While in Spain, I rarely look at the website of my hometown paper, The New York Times
, because I find El País
every bit as good on international news and indispensable for following the complex political struggles reshaping Spain and its relations with the world around it. What I miss are the details of the U.S.’s vastly more depressing lack of politics and refusal to adapt to the changing world. In the U.S., we have only two parties with one idea: to find the best way to reshape the world so that the U.S. can stay the same. Spain in contrast has three national parties with radically different historical traditions and views on almost everything, plus at least a dozen regional parties that can’t be ignored, while the country is confronting two regional challenges to its territorial integrity and preparing to vote on ratifying a new European constitution, so there’s a lot to debate about. But on Thursdays, El País distributes a selection of articles translated from the past week’s NYT. Last Thursday’s was mostly about the peculiar, and to Spaniards baffling, growth in fundamentalist religions in the U.S. and almost everywhere except Europe.
Theology and atheology
In a short article headlined “Bush has been good for atheists” (“A los ateos les ha venido bien Bush”, El País, 20 de enero), Sam Knight reports that just since the re-election of George W. Bush last November, the New York City Atheists Society (if that’s the correct name – I’m retranslating from Spanish) has grown from 25 members to 125. The society’s president, Ken Bronstein, says “George Bush has been our best ally,” and the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and States attributes the growth to “a response of people who fear that the evangelical right is literally tying to take over the country.”
That 500% growth is impressive. Considering that New York City has around 8 million people and a zillion and a half churches, mosques and synagogues, though, 125 declared atheists doesn’t sound like an awful lot.
In Spain atheist discourse is quite normal, and what makes Sam Knight’s article interesting to Spaniards is that in a great city like New York it is not. The explanation – or part of it, anyway -- may be simple. Many more Spaniards than Americans are atheists from birth, born into families of long atheist tradition, because religion in Spain has long identified itself with the power of a repressive state. This has been true from the Reconquista and expulsion of Muslims and Jews in 1492, through the Inquisition and the Carlist wars and Franco’s “crusade” against secular values to the current troglodyte-ism of certain members of the Partido Popular (Ángel Acebes, for example, is a caveman with a good haircut). Thus resistance to the state here has necessarily implied the rejection of Catholic Church doctrine, and since “Catholic” means universal, Spanish atheists tend to reject the very idea of religion.
Nothing like this is likely to happen in the United States, where people can choose any religion they want, and change whenever they want, just as long as they choose some religion. What is socially condemned and, in practice though not in law, utterly disqualifies any person from public office is irreligion, or atheism.
I sympathize with the New York Atheists Society, because I myself am a former atheist. Like most American atheists (and unlike many Spanish atheists, born into a different tradition), I became one after trying very hard to believe. Dissatisfied with the bland and muddled explanations of Presbyterians, Congregationalists et al., I turned with all the fervor of adolescence to the more rigorous God of Christian Science. Finally – even before starting college -- I gave up the whole effort as absurd. It is a constant strain to “believe” things that are contrary to your life experience and all scientific knowledge, so much so that I suspect that many people who say they believe are just pretending.
For years I felt morally superior to theists. Unlike them, I accepted my own and other humans’ responsibility for good or evil – instead of laying it all on some invisible Being. But that was before a visit to Chile in February 1974, in the wake of Augusto Pinochet’s murderous coup (Sept. 11, 1973). I was part of a 10-person commission from Chicago that visited Chile to document the terror and try to stop it. And that was when I came to meet some religious people – in particular, a group of Catholic nuns – who were daily risking their lives to rescue people targeted for torture or elimination. In talking with them, it was clear that they derived strength and courage from their faith. Since then, I’ve realized that religion is valuable in similar ways to many people, of different religions. God bless them, whatever their God may be.
And this is why I’ve decided that the wholesale rejection of God or gods is as untenable as my earlier efforts to believe in just one. I now regard myself as a post-atheist. What I mean is that, while I don’t “believe” in them, that is, I don’t attribute power to them over me, I now accept the reality of all gods. I believe that any god that takes form in the human imagination exists, truly exists as a force in that person’s life, as long as that person believes in It/Him/Her. And that that god has whatever power we give It.
The term “post-atheism” may be new (I just made it up), but the concept is not. As the 13th century Turkish Sufi dervish, Yunus Emre, insists in verse after verse, the reason the believer must love and believe in God is that otherwise, God will cease to exist. And for all those who need Him/Her/It, that would be a great shame.
I don’t feel that I need any god at all just now. But I reserve the right to invent one whenever I do. There are times when that is the best way to draw on one’s own inner resources. And imagining that strength makes it real – otherwise, how could we explain the courage of those Chilean nuns?