Marketplace Atheism

Stephen Mulhall

  • The Problem of the Soul: Two Visions of Mind and How to Reconcile Them by Owen Flanagan
    Basic Books, 384 pp, £13.50, August 2003, ISBN 0 465 02461 0

Nietzsche’s most famous proclamation of the death of God is voiced by a madman, and directed not at believers but at unbelievers, who mock the madman’s claim to be seeking God by the light of his lantern in the sunny marketplace; how can anyone still think that God might be found in our daylight world? All right-thinking people have long known that there is no God; belief in His existence was a childish superstition, a cognitive error overcome by advances in our understanding of the world, and human maturity requires that we learn to live in the clear, invigorating light of that knowledge. But the madman finds this marketplace atheism to be more childish than the theistic belief it claims to have outgrown. His perception is that God is dead, not non-existent; God’s absence is not a discovery but the result of a deed, and a terrifying one. We are God’s murderers. His presence was real, part of the living tissue of our culture, our responses, our most intimate self-understanding. His destruction is therefore a radically violent act, not only against Him but against ourselves. And His corpse remains unburied; the stench of His putrefying culture still lingers in the nostrils – in, for example, the morality of compassion for the weak that we cling to even after discarding what we think of as its theistic underpinnings.

But the bewildered atheists smell nothing; so the madman shatters his lantern, declaring that he has come too soon. The news he brings is not yet news, but a prophecy; the realisation of what we have done is yet to dawn on us. For atheism is not best understood as a denial of the existence of one supernatural entity, whose absence leaves our universe otherwise unchanged; it means unchaining the earth from its sun, from the source of light through which we grasped everything in our existence. The madman knows that sunshine will continue to illuminate the marketplace long after the destruction of the star that generated it; but the bright morning of Enlightenment atheism is dead light, and we men and women of knowledge will remain unknown to ourselves for as long as we continue trying to draw sustenance from it.

Just as talk of ‘the problem of evil’ usually betrays the presence of marketplace theism, so talk of ‘the problem of the soul’ typically signals an encounter with marketplace atheism. Problems, like crossword puzzles, have solutions; we know how to address them, and what a satisfying resolution of them might look like. But when a theist treats evil as a problem, you can put good money on her solution being far worse than the problem. If, for example, she tells us that, for all we know, God has a plan for His universe within which evil plays an indispensable role in the achievement of a good that far outweighs the costs it exacts, you don’t have to be Ivan Karamazov to want to hand back the ticket. Or should a religious believer be grateful to be proffered a conception of her God as deliberately inflicting evil on the innocent, a supernatural Stalin with a cosmic Plan? Likewise, when an atheist treats the soul as a problem, to which he nevertheless has a solution, we would do well to consider the benefits of continuing to live with the ‘problem’.

For Owen Flanagan, belief in a soul means believing that a person is an immaterial mental essence attached to, but independent of, a body. Without such a conception, he thinks that religious belief must founder; but he also thinks that a version of the same belief (usually associated in philosophy with Descartes) exists in secular form, and might seem essential if we are to regard ourselves as having free will, substantial personal identity and moral status. Since Flanagan regards this view of the mind as basically incoherent – as empty rather than mistaken – he wants to show how it, and hence religious belief, can be rejected without rejecting our conception of persons as free, morally responsible, genuinely individual beings.

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