This is the second time I’ve heard this criticism of atheism, the first being the bizarre lucubrations of Francis Spufford, who didn’t like the atheist bus slogan (“There probably is no God. So stop worrying and enjoy your life”) because it was too optimistic. There is more to life, said Spufford, than merely enjoying it.
Now, over at PuffHo‘s “Religion” section, Paul Wallace (self-described as “a professor of physics [at Agnes Scott College] and a former working scientist”), Wallace diagnoses this optimism as “The real problem with New Atheism“:
What scares me? Plenty of things. “The Shining” scares me. Cancer scares me. The vulnerability of my children scares me. And for a number of years now the New Atheists have scared me.
It’s true: Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett and even sweet lovable PZ Myers. I am not making this up. These gentlemen, with their impressive and sustained frontal assault on all religion everywhere, have scared me.
Poor guy! He needs a hug from Dennett. Why is he so scared? After all, he’s had his own doubts about faith:
Am I a closet atheist?
No. In my time of trying on Yes I never felt the familiar click and closure of discovery, of having come across something true.
Yet I was unsatisfied. I could not get to the bottom of my disagreement with these people.
Then, just last week, it happened: click and closure. I was leafing through my well-worn copy of William James’ “The Varieties of Religious Experience.” When I came across — for the nth time — that section of the book in which James draws a distinction between two psychological types, the “healthy-minded” and the “sick soul,” I saw clearly what separates me from the New Atheists: pessimism.
The truth is, if I were more optimistic I’d probably be an atheist.
Yes, Wallace sees the big problem of New Atheism as optimism. I would have thought the opposite: we’re the people who don’t believe in life after death, and so have been accused of nihilism.
The essence of my discovery is this: What truly separates me from atheism is not my belief in God; that’s a long way from the point of departure. It is instead my conviction that evil and weakness are not only problems to be solved, but are also reliable clues to the secret of the world. For me the emptiness of the glass is, in James’ words, “the best key to life’s significance, and possibly the only opener of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth.”
That’s bizarre: he doesn’t see the big difference between him and atheists as turning on the matter of God? In fact, according to the above statement he does: both atheists and non-atheists see evil and injustice in the world, but he sees it as the key to “the deepest levels of truth,” which presumably involve the Divine.
Wallace then tells us why we should be more pessimistic, and why the bus slogan is inappropriate:
Contemporary atheism is optimistic. Given its wall-to-wall phalanx of writers hell-bent on mocking everything that smells of religion, it may seem that this label is ill-applied. Yet under its bluster and iconoclasm atheism is full of good cheer and high spirits. Anyone who knows an actual atheist knows this.
Really? Since when has Dawkins been accused of “good cheer and high spirits”?
This sanguinity is likely drawn from science, which is without question the most optimistic enterprise ever concocted by human beings.
. . . Yet science as a philosophy is incomplete. It wears blinders and refuses to acknowledge whole classes of questions that are important to people everywhere, questions of good and evil, and of human weakness, and of meaning. And it seems that New Atheism, in its wholesale dependence upon science as a philosophy, imports science’s blinders — bound as they are to its optimism — into its overall worldview. And this is where the problem lies.
Science isn’t a philosophy, for crying out loud; it’s a methodology for finding out what’s true about the universe. And certainly we recognize that there are questions about morality and meaning that science can’t answer. Which scientist thinks that we have a handle on what’s right, and how each person should live his or her life? All we maintain is that there are no objective answers to those questions, only personal ones, and that one can’t derive them, and shouldn’t base them, on a nonexistent being.
Here’s Wallace’s real beef:
Imagine a clear fall Saturday in London’s Hyde Park. Footballers are out; lovers doze on picnic blankets; tourists stand in clumps shuffling through maps; university students pass by laughing. And then, over at the park’s edge, behold! There passes the Atheist Bus, one of those U.K. buses that, a few years ago and with Dawkins’ support, were plastered with the brightly-lettered and chirpy slogan, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”
This is the zenith of optimism.
It is optimistic because it assumes that the default condition of human life is peace. It is optimistic because, in its refusal to acknowledge the deeper problems of life, it redraws human experience on a solvable and finite scale, presuming that what people really need is to “enjoy their lives.” After all, it’s a beautiful day in the city; what else could there be to need? It is optimistic because the creators of the campaign could not bring themselves to imagine — or if they did imagine it they did not take it seriously — someone reading it who, in the words of Francis Spufford, is poverty-stricken, or desperate for a job, or a drug addict, or a mother who just lost a child to social services. Someone who is truly alone in this world and who may have nothing but the faintest hope of a loving God keeping them alive. Maybe they did think about such a person and decided that they too need to “stop worrying and enjoy their life,” starting with a breath of clean godless air. Now that’s optimism.
I don’t buy it. And as a Christian, I’m not supposed to buy it. The Joel Osteens of the world notwithstanding, it is only through the channel of pessimism — the full and unqualified acknowledgment of life’s dark underside as a clear and present reality — that Christianity is able to do its transformative work.
The Christianity I know takes note of the blue London sky, of the footballers, and of the picnicking lovers, but it starts with the addict on the street. You know, the one optimism forgot about. The fragile one standing alone at the edge of the park, watching the Atheist Bus roll jauntily past.
This is just dumb. Does Wallace think that atheists don’t take the problems of the world seriously, and are just lah-dee-dah about everything? One of the hallmarks of atheism, for instance, is its refusal to ignore the problems that religion causes. That is, after all, one part of life’s “dark underside”: a part that Christianity can’t cure because the religion causes it. Which atheist refuses to admit that the world is beset with political, religious, and environmental problems?
Finally, Wallace, like Spufford, simply ignores one likely meaning of the athist bus slogan (granted, it could have been clearer about this). To me, the phrase “stop worrying and enjoy your life” means this: “stop worrying about whether you’re going to heaven or hell, because you’re worm food after you’re dead. Instead, try to make the most out of your one short life.” Well-being, which is a form of enjoyment, is one of our goals. We want it not just for ourselves, but for others, because for many helping others is a source of personal satisfaction.
Only a petulant Christian would single out the atheist bus slogan to create a diatribe against New Atheism for being too optimistic. We can’t, it seems, do anything right.