Who would have thought that the new millennium would begin with jihads, holy wars, fatwas, inquisitions and slaughter of the innocents in the name of God?

Almost four centuries since the Catholic Church condemned Galileo for heresy; a century and a half after Darwin’s Origin of Species, the new millennium ushers in religious disputation that rivals that of the darkest of ages past – yet in a new and strange language in which ancient shibboleths come clothed in the guise of threatening modernity.

The iconic moment that has defined our era was the destruction of the symbols of contemporary global economic and military power by Islamic jihadists chanting centuries-old incantations. Yet these jihadists were university graduates with the technical skills to pilot hijacked jetliners as precisely targeted weapons of mass destruction. In the United States, born-again evangelicals spread an atavistic antiscientific gospel through the most sophisticated modern techniques of mass communication.

It is easy to grow too apocalyptic. The 9/11 terrorists’ dream of a medieval caliphate from Spain to Indonesia has not progressed one inch toward realization since 2001. 
A Republican candidate for president who insisted that the constitution be made compliant with Holy Scripture has lost, and the successful candidate echoes none of his evangelical ravings.

In the West, at least among those who read books other than the Bible, a ferocious intellectual counterattack has been launched against the new religiosity. Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great are among a wave of attacks on religion from a forthrightly atheist perspective. As a lifelong atheist, I should be enthusiastically joining the insurgency. Challenge religion not with another faith, but with no faith.

The atheist soldiers have my good wishes. But something is missing in their manifestos. Dawkins the scientist demolishes the arguments for the “God Hypothesis.” His logic is compelling – to those who already think like him. I doubt that he has convinced a single believer (assuming any believers actually read Dawkins, as opposed to denouncing him). Arguments from within reason cannot touch faith, unless faith is already shaky.

The reductionist attack on belief misses most of what religion sets out to answer. Its purpose never was to find the most plausible scientific hypothesis to explain existence, but rather to answer other questions that are prescientific and yet survive the age of science. Dawkins has been savagely attacked not only by believers but also by Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton, who scorns his incomprehension of the cultural richness of religious meaning. Dawkins, he argues, simply misses the point.

It is an elusive point to those outside the faith. From the first childhood moments when I began to think for myself, I rejected the inherited notion of God. I have known many people who have grown out of their inherited religion, or have thrown it over later in life. Sometimes they become particularly zealous atheists who show no mercy to their former faith, like the ex-Communists in the book The God that Failed. But they at least have more than an inkling of what it was to have believed in a God. For me the very concept has always been a mystery. Like Dawkins and other atheist writers, I have no idea what it is like at the emotional, visceral level to live in a world infused with the certainty of an omnipresent, omniscient intelligence that was, and is, and will always be.

One inner voice tells me that this is an intellectual strength: I am too smart to fall for the superstitions of the many. Another, less arrogant, voice suggests that it is a weakness, disabling me from any empathetic sense of thoughts and feelings that have been characteristic in one form or another of every society in human history.

That atheism will always be a minority persuasion is a hard reality which we atheists must face. In the 20th century there were attempts by Communist regimes to establish atheism as official state doctrine. They failed abysmally. Instead of contesting religion as an external threat to liberal democracy, we must live with it as a necessary part of the foundation of any society.

But official theocracies are every bit as nightmarish as Communist police states. Even short of theocracy, religion-ridden societies are steeped in social and personal repression. The Roman Catholic Church with its 2,000-year weight of hierarchy and dogma has been among the worst offenders. It is surely no accident that three Western societies where Catholic influence was once most pervasive – Ireland, Spain and Quebec – are the sites of vigorous social liberal reaction to clerical domination.

Yet countries long characterized by the separation of church and state now contend with resurgent religious interference in politics. There are two very worrying trends in the contemporary accommodation of religion in Western societies. One is the “multicultural” response to the rise of militant Islam. The Archbishop of Canterbury recently set off a firestorm when he tentatively suggested the possibility of incorporating Islamic shari‘a law into British practice for consenting Muslim citizens. In Ontario, this issue surfaced a few years ago when Premier Dalton McGuinty shot down an attempt to establish shari‘a – and at the same time evenhandedly reversed an earlier Ontario decision to permit Orthodox Jewish codes to apply in disputes within families in that community.

One law for all, applied equally and without discrimination, is surely the only sound basis for a liberal multicultural society. A liberalism that would permit multiple privileged religious enclaves, in which unaccountable spiritual leaders apply laws that may run contrary to universal rights and freedoms, is liberalism seemingly intent on its own evisceration.

Another challenge comes from the opposite direction. Conservative hostility toward militant Islam and reactions to multicultural and multiethnic “threats” have helped engender a new born-again Christian militancy, the confident insistence that self-appointed Christian arbiters of right and wrong should set the rules for everyone else. “We” need to protect “our” culture and way of life from the threatening influx of the Other, and Christianity is front and centre in the definition of who “we” are. Instead of the many Goods nurtured by the multicultural ecumenists, there should be only the one privileged Good raised above all others. If the former constitutes undermining liberalism from within, the latter is a frontal assault.

Obviously many Christians, hopefully still the majority, are not intolerant zealots but respect the boundary between church and state and fully accept common citizenship with nonbelievers and followers of other faiths. But one does not need to push too hard to discern vulnerability and intellectual laxity in the liberal ecumenical strain of Christianity, which shrinks from contact with more aggressive forms of Christianity and wavers uncertainly before the challenge of Islamic certitudes. Can competing Truths really be coequal?

This is less of a problem for religion as such than for the monotheistic, totalizing faiths that rule most of the world today. Despite millennia of relentless propagandizing against the “pagans” who preceded the victory of monotheism, it is intriguing to revisit the wisdom of the ancients before they were banished by the warriors of the Jewish, Christian and later Muslim faiths.

The Roman Empire has always had a very bad press in both Jewish and Christian camps, but there is much to be said for its polytheism. The ancient gods were in a sense humanist: they reflected humanity in all its strengths and weaknesses. They could be petty, jealous, quarrelsome and vindictive as well as Olympian. When they took sides in human disputes, their interventions were arbitrary and often unjust – just as human fate is arbitrary and often unjust.

The Roman gods were tolerant and pluralistic. Their roster was always being expanded. When the Romans conquered, they brought their gods along with their centurions, and they expected subject peoples to acknowledge them in public as symbols of imperial rule. But they were always willing to include new gods and new religious practices of the subject peoples within an expansive tolerant pantheon.

The Jews rebelled because their austere monotheism would not permit them to acknowledge the heathen gods of Rome even pro forma. They suffered defeat and dispersal for their zealotry. The Christians were more devious. As Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s.” Eventually, of course, they succeeded in burrowing from within and took over Rome. On assuming power, those who had once been persecuted for being Christian enthusiastically took to persecuting people for not being Christian. Within a couple of centuries, another prophet of monotheism, Muhammad, arose in the desert and Islamic jihad spread a new faith by the sword across the continents. The triumph of exclusivist and exclusionary faiths was complete, and woe to the infidel and heretic.

We can no more bring back the ancient gods than establish a godless republic. But today’s pallid liberal ecumenism fails to recapture the easy tolerance of the pagan world because the very faiths liberals are trying to be ecumenical about are at root exclusivist claims to Truth. And each brings expectations to the public realm to see its Truth reflected in the state.

The Bouchard-Taylor Commission in Quebec (see Inroads, Winter/Spring 2008) is engaging this conundrum under the guise of “reasonable accommodation.” Ethnicity can be accommodated, but can religion? Charles Taylor grapples at great length with this in his recent book A Secular Age, but his personal affirmation of his Christian, Catholic faith sits uneasily with the notion of intercultural pluralism that his commission would like to foster.

Religion cannot be banished into the private sphere, but in the public space it must be contained within strict limits or it will overwhelm the liberal foundations of free societies. In the end, we have to fall back on secularism as a muscular doctrine that will face down all the proponents of public religiosity. The liberal democratic public sphere cannot be atheist, but it can, should and must be agnostic.