Gap gods and pot holes: are Richard Dawkins’s materialist atheism and Rush Limbaugh’s anti-environmentalism akin to one another?

Why are so many people resistant to Richard Dawkins’s totally materialist explanation of the universe (that is, atoms and void are all that really exist, and they are eternal or came into existence out of nothing)?

And it occurred to me this morning that most are resistant to such an idea for the same intuitive reason that they are resistant to the idea that it would be good to urbanize, rationalize, and regularize the planet in toto.

In other words, there’s a link between filling the gaps in our knowledge of the universe completely and paving the planet: it would be the ultimate murder of wildness. Our cathedrals, our weird nationalistic cultures, and our nonrationalized eccentricities are humanity’s wild spaces. Of course, we like our urban and rationalized spaces, but we also understand that we must take them in homeopathic doses: that there must be some space in the psyche for God, for the Earth Mother, for patriotism, for poetic theologies, for blind Tiresias ecstatic in prophecy, for mystery. These are the wild growths of the Earth. And thus the Richard Dawkins-style atheist is to metaphysics what Rush Limbaugh, chomping on his cigar, is to the environment: an oafish boar—a barbarian—driving his Hummer roughly over the sacred.

The atheist, in other words, is an intellectual Hummer driver: (s)he doesn’t care if there are no mythic wildernesses left—no psychological places for wildness—after (s)he’s done. What the atheist wants are no gods in the gaps—no potholes of mystery in the road—unto the very end. But psychologically, a lot of people sense that a world so thoroughly rationalized and explained might well be a dead world. I don’t think that they are right, but I understand the fear of the underlying atheist project. Nietzsche understood it too, yet embraced it. But most contemporary Richard Dawkins-stye atheists, in their ironic and theatrical deconstructions of the gods, are like Rush Limbaugh: they are entertaining, but they don’t really know what they are doing (and the forces in the psyche that they might be responsible for unleashing).

In Occidental Mythology  Joseph Campbell writes that, behind every heroic conquest of intellect or deed, there remains:

[T]he dark presences of the cursed yet gravid earth, which, though defeated and subdued, are with their powers never totally absorbed. A residue of mystery remains to them; and this, throughout the history of the West, has ever lurked within . . . as though speaking silently, to say, ‘But do you not hear the deeper song?'” (24-25)

Where did all this come from, again? Nothing? And to no purpose?

Really?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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18 Responses to Gap gods and pot holes: are Richard Dawkins’s materialist atheism and Rush Limbaugh’s anti-environmentalism akin to one another?

  1. CR says:

    This is one of the least cohesive, pointless and blatantly flawed pieces I have read on this site for some time.

    The comparison of not paving the planet and not believing in a material universe is contrived and somewhat ludicrous. There are real, provable reasons to not “pave” the planet. Not the least of which being that humanity would die off in such a destroyed ecosystem. Conversely, the only reason to not accept the scientific universe is personal desire and ego. You want there to be something more and you want to be special in that something more.

    Using your own comparison, it would be the theist who blindly drives around their hummer ignoring the destruction on the world around them. It is the atheist that acknowledges the impact of such actions and works within that system. Not only does this generally fit you flawed comparison, but it fits the philosophical realities of theists today.

    Your last statement shows that you do not even seem to understand the material universe. Comes from nothing?

  2. santitafarella says:

    CR:

    Logically, if God does not exist, the universe comes from nothing or is eternal. Do you have a third possibility?

    And contemporary atheism has a lot more good going for it than bad. I’m just tapping the brake a little.

    Perhaps you’ve read the Greek tragedies and have thought about them. If you haven’t, you might consider it. In part, they’re about hubris and what totalist Apollonian gestures of the masculine will—and I would count atheism among these gestures—can mean for the ecology of the Earth and the ecology of the human psyche.

    Atheist versions of “drill baby drill” on the wild psychological grounds of the religious imagination may unleash the furies in unexpected directions. I don’t know what those directions might be, but things will be paid for in (to echo Emily Dickinson) “keen and quivering ratio.” As in nature, so with the psyche. Nobody gets out unscathed or alive.

    Read Aeschylus’s The Agamemnon for the theatrical-poetic version of this caution.

    I’m not saying don’t do it (deconstruct religion). I’m saying don’t pretend that the atheist path that you’re making the clearing for is unproblematic, or constitutes a free lunch for the psyche, society, or nature.

    Look where you’re driving.

    —Santi

    • CR says:

      Eternal, yes. Comes from nothing, no. It is a bit overused, but none the less true, that theists are somehow willing to accept an eternal god, but not an eternal universe. I find that a bit baffling.

      I am unclear why you see atheism as having an implied course which would be adverse to the earth and psyche. Many atheists seem to set a course based on reason and evidence. Individuals who set a course would find it anathema to seriously harm the earth – as the outcomes would be disastrous for not only us, but most species on the planet. You also seem to be saying that atheism will have a negative effect on the psyche in some way that theism does not. There are theists who take the word of their religion to propagate hate, death and destruction. There are theists who take the word of their religion to propagate love and caring. There will likewise be atheists who take the fact that there is no god and no divine judgment to act in completely self serving and destructive ways and there will atheists who take this knowledge and use it to act in loving and caring ways. Individuals always contrive their personal codes from a larger structure – be they theist or atheist. Most of the other atheists I know do not forsake morality. In fact, seeing this as our one life and one shot, realize the only significant way to live forever is to advance the cause of humanity. To live such is actually a harder road than theism. Christians can do little to nothing to contribute to the advancement of society or humanity – yet feel secure in an afterlife guaranteed simply by “believing.” I am not claiming that all or even most do this. I know many very good Christians. But the opt out is always there. Feel free to be a parasite and commit evil acts, as long as in the end you repent and accept Christ. We atheists give ourselves no such easy out. You reap what you sow. What you believe is not what defines you, how you act and how you contribute defines you.

      You get very existential in your paragraph which starts, “atheist versions of.” I am having trouble dissecting the meaning from the allusion. It is typically the theists who subscribe to a “drill baby drill” philosophy. What is the atheist version of this that you are referencing? Even without understanding the specific reference, you seem to be talking about the conflict between atheist and theism. Undoubtedly, there is a conflict. The theist domination and oppression of atheists been ongoing and we are currently seeing a significant upheaval. Atheists are not only defending themselves and their beliefs, but are now attacking. Undoubtedly, this conflict will change human perception and philosophy moving forward. There is no pretense that from any atheist I know that there will not be repercussions for the rising of atheism. Read PZ, Dawkins, et al. It is impossible to really know where this conflict will lead, so “look where you’re driving” is, at best, a very short term guess. While we can look to the rise and fall of previous religions for examples, the world is vastly different now. The violence that typically follows belief changes is unlikely to occur through the rise of atheism. Not because of any attribute of atheism, but because of technology. The case for theism dies a little more every day. Thunderf00t’s “where religions come to die” is an excellent piece explaining this. Theism cannot stand up to scrutiny and facts.

      This response is getting long, but I will try to wrap it up on one last note. You reference hubris several times and associate it with atheism. I believe you have this entirely backwards. Theism places man as supreme over all else, with the sole exception of the deity. To be a theist, you need to ignore the minimal burden of proof that all of us require in just about every other facet of our lives. People do this because they desire to be part of something more. It seems a fairly large conceit to accept the unprovable and unsubstantiated because of personal desire to be something greater.

      • santitafarella says:

        CR:

        You offered a thoughtful reply, and I will attempt to honor it with one in return—but alas, I won’t be able to get back to this thread till this afternoon or evening.

        —Santi

      • santitafarella says:

        CR:

        Coming back to look at your response again, I find very little I vigorously disagree with (at least as you frame the issues). I see your points. And I agree that the contingent effects of belief are unpredictable. But I would still say that some outcomes are more likely under atheism and others under theism. Example: I think that Catholic Brazil is far less likely to mess with the human genome than atheist China. And I think that messing with the genome has enormous real-world environmental implications, don’t you?

        Also, I think that atheists are more likely to embrace the implications of Darwin’s insights concerning flux and contingency and so see the world in ways that those who see the world through the lens of fixity do not. Nietzsche explored this, suggesting that atheists continued to enjoy the inertia of theistic metaphysical hangovers concerning beauty, truth, morality etc. without really absorbing the depth to which Darwin had exposed the realm of flux.

        I think, for example, that postmodernism is a largely “atheist” phenomenon that has radically absorbed flux, and so it doesn’t follow that atheism will bring us to the realm of grounded rationality based on correspondence theories of truth. Rorty, for example, was an atheist. And George Orwell’s 1984 is a sobering reflection on what happens to language that loses its grounding in metaphysical assumptions surrounding truth.

        What does it mean to be an atheist wholly absorbing flux and contingency—and not merely paying lip service to it?

        —Santi

      • Gunlord says:

        “Feel free to be a parasite and commit evil acts, as long as in the end you repent and accept Christ. We atheists give ourselves no such easy out. You reap what you sow.”

        For the atheist, one could just as easily say, “Feel free to be a parasite and commit evil acts, so long as in the end you get away with it.” Hell, just now I was reading roissy.wordpress.com–the author of that blog outrightly acknowledges that his way of life, in his own view, is inimical to the preservation of his society, but goes on with it because, as he might say, “he’s having too much fun at the poolside.” (Most of his other views are almost certainly anathema to you and our gracious host, but for the purposes of argument, the fact that he doesn’t give half a crud about “advancing the cause of humanity” is the only germane one here)

        Perhaps you and your friends aren’t men like Roissy, and for that I am glad, but let’s not pretend all atheists are like you either.

        I believe you have this entirely backwards. Theism places man as supreme over all else, with the sole exception of the deity.

        Aside from the amusing fact that this isn’t the case in many varieties of theism (Hinduism and several Native American religions come to mind), with a bit of imagination it isn’t particularly difficult to imagine an atheist coming to similarly “human supremacist” conclusions. Human beings are the most intelligent species on Earth, at least when it comes to things like abstract thought and such (it’s hard to imagine even dolphins or great apes coming up with the Quadratic Equation or the labor theory of value or whatever). An atheist could quite reasonably argue for human supremacy on that grounds without having to resort to anything supernatural. I’d be quite surprised if no atheist has ever done that, in fact.

        For the purposes of charity (and because this response is growing long as well, and also because once again, I highly doubt you’d be at all amenable to any argument diverging from your preconceived notions), I won’t deal with your laughable assertions of atheists being “oppressed” at the hands of theists, nor with your somewhat questionable belief based on thunderf00t’s somewhat unconvincing video that the “rise of atheism” will be much less violent than the various “rises of whatever” that preceded it (though for everyone’s sake, if it comes to pass I hope it is). I would merely note that perhaps our gracious host’s advice to “look where you’re driving” may be a bit wiser than you think.

      • CR says:

        @Santi

        Sorry for the delay in replying. Hectic work and then just forgot about it till now.

        I would agree with you on behavioral tenets of atheists versus certain theologies. Your example is a great one. Sticking just with atheists and Christians in this example, it is hard to say one view is superior to another. Genetic advances to cure disease, prolong life, replace organs, and such are all great things that could come from genome tinkering that would never be realized otherwise. There are also nightmare scenarios. Numerous horror movies spring to mind. It is impossible to classify one behavior as better than another. The balance of both behaviors is likely best. Most scientists seem to have a measured and cautious approach – if we can keep at it from that perspective, I think great things will come of it.

        As for atheist philosophy, you posted a great article here a while ago with the (i think it was) 8 approaches to atheism. That article seemed to line up with your questions on contingency and rationale. There are not enough atheists yet to see what the human trend will be. It is a wonderful thing to watch unfold though. I tend to believe that most people lean towards a positive outlook and even in atheism will find common cause in human advancement as out legacy.

      • CR says:

        @Gunlord

        You are correct, some atheists can and will take that path. My point is that many theists take a similar path, but rationalize the entitlements and egocentric view with their dogma. By the simple fact of religion existing for so much longer than atheism, history is littered with such people. Atheist is not likely to have a better result. We are all human. The individual tendency is what drives each of us – regardless of theology or not.

        My apologies for the generalization of theologies. You are correct in your breakdown. I was grouping the Abrahamic religions together- which does account for the large majority of theists. I would not be surprised if atheists lived by your assertion either. Most “New Atheists” though embrace evolution. Looking historically through the lens of evolution, the dominant species is often eradicated and replaced. The recent findings on Neanderthal and homo sapien sapien crossbreeding has really brought this to the forefront for me personally and for most of the other atheists I know. We are the blink of an eye. We still need to be around for another 200,000 years to surpass neanderthal.

        My “laughable” assertion of the oppression of atheists, eh? That is amusing. Christians do love to play the oppressed. They often get really offended when you point out to them that they are the oppressors. Try picking up a newspaper in the US and it is unavoidable to see how Christianity attempts to dominate all other beliefs and superimpose their mystical nonsense over reality and science. Look into the the Texas board of Education. Check out your politicians. How many atheists federal politicians do you know of? look at even a local level. Try reading about the recent election of an atheist in North Carolina. Most Christians in American work under the assumption that when the primacy of Christianity is challenged, that they are oppressed.

    • santitafarella says:

      CR:

      No worries. I understand that threads are fragile dialogues and people have to break from them abruptly.

      We’ll see where the future goes (with regard to how theism and atheism play out in history).

      —Santi

  3. Gunlord says:

    The comparison of not paving the planet and not believing in a material universe is contrived and somewhat ludicrous.

    After reading Santi’s post again, it struck me that this would be a much more incisive critique were it not attacking a strawman. If I have this wrong, our gracious host is of course free to correct me, but it seems to me he was not comparing mere belief in a material universe to paving the planet, he was comparing “Dawkins-style atheism” to paving the planet. There is a difference between the sort of atheist who merely disbelieves and the sort of atheist who both disbelieves and insists everyone else ought to share his disbelief. Much like there is a difference between someone who likes Hummers but doesn’t shy from acknowledging their drawbacks (much less insist everyone drive one) and someone who thoughtlessly extols their virtue without the slightest consideration to anything else.

    No matter, though, I get the distinct impression you won’t take particularly well to even the slightest aspersions on Dawkins and his (capital-A) Atheism. That’s cool, though, again, if Santi doesn’t mind, perhaps I can look at your second point.

    There are real, provable reasons to not “pave” the planet. Not the least of which being that humanity would die off in such a destroyed ecosystem. Conversely, the only reason to not accept the scientific universe is personal desire and ego.

    Really? I’ve heard a few folks say there are ‘real, provable reasons’ why one might wish to reject the ‘scientific’ (at least by your definition) universe. A lot of Christians say that without God, or some supernatural version of the carrot and stick, society will fall into immorality and chaos. Even some, er, ‘freethinkers’ have espoused this view; Voltaire comes to mind, along with his quote “I want my attorney, my tailor, my servants, even my wife to believe in God, and I think that then I shall be robbed and cuckolded less often.”

    Of course, you would say that this is false, and that a world full of atheists would be as moral (if not more so) than the one we live in, you have tons of evidence for this claim in the form of prison statistics and Sweden, et cetera, et cetera. Lamentably, by the same token, it might not be so hard for a philistine like Rush Lumbaugh to claim that concerns about “paving the earth” are similarly misguided. Destroying the planet’s ecosystem? Sounds bad in theory, but our technology has reached the point where even if we paved over every inch of the Earth, we’d find some way to keep surviving. After all, look at how many problems technology has already solved! There’s plenty of evidence to assume it could solve the problem of a devastated ecosystem as well.

    I think you could be skeptical of such a…Pollyanna-ish view, for lack of a better word. However, by the same token, I suppose one could forgive Santi if he envisions the inexorable march of Atheism/Materialism/Scientism/whatever you want to call ~*progress*~ across the human psyche as perhaps being a bit more problematic than a straight line towards a land of milk and honey.

    • santitafarella says:

      Gunlord:

      You hit on a number of good points and read me correctly. Just as I would make distinctions between, say, the conservatism of David Frum, Andrew Sullivan, and Rush Limbaugh, I would make distinctions between the cautious and agonized existential atheism of, say, Albert Camus, the eyes wide open atheism of Nietzsche, and that rather sunny version of atheism that I think it’s fair to associate with Richard Dawkins.

      Is Richard Dawkins the smiling, advertising ready, Ronald Reagan of atheism?

      And can you imagine Nietzsche smiling and waving to the masses on the side of an atheist bus ad and saying, “Get on the atheist bus!” and “There’s probably no God. Now have a nice lunch!”?

      —Santi

  4. santitafarella says:

    One more quick thought. Confident New Atheism is a historical phenomenon: a reaction to 9/11. Existentialist atheism was also a historical phenomenon: a reaction to WWII. How could secular powers have arrived at so horrific a point? Nietzsche’s atheism was also a historical phenomenenon: how are we to fully absorb Darwinian contingency—the end of the metaphysical fixity of species, beauty, truth?

    —Santi

  5. Gunlord says:

    CR,

    Thanks for your response. I find little to disagree with for your first two points; in reference to your third, while dismissing oppression of atheists as ‘laughable’ may be somewhat harsh, I don’t really believe it’s entirely baseless either. As you said, “it is unavoidable to see how Christianity attempts to dominate all other beliefs and superimpose their mystical nonsense over reality and science,” but the problem is, atheists have, comparatively, gotten off very, very lightly when you look at all the other non-Christian beliefs Christianity has trampled over. Aside from the various Native American spiritual traditions, Jews, Muslims, Hindus (and “pagans” generally) have all been the subject of varying amounts of persecution throughout American history–and I don’t mean people vandalizing their billboards, I mean people assaulting them, attacking their places of worship, etc. etc. etc.

    In comparison, when I think of atheist ‘oppression,’ I think of:

    a: that one study which “proved” atheists are the most “distrusted” minority in the US

    b: That one story in Richard Dawkins’ book about the atheist Eagle scout being shot

    and c: various statutes of various states supposedly discriminating against atheists. Which are, of course, often so ridiculously broad that they are nearly utterly useless and couldn’t do a good job of oppressing anybody (unlike the considerably more specific Jim Crow statutes atheists like comparing them to). Nobody who “denies a supreme being” can hold office? Even Richard Dawkins wouldn’t be disqualified because he doesn’t “deny” God, he simply thinks God is “highly unlikely.” Judging by the fact that the attempt by Mr. Bothwell’s opponents to actually interfere with his election has fizzled out spectacularly, I think it’s safe to say that the “anti-atheist” parts of a few government statutes are about as meaningless as legislation gets in this country (which is saying a lot).

    Look, I don’t mean to belittle whatever unpleasant experiences you (or Santi, for that matter) have had in your lives on account of your nonbelief, but if you want me to start thinking of you as “oppressed,” you’ll have to do better than a survey, a single shooting incident, the fact there aren’t many of you in Congress, and an impotent clause in North Carolina’s constitution to get me to believe you. I don’t like playing the “x is more oppressed than y” game either, but I’m still for more perspective. Let’s not pretend atheists have had it nearly as hard as several maligned groups of theists have throughout history.

    • CR says:

      @Gunlord

      I tend to agree with you. Just about everything we view in our loves is relative. It actually feels a bit silly to use the word “oppression” for almost anything in america that any of us has to deal with – when placed in context of REAL oppression. It is so easy to read about the horrific oppression of races and religions of the past or even now in other parts of the world. While oppression is technically accurate as a word, it is disingenuous. We have had it easy by the standards of so many others.

  6. santitafarella says:

    Gunlord:

    Contemporary atheism, I think you are right, is not really persecuted or stigmatized all that much in the West. Where there are slights, they are personal rather than institutional. But the world is not just the West. I think it’s fair to say that to be an open atheist in the Islamic world is dangerous (to say the least)—akin to being homosexual.

    And the history of atheism is such that one didn’t dare express such an allegience in most periods of human history.

    We’ve come a long way, maybe?

    —Santi

  7. Gunlord says:

    You’re very right, Santi, but again, being an open *anything* in the Islamic world is dangerous. I don’t agree with everything Israel does, but I still think the anti-Semitism that seems to be prevalent in much of the Muslim world is over-the-top. And they don’t like pagans much better either–there’s a lot of friction between Muslims and Hindus in areas the two faiths intersects, and I’m grateful to God there aren’t many Wiccans in those parts of the world–I’d bet every cent in my pocket that cuddly bearded white guys wandering around saying “blessed be!” would get stoned to death after 5 minutes tops in Saudi Arabia. Once again, atheists don’t seem to have it much worse than other faith groups even in non-Christian countries.

    Generally, I would say that polities which tolerate a high degree of pluralism/religious difference tend to be tolerant of atheists too. On the other hand, polities which aggressively mandate a single religious tradition (regardless of which tradition specifically) tend to hate atheists as much as, but not much more than, everybody else.

  8. As a believer, and though I surmise you aren’t, I really like the Limbaugh and his Hummer comparison. This isn’t a very meaty comment, but it’s late.

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