By: Reza Aslan
One cold spring day in London, as I crossed the bustling square at Piccadilly Circus, I looked left instead of right (a typical American tourist) and was nearly run down by a careening double-decker bus with a flash of letters emblazoned along its side:
THERE’S PROBABLY NO GOD. NOW STOP WORRYING AND ENJOY YOUR LIFE.
The slogan is now ubiquitous and not only in London. When I first saw it I laughed, amused that atheists in the UK were miming propaganda techniques perfected by evangelical groups in the US, whose billboards dot the American landscape (“Having truth decay? Brush up on your Bible!”). I likely would have thought no more of it had not a friend informed me that the driving force behind the London bus ads was none other than the dean of the so-called “new atheists”–Darwin’s Rottweiler, himself–Richard Dawkins. If you are wondering what an esteemed evolutionary biologist and respected Oxford University professor is doing placing billboards around London proselytizing atheism, you are not alone.
There is, as has often been noted, something peculiarly evangelistic about what has been termed the new atheist movement. The new atheists have their own special interest groups and ad campaigns. They even have their own holiday (International Blasphemy Day). It is no exaggeration to describe the movement popularized by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens as a new and particularly zealous form of fundamentalism–an atheist fundamentalism. The parallels with religious fundamentalism are obvious and startling: the conviction that they are in sole possession of truth (scientific or otherwise), the troubling lack of tolerance for the views of their critics (Dawkins has compared creationists to Holocaust deniers), the insistence on a literalist reading of scripture (more literalist, in fact, than one finds among most religious fundamentalists), the simplistic reductionism of the religious phenomenon, and, perhaps most bizarrely, their overwhelming sense of siege: the belief that they have been oppressed and marginalized by Western societies and are just not going to take it anymore.This is not the philosophical atheism of Feuerbach or Marx, Schopenhauer or Nietzsche (I am not the first to think that the new atheists give atheism a bad name). Neither is it the scientific agnosticism of Thomas Huxley or Herbert Spencer. This is, rather, a caricature of atheism: shallow scholarship mixed with evangelical fervor.
The principle error of the new atheists lies in their inability to understand religion outside of its simplistic, exoteric, and absolutist connotations. Indeed, the most prominent characteristic of the new atheism–and what most differentiates it from traditional atheism–is its utter lack of literacy in the subject (religion) it is so desperate to refute. After all, religion is as much a discipline to be studied as it is an expression of faith. (I do not write books about, say, biology because I am not a biologist.) Religion, however it is defined, is occupied with transcendence–by which I mean that which lies beyond the manifest world and towards which consciousness is oriented–and transcendence necessarily encompasses certain theological connotations with which one ought to be familiar to properly critique belief in a god. One should, for example, be cognizant of how the human experience of transcendence has been expressed in the material world through historically dependent symbols and metaphors. One should be able to recognize the diverse ways in which the universal recognition of human contingency, finitude, and material existence has become formalized through ecclesiastical institutions and dogmatic formulae. One should become acquainted with the unmistakable patterns–call them modalities (Rudolph Otto), paradigmatic gestures (Mircea Eliade), spiritual dimensions (Ninian Smart), or archetypes (Carl Jung)–that recur in the myths and rituals of nearly all religious traditions and throughout all of recorded history. Even if one insists on reducing humanity’s enduring religious impulse to causal definitions, dismissing the experience of transcendence as nothing more than an anthropological (e.g. Edward Tylor or Max Muller), sociological (think Robertson Smith or Emile Durkheim), or even psychological phenomenon (ala Sigmund Freud, who attempted to locate the religious impulse deep within the individual psyche, as though it were a mental disorder that could be cured through proper psychoanalysis), one should at the very least have a sense of what the term “God” means.
Of course, positing the existence of a transcendent reality that exists beyond our material experiences does not necessarily imply the existence of a Divine Personality, or God. (In some ways, the idea of God is merely the personal affirmation of the transcendent experience.) But what if did? What if one viewed the recurring patterns of religious phenomena that so many diverse cultures and civilizations–separated by immeasurable time and distance–seem to have shared as evidence of an active, engaging, transcendent presence (what Muslims call the Universal Spirit, Hindus call prana, Taoists call chi’i, Jews call ruah, and Christians call the Holy Spirit) that underlies creation, that, in fact, impels creation? Is such a possibility any more hypothetical than say, superstring theory or the notion of the multiverse? Then again, maybe the patterns of religious phenomenon signify nothing. Maybe they indicate little more than a common desire among all peoples to answer similar questions of “Ultimate Concern,” to use the Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich’s famous phrase. The point is that, like any researcher or critic, like any scientist, I’m open to possibilities.
The new atheists will say that religion is not just wrong but evil, as if religion has a monopoly on radicalism and violence; if one is to blame religion for acts of violence carried out in religion’s name then one must also blame nationalism for fascism, socialism for Nazism, communism for Stalinism, even science for eugenics. The new atheists claim that people of faith are not just misguided but stupid–the stock response of any absolutist. Some argue that the religious impulse is merely the result of chemicals in the brain, as though understanding the mechanism by which the body experiences transcendence delegitimizes the experience (every experience is the result of chemical reactions). What the new atheists do not do, and what makes them so much like the religious fundamentalists they abhor, is admit that all metaphysical claims–be they about the possibility of a transcendent presence in the universe or the birth of the incarnate God on earth–are ultimately unknowable and, perhaps, beyond the purview of science. That may not be a slogan easily pasted on the side of a bus. But it is the hallmark of the scientific intellect.