Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Only reference critics who make no overt claim to be themselves religious. This is a self-imposed restriction believers might employ when refuting the New Atheism; otherwise there's no sport in it. Call it something like a golf handicap.

The rule leaves one with an impressive tally of publications. I've already mentioned the Marxist Terry Eagleton in the London Review of Books and biologist H. Allan Orr in the New York Review of Books. Now there's Leon Wieseltier in the The New Republic:
There are many things that may be said against contemporary atheism--against its dogmatism, its self-satisfaction, its evasion of the vast history of godless violence, its philosophical shallowness (when our Filene's Basement Voltaires bother about philosophical argument at all); but I am increasingly struck by the extent to which many of the books against God are mainly psychological expressions. More specifically, a lot of atheism looks to me like just a lot of adolescence. They are always telling you about their parents. They rebel against the false idea that God is the father because they have the false idea that their father is God. (Sometimes the villainous deceiver of young minds who must be deposed is an early teacher, who unaccountably failed to assign Why I Am Not a Christian to the second grade.) When it comes to the articulation of one's view of the world, of one's understanding of what is true and false about the universe, who cares what one's parents believe? The answer is, children care; and there is something childish about the freethinker's pouting critique of his own childhood. Atheism can be as infantilizing as theism, an inverted form of captivity to one's origins, as if biological authority confers intellectual authority. Je n'ai pas besoin de cette hypothese. In matters of conviction, we are orphans. And there is also, of course, the boyish thrill of naughtiness, the titillation of sinning, that attends the witticisms against religion. Here is Anatole France on Baudelaire, by way of Edmund Wilson: "In his arrogance he wished to believe that everything he did was important, even his little impurities; so that he wanted them all to be sins that would interest heaven and hell." Religion may confer a preposterous cosmic significance upon the individual, but atheism is the true friend of egotism.
Reading this is like getting up to do the dishes, and finding they're already done.

update: And here's Wieseltier's review of what he calls that "merry anthology of contemporary superstitions," Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell.