Is atheism good for the world?

Amanda Read, columnist for “Communities” at WashingtonTimes.com, provides a helpful summary of a  2010 debate held one week after the nine year anniversary of 9/11 in her article “Does Atheism Poison Everything?” The debate was between David Berlinski, an agnostic and secular Jew critical of dogmatic Darwinianism, and Christopher Hitchens, the well known atheist author:

Berlinski seemed to have the upper hand in most of the debate because of this. He cited a social history of atheism, which brought him to the conclusion, “I submit to you that [regarding the notable regimes in that history] the 20th century was one of unparalleled stupidity, brutality and violence.”

Berlinski said that the deplorable regimes of that century were ruled by leaders whose agendas were influenced by atheism, notably because they believed in “no greater power than their own.”  He also said they derived support from “crackpot theories” in the field of science.

Furthermore, Berlinski said the “inquiry about atheism is not necessary for scientific [progress]” and that the “serious sciences” (math and physics) do not argue for or against God. He pointed out that Christianity developed the Western scientific tradition (even Hitchens conceded this) and reasoned that atheism ultimately has a “deforming influence on science.” To explain consistency in the universe and find stability in civilization, Berlinski said that the Judeo-Christian view is the most reasonable and sufficient for society.

British journalist, Ed West, voices similar concerns in his Telegraph article published on September 10, 2010:

But what’s odd is that this movement (the new atheism) has attracted so many conservatives and especially libertarians. Odd for two reasons: one, because the essential utopianism behind the anti-religious movement follows the tradition of Rousseau, Marx and Lenin in believing that human beings are perfectable. Professor Richard Dawkins recently said in his television documentary that in a world without religion, “good people would not do bad things”.

How can a man who knows such a vast amount about human biology understand so little of the human heart? Good people will always do bad things, because humans are often weak, selfish and stupid, and they certainly don’t need religion to make them do that, as the 20th century showed.

Even The Huffington Post ran a controversial piece written by Kimberly Winston published only a month ago under the title of “New Atheists Emerge from 911” in which she states:

In September 2001, Sam Harris was an unknown doctoral student who didn’t believe in God. But after the World Trade Center crumbled on 9/11, he put his studies aside to write a book that became an instant best-seller — and changed the way atheists, and perhaps Muslims, are perceived in this country. Published in 2004, Harris’s “The End of Faith” launched the so-called “New Atheist” movement, a make-no-apologies ideology that maintains that religion is not just flawed, but evil, and must be rejected.

In the book, Harris frequently uses the image of a Muslim suicide bomber to highlight the dangers of religion, depicting Islam as a “cult of death” and a “machinery of intolerance and suicidal grandiosity.” Within two years, Harris was joined on the best-seller list by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett, who all took religion to task for most — if not all — of the world’s ills.

Collectively, the men whose books sold millions of copies around the world came to be known as the apocalyptic-sounding “Four Horsemen.” Now, 10 years after the 9/11 attacks that launched the movement, freethinkers are taking stock of the New Atheists contributions to their community, which includes atheists, agnostics, humanists and other nonreligionists…

According to Winston, not all skeptics are thankful for the ethos of the new atheist best-selling authors:

“I think religion should be treated with ridicule, hatred and contempt, and I claim that right,” Hitchens told a Toronto audience in 2007. Freethinkers who are in dialogue with people of faith are “accommodationists,” the New Atheists have charged, and “enemies” of the movement.

That rift has had real consequences. In 2010, Paul Kurtz resigned as founding leader of the Council for Secular Humanism and the Center for Inquiry in what he described as a “palace coup.” Talk amongst the freethinkers was that Kurtz was too accommodationist.

“They’re anti-religious, and they’re mean-spirited, unfortunately,” Kurtz told NPR in 2009. “Now, they’re very good atheists and very dedicated people who do not believe in God. But you have this aggressive and militant phase of atheism, and that does more damage than good.”

In the 2010 book The New Atheist Novel: Fiction, Philosophy and Polemic After 9/11, the authors outline both the historical revisionism and self-referential nature of this strand of militant atheism:

As many critics have pointed out, the preface to Richard Dawkin’s The God Delusion consists of one long unverified (and frankly unverifiable) speculation about a world without God: ‘Imagine, with John Lennon, a world with no religion’ (pp.23-4). Quite evidently, Dawkins himself imagines such a world would also be one without suicide bombers (but what about the Marxist-Leninist Tamil Tigers or the Communists in 1980s Lebanon?), without the Israeli/Palestinian conflict (but wasn’t the PLO historically a secular nationalist organization?) and even without the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’ (but was the IRA war against the Britist state really all about the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation?).

When Dawkins and Harris turn to the small matter of the atheist tyrannies of the twentieth century, it is only to explain that Hitler was probably a Catholic anyway (but wasn’t he, if anything, a social Darwinist?) whereas Stalin’s and Mao’s atrocities had nothing to do with their non-belief (try telling that to the Orthodox Church in the Soviet Union or the people of Tibet).

Perhaps – in the absence of any compelling intellectual merits – it might be more plausible to see the New Atheism as a particularly virulent species of what Dawkins famously calls a ‘meme’: a cultural gene that spreads through self-replication, imitation and selection. Such a thesis – unverifiable though it again may be – would at least have the benefit of explaining one of the most curious aspects of the movement: its almost totally circular self-referentiality.

As we move into the weekend of the anniversary of 9/11 we will likely hear the new atheist propaganda that religion poisons everything. Careful observers will have to determine for themselves the validity of this claim. As we should rightfully oppose the violent fundamentalism of any group, the question must be raised “Is religion ultimately the enemy?”  Herein The Atheist Novel is again insightful:

To make our own stance absolutely clear, (they – the New Atheists) are right to challenge religion if and when it inspires anti-rationalism, misogyny, racism and terrorism. However, this book has tried to argue that their fictions are by no means immune to the very irrationalism, intolerance and ignorance they seek to contest. For all its claims to occupy a free, open and rational space where anything can be thought and said, the New Atheist novel frequently resembles nothing so much as an aesthetico-political echo chamber in which the same shrill voices reverberate louder and louder.

It might surprise the reader to know that the book The New Atheist Novel is coauthored by a Christian and an atheist.  Authors Andrew Tate and Arthur Bradley rightfully remind the reader that hatred is not best fought with more hatred, nor vitriol with more vitriol. It appears that something else is needed.

I’m reminded of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel’s words from nearly a year ago in response to the growing number of Muslim immigrants moving into Europe, “We don’t have too much Islam, we have too little Christianity. We have too few discussions about the Christian view of mankind.” Of course a very different message was once heard from Germany’s leaders in the 1930s and 40s. Thinking men and women will determine for themselves which message is better for society.

Ultimately this is not about a false dilemma between people being forced to be religious or non-religious. The issue of freedom is central to the conversation. This is a freedom for which many men and women have given their lives. And it’s the freedom upon which our country is founded. Far from being true of all or even most skeptics, the new atheists disdain religious freedom. To realize a world devoid of religion appears to be their highest aspiration.

This is of course not true of all atheists. One atheist student from a Florida university said in the aforementioned Huffington Post article, “‘Now it is OK to be a moderate atheist because you can point to the stridency of the New Atheists and say, ‘At least I am not one of them,’ he said.” I’m thankful that the new atheists provocateurs are being recognized and marginalized for the extreme message they promote.

Like most people around the world, religious and non-religious alike, I will spend the weekend with a deep sense of gratitude for those brave men and women who — like my brother stationed in Afghanistan even as I write this — proudly defend this freedom. It is a freedom I believe all men have been endowed with by their Creator. Even those who deny His existence.

King Solomon wrote the words, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth.” This weekend I will remember my Creator. I’ll remember 9/11. And I’ll remember my brother who, along with thousands of others, stands to make such a memory possible.