The latest issue of Newsweek includes a story that focuses on the atheism of Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins. Although author Jerry Adler approaches their views with what I found to be a generally shallow mentality cloaked in a snide, condescending tone, at least they’re finally getting a bit of the attention they deserve.
Here’s the story itself (along with a few comments of my own):
The New Naysayers
In the midst of religious revival, three scholars argue that atheism is smarter.
By Jerry Adler
Isn’t “naysayer” a pejorative term only slightly better than “wet blanket” and “stick in the mud” and “party pooper”? Why not a title like “Heralds of a New Enlightenment?” instead?
And what religious revival might Newsweek be referring to in its sub-title? I’ve regularly posted articles describing the collapse of Christianity in Western Europe as well as the decline in many American denominations, such as the Lutherans. And I’ve also often cited studies showing that Americans who call themselves “non-religious” have increased sharply since the early ‘90s and represent one the fastest growing groups. Newsweek needs to provide good evidence of a religious revival, not merely assert it. As near as I can tell, it doesn’t.
Sept. 11, 2006 issue - Americans answered the atrocities of September 11, overwhelmingly, with faith. Attacked in the name of God, they turned to God for comfort; in the week after the attacks, nearly 70 percent said they were praying more than usual.
Several sources have told me that this turning to faith and religion was extremely short-lived. The latest was The Christian Post, which posted an article entitled Study: Faith in America Unchanged Five Years after 9/11 on Aug 29. Here’s how it opens: “NEW YORK – As the nation comes to the remembrance of the 9/11 tragedy five years ago, a study released today is revealing how Americans have not risen with more spiritual fervor as many Christian leaders had expected.
“Drawing from surveys conducted before the attacks and after, The Barna Group found that the faith of Americans is virtually indistinguishable today compared to pre-attack conditions. Although church attendance spiked on the Sunday after the terrorist attacks, numbers had leveled back to those of pre-attack days in a matter of months and have not changed ever since.
“Half of all Americans said their faith helped them cope with the shock and uncertainty in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. At the same time, Americans were also less likely to believe God is the perfect, all powerful Creator who rules the world. Data from October 2001 further showed that Americans were less likely to feel a responsibility to share their faith, less willing to reject the notion that good works can earn salvation and more likely to believe that the devil is merely a symbol of evil.
“In the past five years, the proportion of adults who identify themselves as Christians, evangelicals, non-evangelical born again Christians, notional Christians, atheists and agnostics, and non-Christians has not changed. The latest study also revealed that Americans' intensity of commitment to their faith, whether being ‘absolutely committed,’ ‘deeply spiritual’ or not, has remained the same.”
Newsweek’s reporting seems pretty sloppy in comparison....
Confronted by a hatred that seemed inexplicable, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson proclaimed that God was mad at America because it harbored feminists, gays and civil libertarians. Sam Harris, then a 34-year-old graduate student in neuroscience, had a different reaction. On Sept. 12, he began a book. If, he reasoned, young men were slaughtering people in the name of religion—something that had been going on since long before 2001, of course—then perhaps the problem was religion itself. The book would be called The End of Faith, which to most Americans probably sounds like a lament. To Harris it is something to be encouraged.
This was not a message most Americans wanted to hear, before or after 9/11. Atheists "are seen as a threat to the American way of life by a large portion of the American public," according to a study by Penny Edgell, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota. In a recent NEWSWEEK Poll, Americans said they believed in God by a margin of 92 to 6—only 2 percent answered "don't know"—and only 37 percent said they'd be willing to vote for an atheist for president. (That's down from 49 percent in a 1999 Gallup poll—which also found that more Americans would vote for a homosexual than an atheist.) "The End of Faith" struggled to find a publisher, and even after Norton agreed to bring it out in 2004, Harris says there were editors who refused to come to meetings with him. But after winning the PEN/Martha Albrand award for nonfiction, the book sold 270,000 copies. Harris's scathing Letter to a Christian Nation will be published this month with a press run of 150,000. Someone is listening, even if he is mostly preaching, one might say, to the unconverted.
This year also saw the publication in February of Breaking the Spell, by the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, which asks how and why religions became ubiquitous in human society. The obvious answer—"Because they're true"—is foreclosed, Dennett says, by the fact that they are by and large mutually incompatible. Even to study "religion as a natural phenomenon," the subtitle of Dennett's book, is to deprive it of much of its mystery and power. And next month the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene) weighs in with The God Delusion, a book that extends an argument he advanced in the days after 9/11. After hearing once too often that "(t)o blame the attacks on Islam is like blaming Christianity for the fighting in Northern Ireland," Dawkins responded: Precisely. "It's time to get angry," he wrote, "and not only with Islam."
Dawkins and Harris are not writing polite demurrals to the time-honored beliefs of billions; they are not issuing pleas for tolerance or moderation, but bone-rattling attacks on what they regard as a pernicious and outdated superstition. (In the spirit of scientific evenhandedness, both would call themselves agnostic, although as Dawkins says, he's agnostic about God the same way he's agnostic about the existence of fairies.) They ask: where do people get their idea of God? From the Bible or the Qur'an. "Tell a devout Christian ... that frozen yogurt can make a man invisible," Harris writes, "and he is likely to require as much evidence as anyone else, and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him that the book he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity who will punish him with fire for eternity if he fails to accept its every incredible claim about the universe, and he seems to require no evidence whatsoever." He asks: How can anyone believe in a benevolent and omnipotent God who permits a tsunami to swallow 180,000 innocent people in a few hours? How does it advance our understanding of the universe to suppose that it was created by a supernatural being who communicates only through the one-way process of revelation?
These are not brand-new arguments, of course, and believers have well-practiced replies to them, although in some cases, such as the persistence of evil and suffering (the "theodicy" problem), the responses are still mostly works in progress.
A “work in progress” even after thousands of years of hard work, I might sardonically emphasize.
And the fact that believers have “well-practiced replies” to our other arguments doesn’t mean that they’re good replies. I wish Newsweek had taken the time to cite one or two specific ones so readers might have the opportunity to weigh their strengths and weaknesses for themselves.
Neither author claims much success in arguing anyone out of a belief in God, but they consider it sufficient reward when they hear from people who were encouraged by their books to give voice to their private doubts.
Yes, well, I’VE argued people out of their belief in gOd and I’d be very surprised if these guys aren’t having some success doing the same even if it’s hard to document. For many of the atheists I’ve met in real life, the works of Carl Sagan had a tremendous impact, yet he never knew it. Newsweek could have done a much better job analyzing and reflecting upon exactly why millions of Americans have rejected theism. If it’s not because of the facts and arguments presented by people like Harris and Dawkins, why is it? Hmmm?
All the same, this is highly inflammatory material. Dawkins acknowledges that many readers will expect, or hope, to see him burning in hell (citing Aquinas as authority for the belief that souls in heaven will get a view of hell for their enjoyment). Harris says he has turned down requests for the rights to translate "The End of Faith" into Arabic or Urdu. "I think it would be a death sentence for any translator," he says. Harris himself—who traveled the world for a dozen years studying Eastern religions and mysticism before returning to finish his undergraduate degree at Stanford—asks that the name of his current university not be publicized.
And are these fears misplaced? If not, what does that tell us about theists?
These authors have no geopolitical strategy to advance; they're interested in the metaphysics of belief, not the politics of the First Amendment. It's the idea of putting trust in God they object to, not the motto on the nickel. This sets them apart from America's best-known atheist activist, the late Madalyn Murray O'Hair, a controversial eccentric who won a landmark lawsuit against mandatory classroom prayers in 1963 and went on to found the group now called American Atheists. When a chaplain came to her hospital room once and asked what he could do for her, she notoriously replied, "Drop dead." Dawkins, an urbane Oxfordian, would regard that as appalling manners. "I have no problem with people wishing me a Happy Christmas," he says, expressing puzzlement over the passions provoked in America by the question of how store clerks greet customers.
Ok, how sad is it that “America’s best-known atheist activist” was murdered 11 years ago and no one as capable of attracting media attention has come along to take up the cause?
And how much longer will news outlets like Newsweek further the myth that she alone got prayers banned from American public school classrooms? As Rob Boston’s Why The Religious Right Is Wrong About Separation Of Church & State explains, “Briefly, the myth goes something like this: Until 1962, prayers occurred in every public school in America. Madalyn Murray O’hair, an atheist, filed a lawsuit and had them all removed. Millions of people in fundamentalist churches all over America believe this story. There is only one problem with this scenario: It isn’t true. As history indicates, several states had already removed school-sponsored devotional exercises, some as early as 1890, long before O’Hair arrived on the scene. Secondly, O’Hair’s case was only one of three cases heard by the Supreme Court in 1962 and 1963 concerning school prayer” (p. 122).
And when will news outlets like Newsweek take the time to point out that many religious leaders - including Martin Luther King, Jr. - agreed with the Supreme Court’s decision that banned teacher-led prayer in the schools?
And why rope Dawkins into the War on Christmas controversy that’s largely a fiction created and promoted by theists? Why not question the Christians behind this “war” rather than leave the impression that “atheist eccentrics” are somehow responsible?
But if the arguments of Dawkins and Harris are familiar, they also bring to bear new scientific evidence on the issue. Evolution isn't necessarily incompatible with faith, even with evangelical Christianity. Several new books—Evolution and Christian Faith by the Stanford biologist Joan Roughgarden and The Language of God by geneticist Francis Collins—uphold both.
Well, they try to uphold both. Do they succeed? Not that I can see. How can they? Nature and evolution are “clumsy, wasteful, blundering low & horridly cruel” in the words of Charles Darwin; Christians define gOd as the all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good creator of everything (including nature and evolution). There’s an irreconcilable contradiction here, and if Christians (and Newsweek reporters) can’t see it, that says a lot more about them than it does about atheists like Dawkins.
But to skeptics like Dawkins—and to Biblical literalists on the other side—Darwin appears to rob God of credit for his crowning achievement, which is us. In particular, evolutionary psychologists believe they are closing in on one of the remaining mysteries of life, the universal "moral law" that underlies our intuitive notions of good and evil. Why do we recognize that acts such as murder are wrong? To Collins, it's evidence of God's handiwork—the very perception that led him to become a Christian.
But Dawkins [among many, many others] attempts to show how the highest of human impulses, such as empathy, charity and pity, could have evolved by the same mechanism of natural selection that created the thumb. Biologists understand that the driving force in evolution is the survival and propagation of our genes. They may impel us to instinctive acts of goodness, Dawkins writes, even when it seems counterproductive to our own interests—say, by risking our life to save someone else. Evolutionary psychology can explain how selfless behavior might have evolved. The recipient may be a blood relation who carries some of our own genes. Or our acts may earn us future gratitude, or a reputation for bravery that makes us more desirable as mates. Of course, the essence of the moral law is that it applies even to strangers. Missionaries who devote themselves to saving the lives of Third World peasants have no reasonable expectation of being repaid in this world. But, Dawkins goes on, the impulse for generosity must have evolved while humans lived in small bands in which almost everyone was related, so that goodness became the default human aspiration. This is a rebuke not merely to believers who insist that God must be the source of all goodness—but equally to the 19th-century atheism of Nietzsche, who assumed that the death of God meant the end of conventional morality.
But Dawkins, brilliant as he is, overlooks something any storefront Baptist preacher might have told him. "If there is no God, why be good?" he asks rhetorically, and responds: "Do you really mean the only reason you try to be good is to gain God's approval and reward? That's not morality, that's just sucking up." That's clever. But millions of Christians and Muslims believe that it was precisely God who turned them away from a life of immorality. Dawkins, of course, thinks they are deluding themselves. He is correct that the social utility of religion doesn't prove anything about the existence of God. But for all his erudition, he seems not to have spent much time among ordinary Christians, who could have told him what God has meant to them.
Yes, well, Newsweek’s Jerry Adler seems to have spent far too little time familiarizing himself with the tenets and findings of modern psychology, psychiatry, and neurobiology. What else might explain Adler’s naive emphasis on talking to theists who obviously spout contradictory nonsense they simply cannot support with evidence? Instead of leaving readers with the impression that they ought to take what theists say at face value, he would have been much better off recognizing that there is often very little overlap between what people say, what they believe, and what the truth happens to be. Has he never heard of Freud? Or cogitive illusions??
It is not just extremists who earn the wrath of Dawkins and Harris. Their books are attacks on religious "moderates" as well—indeed, the very idea of moderation. The West is not at war with "terrorism," Harris asserts in "The End of Faith"; it is at war with Islam, a religion whose holy book, "on almost every page ... prepares the ground for religious conflict." Christian fundamentalists, he says, have a better handle on the problem than moderates: "They know what it's like to really believe that their holy book is the word of God, and there's a paradise you can get to if you die in the right circumstances. They're not left wondering what is the 'real' cause of terrorism." As for the Bible, Harris, like the fundamentalists, prefers a literal reading.
Maybe because a non-literal reading produces even worse problems? Like allowing the Bible to mean whatever a reader wants it to mean?
He quotes at length the passages in the Old and New Testaments dealing with how to treat slaves. Why, he asks, would anyone take moral instruction from a book that calls for stoning your children to death for disrespect, or for heresy, or for violating the Sabbath? Obviously our culture no longer believes in that, he adds, so why not agree that science has made it equally unnecessary to invoke God to explain the Sun, or the weather, or your own existence?
Even agnostic moderates get raked over—like the late Stephen Jay Gould, the evolutionary biologist who attempted to broker a truce between science and religion in his controversial 1999 book "Rocks of Ages." Gould proposed that science and religion retreat to separate realms, the former concerned with empirical questions about the way the universe works, while the latter pursues ultimate meaning and ethical precepts. But, Dawkins asks, unless the Bible is right in its historical and metaphysical claims, why should we grant it authority in the moral realm? And can science really abjure any interest in the claims of religion? Did Jesus come back from the dead, or didn't he? If so, how did God make it happen? Collins says he is satisfied with the answer that the Resurrection is a miracle, permanently beyond our understanding. That Collins can hold that belief, while simultaneously working at the very frontiers of science as the head of the Human Genome Project, is what amazes Harris.
What amazes me is that Gould could make his suggestion that scientists ought to limit themselves to empirical questions while letting theologians and others decide how to use the power and technology they unleash. Scientists did that in WWII and what did our great “moral” leaders give us? The Holocaust and Hiroshima.
How can we not apply the scientific method to moral questions? How can we idly sit by and allow people like Collins to not only believe in absurdities like Jesus’s rising from the dead 2000 years ago but use that absurdity as a basis for telling the rest of us how we ought to live today?
Believers can take comfort in the fact that atheism barely amounts to a "movement." American Atheists, which fights in the courts and legislatures for the rights of nonbelievers, has about 2,500 members and a budget of less than $1 million.
But if one takes seriously Newsweek’s own figures indicating that 6% of Americans are atheists, that’s some 18 million people. And the 16% or so of Americans who call themselves non-religious works out to about 48 million people. Only Catholics and Baptists are more numerous. Focusing on American Atheists rather misses the point.
On the science Web site Edge.org, the astronomer Carolyn Porco offers the subversive suggestion that science itself should attempt to supplant God in Western culture, by providing the benefits and comforts people find in religion: community, ceremony and a sense of awe. "Imagine congregations raising their voices in tribute to gravity, the force that binds us all to the Earth, and the Earth to the Sun, and the Sun to the Milky Way," she writes.
Ack! Ack! Ack! Is Porco a Unitarian or what??
How about if we just grow up and learn to get along without fuzzy thinking and goofy rituals instead?
Porco, who is deeply involved in the Cassini mission to Saturn, finds spiritual fulfillment in exploring the cosmos. But will that work for the rest of the world—for "the people who want to know that they're going to live forever and meet Mom and Dad in heaven? We can't offer that." If Dawkins, Dennett and Harris are right, the five-century-long competition between science and religion is sharpening. People are choosing sides. And when that happens, people get hurt.
HA! As if people haven’t gotten hurt much more badly (and for a much longer period of time) by the competition between religions and the need to choose the “right” one!
Instead of subtly implying that Dawkins, Dennett and Harris are in effect pouring gasoline on a fire, Newsweek might have been better off suggesting that they’re the ones trying to douse the flames of religious fanaticism with buckets of cold facts and logic. After all, when was the last time you’ve heard of scientists going to war to settle a disagreement in physics or chemistry - or saying that a colleague deserves death and ever-lasting punishment for being wrong?
I am reminded of a quote attributed to French philosopher Denis Diderot: “Wandering in a vast forest at night, I have only a faint light to guide me. A stranger appears and says to me: ‘My friend, you should blow out your candle in order to find your way more clearly.’ This stranger is a theologian.”
Apparently Newsweek is on the side of that theologian. How sad....
I hope this article manages to do some good regardless.