John Gray provocatively begins his interesting article “The Curious Dogmatism of Atheists” (reprinted in Friday’s Fin) with the assertion that –
A revival of atheism is a curious byproduct of the September 11 attacks.
We’ve read a lot recently about religion and politics, which I think is a debate we have to have, but not a lot about atheism and politics. Gray’s article confirms something I’ve always suspected, which is that atheism is a peculiarly Western phenomenon, and usually a mirror image of some form of Christianity. Of course, as a byproduct of globalisation and modernity, we now have Islamic atheists like Ibn Warraq.
Among other reflections, Gray makes a point about atheism which I would illustrate by pointing out that (for instance) Atheist Catholics always strongly disbelieve in the Immaculate Conception and Transubstantiation. I would add that Atheist Lutherans (while possibly strongly disbelieving in Consubstantiation) are most likely to be utterly indifferent to the dogmatic theologemes about the Virgin Mary. Atheism too has a history – an interesting one in terms of its interplay with modernity and politics, if as Gray also observes, a rather tedious one in terms of propaganda for dogmatic disbelief. (While the 19th century spawned several obscure ‘churches’ devoted to atheism – we have a postmodern equivalent in Philip Adams’ well-intentioned but rather silly update of the ‘Ten Commandments’ into ‘‘Twelve Lifestyle Choices’.)
In a lot of his recent writing, Gray’s made a point with which I thoroughly agree – a lot of our political narratives and cultural touchstones are secularised dogma. For instance, he argues:
The idea of the end of history, which Marx deployed in his account of communism and Francis Fukuyama revived in his declaration of the global triumph of democracy, is a hollowed-out version of the Christian view of history as a universal moral drama, ending in salvation.
Gray also makes the important point that Neo-Con dreaming (and for that matter any variety of American universalism) is only possible in a culture framed by Christian universalism. The French treatment of Islamic immigrants and the debate there over secular education is also a reflection of the universalism of the French Revolution and a history of anti-clerical secularism, which additionally has a distorting influence on French foreign policy.
Although Christopher Marlowe was famously suspected of being an atheist, there are few mentions prior to early modernity of atheism as a belief structure. Here’s Gray again:
Atheism is not a freestanding worldview. Polytheist cultures may contain philosophies that assert the indifference of the gods – Epicureanism is an example, and others can be found in ancient India and China – but they do not produce atheists, who emerge only in reaction against monotheism. Atheism is primarily an episode in the history of the decline of Christianity, and the idea that there is anything resembling an atheist tradition beyond that limited context is a category mistake.
Where atheism gained its cultural significance and the purchase it still has on our social imaginaries was with the dawning of the Enlightenment. A lot of social-scientific and humanistic disciplines as we know them today are effectively anti-theologies, having their origins in an attempt to overturn theology’s position as Queen of the Sciences. Similarly, the drive to topple God from his throne (or decentre him as a universal referent for all knowledge) is closely bound up with the emergence of freedom as a key political value in Liberalism.
There has been a lot of talk for a while about a ‘Return of the Religious’. Gilles Keppel, an excellent French sociologist and an authority on Islamism and Politics talks of the ‘Revenge of God’. A number of factors are noted – the politicisation of Islam and fundamentalist Christianity, the blurring of the normative church/state separation that is at the heart of Liberalism, the return of religious motifs in popular culture and literature.
I’d suggest, by contrast, that religion never went away. Liberalism, as I’ve argued before, works best in a climate of relative value consensus. Once value consensus is eclipsed by dissensus, religion is a natural point of dissension around which political and cultural agendas cluster.
But for those who are concerned to uphold the normative separation of religion and politics (and I’m one of them) are the only alternatives a flight into a reverse dogmatism (as I think people like Philip Adams implicitly suggest) or a resignation – with Gray – that we need to acknowledge the place of “mystery” in politics? I’d argue for a third alternative – a reclamation of the humanist and critical scepticism associated with that great writer of early modernity – Michel de Montaigne, a wry and ironic but passionate scepticism about all claims to absolute certainty and a resolute desire to subject all dogmas to reflection and argument, including one’s own.