Like any movement or religion, atheism has ambitions. Over the years it has grown and developed until it has become about far more than just not believing in God: today atheism aspires to a moral system too. It comes with an idea of how to behave that’s really very close to traditional secular humanism, and offers a sense of community and values. Atheism has crept so close to religion these days that it’s de rigueur for political atheists like Ed Miliband to boast about a dual identity: a secular allegiance to a religions tradition, in his case Judaism. They don’t of course believe any of the mumbo jumbo about God, prophets and angels.

But as pleasant and rational as this all sounds, the new atheists are now hitting the intellectual buffers. The problem that confronts them is as stark as it is simple: our morality has religious roots. Put another way: when God is rejected, the stakes are gulpingly high; the entire moral tradition of the West is put in question.

This was the insight of Friedrich Nietzsche — and for all the different atheist thinkers and philosophers since, it remains just as true today. It’s all very well to say that blind faith is a bad idea, and that we should move beyond it to a more enlightened ethical system, but this raises the question of what we mean by good and bad, and those ideas are irrevocably rooted in Christianity. Nietzsche saw this, and had the courage to seek a new ethos amid the collapse of all modern systems of meaning. Did he find one? Yes, in pagan power-worship — the sort that eventually led to fascism. We think of him as mad and bad — but he was brave. Imagine Ed Miliband trying to follow in this tradition, gazing into the abyss of all meaning, the dark crucible of nihilism.

The trouble is that too many atheists simply assume the truth of secular humanism, that it is the axiomatic ideology: just there, our natural condition, once religious error is removed. They think morality just comes naturally. It bubbles up, it’s instinctive, not taught as part of a cultural tradition. In The God Delusion Richard Dawkins tries to strengthen this claim using his biological expertise, arguing that humans have evolved to be altruistic because it ultimately helps their genes to survive. But in the end, he admits that no firm case can be made concerning the evolutionary basis of morality. He’s just gesturing with his expertise, rather than really applying it to the issue at hand.

Here’s his muddle. On one hand he believes that morality, being natural, is a constant thing, stable throughout history. On the other hand, he believes in moral progress. To square the circle he plunges out of his depth, explaining that different ages have different ideas of morality, and that in recent times there has happily been a major advance in our moral conventions: above all, the principle of equality has triumphed. Such changes ‘certainly have not come from religion’, he snaps. He instead points to better education about our ‘common humanity with members of other races and with the other sex — both deeply unbiblical ideas that come from biological science, especially evolution’. But biological science, especially evolution, can be used to authorise eugenics and racism. The real issue is the triumph of an ideology of equality, of humanism. Instead of asking what this tradition is, and where it comes from, he treats it as axiomatic. This is just the natural human morality, he wants us to think, and in our times we are fortunate to see a particularly full expression of it.

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The Dawkins muddle has further dimensions. He argues that morality just comes naturally to all of us, yet it’s distorted by religion. But given that almost all human cultures have been religious, where does that leave us? Are we to believe that morality comes naturally, but only when atheism liberates it to come naturally? It’s comically flimsy.

 

The new atheists sometimes seek refuge from their muddle in the Golden Rule, which predates Christianity — the basic idea that we should treat others as we’d like to be treated. Of course morality has no need for religion, they say; morality simply consists in adhering to this simple maxim. But the Golden Rule, on its own, is powerless to challenge things. It’s just an ancient way of saying ‘Let’s be nice’. Such basic morality is, of course, intrinsic to human society. But humanism seeks to offer a far more extensive moral code.

One celebrity atheist, A.C. Grayling, does at least try to talk about a tradition of humanist morality, but his attempt only reveals a frankly dishonest account of intellectual history. Humanism is necessarily anti-religious, he says: with the withering of religion, ‘an ethical outlook which can serve everyone everywhere, and can bring the world together into a single moral community, will at last be possible’. In other words (cue the piano), ‘Imagine no religion…’. He claims that humanism naturally arises from clear unprejudiced thought about human life; it begins with the Greeks, but becomes particularly strong in modern times, once thinkers dare to reject Christianity. The reality is (and he surely knows it with one part of his brain) that the energetic universalism of modern humanism is rooted in Christianity.

The new atheism has reached the limits of what it can achieve because it is attempting to renew secular humanism in anti-religious terms. This cannot be done. It’s a paltry and dishonest attempt, because it avoids reflecting on the tradition of secular humanism. Such reflection is awkward for it, due to its muddled claim that morality is just natural, and so no special tradition is needed. And yet — felix culpa! The atheists have unwittingly raised the question, which we generally prefer to evade, of what secular humanism is, how it is related to God. By tackling this big issue ineptly, they have at least hauled it onto the table. (Also — a slightly different point — their unattractive polemics have surely helped to push some semi-Christians off the fence, onto the faithful side — seemingly including A.N. Wilson and Diarmaid MacCulloch. And they have nudged some quietly Christian authors into writing about their faith — Francis Spufford stands out.)

An example of an agnostic prodded into fruitful reflection on religion is the famous brainy lefty Terry Eagleton. In his book Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate he explains that rational humanism is rooted in the Protestant passion for reform: the Enlightenment opposed aspects of religion, yet ‘in a choice irony, it inherited its brave campaign against superstition partly from Christianity itself, with its rejection of all false gods and prophets, all idols, fetishes, magical rituals, and powers of darkness, in the name of human flesh and blood’. He draws on the work of the Canadian Roman Catholic thinker Charles Taylor, whose book A Secular Age discusses the Christian roots of humanist universalism (and incidentally Taylor himself was partly responding to the popularity of the new atheist narrative). Eagleton accepts that his own socialism is a faith-based position, one that derives from Judeo-Christian tradition. Without the atheists to kick against, he might not have felt inclined to present himself in such religion-friendly terms.

In his book Unapologetic (which opens with a blasting riff of annoyance at atheist arrogance), Francis Spufford notes that Christianity’s influence on secular morality is hard to see, having ‘faded indistinguishably into the background of our common sense’. For example, ‘the emphasis on people being lovable to God irrespective of what they deserve laid the groundwork for the idea of there being rights owed to people irrespective of their status, their behaviour, their capabilities’.

A similar point has been made recently by the American writer Marilynne Robinson, in relation to the Declaration of Independence: ‘Is it self-evident that all are created equal? Only in a religious conception. Jefferson makes the human person sacred and thereby sets human rights outside the reach of rationalisation.’

So the atheists have unwittingly provoked some genuine thought about how religion has shaped our public creed of secular humanism. And it’s obvious that this shaping did not just happen hundreds of years ago, in the age of Locke and Jefferson, and then stop: Christianity has continued to influence secular humanism into our times — the American civil rights movement being a vivid example. (Last year the liberal media gushed about Revd Martin Luther King’s famous speech of 50 years ago, utterly ignoring its religiosity.)

Now the debate can move on. We should ask: why do we believe in right and wrong? How can it be that Christianity has given rise to a post-religious, secular world that accepts religious values without questioning them? Is this not rather interesting? The new atheists may not like it, but they’ve had their say. It’s time for a serious discussion.

Theo Hobson’s latest book is Reinventing Liberal Christianity.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated