Friday, September 21, 2007

The First Problem with the New Atheists

Benedictus Spinoza can arguably be seen as one of the fore-runners of today's materialism. His mechanistic universe in which God is identifiable with all that is has proven to be something of a philosophical Rorschach test. He has worn the guise of a pantheist, an atheist, and a renegade Jew. Whichever of these interpretations is right, he wielded one of the most stubbornly powerful intellects the western world has ever seen. One cannot be a powerful thinker without being a powerful creator; he smashed accepted doctrines and created new ones with an almost unique intensity. Between his Ethics and Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, he ground traditional religious views beneath his heel. For all this, some French theologian or another called him the "most dangerous man of the century."

Without trying to be too romantic about this, those who can think new things and hold to truths are always foes of the status quo. The people that found new ways of thinking and create new concepts always, of course, stand in excess of the status quo. Atheism has commonly enough been the stance of these excessive figures. Atheism was a view that set one upon an outsider's life; a life that was not necessarily dangerous, but comforts of various kinds were sacrificed. See the almost-atheists like Hobbes and Kant, or the virulent atheists like Nietzsche and Russell.

Things are different now. We live in a Liberal! Tolerant! society. The status quo allows a great deal more latitude in terms of thought. This is not to say that atheism is now a garden-variety view; it is obviously still unpopular and held in suspicion - see the recent polls about Americans disliking atheists. But the world has changed enough that what was once only a position held by dedicated and serious thinkers is now a label worn by rebels without causes.

Vulgar Atheism is now the cheapest form of rebellion there is. All you have to do is say "I'm an atheist" and the eyes of everyone around you will go wide. It's the philosophical equivalent of wearing a leather jacket or getting nipple rings. And just like leather and oddly-placed metal, vulgar atheism is an adolescent trapping.

Adolescence is obviously a necessary stage, but it just as obviously needs to be superseded. Vulgar atheism should never be anything other than a cocoon stage. There's a huge intellectual world out there. It is one thing to sit on your ass well within the confines of the status quo (i.e., traditional religion) and ignore the call of thinking; it is another to set your hand to the plowshare of thought and not plow anything.

Dawkins et al write polemical screeds, assaulting religion. As such, I don't have a problem with this. I'm not knocking them for being atheists. My complaint is that they've picked a fight with a group of people that have traversed their own version of adolescent anxiety. Various religions traditions have their own brand of serious thought and conviction. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists have all produced serious work.

Most of that serious work is in the past, of course. Since Luther, the only Christian to be a serious philosopher was Kierkegaard. This does not detract from the monumental achievements of Augustine, Aquinas and Eckhart. Christians are still perfectly capable of retrieving these past possibilities based upon their own resoluteness.

The New Atheists have no such past possibilities, and seem to be unaware of their own historicity. They can scrape at science to find philosophical, political and ethical convictions, but in the end, all the force of their conviction comes purely from negation - the negation of religion. The problem here is that any negation of a thing remains in that same game as the thing itself. Negating religion can never be anything other than a religious act. Dawkins is the flip side of Falwell.

In this interview with Alain Badiou, Badiou discusses the tendency of some Christian thinkers to appropriate his own resolutely atheistic notion of truth and change, and expresses what I think is an important idea for both atheists and Christians engaged in an emancipatory project.

I accept the discussion because I think that in the present world the great and fundamental problem is not between the religious way and the non-religious way. Certainly, it is, finally, very important, but it is not our principal problem. We know that today there is religious conviction that takes the way of sacrifice, religious conviction in the way of enjoyment, and religious conviction in a third way. So we can see that the distinction between religious conviction and non-religious conviction does not determine the topology of our world. We are not in the same position as in previous centuries. Today, religious conviction is important, but it is not the central problem. The world cannot be divided into the religious and the non-religious. So the discussion is, for me, a positive discussion.

What separates the New Atheists from both the properly atheistic subject and the Christian interpolated by love beyond law is the traversal of anxiety, of the dismissal of the need to negate and reject, in favour of the affirmation of both thought and deed.


dan said...

Hey Mike,

Interesting post, although I must take you to task on at least one point. You assert that: "[s]ince Luther, the only Christian to be a serious philosopher was Kierkegaard." Here, I think you are overlooking a few significant voices. I would argue that Alastair MacIntyre is a very serious philosopher, and, even if you want to contest that with me, I think nobody would deny the philosophical rigour and brilliance of Jean-Luc Marion, who has garnered a good deal of attention, and respect, both within the Christian community and the philosophical/academic community in France (no small feat for a Christian philosopher).

Also, I would be inclined to think that you are laying too much emphasis upon atheism within the American context rather than on the way in which atheism is experienced in, say, Europe. In Europe (especially on the Continent), apart from the increasingly few who are raised in Christian households, atheism is not a cheap form of rebellion, it is the status quo.

Anonymous said...

Whinge, whinge.

To the question of whether or not a deity exists, there is no point in being anything but a vulgar atheist. It is not a serious question, and there is no more serious answer.

What shall we do now that we've moved beyond ghosts and goblins? Now there's a fine question. If all goes well, humans will still be alive to work that out long after the words "theist" and "atheist" fade into irrelevant obscurity.

But if getting there sooner takes a chorus of vulgar Sam Harris readers, hammering over and over on the fact that religion does not deserve diplomatic immunity in polite society, then so be it.

I can't wait until pretentious folk who label themselves oh-so-serious quit moaning that this one merely biological life isn't good enough for them.

Mike said...

Regarding Marion, my face is red. God Without Being was an excellent book. I would wonder, though, if people will still be reading Marion a century from now like they will be reading Aquinas and Heidegger. I've heard a convincing critique of the way Marion deals with Nietzsche, and I also think it could be argued that (at least in God Without Being) Marion is too much of a mash-up of Husserl, Heidegger and Pseudo-Dionysis.

And yeah, I guess I am dealing with this in a very North American context, in which Dawkins is very much a scandalous figure (due to our collective lack of imagination, of course).

Nihilo.... is that you? I guess I agree that the new atheists can play a positive role, pushing some people along a new path.