The Anatomy of Contemporary Atheism

When I tell people I’ve never met an atheist, they tend to pause awkwardly for the punch-line of a bad joke, or perhaps they’re waiting for confession of a cloistered life. But I’m being serious when I say it (as serious as I can be, anyway) and I’m not such a recluse that I haven’t met people who’ve claimed to be atheists.  What I have not met, I maintain, is the genuine article.  I say this because a little probing of my subject always reveals a different animal hiding beneath the atheist’s cloak—a sheep in wolf’s clothing, so to speak.

I usually find myself conversing with a sentimental progressive who sees disbelief in God as a necessary condition for his faith in Progress and its earthly realization—or to borrow an older term, its immanentization.  The equality of human beings, human rights, even animal rights are all still in place with in my interlocutor’s godless cosmos. Justice still abides without God it seems—indeed, it’s all the healthier for His demise!

Such nominal atheists have never read Carl Becker’s delightful satire, The Heavenly City of the 18th-Century Philosophers. If they had, the smart ones would recognize that their atheism substitutes Progress for God as Voltaire’s had Reason—everything else remaining conveniently unchanged.  Apparently, theology is the one domain where you can kick off the head of the organism and expect the body to live on.

Reading James Wood’s review of The Joy of Secularism in the New Yorker reminded me of all this and further reinforced my view that the so-called “New Atheists,” whatever else might be said of them, resist the real implications of their creed for themselves and for the world in which they live. From what I gather, few in the book Wood reviewed have done so either (that preternaturally cautious philosopher Charles Taylor apparently being the one partial exception).

Only Nietzsche and Plato, it seems to me, really appreciated what it means for a person to reject a transcendent order. Both philosophers realized that ennui and despair are the only psychological responses, and cultural dissolution the only social and cultural result. Indeed, even language and the shared experience and understanding embodied by it will crumble into individualized bits of dust in the wake of the departing gods. To be sure, people carry on once disenchanted and order returns as it always must, but minds can be reconstituted in strange forms and order can become a collective abomination—history and anthropology show what awaits the momentarily godless.

At any rate, my present concern is not to defend the psychological and cultural implications of God’s demise, since I take Plato’s and Nietzsche’s understanding of the world without God as the truest one.  Instead, I want to try and understand why the New Atheists have resisted what should be obvious.  What follows, then, are some hypotheses that may explain why the New Atheists have been able to be atheists.

The psychology of atheism

1. Material comfort. The simplest explanation is also the oldest one: contentment breads complacency.  Like Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris and Dennett, James Wood enjoys his own and his society’s relative health, wealth and freedom (granted, Hitchens isn’t doing so well on the health front, but he has enjoyed a healthy life with all the worldly fortune one could hope for until recently). Under such conditions, talk of God, the afterlife and rationality in the cosmos seems as superfluous as the things themselves. Who needs to wrestle with these otherworldly concerns when the sun shines so bright?

2. Nemesis. As the ancients realized, Nemesis is a wonderful thing. Fighting an enemy gives life meaning. The concentration required for achieving a goal and the thrill and the immediacy of battle keeps away the bigger and harder questions about the point of it all that invite reflection and despair.  Indeed, a battle is a journey to a destination and as every writer since Homer knows, it’s the most powerful and perennial narrative structure.  In simpler terms, atheist militancy is fueled by the same anima that fuels sports and video games—the thrill of ersatz battle.

3. Atheism as de facto religion.  This seems like the most widely accepted explanation among critics of New Atheism, since virtually every critic of Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens points out that these fellows all sound like old-fashioned Bible-thumpers—and they do, no doubt.

But as I mentioned before, my experience reading and talking to New Atheists is that beneath the surface one finds pantheism (e.g., nature as the source and cause of a self-perpetuating wonder), animism (e.g.,  “we all join in the cycle of life”), and, most often, old-fashioned Enlightenment Progressivism.  It’s not atheism that’s the religion, then, but the belief in Progress that provides purpose that is bulwark against despair, filling the gap left by God and the Cosmos in the atheists’ psyche. Atheism is just the tip of the mental iceberg, jutting out of the mass of beliefs that make up an individual psyche, because (presumably) it’s the fashionable face of a more complex set of beliefs.

4. Serotonin. My preferred hypothesis (for the time being at least) is genetic. Much like the rest of the animal kingdom, most people are wired to be happy with their circumstances, at least when the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has been met (as per 1). Most of us don’t feel the need for deeper explanations—we don’t suffer from existential angst—because we’ve been born with the optimal balance of the “happy-brain chemical,” which prevents us from feeling anything but contentment once our basic material needs have been met. To borrow the more recent framework, James Wood and other atheists are “dandelions” among religiously-minded “orchids,” not so much clear-minded and self-aware rationalists (unless, of course, one takes the latter as a euphemism for the former).

At any rate, your average atheist likely embodies some combination of all or several of these things. It’s not easy to say for certain without cracking open skulls and reading the brains within.  All I can say for certain is that it is not Reason that sustains them on her divine account, but a combination of transcendent-mimicking false belief and brain chemistry.

Resisting the cultural implications

The psychological hypotheses can explain how human beings can believe in atheism without suffering from its psychic consequences. Moreover, number two above may explain the stridency of the New Atheists. But the psychological considerations don’t explain the resistance to the dire implications for us all, especially if Christianity should lose its influence entirely on the Western world.  So what beliefs prevent the atheist from seeing these consequences?  I tend to think that there is really only one major answer to this question: the belief in human progress.

A favorite pejorative label among conservatives is to describe left-liberals who have adopted environmentalism as a way of further their political agenda as “watermelon environmentalists” (i.e., because watermelons are green on the outside, red on the inside).  As I mentioned, I’ve noticed time and again a similar phenomenon among atheists: it’s either a conscious or unconscious front for what would otherwise be characterized as progressivism.

Which is not to say that some progressives have donned the atheist disguise as a way of forwarding their agenda (though it’s entirely possible); but most seem to suffer under the illusion that Progress is possible in an indifferent universe where living things are subject to evolutionary forces.  Diseases, man-made disasters, asteroids and a thousand other variables can destroy human life in its current state or extinguish it altogether. Whatever the case, it’s worth noting that two kinds of ignorance underlie the belief in divine Progress, making it seem rationally possible.

1. Philosophical ignorance.

There’s no better example than the pseudo-debate that goes by the title “religion versus science,” which has spawned a number of unfortunate tropes or commonplaces that are either pernicious half-truths or outright falsehoods.  One of the former is the idea that there is something called “religious belief,” which is supposed to be qualitatively different from “secular belief.” I’ll get into this false dichotomy another day. Suffice to say for now that religious belief is supposedly sectarian and absolutist, while secular beliefs are neutral and inclusive. Obviously, the former lead to oppression and war, while the latter lead to universal happiness for all. This is nonsense, of course, because we all have “religious beliefs” insofar as we have fundamental values—truths we hold to absolute—like the belief that others should be treated fairly and equally regardless of their particulars.  And we’re all willing to use force to defend and extend these fundamental beliefs—or at least to resist the imposition of the beliefs of others.  In a word, then, we are all fundamentalists of one kind or another.

For reasons I can’t really explain (beyond blaming the education system) we seem to have collectively forgotten the origin of the term “religion.” It comes from the Latin “religio,” which means “the ties that bind us” as individuals, including our obligations to family, the state, the gods or our friends.  The term “religion” was coined for the academic study of these phenomena, though its focus was human faiths, rituals, cults, institutions, the afterlife, souls, cosmologies, etc.  In other words, “religion” refers to an academic discipline that artificially and roughly broke off part of the human condition for study; it is not a logical or scientific term for certain kinds of beliefs.  In fact, what does and what does not fall under the purview of religion is an on-going controversy in religious studies.

In any case, the salient aspect of the false dichotomy between “religious and secular belief” is the possibility that religion can be transcended: that we are all of us moving toward a secular End Times when the evil forces of religion that have caused all human misery will wither and die, leaving only the happy, loving rationalists behind.  It’s this false belief above all else that provides the intellectual scaffolding for the atheist version of Progress.  Kick it away (along with a few others I’ll discuss another time), and the rest falls apart.

2. Historical and anthropological ignorance.

It’s not often that one can make generalizations about human nature.  But “religion” is one of those cases: no culture, anywhere, ever has built its collective spiritual house on the shifting sands of the immanent world.  The reason would be plain as day to anyone who’d lived before modern times and many who live outside the West: the immanent world is capricious and fickle. Droughts and cold spells kill crops; locusts come from the sky without warning and devour one’s harvest; pestilence strikes oneself, one’s family and one’s livestock.  The sea is intemperate, rising up to drown those who’d make a living off of it; and mountains can burst and bury a whole civilization under molten rock.  Even loved ones, friends and brothers can turn against you in this world.

Now, it’s natural that we yearn to escape the tumult of our native land for tranquil shores (we wish that in this life too, after all). But there’s a deeper reason than emotional solace in the invention of the transcendent.  All anthropological evidence suggests that we are hardwired to order our thoughts, our lives and our societies in accordance with a permanent, unchanging order of things.  This is not the old atheist saw that says “things looked designed to us, so we falsely infer that they are,” as if our mental architecture was a series of careful inferences that might be judged true or false on the basis of a decisive experiment.  It’s that we must live life in accordance with an understanding of its meaning and purpose and the only constant source of purpose in a Cosmos—a rational order.  A world that evolved and remains forever in flux cannot offer us that; only a transcendent order can.

It’s this last point, I think, that explains why atheists—in spite of themselves—fall into what can only be described as ersatz religions like Progress or animism.  Like the rest of us human beings, they really can’t help but believe in the gods.

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5 thoughts on “The Anatomy of Contemporary Atheism

  1. This article has as much to do with contemporary atheism as the Hasbro game “Operation” has to do with human anatomy.

    1. Thank you for your comment and the delightful analogy. It’s a little shopworn, though it probably has a few miles left in it.

      At any rate, there’s a small irony in your remark. If you’d agreed that an atheist should subject his own motivations to the same psychoanalysis he performs on believers (or anyone else who deigns to question him), you’d have stood as a counter-example to the truculent trend. Instead, your derision only reinforces my point (2) about the stridency of atheism.

      It’s also odd that you offer a judgment without argument or explanation. Like the priests of old, I guess, you expect me to accept your judgment on pure, unadulterated authority. The more things change…

    1. Thank you for your comment.

      My point was that the gap is there whether you believe in God or not. Since the gap is currently occupied by God, His departure reopens it. Hence the expression “the gap left by God.”

      You do provide another example of the phenomena I pointed to in the article. Atheist talk open-mindedness and tolerance in principle, but it all goes out the window when it comes to practice.

  2. A lot of energy is spent keeping the religious consistently religious, keeping children educated in religion so they are not corrupted, etc. Is this just an effort to keep people from joining other transcendental tribes, or is it really what they say it is: an attempt to prevent atheism?

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