[Paleopsych] Book Forum: Ron Aronson reviews books on atheism

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Ron Aronson reviews books on atheism
BOOKFORUM | Oct/Nov 2005





    YORK: CAMBRIDGE. 202 PAGES. $21.


    DUCKWORTH. 160 PAGES. $15.

    At the sight of Stephen Colbert the studio audience begins cheering
    with anticipation: It's time for "This Week in God." Colbert calls up
    the "God machine" and gives it a tap, and a window begins spinning to
    the most unholy sound as a panoply of religious symbols and
    images--the pope, believers in the shroud of turin, assorted rabbis,
    imams, ministers,
    priests, creationists, spiritualists, even those those professing
    secular humanism and atheism ("The religion devoted to the worship of
    one's own smug sense of superiority")--flash on the screen. Finally
    the machine comes to rest on a particular target. We see a Jerusalem
    rabbi, imam, and priest set aside their mutual hatred long enough to
    denounce that city's gay-pride parade. Or we watch Colbert conduct a
    blind taste test to see whether he can tell the difference between
    holy water and Pepsi. Through it all he pokes fun at faith itself,
    sparing no religion and no holy man (in Blasphe "Me!!!" he takes on
    deities themselves, challenging, say, Quetzalcóatl to strike him dead
    by the count of five). Watching "This Week in God" on Jon Stewart's
    Daily Show, we are, it might seem, witnessing the culmination of a
    historical progression, from Robert Ingersoll, the great
    nineteenth-century public unbeliever, to Clarence Darrow, who in the
    1920s and '30s would debate a rabbi, priest, and minister during a
    single evening.

    No wonder, then, that it is a bit jarring, after Colbert's polished
    irreverence and his audience's unforced delight, to return to the real
    world and be reminded that it is irreligion, and not religion, that is
    on the defensive today.

    It is this weakening that Alister McGrath sets out to explain. In his
    telling formulation, we are living in the "twilight" of the great
    modern era of disbelief. In 1960, he points out, "half the population
    of the world was nominally atheist," but by now the "sun has begun to
    set" on this "great empire of the mind." Telling the story of the rise
    and fall of disbelief in God, McGrath claims to be giving us a
    postmortem on the worldview reflected by Colbert. Looking ahead, can
    we perhaps foresee a time not far distant when atheism itself gives up
    the ghost?

    By proclaiming that atheism is on its last legs, McGrath turns one of
    the most burning questions in American culture on its head. When
    everyone is asking about the growing strength of religion and its
    political ramifications, we might instead ask, Why is disbelief on the
    wane? Today's commonsense answer is that atheists, agnostics, and
    secularists are less and less relevant to the needs of Americans (and,
    McGrath adds, the rest of the world). Whether true or not, this is an
    amazing commentary on the self-confidence that once made atheism the
    modern creed, which McGrath summarizes as "the religion of the
    autonomous and rational human being, who believes that reason is able
    to uncover and express the deepest truths of the universe, from the
    mechanics of the rising of the sun to the nature and final destiny of
    humanity." Why, after predictions that religion had fallen into
    irreversible decline (in 1966, Time magazine famously asked, "Is God
    dead?"), does a recent Newsweek poll indicate that 64 percent of
    Americans call themselves religious and an equal number pray daily?

    The Twilight of Atheism's story of the rise of disbelief contains a
    key argument about its eventual decline. McGrath accounts for the fact
    that England "did not see a major erosion of faith" in the eighteenth
    century owing to the Toleration Act (1689), marking as it did a truce
    after a half-century of social, political, and religious conflict, and
    he explains the intensity of the contemporary French anticlericalism
    by "the corruption of Christian institutions" in prerevolutionary
    France. In other words, "Atheism thrives when the church is seen to be
    privileged, out of touch with the people, and powerful."

    Twilight thus points to the modern history of the idea that God does
    not exist, beginning from the most radical phase of the French
    Revolution and the writings of the Marquis de Sade. McGrath focuses on
    Ludwig Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity as well as the writings of
    Freud and Marx in order to set out atheism's intellectual foundations.
    In a detailed chapter on the so-called warfare between the natural
    sciences and religion, McGrath shows how the notion arose in Victorian
    England that the two were inevitably hostile to each other, despite
    much evidence to the contrary (including the more recent fact that a
    significant percentage of scientists continue to espouse belief in
    God). Then, in a subtle and original discussion, he explores why
    religious belief waned and atheism grew among a key group of poets and
    novelists in nineteenth-century England. Compared to the dour, dismal,
    and pallid religion on offer, atheism focused on the transcendent,
    took pleasure in the beautiful, and nourished the imagination. In
    contrast, Christians were much taken by the translations of the works
    of David Friedrich Strauss and Ernest Renan that presented Jesus's
    life as an actual historical narrative, which could not but diminish
    his religious appeal.

    And so the stage was set for atheism's high tide in the twentieth
    century, hailed by Nietzsche's declaration that God was dead. By the
    1960s American liberal Christianity seemed bent on committing suicide.
    "Ideas such as eternal life, Resurrection, a `God out there,' and any
    sense of the mysterious," McGrath writes, "were unceremoniously junked
    as decrepit embarrassments." The combined surrender of sophisticated
    theologians like Harvey Cox or former Episcopal bishop John Spong, the
    campaigns against religion by the Soviets and Chinese, and the
    tendency to pit science against faith proved that "by 1970 many had
    come to the view that religion was on its way out."

    But today it is atheism that seems in irreparable decline. What
    happened? Here, to introduce its ebb, McGrath interposes his personal
    story. A teenage atheist and Marxist, he headed from Northern Ireland
    to Oxford in 1971 armed with an existentialist's sense of life's
    bleakness, and Marxism's secular messianic "hope of a better future
    and the possibility of being involved in bringing this future about."
    Yet this was, he soon discovered, an "imaginatively impoverished and
    emotionally deficient substitute" for "a dimension of life that I had
    hitherto suppressed." And Alister McGrath reconverted and became part
    of history's next wave. The works of atheism's golden age lost their
    aura of historical inevitability and now came to seem distant,
    redolent of "a social order that had long since vanished."

    If he has not already been doing so, McGrath now speaks both in his
    own voice and for history's judgment of his teenage atheism. Its
    arguments have increasingly been recognized as circular, its
    intellectual battle with religion has been stalemated, the age of
    "humanity-turned-divinity" (by this he means that the worst features
    of Communism were encouraged by humans determined to act free from the
    limits generated by a belief in God) has been a disaster, and our
    spiritual longings and interest in religious faith have reemerged as
    significant features of our cultural landscape. One example of the
    latter is the striking spread of Pentecostal religions around the
    world, stressing as they do the "immediacy of God's presence through
    the Holy Spirit."

    Sloughing off the spare and abstract intellectualism of the Protestant
    Reformation within which McGrath himself was raised, the new currents
    demonstrate that "Christianity is perfectly capable of reinventing
    itself" to satisfy the spirit, feed the imagination, and satisfy the
    longing for transcendence. On the other hand, atheism's "embarrassing
    intolerance" is demonstrated by the millions of people sacrificed to
    Russian Communism, which confirmed the fact that modernity was as much
    an oppressive as a liberating force. McGrath here links Marx's
    liberating vision to violent "social engineering" and Freud's to
    "manipulating mental processes." And so he endorses the verdict of
    postmodernism on this ultimately uninhabitable universe: "Far from
    providing eternal and universal truths of reason, by which humanity
    might live in peace and stability, modernity found itself implicated
    as the perhaps unwitting accomplice of Nazism and Stalinism." Thus
    occurred "the decline, then the death, of modernity" and with it its
    partner, atheism. Atheism is now adrift in a newly respiritualized
    world, "uncertain of its own values," its record of violence and
    bigotry exposed. Thus "the established religion of modernity suddenly
    found itself relegated to the sidelines, increasingly to be viewed
    more as a curiosity than as a serious cultural option."

    How are we to evaluate McGrath's take on the fate of the secular
    worldview? First, one ought to be wary of end-of-an-era books written
    by former zealots! I say this myself having written After Marxism as a
    former Marxist--I know the temptation to coax the Owl of Minerva off
    her perch prematurely, of claiming to depict a movement in its true
    colors when its existence is still being contested. Reasonable
    observations about atheism's weaknesses get mingled with frequent
    "end-of-an-era" pronouncements that form the book's real substance and
    float on their own steam rather than issue from a disciplined and
    careful historical study.

    Just like the postmodernist claim that modernity is over, the
    retrospective stance implied by terms like twilight is the book's main
    idea and does double duty as a weapon in the battle against atheism.
    The "rise and fall" metaphors are tools of a brilliantly clever
    religious writer against the movement he seeks to undermine. Two
    decisive structural problems give away the game. First, McGrath's
    chapters are historically arranged and at times admirably detailed but
    at points sophomorically sweeping. There is little effort to trace
    atheism's evolution, logic, vicissitudes, and connections with other
    movements (such as socialism). The first two-thirds of the book are a
    more or less chronologically organized critique in the guise of
    telling a story--which, when the author chooses, leaps back and forth
    in time or argues with support drawn from whatever historical period
    best makes the case. So Stephen Jay Gould appears in the nineteenth
    century, and then under the "Death of God" we find Aldous Huxley in
    response to Nietzsche, followed by Milosz, Wallace Stevens, and Camus,
    the "Death of God" theology, and the Soviet Union. The "account"
    disappears behind the argument.

    And then in the last hundred pages McGrath abandons any pretense of
    telling atheism's story. In the one convincing chapter of the last
    five, grouped under the heading "Twilight," he presents an interesting
    analysis of the Protestant Reformation's "disconnection from the
    sacred." But for the most part he argues broadly that the rational
    argument between religion and atheism can never be resolved, comments
    on the rise of interest in spirituality and the growth of
    Pentecostalism, and brings out as uncontested fact the postmodern
    verdict on modernity, grafting it onto his case against atheism,
    including a page or two on the persecution of religion in the Soviet
    Union. Having used virtually every conceivable argument on every
    level--atheism's intellectual incoherence, historical obsolescence,
    moral obtuseness, arrogance, violence, and lack of
    imagination--McGrath now tosses in the kitchen sink, and the book's
    structure collapses.

                                    * * *

    A less ideologically driven book would have inquired into other
    reasons for the rise of secular attitudes and habits than the
    corruption of religion. It would have explored Jürgen Habermas's
    thesis concerning the disenchantment of the world not as a fault of
    the Reformation but as a concomitant of aspects of modernity
    potentially in conflict with religion, such as life becoming
    de-traditionalized, the growth of science and technology, and the rise
    of capitalism. McGrath says much about religion in general but never
    probes the problems of comparison between places where faith is
    flourishing (such as the United States) and those where it is not
    (such as Great Britain). A more self-conscious theology professor
    might have explored the paradox of a proclaimed "reinvented"
    Christianity in league with postmodernism, at least to consider the
    potential conflicts between the two worldviews on issues of authority
    and truth. And in laying blame for the world's ills on irreligion,
    McGrath might have at least considered the persistence of religious
    themes under Stalin and asked about the central role of Christianity
    during the previous two millennia of religious wars, slaughter, and

    There is no denying that religion has revitalized itself or that the
    secular outlook is in retreat. But the actual historical process is
    far more complex and interesting than McGrath suggests. It focuses
    less on the respective strengths and weaknesses of religion and
    atheism than on the development of the modern world. Classical
    atheists tended to be optimistic about the world's future, and their
    imaginations were indeed stirred by science and technology and the
    potential for human progress. Rejecting religion often coincided with
    placing hope in reason, education, democracy, and/or socialism, and
    those who did so were stirred by visions of a more humane, happier
    world organized according to human needs. Looking expectantly to the
    secular and social future meant rejecting the religious counsel of
    pessimism about our lot on earth.

    It's safe to say that the future didn't turn out as anyone expected.
    Scientific and technological progress has been relentless, but its
    promises of liberation have gone flat. Few still believe that their
    children's world will be better than theirs. We live after Marxism,
    after progress, after the Holocaust--and few imaginations are stirred,
    few hopes raised by our world's long-range tendencies. Indeed, the
    opposite is happening as terrorism becomes the West's main
    preoccupation. In countries like the United States, Britain, and
    France, there has been a turning away from improving societies and
    toward improving the self.

    On this terrain, it is no surprise that belief in God has been
    revived, although it is most curious that among industrialized
    societies the renewed religious energy centers on the United States
    and is far less widespread in equally developed Europe. I suspect that
    even Marx or Freud would see little reason to conclude that religion's
    consoling force might be dispensed with anytime soon. At stake, then,
    is far more than a conflict between belief and disbelief, but the kind
    of world in which a religious or a secular worldview flourishes. Where
    secular hope is in the ascendancy, as during most of the nineteenth
    and twentieth centuries, it seems as if the belief in human capacity
    and the here and now will be strong; where fear and pessimism
    increase, as they have so far in the twenty-first century, humans may
    increasingly look to God, to their souls, and to a future beyond this

    The pendulum may well swing back toward secular and social concerns,
    and people may well regain confidence in their powers and their
    collective future. For this to be accompanied and supported by a
    renewal of the belief that life can best be lived without God, then
    atheists, agnostics, and secularists have major tasks ahead. As
    McGrath suggests and Alan Wolfe has shown in detail in The
    Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith,
    over the past generation religion has become closer to people's needs,
    more positive and personal, and more tolerant and less authoritarian.
    In 2004 Wolfe pointed out that atheists seemed not to understand how
    religion had changed. There is a paucity of "serious treatments of why
    Americans might be better off intellectually, and perhaps even
    emotionally, if they relied more on themselves and less on powers
    greater than themselves, and our cultural and political life is poorer
    as a result." What would it look like if this were to change?

    A number of writers--the "new atheists"--are responding. The oldest
    among them is Michel Onfray, 46; the others are considerably younger.
    Not part of a movement, they also lack the sense that history is going
    their way. At the same time, these writers are refreshingly free from
    the hidden theology of history-as-progress that inspired past atheist
    writers. Unlike McGrath, they cannot appeal to self-evident trends,
    and this gives each of their works a refreshing quality of standing on
    its own. Accordingly, in these books the argument is everything. And
    they are contemporary, having had to respond to September 11, to Islam
    as well as Judaism and Christianity, and to modern science. They have
    had to rethink atheism in terms of its historical possibility, its
    reputation for negativity, and the ways in which it might become more

    Of the works under review, only Michel Onfray's Traité d'athéologie
    presents atheism in old-fashioned terms, as part of a world-historical
    process of social emancipation. Onfray's philosophical goal is to
    renew the modern radical project by integrating the insights of
    atheism with utilitarianism, hedonism, psychoanalysis, and anarchism,
    for the first time allowing humanity to "look reality in the face." To
    prepare the ground for this he seeks to lay bare the many ways in
    which pathological and death-oriented religious attitudes permeate our
    world (thus the need for an "a-theology"--to demonstrate the
    structure, commitments, and suppressed past of religion in its full
    destructiveness). In the spirit of Feuerbach, Marx, Freud, and
    Nietzsche, Onfray is determined to reveal how the creation of a world
    beyond this world leads to "forgetting the real" with disastrous

    His book has a sweep, an energy and intensity, that seems all but
    forgotten on either side of the Atlantic; for this reason alone it
    deserves to be translated. Onfray is arguing, contra McGrath, that
    religion has always been, and remains, at the core of our
    civilization. "We speak, think, live, act, we dream, we imagine, we
    eat, suffer, sleep, and conceive in Judeo-Christian terms, constructed
    during two thousand years of development from biblical monotheism.
    Later, secularism struggles to permit everyone to think what he or she
    wants, to believe in his or her own god, provided that they don't take
    note of this publicly. But publicly, the secularized religion of
    Christ leads the way." It is absurd, then, to suggest that there has
    ever been a genuinely irreligious moment.

    Worse, Onfray argues, planetary colonialism, slavery,
    twentieth-century fascisms and genocides have all been carried out
    only with the silent or tacit approval of religion. With a penchant
    for list making, he details the Bible's calls to slaughter and
    oppression as well as the Christian history of giving them its
    blessing. Even today, he argues, France's official secularism remains
    underpinned by the same Christian values and ethics that have made
    hell of the world. The alternative would be a truly democratic and
    post-Christian morality that would fully free people from religion by
    beginning from the fact that this is our only world. A secular ethics,
    pragmatic and utilitarian, would truly pursue what he calls the
    "hedonist contract"--the greatest good of the greatest number.

    "Nihilism," Onfray writes, "stems from the turbulence registered in
    the transitional zone" between a decaying Judeo-Christian world and a
    post-Christian universe still waiting in the wings. What will bring it
    about? Certainly not any developments in religion itself. Onfray
    writes as if the essence of religion is unchanging, and he often
    focuses on the Bible as giving us the essence of Christianity.
    Accordingly, we have little to hope for from the kinds of evolutions
    so prized by McGrath. Onfray would no doubt see the changes described
    in The Transformation of American Religion as surface alterations that
    disguise religion's fundamental hatred of life. Yet, unlike McGrath,
    Onfray does not identify a social process leading to strengthening
    secular attitudes. Perhaps this is why he takes refuge in a sweeping
    dialectic: "A Christian era having followed a pagan era, a
    post-Christian era will follow, inevitably." But how? He demurs
    discussing the agents who might bring this about, speaking only of the
    philosopher's tasks: the labor of reason and reflection, a "return to
    the spirit of the Enlightenment."

    Onfray's "inevitably" is the sole touch of such historical optimism
    among any of the new atheists. In sharp contrast, Sam Harris is
    motivated by an urgent effort to avoid the worst: in a post-September
    11 world where "our neighbors are now armed with chemical, biological,
    and nuclear weapons" and are motivated by "mad," unverifiable, and
    exclusivist core beliefs, Harris writes to avert catastrophe. His book
    is an all-out attack on faith-based beliefs as well as on those
    moderates for whom "criticizing a person's faith is currently taboo."
    Harris has raised eyebrows more than any atheist since Richard
    Dawkins's Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a
    Universe Without Design--for his fervent belief in progress, hostility
    to Islam, approval of nuclear war and torture, dismissal of pacifism
    as "flagrantly immoral," and his slap at the "leftist unreason" of
    Noam Chomsky. Harris's key political sources and positions clearly
    lean to the Right. For our purposes, however, what matters most is
    what the book tells us about some of atheism's continuing problems
    today. If Onfray has remained true to atheism as an emancipatory
    project at war with religion, Harris has kept alive its image as
    dogmatic, fanatically rationalistic, and at war to religion.

                                    * * *

    The best way to view Harris's intolerance is through the lenses
    provided by Julian Baggini's Atheism: A Very Short Introduction.
    Baggini's excellent little book is intended not as an attack on
    religion but to give a positive explanation of a word, atheism, that
    conjures "dark images of something sinister, evil, and threatening."
    His point is that atheism need be neither "happy-clappy" nor
    "pessimistic or depressive." It is rather a kind of growing up, a
    turning away from "the innocence of supernatural world views" and an
    acceptance "that we have to make our way in the world." In a highly
    accessible style, Baggini (who writes for The Guardian and is editor
    of The Philosophers' Magazine) covers what have become familiar
    themes: the argument for an understanding of the world based on
    natural laws and according to evidence; the centrality in human life
    of moral choice about what is right and wrong; the "view that life's
    ultimate purpose must be something which is good in itself and not
    just something that serves as a link in a never-ending series of
    purposes"; and the cautionary lessons about zealotry to be learned
    from the history of both religion and atheism.

    Baggini asks whether atheism is necessarily against religion. The
    concluding picture he gives is of a secure and positive outlook,
    without hostility, combating harmful consequences of religion to be
    sure but no less critical of militant atheism. His final chapter is a
    masterpiece in trying to understand the impulse behind religion, the
    inevitable gulf between believers and nonbelievers, and the fact that
    since both will continue to share the world for a long time to come,
    the wisest path to coexistence is through genuine openness and the
    willingness to be proven wrong.

    Which returns us to The End of Faith. What is most striking after
    reading Baggini is Harris's own zealotry. Harris makes no effort to
    understand believers, be they moderate or fundamentalist; most serious
    in a book claiming a practical political mission of uniting "us"
    against "them" is his total lack of interest in any historical
    understanding. Why is it that Islamist movements have emerged with
    such ferocity? Why is it that suicide bombers have become widespread?
    And what explains the revival of religion in the United States? For
    Harris what matters is what people believe and whether it is
    verifiable--not when, how, and under what conditions they came to
    believe it. In his dogmatic view, beliefs motivate people--not
    circumstances, events, or history.

    Like Baggini, Erik J. Wielenberg in Value and Virtue in a Godless
    Universe and Daniel Harbour in An Intelligent Person's Guide to
    Atheism respond to the current malaise in atheism by engaging in
    respectful and serious debate with their opponents. Wielenberg
    presents an analytical philosopher's argument, beautifully restrained
    and precise. He is responding to a major theme in contemporary
    thinking about religion, namely, that in a naturalistic universe--one
    in which there are "no supernatural beings of any sort"--life would
    have no meaning and there would be no reason to behave ethically.
    Indeed, the strong selling point of religion recently has been its
    utility--in providing individual and collective moral grounding,
    national purpose, and personal hope. In response, Wielenberg,
    uninterested in the question of God's actual existence, seeks to show
    that living without God can be both meaningful and moral. Like McGrath
    and Onfray, Wielenberg focuses on the idea articulated in Dostoevsky's
    Brothers Karamazov: If God does not exist, everything is permissible.

    Wielenberg's carefully developed main argument is that a moral
    framework totally dependent on God's will "is not a moral framework at
    all." Plato's Euthyphro provides the key question: Does God endorse
    acts that are already moral or do these become moral because God
    commands them? Even among Christians, he points out, morality turns
    out to be objective and independent--it is "part of the furniture of
    the universe" and does not require God to make it right.

    Wielenberg's major problem appears when he takes up the question that
    preoccupies most discussions of God's existence: How do we explain and
    minimize evil in the world? Constrained by the limits of analytic
    philosophy, Wielenberg's discussion of "factors beyond our control"
    and obligations toward others has an unconvincingly individualist
    cast. He needs to take on board the deep social belonging that makes
    us who we are but is absent from his argument--only then can helping
    others become something other than Christian charity.

    Harbour's recently reissued Guide to Atheism aspires to show the
    intellectual and practical superiority of a secular, scientific
    worldview to a religious one. At stake is not simply the question
    "Does God exist?" but rather "the whole worldview to which we
    subscribe." He chooses cumbersome terms for describing the opposing
    outlooks (the "Spartan meritocracy" and the "Baroque monarchy"), but
    his focus on worldviews has the potential for shifting the usual
    debate over God's existence in an important direction--to the varying
    ways people live their lives. In practice, however, Harbour limits
    himself to a rather narrow worldview. Above all, he is concerned with
    what and how we know questions of truth and understanding. He leaves
    out a vast array of attitudes, feelings, perceptions, and beliefs that
    fall outside of knowledge--what we live by concerning love,
    relationships, our connections with the wider universe, death, what is
    right and wrong. Much of life is not ruled by knowledge, of course,
    and insofar as our worldview includes all this, Harbour misses it.

    The first worldview he considers, based on the scientific paradigm of
    rational inquiry, operates by constant "reexamination, reevaluation
    and rejection" of its assumptions and results, which continually must
    prove themselves, while the second introduces starting points that are
    elaborate and are not subject to question or testing. Religion falls
    under the second category because "all attempts to explain
    observations about the nature of the world must be consistent with, or
    subservient to, the unrevisable starting assumptions."

    Harbour presents a close argument for the greater plausibility of the
    Spartan meritocracy, concluding that "anyone who cares about truth . .
    . must be an atheist." And then he tackles the pragmatic question of
    religion's function: Has it really made life happier, more moral, and
    more meaningful? In a sustained sketch of the terrain covered each in
    his own way by the other writers, Harbour shrewdly cashes in on his
    initial definitions. The rational and constantly self-questioning and
    self-correcting worldview is essential to democracy and its ongoing
    public discussion about everything under the sun. Those disasters of
    history not explicitly tied to religion in fact still reflect starting
    points of authority and unquestionable dogma. Democracy, after all, is
    congruent with freedom, which is in turn congruent with the worldview
    that presupposes little and questions everything. "Democracy proceeds
    by one set of principles. Religion by the opposite." Atheism is "one
    of the natural allies" of democratic societies.

    Taken collectively, the writing of the new atheists offers a set of
    promising ideas. Harris, for all his negative energy, provides a
    potentially rich idea about mysticism, as cultivated in Eastern
    religions, as a "rational enterprise." In Buddhism, he argues,
    reaching beyond the self has been carefully and closely described and
    need not be left to faith but may be empirically studied. Baggini's
    rejection of dogma and militancy on all sides is not only refreshing
    but intellectually important; Wielenberg talks about the possible
    contribution of neuroscience to a future secular ethics. But by far
    the most important idea contained in these books is Harbour's effort
    to cast the discussion as a matter of worldviews.

    As Alan Wolfe points out, the newly revitalized religions have made
    next to no changes on the doctrinal level. But they have modified
    their practices, appeals, and attitudes in a more accepting and
    nurturing direction, creating a new sense of community. This is more
    than a matter of marketing; it involves living one's faith and meeting
    people's needs. Atheists have much to learn from this. If the appeal
    of atheism relies on arguments or it casts itself as a messenger
    bearing cold hard truths, it will continue to fare poorly in today's
    world. For secularists, the most urgent need is for a coherent popular
    philosophy that answers vital questions about how to live one's life.
    As McGrath points out, classical atheists were able to provide this,
    but no more. A new atheism must absorb the experience of the twentieth
    century and the issues of the twenty-first. It must answer questions
    about living without God, face issues concerning forces beyond our
    control as well as our own responsibility, find a satisfying way of
    thinking about what we may know and what we cannot know, affirm a
    secular basis for morality, point to ways of coming to terms with
    death, and explore what hope might mean today. The new atheists have
    made a beginning, but much remains to be done.

    Ronald Aronson is Distinguished Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies
    at Wayne State University. A contributor to The Nation and the Times
    Literary Supplement, he is the author, most recently, of Camus and
    Sarte: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel that Ended It
    (University of Chicago Press, 2004).

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