How peculiar — I’ve gotten several requests in email to comment on this plaint from Theodore Dalrymple, a fellow who doesn’t like those “New Atheists” like Sam Harris and Dan Dennett. It’s peculiar because I’m here at a conference with Sam Harris and Dan Dennett (and others who do not consider themselves “New Atheists”)— should I just ask them what they think? Actually, if anyone wants to pass along any brilliant questions that I can use to dazzle the luminaries with my insight, go ahead, toss them into the comments.
It’s one of those annoying opinion pieces by an unbeliever who wants to make excuses for belief: the premise is “To regret religion is to regret Western civilization.” It contains many strange arguments, like this one.
The thinness of the new atheism is evident in its approach to our civilization, which until recently was religious to its core. To regret religion is, in fact, to regret our civilization and its monuments, its achievements, and its legacy. And in my own view, the absence of religious faith, provided that such faith is not murderously intolerant, can have a deleterious effect upon human character and personality. If you empty the world of purpose, make it one of brute fact alone, you empty it (for many people, at any rate) of reasons for gratitude, and a sense of gratitude is necessary for both happiness and decency. For what can soon, and all too easily, replace gratitude is a sense of entitlement. Without gratitude, it is hard to appreciate, or be satisfied with, what you have: and life will become an existential shopping spree that no product satisfies.
For my own part, I think Western civilization was built on the talent and hard work and ideals of its people, and that if you stripped religion from its greatest artists and heroes and leaders and thinkers, they still would have been great.
I detest the argument about gratitude. It’s a deep error: we should exult in our life and a community of purpose that we build, but there is no one to be grateful to, and displacing our sense of obligation to our human aspirations onto a nonexistent deity represents an abandonemnt of rationality. And the reduction of reason to a mere “shopping spree” or feelings of entitlement is simply the old canard that atheists are amoral hedonists in more high-falutin’ pious language.
You can all discuss this for a while. I’m going to go listen to philosophers and historians explain the Enlightenment to me.