Posted by: Jaime | February 21, 2009

Unbearable Lightness of New Atheism

This blog was inspired by Paul Tillich’s The Dynamics of Faith. On page 17 he writes, “Where there is daring and courage there is the possibility of failure. And in every act of faith this possibility is present. The risk must be taken.

This got me thinking about the difference between living and living willfully. Haught explains faith as a relaxing of control so that I can be grasped in my innermost being by the infinite, otherwise known as God. This is not just cognitive belief, but a whole way of being in relationship with the world. There are tangible differences in lives that are vulnerable enough to at times trust in infinite mystery and in lives that willfully trust in only the truth available in natural scientism.

With natural scientism there is a strong aspect of control. I must trust that things are sensible. This almost seems like an object fact that has nothing to do with my existence. The universe is full of giant problems that can be solved. What has hindered us before was bad technology or mistakes in calculations. Look how far humans have come to understanding the universe. Our minds have reached deep into our universe and we can plot the paths of the planets in our solar system for longer I will live on this earth. In the opposite direction we have dug deeper into what things are made of and can now split atoms. We don’t have everything under our thumb, but with the rapid progress of scientific discovery, it seems just an instant away.

But what affect does the philosophy of natural scientism have on the person that uses it. This question reminds me of the book The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. Kundera’s main character Tomás is a brain surgeon, a man of science. He understands that from a scientific perspective he has no way of determining how he should live his life. To measure the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of his choices with experiments he would have to repeat them 100 times. However, we only have one precious life with which to live. He realizes he can never know if he would have been happier with another woman or another career because he cannot go back and test it.

So he has the incredible freedom to do whatever he wants. He can work incredibly hard at his profession for 20 years and become the best in the field or he can drop it at a whim to live his life out with the woman Thereza. He can’t empirically determine the worth of his choices so there is nothing to suggest that one is ultimately better than the other. In this nihilistic freedom his actions are meaningless, they are unbearably light.

In God and the New Atheism, Haught criticizes the New Atheist for not following out the death of God to its logical conclusion. From Kundera’s perspective, there is no real reason to get upset about religion. There is logically no reason to get upset at acts of terrorism. Our actions are so unbearably light it makes little difference whether they did or didn’t happen.

The New Atheist fail to justify why they feel empowered to get worked up over anything. Their ‘scientific’ perspectives are not as air tight as they claim. The New Atheist idea that human history is progressing to greater and greater perfection could be identified with Kundera’s concept of the Grand March. He labels it kitschy, a philosophy that ignores everything humans have difficulty dealing with. The New Atheist are being kitschy when they fail to mention all other examples of violence that are unmotivated by religion and the role that scientist and atheist have played in fostering human misery.

I have sighted these examples because I think they say something about trying to be in control of our lives rather than being healthily vulnerable. The scientific naturalist in requiring all truth be justified by empirical testing misses out in being permeated by mystery.

The philosopher Marcel describes this world view as ‘having.’ In ‘having’ the self, the human body, is a collections of functions such as respiratory, cognitive, etc. Life is a series of tasks achieved by these functions. We have to accomplish eating, finding a good house, finding a good wife. In all these problems I am to some extent am detached. For instance, I would impersonally cure people. I have tools and materials at my disposal, but none of these things or people have an affect me. My self is on the outside working on all these problems.

The opposite of living willfully is being in a state of, well, ‘being.’ The things that happen around me can have a profound impact on me if I am not trying to always solve them. It is the difference in seeing birth simply as the replication of cells, the byproduct of Darwinian natural selection, or in seeing it as new life that is mysteriously wonderful. It is seeing the mystery of death only as a person shutting down, or as a journey into the unknown abyss I will have to face someday.

I dig the scientific methods and discoveries as much as the next Youtube watching 21st century American. I do not mean to say problems shouldn’t be investigated because they are mysteries. I don’t have it all worked out, but somewhere in all this there has to be vulnerability to the claims life makes on us if we are to experience the totality of what it means to be a human being. This requires humility rather than being triumphant at human progress. It is a special sensitivity to what goes on around us all the time and an openness wordless wonder when we feel the infinite brush up against us.



  1. Jim, I don’t want to write too much, I just wanted to say that this statement can say a lot about our work, our friends and loved ones, our faith, our responsibilities, etc. because it talks about our approach to these things in our life.

    It makes me focus on when it is appropriate to control and when we must relax it and be vulnerable to what can unfold. It makes me think of how I see my time working with the children at St. Matthews, where I am in the “controling” position yet trying not to treat the situation as a problem to be solved, or a task to be done in which my tools or resources can be put to use. Because when I do that I know I’m not as connected to the kids or aware of the goodness of what’s around me. It’s hard to not need to worry so much about progress.

    I think, for someone in a position of “authority” if you will, the constant challenge of organizing, progressing, improving, solving and at the same time stepping back, letting go, receiving, relaxing control is always in front of them. It’s a good reminder Jim. Thanks for the post.

  2. Jim,

    Everything you said here reminds me of the background reading that I did regarding the modernist and postmodernist viewpoints and the discussion I had with a small group last week in class. Shortly, the modernist outlook was prevalent in the last two hundred years and coincided with the age of science. This movement glorified science and sought data and intellectual explanations for phenomena. I believe and my final paper will argue that atheism reached its peak under the modernists’ outlook of the recent past. However, in the last twenty years or so, the postmodernist view has become popular. Here, the emphasis is placed on experiences and not being afraid to admit that there are some things which are beyond our knowing and the powers of science. Due to this openness for experiences of that which is beyond human understanding, I propose that belief in God will increase in the near future.

    Your final paragraph was a wonderful summary of finding the correct balance between science and experience. As you implied, if one is stuck crunching numbers or devising hypotheses, he or she could easily miss experiences of the divine or intangible realities.

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