Friday, February 18, 2011

(My) Atheist Philosophy

This ain’t your grandfather's atheism - unless his name is Friederich Nietzsche. And it is in this spirit that I am writing this post.

Many nonbelievers have called upon the New Atheists and others to put forth a coherent secular philosophy to counter the prevailing and longstanding theistic hegemony. I can understand and appreciate this desire, especially here in America, where religious conservatives have been emboldened by the aggressive Tea Party movement and the popularity of media personalities like Glen Beck, Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh.

But as someone who has been a naturalist and an atheist for over a decade, who had grown up in an evangelical church and home, and who has kept tabs on the culture wars, I don't believe this will work. Atheists, secularists, nonbelievers - whatever you want to call us - are not a homogeneous group. Near as I can tell, the only thing we have in common is a lack of belief in gods, and specifically the God of the monotheistic religions.

However, I believe there is a wide range of thought on other issues: politics, ethics, economics, culture, etc.; though it might be fair to say that most of us support a classical liberal society, with equal rights, democratic government, etc. And we might even agree on a general moral system, though there is heated debate as to whether we can - or even should - try to discover and promote a rational or objective foundation for it.

But the crux of the issue, though it fades and reappears now and then, is the idea of meaning, or purpose. Ultimately, what many of us are calling for is a way of living without religious belief that counters nihilism. I personally believe that what really turns people off to atheism is fear - fear of letting go; fear of having to decide on life for oneself, of having to attempt answers to profound questions, of being responsible for the character and direction of one's life; in short, the fear of having to ultimately stand alone in the universe and affirm one's life - and all of life - nonetheless. The religious believer is largely relieved of this responsibility; though perhaps you could argue that they aren't really relieved of it, since they still have to 'interpret' what they are given - God isn't so clear as people make him out to be.

Like Nietzsche, I don't deny the arguments of the active nihilist - there is no ultimate meaning or purpose. The universe is indifferent to humans and their desires. But, also like Nietzsche, I believe there are ways to create our own meaning and purpose - or meanings and purposes, if you like. But success in this endeavor presumes a strong nature, a willingness to let go, a desire to revere oneself, and an imaginative, adventurous spirit - to “dance near abysses,” as Nietzsche put it. And here it seems that trying to put together a coherent secular philosophy is bound to fail: everyone is different. We are not all "created equal," though many of us may believe that we should all be considered "equal before the law."

I believe we need to incorporate the spirit of the great scientific (in the broadest sense) thinkers of our species - many ancient Greeks, Galileo, Einstein, etc. - into the character of our greatest modern philosophers and seekers of knowledge. Of course, we're not talking about academic philosophers; we're talking about a way of life, a way of being (Nietzsche called them free spirits). Anyone can be a philosopher in this sense. You could consider yourself to be the artist of your life, pursuing a vision that may be always changing, elusive - but you are nevertheless the artist trying to the best of his ability to capture and honor the reality he experiences.

The New Atheists have been criticized - by proponents and detractors alike - for not having or presenting a full grasp of the philosophical issues in this culture war. They claim that what is presented in New Atheist books like “The Moral Landscape,” “The God Delusion,” and “Breaking the Spell” is a simplistic, watered-down, sophomoric version of the fruits of some of the greatest philosophical thinkers our species has produced. I agree - but not in the way you’d imagine.

I would contend that what the New Atheists offer is not a “simplistic” version, but a “simplified” version: not only have the counter-arguments to and refutations of the most significant “proofs” for the existence of God been done, and done well (there’s no need to reinvent the wheel, in other words), but the majority of the “herd” - as Nietzsche put it - is simply not receptive to dry, academic wrangling over the meaning of words or the forms of definitions. So in this way the New Atheists are merely tailoring their writing to their target audience.

If we need to do anything, we need to leave the true believers behind. It's been my experience that the true believer can't be swayed. Experience shows that, when pressed, the dogmatic ideologue (and I mean any dogma) will only redouble his efforts at maintaining his dogma. There may be those who will be swayed, but they were on the fence anyway: in some reflective hour, reading a book, walking their dog, or riding the subway home, they will quietly admit to themselves that they don't believe. And though they might not publicly disavow belief, at least they won't take it to the ballot box or the latest Tea Party rally.

It seems to me that what we nonbelievers need to do is decide on a general strategy, as opposed to a formal philosophy. What I mean is, do we want to engage believers in order to convert them (or de-convert them, if you will)? I for one don't engage in discussions/debates with believers to convert them; I engage in these discussions to understand why they believe as they do. It's part curiosity, part due diligence - what I learn from these discussions will help me come up with ways to counter the prevailing psycho-religio-moral atmosphere, if I may coin an awkward phrase. That said, it's still a work in progress!

Or are we, at a minimum, interested in keeping believers from legislating their morality - whether on the Federal, State or Local level? As much as I enjoy reading the banter and bickering in the Comments section of blogs like Pharyngula, I believe one-on-one debating is largely ineffective. You will never win (because the opponent will never concede, even if you feel you've won - this isn't chess), and you will most likely not convert, especially if employing ridicule. Don't get me wrong, employing ridicule can be a pleasurable exercise, but it rarely, if ever, accomplishes the goal in mind.

So, what do we think? Given my beliefs about atheism, I know we won't all think alike. But can we come up with an outline of a strategy? Should we? Is there any consensus? Why do we do what we do? Why do we write, blog, debate, protest, etc.?

Nietzsche was primarily an esoteric moralist, notorious for his criticism of democracy and "equal rights." In Beyond Good & Evil, he said:

Are these coming philosophers new friends of "truth"? That is probable enough, for all philosophers so far have loved their truths. But they will certainly not be dogmatists. It must offend their pride, also their taste, if their truth is supposed to be truth for everyman - which has so far been the secret wish and hidden meaning of all dogmatic aspirations. "My judgment is my judgment": no one else is easily entitled to it - that is what such a philosopher of the future may perhaps say to himself.


So where do we go from here? Do we bid each other adieu - so to speak - and part company, each going her own way, choosing and fighting her own battles, creating her own life in isolation like Zarathustra - come what may in the larger politico-cultural arena?

Or - what?

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