From a cursory empirical analysis it seems as if in most of the world, with the exceptions of North Africa and the Middle East, secularism has firmly taken root. The Western world and developing nations have been moving away from God and more towards science and reason. Religion is on its way out—secularism is here to stay. Right?
Wrong, according to The Economist editor-in-chief John Mickelthwait and his colleague Adrian Wooldridge. In their latest book, God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World, the authors argue the opposite case to the one outlined above. Religion is coming back with vengeance: Christianity in Chinese homes, Buddhism as a fashion all over the United States, and Islam spreading slowly across Europe. What does that mean for atheists, who looked happily towards a world full of likeminded individuals?
Fortunately, the times of physical persecution, of the guillotine and auto-da-fé, are long gone. Thus it is now possible for atheists not only to try to advance their own cause, but to build a whole new discipline branching out from their beliefs—or lack of beliefs, to be more precise. That is how New Atheism was born just a few years ago, the first outspoken revolution against religion and the idea of God in the 21st century. And while many atheists before this movement tried to keep it quiet, showing how tolerance and moral judgment can exist devoid of God and eternal punishment, New Atheists prefer a different tactic: brutal logic against faith, proof against belief, and ridicule against total devotion.
New Atheism is about nature and science above all. It started off around 2004, when author Sam Harris published his bestselling The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. The book was just the match igniting a more powerful fire. Soon, scores of books followed from scientists like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, and prominent writers like Christopher Hitchens, all with inflammatory titles including The God Delusion and Atheist Manifesto. These were clearly declarations against both religion and faith. The “four horsemen,” as Harris, Dennett, Dawkins, and Hitchens came to be known, grew quite popular in academic and intellectual circles. And though I think their popularity seems to have diminished in recent years, their ideas still linger. The matter is, to what end?
New Atheism seems to be the verbally violent response of atheists against centuries of oppression. Now that they can talk, they are talking. Yet as proud as they could make their fellow atheists feel, this kind of relentless bashing and clear hatred towards dogmatic beliefs is not necessarily a positive trend. While one can concede that religious doctrine formed the root of many vicious disputes and even wars, the New Atheists attack elements of religion that might actually prove useful to humanity—tenets we have no good reason to dogmatically reject.
In fact, in his TED Talk “Atheism 2.0,” philosopher and author Alain de Botton defends the most practical and fulfilling parts of religion, and endorses the idea that atheism and religion can coexist. He goes even further, arguing atheists should actually try to encompass elements of religion that might foster a happier life. Though he never explicitly addresses “New Atheism,” Botton touches on the elements of religion that should be viewed positively—not maligned.
The lessons for New Atheism are clear. First, in their bashing of the idea of God, New Atheists tend to forget one of the more humane aspects of religion that has helped it survive for so long: its sense of community. Though there are definitely instances where isolation and meditation are put at the theological forefront, religion is primarily a communal experience. Going to church, or mosques; praying in groups; holidays with the families—these facets are all about the idea of community and a sense of belonging. Human beings tend to like groups and the possibility of companionship with those who tend to live the same lifestyle. As long it is not overtly dangerous, or ruinous of one’s chances to expand their worldview, there is nothing wrong with the idea of a faith-based community. Religion enforces communities, giving people a sense of specific identity and belonging. This is something we cannot and should not argue away.
Further, religious texts are not only moral texts; they are histories and myths. What’s more, they can also be entertaining. The stories we get out of these books can be as interesting as a Disney movie and as intriguing and mystic as any other work of literature. The traditions inherited from the Bible or the Quran can be cherished, while telling centuries of cultural history. Such texts can be sources of artistic and even scientific inspiration.
And while faith probably knows little or no science, it would be unfair to say that science knows no faith. Many theories are accepted because they look probable, even though they are not actually proven. Sometimes theories that have been accepted for a long time are discarded for the sake of better assumptions. It takes a lot of faith and belief to build up theories into a science.
Of course, one must remember that religion it is not really concerned with science in the first place—something the New Atheists seem to have missed. Religion is about that part of the human being that might be extremely atheist, but still questions his or her role in the world. It is about those moments of need where one brings her eyes to the sky, because she believes there might be something bigger than mere individuals. There are difficult and complex parts of the human experience that neither science nor even the most basic comforts can address. Faith is irrational, but it does not have to be evil. Indeed, sometimes it may even be essential.