Radical Atheism #01: The Church of the Friendly Apes


Radical Atheism, the exciting new non-religion I’ve just made up, is the belief that a) there probably isn’t a god, an afterlife, or anything beyond the material, and b) that this has radical implications for the way we live and societies are organised.

Atheism implies an acceptance of the scientific understanding of the world, and how it, humanity, everything alive and everything full stop came about. Obviously, a lot of people can now tell you the basics of evolution, and they know that the universe wasn’t made in seven days four thousand years ago in some celestial Craig David video. But it’s clear from the way we continue to act that we haven’t really comprehended any of that at all.

Many religious accounts told people they were made by an all-seeing deity, and that life on earth was an extended afterlife-entrance exam. In secular society, not all that much has changed. Less people believe god made them and that heaven’s waiting for them than ever before, and life is now seen as a lovely theme park for their personal enjoyment rather than a test. But the idea that the individual is colossally important remains – arguably, it’s now even more prevalent, and not reined in by the moral compulsion to be compassionate that characterised religion at its best.

Mainstream atheism is shallow and individualistic. Often, it’s used as a sort of moral-philosophical Get Out Of Jail Free card: you’ve decided there’s no god, there’s no heaven, so you don’t have to worry about big ethical questions anymore. All that matters now is you – your life, your family, your career prospects. You’ve been issued your guilt-free hyper-individualism license by the universe, and can happily get on with buying things you don’t need and helping consume the planet to extinction.

Radical Atheism, probably very contentiously, argues that non-believers can learn from religion. It argues that atheism should become a secular belief system, a sort of irreligious religion, with a moral critique of the modern world.

Humanity is a 200,000 year-old species of highly social, co-operative animals that’s recently gone catastrophically off the rails. For 90% of the time we’ve existed, humans lived as hunter gatherers in small, co-operative, reasonably egalitarian kinship groups, usually with anywhere between ten and thirty members. This was a lifestyle we painstakingly evolved to suit over tens of thousands of years. It fundamentally shaped who we are, how we react to the world around us, and what we need to be emotionally healthy.

Look at the last few modern examples of that lifestyle – the San people of sub-Saharan Africa, for example, better known as the Bushmen of the Kalahari – and you find cultures where children have no responsibilities whatsoever, women have equal or greater status than men, a large amount of time is given over to doing things we’d see as just mucking about, like dancing, socialising, making music et cetera, and a 20-hour working week would be seen as intolerable.

Mainstream civilisation, by dismal contrast, is completely divorced from that way of life. It’s atomised and individualistic, hyper-materialistic, anti-social, ultra-competitive often to the point of callousness and sadism, and compels individuals to give over the majority of their finite, fragile existences to work in exchange for the things they need to live. Mass neurosis, dysfunction and mountain upon mountain of preventable human suffering are the result of a species of square pegs trying to live in round holes.

And most damningly of all, humanity has developed the capacity to ensure that every member of the species is sufficiently fed, watered, and afforded a reasonable standard of comfort – and doesn’t. One part of the world lives to mindless, soul-destroying excess to numb the pain of its hollow existence, while billions spend their only shots at being alive in poverty and millions starve to permanent, irreversible death. And in the process, in about 150 years, we’ve achieved what millions of other species haven’t managed in the 3.5 billion year history of living organisms – threatened to fatally undermine the planet’s capacity to support life.

There’s probably no god and life has no inherent meaning whatsoever. A substantial chunk of humanity has reacted to that by becoming selfish, callous and insular.

Radical Atheism argues that human beings instead need to fall back on the most basic morality for a guide of what to do – the set of moral principles stamped into human DNA over the millions of years we and our ancestor-organisms spent living as social, co-operative animals, and without which we wouldn’t have survived: it’s bad to hurt others. It’s good to help others. It’s bad not to help others when you can help others.

That’s the closest you’re ever going to get to a meaning of life in a meaningless universe. The world is full of preventable suffering. Thus, human beings should do everything they can to eradicate that suffering.

That means reorganising society in such a way that poverty is impossible, human beings are provided with the leisure time and social nourishment they need to emotionally healthy, vast effort is ploughed into preventing, treating and curing disease, and preventing an environmental meltdown that could kill billions is the very highest priority.

Some people argue that the piss-poor state of the modern world can be explained away by genetics. Humans are inherently selfish and cruel, they say. They’ll often look to chimpanzees, one of the two animal species most similar to us at a genetic level, as proof of our supposedly predetermined unpleasantness.

Chimps are aggressive, selfish, hierarchical, chauvinistic and dominated by the strongest. Look at the past thousand years of human history, and you have to admit that those attributes sound very familiar.

But there’s another animal species we’re equally related to. Bonobos are much less well-known that chimps. They’re a very endangered, scarily humanoid species of great ape living in the Congo. And they’re hugely social, affectionate, peaceful, all bisexual, have sex at the drop of a hat, and, as numerous experiments have shown, are uniquely interested in fairness and equality – which sounds a lot like how humanity behaved for the first 180,000 years or so we existed.

It turns out that nature versus nurture is an oversimplification. Ape expert Frans de Waal and others have shown that the real question we should be asking is ‘which nature is nurtured?’. Chimps and bonobos represent two different potentials present in human genetics. How we turn out – warlike and hierarchical or peaceful and co-operative – depends on which one our environment and the cultures we’re brought up in encourages.

It’s very clear that present-day society brings out the worst in us, to an extent that’s pushed us into lifestyles we’re simply not suited for. Obviously, we can’t just go back to how it was in the hunter-gatherer days – that would require exterminating the vast majority of the human race, which is something even Iain Duncan Smith would think twice about.

But Radical Atheism should have three grand aims. One, to encourage the development of compassionate, empathic, pro-social human beings rather than the maladjusted sociopaths the twenty-first century seems to specialise in producing – to become the Church of the Friendly Apes, in other words (or maybe the the Bonobo Enablement Movement, BEM for short?).

Two, to give those compassionate, empathic human beings as much free time in which to enjoy their one go at being alive as possible. Complex societies will always require people to do some sort of work – but the ultimate aim has to be minimise the amount that work eats into people’s finite existences.

And three, to push humanity towards a more compassionate, communitarian, modest way of life. To reach a workable compromise between modernity, human wellbeing and ecological viability. We need to abandon economic growth and rebuild economies so they serve genuine human need rather than material frivolity and corporate profit. We should live more communally, make decisions democratically, produce power renewably. We should keep the clean energy technology, the communications technology, and the ever-improving standards of healthcare our current way of life has delivered for us, and junk much of the rest – especially the suicidally materialistic, ultra-individualistic consumer-capitalism that’s proven so catastrophic for the health of the species and the planet.

A cynic might argue that Radical Atheism was just an attempt to make it so that to be a good, decent non-religious person, you essentially have to be some sort of left-wing extremist. They’d be absolutely right.

The Radical Atheism series is now officially open. More to come.