Being paragons of rationality, the enemies of religion affect genuine bafflement as to why anyone would practise it. Whereupon they proceed to enumerate a long list of what are usually evil or ulterior motives. It’s odd. If I were honestly unable to conceive of the reasons for some archaic habit or custom–why people take snuff, let us say–I wouldn’t set myself up as an authority on the subject. Yet atheists profess to know that theists worship God out of some vestigial anxiety to propitiate the forces of nature, or to take out insurance against the contingency of damnation, or, if they are clerics, to wield religion as an instrument of power. They are about as credible on the subject of the origin of religion as The League Of Offended Housewives To Snuff Out Snuff would be if they were to admonish that snuff-taking makes you blind. It is time, it seems to me, for the defenders of religion to begin speculating, mutatis mutandis, on the motives of its enemies.
As Joe Sobran has observed in his essay The Sins of Irreligion:
I can imagine one kind of atheist–let us call him the “pious atheist”–who arrives at his unbelief without joy, simply as an intellectual conclusion. I suppose such a man would regard Christian civilization with the kind of affection and respect a Roman convert to Christianity in Augustine’s day would feel for the dying Roman Empire, for Cicero and Virgil and Marcus Aurelius. He would feel that, although that world had passed away, it had left much of enduring value. We actually do see pious atheists who may regret the Inquisition but who also cherish Dante, Monteverdi, Spenser, Milton, Bach, Handel, and Dr. Johnson. To cease believing in the viability of this Christian civilization is not necessarily either to condemn it or to assume an attitude of enmity toward it.
Yet there is another sort of atheist who does regard himself as Christendom’s enemy. Far from cherishing its past, he condemns it and would wipe out every trace of it: the Catholic Church, the Moral Majority, the inscription “In God We Trust”. He thinks that humanity is now free at last from dogma and superstition, and he would get on with the business of creating a new world on progressive and scientific principles.
No one who cherishes the intellectual, literary, and artistic bequests of religion would object to the first group identified by Sobran. Aligned with them are any number of brilliant scholars of religious history and thought, including some of the most humane and capacious minds of the modern age: Jung, Bultmann, Tillich, Hugo Rahner, Simone Weil, to name just a few.
All such thinkers accept as a brute fact the sceptical scientific spirit of the modern epoch. All agree that a naively literal belief in the affirmations of organized religion is no longer intellectually possible, and plead, instead, for the renewal of a mythic or allegorical approach to sacred narrative that is already native to the Christian tradition.
Of this tradition, however, Dawkins and Hitchens are conveniently ignorant. To carry Christianity’s colours against their hollow challenge, they naturally prefer their own reductive caricature of the Bible-thumping Southern televangelist. When they limn the portrait of a rotten Christianity on such bases, they invite Chaucer’s Pardoner to sit as their model, as though his Parson, Clerk, and Knight were not also on the Canterbury road.
That sort of selectivity alone suggests that Dawkins and Hitchens are motivated by an animus that is less than objective or scientific. Unlike Sobran’s “pious atheists” or the scholarly taxonomists of religious ideas mentioned above, they are less observers of Christianity’s decline and fall than agents who yearn to hasten it. They arrive at their atheist position, not as an intellectual conclusion, but a morally triumphant one. Indeed, it places them squarely on the side the angels–to summon a theistic phrase–in the great millennial struggle between the forces of light and superstitious darkness. Nor does their atheism betray the least willingness to assimilate anything of the legacy of Christianity, not even those elements that Christianity itself willingly assimilated from its pagan past (including symbols as innocuous as Christmas trees).
In this regard, today’s atheists usually see themselves as “free-thinkers” and “progressives”. Save that free-thought is hardly ever progressive, except in the self-congratulatory sense in which that term is used. It cannot be so because, as Chesterton has observed, “it will accept nothing from the past; it begins every time again from the beginning; and it goes every time in a different direction.” The only things that have “progressed” have done so by gradual “accumulations of authority”, advancing incrementally “in a certain definable direction”. (Christian Civilization is, in that sense, progressive; by contrast, the atheist desire to undo it is as unprogressive as that of the fantasist who decides to tear up the road by which mankind has advanced and recommend that we grow wings instead.)
Their furious antagonism toward religious tradition in general and Christian Civilization in particular tells us as much about contemporary atheists as it does about the object of their hatred. Sobran identifies the animus of the current militant sect of atheists as a species of that genus of thought which he calls “alienism”, the willful disaffection from the norms and institutions of society typical of Western intellectuals and so-called “minority” groups.
The modern alienist’s sense of estrangement need not, of course, have anything to do with historical oppression or ostracism by an unjust majority (indeed, his embitterment suggests that he wants in). The designation “minority” itself, as Sobran observes, alludes less to a real statistical fact than an ideological posture. Some “minorities” (e.g. women) are in fact majorities. Others, such as “gays”, are hardly condemned to their supposed alienation by the cruel accident of birth (like the victims of racism), but by voluntary choice. Meanwhile, any number of actual numerical minorities are never thought of as such; in this category, Sobran mentions Mormons–whom it is always safe to deride–, to which I would add native born whites in many large North American cities.
However imprecise the term, it invariably irradiates a palpable sense of disaffection, which is presumed to be justified by the minority’s victimization by a homogeneous majority. Historically (at least in the West), that means Christianity, so that “if we look more closely”, as Sobran argues, “we will find that the very idea of a minority in this sense is largely a rhetorical device for covertly attacking what remains of the Christian culture”.
In contemporary identity politics, it is obvious enough that minorities from non-Christian cultures have become stalking-horses for anti-Christian alienism. It was less than fifty years ago that non-Christian communities were expected, if not actively to adopt the beliefs and mores of the Christian Civilization to which they desired admittance, then at least not to object to them. Today, the mere existence of a native Christian remnant constitutes an affront to multicultural sensibilities, if not to the hallowed principles of equality and pluralism. The expectation that minorities should accommodate the dominant culture of their new homelands once seemed only reasonable; now it is the majority that must accommodate the minority.
Atheists function in this regard as a non-Christian “minority”. Because they once were so, Dawkins and Hitchens see atheists as permanent victims. It’s a truism, of course, that when public opinion finally rouses itself in indignant protest against the victimization of this group or that, their victimization is largely a thing of the past. When minorities are really being mistreated by majorities–systematically murdered, enslaved, lynched, or discriminated against–public opinion either fails to notice or actively colludes with what it regards as merely normative. Once the public gets around to expressing its collective moral outrage, one can be assured that it is already safe to do so.
So it is, of course, with those who now imagine theocrats hiding under every bed, and stand eternally vigilant in the defence of the temporal state against the phantom encroachment of spiritual powers: they are permitted to complain against “theocracy” only because there are no theocrats about with the power to silence them. (In the Middle Ages, Dawkins and Hitchens might have had a point, but no one could have heard them making it beyond the confines of their prison cells.)
If anything, the contemporary incarnation of the Spanish Inquisition is run by the priests of a militant secular orthodoxy who can abide no dissent from what they regard as religious heretics (i.e., heretics whose sin is believing in religion per se, rather than false religion). In the past several decades in Canada, every vestige of Christian symbolism has been extirpated from the public square, Christian teaching in schools has been officially proscribed by the State, and dozens of supposedly free citizens have been arraigned before our official human rights tribunals for professing their religious beliefs. Notably, during the same period, not a single atheist has had to appear before these human rights constabularies. If anyone has a right to fear the “establishment of religion”, it is the victims of the new secular orthodoxy.
Today, Christians remain one the few identifiable groups against which it is legitimate to be bigoted. When alienist intellectuals tell us that “the white race is the cancer of history”, or accuse Europeans of wholesale and deliberate genocide in the New World, or malign the masculine gender as war-mongering rapists–using “white race”, or “European”, or “male” as obvious proxies for historical Christendom–, “we are hearing something other than the voice of the disinterested intellect. We are hearing an expression of nihilistic hatred.” Mere intellectual dissent from the credenda of religion does not, as Sobran observes, inspire “this kind of fanaticism.”
Sobran wonders reasonably enough why we have been so slow to recognize and declaim against this sort of fanatical hatred as a real social problem, if not a psychopathology. The terms of alienist bitterness and grievance are by now epidemic in our language–“racism”, “sexism”, “homophobia”, “anti-Semitism”, “nativism”, “Eurocentrism”, “Christocentrism”, “ethnocentrism”, “xenophobia”, “bigotry”, “prejudice”, “discrimination”, “stereotyping”. Even the word “hatred” itself has taken on the same victimological and anti-majoritarian connotations, though it should be entirely possible that enmity between social groups can have the opposite valency. Can minority races, cultures, or religions never be guilty of prejudice or hatred against majorities? If so, as Sobran points out, “we have no specific vocabulary at all to suggest this reciprocal possibility”.
Until recently, alienist hatred was recognized as a dangerous toxin, destabilizing not only to society but to the moral and psychological health of the subject. Sobran mentions Shakespeare’s villains Edmund and Iago–whose villainy consists precisely in their obsessive hostility to all social norms and traditions. “Almost without exception”, Sobran observes, “Shakespeare’s ‘alienated’ characters are villains”. Both Shakespeare and his audience evidently still considered such attitudes dangerous and deranged, and felt that Civilization had every right to defend itself against them. Thus, “The assumptions embodied in the very structure of these plays are directly opposed to the assumption that hatred and hostility are always to be imputed to society. The imputation itself expresses hostility, and we do well to raise our guard against it.”
We do well, that is, to expose and condemn the militant hatred of Christendom expressed by atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens as a poison just as lethal as any majoritarian “ism”.