Prominent atheists’ attacks on religion may be counterproductive to their cause. Exploring the nature of belief, disbelief, and religious extremism.
y mother believes that God created the Earth. She believes there was a talking snake in the Garden of Eden. And yes, she worships Jesus as the Son of God, though Roger Federer comes in a close second. And I was taught to believe these things, too. I believed that Adam and Eve had a pet dinosaur. I took great satisfaction in knowing I was going to Heaven, and felt bad that you weren’t. I felt so bad that sometimes I tried to “witness,” to convince others of a religion I myself didn’t understand. Usually, these attempts were met with the glazing over of eyes or polite dismissal. “Looks like Hell gets another one,” I shrugged, getting on with my life. At some point, though, in the back of my mind, I began to question the wisdom of a God who would create the world in such a way that almost everybody would burn in Hell forever. I could understand wanting a few born-again Christians to play pool with in Heaven, but was it necessary to use the Earth as a puppy mill for the afterlife? While watching sword and sandal flicks on TV, I would think about all the religions that had come and gone in the history of the world. What were the odds, I wondered, that I happened to be born at the right time into just the right religion? Even as a kid, that struck me as being a little too lucky.
Our faith was the centerpiece of our social lives. We went to church twice a week. Our friends were by and large people we had met in church. If someone was sick, or things weren’t going well, you could count on a visit from the “prayer warriors.” It was also from my faith that I drew my sense of self-worth, my sense of identity. My faith made me feel better about dying someday, and connected me to something stronger and wiser than myself. Given the advantages to believing, it was easy to suppress my doubts for a time. But as I grew older and discovered a world much larger than the one I had been shown, the doubts began to breed. Without quite realizing what had happened, I awoke one morning no longer believing in God, and perhaps even more alarming, no longer needing to believe.
In 2007, I read Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris. Eloquent and powerful, it brilliantly summed up many of the misgivings I’d had about my own faith. As a response to the 9/11 attacks, to attempts to limit women’s reproductive rights, to cement the Biblical definition of marriage (well, one of them, anyway) into law, or to sneak Creationism into schools, it was emboldening to see someone call out religious fundamentalists, to make them defend their beliefs in the public square. Sam Harris refused to let them hide behind the shield of religion, as if that made their politics immune to criticism in the same way their church was immune to taxation. Starting with The End of Faith in 2004, Harris uncorked a wave of pent up secular resentment, and soon he was joined by other intellectuals like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, whose books God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything and The God Delusion (respectively) sold millions to non-believers and apostates like myself. Their collected works coalesced into a movement known, for lack of a better term, as the “New Atheism.”
The disillusionment I felt with the smug theology of my upbringing now had a worthy champion and a just cause. Why should anyone follow rules written before human beings understood how to make a decent sandwich? That was my feeling.
At some point, though, as I became increasingly immured in YouTube videos of Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens destroying some hapless preacher in a debate, I started to become a little uneasy with the New Atheism I had embraced so easily. Somehow, the rhetoric of both sides started to look eerily similar to me, particularly when New Atheism went on the offensive, not only against the fundamentalists who were busy imposing theocracy by piecemeal, but against believers who were perfectly happy minding their own business, and against the very idea of religion itself. Like the pamphlet-toting witnesses of my youth, the New Atheists are less about explaining themselves than converting you. As if theirs was less a mission to defend the faithless than to cow-tip the faithful. To quote Sam Harris, from his 2006 essay “Science Must Destroy Religion”:
“The conflict between religion and science is inherent and (very nearly) zero-sum. The success of science often comes at the expense of religious dogma; the maintenance of religious dogma always comes at the expense of science. It is time we conceded a basic fact of human discourse: either a person has good reasons for what he believes, or he does not.”
It was, in large part, this sort of moral and intellectual reductionism that drove me from the church in the first place. So I began to wonder if the New Atheists were combatting fundamentalism by duplicating its mistakes.
Religious fundamentalists are defined by the need to transmit their faith. They operate under the tacit assumption that the Bible (or the Qu’ran) was written as a sort of divine textbook, and as such, it must either be the 100 percent factual word of God, or a worthless heap of crap. The New Atheists, as per Sam Harris above, operate under the same assumption. The only difference is that New Atheists argue that because the Bible is not factual, it cannot be the word of God, whereas fundamentalists conclude that because it is the word of God, it must therefore be factual. In their quest for a launching pad from which to export their beliefs, both miss the point about what the Bible is, or was meant to be.
None of the authors of the Bible even remotely imagined that they were writing a history or a science textbook, the accuracy of which would determine the fate of souls. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a shepherd. There is no reason why someone should find strength in the words of Christ, or in the wisdom of Proverbs, only if they are also willing to believe the Earth was created in six days, or that prophets can summon bears. In equating the Bible’s factuality with its value, both fundamentalism and New Atheism predicate their arguments on a misunderstanding of the nature of religious belief.
To be fair, many Christians do believe these things. And if someone thinks Noah was good enough at Tetris to cram a few billion species of animals onto a homemade boat, it’s easy to dismiss them as an idiot. The New Atheists are right in that many of the stories in the Bible beggar belief and probably never happened as anywhere close to the events as described. But growing up in an evangelical Pentecostal church, I don’t recall anyone joining because they had scientifically concluded that Evolution was a crock of shit, or because they had fossil evidence which validated the Biblical flood story. The average conversion went like this: Somebody had just been through a terrible divorce, or was recovering from a drug addiction, or was feeling suicidal, and for whatever reason playing a tambourine, dancing in place, and speaking in tongues got them through it. Jesus really hit the spot. Spiritual need was the basis of their belief, not a rational assessment of facts. In truth, “belief” is probably the wrong word for what we are talking about. “Acceptance” would be more accurate. As such, atheists attacking Christianity on the Bible’s non-factuality is no more effective than Christians using Bible verses to prove their faith to atheists. They’re both bombing a house nobody lives in.
Contrary to what the New Atheists or Christian fundamentalists would have you believe, science and religion are not competing worldviews, but attempts to answer different questions. Science is the sole arbiter of truth when it comes to the outside Universe. It’s earned that right. But there’s a whole universe inside a human being to which science does not speak and religion does, at least for some people. Everything that’s valuable about science vanishes the moment it tries to make sense of who you are and what you want out of life, and everything that’s awful about religion—the evangelism, the violence, the flim-flammery—is only possible when your beliefs try to cross over into the outside world. Religious belief is not a factual assessment of the Universe, but an attempt to find one’s place in it.
Of course, the New Atheists would respond to this by saying it is naive to separate religion from fundamentalism, as one is the natural consequence of the other. To quote Richard Dawkins from The God Delusion:
“Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. Beliefs might lack all supporting evidence but, we thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where’s the harm? September 11th changed all that.”
And yet, as is the case with 9/11, the only hazards they seem able to produce when building their argument against religion are to be found among the actions of fundamentalists. And they offer no examples of threats posed by the millions of Christians, Jews, and Muslims (not to mention people of other faiths) from around the world who are perfectly comfortable with scientific reality, and never try to impose their faith on others whether through law or uncomfortable dinner parties. The real world consequences of a boy praying over his frozen burrito are conspicuously absent from their analysis. So while New Atheists build a great case against religious fundamentalism, that’s not good enough if it’s religion they are actually trying to convict.
When my grandmother was dying, my siblings and I went to see her one last time to say our goodbyes. Her last words to us, as she smiled as much as an 84-year-old woman riddled with cancer can smile, were, “I’ll see you in glory.” Regardless of whether she actually will “see us in glory,” or whatever that might entail, who would want to take that moment from her? Now, if her last words had been “Abolish gay marriage,” then nuts to Grandma. But as long as she can keep her religion in her pants, what is served by disabusing her of it? What great catastrophes are averted? Bingo night?
I don’t pretend to understand why we fill the gaps in our being with the gravel we do. I have no idea why anyone listens to prog rock, or stares at the sky, or speaks in tongues, and neither does Richard Dawkins. So I try not to prognosticate too much on the murky wiring of other people’s souls. And if we want people to have these rich, albeit weird, inner lives without living under a theocracy, then our goal should be to convince those with religious needs that they can have their Jesus or Allah without taking the rest of the world with them. Whereas if we make war on religion as a whole, we are asking the believer to ignore the existential void filled by their beliefs, which may be the one thing they know for sure to be real.
The typical response of New Atheists to such arguments is to dismiss you as a “moderate” or a “tolerant,” as if you were a hippie reaching out to teenagers using uplifting rap music. But these labels misrepresent the critique. I’m not proposing some middle ground with fundamentalists. I’m not saying that theocracy is okay as long as it doesn’t go too far. I’m saying that the way to defeat fundamentalism is to subvert its very premise—the idea that religious belief needs to have basis in the external physical world in order to have meaning. By rejecting any value religious belief may have simply because it is not founded in reality, the New Atheists inadvertently reinforce the firmament upon which fundamentalism rests, and leave themselves with no means to engage believers except in fighting yet another pointless wizard battle over Evolution.
Of course, there is nothing “new” about atheism. The struggle between believers and atheists dates at least back to ancient Rome, when local governors routinely executed non-believers for refusing to sacrifice in their temples. These atheists embarrassed them in front of their gods, the very gods they depended on for rich harvests and good trade winds. (Not cool, atheists!) To the Romans, it was far better to put a few of these trouble-makers to death than to risk Neptune getting all pissy. Thus, they took the charge of atheism very seriously, often feeding nonbelievers to lions in the arena or burning them alive. The atheists the Romans worked to eradicate, however, knew themselves by a different name. They called themselves “Christians.”
As Hitchens points out in his book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, if you really want to see a theocracy in action, go to North Korea. The daily lives of North Koreans are almost exclusively devoted to the worship of a supreme being in a way that would make David Koresh blush. But as Hitchens himself seems to imply with this example, the problem with fundamentalism is not really “God,” but the human inability to keep whatever Big Other they worship within the proper scope of their existence. If the terror of religion is that your personal faith (whether in God, Kim Il Sung, or Roger Federer) will flower into a public decree on how everyone should live their lives, then it seems counterproductive to make distinctions between one brand of worship and another. Why is the prospect of a religion-based “theocracy” any scarier than a political one? Contrary to what Dawkins says, given that religion is but one possible outlet for fundamentalism, it is by definition fundamentalism that is the core problem, and religion which is symptomatic. So even a complete victory by the New Atheists over religion would accomplish little more than sealing a single gopher hole in a yard riddled with tunnels.
It’s true, as New Atheists are fond of pointing out, that every Christian is an atheist when it comes to every god but their own. But that is only half correct. Yes, all believers are atheists, but at the same time, all atheists are believers. There is an infinite variety of things people fill themselves with to feel better about their place in the Universe and their short time in it. Whether it employs deities or not, we all create our own religion to grasp the mystery of ourselves.
Despite the efforts of the New Atheists, religion appears to be chugging right along in America. According to the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals, there are between 90 and 100 million Evangelical Christians in the United States. Eighteen percent of U.S. Congressmen identify themselves as Evangelical Christians, and for many of them, their religious identity is a considerable asset in getting re-elected, regardless of how well their policies serve the corporeal interests of their constituents. So there are very real social and political implications in how we engage fundamentalist Christians in America. And New Atheism has itself grown into a force to be reckoned with. There are more openly declared atheists in America now than at any point in our nation’s history, thanks in large part to the best-selling books and lecture tours of Dawkins, Harris, and (until his death) Hitchens. They have galvanized non-believers as never before and have focused them on the very real threats posed by modern day religious fundamentalists. And I support them in that cause. My fear, however, is that rather than mobilizing against the real problem of fundamentalism, the New Atheists and their fellow travelers will squander their energies on a futile and counterproductive war on religion. Futile, because they will never convince people like my mother, or the guy who dances in place and plays the tambourine in church, to abandon their religion, because they can offer nothing with which to replace it. Counterproductive because attacking religion for not being science backs believers into pretending it is.
The way to conquer fundamentalism and to free the world from religious violence and theocracy is not to rob believers of their personal faith, but rather to convince them that it is the “personal” part that matters. The world is a better place when people find inner strength from their spiritual beliefs and make rational choices about the outside world based on observable facts. Why should they choose between them?
Illustration by Mark Russell.