05 April 2005

atheism and terrorism

Bicycling to work today I passed a parked car with a bumpersticker on the back that made me look twice. It read, "Atheism: A Cure for Religious Terrorism." I thought that was intriguing and raised some interesting questions.

I'm not particularly interested in the general question of atheism vs. theism that it raises, but rather the assumed narrative within which such an assertion might make sense and be presented as plausible, especially after a century so profoundly marked by the horrors of atheistic ideologies.

Of course, the message might make sense primarily within a very personal narrative peculiar to the individual whose car featured the sticker in question. But one can only speculate.

The bumpersticker presents its message, however, not merely as a private sentiment. Rather it is a public affirmation, one that is intended, within the constraints of bumpersticker philosophy, to say something that could be at least prima facie plausible to a certain cross-section of possible viewers.

So my question is what sort of presupposed narrative could provide a context within which that statement could function as plausible?

It strains credulity to think that theism or "religion" would be dismissed out of hand as the sole source of terrorism and other evils, entirely neglecting all the positive contributions that religion has made, particularly the Christian religion, including the materials from which modern notions of "human rights" and the like have emerged. Surely, whatever kinds of slavery and harm have been underwritten by religious systems, even the worst of those systems have served to some degree to restrain unruly and pernicious human desires.

Perhaps then the bumpersticker imagines a world that has evolved beyond religion, into a kind of enlightened atheism, putting aside former superstitions in favor of the achievements of reason and the progress of the human spirit. One thinks here of Sartre's description:

Towards 1880, when the French professors endeavoured to formulate a secular morality, they said something like this: God is a useless and costly hypothesis, so we will do without it. However, if we are to have morality, a society and a law-abiding world, it is essential that certain values should be taken seriously; they must have an a priori existence ascribed to them. It must be considered obligatory a priori to be honest, not to lie, not to beat one’s wife, to bring up children and so forth; so we are going to do a little work on this subject, which will enable us to show that these values exist all the same, inscribed in an intelligible heaven although, of course, there is no God. In other words – and this is, I believe, the purport of all that we in France call radicalism – nothing will be changed if God does not exist; we shall rediscover the same norms of honesty, progress and humanity, and we shall have disposed of God as an out-of-date hypothesis which will die away quietly of itself.

Even in Sartre's day, however, such an Enlightenment narrative was beginning to wear a bit thin, leaving us, as Sartre suggests, with a sense of "forlornness" as orphans abandoned to the cosmos without God.

In the wake of the Soviet gulag, two World Wars, atomic weapons, multiple genocides, and other 20th century horrors, postmodern thought has only deepened the difficulty with its growing incredulity towards the narratives of modernity. Its own critique of Enlightenment secularism indeed often opens a new space for post-secular reappropriations of religiosity, from Jean-Luc Marion's phenomenological Catholicism to the quasi-spinzosism of Deleuze or the ethical reflections of Derrida.

Nevertheless, that modern narrative still holds sway in the imaginations and thought of many and I suspect it is, in fact, the one that is assumed by the sticker's message.

Maybe I'm foolish to read so much into something as frivolous as a bumpersticker. Yet, in our contemporary culture it is often such simple items as stickers and slogans, brandnames and logos, that bear the weight of our shared stories and values, functioning almost as secular sacraments.