new, milder "Atheism 3.0" is on the market, teaching a
more forgiving attitude towards faith. Bruce Sheiman, author of
An Atheist Defends Religion, maintains that humanity is better
off with it than without it. Although a recent Religion News
Service classifies me and my book The Secular Conscience among
the 3.0s, I have to say that I'm not all that happy with the
not mention that this
"truth-must-lie-somewhere-in-between" narrative trips
all too easily off of journalistic fingers. Should we agree that
God is half dead? Nor will I dwell on the implicit assumption
that Atheisms 1.0 and 2.0 have passed into planned obsolescence
and that 3.0 constitutes some kind of scheduled improvement on
them both. I'll be damned if I can imagine an upgrade to Hume or
Baron d'Holbach, and Hitchens is no slouch either.
me, the interesting thought is not so much that God does not
exist, it is that he need not exist. The pertinent question is
not whether we are we better off with or without religion, but
whether religion matters quite as much as either answer would
have us suppose. To take this stance is neither to correct
atheism nor to reject religion. It is to change the subject to
Hitchens in the religion aisle
hang this on something concrete: In what section of the
bookstore do atheism books belong? You may have noticed the
appearance of a new section called Atheism at many booksellers
in recent years. Curiously, at least in the case of the Borders
Books in Manhattan where I went to get Hitchens' The Portable
Atheist, this section comprised a few shelves of books located
in the Religion aisle. But, as the saying goes, isn't atheism a
religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby?
case for putting atheism in the religion aisle is, I suppose,
that it represents a subset of views on religion; namely, the
subset of views that say no to it. Undeniably, atheism is what
logicians call a negation: it is not the case that God exists.
But logical form alone is not enough to tell us whether a claim
is merely critical or negative in any pejorative sense.
Consider: It is not the case that you have anything to fear.
Atheist assertions take place within the context of cultural
conversations. Whether a contribution to a conversation is
merely negative depends on what the conversation is about.
directing the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, Colonel
Washington Roebling was forced to make the most difficult
decision of his career. For several years he and his crew had
been digging down towards the bedrock under the East River in
order to the lay the foundation for the second of the bridge's
towers, and the work was becoming terribly difficult and
dangerous. Some observers insisted that unless the excavation
continued until reaching bedrock, the tower would be unstable
and liable to collapse. Roebling disagreed, and argued that the
foundation could be laid safely in the compact sand and gravel
above. Roebling's view was critical of an opposing view, and in
that sense negative. Yet nevertheless it was in the service of a
project that was itself constructive: building a great bridge
(it turns out he was right about the foundation).
we should ask, what is the proper context of the current
conversation about atheism and religion? What is the larger
cultural project within which it should be seen? As Charles
Taylor has observed, ours is a secular age, an age in which
belief is no longer axiomatic but optional. We educated peoples
of the rich, industrialized democracies inhabit a disenchanted
universe, a world unperturbed by occult powers. It doesn't get
to cheat and bring things about by magic, but must resort to
some natural, causal mechanism. The remaining anti-secular,
anti-naturalistic messages of some contemporary Christians,
whether from Saddleback or Vatican City, are not the dictates of
a triumphant force but the cries of an animal grown more
desperate because it is cornered. After five centuries of
surrendering to non-religious institutions the dominion over
cosmology, biology, medicine, education, entertainment, the
arts, and civil society, they are desperate to retain some
sliver of continued relevance.
to this secular conversation, it is the supernatural theists who
occupy the subset of naysayers--evolution can't account for
living things, physics doesn't explain why the universe exists
at all, human kindness and fairness will collapse without
transcendent reinforcement, and all the rest. Here it is the
believers who are the skeptics, doubters about the foundations
of modernity, and it is the atheists who are attempting to rebut
their criticisms and shore up the construction project.
"Atheism 3.0" label may be motivated by a desire for
fresh intellectual options, but it confines secular critiques to
a conversational agenda set by religion (with a peculiarly
Western conception of religion at that).
my book I don't go after God. Why go after God when you can come
before him? I argue that the free individual conscience comes
first, before God, before society. Conscience cannot be found in
duty to God, for it is conscience that must judge where one's
duty lies. The commitment to the free conscience, and to the
open society that makes space for it--this is secularism.
is neither atheist nor theist, neither religious nor
anti-religious. It's orthogonal to God. Rather than dividing up
the world's citizens on the basis of putative religious
affiliation, it asks, What do they really care about? How do
they actually go about making up their minds about how to live?
And wherever education and affluence are on the rise, it finds
that traditional religions are increasingly irrelevant to the
are big stories. And, if I may say so, we would do well to be
talking about them.
the secularists were the ones running the bookstore, you might
find the religious titles in the philosophy or science aisles,
instead of the other way around.
Dacey is former representative to the United
Nations for the Center for Inquiry and the
author of "The Secular Conscience: Why
Belief Belongs in Public Life