Are the "New Atheists" As Bad as Christian Fundamentalists?
My problem with the so-called New Atheist movement is that several of the most successful of the New Atheist leaders -- as judged by book sales and speaking fees -- say Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins -- remind me of the worst of my own fundamentalist evangelical background. They are as close minded as they seem to be almost pathologically certain of their beliefs.
I know a deranged faith-based personality cult when I see one, given that my late father Francis Schaeffer was a fundamentalist guru to millions in the 1970s and 80s and a leading founder of the Religious Right, something Max Blumenthal discusses in his important book Republican Gomorrah and that I go into (in depth) in my book Patience With God--Faith For People Who Don't Like Religion Or Atheism. (In that book I explain what is wrong with evangelicalism -- besides paranoia and hate! -- and why I got out.)
The New Atheist movement is being led by several egomaniac intolerant fundamentalists. It’s relevant to ask about who they are, not just what they say or write, because the New Atheism isn’t just about non-belief in God. The leaders of this movement make loud, repeated, and bold claims about atheism being better and more moral, more ethical, and a vastly improved alternative to religion. They also name names when blasting religious leaders.
If we are to dismiss Christianity and other religions partly because of the likes of Oral Roberts, Ted Haggard, and their shenanigans (not to mention child-molesting Roman Catholic priests, Islamic suicide bombers et al) it's just as legitimate to ask about the characters of the people pointing out religious people’s moral faults ad naming names.
I admire many people who are atheists from David Hume to Daniel Denett. I often agree with their critique of religion. And Lord knows after the near take over of America by the Religious Right and following religion's attempt to murder us 9/11-style religion deserves a good kicking! But Dawkins and Hitchens are to atheism what Oral Roberts, Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell have been to religion: men who discredit whatever they're selling by their tawdry proselytizing and commercial opportunism combined with absurdly big egos and a deadly certainty that they and only they are right. With friends like these atheists need no enemies
But first some good news: the New Atheists also have several gems speaking for the movement. One is Daniel Dennett
In the first page of Breaking the Spell—Religion As A Natural Phenomenon, Dennett writes, “I may have missed my target.” Dennett strikes me as somebody actually looking for answers. He is an atheist, but no fundamentalist. One reason I find Dennett so appealing is his decency. His humility, wit, and empathy speak volumes to me and lends a solid gravity to his wisdom. It certainly proves you don’t need to believe in God to be a moral person let alone to come across as just the sort of person anyone would like to have for a friend.
Dennett is a philosopher whose science research is related to evolutionary biology. He is also director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. Dennett deserves better friends than his fellow contributors to the emerging New Atheist canon. Maybe he knows this, because he puts a little distance between Dawkins and himself. In Breaking the Spell Dennett levels a subtle rebuke at Dawkins, even though he doesn’t name him: “Biologists are often accused of gene-centrism—thinking that everything in biology is explained by the action of genes. And some biologists do indeed go overboard in their infatuation with genes. They should be reminded that Mother Nature is not a gene centrist!”
Dennett also wrote a review of Dawkins’s The God Delusion for Free Inquiry, saying that he and Dawkins agree about many ideas, “but on one central issue we are not (yet) of one mind: Dawkins is quite sure that the world would be a better place if religion were hastened to extinction and I am still agnostic about that.”
We’ve never met but I’ve watched Dennett debate, have read him, and have heard him interviewed. He seems fair and knowledgeable about religion, acknowledging that all religions have a toxic component and yet that they also have a good side. Dennett has even proposed that a course on religions should be taught — worldwide — as a compulsory part of education both private and public, secular and religious. He wants this done because, as he correctly says, “All toxic parts of religion depend on the enforced ignorance of the young.”
Dennett also looks forward to the day that the Vatican becomes “a museum of Roman Catholic religion” and “Mecca becomes Disney’s Magic Kingdom of Allah.” He said that in a debate (held at Tufts University in 2008) with the right-wing author Dinesh D’Souza. It’s also a somewhat tongue-in-cheek point Dennett makes in his book.
The essential idea put forward in Breaking the Spell is that humans are like ants whose brains have been infected by a parasite. We’re like an ant who climbs again and again to the top of a stalk of grass, driven to do that by a parasite lodged in its brain.
Dennett asks, “Does anything like this ever happen with human beings? Yes indeed. We often find human beings setting aside their personal interests, their health, their chances to have children, and devoting their entire lives to furthering the interests of an idea that has lodged in their brains.”
Dennett admits that “The comparison of the Word of God to lancet fluke [parasite] is unsettling.” And he asks, “How are ideas . . . spread from mind to mind, surviving translation between different languages, hitchhiking on songs and icons and . . . rituals, coming together in unlikely combinations in particular people’s heads, where they give rise to yet further new ‘creations’ bearing family resemblances to the ideas that inspired them?”
Dennett believes that the answer is that religions evolved as a response to our fears and as an explanation to ourselves of what we don’t understand. These explanations became more and more sophisticated until they emerged as religions, a few of which have survived and become established. “Some of the features of our minds are endowments we share with much simpler creatures, and others are specific to our lineage. . . . These features sometimes overshoot, sometimes have curious byproducts . . . [and] some of these patterns look rather like religions.”
Nevertheless, Dennett believes that religion can be a wonderful thing for many people. Unlike the other New Atheists, Dennett realizes that the consequences of his work attempting to debunk religion might damage individuals and societies. As he puts it, breaking the spell that religion casts over people could be something like let¬ting your cell phone ring at a concert. “I don’t want to be that person,” he writes. He continues, “The problem is there are good spells and there are bad spells . . . and it may be the best way to break these bad spells is to introduce the spellbound to a good spell.”
Dennett recognizes the perils of pure secularism in a way that the other leading New Atheists writers don’t, or rather won’t. He also acknowledges the limits of his (and all) knowledge and asks, “Who is right? I don’t know. Neither do the billions of people with their passionate religious convictions. Neither do those atheists who are sure the world would be a much better place if all religion went extinct.”
Dennett is critical of the blind spot atheists discussing religion bring to their theories: “We don’t just walk up to religious phenomena and study them point-blank as if they were fossils . . . Researchers tend to either be respectful [and] deferential [or] hostile, invasive, and contemptuous.” Dennett is honest. “People who want to study religion,” he writes, “usually have an ax to grind. . . . [T]his tends to infect their methods with bias.”
Why did he write his book? Dennett answers, “I, for one, fear that if we don’t subject religion to . . . scrutiny now, and work together for whatever revisions and reforms are called for, we will pass on the legacy of ever more toxic forms of religion to our descendants.” Post 9/11, post the impact of the Religious Right on American life and politics, who can argue with that?
Go to Dawkins's website and change a word or two and it could be the site of a particularly egoistical internet-savvy swami posing in hagiographic photos while collecting birthday greetings and good wishes from his deluded (not terribly bright) followers.
One doesn’t have to buy Dawkins’s books because he’s found a way to offer his wisdom to passersby. Just hang around New Atheist gatherings and you may read Dawkins’s writings on T-shirts worn by his disciples or emblazoning their sweat shirts, tote bags, and bumper stickers.
Here are some samples taken from Dawkins’s official website of the means and methods for spreading the Dawkins’s gospel and/or for collecting his life’s work. What follows is just as I found it on the Dawkins site in the spring of 2009. And this sampling represents a mere fraction of what would, if downloaded, run to hundreds of pages of products, tips for atheist living, resources, further thoughts posted on bulletin boards, and so on.
NEW! The God Delusion T-Shirt Product 5/7 $20.00
sizes m, l, xl and 2xl are in backorder, and will be shipped as soon as they come back in stock (approx. 2 weeks).
The God Delusion T-Shirt with what is perhaps the book’s most famous quote: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion
White text on slate grey t-shirt. 100% cotton, American Ap¬parel. Made in the U.S.A. These sizes may run a little smaller than some are accustomed to. Add to Cart:
If T-shirts aren’t what you fancy by way of proudly displaying “perhaps the book’s most famous quote,” there are many other fine products. For instance, you may purchase the “Scarlet A Lapel Pin” (I’m not making this up.) And if you don’t know what that is, you may “watch [as] Richard Dawkins explains his Scarlet A lapel pin during an interview, just click Here.”
According to the atheist product catalogue, the Scarlet A Pin is a “Red A with silver edging and back,” and it costs $5. The customer reviews published on Dawkins’s site are glowing. The pin gets Five Stars from just about everyone. Oliver gives the pin Five Stars! and writes, “Brilliant badge. Sub¬lime concept. Let’s get in their faces. Thank God for Dawkins!” Rich also gives the pin Five Stars! and says, “Excellent. Worn it for a couple of months now; four conversations followed I have to order two more.” Another satisfied customer writes, “I love it, but you should really consider offering a Scarlet A necklace.” The next reviewer gives it only four stars, but moving on, Yvonne gives the pin Five Stars! and says, “It looked awesome on my black bag.” Luke gives the pin Five Stars! too and notes, “Great product. I actually turned mine into a pendant by bending the pin and attaching a wire loop.” Then we get back into four star territory: “This is great, but I would much rather have it as a necklace.”
The comment that most interested me was the one from Rich: “Worn it for a couple of months now; four conversations followed.” That really brought back the memories.
When I was a young child growing up in a fundamentalist evangelical commune as the son of Calvinist American missionaries (Francis and Edith Schaeffer) and living in Switzerland (L'Abri Fellowship circa 1950s) and to my eternal mortification, Mom used to carry something called the Gospel Walnut. It was a hollowed-out actual walnut shell filled with ribbons of different colors sewn together into one thin, shoestring-like, yard-long band: black for sin, red for Jesus’s blood, then white for how clean your heart would be after it got washed of sin. You cranked it out with a little handle attached to the walnut shell, and the ribbon would seem to emerge from the nut magically. The point of doing this was to invite ques¬tions from strangers, which it did. This would lead to what Rich said the A Pin he wears leads to: conversations. In other words, both the Gospel Walnut and the Scarlet A Pin offer a chance to witness to potential converts.
If my experience as a child is any guide (regarding the just-kill¬me-now embarrassment I felt as Mom accosted strangers on trains and buses with her magic nut), we can expect that the mortified children of Dawkins’s atheist pin-wearing missionaries will someday be¬come zealous evangelicals, Muslims, or Druids—anything but atheists, that is. Who knows, the children raised by Dawkins’s groupies may well be the foundation of the next Great Awakening.
Anyway, Oliver was also onto something with his “Let’s get in their faces” comment. That too induced flashbacks. It reminded me vividly of how we evangelical/fundamentalists regarded those who weren’t “saved.” “They” were always they to us, and “we,” the born-agains, were as saved as they were “lost.”
So Dawkins, it turns out, is my mother, circa 1959!
Just in case the dedicated Dawkins follows watched only the edited version of The Enemies of Reason, now there is The Uncut Interviews, a “full length version” to add to your “cart” before “pro¬ceeding to checkout.” (All major credit cards are accepted.)
The Enemies of Reason: The Uncut Interviews $40.00 $33.00 Save: 18% off Buy together and save $7.00!
During the filming of Channel 4’s The Enemies of Reason, Richard Dawkins conducted several extended interviews which were cut down for the program’s final broadcast. . . . Explore the issues in more depth . . . . There are two ways of looking at the world through faith and superstition or through the rigors of logic, observation and evidence in other words, through reason. Reason and a respect for evidence are precious commodities, the source of human progress and our safeguard against fundamentalists and those who profit from obscuring the truth. Yet, today, society ap¬pears to be retreating from reason. . . . Richard Dawkins confronts what he sees as an epidemic of irrational, superstitious thinking. He explains the dangers the pick and mix of knowledge and non¬sense poses in the internet age, and passionately re-states the case for reason and science.
Run Time: 96 minutes—1 DVD
Dawkins will “safeguard [us] against fundamentalists and those who profit from obscuring the truth” by selling us the uncut version. And when the Dear Leader is not picking the “most famous” of his quotes for his T-shirts, or designing atheist conversation-starting witnessing jewelry, Dawkins also writes books that contain grand zingers: “Atheism is the only logical belief once one accepts evolution.” And “Religion is incompatible with science.”
But what Dawkins says he’s most proud of is the part of his web-site called “Convert’s Corner” where, as he told Bill Maher in an in-terview on Maher’s TV show in 2008, “You can go and read all the testimonies of people who have been converted!” Then he said, “When I’m on my deathbed I’ll have a tape recorder switched on because people like me are victims of malicious stories after they’re dead of people saying they had a deathbed conversion when they didn’t.” Maher looked a bit puzzled, so Dawkins explained that he suspects creationists may already be plotting to do this to him and pointed out that “they now claim Darwin had a deathbed conversion.”
When Maher asked Dawkins about The God Delusion, Dawkins said little about the book’s content but exclaimed, “It’s sold a million and a half copies!” Then Maher, like an enthusiastic puppy scampering around a big dog, yelped, “And now it’s in paperback, it will be even more available!” Maher paused to take a breath then added, “I’m your biggest fan!” Then Dawkins, slipping into his rock star mode, explained that he has so many fans because “I think people are getting a bit fed up with other people thrusting their imaginary friends down their throats.”
Prompted by Maher, Dawkins also explained one of his other ideas. “There is a scale of One to Seven of atheism,” said Dawkins, “but I’m only a Six on my scale.” Dawkins laid out the details of the Atheism Sincerity Scale. “A One is a complete believer in God and a Seven is a total disbeliever.”
Something was bothering Maher, and he asked, “Why are you only a Six? Why aren’t you a Seven?”
Dawkins didn’t miss a beat; “As a scientist I can’t definitely commit to anything, including that there are no fairies!” Big laugh and cheers from both Maher and his audience. Dawkins added, “I can’t say I know there are no pink unicorns either, so maybe I’m a Six Point Nine is reasonable!”
Louder cheers from the audience, and I think I actually heard Maher squeal.
Apart from the sales figures (and what I’ll always think of as the Atheist One-to-Seven Dawkins/Tap moment), then, what is The God Delusion about? For one thing, it seems to mainly be about Dawkins’s website. I’ve never read a book in which the author works his website addresses into the actual text—not to mention the front and back matter—half a dozen times. But according to Dawkins his book really isn’t a book, so perhaps literary customs don’t apply. As he puts it, The God Delusion is a “consciousness-raising” tool. “Atheists” he writes, “as well as theists unconsciously observe society’s convention that we must be especially polite and respectful to faith.” He wants to change all that.
In the preface to the paperback edition, Dawkins responds to the criticism that he is just as much of a proselytizing fundamentalist as those he criticizes. Dawkins answers, “No, please, it is all too easy to mistake passion that can change its mind for fundamentalism, which never will . . . it is impossible to overstress the difference between such a passionate commitment to biblical fundamentals and the true scientist’s equally passionate commitment to evidence.” As a scientist Dawkins claims that by definition his passion can’t be like other, lesser people’s passions, because as a scientist he is above such things. Maybe the same can be said for his entrepreneurial passion, which might, in ordinary people, be mistaken for televangelist-style hucksterism but, because he is a scientist, is no doubt just research carried on by other means.
Even Dawkins’s compassion seems strangely self-serving. Take the story Dawkins includes in his book about an atheist doctor who wrote to him describing the moving atheist ceremony at his young atheist son’s funeral. Dawkins uses the story to point out that atheists can be comforted by their beliefs at the big moments—death, for instance— just as religious people are comforted by religion. However, Dawkins also works in the address of his website, by just happening to mention that the grateful bereaved doctor asked the mourners at his son’s funeral to make donations to Dawkins’s foundation’s website—once again listed in the context of the father’s letter.
On the first page of the preface to The God Delusion, Dawkins asks us to imagine a world without religion and tells us that without religion, the World Trade Center would be standing, John Lennon would be alive, there would’ve been no Crusades and no witch hunts, no partition of India, no Palestinian/Israeli conflict. He then tells us that what he objects to most about religion is the way it captures children.
“I want everybody to flinch,” Dawkins writes, “whenever we hear a phrase such as ‘Catholic child’ or ‘Muslim child.’ Speak of a child of Catholic parents if you like; but if you hear anybody speak of a ‘Catholic child,’ stop them and politely point out that children are too young to know where they stand on such issues, just as they are too young to know where they stand on economics and politics.” Given that a few pages earlier in the book Dawkins tells us the story of the atheist doctor and his devoutly atheist child, I wonder whether Dawkins wrote to that father asking him if he’d given his son the chance to make up his mind about religion by regularly taking him to attend church services. For that matter does Dawkins object to babies being given passports before they get to choose their country?
Just in case not all past or present scientists have gotten Dawkins’s consciousness-raising memo re their God delusions, Dawkins notes that “Great scientists of our time who sound religious usually turn out not to be so when you examine their beliefs more deeply.” He makes a particular point of saying that Einstein was horribly misunderstood when it comes to the impression that he had any sort of religious sensibility.
Dawkins writes, “Let me sum up [Einstein’s] religion in [a] quotation from Einstein himself: ‘To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and this beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious.’” Dawkins then says of the Einstein quote, “In this sense I too am religious, with the reservation that ‘cannot grasp’ does not have to mean ‘forever ungraspable.’” Dawkins adds, “My title, The God Delusion, does not refer to the God of Einstein and the other enlightened scientists. . . . That is why I needed to get Einsteinian religion out of the way to begin with: it has a proven capacity to confuse.”
It takes a lot of hard work by Dawkins to make sure we’re never confused and to prove that the big-name scientists have all been atheists, or at least not believers of the kind he doesn’t approve of. “Newton did indeed claim to be religious. So did almost everybody until significantly I think the nineteenth-century . . . great scientists who professed religion become harder to find the 20th-century. . . . I suspect that most of the more recent ones are religious only in the Einsteinian sense which, I argued . . . is a misuse of the word.” Dawkins notes that today he knows of only three scientists in Britain who claim to be religious. And as for those scientists in the past who claimed to be religious, Dawkins says that because everyone had to say nice things about religion in those days, they probably weren’t religious anyway, just pretending to be.
Cleaning up of the historical record is an obsession with Dawkins. Not only the present and future must go his way, but the past too. He finds himself compelled to make sure that we know that “The deist God of Voltaire and Thomas Paine . . . [is not] the Old Testament psychotic delinquent . . . the deist God of the 18th¬century Enlightenment is an altogether grander being: worthy of his cosmic creation.” Dawkins says that (1) Voltaire and Thomas Paine and Einstein would actually be on his side whatever they said, if they had only had the foresight and moral courage to be a little clearer, and that (2), the Fathers of the Enlightenment, who may have be¬lieved in God, believed in a God that somehow would also be on Dawkins’s side and that their God is not to be confused with the God Dawkins doesn’t like.
It turns out that the deism of the founders of the American republic was also actually mostly atheistic, if properly understood. Dawkins asks how these enlightened men founded a country that became so religious? “Precisely because America is largely secular, religion has become free enterprise . . . what works for soap flakes works for God, and the result is something approaching religious mania amongst today’s less educated classes . . . the Founding Fathers would have been horrified.”
What’s to be done about America’s “less educated classes” who love soap flakes and religion? One answer is to organize speaking tours featuring Dawkins. In his “An Atheist’s Call to Arms,” a talk he gave in California in 2002, Dawkins opened his show with a blast of music from Aida and volunteered, by way of explanation, that he’d “chosen this triumphant music for my funeral.” He will feel triumphant he said . . . then corrected himself quickly since, well, he won’t be feeling anything at his funeral, but, you know, if he could feel, he’d be feeling so good, “at being given the opportunity to understand something about why I was here before I was here.”
The audience seemed somewhat bemused, so Dawkins asked, “Can you understand my quaint English accent?” Big laugh from the audience anxious to prove that although they might not quite get what Dawkins meant by playing and then “explaining” his funerary music as the opening to his remarks, nevertheless, they weren’t members of the less educated classes. So, oh “Yes! Yes!” they called out amid warm laughter, we can understand English accents! They’re like soooo cool!
But, as in so many operatic plots, after the laughter must come the tears! Once the opera selection had played, Dawkins turned to the business at hand and sternly waded into the main point of his talk. “In this country you can’t be too careful,” Dawkins said; “it’s fair to say that American biologists are in a state of war! The war is so worrying that I have to say something about it.”
In The God Delusion, Dawkins paints a similarly sinister picture of the ongoing conspiracy against atheists in America, citing as proof (though he laments that the reporter who heard the president say this didn’t use a tape recorder) a story about President George Bush Sr. saying, “No, I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.” (My family got to know President and Barbara Bush quite well and this story seems very unlikely, given Bush’s rather liberal religious views.)
Dawkins claims that America is in the grip of oppressive religion, to the extent that even the police organize purges against atheists. He explains how the police persecuted an atheist street protester, or so Dawkins has heard. As he points out in his book, “Anecdotes of . . . prejudice [in America] against atheists abound.” Dawkins relates one such anecdote about a cop who was ready to beat up some¬one who organized a peaceful demonstration to warn people about a fraudulent faith healer. Dawkins supplies us with the cop’s dialogue: “‘To hell with you, Buddy. No policeman wants to protect a goddamned atheist. I hope somebody bloodies you up good.’”
When not regaling us with anti-atheist cop dialogue, Dawkins explains, as if to not very bright infants, that
Constructing models is something the human brain is very good at. When we are asleep it is called dreaming; when we are awake we call it imagination or, when it is exceptionally vivid, hallucina¬tion. As Chapter Ten will show, children who have “imaginary friends” sometimes see them clearly, exactly as if they were real. If we are gullible, we don’t recognize hallucination . . . for what it is and we claim to have seen or heard a ghost; or an angel; or God or especially if we happen to be young, female and Catholic the Virgin Mary.
Oh those young female Catholics!
A few chapters into The God Delusion Dawkins gets to his main, and only, point: that the Darwinian biological theory of evolution should be applied to explain the entire universe. Dawkins starts his argument by saying, “A deep understanding of Darwinianism teaches us to be wary of the easy assumption that design is the only alternative to chance.” Dawkins then grasps at and pushes his own easy assumptions. But first he tells us how and why he will be making his argument: “Feminism shows us the power of consciousness raising, and I want to borrow the technique for natural selection.”
Dawkins borrows from the science of biological natural selection too and adapts Darwin’s theory of the evolution of life forms into the speculative field of the creation of everything—in other words, cosmology. Dawkins tells us that his solution to understanding how we all got here is what he calls “the Goldilocks zone,” as with the three bears and the porridge: The conditions for life had to be “just right.”
To find the Goldilocks zone is to discover that with the billions, actually trillions, of planets and perhaps innumerable “other universes” chances are that somewhere conditions would be “just right” for life to evolve. “We live on a planet that is friendly to our kind of life,” Dawkins writes; “there are billions of planets in the universe. . . . Now it is time to take the anthropic principle back to an earlier stage, from biology back to cosmology. . . . Some physicists are known to be religious . . . predictably, they seize upon the improbability of the physical constants . . . in their more or less narrow Goldilocks zones, and suggest that there must be a cosmic intelligence deliberately [doing] the tuning [to get the porridge ‘just right’]. I have already dismissed all such suggestions as raising bigger problems than they solve.”
“I have already dismissed. . . .” So that settles that, God is out. “Goldilocks zones” are in. Narrow-minded physicists, who, unlike Dawkins-the-biologist, deal with cosmology as part of their field of study, are out, or rather “already dismissed.”
Dawkins borrows Daniel Dennett’s phrase about what Dennett calls “the trickle down” theory of creation. Dawkins explains it as “the idea that it takes a big fancy smart thing to make a lesser thing.” This, said Dennett (and Dawkins quotes him), is why people believe in God as creator. But Dawkins goes the next step. Given the improbability, verging on impossibility, of the convergence of factors needed to make and sustain life, Dawkins has his own trickle down theory of a Big Fancy Smart Thing (the huge universe) to make lesser things, in other words: us.
What simplistic evangelical/fundamentalist theology tries to explain about creation, using God as the magical Big Thing, Dawkins does with brain-melting Big Numbers wrapped in meant-to-obfuscate and meant-to-intimidate science jargon. The problem is that neither religious fundamentalists nor Dawkins can explain any of what they claim they are explaining. Why? Because they are deep into the realm that Einstein was talking about: the realm “that our mind cannot grasp and this beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness.”
It turns out that Dawkins agrees with creationists who say that it’s nutty to credit pure chance as responsible for the design of some-thing as complex as life. But Dawkins says that whatever that something is it can’t be God, because “Then you would have to ask, who created the creator?”
Instead of God, Dawkins says he’s discovered “the anthropic principle.” So Dawkins has invented a theology with a scientific-sounding name. He even has doctrines, what he calls the “six fundamental constants of nature,” which for him fill in the “gaps.” Believers could say that God chose these six “laws” to encourage the evolution of life, but Dawkins won’t buy this, because God can’t be explained by Dawkins. Apparently the origin of life, however, can be explained by Dawkins. Dawkins says that the chance that a God exists who was able to figure Dawkins’s six rules out, and thus create the “just right” conditions for life, is as improbable as these rules being “created” by chance.
So after all that we’re back where we started! There is no reason to have a God because in our limitless universe (or universes) any-thing is statistically possible, except for there being a God. Why? Because Dawkins says so. Dawkins’s “anthropic principle” turns out to be Dawkins. Dawkins’s Big Idea seems closer The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy than to science.
It is high time to attempt to explain the black sheep of the New Atheist family, the sexually obsessed, sibling-rival, left-wing radical turned right-wing Jihadist, and one of the least pleasant commentators on the current scene, Christopher Hitchens, author of the bestseller God Is Not Great. As best as I can figure him, Christopher Hitchens hates God for two reasons. First, because (judging on the basis of what he’s written and is quoted as having said) he likes sex and thinks religious people don’t. Second, because (judging on that same basis), he loathes his younger brother Peter Hitchens, also a well-known writer and a rival political commentator, with whom Christopher Hitchens has had a long and bitter feud over theology and politics. Peter Hitchens is a practicing and devout Anglican and a convert from the far, far loony Trotskyite British left that both he and Christopher Hitchens once embraced.
The fact is, I “get” Christopher Hitchens’s obsessions and his bizarre rationales for his aggressive atheism and anti-clericalism. I get his split with his religious brother Peter Hitchens too. I understand this chemistry all too well, because my leaving the evangelical/fundamentalist fold was—for a time—a break with my siblings too, one that infuriated my parents’ right-wing fundamentalist followers. I get the sex bit too. Sex is all over my novels too. I get Hitchens.
God Is Not Great is an entertaining book. On the other hand it’s so skewed that, unlike Daniel Dennett’s serious and beautiful Breaking the Spell, Hitchens’s book adds little to the discussion of religion besides a kind of furiously demented anti-God entertainment, an odd mix of philosophizing combined with working out the author’s very particular psychological problems.
Hitchens describes how he converted to religion in order to marry. He joined the Greek Orthodox Church to please the family of his first wife. Then he divorced and abandoned that faith. But apparently Orthodoxy meant something more to him than mere convenience, because he writes about how wonderful it felt to shout out “Christ is risen!” at the Easter services, and how he was swept up in that experience. Hitchens also says, “There are days when I miss my old convictions as if they were an amputated limb.” Maybe he’s talking about those Easter services, or perhaps he’s talking about his old Trotskyite certainties.
As Hitchens summarizes his book’s argument, it comes to this: “The first [problem] is that religion and churches are manufactured. . . . The second is that ethics and morality are quite independent of faith. The third is that religion is—because it claims a special divine exemption for its practices and beliefs—not just amoral but immoral.”
What, according to Hitchens, are religion’s sins? Religion is “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and . . . children: organized religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience.”
Hitchens also got sick of expressing gratitude. “Why if god [he uses the lowercase ‘g’ to make a point] was the creator of all things, were we supposed to ‘praise’ him so incessantly for doing what came to him naturally? This seemed servile, apart from anything else.”
Why thank God when “Religion,” Hitchens writes, “spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago.” And what should Hitchens’s readers make of religious people who have been seduced by those “inspiring words” and then been mistaken for heroes? Consider Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor hanged by the Nazis for his refusal to collude with them. Well, it turns out that Bonhoeffer’s religious heroism was actually a type of humanism, if properly understood.
A couple of pages after Bonhoeffer is dealt with, Hitchens pens a line that could serve as Hitchens’s epitaph: “The person who is certain, and claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species.” In which case, what about Hitchens’s certainties, or, more to the point, what about Martin Luther King Jr.? He seemed to be in possession of a “divine warrant” or thought he was.
“Anybody,” writes Hitchens, “who uses the King legacy to justify the role of religion in public life must accept all the corollaries. . . . Even a glance at the whole record will show, first, that person for person, American free thinkers and agnostics and atheists come out best. The chance that someone’s secular [thinking] or freethinking . . . would cause him or her to denounce the whole in¬justice was extremely high. The chance that someone’s religious beliefs would cause him or her to take a stand against slavery and racism was statistically quite small.” So Martin Luther King Jr. really must have been some sort of secularist too, because it’s just so abnormal for anyone to be both religious and good.
When it comes to the sins of atheism, Hitchens turns to George Orwell for reassurance that somehow, no matter what it looks like, atheism is not true to itself when being bad but, rather is authentically atheist only when it’s good. The rest of the time it may appear that atheism fails from time to time, but that’s not so. “George Orwell . . . whose novels gave us [a] picture of what life in a totalitarian state might truly feel like, was in no doubt about [the fact that] ‘a totalitarian state is in its effect a theocracy.’”
In other words, to Hitchens, Stalin and Hitler and Mao and Pol Pot and their ilk were more to be understood as bad popes than as bad atheists. Evil atheists are not real atheists. Real atheists are by definition free thinkers who do wonderful things, much like Dawkins’s real scientists, who are, also by definition, all atheists, or wish they had been, or would have been if only they could have had a chat with Dawkins.
He may call himself an atheist but Christopher, like his brother Peter, is also a perennial convert. In Christopher Hitchens’s case, though, conversion was not to an ancient religion (except briefly to curry favor with his in-laws) but, early in life, to the political religious cult of extreme Marxism and then, late in mid life, to neoconservatism and jingoistic American exceptionalism. He made this last conversion to the far right after 9/11, when, after a career as a left-wing anti-imperialist, Christopher became a leading advocate and supporter of George W. Bush’s war in Iraq.
This angered his old friends on the left. So Christopher threw them a sop, his Johnny-come-lately jump onto the New Atheist bandwagon. His peace offering was God Is Not Great. He got to kill two birds with one stone: attempted reconciliation with the (often) atheist American left, and another way to stick it to his brother Peter.
Hitchens’s shot at lefty redemption didn’t work. With a “friend” like Hitchens, smart lefties feel they need no enemies. What to do with a man who in a May 2008 Slate article on Michelle Obama (in the wake of L’Affaire Reverend Wright), alleged that her view of America was the same as that of Stokely Carmichael and Louis Farrakhan?!
Here is how Alexander Cockburn, Hitchens’s former, pre–Iraq War colleague at the lefty Nation magazine (from which Hitchens dramatically departed in 2005 after he became a shill for Bush on Iraq), has described how people on the left feel about Hitchens:
What a truly disgusting sack of shit Hitchens is. A guy who called Sid Blumenthal one of his best friends and then tried to have him thrown into prison for perjury; a guy who waited till his friend Edward Said was on his death bed before attacking him in the Atlantic Monthly; a guy who knows perfectly well the role Israel plays in US policy but who does not scruple to flail Cindy Sheehan [a mother who turned peace activist after her soldier son was killed in Iraq] as a LaRouchie and anti-Semite because, maybe, she dared mention the word Israel. She lost a son? Hitchens (who [given Hitchens’s support for Bush’s war] should perhaps be careful on the topic of sending children off to die) says that’s of scant account, and no reason why we should take her seriously. Then he brays about the horrors let loose in Iraq if the troops come home, with no mention of how the invasion he worked for has already unleashed them.
Besides having converted to the war-solves-everything far, far jingoistic neoconservative right, Hitchens seems to have some weird hangups, including ones about Israel, maybe related to his basic God phobia and/or his late-in-life claim that he is a Jew via his mother’s side of the family—whatever. According to Cockburn, “In 1999 Edward Jay Epstein publicly recalled a dinner in the Royalton Hotel in New York where Epstein said Hitchens had doubted the Holocaust was quite what it’s cracked up to be.”
Here’s a guy that may or may not be a closet Holocaust denier but who publicly proclaimed that he’d refuse to care for his brother’s children, should his brother Peter die. As quoted in the Guardian in 2005, Christopher said, “The real difference between Peter and myself is the belief in the supernatural. I’m a materialist and he attributes his presence here to a divine plan. I can’t stand anyone who believes in God, who invokes the divinity or who is a person of faith.”
James Macintyre, who has known both Hitchens brothers for years, dissected their ugly relationship in the June, 11, 2007, issue of The Independent: “Christopher revealed that after he discovered his mother died in mysterious circumstances—apparently a suicide pact with a boyfriend in Athens—he found a note his mother had addressed only to ‘Christopher.’ He has since been quoted as saying, ‘If you were the mother of Christopher and Peter, who would be your secret favorite?’”
It’s hard to imagine a less appealing way of expressing sibling rivalry than citing one’s mother’s suicide note.
The Washington Post reviewer of Hitchens’s book pegged Hitchens’s ignorance about religion. In his May 6, 2008, review, Stephen Prothero (chair of Boston University’s Religion Department) wrote,
What Hitchens gets wrong is religion itself. . . . [he] assumes a childish definition of religion and then criticizes religious people for believing such foolery. But it is Hitchens who is the naïf. . . . Readers with any sense of irony—and here I do not exclude believers— will be surprised to see how little inquiring Hitchens has done and how limited and literal is his own ill-prepared reduction of religion. . . . I have never encountered a book whose author is so fundamentally unacquainted with its subject. In the end, this maddeningly dogmatic book does little more than illustrate one of Hitchens’s pet themes—the ability of dogma to put reason to sleep.
The question: Why is Hitchens so “maddeningly dogmatic”? The answer, again: sex.
What I don’t get is why Hitchens believes that the freedom to have sex is tied to freedom from religion. Who in his circle (or, for that matter, who anywhere) is not having sex these days because of the anything the Pope says? What does Hitchens think all those Muslim sheiks are doing to their twelve-year-old brides in Riyadh? And given the high statistical rates of adultery and divorce in North American evangelical/fundamentalist circles, and (according to studies) the higher-than-average numbers of church-going porn addicts in the Bible belt, who today does Hitchens think is suffering dangerous sexual repression because of a belief in God?
Hitchens’s preoccupation with sex is woven throughout his book and articles. As he pushes into old age, Hitchens’s writing tends to circle back to sex, the wanting and the getting of sex in a schoolboy wanker-style. When asked by an interviewer from the Village Voice (March 18, 2008) to speculate on why New York’s (then governor) Elliott Spitzer risked his career by going to whores, Hitchen’s answer unintentionally revealed his own bottom line (no pun) concerning men given to acting the part of the alpha male. The interviewer asked,
So what in the wide world was Eliot Spitzer thinking? “Oh, that’s easy,” Christopher Hitchens said from his Washington apartment . . . “You wouldn’t be doing any of this if one of the objectives was not to increase the amount of pussy that was available to you. That is what you do. . . . You don’t do it to be, ah, the most approval-rated governor, for fuck’s sake.” During the 1992 presidential primary season, Hitchens pointed out, the day that Clinton won the endorsement was the very day he hit on Paula Jones. “He said, ‘Wait—I could be the next president. . . . Now, where’s the next cutie? Because I need that now, much more than I did 10 minutes ago,’” Hitchens speculated. And likewise with JFK: “With Kennedy, it’s really all over the guy for everyone to see,” Hitchens said. “From dawn till dusk, from soup to nuts, from everything he does to the last day he dies: ‘I do this to get laid.’ What’s the point of all this if I don’t get an orgasm now? What’s the point of being an alpha male? Anyone who doesn’t get this,” [Hitchens] concluded, “doesn’t know.”
Besides obsessing over his brother Peter, why does Hitchens bother writing? Take a wild guess. Here’s Hitchens’s answer as offered in his article on “Why Women Aren’t Funny” in Vanity Fair of January 2007. “The chief task in life that a man has to perform is that of impressing the opposite sex.” Hitchens explains that his method to get into bed with women is to make them laugh “with their mouths wide open.” That, he claims, is his best shot. He concludes, “If I am correct about this, which I am, then the explanation for the superior funniness of men is much the same as for the inferior funniness of women.” In other words, men are funny in order to impress humorless women into having sex with them.
According to Hitchens, women are humorless because they make babies, and he notes that that’s why “episiotomy jokes” fall flat with women and advises would be seducers to avoid dead child jokes too.
Hitchens gets to the nub of his grudge against God when he lashes out against what he calls “the three great monotheisms.” Hitchens says that the concept of God is a “totalitarian belief.” He ends his book with this statement on the all-important last page:
Above all, we are in need of a renewed Enlightenment. . . . The pursuit of unfettered scientific inquiry, and the availability of new findings to masses of people by electronic means, will revolution¬ize our concepts of research and development. Very importantly, the divorce between the sexual life and fear, and the sexual life and disease, and the sexual life and tyranny, can now at last be attempted, on the sole condition that we banish all religions from the discourse.
Hitchens is also fascinated by the temporary marriages offered by religious leaders in Iran and then tells us that:
The relationship between physical health and mental health is well understood to have a strong connection to the sexual function, or dysfunction. Can it be a coincidence, then, that all religions claim the right to litigate in matters of sex? To survey the history of sex¬ual dread and proscription, as codified by religion, is to be met with a very disturbing . . . extreme repression. Almost every sex¬ual impulse has been made the occasion for prohibition, guilt, and shame . . . oral sex, anal sex, non-missionary-position sex. . . . Clearly, the human species is designed to experiment with sex.
Sex and brother Peter aside, Hitchens’s views strike me as a version of the no-elephant pebble story. A man says that carrying a particular magic pebble in his pocket keeps elephants out of the room. He always carries the pebble, and there never are any elephants in any rooms he walks into! Hitchens treats religion as his pet “pebble”: People are bad, and religion is always lurking about, so there¬fore, religion is making people bad.
But does religion make people worse than they would be without religion? Twenty-first-century Britain is more atheistic than ever, yet crime has gone up. Iran became a theocracy and more religious than ever, and crime went up there as well (not to mention state-sponsored terror). What do the atheist Britons and religious Iranians have in common? They’re human. Whatever they say they believe, and they evolved from the same tribe of marauding murdering monkeys we all descended from.
Whatever the merits of his arguments, to put it mildly, Hitchens ideas don’t seem to have worked out too well for him personally. If Hitchens being Hitchens is an example of those “hardwon human attainments,” the rest of us would do well to avoid them. If Dawkins messianic/commercial website is the future of atheism, we might just be entering a new age of religion pushed there by the reaction to the reaction against religion.