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.

Harris, 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.

Dennett, Harris, 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.

While all 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 respect.

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.

Real Christianity

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 inattentive.

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.

2 Sin
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.

3 Liberty
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.

4 Friendship
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 atheist.

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.

If 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.

The 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?

By Sean McManus
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 what?' "

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."

Many 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 organization-building.

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.

The Four 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 Project.

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.

Daniel Dennett: "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 enemy."

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 reason alone.