The religious atheist

The anti-religious atheist is the inspired prophet of a new religious movement.
Zac Alstin | Jun 30 2011 | comment  

Christopher HitchensI remember having occasional conversations with people who thought they were atheists, yet, after a brief discussion, were content to redefine themselves as agnostics; more, perhaps, a reflection of religious apathy than a strong belief that no god exists.

I must have blinked, or fallen asleep at some point around 2005. For I awoke to a brave new world in which, it seems, our ambivalent agnostics had been overtaken by a new coterie of die-hard, adamantine atheists. Suddenly it was no longer “cool” to be “unsure”. The boot was on the other foot, and someone had tied the laces extra tight. Religion had reached its nadir: no longer was the onus on the atheist to disprove god, now it was up to God to prove himself to the atheist.

Admittedly, this tactic is not new, and in atheist circles the idea behind it dates at least as far back as Bertrand Russell. But more recently we saw the same tactic utilised in the Teach the Controversy debate, during which the opponents of evolutionary theory had the perspicacity to reframe the entire argument over creationism and evolution. “Darwinian evolution,” they alleged “is but one of many possible theories,” thereby reducing the whole of evolutionary theory to the level of an interesting suggestion for us all to bear in mind.

It is one of the great and enduring ironies of my quick reading of history that this strategic tool is now employed with demoralising effect by a new generation of atheists. One need only glance in the general direction of the internet to risk finding oneself embroiled in fierce combat with a battle-scarred champion of the “new atheists” movement. God, it now seems, is merely an hypothesis in search of sufficient evidence. The agnostic’s uncertainty has become the theist’s burden of proof.

But this surge in atheistic self-confidence is not necessarily an unhealthy development. Cultural changes can be deceptive, and sometimes the signs of strength in a movement are merely its final rallying cry. In addition, for those of us intent on finding answers, new atheism has at least helped to clarify the questions. Like all cultural movements, it is at least a grand object of study.

So when it comes to evolution, though I am not a proponent of “Teach the Controversy”, I think the nature of that debate is itself fascinating and worthy of study. Call it a “Teach the ‘Teach the Controversy’ Controversy” position, if you will. Likewise, though I’ve not been embroiled in many of these new atheist debates, I am fascinated by what they have revealed.

They have revealed an inane agglomeration of “religion” across the whole of human history and experience. If I were to do the same for, say, “politics”, then people would rightly call me an idiot. Yet it would be an exercise of comparative ease to lay out the history of human politics in all its inglorious array. I could freely intermingle the banal squabbling of modern democratic party-politics with the extravagant pomp and prestige of the late French Monarchy, or the crushing totalitarianism of Stalinist Russia. How easy it would be to lay the blame for so much nonsense, violence, and human misery at the feet of an abstract and unified entity called “politics”.  If only we could free humanity from the parasitic tyranny of politics, and – the root of all evil – the farcical human invention we call the polis.

The rage against religion seems to me as unhelpful as any similar rage against politics would be. Religion is as much a part of human nature as is politics; the pertinent distinction should not be between religion and the absence of it, but between good religion and bad, or true religion and false. We do not dismiss democracy on account of the horrors of communism, nor should we turn against it when we discover its abuse or perversion in any particular instance.

What religion and politics have in common is the humanity behind them. Religion doesn’t kill people, people kill people. Trying to stop humanity being religious has as much hope as stopping us from being political. Indeed, new atheists such as Christopher Hitchens let the sacred Egyptian cat out of the bag when they attempt to characterise even the horrors of Communism and Nazism as merely another manifestation of religion. These regimes attempted to suppress and stamp out the religious traditions in their respective nations, yet they themselves became debased and perverse religious systems in their own right. Hitchens may argue that their fault lay in also trying to replace religion, rather than simply destroy it, but in doing so he begs the question. It is easy with hindsight to see religious elements at play in these totalitarian regimes, but how do we know that any attempt to destroy religiosity will not simply morph into a new religious movement? “There is no god,” but Hitchens makes a profit.

I have as much faith in an irreligious nation remaining irreligious as in an apolitical nation remaining apolitical. Human nature being what it is, a community devoid of politics will necessarily become politicised over time purely for the sake of the benefits politics confers. Indeed, one might as well admit that “apolitical society” is an oxymoron. To be in society with other humans is to implicitly recognise differences in authority, conflicting interests, and the need for compromise. Politics is ultimately a matter of collective decision-making, from the most humble instance to the most grandiose.

Religion, likewise, may be recognised in its most modest forms as the simple reverence or veneration of the greatest goods we know. Does the life of a Christopher Hitchens contain the seeds of a bacchanalian cult? Could Richard Dawkins’ enthusiasm for evolution point the way to a new scientific piety? Every time the new atheists criticise some manifestation of religion, they do so implicitly or explicitly on the ground of some greater or more worthy object. It is precisely the worth-ship or worship of a greater good or higher truth which eases us into religious reverence for it.

In the end we can either reform religion or replace it; there is no third option. The anti-religious atheist is – unwittingly – the inspired prophet of a new religious movement. Whatever ideas he plants in the fertile soil of the human mind, we can rest assured that something religious will eventually grow. The answer to all the religious evils on the tip of an atheist’s tongue is perseverance in religious goods.

Bad religion, like bad science, bad ethics, bad politics and bad arguments must be challenged for being bad, not for being at all.

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