Has militant atheism become a religion?

Can the gap between the religious and the non-religious be bridged, when the debate itself is so attention-getting?

Published March 25, 2013 1:00AM (EDT)

 Christopher Hitchens                       (AP/Chad Rachman)
Christopher Hitchens (AP/Chad Rachman)

Excerpted from "The Bonobo and the Atheist"

It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.
— Jonathan Swift

One quiet Sunday morning, I stroll down the driveway of my home in Stone Mountain, Georgia, to pick up the newspaper. As I arrive at the bottom—we live on a hill—a Cadillac drives up the street and stops right before me. A big man in a suit steps out, sticking out his hand. A firm handshake follows, during which I hear him proclaim in a booming, almost happy voice, “I’m looking for lost souls!” Apart from perhaps being overly trusting, I am rather slow and had no idea what he was talking about. I turned around to look behind me, thinking that perhaps he had lost his dog, then corrected myself and mumbled something like, “I’m not very religious.”

This was of course a lie, because I am not religious at all. The man, a pastor, was taken aback, probably more by my accent than by my answer. He must have realized that converting a European to his brand of religion was going to be a challenge, so he walked back to his car, but not without handing me a business card in case I’d change my mind. A day that had begun so promisingly now left me feeling like I might go straight to hell.

I was raised Catholic. Not just a little bit Catholic, like my wife, Catherine. When she was young, many Catholics in France already barely went to church, except for the big three: baptism, marriage, and funeral. And only the middle one was by choice. By contrast, in the southern Netherlands—known as “below the rivers”—Catholicism was important during my youth. It defined us, setting us apart from the above-the-rivers Protestants. Every Sunday morning, we went to church in our best clothes, we received catechism at school, we sang, prayed, and confessed, and a vicar or bishop was present at every official occasion to dispense holy water (which we children happily imitated at home with a toilet brush). We were Catholic through and through.

But I am not anymore. In my interactions with religious and nonreligious people alike, I now draw a sharp line, based not on what exactly they believe but on their level of dogmatism. I consider dogmatism a far greater threat than religion per se. I am particularly curious why anyone would drop religion while retaining the blinkers sometimes associated with it. Why are the “neo-atheists” of today so obsessed with God’s nonexistence that they go on media rampages, wear T-shirts proclaiming their absence of belief, or call for a militant atheism? What does atheism have to offer that’s worth fighting for?

As one philosopher put it, being a militant atheist is like “sleeping furiously.”

Losing My Religion

I was too restless as a boy to sit through an entire mass. It was akin to aversion training. I looked at it like a puppet show with a totally predictable story line. The only aspect I really liked was the music. I still love masses, passions, requiems, and cantatas and don’t really understand why Johann Sebastian Bach ever wrote his secular cantatas, which are so obviously inferior. But other than developing an appreciation of the majestic church music of Bach, Mozart, Haydn and others, for which I remain eternally grateful, I never felt any attraction to religion and never talked to God or felt a special relationship. After I left home for the university, at the age of seventeen, I quickly lost any remnant of religiosity. No more church for me. It was hardly a conscious decision, certainly not one I recall agonizing over. I was surrounded by other ex-Catholics, but we rarely addressed religious topics except to make fun of popes, priests, processions, and the like. It was only when I moved to a northern city that I noticed the tortuous relationship some people develop with religion.

Much of postwar Dutch literature is written by ex-Protestants bitter about their severe upbringing. “Whatever is not commanded is forbidden” was the rule of the Reformed Church. Its insistence on frugality, black dress code, continuous fight against temptations of the flesh, frequent scripture readings at the family table, and its punitive God—all contributed greatly to Dutch literature. I have tried to read these books, but have never gotten very far: too depressing! The church community kept a close eye on everyone and was quick to accuse. I have heard shocking real-life accounts of weddings at which the bride and groom left in tears after a sermon about the punishment awaiting sinners. Even at funerals, fire and brimstone might be directed at the deceased in his grave so that his widow and everybody else knew exactly where he’d be going. Uplifting stuff.

In contrast, if the local priest visited our home, he could count on a cigar and a glass of jenever (a sort of gin)—everyone knew that the clergy enjoyed the good life. Religion did come with restrictions, especially reproductive ones (contraception being wrong), but hell was mentioned far less than heaven. Southerners pride themselves on their bon vivant attitude to life, claiming that there’s nothing wrong with a bit of enjoyment. From the northern perspective, we must have looked positively immoral, with beer, sex, dancing, and good food being part of life. This explains a story I heard once from an Indian Hindu who married a Dutch Calvinist woman from the north. Although the woman’s parents didn’t have the faintest idea what a Hindu was, they were relieved that their new son-in-law was at least not Catholic. For them, belief in multiple deities was secondary to the heretic and sinful ways of their next-door religion.

The southern attitude is recognizable in Pieter Brueghel’s and Bosch’s paintings, some of which bring to mind Carnival, the beginning of Lent. Carnival is big in Den Bosch, when the city is known as Oeteldonk, and also celebrated in nearby Catholic Germany, in cities like Cologne and Aachen, where Bosch’s family came from (his father’s name, “van Aken,” referred to the latter city). Bosch must have been well versed in the zany Carnival atmosphere, and its suspension of class distinctions behind anonymous masks. Just like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Carnival is deep down a giant party of role reversal and social freedom. "The Garden of Earthly Delights" achieves the same by depicting everyone in his or her birthday suit. I am convinced that Bosch intended this as a sign of liberty rather than the debauchery some have read into it.

Possibly, the religion one leaves behind carries over into the sort of atheism one embraces. If religion has little grip on one’s life, apostasy is no big deal and there will be few lingering effects. Hence the general apathy of my generation of ex-Catholics, which grew up with criticism of the Vatican by our parents’ generation in a culture that diluted religious dogma with an appreciation of life’s pleasures. Culture matters, because Catholics who grew up in papist enclaves above the rivers tell me that their upbringing was as strict as that of the Reformed households around them. Religion and culture interact to such a degree that a Catholic from France is really not the same as one from the southern Netherlands, who in turn is not the same as one from Mexico. Crawling on bleeding knees up the steps of the cathedral to ask the Virgin of Guadalupe for forgiveness is not something any of us would consider. I have also heard American Catholics emphasize guilt in ways that I absolutely can’t relate to. It is therefore as much for cultural as religious reasons that southern ex-Catholics look back with so much less bitterness at their religious background than northern ex-Protestants.

Egbert Ribberink and Dick Houtman, two Dutch sociologists, who classify themselves, respectively, as “too much of a believer to be an atheist” and “too much of a nonbeliever to be an atheist,” distinguish two kinds of atheists. Those in one group are uninterested in exploring their outlook and even less in defending it. These atheists think that both faith and its absence are private matters. They respect everyone’s choice, and feel no need to bother others with theirs. Those in the other group are vehemently opposed to religion and resent its privileges in society. These atheists don’t think that disbelief should be kept locked up in the closet. They speak of “coming out,” a terminology borrowed from the gay movement, as if their nonreligiousness was a forbidden secret that they now want to share with the world. The difference between the two kinds boils down to the privacy of their outlook.

I like this analysis better than the usual approach to secularization, which just counts how many people believe and how many don’t. It may one day help to test my thesis that activist atheism reflects trauma. The stricter one’s religious background, the greater the need to go against it and to replace old securities with new ones.

Serial Dogmatism

Religion looms as large as an elephant in the United States, to the point that being nonreligious is about the biggest handicap a politician running for office can have, bigger than being gay, unmarried, thrice married, or black. This is upsetting, of course, and explains why atheists have become so vocal in demanding their place at the table. They prod the elephant to see whether they can get it to make some room. But the elephant also defines them, because what would be the point of atheism in the absence of religion?

As if eager to provide comic relief from this mismatched battle, American television occasionally summarizes it in its own you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up way. "The O’Reilly Factor" on Fox News invited David Silverman, president of the American Atheist Group, to discuss billboards proclaiming religion a “scam.” Throughout the interview, Silverman kept up a congenial face, claiming that there was absolutely no reason to be troubled, since all that his billboards do is tell the truth: “Everybody knows religion is a scam!” Bill O’Reilly, a Catholic, expressed his disagreement and clarified why religion is not a scam: “Tide goes in, tide goes out. Never a miscommunication. You can’t explain that.” This was the first time I had heard the tides being used as proof of God. It looked like a comedy sketch with one smiling actor telling believers that they are too stupid to see that religion is a fraud, but that it would be silly for them to take offense, while the other proposes the rise and fall of the oceans as evidence for a supernatural power, as if gravity and planetary rotation can’t handle the job.

All I get out of such exchanges is the confirmation that believers will say anything to defend their faith and that some atheists have turned evangelical. Nothing new about the first, but atheists’ zeal keeps surprising me. Why “sleep furiously” unless there are inner demons to be kept at bay? In the same way that firefighters are sometimes stealth arsonists and homophobes closet homosexuals, do some atheists secretly long for the certitude of religion? Take Christopher Hitchens, the late British author of "God Is Not Great." Hitchens was outraged by the dogmatism of religion, yet he himself had moved from Marxism (he was a Trotskyist) to Greek Orthodox Christianity, then to American Neo-Conservatism, followed by an “antitheist” stance that blamed all of the world’s troubles on religion. Hitchens thus swung from the left to the right, from anti–Vietnam War to cheerleader of the Iraq War, and from pro to contra God. He ended up favoring Dick Cheney over Mother Teresa.

Some people crave dogma, yet have trouble deciding on its contents. They become serial dogmatists. Hitchens admitted, “There are days when I miss my old convictions as if they were an amputated limb,” thus implying that he had entered a new life stage marked by doubt and reflection. Yet, all he seemed to have done was sprout a fresh dogmatic limb.

Dogmatists have one advantage: they are poor listeners. This ensures sparkling conversations when different kinds of them get together the way male birds gather at “leks” to display splendid plumage for visiting females. It almost makes one believe in the “argumentative theory,” according to which human reasoning didn’t evolve for the sake of truth, but rather to shine in discussion. Universities everywhere have set up crowd-pleasing debates between religious and antireligious intellectual “giants.” One such debate took place in 2009 at a large science festival in Puebla, Mexico. My own contribution concerned a different, more scientific session, but I sat in the audience of four thousand when we were being warmed up for the ultimate war of words. Asked whether they believed in God, about 90 percent of the people raised their hand in affirmation. The debate itself was set up in a distinctly unintellectual fashion. The stage showed a boxing ring (ropes around poles, red boxing gloves dangling in the corner), and the speakers walked one by one onto stage to martial music. They were the usual suspects. Apart from Hitchens, we got Dinesh D’Souza, Sam Harris, the philosopher Dan Dennett, and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach.

I would be surprised if a single member of the audience changed his or her mind as a result of the debate, either from believer to nonbeliever or the other way around. We learned that religion is the source of all evil and inferior to science as a guide to reality, but also that without religion there would be no morality and no hope for those who fear death. Without God, moral rules are “nothing but euphemisms for personal taste,” exclaimed the rabbi, waving his hands above his head as if throwing pizza dough. Others spoke in a humorless, almost menacing tone, as if anyone who’d ignore their message would inevitably get into trouble. God isn’t a fun topic.

The circus-like atmosphere left me with my original question about evangelical atheists. It’s easy to see why religions try to recruit believers. They are large organizations with monetary interests that do better, the more people join them. They erect cathedrals, like the one I visited in Puebla, and chapels like the Capilla del Rosario with its 23 ½-carat gilded stucco. I’ve never seen such a blindingly ornate interior, probably paid for by generations of poor Mexican farmers. But why would atheists turn messianic? And why would they play off one religion against another? Harris, for example, biliously goes after the “low-hanging fruit” of Islam, singling it out as the great enemy of the West. Throw in a few pictures of burqas, mention infibulation, and who will argue with your revulsion of religion? I am as sickened as the next person, but if Harris’s quest is to show that religion fails to promote morality, why pick on Islam? Isn’t genital mutilation common in the United States, too, where newborn males are routinely circumcised without their consent? We surely don’t need to go all the way to Afghanistan to find valleys in the moral landscape.

If some religions are worse than others, then some must be better. I’d love to hear the atheist perspective on what makes for a good religion, or the reason why different religions support different moralities. Could it be that religion and culture interact to the point that there is no universal morality? Instead of pondering such problems, audiences are stirred up to abhor practices alien to them, which is about as easy as making them squirm at a chain-saw murder.

Then there is the persistent myth that science trumps religion in every possible way, and that science distracts from religion, and vice versa, as in a zero-sum game. This approach goes back to nineteenth-century American polemists, who famously declared that if it were up to religion, we’d still believe in a flat earth. This was pure propaganda, however. Speculation about our planet’s roundness began with Aristotle and other ancient Greeks, and every major scholar during the so-called Dark Ages was fully aware of it. Dante’s "Divine Comedy" portrays the earth as a sphere, and the exterior panel of Bosch’s Garden triptych takes an in-between approach by showing a flat earth floating in a transparent ball surrounded by a black cosmos. When it comes to evolution, too, there is a tendency to point at religion as a solid opponent while ignoring that the Roman Catholic Church never formally condemned Darwin’s theory or put his works on the Index (the list of forbidden books). The Vatican has endorsed evolution as a valid theory compatible with the Christian faith. Admittedly, its endorsement came a bit late, but it is good to realize that resistance to evolution is almost entirely restricted to evangelical Protestants in the American South and Midwest.

The connection between science and religion has always been complex, including both conflict, mutual respect, and the church’s patronage of the sciences. The first copiers of books on which science came to rely were rabbis and monks, and the first universities grew out of cathedral and monastic schools. The papacy actively promoted the establishment and proliferation of universities. At one of the first ones, in Paris, students cut their hair in tonsure to show allegiance to the church, and the oldest document in the archives of Oxford University is its Award of the Papal Legate of 1214. Given this intertwinement, most historians stress dialogue or even integration between science and religion.

Neo-atheists keep pitting the two against each other, however. Their audiences pee in their pants with delight when the flat-earth canard gets trotted out. This is not to say, however, that religious narratives are much better. They, too, play fast and loose with the facts. In Puebla, D’Souza featured near-death experiences as scientific proof of the afterlife. After a brush with death, some patients report having floated outside of their bodies or having entered a tunnel of light. This surely seems bizarre, but D’Souza failed to bring up new neuroscience of a small brain area known as the temporo-parietal junction (TPJ). This area gathers information from many senses (visual, tactile, and vestibular) to construct a single image of our body and its place in the environment. Normally, this image is nicely coherent across all senses, so that we know who and where we are. The body image is disturbed, however, as soon as the TPJ is damaged or stimulated with electrodes. Scientists can deliberately make people feel that they are hovering above their own body or looking down on it, or have them perceive a copy of themselves sitting next to them, like a shadow (“I looked younger and fresher than I do now. My double smiled at me in a friendly way”). Together with the hallucinogenic qualities of anesthetic drugs and the effects of oxygen depletion on the brain, science is getting close to a materialist explanation of near-death experiences.

Rabbi Boteach, too, relied on questionable evidence to champion religion. He explained that many human families take care of Down syndrome children, which they obviously would never do without religion. They’d simply get rid of “defective” offspring, he said. The problem with this assertion, as mentioned in the preceding chapter, is that archaeological data tell quite a different story. Our lineage is equipped with such powerful nurturing instincts that offspring are not easily neglected or abandoned, no matter their condition. I’m not saying it never happens, but long before any of the current religions, Neanderthals and early humans took care of the handicapped. This is also true for our primate kin. There are many examples, but I’ll limit myself to two that I know firsthand.

Azalea was a trisomic rhesus monkey; she had three copies of one chromosome, just as in human Down syndrome. Another similarity was that she was born to a female beyond the age at which macaques normally conceive. Growing up in a large zoo troop, Azalea was seriously retarded in both motor development and social skills. She’d make the most incomprehensible blunders, such as threatening the alpha male. Rhesus monkeys are quick to punish anyone who breaks the rules, but Azalea got away with almost anything, as if the other monkeys realized that nothing they did would change her ineptness. We human observers were fond of Azalea for her sweet character, and it seemed that the rest of the troop was, too. She died naturally at three years of age.

Then there was Mozu, a Japanese macaque in the Japanese Alps, in Jigokudani. Mozu could barely walk, and certainly not climb, as she congenitally lacked both hands and feet. During the winter, which is severe in this area, she was forced to plow through the snow while her troopmates jumped from branch to branch. A frequent star of Japanese nature documentaries, Mozu was fully accepted by the other monkeys to the point that she lived a long life and raised no fewer than five offspring. I saw her high up in the mountains and noticed that she spent most of her time with the other monkeys, away from people, so that the occasional handouts of food from tourists can’t account for her survival. Even though there is no record of other monkeys’ actively assisting her, her story goes to show that the unfit can thrive and reproduce in primate societies. Similarly, human life before religion was not necessarily dog-eat-dog. Instead of making us do things we normally wouldn’t, religion may render its chief contribution by endorsing and promoting certain natural tendencies. This is obviously a much more modest contribution than what the rabbi had in mind.

Dogmatists pound their drums so hard that they can’t hear one another. Their audiences, on the other hand, are unaware of the traveling dog and pony shows featuring the same adversaries over and over, who simulate surprise and “gotcha” moments. The only voice of reason in Puebla was that of Dan Dennett, who spoke about religion not as something hateful but rather as a phenomenon that begs investigation as part of human society, human nature even. Clearly, religion is man-made, so the question is what good does it do for us. Are we born to believe and, if so, why? Dennett is not as sure as the neo-atheists with whom he is often lumped together that religion is irrational or that the world would be a better place if its demise were hastened, noting, “I am still agnostic about that.”

Excerpted from "The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates," by Frans de Waal. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

By Frans de Waal

Frans de Waal is the author of "Our Inner Ape," among many other works. He is the C.H. Candler professor in Emory University's psychology department. He has been named one of Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People.

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