I am an atheist. All philosophical arguments for the existence of god (Anselm, Maimonides, Aquinas, Descartes et al.) are easily refuted. Most of them are tautological in some way, and the remaining few are arbitrary – several manage to be both. With them, religion should also fall. And though I was raised religious, I have known enough suffering and witnessed enough horror never to believe in god again. But as philosophers we are obliged to see as much of any picture as possible (with the ultimate goal of viewing all the world at once, but that will be for another time). Once we do this, we are ready to mount a qualified defense of the Judeo-Christian tradition, if only on practical grounds. It is good that we should do this, because it is a healthy exercise to defend those with whom one disagrees – especially in a country as ridiculously polarized as the United States, where those who complain about it are often the ones who contribute most to this state of affairs. Additionally, we will be able to refute that silly dogma of the intellectuals of America and Europe, where mocking religion, especially Christianity, in every possible way is practically a rite of passage and a prerequisite de rigueur of being taken seriously. That is their god, not mine.
Of the various explanations of religion that have been offered in philosophy, Emile Durkheim, in his Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse, suggests, inspired by Aristotle, that moral beings are only possible in communities, and since a community requires sacrifice, a feeling in the individual of communal membership is necessary. Religion provides this membership. This is indeed part of how religion arises, and one of the reasons why it sooner or later always returns after having been banished. Durkheim’s explanation complements well that offered by Nietzsche in Zur Genealogie der Moral.
The beginnings of every single civilization, without exception, are shrouded in religion. This means that the farther away a civilization moves from religion, the farther it moves from the traditions of its own origins. Now, since the notion of membership entails the possibility and sometimes necessity of self-sacrifice for a larger whole, the rejection of religion is generally accompanied by a declining loyalty to the civilization in question, not just to the religion. The weaker the sense of membership, the stronger the pursuit of self-aggrandizement on the part of individual members. This is related to Aristotle’s determination, in the Politics, of the human being as a communal or city-dwelling animal (not a political animal, as it is usually mistranslated – the Greek zoon politikon means someone who dwells in a polis, a city), a being who best reaches his full potential as a member of a community. It should therefore not be surprising that on the whole, the less religion there is in a society, the more oikophobia we find there (for my definition of oikophobia, see my first blog entry, of May 8, On Two Types of Cultural Decadence). Since the beginnings of a civilization are religious, the natural end of civilization is the rejection of religion, as its members decreasingly see themselves as parts of a cohesive whole. They cease to be loyal to one another and they become unwilling to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. They no longer consider the greater good good. Greece, Rome, and Israel among ancient civilizations, and France, Germany, and Russia among modern ones, offer particularly striking examples, but it is true in general – with a special sentimental citation in this regard for the country of my birth, Sweden. (Durkheim, in other parts of his life’s work, holds out hope that socialism can somehow take over the communal role offered by religion, but this is of course incorrect. Socialism, on the whole, makes people less philanthropic and less loyal, not more so, but that is another story. Aristotle, as usual the greatest mind, when discussing the community does not seek to banish religion as that which holds people together, in spite of his own rejection of traditional Greek myth.)
The evidence of history thus points to a nexus of civilizational weakening, religious weakening, and oikophobic rise. This is why the most radical departures from religion always coincide with a rejection of much of the traditional culture of the civilization and a decreasing desire on the part of its members to defend the civilization against hostile forces. With time, the rejection of religion leads to a replacement not only of the religion, but to a replacement by an element that is hostile to that civilization as a whole, including its non-religious elements. So when religion falls, as it does from time to time, one will do well to look over one’s shoulder to see what barbaric forces are approaching this time around. Much barbarism has been committed in the name of Christianity, of course, but we are naïve and ignorant if we believe that the destruction or complete sidelining of the Judeo-Christian faith system will thereby bring about a more civilized community in the West. The opposite is true. If humanity were one individual, that person could be trained to be civilized without religion, to understand and appreciate the beauty that a particular civilization has to offer, as indeed some people can (and as Aristotle could), but one should know by now that human beings in general are notoriously incapable of finding the golden mean: either religious fanaticism or a rejection of one’s culture in favor of selfish self-aggrandizement. The latter type, who has replaced religion with oikophobia, does not understand self-sacrifice. The oikophobe is not entirely godless, however, because his new god is his own self.
So even though I am an atheist and a person who refuses to capitalize the word “god”, I want to distance myself from many of my fellow atheists, who give the rest of us a bad name. There was a time when atheists were people of quality and genuine reflection: gentlemen like Spinoza and Nietzsche knew how to fight with god, whereas leading atheists today are pseudo-thinkers and rabble-rousers like Richard Dawkins, who make fun of the Bible because there is a talking snake in it. (By his standard, we should not read the Iliad either, since there is a man in it who can only be injured in his heel, a deity who flies by setting wings to his sandals, and a woman who pops out of the sea from time to time to give advice to confused warriors. The truth is of course that whereas most things in the Bible never happened, it – especially the Hebrew Bible – contains remarkable human stories and some philosophically very interesting passages. Like Greek myth and tragedy, it is the tale of a race of fallible heroes. (And the Iliad offers amazing poetry to boot.)) I am an atheist who wishes that Jews and Christians will continue to worship in our midst, because our society will be much worse off when they stop. The evidence of the past should be enough to understand this. And if you still do not believe me: just wait.