Playboy Forum: Atheism Wars

By John Gray


<p>British philosopher John Gray takes his fellow nonbelievers to task for their zealousness and intolerance in dealing with their opposition.<br></p>

When in 1931 the popular historian of philosophy Will Durant sent a number of famous contemporaries a letter asking about the meaning of life, H.L. Mencken replied, “What the meaning of human life may be I don’t know: I incline to suspect that it has none. All I know about it is that, to me at least, it is very amusing while it lasts.… When I die I shall be content to vanish into nothingness. No show, however good, could conceivably be good forever.”

A lifelong unbeliever, Mencken mocked religion in all its forms as a vice of weak minds. Atheists such as Christopher Hitchens have attacked religion as an enemy of democracy and equality and cited Mencken in support of their attacks. Yet for Mencken the modern faith in human equality was as much a delusion as any religion. He rejected religion as an insult to reason, but he never imagined human beings could be rational. Convinced of the irredeemable stupidity of the mass of humankind, he expected nothing of the species apart from the endless entertainment it gives an impartial observer of human folly.

It would be hard to find any echo of Mencken’s cavalier atheism among today’s evangelical unbelievers. Twenty-first century irreligion comes in several varieties, each engaged in furious controversy with the rest, but these sects have one thing in common: They are all made up of missionaries. “I like to think that most of my ideas have been sound ones,” Mencken wrote in his reply to Durant, “but I really don’t care. The world may take them or leave them. I have had my fun hatching them.” In contrast, atheism is nowadays essentially a project of conversion. Universal unbelief, today’s atheists are unshakably convinced, will bring about a new world of rationality and progress. There the consensus ends, however. For just as most of the world’s religions have fought over the central tenets of their faith, so these evangelists for godlessness are locked in contention as to what atheism means for ethics and politics. Now, as in the past, unbelievers are as much at war with one another as they are with believers.

At present the most influential atheists are liberal humanists. It would no more occur to Richard Dawkins that an atheist would reject liberal values of freedom and equality than that he or she would take up witchcraft. A world that had abandoned religion would be far from perfect, he would admit, but it would surely realize liberal ideals more fully than the one we live in. For Dawkins, as for most well-known unbelievers today, atheism and liberal humanism are sides of a single coin.

In historical terms this is an extremely parochial view. Many atheist thinkers have been critics or outright opponents of liberal values, while a campaigning form of atheism was an integral part of some of the last century’s most despotic regimes. In believing that religion could be relegated to the past, Lenin and Trotsky were unquestionably secular humanists; they were also virulently anti-liberal. An incessant war against religion has been integral to communist regimes everywhere in the world. The intellectual founder of French fascism, Charles Maurras, was a convinced atheist, but he also favored the church as a buttress of state power. Most of the leading Nazis—atheists whose worldview was shaped by a vulgarized version of Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideas and a distorted form of Darwinism—looked to a future in which Christianity and Judaism would be exterminated and replaced by a revamped version of paganism. If fascism and Nazism had triumphed in Europe, any religion that remained would have done so only as a state cult. In much of the past century, it was militant atheism and totalitarianism that were sides of the same coin.

Evangelical atheism’s links with illiberal values are not only a matter of history. Today in America, an atheist faction has joined forces with Christian fundamentalists in the Tea Party. The churchgoing habits of libertarian former congressman Ron Paul did not stop him from professing his admiration for the rabidly atheist novelist Ayn Rand. In an improbable-looking alliance with Christian evangelicals, Rand’s disciples have promoted a fantastical vision of the free market. Happily, there is as much prospect that laissez-faire capitalism will ever come into being as there is of realizing Lenin’s hideous utopia. For the most part, the free market invoked by Rand is a mythic version of an American past that never existed. After all, the American economy was founded on federal subsidy, protectionism and, for a time, slavery—not the free market. Even so the appeal of Rand’s ideas will persist, since, like many supposedly secular belief systems, Rand’s philosophy offers the comforts of faith while insisting it is based on reason.

Atheism today is mostly a cult of science. For Dawkins and others who attack religion, science—particularly Darwin’s theory of evolution—provides the only rational view of the world. Scientific inquiry is not for these atheists simply the most reliable tool humans have invented for getting to know the world; it is a means to salvation, the only way through which humankind can find deliverance from immemorial evils of ignorance and unreason. There have been many variants of this kind of atheism, but in each case a type of pseudoscience was used to give intellectual legitimacy to a political program—a development rightly described as scientism. A version of evolutionary theory shaped the thinking of Ernst Haeckel, the “German Darwin.” Giving scientific authority to the idea of racial hierarchy and founding a new, anti-Christian and anti-Semitic religion of monism that attracted a significant following in German-speaking central Europe, Haeckel was one of the thinkers who formed the intellectual climate from which Nazi “scientific racism” developed. Aiming at a new world of another kind, Soviet “scientific atheism” exemplified a similar pattern of thinking. Though its adherents profess liberal values, the “new” Darwinian atheism is not much more than a recycled version of 19th century scientism.

Rand was unusual in basing her system on an ersatz brand of philosophy rather than pseudoscience, but she too recycled the ideas of an earlier time. Growing up in Russia, from which she emigrated in 1926 at the age of 20, she (like many other young Russians) was steeped in the writings of Nietzsche. In the first edition of her earliest published novel, We the Living (1936), the heroine—a stand-in for Rand herself—tells her Bolshevik lover that the masses are nothing but “mud to be ground underfoot, fuel to be burned.” These and similar passages were prudently removed from later editions of the book, but there can be no doubt that they illustrate a Nietzschean strand in Rand (even if it was a crudely simplified version of Nietzsche’s thinking that she drew on). What Rand did was Americanize Nietzsche’s Übermensch, turning the German thinker’s fantasy into an embodiment of intransigent capitalism. In a bold exercise in syncretism, a superhuman elite became the heroic entrepreneurs of right-wing folklore. If he could have known what was to become of the myth he had created, Nietzsche—who, along with nearly all German intellectuals of the period, hated capitalism—would have turned in his grave.

Yet there is nothing new in the fusion of atheism with worship of the market. The idea of “the survival of the fittest” originates not with Darwin but with the Victorian sociologist Herbert Spencer, who used it to promote laissez-faire capitalism. Rand’s thought has no serious intellectual content, but that has not prevented it from being taken seriously by people ignorant of the history of ideas. Famously, former chair of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan was a youthful devotee. In later years he strayed from the faith, but he never lost Rand’s certainty that free market capitalism is the only rational economic system. While the economy over which he presided for nearly 20 years could never have matched that dream, he seemed to have been genuinely baffled when the system came close to collapse in the financial crisis.

The meltdown helps explain the alliance of Christian evangelicals and militant atheists on the American right. The apocalyptic mood that many have observed on the Republican right expresses a crisis of faith. Whatever its flaws, the American capitalism that melted down in the crash of 2007–2009 was for these true believers—religious and secular—a model that would ultimately be adopted everywhere. Leaving the U.S. just one country among many struggling to adapt to the bursting of a global debt bubble, the crisis shattered this view of the world. In the disorientation that followed, opposed ideas and beliefs came together in some curious mixes.

Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s flirtation with Friedrich Hayek is a case in point. Unlike Rand, Hayek was a serious thinker; he produced the most compelling account of why central economic planning fails. However, when Ryan claimed to have imbibed Hayek’s ideas and handed out copies of The Road to Serfdom to staffers, he cannot have known what the Austrian thinker believed about the role of government. Certainly, as his polemical tract attests, Hayek was a strong critic of the postwar expansion of government. But, as his fiery writing shows, he also favored a state-funded welfare system that Ryan and his Tea Party followers would regard with horror. A product of the final years of the Habsburg Empire, Hayek, a Nobel Prize–winning economist, was no doctrinaire antistatist. Talking with Hayek at length when I knew him in the 1980s, I found that a common joke about him—that for him minimum government meant the army, the justice system and the state opera—accurately encapsulated his outlook. It is only Hayek’s disciples who are fanatics for minimum government.

A devout Catholic, Ryan would have been even more horrified had he known Hayek’s views on religion. Much influenced by the physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach, a supporter of Haeckel’s monism who believed science to be the only source of human knowledge, Hayek viewed religion in quasi-Darwinian terms. Holding to a theory of group evolution that has more in common with Spencer than with anything Darwin proposed, Hayek speculated that there might be something akin to natural selection among religions, in which those that advocated social order prevailed over the rest. Far from supposing with Dawkins that science renders religion redundant, Hayek believed science could show religion to be humanly indispensable. Whatever the merits of Hayek’s theory, it is an important insight. “Darwinian” atheists imagine that evolution and religion are bound to be at odds because they think of religion as a primitive kind of scientific theory. But if you think of it as a set of human practices, religion must itself have an evolutionary function and explanation. Recognizing this did not make Hayek any kind of believer, since rather than showing religion to be true, his account renders the idea of any divine power redundant.

Though their alignment in the Tea Party may seem anomalous, evangelical Christians and militant atheists have more in common than appears at first glance. In the context of the contemporary American right, both are versions of fundamentalism. The fundamentalist mind-set is not confined to those who obey what they regard as the divine authority of scripture. It shows itself wherever human beings seek safety in a text or a doctrine. Fundamentalist atheism and evangelical religion are alike in offering the peace of mind that goes with freedom from thought.

In fact, atheism has little to offer anybody. Contemporary unbelief is a hollowed-out version of monotheism—a cult of human deliverance lacking the beauty and flashes of wisdom of traditional faiths. Yet defined properly, atheism is an entirely negative position. An atheist is anyone who has no use for the concepts and doctrines of theism—and there have always been people who fit that description without wanting to turn unbelief into a missionary enterprise. Atheism is one thing, secular humanism another. Some atheists, such as Mencken, reject religion with contempt while having little interest in persuading others to adopt their view of things. Others, such as the sadly little-read Spanish American philosopher and novelist George Santayana, have been notably friendly to religion, whose symbols and images they see as composing a kind of transcendent poetry—an attitude that, as an atheist myself in the proper meaning of the term, I admire and share. Atheists have loved democracy and despised it; some atheists excoriate the free market, while others adore it. The fact is that nothing much follows—either historically or as a matter of logic—from rejecting theism.

The confusion that results when this fact isn’t grasped is illustrated in “Atheism Plus,” a recent internet-based movement that seeks to align evangelical unbelievers with strong liberal positions on issues of sex and justice. Despite the aura of political correctness that surrounds the movement, these are mostly good causes, but they have nothing to do with atheism. Religious believers have often been homophobic, but there are gays who are believers and believers who are not gay who actively reject discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. Again, religious believers have often been misogynistic, but the churches are divided today because significant numbers of believers reject past misogyny. It is only a willful simplicity of mind that turns these many-sided conflicts into contests between belief and unbelief.

Fleeting ripples on the surface of events, each of the currently contending versions of proselytizing atheism has come and gone many times in the past. Even where they have gained control of government and wreaked immense destruction they have in the end left religion as strong as it has always been, as can be seen in postcommunist Russia. More than any in the past, the current generation of atheists is ignorant of history. But their lack of knowledge is the result not only of an inadequate education; like the invincible ignorance described by medieval theologians, their disregard of the past is an act of will. If they allowed themselves a sense of history, their lives would be emptied of meaning.

Unwittingly, evangelical atheists demonstrate the enduring power of faith. Imagining that a new wave of rationalism could change the nature of human beings is the height of unreason. More than the passing beliefs through which humankind seeks to escape its insignificance, it is unchanging needs—for food and water, security and power—that are the chief drivers of human conflict. In thinking that a shift of belief systems could transform the human scene, these atheists are possessed by a myth. Yet there need be nothing dispiriting in their stilted poses of righteous rationality. The pretense of reason is part of the human comedy, and for those who understand and accept this fact the spectacle will evoke a smile. The atheist wars will pass and soon be forgotten. As long as they last, however, they are absurdly amusing.

John Gray is professor emeritus at the London School of Economics and author of The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths.



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