In the Guardian Review this last weekend, John Gray has a long piece entitled “The Atheist Delusion” in which he lambasts Dennett, Dawkins and the other usual suspects for their simple-mindedness about religion, for their intellectual sloppiness (e.g. the “memes” stuff), for promulgating quasi-religious myths of their own, for failing to face up to the evils perpetrated in the twentieth century in the name of atheist ideologies, and more besides.
Yet Gray himself ends up writing
Not everything in religion is precious or deserving of reverence. There is an inheritance of anthropocentrism, the ugly fantasy that the Earth exists to serve humans, which most secular humanists share. There is the claim of religious authorities, also made by atheist regimes, to decide how people can express their sexuality, control their fertility and end their lives, which should be rejected categorically. Nobody should be allowed to curtail freedom in these ways, and no religion has the right to break the peace.
But hold on. To reject the claims of religious authorities “categorically” is, precisely, to presuppose that the cardinals (or the ayatollahs, or whoever) do not have access to ultimate truths about what God categorically requires of us. And that presumption needs argument. Which is what our atheist writers aim to give us.
Perhaps there are deep human needs that, for many, are assuaged by participating in “communities of faith”, and which if not given expression in the more gentle pieties of some traditional faiths can find very much uglier outlets (whether in fundamentalist religions or in fundamentalist poltical movements). But to think of a religion as just an often benign repository of moral precepts and myths and ritual practices for communities to live by (with no more, though not less, authority than comes from that very human role), is to deprive religions of the particular divine authority that they can clamorously assert for themselves. If that denial of special authority — which Gray seems to endorse — is to be justified, then the theological arguments of those who claim very much more for religion need to be countered. And when those who claim more are particularly vocal, they need to be countered not just inside the ivory tower, philosopher talking to philosopher, but countered, vigorously, accessibly, relentlessly, in the wider public conservation. Which is what Dennett, Dawkins and the other usual suspects are, really rather admirably, trying to do.