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.