Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Princes of Peace

Ecumenicalism, at least in Europe and the Americas, is largely a reaction to the threat of unbelief. Atheists are the only people that the Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Calvinists, Lutherans, Pentacostals, Muslims, and Jews hate more than each other; and this hatred draws them together. I think of Gregg Easterbrook as the anti-Aristotle of our age, the master of those who don’t know, but even Easterbrook seems to understand the essentially defensive character of the current vogue for a shared faith in merely having some sort of faith.

Momentary controversies over Islam aside, in America's contemporary spiritual landscape, the dividing line is not between Christians and non-Christians, nor drawn along any religious perimeter. It is between believers and nonbelievers. Persons of faith of almost any stripe have begun to embrace each other as allies against the encroachment of pure secularism, philosophical positivism, and legal hostility toward belief in the public square.

Now despising atheists is nothing new—John Locke thought atheism should be illegal and the public affirmation of disbelief in God has long been a capital crime in Muslim nations—but apparently the atheist menace had not seemed sufficiently urgent to compose religious divides that are centuries or millennia old and make priests, bonzes, and imams conveniently ignore the plain contradictions among their respective doctrines. The Enlightenment wasn’t quite enough, apparently, or even Marxism; but the New Atheism has at last done the trick and brought a truce to the religious wars. So let us give thanks to Dawkins and Hitchens and P.Z. Myers and the other princes of peace who have brought this blessing on mankind. I have often been critical of the New Atheists if only because I couldn’t detect anything new in what they had to say, but neither I nor anybody else should claim that they are not a force. Of course it may be that the effectiveness of their message is more a reflection of the startling fragility of religion than the intrinsic merit of their own point of view, which is often little more than unreflective positivism that seems to think the only thing besides science is some sort of theology. Thing is, though, pricks don’t have to be especially sharp to puncture a balloon.

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