UPDATE: Over at Choice in Dying, Eric MacDonald has a nice commentary on this issue, “Nothing beside remains.“
The video and the interview highlighted here aren’t new, but I wanted to put them up them because of the recurring accusation that New Atheists aren’t “serious” enough (I believe Terry Eagleton and R. Joseph Hoffmann have said this recently). In a nutshell, the criticism is that New Atheists don’t follow their beliefs to the logical conclusion—the despair and nihilism that supposedly emerge when we realize that there is no God, no afterlife, and no supernatural basis for morality. When we see that, we lose all hope—or should lose all hope.
In other words, we’re not lugubrious enough. We should be existentialists like Sartre or even Camus, who said, in The Myth of Sisyphus, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” Why not bump ourselves off when we realize that life is meaningless?
The answer of course, is that we, not a sky-father, give life its meaning, and can find joy and fulfillment in the limited time we have. Is that “frivolous”? I don’t think so. Given our finite span, why spend our time being dolorous, weighed down by the supposed futility of life? There is so much beauty and love to be had, not to mention friendship, books, music, food, drink, and cats; and I for one am happy to be happy about these things.
But Robert Barron, a Catholic priest, thinks I should feel otherwise. Watch the video of this seemingly genial fellow and see how many things you can disagree with in just a few minutes:
I find this the most invidious part of his spiel:
We have deeply ingrained in us a sense of the limitedness of this world that there is something more. In fact, our very wiring for God proves the existence of God. We desire something which transcends the limitations of this world means that we have within us a sort of participation in the eternal. . . Your hunger is not a sign that food is a projection, but your hunger in fact proves the existence of food—your hunger proves the reality of food. Right? It doesn’t mean that food is some kind of subjective projection or illusion. So that our desires are not misleading us: our desires order us to realities—so our desire for God.
That’s a new theological argument to me: The Argument from Hunger. Because we want something so badly, it must exist. Readers might amuse themselves with refuting it.
Along similar lines, here’s part of an interview with John Haught published in Salon in 2007: “The atheist delusion.”
You’re saying older atheists like Nietzsche and Camus had a more sophisticated critique of religion?
Yes. They wanted us to think out completely and thoroughly, and with unrelenting logic, what the world would look like if the transcendent is wiped away from the horizon. Nietzsche, Sartre and Camus would have cringed at “the new atheism” because they would see it as dropping God like Santa Claus, and going on with the same old values. The new atheists don’t want to think out the implications of a complete absence of deity. Nietzsche, as well as Sartre and Camus, all expressed it quite correctly. The implications should be nihilism.
Didn’t they see the death of God as terrifying?
Yes, they did. And they thought it would take tremendous courage to be an atheist. Sartre himself said atheism is an extremely cruel affair. He was implying that most people wouldn’t be able to look it squarely in the face. And my own belief is they themselves didn’t either. Nietzsche, Sartre and Camus eventually realized that nihilism is not a space within which we can live our lives.
But it seems to me that Camus had a different project. He thought there was no God or transcendent reality, and the great existential struggle was for humans to create meaning themselves, without appealing to some higher reality. This wasn’t a cop-out at all. It was a profound struggle for him.
Yes, it was. But his earlier life was somewhat different from his later writings. In “The Stranger” and “The Myth of Sisyphus,” he argues that in the absence of God, there’s no hope. And we have to learn to live without hope. His figure of Sisyphus is the image of living without hope. And whatever happiness Camus thought we could attain comes from the sense of strength and courage that we feel in ourselves when we shake our fist at the gods. But none of the atheists — whether the hardcore or the new atheists — really examine where this courage comes from. What is its source? I think a theologian like Paul Tillich, who wrestled with the atheism of Nietzsche, Sartre and Camus, put his finger on the real issue. How do we account for the courage to go on living in the absence of hope? As you move to the later writings of Camus and Sartre, those books are saying it’s difficult to live without hope. What I want to show in my own work — as an alternative to the new atheists — is a universe in which hope is possible.
I don’t need no stinking hope, at least any hope that when the being known as Jerry Coyne has expired, he’ll be tranported to a cloud above, where he’ll pluck a harp for eternity. And I do hope for accomplishment in science, and for love, friendship, learning, good books, good wine, and good noms—and that’s enough hope for me.