The London Guardian has published a fascinating in-depth article about atheism, its history and its different varieties. The author, John Gray, is himself an atheist, but he subjects what he calls today’s “evangelical atheists” to a withering critique. He especially criticizes the notion assumed by so many “new atheists” that if we just get rid of religion, the rise of science will bring “liberal” values–freedom, equality, human dignity, universal benevolence, etc. Gray shows that there is no way to get from science alone to moral values of any kind, and certainly not liberal values.
In fact, atheists, historically, have often held “illiberal” values. For example, mainstream atheists before World War II tended to be social darwinists, with a strong strain of eugenics and racist biology. Then there is Soviet atheism, which rejected individual freedom, and the atheism of Friedrich Nietzsche, who critiqued liberal values as deriving from Christianity, hating them both. I would add that prominent strain today beloved by many conservatives, the atheism of Ayn Rand, with her “virtue of selfishness.” Gray does say that of course he and his fellow atheists can be moral, but the question is, what morality are they to follow? And science, he says, won’t give an answer. Read an excerpt and follow the link after the jump.From John Gray, What Scares the New Atheists, London Guardian:
It has often been observed that Christianity follows changing moral fashions, all the while believing that it stands apart from the world. The same might be said, with more justice, of the prevalent version of atheism. If an earlier generation of unbelievers shared the racial prejudices of their time and elevated them to the status of scientific truths, evangelical atheists do the same with the liberal values to which western societies subscribe today – while looking with contempt upon “backward” cultures that have not abandoned religion. The racial theories promoted by atheists in the past have been consigned to the memory hole – and today’s most influential atheists would no more endorse racist biology than they would be seen following the guidance of an astrologer. But they have not renounced the conviction that human values must be based in science; now it is liberal values which receive that accolade. There are disputes, sometimes bitter, over how to define and interpret those values, but their supremacy is hardly ever questioned. For 21st century atheist missionaries, being liberal and scientific in outlook are one and the same.
It’s a reassuringly simple equation. In fact there are no reliable connections – whether in logic or history – between atheism, science and liberal values. When organised as a movement and backed by the power of the state, atheist ideologies have been an integral part of despotic regimes that also claimed to be based in science, such as the former Soviet Union. Many rival moralities and political systems – most of them, to date, illiberal – have attempted to assert a basis in science. All have been fraudulent and ephemeral. Yet the attempt continues in atheist movements today, which claim that liberal values can be scientifically validated and are therefore humanly universal.
Fortunately, this type of atheism isn’t the only one that has ever existed. There have been many modern atheisms, some of them more cogent and more intellectually liberating than the type that makes so much noise today. Campaigning atheism is a missionary enterprise, aiming to convert humankind to a particular version of unbelief; but not all atheists have been interested in propagating a new gospel, and some have been friendly to traditional faiths.
Evangelical atheists today view liberal values as part of an emerging global civilisation; but not all atheists, even when they have been committed liberals, have shared this comforting conviction. Atheism comes in many irreducibly different forms, among which the variety being promoted at the present time looks strikingly banal and parochial.