Jonathan Miller's BBC4 history of atheism inadvertently reveals how dogmatic non-belief in the west is merely a narrow inheritance of Christianityby John Gray / November 21, 2004 / Leave a comment
A revival of atheism is a curious by-product of the 9/11 attacks. The causes and motives of the suicidal assaults on Washington and New York are not fully known, but for unbelievers they were acts of self-destructive terror that no secular mind could commit. With the retreat of Christianity in Europe, it may have seemed that unbelief was also in decline. In the event, unbelief has been given a new lease of life by a savage reminder of the persistent intensity of faith.
Few unbelievers know much about the diversity of contemporary religious thought and practice, and if they rail against the evils of religion – as do evangelical atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett – their target is usually right-wing American Protestantism. They ignore the vast variety of religious life today, as found not only in Christianity but in Judaism and Islam and the nontheistic religions of India and China. Indeed, atheism has always been a mirror image of western monotheism and shares many of its worst features. It is a commonplace that atheists are often extremely dogmatic in their unbelief – more so than many Christians. At least since Pascal, scepticism has been an integral part of Christian thinking; faith and doubt have learnt to coexist. Atheism contains no such leaven of doubt. There is no atheist thinker comparable to Richard Holloway, the former bishop of Edinburgh, who has left the Christian fold without locking himself into a secular orthodoxy. So-called free thinkers are possessed by a need for certainty, and nothing is more alien to them than Keats’s negative capability – the willingness to remain open to mystery.
It is not just in the rigidity of their unbelief that atheists mimic dogmatic believers. It is in their fixation on belief itself. The core of most religions is not doctrinal. In non-western traditions and even some strands of western monotheism, the spiritual life is not a matter of subscribing to a set of propositions. Its heart is in practice – in ritual, observance and (sometimes) mystical experience. It would be difficult to extract anything so simplistic as a creed from the unfathomable complex of practices of Hinduism, for example, while Buddhism has always emphasised the unimportance of doctrine and the ineffability of truth. Orthodox Judaism tends to accord priority to practice over belief. In Islam some Sufi traditions have taken a similar stance. When they dissect…