Your everyday atheist is a harmless sort. He doesn’t believe in God because he can’t, but it never enters his mind that he should preach or proselitize his disbelief. That, after all, is the province of religion.
Intellectual atheists — or “neo-atheists,” as Theodore Dalrymple calls them in this brilliant City Journal piece — are a different kettle of fish. They seem angry that others still believe. They imagine this to be a characteristic of primitive minds, and they write best-selling books heaping condescension (at best) and verbal violence on people whose behavior probably differs little from their own. For the neo-atheists, belief is all.
Dalrymple, himself an atheist, is puzzled and a little appalled by the anti-religious frenzy. He notes, correctly, that it entails a form of cultural self-loathing: the West was built on a Christian foundation. “To regret religion,” he writes, “is, in fact, to regret our civilization and its monuments, its achievements, and its legacy.”
The neo-atheist authors, Dalrymple observes, take the Muslim human bomb to be typical and symptomatic of religion’s effect on behavior. Belief in God drives men to violence. But the moral standards these writers invoke to condemn such violence have their origin in the Bible. Compassion and fellow-feeling became virtues with the prophets. Pacifism was invented at the Sermon on the Mount. The Agnus Dei pleads: “Grant us peace.”
Belief in God at a minimum has led many men away from violence, toward an ideal of charity for others. No doubt most believers have fallen short of their ideals — but isn’t that universally the human condition, true for atheists and fundamentalists alike?
Religion, at its worst, leads to inquisition and jihad. Atheism, at its most intolerant, leads to gulags and killing fields. The twentieth century produced enough murderous violence to make a grand inquisitor groan in horror, yet none of it was religious in nature. Little room here for condescension or smugness.
As Dalrymple describes them, the arguments of at least some of the neo-atheists sound pretty inquisitorial, and borderline deranged, in tone:
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. Given the present state of the world, there appears to be no other future worth wanting.” I am glad that I am old enough that I shall not see the future of reason as laid down by Harris; but I am puzzled by the status of the compulsion in the first sentence that I have quoted. Is Harris writing of a historical inevitability? Of a categorical imperative? Or is he merely making a legislative proposal? This is who-will-rid-me-of-this-troublesome-priest language, ambiguous no doubt, but not open to a generous interpretation.
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. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live.”
Let us leave aside the metaphysical problems that these three sentences raise. For Harris, the most important question about genocide would seem to be: “Who is genociding whom?” To adapt Dostoyevsky slightly, starting from universal reason, I arrive at universal madness.
Universal madness is the tyranny, not the absence, of reason. When the world is emptied of immanent purpose, a kind of desperation sets in. The violence of a Robespierre or a Pol Pot is a desperate attempt to impose, God-like, a single answer to all important moral and political questions. Failure fuels more desperation, and greater violence still.
Dalrymple quotes Pascal, a believer and a great mathematician, who lived tormented by doubt: “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”
Even in more peaceable manifestations, faithlessness is hardly an enviable condition. A character in Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” mocks his own insignificance with a parody of the Lord’s Prayer: “Our nada who art in nada . . . Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.”
All hope has gone, and with it all human dignity. “What did he fear? He did not fear or dread. It was a nothing he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too.”
Atheism, God knows, is a perfectly valid moral and intellectual posture. Why anyone would wish to become a missionary of nada, however, is a mystery I leave for others to solve.