Post-Dawkins atheism might answer many prayers
RITE & REASON:Atheistic secularism need not be aggressive, mocking and spiteful
A transformed atheism is reportedly infiltrating contemporary culture – one socially more inclusive and less acerbic than the model presided over the past decade or so by the Four Horsemen of New Atheism: Richard Dawkins, the late and great Christopher Hitchens, (and scarcely as exclusive or corrosive) Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris.
It ought to be celebrated. Underpinning the depiction of the 21st century atheist as a secular vitriolic polemicist are two misconceptions: that secularism is essentially atheistic, and that atheistic secularism is essentially bellicose.
Both were encapsulated at the 2012 Dublin Writers’ Festival by a member of an audience (that on occasion resembled an anti-religious lynch mob) asking Dawkins for suggestions on promoting an “aggressive secularism in Ireland”.
Dawkins answered readily. His “call to arms” is a rallying cry not merely for the separation of church and State, but for the ostracisation of church from State – with the added elements of spite and disregard for the fact that being religious and secular are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
A supporter of the division between church and State does not have to be opposed to either per se, yet it is precisely the stereotypical atheistic secularist’s distortion of this truth that lies at the core of an unnecessarily strident style of expression. Dawkins is a thinker at pains to reinforce the significance of truth-seeking and, indeed, truth-spreading, in relation to his bête noire: the notion that religion ought to be hermetically sealed from criticism lest its believers be offended by it.
For Dawkins, those who share this view can only be detrimental to the promotion of rational thought. So he dismisses them, along with astrologists, mediums, homeopaths and Young Earth Creationists, as “enemies of reason”. Hitchens agreed,and thought mockery of religion indispensable for the promotion of intelligent thought.
Such open denouncements surely miss the mark, and hinder potential for dialogue between faithful and faithless.
The nascent sympathy of the faithless for the consolation-seeking faithful is becoming the heart of matters secular.
This has its roots not in confrontationally titled works such as Dawkins’s The God Delusion or Hitchens’s God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, but rather in something like Alain de Botton’s welcomingly titled Religion for Atheists (named “Atheism 2.0” in jest).
This is a simple yet profound idea for countering the polarising secularisation of post-Enlightenment societies.
Dwindling theism and the inversely burgeoning agnosticism and atheism of post-Enlightenment societies have rendered many prone to nihilism and alienation. This is not helped by further vitriolic polemics disgracing religions.
What is needed is an endorsement of engagement with important cultural (as opposed to doctrinal) insights into areas such as pilgrimage, art, education, community, etc, that religions have to offer.
It is on this foundation of shared consolation that a common ground for discussion can be established between theists, agnostics and atheists.
Michael James Regan is a PhD student of philosophy at NUI Maynooth