The New Atheism has attempted to re-brand atheism. Once upon a time, many atheists (the continental, existential type) were angry at God for not existing; God’s absence robbed the world of significance. Marxists rejected God for a monumental struggle with history. Most atheists were outraged at the great suffering in the world (Schopenhauer wished that the earth was as lifeless as the moon) and argued that a good God would never have allowed such a world. This “problem of evil” was the bedrock of atheism.
But a gloomy demeanour doesn’t sell in the modern marketplace. The New Atheists realised that a makeover was necessary before religion could be challenged as a source of meaning and hope. So some atheists have taken to labelling themselves “Brights”; no sense of despair there, then. If God doesn’t exist, we should get on with enjoying life and deciding what values we would prefer to live by. New Atheist bloggers are wild and witty (in a Python-esque way). They would rather write worship songs for a Flying Spaghetti Monster than engage with existential angst. A sort of cheerful, cheeky nihilism has been embraced, mass produced and widely distributed. The New Atheism may not be deep, but it sure is fun!
Now, New Atheists will chafe at the title “nihilist”. Nihilism sounds much too philosophical and much too gloomy. But we’re using the term in its technical, philosophical sense. A nihilist simply denies that there is any overarching purpose to our lives; they do not recognise any transcendent value that gives our existence meaning. To state it bluntly, here and now is all we’ve got. Consider the universe according to PZ Myers:
The universe is a nasty, heartless place where most things wouldn’t mind killing you if you let them. No one is compelled to be nice; you or anyone could go on a murder spree, and all that is stopping you is your self-interest (it is very destructive to your personal bliss to knock down your social support system) and the self-interest of others, who would try to stop you. There is nothing ‘out there’ that imposes morality on you, other than local, temporary conditions, a lot of social enculturation, and probably a bit of genetic hardwiring that you’ve inherited from ancestors who lived under similar conditions.
Now, you can believe that and sink into a deep melancholy; or you can rage at the absurdity of human existence; or you can just make the best of what you’ve got. There’s no point in wallowing in your own misery. After all we can just impose our own values on the world if God isn’t around to tell us we’re wrong. We can decide what gives our lives meaning. As The Life of Brian puts it:
For life is quite absurd
And death’s the final word
You must always face the curtain with a bow
Forget about your sin – give the audience a grin
Enjoy it – it’s your last chance anyhow
Now, this is mildly amusing verse, and the song has a pleasant tune. However, mild entertainment is all that cheerful nihilism can manage. It is utterly devoid of content and it lacks the courage to face the consequences of its convictions. Whether the wits like it or not, the “genetic hardwiring that [we’ve] inherited from your ancestors” gives us an insatiable hunger for meaning, purpose and redemption.
The human race suffers; an unshakeable feeling, deep in our bones, protests that the world shouldn’t be like this. So, when we experience tragedy we instinctively search for hope. The human race is as ephemeral as the universe it occupies; the stars will vanish like a vapour, and life will die with the light. So if there is hope, if there is consolation, it cannot be something that we impose on the universe. The meaning we crave cannot be created by “a lot of social enculturation, and…a bit of genetic hardwiring.”
So “cheerful nihilism” lacks integrity; if Myers and Coyne and their kin are correct, nature has played a horrible trick on us, setting us up to thirst for waters that can never be found. It would have been better if the universe had remained lifeless. Worse, their brand of nihilism has nothing to say beyond “aren’t we terribly clever and amusing!” Search their blogs for something, anything, beyond quips, complaints, insults and platitudes; it won’t take you long to read through your findings. This is the New Atheist’s greatest problem; when you believe that nothing ultimately matters, you’ll find that you have nothing worthwhile to say.
 See Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from The Exorcist to Seinfeld by Thomas Hibbs (Spence:2000)
“Pharyngula” August 24, 2009 7:25 AM