Some Thoughts On The New Atheism Books

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Original Post

I have been having a useful and friendly dialogue both on this blog and by email with an atheist blogger, "The Exterminator", whose blog "No More Hornets" is worth taking a look at. In that dialogue, he has made the point that one reason why we have seen several atheist books by Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennet and Harris is that religion--at least in the United States--has become more politicized. And perhaps, more importantly, American political life has become less secular. This same point was made in a recent Cox News story:
There is indeed a prominent conversation about religion and politics taking place in American media, much of it a direct response to the so-called "trinity" of atheist authors — Hitchens joins Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, whose recent landmark books, "The End of Faith" and "The God Delusion," respectively, lambaste religion as both preposterous and dangerous while science and reason empower humans with saving grace.

Now come the reprisals. Book publishers are preparing to unleash salvos by the believers such as "The Dawkins Delusion," by Alister McGrath, an Oxford University professor of historical theology.

But why all the hubbub? Why the sudden flurry of books trashing religion and the broad-based scrutiny of belief in God?

The short answer: culture wars.

The books widely are considered backlash to the perceived power of America's Religious Right in America, experts say.

But shifting demographics created something of a powder keg.

John Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum for Religion and Public Life, says America's "nonreligious population" — agnostics, atheists and those who don't identify with organized religion — doubled in the past decade to roughly 13 percent. In the last two decades, atheists grew from less than 1 percent to up to 2 percent — roughly the size of the country's Jewish population and three to four times larger than its Muslim populace.

While the intermingling of religion and politics is as old as America, the linkage between a party with a distinct religion is new, according to Stephen Prothero, chair of Boston University's religion department, who says today's Republican Party is "starting to look more like an old-fashioned Christian political party in Europe. We haven't really had that before."

Hitchens' motivation for writing his latest book is the increasing clash of religion with politics, the latter held hostage to the former in fear, he says, noting, for example, diplomatic silence amid the Danish cartoon riots. Referring to Iran's nuclear arms race, he asks, "What happens when a messianic ideology meets an apocalyptic weapon?

Read it all.

I think that there are important lessons here for progressive and moderate Christians. First, while we may applaud the fact that the religious left is finally getting attention--by events like the Faith and Politics Forum with the top three Democratic candidates--we need to make sure that we don't turn ourselves into a mirror image of the religious right. Yes, we want Americans to understand that Jerry Falwell did not speak for all Christians, but we must be very careful that we don't come close to implying that we believe in a religious test for our political leaders. I, for one, am pleased that Edwards, Obama and Clinton have genuine faith, but my decision to support one of them will be driven by their larger character, their leadership skills and their views on issues--not their religious faith.

To that end, I think it wise to listen to the warnings of C.S. Lewis about the theocratic temptation in an essay entitled, "A Reply to Professor Haldane" (Lewis, C.S. "A Reply to Professor Haldane." On Sotries. ed. Walter Hooper. Harcort & Brace Co. Orlando, Florida. 1996.):

I am a democrat because I believe that no man or group of men is good enough to be trusted with uncontrolled power over others. And the higher the pretensions of such power, the more dangerous I think it both to rulers and to the subjects. Hence Theocracy is the worst of all governments. If we must have a tyrant a robber barron is far better than an inquisitor. The baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity at some point may be sated; and since he dimly knows he is doing wrong he may possibly repent. But the inquisitor who mistakes his own cruelty and lust of power and fear for the voice of Heaven will torment us infinitely more because he torments us with the approval of his own conscience and his better impulses appear to him as temptations. And since Theocracy is the worst, the nearer any government approaches to Theocracy the worse it will be. A metaphysic held by the rulers with the force of a religion, is a bad sign. It forbids them, like the inquisitor, to admit any grain of truth or good in their opponents, it abrogates the ordinary rules of morality, and it gives a seemingly high, super-personal sanction to all the very ordinary human passions by which, like other men, the rulers will frequently be actuated. In a word, it forbids wholesome doubt. A political programme can never in reality be more than probably right. We never know all the facts about the present and we can only guess the future. To attach to a party programme--whose highest claim is to reasonable prudence--the sort of assent which we should reserve for demonstrable theorems, is a kind of intoxication.

Second, we must stop pretending that it is somehow wrong to challenge religious belief. Yes, it is uncomfortable for progressive and moderate Christians to be challenged for the alleged irrationality of our faith. We are more used to being challenged from our more orthodox Christian brothers and sisters. Nonetheless, this challenge from the atheists should be viewed as an opportunity to take a good hard look at our own faith.

I would therefore suggest that we accept this challenge, and engage in the debate in the same spirit that Father Matthew Moretz does in this video response to the atheist "Blasphemy challenge":


Chuck: This post, including your commentary, the C.S. Lewis quote and the YouTube video, sums up my feelings very nicely.

There are a few misleading implications in Rachel Pomerance's Cox story, though. I'd like to clear the worst one up for the record. She quotes Victor Pentz as repeating the oft-stated idea: "After all, Nazism and Communism, two movements devoid of religion, were responsible for the greatest bloodshed in recent times ...." Nonbelievers would point out that neither the Nazi leaders nor the Communist leaders perpetrated their atrocities in the name of atheism. One could argue, in fact, that both Nazism and Communism were secular religions, with their own collections of "Thou Shalts" and "Thou Shalt Nots." The state was the god-substitute, and its leaders demanded blind faith from the populace. This is a tactic which was learned well from religion, not atheism.

I'll be recommending this post on my own blog later today. Expect some atheist traffic on your site.
tobe38 said…

Allow me to be the first atheist visiting via No More Hornets to say well done, I applaud your open minded stance.
Chuck Blanchard said…
Welcome, and thanks to both the exterminator and tobe38 (who comes from the U.K. no less).

I very purposely did not quote the Victor Pentz quotes because I find the argument about who caused the most wars quite tiresome. I beleive that human beings (including religious leaders and atheists alike) are fallible, and will find any number of reasons to justify violence and war. Idelogy, nationalism, racism and pure greed would cause these types of wars even absent relgious belief.
Blue Gal said…
Very cool I'm linking both you and The Exterminator tomorrow at Crooks and Liars.
Michael Krahn said…
Hey Chuck,

I'm a Christian who is working on a series on Dawkins' book "The God Delusion" at my blog at:

There's already a good discussion underway. Join in!

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