The First New Atheist

200 years after his birth, Kierkegaard’s philosophies are more relevant than ever.


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Søren Kierkegaard was born in Denmark on May 5, 1813. He was a difficult and troublesome boy. He quarreled with his father and lived a flippant and self-indulgent life as a young man. Then he had a conversion experience. He broke with his fiancé and became an urban hermit of sorts. He studied philosophy and started to write. He believed that he had a truth to tell the people of his time. The people didn’t want to be told — do they ever? This caused him to fight with his fellow Danes and anyone else who got in his way. He became an object of ridicule around Copenhagen. The local papers made fun of him for his hunched back and clubbed foot. He wrote many books under various false names, most of which were ignored. He died in relative obscurity at the age of 42.

Thus, the short and painful life of Søren Kierkegaard. Over the last 200 years, however, Kierkegaard’s writings have resurfaced in influential places. A mad German named Friedrich Nietzsche was impressed with Kierkegaard’s writings. He helped to keep Kierkegaard from falling into complete oblivion. Another rascally German rediscovered Kierkegaard in the early 20th century. This was Martin Heidegger who, unintentionally, turned Kierkegaard into an intellectual predecessor of Existentialist philosophy. More recently the Post-Modernists rediscovered Kierkegaard, fascinated by his use of fragmentary writing and multiple narrative voices. Kierkegaard is the philosopher who will not go away.

Today, at the 200th anniversary of his birth, Kierkegaard seems as relevant as ever. That’s because there is a public discussion about faith in America today. Kierkegaard’s central concern was faith and the problems of faith. Today, the evolutionary biologist and sometimes children’s author Richard Dawkins is at the forefront of the faith debate. The philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett is a frequent contributor, as well as the neuroscientist Sam Harris. The late, great Christopher Hitchens was the angriest and funniest participant. We’ll call these figures The New Atheists.

Søren Kierkegaard was not an atheist. He was a Christian. All of his writings are either directly or indirectly about Christianity. He’s thus a natural opponent to Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris. Except for one thing. Kierkegaard detested Christianity as he found it. He considered the vast majority of Christians to be hypocrites. Kierkegaard took a look at the Christianity practiced in his time and proclaimed it complacent and self-satisfied. Christianity, thought Kierkegaard, was mostly an excuse for being lazy and dumb.

The New Atheists of today also criticize religion for being lazy and dumb. To be intelligent is, for the New Atheists, practically tantamount to being anti-religious. The moniker that Dawkins and Dennett have taken on for themselves is “bright.” In an article for The New York Times in 2003, Dennett explained “brights” like this:

A bright is a person with a naturalist as opposed to a supernaturalist world view. We brights don’t believe in ghosts or elves or the Easter Bunny — or God. We disagree about many things, and hold a variety of views about morality, politics and the meaning of life, but we share a disbelief in black magic — and life after death.

Dennett goes on to say “brights take their civic duties seriously precisely because they don’t trust God to save humanity from its follies.” Dennett thinks some religious people take their civic duties seriously too. But they hide behind God in doing so. They think someone else, namely God, is going to save them in the end. This form of religion doesn’t demand much from its followers. Dennett finds it pathetic. So did Kierkegaard. Indeed, you can imagine Kierkegaard cheering the brights on.

Of course, there is one big difference between Kierkegaard’s attack on religion and the attack coming from The New Atheists. Kierkegaard attacked the religious pieties of his day in the name of a more authentic religion he claimed to see in the New Testament. Real religion, thought Kierkegaard, is doubt-wracked. Real faith, Kierkegaard wanted us to know, is profoundly involved in working out the deepest paradoxes of being alive. That’s why Kierkegaard once said, “The self-assured believer is a greater sinner in the eyes of God than the troubled disbeliever.”

That’s a strange thought for most Christians. What did Kierkegaard mean? He meant that if you are self-assured in your belief then you have neutered faith to make it intellectually palatable. Faith requires belief in things that are insane from the perspective of reason. It doesn’t make sense that God became man on earth. No amount of thinking about it is going to make it logical. It is a strange and shocking and downright crazy notion. If you are going to believe it (and live your life accordingly), you are going to have to find resources within yourself that transcend reason.

The New Atheists dismiss attempts to transcend reason as simply incoherent. Richard Dawkins once said the following: “One of the things that is wrong with religion is that it teaches us to be satisfied with answers which are not really answers at all.” But Kierkegaard would more or less agree with this thought from Dawkins. Kierkegaard would simply add that it is a positive accomplishment to become satisfied with answers which are not really answers at all. Let’s put this another way. Dawkins and Kierkegaard agree there is no real answer to the question “Why did God become man?” They even both agree that it is an insane question. Dawkins thinks that the insanity of the question means it can be dismissed. Kierkegaard thinks that the insanity of the question forces us to surrender to a logic that is beyond us. Think about it this way. If God came to the world in a way that we could fully understand, it would mean that God is similar enough to us and our world to be understandable. This would be proof that the man who came wasn’t God at all. God could only come to earth in a way that outstrips our understanding. God must be beyond our comprehension to be God. And God must come to us in a way that reveals our own incomprehension so that we can surrender. You don’t surrender to something that you have power over, that you can command and control. You surrender to something that breaks your ability to understand.

Kierkegaard acknowledged that accepting this affront to reason and surrendering is very difficult to do. There’s no great reason to do it either. Kierkegaard noted that being a Christian as described in the New Testament means being lonely, shunned, and generally thought insane. It means suffering. But Kierkegaard thought that true Christianity’s relentless assault on reason, good sense, and any normal definition of self-seeking was the closest thing to a proof of its being true. The surrender must be its own reward. This is an inherently uncomfortable thought. But Kierkegaard wanted faith to teeter right on the edge of impossibility. Kierkegaard thought that a person who believes without hope of understanding even while desiring still to understand is the only person with a chance at real faith.

Maybe it is impossible for The New Atheists to take Kierkegaard’s thoughts on faith seriously. The New Atheists and Kierkegaard may be, necessarily, two ships passing in the night. But because Kierkegaard does not think that religion provides causal explanations for natural phenomena, The New Atheists cannot attack him in the same way as they attack Creationists or believers in Intelligent Design. Religion, for Kierkegaard, does not compete with science. Religion is wholly other from science. What would it mean, then, for brights like Dennett or Dawkins seriously to engage the work of Søren Kierkegaard? Sam Harris, for instance, says that “Faith is the license religious people give themselves to keep believing when reasons fail.” This almost sounds like something Kierkegaard would say. But the Kierkegaardian version of the thought would go like this: “The fact that reasons fail is the opening for religious belief.” Is the universe perfectly understood? Does reason ever fail? It would be interesting to hear what The New Atheists think. A discussion of faith that begins with these questions would be a nice 200th birthday present for the irascible hunchback of Copenhagen. • 8 May 2013