Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

I read this rather interesting article on religion in the university, but was mostly struck by the comments, which were overwhelmingly hostile to religious belief.  I know that the ” New Atheism ” is quite the publishing phenomenon these days, and that lots of people who think they’re smart also think that  orthodox (and even unorthodox) believers are quite dense.  What’s more, they’re clearly not afraid to say so.

This raises a couple of “practical” questions that they ought to consider. 

First, if religion is as powerfully influential as they think, how is it that they can get away with saying such mean things about it?  How did we come to live in a regime where it’s possible to speak freely about allegedly reigning “orthodoxies”?  Did religious authorities voluntarily loosen their grip, or were they “misled” by smart atheists?  (John Locke, for example, was a thinker who was quite possibly an atheist—I realize there is much scholarly dispute about this—who availed himself of religious arguments to argue for toleration, albeit not for atheists.)

Second, if we believers are as dumb as the New Atheists think we are, then how on earth are we going to govern ourselves?  If we’re too stupid to live by the light of mere reason, then (to borrow a phrase ) what is to be done with us?  Are we to be disenfranchised and governed by a rational elite?  Thomas Hobbes said something quite apposite here:  “[T]here are very few so foolish that had not rather govern themselves than be governed by others: nor when the wise, in their own conceit, contend by force with them who distrust their own wisdom, do they always, or often, or almost at any time, get the victory.”

In the old days, those who were atheistic or religiously heterodox were—however smart and capable they thought themselves—at pains to accommodate themselves to the religious mainstream.  They recognized the unusualness of their own opinions and understood that they could not widely be shared.  They knew that good government required religion.

I think that George Washington , whatever his own opinions, expresses this “old-fashioned” view:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

Are our New Atheists smarter than Hobbes, Locke, and Washington?  About that, at least, I have my doubts.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles