David Hart and Nietzsche v. the New Atheists

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.

Now choose.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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8 Responses to David Hart and Nietzsche v. the New Atheists

  1. Santi

    I have something to say about this Hart’s…crap, but I’m busy, and this Kevin Drum guy already did it, saying pretty much what I was about to say, and his english is better than mine.

  2. santitafarella says:

    Gato,

    Thanks for the link. PZ Myers also said something about Hart, but didn’t go into much detail.

    —Santi

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  5. Nietzsche wasn’t warning us to go back; going back, in Nietzsche’s view would have been impossible.

    Nietzsche’s critique of atheism could be usefully applied to the New Atheist movement, but not in defense of Christianity. The problem with the idea of, for example, being “Good Without God” is not that it’s impossible; rather, that lots of these folks are really busy being “Protestant Without God.”

    Nietzsche’s challenge to atheism is to stop being reactionary, and start doing some very necessary, deep examination of our values in order to revalue them in light of the death of God.

    This critique, I feel, stands. It stands especially in the face of folks like Dawkins and Harris who mostly just borrow their morality from their cultural context. In so doing, they aren’t being “good without God.” They’re being “Christian without God.”

    • AChou says:

      You’re absolutely right about the ‘Christians without God’. Their own obliviousness to this makes me question if I can take them seriously on any matter. As a practical point, I don’t. Their chutzpah is writing checks their intellect can’t cash, and they’re just the latest branch of social quietism. Their cozy alliance with the new Priesthood (media and University) and King (the bureaucratic State) show quite well what a bunch of frauds they are.

  6. AChou says:

    My problem with the ‘New Atheists’ is my problem with Scientism and Humanism in general: it’s atheistic Christianity; religion for lefties. Max Stirner – who was better even than Nietzsche on these things – put it right: our atheists are pious people.

    As for the consequences of the abandonment of Christianity, Nietzsche was certainly right that old-fashioned moral nonsense can not be taken seriously (of course, Callicles, long before Christianity, knew this quite well).

    Nihilism and existential egoism are simply ontological facts about the world, and people like Hitchens and Dawkins are just more herdish cowards pushing the heuristics of cretinous jungle animals because the alternative makes him piss his pants.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      To which jungle animals do you refer? Hippie bonobos or aggressive chimps? Something I think you may not be acknowledging is that temperament drives ideology, not the other way around. Bonobo-style atheists (hippie humanists) couldn’t be obnoxious Ayn Rand/Nietzsche “bloody chimp” atheists if they tried because temperament is primarily a genetically driven trait. The emotional set-point for bonobo atheists is simply not going to let them live their lives like Nietzsche advocated even if they thought (in the abstract) that his is the correct conclusion. (The same is true for those who are more “chimp-like” and aggressive in temperament: they can’t consistently be made into nonviolent hippie-humanists or Jesus-hippies by argument alone.)

      Cognitive dissonance can be a way for an organism to protect its biological imperatives and inclinations from an excess of disruption and checking from our most recently evolved frontal cortex. It may be born of an instinct to live, not a sign of intellectual perversity. If the New Atheists are cognitively dissonant about Nietzsche, it may not be because they are cowards per se, but because they have good evolutionary reasons, not wholly conscious to them, for being so. The same is true for the cognitively dissonant theist and Randian or Nietzschean atheist. Depending on your angle of vision, cognitive dissonance takes in everyone; it is an equal opportunity employer.

      And evolution has come up with two broad strategies for survival–cooperative and go-it alone strategies. If you belong to a tribal species (as we do), the majority of us will be deeply inclined genetically to be “nice” in the majority of circumstances wherever we interact with those we determine to be in our “circle.” Therefore, if Christianity is not a buffer to the sorts of nihilism and individualism that Hart warns against, it appears that the evolution of temperament may be.

      If we were a species of big-brained sharks, something like Christianity would certainly be needed to check us, for our inclinations would be independent and ravenous in all circumstances. That’s a shark’s evolutionary strategy. But that’s not the human evolutionary trajectory when it is combined with civilization. Absent civilization and primitive tribal cooperation we are “nasty and brutish” to one another, especially in zero-sum games when resources are in short supply. But, again, these factors are only in play if civilization and primitive temperamental cooperation are lost. And both theist and atheist humanists (thankfully) seem inclined to want to keep this from ever happening (and there are increasingly plenty of non-zero sum games to play in the world based on win-win trade). So you can have a world without Christianity as a buffer to the Nietzschean will and still not see the collapse of civic order thanks to already existing civilization, the evolution of temperaments inclined to cooperation, and non-zero sum games.

      This doesn’t solve the existential problem of meaning for human beings the way that religion pretends to, but it at least keeps us from NIetzsche’s creative “blonde beast” model of the human individual.

      If the humanist atheist is metaphysically incoherent in your view, she is not so within the context of cooperative evolution. It is the person who pretends that temperament is readily malleable to Nietzsche’s argument and not an evolved genetic trait with a set point for each individual that is incoherent with reality.

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