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On the Boorishness of the New "Brilliant" Atheists
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2010-05-31 08:22:24
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Recently, an article has appeared in The New Republic by Damon Linker titled “A New kind of Atheism”  wherein he takes to task the likes of Sam Harris, Daniel Dennet, Richard Dawking, Christopher Hitchens and Bill Maher of Religulous fame. He calls them a new kind of atheists to distinguish them from the classical sort of atheists, prominent among which Nietzsche.

His was a different kind of atheism in the sense that it was fully aware of what he was giving up by resorting to atheism. Linker calls it “catastrophic atheism.”  It reveals itself in this passage from  the Genealogy of Morals asserting that “unconditional, honest atheism is ... the awe-inspiring catastrophe of two-thousand years of training in truthfulness that finally forbids itself the lie involved in belief in God.” For the catastrophic atheist, godlessness is both true and terrible.


Indeed, there are some contemporary atheists who do take a position similar to Nietzsche. Linker mentions the physicist Steven Weinberg who in his 1977 book about the earliest origins of the universe (The First Three Minutes), stated in passing that “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless.” When some of his fellow cosmologists objected to such a  choice of words, accusing him of expressing, if only implicitly, some form of theological nostalgia for a non-scientific view of the world, Weinberg admitted that he is indeed nostalgic—“nostalgic for a world in which the heavens declared the glory of God.” Associating himself with the nineteenth-century poet Matthew Arnold, who likened the retreat of religious faith in the face of scientific progress to the ebbing ocean tide and claimed to detect a “note of sadness” in its “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,” Weinberg confessed to his own sorrow in doubting that scientists will find “in the laws of nature a plan prepared by a concerned creator in which human beings played some special role.” When it comes to God, what Weinberg believes to be true and what he wishes to be true simply do not coincide.

But the new atheist, argues Linker, has no such nostalgia or scruples. He is just out to mock and sneer at anything that smacks of religion or spirituality.  He goes on to argue that there is something quite illiberal in the new atheists’ intolerance and hostility for the spiritual beliefs of their fellow citizens.

But there is something even more troubling as expressed by the theologian David Hart. They show no sign of confronting and wrestling with, or at the very least understanding, the most serious philosophical argument of the Christian theological tradition. Moreover, they show an almost complete lack of awareness of all that was gained culturally and morally by the advent of Christianity and seem wholly unconcerned about what would be lost were it to disappear.  They invariably mock any attempt by theologians to show them a more philosophically rigorous account of God than the superficial caricaturizing one they usually engage in. Their usual response, given as a sort of knee-jerk reaction, is that they are not interested in Christianity as a cultural heritage worth preserving but only in answering the question of whether or not it is true.

What this knee-jerk dismissive reaction fail to grasp in the theologians’ arguments is that the statements “godlessness is true” and “godlessness is good” are wholly distinct propositions. And yet the new atheists invariably and conveniently conflate them.  The new atheists seem steadfastly opposed even to entertaining the possibility that there might be any trade-offs involved in breaking from a theistic view of the world.

Linker maintains that rather than explore the complex and daunting existential challenges involved in attempting to live a life without God, the new atheists rudely insist, usually without a sustainable reasoned argument, that atheism is a glorious, unambiguous benefit to mankind both individually and collectively. There are no Nitzschean disappointments recorded in the pages of their books, no struggles or sense of loss. Theirs has become a glorious movement of which to be proud.  Linker asks: are they absent because the authors inhabit an altogether different spiritual world than the catastrophic atheists? Or have they made a strategic choice to downplay the difficulties of godlessness on the perhaps reasonable assumption that in a country hungry for spiritual uplift the only atheism likely to make inroads is one that promises to provide just as much fulfillment as religion? Either way, the studied boorishness and insouciance of the new atheists is a pervasive one indeed. We had one prominent one in the pages of Ovi magazine till a year or so ago when he suddenly disappeared. I’d be willing to wager that his withdrawal from the dialogue was due to a sense of disappointment  that the magazine did not show more intolerance for theistic and religious views which he surely considers dumb and unenlightened, and therefore the magazine was not worthy of his association.

There is a movement unfolding among these new atheists which is assuming a hilarious aspect. They are now attempting to change the dictionary word “atheist” to “brilliant.” The implication is obvious: brilliant minds are naturally atheistic while the dumb go to Church on Sunday. One begins to wonder if this sort of facile atheism may not be associated with narcissism and elitism.  

Be that as it may, Linker’s final advice to those atheists is worth repeating here verbatim: “...by all means, reject God. But please, let’s not pretend that the truth of godlessness necessarily implies its goodness. Because it doesn’t.” 


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Emanuel Paparella2010-05-31 14:15:17
A footnote by way of a paradox, namely this, if God did not exist or could not be conceived and intuited, there would not be any atheists either.

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