Atheism, like theism, raises both theoretical and practical questions. Why should we think it true? And what would be the consequences if it were true? When criticizing New Atheist writers, I have tended to emphasize the deficiencies of their responses to questions of the first, theoretical sort -- the feebleness of their objections to the central theistic arguments, their ignorance of what the most important religious thinkers have actually said, and so forth. But no less characteristic of the New Atheism is the shallowness of its treatment of the second, practical sort of question.
The mentality is summed up perfectly in the notorious “Atheist Bus Campaign” of 2009 and its preposterous slogan: “There's probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” As if atheism promised only sweetness and light. As if the vast majority of human beings would not find the implications of atheism -- that human existence has no purpose, that there is no postmortem reward to counterbalance the sufferings of this life, nor any hope for seeing dead loved ones again, etc. -- far more depressing than any purported deficiencies in traditional religious belief. And as if the metaphysical assumptions underlying atheism would not cast into doubt the liberal and egalitarian values upheld by most atheists no less than the more traditional moral codes of the world religions.
One of the hallmarks of the Old Atheism is that it was less inclined toward such naïveté. You won’t find banalities like “stop worrying and enjoy your life” in writers like Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Sartre, Freud, or Marx. Such thinkers were in general more sensitive to the unpleasant implications of atheism, and to the challenge atheism and its metaphysical presuppositions pose to the hopes and ideals even of many atheists themselves.
Not that this attitude is entirely dead. Woody Allen has been giving expression to it for much of his career (Crimes and Misdemeanors being the best example, Whatever Worksbeing by far the worst). In recent philosophy, Alex Rosenberg has certainly been willing to draw out from atheism some pretty chilling consequences. David Stove’s atheism was even more consistently pessimistic, and unencumbered by Rosenberg’s capricious desperation to make his own atheistic pessimism as palatable as possible to egalitarian liberals. New Atheists, however, seem in general more inclined toward delusional happy-talk of the kind indulged in by Richard Dawkins when he opined that a world without religion could be “paradise on earth… a world ruled by enlightened rationality… a much better chance of no more war… less hatred… less waste of time.”
So let’s take a look, in this post and future ones, at atheism of the grittier old time sort. We’ll start with Nietzsche, that grandest of Old Atheists and the great hero of my own atheist years. My favorite Nietzsche line back in the day was this:
A very popular error: having the courage of one's convictions; rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one’s convictions! (Cited in Walter Kaufmann, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, p. 354)
You might say that the reason I’m no longer an atheist is that I took Nietzsche’s advice seriously. Of course, your mileage may vary. But what might a New Atheist with the courage for an attack on his own convictions yet learn, even short of giving up his atheism?
The death of God
Nietzsche famously maintained “that ‘God is dead,’ that the belief in the Christian god has become unbelievable” and that this promised “a new dawn” and was thus a cause for “happiness, relief, exhilaration, encouragement” (The Gay Science, Kaufmann translation, pp. 279-80). But he was not so stupid as to think that “paradise on earth,” “a much better chance of no more war,” and other such Dawkinsian fantasies would be the immediate sequel. On the contrary, he foresaw that “shadows… must soon envelop Europe,” that a “sequence of breakdown, destruction, ruin, and cataclysm… is now impending,” indeed a “monstrous logic of terror… an eclipse of the sun whose like has probably never yet occurred on earth” (p. 279).
Likewise, the protagonist of Nietzsche’s famous parable of the madman says:
“Whither is God? … I will tell you. We have killed him -- you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? … God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.
“How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us?...” (The Gay Science, p. 181)
Why all the melodrama, if the “death of God” amounts (as the New Atheist would have you believe) to nothing more momentous than (say) a child’s coming to realize that Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster don’t really exist?
The answer is that, as Nietzsche understood more profoundly than even many religious believers do, a religion is not merely a set of metaphysical propositions but embodies a culture’s highest values and thus a sense of its own worth:
A people that still believes in itself retains its own god. In him it reveres the conditions which let it prevail, its virtues: it projects its pleasure in itself, its feeling of power, into a being to whom one may offer thanks. Whoever is rich wants to give of his riches; a proud people needs a god: it wants to sacrifice. Under such conditions, religion is a form of thankfulness. Being thankful for himself, man needs a god. (The Antichrist, section 16, Kaufmann translation)
Consequently, a culture that doubts its religion comes to doubt itself and its own legitimacy. And a culture that repudiates that religion is, in effect, committing a kind of cultural suicide. The moral and social order to which the religion gave rise cannot survive its disappearance. The trouble, in Nietzsche’s view, is that too few see what this entails:
Much less may one suppose that many people know as yet what this event [the death of God] really means -- and how much must collapse now that this faith has been undermined because it was built upon this faith, propped up by it, grown into it; for example, the whole of our European morality. (The Gay Science, p. 279)
The New Atheist, upon hearing this, may shrug, thinking only of the heady prospect of guilt-free porn surfing, transvestite bathroom access, rectal coitus, and the other strange obsessions of the modern liberal mind. But Nietzsche had somewhat higher ends in view. By “the whole of our European morality,” he was not talking merely or even primarily about the rules of traditional sexual ethics against which the modern liberal has such a weird animus (and which are not unique to Christianity or Europe in any event). He was talking about everything that has counted as morality in European culture, including the values modern egalitarian liberals still prize, and which Kant, Mill, and other modern ethicists of whom Nietzsche is harshly critical tried to give a secular foundation. Since Nietzsche despised that morality, he thought its disappearance was a good thing and opened the door to something better. But he knew that the transition would be ugly, that the path to a new order was uncharted, and that the precise nature of the destination was unclear. Hence:
The time has come when we have to payfor having been Christians for two thousand years: we are losing the center of gravity by virtue of which we lived; we are lost for a while. (The Will to Power 30, Kaufmann and Hollingdale translation. The numbers cited here and later are section numbers, unless otherwise indicated.)
What Nietzsche most hated, and the demise of which he most looked forward to, was the egalitarianism that Christianity had introduced into Western civilization. As he writes in The Will to Power:
The “Christian ideal”: … attempt to make the virtues through which happiness is possible for the lowliest into the standard ideal of all values… (185)
Through Christianity, the individual was made so important, so absolute, that he could no longer be sacrificed: but the species endures only through human sacrifice -- All souls become “equal” before God: but this is precisely the most dangerous of all possible evaluations! If one regards individuals as equal, one calls the species into question, one encourages a way of life that leads to the ruin of the species: Christianity is the counterprinciple to the principle of selection…
This universal love of men is in practice the preference for the suffering, underprivileged, degenerate: it has in fact lowered and weakened the strength, the responsibility, the lofty duty to sacrifice men. (246)
What is it we combat in Christianity? That it wants to break the strong… (252)
And in The Antichrist Nietzsche famously says:
What is good? Everything that heightens the feeling of power in man, the will to power, power itself.
What is bad? Everything that is born of weakness.
What is happiness? The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome.
Not contentedness but more power; not peace but war; not virtue but fitness (Renaissance virtue, virtu, virtue that is moraline-free).
The weak and the failures shall perish: first principle of our love of man. And they shall even be given every possible assistance.
What is more harmful than any vice? Active pity for all the failures and all the weak: Christianity. (The Portable Nietzsche, p. 570)
The “equality of souls before God,” this falsehood, this pretext for the rancor of all the base-minded, this explosive of a concept which eventually became revolution, modern idea, and the principle of decline of the whole order of society -- is Christian dynamite. (p. 655)
End quote. Now, about this notion of the equal worth of all human beings, Nietzsche makes two main points. First, it loses all intellectual foundation with the demise of Christianity. He writes, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra:
[T]hus blinks the mob -- “there are no higher men, we are all equal, man is man; before God we are all equal.”
Before God! But now this god has died. And before the mob we do not want to be equal. (The Portable Nietzsche, p. 398)
And in Twilight of the Idols:
When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one's feet. This morality is by no means self-evident… Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one's hands… Christian morality is a command; its origin is transcendent… it stands and falls with faith in God. (The Portable Nietzsche, pp. 515-16)
This collapse of any reason to believe in the basic moral equality of all human beings is among the repercussions of the “death” of the Christian God that Nietzsche thinks European civilization has yet to face up to. Modern secular moralists presuppose this egalitarianism but they have no rational grounds for doing so. It is merely a prejudice they have inherited and refuse to question despite their rejection of its traditional basis:
[U]tilitarianism (socialism, democracy) criticizes the origin of moral evaluations, but it believes them just as much as the Christian does. (Naiveté: as if morality could survive when the God who sanctions it is missing!…) (The Will to Power 253)
For Nietzsche, when modern intellectuals “believe that they know ‘intuitively’ what is good and evil, when they therefore suppose that they no longer require Christianity as the guarantee of morality,” this is a delusion, and in fact reflects nothing more than the historical “effects of the dominion of the Christian value judgment and… the strength and depth of this dominion” even if “the origin of [the] morality has been forgotten” (Twilight of the Idols, p. 516).
Think of the contemporary secular academic moral philosopher who appeals to our “intuitions,” the Rawlsian method of bringing moral theory and our “considered convictions” into “reflective equilibrium,” the liberal activist who glibly appeals to the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights as if it were something other than a set of sheer assertions floating in midair, and so forth. All of this, for Nietzsche, would merely confirm his judgment that secular egalitarianism is nothing more than a bundle of sentiments inherited from Christianity and incapable of being given a new rational foundation. (“The democraticmovement,” says Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil, “is the heir of the Christian movement” (Kaufmann translation, p. 116). Cf. my argument to the effect that liberalism is essentially a Christian heresy.)
The second main point Nietzsche makes about moral egalitarianism is that there is, in his view, not only no reason to accept it but also positive reason to rejectit. For one thing, he would apply his famous hermeneutics of suspicion and method of genealogical critique to egalitarianism no less than to religious belief. If there is no good positive reason to accept some view but also reason to think that the true source of its appeal is in some way disreputable, then that, in Nietzsche’s view, is good reason to reject it. And there is such a source in the case of egalitarian moral views: They reflect, in Nietzsche’s opinion, nothing more than the interest that weaklings, mediocrities, and failures of every kind have in bringing down or hamstringing those whose power, excellence, and success they resent and envy. Hence, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche has Zarathustra say:
Thus I speak to you in a parable -- you who make souls whirl, you preachers of equality. To me you are tarantulas, and secretly vengeful. But I shall bring your secrets to light; therefore I laugh in your faces with my laughter of the heights…
“What justice means to us is precisely that the world be filled with the storms of our revenge” -- thus [the tarantulas] speak to each other. “We shall wreak vengeance and abuse on all whose equals we are not” -- thus do the tarantula-hearts vow. “And ‘will to equality’ shall henceforth be the name for virtue; and against all that has power we want to raise our clamor!”
You preachers of equality, the tyrannomania of impotence clamors thus out of you for equality: your most secret ambitions to be tyrants thus shroud themselves in words of virtue. Aggrieved conceit, repressed envy -- perhaps the conceit and envy of your fathers -- erupt from you as a flame and as the frenzy of revenge…
Mistrust all who talk much of their justice! … [W]hen they call themselves the good and the just, do not forget that they would be pharisees, if only they had -- power…
[P] reachers of equality and tarantulas… are sitting in their holes, these poisonous spiders, with their backs turned on life, they speak in favor of life, but only because they wish to hurt. They wish to hurt those who now have power…
I do not wish to be mixed up and confused with these preachers of equality. For, to me justice speaks thus: “Men are not equal.” Nor shall they become equal!...
On a thousand bridges and paths they shall throng to the future, and ever more war and inequality shall divide them… Good and evil, and rich and poor, and high and low… (The Portable Nietzsche, pp. 211-13)
Here Nietzsche deploys his famous distinction between “slave moralities” and “master moralities.” A slave morality begins with its adherents’ sense of their own weakness, mediocrity, and lowliness and aims to stigmatize as “evil” anything that contrasts with this, viz. the characteristic traits of those who are powerful, excellent, or noble. A master morality begins with its adherents’ sense of their own strength, excellence, and nobility, and judges as “bad” whatever fails to live up to that standard. Whereas master moralities are essentially about affirming the characteristics of their adherents, slave moralities are essentially about negating the characteristics of their adherents’ opponents.
Nietzsche despises slave moralities but respects master moralities, and thus while be famously advocates going “beyond good and evil,” he also makes it clear that he does not necessarily want to go beyond good and bad. It is the resentment and envy he takes to underlie a slave morality’s use of the epithet “evil” that he criticizes, not the confidence and gratitude that he takes to underlie a master morality’s judgment about what is “bad.” You might say that Nietzsche sees himself as in the business of “speaking truth to powerlessness,” unmasking the ugly motives of those who hide behind the purportedly lofty sentiments of slave morality. To the egalitarian, he says: Don’t try to fool yourself into thinking that you are motivated by “justice.” In reality you are simply a loser, a misfit, a failure who cannot bear the excellence and success of others and for that reason want to tear them down, while enshrouding this revenge-seeking behind a moralizing smokescreen.
Nietzsche thinks that slave moralities are not only rationally unjustified and reflect base motives; he thinks they are harmful. In emphasizing pity for the weak, they seek to eliminate suffering, but in doing so thereby eliminate the preconditions for excellence and only make human beings weaker, softer, and ignoble. To the slave moralist he says:
You want, if possible -- and there is no more insane “if possible” -- to abolish suffering... Well-being as you understand it -- that is no goal, that seems to us an end, a state that soon makes man ridiculous and contemptible -- that makes his destruction desirable.
The discipline of suffering, of great suffering -- do you not know that only this discipline has created all enhancements of man so far? (Beyond Good and Evil 225)
And in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Zarathustra says:
But if you have a suffering friend, be a resting place for his suffering, but a hard bed as it were, a field cot: thus you will profit him best…
Thus be warned of pity… [A]ll great love is even above all its pity; for it still wants to create the beloved…
But all creators are hard. (The Portable Nietzsche, p. 202)
In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche sees the logic of the slave moralist’s obsession with pity for those who suffer playing out in nineteenth-century European politics:
Whoever examines the conscience of the European today will have to pull the same imperative out of a thousand moral folds and hideouts -- the imperative of herd timidity: “we want that some day there should be nothing any more to be afraid of!” Some day -- throughout Europe, the will and way to this day is now called “progress.” (201)
We have a different faith; to us the democratic movement is not only a form of the decay of political organization but a form of the decay, namely the diminution, of man, making him mediocre and lowering his value…
The over-all degeneration of man down to what today appears to the socialist dolts and flatheads as their “man of the future”-- as their ideal -- this [is a] degeneration and diminution of man into the perfect herd animal (or, as they say, to the man of the “free society”), this animalization of man into the dwarf animal of equal rights and claims… (203)
The end result of these trends is the undermining of the very preconditions of social order, including a “mistrust of punitive justice (as if it were a violation of those who are weaker…)” (202). He elaborates as follows:
There is a point in the history of society when it becomes so pathologically soft and tender that among other things it sides even with those who harm it, criminals, and does this quite seriously and honestly. Punishing somehow seems unfair to it, and it is certain that imagining “punishment” and “being supposed to punish” hurts it, arouses fear in it. “Is it not enough to render him undangerous? Why still punish? Punishing itself is terrible.” With this question, herd morality, the morality of timidity, draws its ultimate consequence. (201)
Now, it is not difficult to see in Nietzsche’s account of the “tarantulas” and of “slave morality” a description of the Bern-feeling, Wall-Street-Occupying, Social Justice Warrior. It is hardly a stretch to see a condemnation of Rawls’s “difference principle” implicit in Nietzsche’s contempt for the egalitarian’s “preference for the suffering [and] underprivileged” and for the “attempt to make the virtues through which happiness is possible for the lowliest into the standard ideal of all values.” The modern liberal nanny state, and the advocacy of a therapeutic rather than punitive approach to criminal justice, are obviously exactly the sorts of thing Nietzsche has in mind in the passages just quoted from Beyond Good and Evil. Furthermore, as Richard Schacht observes:
Nietzsche’s critique of pity is above all an attack upon the tendency sufferers have… to be overwhelmed by their own suffering and the similar sufferings of others, and in their preoccupation with it to take it to matter more than anything else. (Nietzsche, p. 459)
And such preoccupation is manifest in identity group politics and the tendency of those committed to it to define themselves in terms of their perceived status as victims of oppression.
Yet such left-wing attitudes and policies are embraced by many New Atheists. If Nietzsche is right, these attitudes and policies are not only bad and unfounded, but have their ultimate source in the very Christianity New Atheists claim to oppose. (I would say that they actually involve a massive distortion of the equal human dignity that Christianity affirms, but that is neither here nor there for present purposes. The point is that, whether faithfully conveyed or distorted, the idea was inherited from Christianity.)
Though Nietzsche certainly shares with the New Atheism its commitment to metaphysical naturalism, he would nevertheless reject its scientism -- and in particular its optimism about the ability of science to capture objective, mind-independent reality -- as hopelessly naïve and indeed incompatible with a naturalistic assessment of man’s cognitive powers. Certainly he would be unimpressed by any argument to the effect that the utility of science proves its truth, or more generally that the fact that our cognitive faculties are adaptive shows that they capture objective reality. He writes of beliefs that are
so much a part of us that not to believe in it would destroy the race. But are they for that reason truths? What a conclusion! As if the preservation of man were a proof of truth! (The Will to Power 497)
Again, he says:
Life is no argument. The conditions of life might include error. (The Gay Science 121)
Nietzsche here anticipates an element of the “argument from reason” later developed by writers like Karl Popper, C. S. Lewis, and Alvin Plantinga (though of course he doesn’t draw the anti-naturalistic conclusion that Lewis and Plantinga do). Survival value must not, in his view, be confused with truth; the idea that science gives us truth rests on a “metaphysical faith” (The Gay Science344).
Furthermore (and as other writers with no theological ax to grind have emphasized) the very notion of a scientific “law of nature” has a theological origin, and in Nietzsche’s view retains a merely metaphorical significance when the theology is jettisoned. There cannot be a true “law” or “regularity” where there is neither a lawgiver nor a subject which literally submits to the law:
Let us beware of saying there are laws in nature. There are only necessities: there is nobody who commands, nobody who obeys, nobody who trespasses. (The Gay Science, p. 168)
“[N]ature’s conformity to law,” of which you physicists talk so proudly, as though -- why, it exists only owing to your interpretation and bad “philology.” It is no matter of fact, no “text,” but rather only a naively humanitarian emendation and perversion of meaning… (Beyond Good and Evil 22)
And again, in The Will to Power:
“Regularity” in succession is only a metaphorical expression, as if a rule were being followed here; not a fact. In the same way “conformity with a law.” We discover a formula by which to express an ever-recurring kind of result: we have therewith discovered no “law,” even less a force that is the cause of the recurrence of a succession of results. That something always happens thus and thus is here interpreted as if a creature always acted thus and thus as a result of obedience to a law or lawgiver, while it would be free to act otherwise were it not for the “law.” (632)
Form, species, law, idea, purpose -- in all these cases the same error is made of giving a false reality to a fiction, as if events were in some way obedient to something… (521)
A major theme of The Will to Power’s treatment of science is the idea that, despite having largely stripped from our notion of nature that which reflects the contingent perspective of the observer, physics still -- insofar as it rests on sensory evidence -- inevitably reflects that perspective to some extent. Of course, to remedy this, physics tries to frame its description of nature in the abstract language of mathematics. But Nietzsche anticipates Bertrand Russell’s theme (to which I have often called attention) that insofar as physics gives us only knowledge of the physical world’s mathematical structure, it does not give us knowledge of the intrinsic character of that which has that structure, and thus actually tells us relatively little about objective reality.
Because we have to think in terms of there being something which has the structure, the physicist postulates certain entities as the relata whose relationships are described in the structural description -- Nietzsche gives atoms as an example. This can lead us to think we’ve actually captured something of the inner nature of the physical world as it is in itself, but in Nietzsche’s view this is an illusion. He writes, in The Will to Power:
To comprehend the world, we have to be able to calculate it; to be able to calculate it, we have to have constant causes; because we find no such constant causes in actuality, we invent them for ourselves -- the atoms. This is the origin of atomism.
The calculability of the world, the expressibility of all events in formulas -- is this really "comprehension"? How much of a piece of music has been understood when that in it which is calculable and can be reduced to formulas has been reckoned up? (624)
It is an illusion that something is known when we possess a mathematical formula for an event: it is only designated, described; nothing more! (628)
Mechanistic theory can… only describe processes, not explain them. (660)
Much more could be said, but I’ll leave it at that. If Nietzsche is right, the New Atheist is hopelessly naïve in supposing that the demise of religion promises only sweetness and light, that liberal egalitarian ideals can or ought to survive the demise of Christianity, and that science gives us much in the way of objective knowledge. New Atheists are notoriously resistant to hearing out an “attack on [their] convictions” when it comes from a religious believer. Are they willing to consider one raised by an Old Atheist?