What are the New Atheists missing? (Hint: It involves porches.)
April 29, 2009
In the last few months I’ve had the pleasure of sitting down and finally reading through a good chunk of the Roman Stoics, including their more literary outings alongside the more philosophical stuff. There is something powerfully compelling about both their writing and the outlook that underpins it… They come across as being at once fully Western and yet fully foreign, and its fascinating to consider that despite our complete immersion in Christian culture, the Stoic undercurrent can still wield so much power. Going down the list of serious non-Christian thinkers of the last 500 years, it’s interesting how many of them eventually wound up espousing some form of stoic outlook. Spinoza, Neitzsche, Camus: all of these people outside the theological field eventually drew of the virtues of the Stoa, even in the face of the void, unjust laws, religious persecution, etc. The fact that its influence has persisted through a good 1500 years of apparent neglect really testifies to its power to shape us, for good and for ill.
One of the most exasperating features of the New Atheists, noted by many but especially notable in contrast to earlier atheists, is the absence of a world picture in which this part of the classical inheritance figures in a serious way. Certainly there is a utilitarian concern, humanitarian impulses, arguments about moral intuitions, and an overarching belief in science’s power, not just to comfort but to transform human life. All of these beliefs are articulated strictly against Christianity, but absent in them is the moral richness of prior atheists, a richness drawn, in large part, from the classical world, and from specifically Stoic influences.
There are two places that I think this stands out with particular force. The first is the question of limits. Stoicism developed the notion of human limitations in powerful directions, spending considerable effort on the question of how we understand appropriate behavior, and what that understanding entails for us, our way of life and the shape of the world we live in. Their constant opponents (the bogeymen of classical philosophy) were those who rejected the notions of the limit, of boundaries to proper behavior, and sought to increase their pleasure without limit. More than a few people have pointed out that these hedonists came as close as anything in the classical world to embodying the modern utilitarian outlook, the outlook which rejects restraint as the central issue in human well-being, and it is precisely this tradition, the counter-stoic, counter-christian rational hedonism of the enlightenment that the New Atheists cite as their inspiration. Even the Elder Atheists of the most modern persuasion recognized mortality and limitedness, albeit in very different ways than their predecessors, as being one of central features of the human condition, one which reason could accommodate us to, but never practically alleviate. (I want to talk more about their very conceptions of scientific reason as another expression of the modern unlimited, but that’ll have to wait till another post.)
The second area that the New Atheists fail is on the question of rituals role in human life. Most of the Stoics recognized the centrality of ritual to the stability of the polis, and later the empire. It was ritual, taugh Cicero, that inculcated virtue, and even if mythological, it could encourage morality and protect the values that made the state coherre. Many if not all of the Elder Atheists rejected ritualized religion in one form or another, but their rejection was usually accompanied by an understanding that something was lost in the process, that there were real, concrete social and moral consequences for this: consider, for example, Camus’s Meursault, who spends most of The Stranger wandering through one ritual context after another, finding each more meaningless than the last, until he kills an Arab, undergoes a final meaningless ritual of rejected confession, and is executed. Clearly there is an awareness of the consequences of God’s death here; even Nietzsche recognized that the loss of the world provided by religion was a world historic event with the potential for moral disaster. Their awareness of ritualized belief’s importance was shaped by thinkers in the classical world, and I think can plausibly be said to thus fit into their inheritance of themes from classical, including Stoic, thinking and being. This too, the New Atheists have neglected.
Now I want to hedge my argument here a bit at the end: Not all atheists with something profound to say recognize these issues, and there are a huge range of ways in which they can be dealt with. (Spinoza being a really interesting one.) But looking to polemical attacks on religious belief from the past few years, their modernity, for better or worse, emerges most powerfully at the points they turn from these themes which formed the bedrock of classical and Christian civilization.