The New Unbelievers
Books on atheism are hot. But do they have anything fresh to say?
Indeed, Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris argue that religious beliefs, particularly those derived literally and selectively from religious texts, can lead to behavior that is dubiously moral according to more universal principles of right and wrong. The killing of innocents in the name of holy war is only the most obvious instance. Discouraging the distribution of condoms in societies plagued by AIDS on religious principles is another. "Religious people are able to talk about morality without thinking about suffering," says Harris.
For those and other reasons, Dawkins and Harris conclude that religion itself has outworn its social utility and should be retired from the field. They know that religion cannot be banished politically, as past attempts (for example, in France under Robespierre) have shown. The only way forward is for unbelievers to make an unapologetic stand for unbelief. Dennett, by contrast, extends a conciliatory hand to believers so long as they are willing to subject any purported God-given moral edict to "the full light of reason, using all the evidence at our command." Hitchens, for his part, sees "no chance for a final victory over religious superstition." Hence the necessity of keeping it restricted to the private sphere, he argues. "We have done so," Hitchens says, "but secularism will always have to be defended."
Needless to say, many find the new atheists' indictment of religion misguided. "Take religion out of the world," says Robert Wright, a visiting lecturer at Princeton University, "would there be any less belligerent groupishness?" Nationalism, he points out, can also produce monsters. At work on a book about the changing character of religion, The Evolution of God, Wright says that material, historical conditions always shape the way religious dogma and scriptures are interpreted. "I am trying to find the circumstances conducive to religious belligerence and those conducive to more benign expressions of the religious impulse." What worries him most about the new atheists is that they might undercut the very thing that makes America work as a civil society. "We restrain ourselves from saying bad things about religion, from talking about it at the dinner table. These guys want to talk about religion at the dinner table."