The Turning Tide of Intellectual Atheism
“I was brought up an atheist—I didn’t become one,” [Ferugson] said. “I regard atheism as the religious faith I happened to be brought up in. It is, of course, as much a faith as Christianity or Islam—and I have the Calvinist brand, because my parents left the Church of Scotland. I was brought up, essentially, in a Calvinist ethical framework but with no God. This had its benefits—I was encouraged to think in a very critical way about religion and also about science, but I’ve come to see as a historian that you can’t base a society on that. Indeed, atheism, particularly in its militant forms, is really a very dangerous metaphysical framework for a society.”
“I know I can’t achieve religious faith,” he went on, “but I do think we should go to church. We don’t have, I don’t think, an evolved ethical system. I don’t buy the idea that evolution alone gets us to be moral. It can modify behaviour, but there’s just too much evidence that in the raw, when the constraints of civilisation fall away, we behave in the most savage way to one another. I’m a big believer that with the inherited wisdom of a two-millennia old religion, we’ve got a pretty good framework to work with.”
For one of the most prominent historians in the world—himself an agnostic—to say that we should go to church is rather startling, but Ferguson’s sentiments also appear to be part of a growing trend. The late philosopher Sir Roger Scruton began attending church himself despite struggling with belief, regularly playing the organ at All Saints’ in Garsdon. His secular friends say his faith remained cultural; other friends were not so sure. What we do know is that he thought Christianity was in many ways the soul of Western civilisation, and that the uniquely Christian concept of forgiveness was utterly indispensable to its survival.
Scruton’s friend Douglas Murray, the conservative writer who was raised in the Church before leaving it as an adult, has occasionally referred to himself as a “Christian atheist.” In a recent discussion with theologian N.T. Wright, he described himself as “an uncomfortable agnostic who recognises the virtues and the values the Christian faith has brought,” and noted that he is actually irritated by the way the Church of England is fleeing from its inheritance, “giving up its jewels” such as “the King James Bible and The Book of Common Prayer” in exchange for progressive pieties. “My fear is that the Church is not doing what so many of us on the outside want it to do, which is preaching its gospel, asserting its truths and its claims,” he said. “When one sees it falling into all the latest tropes one thinks well, that’s another thing gone, just like absolutely everything else in the era. I’m a disappointed non-adherent.”
Murray believes that Christianity is essential because secularists have been thus far totally incapable of creating an ethic of equality that matches the concept that all human beings are created in the image of God. In a column in The Spectator, he noted that post-Christian society has three options. The first is to abandon the idea that all human life is precious. “Another is to work furiously to nail down an atheist version of the sanctity of the individual.” And if that doesn’t work? “Then there is only one other place to go. Which is back to faith, whether we like it or not.” On a recent podcast, he was more blunt: “The sanctity of human life is a Judeo-Christian notion which might very easily not survive [the disappearance of] Judeo-Christian civilisation.”
Historian Tom Holland’s magnificent Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, published in 2019, makes a similar case. For years, Holland—an agnostic—wrote compelling histories of the ancient Greeks and Romans, but he observed that their societies were rife with casual, socially-accepted cruelty towards the weak, rape, and sexual abuse towards the massive slave class as an unquestioned way of life, and the mass extermination of enemies as a matter of course. These peoples and their ethics, Hollands writes, seemed utterly foreign to him.
It was Christianity, Holland concluded, that changed all that in a revolution so complete that even critiques of Christianity must borrow precepts from Christianity to do so. (Without Christianity, he writes, “no one would have gotten woke.”) He defended this thesis brilliantly in a debate on the subject “Did Christianity give us our human values?” with atheist philosopher A.C. Grayling, who seemed actively irritated by the idea. Not so long ago, unbelievers like the late Christopher Hitchens claimed that “religion poisons everything”—a sentiment that appears to be retreating as we advance further into the post-Christian era.
Hitchens frequently claimed to be not an atheist, but an “anti-theist”—he didn’t believe in God, and he was glad that he did not. It is fascinating to see intellectuals come forward with precisely the opposite sentiment—they do not believe, but they somehow want to believe. The psychologist Jordan Peterson, who speaks about Christianity often, is a good example of this. Discussing the historicity of the Christian story with Jonathan Pageau, he said, fighting back tears: “I probably believe that, but I’m amazed at my own belief and I don’t understand that.”
He went on: “In some sense, I believe it’s undeniable. You know, we have narrative sense of the world. For me that’s been the world of morality, that’s the world that tells us how to act. It’s real, we treat it like it’s real. It’s not the objective world, but the narrative and the objective world touch. And the ultimate example of that in principle is supposed to be Christ. But I don’t know what to do with that – it seems to me to be oddly plausible. But I still don’t know what to make of it. Partly because it’s too terrifying a reality to fully believe. I don’t even know what would happen to you if you fully believed it.”
Not so long ago, the atheists who retreated to their Darwinian towers and bricked themselves up to fire arrows at the faithful wanted to be there. Their intellectual silos were a refuge from faith because they didn’t want Christianity to be true. They hated it and thought we’d be better off without it. Like Hitchens, they were thrilled to find arguments that permitted them to reject it. Increasingly, some intellectuals from across the disciplines—history, literature, psychology, philosophy—are gazing out of what was once a refuge and wishing that, some how, they could believe it. They have understood that Christianity is both indispensable and beautiful, but their intellectual constraints prevent many of them from embracing it as true.
Viewing Western civilisation with its Christian soul cut out, many are now willing to say: “We need Christ.” What they are unable, thus far, to say, is: “I need Christ.” But the political must become personal. Peterson appears to understand that—and is awestruck by the reality of it.
For now, historians like Niall Ferguson recognise that Christianity is a fundamental bulwark of the fragile civilisation we inhabit. “I think the notion that we can deal with these arrows of outrageous fortune without some kind of established and time-honoured set of consolations is almost certainly wrong,” he told me. “I’m one of these people who didn’t come to atheism by choice, and I’ve almost come out of it on the basis of historical study. The biggest disasters that we likely face are actually related to totalitarianism, because that’s the lesson of the 20th century. Pandemics killed a lot of people in the 20th century, but totalitarianism killed more.
“It disturbs me that in so many ways, totalitarianism is gaining ground today,” Ferguson said. “Totalitarianism was bad for many reasons, and one of the manifestations of its badness was its attack on religion. When I see totalitarianism gaining ground not only in China but in subtle ways in our own society, that seems to be the disaster we really need to ward off. Why am I a conservative and not just a classical liberal? Because classical liberalism won’t stop wokeism and totalitarianism. It’s not strong enough. Ultimately, we need the inherited ideas of a civilisation and defences against that particular form of disaster.”
The survival of Christianity is essential for the survival of the West. The bad news is that this realisation comes when the day is far spent. The Good News is simpler. “Christendom has had a series of revolutions and in each of them Christianity has died,” G.K. Chesterton wrote in The Everlasting Man. “Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.”