Thursday, 15 August 2013

Fascist Atheism

Brendon O'Neill's article in the Telegraph "How atheists became the most colossally smug and annoying people on the planet" complains that to be described as an atheist has become synonymous with anti-theism, and that neo-atheists are a bunch of smug bastards. Whilst I generally agree with its sentiment, this is a futile article insofar as it doesn't present positive feedback, whilst complaining about those who base their world view on a negative. Essentially, he is complaining about the complainers who call themselves the same as he (O'Neill is an atheist).

However, it is the smugness of neo-atheists that I find most troubling about them. I have started to just assume that people who describe themselves as "atheists" are unaware members of a cult not unlike Scientology in tone, without the orthodoxy and the structure of a religion (the gated communities, membership fees, Tom Cruise, scary buildings, etc.). 

Some guy writes books and people buy them to receive further wisdom, which they then present, unexamined and unblinking, as if it were "The Truth!" and only fools and the mentally unwell would argue with it. They present data to back these claims - showing without question that their belief system is not only superior in its interpretation of the world, but it is for superior people - happier people, smarter people, more successful people. Competing world views have adherents doomed to misery and stupidity - they will never reach their potential. 

Who was that last paragraph about again?

There is something unpleasantly fascist (question: what is "pleasantly fascist"?) about the notion that your mental abilities determine your beliefs and vice versa. 

More on that later.

O'Neill also seems to suggest, in the course of critiquing the neo-atheist for basing their worldview on a negative, that nihilism is, in itself, undesirable: "There is a very thin line between being a None and a nihilist;" he says, "after all, if your whole identity is based on not believing in something, then why give a damn about anything?" Nihilism may be awful, but this is not something I would assume everyone should agree with so casually.

Personally, I found nihilism to be an interesting worldview to take on, as by attempting to hack off all moral and spiritual notions from my worldview, I ended up finding certain parts I could not get rid of. Things I wasn't even aware of revealed themselves to be integral to who I am. It was through nihilism I found a basis for morality - a basis far stronger to me than one offered by some posited faith, or received wisdom.

I would recommend nihilism - not as a dogma, but as a tool. Faiths and beliefs and spurious studies proving one system's superiority; revelations and ecstatic experiences may have power for you, but the attempt to deny everything - faith, morality, social norms - can reveal more specifically about yourself and the world than any text, or momentary feeling. 

Of course, humans are different from one another, and there are some people who are better off not trying nihilism out, as they will find that they have no connection to other humans beyond the superficial. These people could be sociopaths, or psychopaths, who are well trained to follow a routine of harmless lies informed by revelatory text, be it Christian, L. Ron Hubbard, Dawkins or Zizek. I may firmly believe that a diet of nihilism brings with it the ground work for a healthy, clear, even moral world view, but because you and I are not the same, following my preaching may do untold damage to you and the people around you. I don't know: I'm neither a god nor a prophet nor a soothsayer; I cannot know what is best for you. 

Nor am I a fascist atheist, who presumes himself better because of his self-identification. A Christian may be a Christian because they have always been a Christian. They may also be a Christian because otherwise they would be lost. They may be a Christian because it provides them with a spiritual centre to their lives that helps them survive from one day to the next as the person they would want to be. These Christians, were they not Christians, might be dreadfully selfish, murderers, rapists or depressives. These Christians, were they atheists, might find they are suddenly more moral and more generous and courageous than ever. 

The character of an individual determines his or her actions; the beliefs of an individual determine the story they tell afterwards.