New Atheist Utopianism

One of the most oft-repeated ideas in the God-debate is the idea that religion is the primary source of hatred and violence in the world. The implication is that if we can only get rid of religion, the world as we know it would be much, much better. This is the utopian core that lies at the heart of New Atheist zeal. But is it true? Let’s say it’s true that religion is today the source of most of the violence and hatred in the world. It does not follow that eradicating religion will make the world a better place. If we started eradicating religious ideas, we don’t know which ideas would take their place. In fact, New Atheists do not seem to give much thought to what ideas would take root in the absence of religion, and these will almost certainly not be the ideas that they would want to take root. You might point to countries where religiosity is very low, like the Nordic countries. But these are very prosperous countries with few troubles who have only been atheistic for a short time. (And to top it off, they have been Christian for the last few centuries and their cultures were structured by Christianity).The real test of an idea is what its followers do when things are going badly- when there is war, widespread disease, economic depression and poverty. Religion serves important social functions, and if you remove it, the number of unintended consequences could be quite overwhelming.

But it is strange that this utopian sentiment often comes from people who are themselves metaphysical naturalists. It is strange that naturalists (of all people) should be so optimistic about human nature, because they should know better than others that our human nature is a patchwork of behaviours, from altruism and compassion to tribalism and violence. The idea that eradicating religion is going to eradicate tribalistic hatred and violence is very unreasonable. These behaviours are to some degree hard-wired. If religion were to vanish tomorrow, we would very quickly find other things to fight about. Politics is always a favourite. Indeed, in a world without God, politics will become the new religion. It becomes the only real avenue left to transcend the self and to live for something greater. But this will probably mean an upsurge in political tribalism and hatred. In this sense, to say that we should get rid of religion is equivalent to saying we should get rid of any thing or idea we might care enough about to fight about. This is simply not realistic. There are always going to be ideas like that, whether or not there is a belief in supernatural beings.

Christian apologists have rightly pointed out that Soviet and Chinese communism provide a good counter-example to the idea that religion is the main driving force of tribalistic violence. These communist regimes went after religious people in the name of atheist ideas. Utopianism is always a force for evil, because once you have identified your ideal, then you will identify people who stand in the way of it. For militant secularists, the “counter-revolutionaries” are religious people. This is why it is ironic that the New Atheists should make such utopian claims, because in doing so, they show their own tribalism. In the brave new secular world, people will fight each other just as often, even more often, but only the ideas will be different. The effects will be the same. This is not to say that there are not specific religious ideas which promote violence. Only, the New Atheist narrative underestimates how easily human beings resort to violence and how easily they form tribes.

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