Red Herring

God is a red herring.

I have, at several different points, found atheism attractive. I’ve tried it out, more or less earnestly, on a couple of occasions, but the truth is my world is not quite disenchanted enough to make it stick. I’ll feel good about it for awhile, but then I’m faced with the nagging possibility that I might be wrong, that ultimately I lack the capicity for certainty (or conviction) for it to take. This is my life. I’ll not infrequently latch onto something with evangelical fervor only to give it a hearty “meh” later on.

There is, on the surface, a structural similarity in atheism’s rejection of God, anarchism’s rejection of state power, and postmodernity’s “incredulity toward metanarrative.” I’ve been attracted to all three, and cannot identify wholly with any of them, largely for the same reason I was attracted in the first place.

[I will admit to being postmodern in the sense that none of us is issued a “get out of postmodernity free” card. But I am leery of most invocations of “postmodern” or “postmodernist,” because they’re too often tossed around by people using them as gloss for things they don’t like (from one camp) or things they think they’re supposed to be (from the other), both of which miss the point.]

But there is, on a deeper level, a structural similarity betweenmonotheism and the atheistic argument that we should abandon belief in God, the anarchist call to abolish the state, and the postmodern cry to disabuse ourselves of metanarratives. They share the (largely Platonic) presumption that there is one truth, one world, a universe, that we could all agree on if we would just shed our presuppositions and see this world for what it is. In fact, there is a kind of essential utopianism at work here; if we would all just agree on this One Thing, maybe we could get along.

The three things I’ve mentioned here each have, as their One Thing, the promise of getting rid of other One Things. If we could just move beyond competing claims about God, or competing nationalities, or competing narratives in general, we could be happier. We could be at peace. We could be one. Or One. We would usher in a new age of tolerance and freedom and maybe even prosperity and — does this sound like anything?

But this obsession with the One Thing is hardly limited to monotheism or these three that remain which still bear its shape and form and substance. It lies behind every claim to have found a “third way” beyond some existing dichotomy. It lies behind every claim to a “radical paradigm shift” that will “change the world.” It is the very shape of the messianic, of the promise of enlightenment.

It’s The Secret. It’s The Answer. It’s The Call. It’s The Purpose Driven Life. It’s every fad diet, every self-help book, every theology title written by the ecclesiastical equivalent of those famous for being famous. It’s the war to end all wars, and the end of history. It’s the Meaning of Life, and the Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything.

It’s the Holy Grail and the Fountain of Youth. It’s “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” and “Jesus Saves.” It’s “Don’t Worry; Be Happy” and “don’t sweat the small stuff.” It’s self-actualization, self-awareness, self-realization. It’s being yourself. It’s becoming your best self. It’s your higher self. It’s your hidden self. It’s getting over yourself.

It’s the face you had before your parents were born. It’s the Buddha-nature and the Godhead and Brahma. It’s the revolution, the Singularity, the Omega Point. It’s the return to Eden, and the escape from Eden, the Second Coming of Jesus and “the democracy that is to come.” It’s everlasting peace and the Final Battle. It’s the One World Order and the end of empire.

I haven’t believed in God in any kind of conventional sense for about 10 years now. I’ve been trying to deal with that ever since. I had a lot resting on this particular shelf, and when it came crashing down I was left with a considerable mess. But I don’t call myself an atheist because it’s not my inability to believe in God that’s the issue; it’s my inability to believe in the One. This is not about God but about the very structure and shape of belief, and the structure and shape of my own subjectivity.

I don’t know what lies beyond our perception, nor do I know how accurate our perceptions are. I don’t think there’s a single vision of the world on which we all should agree — let alone one on which we’re likely to agree — and I’m sick to death of claims to have found it, regardless of who is making those claims or how explicitly such claims are made.

We are not going to agree because none of us can claim access to non-contingent knowledge. No matter how deeply felt, no matter how soundly theological, the believer’s reasons for believing have far too much to do with the believer’s life circumstances, experiences, and place in history. Ditto the atheist. And no, for the record, rejecting the One Thing is not my One Thing. Nice try. I need to believe what I’m articulating here for exactly the same kind of contingent reasons as the believer and the atheist. Mine is not a third way; it’s just a way. It’s how the world looks to me. It has value not in being the One Thing, but in being the one thing that, for right now, I can say I honestly think.

God is a red herring.

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