One of the more prominent debates in what passes for American public intellectual life is the emergence of a “New Atheism,” which is new, apparently, for its derision of religious belief and its unwillingness to acknowledge the possibility of reasonable theism. As a lifelong atheist myself, I suppose I ought to welcome this development. Since I was quite young I have been aware of both my utter lack of religious belief and the distance this created between me and most of the rest of America. When I was about 13, my parents urged me to enroll in a confirmation course at the Congregational Church our family attended. The plan was that at the end of the process I would be confirmed and baptized (I had been spared this rite as a baby) in one fell swoop. First, though, I had to meet with the youth minister. I admitted to him that I had misgivings about the process because, as I put it then, I was an agnostic. He smiled, nodded, and said with true liberal Protestant equanimity, “That’s great. We’ll rap about that.” Ah, the 70’s.
And yet my soul is troubled by all this—or rather, it would be if I had a soul, or if there were such a thing as ‘souls.’ The case for atheism is best made if it is not confused with the entirely separate issue of what to make of religion. Take away the latter question, and the strongest case for nonbelief in God is simply to refuse to accept the burden of proof. The theist, after all, professes not only to believe in a being that is utterly insensible and insusceptible to proof, but also maintains that this belief is the most important one could ever have. Let them prove it to me, I say—and no one has ever come close.
So, what ought an atheist to believe about religion? Strictly speaking, denying the existence of God entails nothing at all about religion, except for the obvious consequence that it can have nothing to do with God. Religion is a human institution, and as such is neither better nor worse than the human beings who practice it. Seen from this perspective, the hostility toward religion shown by the New Atheists is really misanthropy: hostility toward human beings themselves. Hardly a good thing for an erstwhile secular humanist.
Broadly speaking, religion has served to offer human beings certainty where they have none. Long ago, this certainty included certainty about matters of fact, for example the change of seasons, earthquakes, comets, and the like. The rise of science has largely destroyed this basis for religious belief, though the debate in American society about evolution shows that this motivation is not entirely dead. This is why Michael Shermer is entirely wrong to insist that evolution does not threaten religion. It does, because it removes one of the last little shreds of physical reality that religion could claim to make sense of: the unique place of human beings in the physical world. The Theory of Evolution entails that we have no such unique place, and fundamentalists are therefore right to see this as a threat.
What has survived is the religious offering of moral certainty—that kings rule with divine right; that the lives of nonbelievers count for less than believers; that the poor are blessed and shall inherit the earth. Religion in this capacity helped French peasants to build great cathedrals, for American blacks to challenge segregation, and for Crusaders to slaughter Arab civilians. We must ask whether, without the illusion of God’s moral commands, human beings would act in better or worse fashion. Perhaps, if they were less sure that God was on their side, civil rights activists would have found it harder to face the violence of white resistance. Similarly, if the soldiers of the Crusades had been prepared to ask critical questions about their mission, they would have been more likely to recognize the humanity in their victims. It is difficult to know where the balance lies, though in the end it may make no difference at all: There is no conclusive evidence that religious people act more ethically than the nonreligious. I’m inclined to think that, on balance, we’d all be better off nurturing our rational than our religious souls. But really, that’s far from obvious.