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My Thesis in a Nutshell

I suspect that anyone who has ever written a thesis, a dissertation, or done any other kind of sustained writing on a particular subject may, at times, come to dread the inevitable question presented when someone learns of the nature of your task: “So what are you writing about?” Typically, when I am asked this question, I will begin to scratch my head and, if I can’t manage to change the subject, mumble something to the effect of, “well I’m trying to interpret the rise of the new atheism through the lens of theodicy.”

If my interlocutor is persistent (or foolish!) enough to demand an explanation of exactly what that means, I move on to mentioning people like Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, etc, and explaining how I think that despite the fact that these authors present the issue of the existence of God as one of reason vs. faith, their arguments are mostly moral ones. They are reacting against evil, whether this predicated of God, human beings, or the world itself. In short, the new atheism is just the latest version of protest atheism which relies heavily on the ethical vision of the Judeo-Christian tradition (at this point, we usually move on to another topic of conversation…).

Over the course of the last year or so I’ve encountered many responses to the new atheists, in the form of books, journal articles, debates, etc. These have ranged in character from the brilliant and hilarious to the cool and measured to the comprehensive, if somewhat ponderous to the simply abysmal. Most attempt to refute the charges laid by the new atheists and present Christianity as a rationally coherent worldview, and most are more or less successful in this goal. However none of them devote the kind of space to the moral component of the new atheist protest against God that I feel it warrants.

Until this week. Edward Oakes’ piece on Tuesday in First Things’ On the Square blog provides, in my opinion, a compelling critique of the moral protest delivered by the new atheism. Oakes points out that the new atheists almost completely fail to engage with the figure of Nietzsche—and for good reason as his thought “ought to make atheists squirm far more than he has ever caused discomfit to believers.” Nietzsche has been accused of many things, but the one thing he certainly has on the current crop of atheists is consistency. Here’s a sample passage Oakes highlights from Nietzsche which suggests, I think, that the moral protest against God is not the straightforward proposition as it is supposed to be by Dawkins & co.

From Twilight of the Idols:

When one gives up Christian belief, one thereby deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality. Whoever tries to peel off this fundamental idea—belief in God—from Christian morality will only be taking a hammer to the whole thing, shattering it to pieces.

Oakes, provocatively, chastises the new atheists for failing to see that

after Nietzsche a moral critique of the Christian God has become impossible, for it denies the very presupposition that makes its own critique possible. Like Abraham asking if the Lord God of justice could not himself do justice, protest atheism must accept the very norms that Nietzsche showed are essential to the meaning of belief. In Nietzsche alone one reads what the world really looks like si Deus non sit.

I think that Nietzsche would be almost as disdainful toward the new atheists as they are toward religious believers. He would claim that the “philosophy” they are selling lacks both courage and coherence. Where Nietzsche saw that attacking the tree at its roots means the whole thing goes with it (or at least there can be no moral reasons for preventing this), the new atheists seem content to hack away at it blissfully unaware of (or at least unwilling to acknowledge) its role in producing the fruit they now enjoy and upon which their protest is based.

The demand that the world make moral sense is, I think, a uniquely human and inextinguishable one, and is not confined to those who subscribe to a theistic view of the world (as amply demonstrated by the new atheists). Yet this very demand—one that is fundamental to our being able to think and live in the world – seems to oblige us to acknowledge a source beyond ourselves to which human beings, the world – even God himself!—ought to more closely approximate.

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. You seem to be under the impression that atheism is some sort of religion, complete with a dogma, and set of unwavering precepts that must be adhered to in order to be considered a “true atheist”.

    Please allow me to be crystal clear:

    Not all atheists agree with Nietzsche.

    So, when Oakes points out that the “new atheists” (a deragatory term bordering on bigotry in my opinion) “… almost completely fail to engage with the figure of Nietzsche”, then I have to ask – no, demand, “why do I have to engage Nietzsche?” Nietzsche is not the purest essence of atheism distilled into book form. He is not some sort of “atheist prophet” or messiah.

    Nietzsche spoke for himself. Not for all atheists everywhere. There is a difference.

    You also seem to be making the claim that “morality” and “Christianity” are pseudonyms.

    I think that’s hogwash.

    If I were to use your tree analogy, then the tree would be our evolutionarily-derived moral and ethical sense, and Christianity would be a parasitic moss wrapped around the trunk and arrogantly claiming to BE the tree itself.

    We are not hacking away at the tree – rather, we are trying to eliminate the moss.

    January 31, 2008
  2. I don’t think wondering why a whole collection of books about atheism fails to discuss Nietzsche is that crazy. If Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens & co. feel free to demand an explanation for every distasteful Christian from Torquemada to Pat Robertson, I think it’s perfectly legitimate to wonder how the new atheists (not sure how that term borders on bigotry, exactly) deal with Nietzsche. Rumour has it some people actually consider him to be a fairly important philosopher. I realize that all atheists are “freethinkers” who aren’t shackled by the dogmas/precepts/mind-viruses that theists are, but still, you’d think they’d at least mention the guy…

    You also seem to be making the claim that “morality” and “Christianity” are pseudonyms. I think that’s hogwash.

    I agree. That’s why I said this in the initial post:

    The demand that the world make moral sense is, I think, a uniquely human and inextinguishable one, and is not confined to those who subscribe to a theistic view of the world (as amply demonstrated by the new atheists).

    If I were to use your tree analogy, then the tree would be our evolutionarily-derived moral and ethical sense, and Christianity would be a parasitic moss wrapped around the trunk and arrogantly claiming to BE the tree itself.

    Do you think that this “parasitic moss” played any kind of causal role in producing the cultural conditions within which protest atheism arose? I said that Christianity played a role in producing our current ethical climate (a fairly important one, I think), not that it was the “tree itself.”

    January 31, 2008
  3. Hi Ryan,

    I don’t think wondering why a whole collection of books about atheism fails to discuss Nietzsche is that crazy. If Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens & co. feel free to demand an explanation for every distasteful Christian from Torquemada to Pat Robertson, I think it’s perfectly legitimate to wonder how the new atheists (not sure how that term borders on bigotry, exactly) deal with Nietzsche. Rumour has it some people actually consider him to be a fairly important philosopher. I realize that all atheists are “freethinkers” who aren’t shackled by the dogmas/precepts/mind-viruses that theists are, but still, you’d think they’d at least mention the guy…

    Heh. Fair enough. As for Nietzsche, speaking for myself, I don’t mention him because I wholly disagree with his philosophy and think that it’s a load of horse manure. The reasons why I have come to the personal conclusion that it is a very low-probability proposition that a god or gods exist (my atheism in other words), do not rely on Nietzsche’s philosophies in any way, shape, or form. He does not interest me. I think that he was a seriously disturbed man, and I prefer not to associate myself with him, or with his ideas.

    Those are my reasons why I never talk about this “fairly important philosopher”. I can only speculate that the Amber Heard Fan Club (see here and here if you are interested) do not mention him for similar reasons. However, this speculation seems like a reasonable assumption. Have you written to any of them and asked them? Dawkins especially, will usually respond to a polite email. It may take a while (he probably gets hundreds a day – not to mention the spam), but he does respond to email.

    “You also seem to be making the claim that “morality” and “Christianity” are pseudonyms. I think that’s hogwash.”

    I agree. That’s why I said this in the initial post:

    “The demand that the world make moral sense is, I think, a uniquely human and inextinguishable one, and is not confined to those who subscribe to a theistic view of the world (as amply demonstrated by the new atheists).”

    Dang. That’s what I get for a drive-by reply. 🙂 Sorry about that. I should have read more of your stuff before commenting.

    However, the reason why I got the distinct and unambiguous idea (admittedly, from reading only one post on your entire blog – heh), that you consider Christianity and morality to be pseudonyms – or at least agree with the concept – was because of your admiration of Oakes (very apparent in your post), and this quote from him that you used:

    [Oates] “When one gives up Christian belief, one thereby deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality. Whoever tries to peel off this fundamental idea—belief in God—from Christian morality will only be taking a hammer to the whole thing, shattering it to pieces.”

    This indicates to me that the author does not think there is any other kind. And you agreed with him.

    So, if that is not the case, as you point out above, then I do indeed apologize.

    “If I were to use your tree analogy, then the tree would be our evolutionarily-derived moral and ethical sense, and Christianity would be a parasitic moss wrapped around the trunk and arrogantly claiming to BE the tree itself.”

    Do you think that this “parasitic moss” played any kind of causal role in producing the cultural conditions within which protest atheism arose?

    Yes, I do. But I think it is more of a political cause, rather than a deep moral or ethical cause. The way I look at it, the current crop of “protest atheists” (nice, I like that) are fighting a civil rights battle, not – as many Christians are wont to believe – a campaign to “wipe out” religion. This is regardless of the inflammatory nature of some of their book titles. (Book titles are meant to sell books – the more inflammatory, the better. The same thing happens with newspaper headlines.)

    I said that Christianity played a role in producing our current ethical climate (a fairly important one, I think), not that it was the “tree itself.”

    Yes, I know. That was my analogy. I just borrowed your tree to make it. 😉

    (not sure how that term borders on bigotry, exactly)

    It is taking on the flavor of an epithet fairly quickly in my opinion – which may be a bit biased a paranoid, but, there you go. 🙂 I am sure that you have seen the op-eds and the articles, yearning for the simpler days when the old-style “village atheist” was a contrarian, but still probably believed in God anyway. That old scamp! He sure made the bull sessions in front of the barber shop on Main Street a lot of fun, but Pastor Dan was always able to out-argue him because, well, God is real, and who can argue against God, really? Pfft.

    But these New Atheists, my friend, wow! Didn’t you know? All they want to do is destroy religion, install atheism as the official religion for the nation, kick God out of the schools, take God out of the Pledge, remove God from our money, ban Him from the public square, steal our children, and drink their Christian blood. They are E-veeeel with a capital “E”.

    So, “borders on bigotry” is fairly accurate, in my mind. “Are you a new atheist, or an old atheist?” asks the lynch mob.

    February 1, 2008
  4. One thought on Brent’s last point: BOTH sides of this “debate” often posture themselves as the “persecuted minority” being driven into the sea. It’s a rhetorical strategy that gives ones opinions a measure of urgency, but (on both sides) it’s ultimately irrelevant to the substance of the argument at hand.

    Ryan,

    Am I right in reading your thesis as an attempt to extend the trajectory of Nieman’s argument in Evil in Modern Thought to the (in the least bigotted sense possible) New Atheist crowd?

    Sounds interesting!

    February 1, 2008
  5. J #

    Brent,

    I appreciated the tone with which you responded in your second post. It makes space for some actual dialogue, rather than just talking (shouting?) past/at one another.

    Just a brief observation about “new atheism” as a “bigoted epithet.” I have a friend from Africa (he’s black) who once told me that the word “nigger” wasn’t offensive to him because he had grown up outside of the American culture out of which the term emerges. For him, there were other words in his native language that “carried more power.”

    It seems to me your comments about the term “new atheist” are in a similar vein. I would suggest that the interaction between atheists and theists (Christians in particular) has a VERY different tone in the US than it does in Canada. The question re. evolution vs. creationism, for example, simply isn’t a compelling issue. In fact, many Canadian Christians are mildly amused that American Christians can’t get over it already!

    Or, for another example, our political climate is dramatically different. We don’t have a “Religious Right” like you find in the US, and you don’t have the polarization between Republican and Democrat that exists in the US. (As a Christian, I have voted for the New Democrat, the Liberals, and the Green Party in different elections at various levels.)

    All this is to say that the conversation between atheists and Christians is generally very different from your characterization of the American conversation (which I found quite amusing). For a variety of reasons, Canadian Christians have – generally speaking – not wielded the same kind of power in the same kind of way as American Christians. Canada is very much a secular country (with vestiges of Christian symbols, values, and the like). In other words, the Christians in Canada are very much one voice among many around the table.

    So when we use the term “New Atheists,” it’s simply a term used up here to describe an emerging population of people who have been raised outside of any religious tradition and are living (as Douglas Copeland says) “life after God.” To be sure, there are some Christians that get themselves all tied up in knots. But they are not using the “new atheism” at all, let alone in a bigoted sense. In other words, “new atheists” doesn’t tend to evoke the same emotions, etc. for Canadians as it does south of the 49th. It really isn’t regarded as a bigoted term, but simply describes a reality up here. In fact, I have some family members and friends who simply and matter-of-factly describe themselves as “new atheists.”

    So there’s my 2 cents worth. I’m done now.

    February 1, 2008
  6. Hi J,

    All this is to say that the conversation between atheists and Christians is generally very different from your characterization of the American conversation

    Thank you for that very clear explanation.

    I seem to have made the basic mistake of not-reading, first, then wearing my “America Colored Glasses” around. After removing them, I see that you folks don’t actually have fangs, atheist-flesh-peeling claws, sharpened rosaries, or slavering mega-church Pastors on choke chains.

    Mea culpa. 😉

    February 1, 2008
  7. J #

    Brent,

    “…I see that you folks don’t actually have fangs, atheist-flesh-peeling claws, sharpened rosaries, or slavering mega-church Pastors on choke chains.”

    Ha!

    February 1, 2008
  8. Thanks J and Eric for the perspective.

    With respect to the thesis, Eric, you’ve pretty much nailed what I’m trying to do. I read Nieman’s book four years ago or so and found her approach both to the history of philosophy and to our present philosophizing to be an immensely compelling one. If she’s right that every worldview is fundamentally an attempt to locate evil within conceptual categories (and I think she is), then this current burst of protest atheism should be explainable in these terms as well. That’s what I’m hoping to do.

    February 1, 2008
  9. doubtingthomas426 #

    Hello, I’ve recently received a rather disturbing comment on my site from a Christian (whiteman0o0) on the issue of whether or not we are all born sinners. He stated that, yes, we are all born sinners. I argued that I believed babies and children are innocent and can’t and shouldn’t be judged based on the ‘sins’ of a couple of naïve children in the Garden of Eden. I brought up the tragic, unexpected death of a baby in its crib from SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) and asked if this baby should burn in eternal hellfire because it never had the opportunity to accept Jesus as his personal savior or ask for forgiveness for his ‘sins’? Whiteman0o0 responded, saying, yes, babies and children can go to hell because (and here is where it gets crazy) God doesn’t judge them for their ACTUAL lives but for the lives they WOULD HAVE lived had they not died. In other words, God creates an alternate timeline where the baby/child didn’t die and sees if they would have become a Christian or not, what sins they would have committed, etc. and sends them to heaven or hell accordingly. I don’t know if anyone else is as put off by this scenario as I was but I am pleading and urging anyone who does find it disturbing, or even those who agree with it, to please visit the page where the comment appears. You can find it here:

    http://doubtingthomas426.wordpress.com/2007/12/16/if-the-statement-is-true-your-religion-is-vile/

    Please read the comments (you can ignore the original post), particularly mine (DoubtingThomas426) and whiteman0o0’s and leave a comment addressing this issue. I truly appreciate it.

    Thank you and I apologize for taking up space on this page with my plea.

    DoubtingThomas

    http://doubtingthomas426.wordpress.com/

    February 2, 2008
  10. Hey Ryan,

    I think I was understanding your post up until your last line where you describe the source of morality as – “a source beyond ourselves to which human beings, the world – even God himself! – ought to more closely approximate.” (emphasis mine)

    At first I thought yours and Oakes’ argument was that atheists are nihilists (at least, that’s what I thought the both of you were implying when referring to Nietzsche’s philosophy), and the source of morals can only be found in the Judeo-christian God.

    But then, it seems that you described an autonomy of morality, explaining the source of morality as “beyond ourselves” (and God?). So, for personal clarification, is the source of morality autonomous of all beings, capable of being discovered (somehow, from somewhere) by all, or does it have to be discovered via God?

    February 7, 2008
  11. I do think that God is the source of morality and that all people, regardless of whether they are religious or not, have moral intuitions as a result of being made in his image. I don’t think that all atheists are nihilists, and I don’t think Oakes does either. Far from it. I just don’t think they are always very consistent.

    The phrase you highlighted was not an attempt to claim that there was some kind of free-floating “morality” which was independent of God. I realize the wording might be ambiguous or provocative, but I don’t think it’s any more or less bold than biblical authors/characters demanding that God act for “his name’s sake” or something to that effect. A pretty clear component of Christian hope, in my opinion, is that one day God will justify/vindicate the evils of history in some way or another. That’s all I was getting at there.

    February 7, 2008

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