Atheist Tracts

Harvey Mansfield, professor of government at Harvard, responds to the “atheist tracts” of Dawkins and Hitchens, in an article published on the Weekly Standard web site.

It is not religion that makes men fanatics; it is the power of the human desire for justice, so often partisan and perverted. That fanatical desire can be found in both religion and atheism. In the contest between religion and atheism, the strength of religion is to recognize two apparently contrary forces in the human soul: the power of injustice and the power, nonetheless, of our desire for justice. The stubborn existence of injustice reminds us that man is not God, while the demand for justice reminds us that we wish for the divine. Religion tries to join these two forces together.

The weakness of atheism, however, is to take account of only one of them, the fact of injustice in the case of Epicurean atheism or the desire for justice in our Enlightenment atheism. I conclude that philosophy today–and science too–need not only to tolerate and respect religion, but also to learn from it.

Wouldn’t it be nice if it were really true that religion was nothing more than a philosophical recognition of the conflict between the desire for justice and the desire for the power that comes from injustice? If religion could just do that, and do it successfully, then indeed philosophers and scientists could learn something worthwhile from it.

Sadly, when we see religion at work today, it is not so much a matter of balancing justice and injustice, it’s a matter of metaphorical, and sometimes literal, war. We see Christians pushing constitutional amendments to make it illegal for gays to marry the person they love, and insisting that only Christian prayers should be offered in the House and Senate. We see jihads against non-Muslims, and counter-attacks that are crusades in all but name. We see parents indulging in ritual mutilation of their children’s genitals, out of a superstitious fear that God wants everyone to be circumcised.

Somehow the thirst for justice, in practice, seems to get lost in the pursuit of Christian supremacy (or Muslim supremacy, or whatever). The problem that Hitchens and Dawkins point out is not that religion fails to address the conflict between justice and injustice, but that Big Religion, in general, does a remarkably poor job of handling the conflict. And with respect to Professor Mansfield, the solution is not to just embrace superstition and self-contradiction. Yes, injustice is a thorny problem, but don’t you think we just might stand a better chance of finding a workable solution if we base our search on the objective reality we all have in common, instead of butting heads over whose subjective fantasies are better than whose?

We all inhabit and experience the same real world, regardless of worldview. The law of gravity, for example, pulls downwards with equal strength upon both believer and unbeliever. Different believers may have different opinions about realms outside of the objective reality we all experience in common, but none of these other realms have enough influence on us to make a measureable impact on the world we all share.

Whatever answers we find–whatever workable answers we find–are going to come from the reality that exists outside of our perceptions and speculations. The great strength of the atheists is that this reality, objective reality, is the only reality they acknowledge. Their whole attention is focused on the one thing we all have in common. It is the religionists who ought to be joining the atheists in exploring the real world, which we all have a share in, rather than calling on the atheists to join the religionists in the pursuit of other “realities” which contradict not only each other, but themselves.

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