Monday, April 7, 2008

Atheism: A Positive Case

From Mark Vernon:

Question: 'Can a positive case be made for atheism?'.

The quick answer to the question is, fairly obviously I would have thought, yes. A positive case for atheism will inevitably have some holes in it, some weak points, just like a positive case for belief in God. But I am sure that many atheists here imagine that being an atheist is a positive thing, most of the time.

So I’d like to raise a slightly different challenge – not so much making a positive case for atheism, which would primarily be an intellectual exercise. But rather asking about the existential task of actually being an atheist – atheism as a way of life, as it were.

It is an interesting question because when you look at the writings of atheism’s greatest philosophers, I think they suggest that being an atheist, as opposed to just arguing about it, is actually tough.

Take Sartre. His existentialism is based upon what he takes to be the bottom line for we humans, that we exist, period. He argued that this leads to a kind of terror, since there can be no reason given for this existence. It’s thrown at us. We’ve got to make of it what we will. ‘It confronts man with a possibility of choice,’ he wrote. Hence words like ‘abandonment’, ‘despair’ and ‘condemnation’ litter his writings.

Sartre is taking a lead from Kierkegaard here. Kierkegaard thought that it was well-nigh impossible, not to be an atheist, but to be a Christian. Faith is too difficult to really make your own, quite as difficult as a father being told to kill his son, as he interpreted the story of Abraham and Isaac. So Kierkegaard said he was becoming a Christian. Sartre too seems to suggest that it is very difficult to be an atheist. Becoming an atheist is what he might hope for.

Further, there is a sense from this in which making an intellectual case for your atheism, as opposed to trying to be an atheist, is actually a distraction. It is a distraction from the existential angst of not believing in God. That is the real matter to get to grips with. Hence Sartre also writes:

Existentialism is not atheist in the sense that it would exhaust itself in demonstrations of the non-existence of God. It declares, rather, that even if God existed that would make no difference from its point of view. Not that we believe God does exist, but we think that the real problem is not that of His existence; what man needs is to find himself again and to understand that nothing can save him from himself, not even a valid proof of the existence of God.

So, I suspect that Sartre would say that the evangelical atheists of today risk abrogating their responsibility. They are a bit like the bishops and philosophers that Kierkegaard so loathed. They are so busy defending their intellectual edifices and self-justifications that they fail to address the real issue which is the great challenge of being an atheist, being a Christian.

Another great atheist was also very conscious of this. That was Nietzsche. You’ll remember how he ‘announces’ the death of God in The Gay Science. He does not do so by refuting the arguments for the existence of God, or celebrating the successes of Darwinism, say. Rather, he tells the story of a madman who one day went to the marketplace. His fellow human beings were going about their everyday, secular activities. And the madman cried out: ‘I seek God! I seek God!’. They laughed and mocked – asking whether God had got lost, or whether God was hiding, or if God is afraid of us? But then the madman turned on his tormenters. ‘I will tell you,’ he cried. ‘We have killed him – you and I.’

Nietzsche’s point is not to plead God’s cause. Rather it is indicate the ramifications of God’s departure from the modern world. The madman continues – for he is not really mad but a prophet, in the sense of someone who sees things clearly:

How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us?

It may have been inevitable that God died. It may have been desirable. Presumably Nietzsche thought so. However, this did not blind him to the great problems it would throw up for humankind. Problems of how to ground morality, how to locate a sense of meaning, how to orientate ourselves through our lives. How to be an atheist.

Thus, I think, Nietzsche too would have been critical of much of what passes for atheism these days. He might have thought it rather glib – as if all that is required is to breath deeply of enlightenment air and watch as the sun dispels the clouds. The atheistic call, as Nietzsche sees it, is far more tremendous.

I think that Nietzsche can be read as rehearsing the warning of Kant, from his famous essay What is Enlightenment? Enlightenment is tough. It does not come easily because it requires profound change, penetrating discernment, and time. Moreover, it is precisely when great intellectual revolutions are proclaimed prematurely that they nurture personal delusions and go wrong. Instead of enlightenment what you get is a new kind of immaturity.

Later in The Gay Science, Nietzsche offers his own estimation of how long enlightenment might take. Centuries. And in the meantime, human beings will be constantly tempted to fall back on old superstitions and strange faiths, often without realising it. Chief amongst these will be that they are enlightened already.

This flags up another reason that the comparison between becoming a theist and becoming an atheist might be illuminating. Surprising as it may seem, I think the tasks are really quite similar. Both are efforts in ditching false gods – be they metaphysical imaginings in the sky or false hopes here on earth. For example, the great medieval preacher, Meister Eckhart, once spoke these words:

If thou lovest God as God, as spirit, as Person or as image, that must all go. Love him as he is: a not-God, a non-spirit, a not-Person, a not-image; as sheer, pure, limpid unity, alien from all duality. And in this one let us sink down eternally from nothingness to nothingness.

It sounds like being an atheist, and as difficult. And if Sartre and Nietzsche would have not thought much of what passes for atheism today, then I suspect that Eckhart and Kierkegaard would not think much of what passes for Christianity either. Kierkegaard had a good line. He said that faith can turn water into wine, whereas the faith of contemporary Christians turns wine into water.

If you buy this, you might then ask what the difference is between being an atheist and being a theist. Less, I suspect, than you might think. But there is one thing that stands out. The atheist, I would imagine, presumes that their existence, and the existence of the universe, is pure luck, ‘just there’ as the atheistically-inclined Bertrand Russell put it. The theist, though, thinks that the world is created – created out of nothing, ex nihilo, for sure, because it is a mystery. But because it is created by God, it is therefore not ‘just there’, but is a gift. And so the theist can be thankful to their God, for all that they might fail to live up to their theistic calling. In this sense, then, I think it might actually be harder to be an atheist than to be a theist, to make a positive case for their atheism. For at least the theist has grounds to be existentially thankful.

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