The Irrationality of Atheist Opposition to Atheism
The New Oxonian has a new guest post by Stephanie L. Fisher, who quotes from D.H. Lawrence words that I have repeated again and again over the years. I choose the words that still resonate with me, fifty years after I first read them (especially the words in italics):
For man, the vast marvel is to be alive. For man, as for flower and beast and bird, the supreme triumph is to be most vividly, most perfectly alive. Whatever the unborn and the dead may know, they cannot know the beauty, the marvel of being alive in the flesh. The dead may look after the afterwards. But the magnificent here and now of life in the flesh is ours, and ours alone, and ours only for a time. [my italics]
Of course, for Lawrence, the word ‘man’ refers almost entirely to the male sex, and for him woman is, in a very real sense, as St. Paul held, the glory of man. But even allowing the word ‘man’ to range over women as well, the words are still powerful. They point out the importance of humanity and human vitality, and the beauty and wonder that at least some of those who live will know. Sadly, this wonder will not be known by all who live, and for all who live it is known, as Lawrence knew, only for a time.
But Stephanie Fisher quotes these words as a standing indictment of those who have adopted a rigorously atheistic posture towards the world, as a criticism of those who, on the basis of rejecting religious belief, in her belief, ought to adopt a purely humanistic stance towards human life and social and political organisation, without attaching to it a criticism or rejection of religious belief. This criticism is becoming a long, unrelenting litany of reproach of all those who have adopted atheism and its implied criticism of religion.
As is appropriate for a guest post at The New Oxonian, Stephanie Fisher, an acknowledged expert, we are told, on the gospel source “Q”, quotes from R. Joseph Hoffmann, to this effect:
R. Joseph Hoffmann has recently said, “There is no reason to vilify God and religion, historically understood, for excesses that, as humanists, we slowly recognized as human excesses and finally learned to combat.”
I am not altogether sure what this means, but at least it means this much, that ideas of god and religion are purely human creations, and, as such, have a legitimate place in a reasonable humanism. We should, therefore, no longer criticise religion, or religious beliefs, because these are understood, now, as they should be, as an integral part of being human. Recognising them as such, we can now continue to carry out the humanist project, which is to celebrate the human, whether this is theistic or atheistic, for it is all a part of the rich human tapestry — as those who appreciate the history of humanity would recognise, if they were at all sensitive to what is truly human.
Eventually, Ms. Fisher suggests, religious beliefs may simply wither and disappear, but, in the meantime, she says,
… you cannot realistically demolish all these without replacing them with something. I think only secular (humanistic) education in the sciences and logic as well as the arts including histories of atheism, humanism and religious beliefs, can encourage people to adopt reason and find spiritual, or life fulfilment in things like nature, the arts, and human relationships.
In other words, the atheist goal of obliterating religion is simply quixotic, and atheists should simply cease and desist with the radical critique of religion. We should be content merely to offer education in science and logic and let people’s beliefs fall where they may. In the meantime, we should respect religion as a human project:
In a truly humanist society, [Fisher writes] individual private beliefs will matter less and less, and education in a secular humanist state will probably eventually dissolve them. But that is a goal for education – not for coercion by unbelievers, who have no more right to urge their point of view than a believer has to encourage that America “rediscover” its Christian past.
But believers do have a right to encourage Americans to “rediscover” its Christian past. It is simply absurd to contend otherwise. Even though it is untrue, and the American republic is founded on basic Enlightenment principles, which accept no more than an attenuated deism, at the very most, there is nothing which says that American fundamentalists should not encourage Americans to discover its Christian past. The absurdity of Fisher’s claim is patent. Just as American fundamentalists have every right to urge Americans to rediscover what they think is their Christian past, even though the American republic was not founded on Christian principles, American atheists have every right to urge Americans to accept the belief that there is no god, and that religious principles do not, and indeed should not, undergird the American constitution or American law.
But more than that, atheists do not, as a rule, claim that religious believers are not entitled to their beliefs. They would not even claim, I suggest, that there is no room for religious believers in humanist associations. Indeed, the Humanist of the Year award was granted in 1974 by the American Humanist Association to Joseph Fletcher, an Episcopal priest, and the originator of what came to be known as Situation Ethics or the New Morality. While it is true that what is called the New Atheism is much more overt and declarative than the old implicit atheism championed by Joseph Hoffmann, it is untrue that this atheism wants to establish explicitly atheist forms of governance. What the New Atheists propose is precisely forms of secular (humanist) governance recommended by Stephanie Fisher in her New Oxonian guest post.
However, at the same time that this is so, the New Atheism also holds, with good reason, that there are serious dangers of a new theocracy. Extreme forms of Islam (whether these are, or are not, canonical forms of Islam), and a resurgent form of theocratic Roman Catholicism, as well as theocratic fundamentalist forms of American Protestantism, whether these are human creations or not, are clear dangers to the kind of secularist humanism that Stephanie Fisher defends in her article. To ignore the dangers that these forms of religion pose to the project of secular democracy in the world today is to ignore too much, and therefore, to pillory atheists for taking a definite stand regarding the truth claims of the religions is not only uncalled for, but is to fly in the face of the role that religion plays in the world today. The continued opposition of religious believers to a growing atheist movement in the world is understandable and expected. The continuing opposition of atheists to atheist argumentation against the truth of religious beliefs is becoming almost surreal in its absurdity. What on earth can explain this persisting irrationality?