New atheists duck the philosophical arguments of atheistic anti-humanism
The World Atheist Convention is currently under way in Dublin. Among those addressing the conference is Richard Green from Atheism UK. His is a new and small group seeking to establish itself in the marketplace of ideas where the most familiar voices are those of the National Secular Society and the British Humanist Association. What is distinctive about Atheism UK, Green insists, is that it's an atheist organisation for all atheists, including those not committed to humanism. "We cater for atheists who are not humanists," he says.
These days, atheists who are not humanists are an unfamiliar breed. Most atheists, and in particular the new atheists, regard themselves as committed humanists. Indeed, they are new in name only for they appeal back to the atheistic humanism of the Enlightenment, with its optimism about human nature and strong belief in the power of human reason and the inevitability of progress. Here humanism and atheism formed an alliance against all that stands over and against human flourishing. God must be dead so that humanity can thrive. Once emancipated from religious tyranny and dogma, humanity will thrive. As Kant believed, humanity must be its own highest being and ultimate end.
Yet throughout the 20th century many atheists rejected this picture. The sunny optimism of the Enlightenment – not least its commitment to progress and a sense of the intrinsic goodness of human nature – was profoundly dented by the horrors of the first world war and the Nazi death camps. The Enlightenment hadn't found another word for sin. And just as Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God, a developing anti-humanism started to announce what, in less gender-conscious times, Foucault was to call "the death of man". Indeed, Nietzsche himself insisted the belief in humanity was itself just a hangover from a belief in God and, once God was eradicated, the belief in human beings would follow the same way.
It was mostly Marxists who developed this idea and ran with it. Louis Althusser coined the term anti-humanism. Forget the significance of the human individual, he argued, it is historical processes that make the difference. There is no such thing as intrinsic humanity, we are all the product of external forces. Everything that cannot be analysed structurally is false consciousness. Humanism itself is false consciousness. Others made a parallel critique using Freudian psychoanalysis. Human beings are not little gods free to choose for themselves on the basis of reason alone. We are subject to forces outside the reach of rational scrutiny. And, broadly speaking, the intellectual left all rose in applause. As Emmanuel Levinas observed in 1957: "Contemporary thought holds out the surprise for us of an atheism that is not humanist."
It is worth recounting a small part of this increasingly forgotten tale to lament what has become of a noble tradition. For it seems the atheistic critique of humanism has been all but forgotten. Richard Green's "atheists who are not humanists" could meet in a phone box. Indeed, the new atheists simply duck the challenge made by atheistic anti-humanism, believing their expensive scientific toys can outflank the alleged conceptual weakness of their humanism. Thus they dismiss the significance of philosophy just as much as they have always done of theology – as if the two were fundamentally in cahoots. But this is nonsense. Nietzsche, Marx and Freud attacked Christianity with passionate ferocity.
Christian theology of the 20th century has spent much of its time wrestling with the consequences. Why won't the new atheists do the same?