The New Atheist Novel: Philosophy, Fiction and Polemic after 9/11
by Arthur Bradley and Andrew Tate (New Directions, 2010)
The Children Act by Ian McEwan (Nan A. Talese, 2014)
Fury by Salman Rushdie (Random House, 2001)
The Book Against God by James Wood (Picador, 2004)
HEAVY RHETORIC MIXED WITH biblical exegesis and reductive presentation of religious practice has created bestsellers for the so-called New Atheists: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens. The intellectual pedigree of Dawkins and Harris, an evolutionary biologist and neuroscientist respectively, might lead us to expect authority in other disciplines. No such transfer occurs. Critic Terry Eagleton’s dismissal of the group echoes a refrain voiced since Harris’s 2004 The End of Faith: the New Atheists sound like fundamentalists. They thump The Origin of the Species rather than the Bible.
The commercial success of the New Atheists is not refutable. Their books are entertaining, timely, and controversial. Criticisms of their intellectual and theological prowess, however valid, often ignore that their screeds are written for a general audience willing to accept generalizations. A more interesting question is whether the New Atheist tradition has influenced creative works, texts that are sustained by the same ambiguity and abstraction that New Atheist tracts fumble. Is there a noteworthy New Atheist tradition in fiction?
The New Atheist Novel: Philosophy, Fiction and Polemic after 9/11 by Arthur Bradley and Andrew Tate is the lone volume that examines the New Atheist tradition in fiction. While the authors posit Salman Rushdie’s 1988 The Satanic Verses as the first New Atheist novel, their focus is on works written in the shadow of 9/11. Bradley and Tate—atheist and Christian respectively—are highly critical of the philosophical components of New Atheism. The trend strikes them as almost virulent, and they note the movement’s rhetorical tendency toward “almost totally circular self-referentiality.” The energy of the New Atheists arises from direct response to the religious right, and they have assumed the tenor of the enemy: “Dawkins begins to sound uncannily like a Pentecostalist evangelist whose gospel offers immediate, born-again conversion.” The New Atheists offer their own creation myths in lyric representations of science. Their chosen form of salvific literature is the novel. Bradley and Tate argue that the novel “represents a kind of secular object of devotion: it offers a this-worldly experience of grandeur, consolation, freedom and even redemption.”
Bradley and Tate stress that their short volume only begins the debate, a debate I find worth pursuing. I think that the contemporary New Atheist novel reaches back to a prototype published in 1916 by a lapsed Irish Catholic. Early in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the Dedalus family sits down for Christmas dinner. Young Stephen says grace before a “plump turkey which had lain, trussed and skewered, on the kitchen table.” Stephen is joined by his parents, his Uncle Charles and Aunt Dante, as well as Mr. Casey, a family friend. Stephen is home from boarding school, and it is his first dinner at the adult table; “he thought of his little brothers and sisters who were waiting in the nursery, as he had often waited, till the pudding came.” His mother has dressed him in an Eton jacket for Mass, which made his father cry.
A prodigious feast is not enough, though, to keep the peace. Mr. Casey and Mr. Dedalus want their priest to stop criticizing Charles Stewart Parnell, the recently deceased leader of the Irish nationalist movement. Parnell, a Protestant marred by allegations of adultery, is mocked by Dante, who calls him a “public sinner.” Mr. Casey responds, “We are all sinners and black sinners.” What at first appears to be a difference of opinion regarding the right of clergy to sermonize about politics soon becomes more heated. Dante quotes Luke 17:1–2, “Woe to the man by whom the scandal cometh…,” which she calls “the language of the Holy Ghost,” leading Mr. Dedalus to quip, “And very bad language if you ask me.” Mrs. Dedalus asks her husband to stop because of Stephen, but as he turns to carving he cannot help himself, and refers to the turkey’s rump as “the pope’s nose.” Red-faced Dante admonishes her host, saying Stephen will remember the “language he heard against God and religion and priests in his own home.”
Mr. Casey won’t stand for another word. He scolds the priests and their pawns who “broke Parnell’s heart and hounded him into the grave.” Dante calls Mr. Casey a “renegade Catholic” and goes as far to say that the “blackest protestant in the land would not speak the language I have heard this evening.” Mr. Dedalus responds by singing, “O, come all you Roman catholics / That never went to mass.” Dante cries, “God and religion before the world!” Mr. Casey smashes his fist on the table, screaming, “if it comes to that, no God for Ireland!” Joyce concludes the scene with a tableau: Dante has left the room, followed by Mrs. Dedalus. Mr. Casey is wailing, calling Parnell his “dead king.” And Stephen sees that his father’s face is “full of tears.”
Years later, walking with his friend Cranly, Stephen rejects his mother’s wish that he attend Easter Mass: “I will not serve.” Cranly smirks, later responding with an observation that is equally applicable to the novel’s author: “It is a curious thing, do you know…how your mind is supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve.” From Dubliners to Finnegan’s Wake, Joyce’s canon is supersaturated with the Catholicism he rejected, save for his sentimental annual attendance at Holy Saturday Mass. Joyce would serve as prototype for later lapsed Catholic novelists, including the self-proclaimed Catholic agnostic Graham Greene. For writers in the Catholic tradition, doubt and rejection serve as literary scaffolding.
Nearly ninety years after Joyce’s novel of lost faith, James Wood—literary critic and lapsed Anglican—published his first novel, The Book Against God. Unusual among literary critics who wade into exegesis, Wood treats religious tradition with respect, and not a small amount of knowledge. Writing about Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer, he notes that writers without belief, such as Virginia Woolf and Samuel Beckett, treat its words with “reverent irony.” Their literary prayers “have no hope of answer,” with the result that the “words are, in the absence of belief, as richly usable as they were three hundred and fifty years ago. All at once, it seems, they are full and empty. They comfort, disappoint, haunt, irritate, disappear, linger.”
Wood thinks God is great for art. The Book Against God focuses on Thomas Bunting, a critic completing a perpetual doctoral degree in English. Thomas learned the literary trade from his father, an Anglican priest who wrote book reviews for a London theological journal. Thomas’s relationship with his father has long been strained, especially when the topic was religion. His father “didn’t need to read any books of postmodernism” to refute Thomas’s opinions; he “brought his immense capacity for evasion into our arguments. Peter, the supposed believer, the great parish priest, the former lecturer in theology, aerated his faith with so many little holes, so much flexibility and doubt and easygoing tolerance, that he simply disappeared down one of those holes.”
Despite his father, Thomas was always a bit skeptical, even as a child, when the “brutality” of Easter Mass scared him: “Accordingly, the little church’s congregants intoned the words flatly, in mournful accents, without much joy.” As he reached adulthood, that youthful skepticism became full atheism. At one point, his wife, Jane, a pianist, says to him that talking with a friend of hers who really understands music is like talking to a fellow believer; “She didn’t mean me; I was a pagan, unable to pray with her. But it was lovely to touch the hem of that faith, to approach her single passion.” Thomas is rather wistful for lost belief in his embrace of Jane’s metaphor.
The novel’s title is also the title of a monograph that Thomas is writing rather than completing his doctoral degree. The work sounds like it might have been written by Stephen Dedalus, someone who feels slighted by both his father and the Father: “Pain was not an argument against but for God. To tell you the truth, this argument still irritates me. Why should we need correction from Him who made us? And why has He made us so very flawed, and then just disappeared? The most charitable image of this particular God I can produce is that of a father who breaks his son’s leg just so that he can watch his son learn how to appeal to his dad for help in mending it.”
Wood’s metafictive inclusion of The Book Against God within the novel allows him to craft such lines in Thomas’s private voice. Yet Thomas is equally inquisitive and subversive when speaking with others. He refuses to accept Jane’s artistic sense of the divine. She hates it when he “[goes] philosophical,” and says: “I can’t argue it logically. All I can say is that I feel when I am utterly suffused in music, immersed in it, so responsive to it…in some silly way I want to change colour like a chameleon does, and become the colour of music.” Thomas can barely contain his frustration, and tells a joke “about the chameleon who finds himself on a tartan picnic rug and is so confused by the challenge of mimicry that he explodes.” “I’m exploding!” he tells Jane. He refuses to accept her comfort with ambiguity.
Not surprisingly, Jane “has no appreciation” for Thomas’s secret treatise. Thomas complains about this to his friend Max, who, much like Stephen’s friend Cranly, pokes at Thomas’s skepticism. Thomas suspects Max of becoming a “closet Christian.” Max, “neither closet nor Christian,” is much like Terry Eagleton, who, despite his belief that the New Atheists “buy their rejection of religion on the cheap,” agrees with them that “most religion is fairly hideous and purely ideological.” Both Max and Eagleton respect an atheism of nuance, not an atheism in response to caricature. Max’s apologia is poetic: “I don’t think that religion is…a machinery of propositions, to be argued with, fought with, and disproved. It’s a way of life, a series of habits. Practices rather than knowledge, facts of existence.” He likens religion to farming; traditional methods of gathering the harvest “can never be…wrong, even if newer and quicker methods are invented which supersede [them].”
In the same way that Stephen rhetorically dismisses Cranly, Thomas critiques Max’s analogies. His passion, though, is clear. For Max, who “never had a faith to lose,” this conversation is an intellectual exercise. For Thomas, the son of a priest, who held on to strands of his faith until his teenage years, it weighs heavier. His claim that he is “not fighting their faith”—the faith of his parents—rings hollow.
Wood is a shrewd storyteller. Thomas later considers the boys’ choir at Westminster Abbey, who sing from Psalm 123: “Have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us: for we are utterly despised.” When those cherubs leave church, Thomas imagines, they will steal twenty-four pence from a younger boy and break school rules. An unsurprising observation, but consistent with New Atheist logic: the people of God sin aplenty, hence, there is no God.
But Wood is a more nuanced novelist than Thomas is an atheist. The real reason for the anecdote is for Thomas to return to the Psalm, and wonder, “Are we utterly despised? I don’t feel at all despised. Do we need to beg for mercy?” He recalls the pious parishioners of his father’s church: the old women who “knelt on their dry knees and confessed their sins…. What sins have these people committed?” That wonder is voiced in skeptical terms: “A snobbery here, malice there, blowing the car horn at a slow tourist in the next village…all this is no more than the daily seed of life, blown all over the land from human to human. This is the bread of life, this unimportant failure to be perfect.”
The recognition that these so-called sinners only ask for forgiveness because they believe in God in the first place is an “extraordinary liberation.” It is what makes Thomas lose his faith. He carries that atheism even into the house of his father. For Thomas, it is the “secularist’s duty…to proselytize.” At a party, Thomas queries a faculty member of a local seminary in hopes of exposing the man’s unbelief. The professor quotes John Cardinal Henry Newman, who, pained over God’s absence, noted “the tokens, so faint and broken, of a super-intending design.” Thomas says, “Atheism isn’t a practice, it’s a principle,” which the professor corrects: “more precisely, it’s a belief.” Despite the intellectual drama, Wood’s novelistic sense intrudes. Thomas’s father has been listening to some of the conversation. He tells them that supper is ready, but Thomas can’t stop thinking about his father’s “imploring eyes, glistening with what seemed like sadness.”
But that thought passes, for Thomas’s story must end with a rejection of the father. In another echo of Joyce, Wood collects his characters for a final Christmas dinner, where the topic of conversation are the terrible things people do in the name of God. Thomas is with his mother, father, Uncle Karl, Jane, and Mr. Norrington, a family friend. Norrington uses Nazism to illustrate his point that “without God, everything is permitted.” Thomas, “breathing fast,” denounces that “pseudo-Dostoevskian line of argument” as “so fucking un-empirical.”
Younger Thomas would have swallowed these words. Jane tries to explain his passion as tiredness, but his father snaps, saying Thomas’s unfinished doctorate is certainly not doing the tiring. Thomas leaves the table and sulks in his old bedroom. If only his parents knew about The Book Against God, “they would be sorry…shocked, menaced, threatened, challenged.” Instead, his father is the focus, “the sun-priest, at whose court we all have to pay our respects.”
Thomas learns later that while he was upstairs feeling sorry for himself, Jane was lying to his father about his atheism, calling him a “seeker.” His father believes her, and tells his son that he also had a crisis of faith while his wife was pregnant with Thomas. In a moment of weakness—or out of a desire to be a good son—Thomas says he is still seeking God.
He is not. His father dies, and the novel ends at his funeral. Thomas wonders why he remembers his father “being cross with me and striding towards me in his black cassock” rather than his gentleness. It is a profound ending, and rather open, full of questions and regret. Thomas needed his father as a “witness” to his unbelief. Literary atheism needs God as a counterbalance. Eliminate the possibility of the divine, and drama peters out. Here Wood inherits Joyce’s novelistic method, although it should be mentioned that Thomas’s lapsed Protestant faith is grounded in familial tension, whereas Stephen’s lapsed Catholicism is spurred by nationalism—and Stephen retains a longing for sign and symbol.
Wood hesitates to align with the rhetoric of Dawkins and Harris. Like many others, he has observed that the New Atheists have created caricatures, associating all Christians with literalists, revealing that New Atheism “parasitically lives off its enemy.” Rhetorically, New Atheism “is premised on stable, lifelong belief” of both atheists and religious. Thomas Bunting, at his worst, might even be considered a parody of the New Atheism.
If Wood’s categorization as a New Atheist novelist is complicated, Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan seem less so. Their novels hold no nostalgia for the rituals or traditions of belief. Fury, Rushdie’s seventh novel, is set in New York City, and was published a week before 9/11. In the late 1980s, Malik Solanka “despaired of the academic life,” and quit his tenured position at King’s Cambridge. He begins filming a “late-night series of popular history-of-philosophy programs” for the BBC titled The Adventures of Little Brain, starring Solanka’s “notorious collection of outsize egghead dolls.” The handcrafted dolls were a “tolerable eccentricity” during his academic days. The show became a hit, and Solanka became rich.
Malik first marries Sara, who says Malik can only handle “the world in inanimate miniature…the world you can make, unmake, and manipulate.” His second marriage, to Eleanor, produces a son named Asmaan, whose name means paradise, “because he was the only heaven in which they could both wholeheartedly and unreservedly believe.” Solanka is a skeptic. He is “godless”; the novel’s sarcastic third person narrator quips that the man won’t even use the word “blessed.”
Despite his successes, Malik is never satisfied, and blames it on a distinctly Roman sense of fury: “sexual, Oedipal, political, magical, brutal—[which] drives us to our finest heights and coarsest depths.” In what sounds like his version of religion, Malik says this fury “is what we are, what we civilize ourselves to disguise—the terrifying human animal in us, the exalted, transcendent, self-destructive, untrammeled lord of creation.”
It is this fury that leads him toward mania, which peaks one night when he holds a carving knife and stands “for a terrible, dumb minute over the body of his sleeping wife.” He flees for New York City the next morning without explanation. Malik comes to America to “erase himself…. Eat me, Professor Solanka silently prayed. Eat me, America, and give me peace.” Symbolism is heavy throughout Fury. Malik passes a Catholic school that “did its proselytizing in Latin carved in stone,” which, of course, “struck no responsive chord.” The text stands capitalized and untranslated above the street, a truly dead language. Later, when a song plays on a restaurant’s stereo, Malik needs his lover Mila to translate the Spanish words: “after three days I will rise again…. Resurrection, resurrection, and baby I’ll make sure you know when.” He has no patience for the Catholic-speak of his building’s Polish maid, thinking to himself: “We were our stories, and when we died, if we were very lucky, our immortality would be in another such tale.” These moments of heavy symbolism make Malik feel less like a developing character and more like evidence for a New Atheist thesis.
In America, Malik attempts to manipulate himself in the same way he crafts his dolls. Those dolls who began as clay, “of which God, who didn’t exist, made man, who did. Such was the paradox of human life: its creator was fictional, but life itself was a fact.”
Fury’s power lies less in the arc of Malik’s life than in the way it captures the moments leading up to 9/11: “The whole world was burning on a shorter fuse. There was a knife twisting in every gut, a scourge for every back. We were all grievously provoked…. People snarled and cowered in the rubble of their own misdeeds.” This world is its own hell, where the “spirit escapes the chains of what we know ourselves to be. It may rise in wrath, inflamed by its captivity, and lay reason’s world to waste.”
Rushdie’s novel was skewered by James Wood, who said it “exhausts negative superlatives” in a way “that is likely to make even its most charitable readers furious.” He concludes that the novel’s timestamped popular references make it “immediately obsolete; its trivia tattoo has already faded. The decision to soften the task of fictional representation, to relax mimesis to this level of muscleless gossip, this bare recording of social facts, is obviously disastrous.” Wood accuses Rushdie of what John Gardner called “faults of frigidity,” when a writer “presents serious material,” but then treats that material in a flippant manner. Malik’s observations conflate so often with Rushdie’s that Wood says it “infiltrates and infects the fabric of the storytelling.”
If Rushdie dismisses God with a smirk, Ian McEwan rejects God with force. McEwan’s faith is in the form of the novel—particularly the short novel—rather than the divine. Bradley and Tate argue that for McEwan, human consciousness exists in two opposing forms: the “literary imagination that enables us to inhabit the minds of others and thus to respect them as distinct from our own…[and] the religious or terrorist consciousness that is quite unable to step outside its own solipsistic world view.” For McEwan and fellow unbeliever Martin Amis, atheism offers “independence of mind,” the type of freedom, they argue, that is necessary for literature.
Many of McEwan’s novels fit this thesis, and his newest feels particularly written toward it. The Children Act begins in the home of Fiona Maye, a British high court judge. Her unhappy husband Jack blandly announces that he wants an open marriage. Appalled, Fiona rejects his plan. Jack soon leaves, and Fiona changes the locks. Her new case is concerned with a young but fervent Jehovah’s Witness, Adam Henry, who rejects a blood transfusion for his leukemia. Because he is not yet eighteen, the state will decide whether he will be forced to accept the treatment. McEwan primes the reader for Fiona’s maternal concern by stressing that her own “childlessness was a fugue in itself, a flight…from her proper destiny” as a woman. She and her husband chose careers instead of children; he is a professor of ancient history, while “she belonged to the law as some women had once been brides of Christ.” Adam fills that childless space.
McEwan’s prose is seamless as he presents Fiona’s examination of Adam’s case and psyche. She takes the extraordinary step of visiting him in the hospital, where, despite his literalist rhetoric, he is no caricature. He shares a poem with Fiona, who does her best to offer literary observations, as well as the tempered statement that “I don’t think you have to believe in God to understand or like this poem.” Adam disagrees.
Adam offers the theological basis for his rejection of blood transfusion, beginning in the abstract (“God has told us it’s wrong”) but becoming specific, quoting Leviticus and Acts. Fiona is impressed: she “recognized certain phrases from [Adam’s] father. But Adam spoke them like the discoverer of elementary facts, the formulator of doctrine rather than its recipient. It was a sermon she was hearing, faithfully and passionately reproduced.”
Fiona listens, but the law is clear: his fate is ultimately her decision. Fiona soon eloquently concludes that Adam “must be protected from his religion and from himself.” Ultimately, she judges that “his life is more precious than his dignity.” He will have the transfusion.
Adam lives, and loses his religion. He later finds Fiona and says that she was the “antidote.” McEwan is careful to not make Fiona an adamant atheist; she is far gentler than Dawkins. Adam loves Fiona. She kisses him, but rejects his desire to live with her. When his leukemia returns, now of age, he refuses transfusion; not for his faith, but as suicide. When she learns of this through her colleague, Fiona feels incredible guilt: “she offered nothing in religion’s place.”
In a review of the novel, Jacob Bacharach praised McEwan’s prose but lamented that the “novel has a certain quality of the school essay or the magazine assignment”; a “clever setting for a moral argument.” The liberal judge distilling the law, enlightenment, and civic sense into a decision that reveals the antiquated, cold dogma of religion. The Children Act is the perfect New Atheist novel, where God’s will bows to man’s law. There is not a moment in the novel that feels dramatically spontaneous; even Adam’s pursuit of Fiona and her kiss feel as crafted as her judicial speeches.
This is not to say that novels by believers are free from this kind of thing. They are not, of course. But the best novels of either type often have a sort of philosophical untidiness that gives their characters room to maneuver. Endemic, and perhaps essential, to fiction are imperfections of logic. Wood is intrigued by Jens Peter Jacobsen, a Danish atheist who wrote novels that appear to dramatize a need for God. When Wood writes of one of Jacobsen’s protagonists, “Like many atheists, Niels seems unable to stop invoking a God whose existence he is supposed not to credit,” is he not writing of Thomas Bunting, of himself? The New Atheists of nonfiction are intellectual, reductive, and unconcerned with origin and context. By sullying a caricatured belief in a vengeful God, they have valorized a direct relation between sin and judgment. Their God waits at a chalkboard, ready to mark the next lapse of soul. The New Atheists of fiction replace sweeping judgments with dramatic narratives, but retain the intellectual narrowness of their bestselling counterparts.
Leon Wieseltier notes that “humanism is not the antithesis of religion, as Pope Francis is exquisitely demonstrating.” For Wieseltier, humanism is a worldview, a “philosophical claim about the centrality of humankind to the universe” that includes a “moral claim about the priority…of certain values, not least tolerance and compassion.” While the humanist and the believer might share those moral claims and values, they differ on the matter of their origins. The dramatic method of the novel form reminds us that the black and white categories of belief and unbelief are shaded and blended by life. While the New Atheist novelists have produced books we can admire and sometimes enjoy, they often fall into the intellectual trap of their bestselling colleagues by rejecting religious values and replacing them with vague affirmations of the inerrancy of literature, as if the novel alone might save the world.
Wood is aware that even the most ardent disbelievers—because they are flesh and blood—waver. Whether fictional characters or real people, these disbelievers are not rhetorical machines. They are humans seeking meaning and understanding within a confusing world. The formal devotion of the New Atheists novelists to the novel is almost more reductive than the abstract fundamentalism their peers caricature in their angry volumes of nonfiction. The New Atheist novelists would do well to take a cue from Wood’s Thomas Bunting who, stubborn as he is, recognizes his debt to his father—and perhaps to the Father. When writers like McEwan elevate the novel in place of God, they risk writing programmed plots and flat characters. They risk becoming literalists of fiction.
The New Atheist novelists have attacked dogma, but they have forgotten about faith. They have forgotten those moments of wavering, whether they occur in times of weakness or of perception. The whisper of God’s existence might come behind a closed door or in the middle of a street, deep in the night or under a blinding sun. That whisper can feel like thunder in a doubting heart. Novelists know that.
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Great read. Thank you. The sentences “Thomas needed his father as a “witness” to his unbelief. Literary
atheism needs God as a counterbalance. Eliminate the possibility of the
divine, and drama peters out,” reminded me of the last sentences of a Leszek Kolakowski essay: “But the Absolute could be replaced by something finite and non-absolute only if it were really forgotten. And if this were possible, there would no longer be any need to replace it. So, the object could be attained only once there was no need for it. But the Absolute can never be forgotten. And the face that we cannot forget about God means that He is present even in our rejection of Him.”
I like the idea that the New Atheist devotion to the novel is itself a reductive phenomenon. I feel like David Foster Wallace fell into a similar trap: that of worshiping art, particularly fiction, as the source of mankind’s salvation. I think such a belief ends in as much despair as the other failed attempts of replacing our primary object of worship (nation states, free love, capitalism, etc.). The novel, along with music and poetry, I believe come closest to the possibility of achieving a God-like knowledge, but we are forced to admit that these avenues of expression are ultimately limited, broken, and full of imperfections.