"Atheist Tracts," Weekly Standard, 13 August 2007.
As if we were back in eighteenth-century France, atheist tracts are abroad in our land, their flamboyant titles defiant. The God Delusion, God Is Not Great, Letter to a Christian Nation, Atheist Manifesto, Atheist Universe: These are not subtle insinuations against God, requiring inferences from readers, but open opposition inviting readers to join in thumbing their noses. The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, newly published, offers comfort and scholarly reassurance, if not consolation, to atheists who might otherwise feel lonely–as, believing what they do, they surely must.
Atheism isn’t what it was in the eighteenth century. Now, the focus of the attack is not the Church, which is no longer dominant, but religion itself. The disdain one used to hear for “organized religion” extends now to the individual believer’s faith. Despite the change, politics is still the thrust of the attack. It’s just that the delusion of religion is now allowed to be the responsibility of the believer, not of some group that is deluding him. A more direct approach is required.
In our time, religion, having lost its power to censor and dominate, still retains its ability, in America especially, to compete for adherents in our democracy of ideas. So to reduce the influence of religion, it is politically necessary to attack it in the private sphere as well as in the public square. This suggests that the distinction between public and private, dear to our common liberalism, is sometimes a challenge to maintain.
If religion, then, cannot be defended merely on the ground that it is private, what might be said in its behalf for the public good? We know from behavioral studies that, to the embarrassment of atheists, believers, or at least churchgoers, are better citizens–more active and law-abiding–than those who spend Sunday morning reading the New York Times. But why should this be so? And is it really true that atheists, with their newfound aggressiveness, are not public-spirited?