Daniel Tutt reviews Christopher Watkin's Difficult Atheism: Tracing the Death of God in Contemporary Continental Thought, in Berfrois (image: Warkton, Northamptonshire: Monument by Vangelder, 1775, John Piper, 1964):
Declaring oneself an “atheist” isn’t what it used to be. Growing numbers of Generation Y prefer to remain agnostic, which is why so many of them go by the “nones,” or those with no religious preference. My wife used to work at a large university and she told me that on standardized tests many of the students write in “human” in the ethnic and racial identity box. A friend of mine launched a social media campaign to have “Jedi” recognized as a religion in Great Britain. It took off like wild fire and in 2006; Jedis were the fourth largest religion in all of Great Britain. Occupying these undecided identities: “none,” “Jedi” and “human” make a lot of sense. In so doing, one renders no judgment upon the status quo, nor does the person negate traditional religious identities for which many of us still have some allegiance to.
The truth is, declaring oneself an atheist is a difficult process, but we’ve lost touch with this difficulty. Kierkegaard notoriously said “the biggest problem with Christians today is that no one wants to kill them anymore.” What I think he meant by this is that a healthy sense of atheism is good for religion, and lest we forget, Christianity is perhaps the most resilient religion the world has seen. This resiliency is due in part to the fact that Christianity can handle a complicated belief in God and still retain followers. Hegel saw in Christ’s utterance on the cross, “my father, why have you forsaken me” a splitting in two of the absolute itself, a splitting in two of God. What this split represented was the death of the metaphysical God. Nietzsche’s “God is dead” mostly had to do with an epistemological death of suprasensory truths, a death that ushered in a new type of nihilism.
Most atheists today that are firm in their convictions tend to be in a trance by the so-called “Four Horsemen of the New Atheism.” Despite news of their best-selling whirlwind and the larger discourse that has risen from it is on the decline, to the point of them now losing their followers, much of atheist identity is intertwined with Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett and Harris. The weapons they use against religion are as tired as they are outdated: Darwinian natural selection and evolution (Richard Dawkins), naturalizing reductions of religion via general science (Daniel Dennett), brash literary humanism (Christopher Hitchens) and quite paradoxically, racist appeals to reason (Sam Harris).
For the none’s and the atheists, as well as for the religious, I might add, a healthy debate about God is vital to sustaining a larger dialogue about religion, morality, and ethics in the public sphere. But we’ve been deprived of such a discourse. This is why it is a perfect time to ask: what is/can/should philosophy contribute to the question of God and atheism?