On many occasions, I’ve heard conservative Christians make the claim that atheism has Christianity to thank for many of the ethics, values, and cultural patterns New Atheists promote and take for granted. That always used to make my fur bristle because Christianity has a habit of trying to take credit for nearly everything people praise as the more positive aspects of Western culture.
The reality is though, Christianity has enjoyed a cultural hegemony in the West for many centuries, and as such, it has influenced Western culture deeply. That cultural hegemony is a consequence in no small part, of a missionary zeal to spread the cultural seeds of its beliefs to the far corners of the planet. The body count of that zeal is written upon some of the bloodiest chapters of human history. The destruction of indigenous peoples in continents outside of Europe, the exploitation of their land and resources, the eradication of their cultures… all of that rides on the shoulders of Christianity’s long history of destructive missionary projects. Those projects, which center upon spreading Eurocentric culture across the globe, haven’t died and haven’t slowed down, not even with the increasing secularization of the West. Those responsible for continuing this endeavor may change faces as responsibility shifts hands but the project remains nevertheless.
The thing about oppression and its many forms is this: they have a tendency to shapeshift and be reborn from one generation to the next. We think we have rid ourselves of our grandparents’ shameful flaws when in reality, we embody and reproduce those flaws in abundance, and we fail to recognize those patterns, reborn in a guise which eludes our vision.
This pattern takes many forms and one of those forms has nestled comfortably in the culture war taking place between Christianity and New Atheism. In many ways, they are mortal enemies. Peer beneath the surface though, and this distinction becomes muddled.
I have noticed this similarity:
- Conservative Christian apologists craft defenses for patriarchal religion, the Western Eurocentric culture that was founded on it, and the project of spreading that culture globally.
- New Atheist apologists craft defenses for the Enlightenment, the Western Eurocentric culture that was fundamentally influenced by it, and the project of spreading that culture globally.
It’s interesting how one is derivative of the other and yet, neither group of people will fully admit how their histories and preferred modes of cultural colonialism are so deeply mirrored and intertwined.
New Atheism often portrays itself as a kind of cultural savior, spreading secular freedom across the globe and pushing back the “barbarism” of pre-rational religion, but as time has passed I have noticed that New Atheism’s drive to spread itself reminds me of Christianity’s evangelical mission to bring the globe in line with its cultural tenets. Christianity has and still does view itself as a primary civilizing force in the world, opposing what it views as “backwards primitive” cultures.
These similarities are hardly coincidental. New Atheism was born in the cultural cradle of the Christian West. The West’s tendency to see itself as the moral guardian of the world, especially in the form of US exceptionalism, is a cultural byproduct of Christianity’s Great Commission. We in the West have a tendency to see ourselves as superior and we believe our purpose and mission is to “gift” the world with our supposedly superior ways. At its heart, this attitude is a colonialist mindset, embedded with racism and brimming with global ambitions. New Atheism was born under the influence of this exceptionalist mindset and it continues the project of a racist cultural colonialism just as Eurocentric Christianity has for ages. They are both delivery systems for cultural domination and ultimately, they serve as an avenue for the exploitation of those outside of white-dominated Western countries.
The thing to keep in mind is that capitalism functions far more efficiently in a global monoculture. Capitalism will tend to favor and promote institutions that help it promote its reach. The Great Commission of Christianity is well suited for this task, as is the self-promoting Western ethnocentrism of New Atheism. It is easier to market and sell products to a world if it shares the same values, beliefs, tastes, and ways of doing things. It is also far easier to exploit labor forces and natural resources on a global scale if the world’s nations share similar economic systems and values—values which align with the ambitions of capitalism. Both New Atheism and conservative Christianity serve as unwitting allies in the project of spreading cultural conformity in service to the global marketplace. Even if religion were to disappear tomorrow, the keys of the kingdom would be handed to the corporate aristocracy of a newborn secularism. One thing is certain: money will bear the imprint of whatever emperor mints it.
So the question is, do your prefer colonialism with the face of a white European Jesus, Halliburton, and McDonald’s, or the face of Sam Harris, Raytheon, and Coke? Either way, their revolution will be televised.