What the New Atheists Don't See

By Theodore Dalrymple
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.

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.

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.

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.

Looking 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 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.

Such moderation 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 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 to suggest that 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.

Response by Theodore Dalrymple

Three points:

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 bloody disaster.

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.