Will Richard Dawkins Lead Atheism to New Heights?

As further evidence that atheists are as diverse as their faithful counterpart, Alain De Botton has penned a controversial new book called Religion for Atheists. And not surprising, he’s gotten no small amount of push- back from the atheist community for his work.

He’s hardly the first to write a book examining the value of religion for an atheist perspective, but his is the most recent. Bruce Sheiman wrote a book in 2009 called An Atheist Defends Religion: Why Humanity is Better Off with Religion Than Without It. I’m sure you can imagine the subject matter didn’t thrill all of his fellow nonbelievers. Botton’s book goes a step further, however. Rather than just looking at the merits of organized religion from arm’s-length, he proposes actual practices that atheists could employ in daily life that reflect religious practice, only without God as the focus.

Botton suggests that there is basic wisdom for humanity contained in many religious teachings. He says that, simply because they are tied in a particular faith to belief in a higher power doesn’t mean they should be disregarded on the whole. He also sees value in some of the ritual practices employed by religion, some of which scientific research have shown have some physical or emotional benefit, such as silent meditation, prayer and corporate music.

On the other side of the atheist spectrum is the recently held “Reason Rally,” which drew 20,000 participants to an event in Washington D.C. Billed as “The largest gathering of the secular movement in world history,” the event had some parallels to a religious revival, with cheering fans, fervent speakers such as Richard Dawkins, and music.

No potlucks though. Sorry protestants.

But although it was touted as a gathering to celebrate “secular values,” some reporters described the event more as an anti-religion rally, rather than a celebration of what those present stood for.

I find this interesting on a couple of levels. First, the difference between the message of Dawkins’ event and Botton’s book points to the fact that no two atheists are alike. They have different philosophical views about the universe and humanity and. it turns out, even about organized religion. Sounds a lot like Christianity, doesn’t it? Both atheism and Christianity have their ardent “fundamentalist” groups, while others fall into a more moderate part of the spectrum, not necessarily averse to all that religion stands for, but also not compelled by the idea of God’s existence.

It’s also fascinating to me to consider the parallels between the anti-religious movement (symbolized by the Reason Rally and Richard Dawkins) and the Protestant Reformation (the brainchild of Martin Luther). I’m sure many believed Luther was fomenting little more than an anti-Catholic resistance at the time, though what has resulted looks in many ways like the very thing it opposed.

Don’t believe me? Ask evangelical Christian leaders about their willingness to support Rick Santorum, a Catholic, for president. Many evangelical Christians don’t even realize Santorum isn’t a fellow evangelical, but when told, polls show it makes little difference in their support for him.

The point is that we’re witnessing something in the secular community that is akin to what we saw in the Reformation. Secularists are hardly unified in their opinions about religion, and there’s a dynamic within the movement that tends to toss out everything “religious,” defining itself mroe by what it isn’t rather than by what it wants to be.

On the other hand, there’s the contingency represented by the likes of Botton that suggests the movement that started out in opposition to religious organizations might actually end up looking more like the institutions it opposed as time goes on.

More than a sea change in the course of history, it appears the recent atheist movement(s) points to the rather cyclical nature of human behavior. Movements emerge, and as they grow, they find there’s value in adding some structure to the chaos. Over time, the structure becomes institutionalized, which in turn tends to ossify and outlast its worth in many ways. Then a new movement emerges to help address the needs of the culture that the dying institutions no longer can accommodate.

We’re seeing some of this final step taking place in protestant Christianity today. The so-called “emergent” movement catalyzed around an agreement that our old institutions and religious mindsets had, in some ways, outstayed their welcome. However, it wasn’t long before the fledgling movement became a house divided, with the likes of Mark Driscoll opting to try to infuse the old church with new life, while others believe it’s better to let “the dead bury the dead,” to quote Jesus.

Each such movement has its Martin Luther (or more than one), and as the movements gain momentum, differing agendas emerge that cause the groups to splinter and settle into cliques of common interest. The cliques institutionalize over time, and then the cycle starts over again.

As the old saying goes, the more things change…


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