Atheist, Ensouled

I can’t help but be grateful for the so-called New Atheists. They’ve given me lots of excuses to write articles, for instance. It’s a common trope, one that I’ve been guilty of on occasion, to dismiss them out of hand as, in one way or another, deranged lunatics who don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s true that I wish they appreciated a bit more the fun and maddening complexity of lived religion—what at Killing the Buddha we call “the cacophony choir”—but the same could be said of true believers in pretty much anything. The hard-line position that they take opens up space for lots of yet-unheard views to come to the surface and suddenly seem not so bad (at least they’re not New Atheists!). And my childhood, rapt with wonder at the books of Carl Sagan and the cosmos of Gene Roddenberry, is glad that they insist, at their often-overlooked best moments and against so many who assume otherwise, that a life without God has room for beauty, purpose, and even something resembling soul.

The latest entry for your New Atheist library is Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, which I review today at The American Prospect. Thanks to an elaborate marketing campaign, the book has been reviewed just about everywhere by now, yet I’m still ambivalent about its significance. Though I enjoyed it, that’s perhaps only because I happen to be obsessed with arguments for the existence of God—my friend Gordon Haber’s very different review at the Forward has some truth to it too. In any case, Goldstein’s book is one more chance to say, as Darwin did so famously and so eloquently, “There is grandeur in this view of life.”

What is it like to be a New Atheist—one of those irascible preachers of reason, those “militant” purveyors of populist non-belief like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens? Most people don’t bother to ask, because they think they already know. Either it’s a depraved and pathetic existence, buoyed (especially in the notorious case of Hitchens) only by excessive drink or else suffused in a nearly mystical state that frees one (as it seemingly does Dawkins) enough from dogmatic noise to revel fully in the grandeur of the scientific imagination. Either way, it’s an inhuman caricature.

Few are better placed to set the record straight than Princeton-trained philosopher and novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, whose new novel tells the story of a suddenly rich and famous “atheist with a soul,” a psychologist of religion named Cass Seltzer. In the years since Dawkins’ The God Delusion set the tone for allegedly soulless atheism, writers including Ronald Aronson (Living Without God) and Greg Epstein (Good Without God) have scrambled the epithet Goldstein grants Cass. But Goldstein’s credentials to speak—through her character—for the New Atheist soul are particularly strong. She’s a friend of Dawkins, an advisory board member of Sam Harris’ Reason Project, and the wife of Steven Pinker, the New Atheists’ go-to evolutionary psychologist. Like him, she has a post at Harvard. Best of all, she’s a genius—at least according to the venerable MacArthur Foundation, which awarded her its “genius grant” in 1996. This should be a particularly important distinction among New Atheists, because what drives everyone crazy is how annoyingly brilliant they all seem to think they are.

Continue reading at The American Prospect.