A Note On Atheism and Character


This essay by Michael Nath first appeared in New Welsh Review, Issue 98

I was talking to some people in my novel class the other day, and the motifs winning by losing and losing by winning came up. ‘Give us an example,’ said a fella called Paraguay, and out leaped the words, ‘One way or the other, isn’t it the story of the soul?’ Now if I’d mentioned A Tale of Two Cities and Doctor Faustus as examples, fair enough, but the students were not pleased to hear the word soul, and Nick Paraguay declared he hadn’t come along for religious instruction. On the way home, I heard a couple of young women discussing religion. Neither of them believed in anything, right? That much they promised each other.

In younger people, atheism may have a positive value. The history of Western atheism in the nineteenth century is one of moral integrity, and intensity. If you think scientific progress is its only cause, you are missing the stimulus to discover truth for oneself that comes from within Christianity. This is why Bishop Tikhon in Dostoevsky’s The Devils tells Stavrogin that the atheist is on the next rung of the ladder below the believer he may become (and also a rung above the believer he may have been). Atheism is better than indifference, or belief that is weak. And it’s why the mystic Father Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov warns the monks, ‘Do not hate atheists […] for many of them are good, especially in our time.’ Friedrich Nietzsche, who sometimes gets taken as the skipper of atheism, actually thought it was Christianity’s love of truth that caused the crisis of faith, so that the conscientious Christian had to become atheistic. Let’s suppose that the crisis isn’t over, and that the atheism of the young is still good, because it is conscientious.

But there’s another kind of atheism, and this kind is negative. Its proponents are middle-aged men, who are probably trying to regain their youth. Ad hominem? Come on! D’you think you can isolate the attitude from the hair graft? You don’t find women of the same age making such a pose of non-belief, so this is clearly a problem of masculinity and would be quite funny – if only these men didn’t get taken pretty seriously. Their governor is called Richard Dawkins.

Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene (1978) was an explanation for the lay reader of Darwinism at the level of genetic activity, and a good book too, since Dawkins was here writing of something he knew about. Through natural selection, genes perpetuate their own survival by means of animal life: the animal is the ‘survival machine’ of the gene over successive generations. The human individual has no special place in such a scheme and indeed Dawkins declared that his interest was solely in behaviour, not psychology, or consciousness. No souls for the zoologist. To Dawkins, human existence was interesting only in terms of its species quality. Yet this book couldn’t help resorting to figures of conscious human purpose to illustrate blind genetic processes, and in doing this The Selfish Gene was admitting that a purely genetic or natural account is inadequate for human needs.

In a recent book, The God Delusion (2006), Dawkins seems to be taking revenge on the existence of these needs, arguing that the existence of God (or gods) is a delusion of which rational people have no requirement, and that religion deserves no more respect than totalitarian propaganda. Dawkins’ understanding of a fully-rational person is of one who has had his/her ‘consciousness raised’ by Darwin, though ‘raised’ is not an apt description of the consciousness that expresses itself in this book, whose tone is like that of the boy who yelled, ‘The emperor is wearing no clothes!’, and continued yelling the same thing long after that sovereign had sped back to the palace and dressed. Speaking the truth is not compatible with obsession, which tends to reduce and harden consciousness, rather than raise it.

It’s sometimes pointed out that modern science and its exponents have acquired imperializing habits, and in The God Delusion, such habits are conspicuous. Like many a colonialist, Dawkins has no real understanding of areas other than his own. His hypothesis that culture functions quasi-genetically, so that you can compare ideas (‘memes’) to genes, makes Dawkins’ own discipline the model for everything; but anyone with knowledge of theology, philosophy, history or literature should be concerned by how superficially Dawkins takes over their area. And you may ask how he’d respond if you lectured him on zoology, the way he lectures you on Shakespeare, Kant, Hitler, the Bible, having gathered most of your ideas from websites, chums and secondary sources.

My own suspicions were roused early on by his attitude towards the religious utterances of scientists such as Einstein, which he tolerates because they are ‘purely metaphorical [and] poetic’. With its implication that poetic language is somehow subordinate to the language of fact, this shows that Dawkins understands language principally as an instrument of objectivity. This is a limited understanding. For language may also reveal things; and it may constitute things. To quote Charles Taylor, ‘The God of Abraham exists for us […] because he has been talked about, primarily in the narrative of the Bible.’ Elsewhere, Dawkins refers to God as the ‘most unpleasant character in all fiction’. This is meant dismissively, because Dawkins underestimates fiction. I shall return to this point below, but here I’d like to say something about the bullying quality of Dawkins’ rationalism.

It was demonstrated when the BBC’s Newsnight invited Professor Dawkins and Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to a five-minute debate on science and religion. The issue was miracles, and the Professor wanted to talk factually about them and the Archbishop would not. Such television is on the side of the factual man as opposed to the spiritual man, who may emerge from the debate seeming to have spouted some most reverend mumbo jumbo about ‘breaches’ in the laws of nature at miracle time. But the Professor thinks of language as a ‘tool’ for making things clear, willy-nilly; while the Archbishop has, I would guess, a keen sense of what else may be done, and not done, with language, in television debates and elsewhere, and moreover of what may happen in language as distinct from being done with it; and my own feeling was that he faced down a small but nipping dog with the composure of a postman who cannot get through the gate quite yet, but will deliver the mail however long it takes him. The debate also put me in mind of a magnificently-titled chapter in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities (1930), namely, ‘Science smiling into its beard, or first full-dress encounter with Evil.’

Here, Musil (himself a trained scientist, so he wasn’t writing from prejudice) reflects on the spirit in which modern science destroys various illusions by objective and rational techniques. We are used to thinking (or being told to think) of this spirit as impartial and impersonal, but Musil pictures it with a beard and a smile, dry, ironic, malicious; and each illusion it destroys brings this smile to its face. It’s the smile of the man who tells you ‘there must be a perfectly rational explanation’ whenever you report a spiritual or uncanny experience. Musil’s conception of science relates it to the hunter and the merchant, who kill, gather and accumulate without sentimentality. Science kills by the accumulating of facts, and what it kills is ‘sublimity’. Our illusions compose our sense of the sublime; science destroys them with measurements. Does destruction of this kind create something new, or does it leave us with nothing? When Dawkins explains religion as a Darwinian ‘misfiring’, he thinks to have destroyed its value in the same breath as he has explained its cause. This is an instance (no pun intended) of what philosophers call a ‘genetic fallacy’. But can science really understand value? For value (or meaning), is in the individual and the particular, the human and psychological, not the genetic, nor the cosmic. It is subjective. And can science understand that we may vitally need illusion (a word Dawkins dishonours by calling it ‘delusion’, with the implication of ‘mistake’).

In what sense(s) may we need illusion? And are we stupid if we do so? The answer to the first question is, ‘Because life may be meaningless without illusions’. The kind of person who needs illusions, Nietzsche described with the word ‘naive’. He did not mean that word disparagingly. At one time, the naive man believed there were gods on Mount Olympus. It made life explainable and gave meaning to events. Was he stupid to believe in the gods, stupider than we are?

It may depend on what you mean by ‘believe’. There’s a kind of believing that is close to imagining. Children do it, adults do it as well. Primitive cultures do it, so do advanced ones. It’s a kind of pretend believing, or make-believe. A philosopher called Kendall Walton has much to say about this. Make-believe is a game, in which one pretends to experience real things, events, monsters, animals, people. To call make-believe a ‘game’ may seem to trivialize it, when compared with the world of facts and reality; but this is to assume that the world of make-believe, which is the world of fiction, is a junior relation of the factual world, as if the factual world has grown up, and we’re all now in long trousers. Instead, what if the difference between story and fact had been appreciated from the beginning? Then there would be nothing backward or childish about making-believe; it would be a kind of agreement to play a certain game rather than not play it – as opposed to playing a certain game rather than growing up.

Religion itself may be a game of this sort, with God as an imagined character, a vital illusion. Indeed another philosopher, Hans-Georg Gadamer, has suggested that religious faith can only be comprehended and experienced as a game – a game that abounds in meaning as soon as it is played, and in which the boundary between play and reality is dissolved by playing; so that which is played at is.

To repeat a point made above, whoever has been imagined, spoken of, revered, is. Atheists will have less difficulty with this if, for the God of Abraham, they substitute ‘Hamlet’, ‘Jane Eyre’, ‘Natasha Rostov’, ‘Sherlock Holmes’. For the contention that literary character does not exist or have being is hard to support. The characters of Shakespeare may be more vivid (= ‘lifelike’) to us than anyone we actually know. We may compare people we know to those characters so as to understand them – or like them better (eg, ‘our Dad carries on just like Lear’). We use forms of the verb ‘to be’ about literary characters (eg, ‘Hannibal Lector’ is my hero), and in doing so, we attribute being to them. We attend to characters as to each other, because they seem to have consciousness, and souls. Often, we can’t wait to get home so we can see how they are getting on in the book we left on the chair. They are vital illusions. The theoretical person will say, ‘But they are only made of words after all!’ That person resembles the atheist. They think that statements of fact are also explanations of meaning or value. They aren’t.

As a novelist, my main concern is with character and what you might call its degree of being. In my latest book, British Story, the protagonist, Kennedy, is a failed academic. Part of the reason for his failure is that he believes that characters are as real as persons. His work revolves around Sir John Falstaff, Shakespeare’s fat knight. Now anyone with experience of academic literature departments will have some idea of how silly Kennedy’s work sounds to the sophisticates who populate such places; and it’s suggested that Kennedy might be better off with religion than English Literature. But one day, Kennedy encounters a green-eyed Welshman, Arthur Mountain, and in Arthur Mountain he finds his church; he finds Falstaff as well.

When Mr Paraguay ticked me off for giving the class religious instruction, I said, ‘Well in this class, our religion is the novel.’ The characters of the novel are not far off the gods, though they knock about chiefly among us. If you disagree, Richard Dawkins will give you the number to report a case of indoctrination.

Click here for more details on British Story.

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