The critics of atheism seem, without exception, to be lacking in imagination. Over and over again, what we hear from them is desperate attempts to pigeonhole atheism as just another religion; they squat uncomprehendingly in their hovels built of faith and peer quizzically at the godless, seeking correspondence with their familiar theological nonsense, and crow in triumph when they find something that they can sort of line up with their experiences. “They want more people to think rationally — why, that’s evangelism!” Never mind that you could, with the same legitimacy, argue that when one person mentions to another that it is raining, they are attempting to evangelize their precipitational worldview. “They are so damned sure that they are right — they’re fundamentalists!” Jebus, but I’m tired of that “fundamentalism” claim: it’s the surest sign that you’re dealing with a clueless, dissembling, frightened apologist for religion when they start flinging the “fundie” accusation at atheists. And yes, it is exactly like accusing the fellow who walks through the door in a wet raincoat, to the sound of raindrops pattering on the roof and the occasional distant boom of thunder, of being a fundamentalist rainist because he can show you the deluge.
The latest entry in the dead-eyed zombie moan category of the standard atheism-is-a-cult criticism is John Gray’s complaints about “the atheist delusion”. There is no thought, no creativity in it; it’s simply another tedious retread. By finding a few opportunities to stretch the meanings of words, he wedges atheism and religion into a forced propinquity; then he tells us how awful, wretched and wicked this amalgamated godless religion is; and then, of course, he complains that atheists dare to find religion unpleasant, never mind that his entire critique depends entirely on labeling atheism a religion. I swear, sometimes I think it’s the defenders of the faith who have the lowest opinion of religion, since they all seem to believe that all they need to do is tag anything with the label of “religion” or “belief” and presto, they’ve killed all of its credibility.
And yet, at the same time, they readily equate human virtues to religious belief. Gray makes this false equivocation multiple times; for instance, he damns humanists (humanists, atheists, secularists, scientists…they’re all the same to these critics) with “It is a funny sort of humanism that condemns an impulse [religion] that is peculiarly human.” Yet what you’ll find in humanists (and atheists!) is an appreciation of what is specifically human — the need for community, the construction of institutions that facilitate altruism, the shared human values of sympathy, empathy, friendship, and family — that can exist entirely in the absence of the unnecessary baggage of blind faith, belief in superstition, or the acceptance of an authoritarian hierarchy. We don’t conflate human impulses with the artificiality and error of religion, but John Gray does, oblivious to his mistake. I can figuratively spit in the eye of the Pope, for instance, and only a thoroughly indoctrinated Catholic would think that such an act represents an assault on universal ideals. Similarly, we reject the bullshit of religion without demeaning humanity; to the contrary, it’s the people who equate humanity with belief in bullshit who clearly have the lowest opinion of ourselves.
There’s another common theme, that I also saw in the recent diatribe by Chris Hedges, the self-defeating idea that there is no hope, no chance of bettering ourselves, and so we might as well just give up and believe in nonsense, since reason sure isn’t going to do a better job … and any suggestion that maybe there are practical alternatives to guesswork culled from iron age mythologies is rank “utopianism”. It’s another plank in their attempt to equate religion with something they dislike, in this case science. The logic seems to run along the lines of “If religion is a crappy method of acquiring a realistic vision of the world, then science had better be crap, too — after all, if we’ve got a method that is empirically better than faith, I’d look awfully foolish clinging to the old myths.” To accomplish this game, they have to abolish the whole notion of cultural progress and ignore most of history, pretending that nothing has ever changed.
The problem with the secular narrative is not that it assumes progress is inevitable (in many versions, it does not). It is the belief that the sort of advance that has been achieved in science can be reproduced in ethics and politics. In fact, while scientific knowledge increases cumulatively, nothing of the kind happens in society. Slavery was abolished in much of the world during the 19th century, but it returned on a vast scale in nazism and communism, and still exists today. Torture was prohibited in international conventions after the second world war, only to be adopted as an instrument of policy by the world’s pre-eminent liberal regime at the beginning of the 21st century. Wealth has increased, but it has been repeatedly destroyed in wars and revolutions. People live longer and kill one another in larger numbers. Knowledge grows, but human beings remain much the same.
It’s true: secularism does not anticipate uniform perfectibility of human nature, or even any kind of perfectibility. We will always have conflict, we will always have shortcomings, any advances will come in fits and starts, and there will be setbacks of varying magnitude. But hell yes, we can do better, and we will do better, but we will only accomplish improvements in the human condition if we strive for them. These defenders of religion all seem to be the most appalling defeatists.
Perhaps John Gray should imagine living the life of a hunter-gatherer; better yet, the life of a hunter-gatherer woman, 10,000 years ago. If that’s too harsh, how about the life of a laborer in a Sumerian city-state — surely there is little difference between his life now and toiling in the mud for a king. Or perhaps his life now is no different than living in the squalor of a medieval European city, sans hygiene, medicine, or any books other than priestly recitations from the bible? Maybe that’s still too distant, though — maybe he’d trade places with a prosperous middle-class 19th century gentleman, and willingly watch half his children die before puberty?
People do not remain the same. Prosperity and freedom of the sort brought by science and technology enable deep changes in attitudes and opportunities. Culture changed for the better between the 19th and 20th centuries for people who benefited from modern industry.
Do I even need to point out that his grand counter-example, that torture has been adopted as policy by the “world’s pre-eminent liberal regime at the beginning of the 21st century”, is a consequence of the election of an extremist conservative president who claims justification for his policies in divine communication? That’s simply dishonest, to imply that atheism is to blame for the shame of George W. Bush and the religious right.
There’s yet another tactic that the apologists for religion commonly fall back on: that science and religion rule over different domains, and tritely, that religion is responsible for “meaning”.
The growth of knowledge is a fact only postmodern relativists deny. Science is the best tool we have for forming reliable beliefs about the world, but it 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.
If there’s one thing science is really good at, it is at surprising us and generating unintended consequences — Gray is so far off the mark in his claims about what science is good for that I think that alone is sufficient to throw out his whole argument. The world is not what we want it to be, or what we expect it to be, or what authorities in the supernatural tell us it should be. It is what it is, and science is a tool for probing its nature that tries to get around our presuppositions and our desires, and that when it works well gets us closer and closer to understanding reality. It’s not science, but religion, that is all about control: about filtering and shaping our beliefs to a desired outcome, and getting the tribe to work as one towards a goal, whether that goal is reasonable or reachable or not. If you want social control, it’s religious pablum you should reach for, not the unpredictable honesty of science.
As for meaning, we all want it, atheists and theists alike. Gray gives away the store with that last comment: religion meets that need with myth, science meets it with explanation. Which would you prefer, or which do you think is better for society: glib, happy lies and hateful provocation from the religious, or best assessments of reality from the scientists?
There’s another unresolved inconsistency here. On the one hand, Gray wants to claim cultural stagnation and the futility of striving for personal and social betterment, and dismisses scientists and atheists as hopeless dreamers who can’t possibly change anything; on the other hand, he wants to assign responsibility for purpose and meaning to the gatekeepers of faith. Taken together, that’s an admission that religion is a failure, even in its role as an institution for maintaining human hope and other such noble aspirations. Why should we hand the keys to our future to such a dreary, bleak collection of losers?
One last thing. In a long collection of tired nonsense, John Gray manages to regurgitate one of the tiredest, wrongest, dumbest of the believers’ canards. We have been hearing over and over lately the claims that the Holocaust was all Darwin’s fault, but Gray puts a new twist on it: it was all the atheists’ fault.
Dawkins dismisses any suggestion that the crimes of the Nazis could be linked with atheism. “What matters,” he declares in The God Delusion, “is not whether Hitler and Stalin were atheists, but whether atheism systematically influences people to do bad things. There is not the smallest evidence that it does.” This is simple-minded reasoning. Always a tremendous booster of science, Hitler was much impressed by vulgarised Darwinism and by theories of eugenics that had developed from Enlightenment philosophies of materialism. He used Christian antisemitic demonology in his persecution of Jews, and the churches collaborated with him to a horrifying degree. But it was the Nazi belief in race as a scientific category that opened the way to a crime without parallel in history. Hitler’s world-view was that of many semi-literate people in interwar Europe, a hotchpotch of counterfeit science and animus towards religion. There can be no reasonable doubt that this was a type of atheism, or that it helped make Nazi crimes possible.
Science is a kind of totemic word that is invoked by many, including John Gray, to represent all kinds of nonsense. Ask people what science means, and many will chant, “Television! The Internet! Airplanes! Perpetual motion machines! Intelligent Design! Quantum healing by the vibrational properties of tuned crystals!” As Gray and too many others use it, it’s divorced from meaning and used as a prop to support any claim they want to make, ignoring all the evidence. Hitler was no more a fan of science than is Deepak Chopra. Both simply steal words and tack them to whatever unfounded belief they want to grant some incantatory pretense to validity.
Science is about inquiry. It’s about asking questions, honestly trying to get answers, and communicating the methods and results to others for verification. Deciding that entire ethnic groups are evil and must be exterminated is not formulating a scientific hypothesis; butchering people by the millions and burning them in ovens is not a scientific experiment. The Nazis were driven by a hateful ideology that had its foundation in Protestant anti-semitism and a bizarre paganism that was one part wish-fulfillment and one part delusional self-aggrandizement, not science.
Note also the amazing leaps he makes in that paragraph. Nazis had a pseudoscientific rationalization for their acts; therefore they were scientists; therefore there can be no doubt that atheism put “Gott mit uns” on those belt-buckles and sent the legions of largely Catholic and Lutheran German soldiers marching out to conquer the world.
There’s a reason I dislike religion. I suspect that it’s related to the fact that only under the brain-damaging influence of religion can anyone regard dreadful tripe from the likes of John Gray as serious, rational, intellectual scholarship.