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Alain de Botton
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Alain de Botton

The kinder, gentler new new atheists

Religion

I agree with President Obama: last week was “tough.” Every major story—the belated coverage of Kermit Gosnell’s charnel house, the Texas explosion, the ricin scare, the Boston bombing and the hunt for the bombers—raised ultimate questions about life and death. “God” and “prayer” and “justice” figured prominently in last week’s public conversation, and according to today’s “new new atheists,” such terms are not likely to be eliminated. Nor, perhaps, should they be.

A symposium published in the New Statesman last month surveyed the emerging wing of kinder, gentler unbelievers. They’re not actually new, any more than the hardnosed variety represented by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens were. Amiable condescenders have been around as long as militant absolutists. The latter demand truth, while the former seek meaning—to which, like it or not, religion is the easiest route.

Alain de Botton, author of Religion for Atheists, took a position of earnest reapplication: “Atheists should learn to rescue some of what is beautiful, touching, and wise from all that no longer seems true.” For him, the human soul (for lack of a better term) must be fed, but there’s no reason psychologists can’t stand in for priests, novels for sacred texts, and art museums for churches, as long as philosophers (like himself) stand guard over content.

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Frances Spufford, a Christian participating in this symposium, acknowledged the human hunger for transcendence with a kind of affectionate accommodation: “The world cannot be disenchanted.” To him, gods and ghosts alike are products of human imagination but they are here to stay. (Spufford’s latest book is Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense)

Jim Al-Khalili, president of the Humanist Society, took a position of patronizing tolerance: “Our society is no longer predominantly religious. Atheists are the mainstream.” While providing no evidence for that statement he nonetheless concluded that atheists should drop their beleaguered pose and accept those who don’t know any better.

Meanwhile, Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh, admitted mythical necessity: “The wrong question to ask of a myth is whether it is true or false. The right question is whether it is living or dead, whether it still speaks to our condition.” To him, as long as religious belief has anything to say about our condition, it must be accepted.

Karen Armstrong took the most conflicted and most interesting view; I would call it “intellectual reassignment.” For her, both believers and skeptics misunderstand what religion is—not “a quest for abstract truth,” but “a practical discipline in which we learn new capacities of mind and heart.” This sounds like an echo of Stephen Jay Gould’s theory of the “non-overlapping magisteria,” where science determines what’s true and religion what is meaningful.

Nice try, but it won’t work. As Armstrong herself said, “If you don’t do religion, you don’t get it.” This echoes Jesus saying that you will know God when you obey Him (John 7:17)—indicating first of all that there is a God to know. If not, the center does not hold—all the happy talk about the “beautiful, touching, and wise” is spun sugar to be ground down by the ugly, the heartless, and the powerful. A world built on natural selection will die by natural selection. Truth pierces both heart and mind, or it’s no truth at all.

CORRECTION: This column has been edited to reflect that Frances Spufford was a Christian participant in the New Statesman symposium.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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