About nine months ago, a reporter from the Italian Catholic newspaper Avvenire called and asked whether the rash of “atheist books” being published in the U.S. suggested a new trend in American culture. I replied that I didn’t think so. Publishing was a bit like hemlines and tie widths, I suggested: there are fashions, and the fashions are often defined (and slavishly followed) by bears of little brain, of which the publishing industry is, alas, replete. (An observation, I note, that was made long before the latest O.J. fiasco!)
In any event, I wish I’d given a more thoughtful answer. For, on further reflection, Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, and Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation do embody an interesting trend: not about American culture as a whole, but about its atheist mini-minority. Reading these books, one gets the distinct impression that contemporary atheism is getting angrier and dumber, even as it becomes more profitable for publishers and authors alike.
One root of the new atheist campaign is, of course, political: Bush Derangement Syndrome has persuaded at least some atheists that the cowboy-evangelical apocalypse is just around the corner. The usual snobberies are also involved: the new atheism reflects the disdain of the academic guilds and chattering classes for those they imagine to be their social inferiors. In the nineteenth century, it was thought that an atheist couldn’t be a gentleman; today, the atheists argue that religious conviction is for slobs and morons.
But as Sam Schulman recently pointed out in a perceptive Wall Street Journal essay, what’s really striking about the new atheism is its tone. In a word, it’s angry; or, as Schulman writes, “Belief, in their eyes, is not just misguided but contemptible…Today’s atheists are particularly disgusted by the religious training of young people – which Dr. Dawkins calls ‘a form of child abuse.’” This is, in part, the aforementioned snobbery; as Schulman nicely puts it, the new atheists imagine that “believing in God is a form of stupidity, which sets off their own intelligence.” But the anger is such that it warps whatever cleverness might be at work in the likes of Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris. The agnostic H.L. Mencken (a vociferous critic of what he regarded as the absurdities of popular religiosity during the Roaring Twenties) was one of the few commentators who could do brilliant social satire while writing “at the top of his voice,” as one biographer put it. The angers of Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris render their writing merely shrill.
And dumb. Read the atheist trinity, and you’ll be amazed at their self-regard – which is based, in part, on a Captain Reynaud-like wonder (“I’m shocked, shocked…”) at discovering the obvious: that the Bible is neither geology text nor critical biography; that, over the centuries, Christian hagiographers have embellished the stories they tell about saintly people; that some uncritically examined beliefs are, in fact, superstitious. Oh, really?
Moreover, as Schulman writes, “The faith that the new atheists describe is a simple-minded parody. It is impossible to see within it what might have preoccupied great artists and thinkers like Homer, Milton, Michelangelo, Newton, and Spinoza – let alone Aquinas, Dr. Johnson, Kierkegaard, Goya, Cardinal Newman, Reinhold Niebuhr or, for that matter, Albert Einstein. But to pass over this deeper faith – the kind that engaged the great minds of Western history – is to diminish the loss of faith, too. The new atheists are separated from the old by their shallowness.”
Which is to say, again, they’re dumber as well as angrier. Indeed, were I back teaching and a graduate student handed me an ill-informed screed like Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation, I’d gently inform the aspiring scholar that there were two options available: an “F,” or a return to the drawing board for some serious thought – the kind of thought that begins with empathetic curiosity and an open mind, not with contempt and intellectual rigidity.
Contemporary believers deserve a better class of critics than this. As Sam Schulman laments, where are Matthew Arnold and George Eliot when you need them?