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Running on Religious Fumes

Freddie deBoer is, I gather, known as something of a “nice atheist.” He’s not explicitly hostile toward religious belief. His atheism represents more of a surrender than a decision. He believes an atheism that doesn’t come out of a process of loss and pain isn’t worth a whole lot. He’s not going to try to convert you to his unbelief. He has no evident interest in a world where people suddenly cease to believe in God. He would, however, like for you to take it a bit more seriously if this is in fact what you claim to believe. Or, at the very least, for you to be a bit more consistent. If God is the point of the whole show, then you should at least have the courtesy to act like you believed it.

In his recent essay, “What Became of Atheism, Part One: Wearing the Uniform,” deBoer is ostensibly taking stock of the “New Atheism,” that much more hostile form of unbelief than his own that made a few headlines starting back in around 2005 and seemed to fizzle out around a decade later. He’s a bit bemused that the New Atheists often seemed to take religion quite a lot more seriously than the objects of their contempt. This is an irony that many have noted. The New Atheists imagined themselves to be marching off to battle, swords swinging against biblical literalists and those who believed in some of the crudest forms of religious belief. And while occasionally they found very willing combatants, often they were met with a kind of existential yawn. Well of course nobody believes in God like that anymore. God is more about divine energy and spirituality. Church is about connection and social belonging. Worship is aesthetics. Prayer is an expression of human solidarity and ideals. Religion is about love and peace and tolerance and social utility. The New Atheists wanted a final showdown with the crusaders and jihadists. What they got, more often than they liked, was an indifferent sigh from barely convinced upper middle-class liberals.

deBoer considers this to be an interesting indictment. On the one hand, it’s undoubtedly a good thing that religious disputes are no longer the war of all against all. Far too much blood—literal and metaphorical—has been shed over the years over religious belief. But where once beliefs about God took up too much of the oxygen in the proverbial room, is it possible that now they’re not nearly important enough, just sitting inoffensively and amorphously over there in the corner, ready to be compliantly pressed into the service of whatever projects the sovereign self has need of? If you claim to believe in an actual God who made all and is above and over all, shouldn’t God matter more to you?

deBoer has little time for the argument that we should still encourage religion (even if we know that none of it is actually true) because it’s a good thing for our emotional well-being and social improvement. He excoriates advocates of this view—Jon Haidt, for example—for failing to appreciate the indissoluble link between the nature of beliefs and the benefits they provide:

What makes this process quite strange for me, and part of what makes Haidt’s perspective so bankrupt, is that the meaning and rules for life which people so often praise in religion in the abstract stem from the very supernatural elements which people are now so eager to do away with. Yes, religion provides psychic comfort in an unfriendly world, but it does so because it imposes sense on senselessness through the existence of one (or many) who literally determine what sense is. Yes, religion helps guide moral decisions, but it does so because it posits an entity from whom unerring moral precepts flow. Yes, religion helps rescue people from feelings of meaninglessness, but it does so because it tells people that they have a specific moral purpose that is defined by a creature of infinitely greater wisdom than ours. Yes, religion soothes the sick and elderly, but it does so because it tells them that they will soon be joined with a maker who will grant them some sort of eternal reward. You take away the supernatural element, as so many now seem eager to do, and you’re kicking two legs out from under a three-legged stool.

I don’t see how getting catechized and joining your local temple helps you any if you also think that we are living accidental lives, the product of some chemicals happening to congeal in just the right way in a spiritually dead and directionless universe, one in which your life will flare up for an eyeblink and then cease to matter for the rest of eternity. Sartre would still stare into the heavens, soul crying out for meaning, if you gave him a set of rosary beads and told him he didn’t have to actually believe in she who inspires their use.

In other words, you can’t have your cake and eat it, too. You can’t keep all the pleasant, socially beneficial, existentially indispensable benefits of religious belief while at the same time rejecting the divine framework that gave birth to it all and continues to provide coherence and solidity to it. The goodness can’t so easily be separated from God, desperate as we may be for this to be so. Eventually, the bill will come due. We may be able to sail along as mostly irreligious people with mostly religious assumptions for a time, but, as I’ve written before, this cannot last forever.

Indeed, much as I admire deBoer’s analysis in this essay, I don’t think even he is able to live as godlessly as he imagines. Every time we come within sniffing distance of an “ought” or something resembling a normative statement, we are loitering, however grudgingly, at the outskirts of the sanctuary. So many of our most-cherished values and most indispensable assumptions have an inconvenient divine provenance lurking in the background. God casts a rather large shadow. I don’t imagine even the most committed (or resigned) atheist is truly able to get up in the morning and face the day cheerfully fortified by the conviction that they are “the product of some chemicals happening to congeal in just the right way in a spiritually dead and directionless universe.” Barely convinced churchy social-club liberals aren’t the only ones running on religious fumes.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Andrew Dyck #

    Ryan, thanks for taking the trouble —even in these languishing times— to put your helpful and inspiring thoughts to paper.

    April 28, 2021
    • Thanks very kindly, Andrew.

      May 3, 2021
  2. Elizabeth #

    Im thankful I found my way here. This is my second time commenting. I really enjoy your writings, your wisdom and your questions.
    Each post I read there is always a line or two that speaks to me.

    Today’s line had me put my head up and stand straight:
    “Eventually, the bill will come due.”

    So true. So very true.

    May 3, 2021
    • I appreciate this note of affirmation, Elizabeth. Thank you.

      May 3, 2021

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