I’ve had my run-ins with conservative Catholic columnist Ross Douthat, who writes for The New York Times, and they are largely about his criticisms of atheism (see for instance here, here, and here; in the last piece he responds to me directly). Douthat sees no way that atheism can provide a grounding for morality—a blinkered view if ever there was one—and also feels that the death of a materialistic worldview is impending (again, this is wishful thinking, supported by no evidence).
When Adam Gopnik published a piece in a recent New Yorker criticizing New Atheism and comparing it to religion, he received criticism from both me and Douthat. I argued that Gopnik was rigging the game by including human emotion (which of course atheists have) as an essentially irrational sentiment, analogous to religious belief. He even used the example of LOLCats, to which I supposedly imputed human feelings, as an example of atheist irrationality. In contrast, Douthat argued that Gopnik was simply wrong in his claim that most believers adhere to a nebulous Ground-of-Being God, and that theists really do see genuine intervention of the deity in our world.
But one such column wasn’t enough for Douthat, and he’s just published the second at the Times inspired by Gopnik’s piece, “The return of the happy atheist.“
Douthat’s thesis is that atheists are once again happy compared to our dolorous godless predecessors, and he proffers several reasons for our newfound sanguinity. But he continues to predict the imminent downfall of New Atheism because it has moral and philosophical problems.
First, Douthat’s claim:
I don’t think there’s any question that something significant has changed in that trajectory between Kolakowski’s era and this one, producing a revival of Diderotian optimism among prominent atheists, and a burying of the “Waiting For Godot”-style angst that he described back then. The Hitchens/Dawkins types, with their “ecrasez l’infame” posturing, are the most obvious case study, but the phenomenon is broader than that: Among polemicists and philosophers alike, there’s what feels like a renewed confidence that all of the issues — moral, political, existential — that made the death of God seem like a kind of “wound” to so many 20th century writers have somehow been neatly wrapped up and resolved and can now be safely put aside. This confidence doesn’t just show up in the insult-flinging forays of figures like Jerry Coyne; it’s characteristic of more careful atheistic arguers as well (this recent essay from Paul Bloom being a good example), who may nod to possible problems with their intellectual synthesis, but for whom the array of potential difficulties never seems to add up to a single anxiety or doubt.
I’ll ignore his mischaracterization of how I dealt with his columns, as there was at best only a tad of snark, with most of my analysis dealing with his substantive claims. (Douthat is a rather thin-skinned fellow, and apparently has no idea what it’s really like to be attacked on the internet.) Rather, I want to ask whether the Old Atheists really were so miserable.
The idea that atheists were once serious, dolorous, and nihilistic is beginning to baffle me. The names proffered in support of this claim are always the same: Camus, Sartre, and Nietzche (Douthat also adds Kafka). As Douthat and others have claimed, these Old Atheists were deeply wounded by their embrace of godlessness; they had, as he argues, a “permanently festering wound.”
I don’t buy it. For every Camus and Sartre, I can give you an Old But Happy Atheist. Think of Mencken, Ingersoll, Mark Twain, and Clarence Darrow. These were people who embraced life—in every respect as happy as people like Dawkins and even the insult-flinging Coyne. It’s time that someone delved into the supposed nihilism and gloom of the Old Atheists.
But let’s accept Douthat’s thesis for the nonce and look at the reasons he adduces for the advent of the New Happy Atheists. (Do click the links in all of Douthat’s prose.)
1. The rise of sociobiology. Gopnik argued that the resurgence of evolutionary biology helped fuel New Atheism. That’s true in part, but I think the whole story is the infusion of a scientific point of view into atheism, which made its adherents more insistent that the faithful demonstrate the truth of their dogma. In other words, New Atheism is distinguished by its insistence that religious claims are hypotheses. But Douthat wants to construe this more narrowly:
It’s precisely the specifics of sociobiology, of evolutionary psychology, that have helped give atheism its swagger back, because ev-psych promises a theory of human culture in a way that other evolutionary theories don’t. And with that promise has come a sense, visible throughout atheist commentaries nowadays, that by explaining human culture in scientific terms they can also justify the parts of that culture that they find congenial, ground their liberal cosmopolitanism firmly in capital-S Science, and avoid the abysses that seemed to yawn beneath the 20th century’s feet. This reading of evolutionary psychology hasn’t quite made Nature itself seem completely “friendly” again, but it has made a kind of contemporary scientism seem friendlier to moral visions in general and the progressive moral vision in particular, in a way that has made “if there is no God, all is permitted” feel (to many writers, at least) like a less troubling point against atheism after all.
I doubt this. For one thing, few of us who discern the influence of evolution on modern human behavior claim that we’re doing that to justify that culture. That is, of course, the naturalistic fallacy, and many of us, including Peter Singer and Steve Pinker, think that moral instincts evolved in the distant past may no longer serve us well (xenophobia is one of these). Further, we discern a huge influence of culture on morality. That, after all, is one of the points of Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature: if morality and behavior are largely evolved and also hard-wired, why have they changed so radically in the past few hundred years?
2. The world’s increasing prosperity.
So of course the breezy optimism of the enlightenment seemed too optimistic by half; of course the cruel possibilities of a godless world were suddenly uppermost in people’s minds. But give us decades of declining conflict and growing wealth, give us the end of totalitarianism and the end of history, and suddenly the scientific-materialist project seems like it might be all we really need to reach those broad sunlit uplands after all. Nothing in the philosophical arena has necessarily changed, but circumstances control philosophical fashions as often as they’re created by them. So it isn’t thatsurprising that an age of plenty would give us Dawkins rather than Heidegger, Sam Harris rather than Camus, Bill Maher and Penn Jillette and Ricky Gervais rather than, I dunno, a stand-up comedian version of Rust Cohle.
I think Douthat has it right here in a sense he doesn’t intend: as prosperity rises, so the need for religion declines, and atheism becomes both more prominent and more palatable. If the optimism instilled by wealth affects atheists, should it not affect religionists, too? Or don’t they care about material things?
3. The death of communism.
In a related sense, too, the fall of the Soviet Union and the intellectual collapse of Communism have actually been good for atheism’s credibility, in ways that weren’t necessarily apparent before the Berlin Wall came down. You might have thought, back when Kolakowski was writing, that the death throes of the world’s most famous atheist experiment would deliver the last rites to any remaining atheist utopianism as well. But actually, by sweeping the embarrassment of Communism off the world stage, 1989 and all that probably made it easier for atheists to be quasi-utopians again, because they no longer had to defend or explain away a dreadful, cruel attempt at a godless paradise on earth. With the U.S.S.R. gone the way of all flesh, they could simply say that their ideal society is “Sweden, but even nicer” — in which case the argument that atheism and human progress go hand in hand no longer seems so transparently contradicted by reality.
Douthat fails to absorb the difference between Sweden and Soviet Russia. Yes, they were both godless, but the latter forcibly so, with the godlessness part of an overarching ideology that was quasi-religious. (And no, I’m not making that up: read The Gulag Archipelago to see how Stalin was worshipped as a god.) And, at any rate, Kafka and Nietzsche weren’t around when Communism really took hold.
4. The rise of militant Islam.
And then, too, to the extent that any force has replaced Communism as an antagonist-cum-alternative to Western civilization, it’s been Islamic fundamentalism, which almost seems laboratory-designed to give the idea of atheism-as-Progress a new lease on life. It’s not a coincidence that figures like Hitchens and Harris, in particular, grabbed the spotlight successfully in the years immediately following 9/11 — not because Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban solved any of the problems inherent to atheist materialism, but because they made a religious alternative look infinitely worse.
Again, Douthat is giving a good reason for the rise of the New Atheism, but not for its “optimism”. Sam Harris’s book, and its New Atheist successors, were indeed inspired by the excesses of Islam, but only because they underscored the imminent threat posed by religion. To me, those books did not promulgate “atheism as progress” any more than did the works of Ingersoll or Mencken. Rather, they proposed atheism as the only feasible solution to religiously-inspired hatred and mayhem.
I’m sure there are many other changes in the world that correlated with the rise of New Atheism, and I’m equally sure that Douthat could confect reasons why they make New Atheism “happier” than Old Atheism. But I’m not convinced that the Old Atheists really were so unhappy. Read Hitchens’s The Portable Atheist if you want to see high-spirited atheism before 9/11.
In his last two paragraphs Douthat gets down to those brass tacks that he really wants to hammer in—the dangers of atheism:
But among the intelligentsia, [New Atheism and its causes] does seem to have helped put to rest certain doubts about the association of unbelief with moral progress, by creating a landscape — particularly around issues related to sex — where all right-thinking people have decided that the Christian churches are on the wrong side of history once again. Again, as with radical Islam it’s not so much that in this landscape any of the internal tensions afflicting the secular project disappeared; it’s just that the struggles of the churches have made a religious alternative suddenly seem more untenable, more out of date, or (in the case of gay marriage, especially) more of an infame.
What all of this adds up to, probably, is a story about external developments shaping intellectual fashion, which in turn supplies a reason to be doubtful that the various problems with today’s happy atheism — problems that should be obvious to those with eyes to see — are sufficient on their own to drive secular liberalism toward the kind of intellectual crisis that seems to me to lurk, iceberg-like, somewhere out ahead. Instead, it will probably take some as-yet-unlooked-for external shock to push the ship of secularism’s below-the-waterline weaknesses onto their next collision course.
I’ve already gone on too long, so I’ll ask you to click on those four links to see what lurking problems Douthat sees in New Atheism. They’re about the dangers of materialism and its supposedly inimical effect on morality. And those with “eyes to see” comes down to the single renegade philosopher Thomas Nagel, whose last book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False,” was roundly criticized by philosophers. Maybe Nagel has eyes to see, but so does Dan Dennett, who was one of many who excoriated Nagel’s book.
Douthat doesn’t like materialism and naturalism, but so far it’s the only game in town. When he comes up with some real evidence for the truth of Catholic dogma, and shows us why it’s the right religion—one better and truer than Islam, Judaism, or Hinduism—then I’ll listen to his criticisms of godlessness.