That, minus the question mark, is the title of a new article by theologian John Haught in the current issue of The Christian Century. The subtitle is “Why the New Atheism isn’t Serious.” Sadly, the article does not seem to be available online.
After reading that headline, I was expecting Haught to offer a variation on The Courtier’s Reply. Actually, Haught has something different in mind.
The serious atheists, in his view, are Nietzsche, Camus and Sartre. What makes them serious?
In this respect the new atheism is very much like the old secular humanism that was rebuked by the hard-core atheists for its mousiness in facing up to what the absence of God should really mean. If you’re going to be an atheist, the most rugged version of godlessness demands complete consistency. Go all the way and think the business of atheism through to the bitter end. This means that before you get too comfortable witht he godless world you long for, you will be required by the logic of any consistent skepticism to pass through the disorienting wilderness of nihilism. Do you have the courage to do that? You will have to adopt the tragic heroism of a Sisyphus, or realize that true freedom in the absence of God means that you are the creator of the values you live by. Don’t you realize that this will be an intolerable burden from which most people will seek an escape? Are you ready to allow simple logic to lead you to the real truth about the death of God? Before settling into a truly atheistic worldview you will have to experience the Nietzschean madman’s sensation of straying through “infinite nothingness.” You will be required to summon up an unprecedented degree of courage if you plan to wipe away the whole horizon of transcendance. Are you willing to risk madness? If not, then you are not really an atheist.
Predictably, nothing so shaking shows up in the thoughts of Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens. Apart from its intolerance of tolerance and the heavy dose of Darwinism that grounds many of its declarations, soft-core atheism differs scarcely at all from the older secular humanism that the hard-core atheists roundly chastised for its laxity. The new softcore atheists assume that, by dint of Darwinism, we can just drop God like Santa Claus without having to wtiness the complete collapse of Western culture — including our sense of what is rational and moral. At least the hardcore atheists understood that if we are truly sincere in our atheism, the whole web of of meanings and values that have clustered around the idea of God in Western culture has to go down the drain along with its organizing center. (Emphasis in Original)
Goodness! Melodramatic much?
How should we reply to something so unhinged? We could, if we wished, meet Haught on his own preferred level of abstract philosophy and theology. That atheism logically entails nihilism, as Haught argues above, is simply ridiculous. That could be a fun argument for another day, but there is really no reason to be so high-falutin. The fact is that we have extensive empirical data about what happens when societies become majority atheist, and that data does not support Haught’s fears.
Take Scandinavia, for example. All of the Scandinavian countries, especially Sweden, report high levels of atheism. Have they collapsed into nihilism? Has this widespread rejection of religion led to the destruction of Western Civilization in those countries? Of course not. Quite the contrary. They remain some of the most generous and charitable nations on Earth.
Traditional Christian belief has been in widespread retreat in Western Europe for decades. If there has been a massive uptick in feelings of nihilism and lack of compassion in those countries, then I am not aware of it.
The fact is that tens of millions of atheists and agnostics the world over find little toruble getting through their daily activities without even a whiff of existential crisis. They have little trouble making good moral decisions. Indeed, in my experience they do considerably better in that regard than people who ground their sense of morality in religious faith.
So it would seem that the correlation between atheism and nihilism is considerably weaker than Haught would have us believe. It is not hard to see why. Rejecting the existence of God means simply that you can no longer defend moral assertions with the statement, “X is morally right because God commands it.” It means that if someone asks you about the meaning of life you can not answer, “The meaning of life is to glorify God,” or some such empty nonsense. I would say societies make a dramatic leap forward when they discard those sorts of flabby arguments.
You might be thinking that Haught can defend his preposterous exaggerations on the grounds that he is not arguing that atheism leads in practice to nihilism, but simply that it would do so if atheists were rational in their beliefs. This conjures up the amusing image of entirely rational people basing their sense of value and purpose on a lot of groundless religious fairy tales, suddenly descending into irrationality when they manage to get on with their lives even after realizing the fairy tales probably aren’t true.
But Haught is not one to let extreme silliness get in his way:
Belief in God or the practice of religion is not necessary in order for people to be highly moral beings. We can agree with soft-core atheists on this point. But the real question, which comes not from me but from the hard-core atheists, is: Can you rationally justify your unconditional adherence to timeless values without implicitly invoking the existence of God?
The answer is yes, of course. But the harder question is how does faith in God provide rational justification for anything? It is not enough, after all, simply to believe that God exists. You must also believe that (a) the universe is superintended by the sort of perfectly good God who ought to be taken seriously on moral questions and (b) that we have some reliable means for ferreting out what God wants from us. It is certainly true that any sort of rational justification of anything requires that you start from certain assumptions that are themselves left unproved. But I hardly think that a and b above are more sensible starting points than some instinctual sense that people have certain obligations to one another.
One suspects that the real reason Haught is so enamored of Nietzsche, Camus and Sartre is not the strength of their arguments, but rather that the three of them make atheism seem very unappealing. If the question is what you would desire to be true as opposed to what is true (which seems to be the only question with which Haught concerns himself), there is little danger that Nietzsche, Camus and Sartre will attract many followers. But here comes Dawkins and the rest to tell everyone that those three fine gentlemen were not correct. You really can have it all. A life of moral purpose and value without the goofy and divisive supernatural baggage of religion. Now that’s a threat.
Haught’s article is almost wall-to-wall silliness. We are told that it is an excerpt from a new book of his to be published shortly. I am not optimistic that the book will represent an improvement over this article.