Topic: God and US
Religion: Tales of the eBay Atheist
Slavoj Zizek is the international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities and the author, most recently, of The Parallax View (MIT Press) - "The Parallax View not only expands Zizek's Lacanian-Hegelian approach to new domains (notably cognitive brain sciences) but also provides the systematic exposition of the conceptual framework that underlies his entire work."
Indeed. Something to read with a stiff scotch in the evenings.
Now the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, an offshoot of the University of London, located in Bloomsbury, was formed in response to a simple question - "What have intellectuals ever done for the world?" The question angered them. So they do research and write and hold seminars and all that sort of thing. And they explain things.
In the Tuesday, March 14 edition of the International Herald Tribune (Paris) Slavoj Zizek argues something quite unpopular - Atheism Is A Legacy Worth Fighting For.
Oh my. He jumps right into it.
The item had appeared in the parent publication of the International Herald Tribune, the New York Times, two days earlier here, but the Times requires registration so the Paris link is best if you want to see what he says in detail.
In short he argues that the there is a tradition of atheism in Europe (really) and those who work from that grand tradition are those who should be running things. The believers have messed things up. Step aside -
What about that? A good idea?
Zizek covers the basic Dostoyevsky thing - if God doesn't exist, then everything is permitted and we're in a world of hurt. We need God to keep us from being so awful. He even mentions André Glucksmann's "Dostoyevsky in Manhattan" where that French philosopher argues the same thing - nihilism is the problem and what happened in New York on that September morning in 2001 was the result of us living in this world where people pay lip service to God (for many "lip service" is what you attend on Sundays) but all values have been drained away. Everything is permissible - no one is serious about God and so on.
Zizek says that whole idea is just wrong, in fact, it couldn't be more wrong -
Ah! The logic here is that fundamentalists do what they identify as "good deeds" in order to fulfill God's will and to earn salvation. In contrast atheists do good deeds "simply because it is the right thing to do."
Zizek argues this is "our most elementary experience of morality." Specifically - "When I do a good deed, I do so not with an eye toward gaining God's favor; I do it because if I did not, I could not look at myself in the mirror." You know. You don't need God. And he cites David Hume - the only way to show true respect for God is to act morally while ignoring God's existence.
It seems he talking about "taking personal responsibility" in an entirely different way than the Republican evangelical right does, and far differently than the American "economic conservatives" talk about it when they argue for eliminating most if not all social programs to force the disabled, unlucky, poor and uneducated to force them to "take personal responsibility."
Much of what he writes is, however, about matters in Europe - that business a few years ago about whether the preamble of the European Constitution should mention Christianity. It does, but it's only a reference to the "religious inheritance" of Europe, and what makes modern Europe unique, Zizek notes, is that it is "the first and only civilization in which atheism is a fully legitimate option, not an obstacle to any public post."
Yes, no one in America could get elected dogcatcher if he or she were an atheist. That's just the way it is. Only the godly need apply, or at least those who say they are.
Of course the irony Zizek plays with is that in Europe, where what you believe is your own business and not a matter of public record and thus not a qualifier or disqualifier for any office, this "creates a safe public space for believers." Build a cathedral, build a mosque. Your business. Just observe the rest of the laws and pay your taxes. The government has too much else to deal with. It's busy with the other stuff - monetary policy, roads and schools, pubic safety, national defense and all the rest. The leader may be a devout Mormon, or openly gay as are the mayors of Berlin and Paris. What does it matter? They have their public work, and they do it well or they don't. What they do off-hours is no one's business.
And this plays out, oddly, in the recent Cartoon Wars with the outraged Muslim crowd -
Now, there's something to think about. Or this week you could go to Naples -
Hedonism, reason and atheism in Naples? Sounds like fun.
That's almost as much fun as what ran in the Wall Street Journal on March 9th - Atheist Gives Churches A Chance To Win Him Over.
Here Suzanne Sataline reviews the details of the DePaul University graduate student, Hemant Mehta, an atheist, who offered his soul for sale on eBay. It went for five hundred and four dollars, which seem to be the going rate. Well, he wasn't really selling his soul. He just promised the winner that for each ten dollars of the final bid he would attend one hour of church services. He said he suspected he had been missing out on something. His pitch? "Perhaps being around a group of people who will show me 'the way' could do what no one else has done before - this is possibly the best chance anyone has of changing me."
We're told lots of evangelists bid, to "save him." Atheists bid to keep him on their side. The winning bid came from Jim Henderson, a former evangelical minister from Seattle, who had a third motive -
Yep, he's one of those "out of the mainstream" types who doesn't understand Christianity has changed and become militant and vengeful, and he flew to Chicago, met the grad student in a bar, and told him what deal was going to be. Yeah, it was supposed to be fifty hours of church, and the church the winner named. Henderson said he'd rather this atheist went to services at an array of churches and write about what he saw and heard for Henderson's website. The five hundred dollars? This grad student heads something called the Secular Student Alliance, with fifty-five chapters around the world. The Secular Student Alliance could have the money if this atheist would do basic reporting for the website - "I'm not trying to convert you. You're going there almost like a critic. If you happen to get converted, that's off the clock."
Cool, and Hemant Mehta was told to score the priest or minister - from one, boring, to ten, "off the charts." The first Catholic priest got a three.
There's a ton of detail at the link, like this -
Well, He (or She) might - you never know. And if you want to read the commentary it's at the off-the-wall site in its own section, The eBay Atheist.
Well, that's mildly interesting, but this is not Zizek's Europe, where what you believe is your own business and not a matter of public record and thus not a qualifier or disqualifier for any office.
Belief here has a political and public dimension, and it being discussed in terms of the 2006 mid-term elections and the 2008 presidential election. The question for "the opposition" is much like what was asked in the last go-round. Should any Democrat running for office go all religious to strip votes away from the Republican who will, no doubt, claim to be a godly soul who was born again (something didn't take the first time?) and accepts the avenging Jesus who hates the poor in his heart. Maybe you can grab a few votes by being pious and angry.
But the left often makes fun of such God nonsense. They heap scorn on the "God is with me" evangelical Republicans. Some say that's not fair, or not right, or a bad strategy.
One of the most influential commentators on "the left" (whatever that is), says this -
Give respect to the non-faithful? That's not going to happen. This is not Europe.
Duncan Black adds this (emphases added) -
Man, it is hard to deal with what some of us think is a private matter, but we do live in the last great western theocracy.
Atheism may or may not be a legacy worth fighting for, but the question is why anyone cares what this or that politician believes. Is the person in office getting things done that need done? Whether he or she believes in The Flying Spaghetti Monster, Jesus, The Great Pumpkin, or The Holy Manhole Cover - as interesting as that might be it matters little.
But then, here it matters. This is not Slavoj Zizek's Europe. This is America, the mirror of the caliphate the other side says is coming.
Those of us without deep faith, on either side, should pour a scotch and read all about this Lacanian-Hegelian approach to new domains (notably cognitive brain sciences). We don't matter.