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Our God-slaying friends

Nick Spencer

New Atheists are notoriously good at goading Christians, but do we need to take it all so personally? Nick Spencer goes in search of the socio-political origins of the species and argues that we'd be lost without our sparring partners.


Once upon a time there was a terrible monster that lived in the sky. No one had ever seen it because it was invisible, but everyone knew that it was there because a long time ago it had shown itself to some very clever men. These very clever men explained how the monster had one head, three bodies and a thousand eyes, with which it could see into people's souls. They told terrible tales of what the monster would do if it got angry but also of how kind it would be if people would only worship it without thought or question.

Sometimes the monster would get angry and when it did the clever men would offer it sacrifices, dragging people into market squares where they would burn them alive, just to show the monster how much they loved it.

The people listened to the very clever men and believed them. But they still yearned to be free.

And then, one day, a few brave men, who had only ever pretended to believe in the monster, unearthed a chest of strange metal. The chest had been hidden by an earlier, wiser, freer people, who had lived in the land before the monster came, and had known a better way of life.

Ever so slowly, the men began to work the metal, which they called 'reason', using it to forge a new weapon, which they called 'science', and they used 'science' to attack the monster, and the very clever men. They had to be very careful at first because if anyone was caught using 'science', they would be dragged into market squares where they would be burned alive, and indeed this was how many lost their lives.

But these were brave men, not to be fooled by fables or cowed by threats. Their band multiplied and their weapons grew in number and power until one day, a brilliant, reclusive rebel invented a super-weapon, which he called 'evolution', which could punch clean through the monster's armoured scales.

After that, the attacks increased in frequency and ferocity until one day the rebels were able to show the people what they had long known themselves. The monster had never actually existed. It was just a tale told by the very clever men to keep themselves in riches and power.

Slowly the truth spread and although some very clever men still cling to riches and power, and some very stupid ones still believe them, gradually, wonderfully, the world is being set free.



Every culture has its ancient creation myth and this is atheism's. As it happens, it's not all that old. This story, at least in its current form, can be dated to around the third quarter of the 19th century and was, in large measure, a reaction to social and ecclesiastical conditions of the time. 'Science' was in the process of cutting the apron strings that had tied it to its maternal natural theology, which had borne and nourished it for 200 years, and 'scientists' - a word that had only been coined a generation earlier - were establishing themselves as a profession distinct from the clergy.

At around the same time, Pope Pius IX published his Syllabus of Errors, which concluded that the Pontiff ought not 'come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization',1 and the first Vatican Council dogmatically defined the longstanding doctrine that when the Pope spoke ex cathedra in matters of faith and morals, he did so with Christ's gift of infallibility.2

The narrative of science as religion slayer gained purchase not for any overwhelmingly good historical reasons but because it described well the dynamics of the moment. John William Draper published his History of the Conflict between Religion and Science in 1874 which apparently showed how Christianity has long obstructed the passage of free and rational thought.3 It was wildly popular. Without any apparent sense of irony, the Vatican placed it on its Index of Prohibited Books. A creation myth was born.



It is in good health today. The popular view, fed by enthusiastic New Atheist propaganda, is not only that science disproves religion but that the history of atheism is one of scientists piercing God with many wounds. Awkward questions - like which 'science', which scientists, which 'God', and what kind of 'religion' - are ignored. Faith, of this kind, is best left undisturbed.

The truth is somewhat different. Atheism is undoubtedly growing in terms of size and importance in the modern world and so it is worth understanding its origins and history accurately. Three points stand out in its modern (that is, non-classical) history of atheism. They are distinct but linked, have too long gone unnoticed, and may help us understand better not only atheism's current incarnation(s) but also how Christians might respond intelligently.

The first is that the history of atheism has little to do with science and not much more to do with philosophy, but everything to do with politics and, more precisely, with the way in which ecclesiastically-justified politics has used and abused power. The history of atheism is best understood in social and political terms.



God, in the form of Christianity, was the foundation of European culture and society. Belief in God determined the way people lived, the way they were governed, and the way they structured society. It regulated their days, weeks, and years, their births, marriages and deaths. It told them what to hope for and what to fear. It legitimised communities, kingdoms and empires. It explained the past, present and future, earth, heaven, and the heavens, human origins, purpose and destiny. It was the key in which all life, human and natural was composed, if not necessarily played. The implications for atheism were clear. To undermine religion was, in the words of the English Chief Justice in 1676, 'to dissolve all those obligations whereby the civil societies are preserved.'4

This helps explain why the charge of atheism was so widespread in the 16th and 17th centuries, even when there were very few (possibly no) atheists - in the familiar modern sense of the word - alive. The word was thrown about with as much abandonment as 'communist' during the McCarthy years, and to a similar effect. It could be used of those who (allegedly) denied divine providence, and of those who (allegedly) denied God's involvement in the world; of those who denied the immortality of the soul and of those who denied the existence of hell and heaven; of those who denied the doctrine of creation and of those who denied the existence of the spirit world. It was used (by Catholics) of Protestants, who denied the authority of God's representative on earth, and (by Protestants) of Catholics, who evaded and ignored God's word in scripture by placing their trust in a worldly authority. It was, in otherwords, used very loosely to denote any heterodox belief that smelled even a little bit like the denial of God.



More extravagantly still, it could be used - indeed it was used, universally - to describe those whose behaviour was anti-social or immoral. The Jacobean author Nicholas Breton put this colourfully in his 1616 book of didactic character sketches, The Good and the Badde, or Descriptions of the Worthies and Unworthies of this Age. In this he described the Atheist, 'or Most Bad Man', as a figure of desperation, 'who dares to anything even to his soul's damnation', making 'sin a jest, grace a humour, truth a fable, and peace a cowardice'.5 To be atheist was to loosen the bonds that kept society together and everyone safe.

Recognising this helps free us from our own (historically rather unusual) conviction that since belief in God is an intellectual activity focused on questions such as who made the world or does a supernatural realm exist, atheism is an intellectual activity that just comes up with different answers. Less about science disproving God, or even about God himself, the history of atheism may be seen as a series of disagreements about authority, the concept in which various concerns - does God exist, how do we know, how should we live, and who should we obey - coalesce.



This leads on to a second point. If atheism was as much a social and political protest against the way of the world, as a straightforward denial of God, it should be seen not simply as destructive but constructive. This idea has been winning adherents of late largely because of Charles Taylor's blockbusting A Secular Age. This argued that the traditional 'subtraction' narrative of modernity - in which our secular age was achieved by progressively stripping away traditional beliefs until we arrive out our natural state of 'not believing' - is inaccurate and inadequate. Rather, Taylor argues 'exclusive humanism' (his preferred term for default position among many Western elites) is itself an achievement, an agonisingly slow construction of a comprehensive worldview that is neither natural nor self-evident.6 Secular or exclusive or atheistic humanists believe a whole load of things; they just don't like to call it belief.

A similar point may be made of atheism, a close cousin of 'exclusive humanism'. Atheism has too often been treated as a merely destructive phenomenon, a stripping away of structures, rituals and beliefs until we find the naked ape that was always there waiting to be revealed. In reality, almost from its outset, modern atheism has been a constructive and 'creative' phenomenon.



It is easy to see why we have missed this. Atheism is, in the first instance, a parasitic creed, defined by what it is not, what it is against. Accordingly, a huge amount of energy has been deployed throughout its history - a wearying amount, if the historian is honest - in showing how wicked, stupid, corrupt, violent, ignorant, misleading, and malign religion - for the most part Christianity - is.

Retarded and self-deluding Christians, malevolent and manipulative priests, incomprehensible and meaningless doctrines, corrupt and hypocritical practices, delusional and dehumanising hopes: these provide the staple diet of European atheists, many of whose writings have only rarely been burdened by a commitment to balance or a fear of repetition.

Yet, this is only part of the story. Being parasitic in the first instance does not mean being parasitic in everything. Precisely because Christianity was the foundation, the walls, the streets, and the public order of European civilisation, atheism was faced with the need to construct a different earthly city if its destruction of the existing one was ever going to be successful. 'God does not exist' might be an acceptable stance in the seminar room, but beyond it must either become 'God does not exist so…' or risk forfeiting public attention. Failure to complete the sentence rendered its first clause irrelevant or unpersuasive or simply dangerous. Anarchy appealed to no-one.



Recognising this leads to a third point: tthat if atheism is better understood as a creative social enterprise than merely a destructive intellectual one, we should speak of atheisms - a cluster or family of atheisms - rather that one single, holy, catholic, and apostolic atheism.

This 'family' can be glimpsed in the huge range of words that have been used interchangeably with atheist over the last four centuries. These include Bright, Cartesian, communist, determinist, Epicurean, existentialist, fatalist, freethinker, Hobbist, humanist, infidel,irreligious, libertine, materialist, monist, naturalist, Nietzschean, rationalist, sceptic, secularist, Spinozist, and unbeliever, to name only the less abusive terms.

Few of these are exact synonyms but that is precisely the point. All these terms have been used of and by people who rejected God, but did so for different reasons, with different strengths of feeling, and drawing different conclusions. All were atheists (or, at least, alleged to be) but they adhered to subtly different atheisms.



I tried to chart these in my book on the history of atheism but you can only do so much in 80,000 words. There is a bewildering range of subtly different atheisms from different times and places, and there is no accepted view about the right taxonomy (indeed, there is no accepted view on the existence of atheisms at all). That recognised, certain patterns emerge. There were ritual atheists, agnostic atheists, intellectual atheists, activist atheists, and full-on anti-theists, such as Jean Meslier, an early 18th century French priest (!) who is the first person in modern European history we can definitively say was an atheist.

These categories work but fail to capture fully the constructive nature of atheism. A better taxonomy might be arrived by classing people into groups according to how they completed the sentence 'God does not exist so…' Thus, there were those who argued that since there is no god, and therefore no heaven to look forward to, we must build heaven on earth (utopian/ socialist/ communist atheists). There were those who argued that since there is no god, we must measure everything by human happiness which we should seek to maximise (utilitarian atheists). There were those who argued that since there is no god, morality is a human construct and pleasure the measure of all things, so we can do pretty much what we like (liberal/ libertine atheists). And there were those who said since there is no god, there is no point (nihilist atheists). No category is watertight or, indeed, satisfactory, but the key point stands: whichever taxonomy we prefer, we do better to speak of atheisms than atheism.



Taking these points into consideration helps us understand aspects of modern atheism much better. For a start, it helps explain why atheism developed differently in different countries. If atheism was a movement provoked into action by the theo-politics of time and place, it becomes clear why it looked (and looks) so different in different countries. Paths began to diverge in the 18th century when people started putting forward openly and unapologetically atheist arguments for the first time since the classical period. A rigidly authoritarian Catholic Ancien Régime in France created deep wells of moral indignation on which atheists could draw. The more tolerant system in Britain limited those wells, and the wall of separation in the USA effectively drained them. If we seek a reason why atheism was the dog that didn't bark in what became the most self-consciously modern, scientifically-developed country on earth, it lies here.

The pattern continued in the 19th and 20th centuries, and explains the most significant and 'successful' movement in atheist history: Russia. Victoria Frede, in her fine history of the emergence of Russian atheism between the 1820s and 1860s, has observed that in Russia (like elsewhere), atheism 'was less a statement about thestatus of God than it was a commentary on the status of educated people in an authoritarian state that sought ever more forcefully to regulate the opinions and beliefs of its subjects.'7 In later 19th century Russia, the cords tying church and state were so tight they effectively became a garrotte, suffocating freedom and animating atheism with a self-righteous anger that was to have atrocious consequences in the following century.



It also helps us understand the New Atheism movement. The bizarre resurgence of creationism following the publication of John Whitcomb and Henry Morris's book on The Genesis Flood in 19618, the emergence of the Religious Right in the US, the Islamic revolution in Iran and the installation of a republic that was ordered on strict and often violent theocratic principles, and then supremely, the explosion of violent political Islam through a series of indiscriminate and highly-publicised acts of mass murder - all this shook the West, disturbed its narrative of inevitable secularisation and gave atheists something to get their teeth into.

The naked contempt, extreme hyperbole, absurd comparisons, lazy use of rights language, uncritical self-righteousness, and obsessive interest in how religious people bring up their children that is often characteristic of the New Atheists may be depressing and unpalatable but as soon as you understand atheism as a socio-political protest rather than a narrow statement about the non-existence of God, it becomes explicable. New Atheists can be very nasty because they are reacting against God-people some of whom can be even nastier.



And this provides the reason why readers of Third Way, and Christians in general, should be interested in the history of atheism. Put provocatively, it is not science or philosophy that makes atheists, but believers. Of course, there will always be numbers of people who deny God, in every culture, irrespective of its social, political or ecclesiastical context. None of what I have written is intended to suggest that atheism is not a position about the existence of God; simply that it is not just a position about that.

Christians, of all people, should be alert to how ideas are embedded in matter, words in flesh, and therefore alert to how our ideas of God are intertwined with the lives that are lived in God's name. Understanding atheism is a fine way of understanding faith better. At T.S. Eliot wrote to his friend Richard Aldington in 1927 (shortly before the poet was receiving in the Anglican church): 'Atheism should always be encouraged (that is, rationalistic not emotional atheism) for the sake of the Faith.'9 The academic Stephen Bullivant makes a similar point in his recent book, Faith and Belief, when he notes that 'atheists' critiques can aid us in purifying our ever-faulty notions of 'the [Christian] God who is not a god''.10

One can go further: understanding atheism, its origins and true contours, should not only help purify our God-shaped notions but also our God-shaped lives, as it is these misshapen lives, and the societies Christians have built around them that have done more than anything else to feed the fires of atheism. No one should imagine that a churchful of genuinely Christ-like Christians - were such a thing even imaginable - would extirpate atheism in the modern world.

But it would certainly be a start.



1 Pope Pius IX, The Syllabus of Errors, #80

2 First Vatican Council, 1869-70, Session 4, Chapter 4

3 John William Draper, History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (New York : D. Appleton, 1875)

4 Taylor's Case 1 Vent 293, quoted in Russell Sandberg, Law and Religion (Cambridge: CUP, 2011), p. 133.

5 Nicholas Breton, The Good and the Badde, or Descriptions of the Worthies and Unworthies of this Age (London : George Purslowe, for John Budge, 1616)

6 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass.; London: Belknap, 2007)

7 Victoria Frede, Doubt, Atheism, and the Nineteenth-century Russian Intelligentsia (Madison : University of Wisconsin Press, 2011), p. 15

8 John Whitcomb and Henry Morris, The Genesis Flood: The biblical record and its scientific implications (Philadelphia : Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., 1961)

9 T.S. Eliot, The Letters of T. S. Eliot, Volume 3: 1926-1927, eds. Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden (London: Faber, 2012), p. 424.

10 Stephen Bullivant, Faith and Belief: A theology of atheism (Canterbury Press, 2014), p. 23.