Saturday, April 17, 2010

Art History and the New Atheism

You might say that David Hart's most recent engagement with the New Atheists (First Things May 2010) is more of the same, but this is merely because the most recent output of the New Atheists (50 Voices of Unbelief) is, well, more of the same.
I came away from the [latest] drab assemblage of preachments and preenings feeling rather as if I had just left a large banquet at which I had been made to dine entirely on crushed ice and water vapor.... What I find offensive about that is not that they are skeptics or atheists; rather, it is that they are not skeptics at all and have purchased their atheism cheaply, with the sort of boorish arrogance that might make a man believe himself a great strategist because his tanks overwhelmed a town of unarmed peasants, or a great lover because he can afford the price of admission to a brothel.
The feebleness of contemporary atheism is particularly lamentable because "skepticism and atheism, are, at least in their highest manifestation, noble, precious, and even necessary traditions," imbued - at their best - with genuine offense at the injustices of religion, having "something of the moral grandeur of the prophets - a deep and admirable abhorrence of those vicious idolatries that enslaves minds and justify our worst cruelties." But none of that is on offer today. (Pomo popularizer Pete Rollins may be seeking a "third way" between Christianity and Atheism, but Hart understands that we haven't yet been dignified with a serious other end of the pole.) The New Atheists seem unaware that Nietzsche long ago chided their scientism as the "the most pathetic of all metaphysical nostalgias." They fail to fathom the cost of their creed:
They do not dread the death of God because they do not grasp that humanity's heroic and insane act of repudiation has sponged away the horizon, torn down the heavens, left us with only the uncertain resources of our will with which to combat the infinity of meaninglessness that the universe now threatens to become.
At any rate, Hart does encounter one somewhat original maneuver in the 50 Voices of Unbelief, that being A.C. Grayling's argument from art history. Responding to the "No Christianity, No Renaissance art" argument, Grayling announces that "an Aphrodite emerging from the Paphian foam is an infinitely more life-enhancing image than a Deposition from the Cross." Hart finds here a nearly Nietzschean moment of clarity, and then responds:
Ignoring the leaden and almost perfectly ductile phrase "life-enhancing," I, too - red of blood and rude of health - would have to say I generally prefer the sight of nubile beauty to that of a murdered man's shattered corpse. The question of whether Grayling might be accused of a certain deficiency of tragic sense can be deferred here. But perhaps he would have done well, in choosing this comparison, to have reflected on the sheer strangeness, and the significance, of the historical and cultural changes that made it possible in the first place for the death of a common man at the hands of a duly appointed legal authority to become the captivating center of an entire civilization's moral and aesthetic contemplations - and for the deaths of all common men and women perhaps to be invested thereby with a gravity that the ancient order would never have accorded them.
Grayling might also be aware of the Virgin Mary, a figure who both purifed and assimilated the pagan beauty of the Paphian Aphrodite long ago, as the churches erected in her honor just outside of Paphos attest.