Commentary — July 9, 2012, 10:08 am

The Literary Response to Radical Atheism

Christopher R. Beha is an associate editor of Harper’s Magazine. His first novel, What Happened to Sophie Wilder, was published in June by Tin House Books.

In the current issue of Harper’s Magazine, I write about three books by writers I call the “New New Atheists.” The New Atheists—among them Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens—wrote bestselling books in the past decade that fiercely attacked belief in God. The fundamental difference between these polemicists and the next wave of atheist writers is evident in the titles of their books. In place of Dawkins’s The God Delusion, we have Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists. In place of Harris’s The End of Faith, we have his follow-up, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. And in place of Hitchens’s god is not Great, we have Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality.

The New New Atheists tend not to take up the question of God’s existence, which they take for granted as settled in the negative. Instead, they seek to salvage what is lost when belief erodes, concerning themselves with what atheists ought to believe and do in religion’s stead. Botton, for instance, asks how the benefits of faith—a sense of community, a sense of wonder—might be found in the secular, while Harris addresses what might be the most vexing problem facing atheists: how morality is possible without God. Only Rosenberg—a philosopher at Duke with a predictable commitment to rigor—insists that doing away with religion means doing away with most of what comes with it: a sense of order in the universe, the hope that life has some inherent meaning, even the belief in free will. If it’s true, as Rosenberg insists in contradiction of Harris and Botton, that we can’t have the benefits of belief without belief itself, this raises another question. Setting aside matters of truth and falsehood, are we not better off believing?
Broadly speaking, atheists seem to fall into two camps on this matter. There are disappointed disbelievers, those who would like to believe in God but find themselves unable. Then there are those who find the very idea of such a being to be an outrage. Among the latter camp, Christopher Hitchens famously compared God to Kim Jong Il, ruling the universe like his own North Korea. We ought to count ourselves lucky, Hitchens said, that such an entity does not exist outside the human imagination, because the only appropriate response to it would be fury and rebellion.

I happen to count myself among the disappointed disbelievers, which is why I was interested in the attempts of Harris and Botton to salvage some religious splendor for the secularists. So I was only more disappointed to find Rosenberg’s insistence that such efforts were hopeless far more convincing than the efforts themselves. During an email exchange with Rosenberg, I asked him which camp of atheists he fell into. His response acknowledged my impulse: “There is . . . in us all the hankering for a satisfactory narrative to make ‘life, the universe and everything’ (in Douglas Adams’s words) hang together in a meaningful way. When people disbelieve in God and see no alternative, they often find themselves wishing they could believe, since now they have an itch and no way to scratch it.”

So what are we to do about this unscratchable itch? Rosenberg’s answer in his book is basically to ignore it. The modern world offers lots of help in this effort. To begin with, there are pharmaceuticals; Rosenberg strongly encourages those depressed by the emptiness of the Godless world to avail themselves of mood-altering drugs. Then there are the pleasures of acquisitive consumer culture—the making of money and the getting of things. My own, provisional solution rests in the way of art, and in particular in literature. Fiction, at its best, not only suggests but insists upon the possibility of some order in the world, even if we create or impose that order. Likewise, it insists that human experience has meaning, and that in that meaning lies a form of solace. Rosenberg’s response to all this, I’m sure, would be: more power to you. At the same time, he would urge me not to make the mistake of believing that the solace I find in art is any more real or meaningful than the solace others find from shopping or from altering the chemicals in their brains. To which I want to say, why not? By Rosenberg’s own reckoning, nihilism follows logically from atheism. But nihilism, in turn, leaves one unable to make normative demands of others—or, for that matter, oneself. Even the demand that one follow logic or not believe in God.

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