Dylan Evans and Salman Rushdie offer competing concepts of modern atheism in a recent pair of dueling newspaper articles. Evans was first to strike, writing in The Guardian [London] that atheists should strike a softer pose, acknowledging, in essence, that religions can be beautiful, even if they cannot be true. Rushdie wants nothing to do with this approach, asserting that Evans is proposing something like “Atheism Lite.” Rushdie wants his atheism delivered the old fashioned way — with venom.
“There are many species of atheism, just as there are many species of religion,” Evans explains. “But while many religions still thrive, most of the atheisms that have ever existed are now extinct.” Today’s atheists, he complains, preach an “old and tired” atheism that appeals to few. He criticizes miltant atheists like Oxford University professor Richard Dawkins for driving people away form atheism. “As a friend of mine once commented, no other atheist has done more for the cause of religion than Richard Dawkins.”
Here’s what Evans proposes: “Isn’t it about time that atheists tried to imagine what some other forms of atheism might look like? Not in the hope of replacing one orthodoxy with another, but simply in order to challenge other atheists to imagine still more ways of being nonreligious – to encourage them to construct their own forms of atheism, rather than buying a ready-made version off the shelf. Atheism should be more like a set of Lego blocks than a pre-assembled toy. The challenge and the opportunity that it offers is that of constructing one’s own personal philosophy of life, a philosophy that is not put together according to any set of instructions handed down from on high.”
According to Evans, his kinder and gentler atheism would be a genuine departure from the militant forms popular in the twentieth century. “My kind of atheism takes issue with the old atheism on all three of its main tenets: it values religion; treats science as simply a means to an end; and finds the meaning of life in art.” Or, in other words, “I think the best way to think about religion is to see it like the painting in this parable. In other words, religions are beautiful things, but their beauty can only be truly appreciated when they are seen as human creations — as works of art.”
Evans’ atheism is not anti-religious, you understand, just anti-supernatural. Religion is just fine, so long as you don’t really believe anything about God.
Salmon Rushdie’s not buying this approach. He attacked the faith of his Muslim ancestors in The Satanic Verses, and he wants nothing to do with Evans and his accommodating atheism. Writing in the Toronto Star, Rushdie argues that Evans proposes a one-way street. “Such a truce would have a chance of working only if it were reciprocal — if the world’s religions agreed to value the atheist position and to concede its ethical basis, if they respected the discoveries and achievements of modern science, even when these discoveries challenge religious sanctities, and if they agreed that art at its best reveals life’s multiple meanings at least as clearly as so-called ‘revealed’ texts. No such reciprocal arrangement exists, however, nor is there the slightest chance that such an accommodation could ever be reached.”
Rushdie respects only dead religions. “To see religion as ‘a kind of art,’ as Evans rather sweetly proposes, is possible only when the religion is dead or when, like the Church of England, it has become a set of polite rituals. The old Greek religion lives on as mythology, the old Norse religion has left us the Norse myths and, yes, now we can read them as literature.”
Genuine belief in God is just dangerous, Rushdie argues, and it inevitably leads to division and danger. He overlooks, of course, the murderous legacy of twentieth-century atheism — especially as represented by communist regimes and the state-worship of National Socialism in Germany.
Nevertheless, when the atheists debate atheism, it’s always wise to watch. As Christians, we had better present authentic Christianity as the faith they are so determined to reject. Soft Christianity is countered by soft atheism. The truth claims of biblical Christianity leave no room for compromise — no neutral zone.