By: Gary Conway & Brett Geisel
This regularly-occurring series trades on the notion topics of religion, especially in a theist vs. atheist context, are interesting. For those who grew up in the church and have left or happily remain immersed, the following dialogue will at some point elicit a strong response. Good. This series also intends to dispel the myth often held by textbook atheists that people who believe in God are naive, dumb, and defenseless. And, for the theists, to show not all atheists are bitter, had a bad experience in church, or are in a stage they just need to grow out of.
Many self-proclaimed intellectual atheists and genuine ones, too, are able to hold their own in arguments championing the absurdity of religion and spirituality. And many self-proclaimed theist intellectuals and genuine ones, too, are able to defend their faith using thoughtful, robust arguments. The Spectator Tribune will only narrate this conversation and ensure both parties play by one rule: No fisticuffs.
With the Christian celebration of Good Friday and Easter (the death and resurrection of Jesus) having passed this weekend we find two of the great theoretical underpinnings of Christianity being celebrate publicly: suffering and resurrection. These terms are always disadvantaged when separated. Nevertheless, I wish to offer a short definition of resurrection and ask if you feel that an atheist perspective offers a rival or viable alternative.
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Easter Sunday is the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus as narrated in the Christian Gospels, where, having been dead, Jesus is reanimated in a form that is both continuous with his previous self, but also radically different. Resurrection is one of the great hopes for individual Christians as what may be termed their hope for life after death. However, a theology of any depth celebrates resurrection as a hope for a radical power of new life in the present-one that calls us to action (for which Christians will always fall sadly short) for the transformation of this world in all its complexity. It is a term that calls us to open up the channels of radical newness that creates life, and calls into question all attempts to fulfill it. There is a real sense in which the story we tell in our Scripture and tradition is the attempt to tell of the partial and halting attempts to realize the resurrection hope in the human story.
What might the atheist have, as a critical theoretical tool, to replace the theological concept of resurrection?
I suppose the reinvention of self in an attempt to strive for betterment is all that I can think of. I myself went through a few of these before I became the person I am today.
As an atheist, I believe that humanity works towards increased knowledge both of the world around us and the more nebulous world of the mind. Through this process of discovery we are all reborn. Consider the pivotal changes made when Eratosthenes discovered that the Earth was spherical, or the first humanoid utilized fire as a tool. These types of sea changes are the resurrections that I look to as an atheist to propel humanity forward. A more recent “resurrection” would have to be the internet. This tool has provided us with a means to expand our knowledge base at unheard of speeds – if only we can get it together to use it for a useful purpose (and some already have).
While I have limited myself to scientific examples, science is by no means the only method for reinvention. Philosophy, art, law – all schools of thought and knowledge – provide a means by which we can become more than what we currently are. If used properly, these tools will allow us to transcend our wildest imaginings and become…more.
I would agree that the need to strive for self betterment should be a goal for all of us, and celebrate the advances in our technology and science. I see self betterment though as primarily a solitary pursuit, with limited political or social emphasis. This is not to say that self improvement has no political or social value, but rather that it is a secondary relationship at best. The hope being that by my self development I make the world a slightly better place. It is however hard to see any critical methodological tool for the critique of our culture, politics, law or even religion at any significant communal level.
As you noted, technological and scientific advancements have a built in ambivalence to them. Science and technology are inherently amoral, and accordingly, can be employed for the advancement of humanity or for its harm or even annihilation. This is strictly speaking not a criticism of either of these areas of human endeavour vital to the human project, only a note that they need to be considered in the greater project of human well being, and regulated accordingly. I recognize that religion has frequently sided with the defense of prevailing power or worse has been concerned with protecting the circle of power it has carved out for itself. It has also failed to be open to advancements in knowledge, and functioned for powers of bigotry and hatred, regularly failing in its critical function. I nevertheless remain convinced that theology offers a strong vocabulary for the critical assessment of all aspects of human striving, scientific, technological, cultural, political, economic, and most importantly, religious. As one of the key words in the Christian vocabulary resurrection stands for the power of new life and calls us to consider all of our ‘advancements’ in the light of full human well being and use them accordingly.
I will only rebut by saying that I see very little difference between communal betterment and individual betterment. One builds on the other in an Ouroboros of advancement. As you said, self betterment contributes to society as a whole and as society advances individuals are provided with the tools; technologically, philosophically, educationally, etc. to improve upon themselves. One cannot exist without the other, just as we do not exist within a vacuum independent of all other people around us. Everything we do can affect society, at large. And every day we are similarly affected by the world around us.
If you are interested in participating in future theist & the atheist entries, please contact Spectator Tribune at email@example.com
Brett Geisel is Winnipeg writer, father and, perhaps, atheist zealot (we’re not sure yet).
Gary Conway is a Winnipeg-based writer, theologian, and a fun guy to share a pint with.