In recent years atheism has evolved into something more violent. Rather than confining themselves to arguments against the existence of God, atheists such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens have sought the wholesale destruction of religion. Hitchens, a self-styled “anti-theist”, chose as the subheading to his 2007 book ‘God is Not Great’ the vituperative slogan ‘How Religion Poisons Everything’. This was not merely a provocative statement designed to maximise publicity, it was a declaration that neatly encapsulated Hitchens’ attitude to religion. He believed that religion was a poisonous, destructive force that ought to be wiped from the face of the earth. He was not alone.
Popular though it may be amongst the disciples of Hitchens and Dawkins, the unbridled hostility of the new atheism fails to answer one troublesome question: If religion is such a damaging phenomenon and if the central tenets of religion are so absurd, how is it that so many people continue to embrace a belief in God? An uncomfortable truth for the “anti-theists” is that religion continues to inspire the loyalty and devotion of so many people around the world. Despite their best efforts, God simply is not going away. Hitchens once argued that “no thinking person” can believe in God, the reality is that many do. Contemporary atheists have done little to explain this perplexing contradiction.
A possible explanation for the continued prevalence of religion lies in its understanding of the human condition. Unlike the secular world, religion has long appreciated that we are innately frail beings, often faced with troubling moral dilemmas and gripped by fear and uncertainty. Unlike the secular world, religion has unashamedly sought to address this frailty and offers answers to some of mankind’s most profound questions, as well as offering hope and inspiration to people in their darkest hours. For many, the religious narrative is more compelling and more comforting that the seemingly bleak and uncertain worldview of the atheist.
One such example is the attitude of religion to death. The three Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism assure the believer that if they live good lives in accordance with the moral pronouncements of that faith, and place their trust in God, death will herald the beginning of an eternity in paradise. The genius of this narrative lies in its ability to resolve two challenging questions at once: what happens to us after death and why should we lead morally upright lives. Our fate after death is intrinsically linked to our conduct in life. If our lives are morally commendable, in accordance with the teachings of the faith, we are rewarded with paradise. The chilling notion that there is nothing after death is assuaged and the faithful are inspired to lead good lives safe in the knowledge that they will benefit in the afterlife. This serves to comfort many for whom the thought of there being no existence after death is unpalatable. It also seeks to assure people that a good life is not lived in vain.
Another related example of religion understanding the fragilities of humanity lies in its prescription of moral standards to guide the conduct of the faithful. Religion can be guilty of a suffocating moral absolutism, but it understands that we are often in need of ethical guidance. The liberal may instinctively despise the dogmatic moral pronouncements of religion, but for many those pronouncements serve as a sound template for living good lives. Many seek to emulate the actions of religious figures and live in accordance with religious teaching. Even if people do not fully comply with such teachings, they may recognise them as moral standards to aspire to. As such, religion can offer much needed inspiration and direction in the face of the moral conundrums that life can throw at us.
Ridiculing the metaphysical claims of religion is easy. The real challenge for the contemporary atheist is to explain how, despite the apparent irrationality of religious belief, theism continues to be embraced so many. The new, more militant, atheism may seek to eliminate religion, but it will not do so whilst neglecting the frailties and uncertainties that afflict us all as human beings. Largely ignored by secular society, such afflictions are acknowledged and confronted by religion. From the promise of a glorious afterlife to the prescription of moral standards, religion purports to answer some of our most troubling questions and seeks to calm our most visceral fears. For all its flaws, religion demonstrates a greater understanding of the human condition than atheism. That is why it has been an integral feature of human existence for centuries. Many people need religion and the comfort it offers. Until the “anti-theists” can offer the same comfort, rather than just vitriol, their crusade against religion will not succeed.
BY: Thomas Raine