Should we fear the “evangelical atheist”?

Is Mike Newdow a bigger threat than Jerry Falwell?
No, I don’t think so either.

Jane Galt quotes, approvingly, one of the most breathtakingly wrong-headed passages ever written. Starting from the highly dubious premise that “evangelical atheists” constitute a more-than-microscopic fraction of the population outside college dormitories, Sean Lynch goes on to say:

I wonder if this has anything to do with the fact that socialism and atheism seem to go hand in hand? There must be a certain humility in believing there is a higher power than you, at least when you believe you do not know for sure what that higher power’s purpose is for you, or even if it has one. Certainly some people believe that God talks to them and only to them. However, it takes a special kind of arrogance to believe that you (or any human for that matter) can direct an economy. This is the same kind of arrogance that allows one to say with certainty “there is no God” and that others should join the “reality-based community.”

Do understand that I’m talking about a particular kind of atheist here. There is, of course, the Sartrian atheist, who says “Holy crap! There’s no God! Now what do I do?” The same sort of humility can come from the belief that one is alone in the universe and has no set purpose as from the belief that there is someone much more powerful than you. But there is also the type of atheist who believes that he or she can be God, because the position is open. This person, in my opinion, must be watched far more closely than the Jerry Falwells of the world.

To which I can only say, “Huh? Howzzat again?”

A detailed critique seems almost superfluous. Note the obvious attempt on the part of a non-fundamentalist to justify to himself voting for a party where Jerry Falwell and his ilk wield enormous power, and the instantiation of the universal human tendency to imagine that two things both of which one dislikes (in this case “atheism” and “socialism”) must be somehow linked.

Perhaps it suffices to note that the idea that the king should run the economy was universally shared during the ages of faith, with the enthusiastic support of the established churches, and that the strange idea that the economy could, in substantial part, be left to run itself was a product of the Enlightenment, aka the Age of Reason, and of people of much-less-than-average-for-their-times religiosity. (So, for that matter, was the equally strange idea of religious liberty.)

But one might also point out that the notion that believing in God somehow leads to humility, and therefore to a willingness to let other people do as they please, seems to be largely without historical foundation. Anyone who offers it needs to do quite a lot of explaining to deal with, e.g., Philip II of Spain, the Catholic League in France, Savonarola in Florence, Calvin in Geneva, Cromwell in England, Mussolini in Italy and Khomeini in Iran. Atheist tyranny was a peculiarity of the 20th century; religious tyranny has a long pedigree.

Now it’s true that Hume and Adam Smith were deists rather than atheists. And perhaps it might be true that deism acts like figurehead monarchy to limit megalomania and hero-worship. But getting worked up about a few militant atheists at a time when the theocrats’ prejudices are being made into national policy deserves to be filed under “straining at gnats while swallowing camels.” (Matt. 23:24)

Footnote: And no, Jane, the anti-religious evangelists aren’t trying to keep people from “wasting two hours on Sunday morning.” They’re trying to save them from believing and saying the thing which is not, and from acting as if some preacher’s misinterpretation of a text written in a language he can’t even read deserves consideration along with the products of reason and scientific investigation in determining the right courses of action for the individual and the society.

Now that doesn’t really justify rude evangelism, and the ignorant arrogance that often accompanies it. I’ve been critical of anti-religious bias in academia. But why not at least acknowledge that the evangelical atheists, like other evangelists, are playing for what they legitimately see as high stakes?

Update: A reader dissents from my categorization of Hume:

Yes, in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, he (via Cleanthes) establishes the argument from design, but he also tears it down (e.g., Philo points out that God is just as much in need of an explanation as the world). At least in the context of Hume’s time (pre-Darwin), I suspect Isaiah Berlin was right when he said that Hume was an atheist.

At minimum, Hume was hostile to most forms of organized religion, which he famously divided into the categories of “superstition” and “enthusiasm.” Whatever else he was, Hume was definitely a “reality-based” thinker rather than a “faith-based” one.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

Comments are closed.