Jonathan Miller's BBC4 history of atheism inadvertently reveals how dogmatic non-belief in the west is merely a narrow inheritance of Christianity
A revival of atheism is a curious by-product of the 9/11 attacks. The causes and motives of the suicidal assaults on Washington and New York are not fully known, but for unbelievers they were acts of self-destructive terror that no secular mind could commit. With the retreat of Christianity in Europe, it may have seemed that unbelief was also in decline. In the event, unbelief has been given a new lease of life by a savage reminder of the persistent intensity of faith.
Few unbelievers know much about the diversity of contemporary religious thought and practice, and if they rail against the evils of religion - as do evangelical atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett - their target is usually right-wing American Protestantism. They ignore the vast variety of religious life today, as found not only in Christianity but in Judaism and Islam and the nontheistic religions of India and China. Indeed, atheism has always been a mirror image of western monotheism and shares many of its worst features. It is a commonplace that atheists are often extremely dogmatic in their unbelief - more so than many Christians. At least since Pascal, scepticism has been an integral part of Christian thinking; faith and doubt have learnt to coexist. Atheism contains no such leaven of doubt. There is no atheist thinker comparable to Richard Holloway, the former bishop of Edinburgh, who has left the Christian fold without locking himself into a secular orthodoxy. So-called free thinkers are possessed by a need for certainty, and nothing is more alien to them than Keats's negative capability - the willingness to remain open to mystery.
It is not just in the rigidity of their unbelief that atheists mimic dogmatic believers. It is in their fixation on belief itself. The core of most religions is not doctrinal. In non-western traditions and even some strands of western monotheism, the spiritual life is not a matter of subscribing to a set of propositions. Its heart is in practice - in ritual, observance and (sometimes) mystical experience. It would be difficult to extract anything so simplistic as a creed from the unfathomable complex of practices of Hinduism, for example, while Buddhism has always emphasised the unimportance of doctrine and the ineffability of truth. Orthodox Judaism tends to accord priority to practice over belief. In Islam some Sufi traditions have taken a similar stance. When they dissect arguments for the existence of God, atheists parody the rationalistic theologies of western Christianity. Their anxious obsession with true belief is an inheritance from Christian traditions deformed by Hellenistic philosophy, which from Socrates onwards has been animated by the conviction (or illusion) that knowledge and the good life go together.
If atheism reflects western monotheism in its obsession with belief, it also reproduces its peculiar conception of divinity. For unbelievers as for Christians, the problem of evil is the central question in religion; but this is so only if one presupposes something like the Christian God. In fact, in affirming that the deity combines omnipotence with perfect goodness, Christianity is highly unusual. In ancient Greek polytheism, the gods were amoral. In Gnosticism, the world is ruled by a demonic demiurge. In Hindu traditions, Shiva is both good and evil. In many mystical philosophies, evil is an illusion. The world's religions contain an enormous range of conceptions of divinity, only a few of which feature an all-good, personal creator-god. In obsessing about whether belief in this deity can be justified, contemporary unbelievers tether inquiry to an obsolete version of western monotheism.
Atheism is not a freestanding worldview. Polytheist cultures may contain philosophies that assert the indifference of the gods - Epicureanism is an example, and others can be found in ancient India and China - but they do not produce atheists, who emerge only in reaction against monotheism. Atheism is primarily an episode in the history of the decline of Christianity, and the idea that there is anything resembling an atheist tradition beyond that limited context is a category mistake. The same is true of the idea of an atheist morality. No values follow logically from the denial of the Christian God. If atheists today think that unbelief goes with liberal values, it is because they are ignorant of history - or have chosen to forget it. A degree of amnesia on their part is understandable, since it is a fact that the worst 20th-century crimes against human freedom were committed by atheist regimes. Hitler, Stalin and Mao differed in many ways, but they were at one in their hostility to religion. Whether inspired by Marx or Nietzsche, they were atheists whose goal was a world in which humanity acknowledged no external authority. The consequences of this project included mass killing on a scale that none of the world's traditional faiths has ever rivalled.
The rejection of monotheism can yield two quite different approaches to religion. The first is the humanist approach common among atheists, which is hostile to religion on the ground that it diminishes human autonomy. The second is naturalism, which is friendly to religion on the ground that it is evidently natural for humans. Humanists follow Christians in looking forward to a time when all of humankind will have the same view of the world. For naturalists, a wide variety of religions is a normal part of the human condition. Again, humanists echo Christians in believing that humans are radically different from other animals in that they are capable of controlling their destiny, while naturalists have more in common with the ancient pagan view and take a modest view of human possibilities. Nearly all post-monotheist thinkers have adopted the neo-Christian humanist approach, but there are a few who have not. A 20th-century version of naturalism can be found in the work of George Santayana, an inexplicably neglected thinker for whom religion was as much a part of human nature as poetry, curiosity or sex.
The history of atheism is short and uninspiring. It is not easy to see how a dreary Victorian heresy can be made relevant at the start of the 21st century, but in his three-part BBC4 series A Brief History of Disbelief, Jonathan Miller has succeeded in making one version of disbelief - his own - sympathetic and interesting. As a whole, the series presented a highly conventional hagiography of atheism, but it was redeemed by Miller's graceful and at times almost elegiac individual perspective on the subject. Unlike some of the unbelievers who appeared in the programme - who seemed to have lost their faith in early life and remained stuck ever after in an embarrassing posture of adolescent incredulity - Miller never had any faith to lose. Reluctant to call himself an atheist, he appeared rather as someone untouched by monotheism, confessing to having little feeling for religion in general. This lack of religious feeling enabled him to present a detached view of religion far removed from that of the atheists he interviewed, who were plainly struggling to give vent to their own repressed religious needs.
Despite the subtlety of Miller's personal reflections, the series still ended up illustrating the narrowness and superficiality of contemporary atheism. Religion was presented as being primarily to do with belief, and the beliefs in question were those of western monotheism. Neither India nor China figured in the story. The political religions of the 20th century were given only a glance. With characteristic honesty, Miller admitted that the history of the former Soviet Union had left an indelible stain on the ideal of a godless world. Yet he failed to ask the obvious questions raised by the Soviet (and Maoist) experience. Why was the attempt to root out religion such a failure? Why did communism so quickly turn into a religion itself - and such a primitive and destructive religion at that? Might not the history of militant atheism in the 20th century tell us something about the enduring urgency of the human need for religion?
The failure to examine 20th-century political religion is unfortunate, for it means failing to understand its debts to Christianity. Marxian communism is a secular version of Christian eschatology, in which the promise of universal salvation is translated into a programme of universal human emancipation. It is impossible to imagine a political religion of this kind developing in the pagan world. It is equally inconceivable in the context of Judaism, which has never made the universal claims central in other monotheistic religions. What marks off Christianity from the other religions of the ancient world is its claim to universal authority, and it is this that links it with modern political religion. If Jesus had remained simply the leader of a Jewish sect - as he was before St Paul invented Christianity - we would have been spared the millenarian movements that convulsed late medieval Europe, and very likely also the totalitarian movements of late modern times. In his seminal study, The Pursuit of the Millennium (first published in 1957), Norman Cohn showed the many deep similarities linking medieval millenarians with modern revolutionaries. Each looked forward to a total and violent transformation of society. As we can now see, the similarities extend not only to revolutionaries of the communist variety but also of the neoconservative kind. The idea of the end of history, which Marx deployed in his account of communism and Francis Fukuyama revived in his declaration of the global triumph of democracy, is a hollowed-out version of the Christian view of history as a universal moral drama, ending in salvation. The missionary zeal that fuelled the Bolsheviks and that drives the neoconservatives today expresses the same chiliastic vision. These 20th-century political religions inherited all of Christianity's intolerant zeal, while suppressing its realistic insight into human imperfection.
Discussing the 9/11 attacks at the start of the series, Miller commented that only people who believed they would survive bodily death could have committed such acts, involving as they did the certainty of death for themselves. It is a curiously innocent observation, leaving out of consideration the secular fanatics - communists, Nazis and others - who, without ever doubting that death is the end, were ready to die as well as kill for the cause. A contempt for life - one's own and that of others - is not the exclusive privilege of religious believers, and in the 20th century it was more commonly found among adherents of secular faiths. After the disasters of the 20th century these secular creeds went into a steep decline but, with the emergence of a virulent form of fundamentalism, a moribund tradition of evangelical unbelief has undergone a revival. Happily, the atheist revival depends for its vitality on the primitive religiosity to which it is a response, and when that sputters out we can look forward to being rid of unbelief as well.
John Gray is the author of Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions