Far from heralding a new dawn of reason, today’s New Atheists and science fanatics are at the vanguard of the counter-Enlightenment.
This article is adpated from one published on my Boggart Blog site in 2012 (now online as The Original Boggart Blog), the revival was prompted by seeing Donald Trump described as ‘the anti — enlightenment man’. This seems unfair as it is not Trump but the Washington ‘Deep State’, having closed ranks against the new president, that is condemning the world to a continuance of policies that failed in the Obama era.
I don’t know if many of you remember London’s Atheist Bus a few years ago. It toured around the British capital for a while and on its side an advert read: ‘There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’
At the same time, while promoting a new book titled ‘Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense’. Leading humanist Francis Spufford asked the interesting question: what is the most objectionable word in that bus-side slogan? There was controversy in the humanist world about the ‘probably’ — they wanted certainty that there was no superior being of any kind. Alas, certanties are for religion and faith, science (true science that is) and humanism permit the questioning of everything.
Spufford’s main objection was to the word ‘enjoy’ — ‘stop worrying and enjoy your life’. The point that Spufford made was that the underlying implication of this statement is that enjoyment is a natural state of affairs that’s only being disturbed by people being worried by preachers and believers — a point of view he briskly dismisses as complete bollocks. ‘Enjoy’ doesn’t really connect with a whole vast range of problems of human experience. That statement seems to be pitched to an idealised consumer. What would it mean to someone experiencing loss, bereavement, illness, death, indeed all the vicissitudes of life? It leaves people with no sense of any hope or consolation.
In spite of it’s appeal to the illogical prejudices of militant atheists, or perhaps because of them, Atheist Bus was a great success. It all started when journalist Ariane Sherine posted a blog in the Guardian’s Comment Is Free website, a reaction to evangelical Christian propaganda that claimed all non-believers were going to hell it raised £144,000 in a fortnight and soon went global. The Atheist Bus quickly became a campaign website in every country in the world, complete with a whole host of celebrity endorsements.
What should be interesting about this however is the way it demonstrates the Sheeple — like tendencies of those who claim they ‘believe in science’ and have logic and reason on their side: the religious propagandist with the sandwich board saying “repent, the end is nigh” has been with us all my life and probably longer and was frequently the subject of cartoons and jokes. Why then has it suddenly become necessary for the opposing side in the religious debate to start parading high tech sandwich boards saying, “no need to repent, the end isn’t nigh.” And why has a need emerged to yell back at the religious ranter whom we previously ignored. Furthermore, why did the Atheist Bus appeal to such bad tempered and noisy characters as we saw in so many internet discussion threads attacking those who profess faith in the divine, or even those who shrug and say ‘well it’s their right to believe what suits them so long as they don’t try to impose it on anyone else?
Arguing our case is what free speech is all about. But it ceases to be free speech when somebody says, this is what I believe and if you say I’m wrong that’s hate speech which is a crime.
Obviously, the new left’s irrational hatred of religion grew out of of the wave of books that promoted the ‘New Atheism’, written by the so called ‘four horsemen’ of the new enlightenment — Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris — who all, at around the same time,published books which poured scorn and ridicule on anybody who professed to religious faith. But we should also try to look at what is behind all this, and that means looking further back, eventually to the first half of the twentieth and the late nineteenth centuries.
Historian Eric Hobsbawm, a Marxist who died in 2012 at the age of 95 summed it up in his late, and rather despondent reflections on the social history of the twentieth century. In his book ‘The Age of Extremes’, published in 1994, he pointed to the “apparent failure of all programmes old and new for managing or improving the affairs of the human race”. Hobsbawm, a lifelong socialist himself, commented on the abject failure of communism, the descent into authoritarianism of all socialist movements, the unravelling of social democracy and liberalism into a refuge for emotionally needy, woolly — brained, all-join-hands-and-sing-Kumbaya, breast beaters who just want to be seen to be good and caring citizens of the world.
‘The Age of Extremes’ also analyzes the way in which the values of humanism and the few decades known as The Age Of Enlightenment had been discredited by the politcal events of the the twentieth century, the global wars, Fascism, the transformation of communist ideology into brutal tyranny by Lenin and Stalin in Russia, Mao Tse Tung in China and many other lesser figures. It had started to appear, Hobsbawn opined, that following 200 years of human beings believing that only intervention by a meritocratic elite, academics and technocrats could make the world a better place, by the turn of the millennium historical change was taking place not so much without any elitist hand guiding it, as in spite of the elitist hands desperately trying to keep it on their chosen course. Change had become objectified, and seen as an end in itself.Hope and change was the slogan of a successful campign that saw the election of a spectacularly unsuccessful president. Failure was not surprising, what change was never specified and hope is what makes drowning men clutch at straws.
The enlightenment era humanist notion of an autonomous agent is being replaced by the something most closely resembling the social system of the Roman Empire, paternalistic liberalism. Members of the masses are cast as fragile subjects, people to whom things happen rather than strong, well informed individuals capable of directing their own course in life. This is a very significant reversal in the whole outlook of humanity compared with previous centuries during which the world had seen the grip of the Catholic Church on European civilisation weakened, a revival of the arts and sciences in The Renaissance, the emancipation of the working classes and the first and second Industrial Revolutions.
In the face of all that history, The Atheist Bus and its associated website were suggesting the only change that had taken place was a reversal, that instead of those who did not believe in God being marginalised because they were not part of the religion that bound their community, it was in fact those who believe in God who were the outsiders, condemned to a life of misery and fear.
The interesting point The Atheist Bus website made by way of justifying its slogan was the claim “religious advertising works best on vulnerable people, using fear to bully them into accepting religion through threats of eternal damnation if they do not accept Jesus as their saviour / Islam is the one true faith / Jews a God’s chosen people.” Thus we see, the campaign is based on an sense of loss of personal sovereignty and tries to exploit the notion of human vulnerability — the idea that frightened, fragile, pathetic people crave the false sense of security belief in a supernatural protector can bestow. Actually I have never met a person of any faith who truly believes that, in return for a prayer or two, their god will read out and catch the bullet that is heading for a vital organ.
“Find out more about atheism and a positive and liberating alternative to religion”, the Atheist Bus website continued. But, of course, atheism can’t be a positive alternative to religion because it’s simply a rejection of God; a nihilistic knee jerk, a negative. Atheism cannot be a liberating alternative to religion because it offers no alternative. Humanism was never seen as an alternative to faith by the humanist and existentialist thinkers of the nineteenth century. For Marx and Darwin (actually an agnostic rather than an atheist), humanism was always secondary to wider intellectual and political projects.
As Brian says to the multitude in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, “You don’t need anyone to tell you what to think, think for yourselves.” With over seven billion people now living on the planet it is of course inevitable that some, in trying to make sense of our existence, would find belief in a higher being works best for them.
For Marx, conscious activity is the main human species character; conscious experience is the foundation of knowledge and the concept of the human self is of one who engages with society, forms a personal understanding of the world and develops ideas for changing the world for the better in order to transform humanity. It is the dialectic between subject and object through which society and humanity progresses. That has been lost in recent decades, and that’s what the apparent anti — enlightenment, the resurgence of nationalism, the rejection of globalism, collectivism and socialism is a reaction to.
Having set up the concept of a liberated humanity Marx, in his Communist Manifesto, then goes on to give us a humanist god, the state, to replace the gods of Christianity, Islam, Judaeism, Hinduism, Paganism and Animism. And because Marx and his followers throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were academics and in common lacked understanding of human nature (which of course they believed could and should be changed through the intervention of academics who seem to think they are the humanist equivalent of The Watchers in The book Of Enoch)the result was a disconnect between the intellectuals and the masses.
The irony of this anti-religious focus in the academic and media world is that the roots of the contemporary counter-Enlightenment are not earthed in religion, but in the philosophies of secular humanism itself. This is particularly notable with direction of the ‘pop’ science, (especially evolutionary science,) which are associated with Richard Dawkins and others in the anti-god squad. The fanatical desire to denounce religion and faith is not science but scientism, the point where science is extended beyond its legitimate area of serious enquiry to encroach on the roles of philosophy and politics in society.
Thus, I would argue, it is not Donald Trump who is the anti — enlightenment president, in fact Barack Obama would have been a more appropriate candidate for the sobriquet, for all his rhetoric about diversity he was determined to impose the dogma of militant atheism on all of us, speaking of such authoritarian ideas as making climate change scepticism a criminal offence and supporting efforts to make certain vaccines mandatory.