Catching up on reading some worthwhile long blog posts this morn (I’m prone to regard provisionally the best stuff as tl;dr), I was reminded that I’d saved one from Greta Christina from about a month ago that I meant to comment on in some form (not in the worthwhile category, way tl given its lack of substance, yet I’ve read it more than once).
In the next generation or so, will it be easier to become an atheist?
I don’t mean socially or politically easier. I’m not wondering whether there will eventually be less anti-atheist bigotry, discrimination, stigma, whether state and church will be better separated, etc. (That’s not what I’m thinking about today, anyway.) I’m wondering if it will become emotionally easier, and philosophically.
My response, in short, I fucking hope not! But specifically of Christina and her ilk, I have to ask, how difficult is it now? All you have to do is develop the capacity to see such questions in your navel at parties.
Christina reminisces about a little drinking years ago talking then with her friend Tim about existentialism:
Tim was saying that he agreed with the original existentialists about how, from any external objective perspective, there’s no meaning to our lives, and meaning is something we create entirely for ourselves. And then he said something like, “The difference is that I don’t see why that’s a problem. Sure, I create my own meaning. So what? That’s fine with me. Sartre and Camus and that whole crowd thought this was a barely-tolerable psychological state that had to be struggled with on a daily basis… but I don’t see what the big deal is.”
I knew immediately what he meant. And I said something like, “I wonder if the difference is that they made up existentialism, it was totally new to them… but we grew up with it. The idea was already in the air. Even if you didn’t grow up in an intellectual household, the basic idea had already filtered down into the culture. So when we were figuring out the world and our place in it, existentialism just seemed normal.”
Whoa! It’s like overhearing one of those conversations between undergrads that leave you crestfallen and wondering why you didn’t go into another line of work.
Greta, letcha in on a secret: when existentialism seems normal to you, you’re not living with it, you’re fleeing from it.
Curiously, while Christina et al. grew up with existentialism, so she says, atheism, she then says, was “a new idea that we had to struggle with.” And upon coming to it,
We had to find a radically new way of looking at the world and our place in it, with radically new answers to the big questions of life and death. Without belief in God or a soul or an afterlife, we had to seriously re-think questions about morality and mortality, meaning and connection.
“Radically.” Interesting choice of modifier. Can’t say for sure, but I take it that that radical new way was not through taken-for-granted existentialism and again I’d venture to say that it was in the opposite direction.
That radical means flight to illusion and egoism seems confirmed in the next paragraph:
And if we came to our atheism more or less on our own — if we came to the atheist community after we let go of God, not before — we had to re-invent the wheel. I certainly went through that. When I let go of my spiritual beliefs, I wasn’t familiar with a lot of atheist and humanist and skeptical and secular philosophies of life and death. Death especially was a struggle for me — as it is for many believers letting go of their beliefs — and I pretty much had to piece together my own ways of coping with a life in which death is really and truly final. And I’m not the only one. Other atheists who have left religion report similar emotional and philosophical struggles: about death, about meaning, about personal responsibility, about really big questions that frame our lives.
What do you mean you had to re-invent the wheel? Your acquaintance with the history of Western thought is apparently not even passing. Where Christina landed was some kind of DIY bargain basement Epicureanism, if the rest of her blog (on secular transcendence and Morris dancing, an alltime fav of mine) and the blogs of other atheists like Jerry Coyne are to be judged.
All of this is handled more fully and ably than I have by Benjamin Cain in numerous posts (those “worthwhile long blog posts” and if you go over there, be sure to find your way to his comic porn). Cain’s post, Should Atheists Mourn the Death of God? gets right down to the philosophical bad faith of the atheism of the likes of our Greta (I end with just a taste).
Christina’s hope for “a world where atheism is normal” is expressed thus:
I’m wondering if this struggle will be easier for the people who come into atheism after us. Or even if it will be a struggle at all. I’m wondering if they’ll look at atheism the way my friend Tim and I look at existentialism. “Sure, there’s no God, and my consciousness is a biological product of my brain, and my sense of a cohesive identity and selfhood is a somewhat illusory mental construction, and when I die I’ll just be gone forever. So what? That’s fine with me. I don’t see what the big deal is.”
Nevermind what shape a world full of people thinking this might have (though I shudder to think). The real problem with such a vision is nicely summed up by Cain:
The problem, then, isn’t with atheism so much as with the modern naturalistic humanist’s ideal of hyperrationality. A wannabe hyperrationalist, who despises faith, superstition, and all manner of irrationalism will still have emotional and religious impulses but will disown or rationalize them. This lack of self-awareness produces the scientistic, positivistic aspect of the subculture of New Atheism. (See Hyperrationality.) Meanwhile, those who fulfill the ideal of being passionless are the autistic, paranoid, introverted, skeptical, or philosophically-inclined atheists, the point being not that the latter are omniscient but that they constantly step outside their parochial viewpoint, second-guessing themselves at every turn so that they can’t relax and enjoy themselves, like the over-analytical “mouse” in Dostoevsky’s Underground Man or like the character Woody Allen plays in his films.
To hope that scientific atheism (as opposed to existential atheism, a distinction borrowed from Cain) become commonplace, more than just in keeping with Christina’s narcissism, is nihilistic. It entails the expectation that values and meaning will be created anew for and by all the future godless (undoubtedly, Christina imagines them so recreated in her own image), but how could putting all meaning, values, all big questions up for grabs across culture not lead to widespread dispair followed by God knows what horrors? Christina need not care for she’s not likely to live to that time to rue what she and those like her have wrought.
But given that my default response to the problem of existence is the aesthete’s, I conclude by endulging Christina’s self-obsession and allowing you to see into her navel too.