First we had Atheism, which held that there is no God. Then we had the “New Atheism,” which holds that there is no God and doesn’t want his kind around here. Now we have the “New New Atheism” … I wish I were making this up … which doesn’t like God but loves church.
As an article in Salon notes: “Emerging amidst a rash of new atheist literature — which considers the possibility of a more religious Atheism, and a more structured lack of faith — (the time for an atheist church) is intellectually ripe.”
Because that’s just what atheism was missing: theism.
I’m actually quite sympathetic to the idea of Alain de Botton that not having God in your life still leaves something missing. Indeed the biggest ocean separating the atheists of the 19th and early 20th century from the “new atheists” was the fact that the former were deeply worried about what would happen to people and society without religion, while the latter were confident that only good things would come from treating a 5000 year old institution like so much old newspaper. Nietzsche desperately feared that Man would destroy himself without God; Russell was deeply concerned about the way society would function as a moral order with its religious center removed; Dawkins, on the other hand, says that religious parents should be accused of child abuse.
The New New Atheists, having done nothing to build, support, or even understand churches, would like the religious to hand them over now. Because the New New Atheists have noticed that the religious sometimes (let’s not kid ourselves with “always” or even “often”) don’t suffer from a malaise in modern life. They sometimes (again, let’s not give too much credit) have a sense of meaning and purpose and community that scientific rationalism has utterly failed to provide. Who knew that reducing people to brain chemicals could be demoralizing?
So the New New Atheists, already being firmly committed to the idea that there is no substance worth investigating in the beliefs of the religious, have decided that the religious must have accidentally stumbled upon some life techniques that are evolutionary advantageous. So they’re going to copy the outer-most form of a phenomenon they don’t understand and imitate it in order to feel better about themselves.
Does that ever work?
When white people hung out in faux “Indian” retreats and sweat lodges, ignoring the substance of native religious but loving the fashion and the war cries and the idea of being “noble savages” – did anyone come out of that for the better? Are we glad that happened? Do we respect the people involved?
When camps at Burning Man and Lightning In a Bottle fill their common tents with statues of Ganesha and the Buddha and feel spiritually superior to the people around them because they do yoga in the morning and dance to trance on acid at night … has the presence of fake Hindu culture really helped at all?
There’s a huge irony that the next project of white colonialism is the raiding of Christian culture by atheists looking for the “Whole Foods” of spiritual supermarkets – but it’s not going to end any better.
In this case, the missing ingredients are the secret sauce: belief, sublimation, a willing to sacrifice for a greater good. These aren’t instincts that atheists can’t experience (far from it), but they are at the heart of the religious experience, and they are what power the community. Take the heart away – indeed, mock it – and the body won’t function. Sure you’ll get a few laughs, a few chills … it’ll be like a TED talk where no one believes in God! … but it will quickly degenerate to what you already had and weren’t satisfied with: a TED talk where no one believes in God.
You’ve got that already, atheists. It’s not doing you any good.
There is a comical refusal among atheists-thinking-about-religion to give religion any credit for going deeper into the mysteries of life than the secular life we’re already not satisfied with: to think that not only do religions “have” something we don’t but that they “know” something we don’t. That must never be considered, at all, and so the trees will never add up to a forest.
This can be seen in a bizarre New Yorker article about scientists trying to create a better kind of religion (essentially the project of the Atheist Church), one that doesn’t require any faith at all. They’ll think their way to the divine!
(As though that’s never been tried before. As though, in the 5,000 years of Hinduism, 3,000 years of Judaism, 2000 years of Christianity, 1,500 years of Islam, nobody ever thought of that. Reason as a guiding principle just never came up. They were busy that day.)
Thus you have AI researcher Jurgen Schmidhuber proposing “computational theology,” which claims that this is the most elegantly programmed of all computed universes (heard that before?). Let me quote from the introductory text to his … wait for it … TED talk on the subject:
There is a fastest, optimal, most efficient way of computing all logically possible universes, including ours — if ours is computable (no evidence against this). Any God-like “Great Programmer” with any self-respect should use this optimal method to create and master all logically possible universes.
At any given time, most of the universes computed so far that contain yourself will be due to one of the shortest and fastest programs computing you. This insight allows for making non-trivial predictions about the future. We also obtain formal, mathematical answers to age-old questions of philosophy and theology.
The idea that “we understand computers, so we can compute our way to spiritual truth” is an absurd extension of an idea past its domain. Voltaire would have recognized this instantly for the gobbledygook it is (it’s uncanny how much it resembles the theology of Leibniz) but we have to wade through it again because people who don’t study religious history are doomed to propose it as the next new thing.
You can’t reason your way to where Schmidhuber’s desperately trying to go. To quote from Gary Marcus’ New Yorker article on the subject:
Schmidhuber’s computational theology rests on a confusion that philosophers sometimes refer to as the difference between behavior that can be described by a rule, and behavior governed by a rule. Planets follow elliptical trajectories, but that doesn’t mean that planets have pocket calculators inside their cores. The elliptical trajectories of planets emerge as a property of gravity, not through explicit computation. Schmidhuber may be right that the physical universe is efficient, but he proffers no evidence to suggest that anyone or anything is actually computing the universe. Schmidhuber might be right at some level that everything is connected to everything, but that in itself is not enough to give any reason for believing in God-like Great Programmers.
That should be obvious to anyone who isn’t trying too hard.
You also have David Eagleman claiming he’s a “Possibilian” – which is a more fancy kind of agnosticism. The world is so big, Eagleman says, that anything is possible. This, he thinks, could be the beginning of something big.
Well, that’s nice. But you’re never going to get to what religion has from either of these approaches, or from Atheist Church.
Religious faith does not have reason at its core. That doesn’t mean there aren’t reasons – and logical ones – for believing in any given religion. The whole point of the Islamic Falsafa school of thought was to bring pure Greek reason to religion: it had a major impact on Jewish thought and made Thomas Aquinas possible. There are all kinds of arguments from logic.
But even if you put all the best arguments for God from reason together, and made them work, you still wouldn’t get religion. You wouldn’t even be close.
Reason simply doesn’t answer the questions that Eagleman and Schmidhuber and the atheist churchgoers are trying to twist it to. I mean LOOK at the bullshit that the proponents of reason uber alles are putting out there as ideas! Computational Theology? Possibilians? Hollowed out church services? There’s no way these are the answer to the deep human yearnings that emerge as existential questions.
Reason doesn’t answer those questions because the questions themselves are experiential, not rational, and so “true” religion is experiential. It’s a call that you hear and you answer, and in answering sublimate yourself to. You have to accept that for many issues reason itself is an epistemological cliff … and take a leap of faith.
The New New Atheists and the scientists trying to reason their way to faith won’t get there because, like the good moderns they are, they don’t want to sublimate. They don’t want to take a leap of faith. They’re suspicious of it. And understandably so. Rightfully so. It’s a terrifying prospect. It’s a vulnerable place. People fall. Their spirits die. Worse, they take other people with them.
But it’s also the human condition. Religion, over its many millennia of study and practice, has learned how to help people get from one side to the other. Trying to understand religion without understanding that is like trying to look through a microscope without a lens.