Sunday, August 12, 2007

The new atheism

Have you noticed all the latest tracts on atheism in Borders and Barnes & Noble? Gracious.

Harvey Mansfield had an article in The Weekly Standard on the latest attacks on religion. They are different, he maintains, from the usual fare ("the usual fare" being the Enlightenment relegation of religion to the private sphere). Hard to believe, since atheism has been around since only shortly after gods and goddesses and God appeared on the historical scene.

The new atheists of the West live in a post-Christian society in which religion has largely lost its public influence (we're speaking here of Western Europe and the Americas, not of the East). It has been successfully quarantined in private lives, where its pernicious influences won't detract from human progress.

But! Mansfield writes:

"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?"

This, I would contend, is the problem with submitting to the urge to confine "my religion" to my private home. It just doesn't work. Faith loses every time. The very idea of a "private world" in which I can do whatever I want without affecting the "public world" is tenuous at best. Even my decisions about my sexuality (will I reproduce?), my children's discipline (will I tell her it's wrong to steal?), my faith (do I believe in unlimited abortion license?), will bear on public life if I have any integrity at all.

So, of course it has become necessary for atheists to ridicule private religion. To our great surprise, there's no such thing.

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