Sunday, April 13, 2008

Books: Decline of secularism leads to panic among "new atheists"?

John Gray, author of Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, has some interesting thoughts on the sudden spate of "new atheist" books in the last half decade. He thinks it is a panicky response to the decline in secularism:
It is true that religion has declined sharply in a number of countries (Ireland is a recent example) and has not shaped everyday life for most people in Britain for many years. Much of Europe is clearly post-Christian. However, there is nothing that suggests the move away from religion is irreversible, or that it is potentially universal. The US is no more secular today than it was 150 years ago, when De Tocqueville was amazed and baffled by its all-pervading religiosity. The secular era was in any case partly illusory. The mass political movements of the 20th century were vehicles for myths inherited from religion, and it is no accident that religion is reviving now that these movements have collapsed. The current hostility to religion is a reaction against this turnabout. Secularisation is in retreat, and the result is the appearance of an evangelical type of atheism not seen since Victorian times.

The trouble with secularism is that it isn't about anything. After City Hall has put a stop to Christmas, Succoth, Eid al-Fitr, Diwali, and all that, what will we celebrate? City Hall? That's what destroyed the twentieth century materialist regimes (fascism, communism, etc.) People want to reach beyond themselves, and certainly far, far beyond City Hall.

The attempt to eradicate religion, however, only leads to it reappearing in grotesque and degraded forms. A credulous belief in world revolution, universal democracy or the occult powers of mobile phones is more offensive to reason than the mysteries of religion, and less likely to survive in years to come. Victorian poet Matthew Arnold wrote of believers being left bereft as the tide of faith ebbs away. Today secular faith is ebbing, and it is the apostles of unbelief who are left stranded on the beach.

One for my reading list, and maybe yours.

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