The Scratching of Itches
Regular readers of this blog will know that the subject of my masters thesis a few years ago was the rise of “The New Atheism” (the late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett) and that I interpreted this phenomenon not as the inevitable triumph of scientific rationality over superstition (as many of the authors were fond of claiming) but as a form of protest atheism against the evil in the world and against a God that they expected better from.
Well—surprise!—The New Atheism is not so new anymore. In its place, we now have what Christopher Beha calls “The New New Atheism”—a trio of books by the aforementioned Sam Harris (who is both a “New” and a “New New Atheist!), Alain de Botton, and Alexander Rosenberg that, while taking the atheistic conclusions of their more aggressively polemic predecessors as a given, attempt to address the question of what comes next. How ought we to think and behave in a godless world? Where ought we to locate and ground our values in God’s obvious absence? In a summary post over at Harper’s, Bela describes the project of the “New New Atheism” thus:
The New New Atheists tend not to take up the question of God’s existence, which they take for granted as settled in the negative. Instead, they seek to salvage what is lost when belief erodes, concerning themselves with what atheists ought to believe and do in religion’s stead.
I’m not a subscriber to Harper’s so I’ve not yet had an opportunity to read what looks like a fascinating article. But I found one passage from the summary intriguing. It comes in a conversation between Christopher Beha and Alex Rosenberg, a professor of philosophy at Duke who differs from his fellow New New Atheists in arguing that doing away with religion means doing away with most, if not all, of the good that comes with it. According to Rosenberg, atheists fall into two broad camps: 1) the disappointed disbelievers (those who would like to believe in God, but cannot); and 2) Those who “find the very idea of such a being [God] to be an outrage.” In other words, to put it perhaps too simplistically, those for whom the nonexistence of God is tragic and those for whom it is something to be celebrated.
Rosenberg would fit into the category of “disappointed disbeliever.” For him, the loss of God means a loss of meaning and anything like a normative purpose for human life. Here’s the quote from Rosenberg that caught my attention:
There is . . . in us all the hankering for a satisfactory narrative to make “life, the universe and everything” (in Douglas Adams’s words) hang together in a meaningful way. When people disbelieve in God and see no alternative, they often find themselves wishing they could believe, since now they have an itch and no way to scratch it.
From a Christian perspective, it obviously makes sense that there is a human longing for a meaningful narrative to be a part of because we are convinced that there is meaning in the universe and that there is a “satisfactory narrative” within which to locate our lives. The itch exists, in other words, because there is a way to scratch it, because the itch points to something that is real and true, and, ultimately, because there will be relief from all of our scratching.
The task of the New New Atheists seems to be to find a way to scratch this persistent itch that they can neither shake nor fully understand. If Rosenberg’s suggested solutions are any indication, the results don’t look promising. Among his (apparently serious) suggestions are relying on mood-altering pharmaceuticals (if the world has no meaning, then medicate the meaninglessness away) and unbridled consumerism (“the pleasures of acquisitive consumer culture—the making of money and the getting of things”). Beha suggests more refined alternatives such as the pleasures of art and literature, but at the end of the day, we seem to be left with something like, “whatever happens to float your boat on the sea of nihilistic meaninglessness.”
One of the things I became convinced of during the course of reading and writing about The New Atheism five years ago was that there wasn’t much that was new about it at all. The same seems to be true of the New New Atheism.