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Atheism's Wrong Turn

Mindless argument found in godless books.

In the penultimate chapter of his best-selling book The God Delusion, biologist and world-renowned atheist Richard Dawkins presents his view of religious education, which he explains by way of an anecdote. Following a lecture in Dublin, he recalls, "I was asked what I thought about the widely publicized cases of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Ireland. I replied that, horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up Catholic in the first place." Lest his readers misunderstand him, or dismiss this rather shocking statement as mere off-the-cuff hyperbole, Dawkins goes on to clarify his position. "I am persuaded," he explains, "that the phrase 'child abuse' is no exaggeration when used to describe what teachers and priests are doing to children whom they encourage to believe in something like the punishment of unshriven mortal sins in an eternal hell."

Why Dawkins refuses to take this idea to its logical conclusion--to say that raising a child in a religious tradition, like other forms of child abuse, should be considered a crime punishable by the state--is a mystery, for it follows directly from the character of his atheism. And not just his. Over the past four years, several prominent atheists have made similarly inflammatory claims in a series of best-selling books. Philosopher Daniel Dennett shares Dawkins's hostility to religious education, warning ominously in Breaking the Spell that "under the protective umbrellas of personal privacy and religious freedom there are widespread practices in which parents" harm their children by teaching them ignoble lies. In The End of Faith, writer Sam Harris argues that "the very ideal of religious tolerance--born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God--is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss." And then there is polemicist Christopher Hitchens, whose manifesto God is Not Great culminates in a call for humanity to "escape the gnarled hands which reach out to drag us back to the catacombs and the reeking altars and the guilty pleasures of subjection and abjection ... to know the enemy, and to prepare to fight it."

Journalists have dubbed this combative style of challenging religious belief "the new atheism." To the extent that the appellation is meant to highlight the novelty of virulently anti-religious ideas finding a mass audience in the United States, it is certainly fitting. But, as a description of the style of unbelief itself, it demonstrates a striking lack of historical awareness. That's because "the new atheism" is not particularly new. It belongs to an intellectual genealogy stretching back hundreds of years, to a moment when atheist thought split into two traditions: one primarily concerned with the dispassionate pursuit of truth, the other driven by a visceral contempt for the personal faith of others.

Today's bellicose atheists are part of the second tradition. And it is not surprising that they have found a sizeable audience for their contemporary repackaging of centuries-old ideas. To liberals frightened by the faith-based conservatism of George Bush or the theistic fanaticism of Osama bin Laden--or both--the feisty language of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens sounds refreshing, apt, and bold. But the intellectual lineage to which these authors belong should in fact give liberals pause. Among other problems, it isn't a liberal tradition at all.

Atheism has been around for a very long time--presumably as long as belief that gods exist. Beginning with the pre-Socratic philosophers of ancient Greece, thinkers in this tradition looked to natural causes to explain phenomena that their fellow citizens interpreted as the work of divine agents. Socrates himself was portrayed as an atheist in Aristophanes's The Clouds--an accusation that likely contributed to his conviction for the capital crimes of impiety and corrupting the youth of Athens.

Socrates may have been the most celebrated martyr to atheism, but many other philosophers and scientists, before and since, have faced political persecution for their insistence on subjecting religious beliefs to skeptical scrutiny. Anaxagoras, Protagoras, Aristotle, Avicenna, Averroes, Descartes, Spinoza, Rousseau, and Kant are just a few of the writers who faced hostility, some of it violent. Fear of such persecution led many atheists to express their views with a tentativeness quite unlike the bold declarations of today's unbelievers, who write and think in conditions of political freedom.

But the cautious intellectual style of these atheists did not derive entirely from a concern with self-preservation. It also flowed from the self-limiting character of their skepticism. It has always been possible to demolish this or that claim on behalf of piety--to undermine the veracity of evidence presented in favor of the gods. But, as we know from elementary logic, it is impossible to prove a negative: However thoroughly evidence in favor of divine beings is scrutinized and dismissed, an unbeliever can never be certain that divine beings do not exist.

The most thoughtful atheists--let's call them liberal atheists--have always understood that the impossibility of negative proof is a crack through which the gods, no matter how ruthlessly banished from the human world, forever threaten to return. These atheists--whose ranks include Socrates, Lucretius, Sextus Empiricus, Montaigne, Albert Camus, and Primo Levi--responded to their lack of certitude, to the invariably provisional character of the beliefs by which they oriented their lives, in a supremely philosophical way: with equanimity. Accordingly, they did not go out of their way to act as missionaries for unbelief.

An alternative atheist tradition--one that was more practical and political--began to emerge in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Shocked by the senseless bloodshed of Europe's religious civil wars, skeptics started to criticize select beliefs and customs in order to liberalize Western civilization--to make it more moderate and civil, less intolerant and cruel. To be sure, these thinkers--whose ideas formed the backbone of the Enlightenment--did not seek a godless society. Whatever the personal views of such writers as Locke, Hume, Kant, and the American Constitutional framers, they publicly promoted not atheism but liberal Christianity. This was the case even for most of the French philosophes. Though they were more radical in their religious criticism than their British, German, and American counterparts, Voltaire and his fellow Parisian intellectuals viewed the Catholic Church as their enemy, not God or religion as such.

It was only in the final years of the eighteenth century, in the late, fanatical phases of the French Revolution, that a wholly politicized form of atheism--let's call it ideological atheism--fully emerged. Convinced that the religious toleration guaranteed in the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen permitted ignorance to thrive in the revolutionary republic, anti-religious crusaders such as Jacques Hebert and Jacques-Claude Bernard sought nothing less than to dechristianize France. To accomplish this goal, these radicals (called Hebertists) encouraged their supporters to ransack and desecrate churches and cathedrals, transforming them through iconoclastic violence into "Temples of Reason."

Though the leaders of the Cult of Reason were eventually guillotined, their brand of atheism lived on in European politics, receiving its greatest theoretical justification in the writings of Auguste Comte, Ludwig Feuerbach, and Karl Marx. Not only were they among the first philosophers in Western history proudly and publicly to denounce belief in God, they also went further, arguing that it was humanity's destiny to shed religious conviction altogether. To resist this revolutionary metamorphosis, they claimed, was an act contrary to reason as well as historical progress.

That the first ideological atheists were found on the far left is historically interesting but theoretically irrelevant; Friedrich Nietzsche, a figure who would become associated with the far right, soon joined them in pronouncing the death of God. What both factions shared, besides a hatred of religion, was an irrepressible loathing for liberalism, which permitted citizens to continue worshipping their gods in peace, protected by state power from persecution. For Europe's ideological atheists, this was an indefensible concession to superstition and prejudice. By the early decades of the twentieth century, their anti-liberal outlook had become a crucial component of communist ideology.

Until recently, neither strand of European atheism played much of a cultural or political role in the United States. Many of the Founding Fathers subscribed to deism--the belief that the universe and its natural laws were created by a God who plays no providential role in human life or history. And they marked a path that American critics of religion would take again and again: denouncing the foolishness of this or that religious institution while simultaneously affirming one of several heterodox forms of religious belief. In nearly all cases, the form of belief--whether deism, Unitarianism, pantheism, or John Dewey's religion of democratic "common faith"--has been perfectly compatible with liberal government.

There have of course been exceptions to this American consensus. On the one hand, a handful of authors have embraced versions of liberal atheism. Pragmatist philosopher Sidney Hook, for example, placed himself firmly in the Socratic tradition in a 1950 essay for Partisan Review. While acknowledging that, "as a set of cognitive beliefs, religious doctrines constitute a speculative hypothesis of an extremely low order of probability," Hook nonetheless conceded that, for many, faith in God served as "a source of innocent joy, a way of overcoming cosmic loneliness." As long as these comforting religious views were "conceived in personal terms" and did not take "authoritarian institutional form," Hook maintained, they should "fall in an area of choice in which rational criticism may be suspended."

Those Americans who have adhered to ideological atheism have naturally taken a much less accommodating view. Some, like Russian-American anarchist Emma Goldman, have imported their strident "negation of gods" directly from European sources. Others, like nineteenth-century intellectual Robert Ingersoll and Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, did not so much emulate Europeans as end up in a similar position by following through independently on the logic of anti-religious ideas and combining them with a typically American optimism about the morally salutary consequences of scientific progress. And then there was activist Madalyn Murray O'Hair, who leapt to prominence in the 1960s by advocating a uniquely vulgar and hate-filled version of ideological atheism. But in none of these cases has extreme hostility to faith held mainstream appeal. Only now, during the past few years, have books espousing the illiberal form of atheism attracted such widespread interest.

In describing their atheism as illiberal, I do not mean to imply that the new atheists are closet totalitarians. On the contrary, all of them understand themselves to be contributing to the defense of freedom against its most potent enemies, at home and abroad. Yet the fact remains that the atheism of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens is a brutally intolerant, proselytizing faith, out to rack up conversions. Consider, for example, the sloppiness displayed by all of the authors in discussing their political aims. Do they seek to defend the secular politics favored by the American Constitutional framers? Or do they have the much more radical goal of producing a secular society--a society in which the American people, as a whole and individually, have abandoned religion? The former is a liberal goal, the latter an illiberal one; and it is inexcusable that each book leaves readers guessing which objective its author favors.

Not that there aren't clues. Harris, for instance, seeks nothing less than to "demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity." To this end, he would have public schools "announce the death of God" to their students- -a development that would mark the end of the government's theological neutrality and inaugurate a time of outright antagonism toward the religious beliefs of citizens. Anticipating, moreover, that religious liberals might balk at such tactics, Harris asserts that "the religious moderate is nothing more than a failed fundamentalist" whose attachment to tolerance convinces too many in our society to restrain themselves from loudly proclaiming that "the Bible and the Koran both contain mountains of life-destroying gibberish." A similar ire fuels Dennett's and Dawkins's hatred of religious education, as well as Hitchens's wildly excessive denunciations of Mother Teresa. (Hitchens's charges, first lodged in his book The Missionary Position, are repeated in God is Not Great.) Convinced that, as Hitchens puts it in his subtitle, religion poisons everything, today's atheists feel perfectly justified in dispensing with such moral luxuries as tolerance and civility.

Indeed, the tone of today's atheist tracts is so unremittingly hostile that one wonders if their authors really mean it when they express the hope, as Dawkins does in a representative passage, that "religious readers who open [The God Delusion] will be atheists when they put it down." Exactly how will such conversions be accomplished? Rather than seeking common ground with believers as a prelude to posing skeptical questions, today's atheists prefer to skip right to the refutation. They view the patient back and forth of dialogue--the way of Socrates--as a waste of time.

It is with this enmity, this furious certainty, that our ideological atheists lapse most fully into illiberalism. Politically speaking, liberalism takes no position on theological questions. One can be a liberal and a believer (as were Martin Luther King Jr., Reinhold Niebuhr, and countless others in the American past and present) or a liberal and an unbeliever (as were Hook, Richard Rorty, and a significantly smaller number of Americans over the years). This is in part because liberalism is a philosophy of government, not a philosophy of man--or God. But it is also because modern liberalism derives, at its deepest level, from ancient liberalism--from the classical virtue of liberality, which meant generosity and openness. To be liberal in the classical sense is to accept intellectual variety--and the social complexity that goes with it--as the ineradicable condition of a free society.

It is to accept, in other words, that, although I may settle the question of God to my personal satisfaction, it is highly unlikely that all of my fellow citizens will settle it in the same way--that differences in life experience, social class, intelligence, and the capacity for introspection will invariably prevent a free community from reaching unanimity about the fundamental mysteries of human existence, including God. Liberal atheists accept this situation; ideological atheists do not. That, in the end, is what separates the atheism of Socrates from the atheism of the French Revolution.

Why does it matter that a handful of writers who refuse to accept this basic human reality have recently sold a lot of books? On one level, it obviously doesn't matter very much. The United States remains a very religious nation. While there are small communities of atheists, agnostics, and skeptics in every state, and substantial ones in a few--Washington state leads the country with 25 percent of its residents claiming to worship no God; North Dakota comes in last with 3 percent--there aren't nearly enough unbelievers to leave a significant mark on the nation's culture or politics as a whole.

Still, the rise of the new atheists is cause for concern--not among the targets of their anger, who can rest secure in the knowledge that the ranks of the religious will, here in America, dwarf the ranks of atheists for the foreseeable future; but rather among those for whom the defense of secular liberalism is a high political priority. Of course, many of these secular liberals are probably the same people who propelled Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens onto the best-seller lists by purchasing their books en masse--people who are worried about the dual threats to secular politics posed by militant Islam and the American religious right. These people are correct to be nervous about the future of secular liberalism, to perceive that it needs passionate, eloquent defenders. The problem is that the rhetoric of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens will undermine liberalism, not bolster it: Far from shoring up the secular political tradition, their arguments are likely to produce a country poised precariously between opposite forms of illiberalism.

The last thing America needs is a war of attrition between two mutually exclusive, absolute systems of belief. Yet this is precisely what the new atheists appear to crave. The task for the rest of us--committed to neither dogmatic faith nor dogmatic doubt--is to make certain that combatants on both sides of the theological divide fail to get their destructive way. And thereby to ensure that liberalism prevails.

Damon Linker, author of The Theocons, is a senior writing fellow in the Center for Critical Writing at the University of Pennsylvania.