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Stephen Asma, a professor at Columbia College, Chicago contributed the front page editorial in yesterday’s Dallas Morning News “Points” section.  The article, entitled, “Craving green guilt,” compared his own youthful fears and guilt about masturbation that was engendered in him by his Catholic up-bringing with that of his son’s all-consuming concern with the welfare of the planet and what he considers his father’s profligate use of electricity.

It is an interesting essay and it makes a number of valid points along the way, not the least of which is the religious function that many people’s political and social concerns play.  He even notes the social utility of such struggles as a brake on behavior that might otherwise explode in the violent self-defense of little more than personal privilege.

But at the end of the argument it is clear that Professor Asma attributes that struggle to little more than a social propensity and equates religion with a rather more venal and pointless version of that propensity.  Asma writes:

“Environmentalism is a much better hang-up than worrying about the spiritual pitfalls of too much masturbation.  Even if it’s neurotic, it’s still doing some good.  But environmentalism, like every other ism, has the potential for dogmatic zeal and obsession.  Do we really need one more humorless religion?  Let us save the planet, by all means.  But let’s also admit to ourselves that we have a natural propensity toward guild and indignation, and let that fact temper our fervor to more reasonable levels.”

Apart from equating all religion with venal preoccupations and describing all religion as “humorless,” there is a deeper problem with this essay which makes an otherwise important point.  The fervor of various social commitments is not a substitute for the guilt with which we struggle, it is all too often a substitute for a belief in God and the sense of purpose and meaning that goes along with it.  You see it among even religious people whose spiritual commitments amount to little more than a list of social and political convictions.  A functional atheism, it is faith, seeking meaning and purpose, but without God.  Such functional atheism will engender guilt — and despair.

2 Responses to “Functional Atheism”

  1. Debbie Low-Skinner says:

    The term “functional atheism” reminds me of the term “functional hypoglycemia”. The latter meaning that even though you don’t medically have clinical hypoglycemia, in the presence of stree, your body’s metabolism acts as if it has hypoglycemia. Along those lines, functional atheism as you describe is like going through the motions and doing good as if you believed in God, though deep down, in the interior of your soul, you are not so sure. I think this same point was made in Mother Theresa’s diaries after her death. She had done so much exemplary charitable work among the dying and needy in Calcutta, but she confessed in her diary that struggled with her belief in God. I am also reminded of the depressed priest character in Gail Godwin’s novel “Father Melancholy’s Daughter”. He went through all the motions of prayer and pastoral work that a good priest should, but lost his faith a long while ago. He hoped that by going through the motions, his faith would somehow come back. And if what he did accomplished some good (though it did not restore his lost faith) at least someone else benefitted from it.

  2. Mark Goode says:

    Oh, the wonders of a liberal arts education — and the horrors that afflict those without one. It seems that Professor Asma missed a few classes in biology and psychology. The guilt that he describes (“gee I could have killed that guy for jumping into line ahead of me”) is the natural outcome of a functioning Prefrontal Cortex! Without this marvelous piece of our brain ( we wouldn’t hesitate to kill that fellow! This guilt isn’t going to be assuaged by any religious experience either . . . it is our brain’s way of reinforcing a healthy boundary on our behavior.

    And if he thinks that there is some parallel between his son’s concern over the environment and his childhood obsession with masturbation, I’d suggest he see a good therapist . . .

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