PZ Myers and Albert Camus: Two Very Different Kinds of Atheists Inhabiting Two Very Different Kinds of Atheism?

I think that atheism, especially at its most strident, is capable of choking its own life energies by nihilistically clearing the “ground of being” of any larger meaning, and then killing off the ontological mystery by not going to imaginative literature for some sort of psychological replanting and sustenance.

For me, that’s the first kind of atheism. It’s an atheism of functionalism, scientism, and reduction. It might put on a happy face for media propaganda purposes, but it cannot escape the shadow of its own deconstructions and thus (in Paul Tillich’s phrase) its ontology of death:

  • “We murder to dissect!” and
  • “Viva la morte!”

Contra Richard Dawkins’s denial, this first kind of atheism really does unweave John Keats’s rainbow.

But there’s a second kind of atheism that, as an agnostic, I could (almost) give my assent to. It’s an atheism that is more like, well, agnosticism. It’s an atheism that is humble, and keeps an open heart to the ontological mystery, and embraces the crooked timber of humanity in an open and liberal fashion. It is, in short, an atheism with vast stores of negative capability

Atheists who subscribe to this second type of atheism think it likely that a mechanical and blind material spider inhabits the universe’s center and beginning, but they don’t like their own conclusion, and certainly don’t revel in it. They don’t, as PZ Myers so frequently does, relish that God has died in them. Rather, the death of God and the ontological mystery (for such atheists) is a sober thing to contemplate, and at the heart of this second type of atheism is not gleeful reduction, but outrage.

I’m thinking of Albert Camus here. In my estimation, Camus was an atheist worthy of respect and imitation, for he absorbed (or at least attempted to absorb) the universe’s apparent indifference toward humanity, and offered outrage and resistance as the proper response. It is an outrage to the human soul that the universe should be absurd and without meaning. And Camus demonstrated (via his own writings) that literature is one means for providing resistance, and for keeping alive in ourselves a Jacob-wrestling heart.

Camus believed that it was an unblinkered encounter with the chaotic and absurd universe (its contingency, purposelessness, and indifference) that sets the atheist to vigorous rebellion and life. Here’s Albert Camus from the “Myth of Sisyphus”:

“I derive from the absurd three consequences: my revolt, my freedom, and my passion. By the sheer activity of consciousness, I transform in a rule of life what was an invitation to death—and I refuse suicide.”

In other words, Camus suggests that an honest encounter with the universe’s absurdity—the suffering and death in it, and the universe’s apparent lack of purpose and indifference to us—paradoxically can lead to a vital life. It is an outraged person’s refusal of the absurd that can then affirm rebellion, freedom, and passion against it. But Camus’s atheism, while arriving at human positivity and vigor via absurdity, starts with a bleak and unblinkered encounter with meaninglessness. In other words, he does not treat atheism glibly. Nor does he set atheism in alliance with reduction and absurdity. Like the religious person, the Camus atheist rebels against the universe’s apparent monolithic and impersonal order. He (or she) is not happy with it. Not one bit.

And this is where literature comes in. I think that it is telling that (unlike prominent post World War II atheists like Camus, de Beauvoir, and Sartre) there are so few contemporary atheists exploring their atheism (and its philosophical consequences) via literature and literary experiment. I detect a real difference here between some of the prominent atheists of the past and those in the present. But the revival of literary reading and writing among atheists (setting its value on a par with science) would recalibrate atheist sensibilities, and make contemporary atheists less susceptible to PZ Myers style reduction-loving atheism—and more receptive to the literary, Camus-style atheism of previous generations.

Maybe most contemporary atheists don’t want this kind of atheism. But were I to be an atheist, the latter type of atheism—the atheism of Albert Camus—would be the only kind of atheism for me.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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12 Responses to PZ Myers and Albert Camus: Two Very Different Kinds of Atheists Inhabiting Two Very Different Kinds of Atheism?

  1. scaryreasoner says:

    Appeal to consequences is a logical fallacy, you know. That you don’t like the rainbow being unwoven has no impact what is actually true or not, and to decide what to believe or not to believe based on what you’d like is dishonest.

  2. santitafarella says:

    Scaryreasoner:

    Ignoring consequences is also a kind of logical fallacy. Indeed, it is a folly—a refusal to reality test one’s ideas in the realm of experience.

    And it is the atheist of the first type (the reductionist) who has not absorbed an honest encounter with consequences, for it is the reductionist who lives contrary to his own reason (by living in the world as if he had free will, as if his moral positions are not arbitrary, etc.).

    It is Camus who lives, as an atheist, unblinkered and faces the indifferent world in a more head-on fashion. His rebellion is a choice of self after absorbing the consequences of an atheist universe. He doesn’t choose to cooperate with what he has absorbed, but to rebel against it. I think that the problem with most atheists of the first type is that they pretend to themselves that they are living in conformity with their materialist beliefs, but they don’t live consistently in the face of what they have uncovered, but engage in cognitive dissonance. And they are delighted to bring their reductions to bear upon others (when it suits them), but do not do the same for themselves.

    Nietzche wasn’t fooled by the moves of bourgeois atheists. He called them the bearers of ‘the last man.’ You perhaps imagine yourself to be a defender of PZ Myers and the New Atheists, and call yourself (apparently unironically) a ‘scaryreasoner’, but it is Nietzsche and Camus who are the truly brave and unblinkered atheists—the scary reasoners—within your tradition. By contrast, the New Atheists use their reason to attack religion, and they do this as a point of focus (so as not to confront the consequences of their own atheism head on). They are like the man who obsesses and ruminates over who killed JFK so that he doesn’t have to look directly at the harder question: Why is his life so fucked up? (This is a joke in a Woody Allen film, by the way.)

    —Santi

  3. Jorg says:

    “the New Atheists use their reason to attack religion, and they do this as a point of focus (so as not to confront the consequences of their own atheism head on).”

    Perhaps we have considered the consequences and found them negligible. Not everyone shares your particular obsessions…:)

    (A disclaimer: I find both science and poetry to be useful, on occasion, but poetry does not tell us anything about the “real”, intersubjective universe, which is just as important to me as the inside of my head, and much more important than the indisde of someone else’s head).

  4. Jorg says:

    Oh, an addendum: science does indeed “unweave the rainbow”, but not in the Keatsian sense, since each unweaving reveals more patterns and new mysteries and beauties.

  5. Matt says:

    Hi Santi,
    I think you *are* that kind of atheist, whether you choose to admit it or not. :^)
    But on to some of your other points.
    I think you’re stretching to suggest that a kind of naturalistic nihilism is a major part of the New Atheism, and *really* stretching to suggest that Dawkins subscibes to this way of thinking.
    I’ve seen Dawkins get misty when talking about the wonders of the universe and the beauty of nature.
    The point is that we don’t need to imagine some external influence to be comforted that there is meaning.
    The meaning can come from within. It doesn’t need to come from without.

  6. Pingback: The Indifference of Generation-Spanning Stones to the Vissitudes of Human Experience « Prometheus Unbound

  7. Bevis says:

    I usually ignore agnostics…hey, they don’t seem to care, so…

  8. Bevis says:

    I’m a believer with empathy for others. This requires a sensitive soul…any sensitive soul believes in God.
    I think you cannot enjoy the pink and purple sky in all it’s glory and not see God.

  9. Bevis says:

    Hi Santi…you are easy to ignore!

  10. santitafarella says:

    Bevis:

    If I’m so easy to ignore, why did you pause to push my ideas further away from you with mockery?

    —Santi

  11. scaryreasoner says:

    A bit late to respond, but, oh please.

    First off, I don’t shrink from denying the existence of free will, but have denied it consistently since 1987 or so. OF COURSE free will doesn’t exist. Only and idiot would assert otherwise.

    Secondly, morality is not arbitrary, but is only what people agree that it is. This is largely shaped by our evolutionary history, I think. Certainly though, morality is no absolute — even the absolutists must use their own brains to interpret the “absolute” message they think they are privy to, and so even their “absolute” is really subjective.

    Your move.

  12. Peter Smith says:

    scaryreasoner, ‘OF COURSE free will doesn’t exist. Only and[sic] idiot would assert otherwise.

    You don’t understand that someone possessing free will would assert otherwise. Happily I possess free will and can confidently assert otherwise. Sadly, you do not possess free will so all I will get from you is some predetermined response. It will be like talking to a call answering system and just as unintelligent.

    You obviously don’t understand your own reasoning, and that is scary but since you don’t possess free will that is inevitable.

    If the person who ‘asserts otherwise’ lacks free will then how could you call him an idiot? He is not in control of his actions so how could he be an idiot for giving a predetermined response?

    The moment someone denies free will by that very act he is guilty of an incoherence that fatally undermines his own premises. I look forward to your pre-programmed responses that you are not in control of.

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