In the most recent edition of First Things, David Bentley Hart sallies forth once again against the so-called New Atheists — Dawkins, Hitchens, and the rest of them. He is not impressed. His essay is a hilarious savaging — not of atheism per se, but of the half-baked and (worse) self-satisfied atheism on display at the bookstore these days. You really owe it to yourself to read him; as usual, he is articulate and entertaining.
There is a melancholy note struck at the essay’s center, however, and that is a kind of sorrow for the poor showing that our contemporary atheists — the most vocal ones, at least — are making. Their project fails to impress not just because of intellectual sloppiness (though there is that too), but principally because of spiritual torpor: it seems they cannot rouse themselves to thorough commitment to their disbelief. There is another side to the sadness too, which is that contemporary believers can rarely rouse themselves to thorough commitment to their belief. Mediocrity afflicts us all, on both sides of the aisle, and that is a sad comment on our times.
These reflections lead Hart to pen a moving appreciation for Friedrich Nietzsche, the great atheist of the Western tradition. He writes, in part:
Above all, Nietzsche understood how immense the consequences of the rise of Christianity had been, and how immense the consequences of its decline would be as well, and had the intelligence to know he could not fall back on polite moral certitudes to which he no longer had any right. Just as the Christian revolution created a new sensibility by inverting many of the highest values of the pagan past, so the decline of Christianity, Nietzsche knew, portends another, perhaps equally catastrophic shift in moral and cultural consciousness. His famous fable in The Gay Science of the madman who announces God’s death is anything but a hymn of atheist triumphalism. In fact, the madman despairs of the mere atheists — those who merely do not believe — to whom he addresses his terrible proclamation. In their moral contentment, their ease of conscience, he sees an essential oafishness; 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.
I’ve expressed my own appreciation of Nietzsche before, and on similar grounds, but obviously without Hart’s nimble eloquence.
Hart closes his reflections with a few brief remarks about one of the most prolific of the New Atheists, A. C. Grayling. As it happens, Grayling’s most recent book, Ideas that Matter, has come up for a thoughtful and critical review by John Gray at The National Interest. This is also worth reading.
Incidentally, Hart’s essay seems to have set the cat among the pigeons. As I am posting this, it has generated nearly 300 comments. I haven’t read any of them, and I think that is probably wise. Avalanches can be deadly.