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It looks like Man crucified

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At Easter I, a longstanding atheist, find myself feeling affinity with religious folk

As a godless, atheistic Marxist, I have never been less worried about religion. What does worry me is the rise of a New Atheism that, never mind God, appears to have lost faith in humanity.

Only someone with the brain of an Easter egg could seriously believe that the influence of religion over our lives is on the rise today. When I was growing up, Good Friday seemed the most miserable day of the year, when Britain closed down and left us non-believers with nothing to do or drink. Now for most it is just another day off to go shopping or socialising or sit in traffic.

Yet led by Richard Dawkins's bestselling The God Delusion, a New Atheism has boomed in intellectual circles. Why now? After all, those banging on about "the rise of religious fundamentalism" seem unaware that many Christians lack the courage of their own convictions. From the Vatican's new deadly sin of environmental pollution to the Church of England's call for a "carbon-free Lent", insecure Church leaders are falling back on fashionable secular notions.

The New Atheism is a response not to any rise of religion but to the decline of political belief. In his book God Is Not Great, the former Marxist Christopher Hitchens admits that his "own secular faith has been shaken and discarded". Lacking any agreed ten commandments of liberal values today, they know not what they believe in. But they at least know it's not God. Railing against the spectre of religious fundamentalism gives the New Atheists a sort of phantom philosophy to hold on to.

By all means, hammer superstition and prejudice. But there is little that is rational about this zealous anti-religious crusade. In some ways the new zealots seem worse than the old. Their attack is not only on God, but on the idea of humanity as what Descartes called "little gods on earth". Their arguments tend to diminish the scope of human achievement, emphasising our smallness in the Universe, that we are prisoners of our biology, and that we are all going to Hell in a plastic carrier bag with no prospect of salvation.

Strike me down if I don't sometimes think I have more in common with religious folk. Some at least still start from a belief in their version of the Good Society and people's capacity to strive for it. (Take the Catholic Delia Smith in her heretical cookery show: "It's about understanding that the human race is so fantastic and so wonderful and so brilliant, but with the Creator it can be so much better.") By contrast, the New Atheist elite tend to twist Karl Marx's description of religion as "the opium of the people" into an attack on the masses whom they fear as an ignorant mob.

More than a century after Nietzsche declared God is dead, it is Man as a little god on earth who is being crucified. "It is finished," Jesus said on the cross, according to John's gospel. He then "gave up the ghost". Must we give up the ghost of humanism?



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