Interesting take on atheism as a cultural/religous phenomenon in the New Scientist. Here's an extract from an interview with scientist and teacher Bernard Beckett, who writes fiction books based on scientific themes
....you chaired an event for Richard Dawkins and, as a result, shifted your views from atheism to agnosticism. Why the conversion?
The event sold out very quickly. The people were huge fans of Dawkins, and being amongst a group of card-carrying atheists was something I'd never experienced before.
I'd probably have called myself an atheist at the time. But normally, that means going your own way and creating your own response.
Instead, it felt more like being in church. Suddenly, there were a whole heap of people who seemed to be responding as one. To me, that reproduced some of the things I disliked about the church I was brought up in, because leaps are made from atheism to other beliefs that you are meant to have as well.
For instance, the belief that there is something negative about the influence of religion, which I don't necessarily think is true. It's a very complex sociological question that would take a lot of research, but suddenly, if you're one of us, you also have to be against religion.
At that point I feel uncomfortable. I also felt uncomfortable with the idea of wanting to convert people; to atheism in this case. It felt evangelical, and that's not my instinct at all.
There was an issue of New Scientist recently, where Marcelo Gleiser wrote about the search for the theory of everything. Gleiser believes that this is a bit of a hangover from religion.
For some people, like Dawkins, science is about beauty and meaning and truth. I'm really uncomfortable with that. I don't think science is about that at all.
Science is a little bit more than a wonderful way of modelling and predicting, it's a wonderful technical abstraction. I think science is a really wonderful technical abstraction.
I can't see any great evidence that humans have any ability to access anything other than the material world. Beyond that, who knows, but there's no good evidence that would take me to any particular belief. And that seems to me to me to be a more rigorous view and one I'm much more comfortable with.
This does strike a chord: just as there's a culture within church circles which contains lots of things which have nothing to do with Christianity, there also seems to be a culture around certain popularisers of atheism which goes a long way beyond science.
However, if you think that you're right and that someone who disagrees with you is wrong, then it seems a bit postmodern just to let everyone have their own point of view, and not get a bit 'evangelical'. I'm not a scientist, but if certain things are scientific facts then it's probably a good thing to teach/persuade other people of them. Ok we can be less sure about the existence or otherwise of God, but if you can only argue for a position if it's certain, how on earth do you discover whether or not it's certain in the first place...?
Being 'evangelical' about atheism logically follows from being an atheist: religion must look like a massive and self-indulgent waste of time, resources and effort, and people are much better being persuaded to do something more useful. The same impulse also follows from believing in God, though for different reasons!
But what Beckett hints at is that, as well as being a reasoned position, evangelical (or 'religious'?) atheism has also become a cultural boundary marker for a certain social/intellectual group. Heck, they've even got merchandise. The church, sadly, has reams of examples of what happens when you forget the difference between a cultural boundary marker, and a core belief. I'm even required by church law to wear some of them.
But maybe that's a feature of any ideology or intellectual movement: the beliefs have to take form within a culture, and be expressed, or else it's all purely theoretical. And once they do that, the outward form of the belief is often the first bit of it that outsiders encounter, and it becomes part of the package. Is 'evangelical' atheism bound to develop its own subculture?