An Enlightened Philosophy: Can an Atheist Believe Anything?, by Geoff Crocker (Hampshire, U.K.: O Books, 2011, ISBN 978-1-8-84694-424-6) 132 pp. Paper $13.95.
Author Geoff Crocker is, like this reviewer, an atheist and former evangelical Christian. Perhaps as a result of religious nostalgia, Crocker wants to supplement reductionistic materialism with a depth derived from biblical mythology understood as mythology. I expected to have to resist the temptation to make this review an exercise in cheerleading. Instead, I found the too-brief work rather disappointing. The promotional hype for An Enlightened Philosophy makes the book sound like it deals in some depth with its subject matter, supplementing atheism with deeper insights from Karen Armstrong and Joseph Campbell—neither of whom, as far as I can see, makes an appearance outside of the bibliography. (Armstrong’s absence, of course, is no loss.)
By far, the lion’s share of this long essay is a series of book reports in which Crocker outlines various competing viewpoints on human freedom, materialism, metaphysics, virtue, and other huge issues but never quite comes to any conclusions; he is satisfied that whoever is right, there remains no place for the God of traditional supernaturalism. When he complains that intelligent design “theory” is unjustly maligned without spelling out why, Crocker commits a hit and run that is bound to undermine his credibility.
But Crocker is no friend of the Christian church. He has it in for the evangelical denominations for very good reasons, rightly insisting that despite their denials they are essentially Gnostics who require a slate of “right beliefs” as the ticket to salvation. They are pugnacious, narrow, intolerant, and fools to take myths literally. (It strikes me as odd, however, that Crocker seems to take for granted traditional ascriptions of authorship, crediting sayings in all four gospels to a historical “Christ” [not even the less theological “Jesus”] and attributing the anonymous 1 John [as tradition has it] to “the Apostle John.”) Charismatics are bubble-headed enthusiasts, while Catholics are cruel totalitarians.
But the religious are hardly the only wide swath of humanity that Crocker does not like. Capitalists are also targets of his wrath, as well as anyone who supported the invasion of Iraq. Crocker’s smug leftism (not to imply that leftism must be smug) is irritating. In the manner of doctrinaire liberation theologians, Crocker suggests that the biblical (Hebrew and Greek) words most often translated as “righteousness” should rather be translated as “justice” (apparently regardless of context) to change the thrust of biblical teaching to a social and collective emphasis from a selfish, private devotionalism. Yes, it might, but is that what the authors intended, if Crocker even cares? Israel, he pontificates, would find peace only if it were to think for once about justice for the Palestinians. Surely Crocker cannot be so naïve and ill informed about that situation.
With his long and unremitting laundry list of historic human failures, it is surprising to see Crocker bemoan dogmas of original sin, which hardly seem to make humanity a worse bunch of vermin than Crocker makes them. He lists various virtues as catalogued by recent secularist philosophers, one supposes, to show by example (rather than by argument) that secularism is compatible with moral values. These virtues, he opines, ought to be considered “divine” to provide an absolute center of value homologous to the now-defunct God of theism.
I am not clear on what most of the book’s cursory and often platitudinous summaries of modern problems and debates have to do with the supposed utility of ancient, especially biblical, myth. When he finally gets to the supposed myths, it becomes apparent that Crocker has no interest in myths. All he has to say is that secularists, especially politically liberal secularists, might find occasional biblical phrases or allusions rhetorically helpful in arguing a case they have already decided on prior grounds.
If one were interested in pursuing the questions that the publisher’s publicist promises are inside An Enlightened Philosophy, one might better spend one’s time with Rudolf Bultmann’s famous essay (not mentioned in this book) “New Testament and Mythology” (available in Kerygma and Myth, ed. Hans Werner Bartsch [Harper & Row, 1961]); Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity [various editions, including a handy abridged version]; and R.B. Braithwaite’s booklet, An Empiricist’s View of the Nature of Religious Belief [Cambridge University Press, 1955]).
In 1941, Bultmann, a Lutheran theologian, freely admitted that the modern world held no place for a mythical deity or for the primitive conception of a son of God who came to Earth to redeem humanity by his blood sacrifice. Bultmann admitted that scientific psychology disallowed the old belief that spirits holy or unholy could intervene in the human psyche. He knew miracles were superstition. But he insisted that myth—when rightly understood as the fictive articulation of a community’s existential self-understanding—could be the vehicle for a new and more authentic human existence. Unlike Crocker, Bultmann knew what myth is and how to interpret it to unlock what it has to teach us about our lives (“demythologize” it).
Feuerbach, in the nineteenth century, contended that the true divinity belongs to the virtues that reside in the human heart, not in some imaginary deity orbiting above the earth like an invisible satellite. He charged theists with being the real atheists because it is they who deny divinity where it may be found—in us. Feuerbach is granted no mention in Crocker’s pages either. Nor is Braithwaite, who argued, more concisely and without the dead weight, that to be Christian is to read religious statements primarily as moral motivators that school and express one’s conscience in the (fictive) stories of Christian scripture (though the approach works just as well in any other religion with any other scripture).
If you want something more modern than the works I have mentioned, may I suggest Don Cupitt (also unknown in Crocker’s manifesto) and his work Taking Leave of God (London: SCM Classics, 1980, reprinted 2010), which gives all these issues the treatment they so richly deserve.