Atheism is stridently anti-religious, but does it have anything more to offer?
I’ve recently found myself dipping into a friend’s Facebook discussion about morality. The heat is on, and the atheists are firing the twin guns of anti-religion and reason.
I’m sceptical, however. Atheism is often nothing more than a-theism: it fails to transcend anti-religion and stops short of forming a positive, cohesive identity. I doubt that the New Atheists, for their part, have made much improvement.
The thing is, you don’t have to be an atheist to take a stick to religion. Of the religious types, even the Christians seem to have got that covered. In Australia, Christian aid groups like Tear and World Vision are working to reform traditional religious concerns. In America, prominent Christians such as Tim Keller and Rob Bell spend significant air-time overturning conventional American religiosity. Religious people don’t simply back their own brands ad nauseam, and are often the first to attack the ‘mental’ in fundamentalism, quite apart from the warnings of the New Atheists.
On a more positive note, atheists sometimes lay claim to reason and human innovation. Yet ‘reasonable progress’ is not the sole preserve of atheism, be it intellectual or social. Not only is there no atheist monopoly on it, but reasonable progress may be found even amongst their nemeses, the Christians. For example, in Australia, thinking Christians are increasingly working on ethics and cultural issues. Groups like the Centre for Public Christianity and the Anglican Social Issues Executive are no fancy-pants fronts for the church, but part of a coherent and growing voice in the Australian public landscape.
I’m certainly keen to hear of a more robust atheism. Humanism and the three humanist manifestos form one attempt by atheists to strike out and define a positive identity, unhinged from religious skirmishes. However, the most visible representatives of humanism today are apparently the New Atheists — who may well have humanist concerns but seem overwhelmingly preoccupied with anti-religion. If this is the extent of atheism’s vision for humanity, it’s hardly compelling.
Atheism is a distinctly modern, Western perspective, a product of the Renaissance, the Reformation (sic), and the Enlightenment. As such, its concerns are pro-individual, pro-science, and both anti-Christian and anti-Christendom.
Christendom, of course, is well on the way out. I know an increasing number of young Australians who are second- or third-generation secular citizens. They have never been churchgoers and neither have their parents, and they know next to nothing about Christianity. These new Australians are certainly atheists, yet they’re nominal atheists, atheists by default. Their atheism is not so much considered as it is assumed, and pretty muddy at that. And because religion has never been an issue for them, it turns out that they don’t really care about some atheist program, either. As the generations of churched, Christianised Australians die off — in fact because of it — the atheist program faces a kind of mundane irrelevance. Atheism could just be a parasite in the side of the Christendom it loves to hate, in which case it will wither with its host.
That said, it could be that atheism remains integral to the future of the West, where the New Atheists still get plenty of traction. As Western horizons enlarge, however, it turns out that religion is an important feature of the majority world. Can atheism cut it in a wider world thick with religious concerns? Does atheism have anything to offer outside its Western walls?
Meanwhile, there are other visions gaining currency. Of the Christian vision, the atheist journalist Matthew Parris makes one intriguing claim. He reckons that Christian faith can provide the redemption that broken African societies need, in contrast to secular aid programs.
Perhaps atheism is the haunt of the disaffected castaways of Christendom. In one sense, New Atheists are the Old Atheists: a clique of modernists still vigilantly trying to recover the values of the Enlightenment and clinging to its notion of human progress. You might note, however, that the Enlightenment has probably done its dash, and that its vision of human progress ran itself into the ground as the West tore itself apart in the twentieth century. I suspect that the modernist project has all but spent its momentum and entitlement. The shrillness of New Atheist rhetoric reveals not a new voice but an increasingly antique desperation.
As we head further into post-Christendom, it seems to me that underneath all its bravado, the atheist program is on the ropes.
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.