In case you hadn’t already guessed from the title, this is a provocative post. Which is not to say I don’t think the statement is true. I’m just aware that it will offend some sensitive atheists, especially those who were under the impression that, as Nietzsche’s madman insisted in the late nineteenth century, “God is dead!”
Nietzsche still has his share of loyal fans, as do Marx, Freud and Darwin. These four are probably the most famous modern critics of religion, towering figures in the intellectual atheist pantheon of God’s undertakers. They are not alone, of course. Read God’s Funeral: The Decline of Faith in Western Civilization by A.N. Wilson, God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? by John Lennox, The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World by Alister MCGrath and Seven Types of Atheism by John Gray if you want to get a sense of how pervasive atheism has been in the intellectual life of Modernity.
At the high watermark of atheism in the West, around the middle of the twentieth century, it seemed that the arguments against religion of Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche and Freud were practically unassailable. As Nietzsche had it, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him”. But the anti-religious ideas of Marx, Freud and Nietzsche (outside their fan base) are now largely discredited. And the classical Darwinian account of evolution as random mutation plus natural selection is now under serious strain. It just doesn’t seem to cut the mustard.
I recently re-read Thomas Nagel’s elegant little book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. It probably won’t convince committed materialists, but it does clearly illustrate how rickety the whole great scientific materialist cathedral really is. It seems to be still standing only by virtue of the dogged determination of its adherents to keep the faith and to ignore the writing on the wall pasted there by the demolition men.
It reminds me of the story of the Chinese Executioner (originally told by Claud Cockburn):
“There was once, in old China, an executioner of such immense skill and delicacy that he was famed throughout the land and called upon from afar to behead condemned miscreants so that witnesses could marvel at his handiwork.
One condemned man, a thief and murderer , was told that he must wait for the arrival of this executioner, because the local authorities had decided they wanted to see this master at work. The appointed day came, the criminal was seated , bound, on a stool in front of a carefully-invited audience, all agog.
The executioner, smiling gently, advanced towards him, delicately holding an exquisitely-crafted and softly gleaming sword. Playfully, the executioner made a few passes in the air in front of the murderer. He kept up this performance for perhaps two minutes until the malefactor, irritated, cried out ‘I really don’t know what all the fuss is about. What’s so special about you? Can’t you just get on with it, and get it over with?’
The executioner bowed, smiled again and said softly ‘ Kindly nod, please’.”
This is the state of atheism in 2021. It is dead but doesn’t know it. Scientific materialism cannot account for the existence of the universe, life, consciousness, reason or value. Reductive materialism is absurd, emergent materialism is pure magic and eliminative materialism is insane. There are no more legs to stand on. But the scientific consensus continues to be materialist, because the alternative is too appalling to contemplate: it shakes the very foundations of the atheist creed. As Richard Lewontin put it:
“It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”
Two of the more extravagant and costly claims materialists have been forced into, simply to keep their worldview logically and probabilistically credible, are the existence of infinite universes and the illusoriness of all conscious experiences. Anything to keep out the Divine Foot. The logical contortions are beginning to strain the credulity of even those sympathetic to the atheist cause, and the die-hards are becoming ever fewer and ever shriller in their desperation to keep control. Which explains the slide into the dogmatic fundamentalism of the New Atheists.
The New Atheists cast derision and scorn in all directions at anyone who dares deviate from the materialist creed that, as Richard Dawkins famously wrote, “The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” But the New Atheist swagger and bluster is a bluff. They have neither the arguments nor the evidence to back up the cosmic pessimism of their ultimately nihilistic materialist metaphysics. They are running on the anti-religious fumes of Enlightenment secular humanism and on the continued good will of their supporters to go along with their “Darwin of the gaps”.
Atheism of dead. It is only a matter of time before the head actually nods off.