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Village Atheists, Village Idiots

Something has gone badly wrong with our atheists. All these self-styled intellectual titans, scientists, and philosophers have fallen horribly ill. Evolutionist faith-flayer Richard Dawkins is a wheeling lunatic, dizzy in his private world of old-fashioned whimsy and bitter neofascism. Superstar astrophysicist and pop-science impresario Neil deGrasse Tyson is catatonic, mumbling in a packed cinema that the lasers wouldn’t make any sound in space, that a spider that big would collapse under its own weight, that everything you see is just images on a screen and none of it is real. Islam-baiting philosopher Sam Harris is paranoid, his flailing hands gesticulating murderously at the spectral Saracen hordes. Free-thinking biologist PZ Myers is psychotic, screeching death from a gently listing hot air balloon. And the late Christopher Hitchens, blinded by his fug of rhetoric, fell headlong into the Euphrates.

Critics have pointed out this clutch of appalling polemic and intellectual failings on a case-by-case basis, as if they all sprang from a randomized array of personal idiosyncrasies. But while one eccentric atheist might be explicable, for all of the world’s self-appointed smartest people to be so utterly deranged suggests some kind of pattern. We need, urgently, a complete theory of what it is about atheism that drives its most prominent high priests mad.

Whatever it is, it has something to do with a litany of grievances against the believoisie so rote that it might well (or ironically) be styled a catechism. These New Atheists and their many fellow travelers all share an unpleasant obsessive tic: they mouth some obvious banality—there is no God, the holy books were all written by human beings—and then act as if it is some kind of profound insight. This repetition-compulsion seems to be baked right into their dogma.

Under the correspondence model of truth—the one favored by scientific rationality—a true statement is a thought-image that mirrors actual events; truth is just a repetition of the world. But as anyone who’s spent time with the mad knows, there’s something dangerous to one’s sanity about doing the same thing over and over again. Freud, who logged more hours in the company of the mentally ill than most, unearthed a strange dialectic here. Order, regularity, and repetition form the taxonomical basis of any civilization—and in repeating patterns, Freud suggested, human beings find a way to hold back the anarchy of the universe. But these patterns also nourish the seeds of madness. People are doomed to repeat a traumatic event—be it the child flinging a toy from its cot or the armies of Europe slicing each other up decade after decade. The wisdom and sanity of any society is founded on an originary madness.

Just the Facts

Soren Kierkegaard, the great enemy of all pedants, offers a story that might shed considerable light. In his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, he describes a psychiatric patient who escapes from the asylum, climbing out a window and running through the gardens to rejoin the world at large. But the madman worries: out in the world, if anyone discovers that he is insane, he will instantly be sent back. So he has to watch what he says, and make sure none of it betrays his inner imbalance—in short, as the not-altogether unmad Danish genius put it, to “convince everyone by the objective truth of what he says that all is in order as far as his sanity is concerned.” Finding a skittle-bowl on the ground and popping it in his pocket, he has an ingenious idea: who could possibly deny that the world is round? So he goes into town and starts endlessly repeating that fact, proffering it over and over again as he wanders about with his small furious paces, the skittle-bowl in his coat clanking, in strict conformity with Newton’s laws, against what Kierkegaard euphemistically refers to as his “a–.” Of course, the poor insistent soul is then sent right back to the asylum.

The real horrors of the twenty-first century aren’t superstition and unreason, but those of a rationally administered world we are endlessly condemned to repeat.

The Postscript was Kierkegaard’s grand critique of Hegel, a thorough and measured attack against what he saw as the blank madness in Hegelianism’s total systemization and its constant desperate striving toward the Objective. Subjectivity, Kierkegaard claimed, is truth. The escaped madman was supposed to show that an objective fact can abstract itself out of meaning, and that the subjective doesn’t have any monopoly on madness. His example was meant to be a commonsense demonstration of how essentially stupid the truth can be, one that anyone could instantly recognize. But what would happen if Kierkegaard’s madman escaped from his asylum today?

Our world has changed considerably, but most of the story can stay as it is. Our lunatic still escapes out the window of the asylum and still wanders gibbering into town—only the town in today’s fable is noisier and more terrifying than nineteenth-century Copenhagen ever was. Cars bark unexpectedly around privet-hedged corners, people watch from their windows with suspicion and maybe even murderous intent. The fleshy and terrifying faces of political candidates stare from lawn signs; models seem to mock him from billboards. Everything in this noisy world seems arbitrary and unforgiving; its deep grammar is one of total sadism, and instead of feeling the mutual recognition of the insane, our lunatic almost wishes he were back in his asylum, among flat green and rounded edges—but he has his truth, and it comforts him, so he keeps on going. The world is round, the world is round, the world is round.

Eventually, the madman walks past a bar. He hasn’t had a drink in years. But there are people inside: he has to be careful, or he’ll be found out. So when he leans one nonchalant arm on the counter and the bartender asks what he wants, he replies with that perfectly sane truth that nobody could ever have any problem with. “The world is round,” he says. Sorry? the barkeep asks. “The world is round.

One of the other customers starts getting annoyed: Buy a drink or piss off, why don’t you? And because there’s now suddenly the potential for violence, which is always interesting, someone else starts filming the altercation on her phone. The customer, red and sweaty, with little specks of rage frosting the corners of his mouth: “I don’t give a fuck if the world is round, why you gotta be disturbing people when they just want to drink in peace?” The madman, smiling distantly, because he knows that he’s right and that the other man is therefore wrong, continues his serene incantation: The world is round. We live in humane times; nobody’s being carted off to any asylum. Instead, weeping with frustration, the angry customer punches the madman right in the face, and he falls to the ground, fluttering like a gently clipped blade of grass.

The video is quickly shared all over the world, and everyone agrees: it’s terrible how, even in the twenty-first century, people who believe in reason and science are oppressed by the stupid and the superstitious. The battle lines are obvious: on one side, someone putting forward objective facts calmly and sensibly; on the other, an illogical flat-earther who can’t back up his assertions with evidence and so has to resort to violence. Once he’s out of the hospital—all bills paid for by a rationalist campaign group—the lunatic is invited to appear on TV with Bill Maher. “The world is round,” he grins, eyes swerving frantically around this dizzy net of lights to avoid the camera. The audience screeches its appreciation: this is real courage, to speak the truth in the face of those who would silence you. He gets a book deal. The World Is Round soon starts nudging its way up the bestseller list. Yes, it’s just the words “the world is round” repeated over four hundred pages. You don’t get it, and that’s the point: there are essential truths that need to be restated; otherwise, the world is lost to dogma.

This is a ridiculous, stupid, and unrealistic story. It also, with a few minor variations, actually happened.

Falling Flat

The madman in this story is Neil deGrasse Tyson, and the frustrated punter is the rapper B.o.B. Near the start of this year—heralded by Tyson with the announcement that January 1 has no astronomical significance—B.o.B. began insisting (on Twitter, of course) that for centuries a vast conspiracy has existed for the purpose of convincing people that the world is a sphere, when it’s actually flat. And for some reason, Tyson immediately jumped in, skittle-bowl flapping noisily against his ass, to repeat endlessly that no, it’s round. He even helped create a genuinely unlistenable rap parody—“B.o.B. gotta know that the planet is a sphere, G”—that borrowed not only its backing track but its entire lyrical structure from Drake’s “Back to Back.” (See what I mean about rationalists and repetition?)

That the world is round is, of course, probably true—as Kierkegaard says of his madman, “the cure would not be a matter of getting him to accept that the earth was flat.” But there’s a wrongness that doesn’t simply consist in not having all the correct facts. It doesn’t matter that, unlike the escapee, Tyson was facing someone who actually disagreed with his great and single fact; there’s something really terrifying in just how obsessively he dwelt on this objective truth, before an audience who didn’t need to be convinced. There before the cable klieg lights, he was reenacting the paranoiac’s manic shuffling on his tiny square of the flat ground.

Both men were wrong, but despite having the relevant facts at his command, Tyson managed to be more wrong than his interlocutor. He ended the exchange by writing “Duude—to be clear: Being five centuries regressed in your reasoning doesn’t mean we all can’t still like your music”—but five centuries ago, in 1516, absolutely nobody believed that the world was flat. The flat earth movement is very recent: it started in the 1840s, around the same time Kierkegaard was writing his Postscript, when an amateur cosmologist named Samuel Rowbotham, writing under the pen name “Parallax,” began self-publishing anguished screeds on the Satanic science of astrology and the evil deception of a globular earth.

In fact, the two writers had a lot in common. “Subjectivity is truth,” said Kierkegaard, and Parallax similarly disdained any indifferent Hegelianism. Nobody in the 1840s had seen the roundness of the earth: it was an objective and impersonal fact, relayed from above by a clique of experts and administrators. And the administrators weren’t just busy deciding what shape the world was; at the same time, they were violently dispossessing millions of people of everything they had, under a new rational system of social organization that seemed to have, as one of its many crucial parts, the axiom of the world’s roundness. (All this was exhaustively theorized by another of that decade’s great thinkers, one Karl Marx.) In this context, the flat earth hypothesis was a way of resisting the plunder and snatching back some of the subject’s autonomy. My world is the world as I see it, Parallax and his followers effectively intoned, and when I look at it with my own two eyes, I see a flat plane.

In the time of Kierkegaard and Marx and Parallax, there was still some resistance to the deadness of mere facts; now it’s all melted away. Kierkegaard’s villagers saw someone maniacally repeating that the world is round and correctly sent him back to the asylum. We watched Tyson doing exactly the same thing, and instead of hiding him away from society where nobody would have to hear such pointless nonsense, thousands cheer him on for fighting for truth and objectivity against the forces of backwardness. We do the same when Richard Dawkins valiantly fights for the theory of evolution against the last hopeless stragglers of the creationist movement, with their dinky fiberglass dinosaurs munching leaves in a museum-piece Garden of Eden. We do it when Sam Harris prises deep into the human brain and announces that there’s no little vacuole there containing a soul.

All these falsehoods are beautiful, tiny, glittering reminders that the world can be something other than simply what it is; we should nurture them and let them grow. Instead, they’re crushed, mercilessly, in the name of a blind, stupid, pointless truth. But who’s more wrong—the person who droningly insists, jerking like an automaton, that the world is round, has always been round, and will always be round? Or the one who knows that this earth is not a given, and that we can imagine a whole weary planet into new and different shapes?

All This Useless Beauty

The real cleavage, in other words, isn’t between those who believe in God and those who don’t, but between those who want to change the world and those who just want to repeat it. Watch one of those interminable debates between an atheist and a believer—anything involving Bill Nye is best, but they’re all on YouTube, endless stultifying hours of two people babbling Aristotelian at each other and convincing nobody—and you’ll notice something strange. Both of them will, inevitably, enter into some orgasmic rhapsody about how beautiful the universe is. The theist, gazing upward to his heavens, will chant awestruck odes to the majesty of God’s creation, His churning nebulae, His shining tapestry of suns, all the wonders built from His cosmic perversion.

Meanwhile, the atheist, glancing down at his own miraculous hands, will say something similarly soppy about mountains and rainbows and how incredible it is that all this came about by a happy accident of chance. When they encounter a poetic-humanist critique of cold scientific rationality, the atheists will often argue a similar line: Keats was wrong, science did not unweave the rainbow; the natural world is all the more beautiful if you know how it works. (Dawkins even published a book in 2011 called The Magic of Reality.) This accordance ought to be very worrying. What it shows is that, for all their fiercely expectorated differences, these two people are actually on the same side.

It’s sometimes charged that fundamentalist atheism has become just another intolerant religion; here, at least, religion as it’s actually practiced is only a minor species of atheism. What if you don’t think the universe is beautiful? What if you wake up every morning in a tiny brick cell slotted into a lifeless city under a gray and miserable sky, and you think that the whole thing, as it stands, is utterly wretched? For most of history, religions have tended to hold the natural world in various forms of contempt: it’s cursed by sin, it’s the Devil’s playground, it’s Dunya or Māyā. God, the great theologian Karl Barth wrote, is a “No” to the world.

The doctrine that the world is bad can often be a way of excusing some of its worst (and simultaneously, its more remediable) aspects—so what if I’m standing on your neck, all is vanity anyway?—but it also has revolutionary potential. A bad world can be redeemed. The dogma that it’s good is rarely anything but evil. Every irrational social order has declared itself to be in some way isomorphic with reality itself. Once, the cosmos was etched into concentric spheres with God in the middle, a macrocosmic representation of feudalism. Now, geneticists like Dawkins argue that what we see as animal life is really just a capitalist free market in genetic code. Whenever you hear a rapturous defense of the natural world, you should be on your guard: this is class power talking, and it’s trying to kill you.

Hell on Autopilot

Atheism was once a genuinely transformative social movement; in a few theocracies, it still is. But not here. There are two main planks of contemporary atheism’s social critique, such as it is. First, we’re plummily assured the world that science and reason built is magnificent. Look at our technological marvels, look at our shiny buildings, look at the sheer volume of knowledge we now possess. We’ve repeated the entire human genome; telescopes are helping us map the senseless pattern of the stars. People are living longer, eating better, fucking more efficiently, and dying in more confusion and terror than ever before. Of course, things still aren’t perfect—but we’re working on that.

Whenever you hear a rapturous defense of the natural world, you should be on your guard: this is class power talking, and it’s trying to kill you.

The corollary plank maintains, of course, that where life is not so great, it’s because of backwardness, pockets of existence that, despite existing in the present, despite being produced by the same set of global material circumstances, are somehow non-contemporaneous to themselves, as if they’d been held in some little bubble of recycled time. And the chief agent and expression of all this backwardness is religion. The problem is that, whatever the beliefs of the majority of the world’s population, atheism is the ruling doctrine: the one that sees the universe as beautiful but not holy and the world as a vast collection of facts to be appraised, analyzed, and instrumentalized. Even religion, if it wants to function as anything other than a curiosity, has to pursue the general trajectory of atheist thinking.

The atheists stand against unreason and untruth, and because the least you could say about the world is that it’s all true, they find themselves taking on the same job as Hegel—to “defend reality against its detractors.” He wrote that philosophy is theodicy, and while to modern ears this identification has the tenor of a critique, his project was entirely without irony. What’s more, it didn’t really work: every stupid shitty historical form is eventually upheld in its progression toward absolute knowledge; merely understanding something under this grand dispensation is equated with a justification of the object of your understanding.

The modern variant follows a broadly similar line, and with more success: it turns out you can do theodicy much more efficiently once you remove that annoying cantankerous God from the equation altogether. But as Kierkegaard showed, equating the good with the mere possibility of knowledge can only drive you mad.

If our only problem were that we were backward, we could always catch up. If the real challenge before us were a simple paucity of facts, we could always learn them. But the real horrors of the twenty-first century aren’t horrors of superstition and unreason, but the far more deadly horrors of a rationally administered world we are endlessly condemned to repeat. Our spherical earth is increasingly organized like one colossal factory, operating seamlessly and just in time, teeming with millions of tiny and unwilling workers, slurping up the expertise of ten thousand sharpened brains—and it’s not beautiful, it’s Hell. Everyone is wasting their lives. Everyone is unhappy. It’s not just you. The world is insane, insane in a way that doesn’t even require any of the announcements from its administrators to be factually untrue.

If anything, the more facts we learn, the more of the universe we manage to analyze, the more new space our colossally fucked-up social order has in which to reproduce its idiocy. The atheists are the ones who really love a bad and ugly reality; its mark is on them. They stand on the trembling skin of this planet as it boils giddily through infinite space, without any materials to critique this world—because the rational is dogmatically identified with the good, and because they’ve so thoroughly trained themselves out of believing in Hell that they can’t see the real one right in front of them.