The New Naysayers; in the Midst of Religious Revival, Three Scholars Argue That Atheism Is Smarter

Article excerpt

Byline: Jerry Adler

Americans answered the atrocities of September 11, overwhelmingly, with faith. Attacked in the name of God, they turned to God for comfort; in the week after the attacks, nearly 70 percent said they were praying more than usual. Confronted by a hatred that seemed inexplicable, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson proclaimed that God was mad at America because it harbored feminists, gays and civil libertarians. Sam Harris, then a 34-year-old graduate student in neuroscience, had a different reaction. On Sept. 12, he began a book. If, he reasoned, young men were slaughtering people in the name of religion--something that had been going on since long before 2001, of course--then perhaps the problem was religion itself. The book would be called "The End of Faith," which to most Americans probably sounds like a lament. To Harris it is something to be encouraged.

This was not a message most Americans wanted to hear, before or after 9/11. Atheists "are seen as a threat to the American way of life by a large portion of the American public," according to a study by Penny Edgell, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota. In a recent NEWSWEEK Poll, Americans said they believed in God by a margin of 92 to 6--only 2 percent answered "don't know"--and only 37 percent said they'd be willing to vote for an atheist for president. (That's down from 49 percent in a 1999 Gallup poll--which also found that more Americans would vote for a homosexual than an atheist.) "The End of Faith" struggled to find a publisher, and even after Norton agreed to bring it out in 2004, Harris says there were editors who refused to come to meetings with him. But after winning the PEN/Martha Albrand award for nonfiction, the book sold 270,000 copies. Harris's scathing "Letter to a Christian Nation" will be published this month with a press run of 150,000. Someone is listening, even if he is mostly preaching, one might say, to the unconverted.

This year also saw the publication in February of "Breaking the Spell," by the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, which asks how and why religions became ubiquitous in human society. The obvious answer--"Because they're true"--is foreclosed, Dennett says, by the fact that they are by and large mutually incompatible. Even to study "religion as a natural phenomenon," the subtitle of Dennett's book, is to deprive it of much of its mystery and power. And next month the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins ("The Selfish Gene") weighs in with "The God Delusion," a book that extends an argument he advanced in the days after 9/11. After hearing once too often that "[t]o blame the attacks on Islam is like blaming Christianity for the fighting in Northern Ireland," Dawkins responded: Precisely. "It's time to get angry," he wrote, "and not only with Islam."

Dawkins and Harris are not writing polite demurrals to the time-honored beliefs of billions; they are not issuing pleas for tolerance or moderation, but bone-rattling attacks on what they regard as a pernicious and outdated superstition. (In the spirit of scientific evenhandedness, both would call themselves agnostic, although as Dawkins says, he's agnostic about God the same way he's agnostic about the existence of fairies.) They ask: where do people get their idea of God? From the Bible or the Qur'an. "Tell a devout Christian ... that frozen yogurt can make a man invisible," Harris writes, "and he is likely to require as much evidence as anyone else, and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him that the book he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity who will punish him with fire for eternity if he fails to accept its every incredible claim about the universe, and he seems to require no evidence whatsoever." He asks: How can anyone believe in a benevolent and omnipotent God who permits a tsunami to swallow 180,000 innocent people in a few hours? How does it advance our understanding of the universe to suppose that it was created by a supernatural being who communicates only through the one-way process of revelation? …