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At Least It’s an Ethos

Last time we checked into the freakout-fit over "the New Atheism," we learned via Damon Linker's misreading of the philosophical tradition, that the New Atheists distinguish themselves from other atheists through their illiberal radicalism. Linker's analysis, in turn, recapitulates and … Read More

By / December 20, 2007

Last time we checked into the freakout-fit over "the New Atheism," we learned via Damon Linker's misreading of the philosophical tradition, that the New Atheists distinguish themselves from other atheists through their illiberal radicalism. Linker's analysis, in turn, recapitulates and expands upon Matthew Yglesias's fine philsophical distinction between jerk and non-jerk atheists. All of which is silly for reasons I've elaborated on at some length, most importantly that the praiseworthy atheists of old are by and large exactly as acerbic in their treatments of religion as they could afford to be without winding up in jail or on an executioner's block. For a refresher, David Hume, the father of modern philosophical atheism, a father of the liberal tradition, concludes his Enquiry as follows:

When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: For it can contain nothing but sophistry or illusion.

Anyway, whatever else is wrong with the Yglesias-Linker story, at least it's internally consistent. Then along comes John Haught, evolution-believing Catholic theologian, witness for the good guys at the Dover ID trial, and author of God and the New Atheism (forthcoming), to announce that what's wrong with the New Atheism, contra Yglesias and Linker, is that it's not radical enough:

They [Nietzsche, Sartre, and Camus] 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.

There is, for one thing, the slight problem that the logic of the Continental tradition in philosophy, while perhaps unrelenting, fails pretty miserably at being logical. (The old joke is that at the University of Jena, they may teach Logik and Metaphysik, but they certainly don't teach logic or metaphysics.) Then there is the problem that for Nietzsche at least*, the absence of God and religion most certainly do not entail moral nihilism. (I assume Haught means moral nihilism, and isn't suggesting Nietzsche believed nothing exists.) On the contrary, Nietzsche saw the Christian moral dualism of good and evil as an inversion of an older, more natural and humanistic duality, of good and bad.

On this understanding, "good" was originally a term noble people applied to everything strong and vital, like themselves, while "bad" applied to the weak, powerless, and pitiable. Along came the Christians at some point, and invented the concept of evil to demarcate everything theretofore understood as good, and redefined "good" to refer to what was previously called "bad." The argument of Beyond Good and Evil isn't that Christianity is false and pernicious so we should abandon moral values; it's that Christianity is false and pernicious so we should change our values or create new ones — basically the opposite of nihilism. Haught should read Beyond Good and Evil sometime; it'll clear up his confusions about Nietzsche, and it's actually kind of a fun book apart from everything else.

The most salient issue here, though, isn't Haught's misreading of Nietzsche, though that misreading does allow Haught to lend his own claims an imprimatur they don't deserve. The issue is Haught's claim that without God everything is permitted, that we "should" conclude nihilism follows from the dismantling of religion. This is a hoary old charge, of course, and I suppose it's too much to hope that it will ever go away.

Look. Lots of people lose their religious beliefs, and find (sometimes to their surprise), that they nevertheless retain their moral beliefs, and what's more, that life continues to have meaning for them. The idea that everyone has to choose between embracing religion and embracing bleak despair is a pretty clever way of marketing religion in a post-modern age, but it's absolute bollocks. You can't say, well early and mid-twentieth century existentialists held that life without faith turns into a grey meandering nothingness, so atheists who maintain that their lives are meaningful, that they still have all the beliefs they used to have minus one, had better knock it off. It's just an empirical fact that many people do jettison faith and have no trouble upholding the same universal, objective ethics as everybody else, and many others do so without ever having had religious faith in the first place. (Daniel Dennett has a nice essay in Philosophers Without Gods, "Thank goodness!", where he reflects on the heart surgery that saved his life, and observes that a makes a lot more sense to be grateful to goodness — literal, human goodness — and pay it back with further good works, than to be grateful to Yahweh and pay Him back with sacrifices.)

Moreover, we don't need to consider the empirical verdict to see that the old lack-of-religion yields nihilism canard falls flat on its face as a purely theoretical matter. It is an example of what Will Wilkinson aptly calls "a retarded ponens/tollens showdown." There is no reason to ask what follows from the conditional, if there is no God, then nihilism, because we already know tbe consequent of the conditional is false: nihilism isn't true, morality exists and is accessible to reason, our lives have whatever value we imbue them with, etc. Given that nihilism isn't true and either God exists or God doesn't exist, either [God exists and nihilism is false] or [God doesn't exist and nihilism is false]. In the latter case, what makes nihilism false, what makes the moral, mental, aesthetic, political truths true, is whatever non-God stuff makes up the universe. Since we know that morality exists, if atheism is true, then atheism is compatible with the existence of morality. QED.

To conclude, I suggest Linker, Yglesias, Haught, Leon Wieseltier, and whichever anti-antitheists are going to confuse themselves and their readers in the future, should get together and decide just what the unfounded complaint against the New Atheism is supposed to be. Get your stories straight, fellas.

*I'm not knowledgeable enough about Camus or Sartre to offer an interpretation.

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