Atheism and Its Discontents

By Morten Høi JensenDecember 14, 2014

Atheists: Origin of the Species by Nick Spencer
Culture and the Death of God by Terry Eagleton
The Age of Atheists by Peter Watson

ONE OF THE DEFINING intellectual trends in recent history has been the salvo of anti-religious fervor that first rang out about a decade ago. Spearheaded by Sam Harris’s The End of Faith (2004), Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion (2006), and the late Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great (2007), the so-called New Atheism proved surprisingly popular, infiltrating bestseller lists and influencing public debate. What exactly was “new” about these atheists is still a little unclear; surely their liberal positivism and rationalist conviction was anything but. And yet their ability to reinvigorate familiar arguments — arguments combating the influence of religion on politics and society, condemning the ascendance of creationist myths, vanquishing the tired notion that morality is derived solely from religious texts — was remarkably effective.

It was difficult, at times, not to be swayed by the force of their rhetoric and the zeal of their conviction. Many of their arguments and accusations were a welcome respite from the religious fundamentalism of the period — the conservative religiosity of Bush-era American political life and the clamoring militant forces mobilized in the name of Islam. And yet for all their polemical swagger, the New Atheists proved terminally incapable of performing a basic theological feat: comprehending why an individual human being might choose to devote their lives to God. The need for religion, they argued, was inevitably a kind of psychological and emotional failure. Christopher Hitchens wrote that religious faith was partly caused by sexual repression, while Sam Harris said that it belonged on the same shelf as “Batman, the philosopher’s stone, and unicorns.” In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins went to drastic lengths to debunk the idea that praying for sick patients can improve their health.

Because they regarded religion as self-evidently childish or just plain foolish, the New Atheists absolved themselves of having to take religious belief seriously. For them, it wasn’t serious anyway. But this apparent self-evidence reflected poorly on their own rigorous outspokenness. For if religion is just stupidity and superstition, what need is there for atheism to be anything but a swift corrective? Sam Harris argued as much: “Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious. […] Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious belief.”

Reading the gospel of New Athiesm leaves you with the feeling that atheism is simply a reprimand — a stern “hush hush” to the querulous children of faith. But the problem with this view is that it drains atheism of the metaphysical force of its own position. What makes atheism so radically different from agnosticism is precisely its desire to meet the extraordinary truth claims of religion head-on with rival propositions about the world. Hitchens’s claim that “our belief is not a belief” could not be more wrong. On the contrary, as the literary critic James Wood writes, “atheism is structurally related to the belief it negates, and is necessarily a kind of rival belief.” He claims being an agnostic would be “a truer liberation” since it would mean disregarding the issue altogether. The atheist, on the other hand, is always trapped in a kind of negative relationship to the God whose existence she denies in the first place, but whose scandalous absence she is forever proclaiming — a paradox memorably captured by Samuel Beckett’s Hamm when he exclaims, “The bastard! He doesn’t exist!”

A number of books published this year have attempted to portray atheism in a more complex and multifaceted light than the rationalist naysaying of Harris and his ilk. Though they come to different, sometimes opposing conclusions, Terry Eagleton’s Culture and the Death of God, Peter Watson’s The Age of Atheists, and Nick Spencer’s Atheists: The Origin of the Species all take a longer view of the rise of atheism in the modern world, exploring the social and political events that created the intellectual precedents for unbelief, as well as sifting through the countless ways in which human beings have sought to fill the void left by God in the wake of his alleged “death” in the late 19th century. These books are counterarguments of a sort, broadened responses to the narrow polemics of New Atheism. Yet because their interest in atheism is primarily sociopolitical, they, too, fall short of engaging properly with its metaphysical claims — and that means they also resist speaking to atheism on the emotional, human level at which many of its beliefs are most deeply felt.

Nick Spencer’s Atheists: The Origin of the Species offers perhaps the most intriguing and original narrative of the history of atheistic ideas, and certainly the most detailed. Research Director at the London-based think tank Theos, Spencer proves a thoughtful and sympathetic guide to a subject he claims is “best understood in social and political terms.” Modern atheism, he argues, was born of a crisis in religious authority in the 1500s. In fact, it was a kind of accident — the result of largely “unintended consequences”:

Religious disagreement and polemic, aided by scepticism, undermined the foundations for knowing about God. Religious conflict undermined Christianity’s moral authority. Refuge could be found in fideism or rationalism but neither was secure, the former closing its ears to the world, the latter to anything distinctively Christian. Few if any of the thinkers engaged in these battles were atheists but they all, in different ways, were engaged in forging and distributing weapons that would one day be used by people who were.

Thus many of the pioneers of atheism — Niccolò Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, Baruch Spinoza — were not necessarily atheists themselves, but thinkers who wanted to realign the relationship between religion and society. Some were even devout believers. One of the ironies of Spencer’s narrative, and what gives it a kind of provocative counterintuitiveness, is his insistence on the role of believers themselves in the undermining of their faith. When believers splintered into factions and began questioning each other’s authority, Spencer writes, “they also questioned the texts on which their interpretation was founded, and biblical criticism as an anti-Christian discipline was born.”

In other words, atheism, like a teenage boyfriend, was snuck in through the back door while devout parents were distractedly bickering over biblical interpretation. And once the initial transgression had occurred, religious authority’s undoing was irreversible. Slowly, historians, philosophers, and scientists began to vie with church authorities for the definitive account of human origin and destiny. Even the publication of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776), with its claim that, as Spencer puts it, “history was all humanity and accident and irony,” was considered by many to be a subversion of the notions of divine providence. There was no divine intervention in Gibbon’s history, just imperfect human agency.

In Spencer’s account, atheism was never simply “an admission of the obvious.” In fact, until the 19th century, it was barely atheistic at all; it was only after 1789 that history definitively replaced religion as humanity’s dominant narrative in Europe. Spencer calls this “the moment to be alive as an atheist, when progress predicted the death of God as humanity moved into broad, sunlit rational uplands.” German progressives like David Friedrich Strauss and Ludwig Feuerbach argued that Jesus was a mythologized historical person and God a projection of human desires; Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels outlined a Utopian messianism, prophesizing a heaven-on-earth shorn of metaphysical padding; and Charles Darwin revealed human beings to be the descendants of apes, not Adam and Eve.

Yet 19th-century atheism, closely allied to Positivism (defined by Spencer as “the idea that experimental science was the only way to truth and that all knowledge must therefore be scientific knowledge”), found its most penetrating critic in Friedrich Nietzsche, himself an atheist. Unlike those who regarded the death of God as an exhilarating liberation, Nietzsche saw that what lay ahead was not a clear-eyed, rational humanism but a “long dense succession of demolition, destruction, downfall, upheaval.” The event of God’s death, he wrote in The Gay Science, was too great to have been fully comprehended by humankind. He prophesized that our entire European morality, reared and fattened by the Christian faith, would have to collapse for us to fully understand the true impact of the death of God.

Spencer is right to argue that the refusal of 19th-century rationalists to take seriously any religious or metaphysical claims was a grave error, one “that would reach its hubristic conclusion early the following century.” Yet his book is disappointingly slight on why that is. Just as the long 20th century, with all its wars and genocides, all its thinkers and philosophers jostling for attention, looms into view, Spencer gets cold feet. With uncharacteristic haste (the early parts of the book move slowly: on page 100 we are still lounging in the afternoon of the mid-18th century), he strings together Joseph Stalin, Bertrand Russell, Clarence Darrow, Enver Hoxha, Chairman Mao, and Roe v. Wade in an unconvincing summary, followed by a drawn-out and purgative bashing of Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris. It’s a poor conclusion to a book that, for all its historical detail, reveals itself to be unenlightening on the subject it sets out to describe. A history of atheism that doesn’t engage with its claims is a bit like a biography of Jane Austen that doesn’t mention her novels.

The English literary theorist Terry Eagleton joins Spencer in seeing the history of atheism not strictly as a refutation of God but as a series of disagreements over moral and political authority. “The Enlightenment,” he writes early in Culture and the Death of God, “may have been troubled by the question of faith, but it was not especially anti-religious.” The philosophes of the Enlightenment viewed religion in practical, utilitarian terms; it was to be contested when it supported political autocracy but tolerated when it promoted civic virtue. Whatever their own hang-ups about religion, these largely bourgeois intellectuals looked kindly (and not a little condescendingly) on the lower classes clinging desperately to their pious ideology. What harm is a little superstition, the philosophes rationalized, if it guarantees social cohesion?

But Eagleton sees it as “imprudent for the rulers to worship Reason while the masses pay homage to the Virgin Mary,” and his book is partly a critique of those who would use religion as a rationale for an existing social order. Thus he examines the variously philosophical and political attempts to replace religious eschatology with what he calls counterfeit theology. “The history of the modern age,” he argues,

is among other things the search for a viceroy for God. Reason, Nature, Geist, culture, art, the sublime, the nation, the state, science, humanity, Being, Society, the Other, desire, the life force and personal relations: all of these have acted from time to time as forms of displaced divinity.

Eagleton’s account of these displacements is both spirited and substantial. More willing to engage with ideas than Nick Spencer (who at times seems content merely to document them), he deftly entwines theology, philosophy, art, and politics in a bracing narrative that is often characteristically witty. (Alain de Botton’s claim that atheists can still find religion useful and consoling, Eagleton writes, “makes it sound rather like rustling up a soufflé when you are feeling low.”) Best of all, perhaps, is the ease with which Eagleton is able to condense entire ideologies into a succinct and stylish sentence, as in this description of Romantic nationalism: “The secular, fragmented time of the modern is countered by the sacred, unruptured narrative of the nation.”

Yet Eagleton, who is a Marxist Catholic and doubts whether any form of secularism can “offer us ecstatic fulfillment, a sense of community or wipe away the tears of those who mourn,” gradually makes a somewhat wayward polemical case for a radical Christianity in response to an ideologically impoverished West — a surprising brew of Christianity and Marxism, in which Jesus is seen as some form of socialist grandfather rather than the son of God. But as the title of his book suggests, Eagleton views the death of God as a cultural and political problem rather than a metaphysical one. “God is indeed dead,” he proclaims, “and it is we who are his assassins, yet our true crime is less deicide than hypocrisy.” In other words, the problem is that a residual theology clings to modern secular societies even though we claim to have killed off God. Our crime is to be dishonest about this fact — an antimodernist argument Eagleton borrows largely from Nietzsche and, though he would be loath to admit it, the contemporary philosopher John Gray.

“What Nietzsche recognizes,” Eagleton writes, “is that you can get rid of God only if you also do away with innate meaning. The Almighty can survive tragedy, but not absurdity.” If God goes, so must all the parasitic counterfeit theologies praying on his remains, including our cherished Enlightenment values. Since this is not the case, however, modern secular societies are inherently hubristic, adrift on a shallow sea of cultural superabundance. Culture, in fact, becomes the new absolute, an end in itself. It is transcendental rather than transcendent. There is nothing behind or beyond it, and so the only faith to which secular societies can aspire is “Scientology, packaged Sufism, off-the-peg occultism and ready-to-serve transcendental meditation.” The postmodern subject is shorn of universal truths, a sense of history, and a firmly rooted self, and so postmodernism is for Eagleton the first “authentic atheism” of human history. “Whereas modernism experiences the death of God as a trauma,” he writes, “postmodernism does not experience it at all.” Indeed, postmodernism is post-tragic, since tragedy “involves the possibility of irretrievable loss, whereas for postmodernism there is nothing momentous missing.”

This line of argument may carry weight in seminar rooms and lecture halls, but in the larger theater of contemporary human experience I would be surprised if a great many people self-identified as post-tragic postmodernists. Wouldn’t the nonexistence of God be a very immediate and personal problem for most believers, as opposed to a cultural or intellectual one? Wouldn’t it, indeed, be tragic? Eagleton doesn’t seem to think so. “Religion is not primarily a set of theoretical claims about the world,” he assures us. “From a scientific viewpoint, religious doctrines may well be false, but this is scarcely the point. It would be like claiming that the death of Cordelia is incapable of moving us to tears because there never was such a woman.”

Oh? On the contrary, I think most believers would be shocked to find that the God to whom they pray and devote their lives is no more real than Cordelia, or that their religion is not primarily a set of — quite extraordinary — claims about the world. There is something … imprudent — isn’t there? — about Eagleton scolding secularists while advancing a case for religious belief that is so, well, secular.

It would be easier, finally, to credit Eagleton’s critique of the “bogus spirituality of postmodern cultures” if his faith actually sounded religious rather than just loftily intellectual (and therefore religiously bogus). After all, if Eagleton is not entirely serious about his Christianity, why should anyone else be? It may well suit his political disposition to claim that the Christian faith is “not about moral uplift” or satisfying “certain emotional needs,” yet that is precisely what millions of believers across the world ask of it on a daily basis: divine guidance and existential strength, not some vague Christianity-as-critique-of-politics. Besides, what difference, if any, is there between Eagleton’s notion of a socialist Christianity (“solidarity with the poor and powerless”) and any other faith-based rationale for a particular social order? In the end, his specious brand of faith actually resembles the many surrogate theologies he purports to disdain.

While Spencer and Eagleton fail to disentangle themselves from Nietzsche once they’ve run into him, the popular historian Peter Watson tries to subdue him by placing him at the front of his Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God, a book that opens with the cunning German’s pronouncement of the death of God in 1882. From this point in history, Watson proceeds to digest, like some famished cultural omnivore, a wealth of artists and thinkers of the 20th century so diverse and dissimilar that one is amazed they could ever be contained under the heading of a single subject. They range from Claude Monet to Salman Rushdie, André Gide to Richard Rorty, Elizabeth Bishop to Timothy Leary. And though, contra the book’s title, they are by no means all atheists, Watson enlists them in an exhausting narrative that often reads like a crash course in 20th-century culture.

Unfortunately, whatever argument about atheism Watson set out to make quickly drowns out in the din of voices and movements and novels and treatises his book describes. Between discussions of German Expressionism and Carl Rogers’s Counseling and Psychotherapy, Watson wades into the same trap that ensnared Nick Spencer. Glancing at the United Nations Development Program and the Human Development Index, he argues that “transcendence” is not as important to religious belief as “poverty and existential insecurity,” and that religion must therefore be understood on sociological rather than theological grounds. And like Eagleton, he appears to equate all secular cultural practices with atheism, discussing Rudolf Laban’s dance theories one moment and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels the next. But where Eagleton is menacingly elitist, Watson’s intellectual perspective is flatly egalitarian; by the end of the book (all 550 pages of it), the demanding, terrifying proposition of atheism — there is no God — has been deflated to a shrugging epistemological tolerance. Whatever gets you up in the morning, Watson’s atheism seems to say.

If the authors of the three books I’ve discussed have anything in common, it’s a kind of secular aversion to belief, both religious and atheist. They don’t seem entirely comfortable with the extraordinary truth claims of religious belief, and so they cannot quite take seriously the fierce rebuttal of atheism. Faith and atheism are reduced to contrary fictions as opposed to rival propositions about the world and our place in it.

It isn’t surprising that the beast none of these writers are able to tame turns out to be Nietzsche (or that he is entirely absent from New Atheism). With typical foresight, he wrote in Beyond Good and Evil that modern men “no longer have any idea what religions are supposed to be for.” The decline of theism that Nietzsche diagnosed in the Europe of his time has continued more or less unabated; despite the obvious power religion still holds, its role in public life has diminished in ways that would have been almost unimaginable 150 years ago. Even I sometimes feel a little anachronistic calling myself an atheist, sitting here with my Dostoevsky and my Camus, wondering about the meaning of life in the wake of God’s absence.

But even so the metaphysical problems religion and atheism arose to address will continue to persist: Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? What happens to us when we die? And that much, as Philip Larkin wrote in “Church Going,” can never be obsolete:

Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.


Morten Høi Jensen is writing a biography of the Danish writer Jens Peter Jacobsen.

LARB Contributor

Morten Høi Jensen is a writer and critic from Copenhagen, Denmark. He is the author of A Difficult Death: The Life and Work of Jens Peter Jacobsen (Yale University Press, 2017). Photo by Niels Hougaard / Kristeligt Dagblad.


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