The New New Atheists

In the July issue of Harper's, Christopher Beha has an essay (subscription required)examining several books by a group of writers--the philosopher Alex Rosenberg, the neuroscientist Sam Harris, and the general man-of-letters Alain de Botton--that Beha termsthe New New Atheists. If the New Atheists (memorably named "Ditchens" by Terry Eagleton) defined their project negatively--here is why religion is childish and unreasonable and downright evil, they loudly proclaimed--then the New New Atheists have a more positive project. They want to, as Beha writes, "offer some picture of what comes next," to "explain what positive values naturally fill the God-shaped hole." In a world without God, where we do locate happiness? Meaning? Fulfillment?

The New New Atheists argue that such questions can't simply be shunted aside in a post-religious world (to do so would be to ignore what it means to be alive), and, in books with titles like The Atheist's Guide to Reality and Religion for Atheists, they attemptto offer their own answers to these fundamental questions. As one example, Rosenberg advocates "scientism," which he describes as "the conviction that the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge about anything; that science's description of the world is correct in its fundamentals; and that when 'complete,' what science tells us will not be surprisingly different from what it tells us today." Compare this to Marilynne Robinson's description of science in The Absence of Mind: true science, she writes, involves a refusal to "foreclosepossibilities, including discoveries that overturn very fundamental assumptions," and it is "not a final statement about reality but a highly fruitful mode of inquiry into it." For Rosenberg, science offers certainty; for Robinson, it provokes wonder.Beha offers convincing arguments for just why the answers offered by the New New Atheists prove so underwhelming. Here he is on Rosenberg's disregard for the experience of human consciousness:

It struck me that scientism's complete inability to account for the central feature of human experience--consciousness--might be a failure more on the part of scientism than on the part of consciousness. If embracing scientism demands giving up the sole means we have for engaging with the world, it's tough to see why one would believe in it, even if it's true--particularly since the view itself eliminates any normative basis for treating truth as inherently better than falsehood.

Again, this brings to mind Marilynne Robinson, whose fiction is its own argument for the centrality of consciousness and who, again in The Absence of Mind, has this to say:

... there is the odd privilege of existence as a coherent self, the ability to speak the word 'I' and mean by it a richly individual history of experience, perception, and thought. For the religious, the sense of the soul may have as a final redoubt, not as argument but as experience, that haunting I who wakes us in the night wondering where time has gone, the I we waken to, sharply aware that we have been unfaithful to ourselves, that a life lived otherwise would have acknowledged a yearning more our own than any of the daylit motives whose behests we answer to so diligently.

Throughout his essay, Beha displays a sensitivity to the claims of religious believers. (In an NPR interview, Beha describes how he fell away from the Catholic faith.) At one point in Religion for Atheists, Botton describes the social benefits of religious worship. He imagines a future "Agape Restaurant"--yes, that's really what he writes--where the "open door," "modest entrance fee," "attractively designed interior," and intelligent seating plan encourages cross-cultural conversation that is "true to the most profound insights of the Eucharist." Beha makes quick work of this: "Catholics gather in sacred spaces to signal allegiance to God, not to one another. They don't join in the mass because they believe in the idea of community; they join in community because they believe in the idea of mass. That is, they believe in all the offensive and incoherent dialogue that puts Botton to sleep."Beha's recently published first novel, What Happened to Sophie Wilder, shows just how beautifully and truthfully he can inhabit the imagination of the Catholic believer. I hope to write on this novel in the future, but for the time being let me just quote from it. Here is Beha describing a moment of religious conversion. The writing displays the kind of subtle thinking about religion--and, more specifically, about how religious experience actually feels--that is all too lacking in both the New and the New New Atheists:

It is in the nature of what happened next that it can't be conveyed in words. The few times Sophie tried to explain it later, even to herself, she fell back on cliche: something came over her; she walked out changed. It got closest to it to say that she was, for a time, occupied. After all her reading in the week leading up to that day, she thought of that occupying force as the Holy Spirit. But mostly she knew that it was something outside of herself, something real, not an idea or a conceit or a metaphor. Once it passed on, she knew that her very outline had been reshaped by it, that this reshaping had been long awaited though she hadn't recognized as much. More than that, she knew that she wanted the feeling back. She would chase it forever if need be.

Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). He writes Commonweal's "Bookmarks" column.

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