After God: What atheists can learn from believers
Swept away by science and the scathing scrutiny of New Atheists, religion seems to be on the point of extinction, yet billions still cling to it. For our cover story this week, we ask some of the leading “New, New Atheists” – those who “separate their atheism from their secularism” and treat religious heritage as “a treasure trove to be plundered” – if faith has a place in modern life. Here is a preview of each contributor's position:
Alain de Botton: The three elements of religion that a post-religious society should “steal”
“The challenge facing atheists,” de Botton writes, “is how to separate many ideas and rituals from the religious institutions that have laid claim to them but don’t truly own them . . . Secularism is not wrong. It is just that we have too often secularised badly.”
1. New priest
“The most sophisticated response we have yet come up with is psychotherapy . . . [But there] is also, in a serious sense, an issue of branding. Therapy is hidden, unbranded, depressing in its outward appearance. The priests had far better clothes, and infinitely better architecture.”
2. New gospels
“So, why does the notion of replacing religion with culture, of living according to the lessons of literature and art as believers live according to the lessons of faith, continue to sound so peculiar to us? The fault lies with academia. Universities are entirely uninterested in training students to use culture as . . . a source that can prove of solace to us when confronted by the infinite challenges of existence . . .”
3. New churches
“You sometimes hear it said that art museums are our new churches . . . The challenge is to rewrite the agendas for our art museums so that collections can begin to serve the needs of psychology as effectively as they served those of theology, for centuries.”
Francis Spufford denounces the “burning simplicities” of New Atheism
This post-Christian puritanism, largely oblivious now of its history, is highly visible in the New Atheism of the 1990s and 2000s, and especially in Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion. Strange indifference (except at the margins) to all religions except Christianity? Check. Sense of being locked in righteous combat with the powers of darkness? Check. Puritanism, it turns out, can float free of faith and still preserve a vehement world-view, a core of characteristic judgements . . .
I don’t expect the puritan call will lose its appeal to the young and the zealous, but maybe we are entering a phase of greater tolerance in which, having abandoned the impossible task of trying to abolish religion, atheists might be able to apply themselves to the rather more useful task of distinguishing between kinds that want to damn you and kinds that don’t.
Jim Al-Khalili: “It is time now for the New, New Atheists”
Believing in a god is fine by me, if it is important to you . . . But what I, and many other atheists, take issue with is the arrogant attitude that religious faith is the only means of providing us with a moral compass . . .
Our society is no longer predominantly religious. Atheists are the mainstream. This is precisely why we should set out our stall to be more tolerant and inclusive . . . The New Atheists have laid the foundations; maybe it is time now for the “New, New Atheists”.
Karen Armstrong: “The biblical God is a starter kit”
Most of us are introduced to God at about the same time as we hear about Santa Claus, but over the years our views of Santa mature and change, while our notion of God often gets stuck at an infantile level . . . The biblical God is a “starter kit”; if we have the inclination and ability, we
are meant to move on. Religion, too, is a practical discipline in which we learn new capacities of mind and heart. Like premodern philosophy, it was not the quest for an abstract truth but a practical way of life.
Richard Holloway: The former bishop of Edinburgh calls for a “critical sympathy towards religion”
A good approach here is not to try to stop the revelation argument from going round and round but to ask a different question, thus: given that there probably is no God, where did all this stuff come from? To which the obvious answer is that it came from us.
So it’s a mistake to do what most unbelievers usually do at this point, which is to dismiss them as fairy tales . . . The word to grasp here is myth: a myth is a story that encodes but does not necessarily explain a universal human experience.
The wrong question to ask of a myth is whether it is true or false. The right question is whether it is living or dead, whether it still speaks to our condition.
ELSEWHERE IN THE MAGAZINE:
David Blanchflower: This budget was Osborne’s last hurrah – and now he can only hope for the good times
Reacting to yesterday’s Budget, our economics editor, David Blanchflower, cites damning figures for growth and increased borrowing, and describes George Osborne’s proposed £3bn increase in capital spending as “both pitiful and inadequate”. Blanchflower calls on Vince Cable, who in an essay for the New Statesman this month made the case for greatly expanded capital spending, to oppose the Chancellor “for the sake of the country”.
Laura Kuenssberg: Budget briefings, Osborne’s unpopularity and a bleak future for Cyprus
This week Laura Kuenssberg, the business editor of ITV News, writes our Diary. On the Budget, leaks from the Treasury and the unpopular Chancellor:
As the Budget feels rather empty, apart from the bleak economic outlook, it’s understandable that the Treasury has got into the habit of giving away rather a lot ahead of time . . . At any rate, the decision to reveal some of the nicer bits of the Budget won’t save Osborne from a difficult day . . .
Three years in to the coalition, the public is rather less willing than it was to defend the Chancellor’s decisions. At ITV News, we have been tracking attitudes to the government’s economic plan every week. Our latest findings suggest that nearly half the public would shove the Chancellor out of his job, if it were up to them.
The former US president Lyndon Johnson, who knew a thing or two about ploughing on in the face of resistance, once said that being in charge is “like being a jackass in a hailstorm. There’s nothing to do but stand there and take it.”
On the bailout crisis in Cyprus:
With no faith in the institutions today, why would Cypriot savers leave any of their money in the bank tomorrow? One senior trader told me darkly, “The run is unavoidable. The question is where the money will go and who will take it.” Eurocrats and the Cypriot government may have just made a very bad decision that will be impossible to unpick.
James Lovelock: A man for all season
In the NS interview, John Gray speaks to James Lovelock: the maverick environmentalist who supports fracking and nuclear power. “A resolute independence has shaped James Lovelock as a scientists”, begins Gray, continuing:
Lovelock has always cherished the freedom to follow his own ideas and stood aside from institutions in which science is conducted as a vast collective enterprise. Partly this is an expression of his ingrained individualism, but it also reflects his radically empiricist view of science as a direct engagement with the world and his abiding mistrust of consensual thinking. In these and other respects, he has more in common with thinkers such as Darwin and Einstein, who were able to transform our view of the world because they did not work under any kind of external direction, than he does with most of the scientists who are at work today.
Doris Lessing: A room of one’s own
As part of our Centenary celebrations, we republish this piece by Doris Lessing which original ran in the magazine in August of 1963. The preceding year Lessing had published her breakthrough novel, “The Golden Notebook”. In this short memoir, Lessin recalls moving house…
When I came into this flat of four small box-like rooms, the bedroom was painted pale pink, except for the fireplace wall, which had a fanciful pink and blue paper. The woodwork was a dark purple, almost black. This paint is sold by a big decorating shop in the West End and is called Bilberry. Two girls had the flat before me. Very little money, obviously, because the carpeting was going into holes, and the walls were decorated with travel posters. The woman upstairs told me they were young and often had parties that lasted all night. “But I liked to hear them, I enjoy the sounds of life.” She was reproachful: I don’t have parties often enough for her.
In the Critics:
- American novelist Jonathan Lethem pays tribute to Philip Roth, who turned 80 on 19 March;
- Steven Poole reviews David Hendy’s Noise: a Human History of Sound and Listening;
- Alwyn W Turner reviews Mod: a Very British Style by Richard Weight;
- Ryan Gilbey watches Danny Boyle’s new film, Trance, and Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ’45;
- Rachel Cooke is disappointed by the BBC’s TV adaptation of The Lady Vanishes;
- Kate Mossman reviews What About Now, the new album by Bon Jovi;
- Will Self visits the Old Town in Prague for Madness of Crowds;
- and much more...
Purchase a copy of this week's New Statesman in newsstands today, or online at: subscribe.newstatesman.com