectively answer life's vital questions."(LWG 18)
Whilst Aronson agrees that what we need is not "any substitute for religion" nor to "replace institutionalized religion with substitutes as the various forms of Belief in Progress", he thinks that "it is no less of a mistake to replace it with the belief that life's important questions cannot be answered or with a reflexive prejudice for individualistic ethics and against seeing ourselves socially." He believes that whilst we are not "part of a dominant wave of human betterment that is ineluctably transforming the world,", neither "are we adrift and alone in an absurd universe." and that "we are deeply embedded in nature, history and society in ways that give our lives meaning and impose demands on us." (LWG 19) and that "death, loss, suffering, and inhumanity forms an essential frame within which our lives take place.".
Aronson thinks that despite our efforts to transform nature and turn the earth into a habitable place, we are ruining our environment; despite dazzling accomplishment in medicine and public health, most are insecure about having adequate healthcare; despite a global economy that places the rest of the world in our own lives, our ancestor's dependence on nature has been replaced by our own economic vulnerability; despite generations of struggles for dignity and equality, the global distribution of wealth and power are fundamentally unequal and unfair etc. (LWG 19) To him, "[R]eligion consoles and offers hope and provide answers to life's most perplexing problems: It gives meaning and promises justice." His view coincides with what I have always been thinking. The roots of religion lies "not only in our deep past, our ignorance, or even in our refusal to live without myth', it lies also "in the stresses of our experience" at present.
Whilst young Marx called religion "the heart of a heartless world," Aronson thinks that we might think of religion as offering "meaning" in a "meaningless world." and "order" in an "absurd world". (LWG 19-20). He thinks that the following are the type of questions all atheists must adequately deal with: "Why is life so harsh? Where does human destructiveness come from? Why does our organized and rationalized world seem so irrational? Why, despite movement after movement on behalf of justice, is life still so unfair? Is there any reason to hope that any of this can be improved? What is the meaning and direction of human life, without God and after Progress? What are our prospects for understanding the world today? How can we act morally? How can we come to terms with the specter of our own death?" He hopes that his book will be "a kind of twenty-first century guide for the perplexed". (LWG 20) without resort to ideas like "soul", "transcendent", "spirit" and "spiritual" , saying that in so doing, he merely following the philosophic tradition that stretches back to Socrates, Plato, the Enlightenment, Marx, Nietzsche, Camus, Sartre and his teacher Herbert Marcuse.
What type of readers does he wish to attract? He says he intends his book for the "unaffiliated secularists,secular humanists, skeptics, freethinkers, agnostics and atheists--and even 'spiritualists'--who are trying to find their way through today's life issues and negotiate today's world on their own, without religion. They may also include religious people who are questioning their own direction." (LWG 22). He believes that sooner or later, people will have to develop worldviews that are coherent and consistent with their lives. He offers the ideas in his book as one amongst many possible secular worldviews.
I shall continue reading and share what I find in a later blog (s)