29 August 2011

‘The deity which disappears’ (or, the impossibility of moral atheism)

I have long struggled to understand the appeal of authors like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. To give but one example, there is no doubt in my mind that Christopher Hitchens is an entertaining writer, but hardly could I go a page in God is Not Great without thinking that perhaps his intended cure is worse than the disease he is attempting to diagnose. He complains that all religion is lethally violent and seeks to control others’ beliefs; yet he turns around and supports pre-emptive strikes against Iran, ultimately because its people hold different political and theological views than we do. He complains that all religion is either founded in ignorance and wishes to stay there, or wilfully distorts the truth; yet he mischaracterises historical figures at whim (poor St Augustine with all his critical genius and learning – even for his time – he dismisses as an ‘ignoramus’; and let us not go into the bile he heaps upon believers in modern times, when he is not simultaneously attempting to cast Dr King in the ill-fitting role of ‘humanist’!), whether out of ignorance or out of a desire to distort fact for polemical purposes. With distinct relish he accuses religious folk of all manner of sexual abuse all the way up to child rape, then turns around and lambastes them for the prudishness of wanting to protect people from sexual predation through legislation (like that against abuse, rape and underage sex, perhaps?).

Sadly, the sort of atheism which has been branded and bottled and sold on the popular press for a very pretty penny by the aforementioned authors is actually very little different than the fundamentalism it spends most of its time reviling (when it is not first in bad faith – no pun intended – setting up fundamentalism as the authoritative voice within religion, rather than as the modern aberration any honest historiographer of religion must call it).

We may observe that it has its own creation myth: that the ‘enlightened’ world is a mere four hundred years old and was created practically ex nihilo in a very short time by its own sainted elect: Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Hume and Hobbes. It has its own dogmas: that for any available question which might enter the mind of a human being, her answer will unfailingly come from the purveyors of the scientific method (thankfully, those same purveyors – for the most part – have in-built a more professional modesty which circumscribes their own field of expertise). If one disagrees with this dogma, one is damned to the outer darkness of ‘irrationality’ (where there is unfailingly much by way of wailing and gnashing of teeth). And its self-appointed prophets appear more than willing to spread their doctrines by sword and nuclear fire against their ‘irrational’ (and thus safely dehumanised) opponents abroad, and enforce their ostensibly tolerant order with a torture-empowered national security state at home. There is a New York Times-bestselling industry in half-baked nouveau atheist tomes (and a loyal following besides) which must be the envy of many a televangelist and religious self-help author.

Now, these observations should not really come as any surprise. I’ve tried to make it a point, as Dr Wang Hui often tries to do, to point out the ways in which two seeming opposites (such as modern American liberalism and modern American conservatism) are actually more alike than different. My question here, though, is why. The answer, as authors such as Bill Egginton (author of In Defence of Religious Moderation) and Fr John Haught (author of God and the New Atheism) have pointed out, lies in the nature of how both the nouveau atheists and the fundamentalists conceive ‘truth’. Is God a hypothesis which can be proven or disproven? (Both the nouveau atheists and the fundamentalists tend to say ‘yes’.) Is there a penultimate, infallible and simple guide to metaphysical / existential / moral questions? (Again, both the nouveau atheists and the fundamentalists are in accord on this point, though they differ on what that guide actually is.) Both the nouveau atheists and the fundamentalists agree that a literalistic reading of a religion’s holy books is the only valid reading, and that the groups which hold to these literalistic readings are the only followers of ‘true’ religion – and the rest of us are merely following ‘watered-down’ or ‘lukewarm’ versions.

Both Egginton and Haught make the only responsible reply to this last assertion: that the founders of the religions the fundamentalists purport to follow (and the nouveau atheists purport to debunk) insisted on a transcendental model of truth and a multi-layered reading of scripture (whatever it happens to be). The humanistic moral legacy to which both groups of extremists lay claim is, in fact, the child of theology: which is ultimately the study of a truth which is eternally and ultimately suspended – a glimmer on the horizon, ‘an eagle on the mountains’, in short (in the words of GK Chesterton), ‘a deity which disappears’. Its humility is also its radicalism: the higher the mountain of our knowledge grows and the further we can see from it, the more distant and paradoxical appear the solutions of epic questions: of evil, of free will, of the nature of creation; and the more monsters we can slay in their pursuit.

Fundamentalism, on the other hand, is very much a modern phenomenon: it treats mythical stories as literal fact, which not even the original authors and early commentators on Scripture took as such (both the Talmud and the Church Fathers were more interested in the import of Genesis as story than as scientific treatise). The nouveau atheists, likewise – as Haught notes – are not interested in engaging with actual religious traditions, but rather limit their discourse to ‘the unreflective, superstitious and literalist religiosity of those they criticise’. It is in the interests of both to assume that all truth can be known by human beings through the application of a single ‘code of codes’ (to use Egginton’s phrase), rather than admitting the metaphysical, existential and moral significance of myth.

Bill Egginton attempts to counterpoise to these allies-in-extremes a form of religious pragmatism, whose primary feature is just this humility in the face of transcendent truth. Let us take note, though, that it was (in part) the assumptions of pragmatism that rather got us into this mess. The separation of realms of truth into those foundational (or ‘fundamental’) facts which can be publicly used, and those unfounded questions which must be confined to contemplative solitude, was part of what gave both fundamentalists and nouveau atheists their ground against the religious moderates Egginton champions in the first place. More tantalising to me is Egginton’s insistence on myth as valid knowledge and valid discourse.

Let us turn, then, to the myths which the nouveau atheists espouse. The tenets of their mythical system may be described thus (here I paraphrase Fr John Haught):

  1. The universe is self-caused, and has no overall point or purpose.

  2. Every humanly-thinkable question has a natural explanation and a natural cause. The corollary to this is that every human attribute, including reason and what we perceive as freedom, can be explained in purely naturalistic terms.

  3. Religious belief is not only unnecessary, but epistemologically and morally harmful.

  4. Not only does morality not require religious belief, but people without religious belief are actually better people.

I actually hold (with Fr Haught, apparently) that a person holding to these myths is incapable of being truly moral, insofar as morality depends on the transcendental insight of the Golden Rule: regarding the Other as truly Other, but possessed of the same worth as Self. Leaving aside the question of whether the attribution of such worth to the Other is a religious exercise (I hold that it is, inescapably), we can see in practice how the nouveau atheists (Harris most dramatically) preclude meaningful dialogue even with religious moderates by damning them as ‘irrational’ – much the same way as fundamentalists preclude meaningful dialogue with their opponents by outright damning them. One doesn’t talk with ‘irrational’ beings, one medicates them, confines them, or in the last instance disposes of them. I wasn’t the only one to note that there was more than a whiff of the fasces about the assertions of Harris and pre-waterboarding Hitchens that we require an aggressive, imperial foreign policy and a torture state to keep unruly religious folk in line (particularly those brownish ones with the funny-sounding names).

Morality appears to be on much firmer ground with those who propound a mythology which a.) allows for the equality under their Creator of all beings capable of reason; b.) can be at rest in a state of doubt regarding natural determinism; and c.) is suspicious of all foundational truth claims which leave no room for paradox.


  1. I am probably veering off topic here, but fundamentalism, whether atheistic or religious, seems much more likely to rear its head when a society discards well-rounded, humane education for simple job training (for the lower end of the income ladder) or professional training (for the higher end). It becomes much easier to believe in fundamentalism when your view is narrow to begin with because your education was so narrow.

    Now, more on topic, I would also agree that human equality is more firmly grounded in theistic systems. It is not surprising that biological determinism is so popular among the New Atheists, especially because Dawkins himself helped to drive the revival of biological determinism with his ideas on the so-called “selfish gene.”

  2. Actually, John, I think you have that quite right. As my dad likes to say, I think we are suffering from a 'crisis in the humanities', and the popularity of both fundamentalism and the new atheism is certainly a symptom of that crisis. However many literary illusions Hitchens makes in his work, the overall crux of the message is profoundly anti-literary (at least, with regard to scriptures of any kind).

    And yes, I'm more and more coming to the opinion that human freedom rests upon the knife's edge of paradox: as biological beings nonetheless capable of creativity and spontaneity, we cannot insist on the immanence of free will without becoming Gnostic or upon the illusory nature of free will without becoming determinist.

    I wonder if only Orthodox Christianity (whether of the Roman, of the Byzantine or of the English persuasion) is able to maintain this paradox intact. I'd like to think not; Marxism comes close, but their formulation of the paradox rests in the 'saving' nature of the revolution (which is the most problematic part of their theology, IMHO).

    Thanks for stopping by; good to have you commenting here!