Saturday, October 03, 2020

The Hell of Atheists

I kicked in, as I generally try to kick in to de-platformed creators and organizations, to Stefan Molyneux when he was thrown off YouTube on trumped-up charges of something-or-other, and decided to try to get my money's worth by reading his epic novel, The God of Atheists, or rather listening to his own dramatic reading of same. The book is the tale of three families whose lives intersect in various ways, most poignantly by the friendship of their three middle-school-aged children, against the backdrop of technology, music, academia, ambition, and ultimately destruction. With Molyneaux's voice providing the nuance, I was captivated throughout all 25 hours. The novel bears a similarity to Atlas Shrugged both in the scope of its philosophical ambition and in the content of its premises. And indeed, I would compare it to Ayn Rand's magnus opus in quality as well.

Except . . . I never actually read Atlas Shrugged. Whittaker Chambers innoculated me against whatever interest I might have had in Objectivism, and with any providence I will likewise cure you, my half-dozen readers, of any interest in whatever this is. Spoilers will follow.

I was vaguely aware from having watched his videos that Molyneux was an unbeliever -- he has counseled religious people on his YouTube show without remarking on it, for instance -- but I was surprised at the depth of his hostility. Molyneaux is an atheist, not in the gentle personally-not-persuaded manner of Scott Adams*, but of the dogmatic tub-thumper variety of Christopher Hitchens. Yet the moral universe he creates is every bit as uncompromising as the Old Testament law and every bit as terrifying as a Jonathan Edwards sermon. But in this world, there is no hope. No faith. No love.

Which is ironic. Molyneux believes with Hitchens that Christianity is child abuse, scaring them with a God who will punish them for sin. But in Molyneux's telling the living damnation that awaits those who come up short is just as real, just as scary. Indeed, it scared me. Except the point of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" is to frighten us into God's grace and mercy. But here there is neither grace nor mercy, only wrath and judgment.

No relationship is free from this judgment. Not the relationship between parents and children; the novel revolves around the three children's condemnation and ultimate rejection of their parents for their moral failings. Molyneux himself was horribly abused by his single mother when he was a child, which experience probably informs his understanding of that relationship, or lack thereof. But these were not abusive parents. Indeed, to my reading they seemed to meet the parenting expectations of their class, but that doesn't matter. Molyneux is explicit about this: one of his characters specifically renounces any loyalty to parents when they are not "good people". Nor escapes the relationship between husband and wife; one of the marriages are held to be worthless, and one ends in divorce, but again not because of mistreatment. Molyneux demands we ask ourselves why our spouses love us. There is sex -- a chapter's worth in clinical detail -- but it is paint-by-numbers and without passion. No, the shortcomings which break relationships were abstract-ethical, and the standards exacting; everything is subordinated to Molyneux's ethical judgements.

There are no heroes in this novel, not really. In this, Molyneux strays from Rand; whatever else you may say about them, the "operatic businessmen" of Atlas Shrugged are held up as role-models for the readers. But Molyneux's sock puppets -- the three children and a philosophy graduate student named Gordon -- are notable for not being required to make any decisions, ethical or otherwise. In fact, one of the other characters points this out to them. To his credit, Molyneux generally "steel-mans" his counter-arguments, sometimes even to the point of making them more persuasive than what Molyneux himself asks us to believe. (Molyneux elsewhere straw-mans his religious counter-arguments, but this work is mercifully free of any religious characters through whom Molyneux would be tempted to embarrass himself.)

At times, Molyneux expounds a specific inversion of Christian theology. For example, Molyneux says something along the lines of, "the only people who believe in forgiveness are those who have done wrong." Well, yes: that is pretty much the point of the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant; given the ten thousand talents we owe to God, we should be lenient with those who owe us the days wages. That's all of us.

The strange thing about this, and also in noted contrast to Rand, is that Molyneux never actually gets around to making any arguments for the ethics he believes in; the novel is merely parasitic on the values he assumes we share. One of the family patriarchs, a philosophy professor, tries to explain the ethics of honesty to the three children -- and fails at it miserably. Which is sort of the point: the professor is bad at his job, and his subsequent academic corruption is the one act of unmitigated immorality on which I had the firmest traction. But for all the fulminations against dishonesty, not one of the other characters undertakes to develop an ethics of truth from first principles. Which is just as well. I remember, listening with my daughter to the professor flail ineffectually, remarking to her: I'm glad I can just believe the Bible. Because without God, we are none of us more that chimpanzees with a slightly-better evolved adaptation to punish defectors. All the rest of it, all the philosophy, is so much post-facto rationalizing. And good luck to it: seriously, if you can't believe in God, then please cobble something together that keeps you from being a total d*ck.

But I, personally, can't help you. Judge for yourselves whether whatever-this-is leaves us richer or poorer. For myself, as with Atlas Shrugged, The God of Atheists drives me and any even modestly self-aware reader fleeing in mortal terror to the arms of Christ.

* In fairness, I am only familiar with Adams' thougths on religion from his YouTube videos. He has not, to my recollection, written about them in any of his books I have read. If he elsewhere has shown hostility to Christianity, I am unaware of it.

No comments: