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 irredeemably evil.

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 forever.

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 questions.

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 political consequences.