Lonely Atheists of the Global Village
By Michael Novak
National Review, March 19, 2007
Edited by Andy Ross
Letter to a Christian Nation
by Sam Harris
Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon
by Daniel C. Dennett
The God Delusion
by Richard Dawkins
These books have three purposes: to speed up the disappearance of Biblical
faith; to proselytize for rational atheism; and to boost morale among
atheists. Their overriding purpose is to demolish the intellectual and moral
pretensions of Christianity. But all three books evince considerable disdain
for Judaism, too. And it is not as if they admire Islam; rather, they use
Islam as a weapon for bashing Christianity and Judaism. The main intention
of all three authors is to praise the superiority of atheism.
Dennett, and Dawkins all think that religion is so great a menace that they
are not disposed for dialog. In these books there is no evidence that their
authors have any doubts whatever about the rightness of their own atheism.
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. His prison experiences led him to dimensions of reason that
far exceeded anything he had encountered in his earlier scientific practice.
Sharansky writes very little directly about God, but he came to see
something profoundly deficient in his earlier scientific habits of mind.
These were noble as far as they go, and he has never renounced them, but in
his extreme circumstances they proved too limited.
and Dawkins paid no attention to conversion experiences and narratives of
fidelity, which are so common in the prison literature of our time.
Moreover, none of them ever put their 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 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.
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.
It hardly dawns upon them that the Biblical faiths have been, from the very
beginning, in constant dialog with skeptical and secular intelligence.
Anything finite that we encounter can be questioned. That is the experience
that keeps driving the mind and soul on and on. Questions have been the
heart and soul of Judaism and Christianity for millennia.
three authors write as if science is the be-all and end-all of rational
discourse, these three books are by no means scientific. Surely, one of the
noblest works of reason is to enter into respectful argument with others,
whose vision of reality is dramatically different from one's own, in order
that both parties may learn from this exchange, and come to a deeper mutual
I have no doubt that Christians have committed many evils,
and written some disgraceful pages in human history. Still, any fair
measuring of the impact of Judaism and Christianity on history has a lot of
positives to add to the ledger. Alfred North Whitehead points out that the
practices of modern science are inconceivable apart from thousands of years
of tutelage under the Jewish and Christian conviction that the Creator of
all things understood all things. This conviction, Whitehead writes, made
long, disciplined efforts to apply reason to the sustained Herculean task of
understanding all things seem reasonable.
I wish I could write that
Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris are more open and respectful than Dawkins; but
their books, too, were disappointments. The letter that Harris claims is
intended for a Christian nation is in fact wholly uninterested in
Christianity on any level, is hugely ignorant, and essentially represents
his own love letter to himself. Dennett's concept of reason and science is
so narrow that his main thesis, that religion is a natural phenomenon, was
already hoary in the time of St. Augustine.
The Christian reader will smile at the primitive fresco of Christianity
painted by Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris. Thus it seems useful to sketch out
some of the facets of Christian faith to which our atheist threesome seems
1 The Absurd
When Christians speak of the act of Creation, we do not think of a
perfectionist artificer but rather of God creating flesh and blood in all
its angularity, deformations, imperfections, and concrete limitations. The
world of His creation is riven through with absurdities and contradictions.
When He singles out a chosen people, He picks a small and difficult tribe.
Then, when the Creator sends His Son to become flesh, the Son also roots His
new community mainly among the poor, the uneducated, the humble, the
forgotten. This Creator did not make us to face a reasonable world in a
rational, calm, and dispassionate way. Atheism is in the main for
comfortable men, in a reasonable world. For those in agony and distress,
Christianity has seemed to serve much better and for a longer time, not
because it offers “consolation” but precisely because it does not. For
Christians, faith is essentially a quiet act of love, even in misery. Our
God is the God of the Absurd, of suffering and silent peace.
It seems to be one of
the blessings of atheism that it takes away any sense of sin. Christianity
is about moral realism, and moral humility. Wherever you see self-righteous
persons condemning others and unaware of their own sins, you are not in the
presence of an alert Christian but of a priggish pretender. It was in fact a
great revolution in human history when the Jewish and Christian God revealed
Himself as one who sees directly into consciences, and is not misled merely
by external acts.
Liberty is the main theme of the Jewish Testament. For Biblical religion,
liberty is the golden thread of human history. No other world religions
except Christianity and Judaism have put liberty of conscience so close to
the center of religious life. For instance, Islam tends to think of God in
terms of divine will, quite apart from nature or logic. Judaism and
Christianity tend to think of God as Logos, light, source of all law and the
intelligibility of all things.
If it has ever occurred to you to ask why did God
create this cosmos, you might find your best answer in the single word
"friendship." According to the Scriptures, intelligently read, the Creator
made human beings conscious enough that they might give Him thanks, in order
to offer to them His friendship. From this vision, Judaism and Christianity
imparted to the world a way of measuring progress and decline. Friendship
does not require uniformity. Its fundamental demand is mutual respect.
Some Differences between Christianity and Atheism
These four principles do not exclude the viewpoint of the atheist.
Christians can better sympathize with the contemporary atheists than the
latter can sympathize with Christians. The three books show how hard it is
for the contemporary atheist to show much sympathy for a Christian way of
seeing reality. Since just over two billion persons on our planet today are
Christians, the inability of the contemporary atheist to summon up fellow
feeling for so many companions seems to be a severe human handicap.
The odd way in which Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris understand human life is
something the sensitive believer must necessarily learn along the way. I
cannot imagine getting through graduate studies at Harvard, teaching at
Stanford and other universities, without learning how to think, and speak,
and work within the horizon, viewpoints, methods, and disciplines of the
When a Christian reader comes across Dawkins' argument that
God cannot exist, because all complex and more intelligent things come only
at the end of the evolutionary process, not at the beginning, the
Christian's first reflex may be to burst out laughing. There is no
difficulty in accepting all the findings of evolutionary biology, while not
accepting evolutionary biology as a philosophy of existence, a metaphysics,
a full vision of human life.
But atheism has a more severe
limitation. Harris attempts to explain away the horrors of the self-declared
atheist regimes in modern history: Fascist in Italy, Nazi in Germany, and
Communist in the Soviet Union. The excuse Harris offers is quite lame. He
directs attention toward the personalities of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin.
The real problem is that tyrants splash around in the bloodshed permitted by
the ultimate relativism of all things. It is each man for himself.
morality were left to reason alone, common agreement would never be reached,
since philosophers disagree, and large majorities would waver without clear
moral signals. In times of stress, distinguished intellectuals such as
Heidegger and various precursors of postmodernism displayed a shameless
adaptation to Nazi or Communist imperatives.
Finally, our three
authors fail to think carefully about what Jews and Christians actually have
to say about God. Their own atheistic concept of God is a caricature.
Dawkins makes fun of an omniscient God who would also be free. But this is
to fail to grasp the difference between a viewpoint from eternity and a
viewpoint from within time. God's will is not before human decisions are
made. Rather, it is simultaneous with them, and thus empowers their being
made. Our three authors present a quite primitive idea of God.
whole inner world of aware and self-questioning religious persons seems to
be territory unexplored by our authors. All around them are millions who
spend many moments each day in communion with God. Yet the authors seem
unaware of those moments.
We might wish our three authors had done
more to close the great divide between belief and unbelief in the human
spirit of our time. Still, we can be grateful that our authors have opened a
window into the souls of atheists.
If God Is Dead, Who Gets His House?
New York Magazine, April 21, 2008
Edited by Andy Ross
Richard Dawkins and his colleagues had helped to produce a kind of atheist
big bang, a new beginning. The fastest-growing faith in the country is no
faith at all.
Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and
Dawkins — the Four Horsemen — have succeeded in mainstreaming atheism in a
nation that is still overwhelmingly religious. But for some atheist foot
soldiers, the Four Horsemen have only started the journey. Atheism's great
awakening is in need of a doctrine. "People perceive us as only rejecting
things," says Ken Bronstein, the president of a local group called New York
City Atheists. "Everybody wants to know, 'Okay, you're an atheist, now
So some atheists are taking seriously the idea that atheism
needs to stand for things, like evolution and ethics, not just against
things, like God. Churches fill needs, inculcate ethics, give meaning, build
communities. "Science and reason are important," says Greg Epstein, the
humanist chaplain of Harvard University. "But science and reason won't visit
you in the hospital."
On a recent chilly Friday night, a few dozen
members of the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism were gathered
downstairs at the Village Community School on West 10th Street for Shabbat.
For them, this is a monthly ritual that includes lighting candles and
singing Jewish songs that have been carefully excised of a deity. According
to the congregation's leader, the humanist rabbi Peter Schweitzer, Judaism
is mostly a culture.
Schweitzer tells me that Humanistic Judaism was
founded in the early sixties by a former Reform rabbi from Michigan named
Sherwin Wine. Wine coined the term ignostic — you're never going to know
what God is, so why waste your time worrying about it? "God is a construct
of the mind," he says. "Maybe you get there. Maybe you don't."
Schweitzer sees Humanistic Judaism as an obvious extension of a North
American Jewry that is already highly secular — one that for decades has
made "the deli a more significant cultural force than the synagogue." Many
secular Jews continue to feel a strong connection to their cultural roots.
Orthodox or not, for many traditional atheists, the word church is
taboo, even if God is definitely not in residence. When Tim Gorski, a Texas
physician, approached Paul Kurtz, an influential atheist who now chairs an
atheist think tank, about his plans to start the North Texas Church of
Freethought in the nineties, Kurtz discouraged him, on the grounds that
atheists don't need church.
Gorski believes that a church is not
necessarily God's house. It belongs, first, to the people. Many atheists, he
says, misunderstand why people go to church. "It isn't the specific
doctrines," he says. "[Church] binds people together and relates them to one
another and gives them each a personal, private, and, of course, quite
subjective understanding of themselves and their world."
atheists see the challenge of tearing down the pillars of organized religion
as far from over. And that work should take precedence over any kind of
As a political strategy, however, that may be
shortsighted. Greg Epstein, who like Schweitzer is a student of Humanistic
Judaism, is an outspoken voice for humanism in the United States and has
made waves among atheists by arguing that the militancy of the Four Horsemen
could derail an otherwise powerful movement.
In February, Epstein
spoke to members of the Society for Ethical Culture to try to light a fire
under an assembly whose numbers have been dwindling for decades. Founded by
Felix Adler, the son of a rabbi, to drive social-justice initiatives and
promote good without God, Ethical Culture walks like a church and talks like
a church. Epstein is eyeing the group's building as a prototype for the
church of New Humanism. Modeled on a Greco-Roman coliseum, Ethical Culture
has semi-circular pews to promote conversation and a low stage designed to
minimize the distance between leader and congregation.
Horsemen haven't completely turned their back on the movement they've helped
to ignite. Richard Dawkins has launched his Web-based out campaign to
encourage atheists to come out of the closet. Sam Harris, who says playing
the victim is the wrong approach, is starting something called the Reason
Christopher Hitchens prefers the term anti-theist because
he's entertained the possibility that God exists and finds the prospect
frightening. Daniel Dennett continues to promote the term bright, which, he
has said, is "modeled very deliberately and very consciously on the
homosexual adoption of the word gay." And Sam Harris triggered a minor
revolt last fall at the Atheist Alliance International Conference in Crystal
City, Virginia, when he lashed out against the term.
"The last thing atheists want to see is their rational set of ideas yoked up
with the trappings of a religion."
Richard Dawkins: "In the larger
war against supernaturalism, frankly, it doesn't help to fraternize with the
AR (2008) The four horsemen have opened a can
of worms. The Abrahamic God cults (the cults of the god of our fathers —
Goof) have a lot more going for them than a story of meaning and purpose.
That goofy story is debunked, sure, but the inchoate yearning within us that
finds expression in our appetite for such stories will not be satisfied with