Author: Luke Bretherton – ABC Religion and Ethics – 4 Oct 2011
Rather than retaining its vocation as a prophetic witness, disabusing humans of our illusions and idolatries, atheism now seems content to become Pepsi to the Coke of religion.
In the early 1990s I met the then Russian minister for education. He alleged that a representative of Rev. Sun Myung Moon offered him $1 million as a personal gift if he would distribute textbooks extolling the virtues of the Unification Church in all Russian schools.
The response he related to this offer was unforgettable: “I will not sell the souls of Russia’s children.” However, the minister had the wisdom to know that while he could reject the Moonies offer, he was still left with the problem of how to teach virtue to Russia’s children.
As the conversation developed, it was clear that the minister was seeking some kind of textbook in order to accomplish the task of inculcating virtue. But he was perplexed by the need to find an alternative to the godless ideology of the Communism Russia was rejecting, but without thereby embracing a sectarian dogma.
I was reminded of this conversation on reading a press release this week from the British Humanist Association about a “new, free programme” for schools “that encourages pupils to make a resolution to help someone else” and to become more engaged in their local community. The programme is called “Resolution-Revolution.”
A teacher involved in a pilot for the programme is quoted as saying it is “An upbeat project designed to get children thinking about helping others, without the religious baggage.”
The Humanists’ programme follows in the footsteps of two prominent atheist children’s authors Philip Pullman and Michael Rosen, who in 2006 produced a course on atheism for schools, called “Why Atheism?”
The DVDs featured a “disbelieving” Christian, Muslim, Jehovah’s Witness and Hindu explaining why they rejected their religion; a Belfast journalist detailing life in a community divided by religion; and humanist celebrants conducting funerals, weddings and a baby-naming celebration.
In 2009 the American group called Camp Quest started up in the UK. Camp Quest is billed as an alternative summer camp for the children of “atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers and all those who embrace a naturalistic rather than supernatural world view.”
One advocate of the Camps is quoted as saying: “We want to provide a space where people can learn that it is OK to be an atheist and that a lack of religion does not mean a lack of morals or ethics.”
What we see shaping up is a battle for the souls of children. But in the process we need to ask a question about what is happening to the “soul” of humanism and atheism?
While Islam is of contemporary concern, modern humanism and atheism are defined by their opposition to Christianity (and to a lesser extent, Judaism). Rejecting Christianity as enervating and undermining of republican virtue, Machiavelli saw Moses and Mohammed as much to be preferred to Jesus as the model of the good legislator.
What the new programmes for children mark is the turn from the critique of religion to the construction of humanism and atheism as forms of civil religion: an instrumentalised religion that provides the social and moral basis of the political order.
The paradox is that in the process they are becoming one more sectarian dogma.
But here we need to distinguish atheism and humanism. Arguably, humanism has always sought to provide an alternative to traditional religions through creating an anthropocentric civil religion.
There is a long tradition of wrestling with the problem of how to provide a moral basis for political and economic relations without Christianity that spans Machiavelli, Hobbes, Spinoza, Rousseau, John Toland and Comte.
However, unlike many contemporary humanists, these thinkers were aware of the pathos at the heart of this task: it involved replacing one religion with another. The task was necessarily one of setting up a compelling religious alternative to Christianity or de-christianising and remodelling Christianity so that it could serve as the basis of a civil religion.
Atheism had no such pretensions. Its aim was to rid us of the need for religion. Yet in its move to remodel itself as a civil religion it has become what it claims to reject. The disdain of a Marx or Freud for religion has given way to the shrill competitiveness of the “New Athiests.”
The sense in which religion and by implication atheism was simply a passing stage on the way to a new rationalistic outlook freed from religious baggage seems to have dissipated. Instead, a new confessional atheism has emerged, one ready to hawk its wares in the religious marketplace and compete for the souls of children.
Rather than a critique of religion from which the religious can learn, we find a “wannabe civil religion” that depends for its appeal on the continuance of the very thing it claims to replace. It has become an alternative rather than a critique.
Rather than a prophetic witness, disabusing humans of our illusions and idolatries, atheism has become Pepsi to the Coke of religion. To paraphrase the New Testament: what does it profit atheism to gain the whole world and lose its own soul?
Luke Bretherton is Reader in Theology and Politics, and convenor of the Faith and Public Policy Forum at King’s College, London. His most recent book is Christianity and Contemporary Politics: The Conditions and Possibilities of Faithful Witness (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), and he is currently writing a book on community organizing and democratic citizenship.