Craig and the Cheerfulness of New Atheism

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William Lane Craig has some interesting interviews with the Centre of Public Christianity. In the first interview Craig argues that New Atheists should be more downcast; he gives two provocative reasons. The first is practical – New Atheism is on the wane. The second reason is philosophical: the New Atheism implies nihilism. I believe (alas) that Craig is unduly optimistic on the first point. However, on reflection, I agree with Craig that the cheerful nihilism of the New Atheists is neither attractive nor persuasive.

Is New Atheism in Decline?

The New Atheist movement has had its share of difficulties. It has experienced bitter schisms – the dispute exchanged between traditional New Atheists and the followers of “Atheism+” puts many church schisms into context. Krauss did not fair well against Craig in their debates in Australia; Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens did not achieve more in previous encounters. Recently, Richard Dawkins has alienated some atheists with his rather insensitive tweets about Islamic culture.
Yet Dawkins’ tweets on Islam have been defended by eminently respectable figures like journalist Nick Cohen and broadcaster Stephen Fry. He remains an establishment figure – Prospect magazine declared him to be the most influential “world thinker” of 2013. His tweets might be risible, but they reach nearly three-quarters of a million people on a daily basis. New Atheism’s sole aim is to undermine the cultural respectability of religion; it is not remotely interested in cultural respectability for itself.
New Atheism’s arguments are weak and have not impressed those academics who specialise in religion. Scholars were never the New Atheist’s target audience; this is a populist movement. New Atheists target those educated in science or technology, and flatter them into believing that they have attained the highest peak of intellectual endeavour. The movement provides secularism with a large, motivated core of activists. It has also radicalised the conversation about religion so much that an atheist can seem reasonable simply by acknowledging that Jesus of Nazareth was an historical figure and that insults have no place in civil discourse.
So, Alan de Botton can now begin a book about faith by asserting that “of course no religions are true” and yet appear open-minded simply because he does not find “any pleasure in laying bare the idiocy of believers in remorseless detail.” Thanks to the rhetoric of Dawkins and Krauss, such shameless, thoughtless, narrowed-minded secularism can appear to be the very paradigm of rationality. For all these reasons, New Atheism remains a significant movement, and I suspect that its effects will be felt for a generation or more.

Are New Atheists Too Happy?

Craig laments that the New Atheists have thoughtlessly abandoned the existential despair of their forefathers. Sartre, Nietzsche and Camus all made a powerful case for despond; yet, on the face of things, a New Atheist could simply respond that there’s no point in wallowing in our 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. This is the “cheerful nihilism” endorsed by Monty Python. As the hero of the The Life of Brian, through no fault of his own, dies on a cross he sings “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”.

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

So, in the face of suffering, we should just give a little whistle. If there is no God, there is no purpose or meaning to our lives. There is no point in lamentations; ultimately, no one will care who suffered or why.
Such cheap, cheerful nihilism is morally and rationally bankrupt, and Craig is right to call the New Atheists out on this point. It is fashionable to be sacrilegious and it is easy to laugh with Brian’s companions on their bloodless crosses. A moment’s reflection, a brief glance through the history books, reveals critical problems with the mind-set. Would we ask the mothers to take a bow before their executions in the Pripet Marshes and at Babi Yar? Would we tell the children to give the audience a grin as they march to the ovens of Sobibor and Treblinka?

 The Point Is…

Craig is correct: the injustices of the world are too terrible to tell, so we must choose between despair and hope. The choice is important, for we seek more  than the absence of suffering. We deeply desire significance, purpose and worth. We know that we will face death and ask “am I happy with how I lived? What did I achieve? What difference did I make?”
If we can give the right responses to these questions, we are not merely happy: we are what the Bible calls “blessed”. Being “blessed” goes far beyond enjoying life. If a person is blessed it is simply a fact that his life has been worthwhile. Whether he enjoyed his experience or not he has achieved something good with his life. A blessed life is a significant life. It is a life that has had meaning and purpose. Indeed, there are very few lives that do not have some blessing in them. We bring new life into the world and nurture it. We love and nurture others, sometimes strangers, sometimes even our enemies.
But if atheism is true what is all that worth? In the long run, what have we achieved with our acts of kindness? Eventually the stars will die, and all memory will die with them. We are headed for something rather more deadly than death: we are destined for oblivion. If there is ultimately nothing but particles in fields of force, then all our kindness will add nothing to the universe in which we live. We might enjoy our acts of kindness, or attach meaning to them. But so what? The universe doesn’t care. Particles and forces won’t remember what we valued.
We naturally seek purpose and meaning. There needs to be some direction for us to follow, or life is just a random walk. But meaning and purpose come from without, not within, physical processes. It is the author who puts sentences into a particular order and thereby gives them meaning. It is the engineer who arranges parts and so determines the purpose of the machine. So if we want a purpose we are going to have to look beyond our world. Humanity is so small and so impermanent that we cannot provide that source of value ourselves. We cannot create a source of meaning in our randomly selected values.
Meaning is given by others, and we need an “other” who can give the whole human race a purpose. We also need a source of value that can make our lives worthwhile. And we need this purpose and value to be good and to have fundamental significance. God is the author of our lives and the cosmos, giving both a purpose. He is the source of everything else that exists, so he defines significance. Having been crucified, God the Son has suffered for us and with us. Having been raised from the dead, he has shown that injustice and suffering do not have the final word. God spoken in the Gospel, and he gives us a rational hope.

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