What a Very Stupid Salad
The dazzling moment of truth comes when Gopnik claims that what unbelievers “really have now” is
a monopoly on legitimate forms of knowledge about the natural world. They have this monopoly for the same reason that computer manufacturers have an edge over crystal-ball makers. . . . We know that men were not invented . . .; that the earth is not the center of the universe . . .; and that, in the billions of years of the universe’s existence, there is no evidence of a single miraculous intercession with the laws of nature. We need not imagine that there’s no Heaven; we know that there is none, and we will search for angels forever in vain.
Did Gopnik bother to read what he was writing there? I ask only because it is so colossally silly. If my dog were to utter such words, I should be deeply disappointed in my dog’s powers of reasoning. If my salad at lunch were suddenly to deliver itself of such an opinion, my only thought would be “What a very stupid salad.” Before all else, there is the preposterous temerity of the proprietary claim; it is like some fugitive from a local asylum appearing at the door to tell you that “all this realm” is his inalienable feudal appanage and that you must evacuate the premises forthwith. Precisely how does materialism (which is just a metaphysical postulate, of extremely dubious logical coherence) entail exclusive ownership of scientific knowledge? Does Gopnik think he can assert rights here denied to Galileo, Kepler, and Newton? Or to Arthur Eddington, Werner Heisenberg, Max Planck, Erwin Schrödinger, Paul Dirac, Anthony Zee, John Barrow, Freeman Dyson, Owen Gingerich, John Polkinghorne, Paul Davies, Stephen Barr, Francis Collins, Simon Conway Morris, and (yes) Albert Einstein?
The tiny, thwarted blastema of a thought that seems to be lurking in Gopnik’s words is the notion that we have only lately discovered that God cannot be found as a discrete physical object or force within the manifold of nature, and that this is somehow a staggering blow to “that hypothesis”—though, curiously enough, Augustine or Philo or Ramanuja (and so on) could have told him as much: God is not a natural phenomenon. Is it really so difficult to grasp that the classical concept of God has always occupied a logical space that cannot be approached from the necessarily limited perspective of natural science?
It does not matter. Nothing is happening here. The conversation has never begun. The current vogue in atheism is probably reducible to three rather sordidly ordinary realities: the mechanistic metaphysics inherited from the seventeenth century, the banal voluntarism that is the inevitable concomitant of late capitalist consumerism, and the quiet fascism of Western cultural supremacism (that is, the assumption that all cultures that do not consent to the late modern Western vision of reality are merely retrograde, unenlightened, and in need of intellectual correction and many more Blu-ray players). Everything else is idle chatter—and we live in an age of idle chatter. Lay the blame where you will: the internet, 940 television channels, social media, the ubiquity of high-fructose corn syrup, whatever you like. Almost all public discourse is now instantaneous, fluently aimless, deeply uninformed, and immune to logical rigor. What I find so dismal about Gopnik’s article is the thought that it represents not the worst of popular secularist thinking, but the best. Principled unbelief was once a philosophical passion and moral adventure, with which it was worthwhile to contend. Now, perhaps, it is only so much bad intellectual journalism, which is to say, gossip, fashion, theatrics, trifling prejudice. Perhaps this really is the way the argument ends—not with a bang but a whimper.