Previously I stuck the boot into the Atheist movement with my piece The Problem with Atheism. Basically my point there is that Atheism assumes the massive importance of whether God exists or not. That’s an importance I don’t agree with.
To put it another way, even Atheists believe that some atheists are prats while others are not. I’m interested in what makes us less of a prat. At least Evangelical Theists try to make a case that I shouldn’t be primarily interested in that question or that actually somehow theism does help a person improve their behavior. Atheists just say “Not believing in God doesn’t make someone a worse person,” which is a double negative dodging my concern. “Okay,” I reply, “It’s not God that improves us but what is it?”
However there is one area in which Atheists have been receiving the stick which is deeply unfair. It is good advice for the Atheist to hear but it is still definitely unfair. So this piece is going to go on the counter attack for the New Atheists in this regard.
The Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) is a mining industry funded, climate change denying and anti-immigration think tank. It also has a long history opposing native title and the national apology. I know because I did a short tenure there for high school work experience and have kept an eye on them since. It is always a source of frustration that this organization gets regular column space in the Age newspaper.
Just recently Chris Berg from the IPA wrote an article essentially arguing that the Atheist movement should recognize its debts to Christianity in the forms of secularism and free speech, amongst other legacies. In The Folly of Appraising Christianity I point out that this is based on a false premise, namely that we wouldn’t have these things without Christianity. We don’t and can’t really know that. We can only guess based on predispositions in Christian language and the limitations of other philosophical languages. When we do this we may sound scholarly but it’s really just extreme speculation because all languages are capable of change. Christianity itself is just a changed Judaism after all, and what historian would have seen that coming?
Furthermore if we are going to (just for fun) make a sweeping appraisal of Christianity we would have to recognize that this Christian legacy also includes the notion of thought crimes, the retardation of mathematics and science for centuries and a far greater tension over multiculturalism (even today) than was held in many places before Christianity. Of course all these problems may have emerged without Christianity too. Maybe we would have jumped straight to Islam which shares some of these problems.
My real objection to Chris Berg’s article and its arguments, however, is something different. It is completely unhumbled by history. You would think if you were going to stand on a Christian platform[i] and make a virtue out of acknowledging one’s past you would want that virtue to be one Christians practiced. If not you might at least make note of your hypocrisy.
If secular atheists owe anything to Christianity then Christians also owe the following to preceding cultures:
- Ship building and Cartography
- Poetry, Dance and Music
Who honestly believes that Christianity pays fair homage to its predecessors for these legacies? Yet each of these aspects of society were not developed without reference to the God or Gods or the whole cosmology of the ancient world. They are all legacies of their world view.
Mathematics had an especially sacred place as a magical language in the pre-Christian world. We have evidence the Egyptians had achieved advanced trigonometry and algebra by 1800BC. Early Christians believed that as Jesus was returning soon, holding on to and respecting that knowledge was less important than cleansing
of any non-Christian culture. To be fair, Muslims were a further wave of destruction at a later date but they only had remnants to destroy. We now have mere scraps for Egyptologists to study. Egypt
Of course you could argue that times have changed but see if you can talk for five minutes with an evangelical Christian about numerology without their eyes glazing over. Just think of the dignity they usually afford any knowledge that was before Jesus and not in the Old Testament. There isn’t any more respect from most evangelical Christians for the pre-Christian past than there was in the first few centuries of Christendom. There’s just more Christian past for them to glorify.
The same goes for our own country’s history and beliefs prior to the invasion of Christianity. Personally I know more about the ancient greek pantheon than I do about indigenous beliefs from my own country. That’s embarrassing. I would also be surprised (pleasantly) to be schooled by an evangelical Christian in this regard. Yet I am still told that I should pay even more attention to a Christian heritage that I already know far better. That’s insane.
Christians also have a particularly obvious heritage to respect in Judaism. This is so neglected that the fact that Jesus was a Jew was an actual astonishment in my youth. It’s true that Christians have retained the Jewish scriptures, however they have re-read them as often as possible as pointing to the New Testament. In the third century Jews were not permitted to publicly read from their scriptures unless they also stressed a Christian interpretation of them. I still encounter the theology that Jews were so blind to the truth for all four thousand or so years of their walk with God that they didn’t even have a correct interpretation of Genesis until Christianity re-read it.
I’m not even going to touch here the more virulent anti-semitic forms of Christianity. The above theology is generously speaking the orthodox mainstream for Christians. My point in this post is merely to say if Atheists do the same to Christians how can they complain? If Atheists re-write Christian scriptures so that Jesus was only properly understood by a new atheist reading will that be considered sufficient homage? It might give Jews cause to chuckle.
However Jews as a group themselves haven’t been particularly interested in paying homage to the cultures around them or before them either. There’s no Jewish state in ancient or modern history that has expressed the worth of non-Jewish beliefs that I can think of. In the Jewish Bible non-Hebrew beliefs are characterized as evil and completely without worth. The critique of atheists in this IPA article is really a critique we can make of everyone. We think we’re the best and dismiss the rest. That’s how religions work.
This is sadly just the latest way New Atheism is looking like a religion. Under the leadership of Richard Dawkins, Atheists are being encouraged to be mocking of any theistic tradition. Atheists are told to consider themselves as having grasped a truth that dimmer minds can’t deal with. Atheism is treated as the only moral position. If Dawkins was a historian instead of a biologist he might realize his path eventually leads to us having to go to Atheist mass on Sundays or be burnt at the stake. He and his adherents are creating the monster they aim to fight.
To avoid this future Atheists should heed Chris Berg to some extent. I agree with the article that Atheists are being foolish if they just render all history not approved of for its Atheism as not worth contemplating. Berg goes too far when he encourages more than that. Gratitude for a debt to Christianity depends heavily on fanciful speculation. Respect however would be appropriate. I think it would be wonderful if the New Atheists were the first metaphysical movement after paganism to fairly credit their past and to be willing to learn from their peers.
Evangelical Christians who want to wield the Chris Berg article against New atheism are just being ridiculous however. There was history before 1 AD too. There was a culture in
before white Christian settlement. If you want to mention the splinter in Dawkins’ eye stop wearing the plank in your own. Maybe then we could all show each other some respect for a change. Australia
[i] Chris Berg begins his article stating he doesn’t believe in God himself. However his article has been shared by Christians I know across facebook and it echoes the arguments they make. It may not have begun as a Christian article but it is being used as one. Further the IPA is a historic defender of Christian culture (Berg actually spoke himself at a Christian “Reasons for Faith” conference this week) so I think “Christian platform” is sound despite the atheism of the author.