By Rob Bowman
In 2006, a new phenomenon took the publishing world by storm: best-selling books promoting atheism. The two standout books, appearing within a two-day period in September 2006, were Letter to a Christian Nation, by American journalist Sam Harris, and The God Delusion, by British scientist Richard Dawkins. Both of these authors had written best-selling books before—Harris’s The End of Faith and Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker—but the level of public interest (and media attention) given to their 2006 books was unrivalled. Christopher Hitchens, a British journalist, published the best-selling god Is Not Great (the spelling “god” is deliberate) in 2007; its success suggests that atheism is likely to continue to be a potent cultural force in the English-speaking world for some time to come.
Some commentators on this phenomenon have referred to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens as vanguards of a “new atheism,” but this label, though convenient, may not be the most accurate. There is really very little that is new either about the form of atheism to which these authors subscribe or the arguments they present in its defense. It would seem to be more accurate to describe these authors as symptomatic of a resurgence of atheism. Their books are evidence that atheism is on the rise.
Does Religion Make People Behave Badly?
Richard Dawkins urges atheists to “come out,” that is, to declare themselves publicly to be atheists, just as homosexuals are doing, in order to enhance the visibility and credibility of the atheist movement.1 Atheists are generally highly sensitive to the fact that in many Western nations, especially in the United States, atheists are among the least trusted demographic. Historically, most people in Western civilization have tended to view nonreligious people as having no transcendent values and therefore as having no foundation for morality or personal conviction. Atheist writers for this reason are often at pains to argue that they do have honorable values and convictions, usually on the basis of a humanistic philosophy (that whatever benefits the human race as a whole is good).
Atheists not only defend their moral honor, but they argue that atheism is a better basis for humane treatment of one another than religion. They view the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, as a compelling example of the destructive effects of religious belief. Much of the efforts of the recent atheist books, especially those by Harris and Hitchens, is focused on arguing that belief in God—including the God revealed in the Bible—interferes with an enlightened view of the world and of human relationships.
The fundamental fallacy in these arguments is that of overgeneralization. No doubt there are evil religions that deliberately advocate doing things that we ought to regard as evil. However, the atheists assume that if people often do evil with religious motivations or justifications this shows that religion per se is evil. To the contrary, religion often factors into the evil that people do because most people are religious and therefore tend to explain or justify what they do in religious terms. In some cases, people do evil things because their religion teaches them to do so; but in many cases, people do evil things despite what their religion teaches—and compound their evil by twisting their religion to justify their actions.
Ironically, although many atheists are noble-minded, caring people, atheism eliminates any rational foundation for moral imperatives—for saying that human beings ought to do certain things and not do other things. The issue here is not (as atheists almost uniformly misrepresent it) whether atheists can be moral (of course they can), but whether atheism provides any rational explanation for why anyone should be moral. Secular humanism is an attempt to fill this void, but it fails for the simple reason that it cannot offer any reason why an individual should or must care about what is good for the human race as a whole.
Amateurs Outside of Their Field
What expertise or depth of knowledge do these leading atheists bring to bear in their attempts to discredit Christianity and all religion? Frankly, not much. Hitchens and Harris are professional writers whose knowledge, while a mile wide, is in many places an inch thick. Dawkins is a scientist by training and knows his stuff in his field (biology), but his understanding of Christianity is also fairly superficial. One reviewer, commenting on Hitchens’s book, had this to say: “Anyone expecting a masterful demolition of all things sacred will be disappointed. Bullying and shallow, God Is Not Great is a haute middlebrow tirade, a stale venting of outrage and ridicule. Beneath his Oxbridge talent at draping glibness in the raiment of erudition, Hitchens proves to be an amateur in philosophy, an illiterate in theology, and a dishonest student of history.”2 Such a judgment also applies, in large measure, to Harris and Dawkins.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with an individual writing on subjects outside his or her area of formal, academic training. By the same token, readers should not allow themselves to be cowed by scholars and scientists who presumptuously dismiss the Christian faith as irrational or foolish without giving its scholars and scientists (Christianity has plenty of both) a fair hearing. When anyone (atheist, Christian, Muslim, or whatever) pontificates on issues they know little or nothing about, they deserve to be called on it.
If you want to get a quick view of whether one of these atheist writers has done his homework, take a look through his footnotes or endnotes. For example, Dawkins’s book The God Delusion has 156 endnotes, only a handful or so referring to any sort of Christian source. (Examples: a note sourcing a quotation from Pat Robertson; another note sourcing the notorious Westboro Baptist Church.) One searches these books in vain for any sustained interaction with Christian philosophers, scientists, biblical scholars, historians, or ethicists. Imagine a four-hundred page book by a Christian writer denouncing the evils and errors of atheism with almost no references to atheist literature! Would any atheist take such a book seriously?
When the atheists do get around to quoting some Christian source, in some cases the quote turns out to be of dubious authenticity. A good example is Hitchens’s attempt to characterize Bible-belt Christians as bigots and ignoramuses with the following example: “One recalls the governor of Texas who, asked if the Bible should also be taught in Spanish, replied that ‘if English was good enough for Jesus, then it’s good enough for me.’ Rightly are the simple so called” (Hitchens, 110). This quote has been attributed both to Miriam A. “Ma” Ferguson, the first woman governor of Texas (1925-27 and 1932-35), and to her husband, who held that office before her. Similar stories, usually humorous, date from decades before the Fergusons (who lived in the first half of the twentieth century). I agree with Benjamin Zimmer’s [http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003084.html] conclusion:
“Considering how the quote in all its variants has been used primarily to ridicule the backwardness of unnamed Christians (a farmer, a pious deacon, and so forth) wary of new approaches to the Bible, I highly doubt Ma Ferguson ever said it—or if she did, she probably would have said it in self-effacing jest. My guess is that this was a free-floating bit of preacher humor that unfairly got attached to Ma Ferguson, much as Winston Churchill attracts various apocryphal witticisms.”
In criticizing Hitchens’s careless use of this probably apocryphal quotation, I am only holding him to his own standard. Hitchens devotes over a page to debunking an equally apocryphal quote from Einstein praising the Church for standing up to Hitler.3
Shallow Reading, Shallow Reasoning
In order to vindicate atheism over Christianity, it is obviously necessary for atheists to critique the Bible. Since the Bible is a collection of dozens of books written in ancient cultures and dealing with profound and difficult subject matter, it would be strange if atheists were unable to find some things in the Bible that offended or puzzled them. Frankly, there are things in the Bible that I still do not understand, even though I have been a believing student of the Bible for over three decades. It is all the more peculiar, then, that these best-selling defenses of atheism resort to the most superficial and distorted interpretations of biblical texts as the basis for their criticism of the Bible.
One blundering distortion of the Bible common to all three of our atheist authors has to do with the statute in the Old Testament Law laying down the death penalty for sons who rebel against their parents (Deut. 21:18-21). In a society such as ours in which many people are uncomfortable with the death penalty even for a mass-murderer or serial rapist, it is not surprising that this statute in the Mosaic Law would offend some people today. But the atheists go over the top in their characterization of the Law’s intent. Harris claims that the Law requires parents to kill their children if they merely “talk back.”4 Likewise, Hitchens asserts that Deuteronomy requires “parents to have their children stoned to death for indiscipline,” while Dawkins informs us that the Bible prescribes the death penalty “for cheeking your parents.”5 The situation envisioned in Deuteronomy 21, however, is much more serious. The son (the text is gender-specific here) is not a small child who sassed his mommy, but a son old enough to have demonstrated incorrigible rebellion against his parents by such behavior as gluttony and drunkenness (v. 20). He is probably an older teenager or young adult, by the standards of an agrarian culture ready for the responsibilities of manhood; yet he is eating too much, repeatedly getting drunk, refusing to shoulder any responsibility, and rejecting the authority of his parents. Such behavior, in a culture of that type (in which families were much more close-knit and parents accorded much more respect than in our Western, individualistic society), would have been both extreme and rare. The death penalty appears in this statute, then, as a last resort, after the parents have done everything they can to rein in their rebellious son. Of course, we would not thoughtlessly employ the same rule in the same way in our legal system, but the attempt to characterize the Old Testament law as barbaric is misguided.
When, on occasion, the atheists seek to rebut a rational argument for belief in God, their rebuttal often evidences surprisingly bad reasoning. Take, for instance, Dawkins’s attempt to show that the Christian conception of God is incoherent. He writes:
“Incidentally, it has not escaped the notice of logicians that omniscience and omnipotence are mutually incompatible. If God is omniscient, he must already know how he is going to intervene to change the course of history using his omnipotence. But that means he can’t change his mind about his intervention, which means he is not omnipotent.”6
This is an embarrassingly bad argument. Omnipotence does not mean the capacity to do the self-contradictory. The ability to do what one knows one will not do is a self-contradiction. There are a lot of things God cannot do because it simply doesn’t make sense for a perfect, infinite Being to do them. Thus, God cannot create a rock so heavy that he can’t lift it (that’s just nonsense!). God cannot lie; is this seriously a “limitation” in any sort of negative or pejorative sense? God cannot make the colors red and green be each other at the same time.
When atheists use arguments of this sort to try to discredit belief in God, they succeed only in undermining their own credibility.
1Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 4.
2Eugene McCarraher, Commonweal, June 15, 2007.
3Christopher Hitchens, god Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve [Warner Books], 2007), 242-43.
4Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), 8.
5Hitchens, god Is Not Great, 106; Dawkins, God Delusion, 57.
6Dawkins, God Delusion, 77-78.