What Will Become of Atheism?

In which I agree with Freddie deBoer.

Speaking as a denominationally homeless but decidedly conservative Protestant, I didn’t expect to find myself in 100% agreement with a secular Marxist hot take on Christianity vs. Atheism. But it’s 2021, so here we are. Lefty political side kvetching aside, I can’t disagree with anything in this Substack essay by Freddie deBoer, on how the New Atheists won their culture war by losing it, and why Christians should be less than thrilled with what’s taken its place.

In some ways, deBoer’s analysis of New Atheism’s decline qua cult phenomenon functions as a companion piece to this October 2019 reflection by Scott Alexander. Scott begins by taking the reader back in time to the early noughties heyday of online bulletin boards and subreddits dedicated to endless tugs-of-war over creationism, weird Old Testament passages, gospel contradictions, and every other Christian-atheist debate topic under the sun. Each introductory paragraph uncovers a new layer of this Weird Internet time capsule, concluding with “At the time, this seemed perfectly normal.”

Alexander and deBoer identify many of the same socio-political reasons why the buzz eventually fizzled out, though deBoer puts more weight on the New Atheists’ hawkishness towards Islam. Alexander is less convinced by this diagnosis, pointing out that The God Delusion wasn’t published until 2006, and the wave didn’t peak until the 2010s. However, in deBoer’s defence, the first New Atheist shot fired was not The God Delusion but Sam Harris’s 2004 The End of Faith, which was written explicitly as a reaction to 9/11. And Christopher Hitchens, of course, was a famously vocal neo-con, backing Bush’s War on Terror to the hilt and even proudly becoming an American citizen in the same year he published god is Not Great. (If you want a classic “time capsule” debate experience, watch this clash between brothers Christopher and Peter, half of which is dedicated to Christianity vs. atheism, half of which is dedicated to the Iraq War.)

Alexander in his essay goes on to develop a fascinating analysis of the shift to “Atheism+” and the new hamartiology that came along with it, where “sexism and racism” came to replace “religion” as the root of all evil. He recalls one blogger in particular who made the shift explicit, in a piece he could no longer place, but the gist of it was something like “Instead of rehearsing the same old tired arguments for or against the existence of God, it’s time to become part of the struggle for progress and equality.”

This line will also ring familiar to Christians who have kept up with the “conservative Christian” vs. “progressive Christian” wars. And indeed, deBoer in his essay shrewdly draws that very comparison. Loudly pre-announcing that propositional truth claims about theology were not “the real issue” at hand became a form of virtue-signaling for progressive atheists and Christians alike. While this may have irritated the likes of poor Richard Dawkins, spoiling for someone, anyone to fight him over the literal existence of God, heaven and hell, deBoer argues that victory had really fallen in his lap. If stamping out devout evangelical religion in the West was Richard’s goal, the numbers should make him happy, not because people embraced his particular brand of atheist hostility, but because they forgot to care either way.

This, rightly, perturbs deBoer:

The reason this ad hoc détente feels weird to me is simple: if God exists then that is the single most important fact in the history of creation and nothing else can take its crown, ever. If a being exists, of whatever nature, who created reality, exists within all of reality, set reality’s physical and moral rules, watches over all of reality, judges all of us on how devout and moral we are, and determines reward and punishment based on that judgement, that clearly is the truth that trumps all other truths. Strange to let it slip out of the debate quietly in the night. 

This is the accusation he levels specifically against Jon Haidt, his representative foil from what one might call the “New Pragmatist” crew—polite, classically liberal, and full of arguments for why actually, “religion” isn’t so bad. In fact, evolutionarily speaking, it’s pretty good. For deBoer, Haidt embodies a patronizing country club rebranding of atheism, “accept[ing] religion as a positive force even as we quietly snicker to each other that it’s all fake.” In “Of course it’s not literally true but…,” he detects “a more grievous insult to sincere Christians than Christopher Hitchens could ever come up with.” He might also have mentioned Bret Weinstein, who likes to repeat cheerfully that religion is “literally false, but metaphorically true.” Well then, if that doesn’t get you through the night, what will? DeBoer ruthlessly hammers this home:

Yes, religion provides psychic comfort in an unfriendly world, but it does so because it imposes sense on senselessness through the existence of one (or many) who literally determine what sense is. Yes, religion helps guide moral decisions, but it does so because it posits an entity from whom unerring moral precepts flow. Yes, religion helps rescue people from feelings of meaninglessness, but it does so because it tells people that they have a specific moral purpose that is defined by a creature of infinitely greater wisdom than ours. Yes, religion soothes the sick and elderly, but it does so because it tells them that they will soon be joined with a maker who will grant them some sort of eternal reward. You take away the supernatural element, as so many now seem eager to do, and you’re kicking two legs out from under a three-legged stool.

I don’t see how getting catechized and joining your local temple helps you any if you also think that we are living accidental lives, the product of some chemicals happening to congeal in just the right way in a spiritually dead and directionless universe, one in which your life will flare up for an eyeblink and then cease to matter for the rest of eternity. Sartre would still stare into the heavens, soul crying out for meaning, if you gave him a set of rosary beads and told him he didn’t have to actually believe in she who inspires their use.

In Freddie’s rant, I hear echoes of the frustration expressed by one of the “old New Atheists,” Sam Harris, when he shared the stage with Jordan Peterson in summer 2018 for several long dialogues about religion. Peterson is that true maverick thinker who has never fit into anyone’s tidy box, but it might fairly be said that he shares DNA with the New Pragmatists (even placing himself in a straight intellectual line from the 19th-century American school—Charles Peirce, William James, etc.) In that respect, he irritated Harris much as Haidt irritates deBoer. Again and again in their talks, Harris would attempt to nail Peterson down in classic modernist style, and again and again Peterson would dodge and weave with an “It depends,” or an “I don’t know what you mean by…[insert God, the resurrection, or even truth itself here].”

Sam’s drumbeat in those debates could be boiled down to a line from a previous, even more depressing deBoer essay: “You can’t fool yourself. You can’t fool yourself.” So what if there’s a God-shaped hole in your heart? You can’t worship a God-shaped hole. Yes, it can be terrifying to stare into the void and realize that this life is all there is. Yes, it can be destabilizing to realize there is no divine master plan for your life, or for anyone else’s. Oh well. It’s true. It’s true. So make the most of it.

Except, of course, plenty of people don’t make the most of it. I’m reminded of an anecdote I read about an earnest evangelical Christian apologist-evangelist who laid out the logical consequences of materialism to a college student, after which the student reflected a moment, then said, “You’re right. I’m gonna go home and kill myself.” Of course, the apologist hastened to urge him not to do this, they exchanged numbers, and happily the student didn’t carry out this plan.

As a clinician, Peterson would nod at that story with the familiarity of long experience. He will say repeatedly that religious language is the only language that will suffice for people in their darkest, direst moments. Even when he doesn’t make explicit reference to supernatural entities, he himself urges against suicide with language that sits uneasily in a materialist frame (as I argue in a recent essay, excerpted here).

A harsh reading of this would be that Peterson is calculatedly perpetuating falsehood as a clinical placebo, while quietly joining Haidt and Co. in their patronizing “of course.” But a more charitable reading would be that Peterson doesn’t think anything is an “of course.” True, he isn’t a Christian apologist, he isn’t loaded with answers to rebut the typical New Atheist attacks on Jesus’ resurrection, the gospel narratives, etc. When Michael Shermer waves his hands and talks breezily about a “Bayesian argument” against the resurrection (which doesn’t actually exist, as I recently explained here), he doesn’t have a response. But what he does have is the half-articulated, pressing sense that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in best-selling New Atheist books. And this, perhaps, is its own kind of evidence.

One figure I haven’t brought in yet here is Douglas Murray, who moderated the UK edition of the Harris-Peterson dialogues, which is where I first discovered him. I’ve always found Douglas to be a particularly interesting case study in this area. In his younger days as a preppy neo-con, he drew stylistic comparisons to his mentor Christopher Hitchens on the debate circuit (even subconsciously copping some of Hitch’s best lines on occasion). A late 20-something deconvert, he snapped up all the New Atheists’ literature and felt convinced that they had put traditional orthodox Christianity to bed. But he didn’t grow up to be Hitch 2.0. He could see that the world didn’t need yet another atheist pundit. He could be of far more use as a journalist and an analyst in the fight against radical Islam. Besides, he still had a soft spot for his mother church. Let the dear old CofE alone, he figured, after all it was still doing some people some good.

This is the sort of classically wistful ex-Anglican nostalgia that I’m very familiar with as a certified Anglophile. It comes through charmingly in this speech to the Cambridge Union, where Douglas argued against the motion that “religion has no place in the 21st century.” Richard Dawkins, naturally, was present and arguing loudly in the affirmative, but just to be contrary, Douglas decided to turn the tables. At the end of his speech, he circles back to Dawkins’s opening statement: “Richard Dawkins said at the very opening, ‘Is it true?’ That was what you said you wanted to address. No.” Here he pauses for effect and smiles a little. “And yes.”

The crowd is laughing, but somewhere, Freddie deBoer is screaming.

Of course, young Douglas isn’t saying anything here that many an old apostate Anglican vicar hasn’t said before him. In this poignant interview piece he wrote about the infamously defrocked bishop Richard Holloway, Holloway comes over like a more eloquent, spiritual Jonathan Haidt:

Did he ever think he was preaching lies? ‘No. I never preached lies. I never pretended to things I wasn’t feeling... It wasn’t about getting people to inhale certain historical facts. It was about somehow liberating them into a kind of redemptive, caring, compassionate way of living.’ But is it true? I ask him. Does he think the Christian story is true? There is a considered pause.

‘It’s true in the sense that myth is true, that Ovid’s Metamorphoses is true. I think they are ways of talking about the complexity of human experience, our need for redemption, for challenge, for forgiveness. I don’t think they are historically true. I don’t think he got out of the tomb.’

But still, let Douglas finish his speech: “Schopenhauer said in his Dialogue On Religion [that] truth may be like water. It needs a vessel to carry it. We don’t have very many vessels. And if you believe that we can go into the 21st century not only saying we don’t need a vessel for ourselves but nobody else should have one, I don’t believe that would be a period of greater understanding.” Nor, he also points out earlier in the speech, would it necessarily be a period of greater humanity. Where Secular Humanists UK may dance on the grave of old religious mores regarding abortion, euthanasia, or suicide, Douglas to his great credit has always stood on the outskirts of that party, refusing a hat, refusing the cake.

Why? Because, like Jordan Peterson, Douglas is an actual humanist, in that he perceives something of eternal value intrinsic to the human person. He just doesn’t know quite what to do with that, now. All he has, as he very movingly articulated in our radio exchange over a year ago, is the intuition that life is “worth hanging around for,” even up to the moment of death. What is that, then? Is that evidence? If so, evidence of what, exactly?

As I said for Peterson, I’m going to say yes. It is a kind of evidence.

Now, is it a kind of evidence that a Sam Harris is going to accept, or even appreciate? No. Would a Sam Harris be right in saying that it is not, specifically, evidence for a particular Christian truth claim such as “Yes, Jesus of Nazareth got out of the tomb”? Perhaps. (I’m happy to get into all that, if people like.) But it is, to steal from T. S. Eliot, a hint half-guessed, a gift half-understood. It is, at the very least, evidence for the words of the Teacher in Ecclesiastes 3:

I have seen the travail, which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised in it. He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end.