Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Atheist Peril

A thought struck me today. (This rarely happens, as I keep well out of range of most thoughts, but it's impossible to be entirely protected.) Some time in 2010 (I can't remember exactly when) I began to seriously practice the Catholic faith, having been an agnostic tending towards atheism for as long as I could remember. Even before that, I did a lot of reading and thinking about religion-- I came across an email I wrote to an agnostic blogger in 2007.

To me, for all that time, the great adversary was atheism. Of course, the New Atheism was at full tide at this period (it has receded somewhat since), but it wasn't just atheism as a body of opinion that seemed daunting to me. It was atheism as an intellectual position, since there seemed to me then such a lot to be said for the theory that there was no Deity of any kind. Atheism seemed like the argument to beat. The conflict between faith and atheism seemed like the great drama of our era.

Today I realized how far, without even noticing it, I've drifted from this attitude. I no longer think of atheism as the great intellectual fortress to be stormed, or the grand adversary in a cultural war of ideas. I do not believe that most of the post-Christians in Europe are people who have thought through the arguments for and against religious belief, and for and against Christianity, and who have thereby become convinced atheists. I think that, for the most part, they have simply imbibed an atmosphere that is antagonistic to Christianity-- in fact, an atmosphere that is hotile to any kind of serious philosophy of life whatsoever.

And insofar as there is a serious intellectual adversary to Christianity in modern society, it is not atheism or scientific materialism, but liberalism. And atheism is merely a flag of convenience for liberalism. People embrace atheism because it gives (or they think it gives) a metaphysical basis to their liberalism, rather than embracing liberalism as a consequence of an atheism to which they arrived independently.

Atheism, to be blunt, doesn't seem a very big deal to me anymore.


  1. I have to say I loved this post. And I believe it rings true.

  2. Have you also come to view these arguments as insignificant on a personal basis (as opposed to how convincing they are to society)?
    I am always surprised to see how exceptionally little the New Atheists seem to know about religion. In one interview, Dawkins admitted to knowing nothing about Islam, slightly less than he knows about Christianity, but nevertheless recommended that it should be abolished. I also recommend that it should be abolished but I have at least read the Koran.
    The wide variety of religious books and deepness of religious thought, along with the very idea of reading scripture with attention, seems almost beyond the scope of their comprehension.
    I think I agree with you about the threat to Christianity from liberalism. But I have also been trying to make sense of just what this liberalism is since you mentioned it.

  3. Thanks for that, Jacksoned!

    Peter, I have to say, I haven't at all come to see the actual arguments for atheism as insignificant. I see them as very formidable, though ultimately (of course, given my beliefs) mistaken. I am of a very sceptical and even rationalistic frame of mind myself, in many ways, so I have a lot of sympathy for (intellectual) atheism. I actually believe I could make a "brief" for atheism that was pretty powerful myself-- at least, I don't think I've ever heard an argument against religious belief that had not occured to me independently.

    But I think, for this very reason, I get the strong impression that many of the people who either discard religion, or never seriously entertain it, just haven't thought it through in any depth. And surely it deserves depth-- no question can be more important.

    The lack of charity in the New Atheists is what strikes me as their worst failing. I mean the principle of charity in the rhetorical sense-- that you have to take your opponent seriously, and take the opposing arguments at their strongest, in order to really address them. Dawkins and co. can barely see anything to be said in favour of religion, which seems ludicrous to me. The arguments they make against the truth of religion seem reasonable enough to me (most of the time, and apart from their ill-judged forays into metaphysics) but the arguments they make regarding the evil of religion just seem cartoonish and unhinged.