While the American cultural landscape includes many religions, it’s still fascinating to watch closely when we have the chance to observe a new faith being born. Consider, for example, a religious phenomenon that has been dubbed the “new atheism,” prominently represented by some bestselling books.
Can disbelief in God be considered “religious”? Sure. Just ask Zen Buddhists, who worship no deity. By religion, I mean any faith-based set of values that makes exclusive claims for its truth and explains the mysteries of the universe. Yes, atheism begins with a faith, namely that only material and physical (not spiritual) causes make the world run.
Two recent atheist gospels, by Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) and Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation), are the country’s top two bestsellers among “religion” books, according to Publishers Weekly. The books are outselling even a Christian megahit like Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life.
These leading lights contend that traditional religions are not only false, but dangerous and morally grotesque. The title of another hot atheist tract, by journalist Christopher Hitchens and forthcoming in May, says it all: “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.”
Who are the new atheists? While only 5.2 percent of Americans identify themselves as atheists, according to 2006 Baylor University polling data, it’s a privileged demographic category, disproportionately college-educated and affluent. Atheists tend to live on the West Coast or East Coast. In its polling sample, the Baylor study found not one atheist African American. Meanwhile, those of us from Jewish backgrounds are represented well out of proportion to our national numbers, with 8.3 percent rejecting belief in God.
You can see how influential atheism has become by noting how the media and academia deal with traditional faith. A recent New York Times Magazine cover story detailed the big debate among academic psychologists: Did God-centered religion evolve in prehistoric man as a useful adaptation or as a surprising byproduct of other evolutionary processes? The possibility that it developed in response to a living God was not considered.
The new religion has a scientific appeal, with orthodox evolutionary theory recruited to provide a rationalistic “proof” for atheist teaching. For this reason, Oxford University biologist Dawkins devotes the “central argument of [his] book” to an attempted refutation of intelligent design (ID), the alternative to neo-Darwinian evolution that has been spearheaded by Seattle’s Discovery Institute (where I work).
Unfortunately, Dawkins does not grapple with the latest arguments for intelligent design as formulated by their chief proponents. Harris is similarly preoccupied by ID, which evidently provoked the new atheism’s present evangelistic push.
Darwinism, of course, is hardly new. The novelty here lies in the new faith’s missionary fervor. Dawkins writes explicitly about making “converts.”
Another novelty: In the 18th and 20th centuries, respectively, the atheist French and Russian revolutions sought political power above all else, with terrifyingly violent results. Luckily, far from being politicians, the new atheists seek religious influence for its own sake.
Despite these novel features, in other ways the new atheism will be familiar to historians who have studied the trajectory of upstart faiths. A favorite strategy of such groups has long been to attack cartoon versions of older rival religions.
Dawkins, for his part, mocks the God of the Hebrew Bible as “arguably the most unpleasant character in fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
Such a wild caricature will be unrecognizable to any believer (like me) in the God of Israel. But Dawkins and Harris seem unfamiliar with religious tradition as biblical monotheists know it from personal experience and deep study. Frankly, the success of the new atheist faith would be hard to imagine without today’s soaring levels of societal religious illiteracy.
Which might sound like the new religion has a promising future. I doubt it. For one thing, God gives objective definition to our ideas of right and wrong, crucial for civilization. Equally important, he provides meaning to life itself.
Certainly, you can have an ethical individual atheist, an instinctively caring, generous person who happens to disbelieve in God. But an atheist society could not survive. It would first live on the fumes of ancient moral traditions. In the end, racked by despair at life’s apparent meaninglessness, its members would return to more nourishing faiths.
That’s what we see happening now in formerly communist Russia, with its Christian and Jewish revivals. The evaporation of atheist communism is a lesson worth pondering, and a sobering one, for the new atheists.
David Klinghoffer, who lives on Mercer Island, is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute. His new book, “Shattered Tablets: Why We Ignore the Ten Commandments at Our Peril” (Doubleday), will be published in August.