The Magazine

Atheist Tracts

God, they're predictable.

Aug 13, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 45 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
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Is such a divine, transcendent power possible? The atheists say it is not. They say that man is by nature a tool-maker, not a religious being who yearns to worship God. In their view worship is nothing but a tool to get what we want; the power allegedly over us is "out of us" in the sense of originating in our selves. "Religion poisons everything," says Hitchens in the subtitle of his book, because every believer's private desires are given terrific force over others' desires without their consent. Religion makes believers into tyrants. The source of religious tyranny is therefore human, when men conceive of religion and convince themselves while fooling others that they deserve to have what they can get. Atheism uncovers the fact of human tyranny that uses religion as a mask.

Is there an atheist alternative to tyranny? Is there such a thing as a non religious principle, replacing God, that is truly transcendent and not a tool of our passions? One can think of such a principle, something like Kant's categorical imperative that requires each person, without appealing to God, to act only on a universal idea, not one that favors himself or promotes his own interest over others. But how does this work in practice? Has Germany, the country of Kant, been a paragon of justice in the world since Kant fashioned his theory? More pointedly, has not the atheist totalitarianism of the twentieth century, with its universal pretensions, proved to be the worst tyranny mankind has ever seen?

There was an Epicurean atheism in the ancient world quite different from ours today. That atheism also uncovered tyranny behind the mask of religion, but it was content to point out the power of injustice. Injustice in this view was the way of the world, and there was no remedy for it. The only recourse for a reasonable person was to stay out of politics and live a life of pleasure, seeking calm, watching storms of the sea from ashore, and suppressing one's indignation at injustice.

Today's atheism rejects this serene attitude and goes on the attack. In its criticisms of God it claims to be more moral than religion. But it cannot do this without becoming just as heated, thus just as susceptible to fanaticism, as religion. Today's atheism shows the power of our desire for justice, a fact underestimated by the Epicurean pleasure-lovers. But it ignores the power of injustice, which was the Epicurean insight. Atheists today angrily hold religion to a standard of justice that the most advanced thinkers of our time, the postmoderns, have declared to be impossible. Some of those postmoderns, indeed, are so disgusted with the optimism of atheism that, with a shrug of their shoulders, they propose returning to the relative sanity of religion.

It is not religion that makes men fanatics; it is the power of the human desire for justice, so often partisan and perverted. That fanatical desire can be found in both religion and atheism. In the contest between religion and atheism, the strength of religion is to recognize two apparently contrary forces in the human soul: the power of injustice and the power, nonetheless, of our desire for justice. The stubborn existence of injustice reminds us that man is not God, while the demand for justice reminds us that we wish for the divine. Religion tries to join these two forces together.

The weakness of atheism, however, is to take account of only one of them, the fact of injustice in the case of Epicurean atheism or the desire for justice in our Enlightenment atheism. I conclude that philosophy today--and science too--need not only to tolerate and respect religion, but also to learn from it.

Harvey Mansfield is professor of government at Harvard University and the author, most recently, of Manliness.