For reasons known best to himself, author Damon Linker, whose website notes that he writes on “faith and politics,” has lately narrowed this topic down to criticizing New Atheism. His criticisms, of course, aren’t new, and he seems to publish the same ones repeatedly. I’ve discussed his pieces at The Week twice (see here, and here); in the last one he notoriously endorsed David Bentley Hart’s Highly Sophisticated view of God. In Linker’s words:
. . . according to the classical metaphysical traditions of both the East and West, God is the unconditioned cause of reality — of absolutely everything that is — from the beginning to the end of time. Understood in this way, one can’t even say that God “exists” in the sense that my car or Mount Everest or electrons exist. God is what grounds the existence of every contingent thing, making it possible, sustaining it through time, unifying it, giving it actuality. God is the condition of the possibility of anything existing at all.
That is what passes, in Linker’s circle, as the best argument for God, but it’s only “best” because it’s so slippery as to be untestable, and, in truth, it really means almost nothing (check out the last sentence).
But now Linker has decided to reprise one of his earlier arguments in The Week—“Where are the honest atheists?”—in a new piece at the same site, “How to be an honest atheist.” I’m so glad Linker is around to tell me how I should approach unbelief, and how to do it honestly. In fact, his new article is virtually identical to the older one, and I’m not sure why he gets paid to recycle the same arguments.
Well, how does one become an honest atheist? Linker’s argument is an old one: we have to suffer—and suffer a lot. For, if you’re honest, denying God and all the perquisites He affords—most notably the afterlife—is painful, turning life into a tragedy. Somehow, the “honest atheist” has to come to terms with that, and although he or she may wind up with some equanimity, it’s achieved at the cost of considerable pain.
For Linker, the most honest atheists were the existentialists, who really, truly saw the truth about disbelief:
Existentialism differs from the greeting-card version of atheism so prevalent today, in taking its cue from the realization that life without God is hard.
It’s hard because human beings tend to be anxious animals, longing for someone or something to soothe us, to protect us from and relieve us of the worries wrapped up with our mortality. It’s hard because our lives and our loved ones matter to us more than we can possibly express — and the prospect of losing them for good in the annihilation of death is irrevocably terrifying. It’s hard because part of us wants to believe that we reside in a moral universe — that an immoral deed violates an intrinsic standard of right and wrong, even if the perpetrator eludes human punishment. And it’s hard, finally, because we crave good things for ourselves — many of which (fame, fortune, honor, glory) only the luckiest will ever acquire, and some of which (happiness unmixed with sorrow) no one will ever enjoy within the limits of our finite lives.
Rather than denying these core human truths in an effort to make godlessness seem more palatable, existentialists insist on living in their light, even when doing so cuts against the grain of the human heart and its deepest longings.
I’m not sure what Linker means by the dishonest, “greeting-card” version of atheism that he so decries, but presumably it’s an atheism that hasn’t come to terms with the finality and futility of life—a life that, says Linker, lacks reason and purpose. Linker’s hero in this respect is Camus:
Reading those lines, our shallower atheists are sure to respond: What do you mean “no good reason”? I have plenty of good reasons for what I do with my life!
To which an existentialist like Albert Camus would reply: Can you really give a spiritually satisfying answer to the question of why you do what you do — an answer that transcends arbitrariness and contingency?
Camus didn’t think it was possible, and he considered that a problem — one that an honest atheist needs to confront. That’s because what Camus called “the unreasonable silence of the world” in the face of the human quest for intrinsic meaning threatens to render absurd every form of human striving, from the ambition to accomplish great deeds to the far more mundane activities of pursuing a career, raising a family, and even getting out of bed in the morning. An existentialist understands that in the absence of a God who provides an ultimate answer to the question of “why,” the goodness of human life can appear to dissolve, requiring reconstruction from the ground up.
. . . Which is why it’s so important that atheists not deny the struggle in the first place.
I truly don’t get this kind of argument, which is quite common among believers and faitheists. Virtually every atheist, merely by professing disbelief, acknowledges that death is the end of our existence. Which atheist thinks otherwise? And one comes to terms with that the best way one can. Most of us do it by acknowledgment and then moving on—recognizing our mortality but then living knowing that our lives are finite. In the long view, of course, all striving is “meaningless”: a few generations after we’re gone our presence will have been effaced, our strivings amounting to nothing.
But that is true for the religious as well. For believers have jobs, interest, hobbies, families, and loved ones, and those “strivings” are, in the end, just as meaningless as those of atheists. The only difference is that believers think that they get to start a new life in Heaven. For many of them that constitutes a “reason” or “purpose” to live, but in reality their daily activities are spent like the rest of us, with the real “purposes” of working, having fun, and interacting with loved ones and friends. If that is meaningless to atheists, it’s also meaningless to believers. And is that really a “spiritually unsatisfying view of life”? How so? Why, exactly, must the way we find meaning in our lives transcend arbitrariness and contingency? How could it possibly do that, given that who we are is an accident of chance, and our lives turn largely on whatever environments we happen to encounter. If you don’t accept God, then of course we make our own meanings, and those will perforce be arbitrary and contingent.
In the face of the so-called “meaninglessness” of life, Camus said, in The Myth of Sisyphus, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.” But what would that solve? There is still pleasure and joy to be gotten from life, and is it shallow to say that the pursuit of that pleasure and happiness is what constitutes “meaning”? So what if all my work on fruit flies is superceded by others, or that the whole Earth will die a heat death in a few billion years? My science gives me pleasure, and fills my short life with a kind of joy. I drink nice wine, have good food, and, though reading, looking at art, and listening to music, am able to commune with the great minds of the past? Why is that inferior to the lives of squirrels, whose existence comprises only a search for sex, nests, and nuts? Why do we have to have more “meaning” in our lives than other sentient creatures? Why must our search for “meaning” transcend what gives us happiness and what Sam Harris calls “well being”?
I have had my own atheistic “struggle” (it lasted just a few minutes in 1967 and sometimes recurs in the middle of the night), and no, I don’t like the idea of dying. As Hitchens said, I don’t want to leave the party and have it continue without me. But we have no choice. Would Linker counsel me to ruminate endlessly on my mortality and even, like Camus, contemplate suicide? Why does that make me a more “honest” atheist?
No thanks. I enjoy my life, and will be sad when it draws to an end, but what’s the advantage of endless brooding over mortality? What do we gain by endless philosophizing on the supposed meaninglessness of life? Nothing that I see! What do we gain from suicide, except permanent oblivion and the denial of any happiness to come? To be sure, what do we lose by pretending that we’re immortal (so long as we remember to make out our will)—which is pretty much how most people live their lives?
Life is a fatal disease, and you can deal with it either by letting it cast a pall over your life (as many terminal patients do) or you can approach it with dignity and whatever optimism you can muster. Linker, it seems, thinks that we’re only serious if we take the former route.
To be sure, he does admit that we can find some kind of equanimity if we’re “honest” atheists:
That is a monumental spiritual challenge — one that can only be undertaken on the basis of an admittedly absurd leap of faith that affirms the goodness of life despite its ultimate pointlessness. . . Existentialists do not counsel despair. They seek, rather, to provide us with clear-sighted and candid guidance as we make our way through a disenchanted world.
But in the end I get the feeling that Linker, like many who make this argument, really wants atheists to be brooding and unhappy creatures, for that’s what he sees as our just deserts for rejecting God. He may deny this, but I feel it nonetheless. It’s just not seemly to reject God without contemplating suicide. The strange thing is, though, that whole nations like Denmark, Sweden, and France have largely done this, and remain happy and well-adjusted countries, though their mainly atheist population is, to Linker, clearly not “honest.”
But what is most bizarre about Linker’s argument is that the Sophisticated Notion of God he proposes above doesn’t include an afterlife—the key reason atheists are supposed to be dolorous. Nor is it clear how the idea of God as “the condition of the possibility of anything existing at all” is supposed to confer either meaning or morality to our existence. Where does the morality come from, for instance?
In the end, Linker thinks that the “honest and serious atheist” is one who has come to terms with the absence of a God who, according to Linker, doesn’t exist anyway. So must the “honest believer” also come to terms with a God who is not personal, but a distant and apophatic Ground of Being? Linker can’t have it both ways.