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When atheists attack
Debunking religion without apology

By George A. Ricker

Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett and Sam Harris all have come under fire recently for having the temerity to suggest that (a) the god-idea is make believe, (b) religion is irrational, and (c) religious moderates sometimes enable the activities of religious extremists. Harris and Dawkins are especially associated with the latter view.

These ideas have been put forth in a succession of books beginning with Harris’ The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Harris’ latest effort, Letter to a Christian Nation. The last two books have just come out. All share two things in common. They are explicitly atheistic, and they unapologetically debunk religion.

It’s not surprising to hear religious apologists savaging those who offer such opinions. With a mixture of scorn, condescension and dismissiveness, they have been doing so for centuries. Those who challenge the religious orthodoxies of any society are generally met with indignation and indifference. On one hand, the challengers are attacked for expressing their dissent. On the other they are treated as though their remarks are so trivial as to merit no genuine response.

Those who are charged with protecting religion’s sacred cows wave the rest of society by with a dismissive “Move on folks, nothing to see here,” hoping to ensure no one will witness the goring.

None of that is particularly surprising. Religious apologists always attack and/or dismiss their critics. It is, after all, much easier to attack critics than to deal with the criticisms. Back in the bad old days, such critics might have been silenced, imprisoned, tortured or, if their intransigence warranted it, killed. These days, they are personally attacked or ignored. So has civilization progressed. Then again, there are nations in which those who criticize or otherwise fail to show the proper deference to religion may still face imprisonment or death. However, such places can hardly be regarded as civilized, regardless of their pretensions to the contrary.

Be nice

What is more surprising is the negative response that gets directed at critics of religion from some in the freethought community itself. Now, I would be the last person to suggest that freethinkers should march in lockstep or fail to examine the ideas from within the freethought community with the same rigor they apply to those from without.

However, that doesn’t seem to be what’s at work here.

Consider “Battle of the New Atheism,” a lengthy piece by Gary Wolf that you’ll find on Wired News (http://www.wired.com/news/wiredmag/1,71985-0.html). It is not clear just where Wolf comes down on the god/no-god question. He describes himself as one of those being called out by the “new atheism” and invited to take a stand. But whether he belongs with the “…lax agnostics, …noncommittal nonbelievers” or “vague deists” is left unclear.

No matter though. Whatever his position, he clearly disavows what he perceives as a call to arms on the part of the “evangelical” (his description not mine) atheism of Dennett, Dawkins, Harris et.al. Apparently Wolf thinks it more important to “be nice” than to take a stand on principle. He thinks it better to temporize than to speak clearly.

But Wolf’s analysis is tainted from the outset. In naming the piece the “Battle of the New Atheism” he reveals much more than he realizes. There’s nothing new about atheism. Atheism is the absence of god-belief. That’s all it is. The authors he cites go far beyond mere atheism. Their criticisms of religion have more to do with the advocacy of science and reason and with removing religions from the list of taboo subjects that must not be discussed in polite society.

His opening line, “My friends, I must ask you an important question today: Where do you stand on God?” is not a question any self-respecting atheist would ask. We know there are many versions of the god hypothesis. If an atheist were to pose such a question, which in itself seems unlikely, it would probably be phrased “Where do you stand on gods?”

With no apologies

Wolf’s biggest problem seems to be that the authors he cites refuse to debunk religion apologetically. They refuse to back away from the confrontation with believers to the safe haven of mealy-mouthed phrasing and vague positions. For Wolf, and others who side with him, the last thing we want in this debate is clarity.

And that’s really what’s at issue here. That’s what discomfits those who are so put off by Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and any others who attempt to deal with religion without kid gloves and to treat religious ides with the same rigor as all others. It’s not that the apologists want respect for religion. What they want is a a free ride.

Consider Wolf’s description of “trying out Dawkins’ appeal in polite company” after returning from a meeting with the scientist at Oxford.

Wolf says, “At dinner parties or over drinks, I ask people to declare themselves. ‘Who here is an atheist?’ I ask.”

Now I ask you, dear reader, even if you have an acquaintance with very few atheists, can you imagine any of them posing such a question at a social gathering? I can’t, and I know quite a few. Moreover, though I’ve never met the man, I doubt Richard Dawkins would use such an approach either. Yet Wolf insists, this is the approach what he calls “the New Atheism” demands.

And if it sounds to you like the fundamentalist query, “Have you been saved?” the similarity is not accidental. Critics like Wolf are at great pains to show that what he calls the “New Atheism” is the nonbeliever’s version of the old religious fundamentalism. It’s just another form of extremism and just as wrong.

According to the people Wolf claims to have talked to, the only folks willing to identify themselves as atheists are those who enjoy “…pissing people off.”

He says, “This type of conversation takes place not in central Ohio, where I was born, or in Utah, where I was a teenager, but on the West Coast, among technical and scientific people, possibly the social group that is least likely among all Americans to be religious. Most of these people call themselves agnostic, but they don’t harbor much suspicion that God is real. They tell me they reject atheism not out of piety but out of politeness. As one said, ‘Atheism is like telling somebody, the very thing you hinge your life on, I totally dismiss.’ This is the type of statement she would never want to make.”

Offending the religious

Much of Wolf’s criticism of Dawkins, Dennett and Harris reminds me of some of the critiques voiced by Western “liberals” after Salmon Rushdie had attracted the ire of the Ayatollah Khomeini, who urged Muslims to kill the author once his book, The Satanic Verses, had been published. While deploring the Ayatollah’s fanaticism, many Westerners intimated that, though Rushdie’s indictment of Islam shouldn’t bring a death sentence, the author had kind of asked for it by failing to show the proper deference to a religion, Islam, and that religion’s founder, Mohammed, in a popular novel.

More recently, we have heard the same rationale voiced over the cartoons published last year in a Danish newspaper and then recirculated to much of the Muslim world. The murderous violence thus provoked was universally deplored but again we in the West were told we must treat religion, in this case Islam, with more respect. Those who claimed Islam was a religion of peace offered the curious defense that its followers could be provoked to thuggery against both people and property if anyone dared poke fun at it outside the circumscribed bounds regarded as acceptable by Islam itself.

And this is the same criticism now being leveled at Dennett, Dawkins and Harris. Not that they are wrong. Not that they fail to make their case. But that in making the case, they may offend people of a religious persuasion and make things difficult for those who seek alliances with some in the community of faith.

But though it may be possible, even desirable, to create ad hoc alliances between nonbelievers and some believers in areas of mutual concern, such as the need to strengthen the wall of separation between religions and government, faith and reason can only form an alliance if faith is willing to defer to reason on matters of fact. Faith is necessarily irrational. Reason, by definition, is not. The two can coexist, but only in a limited fashion. Eventually one or the other will claim the dominant role in the mind of an individual or the ethos of a culture.

While Wolf is put off by the passion of Dawkins and Harris, not so much by Dennett, he insists their cause is doomed to fail because it does not “quicken” the blood. To buttress this claim he describes a religious service at the revamped Angelus Temple in LA’s Echo Park. The preaching, singing and general atmosphere provoke a powerful emotional response that stands, in Wolf’s mind, in stark contrast to the much smaller, and much more reasonable, atheist gathering he attends the next day.

Passions aroused by the contemplation of the universe, by the world of ideas, by the creations of human beings are seemingly lost on Wolf. As are the profound meanings nonbelievers find in all sorts of human enterprises that need no god-belief to make them either relevant or exciting. He repeats the claim—one I will return to shortly—of a rising flood of religious belief that will engulf the protests of atheists, and especially those who buck the tide by criticizing religion.

The charge of extremism

Finally, Wolf says he rejects the “New Atheism” because of its extremism. These authors—Dennett, and especially Dawkins and Harris—are just too strident, too unequivocal in their condemnation of religions. They seem much too sure of themselves, much too unwilling to give religion any credit, much too quick to blame it for all the world’s ills. Wolf likens the “New Atheism” to the old religious fanaticism. He calls it “extremism in opposition to extremism.”

Here Wolf speaks for many others who have voiced similar criticisms. While I understand that many among the religious will be offended by both the criticism of religions and the candor with which it is offered by Dennett, Dawkins, Harris and any others who voice similar sentiments, I find the argument unpersuasive. First, because, perhaps not surprisingly, I didn’t find the tone of the books to be that abrasive. And second, because it suggests we must treat religion differently than other areas of human experience. That the religious want to wrap themselves in the mantle of self-righteous indignation whenever one of their sacred cows gets gored does not excuse them from the need to mount a rational defense for ideas they claim are not only important to them but ought to guide the rest of humanity as well.

And there is the rub in all of this. If religions were simply belief systems held internally by individuals and/or religious fellowships, then most of the rest of us would be totally unconcerned about them and would quite happily leave believers to find whatever joy they find in such superstitions. If that were the case, I’m also quite sure these books would never have been written.

However, it is not the case.

Religions claim to know “The Truth” about how human beings should live. They claim the right to stipulate and direct the moral conduct of human societies. They disguise religious myth as science and seek to sabotage legitimate scientific inquiry and put an impostor in its place. They assume the right to direct the affairs of nations because they arrogate to themselves the knowledge of the will of the “God” they claim to worship. They do all of these things while declaring that they are off limit to any inquiry or investigation of their dogma. Matters of faith must not be subject to rational scrutiny, they insist.

Obviously, all religionists do not share these views, but they are characteristic of the dogma of most religions. And it is the religions, not the religious, who come under attack in these works. Dawkins, Harris and Dennett do not quarrel with the right of individuals to believe what they choose to believe. However, they do reject the notion that the right to believe confers some sort of immunity on the beliefs themselves.

Put another way. Individuals have every right to believe in nonsense. However, that right imposes no obligation on the rest of us to treat such beliefs as anything other than nonsense.

Regardless of the merit of their criticisms, Dennett, Dawkins and Harris do not deserve the carping, and entirely predictable, condemnation they have received from so many. By raising these issues, they have performed an admirable service. But is it service in a lost cause, as so many of their critics claim?

Atheism’s failure…?

While Wolf and others point to a rising flood of religiosity, and a corresponding decline in nonbelief, the claim sounds dubious at best.

For example, an October 2006 poll by Harris Interactive (available on the web at harrisinteractive.com) reports that only 73 percent of adult Americans believe in “God.” The remaining 27 percent are broken down into those who believe there is no “God” (11 percent) and those who aren’t sure whether there is a god (16 percent). This is significant because it represents a substantial shift in the numbers reported in a similar poll taken in 2003. The number of those who believe in “God” dropped from 79 percent to 73 percent, while those who either did not believe or were not sure increased from 21 to 27 percent. According to this survey more than 10 percent of the adult population of the United States would qualify as atheists. That’s a substantially larger number than those ballyhooed so often in the pages of the dominant media.

What accounts for the difference? Harris Interactive is an online poll that is conducted with the same standards as other polls. What is different is that the person taking the poll is not interacting with another person who is asking questions. According to Harris Interactive, this reduces the pressure on the person taking the poll to give a response that might be regarded as more socially desirable.

Besides, it’s more than a little disingenuous for religious apologists to chortle over atheism’s failure while, at the same time, lamenting the secularism of modern societies around the globe. Those modern states which are most secular also appear to be the most successful and to hold out the best prospects for their citizens. Now, it’s true enough that secularism and atheism are not the same thing, but it’s also true that the separation of religions and governments is a fairly modern idea that seems to have worked quite well for the societies that have tried it.

Atheism has not failed. Atheism is not a political or economic program. It is not an agenda for social change. It is not a moral code. It is none of those things. Atheism is the absence of belief in a god or gods. That’s all. And, contrary to the claims of its critics, it is more prevalent today than ever before. There are more opportunities for atheists to meet other atheists. There are more organizations for atheists to join, and more venues for the expression of atheist’s viewpoints than ever before.


Authors like Dennett, Dawkins and Harris perform a service by raising these issues and refusing to equivocate in their assessment of the harm religion may do. Those who read their books without prejudging them will not find the hate-filled screeds they are accused of writing.

We live in an age that, above all else, needs clarity and honesty in its public discourse. These authors have given us that. Those who have no stomach for such directness may well find the fare upsetting. But whatever hostility these authors may display toward religions pales in comparison to the hostility that is directed daily toward any advocates of alternatives to the religious viewpoint. Indeed, some of the attacks on Dawkins, Dennett and Harris are themselves the epitome of vituperation.

Wolf ends his piece with a plea for respectful conversation and the acknowledgment that, when all is said and done, any of us could be wrong. Ironically, that’s a concession I think Dawkins, Dennett and Harris probably would make. Most religionists would not. After all, it is not the atheist but the religionist who most often claims to have all the answers or, more properly, “The Answer.”

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