Supposing that few CP&S readers actually “take” the Guardian, I might tell you that very recently John Gray (b.1948), the political philosopher now retired from the London School of Economics, wrote an article there concerning our old friends, the “new atheists”, often referred to as “evangelical atheists”. Unavoidably, we know the type.
Rather than make any tedious comments of my own on the article, I will just set down below for you some quotable quotes that I think you will find more interesting and not entirely unappealing. Though an atheist himself, Professor Gray appears less than impressed by these modern-day crusading nullifidians and believes they are probably feeling more and more out of sorts these days.
If religions are natural for humans and give value to their lives, why spend your life trying to persuade others to give them up?
There is no sign anywhere of religion fading away, but by no means all atheists have thought the disappearance of religion possible or desirable.
Many who are atheists in this sense (including myself) regard the evangelical atheism that has emerged over the past few decades with bemusement. Why make a fuss over an idea that has no sense for you? There are untold multitudes who have no interest in waging war on beliefs that mean nothing to them. Throughout history, many have been happy to live their lives without bothering about ultimate questions.
Campaigning atheism is a missionary enterprise, aiming to convert humankind to a particular version of unbelief; but not all atheists have been interested in propagating a new gospel, and some have been friendly to traditional faiths.
It has often been observed that Christianity follows changing moral fashions, all the while believing that it stands apart from the world. (GC: obviously Professor Gray is not an attentive CP&S reader!) 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.
In fact there are no reliable connections – whether in logic or history – between atheism, science and liberal values.
As society became ever more reliant on science, they had assumed, religion would inexorably decline. No doubt the process would be bumpy, and pockets of irrationality would linger on the margins of modern life; but religion would dwindle away as a factor in human conflict. The road would be long and winding. But the grand march of secular reason would continue, with more and more societies joining the modern west in marginalising religion. Someday, religious belief would be no more important than personal hobbies or ethnic cuisines.
The resurgence of religion is a worldwide development. Russian Orthodoxy is stronger than it has been for over a century, while China is the scene of a reawakening of its indigenous faiths and of underground movements that could make it the largest Christian country in the world by the end of this century. Despite tentative shifts in opinion that have been hailed as evidence it is becoming less pious, the US remains massively and pervasively religious.
For secular thinkers, the continuing vitality of religion calls into question the belief that history underpins their values.
Finally, dear kathleen, faithful CP&S stalwart, this one may re-ignite the recent CP&S culture wars:
The Hapsburg empire was based on rejecting the liberal principle of national self-determination; but – possibly for that very reason – it was more protective of minorities than most of the states that succeeded it. Protecting universal values without honouring what are now seen as core liberal ideals, these archaic imperial regimes were more civilised than a great many states that exist today.
Please read Professor Gray’s recent article here on the Guardian. It of course contains a lot more and much on atheism historically.