August 27, 2007
In over three decades of a vagabond life, I”ve had the good fortune to know some colorful atheists. The most memorable encounter, however, took place during a lunch in Lithuania. I had recently graduated from a small liberal arts college and, unable to find gainful employment in my native United States, flew to Eastern Europe to earn my daily bread as an English teacher. Thanks to some connections established through my alma mater’s Lithuanian librarian, I learned of some teaching positions in Klaipeda, a small Lithuanian port city that hugs the southern coast of the Baltic, and whose chief claim to geopolitical fame is a passing mention in the old German anthem “Deutschland Ãber Alles.” Now, Klaipeda hosts a fair number of expatriates, not only from North America but also from Scandinavian lands, and my most promising interview was with an oil company executive from Norway. BjÃ¸rn was managing a Swedish-Lithuanian joint venture oil project, and for some reason, felt it necessary to have the Lithuanian side of management learn conversational English. BjÃ¸rn’s need for an English teacher, and my aching need for funds, brought us together for our fateful interview at a Klaipeda cafe.
Everything about that lunch was pleasant, and yet pale. The cafÃ©’s cream yellow walls were pleasant but pale, and so were the low-hanging Northern sun, the chilled and unsalted herring, the tepid tea in our little cups, and BjÃ¸rn’s own atheism. I had always associated atheism with passion”red-eyed anarchists swearing “No God, no master;” Milton’s tragically majestic satanic rebels, Prometheus” daring theft of Olympian fire, and Nietzsche’s hypnotic dirges lamenting the death of the Judeo-Christian God. BjÃ¸rn’s atheism, however, had no suggestions or intimations of a soul-unnerving GÃ¶ttersdÃ¤merrung. One could find more Wagner in a poached egg. Instead, atheism weighed lightly on BjÃ¸rn’s shoulders. God was not dead, but simply nonexistent. The daily rounds of life, the ordinary structure of a pleasant and bland existence, continued peacefully even in the absence of a God, heaven or hell. After finishing my herring and tea, I concluded that atheism was not a homogenous thing. There are great varieties of atheism, differing not just in intellectual content, but also in terms of feeling and emotional depth.
My memories of my lunch with BjÃ¸rn recently came to life again in the wake of a recent publishing buzz. Books attacking religion, faith and theism have become hot bestsellers. In particular, there is a troika of books that currently dominate the atheism publishing boom: Christopher Hitchens” God Is Not Great, Sam Harris” The End of Faith, and Richard Dawkins” The God Delusion. Together, these three books make a formidable frontal assault on religious faith, particularly its Christian and Islamic varieties. They have different styles and emphases”Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, stresses scientific topics, whereas Hitchens the journalist draws on his experience in reporting on religiously colored war zones such as Lebanon and Afghanistan. What they all have in common is an unrelenting hostility to religious faith as such. Faith is not just wrong or irrational. It is a positive evil, like drunk driving, diabetes or racism. There have been plenty of atheistic and anti-religious writers over the past two hundred years, but it is hard to think of any other period since the Enlightenment when such a concerted attack on the entirety of religion has made such an impact on the popular book market. What is it about our time that makes these books so appealing? Why do they resonate with a substantial portion of the reading public?
In the 1930’s, in the wake of the catastrophic Great Depression, everyone was talking about economics. During the Cold War, secular totalitarianism and nuclear weapons were the hot topics in political conversation. Since 9-11, the problem of religion has risen to central prominence, especially with respect to Islam. From suicide bombings to controversies over the veil, Westerners are debating whether and how Islam and democratic modernity co-exist. Islam, however, is not the only ingredient in today’s world that is causing political consternation. Religious conservatism around the world, from Baptist churches in the American South to Hindu temples in Calcutta, has made a vigorous and often noisy resurgence. In America, Evangelical and Catholic movements, often tagged with the labels “fundamentalist” and “religious right,” have been in the front lines of the so-called “culture wars” over issues such as abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage and the teaching of evolution and intelligent design. Thus, in both domestic and international news stories, we see the same theme of religion in conflict with modernity. This appears as a monstrously unsettling situation for many, especially for those who are secular or religiously liberal. To them, it seems that the whole edifice of post-Enlightenment modernity, from scientific naturalism to separation of church and state, is under attack by a pan-sectarian, global fundamentalism. Believers in the literal truth of the Quran, the Bible, and the Bhagavad-Gita, although they differ in their dogmas, seem to be united in their common hostility to secular democracy, and in their desire to impose a medieval theocracy upon the world.
Like all fears about universal conspiracies, this panic on the part of agnostics and liberals is somewhat exaggerated, but it has gained plausibility thanks to the efforts of two men. George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden are by no means twin brothers, but they have much in common. Besides coming from vast desert regions abounding in oil (Texas and Saudi Arabia), they are both prominent figureheads in the exploitation of religious faith for political advantage.
Bin Laden’s Al Qaida claims to be the liberator of an oppressed Dar-al-Islam, and casts itself as the heir of Mohammed, Saladin, and the Ottoman Empire. Everyone knows the Islamic (or apparently Islamic) character of this vile group. Bin Laden, however, embodies religious propaganda in the deepest personal way. Bin Laden does not rant and gesticulate like a Hitler or a Mussolini. His mannerisms and intonation are gentle and mild, and his posture is slightly stooped, giving an air of pious humility. Bin Laden affects the appearance of a pious religious teacher, as if he were some holy Sufi sheykh who has just emerged from a session of meditation and prayer.
George Bush, in a different way, also flaunts his personal religiosity. Many presidents have compelling narratives, using their personal autobiographies to give their administrations rhetorical legitimacy. Lincoln had his log cabin childhood, and John F. Kennedy had his PT-109 naval adventure. George W. Bush has always used his “born again” status to appeal to the evangelical base of the Grand Old Party. Born into wealth and privilege, Bush had no achievements of his own in college, the military or business. His one personal accomplishment is giving up alcohol, which he credits to his faith in Jesus Christ. Likewise, he tells the story of how his pastor convinced him that he was called by Christ to run for president. Although Bush does not explicitly mention Christ or the Bible with the frequency of Bin Laden’s quranic quotations, the theme of “faith” is the keynote of his presidency. The Bush White House specializes in launching grandiose ventures with an utter disregard for criticism, opposition, or any kind of feedback from reality. This is most famously clear in the case of the Iraq War, which will be remembered as one of the great instances of imperial hubris and disastrously smug self-confidence. This is also true, however, of his education, Medicare, social security and immigration endeavors. Bush has defended all of these quixotic ventures in flowery and idealistic language, at the heart of which is an appeal to faith. At bottom, Bush believes that he has a special relationship with Providence, and his confidence in his “gut feelings” does not waver one centimeter. The result of his confusion of obstinancy with faith is that the latter has become discredited. It is now common to speak of “faith-based” in opposition to “reality-based.” The appeals to faith made by these two very different”but equally reckless”leaders to justify their destructive decisions have helped ensure that the very word “faith” how leaves a dirty taste in the mouths of many. Thus, after 9-11 atheism takes on a special flavor”like a kind of mouthwash. It takes on a special appeal in a world dominated by a clash between two men who have divorced themselves from reality, to pigheadedly follow irrational and bloody projects in the name of “faith.”
Although I am not an atheist myself, I too share this repugnance to the use of faith as an instrument of political and ideological megalomania. And although I believe in God and revelation, I have a philosopher’s respect for good critical arguments, and I have always enjoyed the pugnacious style of fervent infidels such as Voltaire, Nietzsche and Mencken. Hence, a certain thrill of excitement and anticipation ran through me as I picked up my copies of Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins. What arguments would I encounter? What thunderous barrage of critical discourse would wake me, to use Kant’s phrase, from my “dogmatic slumber?” Would my faith be shaken by these reputable and bestselling authors?
Alas, instead of a terrifying and interesting storm of doubt, my ship of faith only encountered a few annoying water balloons. The sales of Dawkins, Hitchen and Harris might be red hot, but their content is just as pale and anesthetic as my herring lunch in Lithuania. Hitchens relates some telling anecdotes in graceful language, and Harris raises a few interesting points, but all in all these books have an imaginative and emotional flatness one does not encounter in the writings of classical atheists and agnostics. In style and content, these books have the same blend of quasi-journalism and sterile indignation that characterizes most op-ed pieces. Paradoxically, what separates Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris from the classical atheists and infidels of Western literature is the former group’s absence of religious feeling. As an example of atheism that has the depth of religious emotion, consider the statements of one eminent 19th century antichristian:
If God is dead, it is we who have killed him….We are the assassins of God….How did we come to do that? How did we manage to empty the sea? Who gave us a sponge to wipe out the whole horizon? What were we about when we undid the chain that linked this earth to the sun? Are we not continually falling? Forward, backward, sideways, in every direction? Is there still an above, a below? Are we wandering as through an endless nothingness? Do we not still feel the breath of the void on our faces? Isn”t it growing colder? Is not night always coming on, one night after another, more and more?
Nietzsche’s vivid and compelling language taps into humanity’s well of religious experience. Since God (or some supreme being or principle) has been the keystone of order and meaning in human existence, Nietzsche understands the atheistic denial of God to be a momentous event, at once titanic, tragic, and full of heroic promise. The point in saying that God is dead is that He was once alive. For Nietzsche and other “titanic atheists,” God’s non-existence does not contradict the historical fact of His importance. Nietzsche, along with other great infidels of the nineteenth century, could understand the psychological appeal of religion, and could thereby invest their language with something of the power and sublimity of a Gothic cathedral or a Bach cantata.
But what has happened to the atheism of our generation? Are we doomed to have an atheism without awe? For Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins emphatically do not feel the “breath of the void” upon their faces. For them, belief in God is a simple error, akin to a child’s faith in Santa Claus. Hence, for them disbelief in God has no earth-shattering social, moral or cultural consequences. In the absence of religious faith, we will continue to eat, drink, work, make love and sleep as before. The death of God occasions no dislocations to the cosmological or ethical first principles that frame our lives. As a substitute for religious faith, Dawkins and Harris advocate a naÃ¯ve scientific realism, ignoring the basic questions of a modern or postmodern skeptic. In fact, it is fairly astonishing how Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens are oblivious to the whole rise of postmodern skepticism. They do not bother to address the objection that, from Hume and Kant to Foucault and Derrida, a progressively secularizing West has grown increasingly less capable of maintaining the rational foundations of scientific realism. In short, they are oblivious to the whole problem of the loss of absolutes in the modern and postmodern eras.
Secure in their philosophical obtuseness, they confidently preach that morals are independent of religious faith. Of the three, Harris is the most philosophically explicit. He argues that ethics without God is possible because we can apply the scientific method to the investigation of the conditions of human happiness. This ignores the basic observation that ethics is not an empirical discipline like physics or chemistry, partly because of the disparity between “is” and “ought,” and partly because ethics relies on concepts such as “happiness,” “obligation,” and “humanity” that cannot be defined by laboratory experiments. Furthermore, on the issue of ethics without God, Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens misrepresent theologians” traditional positions. Most classical theologians (at least Christian ones) argued that natural law and right reason support the basic moral principles that undergird society. The problem is that most people are not philosophers, and in practice we need the assistance of revelation and religious experience to make ethics a living reality. Ironically, our atheist authors make some shady ethical judgments of their own. Dawkins supports both abortion and euthanasia, and Harris makes extremely specious arguments for the use of torture (which is a strange position, since elsewhere in his book he inveighs against the Inquisition and witch trials).
The strange confidence of Hitchens,” Dawkins” and Harris” assumption that atheism has no destabilizing social consequences is closely related to a popular fallacy which they all repeat and elaborate. The most common contemporary argument against religion is the charge of bloodiness. The Inquisition, witch trials, the Crusades, religious wars and conflicts from Northern Ireland to Lebanon and Sri Lanka, suicide bombings and jihad”again and again, some people have killed or tortured other people in the name of God and faith. For many of our contemporaries, this is a decisive argument against religion. Does not religious belief create divisions between people that result in persecutions and war? Hitchens and Harris both make this argument the centerpiece of their books. Hitchens draws upon his wide-ranging experience as a globe-trotting journalist to flesh out this argument with memorable stories and anecdotes. Harris uses both contemporary Islamist violence and on the history of the Inquisition and witch trials to make the generalization that religious faith as such has a murderous streak. Dawkins spends somewhat less time on the history of religious violence, but dwells on abortion clinic violence and religious opposition to stem cell research, homosexual rights and euthanasia, all of which he assumes the reader agrees are self-evidently good. Despite their variations, they all agree that the history of religion shows that it is an unmitigated evil.
This “religion is evil” argument suffers from a triple weakness. First, it ignores the fact that the twentieth century is one long proof that collective homicide can occur quite independently of religion. The militantly atheist regimes of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Enver Hoxha and other Communist tyrants far surpassed, in both absolute and per capita terms, the worst excesses of Christian or Muslim theocrats and inquisitors. Hitchens argues that Communists had a form of religious faith, but he misses the point that a godless cosmology provides no proof against fanaticism. Second, the “religion is evil” argument assumes that whenever religious differences are invoked, they are the primary causes of ethnic conflict. In fact, civil wars in the twentieth century show that ethnic differences are often primary, with religion serving as a strictly secondary factor. For example, the perennial Israeli-Palestinian-Arab crisis began as a largely secular conflict. The state of Israel was settled by secular Zionists, who were much more inspired by nineteenth century romantic nationalism than the Torah. And up until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Arab opposition to Israel was led by pan-Arabist nationalists, such as Nasser, the Baathist Parties, and the PLO. In Northern Ireland, the modern IRA is a semi-Marxist secular army, and Protestant and Catholic differences are often cultural rather than religious. In northern Iraq, Kurds, Arabs, and Turkomans have all historically been at each other’s throats despite their common allegiance to Sunni Islam. The murderous war in Sri Lanka”which saw the first extensive use of suicide bombing”is driven far more by ethnic than religious differences. The Hutus and Tutsis of Rwanda share the same religion”as do the combatants on both sides in Darfur, Sudan. The third and most serious problem with the “religion is evil” argument, however, is the way it selectively picks events from religious history. It seizes upon every awful thing done in the name of God, while ignoring all the others. In the Middle Ages and early modernity, Christians did persecute heretics, kill witches and wage religious wars. Christians also built schools and hospitals, established systems of poverty relief, and re-established the rule of law after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West. Almost every achievement in the areas of art, music, literature, philosophy, science, law and even engineering (think of the Gothic cathedrals) was associated with faith in the Bible, Trinity and Incarnation. Similar points can be made about other traditional religious civilizations, whether Muslim, Hindu or pagan Greek. Hitchens” mantra that “religion poisons everything” is a selective misreading of the historical record. Since in pre-modern societies everything was done in the name of religion, one could more easily say, “religion creates everything.” Singling out the evil from the good in the history of religion creates a gross caricature. It is actually astonishing how the authors fail to see this fallacy. Both Hitchens and Dawkins cite the Taliban’s destruction of the monumental Bamyan Buddha sculpture as an example, not of the barbarism of Islamic fundamentalism, but of the savagery of religion in general. And yet, the very object of the Taliban’s iconoclastic wrath was itself the product of religion. Why do they blame religion for vandalism but not credit it for the beauty that was vandalized?
Dawkins and Harris couple this blindness to the general structure of religious history with a sometimes sloppy disregard for details. Although Harris is a doctoral student, his chapter on the Inquisition and witch trials relies on secondary sources that are seriously out of date (in one instance, by over fifty years). He neglects the most basic current works on these topics that would be de rigeur for a freshman history paper. As a result, he exaggerates the tortures of the Spanish Inquistion (which would have been fearful enough had he stuck to the facts), and relates an anecdote that has no basis in fact which detracts from the reputation of a Jesuit opponent of witch trails (I happen to be writing a book on the Jesuit in question, so I have reason to know). On a more fundamental level, Harris’s neglect of the current literature on witch trials leads him to make a fundamental category error. He regards witch trials as an example of the evil of religious faith, when in fact they arose out of bad science. Demonology was a developed part of medieval and early modern natural philosophy, and the witch hunters thought they had empirical grounds for believing in witches, such as the testimony of pagan authors and the evidence of contemporary confessions.
But whereas Harris actually took the labor of reading some books, Dawkins apparently palmed off much of his research onto a lazy graduate assistant. This is not an exaggeration, but a plausible explanation for why an eminent scientist could give such a butchered account of St Thomas Aquinas” five proofs for the existence of God. St Thomas” famous five proofs, found in his Summa Theologica, are a staple of philosophical discussions about the existence of God, and I was actually looking forward to Dawkins” critique. It had been some time since I studied these proofs, and I always had a nagging feeling of dissatisfaction with them. I was hoping that a lucid critique would shed some light on this important part of our Western heritage. Alas, Dawkins not only failed to engage St. Thomas at a philosophical level; he even failed at summarizing or paraphrasing him correctly. There are legitimate problems with St. Thomas proofs (mainly, that they are so tied to certain questionable principles of Aristotelian physics), but Dawkins fails to give them.
Dawkins” sloppy reading of St Thomas Aquinas is a sample of his more general refusal to understand theologians. He makes it clear in The God Delusion that he has no respect for theology as an intellectual discipline. As a consequence, although he turns to elementary secondary sources (such as The Catholic Encyclyopedia) and a few primary sources, he can only give cartoonish renderings of theology. In my opinion, this is a far worse error than atheism. God is invisible, so disbelief has some justification. But the works of human beings are visible and tangible, and to deny the creativity and intelligence that has gone into centuries of theological argumentation is an insult to humanity. For example, St Anselm’s famous a priori ontological argument for the existence of God (i.e., that the very notion of God implies His existence) may not be sound, but it is a subtle piece of reasoning that has occupied the minds of geniuses such as Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, and Bertrand Russell. As such, it is a testimony to the sheer power of human thought. Dawkins paraphrases it as a piece of schoolyard sophistry, a play on words that would be patently unconvincing in the twelfth century. At a deeper level, Dawkins fails to understand what theologians mean when they say God is “simple,” or how cosmological arguments for the existence of God operate. Dawkins denies the distinctions among science, philosophy and theology, and thinks that the existence of God is a hypothesis that can scientifically be shown to be probably false. The heart of Dawkin’s rejection of theism is his assertion that positing the existence of God implies an infinite regress. For Dawkins, if God started the universe, then something must have started God; if God intelligently designed the universe, then something must have intelligently designed God. He even calls God “the ultimate Boeing 747,” i.e., if a Boeing 747 must have been designed because it is so complex, the same must be true of God. Dawkins fails to get the basic theological point that the unity of God precludes any such infinite regress. If God exists, He is a purely spiritual principle beyond time and space, having no parts, interior divisions, or imperfections. Theologians do not assert that the mere existence of things implies God’s existence. Rather, certain qualities of physical things, such as motion, contingency, and composition of spatial-temporal parts implies the existence of a First Mover and Supreme Architect. Since God by definition does not have motion, contingency or composition of parts, God has no creator or designer. This is an elementary point that a scholar as smart as Dawkins could have gotten, if he had bothered to respect theologians” humanity and actually read their works, rather than lazily allowing his eyes to glance over their printed words.
In contrast, Sam Harris does not address arguments for and against God’s existence (which is a pity, since he does ably philosophize about epistemology in The End of Faith). He seems to assume that the reader already accepts the thesis that faith in the Judeo-Christian or Abrahamic God is as mythical as belief in Zeus or the Easter Bunny. The chief target of his criticism is faith itself. For him, it is the way religious people believe, not what they believe, that is the greatest evil. Harris defines faith as holding something to be absolutely true in the absence of proof or evidence. The Kierkegaardian leap of faith is, for him, a leap into the dark that disconnects the mind from external reality. In an interesting move, Harris does not deny the validity of spiritual experiences, or the possible existence of a spiritual realm. Like many who claim to be “spiritual, not religious,” Harris endorses spiritual experience, but rejects giving spirituality a dogmatic shape through supernatural revelation. Revelation, concretely expressed in holy texts such as the Bible or the Qur”an, is a double evil: it demands absolute convictions divorced from evidence, and it binds people to outdated and barbaric beliefs and practices. For Harris, only the fundamentalist is a true believer. Harris calls the religious liberal “a failed fundamentalist,” because he believes in the sacredness of a text while selectively ignoring or rejecting whatever does not fit with modern civility. For Harris, faith, religion, revelation, fundamentalism and irrationality are all synonymous.
In his critique of faith and revelation, Harris does make some telling points. If faith is understood as a blind stubbornness to a conviction, it is the kind of evil that he describes (which Bin Laden and Bush illustrate). And its ill effects are compounded when it is combined with what he and others call “fundamentalism,” i.e., the kind of rigid adherence to a text that we see among the Taliban, less sophisticated evangelicals, and others. Still, Harris has no understanding of traditional religion or mainstream theological thought (including mainstream conservative religious thought), so his whole book attacks a polemical straw man. The vast majority of theologians and religious thinkers, especially in the premodern era, do not define faith as belief in the absence of any kind of evidence. Faith does transcend human reason, but it is not arbitrary, because it proceeds from rational signs and indications that point to the plausibility of faith. In the older kind of apologetic, one could prove the existence of God and His goodness, and establish that it would be fitting or reasonable for Him to reveal certain truths to us. Many contemporary theologians have less confidence in our ability to prove the existence of God in the manner of geometry. Nevertheless, they argue that the existence of a personal God fits the needs of the human heart. Human life becomes meaningful and rational once we posit the existence of a loving God, so it is not an arbitrary leap to believe in Him. Likewise, Harris” assumption that all religious believers are either fundamentalists or radical liberals is a grossly false dichotomy. Orthodox religious thinkers such as John Henry Newman, C.S. Lewis or Hans Urs von Balthasar accept the whole of the Bible as a divine revelation, including all of the bloody parts of the Old Testament, but they do not advocate stoning adulterers or smiting Amalekites. The mainstream of orthodox Jewish, Christian and Muslim offers rules of interpretation that allow the believer to apply a religious text in a humane manner. In mainstream Christianity, for example, a distinction is made between the provisions of Mosaic law, which were binding only on ancient Israel, and the more general and flexible dictates of natural law, which is expressed in the Ten Commandments. For its part, rabbinical Judaism has an interpretative tradition over 2000 years old that also humanizes Mosaic Law. For example, whereas biblical law prescribes that a father can whip his children for certain offenses, rabbinical jurisprudence specifies that the lash be no thicker than a shoe lace. A similar tradition also exists to some extent in Islam. The philosopher Averroes served for years as a sharia judge, and he always managed to avoid chopping off someone’s hand or head. In short, Harris completely ignores how traditional Christianity, Judaism and Islam are able to combine faith and scriptural revelation with reason and compassion.
In the end, my final experience of our recent atheist bestsellers is a profound feeling of disappointment. An educated believer has nothing to fear from atheism, but he does have a beef with atheism that is poorly thought out. Anti-religious thought is valuable for theology as a kind of photographic negative of faith. It depicts the same scene, but with an inversion of light and darkness. Instead of being the ultimate principle of existence, God is a nothing”but then, negative theology is able to say that God is “no thing.” Atheism’s inversion of theology, through its bracing criticism, brings to light problems that lay hidden so long as we doze away in what Kant called “dogmatic slumber.” The emotions of the more sensitive atheists, such as Nietzsche, Mencken and Foucault, also reveal the significance of the presence of God by making us alert to the consequnces of his absence. But what value is an atheist book when the author knows neither the ideas nor the experiences of religious faith? Such an author ends up not attacking religion at all, and the believer is left with nothing to learn. Atheism after 9-11 begins with political concerns (terrorism, “culture wars,”) but it should move on to examine what thinkers such as Aquinas, Newman, Soloviev, Buber and Plantinga actually wrote. Perhaps some brilliant seminarian, after having immersed himself deeply into theology and religious history, will lose his faith and write a brilliant atheist book that has a bite. Until then, we will have to content ourselves with books by the older, more reflective infidels.
Erasmus Root is a pseudonym living in California.