Is atheism something we can live with? Can it make sense of the world? Can it sustain us? Give meaning and direction to our lives?
These are the questions taken up by the "New New Atheists" (Alex Rosenberg, Sam Harris, and Alain de Botton) discussed by Chrisopher R. Beha in a recent issue of Harper's Magazine. (The article is available to subscribers only, but Beha also talks about it here. Hat-tip to a facebook friend.)
That God does not exist, these men take to be a firmly established truth. But where does it leave us, in terms of our personal lives? Can atheism replace the consolations and splendors of religion? Can it satisfy man's longing for a good and meaningful life?
It is an old question really, expressed most powerfully by Nietzsche in his famous "God is dead" passage:
What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun [i.e. God]? Whither does it now move? Whither do we move? Away from all suns? Do we not dash on unceasingly? Backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an above and below? Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness? Does not empty space breathe upon us? Has it not become colder? Does not night come on continually, darker and darker? Shall we not have to light lanterns in the morning? Do we not hear the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying God? Do we not smell the divine putrefaction? - for even Gods putrify! God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him!
How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers? The holiest and the mightiest that the world has hitherto possessed, has bled to death under our knife - who will wipe the blood from us? With what water could we cleanse ourselves? What lustrums, what sacred games shall we have to devise? Is not the magnitude of this deed too great for us? Shall we not ourselves have to become Gods, merely to seem worthy of it?
The three atheists discussed by Beha give different responses to all this. But Rosenberg's is — given the new atheist's premises — the most consistent and convincing. It is also the most devastating. Rosenberg begins with a good will, claiming that scientific atheism offers "a demanding, rigorous, breathtaking grip on reality." We must put religion and other fairy tales behind us, and face the facts boldly. There is no design to the universe, and no reason for our existence. We are the result of blind material forces. Likewise, there is no free will, no objective values. There is no good and evil, just pleasure and pain. Evolution has taught us, indeed, to cooperate with one another, and even to include women and minorities in this cooperative effort. But strictly speaking, such mutual cooperation is not good; it is only advantageous.
There is no need to draw out the consequences in detail. It is already clear, as Beha observes, "how much [atheistic] scientism takes from us, and how little it offers in return." The godless world of Rosenberg is very cold and depressing indeed. But don't worry, Rosenberg has an answer: Prozac.
It is futile to seek "a good reason for living, because there isn't any." Beha quotes him further:
So, what should we scientistic folks do when overcome by Weltschmerz (world-weariness)? Take two of whatever neuro-pharmacology prescribes. If you don't feel better in the morning … or three weeks from now, switch to another one. Three weeks is often how long it takes serotonin reuptake suppression drugs like Prozac, Wellbutrin, Paxil, Zoloft, Celexa, or Luvox to kick in. And if one doesn't work, another one probably will.
Mood-altering drugs are not the only possible solution. One could also distract oneself with money-making and consumerism. Or, like Beha himself, seek solace in art and literature. The latter seems more noble and fitting for human beings. But at bottom, Rosenberg would insist, all these efforts come to the same thing. Their value is only therapeutic. Their purpose is to hide the truth from ourselves.
So much for Rosenberg's claim that atheism implies a "demanding, rigorous, breathtaking grip on reality."