The Guardian has a provocative piece by John Gray attacking the new breed of proselytising atheist.
He claims that the issues taken up by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Philip Pullman and co, are often very traditionally religious, as is their optimistic progressivism. He also claims they prosecute their atheism in a way entirely continuous with the religious traditions they wish to overcome.
Zealous atheism renews some of the worst features of Christianity and Islam. Just as much as these religions, it is a project of universal conversion. Evangelical atheists never doubt that human life can be transformed if everyone accepts their view of things, and they are certain that one way of living – their own, suitably embellished – is right for everybody.
What struck me about Gray’s piece was that it seemed quite unconcerned with what the truth actually is. Is there a god or not? Although in practice the anti-God squad direct most of their attacks at religion rather than God (which is rather common and strikes me as putting the cart before the horse), they do at least think that there is a truth and that it is important to find out the truth. This attitude is the basis of what Gray condemns as a ‘project of universal conversion’. But I can’t help feeling that seeking to know and uphold the truth is the necessary basis of moral life, the foundation of right living for both individuals and societies. This is clearly the case with respect to things like race: it is not true that blacks are of inferior intelligence to whites, and therefore it would not be just if they were denied education or intellectually demanding careers.
If Christians are right to believe that there is a god who made us, who loves everything and everyone he has made, and who desires a loving relationship with us, then we need to respond; though I do think Christians should be humble about how imperfect and historically contingent human responses to the divine always are. I also think that there are better and worse ways of living, not just an indifferent wash of cultural variants. To use the pretty uncontroversial race example again, the American South of the 21st century is a better society than it was in the days of the colour bar. To seek to proclaim what one believes to be the moral and factual truth to others is not just arrogance. What is arrogance is to believe that things are right simply because they are what one’s own society does. Christianity challenges notionally Christian societies just as much as non-Christian ones: it never gets easier to love your neighbour. So yes, I guess Gray is right about Dawkins and co. having something in common with Christians and Muslims, but I would regard it as rather to their credit.
Gray criticises the advocates of atheism in particular for attacking a straw man when they portray science and religion as genuine competitors for the same territory:
For Dennett, religions are efforts at doing something science does better – they are rudimentary or abortive theories, or else nonsense. “The proposition that God exists,” he writes severely, “is not even a theory.” But religions do not consist of propositions struggling to become theories.
Science … does not differ from religion by revealing a bare truth that religions veil in dreams. Both science and religion are systems of symbols that serve human needs – in the case of science, for prediction and control. Religions have served many purposes, but at bottom they answer to a need for meaning that is met by myth rather than explanation.
I’m not sure portraying the contrast as one between myth and explanation is terribly flattering for religion, and a more advantageous contrast, I think, would be between teleology and explanation, but even so this ‘two worlds’ portrayal still leaves religion in competition with the social sciences (such as psychology, anthropology, and economics). The ‘two worlds’ position is only acceptable to the theist and the atheist who suffers from a failure of nerve. From the atheist side of the divide there is only ever increasing layers of order and complexity (neurological, biological psychological, inter-personal, social, cultural and ethical) in the natural world. The resolute atheist sees no reason to think these domains are fundamentally intractible or unsusceptible to scientific investigation and they have no reason to concede the territory. From the atheistic side of the divide, the world and the humans in it are just one big explanatory project to be tackled piece-meal by different branches of sciences as they can.
As it happens, I think the best argument for atheism is sort of ad hominem. It goes: You only believe Christianity/Islam/Buddhism etc. because you were given a religious education (indoctrination) as a child. Essentially the same criticism can be cast in the third person. We can explain the success of religions in terms of education etc. …. and how these institutions cater to people’s emotional needs etc. … and dissatisfaction with material social-economic conditions, but we cannot similarly explain the success of science in a way that doesn’t implicate its truth. The only way to make sense of scientific progress is to see scientific theories as making ever closer approximation to the truth.
This criticism obviously doesn’t itself speak to the issue of whether God exists, but it is not wholly irrelevant either in as much as it goes to the issue of the rationality of belief. It undermines the belief if there is a sufficient explanation of why someone holds it that doesn’t make reference to reasons/grounds etc. that would make the belief more probable.
Lastly, let me distance myself from probably the most damning charge levelled against the religious by Dawkins et al, namely that a religious mindset disposes believers to committing acts of atrocity. I just don’t believe there’s any truth to it. Since the vast majority of people through recorded history have been religious there is a paucity of comparison cases so we don’t know whether history would have seen the same level of violence in an atheist world. And besides, there are plenty of equally credible explanations of violence in the form of political and socio-economic factors.