Dear Reader, please forgive the Mythographer as she geeks out: I just have to note how excited I was to read James Wood’s piece in this week’s New Yorker taking apart the New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens (which form the irresistible conflation “Ditchkins”) for being just as stubborn and intolerant as the fundamentalist religions they purport to oppose.”What is most repellent about the new atheism is its intolerant certainty; it is always noon in Dawkins’s world, and the sun of science and liberal positivism is shining brassily, casting no shadows.” (You can link to a summary of the piece here, and subscribers log in to read the rest.
Atheism itself has problems: “Atheism is structurally related to the belief it negates, and is necessarily a kind of rival belief; indifferent agnosticism would be a truer liberation.” I don’t want to toot my own horn here, but I said as much almost a year ago in the article I wrote for Tana Wojczuk’s Web journal Books That Saved My Life, about Philip Pullman’s atheism and the corresponding fundamentalist boycott of The Golden Compass movie. But Wood has much bigger fish to fry. He doesn’t just want indifferent agnosticism. Against the blunt instrument of Ditchkins he sets up the Marxist Catholic literary theorist Terry Eagleton, who has a more nuanced idea of God and belief than do either fundamentalist believers or their atheist counterparts, inspired by Aquinas, Maimonides, and other thinkers who don’t need their God to be quite so meddling and parental. For a moment you think he’s going to hold Eagleton up as the savior for agnosticism or secular humanism. But instead, Wood brilliantly argues for a third way between these two. Neither the simplistic, politically complacent unbelief of Ditchkins, nor the rarefied disembodied belief of Eagleton. Both roads, says Wood, treat the believers themselves–those millions who who actually lead their lives by “the desperate and faithful submission to divine will”–like idiots. Wood wants: “a theologically engaged atheism that resembles disappointed belief. Such atheism, only a semitone from faith, would be, like musical dissonance, the more acute for its proximity.”
But here’s the kicker. You don’t need to hearken all the way back to ancient Aquinas and Maimonides, or austere Wittgenstein and Eagleton, to find this engaged disbelief. It’s everywhere, once you start looking. Take Jennifer Michael Hecht’s brilliantly gutsy Doubt: A History, a 500-page history of the world according to doubters “from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson.” She argues that doubt is inextricably linked to faith, and one would be useless without the other. She argues this through individuals struggling with their own beliefs, not theologians rearranging words in a tower somewhere.
Then there’s the original anti-atheist, Christopher Hedges, international journalist and author of I Don’t Believe in Atheists. And the brilliant anthropologist Susan Friend Harding, who’s remarkably even-handed The Book of Jerry Falwell gets inside the heads of that preacher’s religious community through a detailed study of the language they use. These people add crucial understanding and human sympathy to the story of religion and atheism. Go out and buy their books, people. We’ve seen where fundamentalism gets us: it’s time for subtlety.