The religious atheist

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.

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.

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
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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