Lieber Gott: Bitte kommen Sie wieder. Wir sind sehr traurig. Ihre Gottheit steht außer Zweifel. Ihr, Faust.
I do apologize. It seems that everything I write these days is anti-atheist. And who can blame my unbelieving brethren for assuming I am fighting for the other side. Perhaps I should be, since modern atheism is hardly worth defending.
To be brutal, I cannot imagine a time in the history of unbelief when atheism has appeared more hamfisted, puling, ignorant or unappealing.
Is this because its savants are also described by those adjectives, or because their fans are just being fans, merchandising the cause: t-shirts, coffee mugs, quick fixes, blasphemy competitions, and billboard campaigns? (Axial tilt is the reason for the season: Honest Jethro, I thought I’d never stop laughing). I mean, who are we unless someone is offended by who we are? What good is blasphemy if no one is getting their knickers in a knot anymore, for Christ’s sake. How can we “come out” when there’s no one standing outside the closet to yell “Surprise!” at? And, by the way you churchy jerks: we are victims.
Atheism has become a very little idea, an idea that has to be shouted to seem important. And that is a shame, because God was a big idea, and the rejection of the existence of God was also a big idea, once upon a time.
There was nothing “mistaken” about belief in God, and the fact that there is probably no god does not lessen his significance. No distant galaxy of more intelligent beings has sent us an error message about the God thing. God is no more “wrong” than a carriage is wrong in relation to a JAG XKR-S. Expensive strokes for modern folks, but as carriage is to sleek design and comfortable travel, so god is to modern understanding. Notice: I did not say science. I said modern understanding, because only a portion of modern understanding is shaped by science and god is not an object of scientific thought. If the question of God could be reduced to a simple scientific verdict, the eminently nasal Richard Dawkins could shut his repetitive trap. As it is he has to keep talking.
Atheism has become a very little idea because it is now promoted by little people with a small focus. These people tend to think that there are two kinds of questions: the questions we have already answered and the questions we will answer tomorrow. When they were even smaller than they are now, their father asked them every six weeks, “Whadja get in math and science?” When they had children of their own, they asked them, “Whadja get in science and math?” Which goes to show, people can change.
They eschew mystery, unless it’s connected to a telescopic lens or an electron microscope or a neutrinometer at the Hadron Collider at CERN. “Mystery” is not a state to be enjoyed or celebrated like a good wine or a raven-haired woman with haunting and troubled eyes: it is a temporary state of befuddlement, an unknown sum, an uncharted particle, a glimpse of a distant galaxy, the possibility that Mars supported microbial life.
I get excited by all of these things, incidentally. They are the sorts of things that put the sapiens (twice) in the name of our species. Our ability to figure things out is almost mysterious, but not at all miraculous. In fact, a crucial part of modern humanism is the celebration of our continued and accelerating ability to make sense of the universe and where we are in it.
Strictly speaking we do not need to know as much as we already do to survive and there is no guarantee that knowing more will guarantee our survival. So it’s wondrous indeed that we care enough to put knowledge at the top of the human agenda. The same mysterious attitude it was that pricked us into turning the vast and starry skies into the creation of a divine being who loved us, cared for us, and saved us from oblivion.
We have gradually concluded that this is probably not true: there is no such being–yet the vast and starry skies remain. But we have not yet learned to love the universe as much as we once loved God because, as Stephen Crane once said, we know the universe does not love us back.
We lived before there was science, and we may live at some distant point–come hell, high water, nuclear catatsrophe, plague, and asteroids that don’t miss–after it. I do not regard an umimaginable future unlikely because nothing is more unlikely than that we should understand the world as well as we do now.
Atheism has been of practically no use in formulating this world view. It is certainly true that a majority of scientists are either unbelievers (of some sort) or unconventional believers. But being an atheist was never a prerequisite to good science. Understanding the natural world makes good science, a world in which the mysterious exists but the miraculous does not.
Science reified (with its consort, Reason) has become the convenient alternative deity of small atheists. But this is a relatively recent phenomenon. Most of the greatest advances in science were made by “believers.” Without getting into the mud over Einstein (who whether a believer or not was not an atheist), Newton, Mendel, Galileo, Kelvin, Darwin, Faraday, Boyle, Planck, and on and on. But the score at the end of this risky game is not to stack theists against atheists. Most smart people, some of whom are scientists, are not religious in the way religious people want them to be religious or irreligious in the way atheists want them to be atheists.
When did atheism cease to be a big idea? When atheists made God a little idea. When its idea of god shriveled to become a postulate of a new intellectual Darwinism. When they began to identify unbelief with being a woman, a gay, a lesbian, or some other victimized cadre. When they decided that religion is best described as a malicious and retardant cultural force that connives to prevent us being the Alpha Race of super-intelligences and wholly equal beings that nature has in store for us. When they elevated naturalism, already an outmoded view of the universe, to a cause, at the expense of authentic imagination.
Atheism has become a little idea because it is based on the hobgoblin theory of religion: its god is a green elf with a stick, not the master of the universe who controls it with his omniscient will. –Let alone a God so powerful that this will could evolve into Nature’s God–the god of Jefferson and Paine–and then into the laws of nature, as it did before the end of the eighteenth century in learned discussion and debate.
Atheism until fairly recently has been about a disappointing search for god that ends in failure, disillusionment, despair, and finally a new affirmation of human ingenuity that is entirely compatible with both science and art.
That’s the way Sartre thought of it. –A conclusion forced upon us by the dawning recognition that we are both the source and solution to our despair. That is what Walter Lippmann thought in 1929, when he described the erosion of belief by the acids of modernity. This atheism was respectful of the fact that God is a very big idea, a sublime idea, and that abandoning such an idea could not take place as a mere reckoning at one moment in time; it had to happen as a process that included hatred, alienation and what Whitehead saw as “reconciliation” with the idea of God. That is what Leo Strauss meant in 1955 when he wrote in Natural Right and History that the classical virtues would save the modern world from the negative trinity of pragmatism, scientism and relativism, what Irving Babbitt (Lippmann’s teacher at Harvard) meant in declaring war on modernity and science in favour of the “inner check” of classical humanism.
In 1914, on the eve of World War I, a very young Lippmann surveyed the situation in America: “The sanctity of property, the patriarchal family, hereditary caste, the dogma of sin, obedience to authority–the rock of ages, in brief, has been blasted for us.” A disllusioned soldier on the Western Front, Wilfred Owen asked poetically in the same year, “Was it for this the clay grew tall?” Ortega y Gasset observed that the goals that furnished yesterday’s landscape with “so definite an architecture” have lost their hold. Those that are to replace them have not yet taken shape, and so the landscape “seems to break up, vacillate, and quake in all directions.” And Yeats, elaborating on the kind of apocalyptic imagery he used in “The Second Coming” recalled: “Nature, steel-bound or stone-built in the nineteenth century, became a flux where man drowned or swam.” We all know the verdict: “Things fall apart,” because the god at the centre could not hold. The image was highly appropriate because it was atomic and prophetic.**
My current Angst, to use that hackneyed word correctly, is that most contemporary humanists don’t know what classical humanism is, and most modern atheists won’t know the references in the last paragraph, and what’s more will not care.** Their atheism is an uneven mixture of basic physics, evolutionary biology, half cooked theories from the greasy kitchen of cognitive science, assorted political opinions, and what they regard as common sense. They fell into atheism; they did not come to it.
That’s the way recent atheism has been, an old fiddle with one string and one tune to play: We are the world. Get over God. If the almighty being and his raggedy book are relevant at all, it’s simply as a record of all the stupid things human beings can think of: superstitious sorghum, toxic drivel that stopped being relevant in the century its superstitious, toxic tropes were composed.
Was it only ten years ago that relatively dumb people were saying “Duh” to obtuse comments that they were afraid equally dumb people might miss without the exclamation, usually prefaced with, “I mean like.…” The fad was almost as annoying as the similarly valenced interjection “Hello?” which had to be said with the speaker four inches from your face, head tilted. Modern culture, this is to say, has survived the tyranny of not very bright bright-lovers, the opinionated, the anti-obtusity of the obtuse. That’s what the atheist militia, the campaigners, the billboard mongers are: people who just say “Duh” when they are asked about the existence of God.
“In all philosophic theory,” said Whitehead, with Russell the author of Principia Mathematica and thus no slouch when it came to close reasoning and logic., “there is an ultimate which is capable of characterization only through its accidental embodiments, and apart from these accidents is devoid of actuality. In the philosophy of organism this ultimate is termed ‘creativity’; and God is its primordial, non-temporal accident.” Hello?
As I completed this blog, a friend forwarded to me an appreciation of a recent meeting of a group called Skepticon, a confederation of compatible atheist groups.
The piece reminds me of nothing so much as the scene in Roald Dahl’s The Witches where the hags come together, disguised under itchy wigs as ordinary housewives, to exchange ”recipes.”
We are assured that skepticism is “a humanism” by one of the keynoters, whatever that is supposed to mean; P Z Myers and Greta Christina justified their rancid approaches to belief by saying that religion “hurts human beings” (well, that’s something to suppose, which is better than nothing to suppose), and a writer named James Croft praised the meeting’s “profoundly humanist…no cop-out approach” while David Silverman, the head of the American Atheists warned that calling yourself a humanist is, in fact, a cop out.
I mention Skepticon because to my mind the meeting is further evidence of the crisis that besets atheism. It cannot quite embrace humanism at the margins, the solution to which for certain ecumenical atheists is to fiddle with the definition of humanism by rolling out the dough ever thinner. It cannot represent skepticism in a methodological way because science and philosophy and even theology have been there and do it. It cannot lay claim to helping people in a direct and positive (as opposed to a merely rhetorical way) because it isn’t, after all, a social welfare movement.
It wants like Pirandello’s lost characters, a cause, an author, something that defines it and sets it apart: science, reason, empathy, concern for human health, but ends up sounding like a nightmare version of a Miss America contestant prompted to give her world peace response.
What atheism and humanism have needed for a long time and once came close to having was a think tank to deal with the theoretical issues of these different movements. It may say worlds about the nature of atheism that this project failed, under the name of secular humanism. Think, O ye of little faith and proud of it, how many temples of learning religion has built. No don’t: you’ll get it wrong.
But for a think tank, you need thinkers. What the atheists are left with is a stage and a microphone.
**Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History; Walter Lippmann, Drift and Mastery (New York, 1914), xvii; Wilfred Owen’s Collected Poems (“Move him gently into the sun”); Ortega y Gasset, “Signs of the Times” in The Modern Themes [1921-22; rpt. New York, 1961], 79. Yeats is from his “Introduction,” The Oxford Book of Modern Verse [New York, 1936], xxviii; Babbitt, “What is Humanism,” http://www.rjosephhoffmann.com/the-smart-set/