Wednesday, May 19, 2010

New Atheists as Pet Rocks

A tip of the hat to Tom Cheetham, in whose The Legacy of Henry Corbin blog I learned of David B. Hart's review of the latest publishing effort churned out in the name of New Atheism.

Hart's review is titled Believe It Or Not, and in it he looks at 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists. Hart introduces his review with a very nice summation of his opinion of New Atheism:
I think I am very close to concluding that this whole “New Atheism” movement is only a passing fad—not the cultural watershed its purveyors imagine it to be, but simply one of those occasional and inexplicable marketing vogues that inevitably go the way of pet rocks, disco, prime-time soaps, and The Bridges of Madison County. This is not because I necessarily think the current “marketplace of ideas” particularly good at sorting out wise arguments from foolish. But the latest trend in à la mode godlessness, it seems to me, has by now proved itself to be so intellectually and morally trivial that it has to be classified as just a form of light entertainment, and popular culture always tires of its diversions sooner or later and moves on to other, equally ephemeral toys.
To be honest, I think Hart seriously misunderestimates the lasting cultural impact and importance of disco, but other than that, this is pitch perfect.

Now, Hart and I obviously come at this issue from rather different perspectives. He is an Orthodox Christian who is a regular contributor to the conservative Christian journal, First Things, where his review is published. First Things, for those not familiar with it, was founded by Catholic theologian Richard Neuhaus, who had this to say in a speech he gave to the National Right To Life Committee in Arlington VA in 2008:
"We shall not weary, we shall not rest, as we stand guard at the entrance gates and the exit gates of life, and at every step along way of life, bearing witness in word and deed to the dignity of the human person—of every human person. Against the encroaching shadows of the culture of death, against forces commanding immense power and wealth, against the perverse doctrine that a woman’s dignity depends upon her right to destroy her child, against what St. Paul calls the principalities and powers of the present time . . . "
I, on the other hand, am a left-leaning Pagan who is proud of having faced down the likes of Richard Neuhaus from the other side of the property line at many an abortion clinic. I don't want to dwell on abortion or my views of Christianity (or monotheism generally -- let along right-wing Catholic right-to-lifers). I only wish to emphasize that any agreement I might have with David Bentley Hart is a considered one, and not some reflexive "amen, brother!"

With that out of the way, let me return to praising Hart and his assessment of New Atheism. Or, better yet, let me quote Hart at length as he gets to the heart of the matter:
I am not—honestly, I am not—simply being dismissive here. The utter inconsequentiality of contemporary atheism is a social and spiritual catastrophe. Something splendid and irreplaceable has taken leave of our culture—some great moral and intellectual capacity that once inspired the more heroic expressions of belief and unbelief alike. Skepticism and atheism are, at least in their highest manifestations, noble, precious, and even necessary traditions, and even the most fervent of believers should acknowledge that both are often inspired by a profound moral alarm at evil and suffering, at the corruption of religious institutions, at psychological terrorism, at injustices either prompted or abetted by religious doctrines, at arid dogmatisms and inane fideisms, and at worldly power wielded in the name of otherworldly goods. In the best kinds of unbelief, there is something of the moral grandeur of the prophets—a deep and admirable abhorrence of those vicious idolatries that enslave minds and justify our worst cruelties.

But a true skeptic is also someone who understands that an attitude of critical suspicion is quite different from the glib abandonment of one vision of absolute truth for another—say, fundamentalist Christianity for fundamentalist materialism or something vaguely and inaccurately called “humanism.” Hume, for instance, never traded one dogmatism for another, or one facile certitude for another. He understood how radical were the implications of the skepticism he recommended, and how they struck at the foundations not only of unthinking faith, but of proud rationality as well.

A truly profound atheist is someone who has taken the trouble to understand, in its most sophisticated forms, the belief he or she rejects, and to understand the consequences of that rejection. Among the New Atheists, there is no one of whom this can be said, and the movement as a whole has yet to produce a single book or essay that is anything more than an insipidly doctrinaire and appallingly ignorant diatribe.
This is spot on. For the old school Atheists of days gone by, attacking Christianity was a labor of love. They lingered over passages from scripture, quoted Papal Bulls and other church documents from memory, and knew the breadth and depth of western history. For them it was not simply the case that "even the Devil can quote scripture", but that the Devil must know his Bible backwards and forwards, as well as his theology, his Apologetics, and, of course, his Church historians.

By far the most damning thing that Hart has in store is his extended comparison of the "sheer banality" of the New Atheists with the "force" and "intellectual courage" of Friedrich Nietzsche:
The only really effective antidote to the dreariness of reading the New Atheists, it seems to me, is rereading Nietzsche. How much more immediate and troubling the force of his protest against Christianity seems when compared to theirs, even more than a century after his death. Perhaps his intellectual courage—his willingness to confront the implications of his renunciation of the Christian story of truth and the transcendent good without evasions or retreats—is rather a lot to ask of any other thinker, but it does rather make the atheist chic of today look fairly craven by comparison.

Above all, Nietzsche understood how immense the consequences of the rise of Christianity had been, and how immense the consequences of its decline would be as well, and had the intelligence to know he could not fall back on polite moral certitudes to which he no longer had any right. Just as the Christian revolution created a new sensibility by inverting many of the highest values of the pagan past, so the decline of Christianity, Nietzsche knew, portends another, perhaps equally catastrophic shift in moral and cultural consciousness. His famous fable in The Gay Science of the madman who announces God’s death is anything but a hymn of atheist triumphalism. In fact, the madman despairs of the mere atheists—those who merely do not believe—to whom he addresses his terrible proclamation. In their moral contentment, their ease of conscience, he sees an essential oafishness; they do not dread the death of God because they do not grasp that humanity’s heroic and insane act of repudiation has sponged away the horizon, torn down the heavens, left us with only the uncertain resources of our will with which to combat the infinity of meaninglessness that the universe now threatens to become.
Of course Hart cannot help but try to enlist Nietzsche as a witness to the "immensity" of the "consequences of the rise of Christianity." One gets the impression that Hart does not have the Dark Ages, the Inquisition and Colonialism in mind. But those are subjects I have covered elsewhere.


Haukur said...

How about this Hitchens vs. Prince Charles thing here?

Apuleius Platonicus said...

When Hitch is right, he's right. As much as he pisses me off sometimes, Christopher Hitchens is often a very good writer, has a great sense of humor, and does get things right every once in a while. The Prince of Piffle is an excellent case in point.