Purpose Driven Atheism: Secular Maharishis Seeking True Believers

I agree with the New Atheists: it’s time for religion to go. Intolerant, politicized, ugly, right-wing religion, that is. I agree with religious people too, atheism has killed more people in the name of godless ideologies than all religions combined. Or put it this way, the atheist says “Crusades!” and the religious believer answers “Pol Pot!” Are we to be stuck trading insults like schoolchildren, or is there a better way to discuss the two eternally unanswerable questions: the quest for ultimate meaning and the search for the origin of everything?

At a time when Islamist extremists strap on bombs and blow up women and children; when the United States has just come staggering out of the oppressive thirty-year-plus embrace of the dumb-as-mud, hate-filled religious right; when evangelicals are bullying, harassing, and persecuting gay men and women in the name of God, it’s understandable that decent people run from religion. There is a problem though, for those who flee religion expecting to find sanity in unbelief: they will discover that the madness never was about religion, nor was it caused by faith in God. It was, and is, about how we evolved and what we evolved into.

In other words Pogo, the Walt Kelly possum cartoon character, was correct: “we have met the enemy and he is us!” If only making ourselves happy, kind, and tolerant was as simple as giving up religious faith. If that’s all it took, the Soviet Union under Stalin or China under Mao would have been such nice places to live, and our largely secularized Ivy League universities would not be filled with backstabbing intellectuals ready to kill each other (metaphorically speaking) over who gets tenure.

The Context of the New Atheist Crusade

I suspect that the intensity of the New Atheists’ anti-religion crusade has less to do with religion per se, and more to do with a post-9/11 reaction (Islam is bad!), and then a further reaction to the reaction (Bush is just as bad!) The context of the heating up of the New Atheist movement has to do with the justifiable anger felt by reasonable people everywhere at the horrible way the born-again and smugly self-righteous evangelical George W. Bush led the United States, and was put (and kept) in power by his willfully ignorant evangelical base.

An unnecessary war-of-choice in Iraq, “legalized” torture, a carelessly managed war in Afghanistan, little-to-no action to repair the earth’s environment, presidential sniping at evolution being taught in schools, an anti-sex education campaign, ties to the apocalyptic “End Times” evangelical/fundamentalist Christian Zionists (that skewed Bush’s Middle East politics toward the State of Israel in a way that was harmful to all concerned—not least to the State of Israel)… this and more was the context of New Atheist reaction.

The problem I have with the more radical aspects of the New Atheists’ answer to religion—which is to get rid of religion—is that we are spiritual beings, self-contemplating animals, with or without the New Atheists’ permission, and despite the fact that there are so many national village idiots saying and doing things “in the name of God.”

The New Atheists have proved how inescapable religion/spirituality is (by whatever name we call it) by turning their movement into a quasi-religion with priests, prophets and gurus, followers, and even church services. Check out Richard Dawkins’ Web site and you could be looking at the Web site of any televangelist suffering from an acute messianic delusion. Add a dash of hucksterism, replete with scads of merchandise, including a “Scarlet A pin” to be worn by the faithful to identify them as followers and to provoke “conversations” with the uninitiated leading to their conversion to atheism. A secular “Maharishi” of atheism may also be a fruitcake cult figure leading a “church” in all but name.

Speaking of churches, and the need to reinforce one’s faith, Bill Maher’s 2008 movie Religulous provided the atheist version of a church-going experience [see Brent Plate’s “Why Bill Maher Gets a ‘C’ in My Introduction to Religion Class”]. When I was watching Religulous in an Upper West Side theater in New York, it seemed to me that the laughter and shouted comments were just another version of “Amen!” and “Preach it brother!” I assumed these cries of affirmation were from the more spirit-filled atheists in the audience! In a moment of unintended self-parody, Maher even delivered an altar call at the end of his film begging believers to join him in his unbelief.

It seems to me that the various New Atheist prophets have one thing in common: they are old-fashioned literalists. The tone of their books strikes me as stuck in a premodern time warp that is ironically shared by evangelical authors such as Rick Warren. For Warren and the New Atheist authors it is, as it were, never about “A” purpose driven life but always about “The” purpose driven life.

While the term postmodernism is often used to describe an aesthetic, artistic worldview characterized by a distrust of theories and ideology, I think it usefully applies (or rather should apply) to the “certainties” on both sides in the religion vs. atheism debate. When it comes to the New Atheists pitting atheism’s truth claims against religion’s truth claims, postmodern nuance, let alone humility, is nowhere in sight. The New Atheists turn out to be secular fundamentalists arguing with religious fundamentalists. (I explore these various forms of fundamentalism in my forthcoming book Patience With God: Faith For People Who Don’t Like Religion—Or Atheism.)

Secular and religious fundamentalists seem to overlook the reality of our actual situation: we are specks on a tiny planet and our concept of truth, time, and space is relative to our perspective. When Dawkins proposes his alternative to God (in The God Delusion), he talks about the billions and billions, perhaps trillions, of solar systems increasing the probability of life starting in a kind of Russian roulette. Since everything must have happened at least once in an infinite universe maybe that explains, well, everything! Problem is; these are just words. They could just as well be used to argue the “probability” of the existence of God in a limitless universe where everything might happen once someplace, say a virgin birth.

Certainty Kills

Words were invented by people to describe what they perceive to be “true” from what amounts to an ant’s roadside view of passing cosmic traffic. Dawkins knows no more about the vast, forever-beyond-our-reach totality of the universe than I do about God. He thinks, hopes, surmises, does a bit of reading, uses metaphors to describe his ideas about things (which is all words are) grows old and dies, as do we all. When he makes the jump from proven Darwinian biological evolutionary science and tries to apply it to cosmology (the origin of everything), his is a leap of faith worthy of Sören Kierkegaard—though it has nothing to do with science. Whether we are embracing the life of the spirit or running from it, most of us seem to affirm or reject faith too vehemently to claim that we just don’t care.

The New Atheists have been so shrill in their attempts to put what they regard as religious Dims in their place that even some other atheists find them abrasive. These critics of the New Atheists might be called New New Atheists. They too have come forward to proclaim atheism, yet to denounce the New Atheists in a way that to me is reminiscent of the church splits that my evangelical/Calvinist missionary parents (Francis and Edith Schaeffer who founded the ministry of L’Abri in Switzerland) went through. We became members of ever “purer” churches through one “separation” after another, until the “True Church” more or less boiled down to just our family!

In The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, French philosopher André Comte-Sponville tries to present a “humanitarian foundation” for the life of unbelief. Comte-Sponville says that his “way of being an atheist,” was influenced by the Catholicism of his youth. He acknowledges the positive aspects of faith. And then there is Ronald Aronson, a philosopher teaching at Wayne State University and contributor to Religion Dispatches, who first laid out a critique of the New Atheists in a review of their books in the Nation published in June 2007. “Where does the work of the New Atheists leave us?” he asked. “Living without God means turning toward something.” Then in his book Living Without God, Aronson fleshed out his critique. He writes, “Religion is not really the issue, but rather the incompleteness or tentativeness, the thinness or emptiness, of today’s atheism, agnosticism, and secularism. Living without God means turning toward something.”

It might also mean that we should look for a less drastic alternative to fundamentalist faith in God than a fundamentalist faith in no God. The New Atheists and the religious fundamentalists have been looking through the wrong end of the same worn-out telescope. It strikes me that the idea—dare I say the fundamental truth—of paradox has been left out of the current atheist vs. religion debate.

At its best faith in God is about thanksgiving, shared suffering, loss, pain, generosity, and love. The best religious people and the best secular people learn to ignore our chosen (or inherited) religions’ nastier teachings (be those found in the Bible or in the “science” of eugenics and white racial superiority) in order to preserve the spirit of our faiths, be it a faith in secular humanism, science, God or in all of the above. It’s the tediously consistent fundamentalists, religious or atheist, who become monsters. They are so sure that they have the truth that they dare claim that only those members of “my” religion will be saved. This is the path to madness and, if history is any guide, to violence. Certainty kills.