Discover more from Konstantin Kisin
The Atheism Delusion
When asked about my religious views, I usually call myself an agnostic but if I had to describe my views more accurately, it would be fair to say I’m a lapsed atheist.
Born in the Mecca of non-belief that was Soviet Russia, my view of religious people as ignorant, obscurantist and doctrinaire was only reinforced by watching my comedy heroes like Bill Hicks and George Carlin take big and legitimate swings at the disconnect between the teachings of religion and the behaviour of the religious.
Hicks summed this incongruity up perfectly by recalling a story of three men approaching him after a gig in Alabama with the words “We’re Christians - we didn’t like what you said!” to which he replied “Then forgive me”.
Today, in a world in which the religious right has less obvious impact on our world, jokes of this kind would have little resonance. But my youth was infused with example after example of stuffy religious conservatives attempting to enforce their values on the rest of society by attempting to censor Eminem’s song lyrics, trying to prevent Monty Python’s Life of Brian from being shown in cinemas and attempting to push through the idea that creationism should be taught in schools.
This backdrop provided the perfect opportunity for the emergence of daring, counter-cultural figures who could use their erudition, wit and refreshing honesty to effortlessly take apart the tired old arguments for a religious worldview. In the wake of 9/11, the Four Horsemen of New Atheism (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett) came forward to re-articulate the importance of Enlightenment values of truth, science and liberty from religious dogma.
They were smart, charismatic and, above all, they were cool.
Dawkins wrote terrific books like The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker which made evolutionary theory simple to understand and debunked unscientific claims about the nature of our world.
Hitchens applied the power of reason and rationality to debates, obliterating his opponents with a uniquely British civilised ruthlessness, illustrating the cowardice of those who engaged in embarrassing apologetics for the murderous actions of religious zealots as they sought to enforce blasphemy laws on our society by violence and terror.
Sam Harris became a hero to many when he found himself attempting to articulate the problem with Islam on Bill Maher’s show, only to be shouted down by Ben Affleck in what quickly became the talk of the internet.
The new atheists were exciting because they were saying something new, challenging the dogma of their day and speaking truth to power. Not content with proving that religion wasn’t true, they ventured further in attempting to prove religion was, at best, unnecessary and, more likely, harmful.
To this end, Dawkins wrote The God Delusion in 2006, with Hitchens delivering God is Not Great the following year. The argument was no longer about encouraging religious people to calm down and leave the rest of us alone, it was increasingly that religion was inherently wrong and bad.
It was around this point that I began to lose my faith in atheism. The God Delusion was the last Dawkins book I read and the appeal of that discussion waned quickly for several reasons.
First, it was clear to me that to attempt to challenge Islamic extremism with facts and logic as Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris had done was to fail on purpose. Despite their efforts, most of the Western world today operates under de facto blasphemy laws which are enforced not by religious activists lobbying for censorship but by knife-wielding fanatics and suicide bombers.
The liberalism that the new atheists so enthusiastically espoused, the idea that we should be free to criticise, mock and satirise anything, including religion, only works when the Government is willing to protect you from the consequences. In seeking to liberate us from the tyrannical instincts of dogmatic Christians, the new atheists delivered us into the hands of a different and far more pernicious religious zealotry from which the ordinary citizen has no security at all.
Second, the fact that many religious ideas are scientifically inaccurate and that religion has been and continues to be used for evil is not in dispute. Indeed, one of the core claims of the new atheists is that religion produced evils that were far worse than the body count of non-believers. “Sure, Stalin, Hitler and Mao, were bad,” they argued “but they weren’t MOTIVATED by their atheism or its holy book”.
This view of the Holocaust, Stalinism and the Great Leap Forward as accidental by-products of a non-complicit atheism is, to me, a complete misunderstanding of the impact a lack of religious faith has on the way we think about other human beings. The central positive feature of the religious worldview is to ensure that human beings do not see themselves as the sole arbiters of truth and justice, that having torn God down from his pedestal we do not put ourselves in his place.
Yes, of course, atheist mass murderers like Stalin and Hitler weren’t motivated to kill millions because of religious differences but their ability to rationalise their actions and to persuade other people to support them was a product of the sense in which, in the absence of God, we get to make up whatever rules we want. This is precisely why we had to invent the concept of human rights in the immediate aftermath of World War II - without a worldview in which we are all worthy of dignity and respect by virtue of being children of God, you have to reinvent that particular wheel through the UN.
My point is, it is extremely easy to prove that religion is evil but I am not convinced that proving that it causes more evil than its absence is quite as easy.
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Third, the central question new atheists fail to answer, one that we put to Richard Dawkins in an interview that airs tomorrow here, is whether, irrespective of how scientifically true religion may or may not be, it is nonetheless both useful and inevitable.
The Dawkins answer is as close to quoting Karl Marx’s idea that “religion is the opium of the masses” as you can get without reproducing it verbatim. "The comfort you get from believing a falsehood is like a drug and it’s a perfectly valid argument to say that there’s everything to be said for the drug,” he explained.
This is a persuasive argument in the sense that truth matters irrespective of how uncomfortable or impractical it may be, but the problem here is that the absence of old religion seems to produce only a vacuum into which a new religion rushes in. And this new religion has just as little regard for the truth as the old ones. That’s why Richard Dawkins who spent his best years arguing with creationists is now increasingly forced to explain basic biological concepts like the inability to change your sex by incantation on national television.
The reason new atheism has lost its mojo is that it has no answers to the lack of meaning and purpose that our post-Christian societies are suffering from. What will fill that void? Religious people have their answer. Do the rest of us?
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