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The Secret God of the Secularists

Evangelical atheism as a form of liberal moral panic

The English philosopher John Gray, himself an atheist, says today’s evangelical New Atheists have far more in common with the religionists they despise than they think they do. In a rich, rewarding essay in the Guardian, Gray says that an earlier generation of modern atheists worshiped Science, which in their reasoning made them supporters of eugenics … until Nazism showed where that led. It is today conveniently forgotten, says Gray, that those who preached Science as the foundation for modern political life were, in the pre-Nazi 20th century, the most avid promoters of eugenics. Gray:

It has often been observed that Christianity follows changing moral fashions, all the while believing that it stands apart from the world. The same might be said, with more justice, of the prevalent version of atheism. If an earlier generation of unbelievers shared the racial prejudices of their time and elevated them to the status of scientific truths, evangelical atheists do the same with the liberal values to which western societies subscribe today – while looking with contempt upon “backward” cultures that have not abandoned religion. The racial theories promoted by atheists in the past have been consigned to the memory hole – and today’s most influential atheists would no more endorse racist biology than they would be seen following the guidance of an astrologer. But they have not renounced the conviction that human values must be based in science; now it is liberal values which receive that accolade. There are disputes, sometimes bitter, over how to define and interpret those values, but their supremacy is hardly ever questioned. For 21st century atheist missionaries, being liberal and scientific in outlook are one and the same.

It’s a reassuringly simple equation. In fact there are no reliable connections – whether in logic or history – between atheism, science and liberal values. When organised as a movement and backed by the power of the state, atheist ideologies have been an integral part of despotic regimes that also claimed to be based in science, such as the former Soviet Union. Many rival moralities and political systems – most of them, to date, illiberal – have attempted to assert a basis in science. All have been fraudulent and ephemeral. Yet the attempt continues in atheist movements today, which claim that liberal values can be scientifically validated and are therefore humanly universal.


But pretty well all secular thinkers now take for granted that modern societies must in the end converge on some version of liberalism. Never well founded, this assumption is today clearly unreasonable. So, not for the first time, secular thinkers look to science for a foundation for their values.

It’s probably just as well that the current generation of atheists seems to know so little of the longer history of atheist movements. When they assert that science can bridge fact and value, they overlook the many incompatible value-systems that have been defended in this way. There is no more reason to think science can determine human values today than there was at the time of Haeckel or Huxley. None of the divergent values that atheists have from time to time promoted has any essential connection with atheism, or with science. How could any increase in scientific knowledge validate values such as human equality and personal autonomy? The source of these values is not science. In fact, as the most widely-read atheist thinker of all time argued, these quintessential liberal values have their origins in monotheism.

He’s talking about Nietzsche, whose writings reveal the problem atheists have with morality. Says Gray, “It’s not that atheists can’t be moral – the subject of so many mawkish debates. The question is which morality an atheist should serve.” Nietzsche hated liberalism because he saw it as a secular incarnation of Jewish and Christian worldviews. In Nietzsche’s view, the secularists wanted to cherry-pick from the Judeo-Christian tradition, picking out the things they liked — egalitarianism, universal human rights, and so forth — while rejecting the things they did not. But they concealed from themselves what they were doing, blinding themselves to the extent to which their project owed everything to the moral claims of the religion(s) they rejected. So they conjured up Science as their new god, and pretended that Science could provide for them a clear, objective, rational basis for the construction of society, though by its very nature it cannot. Gray:

At this point, the dread spectre of relativism tends to be raised. Doesn’t talk of plural moralities mean there can be no truth in ethics? Well, anyone who wants their values secured by something beyond the capricious human world had better join an old-fashioned religion. If you set aside any view of humankind that is borrowed from monotheism, you have to deal with human beings as you find them, with their perpetually warring values.

Read the whole thing, which for most of you will be the best thing you read today.

I don’t know how Gray can justify his claim that there is no sign anywhere that religion is fading away. Clearly Western Europe is very nearly lost to Christianity, or to any religion. The US is far more religious, in both theory and practice, but it is becoming impossible to deny that Christianity is less the core of the culture than a therapeutic add-on to a worldview that is essentially secular and liberal.

This is not necessarily a new development, this relationship. One reason I rejected Christianity as a teenager was my (mis)apprehension that it was about nothing more than providing divine sanction for the white middle-class American way of life. That isn’t actually true, but you have to dig to find that out. The thing that shocked me out of my faith was the silence and cowardice of Southern Christianity in the face of racism and American apartheid. I realized later, of course, that the story is much more complicated than I thought as a 15 year old, but I still think it was true back then, as it is true today, that most of us experience religion not as a prophetic challenge toward our own conversion, and for bringing peace and justice to the world in which we live (though recognizing this is never ultimately achievable, and that getting rid of old evils usually provides the space for new ones to grow), but as an emotional and psychological comfort to help them live without anxiety in the status quo.

But I digress.

Where I think Gray really hits the mark is pointing out that bringing any kind of teleology into one’s thinking requires assuming that there is some standard of value outside of human experience. If all we have is this world, then the moral life becomes a matter of will to power. Power holders, and those contending for power, rarely come right out and say what they’re after, and they aren’t necessarily aware of what they’re doing. In fact, I believe most people today who oppose laws and principles that orthodox Christianity upholds, and who say that Christians don’t have the right to “force their beliefs” on others really believe that they are pushing for something that’s either morally neutral or morally good. They do not intend to deceive, but they are deceiving themselves.

What is so frustrating in dealing with these folks is their unwillingness to recognize that they are, in fact, forcing their values on those who disagree. I’ve got no problem with that in principle. As Rieff said, culture and civilization is only possible when you have a code that says, of some behavior, “thou shalt not.” Gray’s point — and it’s a solid one — is that you cannot say “thou shalt not” (e.g., “Thou shalt not deny same-sex couples the right to marry”) without having an ideal in mind. I mean, you can do this, but if you want to leave the religious element out of it, you have to concede that you are only doing so as an exercise in force and repression. There can be no meaningful appeal to morality outside of belief in some sort of metaphysics. This is why the Marxists made History into a godlike force. This is why New Atheists worship Science.

They need a god in which to ground the moral claims they wish to make, is the point. But they deny God’s existence. Grabbing a man off the street and dressing him like the king does not make of him a monarch, though.

Again, read the whole thing. And say, I’m going to be on the road for most of today, so please be patient with me approving comments.



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