Excerpts from Toward a Positive Psychology of Religion: Belief Science in the Postmodern Era, Copyright 2010 Robert Rocco Cottone. Published in 2011 by John Hunt Publishing, Ltd., of Hampshire, UK, under the imprint of O-Books.
A POSTMODERN CRITIQUE OF ATHEISM
Atheists do not believe in an afterlife. They, like proponents of all belief systems, seek to promote a set of principles to live by: (a) believe that there is no god; (b) act as if there is no eternal life; (c) seek to communicate with other non-believers to spread the word of atheism, and (d) convince others that they should behave a certain way, not because of fear of what will happen in the afterlife, but for concern about what will happen in life. Atheism meets the criteria for a belief system. It is acting with others as if some socially defined concept (atheism) represents truth.
A postmodern critique of atheism would go something like the following. First, atheism is a universal absolute truth claim: "There are no gods" (Maisel, 2009). As with all universal and absolute truth claims, those that do not believe are viewed in a negative light. You are either with us or against us (there is no in-between with a universal absolute truth claim). So Christianity condemns those who do not believe Jesus Christ is the "only begotten son of God” (John 3:18), and Islam promises "unbelievers, the fire of hell" (Sura IX: 60), as examples. Because atheists believe that their view is scientific, and that atheism is justified based on data, they define non-believers as intellectually challenged or intellectually dishonest. They operate purely from a modernist objectivist viewpoint. Dawkins (2006), in The God Delusion, is a good example. He presents scientific "facts" as evidence of faulty belief in a deity. Dawkins obviously is not a postmodern thinker. He reifies science, and he does not understand the postmodern stand that scientific truths are influenced by the rules of the scientific community. Scientific truths exist within the context of a community of scientists, and from a postmodern perspective, they do not constitute universal truth claims (see Gergen, 2001, who makes a detailed comparison of modernist and postmodernist science in psychology). Scientific understanding, like all understanding, is within bracketed absolutes. The scientific constants in nature, from a postmodern perspective, will change, because the “constants” are not outside of the relationship to the observer; the constants are in relationship to what observers can experience. Our senses and our measurement instruments will evolve and change, and so too will what modernist thinkers hold as constants. So atheists, as a general rule, take an unyielding position on the non-existence of god, act from a stance of intellectual superiority, and criticize non-atheists as non-scientific or intellectually dishonest.
A final criticism of atheism is that it hedges a non-moral position. The science that atheists reify is a science that is supposed to be value neutral. It is supposed to be non-moral. Atheism, as a belief system, is not logically or necessarily associated with an ethical stance. An atheist, based on atheism alone, is no more right or wrong to kill and steal than to value life and the property of others. One can never know, by another's claim to atheism, whether that person subscribes to a code of ethics. Dawkins (2006) made the claim: "There is a consensus about what we do as a matter of fact consider right or wrong: a consensus that prevails surprisingly widely. The consensus has no obvious connection with religion" (p. 298). And then, Dawkins presented a "New Ten Commandments" which he believed reflected atheist morality. The first is: "Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you." The second is, "In all things, strive to cause no harm." And the list goes on. Dawkins must be kidding! The fact that he sought and presented a list of atheist "Ten Commandments," and then promoted ethical standards that are some of the most religiously established ethical principles on earth (e.g., the "Golden Rule"), identifies him as a person who is steeped in religious culture and tradition. His arguments for a moral atheism distinct from religion are less than credible. There are no secular ethics that emerge from languages and cultures that are enmeshed in religious traditions—that is the postmodern perspective. Atheism, and the modernist science at its foundation, are non-moral. So atheists who seek to align with a moral philosophy must find it in some other community, because atheism has nothing to offer in this regard. Arguments by other atheists that a moral code may be found through something akin to an individual, subjective, moral conscience (cf., Maisel, 2009) fail from a postmodern perspective, because there is no individual moral conscience in postmodern thought as presented here.
When an atheist dies, all that his or her atheist colleagues know with certainty is that his or her life is completely finished in this world. There are no alternative states of being—no heaven, hell, paradise or nirvana. There is no coming back through the lives of others. It’s over. The colleagues of the atheist know that the person no longer exists. This is their shared belief. As with all beliefs, it has validity within its community of believers.
And if the atheist suffered a harsh life, one of pain and suffering, what reason was there to live? If an atheist experiences disability, a shortened painful life due to disease, the fate of the poor and downtrodden, torture or trauma, then what hope is there? The message that he or she carries forward is “This life is all there is.” And if one’s life is horrible, then suffering is the best that one can expect. One leaves no legacy for others in pain (especially children) when the message one carries is a message of no hope beyond suffering.
Life is a one-way street. And for some of us, the street is a rocky road. Atheism leaves a legacy of despair for those who are the most unlucky among us. You live a painful life, and you die.
Atheism, although vulnerable to a postmodern critique, does have its place. It will likely be attractive to relatively healthy, secure, modernist-thinking intellectuals and those who act outside of culturally imbedded moral standards.
WOMEN, SOCIAL JUSTICE, AND RELIGION
One should ask, "What are the values at the foundation of my religion?" If one cannot answer with the concept of social justice, fairness to women and children and people of every orientation or persuasion, then one must be willing to stand against oppression within one's religion or to affiliate with other religious people who will subscribe to a socially just position. That means, for instance, that women should be full partners in religious traditions and rituals--not standing behind some wall or barrier watching or submitting to men who have taken the leadership role and continue to make oppressive doctrine. If women are not involved at the highest level of religious decision making, it is likely due to oppression of women by the religion. Women should not be second class citizens in religion.
UNDERSTANDING POSTMODERN RELIGION
I have completely made the switch from viewing individuals and their concerns from the perspective of the psychology of the individual to viewing them as relational. I no longer see people (as odd as that may sound). When I look at someone, I see the embodiment of his or her parents' biological relationship. I see all of his or her social relationships reflected in dress, language, dialects, grammar, attitudes, and behavior. I see people as extensions of their biological and social networks. I view people as perceptual phenomena for the transmission of relationships. I see right through people (not literally) to the social and biological webs that connect them in the present and the past. And I see them with all of my relationships affecting my vision. The switch has gone off. There is no going back for me. I have been affected by the postmodern tidal wave--relationships are everything, and everything is relationship.
I no longer view religion out of context. I see Jesus with his disciples embracing the ideals of the Jewish prophets. I visualize Buddha with his students arising from the traditions that came before. I imagine Muhammad with his people standing strong against aggression in the harsh environment of the Middle East. I imagine the Jewish prophets relaying their ideals to a struggling populace under rule. I see a Hindu guide communicating the message of Krishna to those who will listen. I imagine all of this because I have come to understand that truth derives from relationships.
SCIENCE AND RELIGION
Science is not about "absolute" truth. In science, truth is always from a particular perspective, and there are competing truths. The validity of a scientific truth is established by its enduring and useful application across observable phenomena. A scientific truth's veracity comes from people in relationships who apply the ideas or come together to challenge the ideas with new and revolutionary possibilities. Science, like all understanding, comes from people making distinctions and then acting around those distinctions.
The postmodern revolution provides a means for understanding that all truths are in relationships, not outside. It is irrelevant whether we make a distinction that a truth is scientific or religious. All truth involves agreement among people who subscribe to the principles of the truth and follow the principles with action. Postmodernism proposes that the distinction between science and religion is just that--a distinction. But postmodernism also holds that the interpersonal processes--the actual social activities that occur in religion and in science--are the same.
I no longer view science and religion in opposition. I think science and religion address different domains of human interaction distinguished historically by the terms "physical" and "spiritual," but they are both still within the realm of human relations. Where others distinguish religious versus scientific truth, I see only people in relationships.