Without God, Gall Is Permitted
Having read the books of the men mentioned in this article, and watched probably fifty hours of conferences and interviews in which they (and others) lectured, I'd like to make a few comments about this article. First and foremost, I think the author engages in the same type of pomposity, and speaks with the same certitude, as those he criticizes. He laments that today's atheists are not like the supposedly more thoughtful ones of the past, and yet the author himself comes off as someone who is merely repeating a party line.
When the very first population of atheists roamed the earth in the Victorian age -- brought to life by Lyell's "Principles of Geology," Darwin's "Origin of Species" and other blows to religious certainty -- it was the personal dimension of atheism that others found distressing. How could an atheist's oath of allegiance to the queen be trusted? It couldn't -- so an atheist was not allowed to take a seat in Parliament. How could an atheist, unconstrained by a fear of eternal punishment, be held accountable to social norms of behavior? Worse than heretical, atheism was not respectable.
I would submit that there were atheists and agnostics in ancient Greece and Rome, some of them very prominent. I would also say that the last bit about morality--whether held by people then or now--is actually a mark in favor of atheism, not against it. The argument could accurately be rephrased: "How can we trust atheists to do the moral thing, when they refuse to be coerced into doing what Christianity says is right, and refuse to act properly out of fear that the loving God will let them suffer eternally in the most painful torment imaginable if they are naughty?". Coercion and fear, that's not exactly good reasons to worship a God, or to be moral for that matter. Who here is so immoral that they refrain from raping their next door neighbor primarily (or perhaps solely) because they're afraid of hell?
Thanks in part to the actions of a few jihadists in September 2001, it is believers who stand accused, not freethinkers. Among the prominent atheists who now sermonize to the believers in their midst are Dr. Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett ("Breaking the Spell") and Sam Harris ("The End of Faith" and, more recently, "Letter to a Christian Nation"). There are others, too, like Steven Weinberg, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Brooke Allen (whose "Moral Minority" was a celebration of the skeptical Founders) and a host of commentators appalled by the Intelligent Design movement. The transcript of a recent symposium on the perils of religious thought can be found at a science Web site called edge.org.
This is a bit of revisionist history. Richard Dawkins, by far the most prominent of the men mentioned, put out books in 1996 and 2000 that directly attack religion, and put out books in 1976, 1996, 1997 and 1999 that could be seen as an indirect attack religion (given that Dawkins uses the scientific arguments from this latter group of books as a foundation for his direct attacks on religion in the former group). Dennett has also for quite a while been putting out writings on evolution, cognition, psychology, etc. that try to establish a naturalistic basis for life, including books in 1986, 1989, 1992 1996, 1997, and 2001 (pre-9/11). Steven Weinberg has also been at it for a while, putting out his most popular book in 1993. So, Sam Harris is the only new comer that I see in his list. It may be true that these writers have focused more on Islam since 9/11, but it is certainly a distortion to say that they are people "who now
sermonize" (emphasis mine).
As for giving a website in which atheists speak, a better place would be to look up "Beyond Belief" on Google video. You'll get probably 15 hours worth of videos from a conference held a couple months ago. You will also see that not all atheists speaking on the subject of religion are as hostile as Dawkins, Harris, etc. If you google (video) for each of their names, you'll find more interviews, lectures, tv productions, etc.
There are many themes to the atheist lament. A common worry is the political and social effect of religious belief. To a lot of atheists, the fate of civilization and of mankind depends on their ability to cool -- or better, simply to ban -- the fevered fancies of the God-intoxicated among us.
I'll agree with him here. The ultra-liberal leanings of most of the atheists I've heard is frustrating. For example, when watching the Beyond Belief videos, I was very annoyed with all the ad hominems and jokes directed at Bush and people who voted for Bush. I can understand their main point though... it's hard to have faith in a man who takes his orders from God, when you don't believe that said God exists.
Naturally, the atheists focus their peevishness not on Muslim extremists (who advertise their hatred and violent intentions) but on the old-time Christian religion.
Actually, not really. Most of them attack either the Scripture, or the philosophical reasons for believing in religion. Harris actually attacks modern, "moderate" believers more than pious old-time Christians (though of course he gives it to both). And they attack all religion, they don't really care whether it's Islam, Christianity, etc. A non-existent God is a non-existent God. If and when they focus on Christianity, it's only because the overwhelming majority of their audience is Christian, or people who are constantly exposed to Christian beliefs and practices.
("Wisdom dwells with prudence," the Good Book teaches.) They can always haul out the abortion-clinic bomber if they need a boogeyman; and they can always argue as if all faiths are interchangeable: Persuade American Christians to give up their infantile attachment to God and maybe Muslims will too. In any case, they conclude: God is not necessary, God is impossible and God is not permissible if our society -- or even our species -- is to survive.
I don't know that any are so dire. Perhaps Dawkins, in his most exaggerated moments. They think we would be better off without religion, that is true. But that our survival depends on eliminating it? That's a bit much. As far as the "boogeyman," that sounds like the argument of someone who has only bothered to read negative book reviews of the men he criticizes. Every single man he listed gives a lot of examples of why they hold to their position. He suggests a boogeymen, and offers for your consumption a fat, juicy red herring. As far as the "interchangeable" part, this seems like a caricature of their position (but, again, I doubt he's actually read their books). What many of them believe, as Darwin also believed, was that as science progresses, religion will decline.
What is new about the new atheists? It's not their arguments. Spend as much time as you like with a pile of the recent anti-religion books, but you won't encounter a single point you didn't hear in your freshman dormitory.
Again, too bad he hasn't actually read their books. Dawkins and others do indeed bring up the same old arguments used by people in the past... because people still are persuaded by them
. If people did not consider the arguments persuasive, atheists would stop offering rebuttals to them immediately. As it stands, people still consider things like the argument from design to be a silver bullet, so atheists still feel obliged to deal with it. And why not, it's an interesting and difficult argument to refute. But there is a lot that is new. Dawkins has spent a lot of time developing biological arguments against belief in God--or at least, showing why he thinks religion is nothing more than a natural phenomenon. The other authors are no different, Harris offers arguments from a scientific perspective, Dennett from a philosophical/psychological perspective, etc.
It's their tone that is novel.
Well, we have come a long way. Atheists are no longer imprisoned or put to death for denying a belief in a particular God (although everyone denies the existent of 99.999% of the Gods who have been thought up). We still live in a time, as the founding fathers of our country did, when politicians and others have to lie about their religious beliefs. But overall, atheists don't have to worry about their personal safety nowadays. The tone may be a bit more hostile, but it's not just because they happen to be more hostile by nature (although I think they are).
Belief, in their eyes, is not just misguided but contemptible, the product of provincial minds, the mark of people who need to be told how to think and how to vote
True. It's one thing I rather dislike about them.
-- both of which, the new atheists assure us, they do in lockstep with the pope and Jerry Falwell.
Not really. As mentioned above, Harris actually attacks moderates more than conservatives (he clearly outlines why in his one book and also in his talk on CSPAN, which you can watch on Google video). Dawkins does tend to focus on the most extreme, as seen for example in his tv program "The Root of All Evil". However, I have also heard him defend this tendency by saying that there are already plenty of others who focus on the less extreme elements. I'm not sure that I totally buy that argument by Dawkins, but there might be some truth to it.
For them, belief in God is beyond childish, it is unsuitable for children. Today's atheists are particularly disgusted by the religious training of young people -- which Dr. Dawkins calls "a form of child abuse." He even floats the idea that the state should intervene to protect children from their parents' religious beliefs.
I would agree that Dawkin's comments on this are way over the line. His point, though, is that people indoctrinate children into a belief system while they are growing up, and then people have a hard to breaking away from that belief system even if they want to. Many people stay where they are just because they cannot not believe in God or fear hell, because that is what they were taught when they were younger. I do believe that some of the criticisms of Dawkins on this point are good, though.
For the new atheists, believing in God is a form of stupidity, which sets off their own intelligence. They write as if they were the first to discover that biblical miracles are improbable, that Parson Weems was a fabulist, that religion is full of superstition. They write as if great minds had never before wrestled with the big questions of creation, moral law and the contending versions of revealed truth. They argue as if these questions are easily answered by their own blunt materialism. Most of all, they assume that no intelligent, reflective person could ever defend religion rather than dismiss it. The reviewer of Dr. Dawkins's volume in a recent New York Review of Books noted his unwillingness to take theology seriously, a starting point for any considered debate over religion.
I would say that all of this is fairly accurate, with two exceptions. I don't get the impression that they think that they were first to go into this. What is the author implying, that they have never read atheist material before, or that they are so arrogant that they purposely forgot about that material? The other exception is the idea that about people defending religion rather than dismissing it. I know a lot of these guys speak in exceedingly derogatory terms about religionists, but they also sometimes speak positively of people such as some Christians, Jains, and Buddhists, even if they disagree with their beliefs. Even Dawkins sometimes speaks respectfully of Christians. I once heard Dawkins say quite seriously that he accepted an offer to debate an Anglican bishop one time because he felt it would be an honor!
The faith that the new atheists describe is a simple-minded parody. It is impossible to see within it what might have preoccupied great artists and thinkers like Homer, Milton, Michelangelo, Newton and Spinoza -- let alone Aquinas, Dr. Johnson, Kierkegaard, Goya, Cardinal Newman, Reinhold Niebuhr or, for that matter, Albert Einstein. But to pass over this deeper faith -- the kind that engaged the great minds of Western history -- is to diminish the loss of faith too. The new atheists are separated from the old by their shallowness.
I'm not sure that I'd agree with some of those names as great thinkers (and what does artistry have to do with this?), but that's a subjective issue. And the main difference between the older atheists and the newer ones is that the newer ones have more science and philosophical ideas to back them up, and they sometimes delve into those extra resources. Also, I question whether this author would call any atheist deep (as opposed to the "shallowness" of the newer atheists).
To read the accounts of the first generation of atheists is profoundly moving. Matthew Arnold wrote of the "eternal note of sadness" sounded when the "Sea of Faith" receded from human life. In one testament after another -- George Eliot, Carlyle, Hardy, Darwin himself -- the Victorians described the sense of grief they felt when religion goes -- and the keen, often pathetic attempts to replace it by love, by art, by good works, by risk-seeking and -- fatally -- by politics.
Well, maybe if he didn't pick books primarily by three men, focusing in further on one particular man, he would come across something more psychological. There are atheists who are putting out material today, and teaching today, who still struggle with this stuff. And I think the term "pathetic" is reading into things a bit. They may or may not have failed, but I wouldn't call it pathetic for me to seek meaning in love, joy, art, etc. apart from God. But I guess maybe that's just the perspective of an atheist.
God did not exist, they concluded, but there was no denying that this supposed truth was accompanied by a painful sense of being cut off from human fellowship as well as divine love.
Gee, I wonder why they would feel ostracized to some degree. And I would feel a lack if I had been told (and always assumed) that there was a loving God, and then I found out that he didn't exist. What does the author expect?
To counter it, religious figures developed a new kind of mission -- like that of the former unbeliever C.S. Lewis: They could speak to the feeling of longing that unbelief engenders because they understood it -- and sympathized not only with atheism's pain but with the many sensible arguments in its favor.
Hmm, well unfortunately (I say that since I like Lewis), I wouldn't say that Lewis' arguments were particularly effective. Actually many of them were the same ones that others had long used (e.g., without God there is no moral compass), so the author seems to have a bit of a double standard here.
There is no such sympathy among the new apostles of atheism -- to find it, one has to look to believers
This is true only if you zoom in on certain, exaggerated, hostile people, and even then only if you cherry pick what they say. I'm not an apostle of atheism, but I promise that I have sympathy... ok, empathy, with religious believers.
Anyone who has actually taught young people and listened to them knows that it is often the students who come from a trained sectarian background -- Catholic, Orthodox Jewish, Muslim, Mormon -- who are best at grasping different systems of belief and unbelief. Such students know, at least, what it feels like to have such a system, and can understand those who have very different ones. The new atheists remind me of other students from more "open-minded" homes -- rigid, indifferent, puzzled by thought and incapable of sympathy.
I don't know if this amateur psychoanalysis is correct. I would opine that it has more to do with genetics... they just aren't wired to be interested in religion, and therefore are a bit bolder because they just don't "get it". Perhaps the author could be a bit more understanding and sympathetic himself, and think about whether they are perhaps programmed to be the way that they are, and that they should be looked at as one part of the human mosaic, rather than unsympathetic jerks.
The new atheists fail too often simply for want of charm or skill.
Obviously many people disagree. Otherwise they wouldn't be on the best seller lists and invited to so many speaking engagements.
Twenty-first century atheism hasn't found its H.G. Wells or its George Bernard Shaw, men who flattered their audiences, excited them and persuaded them by making them feel intelligent.
Has the author ever attended a lecture by one of these men, or even seen one?
Here is Sam Harris, for instance, addressing those who wonder if destroying human embryos in the process of stem cell research might be morally dicey: "Your qualms...are obscene."
Again, cherry picking. That doesn't make the words ok, I don't agree with such a volatile approach. Nonetheless, Harris actually has a lot of biological and philosophical reasons for his stance on embryonic stem cells, arguments which the author passes over.
The atheists say that they are addressing believers. Rationalists all, can they believe that believers would be swayed by such contumely and condescension?They seem instead to be preaching to people exactly like themselves -- a remarkably incurious elite.
Harris is a mixed bag, and offends some people, and he knows it. Dennett isn't as offensive, but I think he misses the point in his arguments. I think Dawkins is starting to realise that his approach really just "energizes the base" and won't convert many people. But again, these are not the only atheists writing today. And more importantly, they are only a few of the atheists teaching at schools. Believe it or not, there are actually atheists that don't fit into this box created by the author.