The Guardian/The Hindu, May 3, 2005
Not believing in God is no excuse for being virulently anti-religious or naively pro-science.
There are many species of atheism, just as there are many species of religion. But while many religions still thrive, most of the atheisms that have ever existed are now extinct. The non-religious person today is, therefore, rather like a person who wanders into a shop to buy a breakfast cereal and finds only one variety is for sale. Moreover, this variety is not very tasty, because the kind of atheism that flourishes today is old and tired. Today's prominent atheists — people such as Jonathan Miller and Richard Dawkins — hawk around a belief system that reeks of the 19th century, which is not surprising, for that is when it was born. Mr. Dawkins is virulently anti-religious, passionately pro-science and artistically illiterate — thus manifesting all three of the main characteristics of the old atheism in a particularly pure form. His attacks on religion are so vitriolic and bad-tempered that they alienate the sensitive reader and give atheism a bad name. As a friend of mine once commented, no other atheist has done more for the cause of religion than Richard Dawkins.
Isn't it about time that atheists tried to imagine what some other forms of atheism might look like? Not in the hope of replacing one orthodoxy with another, but simply in order to challenge other atheists to imagine still more ways of being non-religious — to encourage them to construct their own forms of atheism, rather than buying a ready-made version off the shelf. Atheism should be more like a set of Lego blocks than a pre-assembled toy. The challenge and the opportunity it offers is that of constructing one's own personal philosophy of life, a philosophy that is not put together according to any set of instructions handed down from on high. As a way of kicking off the debate, let me outline my own variety. It would be a travesty if I were to pretend that this is the only worthwhile kind. But I think it is more appropriate for the 21st century.
When I say that I value religion, I do not mean that I see any truth in the stories about gods, devils, souls and saviours. But I do think there is one respect in which religion is more truthful than science — in its depiction of the longing for transcendent meaning that lies in man's heart. No scientific theory has ever done justice to this longing, and in this respect religions paint more faithful pictures of the human mind. My atheism sees religions as presenting potent metaphors and images to represent human aspirations for transcendence. Here is a parable to explain what I mean: once upon a time, a talented artist painted a picture of a beautiful landscape on the wall of his house. People came from all around to see the picture. It was so beautiful that they would spend whole days staring at it.
Led on by wishful thinking, some people even began to forget that they were looking at a painting, and came to believe that the wall was a window. So the artist removed one of the bricks in the wall, allowing the illusory nature of the painting to become clear. Some of those who had mistaken the painting for reality were upset to have their illusion shattered. But the wise ones thanked the artist profusely. "By revealing the fictitious nature of this landscape," they said, "you have allowed us to appreciate the beauty of your art." I think the best way to think about religion is to see it like the painting in this parable. Religions are beautiful things, but their beauty can only be truly appreciated when they are seen as human creations — as works of art. Atheists who attack religions for painting a false picture of the world are as unsophisticated and immature as religious believers, who mistake the picture for reality. The only mature attitude to religion is to see it for what it is — a kind of art, which only a child could mistake for reality, and which only a child would reject for being false.