Dec 26, 2011
neil

It’s hard to be an atheist at Christmas

The problem with atheism is that as ideas go it’s a perennial underachiever – the Tim Henman, if you will, in the world of ideas. Wherever it has been tried it has been found wanting, not least because as a ‘negative’ philosophy it is unliveable and unloveable. The absence of belief in a transcendent reality finally collapses into a celebration of nothingness.

So what is an atheist to do? Alain de Botton has hit on an idea – why not should steal all the good ideas from the world of religious belief and pass them off as your own.

De Botton, author of soon to be published Religion For Atheists, has written a piece for the Guardian in which he comments that ‘Religions are intermittently too useful, effective and intelligent to be abandoned to the religious alone‘ and that therefore ‘the wisdom of the faiths belongs to all of mankind, even the most rational among us, and deserves to be selectively reabsorbed.’

It doesn’t take much by way of intelligence to recognise that there is nothing particularly rational about such a statement. After all ethical ideals depend upon reasonable foundations for believing them and compelling reasons for protecting them. Atheism is a denial that any such foundations exist and so any morality or virtue is so to speak built on sand and so easily swept away. Unlike de Botton, the New Atheists recognise that religious ideas cannot simply be stuck on.

Yet atheists who have experienced  and benefited from the values they have inherited from Christianity find it so hard to let them go.

Roger Scrutton in An Intellegent Person’s Guide to Philosophy admits;

The ethical vision of our nature gives sense to our lives. But it is demanding. It asks us to stand up to judgement. We must be fully human, while breathing the air of angels; natural and supernatural at once.

A community that has survived its gods has three options. It can find some secular path to the ethical life. Or it can fake the higher emotions, while living without them. Or it can give up pretending, and so collapse, as Burke put it, into the ‘dust and powder of individuality’. These are the stark choices that confront us, and the rest of this book defends the first of them – the way of high culture, which teaches us to live as if our lives mattered eternally.

As yet, I offer no philosophical justification for taking this apparently objectivist stance. For the moment, it is enough that, in practice, it seems to work.

One hopes, as a Christian, that such thinkers who find the fence they sit on so uncomfortable will land safely on the side of the God who alone makes life liveable.

1 Comment

  • Hi neil, firstly to say that i do like your thought provoking links linked throught facebook.

    I thought that it was interesting to me house he identified the need for cohesive community, solutions to our emotional needs and the answer to the age old question of mortality. It ‘can’ leave one in an uncomfortable position if you are unable to answer the big questions that can stand up to both sides of the argument.

    In a world of evolution (in the loose meaning of the word) nothing stands still, in all areas it seems except for core religous beliefs. To me he does not ‘chuck the baby out with the bath water’ which is necessary in a world devlopment and change – which it has been since the begining of dawn.

    Certainly presents etc are not the heart of Christmas but i think he has a point in seeing how a sense of community is.

    happy new year

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