I hope for this to be my last post discussing new atheism for a while. What I have learned, so far, from the comments below this post and this one is that new atheism isn't so much a philosophy as a mishmash of personal thoughts, platitudes, and a sort of hybrid of materialistic secularism and the less-attractive parts of existentialism, such that the defining principle isn't so much along the order of "I think, therefore I am," and more like "I think my own experience of life is pretty good, and that's pretty much all the time I need to spend pondering the riddle of existence."
I think the old pagans would weep into their libations as they set afire the noble vessel bearing the body of a great hero into the glorified oblivion of the next world, frankly. However, I must admit that perhaps those new atheists I've so far been privileged to encounter are not a representative sample, and that perhaps some of the new atheists have spent some time and effort laying aside their instruments of observation and recording in order to ask the age-old questions like "Why are we here?" and "What is life?" and "Why is there pain and suffering?" and "What is the proper response to the existential horror of total non-existence which we believe is our only lasting destiny?" Because thus far, the answers to the first three questions seems to be: We are here because a big bang happened followed by the slow organization of cosmic dust into organic sentient material; life is what happens when organic sentient material progresses enough to make iPhones and play Angry Birds; and pain and suffering is mostly about other people but really it's just the natural decaying process that is going to affect anybody walking around in a meat suit--sure, it's awful, but whatever. And the answer to the last: crickets. Or, to be fair, the answer to the last: "Wow, you must be a really depressed person to ask questions like that. Don't you have an iPhone?"
[This is the part where the atheists all point out in painstaking detail that my paraphrase of their arguments thus far is not strictly accurate. I could say something about humor, but humor cannot be empirically proved to exist among new atheists. So I will just say: gosh, amazing, you're right, I'm not fair! Neither is the universe--but you seem more upset about my lack of fairness than the universe's loving plan for your total annihilation in 100-N years and counting. Since you are able to deal with the universe's lack of fairness by ignoring it, I'm sure you can figure out a bright and creative way to deal with mine.] :)
The part that frustrates me is that people from the dawn of human history have grappled with these questions, not finding them either frivolous or evidence of clinical depression. If life consists of a mixed bag of experiences for 100-N years followed by eternal oblivion, then what, exactly, is the point of life? To paste on an overlay of enjoyment of one's own good experiences? To steep oneself in pleasure? To sacrifice one's own self-interests in the service of others (and why, exactly, is this a smart choice given such a finite existence)? Is the path of a good life one of wine, women, and song--or of scientific exploration of the causes of alcoholism, an immersion in Gender Studies, and/or a career in the manufacture and sale of cell phone ringtones? Or does the answer depend so totally on personal preferences that there is, philosophically speaking, no such thing as a good life?
And if ancient people spent a lot of time pondering the meaning of life, how much more did they spend pondering the riddle of death. New Atheism seems to think that "Death is a natural termination of the processes of organic life," is all the answer anybody needs, and that anybody who wonders at all beyond that point is just a superstitious person with a need to be comforted by fairy-tales.
I can't help but contrast that attitude with the one Shakespeare created for his tragic hero Macbeth. Faced with the death of his wife and the mounting horror of his own predestined end, Macbeth's cry of existential horror is one that resonates through human experience:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
What does New Atheism say to this? So far, the answer seems to be that if Macbeth had avoided becoming a murdering sociopath, had been kinder to his wife, had found some meaning in his employment (and, ideally perhaps, had had the benefits of a modern education and an iPhone) he would never have groaned forth such miserably depressing words. The idea that Macbeth's words are true, especially for people who think there is no soul, no transcendent realities in our existence, no possibility of being more than funny organic matter which occasionally buys into the illusion that he or she matters, and no future beyond the obliteration of the grave and the slow decay of one's body--now devoid of the brain and consciousness, which was the only thing that had any meaning in the first place--into food for various invertebrates, does not seem to be commonly held or understood.
The New Atheists are less like Shakespearean heroes and more like Eleanor Porter's "Pollyanna." They are not heroically whistling past the graveyard or railing like Macbeth at the futility of life--they appear determined to think that life is quite a nice sort of thing so long as everybody gets along and shares their toys (and, ideally, their endowments for various scientific research--but not, of course, their iPhones). As to existential horror: well, science has come out with some nice drugs for addressing the depression issues of anyone who actually spends time pondering such grim stuff, which is, come to think of it, just one more way in which empiricism is better than all that old superstition about a life full of eternal meaning and consequence.