“Freethinkers” Free From the Burden of Self-Criticism

A little late in sharing this one, but good things come to those who had no idea they were waiting for good things, right? Well, John Gray’s at it again, dropping bunker-busters on the New Atheists from right across the street (Gray’s agnostic, but possessed of uncommon quantities of common sense). This is from his recent essay in the Guardian, “What Scares the New Atheists” (ht David Zahl at Mockingbird), and again, it’s a goldmine. Gray exposes the unexamined presuppositions of the New Atheists and still finds them not only wanting, but more than a little silly. To wit: viewing science as an impenetrable monolith of unassailable (and intrinsically anti-theistic) conclusions, so objective as to be immune to ideology, inherently giving rise to the modern, liberal values we find exemplified right here at home in the late capitalist West. Gray identifies the lonesome, dismayed refrain uniting these anti-God myths of progress: the futile quest for a humanly derived, human-affirming certainty. The only way to lay hold of both is to bracket out the facts:

For secular thinkers, the continuing vitality of religion calls into question the belief that history underpins their values. To be sure, there is disagreement as to the nature of these values. But pretty well all secular thinkers now take for granted that modern societies must in the end converge on some version of liberalism. Never well founded, this assumption is today clearly unreasonable. So, not for the first time, secular thinkers look to science for a foundation for their values. 

It’s probably just as well that the current generation of atheists seems to know so little of the longer history of atheist movements. When they assert that science can bridge fact and value, they overlook the many incompatible value-systems that have been defended in this way. There is no more reason to think science can determine human values today than there was at the time of Haeckel or Huxley…

It’s impossible to read much contemporary polemic against religion without the impression that for the “new atheists” the world would be a better place if Jewish and Christian monotheism had never existed. If only the world wasn’t plagued by these troublesome God-botherers, they are always lamenting, liberal values would be so much more secure. Awkwardly for these atheists… Nietzsche was clear that the chief sources of liberalism were in Jewish and Christian theism: that is why he was so bitterly hostile to these religions. He was an atheist in large part because he rejected liberal values

Though not all human beings may attach great importance to them, every society contains practices that are recognisably religious. Why should religion be universal in this way? For atheist missionaries this is a decidedly awkward question. Invariably they claim to be followers of Darwin. Yet they never ask what evolutionary function this species-wide phenomenon serves. There is an irresolvable contradiction between viewing religion naturalistically – as a human adaptation to living in the world – and condemning it as a tissue of error and illusion.

You just can’t invoke Nietzsche to bankroll your liberal vision of utopia- it only demonstrates your basic ignorance of Nietzsche. That doesn’t matter much to this crowd, though, whose basic allegiance is to their story and not to messy, discomfiting matters like congruence, consistency, and, well, history. No meta-discourse is permitted to critique their predetermined verdicts because they’re just self-evidently right… Right?

Gray’s beautiful conclusion: “what today’s freethinkers want is freedom from doubt, and the prevailing version of atheism is well suited to give it to them.” The self-enclosed echo chamber of atheistic assurance succeeds as no other modern metanarrative does in preserving illusion and invincibly ignoring the inconvenient but nevertheless true. But there is One who shatters illusion and discloses Himself in and through the awful circumstances of a fallen world, who willingly submitted himself to death to ransom debased, degraded traitors from the slavery of self-determination and sweep them up into the boundless playing field of renewed creaturehood in the image of God. Turn to him!

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