Tragic Atheism

Damon Linker returns to an exchange between David Hart and Kevin Drum:

What’s most disappointing is Drum’s failure to grasp the culminating point of Hart’s essay, which, as I take it, is this: the statements “godlessness is true” and “godlessness is good” are distinct propositions. And yet the new atheists invariably conflate them. But a different kind of atheism is possible, legitimate, and (in Hart’s view) more admirable. Let’s call it catastrophic atheism, in tribute to its first and greatest champion, Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote in a head-spinning passage of the Genealogy of Morals that “unconditional, honest atheism is ... the awe-inspiring catastrophe of two-thousand years of training in truthfulness that finally forbids itself the lie involved in belief in God.” For the catastrophic atheist, godlessness is both true and terrible.

Now of course Hart would prefer that kind of tragic atheism. He’s a believer, after all. But the fact is that a number of atheists themselves have staked out a similar position.

Take the example of physicist Steven Weinberg. In his 1977 book about the earliest origins of the universe (The First Three Minutes), Weinberg stated in passing that “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless.” When some of his fellow cosmologists objected to the choice of words, accusing him of expressing, if only implicitly, some form of theological nostalgia for a non-scientific view of the world, Weinberg admitted that he is indeed nostalgic“nostalgic for a world in which the heavens declared the glory of God.” Associating himself with the nineteenth-century poet Matthew Arnold, who likened the retreat of religious faith in the face of scientific progress to the ebbing ocean tide and claimed to detect a “note of sadness” in its “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,” Weinberg confessed to his own sorrow in doubting that scientists will find “in the laws of nature a plan prepared by a concerned creator in which human beings played some special role.” When it comes to God, what Weinberg believes to be true and what he wishes to be true simply do not coincide.

The whole post is worth a read.