The Atheist’s Umbrage

Despite some tedious pandering to shibboleths of both left and right (mostly in the form of waffly “I loved Hitchens’ book though I totally loathe everything it stands for” types of statements), Andrew Sullivan has written a fairly good mash-up about the sickening emptiness that seems to be slowly girdling American life both public and private. He mostly references John Gray’s main points in Seven Types of Atheism—particularly that the “new atheism” now fashionable as a marker of intellectual respectability is not particularly new, nearly always masks intense (if unconscious) commitments to some kind of surrogate-transcendental and non-negotiable absolute, and is as such far from the sagely value-neutral “absence of faith” that it portrays itself as. (Put more simply: most self-proclaimed atheists are not, in fact, meaning-indifferent blobs, affably desirous of nothing beyond bare existence.)

Most interesting, though, is the response in the comments section to Sullivan’s essay: as if on cue, there appear hundreds of comments by atheist readers in high dudgeon, trembling with scorn and heaping abuse on Sullivan’s suggestion that they might not be such purely rational, neutral blobs as they think. One after the other, with a notable conformity of content and tone, they take pains to assert—often in repeated postings—that all faith is “fairy tales”, the source of all war etc. With equal shrillness they profess to believe, enlightenedly enough, in nothing (except perhaps “love” or “what science says”)—and moreover, to have achieved this almost-nirvanal state of belieflessness entirely on their own!

The obvious irony is that this type of reflexive, rebarbative reaction has more than a whiff of fundamentalism about it. How many of these intrepid “free thinkers”, for example, would be willing to admit any uncertainty about the fundamental grounding of their reason—or of progress, or equality, or the scientific method? How might they react to hearing that these, too, might be “fairy tales”, at least in the forms they have known them? The disposition of the day is to cultivate a mantle of tough, unflinching skepticism for itself, in itself, but from there skepticism leaves off—it has become a prize to be had, instead of a guide to be followed.

What might be most striking of all about such atheism, though, is how remarkably little it offers, arguably, in return for the devotion it elicits. In times long past, in order to secure adherents, a creed had to promise spectacular and intimidating things: unseen mystical dimensions; an everlasting soul; prospects of eternal paradise; miraculous healings, revelations and conversions; reunion or communication with long-dead loved ones; epic struggles against evil; adventure, booty, and conquest; intense experiences of communion and tribe; an intricate superstructure of myth and ritual, and so on.

Nowadays, by contrast, the prospective atheist-materialist is offered… what? Complete arbitrariness with regard to origin (life as a random evolutionary fluke); reduction of one’s whole bodily and mental life to mechanical and wholly simulable interactions of chemicals in solution; reduction of individuality to interchangeable membership in a species (“humanism”) or perhaps a racial/ethnic group (“identity politics”); absence of any decisive moral grounding except negatively (whatever reduces conflict or stress); and capping it all off, the complete assurance and finality of death and oblivion.

Presented with this dismal brew (admittedly bespangled with technologies and entertainments), our aspiring atheist does not quail—he grabs the chalice and drains it to the dregs—every last teaching!—then treads forth to pounce on any hint of slander against them… and all so that he may anoint himself with that most hallowed of adjectives: “rational”!

Here lies a less obvious irony. For is this not, in a very important sense, the greatest of the swindles yet perpetrated in the arena of belief and value—perhaps even far greater than the older, “religiously-based” swindles and superstitions which our atheist proudly thinks himself to have wholly and happily transcended, and testily bashes at any opportunity? Does the technological gift that is presumed inseparable from these new teachings really compensate for what was abandoned? Or might the very insufficiency of the compensation be exactly the source of the deepening despair and unrest that Sullivan aims to diagnose? (By and large, all these questions seem totally lost on Sullivan’s commenters.)

I cannot help wondering (in a rather Nietzschean vein) whether this new depth of gullibility, this strangely devout uptake and defense of the grayest, most nihilistic possible beliefs in place of ones that at least had the virtue of being imaginative, grand, and bracing, is indicative of a weakening, not a strengthening in the human; a slackening of spirit, a replacement with ever more enfeebled, unthinking and homogenized types—whether it is a further sign, in other words, of the dominion of the Last Man.

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