Naturalism and Nihilism
But is Haught being fair to tar atheism, and therefore naturalism, with the brush of religiosity and faith? Are naturalists creedal about scientism, which Haught defines as the idea that “science alone is a reliable road to true understanding of anything”? No. Naturalists don’t (or shouldn’t) suppose that all truths are scientific truths, only that science is our best guide to understanding the ultimate constituents of reality and the things they compose – the “furniture of the universe.” (More on distinguishing science from scientism is here, here and here.) Naturalists’ commitment to science in this regard isn’t a matter of faith, it’s based on experience – the widely shared experience that beliefs about the world based in science are generally more reliable than those that aren’t. If we want reliable beliefs, then it’s rational to stick with science, not a matter of faith. So it isn’t, as Haught says, self-contradictory to assert we shouldn’t base beliefs about the world on faith, but rather on science, since this assertion isn’t based on faith.
Haught takes the new “soft-core” atheists to task for accepting mainstream values and modern lifestyles, saying that they aren’t being true to the real implications of atheism. The old hard-core atheists such as Nietzsche, Camus, and Sartre saw that “a full acceptance of the death of God would require an asceticism completely missing in the new atheistic formulas.” They would advise, as Haught puts it, that
If you're going to be an atheist, the most rugged version of godlessness demands complete consistency. Go all the way and think the business of atheism through to the bitter end. This means that before you get too comfortable with the godless world you long for, you will be required by the logic of any consistent skepticism to pass through the disorienting wilderness of nihilism. Do you have the courage to do that?
For Haught, true atheism and naturalism necessarily end up in nihilism. Since the new atheists obviously aren’t nihilists, being good bourgeois and all, they aren’t real, rugged atheists. He asks
Has [Sam] Harris really thought about what would happen if people adopted the hard-core atheist's belief that there is no transcendent basis for our moral valuations? What if people have the sense to ask whether Darwinian naturalism can provide a solid and enduring foundation for our truth claims and value judgments? Will a good science education make everyone simply decide to be good if the universe is inherently valueless and purposeless? At least the hard-core atheists tried to prepare their readers for the pointless world they would encounter if the death of God were taken seriously.
The equation of naturalism with nihilism is a standard scare tactic, but it doesn’t bear on the truth or plausibility of naturalism or theism. Even if Darwinian naturalism can’t provide “a solid and enduring foundation for our truth claims and value judgments” this isn’t proof that it’s false, or that god exists. It’s only a reason to hope god exists, on the questionable assumption that his authority provides a secure basis for moral values (see here).
It turns out, however, that the hard-core atheists (at least as Haught describes them) were wrong: an atheistic naturalism doesn’t end up in nihilism, so we needn’t run scared into the arms of god. Without a transcendent, theistic basis for our moral valuations, there are still compelling reasons for naturalists to be moral: we are animals whose flourishing within a society critically depends on behaving morally toward others. Moreover, we are built by evolution to take moral rules as universally binding (see here). This explains why the new atheists are just normal folk, not nihilists, when it comes to values and lifestyles: they, like pretty much everyone else, are moral by nature.
Haught closes with a question:
Belief in God or the practice of religion is not necessary in order for people to be highly moral beings. We can agree with soft-core atheists on this point. But the real question, which comes not from me but from the hard-core atheists, is: Can you rationally justify your unconditional adherence to timeless values without implicitly invoking the existence of God?The answer, as we’ve seen, is an unequivocal yes. Of course it isn’t that naturalism avoids value conflict and moral ambiguity, but patently neither does theism, whether it’s what Haught considers the insipid, faith-based varieties, or the more "empirical" theological varieties. Since he admits that belief in god isn’t necessary for being moral, this puts naturalists and theists on at least an equal moral footing. That naturalists are not nihilists doesn’t implicitly invoke the existence of god, it’s simply evidence that morality is a natural phenomenon. As Dan Dennett would say, thank goodness!