So we are pleasantly surprised by a feature posted at the New Statesman website called "After God: What Can Atheists Learn from Believers?" It includes brief essays by several prominent intellectuals: Alain de Botton, Karen Armstrong, and so forth. One is a former bishop, one a physicist.
Yes, it is smug -- it proceeds from the assumption that, in our society, "atheists are the mainstream," which seems tendentious at best. Worse yet, it speaks unironically about "rid[ding] the world of the bigoted attitudes held and the injustices carried out in the name of religion," which would be fair enough were it not for the matter of the mote and beam.
Still, the general direction of the piece is to call upon atheists to display greater tolerance for religious believers, and perhaps to go beyond that, so far as to ask whether religion -- easily the most powerful force in the history of civilization, saving only money -- has something to contribute to the world they envision as "modern."
Some of the answers are deeply wrongheaded. De Botton has nothing better to propose than that atheists seek out a new priesthood, with new gospels and new churches; perhaps he would like atheists to find their own forms of holy war and papal infallibility as well.
Others, however, are subtler and show a greater understanding of the subject. Francis Spufford argues that the New Atheism, as represented specifically by Dawkins, is a sort of puritanism, a rigid creed which sees others only as enemies to be extirpated. Thus, he says, is unrealistic:
That gunk the New Atheists scrub at so assiduously is the inevitable matter of human culture, of imagination. People secrete it, necessarily, faster than it can be removed. Metaphors solidify into stories wherever the reformers’ backs are turned.
We’ll never arrive at the Year Zero where everything means only what science says it should. Religion being a thing that humans as a species do continuously, it seems unlikely that we’ll stop, any more than we’ll stop making music, laws, poetry or non-utilitarian clothes to wear. Imagination grows as fast as bamboo in the rain.
The world cannot be disenchanted. Even advocacy for disenchantment becomes, inexorably, comically, an enchantment of its own, with prophets, with heresies and with its own pious mythography.Precisely.
Perhaps the most poignant paragraph comes from the physicist, Jim Al-Khalili. Aware that some of his comrades will accuse him of accommodating religion, he nonetheless writes:
There are many issues on which we [atheists] cannot afford to be complacent or conciliatory, such as the evil intent of religious fanatics, the wrong-headedness of creationists or the many injustices carried out against women or minority groups in the name of barbaric medieval laws, but we can often be more effective in getting our message across with a softer approach.Most Egg readers will see at a glance that the matters which concern Al-Khalili are precisely those which concern most mainline Protestants, not to mention a great majority of Roman Catholics in the US, as well as a significant number of believers across the world's religious spectrum. The average Muslim has little use for Al Qaeda, and in fact knows very well that it has deeply undermined his own (or, far more probably, her own) prospects for a free, prosperous and dignified life. We have yet to find a Roman Catholic who actually supports child molestation, or an Episcopalian who thinks that Jesus rode a dinosaur.
We are all troubled by fanaticism and barbarism, especially when undertaken in the name of our various faiths. It is on these matters that the New Atheists, had they not been so blinded by the fury of Creationists that they met it with their own blind fury, could most easily have made common cause with the moderate religionists. And, if the Spuffords and Al-Khalilis among them are right, they still may.
We invite our atheist neighbors to go a step further, and join both mainline Protestantism and Roman Catholicism in public action around the other matters of civil righteousness that have, over the last century, preoccupied us: concern for the poor and the disenfranchised; civil and human rights; making peace, both among nations and among communities with different beliefs.