Saturday, November 01, 2014

Atheism, Old and New

When it comes to the religion-versus-atheism debate, I confess to being solidly on the side of the former. But it wasn’t always so.  As an adolescent, I looked at religion largely as a bunch of poppycock, a domain that has much to teach us in the realm of ethics and much to deceive us in the realm of theology.   I looked at clergy as professional bullshitters, devout believers as ignorant saps, and Scripture as ancient storytelling masquerading as timeless truth.  

In those irreverent attitudes, I had many teachers.  My parents were among them.  So was an American popular culture that was becoming increasingly anti-establishment.   Finally, I could point to literary geniuses, like Nietzsche, who were tired of the political and cultural power of the priestly class.   Even after I became a “believer,” I still maintained an appreciation for skepticism when it comes to the traditional teachings of religion.  And then I fell in love with Spinoza – a man who expressed his undying love for “God” but not without conveying his undying commitment to heresy.  I came to oppose atheism for myself, but had an appreciation for why intelligent skeptics might indeed adopt that perspective for themselves – because, after all, once you start letting in rays of doubt, delight in “free-thinking,” and submit Scripture to the crucible of reason and evidence,  you open a whole world of possible philosophies.  Who was I to look down my nose on someone else simply because their chosen perspective differed from my own?  

But that was then, when atheism was grounded in skepticism.  That was the old atheism -- the kind that seemed grounded in humility.  Yeah, I know, Nietzsche didn’t write like he was humble.  But if you read between the lines, you see in Nietzsche the mind of a seeker – a restless, even tormented, soul who wants to explore the inexplicable and find unity in the infinitely diverse, yet somehow get a peaceful night’s sleep.  You didn’t have to agree with everything he said to relate to his predicament.   You didn’t have to find rationality in his every word to recognize him as an authentic philosopher.
Yes, Nietzsche was a thinker’s atheist.  Santayana was another.  Some would call Spinoza a third – or his disciple Einstein.  Spinoza would certainly disagree with that assessment, as would Einstein, though the latter did accept the term “agnostic,” which many claim to be more or less the same thing.  (“You either have adopted an affirmative belief in God, or you are a functional atheist,” argue those who equate atheism with its more refined sibling, agnosticism.)

Those were men who make atheist thinkers proud and religious thinkers respectful.  They were old school.   But now, we have the new variety of atheist.  The in-your-face, “movement” atheists.   The kind that inspire atheist clubs, write best-selling screeds, and love to engage in “debates” against anyone who dares speak on behalf of religion.  

Bill Maher is of the new variety of atheist.  His movie, Religulous, was a non-stop mockery of anything and everything religious.  Nietzsche spoke about “philosophizing with a hammer,” but in the hands of Maher, the hammer isn’t used to philosophize but merely to ridicule.   Sometimes Maher’s ridicule is logical, sometimes it isn’t.  Sometimes his barbs are hateful, other times they are simply dismissive. Yet throughout the movie, there is a common thread that creates a sense of coherence.  Maher, you see, wants us to know that he is not an old-school skeptic.  He’s the new breed of atheist – a self-assured, balls-out critic, who has no fear whatsoever of offending anyone and no doubt whatsoever that this whole religion business is just an opiate for the gullible.  For a guy like Maher, this is a culture war that must be fought with all hands on deck, and the only way to win it is to flush the whole domain of religion down the toilet without even a second thought that some of what you’re flushing might actually be valuable.  

How does Maher accomplish this tour de force?   By turning religion – God, the church, the rabbis, you name it – into a laughing stock.  Mock, ridicule, trivialize, and flush.  That’s his MO.  If you’re a religious, you’re either a violent person in which case you’re an enemy, or a non-violent person, in which case you’re an ignorant fool.  In either case, though, you’re a punch line in waiting.  

Maher is a mainstream celebrity.  His heroes, the “New Atheists” who merely write books, rather than star on TV shows, are less well-known. Yet they share his same basic characteristics.  In one “New Atheism” book after another, religion ceases to be spared from cover to cover.   The reader is told not only to dump the traditional conception of God but to attack that word altogether – for the Biblical literalists are said to have patented the term and any effort to “reclaim” it will only lead to confusion.  The New Atheists treat the word “God” like it is the center of a dart board.  For them, this is a game, and he who does the most damage to that word is the winner.  There’s little more to this enterprise than that.

Not surprisingly, the New Atheists have adopted a term for themselves that is affirming, for they don’t want to see themselves simply as attack dogs – they want to celebrate their own humanity.  Their chosen term is “brights.”  Brights are rational, brights are intelligent, brights are realistic, brights are sophisticated.   You can see why their chosen form of interaction with the “other” is the debate – presumably, it will show off all of their virtues.  And if the debate doesn’t reveal brights to be terribly compassionate, that’s OK, because remember: this is a (culture) war that they’re waging, and when you go to battle, you sometimes have to put your compassion aside for the greater good. 
Richard Dawkins is the patron saint of the New Atheists.  Schooled in Oxford, Dawkins now has more honorary degrees than I have fingers.  In a 2013 poll commissioned by Prospect magazine, he was voted to be none other than the world’s top thinker.  

When Dawkins was given a dart and told to give it a rip, he penned the phrase “The God Delusion,” made it the title of his book, and watched the work take off to the top of the charts.  Now, it’s a must read – even if you believe in God, you owe it to yourself to peruse Dawkins’ self-satisfied vitriol, because if nothing else it has become culturally important.  When I consider The God Delusion and other examples of its ilk, I’m reminded of that feminist icon, Mary Richards.  You know – the character played by Mary Tyler Moore back in the 70s.   At the beginning of each show, you can see Mary throw her hat into the air – not once, not  twice, but three times – as the singer remarks “You’re gonna make it after all.”  The New Atheists claim to be serious people, and Mary was a comedic character, but despite their obvious differences, they both seek to be liberated from tradition.   

Think of Mary’s throws of the hat in the New Atheist context.   The first stands for religion.  The second  for God.  And the third for traditional piety (including such virtues as treating others with respect).  Who needs that crap?  Chuck it.  And rest assured – you and your movement, the brights, are gonna make it after all.  

Doubt?  Gone.   Self-torment?  Gone.  Ask Mary – self-torment might have worked for Nietzsche, but it isn’t sexy.  Throwing off the hat and smiling from ear to ear is sexy.   And besides, doubt and self-torment don’t sell books and now that the Borscht Circuit has shut down, they don’t do much for comedians either.   It’s time for atheists to be loud, proud, and unrelenting.  This is no longer a hobby of lone intellectuals.  It’s now a movement.

Today, I read an article about the movement’s Patron Saint.  It rang true to me, but I’m not a Dawkins biographer, so I can’t assure you that it’s 100% accurate and balanced.  But in the spirit of Dawkins, who likes to shoot first and ask questions later, I thought I’d forward it to each of you and ask you to give it a look.  Here it is:
As I think you’ll agree after reading this article, Dawkins may claim to be anti-religious but he and his fellow travelers have taken on the essential characteristic of religion at its worst: dogmatism.  Personally, I prefer the non-dogmatic atheists.   Then, again, I prefer non-dogmatic religious people.  When it comes to the topic of God, you see, doubt is every bit as necessary as faith, no matter what side of the spectrum you find yourself.

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