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In our chaotic age, some atheists are rethinking secularism

Unsplash/Ben Sweet
Unsplash/Ben Sweet

It is 80 years since C.S. Lewis delivered the lectures that were eventually to be published as his remarkable book The Abolition of Man. I place it in the same category as Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Demons, Wilhelm Reich’s The Sexual Revolution, and Philip Rieff’s The Triumph of the Therapeutic; Uses of Faith after Freud volumes whose authors could not possibly have known just how prophetically accurate their analysis of human life would prove to be.

And all of them also share something else: At the core of their arguments, the point of real contention is the question of what it means to be a human being. Lewis pinpointed this as the key issue in the 1940s. In 2023, it is still the key question, only now it is far more complicated and of far more immediate political significance than Lewis could ever have anticipated. 

The trans moment is the supreme symptom of this. Enabled by the incredible technological innovations of the last 50 years, which have allowed us to think of humanity as something that can and will be transcended, it has brought the fundamental question of what it means to be human to the fore. And in doing so, it is disrupting the political landscape in ways that could not have been imagined even 10 years ago, particularly on the left. 

Take, for example, the left’s assumption that the post-9/11 Muslim community will always be a reliable source of support, given the successful labeling of the right as “Islamophobic” and the incorporation of Muslims into the progressives’ grand litany of the marginalized. This relationship is now becoming more complicated.

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The aggressive advancement of LGBTQ ideology is generating serious debate within the Muslim community, especially among parents worried about what this will do to their children. Some Islamic commentators see Muslim opposition to LGBTQ matters as playing into the hands of white racists. Others see such ideology as simply another iteration of white, Western imperialism and as incompatible with Islam. Unfortunately for the left, Islam’s anthropology and ethics are not built upon the inalienable moral superiority of victimhood. And if Muslims continue protesting Pride month and LGBTQ school curricula, “Islamophobia” may prove to be something of a boomerang to those on the left who until now have hurled the term around with careless abandon. 

But as the fundamental question of what it means to be human is thrown into confusion, it is not just religious communities that feel threatened. Non-religious people, too, are starting to have doubts about the ability of the Western secular mind to sustain civilization, as a recent essay by Konstantin Kisin indicates. Kisin, host of the popular dissident podcast Triggernometry, describes how enamored he was with the New Atheism of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens in the decade after 9/11. Now, however, he has come to identify as a “lapsed atheist,” wondering if answers to the most basic questions that societies need to operate — fundamentally, I would suggest, what it means to be human — are possible within an atheist framework. 

I was interviewed by Kisin and his co-host, Francis Foster, last year. They were both clear from the outset that they were not Christians or even religious believers of a more generic kind. But they were not hostile in their questions, one of which could be summarized as, “Is it possible to build a moral society on the basis of atheism?” Lacking omniscience and thus a reliable knowledge of all possible worlds, I offered a suitably qualified answer, to the effect that, whether possible or not, it was certainly a lot, lot harder than building a moral society on the basis of religion. Reading Kisin’s essay this week, I realized that the question was exactly as it had seemed at the time: a good faith inquiry from somebody wrestling with the emerging anthropological chaos that has been unleashed upon our world. 

The question of God’s existence and moral order is famously raised by Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. For Ivan, if God does not exist, then everything is permissible. And yet he is a decent, compassionate human being who does not live life consistently with his principles. He has a sensitivity to human suffering. It is Smerdyakov, his illegitimate and unacknowledged half-brother, who represents the lethal practical consequences of Ivan’s intellectual rebellion against God. Ivan is a man divided between his intellectual convictions and the moral intuitions of (what I would call) his God-given humanity. 

What is emerging among some erstwhile left-wing intellectuals today is the realization that atheism, while an interesting theoretical position, offers nothing to address the deeper questions of life. Of course, Nietzsche’s Madman pointed this out to the polite atheists in The Gay Science. But as the Madman himself conceded, he had come too early for his argument to be understood. Well, his time has now come and the dilemma at the heart of Ivan Karamazov is emerging with force among some of the most impressive public intellectuals and voices of our day.

Mary Harrington and Louise Perry have both raised questions about the sexual revolution, the status and significance of the human body, and the nature of women’s rights. Konstantin Kisin is now pondering whether atheism can provide a solid foundation for humanism or whether it is doomed to degenerate into a chaotic anti-humanism of the kind represented by the trans lobby. These are interesting times. Serious questions are being asked by secular people. There are opportunities for discussion and dialogue here that we religious types should not ignore. As Kisin himself concludes:

“The reason new atheism has lost its mojo is that it has no answers to the lack of meaning and purpose that our post-Christian societies are suffering from. What will fill that void? Religious people have their answer. Do the rest of us?”

That may not amount to a cry for help but it is certainly a call for further interaction with those of us who see ancient wisdom as offering answers to our modern problems. Eighty years on from Lewis, it seems that some secular thinkers are conceding that he had a point.

Originally published at First Things. 

Carl R. Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College. He is an esteemed church historian and previously served as the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and Public Life at Princeton University. Trueman has authored or edited more than a dozen books, including The Rise and Triumpth of the Modern SelfThe Creedal Imperative, Luther on the Christian Life, and Histories and Fallacies.

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