Atheists with Attitude
Why do they hate Him?
by Anthony Gottlieb [reproduced without permission from NewYorker.com, 21 May 2007]
Great portents and disasters turn some minds to God and others away from him. When an unusually bright and long-tailed comet was tracked through the sky in the last two months of 1680, posters and sermons called on Christians to repent. A hen in Rome seemed to confirm that the Day of Judgment was near. On December 2nd, it made an extraordinarily loud cackle and produced an exceptionally large egg, on which could be seen a likeness of the comet, or so it was said. This added to the religious panic. But the comet also sparked a small triumph for rationalism. In the next few years, as Armageddon somehow failed to arrive, a stream of pamphlets across Europe and America argued that heavenly displays were purely natural phenomena. The skeptics won the day. From the eighteenth century onward, no respectable intellectual saw comets as direct messages from God—though there were still some fears that one might eventually hit the earth.
The felling of the World Trade Center in New York, on September 11, 2001, brought its share of religion. Two populist preachers, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, called it divine punishment (though both quickly withdrew their remarks), and not only the bereaved prayed for help. But September 11th and its aftershocks in Bali, Madrid, London, and elsewhere are more notable for causing an outbreak of militant atheism, at least on bookshelves. The terrorist attacks were carried out in the name of Islam, and they have been taken, by a string of best-selling books, to illustrate the fatal dangers of all religious faith.
The first of these books was “The End of Faith,” by Sam Harris, which was published in 2004 and was on the Times paperback best-seller list for thirty-three weeks. Then came “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon,” by Daniel Dennett, a philosopher at Tufts University, who has written popular books on the science of consciousness and on Darwin. Next was “The God Delusion,” by Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist and Britain’s preëminent science writer. Harris joined battle again last year with “Letter to a Christian Nation,” which renewed his attack on Christianity in particular. And now there is “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” (Twelve; $24.99), by Christopher Hitchens, which is both the most articulate and the angriest of the lot. Hitchens is a British-born writer who lives in Washington, D.C., and is a columnist for Vanity Fair and Slate. He thrives at the lectern, where his powers of rhetoric and recall enable him to entertain an audience, go too far, and almost get away with it. These gifts are amply reflected in “God Is Not Great.”
Hitchens is nothing if not provocative. Creationists are “yokels,” Pascal’s theology is “not far short of sordid,” the reasoning of the Christian writer C. S. Lewis is “so pathetic as to defy description,” Calvin was a “sadist and torturer and killer,” Buddhist sayings are “almost too easy to parody,” most Eastern spiritual discourse is “not even wrong,” Islam is “a rather obvious and ill-arranged set of plagiarisms,” Hanukkah is a “vapid and annoying holiday,” and the psalmist King David was an “unscrupulous bandit.”
It’s possible to wonder, indeed, where plain speaking ends and misanthropy begins: Hitchens says that the earth sometimes seems to him to be “a prison colony and lunatic asylum that is employed as a dumping ground by far-off and superior civilizations.” He certainly likes to adopt the tone of a bemused Martian envoy hammering out a report for headquarters. (We hear of “a showbiz woman bizarrely known as Madonna.”) In a curious rhetorical tic, Hitchens regularly refers to people whom he wishes to ridicule by their zoological class. Thus the followers of Muhammad are “mammals,” as is the prophet himself, and so are the seventeenth-century false messiah Sabbatai Zevi and St. Francis of Assisi; Japan’s wartime Emperor Hirohito is a “ridiculously overrated mammal,” and Kim Il Sung, the father of North Korea’s current dictator, is a “ludicrous mammal.” Hitchens is trying to say that these people are mere fallible mortals; but his way of saying it makes him come across as rather an odd fish.
He is also a fallible one. After rightly railing against female genital mutilation in Africa, which is an indigenous cultural practice with no very firm ties to any particular religion, Hitchens lunges at male circumcision. He claims that it is a medically dangerous procedure that has made countless lives miserable. This will come as news to the Jewish community, where male circumcision is universal, and where doctors, hypochondria, and overprotective mothers are not exactly unknown. Jews, Muslims, and others among the nearly one-third of the world’s male population who have been circumcised may be reassured by the World Health Organization’s recent announcement that it recommends male circumcision as a means of preventing the spread of AIDS.
Hitchens is on firmer ground as he traipses around the world on a tour of sectarian conflicts. He recounts how, a week before September 11th, a hypothetical question was put to him by Dennis Prager, an American talk-show host. Hitchens was asked to imagine himself in a foreign city at dusk, with a large group of men coming toward him. Would he feel safer, or less safe, if he were to learn that they were coming from a prayer meeting? With justified relish, the widely travelled Hitchens responds that he has had that experience in Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem, and Baghdad, and that, in each case, the answer would be a resounding “less safe.” He relates what he has seen or knows of warring factions of Protestants and Catholics in Ulster; Christians and Muslims in Beirut and in Bethlehem; Hindus and Muslims in Bombay; Roman Catholic Croatians, Orthodox Serbians, and Muslims in the former Yugoslavia; and Shiites, Sunnis, and Christians in Baghdad. In these cases and others, he argues, religion has exacerbated ethnic conflicts. As he puts it, “religion has been an enormous multiplier of tribal suspicion and hatred.”
That’s more plausible than what Sam Harris has to say on the subject. He maintains that religious belief not only aggravates such conflicts but is “the explicit cause” of them. He believes this even of Northern Ireland, where the Troubles between pro-British Unionists and pro-Irish Republicans began around 1610, when Britain confiscated Irish land and settled English and Scottish planters on it. As far as Harris is concerned, Islam brought down the Twin Towers, thanks in no small part to the incendiary language of the Koran; Middle East politics, history, and economics are irrelevant sideshows. This thesis suffers from a problem of timing: if he is right, why did Al Qaeda not arise, say, three hundred years ago, when the Koran said exactly what it says now?
One practical problem for antireligious writers is the diversity of religious views. However carefully a skeptic frames his attacks, he will be told that what people in fact believe is something different. For example, when Terry Eagleton, a British critic who has been a professor of English at Oxford, lambasted Dawkins’s “The God Delusion” in the London Review of Books, he wrote that “card-carrying rationalists” like Dawkins “invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince.” That is unfair, because millions of the faithful around the world believe things that would make a first-year theology student wince. A large survey in 2001 found that more than half of American Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians believed that Jesus sinned—thus rejecting a central dogma of their own churches.
So how is a would-be iconoclast supposed to tell exactly what the faithful believe? Interpreting the nature and prevalence of religious opinions is tricky, particularly if you depend on polls. Respondents can be lacking in seriousness, unsure what they believe, and evasive. Spiritual values and practices are what pollsters call “motherhood” issues: everybody knows that he is supposed to be in favor of them. Thus sociologists estimate that maybe only half of the Americans who say that they regularly attend church actually do so. The World Values Survey Association, an international network of social scientists, conducts research in eighty countries, and not long ago asked a large sample of the earth’s population to say which of four alternatives came closest to their own beliefs: a personal God (forty-two per cent chose this), a spirit or life force (thirty-four per cent), neither of these (ten per cent), don’t know (fourteen per cent). Depending on what the respondents understood by a “spirit or life force,” belief in God may be far less widespread than simple yes/no polls suggest.
In some religious research, it is not necessarily the respondents who are credulous. Harris has made much of a survey that suggests that forty-four per cent of Americans believe that Jesus will return to judge mankind within the next fifty years. But, in 1998, a fifth of non-Christians in America told a poll for Newsweek that they, too, expected Jesus to return. What does Harris make of that? Any excuse for a party, perhaps. He also worries about a poll that said that nearly three-quarters of Americans believe in angels—by which, to judge from blogs and online forums on the subject, some of them may have meant streaks of luck, or their own delightful infants.
The Bible is a motherhood issue, too. Harris takes at face value a Gallup poll suggesting that eighty-three per cent of Americans regard it as the Word of God, and he, like Dawkins and Hitchens, uses up plenty of ink establishing the wickedness of many tales in the Old Testament. Critics of the Bible should find consolation in the fact that many people do not have a clue what is in it. Surveys by the Barna Research Group, a Christian organization, have found that most Christians don’t know who preached the Sermon on the Mount.
The tangled diversity of faith is, in the event, no obstacle for Hitchens. He knows exactly which varieties of religion need attacking; namely, the whole lot. And if he has left anyone out he would probably like to hear about it so that he can rectify the omission. From the perspective of the new atheists, religion is all one entity; those who would apologize for any of its forms—Harris and Dawkins, in particular, insist on this point—are helping to sustain the whole. But, though the vague belief in a “life force” may be misguided, it’s hard to make the case that it’s dangerous. And there’s a dreamy incoherence in their conviction that moderate forms of religion somehow enable fundamentalist zeal and violence to survive. Are we really going to tame the fervor of an extremist imam’s mosque in Waziristan by weakening the plush-toy creed of a nondenominational church in Chappaqua? If there were no religion, it’s true, neither house of worship would exist. So perhaps we are just being asked to sway along with John Lennon’s “Imagine.” (“Imagine there’s no countries /It isn’t hard to do /Nothing to kill or die for /And no religion too.”)
When Hitchens weighs the pros and cons of religion in the recent past, the evidence he provides is sometimes lopsided. He discusses the role of the Dutch Reformed Church in maintaining apartheid in South Africa, but does not mention the role of the Anglican Church in ending it. He attacks some in the Catholic Church, especially Pope Pius XII, for their appeasement of Nazism, but says little about the opposition to Nazism that came from religious communities and institutions. In “Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century,” Jonathan Glover, who is the director of the Center of Medical Law and Ethics at Kings College London, documents such opposition, and writes, “It is striking how many protests against and acts of resistance to atrocity have . . . come from principled religious commitment.” The loss of such commitment, Glover suggests, should be of concern even to nonbelievers. Still, Hitchens succeeds in compiling a list of evils that the faithful, too, should find sobering. Now that so much charitable work is carried out by secular bodies, religious ones have to work harder to keep the moral high ground. For the Catholic Church in particular—with its opposition to contraception, including the distribution of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS, and the covering up of child abuse by priests—the ledger is not looking good.
Bertrand Russell, who had a prodigious knowledge of history and a crisp wit, claimed in 1930 that he could think of only two useful contributions that religion had made to civilization. It had helped fix the calendar, and it had made Egyptian priests observe eclipses carefully enough to predict them. He could at least have added Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and more than a few paintings; but perhaps the legacy of religion is too large a conundrum to be argued either way. The history of the West has been so closely interwoven with the history of religious institutions and ideas that it is hard to be confident about what life would have been like without them. One of Kingsley Amis’s lesser-known novels, “The Alteration,” tried to envisage an alternative course for modern history in which the Reformation never happened, science is a dirty word, and in 1976 most of the planet is ruled by a Machiavellian Pope from Yorkshire. In this world, Jean-Paul Sartre is a Jesuit and the central mosaic in Britain’s main cathedral is by David Hockney. That piece of fancy is dizzying enough on its own. But imagine attempting such a thought experiment in the contrary fashion, and rolling it back several thousand years to reveal a world with no churches, mosques, or temples. The idea that people would have been nicer to one another if they had never got religion, as Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris seem to think, is a strange position for an atheist to take. For if man is wicked enough to have invented religion for himself he is surely wicked enough to have found alternative ways of making mischief.
In the early days of the Christian era, nobody was fantasizing about a world with no religion, but there were certainly those who liked to imagine a world with no Christians. The first surviving example of anti-Christian polemic is strikingly similar in tone to that of some of today’s militant atheists. In the second century, it was Christians who were called “atheists,” because they failed to worship the accepted gods. “On the True Doctrine: A Discourse Against the Christians” was written in 178 A.D. by Celsus, an eclectic follower of Plato. The Christian deity, Celsus proclaimed, is a contradictory invention. He “keeps his purposes to himself for ages, and watches with indifference as wickedness triumphs over good,” and only after a long time decides to intervene and send his son: “Did he not care before?” Moses is said to be “stupid”; his books, and those of the prophets, are “garbage.” Christians have “concocted an absolutely offensive doctrine of everlasting punishment.” Their injunction to turn the other cheek was put much better by Socrates. And their talk of a Last Judgment is “complete nonsense.”
There’s not much more where that came from, because within a couple of hundred years Christians became the ones to decide who counted as an atheist and was to be punished accordingly. Pagan anti-Christian writings were destroyed wherever possible. In truth, from the start of the Christian era until the eighteenth century, there were probably very few people in the West who thought that there was no God of any sort. Those thinkers who had serious doubts about the traditional conception of God—of whom there were many in the seventeenth century—substituted another sort of deity, usually a more distant or less personalized one.
Even Voltaire, one of the fiercest critics of superstition, Christianity, and the Church’s abuse of power, was a man of deep religious feeling. His God, though, was beyond human understanding and had no concern for man. (Voltaire’s satirical tale “Candide,” which attacks the idea that all is for the best in a world closely watched over by a benevolent God, was partly inspired by a huge earthquake in Lisbon, which struck while the faithful were at Mass on All Saints’ Day in 1755 and killed perhaps thirty thousand people.)
Voltaire, like many others before and after him, was awed by the order and the beauty of the universe, which he thought pointed to a supreme designer, just as a watch points to a watchmaker. In 1779, a year after Voltaire died, that idea was attacked by David Hume, a cheerful Scottish historian and philosopher, whose way of undermining religion was as arresting for its strategy as it was for its detail. Hume couldn’t have been more different from today’s militant atheists.
In his “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion,” which was published posthumously, and reports imaginary discussions among three men, Hume prized apart the supposed analogy between the natural world and a designed artifact. Even if the analogy were apt, he pointed out, the most one could infer from it would be a superior craftsman, not an omnipotent and perfect deity. And, he argued, if it is necessary to ask who made the world it must also be necessary to ask who, or what, made that maker. In other words, God is merely the answer that you get if you do not ask enough questions. From the accounts of his friends, his letters, and some posthumous essays, it is clear that Hume had no trace of religion, did not believe in an afterlife, and was particularly disdainful of Christianity. He had a horror of zealotry. Yet his many writings on religion have a genial and even superficially pious tone. He wanted to convince his religious readers, and recognized that only gentle and reassuring persuasion would work. In a telling passage in the “Dialogues,” Hume has one of his characters remark that a person who openly proclaimed atheism, being guilty of “indiscretion and imprudence,” would not be very formidable.
Hume sprinkled his gunpowder through the pages of the “Dialogues” and left the book primed so that its arguments would, with luck, ignite in his readers’ own minds. And he always offered a way out. In “The Natural History of Religion,” he undermined the idea that there are moral reasons to be religious, but made it sound as if it were still all right to believe in proofs of God’s existence. In an essay about miracles, he undermined the idea that it is ever rational to accept an apparent revelation from God, but made it sound as if it were still all right to have faith. And in the “Dialogues” he undermined proofs of God’s existence, but made it sound as if it were all right to believe on the basis of revelation. As the Cambridge philosopher Edward Craig has put it, Hume never tried to topple all the supporting pillars of religion at once.
In Paris, meanwhile, a number of thinkers began to profess atheism openly. They were the first influential group to do so, and included Denis Diderot, the co-editor of the Enlightenment’s great Encyclopédie, and Baron D’Holbach, who hosted a salon of freethinkers. Hume visited them, and made several friends there; they presented him with a large gold medal. But the philosophes were too dogmatic for Hume’s taste. To Hume’s like-minded friend the historian Edward Gibbon, they suffered from “intolerant zeal.” Still, they represented a historical vanguard: explicit attacks on religion as a whole poured forth within the next hundred years.
Since all the arguments against belief have been widely publicized for a long time, today’s militant atheists must sometimes wonder why religion persists. Hitchens says that it is born of fear and probably ineradicable. Harris holds that there are genuine spiritual experiences; having kicked sand in the faces of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, he dives headlong into the surf of Eastern spirituality, encouraging readers to try Buddhist techniques of meditation instead of dangerous creeds. Dawkins devotes a chapter, and Dennett most of his book, to evolutionary accounts of how religion may have arisen and how its ideas spread. It’s thin stuff, and Dennett stresses that these are early days for a biological account of religion. It may, however, be too late for one. If a propensity toward religious belief is “hard-wired” in the brain, as it is sometimes said to be, the wiring has evidently become frayed. This is especially true in rich countries, nearly all of which—Ireland and America are exceptions—have relatively high rates of unbelief.
After making allowances for countries that have, or recently have had, an officially imposed atheist ideology, in which there might be some social pressure to deny belief in God, one can venture conservative estimates of the number of unbelievers in the world today. Reviewing a large number of studies among some fifty countries, Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist at Pitzer College, in Claremont, California, puts the figure at between five hundred million and seven hundred and fifty million. This excludes such highly populated places as Brazil, Iran, Indonesia, and Nigeria, for which information is lacking or patchy. Even the low estimate of five hundred million would make unbelief the fourth-largest persuasion in the world, after Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. It is also by far the youngest, with no significant presence in the West before the eighteenth century. Who can say what the landscape will look like once unbelief has enjoyed a past as long as Islam’s—let alone as long as Christianity’s? God is assuredly not on the side of the unbelievers, but history may yet be. ♦