This week's long (2,000-plus words) and much-discussed Wall Street Journal feature about the growing militancy of atheists in Europe raises a lot of questions. Sadly, it is available only to subscribers, but let's not let that little detail keep us from talking about it. Here's a snippet:
Mr. Onfray, 48 years old and author of 32 books, stands in the vanguard of a curious and increasingly potent phenomenon in Europe: zealous disbelief in God.
Passive indifference to faith has left Europe's churches mostly empty. But debate over religion is more intense and strident than it has been in many decades. Religion is re-emerging as a big issue in part because of anxiety over Europe's growing and restive Muslim populations and a fear that faith is reasserting itself in politics and public policy. That is all adding up to a growing momentum for a combative brand of atheism, one that confronts rather than merely ignores religion.
Karen Armstrong, a former Catholic nun and prominent British author on religion, calls the trend "missionary secularism." She says it mimics the ardor of Christianity, Islam and Marxism, all of which have at their core an urge to convert nonbelievers to their worldview.
My initial reaction to this piece was to wonder whatever happened to the anything goes attitude of modern secularists. This attitude is nothing new but the fact that it's growing is interesting. We've seen it with Sam Harris. We've seen it with Oxford's Richard Dawkins.
This is yet another sign that religious and anti-religious voices on the left are going to demand, and they deserve, more coverage.
Not content to let this piece just focus on wishy-washy supernatural issues, the author, Andrew Higgins, had to bring it into the real world of "concrete issues." As a commentator on things related to religion, I resent that, but here's what he comes up with:
As with many fights involving faith, Europe's struggle between belief and nonbelief is also a proxy for other, concrete issues that go far beyond the supernatural. In this case, they involve a battle to define the identity of a continent.
Half a century after the 1957 Treaty of Rome laid the foundations for the now 27-nation European Union, Europe has secured peace and prosperity. But it is deeply uncertain about what binds the bloc together beyond mere economic self-interest. Says Ms. Armstrong: "There is a big fight going on to define European civilization."
In London last month, leading British atheists squared off with defenders of faith in a public debate on the motion, "We'd be better off without religion." Tickets cost nearly $40 but so many people wanted to attend that the event was moved to a bigger venue with over 2,000 seats. It still sold out. The audience declared the atheists the victors, by a margin of 1,205 to 778, with a few score abstentions.
In Germany, a wealthy furniture manufacturer is funding a "think tank of Enlightenment," a group of scientists and others committed to debunking religion. It is named after Giordano Bruno, a 16th-century philosopher and cosmologist who was burnt at the stake as a heretic. In Italy, one fervent nonbeliever has gone to the European Court of Human Rights with a claim that the Roman Catholic Church is guilty of fraud: Jesus, he says, never existed.
This is not the first time the Journal's news team has decided that religious issues are less important than the real "concrete issues" with which modern people grapple. Rod Dreher of Beliefnet's Crunchy Con and The Dallas Morning News caught an instance back in February.
Speaking of Rod, his analysis of this piece is striking. While the Journal hints at the issue -- "Europe's Muslim populace, estimated at between 15 million and 20 million" and "alarm over Islam" acting as the "prime catalyst for much of the polemic" -- it's the undercovered irony in this story:
Europeans, by turning their back on the cult that created their culture, and substituting an ersatz religion of secularism and hedonism, are committing civilizational suicide. Mark Steyn has been beating the drum about demographic disaster in Europe for some time. Writing in the new issue of National Review, he cites this quote about the demographic changes upon us: "The expected global upheaval is without parallel in human history."
Know who said that? The United Nations. In fact, check out this most recent comprehensive revision of the UN's demographics forecast. It predicts a demographic catastrophe for Europe in the decades to come. Somebody's got to stick around to take care of all those old people who decided not to have children, and that somebody is going to be immigrants -- most likely Muslims, who have the bad taste (by Euro standards) to believe in God. In his NR column, Steyn takes on those who point out that fertility rates in Muslim Tunisia are falling. In response, Steyn points out that Turkey is rapidly de-secularizing because the Western-oriented Kemalists of the cities have been outbred by the intensely religious Turks of rural Anatolia. ...
But who will be left standing to inhabit Europe when that happens? It's not going to be the people who run the place now. And it's certainly not going to be the evangelists for atheism.
Perhaps that's a question worth asking the militant atheists? But note that this is, first and foremost, a valid news story worthy of investigation by journalists.
Meanwhile, on the pop-culture front, what about the beavers in the South Park episode about God, the future and Richard Dawkins? That's worth at least a mention.