Against the New Atheism

One of the most remarkable features of the current conjuncture, especially in the United States, is the rise of the New Atheism as a potent ideological force, especially among the Millennial Generation. This has been accompanied by a broader growth in the population as a whole of the number of people claiming no religious affiliation. Indeed, where a decade ago social theory was dominated by a discourse around the “return of religion,” today, at least in the United States, it would be more appropriate to speak of a “return,” or perhaps, more precisely, an advent of the secular.

The situation in Europe is, to be sure, rather different. Always more secular than the United States, at least in terms of its own self-understanding and in terms of such empirical measures as theism and participation in religious activities, the European “return of religion” took the form of –and persists in– the presence of a  (largely Islamic) Other. In the United States, on the other hand, there was not so much a “return of religion” as a recognition of just how deeply religious the country really is. What remained, by 1980, of the left of the 1960s, turned out to be an overwhelmingly religious left rooted in Jewish and Christian communities with a long history in the country, not as significant perhaps as its counterpart in Latin America, but a real presence nonetheless. It is, indeed, to this religious  left which our President at least  marginally belongs. Beyond this religious left there was a broader New Age “seeker” community and an even broader periphery which considers itself “spiritual but not religious.”  And our Religious Right, which has formed an integral part of Republican governing coalitions since 1980, is not only indigenous but downright nativist in its orientation.

None of these socioreligious trends have disappeared, but they have both receded and been joined by a secularism of a sort even most convinced atheists of earlier generation believed had been left behind long ago: one uncritically adulating towards science and technology and convinced that religious convictions and sentiments of any kind are not merely wrong but a sign of utter and complete stupidity. It is an atheism which neither Sartre nor the earlier Derrida would have recognized as anything but a caricature of the nineteenth century high modern secularisms of which they themselves, their atheism notwithstanding, were leading critics.

What has happened? Why? What is the broader spiritual and civilizational significance of these developments?  We need to begin by considering just what the religious left of the postwar period, and especially the period from the 1960s through the 1980s, both globally and in the United States, actually was. We will then turn to analyzing the reasons for its defeat (again both globally and in the US) and for the rise of the New Atheism. Finally, we will argue that this development is fully as dangerous as the rise of the religious right, and leaves humanity disarmed in the face of triumphant Capital and Empire, and argue for a strategy for regaining the ground the religious left has lost over the course of the last generation.

The term “religious left” is ambiguous by nature. It is notoriously difficult to define religion in the first place. And just what constitutes the “left” is itself also increasingly contested. In the broadest sense the religious left consists of those who, while identifying with one of humanity’s historic or emerging spiritual traditions, support the historic ideals of the political left: rational autonomy, democratic and national self-determination and, when the term is used in its fullest sense, communism understood in the true sense of transcending the commodification of labor. But I would like to suggest that the religious left has a more specific sense and a more specific significance that, once understood, explains both the emergence and the reactionary political valence of the New Atheism.

Humanistic secularism, you see, is itself a spiritual ideal. It aims at transcending contingency, and thus achieving a kind of divinity, by creating a political subject: the rationally autonomous individual, the people as demos or ethnos, or the proletariat, which can make humanity the master of its own destiny. The great story of the last century was the definitive collapse of this ideal. The political subjects we created, it turned out, far from making us gods, built Dachau and the Gulag –or, in their more benign, liberal form, proved themselves impotent against Capital and Empire. Existentialism and Deconstruction were above all a recognition that humanistic secularism was over.

The religious left which emerged after the Second World War was, fundamentally, an attempt to defend the humanistic ideals of rational autonomy, democratic self-determination, and communism (understood as transcending the commodification of labor power) by arguing that they could, in fact, be realized, but only in the context of a broader project which integrated spiritual with political disciplines. This religious left had, in turn, two peripheries: the purely spiritual New Age which abandoned the political entirely for purely spiritual strategies of humanistic self-realization, and an intensely self-critical humanistic secular remnant from atheistic existentialists such as Sartre (to whom, of course, we owe the formulation that “humanity is the desire to be God”), through critical theorists such as Fromm and Zizek, up to “postmodern” and “postpostmodern” thinkers such as the late Derrida and Agamben, who recognize the metaphysical drive to be God, either directly or indirectly, and understand that the humanistic ideal finds its natural home in a religious context (thus the energy spent on the exegesis of diverse religious texts) while remaining in a state of nonbelief, practicing a kind of atheology which has nothing to do with the New Atheism.

Relatively few, to be sure, belonged to the self-conscious ideological core of the religious left, whether socialist, democratic, or merely liberal. But those who did created a space in which the “big questions” continued to get asked –if not always credibly answered. This is reflected in the fact that at most universities in the Anglo-American world, where philosophical faculties were dominated by analytic “anti-philosophy” which rejected as meaningless most questions of meaning and value, divinity schools and religious studies departments have long been the only place one can actually engage big picture questions. And for the past generation we have lead the resistance to neoliberalism, racism and imperialism, sexism –and even homophobia. We forget too easily that even the struggle for gay marriage, the last stages of which have been fought out against conservative religious leaders, was originally a struggle within churches for religious recognition of same-sex unions.

What, then, led to the defeat of the religious left, which as late as 1978 seemed to be ready to open a new chapter in human history? The simple answer is that Capital recognized us as a serious adversary and took the steps necessary to disarm us. Already in the 1970s elements on the US Right were organizing to challenge the growing influence of the left in US churches, both Catholic and liberal Protestant.  The election of John Paul II, whether it was “assisted” by the intervention of US intelligence agencies or the result of more subtle channels of influence, effectively altered the geopolitical strategy of the Vatican, which shifted from a loose alliance with the Kremlin and the national liberation movements against global Capital, to an alliance with global Capital and a desperate attempt to shore up specifically European aristocratic interests by means of a mysogynist pronatalist stance on questions of sexual morality. Liberal Protestant Churches, which were the churches of the ruling class, were simply defunded. This meant in practice that they were forced to cater more and more to church-going, dues-paying members and be less and less responsive to the broader community they were called to serve. While many have remained faithful  to the progressive political stands they began taking in the 1960s, they do so with much reduced numbers and on much reduced budgets.  Where my generation of leaders of the religious left might reasonably have expected, from the vantage point of 1978, to be in a position to go toe to toe with global Capital by the time we reached 50, instead we found ourselves just barely hanging on.

That said, we were not utterly annihilated. It took Woytila and Ratzinger a long time to completely hegemonize the Catholic hierarchy and consecrated religious, especially women religious, while dwindling in numbers and increasingly strapped for cash, retained and retain significant autonomy. Both Catholic and historically Protestant liberal arts colleges continued to train cohorts of students who, while not exactly a compact cadre of religious left leaders, were significantly influenced by the questions raised for them by their professors, who remained, for the most part, either religious or self-critically secular humanists. Congregation based community organizations, while they never reached their full potential, remained a significant political force and eventually produced a US President. There remained, in other words, at least a decade ago, a significant “remnant” of individuals, networks, and even institutions asking significant questions about global Capital from the vantage point of broad spiritual commitments, which if not as fully elaborated and well grounded intellectually as they needed to be, were more consistent than and lacked the “taint” of “atheistic communism.”

Thus the need for the New Atheism. Thus the specific way in which the Great Recession, itself a fully economic reality, was mobilized by Capital politically and ideologically. By the New Atheism we mean the well defined trend represented by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, David Dennet, Christopher Hitchens and others who argue that modern science has rendered religious belief of any kind utterly and completely unreasonable. The members of this trend insist on identifying religious belief with either an ahistorical caricature of premodern, prescientific, precritical religious belief or, more often, with contemporary fundamentalisms. Neither the long high tradition of philosophically informed religious belief and practice nor more recent critical reinterpretations of that tradition in dialogue with both modern science and the critical humanistic (hermeneutic) disciplines is taken seriously, but simply dismissed out of hand as intellectual dishonesty.

As best we can tell the New Atheism derives much of its financial support from the biotechnology sector. This is not surprising given that this sector has an obvious and entirely reasonable interest in countering fundamentalist mischief directed against the teaching of evolution and important research and development which has sometimes involved fetal stem cells. The affinity, however, is rather broader than this. Biology generally is governed by a fundamental theory, the Neo-Darwinist synthesis, which regards evolutionary innovation as fundamentally random and spontaneous and which emphasizes the “editorial” role of natural selection in defining a pathway towards the development of more complex, or at least more adaptive forms of organization. This is, at base, the same fundamental theory which governs neoliberal economics, as Frederick Hayek’s information theoretical/evolutionary restatement of that theory in Fatal Conceit makes clear. Whatever explicit political positions its advocates may take, the New Atheism does the ideological work of Capital.

How does the New Atheism work? What it does, in effect, is to target essentially all discourse around fundamental questions of meaning and value, whether spiritual or secular, which does not embrace a very narrow interpretation of the canons and conclusions of empirical science. These cannons and conclusions it understands as not merely formally describing how the world works, but as explaining why the world is as it is, to the extent that such an explanation is possible or meaningful at all. This has the effect of rendering superfluous not just theology but also philosophy and the whole of the humanities and the humanistic social sciences. It is no accident the Four Horsemen of the New Atheism (as Harris, Dawkins, Jenkins, and Hitchens are often called) has been followed by the fifth and six Horsemen of the “accountability movement” which seeks to assess the performance and utility of universities and their component faculties using quantitative metrics against which the humanities and humanistic social sciences and the wisdoms will never look good, and of explicit attempts to defund these disciplines, at least at public institutions.

What this does, in effect, is to leave what we have called technocratic secularism, the attempt to transcend finitude by means of scientific, technological, and economic progress, as the only ideological player left on the field. This is, of course, exactly what Capital, which is the agent of that ideal and which is legitimated by it, wants. It is, in fact, an attempt to end history once and for all, to create Nietzsche’s “last man.”

How must we respond? Exposing and analyzing the dynamic is an important first step. But we need to mount a comprehensive response to the New Atheism which addresses its epistemological, cosmological, metaphysical and ethical claims. We need to be clear that there is more to truth than the facts. We need to embrace the authentic spirit of science which both celebrates the very real achievements of science in unlocking the secrets of nature and acknowledges the deep seated contractions between its fundamental theories (relativity, quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, and evolution by means of random variation and natural selection). We need to insist on the distinction between formal description or explaining how, which is what science has become, and explaining why, which is the realm of philosophy and the higher wisdoms. The two enterprises require different methods. And in both cases empirical investigation is only one part of the process. And we need to expose the technocratic ideal of transcending finitude by means of scientific, technological and economic progress as the empty lie that it is. Humanity is the desire not for infinitely More, but for Being as such and it is only in that Being that our hearts and minds, which otherwise wander forever restless, find joy and peace.

On the practical front, furthermore, we must actively resist an accountability movement by the standards of which the humanities and humanistic social sciences and the wisdoms are doomed. We must defend the position of the humanistic and sapiential faculties in public universities as constitutive of the full participation of the working classes in the human vocation and the human civilizational project.

But this is not enough. For too long the humanities, the humanistic social sciences, and the wisdoms have “hidden out in the open” by speaking in a twilight discourse which only a handful of specialists understood, engaging questions of meaning and value indirectly by means of commentaries on commentaries on commentaries, hoping that our sponsors would not understand the subversive nature of our work and thus defund us. We have all been secret Averroists who, in our heart of hearts, believed that a little philosophy was a bad thing and that there was no way we could be open about the true nature of our work and survive. This was true of the secular left, which concealed the metaphysical aims of communism (“the resolution of the conflict between existence and essence”) so well that even most committed communists forgot them. It was true of the religious left, which reserved engagement with historical criticism and hermeneutics as well as with the entire high theological tradition (not to mention more recent, more radical innovations) for those destined for the clergy. And even then we required only the briefest of engagements. But now we are being defunded for a far less noble reason. No one understands what we do or why it is important. It is not entirely clear that even those within our own movement engaged in more practical work will or would come to our defense. We have lost not only the laos, but also, in effect our cadre and cleros.

Those working in the trenches, on the other hand, in interfaith/institutionally based organizing or in any of the other  forms of mass political activity which became, increasingly, works of the religious left, scrupulously avoided engagement with theory or “ideology,” in the belief that fundamental structural or authentically revolutionary change was so far off that it was not worth risking the controversy such an engagement would likely involve. As a result they ceded the ideological terrain to those who did engage theory. And now we have a new generation anxious to act on the serious global challenges facing humanity who understand nothing of either humanity’s great spiritual traditions or of the great humanistic secularisms of the past 250 years, and instead embrace a scientistic solutionism which cedes the field in advance to Capital and Empire.

The humanities, humanistic social sciences, and the wisdoms, secular and spiritual, must return to an active, open, and publicly effective engagement with fundamental questions of meaning and value. This will, to be sure, mean fighting for our livings –and quite possibly our lives– with sponsors who thought they had broken us. Those engaged in pastoral and organizing work must understand that any authentic solution to the challenges of the present period presupposes an open-ended and pluralistic engagement with the question of what it means to be human. Only such an engagement will create the ideological conditions to challenge Capital, Empire, and the Saeculum of which they are the instruments. And this means taking theory and “ideology” seriously –and challenging the people, the laos, to do so as well.

We stand at a crossroads. Our ecosystem is already past the tipping point and ecologically generated mass dislocations and upheavals are all but inevitable. They have, in fact, already begun. Technological progress increasingly renders all routine human labor rendundant. Will we respond to these challenges in a way that opens up the possibility of an authentically human future? Or will we allow humanity to be displaced by something able to accumulate more efficiently, without asking what it all means? The choice, at least for now, is still ours.

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