Monday, September 7, 2009

Atheism: "The game has changed"

Yesterday, during some down time between things at church, I paid a visit to the weblog of Michael Spencer (a.k.a., the internetmonk, or imonk for short). Visiting Internet Monk: Dispatches from the post-evangelical wilderness is always a provocation for me.

One post in particular struck me: Re:Atheism. I encourage you to read Spencer's post, which begins with the Gervais video above. As in much of his work (i.e., The Office and Extras), Ricky is funny and poignant as he discusses God. Like Michael, I think the British funny man captures late-modern atheism very well. Late-modern atheism is not amenable to the kind of apologetical arguments we have traditionally employed. In other words, what was convincing to people when C.S. Lewis was writing, or even to people 15 or 20 years ago, no longer suffices. Too often we give answers to questions nobody is asking. Is it any wonder we're not convincing? I found myself attending to Spencer's corrective to Christians:

"What we’ve said and written is fine. What we’ve lived in our homes, private lives, churches, workplaces and friendships has spoken louder.

"We are the ones who appear to not believe in the God we say is real. We are the ones who seem to be forcing ourselves to believe with bigger shows, bigger celebrities and bigger methods of manipulation.

"You can’t understand why some people just say atheism has about it the beauty of simplicity? You don’t see why Occam’s Razor is so powerful, even among students who have no idea what it means?"
I concur with the Imonk's conclusion, namely that, as regards atheism, or what might more aptly be described as robust, laissez-faire, agnosticism: "The game has changed".


  1. Really? I felt a bit sad watching because The Office (UK version) is brilliant and this was just facile and boring. Gervaise could do great things but instead he just plays to the crowd.

    The childhood story totally didn't chime with my experience. My parents actually were honest about not believing in God at all. I don't have much time for an "atheism" that can't even start at the beginning.

    Sorry, but this is some of the more meagre fare of the UK.

  2. I agree that what Gervais has to say in the video is sad, but obviously in a different way. As a believer, I never find it boring or facile when people talk about God and their beliefs about God.

    The point is that for most people contemporary atheism isn't really based on scientific or consciously philosophical objections, but on what might be called (to employ an overused term) existential ones. Of course, when examined closely, as with Spencer's point about the application of Occam's razor, it amounts to a philosophical objection. This is why, to my mind, it is more aptly described as a kind of lassiez-faire agnosticism.

    My point (I do not claim to speak for Spencer) is that starting "at the beginning," which I take you to mean, coming from a different viewpoint, the traditional starting point of discourse about the proposition God exists, is of no use in our the present milieu, even if you want educated atheists.

    To that end, many people are all too happy to endorse, say, Dawkins' theses as irrefutable proofs, not understanding that he would likely fail a college-level course in metaphysics, quite apart from whether the proposition is true. Are arguments, like the Hubble telescope hasn't spotted an old man with a long beard, really that convincing? Let's face it, Dawkins in particular is only slightly more sophisticated!

    On the other hand, too often Christians are worried about what everyone else is doing. Increasingly, I take my cue from the early church, the pre-Nicene, that is, the pre-Constantinian church. I do not do so to over- dramatize or oversimplify our present situation (being post-Christian is very different from being pre-Christian), but to see what it means to live this way in Flannery O'Connor's "God-haunted" society.

    Contemporary atheism in the U.S. isn't any less meagre than it is in the U.K. After all, Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are popular here, too. Additionally, we have Sam Harris, along with a few others.

  3. I suppose if there wasn't a God, then there wouldn't be Atheists... (?) I guess...

  4. Reminds me of a Dane Cook skit...viewer discretion is advised...

  5. Interesting video. Why do many atheists like to share their non-belief with everyone? Maybe they really want to believe - and they are searching for a reason to believe.

    I wonder what the young people in the audience were thinking..they all laughed. I wonder if they asked any questions concerning his non-belief.

  6. I think that line of reasoning is right on--i.e. that the "game has changed." And I think it's nothing new, either. The days of the great 19th century theoretical atheists are long gone; and to replace them, we have the era of, as you mention, extreme agnosticism.

    I was reminded of Henri DeLubac's book, "The Drama of Atheist Humanism." As he chronicles the rise of modern atheism, he also notes where it is going (more or less). In light of Feuerbach, Marx and Comte, he mentions Dostoevsky as modern atheism's "prophet," and Nietzsche as it's "mystic." And I think the sort of radical cultural agnosticism you refer to is nothing other than the concrete application of the Nietzschian principles--viz. asserting so forcibly the strength and character of one's humanity that any serious thought or consideration of God is simply forced as far back as possible.

    In a way, the new atheism is not anything like the old ("modern") atheism. But I think it's clear to see how and why the game has changed as it has; and it is equally as possible to discern, in light of the notable shift, some new strategies and 'arguments' that will work in combating this novel trend. In other words, we must retain the principles of the late 19th and early 20th century debates, but we must find a way to present them that penetrates the initial carelessness and auto-preoccupation of our culture.

  7. "the concrete application of the Nietzschian principles--viz. asserting so forcibly the strength and character of one's humanity that any serious thought or consideration of God is simply forced as far back as possible."

    This hits the nail sqaurely on the head, I think, because the question doesn't really go away and, at least among the more sophisticated, there is a nostalgia for belief, if not for God. I think witness, how we (i.e., Christians) live is the key, are our lives made new, do we show forth a new humanity?

    The question for many is that, given the complexities and commitments of Christian faith, what value is added, apart from telling me serve others, which many I can do without believing?

    This application of Nietzschian principles I call asserting yourself against reality. There is something to be said for many experiencing the futility of this spiiting into the wind manner of living.

  8. In the end, what it boiled down to me, was that we all have a longing for something. As an atheist, that something can be anything but God.

  9. Too often we give answers to questions nobody is asking.

    Amen, brother.


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