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Godless Prose & Cons

They Don't Make Atheists Like They Used To

by Cameron Wybrow

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They say that cars and movies and manners were better in the old days. Atheism was also better in the old days. At the very least, it was more literate and sensitive, as an old book will show.

In a recent book, The God Delusion (ch. 2), Richard Dawkins writes:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

How did he miss "fascist"? (I guess he was trying to avoid overkill.) In any case, note the use of hot-button terms to trigger reactions of politically correct indignation: "misogynistic," "homophobic," "genocidal," "ethnic cleanser." There's no scholarly exposition here. Dawkins doesn't want us to understand the biblical God; he wants us to hate the biblical God.

Such demagogical rhetoric is standard in New Atheism, but atheists didn't always write like this. In "A Free Man's Worship" (1903), Bertrand Russell's objection to the biblical God is expressed thus: "Such is the attitude inculcated in God's answer to Job out of the whirlwind: the divine power and knowledge are paraded, but of the divine goodness there is no hint."

Russell avoids the low road taken by Dawkins. Instead of manipulating the reader's emotions, he offers a restrained moral critique of a biblical passage. Yet alongside such restraint, he displays great rhetorical power. In breathtaking poetic prose, he sets forth his atheist cosmology:

That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.

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How does Russell respond to such a cosmos? Does he express public outrage against the idea of God? No; as if foreseeing our New Atheists, he warns against such outrage: "[A] spirit of fiery revolt, of fierce hatred of the gods, seems necessary to the assertion of freedom. . . . But indignation is still a bondage . . . which it is necessary for the wise to overcome."

Russell's alternative to indignation is the affirmation of human ideals in the face of a universe indifferent to them:

Brief and powerless is Man's life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for Man, condemned to-day to lose his dearest, to-morrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only . . . to preserve a mind free from the wanton tyranny that rules his outward life . . . to sustain alone, a weary but unyielding Atlas, the world that his own ideals have fashioned despite the trampling march of unconscious power.

Like the Norse gods, Man is to continue to fight, though his world is doomed. Even a theist is momentarily moved by this writing.

Does style matter? Yes, it does; different styles express different atheisms. "A Free Man's Worship" is not consumed with spite or rage; Russell plainly yearns for the beauty and truth that his cosmology denies. He is, as it were, a "religious atheist" with whom one can have a meaningful dialogue, one who does not despise those of faith as "ignorant, stupid, insane, or wicked." If we must read atheists, let us read atheists like this.

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