I will always write about religion because that is what I was trained to do. My field is the study of religion. It is an interesting and important field. It deserves to be treated seriously because religion has been influential in shaping ideas and society since before there were alphabets and wedges to tell us its story. Like science– like everything, as Nietzsche and common sense tell us–it is antinomous: that means it has opposition built into it– good and bad, beauty and ugliness, right and wrong. The Persians may have been the first to see this, but I am not sure. The Chinese saw it too, the Greeks certainly did, and the Manicheans of Augustine’s day–and Augustine himself. The primal choice is a choice about the way in which something beautiful—a fruit, let’s say, symbolically—can be used for good or bad. When religion has talked about good and evil, it has sometimes failed to see itself in its own dichotomy, as though ‘religion’ was the cure and not the essence of the tension. But in my opinion religion is the revelation of the tension between salvation and destruction. It cannot escape from itself. It cannot pretend to be all good since there is evil in it. It is not all good. And it is not all evil. That has to be determined, like apples and atoms, by the way people use it.
But I have decided to stop writing about atheism. Because I believe that atheism is to religion what counting on your fingers is to mathematics. It works, to a point. But it ends where the serious questions and complexities begin.
I suppose that some people will find this an odd statement. Atheists sometimes like to see mathematics and science as particular ‘strengths’ in their war against religion. But they are wrong. The scientific –ballistic-evolutionary argument against religion is not a reasoned assessment at all but an assault based on assumptions that have not changed much since the nineteenth century. It presupposes that science, adequately explicated, contains a knock down disproof of religious faith. I am not going to pronounce on the silliness of that assumption except to say that no one as yet can define what ‘adequately explicated’ can possibly mean, and until we can science offers at best scattered and tentative evidence against elements of religious faith that can just as easily be arrived at through common sense—or systematic theology.
The use of science by atheists has not really touched “religion” at all. It has been a paltry, casuistic attack on particular cherry picked ideas taken largely from the Judaeo Christian corpus of beliefs–out of which atheism sprang. And it sprang from this corpus because Christianity created the environment for doubt when it created the opportunity for faith. The narrowness of the atheist critique and its carping on ideas and doctrines that the modern world and shopping malls have rendered obsolete illustrates the poverty of its message.
Atheists in America especially want to think of themselves as plain-spoken, hard-headed, pragmatic, scientifically-inclined, reason-abiding savants who just want to let people know that they are right and religious folk are wrong.
But this shortcutting is almost always an example of ignorance or maybe evidence that they lack a passport and have not traveled much. Why be curious about what other people believe if all belief is rancid, simplistic, retardant nonsense? Most of world history and the study of culture becomes optional, if not useless, when we make scientific sophistication the criterion for “real” knowledge of the world. Along with their claim to intellectual correctness, atheists, ironically, want people (though what audience is not clear) to know that they are a persecuted minority engaged in a civil rights struggle against the superstitions and outrages of religion.
Coming out atheist only a few years ago was beginning to look a lot like a Billy Graham Crusade, where repentant whoremongers and alcoholics “accepted” Jesus in a public display of their born-again life in the spirit. When the “new” atheism (now being remaindered in second hand bookshops everywhere) has run its course, it will be remembered primarily for what it is: intellectually vacuous, analytically sloppy and humanistically absent.
But we do need to continue to think and write about religion—critically. For almost thirty years, beinning as a graduate student, I was involved with the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion, CSER, which has emerged as one of the greatest of many casualties of the collapse of the Center for Inquiry in 2008.
What CSER had just about right was the belief that an independent voice–neither academic nor ecclesiastical–was needed to deal with topics ranging from Quranic origins to religious violence to biblical misinterpretation in a—can I say this with a straight face—fair and blanced way. The more strident, anti-religion and God-bashing stance of new atheists nailed the coffin shut on the enterprise, rendering any future work from any equivalent organization impossible and unreliable. If religious parochialism was what CSER tried hard to avoid and challenge on the one hand, atheist parochialism was the pit that it didn’t see coming.
We need to care about religion because much of religion is plainly wrong and humanly injurious: arranged marriages, oppressive and Neolithic views of women, absurd philosophies of personhood, political systems, whether in America or Nigeria, unduly influenced by tribal loyalty, regimes that oppose scientific research because they contradict “revealed” religion.
Yet I can point—have pointed on this site– to a thousand areas where religious philosophies unprompted by secular motives or the condition of unbelief have changed life and culture, ranging from the university movements of the twelfth century to the abolition, women’s suffrage and civil rights movements of the nineteenth and twentieth. It is no good saying that belief in god—a God of a certain disposition—is not responsible for ‘incentivizing’ such activity. The greater glory of God, to quote the old Jesuit motto, drove everything from the slaughter of South American indigenes to the founding of Georgetown, ideas of war and ideas of everlasting peace , “where the lion lay down with the lamb.” Like the modern nation-state, religion is capable of helping and hurting; and it is only the unhistorical presumption that it is designed only to help that causes confusion and misunderstanding among its critics. A well-taught course in anthropology or the sociology of belief would put the critics straight, but as I am reminded again and again, that is asking too much when we can simply jump up and down and shout for religion to go away.
I seem to be coming back again and again to the same theme: what has atheism ever got us? Professor Grayling’s laughable new “university” which is little more than a correspondence school with big names on the letterhead? Hospitals? Charities? You may want to say that atheism has been prevented from doing great works by religion. But think about that for just a moment. I know there is a current trend of thought that asks us to think that the Church has been preoccupied with suppressing atheism, but it is nothing more than revisionist fantasy. The real story of Christianity and to a certain extent Islam is the triumph of its heretics over the status quo, their battle for a better, more worthy, more human image of God. I include among those critics many atheists—Sartre for example—who considered the image so discredited by war and suffering that simple honesty required sending it to the attic with other antiquities.
Most of all however, I have come to consider atheism unimportant. At the beginning of any relationship, lovers love each other, the poet said; but in the end only love being in love. Many people were infatuated with the new atheism when it was new, but it’s ceased to be exciting to many thousands, or perhaps only hundreds, of people because it is repetitious and unproductive, like the phrase “I love you” said one too many times. There must be many people who take pride in being unbelievers, but the simple truth is, their unbelief makes no difference if it is only based on a lust to be different from religious troglodytes who believe that every word of sacred scripture is literally true. In a world of sameness such as the United States has become, a nation dominated by a religious discussion so barren of intellectual substance that I sometimes want to sell my passport, I can easily understand the temptation to atheism. It has the appeal of shock value in a country where independent thinking is not especially valued. –The same sort of shock value you would get if, in any city strip, you could insert a porn shop between MacDonald’s and Burger King, across the street from Arby’s and Wendy’s.
For me, atheism will always belong to the larger philosophical context of religious belief. That is where it belongs, and not on a T-shirt. It is a position that has to be considered within that broader context. It should be discussed, debated, and taken seriously. But that seriousness is justified only when religious ideas and beliefs can be assessed in a systematic and historical way—not simply lampooned and pilloried as though they have not played the role they have played, good and bad, in our long, tortured, uphill climb toward civilization.