A Primer on Religious Existentialism, Pt. 2: My Kind of Atheist

It is not reasonable to expect everyone to share the same religious views, and since it can be difficult to see God’s hand in our violent and hate-filled universe, I don’t fault anyone for not believing in God. (My own reasons for believing in God are complicated, probably unsatisfying to people who live outside of my body, and a subject for another post.) But there is, best I can tell, a consistent and an inconsistent way to go about being an atheist, and most modern-day atheists fall rather neatly into the latter category. But I’ll let Walker Percy explain. From his novel The Second Coming:

The present-day unbeliever is a greater asshole than the present-day Christian because of the fatuity, blandness, incoherence, fakery, and fat-headedness of his unbelief. He is in fact an insane person. If God does in fact exist, the present-day unbeliever will no doubt be forgiven because of his manifest madness.

The present-day Christian is either half-assed, nominal, lukewarm, hypocritical, sinful, or, if fervent, generally offensive and fanatical. But he is not crazy.

The present-day unbeliever is crazy as well as being an asshole—which is why I say he is a bigger asshole than the Christian because a crazy asshole is worse than a sane asshole.

The present-day unbeliever is crazy because he finds himself born into a world of endless wonders, having no notion how he got here, a world in which he eats, sleeps, shits, fucks, works, grows old, gets sick, and dies, and is quite content to have it so. Not once in his entire life does it cross his mind to say to himself that his situation is preposterous, that an explanation is due him and to demand such an explanation and to refuse to play out another act of the farce until an explanation is forthcoming. . . .

The more intelligent he is, the crazier he is and the bigger an asshole he is. He becomes a professor and forms an interdisciplinary group. He reads Dante for its mythic structure. He joins the A.C.L.U. and concerns himself with the freedom of the individual and does not once exercise his own freedom to inquire into how in God’s name he should find himself in such a ludicrous situation as being born in Brooklyn, living in Manhattan, and being buried in Queens.

Percy, no doubt, won few friends among the atheist community with such statements—though it’s worth pointing out that in the section just before the one I’ve reproduced here, he recites a litany of reasons Christians are nearly as unsatisfactory as atheists, and thus he probably didn’t endear himself to the Religious Right, either. But, vulgarity aside, I think he’s right: Modern atheism, particularly the scientific variety proffered by the Logical Positivists and then by the nü atheists, is unsatisfactory.

The insanity of modern atheism is built on two posts. First, as Percy points out, modern atheism is inherently incurious. The atheist will object here that he has a great respect for the universe, a deep awe at the world around him. This is not what Percy is objecting to; no one claims that the nü atheists explicitly believe themselves to be the all-knowing center of the world, and no one claims that they have absolutely no sense of mystery. The problem is that they seem unwilling to interrogate that which really matters. If God exists, nothing could be more important, but by and large, the modern atheist dismisses God with a wave of his hand. Their sense of wonder is misplaced. They don’t ask the really important questions. Richard Dawkins even suggests that these questions—the “why” questions that are unanswerable by materialist science—are not worth answering. Percy would no doubt cough “asshole” and quickly turn away.

The second post of atheist insanity is the desire to discredit Christianity but to have everyone behave as though Christianity were true. Sartre, of all people, objects to this philosophy:

The existentialist is strongly opposed to a certain kind of secular ethics which would like to abolish God with the least possible expense. About 1880, some French teachers tried to set up a secular ethics which went something like this: God is a useless and costly hypothesis; we are discarding it; but, meanwhile, in order for there to be an ethics, a society, a civilization, it is essential that certain values be taken seriously and that they be considered as having an a priori existence. It must be obligatory, a priori, to be honest, not to lie, not to beat your wife, to have children, etc., etc. So we’re going to try a little device which will make it possible to show that values exist all the same, inscribed in a heaven of ideas, though otherwise God does not exist. In other words . . . nothing will be changed if God does not exist. We shall find ourselves with the same norms of honesty, progress, and humanism, and we shall have made of God an outdated hypothesis which will peacefully die off by itself. (from Existentialism)

The nü atheists have certainly taken up the task begun by these unnamed “French teachers”; I heard a radio interview with Dawkins in which he claimed that Christianity was unnecessary because we could get to its ethical principles without the barbarity of Christ crucified. If this is true, it is only because he lives in a Western world that has for millennia based its ethics on Christ crucified. Confucius may offer us the Golden Rule, but he cannot pray, “Father, forgive them”—and this is, after all, what Dawkins and other purveyors of an atheist ethics desire for all of mankind to say. (What’s all this talk about “compassion” about if not forgiveness?) One cannot discard Christian metaphysics and maintain Christian ethics, at least not in an a priori way; those ethics proceed from the metaphysics, and if you’re going to adopt them, you’d better find a materialist reason for doing so. (Such a reason does not exist, as far as I can tell—you can tell a person that if he beats his wife, society will punish him, but you cannot tell him that spousal abuse is wrong without pointing to a metaphysical standard.)

Sartre will say elsewhere that all of existentialism comes from a saying of Dostoevsky’s (which appears in both The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov): “If there is no God, then all things are permitted.” Dostoevsky’s religious readers sometimes claim that Sartre has gotten Dostoevsky wrong, but if he has, it’s only in assuming (if indeed he does) that Dostoevsky believed there was no God. He certainly did not, and our nü atheists should pay attention to the real consequences of atheism. Ivan Karamazov gleefully proclaims this idea and yet is horrified when his half-brother Smerdyakov kills their father with no remorse. This is the state of man without God—you can intuit ethics, as we all do, but you can’t found them on anything, and you’re left speechless and half-mad if you examine evil seriously. I’ll be dealing with Dostoevsky’s relationship to religious and atheistic existentialism in my next post.

My point here is that the existence or non-existence of God matters, and if Dawkins, et al, take that seriously on the level of social policy, they don’t seem to take it seriously on a personal existential level, which is, of course, the level of real import.

Percy hints at the other inconsistency in nü atheist ethics, but things have progressed a bit since The Second Coming was published in the early ‘80s, and I’ll need to tease this out a little. He speaks disdainfully of the atheist professor who “joins the A.C.L.U. and concerns himself with the freedom of the individual,” but doesn’t get at the real irony in this move. Some—though by no means all—of the nü atheists are committed to a completely materialist vision of what it means to be a human. In other words, any personality, “self,” or “soul” (these last two words are particularly embarrassing to our contemporary atheists, I’ve noticed) is a mere side effect of chemical, physical, and electrical processes in the brain. This viewpoint would suggest that there is, in fact, no mind, only a brain. Professional skeptic Michael Shermer, among others, holds this opinion.

There is no individual, then, at least not in the way Western civilization has held out the notion. And yet the nü atheists are strikingly committed to the notion of human rights, to the point where Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have called for the arrest of Pope Benedict XVI “for crimes against humanity” in his complicity in the recently revealed child-abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. Shermer is a bit more slippery; on one level he proclaims the relativity of moral values, at least on a social level; on another, he suggests that we should find a natural basis for the ethics of human rights. And why should we, if all our actions are motivated not by a human self but by a collection of human impulse—why should we even seek to find that natural basis for human rights? The answer, of course, is “to make society run smoothly.” But this answer doesn’t suggest human rights; it suggests a fiction to make life more comfortable for certain human beings.

Fictions are fine, but only if one admits them to be fictions instead of claiming them as empirical truths, as Shermer does—or instead of ignoring the issue altogether, as Dawkins seems to. The nü atheists would be well-served by a reading of Friedrich Nietzsche, history’s most honest and brilliant atheist thinker, who recognized that without a metaphysical foundation for human society and ethics, the very notion of value would be devalued. The passage that everyone knows from The Gay Science has a madman boldly proclaiming that “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him” (¶ 125). Less well-known is an earlier passage along the same lines:

New struggles.—After Buddha was dead, his shadow was still shown for centuries in a cave—a tremendous, gruesome shadow. God is dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown. –And we—we still have to vanquish his shadow, too. (¶ 108)

Nietzsche would lump religious believers in with those still worshipping the shadow of a dead God, of course; but atheists who treat Christian morality as something separable from Christian metaphysics belong there, too. From Nietzsche’s perspective, after all, they’re hanging on to the pathetic legacy of Christianity.

Indeed, the death of God means the death of morality, meaning, and value itself, and Nietzsche makes the point better than anyone else I’ve ever read:

What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms, in short a sum of human relations which have been subjected to poetic and rhetorical intensification, translation, and decoration, and which, after they have been in use for a long time, strike a person as firmly established, canonical, and binding; truths are illusions of which we have forgotten that they are illusions, metaphors which have become worn by frequent use and have lost all sensuous vigour, coins which, having lost their stamp, are now regarded as metal and no longer as coins.
(from “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense”)

Such are the consequences of a world without God—an atheist who is willing to accept these consequences must either mourn the death of God, as does Sartre, or else glory in the absence of value, as does Nietzsche. The nü atheists, with their satisfied, godless humanism, wish to glory in the death of God and pretend that the values contingent upon the existence of that same God are independent. To quote Nietzsche once more, “They desire the pleasant, life-preserving consequences of truth; they are indifferent to pure knowledge if it has no consequences.”

Atheistic existentialism, then, is not as hostile to the religious mind as one might suspect, if only because it dares to take religion seriously on its own terms, something that the atheists who subscribe to Logical Positivism (and its contemporary heir, the nü atheism) steadfastly refuse to do.

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