Atheism Is the New Black


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In the house I grew up in, there was no god but Science, and the PBS Nova programming was his prophet. There was a little-g god, as we attended church every week, but we were just there for the dose of morality and the teachings of Jesus. So what if we did not believe in concepts like heaven or hell, probably not the devil, and now that you mention it, that idea of an omnipotent creator? Going to church wouldn’t do us any harm. There is no fire and brimstone with Methodists — just a few hymns, a quiet sermon, and a potluck lunch in the basement sure to include casseroles made with Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup.

God did not follow us home. My father did not lead us in prayer at dinner, but he did design chemistry experiments for me and my sisters to perform in the basement, to be followed by detailed lab reports. I never saw him awed at church, only when he woke us at 2 a.m., wrapped us in quilts, and took us outside to watch meteor showers. And he was perhaps the only father who regaled his family with a spot-on Carl Sagan impression. (“Dad, how many slices of pizza are left?” “Billions and billions! Oh wait, no, I ate the last one.”)

This was in Kansas, a state that produced Fred Phelps and his “God Hates Fags” protests, a state the decided (mercifully briefly) that the theory of evolution was just pulled out of Darwin’s ass. After I left, I was as cagey as a backpacker in Europe about my state of origin, wanting to sew a Nebraska flag onto my pack. I later became terrified of the world leaders suddenly discussing the End of Days and throwing the word “crusade” around. Relief came when the latest trend in publishing turned out to be atheist manifestoes. Finally. Some rational thinking. I lunged at Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great, Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, and Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion. They will show us the way.

Imagine my surprise, then, when it turned out I was becoming as embarrassed to be associated with atheists as I had been with Kansans. First there was Dawkins’ calling an education in religious faith — even moderate faith — “child abuse.” Sam Harris chided religious moderates for being “in large part, responsible for the religious conflict in our world.” They didn’t simply want an end to fundamentalism or the use of religious doctrine in governmental policy. They treated Christians as if they all believed the Earth was only 6,000 years old, and Muslims as if they were all strapped with explosives. If you pray to Jesus when your world is falling apart, or blame Mercury being in retrograde when your car won’t start, you are part of the problem.

As I read, I kept thinking there was no way all three writers were so naïve as to think faith is the real problem, that there wouldn’t always be people who are in a state of vulnerability and manipulators lying in wait to take advantage of them. They created a chasm between believers and nonbelievers that wasn’t really there, and used the same “with us or against us” language that dragged the country into war. They can fling books at each other for as long as they like, but they’re not going to change any minds. Imagine telling someone at the end of their rope, “Suffering has no eternal purpose, we’re just a chemical accident. All you need is math and the scientific method!” The believer is more likely to jump into the chasm than cross it.

Strangely, Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great is the closest of the trio to being a worthwhile read. Hitchens, who is beholden to no one and wrote a book calling Mother Teresa a sadist, is the perfect man to illuminate religions’ histories. When he is simply attacking religion, like when he points out the sinister origins of the Mormon faith, he can have moments of brilliance. But he ultimately makes the same mistake as Harris and Dawkins and equates God with religion.

None of them pause to consider the possibility that divinity could exist without religion. It’s obvious no one in this group has bothered to read any theology. Their attacks are as shallow as their research. Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins are scientists, journalists, and pundits — not philosophers. That’s fine when they’re dealing with religious history, but when they try to stare down the divine they are out of their league.

The strict adherence to rationality seemed, well, irrational. They scoff at anyone who would stake their life and happiness on something for which there is insufficient evidence. It sounds like a real argument, doesn’t it? But in God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens theologian John F. Haught reminds us what exactly that means: “In my interpersonal knowledge… the evidence that someone loves me is hard to measure, but it can be very real nonetheless.” I wanted Haught’s entire book to be like this statement: a warm-blooded medium between the atheists’ cold logic and the fundamentalists’ fiery fury.

Instead, we’re back at the chasm. Just as Dawkins et al. refuse to understand that some people have a strong emotional need for faith, Haught cannot understand that for some people the idea of an omnipotent creator would send the logical order of the universe into a cause/effect tailspin. At least he understands that there are problems with how God is used in religion, and how that might send moderates running to the other end of the spectrum. “Sensitive souls in every period of religious history can grow weary of the unsatisfactory ways in which contemporary religions represent their ideal.” He continues, “Reading certain passages in the Bible, including the Christian Scriptures, can be a dangerous and bewildering experience if one has not first gained some sense of the Bible’s overarching themes.”

He is convinced, however, that Christianity is the way. His solution to doubt is “a good college-level course in biblical literature, or being part of a Bible study group informed by up-to-date scholarship.” Haught pities atheists, and it’s quite possible he’s never actually met one. “You would be required to summon up an unprecedented degree of courage if you plan to wipe away the whole horizon of transcendence. Are you willing to risk madness? If not, then you are not really an atheist.” I imagine he thinks all atheists look like Sartre, existing only on cigarettes and depraved sexual acts.

Both parties point to Darwin as the origin of the schism, and indeed the debate has been raging ever since “Where did we come from?” had an answer other than “God.” Haught chastises the others for not having read William James’s essay “The Will to Believe.” James wrote it in 1896 in response to “that delicious enfant terrible” W. K. Clifford’s assertion that faith was sinful. “It is sinful because it is stolen in defiance of our duty to mankind,” Clifford wrote. “That duty is to guard ourselves from such beliefs as from a pestilence which may shortly master our own body and then spread to the rest of the town… It is wrong always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

Sound familiar? Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins, all declare God a failed hypothesis because of “insufficient evidence,” and both Dawkins and Harris accuse the moderately faithful of opening the door to extremism. But while Haught responds with a tangent about the Christian God’s demand for blind faith and that “to worship anything finite is idolatrous,” James does not bother with all that because he is not tied to any religious viewpoint. He is an empiricist. It comes down to a choice: Do you wait for God to hold a press conference before you believe in him, or do you allow yourself to trust that there is a dimension to the world we cannot access? Dawkins would call you a fool for choosing the latter, and Haught might saddle you down with dogma and force order onto your belief. But James simply states:

Believe nothing, [Clifford] tells us, keep your mind in suspense forever, rather than by closing it on insufficient evidence incur the awful risk of believing lies… I myself find it impossible to go with Clifford. [H]e who says “Better go without belief forever than believe a lie!” merely shows his own preponderant private horror of becoming a dupe… For my own part, I also have a horror of being a dupe; but I can believe that there are worse things than being duped may happen to a man in this world… In a world where we are certain to incur [errors] in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf.

It’s a much more useful response because James does not picture the people on either side of the debate as fools or cowards or heathens. The books by atheists will continue to be released now that publishers know they’re profitable, and the religious and theological responses will follow. It will all cause a lot of ruckus and flared tempers. We can only hope that some old-fashioned civility will be reintroduced as the fight rages on. • 23 January 2008