Modern conservative atheism

  • Sumo

There was a time, it seems, when atheism tried to build new things. I think atheism has given up, and now tries to conserve old ideas from other people.

Nietzsche (1844-1900) railed against the Christian values he both understood and loathed – and he strongly urged a new way. He wanted strong people, not the Christian softness of humility. For him, Jesus’ meekness ‘as a lamb before his shearers is silent’ was pathetic weakness.

Likewise, Marx (1818-1883) was not only against religion, but actively for a new social order. He argued the need for fundamental change.

Nietzsche and Marx illustrate the line of atheist intellect that argued for something, and for something new.

In this early part of the twenty-first century, I don’t hear that kind of atheist argument. Atheist arguments are no longer for something new, but for old values. And these old values are not atheist at all – they are usually Christian (or ‘religious’, if you like).

Atheist arguments are no longer for something new, but for old values. And these old values are not atheist at all

These values include: justice, living with difference, and listening to the other. I hear atheists argue for them (great!). And when I seek to find why, there’s no answer. These ideas are assumed as good and important. ‘They’re obvious, they are common-sense.’

Even more, there’s the refrain that Christians don’t own justice, love and mercy.

But Christians do own these things. Our belief – right or wrong – is that the whole creation springs from the eternal, loving God who will bring justice to bear. In consequence, those who trust God should also live these values.

But if the material world is all there is, it is very hard to argue for universal and enduring values. Mercy might make us feel good – but hormones are a sufficient explanation for that. It’s a big stretch to suggest our emotions infer universal moral order.

(Here’s an example, in a fascinating article. The author views religion or atheism as not really important. What counts is a liberal social and political system. But why? It just is, that’s all.)

Why point this out? Two reasons.

First, if I am right, it’s handy to know the change in feel and argument that has happened over the last century. When any person makes any point it’s polite to listen. I am trying to listen to what’s being said today.

Secondly, I think the change indicates a number of underlying issues. It may be a sign that creative and constructive atheism has failed. It might also indicate that atheism’s important intellectual problem right now is the problem of good (the mirror of theism’s problem of evil). These two require argument, of course, but they arise from a real observation.

So, over to you. Is there any merit in my observation? Could things be explained differently? Does it really matter?