Monday, August 31, 2009

Explaining Atheism Pt. 1

I have been reading both recent popular atheist books by the likes of Dawkins, Hitchens et al. (Ditchkins, as Terry Eagleton calls them)and also some of the critiques of this outpouring of militantly anti-religious (primarily anti-Christian) bestsellers. The best of these critiques of the atheists (so far) are by David Bentley Hart, Alister McGrath, Dinesh D'Souza, and the formerly leading atheist philosopher Antony Flew, as well as the Marxist critic Eagleton himself.

All of the anti-religious writing and much of the response assume that it is religion that needs to be explained and justified. During the heyday of atheism in the 19th century, the leading atheist intellectuals, wrote not to refute religion but to explain it as a social or psychological phenomenon. That is, Feuerbach, Marx, and Freud, most influentially, took as their starting point that the truth claims of Christianity and all other religions were false and did not trouble themselves with the task of refuting them. The default position, the truth, was atheism. The task then was to explain why religion had been such a universal phenomenon in human experience until their time. (See McGrath's excellent, The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World for a review of the explanations advanced by Feuerbach, Freud, and Marx.)

But what if we examined atheism in the same way? We assume that it is false as well as rare in the cultures of humankind. Then the task is to explain its rise to prominence among European intellectuals in the 18th and especially 19th centuries, its political spread so that half the world's population lived under officially atheist regimes by the mid-20th century; and its rapid decline, along with theresurgence of religious belief since the late 20th century. From this perspective, atheism is a socially constructed, historically specific phenomenon, of immense importance in its day and still of wide appeal in Europe and among the elites of North America.

McGrath's Twilight is immensely helpful in this regard. Of particular interest to me is the way that the notion of a "war" between science and religion arose in the social conditions of 19th century England and eastern North America. It is of course the opposite of the truth as far as Christianity is concerned. Almost all the great scientists from the Middle Ages through Newton were either churchmen (priests or monks, etc.) or at least devout Christians. One of the greatest scientists of the 19th century, Gregor Mendel, was a Catholic monk. In 19th century England, the parson-scientist was a stock figure in literature, reflecting in part the underemployment of the clergy in the state-supported church. The rise of professional scientists led to a rivalry between the scientific amateurs (clergy) and professional scientists as the latter asserted their claims to recognition and support. A war was thus invented between science and religion, put forward by two highly influential books, John William Draper's History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) Andrew Dickson White's History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1876).

Today, no reputable historian of science, to my knowledge, accepts this account of such a conflict or war, but the influence of this anti-religious narrative is still widespread among popularizers of atheism and the general public.

I am intrigued by McGrath's interpretation of the rise of this story of a social opposition between scientific amateurs and professionals. Is there a similar phenomenon in the history of social work where, with the gradual professionalization of social work, charity came to have a bad name? At first it was to be "organized" in a "scientific" way, replacing the old-style random acts of kindness with a more systematic approach to social casework. Today, the old Charity Organization Societies, in which the profession has its origins, is regarded in a poor light by most professional social workers, not because they lost sight of charity as love and a fundamental Christian duty, but because they were too moralistic and insufficiently professional and scientific--or insufficiently devoted to social change and justice. Just as the parson-scientists were seen as insufficiently professional by full-time scientists, so the pastoral care of the clergy was seen (by professional social workers) as a kind of amateurish social work.... [more to follow!]

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