March 3, 2007, New York Times, Beliefs: Books on Atheism Are Raising Hackles in Unlikely Places, By Peter Steinfels.
Hey, guys, can't you give atheism a chance?
Yes, it is true that "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins has been on The New York Times best-seller list for 22 weeks and that "Letter to a Christian Nation" by Sam Harris can be found in virtually every airport bookstore, even in Texas.
So why is the new wave of books on atheism getting such a drubbing? The criticism is 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.
The mother of these reviews was published last October in The London Review of Books, when Terry Eagleton, better known as a Marxist literary scholar than as a defender of faith, took on "The God Delusion."
"Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds," Mr. Eagleton wrote, "and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology." That was only the first sentence.
James Wood's review of "Letter to a Christian Nation" in the Dec. 18, 2006, issue of The New Republic began, "I have not believed in God since I was fifteen." Mr. Wood, a formidable writer who keeps picking the scab of religion in his criticism and fiction, confessed that his "inner atheist" appreciated the "hygienic function" of Mr. Harris's and Mr. Dawkins's ridiculing of religion and enjoyed "the 'naughtiness' of this disrespect, even if a little of it goes a long way."
But, he continued, "there is a limit to how many times one can stub one's toe on the thick idiocy of some mullah or pastor" or be told that "Leviticus and Deuteronomy are full of really nasty things."
H. Allen Orr is an evolutionary biologist who once called Mr. Dawkins a "professional atheist." But now, Mr. Orr wrote in the Jan. 11 issue of The New York Review of Books, "I'm forced, after reading his new book, to conclude that he's actually more of an amateur."
It seems that these critics hold several odd ideas, the first being that anyone attacking theology should actually know some.
"The most disappointing feature of 'The God Delusion,' " Mr. Orr wrote, "is Dawkins's failure to engage religious thought in any serious way. You will find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology" and "no attempt to follow philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions."
Mr. Eagleton surmised that if "card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins" were asked "to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Africa, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could." He continued, "When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster."
Naturally, critics so fussy as to imagine that serious thought about religion exists, making esoteric references to Aquinas and Wittgenstein, inevitably gripe about Mr. Harris's and Mr. Dawkins's equation of religion with fundamentalism and of all faith with unquestioning faith.
"Not even the dim-witted clerics who knocked me about at grammar school thought that," Mr. Eagleton wrote.
In The New Republic last October, Thomas Nagel, a philosopher who calls himself "as much an outsider to religion" as Mr. Dawkins, was much more patient. Extracting a theoretical kernel of argument from the thumb-your-nose-at-religion chaff, Mr. Nagel nonetheless had to point out that what was meant by God was not, as Mr. Dawkins's argument seemed to assume, "a complex physical inhabitant of the natural world." (Mr. Eagleton had less politely characterized the Dawkins understanding of God "as some kind of chap, however supersized.")
Nor was belief in God, Mr. Wood explained two months later, analogous to belief in a Celestial Teapot, the comic example Mr. Dawkins borrowed from Bertrand Russell.
If this insistence on theology beyond the level of Pat Robertson and biblical literalism was not enough, several reviews went on to carp about double standards.
Mr. Orr, for example, noted the contrast between Mr. Dawkins's skepticism toward traditional proofs for God's existence and Mr. Dawkins's confidence that his own "Ultimate Boeing 747" proof demonstrated scientifically that God's existence was highly improbable.
Mr. Eagleton compared Mr. Dawkins's volubility about religion's vast wrongs with his silence "on the horrors that science and technology have wreaked on humanity" and the good that religion has produced.
"In a book of almost 400 pages, he can scarcely bring himself to concede that a single human benefit has flowed from religious faith, a view which is as a priori improbable as it is empirically false," Mr. Eagleton wrote. "The countless millions who have devoted their lives selflessly to the service of others in the name of Christ or Buddha or Allah are wiped from human history -- and this by a self-appointed crusader against bigotry."
In Mr. Orr's view, "No decent person can fail to be repulsed by the sins committed in the name of religion," but atheism has to be held to the same standard: "Dawkins has a difficult time facing up to the dual fact that (1) the 20th century was an experiment in secularism; and (2) the result was secular evil, an evil that, if anything, was more spectacularly virulent than that which came before."
Finally, these critics stubbornly rejected the idea that rational meant scientific. "The fear of religion leads too many scientifically minded atheists to cling to a defensive, world-flattening reductionism," Mr. Nagel wrote.
"We have more than one form of understanding," he continued. "The great achievements of physical science do not make it capable of encompassing everything, from mathematics to ethics to the experiences of a living animal. We have no reason to dismiss moral reasoning, introspection or conceptual analysis as ways of discovering the truth just because they are not physics."
So what is the beleaguered atheist to do? One possibility: take pride in the fact that this astringent criticism comes from people and places that honor the honest skeptic's commitment to full-throated questioning.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company