Christopher Hitchens along with Daniel Dennett (1942- ), Richard Dawkins (1941- ) and Sam Harris (1967- ) have been identified as the “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheist Movement. How “new” they are is a matter of historical debate but they might also be called “evangelical atheists.” They believe everyone should be an atheist and that human reason and the discoveries of science should compel anyone, for the sake of intellectual integrity, to be an atheist. They eschew the word “religious” for themselves and see it as a negative epithet when applied to anyone else. Rhetorically, they assault religion generally and religious institutions in particular. They seem to get a certain intellectual pleasure from pointing out the foibles of religious persons to say nothing of their derision for the dark elements in the history of religions.
If the religious objects of their scorn encompassed all that was religious, then they could hardly be faulted in their judgments. Whether it be anti-rationalism, so-called “holy wars,” inquisitions, or simply the personal rejection, political subjugation, or cultural genocide of others simply due to their otherness, there is a dark side to religion that can be, but should not be, denied.
A contemporary example is the imperial vision of Russia, exemplified in its geopolitical aggression and, perhaps, personified in its current leader, Vladimir Putin. One can view Russia’s leader narrowly in terms of geopolitical interests. But a recent article by Anglican Priest, Giles Fraser, "Putin's Spiritual Destiny," offers a deeper historical assessment of what Putin represents, not only as an individual but as an expression of a culture that reaches back into the 10th century CE or even earlier. The article begins with an account of the link between Christian Orthodoxy (the tradition not dogma) and Russian culture.
It notes that Byzantine Emperor Basil II sought a military alliance with Vladimir of the Rus. To seal the deal Vlad was to marry Basil’s sister. But first he had to convert to Christianity. In 988 Vlad had the whole population of his capital city, Kyev (yes, Ukrainian Kyev) baptized in the Dnieper River. The relationships among Kyev, Ukraine, Russian Orthodoxy, and geopolitics reaches back over 1000 years. The article proposes that the current conflict in Ukraine has historically deep and complex roots not simply for Russia’s current leader but also for the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian people. Its bloody consequences for the Ukrainian people and Russian conscripts only adds credence to the New Atheists judgments.
In the fall of 1995 I had the privilege of spending almost three weeks in Russia as part of a Citizen Ambassador group organized around the subject of “religious studies.” We spent about a third of the time in Moscow, about a third in Yekaterinburg, and a final third in St. Petersburg. This was about six years after the fall of the Soviet Union and it was obvious that Russian Orthodoxy was having a major revival.
We observed, in passing, group baptisms of adults as well as children. On a weekday evening we witnessed a steady stream of workers after-hours visiting Kazan Cathedral on the northwest corner of Red Square. It had been destroyed by order of Stalin but was the first church to be rebuilt after the fall of the USSR, being completed in 1993.
During our visit in Yekaterinburg we met with teachers of religious studies. Given the formal suppression of religion by the Soviet government and now the apparent revival of religious practice in Russia, one of our questions was what was the state of religious liberty in Russia. To paraphrase what I took to be an unintended ironic comment by one of our Russian hosts: persons could hold whatever religious view they chose so long as they were Orthodox. I’ve capitalized “Orthodox” because to me his reference was not to any deeply held religious tradition but to that particular tradition, most especially in its Russian variation.
Today the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church has thrown his support behind Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, ostensibly due to his judgment against the corrupting influences on the people of Ukraine of “western liberal culture” and the complicity of the Ukrainian government in this spiritual corruption. Given the long history of Russian Orthodox support of the Russian government, whether Tzarist or Soviet (Stalin called upon the Russian Orthodox hierarchy to rally the people against the Nazis), assuming Ukraine to be a part of Russia is not surprising.
Rather than seeing the former KGB officer, Putin, seeking to return Russia to its Soviet past, perhaps it is more accurate to see his ambition to be a return to the Tsarist Russian Empire with its deep connection to the Russian Orthodox Church. Though often romanticized Tsarist and Orthodox Russia also had its brutal underside.
Of course, the United States also has a history of religious support for sociopolitical ambitions. In the US white supremacist social/political movements like the Ku Klux Klan and White Nationalists identify themselves with Christianity usually of an ultraconservative or fundamentalist sort. Not only do such groups target African-Americans (often themselves conservative Christians) for violence on purported religious grounds but also Jews and even Roman Catholics. Perhaps less virulent but no less demeaning has been traditional religious support of or acquiescence to chattel slavery, the suppression of women’s liberty, and the social progress of minorities of various ethnicities.
It has been argued that the issue of the entanglement of Christian religious conviction with political power emerged when the Roman Emperors Constantine and Licinius issued the Edict of Milan (313 CE) that legalized Christianity after years of being a persecuted religious movement. Thus, liberated Christianity grew numerically and geographically. But so did theological disputes. Chief among these were disagreements about the divine status of Jesus.
Perhaps the majority of early theologians held that Jesus was homoousion (“being of the same substance”) with God, the Father. But a significant number of theologians shared the position of Arius (256-336 CE) that Jesus, the Son, was subordinate to the Father, that there was a time when the Son did not exist, and that the Son had his being from nothing. Because the controversy was creating public tension in the empire, Emperor Constantine called together a council of Christian leaders to resolve the issue.
In 325 CE a council at Nicaea adopted a creed that declared homoousion to be the orthodox position. (Actually, it took a second Council in Constantinople in 381 CE to solidify this decision.) As a result, Arius’ views were declared heretical and outlawed. Many copies of his works were burned under the authority of the Emperor.
In the period before the Nicene Creed (325) was finally established at the Council of Constantinople (381) there was an effort at compromise by affirming that the Father and the Son were homoiousion (“being of like substance”). This proposal was not successful and homoousion became the standard for Christian orthodoxy.
In 380 CE the status of Christianity in the Roman Empire was elevated even further. The three reigning Roman emperors, led by Theodocius 1 (Emperor of the East), issued the Edict of Thessalonica that recognized Roman Catholicism as the state church of the Roman Empire. Among other outcomes this connection of church and state eventually led to the Crusades that sent European Christians to the “holy land” to liberate it (especially Jerusalem) from Islamic rule. Ironically, the western European crusaders attacked and plundered Eastern Orthodox Christians along the way. One could also mention the Thirty Years War within Christian Europe that, though it had complex political roots, was an extension of the social upheaval brought on by the Protestant Reformation. A consequence of the Reformation was the proliferation of sectarian nation-states.
The social upheavals caused by these religion/political connections add credibility to the “New Atheist’s” charge that religion is a source of public harm. As physicist and Nobel Laureate, Steven Weinberg (1933-2021), declared in a 1999 New York Times interview,
“With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”
When you’re right, you’re right …
But, of course, there is more to this saying. It concludes with …
And when you’re wrong, you’re wrong.
Atheistic criticisms of religion, generally, and Christianity in particular tend to exhibit at least two errors. First, there is a selectively narrow focus on the socially negative aspects that can be found in virtually any history of any religious tradition (and for that matter the history of any human institution). In this regard, Christianity is no exception. It has both feet of clay and dirty linen. But that alone is not an adequate representation of the totality of the history of Christianity. First, such criticisms are often “whiggish,” that is, applying contemporary standards to much earlier historical and cultural contexts. For example, applying post 18th century intellectual standards to a 4th century culture.
Second, during the medieval period it was, in fact, Christian monasteries and the Islamic educational centers that preserved and were sources for the philosophical writings of classical Greece that informed the early Renaissance in Europe. Whether it be hospitals or universities or even public schools, many of these have had their roots in religious communities. Deeply valued expressions of the architectural, graphic, statuary, and musical
arts owe their existence to religious institutions, traditions, or individuals religiously inspired. Elements of popular culture have explicit religious roots.
It can even be argued that so-called “modern science” had, among others, religious roots. As Copernicus is quoted as saying, “To know the mighty works of God, comprehend His wisdom and majesty and power, to appreciate in degree the wonderful working of His laws, surely all this must be a pleasing and acceptable mode of worship to the Most High to whom ignorance can not be more grateful than knowledge.”
There have been notable individuals inspired by religious conviction who have been advocates for human liberation from various forms of oppression. Whether it be John Witherspoon (1723-1794), Presbyterian minister and signatory of the Declaration of Independence from New Jersey; John Newton (1725-1807), from slave-ship captain to Anglican cleric to abolitionist; Dorothy Day (1897-1980), co-founder of the Catholic Workers Movement, advocating for the economically repressed poor and homeless; Mary Daly (1928-2010) pioneering challenger to male hegemony in society and particularly religious communities; Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), the self-described “drum major for social justice;” Desmond Tutu (1931-2021), South African Anglican Bishop and anti-apartheid and human rights activist; or Malala Yousafzai (1997- ), Muslim advocate for women’s educational and human rights; history is replete with individuals who, often at personal risk and motivated by religious conviction, have sought to emancipate fellow human beings from forces of social oppression, explicit or complicit.
Lastly, if the American experiment in civil government is valued, even if flawed, it has roots in religious sensibilities. In particular, the American revolution was commonly viewed by the British Crown, as well as, colonial royalists as a “Presbyterian rebellion.” As one such royalist from New York wrote:
"Believe me, the Presbyterians have been the chief and principal instruments in all these flaming measures, and they always do and ever will act against Government, from that restless and turbulent anti-monarchical spirit which has always distinguished them every where."
It’s worth noting that the federal structure of American governance and hierarchy of American courts can be seen as a reflection of Presbyterian church polity with its nested legislative and judicial structure.
The second flaw in the “New Atheists” judgments about religion is their lack of imagination. They appear to treat theist affirmations as all of one sort; namely, conservative or, more particularly, fundamentalist. Or perhaps, at best, as “classical theist” positions. This is the easiest flaw to note.
In a 1953 publication by the University of Chicago Press, Philosophers Speak of God, Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000) and William Reese (1921-2017) identify ten types of theism (six classical and four modern) as well as four types of skeptical or atheistic views. They provide primary source examples of the types. On those rare occasions when some person has felt moved to declare to me that they are an atheist, I’m inclined to ask them, “Which God don’t you believe in.” Ordinarily, in response to their answer I can say in good faith, “I don’t believe in that one either.”
Even recognizing that typologies tend to be in the eye of the typologizer, I am doubtful that the “New Atheists” have thoughtfully rejected all of the ten theistic types, even if they exemplify one of the four forms of skepticism or atheism. It is imagination that discerns alternatives.
So, in my judgment the “New Atheists” are both right and wrong. They are right that all religions are imperfect and, worse, can have horrendous social effects. But the religious sensibilities and passions have also been drivers of positive social development throughout human history.
Perhaps the best stance that anyone should have with respect to the religious tradition and community with which they identify can be expressed in a slight modification of the declaration by U.S. Senator Charles Schurz (1829-1906)
"My [religion], right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right."