With the puer aeternus John Lennon, Dawkins invites us to “imagine a world without religion”. All right. Then imagine it without architecture, sculpture, painting, or poetry. Imagine it without music, and inasmuch as Western music – even the insipid doggerel of the Beatles – is the product of an ancient liturgical tradition, imagine it without Lennon.
On the Singing Sage of Liverpool, it is hard to resist quoting the bravely non-conformist comments of clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson:
But what did he mean by “no religion”, anyway? No religious institutions? Everyone but the personality-disordered anarchist understands that institutions are necessary.
No religious experience? Lennon constantly sought religious experience, through mysticism and psychedelic drug use.
No beliefs, of ultimate value? But Imagine claims that peace, brotherhood and unity are of ultimate worth, and that a heavenly utopia would arise, if they were properly valued.
Lennon’s beautiful [sic] song is, therefore, conceptually incoherent. Its lyrics also expose a lack of appropriate humility: How dare a multimillionaire satirize those who cannot imagine “no possessions”?
With what would Lennon replace religion, precisely? Atheists never deign to specify the nature of the godless order that would succeed Christian Civilization. Instead, they dare us to be sufficiently free-spirited and unconventional as to “imagine” how peaceful and beatific it would be, hoping that we will forget the inauspicious beginnings it had in Robespierre’s France or the gigantic prison of the Soviet Union. Not coincidentally, Lennon was himself a fulsome sycophant of the Marxist-Leninist regime and ideology, a crime for which he ought to have spent the rest of his life seeking absolution from the ghosts of its former inmates, if not from God. But apparently atheists have faith, even when it is flatly contradicted by the evidence of things seen.
Chesterton once wrote that for a reformer to be credible he must first accept and appreciate at least certain aspects of the prevenient “form”. But like their progressive and revolutionary brothers, atheists have never been comfortable with the helter-skelter, unregulated (i.e., natural) way in which human society has evolved over the millennia. It is odd that they who confer so much dignity upon an agency as mysterious as natural selection do not pause to consider that a similar mechanism is certainly at work in anthropology, especially in the sphere of social traditions and institutions (marriage, the family, worship). Since these have surely “evolved” with man over every stage of human development, you would think atheists would put some trust in the wisdom of that process rather than pronounce Nature an abject failure and wish that She had never begun the experiment in the first place. No less than raccoons, squirrels, and other noxious pests, I suppose, homo Christianus represents the culmination of untold centuries of adaptation and refinement; yet, while few Darwinian atheists would want to “imagine a world” without the former, they would be insouciantly delighted to see Christian Civilization die without a trace.
The flower-childish mind that can imagine a world without religion is obtusely credited with “idealism”, when the imaginer is ideationally savouring an act of gross vandalism – one that would tear down every Church and temple in the civilized world, and empty every museum. The imaginers are the epochal heroes of modernity, but consider the deeds that their imaginings have already fathered. The agents of the Terror must have first imagined a world without aristocrats, the Bolsheviks, without property owners. Our G-20 anarchists feel justified in breaking windows, no doubt, because they have imagined a perfect world without retail or banks. (Under full disclosure, I must confess to having imagined a world without pontificating rock musicians.) Lurking behind the “idealistic” face of reform is usually the adolescent desire to smash the form to bits.
Today, radical Islam has in common with Lennon that it has likewise imagined a world without religion: specifically, without Christianity and Judaism. In their avidity to eradicate every vestige of Christian culture, from crucifixes in hospitals to Christmas trees in public squares, atheist visionaries have allied themselves more closely with the Old Testament Prophets, the seventeenth-century Puritans, and the Taliban than they care to admit. In their defence, the Prophets, Puritans, and Taliban have been intolerant of only certain kinds of religion; the atheist is intolerant of every kind.
Yet the vaunted tolerance of secularists is invariably contrasted with the intolerance of believers. This is surely one of the falsest dichotomies and most self-serving myths of our time. One can hardly conceive of a more rigidly and comprehensively intolerant dogma than Marxist atheism, which sentenced its refuseniks to the work camp for a proliferant range of heresies none of which would have discomposed the sleep of even the most paranoid of inquisitors. C.S. Lewis made the point long ago that Christians have always recognized at least the partial truth of every other religion – Platonism, Stoicism, Mithraism, the Eleusinian mysteries, the cult of Isis and Osiris – in competition with it. Atheists, on the other hand, confidently declare that every religion throughout history has been completely wrong.
It was Chesterton again who remarked that the real crime of suicide is not killing oneself but killing the entire world. The suicide arrogantly and ungratefully consigns to oblivion everything and everybody else as worthless. The deicide consigns to oblivion not only the sensible world but the entire metaphysical cosmos of gods, spirits, and daimons, of myths, images, and symbols, with which man has co-existed and through which he has contemplated the perennial questions from the beginning. In dismissing them as worthless, the atheist imagines that he is wiser and better than the vast majority of all men who ever lived, including mankind’s greatest luminaries and benefactors; and with such invincible hubris, he would abolish the Civilization that religion has engendered, and start again.
The atheist order has given us labour camps, psychiatric prisons, AIDS, and abortion clinics. We are still waiting for it to bring forth its Homer, Dante, Michelangelo, or Bach. Atheism has produced no lasting literature or monumental art (besides the tawdry propaganda of Pravda or the colossal statues of Lenin, Mao, and Kim Jong-Il). The atheist idea has never inspired anything remotely like a sculpture by Praxiteles, a Gothic cathedral, or a fresco by Raphael. Its intellectual seed has nowhere blossomed into a fifth-century Athens, a twelfth-century Paris, or a fifteenth-century Florence. Anyone who travels to Moscow need only visit one of its Byzantine churches and then walk past a Stalinist apartment block to decide whether medieval theocracy or modern secular humanism is more intellectually vibrant or humane.
It is a measure of its cultural and intellectual barrenness that Dawkins and Hitchens must invoke the relatively obscure Pre-Socratic cosmologist Democritus as atheism’s founding Prophet, notwithstanding that Democritus’ own disciples, Epicurus and Lucretius, effectively conceded that the Master’s atomism was still-born without some galvanizing spiritual principle. Atomism turned out to be as still-born a philosophical movement as it was a cosmogonic theory, and so Dawkins and Hitchens are forced to turn to such better-known names as Jefferson and Einstein, whom they borrow on short-term lease from Deism, or Occam, whom they steal outright from Christianity. With such a sparse and undistinguished field of candidates, it is no wonder that as a party atheism has languished on the fringes.
To slightly update a question that Malcolm Muggeridge once asked, who would not rather be wrong with Plato, Plutarch, Origen, Augustine, Eckhardt, and Pico, than right with Karl Marx, Nietzsche, Wells, Huxley, Dawkins, and Lennon?
Is there no relation between the fruit and the tree? Hitchens seems to think that it is possible to appreciate the genius of Dante, Monteverdi, Shakespeare, Donne, and Milton while abominating their religious beliefs, as if their art came to birth not because of but in spite of their embarrassing Christianity. It’s his version, I suppose, of hating the sin and loving the sinner. But it does put one in a logical bind to have to explain how the most magnanimous, erudite, and humane minds (perhaps Hitchens will give me permission to call them spirits in this context) in the history of mankind could have simultaneously believed in and evangelized so risible and cruel a fraud as Christianity. How could the person who wrote Hamlet and Lear have subscribed to a faith so infantile as to have preached the Incarnation and Virgin Birth, and a moral doctrine so retrograde as to have condemned abortion and homosexuality as sins?
Like the rest of us, I have no knowledge as to whether or not God exists. I am considerably more certain that the image projected upon him by his various cultists has only a tenuous relation to his esse. The only truth of which I am absolutely convinced is that religion is the truest thing in the world. The best and most beautiful that man has ever wrought in the desert of human history has been nurtured, if not by God, then by the belief in God. If that is a delusion, then let us hope that we remain deluded. If recent history is any indication, the alternative is a dessicated wasteland.