A Pair of Atheists Agree: Time to Let Go of God

101606 article book bobrow1 A Pair of Atheists Agree:  Time to Let Go of GodLetter to a Christian Nation, by Sam Harris. Alfred A. Knopf, 96 pages, $16.95.

With the publication in 1976 of The Selfish Gene, in which he argued that genes—not individuals—­are the key units of natural selection, Richard Dawkins made his grand entrance into the world of evolutionary biology. A rakish lecturer on zoology at Oxford, he soon earned a reputation for wittily demystifying scientific riddles for laypeople. He also became known for his snarling brand of atheism. “Faith is powerful enough to immunize people against all appeals to pity, to forgiveness, to decent human feelings,” he lamented in this first book. “It even immunizes them against fear, if they honestly believe that a martyr’s death will send them straight to heaven.”

For over three decades, Mr. Dawkins has argued that the natural world is divine enough without the imposition of mystical mumbo-jumbo; Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. Readers of The God Delusion will find that time—and the religious upheaval of the last five years—has intensified this conviction. “If this book works as I intend,” Mr. Dawkins promises in his preface, “religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.” Here he has marshaled his full case against the existence of God, and the result is compelling, fairly familiar and often entertaining.

Mr. Dawkins tends to preach to the choir, so to speak, as few God-fearing folk care to brave his scorn. He gets his name-calling in early, describing the God of the Old Testament as “a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” But it would a pity for theists to stop reading there, as this book offers a strong test of faith. Mr. Dawkins goes on to undermine philosophical proofs of God’s existence; use evolution to explain our religious tendencies; illustrate the poverty of the Bible as a moral guide; and get foamy-mouthed over religious hypocrisy. Not all of it is convincing—witness his theory that religion springs from the evolutionary advantage of having gullible children. (Obediently trusting kids survive, you see, but this means they’ll believe anything: “[O]nce infected, the child will grow up and infect the next generation with the same nonsense.”) But on the whole, Mr. Dawkins’ aggressively rational attack on faith makes for a satisfying—if sometimes disconcerting—read.

He’s particularly vexed by the rise of “religious fanaticism” in America. He begins by suggesting that atheists are the homosexuals of yesteryear—besieged, unelectable and in the closet. Many are the “victim of childhood indoctrination,” trapped in the religion of their parents. But he also blames the country’s religiosity, “the theocrats of early twenty-first century Washington,” who “would have horrified Jefferson, Washington, Madison, Adams and all their friends.” He emphasizes the thoughtful skepticism of our founding fathers—relying mainly on Jefferson, who once wrote: “Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, He must more approve of the homage of Reason than that of blindfolded Fear.”

This is a constant refrain from Mr. Dawkins: Why is believing in God the best thing we can do for Him? Wouldn’t He be more pleased if we were kind or humble or charitable or logically skeptical? Mr. Dawkins suggests that the problem is faith, which glorifies the worship of God without proof or reason. He also criticizes the “poverty of agnosticism,” a lazy predilection for putting God’s existence and non-existence on equal footing, despite the statistical implausibility of the former. And don’t get him started on the “pernicious” practice of “teaching children that faith itself is a virtue.” Children should never be considered Christian or Muslim, he argues, but rather the children of Christians or Muslims. Imposing faith on a child is a “grievous wrong.”

Critics of Daniel Dennett’s recent book Breaking the Spell will accuse Mr. Dawkins of indulging in a similar biological reductionism, boiling human behavior down to evolutionary instincts. Some will also complain that he neglects more elegant explanations of faith, preferring instead to highlight the absurd e-mails of angry Christians. And his suggestion that God is statistically improbable won’t trouble believers, who tend to think God does just fine without the help of science. But ultimately, he makes an interesting case for dumping our “overweening respect for religion” and demanding that religious people justify their faith. Hiding behind religious moderation won’t do, as this only enables the violent spread of religious extremists.

Mr. Dawkins is referring here to Sam Harris’ argument in The End of Faith (2005), an impressive best-seller in which Mr. Harris wrote that religious tolerance “is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss.” Religious moderation may seem sensible—I enjoy celebrating the holidays with my family, but I don’t really want to convert others or die for my faith—but according to Mr. Harris, it “represents a failure to criticize the unreasonable (and dangerous) certainty of others.” Our moderation means we neglect Scripture and tolerate zealots, betraying both faith and reason. At a time when criticizing religion is politically incorrect and yet the brutal consequences of faith abound, this is an eye-opening argument.

Letter to a Christian Nation is Mr. Harris’ slim follow-up, which touches on a lot of the same territory. Weighing in at less than 100 pages (the perfect stocking-stuffer: one polemic), the book seems like a slick way to cash in on his earlier success. Mr. Harris has consolidated his disdain for religion into a withering attack on Christianity, delivered in the form of an open letter. Like Mr. Dawkins (The God Delusion tops a list of recommended books at the end of Letter to a Christian Nation), Mr. Harris is responding to the rising religiosity of America—a time of “moral and intellectual emergency,” when over half the country believes in creationism and 87 percent claim never to doubt the existence of God. Mr. Harris wants to grab your lapels and give you a good shake.

Like Mr. Dawkins, he highlights the nasty bits of the Bible to prove that we don’t get our morality from it. We no longer like to beat rude children with a rod (despite the good council of Proverbs 13:24, 20:30 and 23:13-14), and selling daughters into sexual slavery is passé. There are plenty of lines that are perfectly nice, but the problem is that “[p]eople have been cherry-picking the Bible for millennia to justify their every impulse, moral and otherwise.” How is it moral to spend more energy opposing abortion than fighting genocide?

Religion, he argues convincingly, divorces morality from the reality of human suffering. Religious dogma actually increases human misery by, for example, hindering national policy on sex education, stem-cell research and the treatment of sexually transmitted diseases. Teenagers in America—where abstinence is often taught as a way to curb pregnancy—are far more likely to be infected by H.I.V. than their counterparts elsewhere in the developed world, and girls are four to five times more likely to become pregnant. As for Jesus’ advice about loving neighbors, “We need not believe that he was born of a virgin or will be returning to earth as a superhero to take these teachings to heart.”

Mr. Harris shows that there’s little correlation between religious conservatism and societal health. Much of the developed world is relatively irreligious, and these countries (e.g., Norway, Australia, Canada and Britain, among others) are also the healthiest when measuring life expectancy, literacy, income, education, etc. In America, the most dangerous cities are mainly in red states. Though these facts may illustrate the link between religion, poor education and poverty, they also show that widespread belief in God does not ensure a healthy society.

His new book may be smug in spots, but Mr. Harris makes a good case for a new and intellectually honest conversation about morality and human suffering. “Nothing stands in the way of this project,” he writes, “more than the respect we accord religious faith.”

But when God is taken away, what fills the gap? Sam Harris suggests that we can still use ritual to mark the big moments in life without “embracing the preposterous.” Richard Dawkins is less conciliatory: “Maybe life is empty,” he suggests. “There is something infantile in the presumption that somebody else (parents in the case of children, God in the case of adults) has a responsibility to give your life meaning and point.” Instead, he explains, our lives are as meaningful as we choose to make them. He illustrates this point of view with a quote from James Watson, the Nobel Prize winner who helped discover the structure of DNA: “Well, I don’t think we’re for anything. We’re just products of evolution. You can say ‘Gee, your life must be pretty bleak if you don’t think there’s a purpose.’ But I’m anticipating having a good lunch.”

Emily Bobrow is an editor at Economist.com.