Atheism is so often considered in the negative: as a lack of faith, or a disbelief in god; as an essential deprivation. Atheism is seen as being destitute of meaning, value, purpose; unfertile ground for growing the feelings of belonging needed to overcome the alienation that dogs modern life.This is true enough for the simple reason that atheism as such has no response to give that would satisfy these yearnings, nor could it produce one. O'Connor finds Dawkins unduly bleak as in this well-known passage:
In more extreme critiques, atheism is considered to be another name for nihilism; a fundamental negation of existence, a noxious blight on creation itself.
Yet atheists – rather than flippantly dismissing the insights of theologians – should take them seriously indeed. Humans, by dint of being human, are confronted with baffling questions about meaning, belonging, direction, our connection to other humans and the fate of our species as a whole . The human impulse is to seek answers, and to date, atheism has been unsatisfactory in its response.
The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.But Dawkins is hardly the only atheist who recognizes the dark implications of atheism. Listen to Nobel laureate in physics Steven Weinberg:
[T]he worldview of science [i.e. atheism] is rather chilling. Not only do we not find any point to life laid out for us in nature, no objective basis for our moral principles, no correspondence between what we think is the moral law and the laws of nature, .... we even learn that the emotions that we most treasure, our love for our wives and husbands and children, are made possible by chemical processes in our brains that are what they are as a result of natural selection acting on chance mutations over millions of years. And yet we must not sink into nihilism or stifle our emotions. At our best we live on a knife-edge, between wishful thinking on one hand and, on the other, despair.And 20th century atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell, who lived and wrote two generations before the new atheists came on the scene, is no more upbeat:
Such, in outline, but even more purposeless, more void of meaning is the world which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins - all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.Quotes from famous atheists read as though they were surreptitiously inserted into the larger culture by prozac manufacturers to enhance the sale of their product. O'Connor, though, continues, determined to persuade his fellow atheists to be more optimistic about the benefits of atheism:
Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built.
Atheist values are typically defined as humanistic. If we look to the values of the British Humanist Association, we see that it promotes naturalism, rational debate, and the pre-eminence of evidence, cooperation, progress and individual dignity. These are noble aspirations, but they are ultimately brittle when tackling the visceral and existential problems confronting humanity in this period of history. When one considers the destruction that advanced capitalism visits on communities – from environmental catastrophes to war and genocide – then the atheist is the last person one thinks of calling for solace, or for a meaningful ethical and political alternative.Precisely so, if we ignore the swipe at capitalism and ignore, too, that the wars of the 20th century which costs millions of lives were instigated by atheists in states some of which were officially atheistic. But setting that aside, why would anyone call upon someone for a meaningful ethical alternative to the evils of the modern world whose worldview undercuts the possibility of any meaningful morality at all?
In the brutal economic reality of a neo-liberal, market-oriented world, these concerns are rarely given due consideration when debating the questions surrounding the existence or non-existence of god. The persistent and unthinking atheist habit is to ground all that is important on individual freedom, individual assertions of non-belief and vacant appeals to scientific evidence. But these appeals remain weak when confronting financial crises, gender inequality, diminished public health and services, food banks, and economic deprivation.O'Connor just doesn't seem to realize that atheism lacks the resources to address any of these issues. There's simply no basis on atheism for saying that anyone ought to act against his or her own self-interest.
His essay takes a stunning turn when he advocates that atheism abandon humanistic values and embrace the thinking of Nietzsche, Marx, and Sartre:
Instead, we can look to a different breed of atheism, found in the work of continental, anti-humanist philosophers. For example, we can turn to Nietzsche to understand the resentments generated by human suffering. Meanwhile, the Marxist tradition offers us the means to understand the material conditions of unsustainable capitalism. Existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus allow us to comprehend our shared mortality, and the humour and tragedy of life in a godless universe. There is a whole other philosophical vocabulary for atheism to explore. Both Nietzsche and Sartre observe a different atheism, one embedded in the context of genuine questions of cruelty, economic alienation, anxiety and mortality.Okay, but if you want a lodestar by which to guide your ethics in the modern world, embracing a man who praises cruelty (Nietzsche) and a man who insists upon the meaninglessness of human existence (Sartre) is going to have a lot of people wondering how this is any better than the empty hopelessness offered by Weinberg and Dawkins.
Here's a sample of Nietzsche: “To see others suffer does one good, to make others suffer even more: this is a hard saying but an ancient, mighty, human, all-too-human principle [....] Without cruelty there is no festival.”
And here's Sartre in a nutshell: "Life has no meaning the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal."
The unpleasant truth is that if atheism is true then, as many atheists themselves tells us, it's also true that there is no good reason to think that human beings have free-will, a self (or soul), dignity, or a meaning for their existence. Nor is there any reason to think that there's a basis for human rights, hope, a belief in consciousness, ultimate justice, or objective moral duties.
In other words there's not much there to offer people looking to satisfy the existential emptiness of life in a post-Christian world. O'Connor's call for an atheism that gives answers is like a call for cool water in the desert. It's just not in the nature of thing to provide what's being asked of it.