By Bill Kohlhaase
…my parents had been mildly disappointed when I’d said I didn’t believe in God any more, but being an atheist was another thing altogether.
They are the most reviled group in the country if not the world. Associated with totalitarian governments, accused of having no moral base, deemed a threat to the very existence of civilized society, they are one of the few demographic groups at which casting bias—let alone slurs and baseless insults—is tolerated. Their alleged evil is the one thing evangelical Christians, Orthodox Jews, devout Muslims and Hindus all agree on. Otherwise good-hearted people believe they deserve to burn in hell.
They are atheists and they’re used to it. For centuries, they’ve been spit on, laughed at, jailed, deported and burned at the stake. Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, bristles a bit when asked why atheists are so despised. “I’m hardly the one to pass judgment on that,” he says in a phone call from his home in Cambridge, England. “That’s a question you should be asking of religious people, isn’t it?”
In an era of science and rationality, atheists are an embarrassingly tiny minority. Estimates range that from three to nine percent of Americans don’t believe in a god of any type (the figure is 32 percent in France). Few of those are willing to admit it and for good reason.
A 2006 University of Minnesota study found that the increasing tolerance of religious diversity in the United States doesn’t extend to atheists. Atheists rated well below Muslims, immigrants, gays and lesbians in groups seen sharing “American’s vision.” Respondents to the study associated atheists with criminal behavior, rampant materialism and cultural elitism.
No wonder presidential candidates are so anxious to declare their faith. Some 52 percent of Americans say they wouldn’t vote for an atheist. George H. W. Bush, while campaigning for President in 1988, reportedly said, “I don’t know that atheists should be regarded as citizens.” Atheists, says the Minnesota study, are the minority people least want their children to marry. As the old joke goes, “I don’t want my daughter to marry an atheist . . . but I’m glad my wife did.”
That may be the problem. Atheists have been so stigmatized that they keep their beliefs hidden. “I think the proportion [of atheists] may be higher than we think,” Dawkins says, “especially if you include the percentage of agnostics. They’ve all been beleaguered too long and I think they’re tired of it.”
While only seven percent of scientists believe in God, 73 percent of Americans believe in a supreme being overall (the figure jumps to 94 percent for those over 50 years of age). That leaves a large block of undecideds, and the battle for their minds—if not their hearts—is on. Battered by fundamentalist preachers, the Christian right, and popular misconception (think the LeftBehind series), atheists are suddenly making headway with those most likely to listen: the literate.
A slew of books in recent years have advanced the cause, books with titles like God: The Failed Hypothesis, Atheist Universe: The Thinking Person’s Answer to Christian Fundamentalism and Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. That these texts have had commercial success is mirrored by best-seller lists and the sudden appearance of such mass-market compendiums as The Quotable Atheist and The Atheist Bible: An Illustrious Collection of Irreverent Thoughts.
The three most popular—and most despised—of these recent tracts have been called an “unholy trinity.” Their sales are hot as hell. Sam Harris’ Letter To A Christian Nation, Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything have all done time on TheNew York Times Best Seller list with, as of this writing, Hitchens ensconced at number three after 13 weeks and Dawkins still in the top 30 almost a year after his book’s release. Harris’ book, released in September of 2006, spent over three months on the list and at one time both Dawkins and Harris sat in the top ten. Is it a miracle? Or a backlash against clergy molestation scandals, fanatical suicide bombers, religion-inspired genocide and the political shrillness of the evangelical right?
Dr. Dennis R. MacDonald, author and the John Wesley Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins Studies at the Claremont School of Theology says the popularity of the books is understandable. “Religion had it coming. Especially in North America where we’ve seen the melding by the Bush administration and others of certain Protestant beliefs and politics, in which it’s been wedded to an anti-science bent. No wonder scientists are smarting and some of them want to lash out.”
While the premise of the books may be the same—there is no God, religion does harm—their tone and temperament are as different as a considered Lutheran sermon and a gospel crusade. Harris, who began stirring the pot in 2005 with his previous book The End Of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, addresses his thin volume to American Christians and spends as much of his time pointing out hypocrisies—Christians expend more “moral” energy opposing abortion than fighting genocide—as he does arguing against a supreme deity.
Dawkins’ book is a more detailed argument against religion of all types, a moral and scientific look at contradictions, fallacies and cruelties carried in the name of God. Dawkins, as befits his position as professor of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, asks that the idea of a “supernatural” deity be given the same scientific scrutiny as theories of evolution or creation of the universe. That his book was seen as a serious threat to faith is mirrored in the release of The Dawkins Delusion: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine by Alister E. McGrath, a professor of Theology at Oxford. (McGrath, something of an anti-Dawkins industry, previously felt it worthy to publish an attack on Dawkins’ unique take on evolution in The Selfish Gene).
While Dawkins’ writing remains gentlemanly, though assertive, the same can’t be said of Hitchens. He’s the attack dog of the atheist movement with a bite equal his bark. The very title of his book declares religion a poison—one chapter title labels it a “hazard,” while another, ironically, the “original sin.” And yet another is bluntly titled “Religion Kills.” Sparing no one, Hitchens belittles Buddhists as well as Mormons and expresses disdain for such cherished figures as Mother Teresa, the Dali Lama and Mahatma Gandhi. Both Dawkins and Hitchens discuss religion’s abuse, psychological and physical, of children. Only Hitchens sees fit to make a long and sickening case against religious mutilation of infant genitalia.
Hitchens irreverence makes his book the most outrageous of the three. It also makes it the most critically attacked. (“Have fun in hell,” writes one Amazon customer reviewer.) Harris points out that these attacks are just another example of Christian hypocrisy. “The most hostile of these communications (in response to his previous book The End of Faith) have come from Christians. This is ironic, as Christians generally imagine that no faith imparts the virtues of love and forgiveness more effectively than their own.”
Other attacks are more thoughtful. Patrick Horn, associate dean and assistant professor of religion at the Claremont Graduate School thinks the unholy three are the wrong folks to critique religion. “Unfortunately, none of these authors have the training for facilitating reasoned discourse about religious beliefs, and it shows. Harris is a doctoral student in neuroscience; Dawkins is a trained biologist; and Hitchens is a political commentator. Those are all splendid disciplines and these authors are certainly entitled to market books about religious beliefs but none of them have conducted sustained sociological, textual, or conceptual investigations into religious beliefs.”
Dr. MacDonald suggests that the books miss the point. “My basic judgment is that theirs is an unfortunate characterization of religion. To say that we should get rid of religion is like saying we should get rid of music. Like art, like music, religion is a complex social construction capable of good or ill. But like art, it’s created by humans to fill human needs.”
Dawkins doesn’t see it. “The implication that people need religion, that it serves a necessary purpose or that society runs more smoothly with it doesn’t matter to me. I don’t care if people need religion. I care whether or not it’s true.”
Will the current wave of atheist literature influence the faithful to change their thinking? Dawkins acknowledges that he may be preaching to the choir, “But I think the choir is a lot bigger than we suspect and much of it is hidden in the closet. It just needs a bit of emboldening to come out. “
MacDonald, who grew up the son of a Baptist pastor and attended evangelical stronghold Bob Jones University for his undergraduate degree, says that conversions are possible. “It happens all the time. As we grow older, we gain a more fluid understanding, a more refined view of religion. And certainly, that’s a good thing.”
To those who say it’s impossible to change thousands of years of belief, Dawkins cites the example of slavery, an institution with an equally long and ingrained history. As John Lennon imagined it, a day of no religion may be a dream. Still, atheists are enjoying the moment, raising their voices and storming the moral high ground. “Such hostility as I or other atheists occasionally voice towards religion,” Dawkins writes, “is limited to words. I am not going to bomb anybody, behead them, stone them, burn them at the stake, crucify them or fly planes into their skyscrapers just because of a theological argument.”
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins; Houghton Mifflin, 406 pages, hardback, $27.
Letter To a Christian Nation by Sam Harris; Alfred A. Knopf, 96 pages, hardback, $16.95.
God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens; Twelve, 307 pages, hardback, $24.99.