Steven Ramey asks ‘Can an Atheist Believe in God?’: How Labels Can Impact the Answer

A few days ago, Steve Ramey asked an interesting question.  It is an important question with lots of implications.  He writes:

Such definitions assume that one’s chosen religious identification (as opposed to an ascribed identification) correlates with belief and/or practice. This position ignores the social and political motivations for choosing a particular identification and community. For example, consider two hypothetical individuals who hold the same basic beliefs. They acknowledge the existence of a divine power that created the cosmos, but they reject suggestions that this divine power interacts with humans, a position historically labeled as deist. One of these two, having rejected religious practices as unnecessary, identifies as an atheist, thus protesting the prevalence of religious language and practice surrounding her. I can imagine communities of atheists willing to accept her into their community because their social and political interests correlate, even if their beliefs vary. Some Christian communities might similarly accept the second hypothetical person, if he wanted to participate in their community, possibly even labeling his beliefs as acceptable “doubt” within the mystery of Christian theology. Participation in the Christian community for him can provide particularly important social and political benefits that outweigh any qualms he may have with some beliefs and practices that the community promotes.

Rather than suggesting that these individuals or these communities are insincere or corrupted, these hypotheticals illustrate the diverse motivations for claiming an identification and accepting members into a community. Even the most basic definitions overlook these motivations. A self-identified atheist could easily believe that God exists.

via Can an Atheist Believe in God? | Bulletin for the Study of Religion.

A valid question with a compelling answer.  Also quite a relevant topic given the state of things; especially since this relates so perfectly with what has been going on lately with conversations about mythicism as well as how it relates to James Crossley’s new book.  But more on this in a moment.

It is no surprise that my epistemological views stem from nontheism.  I used to call myself an atheist and at one time that title fit who I was.  But now it does not. I have accepted the label ‘Possibilian’ because I feel that it more suits my position about lots of subjects, not just about the existence of a god. Why and how this happened isn’t really relevant, but it is pertinent to recognize that when I felt my views differed from that of mainstream atheism, I left that community.  That ‘atheism’ can be defined as a ‘community’ is an interested phenomenon in itself, since for so long the motto was ‘all you need to do to be an atheist is lack belief in gods’. It is telling that this motto is shallow now, moreso because there is a certain underlining dogmatism to the community which has become unfortunate.  In fact, just for saying that, I will no doubt be scrutinized by that community–partially held together by this ‘anti-dogma’ dogmatism (ironically enough).

Of course I am speaking of the American ‘atheist community’ here; a community which has otherwise been disavowed and hated in this country–that hate shed onto them has no doubt left many feeling like second-class citizens and, out of necessity it seems, social groups will develop defense mechanisms to protect themselves (and it seems that one of these mechanisms is the development of a group of qualifications for becoming a ‘real atheist’–believe it or not).  Sort of the same mechanism that has triggered the development of what it means to be a ‘real Christian’ in evangelical communities who have been shunned by the same population who despises atheists.

So it may be in European countries, where most of the population (at least 60%) are nontheists, or designate themselves as atheists, someone who would label themselves an atheist but still believes in a nonpersonal deistic god would likely be accepted (in fact, I believe this is the case).  But in American communities, such a person would likely not find a home in an atheist community, but perhaps a humanist community (which is more broad) or a freethinking community (which is broader still).  That isn’t to say there are people who don’t fit into the ‘deistic’ and ‘atheist’ mentality who are active participants, but I cannot imagine this being a standard practice in the United States.

However there is a reception history involved with the word ‘atheist’; it was a derogatory name for those who did not believe in local deities, and then in the second and third centuries, Christians were called ‘atheists’ for not believing in certain gods under the Roman empire.  Even more recently, ‘atheist’ was a derogatory term that has ugly connotations.  It has only been within the last decade that ‘atheist’ has become more acceptable as a label.  But this does raise a mind-boggling point: At one time it was completely normal for a god(s)-believer to be an atheist.

Interestingly this touches on a more pertinent question which I raised some time ago–the question of labeling and how it can directly impact scholarship (or ones portrayal of scholarship, or how other scholars view you based on labels you take, etc…).  At the time, the question raised was over terms like ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’, ‘atheist’ or ‘theist’ or ‘evangelical’ or ‘secular’ and how those terms apply to ones reception of those terms within academia.  Lately this sort of conversation has been focused on venues like ‘Mythicism’ and ‘historicism’, ‘agnosticism’ and ‘gnostics’ (pertaining to historicity issues).  I think this conversation has some relevance to the points raised by Steven Ramey.

It is such a simple concept that I am surprised that it is so generally ignored, particularly by people with an otherwise sound understanding of linguistics.  That is to say, the function of language, conceptualizing, the function of reception, cultural memory, and so forth—and how this all impacts our mental processes, in that we fabricate these mythos about others.  This is all quite relevant to what I have been saying over the past week about mythicism and especially when dealing with Thomas Thompson and myself, and those of us who toe the line.  An example I used last year in the article cited above is Jim West.

Jim West, though a Baptist and seminarian, and pastor (who, admittedly, puts people to sleep), still recognizes that:

In sum, the Bible, from beginning to end, is primarily interested in God. The stage is set in the opening verse of Genesis where we learn, “In the beginning, God….” The Bible’s aim is not to tell a historical tale; its aim is to tell a theological tale. For that reason its authors, minimalists all, recognized that their work and aim and calling was something other than to use traditions and tales for historical reconstruction. “What, when, and how” were of no interest to them at all; but “why and who” mattered supremely.

In other words Jim, like his portrayal of the authors of the Biblical narratives, has little interest (if any) in the historiographical background of the narratives.  So it may be shocking to see him putting the contradictions on display as he does, because he, like other scholars, knows full well that “contradiction” is just as anachronistic a phrase for an ancient author as was “historiography”.  Does one really believe that the author of 1 Kings was any more interested in history than the Dionysius of Halicarnassus or Josephus or Livy?  Does anyone believe they were less interested?

I think this is important, which is why I blockquoted it above.  Jim West also has the following to say:

Most ‘histories’ of Ancient Israel and Earliest Christianity are simply examples of circular reasoning. Many ‘historians’ use the Bible as a historical source; they reconstruct a ‘history’ which is often nothing more than a recapitulation of the biblical telling; and the Bible is affirmed as ‘historical’ because of the history so constructed. Similarly, the life of Jesus, for instance, is gleaned from a reading of the Gospels. Said reconstruction is named a ‘history of Jesus’ life’. That ‘history of Jesus’ life’ is then utilized prove historically the life of Jesus as described in the Gospels. One need only pick up John Bright’s History of Israel or Joseph Ratzinger’s Jesus of Nazareth to see circularity in action. True, ancillary materials are added to these histories (on the very rare occasions that they are available), but these only reinforce the circularly circumscribed reconstruction.

And you know what?  Jim West is right, but he certainly believes in a historical Jesus.  But his perspective is thus: historical reconstructions will ultimately fail because the authors were not concerned with ‘what happened’ but something else entirely.  But his view is not that dissimilar from some mythicists.  And thus if no one knew of Jim West’s background, read just what I quoted, some might assume (falsely) that Jim West doesn’t accept the historicity of Jesus.

The danger inherent in the question of labeling is that we are too quick to post up labels to people which, for all purposes, have these ugly connotations that we give them; this mythos we attach to it which is fictive—a creation of our own minds, the result of our own bias and environmental influences.  And by that, I don’t mean to say that some people aren’t deserving of such labeling (more on this in a moment), but ‘mythicism’ has become what the term ‘minimalism’ was a few decades ago: a word with these negative connotations that has, for worse it seems, been used inappropriately.  That is to say, it has been used broadly, as an encompassing force overshadowing everything.

Like the ‘red scare’ in the 1950′s, scholars are turning up ‘commies’ in the guise of Jesus doubters and nailing them to Jesus’ cross.   Some, like myself, who are caught in the crossfire (people still label me a mythicist even though I have blatantly said that I am not, nor do any of my views espouse mythicism) are disgusted; there is a mile long line of red tape that has to be cut to ‘clear our names’ of this terrible form of McCarthyism.  But it is much worse than that, in my opinion.  And I can’t help but feel empathy for the mythicist community in the same way I feel empathy for the atheist community.

What we have here is a danger of associating reasonable arguments with ‘mythicism’–the umbrella effect which takes everyone associated with mythicism and bags them up under the same easy-to-use label.  How easy it is to say, “Well that is what mythicists believe, so don’t bother listening to them” without ever once engaging a person, an argument, or even raising the question as to whether or not such a person really belongs to that label.

In the sake of fairness, it is prudent to point out that it is not just some mainstream academics that are at fault here; no, there are mythicists who are just as at fault.  Valid academic positions like syncretism, intertextuality and linguistics, avenues in myth-making, research into socio-cultural interchanges, have been hijacked by individuals like Dorothy Murdock and the Zeitgeist to fit their own agendas.

In James Crossley’s book, he does a rather extensive (indeed, excellent) job of showing the fluidity of Jesus constructs, how they change over time and depending upon ones socio-political and socio-economic position.  So it is easy to presume that everyone who accepts a single conclusion (i.e., that Jesus does or does not exist) must therefore agree with all those premises leading up to this conclusion, and this just isn’t the case.  It can’t be, or everyone would agree with one another.  There would be no dissenting views on which Jesus is the correct one.  The same can be said of mythicists as easily as it could be said for historicists (and for that matter, people like me who remain agnostic).

In my humble opinion, it all comes down to how we define the questions.  For me, the question of historicity is irrelevant.  It is inconsequential because whether or not there existed a historical Jesus changes nothing about our texts, since I don’t believe the texts tell us ‘what happened’, but were written for some other purpose (sociopolitical, theological, philosophical, exoterical/esoterical, or a combination of those)—what are the texts if they are not histories?  That is the question that interests me.  I am saddened that this perspective however is often associated with mythicism.  I must stress this: recognizing the limitations of our texts is not the same as denying a historical Jesus existed.  They are two separate discussions about two separate questions (or groups of questions) and they only relate to one another in the way that the Hebrew Bible relates to Ugarit.

But this is what makes my point so vital; by casting a sheet over everything that hints at the possibility that Jesus’ historicity is in doubt—even questions that don’t directly interact with historicity—we limit sound critical inquiry.  As scholars should try to prevent this from happening, I request that instead of using these umbrella-definitions where they may not apply, scholars instead directly engage the arguments, using terms like ‘mythicism’ only when and where they directly apply, wherein the terms are clearly laid out and defined and there is no confusion.

For example, I would argue that many scholars would define ‘mythicism’—within a secular/atheistic construct—as the direct denial of historicity of the figure of Jesus.  That is to say, that someone flat-out suggests that Jesus didn’t exist.  I’m sure there is no disagreement with this definition (or maybe there is, but that might be symptomatic of precisely what I’m talking about).  This definition suggests a form of denialism latent within mythicism and I would even support this definition given some minor caveats.

But if we accept that, then we must also accept that there may be people out there who either doubt historicity to an extent (i.e., they have good reason to not be certain of the historicity of Jesus) or they simply don’t care either way.  Or maybe they feel that our evidence is so constricting that it cannot give us an adequate answer.  Or maybe they are reception theorists who feel that whether or not a historical jesus existed is completely irrelevant because the reception of our texts is different based upon the reader, and thus no definitive answer can be given—and is also irrelevant.  These individuals wouldn’t fall under that category of ‘mythicism’.  They’re just scholars who are not persuaded by the assertion ‘Jesus certainly existed’—which in my humble opinion is about as dogmatic an assertion as ‘Jesus never existed.’

To bring this around, I believe that what Crossley is getting at in his book and what Steven Ramey is talking about comes down to defining our terms and, more importantly, understanding them in their socio-political climates.  Jesus is a figure that has always existed within sociopolitical climates since the first century CE (which, aside from our textual data supporting this, are best shown through artistic portrayals)—as a Jewish magician, wand in hand, raising Lazarus from the dead; as a Jewish Orpheus painted on the walls of synagogues; as a member of the Roman elite, with a clean-shaven face and curly hair and a toga; as an Anglo-Saxon; as a Germanic figure; as a Celt with red facial hair; and so on.  There is certainly a movement within secularism which is trying to subvert historical-critical scholarship and textual-critical scholarship by removing the figure of Jesus from the past—but as Crossley demonstrates this is not only a secular phenomenon.

Like asking whether an atheist can believe in god, and taking into account the various sociopolitical factors that have a role in such a question, we must also ask ourselves if someone can have different perspectives on the historicity of Jesus—or even on the value of that question—and not be thrown into camps like ‘historicist’ and ‘mythicist’.  Even historical Jesus scholars don’t talk about some unified ‘Jesus’ figure, but they define specifically their Jesus: the Aramaic-speaking Jesus, the Hellenized Jesus, the magician, the apocalyptic, and so on.  All of these Jesuses, as Crossley demonstrates, exist within a sociopolitical framework, even if some of these are more plausible than others.  So too it is with mythicism, with agnostics, with those who don’t identify with any label but find comfort in taking something from everything.

I believe these labels have some use—we cannot do away with labels all together—but we should limit the power they have in academic discourse.  Too much emphasis on broad labeling can have consequences—it can isolate good arguments, good scholars, by misidentifying them.  If we accept too strongly our own mythical fabrications of one another, we will continue to talk past each other and scholarship will shrink down to a point where ‘us vs. them’ is all it is about, leaving no room for growth.

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5 Responses

  1. Labels are usually cognitive shortcuts. They get us into problems when we lose fact of what the shortcut is short-cutting and then all sorts of confusion happens. In complicated discussions I always find it’s best to play “Taboo” with certain conflict words. Imagine what would happen if we taboo’d the word “mythicist” or “historicist”? The problem I see with “mythicist”, as far as I know, is that there isn’t any one consistent definition of what that means from person to person who uses it. I bet if we taboo’d the word we’d get a whole range of descriptions with very little overlap.

    For example, if I taboo the word “atheist” I usually end up with “someone who acts as though no god exists”. This probably describes a bunch of self-designated atheists but might also describe some deists, pantheists, agnostics, etc. On the other hand, this might not fit the description of an atheist who goes to church and fully participates in his or her Christian community.

  2. This is quite a blog post Tom! I enjoyed every minute of it.

    It seems to me that the entire history of Christianity can be placed under the rubric of “defining our terms.” And yet, somehow, those terms remain elusive from one generation to the next.

    A.) I very much like the idea that “mythicism has become what the term minimalism was a few decades ago” It speaks very well about the role of labels and how they shift and move through time.

    B.) A sublime point:

    “In my humble opinion, it all comes down to how we define the questions. For me, the question of historicity is irrelevant. It is inconsequential because whether or not there existed a historical Jesus changes nothing about our texts, since I don’t believe the texts tell us ‘what happened’, but were written for some other purpose (sociopolitical, theological, philosophical, exoterical/esoterical, or a combination of those)—what are the texts if they are not histories? That is the question that interests me. I am saddened that this perspective however is often associated with mythicism. I must stress this: recognizing the limitations of our texts is not the same as denying a historical Jesus existed. They are two separate discussions about two separate questions (or groups of questions) and they only relate to one another in the way that the Hebrew Bible relates to Ugarit.”

  3. [...] Steven Ramey asks ‘Can an Atheist Believe in God?’: How Labels Can Impact the Answe… [...]

  4. [...] Thomas Verenna interacts with Steve Ramey’s article “Can an Atheist Believe in God?”   (See also Political Jesus, Can Atheists Be Pastors?) In related news, Verenna’s book is out, ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus.  It is a collection of essays edited along with Thomas Thompson.  Order a copy for your school library, unless you teach at Bob Jones University (actually, order two copies if you teach at BJ!) [...]

  5. [...] an existentialist.   That doesn’t mean I don’t have an edge.  What it does mean is I just find labels to be useless.  Even the labels I used above have connotations that I don’t agree with or [...]

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