On Harper’s Magazine’s blog, Christopher Beha discusses his recent article on what he calls the “New New Atheists”—that is, atheists (such as Alain de Botton) who, having determined that God does not exist, are now exploring the question of how to restore those aspects of life whose foundations were destroyed along with God: meaning, wonder, morality, etc. But, he says, there’s a problem:
Rosenberg—a philosopher at Duke with a predictable commitment to rigor—insists that doing away with religion means doing away with most of what comes with it: a sense of order in the universe, the hope that life has some inherent meaning, even the belief in free will….
I was interested in the attempts of Harris and Botton to salvage some religious splendor for the secularists. So I was only more disappointed to find Rosenberg’s insistence that such efforts were hopeless far more convincing than the efforts themselves.
Beha finds himself in the “disappointed disbelievers” camp, wishing he could believe in God so as to keep what comes with Him:
During an email exchange with Rosenberg, I asked him which camp of atheists he fell into. His response acknowledged my impulse: “There is . . . in us all the hankering for a satisfactory narrative to make ‘life, the universe and everything’ (in Douglas Adams’s words) hang together in a meaningful way. When people disbelieve in God and see no alternative, they often find themselves wishing they could believe, since now they have an itch and no way to scratch it.”
So what are we to do about this unscratchable itch? Rosenberg’s answer in his book is basically to ignore it. The modern world offers lots of help in this effort. To begin with, there are pharmaceuticals; Rosenberg strongly encourages those depressed by the emptiness of the Godless world to avail themselves of mood-altering drugs. Then there are the pleasures of acquisitive consumer culture—the making of money and the getting of things. My own, provisional solution rests in the way of art, and in particular in literature…. Rosenberg’s response to all this, I’m sure, would be: more power to you. At the same time, he would urge me not to make the mistake of believing that the solace I find in art is any more real or meaningful than the solace others find from shopping or from altering the chemicals in their brains.
Isn’t it odd that we have such a great longing for things that don’t exist? Nowhere else in our human experience has an “itch” so primal, so central to our humanity, developed without any correspondence to a real “scratch.” We’re hungry? We have food. We’re thirsty? We have water. We’re lonely? We have friends and family. But we need meaning, order, and wonder…and we have drugs to distract us from that need? It seems a bit wasteful of evolution to work so hard developing a complex need to match a phantom solution that never existed. After all, other primates have survived perfectly well without developing a need for the transcendent.
Atheists might be able to explain the existence of belief in God and meaning as originating long ago from lying, power-hungry tyrants who then passed on said beliefs, but that scenario presupposes an already-existing need those tyrants could exploit, and it can't explain the continuing need experienced by atheists. Human beings couldn’t have invented the universal need that's satisfied by these beliefs. Where did it come from, and why?
(HT: J. Warner Wallace)