Secular Right | Reality & Reason

TAG | atheism



“On A Relentless March”

League of the GodlessThe news that some in the Democratic Party might have tried to ‘out’ Bernie Sanders as an atheist was neither particularly surprising nor particularly shocking. Atheism doesn’t play well with the electorate. What’s more, to the extent that a candidate’s religious faith (or lack of religious faith) might influence his or her policies, it’s something that voters have a legitimate interest in knowing.

Nevertheless, as was probably inevitable in an age of taking offense, people have been offended.

Writing for Bustle, Raina Lipsitz grumbles that “one important group is missing from the DNC’s platform: atheists.”  Naturally the word “problematic” makes an appearance later.

Naturally, “atheist groups” have called for the firing of the Democratic operative who wanted to raise Sanders’ supposed atheism. Naturally he has apologized to “those [he] offended.”

One voice of sanity is “outspoken atheist and Pulitzer-Prize-winning New York Times science columnist Natalie Angier”. Asked whether this exclusion bothers her, she replies:

“Yes, I’m an atheist … But do I care whether the Democratic platform includes an explicit nod to us atheists? Hell no….”


On the other hand:

Toni Van Pelt, president and public policy director of the Institute for Science and Human Values, disagrees. “This is the time to call on the Party to officially recognize the nonreligious as true Americans…Atheists are on a relentless march to be recognized and valued by the larger community. We will no longer accept a back seat to those who profess a faith … it would behoove the Democratic Party to reach out in a public statement to those of no religion … and [acknowledge] that the philosophy of living life to the fullest here and now is of great importance.”

Officially recognize!

Relentless march!

Living life to the fullest!

Great importance!

Oh please.

· · ·



Doubt as Sin.

Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_Wanderer_above_the_sea_of_fogIn the course of reading around a story about how the Portland Public Schools board has unanimously approved a resolution aimed at “eliminating doubt” about climate change and its causes in schools, I came across this quote  from Nietzsche (It’s from Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality):

Christianity has done its utmost to close the circle and declared even doubt to be sin. One is supposed to be cast into belief without reason, by a miracle, and from then on to swim in it as in the brightest and least ambiguous of elements: even a glance towards land, even the thought that one perhaps exists for something else as well as swimming, even the slightest impulse of our amphibious nature — is sin! And notice that all this means that the foundation of belief and all reflection on its origin is likewise excluded as sinful. What is wanted are blindness and intoxication and an eternal song over the waves in which reason has drowned.

That’s rather fine.

· · ·



Evolving with Gods

akhenatenHere’s John Gray in The New Statesman,  reviewing God Is Watching You: How the Fear of God Makes Us Human by Dominic Johnson:

An evolutionary biologist trained at Oxford who also holds a doctorate in political science, Johnson believes that the need to find a more-than-natural meaning in natural events is universal – “a ubiquitous phenomenon of human nature” – and performs a vital role in maintaining order in society. Extending far beyond cultures shaped by monotheism, it “spans cultures across the globe and every historical period, from indigenous tribal societies . . . to modern world religions – and includes atheists, too”.

Reward and punishment may not emanate from a single omnipotent deity, as imagined in Western societies. Justice may be dispensed by a vast unseen army of gods, angels, demons and ghosts, or else by an impersonal cosmic process that rewards good deeds and punishes wrongdoing, as in the Hindu and Buddhist conception of karma. But some kind of moral order beyond any human agency seems to be demanded by the human mind, and this sense that our actions are overseen and judged from beyond the natural world serves a definite evolutionary role. Belief in supernatural reward and punishment promotes social co-operation in a way nothing else can match. The belief that we live under some kind of supernatural guidance is not a relic of superstition that might some day be left behind but an evolutionary adaptation that goes with being human.

That’s not true for everyone, of course (as it happens, the idea of a meaningless, indifferent universe suits me just fine) but as a general principle it is convincing. And that means that religion is not going away any time soon, or ever.

In the course of an article for Politix on godless conservatives written a couple of years back, I noted this:

Godless conservatives however are rarely anti-religious. They often appreciate religion as a force for social cohesion and as a link to a nation’s past. They may push back hard against religious extremism, but, unlike today’s “new atheists” they are most unlikely to be found railing against “sky fairies.” Mankind has evolved in a way that makes it strongly disposed towards religious belief, and conservatism is based on recognizing human nature for what it is.

New Atheists (and plenty of old ones too) not so much…


[The] “new atheists” are simple souls. In their view, which derives from rationalist philosophy and not from evolutionary theory, the human mind is a faculty that seeks an accurate representation of the world. This leaves them with something of a problem. Why are most human beings, everywhere and at all times, so wedded to some version of religion? It can only be that their minds have been deformed by malignant priests and devilish power elites. Atheists have always been drawn to demonology of this kind; otherwise, they cannot account for the ­persistence of the beliefs they denounce as poisonously irrational. The inveterate human inclination to religion is, in effect, the atheist problem of evil.

But what if belief in the supernatural is natural for human beings? For anyone who takes the idea of evolution seriously, religions are not intellectual errors, but ­adaptations to the experience of living in an uncertain and hazardous world. What is needed – and still largely lacking – is a perspective in which religion is understood as an inexhaustibly complex variety of beliefs and practices that have evolved to meet enduring human needs.

If the religious instinct is always likely to be with us, then, rather than railing against religion as a whole, it is much more useful to weigh different forms of religious expression against each other. All religions are not the same. Some faiths will be more benign than others. Equally there are different ways of following a faith. What a holy book says is one thing, how its followers behave can be quite another. Religions develop over time: what was, so to speak, writ in stone thousands of years ago, may now be read by many of the faithful as nothing more than folklore.

And man, of course, can shape the course of that development. If I had to design a religion, it would  be kindly, gently patriotic, theologically broad-minded, a quiet conservator of tradition and order with room (for those who want it) for a spot of the supernatural, but little time for superstition, the navel-gazing nonsense of mysticism or an over-insistence on dogma. In fact, it would look a lot like an idealized version of the Church of England of seventy or eighty years ago, a happy accident of history that is far from likely to be repeated.

But back to Gray:

Practically without exception, the atheist movements of the past few centuries testify to a demand for meaning that has led them to replicate many of the patterns of thinking distinctive of monotheism, and more particularly of Christianity.

For Christians, human history isn’t an endless succession of cycles – as it was for the ancient Greek and Romans, for example – but a story, and one of a distinctive kind. Unlike practitioners of polytheism, who seek and find meaning in other ways, Christians have found sense in life through a mythical narrative in which humankind is struggling towards redemption. It is a myth that infuses the imagination of countless people who imagine they have left religion behind. The secular style of modern thinking is deceptive. Marxist and liberal ideas of “alienation” and “revolution”, “the march of humanity” and “the progress of civilisation” are redemptive myths in disguise.

For some, atheism may be no more than a fundamental lack of interest in the concepts and practices of religion. But as an organised movement, atheism has always been a surrogate faith. Evangelical atheism is the faith that mass conversion to godlessness can transform the world. This is a fantasy. If the history of the past few centuries is any guide, a godless world would be as prone to savage conflicts as the world has always been. Still, the belief that without religion human life would be vastly improved sustains and consoles many a needy unbeliever – which confirms the essentially religious character of atheism as a movement.

Atheism need not be an evangelical cult. Here and there one finds thinkers who have truly left redemptive myths behind. The American journalist and iconoclast H L Mencken was a rambunctious atheist who delighted in lambasting religious believers; but he did so in a spirit of mockery, not out of any interest in converting them into unbelievers. Wisely, he did not care what others believed. Rather than lamenting the fact of incurable human irrationality, he preferred to laugh at the spectacle it presents. If monotheism was, for Mencken, an amusing exhibition of human folly, one suspects he would have found the new atheism just as entertaining.

Rightly so.

Read the whole thing.

· ·



Isaiah Berlin: Half Right

Riga, Aug 09 (AS)

Isaiah Berlin:

As for the meaning of life, I do not believe that it has any: I do not at all ask what it is, for I suspect it has none, and this is a source of great comfort to me — we make of it what we can, and that is all there is about it. Those who seek for some deep, cosmic, all-embracing, teleologically arguable libretto or god are, believe me pathetically deluded.

So far as I’m concerned, Berlin is right about that meaning of life thing. It’s nothing but a relief to me that there is none, and for the reasons he gives.  On the other hand, to describe those who have found some sort of god as ‘pathetically deluded’ is too smug and so far as that ‘pathetically’ is concerned, often inaccurate. As a species we seem to be hardwired for faith. Upbringing and culture will generally dictate the form that the faith takes, sometimes disastrously so, frequently not.




Bangladesh: Darkness Falls

ChakrabartiWhen a sub-headline begins like this…:

Niloy Chakrabarti was only the latest atheist blogger to be hacked to death in the country this year.

That refers to the murder of Chakrabarti, slaughtered by a group of attackers in his appartment earlier this month.

A long piece in today’s Guardian explains what’s been going on.

Here’s an extract:

[Avijit] Roy, who held dual US and Bangladeshi nationality, was the most prominent atheist writer to be attacked in Bangladesh, but he was not the first – or the last. On 30 March, a month after Roy’s murder, another blogger, Washiqur Rahman Babu, was set upon by a group of masked assailants. On 12 May, Ananta Bijoy Das, who wrote for Mukto-Mona on rationalism and science, was attacked in his hometown of Sylhet. On 7 August, men with machetes broke into the Dhaka home of Niloy Chakrabarti, a blogger who used the pen name Niloy Neel. All three men died.

The four murders in 2015 were brutal and happened in quick succession, prompting police action. Three people have been arrested – including a British citizen, Touhidur Rahman – over the deaths of Avijit Roy and Ananta Bijoy Das.

A British citizen: I’ll just interrupt to note that fact.

But the violence goes back further. It began on 15 January 2013, when atheist blogger and political activist Asif Mohiuddin was on his way to work and was attacked from behind by a group of men with machetes. “I [thought] I would die,” he tells me over Skype from his new home in Germany. “But somehow I survived.” He spent weeks in intensive care, and still finds it difficult to move his neck. “I think I will carry this problem all my life.”

A month later, another blogger critical of Islamic fundamentalism, Ahmed Rajib Haider, was attacked in the same way outside his house in Dhaka. He did not survive. In August 2014, someone broke into the Dhaka home of TV personality Nurul Islam Faruqi, who had criticised fundamentalist groups on air, and slit his throat. A humanist academic, Professor Shafiul Islam, who had pushed for a ban on full-face veils for students, was murdered near Rajshahi University in west Bangladesh in November.

These brutal crimes have gone unpunished; arrests have not led to prosecutions. The government appears unwilling, or unable, to stand with atheists. Instead, in an attempt to appease Islamists, it has ramped up its own actions against “blasphemous” bloggers….

Read the whole thing.


· · ·



Atheists: Not So Angry After All



You mad, bro?

According to a new study, it’s a myth that atheists are an especially angry bunch. (Grumpy? Maybe.)

Atheists are often portrayed in the media and elsewhere as angry individuals. Although atheists disagree with the pillar of many religions, namely the existence of a God, it may not necessarily be the case that they are angry individuals. The prevalence and accuracy of angry-atheist perceptions were examined in 7 studies with 1,677 participants from multiple institutions and locations in the United States. None of these studies supported the idea that atheists are particularly angry individuals. Rather, these results support the idea that people believe atheists are angry individuals, but they do not appear to be angrier than other individuals in reality.

So I guess atheists are a bit more Stephen Fry than Christopher Hitchens.

HT hbd chick.



Gray’s Anatomy (of Atheism)

Cemetery, Milan, Sept 1988 (AS)Writing in the Guardian, British philosopher John Gray (an atheist himself) takes a look at the ‘New Atheists’ and isn’t too impressed by what he sees.

His attack on the idea that leftists ‘must’ be on the left is well worth noting, and is a helpful reminder that ‘secular humanism’ is not only mush, but presumptuous mush:

[T]oday’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.


Atheism or agnosticism are simply the absence of belief in a deity. It has no automatic ‘political’ consequences. That absence can sometimes incline the unbeliever to support profound illiberal ideologies (as Gray points out), but it can also lead him or her to do the opposite. A lack of belief will, by definition, mean that unbelievers reject the purported rationale of policies rooted in religious faith, but not always their utility.


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.

… Roughly speaking, an atheist is anyone who has no use for the concept of God – the idea of a divine mind, which has created humankind and embodies in a perfect form the values that human beings cherish and strive to realise. Many who are atheists in this sense (including myself) regard the evangelical atheism that has emerged over the past few decades with bemusement. Why make a fuss over an idea that has no sense for you? There are untold multitudes who have no interest in waging war on beliefs that mean nothing to them. Throughout history, many have been happy to live their lives without bothering about ultimate questions. This sort of atheism is one of the perennial responses to the experience of being human.

And one that I share: “Ultimate questions”? There are better things to think about.

On the other hand, it’s important to remember that, to borrow from that old Trotsky line, you may not have much interest in the beliefs of others, but those who follow those beliefs may have an interest in you. To that extent, arguing back against the very root of those beliefs can make a great deal of sense. Critical biblical scholarship served a very useful purpose in the 19th century, so would subjecting the Koran to the same treatment in the 21st.

Gray attributes much of the rise of the New Atheists to 9/11, or rather its implications:

For secular liberals of [Sam Harris’s] generation, the shock of the 11 September attacks went beyond the atrocious loss of life they entailed. The effect of the attacks was to place a question mark over the belief that their values were spreading – slowly, and at times fitfully, but in the long run irresistibly – throughout the world. As society became ever more reliant on science, they had assumed, religion would inexorably decline. No doubt the process would be bumpy, and pockets of irrationality would linger on the margins of modern life; but religion would dwindle away as a factor in human conflict. The road would be long and winding. But the grand march of secular reason would continue, with more and more societies joining the modern west in marginalising religion. Someday, religious belief would be no more important than personal hobbies or ethnic cuisines.

Today, it’s clear that no grand march is under way.



Though not all human beings may attach great importance to them, every society contains practices that are recognisably religious. Why should religion be universal in this way? For atheist missionaries this is a decidedly awkward question. Invariably they claim to be followers of Darwin. Yet they never ask what evolutionary function this species-wide phenomenon serves. There is an irresolvable contradiction between viewing religion naturalistically – as a human adaptation to living in the world – and condemning it as a tissue of error and illusion. What if the upshot of scientific inquiry is that a need for illusion is built into in the human mind? If religions are natural for humans and give value to their lives, why spend your life trying to persuade others to give them up?

Again, indeed.

As a species, we appear to have a strong tendency towards religious belief for, doubtless, excellent reasons. When conventional religious belief fades, it is simply replaced by something else (there’s no better example of that than communism, essentially little more than a milleniallist cult, with a supernatural idea of history stepping in for more traditional gods). Raging against religious belief is as foolish (as I am not the first to observe) as raging against bipedalism. Secular sorts would do far better to focus their wrath on the more malign expressions of religious belief. All religions are not equal. An Anglican is not a Salafist.

As you’d expect, Gray also turns his question to the notion of morality without God:

The belief that the human species is a moral agent struggling to realise its inherent possibilities – the narrative of redemption that sustains secular humanists everywhere – is a hollowed-out version of a theistic myth. The idea that the human species is striving to achieve any purpose or goal – a universal state of freedom or justice, say – presupposes a pre-Darwinian, teleological way of thinking that has no place in science. Empirically speaking, there is no such collective human agent, only different human beings with conflicting goals and values. If you think of morality in scientific terms, as part of the behaviour of the human animal, you find that humans don’t live according to iterations of a single universal code. Instead, they have fashioned many ways of life. A plurality of moralities is as natural for the human animal as the variety of languages.

At this point, the dread spectre of relativism tends to be raised. Doesn’t talk of plural moralities mean there can be no truth in ethics? Well, anyone who wants their values secured by something beyond the capricious human world had better join an old-fashioned religion. If you set aside any view of humankind that is borrowed from monotheism, you have to deal with human beings as you find them, with their perpetually warring values.

This isn’t the relativism celebrated by postmodernists, which holds that human values are merely cultural constructions. Humans are like other animals in having a definite nature, which shapes their experiences whether they like it or not. No one benefits from being tortured or persecuted on account of their religion or sexuality. Being chronically poor is rarely, if ever, a positive experience. Being at risk of violent death is bad for human beings whatever their culture. Such truisms could be multiplied. Universal human values can be understood as something like moral facts, marking out goods and evils that are generically human. Using these universal values, it may be possible to define a minimum standard of civilised life that every society should meet; but this minimum won’t be the liberal values of the present time turned into universal principles.

Universal values don’t add up to a universal morality. Such values are very often conflicting, and different societies resolve these conflicts in divergent ways….

The conviction that tyranny and persecution are aberrations in human affairs is at the heart of the liberal philosophy that prevails today. But this conviction is supported by faith more than evidence. Throughout history there have been large numbers who have been happy to relinquish their freedom as long as those they hate – gay people, Jews, immigrants and other minorities, for example – are deprived of freedom as well. Many have been ready to support tyranny and oppression. Billions of human beings have been hostile to liberal values, and there is no reason for thinking matters will be any different in future.

No there is not.

Food for thought. Read the whole thing.




An ‘Enchanted Secularism’? No Thanks

RealityWriting in the New York Times, David Brooks frets about what non-believers, um, believe:

Over the past few years, there has been a sharp rise in the number of people who are atheist, agnostic or without religious affiliation. A fifth of all adults and a third of the youngest adults fit into this category.

As secularism becomes more prominent and self-confident, its spokesmen have more insistently argued that secularism should not be seen as an absence — as a lack of faith — but rather as a positive moral creed.

Phil Zuckerman, a Pitzer College sociologist, makes this case as fluidly and pleasurably as anybody in his book, “Living the Secular Life.”

Oh good grief…

Secularism has “spokesmen”?

Now it’s true that most people do want to have faith in something. That’s why so many supposedly secular philosophies are anything but (step forward, Karl Marx).

But if there is anything that non-belief should not be it is a creed. In essence non-belief ‘says’ one of two things: Either that there is no God, or (in essence, I know it’s more complicated than this) that the existence of God is highly unlikely. That’s it. Move along, there’s (literally) nothing to see here. What’s on television tonight?

From what Brooks says, Zuckerman’s “creed” appears to be some variant of the usual soft-left secular humanist mush. That’s for those who like that sort of thing, but only for those who like that sort of thing. I’ll pass, thanks.

Brooks then worries about how hard it must be “to live secularism well”, claiming that secularists have to build their own moral philosophies (not really, accumulated traditions, societal and familial, often work out just fine – and they come with the plus of not needing too much thought), and that secularists have to build their own “communities” and “covenantal rituals”. They do? Why?

And then:

Secular individuals have to build their own Sabbaths. Religious people are commanded to drop worldly concerns. Secular people have to create their own set times for when to pull back and reflect on spiritual matters.

No they don’t “have” to. Quite a few secular individuals doubtless do feel a ‘God-shaped hole’, or some need for the transcendent, but, judging by my own experience, I suspect that there are plenty of others who do not.

The amount of time I need “to pull back and reflect on spiritual matters”: zero. It’s easy, Mr. Brooks.

If anything, what Brooks’s article shows is how difficult it is for some religious folk (particularly, I suspect, the more intellectual among them) to ‘get’ the fact that for some secularists at least, “spiritual matters” are not something they are too bothered about.

Towards the end of the piece Brooks argues:

It seems to me that if secularism is going to be a positive creed, it can’t just speak to the rational aspects of our nature. Secularism has to do for nonbelievers what religion does for believers — arouse the higher emotions, exalt the passions in pursuit of moral action.

In a way Brooks is right. If secularism (which he appears to use as a synonym for atheism/agnosticism rather than, anything more specifically political or philosophical) is to be a ‘creed’, it would have to appeal to the irrational as well as the rational. That’s how creeds work (take another bow, Karl Marx!) but, to repeat myself, there is no reason why secularism in the sense that Brooks uses it has to be a creed. It can be a simple matter of observation (or, some might say, failure to observe), complete in itself.


The only secularism that can really arouse moral motivation and impel action is an enchanted secularism, one that puts emotional relations first and autonomy second. I suspect that over the next years secularism will change its face and become hotter and more consuming, less content with mere benevolence, and more responsive to the spiritual urge in each of us, the drive for purity, self-transcendence and sanctification.

“Enchanted secularism,” “the spiritual urge in each of us”?

I’ll leave that sort of thing to the likes of Professor Dawkins and, my spiritual urges thankfully non-existent, revert to spending my time on something more fruitful.

What’s on television tonight?




No Point and No Point in Worrying Either

RealityWriting in The Week, Damon Linker wades into the controversy over the comment by Sam Harris that Islam is a “motherlode of bad ideas”. In many respects the controversy is more interesting than the insult, but that’s a discussion for another time. What caught my attention the most in Linker’s article was this:

Now, I’m no fan of the New Atheists. I think their understanding of religion is shallow and their dismissal of it facile. And then there’s their insouciant attitude toward the prospect of godlessness. As I’ve argued before, the New Atheists prefer sentimental, superficial happy talk to sober reflection on the challenge of living a life without God.

“Sober reflection on the challenge of living a life without God’?

Dear oh dear.


That’s a generalization too far.

For some people, living without God may be indeed be a challenge (as Linker rightly points out, it certainly worried old Nietschze), but for others it’s no big deal. They can accept that the sources of morality lie–as they do–in a mixture of genetics and customs, a rough-sewn patchwork that presents some conceptual difficulties, certainly, but only for those inclined to worry about such matters. Most have other things to do with their time.

And yes, some non-believers may indeed be perturbed by the idea of a meaningless universe. But others may prefer it, and others may just not be too bothered.

The answer, I suspect, is that we end up believing in whatever works best for us. And, as Linker suggests, humanity probably does have a bias in favor of the belief in the idea that the universe has some purpose. Why? Well, if I had to guess, there’s an evolutionary reason for that.

That’s an argument that Linker dismisses as “viciously circular” (and no I didn’t see the viciousness either) a rebuttal that moves from the merely lazy to the entertainingly inconclusive:

The prevalence of providential thoughts and feelings might be a response to something real, permanent, and important, if not in the universe itself, then within us.

And the latter probably leads us back to Charlie Darwin, yet again.

Linker, meanwhile:

Settling the matter requires that we listen to what the great religions of the world — including their most intellectually formidable theological representatives — have to say about the character of providence.

It does? Why?




Atheists, CPAC and Conservatism

hugh trevor roperCross-posted on Ricochet:

Writing in response to the uninviting of American Atheists to CPAC, Charlie Cooke has a very fine article over on NRO on the topic of whether atheism and conservatism are compatible. As an atheist and a conservative he thinks, not unsurprisingly, that they are, and, as someone who is agnostic and on the right, I can only say, well, amen.

Charlie’s piece is eloquent and carefully reasoned and well worth reading in full, but FWIW I wrote a far shorter article on (more or less) this topic for Politix late last year. Perhaps it is worth excerpting this:

[T]he idea that it is essential philosophically for conservatives to be religious believers is nonsense. Dig around a bit, and you will discover quite a few here in America who have declared that they are not (although none of them – how odd – hold significant elective office). Look across the Atlantic (I am British-born) and you will find many, many more.

It is no coincidence that Charlie also hails from Blighty. The notion that it is impossible for a conservative—and I mean a ‘proper’ Conservative in the Thatcher or Reagan sense rather than a Cameron-style whatever he is—to be an atheist would be thought over there to be very strange indeed.

I went on to write this:

Godless conservatives however are rarely anti-religious [Charlie makes a similar point]. They often appreciate religion as a force for social cohesion and as a link to a nation’s past. They may push back hard against religious extremism, but, unlike today’s “new atheists” they are most unlikely to be found railing against “sky fairies.” Mankind has evolved in a way that makes it strongly disposed towards religious belief, and conservatism is based on recognizing human nature for what it is.

That means facing the fact that gods will, one way or another, always be with us.

And facing that fact includes contemplating the reality that some gods are considerably less benign than others, a point that those pushing for a very expansive view of ‘religious freedom’ would do very well to ponder.

Being a philosophical sort, Charlie mulls the philosophical implications of his atheism, where do rights come from and all that. Well, I’m not a philosophical sort…

A few years back, Jonathan Rée wrote a review of a collection of writings by the British (yes, them again) historian, the undeniably conservative, undeniably non-believing Hugh Trevor-Roper:

I wrote a bit about it here at the time. In the context of the current discussion, this section from Rée’s article is worth repeating:

He was not interested in the rather threadbare notion (doted on by some humanists) that the lights of truth were suddenly switched on in Europe at the beginning of the 18th century, revealing that the demons which people had spooked themselves with in the past were mere figments of their superstitious imaginations. The Enlightenment that Trevor-Roper celebrates is historical rather than philosophical: it is marked by Gibbon’s creation of a new kind of history, dedicated not to pointless facts or edifying examples but to “sociological content” – in other words, to the revolutionary notion that “human societies have an internal dynamism, dependent on their social structure and articulation.” By bringing history “down to earth”, Gibbon and the other Enlightenment historians had contributed more to the discombobulation of know-nothing theologians than any number of philosophers would ever be able to do.

Gibbon mocked religion, but he never underestimated it. He recognised that religious experience involved, as Trevor-Roper put it, “a set of values related to social structure and political form”, and he could therefore understand why people cared about it so much they were prepared to kill one another or die for its sake. And he railed against his old ally Voltaire for allowing his rage at clerical infamy to turn him into a mirror image of his enemy – a “bigot, an intolerable bigot”, as Gibbon put it. Gibbon made his case beautifully, as Trevor-Roper did too: and if sceptical secularism is to get a new lease of life, perhaps it needs a little more history and a little less philosophy, more explanation and less indignation.

Well yes.

Anyway, please read Charlie’s piece. It’s terrific.

The American Atheists, not so much.

· · · ·

Older posts >>

Theme Design by