A new breed of missionaries is trying to convert the world. Evangelists of unbelief say religion is a relic left over from the past that stands in the way of human progress. Once the world is rid of religion, immemorial evils such as war and tyranny can be overcome, and humanity will be able to fashion a new life for itself better than any known in history.
Such is the creed of anti-religious missionaries such as Richard Dawkins.
But there is far more to religion than belief, and the most militant atheists display ways of thinking that are inherited from Christianity. In his book The Selfish Gene, Dawkins argues passionately for the Darwinian view that the human species is a product of natural selection: humans are "gene machines" programmed by evolution to replicate themselves. Yet in the same book he declares: "We, alone on Earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators." From where does Dawkins derive this faith in human freedom? Not from science. It comes from Christianity, which has always held that humans are different from all other animals in possessing free will.
In pre-Christian Europe history was seen in cyclical terms. War and peace, freedom and slavery came and went in a cyclical process not radically different from those that can be observed in the natural world. The idea of progress in society - of humanity advancing throughout history to higher levels of life - was unknown. This idea of progress is a post-Christian myth. Unlike in science, where knowledge that is gained today cannot easily be lost tomorrow, ethical advances that are made in one generation are often lost in the next. The prohibition of torture is one of the marks of a civilised country; but that prohibition has been fudged by the Bush Administration, which has refused to rule out water boarding - a form of torture used by the Inquisition and the Pol Pot regime, for example.
Again, the abolition of slavery in the 19th century was a major ethical advance. But slavery returned in the 20th century, when it was practised on a vast scale in Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia and Mao's China, and at the start of the 21st it has re-appeared as trafficking in humans. These and other familiar evils can never be finally overcome. Continually reappearing under different labels, they have to be fought in every generation.
Like other myths, the idea of progress serves powerful emotional needs. Just as Christians feel themselves actors in a cosmic drama of sin and salvation, so secular humanists see themselves as players in an epic struggle for human progress.
As a sceptic I am struck not so much by how much religious faith and secular humanism differ but more by how much they have in common. Both are tissues of myth, serving a need for meaning rather than an interest in truth.
The chief difference is in the quality of the myths. Though they are not true or false in the way scientific theories are true or false, myths can be more or less truthful in reflecting the human situation. In this sense the Genesis story is a truthful myth. It tells us that knowledge need not give humanity life or freedom; it may only bring slavery and death. There is no prospect of a return to innocence - once the apple has been eaten from the tree of knowledge there is no going back. Modern secular thought contains nothing as profound as this ancient biblical story.
While the myths of religion express enduring human realities, the myths of secular humanism serve only to conceal them. It may be a dim sense of the unreality of their beliefs makes militant atheists so vehement and dogmatic.
One searches in vain in the company of militant unbelievers for signs of the creative doubt that has energised many religious thinkers. While theologians have interrogated their beliefs for millennia, secular humanists have yet to question their simple creed. Evangelical atheism is the mirror image of the faith it attacks - without that faith's redeeming doubts.
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