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Is Atheism a Religion?

In Apologetics, Christian Education, Worldview on September 16, 2016 at 9:03 pm

alikeI recently read an article in which the author insisted that public funds not go to support religious schools. The rhetoric in this article was very much in the “us” versus “them” vein. In essence, “their” views, that is those of the religious, are tainted with the irrational and divisive forces of faith or belief common to all religions, unlike “our” rational and unifying position which is free from dangerous subjectivity.

In the comment section someone agreed saying:

Religious indoctrination of children is nothing less than abuse, and ought not to be allowed let alone publicly funded.

What this commenter does not understand is that there is no way to raise a child without “religious” indoctrination.  Modern rationalism or postmodern relativism, which dominate much of western education are inherently “religious.” Even atheism are in a sense “religious.” So public schools are, in essence, are engaged in religious education.

I said as much in my own comment. Another commenter objected saying:

Atheism is not a religion for the same reason that bald is not a hair colour.

He is right, baldness is not a hair color, but it is a hair style.

There are two ways in which one might use the term “religious.” In one sense, atheism is not a religion–if religion is defined by religious rituals and believing in spiritual beings. In this sense, atheism is not a religion for the same reason baldness is not a hair colour. But in another very important sense, atheism is religious. The term can also refer to the guiding principles that one accepts by faith that shape ones reality and around which one organizes ones life.

These guiding principles revealed in how one might answer fundamental questions about reality. Not everyone is aware of their own answers to these questions, but their lives testify to having answered them one way or another.

Does life have meaning? If so, what is it?

Does human life have value? If so, why?

Do we have a purpose? If so why?

Does the universe have a purpose?

Is the universe friendly, hostile or indifferent?

What’s wrong with the world?

What is the solution to what is wrong with the world?

Is there a God or gods?

Every human being lives out their answer to these questions. Interestingly, many people proclaim an answer to a question, but live out another answer. The answers, stated or lived, are religious. They are religious in that they cannot be proven; they are accepted by faith.

The atheist believes that there is no God on the same, some would argue less, grounds that theists believes that there is.  Both do so by faith; neither can know it to be so.

One may chose not to use the term religion to describe this category, but it doesn’t get atheism out of the category, whatever you call it.

Baldness is not a hair colour, but it is a hair style. Atheism does not engage in religious activities that arise out of a belief in a God, but they do make unverifiable claims about reality based on faith.

There is no way we can have an a-religious education, so the government will always be funding religious education. The question now remains, which religions will they fund.

A Prayer for Owen Meany — Two Inconsistencies

In Books, Movies and Television on October 21, 2014 at 9:40 pm

Owen MeanyJohn Wheelwright’s view of a radical transcendence (God is there, but he’s so very, very far away), results in his inability to experience a flourishing faith like that of Owen Meany or many of his spiritual mentors since. I can’t help but wonder if this is a result of John Irving’s failure to recognize the incarnational nature of reality. I think that this would explain the two serious inconsistencies in the novel. One is a fundamental inconsistency regarding John Wheelwright’s leap of faith.     The second is that because of the inadequate understanding of the incarnation, the novel, inadvertently, offers no alternative to meaninglessness, when it seems it is Irving’s intention to offer a least the option of hope.

As has been discussed, it appears that John Irving works very hard to establish that the choice between a material reality that is infused with the transcendent and one that is closed to transcendence. Every supernatural explanation is always countered with a material one. Irving does this so that he can be faithful to the freedom necessary to faith as articulated by Fredrick Buechner at the beginning of the novel. It reads,

Not the least of my problems is that I can hardly even imagine what kind of an experience a genuine, self-authenticating religious experience would be. Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there is not room for doubt, there would be no room for me.

More so now than ever before, there is this type of freedom in secular society. Charles Taylor says that in modern society we have no compulsion to choose sides in the war between belief and unbelief. We live in “a kind of a no-man’s-land; except that it has got wide enough to take on the character rather of a neutral zone, where one can escape the war altogether” (Taylor 351).

Johnny would likely have lived in the “neutral zone” between belief and unbelief indefinitely, except for the miracle of Owen’s life and death. In this, Irving breaks the stalemate and forces the narrator to choose in favor of belief.   Although Irving offers Rev. Merrill as the doubting Thomas, when taken together, the circumstances surrounding Owen’s death suffer no other interpretation—a leap of faith is no longer required. Johnny has no choice but to believe and then, to ask Buechner’s question, can there be any room for John Wheelwright?   In forcing faith upon his narrator, Irving went against the understanding of faith he so consistently presented through every other aspect of the novel.

Second inconsistency that arises from Irving’s understanding of a radical transcendence is that, although he attempts to offer hope as at least an option, the novel ultimately offers no alternative to meaninglessness. The sense one picks up is that Irving “seems to have a Christian apologetic aim for the novel” (Sykes 58). The “book’s foregrounding of Christian spirituality, its development of a modern-day Christ-figure” (Haynes 74-75) sets a hopeful tone to the novel, but he fails, ultimately, to deliver any hope because the author’s non-incarnational (or secular) perspective forces the actions of Christ to be duplicated by Owen rather than imitated.

Irving draws very clear the parallels between Owen Meany and Jesus Christ. One of the persistent mysteries in the book revolves around the “UNSPEAKABLE OUTRAGE” perpetuated by the Catholic Church on the Meany family. It is revealed at the end of the novel that Mr. Meany believes, and communicated his belief to Owen when he was eleven years old, that Owen’s was a virgin birth. There is certainly ambiguity surrounding this claim, not the least of which is the insanity of Owen’s mother, so it is not clear whether her insanity is the cause of the UNSPEAKABLE OUTRAGE or a result of it. Later, in 1953, Owen’s role in the Christmas pageant will not be suspension from the rafters as the transcendent announcing angel, but instead he will replace the babies and play the more immanent role of the Little Lord Jesus. Although he never raised anyone from the dead, it was once said that his voice “could bring those mice back to life!” (17). To reflect the unusual quality of his voice, Irving represents Owen’s words using all capital letters, and the effect is much like that of a red letter edition of the Bible in which the words of Christ are set off from the rest of the text. Then there is Owen’s Mary Magdalene relationship with Hester the Molester. “She with the reputation for promiscuity becomes devoted to Owen, yet so far as anyone knows, they are never lovers” (Sykes 64). In the chapter called “The Voice,” he preaches against the establishment, occasionally breaking its laws, and he attacks the hypocrisy of the new headmaster of Gravesend Academy. Consequently, he is brought before the Sanhedrin –he is called irreverent (289) and antireligious (409, 413). Eventually Owen’s enemies “crucified him” (398-99) after being passed between the Academy’s chaplain and psychologist—Herod and Pilot, if you will. He even repeats the words of Christ on several occasions; “FATHER FORGIVE THEM FOR THEY NO NOT WHAT THEY DO,” (151) is one example. Johnny, in a frustrated attempt to thwart “Owen’s stubborn pursuit of a heroic death, . . . plays Judas to Owen’s Christ, betraying him” (Haynes 82) to his commander. Owen has a Gethsemane experience the day before his death (Irving 585). The most significant parallel to Christ is of course his sacrificial death. Owen death does not achieve cosmic redemption—he saves a group of Vietnamese orphans—but he willingly gives his life for others, just the same. There is even a final Pieta when the nun cradles him in her arms.

In attempting to create meaning through the illumination of the Christ of the Christian faith, Irving instead undercuts meaning, by creating a duplicate Christ rather than an imitation of Christ. The real Christ is too transcendent, so Irving has to create “a new character of God’s holy choosing” (542)—Owen Meany. A Christ figure can function as a powerful metaphor which “carries us away, embodies us in itself and moves us deeply when we surrender ourselves to it” (Polanyi 79), but in Owen Meany, Irving gives us a literal Christ. The meaning of Owen Meany is not found in the focal point that is Jesus Christ; the meaning of Owen Meaning goes no further than Owen Meany. Thus, John Wheelwright’s “belief is notably a-christological. Owen, John’s Christ figure, plays a larger role in his thoughts than does Christ; the Christian paradigm is more important that Christ himself” (Sykes 63). Once again, Irving falls into this trap because he does not really have an adequate understanding of the incarnate Christ; his Christ is radically transcendent.

The effect of Irving’s non-incarnational spirituality shapes the conclusion. As a duplicate Christ, there are many parallels between the life of Owen and that of Jesus. Owen’s sacrificial death is the most significant parallel, for his whole life has meaning in his death. Taylor says that death, particularly the moment of death, “is the privileged site from which the meaning of life can be grasped” (723). Irving understands this and therefore structures the plot accordingly; the funeral and almost all of the resolutions occur before the recounting of the events surrounding Owen’s death. Death brings out meaning for both the one who faces his own death as well as for the bereaved (Taylor 722). Those who have lost a loved one “struggle to hold onto the meaning they have built with the deceased” (722) while at the same time letting go. The purpose of our funeral rites and ceremonies is to “connect this person . . . with something eternal” (722). Within the world of the novel, this is the reason for John Wheelwright to tell the story of Owen Meany. Yet for Johnny, that eternal is so far away that to link Owen to it is to lose Owen. With the loss of Owen, is the loss of meaning.

Irving attempts to offer Wheelwright, and his readers, a resurrection of sorts by “subtle references to death and rebirth” (Haynes 79). Owen is regularly linked with death. His skin is “the color of a gravestone” (2); he encounters and scars off the Angel of Death; his summer job is working in his father’s monument shop; and in the army he becomes a casualty assistance officer in the army. There is very little irony behind Owen’s statement to Johnny the day before his death that he is “IN THE DYING BUSINESS” (604). Irving builds suggestions of rebirth into the novel as well. The setting for the story is Gravesend—graves end; Owen wrote for the school newspaper, “The Grave,” under the penname, “The Voice”: the voice from the grave (Haynes 79). The pattern of rebirth is built into the structure of the novel. Tabitha Wheelwright’s death is recounted in the first chapter, but in the second we meet and get to know the living Tabby; after her death in chapter one, she is, in effect, brought back to life in chapter two. Lastly, Owen’s sacrificial death occurs in the Phoenix airport, named for the mythical bird that is reborn from its own ashes (79).

By associating Owen with the pattern of death and rebirth, Irving’s attempts to connect Owen to the transcendent, but because he thinks of it as so distant, the attempt fails. In secular society, there is no sense of flourishing in and after death. Such is the case with Johnny following Owen’s death. So all he can do is tell a story about Owen’s life. The last line of the novel is the prayer for Owen Meany. John Wheelwright prays, “Oh God—Please give him back! I shall keep asking you” (617). It is a prayer for John Wheelwright to have his own meaning back – in its immanent form. After his conversion, Irving’s narrator believes in the transcendent and through the writing of the book he seeks meaning, but he will not seek it in the incarnate Christ; he will seek it in His duplicate. Therefore, with Owen dies meaning. As things stand at the novel’s end, Owen is too far away—just like the God to whom the narrator offers his final prayer.

We live in a secular age and therefore belief in God is not a given as it once was. In A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving honestly presents this reality by presenting characters in various states of belief and unbelief. In almost every case, he maintains ambiguity by undercutting both faith and doubt. However, in the life and death of Owen Meany, he gives us a miracle. Within the world of the novel, there is no explanation other than the transcendent puncturing the ordinary world. This reflects Irving’s view of the radical otherness of the transcendent that governs the novel. The inadequacy of this view is seen in the continued struggles of the adult John Wheelwright after his conversion. He fails to achieve fullness because, once he accepts the presence of God, he cannot encounter him. Therefore, he is stuck in between. He believes in God, but only as an impersonal force who has poked his celestial finger into objective reality and for all he knows, that divine digit may since have been amputated like his own. John Wheelwright’s story illustrates that in a secular, closed immanent world, Christians have to “struggle to recover a sense of what the Incarnation can mean” (Taylor 753). That is, to understand that God does not just poke, but He’s got the whole world in his hands. And in that reality, we can find the fullness we desire.

This book concludes my chapter by chapter commentary through A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. If you missed these posts, you can read the first one here.

 

A Prayer for Owen Meany — “The Shot”

In Books, Movies and Television on October 17, 2014 at 5:21 am

Owen MeanyIn A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving presents an incarnational spirituality in the novel. Owen is the character that embodies this view of reality. That Irving is not able to embrace the incarnational view is manifest in the conversion of the story’s narrator, John Wheelwright.

Wheelwright ends up believing in God in the end, but where Owen’s faith is “certain, personal, and immediate,” Johnny’s is “tenuous, ritualized and mediated in many ways” (Haynes 91). In his chapter on conversion, Charles Taylor says that “people who undergo conversion . . . may take on a new view about religion from others . . . who have radiated some sense of more direct contact” (729). This is clearly the route of John Wheelwright’s conversion since it was the miracle of Owen’s life and death that caused Johnny to think differently about God. As narrator, John Wheelwright declares his belief in the first sentence of the novel: “[Owen Meany] is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany” (1); but he is certainly not the Bible thumping warrior that Reverend Wiggins is. Although he is a “pretty regular churchgoer” (1), he “skips a Sunday now and then;” he “makes no claims to be especially pious” (2), nor does he read the Bible much, preferring the orderliness of The Book of Common Prayer.

Irving emphasizes this passive expression of faith by metaphorically equating his narrator to Joseph. Owen chose for Johnny the role of Joseph in the Christmas pageant. In commenting on this event Wheelwright says, “I was just a Joseph; I felt that Owen Meany had already chosen me for the only part I could play” (207). This is a refrain of the narrator through the novel who describes Joseph, and himself by association, as “that hapless follower, that stand in, that guy along for the ride (160). This reflects the passivity that is clearly evident in his expression of faith throughout the novel. Still he seems to resent the role: “I—Joseph—had nothing to do, nothing to say, nothing to learn” (167), and again, “I, Joseph—forever standing in the wings” (214). He appears to have had very little success in getting himself out of the role for he says, “I was twenty-one and I was still a Joseph; I was a Joseph then, and I am just a Joseph now” (439). When he finally discovers the identity of his biological father, he expresses his disappointment in the discovery by saying, “My father is a Joseph, just like me” (571). Wheelwright admits that he has a faith just like his father used to have, before he was tricked into having “absolute and unshakable faith” (571).

So why is John Wheelwright “just a Joseph”?

Because his faith is never like that of Owen’s. The differences between the faith as lived by Owen and that of John Wheelwright are not attributable to the difference between the direct and indirect varieties of religious experience that Charles Taylor talks about. In Johnny’s case, there is something inadequate about his leap of faith.

Johnny certainly experiences a conversion, according to the criteria set out by Taylor, because he experiences “a transformation of the frame in which [he] thought, felt and lived before” (Taylor 731). However, if we look at the nature of Johnny’s conversion the reason for his passive and vacillating faith becomes clear. When Johnny is converted, it is to a belief merely in the existence of the transcendent. If conversion is “breaking out of a narrower frame into a broader field” (Taylor 768), then he has a conversion experience, but the field into which he breaks is not broad. He recognizes the transcendent, but does not go so far as to see the it incarnationally. Quoting T. S. Eliot Taylor says, “Human kind cannot bear too much reality,” (769) so it is necessary for us to shut out the transcendent to some degree. The extent to which an individual does this varies. Johnny’s equilibrium does not shift very much. He “shuts out” much of the new view of the transcendent; his new equilibrium is not very far from where it was when he did not believe in the transcendent. He is a believer, but this remains a fact, and never develops into a life.

Given that this is the state of his narrator at the end of the novel, I wonder if John Irving himself cannot make the leap that he forced on his narrator. Although Irving seems to locate transcendence in immanence in the character of Owen Meany, he is not able to overcome his own secular framework; instead he holds to an oppositional model of transcendence–transcendence is opposite of immanence, rather than inhabiting it. So, the conversion of his narrator is, at best, only one of imposed rational acceptance. Wheelwright never achieves a flourishing faith because he remains trapped in a secular immanence—his acceptance of the existence of God, even Jesus Christ faith is not able to provide the meaning that an incarnational faith would offer, because they are as far away as is Owen Meany.

Other resources:

Haynes, Stephen. “Footsteps of Ann Hutchinson and Frederick Buechner: A Religious Reading of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.” Religion and Literature. 27.3 (1995): 73-98.