Douthat admits that atheists are happy, but descries an impending intellectual crisis

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.

100 Comments

  1. Cara
    Posted March 5, 2014 at 7:36 am | Permalink

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              • Posted March 5, 2014 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

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              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted March 5, 2014 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

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  2. Posted March 5, 2014 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    Interesting, isn’t it, that the evolutionary psychologists have become whipping boys for so many different species of ideologues? The basis of the science, that there is such a thing as human nature, and the Blank Slaters were wrong, seems indisputable.

    It’s also odd that religious apologists like Douthat always seem to think that a God must somehow magically pop into existence, because otherwise there won’t be any “grounding for morality.”

    • Sastra
      Posted March 5, 2014 at 9:01 am | Permalink

      Right. From what I can tell Douthat seems more concerned that atheism is unworkable than he’s worried that atheism is technically false.

      Which means he’s actually part of the reason for religion’s slow decline. Once you’ve replaced God with the need to believe in God, it’s all over but the shouting.

    • Posted March 5, 2014 at 10:30 am | Permalink

      One of my philosophy professors from McGill (since I was there) has run a seminar on human nature. His “one line” argument for there being one is that humans don’t give birth to, say, storks. The debate is over what it involves, and how one figures out what it is. (And then, later, any technology which would affect/be affected by it. But that is usual.) For example, I’m pretty sure there are certain linguistic universals, but I’d like to do better learning what they are than simply enumerating from languages (especially as languages are rapidly going extinct these days).

      Even Hume, the arch-empiricist, has to postulate various innate faculties (though he doesn’t call them that), but is aware that they can only “grow” through proper environment.

  3. bpuharic
    Posted March 5, 2014 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    Douthat can huff and puff all he wants about how happy or unhappy we are. It’s irrelevant. Atheism is true. Religion is not. Since that’s a fact, how we deal with it is the issue. Saying atheism is false because it makes us unhappy is like say, for example, that physics can’t be true because we’d be able to build terrible weapons. Oh well.

    Since theism is false the question is about building a rational foundation for morality. I’m a scientist, not a philosopher, but the coursework I’ve done in ethics seems to indicate that, regardless of whether morality is secular or religious, it’s always going to be a mashup.

    But that doesn’t change the fact atheism is true.

    • Posted March 5, 2014 at 7:55 am | Permalink

      Exactly! The answer to the God question doesn’t depend on whether the Douthats of the world will be happy with its consequences for morality.

    • Leigh Jackson
      Posted March 6, 2014 at 10:32 am | Permalink

      I think his belief is that in the long term a need for a value beyond material well being, to go on living, when one fully realises the complete pointlessness of all value, because of the utter nothingness of existence, will keep religion alive. Keep the need for belief in soul alive. Keep faith in the value of being alive, because of need for belief in something deeper than merely that which we find ourselves materially embedded in. If this really is all there is and it isn’t going anywhere but a very bad end one way or another, sooner or later, with perhaps a rerun in some shape or form, will we really adapt to that reality and keep going on or recoil back into faith in the hidden but yearned for.

      I don’t really think he’s arguing that we should choose to believe or not, rather that we won’t be up to a fully faced confrontation with a universe without meaning. God will turn out to be the default human need.

      All of which may be true but doesn’t constitute any kind of argument for the truth of any kind of theistic faith

  4. Posted March 5, 2014 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    Charles Pierce once referred to Douthat as the NYT’s affirmative-action conservative hire, and it’s always seemed to me the perfect description. The guy seems to rejoice in the role of young curmudgeon, but “role” it is: he has learned his lines off pat but hasn’t paused to think through whether or not they make any sense.

  5. NewEnglandBob
    Posted March 5, 2014 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    I can sum up Douthat’s article in two premises:

    1. Get off my lawn!

    2. You are doing it Rong! (but I don’t know what is right).

    When he speaks on TV, he is nearly incoherent.

  6. potaman
    Posted March 5, 2014 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    Religious people have the biggest real philosophical problem. Other religions.

  7. Rob
    Posted March 5, 2014 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    The idea that atheists were once serious, dolorous, and nihilistic is beginning to baffle me.

    If you’re atheist and not nihilistic, you’re doing it wrong.

    Do you think there’s an imposed objective meaning to life? If you’re an atheist and do, what’s imposing it? If you’re an atheist and don’t, congratulations, you’re a nihilist.

    “There’s no purpose to life, I’m going to make me some” is as nihilistic as “There’s no purpose to life, woe is me”

    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted March 5, 2014 at 9:47 am | Permalink

      Do you think there’s an imposed objective meaning to life? If you’re an atheist and do, what’s imposing it?

      Not a single imposed objective meaning to life, but a gazzilion imposed objective inputs. Roughly speaking none of us came into this world by our own choice, so life is fundamentally an imposement on my privacy and autonomy.

      I think existentialist nihilism fundamentally gets it wrong from the get-go by assuming meaning has to be created from scratch to fit every individual because, fundamentally, nothing really makes sense. Whatever nothing is.

      And makes sense compared to what?

  8. teacupoftheapocalypse
    Posted March 5, 2014 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    If there is a single reason for the ‘return of the happy atheist’, it is because, in most walks of life in the non-Muslim World, atheists are, by and large, free of prejudice, persecution or worse. Ever since humankind discovered that, through religion, great control could be exerted over great masses, and great wealth accumulated, such freedom has not, for the most part, been experienced.

    It is still not universally the case, but rationalism has made great in-roads in recent decades, and all without starting any wars.

    • Kevin
      Posted March 5, 2014 at 9:00 am | Permalink

      Secularism is the champion for civil rights, human rights, women’s rights, gender and sexual rights. It has accomplished a great deal in less than half a century and it has done it through dialogue and reason. It is the quiet sleeping giant that unites so many people, it does it without prejudice, only free and sensible thinking tools that are available to anyone who wish for them.

      • Posted March 5, 2014 at 10:32 am | Permalink

        “The most precious thing” … (or rather one of them).

      • Leigh Jackson
        Posted March 6, 2014 at 10:49 am | Permalink

        But for how long?

  9. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted March 5, 2014 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    For every Camus and Sartre, I can give you an Old But Happy Atheist. Think of Mencken, Ingersoll, Mark Twain, and Clarence Darrow.

    You can go back much further than that. One of the oldest known atheist schools was the Carvaka of India, a very positive, pragmatic and life-embracing movement.

  10. Diana MacPherson
    Posted March 5, 2014 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    The first thought I had as well was, “how does he know the ‘Old Atheists’ were unhappy”? Just because Satre writes existentialist plays how does this make him unhappy? Is Stephen King a serial killer because he writes horror? Besides poor Nietzsche 1) had to translate Plato (I assume because he had a Classical education & he speaks against him a lot. 2) Was ill for a large part of his life (probably with syphilis so give him a break!

    As for this whole “scientism” claim, Douhat doesn’t seem to understand that science has had a profound impact on society back to, I’d say, the Romantics. It was just as much a part of the lives of “Old Atheists” as it is the “New Atheists”; what is different is thankfully science is more accessible to the regular folk and it has the appearance of being more prominent in culture. I’d argue that the New Atheists didn’t need to consciously choose to argue their case according to science because it really is the logical thing to do when you participate in a technologically advanced society.

    Lastly, this whole communism thing assumes that the Soviet Union’s embrace of communism was entirely centered on producing an atheist state. Atheism is not the central idea behind communism. A bunch of atheists didn’t get together to create and atheist state – if that were the case, we’d be talking about the former “atheist state” and the rise of “atheism” vs. capitalism!

    • pktom64
      Posted March 5, 2014 at 9:22 am | Permalink

      And about Sartre and Camus: let’s not forget that if they were indeed unhappy (and I agree with you that what they wrote is a poor indicator) it may have nothing to do with being atheists… they were also French after all and we have a tendency to come up as an unhappy lot (from polls anyway).
      :)

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted March 5, 2014 at 10:29 am | Permalink

        I find it odd that the French are sad with all those yummy noms! Maybe they eat to feel better. :)

        • moarscienceplz
          Posted March 5, 2014 at 11:54 am | Permalink

          Maybe they are sad because they know there is only a finite number of eclairs they can eat. ;-)

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted March 5, 2014 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

            That actually sounds existential!

          • Posted March 5, 2014 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

            Au contraire!

            /@

      • TJR
        Posted March 5, 2014 at 11:34 am | Permalink

        Sartre said “Hell is other people”, but you’ve got to remember that all his friends were French.

        – Arnold J Rimmer

    • Posted March 5, 2014 at 10:35 am | Permalink

      Or, “corrolation and causation”. Besides, approximate atheist and secular contemporaries of Nietzsche included Mill and Marx, both of which were angry and passionate sometimes, but morose? No (well no more than normal). Repeat as necessary for the others.

  11. andrikzen
    Posted March 5, 2014 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    —the dangers of atheism:

    The real danger of atheism is that it will put religion – big money – out of business.

  12. Stonyground
    Posted March 5, 2014 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    I am an atheist and I always thought that communism was a bad idea. Having said that, I did once have an East German MZ motorcycle and it was very good. I now have a Swedish car and it is also good, much better in fact. I’m not sure what this means though.

    • Larry Gay
      Posted March 5, 2014 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

      It means that Swedish and German engineers (even behind the iron curtain) are pretty good.

  13. TJR
    Posted March 5, 2014 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    From Nagel’s piece, note the massive equivocation (bait and switch) on “explain” below:

    “Further, since the mental arises through the development of animal organisms, the nature of those organisms cannot be fully understood through the physical sciences alone. Finally, since the long process of biological evolution is responsible for the existence of conscious organisms, and since a purely physical process cannot explain their existence, it follows that biological evolution must be more than just a physical process, and the theory of evolution, if it is to explain the existence of conscious life, must become more than just a physical theory.”

    In other words, he seems to be saying:

    “We don’t have any way of meaningfully accessing the subjective experiences of others, so therefore subjective experiences must be non-physical.”

    How can a philosopher commit such a howler?

    • Kurt Lewis Helf
      Posted March 5, 2014 at 10:26 am | Permalink

      Nagel just makes a naked assertion there! Who says a purely physical process cannot explain the existence of conscious organisms?

      • Posted March 5, 2014 at 10:37 am | Permalink

        Nagel has been on this at least since his famous “What it is Like to be a Bat?” which IIRC is from 1974.

        I don’t understand the “consciousness, therefore materialism is false” argument, and never have – even in the best form (Chalmers) it is basically an argument from personal incredulity (or “idealism of the gaps”, perhaps).

        • Posted March 5, 2014 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

          It’s like being a mouse. And an owl.

          /@

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted March 5, 2014 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

            :D

    • irritable
      Posted March 5, 2014 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

      For an expert dissection of the errors in Nagel’s “Mind and Cosmos” by a professor of philosophy, check out http://currentlogic.blogspot.com.au/2013/03/thomas-nagel-mind-and-cosmos.html.
      Well worth a read, like everything on ArithmoQuine’s blog and a refreshing reminder of the value of philosophy.
      Nagel applies the argument from incredulity to the products of evolution in order to justify his ID position.

  14. Timothy Hughbanks
    Posted March 5, 2014 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    I agree that the madness of Islamic fundamentalism makes the atheist case more compelling, but the aftermath of 9-11 should convince anyone who was paying attention that American fundamentalists/dominionists would very similar if they ever had their way. Militant Christians are as distasteful as militant Islamists, they’re only less dangerous because they wield less influence.

  15. Kevin
    Posted March 5, 2014 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    Religious people are like drivers on the road. They have a sense that the road was made for them. They are surrounded by other drivers and this usually gives them confidence that they are following the right rules and going the right way. They understand other drivers as they understand themselves, more or less.

    Atheists are like commuting cyclists. They share the road politely with religious people (or at least they should). And some drivers treat the cyclists with respect, as if they were like them. But most drivers think the cyclist cannot understand their conception of being a driver on the road, which is theirs and only theirs. Ironically, most cyclist know how to drive and even own cars.

    Religious people and bad philosophers should understand that atheists are humans too who can, as far as we know, understand anything a religious person can know. Despite any differences we are all from the same Lucy [311].

    • TJR
      Posted March 5, 2014 at 8:51 am | Permalink

      Nice analogy.

      Religious people are driving around in their Giant Metal Death Machines and don’t understand why anyone objects to this.

      • Kevin
        Posted March 5, 2014 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

        It is infuriating that the religious also do not comprehend that atheists could drive the Giant Metal Death Machines, not they would or should.

  16. Faustus
    Posted March 5, 2014 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    So Douthat can point to the Soviet Union, declare the danger to be due to atheism/materialism/secularism, rather than the many other factors, and hence deduce that atheism/materialism/secularism are inherently bad?

    What about the symmetric argument I can make: Look at the mischief of the Catholic Church, inquisitions et cetera, these show the inherent tensions in theism hence it must be bad.

    I can haz my New York Times Column Plz?

  17. Achrachno
    Posted March 5, 2014 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    I’m having an intellectual crisis! I can’t understand how believers in general, and Douthat in particular, can be so deeply confused about the reality that’s right before their eyes.

  18. Larry Gay
    Posted March 5, 2014 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    If you are wondering why Douthat’s writing seems so tedious and Germanic, it’s partly because the ratio lines/sentence is quite high for English. By my non-scientific (scientistic?) sampling method his ratio is 4.2, whereas Jerry’s is 2.2. I made a little correction for the fact that Douthat’s paragraphs are indented and counted semi-colons as periods. (If you do this at home you will get different numbers, since my eyes are bad and I need to enlarge the print to read at all, but Douthat will still be the wordy one.)

    • Diane G.
      Posted March 6, 2014 at 12:50 am | Permalink

      Nice analysis. :)

  19. Sastra
    Posted March 5, 2014 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    The idea that atheists were once serious, dolorous, and nihilistic is beginning to baffle me.

    I wonder if the critics of the “New Atheism” are being subtly influenced and misled by the term “new” and think that it must be contrasted with “old.”

    But New Atheism didn’t form in contrast to “Old Atheism” (whatever that is.) It formed in opposition to what we now call “Accomodationism” — the idea that atheists need to respect faith and must leave it alone as long as its adherents keep their beliefs in the “safe” zone: out of politics and science.

    Some atheists of the past were accomodationist; many were not.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted March 5, 2014 at 9:28 am | Permalink

      Yeah, this old atheism label is new and invented as a contrast to new atheism.

      • Jesper Both Pedersen
        Posted March 5, 2014 at 10:01 am | Permalink

        I think being dead eventually leads to a rise in popularity and affection from those who dare not speak ill of the dead.

        It’s much easier to forgive someone when they can’t talk back.

        • TJR
          Posted March 5, 2014 at 10:38 am | Permalink

          It won’t be long before religionists are going on about the good old days of those nice old atheists like Christopher Hitchens.

          • Jesper Both Pedersen
            Posted March 5, 2014 at 10:48 am | Permalink

            I’ve already seen a copule of “even Hitchens didn’t _____” posts, so give ‘em a few years and he should be good to go.

    • Larry Gay
      Posted March 5, 2014 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

      I would be happy to leave religion alone if it stayed out of politics and science, but I wouldn’t necessarily respect it or combat it.

  20. Posted March 5, 2014 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    It’s pretty simple, really. Humans are obligated to create and maintain a system of ethics precisely because there is no deity.

  21. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted March 5, 2014 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    Can Douthat point to any scriptural/magisterial authority to justify ‘happy’ Christians, or ‘happy’ Muslims, or ‘happy’ any other religion?

    Most religions appear to be about worshipping god, or submitting to god, or explaining and reducing suffering – little reference to being ‘happy’ in this world at all.

    I think Douthat is jealous of New Atheists.

  22. Posted March 5, 2014 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    Epicurus.

    b&

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted March 5, 2014 at 10:33 am | Permalink

      :D You must be tired of bringing him up & now just evoke his name. I wonder if he’s an old old atheist or really old atheist?

      • Posted March 5, 2014 at 10:38 am | Permalink

        He’s actually rather spry, seems to me.

        You’re the Classicist: are you aware of anybody else who lived, say, between the founding of Rome and the Fall of the Empire, who either had less respect for the gods or loved life more?

        I can’t, but I’m not an expert and I’d be curious to learn of one….

        b&

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted March 5, 2014 at 11:05 am | Permalink

          I always suspected most of the presocratics were atheists of a sort, especially Leucippus and democritus. Of course Lucretius wrote de rerum natura. The sassy plays on Euripides make me wonder about him too and Aristophanes has made godless remarks in his plays though I can’t recall them.

          • Posted March 5, 2014 at 11:11 am | Permalink

            Oh, certainly — the presocratics weren’t exactly a reverent bunch, and I’d have picked some of those same names.

            But I can’t think of any other who showed as much disdain for the gods as Epicurus, nor any who was so happy and had so much zest for life. The juxtaposition of those two in the single individual is rather telling, especially when one considers Twain or Sagan or Hitchens or Dawkins — or Jerry. In all cases, passion pervades their entire beings, and none abstains from dipping deep into the draft of life (even if their particular vices are varied).

            b&

            • MikeN
              Posted March 5, 2014 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

              “You must be tired of bringing him up & now just evoke his name.”

              Hume

      • Posted March 5, 2014 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

        An ancient atheist!

        /@

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted March 5, 2014 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

          Yeah but too easy!

  23. Posted March 5, 2014 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    I’ve never understood the objection to theism as a “hypothesis”… or why this is supposedly a hallmark of only “New atheism”. There are theists in my family – believers in heaven/hell/jeebus/angels… the whole she-bang. Even THEY have no trouble framing what they believe as a hypothesis (before going off the rails, describing why they come to entirely different conclusions as I do).

    • Posted March 5, 2014 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think it’s the idea that religious belies can be framed as hypotheses as much as the idea that they can be subject to empirical falsification.

      /@

  24. Jo Kitchen
    Posted March 5, 2014 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    Being 4th generation happily irreligious I dont sit around analyzing the reasons for it,I`ve simply never had a religion,never felt or seen the need for one,hadn`t even heard the term atheist until I was in my 30`s and think I have a pretty good moral foundation I do unto others and don`t hate anyone because they are different to me.What else do you need besides a conscience.

    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted March 5, 2014 at 10:45 am | Permalink

      Hey! Stop being happy! You really have no reason to be if you’re an atheist. It’s all going down the drain. You know soon there won’t be many atheists left because it’s depressing to think otherwise.

      So stop it!

      • Jo Kitchen
        Posted March 5, 2014 at 11:17 am | Permalink

        :D

  25. Notagod
    Posted March 5, 2014 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    One of the common characteristics of the catholicker that I have personally interacted with is their attempted use of fear as a tool of persuasion or, to put it more bluntly the catholicker uses fear as a tool in an attempt to dominate others. Other christians use fear as a tool as well but, not in the same way as the catholicker does. The catholickers asserts its speculations as if those assertions were the facts and the only relevant facts then the catholicker uses non-specific fear threats as a hammer to embed their speculative assertions. Rather funny at the catholicker’s expense when the listener won’t bit on the fear poisoned apple.

    I doubt that people will be persuaded by Douthat’s assertion that the catholic church owns a moral compass that the rest of us need to survive. Given the corruption and moral destitute nature that is characteristic of the catholic regime. Even his likely willful mischaracterization of the current vocal atheist mindset is hilariously off track.

    I doubt that most atheists are supporting the vocal advocates of Gnu atheism because they are following the leader but, because the vocal advocates appeal to a thought out position that was arrived at independently. Douthat’s catholickers have a dictatorial leader and regime. The appeal of atheism is that clear reasoning and justification matters. Gnu atheism isn’t holey it’s based on real life.

    • darrelle
      Posted March 5, 2014 at 11:12 am | Permalink

      Well, it probably has a few holes in it. None that couldn’t readily be patched up though, I’m sure.

  26. uncleebeneezer
    Posted March 5, 2014 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    These apologist articles always seem to boil down to: atheists who are certain of their conclusion and willing to criticize faith are big meanies and full of despair. Atheists who are demure and show respect for religion are happy.

    • Posted March 5, 2014 at 11:04 am | Permalink

      More like, atheists who make me feel sad are sad. Atheists who make me feel happy are happy.

      I don’t remember my Piaget, but I seem to recall that most children grow out of that by kindergarden.

      b&

  27. revelator60
    Posted March 5, 2014 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    Douthat is the sort of creep who gets upset when other people don’t share his hangups. “You’ll be miserable one day! You’ll see!” he shrieks with a little stamp of his Christian foot.

    For Douthat to talk of “human progress” is an obscenity. His idea of human progress is homophobia and sexism; his idea of intellectual progress is retreating to the reactionary bosom of the Church (which was always been on the wrong side of history when it had real power).
    His warning of an “intellectual crisis” of modern thought is the risible fatuity of man in a broken-down Pinto screaming at all the Porches whizzing past him on the freeway.

    Nietzsche would have spat in Douthat’s face for saying Godlessness had left him with some kind of “wound.” Anyone who has read “The Antichrist” has felt Nietzsche’s exhilaration in giving Christianity the boot. Had Hitchens been half as rude as Nietzsche was, he might have been physically attacked.
    Were Camus and Sartre really miserable sods without God, or were they merely concerned with forging a better path for humanity in a Godless world? Sartre made the mistake of aligning himself with Soviet Communism, but Camus lead a rich and fulfilling (albeit short) life.

    In any case, Douthat’s mention of “Diderotian optimism” gives the game away–Diderot was among the first modern atheists, and he and his friend Baron D’Holbach (and La Mettrie) were representing the Happy Atheists hundreds of years before gloomy old Kafka. Diderot was a thinker and author ahead of his time–he even anticipated evolution in his short story “D’alembert’s Dream.” His freethinking has held up beautifully well, and his optimism was well-founded because we can now fully appreciate his ideas. Isn’t it rich that a man born three hundred years ago is far more progressive than Douthat will ever be?

    • Diane G.
      Posted March 6, 2014 at 12:55 am | Permalink

      Thanks for saving me the trouble of looking up Diderot.

  28. Posted March 5, 2014 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    Douthat’s entire screed is a big pile of irrelevancy.

    “New” atheists don’t think the issues the “old” atheists seemed to wring their hands over have been “wrapped up and resolved”. We simply realized there’s nothing to resolve in the first place. Suppose religion never came to be. There would never have been any old atheist hand-wringing.

    Reality is the way it is, so let’s make the best of it. It is that simple.

    (And is Douthat really claiming that prosperity is the norm across the globe?!)

  29. Posted March 5, 2014 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    “…circumstances control philosophical fashions as often as they’re created by them. So…” Deconstruct not lest ye be deconstructed – there, maybe if it’s in KJV, apologists will get the picture and cease and desist in trotting out this form of argument. Whenever I read it I have to skip ahead, and then I pick up too far into the next point and I’m missing a whole lot of the funk that way. Tighten it up boys!

  30. John
    Posted March 5, 2014 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    Douthat refers to the remark by Dmitri Karamazov, in The Brothers Karamazov, that without god, everything is permitted. In fact, the opposite is true. With god, everything is permitted by whatever directives some human prophet declares to be from the mouth of his god, no matter how abhorrent those directives might otherwise be to our sense of reason. Thus, the word of god as found in the Judeo-Christian bible approves or commands the murder of people who pick up sticks for firewood on Sunday, slavery (including the selling of one’s own daughters into slavery), the murder of disrespectful children, the capture and rape of women as spoils of war, and the concept of substitutionary justice – the idea that it’s acceptable or even noble for one person to be punished for the offenses of another (the very premise of Christianity). The Koran sanctions the murder of apostates and infidels, apparently including the use of airplanes as missiles to destroy occupied office buildings. The Book of Mormon sanctions discrimination against dark-skinned people for the crime of not being “white and delightsome.” And each of those books promotes its own brand of misogyny. It is only by rejecting the “word of god” and employing reason that we have concluded that each of those things constitutes a great moral wrong rather than a great moral teaching – even though each of those teachings remains a part of these “holy” books to this very day.

    • Posted March 5, 2014 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

      Even if one were to grant the existence of the gods, it still wouldn’t matter. The only way, even in principle, to avoid the cookbook problem is for us humans to decide for ourselves what’s in our own best interests.

      …and that goes treble for a god often described as “the good shepherd.”

      b&

      • MikeN
        Posted March 5, 2014 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

        No matter how good the shepherd, sheep always get fleeced.

        • Posted March 5, 2014 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

          The fleecing I don’t think the sheep mind so much. It’s the haggis they tend to not appreciate so much….

          b&

    • Jason
      Posted March 5, 2014 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

      It’s been about a decade since I read the Brothers K, so my memory of it isn’t as concrete as I’d wish. But I remember the general idea being that the novel wanted to try to convince you that Dmitri’s worldview “mustn’t” be true, not that it isn’t. If we give in to Dmitri’s way of seeing things, then there’s no point. So we have to be good like Alyosha and just hope that god is there. That seems be what Douthat is saying, whether he means it or not.

      I also remember hearing that Dostoevsky said that Dmitri’s chapters were the easiest to write, since he suspected they were the truth. Someone who knows more about Russian literature can maybe correct me if I’m wrong.

  31. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted March 5, 2014 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    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.

    I think the lesson here is that Douthat think he has a god-shaped hole (specifically, an invisible-bearded-man-shaped hole) in his mind.

    And that Douthat thinks everyone else has to have one as well.

    LOLs:

    philosophical fashions

    Well, maybe that is a better term than “philosophical storytelling”. The fashion of an emperor with ever new clothes

    It’s not a coincidence that figures like Hitchens and Harris, in particular, grabbed the spotlight successfully in the years immediately following 9/11

    He and Eagleton should get their stories together.

    I just read an accommodationist fan review of the latter’s latest book over on Guardian, and Eagleton’s story is that 9/11 made religion grab the spotlight!

    “Atheism is in trouble, according to Terry Eagleton. Throughout the 20th century it went from strength to strength, as churches lost their congregations and theology was put to flight by natural science. But then there was 9/11 and everything changed. Traditional churchgoing may have continued its long decline, while the strident scepticism of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens still struck a chord with the book-buying classes, but, in the rest of the world, religion was rousing itself from a long slumber. Wild forms of worship – Christian, Islamic or other – have now taken hold of the poor and the oppressed. Religious faith has gone viral.”

    [ http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/feb/27/culture-death-god-review-terry-eagleton ]

  32. Daoud
    Posted March 5, 2014 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    The Swedes? Fuck ‘em.

    I can’t believe Ross Douthat has an actual job. At least outside of AIG or something.

  33. irritable
    Posted March 5, 2014 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    Douthat detects “ecrasez l’infame” posturing …

    Oh, the irony!

  34. MikeN
    Posted March 5, 2014 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    On evolutionary psychology, I do believe that it had a big influence. Just as it is said that Darwin made it respectable to be an atheist by providing an answer to the Argument from Design
    (for living things; it has now retreated to fine-tuning); I think EP has helped provide an answer to the Origin of Morality argument i.e. “survival of the fittest” couldn’t lead to altruism.

    As to the resurgence of atheism, i think that, at least in the U.S.,9/11 had far less to do with it than the emergence of theReligious Right- people became aware that these fantics were aggressively trying to impose thier beliefs on everybody else.

  35. Posted March 5, 2014 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    In agreement, however a different perspective; namely that orthodox Religion is not the only place for moral grounding. I don’t understand why more people are not exposed to (Neo)Platonism and Aristotle, neither of those teachings were theist basically and they both included comprehensive rational foundations for morality and ethics, and even politics.

    For more on Plato and Aristotle’s philosophy you can check out some of my blog posts at snowconenyc.com.

    Cheers and thank you for the post

  36. MikeN
    Posted March 5, 2014 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    “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.”

    Well, yes, a collapse of modern society and a descent into poverty, ignorance and savagery is probably religion’s only hope.

    • Daoud
      Posted March 6, 2014 at 10:21 am | Permalink

      Ha I had the same thought when I read that too! Yes, if all the infrastructure which supports our scientific and technological society collapses and we revert to an apocalyptic non-technological dystopian future filled with extraordinary violence, starvation and poverty, the upside will be more people turning to religion…

      That thought terrifies me (because it is possible!), but seems it reassures Douthat…

      • Leigh Jackson
        Posted March 6, 2014 at 11:01 am | Permalink

        Certainly possible. Consumerist avarice and power imbalances and technical prowess and the need for survival will lead us all where?

  37. NewEnglandBob
    Posted April 25, 2014 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    You need balsamic vinegar to make the salad come alive.

  38. Willard Bolinger
    Posted April 30, 2014 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    At almost 72 and a life long atheist who was adopted along with a brother in Iowa 1946. Dad had relatives come up from Florida when I was six and mom made the mistake of asking Dad to say grace. ” Our Father who Art in the Haymow Hallow Be Thy Name” more but ending “A Jug of Rum And High O’ Jack in the Game”! Mom turn beet red , but never asked Dad to say grace again. I was seven when I got to Mom’s Methodist Sunday school class and shocked her my telling her “I could not believe this fantastic stories. Jesus thought people were sick because they were possessed by demons!” Well “all my days are good” is one of my basic comments that I have stated for 40 years. I was a very early civil rights activist, labor, environmentalists, and lived in an apartment building with gay men in 1963 and became convinced that it was highly likely that it was natural and not a ‘choice” as the evidence came out in 1974. I was an activist against the Vietnam War. I studied the histories and dropping napalm to take out a whole village was a war crime! I gave money to NOW two years in a row before I figured out men could join. At 72 I still have never had a headache and have a history of not getting sick and my colds are mild compared to most other people. I worked in an auto assembly plant and went through college while working and majored in history. I have 19 ot top 20 books on evolution and use to speak Spanish fairly good. I am a very happy atheist activist!

    • Diane G.
      Posted May 1, 2014 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

      I am a very happy atheist activist!

      And an inspiration!


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