Since the Renaissance, people have convinced themselves that they’re living on a random planet in a vast galaxy. How sad for them.
– The Greek
Atheism is merely a version of Christianity, so it should always be encouraged for the sake of the faith.
– T.S Elliot (altered)
In the opening scene of Aristophanes’ comedy, “Knights,” two slaves can be heard complaining about their fate. A colleague has gotten them into trouble with their master and they’re discussing how to address the problem. One of them suggests prostrating themselves before the statue of a god, prompting a disgusted response from his friend:
“Do you really believe in gods?”, he asks. “What’s your proof? “. The first slave replies,
“The fact that we are cursed by them. Is that not enough? ”. Evidently, uncertainty about the gods was prevalent even in the 5th century BC. At the start of his book, “On the Gods”, the sophist Protagoras declared, “I cannot know whether they exist ”, and another sophist named Prodicus claimed, “The gods of popular belief do not exist ”. Even Socrates was brought to trial on charges of disbelief in the Athenian gods. But such skepticism did little to change traditional notions of the divine, as empires were still thought to rise and fall by the will of the gods. This mode of thinking continued until the Enlightenment, when something like a mutation in human nature took place: the European notion of the “self” entered into public discourse, and by challenging the role of God as the focal point of man’s society, a new kind of self-awareness took hold. A person’s inner core or “true self” suddenly became new territory to explore – the bourgeoisie bought mirrors, commissioned self-portraits and wrote autobiographies, all in honor of “finding oneself”. The language associated with this new pursuit even took on a religious quality; we’re instructed to “believe” in ourselves, “be true” to ourselves, and above all, “love” ourselves. But of course, such a quest can lead to an endless hall of mirrors: how can the self be known to the self, and who is doing the knowing? Perhaps this is why the rise of self-awareness was associated with the outbreak of epidemic depression across Europe, alongside the emergence of schizophrenia as a recognizable condition. This era of self-awareness also coincided with the rise of atheism as a legitimate worldview, which alongside the Scientific Revolution aimed to condemn the gods to the dustbin of history.
Modern science, sometimes referred to as “scientism“, set out to eliminate sentience from the natural world – lightning became an electrical charge, not an expression of divine displeasure; the amoeba no longer moved because it “wanted” to, but because it was driven by chemical factors in the environment; ultimately, when Time magazine echoed Nietzsche in 1966 by asking, “Is God Dead? ”, the verdict was in: humans are the last conscious beings in a sterile universe. As societal progress came to be measured by humanist and technological achievements, atheism became fashionable, adopted by academia, scientists and the brightest intellectuals. In the latter half of the 20th century, such people claimed religion was a relic of the past that would play a decreasing role in politics and culture, but this expectation was dealt a blow by the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Once Ayatollah Khomeini became supreme leader, a US official was heard asking: “Who ever took religion so seriously? ”. He was baffled at the interruption of what he presumed was a historical trend; Western prosperity had seemed to indicate that secularism would become universal, and grandiose theories of “progress” were already being taught in universities as established fact. But to the dismay of many non-believers, religion is still thriving and at times violently. This is anathema to the latest generations of militant atheists – unable to account for its persistence, they no longer speak of religion’s decline but of its culpability for global conflicts, from terrorism to war. But 120 years ago, even Nietzsche knew of better ways to be a skeptic. A true skeptic understands that an attitude of suspicion is very different from the abandonment of one dogmatism for another, like replacing fundamentalist Christianity with fundamentalist materialism. At least for Nietzsche, the Death of God was a starting point in a long line of philosophical inquiry, yet it appears to be the end of a very short one for today’s atheists, for whom nonbelief has become the unthinking assumption of those who see themselves as modern.
Due to a series of foreign policy and culture debates in the aftermath of 9/11, a certain brand of atheism emerged in the 2000s, providing disgruntled atheists with many occasions to ridicule religious believers. Baptist preacher Jerry Falwell blamed the September 11 attacks on pagans and abortionists, whilst George Bush claimed to have received orders from God that justified the invasion of Iraq. In 2003, Judge Roy Moore installed a giant Ten Commandments monument outside the Alabama Supreme Court, disobeying court orders to take it down. Evidently, those were fruitful years to be a brash atheist; Richard Dawkins’s “The God Delusion” sold millions of copies and Bill Maher’s “Religulous” was the highest-grossing documentary of 2008. South Park lampooned the Mormons and Internet trolls declared war on the Westboro Baptist Church. In order to satirize the teaching of Creationism in public schools, a religion was invented around the “Flying Spaghetti Monster”, which secularists demanded should also be taught in the classroom. The subculture as a whole was loosely dubbed “New Atheism” – it had a nice ring to it. But it was only after Christopher Hitchens broke with the Left and joined Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett to form the “Four Horsemen” that New Atheism emerged in earnest, making non-belief and scientific rationality a political cause. According to these men, the Enlightenment not only accelerated human progress but also condemned the superstitions that preceded it. Since then, science and reason have been guiding humanity toward truth and freedom. But this received wisdom is most unwise; it gets the history of things wrong, setting up an exaggerated opposition between reason and religion. Past philosophers from David Hume to Soren Kierkegaard would be appalled at what passes for religious debate today. Both sides of the discourse move in herds, sticking to their collectively formed opinions. Theists should be far more skeptical of what their leaders teach, yet they predictably defend much of what’s spoken by pastors, imams and rabbis. Many atheists are just as guilty of rallying around totems like Charles Darwin and the scientific method, as if these were infallible deities rather than mere stepping stones of the secular outlook. Being too insecure to tolerate doubt, atheists cling to these manufactured gods much as the religious cling to their doctrines, yet such a leap of faith would hardly be required if the atheist view on rationality and science was as sufficient as they claim.
The idea of nonbelief once looked very different, as seen in the range of words used interchangeably with “atheist” throughout history. Though not exact synonyms, some of these include communist, existentialist, fatalist, freethinker, humanist, infidel, materialist, naturalist, skeptic and secularist, to name the less offensive ones. In modern times, these terms were used for people who rejected supernatural authority, but going back further to classical antiquity, atheism was never understood as a rejection of religion or the supernatural. The Greek “atheos” meant “without gods“, and was simply a refusal to honor the gods of the state. Ancient playwrights referred to philosophers as atheists, Stoics called Epicureans atheists, and the Romans called Christians atheists since they spurned local deities, yet had no temples or statues of their god. In fact, very little was required from the early Christians other than the observance of Roman traditions, and this refusal is what led to their persecution, not a failure to believe in pagan doctrines. Religious heresy was actually a marginal concept back then, and to be an “atheos” was about acting outside the civilizational order; the atheist was seen as subversive – a security risk, if not a traitor. Spirituality was considered a universal practice, whereas monotheism was viewed as an atheistic cult. Then as now, monotheism and atheism have always been two sides of the same coin – one negating the other, but neither sufficient on their own to explain the human condition.
In order to understand the relationship between atheism and religion, one must discard the notion that they’re opposites. Enlightenment thinkers presumed that scientific progress was linked with progress in morals and politics, but the idea that society advances in tandem with science is simply a myth. Such a presumption requires us to forget the past, as it was Immanuel Kant, a lifelong Christian, who asserted the idea of independent rationality and human autonomy. This belief resembles the religious myth of the soul, dressed up in rationalist terms. Marxist ideas of “revolution” and the “march of humanity” are religious redemptive myths in disguise, and even Adam Smith relied on the formative ideas of monotheism for his economic proposals. His argument for free trade repurposed the Christian belief in a Divine Providence that placed people with different skills in different parts of the world so they could trade with one another. Even the beliefs of the American founders depended on theistic assumptions about human rights being grounded in duties to God. So when 21st-century liberals piously defer to Enlightenment values, they unwittingly invoke this theistic inheritance. Liberal humanism is itself a religion – a derivative of Christian faith, though notably more irrational than the original. If this is not recognized, it’s because religion has been repressed from consciousness in the way sexuality was repressed in Victorian times. Now as then, the result is not that the need disappears, but rather that it manifests in bizarre and perverse forms.
Secular liberals dismiss Christianity as a fairy tale, but their values and their view of history remain essentially Christian. There is nothing self-evident about the intrinsic worth of human beings or ideas of human progress. These ideas were placed at the heart of the Western world by Christianity and ushered in a moral revolution. Suddenly, history became a drama of good versus evil in which God was on the side of the weak and oppressed, a theme echoed in previous Near Eastern religions like Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism. Modern progressive movements have renewed this story, though it’s humanity that now speaks for the powerless, rather than God. The social justice warriors who denounce Western civilization and demand that its sins be confessed wouldn’t exist without the moral inheritance of Christianity. By policing opinion, shutting down debate and challenging any beliefs that differ from their own, they are like the early Christians in seeing themselves as actors in an unfolding story of sin and redemption.
If evangelical atheists were ignorant of religion that would be bad enough, but even more damning is that such people appear ignorant of atheism as well. A truly serious atheist is someone who takes the trouble to understand the belief he rejects, and to understand the consequences of that rejection. Among the New Atheists, there is hardly anyone of whom this can be said. Theirs is an atheism of “not this” and “not that”, finding form only in relation to what it’s not. This is nothing new: Islam needed Judaism and Christianity to define itself against, just as Americans needed the British. Yet rationalists would have us believe that atheism alone is freestanding as a paragon of modern “progress”. But this kind of progress only increases while the quality of civilization decreases. We’re all familiar with the moral ambiguity of technological “progress” – it multiplies consumer trinkets but destroys the possibility of a truly independent life; it lavishes information but makes true comprehension impossible; it offers us unending possibilities for learning but diminishes true mastery except in trivial or mechanical tasks. Likewise, this philosophy of unbelief may think itself enlightened, but is mostly a Babel of unintelligible nonsense.
Psalms 14 opens with the statement, “The fool says in his heart that there is no God “. Whatever this tells us about unbelief in ancient times, it’s no longer fools who say this, but intellectuals, scholars and scientists. With their zealous denunciation of the supernatural, today’s atheists often resemble medieval crusaders, sworn to fight against religion wherever it appears. But so long as one can choose his conquests in advance, always taking the paths of least resistance, anyone can imagine themselves a Napoleon, much like a man who believes himself a great strategist because his tanks overwhelm a town of peasants. But how long can anyone delight in victories of that sort? Particularly if the atheist idea of “God” is not one that can be found in the writs of major religions, in which case they were never rebelling against God in the first place. At best, the New Atheists’ arguments are only relevant to the low-hanging god of fundamentalism and mysticism, which is hardly an opponent worth fighting.
For some, atheism may be no more than a lack of interest in religion, yet as an organised movement it’s always been a surrogate faith – a faith that mass conversion to unbelief can transform the world. But if recent Soviet history is any guide, a godless world is as prone to savage conflicts as any other. Nevertheless, the belief that life would be vastly improved by abolishing religion consoles many a needy unbeliever, which confirms the essentially religious character of atheism as a movement. Hence, the liberal West continues to assert its values even though it’s rejected the faith that inspired them. Christianity, it seems, has no need of actual Christians for its assumptions to flourish. It infuses people’s morals so utterly that many have failed to detect its presence. Like dust particles invisible to the naked eye, it’s breathed in equally by everyone: believers, atheists and those who never paused to think about neither. The project of religion has survived well into the secular era, but since secularism was never more than repressed religion, one could also say that there never was a secular era. In their quest for human liberation, scientists believed they could create a higher species through the development of more reliable knowledge, but they forgot that since ignorance and folly are endemic to humanity, the idea of escaping our own flawed identities is but a vain pursuit. The scientific revolution was thus, in many ways, a by-product of mysticism and illusion, and once its tangled origins are unravelled, it’s doubtful whether a scientific revolution ever occurred at all.
godspeek for thought
Atheists today believe they’re denying what earlier atheists like the Christians once affirmed. How interesting.
Atheists would have us believe that the whole of human history up until the Enlightenment was a prelude to us – it’s completely absurd. That would mean everyone who lived before the Enlightenment, like Shakespeare, was an undeveloped human being.
Americans are deeply religious people, and atheists are no exception. Western Europeans are deeply secular people, and Christians are no exception. ‘
When people keep saying “I’m bored, let’s go to the movies”, you know that’s an atheist mentality.
Atheists have a god too: Justice. Aren’t all atheists crying for justice?
There aren’t many atheists in foxholes.
Every culture has it’s ancient creation myth and so does atheism.
It goes something like this: at one point in time people lived in ignorant superstition, submitting their lives to gods they couldn’t see. Then some clever intellectuals finally discovered “science” and “reason” to show that gods never existed in the first place. Some of these clever people were killed for daring to say this, but they persevered, and now only really stupid people believe in gods.