The charge of the anti-enlightenment brigade

Far from heralding a new dawn of reason, today’s New Atheists are at the vanguard of the counter-Enlightenment.

Michael Fitzpatrick

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Topics Politics

On 21 October, Dr Michael Fitzpatrick took part in a debate entitled ‘Atheism: what’s the point?’, at the Battle of Ideas in London. An edited version of his opening comments are published below.

I don’t know if many of you saw the Atheist Bus a few years ago. It toured around London for a while and on its side an advert read: ‘There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’

I was reminded of this when I was reading a new book by Francis Spufford called Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense. He asked the interesting question: what is the most objectionable word in that bus-side slogan? There was controversy in the humanist world about the ‘probably’; however, Spufford’s main objection was to the word ‘enjoy’ – ‘stop worrying and enjoy your life’. The point that Spufford made was that the underlying implication of this statement is that enjoyment is a natural state of affairs that’s only being disturbed by people being worried by preachers and believers – a point of view he briskly dismisses as complete bollocks. ‘Enjoy’ doesn’t really connect with a whole vast range of problems of human experience. That statement seems to be pitched to an idealised consumer. What would it mean to someone experiencing loss, bereavement, illness, death, indeed all the vicissitudes of life? It leaves people with no sense of any hope or consolation.

But the Atheist Bus was a great success. Beginning with a Guardian blog by Ariane Sherine – a reaction to evangelical Christian propaganda that claimed all non-believers were going to hell – it raised £144,000 in a fortnight and soon went global. The Atheist Bus is now, as you can see on the campaign website, in every country in the world, complete with a whole host of celebrity endorsements.

But here’s the question that interests me about this: the guy with the sandwich board saying ‘repent, the end is nigh’, that sort of religious propaganda, has been around all our lives. Why, suddenly, at this stage in history, has this become the focus of a major campaign among the thoughtful sections of society? Moreover, why does the campaign have such a shouty character?

Obviously, it is part and parcel of the wave of so-called ‘New Atheism’, and the proclaimed ‘four horsemen’ of the movement – Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris – who all wrote books around the same time as the Athiest Bus appeared, casting heaps of scorn and derision on anybody who had any religious faith. But we also need to stand back and explore what’s behind all this, and what’s driving it forward, by looking at the past 10 or 15 years.

In a way, it’s encapsulated by the historian Eric Hobsbawm, who recently died at the age of 95. In his later, rather gloomy reflections on the experiences of the twentieth century, in the 1994 book The Age of Extremes, he commented on the ‘apparent failure of all programmes old and new for managing or improving the affairs of the human race’. He looked at the exhaustion of communism, of socialism, of social democracy and liberalism, and the way in which the key values of humanism and the Enlightenment had widely been called into question as a result of the experiences of the end of the twentieth century. As such, it seemed that after 200 years in which human beings had thought that they could intervene to make the world a better place, historical change was now seen to be taking place without any subject guiding it. Change had become objectified and the humanist notion of an autonomous agent is replaced by the notion of a fragile subject – somebody to whom things happen rather than somebody who makes things happen. This is a very significant reversal in the whole outlook of humanity compared with previous years.

If you looked at the website of the Atheist Bus, the interesting point that it made by way of justifying the slogan was to say ‘religious advertising works particularly well on those who are vulnerable, frightening them into believing’ with ‘threats of eternal damnation’. And so we see, this campaign begins from a sense of loss of subjectivity and then focuses on the notion of human vulnerability – the idea of the frightened, fragile, pathetic person.

‘Find out more about atheism and a positive and liberating alternative to religion’, it continues. But, of course, atheism can’t be a positive alternative to religion because it’s simply a rejection of God; it’s a negative. It can’t be a liberating alternative worldview and, indeed, it never was for the great humanists of the nineteenth century. For Marx and for Darwin, it was always something entirely secondary to their wider intellectual and political projects. For Marx, free, conscious activity is man’s species character; human experience is the foundation of knowledge and the whole concept of the human self is one who engages in the world, develops an understanding of it and develops a way of changing the world in order to transform humanity itself. It is that dialectic, between subject and object, through which society is humanised and humanity progresses. That’s what has been lost in recent decades, and that’s what this moment is a reaction to.

The irony of our anti-religious focus is that the origins of the contemporary counter-Enlightenment are not to be found in religion, but in the ideas of secular humanism itself. This is particularly the case with the popular ideas of science, especially notions of evolutionary science, which are associated with Richard Dawkins and others in that tradition. However, this is not science but scientism, where science is extended beyond its legitimate area to make claims of a wider scope in society.

That’s the key problem behind all New Atheism. The downgrading of subjectivity, which underlies our historical moment, is only reinforced by scientism that underlies the world of New Atheism. This has led to a situation where subjectivity, which is the key to resolving the crisis of humanity, has become downgraded, not only by the movement of history, but also by the response to the problems of religion.

Michael Fitzpatrick is the author of MMR and Autism: What Parents Need to Know (buy this book from Amazon(UK)) and Defeating Autism: A Damaging Delusion (buy this book from Amazon(UK)).

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