Thursday, December 24, 2009

The New Atheism

I have a confession. I’m a fan of the New Atheism.

Of course there’s nothing “new” about atheism. Atheism, agnosticism, skepticism and godlessness are as old as belief itself. The new atheism isn’t all that new either, or different from earlier varieties. But it is more confident. Within the past 5 years, there has been an observable trend in book publishing, and in cultural attitudes at large, challenging religious orthodoxy and conventions of faith. It is a trend most clearly reflected in three books: The End of Faith by Sam Harris, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens. These three writers, Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens comprise a sort of Unholy Trinity. (When joined with philosopher Daniel Dennett, author of Breaking the Spell, they become the Four Horsemen.)

I like all three books, partly because they appeal to my own skepticism concerning religion and faith-based assertions, but also, because they are well-written, incisive and appropriately provocative. In raising consciousness about the nature of dogma and of evidence, these books are sorely needed in a society plagued by an assault on reason, and in a world where religion and its depredations have truly run amok.

All three books are polemical, bold, engaging and lots of fun even as they are deadly serious. Yes, they skewer religions’ easy targets - Al-Qaeda, Jihad, the Spanish Inquisition, Jerry Falwell, anti-Semitism, homophobia - but they don’t stop there. They insist that religious “moderates” are also part of the problem. We often hear it said that religion itself isn’t bad – the trouble starts when extremists carry things too far. Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens are having none of that. They argue that well-intentioned moderates contribute to religion’s toxicity because they provide cover for extreme fundamentalists and Jihadists by making a virtue of faith itself – as if believing something for which there is insufficient evidence can ever be a good thing.

Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens have been accused by their critics (including fellow atheists) of going too far in their hostility toward religion. It’s a charge that Hitchens, at least, would happily embrace. Each takes careful aim at his target, but goes after it in a slightly different way and with different emphasis. Dawkins, the scientist, sets out to address why religion’s claims are not true. Harris emphasizes why such beliefs are so dangerous. And Hitchens argues for why they are wicked. All three books challenge the presumption that entitles a person to a heightened degree of respect when a particular view they hold is said to be rooted in religion. We see this all the time. When a person says “oh well, but that’s my faith,” that person’s view of reality is immunized from the give-and-take and criticism that comes with expression of any other opinion or idea. Our Unholy Trinity says “Enough!” Believing nonsense has consequences, and we should be brave enough to say so.

I enjoyed Dawkin’s The God Delusion the best, probably because my own interest in this subject stems from my study of evolutionary biology. Learning about evolution in school piqued my interest in science and enhanced my sense of wonder about the natural world. I’ve never understood the fear, expressed by some religious believers, that Darwinian evolution degrades life by reducing all things to the cold calculus of materialism. I always felt that the opposite was true. It always seemed to me that science, and evolution in particular, heightens our appreciation of life by enriching our understanding and by offering us glimpses into the majesty of nature and its workings.

I’ve enjoyed Dawkins writing for years, having first encountered his work in college when I read The Blind Watchmaker, which explains how evolution produces an illusion of design, but not evidence for a process guided by the supernatural. Dawkins is the rare scientist who can effectively reach a popular audience writing about evolutionary biology. So why write about atheism? One reason is because he see first-hand how fervently religious forces push for Creationism (cynically packaged as “Intelligent Design”) to be taught in public schools. For anyone who cares about science and academic integrity, that would be toxic enough, but there is more. For Dawkins, the evidence of evolution and the belief in a supernatural creator who designed the world are incompatible. He struggles to comprehend how a renowned biologist like Francis Collins can be really be a faithful Christians. Intellectual consistency, Dawkins argues, requires agnosticism at a minimum. He even wonders if such Christian biologists really do believe all they claim to believe. He figures that whereas they may believe in a Creator and embrace the cultural values of their religion, they are unlikely to believe in the suspension of the natural order, Miracles? Virgin births? Talking snakes? Personally, I have no idea what percentage of theist scientists (or non-scientists) believe in such things. But even if religious faith seems like cognitive dissonance to Dawkins, I am far more hesitant to question the sincerity of those who profess to believe.

But Dawkins is on solid ground when he takes on the famous position advanced by the late Stephen Jay Gould (who was an atheist) that science and religion occupy different spheres of human experience (“non-overlapping magisteria”) and are therefore perfectly reconcilable. Gould’s proposition sounds nice and cozy, but it doesn’t work. Religion does not simply describe some separate compartment of reality to be labeled “spiritual.” Rather, religion constitutes a system of belief that makes all kinds of claims about the physical world. For example, there is the claim that living forms were purposefully designed by a supernatural intelligence that has special regard for humans (to say nothing of virgin births and talking snakes). These are not metaphysical abstractions. They are statements of the natural order. When such claims are treated like any other hypothesis, they simply don’t hold up. Dawkins effectively takes on the various talking points advanced by religion’s apologists (“The Universe is too finely-tuned”, “It couldn’t all come from nothing,” “Evolution can’t account for morality,” etc). While a tone of annoyance and intellectual superiority does sometimes emerge in his writing, so does the force of his argument as well as his love of science and reverence for the natural world.

In The End of Faith, Sam Harris examines the nature of faith itself and the dangers of surrendering to it. A philosopher and neuroscientist at Stanford, Harris is a rising star in this milieu, a clear thinker and a strong writer. He details how religious doctrines, incompatible with reality and with each other, have Balkanized the world and now threaten us with destruction. He has no use for political correctness and isn’t afraid to single out Islam as the monotheism that is most likely to get us all killed. He easily dispenses with the canard that that secularism, and faith’s decline, were responsible for the crimes of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot. Were Auschwitz, the Gulag and the Killing Fields really the result of too much rational inquiry? Too much skepticism? Too much insistence on evidence? Hardly. These atrocities resulted from dogmartic ideologies which operated all too much like religion.

Harris is also interested in the possibility of transcendental experience and maintains that these are as available to the atheist as they are to any religious believer. But what seems to interest him most, is changing the nature of public discourse when we think and talk about things like faith and religion. As he observes in his follow-up work, Letters to a Christian Nation:

When considering the truth of a proposition, one is either engaged in an honest appraisal of the evidence and logical arguments, or one isn't. Religion is the one area of our lives where people imagine that some other standard of intellectual integrity applies.

Hitchens is the most scathing and mischievous of the three writers. Ever the iconoclast, his glee is palpable in God is Not Great as he pokes a stick in the eye of the faith-based establishment and calls on humanity to emancipate itself from the infantile crutch of religion. He insists that monotheism is inherently totalitarian since God is, by definition, a celestial dictator who supervises you around the clock and promises to punish you for your very thoughts. Hitchens is not above blasting the easy targets like child-molesting clergymen and you can almost discern his smirk while he suggests that the motto of the Church might well be “No Child’s Behind Left.” Too clever.

The more serious charge is also more forcefully argued – that religion’s fundamental teachings are not moral teachings. Like Harris, he observes that not all monotheisms are equal and indeed, the Al Qaeda attck on 9/11 was the impetus for his book. He reminds us that theocratic terror takes many forms. Hitchens is good friends with Salaman Rushdie, who dared blaspheme Islam’s Prophet more than 20 years ago in his novel, Satanic Verses. Rushdie still requires a security detail because of a Fatwa issued by Iran’s Ayatollah. Hitchens recalls the infamous Danish cartoon incident. The publication of a cartoon poking fun of Mohammed led to an international incident, a breach of diplomatic immunity and murderous riots by angry Muslims. Hitchens has no patience for those who make excuses for thugs and rioters or who call on cartoonists to be more “sensitive” about the offense that might be taken. He correctly calls it what it is: cowardice, capitulation and an erosion of freedom.

Judaism is not spared either. He blasts the zealotry of Israel’s Messianic settlers, the practice of circumcision (“genital mutilation”), the Old Testament’s warrant for sexism and genocide and the hideous lesson at the core of all Abrahamic monotheism - that a willingness to kill at God’s command should be seen as praiseworthy. (He does, however approve of the Jewish tradition of self-criticism, secularism and talent for atheism). But Hitchens is just getting warmed up as he moves to his next target: Christianity. Because as brutal as the Old Testament is, at least when you’re dead, your punishment is over. Only with the advent of Christianity and the teachings of the gentle Nazarene, are you threatened with eternal never-ending torture. Christianity also introduces the barbaric concept of vicarious redemption, the idea that you can be saved, absolved of your own wrongful conduct, by means of the brutal blood sacrifice of another, 2,000 years before you were born. Then there’s Original Sin, the Trinity and well…you get the picture.

Perhaps what offends Hitchens most is the notion that without some supervisory dictator calling the shots, humans would not know how to behave morally. Religion, he concludes, belongs to an earlier time when humanity lived in terror of nature, and understood little about disease, geology, astronomy, archaeology, physics, neuro-chemistry etc. We have far better explanations now. It is time to dispense with the superstitious wish-thinking, which insults our humanity and threatens our very survival.

Not surprisingly, given the success of these books, there has been something of a backlash. College campuses host debates on the existence of God, the blogosphere is alive with fury, and Christian Apologists have published screeds blasting the New Atheism for its militant tone, its unsparing naturalism and, predictably enough, for attempting to unhinge our moral underpinning as a nation. For Christian fundamentalists, the success of the New Atheists is simply the latest call to arms in the “Culture Wars.” For these right-wing holy warriors, this spate of atheism is part and parcel of the same godless secularism that seeks to separate church and state, supports gay marriage and teaches evil -ution. Of course this political effort to impose a fundamentalist Christian vision of America represents the very religious bullying that has given the New Atheism such traction and popularity.

More interesting are the objections posed by fellow secularists who insist that the New Atheists are too strident and aggressive for their own good. For these critics, many of whom are non-believers themselves, the New Atheism is like an unruly kid brother who speaks out of turn and must be instructed to tone it down in the presence of respectable company. Shhh! How can we expect to get public support for science if you are telling parents that science and religion are incompatible? And do you really think the Muslim world will be persuaded to curb its Jihadists and reform its society when you insist that the Koran is a fairy tale? These are valid points. But to the extent they are objections to the New Atheism, they are about tone and tactics – not propositions of truth.

Polls indicate that the percentage of Americans who are non-believers is on the rise in the U.S. To be sure, polls of this kind must always be taken with a grain of salt. So much is in the wording of the questions (asking “Do you identify yourself as an atheist” will produce a very different result than “Do you believe in the God of the bible?”). But the trend seems real enough. The New Atheist authors aren’t the cause of the trend, but it’s fair to say that their popularity is a reflection of it. Their arguments resonate with Americans who are tired of religious bullying at home and faith-based violence around the globe.

I don’t think that any of these books will actually persuade anyone, who isn’t already deeply skeptical of the divine, to suddenly become an atheist. But the books succeed on a more important level: They tear at the shroud of taboo that discourages people from thinking and speaking critically about articles of faith. They encourage a closer look at the consequences – intellectual, moral and geopolitical - of rejecting reason and evidence in favor of supernatural belief and religious authority. Finally, they invite us take part in the fullness of life’s experiences and celebrate the “awe of understanding” on human terms. On this point, I’ll leave the last word to Charles Darwin:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

And on that note, Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!



jwharding28 said...

Granted, there's much to criticize in the use of religion in our society and in the world. But something that gets lost by the "New Atheists" is the good that has come from religion.

How many people have led better lives as a result of their faiths? How many people have found strength in difficult times as a result of such faith?

I say this as someone who simultaneously views religion in clearly conflicting ways. Intellectually, I'm convinced that it's all so much hocus-pocus. And yet, there are times I truly find myself praying for my family's health and happiness. Intellectual weakness? Perhaps. And these New Atheists give us important food for thought.

I think they'd get more people to listen if they weren't so hostile and sneering in the delivery of their criticisms. Blind faith is so ingrained in the United States that getting people to listen to such unorthodox (pun not necessarily intentional, but unavoidable, I'm afraid) ideas requires a bit more finesse in the presentation, given the cognitive dissonance it is likely to incur.

Your post goes a long way towards getting thinking citizens of good faith (see previous parenthetical statement) to have the honest discussion.

-Angel (As I was known in a previous life)


Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

It’s certainly true that these atheist writers don't typically credit the good things that come from religion and of course, I agree - there ARE good things. I imagine they feel there is already sufficient voice for that view. (And let’s face it. Prosecutors are not in the habit of pointing out the various positive qualities of the defendants they put on trial).

But when this point about religion’s good is raised, the response usually takes one of the following forms.

1. If ones primary concern is the TRUTH of the claims made by religion (i.e., Dawkin’s concern), then the issue of whether religion is useful, good or of positive social value is secondary, a separate matter altogether.

2. Religion does more harm than good. Obviously one can dispute the calculus here and question the sort of balance sheet that contrasts religion’s benefits vs. its depredations. But that’s the argument, anyway.

3. The positive attributes of religion (community, consolation, inspiration, morality etc.) are available to all of us and do not require us to embrace the supernatural.

As for the charge that these atheists are hostile, let me play devil’s advocate (or, as Mr. Hitchens might say, Allow me to represent the devil, pro bono). Suppose you believed religion to be false, to be an expression of totalitarianism and a threat to civilization. Why WOULDN'T you be hostile towards it?

Yes, I suppose they could tone it down and tip-toe lightly around their premise, but for what purpose? To avoid offending people? They aren’t trying to reach some kind of consensus with religious believers, but rather, to shine a bright light on the nature of religious faith and its consequences. As for getting people to listen, they seem be doing pretty well.

But I'd like to explore this a bit. What about these atheists is really “hostile” anyway? Anything specific? There are no calls for censorship or curtailing of rights or denying anyone their right to worship or their freedom of conscience. It seems that whenever an atheist expresses his or her view, there will be a substantial number of religious believers who will be offended. I sincerely wonder how these ideas might be expressed in a less "hostile" way. There is simply no gentle or socially acceptable way of telling people that you think their view of reality is a delusion, or that the beliefs from which they derive their life’s meaning are not real. The choice then is either to keep quiet and yield to the taboo, or decide that these things matter and are worth saying anyway.