But you will have gathered what I am driving at, namely, that it is still a metaphysical faith upon which our faith in science rests—that even we seekers after knowledge today, we godless anti-metaphysicians still take our fire, too, from the flame lit by a faith that is thousands of years old, that Christian faith which was also the faith of Plato, that God is the truth, that truth is divine … But what if this should become more and more incredible, if nothing should prove to be divine any more unless it were error, blindness, the lie—if God himself should prove to be our most enduring lie?
For secular thinkers, the continuing vitality of religion calls into question the belief that history underpins their values. To be sure, there is disagreement as to the nature of these values. But pretty well all secular thinkers now take for granted that modern societies must in the end converge on some version of liberalism. Never well founded, this assumption is today clearly unreasonable. So, not for the first time, secular thinkers look to science for a foundation for their values.
It’s probably just as well that the current generation of atheists seems to know so little of the longer history of atheist movements. When they assert that science can bridge fact and value, they overlook the many incompatible value-systems that have been defended in this way. There is no more reason to think science can determine human values today than there was at the time of Haeckel or Huxley. None of the divergent values that atheists have from time to time promoted has any essential connection with atheism, or with science. How could any increase in scientific knowledge validate values such as human equality and personal autonomy? The source of these values is not science. In fact, as the most widely-read atheist thinker of all time argued, these quintessential liberal values have their origins in monotheism.
The new atheists rarely mention Friedrich Nietzsche, and when they do it is usually to dismiss him. This can’t be because Nietzsche’s ideas are said to have inspired the Nazi cult of racial inequality – an unlikely tale, given that the Nazis claimed their racism was based in science. The reason Nietzsche has been excluded from the mainstream of contemporary atheist thinking is that he exposed the problem atheism has with morality. It’s not that atheists can’t be moral – the subject of so many mawkish debates. The question is which morality an atheist should serve.
I must admit that the Guardian’s long-reads are often worth reading, as opposed to their Comment Is Free section, where apparently any moronic monkey with a modem can submit an essay.
Now, then, just in case it needs to be spelled out, neither Nietzsche nor Gray are saying “You atheists have ‘faith’ in science which makes science a religion hurr hurr!” The main point is that science is not going to solve what we think of as existential problems — the “why” questions. The secondary point is that faith in the idea that “the truth shall set you free”, or that truth is ultimately destined to win out in the end, is a laughable delusion. Science is indeed the best tool we’ve yet discovered for getting as close to objective truth as we can. However, science may only reveal that existence is devoid of objective meaning (many would argue it already has). For weak and sensitive individuals, the harsh truth about themselves may be too much to bear. And a lone truth-teller still needs tactical nous in order to avoid being snuffed out by the politically powerful.