What the New Atheists Don't See
City Journal, Autumn 2007
Edited by Andy Ross
Recently, an epidemic rash of books has declared success in having slain religion. Daniel
Dennett, A. C. Grayling, Michel Onfray, Sam Harris, Richard
Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens have all written
books roundly condemning religion and its works.
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
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
Harris tells us 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 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.
Until recently, our civilization was religious to its core. To regret
religion is 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 and personality.
into the works of Joseph Hall, I found myself much more moved 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
Here is an extract from Hall's Characters of Virtues and
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.
comes naturally to the man who believes in something higher than mankind.
Response by Sam Harris
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. His summary of my views is among the least honest I have come
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 to
suggest that most human beings will always need to delude themselves about
In lieu of answering our arguments against faith, Dalrymple
simply misses the point of our books outright.
Response by Theodore Dalrymple
1 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 them.
2 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 history.
3 The metaphysical difficulties of human
existence are considerable, and I do not think the abandonment of religion
would make things any easier.
Killing people for their thoughts alone is not a recipe for anything except
There Is No God but Politics
By Theodore Dalrymple
New English Review, May 2007
Edited by Andy Ross
When the Soviet Union collapsed, 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 Sayyid Qutb's book
Milestones, in 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.