Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Theo Hobson: Atheism is pretentious and cowardly


The counter attack on the militant atheists has begin in earnest. Theo Hobson, a self-described "post-ecclesial Christian theologian," launches the latest volley in the Guardian's Comment is Free Blog:

Atheism is pretentious in the sense of claiming to know more than it does. It claims to know what belief in God entails, and what religion, in all its infinite variety, essentially is. And atheism is muddled because it cannot decide on what grounds it ultimately objects to religion. Does it oppose it on the grounds of its alleged falsity? Or does it oppose it on the grounds of its alleged harmfulness? Both, the atheists will doubtless reply: religion is false and therefore it is harmful. But this is to make an assumption about the relationship between rationality and moral progress that does not stand up. Atheism is the belief that the demise of religion, and the rise of "rationality", will make the world a better place. Atheism therefore entails an account of history - a story of liberation from a harmful error called "religion". This narrative is jaw-droppingly naive.

Some will quibble with the above definition. Atheism is just the rejection of God, of any supernatural power, they will say, it entails no necessary belief in historical progress. This is disingenuous. The militant atheists have a moral mission: to improve the world by working towards the eradication of religion.

Let me take a step back, and ask a rather basic question. What is this thing that the atheists hate so much? What is religion? Believe it or not, I don't know the answer. Indeed it seems to me that anyone who does claim to know is underestimating the complexity of the topic considerably. If the atheist deigns to define religion at all, he is likely to do so briskly and conventionally, as belief in and worship of some species of supernatural power. It's a terribly inadequate definition. Dictionaries would do better to leave a blank, to admit ignorance.

In reality, "religion" is far wider than a belief in a supernatural power. This is only one aspect of what we mean by "religion". For example there is surely something religious in the communal ecstasy of a rave, or a pop concert, or a play, or a sporting event, or a political rally. Some would say that these events are quasi-religious, that they echo religious worship, but are distinct from it. But how on earth is one to make the distinction? Is a yoga class "religious"? What about a performance of a requiem? What about Hitchens' own belief in the saving power of literature? In practice, "religion" cannot really be separated from "culture".

The atheist will doubtless call these reflections irrelevant. Yes, there is an affinity between religious worship and various secular cultural practices, he may say, but so what? The issue is belief in the supernatural. Religion, in the full and harmful sense, exists when people cringe under the illusion of a celestial being, and when people propagate teachings that are not true. This leads to superstitious ignorance, and to immoral actions, for example the persecution of homosexuals.

It is here that the atheist ought to tread with very great care, but instead he straps on his clown-sized jackboots, and stomps around. The fact is that the relationship between religion, morality and politics is infinitely various and complex. The critic of religious abuses must be specific, particular. He must focus on particular practices, particular institutions, and explain why they have a detrimental effect on society. But the militant atheist cannot humbly limit himself to the realm of the particular; he necessarily lapses into sloppy generalisation. For he has to insist that religion in general is harmful, all of it, always. He has to show that he has the answer: if people shared his total rejection of God, then the world would be a better place. He needs to believe this. For he finds grounds for hope here. If humanity moves away from religion, things will get better. It's a faith

I consider the atheist's desire to generalise about religion to be a case of intellectual cowardice. The intellectual coward is one who chooses simplicity over complexity and difficulty. The militant atheist chooses to uphold a worldview of Animal Farm crudity: atheist good, believer bad. He has to believe this; it is his claim to the moral high ground. Christopher Hitchens sounds like a man who is desperate for a big cause, for an agenda that will give him one last chance of some high significance, a last stab at prophet status. By seeking his grand purpose in atheism he exhibits the sort of intellectual timidity he claims to despise.

Read it all.

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