The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God

BOOK: The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God
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This book is dedicated to
Guislaine Vincent Morland
and to
Nicholas Pearson

The drive to make sense out of experience, to give it form and order, is evidently as real and pressing as the more familiar biological needs.


C
LIFFORD
G
EERTZ

We feel that even when
all possible
scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched.


L
UDWIG
W
ITTGENSTEIN

Thinking out how to live is a more basic and urgent use of the human intellect than the discovery of any fact whatsoever.


M
ARY
M
IDGLEY

Man cannot stand a meaningless life.


C
ARL
J
UNG

Life cannot wait until the sciences have explained the universe scientifically. We cannot put off living until we are ready.


J
OSÉ
O
RTEGA Y
G
ASSET

We must wager on meaning’s existence.


J
AMES
W
OOD, PARAPHRASING
G
EORGE
S
TEINER

Meaning is not a security blanket.


S
EAMUS
H
EANEY, PARAPHRASING
W
.
H
.
A
UDEN

What is so admirable in being ruled by a need for peace of mind?


J
OHN
G
RAY

Religion is being replaced by therapy, with “Christ the Saviour” becoming “Christ the counsellor.”


D
R.
G
EORGE
C
AREY, FORMER
A
RCHBISHOP OF
C
ANTERBURY

[E]xistence may have no meaning, yet the rage to live is stronger than the reason for life.


J
OHN
P
ATRICK
D
IGGINS

A meaningful world is one that holds a future that extends beyond the incomplete personal life of the individual; so that a life sacrificed at the right moment is well spent, while a life too carefully hoarded, too ignominiously preserved, is a life utterly wasted.


L
EWIS
M
UMFORD

[T]he problem of the meaning of life . . . arises because we are capable of occupying a standpoint from which our most compelling personal concerns appear insignificant.


T
HOMAS
N
AGEL

If God does not exist, then everything is permitted.


F
YODOR
D
OSTOEVSKY

All religions share the same grievance.


O
LIVIER
R
OY

But is there something where God used to be?


I
RIS
M
URDOCH

There is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no desire to express—together with the obligation to express.


S
AMUEL
B
ECKETT

We are evolving, in ways that Science cannot measure, to ends that Theology dares not contemplate.


E
.
M
.
F
ORSTER

We are here on Earth to do good to others. What the others are here for, I don’t know.


W
.
H
.
A
UDEN

He who has the most toys when he dies wins.


M
ATERIALIST SLOGAN

A human being is not one in pursuit of happiness, but rather in search of a reason to become happy.


V
IKTOR
F
RANKL

It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that, as I hope to show.


T
HOMAS
N
AGEL

The concepts of redness and roundness are as much imaginative creations as those of God, of the positron, and of constitutional democracy.


R
ICHARD
R
ORTY

A life which contains nothing for which one is not prepared to die is unlikely to be very fruitful.


T
ERRY
E
AGLETON

The final value of our lives is adverbial, not adjectival. It is the value of the performance, not anything that is left over when the performance is subtracted.


R
ONALD
D
WORKIN

Happiness is something we can imagine, but not experience.


L
ESZEK
K
O
Ł
AKOWSKI

There is another world, but it is in this one.


P
AUL
É
LUARD

Men should walk as prophecies of the next age, rather than in the fear of God or the light of reason.


R
ICHARD
R
ORTY

Philosophers used to speculate about what they called the meaning of life. (That is now the job of mystics and comedians.)


R
ONALD
D
WORKIN

Contents

Epigraph

Introduction: Is There Something Missing in Our Lives? Is Nietzsche to Blame?

PART ONE

The Avant-Guerre: When Art Mattered

1. The Nietzsche Generation: Ecstasy, Eros, Excess

2. No One Way That Life Must Be

3. The Voluptuousness of Objects

4. Heaven: Not a Location but a Direction

5. Visions of Eden: The Worship of Color, Metal, Speed and the Moment

6. The Insistence of Desire

7. The Angel in Our Cheek

8. “The Wrong Supernatural World”

PART TWO

One Abyss after Another

9. Redemption by War

10. The Bolshevik Crusade for Scientific Atheism

11. The Implicitness of Life and the Rules of Existence

12. The Imperfect Paradise

13. Living Down to Fact

14. The Impossibility of Metaphysics, a Reverence for Metapsychology

15. The Faiths of the Philosophers

16. Nazi Religions of the Blood

PART THREE

Humanity at and after Zero Hour

17. The Aftermath of the Aftermath

18. The Warmth of Acts

19. War, the American Way and the Decline of Original Sin

20. Auschwitz, Apocalypse, Absence

21. “Quit Thinking!”

22. A Visionary Commonwealth and the Size of Life

23. The Luxury and Limits of Happiness

24. Faith in Detail

25. “Our Spiritual Goal Is the Enrichment of the Evolutionary Epic”

26. “The Good Life Is the Life Spent Seeking the Good Life”

Conclusion: The Central Sane Activity

Acknowledgments

About the Author

Notes and References

Index

INTRODUCTION

Is There Something Missing in Our Lives? Is Nietzsche to Blame?

B
y the summer of 1990 the author Salman Rushdie had been living in hiding for more than a year. This had followed a fatwa, an Islamic juristic ruling, issued by the Iranian supreme cleric, Ayatollah Khomeini, on February 14, 1989, in which he had said, “I inform the proud Muslim people of the world that the author of the
Satanic Verses
book, which is against Islam, the Prophet and the Quran, and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death. I ask all Muslims to execute them wherever they find them.”

This was by any standard a monstrous event, made all the more terrible by Khomeini’s claim of authority over
all
Muslims. But, however wrong, the threat had to be dealt with and Rushdie was given police protection and the use of a bulletproof Jaguar, though he had to find his safe houses himself. In July of that year, the police had suggested a further refinement for his safety—a wig. “You’ll be able to walk down the street without attracting attention,” he was told. The Metropolitan Police’s best wig man was sent to see him and took away a sample of his hair. The wig was made and arrived “in a brown cardboard box looking like a small sleeping animal.” When he put it on, the police said it “looked great” and they decided to “take it for a walk.” They drove to Sloane Street in London’s Knightsbridge and parked near the fashionable department store Harvey Nichols. When he got out of the Jaguar “every head turned to stare at him and several people burst into wide grins or even laughter. ‘Look,’ he heard a man’s voice say, ‘there’s that bastard Rushdie in a wig.’”
1

It is a funny story, despite the grim circumstances in which it took place, and Rushdie tells it again himself in his memoir,
Joseph Anton
(the cover name he adopted), which he felt safe to publish only in 2012, nearly a quarter of a century after the original fatwa.

There was certainly something missing in his life during those anxious times, the most precious thing of all—his liberty. But that is not exactly what the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas had in mind when he wrote his celebrated essay, “An Awareness of What Is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-secular Age” (2008). He, too, was concerned with the impact of religion on our lives but meant something no less precious perhaps, and far more difficult to pin down.

NO “AMEN”: THE TERMS OF OUR EXISTENCE AND THE IDEA OF A MORAL WHOLE

This something had first occurred to him after he attended a memorial service for Max Frisch, the Swiss author and playwright, held in St. Peter’s Church in Zurich on April 9, 1991. The service began with Karin Pilliod, Frisch’s partner, reading out a brief declaration written by the deceased. It said, among other things: “We let our nearest speak, and without an ‘amen.’ I am grateful to the ministers of St. Peter’s in Zurich . . . for their permission to place the coffin in the church during our memorial service. The ashes will be strewn somewhere.” Two friends spoke, but there was no priest and no blessing. The mourners were mostly people who had little time for church and religion. Frisch himself had drawn up the menu for the meal that followed.

Habermas wrote much later (in 2008) that at the time the ceremony did not strike him as peculiar, but that, as the years passed, he came to the view that the form, place and progression of the service
were
odd. “Clearly, Max Frisch, an agnostic, who rejected any profession of faith, had sensed the awkwardness of non-religious burial practices and, by his choice of place, publicly declared that the enlightened modern age has failed to find a suitable replacement for a religious way of coping with the final
rite de passage
which brings life to a close.”

And this more than a hundred years since Nietzsche announced the death of God.

Habermas used this event—Frisch’s memorial—as the basis for “An Awareness of What Is Missing.” In that essay he traces the development of thought from the Axial Age to the Modern period and argues that, while “the cleavage between secular knowledge and revealed knowledge cannot be bridged,” the fact that religious traditions are, or were in 2008, an “unexhausted force,” must mean that they are based more on reason than secular critics allow, and this “reason,” he thinks, lies in the religious appeal to what he calls “solidarity,” the idea of a “moral whole,” a world of collectively binding ideals, “the idea of the Kingdom of God on earth.” It is this, he says, that contrasts successfully with secular reason, and provides the “awkward” awareness of something that is missing. In effect, he says that the main monotheisms had taken several ideas from classical Greece—Athens as much as Jerusalem—and based their appeal on Greek reason as much as on faith: this is one reason why they have endured.

Habermas has one of the most fertile, idiosyncratic and provocative minds of the post–Second World War conversation, and his ideas on this score are underlined by the similar notions of his American contemporaries Thomas Nagel and Ronald Dworkin. In his recent book,
Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperament
, Nagel puts it this way: “Existence is something tremendous, and day-to-day life, however indispensable, seems an insufficient response to it, a failure of consciousness. Outrageous as it sounds, the religious temperament regards a merely human life as insufficient, as a partial blindness to or rejection of the terms of our existence. It asks for something more encompassing without knowing what it might be.”

The most important question for many people, Nagel says, is this: “How can one bring into one’s individual life a
full
recognition of one’s relation to the universe as a whole?” [Italics added.] Among atheists, he says, physical science is the primary means whereby we understand the universe as a whole, “but it will seem unintelligible [as a means] to make sense of human existence altogether. . . . We recognize that we are products of the world and its history, generated and sustained in existence in ways we hardly understand, so that in a sense every individual life represents far
more than itself.” At the same time he agrees with the British philosopher Bernard Williams that the “transcendent impulse,” which has been with us since at least Plato, “must be resisted,” and that the real object of philosophical reflection must be the ever more accurate description of the world “independent of perspective.” He goes on: “The marks of philosophy are reflection and heightened self-awareness, not maximal transcendence of the human perspective. . . . There is no cosmic point of view, and therefore no test of cosmic significance that we can either pass or fail.”
2

In a later book,
Mind and Cosmos
(2012), he goes further, arguing that the neo-Darwinian account of the evolution of nature, life, consciousness, reason and moral values—the current scientific orthodoxy—“is almost certainly false.” As an atheist, he nonetheless felt that both materialism and theism are inadequate as “transcendent conceptions,” but at the same time acknowledged that it is impossible for us to abandon the search “for a transcendent view of our place in the universe.” And he therefore entertained the possibility (on virtually no evidence, as he conceded) that “life is not just a physical phenomenon” but includes “teleological elements.” According to the hypothesis of natural teleology, he wrote, there would be “a cosmic predisposition to the formation of life, consciousness, and the value that is inseparable from them.” He admitted: “In the present intellectual climate such a possibility is unlikely to be taken seriously”; and indeed, he has been much criticized for this argument.

The argument itself will be discussed more fully in chapter 26, but it fits in here because it shows that, 130-odd years after Nietzsche famously announced “the death of God,” many people (though by no means all) are still trying to find other ways to look out upon our world than the traditional religious viewpoints.

Almost simultaneously, Nagel was joined by his fellow American philosopher colleague Ronald Dworkin in his
Religion Without God
(2013). Here, too, the main thrust of the argument will be discussed in chapter 26, but Dworkin’s chief point was that “religious atheism” is not an oxymoron (not anymore, anyway); that religion, for him and others like him, “does not necessarily mean a belief in God”—rather, “it concerns the meaning of human life and what living well means”; and life’s intrinsic meaning and nature’s intrinsic beauty are the central ingredients of the fully reli
gious attitude to life. These convictions cannot be isolated from the rest of one’s life—they permeate existence, generate pride, remorse and thrill, mystery being an important part of that thrill. And he said that many scientists, when they confront the unimaginable vastness of space and the astounding complexity of atomic particles, have an emotional reaction that many describe in almost traditional religious terms—as “numinous,” for example.

This feels new, though, as we shall see in chapter 15, some of it at least was presaged by John Dewey between the two world wars and hinted at by Michael Polanyi in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
3
The significant factor, for now, is that these three philosophers—on either side of the Atlantic and each at the very peak of his profession—are all saying much the same thing, if in different ways. They share the view that, five hundred and more years after science began to chip away at many of the foundations of Christianity and the other major faiths, there is still an awkwardness, as Habermas put it, or a blindness or “unsufficiency” (Nagel); a mystery, thrilling and numinous, as Dworkin characterized it, in regard to the relationship between religion and the secular world. All three agree with Bernard Williams that the “transcendent” impulse must be resisted, but they acknowledge—ironically—that we cannot escape the
search
for transcendence and that, as a result, many people feel “something” is missing. This is, in effect, they say, the modern secular predicament.

It is in many ways extraordinary that these three individuals—all hugely respected—should, within a few months of each other, but independently, come to similar conclusions: that, depending on where you start counting—from the time of Galileo and Copernicus, four or five hundred years ago, or Nietzsche, 130 years ago, secularization is
still
not fitting the bill, is still seriously lacking in . . . something.

The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has no doubt what that something is. In two very long books,
Sources of the Self
(1989) and
A Secular Age
(2007), he repeatedly charges that people today who inhabit a secular world and lack faith are missing out, missing out on something important, vital—perhaps the most important something there is—namely, as he puts it, a sense of wholeness, fulfillment, fullness of meaning, a sense of something higher; they have an incompleteness, that there is in the mod
ern world “a massive blindness” to the fact that there is “some purpose in life beyond the utilitarian.”
4

Human flourishing, Taylor maintains—a fulfilled life—can be achieved only via religion (Christianity, in his case). Otherwise, the world is “disenchanted,” life is a “subtraction story” with important parts missing. With no sense of “transcendence,” no sense of the “cosmic sacred,” we are left with “merely human values,” which he finds “woefully inadequate.” The “higher times,” he says, have faded, we are imbued with “a sense of malaise, emptiness, a need for meaning”; there is a terrible sense of flatness in the everyday, the emptiness of the ordinary, and this need for meaning can be met only “by a recovery of transcendence.”
5

POROUS VERSUS BUFFERED SELVES

Taylor pursues this argument further than any of the others. He says that humanism has failed, that the “pursuit of happiness,” a current concern, is a much thinner idea or ideal than “fulfillment” or “flourishing” or transcendence; that it uses a “less subtle language,” giving rise to less subtle experiences; that it is lacking in “spiritual insight,” spontaneity or immediacy, is devoid of “harmony” and “balance,” and is ultimately unhealthy.

The modern individual, he says, is a “buffered” self rather than a “porous” self. A porous self is open to all the feelings and experiences of the world “out there,” while the modern buffered self is denied these experiences because our scientific education teaches us only concepts, our experiences are intellectual, emotional, sexual and so on, rather than “whole.” Modern individuals have been denied a “master narrative” in which they may find their place, and without which their “sense of loss can perhaps never be stilled.” Without these factors, he goes on, there is no scope for any human life to achieve a “sense of greatness” out of which a “higher” view of fulfillment arises. The sense that there is “something more” presses in on us, and, therefore, we can never be “comfortable” with unbelief.

Phew. Skeptics may raise their eyebrows at these claims but there is no doubt that they chime with what many people feel or think. And the likes
of Taylor find support for their arguments in the statistical fact that, after the high point of secularization in the 1960s and 1970s, at the beginning of the twenty-first century more and more people are turning—or returning—to religion. Richard Kearney has even given it a name, Anatheism.
6
We shall return to the (ambiguous) meaning of these statistics presently, but it is certainly true that in 2014 the battle between religious thinkers and atheists is as fierce (and indeed as bitter) as it has been for many a year.

For their part, the militant atheists, as they have been described, largely occupy a Darwinian position. Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, to name only the best known, follow Charles Darwin in seeing human beings as an entirely naturally occurring biological species, which has slowly evolved from “lower” animals, in a universe that has likewise evolved over the past 13.5 billion years from a “singularity,” or “Big Bang,” itself a naturally occurring process (albeit where the laws of nature break down) that we shall understand someday. This process has no need of any supernatural entity.

BOOK: The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God
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