Pathetic Atheism

After watching the Vexer of Plebes take his usual swipes at the beleaguered Dawkins, I followed his link and found the essay by David B. Hart to be even better than I expected. By that I mean that on a site with a much bigger readership than this blog, Hart has written what I was thinking I would have written if I had a much bigger readership and lots of time.

I think I am very close to concluding that this whole “New Atheism” movement is only a passing fad—not the cultural watershed its purveyors imagine it to be, but simply one of those occasional and inexplicable marketing vogues that inevitably go the way of pet rocks, disco, prime-time soaps, and The Bridges of Madison County. . . . [T]he latest trend in à la mode godlessness, it seems to me, has by now proved itself to be so intellectually and morally trivial that it has to be classified as just a form of light entertainment. . . .

In the end the book as a whole adds up to absolutely nothing—as, frankly, do all the books in this new genre—and I have to say I find this all somewhat depressing. For one thing, it seems obvious to me that the peculiar vapidity of New Atheist literature is simply a reflection of the more general vapidity of all public religious discourse these days, believing and unbelieving alike.

This is exactly how I feel about it, and it is the reason why I never actually finished reading The Irrational Atheist. In fact, while I was trying to finish it I got into a discussion with someone about The God Delusion, hoping to encounter some intense atheistic reasoning, full of hardheaded realism and scientific integrity. Instead, all I got from this other person were some juvenile clichés about the mean old man in the sky. I was stunned, and because I love this person, I told them to just drop the subject. That was probably a mistake, but I need to get over the realization that on this subject I have to talk to this adult at the level of a five-year-old.

The principal source of my melancholy, however, is my firm conviction that today’s most obstreperous infidels lack the courage, moral intelligence, and thoughtfulness of their forefathers in faithlessness. What I find chiefly offensive about them is not that they are skeptics or atheists; rather, it is that they are not skeptics at all and have purchased their atheism cheaply, with the sort of boorish arrogance that might make a man believe himself a great strategist because his tanks overwhelmed a town of unarmed peasants, or a great lover because he can afford the price of admission to a brothel. So long as one can choose one’s conquests in advance, taking always the paths of least resistance, one can always imagine oneself a Napoleon or a Casanova (and even better: the one without a Waterloo, the other without the clap).

But how long can any soul delight in victories of that sort? And how long should we waste our time with the sheer banality of the New Atheists—with, that is, their childishly Manichean view of history, their lack of any tragic sense, their indifference to the cultural contingency of moral “truths,” their wanton incuriosity, their vague babblings about “religion” in the abstract, and their absurd optimism regarding the future they long for?

Indeed. I am not educated in history, theology, or philosophy, but I think that compared to Dawkins and his playmates I have a better grasp of the major themes in atheistic thought just from my casual reading over the last 30 years of various atheist philosophers.

I am not—honestly, I am not—simply being dismissive here. The utter inconsequentiality of contemporary atheism is a social and spiritual catastrophe. Something splendid and irreplaceable has taken leave of our culture—some great moral and intellectual capacity that once inspired the more heroic expressions of belief and unbelief alike. Skepticism and atheism are, at least in their highest manifestations, noble, precious, and even necessary traditions, and even the most fervent of believers should acknowledge that both are often inspired by a profound moral alarm at evil and suffering, at the corruption of religious institutions, at psychological terrorism, at injustices either prompted or abetted by religious doctrines, at arid dogmatisms and inane fideisms, and at worldly power wielded in the name of otherworldly goods. In the best kinds of unbelief, there is something of the moral grandeur of the prophets—a deep and admirable abhorrence of those vicious idolatries that enslave minds and justify our worst cruelties.

That is on the money. There is an honorable tradition in Christianity and Judaism of disputing religious claims, testing doctrines, examining the scriptures, and judging other believers by their fruits.

A truly profound atheist is someone who has taken the trouble to understand, in its most sophisticated forms, the belief he or she rejects, and to understand the consequences of that rejection. Among the New Atheists, there is no one of whom this can be said, and the movement as a whole has yet to produce a single book or essay that is anything more than an insipidly doctrinaire and appallingly ignorant diatribe.

If only the atheists I know were that ambitious. Instead, they just want to use such diatribes to comfort themselves that someone else has figured out why they hate Christianity.

I can’t stand the blubberings of adults who in 60 years have never advanced beyond the bitter rivalries, petty whining, and unexamined prejudices of their early childhood. They cling to some superficial tautology like a piece of rotten driftwood because they are so paralyzed by the fear of personal responsibility.

The only really effective antidote to the dreariness of reading the New Atheists, it seems to me, is rereading Nietzsche. How much more immediate and troubling the force of his protest against Christianity seems when compared to theirs, even more than a century after his death. Perhaps his intellectual courage—his willingness to confront the implications of his renunciation of the Christian story of truth and the transcendent good without evasions or retreats—is rather a lot to ask of any other thinker, but it does rather make the atheist chic of today look fairly craven by comparison.

How many times I have tried to explain this to other Christians! Most of them just don’t get it, and even less do the wimpy little pseudo-atheists who cower at anything that smells like ultimate consequences.

Above all, Nietzsche understood how immense the consequences of the rise of Christianity had been, and how immense the consequences of its decline would be as well, and had the intelligence to know he could not fall back on polite moral certitudes to which he no longer had any right. Just as the Christian revolution created a new sensibility by inverting many of the highest values of the pagan past, so the decline of Christianity, Nietzsche knew, portends another, perhaps equally catastrophic shift in moral and cultural consciousness. His famous fable in The Gay Science of the madman who announces God’s death is anything but a hymn of atheist triumphalism. In fact, the madman despairs of the mere atheists—those who merely do not believe—to whom he addresses his terrible proclamation. In their moral contentment, their ease of conscience, he sees an essential oafishness; they do not dread the death of God because they do not grasp that humanity’s heroic and insane act of repudiation has sponged away the horizon, torn down the heavens, left us with only the uncertain resources of our will with which to combat the infinity of meaninglessness that the universe now threatens to become.

So, faced with some ambiguous sense of the existential problem facing them, what do the willfully ignorant, mentally insectoid modern atheists turn to? Why, the mythology of scientific truth, of course!

Where Nietzsche was almost certainly correct, however, was in recognizing that mere formal atheism was not yet the same thing as true unbelief. As he writes in The Gay Science, “Once the Buddha was dead, people displayed his shadow for centuries afterwards in a cave, an immense and dreadful shadow. God is dead: —but as the human race is constituted, there will perhaps be caves for millennia yet where people will display his shadow. And we—we have yet to overcome his shadow!” It may appear that Nietzsche is here referring to “persons of faith”—those poor souls who continue to make their placid, bovine trek to church every week to worship a God who passed away long ago—but that is not his meaning.

He is referring principally to those who think they have eluded God simply by ceasing to believe in his existence. For Nietzsche, “scientism”—the belief that the modern scientific method is the only avenue of truth, one capable of providing moral truth or moral meaning—is the worst dogmatism yet, and the most pathetic of all metaphysical nostalgias. And it is, in his view, precisely men like the New Atheists, clinging as they do to those tenuous vestiges of Christian morality that they have absurdly denominated “humanism,” who shelter themselves in caves and venerate shadows. As they do not understand the past, or the nature of the spiritual revolution that has come and now gone for Western humanity, so they cannot begin to understand the peril of the future.

Reading this essay has made me think about how pathetic the atheist perspective is, and I mean “pathetic” in the dramatic sense. It makes me feel guilty for not being more assertive with my non-Christian family.

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