Not All Atheists Hear The Same Thing When People Debate Theology
April 20, 2011

Dante and Virgil in Hell

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I’m an Amanda Marcotte fan, but I’m also one of those atheists like Robert Farley who doesn’t really get her hostility to theological debates. Nor do I think there’s any reason to doubt that Andrew Sullivan, et al, are sincere in their faith. Lots of intelligent people really are devout believers, and to suggest otherwise seems either profoundly misguided or just plain churlish.

Given all of that, I think there’s value for nonbelievers in figuring out why intelligent people believe, and in grappling with theological claims on their home turf. Back around Christmastime I wrote a series of posts about atheism in which I argued, among other things, that atheists could benefit from understanding theological claims as an indirect way of describing the structure of the claimant’s perceptual experiences.

So take for example Andrew Sullivan’s understanding of Hell. He says:

Whereas in fact Hell is, in orthodox terms, is simply our refusal to accept the love of God. Our inability to accept it. And that exists on Earth as it does after death. We can be living in Hell right now if we do not accept the love that is openly given us by God, the Father and the son. And that is what Hell is. Heaven is simply the ability to let go of your pride and let God in.

One way to react to all of this is just to take offense at Sullivan’s assertion that we nonbelievers are in Hell and ascribe all sorts of unsavory motives to that claim. Or you could just mock Sullivan’s faith and suggest that he’s some kind of dumb rube for believing what he does. But I don’t think either of those possible responses are all that useful or interesting. I’d rather take a closer look at Sullivan’s reasons for believing what he does and consider how those shape his interface with the world.┬áThat doesn’t mean you can’t be critical of those claims. But for Spider-Man’s sake, at least be critical in an engaged, interesting way.

Since I’ve blogged a bit about Nietzsche recently, I might as well note that he had some very engaged and interesting ways of responding to the sort of doctrine Sullivan espouses above. In Thus Spake Zarathustra he calls those who speak of Hell on earth as “preachers of death” who “carry around within themselves the beast of prey and have no choice but lust or self-laceration.” The point being that, in Nietzsche’s view, this urge to embrace the eternal and escape from the worldly represents a sort of fear and loathing of the world as it is. His response is to embrace the world — what the preachers of death call Hell — just as those same preachers embrace what they call God and Nietzsche calls death.

I don’t subscribe to Nietzsche’s scorched-earth style, but I think there’s a kernel of insight and psychological acuity in his writing you won’t find in a blithe dismissal of all faith as meaningless bullshit. And even if you disagree, at least Nietzsche’s making a proper argument out of it.

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