Whiffing on "New Atheists"

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

With the recent slew of anti-religious books by the likes of Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett, it should come as no surprise that some editorialists would begin to ask whether such "New Atheists" (and other secularists) could operate in the political arena in the same way religionists do.

I ran across two such articles yesterday, both by authors who are secularists -- and both of which show exactly why there will be no such coherent movement any time in the near future.

The first article, by Karl Reitz at TCS Daily, is barely coherent, sloppily confusing epistemology with content at one point: "I am atheist because I don't believe in faith, which I believe is the common dogma...." Worse, the whole crux of the Reitz article is based on an incorrect equivocation between secularism and secular religion, culminating in his position that atheists should promote traditional religion on the basis of the fact that it doesn't offer paradise in the here and now!

As an atheist I feel much less threatened by someone who is willing to put off perfection by relegating it to another place than I do by someone who thinks they can create it here and now. In other words, I think that the chance that a religion will "poison everything" is indirectly proportional to the length of time the proponents of the religion think it will take to perfect this world. Therefore, nothing scares me more than the demagogue who promises to immediately do just that. Without traditional religion, I think we would have a lot of demagogues in this mold.
As if the world isn't plagued already by members of traditional religions who act dangerously and demand obedience in "this" life anyway!

As misguided as he is, Reitz does indirectly bring up a pair of related points. Why are there so many secular religions and might there be an alternative to religion as a way to form an integrated view of existence as a means of guiding one's own actions? Yes, his focus is on being free to live his own life and he rightly sees various religionists who want to "immanetize the eschaton" as a threat to that freedom, but he does not go far enough. Mired in his paranoia about secular religion, Reitz fails to ask why anyone is concerned with an eschaton at all, or whether there has ever been a thinker who focused on living one's life on earth as an end in itself and what such an approach might entail.

But at least Reitz expresses some reservation about the various secular religions. The second article, by Ronald Aronson at The Nation, is very interesting reading at first, but it quickly becomes apparent that Aronson is playing the same old game leftists always play: subvert a political cause (separation of church and state) to the goal of obliterating capitalism.

After noting that there may be sufficient numbers of Americans fed up with attempts to mix religion with politics, Aronson makes the valid point that absence of a belief is no basis for a political movement -- before simply asserting ex nihilo his own pet cause as a substitute:
Where does the work of the New Atheists leave us? I hope they have roused a significant portion of America from its timidity. But to what end? Living without God means turning toward something. To flourish we need coherent secular popular philosophies that effectively answer life's vital questions. Enlightenment optimism once supplied unbelievers with hope for a better world, whether this was based on Marxism, science, education or democracy. After Progress, after Marxism, is it any wonder atheism fell on hard times? Restoring secular confidence will take much positive work as well as the fierce attacks on religion by our atheist champions. On a societal level, as Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris point out in Sacred and Secular, living without God requires creating conditions in which people are free from the kinds of existential vulnerability that have marked all human societies until the advent of Europe's postindustrial welfare states. Markedly more religious than any of them, the United States provides a life that is far more unequal and far more insecure. [bold added]
Never mind that the United States is the most prosperous and technologically advanced society in the history of the planet -- or why. And don't bother asking for a this-worldly basis for Aronson's demand that we abandon the remnants of capitalism in America.

No. The question isn't "How can we 'live without God'?" It's "How can we expect to live lives proper to man with God (i.e., based on faith)?" Living period requires that man be free to apply the faculty of reason to the problem of surviving in reality and that he chooses to do so. The problem isn't that man can't "live without God" until the almighty state delivers him into an Eden-like Worker's Paradise. It's that belief in God requires man to turn off his mind, his tool of survival, at least part of the time.

Worse, those who make this mistake attempt to use government force to cause the rest of us suffer from the same consequences (via the mechanism of religiously-inspired laws) as if we did this ourselves. Forcing people to act against their rational judgement -- moral or economic -- is the greatest harm big government of any kind can do. Big government makes people unable to exercise their minds fully, and Aronson wants ... big government!?!?

Both articles admit on some level that atheism is not the basis for a philosophical or political movement, and they are right to that extent. Atheism is merely the absence of belief in God. Reitz, incorrectly holding that any integrated system of thought is necessarily a religion, folds like a cheap lawn chair in the face of the false alternative between religion and socialism -- between "pie in the sky" and empty pie shelves. And Aronson just dives to the left, making him look like he's correct.

But if atheism, simple non-belief in God, is no basis for living on earth, what is? What is the proper organization for society? What is the ethical way to lead one's life? Does one's life have a purpose or is it an end in itself? For that matter, what is man, anyway? Until those who profess to uphold reason can adequately answer such questions (Hint: Go in reverse order.), the cause of secularism will remain at the mercy of the false alternative between those who claim that we cannot have a fully secular government (like Reitz) and those who would give us religious tyranny -- minus only the old gods (like Aronson).

Only one secular philosopher I know of, Ayn Rand, has addressed the many issues raised here, and she is conspicuously absent from both discussions. Only Ayn Rand has explained exactly what is wrong with faith, while also explaining that religion is an attempt to fulfill various moral and psychological needs -- and showing that we can discover how fill these needs through reason. Only Ayn Rand ever bothered to ask what man is and why he needs a morality at all -- and in the process discovered a rational (and practical) ethical system. Only Ayn Rand examined the relationship between reason and freedom -- and discovered the full meaning and importance of the nearly universally misunderstood term, "capitalism".

If secularists really want to get anywhere in the marketplace of ideas, they will have to start paying some attention to Ayn Rand. It is not enough to call people morons for taking the answers to important questions on faith. One must show people, as Ayn Rand did, why faith is dangerous to one's own life. One will not win the moral high ground by slogging through the swamp of moral relativism or by waving a white flag. One must show that the morality of altruism is both immoral and impractical. One will not achieve freedom for the mind by instituting slavery for the body. One must understand that freedom is indivisible -- like the human beings who need it to survive.

The New Atheists are making an Old Mistake: They are opposing something horribly wrong, but offering nothing in its place.

-- CAV


: Minor edits.

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