By now you have almost certainly heard of the “New Atheists.” Their scathing attacks on religious belief have been making headlines regularly over the last few years. While a number of writers have published books that disparage faith and endorse atheism, four have gained the title “the New Atheists:” Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris.
Of the four, Sam Harris is arguably the most popular in the United States. He was unknown prior to the appearance of his 2004 book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. The other three had already enjoyed significant careers and some fame, but Harris struck a nerve as his publication landed on the bestseller lists and catapulted him into the public eye. His demand, echoed in the writings of the other three, is nothing less than the elimination of all religion.
Now I can’t write on this subject for the Advocate without noting the obvious: if the New Atheists should be successful in their endeavors, we will all be out of work! Beyond our own job security, however, this question is important: Why do the New Atheists want to do away with religion altogether? The short answer is that they believe that all religion promotes violence and, consequently, endangers human well being. Of course, they say much more than this. Their key points can be summarized under the following headings.
God is a delusion. This phrase, the title of Richard Dawkins’ book,1 summarizes their foundational view that the word God doesn’t really correspond to anything real. For them, the term belongs on a level with ideas like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. As Harris writes mockingly, “…there is no evidence that any of our books was authored by the creator of the universe. The Bible, it seems certain, was the work of sand-strewn men and women who thought the earth was flat and for whom a wheelbarrow would have been a breathtaking example of emerging technology.”2
Religions do more evil than good. The New Atheists admit that various religious traditions sometimes provide useful social services, but mostly, they believe, such beneficial work could be done better by secular organizations that don’t come with faith-based baggage. In addition, whatever good they do is far outweighed by the countless acts of physical and emotional violence that believers have done to their opponents.
Harris even argues that believers must be intolerant. If you really believe, you must oppose everyone who holds divergent opinions. After all, such people may lead others astray from eternal salvation. Needless to say, the New Atheists hardly mention the 20th century totalitarian regimes that consciously embraced atheism as they incarcerated, tortured, and eliminated thousands of supposed “enemies of the state.”
Science is the model for all knowledge. The New Atheists make an absolute distinction between science and religious belief. Latching onto the vehement rejection of evolutionary theory by many American evangelicals, the New Atheists claim that Christianity, and religion generally, is reactionary and benighted, destined to live forever in the darkest days (or nights) of the Middle Ages. To the New Atheists, faith simply closes the door to any true discussion or exchange of ideas, while science always entertains new ideas and theories.
Now it is curious that Harris, in particular, asserts such purity of motives for science. Having just completed a doctorate in neuroscience, he might admit to more awareness that science is conducted by scientists, who occasionally exhibit the same sorts of failures as religious believers. After all, we are all human beings. Scientists—just like pastors and church educators(!)—can find themselves guilty of pettiness and pride, selfishness and favoritism.
Further, the New Atheists overlook the fact that not every kind of knowledge can be gained by using strictly empirical methods of observation and experiment, analysis and verification. While knowledge of historical events, artistic qualities, and other persons, for example, do include empirical elements, they cannot be fully explored by scientific means alone. The same is true for ethical knowledge, although moral practice is such a major theme for the New Atheists that we will need to mention it separately.
Ethics can be founded on reason. Last year, Sam Harris produced a second book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values.3 Here he seeks to demonstrate that neuroscience can help society move toward a better understanding of ethical principles and obligations. He believes that ethics ought to be based on reason. A rational approach to questions of morality will enable us, at least in broad terms, to determine more accurately what makes for happiness and suffering. Armed with that knowledge, we are then obligated to seek to “maximize human happiness” whenever possible.
We will agree, I think, that fostering happiness and limiting suffering for others whenever possible is something for which we should all strive. Doesn’t that sound very similar to the Golden Rule? The obvious question, however, is simply, “Why?” “Why must we live moral lives?” Just because we are programmed genetically, or trained culturally, to feel an obligation to do what is beneficial and not harmful, why is it incumbent on us to do so?
People often ask what is “new” about the New Atheists. There have been numbers of atheist thinkers in the past, including names like Hume, Marx, Nietzsche, Sartre, and Camus. Mostly, the contribution of the New Atheists is simply (and unfortunately) their insistence on an absolute identification of religion with violence. Also, their tone sounds shrill and angry. It’s almost as if they are furious that you and I continue to believe in something so irrational, and obviously outdated, as the idea of God!
In response, we can remind the New Atheists that, unlike their atheist predecessors, they are not taking their atheism to its logical conclusion. Earlier thinkers realized that the end point of atheistic convictions is nihilism. If God is dead, there is no meaning. The world is simply a tragic stage on which human lives play themselves out. Christopher Hitchens, for one, makes light of this problem, saying that the only meaning he needs is “lunch with an agreeable friend.”4 However, religious believers—in Christianity and in other religions—trust that there really is a deeper meaning to this world. Words like “absolute,” “ultimate,” and “transcendent” are ways to get at it. So is the word “God.”
As you can guess, we are at an impasse here. The New Atheists insist that all knowledge must be gained by scientific methods, but religious knowledge operates differently. It is a kind of personal knowledge, and it requires an approach that the New Atheists are not likely to view favorably. As Psalm 34:8 puts it, “O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him” (NRSV). We get to know God, in other words, by relating to God. Religious faith will always be based on experiential knowledge.
We may be tempted to write the New Atheists off (as they do us), but we will do better to listen to the deeper message that underlies their ferocious attacks on faith. For one thing, their criticism should alert us to the fact that there is a wide range of folks out there who do not find our beliefs and our worldview convincing. We would be wise to sharpen our thinking about what we believe and why.
More important, we ought to look long and hard at the unseemly actions and attitudes that have so often scarred the Christian witness to those outside the church. When we have the opportunity, we can include in our lesson plans a discussion of the failures and tragedies that are part of Christian history, which is…our history! How do we avoid those same failures and tragedies in our own time?
There is no question that the New Atheists disparage faith in scathing and sarcastic terms. They treat believers disrespectfully at best. Here, too, there is a useful lesson for us and our people. We ought not to respond in kind. The final instructions in Paul’s Letter to Titus sum it up nicely: “Speak evil of no one, avoid quarreling, be gentle, and show every courtesy to everyone” (3:2, NRSV).
1Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006).
2Harris, Sam. The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004), p. 45.
3Harris, Sam. The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010).
4Hitchens, Christopher. God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Hachette Book Group, 2007), p. 6.
James E. Davison is director of continuing education and teaches Greek language and exegesis at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He has served previously as a minister of adult education and as a college professor. In addition to writing a number of books and articles for pastors and laypersons, Jim is the author of the national congregational program, published by the PC (USA), “The Year of the Bible.”