The turning point of intellectual atheism »MercatorNet
Recently, I spent time on the phone with Niall Ferguson, the Scottish historian and Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, for a see again I was writing his last book, Doom: the politics of disaster. In the first chapter, Ferguson repeatedly refers to religion as “magical thinking”, and I asked him if he had his own metaphysical framework for understanding events, or if he didn’t. , which he preferred people to have. His response was fascinating.
“I was brought up as an atheist, I didn’t become one,” he says. “I consider atheism to be the religious faith in which I was brought up. It is, of course, as much of a faith as Christianity or Islam – and I have the Calvinist mark, because my parents left the Church of Scotland. I was brought up, essentially, in a Calvinist ethical framework but without God. It had its advantages – I was encouraged to think very critically about religion and also about science, but I came to see as a historian that you cannot build a society on that. Indeed, atheism, especially in its militant forms, is really a very dangerous metaphysical framework for a society.
“I know I can’t achieve religious faith,” he continued, “but I think we should go to church. We don’t have, I don’t think, a sophisticated ethical system. I do not subscribe to the idea that evolution alone causes us to be moral. It can change behavior, but there is just too much evidence that in the rough, when the constraints of civilization fall, we behave in the most savage way towards each other. I firmly believe that with the wisdom inherited from a religion that is two millennia old, we have a pretty good framework to work with.
For one of the world’s foremost historians, himself an agnostic, to say that we should go to church is rather surprising, but Ferguson’s sentiments also seem to be part of a growing trend. The late philosopher Sir Roger Scruton began attending church himself despite struggling with belief, regularly playing the organ at the All Saints in Garsdon. His secular friends say his faith has remained cultural; other friends weren’t so sure. What we do know is that he believed that Christianity was in many ways the soul of Western civilization, and that the uniquely Christian concept of forgiveness was quite essential to its survival.
Scruton’s friend Douglas Murray, the conservative writer who grew up in the Church before leaving it as an adult, has sometimes called himself a “Christian atheist.” In one recent discussion along with theologian NT Wright, he described himself as “an uneasy agnostic who recognizes the virtues and values that the Christian faith has brought”, and noted that he is in fact irritated by the way that ‘Church of England shuns its heritage, “abandoning its gems” such as “the King James Bible and The book of common prayer”In exchange for progressive piety.
“My fear is that the Church will not do what so many of us on the outside want it to do, which is to preach its gospel, assert its truths and its claims,” he said. -he declares. “When we see him fall into all the last tropes, we say to ourselves well that’s another thing that’s gone, like absolutely everything else back then. I am a disappointed non-member.
Murray believes that Christianity is essential because the laity so far have been totally incapable of creating an ethic of equality that corresponds to the concept that all human beings are created in the image of God. In a column of the Spectator, he Noted that post-Christian society has three options. The first is to let go of the idea that all human life is precious. “Another is to work hard to establish an atheist version of the holiness of the individual. What if it doesn’t work? “So there’s only one other place to go. Which comes down to faith, whether we like it or not.
On a recent podcast, he was more blunt: “The sanctity of human life is a Judeo-Christian notion that could very easily not survive. [the disappearance of] Judeo-Christian civilization.
The American sociologist and agnostic Charles Murray, too, told me in a interview that he believes the American republic is unlikely to survive without a resurgence of Christianity. Echoing John Adams, he noted that the Constitution of the United States and the freedoms it upholds can only rule a religious people.
The magnificent by historian Tom Holland Dominion: how the Christian revolution remade the world, published in 2019, makes a similar case. For years Holland – an agnostic – has written fascinating stories about the ancient Greeks and Romans, but he observed that their societies were plagued by occasional and socially accepted cruelty to the weak, rape and sexual abuse against the weak. massive slave class as an undisputed person. way of life and the mass extermination of enemies systematically. These peoples and their ethics, writes Hollands, seemed quite alien to him.
It was Christianity, Holland concludes, that changed all that in a revolution so complete that even critics of Christianity have to borrow precepts from Christianity to do so. (Without Christianity, he writes, “no one would have woken up.”) He brilliantly defended this thesis in a debate on the subject “Did Christianity Give Us Our Human Values?With atheist philosopher AC Grayling, who seemed actively irritated by the idea. Not so long ago, unbelievers like the late Christopher Hitchens asserted that “religion poisons everything” – a sentiment that seems to recede as we move into the post-Christian era.
Hitchens often claimed to be not an atheist, but an “anti-theist” – he did not believe in God, and he was happy that he did not. It is fascinating to see intellectuals express precisely the opposite feeling: they do not believe, but they want to believe. Psychologist Jordan Peterson, who speaks often about Christianity, is a good example. Discuss the historicity of Christian history with Jonathan Pageau, he said, choking back tears, “I probably believe it, but I’m amazed at my own belief and don’t understand it.”
[I]In a sense, I think it’s undeniable. You know, we have a narrative sense of the world. For me it was the world of morality, it is the world that tells us how to act. It’s real, we treat it like it’s real. It is not the objective world, but the narrative and the objective world meet. And the ultimate example of that in principle is supposed to be Christ. But I don’t know what to do with it – it seems oddly plausible to me. But I still don’t know what to think about it. Partly because it’s too terrifying a reality to fully believe in. I don’t even know what would happen to you if you fully believed it.
Not so long ago, atheists who retreated to their Darwinian towers and walled up to shoot arrows at worshipers research be there. Their intellectual silos were a refuge from faith because they didn’t want Christianity to be true. They hated it and thought we would be better off without it. Like Hitchens, they were happy to find arguments that allowed them to reject him. Increasingly, some intellectuals from all disciplines – history, literature, psychology, philosophy – are looking out of what was once a safe haven and wish that somehow they could believe it. They understood that Christianity is both indispensable and beautiful, but their intellectual constraints prevent many of them from embracing it as true.
Considering Western civilization with its chopped Christian soul, many are now ready to say, “We need Christ. “What they are unable to say so far is:”I need christ. “But politics has to become personal. Peterson seems to understand this and is amazed by the reality.
For now, historians like Niall Ferguson recognize that Christianity is a fundamental bulwark of the fragile civilization in which we live.
“I think the idea that we can face these arrows of outrageous fortune without some sort of established, age-old consoling package is almost certainly wrong,” he told me. “I’m one of those people who didn’t come to atheism by choice, and almost came out of it based on historical studies. The biggest disasters we are probably facing are in fact linked to totalitarianism, because that is the lesson of the 20e century. Pandemics killed many people in the 20e century, but totalitarianism has killed more.
“It bothers me that in many ways totalitarianism is gaining ground today,” Ferguson said. “Totalitarianism was bad for many reasons, and one of the manifestations of its wickedness was its attack on religion. When I see totalitarianism gaining ground not only in China but in subtle ways in our own society, it seems like the disaster we really need to avoid. Why am I a conservative and not just a classic liberal? Because classical liberalism will not stop the awakening and totalitarianism. It is not strong enough. Ultimately, we need the ideas inherited from a civilization and the defenses against that particular form of disaster. “
The survival of Christianity is essential to the survival of the West. The bad news is that awareness comes when the day is far away. The Good News is simpler. “Christianity has known a series of revolutions and in each of them Christianity is dead,” wrote GK Chesterton in Eternal man. “Christianity has died many times and is resurrected; for she had a God who knew the way out of the grave.
Originally published at Convivium. Republished with permission.