Monday, February 25, 2008

Reasonable Atheism (12): Humourless = unserious?

Dan S, in his comment here, links to a discussion here, where John Haught is quoted as arguing:
In this respect the new atheism is very much like the old secular humanism that was rebuked by the hard-core atheists for its mousiness in facing up to what the absence of God should really mean. 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 by the logic of any consistent skepticism to pass through the 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.

Predictably, nothing so shaking shows up in the thoughts of Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens. Apart from its intolerance of tolerance and the heavy dose of Darwinism that grounds many of its declarations, soft-core atheism differs scarcely at all from the older secular humanism that the hard-core atheists roundly chastised for its laxity. The new softcore atheists assume that, by dint of Darwinism, we can just drop God like Santa Claus without having to witness the complete collapse of Western culture -- including our sense of what is rational and moral. At least the hardcore atheists understood that if we are truly sincere in our atheism, the whole web of of meanings and values that have clustered around the idea of God in Western culture has to go down the drain along with its organizing center. (Emphasis in Original)


I basically agree with this perspective, so I found the discussion there quite interesting. I think I would want to argue for the following:

- historically in the West the Christian story has provided the context within which moral values have been worked out and taught;
- rejecting Christianity requires accepting either a) nihilism or b) an alternative framework for values;
- you can't get to b) without understanding the full force of a) (ie unless you've understood a) you're still functioning within the Christian framework, however much that is denied. That's the main burden of Milbank's magnum opus.);
- you can't provide b) without some sort of non-rational narrative which articulates meaning in an emotionally engaging fashion (I suspect this is a 'hard-wired' truth about how our brains are constructed - this is why I wrote this post in the sequence);
- the provision of b) is the hallmark of the sophisticated atheist, as I am using the term in this sequence.


I'm sorry to have lagged behind in this sequence over the last ten days or so - I've been particularly busy. I hope to have some more posts up soon which will continue to explain what is meant by idolatry, and, as part of that, how religious language functions. This will meet at least some of the objections that objectors have been raising.

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