A Genealogy Of Atheisms

One of the things I continue to appreciate about The New Republic is its serious engagement with theological issues and ideas. Today over at TNR blog Damon Linker posted a response to Kevin Drum’s reponse to David Hart’s post about the New Atheists which I excerpted here on my blog. Linker’s response is as charming and irenic as it is lucid.

He summarizes Hart’s frustrations with the New Atheists as follows:

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.

Drum’s critique of Hart’s critique is that in the end it begs the question:

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.

Linker brings out an important omission of the New Atheists that is highlighted by Hart:

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. [emphasis mine]

Linker doesn’t think that all atheism must be the tragic kind. He points out cheery skeptics like David Hume. But Hume’s atheism was cheery and rigorously developed, not superficial. And this I take as Linker’s (and he is not alone in this) frustration with the New Atheists. It is not their atheism. It is the seeming superficiality of it all, and the kind of unbounded optimism that characterized a naive and imperialistic early 20th century Protestantism (which gave birth to magazine titles like “The Christian Century”). Here again Linker says it far better than I can:

…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…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.

Enough With The New Atheists Already

David B. Hart’s assessment of the New Atheism is a must read for believers and non-believers alike. If one has an exceedingly low tolerance for feisty rhetoric, then this piece will be tough to slug through, though still well worth the effort. For example:

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…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?…I am not—honestly, I am not—simply being dismissive here. The utter inconsequentiality of contemporary atheism is a social and spiritual catastrophe.

It’s not as though Hart has no appreciation for atheism. On the contrary, he recognizes that

…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.

What I enjoyed most about Hart’s reflection was the marked appreciation for Nietzsche, who comes off as a figure who (rightly in my opinion) deserves our admiration and gratitude:

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…Because he understood the nature of what had happened when Christianity entered history with the annunciation of the death of God on the cross, and the elevation of a Jewish peasant above all gods, Nietzsche understood also that the passing of Christian faith permits no return to pagan naivete, and he knew that this monstrous inversion of values created within us a conscience that the older order could never have incubated. He understood also that the death of God beyond us is the death of the human as such within us. If we are, after all, nothing but the fortuitous effects of physical causes, then the will is bound to no rational measure but itself, and who can imagine what sort of world will spring up from so unprecedented and so vertiginously uncertain a vision of reality?…For Nietzsche, therefore, the future that lies before us must be decided, and decided between only two possible paths: a final nihilism, which aspires to nothing beyond the momentary consolations of material contentment, or some great feat of creative will, inspired by a new and truly worldly mythos powerful enough to replace the old and discredited mythos of the Christian revolution (for him, of course, this meant the myth of the Übermensch).