Michael Nugent understands idolatry but gets heaven wrong

Michael Nugent, Irish Atheist

The Irish atheist Michael Nugent has some interesting things to say about the use and abuse of faith in a recent opinion piece published in the Irish Times. Faith ceases to be a virtue when it has little connection with facts of reality, he asserts, and points out that placing our faith in secular “gods” (like the banks or capitalism in general) can be as irrational as placing faith in religion or priests. He goes on to make an interesting statement: “all ‘gods’, whether religious or secular, are created by humans to advance their interests.”

Which perhaps goes a long way to explaining why idols have been taboo in the Abrahamic faiths. Of course, it’s not just idols fashioned of wood or stone or resin. I particularly like how another man named Michael, Michael Haggerty, re-envisions the second commandment in his book Out of the House of Slavery: “You shall not enshrine any notion, ideology, or interest as God and allow yourself to be dominated by it.” Idols are prohibited because they always represent some sort of underhanded political manipulation: “worship this god… and, by the way, bow before me as this god’s priest.” We smash the idols because we are called to be free.

So far, so good. But Nugent is like so many other atheists in relentlessly throwing out the spiritual baby with the religious bathwater. He insists that “religious faith is more dangerous than secular faith” — in other words, it’s worse to put your faith in Catholicism than in Wall Street (this is where he loses me). His argument: because religious faith is based on “eternal rewards … in an imaginary and untestable afterlife.” In other words, religion is more dangerous than capitalism because religion asks you to change your behavior on behalf of a pie in the sky, which can never be proven false (or true) until after you die, and then it’s too late. Therefore, religion, Nugent concludes, is oppressive.

Frankly, if all religion offered me were a pie in the sky, I’d be with the atheists.

What Nugent misses is the promise of contemplative mysticism: that heaven is not a post-mortem reward for earthly obedience, but a way of entering a transformed and transforming level of consciousness right here and right now. Granted, the afterlife reward is part of Christianity’s metanarrative, and it shows up in other faiths as well. But mystics from Richard of Saint Victor to Julian of Norwich (to name just two that leap to mind) are clear that the point behind grace is to begin living a heavenly life today, not once we die. Those who speak of the afterlife merely say that the heaven we enjoy now is but a foretaste of the banquet that awaits us.  But the point behind metanoia — the change of heart/mind that marks the initiation into the mystical life — is to pour out our capacity to love God and others now, to create the space for receiving the consciousness of love now as well. Love poured out opens us up to receive love in still greater abundance. That begins at the moment of metanoia. And yes, there’s an unverifiable promise that it gets even better beyond death. But for those of us who are willing to taste Divine felicity here and now, that is alone, and enough, reward for the sacrifices Love asks us to make.

Atheists want to ditch religion altogether, while mystics understand that religion, like any other human endeavor, must always be reformed in the light of what Love demands. So I join with Michael Nugent in sensibly rejecting any man-made god, existing only to advance the interests of those humans who stand to benefit by them. But beyond the limits of what humanity can create or imagine, the Divine Mystery remains, ever inviting all of us, individually and communally, into the bracing transformation of love, joy, peace, and justice. I suppose many atheists might insist on rejecting all language of God and Love, dismissing such talk as only metaphysical nonsense. But it seems to me that  what would be left would be a world bereft of wonder and mystery. Such a world would be bowing before an idol of its own rational-secular making, as pernicious as any theocratic lord. So, mindful of the risks that idolatry always presents, and cognizant of how easily we mortals create idols in material as well as mental ways, I remain convinced that the God of Divine Love and Mystery is more experientially and intuitively true than no god at all. And every time I look  deep within my own heart and mind and catch a glimpse of heaven out of the corner of my eye, I sense that my conviction remains sound.

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  • http://complementary Grace Bezanson

    “He insists that “religious faith is more dangerous than secular faith” — in other words, it’s worse to put your faith in Catholicism than in Wall Street (this is where he loses me). ”

    Another great post. I actually had this discussion last night with my atheist partner and our two Catholic friends–too bad I didn’t get to read this first.

  • InfiniteWarrior

    in other words, it’s worse to put your faith in Catholicism than in Wall Street (this is where he loses me).

    Dare I point out that Catholicism in the context of this statement constitutes an idol?

    Of all the conversations in which I’ve been involved the past few years concerning Christianity, nothing I ever said or wrote got through or even made the slightest dent until one day, in a fit of frustration, I mentioned “Christians who worship Christianity.” Among the veritable sea of defensive denials (and personal attacks) that followed, one Christian wrote back, “I never thought of it like that. I’ll have to give that some careful consideration.”

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

      You’re right. In this context, “Catholicism” is indeed pointing to religion-as-idol.
      My point is that I disagree with his suggestion that Catholicism-as-idol is worse than Wall-Street-as-idol. At least idolatrous Christianity in theory points beyond itself, whereas idolatrous financial systems are completely self-serving.

      • InfiniteWarrior

        I understand your point of disagreement.

        At least idolatrous Christianity in theory points beyond itself, whereas idolatrous financial systems are completely self-serving.

        Are you saying, then, that putting one’s faith in Catholicism is “better” than putting one’s faith in Wall Street?

        You see, we can theorize about it in perpetuity, but we know that “idolatrous Christianity” points to nothing but idolatrous Christianity just as idolatrous atheism points to nothing but idolatrous atheism. We know it is no “better” to put one’s faith in Catholicism or Christianity or fill_in_the_”secular/religious”_ideological_blank than it is to put one’s faith in Wall Street. How quickly circular arguments like Nugent’s and all his secular/religious counterparts derail the truth.

        I pay no attention to the circular debates at this point myself. I find them fruitless, frankly idiotic, purposely confusing and a complete waste of time. Both “sides” of all such debates are self-serving.

  • http://gravatar.com/zdna zdna

    Carl, you wrote:

    >Frankly, if all religion offered me were a pie in the sky, I’d be with the atheists.
    >
    >What Nugent misses is the promise of contemplative mysticism: that heaven is not a >post-mortem reward for earthly obedience, but a way of entering a transformed and >transforming level of consciousness right here and right now. Granted, the afterlife >reward is part of Christianity’s metanarrative

    …and I completely agree with you. However, remember that the overwhelming majority of Christians are not contemplatives (and some are even downright hostile to the notion, regardless of denomination). Most Christians also miss the promise of contemplative mysticism too.

    I think what Nugent had in mind is the ‘typical’ non-contemplative Christian when he made the point of religious idolatry being worse than secular idolatry. At least the idol of Wall Street gives you immediate, real-world feedback on whether or not you’re ‘doing it right’. Nobody goes to war over which trading scheme is best, because the results are plain to see (whoever has the most money obviously worshipped the better idol), whereas with religious idols, he’s right on point about untestability. Hence the buildup of tempers and, if unchecked, a resort to violence to ‘settle’ whose religious idol is better.

    For me, this just further reinforces my own reliance on apophatic vs. cataphatic faith. In my mind, most of the danger of religious idolatry that Nugent points out comes from an over-reliance on the cataphatic side.

    I have the hunch that many atheists would be much more ammenable to people of faith if they had more awareness of the contemplative/apophatic side of things. It seems to me that their arguments are nearly always directed against the excesses of cataphatic faith. This is understandable: Cataphatic faith dominates the public image, and leads to spectacular absurdities, self-contradiction, and even violence when abused.

    So in short, let’s have some compassion for our atheist friends. They do have some good points, and hopefully those of us with a more contemplative bent can demonstrate that (Christian) faith doesn’t have to be the buffoonish ignorance they (rightly?) point out and ridicule.


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