Damon Linker has apparently written some good books on the subject of religion and politics, though I’ve not read them. After reading this supremely ridiculous essay in The Week, I can’t say that I’m inclined to do so. It’s just a rehash of the tired old argument that atheism leads to nihilism and hopelessness, but with the added absurdity that all “honest atheists” must admit this.
That godlessness might be both true and terrible is something that the new atheists refuse to entertain…
It’s one thing to catalogue the manifest faults within this or that religious tradition, which the new atheists have ably done… over and over and over again. It’s quite another to claim, as these authors also invariably do, that godlessness is not only true but also unambiguously good for human beings. It quite obviously is not.
If atheism is true, it is far from being good news. Learning that we’re alone in the universe, that no one hears or answers our prayers, that humanity is entirely the product of random events, that we have no more intrinsic dignity than non-human and even non-animate clumps of matter, that we face certain annihilation in death, that our sufferings are ultimately pointless, that our lives and loves do not at all matter in a larger sense, that those who commit horrific evils and elude human punishment get away with their crimes scot free — all of this (and much more) is utterly tragic.
Honest atheists understand this.
Nowhere does he attempt to support this conclusionary statement, either with evidence or reasoning. He merely asserts it, as he does above, as “quite obviously” true. He does include a lot of half-quotes and word salad from various others asserting the same thing, or something vaguely like it:
In our own time, physicist Steven Weinberg admits that he is “nostalgic for a world in which the heavens declared the glory of God” and associates himself with the 19th-century poet Matthew Arnold, who likened the retreat of religious faith in the face of scientific progress to the ebbing ocean tide and claimed to detect a “note of sadness” in its “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.” Weinberg confesses to his own sorrow in doubting that scientists will find “in the laws of nature a plan prepared by a concerned creator in which human beings played some special role.”
The past century has given us many honest atheists, some well known, others less so: the playwrights Eugene O’Neill and Samuel Beckett, aphorist E.M. Cioran, filmmaker Woody Allen. But perhaps the most brutally honest of all was the poet Philip Larkin, whose poems movingly describe the immense psychological struggles that often accompany atheism — an outlook he considered to be both “true” and “terrible.” Religion — “That vast moth-eaten musical brocade / Created to pretend we never die” — used to dispel the terror of annihilation, or at least try to. But Larkin will have none of it. And that leaves him — and us — with no solace or reassurance, confronting the horrifying prospect of a lonely plunge into infinite nothingness: “This is what we fear: no sight, no sound, / No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with, / Nothing to love or link with, / The anesthetic from which none come round.”
As the common refrain goes, this isn’t even coherent enough to be wrong, it’s just gibberish. Again, he cites no evidence at all that atheism caused “immense psychological struggles” either more often or more severely than religion itself does. And there is growing evidence that what emotional and psychological difficulties there are for those who lose their faith has far more to do with the loss of a support structure and a community than with anything intrinsic to the ideas. My friend Luke Galen’s study of believers and non-believers, for instance, shows that non-believers who are active members of secular communities are as emotionally healthy in all the relevant ways as those who attend church.
I’m with him when he says that some of our atheist thinkers tend to oversimplify things. For example, I do not think, as Christopher Hitchens said, that “religion poisons everything.” In fact, I consider that statement to be so vague and generalized that it ought to be dismissed out of hand as hyperbole. But Linker is guilty of exactly the kind of overly trite and simplistic nonsnese here. And the notion that losing one’s faith must inevitably be some existential tragedy that haunts and torments us is simply inane, no matter how many quotes he offers from Nietzsche.
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