THE PLANK JANUARY 11, 2008
I have a small quibble with something Ian McEwan said in his (really quite interesting) interview on our site today. Towards the end of a discussion of how atheists--clearly propelled by the success of authors like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris--now feel more emboldened to discuss their beliefs, the Atonement author explains:
"It is crucial that people who do not have a sky god and don't have a set of supernatural beliefs assert their belief in moral values and in love and in the transcendence that they might experience in landscape or art or music or sculpture or whatever. Since they do not believe in an afterlife, it makes them give more valence to life itself. The little spark that we do have becomes all the more valuable when you can't be trading off any moments for eternity.
The first sentence seems totally reasonable to me: It is necessary to find--and, in a sense, worship--the beauty in worldly things if you don't have believe in a "sky god" (what a great term to use in the middle of a conversation); otherwise, nihilism and self-centeredness and all sorts of related uglinesses can too easily set in. But to insinuate that atheists are better able to appreciate life on its own terms simply because they don't believe in a land of milk and honey or of 72 virgins hits on precisely my problem with the "new atheists": their self-congratulatory tone. Listen, it's hard to begrudge people for not believing in a higher entity--my own faith is limited--but does being an atheist confer upon you a more special appreciation of the present and the earthly? In some cases, sure. And proportionally, maybe (although it's impossible to say). But my questions are these: Why can't atheists make their case without too often resorting to absolutism like McEwan's here? Why can't Hitchens stand up for godlessness without telling people that they're thick to believe otherwise? As authors, they should know that people are more interesting than that.
Neither religiosity nor atheism are going anywhere anytime soon, and that's for the good. So why can't believers and non-believers alike accept that there are many ways to value our time here and what works for McEwan might not work for me might not work for you--but that as long as we're all trying to discover what works for ourselves, that's enough?
PS--For more on the "new atheists," check out Damon Linker's excellent piece from the last issue.