Atheism has nearly always been with us in one form or another, but the atheists we’ve been hearing the most from lately—chiefly Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris—are a new breed.
Unlike the old-school humanists, the new atheists—or anti-theists, as some of them prefer to be called—don’t want to just deny the existence of God, they want to wipe religion off the map
Christopher Hitchens follows this pattern with his new book, belligerently titled God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. In his first chapter, called “Putting It Mildly,” Hitchens writes, “I will continue to [respect my friends’ religious traditions] without insisting on the polite reciprocal condition—which is that they in turn leave me alone.”
But this is something that religion is ultimately incapable of doing. “People of faith,” Hitchens continues, “are in their different ways planning your and my destruction, and the destruction of all . . . hard-won human attainments. . . . Religion poisons everything.”
The way Hitchens lumps all religions and all believers into one category here is typical of his tone throughout the book, and typical of anti-theists in general. They don’t argue; they yell. They’ve decided that, simply because they dislike religion, there is no reason to respect it. In their minds, it’s stupid, dangerous, and that’s all that needs to be said.
That’s why I believe the anti-theist movement, as hot as it is right now with books like Hitchens’s topping the bestseller lists, is doomed to fail. The moment you take it seriously and start to study it, it falls apart. There’s no substance, just anger and a lot of hot air. Because anti-theists simply ignore evidence and arguments they don’t like, they’re ill-equipped to deal with them rationally.
The old-guard secular humanists are questioning this new trend, and rightly so. Most traditional atheists simply had their own belief system, and if we wanted our belief system that was okay. The new breed reflects the death of truth. They’re like the communists who feared religion more than anything else because it was a competing truth claim. The Star of David and the cross have been scandalous to every totalitarian leader.
Many traditional atheists and humanists seem to recognize the parallel and feel uncomfortable about it. As Gary Wolf writes in Wired, “The New Atheists have castigated fundamentalism and branded even the mildest religious liberals as enablers of a vengeful mob. Everybody who doesn’t join them is an ally of the Taliban.”
“Even those of us who sympathize intellectually,” he writes, “don’t want the New Atheists to succeed.”
When you think about it this way, you have to wonder if the anti-theists, in their heart of hearts, are a little uncomfortable with their own beliefs. After all, if you really believe that truth will win out—and to Hitchens and company, their idea of truth is so obvious that it cannot fail to win—you can let other people make their own claims and live by their own beliefs without feeling the need to destroy everything they stand for.
Because Hitchens and the others cannot do this, their polemics are destined to lead not to the end of religion, but to the collapse of their own movement. Not before, of course, they have gotten very rich. It’s not irrelevant to the debate that Dawkins, Hitchens, and Sam Harris sold one million copies of their angry diatribes last year. At two dollars a book for royalties, that’s not bad.
|For Further Reading and Information
Gary Wolf, “The Church of The Non-Believers,” Wired Magazine, November 2006.
Anthony Gottlieb, “Atheists With Attitude: Why Do They Hate Him?” The New Yorker, 21 May 2007.
Cris Rodriguez, “Not Just For Non-Believers: ‘God Is Not Great’ Finds Audiences,” BostonNOW, 1 August 2007.
Chris Hedges, “Atheist Polemic Refuses to Engage Authentic Religion,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 24 June 2007.
Peter Berkowitz, “The New, New Atheism,” Wall Street Journal, 16 July 2007.
Micheal Gerson, “What Atheists Can’t Answer,” Washington Post, 13 July 2007.