Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Meaning of Contemporary Atheism, Continued

This is a continuation of this post.

I would like to explain by example what I mean by atheism offering cultural achievements to rival those of Christianity. I am speaking of the space program and the hippie movement of the 1960's and 1970's.

First, the hippie movement. The so-called "counterculture" was not explicitly atheistic, but it was generally antagonistic to organized religion, and definitely had a "this-world" orientation. The hippies thought they could bring peace and love to the world, now, and with no necessary help from divine intervention. As the saying goes, they attempted to "immanentize the eschaton." They did not trash religious symbols, but offered their own symbols instead, like the peace sign:

As a secular movement, the hippie movement was very successful at drawing people away from religion. The Catholic religious orders emptied out almost overnight in the early seventies. This is how easy it is for atheism to be successful; if it can offer a reasonable cultural alternative to religion, people will leave religion and its onerous demands in a heartbeat. The problem for the hippie movement was its essential shallowness; the culture it offered could not stand up to the problems of life once they came (e.g. when young ladies in the communes began having babies. Babies are not interested in peace and good feelings, but food, sleep and a clean diaper. And they want them now.) The peace sign is now a bit of nostalgia. But at least it was an attempt to go beyond mocking organized religion and offered an alternative.

The space program of the 60's and 70's offered a kind of "secular moment." Space exploration was about a lot more than solving some engineering problems; it was vocally promoted as the foundation of a secular spirituality. Any kid of that era remembers the excitement surrounding the Apollo Program. We all had our LM's and Lunar Rovers. As a kid in the Middle Ages might have dreamed of going on Crusade to the Holy Land, we dreamed of the secular crusade of the space program. The "space age" produced its version of high art, like Stanley Kubrick's 2001, A Space Odyssey. 2001 wasn't just a space movie; it was a meditation on the sublime meaning of space exploration itself.

The leading apostle of the space spirituality movement was Carl Sagan. He is known as a popularizer of science, but there isn't actually very much science in his popular books. What he was selling was not science, but the spirituality of science. Take a look at the cover of Demon-Haunted World, for example, with its image of the lonely candle in the dark. Sagan uses the image of the candle to create a mythology of science, with science as a kind of pagan hero struggling to survive through the course of history. But the spirituality of space was already losing momentum at the height of the Apollo Program. There is a telling scene in the film Apollo 13 where the astronaut's families listen to interviews of the Odyssey crewmen as they drift to the moon. The interviews were initially intended to be broadcast live on the major networks, but the networks bailed out in the end and broadcast their standard programming (typical dismal TV fare), because the public no longer tuned in to Apollo broadcasts. Even as soon as 1973, space exploration was losing its ability to inspire. President Bush a few years ago tried to reincarnate the ethos of the Apollo Program by announcing a Mission to Mars, but everybody yawned.

Carl Sagan, in the Demon-Haunted World, lamented the state of science education in this country but, even more, the lack of inspiration people, especially the young, felt from science. He wished to re-energize the spirituality of science. In effect, he was doing his best to prevent the culture from turning into a culture of Nietzschean "Last Men", people who have given up the attempt to do anything grand and are content to entertain themselves with small pleasures while they wait to die. He implicitly recognized that, if atheism is ever to displace religion, it will only do so if it can inspire people as religion once did.

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