Journalism is the art of translating abysmal ignorance into execrable prose. At least, that is its purest and most minimal essence. There are, of course, practitioners of the trade who possess talents of a higher order—the rare ability, say, to produce complex sentences and coherent paragraphs—and they tend to occupy the more elevated caste of “intellectual journalists.” These, however, are rather like “whores with hearts of gold”: more misty figments of tender fantasy than concrete objects of empirical experience. Most journalism of ideas is little more than a form of empty garrulousness, incessant gossip about half-heard rumors and half-formed opinions, an intense specialization in diffuse generalizations. It is something we all do at social gatherings—creating ephemeral connections with strangers by chattering vacuously about things of which we know nothing—miraculously transformed into a vocation.
All right, I suppose that all sounds a little spiteful. I take it back. I am perfectly aware that there are quite a few men and women of considerable gifts laboring in the fields of journalism, and that some figures of genuine literary eminence have risen from the ranks of the profession. My affection for H. L. Mencken verges on the idolatrous. I can think of a half-dozen writers I admire who began (and in some cases ended) their careers writing for the popular press. And, after all, I am not entirely certain how I should classify what I am doing in writing a regular column. Still, it seems fair to me to note that what a journalist does for a living does not, in itself, require him or her to be a scholar, an artist, a philosopher, or even particularly good at sorting through abstract ideas. And, really, it is hard both to meet a regular deadline and also to pause long enough to learn anything new, or waste much time even following one’s own arguments.
Which brings me to Adam Gopnik, and specifically his New Yorker article of February 17, “Bigger Than Phil”—the immediate occasion of all the rude remarks that went coursing through my mind and spilling out onto the page overhead. Ostensibly a survey of recently published books on (vaguely speaking) theism and atheism, it is actually an almost perfect distillation of everything most depressingly vapid about the cogitatively indolent secularism of late modern society. This is no particular reflection on Gopnik’s intelligence—he is bright enough, surely—but only on that atmosphere of complacent ignorance that seems to be the native element of so many of today’s cultured unbelievers. The article is intellectually trivial, but perhaps culturally portentous.
Simply said, we have reached a moment in Western history when, despite all appearances, no meaningful public debate over belief and unbelief is possible. Not only do convinced secularists no longer understand what the issue is; they are incapable of even suspecting that they do not understand, or of caring whether they do. The logical and imaginative grammars of belief, which still informed the thinking of earlier generations of atheists and skeptics, are no longer there. In their place, there is now—where questions of the divine, the supernatural, or the religious are concerned—only a kind of habitual intellectual listlessness.
For full disclosure’s sake, I should note that my most recent book is among those Gopnik discusses (sort of). He obviously did not read it—at least not as far as, say, the introduction—given the bizarre description he provides of its argument. “As the explanations get more desperately minute, the apologies get ever vaster,” he writes. “David Bentley Hart’s recent ‘The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss’ (Yale) doesn’t even attempt to make God the unmoved mover, the Big Banger who got the party started; instead, it roots the proof of his existence in the existence of the universe itself. Since you can explain the universe only by means of some other bit of the universe, why is there a universe (or many of them)? The answer to this unanswerable question is God. He stands outside everything, ‘the infinite to which nothing can add and from which nothing can subtract,’ the ultimate ground of being. This notion, maximalist in conception, is minimalist in effect. . . . A God who communicates with no one and causes nothing seems a surprisingly trivial acquisition for cosmology.”
Excuse the sigh of vexation; I cannot help it. Setting aside the nonsense about desperately minute explanations, which cannot possibly be relevant to any argument of mine, the God described in my book is the creator of everything, who communicates with all persons in a constant and general way, and with many individuals in an episodic and special way. Whatever originality I might claim for certain aspects of my argument, its metaphysical content is entirely and ecstatically derivative: pure “classical theism,” as found in the Cappadocians, Augustine, Denys, Thomas Aquinas, Ibn Sina, Mulla Sadra, Ibn Arabi, Shankara, Ramanuja, Philo, Moses Maimonides . . . well, basically, just about every significant theistic philosopher in human history. (Not to get too recherché here, but one can find most of it in the Roman Catholic catechism.)
Then again, reading the book would not necessarily have helped Gopnik much. Anyone who imagines that the propositions “God is the source of all existence” and “God creates everything” are antitheses, or that divine transcendence involves God simply standing “outside everything,” or that defining God as the Absolute precludes defining him as the Unmoved Mover, enjoys an understanding of philosophical tradition that is something less than luxuriant. Fair enough. He is in another line of work, and probably should have avoided these issues altogether. The real problem with his article is not its dialectical deficiencies so much as its casual inanities. 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.