Thursday, 17 February 2011

Atheism is not a religion; but it has it's Churches

There are few sources of 'fashionable nonsense' which provide such a rich and plentiful bounty as the seemingly endless torrent of tosh that emanates from the growing gaggle of 'super atheists'.

It is an enduring mystery to me how these guys get away with it. People like Richard Dawkins might be experts in their field, but when they go into bat for atheism they frequently reveal themselves to be philosophically naive, historically unaware, and possessed of a pretty poor grasp of logic. On top of that, much of the incoherent nonsense they are wont to come out with is either explicitly or implicitly contradictory of their own materialist conceptions of reality.

Dinging them should be like shooting fish in a barrel. The fact they are not readily and regularly skewered, I can only put down to their own careful selection of soft targets and the complicity of a supine liberal media.

In short, precisely the sort of situation that this Blog has been set up to respond to, in however humble and insignificant a fashion. Expect this topic to resurface frequently, but to get the ball rolling, let's start with one of Dawkins basic claims / defensive postures; namely, that atheism is not comparable to religion and that the crimes perpetrated by atheist regimes cannot be attributed to atheism.

For example;

"I have said in my book that Hitler is not at all atheist, as he was religiously biased against Jewish people. Stalin was following communism dogmatically. I have already said that none of us, in effect derive our morality from religion. Stalin, in fact, used the dogmatic communism as his source of morality - if we call it morality at all. Being atheist does not ask you to become dogmatic or communist, but only ask you not to believe in God. A person working in a Mafia group can also be an atheist although it will be illogical to say that atheism pushed him to the Mafia group. There are other colleagues working with him who are religious."

Now, this is either naïve or disingenuous or possibly both. This despite the fact that I agree with atheists that atheism is not a religion.

The problem is, neither is theism. And Dawkins and co cannot have it both ways.

If all that atheism asks of you is disbelief in God, then all that theism asks of you is a belief in one (to be precise, and thus distinguish Theism from Deism, a God that intervenes in history). And so the proper comparison is indeed not atheism and religion; it is on one hand atheism and theism, and on the other, the ideologies and religions that proceed explicitly from theistic or atheistic kernels - from the conclusions and assumptions that theists and atheists have extrapolated from those starting points.

Atheism may appear to lack a continuously existing representative institution – something that super atheists are wont to exploit, when cackling over religious misdeeds of centuries gone by. But it has been attended by a continuity of philosophical development. And it has certainly had it's 'churches' , just as theism has. The history of atheist ideologies cannot be disavowed through the transparent double standards Dawkins deploys above.

Returning to the passage quoted; space does not afford dwelling long on the bonkers brew of Nazism here – though this blog will return to that subject it in the future. For now, suffice to say that while the history of Christian anti-Judaism surely played a part in establishing the context in which the holocaust occurred, Nazi anti-semitism (along with their wider catalogue of genetic obsessions) proceeded directly from the scientific racism and eugenic preoccupations of Edwardian atheistic 'progressives' . Moreover, the horrors of Christian pogroms notwithstanding, after a millennium of Christendom, it was in the first avowedly 'secular century' that an attempt at Jewish extermination was conceived.

Communism, meanwhile, is clear cut. It is an atheist religion; a purposeful attempt to purge Christian influences from society, and to reconstruct a social model and value structures based on a materialist conception of reality and atheistic 'rationalist' principles.

Communist is every bit as much an atheistic 'religion' as Catholicism or Shia Islam are theistic religions. If Dawkins doesn't want atheism linked to Communism then he shouldn't be linking theism to Catholicism. But then that would be absurd; just as his attempts to disavow the history of atheist excess through word games, is absurd. He cannot have it both ways.

Moreover, his comparisons or non-comparisons overlook another factor. One could argue that little more is required to understand the human capacity for violence, than a study of Darwin (whose account of the character of nature is rather closer to that described in Genesis, than it is to fluffy humanist fantasies). And one would have thought that no-one would be more aware of this than Dawkins, and the many other atheists for whom Darwin has been co-opted as some kind of prophet.

Against that backdrop, when we make value judgements about ideologies, we must surely be at least as concerned with their capacity to contain innate capacities for violence, as we are with their capacity to be harnessed in service of those instincts.

On both counts atheism does not have a good track record; it seems to spawn either brutalist ideologies that seek justification in Darwin or, conversely, schools of thought that recoil from what science tells us about reality. Systematic attempts to create atheist social-philosophies invariably tend to the utopian or the nihilistic – often starting with the former and landing in the latter. 

And in pursuit of those ideologies even the imperfect check on human nature afforded by the Christian beliefs, is easily shed. Small wonder then, that the multiple independent implementations of communism, justified by their materialist utopianism, were invariably at ease with killing as many in an afternoon as the Inquisition managed over three centuries. As Trotsky put it; We must rid ourselves once and for all of the Quaker-Papist babble about the sanctity of human life."*

I could go on, and indeed, in due course, this blog will return to pick up aspects of this subject in greater detail. But I am familiarising myself with the blog format, and my hunch is that this is quite long enough for a single post.

In closing, there is in fact, and contra to the arguments of the super atheists, little reassurance from history that the proliferation of atheism in a society – and especially when it spawns ideologies of it's own - is anything other than negative in consequence. The same goes for the closely related but not identical radical secularism. For now, we have a largely benign humanism in the ascendance, essentially an atheist form of Christianity which is rather contradictory of the wider implications of atheism (another topic for another day). Despite problems of it's own, it seems to me that taking history as our guid, we should welcome those contradictions over a more rigorously rationalist atheist credo. Time will tell.

But one thing is for sure, whether through ignorance or disingenuousness; the super atheist narrative of an intrinsically benign atheism, isolated from the history of 'ideologies that happened to be the work of atheists' and thus pitched in stark contrast to the presentation of theistic religion, is, well, nonsense.

* This quote of Trotsky's, which can be found all over the internet, is, I believe, cited as being something he said. It is thus sometimes disputed by fans of the man. Well, I'm afraid he did indeed record the sentiments on paper, albeit in less snappy form. The interested reader will find the relevant passage in 'Communism and Terrorism' where it is expressed thus;

"If it is a question of seeking formal contradictions, then obviously we must do so on the side of the White Terror, which is the weapon of classes which consider themselves “Christian,” patronize idealist philosophy, and are firmly convinced that the individuality (their own) is an end-in-itself. We were never concerned with the Kantian-priestly and vegetarian-Quaker prattle about the “sacredness of human life”.”

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