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.