Summer/Fall 2007, Vol. 10, Nos. 1 & 2

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From the Editor:

Beating Up on the New Atheists

Romney and the Mormon Moment

The Democrats Get Religion

No More Mr. Nice Pope

Establishing Religion by Executive Order

The Gospel According to South Park

People Who Loved Tammy Faye



Beating Up on the New Atheists   
y Bernard Lightman

Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (2006) and Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation (2006) came first, closely followed by Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (2006). Then Christopher Hitchens’ God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007) hit the newsstands and bookstores. 

Two successful books by atheists can be written off as a coincidence. Three begin to constitute a trend. But four in two years signal a significant cultural phenomenon.

On June 17, Ronald Aronson of the Chicago Sun-Times referred to the four as a “remarkable intellectual wave” and claimed that their appearance on best-seller lists meant their authors were reaching mainstream readers more effectively than the past generation of atheists, agnostics, and secular humanists.

Where their predecessors tended toward the timid and defensive, the “New Atheists,” as the press refers to them, are aggressive and militant. Not satisfied with an attack on creationists and intelligent designers, or even conservative Christianity writ large, they are prepared to take on all religions and all shades of opinion within each religion, liberal as well as orthodox.

 In a December 3, 2006 column, the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof characterized their approach as an “increasingly assertive, often obnoxious atheist offensive” that is “in-your-face.” Most recently, articles by  Jacqueline Salmon and Mary Jordan in the September 15 Washington Post have linked the works of the New Atheists to a rise in membership in “once-quiet groups of nonbelievers” from “both sides of the Atlantic.”

Journalists have explained the aggressiveness of the New Atheists, as well as their popularity with the reading public, as an understandable response to the current political and religious context. While the specific provocation varies somewhat from writer to writer, all place the New Atheists within a post-9/11 environment. 

“The felling of the World Trade Center in New York, on September 11, 2001, brought its share of religion,” wrote Anthony Gottlieb in the May 21 New Yorker. “But September 11th and its aftershocks in Bali, Madrid, London, and elsewhere are more notable for causing an outbreak of militant atheism, at least on bookshelves. The terrorist attacks were carried out in the name of Islam, and they have been taken, by a string of best-selling books, to illustrate the fatal dangers of all religious faith.”

“The time for polite debate is over,” wrote AP religion correspondent Rachel Zoll on May 24. “Militant, atheist writers are making an all-out assault on religious faith and reaching the top of the best-seller list, a sign of widespread resentment over the influence of religion in the world among nonbelievers.”

Some journalists focused on strictly domestic objects of resentment. Writing in the June 9 Atlanta Journal-Constitution, freelancer Rachel Pomerance saw the rise of the New Atheism generically as a backlash against the “perceived power of America’s religious right.”

Others focused more narrowly on faith-based science as the cause of New Atheist ire. In the November 12, 2006 Los Angeles Times, veteran science writer Robert Lee Hotz attributed the aggressiveness of both Dawkins and Harris to their anger over intelligent design controversies.

“Given the right’s efforts to legislate explicitly religious values and to smuggle the pseudo-scientific religious doctrine of ‘intelligent design’ into science classrooms,” the Boston Globe’s Cathy Young wrote on November 20, 2006, “an antireligion backlash was probably inevitable.” Similarly, on May 10, Jane Lampman of the Christian Science Monitor saw Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens as responding “to Christian attacks on evolution and stem-cell research.”

In a November 27, 2006 op-ed in the New York Times, University of Chicago cultural anthropologist Richard Schweder contended that the “popularity of the current counterattack on religion cloaks a renewed and intense anxiety within secular society that it is not the story of religion but rather the story of the Enlightenment that may be more illusory than real.”

The vision of progress of the 18th-century Enlightenment was based on the belief that as reason spread its civilizing power throughout the world, the power of religion would diminish. In the modern era, many forward-looking intellectuals came to see secularization as a virtual law of nature that could not be stopped. 

But the apparent resurgence of religious extremism has raised doubts about the inevitability and permanence of the secularization process. The New Atheists have tapped into fears that humanity’s commitment to scientific and rational forms of thought is only skin deep. And as exponents of those fears, they have been accorded a certain legitimacy in the media.

But it is in the context of the marginalization of atheism in American society that the New Atheists have been placed in the most positive light.

Ronald Aronson of the Chicago Sun-Times on June 17 wrote that in the past generation American atheists had been a timid minority, “almost voiceless, often on the defensive, routinely derided, both warned against and ignored.” In her Atlanta Journal-Constitution article of June 9, Rachel Pomerance went so far as to suggest a parallel to the gay rights movement, praising the New Atheists for encouraging unbelievers to “come out” and take their rightful place as participants in an ongoing debate about the place of religion in modern society.

On February 22, the Boulder Daily Camera’s Cindy Sutter claimed that while atheism used to be “cultural not to mention religious heresy,” the popularity of Harris’ and Dawkins’ books signaled that it had “joined the mainstream.”

Speaking to and for the marginalized unbeliever, breaking the spell cast by the religious majority, the New Atheists have earned credit for ending religion’s exemption from serious criticism in American society. But this has not been sufficient to win the affection of American journalists. On balance, the media have been a good deal more negative than positive, and this is consistent with press responses to public expressions of atheism throughout modern history.

Aggressive challenges to organized religion by members of the intellectual elite are nothing new. Indeed, the arguments presented against belief in God by the New Atheists are little different from those offered by skeptics for the past 300 years.

The first elite intellectuals to mount a sustained critique of the Christian religion were Enlightenment philosophes like D’Holbach and De La Mettrie, who denounced contemporary Christianity as a source of superstition that supported repressive political structures. Because the Newtonian science of their day was imbued with natural theology, which presupposed the existence of God, they had less success than latter-day unbelievers in drawing on science to make their case.

Not that they didn’t try. And the periodical press, firmly in the hands of the religious establishment, roundly denounced their efforts, and contributed to their marginalization. 

A more serious threat arose in the second half of the 19th century, when the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley and others who supported Darwin attempted to undermine the cultural authority of Christianity. Huxley was not afraid to engage eminent defenders of Christianity in debate in the pages of fashionable journals under the control of liberal editors and publishers.

Like the New Atheists, he drew on scientific arguments, based above all on evolutionary theory, to legitimate his position. But unlike them, he was careful to deny any link to atheism or materialism, which in the 19th century was closely identified with vulgar working-class radicalism. It was in part to preserve his respectability that he invented the term “agnosticism” in 1869.

Rarely did members of the intellectual elite of the 19th century willingly embrace the label “atheist.” Darwin himself famously concealed his conversion to evolution from the public for twenty years, fearing that he would be seen as a materialistic atheist. In his Autobiography, he claimed that he was a theist when he wrote the Origin of Species (1859), and that afterwards he oscillated between theism and agnosticism.

After the publication of the Origin of Species, conservative periodicals put Darwin and his followers under a microscope. Their public statements about evolution and its implications for religious belief were closely monitored for any signs of atheism or moral turpitude. 

John Tyndall, a physicist and close friend of Huxley’s, seemed to provide the religious press with a God-given opportunity when he delivered the presidential address at the British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Belfast in 1874. In it, Tyndall tried to distinguish between two forms of materialism—the simplistic type of the ancient Greeks and a “higher materialism” arising out of evolutionary theory. While critical of religious orthodoxy, especially when it infringed on the domain of science, he nevertheless assigned religion itself the important role of adding “inward completeness and dignity to man” if it remained in the region of poetry and emotion. 

In the heated controversy that followed, many American and British journalists ignored Tyndall’s rejection of simplistic materialism and his acceptance of a role for religion. Enraged by the address, they took advantage of all the unsavory connotations of materialism and made a concerted effort to transform his public image from a respected lecturer to genteel audiences into an immoral and dangerous materialistic atheist.

During the controversy, the attack was broadened to include Tyndall’s allies. He had few defenders, even in the liberal journals.

In her 2004 book Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (a likeminded forerunner of the New Atheists’ volumes), Susan Jacoby identifies a golden age of freethought in American society that began just after Tyndall delivered his controversial Belfast address and lasted until 1914. During this time of maximum influence, the leading spokesman of the secularist vision was Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899), a lawyer, sometime politician, and gifted orator. 

Ingersoll took the theoretical deism of the Enlightenment and linked it to pressing social issues. An admirer of Lincoln and a staunch Republican, he was passionately anti-slavery. He also was committed to First Amendment rights and hated capital punishment.  He argued that the United States had originally been founded on secular and rational principles influenced by the Enlightenment tradition. 

But his unbelief alienated the press. “The Great Agnostic” (as he was called) was widely criticized by reporters for his hostility towards organized religion. His agnosticism destroyed any hope he had of advancing his political career. News reports of his fiery speeches, which drew huge audiences, were accompanied by slanted headlines and disparaging editorial commentary. Golden Age it may have been, but Ingersoll received the same thumbs down from the press as Tyndall.

Notwithstanding the changed atmosphere after 9/11, the New Atheists have been subjected to similar treatment—including from some pretty unlikely sources. As New York Times religion columnist Peter Steinfels noted on March 3, they have been criticized by “avowed atheists as well as scientists and philosophers writing in publications like The New Republic and The New York Review of Books.”

Repeatedly, the New Atheists have been charged with overblown language, a one-dimensional portrayal of organized religion, and intolerance. Harris, wrote the Washington Post’s David Segal on October 26, 2006, is “straight out of the stun grenade school of public rhetoric.” In his book, Dawkins often resorts to a “cheap blow,” declared Miami Herald religion writer Alexandra Alter in an October 29, 2006 review. 

Hitchens’ weighing of the pros and cons of religion in the recent past is “lopsided,” wrote the New Yorker’s Gottlieb. So negative are the New Atheists that their impact will be merely to “elevate the rancor in our public discussion,” claimed New York Sun columnist John McWhorter on May 24.

By denouncing “religious moderates,” the Dayton Daily News editorialized on April 9, Harris made it more difficult to forge an alliance between liberal believers and unbelievers. In the paper’s view, endangering this alliance was a strategic blunder.

Many accused the New Atheists of gleefully listing the evils resulting from organized religion through the ages but ignoring the evils of atheism, especially as manifested in 20th-century communism Their one-sided argument that religion has only served to increase human suffering has also been roundly attacked.

In addition, journalists found fault with the New Atheists’ knowledge of theology and religion, the main subject matter of their books. Dawkins failed to “appreciate just how hard philosophical questions about religion can be,” freelancer Jim Holt wrote in the New York Times October 22, 2006, while Dennett missed “the actual substance of religious experience,” according to the New York Sun’s Adam Kirsch, on February 8, 2006. As for Harris, sniffed Steinfels of the Times on March 3, 2007, he failed to “engage religious thought in any serious way.”

In a related critique, the New Atheists have been charged with lumping all believers together. As Gottlieb put it, “from the perspective of the new atheists, religion is all one entity.”

By grouping together all Christians, whether conservative or liberal, and by putting Christians together with members of all other faiths, the New Atheists, according to the press, polarized the debate into “us-versus-them.” As a result, it was alleged, they merely mirrored the intolerance and dogmatism of religious zealots.

The Miami Herald’s Alter thus described Dawkins as “the world’s foremost evangelical atheist,” who denounced the evils of religion “in tones that resemble the giddy zeal of a tent revivalist.” In a January 7 article in the Chicago Sun-Times, Huffington Post blogger R. J. Eskow called Dennett and Dawkins “fundamentalist atheists” who “use scientific thought in much the same way religious fundamentalists use sacred text—as the source for unquestionable and rigid truths that can’t be challenged.”

And in a slightly different twist on the New Atheism as the New Fundamentalism, the Los Angeles Times’ Hotz called Dawkins’ and Harris’ books “a new testament for atheists, in which science is the only acceptable gospel.” For the New Atheists, the journalistic recommendation was: Less hubris, more humility.

There was, finally, a sense that, in their zeal to tear down religion, the New Atheists lacked previous unbelievers’ talent for engaging readers’ sense of amazement and wonder at the natural world. Dawkins’ “diatribe against religion” left Boston Globe science columnist Anthony Doerr yearning (on November 10, 2006) for the late astronomer Carl Sagan’s “reverent skepticism.

Do the New Atheists deserve the criticism?  No doubt they do. Often reductive in their arguments, they adopt a take-no-prisoners attitude that leaves little room for subtlety or nuance in the ongoing discussion about the role of religion in contemporary culture. Few journalists have welcomed their entry onto the scene with an expression of thanks for finally smacking religion around in a no-holds-barred fashion. In any event, their denunciatory stance is a new development in what passes for polite society in the American media.

Unlike the 19th century, when atheism was seen as so evil that few members of the intellectual elite dared identify themselves with it, in our more permissive culture atheists are tolerated. The New Atheists are not condemned for adopting the atheistic position. 

Rather, the press has castigated them for presenting an extreme version of atheism that is overly negative and fundamentalist. Even while understanding that the post-9/11 environment has called forth the New Atheists and helps explain their popularity, the American press remain as protective of religious belief as it was in the days when Ingersoll was the darling of the lecture circuit.


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