Yes, yes. I’m well aware that seeking to sound clever with oxymoronic titles is tiresome, but–as John Gray argues in What Scares the New Atheists–religion and atheism are not actually contradictory. Not necessarily, in any case. The argument, which is worth reading in full, begins with the simple observation that atheism has historically reflected the morality of the times, just as religion often does, and Gray begins with a particularly embarrassing list of examples of atheists who provided the “scientific” basis of racism prior to World War II.
Now, this isn’t a case of someone just blaming the Nazi’s on atheism, which would be silly, and now is as good a time as any to point out that Gray is himself an atheist. His point isn’t that morality is impossible for an atheist or that atheism tends irreversibly towards moral oblivion and solipsism. Instead, his first point was simply that “none of the divergent values that atheists have from time to time promoted has any essential connection with atheism, or with science.” Got it? No necessary connection between liberal morality1 and atheism.
What’s more, Gray argues that liberal morality is itself a kind of derivative of traditional Jewish and Christian religious beliefs:
The trouble is that it’s hard to make any sense of the idea of a universal morality without invoking an understanding of what it is to be human that has been borrowed from theism. The belief that the human species is a moral agent struggling to realise its inherent possibilities – the narrative of redemption that sustains secular humanists everywhere – is a hollowed-out version of a theistic myth.
He also points out that while it’s not very difficult to come up with universal values (e.g. based on self-interest, reciprocity, and so forth), “Universal values don’t add up to a universal morality.” This is one of the most astute observations in the piece. As Gray points out, once you have a bunch of universal values, you still have to deal with the fact that “such values are very often conflicting, and different societies resolve these conflicts in divergent ways.”
Gray also dispatches with the idea that religion is some kind of unique source of evil in the human experience. While conceding that various religions are flawed in various ways, he writes that
The fault is not with religion, any more than science is to blame for the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction or medicine and psychology for the refinement of techniques of torture. The fault is in the intractable human animal. Like religion at its worst, contemporary atheism feeds the fantasy that human life can be remade by a conversion experience – in this case, conversion to unbelief.
So, what’s the point? Gray’s central thesis is that the New Atheism is basically a fearful reaction to the awareness that the secularization hypothesis isn’t going to fly. The world is not abandoning religion and, in fact, there’s no good reason to believe that it ever will. Gray cites Stuart Hampshire:
It is not only possible, but, on present evidence, probable that most conceptions of the good, and most ways of life, which are typical of commercial, liberal, industrialised societies will often seem altogether hateful to substantial minorities within these societies and even more hateful to most of the populations within traditional societies … As a liberal by philosophical conviction, I think I ought to expect to be hated, and to be found superficial and contemptible, by a large part of mankind.
Well, the New Atheists don’t want to face that. They don’t like the idea that their cherished liberal views (which, mind you, are not actually in any way logically linked to atheism) are not going to be universally accepted. And so they embrace a radical, doctrinaire form of atheism that involves an awful lot of pseudo-religious mechanisms: from evangelizing to witnessing to conversion narratives. In the end, Gray writes that “What today’s freethinkers want is freedom from doubt, and the prevailing version of atheism is well suited to give it to them.”
The final irony is that fear is driving the New Atheists to become in every way the mirror image of the doctrinaire, blind-faith religions they claim to despise.