opinion : Alwyn Lau

Three kinds of atheism: Free-thinking, mystical and weapons-grade

Alwyn Lau

NOVEMBER 27 — When Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Dr Asyraf Wajdi Dusuk declare that atheism is unconstitutional, my first impression was which kind?

Because just saying I don’t approve of atheism is almost like saying I don’t approve of sports; without specifics, I’m saying almost nothing or saying too much.

What follows are three forms which atheism can take. You decide which form is the biggest threat to the Constitution (if at all).

Free-thinking atheism           

This is the most common form of atheistic belief i.e. there is no god, no afterlife, all religions are false, only science and technology are true, etc. This kind of “minimalist” atheism is more about a refusal of organised religion (and anything associated with it) rather than newly contemplated doctrine.

This variety of atheist believes there is nothing “beyond” physics, there is no heaven or hell awaiting a person and religion is either an evolutionary crutch for people to cope with adversity in life or some epic “fake news” that’s been circulating for millennia.

So, on one hand, this form of atheism is the most “updated” in that it purports to include the latest scientific knowledge, thus casting away archaic, far-fetched and honestly “un-cool” beliefs.

On the other hand, the claim that every world religious system over the centuries has got it stupefyingly wrong about the very existence of a world beyond this one is itself breath-taking.

To repeat, this brand of atheism is usually a reaction to organised religion rather than an independent belief-system that took shape. Many free-thinkers today were raised as believers, but dropped out because they couldn’t stand the hypocrisy, boredom, parochialism or just plain uncool-ness they experienced with organised religious gatherings.

Hence, the phrase “free thinking” which implies that if you subscribe to a religion then you’re not free or bound by the rules and culture of that religion.

But atheism (at least in this form) also has its own rules and doctrines, e.g. a) you can never appeal to any explanation beyond physics, b) there is no such thing as a soul (or, yes there is but every religion has gotten it wrong) and c) morality is entirely man-made.

And as with any “official” religion, all these beliefs have their own pitfalls and paradoxes to deal with although, granted, free-thinkers don’t feel obligated anymore to listen to Sunday morning sermons.

And this is what I find most fragile about this brand of atheism: It has no choice but to explain each and every instance of the “miraculous” or the “supernatural” as an event that is possibly only within the realms of science.

The soul, malevolent spirits, design in Nature — all this would be rejected a priori no matter how much they help explain the data or make sense of the world.

Having one’s breath taken away by a rainbow is reducible to an electro-chemical reaction in the brain, intimacy and love are ultimately just hormonal, and concepts like “good” and “evil” entirely arbitrary.

Having said that, I think people of religion need to listen to this group of folks as they won’t hold back about what’s “not working” with our religious traditions. If religionists can swallow their pride and superiority complex, we can learn from their honesty and questions.

Mystical atheism

If basic atheism is primarily a rejection of institutional religion, then what I call mystical (or advanced) atheism is a dedicated belief not in gods but in a universal force of sorts.

If free-thinking atheists are content to say they don’t believe in god, these atheists will insist they believe in either a “cosmic consciousness”; I contend that this is still a form of atheism because it’s almost no different from saying that one believes in Mother Earth and Her Extended Family.

Beliefs include the idea that existence is sustained by a sort of cosmic power. This power isn’t a person, isn’t personal, has no prescribed rules or doctrines for people to follow, and has no desire to “be in a relationship” with anybody.

It’s like the Force in Star Wars. This force or power doesn’t care about “religious festivals” because to care requires a personal Care-r (get it?). And if one cares, then by definition one is personal. Trust me, neither pizza nor stones nor your shoes care about anything.

Not unlike oxygen, this Force is ultimately amoral, feels no emotions, is indifferent or simply is. Those who “believe in” this power usually do their best to “tap” into it, to go with its flow, to harness its energy and even be “one” with it (see note 1).

It’s all about learning and enlightenment; basically, existence is one huge TED Talk delivered one mantra at a time.

If you check out the teachings of, say, Deepak Chopra, you get a flavour of what I’m talking about it. Yes, the phrase “gods and goddesses” (see note 2) is thrown out occasionally but if you read carefully it’s essentially a cover-word for “human possibility.”

In Chopra’s system — as in most New Age spirituality (the most popular term which describes this brand of atheism, IMO) — there is no named personal deity to whom you can direct prayer towards, let alone are accountable to.

Paradoxically, these atheists wouldn’t find problematic the idea of people praying to Jesus or Krishna because they accept all religions as many streams flowing into an Ultimate Stream.

My biggest complaint of this kind of belief is that it eventually mirrors the worst kind of institutional religion i.e. it serves as a crutch for people to continue in the rat race.

If we are not accountable to any meta-Person, and if the height of our spirituality is the universe telling us how “full of potential” we are, then we have not gone far beyond the average motivational seminar.

Nevertheless, I salute folks in this group for their usually above-par sensitivity to ecology, to culture and to human flourishing. Frankly, I’d rather spend a few hours with Paulo Coelho or Jim Carrey (see note 3) than with Zakir Naik or Pat Robertson.

Weapons-grade atheism

Finally, there is a kind of atheism which rejects all the above kinds. Usually held by critical theory philosophers and political thinkers, this involves the belief there is a dark and creative underside to existence.

There is an obscene dimension and an “undead” power which is always bubbling beneath the surface of normal society, ready to explode.

No, it’s not a God nor a pantheon of powerful beings or some benign “cosmic consciousness.” It’s the grimace of the world, the trauma inherent in everything, the “generative negativity” residing in and behind thought.

Think of magma rumbling beneath the Earth’s crust, threatening to explode and bring destruction yet new life. This phenomenon is what these atheists are preaching about.

There is something “there yet not there” in human society, an unconscious underside to politics and power, which lurk in the psyche of communities, waiting to erupt and change everything.

People like Hegel and Marx were among the first to write about it, calling it dialectics or materialism; then thinkers like Derrida, Žižek and Badiou updated and revitalised this entire line of thought, using terms like deconstruction, the Real, the Event and so on.

The bottom line is that atheists of this flavour always talk about that undercurrent running through human society which can, at any time, unravel the world as we know it.

In this sense, one could argue that they mirror institutional faiths at their most powerful and dangerous, at least to the status quo.

This god-rejecting yet earth-shattering force is “weapons-grade” because whilst the followers of Eckhart Tolle will likely never get arrested for their political beliefs, the disciples of Michel Foucault and Jacques Rancière do get into frequent trouble with the law.

The latter constantly try to “speak truth to power”, telling whoever will listen that everything they think they know (yes, including religion) is one huge ideological scam to control them.

Although I wish this third mode of atheism would give more credit to personal relationships, I find it conceptually fascinating; it definitely has more teeth than the first two kinds, both which wouldn’t trouble Putrajaya in the least.

The free-thinker is too busy on Facebook, the mystical atheist is too busying seeking the goddess within, and both are generally too preoccupied with enlarging their bank accounts.

Only the weapons-grade atheist will insinuate change in society because he has given up asking if God exists, instead questioning the mode of existence powerful people prescribe as normative.

Only the weapons-grade variety will interrogate the Constitution and ask how and why a man-made document took on the status of holy scripture.

They will examine the forms God and gods take in modern society and how, in a very real sense, there are no real atheists among us.

Note 1: A friend quipped that, theoretically, Buddhists should be considered atheists as no personal gods are involved (or at least not in classical forms of Buddhism). Whilst accurate, I think a majority of self-identifying Buddhists in Malaysia pray to one or more deities. Furthermore, as we all suspect, Dr Asyraf probably can’t tell the difference.

Note 2: In fact, one popular motto of this kind of atheism is that we are all mini gods and goddesses; would Dr Asyraf consider it unconstitutional if I believed in myself as a god?

Note 3: Yes, the star of Ace Ventura has totally embraced this form of mysticism.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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