How Atheistic Is the New Atheism

Ji anyone has written a book more critical of religious faith than 1 have, I m Eiot aware of it,

For many years I taught an introductory theology course entitled "The Problem of God" to Georgetown University undergraduates. It was always a challenge to make out a suitable reading list for this important academic experience, but my fellow instructors and I were convinced that our students should be exposed to the most erudite of the unbelievers. Our rationale was that any mature commitment that intelligent young people might make to a religious faith, if they so chose, should be critically tested by the very best opponents. The course was at times troubling to some students and especially to the rare youngsters who came from creationist backgrounds or whose previous religious education had not dealt frankly w i th the natural sciences. But it was also an eve-opening course for students from nonreligtous and atheistic backgrounds. They had to go through the process ot learning that religion is infinitely more ntranced than they had ever imagined. Additionally, they would be exposed to theologies that would be much more devastating in their criticism of the demonic and barbaric aspects ofh umar rel ¡giosiry than any o fthe new atheists are.

I cannot speak for other college professors today, bur in my own classes the new books by Daw kins, Harris, and Hitchens wTould never have made the list of required readings. These tirades would simply reinforce students' ignorance not only of religion, but ironically also of atheism. At besr [he new atheistic expositions would have been useful material (or outside reading* group projects, or class presentations. And the point of these peripheral exercises wo uid not have been to provide anything in the way of an increase of wisdom and knowledge. Rather, it would have been to see how well the relatively light fare the new atheists serve up compares with the gravity of an older and much more thoughtful generation of religious critics.

The most original "new" msighr in Hitchenss book, for example, is chat "religion is man-made" (8, 10, 17* 52, 54, 99-100, 115, 130, 151, 156, 167-68,181,202,229, 240).This refrain rattles through the pages of his critique with all the force of a startling revelation. My students would have knmd it interesting, to say the least, that such a hackneyed insight would be the organizing center of a best-selling new book, After coping with the science-inspired atheism of Sigmund Freud or Qertrand Russell and the humanistic idealism of Ludwig Feuerbach and Karl Manx, the new atheism would have appeared rather haggard since it provides little in the way of a new understanding of why religion can be so dangerous.

As far as enhancing knowledge of religion is concerned, the new atheists do little more than provide a fresh catalog of the evils wrought by members ok the theistic faiths. Meanwhile> truly inquisitive young minds remain restless for deeper insight. Even Freuds theory of religions origin, along with those of Feuerbach and Marx, no matter how flawed it may have seemed to my students« at least held their attention and started them thinking about whether the whole business of religion might be an illusory human creation. In comparison with the old masters of the projection theory my students would have found Hitch ens s book rather tame stuff. For wrhile Feuerbach, Marx, and Freud provide interesting theoretical frameworks for their theories, ! litehens provides nothing of the sort.

On tlie other hand, I suspect that my students would have been titillated by rhe recent writings of Dawkins, Dennett, and others who profess to give a biological, evolutionary explanation ofwhy people believe in God. They would have learned in our course that there is no good theological reason to object to any scientific attempts to understand religion, even in evolutionary terms. The course would have made it clear that religion can and indeed should be studied as a natural phenomenon. After all, this is the only way science can study anything, and its insights are completely compatible with any good theologv. But for reasons I expand on in chapters 5 and 6, my students would have rightly wondered whether evolutionary theory^ or any natural or social science, can give a complete and adequate understanding of religion. During our one-semester course students would already have encountered in Freud's book The Future of an Illusion the claim thar science alone is a reliable road to true understanding of anything. And they would have learned from other readings that this claim is a profession of faith known as scientism* a modern belief system that has the additional mark of being sell-contradictory.

Why self-contradictory? Because scientism tells us to take nothing on faith, and yet faith is required to accept scientism. What is remarkable is that none of the new atheists seems remotely prepared to admit that his scientism is a self-sabotaging confession of faith. Listen to Hitchens: "If one must have faith in order to believe in something, then the likelihood of that something having any truth or value is considerably diminished (71). But this statement invalidates itself since it too arises out of faith in things unseen. There is no set of tangible experiments or visible demonstrations that could ever scientifically prove the statement to be true, In order to issue the just-quoted pronouncement with such confidence, Hitchens already has to have subscribed to the creed of a faith community for which scientism and scientific naturalism provide the dogmatic substance. And Hitchens must know that most people do not subscribe to that creed, perhaps because there is no "evidence" for it.

"Our god is logos? Freud proudly exclaims in The Future of an Illusion, candidly signifying the creedal character of the central dogma enshrined hy the whole community of scientific rationalists." The declaration makes for good class discussion, but whenever I asked my classes to evaluate Freud's claim that science is the onlv reliable road to truth, it did not take them long to recognize that the claim itself: is logically self-defeating since it could never be justified by any conceivable scientific experiment. Most of my students would have had no difficulty realizing that scientisrn is also the self-sub verting creed that provides the spongy cognitive foundation of the entire project we are dignifying with the label "new atheism/'

Had they been required to read Harris's two books, my first-year collegiates would also hardly have tailed to notice how often the Stanford graduate student exhorts his readers to give up their belief in God because it is not based on "evidence." Evidence is a word that shows up with great frequency in Harris's manifestoes, signifying its importance to the young scholar, But since it is clear that for Harris evidence really means what is available to scientific knowing, there is nothing in his working assumprion that my students would not have encountered already in the empiricist naturalism that Freud and Russel! adopt as their shared world view.

For this reason, after taking ' The Problem of God" course, the vast majority of our undergraduates would have deemed it silly tor anyone to maintain that science can decide the question of God. Yet this is exact! v what Richard Dawk ins, the j worlds best-known evolutionist, claims in The God Delusion (48, 58—66). Harris and Hitch ens also agree with Dawkinss assertion, even though they seem too circumspect to blurt it out so plainly Science, Dawkins believes, can decide the question of God because of its potential command of all the relevant evidence. Yet this claim likewise makes no sense for the simple reason that scientific method by definition has nothing to say about God, meaning, values, or purpose. It took a long time tor human thought to arrive at the point oi realizing, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, that it does not need to talk about God all the time when explaining how things work. So rh inkers of great genius came up with a method of inquiry we now call "science*' wrhich can tell us a lot about the world by looking only at natural causes. But here we have Dawkins, who holds the Charles Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, telling us that the question of God has now become appropriate subject matter for science too. Dawkins surely must notice the irony, bur it does not bother him, "It may be/ he confesses, "that humanity will never reach the quietus of complete understanding, but if we do, I venture the confident prediction that it will be science, not religion, that brings us there. And if that sounds like Scien-tism, so much the better for scientism/ ^ Being so explicit is an improvement on trying to cover up the new atheisms grounding assumption, but it docs nothing to firm up the logical softness of that uncertain foundation.

l ogic, however, was not the only issue that our introductory theology course had to consider. Also at stake was whether, if wc seriously held atheism to be true, it would make a big difference to our lives and self-understanding. The new atheists, of course, would respond that it should make a big difference. But would it? We saw in the previous chapter how their four evident truths have the purpose of eliminating unnecessary misery and thus promoting happiness. But their popular and readable books offer no profound discussion of what "happiness" means/1 The image of human fulfillment that emerges from their writings is one in which our present lifestyles will remain pretty much the same, minus the inconvenience of terrorism and creationists. Our new self-understanding will be informed by Darwinian biology hut we can expect that our moral and social instincts, rooted in biology as they are, will remain unmodified except for slight cultural corrections that will need to be made after religion disappears,

Unlike the sheltered circumstances that the social!v conser-

vative new atheism seeks to save, the classical atheists, whose writings my students were required to read, generally deman dcd a much more radical transformation of human culture and consciousness. This transformation became most evident when we moved on from Freud, Feuerbach* and Marx to ihe much more severe godlessness in works by Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Camus, and Jean-Paul Sartre—the really hard-core atheists. To them atheism, ¡f one is really serious about it, should make all the difference in the world, and it would take a superhuman effort to embrace it. "Atheism," as Sartre remarked, ^s a cruel and long-range affair. ^ Along with Nietzsche and Camus* Sartre realized that most people will be too weak to accept the terrifying consequences of the death of God. However, anything less would be escapism, cowardice, and bad faith.

By contrast, my students would have noticed immediately that the authors 1 am examining in this book want: atheism to prevail at the ieast possible expense to the agreeable socioeconomic circumstances out of which thev sermonize. The new

atheists' ¡merest is in preserving rather than radically reforming the cultural milieu uncritically reflected in their wishes for a safer world. They would have the God religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—simply disappear, after which we should be able go on enjoying the same lifestyle as before, only without the nuisance of suicide bombers and TV evangelists. We should be able to salvage the best that life has to offer right now, but without worrying about getting blown up by God-inspired fanatics.

Not that the new atheism, once implemented, would make no difference at all But it would be a cosmetic correction in comparison wTirh the seismic redefinition of human existence that the truly serious atheists demand. The rwo most significant changes the new atheists want to make are, first, that science rather than faith would become the foundation of the new-world culture, as Freud and Russell had already anticipated; and* second, chat morality would be rooted completely in reason. Science, they hope, would be emancipated from superstition, and the ethical instincts that natural selection has been sculpting in our species for over 2 million years wrould be finally liberated from their crippling bondage to religion/' People would then continue to cultivate essentially the same values as before, including altruism, but they would get along quite well without inspired books and divine commandments. Educators wTould be able to teach science without creationist intrusion, and students would learn that evolution rather than divine creativity is the ultimate explanation of why we are the kind of organisms we are. Only propositions based on "evidence" would be tolerated, but the satisfaction of knowing the truth about nature by way of science would compensate for any ethical constraints we would still have to put on our animal instincts.

This approach to atheism, of course, is precisely the kind that nauseated Nietzsche and made Camus and Sartre cringe in their Left Bank cafes. Atheism at the least possible expense to the mediocrity of Western culture is not atheism at all. It is nothing more than the persistence of lite-numbing religiosity in a new guise. Please note that I am not promoting Camuss absurdisr philosophy or Nietzschean and Sarrrean nihilism either. But these more muscular critics of religion were at least smart enough to realize that a full acceptance of the death of God would require an asceticism completely missing in the new atheistic formulas. Atheism, as my students acquaintance with Nietzsche, Camus, and Sartre would have clarified, must be thought out to its final logical conclusions. In this respect the new atheism, when measured against the stringent demands of a truly thoroughgoing unbelief, would be exposed as differing only superficially from the traditional theism it wants to replace. The blandness of the new soft-core atheism lies ironically in its willingness to compromise with the politically and culturally insipid kind of theism it claims to be ousting, Such a pale brand of atheism uncritically permits the same old values and meanings to hang around, only now they can become sanctified by an ethically and politically conservative Darwinian orthodoxy. It the new atheists wishes are ever fulfilled, we need anticipate little in the way of cultural reform aside from turning the worlds places of worship into museums, discos, and coffee shops.

In this respect the new atheism is very much like the old secular humanism rebuked by the hard-core atheists for its motisiness in facing up ro what the absence of God should really mean, If you're going to be an atheist, the most rugged version o( god-lessness demands complete consistency. Go all the way and think the business of atheism through to the bitter end; before you get coo comfortable with the godless world you long for, you will be required by the logic ot any consistent skepticism to pass through the disorienting wilderness of nihilism. Do you have the courage to do that^ You will have to adopt the tragic heroism of a Sisyphus, or realize that true freedom in the absence of God means that you are the creator of the values you live by, an intolerable burden from which most people would seek an escape. Are you ready to allow simple logic to lead you to the real truth about the death of God? Before settling into a truly atheistic wo rid view, you would have to experience the Nietzschcan Madman's sensation of straying through ' infinite nothingness/ You would be required to summon up an unprecedented degree oi courage if you plan to wipe away the whole horizon of transcendence. Are you willing to risk madness? If not, then you are not really an atheist/

Predictably, nothing so shaking shows up in the thoughts of Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens. Apart from the intolerance of tolerance, which we noted earlier, and the heavy dose of Darwinism that grounds many of its declarations, soft-core atheism differs scarcely at all from the older secular humanism that the hard-core atheists roundly chastised for its laxity. The new soft-core atheists assume that, by dint of Darwinism, we can just drop God like Santa Glaus without having to witness the complete collapse of Western culture—including our sense of what is rational and mora]. At least the hard-core atheists understood that if we are truly sincere in our atheism the whole j web of meanings and values that had clustered around the idea of God in Western culture has ro go down the drain along with its organizing center. Nietzsche, Camus, and Sartre, and perhaps several of their postmodern descendants, would have nothing to do with the vapid skepticism that fails to think atheism through with perfect consistency.

"If anyone has written a book more critical of religious faith than I have, Im not aware of it," declares Sam Harris,8 My students might not be so sure. Has Harris really thought about what would happen if people adopted the hard-core atheist's belief that there is no transcendent basis for our moral valuations? What if people had the sense to ask whether Darwinian naturalism can provide a solid and enduring foundation for our truth claims and value judgments? Would a good science education make everyone simply decide to be good if the universe is inherently valueless and purposeless? At least the hardcore atheists tried to prepare their readers for the pointless world thev would encounter if the death of God were ever j taken seriously They did not form a project to kill God since they assumed that deicide had already taken place ai the hands of scientism and secularism. But they wanted people to face up honestly ro the logical, ethical, and cultural implications of a godless world.

Nietzsche, Camus, and Sartre also tailed to embody the tragic heroism that they thought should be the logical outcome of atheism. They turned out to be very much like the rest of us. Still, their failure actually fortifies the conclusion that at least some of my students arrived at in "The Problem of God" course: a truly consistent atheism is impossible to execute. And if hard-core atheism cannot succeed, it is doubtful that the sofi-core variety will make it either. After reading Nietzsche's fevered discourses about the creation of new values that would need to take place once people reaiize that the God idea is fiction, the actual ethical prescriptions he endorsed ended up sounding at best like a juiced up version of the oki He thought that once we realize there is no Creator, our own newly liberated creativity would be able ro impregnate with wholly new meanings and values the infinite emptiness left behind. After we have drunk up the sea of transcendence, there should be endless room for a whole new set of ethical imperatives. Yet one can only be disappointed with what Nietzsche devised. His new set of rules for life sound at one extreme suspiciously like monkish asceticism, and at the other like run-of-the-mill secular humanism: Be creative." "Pont live lives of mediocrity!" "Dont listen to those who speak of otherworldly hopes!" "Remain faithful to the earth." Nietzsche in no way leaves behind what he first heard from the Bible. His call to a Fresh "innocence of becoming" and "newness of life" is at least a faint echo of the biblical prophets and Paul, only without the virtues of love and hope,LJ

Similarly, Camus made a curious transition—without telling us exactly why—from the absurdism of his early writings, The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus, to the moving humanism or The Plague and the rather traditionalist preoccupation with mora! guilt in The Fall He must have come to realize that the utter hopelessness of his early nihilistic atheism could not provide a space within which people can actually live their lives. Meanwhile Sartre, once he had assured us that there are no God-given commandments, ended up sounding almost religious in issuing his "new" imperative, namely, h Accept your freedom!1 For the early Sartre it was always wrong (' bad faith") to deny our freedom and that of others. But as much as he wanted all of this to sound radically new, in order to make his atheism palatable he had to argue that his "existentialism" is really a form of "humanism after all.3" So if even the hard-core atheists fail to Carry out their program of erasing every rrace of transcendent values from their moral universe, then how much less can our soft-core atheists expect, logically speaking, to accomplish such a goal?11

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