The New Republic recently interviewed Booker Prizewinning novelist Ian McEwan. Although the interview covered his books and the internet I found his comments on religion and atheism particularly interesting. So often we hear religious beliefs justified today with the claim that they have arisen naturally in all societies and this demonstrates they are an inherent part of human nature. As McEwan points out this claim is simply refuted by the evidence that so many people don’t have these beliefs.
I reproduce the relevant sections of the interview below:
I just read a quote of yours, “Atheists have as much conscience, possibly more, than people with deep religious convictions,” and I have noticed that recently you have been talking a little more about atheism. You also contributed an essay to a new book called The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever. What are your thoughts on the “New Atheist” movement, which has gotten so much publicity and sold so many books in the last year or so. Do you think it differs from strains of atheism in the past
I am a little baffled as to why it is called the “New Atheism.” There is a very long tradition of free thinking, and the arguments made against religion tend to be the same but made over and over again. But I think what has happened is that there have been a number of good, articulate books–Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett, Sam Harris, and so on. What they have discovered to their own great surprise is that in the United States, and right across the South too, there are an enormous number of people who also think this way. I don’t think they have suddenly been persuaded by this rash of books–the feelings were there anyway–but they didn’t have a voice, they didn’t have a focus. When Hitchens took his book across the Bible Belt and debated with Baptist ministers in churches, there were huge audiences, most of whom, it seems, from when they spoke to him afterwards, were somewhat irritated that the place in the United States that they lived in was called the Bible Belt. I think there was something there that people had not taken into account. Quite heartening really, given that America is meant to be a secular republic with a strong tradition of upholding all freedom of thought.
Do you see religion as ineradicable, or do you think there is a chance to change people’s minds on religion?
I think it is ineradicable, and I think it is a terrible idea to suppress it, too. We have tried that and it joins the list of political oppression. It seems to be fairly deeply stitched into human nature. It seems to be part of all cultures, so I don’t expect it to vanish. And yet at the same time, if it is built into human nature, why are there so many people who don’t believe in it? I think it is important that people with no religious beliefs speak up and speak for what they value. It is a bit of a problem, the title “Atheist”–no one really wants to be defined by what they do not believe in. We haven’t yet settled on a name, but you wouldn’t expect a Baptist minister to go around calling himself a Darwinist. But it is crucial that people who do not have a sky god and don’t have a set of supernatural beliefs assert their belief in moral values and in love and in the transcendence that they might experience in landscape or art or music or sculpture or whatever. Since they do not believe in an afterlife, it makes them give more valence to life itself. The little spark that we do have becomes all the more valuable when you can’t be trading off any moments for eternity.