Were There Ever Really Any Great Atheists? A History Boy, 11/07/2016

There's a longer series about the nature of history in the works, but that will start tomorrow, because I've had a very tiring weekend. Today, I want to write something a little more personal. Just a small topic like my relationship with God in a few hundred words.

In particular, there’s a passage in Neoreaction: A Basilisk* that got me thinking about this part of my life. He talks about a typically long, rambling post by Mencius Moldbug, one of the intellectual leaders of the American neoreactionary movement – called “How Dawkins Got Pwned.”

* I've written about Phil Sandifer’s latest book before, and I may see if I can write a review later on this summer for the Reply Collective. It may also include some other parts of my interview with Phil from this Winter. And I may also try to sell other versions of it up the chain to different publications. Anyway . . . 

Anyone who refuses to bow to such a cruel,
authoritarian God, no matter the suffering
that refusal would cause yourself, will
necessarily be a hero.
Now, I'm not about to start parroting the ramblings of Mencius Moldbug. You know a little bit too much about my actual political beliefs to think I’m very vulnerable to his ideas. But Curtis Yarvin is still a smart person who, at least when filtered through someone else’s analysis, can make a fascinating insight or three.

In this case, it’s about Richard Dawkins, and the aggressive, contemptuous, rage-aholic New Atheist movement where he sits at the head. Now that Chris Hitchens is dead, anyway. 

As a younger man, I’d meet quite a few friends who were atheists in this loud, frothing sense. Religious belief, goes the convert’s intensity, was a delusion and a disease. A mental and social sickness. A profound stupidity of sincere belief that a magic invisible man who lives in the sky is your perfect authority to be followed.

I don't need to go into any great detail about why this kind of argument is flawed. Essentially, it’s just a big straw man. Taking millennia of philosophical development about what divinity’s nature could be, and casting it as a childish failure of people still dazzled by an adult-targeted version of the “Where’s the Ball?” game for infants.

I don't think I’ve ever been able to accept that massive reduction of intellectual history. To say that there were no valuable ideas or concepts in all this philosophy? To accuse them of stupidity? 

No. Anyone with respect for philosophical history at all must accept the legitimacy of thought and writing about the nature of God and the divine more broadly.

Yet I am an atheist. I was raised an atheist, and that’s always been my default way of thinking about divinity. Even though I believe in divinity and have embraced a relationship with Judaism as part of my family and identity. As an atheist, wouldn’t that seem incompatible.

You might think that no matter what reason I’ll give in the last few paragraphs of this post, I’m an idiot for saying so. That’s frankly your problem. 

He's just a very angry man.
It lies in this key idea that Sandifer dug out of Mencius Moldbug – that Richard Dawkins isn't just a straight-up atheist. He’s an Anglican-Calvinist atheist.

In other words, the self-declared neoreactionary spotted a fellow traveller. He correctly pegged Dawkins’ own beliefs about the nature of the divine as a product of reaction. Angrily turning against the Anglican and Calvinist traditions and beliefs in which he was raised.

This is why Dawkins’ period of peak cultural influence found his religious attitudes so aggressive, oversimplifying, shrill, and dismissive. They weren’t attitudes of a positive, productive identity – they were reactions, pure negations of beliefs.

Because I was raised atheist, my atheism has never needed that aggression. Or that strident refusal to bend, to make what would even risk appearing to anyone else as a compromise.

It’s not an issue for me to say that the material world itself has some divinity, some majesty to it. It’s not an issue for me to say that divinity can arise from profane sources. Like – in the Jewish philosophical tradition – the divine manifesting in ethical principles and good actions themselves. 

A reactionary’s God is the authority figure that sits above us all, judging, punishing, and commanding us. An atheist’s God can be the divinity that arises when people are kind to each other, in each act that treats each other with dignity. That God is no authority, but the grace that emerges from our own nature and the world.

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