Ecclesiastes famously said that “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Still, even the jaded author of that line might have cracked a mirthful grin to see some propagandist named Chris Hall trying his best, like Baghdad Bob, to assure his readers that the forces of White Male Privilege are demoralized and on the run from the heroic hordes of New-Atheism-meets-New-Left ideology, even as plumes of smoke from the smoldering wreckage of Atheism+ are visible over his shoulder. I mean, I know this is the twitosphere, where memory only extends back as far as your last ten tweets, and this is a joke of a site like Alternet, where stories too inane to get published at Salon, Raw Story or the HuffPo find a home, but my god, it’s been less than two years since this same P.R. job fell to a different hack named Adam Lee, and all these clowns have given the world since then is empty bluster, prodigious butthurt and a few crowdsourced rape accusations. But don’t mind me, y’all, go on and double down with your bad selves. I’m sure it will be different this time!
Nietzsche sees that civilization is in the process of ditching divinity while still clinging to religious values, and that this egregious act of bad faith must not go uncontested. You cannot kick away the foundations and expect the building still to stand. The death of God, he argues in The Gay Science, is the most momentous event of human history, yet men and women are behaving as though it were no more than a minor readjustment. Of the various artificial respirators on which God has been kept alive, one of the most effective is morality. “It does not follow,” Feuerbach anxiously insists, “that goodness, justice and wisdom are chimeras because the existence of God is a chimera.” Perhaps not; but in Nietzsche’s view it does not follow either that we can dispense with divine authority and continue to conduct our moral business as usual. Our conceptions of truth, virtue, identity, and autonomy, our sense of history as shapely and coherent, all have deep-seated theological roots. It is idle to imagine that they could be torn from these origins and remain intact. Morality must therefore either rethink itself from the ground up, or live on in the chronic bad faith of appealing to sources it knows to be spurious. In the wake of the death of God, there are those who continue to hold that morality is about duty, conscience, and obligation, but who now find themselves bemused about the source of such beliefs. This is not a problem for Christianity—not only because it has faith in such a source, but because it does not believe that morality is primarily about duty, conscience, or obligation in the first place.
Dear gods, what a septic tank of fallacious reasoning. Look, I think Nietzsche’s insistence on the “bad faith” of humanists in thinking that they can just carry on with business as usual after God’s death is one of his weakest points, perhaps even betraying the love-portion of his love/hate relationship with Socrates (and I don’t find it at all surprising that Christians like Eagleton are so fond of gleefully repeating it; it lends credence to their favorite false dichotomy of “either monotheism or nihilism!”). Think of it from a lowercase-c conservative perspective: this way of life we have, this cultural morality, however it may have developed, it just works. However bass-ackwardly we reasoned our way into it, we’ve kept with it because it seems to suit our most pressing needs, and we adjust it as needed rather than throw it away and start over from scratch. Why is it a problem if we don’t have a consciously rational justification for every single bit of it? Isn’t that what Nietzsche attacked Socrates for in a different context? For acting as if only conscious knowledge is meaningful or noble? As Auden said, we are changed by what we change — the reasons we fall in love with our spouses may not be the most important things about why we’re still with them thirty years later while many other positive facets of the relationship only revealed themselves with time and experience; that doesn’t invalidate the original impulses or the evolution of the project. I don’t see why cultures should be any different. Maybe we originally behaved this way because we thought somebody named God said to do so, but maybe we decided along the way that there were good pragmatic reasons for it too. The world evolves, it doesn’t proceed like steps in a geometric proof. Some stages will look like neither fish nor fowl, and it’s only ever a small percentage of neurotic intellectuals who will tie themselves in anguished knots over the proper taxonomy. Feuerbach wasn’t anxious; you’re just projecting, and Nietzsche was always melodramatically distraught after a breakup, whether with a Russian blonde or a deity.
Arthur and I were sharing a laugh at Eagleton’s article. I sent him the above paragraph, and he responded with this:
Yes, Nietzsche is being inconsistent, as he consistently is, in insisting that we have to take the death of God to its rigorous logical conclusion and change everything within and without to accommodate the catastrophic knowledge that we’re all alone out here. Elsewhere, as you know, he ridicules rationalism and logical consistency and claims life can only be justified as an aesthetic phenomenon (and in this connection Wilde is appropriately mentioned by Eagleton). On the other hand, “Poets lie too much.” Wait a minute, Freddy, didn’t you just say that truth and lies are only metaphors, that the point is not to discover truth but to create values? Which is it going to be, art or philosophy, creativity or knowledge? The answer depends on which book, or chapter, or page of Nietzsche you’re reading. But you gotta love the man’s style. He was outrageous, and that’s saying something, especially for a philosopher. He is an aristocratic anarchist, like Yeats, who was a sort of disciple. I’m fine with that, as long as the aristocratic part doesn’t mean knouting poachers and running over peasants in your coach and six. There I draw the line. But on what grounds? Religious? Moral? Prudential? (I don’t particularly want to spend time in jail.) Is it possible that we have stared too long into the Abgrund, the abyss over which we tightrope-walk every day while juggling philosophical interpretations of what we are doing, and the abyss has stared back, and we all now carry within us the haunted emptiness of an abandoned mansion that we used to call Soul? Naah…
There can be little doubt that Nietzsche is the most important figure in modern atheism, but you would never know it from reading the current crop of unbelievers, who rarely cite his arguments or even mention him. Today’s atheists cultivate a broad ignorance of the history of the ideas they fervently preach, and there are many reasons why they might prefer that the 19th-century German thinker be consigned to the memory hole. With few exceptions, contemporary atheists are earnest and militant liberals. Awkwardly, Nietzsche pointed out that liberal values derive from Jewish and Christian monotheism, and rejected these values for that very reason. There is no basis – whether in logic or history – for the prevailing notion that atheism and liberalism go together. Illustrating this fact, Nietzsche can only be an embarrassment for atheists today. Worse, they can’t help dimly suspecting they embody precisely the kind of pious freethinker that Nietzsche despised and mocked: loud in their mawkish reverence for humanity, and stridently censorious of any criticism of liberal hopes.
Ahahaha, it’s almost like Gray’s been reading the atheist blogosphere. Obviously, there’s been a certain faction of New Atheism who have devoted themselves in recent years to evangelizing for the good news supposed necessary logical connection of godlessness to New Left identity politics, and to whom this passage fits like a comfortable shoe. Here’s an amusing blast from the past — I didn’t realize the implications at the time, but Adam Lee, whom we last saw making an utter fool out of himself by serving as the hype man for the embarrassing abortion of a media phenomenon known as Atheism+, was already making identitarian noises in this post from four years ago, in which he displayed such a complete ignorance of Nietzsche’s philosophy that I was compelled to set aside my usual rule about not commenting at other people’s blogs long enough to voice my objection (which went unacknowledged).
So, when the atheist patriarchy has finally been dismantled, what sort of intellectual gravitas can we expect from the progressive revolutionaries who replace them? How do they plan to fill the void left by such intellectuals as Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens? By pretending that unglamorous selfies subvert the dominant paradigm or some such thing. I swear, it would take an actual misogynist to script this sort of thing.
If, as Nietzsche proclaimed, God is kaput, then what? In a highly readable and immensely wide-ranging work of intellectual history, Peter Watson surveys and summarizes the various answers to this question that have been proposed during the past 125 years. “The Age of Atheists” is, in effect, an account of 20th-century philosophical and moral thought, focused, as its subtitle explains, on “how we have sought to live since the death of God.”
Bear that subtitle in mind because it might otherwise be easy to mistake the character of Watson’s book. This is neither a polemic about the horrors of traditional religion nor an apologia for a rationalistic, scientific attitude to our place in the universe. You can go back to the work of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins or S.T. Joshi for sustained arguments about the virtues of atheism. What interests Watson is the proposed alternatives to religion, those systems, aesthetic beliefs and modes of life that have taken, or might take, its place. He thus ranges from Marx and Freud and Max Weber through symbolism and surrealism; describes theosophy, Bloomsbury, phenomenology, Nazi ideology and existentialism; discusses self-improvement and Samuel Beckett, as well as sex, drugs and rock-and-roll.
My ardor has dimmed somewhat when it comes to “intellectual” as a concept and identity, but Watson’s writing made me aware that intellectual history was an actual field, and also introduced me to the Journal of the History of Ideas. I’m grateful on both counts.
A history of modern atheism—what did Voltaire say to Diderot? what did Comte mean to Mill? who was Madalyn Murray O’Hair, anyway?—would be nice to have. The British popular historian Peter Watson’s “The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God” (Simon & Schuster) could have been that book, but it isn’t. Beginning with Nietzsche’s 1882 pronouncement that the big guy had passed and man was now out on the “open sea” of uncertainty, the book is instead an omnium-gatherum of the life and work of every modern artist or philosopher who was unsettled or provoked by the possible nonexistence of God. Watson leads us on a breakneck trip through it all—Bloomsbury and Bernard Shaw, Dostoyevsky and German Expressionism, Sigmund Freud and Pablo Picasso.
Peter Watson has a new book out oh boy oh boy oh boy! What a glorious surprise! I don’t care if the review is lukewarm, I’ve already ordered it.
The rest of the article is interesting in its own right, but still, the takeaway here is Peter Watson has a new book out oh boy oh boy oh boy!
Remember way back in the distant past, say around 2005, 2008, or thereabouts, when we could look at atheism with some pride and hope for the future? And then all the assbutts started waggling their sexism and racism and announcing that atheism just meant you didn’t believe in god, nothing more, and they didn’t have to be better human beings because it all meant nothing anyway? If you didn’t, Jamie Kilstein is going to rub our noses in it.
When my stepson was about four or five years old, he knew there were such things as bad words, but he didn’t actually know any yet. Thus, when he got angry and wanted to express it as an insult, he was forced to make up his own versions. “Fratch” and “Hoady” were my two favorites. Poor kid; it must have been doubly enraging to hurl the meanest word you could think of, only to watch the adults collapse in laughter as a result.
And from there we segue into the painfully pathetic spectacle of a middle-aged man, fearful of running afoul of the neighborhood language-watch in his special-needs community, trying to insult people by calling them “assbutts”. Oh, yeah? Well, boingfwip to you, Mr. Poopybritches!
Interesting as well to see the continued evolution of a zealous ideologue. What do you think the Peezus of the distant past would have thought of some moron who tried to equate atheism with nihilism just because atheists wouldn’t sign on to his vision of moral improvement?
Anyway, yes, I do remember the good old days when I foolishly thought being an atheist was something to be proud of. New Atheism was a genuine media/pop culture phenomenon, and for those of us who were used to being the only heretics in our real-life environment, it was exciting to find so many others making themselves visible online. But there was this one guy who wanted so, so badly to be included among the “Horsemen” of New Atheism. Riding the wave of semi-fame that came with his infamous desecration of a sacred cracker, he even got to hang out with Richard Dawkins and attend movie premieres with him.
But that book he mentioned? The one he was taking a year’s sabbatical to work on, back in 2009? It finally fell stillborn from the press in 2013, and it was mostly just a copied-and-pasted selection of his old blog posts. Apparently whatever book he had originally envisioned turned out to be beyond his abilities, and this was his publisher’s attempt to at least salvage something from the deal. Perhaps embittered by his near-miss with the big time, he and some other malcontents decided that they could engineer their own atheist media/pop culture phenomenon, and to hell with all those big-name cool kids. Yes, they decided that what New Atheism was lacking was a big ol’ heaping helping of the New Left, with its stellar track record of producing a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. It could be that they read that Hitchens interview in the Progressive, but mistakenly thought his description of a meeting centered on the feelings of obese Cherokee lesbians was an ideal, not a dystopian nightmare. At any rate, Atheism+ turned out to be an even more incompetently-realized laughingstock of a project than Peezy’s coloring book, with the forums currently resembling a ghost town, after the founding members scared off all the sane people before flouncing/banning each other over the usual doctrinal disputes that radical groups are so reliably prone to. The only thing this revolution of the misfit toys managed to accomplish was to convince most neutral observers that religious believers hardly had a monopoly on irrational dogmatism, and to convince a lot of atheists that moderate Christians weren’t so bad after all.
What I wish for most is that someday atheism can mean something positive again.
Someday it might, Peez. Someday when your neurotic freakshow finishes cannibalizing itself and we all do our best to forget it ever existed…
Atheism derives from religion? Surely it just says that no gods exist, that rationalism, or ‘scientific naturalism’, is to be preferred to any form of supernaturalism. Actually, no: in reality what we call atheism is a form of secular humanism; it presupposes a moral vision, of progressive humanitarianism, of trust that universal moral values will triumph. (Of course there is also the atheism of Nietzsche, which rejects humanism, but this is not what is normally meant by ‘atheism’).
So what we know as atheism should really be understood as an offshoot of deism. For it sees rationalism as a benign force that can liberate our natural goodness. It has a vision of rationalism saving us, uniting us. For example, AC Grayling, in his recent book The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism, argues that, with the withering of religion, ‘an ethical outlook which can serve everyone everywhere, and can bring the world together into a single moral community, will at last be possible’. This is really Rousseau’s idea, that if we all listened to our hearts, there would be ‘one religion on earth’.
To the extent that rationality is assumed to dovetail neatly with conventional notions of middle-class morality, this is true. That is, it’s not difficult to find atheists who think that most of the world’s ills could be fixed if only people would overcome their “irrationality” and learn to think more clearly. This is merely circular reasoning, of course. What they really mean is, “If everyone would only see things the way I see them, there’d be nothing to fight about.” Well, yes. In the real world, though, people will always have conflicting wants and needs, and skullduggery and violence will always be rational, if immoral, options to call upon in competition. Those who calmly and deliberately use rationality to better achieve “evil” goals are, as Nietzsche said about the evil who are happy, a species whom the moralists bury in silence.
But to the degree that atheism gets bogged down in sentimental obscurantism, as we’ve seen with the progressive fematheists, I still say it makes more sense to think of them as a new phase of the Protestant Reformation.
The most common critique leveled at New Atheists is that we attack only puerile, fundamentalist forms of religion, and never engage with the “best” arguments of the faithful: those adumbrated by Sophisticated Theologians™. Never mind that most believers accept a view of God far more anthropomorphic than a simple “ground of being” or a deistic entity that made the world and then refused to engage with it further. If you want data to support this, at least for U.S. Christians, go here. Polls consistently show that around 70-80% of Americans believe in the existence of Heaven, Hell, Satan, and angels. And let’s not even discuss whether the majority of Muslims think of Allah as a “ground of being” rather than as a disembodied ruler who tells them how to behave. Anyone who claims that regular monotheists view God like Karen Armstrong’s Apophatic Entity or Tillich’s Ground of Being simply hasn’t gotten out enough.
Wow, this takes me back. Less than four years ago! Amazing how perspectives change in such a short time.
I do think this is a worthwhile point to hammer on, though — atheists, hell; why don’t common believers come in for similar criticism from the bafflegabbers for perpetuating such crude caricatures of faith? I don’t even mean reactionary fundamentalists; I mean, why don’t they ever condescendingly lecture benevolent, good-deed-doing Christians on how they really can’t claim to have had any meaningful experience of God until they’ve read this or that author or contemplated this or that concept? That’s a rhetorical question, of course, but illuminating all the same.
I don’t have any gospel of my own. Postwar, and the early pages of Bloodlands, have revealed a truth to me: I am an atheist. (I have recently realized this.) I don’t believe the arc of the universe bends towards justice. I don’t even believe in an arc. I believe in chaos. I believe powerful people who think they can make Utopia out of chaos should be watched closely. I don’t know that it all ends badly. But I think it probably does.
I’m also not a cynic. I think that those of us who reject divinity, who understand that there is no order, there is no arc, that we are night travelers on a great tundra, that stars can’t guide us, will understand that the only work that will matter, will be the work done by us. Or perhaps not.
I have a very vivid memory of a similar, well, conversion, if you want to call it that. Memorial Day, 1996. I had recently finished reading a book about World War 2; I’m mostly but not absolutely sure it was Alan Bullock’s Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives. Whatever the case, the sheer immensity of the horror and suffering across Europe as described in the book had deeply impressed itself on me, enough so that I entered into a period of, if not genuine depression, certainly existential malaise. I had never been a religious believer, but I had grown up surrounded by enough of the typical spiritual-not-religious worldview to have unthinkingly accepted some sort of vague “purpose” to it all, some “higher truth”, some way in which it all came out in the wash eventually. Soundgarden’s Down On The Upside had just been released days earlier, and I recall listening to the song “Applebite” on repeat for hours that morning, morbidly transfixed by the line “Grow and decay, grow and decay/it’s only forever.” The photo on the cover of the New York Times that morning was a black-and-white shot of two young blond girls in front of their home waving an American flag, which, along with the song, served as some sort of meditative anchor for all my brooding, nihilistic thoughts about the impossibility of any sort of cosmic meaning or justice in a universe that could passively observe the worst of what humans were capable of.
There was no epiphany that brought an end to it; over the next few years, I just eventually regained my psychological equilibrium, grew into the truth of that realization and wore it comfortably. My ability to believe in any sort of benevolent big scheme of things had been traumatized. I would eventually get to a point where I could relinquish it willingly, rather than feeling like it had been brutally stripped from me. I had to clearly see the utter lack of need for spiritual or religious beliefs, rather than have them argued or beaten out of me. For me, that came about through reading Alan Watts, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.