There is no one who quite so fanatical about his faith as a self-declared atheist. And, after thousands of years of taking it lying down, they’re getting militant. At least in Europe, according to this fascinating article (subscription required) in the Wall Street Journal.
Atheists have been with us since the beginning of civilization. Also from the WSJ, this summary of the Greek philosopher Socrates (469-399 B.C.):
Socrates was a philosopher in Athens, where he was known for drawing close connections between knowledge and virtue and for his identification of the human soul as the source of both consciousness and character. In 399 B.C., when he was about 70 years old, he was accused and convicted of religious heresies — including atheism — and of having corrupted the country’s young people. Sentenced to death, he was given a draft of poisoned hemlock.
Atheists have been annoyed ever since. The rise of militant atheism in Europe, however, seems to have more to do with the same old, same old: power. Unfortunately, the militant atheists are absolutely on the mark when they accuse the Church, by which they really mean the Latin (Roman Catholic) Church, of, well, fill in any horror you wish. The Catholic Church in Europe has done them all, usually in the name of “preserving the faith.”
Yes, of course, the Church has also helped preserve the knowledge of the ancient world, and, by any objective account, has served as one of the great engines of capitalism and progress in all things. Unfortunately, at a heinous price; a price paid by those who valued freedom of conscience more that obedience to the Bishop of Rome and his hierarchy.
Europe’s Christian background should never, however, be denied or swept under a rug because it is far from perfect. It is what it is. It must also be said that Europe gave birth to true Protestantism, to a true freedom of conscience to worship as a Christian. And, after the Scottish Enlightenment, to not worship if that is what one’s conscience dictates.
But, as I’ve said, it’s really all about power. From the Journal:
As with many fights involving faith, Europe’s struggle between belief and nonbelief is also a proxy for other, concrete issues that go far beyond the supernatural. In this case, they involve a battle to define the identity of a continent.
Half a century after the 1957 Treaty of Rome laid the foundations for the now 27-nation European Union, Europe has secured peace and prosperity. But it is deeply uncertain about what binds the bloc together beyond mere economic self-interest. Says Ms. Armstrong: “There is a big fight going on to define European civilization.”
A thing as vast and sweeping as a “civilization” is not likely something subject to definition by a bunch of Eurocrats. Suffice to say, Europe is the heartland of Western Christianity. For better, and for worse. Speaking as an inheritor of that civilization, I say “thank you” to the brave souls who held out against the tyranny of establishment churches, Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant. But I must also say “thank you” to the many thousands of devout Christians of all confessions who paved the way, and worshiped in quiet humility regardless of who claimed the throne.
The current wave of atheists, who put their faith in man and in princes, are doomed to ultimate failure. As the Psalmist reminds us in Psalm 146:3. “Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help.”