The New Atheists

If you’re a reader of books, and likely even if you’re not, the term “New Atheists” immediately brings to mind four names, that of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Dan Dennett and Christopher Hitchens. Books by all four have appeared at the top of the New York Times Bestseller list – a remarkable achievement in a country where 80% of the population claims to believe in God. Over the past two years, through their books and personal appearances, sometimes together, they have made a withering attack on religion and religious belief.

Sam Harris, a graduate in philosophy from Stanford University and holder of a doctorate in neuroscience from the University of California, started the assault with the 2004 publication of “The End of Faith – Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason” written in response to the World Trade Centre attack of 9/11/2001. Citing several pages of violent quotations from the Qur’an as evidence, Harris contends that, rather than the result of Islamic extremism or the anti-American sentiment prevalent in the Middle-East at the time, 9/11 was at heart a product of the inherently violent nature of Islam itself and the Muslim belief in the virtues and consequent desirability of martyrdom.

Christianity does not get off lightly in “The End of Faith.” Harris devotes an entire chapter to the horrors of Christian history – the Inquisition, the witch hunts, anti-Semitism – “some of the terrible consequences that have arisen, logically and inevitably, out of Christian faith.”

For Harris, moderation in religion “offers no bulwark against religious extremism and religious violence… Religious moderation is the product of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance… By failing to live by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray both faith and reason equally.”

“Thousands of people have written to tell me that I am wrong not to believe in God. The most hostile of these communications have come from Christians. This is ironic, as Christians generally imagine that no faith imparts the virtues of love and forgiveness more effectively than their own. The truth is that many who claim to be transformed by Christ’s love are deeply, even murderously, intolerant of criticism. While we may want to ascribe this to human nature, it is clear that such hatred draws considerable support from the Bible. How do I know this? The most disturbed of my correspondents always cite chapter and verse.”

Thus begins Harris’ second book “Letter to a Christian Nation” in which he sets out and brilliantly succeeds “to demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms.”

Harris’ website is located at:

More from Sam Harris is available at:

Because of his aggressive and sometimes acerbic dismissal of religion and its beliefs, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins is often seen as the leader of the “new atheist” movement. Certainly, he gave the atheist message renewed impetus plus, as a highly respected scientist and writer, additional legitimacy with the publication of his controversial “The God Delusion” in 2006

For those unfamiliar with Dawkins, his description of the God of the Old Testament from chapter two of the book as “arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully” will give some indication of his attitude and style.

While agreeing that it may be impossible to prove with certainty the existence or non-existence of God, Dawkins is not among those who subscribe to Stephen Jay Gould’s NOMA assertion – that religion and science are non-overlapping magisteria. He believes that the religion and faith are fair subjects for scientific investigation.

From this perspective, with reason and wit, he proceeds to destroy arguments for God’s existence, assess the probability of His existence (much less than 50%) and examine the roots of religion and morality. He makes short work of the argument often posed by the religious “We need God in order to be good.”

In much the same manner as Sam Harris, Dawkins also presents a litany of absurdities and horrors resulting from both Christian and Muslim beliefs.

Of particular concern to Dawkins is the forcing of religion on children by their parents, a practice which he feels approaches abuse. “It is their privilege to decide what they want to think, and not their parents’ privilege to impose it by force majeure.” He finds it “grotesque” that young children are labeled as Christian or Muslim. “A child is not a Christian child, not a Muslim child, but a child of Christian parents or a child of Muslim parents”

"I doubt that religion can survive deep understanding. The shallows are its natural habitat. Cranks and fundamentalists are too often victimized as scapegoats for religion in general. It is only quite recently that Christianity reinvented itself in non-fundamentalist guise, and Islam has yet to do so (see Ibn Warraq's excellent book, Why I am not a Muslim). Moonies and scientologists get a bad press, but they just haven't been around as long as the accepted religions. Theology is a respectable discipline when it studies such subjects as moral philosophy, the psychology of religious belief and, above all, biblical history and literature. Like Bertie Wooster, my knowledge of the Bible is above average. I seem to know Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon almost by heart. I think that the Bible as literature should be a compulsory part of the national curriculum - you can't understand English literature and culture without it. But insofar as theology studies the nature of the divine, it will earn the right to be taken seriously when it provides the slightest, smallest smidgen of a reason for believing in the existence of the divine. Meanwhile, we should devote as much time to studying serious theology as we devote to studying serious fairies and serious unicorns."

Richard Dawkins’ website may be accessed at:

Using a much softer approach than both Harris and Dawkins, philosopher Daniel C. Dennett of Tufts University attempts to demonstrate that religion is a natural evolutionary development in the human animal and, as such, can and should be made available to scientific investigation. In his book “Breaking the Spell” (2006) he examines the question of how ideas, religious and otherwise, are developed in the first place and why some individuals devote their entire lives to furthering the interests of an idea.

He claims the spell that must be broken is the taboo against scientific inquiry into the nature of religion even at the cost of breaking a more serious spell – the enchantment of religion itself.

Dennett examines religion as a biological and cultural phenomenon governed by the processes of evolution and natural selection similar to, and possibly concurrent with, the development of language. Borrowing from Richard Dawkins “The Selfish Gene” he also discusses the possibility of religion as a meme – an idea that persists solely for the purpose of self replication. Any benefits accruing to humans, and there are some, are accidental.

His most popular concept and one that is repeated over and over again in discussions on atheism is that of “belief in belief.” For example, many of us believe in democracy and recognize that the security of democracy in the future depends critically on maintaining the belief in democracy.

He observes that more people likely believe in the belief in God than actually believe in God.

“Belief in belief in God makes people reluctant to acknowledge the obvious: that much of the traditional lore about God is no more worthy of belief than the lore about Santa Claus or Wonder Woman.”

“The belief that the belief in God is so important that it must not be subjected to the risks of disconfirmation or serious criticism has led the devout to ”save” their beliefs by making them incomprehensible even to themselves.”

In considering the pros and cons of religious adherence, Dennett observes that it does seem to provide some health benefits, “but it is too early too say whether there are other, better ways of delivering these benefits, and too early to say if the side effects outweigh the benefits.”

Daniel Dennett’s Tusk University website is located at:

More from Daniel Dennett can be found at:

Author, journalist and literary critic Christopher Hitchens is the most recent and arguably the most articulate writer to condemn religion in all its aspects. In his “God is Not Great” (2007) an obvious allusion to the Muslim takbir “Allāhuh Akhbar” usually translated as God is great, Hitchens brings an historical and highly literary perspective to the discussion.

In the chapter entitled simply “Religion Kills,” he enumerates a number of crimes perpetrated in the name of religion, many of which he has observed personally – the “troubles” of Northern Ireland – the persecution of non-Hindus in Bombay in the 1990’s – the anti-Muslim “ethnic cleansing” in the former Yugoslavia – the present sectarian violence between Sunni and Shiite in Baghdad.

Anyone familiar with Hitchens’ work knows that he is as master of sarcasm. A typical example occurs in the chapter on “Arguments from Design:

“There is a central paradox at the core of religion. The three great monotheisms teach people too think abjectly of themselves, as miserable and guilty sinners prostrate before an angry and jealous god who, according to discrepant accounts fashioned them either out of dust and clay or a clot of blood. The positions for prayer are usually emulations of the supplicant serf before an ill-tempered monarch. The message is one of submission, gratitude and fear. Life itself is a poor thing: an interval in which to prepare for the hereafter or the coming – or the second coming- of the Messiah.

On the other hand, and as if by way of compensation, religion teaches people to be extremely self-centred and conceited. It assures them that god cares for them individually, and it claims that the cosmos was created with them specifically in mind. This explains the supercilious expression on the faces of those who practice religion ostentatiously: pray excuse my modest and humility but I happen to be busy on an errand for god."

Thus, through nineteen chapters, with great skill, Hitchens ridicules and denounces religious faith of all persuasions both Western and Eastern.

More recently Hitchens has introduced and edited a new volume “The Portable Atheist” which contains selected writings from some of the “old” atheists such as Hobbes, Spinoza and Hume as well as more contemporary works.

Hitchens’ website containing writings on a number of subjects including religion can be found at:

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