Nothing Gnu under the sun

by rightscholarship


I am often astonished at the continuing rise of what has been termed the New Atheism (anyone with an Internet connection is probably all-too-familiar with the acolytes of New Atheist writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens). I am not astonished by their challenge to God and the religious powers-that-be, but by the energy they expend fighting theism in a Western world where Christian civilization has laid in ruins for centuries.

There is a WordPress blog on the subject of New Atheism, called Shadow to Light, which I recommend. The blog keeps a close eye on developments in New Atheism, the adherents of which the blogger refers to as “Gnus” (the term is an abbreviation of “Gnu Atheists,” which is a silly title that some online atheists have adopted). The blogger also runs an Intelligent Design blog called The Design Matrix, much of which I don’t comprehend, since it deals with the intricacies of biological science. From what I can tell, the ID argument rests on a teleological conception of nature, which I find both appealing and convincing, but I’ll gladly let the ID biologists fight that fight. I will only mention that the philosopher Henry Veatch provides a powerful critique of the non-teleological conception of nature in his Human Rights: Fact or Fancy? (222-36) that might be useful.

Unfortunately, not all atheists are stodgy empiricists like the Gnus, just as not all theists are fundamentalists. A far greater intellectual challenge to theism than the Gnu threat was raised over 70 years ago by the French philosopher (and alleged Soviet spy) Alexandre Kojève in his influential 1930s lectures on Hegel. Kojève’s lectures were delivered in Paris, to an audience containing some of the founders of French ‘”Theory”, and were later published as Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit. His analysis of Hegelian philosophy through a Marxist lens evokes an explicitly atheistic vision of all human history, framing human work, war and struggle as a long path leading to the “end of History” (158, n6) and a “universal and homogenous State” (95) in which humans will finally live in peace and mutual recognition, without God (158-62, n6). Religion and philosophy will no longer be necessary, as all the great religious and political conflicts of history will have been dialectically resolved. Kojève’s lectures were meant to mark and chronicle, from a philosophical perspective, the triumph of modern philosophy and ‘social progress’ over the religious and political wars of the past. We live in Kojève’s world, and it often seems that if we have not already come to the End of History and the soul-annihilating homogeneity it promises, we are only a war or two away.

Engaging in a debate with the ghost of Kojève would be far more fruitful for defenders of religion than debating with Dawkins and company, who promote a naive scientism that simply refuses to recognize its own inadequacies. It might help the defenders of religion (and I include myself in this group) to realize that the theism versus atheism battle will always end in a stalemate if fought in a modern intellectual arena. The real battle is not between faith and science, or belief and fact, but between two radically different conceptions of the universe and the role of human reason. It is rather the great battle of the Ancients versus the Moderns, which has endured for centuries, and which was brilliantly dramatized in Jonathan Swift’s Battle of the Books.

The classic proofs of the existence of God (St. Thomas Aquinas’s five proofs) presuppose a concept of reason derived from Aristotelian metaphysics–one that is rejected by most modern philosophy. Aristotle asserts that the human intellect is fueled through contact with the divine intellect. Aquinas developed the Aristotelian view from a Christian perspective, clearly distinguishing between reason and revelation, but seeing them as complementary forms of knowledge provided by God. This reconciliation (I won’t say ‘synthesis’) of reason and revelation is the basis of true Christian civilization. The real debate, then, is whether reason and revelation are complementary, which is the Thomistic assertion, or contradictory, which is the implicit or explicit premise of much modern philosophy. (Leo Strauss throws a wrench in the works by claiming that reason and revelation are incompatible even according to the thought of the Ancients, but he is talking about a specifically Jewish interpretation of revelation, and doesn’t seem to take Aquinas or Catholic thought seriously. Eric Voegelin’s position on reason and revelation, as expressed in the letters and articles collected in Faith and Political Philosphy, listed below, is closer to the Aristotelian/Thomist perspective, with some important qualifications. The letters between Strauss and Voegelin make for interesting reading.)

Aristotle/Aquinas and Hegel/Marx/Kojève represent opposing poles in the great debate regarding the relationship between the human and the divine. Isn’t that more interesting than some Twitter battle between Gnus and their fundamentalist foils? The New Atheists imagine that they are being bold and brave, when they are merely aping, in a degraded and devolved form, an age-old debate that they can never hope to resolve.

For more on the subject of the relationship between reason and revelation, check out:

Emberley, Peter and Barry Cooper, eds. Faith and Political Philosophy: The Correspondence Between Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, 1934-1964. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State U P, 1993.

Works Cited:

Kojeve, Alexandre. Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit. Ed. Allan Bloom. Trans. James H. Nichols, Jr. Ithaca: Cornell U P, 1980. First published in French in 1947.

Veatch, Henry B. Human Rights: Fact or Fancy? Baton Rouge: Louisiana State U P, 1985.

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