Atheism and authority

Theos considers the history of atheism:

Nick Spencer is research director of the (excellent) “religion and society think tank” Theos, and so he views the subject with a quiet Christian scepticism. But it is not his purpose to attack atheism. Instead, he wants to tell its history as it has developed, chiefly in Europe, in the past 500 years.

He points out that atheism often starts in disputes about authority. In a thoroughly Christian society – and indeed, in some Muslim societies today – rejection of God was seen as a threat to public order. Quite recently, a British judge said that the law of England has nothing to do with Christianity. He may wish that to be true, but, historically, it isn’t….

Gradually, “atheisms” – there was never a single form – advanced to challenge authority. Some arose from questioning Scripture (“a heap of Copie confusedly taken”, wrote one brave man at the end of the 16th century). Some, often stemming from priests who had seen appalling abuses themselves, concentrated on the wickedness of church power rather than on metaphysics.

Other non-believers, usually among the grandest in society, saw themselves as bathed in the light of reason. David Hume wrote of “the deepest Stupidity, Christianity and Ignorance”. Percy Bysshe Shelley linked atheism with intellectual superiority: “Let this horrid Galilean [Jesus] rule the Canaille [the rabble]… The reflecting part of the community… do not require his morality.” In the current era of Richard Dawkins and the New Atheism, many atheists call themselves the “Brights”, pleased to make the rest of us out as dullards.

Some atheists – Dawkins, Sigmund Freud, AJ Ayer – resemble, in essence, that clever young schoolboy. They believe they have brilliantly proved religion to be a load of hogwash. In their minds, it seems an advantage that their creed does not appeal as much to women or the poor and ignorant. Indeed, Friedrich Nietzsche saw more deeply how European society’s moral order would collapse with the destruction of faith – but welcomed it. Christianity was a “slave morality”, he said, celebrating weakness and preserving “too much of what should have perished”. People such as Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Hitler took up such thoughts with deadly enthusiasm.

But precisely because religion, though theologically grounded, is much deeper than an intellectual theory, it tends to regenerate when attacked. The author quotes one Soviet persecutor of Christianity: “Religion is like a nail, the harder you hit, the deeper it goes in.” Spencer believes that the New Atheism is an expression of anger at the curious phenomenon that all over the world, except among white Westerners, God is back.

I find it informative to observe that Western society is visibly collapsing, by a wide variety of objective metrics, even prior to the proclaimed triumph of atheist secularism and the advent of post-Christianity. One of the primary assumptions of atheist thought – the Enlightenment idea that Western civilization did not depend upon Christianity, but was inhibited by it – is rapidly being understood to be as false as the Christian apologists warned it was two centuries ago.

The choice cannot actually be reduced to: if you want to keep your flush toilets, refrigerators, and television, go to church. But that’s more or less what it amounts to in the end.

UPDATE: For those atheists too slow to follow the logic, perhaps this illustration might help:

A Nigerian man has been sent to a mental institute in Kano state after he declared that he did not believe in God, according to a humanist charity. Mubarak Bala was being held against his will at the hospital after his Muslim family took him there, it said…. Kano is a mainly Muslim state and adopted Islamic law in 2000. 

In fairness to Kano, there is genuine scientific evidence that atheists are neurologically atypical, if not necessarily “mentally ill” per se.