World without meaning

It's a truism bordering on cliché that you don't find atheists in foxholes. These days, though, there appear to be more than a few self-professed nonbelievers in the fleshpots of the West.

One sign of this seeming upsurge is the current proliferation of books arguing the case for atheism by people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Poor, mad Friedrich Nietzsche ("God is dead") did this sort of thing better more than a century ago, but the spiritual sons of Nietzsche, unlike their progenitor, have found fame and fortune in putting down God.

An affluent, hedonistic culture befuddled by scientism offers a hospitable breeding ground for this enterprise. One could almost think the aim was to show that the jihadists get it right. Imagine Osama bin Laden waving one of the new atheist books while catechizing his followers in a cave in the mountains of Pakistan: "What did I tell you? I always said the decadent Westerners were infidels, and now they advertise it themselves. Allah be praised!"

At the same time, it's important to bear in mind that two quite different versions of atheism, with notably different roots, are currently in play.

One is the "nonreligious movement," described in a page-one story in The Washington Post, whose origins can be traced to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and other, subsequent attacks and foiled plots by Muslim radicals. If this is what religion means, some people are said to reason, count us out.

Exhibiting a kind of atheist ecumenism, however, the Post also cites critics who finger for blame "Christian fundamentalist groups" whose political agenda includes opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage and other causes cherished by secular liberals.

The second source of atheism's newfound appeal is, as suggested, the ideology of scientism described by Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., in a typically lucid and informative essay ("God and Evolution") in the October issue of First Things. Discussing polemicists like Dawkins who display "the enthusiasm of evangelists," he remarks that according to this view, only empirical evidence of the kind recognized by natural science could serve to validate faith. "Unless God were a verifiable hypothesis tested by scientific method ... there would be no ground for religious belief."

Evolutionism, a misbegotten ideological offspring of evolution, is central to this approach. Cardinal Dulles, needless to say, is not persuaded, nor should anyone else be.

For one thing, it is a declaration of unverified, a priori fideism to claim that empirical data are the only avenue to truth. Science has real competence, but it is limited. "Far from being able to replace religion," Dulles remarks, "[science] cannot begin to tell us what brought the world into existence, nor why the world exists, nor what our ultimate destiny is, nor how we ought to act. ..." For answers to questions like those, one must look somewhere else -- specifically to the truth that religion is concerned with.

It's also necessary to understand that, far from giving or restoring meaning to the world, the new atheism robs it of meaning. In the atheist account, reality has no intrinsic meaning and life itself is inescapably absurd.

More than a century ago, the American pragmatist philosopher William James, a contemporary of Nietzsche, captured the essence of a world without meaning as well as anyone ever has done. James called this vision of nothingness "a vast, solitary Golgotha and mill of death." The words still continue to evoke a shudder. And that is what the new atheists wish to sell us now.

Russell Shaw is a contributing editor to Our Sunday Visitor.