No More Happy Atheists?
“Pity us / By the sea / On the sands / So briefly” — Samuel Menashe
“As the certainty of faith collapsed, so did the certainty of unbelief,” wrote the Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski. “Today’s godless world – unlike the cozy world of Enlightenment atheism, produced by a friendly and benevolent Nature – is perceived as a dark abyss of eternal chaos, with no meaning or direction, no structure or signposts […] Ever since Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God a hundred years ago, there have been no more happy atheists.”1
This newsletter takes umbrage at Kołakowski’s claim. Or rather, it wants to. Atheism, or the kind of atheism I am interested in, must aspire to be something more than just “a dark abyss of eternal chaos”; it needs both meaning and direction; it must have more to offer than the denial of God’s existence.
This was one of the fatal flaws of New Atheism, which never really amounted to much more than “a protest against a God others believe in,” in the words of the literary scholar Bernard Schweizer.2 Since religion, in their view, is all superstition and nonsense, New Atheists felt absolved of having to take any theological or philosophical arguments for belief seriously, which only had the corrosive effect of making their atheism little more than a swift corrective. Sam Harris admitted as much: “Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious. […] Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious belief.”3
This is why you never encounter any serious engagement with the ideas of Nietzsche, Camus, or Dostoevsky in the various New Atheist tomes, and why they sound so much like your run-of-the-mill nineteenth century positivist—the kind Dostoevsky had in mind when he wrote, in reference to The Brothers Karamazov, “these fools could not even conceive so strong a denial of God as the one to which I gave expression […] You might search Europe in vain for so powerful an expression of atheism. Thus it is not like a child that I believe in Christ and confess him. My hosanna has come forth from the crucible of doubt.”4
Neither is it like a child that an atheist must deny God. One has to engage with the arguments and truth claims of religion. Removing God does not remove the metaphysical questions religion pretends to answer: Why are we only here so briefly? Why do we die? And since we die, why do we live?
Sometimes I think that even asking these questions is an admission of my un-happy atheism. I, too, feel faintly anachronistic, sitting here with my Nietzsche and my Dostoevsky, my Jacobsen and my Hardy, asking those old familiar questions. (In My Struggle Book Two, the Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard says there is “a furious nineteenth century man inside me.” When I first read that, I nodded with a kind of desperate assent). Then again, there have been many persuasive attempts at what one might call “happy” atheism in our own time: Martin Hägglund’s This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, for instance, or Philip Kitcher’s Life After Faith, or the searching, probing essays of James Wood and George Scialabba, both of whom were raised religiously. (I am using the word “happy” in an aspirational sense rather than a descriptive one.)
And there is Albert Camus. I will return to him often, because he remains for me the most persuasive and moving “happy” atheist, and because his quest is also my own: “What interests me is knowing how we must behave, and more precisely, how to behave when one does not believe in God or reason.”5 (I’ve written at greater length about Camus here.)
That, more or less, is the question I want to explore in this newsletter.
A few words about myself. I’m neither a philosopher nor a theologian—in fact, I am not an expert or specialist of any kind. I’m a critic-for-hire, a dilletante connoisseur, the author of a literary biography and, soon, a book about Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. That’s about it. In other words, this newsletter will leave plenty to be desired. Someone once said (I can never remember who) that a literary critic is a person who conducts his or her education in public, a statement I sympathize acutely with. Here, then, is my self-education in atheism and religion. I hope you will enjoy it.
Leszek Kołakowski, “Anxiety About God in an Ostensibly Godless Age,” Is God Happy? Selected Essays, New York, NY: Basic Books, 2013, p. 184
Bernard Schweizer, Hating God: The Untold Story of Misotheism, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 10
Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006, p. 51
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Grand Inquisitor, New York, NY: Continuum, 1993, p. x
Olivier Todd, Albert Camus: A Life, New York, NY: Carroll & Graf, 1997, p. 408