The New Unbelievers
Books on atheism are hot. But do they have anything fresh to say?
Well, extremism, for one thing. Not only do the new atheists find religion intellectually irredeemable, morally dubious, and socially unnecessary, they judge it a clear and present danger, maybe even the greatest threat to the survival of the species. If Voltaire wanted to "wipe out the infamy" of religion, he really meant that he-like Thomas Jefferson and a number of America's founders-wanted a more reasonable deism, a philosophical religion that acknowledged an original designer but got rid of all the supernatural stuff, including revealed truths and moral dictates that ran counter to reason. But religion made reasonable or understood symbolically will not do for Dawkins or Harris (though the latter sees some Eastern spiritual disciplines as acceptable, and possibly even helpful to the moral life). Both are intent to show, as Dawkins puts it, "that moderate religion makes the world safe for fundamentalism."
It does so, they argue, by fostering an ethos of excessive deference and restraint (some would say civility) when it comes to matters of faith. "It insists that people not examine or subject their religious doctrines to the same kind of scrutiny that scientific doctrines receive," says Harris, who is currently completing graduate work in neuroscience. (He keeps the name of his university and where he lives a secret, perhaps fearing retribution for his own unrestrained swipes at religious shibboleths, particularly those of Islam.)
The idea of peaceful coexistence between religion and science-characterized by the late Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould as respect for their "nonoverlapping magisteria"-holds no appeal to most of the new atheists. Dawkins insists that the religious magisterium is always overstepping its bounds, making claims of scientific fact about the origins of the Earth, for example, that fly in the face of all scientific evidence. Those scientists who are also religious believers resort, Dawkins and Harris say, to the kind of specious arguments for God that they would never tolerate within science. Both refer to Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project, who makes the old argument-ridiculed by Bertrand Russell as the "celestial teapot argument"-that God's existence cannot be disproved. (Neither can the existence of a teapot orbiting the sun, Russell tweaked.)
Philosophical arguments for or against God are more sophisticated than one might learn from Dawkins, who sometimes comes close to confirming Francis Bacon's adage that a "little philosophy inclineth man's mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men's minds about to religion." But he and the other new atheists are more interesting when they challenge the unexamined confidence some believers have in the adequacy, if not the necessity, of religion as a guide to the good and moral life.
Two sides. To be sure, religionists and antireligionists go back and forth citing their own statistics to make their respective cases. Dawkins and other atheists charge that the religiously intense "red" states have higher rates of violent crime and social breakdown than do the liberal "blue" states, while believers claim that statistics suggest better behavioral outcomes among religious people. Sociologist Penny Edgell, one of the authors of the University of Minnesota study on attitudes toward atheists, finds that the statistical data is inconclusive: "Religious involvement is closely related to socially productive behavior. But does it cause or simply accompany socially productive behaviors? Dawkins would say the latter." At the very least, the new atheists make a compelling case that moral and socially productive behavior is in no way dependent on religious belief.