The atheist delusion
'Opposition to religion occupies the high ground, intellectually and morally,' wrote Martin Amis recently. Over the past few years, leading writers and thinkers have published bestselling tracts against God. John Gray on why the 'secular fundamentalists' have got it all wrong.
The Guardian, Saturday 15 March 2008
An atmosphere of moral panic surrounds religion. Viewed not so long ago as a relic of superstition whose role in society was steadily declining, it is now demonised as the cause of many of the world's worst evils. As a result, there has been a sudden explosion in the literature of proselytising atheism. A few years ago, it was difficult to persuade commercial publishers even to think of bringing out books on religion. Today, tracts against religion can be enormous money-spinners, with Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great selling in the hundreds of thousands. For the first time in generations, scientists and philosophers, high-profile novelists and journalists are debating whether religion has a future. The intellectual traffic is not all one-way. There have been counterblasts for believers, such as The Dawkins Delusion? by the British theologian Alister McGrath and The Secular Age by the Canadian Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor. On the whole, however, the anti-God squad has dominated the sales charts, and it is worth asking why.
The abrupt shift in the perception of religion is only partly explained by terrorism. The 9/11 hijackers saw themselves as martyrs in a religious tradition, and western opinion has accepted their self-image. And there are some who view the rise of Islamic fundamentalism as a danger comparable with the worst that were faced by liberal societies in the 20th century.
For Dawkins and Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Martin Amis, Michel Onfray, Philip Pullman and others, religion in general is a poison that has fuelled violence and oppression throughout history, right up to the present day. The urgency with which they produce their anti-religious polemics suggests that a change has occurred as significant as the rise of terrorism: the tide of secularisation has turned. These writers come from a generation schooled to think of religion as a throwback to an earlier stage of human development, which is bound to dwindle away as knowledge continues to increase. In the 19th century, when the scientific and industrial revolutions were changing society very quickly, this may not have been an unreasonable assumption. Dawkins, Hitchens and the rest may still believe that, over the long run, the advance of science will drive religion to the margins of human life, but this is now an article of faith rather than a theory based on evidence.
But the belief that history is a directional process is as faith-based as anything in the Christian catechism. Secular thinkers such as Grayling reject the idea of providence, but they continue to think humankind is moving towards a universal goal - a civilisation based on science that will eventually encompass the entire species. In pre-Christian Europe, human life was understood as a series of cycles; history was seen as tragic or comic rather than redemptive. With the arrival of Christianity, it came to be believed that history had a predetermined goal, which was human salvation. Though they suppress their religious content, secular humanists continue to cling to similar beliefs. One does not want to deny anyone the consolations of a faith, but it is obvious that the idea of progress in history is a myth created by the need for meaning.
The problem with the secular narrative is not that it assumes progress is inevitable (in many versions, it does not). It is the belief that the sort of advance that has been achieved in science can be reproduced in ethics and politics. In fact, while scientific knowledge increases cumulatively, nothing of the kind happens in society. Slavery was abolished in much of the world during the 19th century, but it returned on a vast scale in nazism and communism, and still exists today. Torture was prohibited in international conventions after the second world war, only to be adopted as an instrument of policy by the world's pre-eminent liberal regime at the beginning of the 21st century. Wealth has increased, but it has been repeatedly destroyed in wars and revolutions. People live longer and kill one another in larger numbers. Knowledge grows, but human beings remain much the same.
Belief in progress is a relic of the Christian view of history as a universal narrative, and an intellectually rigorous atheism would start by questioning it. This is what Nietzsche did when he developed his critique of Christianity in the late 19th century, but almost none of today's secular missionaries have followed his example. One need not be a great fan of Nietzsche to wonder why this is so. The reason, no doubt, is that he did not assume any connection between atheism and liberal values - on the contrary, he viewed liberal values as an offspring of Christianity and condemned them partly for that reason. In contrast, evangelical atheists have positioned themselves as defenders of liberal freedoms - rarely inquiring where these freedoms have come from, and never allowing that religion may have had a part in creating them.
Among contemporary anti-religious polemicists, only the French writer Michel Onfray has taken Nietzsche as his point of departure. In some ways, Onfray's In Defence of Atheism is superior to anything English-speaking writers have published on the subject. Refreshingly, Onfray recognises that evangelical atheism is an unwitting imitation of traditional religion: "Many militants of the secular cause look astonishingly like clergy. Worse: like caricatures of clergy." More clearly than his Anglo-Saxon counterparts, Onfray understands the formative influence of religion on secular thinking. Yet he seems not to notice that the liberal values he takes for granted were partly shaped by Christianity and Judaism. The key liberal theorists of toleration are John Locke, who defended religious freedom in explicitly Christian terms, and Benedict Spinoza, a Jewish rationalist who was also a mystic. Yet Onfray has nothing but contempt for the traditions from which these thinkers emerged - particularly Jewish monotheism: "We do not possess an official certificate of birth for worship of one God," he writes. "But the family line is clear: the Jews invented it to endure the coherence, cohesion and existence of their small, threatened people." Here Onfray passes over an important distinction. It may be true that Jews first developed monotheism, but Judaism has never been a missionary faith. In seeking universal conversion, evangelical atheism belongs with Christianity and Islam.
In today's anxiety about religion, it has been forgotten that most of the faith-based violence of the past century was secular in nature. To some extent, this is also true of the current wave of terrorism. Islamism is a patchwork of movements, not all violently jihadist and some strongly opposed to al-Qaida, most of them partly fundamentalist and aiming to recover the lost purity of Islamic traditions, while at the same time taking some of their guiding ideas from radical secular ideology. There is a deal of fashionable talk of Islamo-fascism, and Islamist parties have some features in common with interwar fascist movements, including antisemitism. But Islamists owe as much, if not more, to the far left, and it would be more accurate to describe many of them as Islamo-Leninists.