This weekend thousands of so-called “New Atheists” will converge on Melbourne for the second Global Atheist Convention. Last month Alain de Botton, a European popular philosopher, received copious coverage of his visit promoting his book, Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion.
In the light of these atheist visitations, I’ve been working on a taxonomy of the varieties of non-religious belief. My tentative pigeon-holing of atheism divides my non-believing friends (with no disrespect intended) into three species: the sad, the glad and the mad.
The sad atheists, say Albert Camus or Jean Paul Sartre, are those who take the God question seriously. They know that the stakes are high; without a transcendent reality it is notoriously difficult to find objective morality and human purpose beyond individual and cultural subjectivity.
But despite their awareness of the cost, the sad atheist cannot believe in a super-reality which might be the source of meaning to quell our anxieties.
The glad atheist — think de Botton — floats through the godless life with not a care for the issues at stake. For de Botton, the tragedy of atheism is that it threw out the wonderful trappings of religion with the dirty bathwater of belief in God.
“Of course, no religions are true in any god-given sense”, says de Botton in the second sentence of his book Religion for Atheists, after which he proceeds cheerily to ignore the serious questions that thinkers have grappled with for thousands of years.
Do we really think “it is a failing of historic proportions that BMW’s concern for rigour and precision has not stretched to founding a school or a political party”? Or can we agree that “secular education will never succeed in reaching its potential until humanities lecturers are sent to be trained by African-American Pentecostal preachers”?
In the end, despite flowing prose and incisive analysis of the modern condition, de Botton’s proposals for religion after the death of God are trite.
While it presents as a serious proposal for post-God transcendence, de Botton’s vision is better described as the musings of an aesthete who dreams of re-religionising culture.
But the dreams are wild and ungrounded and the book finishes up as an elegy for a fading world of religious hopes and values. It is poetic, beautiful at times, but not profound; its glad atheism is best suited to those who take their religion or atheism watered down.
The mad atheists on the other hand, take their atheism neat and they are as cranky as hell at religion. They are at the vanguard of the so called “God wars” and are led by biologist and science populist, Richard Dawkins.
The cranky atheists claim the high intellectual ground — this year’s convention is “A Celebration of Reason”. But the unreasonable and combative attitude of their writings such as Dawkins’ The God Delusion prompts other non-believers like philosopher Michael Ruse to feel embarrassed to be an atheist.
At the so-called Reason Rally in Washington last month Dawkins is quoted encouraging the atheist crowd to publicly vilify religious believers; “Mock them… they should be challenged and ridiculed with contempt.”
This is not the stuff of civil conversation and does nothing for the cause of reason; it is the tone of atheist fundamentalism and surely not the way to challenge the other fundamentalism(s) which the New Atheists love to hate.
Less light entertainment, more serious debate
Last year, I attended the inaugural Global Atheist Convention billed as “probably the world’s largest atheist convention”. This year’s will possibly be bigger and better; better for many because it will have more comedians.
This week’s convention ostensibly celebrates reason but if the 2010 event is anything to go by, serious reasoning will not be given a hearing.
Is it a coincidence that one of the few speakers at the last convention who engaged intelligently with the issues, is missing from this year’s line up?
In 2010 philosopher Tamas Pataki opened his talk by saying that after listening to the other speakers and comedians he had come to the realisation that he would probably be the least popular speaker. He was right.
Pataki gave four reasons for this: “I have no jokes; I have no inclination to incite ridicule of the religious; I plan to do some philosophy; and I criticise some of the other atheists.”
It’s an unfortunate reflection on the lack of serious thinking at the convention that apparently Pataki was not invited back.
Taking atheism seriously
As much as they want to discard religion there is a sense in which the New Atheists are defined by it; their vitriolic anti-religious stance confirms former atheist Alister McGrath’s suggestion that:
“Western atheism now finds itself in something of a twilight zone. Once a worldview with a positive view of reality, it seems to have become a permanent pressure group, its defensive agenda dominated by concerns about limiting the growing political influence of religion.”
Although I’ve never had the pleasure of being an atheist myself, I take some varieties of atheism seriously. But when it comes to the current discussion I join forces with serious thinking atheists and hope for better than the glad de Botton or the mad Dawkins.