The Secular Outlook
The Secular Outlook
1 Atheism, Agnosticism, and Theism
Non-Religious Ethics is at a very early stage. We cannot yet predict whether, as in Mathematics, we will all reach agreement. Since we cannot know how Ethics will develop, it is not irrational to have high hopes.
(Derek Parfit, 1984) 1
He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
Let us start with what people most often associate with "the secular outlook." If with anything at all, they associate it with atheism. But what is atheism? Sometimes atheism is presented as a coherent worldview, encompassing all the other traditions supposedly associated with the secular outlook. On this basis the Christian theologian and physicist Alister McGrath (1953- ) writes: "Atheism is the religion of the autonomous and rational human being, who believes that reason is able to uncover and express the deepest truths of the universe, from the mechanics of the rising sun to the nature and final destiny of humanity." 2 The first thing that strikes us is that atheism is presented here as a "religion." A second point that is remarkable is that McGrath depicts as "atheism" beliefs that most people would associate with "rationalism." In clarifying his definition the author even introduces other elements, such as optimism. Atheism, so McGrath writes, "was a powerful, self-confident, and aggressive worldview. Possessed of a boundless confidence, it proclaimed that the world could be fully understood and subsequently mastered." 3 Often these definitions seem animated by an aversion to the denial of God. This also seems true in the case of McGrath. McGrath wrote a history of atheism based on a claim that its significance was declining.
A similar thesis is defended by the prolific Catholic historian Paul Johnson (1928- ). "Atheism as a positive set of beliefs, including a code of moral behavior, has failed to flourish," Johnson writes. 4 It may be that fewer and fewer people in Western countries practice religion, Johnson tells us, but the number of those prepared to state their disbelief in God openly and specifically is extremely small. There is only a small minority that does that, whose numbers are probably no greater today than in the time of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), who was expelled from Oxford University for his atheism. Shelley's Queen Mab: A Philosophical Poem (1813) was a forceful attack on organized religion. It takes the form of a dream-vision allegory in which the fairy Queen Mab takes the mortal maiden Ianthe on an extraterrestrial excursion in order to show her the past, present, and future states of the human world. According to Shelley, the past is irrational. It is the record of one mistake after another. The present is irreversibly corrupted by kings, priests, and statesmen. But the future will be a supremely glorious affair. 5 Several atheistic passages were removed from the first edition, but they were restored in the second. The poem's publisher, Edward Moxon (1801-1858), was prosecuted and convicted of blasphemous libel. In the 1820s the British intellectual and bookseller Richard Carlile (1790-1843) issued a new edition of the poem.
That the development of atheism is still at the same stage as Shelley left it at the beginning of the nineteenth century, as Paul Johnson contended in 1996, is not very convincing given the vast quantity of literature that has appeared on atheism recently. But maybe this has to do with the fact that it is far from clear what Johnson means when he uses the term "atheism."
More attention is given to this matter in monographs explicitly devoted to the subject. According to Julian Baggini (1968- ) atheism is "extremely simple to define," because "it is the belief that there is no God or gods." 6
In other definit