Often, when I talk to people who tell me they’re an atheist, I can be a bit dismissive. This isn’t because I have any issue with questioning faith or with the idea that one might struggle to connect with God. Rather, it is because I have met very few people who were genuinely atheistic. Most replace a faith in a transcendent Divine being with a different faith: in humanity, in ‘progress’, in certain political or economic identities, etc. Many who claim an identity as an atheist fall into this category– subscribing to all of the tenets of monotheism, but while believing they could simply cut God out of the picture.
However, the claims of progress and enlightenment, the belief in humanity’s inevitable advancement– those are claims which are based in the idea of a God who facilitates a gradual improvement in the human condition over time. Often people talk as though the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, and academic Humanism are all counter-religious forces– whereas in reality nothing could be further from the truth. The thinkers of the Enlightenment used all the planks of religious faith, they simply replaced what used to be called God with the amorphous being we call ‘humanity.’
Who is ‘humanity’? What does ‘humanity’ decide? Of course no such cooperation between every member of the species is even conceivable, much less realistic. At best, ‘humanity’ is a loose collection of individual human beings who often have vastly different goals and purposes in life, and frequently, use their lives to contest with one another rather than proclaim a grand vision of ‘humanity’.
A true atheism would have to throw off all the categories of religious belief– including the idea that human beings are important, holy, and working towards positive ends. Instead, almost all of the contemporary ‘atheist’ thinkers do precisely that: advocate for human knowledge, human scientific endeavours, and human significance as a theoretical antidote to Divinity. Well, it doesn’t really work. Most atheists today are very religious– except the deity they worship is an imagined ‘Humanity’ rather than a transcendent Divinity.
I’ve struggled to articulate this difficult distinction for many years– and it doesn’t help that most religious people don’t understand what it means to be religious any more than atheists understands what it means to reject religion– but I’ve really been struck by the strength of the argument in John Gray’s newest book, Seven Types of Atheism. If you’re into this sort of thing, I’d encourage you to read it. I’m not sure it’s exactly a summer holiday beach read, but, you never know.
In the meantime, I think it’s really critical that we don’t accept a simple dichotomy of religion vs. atheism. A lot of ‘religious’ people are proper atheists, and a lot of ‘atheist’ people are surprisingly religious! As usual, it’s more complicated than it seems. When we look a bit beyond the labels we give ourselves and consider what our beliefs really are we may be surprised that we don’t know quite as much about ourselves, our species, or our God, as we originally thought.