The idea of a Messianic era is one that is deeply rooted within western religions. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam alike, all look forward to a time in the future where the entire world is united under a single philosophy and dissenters or nonconformists are punished until they are eradicated. It is then of no surprise that each religion assumes that the Messiah will be advocating for, and subsequently spread, their specific religion. The common thread between the Messianic hopes in various religions is the elimination of pluralism – as everyone will adopt the philosophies of the religion under discussion resulting in a better world.
There are, of course, many differences in the conception of the Messiah between various faiths (and within each faith too). However, the general idea of an eschatological time where sinners are punished and the Truth is spread is almost identical between the different Abrahamic religions. In Messianic times conflict and war will cease because everyone will know the Truth. The entire world will finally understand that the way to gain knowledge of the world is through the Torah, New Testament, or Qur’an. The Truth will be so evident that no one will lack faith and and many of the problems that plague modern society will be gone.
Now it is all too easy to dismiss the idea or conception of a Messiah as immature thinking or a fanciful myth. The ideas of any type of eschatology are very difficult to defend via any type of rational arguments. Even many individuals who have faith in their respective religions remain skeptical in regards to the notion of Messianic times. However, in this post, I do not wish to discuss the idea of religious skepticism of the Messiah times, but rather a new type of Messianism that has been slowly spreading.
The last few centuries has witnessed a new type of dogma, with a new Messianic conception that is very often overlooked. Since the Enlightenment the world has been becoming increasingly secular. The philosopher Max Weber frequently spoke about our post-Enlightenment world as being “disenchanted”. Ration replaces myth, logical replaces dogma, and science replaces belief. Religion is no longer forced on the masses, and it is becoming increasingly frequent for children to disagree with their parents’ beliefs.
However, while it is safe to say that we are living in a ‘secular age’, it is very unclear what exactly that means. The philosopher Charles Taylor spends an entire book (A Secular Age) discussing this question and it is most definitely beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it to say that according to Taylor, along with many other influential philosophers and political scientists, being in a secular age is one in which belief in God goes from a given – to one choice out of many. This vast change in the public sphere has brought about a new type of religion – that of the militant atheist. This religion is complete with its new etiological tales, dogma, and eschatology. There are obvious hierarchical structures in this religion, along with the fact that certain views will get you branded as a heretic.
Now I want to make perfectly clear that this is not an article about atheism in general. There are plenty of people who do not believe in God for a plethora of good reasons and therefore call themselves atheists. These people may even think that religion is mostly harmful to the world and that not beneficial in any meaningful way. However these people would still probably be heterodox in the church of the militant atheists.
Like any good fundamentalist religion, the militant atheists are unable to recognize any flaws within their belief system or way of life. They believe that they alone have the answer to the secrets of the universe. They preach Reason (with a capitol R) and Science as the be all and end all of knowledge in the world. Furthermore, part of their creed is that they look forward to a day when the entire world will know the Truth – that the only reasonable comprehensive doctrine for one to have is that of an atheistic worldview and everything else is wrong and immoral.
Talks of the atheist Messianic era burgeoned after September 11, 2001. After this horrible terrorist attack, fear of religion – especially Muslims, hit an all time high in the Western world. No longer was religion viewed by atheists as a relatively harmless archaic and anti-intellectual endeavor, it began to be seen a beacon of violence. The vast majority of evil acts in the history of mankind were suddenly blamed on divisions by religious dogmatism, rather than the psychological fallacies that are the cause of most inter-group violence, religious or not. This feared induced aggression against religion and hopes for a post-religious world is especially fascinating when compared to Messianic fervor throughout Jewish (and many other religions’) history.
Without going into too much detail, Messianic hopes in Judaism increase when the entire nation, or certain groups, feel most helpless or under attack. When the first temple was destroyed the biblical prophets would frequently evoke Messianic imagery to cheer up the despair of the people. In the times of the second temple, the Essenes, an ascetic sectarian group that exiled themselves deep in the desert, talked frequently about the end days in their book the “Messianic Apocalypse”. This is noteworthy when we compare them to the Sadducees and Pharisees who lived comfortable enough to remain silent on the issue. Then, once the temple was destroyed, the idea of the Messiah became so popularized in “main-stream” Judaism that thousands upon thousands of Jews died in the Bar Kochba revolt. In the middle ages, when Jews were suffering under the horrors of Christendom, Messianic depictions of revenge became popularized. Even the European antisemitism over the last few centuries has brought back strong feelings that we must be near the end days. Messianic hopes is the natural and historical religious reaction to feelings of helplessness.
It was due to this increased fear of religion, starting with 9/11, that began a proliferation of work calling for the end of religion. Book titles such as “The End of Faith” by Sam Harris and “Breaking the Spell” by Daniel Dennett let the reader know from the outset that this is not a simply critique of certain aspects of religion, rather this is a call for the end of religion, period. Similar themes appear in books authored by Dawkins and Hitchens: namely “The God Delusion” and “God is not Great”, where religion is blamed for the vast majority of evil in world history, and no silver lining is granted whatsoever. These books are not simply anti religious polemics, rather they explicitly evoke an idyllic picture of a post religious world where all knowledge, morality, and even acts of meditation are all dictated by Reason (the problems of this world-view will be the subject of my next post).
It is then all the more appropriate that Richard Dawkins begins his book by quoting John Lennon’s imagine, but instead of talking about “people living for today” as Lennon does, he goes on to list about 15 horrible things that would have never happened without religion. (Not to mention that some of the things that Dawkins blames solely on religion is a stretch at best, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is just one example). Another thinker whose words are ubiquitous throughout this genre is the prolific philosopher and writer Bertrand Russell who famously wrote: “I am myself a dissenter from all known religions, and I hope that every kind of religious belief will die out.” However even Russel was more nuanced than his militant predecessors as he adds to his statement “Although I am prepared to admit that in certain times and places it has had some good effects.” Needless to say, this last line generally does not make the cut.
Like many religious groups, there are good aspects and bad aspects. I do think that the militant atheists are doing the world a service in their challenging of fundamentalist religion (for more on my opinion on this matter see here). If religious groups view themselves as holding the only valid worldview to be their own, then how will there ever be unity in this world? Furthermore, most of the members in this group are outspoken critics of both the American far right and the far left. The derogatory, but true, epithet of calling the far left – regressive (instead of progressive) points out many of the double standards that exist throughout the far left. And finally, this group also has more nuanced views on Israel than one would intuitively expect.
Whether or not one believes in God, the soul, religion, or any transcendent sense of spirituality is irrelevant to this article. The idea that one day all religion will cease to exist is a difficult claim to defend. While I am in complete agreement that due to the internet and proliferation of knowledge any sense of fundamentalist religion will die out, ideas of God, religion, and spirituality will most probably remain for the remainder of our existence, as they are endemic to humanity.
Therefore it appears that the secular messiah is not likely to come any time soon. The militant atheists will join a long list of groups looking forward to their specific unrealistic picture of the future. Plus, and perhaps most importantly, no one is even praying for him!
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