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13 August 2011

Philistine Atheism

The need that people have for a recognition of some kind of transcendence, which is what religion offers, is nothing to be contemptuous of. The oddly recrudescent militancy of atheism, in a time which at least in Europe is not hostile to the irreligious, appears to me fanatical, mean-spirited and philistine. The religious impulse is an expression of what is special about human beings: that we can find meaning. That life is meaningful and that humans are special are asserted by many religions as non-negotiable. This is eminently valuable.

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe that progress is possible, that we can make things better. Religion is, warts and all, an expression of an impulse that is vital to this progress. What I mean is this. Religion has been responsible for some nasty goings on, has served to justify oppression throughout the ages, and many of its myths and doctrines must be unacceptable to anyone who values the democratic spirit of science. But in a world that seems to offer nothing but a counter-intuitive scientism which does violence to what people hold dear, or misanthropy and the denigration of human life, or the commodification of people, or the lack of community and human relationships existing outside the sphere of commerce and without official sanction – in a world like this religion at least asserts that there is value to life above and beyond natural science, the market and the state, and that a better world is possible.

Now, I do think it’s a mistake to locate this better world beyond the grave, and I’m not a believer myself. I imagine that religion will fade away some fine day. But more important is that the underlying search for meaning is fostered. The end of religion can only happen in a world in which it is not left to it to monopolize what is noble and meaningful in humanity. As often happens, I’m with Marx. Religion may be the opium of the people, but it’s also the heart of a heartless world.

A common objection to my kind of atheist defence of religion (or rather, religiousness) is that it is elitist and condescending, that I am saying “Of course I don’t need religion, but the hoi polloi do, so leave the commoners alone with their treasured beliefs.” But this is a misunderstanding. I am delighted that over time science has cast into doubt many of the founding religious myths, and that people in many parts of the world are now free to believe what they want; but a positive anti-religious stance seems to miss much more about the world and about human beings than religious people do, all else being equal.

Of course, in places where fundamentalism is rampant, such as the USA, militant atheism would seem to be in order. But even there, contempt for the masses is surely out of place, and certainly counterproductive.

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