Certainly unreason can be tempered by the hard-won practices of civilisation, but civilisation will always be a precarious achievement. To believe that human beings can be much improved by rational argument is to assume that they are already reasonable, which is obviously false. The old doctrine of original sin contained a vital truth – there are impulses of irrational destructiveness in every one of us.
Lennon, having flirted with atheism for about nine months, from Christmas of 1970 to the fall of 1971, fell back into a supernaturalist web of syncretism of his own, flying the “wrong,” or westerly, way around the world and practicing astrology. Stephens says diplomatically that Lennon “remained intermittently susceptible to belief”—but in truth Lennon was entirely captive to whatever superstition had most recently tickled his fancy, or his wife’s. Imagine there’s no Heaven—but pay attention to the stars and throw the I Ching as necessary. The maker of the great atheist anthem was anything but an atheist.
That reminds me of another argument: that since nothing comes from nothing, as our experience confirms, existence itself, the universe itself, implies a Creator. Ah, so that’s where all the matter comes from. But it seems tautological—or at least, extremely limited. If all we can know about “God” is that he created the universe, then “God created the universe” is equivalent to “the creator of the universe created the universe.” And what else can we know? From the mere existence of a creator, nothing of what humans want from God necessarily follows: not benevolence, not an afterlife, not the foundation of an ethical system, not a special place in creation, not even the assurance that He is aware of our existence—still less the Burning Bush or the stroll on the sea.
It might sound odd to cite Alain de Botton as a critic of complacent self-regard, but this is central to his stated purpose. Attending to the religious roots of humanism can prod us out of seeing secular humanism as natural, the default position, and incite us to ponder our need for discipline, structure, community, and so on. At one point he commends the Christian perspective, that we are ‘at heart desperate, fragile, vulnerable, sinful creatures, a good deal less wise than we are knowledgeable, always on the verge of anxiety, tortured by our relationships, terrified of death — and most of all in need of God’. — Theo Hobson
We must speak up as atheists in order to take responsibility for whatever it is humans are responsible for — including violence in our streets and schools. We need to demonstrate that atheism is rooted in empathy as well as intellect. And although atheism is not a religion, we need community-based outreach programs so that our activists will be as recognizable to their neighbors as the clergy.
It is a positive blessing, not a negation of belief, to be free of what is known as the theodicy problem. Human “free will” is Western monotheism’s answer to the question of why God does not use his power to prevent the slaughter of innocents, and many people throughout history (some murdered as heretics) have not been able to let God off the hook in that fashion.
The atheist is free to concentrate on the fate of this world — whether that means visiting a friend in a hospital or advocating for tougher gun control laws — without trying to square things with an unseen overlord in the next. Atheists do not want to deny religious believers the comfort of their faith. We do want our fellow citizens to respect our deeply held conviction that the absence of an afterlife lends a greater, not a lesser, moral importance to our actions on earth.
It is a sad story, because, between the end of the Victorian age and the 1960s, it really looked as if there was a chance for Christianity, at least, to absorb, and accept, the fact that many people who had discarded the old ways of believing, yet saw the point of a liturgical year, punctuated by ritual observances; they also saw the point of old ceremonies accompanying birth, marriage and death. De Botton, in his attractive comments about Yom Kippur, regrets the fact that secularists do not have a time of year when they can all acknowledge the faults of the past year and try to patch up quarrels — but surely they do: it is the post-Dickensian observance of Christmas. Many who realise the extreme historical unlikelihood of Jesus having been to Bethlehem, let alone having been born there to the accompaniment of angel choirs, see the point of Scrooge’s conversion.
Such reluctant non-belief goes back a long way. Machiavelli thought religious ideas, however vacuous, were a useful way of terrorising the mob. Voltaire rejected the God of Christianity, but was anxious not to infect his servants with his own scepticism. Atheism was fine for the elite, but might breed dissent among the masses. The 18th-century Irish philosopher John Toland, who was rumoured to be the bastard son of a prostitute and a spoilt priest, clung to a “rational” religion himself, but thought the rabble should stick with their superstitions. There was one God for the rich and another for the poor. Edward Gibbon, one of the most notorious sceptics of all time, held that the religious doctrines he despised could still be socially useful. So does the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas today.
Diderot, a doyen of the French Enlightenment, wrote that the Christian gospel might have been a less gloomy affair if Jesus had fondled the breasts of the bridesmaids at Cana and caressed the buttocks of St John. Yet he, too, believed that religion was essential for social unity. Matthew Arnold feared the spread of godlessness among the Victorian working class. It could be countered, he thought, with a poeticised form of a Christianity in which he himself had long ceased to believe. The 19th-century French philosopher Auguste Comte, an out-and-out materialist, designed an ideal society complete with secular versions of God, priests, sacraments, prayer and feast days.
Buddha places emphasis on ethics, and on meditation. He stays away from grand metaphysical questions. If Buddha were alive today, he would have rejected both theism and atheism because they both have become ideologies.
Stephen Batchelor interviewed in The Times of India
The Most Rev. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, said that he hoped to “clarify terms and bring to the fore religious people’s self-definition – it is always dangerous to define for someone else who they really are.” Religion should be seen neither as a survival strategy – it often called upon people to behave in dangerous ways – nor as “an explanation of the funny things that happen in the world – a bad explanation that has been superseded,” he said. The new atheism, noted Archbishop Williams, “believes that religion should not exist, perhaps should not be allowed to exist, which makes it very different from other styles of atheism.