Friday, April 23, 2010

Shorter David Hart

David B. Hart, "Believe It Or Not"

  • True atheists -- by which I mean the kind I like to debate, the famous ones who died in 1900 in Röcken bei Lützen -- are desperately sad, hopeless, despairing, and syphilitic, and trace all of the above to atheism.


Nietzsche does make life easy for Christians in a way, for in at least one of his moods, he was prone to extrapolating from "Christianity is bullshit" (not his words) to "mankind exists in a gyre of meaningless and despair" (also not his words).

This misses how yelling about god exemplifies the intentionally provocative nature of his approach to philosophy -- how better to get the attention of complacent Europeans than to declaim against their chief idol (this still works, by the way). Never mind that, says Hart: crazy Fred said god is dead, and he was pessimistic to the point of nihilism at times, so he fits the Christian's preferred vision of atheism.

Sadly, no: the pessimistic strain in Nietzsche was polymorphous, and, notwithstanding the hopes animating this little tributary of pro-Christian argumentation, considerably more interesting than "life is a bummer without god" (it's worth noting that even if god did make life in the cosmos more emotionally satisfying, it wouldn't count as evidence that he/she/it exists). Nietzsche's pessimism had any number of illustrative symptoms and manifestations, not just god: love, democracy, history, progress, morality, art. God was, for Nietzsche, among the several layers of nonsense and "bad faith" people use to muffle, distort, and ultimately worsen the realities of the cosmos and our place in it.

Hart's concern-trolling has predictably left Rod Dreher and Ross Douthat swoon-drooling on their keyboards with effusive glee; LarryNiven is decidedly unimpressed.


'Shorter' concept lovingly borrowed from Sadly, No!


Thomas said...

How in the world do you interpret Nietzsche as believing life is meaningless without God? You either have never read Nietzsche or any reliable secondary literature on him, or you're confusing him with Camus. Nietzsche says precisely the opposite.

Dale said...

Thomas, the view I attribute to Nietzsche is that god is a failed means of investing life with meaning -- one of many such failed means, but a fundamental one.

In fact, the version of god in Christianity didn't just fail, but went so far as to invert the idea of goodness to cover its failure. Meekness and servility are now courageous! Weakness is now strength! Pity is grand! He pointed out that this -- ressentiment -- ultimately deepens the misery it tries to paper over.

Some Christians like citing Nietzsche because he saw modernity and Christianity at odds. He noticed -- loudly -- that the comforts of Christianity had worn away. Not that people had become more wise, but they had become less gullible vis-a-vis the conventional Christian tale. He saw this as an opening for something better, something truly deserving to be called noble, but first he wanted everyone to see that, whatever 'spiritual crisis' might be generally about and growing, reverting to ressentiment is not the answer.

Some Christians throw his name out when they want a big name to throw at modernity because *they* read him as embodying one of their preferred pet narratives about atheism: god is dead, so you're free to do whatever the hell you want. This is how he gets used, and my post was addressing a recent instance of it.

Thomas said...

That sort of gets Nietzsche right, but it misses the significance. Mercy and pity for the weak are intractable elements of Christianity (which itself is just popularized Platonism).

A rejection of Christianity entails a rejection of sympathy and mercy. Nietzsche praises the days when noblemen rode out into the country and murdered peasants for fun, and no matter how subtle his view of power are, this cruelty always lives in the heart of his concept of the will to power.

Nietzsche mocks those "Englishmen" who think they can reject God but keep a liberal politics that advocates caring for the poor. They fail to realize the genealogy of this morality, so they just end up playing at atheism.

The usefulness of Nietzsche for Christians is rhetorical in the sense that neo-atheists, as a whole, fall directly into the category of Englishmen who don't want to give up their morality, and don't understand where it comes from and what its implications are. The difficulty is that Nietzsche is actually a very serious challenge to Christianity, precisely because he understands what the (in his view) faux atheists do not.

Hart's academic work is, in large part, taken up by dealing with the Nietzschean challenge, who he takes very seriously.

Dale said...

Thomas, I would agree with the premise that there is a tiresome segment of religious skeptics who make up the "I'm not a Christian but Jesus was a great moral teacher" crowd, and I have little patience for them (for whatever that's worth).

Christians like Hart love to cast it as though the only possible answers when one undertakes to investigate "the genealogy of morals" are their "slave" morality (love your enemies) versus, on the other hand, Nietzsche's "master" morality (destroy the weak without remorse).

So, yes, Nietzsche represents a serious threat to Christianity, but the bigger threat -- and the explanation for the focus on Nietzsche by Hart and like-minded Christians -- is the possibility that subsequent atheists will follow their premises and take up the same *questions* he took up.