A Kinder, Fuzzier Atheism

Article ID: JAR1315 | By: James Patrick Holding

This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume31, number5 (2008). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org

Recent literature advocating atheism has not been noted for cordiality. Works by Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins offer pugnacious, if not particularly well-informed, critiques of religious belief. Even their titles (such as Hitchens’s god Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, and Dawkins’s The God Delusion) bespeak an attitude that sees religion in a wholly negative light. Readers interested in a less combative treatise on behalf of atheism will, therefore, welcome French philosopher Andre Comte-Sponville’s The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality.

Reminiscent of other “little” volumes like William Bennett’s Book of Virtues, Comte-Sponville’s book is intended to summarize what the author perceives to be the advantages of atheism, in a cordial and nonthreatening manner. Comte-Sponville’s tone is conversa­tion­al and even-handed, and he indicates that he sees “no reason to take faith away” (p. 10) from anyone if they are content with their religious beliefs or “live better” (11) because of them. He regards most religions as “worthy of respect” (11) and rejects what he calls “nihilistic barbarism,” (25) which calls for the demolition of all values. He also regards his atheism as an “opinion” he holds (70) rather than a conviction.

Comte-Sponville’s publication record is reminiscent of Bennett’s in other ways. He has authored other “little” books, including A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues and The Little Book of Philosophy. Additional titles that have appeared so far only in French include a dictionary of philosophy and a book on the morality of capitalism.

The God Arguments

Readers who expect a deep, philosophical defense of atheism in The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality will come away disappointed. Comte-Sponville spends some time on argumentation, but the bulk of his book could best be described as a “personal testimony” describing his satisfaction with atheism. It admittedly would be unfair to expect a deep defense of atheism in such a small volume, but what little Comte-Sponville does offer in terms of rational defense is not persuasive. By his own admission, he “prefer[s] not to spend a great deal of time” on theistic proofs (77) and, not surprisingly, he fails to give them their due.

For example, Comte-Sponville briefly addresses the “cosmological argument” for the existence of God, which appeals to God as a necessary “first cause” for the existence of the universe. Although he acknowledges that this proof gives him pause (82), he rejects it with a wave of the hand. “But how do we know there is an order? How do we know reason is right? What makes us think there is no such thing as the absolutely inexplicable? Why should contingency not have the last word—or the final silence? Because it would be absurd? So what? Why shouldn’t the truth be absurd?” Arguably, “So what?” could just as well represent the entirety of Comte-Sponville’s response to the cosmological argument! He does not answer the cosmological argument, but retreats to a refuge of unjustified uncertainty. He further argues that even if the cosmological argument were valid, we could not be certain of the identity and nature of the Creator. But this misses the point that regardless of the Creator’s identity, the atheist position still would be in error.

Comte-Sponville also addresses the argument that design in the universe is proof of a Creator, noting the common expression of this argument that a clock, with all of its springs and gears, would never be taken to be a product of chance. Comte-Sponville’s responses are singularly unenlightening. First, he says, “it is only an analogy: the universe is clearly not made up of springs and gears” (88). This of course is true, but many critical elements of life and the universe, such as organic cells, are far more complex than “springs and gears”! Comte-Sponville takes the analogy far too literally.

Second, Comte-Sponville points to what he calls “examples of disorder”—things like tumors or natural disasters. These, however, do not prove “disorder”—they indicate, rather, an ordered system within which something has gone awry (e.g., a tumor); or else they are natural processes to which humans fall victim because of their own error (e.g., building a city in the shadow of a known volcano). Comte-Sponville’s retort is like claiming that a gun was not designed by an intelligent being, because it is sometimes used to kill innocent people! Not surprisingly, Comte-Sponville appeals to evolution as a sufficient explanation for the appearance of design (89); however, he errs in stating that the design proof has “suffered greatly from scientific progress” (90). The reverse is true: as science has progressed since Darwin, it has encountered even greater complexity, which has rendered evolutionary explanations even more implausible.

Special Appearances

Comte-Sponville declares that he would be convinced of theism if “[God] would just appear to us” (94). He notes that he has heard believers argue that God conceals Himself; such a God he sees as “childish” and “dissembling” (95). One proper response to this is, as Comte-Sponville notes, that God does not wish to impugn our freedom to choose (96), but there is more to the argument than that. The full answer is that God has not hidden Himself. His existence is plain to see (Rom. 1). The premise that God “conceals Himself” simply means that God does not perform tricks for those who refuse to accept evidence that is sufficient as it is. It is rather one who demands more proof than is needed who is being “childish,” inasmuch as the person supposes him- or herself to be deserving of special attention from God.

More broadly, humanity lives in a way that is contrary in spirit to this demand: some argue that God ought to reveal Himself specially to us, but the act of sin—shaking a fist in God’s face and denying His moral law (reflecting one’s true desire)—amounts to a demand that God not reveal Himself, but instead leave us alone. Only the morally perfect could justly ask God for a unique personal revelation. Comte-Sponville, however, seems inclined to shift the burden to God no matter the circumstances. For example, noting the profusion of violence and vulgarity on television, he writes: “It might be objected that God is not responsible for our TV programs, and this is true. But he is credited with having made humanity, and humanity is responsible for TV ratings and programs” (121–22). It is difficult not to suspect a “childish” spirit in commentary like this. One may as well blame Henry Ford for all accidents involving Ford vehicles.

Comte-Sponville says little else in terms of evidential arguments. He does not address such issues as biblical reliability or the resurrection of Jesus; instead, he is content simply to note the existence of competing claims of revelation and remark on the purported difficulty of deciding which one is valid (72). To that extent, Comte-Sponville’s challenge to Christians is not a difficult one.

Make Mine Experience

Without God, what is the nature of the “spirituality” Comte-Sponville offers? It is a sort of mystical experience, one that requires the “dissolving of the ego” (150) and offers a sense of connection with the natural world. Comte-Sponville describes one of his own mystical experiences (155–60) in which a walk in the woods left him with a sense of “seemingly infinite happiness” and peace. His description resembles Buddhist beliefs in which the means to personal peace is to deny self and extinguish desire: he speaks of having felt “consciousness without ego, happiness without narcissism,” and of an “excess of love, passion, anxiety [and] worry” that separates us “from the absolute.” Indeed, Comte-Sponville frequently describes his experience in life in Eastern terms, such as advaita, or “nonduality,” and “be[ing] at one with the world” (168).

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Christian readers might find especially poignant Comte-Sponville’s “personal testimony,” in which he declares that he has found immense satisfaction in atheism. After abandoning the Christianity of his youth, Comte-Sponville writes, “it felt like a liberation…It was as if I had left childhood behind me, with its fantasies and fears…and entered the real world at long last—the adult world, the world of action, the world of truth, unhampered by forgiveness or Providence…I’m an atheist, and happy to be one” (5–6). There is an object lesson here for our evangelism: although there is nothing inherently wrong in using personal testimony as an evangelistic tool, the fact that someone like Comte-Sponville can produce a “personal testimony” on behalf of his atheism warns us that we also should incorporate an objective, factual aspect into our witnessing. The basis for Christian faith is the objective fact that Christ is risen (1 Cor. 15:14), not subjective feelings of freedom or joy.

Nothing Matters

Comte-Sponville’s professions of happiness with his atheism, however, raise suspicions when compared with other comments he makes. All too often, it seems that his answer to certain questions and problems is that we should not answer the question and ignore the problem. We are to convince ourselves, or simply accept, that the status quo in the atheist world is satisfactory. Thus, for example, Comte-Sponville addresses the matter of death within a materialist paradigm: death in such a scenario would amount to an end of conscious existence, a prospect many people find frightening. Comte-Sponville responds, “What frightens us is our own imagination. What reassures us is our reason. By definition, there can be nothing to fear in nothingness.” Atheists, he tells us, “accept our mortality as best we can and try to get used to the idea of nothingness. Can this actually be done? We try not to obsess about it. Death will take everything away with it, including the fear it instills in us. Life on earth is more important to us, and quite sufficient” (8–9).

It is difficult to see how this is anything other than a commendation to pretend that there is no reason for despair concerning death. To say that “there can be nothing to fear in nothingness” is to miss the point: what people fear in such a context is not nothingness in itself, but the loss of conscious existence. This is not to say that Comte-Sponville’s answer, in one sense, is inappropriate: in a universe where there is no assurance of life after death, putting the best face on the matter may be a viable alternative for preserving one’s happiness, if not one’s sanity. As Comte-Sponville puts it, “You only live once. Is that any reason to spoil the single life you have?” (54). The Bible expresses the same sentiment, in the same context of despair: “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’” (1 Cor. 15:32 NIV). But this also would be, for the professing atheist, a morbid hypocrisy. Comte-Sponville’s solution amounts to keeping ourselves busy with experiences so that we can avoid facing the inevitable—as well as avoid thinking about our own inconsistencies.

To this extent, Comte-Sponville reminds the reader less of William Bennett and more of self-help guru Wayne Dyer. Comte-Sponville lacks Dyer’s presuppositions concerning the ability of thought to control reality, but his mystical identification of human beings with the world, and his means of resolving the despair of nihilism simply by acting as though there were nothing to be nihilistic about, is highly reminiscent of Dyer’s commendations to send away problems by rewriting one’s agreement with reality.

Moral Matters

Comte-Sponville’s solution for humanity, against the threat of nihilistic barbarism, is faith—in the sense of fidelity to some binding source. He admits that religion does serve this purpose, but replies that there is no proof that “the only conceivable social bond is the belief in God” (13). The question, however, is not whether belief in God serves as the only conceivable social bond, but whether it is the only adequate social bond that will be able to serve all of humanity’s needs and to persist under criticism. A society based on atheism as a bonding mechanism has been tried—and has been shown to be a failure. Comte-Sponville disagrees; he admits the examples of Soviet Russia, Albania, and China, but claims that the results were “inconclusive” and that they “did not last long enough to make up a true civilization” (12). What perhaps should occur to Comte-Sponville here is that societies like Soviet Russia did not last precisely because of the inherent weaknesses of its ideological infrastructure.

Comte-Sponville is certainly correct to say that even atheists can uphold important values without belief in God. As many theistic philosophers have pointed out, however, in such cases the atheist is required to borrow their “moral capital” from the theistic system. Comte-Sponville even plainly acknowledges that this is what he is doing when he says, “Renouncing a God who has met his social demise….does not compel us to renounce the moral, cultural, and spiritual values that have been formulated in his name” (21). The real question is not whether atheists can uphold moral values, but whether they can do so for a sustained period in a way that satisfies consistency of worldview, and in turn provides a sound basis for continuing to preserve those values. Theists argue that God alone provides the basis required. Comte-Sponville is aware of this, but he insists that it is enough that “everything tends to prove that we need [values] in order to subsist in a way we find humanly acceptable” (22). The question immediately comes to mind, however: what compels us to decide that humanity—or certain elements of it, as might have been argued by atheistic regimes—ought to be respected? What stops this from gradually transitioning into a phase where persecution of certain groups is “humanly acceptable”? What prevents the redefinition of the word “human” to exclude specific persons, without a divinely authoritative declaration such as that in Genesis as an indication that all humans are made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26)? Nothing remains, philosophically, to stop future atheists from picking and choosing their morality. Comte-Sponville’s only apparent justification for sticking with the moral capital he has borrowed from religion is that he likes the way things are working under it, but simple preference will not be sufficient to maintain an ethical system in the long term.

This is not to say that theists are not guilty of their own horrendous offenses. Christian theists, however, do so only by operating inconsistently with their professions of faith. In order to maintain ethics, ironically, Comte-Sponville similarly says that we must operate inconsistently with what we believe; so once again, the only way to maintain the atheist system is to engage in a type of hypocrisy.

Finally, Comte-Sponville errs when he says that “fear of divine retribution,” and therefore self-interest (41–42), provide the moral basis for theism. Divine retribution may function as a form of motivation, but it is love, not fear, that is to provide the moral basis for Christian belief (cf. 1 John 4:18).

We may welcome Comte-Sponville’s contribution as a much more civil defense of atheism. Comte-Sponville, however, unfortunately has followed his less-civil predecessors to the extent that he has not supplied his worldview with the substance it needs to be a reasonable alternative to theism.

—James Patrick Holding

James Patrick Holding is President of Tekton Apologetics Ministries and editor of Shattering the Christ-Myth: Did Jesus Not Exist?