Please, please, all you critics of the “New Atheism”: get some new arguments, or at least avoid the ones that are trivially ridiculed. Damon Linker is complaining about those darned New Atheists, prompted by the criticisms of Kevin Drum of a pretentious essay by David Hart (I also wrote a criticism of Hart; I’ve also criticized the dreary Mr Linker before).
Linker seems to be offended that Hart’s superficial and poor argument was rejected; he calls the essay “powerful” — I found it ridiculous — and also claims, to my surprise, that Hart was atempting to show that Christianity was true. We must have read two different essays, because what I saw was a lot of verbiage bitterly complaining about the New Atheists, singling out Dawkins and Hitchens in particular, and not one word in support of any particular faith. The whole essay was about belittling and ridiculing atheists, nothing more…which makes it particularly ironic that Linker then turns around and expresses his irritation at all those rude, ridiculing New Atheists.
Linker’s essay focuses primarily on two issues he has with the New Atheists. They confuse truth with goodness, thinking that we’ll achieve some kind of Utopian society by simply rejecting falsehood, and in a related point, we just aren’t sad enough about the death of god. How dare we be godless and glad of it!
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.
Let’s deal with that first point first. Linker is wrong, and he’s eliding his own rather troubling implications about religion. We are saying godlessness is true, sure enough, but we aren’t making the leap he is claiming: we’re next saying that truth is good. Truth is a neccesary but not sufficient prerequisite for goodness. We obviously cannot say that godlessness inevitably leads to an ideal society — there are enough examples to show that is wrong — but that building a society on a false premise is even more disastrous.
Linker avoids that argument, because he knows it will require backing himself into a corner. I presume he doesn’t want to try to argue that truth is irrelevant to Christianity (but you never know…apologists can get very weird), but he also doesn’t even try to justify the validity of his religious beliefs — not when he can just gripe, gripe, gripe about atheists.
His second argument is even worse — it’s pathetic and goofy and wrong. He idolizes “Old Atheists”, what he calls “catastrophic atheists”, because they at least had the manners to grieve a little bit over abandoning the old superstitions. And from the fact that we’re forthright and enthusiastic about embracing secular ideals, he assumes that we must be unthinkingly optimistic.
The point is not that atheism must invariably terminate in a tragic view of the world; another of Hart’s atheistic heroes, David Hume, seems to have thought that it was perfectly possible to live a happy and decent life as a non-believer. Yet 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. (Exhibit A: Blogger P.Z. Myers, who takes this kind of thing to truly buffoonish lengths, viciously ridiculing anyone who dares express the slightest ambivalence about her atheism.)
(Awww, he noticed me.)
No, I have no sense of loss in giving up religion, so he’s right there. He seems to regard religion as we would cigarettes — a nasty habit, but one ought to at least have the common decency to suffer when giving them up, because he’s got that monkey on his back, and it’s not fair that others might not. But that’s no argument for keeping the habit, and it’s also fallacious because not everyone is as comfortable as I am.
Everyone has a different story about leaving faith behind. Some suffered greatly; they had this belief dunned into them from an early age, and it was all tangled up in threats of damnation and betrayal of family, and for many, it hurt painfully and even now, they may feel regrets and concerns.
But, you know, once you get past the fears, once you realize that it’s certainly no worse to be free of superstition than to be afflicted with it, and there’s a wonderful clarity once you sweep away those pointless old cobwebs of faith. I can’t go back to the delusions — truth is far more interesting. But Linker gets it all completely wrong.
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.
You tellin’ me? Of course it doesn’t! What we godless folk know is that the universe is a heartless place, almost entirely inimical to our existence, and that there is no guiding father figure with our best interests in mind who is shaping our destiny. There is no god. There is no absolute good. We’re free to struggle to make a better world for ourselves, with no illusion of an all-powerful superman to help us out.
Mr Linker has obviously confused us with the theists who do believe in an ultimate omnipotent goodness and a set of beliefs that will lead all the faithful in a path of righteousness that will culminate in paradise. It’s almost amusing how much projection there is in these people who despise atheists by accusing them of the sins of the godly.