Two of the common tropes used against New Atheists are that 1) we’re not dolorous enough given our realizations that we’re not going anywhere after we die and that our lives are supposedly meaningless; and 2) the world is rejecting New Atheism, and religion is here to stay anyway.
Both of these can be seen in two new articles, one in the Catholic Herald and the other in The Week. Let’s look at them very briefly.
In The Week, Damon Linker’s piece “Where are the honest atheists?” purports to be a review of Anthony Grayling’s new book, The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism. But in two pages of diatribe it manages to completely avoid what’s in the book, saying that it’s only another in the line of tiresome New Atheist tomes. Linker simply uses his non-review as a platform for dissing atheism. His one sentence about the book is this: “But honesty requires more than sentimental, superficial happy talk, which is all readers will get from A.C. Grayling and his anti-religious comrades in arms.” (Go read the link.) It is of course a reviewer’s responsibility to at least give the reader an idea of what’s in a book, and Linker fails even that elementary test.
What does Linker say instead?
1. Unlike the good old atheists, like Camus and Nietzsche, the New Atheists fail to realize the implications of their godlessness. Given that our death is The End, and there’s no celestial being to give us meaning and purpose, we should be dolorous, depressed, and racked with guilt. We’re not, so we’re “dishonest”.
The style of atheism rehearsed in these books has reached a dead end. It’s one thing to catalogue the manifest faults within this or that religious tradition, which the new atheists have ably done… over and over and over again. It’s quite another to claim, as these authors also invariably do, that godlessness is not only true but also unambiguously good for human beings. It quite obviously is not.
If atheism is true, it is far from being good news. Learning that we’re alone in the universe, that no one hears or answers our prayers, that humanity is entirely the product of random events, that we have no more intrinsic dignity than non-human and even non-animate clumps of matter, that we face certain annihilation in death, that our sufferings are ultimately pointless, that our lives and loves do not at all matter in a larger sense, that those who commit horrific evils and elude human punishment get away with their crimes scot free — all of this (and much more) is utterly tragic.
Honest atheists understand this. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God, but he called it an “awe-inspiring catastrophe” for humanity, which now faced the monumental task of avoiding a descent into nihilism. Essayist Albert Camus likewise recognized that when the longing for a satisfying answer to the question of “why?” confronts the “unreasonable silence of the world,” the goodness of human life appears to dissolve and must be reconstructed from the ground up.
2. New Atheists just want to make money by selling books.
That godlessness might be both true and terrible is something that the new atheists refuse to entertain, no doubt in part because they want to sell books — and greeting cards do a brisk business.
Refutation: What a pile of bullpucky! Plenty of atheists, including myself, lead fulfilled lives and are not tormented by our finitude. Northern Europe is full of atheists, but seems to me a happier place than America! What people like Linker are really showing with this kind of stupid commentary is that they want atheists to be unhappy. They want us to be godless penitentes, whipping ourselves mentally with the scourges of nonbelief. What hauteur for people like Linker to tell us that we are supposed to be more miserable than we are! Could he be jealous?
As for the accusation of venality, that’s simply stupid. Sam Harris just wanted to spread his ideas, and his book was rejected by more than a dozen publishers before it became a best seller. Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens simply don’t need more money. As even detractors might note (at least those who don’t have an agenda like Linker), these people wrote because they were passionate about their beliefs—or lack of belief—and wanted to call attention to the downside of religion.
In some ways Ed West’s piece at the Catholic Herald, “New Atheism is Dead,” is even worse, for rather than being misguided prescriptiveness, it’s simply dishonest.
1. New Atheism is dead.
Despite Dawkins’s continual attacks on religion, the basic premise behind New Atheism has turned out to be weak.
. . . The New Atheism rage exploded in a generation two degrees separated from religion who, unlike their semi-Christian baby boomer parents, were not interested in tolerating what they saw as religiously bigoted attitudes to sex. New Atheism was as much of a social phenomenon, an internet-led social network, as a philosophy: an expression of solidarity for young, educated westerners. Like most such movements it was heavily white, and embarrassed about it.
. . . Despite the millennial hopes of some atheists, religion is not going away. . .
2. The demise of New atheism is caused by the realization that religion is fundamentally a good thing.
Rather, New Atheism is in decline because more atheists see the social benefits of religion. Evolutionary psychologist Jonathan Haidt argued in The Righteous Mind that human groups practising moralistic religions would have had huge advantages over those that didn’t. For Haidt, religion binds us to the group and blinds us to the point of view of outsiders, which explains both its unfortunate sectarianism and also its incredible strength.
Even to non-believers, the argument that religion is a damaging parasite seems implausible. In their everyday lives people see that atheism does not explain the fundamental questions and a godless world doesn’t make us happier or even more questioning. The popularity of the Sunday Assembly, an “atheist church” in Islington, or Alain de Botton’s “10 commandments for atheists”, reflect the growing belief in secular Britain that religion is not just a beneficial thing but perhaps an essential one. Perhaps that is why New Atheism is as dead as Nietzsche.
Refutation: This is true “religious” journalism, with author West reporting as true what he merely wants to be true. First, religion is going away in most places in the world, including the U.S., where the proportion of those without religious belief keeps growing. Second, New Atheism is not in decline. It’s being attacked more often because of its greater prominence, but what evidence do we have that the influence of people like Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, et al. is waning? Au contraire: new books continue to come out by people like Victor Stenger, Lawrence Krauss, and Alex Rosenberg, maintaining the tradition of skepticism, atheism, and materialism.
As for more atheists seeing the social benefits of religion, that’s bogus as well. Many of us, having read the arguments of people like Alain de Botton and Philip Kitcher, are thinking about whether atheism needs to fill some of the human needs to which religion supposedly appeals, but in general de Botton and other “atheist churchers” haven’t been widely supported. Maybe atheism doesn’t answer the fundamental questions, but why should it—it’s simply a refusal to accept deities and those systems of worship that claim (in conflicting ways) to answer the “fundamental questions.” Most of us know that many of those so-called “fundamental questions,” like “Why are we here?” don’t have an answer beyond the laws of physics. Others, like “What is our purpose?”m must be answered by each person on their own, for their is no general answer. Still others, like “How are we to live?”, are answered far better by secular reason than by dogmatic adherence to outdated or even immoral religious strictures.
Finally, the claim that “New Atheism is as dead as Nietzsche” is misleading at best, and pretty close to a bald-faced lie. As for West’s claim that religion is not only here to stay, but essential, I have a three-word response: Denmark and Sweden.