Read an Excerpt
Not the Way to Invite a Conversation:
Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris
Atheists Speak Out
A recent shower of books by atheists--among them Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris, Breaking the Spell by Daniel C. Dennett, and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins--has fallen on the parched lips of lonely American atheists. These books have three purposes: to speed up the disappearance of biblical faith in America; to proselytize for rational atheism; and to boost morale among atheists, in part by calling attention to support groups to console them. Their overriding purpose is the first one: in Harris’s words, “to demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity.” But the third one--to raise the morale of atheists--is not far behind.
All three books evince considerable disdain for Judaism, too. Dawkins calls it “a tribal cult of a single fiercely unpleasant God, morbidly obsessed with sexual restrictions, with the smell of charred flesh, with his own superiority over rival gods, and with the exclusiveness of his chosen desert tribe.” And the God of the Old Testament, Dawkins calls a “psychotic delinquent.”
It is not as if these authors admire Islam; rather, they use Islam as a weapon for bashing Christianity and Judaism. Harris says to Christians, “Nonbelievers like myself stand beside you, dumbstruck by the Muslim hordes who chant death to whole nations of the living. But we stand dumbstruck by you as well--by your denial of tangible reality, by the suffering you create in service to your religious myths, and by your attachment to an imaginary God.” In truth, though, the main intention of all three authors is to praise the superiority of atheism, at least the rational atheism of professors such as themselves.
In Praise of Atheists
In fact, there is much in atheism to praise. With the evidence of the admirable moral code laid out in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in his hands, Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote that in order to be good, in at least one important sense, it is not necessary to share in biblical faith. Aristotle showed a path toward human flourishing, both for an entire polity and for noble individuals. (To be “good” in another important sense, “being born again” or “saved,” requires a bit more than Aristotle could provide, or even imagine.) Atheists--or, at least, nonbiblical pagans--were able to build such magnificent buildings as the Parthenon, the pyramids of Egypt, the palaces of Babylon; and to produce great literature and the beginnings of several key sciences in varied fields such as astronomy, arithmetic, medicine, and agriculture. Finally, atheists--or, at least, nonbelievers--have always been a spur to biblical self-understanding, by raising questions, doubting, or throwing down insulting or respectful intellectual challenges. It was from the pagan intellectual class that many of the early Fathers of the Church (Origen, Clement of Alexandria, and Saint Augustine himself) came to biblical faith, and they usually remained in close dialogue with their unbelieving peers, much to the benefit of their own understanding of their faith.
To come down the ladder a great distance, my own early work was centered on the dialogue between believers and unbelievers, the intellectual horizon of the Absurd (as Camus, Sartre, and so many others called it) and that of biblical faith--in such books as Belief and Unbelief and The Experience of Nothingness, for instance. For that reason, I really wanted to like these new books of atheism. I have learned a lot about atheists and believers from Jürgen Habermas, possibly the best-known atheist in Europe. Habermas writes of believers with respect and as equal partners in an important dialogue. A respectful regard for mutual dignity is, Habermas holds, essential to the practice of rationality among human beings; we shall have reason to return to his views on religion further on in this book. A very smart American atheist, Heather Mac Donald, agreed to engage me in conversations that were a pleasure to conduct, showing on her side patience, respect even in spirited disagreement, and candor. Heather’s precise, incisive contributions to this happy discussion also warrant a closer look; we shall reflect on her arguments in chapters three and four.
Dialogue or Dismissal?
Alas, it is extremely difficult to engage on the same level with Harris, Dennett, and Dawkins (and, as we shall see in the next chapter, Christopher Hitchens). All of them think that religion is so great a menace that they do not show much disposition for dialogue. The battle flags they put into the wind are Voltaire’s “Wipe out the infamous thing”: Écrasez l’infâme! Meanwhile, all three pretend that atheists “question everything” and “submit to relentless, almost tedious, self-criticism.” Yet in these books there is not a shred of evidence that their authors have ever had any doubts whatever about the rightness of their own atheism. Self-questioning about their own scholarly indifference to their subject; about the horrific brutalities committed in the name of “scientific atheism” during the twentieth century; about the restless and mercurial dissatisfactions in atheist and secular movements during the past hundred years (at times wearily nihilistic and bored in Parisian cafés; at times passionately marching toward murderous utopias; often full of free-floating dreads of “nuclear winter,” then “global warming”). All such questions are notable by their absence. Despite the fact that an atheist Zeitgeist dominates university campuses in America, it has not proved persuasive to huge numbers of students, who hold their noses and put up with it. Why does atheism persuade so few? Our authors never ask.
I particularly wanted to like the book by Richard Dawkins. I had heard that his is a well-furnished and well-rounded mind, and that he writes with the music and wit of an elegant literary stylist. His fans present him as the very model of a reasonable man. Dawkins, too, expressly presents himself and other atheists as “brights,” distinguished by their “healthy” and “vigorous” minds. Poor believers--he openly complains--are (by contrast with him) trapped in delusion, unquestioning, mentally dead. He makes not a gesture of seeking to learn from them.
Actually, Dawkins’s public record is worse than that. He led a two-part show on religion for the BBC, called The Root of All Evil? While writing now that he disagrees with the title the producers gave it, he freely appeared under it. This is what he asks of religious people: “Imagine, with John Lennon, a world with no religion.” Wouldn’t most of the violence and distortion introduced into human life disappear? Now it would be rather original of Dawkins to make such a point, except that in Britain this view is quite conventional. Propagated by pop star and scientist alike, it is according to a recent poll shared by 82 percent of the British population.
Reason and Moral Courage
Throughout the West, it appears that neither scientist nor pop star takes time to consider contemporary religious experience in the light of some of its most sophisticated and heroic practitioners. For instance, never before our own time have so many millions of persons of biblical faith been thrown into concentration camps, tortured, and murdered as they have been under recent self-described atheist regimes. It would have been wonderful if any of our three authors had measured their vision of religion against the hard-won biblical faith of the originally atheist scientist Anatoly Sharansky, who served nine years in the Soviet Gulag simply for vindicating the rights of Soviet citizens who were Jews. Sharansky has written the record of his suffering in a brilliant autobiography, Fear No Evil. I think I have never read of a braver moral man, determined to live as a free man, courageously showing nothing but moral contempt for the morals of KGB officials, under whose total power he had to live. Sharansky went on courageously day by dreary day, deprived of sufficient food, deprived of sight of the sky and sun. He was punished in innumerable ways under a kind of scientific Skinnerian conditioning designed to “correct” his behavior, and this regimen went on year after year, attempting to wear down his resistance, to hold out for him trivial blandishments, tormenting his soul by isolating him and depriving him of human support.
Ironically, however, his prison experiences led Sharansky to dimensions of reason that far exceeded anything he had encountered in his earlier scientific practice. To survive, he needed to open himself to learning far more than science had taught him. He was asked to sign his name to certain untruths: “Who will ever know? What difference will it make? It is such a small thing, and it will make things go much better for you and for us, it will be for the common good.” One of Sharansky’s colleagues, a noble soul, nonetheless deceived himself into thinking that it would be better to lie about a few small things so that he would soon be freed to carry the message of human rights outside the camps. Sharansky watched still other men try to keep their spirits up by hope--hoping for better treatment, hoping for earlier liberation--and then suddenly find themselves so weakened by false hopes that they could no longer resist complicity. Sharansky found that he needed a source of discernment deeper than any he had previously known.
In those days, the love of his beloved and brave wife, and friends and other dissidents, came to his cell in rarely received letters or messages. But such messages could also have weakened and betrayed him. In his torments of soul, he found enormous companionship with King David of many centuries earlier, when a ragged old Hebrew edition of the Psalms was allowed to fall into his hands with the mail. The realism of David went right to his heart, and heavily bolstered his defenses. He learned the strength to be found in community--his community--in partaking of traditional rituals, drawing sustenance from the earlier sufferings, strivings, and hard-earned wisdom of his ancestors. Unwittingly, one cellmate (who might have been working with the KGB) gave Sharansky another lesson in “the interconnection of souls.” One of Sharansky’s greatest scientific heroes had long been Galileo. In telling Sharansky of how other prisoners had made “life easier for everybody” simply by signing “harmless” papers that no one outside would ever see, his cellmate mentioned that even Galileo had been persuaded to sign certain statements about his own errors, just to put the whole mess behind him. Like a thunderbolt, these words of his cellmate flooded Sharansky’s mind with the interconnectedness of all souls in history--those who remain faithful to the truth, and those who betray it. Galileo’s betrayal four hundred years earlier was now being used to seduce Sharansky, just as every spiritual surrender of another individual in the Gulag was used to pound home to him that long-term resistance was useless. In that lightning flash, Sharansky saw the power of inner truthfulness down the ages, that electronic belt of fidelity that ties all regions and all times together, in however many hearts that remain faithful to the truth. Sharansky wanted to be reborn as a member of that community, and he changed his name to Natan, signifying the biblical community with which he wanted to be identified through all time.
Sharansky became, even in the Gulag, more and more an observant Jew, in one comic scene forcing even his camp supervisor to participate--just the two of them--in a lighting of the menorah. Sharansky writes very little directly about God, but it is certain beyond a doubt that he came to see something profoundly deficient in his earlier scientific habits of mind. These were noble as far as they went, and he has never renounced them, but in his extreme circumstances they proved too limited. He came also to be ashamed of his earlier agnosticism and cavalier attitude toward “organized religion.” The community that had preserved the Psalms of King David down so many centuries offered him companionship of soul, and recharged his will to resist at a crucial point in his long imprisonment.
It was, then, a huge disappointment to me to find that Dennett, Harris, and especially Dawkins paid no attention to the actual conversion experiences and narratives of fidelity, which are so common in the prison literature of our time. Moreover, none of them ever put his weak, confused, and unplumbed ideas about God under scrutiny. Their natural habit of mind is anthropomorphic. They tend to think of God as if He were a human being, bound to human limitations. They are almost as literal in their readings of the Bible as the least educated, most literal-minded fundamentalist in Flannery O’Connor’s rural Georgia. They regale themselves with finding contradictions and impossibilities in these literal readings of theirs, but the full force of their ridicule depends on misreading the literary form of the biblical passages at stake, whether they be allegorical, metaphorical, poetic, or resonant with many meanings, for the nourishment of a soul under stress. The Bible almost never pretends to be science (even in the ancient sense), or strictly literal history.
Our three authors pride themselves on how science advances in understanding over time, and also on how moral thinking becomes in some ways deeper and more demanding. They do not give any attention to the ways in which religious understanding also grows, develops, and evolves. They seem utterly ignorant of John Henry Newman’s brilliant Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. It hardly dawns on them that the biblical faiths have been, from the very beginning, in constant--and mutually enriching--dialogue with skeptical and secular intelligence. One can see progress in religious understanding from one part of the biblical era to another, and the authors of Scripture themselves call attention to it.
Our three authors, it does seem, are a bit blinded by their own repugnance toward religion. Even his good friends, Dawkins writes, ask him why he is driven to be so “hostile” to religious people. Why not, they say, as intelligent as you are, quietly lay out your devastating arguments against believers, in a calm and unruffled manner? Dawkins’s answer to his friends is forthright: “I am hostile to fundamentalist religion because it actively debauches the scientific enterprise . . . Fundamentalist religion is hell-bent on ruining the scientific education of countless thousands of innocent, well-meaning, eager young minds. Non-fundamentalist, ‘sensible’ religion may not be doing that. But it is making the world safe for fundamentalism by teaching children, from their earliest years, that unquestioning faith is a virtue.” Dawkins refuses to be part of the public “conspiracy” to pay religion respect, when it deserves contempt.
Yet his complaint about “unquestioning” faith seems a bit odd. Some of us have thought that the origin of religion lies in the unlimited drive in human beings to ask questions--which is our primary experience of the infinite. Anything finite that we encounter can be questioned, and seems ultimately unsatisfying. That hunger to question is the experience that keeps driving the mind and soul on and on, and is its first foretaste of that which is beyond time and space. “Our hearts are restless, Lord,” Saint Augustine recorded, “until they rest in Thee.” These words have had clearly echoing resonance in millions upon millions of inquiring minds down through human history ever since. “Unquestioning faith?” The writings of the medieval thinkers record question after question, disputation after disputation, and real results in history hinged upon the resolution of each. Many of the questions arose from skeptical, unbelieving lawyers, philosophers, and others in the medieval universities; still others from the Arab scholars whose works had recently burst upon the Western universities; still others from Maimonides and other Jewish scholars; and a great many from the greatest pagan thinkers of every preceding century. Questions have been the heart and soul of Judaism and Christianity for millennia.