The New Yorker praises atheism (sort of)

May 19, 2019 • 10:00 am

UPDATE: James Wood has responded politely to this piece in a comment below, which you can find here.


The article below (click on screenshot), by New Yorker literary critic and Harvard English professor James Wood, is a review of Martin Hägglund’s new book, This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, but also a paean (of sorts) to secularism and atheism.

I once spent a pleasant few hours with James in a Harvard Square coffeeshop, trying to find out if he thought literature was a “way of knowing” (as I recall, he agreed that we can’t find truths about the universe from literature itself), and I don’t want to be hard on him. Most of his pieces for the magazine are excellent, and his literary judgment is keen. But I think he’s somewhat off the mark in this review. And that is mainly because he takes some gratuitous swipes at New Atheism (and, of course, the Great Satan Dawkins), as well as implying that we don’t need to consider evidence—or, rather, the lack thereof—when we give up religion.

When New Yorker writers bestir themselves to say something good about nonbelief, you can be sure of five things:

1.) They may praise atheism, but they will also diss New Atheism.
2.) They will disdain the need for evidence when deciding whether to be a believer or an atheist. Evidence is irrelevant. This is part of the magazine’s perpetual favoring of the humanities and their “ways of knowing” over science.
3.) They will conflate religion with “passion”. One example came from a piece in the New Yorker that, while praising this website, implied that I was quasi-religious:

If atheists underestimate the fudginess in faith, believers underestimate the soupiness of doubt. My own favorite atheist blogger, Jerry Coyne, the University of Chicago evolutionary biologist, regularly offers unanswerable philippics against the idiocies of intelligent design. But a historian looking at his blog years from now would note that he varies the philippics with a tender stream of images of cats—into whose limited cognition, this dog-lover notes, he projects intelligence and personality quite as blithely as his enemies project design into seashells—and samples of old Motown songs. The articulation of humanism demands something humane, and its signal is disproportionate pleasure placed in some frankly irrational love.

4.) They will show a sneaking sympathy with religious belief and ritual; and
5.) They will lard their arguments with heavy literary knowledge and references

These features are all on view in Wood’s article, and all but #5 are missteps, though, as I said, I think the piece is generally good and certainly worth reading.

According to Wood, the thesis of Hägglund’s book includes these ideas:

a. Religion is bogus, but it’s not bogus just because there is no evidence for gods. In fact, evidence is irrelevant to nonbelief.

b. Religion is bogus because the notion of eternity, which Hägglund sees as inherent in most religions (including Buddhism and Judaism, which don’t have a concept of heaven), is incoherent and, even if comprehensible, is palpably undesirable.

c. Even religious people act as if they’re atheists because they mourn the loss of loved ones who die, and have no concrete notion of seeing them again. This is an attachment to the secular—a hidden atheism.

d. If we reject eternity, and realize that the here and now is all we have, then we must construct our secular values around that notion. Hägglund thinks that this drives us to a form of socialism. Why? Because we are all striving for maximal freedom in our finite existence, and thus must balance our drive for individual freedom with our social duties. According to Hägglund, capitalism is opposed to this by constantly trying to increase our work time and reduce our free time. To counterbalance this, we need a form of democratic socialism that will “reduce, in the aggregate, socially necessary labor time and to increase socially available free time.”

Hägglund’s book, then, is a bipartite meditation on the uselessness of eternity and the need to accept our finitude, and then a set of ideological and political prescriptions on how to construct a society that takes our finitude on board. I’m not going to discuss this part: Wood talks heavily about Marx and Feuerbach, the architects of the kind of society Hägglund wants, and while this is interesting I’m not sure how convincing it is. Even Wood finds the author”s arguments for how to negotiate necessary labor with freedom unconvincing:

Rather than simply replace the realm of necessity with the realm of freedom—which would be impossible anyway, because there is always tedious and burdensome work to be done—we should be able to better “negotiate” the relationship between those realms. Hägglund gives an example of how this might be done when he talks about the way his own work on the book we are reading unites the two realms: writing “This Life” was labor, of course, but it was pursued as an end in itself, as a matter of intellectual inquiry. In a Hägglundian utopia, labor would be part of our freedom.

As Church Lady would say, “isn’t that convenient?” Academics like Hägglund already have that freedom. And Wood stresses the hypocrisy:

An ideal democratic socialism that harmonizes Hägglund’s idea of freedom with the state’s necessarily different idea of freedom will come to America, I guess, not just when the mountain comes to Muhammad but when the tenured academic willingly gives up his Yale chair for a job at New Haven’s Gateway Community College. Like many readers, I get anxious when literary academics use the verb “negotiate” at tricky moments; it forecloses argument, and seldom means actual negotiation. Indeed, Hägglund is unusually weasel-wordy when he concedes that such negotiation will demand “an ongoing democratic conversation.” That’s putting it optimistically.

Indeed. But let’s get to Wood’s criticism of New Atheism. Here’s some of it, channeled through Hägglund’s book (these are Wood’s words):

The problem with eternity is not that it doesn’t exist (Hägglund is uninterested in the pin dancing of proof and disproof) but that it is undesirable and incoherent; it kills meaning and collapses value. This is a difficult truth to learn, because we are naturally fearful of loss, and therefore attached to the idea of eternal restoration.

It’s clear that Wood isn’t interested in evidence, either, calling it “the pin dancing of proof and disproof”. But that’s bogus, for why would one reject eternity at all if you didn’t think that there was no evidence for it? If there were convincing evidence for a heaven, then surely we’d like to know about it and take it on board. If we knew that we would see our loved ones for eternity in some form or another (and yes, considering precisely what form gets you mired in the hinterlands of theology), we’d surely behave differently from how we do—perhaps mourning less when a loved one dies. Wood and Hägglund give plenty of evidence for literary figures showing the kind of mourning that seems inconsistent with a belief in eternity, including C. S. Lewis as well as writers like Primo Levi, Chekhov and Montaigne, but of course some mourning can still be consistent with belief in a heaven. After all, it may be some time before you see your loved ones again—if you even do. (If you believe in reincarnation, you won’t even remember them in the next life.)

It’s almost as if Wood (and Hägglund) don’t think evidence is even relevant to giving up religion: one can instead just say that the notion of heaven is incoherent, many people don’t act as if eternity exists, and therefore there are no gods.

But Wood is right that many religious people act as if this life is all they have. And he’s right that the notion of eternity as limned by various faiths isn’t something we’d really want. But he can’t help going after New Atheism and its dogged insistence on empirical evidence:

The great merit of Hägglund’s book is that he releases atheism from its ancient curse: its sticky intimacy with theism. Hägglund has no need for a parasitical relationship to the host (which, for instance, contaminates the so-called New Atheism), because he’s not interested in disproving the host’s existence. So, instead of being forced into, say, rationalist triumphalism (there is no God, and science is His prophet), he can expand the definition of the secular life so that it incorporates many of the elements traditionally thought of as religious.

This is an explicit criticism of New Atheism by Wood and an explicit rejection of the empirical argument made by people like Dawkins and Hitchens.  But again, that’s bogus. For, after all, why would you even be an atheist unless you were convinced, though a lack of evidence—or in the case of theodicy, positive evidence against a god—that gods and heavens didn’t exist? Only once you have dispensed with the idea of gods and heavens can you then buckle down and do the kind of work that Hägglund prescribes.

Note, too, that Wood calls New Atheism a form of “rationalist triumphalism” (a clear slur) and also gets in a lick against science when he implies that the New Atheist creed is “there is no God and science is His prophet”. This is unworthy of Wood and in fact inimical to his argument. I’d ask both Wood (who may be an atheist; I’m not sure) and Hägglund this question: Why don’t you believe in gods, heaven or eternity?” I’d bet their answer would be “Because there is no evidence for them.” And presto, you’re talking about the arguments of New Atheists.

I see I’m running on here, and can leave the rest of the article to you, but I’ll give one more quote. Again we see Wood apparently agreeing with Hägglund that the trappings of religion may be valuable, or even necessary, for modern humans. There’s also a gratuitous slap at Dawkins, who is apparently the Great Satan of Atheism.

Feuerbach wanted to liberate human beings from their harmful self-deceptions, but Hägglund sees no imperative to disdain this venerable meaning-making projection, no need to close down all the temples and churches and wash them away with a strong dose of Dawkins. Instead, religious practice could be seen as valuable and even cherishable, once it is understood to be a natural human quest for meaning. Everything flows from the double assumption that only finitude makes for ultimate meaning and that most religious values are unconsciously secular. We are meaning-haunted creatures.

This is the old argument that humans need ceremony and bonding, and religion gives us that. My response is that the churches and temples of Scandinavia have been closed down for a long time, and the country is no worse for it. People find their ritual and meaning in many ways, and as the growth of secularism and of the non-churchy “nones” continues even more churches will close of their own accord. And don’t forget that those temples and churches don’t just provide comity: they are often divisive toward those of other faiths, and enforce a kind of morality that is far inferior to secular morality. Not to mention that they buttress the habit of faith: belief without substantial evidence.

The reader who called this article to my attention said that Wood’s piece was “very positive on atheism.” I’m not so sure, and it’s certainly not positive on New Atheism nor its reliance on empirical standards. But you be the judge.

h/t: David

72 thoughts on “The New Yorker praises atheism (sort of)

  1. “This is the old argument that humans need ceremony and bonding, and religion gives us that.”

    Indeed, religious institutions are not necessary to create social bonds. But, there must by alternative, secular ones. In the United States, at least, there seems to be a growing problem of loneliness, which is probably caused by a lack of social bonds. An NBC news op-ed discusses the loneliness issue:

    In particular, as young people leave religion, they are often set adrift, resulting in mental and physical health issues. Thus, it is incumbent for secular folk to create institutions that mimic the bonding role of churches. If not, religion may make a comeback.

    1. Social bonding leads to the possibility of socialism. This, in America, is likely to get you hauled up in front of congressional committees and blackballed from everything from the public toilets upwards.

    2. I agree. I never was a believer but I went to church for a little while when I was perhaps 11 because I had a best friend whose family was religious and I tagged along. I did enjoy the singing and the camaraderie. School and work can be somewhat of a substitute but there still seems to be a hole that needs filling. I don’t know what they do in Scandinavia but perhaps neighborhood clubs could fill such a hole. While the Internet provides some a sense of community, it is no substitute for face-to-face gathering. Ideas?

      1. I live in Sweden and I can assure you there are a lot of churches. We go to them for weddings, funerals, baptisms, graduations etc, even though most people don’t explicitly believe in the Christian god. The church is very welcoming to believers and atheists alike.

          1. There are some religious private schools, but it’s not very common and highly debated. I’m not sure whatbthe law says about what they can or can’t teach, but the curriculum is determined on a national level for all schools (private and public). And it includes evolution.

    3. “In particular, as young people leave religion, they are often set adrift, resulting in mental and physical health issues.”

      The churches are available to those young people, at least in most places. The problem is that the churches don’t deliver, for various reasons.

      In the linked article, I found this sentence interesting:
      “Roxane Gay eloquently articulates why in-person gatherings are crucial for reducing loneliness.”

      We should not need to be told that meeting people in person is the cure for loneliness. It’s more or less self evident.

    4. America has always been weaker than Europe in providing a safety net and welfare state. Not surprisingly, churches have stepped in to offer services that partly fill those gaps. The closer the U.S. moves to providing the sort of social democracy practiced in Denmark, the more religion will fade away. Then we will no longer hear the “little people need religion” argument from pundits.

  2. There’s a false conflation of “religion” with “personal soul + reincarnation” :

    c. Even religious people act as if they’re atheists because they mourn the loss of loved ones who die, and have no concrete notion of seeing them again.

    There are religions where people’s souls exist, and persist, but their identity doesn’t. So you wouldn’t recognise Auntie Flo, even if you were to spend the rest of eternity with them. Most branches of the Hindu and Buddhist sorgasbords fall into this category.
    Oh, sorry, they only mean “The Old Time Religion I sucked at my mummy’s tit”? Not religion in general?

  3. this is a comment in which the word “sub” is written, such that the commentor (commenter?) will receive the subsequent comments in their email….

    also I forgot to check the “Notify ..” button, and then did “sub” again, and it got rejected, because the program does not allow commenters to write the same thing twice.

    NOW you know why I wrote all that stuff ^^^.

  4. As a pantheist, I see no inherent connection between belief in God and belief in an afterlife, though many religions tout both. Certainly the question of “evidence” bears differently on the two beliefs: creation itself might reasonably be considered “evidence” of a Creator, but no such evidence exists for an afterlife.

    That point aside, however, Hagglund’s conclusion about the rejection of an afterlife is questionable: “If we reject eternity, and realize that the here and now is all we have, then we must construct our secular values around that notion. Hägglund thinks that this drives us to a form of socialism.” Seems to me it might as readily drive us toward a form hedonism.

      1. “Sounds like Aquinas’s cosmological argument to me, Gary.”

        Indeed it does, Ken. Didn’t say I subscribed to it but only that it might “reasonably” be asserted. And if anybody’s reasonable to a fault, it’s old Tom.

  5. According to Hägglund, capitalism is opposed to this by constantly trying to increase our work time and reduce our free time. To counterbalance this, we need a form of democratic socialism that will “reduce, in the aggregate, socially necessary labor time and to increase socially available free time.”

    Sounds like Hägglund’s lookin’ to immanentize the eschaton, man.

  6. So here’s a question that has been bugging me for some time, especially since I started reading this website. What’s the difference between New Atheism and the old kind? Is it just the newness itself or does one identify as a New Atheist or an Old Atheist? Not asking for a friend.

    1. I can say I must be an old atheist because I have been one for a long time. If you are old and an atheist = old atheist. But actually, I think the the books by the four horseman and the bolder way of presenting religion is where they get the term new. Humans like to create labels.

    2. “New atheism” simply means new boldness. The term arose as a result of the more outspoken atheists of recent years.

      It should be said that some of us were always outspoken, but we neither wrote books nor had access to the magical power of the internet. My first public debate was in 1962, and other than the obvious limit in reach, I was no less confrontational than the “new atheists” of today. And it was at a time when uniformity of thought was considerably greater than today; everyday folks – in America at least – weren’t even aware that atheists existed!

      1. Yes, I think it’s fairer to say that New Atheism is used as a slur by anyone who *thinks* someone is talking too loudly about atheism. So the problem is in the *perception* rather than what New Atheists say. Reading a bit of Ingersoll and Bertrand Russell shows how some were dismissive of religion long before the four horsemen.

        Of course there were times when we were not free to speak about religion as the new atheists could and can, but many great thinkers expressed very similar sentiments to the New Atheism (often privately or posthumously). Examples include Hobbes, Hume, de Spinoza (all 17c), George Eliot, Leslie Stephen and Mark Twain (all 19c).

        I suppose the ones that had the good grace to die before airing their views are deemed respectful enough for the faitheists.

        1. That’s it. That’s all there is to it. It is simply a slur just as you said. And unapologetic atheism goes back to at least ancient Greece.

    3. I never gave much thought to what ‘new atheism’ meant. I just looked it up and Wikipedia kicks off with:

      ‘New Atheism is a term coined in 2006 by the agnostic journalist Gary Wolf to describe the positions promoted by some atheists of the twenty-first century.[1][2] This modern-day atheism is advanced by a group of thinkers and writers who advocate the view that superstition, religion and irrationalism should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized, and exposed by rational argument wherever their influence arises in government, education, and politics.’

      I think most religious people will be happy if the definition refers to superstition and irrationalism instead of ‘superstition, religion and irrationalism’.

      The reason why religious influence is criticized is BECAUSE it is often superstitious and irrational.

    4. Militancy, primarily. There’ve been militant atheists before — Bertrand Russell certainly comes to mind — but never quite so many at the same time (with four of them having published best-selling books in close temporal proximity), concomitant with the rise and immediacy of online communications.

      1. “Militancy, primarily.”

        I would have said “evangelical,” but “militant” works. What it comes down to is the difference between holding something to be true yourself and needing to convert others to your perception of the truth.

        1. “..needing to convert others to your perception of the truth.”

          I’d be a bit more charitable and say that it’s the difference between holding something to be true yourself and recognizing that, since beliefs have consequences & some ideas are better than others, we should always be in the arena, and not remain silent, thereby ensuring that lesser ideas go unchallenged.

          “Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity,” as Hitchens said.

    5. I think “New Atheism” is meant as a derogatory label created by critics of strident atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens and Harris. I don’t think Dawkins et al. consider themselves “new atheists”, but maybe they do.

    6. In a nutshell, New Atheism is on Twitter.

      The atheism part is the same; the willingness to go public with it is the new thing.

    7. I think that new atheist base their convictions mainly on science, such as evolution, or perhaps cosmology also. The “old” atheists have more philosophical ideas, like the absurdity of the idea that there is some invisible being up there that monitors your behavior via some kind of celestial internet, and knows all about your future. There were atheists before Darwin.

    8. And to add to the many thoughtful comments, New Atheism (which is well described above) is in contrast to the perception that Old Atheism was supposed to be where you were an atheist who kept pretty quiet about it. In addition, you were supposed to be full of weariness and melancholy. I doubt that this state ever really existed since outspoken atheists go way back. But once atheists like Dawkins began to be widely known, it maybe seemed that outspoken atheism was something new when it really wasn’t new.

  7. Woods’ swipes at Richard Dawkins are odd: they have no particular content, but are just dismissive gestures. ??? I wonder whether disparaging Dawkins has just become a sort of tic or fashion among literateurs, maybe a meme resulting from Terry Eagleton’s campaign of agitprop against Dawkins and Hitchens.

    1. I think that’s right. The word ‘Dawkins’ is a shorthand term of abuse, often used by people who have never read a word of what Richard has written.

  8. Hägglund’s book, then, is a bipartite meditation on the uselessness of eternity and the need to accept our finitude, and then a set of ideological and political prescriptions on how to construct a society that takes our finitude on board.

    Viewing atheism as a means of breaking the grip of religion, so that his own version of political utopianism can slide into the vacant hole?

  9. First, churches still exist in Sweden, even if attendance is down. My (married-into) Swedish family only go to them for funerals and marriages — and not always then.

    Second, if god’s being dead leads to socialism, I say, “Let’s go!”

  10. Indeed if Wood and Haglund were asked why they do not believe in God or why they eschew religion they could only point to a lack of evidence.

    Also, the meaning of life is no mystery. Help others. You can confirm this by studying evolutionary psychology and/or by helping others.

    And what is New Atheism? Old atheism + the internet and popularity.

    Sam Harris still has the best single sentence summation of the problem/uselessness of religion. “At it’s best, religion gives people bad reasons to do good things where good reasons are available.”

    The bad reason to be kind and helpful towards others is because God or some religion says you should. The good reason to be kind and helpful to others is that it will bring you meaning and fulfillment.

    1. Also, the meaning of life is no mystery. Help others.

      Or, as Kurt Vonnegut said about the advice to be given children born today, “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘Goddamn it, you’ve got to be kind.’”

    2. “At it’s best, religion gives people bad reasons to do good things where good reasons are available.”

      It also gives people bad reasons to do bad things (slavery, anyone?), and it reminded me of the notorious statement of Steven Weinberg, the (Nobel laureate atheist)famous particle physicist, at the end of his essay “A Designer Universe?”. It appeared in NY Review of Books, but better, see the collection of his essays “FACING UP–Science and its Cultural Adversaries”, where the preceding discussion and the following essay answering some critics adds a lot to the essay (quite apart from many other goodies, e.g. essay on Sokal’s hoax).

      The quote (end of penultimate paragraph):
      “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil, that takes religion”

      Actually the very last paragraph is also germane to much in this non-blog:

      “I am all in favor of a dialogue between science and religion, but not a constructive dialogue. One of the great achievements of science has been, if not to make it impossible for intelligent people to be religious, then at least to make it possible for them not to be religious. We should not retreat from this accomplishment.”

  11. In reply to Gallant:

    … and Darwin. They cannot stomach the idea that the tenets of religion are becoming more ridiculous every day.

    1. I noticed that we have to fill in every time our name and email, and if you forget and click on “post” you are prompted to do so. But this results in your message appearing out of the logical sequence, completely at the end. I don’t think that previously we had this problem.

      1. For some, including myself, the solution was to get an account in WordPress. It’s easy and free, and then your credentials automatically load when you to to this web site. You get to make your own avatar too.

  12. “I once ..(was).. trying to find out if he thought literature was a “way of knowing” …”

    Seems to me that great writers of fiction (Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dostoevski, etc.) have learned truths, about humans especially, exactly by the reasonably general definition of ‘scientific methods’, namely observation, maybe even a bit of experimentation in seeing reactions to conversation they initiate, etc. So it is simply another aspect of the scientific way of knowing, transferred to us ordinary people by great writing.

    1. The best passage I’ve ever come across about literature as ‘a way of knowing’ is from Randall Jarrell’s Poetry and the Age:

      “Art matters not merely because it is the most magnificent ornament and the most nearly unfailing occupation of our lives, but because it is life itself. From Christ to Freud we have believed that, if we know the truth, the truth will set us free: art is indispensable because so much of this truth can be learned through works of art alone–for which of us could have learned for himself what Proust and Chekhov, Hardy and Yeats and Rilke, Shakespeare and Homer learned for us? And in what other way could they have made us see the truths which they themselves saw, those differing and contradictory truths which seem nevertheless, to the mind which contains them, in some sense a single truth? And all these things, by their very nature, demand to be shared; if we are satisfied to know these things ourselves, and to look with superiority or indifference at those who do not have that knowledge, we have made a refusal that corrupts us as surely as anything can. . . .”

      1. As usual, no “truths” are presented; all we have is an assertion. What is a truth about the world that literature tells us and was not arrived at by empirical inspection. I have yet to find one. What’s clear here is we have “subjective truths”: “differing and contradictory truths”. In other words, NOT truths.

        It all sounds good, but I’d be happier if, after trying for years to find a truth derived from art, literature, and music, people like Jarrell would give us some examples. They can’t. Why? Because literature is not a way of finding out truths about the cosmos.

        1. “. . .after trying for years to find a truth derived from art, literature, and music. . . .”

          I think Jarrell would make a distinction between facts and truth. Any facts you or I might learn about the Napoleonic war from reading War and Peace would be the same, because facts are objective and empirical. Any truths we might learn from reading the book would be different and idiosyncratic, because you and I are different people with different backgrounds. At least that’s what I take to be Jarrell’s meaning.

  13. I have not read Haglund’s book, but based on Wood’s review he seems to believe that the only alternative to an externally-imposed religious worldview is an equivalent non-religious one, which he calls socialism. This doesn’t follow at all. There is still a thing called liberal democracy, which is fairly pragmatic, and which has been practiced to varying extents, and with varying success, in many countries over the past 150 years or so. It may still be the best hope for humankind.

    Meanwhile, I did like this quote from Feuerbach: “When Christians say, “If there is no immortality, then there is no God,” they are actually saying, “If I am not immortal, then there is no God.” They make God dependent on them.“

    1. In my humble opinion, the only hope for humanity, is “responsible anarchy,” a world order based on acting as you believe, without hurting anyone or anything in the process. As long as there is anyone who believes they know how another person or living being should act, there cannot be true peace in this world.
      This of course seems to be a paradox, because it sounds like I am trying to tell you what to do.
      Rather, I am asking you to learn responsibility from inside yourself, and make up your own mind. You might be surprised at your answer.

  14. In regard to point C:

    1) It seems quite reasonable to mourn the loss of loved ones, even if you do expect to eventually see them again.

    2) If the funerals of some very elderly Christian relatives are a guide, they definitely did expect to see spouses and family members again, and derived great consolation from that expectation. My wife, a Falun Gong member, has expressed concern that my failure to share her faith and practices will permanently separate us after our deaths.

  15. many people don’t act as if eternity exists, and therefore there are no gods

    Isn’t this empirical evidence? If we assume people’s behavior is correlated to their belief, and their beliefs are correlated with reality (albeit weakly), then what they do corresponds (weakly) to reality, ergo empirical evidence.

    I can construct something similar for Wood: Since the example he gave is one of empirical evidence, he must believe that empirical evidence plays a role in his atheism, even if he does not believe that he believes empirical evidence plays such a role.


  16. Martin Hägglund is a Professor of Comparative Literature and Humanities in Yeal, and seeing how he links to Swedish home page (.se) – which is down at the moment – I can only assume he grew up in the old Left/far Left culture. (It used to house workers and academics, but the former has mostly abandoned it – hence “old”.)

  17. Greetings to Jerry Coyne, whom I greatly respect! This was, in the main, a perfectly just précis of my review of Martin Hägglund’s “This Life.” Three comments, if I may.

    First, just to clear up a lingering doubt which seems to bother Jerry — I am an atheist, I am happy to broadcast this all over the place. It was even once on my Wikipedia bio, and I was happy to see if there, until it was mysteriously removed by someone. (A crazed Christian? My mother? One and the same, by the way…) I do not believe in God, I do not believe in any kind of afterlife. (Indeed, like Hägglund, I positively loathe the idea of an afterlife). Though Jerry thinks my pieces are loaded with literary references, the point of opening my review, as I did, with a slew of references to Pliny, Montaigne, Chekhov, Levi, Camus and Louise Glück was to announce a certain atheistic tradition and to imply my own affinity with that literary tradition. My personal heroes are Feuerbach — who argued that when we worship God we simply project those ideals and values we cherish onto figments of our imagination — and the always inspiring Camus.

    Second, my point about how Hägglund is not interested in proving or disproving the existence of God/heaven is not meant to suggest that he thinks that heaven MIGHT exist. Of course he does not. Neither do I. My point is that his intellectual enquiry is not focussed on such questions (as a certain kind of atheism, old and New) has traditionally been. He simply bypasses such questions, because he has more interesting fish to fry: he wants to look at the meaning of eternity and how it has tyrannized our secular existence.

    Third, atheism (and very much the New Atheism) HAS traditionally been somewhat obsessively attached to the theism it is involved in disproving or rebelling against. This is Dostoevsky’s point about Ivan Karamazov. And it is simply a matter of fact, just as it is a matter of fact that the New Atheism, which arose as a response to the horrors of 9/11, has been somewhat obsessively attached to Islam and evangelical Christianity as its twin targets. For the New Atheism, Islam and evangelical Christianity is what religion IS. Again, it’s nice to see Hägglund bypassing this particular obsession.
    Not because the obsession is wrong — I’m happy to join forces against militant Islam and militant Christianity — but because the obsession can get a bit boring, and because he’s interested in doing a different kind of enquiry.

    Fourth, I agree with Jerry that there are all kinds of meaning-making traditions and rituals that we can embrace, without having to revert to the old religious rituals. Again, my point was that Hägglund’s argument doesn’t NECESSARILY insist on doing away with all these religious rituals; he simply notes how secular they really are. Thus, a liberal Jew might be a total atheist but also cherish Passover seders, because of what those ceremonies and gatherings mean in relation to the long history of the Jewish people. Or, to get closer to Hägglund’s book, being unprejudiced about such religious rituals would allow one to see that Martin Luther King’s crusade for civil rights was both secular and inextricably bound up with the religious traditions it emerged from (especially, of course, the Israelites’ exodus out of bondage toward the Promised Land). This is simply the kind of enquiry that historians and other humanists do, even if Jerry doesn’t always approve of it! Best wishes, James Wood.

  18. New Atheism did not arise “as a response to the horrors of 9/11.” It arose, as Tim comments above, according to this formula “Old atheism + the internet and popularity.” That’s a huge difference – where is this alleged 9-11 causality?

    1. In fact, 9/11 did play a role. I distinctly recall Dawkins saying that it was an important factor in his decision to be more confrontational. His books prior to The God Delusion had all had poetic titles — River Out of Eden, Unweaving the Rainbow, The Ancestor’s Tale — but he’d wanted to be more direct, which his publisher warned him against.

      Also, the formula “Old atheism + the internet and popularity” is incomplete; many “old” atheists had long stayed in the closet, and even with the arrival of modern communication, they continued to urge caution and refrain from direct “attack” (unapologetic critique) on the cherished beliefs of others, which frustrated many of us more confrontational types. To this day many of them are still critical of the so-called new atheists, no matter that they’ve clearly brought the topic of disbelief to far greater levels of public recognition and respectability.

      And, as Sam Harris has said, “The publication of our four books in quick succession moved the conversation about faith and reason out of rented banquet halls filled with septuagenarians and brought it to a mainstream (and much younger) audience.”

      1. 9/11 may have played a “role,” but then so did about 17 other factors, and it was not primarily determinative as Wood tries to get away with blithely asserting.
        That’s certainly an interesting detail about Dawkins’ bravery at the time, but the time was ripe for a frontal attack on the nonsense of religion, certainly including Christianity, and was not Muslim-focused like all the other 9/11 hysteria.
        I agree fully with your second paragraph, and think you’ve nailed the old/new battleground well.

        Let’s see if our fellow traveler Wood tries any further specious sociology attaching that amazing upsurge in public atheism to some imagined anti-Muslim 9/11-inspired fixation.

  19. Feuerbach’s stuff is interesting, but I am not sure it tells us about what is actually *needed* by humans. Instead, it is descriptive (and reworked by Durkheim).

  20. There is no god, gods, or superbeings. I do not get this from science, I learned this from life, and being alive. Modern humanity gives no value to life itself. It takes life for granted. It should not.
    Of course evolution is true, it is visible in the many species of living things we have today. Just as visible is the fact thefe is no one in charge of evolution. Life happens.
    As for eternity, well, can life itself die? I don’t think so! But it can certainly be killed, even as one product of life, called humanity. is presently killing all forms of life, including itself.

    I am not going to go to other planets, or universes, or anything we can only guess at. But right here on planet Earth, we have life, and we are killing it. God cannot stop us. Science can only give us the tools to accomplish this. It is up to living beings to choose life over death! Right now we are choosing death!

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