At a time when atheism is being treated with increasing respect by the media, Digby Anderson looks at the different kinds of modern-day atheists and their reasons for disbelieving

What are we to do about all these militant atheists? Actually I’m not sure there are that many of them, but the few there are have become tediously enthusiastic and noisy. Foreigners have always had more than their fair share of atheists. France has long been well known for this sort of nonsense back before the Revolution, and if you count certain heresies as equivalent to atheism, then even longer. Marx and Stalin, and of course Mao, were some of the more extreme and murderous atheists but the Spanish republicans were quite lively and fond of massacring priests and nuns when they couldn’t find anyone with a tie on to murder. The Italian atheistic tradition was, as one might expect, not so effective but intellectually it has been important.

Here there is no equivalent tradition. Maurice Cowling, in his detailed examination of nineteenth- and twentieth-century anti-and post-Christian intellectuals, Religion and Public Doctrine, counts comparatively few outright atheists among them. The majority of his dismal list are secularists, unfaithful or treacherous Christians, immoralists, minimalists, men who drain what is best and central out of Christianity, pagans and idolaters. Indeed there have been individual atheists among scientists, philosophers and, of course, leftists, but even they have been less extreme and though as scientists, philosophers and leftists they have been important, their atheism has been without influence. Anti-clericalism, too, has been weak in England.

Being taken seriously

The usual explanation is that the Elizabethan settlement skewered atheism by neutralizing it. By creating a national compromise church wedded to breadth, tolerance and doctrinal equivocation, it removed atheisms target. What need is there for militant atheism when the predominant church is so unmilitant? Thus the response of the English to would-be militant atheists is to treat them, as for so long vegetarians or anti-vivisectionists were treated, as nutters, sandal-wearers or as attention-seekers, small children chanting ‘bum’.

But today, all sorts of chaps who would have been dismissed as nutters – ecologists, alternative health charlatans, food fascists and New Age-ers – are taken seriously by people, and especially newspapers who ought to know better. It is then no surprise to find people – I don’t mean proper people such as shopkeepers in Salisbury or computer assemblers in Hull, but media people and of course intellectuals and liberal Christians – treating atheism with respect. The newspapers even go so far as to publish letters from the National Secular Society.

Varieties of atheism

This is a mistake. The atheists like being taken seriously. So we should obviously treat them with contempt. Oh, all right, I know, we should love them and treat their views as ludicrous. We do not need to go through the arguments again. Over the last 200 or so years highly competent Christian theologians and philosophers have seen off most varieties of atheism. There is certainly nothing new in the absurd scientific reductionism of a Dawkins.

There are, of course, varieties of atheism. It has long been recognized that Protestant and Catholic atheists are different. Read Dostoyevsky and you quickly see that Russian Orthodox atheists differ from both of these. The English used to do a line in puritanical, dour, even ascetic atheists. They always seemed especially daft. Having got rid of the main obstacle to licence, vice and hedonism, they proceeded to live like Scotch Presbyterians. The current crop are certainly enthusiastic, even evangelical atheists, which is somewhat of a self-contradiction. Incidentally, one way to tease your atheist, of whatever sort, is to ask him to justify not being not one of the other sorts.

There is something else new about the current crop. The traditional atheist explains that he does not believe in God; God does not exist. Again, others in the twentieth century (mostly, it is true, foreigners) took it more personally. They declare that they won’t believe in God. They do not so much doubt as reject him.

Their atheism is more than a rational assessment, it is a stand. I choose atheism, I reject your God’s love, his attempt to save me, the false and easy meaning he might give to my life. I stand courageous and alone confronting absurdity Another, less continental variant is the T reject a God who does not come up to my demands or standards, e.g. one who permits suffering.’

A matter of will

Among the new atheists is a new cry. It is not that they don’t believe nor even that they won’t. It is that they can’t. There is something of an appeal for sympathy here. I would like to, but I can’t. There are obstacles which Christianity puts in their way, some of which the other Don’ters and Won’ters also complain about: irrationality, God’s tolerance of suffering, the unkindness of the Crusaders, contempt for women. The most important thing with this lot is not, for the shortest second, to give them the sympathy and higher moral position they claim. The answer to T can’t’ is ‘Oh, yes you can.’ You could believe if you really wanted it.

Millions of chaps much brighter and better educated than you have found Christianity quite rational enough for them. Many souls more loving and compassionate than you have found the Sacred Heart quite loving enough for them. What do you think is so special about you? Your standards for belief in other fields are not that high.

As the sociologist David Martin once put it, a generation which believes The Sun should not have much problem with the New Testament. Simply, we believe and accept all sorts of things and people in our daily lives that are far more irrational or unkind than atheists make Christianity out to be.

Yet the Won’ters and Canters do us a favour. For they remind us that while belief or disbelief in God is a matter of reason and truth, it is also a matter of will and determination. Christians should not assume that because someone bleats that he can’t believe in God, that this is the truth. Still less should he assume that the disbelief is somehow courageous or noble. It is as likely to be a self-serving, lazy and pretentious evasion, and, even more serious, a lie. I