The New New Atheism
By Peter Berkowitz
The Wall Street Journal, July 16, 2007
Edited by Andy Ross
In less than 12
months, atheism's newest champions have sold close to a million books. Some
500,000 hardcover copies are in print of Richard Dawkins's "The God
Delusion" (2006); 296,000 copies of Christopher Hitchens's "God Is Not
Great: How Religion Poisons Everything" (2007); 185,000 copies of Sam
Harris's "Letter to a Christian Nation" (2006); 64,100 copies of Daniel C.
Dennett's "Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon"; and 60,000
copies of Victor J. Stenger's "God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows
that God Does not Exist" (2007). Messrs. Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and the
rest contend that we can now know, with finality and certainty, that God
does not exist and organized religion is a fraud.
The case for the
new new atheism has been restated most recently and most forcefully and
wittily in "God Is Not Great" by Mr. Hitchens. But his arguments do not come
close to disproving God's existence or demonstrating that religion is
Mr. Hitchens knows perfectly well that human beings
are not born in purity and freedom, and then made savage by the imposition
of the chains of religion.
Mr. Hitchens mocks the crudity of the biblical
principle known in Latin as lex talionis, or an "eye for an eye, a tooth for
a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot." But suppose that the
biblical principle put an end to the practice of taking a leg for a foot and
a life for an eye, and in its place established a principle that the
punishment should fit the crime.
Mr. Hitchens heaps scorn on the biblical
story of Abraham's binding of Isaac, in which, at the last moment, an angel
stays Abraham's hand. Yet his scorn is undermined by the common
interpretation according to which God's testing of Abraham taught that the
then widespread practice of child-sacrifice must be put to an end
Mr. Hitchens has next to nothing to say about the historical role of
religion, particularly Christianity, particularly in America, in nourishing
the soil in which our widely and deeply shared beliefs in liberty, democracy
and equality took root and grew strong.
Mr. Hitchens anticipates that critics
will point to those crimes against humanity committed in the name of secular
ideas in the 20th century. He holds out the utopian hope that eradicating
religion will subdue humanity's evil propensities and resolve its enduring
Mr. Hitchens claims that the Bible abounds in falsehood and
contradiction, but isolating the supposed religious significance of the
Bible from the communities and interpretive traditions that have elaborated
its teaching is invalid.
Mr. Hitchens shows no awareness that his atheism,
far from resulting from skeptical inquiry, is the rigidly dogmatic premise
from which his inquiries proceed, and that it colors all his observations
and determines his conclusions.
Mr. Hitchens is by far the most erudite and
entertaining of the new new atheists. But his errors and his excesses are
shared by the whole lot. And these errors and excesses have pernicious