Picture this dystopia: in the name of rationality, reason, and science—religion is severely pro-scribed. Some religious beliefs— beliefs —deemed so dangerous that those holding them should be killed. The concept of religious "tolerance" would also be anathema: persons would not be allowed to hold whatever religious beliefs they chose—this cannot be for beliefs deemed irrational. And parents could be charged with "child abuse" for giving their offspring a religious education.
It all sounds like something from the failed social experiments of the Soviet Union, the Eastern bloc countries, and other now defunct Marxist regimes, perhaps?
Perhaps. Yet that kind of society would be the logical outgrowth of views promoted by an elitist clique of atheist writers, philosophers, scientists, and scholars. Dr. Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris are at the forefront of what's been dubbed "the new atheism," a take-no-prisoners, shock-and-awe assault on any theism at all. Richard Dawkins wrote: "I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything super-natural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented." 1
Nothing's new, of course, about cynical "intellectuals" challenging a belief in God. But there are some frightening subtexts embedded in this new rhetoric. In The New Republic, author Damon Linker expressed concern about what he called the "illiberal" and "brutally intolerant" proselytism of the new atheists 2 Among them are ideas that, if taken to their logical conclusion, would wreak havoc on the free exercise of religion.
What are these "new atheists" promoting, and what's so potentially dangerous about them?
Lucretius or Madalyn?
"As to the gods, I have no means of knowing either that they exist or that they do not exist. For many are the obstacles that impede knowledge, both the obscurity of the question and the shortness of human life." 3 Thus wrote Protagoras about 400 years before Christ. The sophist was just one in a long line of thinkers who, to varying degrees, challenged religious belief. The list includes names such as Aristotle, Lucretius, Avicenna, Benedict de Spinoza, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, Bertrand Russell, and Anthony Flew. (Flew, once dubbed "the world's most notorious atheist," recently changed his mind and now believes that God does exist. 4)
In one sense, little is new about the new atheists' philosophical arguments. They've come up with almost nothing that hasn't been heard before, or expressed more pursuasively. Their polemics can get puerile, to put it mildly.
Here's typical Dawkins: "A popular deity on the Internet at present—and as undisprovable as Yahweh or any other—is the Flying Spaghetti Monster, who, many claim, has touched them with his noodly appendage. I am delighted to see that the Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster has now been published as a book, to great acclaim. I haven't read it myself, but who needs to read a gospel when you just know it's true?" 5 Texts like this are, no doubt, why one critic wrote that these men "advance no argument that I, the village atheist, could not have made by the age of 14."6
We're not talking here, then, about the heirs of Lucretius or David Hume but, rather, the intellectual kin of Madalyn Murray O'Hair.
The comparison with O'Hair—for decades the ultra-nasty den mother of American atheism—isn't, however, limited merely to the intellectual paucity of their apologetics. O'Hair didn't just attack religion as religion; she went after practice and expression as well. Which is the point: one doesn't have to read too far between the lines, or in some cases not between the lines at all, to see something similar brewing among the new atheists.
Sam Harris, in his screed The End of Faith, writes, "I hope to show 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." 7 As if that weren't enough, he argues that "some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them." 8
It's one thing to restrict people, or even kill them, because of their actions. But to so demonize thought and belief! Any thoughtful observer can see that free speech in America—though enjoying a vast and complicated legal bulwark of protection—is, in this age of political correctness, having its limits tested in ways not seen, perhaps, since World War I. But Harris is promoting an assault not just on action, not just on speech, but on belief itself. Who would have thought that Orwellian "Thoughtcrime" would be taken out of the realm of political satire and promoted by someone deemed liberal, or progressive?
Harris sounds like Torquemada, not Hume. American courts, of course, have drawn a distinction between belief and action: you can believe whatever you want, no matter how absurd, but limits must be imposed on the actions inspired by those beliefs, a distinction that Harris apparently misses.
One wonders too just what "propositions" Mr. Harris would deem worthy of death? Lines regarding the limits of action and speech have been hard enough to draw. But to extend those lines toward belief (i.e., religious belief) would plunge any nation deep into the scary realms that haunted Orwell's fervid imagination.
The Cost of Free Exercise
From the earliest days of the American experiment, the free exercise of religion has been deemed a right sacred enough to merit special protection. This is an idea that Richard Dawkins obviously can't understand or won't acknowledge as central. Thus he bemoans the "weird . . . privileging of religion" 9in America. He uses some extreme examples of illegal practices that were given free exercise protections and expresses horror that in some of these cases, the members are allowed their practices, despite the law.
The logic, though, is simple: the American courts wisely decided to stay out of questions of dogma and theology. "The law knows no heresy, and is committed to the support of no dogma, the establishment of no sect. . . . The religious views espoused by respondents might seem incredible, if not preposterous, to most people. But if those doctrines are subject to trial before a jury charged with finding their truth or falsity, then the same can be done with the religious beliefs of
In other words, today's heresy and absurdity could be tomorrow's orthodoxy, and thus the courts proscribe neither. Certain bizarre views can, at times, get special protection under the principles of free exercise jurisprudence, but that's part of what religious freedom costs. That Dr. Dawkins—who is opposed to all religious belief—finds that too costly proves only the shal-lowness of his worldview. It says nothing about the value that America places on the role of faith in society, and what it's willing to accept in order to protect that role.
Suffer the Little Children
No argument, of course, can be complete without invoking the children and what's best for the children. Daniel Dennett, in Breaking the Spell (guess what "spell" that is? Shades of The Golden Compass?), warns about the "effect of religious upbringing and education on young children"11 He compares religious education to parents who, under certain conditions, let their children drink alcohol. "When do the authorities have not just the right," he asks, "but the obligation to step in and prevent abuse? Tough questions, and they don't get easier when the topic is religion, not alcohol." 12
Dawkins, in contrast, shows little respect for such nuance, arguing that the damage to children caused by sexual abuse "was arguably less than the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up Catholic in the first place." 13Dawkins labels certain religious teachings, such as eternal torment in hell, as nothing short of "child abuse."14 He also bemoans one of the most famous religious liberty cases in America, Wisconsin v. Yoder, in which the U. S. Supreme Court allowed the Amish in Wisconsin to with-draw their children from school before age 16.
No question, of course, that when the issue of children arises, religious liberty rights must be carefully balanced with other concerns. The courts have wrestled with this difficult area for years. But what could the phrase "religious freedom" mean if parents were not, except under the most radical and extreme circumstances, given the ultimate say in fostering their child's religious beliefs, no matter how egregious some of those beliefs might seem to others? A free society can offer nothing less and still call itself "free."
Children do need to be taught something about themselves, their origins, and their destiny, right? The new atheists, then, would teach their children—what? That we're created by chance, with no ultimate purpose or destiny, and that more conscious thought went into someone spray painting graffiti on a wall than went into our existence? Children who lose siblings, friends, or parents must be taught that these people are gone forever, with no hope of ever seeing them again. The children will also learn that they themselves, and all their hopes and dreams and desires, will also one day be forever gone—with no hope of redemption, no hope of having the hard questions answered, no hope of anything but the pain and suffering of this life, followed by the eternal blackness of a cold and dead universe.
Child abuse, Dr. Dawkins, can come in myriad forms.
Fodder for the Right
The new atheism is, if nothing else, a hyperbolic reaction to the many excesses of religion, so painfully seen in recent years with, among other things, suicide bombings and other atrocities done by the faithful. For these atheists, there's only a quantitative difference between a believer who, hoping for a fast route to 70 virgins in paradise, blows up himself and others, and a believer who rejects the standard neo-Darwinian model of origins in favor of intelligent design. Both represent worldviews completely alien to these polemicists, whose single-tiered, materialist conception of the universe allows for nothing divine.
Fortunately, their views aren't likely to become public policy anytime soon, and certainly not in the United States (after all, look how well they worked in the Soviet Union). Their most damaging impact might be, instead, the fertile fodder they provide the Christian Right, long trying to convince the flock that their religion is under attack by secular elites and that the only way to protect themselves is for Christians to gain the reins of political power. In short, the extremism of the new atheists will only feed the extremism of the Christian Right, each side pushing the other further in a direction that neither needs to go.
Clifford Goldstein writes from mount airy, Maryland. a former editor of Liberty, Clifford now edits bible study guides for the seventh-day Adventist Church. He writes prolifically and travels widely, lecturing on a variety of topics (even religious liberty on occasion! —ed.).
1. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), p. 57.
2. Damon Linker, "atheism's wrong Turn," The New Republic, Dec. 10, 2007, pp. 16-18.
3. Quoted in From Thales to Plato (university of Chicago Press, 1956), p. 60.
4. see Anthony Flew, There Is a God (New York: Harper Collins, 2007).
5. Dawkins, p. 76.
7. Sam Harris, The End of Faith (London: The free Press, 2005), p. 15.
8. lbid., pp. 52, 53.
9. Dawkins, p. 44.
10. United States v. Ballard, 322 U.S. 78 (1944).
11. Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell (new York: Penguin books, 2006), p. 321.
12. lbid., p. 323.
13. Dawkins, p. 356.
14. Ibid., p. 357.
Author: Clifford R. Goldstein
Clifford Goldstein writes from Mt. Airy, Maryland. A previous editor of Liberty, he now edits Bible study lessons for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.