I’m an atheist, but I would never want to live in an completely atheistic world.
In this informal debate with Daniel Dennett, Alister McGrath opens by describing the ‘crisis of confidence’ that seems to be sweeping atheism. According to McGrath, atheist organisations are worried sick about the rise of superstition in society; there is a whiff of panic amongst atheists, a loss of faith of some sorts amongst unbelievers because – despite atheism’s aim to eradicate faith – religion is still on the rise. A similar theme threads its way through McGrath’s book, The Twilight of Atheism, in which he argues that atheism has had its day in the sun, and is currently on the decline.
As an atheist, am I experiencing a crisis of confidence? Well, the answer is no. There are two premises that form the basis of McGrath’s argument: (1) that the goal of atheism is to eradicate religion, and (2) that atheists somehow measure the legitimacy of their beliefs according to the influence that those beliefs have on society. My own beliefs are not dependant on these two points.
First, I don’t want to live in a society that is totally atheistic. It will be pretty boring if everyone believed as I did. There will be no debate, no counter arguments, no learning. I would hate to live in a world where only one idea reigns supreme, even if it is an idea that I hold dear. So what kind of change do I, as an atheist, want to see in society? Despite what McGrath might say, I don’t want to destroy religion. I believe that religion can contribute positively to society in many ways, and I’m not that naïve to believe that the removal of religion will usher in some sort of utopia for humanity. Rather, all I want – in the words of Dale McGowan in this interview – is to live in a world where being an atheist is totally fine, where non-belief is no longer a issue in the minds of others. I want to work towards a society where I can be accepted for who I am, not for what I believe.
Second, my non-belief is not dependent on the strength or influence of atheism worldwide. It can be argued that the recent surge of atheism – which some have termed “The New Atheism” – is simply a knee-jerk reaction to the unhealthy growth of religious power in the Muslim world and the
I’m not saying that McGrath is wrong here. There might be some hostile atheists who would like to see the eradication of religion, and there might be even fewer who are actively working to reach this goal. I hope that these atheists will never rise to power. If I’m ever brave enough, I will be one of the first to stand up against them if they do.