Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Our Kind of Atheist

We've always had a soft spot for atheism. Many of our friends are atheists, our dearest college chum vociferously so. We ourselves are no strangers to the varieties of doubt and the inclination to disbelieve. To be frank, we consider agnosticism a thoroughly respectable position, and rather miss the days when we could hold to it.

Lately, of course, there has arisen a particularly noxious variety of person, inclined to use "atheism" as an opportunity to work out his or her (but mostly his) own Daddy issues, using anybody who believes in God (but mostly Christians) as a convenient stand-in for the real object of simmering Freudian rage. All over the web -- including, until a recent editorial decision, our own comments section -- one can see this sort of enraged tooth-gnashing. It normally takes the form of recycled Dawkins and lame efforts to imitate Hitchens. Given our passionate admiration for Hitchens, we'd be happy to put up with the latter, if it even approached the erudition, wit or flair of the original. It doesn't.

Still, just as (according to America's second-most-famous Mormons) one bad apple doesn't spoil the whole bunch girl, nor does one generation of child-molesting priests quite spoil the whole Roman project, so we do not believe that one efflorescence of unpleasant internet trolls entirely discredits all of atheism. In the words of well-known atheist Jean-Paul Sartre, au contraire. (We assume he must have said that at one time or another; the Frogs always do.)

All this brings us to a review of Alain de Botton's new book. De Botton is a popularizer of philosophy, and an atheist. But his new book, Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion, sounds like a pleasant change from the recent rounds of believer-bashing. According to John Gray in the New Statesman:
It is only the illiteracy of the current generation of atheists that leads them to think religious practitioners must be stupid or thoughtless. Were Augustine, Maimonides and al-Ghazali - to mention only religious thinkers in monotheist traditions - lacking in intellectual vitality? The question is absurd but the fact it can be asked at all might be thought to pose a difficulty for de Botton. His spirited and refreshingly humane book aims to show that religion serves needs that an entirely secular life cannot satisfy. He will not persuade those for whom atheism is a militant creed. Such people are best left with their certainties, however childish.
Well. That's more like it, eh? In the words of Rodney King, can't we all just get along?

Seriously, though, there is no reason for the sort of Kirchnkampf stuff we've been seeing lately. Yes, sure, the fundies started it, but they're -- by definition -- a freakish reaction against modernity. To turn yourself into their mirror-image is to abandon the basics of modernity, which include the ability to tolerate diversity in civil society. Much of the "skeptical" world would find itself able to work together with much of the believing world, achieving great things for the common good (not least marginalizing the fanatics), if only it were willing to try. Instead, it often resolves to fight fire with fire, and devolves into a fanaticism of its own. Paging Robespierre!

We're also delighted to see this warm review of de Botton in the New Statesman, a newsmagazine of the British Left. The hard copy we picked up in London a few months ago was absolutely chockablock with sneering, unreflective antireligiosity. It's nice to know that the editors haven;t quite given up on the modern world, and can still tolerate some diversity.

1 comment:

Pastor Joelle said...

You know now that you've kicked him out he's probably gonna come trolling my way now...