In last year’s Easter post I talked about the origin of that word, “Easter.” It is a reference to the direction, east, where the morning sun rises as a metaphor for the resurrection to come. In the early days of Christianity, new believers understood they were embracing the God of the Jews, and the bridge to humanity that He had long promised in the person of the Christ: Jesus of Nazareth. Easter celebrates the Resurrection which is the culmination of that promise, which the eastward orientation symbolized.
When people placed their hope and their trust and their eternal security in Jesus, they well understood that while they were embracing one set of beliefs, they were necessarily rejecting others. What were they rejecting? In the early days, it was paganism. I mean “paganism” in its broadest definition: that there is a supernatural sentience of sorts, in the form of demiurge gods that cavort in some place-beyond-this-place. Or, that there is a god-presence in physical things, like electricity through wires, that animates and enlivens this orb we walk around on. So catechumens then would symbolically face west, emphatically renouncing their former beliefs, and then face east, embracing the light; the resurrection; the hope.
Today, in our culture, one who comes out of darkness and into light might still face west and symbolically renounce false beliefs that lead to death, so as to then turn east, and embrace truth that leads to life. But the false beliefs being renounced are not pagan. In this culture, people don’t accept by default that there is a Zeus or Thor hurling thunderbolts. There may be some hint or suggestion of pantheism or animism among those who say they’re “spiritual, not religious,” but that’s not the default set of false beliefs, either. Today the metaphysical belief to be renounced is materialism: the belief that there is no supernatural reality of any kind. Physical things and the laws of physics which govern them are said to be all there is. Because science is the study of physical things, many people confusedly think of science as a sort of god. The god of non-gods.
Materialism, then, is the belief system that one renounces, in this culture, if one turns to God. But many don’t get to the point of renouncing or not renouncing it, because they don’t see it for what it is. Unlike Zeus and Thor and nirvana and the sacred balance of things, materialism is invisible. It is invisible because it is unrepresented by an outward symbol. To the extent it is understood at all, it is typically understood by what it is not, rather than what it is. It is not “religion.” Thus, people are lulled into rejecting religion but not even thinking about what it is they believe to be true in its place. It’s like saying “I face not-east,” rather than saying “I face west.”
If you’re a Christian, you should understand what it is you claim to have renounced. If you’re an atheist and you think your belief system is merely “unbelief,” you should reconsider.
The “god” Renounced
Atheists do not believe literally in nothing. They believe that material things are real; that time is real; that they are conscious, and that their experiences are experiences of real things. Further, that other human beings are distinct but all have similar consciousness and similar ways of interacting with the dynamic environment in which they live. So atheists believe that much, obviously.
The atheist understanding of reality excludes metaphysical (or supernatural) reality. Therefore, everything they observe that is manifestly not physical (beauty, morality, the concept of truth) is nonetheless an emergent property of that which is physical. There is no transcendent truth, but the concept of truth inexplicably remains. There is no basis whatsoever for gratitude, because to whom would the gratitude be directed? There is no basis for humility – a component of gratitude – either. Those are merely emotions that confer survival advantage because of their contribution to social living. Same with the impulse toward religion. Same with the strong but false impression that there is any purpose for our existence. Nothing is beautiful unto itself. Beauty is a projection onto things outside ourselves, for purposes of making us more fit for survival.
Nothing is inherently right or wrong. Though we are awash in moral considerations, all the time, in the inmost core of our being, that is only because social consensus dictates morality so that we can live socially; again, for survival advantage. This socially-constructed morality is so important to us that we – alone among the animals — put transgressors on trial for violating it. But we never pause to consider that our materialist beliefs mean that the transgression occurred only because of the sum of physical actions and reactions up to the moment of the transgression. The transgressor has no actual responsibility for it. Law and the enforcement of law is purely for benefit of the tribe. It has nothing to do with any moral imperative apart from the sum of human experience and behavior boundaries that it produces.
These are doctrines. The sum of them constitutes a dogma. That dogma is all the more insistent in our culture because it is hidden from view. Imagine you are ushered into a dark room and asked to describe what is there. The right answer is: “I don’t know, but something is there. It’s not ‘nothing.’” The wrong answer is: “Nothing. Because it’s dark.”
If we pay attention to what’s going on in the culture, we will come to understand that materialist dogma is presented in a way that is every bit as dogmatic as the explicit doctrines of Christianity. In fact, they are presented in a way that is more smug, overweening, and preachy than Christianity is supposedly presented. Everywhere you look, principles that could only derive from materialist ideology are put forward in a way to excite social approbation. It is moral preening, worse than any Christian hypocrisy I have ever observed, and that’s saying something.
We should turn and face east. Of course we should understand what it is that we turn toward. But likewise, we should understand what we turn away from.