Saturday, July 6, 2013

Why Damon Linker Is Wrong On Atheism

In the online edition of The Week magazine, Damon Linker of the University of Pennsylvania and The New Republic published a rant inspired by the recent release of philosopher A.C. Grayling's book promoting atheism. Linker writes in his column, Where are the honest atheists?, to bemoan the idea that godlessness is good for human beings.

While Linker doesn't mind the attacks on religion in "new atheist" books (although he implies that these attacks are over hashed and repetitive), he declares that the "style of atheism rehearsed in these books has reached a dead end" because it "quite obviously is not" true that atheism is good news.

Right away, Linker kneecaps his own analysis of atheism through his failure to properly and thoroughly understand its ideas. I don't know whether Linker is an atheist, but if he is, he needs to pay more attention to his subject matter -- and if he isn't, this is only one example of the dozens of times a non-atheist has written something about atheism that is full of misrepresentations and inaccuracies which the author uses to falsely attack atheist ideas.

Many atheists agree with Linker (!) that the new atheist books have reached a dead end; but this does not mean that atheism is not good news. Moving beyond ideas from The God Delusion and God Is Not Great, a large number of atheists have realized that it is not sufficient to tear down religion to improve the world, but rather, non-religious people must promote forward-looking alternatives to religion.

Linker has missed many developments toward this end. The Atheism Plus movement, which implores atheists to focus on social justice issues - which asks atheists to overcome racism, misogyny, and other unjust forms of privilege beyond religious privilege - is a worthy example of how atheists use their lack of faith as a foundation to inspire larger activism. Atheists have established charities such as the Foundation Beyond Belief, to organize atheist charitable giving and more effectively create positive change in the world.

When Joe Klein of TIME Magazine falsely libeled atheist groups for their lack of an organized response to the Moore, Oklahoma tornado -- several organized atheist groups (including the Foundation Beyond Belief) have, in fact, contributed money and organized volunteers and the distribution of goods for victims of the tornado -- Klein refused to apologize and TIME Magazine refused to issue a correction. Where is the honest atheist?, asks Damon Linker. Where is the person who is honest about atheism?, is a much better and more relevant question.

Atheists are being more open today. Why? Perhaps it is because most non-atheists particularly enjoy depicting atheists as: loners, joyless nihilists; vitriolic and snide; people without morality; people who are not essentially American; people who have no community and are not truly involved in their communities. These stereotypes are false and empty, yet it still remains popular to perpetuate these mindless exaggerations.

"If atheism is true, it is far from being good news. Learning that we're alone in the universe, that no one hears or answers our prayers, that humanity is entirely the product of random events, that we have no more intrinsic dignity than non-human and even non-animate clumps of matter, that we face certain annihilation in death, that our sufferings are ultimately pointless, that our lives and loves do not at all matter in a larger sense, that those who commit horrific evils and elude human punishment get away with their crimes scot free — all of this (and much more) is utterly tragic."

This is what Damon Linker has to say about atheism. Linker describes atheism as a tragedy, only because that is how he chooses to see atheism. I see the same set of circumstances as Linker, yet I ask him:

If atheism is true, why isn't it good news? Learning that our fate is in our own hands, that we have the freedom to solve our problems for ourselves, that humanity is not intentionally designed to suffer, that we are not falsely separated from the natural world, that we need not fear punishment after death, that our sufferings and our joys matter more than we could ever imagine because they belong to us and us alone, that our lives and loves are the ultimate point of our present existence, that those who commit horrific evils and elude human punishment are not rewarded with eternal bliss and that those who lead kind, decent lives do not suffer eternal torture for believing in the wrong religion -- all of this (and much more) is utterly joyous.

Further, Linker completely whiffs by casting Nietzsche's description of the death of God as an "awe-inspiring catastrophe" for humanity as a bad thing for atheism. There is another level of nuance in Nietzsche's thought beyond labeling the death of God as a catastrophe, otherwise how is it an "awe-inspiring catastrophe"? On the contrary, the death of God is an excellent opportunity to avoid a descent into nihilism and create a more meaningful life. If there are no gods controlling the destiny of our lives, then each of us is ultimately responsible for imbuing meaning, creativity, and love into our lives and the lives of our fellow human beings. How can people descend into nihilism when they have such a terrific responsibility before them? There is too much left to do to become a nihilist.

Likewise, when Linker cites Camus stating that the lack of a satisfying answer to the question "why" demands that the goodness of human life must be reconstructed from the ground up, this is not a bad thing. The goodness of human life should originate from the ground up - it shouldn't originate from unverifiable, untraceable divine notions accepted with blind faith. If you must reason from the ground up, suddenly you are exposed to entire new and liberating vistas of compassion. Seeing the tangible reality of how people act, rather than adhering to unimpeachable dogma, it's harder to believe that gay people are less human, that people of other faiths are less moral, and that our individual fates are not inextricably bound to each other and to the health of our environment. Linker asks, in so many words, why do you want to be free? Wouldn't you rather hold on to the shackles of religion?

Linker cites the writing of Philip Larkin, claiming that a world without religion leaves "no solace or reassurance" and "the horrifying prospect of a lonely plunge into infinite nothingness." In later paragraphs, Linker adds that the "whole point of the liturgy performed on the church altar, Larkin implies, is to seduce us with the beautiful and supremely fulfilling illusion that our worldly compulsions have cosmological meaning and significance." No. Without religion, our solace and reassurance is in the present moment. With religion, the meaningfulness of our present lives plunges into infinite nothingness. With atheism, that meaningfulness is paramount and sacrosanct, because it is all we have. Religion does seduce us: encouraging us to trade the life-affirming view that the meaning and significance of our lives derives from our own actions, for the paralyzing idea that our lives are only meaningful in a context outside of our ourselves. Religion poisons and disparages the grandeur of the moment to sell us a fragmentary and unattainable future.

Perhaps my statement attacking Linker for preferring the shackles of religion seems extreme. Here is what Linker says about "the deepest sources of humanity's religious impulses", a statement that deeply disappoints me and neatly illustrates the injustices of too much religious thought:

"The compassionate generosity and honesty of Larkin's atheism also infuse a poem titled "Faith Healing," which reflects on the deepest sources of humanity's religious impulses. Larkin suggests that human beings are creatures governed by the longing to love — and even more so, by the longing to be loved. It is a need, a hunger that never can be permanently satiated. But religion tries, understanding and responding to this crucially important aspect of humanity perhaps more fully than any other institution or practice. When a preacher looks into the eyes of a suffering parishioner, cradles her head in his hands, and utters "Dear child, what's wrong?", Larkin writes, "an immense slackening ache / ... Spreads slowly through" her, "As when, thawing, the rigid landscape weeps." The preacher's love may be a charade, the loving God that appears to act through him may be a fantasy conjured out of a combination of imagination and spiritual yearning, but in that moment faith has demonstrated its unique capacity to heal the human heart."

It is the highest shame of religion that it unjustly redirects the vital human impulse to love and to be loved from its best and most honest source - between actual human beings - to the abstract, rationalizing, sophistical idea of gods. Religion abuses normal human love - the love that we have for each other, from person to person - and arrogantly declares this love to be insufficient, creating a false hunger through its own practices.

When a preacher loves a parishioner, when a father loves a daughter, when a sister loves her brother, when firefighters sacrifice their lives for their communities, the healing of the human heart was there all along - in the love the people gave each other, from each other. It is religion that has the unique capacity to trivialize the human heart, whereas atheism sets the heart free to love on its own terms.

No comments:

Post a Comment