Atheists Versus Theists

The ongoing debate between atheists and theists has become ludicrous, banal, and unprofitable. I have long thought that the more vociferous atheists were following a wrong strategy and wrong tactics, leaving the religionists free to pose as unrivalled defenders of moral values and the realities of the life of the spirit (the expression ‘spiritual life’ has become suspect among rationalists and been ceded to religion, which is a pity). The propagandist and frenzied approach of the fashionable atheists is reducing us to the sorry choice between dogmatic religion and stark materialism. So it was a pleasure to come across a sane and balanced review article by Anthony Gottlieb.

Gottlieb reminds us that in the second century of the Christian era “it was Christians who were called ‘atheists,’ because they failed to worship the accepted gods.” We may also recall that in fifth century BC Athens Anaxagoras was accused of atheism because he taught that the sun was not a god but a flaming piece of matter. Socrates was accused of atheism because he did not revere the gods that the city revered, even though he could pray not only to Zeus and Pan but also to the sun.

Anaxagoras, Socrates, and early Christians, along with rejecting the beliefs commonly accepted by those around them, had their positive beliefs. Today proselytizing atheists are all energetically engaged in the task of breaking down dogmatic beliefs, but they do not show as much energy in advancing the positive aspect of their thought.

The task of emancipating humanity from the clutches of superstition, fanaticism, and bigotry, is needed and is urgent. But neither the enthusiasm of the all-out atheists nor the desperate but tepid efforts of the religious moderates show any signs of success in that direction. The outspoken atheists are read and applauded by those who are already convinced of the harm done by religions. The moderate religionists cannot make headway with their fundamentalist co-religionists, because in each of the major established religions (I speak chiefly of the monotheisms that I know at first hand) there is as much authoritative textual support for the extremists as for the moderates; and all talk about inter-faith conciliation and understanding is deception or self-deception because each religion in its heart of hearts denounces the others as worthy of damnation. The best they can achieve among themselves is a truce necessitated by the inability of any one of them to eradicate the others.

The human situation is sickening. If there are gods up there they must be debating not if but how to put an end to the whole bad project. If we give up on the gods and decide that we have to rely on our own devices, then the way forward as I see it is a two-pronged drive.

The human world is in very bad shape. There is abject poverty, disease, ignorance, misery, side by side with abundance, waste, astounding technology — I need not go on. Our politicians and economists play games in their artificial, closed systems of unquestioned fictions of expediency, power, market values, economic forces — all of which are worshipped more blindly than any supernatural god has ever been. The world of human beings must be re-formed on a wiser and more just basis. This is the first prong of the combined drive. In the short term we may have to fight terrorism and all sorts of conflict by various means but in the long term a united world based on justice, equal opportunity for all humans, and dignity for all humans, is the prerequisite for withering the roots of terrorism and conflict.

Secondly, we have to work towards a new age of enlightenment, to spread understanding and fellow-feeling among all humans. No amount of bare, disjointed facts, can infuse sense into life. The positive, empirical knowledge obtained by the methodology of the sciences, can be useful (or harmful) but cannot nourish the human spirit. Humans need a ‘likely tale’ (to borrow a phrase from Plato) to hold on to, to give the chaotic mass of their experiential content some coherence. To the naïve and simple masses of humankind their received religions satisfies that need but – as we should by now have discovered – it does so at a heavy cost. We need a culture that fosters moral and spiritual values unlinked to dogma and superstition. This is the task of art, literature, and philosophy. That will be our alternative to religion, but we should take great care not to turn it into a new religion: we need an alternative to religion, not an alternative religion.

The way forward I have indicated, with its two branches, will be slow, full of hardship, and not at all certain. But there is no other way.

In Let Us Philosophize (1998) I concluded the chapter on Religion as follows:

The one perfect religion that has ever been given to mankind has been grossly misunderstood, neglected and almost completely forgotten; the religion whose prophet claimed no knowledge, no wisdom, no power, no authority — whose name was Socrates. Socrates may have had the temperament of a mystic. Yet we acclaim him as a philosopher precisely because he went beyond mysticism. He demanded that whatever we hold valuable be fully intelligible. He was deeply religious; he sought the fullness of the inner life. But he was not content with a mystical richness of life, and there lay his glory.

No specific knowledge, no body of doctrine, can secure our salvation: Only a free, ever-creative mind will give us salvation. Not any body of knowledge, but the creative pursuit of understanding, makes us into what we crave to be — whole human beings. That should be the ideal of education.

D. R. Khashaba is an independent philosopher. His books include Socrates’ Prison Journal and Hypatia’s Lover. He lives in his home country, Egypt, and has a website at Back to Socrates as well as a blog.

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