The celebration of Queen
But Earth's proud empires fade away. The same process of growth and decay can be seen in the empires of the mind. There comes a point when their attraction pales and their credibility falters. To wit: Atheism is in trouble. Its future seems increasingly to lie in the private beliefs of individuals rather than in the great public domain it once regarded as its natural habitat.
Pathology No Longer
One of the most important criticisms that Sigmund Freud directed against religion was that it encourages unhealthy and dysfunctional outlooks on life. Having dismissed religion as an illusion, Freud went on to argue that it is a negative factor in personal development. At times, Freud's influence has been such that the elimination of a person's religious beliefs has been seen as a precondition for mental health.
Freud is now a fallen idol, the fall having been all the heavier for its postponement. There is now growing awareness of the importance of spirituality in health care, both as a positive factor in relation to well-being and as an issue to which patients have a right. The "Spirituality and Healing in Medicine" conference sponsored by Harvard Medical School in 1998 brought reports that 86 percent of Americans as a whole, 99 percent of family physicians, and 94 percent of hmo professionals believe that prayer, meditation, and other spiritual and religious practices exercise a major positive role within the healing process.
One of the most obvious indicators of the ongoing importance
of religion is the well-documented tendency of immigrant communities to
define themselves in religious terms—Sikh, Hindu, and Muslim
Christian churches have long been the centers of community life in the West. People want to belong, not just believe.
The growth of community churches has helped meet this need. There is a sense of belonging to a common group, of shared common values, and of knowing each other. People don't just go to community churches; they see themselves as belonging there. At a time when American society appears to be fragmenting, the community churches offer cohesion.
It is important to make this connection with the changing
"Their place has largely been taken by the new unit of social integration, the organization," Drucker wrote. "Where community was fate, organization is voluntary membership." In the old days, community was defined by where you lived. It was part of the inherited order of things, something that you were born into. Now, it has to be created—and the agency that creates this community is increasingly the voluntary organization. Christian churches are strategically placed to create and foster community. The community churches have proved especially effective in this role, and have grown immensely in consequence.
But what of atheism? The former
The nearest thing in the West to this Soviet model is found
Atheists widely discuss this comprehensive failure of
leadership within their circles. Howard Thompson, sometime editor of the Texas
Atheist, is undoubtedly one of the most able and reflective atheists in
And why has this failed to happen? Thompson lays much of the blame at the feet of O'Hair, whom he regards as the movement's greatest liability. He believes her organization has failed to learn from her mistakes and persists in depicting her as a hero, even a martyr, for the atheist cause.
For 30 years O'Hair was the most visible atheist. What O'Hair did and said was atheism to the public, and it was nasty. The disappearance of the O'Hairs in September 1995 gave hope that more positive atheist initiatives might develop. That's why atheists should worry about the revival of her American Atheists under the leadership of Ellen Johnson, who assumed the office of president in a questionable board of directors meeting. Johnson is also a die-hard O'Hair fan who continues to present her as an atheist heroine. What atheism doesn't need is a continuation of O'Hair's negativity; her style and limited vision stifled positive atheist growth.
Her atheism was crude, anti-intellectual, and homophobic, making even the most zealous fundamentalist Christian seem a model of liberal values. For Thompson, the answer is clear: Grow leaders. In another op-ed piece, "The Unlit Bonfire," Thompson argues that a new dawn awaits—if only the leadership issue can be resolved. "Total victory is the only acceptable goal in a mind-control war because humanity is diminished so long as a single mind remains trapped in superstition by programming or choice." But who will lead them? And can this goal actually be achieved?
The fatal flaw within Thompson's argument, found within many other atheist tracts and publications, is his strident insistence that humanity has been enslaved by supernaturalist superstition. It is merely necessary to educate people, he believes, and these mad ideas will fall away. Thompson and his colleagues have not even begun to understand a fundamental fact about religion: People actually like their faith, find it helpful in structuring their lives, and inconveniently believe that it might actually be true.
Thompson's alternative to the rich fare of a transcendent faith is "a materialistic culture that frees humanity from superstition." This sounds dull, dated, and gray, about as exciting as a lecture on Bulgarian Marxist dialectics. The failure of atheism to capture the public imagination in the West reflects its failure to articulate a compelling, imaginative vision of a godless future that is capable of exciting people and making them want to gather together to celebrate and proclaim it.
The same dullness pervades the National Secular Society
(founded in 1866), the nearest thing
Rationalism, having quietly died out in most places, still lives on here. Yet Western culture has bypassed this aging little ghetto, having long since recognized the limitations of reason. The Enlightenment lives on for secularists. Atheism is wedded to philosophical modernity, and both are aging gracefully in the cultural equivalent of an old folks' home.
And, for those who find their tracts wearisome, the society thoughtfully provides a religious jokes page—though in poor taste, they carry a significantly higher intellectual content than the rest of the site. Here's an example of atheism's winsome arguments: Question: What's the difference between Jesus and a painting? Answer: It only takes one nail to hang a painting.
The joke makes my friends outside the church cringe. Yet I have the impression this is actually meant to persuade people of the intellectual and cultural superiority of a world without religion. Thompson clearly has a point.
Nevertheless, serious issues are occasionally debated on the website, including the question of why secular humanism, with its commitment to atheism, has so singularly failed to capture the public imagination. One obvious answer might be the National Secular Society itself, which exudes a pious tedium, trapped in a time warp of the closing decades of the 19th century, that seems almost to have been deliberately designed to alienate potential recruits.
Reginald Le Sueur put his finger unerringly on the real point at issue: "The problem with humanism as such is that, although rational, secular, and 'true,' it is, in comparison with major religions, somewhat wishy-washy and just plain unexciting."
Le Sueur recognizes atheism as derivative, its attraction residing primarily in what it denies rather than what it articulates as an alternative. So does atheism have a future?
No doubt it does—but not an especially distinguished or exciting future. Listen to John Updike: "Among the repulsions of atheism for me has been its drastic uninterestingness as an intellectual position." I have to confess that I now share his catatonic sense of utter tedium when I reread some of the atheist works I once found fascinating as a teenager. They now seem simplistic, failing to engage with the complexities of human experience, and seriously out of tune with our postmodern culture.
Why Atheism Matters
The moral passion of atheism, especially when set alongside the laziness and complacency of European state churches in the 18th century, cannot be dismissed. Some Christian leaders at the time of the French Revolution saw that event as a divine judgment against a failing church. Some believed God was using the atheist critiques of the church as a means of reforming it.
Paradoxically, what propels people toward atheism is above all a sense of revulsion against the excesses and failures of organized religion. Atheism is ultimately a worldview of fear—a fear, often merited, of what might happen if religious maniacs were to take over the world.
As the critics of Homeric religion made clear, the attractions of a godless world rest upon a sense of revulsion against the gods. Who wanted to worship or imitate gods such as Zeus and Athena, when they merely immortalized the worst moral failings of human beings?
Others had similarly serious misgivings. "Eternal punishment must be eternal cruelty," said secular humanist orator Robert G. Ingersoll (1833-1899), "and I do not see how any man, unless he has the brain of an idiot, or the heart of a wild beast, can believe in eternal punishment." Despite its opportunistic overstatement, Ingersoll's complaint resonates deeply with many who find a contradiction between their deepest intuitions of fairness and the Christian God.
We cannot assert eternal damnation and expect Western culture to nod approvingly. This culture is not predisposed to reject Christian doctrines as a matter of principle; rather, it is surprised by what seems a massive retreat from society's fundamental notions of decency and evenhandedness. Atheism arises mainly through a profound sense that religious ideas and values are at least inferior to, and possibly irreconcilable with, the best moral standards and ideals of human culture.
In its most intense and authentic forms, atheism enters a powerful protest against what it sees to be morally or intellectually inferior visions of reality. In their place, atheism offers visions of a larger freedom, allowing humanity to throw aside its chains and enter a new and glorious phase in history. It is perhaps not surprising that many sympathize with Dostoyevsky's character Ivan Karamazov when he respectfully returns God's ticket, in the face of the suffering, pain, and injustice of the world. Christianity must provide good answers to such fair questions.
But the real significance of atheism has to do with its critique of power and privilege. Whatever their failings, atheist organizations are right in challenging the idea that any religious grouping can enjoy special privileges in a democratic society. Such groupings deserve respect. But when religion becomes the establishment, a corrupting abuse of power can result. Atheism soars in its appeal.
The converse can be true. The rise of militant Islam in
Atheism's concerns about the Christian exertion of power resonate with many within the church. The assumption of the New Testament is that Christianity is excluded from the establishment and thus insulated from the temptations and corruption that power brings. For many reflective Christians, the church began to lose its compelling moral and spiritual vision with the conversion of Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor. A movement that was at its most authentic while powerless and weak now became exposed to forces that compromised its integrity.
Yet it must be noted that Christianity is a dynamic entity, constantly changing in its forms as it seeks to relate its foundational heritage in the New Testament to the situations in which it finds itself. Atheist criticisms of the church are at their most compelling and persuasive when they are directed against the failings of the church.
The essential difficulty here is that, with the rise of
dynamic churches especially in the Southern Hemisphere, the classic atheist
criticisms of the church do not quite ring true any longer—even in the
homelands of the much-derided state churches of
The atheist dilemma is that Christianity is a moving target, whose trajectory is capable of being redirected without losing its anchor point in the New Testament. And as theologian John Henry Newman pointed out, Christianity must listen to such criticisms from outside its bounds, precisely because listening may be a way of recapturing its vision of the gospel.
Some atheists have argued that the phenomenon of globalization can only advance a secularist agenda, eliminating religion from the public arena. If the world is to have a shared future, it can only be by eliminating what divides its nations and peoples—such as religious beliefs. Yet many have pointed out in response that globalization seems to be resulting in a quite different outcome.
Far from being secularized, the West is experiencing a new
interest in religion. Patterns of immigration mean that Islam and Hinduism
are now major living presences in the cities of Western Europe and
Paradoxically, the future of atheism will be determined by its religious rivals. Those atheists looking for a surefire way to increase their appeal need only to hope for harsh, vindictive, and unthinking forms of religion to arise in the West.
In his problematic but fascinating work, The Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler argued that history shows that cultures came into being for religious reasons. As they exhausted the potential of that spirituality, religion gave way to atheism, before a phase of religious renewal gave them a new sense of direction. Might atheism have run its course, and now give way to religious renewal? The tides of cultural shift have, for the time being, left atheism beached on the sands of modernity, while Westerners explore a new postmodern interest in the forbidden fruit of spirituality.
Alister McGrath is professor of historical theology at
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