Most of the poets I know are atheists. Hell, most of the people I know are atheists. Given that only 1.6 percent of Americans self-identify as "atheists," I conclude that I live in a bubble, like most hypereducated aesthetes on the liberal-left end of the political spectrum (I realize that's redundant). To their credit, most of the atheists I know don't consider themselves to be super-special people who should get together and crow about how much smarter they are than all the dimwits who fall for old fairytales about their big daddy in the sky, which is what Daniel Dennett would have them do (consider the self-triumphalism of the ReasonFest conference).
I have nothing at all against either a philosophically-informed atheism or a casual atheism that arises from a simple lack of religious temperament. There is little that annoys me as much as that smug atheism whose adherents refer to themselves as "freethinkers" or "brights." I have met a lot of these people, and not one—not a single one—has ever had the slightest idea what he was talking about.
Perhaps my anecdotal experience is misleading. Perhaps there are scores of self-described freethinkers who know the history of the concept of reason, who have read Aquinas and Kierkegaard and Jonathan Edwards and Karl Barth, who can refute the countless historical errors and category mistakes of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins as handily as David Hart and Mark Johnston can. But if there are, they're keeping a low profile. And I'm confused about why they would associate themselves with an intellectually bankrupt movement (Johnston rightly calls them "undergraduate atheists"). Because there is an honorable atheism, a school of real thought to which atheists can lay claim. Hart puts the point this way:
The only really effective antidote to the dreariness of reading the New Atheists, it seems to me, is rereading Nietzsche. How much more immediate and troubling the force of his protest against Christianity seems when compared to theirs, even more than a century after his death. Perhaps his intellectual courage—his willingness to confront the implications of his renunciation of the Christian story of truth and the transcendent good without evasions or retreats—is rather a lot to ask of any other thinker, but it does rather make the atheist chic of today look fairly craven by comparison.
Nietzsche would laugh at the idea that the human animal could free itself from delusion by seeking an ontological foundation in the natural sciences. Because the idea is laughable.
I say nothing about what I myself believe—belief is rather overrated as a point of contention in these matters. As the academic theologian whose conversation James Wood relates has it, "I don't know what I believe, at the moment" (although I agree with the religious affairs journalist also quoted by Wood that "not believing in heaven and hell is a prerequisite for serious Christian belief"). And cf. Geoffrey Hill, in A Treatise of Civil Power: "not believe, hope."
Fundamentalism, whether Christian or Islamic or atheistic, is a disease of the mind. It forecloses aesthetic possibility. What response to lines like these is available to the freethinking bright new atheist?
I STRUCK the board, and cry’d, No more;
I will abroad.
What? shall I ever sigh and pine?
My lines and life are free; free as the rode,
Loose as the winde, as large as store.
Shall I be still in suit ?
Have I no harvest but a thorn
To let me bloud, and not restore
What I have lost with cordiall fruit?
What does the New Atheist know of doubt? Of the struggle that faith entails? She will respond, of course, that it is religion that requires and asserts certainty. Tell that to Augustine, to Kierkegaard, to Simone Weil. The cosmologist Lawrence Krauss is fond of denying that the pre-Socratic (and Leibnizian and Heideggerean) question "Why is there something rather than nothing?" poses a problem for materialism because the universe might have arisen out of quantum fluctuation. Perhaps it did. But Professor Krauss needs a tutorial in ontology if he thinks that has anything to do with "nothing." I think poetry and science alike should cultivate humility in the face of what Marilynne Robinson calls "the tantalizing not-yet-knowable and the haunting never-to-be-known."
As far as I'm concerned, God is as good a name as any for the mystery into which we are thrown, and that mystery is only deepened by my admiration for the achievements and discoveries of science, even as I acknowledge the force of Marilynne Robinson's observation that science "is not in fact a standard of reasonableness or truth or objectivity" but "is human, and has always been one strategy among others in the more general project of human self-awareness and self-assertion." It is always necessary to distinguish science from scientism, though the distinction is often rather lost on the self-adulating brights, who prefer their religious folk to be creationists.
My point is just that, as Robinson puts it, the notion that "religion formed around the desire to explain what prescientific humankind could not account for ... does not bear scrutiny." Religious experience, in William James's sense, is not threatened by science. Henry Vaughan's "The Night" is one of the most moving poems I know, and I don't know if it would be if I didn't so urgently feel what Wordsworth called "the burthen of the mystery," which no amount of scientific learning can dispel:
There is in God (some say)
A deep, but dazzling darkness; As men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they
See not all clear.
O for that Night! Where I in him
Might live invisible and dim!
Geoffrey Hill calls this an "envisioning of perplexity itself," which works for me as a definition of poetry itself. Without this perplexity, we would lack the poems of Donne and Hopkins and Dickinson and that genial, difficult Quaker, Walt Whitman—not to mention those of Hill and Fanny Howe and Christian Wiman and Donald Revell. We would also lack the plays of Shakespeare and the poems of Wallace Stevens: this perplexity is, obviously, not confined to the religiously-minded. But I propose that it is irremediably at odds with the arrogant smirks of undergraduate atheists.
Cogent and, to my mind, decisive responses to the drivel of Dawkins & Co. have been crafted by Hart, Johnston, Robinson, and Terry Eagleton. My own response will always find its most elegant formulation in the lines of the Australian Catholic poet Les Murray:
Snobs mind us off religion
nowadays, if they can.