A Brilliant Essay on Atheism
In the last 10 years or so, the rise of American evangelicalism and the menace of Islamist fundamentalism, along with developments in physics and in theories of evolution and cosmogony, have encouraged a certain style of aggressive, often strident atheistic critique. Books such as Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great have sold in the millions. Beyond the unlikely success of these books, there has also been the spread of atheist and secularist websites and blogs, some of them intellectually respectable, others more dogmatic and limited (ie, pretty atrocious). The events of 11 September 2001 were the obvious spur. In The End of Faith, the American writer Sam Harris argued that as long as America remains swamped in Christian thinking, it will never defeat militant Islamism, since one backward religious system cannot prevail over another backward religious system. Atheism would be the key to unlock this uneasy stalemate. Academics such as Dawkins and Daniel Dennett have broader projects, perhaps – for them, the removal of our religious blinkers will result in a proper appreciation of the natural world, and of science’s ability to describe and decode it.
I can’t be the only reader who finds himself in broad agreement with the conclusions of the New Atheists, while disliking some of the ways they reach them. For these writers, and many others, “religion” always seems to mean either fundamentalist Islam or American evangelical Christianity. Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and the more relaxed or progressive versions of Christianity are not in their argumentative sights. Along with this curious parochialism about the varieties of religious belief comes a simplistic reading of how people actually hold those beliefs. Terry Eagleton and others have rightly argued that, for millions of people, religious “belief” is not a matter of just totting up stable, creedal propositions (“I believe that Jesus is the son of God”, “I believe that I will go to heaven when I die”, and so on), but a matter of more unconscious, daily practice (“Now it is time to kneel down, face Mecca and pray”). This kind of defence of the deep embeddedness of religious practice has been influenced by Wittgenstein – for whom, say, kissing an icon was a bit like loving one’s mother; something that cannot be subjected to an outsider’s rational critique. Wittgenstein was obviously right, though this appeal to practice over proposition can also become a rather lazy way, for people like the Catholic Eagleton, of defending orthodox beliefs via the back door – as if a bishop encouraged his flock by saying, in effect: “It doesn’t matter what you believe. Religion is not about propositions, but about practices. So stick at those practices: just keep on doing the church flowers and turning up every Sunday.”