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Taking the temperature of atheism

An interesting few weeks of Atheism in the News suggests that this is a good time to be taking its temperature, and seeing what implications there are for the progress of human knowledge that things now are where they are. And where are they? Three stories over the past seven days suggest that renowned atheist Christopher Hitchens may have had a change-of-mind on his deathbed; comedian contrarians Bill Maher and Michael Moore are contemplating a documentary film to be called “The Kings of Atheism” featuring well-known comedians on a stand-up tour of the American Bible Belt; and a $2.2 million donation will endow the USA’s first academic chair for the “study of atheism, humanism and secular ethics” at the University of Miami.

The first story is manipulative nonsense. Anyone who knew Hitchens or read him on religion will appreciate that the wit he exercised in his study of the science of belief will survive him for any realistic definition of eternity. He consolidated “what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed” and with such power as no tawdry revisionism can undermine. If we accept a central thesis of his thinking, that religious devotion inhibits the critical faculties of our species and puts at risk its cognitive evolution, there is a lot of work still to be done. That work cannot include indulging wishful thinking sustained by confirmation bias, or the spectacle of a man advertising himself as Hitchens’ friend making a sacrifice of that friendship on the altar of his greed.

The film idea? It must suggest some evolution of our species that within just a few centuries of heretics being flayed and burned for blasphemy, such a project might be announced on national television. But we might still think: good luck with that.

Most engaging is the question of the culture of the newly endowed chair. Will its terms of atheistic reference be reactive and obsessed with the old perception of atheists as humourless human husks with neither morals nor magic? Or will something emerge of the humanity that might have evolved if science had taken hold sooner, superseding religion with its hectoring certainty that, in Hitchens’ memorable words, “if you will abandon your critical faculties, a world of idiotic bliss can be yours.”

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