By Austin Dacey
A new, milder “Atheism 3.0” is on the market, teaching a more forgiving attitude towards faith. Bruce Sheiman, author of An Atheist Defends Religion, maintains that humanity is better off with it than without it. Although a recent Religion News Service classifies me and my book The Secular Conscience among the 3.0s, I have to say that I’m not all that happy with the taxonomy.
I’ll not mention that this “truth-must-lie-somewhere-in-between” narrative trips all too easily off of journalistic fingers. Should we agree that God is half dead? Nor will I dwell on the implicit assumption that Atheisms 1.0 and 2.0 have passed into planned obsolescence and that 3.0 constitutes some kind of scheduled improvement on them both. I’ll be damned if I can imagine an upgrade to Hume or Baron d’Holbach, and Hitchens is no slouch either.
For me, the interesting thought is not so much that God does not exist, it is that he need not exist. The pertinent question is not whether we are we better off with or without religion, but whether religion matters quite as much as either answer would have us suppose. To take this stance is neither to correct atheism nor to reject religion. It is to change the subject to secularism.
Finding Hitchens in the religion aisle
To hang this on something concrete: In what section of the bookstore do atheism books belong? You may have noticed the appearance of a new section called Atheism at many booksellers in recent years. Curiously, at least in the case of the Borders Books in Manhattan where I went to get Hitchens’ The Portable Atheist, this section comprised a few shelves of books located in the Religion aisle. But, as the saying goes, isn’t atheism a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby?
The case for putting atheism in the religion aisle is, I suppose, that it represents a subset of views on religion; namely, the subset of views that say no to it. Undeniably, atheism is what logicians call a negation: it is not the case that God exists. But logical form alone is not enough to tell us whether a claim is merely critical or negative in any pejorative sense. Consider: It is not the case that you have anything to fear. Atheist assertions take place within the context of cultural conversations. Whether a contribution to a conversation is merely negative depends on what the conversation is about.
While directing the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, Colonel Washington Roebling was forced to make the most difficult decision of his career. For several years he and his crew had been digging down towards the bedrock under the East River in order to the lay the foundation for the second of the bridge’s towers, and the work was becoming terribly difficult and dangerous. Some observers insisted that unless the excavation continued until reaching bedrock, the tower would be unstable and liable to collapse. Roebling disagreed, and argued that the foundation could be laid safely in the compact sand and gravel above. Roebling’s view was critical of an opposing view, and in that sense negative. Yet nevertheless it was in the service of a project that was itself constructive: building a great bridge (it turns out he was right about the foundation).
Today we should ask, what is the proper context of the current conversation about atheism and religion? What is the larger cultural project within which it should be seen? As Charles Taylor has observed, ours is a secular age, an age in which belief is no longer axiomatic but optional. We educated peoples of the rich, industrialized democracies inhabit a disenchanted universe, a world unperturbed by occult powers. It doesn’t get to cheat and bring things about by magic, but must resort to some natural, causal mechanism. The remaining anti-secular, anti-naturalistic messages of some contemporary Christians, whether from Saddleback or Vatican City, are not the dictates of a triumphant force but the cries of an animal grown more desperate because it is cornered. After five centuries of surrendering to non-religious institutions the dominion over cosmology, biology, medicine, education, entertainment, the arts, and civil society, they are desperate to retain some sliver of continued relevance.
Relative to this secular conversation, it is the supernatural theists who occupy the subset of naysayers–evolution can’t account for living things, physics doesn’t explain why the universe exists at all, human kindness and fairness will collapse without transcendent reinforcement, and all the rest. Here it is the believers who are the skeptics, doubters about the foundations of modernity, and it is the atheists who are attempting to rebut their criticisms and shore up the construction project.
The “Atheism 3.0” label may be motivated by a desire for fresh intellectual options, but it confines secular critiques to a conversational agenda set by religion (with a peculiarly Western conception of religion at that).
A secular conversation-starter
In my book I don’t go after God. Why go after God when you can come before him? I argue that the free individual conscience comes first, before God, before society. Conscience cannot be found in duty to God, for it is conscience that must judge where one’s duty lies. The commitment to the free conscience, and to the open society that makes space for it–this is secularism.
Secularism is neither atheist nor theist, neither religious nor anti-religious. It’s orthogonal to God. Rather than dividing up the world’s citizens on the basis of putative religious affiliation, it asks, What do they really care about? How do they actually go about making up their minds about how to live? And wherever education and affluence are on the rise, it finds that traditional religions are increasingly irrelevant to the answers.
These are big stories. And, if I may say so, we would do well to be talking about them.
If the secularists were the ones running the bookstore, you might find the religious titles in the philosophy or science aisles, instead of the other way around.
Austin Dacey is former representative to the United Nations for the Center for Inquiry and the author of “The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life.”