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The Courtesy of God

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The more “primitive” the Christianity, the less prominent the devil. Judaism, which Christians of the past and present fancy themselves beyond, is so primitive it hardly pays any attention to him at all. Golems, okay, but a master of metaphysical evil? “With such a son-in-law, I should need a Satan?” For the fourth- and fifth-century Christian hermits known as the desert fathers, the devil was real enough, but seems to have been something on the order of crabgrass or computer spam—nasty to be sure but perfectly manageable if you kept after it. According to patristic scholars Norman Russell and Benedicta Ward, one reason the hermits took to the desert had to do with their belief that the devils had taken flight from the cities to escape the sound of the Bible being read aloud there. In other words, the hermits were essentially on a mopping-up operation. Victory was already behind them.

Even the fantastic eschatology of the biblical Book of Revelation is entirely anticlimactic on this score. The beast appears and is immediately bound and cast into the lake of fire. I’ve known small-town exterminators to have a harder time with mice. Compare this confidence—and in the case of the desert fathers, their humor—with the fetishistic treatment of evil in American cinema, with the great Satan of the mullahs and the post-9/11 invocations of the dark side. Read the Modernist but equally Manichaean manifestos that damned tonal music as the spawn of the fascist beast, or the inquisitorial proclamations that if you like to read sonnets by dead white men you might as well go the whole nine yards and buy yourself a slave.

Then tell me a cheerful story, will you, about all the things we have evolved beyond.

May the Force take a hike

That said, I am more at ease with atheists than with sophisticated theists. I mean those people who say that God is far too big to care about their little woes, usually meaning that they are far too smart to fall for any such baloney. They are beyond anthropomorphism. They can spell anthropomorphism. For them God is sort of like a force—“whatever it was Einstein meant when he spoke of God,” as if they have a prayer of ever knowing. It is a most peculiar smugness. If I say that the source of all being is best likened to the force that assigns my sorry butt a number every time I step onto a bathroom scale, I deserve to live in the twenty-first century; if I say that this source is better likened to Albert Einstein, disheveled lover of elegant equations and gamey women, I am not fit to forgo saying grace in respectable company.

A deity who is “too big” to care for the minutiae of my secular life is as preposterous to me as a deity who rigs the raffle at St. Elizabeth’s so the parish can keep the car—and his proponents twice as vain in that they lack the forgivable inducement of the car. I would like to know what difference there is between John D. Rockefeller, who said God had made him rich, and his dot-com descendent, who says that a less anthropomorphic paradigm would make him believe. Actually, I do know the difference. The first looks out over Lake Michigan and wonders if God might be pleased to have a University of Chicago; the second parks his Beemer in the same place and takes a sanctified trot along the shore.

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  • I found Mr. (Fr.?) Keizer's take on his faith to be very personal and interesting. If I were to read more such testimonials, I would hope they could match the eloquent yet casual form of his.

    However, I was disappointed with Keizer glib assault on atheism, primarily because it was unfair and self-contradictory, and secondarily because it was completely unnecessary for him to express his own style of faith. In fact, by firing the salvos upfront (I presume for structural reasons, i.e. 'this is what I'm not; now this is what I am'), it made it more difficult for me to continue reading the essay at all, much less with the full focus of my prefrontal cortex, as opposed to my amygdala.

    Perhaps that was Keizer's intent, but for me at least, it distracted from his message.

    Specifically, I take issue with the following:

    Keizer insults Dawkins (and it was an insult) for opining somewhere in his book 'The God Delusion' that "practice of prayer is like talking to an imaginary friend", accusing Dawkins of begging the question. Well, that would be begging the question, if Dawkins were offering up his opinion on prayer as the evidence for the non-existence of gods. Having not read 'The God Delusion' myself, I can only speculate, but I highly doubt that was the context of Dawkins' statement. Keizer then remarks 'If this is the best “reason” can say for itself, God help us.' My reply is that if you can read a 416 page book, not to mention the many other works of Richard Dawkins, not to mention the multitudes of other books by atheists, and formulate a glib retort based on one sentence taken out of context, then perhaps your request for God's help should be more focused than all of "us".

    The danger, of course, of leveling such accusations is that one must be doubly sure not to discredit oneself by using the very same tactics. I feel compelled to point out that Keizer's entire essay constitutes the very same fallacy he accuses Dawkins' one sentence of demonstrating. Garret says that he considers secularism the "courtesy of God". Is that not itself begging the question? Garret distances himself from "the question" so his words must not be held up to the same standards he applies to others, I suppose. On the one hand, he wonders if there is a debate about the existence of God, and on the other hand, he continually takes a positive position in such a debate.

    I also object to Keizer's misleading characterization of atheists in general. He argues that as people tend toward atheism, they tend toward invocation of evil, and gives as an example the witch hunts of the Late Renaissance, or Bush's "Axis of Evil". It should not even need to be mentioned that most people in the Renaissance remained religious (albeit less Roman Catholic). King James I is our representative? In addition to a treatise on witchcraft, I believe he also commissioned another book, whose popularity has certainly eclipsed his thoughts on witches. Deviant from the Catholic line, perhaps, but no atheist he. A proper atheist (as opposed to, say, atheistic Buddhists) eschews unfounded belief in witchcraft and axes of evil just as much as they do the laws of Leviticus. Just because such people may not attend church so much anymore doesn't make them any more atheist. I wonder, if we lived in a society with atheist traditions, would I be justified in labeling all those who halfheartedly embraced theism Christians, and draw conclusions about Christianity from them?

    Keizer's concern is more rightly directed at those who have distanced themselves from their faith, but not from faith in general, the self-described "spiritual but not religious" crowd. As someone sitting contentedly on the other side of the fence from Keizer, I share his concerns in this department. Proper faith and non-faith share this in common: both require some convictions from the individual. It is not theism or atheism that drives a person to be good or bad, it is the strength of one's convictions. At least with a person of conviction, whether it be bad or good, you know what you're dealing with.

    Posted by Aaron on Mon 11 Jan 2010

  • Mr Keizer's essaying is terrific *beyond* all possible expectation!!! can i be at this mometoysmen (moment) more apposite and precise than that???

    i purely thrilled to every sentence
    and the care taken in its composition
    i did! i did i did i did!

    Posted by jarvitude on Tue 12 Jan 2010

  • In Keizer's essay, Camus is described as a "wistful agnostic." What wonderful imagery! That alone was worth the read. I think I'll steal the term to describe myself.

    It seems to me that spiritual experience is mostly, if not all, emotional. This inspiration, the lifting up of the spirit, the sense of comfort, even the euphoria that comes to one under all sorts of circumstances, does not necessarily require the existence of a "god."

    I'm struck that atheists as well as theists are trapped into having to define what it is that they either do or do not believe in.

    My wistfulness comes about when I want the fellowship, and the spiritual experience that comes with "religion," while my intellect has matured sufficiently that the constrained Santa Claus "god" defined by the religionists and the atheists simply doesn't do the trick any more.

    Posted by Timmy T on Sat 6 Feb 2010

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About the Author

Garret Keizer is a contributing editor to Harper’s Magazine. His next book, The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want, will be published in the spring by Public Affairs Books.

Religion! How it dominates man’s mind, how it humiliates and degrades his soul. God is everything, man is nothing, says religion. But out of that nothing God has created a kingdom so despotic, so tyrannical, so cruel, so terribly exacting that naught but gloom and tears and blood have ruled the world since gods began.
Emma Goldman, 1910
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