There seems to be a new kid on the atheism block. First we had the Enlightenment atheists, then the Darwinian atheists, and the Communist atheists. Most recently, we saw the rise of the aptly named “New Atheists.” Until now.
Alain de Botton has presented “Atheism 2.0,” which now rightfully claims the title of the “Newest Atheists.” It seems, at least in terms of this list, that he has misnamed his programme, which should be “Atheism 5.0.” But that is the advantage of his naming scheme—he can version the previous incarnations any way he chooses, so the Communist atheists might be more properly dubbed “Atheism 1.9.17, build Oktobre” or somesuch.
This also reveals the embarrassing scenario Dawkins is facing when his New Atheism becomes the “Old Atheism,” or the “Newly Chronologically-Disadvantaged Atheism.” I’m sure Mr. Hitchens, were he still present, would have a sagely satirical witticism over his newfound obsolescence.
Of course, and Mr. de Botton would appreciate this, it seems Atheism, in drinking deeply of the good things religion has to offer pragmatically through its understanding of human nature, has succumbed to the next phase of descent into religious “failures,” that of atheistic sectarianism.
Atheism, as a separate worldview is barely over 300 years old, and already there are at least five sects of it, with two popping up in the last four decades. Impressive. The Christians took 500 years to the first big schism between East and West, and close to a 1000 more before fracture became fashionable.
In all fairness, their ‘schisms’ have been rather amicable, and the divisions between them rather slight, but still, they are on quite a roll.
So what is Atheism 2.0? It is the idea that, instead of rejecting religion out of whole cloth, atheists should recognize holes in the secular worldview, where legitimate human experience and needs are not met. Thus, one should look at what religion understands about human nature, appropriate those methodologies (devoid of the deity and supernatural), and apply them in a secular fashion to create meaning and continuity across those holes.
However, it is better to hear it from Mr. de Botton’s own description of a “respectful atheism” that disagrees civilly with, and respects the good things of, religion, without the divine trappings. Here is his TED talk, in Scotland. It is a little over 19 minutes, but quite good.
The question that struck me almost immediately is why is it that these ancient religions intuitively had a better understanding of human nature and how to create community and internal fulfillment than 300 years of some of the brightest scholars pondering humanity professionally? Could it be that we really are spiritual beings and that there really is a supernatural spiritual realm? If one merely takes the window dressings of religion without the spiritual substance, if one takes the ghost out of the machine, will it still work? What is the critical ingredient, form or substance? Are they truly separable and what are the implications to the answer to that question?