The Great Atheism Controversy in Germany

ATHEISM resurrection of reasoning.JPG
The Resurrection of Greek Reason by Darwin Leon






German philosopher, religious thinker, and political radical, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, was accused of atheism. After being appointed professor of philosophy at Jena in 1794, he had begun a series of public lectures on Sundays, from ten to eleven o’clock, much to the consternation of the clerics. A local journal declaimed on Fichte’s revolutionary politics, accusing him of subversively substituting the worship of Reason for the worship of God.

That was a very serious charge in view of the situation over in Paris, where images of the savior and saints had been pulled down in churches renamed “Temples of Truth” and replaced with effigies of Reason and Liberty and paintings of natural objects such as flowers. Atheism was in vogue there to the extent that, if a priest bothered to even mention god in church, people openly guffawed.

Fichte, however, had no such mummery or cynicism in mind, although he was enthusiastic about some of the French Revolution’s basic principles, and he had written such tracts as “Reclamation of the Freedom of Thought from the Princes of Europe and Contributions Designed to Correct the Judgement of the Public on the French Revolution.”

The formal charge brought against Fichte, for worshiping Reason on Sunday, was resolved in his favor by the university senate of the Weimar government, with the proviso that any future lectures be given at three o’clock on Sunday afternoons instead of in the mornings. No such compromise was available however, in the matter of Atheismusstreit, the great Atheism Controversy which arose out of the publication of his 1798 essay on divine governance, “On the Basis of Our Belief in the Divine Governance of the World.”

The grand duke of Weimar had a liberal respect for scholarship, yet he wanted the whole thing hushed up; nevertheless, Fichte insisted on raising a vigorous public response to the anonymous charges against him, because, he said, the matter at hand was a vital public issue concerning the most fundamental of all freedoms. After all, a public airing of both sides of the atheism controversy would expose the stupidity of the authoritarian morons. Fichte had promised that he would resign if censured by the governing authority. As it were, he was mildly rebuked, but his offer to resign was accepted and he was dismissed from his university post. His dismissal was followed by anonymous public attacks on his character. The political authorities of various regions in Germany were embarrassed by the scandal, and they, in turn, ordered the journal publishing Fichte’s purportedly atheistic views confiscated, and they forbade students from their precincts to enroll at the university in Weimar.

What did Fichte say that outraged the anonymous religious authorities? In fine, he averred that god is the “World Moral Order.” That sufficed to outrage the theists.

Fichte thought that a person truly believes in god if he does his duty “gaily and without concern,” without fear or doubts about the consequences. A true believer is not afraid of the hateful hypocrites who go about casting anonymous aspersions on someone else’s version of faith.

As for the atheist, Fichte claimed that “the true atheist… raises his own counsel above god and thus raises himself to god’s position” by concerning himself with the consequences of doing his duty. The real atheist is a religious hypocrite who is concerned with what he can get out of his religion, the selfish person who does his duty concerned only with what is in it for him. As far as Fichte was concerned, doing one’s duty is imperative and not categorical, for duties by definition must be done regardless of the consequences. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about moral imperatives; for instance, the imperative not to lie: “You must not lie,” Fichte said, “even if the world were to go to pieces as a consequence.” So one should be willing to sign his own name to his beliefs and suffer the consequences therefor.

It may appear to the reader that, if the same good works are done, then the practical effects of selfish atheism and dutiful theism are the same, leaving the question of a person’s faith in god, which is really nobody else’s business. As long as the outward observances are dutifully observed, whether or not someone believes in god or not is between her and god. As for lying, the biggest lie of all is told by those who profess the existence of god but do not really believe god exists. If only people would start telling the truth about god, nation, party, family, and person, we would embrace our common humanity, in which pessimists believe a world war might break out.

Do not worry, advised Fichte, the truth will not cause the world go to pieces. If the truth is good for anything at all, surely it will keep the world intact. “The plan of its preservation could not possibly be based on a lie,” quoth he. Obviously, if god does exist, god is not a liar. Wherefore for Fichte, the moral world order that is god does not have to be proved; rather, it is the objective ground or presumed hypostasis necessary for certitude.

Fichte was not an atheist at all in the learned opinion of many great theologians who happened to be influenced by him. He was, one might say, an ethical pantheist who believed that god’s moral order or logos was present in every individual and available to each conscientious individual. That perspective naturally led bigoted dogmatists to charge Fichte with the mortal sin of deism, for intolerant bigots insist that deists are atheists. Deism affirms the existence of god and of rewards and punishments after death, and posits that each person aided by reason can discover the few simple truths of religion. Since god gives all normal humans reason, god’s doctrines are no secret; there are no specially anointed authorities who alone are able to understand and interpret god’s word. Conscience is a private matter. The deity winds up the universe like a clock and leaves us to do our duty or not. Finally, as to the form of worship, the deist worships god with good works. Deism, incidentally, was not unique to Europe; several founding fathers of the United States of America were democratically oriented deists.

The professors of stupidity charged Fichte with “making himself God” because of his reliance on reasoning rather than their irrational objective dogma. Fichte’s moral world order, however, was not the mundane mores of the mob or crowd, but was the real moral order of a supersensible realm where duty is not done for pleasure’s sake but for its own sake. His concept of Absolute Transcendental Idealism and the Absolute Ego or “I” smacked of heresy to bigots who wanted some godly object to idolize, a god of self-hate projected somewhere out there opposed to man and nature.

An object-god, say an imagined father-god who is out there somewhere, say in an imagined heaven, and who is opposed to man and to nature, is more of devil than a god. And it is for that reason that we should also be wary of Fichte’s absolute idealism, his apparent divorce of the subject (god and man) from the object (world and society). Furthermore, his idealistic con-fusion of god and man on the subjective side is dangerous, for an idealist who thinks his personal ideals are the one and only reality may dutifully be as intolerant as the religious bigot.

Indeed, an examination elsewhere of Fichte’s patriotic German utopia reveals a totalitarian dystopia. If he had known what we now know about the consequences of that line of thinking in World War instead of World Moral Order, he would not have been so enthusiastic about his German nationalism.

On the other hand, the wild, anarchistic hand as opposed to the totalitarian, heavy hand, we might admire Fichte for his assertion of the freedom of the will, the absolute freedom of thought and expression associated with the subjective nature of individualism.

In any event, Fichte was viciously and anonymously slandered by the professors of faith for expressing his conscience. The cowardice of the professors in remaining anonymous indicts their religion of ignorance, fear and hate. A profoundly faithful person rests secure in her faith; she is not pressed to prove the existence of her god; she certainly feels no need to make anonymous personal attacks on others. Naturally those who are insecure in forced faith fear that someone else’s reasoning might pull the rug called faith from beneath them, a rug laid on the shaky ground or shifting sands of their irrational fear, hence they respond anonymously unless they have a supporting mob; they answer with hate instead of love and would disallow any song except their own, desperately strident one.

College students conducting a recent study of hate-mongering cults were surprised by the loving friendliness the hate-cult members showed towards each other and towards new recruits. They love not the god of neighborly love piety raves about, for they condemn all to hell who do not agree with them. Surely this is not the worship of the god of love so many man-hating magpies chatter about in their assemblies, in churches, in neo-fascist meeting-places, but is rather the worship of hate itself. It is in effect hate-others-based group-love, a love based on fear.

Whether or not we like Fichte’s philosophy, the Great Atheism Controversy he was involved in, even though the atheism issue has grown increasingly moot since then, raises questions pertinent to our own time.

For instance, why would someone hide their name when expressing an opinion on an abstract subject unless they are terribly ashamed of their own existence expressed in words? Why are they so ashamed of themselves? Why do so many people hide behind false identities simply to insult people? And why do so many “religious people,” anonymously or not, resort to slander and libel, just as their forbears did about Fichte’s private life and sexual philosophy? Why, indeed, does their real god seem to be Satan, slander personified?




Most Elusive Butterfly

From Carsten Witte’s ‘Psyche’ Butterfly Series

The Greeks likened the human soul to a butterfly and called her Psyche and made her the beloved of Eros. He took her as wife under the condition that she would not look at his face during his nightly visits. But Psyche, prompted by her sisters to suspect that he was an ugly monster, was persuaded by them to light a candle one night, wherefore she beheld a most beautiful being.
Alas, Eros, awakened by a splash of molten candle wax, discovered that his command had been disobeyed. He vanished, leaving Psyche to suffer many trials and tribulations until she, thus purified by suffering, is reunited with him forever.
The metamorphosis of distrustful Psyche from blind Lust to enlightened Agape (the ultimate union in loving friendship) has its apt analogy in the metamorphosis from lowly cocoon to the angelic butterfly. Therefore the struggling soul or fleeting mind is referred to as an “elusive butterfly.”
That old Greek myth, derived from an even older folktale, survived the centuries because it expresses the truth of the existential contradiction between “reality” and “imagination” which moves life expectantly forward to the wedding of mind and body in passionate embrace. Along the way there are many high peaks and low valleys for the “over-sensitive” soul who rises from depression to mania, where she is relieved of her burden at the glistening peak for a brief moment, but then the Stone rolls back down into the dark pit where she must, like Sisyphus, follow the Stone to take up the Stone yet again. Sisyphus, who cheated Death and was therefore sentenced by the gods to the repetitious Task which he performs willingly to spite the vigilant gods, is the model prisoner. The Stone he rolls up and down is the Sun, therefore the performance of his Task enlightens all who are free of his most onerous burden.  But Sisyphus has hardened to the Task over the eons. We mere mortals rarely enjoy his resolve, nor do we in our habitual rounds illuminate many of our fellow creatures.
Now everyone has experienced the ups and downs of life; but a few people, driven to extremes, feel them even more, as if the gods were angry at their defiance of gravity and exaggerated the heights and pitfalls in these ecstatic/melancholy souls for man’s own damned good. Most of us have some sanctuary in massive normality where we are allowed the comfort of the middling road; a few others are given a roller coaster ride and made to suffer even more for human willfulness; the wax affixing their wings is melted by the Sun during their grand imaginative flights, plunging them into the abyss of despair. Whether all this is by material accident or divine design or both, we shall leave the doctors of science and divinity to decide in their laboratories and oratories.
In fact, the nosological doctors have long been doing their best to sort out the different species of elusive butterflies in their respective precincts. Learned men have always noticed a marked propensity for gifted prophets and poets to be quite mad at times; even uneducated laymen have noticed mental abnormalities in many of our most gifted artists.
 I prefer my artists a little mad, don’t you? For their inspired art has more feeling and originality, something refreshingly sincere and insanely novel about it, as if it were inspired by the gods who are quite arbitrarily mad themselves, or at least not quite rational when we merely moral mortals reason on them and their immortal immorality.
I think many artists are enthused or “god-possessed” men or women who need to practice their art to overcome their high flying contempt for mundane reality and their grave depression. Art hopefully allows them to level off their flights of imagination and curb their steep declines by being somewhat “normal.”
By normal I mean engaged and employed, being at least creatively useful in order to participate as “productive members of society.” I believe art keeps many artists out of mental hospitals, prisons, and morgues, and otherwise serves the community well by providing a vicarious life to those engaged by other occupations. Indeed, the spirit of art is the inspiration for all human endeavor. Therefore it disturbs me when I see talented artists unable to develop or pursue their novelties for lack of real social support. Grants are all too few and too little, and there are too many fortunates who look to the costs rather than to the benefits of supporting artists with what they require the most: ample time to appropriately respond to their respective muses.
Now I do not speak of every Tom, Dick and Harry who fancies himself a painter or writer. Tom, Dick and Harry are content to dabble in the arts as hobbies, thus they are blessed with a well-balanced life. I speak of those who are possessed by the Urgent Idea, those whose psyches have been fatally struck with the abiding urge to create yet who suffer imprisonment in regular jobs that do not afford them with the time they need to pursue their higher calling to the end it demands. To add to their woes, many of them despise the normal, bourgeois pursuit of money and curse the hands that clutch it, so they never get the wherewithal from business or appanage from patrons to buy their freedom. I recently found such an artist, a young American writer who happened to be sorting pig semen files for a prestigious Iowa law firm.
I speak of none other than Amy Hillgren Peterson, an author whose first published book is Elusive Butterfly.
Amy received her BA cum laude in English. She has worked as a public affairs specialist, Spanish translator, private investigator, legal assistant and freelance journalist. In 1999, the law firm where she worked as a high-level paralegal assigned her to a case involving a dispute over techniques for artificial insemination of pigs with genetically engineered swine semen. Her task was to create a filing system and to organize swine semen charts, a clerical task far beneath her skill-level. Although there were several people handling hundreds of boxes of files, Amy was accused of losing or misplacing crucial semen charts, whereupon she flew into a rage and was fired.
Amy threw herself into her book. I encountered a sample chapter on the Internet. I was charmed by her passionate intelligence. She is obviously a “street-wise” intellectual, a rare butterfly nowadays, just the sort of author I emulated when I was a young man with high hopes for a creative writing career. I was a bit surprised to see such sensational yet idealistic work from Generation X. Amy is, according to her bio, “sensitive, arrogant, kind, bipolar, intelligent, passionate, resourceful and cool.” I believe she is right on all counts, with one reservation regarding cool, when she loses her cool.
Elusive Butterfly is Amy’s novelized memoir. It has not gotten the attention it deserves. It has received much favorable criticism, although several complaints were voiced about production and editing quality. Only one critic, an anonymous Internet identity using ‘The-Doc’ as his handle, trashed it, and in such a rude manner that his virtual reputation as both medical doctor and literary critic was utterly ruined. He castigated the author in lewd terms for the revelation of her college escapades and for her romantic characterization of bipolarity. He took umbrage with and quoted the following excerpt from Elusive Butterfly, one which I personally find to be a beautiful expression of the Eros and Psyche dialectic:
“(We) make love at midnight and again at dawn. I know, even as I lay beneath him, that I’m letting sex masquerade as love, but inside the parenthesis of the moment, I make them one and the same. In the half-light of early morning with adorations whispered in my ear, I can convince myself that when two bodies merge together in an act to produce a third, if only his can sink far enough into mine, we can create a perfect whole: me.”
To that, ‘The-Doc’ said: “It is this insipid romanticism of casual sex and idiotic female neediness that really disgusted me about this book!”
Then he went on a rampage of disparagement to which the Internet writing community responded vigorously in defense of Amy.
A commentator who identified himself as Leonard Marks, PhD., castigated the bad critic as follows:
“Your obvious obsession with ‘slutiness‘ defines you as a monogamous misogynist, and begs for a therapeutic deconstruction of your social conditioning. The possession of one woman as private property is a crime against modern humanity. Not until women are factually loved regardless of their superficial characteristics will the monogamous misogynist (who is in his self-deprivation; i.e., self-hate, really a misanthropist) be freed in LOVE. In fact, calling this marvelous woman a ‘slut’ works against your vile intent, as it makes her even more attractive to true men of genius. I suggest that you approach as many ‘sluts’ as you can with a repentant heart and engage in promiscuous discourse with them. As for Peterson’s writing abilities, judging from what I have seen she is the best author around, with exception perhaps of the Bald Guy.”
In his review of Elusive Butterfly, ‘The-Doc’ also took Amy to task for her saying, “…bipolar disorder provides a mixture of the transcendent and the trashy in one soul. It has been described as a cycling from kaleidoscope to pitch darkness and back again. But within even a manic episode there is the experience that pushes the limits of the soul…”
From cocoon to butterfly: so what is the hostile critic’s problem?
He says it is because “Amy makes bipolar disorder look like fun.”
As if those who are bipolar do not know what it is; as if those who are bipolar have a choice, as if those who are not bipolar will want to be bipolar and have the chemist make it so!
We all have our butterflies which are at once abilities and disabilities. Amy has her butterfly. I have my kite. You have your own contraptions. So let us use our wires and waxed wings, levers and pulleys and strings and other things to fly anon. Writers, pick up your pen and write.
But just as Amy was really beginning to rock and roll with her writing, she ran out of money and had to take a job. She wrote a pained article as a consequence, entitled ‘Failure: The Gravesite of Dreams.’ It was not a masterpiece by any estimation, but it pierced the heart of all obsessed artists who have experienced or who fear the experience of a brutal, time-stealing, soul-crushing day job.
“I had to do this (take a job). I’m no longer a writer. Sure, it’s seared into my soul and as I cry into my keyboard I miss it like a dear friend, or a twin. ‘You can still write for fun,’ they say. ‘Do some writing on the side.’ ‘Writing can be your hobby.’ Oh, sure, okay, I could do that right after I request a public flogging. Or I could slice out my heart with a spoon. It would be less painful.
“I have failed as a writer, and since it once defined everything I am, I don’t know anything anymore and certainly have no purpose in further prevarication. Rest in Peace, soul of mine.”
2004 Heart of America

Quoted: Peterson, Amy Hillgren, ‘Failure – The Gravesite of Dreams’, Australia: WrittenByMe, 2001