The swelling of atheist literature is a reaction to a worldwide rise in fundamentalist religion.
On Palm Sunday, Dr John Perkins drove out to the Careforce Church in Mount Evelyn to tell its congregation that everything it believed and held dear about God was, sad to say, mistaken and even dangerous.
It wouldn’t be everyone’s idea of a fun night out. Finding himself in similar circumstances, Australian arch-atheist Philip Adams once described himself as “a lion thrown into a den of Daniels”.
And the scene did appear set for a mauling: the modern community hall-style building can hold 1000 and the debate had sold out within 20 minutes of tickets going on sale.
But there was no blood spilt. The Careforce house band belted out a few numbers, including John Lennon’s Imagine (“Imagine there’s no heaven, and no religion too …”), and then for nearly 90 minutes a mostly Christian audience listened intently while Christianity and atheism went 10 heartfelt rounds on stage. There was gracious applause at the end.
The God Delusion
This slightly odd event is part of much wider phenomenon: the emergence of newly energised atheism centred around Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion. An unapologetic and even contemptuous attack on faith, the book has caused a storm in the US where it has been camped on the The New York Times bestseller list for five months.
Dawkins’ is just one of at least half a dozen popular books preaching an anti-religious message that have appeared in the past year or so. There are more to come, too. Connoisseurs of the heretical will be salivating at the prospect of Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, which is due in May.
This swelling of atheist literature is a reaction to a worldwide rise in fundamentalist religion. But in kicking back at extremism, the bestselling atheists don’t discriminate between mainstream faith and the loony fringe. It’s religion itself they object to.
Dawkins hopes to eradicate faith entirely. This immodest project has put the high-profile English biologist at the vanguard of what’s being called — inevitably — “evangelistic atheism”.
Dawkins has been on the cover of Time magazine. He even appeared on TV show South Park, where he was, as he himself grumblingly described it, “portrayed as a cartoon character buggering a bald transvestite”.
Popular atheism is not new — Bertrand Russell’s classic Why I Am An Atheist was written half a century ago — but the emphasis on mass conversion to common sense might be.
The “Beyond Belief” forum, at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California late last year resembled, The New York Times reported, “the founding convention for a political party built on a single plank: in a world dangerously charged with ideology, science needs to take on an evangelical role, vying with religion as teller of the greatest story ever told.”
It’s also unrepentantly trenchant, eschewing the delicacy conventionally observed in religious discussion. “I’m utterly fed up with the respect that we — all of us, including the secular among us — are brainwashed into bestowing on religion,” Dawkins has said. And so say an increasing number of thinkers for whom the fundamental absurdity of all religious belief has become non-negotiable. In a swingeing philippic against Islamic fundamentalism published in the Observer last year, Martin Amis wrote: “Today, in the West, there are no good excuses for religious belief — unless we think that ignorance, reaction and sentimentality are good excuses.”
If this seems unnecessarily trenchant, says English philosopher A. C. Grayling, who has contributed his own irreligious tract, Against All Gods (2007), to the book shops, remember that religion started it. “Politeness and restraint have been banished by the confrontational face that faith now turns to the modern world,” Grayling writes. “In the face of the growing volume and assertiveness of different religious bodies asking for preferential treatment, secular opinion has hardened.”
There were no traces of this rancorous mood at the debate in Mount Evelyn. Careforce senior pastor Dr Allan Meyer warmly congratulated Dr Perkins on having the courage to bring his bad news to the largest Church of Christ congregation in the country. In turn, Dr Perkins apologised in advance for any offence his views might cause. Proceeds from ticket sales went to the Royal Children’s Hospital Good Friday appeal.
The debate was an away fixture for the atheists. But then, it’s hard to imagine what an atheist home game would look like, since a gathering of Australian atheists wouldn’t fill the MCG’s southern stand. In the 2001 census, barely one Australian in 2000 identified as atheist, though nearly 15 per cent claimed to have “no religion”.
Atheism seems to suffer from an odd Australian ambivalence about religion. In her book God Under Howard: The Rise of the Religious Right in Australian Politics, Marion Maddox argues that in Australia’s “exceptionally secular culture” religion is still welcome, “but mainly as something we approve of for others, rather than participate in ourselves”.
It may be true that fewer Australians attend church than ever, says Dr Carole Cusack, chairwoman of the department of studies in religion at the University of Sydney, but Australians still view being religious positively. “If somebody says they’re religious, it means they have principles and morals.”
The reverse seems to apply to atheists. “I think if you just say ‘I’m an atheist’,” says Dr Cusack, “people assume that you despise religion. People somehow think atheism is linked to being derisory.”
Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster
Or perhaps to being humourless. Some people with no time for God seem to prefer more mischievous alternatives than plain old atheism can offer. In the last census, the number of professed atheists was dwarfed by the more than 70,000 Australians who described their religion as “Jedi“, a la Star Wars. The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a parody religion created by American Bobby Henderson, has become a huge hit on the web in just a couple of years, and now offers its own gospel, nifty T-shirts and mock-commandments, the eight “I’d Really Rather You Didn’ts”.
Nearly 60,000 copies of Dawkins’ book have sold in Australia, but it’s hard to say whether it’s producing a generation of atheist converts. It does seem to have galvanised existing atheists somewhat. Dawkins can take some credit for the Melbourne Atheist Meet-up Group, which was set up in June last year and now has some 60 members. One of its founders, Andrew Rawlings, an atheist activist, says The God Delusion was “very influential” in the formation of the group.
On Australia Day this year, 10 members of the group established an “atheist presence” outside a Catch the Fire Ministries prayer rally at Festival Hall.
There was a small scuffle when one rally participant tried to knock a copy of The God Delusion out of an atheist’s hands, but no one was hurt. Probably no one was converted, either. Most of the Christians, says Rawlings, seemed not so much angered by the atheists as concerned for their souls.
Spreading the word against God has never been a priority for Australia’s more established atheist groups. The Atheist Foundation of Australia, which provided Dr John Perkins for the Careforce Church debate, has been in existence for 37 years. Its most important functions, says its president, David Nicholls, are to promote secularism, and to argue that the indoctrination of children with irrational religious ideas is dangerous, and that indoctrinating children into a belief in eternal damnation is actually a form of abuse.
Still, Nicholls has high hopes for the new atheism. “Anyone who reads Sam Harris’ The End of Faith and doesn’t start questioning their faith really has not got a hold on reality,” he says.
Melbourne philosopher Tamas Pataki is soon to add another book to the growing pile of popular atheistic literature. His Against Religion is due out next month, but he has no interest, he says, in being part of “some movement to defeat or repel religion”. He too sees the boom in atheist thought as a reaction to the rise of fundamentalism. “But I think what intellectuals find more offensive than Islamic fundamentalism is probably what’s happening in George Bush’s America, and the influence of the Christian right.”
The particular stridency of the new atheism in America probably reflects a stronger sense of embattlement among scientists there — Dawkins’ book speaks directly to controversies over stem cell research and teaching creationism in schools — and also to the greater role religion plays in public life.
David Nicholls admits that religion doesn’t have nearly the cultural power here as it does in the US. “But, having said that, we now have many parliamentarians expressing religious views in an attempt to be either truthful to themselves or to catch the religious vote which they think is out there. I think it’s a very dangerous path that we’re treading. A democratic society shouldn’t take the risk.”
In Australia, the differences between the faithful and non-believers has mostly taken the form of this proxy war over secularism — though, of course, it’s not only atheists who consider the intrusion of religion into politics a public nuisance. The main reason atheists turned out at Festival Hall on Australia Day was the fact that the Prime Minister had sent a formal message to the prayer rally, something they strongly objected to.
But the new atheism is about more than defending secular political arrangements: it’s about sweeping away all religion with the firm broom of reason, and doing it fast. “Global religions are global tribes,” argues John Perkins. “People pretend that there’s not religious conflict … There’s too many people out there who have access to very powerful weapons whose beliefs are inconsistent with the beliefs of other people with equally powerful weapons.”
What atheism believes it offers is the only universal alternative to dangerous unreason. “There seems to be a kind of darkening of the world in many ways,” Pataki says. “We’re becoming more politically conservative and morally regressive, and at periods like that in the history of civilisation, religion and superstition always come to the fore.”
Hurricane Katrina: Faith In God Strengthened
Atheists who see scientific standards of evidence as utterly incompatible with religion look with dismay at the rise not just of fundamentalism, but religion generally: to them, it’s as if a long-eradicated disease had returned to afflict the human mind anew. When hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans last year, Sam Harris says, a survey found that 80 per cent of survivors said the events had only strengthened their faith in God.
Harris is astonished by this. Yet maybe what this shows is that a hurricane, like everything else in creation, is a religious Rorschach ink blot: whether or not we divine the hand of God in what we see says more about us than what we’re looking at.
Atheists can’t leave it at that relativist impasse, though. “The question of truth is important here,” Pataki argues. “Is religion true? I think it’s not. I think religion is in discord with common sense. Not so much with science but with common sense.”
But perhaps a confident, evangelising atheism based on reason just doesn’t seem reasonable to many people now. “The naive atheist seems to believe that a sophisticated seminar in godlessness is all that is required to eliminate religion, showing a grateful people that they can be liberated from an oppressive and debilitating illusion,” writes Alister McGrath in his book, The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World. “What atheists don’t get is that people actually like their faith, and find it helpful in structuring their lives, and actually believe it’s true.” Western culture, he says, has “long since recognised the limitations of reason”.
The stats suggest he might be on to something. The Australian 2001 census showed that mainstream Christian denominations were shrinking; but so was the “no religion” category. Both sides represented at Careforce, atheists and church-goers, are shrinking categories, both losing support to what scholars of religion see as a shift towards a vague, non-committal openness to spirituality.
Dogmatic Form of Fundamentalist Faith
In this context, atheism’s insistence on judging religion by scientific truth alone can seem like an arbitrary definition of terms. From there it’s only a short step to indicting atheism for intolerance. Dawkins’ “scientistic materialism”, concluded this newspaper’s review of The God Delusion, is just a “dogmatic form of fundamentalist faith”.
It’s an old charge, and one that atheists refute outright. But even some secularists wonder what’s wrong with the old live and let live idea: lock up the dangerous loony fringe and let everyone else just rub along together.
In The God Delusion, Dawkins argues that heinous acts of religious terrorism should be blamed on “religion itself, not religious extremism — as though that were some kind of terrible perversion of real, decent religion”.
Dawkins “can scarcely bring himself to concede that a single human benefit has flowed from religious faith,” wrote Marxist critic Terry Eagleton in The London Review of Books. “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.”
For Sam Harris, the challenge to religion depends on what he calls intellectual honesty. “Either the Bible is just an ordinary book, written by mortals, or it isn’t,” Harris writes in A Letter to a Christian Nation. “Either Christ was divine, or he was not … If the basic tenets of Christianity are true, then there are some very grim surprises in store for non-believers like myself.”
Grim indeed. The Pope recently reminded Catholics that unrepentant sinners can still expect eternal damnation. Hell “really exists and is eternal”, he told parishioners in Rome, “even if nobody much talks about it any more”.
Many of the people who contact the Atheist Foundation are struggling with the psychological residue of religious upbringings, Nicholls says. Especially in the winter months, “we get many people who can’t get over the fear of hell, can’t escape it. Even though they’re atheists.”
And that’s the main problem for atheist evangelisers: just because something isn’t true doesn’t mean it’s not real.