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Another Kind of Atheism

About 2-1/2 years ago I wrote an essay for TNR in which I criticized the so-called new atheists (primarily Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens). A few months later, I followed up with a critical take on Bill Maher’s Religulous. In both cases, my focus was politics. There was, I argued, something deeply illiberal about the new atheists’ intolerant hostility to the spiritual beliefs of their fellow citizens. I still believe that, as readers of my forthcoming book will discover. But the more I read and ponder the writings of the new atheists, the more I find myself rejecting them for more fundamental reasons.

To explain why, let me direct your attention to a recent post by Kevin Drum in response to a powerful essay by theologian David B. Hart. (For a note on my complicated history with Hart, see here.) Hart’s essay irritatedly dismissed the new atheists for two defects: First, they show no sign of confronting and wrestling with (or even understanding) the most serious philosophical arguments of the Christian theological tradition; second, they show an almost complete lack of awareness of all that was gained (culturally and morally) by the advent of Christianity and seem blithely unconcerned about what would be lost (again, culturally and morally) were it to vanish from the world.

In response, Drum dismisses, and mocks, Hart’s own attempt to sketch a more philosophically adequate and rigorous account of God than the new atheists typically engage with. And that leads to the core of my problem with Drum and the rest of the new atheists. Toward the end of his post, Drum responds to Hart’s efforts to highlight the positive influence of Christianity by writing that “to say merely that Christianity is comforting or practical—assuming you believe that—is hardly enough. You need to show that it's true.” Now, this seems to be exactly what Hart was attempting to do in the very passages of his essay that Drum dismissed and mocked. But let’s leave that aside.

What’s most disappointing is Drum’s failure to grasp the culminating point of Hart’s essay, which, as I take it, is this: the statements “godlessness is true” and “godlessness is good” are distinct propositions. And yet the new atheists invariably conflate them. But a different kind of atheism is possible, legitimate, and (in Hart’s view) more admirable. Let’s call it catastrophic atheism, in tribute to its first and greatest champion, Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote in a head-spinning passage of the Genealogy of Morals that “unconditional, honest atheism is ... the awe-inspiring catastrophe of two-thousand years of training in truthfulness that finally forbids itself the lie involved in belief in God.” For the catastrophic atheist, godlessness is both true and terrible.

Now of course Hart would prefer that kind of tragic atheism. He’s a believer, after all. But the fact is that a number of atheists themselves have staked out a similar position. Take the example of physicist Steven Weinberg. In his 1977 book about the earliest origins of the universe (The First Three Minutes), Weinberg stated in passing that “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless.” When some of his fellow cosmologists objected to the choice of words, accusing him of expressing, if only implicitly, some form of theological nostalgia for a non-scientific view of the world, Weinberg admitted that he is indeed nostalgic—“nostalgic for a world in which the heavens declared the glory of God.” Associating himself with the nineteenth-century poet Matthew Arnold, who likened the retreat of religious faith in the face of scientific progress to the ebbing ocean tide and claimed to detect a “note of sadness” in its “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,” Weinberg confessed to his own sorrow in doubting that scientists will find “in the laws of nature a plan prepared by a concerned creator in which human beings played some special role.” When it comes to God, what Weinberg believes to be true and what he wishes to be true simply do not coincide.

Nietzsche and Weinberg are hardly the only catastrophic atheists. Poet Philip Larkin thoroughly rejected belief in God while also recognizing that a life lived in the glaring light of “the sure extinction that we travel to” could be nearly unbearable at times. Playwright Eugene O’Neill seems to have thought that a life stripped of all illusions, including theological illusions, would be intolerable, plunging us into despair and madness. And then there is the rather extreme case of Woody Allen.

The point is not that atheism must invariably terminate in a tragic view of the world; another of Hart’s atheistic heroes, David Hume, seems to have thought that it was perfectly possible to live a happy and decent life as a non-believer. Yet the new atheists seem steadfastly opposed even to entertaining the possibility that there might be any trade-offs involved in breaking from a theistic view of the world. Rather than explore the complex and daunting existential challenges involved in attempting to live a life without God, the new atheists rudely insist, usually without argument, that atheism is a glorious, unambiguous benefit to mankind both individually and collectively. There are no disappointments recorded in the pages of their books, no struggles or sense of loss. Are they absent because the authors inhabit an altogether different spiritual world than the catastrophic atheists? Or have they made a strategic choice to downplay the difficulties of godlessness on the perhaps reasonable assumption that in a country hungry for spiritual uplift the only atheism likely to make inroads is one that promises to provide just as much fulfillment as religion? Either way, the studied insouciance of the new atheists can come to seem almost comically superficial and unserious. (Exhibit A: Blogger P.Z. Myers, who takes this kind of thing to truly buffoonish lengths, viciously ridiculing anyone who dares express the slightest ambivalence about her atheism.) 

So by all means, reject God. But please, let’s not pretend that the truth of godlessness necessarily implies its goodness. Because it doesn’t. 

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