The Twilight of Atheism
The celebration of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in June 1897 marked the high point of British imperial history. It was a supreme moment of national self-confidence and congratulation. The British had created an empire on which the sun never set, and much of its colorful diversity was on display in the streets of London that summer.
But Earth's proud empires fade away. The same process of growth and decay can be seen in the empires of the mind. There comes a point when their attraction pales and their credibility falters. To wit: Atheism is in trouble. Its future seems increasingly to lie in the private beliefs of individuals rather than in the great public domain it once regarded as its natural habitat.
Pathology No Longer
Atheism was once new, exciting, and liberating, and for those reasons held to be devoid of the vices of the faiths it displaced. With time, it turned out to have just as many frauds, psychopaths, and careerists as religion does. Many have now concluded that these personality types are endemic to all human groups, rather than being the peculiar preserve of religious folks. With Stalin and Madalyn Murray O'Hair, atheism seems to have ended up mimicking the vices of the Spanish Inquisition and the worst televangelists, respectively.
One of the most important criticisms that Sigmund Freud directed against religion was that it encourages unhealthy and dysfunctional outlooks on life. Having dismissed religion as an illusion, Freud went on to argue that it is a negative factor in personal development. At times, Freud's influence has been such that the elimination of a person's religious beliefs has been seen as a precondition for mental health.
Freud is now a fallen idol, the fall having been all the heavier for its postponement. There is now growing awareness of the importance of spirituality in health care, both as a positive factor in relation to well-being and as an issue to which patients have a right. The "Spirituality and Healing in Medicine" conference sponsored by Harvard Medical School in 1998 brought reports that 86 percent of Americans as a whole, 99 percent of family physicians, and 94 percent of hmo professionals believe that prayer, meditation, and other spiritual and religious practices exercise a major positive role within the healing process.
With the breakdown of social cohesion in recent decades, creating a sense of community has become an increasingly important political issue in many Western cultures. The question of how community can be recovered invites a comparison of religious and atheistic approaches.
One of the most obvious indicators of the ongoing importance of religion is the well-documented tendency of immigrant communities to define themselves in religious termsSikh, Hindu, and Muslim communities in Great Britain, and in France, Muslims from Algeria and other North African nations.
Christian churches have long been the centers of community life in the West. People want to belong, not just believe.
The growth of community churches has helped meet this need. There is a sense of belonging to a common group, of shared common values, and of knowing each other. People don't just go to community churches; they see themselves as belonging there. At a time when American society appears to be fragmenting, the community churches offer cohesion.
It is important to make this connection with the changing face of America. In his much-cited article "The Age of Social Transformation," published in the November 1994 Atlantic Monthly, management guru Peter Drucker pointed out that traditional communities of family, village, and parish have practically disappeared.