Michael Robbins, at Slate, reviews Nick Spencer’s Atheists: The Origin of the Species, which seems to constitute a well-deserved attack on the “New Atheists,” i.e., the smug, self-congratulatory secular materialists of the Richard Dawkins-ilk.
Nietzsche realized that the Enlightenment project to reconstruct morality from rational principles simply retained the character of Christian ethics without providing the foundational authority of the latter. Dispensing with his fantasy of the Ãœbermensch, 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: â€œHumanism is not an alternative to religious belief, but rather a degenerate and unwitting version of it.â€ How refreshing would be a popular atheism that did not shy from this insight and its consequences.
It is, I suppose, perversely amusing, and confirming of Chesterton’s prediction that, post Religion, people will not believe in nothing, but will believe in anything, that the typical contemporary enlightened elite position involves both the contemptuous rejection of traditional religion and the uncritical acceptance of an even-more-simplistic catechism composed of sentimental humanitarianism constituting a sort of attenuated Christianity, sexually-emancipated but even more enthusiastic about ressentiment.