How atheism became a religion in all but name
It was only a matter of time before someone proposed an ‘atheist temple’, given the religious-
like zealotry and dogma of the New Atheists.
Sociologist and social commentator
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.
Of course, the language used by atheist moral crusaders avoids the theological vocabulary of the religious. Instead, it prefers a more scientific-sounding narrative, demonising religion through the idea of medicalisation. In this vein, Richard Dawkins has described religion as a form of child abuse in his book, The God Delusion, and in other writings. He claims that instructing children about hell damages them for life. He claims that ‘religions abuse the minds of children’ and says ‘we should work to free the children of the world from the religions which, with parental approval, damage minds too young to understand what is happening to them’.
The claim that religion scars children for life is symptomatic of the tendency of New Atheists to express themselves through the language of victimhood and therapeutic culture. Time and again, they use the idiom of therapy to pathologise religion. Their use of terms such as ‘toxic faith’ and ‘religious virus’ are symptomatic of their medicalisation of strong religious commitment. It has even been suggested that people who have too much faith may be suffering from a condition called ‘religious addiction’. Father Leo Booth, in his book When God Becomes a Drug, warns of becoming ‘addicted to the certainty, sureness or sense of security that our faith provides’. John Bradshaw, one of the leading advocates of the American co-dependence movement, has produced a self-help video titled ‘Religious Addiction’. ‘These tapes describe how co-dependency can set up for religious addiction, and how extrinsic religion fosters co-dependency’, notes the blurb advertising the video.
The New Atheism is very selective about who it targets. So although it claims to challenge irrationalism and anti-scientific prejudice, it tends to confine its anger to the dogma of the three Abrahamic religions. So it rightly criticises creationism and ‘intelligent design’, yet it rarely challenges the mystifications of deep environmentalist thinking, such as Gaia theory, or the numerous varieties of Eastern mysticism that are so fashionable in Hollywood. Since the New Atheism is culturally wedded to the contemporary therapeutic imagination, it is not surprising that it has adopted a double standard towards spiritualism.
Historically, atheism has sometimes co-existed with opportunism towards religious and spiritual belief. The French philosopher Voltaire hated religious fanaticism but nevertheless believed that religion was useful for pacifying the masses. In a similar vein, in the nineteenth century, the French social theorists Henri de Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte believed that social stability required them to invent a new religion. Invariably, such attempts to construct a secular religion are really about trying to endow human experience with meaning.
It was inevitable that sooner or later the New Atheist crusade would mutate into a quasi-religion. Alain de Botton’s recently published Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion is an attempt to absorb into atheism the current therapeutic and spiritual fads that influence Western elite culture. De Botton has proposed building temples for atheists through the UK. ‘It’s time atheists had their own versions of the great churches and cathedrals’, he says. Unlike the New Atheists, De Botton does not adopt an aggressive approach towards religion, which means his attitude does at least contrast to that of Dawkins or Harris.
Not surprisingly, many New Atheists have strongly criticised the idea of an atheist temple. The explicit formulation of ‘religion for atheists’ is abhorrent to those who have made a religion out of their disbelief. But for all that, in all but name the New Atheism has transformed itself not only into a secular religion but into an intensely intolerant and dogmatic secular religion.
As a humanist, I am distressed by the corruption of the idea of atheism. Genuine humanists are critical of the influence of creationism and of religious fanaticism. Yet while attempts to reverse the separation of church and state are always a cause for concern, the real challenge facing humanists today does not emanate from organised religion. Rather, it is now often secular movements that promote the idea that human beings are powerless, vulnerable and victims of their circumstances. So instead of the religious belief in original sin, today we are confronted with the therapeutic claim that children are easily damaged and scarred for life. All the old religious sins have been recast in a secular, medical form. People are no longer condemned for lust but rather are treated for sex addiction. Gluttony has been reinvented as obesity. And envy and avarice have been rebranded as illnesses brought about by our ‘addictive consumer society’.
The real question confronting us is not the status of any god but the status that we assign to humanity. And the most powerful threat to the realisation of the human potential today comes, not from religion, but from the moral disorientation of Western secular culture.