A couple of months ago readers of the Guardian were presented with the peculiar spectacle of an atheist intellectual calling out his fellow atheists for being, of all things, too religious, of engaging in what the author coined “missionary atheism.” The author was the intrepid John Gray and his article was “What Scares the New Atheists.” The religious faith he accused his atheist cohorts of was a crusading belief in the scientific and rational basis of liberal values. Mr. Gray then follows with various examples of atheism’s inconvenient history of collusion with some of the West’s most unfortunate and bloody ideological projects. The irony of the New Atheism, Gray goes on to assert, is that it is driven not by reason, but rather by fear that the march of secularism may be faltering; rather than demonstrating the self-awareness of say, a Freud or Schopenhauer, both of whom understood religion’s important roles in society, New Atheism simply offers another variant of evangelical movement based on a faith that dare not acknowledge itself as such even while crusading against other faiths.
…As if to illustrate these critiques, recent events appear to be making Gray and Haidt’s case, for the more secular we have become, the less liberal secular liberalism seems to be.
… the liberal project has been co-opted by a cult of political correctness, we seem to be approaching some threshold where the “party of science” is reverting to the party of the tribe.
…much of what motivates us in terms of values, politics, and religious persuasion are really the banners we are preternaturally disposed to run to when that switch turns on. But here alongside Haidt, the work of literary theorist René Girard should be considered, for two reasons. First, Girard offers a helpful model to understand the psychology of overly ideological times, and second, the soil from which he developed this theory was primarily the writings of that great psychologist of ideology and extremism, Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Dostoyevsky once famously wrote that if his fellow Russians ever became atheists they would turn atheism into a religion. Girard’s account elaborates on this theme, suggesting that beyond a certain secular horizon, society does not cease to be religious, but rather returns to a more primitive and tribal form of religion.
Like Haidt, Girard observes that ideology becomes a source of tribal identity, but at its most extreme it becomes increasingly dependent not on the principles that it espouses but on the psychological kinetics of its adversarial relationship to its rivals. Positive philosophy gives way to the need to feed on rivalry as a source of meaning. This is why extremist ideologies tend to be built upon fabulist views of a possible future: the more spectacular the vision, the more unreachable the goal, the more immersive the cause.
Girard’s term of art for this is “mimetic rivalry.” It is mimetic, or imitative, because it depends upon and even apes the aspirations to power of the enemies it dedicates itself to defeating. Thus the mimetic ideologue’s battle never ends, because in “mimetic rivalry” it is the battle, not possession of the territory, that gives meaning and identity.
According to Girard, mimetic rivalry at its most extreme manifestation is a game the Devil, figuratively speaking, plays upon those who work to displace God. In The Brothers Karamazov the reader is introduced to many such figures, some in religious robes such as the Grand Inquisitor, others revolutionaries like Ivan. The game is that in the end, all the aspiration to transform the world by coercion or violence is really but the expression of unbounded vanity that feeds the mind full of visions of paradise while bringing only hell to the world.
In the penultimate chapter of The Righteous Mind, Haidt shares with the reader the disorienting moment when he realized conservatism wasn’t so backward and parochial after all.
…He goes on:
Based on my own research, I had no choice but to agree with these conservative claims. As I continued to read the writings of conservative intellectuals, from Edmund Burke in the eighteenth century through Friedrich Hayek and Thomas Sowell in the twentieth, I began to see that they had attained a crucial insight into the sociology of morality that I had never encountered before.
… The primary difference is that while liberals tend to found their understanding of the world primarily upon moral concerns of care, liberty, and fairness, conservatives more equally distribute their understanding of the world upon these themes as well as on loyalty, authority, and sanctity. The importance of these latter principles—as elaborated by those such as Burke, Hayek, and Sowell, and unintentionally vindicated by Haidt’s own work—reveals that only one side of the political spectrum appears to see the world in its full moral spectrum. What Girard and Dostoyevsky reveal is that when these concerns are not taken into account, more still when they are discarded, what takes place after the revolution is not a new age, but a very old, very violent and primitive one. Haidt puts it this way: “You can’t help the bees by destroying the hive.”
As Western elites lurch seemingly further to the secular left, the ability to see and appreciate the import of mediating institutions appears not only to have dangerously diminished but to have paved the way for the hive-destroying Mr. Haidt warns against. If Haidt is correct that conservatives are unique in understanding the stakes, then Girard’s insights suggest that this is the reason conservatives find themselves the rival of choice for so many of today’s ideologically Possessed.
The Illiberals find it difficult to see any of this. That John Gray column mentioned earlier provides another perspective on how a certain flavor of atheism makes it hard to understand the world:
It’s a reassuringly simple equation. In fact there are no reliable connections – whether in logic or history – between atheism, science and liberal values.
…Evangelical atheists today view liberal values as part of an emerging global civilisation; but not all atheists, even when they have been committed liberals, have shared this comforting conviction. Atheism comes in many irreducibly different forms, among which the variety being promoted at the present time looks strikingly banal and parochial.
…For secular thinkers, the continuing vitality of religion calls into question the belief that history underpins their values. To be sure, there is disagreement as to the nature of these values. But pretty well all secular thinkers now take for granted that modern societies must in the end converge on some version of liberalism. Never well founded, this assumption is today clearly unreasonable.
…Awkwardly for these atheists, Nietzsche understood that modern liberalism was a secular incarnation of these religious traditions. As a classical scholar, he recognised that a mystical Greek faith in reason had shaped the cultural matrix from which modern liberalism emerged. Some ancient Stoics defended the ideal of a cosmopolitan society; but this was based in the belief that humans share in the Logos, an immortal principle of rationality that was later absorbed into the conception of God with which we are familiar. Nietzsche was clear that the chief sources of liberalism were in Jewish and Christian theism: that is why he was so bitterly hostile to these religions. He was an atheist in large part because he rejected liberal values.
…If you think of morality in scientific terms, as part of the behaviour of the human animal, you find that humans don’t live according to iterations of a single universal code. Instead, they have fashioned many ways of life. A plurality of moralities is as natural for the human animal as the variety of languages.
At this point, the dread spectre of relativism tends to be raised. Doesn’t talk of plural moralities mean there can be no truth in ethics? Well, anyone who wants their values secured by something beyond the capricious human world had better join an old-fashioned religion. If you set aside any view of humankind that is borrowed from monotheism, you have to deal with human beings as you find them, with their perpetually warring values.
.…Universal values don’t add up to a universal morality. Such values are very often conflicting, and different societies resolve these conflicts in divergent ways.
…The conviction that tyranny and persecution are aberrations in human affairs is at the heart of the liberal philosophy that prevails today. But this conviction is supported by faith more than evidence. Throughout history there have been large numbers who have been happy to relinquish their freedom as long as those they hate – gay people, Jews, immigrants and other minorities, for example – are deprived of freedom as well. Many have been ready to support tyranny and oppression. Billions of human beings have been hostile to liberal values, and there is no reason for thinking matters will be any different in future.
…Considering the alternatives that are on offer, liberal societies are well worth defending. But there is no reason for thinking these societies are the beginning of a species-wide secular civilisation of the kind of which evangelical atheists dream.
It’s possible to envision different varieties of atheism developing – atheisms more like those of Freud, which didn’t replace God with a flattering image of humanity. But atheisms of this kind are unlikely to be popular. More than anything else, our unbelievers seek relief from the panic that grips them when they realise their values are rejected by much of humankind. What today’s freethinkers want is freedom from doubt, and the prevailing version of atheism is well suited to give it to them.