I don’t like the snarky and dismissive tone of David Hart’s recent critique of atheism, but I think that, in his essay, he nevertheless hits his mark here and there. He prefers, for example, the sobriety of Nietzsche to the comfy and confident New Atheists, and says it rather well:
Nietzsche understood how immense the consequences of the rise of Christianity had been, and how immense the consequences of its decline would be as well, and had the intelligence to know he could not fall back on polite moral certitudes to which he no longer had any right. Just as the Christian revolution created a new sensibility by inverting many of the highest values of the pagan past, so the decline of Christianity, Nietzsche knew, portends another, perhaps equally catastrophic shift in moral and cultural consciousness. His famous fable in The Gay Science of the madman who announces God’s death is anything but a hymn of atheist triumphalism. In fact, the madman despairs of the mere atheists—those who merely do not believe—to whom he addresses his terrible proclamation. In their moral contentment, their ease of conscience, he sees an essential oafishness; they do not dread the death of God because they do not grasp that humanity’s heroic and insane act of repudiation has sponged away the horizon, torn down the heavens, left us with only the uncertain resources of our will with which to combat the infinity of meaninglessness that the universe now threatens to become.
Of all the critiques of the New Atheists by theists, I think this Nietzschean line of attack is best. Nietzsche undeniably wrote in a more memorable and nuanced fashion than contemporary atheists, and absorbed the implications of the death of God better than his 21st century counterparts—and David Hart drives home the stark choice Nietzsche highlights (and that most New Atheists seem quite happy to sublimate):
If we are, after all, nothing but the fortuitous effects of physical causes, then the will is bound to no rational measure but itself, and who can imagine what sort of world will spring up from so unprecedented and so vertiginously uncertain a vision of reality?
For Nietzsche, therefore, the future that lies before us must be decided, and decided between only two possible paths: a final nihilism, which aspires to nothing beyond the momentary consolations of material contentment, or some great feat of creative will, inspired by a new and truly worldly mythos powerful enough to replace the old and discredited mythos of the Christian revolution (for him, of course, this meant the myth of the Übermensch).
Perhaps; perhaps not. Where Nietzsche was almost certainly correct, however, was in recognizing that mere formal atheism was not yet the same thing as true unbelief. As he writes in The Gay Science, “Once the Buddha was dead, people displayed his shadow for centuries afterwards in a cave, an immense and dreadful shadow. God is dead: —but as the human race is constituted, there will perhaps be caves for millennia yet where people will display his shadow. And we—we have yet to overcome his shadow!”
In other words, Paul Kurtz’s atheism of sunny humanism and Richard Dawkins’s faith in progress (better living through chemistry) are actually the shadows being cast by dead theistic metaphysics: contemporary atheists as Nietzsche’s last men.
David Hart, as a theist, insists that we are more alone than this (if atheism is true) and enlists Nietzsche as support: what accompanies atheism should be some real fear and trembling.
At least that’s Hart’s argument.
Of course, I think that a lot of contemporary atheists would say that this very argument against atheism is itself an archaic hangover from theism, and that Nietzsche’s intellectual door is the last one to confidently pass through before permanently leaving the realm of dire theistic warning signs: Do not exit! . . . Stop! . . . It’s bad out there! . . . You’ll be sorry!
The sign on the very last door says—Nietzsche warned you!—and was nailed there by worried theists like David Hart.
I’ll grant this: that last sign really is worthy of the thoughtful contemporary person’s pause. But for many atheists, it is the turning back into the religious haunted mansion—reeking, as it does, of irrational incenses, of superstition, and of terrors and horrors all its own—that casts the greater shadow. It’s hard to scare somebody out of taking the atheist journey if the alternative looks equally (or more) ridiculous and repugnant.