Secular Isaac Robs Religious Esau by Praying “LORD, deliver us from salvation!”

Secular Isaac Robs Religious Esau by Praying “LORD, deliver us from salvation!” May 6, 2015

According to Nietzsche bourgeois atheism steals the blessing meant for believers (Govert Flinck, Isaac Blessing Jacob, 1638; Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100).

Have you heard the one about the atheist arguing that atheists are more moral than Christians by the standards of Christianity morality?

According to this precooked narrative the atheists do all the good works Christians should, plus, to ratchet up the degree of difficulty, they defend things outside the Christian canon–like gay marriage and abortion.  More often than not, these atheists dogmatically believe in liberal democracy to the point where they are willing to defend it by torture, even though deep down they know liberalism comes from Christianity.

On top of all this: They do all these great things without the threat of hell hanging over them like some divine, or hellish, carrot stick! Good works without hanging on the promise of childish rewards, without being motivated by the fear of hell.

I mean, if that’s not a mature asceticism, then I don’t know what is. Why would anyone do such a thing? Because being your own divinity is its own (all the more desirable because hollow) reward.

The Patheos Atheist channel is full of these sorts of holier-than-Christian preachers. Here’s just one example of salvation from salvation that got pooped out as I was trying my best not to write this post.

Whatever happened to the much more attractive option of full on nihilism? Do all of our beliefs, even our so-called rebellions, have to be blandly palatable, marketable, and bourgeois? For crime’s sake somebody give me a contemporary Georges Bataille instead! Hallmark atheism is boooring.

Vincent Pecora in his Secularization Without End: Beckett, Mann, Coetzee says this is precisely the sort of pious atheist-humanist pie-in-the-sky delusion the old-school atheist, Nietzsche, hated.

In his discussion of Thomas Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus Pecora says:

That is, Leverkuhn wants to believe that his devotion to the truth, even to the truth that there can be no salvation for him, is of greater value than divine grace itself. In that sense, Nietzsche argues, the bourgeois atheist’s rejection of religious salvation is ironically the most severe and pseudo-religious ascetic ideal. In a nutshell: the unvarnished truth, the bourgeois atheist mistakenly believes, even the brutal truth about one’s own disbelief, shall set you free, shall be, in effect, your redemption. And it is the devil’s pleasure, at it was Nietzsche’s, to unravel the ruse involved in Leverkuhn’s way of thinking.

Deliver us from salvation, indeed. Them’s saving words. Isaac strikes and steals again.

I’ll have more to say about Secularization Without End and how it ties this argument to the Protestant imagination, especially Calvinism, when I review it for Books & Culture.

Ahead of the publishing of my interview with Damon Linker tomorrow you might want to look at his demolishing of another pious atheist myth: the one about religious decline and the progressive growth of non-belief (“The New Atheists are back — and dumber than ever“).

If you want to dial back things a bit after all that, then I have a list of books about practicing contemplative silence that you shouldn’t miss.



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