Christopher R. Beha discusses a recent article (subscription required) he had written for Harper’s Magazine in which he considers three publications, written by authors he classifies as the “New New Atheists.” He explains that they differ from New Atheists, such Richard Dawkins, in that they assume there is no God but spend their time considering how the benefits of religion, such as community, fit in a secular world. Beha reflects on the New New Atheists and his own lack of belief:
The New New Atheists tend not to take up the question of God’s existence, which they take for granted as settled in the negative. Instead, they seek to salvage what is lost when belief erodes, concerning themselves with what atheists ought to believe and do in religion’s stead. Botton, for instance, asks how the benefits of faith—a sense of community, a sense of wonder—might be found in the secular, while Harris addresses what might be the most vexing problem facing atheists: how morality is possible without God. Only Rosenberg—a philosopher at Duke with a predictable commitment to rigor—insists that doing away with religion means doing away with most of what comes with it: a sense of order in the universe, the hope that life has some inherent meaning, even the belief in free will. If it’s true, as Rosenberg insists in contradiction of Harris and Botton, that we can’t have the benefits of belief without belief itself, this raises another question. Setting aside matters of truth and falsehood, are we not better off believing? Broadly speaking, atheists seem to fall into two camps on this matter. There are disappointed disbelievers, those who would like to believe in God but find themselves unable. Then there are those who find the very idea of such a being to be an outrage. Among the latter camp, Christopher Hitchens famously compared God to Kim Jong Il, ruling the universe like his own North Korea. We ought to count ourselves lucky, Hitchens said, that such an entity does not exist outside the human imagination, because the only appropriate response to it would be fury and rebellion.
I happen to count myself among the disappointed disbelievers, which is why I was interested in the attempts of Harris and Botton to salvage some religious splendor for the secularists. So I was only more disappointed to find Rosenberg’s insistence that such efforts were hopeless far more convincing than the efforts themselves. During an email exchange with Rosenberg, I asked him which camp of atheists he fell into. His response acknowledged my impulse: “There is . . . in us all the hankering for a satisfactory narrative to make ‘life, the universe and everything’ (in Douglas Adams’s words) hang together in a meaningful way. When people disbelieve in God and see no alternative, they often find themselves wishing they could believe, since now they have an itch and no way to scratch it.”
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