The Open Society and Its Frenemies
The New Atheists' vision suffocates under their dogma of godlessness
My friend and fellow NOR subscriber Kevin Doak shared with me a book by Dr. Alberto Martinez Piedra called No God, No Civilization: The New Atheism and the Fantasy of Perpetual Progress. The title is right up the alley of a hidebound reactionary like me.
When many months later I was finally able to read Dr. Piedra’s volume, I found — as promised — a sturdy defense of belief in God contra the lampooning and carrying-on of the New Atheists. No God, No Civilization is also a capable overview of Western civilization, of the ways in which what Dr. Piedra calls “Judeo-Christianity” has overcome paganism, Islam, and the “Wizards of the Enlightenment,” the general term Piedra uses for those “holding more or less to a common body of ideas and methodologies,” the “militant atheists, radical agnostics, stubborn skeptics, or ideological relativists (utopian dreamers) who tenaciously oppose the claims of the Judeo-Christian worldview.” Taking up ancient and more modern debates from the fall of Rome, the Reformation, and the 20th century, Piedra argues that it was not Judeo-Christianity, but its denial, which precipitated the disasters of Western history. Anyone interested in quickly taking in the breadth of Western intellectual history should buy a copy of No God, No Civilization. It could even be a homeschooling textbook for Western Civilization courses.
But there is something more to No God, No Civilization: a question at the heart of the text. That question is the mirror image of belief in God. Not that one doubts, but that one seeks—this seems to me to be the heart of civilization, of the building up of a people and a faith out of a sincere quest to understand one’s place in the cosmos. In a way, the God of civilization is an unknown God, a God Who waits to be discovered, Who does not impinge with ideological certainty in creation, making automatons out of human beings. No God, No Civilization is a great title, but a puckish reprisal might read something like, “Where’s God?” There’s Civilization. It’s the seeking, not the finally having, that’s what makes bright, well-ordered cities rise out of the dust, with cathedrals at their centers and people lifting their voices and talents to the Heavens high above.
What a contrast with the New Atheists! Piedra provides a very good, and I think charitable, portrait of some of the most famous New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Piedra’s late friend, Christopher Hitchens. What is striking about the New Atheists is their absolute certainty, something often pointed out with gentle humor. Mathematician John Lennox, whom Piedra cites often in No God, No Civilization, put it best, perhaps: “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist.” There is much wisdom in this. The New Atheists don’t sing hymns. They don’t look for anything, really. They know everything already. They wouldn’t put it that way, of course. But they celebrate blind watchmakers, they think that nothing gave birth to all the something that we now see. Belief in these kinds of fables requires a murdered intellect, one that is no longer capable of entertaining the deeper mysteries of human existence.
This contrast led me to look at No God, No Civilization in a new way by the time I finished reading the book. What I think Piedra is describing as his ideal is a kind of open society, such as that suggested by Henri Bergson and made famous by Karl Popper in The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945).
For Bergson and Popper, dogmatic determinism closes a society off. (Popper singles out Plato and all his many reconstitutors, such as Hegel and Marx.) The open society, by contrast, has no particular direction. It is liberal, in pursuit of universal truths, not hidebound by decrepit ideologies or Platonic noble lies.
But Piedra’s open society is not quite this. It is much, much more open. Not just to universal values, but to God Himself. Atheists like to charge that people of faith are dangerous, convinced of their own righteousness. But convictions of righteousness are of a faith other than faith in God. There are two basic lessons in theology, the old saw goes. Lesson One: There is a God. Lesson Two: You’re not Him. Hence the open society, the really open society, the one which can yearn to the heavens and practice the kind of humility and patience needed to keep the peace on earth. If there is a God, and if I am not Him, why, eternity lies before me, and I have infinite hope and every reason to love my neighbor as myself. The open society engenders civilization. It is just as Piedra says.
Atheism, especially the New Atheism, lacks this openness. It is convinced of its righteousness. It does not make the kinds of distinctions that Piedra makes, such as between the Ash’arite School of Allah-absolutism (which, as the Atheists do, reduces man to the level of automaton) and the Mu’tazilite School, which opens reason to the divine, respecting human nature. Many in the Muslim world have adopted the former (today expressed in places as Wahhabism, as Piedra points out). Another closed society. Perhaps the New Atheists hate fundamentalist Islam so much because they see in it their closest competition. A bit of an extreme example, but I think it is perfectly apt. Piedra brings up the distinction for a reason, too. The New Atheists, he argues, are practicing a faith despite themselves –a faith which extracts a very heavy price from the mind and soul.
Which leads to an interesting conclusion. The New Atheists pose as the vanguard of civilization, the Steven Pinker wing of the Modern Whig Party of Eternal Progress. But the society the New Atheists envision is closed, corked up, suffocating under the dogma of godlessness. The New Atheists pretend to be upholding the open society. But they are its frenemies, its secret betrayers. In public they claim allegiance to openness. They want to be liberal, to be open and international and liberated and above the fray. But in their hearts they have sealed off the entire universe for the sake of their insistence that their belief in God’s non-existence remain undisturbed. Nightmares spring from this kind of conviction. Many nightmares already have, which Piedra also explains quite handily.
No God, No Civilization could stand as a companion to Popper’s book, then. The open society need not be a secular concept. It can be very much a religious one, as long as faith is faith and not certainty. That is true openness, the basis of civilization of which Dr. Piedra has so eloquently spoken.
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