Last Sunday's New York Times included a piece by Nicholas Christof called "A Modest Proposal for a Truce on Religion". It prompted replies, from amongst others, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. Here they are.A Modest Proposal for a Truce on Religion
If God is omniscient and omnipotent, you can't help wondering why she doesn't pull out a thunderbolt and strike down Richard Dawkins.
Or, at least, crash the Web site of www.whydoesgodhateamputees.com. That's a snarky site that notes that while people regularly credit God for curing cancer or other ailments, amputees never seem to enjoy divine intervention.
"If God were answering the prayers of amputees to regenerate their lost limbs, we would be seeing amputated legs growing back every day," the Web site declares, adding: "It would appear, to an unbiased observer, that God is singling out amputees and purposefully ignoring them."
That site is part of an increasingly assertive, often obnoxious atheist offensive led in part by Professor Dawkins — the Oxford scientist who is author of the new best seller "The God Delusion." It's a militant, in-your-face brand of atheism that he and others are proselytizing for.
He counsels readers to imagine a world without religion and conjures his own glimpse: "Imagine no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian partition, no Israeli/Palestinian wars, no Serb/Croat/Muslim massacres, no persecution of Jews as 'Christ-killers,' no Northern Ireland 'troubles,' no 'honor killings,' no shiny-suited bouffant-haired televangelists fleecing gullible people of their money."
Look elsewhere on the best-seller list and you find an equally acerbic assault on faith: Sam Harris's "Letter to a Christian Nation." Mr. Harris mocks conservative Christians for opposing abortion, writing: "20 percent of all recognized pregnancies end in miscarriage. There is an obvious truth here that cries out for acknowledgment: if God exists, He is the most prolific abortionist of all."
The number of avowed atheists is tiny, with only 1 to 2 percent of Americans describing themselves in polls as atheists. But about 15 percent now say that they are not affiliated with any religion, and this vague category is sometimes described as the fastest-growing "religious group" in America today (some surveys back that contention, while others don't).
Granted, many Americans may not yet be willing to come out of the closet and acknowledge their irreligious views. In polls, more than 90 percent of Americans have said that they would be willing to vote for a woman, a Jew or a black, and 79 percent would be willing to vote for a gay person. But at last count, only 37 percent would consider voting for an atheist.
Such discrimination on the basis of (non) belief is insidious and intolerant, and undermines our ability to have far-reaching discussions about faith and politics. Mr. Harris, for example, makes some legitimate policy points, such as criticism of conservative Christians who try to block research on stem cells because of their potential to become humans.
"Almost every cell in your body is a potential human being, given our recent advances in genetic engineering," notes Mr. Harris. "Every time you scratch your nose, you have committed a Holocaust of potential human beings."
Yet the tone of this Charge of the Atheist Brigade is often just as intolerant — and mean. It's contemptuous and even ... a bit fundamentalist.
"These writers share a few things with the zealous religionists they oppose, such as a high degree of dogmatism and an aggressive rhetorical style," says John Green of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. "Indeed, one could speak of a secular fundamentalism that resembles religious fundamentalism. This may be one of those cases where opposites converge."
Granted, religious figures have been involved throughout history in the worst kinds of atrocities. But as Mao Zedong, Joseph Stalin and Pol Pot show, so have atheists.
Moreover, for all the slaughters in the name of religion over the centuries, there is another side of the ledger. Every time I travel in the poorest parts of Africa, I see missionary hospitals that are the only source of assistance to desperate people. God may not help amputees sprout new limbs, but churches do galvanize their members to support soup kitchens, homeless shelters and clinics that otherwise would not exist. Religious constituencies have pushed for more action on AIDS, malaria, sex trafficking and Darfur's genocide, and believers often give large proportions of their incomes to charities that are a lifeline to the neediest.
Now that the Christian Right has largely retreated from the culture wars, let's hope that the Atheist Left doesn't revive them. We've suffered enough from religious intolerance that the last thing the world needs is irreligious intolerance.Sam Harris' Reply:
To the Editor:
Contrary to Mr. Kristof’s opinion, it isn’t “intolerant” or “fundamentalist” to point out that there is no good reason to believe that one of our books was dictated by an omniscient deity.
Half of the American population believes that the universe is 6,000 years old. They are wrong about this. Declaring them so is not “irreligious intolerance.” It is intellectual honesty.
Given the astounding number of galaxies and potential worlds arrayed overhead, the complexities of life on earth and the advances in our ethical discourse over the last 2,000 years, the world’s religions offer a view of reality that is now so utterly impoverished as to scarcely constitute a view of reality at all.
This is a fact that can be argued for from a dozen sides, as Richard Dawkins and I have recently done in our books. Calling our efforts “mean” overlooks our genuine concern for the future of civilization.
And it’s not much of a counterargument either.
New York, Dec. 3, 2006Richard Dawkins' Reply:
To the Editor:
Nicholas D. Kristof is one of many commentators to find the tone of the newly resurgent atheism “obnoxious” or “mean.”
Ubiquitous as they are, such epithets are not borne out by an objective reading of the works he cites: Sam Harris’s “Letter to a Christian Nation,” my own “God Delusion” and www.whydoesgodhateamputees.com (I had not been aware of this splendid Web site; thank you, Mr. Kristof).
I have scanned all three atheist sources carefully for polemic, and my honest judgment is that they are gentle by the standards of normal political commentary, say, or the standards of theater and arts critics.
Mr. Kristof has simply become acclimatized to the convention that you can criticize anything else but you mustn’t criticize religion. Ears calibrated to this norm will hear gentle criticism of religion as intemperate, and robust criticism as obnoxious. Without wishing to offend, I want “The God Delusion” to raise our consciousness of this weird double standard.
How did religion acquire its extraordinary immunity against normal levels of criticism?
Oxford, England, Dec. 4, 2006