David Hart, in his article in First Things from May of 2010 entitled “Believe It or Not,” relegated the New Atheism to ‘light entertainment,’ and I’m forced to agree. Everything I’ve seen from the New Atheism seems to lack the earnestness of both philosophy and religion, turning the weight of the matter into a sort of game. The New Atheism appreciates atrocious behavior and stupidity for its entertainment value, and its condemnation of such behavior is really only another entertaining pastime — a protest without critique.
The principal source of my melancholy, however, is my firm conviction that today’s most obstreperous infidels lack the courage, moral intelligence, and thoughtfulness of their forefathers in faithlessness. What I find chiefly offensive about them is not that they are skeptics or atheists; rather, it is that they are not skeptics at all and have purchased their atheism cheaply, with the sort of boorish arrogance that might make a man believe himself a great strategist because his tanks overwhelmed a town of unarmed peasants, or a great lover because he can afford the price of admission to a brothel.
In David Hart’s comments, there is also a venerative tone for the atheists of yesteryear.
David Hart writes:
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 gods. 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.
I very much agree with David Hart’s sentiment, here. From Prometheus to the heroism of Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, the Christian tradition has always, if sometimes retrospectively, found in the giants of dissent and rebellion a sort of perverse sanctity, but a sanctity nevertheless. Many Christian thinkers, in fact, have remarked that the interplay between faith and doubt is at the center of Christian experience and not, as many apologists imagine, mere belief — mere complacent, incurious belief. The Christian experience, I believe, requires a rigorous and well-vocalized vision of doubt. It is, as if, though they are spirited antagonists, this sort of “splendid and irreplaceable” atheist meets the beauty of the agonizing theist in the depths of devoted contemplation. It is, as Leonard Cohen said, through the cracks that the light gets in.
Insofar as we can lament the absent voice of rigorous atheism, today, I want to try to understand why it is that the New Atheism has manifested so problematically. It was suggested to me recently that the problem with atheists is that they refuse to accept their political responsibilities, but I think the problem is one that only the individual can address. To complement this view, I want to take a moral perspective and note that atheists seem also unwilling to accept their moral situation or live out any sort of personal project.
I want to suggest that the New Atheism commits what Nietzsche called ressentiment. They invent a sense of intellectual morality in which they can affect an imagined revenge on the powerful religions that have oppressed them. This is what Nietzsche discovered in Christianity; it is irony that Nietzsche’s heir are just as guilty. Since Nietzsche upended so much, including and especially Christianity, to diminish his impact or to treat his admonishments with insouciance, and to do so especially as avowed atheists, is to commit the crime that David Hart predicted, namely to trade on the fertility of an historical atheism with its social and spiritual heroism for an atheism which draws its strength perversely from an insistence on its own inconsequentiality and intellectual blankness. The New Atheist asks not to be involved. It is to step from Plato’s cave into Dawkins’ cave, and in Dawkins’ cave, there aren’t even shadows.
For those of you aren’t familiar with Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity, it can be found in various forms and developed in varying degrees of detail and maturity throughout several of his books. And in no one place is it ever spelled out in simple, quotable terms. It is essentially this:
Once upon a time, long ago, men were real men and women were real women. We’re talking about the Greek cultural and it seems, certainly from our modern perspective, that the Greek ideal was a sort of virtue of excellence. That is: being strong, beautiful, wise, wealthy, healthy, and, more straight-forwardly, powerful. This, Nietzsche called the master morality and we can see it clearly in the Homeric tradition, for example. It is also viewed as being strong-willed and that be understood as simply the ability to do and to act.
Subjugated by the master class, therefore, is the slave class and their slave morality, which values rather than action, intent. This slave-morality is ultimately a way for slaves to feel powerful in the powerlessness that has been thrust upon them by the powerful. Being forced to be poor, for example, slaves construct moral system in which frugality and austerity becomes values. Being forced to be weak, for examples, phrases like “Blessed are the meek” become sublime.
What Nietzsche was specifically depicting in the Christian ethic was the origin of its system of values. It had long been presumed by Christian philosophers and the Western tradition in general that values like compassion, honesty, humility, charity, and pity were utterly human or embedded by God or through God in the nature of existence itself. Christian morality was supposed to be intuitive and certainly couldn’t be questioned, not just because of the force of dogma, but because there was no viable dialog of subversion. In questioning the Christian lease on morality, Nietzsche dislodged Christianity from its place at the foundation of our intellectual tradition.
Nietzsche was inclined to point to the Greek moral system which predated the Christian system. And because we need to speak in terms of moral systems, it’s worth noting that the New Atheism (despite it’s myth of only rejecting ‘one claim’) exhibits its own moral system. It is largely an epistemic ethic. We have long heard the New Atheist champion being free of bias, being one who seeks evidence, often empirical evidence, and being one who is unpolluted by false ideas. These are values like any other.
From where do these values come? It’s easy to see that they are inversion of the criticism that the New Atheists make about Christianity — that they believe blindly, without evidence, and often in contradiction to evidence. But, it strikes me and most observers that to criticize Christianity as if its greatest crime were epistemological is clearly distracted if not disingenuous. The real complaint that New Atheists have about Christianity need not be belabored now, suffice to say that it should be entirely apparent that the values that they profess are externalized inventions. Thus, the New Atheism has invented an epistemic ethic to which they neither adhere nor aspire. And yet, that epistemic ethic empowers them because, from that system, they can feel the pleasure of judgement over those outside their system.
In this light, it is not enough for New Atheists to imagine that they do not believe that God exists or that God does not exist. This is a fundamental misunderstanding in the New Atheism. In much the same way that atheism is larger than denying a single claim, theism is large than affirming a single claim. All ideas are sticky. What Nietzsche overthrew wasn’t a single-claim; he overthrew a vast system that was intertwined with the entire Western experience. Because the New atheists do not realize that the God they deny is a meaningless figurehead, they entirely miss the point. They are fighting the wrong battle. In that battle, it may be that the epistemic values that underpin their non-stance is a gesture of power against the Christian system that oppresses them. They imagine that living almost like ascetics of belief, they have the upper hand or the higher ground or, in Nietzschean terms, the more powerful epistemology. But, in the Nietzschean critique, I think it’s easier to see that the New Atheism isn’t a stronger position. It never was. It’s a melwing non-assertion. The New Atheism, in limiting itself to the fantastic single-claim, diminishes its own impact. It asks to be kept small. The New Atheism is paralyzed by a fear of the source of power that oppresses it, namely the power to affirm. They may not realize it but the New Atheists live by a weaker position. In Nietzschean terms, the New Atheists have merely created a new slave morality.
Returning to David Hart, he writes, “The only really effective antidote to the dreariness of reading the New Atheists, it seems to me, is rereading Nietzsche.” And, indeed, the death of God which Nietzsche depicts in The Gay Science should be as momentous an historical moment as the birth of Christ. And if Christianity is what David Hart calls a “monstrous inversion of values,” The New Atheism should usher in a new mythos, an unpredictable revolution, the Übermensch; sadly, they aspire to and are nothing more than ‘light entertainment.’