Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Empty Throne

Atheists like me need to have a positive relationship with the concept of "nothingness." The rising Humanist movement bemoans mere atheist identity as one formed around a lack, an absence-- but, while I appreciate the core values of reason and dignity offered by the humanists, I am still inspired to say that there are positive lessons and values to be gleaned from the "nothing" at the core of atheism.

My previous religious commitments were always hierarchical. As a young boy, I found security and direction in a generally pyramidal structure of reality-- God at the top, my ancestors and their experience of miracles and revelation in the middle, and me and all my fellow humans at the bottom. Within this structure, the chain of command was established and clear.

My loss of faith, beginning with an introduction to biblical criticism (which troubled the middle layer), ultimately removed the top of my reality pyramid. As a former believer, I cannot simply 'get over' the fact that there is no One presiding over reality. Apropos to Nietszche's madman prophesy, the "breath of empty space" is a daily experience, reminding me that humans as conscious/conscientious beings are alone in the world.

But the potential hubris in humanism lies in the name itself-- human-ism, as if to say that we worship humans. I think there can be an assumption, in a purely secular world, that humans are "in charge." And perhaps we are more "in charge" than anything else around, but I think it's vital to realize that the lesson of atheism is that no one is absolutely "in charge." Removing God from the top of the pyramid should not be the precursor to placing humanity at the top. Dethroning God, only to enthrone ourselves-- that is the idolatrous temptation lingering in the shadows of atheism. I won't say that atheists need to cultivate "humility"-- that word hits too many people as the beating stick of sanctimonious, abusive power. How about "modesty"? For me, "modesty" speaks to our smallness, our recognition of natural limitations. "Modesty" is the virtue of someone who knows they are neither the lowest nor the highest.

Let's leave the throne empty. The image of the empty throne should inspire modesty. There is a holiness to this empty space at the top-- a position of great power and privilege, from which no one should feel capable of speaking. A reminder of our finitude, regardless of the presence or absence of an infinite being. We don't need to make "absolute" claims in order to claim dignity. The power of reason in science is the ability to test our claims, and reject disproven ideas. Thus, dignity and reason already include the notion of modesty. But let's keep listing modesty next to dignity and reason-- in order to deflate the apparent hubris in humanism.


  1. is the throne really "empty"? i mean, if we dethrone God (or mammon, or ego-centrism, etc.) don't we just foist upon the throne another version of something that can be seen as equally lofty/unbelievable/unattainable? a throne is a throne whether God sits on it or love, or justice, or the 1927 new york yankees. trying to replace the big bearded boss in the sky with ourselves or a sense of community (ie: Good without God) just creates a new person/concept to be dethroned later. the dethroning is an interesting concept...and necessary if you're raised to believe something was there and then come to believe it is not. but i'd like someone to convince me that the throne is not empty...there isn't even a throne room.

  2. Hi Joe-- sorry for the long long delay in response. The reason why I like the "empty throne" image is that it's a self-negating symbol. The throne symbolizes power and authority, and its emptiness reminds us that no one gets to sit on the throne and make total claim on these things. The fact is, there is the possibility of someone wanting to claim total power and authority-- that's a space capable of being filled (though, as I'm saying, not legitimately). Thus there is a throne, or if you like, a throne room. I just don't want any making claim on it.

  3. One other idea to ponder on your approach of “replacing God with good” (from some later blog titles) – people have historically accused Humanists of treating “man” as “god” – worshipping humanity and its powers as a new idol. The truth is that NOTHING is god for us: there is no god-shaped space left after the removal of the concept from our active beliefs. Think of it this way: if someone leaves a job, you can replace that person directly, or you can farm out their tasks to other people, either making sure absolutely everything that person who left did is now being done or else letting go of some of the things he did. The parallel: if we no longer have a God (particularly “God1”), we can fulfill some of the psychological, personal, social etc. functions the old God did through secular ethics, spirituality through connection to nature and art, increased emphasis on real human connections, human-enacted justice systems and so on. But some of the “jobs” God1 did just go away: absolute confidence in the righteous receiving their reward, the cosmic personality caring for you, revealing scripture, intervening in history, etc. So “replacing God with good” is using “good” to fill some of the jobs “God1” filled, but not a direct substitution.

    In other words, it's not that the throne is empty - there is no throne any more!

  4. Yes! I really like this idea of farming out the tasks of god... it makes a strong case about the weaknesses of monotheism, how a single being/symbol cannot do the work of cultivating a fulfilling life for humans. God's jobs are now up to us, not that we can absolutely fill His "shoes"... but no one else has the job.

    I still want to hold onto "the empty throne" because it's a great symbol that reminds us to leave the position of "God" empty. Respecting the empty throne wards us away from absolutism.