Saturday, May 5, 2012

Should Atheists Mourn the Death of God?

A Catholic priest, Robert Barron, criticized the exuberance of New Atheists, contrasting the New Atheist’s slogan, “There’s probably no God; now stop worrying and enjoy your life,” with the dark existentialism of earlier atheists like Nietzsche and Camus. According to Barron, only the existential atheists follow atheism to its logical conclusions, that life is meaningless, that there’s no hope, and as Dostoevsky implied, that everything is permitted. The biologist and New Atheistic blogger Jerry Coyne replied as follows:
The answer of course, is that we, not a sky-father, give life its meaning, and can find joy and fulfillment in the limited time we have. Is that “frivolous”? I don’t think so. Given our finite span, why spend our time being dolorous, weighed down by the supposed futility of life? There is so much beauty and love to be had, not to mention friendship, books, music, food, drink, and cats; and I for one am happy to be happy about these things.
I think most New Atheists would agree with Coyne. And of course, as a practical, political matter, the bus slogan is fine because it militates against the theist’s conviction that atheism is a highway to hell. In the sociopolitical context of the war between atheists and theists, exaggerated cheeriness in New Atheism is defensible on what Dawkins calls strategic grounds.

New Atheism’s Naturalization of Values

But as to the substance of the disagreement between existential and New Atheists, the memes (prepackaged platitudes) contained in Coyne’s response hardly settle the matter. The theist contends that if atheism is true, life has no meaning and therefore the atheist has no right to be merry. The New Atheist replies that while there may be no higher, transcendent meaning, value or purpose of our life, there are still local, subjective meanings dependent on our interests. Thus, Coyne finds meaning in books, cats, and so forth, and that’s why he’s happy. The theist can then say that this merely raises the further question of whether the atheist’s particular interests ought to be pursued, or whether her values are justifiable. If there’s no higher authority, why isn’t everything permitted? Coyne values music, food, and cats, while a serial killer enjoys killing children. If there’s no God, is this all just a matter of taste?

Suppose reason shows that killing children is illogical or impractical (risky). To infer from this that such killing is wrong and ought not to be valued would be fallacious, since illogicality and impracticality are matters of fact which have no normative entailments. What’s needed to save atheism from giving a license to chaos, then, is the axiom that all human life is precious, in which case killing children would be wrong. Ideally, this normative assumption shouldn’t itself turn out to be subjective or relative, since otherwise atheism would imply just that most people feel that children are nice to have around, and that were you to happen to lack that feeling, there would be nothing fundamentally wrong with you pursuing your murderous inclinations. Like all values, morality would run only as deep as our personal preferences.

The atheist seems faced, then, with the worry at least that for anyone who understands that right and wrong are matters merely of personal interest, like taste in art, life becomes a game or a joke. Our normative opinions become arbitrary, not because they’re uncaused or unmotivated, but because, despite our bias in their favour, they’re ultimately inconsequential. Fashions go in and out of style, rendering the fashion industry absurdly comical because of the discrepancy between fashion’s transience and the intensity of some people’s interest in personal style. During the 1980s, Westerners preferred brass furniture, cheesy digital music, and spiky hairdos. Now, those fashions appear ridiculous, and decades from now our tastes will certainly seem foolish to our descendants. Likewise, some ancient cultures were centered on human sacrifice or gladiatorial combat, while today many Western liberals regard life as so precious that they protect their children even from playing outdoors.

According to the New Atheist’s egocentric notion of value, all of culture is more or less like fashion and other matters of taste. Unlike in science, where facts in the outer world make scientific statements true or false, there are no correct or incorrect value judgments, given the typical New Atheist’s notion that morality is entirely a matter of personal, subjective opinion, which is to say, roughly, taste. The question is then whether the atheist can hold onto her private interests with a straight face. Due to peer pressure, you may adopt your culture’s attitude toward clothing, food, pets, and so on, but can you take pride in those values when you also understand the transitory and arbitrary nature of all values? 

Can a New Atheist be nationalistic and patriotic, for example, given the atheist’s objective, cynical perspective on value judgments? Were a liberal secular humanist to confront a serial killer when he's about to kill again, the emotions associated with her moral opinions would likely compel her to forget her postmodern, positivistic belittling of normative questions, in which case she’d vociferously condemn the murderer’s evil and rush to subdue him. But in the atheist’s bigger picture in which human value is naturalized, secularists’ celebration of their way of life when they form a mob, hold up signs, and cheer at the murderer’s execution must be similar to the stampede to buy the latest Apple device. In both cases, values derive solely from our interests, and interests change and come in a variety of forms like everything else in nature. Perhaps there are some universal features of human morality, due to our brain structures and common evolutionary origin. But again, no normative statements follow from a recognition of the fact of such universality. Just because humans tend to think the same about stealing, murder, and so on, doesn’t mean we ought to do so.

The atheist who appreciates that our morality is just a natural process is forced to experience a sort of vertigo, a feeling of alienation, of standing outside yourself and looking in with an objective viewpoint. As the philosopher Thomas Nagel explains in The View from Nowhere, there’s a double life in which you have your private attitudes and opinions but also the ability to detach yourself from them when you think rationally about their natural causes. (See Curse of Reason.) What the existentialist calls angst, alienation, and horror follow from the combination of the atheist’s naturalistic understanding of her values and her inevitable concern for only a partial set of issues. Can she still care about her fellow humans, let alone her favourite foods, authors, and shoe styles, when nothing but ignoble distractions or mental disorders could prevent her at any moment from rationally detaching from those concerns as she comprehends the atheist’s naturalization of moral and other values? Likewise, while the atheist may be biologically driven at times to feel sexually excited, can she surrender to her feelings and her experience, given her knowledge of the biochemical basis of romantic love? More relevantly, can she do so when acting with what the existentialist calls authenticity or must she fool herself, suppressing her rationality so that she can enjoy her life?

The New Atheist’s Religion

Indeed, there’s one giant atheistic distraction, which I take to be the primary source of the New Atheist’s lightheartedness. This distraction is the atheist’s substitute religion of secular humanism, or what I call, somewhat idiosyncratically, Scientism. Just as theists are spared the horror of rationally dissecting the intimate details of their life, because they’re preoccupied with matters of irrational religious faith, the typical New Atheist has quasi-religious faith in democracy, capitalism, reason, and the beauty and majesty of natural creations. That is, not only does the secular humanist rationally defend these elements of her worldview, but she feels strongly about them--indeed, so strongly that they’re of ultimate value to her, in which case, as the theologian Paul Tillich says, her modern ideology passes beyond an idle, academic pursuit, becoming a matter of personal faith. Any such faith is irrational in that feelings and personal character rather than just logic or science account for why that ideology is upheld.

You can see an indication of this paradoxical secular faith in Coyne’s pragmatic preoccupation with time, in his response to the priest. Given our “finite span,” he says, we shouldn’t waste time being weighed down with philosophical worries about life’s futility--as though the efficient use of time were an end in itself. Indeed, this value of efficiency is commonplace now because of the capitalistic monoculture. The idea is to work hard and earn as much money as possible, to ignore the social and environmental consequences of most lines of work, since modern workers should be instrumentalists, being instruments of oligarchs who set the social agenda and determine much of the culture by their control of the mass media and thus of the artificial environment to which we must adapt. (See Oligarchy and Political Correctness.) This pragmatism derives also from the consumer’s ideal of the so-called rich, full life, of having a maximally wide variety of socially acceptable experiences, which motivates the consumption of the ever-shifting array of mass-produced goods.

So the New Atheist can afford to overlook atheism’s existential implications, because this carefree modernist is beholden to her own quasi-religious faith of secular humanism/Scientism. She’s caught up in the wonders of life, swept away by the power of technoscience, and generally mesmerized by the modern Enlightenment ideology even though this ideology has now imploded. (See Modernism and Postmodernism.) The New Atheist’s cheerful disposition, as she lists her personal matters of taste as being sufficient to assuage anyone’s fear that she’s liable to commit suicide, is thus comparable to the Jehovah’s Witness’s glee as he knocks on your door and rattles off the benefits of being a Christian.

As the existential atheists point out, unchecked reason, or what Enlightenment thinkers called freethinking, causes angst, horror, and alienation, which do in turn sap the joy from life. However, New Atheists are happy rather than despairing not just because they have some personal preferences which inspire them to pass the time in some pleasing way, but because those preferences are grounded in deeper, faith-based convictions. Their emotional commitment to the modern, atheistic religion (lifestyle or worldview--call it what you like) prevents them from pursuing naturalistic atheism not to its logical conclusion but to its psychological nadir. The existential atheists who are melancholy rather than content are just those who are so paranoid or otherwise mentally ill that they truly lack faith in anything: not in a life partner, not in themselves, in government, technology, art, celebrity, or anything else. (See Mental Disorder.) To borrow a cliché from the Matrix movies, these melancholy atheists know the path but can’t walk it; they can’t fully identify with their preferences, because they lack mental checks on their capacity to philosophically question their values, to remind themselves that in the bigger picture, supplied by rational detachment, those values are foreign, arbitrary, and ridiculous. These rarer atheists sabotage their happiness by their compulsion to live in a self-alienated, vacillating condition.

The problem, then, isn’t with atheism so much as with the modern naturalistic humanist’s ideal of hyperrationality. A wannabe hyperrationalist, who despises faith, superstition, and all manner of irrationalism will still have emotional and religious impulses but will disown or rationalize them. This lack of self-awareness produces the scientistic, positivistic aspect of the subculture of New Atheism. (See Hyperrationality.) Meanwhile, those who fulfill the ideal of being passionless are the autistic, paranoid, introverted, skeptical, or philosophically-inclined atheists, the point being not that the latter are omniscient but that they constantly step outside their parochial viewpoint, second-guessing themselves at every turn so that they can’t relax and enjoy themselves, like the over-analytical “mouse” in Dostoevsky’s Underground Man or like the character Woody Allen plays in his films.


So should atheists mourn God’s demise? Not exactly, since the transparent folly of theism makes for a more degrading replacement for the nobler reaction to our existential predicament than does the New Atheist’s convoluted modern faith. But should the atheist be happy, lighthearted, and cheery rather than melancholy, dour, and wistful? In effect, I answer this in Happiness and in Postmodern Religion. Happiness is unbecoming to anyone in our tragic existential situation, but especially to naturalists and secular humanists who pretend to care more about truth than fantasy. The facts of our condition are much worse than what anthropocentric theists proclaim, but they’re worse also than what you'd have expected from the modern glorification of the rational, free, conscious individual. Moreover, however much pleasure, wealth, and fame an atheist may enjoy, those facts--of our mortality, our animal nature, our aloneness and alienation from the undead (mindlessly creative) cosmos, of the ultimate futility of our endeavours and the comical narrowness of our everyday vision--remain to haunt her.


  1. Ben,

    Another great post, though certainly not winning awards in the "most uplifting" category ;) I suppose we will leave that for the preachers tomorrow morning.

    I read the post you mention over at Jerry's blog, and tried to comment on it in a similar fashion (that atheists sometimes fail to properly engage the apparent horror of reality as we understand it so far), but for some reason none of my comments on that blog ever show up...

    I generally agree with the thrust of your article here. I am not sure how exactly you would define what an existential atheist is, but I feel like personally I fit more in that category if it means acknowledging the seeming absurdity and futility of life.

    There is some more discussion on Robert Barron's video here if interested: 

  2. Thanks, Jkx. I actually read MacDonald's blog to which you linked, along with Coyne's, but I wasn't compelled to write a direct response to it. MacDonald thinks the early, existential atheists exaggerated the revolutionary consequences of modern, science-inspired atheism, because of the latter's newness at the time. But that's just a straightforward case of the genetic fallacy.

    MacDonald also says that atheists become unhappy when they convert from religious belief, causing them to mourn their past. That's not true in my case and anyway that's pop psychological diagnosis (a kind of ad hominem). I'd have preferred a discussion of the ideas that separate cheerful from melancholy atheists, which is why I wrote this blog entry.