The New Atheism

“This is atheism’s moment.”  That according to David Steinberger, CEO of Perseus Books LLC, which recently signed Christopher Hitchens to edit a book of atheist readings for publication this fall.  The book will come on the heels of Hitchens’ God is Not Great, the latest in a string of books critical of religion that have become modest bestsellers in recent years.  As of June 2007 there were 296,000 copies in print of Hitchens’ book; 500,000 of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion; and 185,000 of Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation.  Harris’ previous book The End of Faith was on the New York Times bestseller list for thirty-three weeks in 2004.    

How could this happen in a country where upward of 80% majorities assert belief in God, Christ, and miracles?  According to some booksellers, wanting to “know thine enemy” is partly why books have been selling even in the Bible Belt.  But another dynamic may also be at work.  Dawkins suggests that what John Stuart Mill wrote in the nineteenth century remains true today:  “The world would be astonished if it knew how great a proportion of its brightest ornaments, of those most distinguished even in popular estimation for wisdom and virtue, are complete skeptics in religion.”  But in a highly religious culture, declaring oneself an atheist can be as difficult as open homosexuality was fifty years ago.  Today, after the Gay Pride movement, 55% of Gallup respondents declare willingness to vote for a homosexual candidate:  a lower percentage than those who would vote for a Catholic, African-American, woman, Mormon, or septuagenarian, but higher than the 45% who would vote for an atheist .  Dawkins and others hope to help inspire an Atheist Pride movement, building a critical mass that would encourage closet non-believers to come out.


Dawkins’ central argument is a variation on the argument from design, which he sees as “easily today’s most popular argument offered in favour of the existence of God.”   Organized complexity in nature could not have arisen by chance.  Just as upon finding a watch one would infer a watchmaker, upon finding eyes, wings, or digestive systems one should infer a maker of nature.  In his earlier book The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins admires the wonder of the 18th century theologian William Paley who made this argument, preferring it to the blasé reply of those who see no need to explain nature.  But of course Dawkins and modern science give a different explanation than Paley’s.  While genetic mutations do arise by chance, occasionally a mutation improves fitness.  Individuals with such a mutation tend to have more descendants, enlarging the mutation’s share of the gene pool.  Over a great many generations, a succession of thus naturally-selected mutations leads to complex adaptation and th

e appearance of design.         


So the argument from design fails: true, it’s highly unlikely that organized complexity arose by chance, but it didn’t.  This much only shows that God’s existence isn’t proven.  But Dawkins aims at more, to prove God’s non-existence, by varying the argument to apply to God.  A being capable of making nature must have an organized complexity of its own, and it’s highly unlikely this could have arisen by chance.  So God, at least a creative God such as the God of Abraham, probably does not exist.  I think Dawkins is right that there’s no good reply to this, because it exposes the double standard that’s essential to all versions of creationism or “intelligent design”:  nature must be explained, but God not at all.  Victor Stenger’s recent book fully surveys the conflicts between modern science and the God hypothesis. 


These matters pertain to whether religious beliefs are true, but another issue is whether they are harmful.  It’s an independent issue.  A common attitude – what Daniel Dennett calls “belief in belief” – is that even if a given religion is not true, it inspires good things and so is worth preserving.  Harris and Hitchens remind us however of atrocities inspired by religion throughout history up to the present:  to take one of countless examples, the immolation after unspeakable torture of accused heretics during the Inquisition.  To those who dismiss such doings as perversions of Judaeo-Christianity, Harris points out that on the contrary they were mandated by such scripture as the following:


If you hear that in one of the towns which Yahweh your God has given you for a home, there are men, scoundrels from your own stock, who have led their fellow citizens astray, saying “let us go and serve other gods,” hitherto unknown to you, it is your duty to look into the matter, examine it, and inquire most carefully.  If it is proved and confirmed that such a hateful thing has taken place among you, you must put the inhabitants of that town to the sword; you must lay it under the curse of destruction – the town and everything in it.  You must pile up all its loot in the public square and burn the town and all its loot, offering it all to Yahweh your God.  It is to be a ruin for all time and never rebuilt.  (Deuteronomy 13:12-16).


The Bible has many such passages.  God commands death for homosexuals, adulterers, brides who are not virgins, those who disobey priests, those who work on the Sabbath, rebellious children, all first-born sons in Egypt, those who impede the Hebrews or whose ancestors did, prior inhabitants of the promised land, and those who disobey God, among others.  Women, children, and infants do not get mercy.  (For example, Exodus 12:1-30, 32:1-28; Leviticus 20:1-16; Numbers 31:7-18; Joshua 6:1-21, 10:28-43; Samuel 15:1-33.)  This seems sufficient to disqualify scripture as the best source of moral inspiration, the existence of many fine passages notwithstanding.


The New Testament is often taken as kinder than the Old.  But Jesus apparently endorses all Hebrew law (Luke 16:17, Matthew 5:17-18).  The Gospels have their own stains, including portrayal of Jews as collectively responsible for the death of Jesus (e.g. Matthew 27:25), inspiring centuries of pogroms.  And then there’s hell:  as Bertrand Russell remarked, this concept alone disqualifies Christianity as a kind religion.  Even those who live morally exemplary lives but do not accept the savior are destined to burn.  The damage is real even if hell is not.  Dawkins tells us about Jill Mytton, a psychotherapist who specializes in helping those who have been terrified by thoughts of hell, often as children.  Mytton suggests that the psychological harm is as serious as the abuse inflicted by pedophile priests.      


Most of the devout are decent people, do not believe all scripture (or in the US, don’t know much about it, according to polls), and recognize past and present abuses of their faith, often working for reform from within.  Thus Leora Tanenbaum, in her review of Hitchens, dismisses his arguments against religion as “based on the lowest common denominator.”  And when religious people do bad things, we can’t assume it’s because of their religion, anymore than we can assume that when atheists do bad things it’s because of their atheism.  At least as likely a candidate is a person’s nature:  in general, good people do good things and bad people bad things.   


Here, though, we come to the heart of the matter.  Dawkins quotes what Steven Weinberg adds:  “But for good people to do bad things, that takes religion.”  Does the Pope oppose condom use in Africa despite the many lives it would save because he is a bad person?  Are many US fundamentalists sanguine about nuclear war, seeing it as heralding the Second Coming, because they are bad people?  Were all the Crusaders, often poor and sacrificing livelihoods and incurring debt for the cause, just bad people?  The problem here is the power of faith to prevail against evidence and natural sense.  That’s the essence of faith.


Moderates give up parts of their religion in recognition of modernity.  But cherry-picking from religious teachings isn’t following the religion, any more than picking which laws to obey makes one a law-abiding citizen.  It’s the extremists who are following the religion.  And what remains after the cherry-picking can’t be considered a source of morality, because the selectivity must be guided by a sense of right and wrong that one already has.  We expect this sense of normal adults regardless of religious conviction.  As Hitchens asks, isn’t it rather an insult to the Hebrews to suppose that they didn’t know stealing was wrong before God handed down the commandments?


Meanwhile, Harris argues, religious moderation insofar as it insists on tolerance lends legitimacy to extremism.  If faith of all stripes must be respected, that includes the faith of those who do believe that homosexuals and adulterers should be executed (as the Christian Reconstructionists do), or that Hindu widows should immolate themselves, or that unmarried Muslim mothers-to-be should be stoned to death.  In civil society, we can try to control such extremes with laws and criminal penalties.  But religious tolerance means that we can’t get to the root of the problem:  we can’t discredit the beliefs that the deeds are based on.  Indeed, from the faithful’s point of view the case is impeccable.  If God commands it, it must be done. 


Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens have been widely reviewed, but it seems to me these few central points have scarcely been addressed.  One common criticism, for instance by Terry Eagleton, is that Dawkins overlooks the many variants of Christian belief.  But any variant that maintains an interventionist God is subject to Dawkins’ arguments; if there’s any that doesn’t, then it isn’t what Dawkins is addressing.  So the criticism is pointless.  Criticism like Tanenbaum’s is likewise typical:  simply asserting the existence of moderate believers is easy, but just repeats what has been granted and ignores the argument about them. 


I myself tend to agree with the case so far.  But it shouldn’t be restricted to religion.  People have faith in all sorts of things besides God:  in their stock brokers, in the Red Sox, in their friends.  Of course this is not always harmful, and can be beneficial.  Through faith in himself, a recovering alcoholic might find needed resolve.  His history might indicate that he won’t be able to recover, but he needs to believe that he can in order to have any chance. 


But now, consider faith in country and its political leaders.  Russell once wrote of a Greek friend who analyzed the self-serving motives all the nations fighting in World War I – except Greece which, he was sure, had only the noblest of intentions.  If we can’t recognize ourselves in this story, it’s because of our own nationalist blinders:  a faith in what the country does under a political leadership, which makes the phrase “God and country” resonate.  This is harmful because it’s part of what fuels war.  It’s a faith that inclines us to follow leaders without demanding evidence that war is necessary, as democracy requires.


It’s not just among the unsophisticated.  Let Exhibit A be Sam Harris.  Harris thinks his critique of religion is especially urgent because terrorists could get access to weapons of mass destruction.  And he’s confident that these terrorists are motivated by religion, in particular Islam.  So his otherwise ecumenical critique includes a chapter devoted to “The Problem with Islam.”  By his lights, the problem is that the Koran repeatedly commands death for non-believers and promises heavenly reward for those who carry out the commands.  This is the reason “we must now confront Muslim, rather than Jain, terrorists in every corner of the world.”  Daniel Dennett has a similar view.  (Hitchens is a complicated special case.)


Harris is unusual in his emphasis on religious motives of terrorism.  The orthodox view is expressed by Louise Richardson for example, who acknowledges religion as a possible factor, in part because it promotes a manichean worldview in which the terrorists are good and their targets evil.  But she adds that it “is never the sole cause of terrorism; rather religious motivations are interwoven with economic and political factors” and generally the “three R’s”:  revenge, renown, and reaction.  Take the London bombings of July 2005.  According to the first, and plausible, claim of responsibility, the bombings were a response to British support of the US in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The suspects had reportedly been moved by television coverage of civilians killed in Iraq.  That aligned with the assessment by British intelligence before the bombings, that British involvement in Iraq increased the risk of terrorism on British soil.  The US National Intelligence Estimate has similarly noted t he US occupation as motivating terrorists.  So this would seem to be primarily a case of Richardson‘s first ‘R’, revenge.


Recognizing revenge as a motive doesn’t justify terrorism, but it does invite us to widen our condemnation.  The civilian toll of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq is in the hundreds of thousands according to a study published in the Lancet, with a declining but substantial portion (from a third to a quarter over a three-year period) attributable directly to US military strikes.  As Nick Turse has described, the public knows little about the regular attacks by the US Air Force in Iraqi population centers because of underreporting and Pentagon secrecy.  In Afghanistan, even Hamid Karzai has denounced the regular NATO bombardment of civilian areas; the total dead is unknown, but five years ago various estimates were already in the thousands. Taking another known grievance in the Islamic world, the US was the aggressive and knowing driver of sanctions against Iraq which were a major factor in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children according to several studies.


Our victims well outnumber those of 9/11.  But Harris joins the Western intellectual mainstream helping to keep the toll rising, by making sure we feel no shame.  His denial of “moral equivalence” between our deeds and terrorists’ comes not by denying facts: he accepts that “we have surely done some terrible things in our past [and] undoubtedly we are poised to do terrible things in the future,” naming genocide of native Americans, slavery, bombing of Cambodia, support of dictatorships, etc.  Harris nonetheless distinguishes us from terrorists with the usual:  we are a “well-intentioned giant.”  We don’t kill innocents on purpose.  If we had a “perfect weapon” that incurred no collateral damage, he argues, we would use it to kill only evildoers whereas terrorists would use it to kill innocents.


There are two problems here.  First, suppose a man burns down a house knowing that there are people inside.  His purpose is not to kill the people, but to make sure the house isn’t used for drug dealing.  Is he less guilty than one whose purpose is to kill the people?  It would seem not.  This is encoded in US criminal law, under which “knowingly” and “purposely” are morally equivalent states of what’s called “mens rea” (“guilty mind”). Thus in both cases the arsonist can be convicted of murder.  Note also that if the first man could truthfully say he would have availed himself of a “perfect fire” that would have spared the victims, that wouldn’t lessen his guilt.  He knowingly set a real fire, and he’s responsible for that.   


Harris’ argument here is made in the course of criticizing Chomsky.  Anticipating a reply by Chomsky (correctly, I think) that regardless of intention we are responsible for likely known consequences of our acts, Harris counters that this is an unreasonable standard, citing the manufacturers of roller coasters, baseball bats, and swimming pools who surely are innocent notwithstanding potential harm that could ensue from use of their products.  The reader can judge whether dropping 500-pound bombs in residential areas suspected of harboring insurgents is more like the arsonist or the swimming pool manufacturer.  To correct for bias, we should imagine Iraqi jets regularly bombing California neighborhoods in pursuit of suspected attackers of an Iraqi occupation, following an illegal Iraqi invasion of the US. 


Which brings us to the second problem with appealing to our good intentions.  What is the evidence?  Harris admits the historical record, which includes many cases in which it can’t even be said that killing innocents was a matter of collateral damage, such as saturation bombing in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, sponsorship of death squads in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and elsewhere in Latin America, overthrow of democratically-elected governments and support of dictatorships in Chile, Iran, Guatemala, Haiti, and many others.  Here civilians were the targets, for reasons spelled out in our own national security documents:  promoting governments that serve our economic and strategic interests, destabilizing those that don’t, and fighting insurgents in part by “drying up the sea” of their civilian support.  In the case of Iraq, I recommend Sonia Shah’s book Crude for making our oil interest as obvious as it should be (an interest served by a pending Iraqi law, drafted under US supervision, which would give much control of Iraq‘s oil to foreign corporations).


Americans who see good intentions in US interventions do so because they are Americans.  If similar deeds are perpetrated by enemies, we don’t hesitate in our moral judgments:  we didn’t wonder about good intentions of Iraq when it invaded Kuwait or the Soviet Union when it installed a puppet regime in Afghanistan, and rightly so.  Likewise, those abroad often fail to see our benevolence.  For example, a BBC News poll of January 2007 found that in 18 countries outside the US, only 29% of respondents thought the US played a mainly positive role in the world.  In glamorizing ourselves (enabled by our media), we are no different than Russell’s Greek patriot.


So here lies Harris’ nationalist faith.  It’s not the faith of those who deny or are unaware of the record.  It’s stronger.  Because as an intellectual he accepts evidence, which then must be overridden.  This, as we’ve seen, is the essence of faith.  And too as with religious faith, manichean illusion comes along.  In this respect Harris’ view that “we must now confront Muslim terrorists in every corner of the world” is not unlike Bush’s, which is not unlike bin Laden’s, except with the good and evil sides switched.  The explanation for the US record is, not that we are evil, but that we pursue our own interests.  Just like everyone else, but our record is worse because we have more power to do so. 


Accordingly, and because this is our country, criticism should begin at home.  So for example if Harris, Dennett, or any other Americans are worried about nuclear weapons finding their way to terrorists, they should work to change US policy.  Experts tell us that nuclear know-how is out of the bag, available from public sources including the internet.  What needs to happen is control of nuclear material, as would be accomplished by the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty.  Which the US opposes.  The US rejects negotiation of a nuclear-free zone throughout the Middle East (because it would include Israel), as called for in UN Security Council Resolution 687.  In its preservation of a nuclear stockpile and pursuit of next-generation weapons, the US is in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.  By undermining international agreements and intervening militarily as it sees fit, the US motivates those who may pursue nukes for revenge or self-defense, terrorists or not.  And all th is poses a much greater threat to civilization than the Koran.

Leave a comment