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March 19, 2006 - Tales of the eBay Atheist

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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 –


For centuries, we have been told that without religion we are no more than egotistic animals fighting for our share, our only morality that of a pack of wolves; only religion, it is said, can elevate us to a higher spiritual level. Today, when religion is emerging as the wellspring of murderous violence around the world, assurances that Christian or Muslim or Hindu fundamentalists are only abusing and perverting the noble spiritual messages of their creeds ring increasingly hollow. What about restoring the dignity of atheism, one of Europe's greatest legacies and perhaps our only chance for peace?


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 –


The lesson of today's terrorism is that if God exists, then everything, including blowing up thousands of innocent bystanders, is permitted - at least to those who claim to act directly on behalf of God, since, clearly, a direct link to God justifies the violation of any merely human constraints and considerations. In short, fundamentalists have become no different than the "godless" Stalinist Communists, to whom everything was permitted, since they perceived themselves as direct instruments of their divinity, the Historical Necessity of Progress Toward Communism.


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 –


... The only political force that does not reduce them to second-class citizens and allows them the space to express their religious identity are the "godless" atheist liberals, while those closest to their religious social practice, their Christian mirror-image, are their greatest political enemies.

The paradox is that Muslims' only real allies are not those who first published the caricatures for shock value, but those who, in support of the ideal of freedom of expression, reprinted them.

While a true atheist has no need to bolster his own stance by provoking believers with blasphemy, he also refuses to reduce the problem of the Muhammad caricatures to one of respect for other's beliefs. Respect for other's beliefs as the highest value can mean only one of two things: Either we treat the other in a patronizing way and avoid hurting him in order not to ruin his illusions, or we adopt the relativist stance of multiple "regimes of truth," disqualifying as violent imposition any clear insistence on truth.

What about submitting Islam - together with all other religions - to a respectful, but for that reason no less ruthless, critical analysis? This, and only this, is the way to show a true respect for Muslims: to treat them as adults responsible for their beliefs.


Now, there's something to think about. Or that week you could go to Naples


Naples, March 13 - Despite its fair share of social problems, Naples is one city with no shortage of good spirit thanks to the distinctive brio and humour of the local people .

This makes it the ideal venue for a four-day festival devoted to the serious study of 'L'arte della felicita' - the art of happiness. Philosophers, psychologists, doctors, authors and health, lifestyle and religious gurus from all over the world are coming to Naples between March 23 and 26 to discuss human contentment .

Thousands of Neapolitans flocked to the debut edition of the festival last year .

Organizers are expecting to have an even bigger hit on their hands this time .

Debates, lectures, workshops, film screenings, open-air meditation sessions and theatre performances are among the events in a packed programme .

The 2006 festival focuses on the subject of dealing with grief .

It will be kicked off with a lecture on "cynical aesthetics" by renowned French philosopher Michel Onfray, whose writings celebrate hedonism, reason and atheism.


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 –


The 58-year-old Mr. Henderson has written a book for a Random House imprint and is currently a house painter. He runs off-the-map.org, a Web site whose professed mission is "Helping Christians be normal." Mr. Henderson is part of a small but growing branch of the evangelical world that disagrees with the majority's conservative political agenda, and wants the religion to be more inclusive and help the disadvantaged.


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 –


Mr. Mehta has also been reading and critiquing church bulletins. In one, Park Community asked the congregation to pray, in advance of a coming meeting on the construction of a church building "that God would ... open the doors to the right parking solution, allowing us to build a worship space for 1,200 people, rather than the 850 currently permitted."

"Really?" Mr. Mehta observed on the Web site. "That's what you're praying for? Do they think a god will change parking restrictions? Will a god change the price of nearby property? Will a god add another level to a parking structure?"


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


I wonder who all the religious candidates we've unfairly scorned in the past would be? Jimmy Carter? Bill Clinton? (and no, having affairs does not mean you are not religious, just a sinner.) Al Gore? John Kerry? They all go to church and profess to be believers. Are they just not religious enough? ...

I recall scorning both Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon and neither one of them were particularly religious. Bobby Kennedy was a youthful hero and he was as Catholic as they come. In fact, I'm having a hard time coming up with any consistent views on either side toward religious politicians at all. It would seem to me that this entire argument is nothing but a political football used to shut down criticism and advance a particular agenda without having to debate the issues on their own merits.

... Every secular "knee jerk liberal" has voted for religious candidates their whole lives. Indeed, it is impossible not to. You cannot get elected in this country if you do not profess religious belief. We have enthusiastically backed candidates who are from every religious tradition and from every region. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were both born again, southern evangelicals. We do not scorn religious candidates, period.

Many of us knee-jerk leftists are hostile to those who want to use the state to dictate the proper social attitudes of its citizens and interfere in their most personal, private decisions, that's true. I would scorn Pat Robertson and Sam Brownback's ideas no less if they were secular. It's the lack of respect for the division of influence between the private and public sphere's that is causing the problem.

And as for hostility, let's not forget that it was back in 1988 that a future president of the United States said this -

President George H. W. Bush: I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.

Who scorns who again?

Perhaps some of these religious politicians could speak to the flock about giving some respect to the non-faithful. It's the Christian thing to do.


Give respect to the non-faithful? That's not going to happen. This is not Europe.

Duncan Black adds this (emphases added) –


I'm not hostile to religion. I don't much care about religion. I'm not much interested in it. This isn't strange. Most people aren't much interested in religion other than their own, if that.

I'm not sick of religious people. I think it's great that they're free to believe and practice their religion in any way they want. I'd like to keep it that way.

I am sick of people who keep claiming that the Democratic Party is hostile to religious people and controlled by secular liberals who are hostile to religion. If by "Democratic Party" you mean "some people who post anonymous comments on the internet" you may have a point. Otherwise, the idea is ludicrous.

Do the Democrats have a perception problem about religion? Sure. We have a political party which has been claiming to be God's Own Party for decades. We have a mainstream media which equates Christian with Religious Right most of the time, and news anchors who don't think liberals can be 'good Catholics.' We also have some left-leaning Christians who seem to think this perception problem is due to hostility to religion by secular liberals who have no public presence. I don't understand this. People who perpetuate right wing talking points about Democrats always piss me off especially when they have no basis.

Secularism has essentially no representation in our media or politics. I'm sure there are secular politicians and media types, but few discuss it. No one gets on TV or writes newspaper columns or in any way participates in our contemporary mainstream political discourse and praises secularism or atheism or anything similar, and certainly not in a way which denigrates religious beliefs generally. Advocates for the separation of church and state are not advocating secularism, aside from government secularism, they're simply trying to defend freedom of religion.

Can Democrats appeal to evangelical voters by doing X? Sure, and they can appeal to [insert voting bloc here] by doing Y. The question is can they do so without alienating lots of other people or compromising their principles. Maybe they can. I have no idea. But that's politics. I'm happy to hear about ways to reach out to religious voters, though not being a politician it isn't actually my job to do so. If people vote Republican because they perceive some guy on the internet with no actual official relation to the Democratic party in any way is insufficiently deferential to their religious beliefs then I'm really not sure what I can do about that. I don't really require people to be deferential to my beliefs.

Moderate/swing/independent voters respond to personal charisma and the perception that somebody "knows what they stand for." You know, spine, backbone, etc. I'm sure some genuinely religious politicians can use their faith to help send this message. There are lots of other politicians who can find other ways to do so.

From a policy perspective I'm personally not really interested in compromising on sex or reproductive rights in order to get votes. As with every other issue of course messaging can be improved, though I'd rather focus on getting the "pro-choice for me but not for thee" crowd to understand that they are, in fact, pro-choice whether they know it or not rather than talking about how icky abortion is. I don't know why the public face of religion in this country is concerned with almost nothing but sex, but I'm not really sure those people can be reached.

As with Democrats who constantly fret that they aren't seen as "tough" enough, people who fret that Democrats are not "religious" enough simply reinforce the perception without improving it.


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.

Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik

The inclusion of any text from others is quotation for the purpose of illustration and commentary, as permitted by the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law.  See the Legal Notice Regarding Fair Use for the relevant citation.
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