Book Review – Atheism Reclaimed

jhp537a416c9763cWhile my blog posts are usually exclusively egocentric rants about what I think, today I want to share some thoughts on a newly published book that I think you should buy. It is Atheism Reclaimed by Patrick O’Connor. It is available on Amazon and also has a website.

If you’ve read other posts, you might find it odd that I would recommend a book about how to be a better atheist, being a theist. However, my opinion on atheism is that if you’re going to do it, you should do it properly, considering what it really means to move away from religion when you are thrown into a historico-political situation that has been determined by religion since its inception; it can’t be as simple as not assenting to God’s existence.

However, there aren’t many places for atheists to go for help in this. The debates around New Atheism have already exhausted themselves. While figures like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens managed to bring atheism into public discussion in a different way than before, I don’t think I’m being controversial in saying it was insufficiently radical to do anything but wind people up. It does not really have much to offer other than a list of justifications for being an atheist, which are superfluous given that they are primarily written for people who are already atheists.

Atheism has lost its soul; contemporary atheism is losing its vitality and it needs to reaffirm it. What is called atheism has lost vibrancy, mattering less and less. It is not relevant to understanding the nihilistic drive to destruction that is affecting all aspects of human experience from political organization, to the environment, to overpopulation.

Certainly, New Atheism has brought a new political angle to discussions of atheism, arguing that religion is not merely misguided/irrational/incorrect but a source of evil that needs to be countered, which wilfully inhibits our ability to develop into rational, moral beings, that prevents us from becoming fully and authentically human (in the sense of Humanism). But, only eight years on from the publication of The God Delusion, people, in my experience, are disenchanted with this hard-line approach, preferring to consider themselves agnostic. Even before this, the majority of the claims made by New Atheists, particularly the Dawkinist brand, are easily refuted or at least tempered by any reasonably critical thinking. Dawkins, despite being respected, is said to go “too far”, too have an odd idea of the capacities of science, and to get carried away with polemics.

However, this isn’t simply down to a lack of a decent argument against the existence of God. To put it another way, the problem is not with the negative aspect of New Atheism. Quite the contrary, and as O’Connor argues, the problem is with it’s failure to provide a positive contribution to the atheist’s life.

Atheism needs to get its house in order. The task is to give a vital and positive account of atheism. Atheism cannot simply be a negation, but must take a position in its own right with positive philosophical consequences.

To put it another way, while the distinctive feature of New Atheism compared to previous rationalist atheisms, such as that of Russell, is its political agenda, this agenda is a mere anti-theism. A political movement requires more than arguments against its enemies. It needs to contribute to life in a distinctive way. A complete atheism needs to equip the atheist with a way of life, it needs to teach one how to be atheist and how to respond to social, political and ethical problems. And, while one may want to argue that this is provided by New Atheist appeals to “humanism”, its shallow gestures to ethical systems that do not require belief in God is historically naive and does not take into account the huge weight of Nietzschean and Nietzchean philosophy criticising liberal humanism, developing a new way of understanding human existence after the death of God.

Indeed, the one thing that atheisms outside of the Nietzchean tradition have always underestimated is the covert influence of religious practices and discourses on those who believe themselves to be atheists. It is simply not enough to stop assenting to God’s existence and to treat Christian texts as indirectly offering moral wisdom, for example. It is not enough to treat religion as a naive attempt by primitive ancestors to understand the world in the absence of science. It is not enough to treat religion as something of the past, as it has not yet passed us by. It is regulative of all human choice and action whether one is explicitly religious (like me) or a self-professed atheist.

Moving beyond all this, O’Connor provides a solid contribution to the attempt to provide a radical atheism, an atheism that says and does something more than mere nay-saying. Drawing on the work of the work of many crucially important 20th Century philosophers such as Heidegger, Blanchot and Sartre, he rises to the challenge of developing a positive, existential atheism by recalling a philosophical tradition more fertile than the usually stated history that goes Spinoza > Hume > Russell > Dawkins.

Even though I am Catholic, and, as such, disagree with almost everything that O’Connor says, I recommend it to any and every atheist or agnostic who is interested in going beyond bible-basher-bashing, wanting to develop an understanding of what atheism actually demands of one. While the burden of proof may be on us theists, the burden of providing a politically-fertile meaningful way of life post-God is definitely on you! Atheism Reclaimed is a decisive step in that direction.

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