My generation, raised in a 1970s and 1980s world of great affluence, relative peace, relative safety, and relatively good public education, is dominated by lost souls taught to believe that man and science can solve all of man’s and nature’s problems within our lifetime. While most would not consider themselves Atheists, most believe that belief in God is, at best, a quaint tradition followed by the uneducated and brainwashed, and, at worst, an evil force that is the enemy of progress and the cause of war and violence.
It is no surprise, then, that the recent spate of aggressive “Case for Atheism” books (Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion; Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great; Sam Harris’ The End of Faith) have become the hit of the Canadian book circuit this past year. For even those who reject God eventually realize, like believers of all kinds, that they need affirmation of their faith. (When I recently entered the apartment of a non-believing acquaintance, I saw not one, but two of these books on the reading stand – aparently, the thirst for affirmation of this faith is a powerful one.)
A recent article by Damon Linker in the left-wing New Republic, “Atheism’s Wrong Turn” – reprinted in today’s National Post – is highly critical of these proselytizing atheist tomes, pointing out that their tone and message harkens back to a very illiberal centuries-old tradition of Atheism marked by “a visceral contempt for the personal faith of others.” While there have been countless attacks on the poor scholarship, exaggeration, and outright nastiness of the authors of these books by conservative reviewers, this article is worth a read for two reasons: one, because Linker is a liberal writing for a left-wing periodical; and two, because his thesis points out that these “new Atheist” attacks on all religion are actually reactionary attacks on the cause of liberalism itself. As Linker notes, true liberalism takes no position on faith:
Indeed, the tone of today’s atheist tracts is so unremittingly hostile that one wonders if their authors really mean it when they express the hope, as Dawkins does in a representative passage, that “religious readers who open [The God Delusion] will be atheists when they put it down.” Exactly how will such conversions be accomplished? Rather than seeking common ground with believers as a prelude to posing skeptical questions, today’s atheists prefer to skip right to the refutation. They view the patient back and forth of dialogue–the way of Socrates–as a waste of time.
It is with this enmity, this furious certainty, that our ideological atheists lapse most fully into illiberalism. Politically speaking, liberalism takes no position on theological questions. One can be a liberal and a believer (as were Martin Luther King Jr., Reinhold Niebuhr, and countless others in the American past and present) or a liberal and an unbeliever (as were Hook, Richard Rorty, and a significantly smaller number of Americans over the years). This is in part because liberalism is a philosophy of government, not a philosophy of man–or God. But it is also because modern liberalism derives, at its deepest level, from ancient liberalism–from the classical virtue of liberality, which meant generosity and openness. To be liberal in the classical sense is to accept intellectual variety–and the social complexity that goes with it–as the ineradicable condition of a free society.
It is to accept, in other words, that, although I may settle the question of God to my personal satisfaction, it is highly unlikely that all of my fellow citizens will settle it in the same way–that differences in life experience, social class, intelligence, and the capacity for introspection will invariably prevent a free community from reaching unanimity about the fundamental mysteries of human existence, including God. Liberal atheists accept this situation; ideological atheists do not. That, in the end, is what separates the atheism of Socrates from the atheism of the French Revolution.
It does seem that the likes of Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins wouldn’t mind if a grand revolutionary battle between believers and unbelievers occurred, like the French Revolution’s attempts to replace God and King with a cult of man. Looking back at the century of bloodshed, war, and misery that followed the French Revolution, today’s unbelievers should take pause, and reconsider their faith. Because, while religion certainly has caused its share of bloodshed over the centuries, every single attempt to strip religion from society has had only a single outcome: disaster. And, in questioning their faith in God-rejection, I hope that open-mindedness would allow the God-rejecters of my generation to consider, even if just for a moment, that believers in good religion and an unknowable, all-knowing creator God, might just be on to something.