Sunday, August 10, 2014

Politics, not science, makes atheists

Interesting article in Politico makes the case that the loss of religious belief in Europe is directly linked to a history of corrupt churches as part of the political power structure,  not a conflict between science and religion.
In reality, the growth of atheism in Europe and America has much more to do with politics and, in particular, ecclesiastically backed politics, than it has with science, something that is clear even from its earliest days. The first person we can unequivocally call an atheist in modern Europe was a French Catholic priest who died in 1729. Jean Meslier led an unremarkable life at Étrépigny, in Champagne. On his death, however, friends discovered a manuscript, his “Testament,” which denounced all belief, all God and all religion with a frenzied anger that makes Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion seem like a work of reasoned scholarship.

But then, Meslier did have a great deal to be angry about.... The monarch ruled with absolute power that was justified by a fabulously wealthy and notoriously intolerant church. People were still being publically tortured and executed for ‘religious’ crimes as late as the 1760s. ... Europe’s first public atheists were driven from mere scepticism and anti-clericalism to full-blown unbelief not by reason or scientific progress but primarily by a venal and violent theo-political settlement.
The author contrasts this situation with Britain, which was much more tolerant, religiously and initellectually, and with the US, in which the separation of church from temporal state power also paradoxically helped it survive.

He then moves into the 20th century and points out that the violence of the explicitly atheist communist regimes also provided a pro-religion backlash that strengthened religious expression in the US.

He concludes
In the last decades of the 20th century, history veered off script. The world stopped secularising, and some religious groups, most famously evangelicals in America and Shias in Iran—two groups not usually bracketed together—found a political voice that had heretofore been muted. The results were often troubling and sometimes grotesque, and all of a sudden the wells of moral indignation were overflowing once more. Today, atheism is resurgent, in America and elsewhere, confidently predicting God’s imminent death and uncritically retelling the creation myth of atheism’s progress on science’s back.

The irony of the truth was sadly lost in the shouting: Atheism is indeed rejuvenating—but only because God is back. 
 And not in a good way.  All you have to do is read the comments following any religiously themed article in the mainstream press to see an upwelling of anger against religion and the religious, which is very much linked to the political over-reach of the right wing. The irony in all this  is that the biggest driver against religious belief is  those who express it, because they are politicizing it.  The Founding Fathers were on to something.  Too bad we don't seem able to figure it out any more.


Kevin K said...

I think it was Lord Acton who said power tends to corrupt and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely. As the Christian church became more powerful it obviously became more concerned with keeping its power than bearing a witness to Christ.

JCF said...

At my parish this morning, amidst the usual birthday and (long) marriage anniversary blessings---all great---we blessed a new baby. The baby, "our first grandchild", was intro'd by the beaming grandparents, the baby boy of their daughter and (biologically) her wife.

Ours is not a church which produces atheists. Alleluia!

dr.primrose said...

I certainly don't disagree with his analysis as far as it goes. But I'm not sure his analysis is complete.

I can think of at least a couple of other things that contributed to the rise of atheism in the West.

The first is the First World War. This was a war, started for no particularly pressing reason, supported by great religiousity on both sides, a war that resulted in horrific casualties in most countries of Western Europe and a almost universal feeling that the war was massive waste. From what I understand, the First World War resulted in a precipitious decline in church attendance all over Western Europe. The First World War does, however, tie into his thesis because the war was started and maintained by the upper classes but fought by the lower classes with a call of "King (or Kaiser), Country, and God." All three came out of the war in a far worse condition.

The second is the Roman Catholic child-abuse scandal of the last 20 years or so. During this period Massachusets went from being the state where people that highly identified as Roman Catholic to a state where people highly identified as "none." Similarly, Ireland went from being a country with one of highest percentages of church attendance to one with one of the lowest. Not all of the "nones" and non-attenders probably identify as atheists but I suspect a signifant number do.

James Pratt said...

I am in Quebec, the most secularist province of Canada, which 50 years ago was the most religious.

The shift can be traced to the close alliance between the RC hierarchy and the government (with many rights given to the church by the British crown in 1775 to keep French Canadians from joining the revolution to the south). The backlash, in the form of the Quiet Revolution, led to a precipitous decline in church attendance in the 60s and 70s, and "Nones" are now the largest religious affiliation in many areas.