Sunday, January 07, 2007

The New Atheists Are an Unattractive Lot

From Opinion Journal, a critique of the new atheists, and some reasons why they not only are unlikely to convince believers, but don’t deserve to convince any believers.
A new generation of publicists for atheism has emerged to tell Americans in particular that we should be ashamed to retain a majority of religious believers, that in this way we resemble the benighted, primitive peoples of the Middle East, Africa and South America instead of the enlightened citizens of Western Europe.

Thanks in part to the actions of a few jihadists in September 2001, it is believers who stand accused, not freethinkers. Among the prominent atheists who now sermonize to the believers in their midst are Dr. Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett (“Breaking the Spell”) and Sam Harris (“The End of Faith” and, more recently, “Letter to a Christian Nation”). There are others, too, like Steven Weinberg, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Brooke Allen (whose “Moral Minority” was a celebration of the skeptical Founders) and a host of commentators appalled by the Intelligent Design movement. The transcript of a recent symposium on the perils of religious thought can be found at a science Web site called edge.org.

Naturally, the atheists focus their peevishness not on Muslim extremists (who advertise their hatred and violent intentions) but on the old-time Christian religion. (“Wisdom dwells with prudence,” the Good Book teaches.) They can always haul out the abortion-clinic bomber if they need a boogeyman; and they can always argue as if all faiths are interchangeable: Persuade American Christians to give up their infantile attachment to God and maybe Muslims will too. In any case, they conclude: God is not necessary, God is impossible and God is not permissible if our society — or even our species — is to survive.

What is new about the new atheists? It’s not their arguments. Spend as much time as you like with a pile of the recent anti-religion books, but you won’t encounter a single point you didn’t hear in your freshman dormitory. It’s their tone that is novel. Belief, in their eyes, is not just misguided but contemptible, the product of provincial minds, the mark of people who need to be told how to think and how to vote — both of which, the new atheists assure us, they do in lockstep with the pope and Jerry Falwell.

For them, belief in God is beyond childish, it is unsuitable for children. Today’s atheists are particularly disgusted by the religious training of young people — which Dr. Dawkins calls “a form of child abuse.” He even floats the idea that the state should intervene to protect children from their parents’ religious beliefs.

Anyone who has actually taught young people and listened to them knows that it is often the students who come from a trained sectarian background — Catholic, Orthodox Jewish, Muslim, Mormon — who are best at grasping different systems of belief and unbelief. Such students know, at least, what it feels like to have such a system, and can understand those who have very different ones. The new atheists remind me of other students from more “open-minded” homes — rigid, indifferent, puzzled by thought and incapable of sympathy.

The new atheists fail too often simply for want of charm or skill. Twenty-first century atheism hasn’t found its H.G. Wells or its George Bernard Shaw, men who flattered their audiences, excited them and persuaded them by making them feel intelligent. Here is Sam Harris, for instance, addressing those who wonder if destroying human embryos in the process of stem cell research might be morally dicey: “Your qualms . . . are obscene.”

The atheists say that they are addressing believers. Rationalists all, can they believe that believers would be swayed by such contumely and condescension? They seem instead to be preaching to people exactly like themselves — a remarkably incurious elite.
There are all kinds of ironies here.

The politically correct leftists tell the world that Europe (and more especially, European males) have been the source of imperialism, racism and oppression. But when it becomes clear that Europeans are secular, they suddenly become the standard of enlightenment, and people in the rest of the world need to shape up and understand that.

Dawkins would ban religious instruction for children. How is that any more tolerant than requiring religious instruction for children — regardless of their parents’ wishes? It isn’t, and only a bigot like Dawkins would flirt with the idea.

(There are, unfortunately, quite a substantial number of bigots like him.)

The simple fact is that the atheist project has failed. Secular Europe is in decline, both internationally (overshadowed by the Christian United States and the expansion of Islam) and internally (done in by the failure of secular people to reproduce themselves).

So what we have from the new atheists is the vitriol of people who, somewhere deep down, have caught on to the fact that they are not the wave of the future. They are, in reality, a sort of neo-Victorians.

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