NEO ATHEISM AND IT’S PRACTITIONERS
What needs to be known about what the New Atheists do not know
By: Michoel Stern
Many people have made the observation that there is a spirit of change in direction towardsthe right in religion; a fresh and invigorated drive to proselytize the masses to believe in God. The bizarre truth is that the faithful are not the only ones who have a need to convert the world, now we have in the “New Atheism” a paradox of evangelical atheists who, in the words of Roy Abraham Varghese, “…sound like hellfire-and-brimstone preachers warning us of dire retribution, even of apocalypse, if we do not repent of our wayward beliefs and associated practices.”1
In an effort to portray religion as intellectually bankrupt, dangerous, superstitious, and outdated, a number of atheists have penned books with the specific purpose of bringing people to their mindset. Because of their zeal, hatred of religion, and general lack of theological and religious philosophical depth, they present arguments that are often filled with self-contradicting logic, misrepresentations of what the faithful really believe, and critiques of supposed religious mannerisms that are nothing more than urban legends, all this is in the quest to belittle the target of their spite. As Terry Eagleton points out: “The more they [professional atheists] detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster.”2
I have chosen four authors who are among the most popular in the mainstream media to illustrate my charge. A film has even been produced entitled “The Four Horsemen” recording their feelings and reflections about what they are doing, and what they aim to accomplish. I have limited (and I emphasize, limited) my selection to four examples per person of errors that no responsible scholar (whether the person be a proponent, or an opponent) of religion could, or should make. The following “Horsemen” are quite competent in their areas of expertise: They are Christopher Hitchens (polemicist, writer), Sam Harris (neuroscience), Daniel Dennett (Philosopher of Mind, Body, and Biology), and Richard Dawkins (evolutionary biologist). Yet when it comes to critiques of religion serious engagement is lacking. Indeed, their highly regarded rationality often flies out the window and they frequently lower themselves to comments that reflect more mud slinging than thought-out criticism of religion and its followers.After one finishes reading Christopher Hitchens’ book, “god is not great” it is hard not to feel that the Yiddish proverb, “One who is full of himself leaves no room for God” has been vindicated. Given that Hitchens limits his reference section to seven pages in a book of over 300 … it is hard not to suspect that the backing for many of his assertions have conveniently been omitted. Indeed, one can sum up Hitchens’ book with a quip Dinesh D’Souza made about Hitchens’ comments in their October 22, 2007 King’s College debate: “A couple of points, with a lot of bull in between.”
Serious Flaw # 1. “Why, if god was the creator of all things, were we supposed to ‘praise’ him so incessantly for doing what came naturally? … These faltering and childish objections are, I have since discovered, extremely common-place, partly because no religion can meet them with any satisfactory answer… Monotheists are supposed to pester their deity more times than that, perhaps, least he be deaf.”3
This is a straw man argument. The claim of theists was never that God needs prayer; rather the idea of prayer is that it is for the improvement of the person. Not a way to “boost God’s ego,” that belief would indeed be childish to subscribe to. When a person praises God they enhance their relationship with their Creator by verbalizing (even if mentally) what God has done for them. Praise was instituted in order to help us appreciate (and form a stronger bond with) God, not in order to fulfill a need of God to be appreciated … that would indeed be preposterous.
Serious Flaw # 2. The Rabbi of Brisk said it well: “The unbeliever is willing to believe in anything in order to support his philosophy.” In his book, Hitchens writes, “Orthodox Jews conduct congress by means of a hole in the sheet…”4
We see here the sheer malice Hitchens displays in his effort to portray religious sexual practices as strange and backward. He takes the bait- hook, line, and sinker, further perpetuating the myth that it is normative Orthodox Jewish observance to have martial relations in such a fashion. Mark Oppenheimer, who often writes for the New York Times Magazine (a publication hardly sympathetic to Orthodox Jews), shared his feelings in the Huffington Post regarding this part of the book.5″Before discussing that error, and the travesty of the book as a whole, I should say that I am generally an admirer of Hitchens … It is an intellectually shoddy and factually inaccurate rush-job, written with blithe ignorance of what his antagonists actually believe. Completely certain that there is no rigorous thinking in favor of religion, Hitchens is almost gleefully ignorant of important scholarship that would disprove his case. …But it’s [the sheet claim] an error that certainly discredits the rest of the book, for it reveals how little the author has bothered to learn about the subject at hand.” To his credit, in his new after word [Pg. 291] Hitchens apologizes for his slander and writes he will leave it out of his next edition. Nevertheless, his lack of responsibility in publishing this baseless accusation without verifying it remains a blemish on his record.
Serious Flaw # 3. Hitchens complains, “Is it too modern to notice that there is nothing about protection of children from cruelty, nothing about rape, nothing about slavery, and nothing about genocide?”6
Hitchens demonstrates his ability to pick and choose what he notices in the Bible. Let’s start with the most absurd of his claims: nothing about genocide. I think it is a safe presumption to assume when the Ten Commandments said “Do not murder,” that was including murder on a mass scale. How about the supposed omission of the prohibition of rape? If Hitchens went through the entire Bible he would have found his “modern” concern of rape addressed in Deuteronomy (22:25). As for protection of children, why are they excluded from the verse in Leviticus (19:16) “Thou shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”? The matter of slavery is a bit of a more complicated, but suffice it to say the Biblical institution of slavery was often implemented for rehabilitating people, not a way to take advantage of slave labor. Also slaves under Jewish law were protected amidst a pagan world of unbridled slave exploitation, so a comparison to slavery in the southern part of the United States is an unhistorical depiction.
Serious Flaw # 4. The Hitchens challenge. Hitchens mentions in his book that now wherever he goes, he asks an unanswerable challenge. He writes, “My challenge: Name an ethical statement or action, made or performed by a person of faith which could not have been performed by a nonbeliever. I have since asked this question at every stop and haven’t had a reply yet.”7
This is a classic “Red herring” argument, where irrelevant material is introduced into an argument to distract or to deflect attention. The weakness of the argument is it totally neglects addressing the theists’ real moral argument. The argument was never that individual theists are more moral than atheists. The assertion of the theist is that it is impossible to have objective morality without God. At best, the challenge could address whether a society of theists can be more moral than one of atheists. However, Hitchens’ challenge even fails to address that point, being that Hitchens’ challenge only works on an individual level. To make matters worse, Hitchens added a new dimension to the challenge in some of his debates. “Think of something wicked, that only a believer would be likely to do, or something wicked that only a believer would be likely to say.” What would that be? It is true that only a “believer” can murder in Gods’ name, so in that case… yes, only a believer can murder in Gods’ name (does he expect the atheist to murder in God’s name?). On the same note, only a nonbeliever can murder in the name of the ideology of atheism (again, it would be strange to see a believer murder for the sake of atheist principles). Outside of this, does he really think there are atrocities that believers have preformed that no unbelievers are capable of doing? If he does, an objective, through look through human history should stand up to the challenge quite fine. The same goes for something wicked that a person would say.
Next we come to Sam Harris. Harris is author of “End of Faith” and subsequently (in response to criticism largely from the Christian readers of his book), “Letter to a Christian Nation.” His books, articles, and public debates demonstrate his ignorance of scripture and basic religious thought are of “Biblical proportions.” Like the rest of his comrades, in his zeal for the crusade of painting religious people as intellectual shallow, he buys into his own deception and makes remarks that give insight into the actual “depth” of his criticism of religion and its’ adherents.
Serious Flaw # 1.) “Bertrand Russell had it right when he made the following observation: ‘The Spaniards in Mexico and Peru used to baptize Indian infants and then immediately dash their brains out: by this means they secured these infants went to heaven. No orthodox Christian can find any logical reason for condemning their action, although all nowadays do so.”
8 Actually Russell had it wrong; an orthodox Christian can logically condemn these horrific actions. In the Christian religion murdering is prohibited; this means one can only kill under certain limited circumstances (self-defense, war, etc.) which are justified within that system (of Christian doctrine). However, the justification to kill has to come from within the system… and justification for the above mentioned method of achieving “salvation” for Indian infants does not exist within that structure.
Serious Flaw # 2.) “Once a person accepts the premises upon which most religious identities are built, the withdrawal of his moral concern from those who do not share these premises follows quite naturally.”9
This is a non-sequitur. Why does having a religious identity different from others necessitate a natural proclivity to withdraw moral concern for people of different religious identities? There is clear counter-evidence to this assertion if one would but open their eyes to how people of different faiths actively help the less fortunate in their time of need regardless of their religious (or lack thereof) affiliation on a daily basis. Harris’ claim rings hollow in the valley of reality.
Serious Flaw #3.) “In any case, the good effects of religion can surely be disputed. In most cases, it seems that religion gives people bad reasons to behave well, when good reasons are actually available. Ask yourself, which is more moral, helping the poor out of concern for their suffering, or doing so because you think the creator of the universe wants you to do it, will reward you for doing it or will punish you for not doing it?”10
Harris’ conclusion is based on a faulty premise. The claim that a person helps out others due to concern for them, or does so out of concern of reward and punishment is another non sequitur. Why does the factor of Divine command, reward, or punishment exclude the possibility of concern for others?
Serious Flaw #4.) “The argument that religion is useful is also problematic-and many of its problems are enunciated daily by bomb-blasts. Can anyone seriously argue that it is a good thing that millions of Muslims currently believe in the metaphysics of martyrdom?”11
Here Harris commits the fallacy of bifurcation (an argument which presumes that a distinction or classification is exclusive and exhaustive, although, in fact other alternatives exist). Why is the test of how good an influence religion can have limited to Muslim terrorists? This is absolutely ludicrous. What about the fact that every moment of the day, thousands of the faithful help the less fortunate (compare that to the frequency of terrorist attacks in the name of Islam) due to the inspiration and guidance of their religion. Why is this factor left out of the equation of usefulness of religion? Harris’ flippant response to a legitimate question such as this is very telling.
Daniel Dennett gives little to comment on (regarding matters of religion) in proportion to the other three for the simple reason that he by-and-large neglects to address religion due to the fact he is primarily concerned with religion as a natural phenomenon. Even though the bulk of his book is more about natural phenomenon than religion, he still gives us some insight into his lack of insight regarding matters of basic religious thought. He provides ample examples of fundamental flaws in his assessment of Biblical thought and context, on pg. 265 (Of his book, “Breaking the Spell … Religion as a Natural Phenomenon) he claims that the God of the Jewish Scriptures (he refers to them as the Old Testament) is “peeved” if people were oblivious to His power and greatness (1), has king like jealousy and pride (2), and has a great “appetite” for praise and sacrifices (3).
Serious Flaw #1.) In traditional religious thought God desires to have a relationship with people. This is achieved when people recognize the greatness (included in this is the power) of God. According to religious belief: people were created to bask in Gods’ greatness (i.e. presence), and that it is the way to gain fulfillment, and be on the right track to having the best relationship with God possible. Therefore, it should be self understood that any denial of the greatness of God would be detrimental to achieving that relationship that people were created for. Therefore, God does not suffer form an ego problem, rather God’s strict reprimands have the sole goal of strengthening humanity’s relationship with Him by keeping people in check thereby helping them to reach fulfillment.
Serious Flaw # 2.) The Jewish Scriptures never intended to convey that God has actual feelings of jealousy and pride, rather as Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi (1080-1145) explains: “God’s attributes and descriptions are based on the effects upon His creations, which occur according to His decrees and deeds (The Kuzari 2:2).” It is more likely that humanity will understand God in its terms than in God’s reality (terms). It is essential to understand that the Jewish Scriptures employ such terminology only to help us understand what we are or not doing, it is not describing God’s actual “emotions.”
Serious Flaw # 3.) God does not have a great “appetite” for praise and sacrifice. Regarding praise, the claim of theist was never that God needed our prayers; rather as previously explained, the idea of prayer is that it is for the improvement of the person. So too sacrifices were instituted for the benefit of humanity, not for the benefit of God. In fact, contrary to Dennett’s caricature of a barbaric and bloodthirsty God, a complete reading of the Bible informs us that God does not desire sacrifices. To mention but a couple of sources: Hosea 6:6 tells us … “For I desire kindness, and not sacrifice; and knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” We are also told in I Samuel 15:22 … “And Samuel said, has the Lord as much desire in the burnt offerings, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than peace-offerings; to hearken is better than the fat of rams.” These passages clearly indicate that the sacrifices were instituted as a way to help a person rectify their mistakes, not to satisfy some need of God. God was never understood to have any needs. (The reasoning behind the concept of sacrifices is really quite beautiful and deep, regretfully it is also beyond the scope of this article. Interested parties may contact the author for an elaboration of this subject by e-mailing him at: Michoel_stern@yahoo.com)
Serious Flaw # 4.) In the paragraph preceding the three above-mentioned points (on the same page) Dennett makes another mistake: “Why should it matter so much whether others share your belief in God.” This should not be a hard concept to fathom. If a person cares about other people, and wants them to live fulfilled and rewarded lives (in every sense of the word), how could it not matter for such a person if other people are not aware of a lifestyle that will lead to the achievement of the best relationship with God possible?!
Alfred North Whitehead once wrote: “Scientists animated by the purpose of proving that they are purposeless constitute an interesting subject of study.”12 Behold Richard Dawkins; the most known of these four, and prolific author of many books which have to some degree the objective of attempting to show how science reduces, if not obliterates religion’s place in the world. Terry Eagleton summed up Dawkin’s book, The God Delusion, nicely: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.”13Armed with this expectation, we get a great appreciation of how the following flaws provide us with understanding of the reasoning Allen Orr had when he commented on Dawkins newest book (at the time): “Indeed, The God Delusion seems to me badly flawed. Though I once labeled Dawkins a professional atheist, I’m forced, after reading his new book, to conclude he’s actually more an amateur.”14
Serious Flaw #1.) “If you are religious at all it is overwhelmingly probable that your religion is that if your parents. If you were born in Arkansas and you think Christianity is true and Islam false, knowing full well that you would think the opposite if you had been born in Afghanistan, you are the victim of childhood indoctrination.” 15
While it is true that the majority of people who are religious inherited it from their families, this does not negate the fact that every child is indoctrinated to some extent by their environment – including the environment of secularism. If you were born in Denmark and raised to believe religion is foolish, you would most likely consider religion foolish. Making the observation that people are generally products on their culture does not determine the of veracity of what that cultural believes.
Serious Flaw # 2.) “Let me translate this infantile argument [the ontological argument] into the appropriate language, which is the language of the playground: … So I’ve proved that God exists. Nur Nurny Nur. All atheists are fools.”16
While many have doubted the legitimacy of the Ontological argument, this childish (literally) mockery of the argument gives us more insight to the one mocking it than insight into reasons for its rejection. Some of the sharpest minds in the history of the world have dwelt on this issue, books have been written on this argument alone. Yet, Dawkins comes to our rescue and informs us that it is an infantile argument. Often when the new atheists get critiqued for their arrogance, they think it has some thing to do with their assertion of scientific certainty (see Sam Harris’ 10 Myths- and 10 Truths about Atheism). This is rarely the case; more often it is as in the case above, where arguments that have been pondered by scholars for ages are flippantly dismissed as “infantile.”
Serious Flaw # 3 & 4.) “Why should a divine being, with creation and eternity on his mind, care a fig for petty human malfunctions? We humans give ourselves such airs, even aggrandizing our poky little ‘sins’ to the level of cosmic significance.”17
Here, as in other parts of his book, Dawkins portrays a ridiculous caricature of God, as Terry Eagleton commented: “Dawkins speaks scoffingly of a personal God, as though it were entirely obvious exactly what this might mean. He seems to imagine God, if not exactly with a white beard, then at least as some kind of chap, however supersized. He asks how this chap can speak to billions of people simultaneously, which is rather like wondering why, if Tony Blair is an octopus, he has only two arms.”18Thomas Nagel was a bit more polite when he made the same observation that what was meant by God was not, as Dawkins’s argument seemed to assume: “a complex physical inhabitant of the natural world.”19As for the forth serious flaw: Dawkins’ criticism of a Divine Being concerned with “petty” sins is a logical flaw. To critique the theist concept of God, one has to accept the theists’ definition of God and challenge it from within that structure. On what basis does Dawkins argument show God is uninterested with humanity due do His greatness? He does not have any basis for his complaint; this is a non-sequitur.
Two complaints are vented often by the above-mentioned authors in their works (and in other public media) regarding the faithful. First, they perceive believers as arrogant because believers claim to know what God wants from them (and others). Second, they are peeved that people want religion to be treated as a unique discipline which is not to be limited by scientific study. This is ironic because these atheists in their treatment of the subject are arrogant in their unique treatment of religion because they don’t deem it worthy of serious investigation. Another point to ponder in closure is they (new atheists) portray most (if not all) of the faithful as either southern country bumpkins or Muslims under the control of the militant Islamic regimes of Iraq and Iran. It should be noted that in The New York Times, Peter Steinfels wrote that Harris’ Letter (to a Christian nation) and Dawkins’ The God Delusion received criticism: “not primarily, it should be pointed out, from the pious, which would hardly be noteworthy, but from avowed atheists as well as scientists and philosophers writing in publications like The New Republic and The New York Review of Books, not known as cells in the vast God-fearing conspiracy.”20 The assertions of religion seem juvenile to these atheists because they approach the claims of religion with juvenile sophistication. So why are these books such big hits, all finding themselves on the New York Times best seller list? David Klinghoffer observes: “Frankly, the success of the new atheist faith would be hard to imagine without today’s soaring levels of societal religious illiteracy.”21 When people are equipped with a general, shallow understanding of religion and live in a society that increasingly takes on a secularist outlook as a given-what else should we expect? Taken into consideration what we now know these atheist evangelicals don’t know- let a person who is trying to investigate the subject of religion, or is trying to justify their secularism be intellectually honest and search elsewhere.
Michoel Stern, from the Kollel of South Fallsburg and author of the articles: What about extending tolerance to the Orthodox members of your family, “Perfecting the world by perfecting oneself” and “The Essence of Jewish Literature” can be reached at: Michoel_stern@yahoo.com and his other writings can be viewed at MichoelStern.com
1 .) Pg. XVI of: There is a God. By Antony Flew with Roy Abraham Varghese
2 .) “Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching” Lonndon Review of Books – October 19, 2006
3 .) Pp. 3 and 7 of “god is not Great” How religion poisons everything By: Christopher Hitchens
4 .) Pg. 54, ibid.
5 .) “Hitchens’ Glaring Error” The Huffington post – March 28, 2008
6 .) Pg. 100, ibid.
7 .) Pg. 289, ibid.
8 .) Pg. 78 of “The End of Faith,” Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by: Sam Harris
9 .) Pp. 176-177 ibid.
10 .) “10 myths-and 10 Truths-About Atheism” The Los Angeles Times – December 24, 200611 .) “God’s Enemies Are More Honest Than His Friends” The Washington Post – December 29, 2006
12 .) Pg. 16, The Function of Reason By: Alfred North Whitehead,
13 .) “Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching” Lonndon Review of Books – October 19, 2006
14 .) “A Mission to Convert” The New York Review of Books – January 11, 2007
15 .) Pg. 25, “The God delusion” By: Richard Dawkins
16 .) Pg. 104, “The God delusion”
17 .) Pg. 270, “The God delusion”
18 .) “Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching” Lonndon Review of Books – October 19, 2006
19 .) “Fear of Religion” The New Republic – October 23, 2006
20 .) “Books on Atheism Are Raising Hackles in Unlikely Places,” The New York Times – March 3, 2007
21 .) “Prophets of the new atheism,” The Seattle Times – April 6, 2007