There are few things today more fashionable, more suited to our modern conceit, than atheism. In fact, far from being radical or heroically contrarian, the current version of atheism strikes me as the ultimate conformism.
This is especially apparent in the case of the slipshod, grotesquely sensationalist "New Atheism" – invariably renounced by principled, literate atheists like James Wood, Thomas Nagel, John Gray, Philip Pullman and the late Bernard Williams – which poses no serious challenge to our most serious social ills and so has no other alternative but to blame our social ills in toto on religion.
Now, I don’t want to be misunderstood. I am not claiming that atheism is necessarily the cause of our modern predicament, much less that it is the root of all evil. To make such a claim would be to accord this variety of atheistic chic with too much importance, too much weight.
In a way, I think where atheism fits in our cultural moment it is more incidental than that. Our real problem today is the impoverishment of the modern mind, our inability to think properly about such elevated things as the Good, Beauty, Truth, Law, Love, Life, Death, Humanity, the End or Purpose of things, even Sex itself, without such ideas being debased by an incurious and all-pervasive nihilism.
And hence it is altogether unsurprising that, when we can’t even think clearly about such lower-order goods, the highest Good, and what philosophy once regarded as the ultimate object of human contemplation – namely, God himself – is beyond our imaginations.
Moreover, it is equally unsurprising that when the New Atheists do speak of "God," their god is just as vulgar and petty and agonistic as their conceptions of morality, gender, politics and sex. When they speak thus about "God," are they not just seeing what is worst in ourselves?
And here we confront a desperate contradiction at the heart of so much atheistic hyperbole (accurately identified by Bernard Williams and others). The New Atheists rely heavily on the thesis that religion is the enemy of progress and human flourishing, and that once the last vestiges of religion are done away with, humanity will be far better off.
But they also claim that all religion is "man made," and self-evidently so. This begs the question: if religion is indeed this all-pervasive source of corruption and prejudice and moral retardation, where do they believe that religion itself comes from, if not the human imagination? And so, as Bernard Williams puts the question:
"if humanity has invented something as awful as [these atheists] take religion to be, what should that tell them about humanity? In particular, can humanity really be expected to do much better without it?"