Sunday, February 24, 2008

Soft-Core Atheism

In an article for February 26, 2008 issue of The Christian Century adapted from his book God and the New Atheism (Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), John F. Haught takes direct aim at the “new atheism” of Samuel Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. By comparing their work to the writings of Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud, Haught finds the anti-religious diatribes of the “new atheists” to be little more than “tame stuff,” “silly,” and “pale.” He also charges that Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens endorse “an ethically and politically conservative Darwinian orthodoxy” that, by failing to confront the nihilistic implications of “the more muscular” atheism of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, fails to provide rational justification for its strong claims to truth and goodness.

Here’s how Jordan Buckley sums up the gist of Haught’s argument over at his blog "The Day Is At Hand":

“Haught makes two major criticisms of this new brand of atheist. First, they don’t realize that their belief system requires just as much faith as a religion. Their worldview is what’s called ‘scientism,’ the belief that science is competent to tell us everything there is to know about the universe. If a belief cannot be proven through the scientific method, then it cannot be true, the argument goes. However, there is a glaring flaw in this worldview: it defeats itself. The claim that science is the sole path to truth is itself a claim that has never been and can never be proven by science. The new atheists want to put every belief to the scientific test, except for their own basic assumptions. They too have a doctrinal statement which they hold by pure faith: Science alone can explain the universe. Ultimately, the new atheism is logically contradictory; it cannot even meet its own test.

“The second criticism is the reason Haught calls Dawkins, Hitchens and friends ‘soft-core atheists.’ Atheists like Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Camus, and Jean-Paul Sartre thought through what it means for human existence if there is no God, and realized that it is a terrifying prospect. ‘God is dead,’ Nietzsche's madman wails, ‘And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?’ If there is no God, then we are adrift in a meaningless infinity; our existence has no meaning but what we create. … Without God, we lose the basis of meaning and of morality. Nietzsche was disgusted by the naivete of those who thought they could keep traditional morality intact without God …”

In short, Haught charges that Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens fail to take their atheism seriously enough:

“If you’re going to be an atheist, the most rugged version of godlessness demands complete consistency. Go all the way and think the business of atheism through to the bitter end. This means that before you get too comfortable with the godless world you long for, you will be required to pass through disorienting wilderness of nihilism. Do you have the courage to do that? You will have to adopt the tragic heroism of a Sisyphus, or realize that true freedom in the absence of God means that you are the creator of the values you live by. Don’t you realize that this will be an intolerable burden from which most people will seek an escape? Are you ready to allow simple logic to lead you to the real truth about the death of God? Before settling into a truly atheistic worldview you will have to experience the Nietzschean madman’s sensation of straying through ‘infinite nothingness.’ You will be required to summon up an unprecedented degree of courage if you plan to wipe away the whole horizon of transcendence. Are you willing to risk madness? If not, then you are not really an atheist.”

Here’s how Haught concludes the essay:

“Belief in God or the practice of religion is not necessary in order for people to be highly moral beings. We can agree with soft-core atheists on this point. But the real question, which comes not from me but from the hard-core atheists, is: Can you rationally justify your unconditional adherence to timeless values without implicitly invoking the existence of God?”

(You can read Haught's entire essay here.)

I applaud Haught’s willingness to take on the so-called “soft-core” atheists. Based upon what I’ve read by them, they do tend to peddle in stereotypes and misinformation that really makes one wonder how much they actually know about religion in its rich depth and variety. (Note, for example, William Placher’s stinging review of Christopher Hitchens’ book God is Not Great.) Given their intolerance for everything religious, I’m all for sophisticated theologians and philosophers of religion taking the gloves off with these guys.

At the same time, I think that Haught’s take on the epistemic and ethical implications of atheism are overstated. I don't think it's fair to say that anyone who claims to be an atheist yet fails to take nihilism seriously is, in effect, a coward. Nor am I fully persuaded by his argument that rejecting a theistic notion of God as the grounding for morality collapses into irrationality and relativism. He says that “In order to make … value judgments one must assume … that there exists somewhere, in some mode of being, a realm of rightness that does not owe its existence completely to human invention.” Philosophers like John Dewey, Richard J. Bernstein, or Jeffrey Stout might respond by asking, “Why? Do we really need to believe in a Platonic heaven to justify the values that make life in a democratic society worth living?” Such philosophers are certainly critical of classical theism, but they do not jettison religion wholesale as the “soft-core” atheists do. Nor do their writings suggest that they are teeter-tottering on the edge of madness a la Nietzsche. On the contrary, their work argues for pragmatic reasons for adhering to moral values that don't require overtly appealing to anything religious.

Even so, it's interesting to ponder the question: do claims to truth and goodness entail religious or metaphysical implications that may not be evident to the person(s) making the claims?


Bradley said...

Really enjoyed your thoughts. I like Haught's article myself, and I'd mostly agree with you about some of his "overstatments."

Bryan+ said...

Thanks for your comment, Bradley.

And God's blessings in your ministry.

Ali said...

The reason that atheists are in a better position to postulate a morality without God now is due to advances in science since the time of Nietzsche. We can see how humans have evolved a sense of morality due to it being necessary to co-exist with one-another and thus survive. Sartre is correct, however, in saying that we cannot 'know' what is right without God, however the emotional language he uses to describe how we feel when we no longer believe in God is somewhat over the top.