And how did you spend your summer? Having more fun, I hope, than the English kids marched off to Camp Quest, a five-day atheist camp supported in part by Oxford scientist Richard Dawkins.
The idea, Dawkins said, is “to encourage children to think for themselves.”
Yes, well, as long as they don’t think well of religion, tykes are welcome to join his herd of independent minds.
It’s hard to see the pleasure of sitting around the campfire, learning from grown-ups that the world is disenchanted after all. (No ghost stories for you, lad!)
But if eat-your-spinach skepticism strikes your fancy, the Lone Star version of Camp Quest will be a one-day affair in late summer, sponsored by the North Texas Church of Freethought (churchoffreethought.org).
Hmm. One doesn’t quite know what to make of an atheist church. Most people, when they cease to believe in the Easter bunny, don’t hold monthly services to celebrate the non-existence of a peripatetic paschal rabbit.
But you know Dallas: We’re so religious that even the atheists go to church. For the record, at their next service, the freethinkers will focus on invisibility. Ah, reason.
Most atheists I know don’t care for religion, obviously, but aren’t angry about it. Not so the True Unbelievers — the Dawkinses and their followers — who prove that you don’t have to be religious to be a fundamentalist.
I spent part of my summer with other journalists at a science and religion camp, of sorts, a Templeton Foundation program at Cambridge University. We heard from top researchers and academics who are religious believers from various traditions, and others who are not.
My favorite presenter was John Gray, an English atheist political philosopher who, in his 2007 book “Black Mass,” argued that contemporary atheists have thrown off Christianity but still hold a religious faith in a secular utopia and the perfectibility of humanity.
That is, the people Gray calls “evangelical atheists” believe all would be well with our lot if everybody would get on board with their sternly anti-religious program. This is nothing new in the history of atheism, Gray explained to us.
Though latter-day atheists would prefer to ignore it, their intellectual forebears, the 19th-century Positivists, passionately believed that there was nothing wrong with the world that suppressing religion and replacing it with science couldn’t fix.
Unfortunately, militant atheism in power has repeated all the crimes of religious regimes and, absent ethical restraints, made them vastly worse. Though their ideologies despised Christianity, both the communists and the Nazis justified their own monstrosities as “scientific.” While religion’s atrocities cannot be denied, today’s atheist campaigners blindly refuse to accept that atheism’s savage legacy is no accident.
“There’s a reason for that,” Gray said. “If the New Atheists came to terms with it, they’d have to give up their basic faith. Their very project is flawed, and that flaw is the atheist project of liberating people from their traditions, their history and their humanity.”
The religious sense — of awe, of mystery, of a need for meaning — is hard-wired into our species, which is why Gray, a nonbeliever, identifies a “funny sort of humanism that condemns an impulse that is peculiarly human.”
He’s certainly correct to warn that the attempt to repress the religious instinct (as with the sexual instinct) only means it will reappear in some other, degraded form — the operatic pseudo-paganism of the Nazis, say, or the Soviet Stalinist cult, or even, more benignly, the faintly ridiculous idea of an atheist church.
We ought to reject the shibboleth, advocated by both religious and secular fundamentalists, that religion and science are doomed to be antagonists. They are both legitimate ways of knowing within their limited spheres and should both complement and temper each other. The trouble comes when one tries to assert universal hegemony over the other.
One leading atheist philosopher told our group that scientists had nothing to learn from religious people, who by definition believed absurd things.
This is narrow-minded cant. Native Alaskans believe animals give themselves to humans for nourishment. Eskimo communities use every part of the animals they take, out of a reverence for the gift of creation.
One does not have to profess Eskimo religion to grasp that these tribal peoples know something important about life and how to live it — something that eludes the purely materialist mind.
Contrary to the biases of our time, the importance of science does not exceed that of art and religion. As the poet Wendell Berry writes, the sacredness of life “cannot be proved. It can only be told or shown.”
Fortunate are those whose minds are free enough to recognize it.