Arts & Culture

The Four Horsemen of the New Atheism

I'm tired. Most of my reading time in the last few weeks has been devoted to the "Four Horseman of Atheism"-Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. And now that I've emerged from my self-imposed sequestration-blinking in … Read More

By / July 2, 2008

I'm tired. Most of my reading time in the last few weeks has been devoted to the "Four Horseman of Atheism"-Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. And now that I've emerged from my self-imposed sequestration-blinking in the sunlight and desperate for a beer-I deeply regret ever suggesting this article to Zeek.

My problem is not with atheism per se. If someone does not believe in God, that's no concern of mine. Just as it's no concern if, say, another Jew practices a more stringent level of observance than I do. (Or a lesser one, but he'd tough to find.) My problem, rather, is with these authors, for their smugness and dogmatism. I felt alternatively harangued or patronized or downright bored. Reading their books, one after the other, was an enervating experience.

Champion of Godlessness: Christopher Hitchens

The exercise did begin well, with Hitchens' god [sic] is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Hitchens is a gifted writer, so his book is actually entertaining. He explores many of the same themes as his colleagues in godlessness-how religion leads to ignorance, oppression, and ethical confusion-but in a more diverting way, despite, or maybe due to, his rhetorical excesses. Those who read this kind of book looking to be offended will come away satisfied: Hitchens calls the God of the Hebrews "ill-tempered and implacable and bloody and provincial"; he refers to Jesus as one of many "deranged prophets." Strong stuff, but why should he pretend to be reverent?

Many people dismiss Hitchens as a bloviator, an armchair warrior against "Islamofascism." But this book, anyway, is not an anti-Muslim screed. It's a sustained argument against the broader tenets of all religions-against the infallibility of scripture and the claim that religion "improves people." When Hitchens does discuss the murderous meetings of religion and politics (e.g. Belfast, Beirut, Belgrade), it's in support of his assertions, not to score points for "The War on Terror." And he is capable of tolerance. (Although I did wonder why, if, as Hitchens suggests, he'd be fine with religion if its adherents would just "leave [him] alone," he keeps running off to participate in televised debates.)

Extremist Atheist: Sam Harris

Anyway, if Hitchens goes overboard occasionally, Sam Harris falls in the water with disturbing frequency. In The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, Harris argues that reason (e.g. secular humanism) is in a fight to the death with the forces of irrationality (e.g. evangelical Christians and every living Muslim). This is a plausible, if not original point. There is no place for faith in political discourse, and we are facing real threats, such as an "Islamist regime" acquiring "long-range nuclear weaponry." (Or short range, for that matter.) But Harris often evinces his own form of extremism. To him, even religious moderation is a hypocritical "myth." In fact, he wants to chuck the whole thing out the window-baby, bathwater, and baptismal font (or bimah). And unless we do, he argues, we're all gonna die-we risk a global, religious-based conflict that causes the end of civilization.

Okay, I suppose that this is a possibility. But so was Y2K. And I'm still scratching my head over his limited support of-wait for it-torture. In all fairness, this issue is a small part of The End of Faith. Still, it highlights the book's bizarre mixture of rationalism and fearmongering. Harris paraphrases Alan Dershowitz, that subtle thinker, who proposed that we consider torture if, say, we have custody of a "known terrorist" who "has planted a large bomb in the heart of a nearby city." Harris himself suggests that if we can accept wartime "collateral damage"-which he defines as "the inadvertent torture of innocent men, women, and children"-then we should be able to accept the purposeful torture of guilty people. In other words, "If there is even one chance in a million that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will tell us something under torture that will lead to the further dismantling of Al Qaeda," it would be "perverse" to disallow it.

Actually, what's perverse is using extreme examples to justify an unreliable, corrupting practice. And to assume that it's possible to use torture with judiciousness. Listen, if Dershowitz's scenario comes to pass, I will personally pay for the car battery. Until then, one chance in a million is not enough.

Scientific Fundamentalist: Daniel Dennett

With Harris' apocalyptic warnings ringing in my ears, I turned, with relief, to what I supposed would be the coolly objective realms of science. "Supposed" is the key word here, for the proponents of natural selection, apparently, can be just as unappealing as its detractors. In Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Tufts professor Daniel Dennett "[extrapolates] back to human history with the aid of biological thinking." What this means, in English, is that Dennett speculates about the origin and development of religion through the lens of natural selection. For example, he explains that early "folk religions" may have served Darwinian needs-in terms of group survival through social cohesion, or individual survival through the placebo effects of superstitious rituals. Today, though, with democracy and antibiotics, we have no need for these outdated belief systems, whose benefits are "mixed" at best and "toxic" at worst.

While these ideas seem reasonable, there is something oppressive about Dennett's (and Dawkins') assumption that natural selection explains everything-that human development can only be seen in terms of competitive advantages. I admit that I am oversimplifying, and I would never argue against natural selection. I only wish to point out that irrespective of his "humble philosopher" persona, Dennett can be as smugly dogmatic as an evangelical preacher. Surely he can admit that some aspects of human behavior remain mysterious, if only because no one was around to observe their development? Probably not. The condescension, the self-satisfaction that oozes from every page of Breaking the Spell suggests otherwise. And there's really no excusing Dennett's assertion that atheists should call themselves "brights"-which Hitchens, to his infinite credit, refers to as "cringe-making."

Misfired: Richard Dawkins

I had similar problems with Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion-he, too, is hopelessly arrogant; he, too, cannot conceive of human behavior outside of the terms of natural selection. Take altruism. Why, Dawkins asks, should we want to help strangers-the "orphaned child weeping," or tsunami victims-if they can be of no direct help to us? It's an important question; one, Dawkins admits, that Darwinism doesn't "easily explain." But instead of turning to sociology or brain chemistry, he speculates that altruism is like sexual desire. We don't desire only those with whom it would be advantageous to mate. But hey, when we were baboons in "strong, stable bands," we helped and desired each other. So maybe, in humans, these are vestigial urges-maybe when you give a bum a quarter and feel strangely attracted to a surly barrista, you are experiencing Darwinian "misfirings," "blessed, precious mistakes." Maybe. Or maybe humans, having higher cognition and more complex societies than baboons, have these urges for reasons that are only related to natural selection. But why bother asking that, when we already have our theory of everything?

Most of Dawkins' book, though, isn't about religion and natural selection. Really it's an atheist tract. Or think of it as a primer, containing everything from refutations of Thomas Aquinas' "proofs" to the dubious morality of scripture. All this would be illuminating, if The God Delusion didn't read as if it were written with closed fists. Dawkins is a reputedly a good writer, and this may be evident in his other books. In this case, though, I grew impatient after the fifth time he (a) announced that a joke was coming; (b) told the joke; (c) reminded the reader that he had just read a joke. This may seem anti-intellectual: perhaps I should critique only the quality of his ideas. But style matters too. Especially when one has just read about the same topics in three previous books.

Not a Horseman: R.D. Gold

Now I must cop to another mistake. When I came across R.D. Gold's book, I assumed that he had written a kind of atheistic primer for Jews-which was why I thought Gold should ride with the Horsemen. Instead, with Bondage of the Mind: How Old Testament Fundamentalism Shackles the Mind and Enslaves the Spirit: Towards a Better Understanding of the Religious Experience Gold seems to be going for the world's longest subtitle.

Well, that and a book-length debunking of the tenets of Orthodox Judaism-which, to Gold, is synonymous with fundamentalism. An American Jew, Gold is troubled by the growing "aggressiveness" of Orthodox Jewry's proselytizing. Although there's little personal information about him, in his book or on the web, it seems safe to say that he was inspired by the Horsemen: he calls fundamentalism "one of the most noxious forces in the history of mankind." But Gold doesn't go as far as atheism, arguing instead that religion "can play a positive role in one's life-sociologically, philosophically, and psychologically."

Gold spends the better part of his book explaining that the Torah is "a fanciful account of Jewish history, not a historical record of what really happened." In other words, the Torah was not revealed at Mt. Sinai, the Exodus never occurred, there was no conquest of Canaan, and so on. In addition, Biblical prophecy, the "uniqueness of the Jewish people," and the "superior morality" of the Orthodox are all illusions or logical fallacies.

All of Gold's arguments are sound. As is the second, shorter part of the book, which presents a guardedly positive description of Reconstructionist Judaism. Here, the author also suggests that a propensity for religious or spiritual longings may be "hard-wired" into the human brain. But just whom is Gold addressing? Less religious folks like me are not going to start shlepping to shul just because "the operating system of the brain" says that it's a good idea. Nor will fundamentalists, Jewish or otherwise, be swayed by neurology.

Who's Still Reading?

Actually, the question of intended audience is a crucial one for all the aforementioned books. Only Dennett overtly wishes to cajole a religious reader into re-examining faith. The rest of them seem to be talking to people who already believe what they do. And what is the point of that? I did find it instructive to read Dawkins' speculations about morality and natural selection. But I'm not a creationist. Indeed, while I have reservations about all these books, for the most part I can't argue against their theses. That's because while I do believe in God, I also know that belief in His existence is not proof of His existence: there is no logical argument for faith.

Similarly, I know that you cannot claim a causal link between religious belief and ethical behavior. You could even argue the opposite, considering just how many religions have a long history of oppression and slaughter. Thus while I may irrationally ascribe to Judaism, I believe that religion has no place in any government or legal system. But these books aren't really about the separation of church (or synagogue) and state. These books are against religion, or fundamentalism, even though there's barely a chance in hell that an "Islamofascist" or a Kahanist or a Rapture-ready Christian will ever read them, let alone become "brights."

Why not? Because human beings are irrational. Against our own self-interests, we smoke, we eat too much cake, and we don't save money. Against all evidence to the contrary, we believe in God, or gods, or that a savior was born in Nazareth. And we kill each other in the names of these gods. It's depressing, but I don't see how we can stop it. Even if we could, we'd find "reasons" to bash each other's brains out anyway. I'm not concerned about the apocalypse; nor, paradoxically, do I place much faith in the elevating power of reason. People being what they are-that is, venal and stupid-I can easily imagine bloody wars over the question of who is more of a secular humanist.