Barbarians at the gate? Lord Sacks on atheism

This article in the Spectator starts with a straw man – the atheist who acknowledges no middle ground between Biblical literalism and non-belief:

Future intellectual historians will look back with wonder at the strange phenomenon of seemingly intelligent secularists in the 21st century believing that if they could show that the first chapters of Genesis are not literally true, that the universe is more than 6,000 years old and there might be other explanations for rainbows than as a sign of God’s covenant after the flood, the whole of humanity’s religious beliefs would come tumbling down like a house of cards and we would be left with a serene world of rational non-believers getting on famously with one another.

Lord Sacks then bemoans the dearth of ‘serious atheists’ who wrestle with big philosophical and moral questions.  Perhaps one reason such atheist voices seen rather less prominent than in the past is that now, in the West, there is no great resistance to atheism – someone may be wrestling away with all sorts of ethical issues in an intellectually rigorous way without feeling the need to flag the fact s/he’s an atheist.  One ‘serious atheist’ who springs to mind is Norman Geras, for example.

He then slides from this contention that the quality of atheist discourse is banal to something which seems like a sneer aimed at all atheists – serious or not:

A significant area of intellectual discourse — the human condition sub specie aeternitatis — has been dumbed down to the level of a school debating society. Does it matter? Should we not simply accept that just as there are some people who are tone deaf and others who have no sense of humour, so there are some who simply do not understand what is going on in the Book of Psalms, who lack a sense of transcendence or the miracle of being, who fail to understand what it might be to see human life as a drama of love and forgiveness or be moved to pray in penitence or thanksgiving? Some people get religion; others don’t. Why not leave it at that?

I would never (as I see some others do in the blogosphere or on Twitter) assert that theists had some kind of screw loose, were intellectually defective, primitive, much less evil.  Sacks seems to see atheists as impaired people, with no faculty for wonder. Yet atheists can also be alive to the miraculous and the sublime in all sorts of ways – and indeed locate those qualities in much that is in fact inspired by religion (art, buildings, music, ideas).

But then Sacks goes further – he rejects the idea of leaving atheists to stew in their own obtuseness, and implies that atheism must be countered more actively.  This is where things start to get really annoying.   He invokes Nietzsche to back up his argument that, without religion, we will lose morality, and open the floodgates for untold evils:

Time and again in his later writings he tells us that losing Christian faith will mean abandoning Christian morality. No more ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’; instead the will to power. No more ‘Thou shalt not’; instead people would live by the law of nature, the strong dominating or eliminating the weak. ‘An act of injury, violence, exploitation or destruction cannot be “unjust” as such, because life functions essentially in an injurious, violent, exploitative and destructive manner.’ Nietzsche was not an anti-Semite, but there are passages in his writing that come close to justifying a Holocaust.

Atheism certainly doesn’t have the monopoly on bad ideas – Christianity has been an important vector for antisemitism, for example.  Just because you don’t believe in a God who will deal out justice on Judgement Day doesn’t mean you don’t want to do everything you can to make this life better. In fact – though you may have less hope for personal reward – you have more of an incentive to do so than if you believe everything will get sorted out in an afterlife.

Sacks goes on:

But if asked where we get our morality from, if not from science or religion, the new atheists start to stammer. They tend to argue that ethics is obvious, which it isn’t, or natural, which it manifestly isn’t either, and end up vaguely hinting that this isn’t their problem.

This assumes that religion does a great job at teaching us what is moral, but although many religious people may be admirably moral, and feel their faith supports their morality, that is perhaps because they, and their predecessors, have quietly ditched many injunctions from scripture, using human reason to shape a less drastic and more liberal system of morals, laws and punishments.  Although Sacks goes on to imply that materialism, the nation state, race and communism are alternative objects of worship, it seems unfair to claim that atheists are more susceptible to bad ideas – and if there is, admittedly, an intersection between atheism and communism, theocracies aren’t that great either.

But then at the end of the article Sacks reveals that in fact what is really worrying him is religious fundamentalism; this evil should be challenged, he argues, not by atheism but by an alternative religious counterweight.  I’m not sure why, given Sacks’ apparent belief in an impending clash-of-civilisations battle with religious fundamentalism, he spends most of the article moaning about us atheists.  Some of the strongest voices raised against religious fundamentalists are atheists – Maryam Namazie and Ophelia Benson for example.  Although religious secularists such as Mehdi Hasan also have an important role to play in countering extremism.

Sacks concludes:

I have not yet found a secular ethic capable of sustaining in the long run a society of strong communities and families on the one hand, altruism, virtue, self-restraint, honour, obligation and trust on the other. A century after a civilisation loses its soul it loses its freedom also. That should concern all of us, believers and non-believers alike.

One might ask if any ethic has yet achieved such a utopian society.  One might also point out, a bit more positively, that, for all their many flaws, today’s secular states (neither theocratic nor atheocratic) have a lot going for them in the context of human history as a whole.

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