There is such a thing as a religious temperament. It involves the will to believe in order to assuage an ache. It rejects, it recoils from, the sense that contingency is everywhere and everything, that there is nothing beyond it. As Alfred North Whitehead wrote, “Religion is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind and within the passing flux of immediate things.” There is, however, a conservative sensibility that finds flux exhilarating, that is delighted rather than depressed by the idea that there is no beyond and that everything is contingent. A secular conservative sensibility, even a secular conservative aesthetic, finds beauty in the Darwinian view of the world, a beauty that is a close analogue to the conservative vision of a just society respectful of, and dependent on, spontaneous order.
— George Will, The Conservative Sensibility
I was pleasantly surprised to come across Will’s description of himself as an “amiable atheist” in this section of the book; I hadn’t known that about him. The world of online atheism was, ironically enough, one of the first places where the Great Awokening took hold. They, and almost all other progressive blogs and websites, quickly became unreadable as the fanaticism grew, and as a result, most of the pop culture/current events sites I visit these days are conservative. I had just resigned myself to the background hum of axiomatic assumptions that without a belief in monotheism, life is meaningless and Western civilization is doomed. Most of all, I like the emphasis of that last sentence: if the fragile miracles of society and commerce can emerge spontaneously and organically, and be all the more beautiful and worthy of grateful devotion for that reason, I don’t see why the miracle of life itself should be any different.
Murray’s objection to faith, however, is more coherent. He believes that science and historical criticism have done “most likely irreversible damage . . . to the literal-truth claims of religion.” If he is right, it makes no difference whether faith is required; faith is impossible. You can’t ask a society to pretend to believe in what isn’t so.
But is Murray right? Have science and criticism truly undermined Christianity? Or is it simply that disbelief has become the intellectual’s default conviction?
Mark Dooley, Conversations With Roger Scruton:
Despite having ‘served an apprenticeship in atheism’, Scruton has, I suggest, never been an atheist per se. ‘On the contrary, I have always assumed that religion is necessary to human communities on sociological and anthropological grounds, as well as on metaphysical grounds. People need something with which to root their beliefs, and also their conduct, their sense of themselves and their relation to others. We are fundamentally related beings and all the religions are shaped by this great need. Take religion away and nihilism is the first result, and then chaos, which is what we’re seeing now. That, of course, doesn’t mean that the doctrines are true. This is the great difficulty for people like me who begin from that anthropological sense of what religion is: how do we make the Kierkegaardian “leap of faith” into the actual affirmation of a doctrine? That is something with which I have wrestled all my life.’
When did this wrestling begin? ‘It was a “puberty moment”. When, as a boy, I went in secret to the Anglican Church, I was affirming my own independence and my incipient love of the English way of doing things. But that didn’t last: my life was very soon swept into disorder by the need to leave home and to fend for myself. At Cambridge, I did become fairly atheistical and I have since been persuaded that the truth about our world is given by science and not by any theological doctrine. That is what science is: an attempt to give the truth about our world. It can make no place for the “divine hypothesis” One must therefore find another, non-scientific way to resuscitate the basic contours of a religious worldview, and that is really what I have been doing in my writings. I share with Richard Dawkins the image of the completeness of the natural sciences and the view that there isn’t anything that they leave unexplained, other than the great fact that there is something, and not nothing, a fact that is for that reason inexplicable.
‘I have been very influenced in this by Wagner, and by his attempt, not just to show that art gives you an alternative approach to the deep truths about the human condition that religion advances, but also that it enables you, to a great measure, to resuscitate the idea of the sacred — which is the idea upon which human communities ultimately depend. The sacred is something which one has to find in one’s own life if one is to live that life correctly.’
I was less churlish after finishing Endgame’s immediate predecessor, Avengers: Infinity War, which had a rare weight among Marvel movies because alone among them it let its caped and armored heroes fail, and even saw many of them die. But that failure, the failure to stop the semi-genocidal Thanos (Josh Brolin, but purple) from wiping out half the population of the universe, was always destined to be temporary, and here we are back again for an Endgame in which the remaining superheroes will inevitably find a way to reverse the villain’s victory.
I agree. Guarantees of inevitable victory and miraculous resurrection only cheapen the experience. Pathos dwells in the particular, the irreplaceable, the dissolution of individual perspective within the flow of time. Wait, are we talking about movies, or…?
Give a non-theistic cosmologist that one free miracle, the mystery of being, and he’ll explain the rest. The rest is what he’s interested in anyway. Those who dwell on the one free miracle, meanwhile, are liable to find that it never gets old, that it moves them on occasion to blurt, mentally or out loud, something like “Oh my God.”
Did someone say “God”? Here we go.
These days the most common arguments for atheism involve the assumption that God is an idealized imaginary person whose name Christians and other monotheists robotically plug in as the answer to the big ontological question, Why isn’t there nothing? Any theists who do that shouldn’t, and no atheist should accept them as spokespeople for what he thinks he’s arguing against, because they’re all too happy to join him in missing the point.
Schopenhauer had it right, I think — everyone arguing about God’s existence is missing the point, because what they’re really interested in is personal immortality. “But if continued existence after death could also be proved to be incompatible with the existence of gods, because, let us, say, it presupposed originality of mode of existence, they would soon sacrifice these gods to their own immortality and be eager for atheism.” Frankovich thinks that atheists don’t spend enough time contemplating the impenetrable mystery of why there is something rather than nothing. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I think about that all the time. It is indeed a fascinating thing to meditate upon. But it’s not the amazing fact of existence that we’re all disagreeing about, it’s the dubious “And therefore…” conclusions being drawn from it. Still, either way, it doesn’t change the fact that upon your death, no irreducible essence of “you” will proceed onward through time with “your” memories and sensibilities. Your “itinerant atoms” will disperse to reemerge in other substances; your thoughts and characteristics will linger awhile among the dreams and stories of your family and friends until they, too, join the great forgetting.
For we are all insulted by
The mere suggestion that we die
Each moment and that each great I
Is but a process in a process
Within a field that never closes;
As proper people find it strange
That we are changed by what we change,
That no event can happen twice
And that no two existences
Can ever be alike; we’d rather
Be perfect copies of our father,
Prefer our idées fixes to be
True of a fixed reality.
No wonder, then, we lose our nerve
And blubber when we should observe…
— W.H. Auden, “New Year Letter”
In fact, for many misotheists, love is precisely the centerpiece of their moral philosophy. One could go so far as to argue that misotheists are more likely to foster love for humanity because they have already channeled and contained whatever capacity of hatred they possessed when they direct their hostility against an intangible antagonist—God. There is nothing (or much less) of the bitterness, destructiveness, and violence in the misotheist that marks the determined racist, misogynist, or religious bigot.
— Bernard Schweizer, Hating God : The Untold Story of Misotheism
I’m not sure how to spell the sound of surprised, muffled laughter, so I’ll just say yes, one could go so far as to argue that point — if one didn’t mind looking ridiculous. Who knew that the human capacity for hatred and violence was a finite resource, subject to hydraulic limitations?
On the other hand, a man who has a disinterested love for the human race — that is to say, who has got a fixed idea about some way of providing for the management of the concerns of mankind — is an unaccountable person with whom it is difficult to deal upon any well-known and recognized principles, and who is capable of making his love for men in general the ground of all sorts of violence against men in particular.
— James Fitzjames Stephen, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity
I had such high hopes for this book. It was billed as “part literary criticism, part philosophical exploration,” a dialogue between a believer, Kenneth Francis, and a skeptic, Theodore Dalrymple, over the search for meaning following the cultural death of God. I envisioned a skillful rhetorical fencing match. I imagined a graceful intellectual tango. What I witnessed was a blindfolded, three-legged sack race.
As a cheerful, Epicurean-style skeptic, I’m always open to the possibility that someone might offer a new way of thinking about the big questions. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard most of the religious arguments, but who knows, more things in heaven and earth and all that, maybe I can still be surprised yet. Instead, Francis’s contributions are the epitome of predictability. He makes one reference in passing to the supposedly-sophisticated arguments being put forth by modern theologians, but he himself is content to rely heavily on what I like to think of as the Dostoevsky fallacy — “without God, everything is permitted” — which he obligingly quotes early on. Any critical caltrops you might think to scatter across his path, such as the fact that the worst of human nature was in clear evidence long before God’s existence was seriously questioned by the French philosophes, or the fact that billions of people have found ways to develop culture and live meaningful lives separate from the axioms of Christianity, would be useless against the rhetorical steamroller Francis is driving. In essay after essay, to paraphrase Matthew 12:30, you’re either with Jesus or you’re with Pol Pot. I’ve seen fingerpaintings with more delicate brushstrokes than this.
The book is structured as alternating essays, with each author addressing different books and plays. Waiting for Godot is the only work to receive attention from both, with a brief three-paragraph “conversation” between them following. Admittedly, I got the book because of Dalrymple’s name on it; I didn’t know or care anything about Francis beforehand (and I certainly don’t care to know anything else afterward). Dalrymple’s contributions are interesting, as usual, though I tend to think of his New English Review Press publications as generally being his second-string essays (and, as is typical of an NERP book, typographical errors abound, which is mildly annoying). But the contrast between the two authors’ efforts side-by-side is like listening to chamber music punctuated by a kazoo and penny whistle. Francis’s essays aren’t just bad, they’re comically bad. It’s as if a WorldNetDaily column mated with a YouTube comment thread. The non-sequiturs and overall lack of subtlety and nuance attain a perverse sublimity as he free-associates about how the pebble of Holden Caulfield is responsible for the rockslide of post-’60s decadent hedonism. Oh, you think I’m exaggerating.
I have often wondered whether the American novel, The Catcher in the Rye, is a literary hoax, a kind of Leftist propaganda manifesto manufactured to discredit traditional family values. And is it not coincidental that the Leftist generations after its post-1950s publication, were generally disaffected, drug-addled American youth who had become spiritually poisoned during the sexual revolution by a Godless culture culminating decades later in glorifying a toxic entertainment industry with vile lyrics and vulgar role models?
…Isn’t it strange that Salinger, who wrote this frequently censored, anti-family, blasphemous, rebellious, violent, promiscuous, pro-smoking/drinking/lying book became a recluse? Was the cliff in the rye field an imaginary threat, where ‘little children’ must be protected by their Big Brother? A generation of brainwashed sheep kept in line by a ‘good’ shepherd? Or is the story an autobiographical psychological projection of Salinger’s world view? Was he a Marxist? Perhaps we’ll never know.
Sometimes comment would be superfluous, and all that’s left to do is back away slowly.
But since we find ourselves in this rabbit hole of conspiratorial thinking, perhaps we should ask: is this book intended as covert atheist propaganda? Did some godless sodomite set this caricature up to discredit the very idea of intelligent religious thought? Is Dalrymple being blackmailed to lend his name to this atrocious effort? Perhaps we’ll never know.
Gray keeps on saying much the same thing in many different ways, such as his contention that “secular thought is mostly composed of repressed religion.” This is all so obviously correct that, like so many other blindingly obvious things that we prefer to ignore, nobody likes to discuss it. Perhaps most definitive of all is his observation that godless searches for a universal law are futile. “Without a law giver, what can a universal moral law mean?” he asks. “If you think of morality as part of the natural behaviour of the human animal, you find that humans do not live according to a single moral code. Unless you think one of them has been mandated by God, you must accept the variety of moralities as part of what it means to be human.” Well, exactly. No God: no law. No law: no morals, just situational, alterable ethics. I am amazed that so few seem to realize the implications of atheism for the rule of law over power, the one thing that really sustains human civilization.
…For if there are justice and law and hope in the universe, they are surely to be found only on the far side of the grave. And if none of these things exists, then there is no unimaginable reality, nor any point in one, nor any point in poetry and music and speech and temporal love—just mud and silence.
By conventional reckoning, Hitchens is a devout believer and I’m an atheist, but I dare say my faith in the good and beautiful things of this world seems stronger than his; in fact, his strikes me as rather presumptuous. I’ve said for years that “either monotheism or nihilism” is the mother of all false dichotomies, but today, I’ll just paraphrase the German poet Ludwig Jacobowski and say, “Don’t cry because these things aren’t divinely guaranteed to last forever; smile because they ever happened at all.” But I suspect that these things mostly come down to an innate difference in temperament, and that a lot of theology reduces to personal psychology.
He calls John Gray the Spinoza of today. Simon Critchley previously described Gray as the “great Schopenhauerian Buddhist” of our age (which I think is more accurate). I have to say, I would be quite self-satisfied with accolades like that.
As long as so much of what we see is unnecessary suffering, we cannot be content with the world as we find it. Of course we should keep Gray’s cautions well in mind. The catastrophic revolutionary ideologies of the past were ersatz religions. Scientific utopias and promises to transform the human condition deserve the deepest suspicion. Moral and political progress are always subject to reversal. Humans are animals; human nature is riven with conflicts; reason is a frail reed. But even if we can’t set the cosmos right, we can’t leave our corner of it the way it is. Whatever else may be an illusion, other people’s suffering is not.
I read Scialabba’s book What Are Intellectuals Good For? early last year. I only remembered the title because I looked it up in my Goodreads history. I had totally forgotten it was still on my shelf until I just went and checked a moment ago. Glancing through it, I don’t see any of my telltale marks in red pen for calling attention to thought-provoking passages. In other words, the book didn’t leave much of a lasting impression on me. Lionel Trilling once famously described mid-20th-century conservatism as a collection of “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas;” my vague memory is that Scialabba’s essays were full of potentially interesting ideas which were offset by the irritating rhetorical gestures toward a left-wing sensibility.
Granted, that may well say more about me than him, but I felt the same way again after reading this review of John Gray’s latest book, Seven Types of Atheism. After a fair and respectful consideration of Gray’s argument, the concluding paragraph above just feels perfunctory. Having acknowledged Gray’s point that much of left-wing politics is just crusading Christianity in disguise for people who pride themselves on feeling superior to religious believers, Scialabba simply turns around and reasserts the same perspective as a moral imperative, as if the ongoing metaphysical earthquake which undermined much of the confidence in the old Christian worldview never happened. I’m sure that’s good enough for the choir, but why are the rest of us supposed to be convinced? This is just a refusal to even face the challenge squarely, preferring the comfort of platitudes.
As it happens, I think Scialabba is actually correct, even if the sentiment is shallow. I agree with Anthony Kronman that the tragedy of the human condition is our self-contradictory nature, our inability to ever stop trying to usurp God’s throne and bring every aspect of human existence under our conscious, willed control. The apple cannot be uneaten. Pandora’s jar cannot be resealed. Westerners as a rule cannot stop seeking to abolish the entire painful spectrum between discomfort and agony, even if we understand on a cerebral level that a life without pain would actually be undesirable, not to mention impossible. But Jordan Peterson, to name one contemporary example, also names suffering as the undeniable fact about human experience, the inescapable truth he salvaged from his own period of extreme Cartesian doubt, and yet he has derived a much different (and more interesting) stance toward politics and values than the generic democratic-socialist outlook that Scialabba seems to take as a given. The entire point of Gray’s book is that there is more than one way to disbelieve in God. Likewise, there is more than one coherent perspective to take on the brute facts of existence.
There are two main kinds of apatheists: apathetic agnostics and apathetic atheists. Apathetic agnostics believe it is not worth debating whether or not God exists; perhaps because human beings cannot know the answer and perhaps because if God exists, He does not care whether one believes in Him. What’s true is what you make true, as represented metaphorically by “ideas” like the devil or God, according to them. Trevor Hedberg has defended “practical apatheism” largely on the grounds that there is no reason to think there would be harmful consequences to ignoring the question. (His philosophical defence for apathy depends, ironically, on a great deal of analysis and reflection.)
Apathetic atheists believe it is quite obvious that God does not exist, but that there is no point debating it, either because they believe that the argument has already been won or because their “live and let live” philosophy entails a mild tolerance of belief in God. Alex Nichols’s Baffler essay “New Atheism’s Idiot Heirs” mocks “a certain species of idiot” who is “devoted to the notion that his disbelief in God imbued him with intellectual superiority,” but it is the manner not the message he dislikes. Many apatheists have no more respect for arguments for the existence of God than do Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or Daniel Dennett; they are simply more polite.
…Christians should also work to challenge the apatheists’ emotional complacence. This can be addressed by questioning the secular worldview and its ultimate telos—or lack thereof. What is the point of caring about God? Well, what is the point of living a purely material life without knowing where you stand?
As an apathetic atheist, this is a fair description. I think it is self-evident that whatever mysteries remain in the universe, none of them, if uncovered, are going to point convincingly back in the direction of the God of monotheism. Arguments from biology, geology, astronomy and history are far more convincing than any neo-Scholastic logic-chopping. And I agree with the main point of the article — Christianity is withering more from benign neglect than devoted iconoclasm. If anything, the self-inflicted wounds to religious moral authority by recurring scandals like pedophilia in the Catholic Church have been far more lethal than any invective from secular opponents. But I’m not sure what, exactly, they’re proposing to do about it here. Am I to understand that someone has finally come up with the immovable argument for God’s existence sometime in the last decade? Are they seriously calling for redoubled efforts to convince people of the literal truth of Christianity? When I was a young pup, abstruse theological debates were like Kongs, tug ropes and squeaky toys for me — fun exercise, and good for mental muscles and critical teeth. But, you know, there comes a time to put away puppyish things, and I think I’m pretty typical in having arrived at middle age without the slightest interest in what people believe as opposed to what they practice, and frankly, as Nietzsche observed to his disgust a century and a half ago, in practice, there’s very little noticeable difference between me and my Christian neighbors. The best parts of Christian practice have passed into the public domain as non-denominational common sense. In today’s Body of Christ, the doctrinal specifics and logical absurdities are like the appendix and wisdom teeth — maybe they served a purpose a long time ago, but now they’re irrelevant at best, only noticeable when they cause pain. It just seems like, uh, evolution in action to me.
As for that last bit, well, I’m not sure what a “purely material” life would be. Even the most resolute materialist still has hopes, dreams, sublime pleasures, and collective belongings. We just don’t fall for the intellectual fallacy that a life without a firm theoretical foundation underlying its practice is somehow incomplete or invalid. It’s a tired old false dichotomy that our only choice is between monotheistic belief or Ivan Karamazov’s nihilism. (Nihilism: the shadow of God — where the Son doesn’t shine.) In her book The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt put it well: “[E]ven if there is no truth, man can be truthful, and even if there is no reliable certainty, man can be reliable.” (Centuries earlier, Marcus Aurelius had said much the same: “Although everything happens at random, don’t you, too, act at random.”) The higher things are not given to us from on high; they have to be created anew constantly — even, or especially, as they get wasted and destroyed. Is music any less sublime because it needs to be played into existence by fallible humans, rather than waiting, pre-composed, in some divine storehouse, to be given to us by the Master Musician? Why, then, would life itself be any different?