I recently argued that atheists such as myself can be good for the right by decoupling a political agenda of liberty and constitutionalism from association with any kind of narrower religious base—in effect, telling people that they don’t have to embrace creationism or foreswear birth control to join the cause. Instead, the religious and the non-religious of all stripes can meet on a common ground of secular arguments.
Then I came across an article that looks at the issue from the opposite perspective. Nick Spencer asks: “Why Aren’t More Americans Atheists?” His answer, which I think is largely correct, is that it has less to do with science than with politics. While I disagree with his analysis of the history of science—which glosses over some big philosophical and theological issues—he is largely correct that European atheism often gained credibility as a protest against the collusion of religion with tyrannical political systems, which the established church used to coerce heretics and dissenters. By contrast, he points out, the comparatively more tolerant religious views that (eventually) took hold in Britain and America drove fewer people to regard religion as an evil to be suppressed.
In short, it’s harder to hate the Church if it’s not persecuting you. More recently, this is what I call the Catholic School Effect: some of the most militant atheists I know are people who had religion shoved down their throats by cheerless nuns when they were children. Those of us who grew up in more latitudinarian circumstances tend to be mellower.
Spencer then points out that in the 20th century, the shoe was on the other foot. It was atheism that came to be associated with tyranny: “atheism’s greatest tragedy was to gain political power, first in Russia in 1917 and then elsewhere throughout the communist world.”
Which raises the question: could the right be good for atheism by decoupling it from narrow leftist politics?
The issue is much broader and deeper than atheism’s 20th-century association with Communism. Before that, atheism came to be associated with a post-Kantian, Counter-Enlightenment philosophy. The late 18th-Century philosopher Immanuel Kant had set out, in a famous formulation, to “deny reason in order to make room for faith.” He succeeded in doing the former, but not the latter. By trying to carve out a domain for religion as something outside the realm of reason, he made it subjective, and those who followed the general line of his philosophy frequently dumped the part about making room for faith—while keeping the part about denying reason.
Kant tried to “limit” reason by claiming that we can never be aware of reality “as it really is” but only reality as it appears to us, shaped by innate mental categories. His successors would go on to claim that these categories are programmed into us by mere social consensus. And if society can program us however it likes, constructing whatever reality it wants, then it’s fine to use propaganda, indoctrination, and social engineering, reprogramming us to fit the latest vision of the central planners.
Hence, atheism became associated with social subjectivism, determinism, and philosophical materialism. The paradox is that a philosophy of materialism may seem to be rational and scientific because it dismisses the spiritual realm of religion and mysticism. But materialism also denies the reality and efficacy of the whole realm of ideas. The materialist holds that you believe what you believe because of the way your glands work, or because you were conditioned a certain way by your social environment.
This is the real basis of 20th-century, Marxist-style atheism. Karl Marx held that ideas were just a bunch of lip-flapping, a useless “superstructure” built on top of the underlying economic forces that really drive human societies. For all of their scientific trappings and their belief in economic planning which they were never able to successfully do, the Marxists were actually enemies of thought. They had adopted a narrow philosophical vision of atheism which denied the importance of reason and ideas. Since thinking is actually required for complex industrial production, and since real thinking can’t be dictated by any central authority, the Communist economies always failed, every last one of them. It was the great contradiction that undid Marxism.
But the Marxist legacy lives on, and today’s New Atheists aren’t so different from the old Marxist ones. Richard Dawkins doesn’t believe we’re programmed by economic forces. He believes we’re programmed by the “selfish gene.” The New Atheists largely perpetuate the notion that being an atheist means adopting a philosophy of materialism, determinism, subjectivism, government planning, and social engineering—despite the abundant rational evidence against these notions. I’m not the first to observe that this kind of atheism recreates many of the same characteristics of religion, with its own dogmas and catechisms and clerisy, but with society or the state in the place of God.
So it’s no wonder that many Americans recoil from atheism and continue to associate it with immorality and subjectivism, while assuming that freedom, personal responsibility, and the whole American system must require a religious foundation. When conservatives say that our rights are given to us by God rather than society, the New Atheists generally agree with this intellectual framework. They just take the other side, the one in which the state decides what rights it would like to grant you—and which ones it’s going to take away.
This is not inevitable. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote about rights given to us by “the laws of nature and of nature’s God.” There are a growing number of us who think the first half of this formulation is sufficient and who attempt to ground morality, liberty, and the American creed in observation of natural laws, without the need for a creator. In the process, we might convince more people—both lovers of freedom and religious skeptics—that it is possible to maintain a belief in freedom while rejecting belief in God. Which might make a lot more people open to the possibility that they have no need for that hypothesis.
This might not only be good for atheism. It might produce the first true atheism—a creed in which worship of a deity is not merely replaced by worship of the state.