The Resurgent Atheism
By Rob Bowman
In 2006, a new phenomenon took the publishing world by storm: best-selling books promoting atheism. The two standout books, appearing within a two-day period in September 2006, were Letter to a Christian Nation, by American journalist Sam Harris, and The God Delusion, by British scientist Richard Dawkins. Both of these authors had written best-selling books before—Harris’s The End of Faith and Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker—but the level of public interest (and media attention) given to their 2006 books was unrivalled. Christopher Hitchens, a British journalist, published the best-selling god Is Not Great (the spelling “god” is deliberate) in 2007; its success suggests that atheism is likely to continue to be a potent cultural force in the English-speaking world for some time to come.
Some commentators on this phenomenon have referred to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens as vanguards of a “new atheism,” but this label, though convenient, may not be the most accurate. There is really very little that is new either about the form of atheism to which these authors subscribe or the arguments they present in its defense. It would seem to be more accurate to describe these authors as symptomatic of a resurgence of atheism. Their books are evidence that atheism is on the rise.
Does Religion Make People Behave Badly?
Richard Dawkins urges atheists to “come out,” that is, to declare themselves publicly to be atheists, just as homosexuals are doing, in order to enhance the visibility and credibility of the atheist movement.1 Atheists are generally highly sensitive to the fact that in many Western nations, especially in the United States, atheists are among the least trusted demographic. Historically, most people in Western civilization have tended to view nonreligious people as having no transcendent values and therefore as having no foundation for morality or personal conviction. Atheist writers for this reason are often at pains to argue that they do have honorable values and convictions, usually on the basis of a humanistic philosophy (that whatever benefits the human race as a whole is good).
Atheists not only defend their moral honor, but they argue that atheism is a better basis for humane treatment of one another than religion. They view the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, as a compelling example of the destructive effects of religious belief. Much of the efforts of the recent atheist books, especially those by Harris and Hitchens, is focused on arguing that belief in God—including the God revealed in the Bible—interferes with an enlightened view of the world and of human relationships.
The fundamental fallacy in these arguments is that of overgeneralization. No doubt there are evil religions that deliberately advocate doing things that we ought to regard as evil. However, the atheists assume that if people often do evil with religious motivations or justifications this shows that religion per se is evil. To the contrary, religion often factors into the evil that people do because most people are religious and therefore tend to explain or justify what they do in religious terms. In some cases, people do evil things because their religion teaches them to do so; but in many cases, people do evil things despite what their religion teaches—and compound their evil by twisting their religion to justify their actions.
Ironically, although many atheists are noble-minded, caring people, atheism eliminates any rational foundation for moral imperatives—for saying that human beings ought to do certain things and not do other things. The issue here is not (as atheists almost uniformly misrepresent it) whether atheists can be moral (of course they can), but whether atheism provides any rational explanation for why anyone should be moral. Secular humanism is an attempt to fill this void, but it fails for the simple reason that it cannot offer any reason why an individual should or must care about what is good for the human race as a whole.
Amateurs Outside of Their Field
What expertise or depth of knowledge do these leading atheists bring to bear in their attempts to discredit Christianity and all religion? Frankly, not much. Hitchens and Harris are professional writers whose knowledge, while a mile wide, is in many places an inch thick. Dawkins is a scientist by training and knows his stuff in his field (biology), but his understanding of Christianity is also fairly superficial. One reviewer, commenting on Hitchens’s book, had this to say: “Anyone expecting a masterful demolition of all things sacred will be disappointed. Bullying and shallow, God Is Not Great is a haute middlebrow tirade, a stale venting of outrage and ridicule. Beneath his Oxbridge talent at draping glibness in the raiment of erudition, Hitchens proves to be an amateur in philosophy, an illiterate in theology, and a dishonest student of history.”2 Such a judgment also applies, in large measure, to Harris and Dawkins.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with an individual writing on subjects outside his or her area of formal, academic training. By the same token, readers should not allow themselves to be cowed by scholars and scientists who presumptuously dismiss the Christian faith as irrational or foolish without giving its scholars and scientists (Christianity has plenty of both) a fair hearing…
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