In the last few years there has been much talk about the so-called “new atheism”. I want to raise two questions about this school of thought: Is it really new? And what are its assumptions about religious faith against which it has defined itself?
The term “rectification of names” comes from Confucian philosophy. Confucius and other Chinese philosophers who followed him thought that much social disorder comes from the wrong names being used to describe groups of people. This mistake was supposed to be most dangerous if it was applied to the proper hierarchy on which social order must rest. For example, if people in the lower classes give themselves, or are given by others, names that properly belong to the higher classes, this will result in rebellion and social disorder. Confucian sages had the task of educating the populace in knowing and accepting the proper names of things, and government had the task of enforcing this vocabulary. Apparently the imperial government had a department concerned with the rectification of names (I think that the same department was responsible for weights and measures, and for the rules of musical composition).
I am not suggesting that we should all become Confucians, but it would be useful even today if some rectification of names were widely practiced (though our views on hierarchy differ somewhat from imperial China, or seem to differ). For example, if a government renames torture as “enhanced interrogation techniques”, this does not change the facts of human torment caused by this practice, and it will undermine the legitimacy (aka “mandate of heaven”) of this government. And if a school of thought replaces the name of sex with that of “gender”, this does not change the factual differences between men and women, and it will create confusion and disorder in the relations between the two. Generally speaking, all concepts (“names”) are human constructs, but if they are directly contradicted by empirical facts, they will frustrate actions that assume their reality. Despite some recently fashionable philosophies, there are facts physical as well as social. One-year olds cannot vote or drive, even if they were named “citizens”.
The term “new atheism” gained currency in the early 2000s and is still much discussed. It has been used to describe a number of authors, beginning with Sam Harris, who in 2004 published The End of Faith. Other prominent representatives of this school of thought were Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion, 2006) and Christopher Hutchins (God is not Great, 2007). Dawkins coined the phrase “the God hypothesis”, implying that it was a proposition about the empirical world, which like any hypothesis could be scientifically tested. (Needless to say, he thought that it failed the test.) The “new atheism” has been linked to “secular humanism” and to political “secularism”, especially in the United States—the adherents of the former arguing that lack of religious faith does not preclude strong moral convictions, the latter that the separation of church and state means that all expressions of religion should be purged from public space.
Are these ideas new? Hardly. In the history of Western civilization they were strongly held by the thinkers of the European Enlightenment, gaining political power in the French Revolution. A symbolic climax of this development was the ceremony staged in the desecrated Church of the Madeleine in Paris, where a prostitute was hailed by the revolutionaries as representing the goddess of reason. In the nineteenth century the philosopher Auguste Comte narrowed the idea of reason to the rationality of the empirical sciences, which were to provide the moral foundation of society. Comte was enormously successful among Latin American intellectuals intent on breaking the dominant role of Catholic morality. (To this day the flag of Brazil sports the Comtian slogan “Order and Progress”.)
One of Comte’s dubious achievements was the invention of the discipline he named “sociology”. An ardent American disciple was Lester Ward (1841-1913), who attacked the laissez-faire ideas of the social Darwinists and favored some sort of Enlightened technocracy. In 1906 Ward became chairman of the new sociology department at Brown University, where he proposed that all the divisions of the University should be reorganized under the department of sociology. His colleagues were not amused. I suppose that most sociologists today have never heard of Lester Ward, but his shadow lingers on. One only has to look at the program of any meeting of the American Sociological Association to find good old Lester hovering over what Christian Smith has recently described (in his 2014 book with that title) as “the sacred project of American sociology”.
What is at least relatively new about the “new atheism” is its aggressiveness and its attitude of absolute certainty (in that curiously mirroring conservative Christianity, its main antagonist). Atheists can be described as people who have heard a voice from heaven telling them that heaven does not exist. There have been tormented atheists such as Friedrich Nietzsche, who proclaimed the “death of God” (he understood that this event, if it really took place, would be a cosmic tragedy). More recently Albert Camus in his novel The Plague depicted individuals who, without the comforts of faith, heroically defy suffering and evil. This is a far cry from the flippant contempt for religion that characterized H.L. Mencken (I would see him as a precursor of the post-1960s intelligentsia). He once proposed that the universe is a gigantic ferris wheel, that man is a fly who happened to land on it, and who thinks that the whole contraption was created for his benefit. (The shallowness of Mencken’s view of religion should not detract from his having been one of America’s great satirists.)
What are the assumptions about faith made by the ”new atheists”? Some are empirically untenable, such as the idea that religion is the major cause of hatred and violence in the world (some of the most horrendous crimes in modern history were committed by regimes and movements with atheist ideologies). Or the idea that religion is mainly believed in by ignorant and prejudiced individuals. (President Obama expressed this idea when he said that people who were afraid of change—such as changes proposed by him?—cling to their faith and their guns.)
But I think that the root assumption is the counter-position of faith and reason: It is seen as a matter of either/or. One could cite the history of civilizations as a massive falsification of this idea. Western philosophy received decisive impulses from thinkers rooted in Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious traditions. Hinduism and Buddhism have also produced philosophies of great sophistication. But the counter-position of faith and reason is also falsified by ordinary religious believers today. The great majority of them see the relation of faith and reason, not as an either/or, but as a both/and. It is noteworthy that, in the United States, the religiously conservative Bible Belt overlaps with the economically dynamic Sun Belt. If you want to understand how individuals manage to be both born-again Evangelical Christians and petroleum engineers using the latest scientific methods, spend some time hanging out in Texas. To be a modern person means to know how to operate with different discourses and relevancies. It is not as difficult as one may think.
Actually, the counter-position of faith and reason is, precisely, a mirror image of a traditional Christian counter-position of faith and unbelief understood as sin. Given the condition of this world, God has not made it easy to believe in him, and it is unreasonable to award the status of sinner to an individual who cannot manage this feat. Faith is the audacious proposition that the universe is meaningful in terms of the deepest human aspirations. This is much more than the assent to a catalogue of doctrines. I am reminded of a Jewish joke about a man lying in the street after being knocked down by a car. A priest rushes up to him, ready to offer him the sacrament. And asks: “Do you believe in the Holy Trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit?” The accident victim turns to the bystanders: “What is this? Here I am dying, and this man comes and asks me riddles?”
I think that a more plausible counter-position is between faith and knowledge. I know that I am sitting at my desk, looking out over the Boston skyline, and I am working on my blog which, as usual, will be sent out into cyberspace by The American Interest, a journal published in Washington. I don’t need faith to arrive at this definition of reality. Of course a philosopher (or, more likely, an undergraduate philosophy major) may try to convince me that I don’t really know all this—I may be dreaming it—but, since I’m not an undergraduate philosophy major, I will understand this questioning of what I experience as reality to be nothing but an intellectual game.
On the other hand, if I say that I believe in the Holy Trinity, I am affirming a faith rather than reporting something I know. Faith is not knowledge, it is never absolutely certain. It always has around it a penumbra of doubt. Fundamentalist claim absolute certainty about their worldview (be it religious or secular, be they ultra-orthodox adherents of a religious tradition or cocksure atheists). Atheism, old or new, is rather childish (like something said to upset one’s grandmother, or the nuns who taught one in parochial school). If we are honest, most of us are, literally, agnostics/non-knowers. (Unless of course we were visited last night by an angel, whose reality was irresistible. But some of us, probably me included, would have doubts in the morning.)
I have sworn a solemn oath on my leather-bound copy of the Augsburg Confession that I would not parade my Lutheranism on this blog. I have no interest whatever in converting anybody to Lutheranism, not even my theologically liberal version of it. But if the question of faith is on the table, Luther had some useful things to say about it (and if I can respectfully refer to Confucius although I’m not a Confucian, surely I can respectfully refer to Luther although I am a Lutheran). The affirmation that we are saved by faith alone (sola fide) is at the heart of Luther’s understanding of Christianity. This affirmation, which is a rather inaccurate paraphrase of a statement by the Apostle Paul, was made in the context of salvation: We are not saved by our good works but by faith in God’s grace. In fidelity to the idea of the priesthood of all believers, I am taking the liberty of giving the phrase a meaning that Luther did not intend but which I think he would not have rejected: We are not saved by our knowledge (gnosis) of God, but by our faith in him. Luther also stated that faith (fides) is identical with trust (fiducia). And also he once said, in a moment of candor: “I don’t really know what I believe, but I know whom I believe”.
I have told a Jewish joke. So, following interfaith etiquette, I’ll tell a Hindu joke: A young American is travelling through India in search of the meaning of life. He finally comes on this famous holy man, who is sitting in front of his cave in a trance, his eyes fixed on the distant peaks of the Himalayas. The young American, after folding his hands reverently, says: “Your holiness, I have travelled far to learn the meaning of life. I was told that you know. Could you tell me?” After a pause, his eyes still fixed on the distant peaks, the holy man speaks: “The meaning of life is in the lotus flower.” A frown appears on his forehead, he tears his eyes away from the distant peaks, and turns to the young American: “Or, do you have any other suggestions?”