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.