“God” was, once, a Big Idea—
Without a doubt, this is true;
So much of the world, we did not understand;
There was much that a god had to do.
In pieces and bits, we have gained understanding;
In inches and feet, we’ve gained ground;
And with each passing year, we’ve discovered
Fewer uses for God can be found
As God has grown smaller and smaller
Opposition to God also shrinks
And ideas that one were amazing
Are what pretty much everyone thinks
So atheist thinking, and atheist writing
Seems less than in previous years
As people just “fall into” godlessness…
That’s what happens, when God disappears
There are food snobs (I’m one), and music snobs (only sometimes), and fashion snobs and sports snobs and snobs of all sorts… so it isn’t really surprising that there are atheism snobs (Or purists, or whatever term you want–I honestly don’t think there should be a necessarily negative tinge to this). I found one here, bemoaning atheism’s “little idea” in comparison to the former big ideas of old:
I do apologize. It seems that everything I write these days is anti-atheist. And who can blame my unbelieving brethren for assuming I am fighting for the other side. Perhaps I should be, since modern atheism is hardly worth defending.
To be brutal, I cannot imagine a time in the history of unbelief when atheism has appeared more hamfisted, puling, ignorant or unappealing.
Oddly, I’ve got a bit from the Mikado going through my head now… “then the idiot who praises with enthusiastic tone, all centuries but this and every country but his own…” Not that the author is an idiot–that just happens to be the lyric. But the complaint?
Atheism has become a very little idea, an idea that has to be shouted to seem important. And that is a shame, because God was a big idea, and the rejection of the existence of God was also a big idea, once upon a time.
Which, actually, is true–the thing is, this isn’t a bug–it’s a feature. Hoffman likes a positive view of atheism; I prefer a privative view. He makes clear in the comments that he does not like the negative definition–but that is precisely why he has the complaint that he does. Atheism, for him, is an idea–and a shrinking one.
God was a big idea. God had to explain so much, not merely the physical world, but our world of experience–our wonder, our awe, our very presence. And, yes, much of the writing of the Gnu Atheists has focused on how the physical sciences have no need of a god hypothesis–physicists and biologists seem to lead the way (yes, there are philosophers, but at least some of them are writing about the physical sciences too), and to the extent that God was an explanation for phenomena in their fields, God has shrunk. In my own experience, I think the psychologists have produced fewer successful books of the same sort (If I have missed them, point me to them, please!)–in part because psychology is such a broad discipline, and the experimental psychologists who have the best tools to answer the questions are not as accessible to the public as the pop-psych writers who may as well be making shit up.
But I digress. As I said, God was a big idea. So atheism, the “none of the above” answer to which god-myth was responsible for all these phenomena, was itself fairly radical and a big deal. But it was not a single, coherent, positively defined idea (this, of course, is where Hoffman and I disagree, and where I am right), let alone a Big Idea. There were magnificent atheist writers producing beautiful statements of atheist philosophy…but they did not, could not, speak for all of atheism. (I suspect there was also some real dreck being written on the side of atheism, but there is a reason good writing survives.)
And over the decades, the Big Idea of God started to shrink. The single best example, of course, was evolution rendering creation obsolete, but of course we find progress in physics, geology, astronomy, biology, psychology, anthropology and more, each chipping away at the mountain of stuff God used to explain. Nowadays, the faithful (well, some of them–it is as wrong to paint all believers with the same brush as it is to paint all atheists likewise) are reduced to saying “we don’t know what happened in the first picoseconds of the big bang, ergo Christianity.” Or that the observation of innate morality is evidence for, not against, god as an explanation for moral codes. And often as not, the claims are not even really representative of the proper science, but are arguments out of ignorance. “‘Science can’t study love’, ergo God”, for instance, ignores the fact that psychologists have been studying love experimentally for decades (true, you won’t find much on the actual research in pop-psych books, cos it doesn’t sell as well as Venus and Mars bullshit).
So, yeah, God has been shrinking for quite some time now. It no longer takes radical thought to dismiss God as an explanation for… anything. Which is a problem, for Hoffman:
My current Angst, to use that hackneyed word correctly, is that most contemporary humanists don’t know what classical humanism is, and most modern atheists won’t know the references in the last paragraph, and what’s more will not care.** Their atheism is an uneven mixture of basic physics, evolutionary biology, half cooked theories from the greasy kitchen of cognitive science, assorted political opinions, and what they regard as common sense. They fell into atheism; they did not come to it.
My goodness, what a wonderful thing! That religious faith no longer need be the default thing to “fall into”? This reminds me of acquaintances of mine who argued that it is better to develop an immunity to a disease naturally, by actually contracting the disease, than by vaccination (which would, of course, be simply “falling into” immunity).
Yes, the big questions are smaller now. We no longer have to explain how the sun climbs in the sky, now that we know the earth spins. We no longer have to explain why God allows suffering. We no longer have to explain a lot of the vexing questions that came about because of a flawed world view. If the questions are simpler now, it is at least in part because the questions were wrong, before. And if that recognition isn’t terribly romantic, I can live with that.