“Undergraduate atheists”

Miguel Unamuno
Miguel Unamuno

About a month ago, David Johnson published an essay on 3 Quarks Daily taking on a group of atheists everyone talks about – Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris. He labeled them “undergraduate atheists”, following Mark Johnston, who also has taken them on. (I haven’t seen Johnston’s work, so I don’t know why he invents that name, but I’m guessing he means to downgrade their mental sophistication. For this I am sorry, students; many of you I know to be more sophisticated intellectually than Hitchens & Co. Johnston & Johnson are the poorer for not having met you, and for having developed a poorly-considered label.)

Johnson argues that these unsophisticated atheists assume a thesis, that humanity is better off without religion, that is not obviously true. He recounts a short story by Miguel Unamuno about a priest in a small town who manages to convert the story’s main character, Lazaro, to his point of view. But this priest is not himself exactly a theist:

What [the priest] believes in, rather, is administering to the needs of the villagers, in putting on such a convincing performance of dedication to Christ that they all believe he is a saint and have their faith in the Church and in life everlasting sustained. Lazaro’s “conversion,” then, is one consistent with atheism. He becomes a lay-minister of sorts under San Manuel and eventually dies a Catholic.

Unamuno’s philosophical beliefs about faith, and how they relate to this issue, are explained a little further in this follow-up essay in 3QD by Stefany Anne Golberg and Morgan Meis. They quote the great Spanish philosopher: “Life is doubt, and faith without doubt is nothing but death.”

Anyway, these are a couple of brief blog posts to reflect upon. Enjoy!


Author: Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.

5 thoughts on ““Undergraduate atheists””

  1. What’s most interesting in the article is the literary analysis of Unamuno*.

    I have no particular love for the new atheists. But the word ‘sophisticated’ is ironic. In his satirical work On Controversy, Schopenhauer teaches how to dance:

    “When your opponent uses a merely superficial or sophistical argument and you see through it, you can, it is true, refute it by setting forth its captious and superficial character; but it is better to meet him with a counter-argument which is just as superficial and sophistical, and so dispose of him; for it is with victory that you are concerned, and not with truth.”

    Johnson’s use of ‘undergraduate atheists’ reminds me of Edward Feser’s The Last Superstition – without any of its brilliant arguments. A form of returning the glove, or engaging in a genital measuring contest.

    Johnson claims new atheists all agree that humanity is better off without religion. He follows Schopenhauer’s leading step:

    “Another trick is to take a preposition which is laid down relatively, and in reference to some particular matter, as though it were uttered with a general or absolute application; or, at least, to take it in some quite different sense, and then refute it.”

    The straw man comes untied in the comments below:

    “WTF are you talking about?” Johnson asks, “I have given you an argument based on what should be a non-controversial reading of their texts.”

    Schopenhauer would admire the move – deflect the conversation and end dialogue abruptly by claiming no controversy from the first. The article ends invoking the “liberal tradition,” whatever that is, implying the new atheists are “superstitious windbags.”

    With a third step they move into a waltz, and in the background Seneca claps the beat:

    “Every man prefers belief to the exercise of judgment, says Seneca; and it is therefore an easy matter if you have an authority on your side which your opponent respects.”

    It goes on. Anyway, the article was terrible except for the analysis of Unamuno.

    * Lazaro, the priest in the story, sounds like the doctor in The Plague of Camus. But the doctor is a non-theistic hero who accomplishes a similar feat of benevolence – what Camus might call actual benevolence – contrasted directly with Unamuno’s preacher.

    Now that’s interesting, and worth talking about. If we are going to draw on literature to make philosophical observations, let’s not give the dog a bone by bringing new atheism into it. Aren’t we tired of dancing with Schopenhauer?


  2. Yes, I think the comment thread exemplifies the general rule that the value of a blogpost comment is inversely proportional to its distance from the original post. Maybe even the square of the distance.


  3. I’ll prove you right by adding this: the post would have been more valuable if it had more distance from new atheism and stuck with Unamuno. So the whole thing exemplifies two general rules.


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