Monday, November 7, 2011

Nice Nihilism

A recent letter writer to the Irish Times, Alex Stavely from Donabate, wrote on October 6th of this year:

A chara, – Michael Nugent claims atheists agree “values such as love and goodness are part of our experience as human beings”. One may be an atheist and be filled with goodness and love or one may be an atheist like Stalin or Pol Pot and struggle on such matters.

Atheism is only a position on an existential question, namely the existence of God(s). Humanism may make further claims. Atheism does not. It is grossly inaccurate to infer it is anything to do with any other life stance, be that positive or negative. – Is mise,

This is a claim we encounter increasingly; that atheism is a value-free theory of reality, and nothing more. Of course some atheists will go further, and concede that many of the implications of atheism are indeed cataclysmic. My favourite Catholic philsopher, Edward Feser, has been engaging on his blog recently with the theories of fellow philosopher Alex Rosenborg, whose book "The Atheist's Guide to Reality" is blurbed thus on Amazon:

We can't avoid the persistent questions about the meaning of life-and the nature of reality. Philosopher Alex Rosenberg maintains that science is the only thing that can really answer them...He shows how physics makes Darwinian natural selection the only way life can emerge, and how that deprives nature of purpose, and human action of meaning, while it exposes conscious illusions such as free will and the self...The result is nice nihilism....

What I want to draw attention to here is how atheism, considered as a social and cultural phenomenon, has increasingly withdrawn to this stockade of a single negative. Think of all the schools of thought that have taken the denial of the divine as the foundation for some elaborate philosophy, whether wildly optimistic or determinedly, self-admiringly bleak. Gone indeed are the heady days of Victorian social and technological progressivism, of Russian nihilism (philosophers like Chernyshevsky who rejected altruism and believed that all mankind were egoists, but enlighened egoism would lead to the good of all), of Marxism in its various guises, of anarchism, of Freudianism, of racialism, of counter-cultural liberalism with its communes and pot-smoking and heightened consciousness. No longer does it really seem true that (as GK Chesterton never said but should have) "When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing, they believe in anything." Today we increasingly seem to have people who do indeed believe in nothing, and make unbelief the master-passion of their lives.

The communist project, the dreams of scientific utopias, the nostrums of liberalism have failed so wildly that atheism no longer dares appeal to them. All the idols have failed, there is no longer anything to replace religious belief; but the spirit of nihilism has bitten Western man so deeply that he would rather embrace this single negative-- with all its attendant metaphysical, epistemological, social and historical absurdities-- and live his life by it, than accept the alternative.

On the one hand, it makes it more difficult to argue against atheists and philosophical materialists when they fold their arms, smirk, and refuse to make any positive claims, to affirm anything whatsoever. But on the other hand, I think it is rather an encouraging sign for believers; a siege mentality can only be maintained for so long.

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