They’re called the New Atheists and are people like Sam Harris, a neuroscientist who should have stuck with studying the brain instead of taxing his own with philosophical contrivances surely embarrassing to old atheists.
Like Richard Dawkins and others in the group, he’s also a loudmouth atheist, writing books, publishing articles, inundating the internet with Sam, Sam, Sam, as in his list of myths about atheists.
His first one has to strike some of us who once wandered in his wilderness as odd. It’s a myth, he says, that atheists believe life is meaningless.
“On the contrary,” he says, “religious people often worry that life is meaningless and imagine that it can only be redeemed by the promise of eternal happiness beyond the grave. Atheists tend to be quite sure that life is precious. Life is imbued with meaning by being really and fully lived. Our relationships with those we love are meaningful now; they need not last forever to be made so. Atheists tend to find this fear of meaninglessness, well, meaningless.”
All he has missed in this assertion is deluges of serious thinking by some of history’s top minds, including atheists, about the excruciating emptiness resulting from the diminution of religion in the modern age.
Consider, for instance, the writings of Matthew Arnold, a great 19th century literary critic and poet who himself felt religion no longer alive in his heart. He wrote a famous poem, “Dover Beach,” in which he talks about the “melancholy, long withdrawing roar” of the “Sea of Faith,” leaving the world with “neither joy, nor love, nor light.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, also of the 19th century, famously pronounced God dead because of a widespread disbelief he shared. Less well known is what he believed the consequence of irreligion would be: attempts to find meaning in such fraudulent substitutes as nationalism and socialism, social shifts that did occur in the 20th century and helped prompt several of the most ravaging wars humanity has ever witnessed.
The loss of God, he had a fictional character say in a noted passage, was akin to the earth being unchained from the sun so that people no longer knew up from down, felt darkness always closing in on them, and kept getting colder and colder.
Nietzsche is considered a progenitor of a once powerfully influential and mostly godless school of philosophy: existentialism. It said this human life of ours is meaningless to the point of absurdity and that you have to invent your own meaning. The famous French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre did so by attaching himself to the pseudo-scientific, evil-perpetuating doctrine of Marxism on the ground that, even though it was not provably true and contradicted his existentialist enthusiasms, it gave him a feeling of worthy, humane contribution. Talk about absurdity.
Also of the 20th century and easily as much an atheist as Harris, Bertrand Russell was many times the philosopher. While approving any retreat from religion, he did not kid himself about consequences.
He talked in a much-quoted passage about how the origins, growth, hopes, fears, loves and beliefs of humanity are the result of nothing more than an accidental juxtaposition of atoms. And the destiny of all our heroism, genius, devotion and inspiration? It will be “extinction in the vast death of the solar system” and burial “beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.” This is near certain, he said, and philosophy has to accept as much because only on “the firm foundation of unyielding despair can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”
Unyielding despair is right, at least for those atheists who face up to the implications of their beliefs. Russell argues there can still be ways to stare down negatives with rewarding results, but Harris faces up to little, blithely telling us how bubbly he is. Maybe that’s because he self-deceptively manipulates large questions in much the way he thinks religious people are relieved from anxiety because they subscribe to hocus pocus.
What many really do, I believe, is submit to a universally available, even beckoning sense of loving purpose that can then prove transformative.
Merry Christmas to everyone, including Sam.
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Jay Ambrose is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service. Readers may email him at [email protected]