The False Equation of Atheism and Intellectual Sophistication: Beyond the argument that faith in God is irrational—and therefore illegitimate
by Emma Green
Atheism is intellectually fashionable. In the past month, The New York Times has run several stories about lack of faith in its series on religion. The New Yorker ran an article on the history of non-belief in reaction to two new books on the subject that were released within a week of each other in February. The veteran writer, Adam Gopnik, concludes this:
What the noes, whatever their numbers, really have now … is a monopoly on legitimate forms of knowledge about the natural world. They have this monopoly for the same reason that computer manufacturers have an edge over crystal-ball makers: The advantages of having an actual explanation of things and processes are self-evident.
This is a perfect summary of the intellectual claim of those who set out to prove that God is dead and religion is false: Atheists have legitimate knowledge, and those who believe do not. This is the epistemological assumption looming in the so-called “culture war” between the caricatures of godless liberals and Bible-thumping conservatives in America: One group wields rational argumentation and intellectual history as an indictment of God, while the other looks to tradition and text as defenses against modernity’s encroachment on religious life.
The problem is, the “culture war” is a false construct created by politicians and public intellectuals, left and right. The state of faith in the world is much grayer, much humbler, and much less divided than atheist academics and preaching politicians claim. Especially in the U.S., social conservatives are often called out in the media for reifying and inflaming this cultural divide: The rhetoric of once and future White House hopefuls like Rick Santorum, Sarah Palin, and Bobby Jindal reinforces an “us” and “them” distinction between those with faith and those without. Knowing God helps them live and legislate in the “right” way, they say.
But vocal atheists reinforce this binary of Godly vs. godless, too—the argument is just not as obvious. Theirs is a subtle assertion: Believers aren’t educated or thoughtful enough to debunk God, and if they only knew more, rational evidence would surely offset faith.
To see what this attitude looks like in practice, it’s helpful to check out a new book, The Age of Atheists, by the British historian Peter Watson. The book interprets Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous 1882 declaration “God is dead” as a turning point in intellectual history: These words were a call to action for all the artists, writers, philosophers, and poets who tried to understand the world thereafter. Over the course of 626 pages, readers are taken on a whirlwind tour through the last 13 decades of European and American thought, touching on figures from Martha Graham and Piet Mondrian to William James and Jürgen Habermas. Watson’s version of Western intellectual history isn’t framed around economics or politics or the dialectics of power, which is a pretty radical move in a field filled with Marxists and Foucaultians and closeted Hegelians. Instead, he narrates history to answer one of the most basic questions of human existence: What’s out there, besides us? Is there such a thing as “God”?
And this yields fascinating results…
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