7 December 2011
But there are atheists—and then there are atheists.
I have recently been accused of being a religious bigot on several web sites around the Internet, for some comments I made about the moral wrongness of sexual promiscuity in my recent article, “Sex and the Thinking Conservative.”
Whether or not I am a bigot I will leave for others to decide. But the fact is, I am not religious in any conventional sense. On the other hand, my thinking on most questions is closer to that of many religious believers than it is to that of most of my fellow atheists. I recognize this may seem strange. So, I felt I owed both sides an explanation.
At the end of the “Sex” article, I promised to write a future column about the metaphysical basis of my claim that human nature provides an objective standard of right and wrong behavior that is not reducible to Darwinian fitness or the pleasure principle, on the one hand, or based on religious faith, on the other. And in the meantime, I sent the interested reader off to read Leon Kass and Hans Jonas.
This is not that promised future column. That column—the one that is really needed—is going to require some tough slogging, on both our parts. But rest assured, this one will be easier going. Though I hope it may help pave the way for the other one.
For now, I only want to point to an important distinction between two very different kinds of atheists. For, not all atheists are alike, any more than all religious believers are alike.
Of course, there may be many more than just two types of atheists, depending on what questions you are interested in and how you want to analyze them. But for my purposes, there are just two main kinds of atheists. And the difference between them—in a nutshell—is this:
One kind of atheist feels that religion is his enemy, while the other kind looks upon religion as his friend.
The Type 1 atheist—undoubtedly in the majority these days—takes his inspiration from science and considers himself to be “wised up.” He “sees through” the traditional idealistic teachings of religion, and believes that modern science has proven that human beings are “nothing but” animals with hard-wired synapses put in place by selfish genes, all of which is at bottom just molecules—or atoms, or quarks, or strings, or what have you—in motion.
No soul. No free will. No objective standards of right and wrong. Just a bunch of pitiless particles vibrating pointlessly in the primal quantum field.
That’s it. That’s what human being really are, according to the Type 1 atheist. And because traditional religion teaches something like the opposite of this—that human beings have a soul (or spirit) endowed with reason, a conscience, and free will, all responsive to objective standards of right and wrong—the Type 1 atheist feels it is his duty to oppose religion in the name of defending the “truth” about human nature.
The Type 2 atheist is a very different sort of beast (no pun intended). He is not an atheist because he believes in the reductive picture of the cosmos and the human being within it supposedly painted by modern science. He is an atheist because he isn’t persuaded by any of the arguments for the existence of God. It’s that simple.
He doesn’t feel the arguments for the existence of God to be compelling, but he does not for that reason go off the deep end and deny the plain evidence of his senses, which tells him that he is a being endowed with reason, a conscience, and free will. And because he is such a being—because human nature has these properties and can be known to have them by direct inspection—it follows that an objective standard of right and wrong also exists.
All of this—let’s agree to call it the “human spirit”—is simply part of our everyday experience of the world. Therefore, from the Type 2 atheist’s perspective, it is not up to him to prove anything to the scientist. Rather, it is up to modern science to figure out how to come more adequately to terms with spirit.
Since both the religious believer and the Type 2 atheist take the human spirit as their point of departure, it is clear that they are going to have much in common, though they will of course disagree about the ultimate reason for its existence.
You might say—to appropriate the terminology of another cultural crisis in our history—that type 1 atheists are anti-religious in the same way that Joe McCarthy was anti-communist, while type 2 atheists, though not “card-carrying” believers, are “fellow travelers” of religion.
To digress for a moment—”Type 1″ and “Type 2″ are ugly terms, so I’ve been thinking about what else to call the two kinds of atheists I have in mind.
Voltaire comes to mind as the prototype of the modern Type 1 atheist, who is well exemplified today by the so-called “New Atheists.” Unfortunately, though, he would have denied he was an atheist. Even Robespierre—while not busy strangling the last king with the entrails of the last priest, to quote Diderot—was packing the real atheists off to the guillotine. “Deism” was the politically correct term back then.
Voltaire had the New Atheists’ rabid hatred of Christianity down cold, all right. However, he was a Deist, and as such he does not quite work as an emblem for our modern notion of the Type 1 atheist.
I also thought about Friedrich Schiller as a model for the Type 2 atheist. Especially in the Letters upon the Aesthetic Education of Man, he is indeed the prototype of the unbeliever who cleaves to the greatness and indomitability of the human spirit as his new faith. But Schiller is little known nowadays—in English-speaking countries, at least—and anyway was too fierce an opponent of the Catholic church for his name to have quite the right connotation for what I mean.
So, instead of “Voltairian” and “Schillerian” atheists, let’s say “anti-religious” and “fellow-traveling” atheists.(1)
To return, then, to the main thread of our discussion: The hallmark of the fellow-traveling atheist is that he takes ordinary human experience, rather than science, as his point of departure. But what does this mean, exactly?
Obviously, not just any and every aspect of human experience is relevant. What the fellow-traveling atheist has in common with the religious believer is the recognition that man has a higher and a lower nature, a body but also a spirit. It is the fact that we directly experience our own duality that so impresses itself upon the fellow-traveling atheist, and makes him feel closer to the religious believer than to the anti-religious atheist.
What, exactly, do I mean by “duality” and “spirit” and the other turns of phrase I have been using to express what religion and fellow-traveling atheism have in common?
I’m afraid that some anti-religious atheists may have become been so immersed in their way of seeing the world that they may not be able to comprehend what I am talking about, even though it is just common human experience immediately available to everyone. So, let me explain by giving some concrete examples.
Example 1. In his diary, in the entry for June 13, 1816, when he was 19 years old, Franz Schubert wrote:
A light, bright, fine day this will remain throughout my whole life. As from afar the magic notes of Mozart’s music still gently haunt me. How unbelievably vigorously, and yet again how gently, was it impressed deep, deep into the heart by Schlesinger’s masterly playing. Thus does our soul retain these fair impressions, which no time, no circumstances can efface, and they lighten our existence. They show us in the darkness of this life a bright, clear, lovely distance, for which we hope with confidence. O Mozart, immortal Mozart, how many, oh how endlessly many such comforting perceptions of a brighter and better life hast thou brought to our souls!(2)
Example 2. In his 1877 short story, The Dream of a Ridiculous Man, Fyodor Dostoyevsky described a vision of a “golden age,” or paradise on earth:
Suddenly, and without as it were being aware of it myself, I stood on this other earth in the bright light of a sunny day, fair and beautiful as paradise. . . . Oh, everything was just as it is with us, except that everything seemed to be bathed in the radiance of some public festival and of some great and holy triumph attained at last. . . . Tall, beautiful trees stood in all the glory of their green luxuriant foliage, and their innumerable leaves (I am sure of that) welcomed me with their soft, tender rustle, and seemed to utter sweet words of love. . . . And at last I saw and came to know the people of this blessed earth. . . . These people, laughing happily, thronged round me and overwhelmed me with their caresses . . . Oh, they asked me no questions, but seemed to know everything already . . . (3)
Example 3. As our final example, let’s take this brief passage from the novella, The Condor, first published in 1840 by the great (and far too little-known) Austrian writer, Adalbert Stifter. In it, a young, struggling painter named Gustav is expressing his hopeless love for Cornelia, a young lady far above him in station:
Oh, Cornelia, help me to express what a wonderful starry heaven is in my heart, so completely happy, so shining, so resplendent that I must pour it out into my creations—a heaven as great as the universe itself.(4)
Why have I cited these three passages? What’s my point? Just this:
Human beings do not live a merely physical life, like the other animals. We also inhabit a mental universe that transcends the animals’ mode of existence as completely as animal life transcends the stasis of stones.
Life within the human mental universe is lived, not according to the laws of nature alone, but also according to values and ideals. It is this ideal dimension to which we alone are responsive that marks us as a race apart from the rest of creation. These three passages amply demonstrate the reality of values and ideals, by showing the tangible grip they have upon the human mind (or spirit or soul).
This, then, is what I mean when I use the word “spirit”: that part of us that perceives a brighter and better life in music; that dreams of another earth in the bright light of a sunny day, fair and beautiful as paradise; that carries a starry heaven in the heart of man.
However, even if one is inclined to accept this characterization of spirit, the question remains: How can it be reconciled with the understanding of the rest of the world revealed to us by modern science?
One might be tempted to say the human spirit is simply a mystery that the natural sciences will never explain. And, of course, religious believers will have their own explanation.
For my part, I prefer to conclude that the natural sciences are still in their infancy.
The sciences as we know them today might be termed “Procrustean.” They try to explain the adult human being by lopping off that part of him—the starry heaven in his heart—that will not fit inside the child-sized bed of their vision of the universe.
Therefore, for the sciences to accommodate the human spirit more comfortably, they will have to transform themselves beyond all present recognition. But that is not unthinkable. It has happened before, and it can happen again.
What might a post-Procrustean science look like? That, unfortunately, is a far more difficult question, which must wait for that promised future column.
(1)If anyone can think of anything better, please let me know.
(2) Deutsch, Otto Erich, The Schubert Reader (W.W. Norton & Company, 1947); p. 60.
(3) Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” tr. David Magarshack, in Great Short Works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Perennial Classics, 2004); pp. 728–729.
(4) Stifter, Adalbert, Der Condor (GRIN Verlag, 2009); p. 22. My translation.