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Militant atheists, Christianists, and the idolatry of the West

20 July 2011

I recently observed a discussion between some mildly militant atheists on the futility of religion and such. It wasn’t an acrimonious debate, as such things often are, because it took place in an internet forum devoted to English usage, and so the discussion of religion was tangential to the main purpose of the discussion. Most of the participants in the forum are academics in one discipline or another, and the discourse is generally quite civilised. I have noticed, however, that the atheists in the group are far more outspoken about their atheism than most of the “religious” people in the group, though for the most part they are only mildly militant.

I was therefore interested when Fr David MacGregor drew my attention to this article in his blog Contact Online Weblog: Turning Virtues Into Vices: The New Inquisitors. The title and the opening paragraph seemed to resonate with my own experience.

Turning Virtues Into Vices: The New Inquisitors | Bill Muehlenberg’s CultureWatch:

Such is the nature of the radical secularists that they are managing to turn previous virtues into today’s vices. And in the process they have unleashed a new Inquisition. In a perfect illustration of the prophet Isaiah’s warning, the new social engineers are turning our world upside down.

This is what Yahweh said through Isaiah two and a half millennia ago: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter” (5:20 ). This describes to a T what we are experiencing in the West today.

I was going to say “post-Christian West”, but a more accurate term would be “anti-Christian West”. All over the Western world there is a war going on against the very values and ideals which made the West great in the first place…

And that is where I stopped reading.

I am heartily sick of reading arguments like this about how Christianity and Christian values “made the West great”. I couldn’t care less about the greatness of the West, and such arguments are always based on idolatry. It reminds me of Bob Dylan’s song With God on our side.

Oh the history books tell it
They tell it so well
The cavalries charged
The Indians fell
The cavalries charged
The Indians died
Oh the country was young
With God on its side.

Muehlenberg quotes Isaiah, and that’s fine, but Isaiah and the other Old Testament prophets devoted quite a bit of their time to railing against similar attitudes in Israel — that with God on its side, Israel could be great.

What is the source of Western “greatness”?

Samuel Huntington, who studied and analysed power relations between nations and groups of nations (which he called “civilizations”) said that the dramatic increase in the power of the West, so that by 1920 the West ruled almost half the land surface of the world, had three main causes:

  1. the social and class relations of the West, with the rise of cities and commerce, and the dispersion of power in Western societies between estates, monarchs and secular and religious authorities, and the development of state bureaucracies;
  2. the technological invention of the means of ocean navigation for reaching distant peoples and
  3. the development of the military capabilities for conquering those peoples.

As Huntington put it, “The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion (to which few members of other civilizations were converted) but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do” [1].

Militant atheists and radical secularists like to blame Christianity for that, and Bill Muehlenberg, far from contradicting them, provides ammunition for their contention.

In the first of the 10 commandments God says “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” — and that includes “the West”. A lot of Western Christian rhetoric implies that God is welcome because he makes the West great. So Christianity is coopted in the pursuit of Western greatness. [2]

To return to the militant atheists (the mild variety), one of them suggested that I should read the works of Richard Dawkins. I replied that I preferred not to, and they then accused me of being critical of works that I had not read. But I wasn’t being critical of the works. I’m unqualified to criticise them because I haven’t read them, and have no intention of doing so. What I am critical of is Dawkins’s frequently and publicly expressed prejudice and bigotry, and I think that is a sufficient reason for not reading his books. Of course it is possible that Dawkins’s prejudice and bigotry are exaggerated by the media, who love to promote a good fight, but he doesn’t seem to have objected very much to this portrayal of him.

I did come across, in a bookshop, a book by one of the other well-known militant atheists of our day, Sam Harris, and I flipped through it very quickly. I saw nothing in it that hadn’t been said, more clearly and concisely, by Bertrand Russell in his essay Why I am not a Christian. I could think of a lot of other books that I’d be happier to spend R250 on.

Militant atheists — the mild, and less mild, varieties

A few years ago an agnostic friend of mine tried to join an online atheist forum. He was blackballed, because he not only didn’t accept, but was rather scornful about their conditions, among which was the stipulation that he had to read and agree with the writings of Sam Harris, and that the only god that could be discussed was the god that Sam Harris didn’t believe in.

Such an attitude resembles, and is sometimes called, “fundamentalism”, though I don’t think it is the best term. Fundamentalism was a particular movement in Protestant Christianity, mainly in the early twentieth century, in which people demanded a return to earlier doctrinal formulations, and rejected certain theological trends. Among the “fundamentals” was belief in the plenary inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible, and I suppose the disciples of Sam Harris that my agnostic friend encountered could be said to behaving in a similar way by insisting on the plenary inspiration and inerrancy of the works of Harris.

Samuel Huntington predicted the increase of such religious militancy (even when it is irreligious), by defining his “civilizations” in religious terms.

So Militant Muslims are called Islamists, and militant Christians are called Christianists, and militant secularists seem to behave in a similar fashion. What Huntington didn’t foresee, perhaps, was the way in which “the West” would be divided into Christianists and Militant Secularists battling for supremacy. But I suspect that the majority of people in the West find the battle rather amusing and entertaining, but will soon tire of it, and ignore it.

Nearly fifty years ago a Western theologian, Harvey Cox, wrote a book called The secular city. I don’t think it was a very good book, because it was rather one-sided, and Cox seemed to think that the Western secular worldview should prevail globally. But seen in a Western context it did have some good points, and one of the best was the distinction Cox made between secularisation and secularism.

While secularization finds its roots in the biblical faith itself and is to some extent an authentic outcome of the impact of biblical faith on Western history, this is not the case with secularism. Like any other ism, it menaces the openness and freedom secularization has produced; it must therefore be watched carefully to prevent its becoming the ideology of a new establishment. It must be especially checked where it pretends not to be a world-view but nonetheless seeks to impose its ideology through the organs of the state.

I suspect that that is the kind of process that Bill Muehlenberg was trying to warn us about, but Cox’s warning of half a century ago comes across more clearly:

We should oppose the romantic restoration of the sprites of the forest. It may seem pleasant at first to reinstate the leprechauns, but – as Hitler made all too clear – once the Valkyries return, they will seek a bloodthirsty revenge on those who banished them. We should also be wary of any attempt to resacralize politics. Political leaders and movement should never be granted any sacred significance, and all efforts to use public authority to support traditional religious beliefs or the quasi-religious beliefs of ideological secularism must be resisted.


Notes and references

[1] Huntington, Samuel. The clash of civilizations and the remaking of  world order, (London, Touchstone, 1998), p. 98.

[2] I am not saying that Orthodox Christians are immune from this particular disease, though it takes slightly different forms, such as the fatuous statement that “Hellenism is Orthodoxy and Orthodoxy is Hellenism”. Zionism (which is the Jewish equivalent of Islamism, Christianism and Hindutva) does the same thing when it promotes slogans like “Anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism”.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 25 July 2011 3:40 pm

    I’d never heard that distinction between secularisation and secularism before. Interesting.

    • 28 July 2011 7:10 am

      Yes, and it’s a pretty important distinction. Secularisation is a process, secularism is an ideology. Though some people speak of secularism as the dominant worldview of the West, I sometimes think that “hedonistic nihilism” is a better description, or perhaps “nihilistic hedonism”.


  1. The death of liberalism in the West | Khanya

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