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Science v. Jihad: Charting the Rise of Atheism in the 21st Century

Publié le 1 décembre, 2009 | 3 commentaires

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“Those who believe absurdities will commit atrocities.” – Voltaire

Mark Cosgriff, Atheism , 2007
Certains droits réservés.

The predominant historical cause of Western atheism was, until the 21st century, the increase and development of scientific knowledge available to human observation. The discovery of electricity made Zeus’ ‘thunderbolts’ obsolete; they remain part of our consciousness only as a classical poetic metaphor. In ancient Greece as far back as the 5th c. BC, the question of injustice unaddressed spurred skeptics to doubt the supremacy of the gods over human life. One specific example was Diagoras of Melos; he was reported to have impiously chopped up a statue of Herakles for firewood, and condemned for revealing the Eleusinian mysteries (which, he noticed, drew the ire of men but seemed not to perturb the ‘gods’ whose existence he denied). For these things, and his atheistic statements, he was charged with blasphemy and, according to Diodoros, forced to flee Athens; but despite the large bounty on his head, he escaped to Corinth, where he died. He was a disciple of Democritus, founder of the Atomists, who believed that the material world had no need of supernatural forces to keep it in place. Over two millennia later, Cambridge physicist Steven Hawking’s revelations in quantum physics, space-time and the event-horizon of ‘black holes’ in his now famous book, A Brief History of Time, continued the scientific tradition of offering answers to questions about the universe by observing data from the knowable world around us. But in the last decade, some of the most religious and unscientific people on the planet are the reason for atheism’s growing dominance over Western intellectual and scientific thinking.

 lunar guardian
Mark Cosgriff, lunar guardian, 2009
Certains droits réservés.

From these thousands of years ago until very recently, atheism has been regarded as, if not an outright crime, a degenerate belief, and the term ‘atheos’ was reserved for those who, like Socrates, were thought to corrupt morality with their free-thinking impiety. Coined for English from the French atheisme in the late 16th century, “atheist” was not a label even philosophes like Diderot, Voltaire and Rousseau, or their English counterparts like Mill, Jefferson or Paine, wanted to be associated with, calling themselves ‘deists’, which allows for a ‘god’ but one which does not intervene in human affairs or the laws of nature. In the 20th century, Albert Einstein, who sometimes infelicitously used the word ‘God’ as a metaphor for the unknown[i], completely disassociated himself with God in the Judeo-Christian sense, to tremendous criticism from Jews and Christians who considered atheism “un-American”:[ii] « I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one. You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. »[iii] This idea that atheism was a petulant reaction to an unhealthy religious upbringing – and perhaps the neuroses this might spawn – was one reason atheism was implied, but not overtly asserted, by intellectuals of the time. Again, in the 20th century atheism was primary associated with communism, which to post-WWII society in the West was unpatriotic and grounds for the most extreme forms of censure and legal persecution.

What is it which now leads scientists and political revolutionaries – who since the Age of Enlightenment have been the only vanguard of self-professed, (if passively practiced) atheism in European history – to find themselves part of an ever-advancing movement to assert atheism as a necessary corollary to rational thinking?* In part, it is of course the tremendous discoveries made by science in the last 10 years, from mapping the human genome to aspects of deep space revealed by transmissions from the Hubble telescope. But there is another factor even more powerful, that has brought together great minds from not only the scientific community, but also the intellectual, cultural and political spheres of the Western world as well: the growing concern that it is religion itself which threatens the future of human existence on planet Earth; in the 21st century, ‘the crusading spirit of the professional atheist’ is precisely what is beginning to characterize the rational mind in the West, provoked to its limits of tolerance by the events of 11 September, 2001.

Atheism, Atheism , 2009
Certains droits réservés.

In his book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, Sam Harris, a Stanford philosophy graduate and founder of The Reason Project, outlines what he sees as world-threatening dangers of religious faith in an age of advanced technology and instant communication. The problem is that religion demands the suspension of reason, faith in patently untrue things, and a willingness to assert as fact what can not be known. Imagining the last day of the life of a suicide bomber, Harris shows how religious faith triumphs over the interests of our common humanity. Taking heinous examples of religiously inspired violence throughout Judeo-Christian-Islamic history, (of which there are no shortage,) Harris makes an unassailable case for condemning religion itself as the root cause of so many of the irrational horrors perpetrated by humankind; but in large part the book constitutes a strong indictment of Islam as a religion that glorifies and demands anti-human behavior, such as suicide bombing as ‘martyrdom’ and the murder of non-Muslim people (bin Laden’s ‘jihad’). In a later book, he extends his alarm to Evangelical Christianity:

“It is, therefore, not an exaggeration to say that if the city of New York were suddenly replaced by a ball of fire, some significant percentage of the American population would see a silver lining in the subsequent mushroom cloud, as it would suggest to them that the best thing that is ever going to happen was about to happen: the return of Christ. It should be blindingly obvious that beliefs of this sort will do little to help us create a durable future for ourselves, socially, economically, environmentally or geopolitically…The fact that nearly half the population [of the U.S.] believes [that the end of the world would be glorious] purely on the basis of religious dogma, should be considered a moral and intellectual emergency.”[iv]

Christopher Hitchens, journalist, literary critic, champion of free enquiry and writer of God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, turns his attention to the generally anti-humanist aspects of faith and the specific atrocities accepted by the major books of monotheism, the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, and the Koran. He cites their justifications for such abhorrent practices as genital mutilation and asks if, but for religion, anyone would otherwise condone them. He denounces our complacency in allowing laws which defend religious beliefs, which he sees as clearly perverse and indefensible. “Doubt, skepticism, and outright unbelief have always taken the same essential form as they do today. There were always observations on the natural order which took notice of the absence or needlessness of a prime mover. There were always shrewd comments on the way in which religion reflected human wishes or human designs. It was never that difficult to see that religion was a cause of hatred and conflict, and that its maintenance depended on ignorance and superstition.”[v] What is more, Hitchens, a former ‘Trotskyist’ and leader of the left, became a vocal and public supporter of the Bush administration’s war on Iraq, arguing that Western values such as freedom and democracy were threatened by unreasonable levels of religious tolerance, while Islamic militants with no intention of reciprocating that tolerance continued to kidnap and behead Westerners and wreak havoc not only on foreigners but on any of their own people who would not conform to fundamentalist views.

 Atheism Week at ANU
Fiona Moore, Atheism Week at ANU,
2009. Certains droits réservés.

But his main argument focuses directly on the connection between deadly force and religion: “The nineteen suicide murderers of New York and Washington and Pennsylvania were beyond any doubt the most sincere believers on those planes. Perhaps we can hear a little less about how ‘people of faith’ possess moral advantages that others can only envy.”[vi]

Evolutionary biologist Dr Richard Dawkins, (author of, The Selfish Gene), Darwinist extraordinaire and secular humanist in extremis, has stated in the very title of his latest book that belief God is a nothing more than a delusion. He believes that only by promoting atheism, and especially by prohibiting children to be indoctrinated into religious faith, can the future of science and humankind progress. He is also revolted by the social and political aspects which deform the societies of the religious, but above all Dawkins deplores the ‘smallness’ of dogma when the vast challenges of life on earth, and the discoveries of space are all before us. Science and technology have given us images from the Hubble telescope which have redefined our knowledge of the edges of the universe, illuminated the nature of dark matter, showed us evidence of how galaxies and planets like ours evolved. The mapping of the human genome has given us overwhelming evidence for the evolution of species and has made his bête noir, ‘intelligent design’ look as ridiculous as crude Biblical creationism.

But science aside, Dawkins deplores religion for its justification of extreme violence:

“Our Western politicians avoid mentioning the R-word (religion) and instead characterize their battle as a war against ‘terror’, as though terror were a kind of spirit or force, with a will and mind of its own. Or they characterize terrorists as motivated by pure ‘evil’. But they are not motivated by evil…they are motivated, like the Christian murderers of abortion doctors, by what they perceive to be righteousness, faithfully pursuing what their religion tells them…they perceive their acts to be good, not because of some warped personal idiosyncrasy, and not because they have been possessed by Satan, but because they have been brought up, from the cradle, to have total and unquestioning faith.”[vii]

One thing which is particularly repellent to Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins is the idea that religion cannot be criticized simply because it is a matter of individual belief, that there is a sacrosanct quality to the vicissitudes of irrational beliefs when they are part of ‘faith’, and that this is precisely what makes religion incompatible with rational decision-making and scientific discourse.

“The danger of religious faith is that it allows otherwise normal human beings to reap the fruits of madness and consider them holy. Because each new generation of children is taught that religious propositions need not be justified in the way that all others must, civilization is still besieged by the armies of the preposterous. We are, even now, killing ourselves over ancient literature. Who would have thought something so tragically absurd could be possible?”[viii]

Their respective theories about atheism as an imperative philosophy for the 21st century, their appeal to humanity for a change in the zeitgeist, stem directly from what they see as the threat, posed by all religions but presently being most violently acted upon by Islam, to overpower our Western way of life, by demanding more and more ‘rights’ for those who would deny rights of any kind to non-Muslims. Whereas in the United States since the time of Ronald Reagan, there had been a somewhat powerful Evangelical Christian contingency that effectively lobbied Republicans to create a stifling “religious right”, who were hoping to turn the clock back on women’s rights and establish the U.S. as a “christian nation”, and who went on during the Bush administration to attempt to end the teaching of evolution in schools in favor of ‘intelligent design’, now, argue Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Daniel Dennett, and many others, fundamentalist religion is posing a constant and imminent threat to our very lives. In fact, Dawkins has devoted an entire new book to the refutation of Creationism, called The Greatest Show on Earth: the Evidence for Evolution, currently the #1 best seller in the English-speaking world.[ix]

Shawn McClung, Jihad , 2009
Certains droits réservés.

In the Age of Obama, then, atheism is being promoted by intellectuals as not simply a final departure from the cultural remnants of belief in God or a mere rejection of traditional religion, but as a prerequisite for being part of the enlightened community of science, intellectual and cultural activity, and a barometer for rational thought and mental soundness in general. To be religious, they say – to hold any religious beliefs whatever – is to ally one’s self with that element in today’s world that would seek to eliminate the freedom of science to answer the questions posed by the human mind about our environment. It is to reject the notion of universal human rights, to censure free thought, the right to privacy, and individual autonomy, and to tolerate and even condone the very forces which are most ruthlessly lethal to our global civilization.

* There is one other notable category of self-proclaimed atheists that doesn’t get nearly enough credit for their ground-breaking faith busting: comedians. The late George Carlin was a relentless critic of religion, as were Lenny Bruce, Bill Hicks, and today, Eddie Izzard, Ricky Gervais, Janeane Garafolo, Sarah Silverman, Lewis Black and many, many others.

(Niki Lambros also writes The Poliskeptic, a weekly blog on politics and society: http://www.lepanoptique.net/category/formats/blogues/nikilambros/)


[i] Dawkins, Richard, The God Delusion, Bantam Press: UK; 2006, pp. 35-37.

[ii] When George H.W. Bush was campaigning for the presidency in Chicago, Illinois, August 27, 1987…Robert I. Sherman, a reporter for the American Atheist news journal, asked whether he would “recognize the equal citizenship and patriotism of Americans who are atheists.” Bush replied, “No, I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.” (http://www.positiveatheism.org/writ/ghwbush.htm)

[iii] Albert Einstein in a letter to M. Berkowitz, 25 October 1950.

[iv] Harris, Sam, Letter to a Christian Nation, Knopf Doubleday, US; 2006.

[v] Hitchens, God is Not Great Great; How Religion Poisons Everything, Warner Books, USA; 2007, p. 255.

[vi] ibid., p. 32.

[vii] Dawkins, Richard, The God Delusion, p. 342.

[viii] Harris, Sam, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, WW Norton & Co. NY, USA; 2004.

[ix] http://richarddawkins.net/thegreatestshowonearth

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3 Responses to “Science v. Jihad: Charting the Rise of Atheism in the 21st Century”

  1. Paddy Hodgkinson
    décembre 1st, 2009 @ 12:09

    An interesting read mon chere and ,like you I am agnostic, the arguments for science over religion have their due, however if it wasn’t for the unknown(God) where would art be in all it’s forms?
    Is it enough to suppose magic in monothestic and panthestic forms, ‘the wonder of it all’, just be reduced to maths.Would this lead to a dull sort of existence for artists. Just a few thoughts amigo. I’ll need more time to dig into this.
    xxx P

  2. Allison Kirk
    décembre 2nd, 2009 @ 05:53

    Who’s the bigger a-hole, God or man? I think that man is evil even without God or faith. Religion is a scapegoat, right? Man is inherently evil, inadequate and self-loathing. It’s this that makes him crave the existence of something beyond his control. I mean, shouldn’t we look beyond the fact that people have been raised from the cradle to blindly believe? It is also a human tendency to do so and that means something about humans, namely we are weak and pathetic. Scientists and atheists, otoh, battle fundamentalists also in order to alleviate human feelings of inadequacy. Humans are egoists. Nobody really cares about the state of the world and certainly not about our fellow man, humans just need a struggle in order to feel their « Ego », the subjective « I ». I know that’s the case for me, an ‘atheist’, narcissist, and a blind follower of my ‘humans are inherently evil’ belief. And I think of it as a theory, not a belief! So for me science and God are the same, both reflections of egoism.

  3. Nicolas
    janvier 18th, 2010 @ 12:24

    You forgot the great comedian Pat Condell.