Who Speaks for Atheism? A Review of John F. Haught's Book, God and the New Atheism, Part 3

This is a continuation of my review of John F. Haught’s book, God and the New Atheism. Earlier parts can be found here.

In chapter two Haught compares the so-called new atheists with some of the atheists of yesteryear. He teaches a course on “The Problem of God,” in which he requires his students to read the best available atheist literature. He maintains that the writings of the new atheists “would never have made the list of required readings.” When compared to the “more muscular” atheist writings found in Feuerbach, Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, Camus, and Sartre, whom he calls the “hard core atheists,” the “soft-core” new atheists offer a “pale brand of atheism.” They offer a “relatively light fare” in comparison to “the gravity of an older and much more thoughtful generation of religious critics.”

The older atheism, according to Haught, “if one is serious about it, should make all the difference in the world, and it should take a superhuman effort to embrace it.” The older atheists realized that “most people will be too weak to accept the terrifying consequences of the death of God. However, anything less would be escapism, cowardice, and bad faith.” Haught sums up Nietzsche by asking: “Are you willing to risk madness? If not, then you are not really an atheist.” By contrast, Haught argues the new atheists seem oblivious to the logical conclusion that atheism leads them to. They “want atheism to prevail at the least possible expense to the agreeable socioeconomic circumstances out of which they sermonize.” “They would have the God religions simply disappear, after which we should be able to go on enjoying the same lifestyle as before, only without the nuisance of suicide bombers and TV evangelists.” This kind of atheism, Haught argues, would have “nauseated” the older hard core atheists. At least they understood that for sincere and consistent atheists “the whole web of meanings and values that had clustered around the idea of God in Western culture has to go down the drain along with its organizing center.”

Haught is correct about these older atheists. Camus, for instance, wrestled seriously with the question “Why not commit suicide?” Sartre argued that if God doesn’t exist then there is no human nature. We alone define ourselves and we alone must invent our own values. But why must Haught compare the new atheists to these particular older atheists? There is other atheist literature to compare their writings to, like Bertrand Russell, Antony Flew, J.L. Mackie, and Michael Martin, to name some of the most notable and prolific ones. The fact is that the particular older atheists Haught is comparing Dawkins, et. al. to, are mostly known as existentialists. They are men who argued from atheism to a particular conclusion about values and morals, which they believed had no other grounding than one’s inner subjective choices. They were relativists and could see no reasonable explanation for morals apart from the “will to power,” or choice itself. And they concluded, falsely I might add, that without a rational grounding for morals in God our world is potentially screwed. No wonder Christians like Haught love these other atheists so much, because they seem to confirm what Christians want them to confirm about a society without God, that it could potentially go to hell in a handbasket.

By contrast, Bertrand Russell wrote plenty about morality, as did Antony Flew, J.L. Mackie, and Michael Martin. These atheists do not conclude what the existential writers did about morality and a society without God. There have been some other good atheist writers like Erik J. Wienberg and Michael Shermer, who have likewise offered good reasons for morality and a good society if there is no God. Unlike the existentialists of the past who were groping for moral answers in a godless society, subsequent atheist writers have found reasonable solutions to these questions. And these solutions allow me to say that the new atheists are indeed correct that there will be positive changes with only minimal kinds of other changes to society and moral values without God, despite what the existentialists claimed.

So let us atheists decide who speaks for us. Don’t go telling us that Nietzsche speaks for us. We atheists disagree about a great deal of things. In fact, just because one is an atheist does not mean we will agree about much of anything else. History has moved on. We have all learned some lessons of the past. The problems of the past are being solved by more thoughtful thinkers. And when Christians like Haught want to compare apples to apples let's do just that. The new atheists are writing in a new generation, one which has good reasons to think society itself will be better off than one in which the God religions exist, not the other way around. So let's compare their writings to the other atheist literature today.

Besides, if Haught thinks he can declare which atheists speaks for us in this new generation, then what does he say when we do the same thing to him? We atheists can legitimately claim his views of the Bible are lame and insipid compared with those of the previous centuries. We argue that when it comes to the logic of the Crusades, Inquisition, witch hunts, slavery and so on, that given the Bible, the logic of such horrific actions was impeccable. We argue that Christians like Haught have continually retreated in what they think is morally acceptable in light of the advancement of learning and the lessons of history, which is the same basis for how atheists learn their morality. When we do this he would cry “foul,” wouldn’t he? He would say the Christians of the past don't speak for him. So do I when it comes to some atheists of the past, even though I have a much better case to make than he does.