It is my opinion that many people who call themselves atheists are not actually atheists. They are people who when they were sixteen wanted something to reject- and they picked religion. They’re something more like unexamined agnostics or spiritualists. You cannot be an atheist unless you first take religion seriously- because there is something serious at the core of religion even if you reject the institutional manifestation of it.
The characterization of the religious as people who “believe in a man that lives in the sky” for instance is emblematic of the shallowness of a lot of atheism. They parrot lines about “rationality” and “science,” but they don’t act out the views they profess.
Take for instance something like a music concert, which we accept as normal, but when looked at critically is quite strange. The phenomena of modern stadium concerts are unrecognizable and unexplainable in nearly any context other than a religious one- it looks more like worship than anything else.
My favorite example of this is a music video put out by Swedish House Mafia, a now defunct EDM group.
Watch that video and tell me that is the action of purely rational intellects. Some of the fans in that crowd appear to be no less gripped by the music and experience than the wildest Southern Baptist is, by their own account, gripped by Jesus. The atheist may respond that the concert goer is different because they don’t assign some higher value to the experience of the concert. But I ask you this- is it really irrational, when we encounter something that fully grips us, to assign to it a higher value? To me at least it seems more incredulous to brush off that experience as some quirk of neuropsychology than to take it seriously.
I myself get a slight chill watching that video, and with 430 million views- it seems to trigger something relatively universal in man. We chase moments like that. We will travel thousands of miles at great expense to stand in a room and look at a painting painted 400 years ago, or a building built 1000 years ago. Many modern people scoff at pre-moderns who took religious pilgrimages. Yet we sophisticated, educated, moderns take our own pilgrimages, called “vacations”- to Rome, to the Louvre, to great European Cathedrals, to Tibetan Monasteries- but we don’t really know why. Many of us would have trouble articulating why they want to do that.
Religion in my mind is an attempt at that articulation. It is trying to, at a base level, articulate why I get a chill up my spine and a feeling of elevation when I watch that video. Christianity, having the most exhaustive scholarship of the major faiths, is the result of 2000 years of man trying to put a finger on what it means to be human, why we find things meaningful.
To toss that all out the window as mere superstition invented by people who didn’t know better, seems to me to be the height of arrogance. Aquinas and Augustine, Chesterton and Lewis, were not fools and were not unsophisticated. Even if we’d at the end like to reject particular manifestations of religion or religious practice- it is incumbent on us to take these ideas seriously and evaluate them seriously.
“I recognized in the great English cathedrals, and in many small parish churches, the undoubted fact that my despised forbearers were neither crude nor ignorant, but rather men of great skill and engineering genius: a genius not contradicted or blocked by faith, but enhanced by it. The simple beauty of a hammerbeam roof or a Norma chancel arch, let alone the pillars in Durham Cathedral nave, sees to be quite beyond the builders of our enlightened age.” – Christopher Hitchens