What the New Atheists Don’t See
City Journal, Autumn 2007
Edited by Andy Ross
The search for the pure guiding light of reason, uncontaminated
by human passion or metaphysical principles that go beyond all possible
evidence, continues. Recently, an epidemic rash of books has declared success,
at least if success consists of having slain religion. The philosophers Daniel
Dennett, A. C. Grayling, Michel Onfray, and Sam Harris, biologist Richard
Dawkins, and journalist and critic Christopher Hitchens have all written books
roundly condemning religion and its works.
The curious thing about these books is that the authors often appear to think
that they are saying something new and brave. The public appears to agree, for
the neo-atheist books have sold by the hundred thousand. Yet with the possible
exception of Dennett’s, they advance no argument that I, the village atheist,
could not have made.
Dennett’s Breaking the Spell is the least bad-tempered of the new atheist books,
but it is deeply condescending to all religious people. Dennett argues that
religion is explicable in evolutionary terms. For Dennett, to prove the
biological origin of belief in God is to show its irrationality, to break its
spell. But of course it is a necessary part of the argument that all possible
human beliefs, including belief in evolution, must be explicable in precisely
the same way. It ill behooves Dennett to condescend to those poor primitives who
still have a religious view of the world that is no more refutable than
Dennett’s metaphysical faith in evolution.
Dennett is not the only new atheist to employ religious language. In The God
Delusion, Richard Dawkins quotes with approval a new set of Ten Commandments for
atheists without considering odd the idea that atheists require commandments at
all, let alone precisely ten of them.
This sloppiness and lack of intellectual scruple, with the assumption of
certainty where there is none, combined with adolescent shrillness and
intolerance, reach an apogee in Sam Harris’s book The End of Faith. It is not
easy to do justice to the book’s nastiness; it makes Dawkins’s claim that
religious education constitutes child abuse look sane and moderate.
Harris tells us, for example, that “we must find our way to a time when faith,
without evidence, disgraces anyone who would claim it.” I am puzzled by the
status of the compulsion. It becomes even more sinister when considered in
conjunction with the following sentences, quite possibly the most disgraceful
that I have read in a book by a man posing as a rationalist: “The link between
belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so
dangerous that it may be ethical to kill people for believing them.”
Lying not far beneath the surface of all the neo-atheist books is the kind of
historiography that many of us adopted in our hormone-disturbed adolescence. It
can be summed up in Christopher Hitchens’s drumbeat in God Is Not Great:
“Religion spoils everything.”
The emblematic religious person in these books seems to be a Glasgow Airport
bomber — a type unrepresentative of Muslims, let alone communicants of the poor
old Church of England. It is surely not news that religious conflict has often
been murderous and that religious people have committed hideous atrocities. But
so have secularists and atheists.
The thinness of the new atheism is evident in its approach to our civilization,
which until recently was religious to its core. To regret religion is, in fact,
to regret our civilization and its monuments, its achievements, and its legacy.
And in my own view, the absence of religious faith, provided that such faith is
not murderously intolerant, can have a deleterious effect upon human character
I recently had occasion to compare the writings of the neo-atheists with those
of Anglican divines of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In my own
neo-atheist days, I would have scorned these works as pertaining to a
nonexistent entity and containing nothing of value.
But looking, say, into the works of Joseph Hall, D.D., I found myself moved:
much more moved, it goes without saying, than by any of the books of the new
atheists. Hall was bishop of Exeter and then of Norwich, dying in 1656 while
Cromwell was Lord Protector.
Here is an extract from Hall’s Characters of Virtues and Vices:
He is an happy man, that hath learned to read himself, more than
all books; and hath so taken out this lesson, that he can never forget it: that
knows the world, and cares not for it; that, after many traverses of thoughts,
is grown to know what he may trust to; and stands now equally armed for all
events: that hath got the mastery at home; so as he can cross his will without a
mutiny, and so please it that he makes it not a wanton: that, in earthly things,
wishes no more than nature; in spiritual, is ever graciously ambitious: that,
for his condition, stands on his own feet, not needing to lean upon the great;
and can so frame his thoughts to his estate, that when he hath least, he cannot
want, because he is as free from desire, as superfluity: that hath seasonably
broken the headstrong restiness of prosperity; and can now manage it, at
pleasure: upon whom, all smaller crosses light as hailstones upon a roof; and,
for the greater calamities, he can take them as tributes of life and tokens of
love; and, if his ship be tossed, yet he is sure his anchor is fast. If all the
world were his, he could be no other than he is; no whit gladder of himself, no
whit higher in his carriage; because he knows, that contentment lies not in the
things he hath, but in the mind that values them.
Though eloquent, this appeal to moderation as the key to
happiness is not original; but such moderation comes more naturally to the man
who believes in something not merely higher than himself, but higher than
In his Occasional Meditations, Hall takes perfectly ordinary scenes and derives
meaning from them. Here is his meditation “Upon the Flies Gathering to a Galled
How these flies swarm to the galled part of this poor beast; and
there sit, feeding upon that worst piece of his flesh, not meddling with the
other sound parts of his skin! Even thus do malicious tongues of detractors: if
a man have any infirmity in his person or actions, that they will be sure to
gather unto, and dwell upon; whereas, his commendable parts and well-deservings
are passed by, without mention, without regard. It is an envious self-love and
base cruelty, that causeth this ill disposition in men: in the mean time, this
only they have gained; it must needs be a filthy creature, that feeds upon
nothing but corruption.
Surely Hall is not raising a biological theory about flies, in
contradistinction to the theory of evolution, but thinking morally about human
Let us compare Hall’s meditation “Upon the Sight of a Harlot Carted” with
Harris’s statement that some people ought perhaps to be killed for their
With what noise, and tumult, and zeal of solemn justice, is this
sin punished! The streets are not more full of beholders, than clamours. Every
one strives to express his detestation of the fact, by some token of revenge:
one casts mire, another water, another rotten eggs, upon the miserable offender.
Neither, indeed, is she worthy of less: but, in the mean time, no man looks home
to himself. It is no uncharity to say, that too many insult in this just
punishment, who have deserved more.
I prefer Hall’s charity to Harris’s intolerance.
Response to Theodore Dalrymple
October 29, 2007
Beyond simply hating my book, Dalrymple seems to imagine that he
has exposed me for what I am: not merely a fraud, and a lazy thinker, but a
genocidal maniac. On Dalrymple’s reading, everyone who liked The End of Faith
must have simply skipped the chapter where I recommend that we murder millions
of innocent people for thought crimes. His summary of my views is among the
least honest I have come across.
Dalrymple is not the first critic to respond to Dennett, Dawkins, Hitchens, and
me as though we were a single person with four heads. He is not the first to
claim that our criticism of religion goes much too far without going so far as
to say anything new. He is not the first professed “atheist” to suggest that,
while he can get along just fine without an imaginary friend, most human beings
will always need to delude themselves about God.
In lieu of answering our arguments against faith, Dalrymple simply misses the
point of our books outright. He then delivers what he clearly imagines to be the
killing blow, comparing our misbegotten work to a few religious meditations he
deems especially profound. Dalrymple sees neither what is worst about religion,
nor what is best, with anything like clarity.
Response by Theodore Dalrymple
There seem to me three main points to discuss. First, the
existence of God; second, the actual historical record of organized religion;
third, the metaphysical difficulties of human existence without God.
The arguments for and against the existence of God are by now pretty well
rehearsed, and I do not think that any of the new atheists add anything much to
Second, the historiography of religion employed by most of these authors, though
admittedly not by Daniel Dennett, is one of bringing up only damning evidence.
This does not seem to me to be an honest appraisal of religion’s role in human
Third, the metaphysical difficulties of human existence are considerable, and I
do not think the abandonment of religion would make things any easier.
Finally, with regard to Harris’s statement that it may be ethical to kill people
with certain ideas, I fear the likelihood of mission creep. Killing people for
their thoughts alone is not a recipe for anything except bloody disaster.
New English Review, May 2007
Edited by Andy Ross
Marxist writers were not famed for their clarity or elegance
of exposition. At any rate, when the Soviet Union collapsed, no thanks to my
efforts to understand Marxism, I thought, "Well, at least I shall never have to
struggle through any ideological nonsense again if I want to understand what is
going on." How wrong I was! In short order, I found myself reading about Islam
because it had suddenly emerged as the next potential totalitarianism.
Recently, I have been reading one of Sayyid Qutb's best-known books, Milestones.
Of course, not being an Arabic-speaker, I rely on the accuracy of the
translation. Qutb was one of the most influential Muslim thinkers of the 20th
Century. He did not start out as an Islamist, but became one partly in response
to his sojourn in the United States.
Qutb's thought has many parallels with Marxism. Where Marx has Historical
Inevitability, Qutb has God's Law. Marx, you remember, envisages a time when the
state will wither away and history will end. In Marx's vision, political power
will have dissolved, and the exploitation of man by man will have ceased, to be
replaced by the mere administration of things. In Qutb's vision, all political
power will have dissolved, replaced by man's spontaneous obedience to God's law.
Just as Marx says that a showdown between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie is
inevitable, leading to the triumph of the former and the subsequent
establishment of a classless society, so Qutb thinks that a showdown between
believers and infidels is inevitable, leading to the victory of Islam, which
will eliminate all religious conflict.
The violent imposition of a socialist and Islamic society is justified in the
same way in Marx and Qutb: if people were really free, they would accept the
socialist or Islamic state not merely without demur, but joyously, as being for
their own good freely chosen. Qutb insists that the triumph of Islam is the only
way that what he calls the lordship of man over man will be abolished, just as
Marx and Marxists insist that the triumph of Marxism is the only way that the
exploitation of man by man will cease.
The only religious aspect of Qutb's thought is his belief that the Koran is the
unmediated word of God. In the name of the destruction of all political authority
and of the lordship of man over man in obedience to God's will, Qutb thinks he
ought to be total dictator. He is as obsessed with the here and now
as any Marxist.
AR Basically a sound
analogy, I think, but it needs more fleshing out, and the points of disanalogy
need to be spelled out too. Perhaps this is a job for yours truly.
Dalrymple on Decadence, Europe, America and Islam
Paul Belien interviews Theodore Dalrymple
Brussels Journal, September 17, 2006
Anthony Daniels is a 57-year old recently retired psychiatrist.
He began his career in Africa and worked for many years as a hospital and prison
doctor in Birmingham before he moved to the South of France in 2005. Using the
pen name Theodore Dalrymple he writes about the collapse of Western civilization
Daniels/Dalrymple is deeply saddened at the plight of the Europeans who are at
the lower end of the social scale. They have become victims of both the welfare
society, which has robbed them of their self-respect, and of the hatred for
Western culture which our intellectuals and leaders cultivate.
Immigrants can give meaning to their lives in our decadent society by turning
towards Islam. For our indigenous young people nothing of purpose is left.
Dalrymple sees an impending danger: America might follow Europe’s social and
cultural decline if it loses its predominant role in world politics.
Paul Belien: Mr Dalrymple, you are a well-known analyst of the cultural disease
of our society. What do you see as the main problem?
Theodore Dalrymple: The underlying problem is a lack of purpose, a lack of
feeling of belonging to anything larger than one’s own little life.
PB: Does this have to do with immigration?
TD: I think it is our indigenous population which suffers from a lack of
purpose. They have no religious belief.
PB: To what extent has our welfare system exacerbated this sense of
purposelessness in the younger generation?
TD: There certainly is a section of the population in which it has undermined
this sense of purpose. Obviously it is not the majority of the population.
PB: For young immigrants things are easier if they are looking for a purpose:
they can turn to Islam.
TD: Well, Islamic immigrants can. Obviously, if you are looking for an
existential solution some kind of fundamentalist Islam does appear to be that
solution. Though it is a very poor and rather stupid solution, it offers a
solution of a kind.
PB: I can understand that some immigrants, if they look at our culture and the
decadence of it, they despise it.
TD: I do not accept what they are saying entirely. Those parts of the Western
culture that they see are genuinely the least attractive side: gross
promiscuity, the idea that one’s whim is law. They do not understand anything of
the better aspects of our culture.
PB: You are also very familiar with the United States. Is the pathology as bad
there or is it less obvious?
TD: It is better in the United States. The difference is that in America it has
not entered the core of the population.
PB: Why is Britain in such a bad situation, even worse than continental Europe?
TD: Britain has lost power to a degree that is far greater than any other
country. After all, Britain was a world power for 200 years. Today it is
fundamentally of no bigger consequence than Luxemburg. This great loss of power
has produced a great loss of confidence in the culture that once accompanied the
exercise of that power.
PB: Then the relative decline of America might also lead to a dangerous
situation for the Americans, in the sense that it might affect their cultural
TD: Yes, I think it could affect their cultural confidence. That could be a very
bad thing for America and probably for the world because the Americans have some
of the same causes of social pathologies that we have.
PB: Do you see a way to remedy the situation in Europe?
TD: It will be very difficult. It would help if the government would get out of
the way. It is necessary to reduce the welfare state. If we do not persuade
people that there is something valuable in our culture and our tradition –
artistic, scientific, philosophical – then I do not see how we can preserve
PB: And is there a role to be played by religion, for instance?
TD: I find this a difficult question because I am not myself religious. However,
I am not anti-religious. I am pro-religion provided that it is not theocratic,
so long as there is still a division between church and state.
PB: You would not see secularization as cause of the problem?
TD: I think it is part of the cause of the problem, because if people cease to
believe in a transcendental purpose in life then they seek it elsewhere. If,
however, at the same time you have destroyed all other possible sources of
transcendental meaning to life, then the destruction of religion is a problem.
PB: Many young immigrants are looking to Islam in order to find a sense of
purpose. This might be good as long as it is not theocratic?
TD: Conversion to religion can lead to an improvement in day to day behaviour,
if people do not become extremists, because religion can give a transcendent
purpose. The question, however, is whether Islam is inherently unstable and will
always tend to extremism.
PB: Is Islam inherently unstable?
TD: I personally think it probably is, because it does not have anybody to
define the doctrine. There is no hierarchy in Islam. A moderate person can always
be outflanked by someone who claims to be more Islamic than he is. That is a
very serious problem.
PB: How do you explain that when society has problems with Islam it is mainly
with the young men and not with the young women?
RD: I think the young women are not strongly Islamist on the whole. In fact,
many of them are very anti-Islamic, or would be if they had the opportunity. I
also believe that the main interest of Islam for young men in Western countries
is the predominance that it gives them over women.
PB: You see many young Islamic women or girls wearing veils or the headscarves,
nowadays, when they did not do so before.
TD: It is very difficult to assess how much comes from a desire to do so from
the girls themselves and how much from pressure from outside. Within our Western
societies there is a micro-totalitarian climate and to ask people what they mean
by it is very difficult.
PB: Of course this totalitarian mentality is also affecting the original
population, who are not allowed to raise certain topics anymore.
TD: I do not know whether they are not allowed to, but they feel hesitant to.
The problem of course with not speaking our mind is that if we do not speak our
minds there is likely to be an explosion.