Thursday is melt your brain with theo-philosophical reasoning day

Good morning, Christopher Hitchens! I'd like to trade you my argument that a transcendent plenitude of being is the necessary predicate of universal contingency for your rat's ass. No? Not gonna do it?

It’s Thursday, and you know what that means: its time to read theist critiques of the philosophical logic behind contemporary atheism! You don’t remember us doing this every Thursday since the creation of this blog? Well, I do, and the onus is on you to prove that we haven’t. In the meantime, I’ll be running for the local school board. Nah—I’m just messing with you. You can’t prove a negative, unless you use an indirect proof to demonstrate that assuming the negative’s opposite results in a logical contradiction—like, for example, when you point out that an omniscient god could not also be omnipotent, since his certain knowledge of the future would delimit the field of his own actions. That’s one of the many appealing but ultimately bankrupt arguments* for atheism that Eastern Orthodox theologian David Hart mentions in his dense, insightful and enormously infuriating indictment of “the new atheism” in May’s issue of First Things, which I assume is on your coffee table right now. Hart, who is the author of a book called Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, (beach reading!) contends that the present cottage industry in books indicting religion is a poor, pale imitation of atheism’s great past. He writes like CS Lewis listening to a tape recording of his own voice, but he makes an interesting point. From the standpoint of rigorous logic, contemporary atheism has become sufficiently popular that it needs to start watching its ass.

There’s a lot to disagree with in Hart’s piece, beginning with his assertion that “this whole ‘New Atheism’ movement is only a passing fad—not the cultural watershed its purveyors imagine it to be, but simply one of those occasional and inexplicable marketing vogues that inevitably go the way of pet rocks, disco, prime-time soaps, and The Bridges of Madison County.” First of all, there are still a lot of soap operas on in prime time, and second of all, I don’t think the desire to discover foundational meanings in human existence without making ungrounded suppositions is comparable to “It’s Raining Men.” Atheism—unlike, say, doctrinaire adherence to the religious beliefs of one’s family and community—is generally not something one does because everybody else is into it.

Which is all the more reason to make sure it is a logically defensible position. If your fundamental thesis is that we should base our ontologies—and therefore our systems of meaning—on nothing for which we have no proof, you probably don’t want to rely on emotional appeal. This is the problem Hart rightly locates in the work of Christopher Hitchens, whose God Is Not Great is a terrific way to convince people that attacking religion is the moral-philosophical equivalent of wearing a fedora in high school. “As best I can tell,” Hart writes, Hitchens’ case against faith consists mostly in a series of anecdotal enthymemes—that is to say, syllogisms of which one premise has been suppressed. Unfortunately, in each case it turns out to be the major premise that is missing, so it is hard to guess what links the minor premise to the conclusion.” Like many of us who find ourselves pressed for time or faced with an interlocutor who is maybe not totally fluent in logical systems, Hitchens bases many of his arguments on the perceived abuses of religious history. He’s right when he says that, for example, the Vatican’s stance on birth control in South America has been responsible for enormous suffering. When he does so, however, he argues not so much against the existence of god as against the social value of religion.

The distinction to be made there is an important one, and Hart himself blurs it when he arrives at his concluding argument, which is that the new atheism does not promise a cogent system of meaning to replace the theological one it attacks. He poses as a counterexample of better atheism Friedrich Nietzsche, who delivered the news that “God is dead” with the full awareness of its implications for human meaning. Nietzsche predicted a radical revision of morality in the face of the certainty that man is the only arbiter of values in the universe—one comparable to the moral revolution that the emergence of Christianity wreaked on the Roman empire. “If we are, after all, nothing but the fortuitous effects of physical causes,” Hart writes, “then the will is bound to no rational measure but itself, and who can imagine what sort of world will spring up from so unprecedented and so vertiginously uncertain a vision of reality?”

By Hart’s own acknowledgement, however, the scenario Nietzsche describes is not a world without god but one without the belief in god—that is, a world without religion. No intellectually honest person can argue for one without the other, of course. Still, the logical arguments underpinning each differ radically, and Hart conflates them when he argues that the new atheism is logically broken because it offers no meaningful substitute for religion in our lives. One is allowed to say that there is no god without naming his replacement. Whether one would want to is another matter, and I personally agree with both Nietzsche and Hart that the death of god will require “some great feat of creative will.” The operative word, though, is “require,” and just as Hart employs the argument from infinite regress to demand a transcendent plenitude of being in the universe, I say first things first. Let him first prove we have a god before he argues that we cannot do without him.

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  1. One thing that always outrages me about arguments like Hart’s is the use of phrases like “unprecedented and so vertiginously uncertain a vision of reality?” to refer to the atheist world-view. David Hart, who has devoted his life to exploring the alleged mysteries of theology, can’t imagine a world without God. He therefore concludes that nobody can, in spite of the fact that millions of atheists around the world lead their lives without a care for the epistemological crisis that atheism supposedly entails. He has a lot in common with evangelical preachers who denounce atheism by saying that without belief in God, everybody would run amok in an orgy of violence.

  2. In “God is Not Great,” Hitchens ribbed Nietzsche for his histrionic declaration that God was dead. He equated Nietzsche with the shamans who claim to know the will of god — in other words: since god didn’t exist, there was no way for him to die. Silly Friedrich! (Since god didn’t exist, there was no need to impugn his greatness in the title of a book, but well). This is a blinkered refusal to acknowledge and engage the nexus of emotions and instincts that give rise to belief in supernatural authority. Sam Harris is the borderline autistic purveyor of the same tired hyper-rationalist argument. “You wouldn’t get your ethical code from the Easter Bunny, so … A = A, A = A, A = A …”

    I find Hitchens more persuasive because he makes the emotional argument. Look what horror these believers have wrought on the human intellect and human genitals, he says. The rational argument is done; it gets us nowhere. For non-believers, the rational argument must be repeated in new iterations with escalating force (arrest the Pope!). For believers, reason was never the prize — psychological cohesion was the prize. Any atheist whose deepest stake is the perpetual disproof of the existence of god (any atheist who uses Occam’s razor as a hammer instead of a cutting tool) thereby stifles their own “creative will.” Or, to offer another metaphor, Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett and Harris continue to make god the fulcrum of the debate when it should be the boulder they’re trying to dislodge.

    Nietzche and Freud (“god is dad”) knew that god, real or not, needed to be actively contended and they didn’t shy from that battle. Their sarcastic contemporaries now mock “god is dead” from the cowardly vantage of the hyper-rational. Hart is correct to say that the neo-atheists are unworthy successors to Friedrich and Sigmund. But it’s not an emotional appeal that undoes them — our emotional health is precisely what’s at stake here: how we deal with death, darkness, and sex. Ask yourself if Hitch et al have more in common with Nietzsche’s aggressive revaluation and Dionysian spirit … or with Ayn Rand’s soulless fealty to the logos.

  3. Great column and fantastic comments. Karl already mentioned everything I wanted to add, and expressed it much better than I would have.

  4. The problem with saying that Hitchens et al. are a poor successor to Freud or Nietzsche is that they aren’t even trying to be successors to them, and when you criticize them on that basis, you’re falling for the bait-and-switch.

    God has been debunked in every meaningful way, to the point that the actual successors to Nietzsche and Freud /don’t even bother/ to talk about it. Atheism is almost de rigeur for serious intellectuals and especially for scientists. The game has been played and the thinkers have moved on. Even the rare intellectuals who do believe, often theologists like Hart, speak about God in the vaguest and most abstruse terms, not as a being but as a generalized principle of existence.

    The problem is that in society (at least American society) at large, religious belief remains strong and atheism is commonly despised. Hitchens et al. are not philosophers. They’re not even evangelists of atheism, though they’re sometimes accused of that. Rather, New Atheist books are for other atheists, agnostics, and people who are questioning their religious faith, to give them the confidence to assert themselves (Hitchens in particular boosts atheist’s confidence by encouraging contempt for religion as “the other side”).

    In theory the act of being an atheist, confidently and publicly, will encourage others to come forward, people questioning their faith to consider atheism, and finally erase the stigma by demonstrating that there are many atheists and they are normal, upstanding people. This is the New Atheist’s objective, so it makes more sense to assess them according to those terms than to compare them unfavorably with somebody who did something else.

  5. But they need to offer more than demonstration. Or rather, if that and solidarity with other like-minded fellows is all the New Atheists have to offer, then they should forfeit the inhuman indifference they feel for believers. Harris believes he has transcended the psyche and he is at pains to reiterate this fiction at every turn. Dawkins can’t understand why banning J.K. Rowling from his child’s book shelf is just as censorious and cruel as the religious fanatics who wish to ban the same for different reasons. Dennett would like to remind us that nature is smarter than we are, but he cannot explain why this omnipresent super-intelligent force is not the same thing as god. And Hitchens, the best of the lot, has chosen to focus on a firm-handed account of religion’s bad behavior. As well he should.

    I’m not asking them to be anything else when I compare them to Nietzsche. I’m not asking them to be philosophers. At most I’m asking them to be psychologists, or to at least contend with the problem of religion on terms that aren’t so narrow and closed. And when a New Atheist like Christopher Hitchens mis-reads Nietzsche in an attempt to outdo him … well, then he’s the one who brought that lovably combative psych-warrior into the discussion, not me.

    So no, religion has not been “debunked in every meaningful way.” And even sympathetic agnostics and borderline believers will continue to marvel at their own inability to surrender what they know to be false so long as the battle is a battle to debunk and not actively challenge. Such a battle does not have to end with a surrogate religion (like Harris’s new-found affection for new age meditation), but it will ask us to revaluate our relationships to existence, death, sex, family, society, and others. I hope the New Atheists continue to demonstrate that a meaningful, spontaneous life can be lived. But what stingy spirits they are! Solidarity is not hard to come by, regardless of your belief system. Transformation is what we need — not another fad.

  6. “Such a battle does not have to end with a surrogate religion (like Harris’s new-found affection for new age meditation), but it will ask us to revaluate our relationships to existence, death, sex, family, society, and others.”

    Religion plays a mediating role in people’s relationships with these things, but it does so by encouraging people to plot their course based on false and misleading information. Hitchens’s ouevre is aimed at proving that the ostensible social contribution of religion and religious faith is actually completely overbalanced by its negative effects.

    New Atheists typically don’t engage in the kind of epistemological hand-holding that typifies movements of mysticism and religion because the basis of atheism is individual skepticism and free thought. People come to their understanding and develop their own philosophy for moving forward. Now, Dawkins in particular has noted that the individual emphasis of atheism thus far has proven a weakness in competition with religious organizations, since centers of worship are conflated with their social functions. Atheists don’t do nearly as many potlucks and fellowship dinners as churched people.

    “Dennett would like to remind us that nature is smarter than we are, but he cannot explain why this omnipresent super-intelligent force is not the same thing as god.”

    This is easy. The notion of god must either refer to something specific or it is meaningless. “God is nature” is a tautological, empty statement whose mysticism fails to obscure the fact that everything that occurs in nature is more-or-less explicable according to scientific observation. Dennett’s observation that nature is smart is just a use of colloquial English which implies no intent on the part of nature. Nature simply is. Compare to the statement “Water seeks its own level.”

    “But what stingy spirits they are!”

    Skeptics often face complaints of this kind.

  7. “The notion of god must either refer to something specific or it is meaningless.”

    I’m tempted to ask what “reason” or “free thought” refers to in your reading history and philosophy — because it’s nothing so specific, either. There is no transcendent, ahistorical principle for Reason or freedom. Those who appeal to one as a rebuke or replacement for Religion will have an easy target in faith-healers and alchemists, but will remain smugly horrified by the preponderance of religious behavior (recall, it is the non-fundamentalist “moderates,” with their irrational desires for potluck and community, which receive the brunt of Dawkins and Harris’s scorn).

    Dennet’s point is that nature is always one step ahead of us, that we are subject to and submissive before nature. A skeptic would have to admit as much, since each “more or less explicable” phenomenon only ever gives rise to new questions and mysteries. You say that the similarities between god and nature amount to an empty mysticism … but I can’t think of an emptier statement than your following one: that “everything” is “more or less” explicable.

    Dennet’s choice of words was not colloquial flair and my pointing it out is not an advocacy for religion or god. It certainly isn’t an attempt at proof. Of course, if someone defines god by its omniscience, by its superiority to us, then they needn’t look further than nature to find their proof. But this is a different debate altogether. Assuming you read David Hart’s essay and any or all of Nietzsche, you can appreciate the distinction between “epistemological hand-holding” and the kind of aggressive self-inquiry undertaken by Nietzsche and refused by the neo-atheists.

    W/r/t “epistemological hand-holding,” I think you’ve got it backwards here, too. I don’t know what religion or god you’re talking about, but I don’t see a lot of worship centered around epistemological validation. I do see a TON of such hand-holding coming from the neo-atheists, however. Most debates with atheists round back to some epistemological slipknot to evade the larger issue. A worthwhile discussion about authority in ethics is short-circuited becuase the atheist flips over the chessboard saying “this isn’t a real knight!” Sam Harris is a master at this.

    Imagine two people arguing about the meaning of “Hamlet.” One person thinks Hamlet is a Catholic demi-god, the other thinks Hamlet is Renaissance Man, etc. One person thinks Hamlet suffers from thinking too much, the other thinks Hamlet is the most purposive character in western literature, etc. Then a third person barges in and says, “Brothers! Why are you fighting? I am here to tell you that Hamlet never existed! Turns out he was invented by some peasant actor four hundred years ago!”

    We must contend with the story even if it’s made up. It has a hold on us apart from its epistemological veracity. Religion, like art, does not get its power by any appeal to truth (the “false and misleading information” you cite earlier), it gets its power because we are the willing and/or unconscious co-creators of it. We pour our desires and projections into it. We cannot free ourselves from the spectre of Hamlet’s insoluable, ever-expanding character by reminding ourselves that he was invented by someone. And we cannot free the faithbound by saying their god is just the Easter Bunny by a different name.

    You may say that was never the objective of neo-atheism, that the faithful should either admit their rounding error and change or perish of their own bloody nonsense. That is not just spiritual stinginess — it’s a psychotic break from the messy demands of life. Why were the books written in the first place, if not to convince believers or reassure non-believers? All I’ve ever said is that the neo-atheists do a crap job of it and there are better books to consult. I think that’s all David Hart was saying, too.

    There is no static “being” to nature — I’m rather shocked a skeptic would say that. Nature is that which is animate, contingent, willed, unfolding, contentious, explosive, etc. Even the stillness in nature is just the momentary fulfilment of an active desire for stillness. To say that “nature simply is” is a refusal, again, to engage the drama of consciousness and existence. It is an attempt to flee everything outside the airtight closed operation of abstract thought, whether skeptical or stoical. Much as Ayn Rand draws the boundaries of her infinite kingdom of Objects by saying “existence exists.” “Nature is natural”? Who’s being tautological now? The person who must reiterate that something is something, or the person who imbues that something with meaning?

    I started this mess by saying that Neitzsche and Freud had more to offer us than Hitch, Harris, Dawkins, Dennet. At the end, I can only defer to them:

    “Oh, what does science not conceal today! How much, at any rate, is it meant to conceal! The proficiency of our finest scholars, their heedless craftsmanship — how often the real meaning of all this lies in the desire to keep something hidden from oneself! Science as a means of self-narcosis: do you have experience of that?

    Whoever associates with scholars knows that one occasionally wounds them to the marrow with some harmless word; one incenses one’s scholarly friends just when one means to honor them, one can drive them beside themselves merely because one has been too coarse to realize with whom one was really dealing — with sufferers who refuse to admit to themselves what they are, with drugged and heedless men who fear only one thing: regaining consciousness.”

    “Who could hold it against the agnostics if, as votaries of the unknown and mysterious as such, they now worship the question mark itself as God?”

    (Geneology of Morals, Third Essay, Sections 23 and 25)

  8. What the fuck is the matter with all you assholes. There is not fucking gog . Get over it!

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