Dialectics, religion, and the new atheists

One of the debates which now rages intensely among different sections of the mainstream is that between atheism and theism, a debate that usually manifests itself in terms of naturalistic analytic atheists like Daniel Dennett, Alex Rosenberg, Keith Parsons, etc. squaring off against conservative Christian apologists who crank out medieval syllogisms.  As a recovering New Atheist/analytic naturalist myself, I remember how seriously people took this debate, as if the fate of the world rested on the outcome of some tussle over some minor point on page whatever of Aquinas’ Summa.

Now I’m of the opinion that most of what passes for “philosophy” in the mainstream English-speaking mainstream (think Quine, Putnam, Sellars, Kripke, Searle, etc.) is shallow and naive; clever versions of stupid arguments defending stupid ideas with a massive dose of lack of self-awareness on the side.  Really, you have to try to be as oblivious to the dialectic of text and context as most Anglophone philosophers are.  However, I can elaborate on my problems with most mainstream philosophy (I include the resurgent Christian conservatism as mainstream, since despite their claims of persecution and minority status, they sure get a lot of publicity, funding, etc.) in another post.  Here I’d like to focus on the more socially relevant atheism-theism conflict.

It hasn’t been long enough for me, when I stumble upon the writings of one of the figures associated with this debate, to not have my reflexive tendency to argue on my old analytic terms.  But in general, and deliberately, I am finding the whole debate sillier and sillier, because both positions are increasingly striking me as absurd in light of history.  On the one hand, the arguments put forth by the analytic theists of today, those triumphantly declaring the resurgent victory of God (usually a specifically conservative Evangelical or Catholic God, a God of the privileged individuals which this ideology serves)  are laughable.  They are paper tigers, naked emperors.  In the words of one of my favorite bloggers:

they use their medieval cleverness to mock those who understand the world better than they ever could.

They literally are more or less taking medieval scholastic syllogisms like the “ontological argument,” dressing them up in a bunch of unnecessary and useless formalism and/or a bunch of misleading citations of science and calling it knockdown and revolutionary!  It’s as funny as the declaration of Papal Infallibility; an expression of real weakness and growing irrelevance.  For indeed, far more powerful than any cute syllogism is the glacial force of history rendering one irrelevant, outmoded.  It’s the philosophical equivalent of the way neoclassical economics takes a bunch of relatively simple (failed) attempts to respond to Marx (think Boehm-Bawerk, Bortkiwiecz, etc.) and dressing them up in advanced mathematics.  It doesn’t make the ideas any better, just like the laughably bad and disingenuous attempts to co-opt information theory by creationists.  Just because you can say “Kolmogorov complexity” doesn’t mean Epicurus’, Hume’s, and others’ takedowns of design logic aren’t just as powerful.  In fact, if anything the attempts to respond to these various foundational critiques (of religion by philosophers, of Marx by marginalist economists) have gotten worse over time; Boehm-Bawerk is much better than a hack like Hayek (a “Hayhack,” if you will).

On the other hand you have the New Atheists, who are basically doing the same thing with Hume and/or the French materialists like d’Holbach.  Feuerbach was infinitely better than these guys, and Marx’s views grew partly out of an effective critique of Feuerbach!  Hell, Marx is still considered one of the better interpreters of Epicurus (in his doctoral dissertation), one of the earliest thinkers in the tradition into which I’d place the New Atheists (though, if I were being a nitpicky academic type I might say most of them are now closer to Democritus in their views, e.g. reductive physicalist ontologies).

Now, what does this have to do with the dialectics I mentioned in my title?  Well, though I should probably detail this a lot more in a paper, I basically think a total nontheism – a post-theism as some commentators call it – is the necessary and correct position to take.  What do I mean?  Basically, theism-as-such has a ton of premises and assumptions built into it, concerning the nature of argument, the nature of being, the nature of cause, the understanding of language, etc.  The very fact that atheism-as-such can engage the arguments of philosophical theists so directly shows that the two positions are much closer than they think.  Atheism-as-such is in a way just inverted theism.  To be differentiated merely over the purported existence or non-existence of some entity means the two positions must share enough common basis to be differentiated solely by this question.  The atheist-as-such takes saying “there is no god” to have roughly the same function that saying “there is a God” does, just with “not-god” being God.  It shares theism’s truth table while flipping all the truth values.

This is a unity of opposites, and we need a way to resolve the contradiction, the tension, between these views, and that synthesis is to move wholly beyond the theistic way of thinking in the first place.  The atheist-as-such answers the question “does god exist?” with a no, but we should reject the question.  This is what Marx seems to do in his Theses on Feuerbach; Feuerbach’s humanist atheism is the antithesis of theism-as-such, but there are still tensions within the view (internal contradictions) and tensions between it and theism-as-such that are unresolved.  Marx thus transcends the dichotomy of the two purely passive views.  It is worth noting that this is not the same as pitiful “agnosticism,” arbitrary compromise.  For indeed the banal notion that “we should just move closer to the middle” is a symptom of liberal ideology.  This post-theism (and by necessity post-atheism) is far more radical in its rejection of the “theologising[sic] intellect,” to quote Marx, as the atheist-as-such is at the end of the day nothing more than an atheologian.


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