In the last 10 years the world has had to endure the plague of the “New Atheists.” While not as deadly as those Moses helped visit upon the Egyptians, they are still excruciatingly annoying. Their arguments, such as they are, reveal a type of trite fundamentalism that continually begs the question, over and over and over. But not all atheists are New; one “Old” atheist is British philosopher John Gray, who recently penned a piece for The Guardian titled, “What Scares the New Atheists.”
What separates the Old from the New are the implications that arise from the assertion that reality is purely a material phenomenon. Nether have a logical basis for moral values, but the former admit that to one degree or another, while the latter don’t see any reason to have to justify a basis for such values; they simply assert they exist. The New Atheists also reject the notion that anything good can come from religious faith, while the latter admit that obviously history shows it can, including that liberal values (in the sense of human freedom and dignity) is very much a product of the Christian faith.
The New Atheists believe in a certain kind of Hegelian historical determinism; through fits and starts history is inexorably moving in a certain direction, and not surprisingly it is one where religion is slowly vanishing and a bright new world of liberalism reigns. Strangely enough they claim that this is all undergirded by scientific values, whatever those are. Gray points out several significant problems with this reading of history. One is that it is obviously not true! The human race is not getting less but rather more religious. The other glaring problem is that atheists of a hundred years ago were using so called scientific values to promote eugenics and racism. So which values does science really support? Of course science doesn’t give us any values one way or the other, but the new atheists aren’t terribly clear headed thinkers, as Gray points out:
It has often been observed that Christianity follows changing moral fashions, all the while believing that it stands apart from the world. The same might be said, with more justice, of the prevalent version of atheism. If an earlier generation of unbelievers shared the racial prejudices of their time and elevated them to the status of scientific truths, evangelical atheists do the same with the liberal values to which western societies subscribe today – while looking with contempt upon “backward” cultures that have not abandoned religion. The racial theories promoted by atheists in the past have been consigned to the memory hole – and today’s most influential atheists would no more endorse racist biology than they would be seen following the guidance of an astrologer. But they have not renounced the conviction that human values must be based in science; now it is liberal values which receive that accolade. There are disputes, sometimes bitter, over how to define and interpret those values, but their supremacy is hardly ever questioned. For 21st century atheist missionaries, being liberal and scientific in outlook are one and the same.
He further points out the inconvenient fact that many despotic regimes such as the former Soviet Union claimed that their atheist ideology was undergirded by science.
What scares these New Atheists is what Gray calls “liberal moral panic.” History is just not cooperating! The “grand march of secular reason,” it seems, has gotten a bit bogged down; religion just won’t go away, and in fact is growing worldwide. But regardless of the obviously false narrative these evangelical atheists push, more importantly they refuse to admit that their cherished liberal values have their origins in monotheism. This is one reason you won’t hear these atheists ever talk about Friedrich Nietzsche. Gray tells us why:
The reason Nietzsche has been excluded from the mainstream of contemporary atheist thinking is that he exposed the problem atheism has with morality. It’s not that atheists can’t be moral – the subject of so many mawkish debates. The question is which morality an atheist should serve.
The problem with atheism and morality, as Gray admits and the vast majority of atheists, evangelical or not, do not, is that the moral values that have led to the freedom and dignity of the human person simply would not exist without Judaism and Christianity. In fact, if you bring this up to such an atheist, they will scoff at you. They take liberal values for granted, and offer no logical justification for how a purely material universe could ever lead to, for instance, the golden rule. They will argue religion isn’t necessary for moral values because utilitarian or pragmatic reasons are enough to justify such values, all the while sneaking in presuppositions from Judaism and Christianity.
Gray doesn’t use this term, but like Nietzsche he believes whatever values human beings embrace come from the will to power, and thus you get in his term, “Perpetually warring values.” Illogically but refreshingly, Gray says this does not entail a fall into postmodernist relativism. He thinks there is such a thing as a definite human nature, and thus we should be able to eke out a “minimum standard of civilized life.” A sentiment far from the faith of the New Atheists which is founded on:
the quintessential illusion of the ruling liberalism: the belief that all human beings are born freedom-loving and peaceful and become anything else only as a result of oppressive conditioning.
In fact, in human history, “It is peaceful coexistence and the practice of toleration that are exceptional.” What truly unsettles these atheists is the thought that much or most of the human race wants nothing to do with their liberalism. Ironically it is Christianity which they so much malign that invented the distinction between God and government that eventually led to the modern secular state.
Unlike the New Atheists, Gray’s view of life is fundamentally conservative because he believes in the “intractable human animal.” Unlike revolutionaries of every sort, religious or not, by simple observation of the “human animal” throughout history, he realizes human nature cannot fundamentally be changed, only managed; a view much more in line with America’s founders than the despots and do-gooders that have ruled much of the modern world, and continue to do so.