Symphonic Harmony and the Intellectually Fulfilled Atheist?

Richard Dawkins has famously said, and on more than one occasion, that Darwin’s theory of evolution has made it possible for him to be, not just an atheist, but “an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”

But what, exactly, does it mean to be “an intellectually fulfilled atheist”?

I would like to suggest this as a key element: symphonic harmony. Human beings love the feeling of balance and wholeness in their lives (as any perusal of, say, a health or yoga magazine attests). Perhaps this feeling has to do with our evolution. We feel anxious when the environment is ill-defined around us, and we feel safe and in control when we can account for what’s going on around us.

As a consequence, nobody likes to say, “I’m an atheist”, or “I’m a theist”, or “I believe in UFOs” even as they have things about that belief that they cannot account for. Thus to be not merely an atheist, or a theist, or a UFO believer, but an intellectually fulfilled atheist, or theist, or UFO believer, entails that one has some elegant and satisfying theory that accounts for your belief—something that makes sense of your affirmation. And so it is that:

  • Atheists, as materialists, are anxious to account for all phenomena via materialist explanation
  • Theists, as believers in a good God, are anxious to account, in some plausible way, for suffering in the world
  • UFO enthusiasts, as believers in aliens, are anxious to account for alien absence (perhaps by positing an elaborate government coverup)

In other words, if you don’t have an elegant theory to account for your beliefs, you find yourself anxious and in cognitive dissonance. You either set certain things about your beliefs to the side and don’t deal with them—or even deny that your beliefs have any problems at all—or you seek out satisfying holistic explanations that will account for them to the minutest detail. This latter move can have pleasures all its own—the pleasures of anticipation or imminence (not to be confused with immanence). Something is about to be solved, and it is just around the corner:

  • And so it is that atheists anticipate the advance of physics to account for the universe’s material existence out of nothing, and of the advance of neurobiology to account for the appearance of mind via matter
  • Theists anticipate the soon coming of a revelation or “second coming” to resolve the perplexities of human suffering or purpose
  • UFO enthusiasts anticipate the coming of whistle blowers with physical evidence, from within the government, who will reveal (for example) that at Roswell the bodies of aliens were recovered from UFO wreckage

In each case, there is the hope of a future discovery that will arrive, as it were, as a public revelation and vindication—a satisfying and visually stunning and elegant solution—readily apprehended—that will account for the current perplexities of those who are true believers. Thus, just as UFO believers and theists have cognitive dissonances that drive them into longings that extend into the future, so atheists have cognitive dissonances that make for atheist longings. Richard Dawkins is right that Darwin’s theory of evolution is intellectually satisfying. It’s elegant, it’s beautiful, and it sets in place a large piece of the materialist puzzle (“If there are no gods, where did life’s diversity come from?”). But atheism still has many loose ends that make it less than intellectually satisfying. Most obviously, we have yet to account satisfactorily, in materialist terms:

  • for where the laws of physics have come from in the first place
  • for how the laws of physics could make matter from nothing
  • for where the first cells derived their information
  • for how matter could possibly make minds
  • for how determinate meat could imagine itself to have free will

Dawkins is right that, with regards to speciation, it is intellectually satisfying to be a materialist. But much of the rest of the atheist project is not wholly satisfying, and anticipates, in promissory form, new and elegant revelations.

In this sense, Dawkins, as a scientist who loves the elegance of structure, is different from some literary atheists of the past. Albert Camus, for example, as a literary stylist, loved elegance and structure, but did not expect it from his universe. Camus’s atheism entailed an acknowledgement that the universe is, at bottom, not a cosmos, but a chaos. The universe is, at some disturbing level, utterly contingent and absurd. Likewise, the human demands upon the universe that it match our desires for harmonic convergences with us is also absurd (at least according to Camus).

Put differently: Dawkins’s atheist vision is symphonic; Camus’s atheist vision is discordant. If you’re an atheist, do you embrace the symphonic or the discordant? Or something in between?:

Or is your atheism more like this?:

In the early 1960s, C.P. Snow (who was both a scientist and a novelist) famously asserted that there is a great (and he thought unnecessary and tragic) divide between the scientific sensibility and the literary sensibility. This divide, I would submit, is seen most obviously within atheism itself. But maybe it’s good that scientific and literary visions of atheism not converge too tightly. Might it be that this is a way to resist excess reduction and scientism?

One last quick thought: in explanatory terms, the left, historically, has had a tendency toward positing structural explanations of phenomena; the right, by contrast, has tended to posit telos—or conspiracies—as forms of explanation. So it is that the left might see the world’s economy in Marxist structural terms, and the right in terms of Illuminati conspiracies. I wonder if the “intellectually satisfying” aspects of atheism aren’t just additional manifestations of leftist sensibility generally—that there are structures as opposed to “big daddies” responsible for history. Likewise, theism’s underlying assumption (that there is ultimately a mind and not a structure deep beneath things) feeds into the conservative psyche rather nicely.

Just a thought.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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