Lots of people sent me a link to this essay in which David Hart declares “New” Atheism a passing fad, expecting me to take it apart. I didn’t have the heart, and I’m busy right now, sorry. It’s a horribly written and excessively long piece — I’d almost call it purple prose if the periphrastic verbosity and passionless vacuity of the author hadn’t leeched all the color out of it. It hurt my brain to start reading it, and after scrolling down a couple of pages with no end in sight, I set it aside. TL;DR, as the glib technorati like to say.
I did finally drag myself through it over a light lunch — it was amazing, it even sucked the flavor out of the horseradish sauce on my sandwich — and I was also encouraged by the fact that Kevin Drum rolled his eyes and dismissed it. So I’ll toss off a few brief (a word unfamiliar to Hart) and I would hope cogent (definitely a word from a language foreign to him) words.
The whole essay has one note, played over and over: oh, these New Atheists are so boring, so tepid, so uninteresting that they deserve no attention at all and will eventually fade away. And then he goes through a bunch of them, complaining about how empty their arguments are, for something like 4800 words. If you bother to read it, here’s a hint to help you get through it all: imagine it read aloud in the voice of Eeyore.
Here’s a sample of a familiar argument.
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. So long as one can choose one’s conquests in advance, taking always the paths of least resistance, one can always imagine oneself a Napoleon or a Casanova (and even better: the one without a Waterloo, the other without the clap).
In all that noise, basically is what he is saying is the ridiculous canard that these atheists are only tackling the easy, foolish arguments for God, which isn’t quite right. We tackle all the arguments for God, especially the ones that are widely held and that dominate the public imagination. It’s not our fault that we’re driving Panzers and they’re all peasants and whores (you know, I’d never think of an analogy so belittling of believers as the one that Hart himself comes up with. I’m impressed).
As is typical of this genre of criticism, though, Hart has no Stalingrad to blunt our armored assault. Where’s his argument for the truth of religion or the reality of God? He hasn’t got one. All he’s got are claims that the loss of God-belief would somehow diminish us, so we better not do it. It’s very unconvincing stuff.
Oh, wait! He does say something about an argument for God. Here it is.
The most venerable metaphysical claims about God do not simply shift priority from one kind of thing (say, a teacup or the universe) to another thing that just happens to be much bigger and come much earlier (some discrete, very large gentleman who preexists teacups and universes alike). These claims start, rather, from the fairly elementary observation that nothing contingent, composite, finite, temporal, complex, and mutable can account for its own existence, and that even an infinite series of such things can never be the source or ground of its own being, but must depend on some source of actuality beyond itself. Thus, abstracting from the universal conditions of contingency, one very well may (and perhaps must) conclude that all things are sustained in being by an absolute plenitude of actuality, whose very essence is being as such: not a “supreme being,” not another thing within or alongside the universe, but the infinite act of being itself, the one eternal and transcendent source of all existence and knowledge, in which all finite being participates.
It is immaterial whether one is wholly convinced by such reasoning. Even its most ardent proponents would have to acknowledge that it is an almost entirely negative deduction, obedient only to something like Sherlock Holmes’ maxim that “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” It certainly says nearly nothing about who or what God is.
The first reaction of any rational, intelligent human being to that explanation should be, simply, “What?”
If you’re not one of those, but an actual Christian, I think your first reaction should be to print out that paragraph, take it to your minister, and ask him or her to explain it to you. And maybe suggest that it be the subject of next Sunday’s sermon. Let me know how it goes!
I trace my existence back to chance events delimited by the possibilities of physics and the pinball game of history. I don’t call any of those elements “god”, and I especially don’t get all pompous and call it the “absolute plenitude of actuality” or any kind of being at all. Hart has no excuse for personifying his causal source, or even implying that it has any kind of intent.
By the way, Sherlock Holmes is an utterly abominable guide to reason: his methods don’t work. The naive dependence on the infallibility of deductive logic that Arthur Conan Doyle saddled the detective with is ridiculous, and that aphorism is impossible to implement in the real world, where you really can’t eliminate all possibilities. And I will remind everyone that Doyle believed in fairies.
But again, try to get any of the millions of Christians out there to accept Hart’s freakishly abstract and dessicated definition of God. Won’t happen, unless you stumble across another withered Christian academic with a penchant for recondite abstractions. And they’re almost as odious to the faithful as atheists, tolerated only because they provide that kind of vacuous bluster as cover for the nonsense they really believe.
Hart actually does make a specific plea for Christianity, as part of a ‘rebuttal’ (hah!) of Grayling. It’s pure emotionalism, not a hint of reason anywhere, wallowing in the bathos of the crucifixion in the same way as Mel Gibson’s Passion did…only without the blood and, well, passion.
Here, displayed with an altogether elegant incomprehensibility in Grayling’s casual juxtaposition of the sea-born goddess and the crucified God (who is a crucified man), one catches a glimpse of the enigma of the Christian event, which Nietzsche understood and Grayling does not: the lightning bolt that broke from the cloudless sky of pagan antiquity, the long revolution that overturned the hierarchies of heaven and earth alike. One does not have to believe any of it, of course–the Christian story, its moral claims, its metaphysical systems, and so forth. But anyone who chooses to lament that event should also be willing, first, to see this image of the God-man, broken at the foot of the cross, for what it is, in the full mystery of its historical contingency, spiritual pathos, and moral novelty: that tender agony of the soul that finds the glory of God in the most abject and defeated of human forms. Only if one has succeeded in doing this can it be of any significance if one still, then, elects to turn away.
I highlighted one key phrase that reveals where Hart’s criticisms completely miss the mark. “One does not have to believe any of it” — but I’m afraid that’s the crux of the matter. Is it true? You can declaim all kinds of wonders and miracles and grand moral lessons built on the story, but if it’s not actually true, the whole program founders. Unless, of course, it’s propped up by gullible faith. Then it teeters on, afflicting culture with nonsense and error until the rot expands enough to cause the whole worthless mess to collapse.
We’re seeing that now. The New Atheists are just rapping on that hollow edifice, listening to the echoes (like Hart’s essay), and beginning to push a bit. It will fall.