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2 December 2020

What the New Atheists got wrong

At a retreat centre that was once Buddhist, I realise the human yearning for religion can take us to strange places. 

By Louise Perry

As far as I can tell, it was the American academic John McWhorter who first suggested in print that woke progressivism has become a new kind of religion, originally in a Daily Beast article in 2015, and now in an upcoming book. The idea has been widely repeated, and with some merit, since there are indeed many similarities between particularly fervent progressive activists and particularly fervent Christian evangelicals. Woke believers also have their creed, their scripture, their clergy and – above all – their heretics: the massed ranks of the “cancelled”.

However, I am sceptical of a tendency among some commentators to treat this as a slam-dunk argument, because to do so seems to assume that, since religion is obviously ridiculous, so too must be woke progressivism. This is an assumption that comes to us directly from the New Atheism which was all the rage at the beginning of the century, and which I once found persuasive. When I first read Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, aged 15, I loved the certainty and simplicity of it – yes, of course I, unlike almost every other person who has ever existed, had the sparkling intellect needed to realise that this “God” business was all a scam!

Maybe it is. I have no way of knowing for certain whether it is or isn’t, and nor do you. But the decades that have passed since the emergence of New Atheism have shown us that throwing off religion is not as easy as we might once have supposed. From astrology, to wokeness, to the “spiritual experience” of fitness classes at Soul Cycle, a frustrated yearning for religion can take us to strange places.

In October, I spent four nights at a retreat centre that was once Buddhist. But in recent years it has pivoted to a secular emphasis on mindfulness, partly in an attempt to attract a wider range of visitors, and partly because there is, apparently, more government funding available to secular organisations.

The centre’s Buddhist roots are still just about visible when you look at the books in the library or the biographies of many of the teachers. And the structure of the day is much the same as in any religious institution: wake early, pray, eat, pray, work, eat, pray, eat, pray, repeat. Just swap out the “pray” and insert “mindfulness session” and it’s really all the same… right?

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But no one uses explicitly Buddhist terminology anymore. Nor, in this post-Christian country, does anyone talk explicitly about God. What you find instead is an awkward bricolage of different ideologies. There’s a bit of residual Buddhism and a bit of paganism, and both mesh reasonably well with the elements imported from Christian contemplative traditions, given that most religions have alighted on meditation as a way of drawing out the brain’s capacity to feel blissfully clear in a certain state of consciousness. But there is also another creeping, cloying strand of thought that has wheedled its way into the God-shaped hole and doesn’t fit at all well with the older traditions.

[see also: How millennials turned away from religion and embraced new lifestyle cults]

This strand has no care for God, enlightenment or even unity with nature. Its preoccupation is with the self and personal freedom, and its adherents speak of “knowing myself”, “finding myself”, “honouring myself”, “being true to me”, and of “becoming who I really am”. Faith is placed in the capacity of the individual to know her own heart, find her own path, and thus throw off the repressive restrictions of society.

But “I demand to put myself first” is a principle found in no form of ancient wisdom. Rather, it is a much more recent product of liberal individualism, and one that is particularly well suited to the commercial self-help market.

The pitfalls presented by this ideology are clear. If everyone prioritised their own desires all the time, perhaps some of us might find within ourselves a burning desire to devote our time to charitable work, but plenty of others would decide that days filled with junk food, MDMA (the drug ecstasy) and masturbation were what their “authenticity” called for. And following the ideology’s logic, how could anyone else tell them otherwise?

The world religions may have many flaws, but an intellectual tradition that has lasted for thousands of years and has been elaborated on by some of the most thoughtful people ever to have lived will generally be more coherent than a shallow ideology that has been around for a few decades.

When you excise organised religion, you don’t get no religiosity, you get a kind of chaotic religiosity that can easily be hijacked by the latest ideological fad, from the destructive extremes of woke progressivism, to the self-centredness of liberal individualism. For New Atheists, the gospel of science was supposed to provide a safe channel for our religious instincts, and possibly for a few people it did. Bertrand Russell insisted that “even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cosy indoor warmth of traditional humanising myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigour, and the great spaces have a splendour of their own”. Some atheists are not only able to withstand the fresh air of a Godless world – they actually revel in it.

But let me tell you this: for all the different ideas I have heard expressed in New Age-y spaces – from yoga classes to mindfulness retreats – I have never once heard anyone talk about the scientifically proven benefits of meditation, which are well evidenced. People will talk fluently about Mother Nature, the universe, the Buddha, or their true authentic selves. They will never, ever talk about neurology.

Maybe, for some people with a strong spiritual urge, a faith in science alone is enough. But unfortunately, for most of us, it isn’t – and the New Atheists were naive to assume otherwise. 

[see also: An anti-self-help true believer]

This article appears in the 02 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Crashed