The Atheist Delusion: How the Religion of Progressive Thinking Poisons Everything; or, Reasoning with Dawkins and Hitchens, Part 7


The “Zeitgeist”…


The Church of Progress…

The modern atheist’s hatred of religion is one species of a generalized hatred of the traditions of the West, which for liberals is bred in the bone. Dawkins’ chapter on “The Moral Zeitgeist” is an impeccable example, while being a textbook statement of the supreme article of faith in the Church of Progress: that human society becomes ineluctably more enlightened and just with the march of time (and the converse: that erstwhile traditions and attitudes are noxious in direct proportion to their antiquity).

What follows is my best attempt at an epitome of Dawkins’ anti-religious reasoning: In the old days (when men still believed in God), slavery, racism, sexism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, even hunting for sport, were normative and uncontroversial. Even those who were “ahead of their time”, such as Lincoln, H.G. Wells, and Huxley, held views that would have retrospectively horrified them, had they been born and educated in our time. As late as the “swinging sixties” people still objected to their young daughters reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover (!). “How swiftly the Zeitgeist changes – and it moves in parallel, on a broad front, throughout the educated world. Where, then, have these concerted and steady changes in social consciousness come from?…Certainly…not from religion.”

Dawkins includes amongst the catalysts of the progressive Zeitgeist activist judges, stand-up comics, and the script-writers of soap operas. Such avatars of enlightenment ought to make any thinking person nervous. But he is nevertheless gung-ho for the “Zeitgeist progression”:

Some of us lag behind the advancing wave of the changing moral Zeitgeist and some of us are slightly ahead. But most of us in the twenty-first century are are bunched together but way ahead of our counterparts in the Middle Ages, or in the time of Abraham, or even as recently as the 1920s. The whole wave keeps moving, and even the vanguard of an earlier century…would find itself way behind the laggers of a later century. Of course, the advance is not a smooth incline but a meandering sawtooth. There are local and temporary setbacks such as the United States is suffering from its government in the early 2000s. But over the longer timescale, the progressive trend is unmistakable….Whatever its cause, the manifest phenomenon of the Zeitgeist progression is more than enough to undermine the claim that we need God in order to be good, or to decide what is good.

Dawkins appears to be as much in awe of this force for good as Calvin was of an inscrutably benign Providence. He calls it a “mysterious consensus”, admits that he can’t explain how it is constellated, and certainly has a more supine faith in Its Benevolence than I, for one, have in the biblical God. He can hardly imagine that someone could regard anything as ethically wrong (homosexuality, adultery, sexual promiscuity, abortion, for example) that this onward-moving “mysterious consensus” has lately sanctified. There is no doubt that for progressives what Dawkins calls the Zeitgeist (its demotic name is Public Opinion) is an almighty deity. What offends them is that the Deity of Christianity refuses to genuflect before It and “move on”. (The Zeitgeist is a jealous God indeed).

A writer of crude polemics might well deride those who blindly follow the Zeitgeist as “fundamentalists” or “absolutists”. They are certainly guilty of the “failure of imagination” of which Dawkins invariably indicts theists. We may rejoice that we are no longer guilty of racism and discrimination against Jews and other minorities, but regret the fact that the Zeitgeist has institutionalized them in the form of affirmative action, and that modern identity politics and multiculturalism have repristinated tribalism as a virtue. We may celebrate our sexual liberation, but take pause that the popular culture has made us slaves to sex itself. Surely it is credulous in the extreme to imagine that “the advancing wave of the changing moral Zeitgeist” is a good fairy, who brings only blessings, while exacting no payment in return.

Naturally, anyone whose whole philosophy of history and life can be encapsulated in Bob Dylan’s puerile Bolshevist lyric “The times they are a-changing…Get out of the new road if you can’t lend a hand”, is unlikely to be able to comprehend the difference between morality and moral fashion. Try to imagine Plato, Aristotle, or Kant defining virtue as conformity to whatever temporary “consensus” upon which Public Opinion has most recently conferred its imprimatur. (Strike Socratic reason; forget the categorical imperative; let’s just go with the Zeitgeist.) The whole idea of ethics is that it distinguishes the rationally necessary “ought” from the merely contingent “is”. It’s bizarre that Dawkins can’t see that, just as he can’t comprehend that blindly trusting in the wisdom of an ever-moving Zeitgeist would have made him a slaver and a misogynist had he lived but a hundred years ago. The problem with the Zeitgeist is that it is self-annihilating. Today’s moral Zeitgeist is tomorrow’s detestable ‘ism.

Some might describe “The Zeitgeist” as just a prettified term for the mass mind. If progressives wish to worship a potency of such brutely capricious unconsciousness, by all means, let them do so. But then, they ought to stop accusing the religious of being slaves to “irrational faith”.

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