Monday, February 7, 2011

Is New Atheism Impoverished?

"What sad times are these when passing ruffians can say 'Ni!' at will to old ladies!"

Or so, I believe, begins another critique ("The poverty of the new atheism" by Scott Stephens) of the New Atheists whose work, it is noted more in sadness than in anger, cannot match the genius of the work of previous atheists. These atheistic ruffians run roughshod over all respectful decent thinkers with no respect for their betters. Yet, here we are again, wondering in what particular way these ruffians have failed. Stephens explains,

What made the atheist tradition proper so potent was its devotion to the tasks of flushing out the myriad idols, often unperceived, that clutter human society, and dismantling all the malign political, economic and sexual uses which those gods were made to serve.

I had always thought that the power of the atheist tradition was its argument against the existence of God, but still Stephens is right that there has always been more to atheism than that. Stephens obliquely notes in this paragraph, however, that he will not address any substantive argument for or against the existence of God or on any other non-ad-hominem topic. Stephens claims,

But there was another aspect of this tradition - frequently overlooked and now almost forgotten - that immunized it against the excesses and indiscretions which will almost certainly consign the "New Atheism" to the status of an early twenty-first century fad, like the recent spate of Hollywood remakes.

Obviously, it is a truly low insult to claim that anything in contemporary American culture is similar to Hollywood remakes. The recent Batman movie, Dark Knight, is clearly a degenerate form of the great television series of the 1970s.

Stephens is far too sophisticated to worry about whether the claims atheists make are true or justified; rather, he worries for the depth of our souls and the caliber of our expressions of our deepest feelings. Strangely, the devaluation of culture Stephens discovers only afflicts atheists, or, at least, we need make no mention of the way in which contemporary American culture dumbs down any discourse.

There seems to have been an innate sense among atheists that the Promethean quest to topple the gods demands a certain seriousness and humility of any who would undertake it. Hence those atheists worthy of the name often adopted austere, chastened, almost ascetic forms of life - one thinks especially of Nietzsche or Beckett, or even the iconic Lord Asriel of Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy - precisely because our disavowed idolatrous attachment manifest in practices and habits and cloying indulgences, and not simply in beliefs (this was Karl Marx's great observation about the "theological" dimension of Capital).

I do wonder in what sense Nietzsche's work represents asceticism, austerity, seriousness or humility. Isn't that everything Nietzsche denied? Free-thinkers should be joyful, proud, unafraid, not cowering like the wretched theists before their insipid god. Maybe Stephens is reading Joe Nietzsche, not Friedrich. Or, maybe, Stephens only refers to the personal habits of the New Atheists: the New Atheists dress unflatteringly or eat too much or indulge in other unpleasant ways. Your pardon, good sir, but does this joyful iconoclastic rejection of traditional religion make my butt look big?

But, no, Stephens is not referring to personal austerity. Instead he refers to a recognition of the awful existential dread that any atheist must face as the price of perceiving the world without the comforting illusions of religion. After quoting Marx, Stephens explains,

[Marx's] point is that religion acts as a veil draped across the cold severity and injustice of life, making our lives tolerable by supplying them with a kind of "illusory happiness." Hence, for Marx, religion is a palliative. But tear away the illusion, remove those narcotic fantasies to which people cling and from which they derive a sense of contentment, and they will be forced to seek out true happiness through justice and self-determination.

There follows more quotation from Marx that I'll skip in order to address Stephens's interpretation.

It is here that the great paradox of Marx's critique lies. The only way to effect change on earth is by waging war against heaven, that is, by abolishing religion and its every arcane form. In this way, Marx says, "the criticism of heaven is transformed into the criticism of earth."

But Marx's critique of religion has an unexpected twist, a barb in the tail that implicates the "Lites" by exposing the deeper complicity concealed by their cynicism. For, to be "dis-illusioned" in Marx's sense is not heroically to free oneself from the shackles and blinders of religious ideology and thus to gaze freely upon the world as it truly is, as Dawkins and Harris and even Hitchens would suppose.

Rather, to be "dis-illusioned" is to expose oneself to the anxiety of the bare, unadorned fact of one's existence, to live unaided beneath what Baudelaire called "the horrible burden of Time, which racks your shoulders and bows you downwards to the earth".

There you have it. Contemporary atheism has too little angst, not enough existential dread, too much joy at seeing the world as it is without enough fear of what that world really is. If only we were a little more depressed about our atheism, and recognized the terror of our existence without the comfort of religion, Stephens would be happy for us. He's like the depression Santa Claus, bringing lumps of coal to little atheist boys and girls, until we are all miserable in our recognition of our insignificance, the injustice of reality, and our utter inability to create a world in which we would want to live.

Why is existential dread the proper attitude? Isn't it just as appropriate to feel joy in the freedom from our the "shackles and blinders" of false religion? Must we feel terrified of the inevitable nothingness we all face? Or can't we with equal justification live joyfully in the brief moments we have available? What's the argument that one attitude is appropriate and the other not?

I skip a bit. Apparently, the problem arises from failing to rip away all the possible sources of illusion. In particular, capitalism replaces one illusion, religion, with another.

The great irony of capitalism is that its progress has seen the corruption and fragmentation of morality and the decimation of institutional religion, but in their place persists the menagerie of pseudo-moralities and plaintive spiritualities (often in the form of so-called Western Buddhism or what Martin Amis calls "an intensified reverence for the planet") that somehow sustain, or perhaps lubricate, its global machinations.

To paraphrase Marx, the abolition of these false moralities and neo-paganisms would constitute the demand for the rediscovery of authentic reason, integral morality and sustainable, virtuous forms of communal life. And here the "New Atheists" fall tragically short.

By failing to pursue the critique of religion into the sanctum of global capitalism itself, by reducing discussion of morality to a vapid form of well-being and personal security, and by failing to advocate alternate forms of virtuous community - all in the name of "reason" - they end up providing the pathologies of capitalism with a veneer of "commonsense" rationality.

Wow. Who knew I had to reject capitalism along with theism? I would have thought the two "-isms" were relatively independent and that a rejection of one did not mean I had to reject the other. Perhaps I should reject environmentalism too; no doubt it too is chock-full of illusory and vapid conceptions of well-being. Of course, neither I, nor any no atheists I know of, advocate a morality based purely on "a vapid form of well-being and personal security." Morality is not just about feeling good and not being harmed. Perhaps Stephens thinks all atheists are utilitarians, but I don't think this is obvious, so Stephens appears to be attacking a strawman here.

In all seriousness, I would be happy to argue that contemporary American worship of capitalism devalues humanity, the environment, and replaces authentic human goods with cheap baubles. No doubt capitalism devalues us all in ways much reminiscent of traditional religion, and I, for one atheist, would not argue that the cheap rationalizations of the capitalist in support of the excesses of capitalism are any better than the cheap rationalizations of the theist for the failures of religion. Nonetheless, humanists, naturalistically-minded philosophers, physicalists, and atheists have different targets, and we have enough to keep us busy with our own chosen field without fighting on all fronts at once. Few atheists are likely to think that there's just one source of error or illusion. And there are atheistic political philosophers aplenty to address capitalism.

Stephens continues,
However noble the goals of the "New Atheism" may be, armed with nought but an impoverished form of commonsense rationality (of which Sam Harris's The Moral Landscape and the rather unwieldy The Australian Book of Atheism are the most opprobrious examples I've yet seen - but more on these books in a later piece) it is simply not up to the task of confronting the idols and evils of our time. Ayaan Hirsi Ali has recognized as much and has thus proposed - though not unproblematically - an alliance between atheism and Catholic Christianity.

It's not clear what the critique is here. I believe it's that Harris's book relies on a common sense concept of rationality in order to undermine traditional religion, but this common sense is not robust enough to confront the evils of global capitalism. Perhaps not, but few think that rejecting God will solve all humanity's problems. I think Harris's idea is that rejecting God based on sound reasoning is a step in the right direction. While religion controls humanity's minds, there is little room for reason to gain control, and little possibility of solving the very real problems we all face together. Should rationality not be accessible to common sense? Perhaps common sense rationality is impoverished--it's always good to question whether our conception of rationality is the best one. Do we need some higher form of rationality that will help solve humanity's problems? If it's a form of rationality on which we can accept both atheism and theism at the same time, it's not a kind of rationality I can understand.

Christianity and atheism have been intertwined from the very beginning, such that their relationship is rather like two sides of a Moebius strip - follow one side far enough and you suddenly find yourself on the other. It was, after all, the first Christians that ripped the mouldering shroud of paganism off the cultures of late-antiquity by their scandalous declaration that God raised Jesus from death, thereby redefining what it might mean for God to be "God" in the first place. The resurrection of Jesus was thus the death of "God" and the destruction of the unjust and idolatrous politico-social edifice constructed around him.

As we approach the end of the article, we come to a truly baffling paragraph. I don't see Jesus' being raised from the dead as redefining "God". I think the idea that a human could also be a god was well-established in the official state religions of Rome, that the emperors were gods. It's more likely that treating Jesus as a god was defining Jesus and God in terms comfortable to the Romans. If Jesus' return from the dead meant the death of "God", then Stephens needs to inform quite a few Christians of that fact since they seem not to have noticed.

More generally, I understand how one might start doubting the religious claims of one's culture and come to reject god after god. And, indeed, belief in one God is, in some sense, less extravagant than belief in many. Moreover, the philosophers who adapted Christianity in late antiquity certainly understood the problems with anthropomorphic conceptions of the gods, and the more abstract conception of God they adopted avoids some of those problems. However, it creates other problems, say with the testability of claims about God or the difficulties making claims about a divine being who affects the world yet exists outside time. So, avoiding some problems created others, and this could have led many atheists to reject even the attenuated religion of the sophisticates. So, in some respect, theism might lead to atheism, but how can atheism be led along the Moebius strip back to theism?

Stephens quotes David Hart on Christian as idolatrous enemies of respectable Roman society and religion. Fair enough. But dogmatically rejecting one religion in favor of another need not earn anyone's respect. And even if one respected one religion's rejection of its predecessor, one need not be led back to the apostate's new religion.

New Atheists need not fill themselves with angst at the thought of their own mortality. Probably atheists should turn their attention to other sources of evil and false morality than Christianity or religion, but there will be time for that if religion fades away. Moreover, there is no reasoning that leads from atheism back to theism. And whatever intellectual debt atheists might have to theists, it is perfectly legitimate for them to acknowledge their debt to atheists who threw off the shackles of one religion without replacing them with the shackles of another.

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