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Denying Absurdity

The world of the living contains enough marvels and mysteries as it is—marvels and mysteries acting upon our emotions and intelligence in ways so inexplicable that it would almost justify the conception of life as an enchanted state. No, I am too firm in my consciousness of the marvelous to be ever fascinated by the mere supernatural, which (take it any way you like) is but a manufactured article, the fabrication of minds insensitive to the intimate delicacies of our relation to the dead and to the living, in their countless multitudes; a desecration of our tenderest memories; an outrage on our dignity.

–Joseph Conrad

The great assumption that what has taken place in the world has done so in conformity with reason is nothing else than trust in Providence, only in another form.


2007 was the year atheists in America came out of the closet. And indeed, a glance at the state of our world suggests this was a predictable response. We find ourselves in this young century in a climate of violence and confrontation which is undeniably inflamed by pious religious certainty. Over the past 25 to 30 years, people the world over have turned to fundamentalist religious ideologies which portray the modern, democratic, secular world as little more than a decadent realm of temptation and infuriatingly uppity women. This fundamentalist fervor has produced two equally frightening social phenomena. The first: a multitude of hoodwinked and angry young men desperate for a promised martyrdom. And, the second: a man in the White House who is so convinced that everything he does has divine sanction that his administration has actually used the term “reality-based” as a disparagement.

Given this recent history, many have begun to wonder if religious claims are more than just untrue in a strictly rational or empirical sense: they wonder if religious belief actively obscures our moral sensibilities. Might prioritizing the “mere supernatural” over the marvelous and visible “world of the living” be indeed an outrage on our human dignity? For many years, only marginalized, “militant” atheists have asked such questions. Liberal, secular humanists have been hesitant to confront religion head-on, instead attributing its negative effects to a fringe of extremists who distort religion’s true message. But an increasingly conspicuous group of writers ask if the problem with religion might be not in its disfigurement, or estrangement from its “core”, but rather in its essence.

They have been called the New Atheists, all of whom have published best-sellers in the past year: Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, and Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation, which is basically an appendix to his 2005 book The End of Faith, and most recently Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great. Though none of them have used the term “New Atheist” to describe themselves (as far as I know, the term was coined by Wired Magazine), they are nevertheless thematically similar enough to constitute an emerging genre. All these writers have conceived themselves as Jeremiahs, sounding alarms about the dangers of a world in which imperialistic religious dogmatism is in full renaissance. They issue a call to arms for skeptics of all stripes to stop tip-toeing around the delicate sensibilities of the “saved,” renounce their polite respect of religious nonsense and dare to call a spade a spade: all religions are puffed-up tribalistic myths and collective delusions which are increasingly threatening the survival of modern civilization. In The End of Faith, Sam Harris writes,

Intolerance is basic to every [religious] creed. Once a person believes—really believes—that certain ideas can lead to eternal happiness, or to its antithesis, he cannot tolerate the possibility that the people he loves might be led astray by the blandishments of unbelievers. Certainty about the next life is simply incompatible with tolerance in this one…. We must finally recognize the price we are paying to maintain the iconography of our ignorance…. The men who committed the atrocities of September 11th were certainly not “cowards” as they were repeatedly described in the Western media, nor were they lunatics in any ordinary sense. They were men of faith—perfect faith, as it turns out—and this, it must finally be acknowledged, is a terrible thing to be.

As an oft-besieged apostate myself, I will admit that I find the polemics of these fellow heretics heartening, as though I were watching something as unlikely as the United States beating Brazil in the World Cup. Books about atheism are bestsellers in America, “God’s own country” (as Freud called it)? Anyone with the slightest sense of favor for the underdog can not help but cheer.

Though they rarely acknowledge it, the New Atheists fit squarely within the post-Darwinian Anglo-American skeptical tradition. With the possible exception of Daniel Dennett’s, many of their arguments are updated formulations of the writings of Robert Ingersoll, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, W.E.B. Du Bois, Thomas Huxley, Emma Goldman, and Bertrand Russell. This is no condemnation, for this old iconoclastic spirit has never been more urgently needed. Hitchens, in particular, tries to be explicit about his debts:

Doubt, skepticism and outright unbelief have always taken the same essential form as they do today. There were always observations on the natural order which took notice of the absence or needlessness of a prime mover. There were always shrewd comments on the way in which religion reflected human wishes or human designs. It was never that difficult to see that religion was a cause of hatred and conflict, and that its maintenance depended upon ignorance and superstition. Satirists and poets, as well as philosophers and men of science, were capable of pointing out that if triangles had gods their gods would have three sides, just as Thracian gods had blond hair and blue eyes.

The New Atheists are heirs to a proud lineage (two recent works which delve into this pedigree in rewarding detail are Jennifer Michael Hecht’s Doubt: A History, and Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism). Yet, there is another tradition which is largely ignored by them, in which the sunny, unperturbed clarity of rational unbelief is obscured by the deep, murky waters of a different kind of questioning.

The great Continental existentialist tradition running from Kierkegaard through Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, and Camus approaches the absence of God in a manner radically removed from their Anglo-American counterparts. For the existentialists, the consequences of living in a world without providential design are of epic proportions. They see the challenges of life without God as demanding a creative struggle which is minimized by the Anglo-American skeptics and their New Atheist descendents. The unparalleled drama of Dostoyevsky’s novels, for example, is driven largely by the terrifying specter of life without God. Ivan, in The Brothers Karamazov, is the most compelling atheist character in the history of literature. Yet it is an atheism infused with a subtle ambiguity and irony which are very foreign to the exclamatory style of the New Atheists.  

The other existentialists likewise portray the evolution beyond God as a deeply troubling affair. Nietzsche, for his part, argued that life without the idea of God is actually other-than human, or super-human. He portrays religion as so historically intertwined with human life and thought that to move beyond it is also to re-imagine what it means to be human in the first place and requires a super-human effort. Kierkegaard characterizes the angst of doubt as a “sickness unto death”. And Camus claimed that after the Death of God “suicide is the only serious philosophical problem.” Compared to all this, the cozy, airtight arguments of the New Atheists are like childish bedtime stories.

The great weakness of the New Atheists is not so much what they say, but in what they fail to say. Writing about belief in God and the modern world without extensive engagement with the existentialist arguments is like trying to build a rocket without bothering to study chemistry, or claiming to be a master of the electric guitar without ever having listened to Jimi Hendrix. Marilynn Robinson, in a review of Dawkins’ The God Delusion writes, “Dawkins admits no difficulty. He has a simple-as-that, plain-as-day approach to the grandest questions, unencumbered by doubt.” The same could be said of all the New Atheists.

To judge by the absences in their works, the New Atheists believe that the only people who are skeptical of the omnipotence of Cartesian rationality are the hopelessly pious. They do not acknowledge those who draw attention to the limitations of science and rationality from other angles: Not just the existentialists, but also the Sentimental and Romantic poets, the American Transcendentalists, the Surrealists, Dadaists, and all the Modernist novelists, just to name a few. Underlying the New Atheist arguments is a rather quaint, untroubled vision of science as a Great Emancipator which will establish a peaceable reign of reason, if only people would let go of their medieval beliefs. They are perfect examplars of what Nietzsche, perhaps the most complete atheist in history, called “complacent rationality”.

At the heart of this complacent rationality is an unquestioning faith in the ultimate intelligibility of the world. It is a style of thought that takes for granted that the world acts, as Hegel said, “in conformity with reason.” It is a denial of absurdity. According to Camus in his philosophical masterpiece The Myth of Sisyphus, the defining characteristic of existentialism is a willingness to face the absurd aspect that life takes on when the notion of God is removed as an explanatory crutch. The concept of “absurdity” as it is used by the existentialists will take some unpacking, for it is central to their entire vision. Camus writes:

Perceive that the world is “dense”, and sense to what degree a stone is foreign and irreducible to us, with what intensity nature or a landscape can negate us. At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman, and these hills, the softness of the sky, the outline of the these trees at this very minute lose the illusory meaning with which we had clothed them. . .the primitive hostility of the world rises up to face us across millennia. For a second we cease to understand it because for centuries we have understood in it solely the images and designs that we had attributed to it beforehand, because henceforth we lack the power to make use of that artifice. The world evades us and becomes itself again…. That denseness and strangeness of the world is the absurd.

There is a vast chasm between seeing the world as a product of omnipotent will, where every event, no matter how mundane or tragic, is infused with divine intention, and seeing the world as a material play of accident and contingency, where no immediate meaning presents itself and all consolations are provisional. The first is a world where the pain and tragedy of life are made comprehensible by placing them within a familiar and cohesive narrative. The second is a world of agonizing confusion, where what Camus called our “wild longing for clarity” is met with answers no more solid than those we devise for ourselves. The first is a world where the future is in some sense fixed, for it already exists in the mind of the omniscient Creator. The second is a world where the future is largely open and unwritten. Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Camus: these thinkers were all fixated on the experience of moving from one of these worlds into the other. They realized the difficulty such a traverse entails, and all were pessimistic about the capacities of most people to endure such a journey.

The New Atheists in contrast see the passage between these two worlds as smooth and unproblematic. For them, removing God from one’s perception of the world is of hardly any more existential consequence than getting a haircut. The very last sentence of Dennett’s Breaking the Spell is indicative of this unvexed “complacency”:

So, in the end, my central policy recommendation is that we gently, firmly educate the people of the world, so that they can make truly informed decisions about their lives…. It will be fascinating to see what institutions and projects our children will devise, building on the foundations earlier generations have built and preserved for them, to carry us all safely into the future.

Such simple faith in a kind of “Universal Reason” is strange to see after the events of the past hundred years. Dennett sees no reason why the fairy-tale 18th century dream of Science and Reason and Progress should fall upon skeptical ears at the beginning of the 21st century. Such calm “recommendations” give his work an air of glib, effortless self-assuredness which seems small beside doubt-infused passion Ivan Karamazov brought to the same questions.

Indeed the New Atheists “admit no difficulty”. They focus upon the articles and tenets of belief, while trivializing the psychological dynamics of belief. They write as though the idea of God is just one more superstitious error to be crossed out and corrected, with no serious thought about how hard it will be to exorcise what Freud, another complete yet complicated atheist, called “the most prized possession of civilization.”

Freud very intentionally did not call his great critique of religion The Future of an Error. Freud characterizes “illusion” as a belief that “is derived from human wishes.” In The Future of an Illusion he argues that religion’s greatest task is to “humanize the world”, transforming it from a realm of cold hostility and terrifying randomness into one of warm familiarity which confirms our expectations and fulfills our hopes. It tries to make this vast, strange, wild world feel like a home that is being watched over by a knowing father. Historically, it has succeeded admirably in this endeavor. Towards the end of Illusion Freud writes,

We shall tell ourselves that it would be very nice if there were a God who created the world and was a benevolent Providence, and if there were a moral order in the universe and an afterlife; but it is a very striking fact that all this is exactly as we are bound to wish it to be.

But at times even Freud, that great critic of naive hopes, was himself simplistically optimistic about the capacity of human reason to create a progressively better world. He said of future generations:

By withholding their expectations from the other world, and concentrating all their liberated energies onto life on earth, they will probably create a state of things in which life will be tolerable for everyone and civilization no longer oppressive to anyone.

The striking overlap between Dennett’s vision of the future and Freud’s shows that in certain moments Freud himself exhibited an uncharacteristically complacent rationality in which he evades the demands of absurdity.

The existentialists go farther than Freud in their recognition of the degree to which the world refuses to conform to our own expectations for it. They repeatedly emphasize the fact that the world will always and forever remain foreign and irreducible to our categories. It contains an infinite otherness, a “density” of its own that will always evade our attempts to make it accessible to our understanding. It will, if we are honest with ourselves, always leave us feeling like strangers wandering a foreign land. Camus again, from The Myth of Sisyphus:

Here are trees and I know their gnarled surface, water and I feel its taste…yet all the knowledge in the world will give me nothing to insure me that the world is mine. You describe it to me and you teach me to classify it. You enumerate its laws and in my thirst for knowledge I admit that they are true. But I realize that if through science I can seize phenomena and enumerate them, I cannot, for all that, apprehend the world. Were I to trace its entire relief with my finger, I should not know any more. A stranger to myself and the world, what is this condition…in which the appetite for conquest bumps into walls which defy its assaults? Blind reason may claim that all is clear. But its contrary, intelligence, tells me in its way that the world is absurd.

For the New Atheists absurdity is not a problem that even requires acknowledgment. Their faith in “blind reason” prevents them from saying anything that is truly insightful about the resurgence of religious fundamentalism around the world. Global modernity, as it increasingly undermines traditional societies and structures of belief, in many ways magnifies and exacerbates the trauma of the human condition. The urge to return to fundamentals is an understandable, if unjustifiable, reaction to the tumultuous nature of recent history. It is in fact not a return at all but a desperate innovation in response to an unprecedented historical situation in which “all that is solid melts in air”. But due to their complacent rationality, the New Atheists see nothing more interesting in this phenomenon than a childish error. They are remarkably incurious psychologists.

Living in a world devoid of God is the most terrifying thing many people can imagine. Learning to live without reference to any deity is so much more than just a matter of getting the facts right. Only from the perspective of a willfully flat psychology is it possible to imagine that scientific materialism will fill the void left by the Death of God. If only it were so simple.

Those who are struggling to base our sense of meaning upon the immanent yet fleeting wonders of this world and this life must respect the problems religion addresses, even if we respect nothing else about it. Those who side with Joseph Conrad, who are troubled by the privileging of the “mere supernatural” over the overwhelming magic of the immediate manifest universe, must acknowledge the challenge of Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Camus regarding the difficulties of living life without recourse to consoling grand narratives.

Religion, for its part, has the uncanny ability to infuse the most downtrodden life in the dustiest, poorest corners of the globe with an aura of cosmic grandeur and epic scope. Marx was right that it is like a drug, although it seems to me not so much an opiate as a potent combination of psychedelic and stimulant. The difficulties of kicking such a habit will not be overcome by ignoring them.

David Moser is an ESL teacher, bartender, accordion player, and Indophile, living in Seattle.

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