As anyone watching the best-seller lists knows, atheism is big business. There seems to be no end of books touting the end of faith. A common theme in all—Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Dennett—is that atheism is inherently rational and religion is irrational. Disbelief in God is a sign of humanity’s intellectual maturity. Belief in God is a vestige of humanity’s passion-filled childhood when it was ruled by fear, hate, and ignorance.
“It is time that we admitted that faith is nothing more than the license religious people give one another to keep believing when reasons fail,” declares Sam Harris.
So one would expect to find cool, calm reasoning in the spate of triumphalist atheism books now flooding the bookstores. Well, frankly, the caliber of the atheists’ arguments generally tend to be rather disappointing—long on emotion, short on logic. But that is nothing new. Despite the touting of atheism as purely rational, the truth is that atheism is more an emotional response than a reasonable conclusion.
How far back shall we go? How about the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-271 BC). Epicurus argued that our lives are ruined by the continual dread of the gods, either zapping us in this life for crossing their entirely fickle wills, or if we escape that, torturing us in Hades after death. The cure? Epicurus invented a universe in which the gods couldn’t exist. He was the first atheist to use materialism to god-proof the cosmos.
Atheists tell us that it was human fear that created religion. But for Epicurus, fear of the gods created atheism.
But fear isn’t the only emotion that creates atheism. Aldous Huxley, the grandson of Charles Darwin’s “bulldog” Thomas Huxley, said candidly of his atheism,
“For myself, as, no doubt, for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaningless was essentially an instrument of liberation. The liberation we desired was simultaneously liberation from a certain political and economic system and liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom; we objected to the political and economic system because it was unjust. The supporters of these systems claimed that in some way they embodied the meaning (a Christian meaning, they insisted) of the world. There was one admirably simple method of confuting these people and at the same time justifying ourselves in our political and erotical revolt: we could deny that the world had any meaning whatsoever.”
For Huxley and friends, the desire for sex untethered to morality demanded that God be cut loose from the world. Happily, as Huxley noted later, he realized that this was an intellectual error.
But our present-day atheists appear to be making the same mistake. Richard Dawkins seems especially cranky that Judaism and Christianity have moral prohibitions in regard to sex—so much so, that to a proposed set of Atheist’s Ten Commandments, he offered an amendment commanding us, “Enjoy your own sex life (so long as it damages nobody else and leaves others to enjoy theirs in private whatever their inclinations, which are none of your business).” Not very catchy, and definitely hard to chisel in stone.
And Christopher Hitchens? “Clearly, the human species is designed”—by evolution, mind you—“to experiment with sex.” Indeed, Hitchens assures readers, “The relationship between physical health and mental health is now well understood to have a strong connection to sexual function, or dysfunction.” In other words, inhibited sex makes us dysfunctional; it is downright unhealthy. “Can it be a coincidence,” Hitchens complains, “that all religions claim the right to legislate sex?”
Nature demands complete sexual experimentation; religion demands moral restrictions on sex; therefore atheism, which denies the divine and hence divinely-mandated moral laws, is natural, right, good, and true. So goes Hitchens’ logic.
One has cause to wonder if the libido is steering his argument to a pre-determined conclusion. But sexual desire is not the only emotion driving atheists’ arguments. Witness the words of philosopher Thomas Nagel, who confessed in The Last Word to a “fear of religion itself.”
“I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that. My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time. One of the tendencies it supports is the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about life, including everything about the human mind. Darwin enabled modern secular culture to heave a great collective sigh of relief, by apparently providing a way to eliminate purpose, meaning and design as fundamental features of the world.”
That’s about as clear of an expression of Theo-phobia as one could want. The “cosmic authority problem.” Perhaps that is the source of atheist Richard Dawkins’ zeal in his defense of Darwinism? One only wishes that he—and Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett—were as candid about the emotional source of atheism as Thomas Nagel.