For atheists, the solution is to weaken the power of religion worldwide and to drive religion from the public sphere so that it can no longer influence public policy. A secular world, in this view, would be a safer and more peaceful world. Philosopher Richard Rorty proclaimed religious belief “politically dangerous” and declared atheism the only practical basis for a “pluralistic, democratic society.” These ideas resonate quite broadly in Western culture today.
One may think that atheism—based as it is on a rejection or negation of God—would be devoid of a philosophy or worldview of its own. Historically it would be virtually impossible to outline anything resembling an atheist doctrine. Today, however, there are common themes that taken together amount to a kind of atheist ideology. We hear hints of this ideology when Dawkins writes of “the feeling of awed wonder that science can give us” as “one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable.” There is almost a religious sensibility here, but it is framed in secular terms. Consider Carl Sagan’s self-proclaimed manifesto, “Better by far to embrace the hard truth than a reassuring fable.” This is a statement not of fact but of ethics, a dedication to manly honesty over wishful fantasy, an affirmation of what one ought to believe and on what basis. Strange though it may seem, the best way to understand this ideology is to consult the most villainous character in the Christian story.
The Christian villain, Satan, has now become the atheist hero. Consider Milton’s Paradise Lost. There Satan is portrayed as a lonely, intrepid figure, deprived of cosmic hope, abandoned to his own wits, navigating his way through the heavens, pitting himself against the unknown, refusing to accept the tyrannical sovereignty of God, rebelling against divine decree, and determined to build out of his own resources a rival empire devoted to happiness in the here and now “What though the field be lost, all is not lost, the unconquerable will, and study of revenge, immortal hate, and courage never to submit or yield.” This is the independence to which contemporary atheists aspire. As Rorty put it, “It is a matter of forgetting about eternity.” E. 0. Wilson writes, “We can be proud as a species because, having discovered that we are alone, we owe the gods very little.”
Modern atheists view themselves as brave pioneers, facing the truths of man’s lowly origins and the fact of death with heroic acceptance. They profess to be guided not by blind faith but by the bright (though not infallible) flame of reason. They derive their morality not from external commandments but from an inwardly generated calculus of costs and benefits. Setting aside hopes for eternity, they are dedicated to the welfare of mankind. Science is their watchword, and its practical achievements are the only “miracles” they are willing to countenance. It is an impressive vision, and in the rest of this book I will examine it carefully to see how much sense it makes of our world and whether it can enrich our lives.