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.