So says the Canadian philosopher (and 2007 Templeton Prize winner) Charles Taylor, whose masterwork “A Secular Age” I’ve just started. What follows is a passage from an interview Taylor did a couple of years ago, in which he pointed out that the New Atheism is the secular equivalent of Christian fundamentalism, an intense rear-guard action to the crumbling of a world they thought was secure — and the rapid decay of which makes them panic. The passage is too long to excerpt, so I’ve put the whole thing below the jump. But do go read the entire lengthy interview here. Having gotten only as far as the introduction to “A Secular Age,” I can tell you that Taylor sets out to explore why it was virtually impossible not to believe in God in the year 1500, why it’s far more difficult to believe in God today — and how we got from there to here. Read on for this provocative excerpt from the interview.
TOJ: Just to bring us back to the topic of atheism, I wonder if you have any opinion regarding those who are being called the “New Atheists,” say Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris, who happen to be quite militant in their rhetoric.
CT: Yes, I happen to have quite a negative view of these folks. I think their work is very intellectually shoddy. I mean there are two things that perhaps I am just totally allergic to. The first is that they all believe that there really are some knock-down arguments against belief in God. And of course this is something you can only believe if you have a scientistic, reductionist conception and explanation of everything in the world, including human beings. If you do have such a view that everything is to be explained in terms of physics and the movement of atoms and the like, then certain forms of access to God are just closed. For example, there are certain human experiences that might direct us to God, but these would all be totally illusory if everything could be explained in scientific terms. I spend a lot of time reflecting and writing on the various human sciences and how they can be tempted into a kind of reductionism, and not only would I say that the jury is out on that, but I would argue that the likelihood of that turning out to be the proper understanding of human beings is very small. And the problem is that they just assume this reductionistic view.
The second thing I am allergic to is that they keep going on and on about the relationship between religion and violence, which on one level is fine because there is a lot of religiously-caused violence. But what they consistently fail to acknowledge is that the twentieth century was full of various atheists who were rampaging around killing millions of people. So it is simply absurd that at the end of the twentieth century someone would continue to advance the thesis that religion is the main cause of violence. I mean you’d think these people were writing in 1750, and that would be quite understandable if you were Voltaire or Locke, but to say this in 2008, well it just takes my breath away.
But then what we need to do, and this is something many religious people fail to do, is to consider why this phenomena of the new atheism is happening at this time. Atheists are reacting in the same way that religious fundamentalists reacted in the past. They are people who have been very comfortable with a sense that their particular position is what makes sense of everything and so on, and then when they are confronted by something else they just go bananas and throw up the most incredibly bad arguments in a tone of indignation and anger. And that’s the problem with that whole master narrative of secularization, what’s called the secularization thesis, that people got lulled into–you know, that religion is a thing of the past, that it’s disappearing, that it did all these terrible things but it’s going to go away and so on–because when it comes back people are just undone.
TOJ: Or when they realize it never went away….
CT: Yeah right, not only did they not notice that it was always there and never really went away, but phenomenologically in their experience it came back suddenly. Religion returned! And why? Well, for no apparent reason. It doesn’t make any sense in light of the secularization thesis. And it’s wrecking the whole universe they had tidily built. So they get terribly angry. And that makes for a very curious kind of atheism. So this tells us something about the zeitgeist, about what’s happening, about people’s having bought very deeply into a particular master narrative, namely the secularization thesis that religion is on its way out, and from which they are getting a certain degree of spiritual comfort, and now that this has been disrupted they are reacting with rage.
TOJ: That’s very interesting. So if I’m hearing you correctly you’re saying that the extreme atheist reaction to the return of religion is actually a spiritual reaction to an interrupted spiritual narrative.
CT: Exactly, and people are very deeply invested, I mean we’re all deeply invested in our spiritual narratives, but we don’t all have this sense that history is on our side. It’s terrible in that sense.
TOJ: In A Secular Age you suggest that there is a parallel between these militant atheists and really dogmatic religious people. Would it be on that score?
CT: Exactly, exactly. The militancy is stronger in the U.S. than in Canada because there is this sense among many American Christians, more so among Protestants than Catholics, that America is founded on a certain kind of inter-denominational Protestant Christianity. I mean we know that a lot of these founders were closet Deists, like Thomas Jefferson, but for the majority of Americans it really was about a providential carrying out of God’s plan and so on. And America is now split between people who hold onto this kind of national identity and others, a much smaller but more influential group who dominate the media and the universities and so on, that have a completely different read. The same constitution and the same constitutional rules are read in a secularist light; that is, there is no privileged position and that all religions are equally to be abstracted from. And the upshot is that each of these groups thinks the other has betrayed America, and is being un-American.
TOJ: So would you see both the religious fundamentalists and the militant atheist then as reactionaries? You know, driving wedges between people and leading to more misunderstanding and demonization?