The neo-atheists are having a field day, with vitriol-soaked books pouring from the presses of late. The new militant crusade of the God-haters may indicate a bit of panic on their part. They had long felt that religion was on the path to extinction, with belief in God withering away in the face of new learning, the march of science, and rising secularism.
Yet religion and religionists persist – big time. Far from withering away, theists of various stripes are still in the clear majority around the world. This in part explains the stridency and belligerence of the new atheists. They just can’t stand the fact that despite all their best efforts, people still insist on rejecting crude materialism, and still believe that there is more to life than atoms and DNA.
Thus the atheist offensive has gone up a few notches, as evidenced by their increased nastiness and the proliferation of publications. One of the recent efforts by a committed God-hater is Christopher Hitchens’ new work. His book, God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, is riding high on the charts, and it is said to have already earned him a cool million.
Given that I would go broke in buying all the new books by the God-haters, I have to rely on the authority of others in some cases. And many have noted the negative aspects about Hitchens’ book. Like most of the new anti-theist titles, Hitchens’ book is as full of errors and mistakes as it is of anger and shrillness.
Jewish commentator Michael Medved recently had a two-hour debate with Hitchens on his radio show. This is how Medved assesses the man and his message. “For any sophisticated religious believer, this powerfully popular work represents a maddening combination of stimulation and sloppiness, erudition and ignorance, provocation and puerility.”
The mistakes are many: “The sly distortions and grotesque errors that appear in every chapter of his work demonstrate the author’s carelessness and arrogance. In one especially appalling example (on page 100), Hitchens writes of ‘the pitiless teachings of the god of Moses, who never mentions human solidarity and compassion at all.’ He thereby ignores the most celebrated commandment in the Five Books of Moses, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18), identified by Jewish sages (and in Matthew’s Gospel by Jesus himself) as the very essence of the Hebrew Scriptures. Hitchens also fails to acknowledge the innumerable Old Testament injunctions to show loving-kindness and mercy in dealing with widows, orphans, strangers, and the poor. Whether one imputes these teachings to God or to Moses, they hardly qualify as ‘pitiless’ and most certainly emphasize ‘human solidarity and compassion’.”
One of the points Medved made with Hitchens on his radio program had to do with the issue of evolution: “Hitchens emphasizes his fervent belief in Darwinian evolution as the process that produced all life forms and facilitated human advancement but in this context offers no explanation for what some scientists have identified as ‘the God gene.’ Natural selection means that any characteristic that confers reliable advantage on a species will survive and spread, while an attribute that handicaps this organism will, ultimately, disappear. If, then, ‘religion poisons everything,’ how can one explain the persistence throughout human history of the religious impulse, and the sturdy survival of our pious instincts throughout the modern era? In confronting that challenge today, Hitchens alluded to prehistoric times in which medicine hardly existed, but suffering individuals might consult a witch doctor or shaman for superstitious cures. Even though these ministrations provided no physiological benefit, he argued, they helped the sufferers by adding to their confidence of recovery and emotional health – thereby conferring some evolutionary advantage to the faithful. This strained explanation for the widespread survival and vigor of organized religion in effect concedes a fundamental argument of many believers – that regardless of its theological accuracy, a strong faith can make people healthier, happier and more productive, or at least healthier and longer-lived.”
Another point has to do with decidedly non-material things such as beauty and wonder: “In describing himself and his fellow atheists near the opening of his book, Hitchens declares: ‘We are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe: we have music and art and literature, and find that the serious ethical dilemmas are better handled by Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Schiller and Dostoyevsky and George Eliot than in the mythical morality tales of the holy books. Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and – since there is no other metaphor – the soul.’ Ironically, all the literary giants he describes as ethical guides were themselves guided, or at least informed, by their deep belief in God – in fact two of them (Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky) were full-out religious mystics. How can Hitchens unblushingly look to these writers as the right source for handling ‘serious ethical dilemmas’ when their lives and work showed the unmistakable influence of religious teaching which he elsewhere holds in rank contempt?”
What about morality? Medved says that “only a fool would suggest that all atheists will prove incapable of moral conduct or sentiments. The enduring case for associating religious teaching with human goodness doesn’t contend that Biblical truth alone makes such goodness possible, but rather that religious adherence makes that decency more likely. In his compelling recent book ‘Who Really Cares,’ my friend Professor Arthur Brooks of Syracuse University shows that the faithful contribute to charity and volunteer their time to compassionate causes with far greater consistency and generosity than their secular colleagues. One might quarrel that these statistical studies reflect only a coincidental connection between religious belief and good behavior, but they certainly undermine the Hitchens contention that ‘religion poisons everything’.”
He concludes: “The greatness and goodness of the American experiment haven’t arisen in spite of the nation’s ardent religious heritage, but because of it. For those of us fortunate enough to enjoy the blessings of this freakishly favored society, religion hardly amounts to a poison, but represents rather the elixir of life.”
By overstating their cases, atheists risk becoming just laughing stocks. Serious rebuttals of religion have their place, but the amateurish over-generalisations, straw men and red herrings so often found in the writings of these new atheists makes us wonder why we should take them seriously at all.