Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Who cares about religious apathy?

The joke example of “mixed emotions” is “Watching your mother-in-law go over a cliff in your brand-new Maserati.”  Well, never having been married, my experience of other people’s mothers-in-law has been nothing but positive.  So I’ll have to settle for this example: reading that Richard Dawkins is a Christmas traditionalist.

In the Christmas issue of the New Statesman, published this week [writes Jennifer Schuessler of the New York Times], the eminent zoologist and author of “The God Delusion” began an open letter to Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain by heartily wishing him “Merry Christmas!,” adding that he will accept no substitutes.
“All that ‘Happy Holiday Season’ stuff, with ‘holiday’ cards and ‘holiday’ presents,” is a tiresome import from the United States, where it has long been fostered more by rival religions than atheists,” Mr. Dawkins wrote.
As a “cultural Anglican,” Mr. Dawkins continued, “I recoil from such secular carols as ‘White Christmas,’ ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,’ and the loathsome ‘Jingle Bells’ [he’s obviously never heard Andrea Bocelli sing it with the Muppets], but I’m happy to sing real carols, and in the unlikely event that anyone wants me to read a lesson I’ll gladly oblige — only from the King James Version, of course.”

Of course, Dawkins’ encomiums for traditional carols and robust, unapologetic references to Christ as part of Christmas merely set up attacks on government support of religious schools, the “faith-labeling” of children, and on PM Cameron’s own religious sincerity.  But the mental picture of him, bundled against the cold, appearing on some Belgravia doorstep and regaling the residents with “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” (perhaps in a barbershop quartet with Sam Harris, Philip Pullman and P. Z. Myers?), does much to alleviate the “after-Christmas blues”.

We need not spend any time chaffing Dawkins for any inconsistency, as there’s enough hypocrisy among Christians to make a baker’s-dozen tu quoque responses.  As Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker wrote:

… Once we brush away surface similarities, we discover that in principle Christians and atheists inhabit different moral universes, where in great part what is good for the atheist is evil for the Christian, and what is evil for the atheist is good for the Christian. We stress “in principle” because in practice most atheists and Christians historically and culturally combine a confused mixture of moral principles, some of which can be traced back to Christian sources, some of which can be traced back to secular sources that arose in antagonism to Christianity and culminate in atheism.[1]

Dawkins is content to be a “cultural Anglican” just as many people are “cultural X”; whatever you can say about his atheism, he at least has recognized the shreds of religiosity he retains for what they are. 

According to Cathy Lynn Grossman of USAToday, just under half of Americans today are what Hemant Mehta of The Friendly Atheist calls “apatheists”: that is, spiritually apathetic, not interested in the deeper questions of life and meaning.  At one time, they would have gone to church regularly and expressed conventional pieties in public speech and writing because “that’s what respectable people do”.  Now, with all social requirement for church attendance gone and public expression of piety frowned on (when not litigated against), they drift into a “default agnosticism”, even picking up scattered dog-ends of philosophical materialism and forging them into a smug irreligiousness.   They become atheists not because of Deep Thinking about such things but because “that’s what the cool kids are doing”.

In “The Decline of Religion”, C. S. Lewis took stock of the spiritual apathy of his own day and saw it as more or less of a good thing: “At the very worst, it makes the issue clear. … The fog of ‘religion’ [i.e., conventional piety] has been lifted; the positions and numbers of both armies can be observed; and real shooting is now possible.”[2]

But Lewis wrote this in 1946, and in the context of academia.  In some ways, the position has since degraded: now religion is too sensitive a subject to be brought up in the office.  Otherwise, spiritual apathy is still with us, manifesting in everything from “spiritual but not religious” to a neo-Victorian philistinism that can’t be bothered with impracticalities.

But this is not a good thing.  Whatever other strengths irreligiousness may have, it doesn’t “do” social cohesion very well.  Moreover, “default atheism/agnosticism” doesn’t have a default myth (or meta-narrative, if you prefer) to share.  A recurring theme among both New Atheists and “default atheists” is that “religion is for the blind, uncritical masses”, that other people need religion but they don’t; such an attitude doesn’t lend itself to community-building precisely because it stresses a radical separation of individual from community as a positive value.

Contrary to popular atheist belief, while religious homogeneity may have worked in the interests of priests, secular rulers took advantage of the social bonds shared religion creates to promote their own interests … not just war and conquest, but also civil order and respect for authority.  Christian missionaries succeeded in converting whole European tribes and communities because, once he was converted, the king, baron or thane himself would require his subjects’ conversion.  On the flip side, whole German states and principalities backed Martin Luther’s revolt against the papacy because it was in the political interests of their masters to do so.  

Dawkins may believe that people don’t need religion, and find it condescending, patronizing and cynical for nominally Christian politicians to promote institutions like religious schools.  But if, as Chief Rabbi Jonathan Baron Sacks has argued in Standpoint, Western society can’t survive without religiosity, then the challenge before us is not simply to convert the atheist but also to awaken the apathetic.  “Cultural Christianity”, whatever its sentimental value, has little more social binding to it than a shared feeling that it would be really keen if people were nice to each other for a change.

Even if it’s strong enough to get an atheist to sing Christmas carols.

[1] Hahn, S., & Wiker, B. (2008).  Answering the New Atheism: Dismantling Dawkins’ Case Against God.  Steubenville, Ohio: Emmaus Road Publishing, pp. 96-97; bold font mine.
[2] Lewis, C. S. (1970).  The Decline of Religion.  In Hooper, W. (Ed.), The Grand Miracle and Other Selected Essays on Theology and Ethics from God in the Dock (pp. 131-136).  New York: Ballantine Books, p. 133.