John Gray writes: Considering the alternatives that are on offer, liberal societies are well worth defending. But there is no reason for thinking these societies are the beginning of a species-wide secular civilisation of the kind of which evangelical atheists dream.
In ancient Greece and Rome, religion was not separate from the rest of human activity. Christianity was less tolerant than these pagan societies, but without it the secular societies of modern times would hardly have been possible. By adopting the distinction between what is owed to Caesar and what to God, Paul and Augustine – who turned the teaching of Jesus into a universal creed – opened the way for societies in which religion was no longer coextensive with life. Secular regimes come in many shapes, some liberal, others tyrannical. Some aim for a separation of church and state as in the US and France, while others – such as the Ataturkist regime that until recently ruled in Turkey – assert state control over religion. Whatever its form, a secular state is no guarantee of a secular culture. Britain has an established church, but despite that fact – or more likely because of it – religion has a smaller role in politics than in America and is less publicly divisive than it is in France.
There is no sign anywhere of religion fading away, but by no means all atheists have thought the disappearance of religion possible or desirable. Some of the most prominent – including the early 19th-century poet and philosopher Giacomo Leopardi, the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, the Austro-Hungarian philosopher and novelist Fritz Mauthner (who published a four-volume history of atheism in the early 1920s) and Sigmund Freud, to name a few – were all atheists who accepted the human value of religion. One thing these atheists had in common was a refreshing indifference to questions of belief. Mauthner – who is remembered today chiefly because of a dismissive one-line mention in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus – suggested that belief and unbelief were both expressions of a superstitious faith in language. For him, “humanity” was an apparition which melts away along with the departing Deity. Atheism was an experiment in living without taking human concepts as realities. Intriguingly, Mauthner saw parallels between this radical atheism and the tradition of negative theology in which nothing can be affirmed of God, and described the heretical medieval Christian mystic Meister Eckhart as being an atheist in this sense.
Above all, these unevangelical atheists accepted that religion is definitively human. Though not all human beings may attach great importance to them, every society contains practices that are recognisably religious. Why should religion be universal in this way? For atheist missionaries this is a decidedly awkward question. Invariably they claim to be followers of Darwin. Yet they never ask what evolutionary function this species-wide phenomenon serves. There is an irresolvable contradiction between viewing religion naturalistically – as a human adaptation to living in the world – and condemning it as a tissue of error and illusion. What if the upshot of scientific inquiry is that a need for illusion is built into in the human mind? If religions are natural for humans and give value to their lives, why spend your life trying to persuade others to give them up?
The answer that will be given is that religion is implicated in many human evils. Of course this is true. Among other things, Christianity brought with it a type of sexual repression unknown in pagan times. Other religions have their own distinctive flaws. But the fault is not with religion, any more than science is to blame for the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction or medicine and psychology for the refinement of techniques of torture. The fault is in the intractable human animal. Like religion at its worst, contemporary atheism feeds the fantasy that human life can be remade by a conversion experience – in this case, conversion to unbelief. [Continue reading…]
Conversion can be thought of as an example of the miracle of neuroplasticity: that beliefs, firmly held, can in the right circumstances, suddenly be upturned such that the world thereafter is perceived in a radically different way.
That transition is usually described in terms of a bridge that leads from weak faith, no faith, or false faith, to conviction, but as Gray points out, that bridge could also be imagined to be traversable in the opposite direction.
The mistake that all evangelicals make (be they religious evangelicals or new atheists) is to imagine that they have the right and ability to march others across this bridge.
Real conversion, by its nature, cannot be coercive, since it entails some kind of discovery and no one discovers anything under pressure from others.
In a world that remains predominantly religious, the new atheists have ostensibly embarked on a mission of staggering proportions in their effort to purge humanity of its unreasonable superstitions.
This could be viewed as a heroically ambitious undertaking, but there seem to be plenty of reasons not to see it that way.
If the new atheists genuinely hope to persuade religious believers to see the error of their ways, how can they make any progress if they start out by viewing their prospective converts with contempt?
When was it ever the first step in a genuine process of persuasion, to start with the assumption that the person you are addressing is a fool?
As much as the new atheists may appear to be possessed by evangelical fervor, they’re appetite to condemn religion sometimes mirrors the religious fanaticism that condemns apostates.
“Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them,” writes Sam Harris in apparent agreement with the leaders of ISIS. Their only disagreement is over which propositions warrant a death sentence.
Still, much as the new atheists are often guilty of evangelical errors, I seriously doubt that their mission truly is to mount a challenge against the reign of religion.
On the contrary, I think their mission seems to have less to do with changing the world than it has with preaching to the converted. It’s about selling books, going on speaking tours, appearing on TV, amassing followers on Twitter, and doing everything else it takes to carve out a profitable cultural niche.
Who would have thought that it’s possible to pursue a career as a professional atheist? Sam Harris has, and I’m sure he has been rewarded handsomely and his success will continue, irrespective of the fate of religion.