On the new atheists and liberal values

In What scares the new atheists John Gray argues that militant atheists, such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Danniel Dennet, are mistaken in their belief that secularism can cure the world’s problems. Rather, suggests Gray, the atheists are cultural imperialists who, like the proponents of Social Darwinism a century or so ago, wish to impose their unsupported utopian scheme upon others.

In the case of the Social Darwinists, atheism was used to justify eugenics and Nazi racism.

In the case of the new atheists, anti-religious ideology is being used to impose western, secular values upon people who prefer more traditional outlooks.

Gray thinks that the source of the new atheists’ misplaced Utopianism is a mistaken view of human nature.  “This is, in fact, the quintessential illusion of the ruling liberalism: the belief that all human beings are born freedom-loving and peaceful and become anything else only as a result of oppressive conditioning.”   In another paragraph he says, “The conviction that tyranny and persecution are aberrations in human affairs is at the heart of the liberal philosophy that prevails today.”

But which of the new atheists has claimed that humans are inherently good? A liberal would agree that humans aren’t born freedom-loving and peaceful; each of us has aspects of both angel and demon.  Indeed, liberals believe that society needs a paternalistic government, with secular institutions, to guide us away from ignorance and brutality.  According to liberalism, the civilized Enlightenment values of reason, science, and democracy are the foundation for a just society.

Nor do I believe that we need “oppressive conditioning” to civilize people. We just need to provide education and a decent standard of living without constant war.

Teaching kids about evolution, sex and global warming does not count as oppressive conditioning.

The main alternative to liberal government as a source of morality is the Church (or the Mosque or the Synagogue). One reason many devout Christians vote Republican is that they mistrust the secularism of government. How odd that Christians end up supporting war and the rich! Jesus of the Sermon of the Mount would have supported peace and the poor — i.e., liberal values. Of course, there are other versions of Jesus in the Bible; the Jesus of Revelations is a destroyer.

Another alternative to government as a source of values is the market. As a progressive, I don’t believe the market is sufficient: we need government to regulate the market, protect the common good, and, indeed, lay a foundation for the market to work. Quoting Robert Kuttner: “As Karl Polanyi famously wrote in a seeming oxymoron, ‘laissez-faire was planned.’ Markets could not exist without states defining the terms of property ownership and commerce, creating money, enforcing contracts, protecting patents and trademarks, and providing basic public institutions.”

But Gray is not an opponent of liberalism. He writes, “Considering the alternatives that are on offer, liberal societies are well worth defending. But there is no reason for thinking these societies are the beginning of a species-wide secular civilisation of the kind of which evangelical atheists dream.”

Gray’s point is that the new, militant, evangelical atheists are mistaken in their beliefs that there is a solid scientific (or philosophical) foundation for atheism. Furthermore, he believes that educating the public about this foundation won’t necessarily lead to the dissolution of religious beliefs and the end of violence. Gray is pessimistic about the prospects for the growth of secular, liberal values.

Gray is correct that there’s no guarantee a conversion to atheism will improve our condition.  But whoever said that there’s a guarantee?

Gray starts his essay recalling the illiberal uses to which atheism was put in the early 20th century, when Social Darwinism was used as a justification for racism and eugenics.  His point seems to be that the new atheists’ antagonism towards religion is another sort of illiberal, intolerant attempt to impose particular values on others.  In short, are the new atheists cultural imperialists, hoping to impose a particular, Western view of how society should be organized upon people who prefer to live with traditional, religious organizations.

Gray is pessimistic that secularism will win.

I am less pessimistic.  As Martin Luther said, in the long arc of history, there is a tendency towards justice and progress.  This is just an empirical observation, not a teleological law.  There’s no guarantee that education and secularism will save the world, but it’s our best hope.

Moreover, unlike the new atheists, I think the enemy of progress isn’t so much religion as greed, prejudice, and ignorance. Religion is often misused, but it’s also often a source of progress. The new atheists exaggerate the extent to which religion is harmful. They paint with an overly broad brush.  Not all religion is illiberal and violent.   Religious leaders played a large role in Abolitionism, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Peace Movement.   Martin Luther King was devoutly religious.  Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement served the poor and opposed war. Catholic priests and nuns in The Plowshares Movement bravely took peaceful, direct action against nuclear weaponry. Most Christians, Muslims, and Jews are peaceful and moderate.

Anecdotally, I recall registering voters at a Catholic college near Pittsburgh in the year 2000. I feared that the nuns would be hostile. Instead, they welcomed my presence as a Kerry supporter, and they were charming and bright.

Gray acknowledges that, despite the many instances in which religious people have allied themselves with forces of violence and corruption,

the fault is not with religion, any more than science is to blame for the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction or medicine and psychology for the refinement of techniques of torture. The fault is in the intractable human animal. Like religion at its worst, contemporary atheism feeds the fantasy that human life can be remade by a conversion experience – in this case, conversion to unbelief.

I agree with the first two sentences above. The final sentence — about the hopelessness of education and secular values — is overly pessimistic. Moreover, I don’t think it’s necessary for a liberal person to oppose religion as vociferously as the new atheists often do.  Secularism needn’t be militantly anti-religious.

The natural allies of Christians are progressives, not Republicans — provided fundamentalist Christians can be weaned from their extreme beliefs and turned to a more liberal Christian understanding.  There are millions of liberal Christians, Jews, and Muslims who combine faith with progressive values. Rather than opposing all religion, secular progressives should find allies among liberal religious people.

The enemy isn’t religion. The enemy is greed, hatred and ignorance. Certainly religion, of a liberal variety, can help with the battle against greed and hatred.

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