Atheism: Everything old is new again

Origin of atheists

Atheism is sometimes discussed as though it began with the celebrity of Richard Dawkins. Nothing could be further from the truth, as this timely history reminds us.

Like Britain's 'new Labour,' so-called New Atheism did not just replace the old variety but, for a while at least, almost totally occluded it. 

To put these recent debates – or more often than not, flaming rows – in some sort of perspective, a thorough history of atheism is long overdue. The godless may not at first be pleased to discover that the person who has stepped up to the plate to write it comes from the ranks of the opposition.

But Nick Spencer, research director of the Christian thinktank Theos, is the kind of intelligent, thoughtful, sympathetic critic that atheists need, if only to remind them that belief in God does not necessarily require a loss of all reason.

Spencer's story is designed to illuminate our present, so he understandably restricts himself to western Europe from the late middle ages onwards.

It is a compendious though not definitive account, which shows why atheism is not simply the natural result of the rise of scientific knowledge, and religion a simplistic vestige of more ignorant times.

Spencer rightly points out that, far from being enemies of religion, science and rationality were often most enthusiastically championed by men and women of faith. Locke and Newton were, for instance, both profoundly motivated by their Christianity.

In the long run, however, the church is being slowly undermined by the critical powers of inquiry it helped unleash. 

Much of the narrative is strictly historical, but there is also a polemical edge. 

Spencer wants to encourage us to see religious teachings as more moral than factual or historical. Here, he is promoting the conception of 'religiosity as pattern of life rather than a set of verifiable propositions.'

On this view, what matters is not whether difficult doctrines such as eternal damnation or even Christ's resurrection are true or false, but that a life guided by such ideas is somehow richer, more complete, more directed towards a higher good. If that is right, then atheists who have criticised religion for its doctrines have spectacularly missed the point, 'tilting at theological windmills.'

Atheists: The Origin of the Species – review (The Guardian)

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Beyond belief (The Tablet)

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