Thanks to Jerry Coyne for the reference to the YouTube priest, Fr. Robert Barron. You can watch the whole of his “take-down” of the New Atheists here. It’s the old odd complaint. The New Atheists aren’t serious enough. We should be, as Jerry says, lugubrious, ready to blow ourselves away because life is so meaningless. After all, says the YouTube priest:
This is really a cock-and-bull story! We do have a longing for truth, justice, peace, love, meaning, purpose, etc. etc. — no doubt about that. But this is not pace Barron, a thirst for a god or a god like being. Certainly, Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, Friedrich Nietzsche, and others, used to feel a tension between their atheism and their search for meaning. Of course they did. Going without god is a relatively new thing, and belief in a god or gods is so deeply interwoven with the texture of a culture that it is hard to distinguish the one from the other. So, of course there was a tension, a serious concern about whether it was possible to retain the value of things while letting go of god or gods, in which value had been vested for so long.
As a consequence, the first people who began to take atheism, complete non-belief in god or gods, with deadly earnestness, not only felt the tension, but expressed it in their lives and in their writing. Seriousness was a problem. How could you be serious without god? That used to be a deeply felt problem, since seriousness itself was somehow all wrapped up in religious vestments. That’s why Robert Barron can come out with the nonsense represented by the short video clip above. And it is a nonsense, almost as nonsensical as it’s possible to be, a bit like the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland. That’s also why he misrepresents one of the most sceptical of the Jewish scriptures. He calls it “Qoheleth,” which is usually translated by the English word ‘preacher’ – though it is more familiar to most English speakers as the book of Ecclesiastes. For the writer of this piece of Wisdom literature, as it is commonly called, amongst which are usually included the Song of Songs, Proverbs, Job, and the Psalms (as well as the book of Sirach in what Protestants call the Apocrypha, since the Protestant Old Testament included only the books recognised in the Jewish canon of scripture, the Tanach) — life is ephemeral, and so are all the joys and accomplishments of life. The end of all, wise or foolish, is the same, namely, death. There is simply no sense, in the book of Ecclesiastes, that the writer recommends trusting in the Lord. Indeed, it is clear that he cannot ascribe eternal meaning to life at all. It all ends in death, regardless of the effort put into living life well. Of course, this is what he recommends, but part of wisdom is to live life as fully as it is given us to live. But, he says, there is a season for everything, for marriage, for peace, for war, for planting, for harvesting, for destroying things, for building things up. In the end, the only significance lies in the things themselves, and what meaning we can give to them. Barron’s claim that the preacher is a firm believer is nonsense. There is no sign that, for Qoheleth, there is any transcendent meaning to life. Life is what it is, and it comes as it comes, and we must live within the moment, and for the moment, because, in the end, as Wordsworth says in his poem on the French revolution, this is the only life we have, and the only place we will find our happiness, or not at all.
Indeed, Qoheleth was very much like the a New Atheist. He knew that this is the only life, and though, in the end, it would all come to nothing, while living it there are many opportunities for finding meaning and purpose. The important thing is to recognise how temporary and fleeting life is, so that we can make the most of the seasons of life as they come. Barron is a bit like Dylan Thomas, who, in his poem to his father, wanted to be blessed by his father’s fierce tears: “Curse, bless me now, with your fierce tears, I pray.” He wanted his father to tell him, I think, that life is important, that it has a value beyond its seeming. By striving against the dying of the light, his father would be showing him how valuable, how precious life is. But for the dying, life very quickly loses its value, and it is hard to see, at that point, that there really had been a point to all the “Sturm und Drang” of life. Indeed, at that point, for many people, faith itself is not important, and they wonder why they have spent so much time at it, when it is as hollow as life quickly comes to seem to have been.
The people that Barron wants the New Atheists to emulate are the existentialists, like Nietzsche, Sartre and Camus. Camus expressed his sense of the seriousness of the existentialist decision in face of the meaninglessness of life, by asking the question (and suggesting that it is the only philosophical question) whether to commit suicide or not. This says Barron and Haught and Bentley Hart, and so many others, is what serious atheism is like. Roger Scruton gave the Gifford Lectures at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland, in 2010. The book that resulted is entitled The Face of God, and in it, he explores the question, as he puts it, of “what we lose, when we lose that belief,” namely, the belief in God. (1) Serious atheism, according to people like the YouTube priest, is like that. It takes the loss of god seriously, not only seeing it as a loss, but recognising it as in some sense a life transforming loss, as if we cannot live fully without either belief in a god or gods, or the recognition of the immensity of the loss that we endure if we do not believe in a god or gods. Putting it in terms of “a god or gods” has a tendency to short-circuit the problem, because most of those who think that we should take the loss seriously are those who cannot themselves imagine what it would be like to live without God (with a capital ‘g’). They think not believing would turn their lives upside down, and when people put placards on buses saying that there is probably no god, and that people should enjoy life, they think, with Barron and Hart and Eagleton and Ruse et hoc genus omne, that the New Atheist must be a shallow fool, not to recognise that they have, to use Nietzsche’s words, “swallowed up the sea.”
Of course, if you read someone like Richard Holloway, you’ll recognise that some people will feel a sense of loss, and sense of being hollowed out, from the inside, by the loss of faith. In his wonderful book about religion, Wings of Illusion, John Schumacher points out that, to a certain degree, religion is like a hypnotic drug, and that, without its aid, many people would not be able to face the fact that they will die, and be no more. And if faith has somehow defined life for you in this way, and touched everything you value, then doubtless there will be a sense of loss, and, for some people, a crippling sense of loss, so severe, sometimes, as to lead to despair. So, when people like Barron or Bentley Hart criticise the New Atheism for being unserious, they have in mind people like this. The loss of god is not so great for those who have never had very much invested in religious belief, nor should it have. It’s a way of saying that you can’t take life seriously without thinking about god. And that’s nonsense. This, of course, does not mean that it’s wrong to be serious about religious belief in this way, or to see your life, as an unbeliever, as somehow defined by rebellion against religious belief, as people like Nietzsche and Sartre and Camus, to a certain extent, certainly did. There were good cultural reasons for this residual emphasis on religious belief, and for seeing one’s life as an unbeliever as in some sense defined as a response to, and a determination to shape a meaningful life within the confines of the only life we will ever know. We can even feel a bit sorry for religious folk who put so much into religious belief, and sacrifice so much on its account, believing, as we do, that religious belief is a grand deception.
So this kind of seriousness is not a necessary feature of disbelief, though it is an aspect of disbelief for many of those who have, after years of belief, found themselves no longer able to believe. And they may, like Richard Holloway, feel not only a sense of loss, but also a sense that there are dimensions of religious belief that are not only still meaningful, but can contribute to the living of a meaningful life without belief in god. I think we need to acknowledge that there are as many ways of being unbelievers as there are ways of being believers, and allow that some people will find the dismissiveness of some atheists troubling and perhaps even unserious. But this is something that the New Atheism can take in its stride, for the whole point of the New Atheism is to steal the thunder of the religions, so that they cannot lord it over people in ways that they had become so accustomed to doing. New Atheism is not a belief system. It is an acknowledgement that, while some people still seem to need religion as a support for their own lives, they simply have no right to intrude their beliefs into the public space; and it is also a claim that those who now believe will find much more in life to celebrate if they can only give up their hopeless beliefs in non-existent beings who are thought to watch over us. It is an appeal to people to recognise their humanity, and, in recognising it, to leave divinity behind. We are created from animals, and, like animals, we only live for a time.
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away
Coleridge Shelley – thank you for the correction TPP — of course, was referring to Ozymandias, King of Kings. But that is all that remains of god as well — a colossal wreck. Even many of those who believe now, will come to see that in the end.