The complexity of disbelief

Simon Smart reviews Nick Spencer's Atheists - The Origin of the Species

Late 20th century rumours of the demise of religion have proven to be ill founded and religion remains an important feature of our social, political, and intellectual landscape. But as alarming as that may be for some sceptics, this also means that atheism has a renewed future as an uncomfortable and challenging dance partner for the faithful.Or so says Nick Spencer, in Atheists – The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014)—his guided tour of the history of non-belief in the West.

Atheism has its own creation myth, writes Spencer, and it goes like this: non-belief is the love child of reason and science—a human advance arising from scientific and philosophical progress in Europe, particularly movements like the Copernican revolution in the 16th Century, the scientific revolution in the 17th and the Darwinian in the 19th. In an article for Politico Magazine Spencer describes this myth: “Gradually, wonderfully, the human race matured, with every confident scientific step forward pushing our infantile, crumbling ideas of the divine closer to oblivion.” This myth is “true enough to be believable even if it’s not true enough to be true,” he writes.

Why does any of this matter? Because these days the foundation myth of atheism is widely accepted in the West, and has implications. Atheism, so the story goes, is rational, while religion is embarrassingly irrational; atheism represents clear thinking human progress, while religion is regressive, primitive superstition. But Spencer is able to establish that the major atheist thinkers throughout history have owed a lot more to religion than some would like to admit, and that atheism has most often been a reaction against the abuse of theologically legitimised power.

Spencer ‘s thesis is that to truly understand the history of atheism you need to see it as a series of disagreements about authority. Late 17th century Britain, for example, possessed the ingredients for sustained and systematic atheism, but largely due to a political and intellectual environment that was relatively accommodating, generous and tolerant, full-blown atheism did not emerge.

Meanwhile across the channel in France, even up to the mid-18th century, you could still be tortured or killed for religious crimes. Christian belief in France—tying together absolutism and ecclesiastical authority—formed the basis of despotic tyrannical political power that the sceptic could, and understandably did, react against. Consequently the atheism of France was of a much more vitriolic and uncompromising nature compared to that of Britain, Germany or the Dutch Republic, spawning the likes of Voltaire, Meslier, Didero, D’Holbach and Julian Offray de La Mettrie, all formidable enemies of God.

In America, it was the adoption of a constitution that excluded any mention of God that Spencer believes was the strongest barrier to atheism. Christianity was not part of the Federal structure and thus could never be a coercive power such as it had been in Europe. “Associated with liberty, providence and the virtue necessary to sustain a republic, American Christianity was also denied official access to power.” This is why, in such a technologically advanced country, atheism remained on the margins for so long.

This Origin of the Species presents a roll call of significant sceptics and all the important and familiar names are there—Machiavelli, Hobbes, Bayle, Feuerbach, Marx, Freud, Russell, and plenty in between. Each is given their context, their key ideas and their influence. Importantly, something of their personal story is included where it is known, along with a sense of what they were reacting against. An astonishing number were children of devout parents, a phenomenon that serves as a reminder that belief and non-belief are never entirely limited to the realm of ideas but carry with them significant personal freight.

But perhaps the most challenging aspect of this work is the way it illuminates the inherently naïve optimism contained in New Atheism’s rendition of the ‘God is dead’ trope. While there has been no shortage of non-believers who viewed the demise of the divine as ushering in an era of untrammelled human progress, no less a figure than Frederick Nietzsche understood the great shadow that would be cast across Europe if, as he hoped, the rejection of Christianity came to fruition. Such a move would signal the ruin of a civilisation, and he wrote about, “ … the long dense succession of demolition, destruction, downfall, upheaval that now stands ahead.”

Something of a dark prophet, Nietzsche envisioned troubled times ahead—a prediction that the 20th century’s atheist regimes fulfilled with alarming efficiency. Nietzsche’s importance, writes Spencer, lies in his understanding that metaphysics and morals are inseparable. Nietzsche was under no illusion that you could hold on to Christian ethics—which he saw as degenerate slave mentality—while jettisoning the Christian faith. While there are growing numbers today who are ready to celebrate throwing off the shackles of religion, Nietzsche’s warnings to those who still have an affection for Christian ideas like free will and the equality of all humans are still worth hearing.

Spencer is clearly most sympathetic to an “ascetic atheism” that takes Nietzsche’s critique seriously such that the implications of there being no God are given proper consideration. On the question of the nature of the human being—a critical one today— he has little time for what he calls a naïve celebratory humanism. Spencer quotes philosopher John Gray who, despite being an atheist himself, criticizes humanistic atheism that, on the one hand gives a firm nod to natural selection, while at the same time somehow manages to smuggle in human significance, and dignity. But Gray says human uniqueness is a Judeo-Christian idea that modern atheists have clung to without justification. “The unique status of humans is hard to defend, or even understand, when it is cut off from any idea of transcendence,” writes Gray.

It is now obvious that the pronouncement of the death of God was premature, but so too was any thought that atheism would decline. Both are here to stay, so the believers and sceptics among us need to find good ways to understand each other, and to get past the crude caricaturing and petty dismissals that have plagued their interaction in recent years. Spencer’s intelligent and winsome contribution to that dialogue is thus timely and refreshing.

Simon Smart is a Director of the Centre for Public Christianity and co-author with Jane Caro, Antony Loewenstein, and Rachel Woodlock of ‘For God’s Sake – an atheist, a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim Debate Religion’.

This article orginally appeared at The Drum.

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