"To become a theologian, start with an addiction." -- Kim Fabricius at Faith & Theology
Halloween is my favorite holiday. That may sound strange coming from a Christian, but it's true. The emotional, religious and social pressures that come during the seasons of Advent and Lent-Easter tend to shut me down. But in October there's no hype and I feel free to celebrate the annual cooling of Atlanta by laughing at what scares me.
What scares me? Plenty of things. "The Shining" scares me. Cancer scares me. The vulnerability of my children scares me. And for a number of years now the New Atheists have scared me.
It's true: Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett and even sweet lovable PZ Myers. I am not making this up. These gentlemen, with their impressive and sustained frontal assault on all religion everywhere, have scared me.
It began eight years ago, with the publication of Harris' "The End of Faith." I was instantly and morbidly fascinated. For years I read their books, lurked furtively about their blogs, and came to know a number of atheists personally. My fascination has been persistent and powerful enough to baffle me: Why should I care so much?
A scary question. As a professor of physics and former working scientist, I have told myself that I care because the New Atheists claim that science -- of all things -- disproves God's existence. During my years as a seminary student I told myself that I care out of theological interest. But what really scared me was the possibility that my fascination was an index of my own unconscious unbelief. I gradually began to ask myself: Am I a closet atheist?
No. In my time of trying on Yes I never felt the familiar click and closure of discovery, of having come across something true.
Yet I was unsatisfied. I could not get to the bottom of my disagreement with these people.
Then, just last week, it happened: click and closure. I was leafing through my well-worn copy of William James' "The Varieties of Religious Experience." When I came across -- for the nth time -- that section of the book in which James draws a distinction between two psychological types, the "healthy-minded" and the "sick soul," I saw clearly what separates me from the New Atheists: pessimism.
The truth is, if I were more optimistic I'd probably be an atheist.
Consider the Glass
Is it half-full or half-empty?
James' healthy-minded optimist regards the glass half-full by minimizing its emptiness. For this person, "the good of this world's life is regarded as the essential thing for a rational being to attend to. [The optimist] settles his scores with the more evil aspects of the universe by systematically declining to lay them to heart or to make much of them, [or] by ignoring them in his reflective calculations. Evil is a disease; and worry over disease is itself an additional form of disease, which only adds to the original complaint."
In contrast, James' sick soul sees the emptiness of the glass first and can't stop wondering why it's that way. This impulse is due to the pessimist's conviction that "evil is no mere relation of the subject to particular outer things, but something more radical and general, a wrongness or vice in his essential nature, which no alteration of the environment, or any superficial arrangement of the inner self, can cure, and which requires a supernatural remedy."
The essence of my discovery is this: What truly separates me from atheism is not my belief in God; that's a long way from the point of departure. It is instead my conviction that evil and weakness are not only problems to be solved, but are also reliable clues to the secret of the world. For me the emptiness of the glass is, in James' words, "the best key to life's significance, and possibly the only opener of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth."
The Cost of Science as a Philosophy
Contemporary atheism is optimistic. Given its wall-to-wall phalanx of writers hell-bent on mocking everything that smells of religion, it may seem that this label is ill-applied. Yet under its bluster and iconoclasm atheism is full of good cheer and high spirits. Anyone who knows an actual atheist knows this.
This sanguinity is likely drawn from science, which is without question the most optimistic enterprise ever concocted by human beings. Science provides contemporary atheism with a powerful alternative to religion. James writes, "The idea of [biological and cosmic evolution] lends itself to a doctrine of general meliorism and progress which fits the needs of the healthy-minded so well that it seems almost as if it might have been created for their use. Accordingly we find [science] interpreted optimistically and embraced as a substitute for the religion they were born in, by a multitude of our contemporaries... who are dissatisfied with what seemed to them the harshness and irrationality of the orthodox Christian scheme."
Yet science as a philosophy is incomplete. It wears blinders and refuses to acknowledge whole classes of questions that are important to people everywhere, questions of good and evil, and of human weakness, and of meaning. And it seems that New Atheism, in its wholesale dependence upon science as a philosophy, imports science's blinders -- bound as they are to its optimism -- into its overall worldview. And this is where the problem lies.
Saturday in the Park
Imagine a clear fall Saturday in London's Hyde Park. Footballers are out; lovers doze on picnic blankets; tourists stand in clumps shuffling through maps; university students pass by laughing. And then, over at the park's edge, behold! There passes the Atheist Bus, one of those U.K. buses that, a few years ago and with Dawkins' support, were plastered with the brightly-lettered and chirpy slogan, "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."
This is the zenith of optimism.
It is optimistic because it assumes that the default condition of human life is peace. It is optimistic because, in its refusal to acknowledge the deeper problems of life, it redraws human experience on a solvable and finite scale, presuming that what people really need is to "enjoy their lives." After all, it's a beautiful day in the city; what else could there be to need? It is optimistic because the creators of the campaign could not bring themselves to imagine -- or if they did imagine it they did not take it seriously -- someone reading it who, in the words of Francis Spufford, is poverty-stricken, or desperate for a job, or a drug addict, or a mother who just lost a child to social services. Someone who is truly alone in this world and who may have nothing but the faintest hope of a loving God keeping them alive. Maybe they did think about such a person and decided that they too need to "stop worrying and enjoy their life," starting with a breath of clean godless air. Now that's optimism.
I don't buy it. And as a Christian, I'm not supposed to buy it. The Joel Osteens of the world notwithstanding, it is only through the channel of pessimism -- the full and unqualified acknowledgment of life's dark underside as a clear and present reality -- that Christianity is able to do its transformative work.
The Christianity I know takes note of the blue London sky, of the footballers, and of the picnicking lovers, but it starts with the addict on the street. You know, the one optimism forgot about. The fragile one standing alone at the edge of the park, watching the Atheist Bus roll jauntily past.