Thursday, 4 December 2014

Atheist Reformation

My short but violent road to renouncing my ideological commitment to neo-atheism was not an easy one. I didn't like it for a long time, & then once my experiences & education forced me to accept it, I sought some way to make a compromise, but there was precious little compromise to be had. Ultimately, I had to abandon it wholesale. My atheism is now nothing more that a shallow grave where the part of me that could have had faith in something is buried.

Neo-atheism isn't just a disavowal of the currently-popular organised religions, any more than being an anarchist merely requires not voting for major political parties. It is a repudiation of the very possibility of these ideas, in much the same way an anarchist resists the very possibility of centralised government. Neo-atheism is a reaction against the very notion of faith, the possibility of extending possibility to anything that isn't physically measurable. I never understood the hold-outs who expressed some kind of "agnosticism." I regarded it to be some kind of ideological or metaphysical bet-hedging, but in reality it's just atheism without the zealotry.

Now I'm left with faith in nothing but the measurable, the visible, & the narrowly possible. In essence, the domains of the physical sciences. There is no wonder here, no possibility, no real cause for hope. "Maybe there's something wondrous out there?" The atheist ponders, staring into the vacuum of space in a crude aping of spiritual rapture - seeking hope in the most hostile, anti-human environment outside of an active volcano - all the while unavoidably reflecting on their own inability to think beyond such a limited scope of potential, & pretending this limitation makes them superior. This is little different to the priest who take a vow of celibacy, & fashions this lost element of their humanity as a sign of superior dedication. And it is! It is a symbol of their dedication to God, & the ideals that He represents. What is the atheist sacrificing their faith in service to? What kind of dedication are they enacting?

For me, I guess it was mostly that I wanted to be dedicated to something, but faith is embarrassing when you've the limited imagination of the materialist. Things that don't make material sense are, after all, "magic" - stories for children. I didn't want to be a children. Also, as a reactionary progressive by nature, the stale conservatism of Christianity was a serious turn-off. Community itself was also never an attraction to me. Nevertheless, I longed for metaphysics, without even knowing what the concept meant.

Unfortunately, "more physics" is by far the least uplifting, enlightening, spiritual, or interesting form of metaphysics humanity has come up with. Only the dustbowl marriage of liberal capitalism to its corpse bride of scientistic Enlightenment could birth such a bankrupt understanding of the universe. And sure enough, as explained by James Hennessy in this Jacobin article more expertly than I could have, the interests of liberal capitalism & neo-atheism align almost in spite of themselves. What matters is not that Sam Harris is a bloodthirsty sociopath, or that Dwakins is a simpleton, or that Hitchens was as eloquent an apologist for imperialist authority as Kissinger. What matters is that their core beliefs - their total lack of faith in anything grander than dirt - is like a waterslide that, scrabble though they might, inevitably dumps them into a materialistic brutality.

Whatever good intentions these men might have, whatever the good character of ideological neo-atheists or militant anti-theists or whatever you want to call them, your metaphysical beliefs - what you place your faith in - is what protects you from the brutish & hollow realities of a universe governed by selective forces, by energy reacting to simple laws, by meat things rubbing up against each other.

I no longer have much truck with criticising the fundamental metaphysics of others. Their politics, sure, but even when I can see those politics stemming directly from their metaphysical assumptions - as is the case with Hitchens, Dwakins, et al - challenging those beliefs is a waste of time. Beyond that, a war over metaphysics is a permanent war, it's a war on a certain type of person, not a particular belief or a resource or some political grievance. I prefer to keep conflicts as specific as possible. Political struggles are difficult enough without expanding their scope outwards to include more or less everything of substance about a person.

So then why am I doing so right now, in this very post? Because these are my beliefs. Atheism, for better or worse, is my metaphysic - an empty hole where my faith should be. It is my religion, & I will criticise its doctrines as I see fit, with the righteous zeal of any True Believer. Not merely because I'm allowed to, but because to do so is my responsibility. No one properly understands the hollow emptiness of atheism without fully accepting it into their heart. Without living it, without letting it form the basis for your understanding of every thing, you have no basis to critique it to the depth that I can. It is, at its core, utterly nihilistic - it preaches that with our deaths, everything about our selves will be permanently extinguished, that we are nothing more than animated meat, following a series of biological impulses, chemical reactions, & physical laws.

There's a profound self-hate to this doctrine, an automatic misery that applies to all aspects of life that most of us cope with by simply pretending it isn't there. Some take solace in their intellectual superiority, like a priest taking pride in his willpower to abstain from sex. Others use what I call the YOLO Doctrine, which is to simply live this life to the Max & pretend that when death comes, they won't be gripped with the Fear. This is no ordinary fear, either. This is the despairing, immiserating Fear of oblivion that moved Lovecraft to write his Cthulian horrors - implacable & unknowable, a direct repudiation of the rationalist order that the Enlightenment respected above all else, & which justifies the neo-atheists in their lack of metaphysical imagination. The absolute nothingness of non-material existence.

No matter how much you learn about the materials of the universe, no matter how far you look into the cosmos, no matter how deep into the space between particles or into the possibilities of mathematics you go, you can never reach beyond the Cthulian nightmares occupying the darkness beyond What You Can Know. They represent oblivion, the inescapable final destination for the death-cultists of the New Atheism. Dwakins derides the Christian God as a "god of the gaps", as it were, as the convenient filler explanation for any uncertainty. Because Dwakins is an idiot, & his fellow atheists are also idiots, we fail to understand: as you stare into the nothingness of those gaps, the nothingness stares back into you. Christians aren't afraid of ignorance, they're afraid of becoming monsters. They're afraid of becoming Atheists.

Nietzsche foretold our coming, & he saw in us a chance to rise above the weaknesses of Christianity's compassion & privileging of the weak. So far, as the guiding metaphysicians of Western imperialism, we atheists have done our job well. We chase child-molesting pastors with an Inquisitorial glee, all the while indifferently dropping cluster-bombs on children & drowning refugees in the ocean, knowing full well no higher authority will ever hold us to account. It is no coincidence that Sam Harris' atheism lets him talk calmly about turning Saudi Arabia into a bowl of glass - that is what his beliefs have conditioned him to do. For the atheist, death is the great equaliser, its inevitability divorcing it from any possibility of tragedy. It is an escape from responsibility, not an arrival at judgment. It is also, perhaps most distastefully, what allows our leaders to commit these atrocities with their mouths full of scripture. In a secular society, there is nothing to fear from religious heresy.

With no God to judge us, nothing is true, & everything is permitted. So we sit in our tiny secular universe, devoid of wonder or possibility, reflecting on horrors from the mechanised hell of the Holocaust, to the destructive wizardry of nuclear weapons, to the clinical terror of long-range missile strikes, to the detached banality of drone assassinations, and we wonder - why are things so awful? Why can't we address climate change? Why do all these religious people hate us so much? Why am I so depressed even though I did everything I was supposed to do? There are holes in us that no amount of sugary foods or internet pornography or exquisitely-produced melodrama can fill.

The most chilling part of this ignorance is its genuineness, which I can attest because I feel it too. I don't feel like, in order to be moral, I need the guidance of some higher being threatening me with punishments or tempting me with rewards. The thing is, though - and this is something Christians can't really say, so I'll say it for them - you do. You clearly do, because your behaviour is monstrous beyond anything committed in the history of time. The scale on which we deal death is quite literally without parallel, and it scarcely seems to register with us at all. For the atheist, death is a terrifying inevitability, & we don't want to think about it, so we don't. For the atheist, killing an "insurgent" via a video game attached to a killer robot is, ultimately, just turning a clock forward 10, 20, 40 years. Death comes for us all - you'd like it to be later rather than sooner, but beyond that...we're all just dust, on a long enough timeline.

It takes concepts like ensoulment & divine judgment to make us think of anything beyond that, and these are concepts that you can't internalise simply on the basis of utility. Sure, they might be useful from a cultural perspective - I pontificate as my democratically elected leader sends my fellow Australians to Iraq to kill brown people I know nothing about - but that doesn't restore my ability to be spiritual or whatever. That nerve cluster was long ago severed & cauterised in the searing-hot rhetoric of the neo-atheist writers who oversaw my intellectual awakening. So what am I supposed to do now?

I honestly don't know, but at the very least we need to confront the reality: secular atheism has left us morally bankrupt, entirely at the mercy of imperialist forces of capitalist materialism & scientistic rationalism. The wonder is stripped from our lives & replaced with plastic toys & bright murder simulators, & anything more meaningful than negative gearing is met with the weary disinterest of people who truly believe they are headed to an inescapable oblivion either way, where everything they care about will vanish to such a totalising extent they can't even imagine it. It's time we confronted, honestly, the reality of our terrifying death-driven metaphysic, & give some serious intellectual effort to a Reformation of our own.