The last few years have seen a great assault upon faith in the publishing world, with an influx of books denouncing religious belief. While attacks on faith are not new, what is notable about these booksseveral of which have hit the bestseller chartsis their contention that belief in God is not only deluded, but dangerous to society.
In The Delusion of Disbelief, former Time senior correspondent and bestselling author David Aikman offers an articulate, reasoned response to four writers at the forefront of today's anti-faith movement: Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens.
Aikman shines a light on the arguments of these "evangelists of atheism," skillfully exposing their errors and inconsistencies. He explains what appears to motivate atheists and their followers; encourages Christians to look closely at what they believe; arms readers with powerful arguments in response to critics of faith; and exposes the social problems that atheism has caused throughout the world.
Aikman also takes on one of the most controversial questions of our time: Can American liberties survive in the absence of widespread belief in God on the part of the nation's people? The answer to that question, says Aikman, is critically important to your future.
The Delusion of Disbelief is a thoughtful, intelligent resource for anyone concerned about the increasingly strident and aggressive new attacks on religious belief. It is the book that every person of faith should readand give away.
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THE DELUSION OF DISBELIEF
By DAVID AIKMAN
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 2008 David Aikman
All right reserved.
THE FOUR HORSEMEN
"Ours is the first attempt in recorded history to build a culture upon the premise that God is dead." - Princeton theologian Paul Ramsey, in 1966
A great assault upon faith was launched in 2006 against unsuspecting Americans who attend church, go to synagogue, worship in mosques, pray in temples, or otherwise live lives in which religion plays an important role. In just over a half year, three books by atheists hit the bookstores. Each of these books in various ways attacks all religious belief in general and Christianity in particular. Letter to a Christian Nation, written by a doctoral candidate in neuroscience, Sam Harris, came out on September 19, just a day after the publication of The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, a noted British ethologist, evolutionary biologist, and Oxford University professor. The third book, Breaking the Spell : Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, by Daniel Dennett, a Tufts University philosophy professor, was released earlier, in February 2006.
All were best sellers and by mid-2007, the print run for Breaking the Spell had reached 64,000. The God Delusion was at 500,000, and Letter to a Christian Nation was at 185,000. Both the Harris and the Dawkins books were also on Publishers Weekly's 2006 best seller list.
Meanwhile, as Americans of faith were still digesting this burst of atheistic book production, one of the most talented writers and journalists in America, Englishman (and newly naturalized U.S. citizen) Christopher Hitchens, was about to uncoil his own sling. God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything was published on May 1, 2007. It was certainly a brisk seller; when I tried to buy a copy at the Borders bookstore on L Street in Washington D.C. less than two weeks later, I was told that it was sold out and that the store was scrambling to get more. In just a month's time, the book had debuted at the No. 1 slot on the New York Times best sellers list with sales of more than 58,000. By the third week of June, just seven weeks after God Is Not Great's release, 296,000 copies were in print, bringing the total copies in print of all four atheist titles to more than one million.
Harris, Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens-the names resonate like stately Anglo-Saxon partners of a Virginia law firm -descended upon the faithful like, well, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. (For those who are unfamiliar with the Bible, or even with the biblically-derived imagery of Western art and literature, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse appear in the sixth chapter of the New Testament book of Revelation and have traditionally been regarded as corresponding to Pestilence, Famine, War, and Death.) Indeed, these four atheist writers have already been called the Four Horsemen in a review that appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, a Washington D.C.-based weekly newspaper for American college and university faculty.
Richard Dawkins uses the less glowering literary reference "The Four Musketeers" on his own Web site (http://richard dawkins.net) in welcoming Christopher Hitchens to the gang of faithslayers. A far less flattering nickname would be "The Gang of Four," a term that was disseminated with great effect by leaders in Communist China to denigrate four ultra-leftist politicians in a Beijing coup d'état after the death of Chairman Mao Tse-tung in 1976. But that might be unfair. It is enough to say that Dawkins and his allies have been referred to as "the new Godless," "the New Atheists," and "fundamentalist atheists," among other sobriquets.
The publishing phenomenon that these authors triggered quickly spilled over into other forums all over the country, and even beyond American shores. National radio and television news talk shows pitted the authors in debates against evangelical Christians. The Internet quickly bristled with angry diatribes from both camps. Major secular and Christian magazines invited the authors and Christian leaders to defend their views. Book reviews cropped up in a surprising array of publications-print and online, American and European, religious and secular, scientific and atheistic, general news and scholarly. Journalists from Germany to Australia trumpeted the news that America was experiencing a new rise of atheism. Even China's official national television network, CCTV, and a Chinese-language Christian magazine reported on the phenomenon, and some Christians on mainland China started circulating essays attacking the New Atheists.
Groups across the United States booked the authors to speak at venues ranging from a Unitarian church to the New York Public Library, as well as any number of college campuses. New videos showing one or another of the authors or some parody of them cropped up on YouTube just about every week. Dawkins wrote of one grueling day in Toronto when he was booked for "five television interviews and one radio, all in one day beginning before breakfast." The phenomenon was so widespread that it even made it into the pages of the Sunday "funnies." That's not a place where discussions of this sort are normally found, but on June 17, the "Opus" strip commented on the "surprising trend" of atheist best-selling books. Indeed, this has been a surprising trend, but it clearly indicates that the coterie of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, & Hitchens has touched a nerve. "This is atheism's moment," exulted one publishing house CEO.
It is true that atheists are enjoying a rare prominence in American society, where their numbers have always been small. In March 2007, Newsweek magazine reported the results of a poll in which people were asked, "Are you an atheist?" A mere 3 percent of respondents said they were atheists, while 96 percent said they were not and 1 percent answered "don't know." (Hitchens has claimed there may be as many as 15 million atheists in the United States, which would be closer to 6 percent of the population.) Only 29 percent in the Newsweek poll said they would vote for an atheist for president, down from 37 percent in 2006 and 49 percent in 1996. In other polls, atheists have received the highest disapproval rating of all identifiable social groups as possible future spouses of one's children: 48 percent, as opposed to 34 percent for Muslims and 27 percent for African Americans.
Atheists were also considered "least likely" to share the average American's "vision" of America. In April 2006, American Sociological Review reported on a study that found it is still socially acceptable, in the United States at least, to say you are intolerant of atheists. In The God Delusion, Dawkins cites his own figures illustrating the isolation of atheists in America. He refers to a 1999 Gallup poll that asked Americans whether they would vote for an otherwise well-qualified person who was:
A woman-95 percent said they would. A Roman Catholic-94 percent A Jew-92 percent An African American-92 percent A Mormon-79 percent A homosexual-79 percent An atheist-49 percent
The last statistic in this list seems especially to have riled Dawkins. In The God Delusion, he speaks often of a need for "consciousness-raising" among atheists in America, and the need for atheists to "come out," much as homosexuals have been doing in ever-larger numbers in recent decades. He writes almost wistfully, "My dream is that this book may help people to come out." For those who may need some friendly encouragement to do so, Dawkins provides in his book a helpful five-page appendix entitled "A partial list of friendly addresses, for individuals needing support in escaping from religion." His Web site has a social-networking section that serves as a platform for putting atheists from around the world in touch with each other.
In 2003, Dawkins and Dennett wrote a series of editorials trying to popularize a new nomenclature for atheists: "the brights." Ostensibly, this was to provide atheists with their own version of "gay pride" and a sort of umbrella of respectability to protect atheists from the real or imagined prejudice of many Americans. Today, there is a brights Web site, www.the-brights.net. Not surprisingly though, the term brights has provoked a backlash from those off ended by the pretentiousness of the term, and not only among nonatheists. On National Public Radio, a commentator discussing the notion of "brights" drily observed, "The rest of us would be the 'Dims,' I suppose ... [t]hey might as well have chosen the word 'The Smugs' or 'The Smarty-Pants.'" Dawkins, moreover, has found robust disagreement with the notion of "brights" in one of his fellow Four Musketeers. Christopher Hitchens disdainfully refers to the term as both a "cringe- making proposal" and conceited, because it implies that atheists are inherently brighter people than benighted people of faith.
In a report on the new atheism, the Chicago Sun-Times agreed that it was accurate to call its proponents "Fundamentalist atheists" because they are basing their movement on "a piece of dogma that can't be challenged without enraging them and [have] clung to the belief that contemporary American society doesn't permit the criticism of religion." The author points out the irony of this view, saying, "They hold this belief so strongly that they've written several best-selling books about it. The fact that this might be a contradiction doesn't seem to have occurred to them."
If the polls cited above and Dawkins's assertion of American intolerance of atheists are accurate, then we "dims" do indeed need to behave better. It is surely the mark of any civilized society that philosophical and political adversaries conduct discourse with respect and courtesy. As Catholic theologian and former U.S. ambassador Michael Novak has observed, "Civilization is constituted by reasoned conversation. Civilized humans converse with one another, argue with one another, offer evidence to one another. Barbarians club one another" (emphasis in the original). Of course, everyone knows that this principle of civilized behavior is often ignored, in the realm of politics certainly, but increasingly also in what passes for humorous conversation on TV and radio talk shows.
Curiously, in some atheistic rants about religion, the verbal content of vulgarity and obscenity seems to be exceptionally high. For some reason, the discourse of atheists in Britain has been more decorous; Dawkins would almost certainly not utter an obscenity on-camera in England. Perhaps the propensity for foul language in America is because atheists here enjoy "shocking" religious people. Christians, however, even if they don't use obscenities with any regularity, have been just as guilty of abusive discourse with their opponents, even when those opponents are fellow believers. There can be no excuse for this.
It was Sam Harris's Letter to a Christian Nation that initially prompted me to write this book. Letter, as it happens, was written in response to critical letters Harris received from readers responding to his first book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. That book, Harris has explained, was inspired by his realization after September 11, 2001, that it was religious belief that had provoked nineteen Arab hijackers to commandeer U.S. airplanes and crash them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania. Harris thought that it was time to challenge the validity of religious faith itself. The End of Faith was initially rejected by several publishers because of its disparaging views on religion-particularly on Islam . When it was finally published in 2004, though, it not only sold 275,000 copies and debuted at No. 4 on the New York Times Best Sellers list, where it had a thirty-three-week run, it was also awarded the 2005 PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction.
In Letter to a Christian Nation, Harris writes that he received thousands of e-mails and letters from people saying that he was wrong not to believe in God. "The most hostile came from Christians," he said, adding, "The truth is that many who claim to be transformed by Christ's love are deeply, even murderously, intolerant of criticism. While we may want to ascribe this to human nature," he continued, "it is clear that such hatred draws considerable support from the Bible . How do I know this? The most disturbed of my correspondents always cite chapter and verse."
Well, I am certainly not disturbed by Harris's books. Outspoken atheists have been writing and publishing since at least the middle of the eighteenth century, and their ranks have been filled with some talented and powerful intellects: Enlightenment-era French philosopher and writer Denis Diderot ; eighteenth-century French-German author Paul-Henri Thiry, baron d'Holbach; nineteenth-century German philosopher Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach; "father of Communism" Karl Marx and his collaborator, Friedrich Engels; German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who famously declared, "God is dead"; American Freethought orator Robert G. Ingersoll; "father of psychoanalysis" Sigmund Freud ; Bertrand Russell, one of the founders of analytic philosophy; and French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, among others.
Nor is this the first time in recent decades that God's existence and relevance have been questioned. A similar groundswell of atheistic activity culminated in a Time magazine cover story on April 8, 1966 (Easter Sunday, as it happens), that asked, "Is God Dead?" It turned out to be one of the newsmagazine's most controversial cover stories, and in it Princeton theologian Paul Ramsey was quoted as saying, "Ours is the first attempt in recorded history to build a culture upon the premise that God is dead." With the benefit of hindsight, of course, we now know that that attempt failed. And it has to be said that this time around, none of the Four Horsemen succeeds in knocking religion out of the ring either, though cumulatively they do make some strong, and sometimes valid points against it. Their failure lies in at least one of the following: Their assertions are too wild to be taken seriously (does Hitchens really think that religion has done nothing good at all in the entire history of humanity?); when they stray into the terrain of biblical studies, they show an amazing unfamiliarity with it; and their view that the discoveries of science have invalidated religious truth is entirely rejected by an impressive group of reputable scientists.
Of course, in asserting the rudeness of his Christian correspondents, Harris underlines the point he first made in The End of Faith, which is that religion doesn't make people behave better toward each other. But Harris goes further. He also asserts that in writing Letter, he "set out to demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms." The question therefore arises: Why this sudden upsurge of atheistic propaganda now?
A number of factors come immediately to mind, political ones being the most prominent. George W. Bush 's administration has probably included more evangelical Christians serving at senior levels than that of any recent U.S. president. Cabinet secretaries, speechwriters, and White House aides who are Christians have been outspoken about their faith. The president himself has always been forthright about his religious convictions. In fact, when candidates were asked during a presidential debate to name the philosopher they most admired, Bush answered unequivocally, Jesus-a turning point in his 2000 primary campaign. Since becoming president, Bush has been careful not to speak much in public about his faith, limiting his comments to expressions of gratitude to the many Americans who say they are praying for him. Privately, he has gone to church most Sundays that he is in Washington, and he has, at different times, invited clergy with whom he is close to the White House or Camp David.
Excerpted from THE DELUSION OF DISBELIEF by DAVID AIKMAN Copyright © 2008 by David Aikman. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
The Four Horsemen 1
The Attack of the Four Horsemen 17
They Don't Like God 36
The Science Problem 63
The Problem of Wicked Atheists: Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot 94
The Christian Worldview Is the Foundation of Liberty 135
Conclusion: The New Atheism Offers Nothing New 172
The Four Horsemen and the Bible 196
Recommended Reading 212
About the Author 249
Other Books David Aikman 250