John Hobbins’ Favorite Dead Protestant Atheist

John Hobbins has an interesting post on Christopher Hitchens and the King James Bible. John says that Hitchens is his favorite living “Protestant” atheist. His favorite all time Protestant atheist is Nietzsche. It’s not clear who his favorite none Protestant atheist might be although he thinks that, “as a rule,” Jewish atheists are “the best and brightest.” John doesn’t really say why he ranks Nietzsche so high but I do think he is correct that people will be reading Nietzsche long after Hitchens is largely forgotten.
Beyond Nietzsche’s philological, philosophical and literary gravitas, I have no idea why John has such a high opinion of Nietzsche as an atheist. I’m not a mind reader. But I think “as a rule” the reason that people of faith prefer Nietzsche to those atheists more in the mold of Bertrand Russell is that Nietzsche appears saddened by the death of God while Russellque atheists like Hitchens rejoice in it. Being happy without God is something many theists just can’t quite grasp.
PS. A few years ago at a conference on Job, Ziony Zevit noted that being an atheist does not violate the central prohibition of the Judaism, the prohibition against trafficking in other gods.

7 thoughts on “John Hobbins’ Favorite Dead Protestant Atheist”

  1. Hi Duane,
    Nice of you to pick up on this. I would love to see more conversation on these topics.
    Atheism, after all, has an “image” problem, for all the reasons that Jacques Berlinerblau (another atheist, of the Chosen kind) outlined:
    http://chronicle.com/blogs/brainstorm/new-atheismthe-tea-party-reflections-on-professors-ruse-and-barash/33501
    For those on this thread who may not take the time to click through and read, I excerpt the part that targets the hangers-on of Hitch and company:
    . . . the predictable snark of New Atheist trolls. For those not familiar with their world-view, let me help you understand their central and timeless insight: Unless you as an atheist are willing to disparage all religious people, describe them all as imbeciles and creeps, mock every text and thinker they have ever produced, then you must be some sort of deluded, self-hating, sellout, subverting the rise of the Mighty Atheist Political Juggernaut (about which more anon).
    Still, I don’t want to be misunderstood. Christians of my style love Hitch, not only because our God commands us to love all human beings, however unlovable, but because Hitch is am iconoclast. He is also a Puritanical moralist in his own way, something a Calvinist like me can appreciate. In short, as noted, he is a Protestant atheist.
    Why do I prefer Nietzsche to Russell? That’s easy. Philosophy in the classical sense concerns itself with the good, the true, and the beautiful. N dealt with all three, with great insight and in conscious rebellion against the Jewish / Christian alternative. So N gives us a fair idea of what an alternative would look like. Compare and choose, I say.
    R’s idea of the good is less interesting than N’s (precisely because R’s ethics owe more to the Protestant heritage). Some find him insightful from an ethical point of view because he espoused so many high-minded causes. But it all seems predictable for a man of his education and social location.
    On the other hand, he could be a great judge of character (based on a single conversation with Lenin, R noted his “impish cruelty” and how his forma mentis was similar to that of an “opinionated professor”).
    He was also, perhaps, a good judge of his own character. He seems to have known that if everyone conducted their personal affairs as he did (he does not fall into the same despicable category as Sartre, don’t get me wrong), the world would be a shabbier place than it already is. Having and disposing of so many women in one life is possible if you have the means (Russell did), but if people in general (and more and more do) were to follow his example, without the mitigating effects of wealth, the trail of misery they would leave in their wake would be enormous (and is).
    As for aesthetics, R could think of nothing to say on the subject. Not a good sign if you ask me. No wonder he didn’t believe in God.
    As for the truth, R was highly impressed by Leibniz – the philosopher who, by dint of math and logic, determined that we live in the best of all possible worlds – precisely why I find R alarming when it comes to epistemology. Russell made a point of critiquing Wittgenstein, but the latter is a far better guide to questions of the philosophy of language.
    There we are. Just a few thoughts off the cuff.
    My working hypothesis, a self-interested one I suppose, is that you are a sedate and happy and extremely well-adjusted atheist because you a Methodist atheist. If only there were more of them.

  2. John,
    Thanks for the extended and interesting comment. As to atheism having an “’image’ problem,” exactly with whom does it have this supposed image problem? Only with those, and I admit that they are and will be for the foreseeable future in the majority, who find atheism unacceptable on dogmatic grounds. I really haven’t seen a completely satisfying study but from a few surveys, my impression is that the increasingly vocal and to some therefore obnoxious expressions of atheism has resulted in an increased general acceptance of atheism coupled with a hardening of opinion among the most dogmatic members of the believing community. At a minimum, it has resulted in more closeted atheists coming out. If either of these are the case, from my perspective this is on balance a good thing. A bad “’image’ problem” among certain elements of society may well be the first, best, sign of changing conventional wisdom.
    Just for the record, of the major public atheists, I prefer Dennett. I find him the clearest and best thinker of the lot and the one who makes the fewest mistakes when it comes to history and theology. This is not all that surprising because he is the only philosopher among the bigger names. Just for the record, of the major public atheists, I prefer Dennett. I find him the clearest and best thinker of the lot and the one who makes the fewest mistakes when it comes to history and theology. This is not all that surprising because he is the only trained philosopher among the bigger names. Yes, Sam Harris has an undergraduate degree in philosophy but his advanced training is in neuroscience. I do find Harris the second most interesting but I have more problems with some of his thinking than I do Dennett’s.
    Russell was a complex fellow. He was human. You are correct that he was far less interested, if interested at all, in “the beautiful,” than Nietzsche but he was every bit as interested in the good and the true. That his ethics may have been less interesting than Nietzsche’s is no more than a personal opinion. An opinion I share by the way. But a position being more or less interesting doesn’t make it more or less correct.
    I am somewhat amused by you attempt to relate an aesthetic and theism. I think we have traveled down a parallel path once before. I guess all I need to do is point out that, while not a major focus, Dennett has a rather well developed aesthetic with personal and philosophical interest in music and graphic art as well as literature to convince you that to give up your theistic ways. You just about can’t get through any of his public lectures him reflecting on the beautiful and his Mandel Lecture that resulted in “Memes and the Exploitation of Imagination, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 48:2 (Spring, 1990), 127-135 is an example of his published work in the field.
    You observation about me being a Methodist atheist is interesting and I think, but I can’t be sure, somewhat wrongheaded. Certainly my Methodist background colors much of both what I react against and what I embrace. It would be foolish to deny that. But I have lunch nearly every week with a small group dominated by atheists (and one deist, i.e. an atheist who worries about things that don’t really deserve much worry). We are from quite different religions backgrounds and one (not the deist) is at least a third generation atheist. We find much to disagree about but I think it would be hard to tell us apart when it comes to our beliefs in an active god or our views of religion. This same is true of the much larger group I meet with once a month or so. I am heartened that you seem to believe that a natural, in this limited case a historical, explanation of some aspect of my believe system is possible. I can only assume that you think that there is a natural explanation of yours as well. 🙂

  3. Duane,
    Thanks for the pleasant conversation, as usual. As to why atheism has an image problem, I refer you to Berlinerblau’s article, to which I link.
    Re your being a Methodist atheist: I did not intend to claim more than you yourself do: “Certainly my Methodist background colors much of both what I react against and what I embrace.”
    It would be fun to discuss the substance of the questions at hand. As you probably know, I have no problem with the theory of evolution, any more than I have issues with the theories of general and special relativity. Darwin’s friend Kingsley got it instinctively, and immediately. As John Polkinghorne puts it, what Kingsley essentially said was this: no doubt God could have snapped the divine fingers and produced a ready-made world, but Darwin has shown that God had done something *cleverer* than that, by bringing into being a creation so endowed with fruitfulness, with potentiality, that creatures could be allowed, within certain limits of course, *to make themselves* [for Kingsley’s exact words, expressed in a letter to Darwin dated 18 Nov 1859].
    Here are three arguments for the existence of God. If you need clarification, let me know:
    re the truth:
    The probability that our faculties track the truth on theistic evolution is much higher than it is on naturalistic evolution.
    On this understanding, the well-known God-proneness of the human brain, not to mention its proclivity for a host of other (for science in the experimental sense) imponderables, has a straightforward explanation.
    Background:
    http://ancienthebrewpoetry.typepad.com/ancient_hebrew_poetry/2011/02/why-all-the-fuss-about-evolution.html
    http://ancienthebrewpoetry.typepad.com/ancient_hebrew_poetry/2010/04/steven-pinkers-imponderables.html
    re the good:
    Has Kant’s moral argument for God’s existence ever been defeated? Not that I know of.
    re the beautiful:
    The probability that our faculties can distinguish beauty from ugliness on theistic evolution is much higher than it is on naturalistic evolution.
    re Daniel Dennett:
    He could be a preacher, and I mean that as compliment. Are you familiar with his debate with Alvin Plantinga? Here’s the tape:
    http://www.brianauten.com/Apologetics/Plantinga-Dennett-Debate.mp3
    P’s basic argument, as I understand it: naturalistic evolution has no tendency to select for true belief. It will only select for adaptive belief, with false conscience perhaps more adaptive than true conscience. Only theistic (guided) evolution might select for true belief, or at least privilege it. If you know of a comeback to that, let me know.
    If you wonder why intellectuals who believe in God generally have little interest in Dennett, the reason is simple: D resorts to stink bomb conclusory assertions on a regular basis: belief in God is irrational (though he agrees it is compatible with the evidence); it is a gratuitous and pernicious fantasy; it is equivalent to denying the Holocaust – an incredible insult, in particular, to theists who survived the concentration camps with their faith intact.
    But I admit that Dennett is fun. He does not avoid argument, but he prefers stories. Honestly, I have similar preferences.

  4. Well, John, I think you have outdone yourself this time. First, I am well aware of Michael Ruse’s brainstorm. I was hoping to avoid addressing it. It is the second cousin of nonsense. Ruse and the Clergy project, for that matter, focus on a subset of the true, the good and the beautiful where they must deal with many dogmatic folks who are offended by other expressions of a reasoned view of the true, the good and the beautiful. I will simply point out that the Ruses of this world wouldn’t have this problem if the views of Russellesque atheists were dominate. In so far as Ruse has a legitimate concern it is merely a political concern. And even then I think it wrongheaded. The Ruse article you linked to is particularly wrongheaded. Jason Rosenhouse’s and Mark Jones’ explain why from two somewhat different perspectives. I hate to be so “dogmatic” but this is a ugly, insulting, nonstarter if one is really interested in public discussion of the true, the good and the beautiful!
    As to your more substantive observations:
    Re: “God-proneness”
    Putting the aside manifest problems of definition as much as I can, there is certainly something in the neighborhood of what you call “God-proneness.” Until quite recently, no historical groupings of people have existed without some ideas about god, gods or some supernatural thingies. By analogy with a few artifacts and some assumptions about archaeological evidence, the same seems to be true of many, perhaps all, prehistoric human grouping too. So what? Nearly everyone is afraid of lions and tigers and that goes for those of us who have never encountered a lion or tiger in the wild. It’s a rather important artifact of evolution. My guess is that so is “God-proneness.” But other natural explanations are possible. Dennett, for example, has offered a few. The failure to find a natural explanation for “God-proneness” is just that, a failure. It may even be a failure that cannot be overcome but it is still a failure. It is not any part of a proof that there is a God or many gods, or a few demons or things that go bump in the night. If all we are talking about is political expediencies then I might agree with you at some level but I hope we are talking about more important things. Your two linked posts do nothing to help me overcome my sympathies in this regard. If anything they reinforce them.
    Re: “The probability that our faculties track the truth on theistic evolution is much higher than it is on naturalistic evolution.”
    Of course, your observation “our faculties track . . . (I’m not sure what you mean by “the truth on” here) . . theistic evolution” may well be correct but this says absolutely nothing about evolution. It only speaks to “our facilities.” For this reason we need methodologies that limit to the greatest extent possible the intrusion of “our facilities” into the inquiry. If understanding is our goal, we sure don’t need to introduce a concept, “theistic,” that contributes nothing to our understanding.
    Re: Kant:
    As you may know I have considerable sympathies for Kantian ethics. However, these sympathies are not dependent on Kantian theology. As you indicate, just the opposite is the case. But is Kant’s god really your God or any god of any religion?
    Re Daniel Dennett:
    Yeah, these days Dennett is a kind of preacher. As often happens, being a public figure and being a philosopher don’t go together all that well. From a purely philosophical perspective, I find Dennett early work better philosophy. But, in the larger scheme of things, I find his current activity more valuable. In regard to Dennett’s view of the irrationality of faith, I think he sometimes does overstate his case. I think the case against the intrusion of faith rests most firmly on the virtue of parsimony. Faith is always extra baggage in the pursuit of the truth. It may or may not be extra baggage for an individual or set of individuals as human beings whose current focus is not on the true, the good and the beautiful. In the pursuit of the truth, faith or lack of same are subjects of inquiry and not sources. I think this only becomes a serious problem when faith is the only or predominate baggage one carries into a discussion. But even benign faith, that extra unnecessary coat, publicly displayed, encourages other people to over pack big time and therefore, in my view, entails its own dangers.
    I have not heard of any set of evidence that points to the existence of a god or gods that couldn’t, at least in principle, be explained in some other way. There is certainly no set of evidence that leads to a unified view of god. If there were, we would see convergence over time with regard to a definition of god or gods that could then be judged by mundane methods as to its probability of being the case. Whether they like it or not, theists who think that their god or gods are active in the world must explain how that activity manifests itself. If the Dirac equation or even the Schrödinger equation (and a few other rather basic things) don’t cover it, and they may not, then theists much explain exactly what is missing from those equations. If one or both of these equations do encompass a god or gods’ activity in the world, theists must derive the solution(s) to these equations that indicate how a god or gods might interact with the world. Does this sound reductionist? You bet. We now have the tools that would at least bring about some degree of convergence on the issue. Let’s use them. Well, let’s let someone who is younger and won’t need to be retrained use them. 🙂 In the meantime, I plan to travel light, enjoy the trip and suggest that others do the same.

  5. Thanks for the conversation, Duane. It’s an interesting one.
    There are a number of people who read my blog off and on, theists, agnostics, and atheists alike, who would add to this discussion. It might be worthwhile to reframe it and reboot it in that context, perhaps in September.
    Re: Ruse
    I really don’t have him in mind. It’s Berlinerblau I had in mind (one of our guild, in the broad sense). B knows his stuff. I remain convinced that B’s criticisms of New Atheists are square on.
    For all I know, Ruse is as “worthless” as your links make him out to be – however, the bash ’em good style of the New Atheist bloggers you cite is a poor substitute for careful argument. Give me that old time atheism, the literate, considerate kind (Ivan Karamazov comes to mind; true, he is the creation of a Christian mind, but that just goes to show ….).
    I keep up on Berlinerblau, not Ruse.
    Re Kant
    Kant is being taken seriously as a theist again. It is too limiting to think of him as a deist, and he was certainly not an atheist. But, to understand this, one has to think in terms of a priori principles. Kant not only ruled them in, he founded his approach to ethics as duty based on a priori principles.
    Introductory links:
    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-hume-morality/
    http://www.hkbu.edu.hk/~ppp/srp/arts/KALG.html
    re: explanation of things without recourse to a God hypothesis
    I agree with you: “I have not heard of any set of evidence that points to the existence of a god or gods that couldn’t, at least in principle, be explained in some other way.”
    Indeed, if that were *not* the case, belief in God would be compulsory. And compulsory belief is in contradiction with the notion of a God who creates free agents who can go either way on the following:
    There is (is not) an author of all that is, who embodies love, truth, justice, and beauty at one and the same time, who built order and intelligibility into “the works of his hands,” the ability to self-assemble (literally, we now know, not just metaphorically).
    Said author, furthermore, is (is not) the judge or criterion of human choices, choices which reflect both rights and responsibilities regardless of whether the agents who make the choices believe in those rights and responsibilities, or in the existence of a criterion beyond their own preferences.
    Some of my atheist friends tell me that they can develop moral arguments on naturalistic assumptions alone. Careful analysis, however, seems to throw this claim into doubt. As HUP says about one of its recent titles:
    Steven D. Smith’s The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse. Smith argues that public discourse has been drained of force and authenticity because religion was formally forced out but is then usually “smuggled” right back in. If we’re to remain a society that engages in profitable open discussion, Smith says, we’ll have to figure out a way to free discourse from the constraints imposed by secularism.
    I’ve read Smith; he makes his point very well.
    But then, you are another Smith who makes his points well.

  6. Congrats to your comment fire-storm! A very interesting topic to cover indeed. First I’ll gather that “atheism” here means simply “lack of belief in a deity” (ie. both agnostics and strict atheists) because the different uses of that term can confuse discussion.
    On so many levels, this alleged “atheist image problem” is a one-sided mind-maze, a contrived smokescreen to detract from the crumbling image of modern religion. Just like the “sad atheist” stereotype which the new media disproves every day with many available clips of lovable household icons like Carl Sagan and Albert Einstein who’ve promoted nothing but reverence in the beauty of our universe in a way that fundamentalists are utterly incapable of. Looks like atheists can be warm, loving, constructive, happy people afterall.
    It’s in truth the religious right that’s drowning in its own ugly trash-talking image, swaying compassionate people away from the rhetorical hate while attracting more deranged and bitter converts like never before, converts who in turn help further to drag their faith down with increasingly perverse hypocrisy. I myself got sick of the subtle women-hating and overt gay-bashing poison promoted by the religion I’m ashamed to have been raised in. A god of damnation is a god of nonsense.
    Fundamentalist Christians have ironically become the new nihilists who do nothing but wait for a sociopathic world-end while exploiting all the negative motions in people like fear and guilt. However even the more moderate Christians show a lack of commitment in these ancient beliefs, emphasizing how irrelevant, if not toxic, it all is in the modern era.
    And for that matter, to believe that atheism requires a “collectivist face” only buys into the facile good-versus-evil fights some nutters wish to fulfill artificially. Clearly atheists aren’t some organized “church of the anti-god” whose only purpose is to waste their time opposing religion. Rather we’re an unorganized group of non-worshippers who just happen to have arrived to a common conclusion based on reason. We don’t need a church to proselytize Logic because the mere success of computers that run on it does that far too well for us.
    To the contrary, what a PR nightmare for desperate religion in a webbed world of information-sharing and communication.

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