Saturday, June 22

Has Atheism Failed?

Last week celebrated psychologist Dr Jordan Peterson tweeted my story on gay conversion therapy with the rider that the gay community was better off with the tender mercies of the conservative Christians than under the sterilizing drugs and knives of the trans butchers. And then he did it again making the same point about the Christian/trans butchery divide.

As it happened, his comment referencing religion was particularly apt given the conversation taking place in various social media threads in New Zealand related to this issue.

Some people had chosen not to attend the gender critical Inflection Point conference in Wellington due to the presence of conservative Christians like Destiny Church’s Brian Tamaki and Family First’s Bob McCoskrie.

Others saw photos of Tamaki and McCoskrie laying hands on and praying over a detransitioner who had just shared her story and decried their actions as opportunistic and distasteful. One even condemned the detranstioner for allowing herself to be used this way.

In fact, the men asked permission to pray over her and the young woman was happy to assent, given she had embraced Catholicism since detransitioning.

I was unable to attend Inflection Point because I had already committed to another event, ironically, a silent weekend at a Catholic retreat centre. And I’m an atheist. However, for some time now, I have been wondering if atheism has failed us.

I am not the first person to conclude that human beings are a religious species, that homo sapiens are born with a God-shaped hole. And that nature, abhorring a vacuum, and in the absence of conventional religion, fills said hole with other au courant bags of ideas. Anything will do. Climate change, environmentalism, gender ideology, the me too movement, indigenous rights, and it’s most recent manifestation, pro-Palestinian liberation for young people who wouldn’t have been able to find Palestine on the map six months ago and still might struggle to place Gaza. Sometimes these quasi-religious movements intersect as in the case of Queers for Palestine, or as one wit put it, chickens for KFC.

Why do I say these issues are substitutes for religion? Because they come with their own irrefutable ideology, their own priestly class to interpret the holy doctrine and their own willingness, nay eagerness, to expel apostates and extinguish alternative views – especially those who cast doubt on the infallibility of the group’s position.

Such erasure is the social media equivalent of mean girl rejection. Women’s groups do it with finesse. A sharp-eyed group monitor might posit that “So and so’s post is against the kaupapa of the group” and, poof, it will be gone.

Observing the religious fervour of those deep into the latest mania has prompted me to wonder if the atheist project has not so much foundered, as well and truly failed. It wasn’t so long ago that atheism was cool. Seriously cool. The final rung on the intellectual ladder of religious quests. Who could out argue Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris or Daniel Dennett? 

But brilliant though these four horsemen of New Atheism were, they did not account for humanity’s essential nature – that of the God-shaped hole. Atheism, it turns out, is not enough. Human beings, it seems, are doomed or, if you prefer, destined, to seek purpose and meaning, and lacking religion, often lurch from one cause or meta narrative to the next.

American free speech author Jonathan Rauch, a recent visitor to these shores as a guest of the Free Speech Union, has come to the same conclusion. It’s why his next book will tackle religion even though Rauch is himself a self-described gay Jewish atheist.

Nevertheless he says he and other secularists need to recognize that the moral formation and the meaning, upon which our democratic institutions rely, comes in large part from religion, and that the state can’t provide meaningful substitutes in this realm.

Or as feminist Louise Perry put it, talking about Christianity in a recent podcast, Christianity feels sociologically true even if it doesn’t feel supernaturally true.

Rauch is on record as saying that the decline of American Christianity threatens America’s pluralistic democracy. He is not actually arguing for a religious resurgence, acknowledging that religious faith remains one of the world’s most divisive and volatile social forces. Instead it would be preferable to have an accommodation with this deep human need, all the while rejecting the fanatical religiosity of groups like al Qaeda or the tyrannical secularism of a country like China.

Rauch is a fan of apatheism, being a mashup of apathy and theism. This is more of an attitude than a philosophy. Rauch describes it as ”people who feel at ease with religion even if they are irreligious; people who may themselves be members of religious communities, but who are neither controlled by godly passions nor concerned about the (nonviolent, noncoercive) religious beliefs of others.”

Religion without the fury of fundamentalism or the chilly soullessness of secularism maybe.

Or, as in my case, a relaxed irreligiosity that persisted despite the best efforts of Father Phillip, hours of contemplative silence, and the temptations of glorious food at the weekend retreat.