'Rational' arguments about the existence of deities tend to descend rapidly from reviews of evidence (inconclusive!) to abstract debate-club maneuvering. There is not a shred of evidence or 'proof' that a single 'deity' has ever existed, and scientific descriptions/analyses of the known universe's workings increasingly provide plausible accounts of heretofore intractable 'theological' problems. You know the type: 'the eye is too complex to have emerged by accident,' with its implicit denigration of 'accident' as less satisfying than design. That sort of thing. (True, we don't know the answer to the question 'Why is there something instead of nothing?' But then we don't really have a stake in the answer anyhow. It'd be nice to know, perhaps. But we needn't by bothered by the possibility that the answer is unknowable.)
The question Do deities exist? is 'theological' only in the which-department-is-providing-my-sinecure? sense. The question is scientific - journalistic, if you like - while its side question (What if we can't ever know?) is a matter for one's therapist.
Over the last 100 years we've (finally) come to grips in a systematic way with the limitations, capacities, flexibility, mutable categories, and astonishing variety of human minds; I feel certain that, barring some ecological catastrophe, mainstream human society will one day concern itself with human predispositions toward totalizing systems of thought ('theism' is one such system) rather than the appealing fancies of religious rules systems themselves. (We'll also legalize LSD. Just you watch.) The rise of the boorishly self-satisfied 'New Atheists' coincides with a revolution in scientific understanding of 'religious experience,' and it seems clear to me that the best atheist argument going forward will be a neurological critique of various common fallacies of bias and belief.
The tendency to confuse 'complication' and 'sophistication' (or 'complexity') is a common problem in theological debate; witness the galaxy of hysterical bullshit surrounding 'transcendence' in every such discussion. As a recent example - and moving in the direction of this post's title - consider a recent essay from David B. Hart in the Christian publication First Things:
Because he understood the nature of what had happened when Christianity entered history with the annunciation of the death of God on the cross, and the elevation of a Jewish peasant above all gods, Nietzsche understood also that the passing of Christian faith permits no return to pagan naivete, and he knew that this monstrous inversion of values created within us a conscience that the older order could never have incubated. He understood also that the death of God beyond us is the death of the human as such within us. If we are, after all, nothing but the fortuitous effects of physical causes, then the will is bound to no rational measure but itself, and who can imagine what sort of world will spring up from so unprecedented and so vertiginously uncertain a vision of reality?
The purity of Hart's evasive question-begging is awesome to behold, but the substance of his article ('argument' isn't quite the right word) is without value. Here ya have it:
The most venerable metaphysical claims about God do not simply shift priority from one kind of thing (say, a teacup or the universe) to another thing that just happens to be much bigger and come much earlier (some discrete, very large gentleman who preexists teacups and universes alike). These claims start, rather, from the fairly elementary observation that nothing contingent, composite, finite, temporal, complex, and mutable can account for its own existence, and that even an infinite series of such things can never be the source or ground of its own being, but must depend on some source of actuality beyond itself. Thus, abstracting from the universal conditions of contingency, one very well may (and perhaps must) conclude that all things are sustained in being by an absolute plenitude of actuality, whose very essence is being as such: not a “supreme being,” not another thing within or alongside the universe, but the infinite act of being itself, the one eternal and transcendent source of all existence and knowledge, in which all finite being participates.
Hart's version of God is essentially a metaphysical category rather than a thing/action/state: He's a condition of possibility, the 'absolute plenitude of actuality...the infinite act of of being itself.' This isn't a 'theological' claim so much as a narrative device. God, in Hart's view, is a good-enough answer to the unanswerable bottom-level question (Why are things?) that lets us get on with our lives. God is a premise. That's His goddamn purpose. How nice for Hart - God exists to answer the question of what God is for. He's His own reason, and that's that.
God's the guy who doesn't have to explain Himself to anyfuckingbody.
That Hart doesn't even bother making a logical case here ('one very well may (and perhaps must) conclude...'!!) is hardly unexpected; if you insist upon logic in 'theological' discourse while clinging to a belief system whose central element (God) is defined as 'the illogical condition of possibility of all logic' - what a charming little sub-Gödelian fanwank we've got going here - then you've guaranteed argumentative 'victory' on your own terms, by definition.
A skeptical Occamite might ask whether the real reason God 'exists' is to provide acolytes with an escape route when anyone questions their morality - to comfort the afflicted conqueror and afflict the conquerable.
Hart's essay isn't particularly worthwhile as an argument about the world, because it's not meant to be - he only has to reaffirm his premises to 'convince' his First Things readers anyhow. The usual business: he naturally conflates Christianity and theism because he's a Christian (Eastern Orthodox) theist, trying to slide 'the death of God on the cross' into a discussion about 'materialism' and theism, and ploddingly follows a long line of theists in defining 'existence' in the sense of 'God exists' as distinct from physical embodiment ('God is' is distinct from 'beer is in my fridge'). He knows he can't prove deities exist, so he defines them as things that must exist - a kind of conceptual placeholder for What We Can't Otherwise Define or Describe.' This line of sub-reasoning is stultifying, and Hart recurs to it all the time. From his 'What happened to Terry Schiavo's "soul?"' article in the Wall Street Journal:
I doubt even the dogmatic materialists among us are wholly insensible to the (1) miraculous oddity that (2) in the midst of organic nature there exists a creature (3) so exorbitantly in excess of what material causality could possibly adumbrate, a (4) living mirror where all splendors gather, an animal who is (5) also a creative and interpretive being with a (6) longing for eternity. Whether one is willing to speak of a (7) "rational (8) soul" or not, there is obviously an (9) irreducible mystery here, one that (10) commands our reverence. [my numbers and emphasis --wa.]
This lazy, insipid posturing follows standard apologetic lines: hoary presumed nature/Man (or nature/Soul) dualism (2, 3, 5, 8); casual introduction of 'miracles' as a category of experience both beyond and incomparable to 'normal' experience (1); teenage-romance metaphor (4); use of 'belief' as justification for belief's content (6, implicitly 10); attempt to slide 'rationality' into wholly impressionistic/metaphorical discussion (7); willfully ignorant anti-scientific language (9, 3!).
The rest of the Journal article is the same sort of stuff - a set of reassuring (irritable?) gestures seeking to resemble an argument, or at least a polite scolding. The same elements and overall structure appear in the First Things piece; let's not waste any more time hashing out such things. Suffice it to say that some smart people consider this sort of thing worth writing or reading, and whether or not they're correct, their belief - in the related usefulness of theology and religious belief themselves - is of interest.
Damon Linker used to be Hart's editor at First Things, and is sympathetic to his recent performance. (Sample massively condescending sentence from an earlier Linker post: '[W]hat America needs now is not faithlessness. It is intelligent faith.') In the course of a recent post at The New Republic, entitled 'A New Kind of Atheism,' Linker gets in some fine digs at Richard Dawkins and the puerile ignoramus P.Z. Myers. All's well! But he gets bogged down, by essay's end, in the following high-toned banality:
Rather than explore the complex and daunting existential challenges involved in attempting to live a life without God, the new atheists rudely insist, usually without argument, that atheism is a glorious, unambiguous benefit to mankind both individually and collectively. There are no disappointments recorded in the pages of their books, no struggles or sense of loss. Are they absent because the authors inhabit an altogether different spiritual world than the catastrophic atheists? Or have they made a strategic choice to downplay the difficulties of godlessness on the perhaps reasonable assumption that in a country hungry for spiritual uplift the only atheism likely to make inroads is one that promises to provide just as much fulfillment as religion? Either way, the studied insouciance of the new atheists can come to seem almost comically superficial and unserious.
Shorter Damon Linker: Atheism is not just 'difficult' but scary, and therefore today's atheists have an obligation to participate in theists' fearful handwringing about 'atheist morality,' even if the dual premises of theist morality (deities and deity-debt) are themselves unjustifiable and/or nonsensical. There's an implicit belief here, too, that civilization is made possible not just by shared myth but by (as Hart puts it) 'the enigma of the Christian event [...] the lightning bolt that broke from the cloudless sky of pagan antiquity, the long revolution that overturned the hierarchies of heaven and earth alike.' Note, again, that in the view of Linker and Hart, the scariest thing about godless existence isn't its pointlessness (the nominal 'existential crisis') but rather how tough it's gonna be on our delicate constitutions (the actual lapsed-Christian existentialist tantrum).
From a certain perspective the ultimate horizon of 'humanity,' of human identity as such, is the need to believe in an ultimate organizing principle - an anthropocentrism that hijacks our overgrown neocortex to concoct self-justifications ranging from the baroque (Hart's 'transcendental' mishmash) to the simplistic (Jesus is God so fuck off). Animals don't need 'worldviews,' not because they can't see the world - neither can we! - but because they lack the capacity to pretend they do. When we talk about the 'childlike bliss' of, say, a drugged-up raver kid, we tend to imply some kind of subhumanity, equating the loss (or 'unproductive' reassignment) of logical faculties with a descent into 'primitive' existence. In our culture nothing is worse than having one's primitivism pointed out. (Hence the attraction of Hart's 'lightning bolt' - we'll never be scared of the dark again! What could be more civilized than that?)
This isn't too bad a definition of 'humanity,' actually: not just association with our rough biological equivalents but a private/shared desire for centrality; it makes sense that the only animal evincing the ability to signify would become preoccupied with the desire for significance. The 'humility' of monotheists is scaffolded by an absolute faith in their own cosmic importance, their protagonism. The narrativizing imagination does its thing, bada-bing bada-boom, and the most important works of literature in all history are centrally concerned with superbeings talking to humans and reassuring them they're (1) not alone, (2) 'in charge' of the earth, and (3) required to stay humble about it all, but not too humble, ya dig?
No one is less humble than the guy insisting he won the lottery of Creation and (alone) can apprehend the Blessing. The metaphysical premise ('God') balances out the literally monumental self-centeredness of a monotheistic imaginative stance.
Finally, to our titular claim.
Hart and Linker (correctly) identify, if only by implication, the comforts that theism offers each individual; Hart is also explicit about the social value of theism, i.e. of shared transcendentalist belief. Buddhists garnish their materialism with an astonishingly silly mystical backstory involving reincarnation and 'karma,' which provides spiritual justification for that bit of reasonable moral advice, 'Watch out.' Jesus's anti-institutional teachings were readily adapted for nation-building purposes once a bit of mystical side-story was introduced (Jesus the mythic creature supplementing and in time supplanting Jesus the enlightened teacher). Mohammed having weird thoughts in a cave would've been a laughingstock; Mohammed passing on angelic speech motored a world-shaking political revolution. Complex belief-structures spread most easily when bound to compelling narrative structures and iconic symbolism.
In short, gods have flash. Zeus threw thunderbolts; the Hebrew God parted the Red Sea; Jesus is coming back with trumpets and a bit of infantry warfare.
Atheism, on the other hand, is boring.
If you understand the 'death of God' not as a change in our universal circumstances but as each individual's abandonment of an incorrect belief, then the 'tragedy' of godlessness is revealed as a self-fulfilling prophecy which can be easily opted out of. What's left is what we begin with: a set of circumstances, some parameters of which are knowable, which must be acted upon without knowledge of our actions' full consequences - and an identity that's porous, mutable, formed from our associations with other beings, and bound to change in the fullness of time into something unforeseeable. Christianity's greatest promise (and most contemptible, cynical fraud) is foreknowledge of How It All Ends, but the purpose of (say) meditative materialist practice is to lift from us the desire for that knowledge, which we misperceive as need. Hart and Linker nicely illustrate this misperception, failing to distinguish between the metaphysics we want and the biosocial optimization we (presumably) need.
The fact that individual organisms have no purpose but what they perceive - i.e. none at all - is only distressing if one feels entitled to such a purpose. If we can find a way to agree that the question of life's 'purpose' is ill-posed, then we can stop discussing human behaviour in terms of fanciful motivations and metaphysics, and focus instead on plain ol' human social- and psycho-dynamics: distress, entitlement, conditioning, agreement, the almost uncontrollable narrativizing and generalizing and imaginative impulses which our shared beliefs and institutions serve to constrain and instrumentalize.
Some folks say that 'life' is just a way for the second law of thermodynamics to go more efficiently about its business; as Mike Russell gleefully puts it, 'The purpose of life is to hydrogenate carbon dioxide.' More and more scientists seem to believe that life's origin - and implicitly its 'purpose,' its 'nature' - will be found not in molecular replicators' capacity for preservation (informational stasis?) but in metabolic pathway's heightened efficiency at transformation. Life doesn't need a reason for being, in other words - it's just one form that metabolic doing can take. Which is to say, perhaps, that while there's obviously such a thing as 'life,' the main reason the category is more interesting than non-life is that we happen to belong to it.
The idea that atheism must be 'tragic' in order to be authentic is nothing more than dead-enders' resentful carping. Atheist morality is not comparative; it doesn't have to supplement theist morality, and where they're forced to coexist, a sustainable belief system must be able to incorporate the fact that not everyone participates in it.
Unsurprisingly, Hart has a coward's contempt for this view:
One does not have to believe any of it, of course — the Christian story, its moral claims, its metaphysical systems, and so forth. But anyone who chooses to lament that event should also be willing, first, to see this image of the God-man, broken at the foot of the cross, for what it is, in the full mystery of its historical contingency, spiritual pathos, and moral novelty: that tender agony of the soul that finds the glory of God in the most abject and defeated of human forms. Only if one has succeeded in doing this can it be of any significance if one still, then, elects to turn away.
What Hart is demanding, here, is that atheist morality participate in the same system of satisfaction, the same comfort game, as the Christian literary/moral experience - more specifically, his own idiosyncratic and highly academic version of that belief system. This is stupid and myopic of course. Hart's 'image of the God-man' is no more 'morally novel' than the martyrdom of any other political-spiritual revolutionary, except insofar as men like Hart have encrusted it with an inconsistent, invented extraterrestrial mythology. Indeed, what makes the death of Jesus of Nazareth 'morally novel' is the stories we've told one another about it, which is precisely the point being made even by the barbaric New Atheists.
(And that's the real crime, here. What's awful about the New Atheism is precisely that it's barbaric, that it makes light of the hermeticism and sophistry which are central to Hart's view of the world. The best-known mouthpieces for the New Atheism are indeed self-satisfied contemptuous assholes, but the whole idea that moral 'novelty' and 'spiritual pathos' must be part of any 'appropriate' moral system is richly deserving of contempt. The real novelty, mythologically speaking, is found in a worldview that accepts that our wholly accidental existence need not be exciting or pathetic or (c'mon) novel to be dear to us, and which endeavours to find value in the joyful cocreation of new shared circumstance. Hart's morality permits him to extort a very specific emotional state from you under penalty of 'unseriousness.' That extortion is justified by a tiny little lie: Jesus was God, whatever that means.)
(A moral code built on lies is flawed, and those who seek profit by lying deserve contempt.)
If Jesus was just a man - even wise! - then there's nothing stopping us seeing the moral grandeur of his crucifixion in, say, Hamlet or Martin Luther King or a mother bear dying while protecting her cubs. And if you can kick your addiction to the notion of 'evil' - which pretty much washes the notion of 'good' out with it, though it does leave 'better' behind, thank heavens - then 'moral grandeur' starts to look an awful lot like courage plus publicity.
All of this might be moot, though. Hart's essay is simultaneously, or rather interchangeably, about atheism itself and the anti-religious feelings it so often travels with. I seem to have made the same mistake here. Yet atheism is boring partly because in an atheist universe pretty much everything is a tiny little stochastic 'miracle' - everything, that is, from the Great Barrier Reef to the Unitarian Church. Hart seems to strongly believe that the place of churches, and specifically the various Christian sects, must be filled by something but can't be filled by 'atheism'; but before making this interesting view explicit, he keeps rotating it into the silly, trivially incorrect claim that the 'truth' of the Christian mystery is irreplaceable. There's presumably some implied historical argument there - Jesus's martyrdom and (sigh) Resurrection as the organizing metaphor for Western political life and institutions - but Hart can't explicitly render it without falling back into more silliness about Jesus Christ, half-human incarnation of the condition of cosmological possibility.
So we're left with an attack on 'New Atheism' for being insufficiently attentive to the putative value of religious belief as such - a literary criticism when you get right down to it - floating atop a loosely-implied argument about the importance of religious institutions, which itself assumes not only the 'moral' but the cosmological truth of some Christian belief. And so it doesn't matter that the Passion is an important work of literature and moral teaching; it doesn't matter that the best-known so-called 'New Atheists' are for the most part lazy in their anti-religionism; it sure doesn't matter that Hart's trippy God-is-the-unknowable-end-of-every-regress argument (which doesn't originate with him of course) is actually a lovely bit of creative abstraction. Hart waves his hands at a circular argument that can pretend for tactical reasons to be about one or another thing depending on who's engaging with it.
And yet...there's even an argument to be made that you can't believe in money without believing in God (in His role as solution to every imaginative/categorial regress), because God's role is to provide a universal answer to the question 'Why should I trust you?' The character of God obviously exists, variously performed. Deities are as real as Hamlet; if Richard Dawkins spent his time lecturing about arguments for the (non)existence of Hamlet he'd be laughed back into his Fortean hidey-hole, for better or worse. Hamlet does something for us; so does God. (I'm less sure about David Hart.) Hart says atheism - and atheists! - can't provide something that's essential to Christianity, and that's trivially true, but the rest of his essay looks an awful lot like a set of gestures in the direction of Things Man Was Not Meant to Know. And the strong claim at the heart of atheism, in my mind, is that the whole idea of man being 'meant' to know anything at all is just a fun story.
There's nothing 'tragic' about atheism because outside a pretty narrow ontological realm 'tragedy' isn't a meaningful category. Atheism doesn't provide the comforts of Christianity or the Christian story, but a life lived honestly, by some atheist definition, simply doesn't cause the existential discomfort that Hart desperately wishes for us all to feel. That discomfort is essential to his faith and irrelevant to mine, which is to say all this bother about deities is mostly willful ignorance about minds, and as I'm obviously happy to share half-baked first drafts of this sort of thing with you, dear Reader(s), there you have it, and have at it.