The New Unbelievers
Books on atheism are hot. But do they have anything fresh to say?
'Atheism is unknown there; Infidelity rare and secret; so that persons may live to a great Age in that Country, without having their Piety shocked by meeting with either an Atheist or an Infidel."
Little seems to have changed since Benjamin Franklin penned those words of advice to would-be immigrants in 1782. Most polling data suggest that some 90 percent of Americans believe in God or a supreme spirit. And a recent University of Minnesota study finds that atheists-or at least that lonely 1 percent of the national mix that dares to identify itself as such-are the least trusted group in America.
So why in this land of the God-fearing have the gloves-off arguments of a few God-denying intellectuals been garnering such wide popular attention? Consider book sales alone: Richard Dawkins's well-stocked arsenal of antireligious thought, The God Delusion, currently claims the No. 7 spot on Amazon and No. 10 on the New York Times list, while Sam Harris's polemical Letter to a Christian Nation bids fair to equal the sales of his 2004 bestseller, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. Meanwhile, Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, though published last winter, continues to spark controversy with its Darwinian take on the all-too-human urge to believe. Beyond the world of books, magician Penn Jillette's paean to godlessness, first broadcast a year ago on NPR's This I Believe, continues to be among the most frequently visited stories on the NPR website
Rising skepticism? Do the polls simply have it wrong when it comes to Americans and religion? British-born pundit Christopher Hitchens, author of the forthcoming God Is Not Great, thinks so. "People lie about their beliefs all the time," says Hitchens, who adds that he never gets more praise for his talk-show appearances than when he goes after religion. Anecdotage may not trump polling, but surveys exploring religious convictions in more nuanced terms lend some credence to Hitchens's skepticism. One recent Harris Poll study found that 42 percent of adult Americans were not "absolutely certain" about the existence of God, up from 34 percent three years ago.
If doubt is on the rise, Dawkins, the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, thinks he knows why: "Six years of Bush, which seems to be a step in the direction of theocracy, and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism seem to suggest that the world is moving toward two extreme religious views." Confessing to surprise at the size of his audiences on his current U.S. book tour, Dawkins suggests that even moderate and liberal believers are beginning to see that the slide into extremism may not be an aberration but a recurrent tendency within religion.
Possibly. But do Dawkins and the other atheists add anything to a vigorous tradition of skepticism and unbelief that includes the witty satire of Voltaire and the brilliant cultural and psychological probings of Friedrich Nietzsche? What is so new about "The New Atheism," as the November cover story of Wired magazine dubbed the phenomenon?
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.
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."
This story appears in the November 13, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.