Strong Believers Beware

Matthew Caleb Flamm


Si comprehendis, non est Deus. (If you can understand it, it is not God.)
—St. Augustine

It is easy these days to feel marginalized if you do not believe in an Abrahamic God. When among such believers who know of or suspect my unbelief, I find myself ignoring comments and innuendo. And, coward that I often am among believers who know nothing of my unbelief, I find myself maneuvering conversation away from religious topics. Those with like sensibilities who find themselves feeling socially awkward have a recent group of very public champions of unbelief to which they can appeal.

The spirit of the “new atheist” opposition to religion can be summed up in H.L. Mencken’s amusing definition of theology as the “effort to explain the unknowable by putting it into terms of the not worth knowing.” Once the scathing rhetoric of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins ceases to distract, the intellectual grandstanding of Sam Harris is forgiven, and the evolutionary Enlightenment narrative of Daniel C. Dennett judiciously bracketed, the remainder of reasoned argument that allies the four adduces essentially to Mencken’s simple point: traditional religious claims are simply not worthy of the title “knowledge.”

So as not to confuse the new atheists with positivists from the beginning of the twentieth century who attempted in their own way to discredit religious claims as knowledge claims, our “Four Horsemen” have additionally marshaled a mountain of evidential retorts to many specific religious claims. Most interesting from a philosophical standpoint, they have issued a formidable challenge to believers to reconcile their convictions with the implications of the modern synthesis, the title science historians give to the legitimation of Darwinian evolutionism by its agreement with (among other scientific specializations) genetic, anthropologic, and paleontological developments. Their atheism, then, while similar to that of positivists of previous generations in its scientistic, naturalistic rejection of religious claims as knowledge, is grounded in the latest synthesis of multiple scientific areas of study, filed compendiously under the heading of “evolutionary biology.”

The public alliance of the four representative authors under the banner “atheism” has been willing but also tentative (as evidenced in Hitchens’s rejection of the revealing label “brights,” Dennett’s preferred term for atheists). Their public association comes out of a larger concern that sensibilities kindred to theirs are kept on the margins, sometimes forcibly, by the religious majority. Each author suspects, or rather hopes, that behind the predominately religious American public front there lurk new possibilities of sympathy for naturalistic perspectives.

The new atheists are well aware that their hopes for closet or otherwise marginalized sympathizers are up against formidable opposing public sentiments. It is true that some still worry about a perceived “secular menace” in American culture. But given Gallup numbers tallying the vast majority with theistic sensibilities and the more recent surge of evangelical interests, it is clear that the presence of secularism in this country hobbles in a sea of creationist sympathy.

With this climate of creationist sympathies, the new atheists express neither patience nor tolerance. Harris attacks “religious moderation” as a more insidious form of faith than religious fundamentalism. Religious moderation is possibly worse than fundamentalism, according to Harris, because it results from making “concessions to modernity” yet pretending to be more liberal and tolerant. Hitchens is surprisingly sparse in his direct treatment of contemporary creationist sympathies, but anecdotal flourishes suggest enough, such as when he equates the idea of a creationist instructing your child during his or her “lunch breaks” with child abuse.

Like Harris, Dawkins suggests that moderates “make the world safe” for religious fundamentalism. He further displays a bemused and aloofly curious attitude toward contemporary religious sensibilities. He marvels at the different levels of effrontery people reveal in disputes of religious as opposed to nonreligious matters. We are inclined, he observes, to take good-natured exception to others’ taste for beets or rap music when these are not our preferences, yet when someone subscribes to a different religious sensibility or to none at all, we take high offense. As Dawkins observes, we are allowed to be “far more rude” about things like politics or matters of aesthetics than about religion. The implication, of course, is that in this enlightened age of understanding it is quite Victorian of us to pretend high offense at matters whose controversy has long since been demoted to the level of taste. One chooses one’s religion with all the demonstrative support of an ice-cream flavor, and it is sheer pretense to act otherwise.

For himself, Dennett makes inviting gestures to his creationist readers that approach sympathy, but the invitation tends to take the form: “Here’s the literature you need to read that gives the lie to your deepest loyalties. If after consulting it seriously you insist upon clinging to those loyalties, have a nice life.”

In all, the new atheists engage contemporary religious sensibilities after the manner of glib scientists, less interested that such engagement produces in dissenters the urge for dialogue than in the fact that it clearly lays down lines of difference. It is for this reason that I stop short of accusing the new atheists of preaching to the choir (somewhat intending the mixed metaphor) or of simply shock-jockeying. In the end, a part of me applauds their affirming stance. The nonreligious simply are more marginalized, especially in American culture. It is not surprising that Dennett had to explain this to his European proofreaders (as he mentions in the introduction to his book) and that Hitchens and Dawkins, the only writers of the bunch originating from non-American soil, are predominately addressing themselves to Americans.

This sympathy I have with the new atheist project is, however, tempered by a strong reservation regarding the assumption of the unique irrationality of our times underlying its polemic. A glance at critical periods in American history will suffice to prove the untruth of this assumption. Moreover, I believe the religious hegemony in America is less problematic than the new atheists make it out to be, and I suspect its character is ubiquitous in the scheme of American history—so much so that protesting it as the new atheists do borders on another, potentially worse, form of irrationalism.

Among the new atheists, Harris and Hitchens express the most extensive concerns about what they perceive as the danger of current evangelical trends to transform modern America into a theocracy. Harris in particular has claimed that even religious moderates are guilty of “inadvertently” supporting the agenda of the Dominionists, an extreme fringe of evangelical Christians who endorse a social agenda modeled on Calvin’s Geneva. Moderates inadvertently support the Dominionists, Harris reasons, because they already inadvertently support fundamentalists (the next extreme down) “by their lingering attachment to the unique divinity of Jesus, [and they thereby] protect the faith of fundamentalists from public scorn.” Harris views religious moderation of any kind as a disingenuous, unsupportable hedge that always opens itself to the slippery slope of fundamentalism.

There is an obvious problem with this line of reasoning: by the same logic, no “moderate” position of any kind could be consistently maintained. Perhaps Harris, a nonreductive materialist and cautious endorser of the notion that our species tends toward altruism, ought to worry whether he “inadvertently supports” the agenda of reductionist materialists who reject species-rooted altruism altogether. Even if this misconstrues Harris’s point, the larger question concerns why he would even worry about Dominionists.

While it is true that evangelical Christians played an important role in the reelection of President George W. Bush and that this coalition underwent powerful expansion in America under his leadership, there is little reason to worry that such growth signals a coming theocracy. Barack Obama’s decisive victory—the first Democrat since Jimmy Carter to have won more than 50 percent of the popular vote—signals demonstrative disapproval of the exceptionalist, messianic politics that the previous administration actively instituted, and this with the likely support of a good portion of the evangelical community. In June of 2008, Frank Schaeffer, a lapsed right-wing evangelical who writes responsibly and critically about fundamentalist Christians, predicted the turn of evangelicals away from the radicalizing, alienating politics exemplified in the figure of Dr. James Dobson, longtime host of Focus on the Family. To whatever extent Schaeffer was correct in this, the shrill cries of Harris and kin about a coming theocracy appear much weaker, even today, given the political turn of 2008.

It is instructive along these lines to recall the example of a previous period in American history when similar-minded secularists worried about a perceived threat of theocracy. I think here of the example of Sidney Hook, in whose mid-century crusade one can find instructive parallels to that of our new atheists after the beginning of the new millennium. In the early 1940s, Hook wrote on behalf of liberal secularism against a perceived religious hegemony. He expressed similar concerns about the religious fervors of his day, similar at times in extravagance and pathos to Harris and Hitchens. Borrowing the famous characterization from Gilbert Murray, who used it to describe the surrender of ancient civilization to Christendom, Hook characterized his American moment as a “failure of nerve.” It is tantamount to a failure of nerve, the characterization implied, for a civilization to give in to religious or supernatural persuasions when nature and its often overwhelming powers shake the foundational borders of human experience. To complete the circle of reasoning: if humans would maintain their collective nerve and only rely on reason and the interpretive frameworks of science, they might expect their civilizations to grow and flourish. In his essay “The New Failure of Nerve,” Hook specifically worried that this failure might lead to a theocracy in which everyone believes “our children cannot be properly educated unless they are inoculated with ‘proper’ religious beliefs; that theology and metaphysics must be given a dominant place in the curriculum of our universities . . . [and] that what is basically at stake in this war is Christian civilization.”

The political climate in which Hook presented this conspiratorial interpretation is crucial and begs comparison with our own. He first endorsed the failure-of-nerve thesis toward the costly end of World War II. As is widely historicized, a sea change of sorts occurred among leftist intellectuals over the ten-year period following the end of World War II and its important fallout, including especially the revelations of the Nuremburg trials and the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953.

Many leftist Marxists had up until this time pitted their hopes for the realization of their socialistic visions in Communist Russia. Hook was among these neo-Marxists, and this was at the time of his endorsing the failure-of-nerve hypothesis critical of the anti-revolutionary, more moderate, liberal-socialist views of his counterpart, John Dewey. The disappointments besetting socialism in the Cold War turned Hook toward more of an accommodationist, Deweyan position. But throughout the alteration of his specific political endorsements, Hook remained committed to a secularism endorsing science, reason, and the strength of nerve these allegedly require over supernatural appeals in response to human problems.

The notion that it takes nerve to stare down the cold, indifferent experiences of natural life without retreating to supernatural or extravagant beliefs is attractive but deeply flawed. It first of all betrays an ironically anthropomorphic, moral view of nature, one that falls far short of Bacon’s view of nature as better suited to dissection than to abstraction. The cold indifference of the disciplinary school headmaster or proverbial wicked step-parent ill describes the neutral object of study indicated in Bacon’s admirable conception. To the contrary, something like Tennyson’s “red in tooth and claw” characterization of nature has in modern times become the prevalent conception, and Hook follows a strong Tennysonian line in his moralizing naturalism. How and why has this happened?

Though I cannot sufficiently develop this point here, I suggest that this has happened because, as is clear from the wide popularity of intelligent design theory, modern science does not itself offer a conception of nature sufficiently insulated against the moral agendas of competing worldviews. In offering his characterization of nature, Bacon was applauding “the school of Democritus,” which, he claims, “went further into nature than the rest” (Organon, Book One, Aphorism LI). The “further” Bacon emphasized hinges on approaching nature with experimental openness rather than, as he put it, “giving reality and substance to things which are fleeting.” I suggest here that the depth of this critical remark is lost on us moderns (and “post-moderns”) because of our stubborn inability to perceive natural realities in anything but human terms, be they scientific or religious.

Need I say without fear of pandering or churlishness that nature—including the realities, forces, and phenomena we group under that general name—is not reducible to the frameworks of interpretation offered by science and religion? Both are canopies of control and management of forms of human suffering. The notion that religious or other supernatural resorts consist in a failure of nerve rejects as too-human an interpretive canopy dangerously preferred by a promethean super-humanity, one no less deluded about the possibility of overcoming human suffering.

I set this first problem with the failure-of-nerve thesis to the side in order to identify a second, more troubling problem that provides the stronger link I want to establish between Hook’s secular humanist project and that of the new atheists. In addition to the “too-human” conception of nature the thesis betrays, its use to serve Hook’s conspiratorial worries about the coming religious hegemony is historically provincial, a shortcoming that ought to give pause to those sharing the new atheists’ worries about contemporary religiosity. Clearly, Hook’s worries about the coming religious cultural tyranny were overinflated. It is at least clear that even if Hook was correct that the religious “war” he saw raging was waged in some significant sense for “Christian civilization,” nothing like the state of affairs he describes (including the religious “inoculation” of our children in their educational process) ever came about in American society. I turn then to the case of our new atheists to diagnose the accuracy of their conspiratorial worries.

Of the Four Horsemen, Dennett is the least conspiratorial in print and also the most generous to the religiously persuaded, so it stands to reason to use him as a gauge for the new atheists’ conspiratorial range. His slights against religion are more subtle than those of his colleagues, clothed as they are in the language of evolutionary biology. Speaking in lab-coat scientist tones, Dennett speculates as to the evolution of religious institutions and practices: “alongside the domestication of animals and plants, there was a gradual process in which the wild (self-sustaining) memes of folk religion became thoroughly domesticated.” Folk religions are thus cast by Dennett as the feral ancestors of their civilized modern progeny. With neither apology nor due consideration, Dennett here parts with a broad literature of religious anthropology that views all religious orientations as complexes of rationalist, orthodox, and folk beliefs. Religious anthropologists would view his evolutionist perspective as egregiously reductionist in restricting the lineage to folk beliefs alone.

But Dennett’s scholarly narrowness is easily lost on like-minded readers and opens the way for their conversion to his closing, dangerously conspiratorial attitude. Having prepared the way with the inoculating language of evolutionism, Dennett writes:

Remember Marxism? It used to be a sour sort of fun to tease Marxists about the contradictions in some of their pet ideas. The revolution of the proletariat was inevitable, good Marxists believed, but if so, why were they so eager to enlist us in their cause?. . .Today we have a similar phenomenon brewing on the religious right: the inevitability of the End Days, or the Rapture . . . it has been another sour sort of fun to ridicule them the morning after, when they discover that their calculations were a little off. But, just as with the Marxists, there are some among them who are working hard to “hasten the inevitable,” not merely anticipating the End Days with joy in their hearts, but taking political action to bring about the conditions they think are the prerequisites for that occasion. And these people are not funny at all. They are dangerous, for the same reason that red-diaper babies are dangerous: they put their allegiance to their creed ahead of their commitment to democracy, to peace, to (earthly) justice—and to truth . . . in the end, my central policy recommendation is that we gently, firmly educate the people of the world, so that they can make truly informed choices about their lives. [Breaking the Spell, 2007, p. 337–339]

For me, this passage from Dennett exemplifies the insidious nature of the new atheist project because, beyond the pretense of “making cultural space for secularists,” the authors expose themselves in revealing ways to be bent on implanting an irrational fear of radical religious fanaticism. I offer the following representative quotes from the remaining authors. From Dawkins: “Fundamentalist religion is hell-bent on ruining the scientific education of countless thousands of innocent, well-meaning, eager young minds” (The God Delusion, 2006, p. 323).

From Hitchens: “The level of intensity fluctuates according to time and place, but it can be stated as a truth that religion does not, and in the long run cannot, be content with its own marvelous claims and sublime assurances. It must seek to interfere with the lives of nonbelievers, or heretics, or adherents of other faiths” (God Is Not Great, 2007, p. 17).

And lastly, from Harris in an online Q&A whose tone is well representative of his books: “The respect that moderates accord to religious faith has blinded them to the fact that the atrocities of September 11th were a religious exercise. Religious moderates seem incapable of realizing that our problem is not terrorism, but Islam.” I must say that I frequently censor my undergraduate students for similarly extravagant polemics, and it is disconcerting for me to discover them coming from such decorated champions of naturalism and reason.

I thus offer a couple of large worries about the project of the new atheists, each involving its ahistorical arrogance: first, its slurs against religious sensibilities—especially its frequent characterization of more religious ages of the past and the orthodoxies developed out of them as “morbidly obsessed” (Dawkins); “bawling and babyish” (Hitchens); “incomprehensible” (Dennett); and even “passed down to us from men and women whose lives were simply ravaged by their basic ignorance about the world” (Harris)—reflect a monstrous and irresponsible narrowness of perspective, one that ought to trouble us all the more for the fact that it is packaged in a rhetoric of Enlightenment privilege.

My second, related worry involves the new atheists’ conspiratorial leanings. As long as one is speaking in tones of terror about a coming religious theocracy, one might do well to remember the example of Martin Luther who, in his early thinking, opposed the theocratic tendencies of Augustinian doctrine only later to rescind the position in order to advocate the killing of German Jews for their repudiation of Jesus’s divinity. Luther’s defection from reason on this point parallels that of strong believers of all stripes whose airs of tolerance mask propensities toward intolerance.

Those overly eager to identify coming theocracies can be expected to harbor preferred visions of the world containing their special idea of a unified State. I worry about what those visions are for the new atheists. They play their cards close but offer hints enough, as when Harris expresses his understanding of secularism as that which distinguishes “sensible people like ourselves and the mad hordes of religious imbeciles who have balkanized our world.” Surely such zeal against zealousness gives the fundamentalist lie to these self-professed anti-fundamentalists? Strong believers beware.

Matthew Caleb Flamm

Matthew Caleb Flamm is an associate professor of philosophy at Rockford College in Illinois. His focus is on American philosophy.

  Si comprehendis, non est Deus. (If you can understand it, it is not God.) —St. Augustine It is easy these days to feel marginalized if you do not believe in an Abrahamic God. When among such believers who know of or suspect my unbelief, I find myself ignoring comments and innuendo. And, coward that …

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