Where are the honest atheists?

That godlessness might be both true and terrible is something that the new atheists refuse to entertain

British philosopher AC Grayling and his forthcoming book.
(Image credit: Bloomsbury, CCBY: Scottama)

Does the world really need another "new atheist" manifesto? Another attack on the ludicrousness of religion and the childishness of belief in God? Another paean to the spiritual and intellectual satisfactions of secularism, materialism, and humanism? Do the efforts of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, the late Christopher Hitchens, and their many lesser imitators really require further reinforcement? British philosopher A.C. Grayling must think so, since that is precisely what his latest book (The God Argument, which will be published on March 26) aims to provide.

Grayling is mistaken. The style of atheism rehearsed in these books has reached a dead end. It's one thing to catalogue the manifest faults within this or that religious tradition, which the new atheists have ably done... over and over and over again. It's quite another to claim, as these authors also invariably do, that godlessness is not only true but also unambiguously good for human beings. It quite obviously is not.

If atheism is true, it is far from being good news. Learning that we're alone in the universe, that no one hears or answers our prayers, that humanity is entirely the product of random events, that we have no more intrinsic dignity than non-human and even non-animate clumps of matter, that we face certain annihilation in death, that our sufferings are ultimately pointless, that our lives and loves do not at all matter in a larger sense, that those who commit horrific evils and elude human punishment get away with their crimes scot free — all of this (and much more) is utterly tragic.

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Honest atheists understand this. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God, but he called it an "awe-inspiring catastrophe" for humanity, which now faced the monumental task of avoiding a descent into nihilism. Essayist Albert Camus likewise recognized that when the longing for a satisfying answer to the question of "why?" confronts the "unreasonable silence of the world," the goodness of human life appears to dissolve and must be reconstructed from the ground up.

In our own time, physicist Steven Weinberg admits that he is "nostalgic for a world in which the heavens declared the glory of God" and associates himself with the 19th-century poet Matthew Arnold, who likened the retreat of religious faith in the face of scientific progress to the ebbing ocean tide and claimed to detect a "note of sadness" in its "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar." Weinberg confesses to his own sorrow in doubting that scientists will find "in the laws of nature a plan prepared by a concerned creator in which human beings played some special role."

The past century has given us many honest atheists, some well known, others less so: The playwrights Eugene O'Neill and Samuel Beckett, aphorist E.M. Cioran, filmmaker Woody Allen. But perhaps the most brutally honest of all was the poet Philip Larkin, whose poems movingly describe the immense psychological struggles that often accompany atheism — an outlook he considered to be both "true" and "terrible." Religion — "That vast moth-eaten musical brocade / Created to pretend we never die" — used to dispel the terror of annihilation, or at least try to. But Larkin will have none of it. And that leaves him — and us — with no solace or reassurance, confronting the horrifying prospect of a lonely plunge into infinite nothingness: "This is what we fear: no sight, no sound, / No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with, / Nothing to love or link with, / The anesthetic from which none come round."

To reject religion does not merely entail facing our finitude without comforting illusions. It also involves the denial of something noble. It is perfectly fitting, Larkin seems to say, for an atheist to lament his lack of belief in a God who bestows metaphysical meaning on the full range of human desires and experiences. As he puts it in the unforgettable closing stanza of "Church Going," in which the poet ponders the prospect of a world without religion, the empty shell of the church he inspects with "awkward reverence" is, finally, "a serious house on serious earth." And its seriousness flows from its capacity to serve as a place — perhaps the only place on earth — where "all our compulsions meet / Are recognized, and robed as destinies."

It is a striking image, capturing at once the dignified beauty of religious ritual and its capacity to conceal the truth under a layer of intricate artifice: The whole point of the liturgy performed on the church altar, Larkin implies, is to seduce us with the beautiful and supremely fulfilling illusion that our worldly compulsions have cosmological meaning and significance. And for Larkin, this longing for our most precious hopes to link up with the order that governs the universe "never can be obsolete." Which means that this aspect of religion, at least, may very well be too deeply rooted in the human soul ever to be completely purged.

The compassionate generosity and honesty of Larkin's atheism also infuse a poem titled "Faith Healing," which reflects on the deepest sources of humanity's religious impulses. Larkin suggests that human beings are creatures governed by the longing to love — and even more so, by the longing to be loved. It is a need, a hunger that never can be permanently satiated. But religion tries, understanding and responding to this crucially important aspect of humanity perhaps more fully than any other institution or practice. When a preacher looks into the eyes of a suffering parishioner, cradles her head in his hands, and utters "Dear child, what's wrong?", Larkin writes, "an immense slackening ache / ... Spreads slowly through" her, "As when, thawing, the rigid landscape weeps." The preacher's love may be a charade, the loving God that appears to act through him may be a fantasy conjured out of a combination of imagination and spiritual yearning, but in that moment faith has demonstrated its unique capacity to heal the human heart.

That godlessness might be both true and terrible is something that the new atheists refuse to entertain, no doubt in part because they want to sell books — and greeting cards do a brisk business. But honesty requires more than sentimental, superficial happy talk, which is all readers will get from A.C. Grayling and his anti-religious comrades in arms.

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