Invitation for Commentary and FeedbackWhy Humanity Is Better Off with ReligionThe Strange Case of the Aspiring Theist: An Unbeliever Who Wants to BelieveSummary of ChaptersThe Poverty of Atheism: Hostility and MisanthropyThe "Unhappy Atheist"Reviews and EndorsementsExcerpt from Chapter 9Blog

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From a marketing perspective, atheists are not my book’s target audience.  But they are my “target” in another way.  Indeed, I have had more than one atheist tell me that I am a “traitor” to the atheist’s cause.  The following is my reaction to what has been called the New Atheism or Militant Atheism that has dominated the religion debate through the recent publication of several highly strident books in their effort to evangelize their disbelief. 

The contemporary face of American atheism is represented by four vociferous religious combatants: the philosopher Daniel Dennett, the academic Sam Harris, the scientist Richard Dawkins, and the journalist Christopher Hitchens. 

These uncompromising atheists not only reject God, they reject religion as a cultural institution and seek to excise it from society.  By turning atheism (a personal belief in the absence of God) into anti-theism (a public effort to negate religion), they are taking their creed way beyond its original mission.  
 
Atheists’ Hostility

While militant atheists are censorious of religion, they do not extend the same level of critical examination to their own creed.  The issue is less whether atheism is factually true and more whether the case can be made that atheism is valuable to society.  If unbelievers did a straight, critical analysis, they might realize that the ethical case for atheism is especially feeble.  Let us take a look at each of the four “New Apostles of Atheism.”

Daniel Dennett
                         
Dennett tries the hardest to come across as a sensible and unbiased appraiser of religion.  But that is clearly a subterfuge.  Indeed, the title of his book says it all: Breaking the Spell, as if religion were a wicked deception imposed on humanity from which we must be emancipated. 

Further evidence that Dennett considers religion aberrational is found in the very first pages of his book where he draws an analogy between a person’s devotion to a religious idea for which he may risk his life and the futile behavior of an ant whose brain has been hijacked by a parasite.  So much for a fair and balanced treatment of religion.

Dennett proposes using the light of science to illuminate religion, insincerely suggesting to theists that “the potential benefits to religion of joining the scientific community are enormous: getting the authority of science in support of what you believe.” 

But Dennett has another agenda.  While he asserts that his inquiry is about religion “as a natural phenomenon,” he ultimately understands religion as belief in the supernatural.  Dennett knows full well that science is certain to kill faith precisely because it is incompatible with a naturalistic interpretation of reality, which he believes is the only interpretation of reality.  In other words, Dennett deliberately sets up religion to fail. 

Sam Harris
            
Harris’ book, Letter to Christian Nation, is offensive to anyone with a humane sensibility.  Rather than even feigning a facade of accommodation, his orientation is so inflammatory as to undermine what little intellectual credibility atheism has. 

Harris’ rants alleging a causal relationship between Christianity and homicide, abortion and infant mortality are akin to those of conspiracy theorists and Holocaust deniers. 

The result: Atheism is marginalized all the more.  In addition, Harris engages in the shoddy scholarship of selective emphasis to bolster his position.  Ironically, he accuses religionists of “cherry picking” the Bible to prove that Christianity has been committed to good works. 

Not to be outdone, Harris himself cherry picks passages from the Bible that “prove” just how evil Christianity is – for example, that the Bible justifies slavery.  Yet Harris neglects to point out that in the progression of Western civilization, the good stuff in the Bible has been adopted while the bad stuff has been discarded.  No religious American today endorses slavery, so what’s the point?

I hope Harris is taking his resveratrol supplements because he will need an exceedingly long lifetime to see his eschatological vision come true: The end of theism and the reign of a “religion of reason” in which, he says, it will be too embarrassing to believe in God.  I have to wonder what a society ruled by a “religion of reason” would actually look like, and who would be the ultimate arbiters of that civilization.  It certainly won’t be the ordinary people for whom Harris has nothing but contempt; after all, these are the people who got us in this mess in the first place. 

Just speculation, but I would not expect the new world envisioned by Harris to be a democracy.  Rather, it will no doubt be a meritocracy based on the results of standardized tests and ruled by enlightened philosopher-kings who, like Harris, have three letters at the end of their names – PhD. 

Richard Dawkins
              
As the self-proclaimed “world’s most famous atheist,” Dawkins has quite a reputation to uphold.  And by taking delight in provoking believers with his pugnacious prose, Dawkins follows more in the path of Ann Coulter than Charles Darwin.  Thus, his writings and interviews are littered with such outrageous declarations as: “A case can be made that faith is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.” 

So suffused with animus is Dawkins’ writing that moderate atheist Michael Ruse was compelled to admit that his book, The God Delusion, “makes me embarrassed to be an atheist.” 

If that were not enough, Dawkins actually accuses religious parents of child abuse.  Bringing up children to believe in religious “falsehoods,” according to Dawkins, is morally wrong.  But I find this selective focus on religion perplexing.  Why not protest the political inculcation that parents often impart to children?  Or, far worse, a household in which a child is convinced he is worthless and stupid?  It is clear that real child psychological abuse is of little concern to Dawkins.
                   
In a revealing exercise, consider two different responses to a typical existential question a five-year-old child might ask: “What happens to people when they die?”  The religious person would answer that people go to heaven.  True to his secular convictions, Dawkins would have to answer that death is final and that people are essentially food for worms.  Which of these answers, I wonder, is the kinder and gentler response – and which is the actual psychological abuse?

Of atheism’s leading proponents, Dawkins has the most in professional reputation and respect to place in jeopardy.  His intemperate bombast associating religion with child abuse and the world’s iniquity undermines his status as a great scientist much as Martin Heidegger’s affiliation with National Socialism stained his reputation as a great philosopher. 

Indeed, Dawkins’ rants are yet one more excellent reason to abolish tenure in the university system.  Were it not for tenure, Dawkins would be forced to devote his energies to actually furthering productive scholarship.  Instead, he is given a free pass to commit his life’s work to the intellectually dubious venture of demonstrating that religion is the “source of all evil.” 

Christopher Hitchens 

With Hitchens, atheism finally approaches nihilism.  Hitchens’ writing is an encyclopedia of every purported misdeed ascribed to religion, an institution that he says is “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children.” 

Hitchens is a professional provocateur for whom no atrocity is too severe to attribute to religion.  He takes pains to disparage, malign and denigrate the life and work of numerous historical religious figures, including Martin Luther King Jr., St. Francis, John Calvin, Mother Teresa, C.S. Lewis, Gandhi, and the Dalai Lama.  In so doing, Hitchens gives Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson of the religious right a run for their money for hateful and spiteful speech. 

Hitchens is considered by his admirers to be an excellent debater – but any competent debater must know that indiscriminately throwing around insults is no way to prevail in an argument.  Hitchens’ approach is more like that of a stand-up comic than a stand-up thinker, more akin to George Carlin (who reached the height of eloquence when he called religion “bullshit”) than George Orwell (who sagaciously said “One defeats a fanatic by not being a fanatic oneself,” something Hitchens clearly has not learned). 

Indeed, Hitchens’ writing on atheism is a colorful example of what happens when a brilliant writer embraces an unoriginal and mediocre idea (although it would not have been the first time; Hitchens was also a Marxist).
 
Most people who discover religion are able to give up some vice, but Hitchens’ denial of God may be more a personal subterfuge than genuine conviction – it enables him to continue smoking, drinking, name-calling, using vulgar language and other impious acts without his having to answer to any authority higher than his own self-absorbed sense of righteousness.    
 
It is clear that Hitchens is a performance artist most comfortable giving his audience a display of verbal bullying and narcissistic histrionics.  I can only conjecture that in Hitchens’ mind, where delusions of inflated self-importance freely reign, in addressing God he feels he is finally taking on someone his own size.
 
I had the misfortune of personally experiencing Hitchens’ genius for caustic speech after I posed a question to him at a forum held at the New York Public Library.  In his response he proceeded to tell me that my question was “stupid” – which leads to my final observation: If I had a choice of joining one team or the other, believers or unbelievers, based solely on the decency of the people I have encountered, I would not choose Hitchens’ team.  

   

*            *            *            *            *

  
With these four men so maliciously misinterpreting religion, is it any wonder that most Americans mistrust atheists by a wide margin over every other minority group?  And with vociferous proponents such as Dawkins and Hitchens, it is any wonder atheists have a public relations problem? 
                 
Atheists base their animus on what amounts to little more than a crude caricature of “religion” that is, ironically, unrecognizable to everyone but atheists.  In this context, I am reminded of Shakespeare’s observation (The Merchant of Venice), “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.”

All of which leads me to an intriguing observation about these militant atheists that I will share with you.  And to help you understand, I need to quote physicist Steven Weinberg who famously said: “With or without religion, you have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things.  But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” 

And here is my rejoinder: With or without religion, you have smart people saying smart things and stupid people saying stupid things.  But for smart people (Hitchens, Dawkins et al.) to say stupid things, that takes religion

                         What Motivates Atheists
                     
In addition to the numerous far-out statements by the Harris-Dawkins-Hitchens cartel, we have libertarian George Smith who gives us such shining shibboleths as “the belief in God is irrational to the point of absurdity.” 

And here’s what the philosopher Bertrand Russell had to say way back in 1930: “I regard religion as a disease born of fear and as a source of untold misery to the human race.”

All of which leads to me ask: What is the source of these militant atheists’ hostility?  What is the impetus behind their “slash and burn” and “shock and awe” campaign against religion? 
              
Certainly many motivations are involved in atheists’ wholesale repudiation of religion and their emotional embrace of a negative idea.  But let’s first look at three of atheists’ own arguments to justify their perspective – and why they are insufficient to explain militant unbelievers’ animus.  

The Welfare of Humanity Argument
         
First and foremost, atheists claim to be hostile to religion because they are concerned for the welfare of humanity.  They cite the many atrocities that religion, in all its irrational debauchery, is alleged to have caused.  With that sentiment in mind, Steven Weinberg recently stated, “Anything that scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion may in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization.”

Many unbelievers reject religion solely on the basis of its fundamentalist expression.  I discuss this issue in depth and detail in Chapter 6 of An Atheist Defends Religion, but suffice to say that religion’s so-called destructive effects are mainly a product of its politicization. 

Placing all the blame on religion blindly ignores the historical evidence.  If religion were the sole or even primary cause of extremist violence, then secular ideologies should be relatively benign by comparison – which is certainly not the case. 

It is clear that atheists’ opposition to religion cannot be attributed to their moral sensibility alone, since they seem blithely unconcerned with the detrimental impact of other institutions. 

Not surprisingly, atheists ignore the harmful effects of science itself, the politicization of which has produced the very weapons that have made genocide more than just a horrific idea.  And let’s not forget the scientific roots of eugenics, a field and term formulated by Francis Galton, drawing on the work of his cousin Charles Darwin. 

The truth is, there are people out there prepared to radicalize any belief system, regardless whether it is religious or secular (and that includes atheism).

In an especially revealing display of inhumanity, militant atheist Sam Harris has said that he rejects faith-based altruism for the simple reason that it is predicated on religious motivations.  To which one is compelled to ask: If the good of humanity is served, what material difference should it make?  And since when do ideological principles matter more than feeding the world’s poor or preventing deadly diseases? 

Sadly, it is clear that relieving human suffering is not at the top of atheists’ list of priorities. 
 
In an interesting experiment, I visited an atheist website that presents a list of famous unbelievers.  I took note of the many philosophers, scientists, writers and artists who have claimed to deny God.  The corresponding list of atheists who are well known for their philanthropy and humanitarianism, however, is vanishingly small. 

In that context, I look forward to Hitchens or Dawkins putting together a list of purely secular do-gooders, and by that I do not mean great scientists, but rather great humanitarians and moral paragons. 

I would also ask that the list include people committed not only to improving human welfare from afar (writing a check), but helping on a face-to-face level – people like Damien de Veuster, the nineteenth-century Roman Catholic missionary whose devotion to victims of Hansen’s disease (leprosy) has become a model for how society should treat the truly dispossessed (think HIV/AIDS today). 

The Imperative of Reason Argument
            
In another instance of self-flattery, many atheists want to believe that they are true to reason and science, rather than reliant on the superstition and ignorance that they contend pervade all religious faith.  In fact, they place atheism on a higher plane precisely because it is, in their own mythology, based on reason and not on faith.

But I have found that most atheists are not unbelievers because they have rationally and impartially considered all competing philosophies and found all wanting except for the atheistic creed.  Atheists are not in fact driven by evidentiary reason.  Simply, they just do not feel the presence of God.  As one unbeliever bluntly told religious skeptic Michael Shermer, “I am a plain, unqualified atheist.  Would you like to hear the reason?  ‘There is no God.’  That’s my reason.” 

What atheists must understand is that this too is faith.  And one thing I have learned is that faith cannot be willed: not faith in God or faith against God.  It is intellectually dishonest to say that atheism is anything more than an emotionally charged reaction against religion. 

Atheists like Dawkins and Dennett merely resort to reason after the fact to rationalize, and argue for, their negative faith.  In this, atheists subordinate reason to emotion, not the other way around.

The We’re Superior Argument 

This is my favorite atheist argument because it reveals what unbelievers really think of themselves and the rest of humanity.  After all, atheists euphemistically call themselves “brights,” who (in Dennett’s phraseology) are dedicated to the “sacred values” of truth, love, honesty, reason and justice.  The implication is that they are morally superior to the “dulls” who embrace falsity, irrationality, ignorance and hatred – in a word, religion. 

Religious people are seen as children in need of protection and guidance: “The appeal of the world’s great religions has always been that they minister to the desire for an idealized parent figure,” according to the atheistic observer Nicholas Humphrey.  People fall into religion because they need the “womb-like envelope their parents once provided.” 
     
It seems atheists fancy themselves as courageous dissenters and enlightened free thinkers who, in contrast to believers, stand far above the “childish fairy tales” and “wish-fulfillment fantasies” of religion.  They portray themselves as heroes to their secular brethren – working assiduously to defeat falsity, superstition and delusion. 

All of which leads me to ask: How is it that atheists claim to be “free thinkers”?  I recently saw an atheist’s letter to a newspaper stating, “I do not require religion to dictate to me what rules I should live by.  I manage to think for myself.”  Even Dawkins has said that eliminating religion is about “teaching people to think for themselves.”  The implication is that, somehow, religious people are not capable of autonomous decision-making. 

Let me point out that more than a few atheists have been known to exhibit a blind obedience to their creed.  The inconvenient truth is we are all influenced by exogenous social forces, and religion is not the only influence.  The strongest behavioral influence in a person’s life is usually peer groups, which includes atheistic groups that convince their members they exhibit moral superiority.  This notion of “thinking for myself” is actually a social normative belief – an idea about ourselves that we desperately want to believe because it has social value (even though the reality may be different).   

I have found that the only people who really think for themselves are social misfits.  And atheists are not social misfits, are they?

                       The Misanthropic Principle  

The three preceding arguments are suggestive but not conclusive explanations for militant atheists’ disdain for religion.  To get at the core reason for unbelievers’ hostility, we must delve into the “shadow” of the atheist psyche. 

My definition of an atheist is someone who denies the beliefs held by people who are happier than he is.  That is not as far-fetched as it sounds.  Surveys indicate that religious people are happier overall than non-religious people.  And I believe that atheists are resentful that religious people are generally happy people – to the extent that such happiness is contingent on what atheists consider superstition and ignorance. 

Atheists would love nothing more than to “cure” religious people of their “false” happiness.  To that point, I am astonished by this statement by Christopher Hitchens, “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness.” 

But I don’t think atheists are unhappy merely because they deny God; I also think they deny God because they’re unhappy.  As proof, one need look no further than Christopher Hitchens to find a correlation between atheism and a cranky, crotchety, crabby personality.  Indeed, some of the most famous atheists were also notable pessimists:  Bertrand Russell, Freud, Nietzsche, Albert Camus, George Bernard Shaw, H. L. Mencken, George Orwell, and Miguel de Unamuno, whose magnum opus was The Tragic Sense of Life.

As a noteworthy example, take this inspiring passage that opens Arthur Schopenhauer’s Studies In Pessimism: “Unless suffering is the direct and immediate object of life, our existence must entirely fail of its aim.”  I am especially intrigued by this statement because it encompasses two types of negativity: the fact of the world’s suffering and that life would be a failure if suffering were not its objective. 

No surprise, Schopenhauer was an unbeliever.  Referring to why he does not revere religion, Schopenhauer has written, “I don’t see why, because other people are simpletons, I should have any regard for a pack of lies.  I respect truth everywhere, and so I can’t respect what is opposed to it.”

By disdaining and disparaging the core beliefs of the vast majority of people, extremist atheists reveal a contemptuous and cynical orientation.  The head of one atheist group, Ellen Johnson, has tried putting a positive spin on it by saying, “Atheists are self-reliant, self-sufficient, independent people.”  But I read it differently: Militant atheists are lonely and alienated people.  How else can we explain the profane remarks that routinely emanate from many atheists?  To illustrate, consider these comments atheists have made about religion, specifically Christianity:
            
     • “Christianity is an oppressive system."


     • “Christians should all be in mental wards.”


     • “Christian morons give their lives to cult leaders.” 


     • “Religion is a lethal virus in civilization.” 


     • “Organized religion is fascist.”


     • “Religion is the worst thing in history.”
     
It’s almost as if anti-Christianity has become a new form of bigotry.  My question is, Where is atheists’ much-touted reason in all this?  The lunatic fringe that has taken root in atheism is so far beyond rational thinking that one wonders how atheists might be capable of engineering a world ruled by compassion.  If these are the people who may some day help run a post-religious world, all I can say is – God help us.  
 
It should be clear that atheists are not motivated by a love for their fellow human beings.  In fact, I would go further and say that militant atheists are motivated by misanthropy.  Their strident, arrogant and belligerent posture reveals a palpable contempt for humanity.  Extremist atheists derive a perverse satisfaction from negating the dominant beliefs that have provided comfort and meaning to people throughout history and across all cultures. 
 
The atheist version of the Golden Rule might go like this: “Do unto others as you have had done unto you.”  Because atheists anxiously face the mysterium tremendum of existence without any hope for redemption, they figure everyone should.  Because unbelievers are denied the consolations and affirmations of religion, they want to make sure that everyone is.

So while we may concede that all atheists are secular, we cannot say they are all humanists.