Sam Harris (and the New Atheists), Part 2

I wrote yesterday about Sam Harris, one of the so-called “New Atheist” authors. For those interested, here’s a few more views from a variety of people with expertise in the relevant fields, some of whom are not Christians or even believers in God.

Thomas Dalrymple, whom I quoted yesterday, reported on the reaction which his reviews provoked. It was not, shall we say, particularly reasoned:

I haven’t written much about religion, but I have been surprised by the vehemence, not to say the violence, of the response to what little that I have written. This vehemence has been provoked by the fact that, though not religious myself, I am no longer anti-religious as I was when it occurred to me as a child and then a teenager that God might not or did not exist. Indeed, I can see many advantages, both personal and social, to a religious outlook. The usefulness of religious claims is not evidence of their truth, of course, though that usefulness probably depends upon a belief in their truth.

…some of the responses I received to an article I wrote recently for The City Journal, in which I suggested that the best-selling books by militant atheists, that have appeared with the suddenness of a change of hemlines in the fashion world, did not advance any new arguments against the existence of God (indeed, you would have by now to be a very great philosopher to advance a new argument either for or against), and that used a historiography of religion that was fundamentally flawed and dishonest, were so vehement that you might have supposed that I was Torquemada or Khomenei rather than a mere scribbler expressing an opinion that was, in effect, a plea for greater subtlety of understanding. I do not want to repeat my arguments here. Instead, I ask the question why these books – of Michel Onfray, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett – have appeared all of a sudden, and sold so well, when (with the exception, perhaps, of Daniel Dennett’s book, which advances an evolutionary explanation of religion that put me in mind of Marx’s explanation of it, except that it refers to biology where Marx refers to economics), they say little that is new….

To suggest, however, that all forms of religion are equal, that they are all murderous and dangerous, is not to serve the cause of freedom and tolerance. It is to play into the hands of the very people we should most detest; it is to hand them the rhetorical tools with which they can tell the gullible that our freedoms are not genuine and that our tolerance is a masquerade. It is to do what I should previously have thought was impossible, namely in this respect to put them in the right.

– Theodore Dalrymple, Anything Goes.

Proof, I suppose, that people get touchy when you challenge their (a)religious views, which is understandable. Atheists like to pretend they’re too rational and calm for that, but many aren’t.

Atheist philosopher Michael Ruse opined that “Dawkins et al bring us [atheists] into disrepute,” criticizing their grasp of the relevant material:

unlike the new atheists, I take scholarship seriously. I have written that The God Delusion made me ashamed to be an atheist and I meant it. Trying to understand how God could need no cause, Christians claim that God exists necessarily. I have taken the effort to try to understand what that means. Dawkins and company are ignorant of such claims and positively contemptuous of those who even try to understand them, let alone believe them. Thus, like a first-year undergraduate, he can happily go around asking loudly, “What caused God?” as though he had made some momentous philosophical discovery.[1]

Elsewhere, Ruse reiterated: “Let me say also that I am proud to be the focus of the invective of the new atheists. They are a bloody disaster and I want to be on the front line of those who say so.”[2]

Another interesting reaction is from Rodney Stark, a noted sociologist of both modern and ancient religion and an agnostic, and Chris Hedges:

Rodney Stark describes them as “angry and remarkably nasty atheists.”…Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Chris Hedges is the author of I Don’t Believe in Atheists and certainly no friend of conservative Christians. He chastises Sam Harris for his “facile attack on a form of religious belief we all hate” and “his childish simplicity and ignorance of world affairs.” The Christian can rightly join Hedges and the New Atheists’ disgust at “the chauvinism, intolerance, anti-intellectualism and self-righteousness of religious fundamentalists” without buying into their arguments. Rodney Stark puts it this way: “To expect to learn anything about important theological problems from Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett is like expecting to learn about medieval history from someone who had only read Robin Hood.”[3]

As Hedges (who does not believe that believing or not believing in God is intrinsically moral)[4] was to note:

In May of 2007 I went to L.A. to debate Sam Harris, and then two days later I went to San Francisco to debate Christopher Hitchens. Up until that point, I hadn’t paid much attention to the work of the New Atheists. After reading what they had written and walking away from these debates, I was appalled at how what they had done for the secular left was to embrace the same kind of bigotry and chauvinism and intolerance that marks the radical Christian right. I found that in many ways they were little more than secular fundamentalists….

Harris is just intellectually shallow. Harris doesn’t know anything about religion or the Middle East….

We had over 1,500 people at the debate at UCLA, and I think that the people who came liking Sam Harris left liking Sam Harris. I don’t think that they heard a word I said, and it’s just insulting … I’ve debated Christian fundamentalists, and it’s the same. I can get up and say, look, I grew up in the church, I went to seminary. No, I’m part of the forces of godless secular humanism that are trying to destroy Christians, and they just repeat it like a mantra — half of their audience which came to hear them hears it, and the same is true of the New Atheists.[5]

There is, in short, a species of fundamentalism that grips these authors. They ironically have more in common with the fundamentalist Christians or Muslims they oppose, rather than the vast majority of religious believers.

And, people (especially fundamentalists) are rarely if ever argued into or out of religious or a-religious faith. After all, noted Chesterton

…men are moved most by their religion; especially when it is irreligion.[6]


[1] Michael Ruse, “Dawkins et al bring us into disrepute,” The Guardian (2 November 2009).

[2] Michael Ruse, “Why I Think the New Atheists Are A Bloody Disaster,” blog post (September 2009).

[3] Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Baker Book Group, 2011), 16–17.

[4] “I certainly understand that there is nothing intrinsically moral about being a believer or a nonbeliever, that many people of great moral probity and courage define themselves outside of religious structures, do not engage in religious ritual or use religious language, in the same way that many people who advocate intolerance, bigotry and even violence cloak themselves in the garb of religion and oftentimes have prominent positions within religious institutions. Unlike the religious fundamentalists or the New Atheists, I’m not willing to draw these kind of clean, institutional lines.” – From footnote below.

[5] Charly Wilder, “I don’t believe in atheists,” salon.com interview with Chris Hedges (13 March 2008), emphasis added.

[6] Gilbert K. Chesterton, “III. The Antiquity of Civilisation,” The Everlasting Man (1925).

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