Militant atheism has become a religion
2013-03-25 0:00

By Frans de Waal | Salon

Prominent non-believers have become as dogmatic as those they deride -- and become rich on the lecture circuit

It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.
ó 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 bottomówe live on a hillóa 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, ďIím looking for lost souls!Ē 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, ďIím not very religious.Ē

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 Iíd 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 Netherlandsóknown as ďbelow the riversĒóCatholicism 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 ďneo-atheistsĒ of today so obsessed with Godís 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 thatís worth fighting for?

As one philosopher put it, being a militant atheist is like ďsleeping furiously.Ē

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 donít 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. ďWhatever is not commanded is forbiddenĒ 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 Godóall 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 heíd 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)óeveryone 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 thereís 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 womanís parents didnít 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 Brueghelís and Boschís 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 Boschís family came from (his fatherís name, ďvan Aken,Ē 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. ďThe Garden of Earthly DelightsĒ 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 oneís 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 parentsí generation in a culture that diluted religious dogma with an appreciation of lifeís 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 canít 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 ďtoo much of a believer to be an atheistĒ and ďtoo much of a nonbeliever to be an atheist,Ē 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 everyoneís 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 donít think that disbelief should be kept locked up in the closet. They speak of ďcoming out,Ē 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 donít. It may one day help to test my thesis that activist atheism reflects trauma. The stricter oneís 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-canít-make-this-stuff-up way. ďThe OíReilly FactorĒ on Fox News invited David Silverman, president of the American Atheist Group, to discuss billboards proclaiming religion a ďscam.Ē 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: ďEverybody knows religion is a scam!Ē Bill OíReilly, a Catholic, expressed his disagreement and clarified why religion is not a scam: ďTide goes in, tide goes out. Never a miscommunication. You canít explain that.Ē 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 canít 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 atheistsí zeal keeps surprising me. Why ďsleep furiouslyĒ 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 ďGod Is Not Great.Ē 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 ďantitheistĒ stance that blamed all of the worldís troubles on religion. Hitchens thus swung from the left to the right, from antiĖVietnam 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, ďThere are days when I miss my old convictions as if they were an amputated limb,Ē 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.


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