Pragmatizing God

Despite appearances, the whole topic of atheism is extremely tedious to me. I’m struggling to pay attention to it because the discussion brings out some interesting ideas, but most of the issues seem fundamentally irrelevant. I think the question of the validity of atheism, and of the New Atheism in particular, is primarily political.

For the last three centuries US and English Christians have tried to broaden their appeal by moving away from the person of Jesus Christ toward a civic religion centered on an inchoate, Unitarian God-principle and professing a set of objective, practical moral values. This made sense politically, because it pleased a wide variety of religious people and allowed wiggle room for secularists. However, it has inevitably led to the conclusion that by simply removing the impersonal, featureless, abstract “God” from the discussion, one can keep all the benefits of traditional society while aggravating religious enemies.

The secularization and homogenization of “God” accelerated when “God” was incorporated into the Pledge of Allegiance, various populist anthems such as “God Bless America,” money, and license plates. Personally, I like those things as part of my secular culture, but they have helped to dilute “God” until now survey respondents seem to be completely confused about who or what “God” is, what to do with him, and why anyone should care. This unknown “God” is also acknowledged by Intelligent Design theorists, who posit a creator that they cannot identify. This has nothing to do with Jesus Christ or the Bible.

This also leads to folks like Vox Day advancing various pragmatic defenses of generic religion based on psychology, history, and sociology. Basically, Vox’s arguments are indistinguishable from those of a pantheist philosopher such as John Gray, a sociobiologist, an anthropologist, or any ambitious demagogic politician in the world. I think this is a valid assessment of the natural human condition that shows how ridiculous and short-sighted the New Atheism really is. Sadly, however, it has nothing to do with Jesus Christ, who spent most of his time ridiculing religious people.

When God is pragmatized, he becomes essentially dispensable. This point must be conceded to the New Atheists. What they don’t seem to realize is that, since religion is a natural human function, outspoken atheists will always be in the minority. Practical atheists merge with religious doubters and lukewarm churchgoers to make up the apathetic majority; however, the historical trends always favor religious sentiment. This is good news for Christmas decorations and televangelism, but has nothing to do with Jesus Christ.

It is all very well to jump on various moralizing crusades to form society into an image of 1954 small-town America, but most of these crusades have nothing to do with Jesus Christ. So, conservative Christians in the US should not be surprised if their next president has a Jeffersonian view of Jesus mixed with some 19th-century Social Gospel, even if he comes right after a president who consciously manipulated public opinion by using nonsectarian religious metaphors and pop eschatology.

It is a reflection of the genteel pragmatism that constitutes the civic religion in America: the mindless genuflecting to a commodified, patriotic, feelgood, middle-class “God” who is stuffed with straw and burned by phony radicals. But this same straw god was being worshipped by the phony Christians before it was burned, so I say good riddance to him.

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