The Atheist Renaissance by Joe Sobran • July 4, 2007 • Printer-friendly
Atheists are feeling their oats these days. Three militant unbelievers—Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens—have recently hit the best-seller lists and talk shows. Not since Bertrand Russell have we seen atheism so prosperously married to celebrity. Why now?
Since the September 11 terror attacks, militant Islam has given ammunition to those in the secularized West who were already disposed to damn “religion” as such, without splitting too many hairs about fine distinctions between, say, Islam and popery.
Consider the mere title of Hitchens’ polemic: God Is Not Great: How Religion Spoils Everything. The book won a laudatory lead review from Michael Kinsley in the New York Times’ Sunday Book Review section, less for its content, which Kinsley barely touched on, than for its brilliance as a veteran contrarian’s latest career move. Takes one to know one, I guess.
Kinsley was basically reviewing author, not book, saluting him on his successful strategy for winning publicity, the principle being that there is no such thing as bad publicity, by which rule the surly atheist has earned the fellowship of such devout men of the cloth as the Reverend Sharpton.
“God is not great”? “Religion poisons everything”? Is the animus here antitheistic, or just antimonotheistic? What does it mean? How, if at all, does it apply to Homer? Does “religion” ruin the Iliad? Or is the Iliad an object lesson of some sort, illustrating how the gods, or perhaps a belief in them not necessarily shared by the poet, incited the Trojan War (a quagmire if ever there was one, though the Greek attackers may have expected it to be a cakewalk)?
However that may be, Hitchens is telling us about his feelings, not his thoughts. Unlike Russell, he hardly purports to explain philosophically “why I am not a Christian,” though he wants us to think he has philosophically sophisticated reasons for his comprehensive grudge. And unlike such more dispassionate unbelievers of an older generation as Rudolf Carnap and Anthony Flew, he doesn’t bother with publicity-repellent, “value-free” analysis of abstract ideas and neutral propositions.
Religion and its votaries are bad, that’s all. Look at all the wars it has caused. Not only that, it sometimes opposes war! Check out the last two popes’ objections to the Anglo-American wars on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Religion is no good, I tell you! Never mind that Hitchens himself has favored both wars. (Then again, some atheists haven’t.)
And besides, to shift our focus just a bit, religion is notoriously hostile to Reason and Science. Does the name Charles Darwin ring a bell? Possibly you’ve seen the movie Inherit the Wind. Can you dig it? Give me that old-time irreligion: Reason and Science have spoken, with one conclusive voice.
Well, the truth of Darwinism may seem self-evident to liberal-arts majors, especially those who watch Animal Planet, but Hitchens appears blissfully unaware, as they say, of what can be (and has been) said by critics of the idea. Of these, my favorite is the late Australian philosopher David Stove, himself an atheist, who finds Darwin’s thesis not only false but absurd on its face, “a ridiculous slander on human beings.” Stove’s book, Darwinian Fairytales, makes a scathingly witty attack on the very premises that the Darwinists assume to be impregnable.
Stove’s argument is startlingly simple: If Darwin’s theory of a “ruthless struggle for survival” among human beings were true, the human race could never have existed. Human life just isn’t like that. Period. Every human being depends on parental care and protection until near-maturity. Without these, obviously, none of us could survive. Man is, and must be, a cooperative creature.
To meet this clear objection, Darwinists appeal to prehistory: Man, they admit, is cooperative now, but was not in primitive times. This won’t do, Stove replies. Apart from the sheer absence of evidence, Darwinism is a “universal generalization,” purporting to be a scientific law, true in all times and places. So if it was ever true of man, it must still be true today, and we see clearly that it isn’t. Therefore, it was never true.
Stove disclaims any special scientific knowledge and never appeals, for example, to the fossil record. He merely applies linguistic analysis to Darwin’s claims and shows their vacuity and incoherence. He also makes short work of such dodges as Dawkins’ “selfish genes” and “memes.” The holes in Darwinism can’t be patched.
Speaking of overgeneralizations, Hitchens’ indiscriminate assertions about “religion” instantly raise the suspicion that he simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about. How could so many accusations, against so many disparate things, possibly be true? Is the religion of the ancient Hebrews indistinguishable from the religion of the Aztecs? Are Hindus hard to tell from Unitarians? Is there no essential difference between the thought of Jonathan Edwards and that of John Henry Newman?
Another of Hitchens’ reviewers, Stephen Prothero, author of Religious Literacy, remarks, “I have never encountered a book whose author is so fundamentally unacquainted with its subject.” Hitchens appears to be a total stranger to any form of religious experience. Does he even realize what he’s saying? He’s like a blind man discussing Renaissance painting—and condemning all of it in clichés he has overheard.
Besides being ignorant of his subject and wrong about it, Hitchens is preposterously self-congratulatory. Whereas believers are “literal and limited,” atheists (such as himself) are “ironic and inquiring.” What about Stalin and Kim Jong-il? They’re not true atheists, you see, since, as Orwell says, “a totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy.” Thus, Hitchens rigs the whole debate.
Why shouldn’t he? “If God does not exist,” as Ivan Karamazov says, “everything is permitted,” including calumniating believers. Hitchens does believe in most of the Christian virtues, after all; he merely insists that only atheists actually practice them.
Contributing editor Joseph Sobran is a syndicated columnist.
This article first appeared in the July 2007 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.
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