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New atheism – new religion

July 2014 | by Kieran Beville

Atheists tend to say their non-belief in God is something that does not need to be defended.

Christopher Hitchens has said, ‘I don’t believe in God and I don’t need to justify this, just as I don’t need to give reasons for my non-belief in the tooth fairy’ (God is not great, Atlantic Books; p.5).

Is atheism simply non-belief in the claim, ‘There is a god’? This seems to be the default mode of atheists when asked to give reasons or evidence for their position. Atheists need to recognise that their atheism is a worldview. Astonishingly, many of them deny this.

Atheism is a community of ‘believers’ who assert that ‘there is no God’. This is their conviction. They have blogs and websites promulgating their scepticism. The internet is infested with their discussion forums and they post anti-religious sound bites on Twitter and stinging aphorisms and quips on Facebook.

The unifying force of this community is their atheism. Atheistic writers are activists, spreading their message and those who buy their books are part of a connected community of ardent adherents. So the claim that atheism is simply non-belief in the existence of God is simply not true.

Implications

Denying the existence of God has moral implications. For example, the concept of human rights is rooted in the Judeo-Christian idea of the sanctity of life. The Christian believes that people are made in the image of God.

If God is deleted from this equation, then there is no good reason to uphold the sanctity of life. If humanity is merely the product of chance and natural selection, then it becomes problematic to argue that people (perceived as merely a cocktail of atoms and chemicals, mixed in some mysterious process over a period of several billion years) possess inalienable rights.

If the moral compass does not have God as its magnetic north, then ‘morality’ becomes confused with ‘consensus’ and ‘law’ and will inevitably be arbitrary and subjective, rather than transcendent and absolute. This hastens the descent into moral chaos.

If belief in God is abandoned, then hope in life after death must also be forsaken. Dogmatic nihilists have nothing to offer but shipwrecked lives to those at sea without a compass.

Without God, human existence is meaningless and humanity has no sense of direction. With God, there is meaning in the origin, purpose and destiny of the human soul.

Influential atheists, like Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell and, more recently, John Gray have pointed out these kinds of implications, which are ignored or denied by many internet-dwelling atheists (see, for example, John Gray’s Straw dogs: thoughts on humans and other animals, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux).

Atheism is a belief that has consequences. Scepticism is not the same as enquiry; it leads to cynicism and despair. The Christian belief in human rights and justice has its foundation on absolute moral values and duties.

Cluster

Atheism is not an insulated belief system, because it has a cluster of related beliefs associated with it, such as naturalism, evolutionism, scientism, secular humanism and relativism.

Naturalism is a belief that truth is derived from nature and natural causes, not from revelation. It is a system of thought that rejects all spiritual and supernatural explanations of the world. Naturalism holds that science is the sole basis of what can be known.

Evolutionism is a biological term which refers to the theory that all species develop from earlier forms of life.

Scientism is based on the use of the scientific method of acquiring knowledge in traditional sciences, or such other fields of inquiry as philosophy, psychology and sociology. Scientism is the belief that science alone can authoritatively explain phenomena. It applies scientific methods to fields unsuitable for it, such as the Bible. It is characterised by arrogance, which fosters dogmatism.

Secular humanism is a system of thought based on the values that are believed to be best in human beings. It rejects any supernatural authority and believes in a human-based morality. This secular, cultural and intellectual movement is a worldview that stresses human values without reference to religion or spirituality. It is a philosophy that is growing in popularity in the twenty-first century.

Secular humanism is a conviction that dogmas, ideologies and traditions must be evaluated by each individual. It asserts that all religious, political or social ideas must be tested, not simply accepted on faith. It is committed to the use of critical reason alone in determining reality.

It is committed to factual evidence and scientific methods of inquiry. It rejects ‘faith’ in seeking solutions to human problems and answers to important human questions.

Relativism is the belief that concepts such as right and wrong, goodness and badness, or truth and falsehood are not absolute. It suggests that these change from culture to culture and situation to situation.

Such elements and principles form the galaxy of the belief system that is atheism. These are pre-understandings or presuppositions adopted by atheists to explain and defend their belief system.

Disillusion

I believe in good science (most science historically has been doxological, that is conducted to the glory of God), but I do not believe that physics, chemistry and biology can explain everything.

It is also evident that the utopia promised by the Enlightenment (modernism) has not materialised. Many would deem modernism to be a failed project, with a loss of confidence in reason, the goodness of knowledge and the inevitability of progress (with good reason, given the history of the twentieth century).

These additional beliefs that cluster around atheism beg the question, ‘How can a “non-belief” have such gravitational force?’ The tendency of atheism to draw other beliefs into its orbit is proof that it is a belief system.

Another proof that atheism is a belief system is its tendency to shape identity. Many atheists describe themselves proudly as ‘atheist’ or ‘free thinker’ in their social media profiles.

Furthermore, atheists tend to gather together in anti-religious communities such as Richard Dawkins.Net where they attack Christians and affirm their identity. There is a network of conferences and seminars that act as a forum for atheists to express and disseminate their views.

There are many godless gurus who ‘preach’ at these gatherings, and books like The God delusion are deemed to be sacred texts and read avidly. There is orthodoxy in atheism, with its confessions and creeds derived from the works of its celebrity authors. Those who disagree with them have been accused of heresy.

Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel was deluged with thousands of angry messages, many calling him a ‘heretic’ after his book Mind and cosmos questioned several aspects of evolution and suggested materialism could not explain several key features of reality (see Joseph Brean, ‘What has gotten into Thomas Nagel? Leading atheist branded a “heretic” for daring to question Darwinism’, The National Post, 23 March 2013).

Oppression

Atheism is an oppressive meta-narrative (just look at how they delight in attacking people of faith!). As such, it is not unlike some other religious or political beliefs. It is certainly part of individual and community identity.

Many atheists have a religious zeal and evangelical fervency to rival the most fundamentalist churches. I have experienced this in Facebook interactions with them!

Some scholars, such as Stephen Prothero of Boston University, assert that atheism is, in fact, a religion (Stephen Prothero, God is not one: the eight rival religions that run the world, HarperOne; p.326). He asserts that there are many ‘religious’ people who do not believe in God, including adherents of Buddhism, Confucianism and some forms of Judaism (Op. cit. p.323).

Émile Durkheim defined religion as ‘a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things’ (The elementary forms of religious life, transl. Carol Cosman; introduction and notes by Mark S. Cladis; Oxford University Press; esp. pp. xxi, 46).

Sacred things

Durkheim defines ‘sacred things’ as, not necessarily having anything to do with supernatural beings such as gods, but anything held dear to the person, including ideas or values. Atheism, with its idolisation of science and human reason, accords with such a definition.

One key element of religion is that it is a worldview that attempts to answer ultimate questions relating to the origin, purpose and destiny of humanity. All religions have a belief system that determines what is deemed to be good and evil. Atheists have beliefs concerning all of these issues.

Many atheists say their view is simply non-belief and they like to dismantle the beliefs of Christians and mock or belittle them. They feel no obligation to defend their own views with evidence, reasons and arguments, saying that the burden of proof rests with those who claim that God exists.

This is intellectual laziness. It is easier to deconstruct and demolish than to build. Christopher Hitchens quipped, ‘That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence’ (God is not great, p.50). But this must also apply to the atheistic belief system!

Kieran Beville

The author is pastor of Lee Valley Bible Church (Baptist), Ballincollig, Ireland, and visiting Professor of Intercultural Studies and Practical Ministry at Tyndale Theological Seminary, Amsterdam.