Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Nobodaddy's Last Stand

William Blake, a Christian himself, albeit a highly unconventional one, called the jealous, judgmental, anthropomorphic god of Western tradition “Nobodaddy,” surely one of the cleverest verbal constructions ever made. He is Nobody, because he is silent and invisible, and Daddy because he lords it over us as the first father of patriarchy.

I have written elsewhere of God as a metaphor for the “self” or “subject” of the world, and how this poetic identity between existence and experience validates the inherent necessity of conscious life, especially in the face of death—or rather the human awareness of death, which created that struggle for meaning unique to our species.

But this understanding of the metaphorical nature of theism has become practically irrelevant in terms of the social and political problems posed by god-based organized religions. The relationship of the soul to a personal god or gods has a purely subjective value. The supposed relationship of a personal god to the social order, on the other hand, has consequences that have everything to do with the wielding of power and almost nothing to do anymore with personal experience.

Nietzsche was the most important critic of Christianity, and of theism in general, because he evaluated it in historical, cultural and political terms. The rationalists of the Enlightenment, such as Voltaire, Hume, and Thomas Paine, criticized Christianity primarily in terms of logic, disproving the logical arguments for a god and exposing the logical absurdities of scripture and church doctrine. The present-day leaders of atheist or skeptical thought, such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, seem to follow mostly in their footsteps rather than Nietzsche’s, defending reason and science from the irrationalism of religion. They often display a lack of interest in the complex phenomena of religion and spirituality, and talk as if merely demonstrating the illogic of theistic arguments will change people’s minds about God. They seem to think that religion is a mere superstition like being afraid of the number thirteen, or not walking under ladders.

Nietzsche attacked the Judeo-Christian God as a metaphor for a social order that hated nature and life, and that posited a second “other” world by which human beings would be effectively controlled. This potent critique has often been misrepresented or ignored. I don’t think it’s complete, and my view of the spiritual impulses within Christianity is more favorable in many respects. The important thing is that Nietzsche criticized theism from the standpoint of what it sought to accomplish in terms of social, cultural, and political power, rather than as a merely abstract thesis to be logically refuted.

Nobodaddy has many faces; too many to enumerate here. One of the most important is the all-seeing eye. God sees everything—not only everything you do, but everything you think and feel. It’s like having your father looking over your shoulder, forever. A sort of double consciousness is developed in which the person not only experiences life, but imagines another being, usually a male authority figure, observing him while he experiences life. Fear of this being, who has the power to punish and reward in this life and after death, will supposedly motivate you to behave morally, i.e. however morally is defined in your religion.

It’s not as if some group of evil priests got together and decided to propagate this belief in order to control people. The belief is very ancient, and it helped human beings work together in larger groups. The social order, including the priesthood, was gradually formed in alignment with it. When human consciousness was narrowly focused on the collective, the belief in the all-seeing god wasn’t that much different from the general belief in social cohesion itself. But as the human ego gradually developed, with a broader self-awareness that included a heightened awareness of private thoughts and feelings, the sense of being watched by an all-seeing god became more problematic and ultimately more oppressive. The contradiction between self-motivation and motivation through fear of authority became more acute, and that contradiction continues to cause problems down to the present day.

For one thing, Nobodaddy as watcher failed to create a moral society, because at some level people could not believe that any being could possess omniscience, and because the moral values propagated were so various and arbitrary. It turned out that Nobodaddy was only against killing in certain cases, but in other cases it was sanctioned. His negative attitude towards sexual behavior, as well as many other natural functions, tended to be both cruel and self-destructive. In mythical terms, the interest of the creator of all things in the petty concerns of human interaction came to seem more and more ridiculous. The personality of God, if you will, displayed the fussy and obsessively narrow concerns of his human acolytes, in a way that belied his supposedly divine and cosmic nature. In short, God’s nature as a projection of human thoughts and desires becomes more evident over time, even if only subliminally.

Theism has often purported to provide meaning for events and circumstances by saying that there is a divine plan. Although the higher levels of religious thought had long questioned this simplistic notion—even many centuries before the Book of Job—it has stubbornly maintained its popularity. Here we are confronted with the famous “problem of evil,” the solution to which always involves a contradiction, if one assumes an all-powerful and benevolent personal Being. The “divine plan” line of thought was part and parcel of the historical God, Nobodaddy as the architect of history. The apostle Paul’s rhetorical contortions explaining why Gentiles could inherit the promise of the chosen people is a striking example of the lengths that religious people can go to in trying to make sense of historical events in terms of a plan. Unfortunately, anyone can play this game, interpreting history in terms of prophecy or vision, and of course, anyone does. The simple truth staring us in the face—that history is an abstraction that only offers conditional lessons, and that injustice does not represent a mysterious higher good—is too painful to admit, since it removes all possibility of a divine plan and knocks down the house of cards set up by religion to justify whatever the social order might be.

We are left with ourselves, which is no contradiction for a mystic, but is outright treason to organized theism. The duality of self and other has been reified by religion into the duality of the mortal human being (a sinner) and the Being who created him, rules over him, and requires submission to his laws, as spelled out in the scriptures and interpreted by the religious leaders and experts.

As the social order has become more repressive in the modern age, political structures have brushed aside all but the most strictly authoritarian forms of religion. In the 20th century, the Nazis, Stalinists, and Maoists relied on submission to authority without reference to any metaphysical entity, at least not overtly. The democracies give lip service to religious principles while demonstrating their true allegiance, which is to capitalism and imperialism. Fundamentalist versions of Islam and Judaism gain greater influence in the Middle East, while the more liberal factions and sects are made ineffectual and irrelevant. Fundamentalist Christianity is encouraged by the American ruling class, and continues to struggle for dominance of the American sociocultural landscape through its political influence. Where are the liberal forms of Christianity in the current American political discourse? They are marginalized, partly because of their own integrity in refusing to breach the church-state wall of separation.

Fundamentalism is the doctrine of Nobodaddy stripped of almost all efforts towards the development of subjective spiritual experience. The fundamentalist is allowed to feel righteous and superior without any of the work involved in self-questioning or self-improving. Only adherence to the authoritarian rule book is required. The true expression of fundamentalism is not a relationship to God, but an antagonistic relationship to those outside of the fundamentalist group. The fundamentalist Nobodaddy spends all his time judging and condemning those who are different from the idealized standard of the core group, and he fumes and obsesses over those who, like homosexuals, deviate from the norm.

It is in this context that we must view controversies between theism and atheism, or religion and science. God has developed primarily into a tool of destruction. It is now simply a flag or banner for patriarchal domination. The atheist argument, then, is an argument against the principle of domination and its attendant violence and repression. The religious people of the world need to wake up and acknowledge that the authoritarian metaphors have failed and are invalid. God as king, God as punishing authority, must be repudiated. Meanwhile, Nobodaddy makes his last stand on the ramparts of fundamentalist hatred. The alternative, whether personalized or not, is a spirituality and ethos of non-violence and love.