Preaching Atheism

Christopher Hitchens’ death has occasioned an outpouring of deep affection and sadness among his many friends, and an outpouring of equally deeply-felt criticism of both his misjudgments and his excessive drinking and smoking. Some of the deepest praise and the deepest criticisms have come from the same people.

Then there was Hitchens’ unapologetic and polemical atheism. I confess to being of two minds here. As an out and proud atheist, I see value in frank defense of what atheists believe. There’s too much that is harmful or untrue in religious faith and religious dogma to keep silent. That’s most obvious in the case of crude fundamentalism, but the harm extends further, too. We’ve just learned too much from Darwin, Marx, Freud, Nietzche, with maybe Bertrand Russell bringing up the rear. The scientific, political, and psychological critiques go too deep.

When I consider Darwin and the rest, I’m awed by the courage, clarity, and moral urgency of the challenges they posed to religious orthodoxy and organized religions’ worldly authority. Hitchens came from an honorable and bracing atheist tradition.

Yet he and other new atheists such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins turn me off, too….

For one thing, they have sometimes presented themselves as if they’re being brave to repeat arguments that were truly daring and necessary when they were first aired seven, or ten, or twenty decades ago. It’s not brave to say God is dead or to attack the Catholic Church in an era that features Madonna hanging a crucifix from her crotch performing in sports arenas.

Drawing on Darwin and the rest, new atheists inherited an intellectual arsenal sufficient to win many arguments with religious believers. They have proven less adept in genuinely persuading or learning from other people. That’s too bad, because atheists, agnostics, and people of faith struggle with similar basic questions about how to live our lives and what these lives are really for.

To embrace our common humanity, we must do a better job of crossing boundaries between believers, non-believers, and doubters. We must really be able to see that people who find very different answers to these questions are capable of living their lives with the same insight, dignity, and depth of experience that we hope to do.

Ross Douthat, in a deeply-felt but I believe mistaken essay memorializing Hitchens, writes: “Rigorous atheism casts a wasting shadow over every human hope and endeavor.” That’s not the way I experience things. I feel no less joy at my daughter’s dazzling smile, no less pain at the sight of the wrinkles on my mother’s beautiful face, than any religious believer. There’s no need to accept or reject any particular religious view to be moved to action at the sight of a cancer patient going medically bankrupt and losing her home.

There’s plenty to find meaning about in our short stay on this earth. Finding and pursuing that meaning is a challenge for everyone, regardless of one’s religious metaphysics. This is true whatever God is up to, and whether or not he is even there.

We atheists could express the most important and humane messages simply by living worthy lives. We could lower the dose of bullying polemicism and set a better example of humility and empathy, too. Saint Francis instructed: “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” Not bad advice, even for us.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.