Atheism is the Opiate of the Bourgeoisie

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In his book The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, the American Christian theologian and philosopher David Bentley Hart provides an account for what traditional theology has put forth on what the term God means and what it entails. It is interesting to note that this work can arguably be considered to be more directed at believers than it is at disbelievers. The modern world and its intellectual presuppositions have impacted the minds of everyone to think in terms set forth by the dominant paradigm – naturalism. In doing so, even believers who wish to argue that God exists have inadvertently picked up a language and a belief system in which even though the term God is used, its essence is not the same as that when traditional theologians of the past have used it. Hart contends that modern believers today are relying on a notion of God that is irreconcilable with traditional theology and more in line with paganism. Put another way, believers today are arguing for a different version of the same atheistic worldview that atheists argue for. The only difference between the two camps is how each articulates their perspective.

A fascinating insight Hart offers towards the end of the book is with regards to the modern rise of atheism. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of Americans who are leaving religion behind is growing, and 78% percent of religious “nones” report they grew up in a household where a particular religion was taught before they discarded that part of their identity as they entered into adulthood. Furthermore, an increasing number of the religiously unaffiliated and atheists are in the younger demographics. In popular culture, public intellectuals and scientists are associated with atheism, thus giving credence to the notion that as one becomes more intelligent the more likely they will be an atheist. This has put believers in a defensive position as they offer a rational case for upholding religion as Revelation from God who is the Creator. Today, there is a plethora of books, lectures, and debates on the subject of God and the relationship between science and religion. Interestingly, however, the social and economic elements driving the rise of atheism hardly receive the level of attention that philosophical and scientific factors do, at the popular level at least. Hart touches on this element driving atheism in the following passage:

Now that the most violent storms of recent history have largely abated, the more chronic, pervasive, and ordinary expression of our technological mastery of nature turns out to be simply the interminable spectacle of production and consumption, the dialectic of ubiquitous banality by which the insatiable economic culture of the late modern West is shaped and sustained. And this, I think, is how one must finally understand the popular atheist vogue that has opened so lucrative a niche market in recent years: it is an expression of what a Marxist might call the “ideological superstructure” of consumerism. Rather than something daring, provocative, and revolutionary, it is really the rather insipid residue of the long history of capitalist modernity, and its chief impulse – as well as its chief moral deficiency – is bourgeois respectability.

The problem Hart highlights here is about the belief in unhindered growth that can only be achieved with an unchecked level of material acquisition, which is sustained by the constant creation of new desires and voids to be fulfilled, something that religion stands in the way of:

Late modern society is principally concerned with purchasing things, in ever greater abundance and variety, and so has to strive to fabricate an ever greater number of desires to gratify, and to abolish as many limits and prohibitions upon desire as it can. Such a society is already implicitly atheist and so must slowly but relentlessly apply itself to the dissolution of transcendent values. It cannot allow ultimate goods to distract us for proximate goods. Our sacred writ is advertising, our piety is shopping, our highest devotion is private choice. God and the soul too often hinder the purely acquisitive longings upon which the market depends, and confront us with values that stand in stark rivalry to the one truly substantial value at the center of our social universe: the price tag. So it really was only a matter of time before atheism slipped out of the enclosed gardens of academe and down from the vertiginous eyries of high cosmopolitan fashion and began expressing itself in crassly vulgar form. It was equally inevitable that, rather than boldly challenging the orthodoxies of its age, it would prove to be just one more anodyne item on sale in the shops, and would be enthusiastically feted by a vapid media culture not especially averse to the idea that there are no ultimate values, but only final prices. In a sense, the triviality of the movement is its chief virtue. It is a diverting alternative to thinking deeply. It is a narcotic. In our time, to strike a lapidary phrase, irreligion is the opiate of the bourgeoisie, the sigh of the oppressed ego, the heart of a world filled with tentalizing toys.

Religion in a culture in which self-worth is judged by how much material one acquires, where quality is exchanged for quantity, and possession of random bits of information is treated as having knowledge will struggle to survive. Seen in this light, it is not all that surprising to see why atheism finds currency today and sheds a new light on the Hadith of the Beloved ﷺ where he is reported to have said, “The Hour will not begin until no one on Earth will say: la ilaha illa Allah (there’s no god but God)”.

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For in-depth discussions with Dr. Mohamed Ghilan on books and articles such as the one featured in this Vignette through an Islamic perspective, join Andalus Book Club.

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