Peter Lawler at PoMo Con:
So I’m reading the brilliant and provocative ATHEISTIC DELUSIONS: THE CHRISTIAN REVOLUTION AND ITS FASHIONABLE ENEMIES by David Bentley Hart. It begins as a criticism of the naive stupidity of the “new atheists” such as Hitchens, Dawkins, and Dennett from the perspective of the older atheist Nietzsche. The new atheists criticize religion (or basically Christianity) from an anti-cruelty, pro-dignity, pro-rights, pro-enlightenment perspective. They don’t realize that their humane values are, in fact, parasitic on Christianity and make no sense outside the Christian insight–completely unsupported by modern or Darwinian science–concerning the uniqueness and irreplacability of every human person. Nietzsche was right that secular Christianity or Christianity without Christ is unsustainable, and that the sentimental preferences of the new atheists are no more than that.
But Hart also suggests that the Christian insight persists in our claims for autonomy or liberty or unlimited willfulness and even in our nihilism (or our view that what we’re given by nature and tradition is nothing if not transformed or unredeemed). Those claims, too, are unsupported by contemporary evolutionary science or neuroscience. So what amount to our empirical claims about who we are as free beings remain decisively Christian and in opposition to what we think we know through natural science. Modern science characteristically has nothing to say about the free, loving, relational being who is capable of being a scientist. The being with logos, we can see with our own eyes, is a person.
So Hart is right to hit the new atheists hard with the Heideggerian criticism of the vulgarity of their materialism. They cowardly avoid the question of being, of why is there is being rather than nothing at all, or of even why scientists or other free persons could come into being in a world eternally and wholly explained by an impersonal materialism (even or especially the evolutionists assume that this sort of explain has been and will always be true). Our creation by a personal Creator explains better human freedom, love, and creativity–especially artistic (in the broadest sense) creativity–better than assuming the eternity of matter and material causation or, of course, just begging off what might be the most important question for beings open to the truth about who they are. Atheistic materialists can’t explain the Christian revolution in our self-understanding about who we are and its effects on human history. Even the Nietzschean theory that Christianity was little more than expression of resentment about who we are (and the other animals don’t resent who they are!) can’t explain the marvelous and unprecedented monuments to the loving creativity of Christians.
Nietzsche wanted to get us over Christianity, and one criticism of his thought is that he wasn’t anti-Christian enough. Certainly he couldn’t purge himself of his whiny side about the abyss and all, and he, too, arguably attributed too much significance to human creativity. There might be some philosophers–such as Strauss and the later and more Buddhist Heidegger–who worked harder or more consistently in getting us beyond our claims for autonomy and/or being unique and irreplaceable. Are they engaged in mission impossible? Or are they our true scientists? What would be the moral and political consequences of their triumph?
Hart’s view is actually that our true alternatives are orthodox (meaning Orthodox) Christianity or nothing.I actually think he’s wrong on this, because the ground of our freedom in our (merely human) natures is evident to anyone who sees with his or her own eyes. (The openness and longing of the natural human person for a personal God is fact we can perceive without revelation, in my view.) And Hart’s idea that Christ divinized us or made us like him–somehow both human and divine in a wholly reconciled way–misconceives who we are even from a Christian–meaning Augustinian and especially Thomistic–view. Nietzsche, radically orthodox Christian thinkers of a certain kind (including most MacIntryreans), and our fundamentalists all agree on this Christianity or nothing theme. There must be a lot to it, although, again, I finally don’t agree.
Hart’s view seems to be the Aristotelian, impersonal, fatalistic, melancholic natural account of who we are was true until Christ transformed but divinizing us. My view is that it never was completely true, and that the personal logos of the early church fathers has been more true as long as there have been human beings around on this planet. Hart speculates, I thnk with good reason, that the Christian insight that we are meant to be more than slaves informed the emergence of modern, liberating, unsterile or not merely contemplative science. For that reason alone, our Porcher friends might be open to the thought that modern science is about more than nihilistic “mastery.” There might be something unironically charitable about the impetus of modern science, although it goes wrong, of course, with the thought that we need to be liberated from who we are our loving, relational beings.
It’s easy to connect these thoughts to Ivan the K’s fine WEEKLY STANDARD article linked below. Our technocrats are all sentimental Christians without Christ, but unlike our true Savior they’re focused primarily on using their freedom to alleviate their own suffering. Our cultural libertarianism is turning out to be terrible for the unique and irreplaceable beings who are genuinely most vulnerable.
Clark at Mormon Metaphysics:
First of it’s not at all clear to me why an New Atheist has to avoid such questions. Admittedly many do tend towards a vulgar positivism, but I don’t see any particular reason why they must. I’d be quite surprised if there weren’t at least some Heideggerian oriented New Atheists. The target of New Atheists is typically the personal God of Judaism and Christianity. But that’s a God neither Heidegger nor most Heideggarians believe in either. So it strikes me as odd to engage Heidegger here.Admittedly there is a bit of a debate here. Was Heidegger arguing against the Creator God or just the way philosophers had engaged language to talk about him? I tend to find arguments, such as Caputo’s, far from convincing here. Yes people like Gadamer considered Heidegger a God-seeker through his life. Some see Heidegger as having a “pious atheism.” And yes, such a pious atheism (if true) seems an atheism continuing to take the question of God seriously. Something the New Atheists don’t. Indeed their target includes such inquiry as they feel the God question answered.
Still, it seems odd to inject Heidegger here like this. I do think Heidegger offers some tools to critique some New Atheist arguments. If only because they fall particular prey to a kind of positivism that was critiqued by many sides back in the 50’s and 60’s. However I think one goes too far the other direction if we, like Peter Lawler, assert that a personal Creation “explains better human freedom, love, and creativity.” I just don’t see it. (The stronger arguments that is) Certainly I don’t see it in Heidegger. And I’m not even an atheist.
Razib Khan at Secular Right:
I have been blogging for 7 years now, and the whole time I have made it clear that I am an atheist. My readers who are orthodox Christians have often asserted that Nietzsche is the only true consistent and honest atheist, that only his atheism faces the plain facts of existence in a world without God, and that I should man up. Though the author of Atheist Delusions is an Eastern Orthodox theologian and philosopher, Lawler reports that his criticism of the New Atheists starts from a Nietzschian perspective. All I have to say is that homey don’t play that game. Friedrich Nietzsche was the product of a line of Lutherans pastors, so it should not surprise that his atheism engages so directly, and inverts so forcefully, the thrust of Christianity. As philosophy goes much of what Nietzsche had to say was captivating, but then I also find science fiction captivating, as well as some portions of the Bible.
The atheism of Nietzsche plays on the terms of Christianity, and that is why Christians often admire his work. It is entirely intelligible to them insofar as it operates in the same universe of morals, albeit characterized by inversions. So naturally Christians castigate atheists who are not Nietzschians, such a stance creates much greater difficulty in fashioning rhetorical thrusts. Too many presuppositions simply are not aligned. Where Lawler and many others declare that Christianity is a necessary precondition of humane values, I simply assert that humane values, or more accurately the values we hold today, used Christianity, as well as other religions and philosophies, as cultural vessels. Morality and ethics existed prior to religion, and the emergence of “Higher Religions” which fused a moral sense with supernatural intuitions was a process which occurred in the light of history. It was no miracle, and may even have been inevitable once humans reached a particular level of organization.
Of course this sort of argument leaves many loose ends hanging. So be it. Those who believe that they have the Ultimate answer do not, and yet we continue to muddle on.
James Poulos at PomoCon responds to Khan:
Now, I am all for religious/secular understanding, but I think Lawler’s key word, “unsustainable,” was really not intended at all to apply to individuals. At the level of the individual — that is, of at least some individuals — secular morality of the sort associated with Christianity minus Christ (and God, etc.) is often quite sustainable. Clearly even Nietzsche conceded that the sentimental bluestockings of the world — to use Nietzsche’s language — could carry on in fine post-Christian ethical style for a good long while: either until a world-historical poop-out at the exhausted and enervated end of history, or until some ruddier race or tribe came along and wiped Mr. and Ms. Well-Adjusted Secular Bourgeois into the dustbin of history that Machiavelli associated with the once-flourishing but now forgotten Etruscans.
The broader issue is that smart political theologists have always conceded the same point: there is always a more or less small number of individuals who are able to live pretty well on Earth without recourse to religion. Usually this has been on account of philosophy; but the idea developed that the philosopher could not secure the good life for the many without taking away their liberty. So a project emerged aimed at extending a reasonably good life to the many without imposing either religious or philosophical authority upon them. As far as this political project is concerned, the stakes are high indeed; the number of secularists who are content to secure a good life for themselves while consigning the rest of their fellow man to ignorance and false consciousness seems fixed at a lower level than the number of secularists who can secure a good life for themselves. In brief, ethically humanist secularists have to find it impossible to live well as self-realized parasites on a social order with religious foundations. The internal logic of their morality requires a mission, however incremental, to bring the good (secular) life to the masses.
Secularists of a more Nietzschean persuasion, of course, might find exactly this realization the very condition of possibility for living well. (Cesare Borgia as Pope — is he understood?) Hume’s assertion that our ‘religious phase’ may have been the “inevitable” precondition or ‘vessel’ of secular morality (it isn’t clear whether he means naturally or historically inevitable) can’t get the ethical humanist secularist around the more haunting question of whether the secular political project of mass ethical secularism is viable, much less sustainable — especially if that social order is not to be grounded in philosophy, and especially if the politics in question must, as apparently it must, be one grounded in rights to freedoms.
UPDATE: Peter Lawler responds