July 16, 2007

New Atheism, Old Morality, and Harry Potter

Not a lot of thoughts recently about religion or atheism.  But things have a way of popping up again in multiple references, closely clustered together in time.  Yesterday, I saw a very amusing movie about kids in an evangelical high school.  Although the movie was critical of hypocrisy and fanaticism dressed in religious clothing, I did not find the message to be anti-religious; the sympathetic characters who reject the strident evangelism nevertheless retain faith and are seen to pray and ask for God’s help in difficult decisions.  I also came across a few people theorizing about what will happen in the seventh Harry Potter book, but continued to be amazed that no one but me seems to have noticed that no character in the series – not the good guys, not the bad guys – seems to possess any kind of religious faith at all and indeed, there is a universal rejection of the concept of an afterlife.  (Why am I the only person who thinks that this is remarkable in so wildly popular a series of books and movies?)  And in today’s WSJ, Peter Berkowitz offers some ideas (in bold, below) about why contemporary atheists are different than their predecessors, before going on to defend religion from these “new new atheists”:


Profitability is not the only feature distinguishing today's fashionable disbelief from the varieties of atheism that have arisen over the millennia. Unlike the classical atheism of Epicurus and Lucretius, which rejected belief in the gods in the name of pleasure and tranquility, the new new atheism rejects God in the name of natural science, individual freedom and human equality. Unlike the Enlightenment atheism of the 18th century, which arose in a still predominantly religious society and which frequently went to some effort to disguise or mute its disbelief, the new new atheism proclaims its hatred of God and organized religion loudly and proudly from the rooftops. And unlike the anti-modern atheism of Nietzsche and Heidegger, which regarded the death of God as a catastrophe for the human spirit, the new new atheism sees the loss of religious faith in the modern world as an unqualified good, lamenting only the perverse and widespread resistance to shedding once and for all the hopelessly backward belief in a divine presence in history.”


Berkowitz is sort of right.  But while some atheists do clearly hate organized religion, I wouldn’t say that the hatred is directed towards God (atheists don’t hate the Easter Bunny, either, and for the same reason).  And I agree with Berkowitz that religion has done, and does continue to do, some very good things like encourage people to think deeply about moral right and wrong, to do charity and show compassion for others, and to serve as a social nucleus for communities.  But I think he is wrong to suggest that modern atheists are new in basing their world views on rationalism – Epicurus did not reach his atheism as a sophistic means towards the end of justifying a sybaritic lifestyle (and read properly, Epicurus condemns sybarism despite his claim that that pleasure and pain were all that existed as objective measures of the value of things).  I’ve not read much Lucretius.  Nor are concerns for the rights of the individual new – the very Enlightenment atheists who Berkowitz rightly describes as going to great pains to conceal their religious beliefs from others


I would also suggest that atheism is nothing particularly new at all; it’s getting noticed right now for some reason, perhaps as a tonic in response to the deep religiosity that the country has gone through in the past decade or so.  I was an atheist before it was trendy and will continue to be so after it ceases to be fashionable – and hopefully, after it ceases to be remarkable.  At the end of the day, what counts in life is a theme likely to be repeated, again and hopefully very forcefully, in the upcoming seventh Harry Potter book – we are defined by the choices we make as individuals, not by our external identities.  You can choose to do right or you can choose to do wrong; that is more important than how you look or what faith you (claim to) possess or how rich you are or what kind of group you think you belong to.  Because that seems to be the central theme of the whole series, I expect that Harry’s constant antagonist Severus Snape will be proven to be an ultimately good person, and that at least one central character – my bet is Ron, who has offered his own life for Harry’s at least twice before – will make the supreme sacrifice and give his life at the end of the book so that good (Harry) can triumph over evil (Voldemort).

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