In the context of the discussion on modernity and Bhaktivinoda Thakur, I had the following notes that were not included. These are more or less disorganized.
...It should be noted that the general response of liberal Christianity has been to identify religion most generally with the search for meaning (See Terry Eagleton, The Meaning of Life). The influence of modernism, however, has been such as to "demystify" the religious tendency: the experience of God and the experience of the world have somehow become indistinct. In other words (in the Christian way of expressing it), since God created the world as an expression of his own desire, (or in the Hindu way of expressing it) the world is a manifestation of Himself or His energies, that therefore the highest value in life can be found in this world--in its pleasures and pains, in the life experience itself. In the hierarchy of values, of course, justice, love and compassion stand at the forefront, and to act in accordance with these values is to be close to God. Devotion to God himself as distinct from these values is either considered unnecessary or tacked on as a mere afterthought--"Thank you, God, for these gifts, etc." For moral atheists, there is no need for God; for the this-worldly theists, God has receded into the background.
In our Gaudiya Vaishnava world view, this is called aropa-siddha bhakti, or karma-misra bhakti, and is at best an incomplete expression of devotion, inasmuch as it is does not look for a definition of the self beyond this body. Indeed, Christians (and Muslims) traditionally believe in a resurrection of the body, which means the immortality of identifying with it, and along with it the pleasures associated with it. Since the devotional concept of a heaven where angels play harps and sing God's praises for eternity (a Vaikuntha concept of the divine abode) is no longer seen as particularly attractive, and a God who requires such adulation as somewhat unworthy, most people prefer the few short years of their human existence and the pleasures it affords over the necessity of making sacrifices for such dubious pleasures. In the debate between Hitchens and Sharpton (See link below), Hitchens even compares such a heaven to North Korea: a place where there is no freedom of thought and everyone is obliged to mindlessly praise the faultless leader!
This sudden resurgence of atheistic literature (the one instigated by Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, et al. See e.g., Aggressive Atheists by Margaret Bunting, Amongst the Disbelievers by Daniel Lazare, The Nature of Belief Debate on ABC Radio, Debate between Al Sharpton and Christopher Hitchens) is a result of the current predominance of religious culture in inciting violence in the world, particularly amongst Muslims, but also an important section of fundamentalist Christianity. The Hare Krishna Movement has shown that it can go either way. I am glad that Bhaktivinoda Thakur gave us the progressive option, in that we do not have to adhere slavishly to the letter of any law.
In my opinion, believers and non-believers are engaged in an eternal debate. Believers are subjected to a constant criticism of their faith, and like all rational beings, they must take these matters seriously. This is why Bhaktivinoda Thakur makes the distinction between komala and madhyama sraddhas, where the second level of faith is the process of incorporating doubt.
I was just listening to Rochan Prabhu talk on one of his "Prabhu podcasts" about his belief in freedom of speech being a "Brahminical principle" and his insistence that even new devotees should be given more autonomy in their religious life. Here I am in complete agreement with him. Any possibility of Vaikuntha becoming North Korea must be avoided at all costs. Spiritual life is about realizing the fullness of our individuality and our unique relationship with God; sadhu sanga is about a voluntary association of like-minded individuals who speak the same spiritual language, whose game or dance with God is made up of the same steps.
Taking a guru is about finding someone to teach you that dance. We hate mind control so much in the West, but in fact our options are limited. They are limited from even before our birth by our genes, by our forefathers, by our language and nationality. They are limited by our upbringing, by the character, personality and fortunes of our parents, by our association, our siblings, our companions. They are limited by our education, our teachers, by history and fate. So how much control can we ever expect to exercise over our minds and thoughts? But just as we wish to learn Kungfu by going to a Sensei, or learn ballet by going to the appropriate teacher, and thus learn how to make the right physical moves, we go to the guru to learn how to make the appropriate mind moves, to dance our minds toward Krishna in bhakti.
The basic problem of atheism is that it provides no meaning; meaning is something that has to be self-created or self-induced by individual will. Believing in God on its own does not necessarily help, as all the meanings provided by belief are susceptible to being punctured if they become a vehicle for exclusionism, excessive self-abasement, or other psychological ills. The truest meaning provided by belief in God is that this world is ultimately good and that we are all meant to add to its goodness through identification with him. Atheists who reject God because God seems a little too much like Kim Il Jong have just met the wrong believers.
But, sadly, God sometimes does resemble Kim Il Jong. This is because he responds to the desires of his believers, and some really are hoping to become eternal slaves of a Great Dictator. If this were not so, how could so many in this world willingly accept such a state? This is why we believe in a God-hierarchy, along with the Gnostics and other emanationists, that "the God of this world", or the Demiurge, or some less perfect manifestation of the God-concept, is only a partial conception of the Deity.