Tuesday, November 06, 2007
There is a rather lengthy and thought-provoking article over at City Journal by Theodore Dalrymple, himself a nonbeliever, against the various "new atheists" who have gotten so much press lately for their writings against religion.
Although there are quite a few points I disagree with, the article touches on many other points I have made here off and on, including the nihilism and the condescending tone emanating from many of these critics of religion. Perhaps most interesting, though, is what Dalrymple also says about the benefits he regards as unique to religion:
The thinness of the new atheism is evident in its approach to our civilization, which until recently was religious to its core. To regret religion is, in fact, to regret our civilization and its monuments, its achievements, and its legacy. And in my own view, the absence of religious faith, provided that such faith is not murderously intolerant, can have a deleterious effect upon human character and personality. If you empty the world of purpose, make it one of brute fact alone, you empty it (for many people, at any rate) of reasons for gratitude, and a sense of gratitude is necessary for both happiness and decency. For what can soon, and all too easily, replace gratitude is a sense of entitlement. Without gratitude, it is hard to appreciate, or be satisfied with, what you have: and life will become an existential shopping spree that no product satisfies. [bold added]First of all, this paragraph is, come to think of it, quite representative of the whole essay, warts and all. Some interesting points that leap out are: The common conservative notion (to which I do not subscribe) that one should avoid ideological consistency (or "extremism"); the notion that purpose necessarily comes from something "greater" than man; and the common idea that decency and something Dalrymple calls "gratitude" must necessarily come from religion. (I read "gratitude" as something like a love of being alive and a taking of joy from existence -- given that Dalrymple is also a nonbeliever.)
Thus you have some very bad and some very good stuff here tied up into a huge knot, and for all Dalrymple's praise of the religious heritage of the West, it is within this knot that is the best of our religious heritage! (The fact that this is bound up in a knot is not a good thing!) But until we consider the ideas of another major atheist intellectual -- whom Dalrymple completely misses -- we are doomed to stare at this knot in confusion. And that is a shame for reasons I'll return to later. But back to Dalrymple....
As with so many others who have focused on the so-called "new atheists", Dalrymple misses one atheist, Ayn Rand, who takes a completely different tone with respect to the higher ideals that receive short shrift by modern intellectuals, and who also, unlike the moderns, understands that religion, for its fundamental flaws (e.g., its basis in faith), is in fact an attempt to satisfy some of man's needs. For example, in an interview with Playboy magazine in 1964, here is a how she answered a question about religion:
PLAYBOY: Has no religion, in your estimation, ever offered anything of constructive value to human life?And this is just one example of the thoughtful exploration of religion that Rand conducted over the course of her intellectual life. Here are just two others from the same page of The Ayn Rand Lexicon, which has just recently been published to the Internet:
RAND: Qua religion, no -- in the sense of blind belief, belief unsupported by, or contrary to, the facts of reality and the conclusions of reason. Faith, as such, is extremely detrimental to human life: it is the negation of reason. But you must remember that religion is an early form of philosophy, that the first attempts to explain the universe, to give a coherent frame of reference to man's life and a code of moral values, were made by religion, before men graduated or developed enough to have philosophy. And, as philosophies, some religions have very valuable moral points. They may have a good influence or proper principles to inculcate, but in a very contradictory context and, on a very -- how should I say it? -- dangerous or malevolent base: on the ground of faith.
Philosophy is the goal toward which religion was only a helplessly blind groping. The grandeur, the reverence, the exalted purity, the austere dedication to the pursuit of truth, which are commonly associated with religion, should properly belong to the field of philosophy. ("The Chickens' Homecoming," Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, 46)I will add, although it will seem repetitive to my regular readers, that Ayn Rand also extensively discusses the question of man's purpose in life. The answer, which she arrives at through reason, is both exalted and this-worldly, and it is within the grasp of any man.
Since religion is a primitive form of philosophy -- an attempt to offer a comprehensive view of reality -- many of its myths are distorted, dramatized allegories based on some element of truth, some actual, if profoundly elusive, aspect of man's existence. ("Philosophy and Sense of Life," The Romantic Manifesto, 25.)
And that is why it is a shame to leave Ayn Rand out of any discussion about atheism (or religion, for that matter). For Dalrymple, however imperfectly, is making some good points against the emptiness of modern philosophy here, but he never can quite break free of the faith-forged chains of ignorance, which are, by the way, one of the many negative aspects of the religious heritage of the West. He and others like him are doomed to consider reason, man's means of living a happy life on this earth, as impotent for that very task!
If I may use some of my own thinking as an example of how considering Ayn Rand's ideas can clarify the kinds of discussions the new atheists are causing, I will point to a few examples of my own writings on topics that Dalrymple considers or alludes to in his essay, for which I have found Ayn Rand's ideas particularly helpful: (1) how to politely discuss intellectual matters, (2) whether atheism is enough to formulate a worldview or an identity (It isn't.), and (3) how best to promote religious tolerance.
In the current cultural debate over religion, the new atheists err in throwing out the baby with the bathwater when they dismiss or show contempt for certain legitimate emotions and concepts that are traditionally associated with religion. But too often, when those who -- like Dalrymple -- realize this mistake reply, they make the same error he makes, which is to assume that there is no secular basis for the good things religion is an attempt to do. In doing so, such intellectuals permit our highest aspirations to remain hostage to those who would have us destroy our minds and our lives with blind faith.
PS: It occurs to me that the mixed legacy of religion lends surface credibility to the idea that one should not adopt an ideology consistently. The implicit idea most people seem to have is to accept the "good parts" of religion while ignoring the "bad parts", the various commands that would make it hard to live a pleasant or productive life (or worse). But this papers over the fact that faith and the constructive ideals a religion may have to offer are ultimately incompatible.
Today: (1) Added PS. (2) Minor edits.
11-8-07: Corrected URL for Ayn Rand Lexicon.