The last couple of years have brought an unprecedented flurry of books touting the virtues of atheism. Cultural critic Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great) and scientist Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) are but two of the more prominent apostates to enjoy surprise best-sellers by attacking God and the benighted mortals who love Him. Alas, this flowering of popular atheism has been marred by a chest-thumping triumphalism that even a fellow atheist—myself, say—might find unseemly.
For belief is not a character flaw, but a trait fostered in us by evolution, one with powerful, still poorly understood survival value. For Hitchens to mock belief in, say, Allah, when he so publicly worships his own ego, displays not only a logical inconsistency but also a stunning lack of human sympathy. The same goes when Dawkins, who has the discipline and values of science to console and inspire him, derides the faith of those who are consoled and inspired by the values and discipline of belief in God.
Fresh thinkers are rushing to fill the conceptual gap, among them Andre Comte-Sponville, a middle-age French intellectual being promoted here as a leading continental philosopher with the publication of Little Book of Atheist Spirituality. Comte-Sponville’s simple and obvious thesis is that human beings, whether or not they believe in God, still require a spiritual life. For evidence he points to his own experience. Like many atheists, Comte-Sponville was raised religious, in his case Catholic, and acknowledges not only that much of his character developed from his exposure to Christianity, but also that his morality and sensitivity remain virtually unchanged since his conversion to unbelief: “Even my way of being an atheist bears the imprint of the faith to which I subscribed throughout my childhood and adolescence.”
Spirituality, however, “is far too important a matter to be left to fundamentalists,” writes Comte-Sponville, who argues that by allowing spirituality to be conflated entirely with religion we have lost touch with a more basic notion of spirituality which, if recovered, might serve to unite rather than divide people, regardless of their beliefs. He seems well aware that such an idea would be fatal to evangelizing faiths like Christianity or Islam, the adherents of which view themselves as in exclusive possession of revelation. As with all uniters, he is indifferent to the sensibilities of the dividers.
Thus, Comte-Sponville argues, atheism need not dispense with traditional values, even those most commonly associated with church, temple and mosque. Among the most important, he says, are what he calls “community” and “fidelity,” arguing that while civil society is possible without God, it is not possible without the binding values religion has transmitted through the ages. “This does not prove, however, that these values need God in order to subsist. On the contrary, everything tends to prove that we need them—an ethics, a sense of communion and fidelity—in order to subsist in a way we find humanly acceptable.”
Seldom have I so disliked a book in which I find so many points of agreement. Part of this no doubt rises from a personal animus toward Comte-Sponville’s regard for the splendid labors of his own mind. Yet for all the philosophical craftsmanship on display—he goes through the motions of developing logical arguments, thought experiments, coining new terms and phrases—the results are thin and unsatisfying.
Indeed, the needless coinages are among the hardest bits to choke down. Comte-Sponville takes common concepts, familiar to all, and coins new terms for them. In a coarser business than philosophy this practice would be known by its true name, “branding.”
In a similar vein, Comte-Sponville’s frequent recourse to examples from his own experience are neither as charming nor as illuminating as he thinks. More troublesome, Comte-Sponville’s thinking is almost entirely circular. As an atheist, he sees the great enemy as not religion but what he calls “nihilism.” As though making a factual statement, he writes, “What nihilists feel is not despair but disappointment (and one can be disappointed only with respect to a prior hope); they are weary and embittered, filled with rancor and resentment.”
Everything about that statement is objectionable. Who is Comte-Sponville to pontificate on how nihilists feel? What they think, what they say, what they believe—all these are open to discussion. But attacking how they feel—their subjective experience—is the height of rhetorical cheek, displaying a lack of sympathy exactly of the kind the philosopher ostensibly condemns.
Besides, have you ever known a declared nihilist? Me, neither. Here as elsewhere in this mercifully brief volume, Comte-Sponville erects a straw man that he may dismantle with the bravado of someone who knows his opponent cannot strike back. Nihilists, he implies, are those who feel not despair but disappointment, and those who feel not despair but disappointment are nihilists. To such a construction as Comte-Sponville’s nihilists, all manner of rhetorical abuses are allowed.