The New Atheists

Humanistic Judaism, Autumn 2003/Winter 2004

This is the season for atheism. Three intellectuals have ridden the train of fame to the top of the bestseller list with three atheist books. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett have clearly proclaimed that atheism is the only path for honest, consistent, rational thinkers.

Atheists are usually more discreet. They are reluctant to publicly acknowledge their lack of faith. They often hide behind more ambiguous designations like “agnostic,” “free thinker,” or “skeptic.” They often plead their respect for religion and religious values and express regret for not believing. Atheists are always on the defensive. They never feel really comfortable in a society that places such a high value on religious faith. They never feel really safe in a society that still equates atheism with immorality.

Our three writers are bold and fearless. Two of them, Dawkins and Harris, describe religious belief as ridiculous and without a stitch of evidence. They also denounce the religious penchant to distinguish between scientific truth and religious truth. For them there is only one kind of truth. It is the truth that is supported by the evidence of controlled investigation. Faith and intuition are the beginning of the truth process. They are “hunches” and hypotheses that require future verification. Knowledge demands more than internal conviction. It insists on external evidence. Truth is responsible to fact. Whether one is talking about Bible stories or about transcendent deities, the same criterion applies. Whether one is describing angels or atomic particles, the same test for reality is relevant. Feeling that something is true is never enough.

Dawkins, who is a biological scientist and the world’s most famous science writer, dismisses religion as a useless and often dangerous evolutionary accident. “Religious behavior may be a misfiring, an unfortunate byproduct of any underlying psychological propensity which . . . once was useful.” [The God Delusion, p. 65] In other words, religion cannot help us. It may even harm us. It may be the cause of intense hatred and violence.