Atheism vs. “The Barbarians”

I fear that the reliance on the Four Horsemen of Atheism has created a small problem with the future of atheism.

In that some of us are so fascinated by them that we often forget that there are other atheists out there who will have to step into the same roles. That we are often unwilling to give the time or space to new atheists and “replace” the people we respect. It is not that there are no thinkers of that calibre but that we aren’t willing to listen to them.

And no more is this clear in the writings of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks at the Spectator.

Future intellectual historians will look back with wonder at the strange phenomenon of seemingly intelligent secularists in the 21st century believing that if they could show that the first chapters of Genesis are not literally true, that the universe is more than 6,000 years old and there might be other explanations for rainbows than as a sign of God’s covenant after the flood, the whole of humanity’s religious beliefs would come tumbling down like a house of cards and we would be left with a serene world of rational non-believers getting on famously with one another.

Rabbi Sachs is right and wrong but for different reasons.

There are people who believe in the Gospel Truth of their faith. That nothing in the Bible is wrong, inaccurate or even considered bad. And they are “low hanging fruit”. They are easy to argue against mainly because they are the people most likely to argue against you.

But that is something we have to do. There are religious individuals who’s literal stance on their holy books means that they are a threat to society. Oh we may fear the bogeyman of Sharia Law but in the USA it’s Christianity that’s the threat. And it’s not the sophisticated kind but the literalist view.

Whatever happened to the intellectual depth of the serious atheists, the forcefulness of Hobbes, the passion of Spinoza, the wit of Voltaire, the world-shattering profundity of Nietzsche? Where is there the remotest sense that they have grappled with the real issues, which have nothing to do with science and the literal meaning of scripture and everything to do with the meaningfulness or otherwise of human life, the existence or non-existence of an objective moral order, the truth or falsity of the idea of human freedom, and the ability or inability of society to survive without the rituals, narratives and shared practices that create and sustain the social bond?

Well. We do have the might of Thunderf00t.

Okay I can see his point here….

We do have meaning to our lives, it’s just that we recognise that different people value different things. From Money to Love to Friendship to Experience. While some we consider “bad” like “Wealth” and good like “Friendship”, we cannot deny that money is a driving force for some people. However Human Life is in itself meaningless for the most part. In the grand scheme of things everything you do is meanignless. How it affects humans is how we judge whether actions have meaning or not.

And not there is no objective moral order. Our entire moral codes is subject to rational discussion and debate as to the pros and cons of the moral codes we follow and whether they should be followed or not.

A significant area of intellectual discourse — the human condition sub specie aeternitatis — has been dumbed down to the level of a school debating society. Does it matter? Should we not simply accept that just as there are some people who are tone deaf and others who have no sense of humour, so there are some who simply do not understand what is going on in the Book of Psalms, who lack a sense of transcendence or the miracle of being, who fail to understand what it might be to see human life as a drama of love and forgiveness or be moved to pray in penitence or thanksgiving? Some people get religion; others don’t. Why not leave it at that?

Because it’s not enough that some people get religion. They get awfully antsy that others don’t get religion and then try and insert their religion into “practically everything” as if they were paid to advertise the damn thing.

We have no quarrel with people who quietly go to Church, I don’t believe in it. If that’s what you need to live your life the way you want to, then that’s your decision. However if you then decided to excuse the fact that you don’t want women to have access to basic healthcare or to teach children fairy tales in science class or legalise discrimination against minority groups… then we cannot “leave it”.

Fair enough, perhaps. But not, I submit, for readers of The Spectator, because religion has social, cultural and political consequences, and you cannot expect the foundations of western civilisation to crumble and leave the rest of the building intact. That is what the greatest of all atheists, Nietzsche, understood with terrifying clarity and what his -latter-day successors fail to grasp at all.

Except we have seen such collapses such as in Scandinavia where the loss of religion hasn’t caused the break down of society.

In fact, if you remove every reference to Christianity from the documents that make up the Constitution of the United Kingdom and leave the framework behind the nation will still function.

Nietzsche looked to the revolutions of the time but failed to understand that the revolutions failed because of the level of change they caused. The French Revolution was practically the destruction of a nation and the replacement of an entire order that was distrusted and disliked.

The Russian Revolution was a revolt by serf and peasants backed up with a core of intellectuals who tried to replace monarchy and failed. The problem was that the violence of the transitions resulted in violent men taking the fore. The ends justified the means and that caused a downward spiral of what is acceptable until what was acceptable should not have been. Religious people are also subject to that.

Time and again in his later writings he tells us that losing Christian faith will mean abandoning Christian morality. No more ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’; instead the will to power. No more ‘Thou shalt not’; instead people would live by the law of nature, the strong dominating or eliminating the weak. ‘An act of injury, violence, exploitation or destruction cannot be “unjust” as such, because life functions essentially in an injurious, violent, exploitative and destructive manner.’ Nietzsche was not an anti-Semite, but there are passages in his writing that come close to justifying a Holocaust.

Nietzsche was wrong.

Having a set of laws followed universally by society is fantastic for survival. Let’s take a game for example. If we let kids play without rules they will inevitably either form rules or “fight”. Now the law of the playground is much like the “law of the jungle”. The games that kids play that are the most “fair” are the ones most kids want to play. So eventually the unstructured play of children gains “structure”. Rules are made up on the fly. You eventually get the same games that kids play across the world in some form or the other not because the games are divine but because most games kids play need similar rules of cooperation in order to do something.

Likewise it is in a society’s advantage to have a bound set of laws that encourage cohesion. In the game of survival everyone must work together. A selfish person is a lead weight on the tribe. Our laws predate christianity and are not universal to it.

For all of the Aztec penchance for human sacrifice, murder was still illegal and that speaks volumes as to how rules function. AND the Aztec practice of Sacrifice harmed them in the end. They could not produce a unified front to fight off Spanish invaders because their allies lived in fear of them or plain didn’t like them and saw that opportunity to stab them in the back. If  they had formed a cohesive “natiion” they would have put up a bigger fight.

Survival of the fittest applies to nations too. And moral nations that are more liberal and more inclusive seem to survive better.

This had nothing to do with him personally and everything to do with the logic of Europe losing its Christian ethic. Already in 1843, a year before Nietzsche was born, Heinrich Heine wrote, ‘A drama will be enacted in Germany compared to which the French Revolution will seem like a harmless idyll. Christianity restrained the martial ardour of the Germans for a time but it did not destroy it; once the restraining talisman is shattered, savagery will rise again…  the mad fury of the berserk, of which Nordic poets sing and speak.’ Nietzsche and Heine were making the same point. Lose the Judeo-Christian sanctity of life and there will be nothing to contain the evil men do when given the chance and the provocation.

Come now Rabbi.

The Christian Ethic was partially responsible for the “Drama” of Germany. I understand you are implying the Nazi period and Hitler.

Well the Christian Ethic fed the notion of “Anti-Semitism”. The people of Europe were subject to this for centuries, to the point that the anti-Jewish sentiment was considered “common fact” at the period. WW1 occurred due to a heavily militarised Europe and a snowball effect of treaty members declaring war dragging more powerful allies into it. WW1 wasn’t “Germany’s Fault”.

WW2 can be explained as the effect of the draconian Treaty of Paris post WW1 which placed such hefty punishments on Germany that it created a lot of ill will and encouraged a Nationalist party to the fore.

Richard Dawkins, whom I respect, partly understands this. He has said often that Darwinism is a science, not an ethic. Turn natural selection into a code of conduct and you get disaster. But if asked where we get our morality from, if not from science or religion, the new atheists start to stammer. They tend to argue that ethics is obvious, which it isn’t, or natural, which it manifestly isn’t either, and end up vaguely hinting that this isn’t their problem. Let someone else worry about it.

No one has said Darwinism is an ethic. Majority of atheist INCLUDING Dawkins follow Humanism as a source of moral ideas.

We get our ethics from an evolutionary imperative to be part of a group and from the philosophical idea that all humans are equal and their lives are valuable and so we must seek to create a society that respects that.

The history of Europe since the 18th century has been the story of successive attempts to find alternatives to God as an object of worship, among them the nation state, race and the Communist Manifesto. After this cost humanity two world wars, a Cold War and a hundred million lives, we have turned to more pacific forms of idolatry, among them the market, the liberal democratic state and the consumer society, all of which are ways of saying that there is no morality beyond personal choice so long as you do no harm to others.

On the contrary. Racism existed well before the 18th Century as did Nations and the Communist Manifesto was a backlash against the nature of states where the rich upper class had all the power and pretty much did what they wanted to the detriment of the poor and to some extent a rising middle class. A lot of the ideals of the Communist Manifesto are “nice”. Like 2 day weekends, empowerment of the working force and education for children… You can take the good without the bad you know.

Even so, the costs are beginning to mount up. Levels of trust have plummeted throughout the West as one group after another — bankers, CEOs, media personalities, parliamentarians, the press — has been hit by scandal. Marriage has all but collapsed as an institution, with 40 per cent of children born outside it and 50 per cent of marriages ending in divorce. Rates of depressive illness and stress-related syndromes have rocketed especially among the young. A recent survey showed that the average 18- to 35-year-old has 237 Facebook friends. When asked how many they could rely on in a crisis, the average answer was two. A quarter said one. An eighth said none.

But these aren’t due to the collapse of religion. These are due to a more politically savvy, intellectually empowered and informed “proletariat”. It’s not their fault. It’s that people now understand why they have been “fucked over” and now know who to blame.

Human greed existed in the hey day of religion. Slavery existed solely to fuel human greed and the excesses of places like India are well known but even these pale in comparison to colonies like the Belgian Congo. Children have always been born out of wedlock, it’s just that we don’t think it’s a bad thing anymore and a reason to discriminate against them so forcing people into weddings that were permanent.

As for “Facebook Friends”? Well that’s because you are considering “Facebook” as an indicator of popularity.

None of this should surprise us. This is what a society built on materialism, individualism and moral relativism looks like. It maximises personal freedom but at a cost. As Michael Walzer puts it: ‘This freedom, energising and exciting as it is, is also profoundly disintegrative, making it very difficult for individuals to find any stable communal support, very difficult for any community to count on the responsible participation of its individual members. It opens solitary men and women to the impact of a lowest common denominator, commercial culture.’

Perhaps but this is a very naive and rosy look at the past.

In the past your children were free to play outside without fear not because there were no paedophiles to prey on them but because no one knew about them and even if they did they did nothing. Our newspapers are inundated with these tragic tales not because there is an outbreak of them due to the “sinful world we live in” but because we are CATCHING them.

In the past you had to be part of a community otherwise you could not function. Society was heavily stratified.

And the UK has a sense of community. Why the NHS is run on community funding. It’s just that the community is 60 million strong.

It’s just that community support is not from people close to you anymore. It can be from a random stranger. It’s not that the world has gotten less caring. The world has gotten more caring if anything. It’s that now a random stranger can care about what you think more than the person next to you who you have known your entire life.

In my time as Chief Rabbi, I have seen two highly significant trends. First, parents are more likely than they were to send their children to faith schools. They want their children exposed to a strong substantive ethic of responsibility and restraint. Second, religious people, Jews especially, are more fearful of the future than they were. Our newly polarised culture is far less tolerant than old, mild Christian Britain.

Actually, it’s because “faith” schools often have better funding. I went to a Christian school. I was a Hindu. I didn’t go because I believed in Jehovah, my parents thought “Catholics were sex hating lunatics and that if I went to a Catholic school I wouldn’t get tempted to have underage sex”… They were wrong on a lot of things…

The old mild Christian Britian massacred brown people and starved us by the million… Because we were half naked fakirs and savages. Good Fucking Riddance. It was only mild in the UK…

In one respect the new atheists are right. The threat to western freedom in the 21st century is not from fascism or communism but from a religious fundamentalism combining hatred of the other, the pursuit of power and contempt for human rights. But the idea that this can be defeated by individualism and relativism is naive almost beyond belief. Humanity has been here before. The precursors of today’s scientific atheists were Epicurus in third-century BCE Greece and Lucretius in first-century Rome. These were two great civilisations on the brink of decline. Having lost their faith, they were no match for what Bertrand Russell calls ‘nations less civilised than themselves but not so destitute of social cohesion’. The barbarians win. They always do.

Rome collapsed around 400 AD. 300 Years after Lucretius.

And Rome Collapsed because it was beset by a series of barbarian invasions coupled with political intrigue, The “loss of faith” of Rome was ultimately down to the rise of Christianity.

And they collapsed because  eventually all things end and the Roman Empire (well the Western Roman Empire collapsed due to everything from the lack of miltiary reform and modernisation to an unfeasible conquest based empire that had gotten too bloated to function to Economic Issues. Not the change of religion to that of the Barbarian Christian from “civilised” Rome.

The new barbarians are the fundamentalists who seek to impose a single truth on a plural world. Though many of them claim to be religious, they are actually devotees of the will to power. Defeating them will take the strongest possible defence of freedom, and strong societies are always moral societies. That does not mean that they need be religious. It is just that, in the words of historian Will Durant, ‘There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion.

Unless we exclude early Buddhism which was agnostic under the rule of Ashoka (the Great). You don’t get a title such as “The Great” after your name unless you did something badass.

Or you know. We ignore all the secular nations of the world.

The biggest opposition to religious extremism are strong secular values based on principles of humanism.

I have no desire to convert others to my religious beliefs. Jews don’t do that sort of thing. Nor do I believe that you have to be religious to be moral. But Durant’s point is the challenge of our time. I have not yet found a secular ethic capable of sustaining in the long run a society of strong communities and families on the one hand, altruism, virtue, self-restraint, honour, obligation and trust on the other. A century after a civilisation loses its soul it loses its freedom also. That should concern all of us, believers and non-believers alike.

Secular Humanism.

It’s the principles by which nations such as Sweden operate on. It’s kind of nice up there.

Lest we forget, secular humanism operates under the notion that we have just one planet and one life to live. We cannot afford to make a mistake and screw it up. We cannot afford to let other humans die and we should improve the world to make it more fair and more equal. In it’s sense it transcends artificial boundaries and tries to invoke the universal principles of humanism across all people and brotherhood irrespective of caste, creed, culture, religion, gender, race, sexuality or what other ways we delineate ourselves.

And it’s a lofty goal.

In fact many religious people have adopted these policies and that’s fine. One doesn’t need a lack of faith to indulge in it’s ideology.

The Barbarians aren’t winning. Those that seek to dominate our world through a single forced faith are in fact losing. There are plenty of young men and women who write exquisite pieces on atheism and a lack of belief without having to bash organised faith.

It’s just that you need to look a little hard to find them.


  1. maudell says

    How to erase centuries of Christian anti-Semitism: use the word ‘Judeo-Christian.’

  2. Beth says

    We have no quarrel with people who quietly go to Church, I don’t believe in it. If that’s what you need to live your life the way you want to, then that’s your decision. However if you then decided to excuse the fact that you don’t want women to have access to basic healthcare or to teach children fairy tales in science class or legalise discrimination against minority groups… then we cannot “leave it”.

    I am bothered by this assumption of a link between religion and the desire to do these things. I look at the atheist movement and I see no lack of people who feel similarly on those issues. They justify their beliefs and any actions they might take with scientific reasons rather than religious ones.

    I look at the actions of religious people of all stripes and I see plenty of social justice activists in their numbers. Often they justify their beliefs and any actions they might take with the values they derives from their religion.

    Based on these observations of mine, your tendency to lay the blame for common human failings at the doorstep of religious beliefs seems misguided to me. If atheism wasn’t full of sexists and racists, many of whom are utterly oblivious of their bias, I would find this a more convincing argument. As it is, not so much.

    While I can understand the focus on religious beliefs as a cause of social ills for specific religious belief based problems like trying to eliminate the teaching of evolution in public schools, I don’t see it as the general source/cause of such problems. Do you? If so why?

  3. smrnda says

    “all of which are ways of saying that there is no morality beyond personal choice so long as you do no harm to others.”

    I totally agree with this. Right now, it’s just that given economic policies and actions which damage the environment, some people are pursuing their self-interest with totally disregard to the harm they are causing others. I don’t see how this is an inadequate formula just because some people are breaking the rules.

    I’m also totally in agreement that this guy is taking a WAY to rosy view of the past. Believe me, the past was terrible.

    In terms of the Holocaust, I think the guy’s ignoring the role of Christianity in European antisemitism. Martin Luther wrote some antisemitic tracts that are virtually indistinguishable from stuff produced during the Nazi era. Did Christianity keep the Germans from being bad? No.

    I also find comments about “Being” with a capital B to be rather dull and boring. It’s just taking inflated, pretentious and often meaningless language and arguing that it’s somehow enlightening. I live in a concrete world with concrete, real world concerns, not vague, fluffy language that’s long been used by religion to hide the fact that the emperor has no clothes.

  4. says

    @Beth, #2:

    You’re right. Atheism cannot remove all evil from the world.

    “God said so” is a justification that cannot be assailed with logic. You can’t even say “No, God says otherwise” because He’s not there to clarify the issue. So they’ll carry on with their hate or bigotry or just thoughtlessness and bask in the warm glow of their own self-righteousness while displacing the responsibility for their own actions and behavior on to their imaginary friend.

    Removing religion won’t solve all the problems, but it will knock away the disproportionately resilient religious armor that protects stupidity and evil.

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    Rabbi Sacks, please show us a video recording of when your lame little non sequitur made Richard Dawkins (or Christopher Hitchens, or Daniel Dennett, or Sam Harris, or Rebecca Watson, or Sikivu Hutchinson, or any atheist not in a speech therapy program) stammer.

    ‘Cuz some of us doubters are so damned dubious we might otherwise scoff at your claim, and that would set Baby Jesus wailing so loudly that Baby Moses might join in too.

    Btw, those Vandals, Goths, et al who sacked Rome had converted to Christianism generations before they warred with the Empire and won: the “Fall” was hot Christian-on-Christian action from the start.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>