The Puritan Iconoclasm of New Atheism

Three and a half centuries after the treaty of Westphalia ended the bloody religious wars that plagued Europe during the late 16th and early 17th century, religious fanatics are again threatening to undo the progress of Western civilised society, the achievements of science, the Enlightenment and liberal democracy. Such is the charge of the 'new atheist' movements of which Michael Onfray is but one example. Onfray's self-confessed task is to rekindle the Enlightenment, to shine 'Atheology's dazzling light' on the tyranny and darkness of monotheism. And in just 219 pages, Onfray exposes 4000 years of evil and darkness perpetrated by the three monotheistic religions - or so his Atheist Manifesto claims.

There's a YouTube clip floating around of representatives from the Christian right, gathered around the bronze Wall Street Bull, gathering ... wait for this ... to pray and lay hands on the Wall Street Bull and 'ask God to begin a shift from the bull and bear markets to what we feel will be the "Lion's Market" or God's control over the economic systems. While we do not have the full revelation of all this will entail, we do know that without intercession, economies will crumble.' Such was the call put out to the faithful to gather on October 29th, 2008, designated - Day of Prayer for the World's Economies, put into action by Cindy Jacobs from The United States Reformation Prayer Network.

The fear of fundamentalist violence that drives Onfray, and the curious image of worshipers laying hands on the Wall Street Bull, may seem two unrelated images to start a presentation. Yet both violent fundamentalism and capitalist forms of Christianity are representatives of uniquely modern, innovative and pragmatic movements that Karen Armstrong argues have a symbiotic relationship 'with an aggressive liberalism or secularism'. Karen Armstrong in her books The Battle for God and the more recent publication The Case for God has quite a bit to say about fundamentalism. Significant in terms of this paper tonight is her claim that the 'new atheist' reaction to violent monotheism, such as that of Onfray, belongs to the same category of 'fundamentalism. That is, new atheism is as fundamentalist as the forms of religion it denounces. Armstrong claims 'new atheism' is the mirror image of the uniquely modern form of 'rationalized' religion. Like their fundamentalist theist counterparts, new atheists believe they alone are in possession of truth. Mirroring their counterparts, they read scripture literally, mine it for simplistic 'moral teachings' and have a 'literalist' idea of God where God is the Supernatural Designer. Both parties exaggerate their enemy as the epitome of evil, both are theologically illiterate and both claim there is only one correct way of interpreting reality. And like their counterparts, the new atheists have rejected toleration. Similar to the unorthodox form of fundamentalist faith, the new 'secularisation' of reason, declares Armstrong, turns reason into an idol that destroys all rival claimants.

It is this lack of toleration and a puritan pursuit of 'reason' that I likewise find most disturbing in the new 'evangelical fervour' of modern forms of atheism. John F. Haught, Senior Fellow in Science and Religion at the Woodstock Theological Centre at Georgetown University, describes the new atheism as 'cognitional and ethical puritanism'. New atheists, says Haught, are so confident of having unimpeded access to truth and ethical rightness; they can make a complete break from the intellectual and moral impurity of religious faith that has so bedevilled human beings in history to date. Haught argues that both intellectually and morally, the new atheistic Puritans promise to ground humanity in a rationality cleansed by science.

Notice the keywords used by Haught: the 'new atheist' claim for truth or 'right knowledge' and ethics or 'right practice', intellectual and moral purity and the cleansing of impure faith through the practice of Science and Reason. In my paper today, I want to explore what the drive to this new 'puritanism' entails, where its historical roots lie and what, if any, alternatives are available for those who do not wish to join the new age of evangelical fervour and moral cleansing.

I suggest the puritan character of the new atheism is representative of a longer historical project that has married truth to reason, word or logos in an attempt to fully rationalise being human or human being. Certainly some have seen it as a continuation of the Enlightenment project, but I think it is also representative of an even earlier human thinking, grounded in religious imagery. Haught describes the new atheist movement as representative of a struggle between two ancient religious ideals: the puritanical and the incarnational. I think this is also reflected in a second struggle which finds its religious expression in the clash between 'iconoclasm' and 'iconodulism'; where the Puritans are iconoclastic in their relation to truth, and the iconodules find truth in incarnation.

Iconoclasm, Greek for image breaking, is the deliberate destruction of religious icons in one's own cultural tradition. Iconodulism involves the veneration of icons. The Greek translation is - one who serves an image. The historical opposition is between those who venerate images and icons, and those who are against the use of religious images. The clash between the two is something of importance to theology, but also says something of the way human beings relate to truth.

Let me try to elaborate on this.

The puritan iconoclast places great emphasis on Transcendence, Truth and Thought. There have been a number of iconoclastic periods, most famously, the Byzantine iconoclasms between the 8th and 9th century. But I want to focus on the great iconoclast of the 16th century, the Reformer John Calvin (1509-1564) who devoted three chapters of the first book of his massive Institutes of the Christian Religion to the issue of icons. Calvin's motive for his iconoclasm stemmed from a concern for true knowledge of God.

In his book, God is not great, Mr Christopher Hitchens despairs of the millions who grovel and wallow in their unworthiness, who require priests, hierarchy, doctrine, sacrifices and ceremonies, who live with relics and worship images and objects - 'how much effort it takes to affirm the incredible!' exclaims Mr Hitchens.

How much effort it takes to affirm the incredible! Indeed, said John Calvin - 'it is perfectly clear that those who try to defend images of God and the saints with the example of those cherubim are raving madmen. What, indeed, I beg you, did those paltry little images mean?'

For Calvin, it was impossible to visually depict God who is invisible and transcendent. Calvin's own emphasis on the Bible as the only basis of knowledge of God leads him to exclude images or art of any kind as a way of coming to know truth. The Calvinist and later Puritan emphasis on the written word of God in favour of images of God led to a unique Protestant church and faith. Protestant churches are often devoid of art, with plain interiors, focussed on the pulpit and the power of preaching.

But iconoclasm is not limited to religious expression. It is often wedded to political revolutions and attempts to overthrow perceived entrenched occupational powers. The Netherlands, my country of birth, underwent widespread Protestant iconoclasm in the summer of 1566 before it became a sovereign nation. In fact, the Beeldenstorm, or destruction of statues and images, instigated the war against the Spanish occupation and the Catholic Church that lasted no less than eighty years, and ended only with the recognition of Dutch sovereignty at the Treaty of Westphalia. Protestantism and iconoclasm is an integral part of the formation of the Dutch nation-state. The English Puritans followed in the iconoclastic footsteps of the earlier Reformers and became a powerful movement in England during the English Civil War, and with their emphasis on intellectual and moral purity, Puritans were also the first exports to the 'New World'. Cultural iconoclasm can also be seen in the destruction of political and cultural statues, such as what took place during the French and Russian Revolutions, or in recent years, following the 'liberation of Iraq'. Indeed, the Oxford English dictionary gives the wider definition of an iconoclast as any person who breaks or disdains established dogma or conventions. I suggest new atheism is iconoclastic in this sense. Yet, as Armstrong has already indicated, perhaps modern fundamentalist movements are equally 'iconoclastic' as they pursuit the destruction of what they perceive is the false idol of 'secularism'.

I think the problem lies in a concept of 'truth' that is found in some nebulous sphere of 'Reason' or an abstracted 'Word of God'. This leads into a kind of intellectual and moral puritanism that destroys both the false and the possibility for true images of invisible truth, or a truth beyond our human knowing or reckoning. In this kind of puritanism, the image, the art, or the practice of life is subjected to the higher qualities of invisible and spiritual truth. Right belief or right dogma becomes the basis for being part of the believing community. A true scientist cannot 'believe' the stories told in church in her 'other life' as a practicing religious person. A true evangelical Christian cannot 'believe' the theory of evolution in her practice as a scientist. And after the breaking of the idols in the external or epistemological world, comes the inquisition of the internal or moral world of the human being. The interiority of the soul or human psyche becomes vulnerable to the gaze of Puritan believers and rationalists alike.

For Karen Armstrong modern fundamentalism is a symptom of a sick society infatuated with logos. Armstrong describes logos or reason as a pragmatic mode of thought that enables us to function in the world and corresponds to external reality. Logos has brought us the world of scientific rationality, economy, technology and capital investment. Armstrong argues that because logos is forward looking and dynamic, the modern scientific period began to discard the mythologies of the past as superstition and an impediment to progress. I have already indicated earlier that the Reformation was also decisive in this change, both theologically and technologically. With the birth of the printing press, the printed page itself became an image of precision and exactitude; it spoke to the importance of accuracy and efficiency - leading to the cleavage between symbol and the knowledge or logos. The modern infatuation with logos has led to all forms of fundamentalism, religious and atheistic.

According to Armstrong, the cure for this ailment lies in a rehabilitation of modernity through mythos, a tradition found and nurtured in the mystic traditions of all religions. Armstrong emphasizes that mythos and logos have had different fields of competence, and when they are confused, the result is bad science and inadequate religion. It is this confusion that has led to the current polarization of reason and faith. According to Armstrong, the opposition can be mediated by returning to mythos as a way of knowing the divine and being human in the world.

The art of religion is the practice of mythos; religion and mythos marks the limits of logos. The limit of logos is that it cannot make sense of the rich inner life of human beings - the pain and sorrow, the contraction and tragedy of human existence. This is the realm of mythos, rooted in the unconscious mind and what Armstrong calls an 'an ancient form of psychology' that, unlike logos, was able to address the tragedy of human existence. Myth is intuitive, expressed in religion, art, music, poetry or sculpture; it looks back at the beginning and provides a 'conservative spirituality'. Like music, religion is a skill that requires practice, discipline and hard work until it becomes a part of us. According to this analogy, the modern age has become tone deaf and has lost the art of religion. Mythos functions as a therapy and can be found in our own religious tradition, particularly in the Eastern Orthodox tradition of negative or apophatic theology. Apophasis - Greek for 'denial' or 'to say no', takes the utter transcendence of God seriously. God himself is completely incomprehensible; therefore language and rational concepts cannot be a way to know God. Silence is the only way to 'understand' or 'stand under' the divine. Armstrong describes how the silence of negative theology affirms the radical otherness of the divine. This, in turn, brings humility to humanity and fosters compassionate action in the world. In this way, negative theology can act as a therapy for a neurotic modernity.

Using Armstrong's idea of a return to mythos through the example of 'apophatic' or 'negative' theology, I want to contrast the iconoclastic emphasis on Transcendence, Truth and Thought with the concepts of Incarnation, Image and Imagination that is part of the practice of religious life for the iconodules, those who venerate icons.

The Eastern Orthodox Church with its theological focus on Incarnation led to a form of worship mediated by images, of which the icon is the most distinct. The theology of icons rests on two premises, the first is emphasised by Armstrong and leads to 'unknowing or silence' - 1) That God is utterly transcendent and unknowable. The second is not mentioned by Armstrong, but equally important in terms of Eastern Orthodox Theology - 2) that God's transcendence has been bridged through the Incarnation - the Image of God in which his likeness is revealed. This provides the basis for the vernation of icons: The idea of Christ the Incarnate as a true image of God. The veneration of images, thought the late 7th century Syrian monk, priest and polymath St John of Damascus, demonstrates faith in the Incarnation where the unseen God had made himself visible in matter. Uniting both the transcendent or unknown God with the Incarnation of God, painting an icon was therefore a profession of faith. Christ became Incarnate, wrote the Eastern Orthodox Maximus the Confessor, so that 'the whole man should become God, deified by the grace of God-become-man, becoming whole man, soul and body, by nature, and becoming whole God, soul and body, by grace.' For Maximus the Confessor, God and humanity became inseparable.

According to Armstrong, 'unknowing' or 'apophatic' thinking has returned to the West in the twentieth century in the wake of the First World War. For Armstrong, it is the modern physicists who returned unknowing to modern consciousness and who are evidence that human beings seem structured 'to pose problems for themselves that they cannot solve, pit themselves against the dark world of uncreated reality and find that living with such unknowing is a source of astonishment and delight.'

Alongside the physicists, Armstrong contends, it is the post-modern philosophers and theologians who return mythos to its rightful place and have set out to rediscover the practices, attitudes and ideals that were central to religion before what Armstrong calls, the birth of the 'Modern God'. And it is these postmodernists that attempt to overthrow the grand narrative of the omnipotent and omniscient God, and the deification of logos that

gives rise to the equally absolute totalizing claims of atheism. As John Caputo states,

'If modern atheism is the rejection of a modern God, then the delimitation of modernity opens up another possibility, less the resuscitation of pre-modern theism than the chance of something beyond both the theism and atheism of modernity.'

John Haught is a theologian who likewise returns to a language that precedes the modern split between transcendence and incarnation, or between reason and matter. For Haught, God is not a hypothesis that can be abstracted from the contingencies of natural and human history, including concrete events, images, symbols and metaphors that arise from culturally, geographically and historically contingent experiences of actual human beings. Haught argues God has always been known through images, including images from nature.

For Christopher Hitchens, his own conversion to atheism began as a result of an encounter with woman of simple and sincere faith - Mrs Jean Watts, his teacher in nature and scripture. Hitchens describes her as a marvellous teacher until the day she over-reached herself - seeking to fuse her two roles as nature instructor and Bible teacher when she said - 'So you see, children, how powerful and generous God is. He has made all the trees and grass to be green, which is exactly the colour that is most restful to our eyes. Imagine if instead, the vegetation was all purple, or orange, how awful that would be.' This caused the first crack to appear in the edifice of faith for the young Mr Hitchens, who thereafter discovered all the main objections to religious faith, all as he put it - 'before my boyish voice had broken'.

Yet, as Haught suggests, perhaps God is not an explanatory hypothesis but has always been known through images, including images of nature. Perhaps poor Mrs Watts is in fact something of a modern day iconodule. Her faith might seem simplistic and ham-fisted, but she might just be responding to something that is deeply human and that is, I think, the need to bring transcendence and matter together in full embodiment.

So let me speculate as to what that deeply human thing might be and how we bring together the transcendent and the incarnate, the vista of reason and the concrete reality of our existence.

If reason or logos is the sphere of problem solving, of managing the affairs of daily life and basic human existence in the natural world, we should firmly acknowledge not all of human existence and experience is 'problem solving'. Being human is a paradoxical being between the reality of being part of a natural world, of the world of matter and our ability to transcend the natural world. We are the beings that control and shape the world and ourselves. But being human remains ever elusive, ever beyond our total control. Our own full self-knowledge lies always just beyond our grasp. At times, instead of exercising self-control, aiming towards an ideal, we find ourselves inexplicably at the mercy of something else - something like a force of nature that fights against the noble things towards which we aim. I think Freud got it right when he referred to these things as Eros and Thanatos, the life and death drive.

We do not want to be at the mercy of forces beyond our control. The fundamentalists call on God, the new atheists look to Science to halt death, and if not halt death, at least manage and put the inevitable end of all human beings firmly under our own control. But our problem-solving ability comes at the cost of cleaving the human being in half.

I agree with Armstrong that we pay too high a price when we give up the world of mythos. Karen Armstrong describes myth as 'something that had in some sense happened once but that also happens all the time.' In Armstrong's narrative, the divine came into being in the womb of the earth, in the underground caves of France, emerging from out of the cave into the light of modernity. Religion was born when our early ancestors they found themselves at the edge of 'reason'. We find our origins as conscious beings with our ability to look at what is and to ask what can be, between actuality and possibility.

Myths are an incarnation of the divine or the transcendent, that which opens up possibility for us, that which enables us to transcend the world in which we find ourselves. This is the world of imagination. Imagination is openness to questioning, curiosity and wonder - imagination constantly asks what if? Imagination is unbounded freedom to be other than what is. Imagination is inspired by the Muses, by song, tragedy, comedy, dance and poetry. But the Muses also include Clio, daughter of memory, who proclaims from the scroll of history, and Urania, the muse of Astronomy, she who holds the globe and the compass and is today the official seal of the U.S Naval Observatory, and patron of the numerous astronomical observatories around Europe that bear her name. Myth includes our history and our orientation in the natural world.

I think despite our best intentions, the modern 'iconoclasts' may have also lost the art of mythos, and through this forgetting, we have unwittingly created a new idol of the Word of Reason. It is time to welcome back the iconodule, the bearer of the image or icon; the myth. It is the muses, those personifications of the highest in Greek art and intellect that remind us the cleavage between logos and mythos, word and image, reason and imagination, can be healed.

How does this occur? It can only be overcome by a turning away from intellectual and moral purity to recognising and accepting nuance and complexity. To be human is to be aware of, to be conscious of the strange contradictions of human beings. To be human is also to practice all the ways of human being. Affirming images and imagination is to acknowledge and accept nuance and complexity.

Myth establishes and is established through ritual, liturgy and practice. In modern parlance, it is holistic learning - with the body and mind. I said earlier that religion is a sibling of music and both are deeply mythological, in so far their practice internalises the skill until we are shaped in the image of what we play, dance, sing, dream and think. And so it becomes clear - science and religion are not only about 'knowing' the word, or logos, but also practicing the myth. Science and religion both take practice and must be cultivated in the same way as art, music or poetry. Any trained musician knows that it doesn't take credulity but perseverance to achieve the utterly impossible. Excellent scientists practice their discipline to perfection but are never content to 'play the music of the composer who has gone before'. After perfecting the craft, the scientist turns to the edge of what is known, imagines new visions as to how things might be - visions at the boundary of reason or logos. Scientists even suggest there is a genetic link between creativity and psychosis. There are those who 'see things' the more ordinary could not, those whose solitary visions brought them to the brink of madness, such as Nobel Prize-winning mathematician and schizophrenic John Nash, whose story inspired the Oscar Winning film, A Beautiful Mind. Visionaries exist at the 'edge of credulity'. So perhaps even an 'everyday' scientist may find themselves at times 'intuiting' a new vision in silent wonder. The inability to mediate into language what one 'knows' alone can be terribly isolating to the individual who 'knows' but cannot explain what they 'know'. To fully 'know' something seems to require a sharing, a certain affirmation by others that what one 'knows' is indeed 'knowledge' and not madness. That is, it is 'rational' and not 'irrational'.

To 'rationalise' society through calculative reason is a reductionist view of life and being human. There is a plurality to human thinking that explodes the boundaries of thinking that are set by calculative reason. Language enables us to come together, to discuss, to agree, to understand and to overcome our solitary existence in community. But language has its limitations. We cannot say all that we think, experience or feel. We cannot say all that we are. Language is not simply the expression of 'rational thought'; language must somehow embody the full human experience, right down to 'gut instinct' or 'transcendent visions'. How often we find ourselves struggling for words to adequately describe something! I think there can be a 'rational' form of 'that of which we cannot speak', and that is myth, the image or the icon. This is recognition of the need for silence, the need to be in the presence of, and the practice of the discipline of contemplation, or 'unknowing'. Silence acknowledges our limitations as human beings. Silence acknowledges the complexity of being human. Silence teaches us to be nuanced, to be aware of what remains unsaid when we speak, and to speak wisely of what remains unsaid.

Logos and mythos must work in a dynamic relationship. Neither can be isolated without damaging the whole human being. One reviewer of Armstrong's book described silence as 'a kind of lowest common denominator of the human mind. The machine is idling.' This suggests that silence is 'not doing anything'; it is waiting around, idling at the red light before you shift into gear to recommence your journey. I think the reviewer completely misses the point. We are not machines or engines, or minds separate from bodies, but human beings who are a complex intertwining of spirit and matter. We are, in the words of Maximus the Confessor, whole person, soul, body and nature.

I think the silence Armstrong advocates symbolises our 'solitary' self - our need to be a self that is capable of creative thinking and being. Speech symbolises our social self - our need to be understood by and to be heard by others. Silence is not 'purely' the sphere of mythos or image. Speech is not purely the sphere of logos or word. Ultimately for anything to be 'ordered' and 'coherent' we need silence and speech. Contemplation and action. The vita activa and the vita contemplativa.

Both logos as problem solving and myth as image forming require discipline or constant practice. One appears as the mirror image of the other. And one discipline cannot be truly successful without the other. Speech without silence becomes social fanaticism. Silence without speech becomes solitary madness.

In the Phaedrus, Plato gives us an image of the soul, or psyche, as a composite figure of a charioteer, two winged horses and the chariot itself. Both horses have equal boundless energy or passion to pull the chariot, however without the guiding hand of the charioteer, the two horses will tear the chariot apart, since one is focussed upwards and the other downwards. Despite Plato's negative view of the human body and indeed, matter, I think Plato's image of the soul remains a powerful testament to what it is to be human. Every great religion has always issues warnings against both literalism and unbridled imagination. Without a doubt, the fanatic speech of fundamentalist literalism is in danger of gaining the upper hand. But I hope I have shown that the literalism of the evangelical fundamentalist, and the new atheist response to it, are not the only vision for human being, or for being human. And I do not think we are forced to violence if we remember all our ways of being human can come together, as long as we pursue with discipline, focus and honourable intentions, the art of conversation that allows for spaces of silence, and respects the solitary creativity of individuals. In this spirit, let me finish with Christopher Hitchens who gives the definition of an educated person as one, who like Socrates 'knows' the extent of his own ignorance. I'm happy to say, with Mr Hitchens, my education is teaching me I know less and less, but at least I know less and less about more and more. I'm going to finish my paper, after this 45 minute speech, in the hope that the ensuing silence is not the mere idling of a dormant brain, but does justice to my Socratic ignorance and thereby prove me to be a person of the most enlightened education - the ascent from the cave through philosophy.

Petra Brown

PhD candidate and scholarship holder, Deakin University

Presented to the Atheist Society, 13 March 2012