Can we build on Dawkins to formulate a new spiritual atheism?

Ernst Haeckel’s landmark work Art Forms in Nature, credit: Smithsonian Magazine

This is a review of Eric Steinhart’s book Believing in Dawkins. The New Spiritual Atheism (Palgrave/Springer 2020).

When I was 16 or so, I went on a spiritual retreat in a monastery in Burgundy, France, Taizé. The retreat lasted a week. I pitched my tent in the fields, showered daily with icy cold water, and received frugal meals from the monks. By day, I alongside thousands of other young people, had bible study and discussion. Three times a day, we sat inside a huge church building surrounded by masses of other people and by candles, without AC or meaningful ventilation. As outside temperatures soared, we sang the Taizé chants repeatedly (for a sample, click here). The effect was one of religious ecstasy–if you are oxygen-deprived, very hot, and singing all the time, you start experiencing and seeing strange things. But I had also brought Richard Dawkins’ Selfish gene. In the evenings, in my little igloo tent by torchlight, I read Dawkins’ work about how we are all survival machines, in the service of our selfish genes. I loved the purely naturalistic vision that Dawkins sketches about humans and other organisms, the richness, yet also the austerity, the uncompromising view of what it means for us to be here briefly, and then die and be gone forever. Dawkins insists that his view is one that allows for beauty, meaning, and purpose. He is not a nihilist.

This was the very first book by Dawkins I read, and it left a deep impression. Reading later works by Dawkins, notably The Blind Watchmaker, Extended Phenotype, Unweaving the Rainbow, Climbing Mount Improbable, and The God Delusion, I have always had the impression that there is something deeply spiritual about Dawkins’ writings. However, Dawkins lacks training in philosophy and has not bothered to educate himself properly in that.

One striking example of this philosophical ignorance is a debate that happened in Oxford some years ago. The moderator (Sir Anthony Kenny, a philosopher) used the word “epistemic”, a quite basic philosophical term, and Dawkins responded, “I don’t know the words ‘epistemic’ and so on, so I’m not going to use that.” (see video below, around 1:03). Well, if you’re going to write philosophical books, including books in the philosophy of religion (even popularizing ones!), maybe you ought to know what epistemic means!

Dawkins is thus limited in writing philosophy, as he does not have philosophical training and clarity. Without it, one cannot present coherent naturalistic alternative to religious metaphysics.

The task Steinhart has set himself in Believing in Dawkins. The New Spiritual Atheism (2020) is thus a challenging one.

As a professor with considerable experience in metaphysics, philosophy of religion, and epistemology, Eric Steinhart (unlike Dawkins) is in a position to outline a coherent naturalistic vision. He chooses to write one that is based on Richard Dawkins’ writings. This wide-ranging book covers many topics: complexity, ontology, possibility, humanity, spirituality, among many others. Steinhart does not sneak in theism, or some sort of pseudo-theism, into Dawkins’ writings. In fact, he argues that many practices and ideas have been hijacked by theism, such as the notion of an afterlife, sacredness, holiness, and even the notion of gratitude–you do not need to have someone responding or knowing even that you thanked them to give thanks, for instance.

Now, as Steinhart correctly and often points out, to be able to formulate a coherent metaphysical picture of naturalism that allows for atheist spirituality, one needs to go beyond Dawkins or, as he puts it, one has to “build on Dawkins”. Steinhart outlines his project as follows “Given the Dawkinsian fragments and foundations, I prefer to think of myself as building a sanctuary. It is a sacred place, filled with joy and light. It is a spiritual refuge, a gleaming city.” (p. 10). Theists are welcome at this sanctuary for spiritual naturalism, as long as they leave their theism behind at the door. He likens himself to an architect trying to finish Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, using sketchy directions of the original designer.

Sagrada Família – Wikipedia
Sagrada Familia, by Gaudi. credit: Wikimedia

Steinhart delivers on this vision of a gleaming city for spiritual atheists. He outlines a vision of spiritual naturalism that is based on key Dawkinsian ideas, such as the importance of replicators, the way complexity increases in a universe without designers, the role of an objective ethics, how to conceive of the good without God.

To be able to build this gleaming city, though, Steinhart has to draw on some sophisticated ancient metaphysical assumptions. From Stoicism, he takes many ideas including the idea of arete or excellence. Dawkins shares with the Stoics the idea that nature is rational, undergirded with rational principles. Steinhart builds on Dawkins by updating the idea of the Logos, an ordering principle of nature with Dawkinsian ideas. This includes universal selection, which not only makes biological, but also cultural entities. The second metaphysical framework Steinhart employs is (neo)Platonism. Like Platonists, Dawkins affirms that abstract mathematical structures exist, and he frequently talks about the space of possible organisms as real things. Thirdly, Steinhart harkens back to the Nietzschean notion of amor fati, the notion of loving your fate, for good or for ill.

Throughout Steinhart’s discussions of Dawkinsian spiritual naturalism, we can find notions ordinarily associated (or at least associated currently) with theism, such as holiness, goodness, sacredness, and ecstasy that are updated and reframed in an atheistic context. For example ek-stasis means literally (in Greek) to stand outside, and in Steinhart’s conceptualization, ecstasy occurs when part of the universe mirrors the whole. Self-modeling is the ecstasy of the universe, and so, when we model the universe, as creatures who perceive, and as scientists who try to model the universe, the universe is in ecstasy (p. 54).

Steinhart also updates several theistic arguments in naturalistic context. There is the naturalized organic design argument, cosmological arguments, an ontological argument, and there is an atheistic equivalent to theodicy, a response to Yujin Nagasawa’s question of how an atheist can be optimistic or hopeful in the bleak world she inhabits.

Here, we get to what I found one of the most appealing and interesting ideas in the book, though I also think we are quite a bit far removed from Dawkins. Atheistic optimism becomes possible when you abandon a utilitarian notion of equating the good with pleasure or even happiness. Stoics weren’t utilitarians. They didn’t think you could equate happiness with good and misery with evil, though, of course, they personally preferred happiness to misery. Rather, the Stoics saw excellence (arete) as revealed most in struggle–a virtuous life is one characterized by striving for virtue in the face of struggle, and a virtuous life is a beautiful life. Updated in Dawkinsian terms, the Logos is simply the rational ordering of nature. The Logos maximizes, through universal Darwinian principles, the “dramatic intensity of biological competition” (p. 97). In the struggle (agon) for existence, arete is maximized.

Rousseau, The hungry lion throws itself upon the gazelle, 1905. Credit: Wikimedia.

In this wide-ranging discussion, Steinhart demonstrates that Stoicism and Platonism, paired with pagan rituals and spirituality (as discussed in the final chapter) offer a marvelous vision for the naturalist, a vision that affords beauty, meaning, objective morality, excellence, teleology. But it also reveals sharply how much extra work needs to be done to build on Dawkins. To give just one example, Dawkins mocks the ontological argument (as well as other theistic arguments) in The God Delusion. But, as Steinhart writes “the correct atheistic response is analysis and counterargument, not mockery and ad hominem attacks” (p. 192). To counter the ontological argument, the Platonic One is invoked (in Steinhart, not Dawkins), and Steinhart notes that he is building on Dawkins, “I do not say that Dawkins is a Platonist” (p. 204).

These remarks reveal both the main strength and what I take to be the main weakness of the book. The strength of this book is that it offers a serious, thoughtful atheistic spiritual naturalism. But the book purports to build on Dawkins, and even to “believe in Dawkins” (e.g., “Believing in Dawkins means providing some independent evidence that abstract objects exist”, p. 204). But, as Steinhart frequently points out, Dawkins contradicts himself, does not provide sufficient grounding for his claims, uses mockery rather than argument to rebut theists. Steinhart realizes this. In some places in the book, for instance where Steinhart talks about the Platonic good, he writes “You may object that we are very far from Dawkins now” (p. 217). Indeed!

In the chapter on humanity (chapter 8) we see how Steinhart, like a patient theologian trying to assemble and make sense of disparate parts of scripture into a coherent whole, tries to make sense of Dawkins to present a coherent vision of humanity that is in line with spiritual naturalism. Here, there is a bit less of a stretch than in the preceding chapters on ontology of the universe and abstract objects. Nevertheless, the introduction of free will compatibilism, ethical naturalism, and natural duties lead us far beyond Dawkins. I wonder why Dawkins is needed at all to unify this vision, which can stand on its own. For example, it’s possible to write a political philosophy that is coherent with the deeds of Attila the Hun, but such a project is probably not worthwhile. So, we need a sense of when it is worthwhile to try to cash out and philosophically develop the ideas by a non-philosopher. While we have lots of writings by Dawkins, and there is something evocative there to be sure, I’m not entirely convinced that Steinhart would not have been better off outlining his own theory, perhaps supported by a range of naturalistic authors.

Missa Charles Darwin

These are friendly criticisms to what I otherwise take to be an excellent, thought-provoking book. It is my hope that this book can contribute to a conversation in philosophy of religion that goes beyond rehearsing arguments about the rationality of theism. While such discussions are valuable, we can enrich philosophy of religion by looking at coherent options on the table, and I think Steinhart does an excellent job of outlining a coherent vision of spiritual naturalism, a vision that isn’t nihilistic or hopeless, that sees beauty in the struggle, and meaning in the fact that we are organisms try to make sense of the universe we inhabit. So, there is a lot of material here for discussion on the metaphysics of naturalism. Chapter 9 outlines, in a tentative manner, some ways in which Dawkins-inspired spiritual naturalism can enrich religious practices too. Steinhart here goes far beyond Dawkins, who is a cultural Christian and enjoys Christian (Church of England) rituals. He offers serious alternatives for the non-theist to achieve mystical experience, ecstasy in rave dances, communion and fellowship in Burning Man, and self-knowledge and equanimity with Stoic mental exercises.

In sum, there is much to enjoy in this book and I hope to discuss the vision outlined in it with Eric in conferences to come.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s