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The illusion of moderate atheism

by Archives October 7, 2008

During an interview on the BBC, prominent atheist Richard Dawkins, the author of The God Delusion, claimed he’s “not one of those who wants to stop Christian traditions.” However, according to an oft related anecdote, he enjoys telling small children that Santa Claus isn’t real. Forgive me if I take his self-proclaimed moderation with a grain of salt.
I firmly believe the doctrines of empirical atheism are contrary to the notion of an independent human spirit. When we accept them we make of man a golem; devoid of freewill or the fundamental dignity of life.
Perhaps mindful of this, Dawkins is careful to couch his political advocacy in the gentler language of Secularism. The professed aim of his “Out Campaign” is to encourage atheists to “come out of the closet”; in order to acquire dignity and equal rights. When he chooses to criticize public policy he selects easy targets; like public financing for religious oriented education or Creationism. And, he continues to identify as a “Cultural Christian.”
At his craftiest, he misleadingly invokes Thomas Jefferson’s “separation of Church and State” as a smoke screen for his campaign to purge religion from public life. In doing so, he deceives his audience and verges on intellectual dishonesty.
In his writing, Jefferson was referring to the Constitution of the United States, which reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” We find the roots of this principle in the philosophy of Locke; for whom liberty of conscience was a natural right. We also find it echoed in Matthew 22:21; “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s.”
An attitude of deference to religious authority, in matters of faith, is implicit to the divorce of Church and State. This would have been obvious for the delegates of the Constitutional Convention, the essayists of the Enlightenment, or even for Jesus of Nazareth. It would, however, be irreconcilable with the principles of empirical atheism as espoused by Dawkins.
Simply put, for an empirical atheist the universe is a fundamentally mechanical place; wherein every action is governed by a discrete set of physical laws. The orbit of an asteroid is regulated by gravity, Einstein, and special relativity. The orbit of an electron is regulated by electromagnetism, Niels Bohr, and quantum mechanics. Fear, love, and even artistic expression, are all a function of neural chemistry or the chain firing of synapses.
In this universe, man is merely a high functioning ape; or one of Isaac Asimov’s soulless automatons. In this universe, the communion of the individual with the divine is no longer sacrosanct. And, although empirical atheists are reluctant to admit it; in this universe the “separation of Church and State” has precious little to protect.
We must keep these opinions in mind when Dawkins compares religion to a virus, as he did in The Root of All Evil?; arguing that religious beliefs infect children who are genetically susceptible to malign parental influence. Or, when he signs a petition to the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, which reads: “children should not be subjected to any regular religious teaching or be allowed to be defined as belonging to a particular religious group based on the views of their parents or guardians.”
Our “moderate atheist,” it seems, is the intellectual equivalent of Milli Vanilli; having made a career by lip-synching Thomas Jefferson’s greatest hits. Except, Richard Dawkins’ inevitable “Girl you know it’s true” moment won’t expose a talentless Fab Morvan or Rob Pilatus; it’ll expose the poster boy for Orwellian government atheism.
Only a handful of truly godless nations have cropped up in the entirety of human history. During the aftermath of World War II, the U.S.S.R, China, Mongolia, North Korea, and eventually Cambodia adopted atheism as the state religion. Later in 1967, Enver Hoxha, the enigmatic leader of the People’s Republic of Albania, instituted a state ban on all religious practices. By the end of the Cold War, these regimes had committed atrocities which rivaled the worst pogroms of the early 20th century.
Of course, you might wonder how ostensibly rational works like The Selfish Gene, The God Delusion, or The Blind Watchmaker could spark incendiary acts of violence. After all, isn’t Dawkins a writer and a scientist; not a revolutionary?
In response, I would ask you to recall how Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s philosophy of reason was interpreted by Maximilien Robespierre, during the French Revolution; with the guillotine and the Reign of Terror. Adherents to a purely rational ideology are apt to be coldly utilitarian; apt to wield logic as a truncheon; apt to justify any evil in the name of the public good.
Commenting for the Belfast Telegraph, Dawkins once asked readers to “imagine a world where nobody is intimidated against following reason, wherever it leads.” Now, I would ask you to consider; where does it lead? And, are you prepared to follow?

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