1. British thinker John Gray is at it again, dressing down the New Atheists in a powerful long-read for The Guardian, “What Scares the New Atheists”. There’s a lot in the essay, but one of his primary beefs seems to be the conflation in NA circles of science with politics, specifically their politics, which are curiously uniform. If it sounds familiar, that’s because Gray has gone on record before to debunk the sanguine notion that science is immune to ideological co-option–as evidenced by even the most cursory review of history (eugenics, etc). For him, the main tenets of liberalism simply cannot be divorced from their theistic origins; to rely on science alone, especially of the evolutionary variety, for political wisdom means embracing a far bleaker view of human agency and liberty than most of today’s high-profile atheists would care to stomach. In other words, they need religion far more than they are willing/able to acknowledge, and the refusal clearly rankles Dr. Gray, an avowed non-believer himself.

Gray is also understandably skeptical about the subtext he detects in evangelical atheism that would place the secular West as the high point of human development, toward which the world is inevitably and inexorably heading–an assertion clearly belied by our current global predicament. He sees the dissonance between where Sam Harris et al believe the human race should be moving (a godless state of worry-free bus-riding) and where it actually appears to be moving as the source of insecurity among strident atheists, which expresses itself in bluster of the most alienating and embarrassing kind. As he writes in the conclusion, “what today’s freethinkers want is freedom from doubt, and the prevailing version of atheism is well suited to give it to them.” Ooof.

To his credit, Gray advocates for a more sobering and therefore serene form of atheism, “more like [that] of Freud, which didn’t replace God with a flattering image of humanity”. Hmmm… One wonders if such a thing is even possible, or if repentance of that kind would automatically foster faith (in a God who loves the unlovable). Who’s to say. But the candor, as always, is refreshing, and along the way he drops some real humdingers:

Proof for Issue 4 - I'm biased this thing looks AMAZING. Snow has unfortunately delayed the mailing though - subscribers should look for them at the end of next week. Click on this image for more.

Proof for Issue 4 – Couldn’t be more thrilled with how it turned out! Snow has unfortunately delayed the mailing – subscribers should look for them at the end of next week. Click on this image to order.

For secular thinkers, the continuing vitality of religion calls into question the belief that history underpins their values. To be sure, there is disagreement as to the nature of these values. But pretty well all secular thinkers now take for granted that modern societies must in the end converge on some version of liberalism. Never well founded, this assumption is today clearly unreasonable. So, not for the first time, secular thinkers look to science for a foundation for their values. 

It’s probably just as well that the current generation of atheists seems to know so little of the longer history of atheist movements. When they assert that science can bridge fact and value, they overlook the many incompatible value-systems that have been defended in this way. There is no more reason to think science can determine human values today than there was at the time of Haeckel or Huxley…

It’s impossible to read much contemporary polemic against religion without the impression that for the “new atheists” the world would be a better place if Jewish and Christian monotheism had never existed. If only the world wasn’t plagued by these troublesome God-botherers, they are always lamenting, liberal values would be so much more secure. Awkwardly for these atheists,.. Nietzsche was clear that the chief sources of liberalism were in Jewish and Christian theism: that is why he was so bitterly hostile to these religions. He was an atheist in large part because he rejected liberal values…

Though not all human beings may attach great importance to them, every society contains practices that are recognisably religious. Why should religion be universal in this way? For atheist missionaries this is a decidedly awkward question. Invariably they claim to be followers of Darwin. Yet they never ask what evolutionary function this species-wide phenomenon serves. There is an irresolvable contradiction between viewing religion naturalistically – as a human adaptation to living in the world – and condemning it as a tissue of error and illusion.


2. On a much more upbeat note, noted progressive journalist/blogger Ana Marie Cox’s “Why I’m Coming Out as a Christian” on The Daily Beast has been making the rounds, and for good reason. It’s phenomenal, the finale in particular:

Any rumbling desire to turn my religion into something fashionably rebellious is an artifact of ego. It’s an attempt to make this story about me, someone who did something and then changed, ta-da—cue workout montage and triumphant final scene. On some level, I still want credit for the spiritual makeover—I was lost, but now am found, and I am the one that found me. But if I understand God’s grace correctly, the miracle of redemption is that I was found all along. 

One of the most painful and reoccurring stumbling blocks in my journey is my inability to accept that I am completely whole and loved by God without doing anything. That’s accompanied by a corresponding truth: There is nothing so great I can do to make God love me more.

Because before I found God, I had an unconsciously manufactured higher power: I spent a lifetime trying to earn extra credit from some imaginary teacher, grade-grubbing under the delusion that my continuing mistakes—missed assignments, cheating, other nameless sins—were constantly held against me. And I knew in my heart that failure was inevitable.

What Christ teaches me, if I let myself be taught, is that there is only one kind of judgment that matters. I am saved not because of who I am or what I have done (or didn’t do), but simply because I have accepted the infinite grace that was always offered to me.

Amen. According to the interview below, the article’s enthusiastic response has been a hugely pleasant surprise to its author. Be sure to watch through the 2:30 mark, when she talks about the Gospel of grace. Very cool:

3. In the timely and thought-provoking cover story of this month’s issue of Christianity Today, Andy Crouch tackles “The Return of Shame” to the American spiritual landscape. It dovetails beautifully with Ethan’s take on “The Loser Edit” from earlier this week. Andy surfaces the decades-old distinction between Western and Eastern cultures, namely, the former tend to understand status primarily through an innocence-guilt paradigm while the latter use more of an honor-shame one. Technological advances are mixing the two afresh and reframing the way we think about ourselves and our standing before God. In his view, and I dare say he’s right, the advent of smartphones and social media has brought shame (and the fear of it) back to the forefront of modern occidental life, albeit with a fresh flipside: ‘fame’ rather than ‘honor’. Not that guilt has disappeared (as if it could!), just that part of the fallout of our collective moral diffusion would be that we are less likely to think of our actions as right/wrong and more likely to think of ourselves as such–cue Brene Brown. Yet as Crouch wisely notes, this is a tremendous opportunity for those who cling to a message of grace. He spells out some of the implications via interviews with several Chinese missionaries on how the Bible addresses a shame context:

Instead of evolving into a traditional honor–shame culture, large parts of our culture are starting to look something like a postmodern fame–shame culture. Like honor, fame is a public estimation of worth, a powerful currency of status. But fame is bestowed by a broad audience, with only the loosest of bonds to those they acclaim…

B-mUmJjUMAMvmmZOur fame–shame culture has few broad norms enforcing politeness or concern for [saving] the “face” of others, as the most glancing encounters with social media, let alone a full-on GamerGate-like assault, will confirm. In fame–shame culture, people yearn to feel included in the group, a state constantly endangered, fragile, and desperately in need of protection

The cross, after all, was far from just an instrument of execution. There were many ways for the Roman legal system to practice capital punishment. But the cross was specifically designed to maximize victims’ shame, from the whipping along the route to the place of crucifixion, to the stripping of every article of clothing, to the hours or days of exposure to the elements and the mocking of passersby.

Given the rushed and shoddy legal process that led to Jesus’ conviction, observers along the road to Calvary would have had every reason to doubt his guilt. But no one would have doubted his complete and utter shame...

4. Social Science study of the Week: Statistician Emma Pierson took a deep dive into online dating data (eHarmony, OKCupid, etc) and found that while the vast majority of us claim to be looking for someone to complement rather than resemble us, “In the End, People May Really Just Want to Date Themselves.” Sounds about right. Lots of other interesting tidbits in there as well.

5. At long last, the audio of Paul Zahl’s talk at The Olmsted Salon on Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons (and much more) is available. You can listen below:

6. Over at The New Statesman, Bryan Appleyard provided a compelling and very funny takedown of “The Happiness Conspiracy” or what he calls the “compulsory positive thinking” that has come to characterize mass media, all filtered through the lens of Lennon-McCartney. If you don’t have time for the whole thing, the final paragraph is worth reprinting:

Optimism is a pressure – it is stress-inducing and intelligence-lowering. Pessimism is a release: it is relaxing and mind-expanding. Read the Book of Ecclesiastes (“To every thing there is a season”) or Edward FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (“The Bird of Time has but a little way/To fly . . .”) to see how beautiful and peaceful zero expectations can be.

7. Speaking of pessimism, Noel Gallagher has been interviewing all over the place in support of his (pretty great) new record, Chasing Yesterdays, and let’s just say he’s acquitted himself remarkably well in the Noel-isms department, i.e. curmudgeonly pronouncements of the most unfiltered and expletive-laced variety (warning!), spouted indiscriminately in all directions and with wit to spare. He’s got nice things to say about Seinfeld and Bono, but that’s about it. People have started calling him “white Kanye” but I think “English Werner Herzog” or “male Camille Paglia” (minus the erudition) might be a better fit, especially since he’s so equal opportunity in his put-downs. I’d list a few if they weren’t all so, er, colorful. But much more exciting is the fact that the man’s songwriting gift remains intact. The new record has more than its share of top-drawer Noel corkers, most notably “Lock All the Doors”, “Riverman”, “The Girl With X-Ray Eyes” and “Dying of the Light”. The re-recording of “Revolution Song” (at last!) is a wonderful addition too. More please.

Also in music, Devo (and Wes Anderson) fans will delight in this extremely cool video of Mark Mothersbaugh showing off his synthesizer collection. Best moment has to be at the two minute mark when he reveals that if you say, “We smell sausage” and play it backwards what comes out will be very close to “Jesus loves you” – a trick which he has apparently embedded in lots of his work. PTL. Also, Pitchfork published an interview with Sufjan Stevens about his new album, Carrie & Lowell, which sounds like quite a harrowing listen, dealing as it does with his relationship with his mother, who left when Sufjan was 1, and struggled with all manner of trouble until her death in late 2012. He also talks about his faith at the end in a touching way. 

8. In humor, the guys over at Jalopnik came up with a few new car manufacturer slogans in line with McLaren’s unintentionally harrowing tagline: “There is no finish line”. My favorite is probably the one for Lamborghini (“No race has a winner”). Next, God bless The Toast for giving us these memes of Inspirational Camille Paglia Quotes. Finally, The Onion weighs in with “Report: Majority Of Mothers Would Drop Kids Off At Warehouse Called ‘Fun Zone’ For Hour Of Free Time, No Questions Asked” and “College Freshman From Florida Has Never Seen People Complain About Snow For 5 Months Before”.