If the label “new atheists” has been accorded to a fistful of polemicists who set out to counter in-your-face religion with in-your-face atheism, then Ronald Aronson must qualify as something different: a new new atheist perhaps.
This is slightly odd, because it is Mr. Aronson, a professor of the history of ideas at Wayne State University, who is often considered to have given life to the “new atheists” label, in a long, thoughtful review he wrote for Bookforum in 2005.
In the end, of the books by seven authors that Mr. Aronson was reviewing there, only “The End of Faith,” by Sam Harris, which Mr. Aronson criticized for “intolerance” and “zealotry,” emerged as a best seller in the wave of take-no-prisoners new-atheist books. Mr. Aronson proposed that neither it nor the other books under review provided “the most urgent need” for secularists today: “a coherent popular philosophy that answers vital questions about how to live one’s life.”
A “new atheism must absorb the experience of the 20th century and the issues of the 21st,” he wrote. “It must answer questions about living without God, face issues concerning forces beyond our control as well as our own responsibility, find a satisfying way of thinking about what we may know and what we cannot know, affirm a secular basis for morality, point to ways of coming to terms with death and explore what hope might mean today.”
“Living Without God” (Counterpoint, 2008) is now the title of Mr. Aronson’s own effort to provide such a popular philosophy. It is meant to take up, he writes, where books like “The End of Faith” leave off.
Mr. Aronson makes a good argument that Americans are far more secular or at least less religious than is often recognized. But, he says, contemporary secularism has lost the buoyant confidence it once gained from “its essential link to the idea of Progress, which promised so much and came to such grief during the 20th century.”
“To live comfortably without God today,” he says, “means doing what has not yet been done namely, rethinking the secular worldview after the eclipse of modern optimism.”
Indeed, “religion is not really the issue, but rather the incompleteness or tentativeness, the thinness or emptiness, of today’s atheism, agnosticism and secularism. Living without God means turning toward something.”
For Mr. Aronson, that “something” is not the ideal of an autonomous individual striding confidently into the dawning future but the drama of an interdependent humankind embedded in complex systems of forces, knit into networks of natural environment, historical legacies, social institutions and personal relations.
From this larger story of interdependency, he draws a ground, not surprisingly, for responsibility and morality: a recognizable left-of-center commitment to collective struggle against “domination, inequality and oppression, rooted in scarcity.”
More originally, he argues that this interdependence should summon gratitude gratitude “for,” even if not “to.” Giving thanks, he recognizes, has been central to religion, and secular culture needs to be enriched with an equivalent.
Mr. Aronson’s is not the only recent example of a new new atheism. “The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality” (Viking, 2007), written by André Comte-Sponville and translated from the French by Nancy Huston, is another.
Like Mr. Aronson, Mr. Comte-Sponville is a philosopher, and though his book includes a critique of classic proofs for God’s existence, he is similarly less interested in battling religion than in explaining the basis of a nonreligious life. He does not hesitate to avow that much of what he is and does, “even my way of being an atheist,” bears the imprint of the Roman Catholicism to which he adhered through adolescence.
Where Mr. Aronson is sturdy Jewish rye, Mr. Comte-Sponville is Gallic croissant: personal, conversational, charming, quick with phrases like “Christian atheist,” “cheerful despair” and “atheistic mysticism.” From the notions of immanence and immensity, he coins “immanensity”; he melds eternity and nullity into “eternullity.”
In considerable detail, he explicates his own immersion in the kind of “oceanic feeling” that a perplexed Freud discussed at the beginning of “Civilization and Its Discontents.”
It occurred during a nighttime walk with friends in a familiar forest, the starry night and surrounding trees suddenly erasing all cares, fears and boundaries, suddenly transporting him into a state of timelessness and bliss, a plenitude of reality rendering both life and death inconsequential.
It is fascinating how closely this resembles experiences that many believers have described as their gateway to religious faith. Yet for Mr. Comte-Sponville it removed all need of dogma, hope, eternity, salvation, “even the longing for God.”
Sharp-eyed philosophers may locate loose joints in the arguments of these books. Theologians may be more intrigued by how thin a line divides the outlooks of these new new atheists from things many serious believers hold.
Unfortunately, Mr. Aronson’s book, although rich in references to the French left-wing thought in which he has specialized, is devoid of any reference to contemporary theology. Living without God often seems to mean living without evangelical biblical literalism.
Likewise, Mr. Comte-Sponville’s pithy sentences sometimes wilt upon second reading or turn silly, as when he writes of losing his adolescent faith: “Such freedom! Such responsibility! Such joy!” Such exclamation points!
Mr. Aronson himself, in an interview last month, praised Mr. Comte-Sponville’s book, despite his own reservations about terms like “spirituality” and his own emphasis, in “Living Without God,” on social responsibility and political action.
“I want everyone to have opportunities to explore the spiritual dimensions Comte-Sponville talks about,” he said. But “his elucidation, I fear, takes flight from all the things we must do to make the world a decent place.”
Mr. Comte-Sponville does address one political question, of the broadest sort. While he has no doubt that individuals can live without religion he is, after all, a happy atheist whether societies can live without religion, he feels, is a more complex matter.
Some societies, of course, do. Which is why these two exercises in the new new atheism should be joined with a discussion of Phil Zuckerman’s new book on Sweden and Denmark, “Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment” (New York University Press, 2008) in a future column.