Atheism becomes fashionable

Over the past half century, the dominant view among the chattering classes has been either that there is no God (atheism) or that one should go about one’s life as if the question of God’s existence cannot be answered (agnosticism) and thus is of no concern. Most of those who share the atheistic view also think that its propagation is best achieved by treating it as an accepted and comfortable fact of life, in keeping with Freud’s famous dictum that "the more the fruits of knowledge become accessible to men, the more widespread is the decline of religious belief".

However, it seems that this low key approach has turned out to be less convincing for millions of people who just as comfortably accept advances in science and technology alongside a growing interest for religious faith. So a new strategy based on open proselytising in favour of atheism is now gradually taking shape. That at least is the impression given by the publication in recent months of a spate of books by reputed atheists -- among them Letter to a Christian Nation, by Sam Harris, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, by Daniel C. Dennett, The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins, God is not Great, by Christopher Hitchens and The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist, by Victor Stenger. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, these authors have collectively sold about one million books over the past 12 months.

The irony of this new desire to further the spread of atheism is that,
unlike the cool and laid-back atheists of an earlier age, these new
atheists write like true believers... This impatient zeal surely stems from the fact
that, for them, history has not unfolded exactly as intended.

The intent of these authors is to accelerate the elimination of all remnants of the Judeo-Christian tradition. As Sam Harris puts it, the name of the game is "to demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity." As for Hitchens, he seeks to show "how religion poisons everything".

The irony of this new desire to further the spread of atheism is that, unlike the cool and laid-back atheists of an earlier age, these new atheists write like true believers. There is, in fact, a missionary and, at times, severe, tone to their writings. Indeed, reading them produces the feeling of being lectured, hectored, and scolded by atheist fundamentalists. This impatient zeal surely stems from the fact that, for them, history has not unfolded exactly as intended.

Accordingly, Sam Harris ends his Letter to a Christian Nation with something that smacks of a personal confession: "This letter is the product of failure – the failure of the many brilliant attacks upon religion that preceded it, the failure of our schools to announce the death of God in a way that each generation can understand, the failure of the media to criticise the abject religious certainties of our public figures – failures great and small that have kept almost every society on this earth muddling over God and despising those who muddle differently".

From people who claim to be driven solely by reason and to have liberated themselves from ignorance and "blind faith", one would normally expect at least some attempt to understand the deeper human reasons for refusing to bury God, as demanded. But such an attempt has yet to be undertaken.

For Christians who take their faith seriously, there is both a downside and an upside to this new wave of atheistic proselytising, with the latter probably outweighing the former. The downside is that it will reinforce already widespread liberal prejudices according to which there is no point in trying to know God. Instead of encouraging people to maintain an open mind about religion (the least to be expected from true liberals), these books will further encourage a closing of the mind to any possibility of the supernatural, which they gratuitously equate with superstition.

The upside is that these books help draw more clearly than ever before the battle lines in the ongoing culture wars. Until recently, most Christians were inclined to assume that modern culture was at least neutral with respect to the basic tenets of Christianity, and that it was possible to adhere to the creed while at the same time accepting the philosophical heritage of the "modern" age. In short, it was more or less taken for granted that one could view oneself as being both a child of God and a child of the Enlightenment.

Thanks in part to these books and others of the same ilk, it is now becoming increasingly clear that Nietzsche was right: the only true alternative to Christianity is nihilism and atheism. Nietzsche inferred from this that morality can only be based on the human will. Anyone familiar with European history of the 20th century will know the disastrous outcome of that alternative. It is in this sense that the new atheists help us to understand why the 150-year old attempt by "progressive" Christians to find some accommodation between the Christian creed and the basic tenets of the Enlightenment have led to a gradual erosion of the faith. This perhaps explains why, at the outset of the 21st century, many Christians are coming to realise that the only meaningful choice is between traditional Christianity and atheism. As the intellectual dust and confusion caused by the collapse of the numerous variations of liberal Protestantism and "progressive" Catholicism settles, we find there is no way around this choice.

All this does not mean, however, that Christians and atheists are soon to find themselves locked into some kind of unrelenting battle. Whether the more zealous atheists who have adopted the missionary posture of these books like it or not, there are other atheists who do not subscribe to their views and who even seek a dialogue with Christianity. Jürgen Habermas, considered by many as a most "methodical atheist" and an icon of postmodernism, wrote in a 2004 essay titled A time of transition that "Christianity, and nothing else, is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of Western civilisation. To this day, we have no other options [than Christianity]. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter." A similar view is held by atheist Marcello Pera, professor of philosophy and President of the Italian Senate in a book published jointly with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI) and titled Without Roots.

It is also worth noting that the new atheists, as mentioned, fail to provide any solid argument in support of the non-existence of God. This is not because of some lack of intellectual sophistication on their part, but rather because, as most philosophers will readily admit, non-existence is something that can never be proven. Christopher Hitchens, generally considered the most knowledgeable and entertaining of the five authors mentioned, argues that God does not exist because "all attempts to reconcile faith with science and reason are consigned to failure and ridicule".

In making this claim, Hitchens makes two mistakes. First, he fails to account for the fact that a large proportion of scientists (as many as 50 per cent according to the late Stephen Jay Gould, a leading spokesman for evolutionary theory) do believe in God. Second, and more importantly, he is totally oblivious to the fact that, in the order of natural (ie, non-revealed) knowledge, the idea that God exists can only make sense as a philosophical answer to a metaphysical question. Throughout history, the concept of God has always appeared as one having to do with the why of a certain existence. And the question as to why something exists is not a scientific one because whatever its answer might be, it does not lend itself to empirical verification, ie, it is not falsifiable through experimentation. Anyone wondering whether God exists is well aware that he is not raising a scientific question because all scientific enquiries are geared to what a given thing actually is, rather than to why it exists. In short, religion has nothing to do with what things are – that is the realm of natural science -, but rather with why they happen to be at all.

But there is an even deeper flaw in the thinking of the new atheists. All assume that in the debate on God, the basic distinction is that between believers and unbelievers. Yet, as Blaise Pascal, a 17th Century mathematician, scientist and inventor of the first working computer, notes in his Pensées, the true absolute distinction is between "seeking" and "unseeking" unbelievers, between unhappy atheists who seek and eventually become believers, and happy atheists who simply don’t care. Pascal reminds us that God judges atheists, not by the supernatural standard of faith, but rather by the natural standard of reason.

Anyone reading Pascal’s Pensées cannot help but find them eminently reasonable. What they tell us is that we are hard-wired to seek happiness, perfection and certainty. It is impossible for us not to seek these things. And yet we fail miserably at getting even near them. Each of us is a living self-contradiction. The consequence, Pascal says, is that "one needs no great sublimity of soul to realise that in this life there is no true and solid satisfaction… that our afflictions are infinite, and finally that death… must… infallibly face us with the inescapable and appalling alternative of being annihilated or wretched throughout eternity". This means that we would be foolish not to reflect on whether there is an afterlife. "The immortality of the soul is something of such vital importance to us…that one must have lost all feeling not to care about knowing the facts of the matter". Because it is our "chief interest" to seek the truth on this matter, we must make "an absolute distinction between those who strive with all their might to learn and those who live without troubling themselves or thinking about it".

Here Pascal is still arguing on the basis, not of some revealed truth, but of natural reason. He says that the negligence shown by the happy unseeking atheists about their ultimate destiny "seems quite monstrous to me. I do not say this prompted by the pious zeal of spiritual devotion. I mean on the contrary that we ought to have this feeling from principles of human interest and self-esteem. For that we need only see what the least enlightened see" (n. 427).This means that the choice between belief and unbelief is a matter, not primarily of the head, but of the heart.

If one accepts Pascal’s basic premise –- the absolute certainty that we will die some day – then there is no way we can refute his logic. And that logic dictates that the proselytising of the new happy atheists is not only intellectually flawed, but so downright irrational we may well wonder who, 50 years from now, will enjoy the greatest readership: Pascal or Hitchens? The answer seems obvious.

Richard Bastien is a Canadian freelance writer.


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