Light: An essay on third wave atheism

I wrote a long facebook post yesterday that got a lot of positive feedback, so I’ve edited and fleshed it out into a fuller essay, on the history of atheism, as I understand it, and some thoughts about the future. I gave it a title, “Light.” Here it is:

Today I rise to a young spring morning, the air both cool and bright — the world somehow at odds with itself. The view from my window is clearer than it has been for some time, and as I brew myself a pot of coffee and listen to the birds, my mind slowly comes online. I find myself wondering about my beliefs — or, rather, my lack of a particular belief. Today, I am thinking about how I can best not believe in God.

Atheism — like feminism, anti-racism, socialism, and all other liberatory philosophical/political/social movements — travels through history in waves. The first wave in the West was championed perhaps most strongly by the late 19th century German scholar, critic, and philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. A search through Western history for “mad geniuses” would reliably turn up Nietzsche’s crusty, hirsute visage; after revolutionizing and revitalizing ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics — all three major branches of Western philosophy — he succumbed later in life to torturous and debilitating mental illness. But Nietzsche’s work permanently reoriented Western thought. The moody German’s famous proclamation, “God is dead,” turned out to be not so much a claim or a description, but a marching order, as generations of thinkers, from Anglophone authors like Aldous Huxley and Bertrand Russell to French intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault and feminists like Simone de Beauvoir, carried out a meticulous, systematic assassination of the traditional conception of God. Nietzsche’s project of “transvaluation of all values” — that, rather than prioritize and cherish false ideals of rationality or the divine, we should find the root of all value in the murky, complex, actual world in which we find ourselves; that, rather than live for the promise of eternity, we should live as if our every conscious moment would eternally recur; in other words, that we should exalt life, not death — was thus something of a theological atomic bomb, obliterating centuries-old moral truisms and devastating millennia-long modes of thought in a tidal wake that rushed outward along every line of thought for nearly 200 years, unabated. And while theology has since regrouped and rebuilt around the damage, the landscape has been transformed. It’s no coincidence that, for most of the history of Western philosophy, almost every philosopher was a theist, of one sort or another, and that now, less than 15% describe themselves as such. Conversely, as of 2014, over three quarters of professional philosophers, worldwide, are atheists.


If the first wave of atheism resulted from a sort of explosive intellectual annihilation, the second wave emanated from carnage and devastation somewhat more literal: the miles-high dust cloud, visible from space, was still settling in lower Manhattan, around approximately 3,000 bodies and two tangled masses of twisted steel, when philosopher and writer Sam Harris began work on “The End of Faith.” Published in 2004, Harris’s manifesto opened the gates for a flood of “New Atheist” writings that sparked and stoked a heated dialogue over the role of religion in modern, public life. Harris, followed closely by biologist Richard Dawkins and writer Christopher Hitchens, had nothing particularly novel to offer, philosophically, but this second wave of atheism was not a philosophical movement; it was social. These and other authors sold best-selling books written at a high school level that pulled no punches in laying out a basic point: religion was, more often than not — or often enough — a force for evil, not enlightenment. These “Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” as the national press dubbed them, marshaled incontrovertible evidence that, from funeral protesters to suicide bombers, ordinary people could be made to do extraordinarily heinous, reprehensible things they would never otherwise do by offering false promises of eternal rewards (or threats of unending torture) in a world that is separate from and better than the real one. Harris characterized faith as “belief without sufficient evidence.” Hitchens called Yahweh a “cosmic dictator.” They blasted religion as “dangerous bullshit,” and millions of Americans said, “damn right.” And their words had an impact. There are now hundreds of highly active college and community non-religious groups in every state in the country (I helped organize such a group at the University of Alabama), and proud, outspoken non-believers occupy almost every position in our society. More and more people are discovering that “none at all” is a perfectly acceptable faith. Billboards have popped up, encouraging people to “Skip church, and just be good for goodness’ sake.” The president of American Atheists, an organization that has existed since 1963 and is devoted to “fighting for the civil liberties of atheists and the total, absolute separation of government and religion,” is routinely invited on cable news talk shows, and thousands attend the group’s annual convention. Red-state Satanists brazenly delight in political tricks and mischief, calling out our continued, unconstitutional preference for Christian culture in the public sphere. And this year, for the first time in my life, we have a serious contender for President who makes no attempt to pander to theocrats, telling applauding crowds that his “spirituality” is about “people helping each other” — and so far no one has batted an eye. For these reasons, people of all beliefs should thank the second wave atheists for advancing the cause of religious freedom in this country. They expanded the social space, and one need not agree with the ends of their labor to enjoy its fruits.

But the second wave has crested. The reality of American imperialism, anti-Arab racism, and Islamophobia complicates the narrative and compromises the position of wealthy white Western men telling us that religion is the sole source of our worldly woes (and specifically the religion of those brown people whose region we have, for lack of a more apt, appropriately brutal term, raped). Second wave atheism was a vital rising up against an oppressive social paradigm, but it becomes harder — untenable — to argue that professional blowhards like comedian Bill Maher (a second wave-riding, derivative, inconsequential charlatan of the most refined vintage) are “punching up” anymore, as Mosques are burned and women in hijabs harassed, as college students are gunned down in their own homes, and as Obama’s drones routinely murder the innocent and teach young children, a world away, to fear the sky. Yes, the second wave atheists offered a necessary critique of the world. But the world has replied, and the conversation continues to evolve.

So, what’s the third wave? Like every social movement today, from the push for climate justice to calls to address LGBT youth homelessness, the latest iteration of atheism must be intersectional. (If you don’t know what intersectionality is, open a Richard Dawkins book to any page to find an example of what it isn’t.) Intersectionality seeks to understand phenomena in the appropriate and relevant context and is wary of reductive, simplistic solutions for complex problems. For instance, it’s sloppy, indefensible thinking to talk about the violence commanded in the Quran without mentioning the blood-soaked Torah. It’s naive — and, to take a page out of the second wave playbook, dangerous — to invoke the West’s centuries-long secularist project of moderating and mitigating scriptural violence while ignoring our even longer-standing project of colonizing the world, seizing capital, and enslaving and subjugating peoples. Is there any doubt that Sean Hannity and Mike Huckabee would be rigging car bombs right now if world history were flipped? Our religious liberalism is a direct function of our history of power; the Enlightenment cannot be neatly partitioned off from Colonialism. So we can only congratulate ourselves for being the biggest monkey, not the most sophisticated theologians or most tolerant, rational people, in the room. I’m not rushing to pat myself on my big hairy back over that.

Third wave atheism need not back down, philosophically. Nietzsche is still right. Darwinism is still true. The 9/11 hijackers really did believe in jihad and paradise — as they understood the terms — and wouldn’t have acted as they did otherwise. And as the fight for marriage equality shamefully drags on in some corners of the country, a shocking percentage of American Christians and the Lord they worship really do, still, “hate fags.” But we must condemn the eliminativist — frankly, exterminist — tenor, historical naivety, and self-satisfied snark that saturates every sentence of second wave polemics. I recall seeing Sam Harris say onstage, some time ago, that the best single change that could occur in the world would be for Islam to disappear. That’s a shocking and deeply concerning sentiment. Contrary to Harris’ and other second wavers’ assertions that religion is reducible to a set of claims and commandments, Islam is in fact a central component of the lives of human beings — 1.6 billion of them — a strand woven into the deepest core of a person, not some after-the-fact abstract add-on. Islam, simply put, is not separable from Muslims. In fact, substitute the word “Muslims” for “Islam” and then read Harris’s plan for global betterment again. And then go take a cold shower. The idea that an entire religion — its texts, its traditions, its people, its art — could or should somehow be made to “disappear” displays stunning and perhaps willful ignorance of the entanglement of individual personhood, social systems, and meaning. The insistence that theological conceptions can be neatly skimmed off the top of a churning cultural milieu is naive and unserious. And while Harris has more recently made more effort to acknowledge other factors that drive human behavior, and his most recent book, a dialogue with author and activist Maajid Nawaz, seems to moderate some of his earlier, peak second wave sentiments,  his enduring prioritization of religious belief, above all else, seems to give short shrift to myriad other deep structural forces — like ecological forces, economic forces, geopolitical forces — that manage knowledge, motivate behavior, and sometimes, in crisis, give rise to violence. Yes, jihad can be a problematic concept, just like heaven, or hell, or any other theological notion that invokes a supernatural realm and prioritizes it over the real world, but history has shown that humans, driven to violence, tend to reach for whatever tools are handy, like, for instance, secular political concepts that invoke utopian futures or pristine pasts or ideal order. The twentieth century saw its share of violence done in the name of the State. There are many ways to look when we turn our backs on the real.


Second wave atheists argued that religion, simply, is the problem, thus implying that the solution is, simply, to burn it down. But what would be lost in the blaze? Some of the most stunning art I have witnessed (only in pictures, and I hope I’m lucky enough to one day see these in person) are the mesmerizing mosaics in the geometrically vaunted ceilings in the ancient Mosques of Iran and Pakistan. What would my musical world be without the Cantatas and Fugues of that Lutheran Kapellmeister from Leipzig, J.S. Bach? Yes, Protestant thought was deployed to justify American slavery, but it’s also constituted the communal hymn sung in time with every step on the long walk to freedom. And what of the countless millions of people who have reached out — perhaps past intellectual justification — grasped for hope and found it, in private moments of otherwise insurmountable darkness, desperation, and despair? I’m unwilling to throw these immaculate babes out with the bathwater, no matter how rancid. I was a card carrying second wave atheist my entire adult, thinking life, but I, and many like me, have moved on. We are no longer interested in erasing the real beauty that has not only been funded but inspired, deeply, by a profound faith, even as we cannot countenance the philosophical foundations of that faith. We can’t argue against hope — genuine, life-sustaining hope — in any of its forms. We shouldn’t tolerate arguments that don’t acknowledge the undeniable truth that religion, for better and worse, is an institutional expression of deep, indelible needs of the fragile and hopeful human heart. Atheists today should focus on reform, not elimination. We should work to decouple all that is good, beautiful, and important, even necessary, in religious traditions from wretched Iron Age myth, outmoded anti-modern philosophy, and rank, manifest misogyny. Can’t we all agree on that?

Third wave atheists recognize that, while God is an unacceptable answer, pressing questions still remain. The Cosmic King was shackled and sent to the guillotine, but his throne still sits empty, waiting to be filled. We need third wave atheism and a sophisticated, modern theism to meet, not in the middle but on the other shore (so to speak), as a sort of ecological humanism. We need not only a theology that takes the objective world seriously but also a philosophical materialism that takes the subjective world seriously. We need to live in the wide space between the false poles of Fact and Value until we cultivate a new and fertile center. We need a spiritual practice that acknowledges — celebrates — Darwin’s insights and all their implications: that we are brothers and sisters of all life; that we have no special claim to transcendence; that our fate is forever entwined with the fabric of all that is real. We still do not understand how consciousness — qualitative, subjective awareness, that greatest of mysteries — can possibly arise in an unconscious, physical world. It remains unclear whether human agency, free will, is real and meaningful. I wonder whether — and how — one can ever truly justify existence, which seems to necessitate in every instance occupying space, seizing control, and exerting power. I want to learn how to let go, accept death, and embrace life.

Our time is genuinely urgent. From renewed nuclear stockpiling to the spiralling climate crisis, humanity has never before faced a more serious existential threat: ourselves. Our technologies (nuclear weapons, fossil fuels) and institutions (nation states, corporations) are to blame, but they are driven, at bottom, by our beliefs, and a profound reassessment of humanity’s place in the world is our only hope and prospect for designing a just, sustainable future. Theists and atheists must call a ceasefire in our contemporary intellectual culture war and affirm our common material and spiritual needs. We must recognize ourselves as neighbors and friends on an unlikely, tiny, “pale, blue dot,” as astronomer Carl Sagan movingly described our planet, “suspended in a sunbeam… the only home we’ve ever known.” Our resources are finite; may our imagination, creativity, and empathy never be. For the Universe so loved the Earth, It gave us our one and only Sun. May we live, together, in Light.



2 thoughts on “Light: An essay on third wave atheism

  1. Excellently put. The “pressing questions” is especially compelling to me. Simplified traditional religion has some serious warts, but it’s also a receptacle for communicating values. Without traditional religion, fables, etc., are we still able to retain and communicate complex (sometimes arbitrary) values that make us feel more “human?” Atheism has long said “I don’t know how we should do it, but I know that YOU ALL are doing it the wrong way.” Is that enough?

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