David Bentley Hart on the New Atheism


“Here, however, I suppose one has to exercise a degree of sympathetic tact. Materialism is a conviction based not upon evidence or logic but upon what Carl Sagan (speaking of another kind of faith) called ‘a deep-seated need to believe.’ Considered purely as a rational philosophy, it has little to recommend it; but as an emotional sedative, what Czeslaw Milosz liked to call the opiate of unbelief, it offers a refuge from so many elaborate perplexities, so many arduous spiritual exertions, so many trying intellectual and moral problems, so many exhausting expressions of hope or fear, charity or remorse. In this sense, it should be classified as one of those religious consolations whose purpose is not to engage the mind or will with the mysteries of being but merely to provide a palliative for existential grievances and private disappointments. Popular atheism is not a philosophy but a therapy. Perhaps, then, it should not be condemned for its philosophical deficiencies, or even treated as an intellectual posture of any kind, but recognized as a form of simple devotion, all the more endearing for its mixture of tender awkwardness and charming pomposity. Even the stridency, bigotry, childishness, and ignorance with which the current atheist vogue typically expresses itself should perhaps be excused as no more than an effervescence of primitive fervor on the part of those who, finding themselves poised upon a precipice overlooking the abyss of ultimate absurdity, have made a madly valiant leap of faith. That said, any religion of consolation that evangelically strives to supplant other creeds, as popular atheism now does, has a certain burden of moral proof to bear: it must show that the opiates it offers are at least as powerful as those it would replace. To proclaim triumphantly that there is no God, no eternal gaze that beholds our cruelties and betrayals, no final beatitude for the soul after death, may seem bold and admirable to a comfortable bourgeois academic who rarely if ever has to descend into the misery of those whose lives are at best a state of constant anxiety or at worst the indelible memory of the death of a child. For a man sheltered from life’s harder edges, a gentle soporific may suffice to ease whatever fleeting moments of distress or resentment afflict him. For those genuinely acquainted with grief, however – despair, poverty, calamity, disease, oppression, or bereavement – but who have no ivory tower to which to retreat, no material advantages to distract them from their suffering, and no hope for anything better in this world, something far stronger may be needed. If there is no God, then the universe (astonishing accident that it is) is a brute event of boundless magnificence and abysmal anguish, which only illusion and myth may have the power to make tolerable. Only extraordinary callousness or fatuous sanctimony could make one insensible to this. Moreover, if there is no God, truth is not an ultimate good – there is no such things as an ultimate good – and the more merciful course might well be not to preach unbelief but to tell ‘noble lies’ and fabricate ‘pious frauds’ and conjure up ever more enchanting illusions for the solace of torment.”

– David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God


– Lucas G. Westman

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