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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.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    I agree that there is nothing new about it. The atheists who lament the passing of God from plausible belief are like Thomas Hardy and others in the nineteenth century who mourned the death of God. Those who celebrate the death of God have their nineteenth century counterparts too.

    In my own experience with disbelief I have felt the grief of the disappointed atheists. I don’t think I was disappointed because I believed that God understood as a supernatural being does not exist. I was instead, I think, just disappointed that the hope embodied in the myth (in which God is indeed supernatural) might have no basis.

    In my own experience, I have found that life does not necessarily yield to nihilism because of disbelief in a supernatural God. The replacements for God suggested in the article you referenced here sound trivial, and nihilistic, to me, just as they do to you. Alternatively, I think that the Darwinian view of life offers a narrative that provides meaning and wonder and an ethic without nihilism – even something like hope.

    The atheists in the Presbyterian (PCUSA) seminary I attended were mostly the celebratory type. They went from seminary in the churches to preach what they believed to be the good news of the death of God. They felt morally and intellectually superior to people they considered superstitious who still believed in God. Even while I did not believe in God as a supernatural being myself, I thought their arrogance and condescension towards those who do was rude and ugly. I still do. I side with those who believe in God that way, as much as I can, even though I don’t believe in that way myself. I pray that their hope, and yours, will yet be fulfilled.

    July 20, 2012
    • Yes, both of Beha’s two types of atheists certainly have a long history, even if there current proponents often seem very dimly aware of this.

      Can you help me understand the difference between hope based on God as “a supernatural being” and hope “embodied in a myth (in which God is indeed supernatural)?” And what led to your rejection of the latter?

      I continue to have a difficult time understanding how the Darwinian narrative (at least its materialistic interpretations) can provide anything like an objective “meaning,” a normative ethic, or a compelling hope (or even how it can, strictly speaking, be called a “narrative”—isn’t it just one thing after another?). As I have probably said before, in my view, these values and interpretive grids seem to be borrowed from other narratives and imported into the Darwinian worldview. I don’t see how they can arise from within the Darwinian framework itself.

      I am certainly open to seeing how I might be wrong about these things, though. And, like you, I pray that we will all one day see how and why, to use the words quoted above, “the universe hangs together in a meaningful way.”

      July 20, 2012
  2. Ken #

    And what led to your rejection of the latter?

    I never had belief in God as a supernatural being. My background is liberal protestantism. I don’t reject belief in a supernatural God the way the referenced atheists do, and even many liberal protestants do. I just don’t have it.

    I don’t want to show you how you might be wrong. I can’t, anyway. I can only say that I have experienced life without believing there is a supernatural God, experienced life seen through the Darwinian narrative of one thing after another (or one thing from another, with another and part of a whole) as beautiful and something I feel glad to be part of.

    By the ocean on the Monterey Peninsula is a fragment of a tile glued to a small concrete slab. The tile contains the words, “the beauty of the Lord.” It is as if the tile was once larger and the parts of tile that contained the other words had been broken off. In the context of the sea shore one can read the words as referring to the beauty of God that transcends the beauty of the earth, or it can read as words referring to the earth as lord. The Darwinian reading is something like the latter. I stood there at dawn a few days ago thinking about the double meaning, and how God language has been broken off in modernity even while a fragment of it remains.

    July 20, 2012
    • I don’t mean to argue with your experience—I genuinely want to move toward a better understanding of your view. It’s not that I think that experience (yours or anyone else’s) is irrelevant. Far from it. I just want to understand how the presuppositions and convictions of a materialistic Darwinian worldview are logically consistent with the kinds of values mentioned above.

      The image of the tile on the concrete slab is certainly an arresting one. “God talk” has certainly smashed against the shores of modernity, and many of us—whether we would self-identify as “religious” or not—find ourselves wrestling with the task of how sustain and nourish the fragments that remain.

      July 20, 2012

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