The cure for free-floating anxiety

Writing for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, one Scott Stephens seems to have found the perfect remedy for free-floating anxiety: pin it all on atheism.

And so, without the guiding concept of a “Common Good” our social life is governed by the anomie of private interests, the inscrutable demands of “well-being” (which for us has come to mean little more than health, safety and pleasure) and the vicissitudes of mere fashion.

There are few things today more fashionable, more suited to our modern conceit, than atheism. In fact, far from being radical or heroically contrarian, the current version of atheism strikes me as the ultimate conformism.

Translation: now that the unbelievers are gaining influence in society, it’s time to try to make majority opinion sound like a bad thing—no matter what Christians may have said (and may still say) when they were the majority.

In context, he’s complaining about what he perceives as (stop me if you’ve heard this one) a decline in modern culture, morality, and ethics.

It seems that we have reached a point in our national life where we are utterly incapable of reaching any kind of minimal moral consensus on fundamental questions.

What are the threats that we face in common? Where are those sources of corruption, perversion, addiction and even servitude that we ought to protect ourselves and others from? What virtues ought we to have and instil in others in order to make a robust civil society? What are our obligations to others – those living (including those who come to us from without our borders), dying and not yet born? What constitutes a good life? What ends do politics and the economy serve?…

What ought to be of greatest concern to us today is that the questions themselves have become irrelevant. They simply fail to move us. It is as though we are living with a bastardized version of Francis Fukuyama’s thesis of the “end of history.”

Admittedly, these are important questions, and while I can’t speak for Australia, it seems to me like there’s quite a bit of interest in them, along with a willingness to engage the issues, among atheists. The fight for marriage equality is a case in point: the virtues of tolerance and an end to discrimination against the innocent are things that many atheists care deeply about, for moral reasons.

So why does Stephens blame atheists? Good question. He never does quite establish the connection he insinuates, and indeed almost seems to realize that, in fact, the things he is wailing and gnashing his teeth over are not due to atheism at all. But then the free-floating anxiety kicks in and compels him to turn his admission into a slam on atheists anyway.

I am not claiming that atheism is necessarily the cause of our modern predicament, much less that it is the root of all evil. To make such a claim would be to accord this variety of atheistic chic with too much importance, too much weight.

Don’t you just love the way he manages to combine the conflicting ideas of atheism as a mere trivial and unimportant “chic” with atheism as a legitimate reason to fear for the survival of civilization? But then, it’s not really atheism that’s the problem, for atheism is merely a symptom of a deeper problem. In other words, he does not so much address atheism as merely dismiss it. (Can you say “denial”?)

In a way, I think where atheism fits in our cultural moment it is more incidental than that. Our real problem today is the impoverishment of the modern mind, our inability to think properly about such elevated things as the Good, Beauty, Truth, Law, Love, Life, Death, Humanity, the End or Purpose of things, even Sex itself, without such ideas being debased by an incurious and all-pervasive nihilism.

And hence it is altogether unsurprising that, when we can’t even think clearly about such lower-order goods, the highest Good, and what philosophy once regarded as the ultimate object of human contemplation – namely, God himself – is beyond our imaginations.

Psst, Scott, here’s a clue: God Himself is not supposed to be the product of our imaginations. That’s what the atheists are on about, you see.

He does have one good point to make, though.

Bernard Williams puts the question:

“if humanity has invented something as awful as [these atheists] take religion to be, what should that tell them about humanity? In particular, can humanity really be expected to do much better without it?”

That’s a good question, and one that deserves discussion. I think, however, that the answer is fairly obvious: there are always those who can learn from experience. Our lives as adults do not need to be ruled by the boogeymen of our childhood imaginations. We can grow, and thereby outgrow the limitations imposed on us by our primitive superstitions and ignorance. And part of the process of growing is a willingness to let go of the older, less effective things (ever see anybody hitch up a draft horse to an automobile?).

Stephens bemoans the fact (or at least the feeling) that society has let Thinking go out of style. The good news, though, is that among atheists it has not, and in fact Thinking is one of the best ways to outgrow the religious superstitions bequeathed to us by our primitive ancestors. Sadly, Stephens seems uninterested in doing any himself, for in all his long, tiresome rant, and for all his snide accusations and insinuations against atheists, he never once considers the question of whether or not God actually exists, nor does he betray the slightest awareness of how the answer would bear on the points he’s alleging without ever substantiating. The whole post is just one long fallacy of the consequences, ending with this melodramatic conclusion:

But if I am in any way accurate in what I have argued here, we are faced with a far more destructive possibility: that without God, there simply is no Good.

Dah-dah-dummmmm! Too bad blogs don’t have sound tracks, John Williams could go nuts here. Fortunately for us, though, there’s a disclaimer right up front. “If I am in any way accurate…”

No worries, mate. You’re not.


  1. Aliasalpha says

    Where are those sources of corruption, perversion, addiction and even servitude that we ought to protect ourselves and others from?

    Well my first guess involves religion.

    Assuming I’m remembering correctly, this bloke is a theology lecturer at a religious uni which pretty much eliminates him as anything other than an opinion writer and when the topic he talks about is the opposite of his business…

  2. Hercules Grytpype-Thynne says

    “if humanity has invented something as awful as [these atheists] take religion to be, what should that tell them about humanity? In particular, can humanity really be expected to do much better without it?”

    This confuses me. Is he saying that religion can’t be as bad as atheists think it is, because of what that would say about humanity? Or that, if atheists are right, then we as a species are so corrupt that we couldn’t be any worse with religion, and perhaps better, than we would be without it? I’m trying to imagine his making the same argument about something that he (presumably) agrees is both manmade and dreadful, e.g.

    “if humanity has invented something as awful as [most people nowadays] take slavery to be, what should that tell them about humanity? In particular, can humanity really be expected to do much better without it?”

    • John Morales says

      Hercules, I make it the latter, and yeah, I think your parallel construction nicely exemplifies the problematic nature of the contention.


  3. marella says

    Humanity has invented all sorts of awful things we’d be better off without, including religion; war, slavery as HGT mentions above, tribalism, atonal music, the ukelele, paintings on velvet, geez the list is endless!

  4. anfractuous says

    Gee, I wish I could live in Australia where I’d be a “chic” atheist. Instead, I’m here in the US where I’m an evil, slutty, hell-bound, predatory socialist/commie/fascist feminazi who is trying to make gay/lesbian pedophiles out of our innocent pre-born as well as our post-birth children.

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