Saturday, May 15, 2010

Life Sucks, Then You Die

Damon Linker expresses disappointment in Kevin Drum and others for embracing the wrong kind of atheism. Linker:

[A] different kind of atheism is possible, legitimate, and (in Hart’s view) more admirable. Let’s call it catastrophic atheism, in tribute to its first and greatest champion, Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote in a head-spinning passage of the Genealogy of Morals that “unconditional, honest atheism is ... the awe-inspiring catastrophe of two-thousand years of training in truthfulness that finally forbids itself the lie involved in belief in God.” For the catastrophic atheist, godlessness is both true and terrible.

Now of course Hart would prefer that kind of tragic atheism. He’s a believer, after all. [emphasis mine]
I don't pretend to know all the rules, but that last part -- the casual admission that believers prefer atheists to be sad, hopeless, angst-riddled wretches -- seems out of bounds. He's waving the surrender flag! I think they're going to change the password for the anti-new-atheist treehouse and not tell Damon Linker what it is.

Linker presses gamely forward:
Rather than explore the complex and daunting existential challenges involved in attempting to live a life without God, the new atheists rudely insist, usually without argument, that atheism is a glorious, unambiguous benefit to mankind both individually and collectively. There are no disappointments recorded in the pages of their books, no struggles or sense of loss. Are they absent because the authors inhabit an altogether different spiritual world than the catastrophic atheists? Or have they made a strategic choice to downplay the difficulties of godlessness on the perhaps reasonable assumption that in a country hungry for spiritual uplift the only atheism likely to make inroads is one that promises to provide just as much fulfillment as religion?
The best that can be said of this tripe is that Linker is free to disagree with the answers to The Big Questions of Life originating from the atheists he dislikes, who, true enough, tend to address such questions while pointedly neglecting words like "spiritual." To say, however, that they offer nothing in the way of visions of human flourishing is so lazy, shallow, and risible that it barely deserves to be called false.

Sure, atheists don't tend to cry in their soup over the absence of god. This is a weird expectation to place upon them, let alone those atheists impassioned enough to write books promoting atheism. It's as sensible as expecting Christians to worry about displeasing god by never memorizing the untranslated Koran, or expecting Buddhists to worry about their failure to make sacrifices to Apollo.

Worry is the key word there, because Linker's analysis can't be bothered with true and false, but dwells in feelings. He wants atheists to foreground the emotionally bleaker implications of the godless cosmos: that lions will never lie down with lambs, that no overseeing force will rebalance the scales of justice, that this short life is all we have.

Life sucks, then you die. This happens to be true, and to whatever extent hope is possible, it belongs within the terms of that truism. Those who want justice must push for it within the boundaries of this life, in order to attenuate the "life sucks" part by making it more bearable, happy, and just. Such efforts may or may not succeed, often because others are pressing more forcefully in the opposite direction, sometimes without even realizing it. Those who press for gains don't always live to see their aims realized. Often a gain proves to be a mixed blessing, even in cases where people suffered greatly or died in unspeakable numbers to achieve it. Life sucks, then you die, and yet we move forward because life can be sweet and progress can be real.

The interesting thing about the above is that it needn't be cast as atheistic, and it doesn't have a fixed polarity on the optimism/pessimism scale. Believers conduct themselves every day as though it is true. They add flourishes -- poorly sourced histories, just-so stories, odd typologies -- that amount to emotional placebos, and placebos work so well they have an entire effect named after them.

This precious, precious blog has a Christian troll who adds inane, barely-literate comments to most posts, and one of his recurring themes is that "atheism has no answer for death." True enough, in the sense that atheists have not, by throwing off the yoke of religion, found a way to live forever. This is trivially true and utterly irrelevant. I would say that it's far worse to lack an answer for life that's better than just wait until the next life because it will be much better than this mess. That's a spectacularly despairing answer, so Damon Linker does not need to leave his fellow Christians to find the catastrophic world-view he claims to want.

PZ Myers has more on Linker's bluster.



Heather said...

I am now an adult. But not a night passes that I don't cry myself to sleep since I found out Santa Clause doesn't exist.

Dale said...

Heather, Santa exists in our hearts ... where it counts. This time of year, down somewhere in our hearts, he is cracking his whip over sweatshops packed with elves slaving mightily at making all the toys and games kids will get for Xmas.