Re the proliferation of books for popular audiences that have entered the market over the past few years or so purporting to be (or marketed as being) 'arguments for atheism'. Call it atheism-for-beginners. Common to all of these popular-market writers -- among them Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins -- is a combination of self-seriousness and one-dimensionality. Each author (with the possible partial exception of Hitchens) peddles his atheism in a voice approximate to that of 'experts' or even 'scientists' who appear on infomercials in order to endorse a that allows bald men to regrow their hair. Each acts as though his atheism is novel or unique. Think Oprah; think The Secret. As though atheism is this cool thing that the authors have just discovered, or there's this brand new formula that scientists have been developing in the lab. Or as though the state of world affairs is such that there are special, atheism-ready conditions on the ground, ripe for exploitation.
Your humble blogger's got nothing against atheism. In fact, he himself is an atheist.
There have been atheists of varying stripes since forever. In identifying one's particular species of atheism, it's often helpful to identify the religion into which one had been born and raised. This hazard -- that of having the dogma and practices of a particular religion foisted upon you during your upbringing -- befalls many a person. There's no insurance policy against it. Some such persons emerge into adulthood seemingly unscathed.
Although I have always had my doubts about the veracity of the claims of those in this apparently lucky few, I can report with total confidence that none in this lucky few -- not a single person -- was raised in the Catholic Church.
I can say this with authority, because I am -- and shall ever be -- a Catholic atheist.
Like many Catholic atheists, I endured twelve years of Catholic education. The final four years saw the gradual dissolution of both my need and inclination to pledge my obedience to a Celetial Dictator.* Perhaps it was mere coincidence that I during those four final years, I attended a Jesuit high school. In contradistinction to the meally-mouthed, self-contradictory, spineless pseudo-spiritual cant that was foisted upon me through eight years of Catholic grammar-school, my subsequent indoctrination in Jesuitism was a breath of fresh air.
Now, don't get me wrong: looking back, there's some seriously Christo-Fascist shit they serve you in the Jesuit Koolaid. But the good thing is that the Jesuits are and long have been in the business of education and scholarship. Which means there were interested in teaching their students about -- to the extent possible in any high school -- ideas. Not so much what you should or must think, but how. Again, sometimes how and what can be difficult to disentagle, and my brain's got the stretch-marks to prove it. But still.
Now, this part was very fortunate and helped open the door to the nonbelief that I so assiduously espouse. Because: where there are ideas -- and where there's the question of how to navigate ones way around and through them -- there is also atheism. Don't get me wrong, the latter by no means entails the former.
The fact is that all of the same arguments on both sides of this supposed 'pro-' vs. 'anti-' religious divide have been and continue to be recycled over and over again since.....I don' know.....Plato or something? Consider the following quotation from Thomas Jefferson:
My opinion is that there would never have been an infidel, if there had never been a priest. The artificial structures they have built on the purest of all moral systems, for the purpose of deriving from it pence and power, revolts those who think for themselves, and who read in that system only what is really there.Jefferson, of course, was a theist, which was about as many people got in his day to atheism. There are, of course, exceptions, like Rousseau and Diderot, et. al. And Jefferson was aware of these men. But, then as now, the distinction between the former -- belief in a benevolent God who does not interfere with earthly things -- and the latter is somewhat academic....letter to Mrs. Samuel H. Smith, 1816
After Jefferson's time, there emerged, of course, still more forceful and often compelling forms of atheism. None of the thinkers who espoused some or another form of it harbored illusions about his having invented anything new. Theirs was a presentism that was -- in contradistinction to Harris, et. al -- not wanting for historicity. The discourses in which they were engaged were simply too gentlemanly -- in both the best (polite) and the worst (chauvinistic) senses -- to allow for much sloppiness and grandstanding.
Perhaps the most prominent exceptions to this gentlemanliness rule prove the rule. In the case of Marx, I shall simply state that he was not really an atheist author, in the sense that atheism didn't interest him in and of itself. It was his very reduction of religion to mere a mere instrumentality of bourgeois ideology -- brilliant and spot-on as it was -- that proves this fact. He made this explicit in his famous comment about religion as the 'opiate of the masses', and had previously explained this line of thinking in still greater detail in his "On 'The Jewish Question'." So, let's dismiss him, genius though he was, from the present discussion.
That leaves Nietszche. He might just be the Father of Shrill Atheism, no? There's logic in that idea. There's also logic in the proposition that he was preoccupied chiefly with the establishment of a new kind of religiosity. Yes, he was sometimes sloppy, but that was really just toward the end, when he was literally going mad. After all, those who declare Nietszche to be 'self-contradictory' are charlatans who don't understand (or aren't interested in understanding) what he was doing. The basis upon which I claim that his atheism conforms to the ethic of gentlemanliness that prevailed among his peers -- even when his peers may not have seen things that way -- is the unique performativity of Nietszche's writing. A sentence ago, I talked about his texts in terms of "what he was doing," and this is exactly how his texts are by and large to be understood: as doing, rather than saying.
Our modern-day publishing phenoms peddling their atheist wares cannot be given credit for this kind of genius or inventiveness. These recent pop-cultural atheism screeds are much more fun than either Marx or Nietzsche. Their glossy monographs aren't just the Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus's of their time -- which is to say, they're not just sugar-coated pills. They're candy-coated CANDY! In fact, what they represent is a brand new, groovy kind of lifestyle atheism. Remember those old I-Mac advertisements? Right around the time that Apple's television spots started to get really annoying? The I-Macs were sold in an array of colors -- of flavors -- from which the consumer could choose:
Likewise, each 'brand' of lifestyle atheism -- Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett, et al. -- caters to its own sassy, au courant, metropolitan sensibility. Into science? Dennett's your man. Or maybe Dawkins....I can't keep 'em straight (they're both incredibly boring and frankly mediocre). Into literature and droll, rapier wit, with just the teeniest-spritz of Islamo-fascism-baiting? Then Hitchens is your man.
Into justifying the use of torture against enemies in the American War On Terror? Then, allow me to introduce you to the Reader's Digest-league philosophical musings of America's friendliest FASCIST NEOCON: Sam Harris.
I shall return shortly with Part Two of this series, in which I shall share with you some musings on the scary, militaristic, neoconservative, pseudo-scientific, new-agey, historically illiterate, racist ideology that one Sam Harris espouses.