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Nothing, Something, but mostly Nothing

James Wood’s article in ABC’s Religion & Ethics,  Everything, Something, Nothing: The Modern Novel and the Departure of God , offers some tantalizing references to modern fiction and how it encounters God and seeks to understand meaning in our lives, but only skims the surface. It’s certainly worth a read but one would have liked to have seen the references fleshed out and discussed in greater depth. Rather, the author is more concerned with demonstrating his own prodigious literary knowledge. Well, phooey for him.
I certainly agree the modern novel has plenty to say about the human condition, and much of it derives from our religious traditions. But he could have mentioned the existential attitude in the authors he mentions, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard, Camus, exploring the search for meaning within their own person in a seemingly absurd world. What of the repeated use of Ecclesiastes throughout modern literature? One thinks of Hemingway’s, Fiesta:The Sun Also Rises, reading it as an analogy for that biblical tome of existential despair .  “The earth abideth forever” was, according to Hemingway himself, the central concern of his exposition of the post Great War Lost Generation. Ecclesiastes 1:
What do people gain from all their labors
    at which they toil under the sun?
Generations come and generations go,
    but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets,
    and hurries back to where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
    and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
    ever returning on its course.
All streams flow into the sea,
    yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
    there they return again.
All things are wearisome,
    more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
    nor the ear its fill of hearing.
What has been will be again,
    what has been done will be done again;
    there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there anything of which one can say,
    “Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
    it was here before our time.
11 No one remembers the former generations,
    and even those yet to come
will not be remembered
    by those who follow them

Wood lounges in the smugness of his preexisting biases against the New Atheists of whom he has read only a finite amount, despite his claim of near infinite patience. The author cannot have read Dennett’s “Breaking the Spell” or he would understand the “agency” and other explanations of religious belief are not just something Dennett thought up one day, but rather, based on rigorous research by Boyer, Atran, Dunbar, Faber, Hauser and others. They deserve more than a flippant dismissal without evidence.The stale critique that new atheists are only concerned with celestial teapots, flying spaghetti monsters and refuting the literal interpretation of Scripture is just plain false. Has Wood noticed books by Sam Harris such as Free Will, The Moral Landscape, and Waking Up – the last which explores ways of attaining spirituality without recourse to superstition?This road has been traveled endless times by apologist’s and humanities professors, and its usually notable that they appear totally unaware of writers such as Stephen Pinker, Michael Martin, Michael Shermer, Michael Ruse, and A.C. Grayling. All of whom have many interesting things about making sense of the world without God.And I note the author’s comments are simply repeated from his own 2009 article God in the Quad. Like so many critiques of New atheists, the author is guilty of the charges he makes against them.

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