The New Naysayers

In the midst of religious revival, three scholars argue that atheism is smarter.

 

ILLUSTRATIONS BY DAVIO JOHNSON FOR NEWSWEEK         

SEPTEMBER 11, 2D06 - NEWSWEEK

 

BY JERRY ADLER

 

AMERICANS answered the atroci­ties of September 11, overwhelming­ly, with faith. Attacked in the name of God, they turned to God for comfort; in the week after the attacks, nearly 70 percent said they were praying more than usual. Confronted by a hatred that seemed inexplicable, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson proclaimed that God was mad at America because it harbored feminists, gays and civil liber­tarians. Sam Harris, then a 34-year-old graduate student in neuroscience, had a different reaction. On Sept.12, he began a book. If; he reasoned, young men were slaughtering people in the name of religion - some­thing that had been going on since long before 2001, of course - then perhaps the problem was religion itself The book would be called "The End of Faith," which to most Americans probably sounds like a lament. To Harris it is something to be encouraged.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IS GOD DEAD? Friedrich Nietzsche, PHILOSOPHER

In 'Thus Spoke Zarathustra' the death of God was presumed to mean that conventional morality had lost its force. But evolutionary psychology suggests that the roots of ethical behavior run deeper.

 

This was not a message most Americans wanted to hear, before or alter 9/11. Atheists "are seen as a threat to the American way of life by a large portion of the American public," according to a study by Penny Edgell, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota. In a recent NEWSWEEK Poll, Americans said they believed in God by a margin of 92 to 6 - only 2 percent answered, "don't know"- and only 37 percent said they'd be willing to vote for an atheist for president. (That's down from 49 percent in a 1999 Gallup poll-which also found that more Americans would vote for a homosexual than an atheist.) "The End of Faith" struggled to find a publisher, and even after Norton agreed to bring it out in 2004, Harris says there were editors who refused to come to meetings with him. But after winning the PEN/Martha Al-brand award for nonfiction, the book sold 270,000 copies. Harris's scathing "Letter to a Christian Nation" will be pub­lished this month with a press ran of 150,000. Someone is lis­tening, even if he is mostly preaching, one might say, to the unconverted.

 

This year also saw the pub­lication in February of "Break­ing the Spell," by the philoso­pher Daniel C. Dennett, which asks how and why religions be­came ubiquitous in human so­ciety. The obvious answer - "Because they’re true" - is foreclosed, Dennett says, by the fact that they are by and large mutually incompatible. Even to study "religion as a natural phenomenon," the sub­title of Dennett's book, is to de­prive it of much of its mystery and power. And next month the British evolutionary biolo­gist Richard Dawkins ("The Selfish Gene”) weighs in with "The God Delusion," a book that extends an argument he advanced in the days after 9/11. After hearing once too often that "[t]o blame the attacks on Islam is like blaming Chris­tianity for the fighting in Northern Ireland," Dawkins responded: Precisely. "It's time to get angry," he wrote, "and not only with Islam."

 

Dawkins and Harris are not writing polite demurrals to the time-honored beliefs of billions; they are not issuing pleas for tolerance or moderation, but bone-rattling attacks on what they regard as a pernicious and outdated superstition. (In the spirit of scientific evenhandedness, both would call themselves agnostic, although as Dawkins says, he's agnostic about God the same way he's agnostic about the exis­tence of fairies.) They ask: where do people get their idea of God? From the Bible or the Qur'an. "Tell a devout Christian ... that frozen yogurt can make a man invisible," Harris writes, "and he is likely to require as much evidence as anyone else, and to be per­suaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him that the book he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity who will punish him with fire for eternity if he fails to accept its every in­credible claim about the universe, and he seems to require no ev­idence whatsoever" He asks: How can anyone believe in a benev­olent and omnipotent God who permits a tsunami to swallow 180,000 innocent people in a few hours? How does it advance our understanding of the universe to suppose that it was created by a supernatural being who communicates only through the one-way process of revelation?

 

These are not brand-new arguments, of course, and believers have well-practiced replies to them, although in some cases, such as the persistence of evil and suffering (the "theodicy" problem), the responses are still mostly works in progress. Neither author claims much success in arguing anyone out of a belief in God, but they consider it sufficient reward when they hear from people who were encouraged by their books to give voice to their private doubts. All the same, this is highly inflammatory material. Dawkins acknowledges that many readers will expect, or hope, to see him burning in hell (citing Aquinas as authority for the be­lief that souls in heaven will get a view of hell for their enjoy­ment). Harris says he has turned down requests for the rights to translate "The End of Faith" into Arabic or Urdu. "I think it would be a death sentence for any translator," he says. Harris himself - who traveled the world for a dozen years studying East­ern religions and mysticism before returning to finish his under­graduate degree at Stanford - asks that the name of his current university not be publicized.

 

 

SEEKING A TRUCE

Stephen Jay Gould

EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGIST,

AUTHOR, 'ROCKS OF AGES'

 

 

Gould argued science and religion could co-exist as separate spheres of knowledge. Many scientists - like geneticist Francis Collins ('The Language of God') - agree, but the Devil, as they say, is in the details.

 

These authors have no geopolitical strategy to advance; they're interested in the metaphysics of belief; not the politics of the First Amendment. It's the idea of putting trust in God they object to, not the motto on the nickel. This sets them apart from America's best-known atheist activist, the late Madalyn Murray O'Hair, a controversial eccentric who won a landmark lawsuit against mandatory classroom prayers in 1963 and went on to found the group now called American Atheists. when a chaplain came to her hospital room once and asked what he could do for her, she notoriously replied, "Drop dead." Dawkins, an urbane Oxtordian, would regard that as appalling manners. "I have no problem with people wishing me a Happy Christmas;' he says, expressing puz­zlement over the passions provoked in America by the question of how store clerks greet customers.

 

 

FIGHTING FAITH

Madalyn Murray O’Hair,

ACTIVIST, PROVOCATEUR

FOUNDER, AMERICAN ATHEISTS

 

She won a landmark suit against mandatory school prayer in 1963, and (with less success) fought to banish religion from every part of public life-from the Pledge of Allegiance to the motto on coins to swearing oaths on the Bible.

 

 

But if the arguments of Dawkins and Harris are familiar, they also bring to bear new scientific evidence on the issue. Evolution isn't necessarily incompatible with faith, even with evangelical Christianity. Several new books - "Evolution and Christian Faith" by the Stanford biologist Joan Roughgarden and "The Language of God" by geneticist Francis Collins - uphold both. But to skep­tics like Dawkins - and to Biblical literalists on the other side - Darwin appears to rob God of credit for his crowning achieve­ment, which is us. In particular, evolutionary psychologists be­lieve they are closing in on one of the remaining mysteries of life, the universal "moral law" that underlies our intuitive notions of good and evil. why do we recognize that acts such as murder are wrong? To Collins, it's evidence of God's handiwork - the very perception that led him to become a Christian.

But Dawkins attempts to show how the highest of human im­pulses, such as empathy, charity and pity; could have evolved by the same mechanism of natural selection that created the thumb. Biol­ogists understand that the driving force in evolution is the survival and propagation of our genes. They may impelus to instinctive acts of goodness, Dawkins writes, even when it seems counterpro­ductive to our own interests - say, by risking our life to save some­one else. Evolutionary psychology can explain how selfless behav­ior might have evolved. The recipient may he a blood relation who carries some of our own genes. Or our acts may earn us future grat­itude, or a reputation for bravery that makes us more desirable as mates. Of course, the essence of the moral law is that it applies even to strangers. Missionaries who devote themselves to saving the lives of Third World peasants have no reasonable expectation of being repaid in this world. But, Dawkins goes on, the impulse for generosity must have evolved while humans lived in small bands in which almost everyone was related, so that goodness became the default human aspiration. This is a rebuke not merely to believers who insist that God must be the source of all goodness - but equal­ly to the 19th-century atheism of Nietzsche, who assumed that the death of God meant the end of conventional morality.

 

By a margin of 92 to 6, Americans believe in God. More than half wouldn’t vote for an atheist for president.

Like the fundamentalists, they prefer to read the Bible literally

 - especially the parts about stoning people to death.

 

But Dawkins, brilliant as he is, overlooks some­thing any storefront Bap­tist preacher might have told him. "If there is no God, why be good?" he asks rhetorically, and responds: "Do you really mean the only reason you try to be good is to gain God's ap­proval and reward? That's not morality, that's just sucking up." That's clever. But millions of Christians and Muslims believe that it was precisely God who turned them away from a life of immorality. Dawkins, of course, thinks they are deluding them­selves. He is correct that the social utility of religion doesn't prove anything about the existence of God. But for all his erudition, he seems not to have spent much time among ordinary Christians, who could have told him what God has meant to them.

 

It is not just extremists who earn the wrath of Dawkins and Harris. Their books are at­tacks on religious "moderates" as well-indeed, the very idea of moderation. The West is not at war with "terrorism," Harris as­serts in "The End of Faith"; it is at war with Islam, a religion whose holy book, "on almost every page ... prepares the ground for religious conflict." Christian fundamentalists, he says, have a better handle on the problem than moderates: "They know what it's like to really believe that their holy book is the word of God, and ~er&s a paradise you can get to if you die in the right cir­cumstances. They're not left wondering what is the 'real' cause of terrorism." As for the Bible, Harris, like the fundamentalists, prefers a literal reading. He quotes at length the passages in the Old and New Testaments dealing with how to treat slaves.. Why, he asks, would anyone take moral instruction from a book that calls for stoning your children to death for disrespect, or for heresy, or for violating the Sabbath? Obviously our culture no longer believes in that, he adds, so why not agree that science has made it equally unnecessary to invoke God to explain the Sun, or the weather, or your own existence?

 

 

A NEW TAKE ON ATHEISM

Richard Dawkins            Sam Harris

BIOLOGIST, AUTHOR, 'THE GOD DELUSION' Daniel C. Den net?

AUTHOR, 'LETTER TO    AUTHOR, 'BREAKING A CHRISTIAN NATION'   THE SPELL'

 

 

Armed with evolutionary psychology and inllamed by the 9/11 attacks, these authors treat belief in God

as a superstition the modem world can no longer afford. But more than 90 percent of Americans disagree with them - and think they're going to hell, as well.

 

Even agnostic moderates get raked over-like the late Stephen Jay Gould, the evolutionary biologist who attempted to broker a truce between science and religion in his controversial 1999 book "Rocks of Ages." Gould proposed that science and religion retreat to separate realms, the former concerned with empirical ques­tions about the way the universe works, while the latter pursues ultimate meaning and ethical precepts. But, Dawkins asks, unless the Bible is right in its his­torical and metaphysical claims, why should we grant it authority in the moral realm? And can sci­ence really abjure any inter­est in the claims of religion? Did Jesus come back from the dead, or didn't he? If so, how did God make it hap­pen? Collins says he is satis­fled with the answer that the Resurrection is a miracle, permanently beyond our understanding. That Col­lins can hold that belief; while simultaneously work­ing at the,"'ery frontiers of science as the head of the Human Genome Project, is what amazes Harris.

 

Believers can take com­fort in the fact that atheism barely amounts to a "move­ment." American Atheists, which fights in the courts and legislatures for the rights of nonbelievers, has about 2,500 members and a budget of less than 51 million. On the science Web site Edge.org, the as­tronomer Carolyn Porco offers the subversive suggestion that science itself should attempt to supplant God in Western culture, by providing the benefits and comforts people find in religiQn~ommunity, ceremony and a sense of awe. "Imagine congreg~i~s~raising their voices in tribute to gravity, the force tha~ binds us, all ~e£arth, and the Earth to the Sun, and the Sun~ the Milky Way," she writes. Por­co, who is deeply involved in tlie Cassini mission to Saturn, finds spiritual fulfillment in exploring~he cosmos, But will that work for the rest of the world-for "the~eople who want to ~ow that they're going to live forever and ~eet Mom   and~d Ta heaven? We can't offer that." If Dawkins, ~~nnett~nd4{arris are right, the five-century-long competition be~cen science and religion is sharpening. People are choosing sides. And when that hap­

pens, people get hurt.