I’ve often wondered how the term “New Atheism” gained such currency. It is a misnomer. There is nothing new about nonbelief. All of us, without exception, are born knowing nothing of God or gods, and acquire notions of religion solely through interaction with others – or, most often, indoctrination by others, an indoctrination usually commencing well before we can reason. Our primal state is, thus, one of nonbelief. The New Atheists (most prominently Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens) have, in essence, done nothing more than try to bring us back to our senses, to return us to a pure and innate mental clarity. Yet their efforts have generated all manner of controversy. Far outnumbered, and facing a popular mindset according kneejerk respect to men (yes, mostly they are men) of faith — reverends, priests, pastors, rabbis, imams and so on – the New Atheists have by necessity explained their views with zeal, which has often irked the religious, who are accustomed to unconditional deference. Even some nonbelievers who, again thanks to custom, consider religion too touchy a subject to discuss openly have been riled.
We atheists, however, need to buck up, assert our rationality, and change the way we deal with the religious, with everyday affronts delivered (at times unknowingly) by believers, with the casual presumptions that historically have tended to favor the faithful and grant them unmerited respect. A lot is at stake. Religion is a serious matter, reaching far beyond the pale of individual conscience and sometimes translating into violence, sexism, sexual harassment and assault, and sundry legal attempts to restrict a woman’s right to abortion or outlaw it altogether, to say nothing of terrorism and war. Now is the time to act. Polls – see here and here – show the zeitgeist in the United States is turning increasingly godless, that there are more atheists now than ever before (surely thanks in part to the efforts of the New Atheists). Most of Europe entered the post-faith era decades ago. Americans need to catch up.
I propose here a credo for atheists – concrete responses to faith-based affronts, to religious presumption, to what Hitchens called “clerical bullying.” (I’ll deal below with the three monotheistic, Abrahamic religions, but what I say applies to other confessions as well.) The faithful are entitled to their beliefs, of course, but have no inherent right to air them without expecting criticism. Religion should be subject to commonsense appraisal and rational review, as openly discussible as, say, politics, art and the weather. The First Amendment, we should recall, forbids Congress both from establishing laws designating a state religion and from abridging freedom of speech. There is no reason why we should shy away from speaking freely about religion, no reason why it should be thought impolite to debate it, especially when, as so often happens, religious folk bring it up on their own and try to impose it on others.
Herewith, some common religious pronouncements and how atheists can respond to them.
1. “Let’s say grace!”
No, let’s not. When you’re seated at the family dinner table and a relative suggests clasping hands, lowering heads and thanking the Lord, say “No thanks. I’m an atheist. So I’ll opt out.” Nonbelievers have every right to object when being asked to take part in superstitious rituals; in fact, if children are present, they are morally obliged to do so. Courteously refusing to pray will set an example of rational behavior for the young, and contribute to furthering the atheist zeitgeist.
2. “Religion is a personal matter. It’s not polite to bring it up.”
No, religion is fundamentally collective, and since time immemorial has served societies in fostering union, but also in inciting xenophobia and violence (especially against “unchaste” women and “impure” minorities), often on a mass scale. Nonbelievers need to further advance the cause of rationality by discussing it openly; doing so, as uncomfortable as it may be at times, will help puncture the aura of sanctity surrounding faith and expose it for what it is.
3. “You’re an atheist? I feel sorry for you.”
No, please rejoice for me. I fear no hell, just as I expect no heaven. Nabokov summed up a nonbeliever’s view of the cosmos, and our place in it, thus: “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” The 19th-century Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle put it slightly differently: “One life. A little gleam of Time between two Eternities.” Though I have many memories to cherish, I value the present, my time on earth, those around me now. I miss those who have departed, and recognize, painful as it is, that I will never be reunited with them. There is the here and now – no more. But certainly no less. Being an adult means, as Orwell put it, having the “power of facing unpleasant facts.” True adulthood begins with doing just that, with renouncing comforting fables. There is something liberating in recognizing ourselves as mammals with some fourscore years (if we’re lucky) to make the most of on this earth.
There is also something intrinsically courageous about being an atheist. Atheists confront death without mythology or sugarcoating. That takes courage.
4. “If you’re an atheist, life has no purpose.”
A purpose derived from a false premise – that a deity has ordained submission to his will – cannot merit respect. The pursuit of Enlightenment-era goals — solving our world’s problems through rational discourse, rather than though religion and tradition – provides ample grounds for a purposive existence. It is not for nothing that the Enlightenment, when atheism truly began to take hold, was also known as the Age of Reason.
5. “If you abolish religion, nothing will stop people from killing, raping and looting.”
No, killing, raping and looting have been common practices in religious societies, and often carried out with clerical sanction. The catalogue of notorious barbarities – wars and massacres, acts of terrorism, the Inquisition, the Crusades, the chopping off of thieves’ hands, the slicing off of clitorises and labia majora, the use of gang rape as punishment, and manifold other savageries committed in the name of one faith or another — attests to religion’s longstanding propensity to induce barbarity, or at the very least to give it free rein. The Bible and the Quran have served to justify these atrocities and more, with women and gay people suffering disproportionately. There is a reason the Middle Ages in Europe were long referred to as the Dark Ages; the millennium of theocratic rule that ended only with the Renaissance (that is, with Europe’s turn away from God toward humankind) was a violent time.
Morality arises out of our innate desire for safety, stability and order, without which no society can function; basic moral precepts (that murder and theft are wrong, for example) antedated religion. Those who abstain from crime solely because they fear divine wrath, and not because they recognize the difference between right and wrong, are not to be lauded, much less trusted. Just which practices are moral at a given time must be a matter of rational debate. The “master-slave” ethos – obligatory obeisance to a deity — pervading the revealed religions is inimical to such debate. We need to chart our moral course as equals, or there can be no justice.
6. “Nothing can equal the majesty of God and His creation.”
No need to inject God into this. “Creation” is majestic enough on its own, as anyone who has gazed into the Grand Canyon or the night sky already knows. While paddling a pirogue down the Congo, at night I often marveled to the point of ecstasy at the brilliance of the stars, the salience of the planets against the Milky Way – just one of the many quasi-transcendental experiences I have had as an atheist globetrotter. The world is a thing of wonder that requires no faith, but only alert senses, to appreciate.
7. “It is irrational to believe that the world came about without a creator.”
No, it is irrational to infer an invisible omnipotent being from what we see around us. The burden of proof lies on the one making supernatural claims, as the New Atheists have tirelessly pointed out. But here again the New Atheists are really doing nothing novel. Almost 200 years ago, the British poet Shelley, in his essay “The Necessity of Atheism,” noted that “God is an hypothesis, and, as such, stands in need of proof: the onus probandi rests on the theist.” This was clear to him even before we had mapped the human genome, discovered the Higgs boson, or even invented the telegraph.
8. “I will pray for you to see the light.”
Not necessary, but do as you like. Abraham Lincoln noted that, “What is to be, will be, and no prayers of ours can arrest the decree.”
9. “If you’re wrong about God, you go to hell. It’s safer to believe.”
Pascal’s wager survives even among people who have never heard the name of the 17th-century French philosopher and mathematician. Leaving aside whether blatant self-interest would please a god demanding to be loved unconditionally, which god will save us from hell? The god of Catholicism? Judaism? Islam? Doctrines of all three Abrahamic faiths prohibit entry into paradise for adherents of rival confessions.
10. “Religion is of great comfort to me, especially in times of loss. Too bad it isn’t for you.”
George Bernard Shaw noted that, “The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. The happiness of credulity is a cheap and dangerous quality.” A few shots of vodka will do for me, and are more to the point.
After the passing away of his son, Lincoln, in dire need of solace, nevertheless remarked that, “My earlier views of the unsoundness of the Christian scheme of salvation and the human origin of the scriptures, have become clearer and stronger with advancing years and I see no reason for thinking I shall ever change them.”
10. “As you age and face death, you will come to need religion.”
Perhaps in dotage anything is possible, but this turn of events is unlikely. Aging and the prospect of dying by no means enhance the attractiveness of fictitious comforts to come in paradise, or the veracity of malicious myths about hellfire and damnation. Fear and feeblemindedness cannot be credibly pressed into service to support fantastic claims about the cosmos and our ultimate destiny.
Whether one would even consider turning to religion in advanced years has much to do with upbringing, which makes all the more important standing up to the presumptions of the religious in front of children. One would regard the Biblical events – a spontaneously igniting bush, a sea’s parting, human parthenogenesis, a resurrected prophet and so on – that supposedly heralded God’s intervention in our affairs as the stuff of fairy tales were it not for the credibility we unwittingly lend them by keeping quiet out of mistaken notions of propriety.
11. “You have no right to criticize my religious beliefs.”
Wrong. Such a declaration aims to suppress free speech and dialogue about a matter influential in almost every aspect of our societies. No one has a right to make unsubstantiated assertions, or vouch for the truthfulness of unsubstantiated assertions on the basis of “sacred” texts, without expecting objections from thinking folk.
12. “Jesus was merciful.”
If he existed – and there is still, after centuries of searching, no proof that he did – he was at times a heartless prophet of doom for the sinners he supposedly loved, commanding those who failed to give comfort to the poor to “depart . . . ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.”
13. ”You can’t prove there’s no God.”
Correct, at least epistemologically speaking. Reasonable atheists, “New” and old, would not argue with this. Richard Dawkins, for example, has told audiences that he is nominally an agnostic, since proving that something does not exist is impossible. He claims to be an atheist “only” in the sense that he is an “a-leprechaunist, an a-fairiest, and an a-pink-unicornist.” The evidence for God, fairies and leprechauns, he remarked, “is equally poor.”
14. “My religion is true for me.”
A soppy, solipsistic and juvenile declaration and cop-out bordering on the delusional and contradicting Christianity and Islam, neither of which recognize the other, and both of which espouse universalist pretensions. You will not find a scientist who will say, “quantum physics is true for me.” No one would have trusted Jonas Salk if he had promoted the efficacy of his polio vaccine as “true for him.”
15. “Don’t take everything in the Bible literally.”
Not taking the Bible (or other texts based on “revealed truths”) literally leaves it up to the reader to cherry-pick elements for belief. There exists no guide for such cherry-picking, and zero religious sanction for it.
I’m not counseling incivility — but arm yourself with the courage of your rationalist convictions and go forth. We will all be better off for it.