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Apr. 17, 2014

The Birth of New Atheism

by Amir Aczel

Click to enlarge images
The “New Atheism” movement was launched as a direct consequence of the attacks of September 11, 2001. The coldblooded murder of thousands of unsuspecting innocent people on a beautiful late summer day horrified America and the world. These barbarous acts made many people justly regard with anger a religion that could even hint that its followers should commit such crimes in the name of God. How could any religion, supposedly based on the word of God, lead people to indiscriminately destroy the lives of so many human beings (including, inevitably, some of their coreligionists)? This was the question on many people’s minds.
 
One of the first writers to address these painful issues was Sam Harris, who within three years of the attacks published a book called The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (2004). Harris lambasted religion and questioned its value in our lives through the perspective of September 11. He argued passionately that faith—indeed, organized religion of any kind—has no place in the modern world, and that it brings only evil and destruction. And he stated his view that we may never be able to counter extremist Islam as long as we continue to hold on to our own religious beliefs. Militant religion, according to Harris, can only be fought against rationally and effectively by people who have shed their own faith. He later answered criticisms of his book, which had become an instant best seller but had also generated controversy, in a second popular work, Letter to a Christian Nation (2006).
 
Though he is not a working scientist, Harris used scientific concepts to argue against religion. But the move from the justified moral outrage about 9/11 to a “scientific” argument against faith in general results in a somewhat condescending tone. Here is a sample of what he writes about science:
 
All complex life on earth has developed from simpler life-forms over billions of years. This is a fact that no longer admits of intelligent dispute. If you doubt that human beings evolved from prior species, you may as well doubt that the sun is a star. Granted, the sun doesn’t seem like an ordinary star, but we know that it is a star, and we know that it is a star that just happens to be relatively close to the earth.
 
Harris presents here some of the strong points of science: most people today accept evolution as the mechanism for biological change. But his statements that the sun “doesn’t seem like an ordinary star” and that it’s “a star that just happens to be relatively close to the earth” imply that religious people are as uninformed as children about science.
Harris’s argument against religion widens to all areas of modern life:
 
One of the most pernicious effects of religion is that it tends to divorce morality from the reality of human and animal suffering. Religion allows people to imagine that their concerns are moral when they are not—that is, when they have nothing to do with suffering and its alleviation.
 
Unfortunately this notion is typical of the New Atheism. New Atheists argue that there is no connection between religion and morality, often using examples of extreme cruelty such as rapes and murders of young children, as well as genocides, tortures, and other heinous crimes. Harris singles out religious people, and says that their religion contributes to their failure to stop such atrocities. Hence, according to Harris, morality and religion do not overlap. This argument is spurious, however, because nonreligious people have done no better at stopping atrocities. Also, many important charities worldwide are based on religious giving, and to dismiss or ignore them and their influence on human welfare is wrong.
 
The same year that Harris published Letter to a Christian Nation, Richard Dawkins, who for decades had been advocating atheism in public lectures and articles, released a book that received even wider circulation and global acclaim, titled The God Delusion (2006). In this work, Dawkins uses his prominence in the field of biology to launch a scientific argument against the existence of God. But in addition to using ideas from science—mainly evolutionary biology, but also a smattering of notions plucked from physics and cosmology—Dawkins embarks on a personal crusade against Scripture, especially the Old Testament.
 
Quoting passages from the Bible that portray the “Abrahamic God,” as Dawkins calls him, as vindictive, cruel, unpredictable, and jealous, he goes on to label God a “psychotic delinquent.” Dawkins expresses shock that any thinking human being could ever believe in this flawed God, and then decries aspects of the New Testament as well, questioning how any rational person could accept the notions of virgin birth, resurrection, and other “miracles.” Virgin births do not occur in nature, the biologist tells us, and neither do the dead return to life or ascend to heaven. Revelation is not a method of obtaining information about the world, he says: scientific evidence is. On this point, I would certainly agree with Dawkins.
 
But strangely, Dawkins avoids criticizing both his native Anglicanism (even offering mild praise for some of its clergymen) and all Eastern religions—conveniently identifying them as “ways of life,” rather than proper religions.
Along the way, Dawkins shares some of his unscientific beliefs, such as that Hitler was not nearly as evil as Caligula (how does he know?) and that abusing children sexually is not as bad as indoctrinating them in a religion. With respect to this last assertion, he claims to be speaking from personal experience, saying that he was abused as a child but that it amounted to only an “embarrassment,” while being exposed to religious ideas caused far more damage. One wonders if the many adults now coming forward with revelations of having been raped or molested as children would agree with this view.
 
Dawkins’s thrust throughout his book is that religion is not only bad but also stupid. Religious people deserve no respect from the rest of society, he says. (In chapter 1 of The God Delusion, Dawkins has an entire section titled “Undeserved Respect,” referring to his view that religious people are not deserving of respect for their beliefs.) Yet after his impassioned, all-out attack on the folly of religion, Dawkins rates himself only a 6 on an atheism scale he has designed in which 1 stands for absolute belief in God and 7 indicates a 100 percent sureness that there is no God. Why does the world’s most prominent atheist suddenly hedge?
 
In any event, the main purpose of Dawkins’s book is to attempt to use science to prove that religion is false and that God does not exist. Dawkins wants to replace “God” with “evolution,” and to show that the factors of evolution—survival of the fittest, adaptation to the environment, and natural selection (preferential sexual reproduction for better-adapted individuals)—lead directly to the complexity of life we see around us and that, therefore, there was never a need for any external “creator.”
 
He also argues, albeit briefly and haphazardly, that the universe as a whole came about through a nonbiological mechanism he claims must be “similar to evolution.” Dawkins also writes that “Darwinian evolution, specifically natural selection . . . shatters the illusion of design within the domain of biology, and teaches us to be suspicious of any kind of design hypothesis in physics and cosmology as well.” The question of “design” is semantically loaded, as it often in this context refers to the belief of people who reject evolution—i.e., “intelligent design.” This is not the point. We know that evolution is how life-forms change through time. The question is whether evolution truly obviates a primal originator of the laws of nature—including the laws of evolution and the very important starting point of the evolutionary process. In fact, modern science has not been able to address these key issues.
 
Since Dawkins does not have advanced training in physics and mathematics, his arguments about the universe as a whole are easily disproved; in fact, no serious physicist would argue that a mechanism “similar to biological evolution” somehow operates in the purely physical universe. But we will more fully address Dawkins’s scientific arguments against belief and expose their flaws later in this book.
 

Reprinted excerpt from Why Science Does Not Disprove God with permission from William Morrow/HarperCollins Publishers, Copyright © 2014 by Amir Aczel

 
About the Author
Amir D. Aczel, Ph.D., received graduate degrees in mathematics from the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Oregon. He is the author of the acclaimed Fermat's Last Theorem, which has been published in 28 languages and was nominated for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and many other works of nonfiction. In 2012, he was awarded a Sloan Foundation grant for his groundbreaking research on the origin of numbers; in 2004, he was awarded the prestigious John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship. From 2005 to 2007, Aczel was a visiting scholar at Harvard University. He is currently a research fellow in the history of science at Boston University. He also writes for Discover magazine, regularly publishes in Scientific American, and has written science pieces for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. He is often interviewed about science on radio and television—including recent appearances on PRI's "Science Friday." He lives in Boston.
 
Author photo credit: Debra Gross Aczel
 
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About Amir Aczel

Amir D. Aczel, Ph.D., received graduate degrees in mathematics from the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Oregon. He is currently a research fellow in the history of science at Boston University.

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