Scott Stephens is the Religion and Ethics editor for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation online, and he’s a bit of a whacker — he’s one of those cranky apologists for religion, and he really, really despises those awful New Atheists, as you’ll see. He was recently in an intelligence2 debate, on the proposition that “Atheists are wrong” — his side, the affirmative, lost. He has just posted his position on the debate, titled The Unbearable Lightness of Atheism, and it’s easy to see why he didn’t fare so well. It’s a bitter diatribe informed only by his own ignorance and his deeply held conceit that god is real and religion is good, and therefore atheists must be wrong.
Roughly the first half of his essay is going for the angry biblical prophet angle: woe, woe, kids nowadays are so slack and loose, the whole culture is going to hell in a handbasket, we need to return to the good old days when everyone knew what was good for ’em, and it was Church and God and Theology. He comes out swinging like an Old Testament scold.
So desperately impoverished are our political and moral imaginations after decades of market fundamentalism and the creeping gains of a culture-corrupting liberalism – which has systematically replaced the Common Good with individual rights, education with skills-acquisition, obligation with self-determination, and a hierarchy of values and virtue with the fetishisation of mere choice – that we have mistaken the walls of our moral imaginations for the achievements of progress itself.
Under these conditions, to adapt Clausewitz’s famous definition of war, politics has become the extension of egoism by other means rather than an essentially moral and educative practice. On this point, Herve Juvin’s analysis of the collapse of the social “Body” and the emergence of the political reality of “bodies” is exemplary:
“Politics used to subject bodies and lives to a common destiny or ideal; politics now must submit to the varied, fleeting and capricious destinies we give to our own lives … the advent of the body legitimizes politics in the body’s service, places its satisfaction, its activity, its enjoyment over all that might only be means to those ends: law, rules, society, kinship.”
It’s kind of a shame that he’s so bald — he really needs wild hair and a great shaggy patriarchal beard to go with the sentiments…but then again, it’s so much more pompous than you’d expect from a ranting rabbi.
Just looking at it tactically, as a debate approach, though — it’s not wise to come on raving about how your audience is a bunch of wastrels because they don’t believe in the Bible as you do. And to do so with the theme that what everyone is lacking are good old cultural absolutes, like, say, Christianity is not a winner of a strategy. He also fails to make a case that living under the thumb of a god actually makes for a better, healthier, happier civilization — but he’d probably rant back at me that that’s my problem, that I think healthiness and happiness and trivia like intellectual satisfaction are just my namby-pamby, weak criteria for a vital culture. We’re supposed to live for a religious absolute!
Then he starts on <hack, spit> atheism. Atheism is a symptom of all that is wrong with society today.
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.
This is especially apparent in the case of the slipshod, grotesquely sensationalist “New Atheism” – invariably renounced by principled, literate atheists like James Wood, Thomas Nagel, John Gray, Philip Pullman and the late Bernard Williams – which poses no serious challenge to our most serious social ills and so has no other alternative but to blame our social ills in toto on religion.
Now, I don’t want to be misunderstood. 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.
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.
Ah, the Good Atheists ploy. Good Atheists are the ones who respect religion and denounce those Bad Atheists. These are the atheists who are sad that they don’t believe in gods, who demand as James Wood did that we should have a “theologically engaged atheism that resembles disappointed belief.” No, thank you. I like the atheism that dances on the graves of gods and laughs at the folly of religion. It’s much happier, and has found satisfaction and joy in reality.
We also manage to think quite a bit about “Good, Beauty, Truth, Law, Love, Life, Death, Humanity, the End or Purpose of things, even Sex itself” — we also consider more realistically “good, beauty, truth, law, love, life, death, humanity, the end or purpose of things, even sex itself” without reifying them into Capital Letter Ideals. Our sin is that we consider them as part of reality rather than a reflection of some imaginary super-being.
New Atheists are also most definitely not nihilists. This is simply a bog-standard stupid accusation Christians often make against anybody who rejects their personal deity, and it’s total nonsense.
And here we confront a desperate contradiction at the heart of so much atheistic hyperbole (accurately identified by Bernard Williams and others). The New Atheists rely heavily on the thesis that religion is the enemy of progress and human flourishing, and that once the last vestiges of religion are done away with, humanity will be far better off.
But they also claim that all religion is “man made,” and self-evidently so. This begs the question: if religion is indeed this all-pervasive source of corruption and prejudice and moral retardation, where do they believe that religion itself comes from, if not the human imagination? And so, as 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?”
At least he didn’t claim that we think we’ll achieve Utopia when religion is gone — I don’t think that at all. We’ll have one monkey off our back when religion is reduced to irrelevance, which seems like a perfectly sensible goal to me.
The rest is bizarre. Of course religion came from the human imagination. Why is this so impossible to grasp? Humans also came up with war, and Ponzi schemes, and lynch mobs, and Light
Swill Beer. We come up with nasty awful destructive ideas all the time; how is the awfulness of religion an argument against it being man-made? And why would the fact that an idea is man-made imply that maybe we wouldn’t be better off without it? Racism is a human concept, for instance — I certainly do think humanity would do better without it. And it’s the same with religion.
Look what he thinks atheism thrives on.
And this atheism, I believe, will continue to flourish to the extent that moral disintegration, nihilistic capitalism, anti-aesthetic liberalism and a kind of ubiquitous piss-taking cynicism remain the dominant forces in our common life.
See? That’s why atheists are wrong — they’re all immoral nihilists and piss-taking cynics! Case closed.
Never mind that nowhere in this debate did Stephens actually show any evidence that atheists were such wicked people. Oh, sure, he could have pointed to me as an example of a piss-taking cynic, but then the rest doesn’t match, and he didn’t even name any of us anyway. So this is the gist of his argument: atheists are wrong because they are bad people.
I’m not surprised he lost the debate.
Here’s his grand conclusion, the big zinger. Don’t laugh too hard.
I often hear atheists insist that they do not need God in order to be good. 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.
OK, I’ll be kind and treat this argument charitably, far more charitably than the cranky bastard writing it deserves.
Let’s assume that Stephens is right, and there actually is a god who somehow is the source of all good. One of the unfortunate qualities of this god, however, is that he’s unknowable: we have many religions on earth claiming knowledge of god’s desires and plans, but we have no way of determining which, if any of them, is right. Perhaps the congregation of some odd sect in a small town in Saskatchewan are getting clear instructions beamed right into their heads by the one true god, but we have no way of telling, and they look just as random as the Mormons or Buddhists or Jews or Muslims, who are just as adamant that they have the truth. Maybe we atheists are poor unfortunates who have our god-antennas broken off, so we don’t hear the celestial transmissions everyone else is getting.
What should we do?
I think it’s clear that one thing we broken receivers should not do is blindly accept an absolutist morality based on the authority of a religious source — that would be irresponsible, and given that there is absolutely no consensus on which one is right, and that there are so damned many of them, most likely to be wrong. We should, instead, do as we have been doing, and use reason and evidence to assess beliefs and choose to follow the ones that make objective sense and help us get the business of living done. That does kind of rule out Stephens’ penis-obsessed genocidal racist deity who believes in proxy sacrifices and magic chanting, though.
Alternatively, what if we assume we atheists are right, and there are no gods of any kind? Stephens is the nihilist here, because he believes that if that were true, there is no possibility of goodness anywhere — we’re just doomed, meaningless machines waiting for entropy to swallow us up. You could believe that, and go off in a corner and curl up and die, but we choose to enjoy this life we’ve got and do what we can to make it better for other people, as well.
Again, it’s a matter of playing the hand we’re dealt. Whether there’s an ineffable and uncommunicative god, or no god at all, there’s no significant difference between those two positions, and what we have to do is muddle through as best we can. Atheists choose to do so by trying to use their minds and experience to work out ways to achieve goals like “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. Believers seem to set their goals on lives of servility to an undetectable god because tradition and authority have told them what to do.
Atheists are right, and if they’re wrong, I don’t want to be right…and the theists can show me neither that I’m wrong nor that their interpretation of life is better than mine.