I ran across the following article today on the spectator.
Sacks starts his article with a quote, “On the surface, he’s profound, but deep down, he’s superficial,” which he says reminds him of new atheists. After reading his article I am tempted to throw his own quote back at him.
Lets go through his main points:
Future intellectual historians will look back with wonder at the strange phenomenon of seemingly intelligent secularists in the 21st century believing that if they could show that the first chapters of Genesis are not literally true, that the universe is more than 6,000 years old and there might be other explanations for rainbows than as a sign of God’s covenant after the flood, the whole of humanity’s religious beliefs would come tumbling down like a house of cards and we would be left with a serene world of rational non-believers getting on famously with one another.
He starts with this volley. The interesting thing is that I don’t know any atheists who actually believe that all religion will go away if we convince people Genesis is not literally true. Most of us are aware that there are varieties of religion which do not hold to fundamentalist beliefs. On the other hand, he speaks almost as if he believes that the people who actually believe in creationism are a vanishingly small minority which they are most certainly not. Criticism of creationism and defense of evolutionary theory are just that and no more. I also don’t know any atheists who think that getting rid of religion would fix all of the worlds problems, or that there would no longer be any disagreements. This sort of strawman is common but lets me know that Sacks doesn’t seem to know much about atheists. He continues:
Whatever happened to the intellectual depth of the serious atheists, the forcefulness of Hobbes, the passion of Spinoza, the wit of Voltaire, the world-shattering profundity of Nietzsche? Where is there the remotest sense that they have grappled with the real issues, which have nothing to do with science and the literal meaning of scripture and everything to do with the meaningfulness or otherwise of human life, the existence or non-existence of an objective moral order, the truth or falsity of the idea of human freedom, and the ability or inability of society to survive without the rituals, narratives and shared practices that create and sustain the social bond?
I hear this a lot from theologians that fancy themselves as more “sophisticated” than fundamentalists. I again, point out that he seems to not know much about atheists. One common thread I notice is many people who talk about “new atheism” seem to only be familiar with a few really famous writers like Dawkins. Yet in this case I am still left scratching my head, Dennett is quite well known and a professor of philosophy, yet he never addresses Dennett anywhere in his article. He does address Dawkins later on, but Dawkins is a biologist. If he wants to talk about new atheism’s lack of philosophical understanding wouldn’t it be better to deal with arguments from actual philosophers?
I personally think that atheism is making a valiant effort to address the problem of creating social bonds without religion, though we probably aren't as good as religions which have had centuries to perfect them. Yet, It is important to note that few atheists would have a problem with religion if it most people viewed it as nothing more than rituals and narratives. It is the fact that many people believe they are literally true that bothers us. Next he says:
Should we not simply accept that just as there are some people who are tone deaf and others who have no sense of humour, so there are some who simply do not understand what is going on in the Book of Psalms, who lack a sense of transcendence or the miracle of being, who fail to understand what it might be to see human life as a drama of love and forgiveness or be moved to pray in penitence or thanksgiving? Some people get religion; others don’t. Why not leave it at that?
My first thought on reading this was who says atheists don’t appreciate and enjoy life. Just because most of use wouldn’t use religious language to describe this doesn’t mean we are missing out on something. I feel like one of the problems that atheists and liberal theologians like Sacks have in communicating with one another is that they are so used to communicating these kinds of feelings in the language of religion they come to the unfortunate conclusion that people who do not use such language are somehow missing something important about the human experience.
Fair enough, perhaps. But not, I submit, for readers of The Spectator, because religion has social, cultural and political consequences, and you cannot expect the foundations of western civilisation to crumble and leave the rest of the building intact. That is what the greatest of all atheists, Nietzsche, understood with terrifying clarity and what his -latter-day successors fail to grasp at all.
Ah, now we get to his real concern, he thinks atheism will result in the downfall of western civilization. The difference between his reasoning and that of the fundamentalist is that, while fundamentalists believe atheists will be the ones to destroy civilization, Sacks believes that it will happen because atheists will simply have no intellectual defense against all of the evil out there.
I take some issue with the notion that western civilization owes it’s entire existence to Christianity. We owe at least as much, if not more, to Greek philosophy. He then goes into a conversation about Nietzsche’s philosophy.
Time and again in his later writings he tells us that losing Christian faith will mean abandoning Christian morality. No more ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’; instead the will to power. No more ‘Thou shalt not’; instead people would live by the law of nature, the strong dominating or eliminating the weak. ‘An act of injury, violence, exploitation or destruction cannot be “unjust” as such, because life functions essentially in an injurious, violent, exploitative and destructive manner.’ Nietzsche was not an anti-Semite, but there are passages in his writing that come close to justifying a Holocaust.
Now, I don’t consider myself an expert on Nietzsche, but I think he misunderstands him here. It is true that he advocated we get rid of Christian morality, but I think to suggest that Nietzsche’s concept of “will to power.” implied a moral vacuum where the strong controlled or killed the weak is a major misunderstanding of his philosophy.
I also wonder, if this is Sacks understanding of Nietzsche, why he claims to respect him as the greatest of all atheists. I have a theory though, religious people like the argument that morality cannot exist without god, It makes them feel good about their religious beliefs. So when they read anything from atheists that seem to acknowledge this opinion in any form they latch onto it. They believe that such atheists are better because at least they acknowledge that all the good morality comes from religion. Then they accuse all of those uppity atheists who have the gall to claim that morality is not the sole domain of religion, and possibly not the domain of religion at all, of lacking philosophical nuance in their arguments. If they had a really nuanced view of philosophy, they argue, they would admit that morality can only be explained by religion.
The history of Europe since the 18th century has been the story of successive attempts to find alternatives to God as an object of worship, among them the nation state, race and the Communist Manifesto. After this cost humanity two world wars, a Cold War and a hundred million lives, we have turned to more pacific forms of idolatry, among them the market, the liberal democratic state and the consumer society, all of which are ways of saying that there is no morality beyond personal choice so long as you do no harm to others.
Another piece of language I find to be kind of frustrating from theists is their attempt treat every new idea as some kind of replacement for god. Further exactly what is so bad with a morality that says it’s ok to do what you want as long as you do no harm to others? If everyone lived by such a mantra I imagine things would be pretty good.
He then descends into several paragraphs that I won’t bother to quote lamenting the decline of western civilization, he blames “materialism, individualism and moral relativism” but offers no real reason to actually blame these things. At least one thing he points out, the lack of communal support, is a modern cultural trend which probably has more to do with peoples tendency to move long distances, something which was much more rare prior to the 20th century. Mostly however, I just think he engages in a bit of confirmation bias, he looks at statistics that he thinks have trended in a direction that points to societal decline but ignores piles of statistics that could just as easily be used to suggest an opposite trend.
It’s the end of the article that I probably take the most issue with though:
In one respect the new atheists are right. The threat to western freedom in the 21st century is not from fascism or communism but from a religious fundamentalism…The new barbarians are the fundamentalists who seek to impose a single truth on a plural world. Though many of them claim to be religious, they are actually devotees of the will to power. Defeating them will take the strongest possible defence of freedom, and strong societies are always moral societies. That does not mean that they need be religious. It is just that, in the words of historian Will Durant, ‘There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion.
He views liberal religion as the last bastion of hope in defense against the fundamentalists of the world. I think this argument is rather bizarre considering their actual track record and responding to fundamentalists. Take a look at any country currently overrun with fundamentalists pushing their religious agenda and ask yourself if it is the moderate or liberal religious people you see standing up to them or is it the atheists?
Take the U.S., the religious right took over the republican party in the early 1980’s and more liberal denominations did nothing. It was a mix of atheist and secular groups that started stemming that tide in in the last ten to fifteen years. In the meantime liberal/moderate religious groups have spent most of their time telling atheists to be quiet , or complaining that we are just as bad as the fundamentalists. Then take Muslim theocracies like Iran, is it the moderate Muslims taking the government to task for allowing the fundamentalists to run everything or is it the atheists, sometimes in fear of their lives, doing that? As far as there being no society to maintain morality without religion, that isn’t particularly surprising given that almost all societies in history have been explicitly religious. The notion of church state separation is rather new, after all. Further, most of those societies actually allowed or even encouraged some really horrible behavior despite their religion. Personally I am aiming higher than that. It may, in fact, be more difficult to build a successful society without a religion to prop up our communities and social networks but if we are willing to put in the work we might just make something better.