John Gray has provided a refreshing critique of contemporary atheism in a recent essay for The Guardian entitled What scares the new atheists. His lucid analysis has struck me mostly in two ways.
The first way is in his honest admission, as an atheist himself, that we all believe. It is impossible not to believe. Every worldview – including skepticism, atheism, materialism – is based on a set of beliefs.
As an organised movement, atheism is never non-committal in this way. It always goes with an alternative belief-system – typically, a set of ideas that serves to show the modern west is the high point of human development.
This is a hard admission for skeptics. It is easy to deconstruct other points of view – they are psychological projections, socially produced phenomena, historically shaped institutions, illusions which are evolutionarily advantageous – but what about your own views? Why do you stand on a unique vantage point? How to claim to deconstruct other views but yours remains valid and reasonable? How come others are blind but you somehow see?
Gray criticizes contemporary atheism heavily at this point. “What today’s freethinkers want is freedom from doubt, and the prevailing version of atheism is well suited to give it to them.” Indeed, much of new atheism today is dogmatic, strident, and apparently immune from critique. “I just don’t believe, I’m based on reason and science,” they say. But that’s belief in reason (very narrowly and partially defined) and science…
… which Gray also deconstructs (the second point that struck me). He notes that “for 21st century atheist missionaries, being liberal and scientific in outlook are one and the same.” But this effort to link atheist views to reason and science is also a cultural construction, and a false one:
None of the divergent values that atheists have from time to time promoted has any essential connection with atheism, or with science… The source of those values is not science. In fact, as the most widely-read atheist thinker of all time argued [Nietzsche], these quintessential liberal values have their origin in monotheism…. [Without Christianity] the secular societies of modern times would hardly have been possible.
This is not the occasion to examine the historical roots of modern-day atheism (Alistair McGrath does at great job at that at The Twilight of Atheism). For today John Gray’s honesty and lucidity suffices. The question is not between belief and unbelief, but between which set of beliefs will you base your life on. (Michael Keller has written a great article on that).
So, what do you believe in?