Rémi Brague & the Failure of Atheism

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The French philosopher Rémi Brague argues that “atheism has failed, hence it is doomed to disappear in the long run” (Curing Mad Truths, University of Notre Dame Press, 2019, chapter two). His thesis appears to be contrary to the evidence in his home country of France. Once considered to be the “eldest daughter of the church,” France has been the “spearhead of secularization” since the Enlightenment and the 1789 Revolution (p. 24). The atheistic argument suggests that religious belief continues to wane and it is just a matter of time until it disappears.

Atheism appears to have achieved something outside of God. First, within the physical sciences, there is no need for God. The language is math and the support for arguments comes from evidence instead of faith. He writes, “When they do physics, they work without reference to God” (p. 25). Second, modern societies can exist without an appeal to a higher power. People have figured out how to get along and how to organize society.

To these two atheistic achievements, Brague appeals to Thomas Huxley’s agnosticism. He asks why science would go beyond nonscientific questions. In atheism, Brague finds a form of self-destruction. He provides three examples of what he sees as the future of atheism: (1) Environmental degradation. (2) Atomic destruction. (3) Declining birth rates.

In religious belief, humanity experiences the earth as a gift or blessing. Creation care is part of a divine calling. Thus, responding to universal problems like climate change and pollution are theological.

Without religious belief, humanity goes beyond being an apex predator. With nuclear options, people are the worst possible predator because we kill one another.

For Brague, when procreation is a choice, the atheistic argument can promote having fewer children or none. When more people choose to have no children, the population will decline. He cites Europe to support his case. As the population declines, there will be fewer atheists.

These examples lead him to conclude that atheism has failed as an ideological system and it will fade away in the future. He addresses some of the critiques of his argument, like “building a social order without transcendence” (p. 32). I would imagine famous atheists like Richard Dawkins would have more issues with Brague’s assessment, but I found it interesting that Brague painted a believable picture of atheism’s failure. A counter-argument could be Christianity’s failure, or Islam’s failure. In either case, the counter-argument might represent a caricature of the religion. Would committed atheists (is that such a thing?), agree with Brague’s critique?

My takeaway is not a self-satisfied judgment of atheism’s future, which does not seem to be Brague’s point either. I found it interesting to consider what my faith contributes to the world. Taking the three examples Brague provides of the future of atheism, I could apply my faith to a response to each one. First, what are Christians doing to curb climate change? To make it personal, what am I doing? Second, am I voting for politicians who take humanity further from the brink of nuclear war or hawkish warmongers who want to find a fight? Third, how do I support families, including those who long to have children but face biological hurdles?

These questions might be an apt starting point for looking not at the future failure of atheism. Instead, I want to look at a bright future as a follower of Christ.

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