Together without God

Ronald Aronson, Living without God: New Directions for Atheists, Agnostics, Secularists, and the Undecided, Counterpoint Press, 2008.

Living without GodSomething unprecedented happened in American publishing in the last four years.  Books explicitly advocating atheism became bestsellers.  It happened despite (or because of) the theocratic drift in our politics.  In 2005, Wayne State University professor Ronald Aronson called the authors of such books “New Atheists,” and the label stuck.  Most notable among them have been Sam Harris (who had previously been an obscure neurology grad student), evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, philosopher Daniel Dennett, and political journalist Christopher Hitchens.  Aronson included some other writers — Michel Onfray, Julian Baggini, Erik Wielenberg, and Daniel Harbour — whose books have sold less well.

Aronson now in his own book, Living Without God, welcomes the emergence of the New Atheists.  He values their accomplishment, but emphasizes that more work needs to be done.  They have succeeded in “breaking the spell” (to use a phrase applied very aptly in this context by Dennett) which in the USA had hindered skeptical discussion of religion for the past generation.  But according to Aronson (p.16), “even after reading Harris, Dennett, Dawkins or Hitchens, secularists often have difficulty discussing what it is we [do] believe in, if not God.”

He points out that this task is even more difficult for secularists nowadays than for their 19th- and early-20th-century predecessors.  The earlier secularists could wave the Enlightenment banner of Progress; but meanwhile the world wars, genocides, and gulags have, for many of us, shredded that banner to tatters.  Aronson describes as follows our spiritual predicament today (p.18):

Religion is not really the issue, but rather the incompleteness or tentativeness, the thinness or emptiness, of today’s atheism, agnosticism, and secularism.  Living without God means turning toward something.  To flourish we need coherent secular popular philosophies that effectively answer life’s vital questions.

He says (p.41) that if humanists and secularists are to present a positive alternative to theism, they must try to answer Kant’s three questions: “What can I know?  What should I do?  What may I hope?”  He sees these questions as translating out into a number of issues that 21st-century secularists should address.  One of the most striking and distinctive of these issues is that of gratitude and rendering thanks: how to feel and convey gratitude for our human existence without envisaging a divine personality who is responsible for it and who can bestow meaning on our lives.  That is an issue that earlier secular thinkers have struggled with, too.  For years I have been bemused by John Dewey‘s proposal, in a book entitled A Common Faith, to retain the word “God” while rejecting the traditional, supernaturalist understanding of it:

One reason why personally I think it fitting to use the word ‘God’ to denote that uniting of the ideal and actual which has been spoken of, lies in the fact that aggressive atheism seems to me to have something in common with traditional supernaturalism. . . .  What I have in mind especially is the exclusive preoccupation of both militant atheism and supernaturalism with man in isolation.  For in spite of supernaturalism’s reference to something beyond nature, it conceives of this earth as the moral center of the universe and of man as the apex of the whole scheme of things.  It regards the drama of sin and redemption enacted within the isolated and lonely soul of man as the one thing of ultimate importance.  Apart from man, nature is held either accursed or negligible.  Militant atheism is also affected by lack of natural piety.  The ties binding man to nature that poets have always celebrated are passed over lightly.  The attitude taken is often that of man living in an indifferent and hostile world and issuing blasts of defiance.  A religious attitude, however, needs the sense of a connection of man, in the way of both dependence and support, with the enveloping world that the imagination feels is a universe.  Use of the words ‘God’ or ‘divine’ to convey the union of actual with ideal may protect man from a sense of isolation and from consequent despair or defiance.  (Dewey, pp. 50-51)

Aronson clearly shares these concerns, but favors Robert Solomon’s proposal to abandon (in this very broad context) the interpersonal model of gratitude and render our thanks instead to impersonal forces.  One benefit of this approach is that it prompts us to experience vividly our sense of dependence not only on other individuals but also on human society at large and on Nature.

Aronson shows that Charles Darwin emphasized the importance, in the evolution of biological organisms (including ourselves), of interdependence as well as of competition.  (The 19th-century reception of Darwin’s work emphasized competition while downplaying interdependence and cooperation.  This bias fitted in with an ideological imperative of the day by rationalizing laissez-faire capitalism.)  Aronson points out that our interdependence encompasses not only our relationships with the natural world but also with human society and human history.  Each of us is a product of society and history.  But this seemingly obvious fact often gets obscured by what Aronson (following Martha Albertson Fineman) calls “the autonomy myth.”  Radical individualism obscures the reality of our dependence upon each other as well as upon Nature.  The acceptance of the autonomy myth promotes a “moral hardness” that makes it easy for us to blame victims and to become indifferent to or even approve of gross social and economic inequalities.  Aronson discerns (pp.80-81):

. . . a fundamental choice of perception: do we see ourselves as isolated, separate individuals, or instead recognize ourselves as belonging to, and depending on, a wider world?  Do we acknowledge our own map of dependence?  If we were to open our eyes wide enough to consciously live our individual lives as members of a local, national, and global society, we might care more about providing the chance for a decent life for every individual, including adequate healthcare, nutrition and schools.

For Aronson, the rejection of the autonomy myth is not only crucial to the formulation of a secular world-view that will allow us to feel at home in a universe without God, but also necessary if we are to move toward a more just and peaceful world.  He says that to appreciate our mutual interdependence (which, he points out, has increased and intensified in recent times) can enable the secularists among us to experience our lives as deeply meaningful.

This appreciation informs Aronson’s own views on a wide range of topics from politics to how to cope with dying.  He deals also with a number of other issues, such as how to understand the world in which we live and why so many people opt out of struggling to understand it and turn instead to what he (following Michael Shermer) characterizes as “weird beliefs” like astrology and creationism.  His discussions of these other issues are fascinating and enlightening; but to my mind the most distinctive aspect of the book is that it gives central place to a secular notion of interdependency and gratitude.

The kind of secular humanism that Aronson presents in Living Without God reflects his unique background.  He is a lifelong political activist.  He did his doctorate under Herbert Marcuse, from whom he gained an appreciation of the Marxist tradition while eschewing orthodox Marxism.  He was an editor of the New Left journal, Studies on the Left, and has been active in a number of progressive political movements (perhaps most notably the successful one against the apartheid regime in South Africa).  He is a noted scholar on Sartre and Camus.  Sartre’s Marxist-tinged existentialism informs much of Aronson’s discussion of such issues as the nature of moral and intellectual responsibility.  Aronson believes (as did Sartre and Marcuse) that a key aspect of the good life is to be a good citizen willing to engage in the fight against social injustices.  Unusually for nowadays, he dares to use the dreaded S-word, “socialist,” to describe his politics.  In my judgment, this post-Marxist has made a valuable contribution to the discussion as to how we secularists are to live meaningful and fulfilling lives.

James Farmelant (B.S., Physics, University of Massachusetts) is a software engineer by profession.   His main interests are natural and social sciences, technology, philosophy, and political science.