Nostalgic For Nietzsche

Nick Spencer’s Atheists: The Origins of the Species charges New Atheists with intellectual shallowness. In a review of the book, Michael Robbins laments the movement’s ignorance not just of the Christian tradition, but also of atheists from the past who did more than skewer religious fundamentalists. Above all, Robbins want them to grapple with Nietzsche, who “understands how much has been lost, how much there is to lose” after the death of God:

Nietzsche realized that the Enlightenment project to reconstruct morality from rational Nietzsche187cprinciples simply retained the character of Christian ethics without providing the foundational authority of the latter. Dispensing with his fantasy of the Übermensch, we are left with his dark diagnosis. To paraphrase the Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, our moral vocabulary has lost the contexts from which its significance derived, and no amount of Dawkins-style hand-waving about altruistic genes will make the problem go away. (Indeed, the ridiculous belief that our genes determine everything about human behavior and culture is a symptom of this very problem.)

The point is not that a coherent morality requires theism, but that the moral language taken for granted by liberal modernity is a fragmented ruin: It rejects metaphysics but exists only because of prior metaphysical commitments. A coherent atheism would understand this, because it would be aware of its own history. Instead, trendy atheism of the Dawkins variety has learned as little from its forebears as from Thomas Aquinas, preferring to advance a bland version of secular humanism. Spencer quotes John Gray, a not-New atheist: “Humanism is not an alternative to religious belief, but rather a degenerate and unwitting version of it.” How refreshing would be a popular atheism that did not shy from this insight and its consequences.

I’m not holding my breath. What’s most galling about evangelical atheists is their epistemic arrogance—and their triumphalist tone: If religious belief is like belief in the Easter Bunny, as they like to say, shouldn’t they be less proud of themselves for seeing through it?

(Photo of Nietzsche in 1869, via Wikimedia Commons)