walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: August 13, 2010
The Return of the Village Atheist

Over the last few years there was published a flurry of books marketed and discussed under the heading of “The New Atheism”.  The best-known authors are Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.  While differing in emphasis and style, their books have in common an aggressive, indeed vituperative hostility to religion in all its forms (though particular venom is directed against Christianity and Islam).  Agnosticism is rejected in favor of an unambiguous atheism. Also rejected is the widespread tolerance of non-believers for believers deemed moderate—all religion is dangerous and morally objectionable.  Moderate religionists may be duped themselves, but they are especially dangerous because they help disguise the harm their faith does to society. In other words: no more Mr. Nice Guy.

The “New Atheists” are fervent devotees of the Cult of Reason, as proclaimed by the Jacobins during the French Revolution. Religion is the enemy of reason, and above all the enemy of science. Religion is inherently superstition and illusion. Dawkins coined the telling phrase “the God hypothesis”.  All religious propositions—from the existence of God to the miracles of the New Testament—are hypotheses like those of any scientist, and thus falsifiable. It is not enough to say that there is no scientific evidence against, say, the existence of God:  if there is no evidence for it, the “hypothesis” should be deemed false. (Karl Popper would be surprised by this understanding of his concept of falsification.)  Also, religion is seen as the major source of intolerance and violence—a theme obviously enhanced by the events and the sequel of September 11. In this as in their unabashed rationalism, the “New Atheists” exude an eighteenth-century aura—Voltaire’s outcry against the church: “Destroy the infamy!”—as if they had not lived through the horrors perpetrated by atheist regimes in the twentieth century.

These books do not indicate the advent of a new age of irreligion—a hypothesis, let me say as a sociologist of religion, for which there is no evidence.  If anything, the books suggest the opposite: passionate atheism only makes sense against a backdrop of a strong religious presence (as is certainly the case in the United States). A “man bites dog” story is unlikely to shock in a place where there are no dogs. Probably what we have here is a moment of fashion, spurred by publicity and fugitive media attention.

The atheist rhetoric is hardly new. It is the popular version of the philosophical atheism of the Enlightenment, which itself was quickly popularized in the revolutionary Cult of Reason, and which received its highbrow culminations decades later in the thought of Marx, Nietzsche and Freud. All along, though, there continued a popular atheism, represented in nineteenth-century literature by the conflict between the village priest and the village atheist (often, one may assume, serving to entertain the village idiot). As late as the 1950s a very successful novel, later turned into a television film, dealt with the mostly amiable conflict between Don Camillo, a village priest, and a Communist mayor named Peppone.  In America if not in Europe, the village priest has never left. What we are witnessing is the return of the village atheist (the village idiot has never left either, though now he may read books).

The books at issue here regard atheism as science. It is useful to compare them with a vastly more successful genre of books which treat faith as science—the literature spawned by creationism and “intelligent design,” mostly written by American Evangelicals (though some Catholics have jumped on the bandwagon). Though often thrown together by the media, these two attempts to support faith by an alleged science are quite different. Creationism proposes to demonstrate, scientifically, that the Biblical account of creation is correct—thus alleging that the theory of evolution is false and that the earth is only some six thousand years old (the creationists have a nice term for this—they speak of a “young earth”). “Intelligent design” does not challenge modern biology, but asserts that the universe simply makes no sense unless one assumes that it is the product of an intelligent creator.  This assertion is also allegedly supported by scientific evidence.

These two projects of deploying science in the service of religion are very different. It seems to me that anyone who successfully completed a high school course in biology could not find creationism plausible.  The phrase used by its adherents, “creation science,” is an oxymoron. On the other hand, “intelligent design” reiterates what any religious believer (certainly a believing Christian, Jew or Muslim) would say—that the universe provides testimony to its creator. In the words of Psalm 19: “The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.”  If may drop for a moment my persona as a slightly sardonic observer of the religious scene, and speak as a believer myself:

I once suggested that the breathtakingly beautiful landscape around Lake Como is an “argument for the existence of God”—yes, but not a scientific argument.  “Intelligent design,” unlike creationism, cannot be accused of going against the clear evidence of science; rather, it wants science to do what it cannot do.

The “New Atheists” have a faith masquerading as science.  The creationists are doing the same, on the other side of the fence. And the ID types mistakenly want science to provide a way of proving faith. All three are variants of fundamentalism—the assertion of certainty where no certainty is to be had. There are perfectly plausible reasons for being an agnostic:  God, if he exists, has not made it easy to believe in him.  Atheism is an altogether different matter. An atheist could be defined as someone to whom a voice from heaven has proclaimed that there is no heaven. As to religious faith, the very word indicates something other than knowledge: I don’t need faith for what I know.  At the very least, faith involves a kind of knowledge different from knowledge of the empirical world.

Of course there are people who claim to have absolute certainty about their particular religious affirmations.  Let it be stipulated that, rightly or wrongly, the great mystics (say, someone like Julian of Norwich, my favorite) were absolutely certain that God has spoken to them. Most of us (myself definitely included) try for faith as we stumble around in the dark. I will speak once more, not only as a believer, but as a Lutheran believer: We are saved by faith alone—sola fide. In that sense, unless we are Julian of Norwich, we are all agnostics (Greek for “not knowing”).  The positions under consideration here are also different variants of scientism—greatly exaggerated expectations of science as a method of understanding the world. Science can never prove the beauty of Lake Como, or the validity of the Golden Rule as a moral imperative, or why some situations are funny. Science can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God.

What impresses me most about atheists is the flatness of their worldview. They have this in common with all fundamentalists, religious or secular. Fundamentalism is a decision to avoid the mystery of the human condition.

show comments
  • John Barker

    I have wonder if scientism is a form of autism and that some are shut off from any inner or intuitive sense of the “love that turns the sun and other stars.”

  • Dan

    “We are saved by faith alone—sola fide. In that sense, unless we are Julian of Norwich, we are all agnostics (Greek for “not knowing”).”

    I think that is a mistaken concession to the popularized notion that religious faith is necessarily not based on knowledge. At the very least, religious faith is no less agnostic than atheism or any other worldview.

  • jbay

    Voltaire when taken for everything he said is nothing comparable to the atheist of today. His argument was against the stupidity present in the religion that caused suffering.

    As an example he ridicules the idea that the poor should be required to fast at all because they fast 200 days out of the year. He was outraged by the evils present in the clergy and yes he was somewhat anti-semitic but he also displays a faith in God.

    As for me I tend toward Gandhi’s response to an Evangelical Christian when asked what he was although I to am Lutheran.

  • YogaforCynics

    “Fundamentalism is a decision to avoid the mystery of the human condition.”
    I like that.

    As for breathtakingly beautiful landscapes beign evidence of God, in any sense, I’d say no. While God may or many not have created the landscape, beauty isn’t inherent to it, it’s something we ourselves provide through out response to it.

  • Mika Luoma-aho

    What an excellent post. Thank you Prof Berger!

  • Brendan

    Well done, Prof. Berger! Exactly why I’m an Evangelical but not a Fundamentalist (in that sense). Dead-on comment about Karl Popper’s falsifiability criterion being oddly applied by the New Atheists. I’d say this growing Fundamentalism on both sides is a reaction to a capricious and cruel world by clinging to a rock of certainty.

    Re: YogaforCynics, I stand by C. S. Lewis (in Abolition of Man) that our sense of beauty in relation to a landscape is more than sentiment, but reflects a reality. Though our sense of beauty, morality or other things may be distorted, waterfalls (for instance) really are beautiful, and to fail to call them such is not merely a different response, but a failure to correspond to reality. Beauty is real and inherent, and a powerful argument for the Artist/Creator, though our sense of beauty may be corrupted.

  • Jarus

    Thank you very much Professor Berger for these words. It is indeed true that such people like Dawkins have much more in common with fanatic attitude than anything that would at least resemble scientific approach to religion. It is noticeable that this current is much more common in Europe than anywhere else in the world.

  • Nightswolf

    Heb 11:1 (KJV) Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

    Natural things which can’t not be seen with the human eye, yet you believe in these…
    Air, gravity,time, viruses bacteria, atoms, wind, radiation,mitochondria and chloroplasts, prokaryotic cells so if all these have existed long before you ever believe in them…why is it so unreasonable to believe in a Sovereign Supernatural being…God?

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