There was a time when it was very dangerous not to believe in God. In ancient Athens, Socrates was hounded and eventually executed for questioning the city-state’s gods. Throughout most of history, to be ‘godless’ was considered a form of moral decadence deserving punishment. In the seventeenth century, even John Locke, the great liberal philosopher who promoted the idea of religious toleration, regarded atheism as intolerable. He said atheists should not be tolerated because ‘promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist’.
Paradoxically, today, when atheism enjoys unprecedented respectability, it is being turned into a new cause. Over the past decade, books celebrating atheism and denouncing belief in God have frequently appeared on bestseller lists. In Western societies, intellectual and cultural life has been very responsive to the arguments of the so-called New Atheists, including Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett, who have discussed at length the moral failings of organised religion. Their outlook is widely endorsed in popular culture. Dan Brown’s mega bestseller, The Da Vinci Code, recycles the dominant cultural narrative that depicts organised religion as complicit in institutional abuse, moral corruption and dishonesty.
Where atheism was once depicted as a dangerous and subversive creed, today it is often portrayed as an enlightened outlook that perches on the moral highground. But what is often overlooked is that the growing cultural affirmation of atheism has been paralleled by a big transformation in its meaning.
It is important to note that, historically, atheism was not a standalone philosophy. Atheism does not constitute a worldview. It simply signifies non-belief in God or gods. This rejection of the idea of a god could be based on scepticism towards the notion of a higher being, an unwillingness to follow dogma, or a commitment to rationality and science. But whatever the motive, atheism reflected an attitude towards one specific issue, not a perspective on the world. Most atheists defined themselves through an assertive identity, whether they called themselves democrats, liberals, socialists, anarchists, fascists, communists, freethinkers or rationalists. For most serious atheists, their disbelief in god was a relatively insignificant part of their self-identity.
Today, in contrast, atheism takes itself very seriously indeed. With their zealous denunciation of religion, the so-called New Atheists often resemble medieval moral crusaders. They argue that the influence of religion should be fought wherever it rears its ugly head. Although they demand that religion should be countered by rational arguments, their own claims often verge on the irrational and hysterical. Of course, there has always been an honourable atheist tradition of irreverence and irreligious contempt for dogma. But today’s New Atheism often expresses itself through a doctrinaire language of its own. In a simplistic manner it equates religion with fanaticism and fundamentalism. What is striking about its denunciation of fundamentalism is that it is frequently made in the dogmatic, polemical style of those it claims to oppose. The black-and-white world of theological dogma is reproduced in the zealous polemic of the atheist moraliser.