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The New Atheists

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Is God Necessary?  NO! and YES!

Chapter 2

By Herbert F. Vetter

Today there is a new movement radically critical of religion called “the new atheism” featuring Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris. Harris says faith in God or gods is the most dangerous element of modern life, citing Islamic terrorism as well as Judeo-Christianity’s growing weapons of mass destruction. Dennett rejects “religions as social systems whose participants avow belief in a social supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.” Dawkins describes “the God of Delusion” and hopes that practitioners of religion will shrink its maleficent role in civilization.

While a truly lively case can be made that the worst enemy of religion is religion, and the new atheists do have a vital social contribution to make, one almost has to applaud with a single hand since the triple attack relates almost exclusively to supernatural modes of faith.

Consider the ablest of the cooperating trio, Richard Dawkins, the distinguished evolutionary biologist who teaches in the United Kingdom at Oxford University. He loves to debate his foes. Raised an Anglican, he began to doubt the existence of God when he was nine years old, and he is now known as the nearest thing to a professional atheist since Bertrand Russell. Dawkins delights in demolishing enshrined musty myths of the Church of England as well as deadly deeds of Islamic terrorism. The God Delusion by Dawkins is supplemented by his documentary television broadcasts against religion titled “The Root of All Evil?” Time magazine celebrated Dawkins as one of the most influential persons in the world in 2007. Nevertheless, I prefer not to exalt this natural scientist who ignorantly exclaims, “If all the achievements of theologians were wiped out tomorrow, would anyone notice the difference?” He dares to add this absurdity: “Even the bad achievements of scientists, the bombs . . . work!”

Dawkins dares to articulate the following God Hypothesis: “There exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately de signed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.” That hypothesis, which Dawkins names “The God Delusion,” is a myth of popular religion which hasnot been endorsed by a world galaxy of modern religious thinkers including Albert Schweitzer, Martin Buber, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Mohammad Iqbal, Albert Einstein, Alfred North Whitehead, and Charles Hartshorne. Therefore, I con clude that Richard Dawkins, the scientist, lacks an adequate working hypothesis for his supposedly devastating attack on God.

Another “new atheist,” Daniel Dennett, wrote a critique of reli gion titled Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. This eminent professor at Tufts University seeks to eliminate God merely by presenting a limited definition of God; he declares, I repeat, that religions are “social systems whose participants avow belief in a super natural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.”

When I discovered Dennett’s elimination of God by definition on page nine of the first chapter of this 448-page book, I asked myself if I should continue reading a document written by a professor of philosophy who explicitly avoids dialogue with the eminent philosophers of religion of the past century. Dennett’s published atheistic identity strikes me as a fight against superannuated supernaturalism and a flight from examining the great modern visions of God. Nevertheless, I found reason to rejoice on page 245 where Dennett quotes his earlier book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, as follows:

“Is something sacred? Yes, I say with Nietzsche. I could not pray to it, but I can stand in affirmation of its magnificence. The world is sacred.”

It is necessary to underline this affirmation. This new atheist, Dan iel Dennett, is also a new theist—a cosmic theist—even though he personally chooses not to use that name.

The third of the new atheists, Sam Harris , is a doctoral student in neuroscience who received an earlier degree in philosophy from Stan ford University. His first book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason was a New York Times bestseller. His thesis is that belief in God is the greatest threat to world peace. Harris is also disturbed by a Gallup poll revealing that 53 percent of Americans are Biblical creationists who do not accept the theory of evolution. He is alarmed about the scientific ignorance of Americans, but I am alarmed that he appears in print to be ignorant of notable views of God that are consistent with science.

The second book by Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, focuses his criticism on Christians who believe that “the Bible is the inspired word of God and that only those who accept the divinity of Christ will experience life after death.” Harris says his case is directed against 150 million—”Catholics, mainline Protestants, Evangelicals, Baptists, Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and so on.”

While this charge is compelling, the Harris case against a Christian nation is confusing. Why does this self-proclaimed atheist simply ignore the notable American liberal Christians such as John Adams, author of the Constitution of the United States; Abigail Adams, the First Lady of one president and mother of another; Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence; Roger Williams, religious liberty pioneer; to say nothing of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Louisa May Alcott, William Ellery Channing, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and almost all of the presidents of Harvard College since 1636 A.D.? The polemic of Harris is a fascinating but radically misleading interpretation of the American religious situation.

In sum, though the three “new atheists” often publicly support one another, they do not even try to respond to the new vision of God expressed, for example, by American process philosophers such as Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, Alfred North Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne, and John E. Smith. Although a new epoch of religious thought has arrived, Harris presents no adequate case to defend his new atheism. Dennett offers no case at all against these able modern theists, even though he himself affirms, “The world is sacred.” Dawkins joyfully demolishes his native religious home, the Church of England, mistakenly assuming that he has killed God, the Great Delusion.

What a pity! A renaissance of thought comparable to Darwin’s theory of evolution and Einstein’s theory of relativity has arrived, but the new atheists fail to explicate and celebrate the great new discovery of God due to their compelling preoccupation—denouncing the weary old supernatural God whose death Nietzsche announced in the long gone decades of nineteenth century. Alas!