THE

IRRATIONAL

ATHEIST

 

Vox Day

 

 

Dissecting

the Unholy Trinity of

Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens

 

 

 

Copyright © 2008 by Vox Day

 

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.

 

BenBella Books, Inc.

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ISBN 1-933771-36-4

1. Atheism. 2. Dawkins, Richard, 1941—Religion. 3. Harris, Sam, 1967—Religion. 4. Hitchens, Christopher—Religion. I. Title.

BL2747.3.D39 2007

211'.8—dc22

2007041413

 

Proofreading by Maggie McGuire, Emily Chauviere, and Yara Abuata

Cover design by Todd Michael Bushman

Text design and composition by John Reinhardt Book Design

 

Edited Digital Version

CHCoG

14 November 2022

 

 

 

 

DEDICATION

 

This is for those who walk The Way,

Weak and stumbling, poorly shod.

May they find strength in every day

To persist on the path to God.

 

This is for those still lost in night,

Angry, doubting, trapped in strife.

May they find answers in the Light

That leads to the eternal life.

 

This is for those who fall for Christ,

Faithful, fearless before Cain.

May they find courage to suffice

And know that they die not in vain.

   

 

Contents

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

PREFACE

I – A PRIDE OF ATHEISTS

THE CHURCHES OF ATHEISM

THE HIGH CHURCH ATHEISTS

THE LOW CHURCH ATHEISTS

AGNOSTICS: THE UNITARIANS OF ATHEISM

THE APOCALYPTIC TECHNO-HERETICS

THE ATHEIST CREED

II – DEFINING SCIENCE

SCIENCE VS. RELIGION

RESURRECTING THE MYTH

III – THE CASE AGAINST SCIENCE

THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE SCIENTIFIC

THE PHONY WAR: SCIENCE VERSUS RELIGION

IV – THE RELIGION OF REASON

LEIBNIZIANS AND NEWTONIANS

RESURRECTING THE RED HAND OF REASON

V – SAM TZU AND THE ART OF WAR

KILL THY NEIGHBOR

IN-OUT ENMITY

CRUSADER OR CONSCRIPT?

THE SILENCE OF THE CLASSICS

VI – THE WAR DELUSION

A VERY SHORT MILITARY HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES

WAR AND RELIGION

THE ONTOLOGICAL ARGUMENT FOR RELIGIOUS WAR

VII – THE END OF SAM HARRIS

THE IGNORANT ATHEIST

THE INCOMPETENT ATHEIST

THE INTELLECTUALLY DISHONEST ATHEIST

VIII – DARWIN’S JUDAS

ATHEISM’S RED QUEEN

(1) The Ontological Argument for Science-Inspired Art

(2) Martial Victory Through Blind Obedience

(3) Atheist Respect for Architecture

(4) The Inherent Goodness of Humanity and Moral Gradients

(5) The Equation of Christian Theocracy with Islamic Fascism

(6) Catholicism Is More Damaging Than Childhood Sexual Abuse

(7) The Infallibility of Sam Harris

FRACTAL INTELLIGENCE AND THE COMPLEX DESIGNER

IX – A MARXIAN APOSTATE

AN EXERCISE IN SELF-EVISCERATION

HOLISTIC TOXICITY

X – THE PRAGMATIC PHILOSOPHER

LIFTING THE CURTAIN

SCIENCE, SATAN, AND THE NEO-NEWTONIAN SYNTHESIS

XI – THE ROBESPIERRE OF ATHEISM

POSTMODERN PHILOSOPHICAL PETAINERY

INFAMY OF THE OTHER

NEITHER GOD NOR SCIENCE

THE SHINING PATH

XII – HITLER, THE INQUISITION, THE CRUSADES, AND HUMAN SACRIFICE

THE SPANISH INQUISITION

THE CRUSADES

THE AZTEC EMPIRE AND HUMAN SACRIFICE

XIII – THE RED HAND OF ATHEISM

XIV – OCCAM’S CHAINSAW

THE ARGUMENT FROM AUTHORITY

THE ARGUMENT FROM LACK OF EVIDENCE

THE ARGUMENT FROM HALLUCINATION

THE ARGUMENT FROM TEMPORAL ADVANTAGE

THE ARGUMENT FROM FICTION

THE ARGUMENT FROM THE UNFAIRNESS OF HELL

THE ARGUMENT FROM GOD’S CHARACTER

THE ARGUMENT FROM MORAL EVOLUTION

THE ARGUMENT FROM THE GOLDEN RULE

THE ARGUMENT FROM SUPERIOR MORALS

THE IRRATIONALITY OF ATHEISM

THREE RATIONAL ATHEISMS

XV – MASTER OF PUPPETS OR GAME DESIGNER?

THE CONTRADICTION OF DIVINE CHARACTERISTICS

OMNIDERIGENCE

GODS OF THE MACHINE

XVI – “I BELONG TO JESUS”

APPENDIX A – MURDERER’S ROW

APPENDIX B – TWO DIALOGUES

BIBLIOGRAPHY

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

 

Praise for The Irrational Atheist

 

“In a day when too few of the recently published ‘New Atheists’ get hoisted on their own petard, it is gratifying to see Vox Day undertake that assignment with warmth and enthusiasm.”

—DOUGLAS WILSON, Christianity Today

 

“Vox Day frags the New Atheism movement with the kind of logic and fact that Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and Onfray only claim to use. The important factor is that Day makes his challenging assertions without faith-based cross-waving.”

—DR. JOHNNY WILSON, Editor-in-Chief, Computer Gaming World

 

“The Vox is in the henhouse, with the scent of Dawkins’s blood in his nostrils and a mouthful of Hitchens’s feathers! Harris, alas, doesn’t make it out of the book alive and the emergency team is still waiting to see if Dawkins will pull through after receiving one of the most visceral literary lobotomies ever inflicted in publishing. In the culture wars between New Atheism and The Rest of the World, The Irrational Atheist is ‘must-read’ material.”

IAN WISHART, Investigate Magazine

 

“Day’s work is a healthy kick in the head to the comfortably numb. Using their own claims against them, he uses logic, reason, and rhetoric to reveal that atheists are the new fanatics, and that we should all—religious or irreligious—be very wary of their schemes. G. K. Chesterton once remarked that without God, there would be no atheists; Day updates this by showing how atheism itself is an evolutionary dead-end. A provocative, gutsy, and in-your-face book, but eminently enjoyable reading.”

READ MERCER SCHUCHARDT, Assistant Professor of Communication, Wheaton College

 

“In The Irrational Atheist, Vox Day plays the card that the atheists consider their trump—reason—against them in a devastating and highly entertaining manner. With clarity and wit, he presents a wealth of evidence to demolish the arguments put forward by the leading ‘brights’ of the day.”

—CHAD THE ELDER, Fraters Libertas

 

 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

WITHOUT THE EXAMPLES AND INFLUENCE of my parents, Dr. Gregory Boyd, Tim Stahl, and Andrew and Marit Lunstad, this book would not exist. It is not always our strengths that testify to the truth, sometimes it is our flaws. I have been fortunate to enjoy the unrelenting support of my most faithful readers, the dread Ilk of Vox Popoli, whose encouragement, criticism, and general insanity have provided many ideas that have been incorporated, one way or another, into this text. I must also thank my sometime nemeses, especially Dark Window, Brent Rasmussen, and Dr. P. Z. Myers, for their forthright defense of their own beliefs and the sporadic clashes that have aided me in articulating my own position.

I am grateful to Jamsco, whose detailed perusal of the early drafts was invaluable. Thanks to readers Giraffe, SZook, and BAJ as well. Meredith Dixon helped with the Latin translations and HuckG provided a speedy and dependable procurement service in tracking down various required texts.

Special thanks to Mr. Frederick Dawe, Esq., who is equally reliable in contract negotiations and bar fights. And most of all, I am deeply appreciative of the love and support of the lovely Spacebunny, and am much obliged for her willingness to participate in the occasional midnight symposium on life, the universes, and everything.

 

PREFACE

Get ready for the throw down....

—TUPAC SHAKUR, “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted”

 

“WHAT’S YOUR OBSESSION with these guys?” A reader e-mailed to ask after my fourth column addressing the intellectual sins of the three leading New Atheists was published on WorldNet Daily, the independent news site where I write a weekly opinion column. After all, the Creator God of the universe is presumably capable of defending Himself, and the elephant is what it is, regardless of what I, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, or anyone else might imagine it to be based upon our different experiences of it.

When it comes to understanding God, are we not all blind men feeling up an oversized mammal?

And while I am a believer, a non-denominational evangelical Christian to be precise, my purpose in writing this book is not to defend God, or even to argue for the truth of my particular religious faith. Instead, I intend to defend those who are now being misled into doubting their faith or are fooled into feeling more secure in their lack of faith on the basis of the fraudulent, error-filled writings of these three men. I do not make this triple charge of fraudulence lightly, nor is my doing so a fearful response to their churlish disregard for what to me and millions of other individuals is the central element of human existence.

There is simply no more fitting description of the cerebral snake oil that Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens are selling to the unwary reader—and the media—under the false label of science and reason. I am confident that no one, not even the most purely rational, überskeptical agnostic or card-carrying ACLU atheist, will take serious exception to my charge by the time they finish this book.

It took me some time to decide what this book should be titled. Part of the challenge was due to the fact that it addresses the philosophical and ideological arguments of three very different men. If the book were to solely address Sam Harris, I should likely have entitled it The Incompetent Atheist. In the case of Christopher Hitchens, I could have reasonably named it The Irrelevant Atheist. And given the way in which the eminent Richard Dawkins has apparently decided to abandon empirical evidence, the scientific method, and Reason herself in embracing a quasi-medieval philosophical ontology, The Ironic Atheist would surely have been most fitting.

In the end, I settled upon The Irrational Atheist for the following reason. This book is a direct challenge to the idea that atheism is the proper philosophical standard for human reason, that being an atheist is an inherently rational perspective, and that attempting to build a civilized society without religion is a rational object.

This is not a theological work. The text contains no arguments for the existence of God and the supernatural, nor is it concerned with evolution, creationism, the age of Earth, or intelligent design. It contains no arguments from Scripture; in attacking the arguments, assertions, and conclusions of the New Atheists, my only weapons are the purely secular ones of reason, logic, and historically documented, independently verifiable fact. This is not a book about God, it is about those who seek to replace Him.

At first glance, it may seem crazy that a computer game designer, one whose only significant intellectual accomplishment of note is to have once convinced Michelle Malkin to skip an opportunity to promote herself, should dare to dispute an Oxford don, a respected university professor, a famous French philosopher, a highly regarded journalist, and an ecstasy-using dropout who is still working toward a graduate degree at forty...okay, perhaps that last one makes sense. As Gag Halfrunt is reliably reported to have said of the immortal Zaphod Beeblebrox, I’m just zis guy, ya know?

But don’t be tempted by the logical fallacy of the Appeal To Authority; after all, in this age of academic specialization, an evolutionary biologist is less likely to be an expert on the historical causes of war and religious conflict than the average twelve-year-old wargamer, and even a professor in the field of cognitive studies may not have spent as much time contemplating the deeper mysteries of intelligence as a game designer who has seen many a sunrise while experimenting with the best way to make the monsters smarter.

So, I should like to encourage you to think of this book as an intellectual death match, keep track of the frags, and see if I don’t manage to exorcise the Unholy Trinity of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens once and for all.

 

I – A PRIDE OF ATHEISTS

 

Vox Dei, as every philosopher knows, cannot be trusted in science.

—CHARLES DARWIN, “Organs of Extreme Perfection and Complication”

 

I DON’T CARE IF YOU GO TO HELL.

God does, assuming He exists, or He wouldn’t have bothered sending His Son to save you from it. Jesus Christ does, too, if you’ll accept for the sake of argument that he went to all the trouble of incarnating as a man, dying on the cross, and being resurrected from the dead in order to hand you a Get Out of Hell Free card.

Me, not so much. I don’t know you. I don’t owe you anything. While as a Christian I am called to share the Good News with you, I can’t force you to accept it. Horse, water, drink, and all that.

So, it’s all on you. Your soul is not my responsibility.

I am a Christian. I’m also a libertarian. I believe in free will and in allowing you to exercise it. I believe that our free will is a gift from our Creator and that He expects us to use it. I believe in living and letting live. If you’ll leave me alone, I’ll be delighted to do you the courtesy of leaving you alone in return. I have no inherent problem with atheists or agnostics, I have no problem with Muslims or Jews or Hindus or Rastafarians, and I have no problem with the crazies who believe that humanity is the result of ancient alien breeding experiments. To be honest, I rather like the crazies—their theories are usually the most entertaining of the lot. I believe what I believe, you believe what you believe, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t both be perfectly cool with that.

Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens are not so much cool with that.

I’m not asking you to respect my beliefs. Why should you? Maybe you think I’m insane because I believe that Jesus is coming back one of these days, but does my insanity actually affect you in any material way? Is my religious madness really all that much more out there than my faith that the Minnesota Vikings will win the Super Bowl someday? Talk about the substance of things hoped for...Vegas will give you better odds on J.C. this year. As for your beliefs, I really don’t care if you want to question God’s existence or criticize the Pope or deny the Holocaust or declare that Jesus was an architect previous to his career as a prophet. Every member of humanity is at least a little bit crazy in his own special way, some just happen to make it a little more obvious than others.

Vox’s First Law: Any sufficiently advanced intelligence is indistinguishable from insanity.

All I ask, all the vast majority of the billions of people of faith on the planet ask, is to be left alone to believe what we choose to believe and live how we decide to live. But the Unholy Trinity have no intention of leaving me alone. Richard Dawkins accuses me of child abuse because I teach my children that God loves them even more than I do. Sam Harris declares that I should not be tolerated and suggests that it might be ethical to kill me in preemptive self-defense. Christopher Hitchens asserts that I am a form of human Drāno, poisoning everything I encounter. A fourth New Atheist, the philosopher Daniel Dennett, is less judgmental, but even he, bless his heart, wants to save me from myself.

And now we have a problem.

That’s why I’m writing this book. I’m not trying to convince you that God exists. I’m not trying to convince you to accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. I’m not even trying to convince you that religious people aren’t lunatics with low IQs who should be regarded with pity and contempt. But I am confident that I will convince you that this trio of New Atheists, this Unholy Trinity, are a collection of faux-intellectual frauds utilizing pseudo-scientific sleight of hand in order to falsely claim that religious faith is inherently dangerous and has no place in the modern world.

I am saying that they are wrong, they are reliably, verifiably, and factually incorrect. Richard Dawkins is wrong. Daniel C. Dennett is wrong. Christopher Hitchens is drunk, and he’s wrong. Michel Onfray is French, and he’s wrong. Sam Harris is so superlatively wrong that it will require the development of esoteric mathematics operating simultaneously in multiple dimensions to fully comprehend the orders of magnitude of his wrongness.

You make the call.

 

THE CHURCHES OF ATHEISM

The idea that he is a devotee of reason seeing through the outdated superstitions believed by less intelligent beings is the foremost conceit of the atheist. This heady notion was first made popular by French intellectuals and deistic ur-atheists such as Voltaire and Denis Diderot, who ushered in the so-called Age of Enlightenment. That they also paved the way for the murderous excesses of the French Revolution and dozens of other massacres in the name of human progress is usually considered an unfortunate coincidence by their philosophical descendants.

Atheism is not new. It predates Christianity by at least 400 years according to the account of the trial of Socrates recorded by Plato in his Apology back in 399 B.C.1 While the Athenian philosopher denied the charge of disrespecting the gods of Olympus, the fact that both Socrates and his accuser Meletus recognized the concept of atheos and argued over whether it was an accurate description of Socrates’ beliefs or not is sufficient proof that there were those who did not believe in divine beings long before Richard Dawkins left the lab at Oxford and took up his cross to follow Darwin.
In his review of the history of atheism, French atheologist Michel Onfray dates its explicit inception to 1729 and a book published posthumously by the Abbé Jean Meslier, the parish priest of Étrépigny in northeastern France.2 His Memoir of the Thoughts and Feelings of Jean Meslier: Clear and Evident Demonstrations of the Vanity and Falsity of All the Religions of the World is less interesting for its historical noteworthiness than for the way it shows how little atheism has changed over the last 278 years. Meslier is perpetually indignant, he denies miracles, free will, and the soul, asserts the superiority of atheist morality, and looks forward to the “happy and great revolution” to come when reason replaces religion. According to Onfray, he even calls for an “international communalism.” It’s really quite extraordinary.
Still, one may be excused for not being aware of atheism’s historic intellectual lineage, considering the copious media coverage that has been devoted to the discovery of the three men Wired magazine breathlessly dubbed “the New Atheists,” Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett. With the recent addition of Christopher Hitchens, the New Atheists are nearly as inescapable these days as they are incestuous;3 here Dawkins is lionizing Harris’s “wonderful little book,” there he is favorably quoting Dennett favorably quoting himself, while the works of Dawkins and Dennett top Harris’s list of recommended reading. Only Hitchens, ever the iconoclast, doesn’t join the endless circle jerk, keeping his references to the others at a minimum and showing the good sense to be embarrassed by the two professors’ insistence on calling themselves “brights.”
These days atheism is, like the atheist’s ultimate destination, hot indeed. Not since the 1920s, when the faux scientific writings of Freud and Marx were inspiring European intellectuals and artists, and the latter part of the 1960s when the American intellectual elite belatedly caught up, has there been so much enthusiasm about the nonexistence of God. This is somewhat bewildering, as no one appears to be nearly as excited about a similar absence of belief in unicorns, vampires, werewolves, astrology, nation-building, or the Labor Theory of Value. Nor is anyone dedicating much of their time to writing books and giving speeches at universities and conferences with the avowed goal of convincing others not to believe in them, either. On the other hand, unicorn fanciers don’t possess a great deal of influence with either of the two American political parties, vampire enthusiasts don’t commit honor killings,4 and astrologers are seldom known to launch global holy wars based on the relative positions of Mars and Venus.
So perhaps it’s not entirely unreasonable that those concerned with the collective clout of the billions of individuals who believe in the spiritual sovereignty of a formerly deceased Jewish carpenter should seek to reduce that influence by undermining those beliefs. It is certainly in keeping with the best practices of Western intellectual debate; Adam Smith similarly attacked the French physiocrats by pointing out the divergence between their theoretical system and the way in which the various national economies had been observed to operate.5
However, it is not only nature that abhors a vacuum. The human intellect is not well-suited to stop believing in one thing without replacing that belief, nor is it comfortable for an individual to drop his self-identification without selecting an alternative. While the New Atheists express some faint hope of converting the religious faithful into disbelievers, this is not the primary focus of their works. Dawkins and Dennett both express a degree of skepticism that theists will ever start reading their books, let alone find the courage to finish them. The atheist evangelism of The God Delusion, The End of Faith, and god is not Great is directed at the irreligious reader; for all that Letter to a Christian Nation is nominally aimed at Christian readers, the Sunday School theology it contains makes it clear that it is actually written for the benefit of atheists whose lack of faith is weak. New Atheism is a militantly fundamentalist call to arms intended to wake up the wavering, it is a godless jihad waged under a scarlet flag6 with a cry of Deus n’existe pas.

But negation serves poorly for inspiration, so simply making the negative case against religion is not enough. To convert the godless into raging, red-letter infidels, the New Atheists attempt to make a positive case for something that goes well beyond not being something else. Not even the most ardent non-stamp collector is likely to take much action involving his hobby of not collecting stamps, after all. So, is there more to atheism than the simple meaning of the word, which literally means “without the belief in the existence of a god or gods”? The concept appears simple enough. A-Theism. Without theism. As Brent Rasmussen, an atheist who writes at Unscrewing the Inscrutable, describes it:

 

Atheism describes a person in which god belief is absent. That’s all. Nothing more. Black or white. On or off. There or not there.

 

This is a perfectly reasonable definition in theory, but in practice it’s not quite that simple. As bizarre as it may sound, researchers have learned that nearly half of those who describe themselves as atheist or agnostic nevertheless believe in life after death as well as in Heaven and Hell, beliefs that have historically been considered to be a fairly strong indication of theism. The Christian pollster George Barna somewhat sardonically notes that given this apparent lack of consistency about their stated beliefs on the part of those questioned (this was far from the only serious contradiction revealed by the polling), the significance of the labels with which individuals identify themselves may not be as relevant as is ordinarily assumed.7

Barna’s skepticism regarding self-identification appears to be justified, for it turns out that there are not only atheists who believe they will go to Heaven, there are also those who lack god belief but who do not describe themselves as atheists. In fact, if one did not turn a jaundiced eye upon the presumed accuracy of religious self-identification, it would be very difficult to account for the large discrepancy between the number of self-identified atheists and the much larger group of people who keep turning up in polls under the group described as “no religion.” Now, there are three ways to interpret these two data points: (1) there is a substantive difference between being an atheist and not being religious, (2) many people without religion still cling to a belief in God, or (3) there are a large number of individuals who simply don’t know what to call themselves.

Given the large number of American voters, 26 percent in the 2004 election,8 who cannot figure out if they are Democrats or Republicans even after making a selection between the two parties, Occam’s Razor suggests that the third explanation is the one most likely to be correct. Richard Dawkins would surely concur, as one of the stated purposes of his book is to encourage those who are not avowed atheists to come forward and publicly identify themselves as such.9 But this is likely to be a vain endeavor. Since the normal individual tends to put significantly more time into living his life instead of thinking about it and cataloging its abstract aspects, one can hardly expect him to devote the time and effort required to assemble an internally consistent belief system that is labeled correctly according to objective definitions approved by intellectuals.
The New Atheists themselves are of little help. They, too, muddy the water as they thrash about in their various denials of God. Richard Dawkins begins reasonably enough by suggesting that one’s theistic tendencies may be viewed on a gradient of seven degrees, ranging from complete certainty in the existence of God to complete certainty in His nonexistence. However, he promptly disappoints the reader by rating himself a six, or an agnostic who believes there is a very low probability of God’s existence. But how could this be? Why, it’s as if the Archbishop of Canterbury were to declare that all Christians should doubt the existence of God!10

While Richard Dawkins’s confession of de facto weak atheism in the place of de jure strong atheism is a little surprising, coming as it does in a section entitled “The Poverty of Agnosticism,” Dawkins’s expressed doubt that there are many who would qualify for the perfect seven of the strong atheist is even more eyebrow-raising. This hedging, although commendable for its honesty, is in marked disharmony with the cocksure tone of The God Delusion, and indeed, Dawkins’s public persona as the great evangelist of atheist pride.

Daniel Dennett’s take on the matter is a simpler one, although his call for the need to conduct a proper scientific inquiry into various matters of faith does not amount to making a serious case against religion so much as it lays a structural foundation for someone else to begin assembling the information required for one. As for the alternative, Dennett is content to note that atheism is the negation of theism; he cannot be bothered to either delve into definitions or construct much of a positive argument for nonbelief. Despite his complaint about the way in which debates about God “tend to take place in a pious fog of indeterminate boundaries,” Dennett leaves it unclear whether his refusal to believe in lesser supernatural forces such as witches, Santa Claus, and Wonder Woman should properly be considered an aspect of his atheism or merely an adjunct to it.

The reader might well question any need for this distinction based on the assumption that atheists reject not only God, but all aspects of the supernatural as well, were it not for Sam Harris. While Harris rejects all gods and the entire concept of faith itself on the one hand, he embraces “spiritual possibilities” and harbors a personal dedication to the esoteric teachings of the Buddhist11 faith on the other. One might assume that this would disqualify the man as an atheist even by his own lights, but Harris adroitly evades the apparent dichotomy by redefining Buddhism as a non-religion of faith, its many faithful adherents who believe otherwise notwithstanding.12 This is a rather neat trick, if more than a little intellectually shabby, and one wonders if the entire conflict between the New Atheists and the religious folks who fill them with such fear could not be brought to a peaceful end by a similar redefinition of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and even Hinduism. After all, there is surely a higher percentage of Jews who don’t believe in a literal God of Abraham than Mahayana Buddhists who lack faith in the divine ability of the Amitabha Buddha to aid them in their souls’ journey to Sukhāvatī. However, the ongoing travails of the circus formerly known as the Episcopalian church strongly suggest that redefining religion as a social club is unlikely to prove a viable strategy in the long run.
Harris’s own version of atheism conveniently encompasses his unusual beliefs, as he asserts that an atheist is nothing more than a person who has read the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic scriptures, considered the claims that they were written by an omniscient deity, and found them to be ridiculous.13 Happily for Harris, this leaves the door open for atheists to devote themselves to beliefs culled from sacred texts such as the Bhagavad Gita, the Amitāyurdhyāna Sūtra, or the Tibetan Book of the Dead while remaining godless in good standing. It seems as long as the atheist is only expanding his consciousness, transcendental meditation is laudable, although one assumes the exercise must be stopped at once should any thought of salvation, celestial Buddhas, or reaching the Pure Land happen to enter the mind of the meditator.

However, Harris offers a very different definition of atheism in his Letter to a Christian Nation. Two different definitions, actually:

 

An atheist is simply a person who believes that the 260 million Americans (87 percent of the population) claiming to “never doubt the existence of God” should be obliged to present evidence for his existence—and indeed, for his benevolence, given the relentless destruction of human beings we witness in the world each day. An atheist is a person who believes that the murder of a single little girl—even once in a million years—casts doubt upon the idea of a benevolent God.14

 

The evidence also suggests that an atheist is not a person who subscribes to the concepts of consistency or precision, at least not if his name is Sam Harris. One wonders where these 260 million Americans will be expected to present their evidence, and to whom, especially in a democracy where 87 percent of the population presumably have some say in what they are obliged to do. But these mysteries notwithstanding, it should be obvious that even among the New Atheists, the nature of atheism varies somewhat depending upon the imagination of the individual infidel. And although atheism is neither a religion nor a philosophy in its own right, the attentive observer will notice that atheists can nevertheless be divided into a variety of “churches,” each distinct from the other and yet as internally uniform and readily identifiable as any Christian denomination or Islamic sect.

 

THE HIGH CHURCH ATHEISTS

The middle-aged man enters the room at the top of the hour. He wears a sports coat with corduroy patches on the elbow. Beneath the sports coat are an open-collared shirt and a pair of faded jeans. His ponytail is streaked with gray and accentuates his receding hairline. The faint scent of bean curds on his breath hint at his vegetarian diet.

The room is crowded and takes little notice of his entrance. The middle-aged man takes his place at the front of the room. He will wait for the crowd to fall silent. A couple in the back row are talking about where they will go to the movies that night. The girl has decided she would like to go to see the new Nicole Kidman film, but her boyfriend worries that there will not be enough mindless violence for him to enjoy it. The students finally notice the middle-aged man standing behind the lectern. The professor smiles. Turning his back, he begins to sketch the outline of a forty-five-minute diatribe on the chalkboard, which, among other things, will touch on the wonders of socialized medicine in Holland, homophobic semiotics in modern American cinema, and the squamous evil of the Fox News channel. Despite the fact that this is supposed to be an English class, none of it has anything to do with the plays of William Shakespeare.

The middle-aged man’s students quickly discern that their grades will depend upon telling him what he wants to hear. Although saddened to have lost an opportunity to learn anything about the classic English literary canon to which the course is nominally devoted, they feel a tremendous delight at the inflated grades he distributes. The man’s professional peers envy his tenure, although they don’t approve of the way he often spends his evenings with a sensitive gay studies major prone to wearing black fingernail polish.

These are the facts. This is all we know for certain about the middle-aged man. Is there anything else we can infer about him on the basis of his behavior? Was he good at sports? Is he left-handed or right-handed? Can he juggle? His actions leave no clue at all. Does he enjoy jigsaw puzzles? His behavior is simply mute on questions of this sort and hundreds like them. Why is it so easy, then, so trivially easy—you-could-almost-bet-your-life-on-it easy—to guess the middle-aged man’s religion, or rather, his lack thereof?15
The fact is that a professor at an elite university is as likely to be an atheist as a suicide bomber is to be Muslim;16 a 2006 paper by Neil Gross of Harvard and Solon Simmons of George Mason University reported that 72.9 percent of the professors they polled described the Bible as “an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts,” compared to 17.5 percent of the general population. In the same paper, 34 percent of all university professors described themselves as “not religious” and 31.2 percent specified “none” when asked about their current religious preference.
As any self-professed “bright” will be more than happy to inform you, those who call themselves atheists tend to be more intelligent, better educated, and wealthier than the norm, assuming that one equates education with pieces of paper collected from paper-selling institutions.17 It is no coincidence, then, that the New Atheist triumvirate should be comprised of two university professors and a third fellow working toward his doctoral degree.

Intelligence, education, and high incomes are not the only marks of the High Church Atheists. They are also extremely law-abiding, as there were only 122 atheists, two-tenths of 1 percent of the 65,256 prison population, being held in English and Welsh jails in 2000. They tend to lean politically left, often possess a marked interest in the sciences, and are overwhelmingly confident that the various fine-tunings of Darwin’s theory of evolution over the years suffice to explain the origins of Man as well as a whole host of other mysteries.

And that’s not all! Sam Harris is kind enough to inform us that self-professing atheists are not arrogant, dogmatic, lacking in a basis for morality, closed to spiritual experience, or responsible for the greatest crimes in human history.18 American Atheists, a political organization set up to protect the civil rights of atheists, chimes in with alarming cheerfulness in its declaration that atheists are also “POSITIVE! . . . ECLECTIC! . . . INNER-DIRECTED! . . . INDEPENDENT! . . . HAPPY!”19
They certainly enjoy exclamation points, anyhow. But not every shared trait of the High Church atheist is quite as superlatively wonderful as atheists might have one believe. For example, fresh from a visit to England for an inspiring sermon from the High Church’s own Archbishop of Oxford, Wired magazine writer Gary Wolf found himself noting that atheists are almost always enthusiastic, defiant men who “enjoy pissing people off.”20 Another Dawkins interviewer, Simon Hattenstone, reached a similar conclusion: “I agree with virtually everything he says, but find myself wanting to smack him for his intolerance.”

This is not unusual, as the High Church atheist’s undeveloped social skills are often so dramatic as to be reasonably described as a form of social autism. The atheist tends to regard every statement with which he disagrees in much the same manner that a bull views a matador’s red flag, viewing even the most cherished myths held by his friends and family as little more than imperative targets of opportunity. It is no wonder that the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey reported that atheists are one-third as likely to be married as the average American; these are the sort of men who believe that boring a woman with lengthy explanations of why her opinions are incorrect is the best way to her heart.

There is even evidence to suggest that in some cases, High Church atheism may be little more than a mental disorder taking the form of a literal autism. On one of the more popular atheist Internet sites, the average self-reported result on an Asperger Quotient test was 27.9.21 The threshold for this syndrome, described as “autistic psychopathy” by its discoverer, Dr. Hans Asperger, is 32, whereas the average normal individual scores 16.5. In light of Wolf’s observations, it is interesting to note that those diagnosed with Asperger’s tend to be male, intelligent, impaired in social interaction, and prone to narrow, intense interests.

This idea may explain why the following pair of definitions have proven to be useful in distinguishing between the High Church atheist and the agnostic:

 

AGNOSTIC: I don’t believe there is a God. Because I haven’t seen the evidence.

ATHEIST: There is no God. Because I’m an asshole.

 

THE LOW CHURCH ATHEISTS

After the Protestant Reformation fractured Christendom, the various Christian churches were deeply divided as to the proper way to worship the Lord Jesus Christ. Because the Reformed Church, better known to us today as the Puritans, rejected the Catholic Church’s priestly model of worship, it saw no need for the liturgies, vestments, and ceremonial trappings that had become an integral part of Catholic ceremony over the centuries.22 Churches that retain these formal elements, such as the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England, and the Church of Sweden, are today known as High Church, while Puritans, televangelists, snake-handlers, Billy Graham crusaders in football stadiums, Jesus freaks, and Southern Baptists can all be described as Low Church.
And just as an Anglican bishop in his beautiful vestments has a tendency to look somewhat askance on the crazy evangelicals who open up their services with giant black singers backed by electric guitars and the preacher on the drums,23 the High Church atheist isn’t particularly keen on being lumped in with his godless brethren of the Low Church.
The contradictory relationship between the High and Low Churches of atheism can perhaps be best understood by looking at the makeup of the American Democratic Party. While Democrats are heavily favored by highly educated individuals24 of the sort described at the beginning of the previous section, the party’s support from society’s least-educated individuals is not only every bit as strong, but is more electorally important. Voters with postgraduate schooling were only 25 percent more likely to vote for the Democratic Party presidential candidate in 2004;25 while those who did not complete high school were 90 percent more likely to identify themselves as Democrats.26 Since there are 75 percent more Americans who have never completed high school (16.4 percent of adults over twenty-five) than who possess an advanced degree (9.4 percent) this means that despite their reputation for being the party of the most highly educated, Democrats are nevertheless more than twice as likely to be someone who has dropped out of high school than to be an individual with a master’s degree.27

So while it’s perfectly true to say that the Democratic Party is the party of the intelligent and the educated, such a statement doesn’t tell the whole story and is more than a little misleading. The same is true of atheists.

The most easily identifiable factor separating Low Church atheists from their High Church brethren is neither educational nor liturgical, but eponymical. They simply don’t describe themselves as atheists. Instead, they show up on various religious surveys as “no religion” or occasionally “secular.”28 Their beliefs are distinctly recognizable as atheistic, as they don’t believe in God, they don’t attend religious services, they don’t believe in the supernatural, and they don’t belong to religious organizations, but a failure to openly embrace an atheist identity is not the only significant distinction of the Low Church atheist.
I previously referenced the number of atheists being held by the prison system of England and Wales, where it is customary to record the religion of the prison population as part of the Inmate Information System. In the year 2000, there were 38,531 Christians of twenty-one different varieties imprisoned for their crimes, compared to only 122 atheists and sixty-two agnostics. As Europe in general and the United Kingdom in particular have become increasingly post-Christian, this would appear to be a damning piece of evidence proving the fundamentally criminal nature of theists while demonstrating that atheists are indeed more moral despite their lack of a sky god holding them to account.29

However, there also happened to be another 20,639 prisoners, 31.6 percent of the total prison population, who possessed “no religion.” And this was not simply a case of people falling through the cracks or refusing to provide an answer; the Inmate Information System is specific enough to distinguish between Druids, Scientologists, and Zoroastrians as well as between the Celestial Church of God, the Welsh Independent church, and the Non-Conformist church. It also features separate categories for “other Christian religion,” “other non-Christian religion,” and “not known.”

At only two-tenths of a percent of the prison population, High Church atheists are, as previously suggested, extremely law-abiding. But when one compares the 31.6 percent of imprisoned no-religionists to the 15.1 percent of Britons who checked “none” or wrote in Jedi Knight, agnostic, atheist, or heathen in the 2001 national survey, it becomes clear that their Low Church counterparts are nearly four times more likely to be convicted and jailed for committing a crime than a Christian.30
Studies have shown that those without religion have life expectancies seven years shorter than the average churchgoer,31 are more likely to smoke, abuse alcohol, and be depressed or obese,32 and they are much less likely to marry or have children. Their criminal proclivities strongly suggest that they are less intelligent on average than theists and High Church atheists alike, and they also outnumber their High Church counterparts by a significant margin, as the following table of various polls demonstrates:

 

 
 
See Table Footnotes33 34 35 36

 

Data about religious beliefs are notoriously difficult to obtain with any degree of accuracy and can be complicated by government policies that dictate either an official religion or an official lack of religion, but the more polls one examines, the more a pattern becomes discernible. In most countries, the number of High Church atheists is similar to the number of self-declared agnostics, and the total of the two combined is but a small fraction of the number of Low Church atheists.

One interesting aspect of the European Union poll was its question about how often an individual thinks about the meaning and purpose of life. Those who don’t believe in a god or life force were 27 percent less likely to say that they spent any time thinking about such things than those who do, which tends to support the idea that Low Church atheists are Low Church precisely because they are less interested in dwelling on their disbelief and its implications than High Church atheists, who seldom appear to be interested in anything else.

 

AGNOSTICS: THE UNITARIANS OF ATHEISM

I once attended a friend’s pagan wedding in a Unitarian church. It was both creepy and disappointing. I would have felt much more comfortable if we’d all stripped naked, painted our butts blue, and danced around a burning tree or something instead of sitting through what felt like a straight-faced parody of a Christian ceremony. Listening to the pastor appealing to our collective love for the couple to bless their union was like a religious stroll through the Valley of the Uncanny, wherein the very similarity between the imitation and the real thing is the cause of the creep factor.

Unitarianism offers religion without faith. In a similar manner, Agnosticism offers disbelief without arrogance. Whereas the atheist is always in the impossible position of trying to prove a negative, the agnostic is content to relax, kick back, and wait for others to demonstrate the proof of their assertions. And while agnostics have many things in common with High Church atheists, sharing both their disbelief in God and the supernatural as well as many of their secondary traits, it is nearly impossible to confuse the two types of nonbelievers.

The most obvious difference is that agnostics are not at war with anyone, whereas atheists are prone to aggressively attacking just about everyone, including agnostics. Sam Harris accuses them of not being intellectually honest,37 while Richard Dawkins considers their views to be fence-sitting PAP, an acronym of his creation that stands for Permanent Agnosticism on Principle that also happens to be a word meaning “to lack substance.” (How astonishingly witty!) Hitchens takes a more ecumenical approach to non-belief, viewing atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers all as one big faithless family, while Dennett is similarly open to allowing agnostics to join him and his fellow atheists in dubbing themselves “brights,” should they be so inclined.

Since one of the primary factors distinguishing agnostics from atheists is their disinclination to go out of their way to annoy people, it’s hardly a surprise that very few, if any, agnostics have taken the professor up on his gracious offer.

Agnosticism is actually a perfectly reasonable position, arguably the most reasonable position an individual can hold regarding things that cannot possibly be known with utter certainty by anyone at this point in the space-time continuum. Most atheists would be more accurately described as agnostics with personality problems, for as philosotainer Scott Adams points out on his Dilbert Blog, a “weak atheist” is simply an ideological label for literal agnostics who want to stake out an anti-religious position despite their admission of uncertainty regarding God’s existence. The fact that even the world’s leading atheist confesses an inability to take a “strong atheist” position tends to support Adams’s conclusion.

I rather like self-identified agnostics. A conversation with an agnostic seldom causes anyone to get bent out of shape, and it’s almost impossible to imagine an agnostic regime fighting over Holy Lands, interfering with people’s lives, or slaughtering great quantities of people in order to destroy an existing society in an effort to create a utopian new one. No doubt it’s annoying to the New Atheists that so many avowedly godless individuals should roll their eyes at atheist histrionics and decline to sign up for any angry anti-theist jihads, but really, there are far worse creeds to live by than shrug and let live.

The problem for agnostics is that the High Church unholy warriors tend to live by the reverse of the old Arab proverb. Agnostics, despite their skepticism, are quite willing to be on friendly terms with everyone, but for the militant atheist, the friend of his enemy is his enemy too. Atheists find the easy tolerance of the agnostic intolerable; to paraphrase Sam Harris, certainty about the absence of the next life is simply incompatible with tolerance in this one.

This is why agnostics so often regard theists with puzzled bemusement while viewing their godless cousins, with whom they superficially appear to have far more in common, with a mix of embarrassment and unadulterated horror.

 

THE APOCALYPTIC TECHNO-HERETICS

The award-winning38 science fiction writer Bruce Bethke has a pet theory that science fiction, especially disaster-oriented hard science fiction, primarily exists to provide a mechanism for writing end-of-the-world stories sans theology. “Left Behind for atheists,” he calls it, pointing to Greg Bear’s deity-free apocalyptic novel Forge of God as being but one of many examples.

It sounds crazy, but then, it would be a mistake to discount the guy responsible for coining the term “cyberpunk,” because we are reliably informed that the world will end in neither ice nor fire, but in an explosion of processing power.

Thus sayeth the prophet of the Singularity, science fiction novelist Vernor Vinge, who has been predicting that superintelligent computers will surpass human intelligence, become self-aware, and begin designing their even more intelligent successors since 1993, when he published his famous essay “The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era.” And while the Singularity sounds suspiciously like the plot line of the Terminator movies, it’s actually based upon an application of Moore’s Law, which states that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit doubles every two years.

Because increased transistor counts translate directly into processing power measured in millions of instructions per second, this means that more transistors means smarter computers. The Intel 4004 had only 2300 transistors executing 0.06 MIPS in 1971, while the Intel Core 2 Duo processor in the laptop with which I am now typing these words possesses 291 million transistors executing 21,418 MIPS. Exactly how many MIPS are required before a machine will awaken and become self-conscious remains unknown, but in his essay, Vinge wrote that he expected it would happen before 2030, if it happened at all.

Ray Kurzweil, on the other hand, gives humanity until 2035.

Ken MacLeod, a Scottish science fiction author, describes the Singularity as “the Rapture for nerds” and in the same way Christians are divided into preterist, premillennialist, and postmillennialist camps regarding the timing of the Parousia,39 Apocalyptic TechnoHeretics can be divided into three sects, renunciationist, apotheosan, and posthumanist. Whereas renunciationists foresee a dark future wherein humanity is enslaved or even eliminated by its machine masters and await the Singularity with the same sort of resignation that Christians who don’t buy into Rapture doctrine anticipate the Tribulation and the Antichrist, apotheosans anticipate a happy and peaceful amalgamation into a glorious, godlike hive mind of the sort envisioned by Isaac Asimov in his Foundation novels. Posthumanists, meanwhile, envision a detente between Man and Machine, wherein artificial intelligence will be wedded to intelligence amplification and other forms of technobiological modification to transform humanity and allow it to survive and perhaps even thrive in the Posthuman Era.40
Although it is rooted entirely in science and technology,41 there are some undeniable religious parallels between the more optimistic visions of the Singularity and conventional religious faith. Not only is there a strong orthogenetic element inherent in the concept itself, but the transhuman dream of achieving immortality through uploading one’s consciousness into machine storage and interacting with the world through electronic avatars sounds suspiciously like shedding one’s physical body in order to walk the streets of gold with a halo and a harp.

Furthermore, the predictions of when this watershed event is expected to occur rather remind one of Sir Isaac Newton’s tireless attempts to determine the precise date of the Eschaton, which he finally concluded would take place sometime after 2065, only thirty years after Kurzweil expects the Singularity.

So, if they’re both correct, at least Mankind can console itself that the Machine Age will be a short one.

 

THE ATHEIST CREED

In 325 A.D., Christian leaders found it necessary to convene a council at Nicaea in order to provide all Christendom with an ecumenical statement of Christian faith. Amazingly, they were successful, for despite the subsequent splintering of Christianity into hundreds, if not thousands, of churches and denominations, each with their own idiosyncratic customs and exotic dogmas, the Nicene Creed still serves very well to distinguish the Christian from the not-Christian.

Atheism has no such creed but it could certainly use one. Given the variety of atheisms already mentioned, we need one to serve as a legitimate and reasonable basis for discussing atheism throughout the course of this book. Fortunately, American Atheists has provided a clear and unambiguous statement that ecumenically encompasses the various core beliefs of the vast majority of atheists, High Church, Low Church, and Heretic alike, which I have taken the liberty of having translated into Latin in order to give it the proper magisterial grandeur.

 

Praeter res naturales, nihil exstat.

Cogitatio est proprietas materiae.

Singula animalia omninoque irrevocabiliter mors terminat.

Sunt nullae vires, nullae res, nulla entia, quae distant natura, vel extra naturam sunt.

Sunt nullae vires, nullae res, nulla entia, quae natura superant.

Sunt nullae vires, nullae res, nulla entia, quae supra naturam sunt.

Nec fieri possunt.42

 

As the creed indicates, atheism of all variants requires a focus on material phenomena. High Church atheists, agnostics, and apocalyptics tend to enjoy contemplating some of the more esoteric manifestations, while Low Church atheists are inclined to focus on quotidian ones such as cars, clothes, and the stereo system next door. But because the New Atheists are uniformly High Church, their anti-theistic arguments are invariably intertwined with Man’s primary method for comprehending and utilizing material phenomena, which is to say, science.

 

II – DEFINING SCIENCE

 

Where there is shouting there is no true science.

—LEONARDO DA VINCI

 

IN THE SUMMER OF 1992, my band was scheduled to play on the second stage at the Chicago Lollapalooza, one slot ahead of Temple of the Dog. As it turned out, we never ended up taking the stage thanks to our singer who stayed at a different hotel, managed to get lost, and didn’t show up until the end of the day. But the afternoon was far from a complete loss, as we spent a happy afternoon underneath a blazing hot sun, drinking, shaking the girl tree, and watching the Jesus and Mary Chain, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden warm up the crowd for the apocalyptic show that Ministry put on at sunset.

What I remember most about that summer day wasn’t the Red Hot Chili Peppers or any of the big-name bands, it was the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow. It wasn’t any of the painful feats performed by the Torture King or the Amazing Mr. Lifto that burned their way into my brain, either, but Jim Rose enthusiastically bellowing “It is science!” every time cinder blocks were attached to nipples or broken glass was devoured. “It is science!”

But torture, even public self-torture, is not generally considered to be genuine science, no matter how entertaining its observers might find it to be. The National Academy of Sciences does not recognize torture as one of its thirty-one disciplinary sections and its practitioners have not historically been admitted as members, at least not on that sole basis. Nor can every act performed by a genuine scientist be legitimately described as science; if the bear’s proverbial actions in the woods are not classified as science, the scientist’s should not be, either.1

This is a book about religion and atheism, not science. But it is impossible to entirely separate atheism from science, because scientific materialism has such an influence on atheistic thinking even in matters where science is not directly involved. For some atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, science played an important role in causing them to abandon their former faiths but now serves primarily as a foundation for an ongoing intellectual journey. For others, it is a religion substitute that provides them with purpose and a secular priesthood to whom they look for answers. Due to the frequent entanglement of atheism and science, it is crucial to distinguish between that which is science and that which is not science at all before one can seriously examine the New Atheists’ arguments.

The need to separate real science from non-science can also be seen in the way that the phrase “studies show” has become a secular form of making a vow, a useful means of reassuring the skeptical listener that the speaker is swearing to the truth of his words despite any doubts that the listener might harbor. Another problem is the increasing appearance of metastudy abuse in the news media, a bizarre, pseudo-scientific variant of attempting to determine the truth by means of a democracy wherein each quasi-scientific study gets a vote.

Now that “studies show” is no longer considered sufficiently conclusive, “nine out of ten studies show” is supposed to be more convincing. But this is chewing-gum advertising, not science. So, what is science, if it is not self-skewering, timber-littering, or vote-counting?

Richard Dawkins, who has devolved from spending his time performing genuine science in the field of evolutionary biology to performing in public as a professional science propagandist,2 is surprisingly unhelpful in this regard, especially considering that it is his job to help the public better understand science. While he leaves the reader with no doubt that he likes science very much indeed, his description of it in Unweaving the Rainbow bears more similarity to the Apostle Paul’s description of love recorded in his first letter to the Corinthians than to anything approaching a useful definition.
Science is “hard and challenging,” science is “wonderful.” Science “can pay its own way,” even if “it doesn’t have to.” Science is “fun,” it is “the very opposite of boring.” Science should never be “dumbed down,” for it “can enthrall a good mind for a lifetime.” Those best qualified to appreciate science are “real poets3 and true scholars of literature.” Science does not have an “anti-poetic spirit,” it is never “dry and cold,” it is not “cheerless” nor is it “overbearing.” Science allows “mystery but not magic” and “strangeness beyond imagining” but no “cheap and easy miracles.” It “ought to be motivated by a sense of wonder,” and is “occasionally arrogant,” but then, “it has a certain amount to be arrogant about.”4 It “progresses by correcting its mistakes” and “makes no secret of what it still does not understand.”

In the humble philosophical tradition of Socrates, its “very essence” is “to know what we do not know.” And even if “there are dangers of becoming intoxicated,” we can rest assured that the “feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable.”

If, at this point, the reader is beginning to wonder if Dr. Dawkins has perhaps more than a little in common with Dr. Timothy Leary or fellow evolutionary theorist Terence McKenna,5 he may be assured that he is not alone. After all, it wasn’t prayer and fasting that produced lysergic acid diethylamide.

But if Oxford’s most famous professor never quite gets around to answering the question, the Oxford English Dictionary does not shirk from the task. It defines science as “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment. (—ORIGIN Latin scientia, from scire “know.”)

There, was that so hard? Science is systematic study done through observation and experiment. Therefore, if the study is not systematic, or if observation and experiment are not involved, it is obviously not science by this definition.

This is a key point. If observation and experiment are not involved, then it is not science!

Unless, of course, one is defining it differently, as some scientists are wont to do. One of the more famous alternate definitions, and one to which both Dawkins and Hitchens make reference, is that provided by the Austrian Karl Popper, a professor at the London School of Economics who is considered to have been one of the leading philosophers of science. Popper’s primary criterion for distinguishing between science and not-science is the concept of falsifiability. For a hypothesis to be falsifiable, it must be theoretically possible to make an observation that would disprove the subject. Atheists are particularly fond of this definition, as the difficulty involved in falsifying a supernatural God allows them to argue that religion cannot be science.6 But can Popper’s concept of falsifiability really be taken seriously as a dividing point between science and not-science? It appears more than a little flawed to me. Let’s begin with postulating that a study of the language of the gods is not proper science, whereas a study of the color of swans is.

I base this premise on the classic example of a falsifiable proposition, the statement that “all swans are white.” The fact that one could prove this proposition to be wrong by observing a black swan makes it falsifiable and therefore a proper scientific matter. It is not the truth or untruth of the proposition that is important, only the fact that the truth or untruth could be determined by observation.

The problem here is that the proposition “all gods speak Aramaic” is equally falsifiable, given that the theoretical observation of a monolingual Greek-speaking god would suffice to falsify the proposition. This would therefore make divine linguistics a legitimate matter of science, the current difficulty of observing gods notwithstanding. And however impossible it might seem to credit, divine linguistics has indeed been an object of serious contemplation throughout history by some of Mankind’s greatest minds, including Dante and Leibniz.7 Now, Popper would presumably describe this as “naïve falsification” and place “Swans, Color” in the category approved by sophisticated methodological falsification and “Linguistics, Divine” in the category not approved by it. But this merely expands the falsifiability test into a haphazard, technology-driven definition that dives headlong into tautology, defining science as whatever scientists believe science to be at the moment, or worse, whatever scientists are doing.8
This is dangerous ground, for it hoists science and scientists upon the paradoxical horns of their own Euthyphro dilemma, which if applied in the same manner that it is applied to God and morality, would force one to conclude that science does not exist. But given the masses of empirical evidence that testify to the material existence of both science and scientists, I assert that the more reasonable conclusion is that a) science does exist, and b) the men of Athens had a pretty good point.9 In any event, the falsifiability definition is nebulous enough to be pretty useless.
If Richard Dawkins is less than forthcoming despite his volubility, we are fortunate to discover that one of his comrades in evolutionary biology, P. Z. Myers, is distinctly more helpful. In addition to his duties as a professor of biology, Dr. Myers runs one of the Internet’s more popular science blogs, Pharyngula.10 When I posed the question to him, “What is science?” he responded with not one, but three definitions, all of them quite useful:

 

1. Science is a changing and growing collection of knowledge, characterized by transparency (all methods are documented, and the lineage of ideas can be traced) and testability (prior work can be repeated or its results evaluated). It is an edifice of information that contains all of the details of its construction.

2. Science is what scientists do. We have institutions that train people and employ them in the business of generating new knowledge and we have procedures like the bestowal of degrees and ranks that certify one’s membership in the hallowed ranks of science.

3. Science is a process. It is a method for exploring the natural world by making observations, drawing inferences, and testing those inferences with further experimentation and observation. It isn’t so much the data generated as it is a way of thinking critically about the universe and our own interpretations of it.11

 

What we understand as science consists of three separate and distinct aspects, a dynamic body of knowledge (scientage), a process (scientody), and a profession (scientistry). This three-in-one works together in a unified manner that should be recognizable to the sufficiently educated, wherein the body of knowledge reigns supreme, the process offers the only way to the body of knowledge, and those who blaspheme against the profession will not be forgiven. And, as this analogy suggests, it is the process that is the significant aspect insofar as humanity is concerned.

This tripartite distinction makes it precisely clear just what Richard Dawkins is so enamored with, as when he sings the praise of rapturous wonders and poetic inspirations, he is not referring to science as a profession,12 but rather science as a body of knowledge. Whereas when he describes it as hard and challenging, fun, and motivated by a sense of wonder, he is making reference to science as process.

It should be equally obvious that it is this second definition, or science as process, which is described by the Oxford English Dictionary. Therefore, that is the definition we shall henceforth use throughout the course of this book. But before proceeding, it is intriguing to at least consider the possibility that it is not the threat to science as process that so offends scientists, but rather the potential threat to science as profession that has whipped some scientists into an angry lather.

After all, scientists understand better than most how their bread gets buttered, and no one, not even the most dedicated idealist, is ever pleased with the possibility of that butter being taken away. It seems unlikely, however, that the passion of Richard Dawkins and the fervent militancy of Sam Harris in defense of science can be tied to any such fears. This would make little sense, since neither Sam Harris nor Christopher Hitchens are even scientists, Daniel C. Dennett has tenure, and the success of Richard Dawkins’s many books has surely put him well beyond any petty pecuniary concerns. And regarding any potential fears for the profession as a whole, not even the most die-hard Young Earth Creationist or Intelligent Design advocate is calling for a ban on carbon dating or experiments in evolutionary biology, let alone mass defundings of public science programs and corporate-sponsored research.

Nor can their concerns be realistically tied to any fears for science as a body of knowledge, the occasional rhetorical sally aside. The protest of a biology textbook or a nineteenth-century novel notwithstanding, no one on either side of the debate is advocating the willful destruction or even reduction of the knowledge base. As for the process, the very existence of the Intelligent Design movement is a testimony to a respect for scientific methodology and an attempt to make use of it for marketing purposes, not a desire to destroy it.

But if religion poses no real threat to science in any of its forms, upon what is this vehement hostility toward religion on the part of science’s self-appointed defenders based? What is the reason for all the shouting?

 

SCIENCE VS. RELIGION

The idea that science and religion are regarded as being inherently in conflict with one another is a very well-accepted idea these days, but this was not always the case. Some of history’s greatest scientists are known to have been men of great Christian faith, while even some of those who weren’t, such as Leonardo da Vinci, were on amiable enough terms with the Church to work for it and produced their masterworks based on its religious themes. Ironically, the famous institution where Richard Dawkins is currently employed was once a place where every Fellow of the University was expected to be an ordained priest until Sir Isaac Newton broke the mold at Cambridge with the permission of King Charles II.

As Dawkins himself admits, the overwhelming majority of scientists throughout centuries in which the scientific process was developed were religious, or at least claimed to be:

 

Newton did indeed claim to be religious. So did almost everybody until— significantly I think—the nineteenth century, when there was less social and judicial pressure than in earlier centuries to profess religion, and more scientific support for abandoning it.13

 

What’s significant about this statement is the way it contradicts the notion that the Catholic Church had been dogmatically opposing science, as evidenced by its notorious trial of Galileo Galilei, all throughout the Dark Ages and the Renaissance and well into the eighteenth century. Indeed, most people today are under the vague impression that the very reason for the Dark Ages’ grim nomenclature stems from a puritanical, power-hungry, monolithic Church’s iron-fisted repression of science and human liberty, a totalitarian religious oppression that was finally shaken off by the bold freethinkers of the Enlightenment.

But as medievalists such as Umberto Eco14 and numerous historians have explained in copious detail,15 this simply is not true. The Dark Ages were no more dark than the Church was undivided.
The negative view of the medieval period has a long and interesting history. Edward Gibbon, the author of the classic The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire famously describes them as “priest-ridden, superstitious, dark times.” Of course, it can be reasonably suggested that anyone who is fascinated enough with the Roman Empire to write a million and a half words in six volumes about it, and is blindly prejudiced enough to blame its ultimate collapse on a religion that did not become commonplace until centuries after Juvenal was satirizing the mad decadence of imperial Roman society, is perhaps unlikely to be the most accurate guide in these matters.16

What is fascinating is that this modern misconception of medieval times is at least partly based upon the romantic perspective of a fourteenth-century Italian poet, Francesco Petrarca, a Christian humanist better known in English as Petrarch, who is considered to have created the very concept of the Dark Ages. Scholars assert that it was Petrarch who reversed the classic Christian metaphor of pagan darkness giving way to the Light of the World and eventually came to view his own time as a dark age following a lost golden antiquity. This reversed metaphor was picked up by medieval writers such as Giovanni Boccaccio, then again by anti-religious Enlightenment intellectuals such as Denis Diderot, Louis de Jaucourt, Voltaire, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who established the reversed tradition that persists today.

Theodore Mommsen, whose essay on Petrarch was recently selected as one of the thirteen most important critical essays on the Italian Renaissance, makes a convincing case of how it was Petrarch’s fixation on Rome’s past glories and his awe of its grandiose ruins that led him to conclude, mostly on the basis of his nationalistic contempt for Germanic domination of what had once been an Italian empire, that he lived in an age of tenebrae, or darkness:

 

From these passages it is clear that Petrarch discarded the whole history of the Roman Empire during late Antiquity and the Middle Ages because within that age, every where in the [W]estern world, had come into power “barbarous” nations which brought even Rome and the Romans under their domination. Because Petrarch could think of this whole development only with a feeling of scornful grief, he consistently consigned it to oblivion in all his writings. In his letters time and again he conjures up the great shades of Antiquity but scarcely ever does he refer to a mediaeval name.17

 

It is ironic that the lamentations of an Italian Christian for the lost greatness of his nation, a fate for which Christianity could not possibly bear any significant responsibility,18 should be so twisted as to take on an anti-Christian religious implication instead of the obvious anti-German nationalistic one. And while it is true that three of the barbarian kings who sacked Rome from 410 to 546 A.D. were Christians, it must be noted that not only had the empire already been divided by this time, but the capital of the Western Roman Empire had been moved first to Milan, then Ravenna, by the emperor Honorius.19
It is not within the scope of this book to consider why many Enlightenment intellectuals were opposed to Christianity in general and the Church in particular, it is enough to simply note that this was the case. In his Lectures on Modern European Intellectual History,20 the historian Stephen Kreis, author of The History Guide, summarizes the Enlightenment figures thusly:

 

In the final analysis, the philosophes differed widely. To speak of them as a movement is to label them a school of thought. However, what united them all was their common experience of shedding their inherited Christian beliefs with the aid of classical thinkers, specifically Roman, and for the sake of modern philosophy. They were agreed that Christianity was a supernatural religion. It was wrong. It was unreasonable. It was the infamous. Écrasez l’infâme! shouted Voltaire. “Wipe it out! Wipe out the infamous!” Only science, with its predictable results, was the way to truth, moral improvement and happiness.

 

This was particularly true of the French Encyclopédistes, and the influence of their landmark Encyclopédie21 paved the way for modern rationalism and the French Revolution, as well as firmly fixed the notion of the irrationality, superstition, and tyranny of the previous millennium in the public consciousness. By waging a fierce intellectual war against Religion in the name of Reason and by defining the two concepts in inherent opposition to each other, it was the philosophes who were responsible for weakening that pre-nineteenth-century social and judicial pressure to which Richard Dawkins referred.
It is fitting, therefore, that in his Petrarch essay Mommsen should make use of encyclopedia definitions from 1883 and 1929 to trace the evolution of the term “Dark Ages” from “a period of intellectual depression in the history of Europe from...the fifth century to the revival of learning about the beginning of the fifteenth” to “the contrast, once so fashionable, between the ages of darkness and the ages of light have no more truth in it than have the idealistic fancies which underlie attempts at mediaeval revivalism.”22 Although historians rejected this idea of intellectual depression and religious oppression more than seventy years ago, it is apparent that this rejection has not yet managed to dislodge the commonplace belief in the fundamental rivalry between Religion and Reason established nearly 300 years ago by the passionate rational materialists of the Enlightenment.

 

RESURRECTING THE MYTH

Thomas Riggins, in the Marxist journal Political Affairs, notes that many Enlightenment intellectuals were not opposed to religion in itself, but rather to religion being used by “dictatorial religious elements using religion for their own selfish purposes.” In a variant on this theme, I suggest that the New Atheists are not actually particularly interested in defending science in itself, but are deeply afraid of science reaching a friendly rapprochement with religion.

Since we have already established that the opposition of Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris to religion does not stem from any rational fears for science as a body of knowledge, a profession, or a process, and that there was no significant historical enmity between science and religion, it is apparent that the New Atheists’ stated desire to destroy religion must stem from another source. And given the way in which their opposition to religion so closely resembles that of their rationalist antecedents, it is reasonable to suggest that they are not so much interested in defending science as they are in advocating an outdated, nineteenth-century meme.

The evidence fits the hypothesis. As will be demonstrated subsequently in no little detail, Richard Dawkins’s grasp of history is not so much outdated as nonexistent. As for his adherence to the Enlightenment rather than science, he makes as many references to Denis Diderot in The God Delusion as he does to Sir Isaac Newton.23 But even if Dawkins can’t quite make up his mind as to the proper way to categorize the beliefs24 of the man he rightly describes as “the great encyclopedist of the Enlightenment,” there can be no question of his allegiance to Diderot’s ideals, as in 2006 he informed The Sunday Times that he was setting up a charity to “divert donations from the hands of ‘missionaries’ and church-based charities because ‘the enlightenment is under threat. So is reason. So is truth. So is science.’”25

Science, you’ll note, actually comes in fourth, not first as you might have erroneously guessed. Dawkins thus reveals that it is not science in itself that he is defending so vociferously, but rather his Enlightenment ideals. It appears to be the possibility of “the subversion of science” to serve the interests of Christian values instead of those of its nineteenth-century competitor that has stimulated him to such feverish activity. This may also explain why Dawkins is so strangely unconcerned with other religions, including Islam, which would otherwise appear to pose a far greater threat to both science and the West.

It is even easier to establish Daniel C. Dennett’s belief in precisely the same ideals, as Dennett not only directly equates science with the Enlightenment,26 but also states that his “view of science is very much an enlightenment view.”27 And he sounds an unexpectedly Petrarchian strain by referring to the Enlightenment as a ruined antiquity, to which he has dedicated himself to rebuilding:

 

Several hundred years ago at the triumph of the Enlightenment, which you and I both admire and wish to restore, many wise, well-informed people were very sure that now that we had science and enlightenment upon us, religion would soon die out. They were colossally wrong.28

 

It is important to note Dennett’s distinction between science “and” enlightenment; while the two are allies, they are manifestly not one and the same. And one very much hopes that when Dennett speaks of wishing to restore 200-year-old triumphs, he is not referring to la Terreur.29
Sam Harris is known to be motivated by the same ideals as well, as Chris Lehman of Reason recognized30 when he noted Harris’s “litany of Enlightenment-era objections to medieval models of piety” in his review of The End of Faith. It must be confessed that Harris doesn’t refer directly to the Enlightenment himself in either of his books, but then, given his demonstration in them of his near-complete ignorance of religious, military, European, and world history, it is possible that he has never heard of Diderot, the Encyclopédistes, or the philosophes despite his regurgitation of their philosophy.
Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris, with academic credentials and standing as public intellectuals, represent the highest of the High Church atheists. But their dedication to science as a primary vehicle for their Enlightened faith is shared by even the humblest of the rationalists, as is their missionary zeal. Consider the way in which one unknown science blogger describes herself in vintage Petrarchian terms: “a self-proclaimed ‘atheistic evolutionist missionary’ who thinks of herself as a voice of rationality in a dark, gloomy world.”31 Dennett is far from the only one who considers the triumph of the Enlightenment to be far from complete.

Despite how it is commonly portrayed by the New Atheists, the rationalist war on religion cannot properly be described as a war between science and religion; it is more akin to a tug-of-war between rationalists and religionists over the way in which science is to be henceforth used and the purposes to which science is ultimately harnessed.

If religion and science were as fundamentally incompatible as the New Atheists assert, then it would seem more than a little strange that the magazine Nature, which bills itself as “the international weekly journal of science,” would concur with Science magazine in reporting that one of the places where science is growing fastest is Iran,32 a country not exactly famous for its militant atheism or general disdain for religion. The supposed incompatibility between religion and science can’t be all that great if it is necessary to threaten the Islamic Republic with air strikes and invasion in order to prevent its scientists from performing research in unapproved areas.

And while it is indisputable that there are fewer scientists today who are openly religious than there were 200 years ago, they do exist. Dawkins admits the fact, but deals with this dichotomy by suspecting “that most of the more recent ones are religious only in the Einsteinian sense,” before pronouncing himself baffled by the genuine religious faith on the part of those individuals with whom he has had personal contact. I suggest that it would be more rational for Dawkins to assume that scientists who dare to openly assert their faith today are most likely religious in the conventional sense of the word, particularly given the way they can expect to be viewed with “baffled amusement” by their colleagues. It’s worth noting that this supposition would also have the benefit of being supported rather than contradicted by Dawkins’s own anecdotal experience.

Despite this decrease in the number of religious scientists over the last two centuries, the great crime of Christianity against science is still generally considered to have been the Catholic Church putting Galileo Galilei, the father of modern physics, on trial for heresy. It is usually forgotten, however, that the ban on publication of Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems was only nominal and that his Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences was published without incident in the Christian Netherlands in 1638, five years after the trial.33

It is particularly ironic, and perhaps even unfair, that Christians today are condemned for Pope Urban VIII’s belief in the geocentric system formulated by the pagan Greek astrologer, Ptolemy, while the heliocentric system that provides the basis for this condemnation is named for Nicolaus Copernicus, the Catholic cleric who formulated the modern heliocentric theory in On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres. Copernicus’s masterwork, which is considered to be a defining moment in the history of science, was published in 1543, a scant eighty-nine years before Galileo’s supposed overturning of geocentric Christian dogma. Furthermore, if one considers the fact that the Catholic Church reconsidered the issue and authorized the publication of Galileo’s works in 1741, it seems a bit obsessive to continue to hold the Pope’s abuse of his office against Southern Baptists and Methodists 375 years after the fact.

There is also genuine cause for doubting whether Enlightenment atheism and science can honestly be considered as fundamentally compatible as religion and science have been for centuries. It is worth noting that it was neither Christians nor Muslims but revolutionary atheists inspired by Enlightenment ideals who beheaded the man known today as the father of modern chemistry, Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier, in 1794, declaring “La République n’a pas besoin de savants ni de chimistes; le cours de la justice ne peut être suspendu.34

 

 

III – THE CASE AGAINST SCIENCE

Our technical advances in the art of war have finally rendered our religious differences—and hence our religious beliefs—antithetical to our survival. We can no longer ignore the fact that billions of our neighbors believe in the metaphysics of martyrdom, or in the literal truth of the book of Revelation, or any of the other fantastical notions that have lurked in the minds of the faithful for millennia—because our neighbors are now armed with chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. There is no doubt that these developments mark the terminal phase of our credulity. Words like “God” and “Allah” must go the way of “Apollo” and “Baal,” or they will unmake our world.

 —SAM HARRIS, The End of Faith

 

AS RICHARD DAWKINS DEMONSTRATES, in his ode to science, Unweaving the Rainbow, the New Atheists harbor nearly as great a love for science as they do a hatred for religion. Like the science fetishists who regard science as a basis for dictating human behavior, atheists like to posit that Man has evolved to a point where he is ready to move beyond religion. This has been their constant theme for more than 100 years, but as Daniel C. Dennett points out, the evidence is mounting that this simply isn’t going to happen. A more interesting and arguably more relevant question that none of the New Atheists dare to ask is whether science, having produced some genuinely positive results as well as some truly nightmarish evils over the course of the last century, has outlived its usefulness to Mankind. Man has survived millennia of religious faith, but if the prophets of over-population and global warming are correct, he may not survive a mere four centuries of science.

In spite of his scientific pretensions, Sam Harris is a mere science fetishist.1 His book, The End of Faith, is a profoundly non-scientific expression of hope wrapped up in an emotional plea. This is why many militant atheists find it so stirring and why more rational nonbelievers find it uncompelling. It is not, as some optimistic infidels would have it, a prediction, much less a coherent case leading to a logical conclusion—it’s just another expression of faith in Enlightenment utopianism. And as Harris’s brave words about an absence of doubt indicate, it is an expression of surprisingly blind faith, lacking both common sense and evidence.

The five major religions of the world, in order of their appearance on the scene, are Hinduism, traditional Chinese folk religion, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. These five religions have approximately 4.85 billion adherents, representing an estimated 71.3 percent of the world’s population in 2007, and they have been around for a collective 11,600 years. During the vast majority of those 116 centuries, the world has not been in any danger of extinction from weapons of any kind, nor has the human race been in serious danger of dying out from pollution, global warming, overpopulation, or anything else. Despite 116 centuries filled with hundreds, if not thousands, of diverse religions, all competing for mindshare, resources, and dominance, the species has not merely survived, it has thrived.

There is no aspect of Hindu teaching that has produced a means of potentially extinguishing Mankind. The occasional eleventh-century rampages by the Sohei of Mount Hiei2 notwithstanding, Buddhism provides no method of destroying the planet, while Christians have been waiting patiently for the world to end for nearly 2,000 years now without doing much to immanentize the eschaton except for occasionally footing the bill for Jews making aliyah.3 Islam, for all the danger it supposedly presents, has not produced a significant military technology since Damascene steel was developed in the twelfth century and even that is of nebulous connection to the religion itself.
Modern science has only been around for the last 350 years, if we date the scientific method back to the man known as the Father of Science, Galileo Galilei. One could push that date back considerably, if one wished, to Aristotle and Archimedes, or forward to Newton and the Age of Enlightenment, but regardless, the dire threat to Mankind described by Harris only dates back to the middle of the twentieth century. In the last sixty years, science has produced a veritable witches’ brew of potential dangers to the human race, ranging from atom-shattering explosive devices to lethal genetic modifications, designer diseases, large quantities of radioactive waste and even, supposedly, the accidental production of mini black holes and strangelets through particle collider experiments.4

So, in only 3 percent of the time that religion has been on the scene, science has managed to produce multiple threats to continued human existence. Moreover, the quantity and lethal quality of those threats appear to be accelerating, as the bulk of them have appeared in the most recent sixth of the scientific era. It is not the purpose of this chapter to examine whether religion exacerbates or alleviates these scientific threats—that appraisal must wait for a later chapter. Harris’s extinction equation, which states that Science + Faith = Extinction, is not inherently wrong. But his conclusion is wrong, because it is Science, not Faith, that is the factor in the equation that presents a deadly danger to Mankind.

This is true of both the military and non-military threats to humanity. While the jury is still out on the precise nature of the threat caused by global warming,5 there can be no doubt that the scientific method is at least in part responsible for it, along with the threats supposedly posed by overpopulation, pollution, and genetic engineering. Religion simply cannot be held accountable for any of those things, not even overpopulation.6 What could be more absurd than to claim that the Bahá’í are in some way responsible for any damage to humanity caused by CERN’s Large Hadron Collider? Not even the most militant New Atheist would dare to set himself up for public ridicule that way. And yet, making religious faith the significant variable in the Extinction Equation is no less ludicrous.
However, the guilt of scientody does not mean that the profession of science can be held entirely blameless. The fact that it was the method that made the development of these threats possible does not indicate that their development via the method was inevitable. It was scientists who freely made the choice to develop these theories and, in many cases, the weapons, sometimes in innocence, like Alfred Nobel7 being stunned to learn that his blasting cap and smokeless explosives would cause him to be remembered as “the merchant of death,” and sometimes in full cognizance of their moral culpability, as in the case of Albert Einstein’s8 1939 letter to President Roosevelt written in the hopes of encouraging F.D.R. to build an atomic bomb.

It is not the combination of religion and science, then, but rather the combination of scientists and the scientific method that has created this panoply of mortal dangers to Mankind.

 

THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE SCIENTIFIC

Questioning science in this manner invariably leads to one of five responses,9 often rather heated.

 

1) The first response is an ad hominem one insisting the individual is only questioning the inherent munificence of science because he is stupid, anti-science, or incapable of understanding science. Like most ad hominem responses, this one is invalid because it doesn’t even begin to dispute the issues raised. Neither the level of my intelligence nor my personal opinion about science is a factor in the question of whether some aspect of science is responsible for posing a threat to humanity. One need not understand a human being or the operation of the human body to comprehend that a particular individual is guilty of committing murder after witnessing the act.

2) The second response is to wonder how it is possible to live in the modern world, make use of modern technology, and still harbor any doubts that the benefits of science are worth whatever their costs might happen to be. After all, we have electricity, computers, television, X-rays, automobiles, antibiotics, vaccines, and many other valuable things thanks to science. Science has increased our lifespan, it has significantly increased the average individual’s chance of surviving childbirth and childhood, and it has made those longer lives considerably more comfortable.

I do not dispute any of this. But I do note that this is a fundamentally illogical response, since if humanity is in danger of being wiped out by the weapons that science has also produced, then there will not be anyone to continue enjoying those scientific benefits. It does not matter how many wonderful contributions to humanity have been produced thanks to science, because wiping them all out is the equivalent of multiplying their sum by zero. One could certainly argue that the threat to humanity from science is not really all that dire, but then it would be necessary to admit that religious faith poses no threat to humanity, either, thus demonstrating Harris’s thesis to be entirely bankrupt.

3) The third is to argue that science cannot be held responsible for the evils it enables because to do so is to confuse facilitation with prescription. It is claimed that although science made the atomic bomb possible and scientists designed, tested, and built the bombs, it does not follow that science is responsible for the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A variant on this is to argue that because the evils are not performed specifically “in the name of science” or in the interest of a scientific agenda, they cannot be blamed on science.

There are three errors inherent in this third response. The first is that causal factors do not depend upon motive. No reasonable individual would accept the argument that cigarettes don’t cause lung cancer because no one smokes “in the name of Marlboro” or in the interest of a cigarette agenda. The distinction between motive and method may be significant in a court of law, but is largely irrelevant when considering if a particular problem exists and how it can be best resolved.

The second error is that the presence of the danger is solely due to the existence of these dangerous weapons and technologies; while blame for any decision to actually use them should rightly fall upon the various politicians and government leaders who make those decisions based on a variety of reasons, blame for their existence can only lie with their creators.

The third error is that numerous evils have historically been committed, justified, and utilized by scientists “in the name of science,” as demonstrated by the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiments, the attempts of hypothermia researchers at the University of Minnesota and Victory University to use Nazi data obtained at Dachau, and the Atlas of Topographical and Applied Human Anatomy, which was produced with the bodies of 1,377 executed criminals sent to Professor Eduard Pernkopf at the University of Vienna by the Gestapo.10 Although the defenders of science inevitably claim that unpleasantries such as Nazi science, racist science, and the 64,000 forced sterilizations done at the behest of American eugenicists should not be blamed on science because it is today considered “bad science,” it is worth noting that religious individuals who commit acts in complete contradiction of their religious tenets are never absolved of responsibility for their crimes on the basis of their “bad theology.” The fact that Richard Dawkins and other atheists have publicly called to reconsider the legitimacy of eugenics also serves to demonstrate that the historical evils of eugenics are properly blamed on science and scientists.

4) The fourth response is to claim that it is unfair to blame science for the actions of some scientists. Of course, it must then be equally unfair to blame religion for the action of some religious individuals. And it is spectacularly unfair to blame the adherents of one religion for the actions of a completely different religion, especially when those adherents are being actively persecuted by the members of that other religion. It is wildly irrational to argue that a religious moderate is somehow responsible for the actions of religious extremists he does not know and has never met, but that one scientist cannot be blamed for the actions of another scientist, not even one who belongs to the same professional organization or university and with whom he presumably has some influence. Also, one must always be careful to distinguish between the three aspects of science. Whether one is holding a particular scientist or the scientific method itself accountable for a particular scientific misdeed, this does not necessarily impute any blame to other scientists.

5) The fifth and final response is to declare that knowledge, regardless of its risks, is always better than ignorance. As Dr. P. Z. Myers puts it: “That’s a deeply cynical view that Day has—that ignorance is better than knowledge, because awareness hurts and technological progress brings great risks. I guess I must be more optimistic than a weird Christian nihilist, because I think it’s better to aspire to a better world than to give up and slide back into some benighted religious illusion.”

But I am not arguing that ignorance is better than knowledge, I am merely pointing out that the evidence suggests that in some circumstances, ignorance may be preferable to knowledge, especially partial knowledge imperfectly understood and enthusiastically embraced too soon. I’m not eager to return humanity to a Stone Age state—an ironic accusation given Albert Einstein’s assertion that the Fourth World War would be fought with stones and clubs, thanks in part to his scientific legacy—I am actually a classic early adopter.11 But just as it is now considered bad science, if not an atrocity, to have sterilized thousands of American citizens against their will, it is not hard to imagine that there is likely a non-zero amount of scientific activity today that will be considered equally mistaken, perhaps even equally atrocious, in the future.

Only a complete fool would argue that all risks are inherently worth taking, or that all knowledge is inherently worth pursuing. Is the mapping of the human genome worth risking the possibility that some individuals will be denied insurance for diseases they are genetically bound to develop? I think so. Is it worth risking the development of genetic weapons coded to kill all individuals possessing a certain genetic marker? I’m not so sure about that, and there is certainly a case to be made that it isn’t, especially by those who happen to belong to a group likely to be targeted by such an insidious invention. The argument that all risks are worth taking and all knowledge is worth pursuing is not only foolish, it is an argument that is based on neither evidence nor reason, only blind secular faith. Technological progress offers no guarantees of a better world, no matter how strong one’s optimistic aspirations or beliefs in Man’s inevitable progress toward a self-made paradise on Earth might be.

As for the better world of today, there are three obvious flaws in the assumptions that credit all of it to science. The first is the impact of science on human life expectancy.12 Life in the pre-scientific era was not always as short as we commonly imagine it to have been. While life expectancy has risen dramatically in the last century, from forty-seven to seventy-seven in the United States, for the first two-thirds of the scientific era, life expectancy was comparable to that of ancient Rome for those who were not slaves.13 Anyone familiar with Roman history is well aware that the average life expectancy of twenty-eight years that is commonly cited is misleading; the comparison of life expectancies between one society that practices population control through infanticide, which is factored into the mortality rates, and one that practices it through abortion, which is not, is not a reasonable one.14 And since both infanticide and slavery were ended by predominantly Christian imperatives, it is improper to inherently credit all evidence of longer human lifespans to science.
The second flaw is that advocates for science in all its aspects habitually make use of a different measure depending on whether they wish to credit science for a technological innovation or to deflect blame from it. Consider the previous reference to vaccinations, for example. While vaccines, like massive ordnance air blast bombs, were discovered and developed by scientists making use of the scientific method, scientists no more provide shots to children than they drop bombs on unsuspecting civilian populations.15 Politicians make the decisions regarding the way vaccines are to be funded and used while doctors and nurses administer them, just as politicians decide if bombs are to be utilized and air force pilots deliver them to their targets. One can either argue that science is responsible in both cases based on the involvement of scientage and scientody or that science is not responsible in either case based on the absence of scientistry, but what one cannot logically do is to conclude that science is responsible in the one case and not the other.
The third flaw is that capitalism and individual freedom arguably play a greater role in technological advancement than all three aspects of science combined. Despite devoting double the percentage of its national expenditures to science than did the United States or any other country in the West,16 the technologically retarded state of the scientifically enamored17 former Soviet Union demonstrates that the link between science and technological progress is far more tenuous than is usually considered to be the case.

Because there is no hard line between pure science and applied science aside from the professional distinction between the research scientist and the applications development engineer, it can be difficult to ascertain precisely what responsibility should be assigned to science and the scientist for any given technological innovation. This is especially true when one takes into account the major role that economics and entrepreneurialism also play in technological development; the most prolific and successful inventors are seldom scientists and often are not even engineers. Regardless, it is important to keep in mind that whatever amount of responsibility deserves to be assigned to science, it applies to innovations that are harmful to humanity as well as those that are beneficial.

Two famous scientific Richards are in accord on this subject:

 

It is that scientific knowledge enables us to do all kinds of things and to make all kinds of things. Of course if we make good things, it is not only to the credit of science; it is also to the credit of the moral choice which led us to good work. Scientific knowledge is an enabling power to do either good or bad—but it does not carry instructions on how to use it.

           —RICHARD FEYNMAN

 

People certainly blame science for nuclear weapons and similar horrors. It’s been said before but needs to be said again: if you want to do evil, science provides the most powerful weapons to do evil; but equally, if you want to do good, science puts into your hands the most powerful tools to do so. The trick is to want the right things, then science will provide you with the most effective methods of achieving them.18

         —RICHARD DAWKINS

 

THE PHONY WAR: SCIENCE VERSUS RELIGION

The Party cannot be neutral toward Religion because Religion is something opposite to Science.

 —JOSEPH STALIN

 

When considering the suggested conflict between science and religion, the first and most important question is: Which science? In the previous chapter, a distinction was made between three aspects of science: scientage, scientistry, and scientody. Of those three aspects, which one can be most reasonably said to pose the greatest threat to humanity? And the second question is, if one or more aspects of science do pose a genuine danger to Mankind, then what should we do about it?

These questions are not rhetorical, even though they may strike the reader as being more outlandish than the calls for an end to faith to which this book is a response. If one troubles to consider the situation through the broad lens of history, two facts immediately become apparent:

 

  There are a lot more religious people than scientists.

  Religion has never been stamped out anywhere despite a number of vigorous efforts that lasted for decades. Science and technological development, on the other hand, have been successfully brought to a halt on several occasions in the past.

 

Science is not inevitable. Japan was closed to outside contact from 1639 to 1853, and although the Edo Shogunate kept its eye on developments in rangaku, or “Dutch learning,” through the international trade permitted at a single port located near Nagasaki, Japanese society did not suffer greatly from its relative backwardness. It certainly suffered far more from its subsequent post-Meiji attempts to catch up to the West, which ended in the second atomic bomb being dropped, ironically enough, on Nagasaki. China, too, successfully arrested its scientific advancement around 1450, transforming itself from the world leader into a distinctly backward nation over a period of 500 years.19 In short, the end of science is a much more practical goal for humanity than the end of faith.

I hope the reader will note that this book is not named The End of Science for a very good reason; I am not anti-science or even anti-scientist, nor am I arguing that the elimination of all science is a moral imperative for humanity. I am merely following the logic of Sam Harris’s extinction equation to its proper logical conclusion, which is that if the world truly is in imminent danger, the only reasonable answer is for humanity to put an end to science.

But which science? While the body of knowledge certainly contains the danger, since atoms are not given to accidentally colliding and it is difficult to smash one without knowing exactly how to do it, the mere knowledge cannot be said to be the cause of the danger. Scientage in itself is static—it is its relationship with scientody and scientists that makes it dynamic. Knowledge does not give birth to itself. Athena may have appeared on the scene fully armored, but she still had to spring from the brow of Zeus.

The method of science, on the other hand, is directly tied to both the theoretical basis for the threats to Mankind as well as the specific applications of the various scientific theories required to develop them into lethal weapons. Hypothesis, experiment, and observation all play integral parts in both the research and engineering aspects of the weapons development process. Without scientody, these threats to the human race simply would not exist; there is a direct causal relationship between the scientific method and the existence of those things that are, in Harris’s words, “antithetical to our survival.”

But not all the New Atheists are convinced of an immediate danger to Mankind and they don’t even present an entirely united front regarding the inherent opposition of religion and science. It is interesting to note that it is the least scientific individual who is the most certain that the two are bound to eternal conflict. Christopher Hitchens asserts that “all attempts to reconcile faith with science and reason are consigned to failure and ridicule.”20 Sam Harris has created the aforementioned extinction equation, of course, and adds that “the maintenance of religious dogma always comes at the expense of science.”21 Richard Dawkins is more temperate, but nevertheless admits that he is hostile to religion because “it actively debauches the scientific enterprise...subverts science and saps the intellect.”22 It is only the philosopher, Daniel Dennett, who argues that the two can conceivably coexist, which is the basis for his call to make “a concerned effort to achieve a mutual agreement under which religion— all religion—becomes a proper object of scientific study.”

What is curious, however, is that once again the primary atheist argument presented is an unscientific and epistemological one that fails to provide any relevant evidence in support of the assertion. I found this curious, as surely this bitter centuries-old conflict must have left some recent signs of the vicious hostilities between the two warring camps. And yet, when I contemplated the matter, it occurred to me that the three most often cited crimes of religion against science are the Catholic Church’s persecution of Galileo, the occasional school board battle over teaching evolution in the public schools, and the Christian opposition to the federal funding of research using stem cells taken from human embryos. As one might expect, all three of these issues are brought up in one of the New Atheist books.

And yet, these are not serious issues. Taken in their entirety, they barely amount to mild smack-talk between unarmed border guards from two neighboring countries caught up in a dispute over agricultural subsidies. To argue that these three things are in any way indicative of an implacable and incorrigible hostility is obviously absurd. Galileo was not attacked because he defended the Copernican theory that had been published eighty years before, but because he was foolish enough to both disobey and publicly caricature his former supporter, Pope Urban VIII, in a book that had been granted both papal permission and Inquisitorial authorization. Evolutionary theory is not only taught in the public schools, its teaching is largely unquestioned and unchallenged, a few high-profile cases of stickers on textbooks notwithstanding.

As for the stem cell controversy, it is looking increasingly likely as if there simply isn’t one. Opposition to federal funding is not inherently religious, moreover, federal funding is not science and should never be confused with it. Unless scientists are being jailed and put on trial by church authorities for pursuing this morally suspect research, it is a huge exaggeration to claim that the controversy is an example of religion inhibiting science in any way. However desirable it may be, science has no inherent right to the public purse.

More importantly, after a decade of stem cell research, no scientist has successfully created a stem cell line using cloned human embryos.23 But a Japanese researcher at Kyoto University, Shinya Yamanaka, has recently declared that neither human eggs nor human embryos are necessary, since his team has learned how to modify skin cells so that they can be transformed into any type of cell, thus creating a functional technique that provides an easier means of obtaining genetic matches and has the benefit of not engendering either ethical or religious opposition.24 If this Japanese technique proves successful in humans, one can’t help but wonder if the next edition of Letter to a Christian Nation will omit the five-page screed—one-eighteenth of the entire book—hysterically condemning American Christians for their “obscene” opposition to the unnecessary destruction of unborn human children. Harris certainly might wish to revisit his declaration that resistance to embryonic stem cell research is uninformed; it looks as if science would have been poorly served if the Kyoto researchers had accepted the “fact” about the necessity of destroying three-day-old human embryos.25
This hoisting of Harris on his own scientific petard tends to highlight the problem of placing too much trust in science, given the constantly changing nature of the body of knowledge.26 But stem cells are only a single issue, and since it seemed possible that I might have missed a skirmish or two in this ongoing intellectual struggle, I posed the question of what tangible sins Christianity had committed against science to the readers of my blog,27 and, arguably more usefully, to the readers of the hitherto mentioned science blog Pharyngula. This was the most comprehensive list,28 which covered pretty much everything brought up by anyone else:

 

1. Galileo’s trial. (1633 A.D.)

2. The demonization of mathematics during the Dark Ages. (476 to 1000 A.D.)

3. The persecution of alchemists during the Middle Ages. (476 to 1485 A.D.)

4. The execution of Michael Servetus. (1553 A.D.)

5. Opposition to the theory of evolution.

6. The destruction of libraries and the burning of books during the fourth and fifth centuries.

7. The ban on the works of René Descartes. (1663 A.D.)

8. The imprisonment of Roger Bacon. (1277 A.D.)

9. The condemnation of Francis Bacon.29 (1621 A.D.)

10. The destruction of Islamic manuscripts by Cardinal Ximenes. (1499 A.D.)

11. The execution of Giordano Bruno. (1600 A.D.)

12. The execution of Lucilio Vanini. (1619 A.D.)

13. The murder of Hypatia. (415 A.D.)

14. The recantation of the Comte de Buffon. (1753 A.D.)30

15. St. Paul’s rants against the “wisdom of the wise” in Corinthians. (First century A.D.)

16. The Byzantine emperor Justinian’s closing of Plato’s Academy in Athens.31 (529 A.D.)

17. The ecclesiastical monopoly upon lay education.

18. Martin Luther’s attacks upon reason. (1517 A.D.)

19. Rejection of modern medicine by the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other sects.

20. The excommunication of Johannes Kepler by the Catholic Church. (1612 A.D.)

 

Now, one can’t help but note that the most recent of these terrible sins against science took place more than 250 years ago, in 1753, except for the three that still apply today. This is not evidence of an ongoing war, it is merely a collection of historical grudges, most of them remarkably petty. By this standard, Christians would be justified in continuing to hold the Jews liable for the historical crime of murdering their Lord and Savior.32 Furthermore, five of these seven individual victims of Christian persecution were themselves Christians. No wonder the Unholy Trinity found it difficult to come up with anything more specific than the spurious example of stem cell research.
The idea that religion is the enemy of science is a remarkably silly one when examined in scientific terms. Consider that Christian nation and the hostility to science that it supposedly harbors due to its extraordinary religiosity. And yet the United States of America accounts for more than one-third of the global scientific output despite representing only 4.5 percent of the global population. The scientific overperformance of religious America is a factor of 7.89, representing 28.7 percent more scientific output per capita than the most atheistic nation in Europe, France.33

Ironically, it is easy to provide an example of scientistry sinning against both the scientific method and the body of knowledge much more recent than most of religion’s supposed crimes. For example, Ernest Duchesne was a French military doctor who discovered the medical benefits of mold and submitted his doctoral thesis showing the result of his experiments with the therapeutic qualities of bacteria-killing molds to the Institut Pasteur, which ignored it because he was only twenty-three and had no standing in the scientific community. It would take another thirty-two years before Alexander Fleming discovered the antibiotic qualities of penicillin. As historian Daniel Boorstin notes in Cleopatra’s Nose, the chief lesson of the history of science is that it is not ignorance that menaces scientific advancement, but rather the illusion of knowledge.

While the scientific method may lead invariably to a more accurate understanding of the material world, the same is not true of the scientists who pursue it. The profession of science is growing increasingly authoritarian and political, as can be seen by the treatment of those who fail to fall in line with the scientific consensus on subjects where the evidence is far from settled, such as global warming. This poses a real danger to the credibility of all three aspects of science, which is particularly ill-timed in light of the very real danger that science presently poses to humanity. After all, it would be far easier to eliminate a few hundred thousand scientists, even a few million scientists, than 4.85 billion religious adherents.

Religion does not threaten science so much as science threatens itself. By combining increasingly authoritarian arrogance with an encroachment upon intellectual spheres they are manifestly unprepared to invade, scientists and their thoughtless science fetishist followers risk starting a genuine war they cannot possibly hope to win.

 

 

IV – THE RELIGION OF REASON

 

Reason has always existed, but not always in a reasonable form.1

 —KARL MARX

 

ATHEISTS OFTEN EXPRESS ANGER and bewilderment at the low esteem in which they are collectively held by the rest of the world. This is a matter of particular frustration for the New Atheists, as they lament the Gallup poll2 in which it was determined that Americans would rather vote for a toothless, illiterate, homosexual Afro-Hispanic crack whore with a peg leg than a well-qualified atheist with executive hair. That’s a slight exaggeration, perhaps, but it is interesting to note that three years after the publication of the first New Atheist screed, the expressed willingness of Americans to vote for an atheist has declined considerably.3

And yet, a strong majority of those same respondents, 68 percent, believe it is possible for someone to be a moral person and an atheist. At first glance, this might appear to be an irrational dichotomy, but upon reflection it makes sense. Politicians are not ordinary people, they are extraordinarily ambitious individuals who possess an active desire to seek power over the lives of others. Think about how obnoxious the kids who ran for student council president at your school were—that’s the larval form of the national politician. Most Americans wisely distrust politicians on principle; after all, the country was founded upon the basic principle of limiting the power of those who have been successful in obtaining office.

Regardless of what one thinks of a politician’s religion, the mere fact that he has one offers the voter essential information about where his moral and ethical lines are theoretically drawn. This doesn’t mean that he is actually bound by them in any way, but at least the voter has some idea of where his limits should be. The voter has only to call upon his personal knowledge of the religion’s tenets, to read the religion’s holy book, or to ask an acquaintance who happens to share the politician’s faith to obtain a basic understanding of what the religious politician’s ideas of right and wrong are and what policies he is likely to pursue.

In the case of the atheist politician, however, the voter not only has no information, he has no easy means of obtaining that information. As I pointed out in the first chapter, it is atheists who are quick to assure us that there are absolutely no similarities between atheists, that the mere absence of god-belief in an individual is not information from which any reasonable inferences can be drawn. This is an erroneous assertion, as there is no shortage of evidence to the contrary, but there is a grain of truth to it that applies in this situation.

Anyone can behave according to any moral system without needing to subscribe to the beliefs from which that system is derived. One doesn’t have to be an Orthodox Jew to keep kosher, just as one doesn’t need to be a Christian to believe that committing adultery is wrong. Most atheists abide by the morality of the culture that they inhabit, not because they have taken the effort to reason from first principles and miraculously reached conclusions that bear a remarkable similarity to the moral system of those around them, but because lacking any moral system of their own, they parasitically latch on to the system of their societal host.

That’s a negative way of describing what is essentially a good thing, and it’s why atheists in Christian cultures behave according to an individual morality that has more in common with the surrounding Christians than with Hindu atheists or Islamic atheists with whom they theoretically have more in common. In practice, this tends to work out as the dominant local moral system minus the proscribed behavior in which the individual really wants to engage, which is usually something involving sex or money. But this positive moral parasitism can never be confused with the possession of an independent system of morality,4 so the problem is that a voter has no idea which specific aspects of the dominant moral system have been rejected by the atheist politician.
While the atheist next door is likely to limit his rejection to the specific aspects that proscribe premarital fornication or gluttony and indulge himself in the sort of everyday moral failure to which even the most devout Christians are susceptible, history demonstrates that the ambitious atheist who seeks political power is significantly more likely to reject the moral proscription on things such as slaughtering large numbers of people who stand in the way of establishing a godless utopia.5 The peg-legged crack whore, on the other hand, only wants to shift agricultural subsidies from cereal crops to coca plants and poppies and install disco balls in the White House.6 This is why the philosopher John Locke reached the conclusion that atheists could be tolerated in civil society, so long as they were not permitted to hold positions of political authority. Locke, who died in 1704, never lived to see just how astute his observation was; tens of millions of lives in dozens of nations would have been saved had his wisdom been heeded.7

 

Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all; besides also, those that by their atheism undermine and destroy all religion, can have no pretence of religion whereupon to challenge the privilege of a toleration. As for other practical opinions, though not absolutely free from all error, yet if they do not tend to establish domination over others, or civil impunity to the church in which they are taught, there can be no reason why they should not be tolerated.

 —JOHN LOCKE, “Letter Concerning Toleration,” 1689

 

So, while atheists indubitably possess morals, it is the inability to know which specific morals they personally subscribe to and which they reject that renders them rightly suspect. The problem is rooted in the fact that no atheist possesses a universally applicable morality, since one cannot be derived from either his atheism or from science. However, this does not mean that the New Atheists do not subscribe to a specific moral system that makes the same sort of universal claims as the moralities derived from religion, for they do, and it is not a new morality, but one that has been around for centuries.

 

LEIBNIZIANS AND NEWTONIANS

You are saying it should be the goal of all Natural Philosophers to restore peace and harmony to the world of men. This I cannot dispute.

 —NEAL STEPHENSON, Quicksilver

 

It was this quote from Quicksilver, the first novel in Neal Stephenson’s excellent Baroque Cycle, that caused me to contemplate the way in which the clash between the New Atheists and evangelical Christians can be usefully viewed as a continuation of the fundamental dichotomy between the worldviews of Gottfried Leibniz and Sir Isaac Newton as described by Stephenson.8 The most important difference between the two geniuses was not the theoretical basis of one’s calculus and the geometric basis of the other’s, but rather Leibniz’s belief in the secular improvability of Man and Newton’s skepticism regarding the same. It’s interesting to note that this basic difference may have even informed their different approaches to developing the calculus, as Newton’s approach, like the Christian’s view of Man, is a combination of religious faith and empirical observation, whereas both the Leibnizian and New Atheist9 approaches are primarily based on reason. The fictional Leibniz saw Natural Philosophy as having a practical moral application. All the disgusting dog-torturing and corpse-carving in which the Natural Philosophers engaged was seen as being ultimately justified in order to bring about world peace through human means. The fictional Newton, on the other hand, saw Natural Philosophy primarily as a means of discovering the mechanics of God’s Creation, hence his eventual loss of interest in it and subsequent turn to alchemy as a means of seeking an essence that transcends the material.
The New Atheists are Leibnizians, not literally, because Stephenson’s Leibniz character sees no conflict between his Natural Philosophy and his belief in God,10 but in an analogical sense. Based solely on their theoretical reasoning, the New Atheists declare that it should be the goal of all scientists, indeed, all rational thinkers, to bring peace and harmony to the world of men. They don’t declare this in a succinct or straightforward manner, they don’t even lay out their case in a coherent manner, but this is the only conclusion that can rationally be derived from their cumulative premises, logic, and stated goals. It is unclear why none of them are able to come out and state this clearly, but there are a number of possible explanations.
The first is a question of intellectual competence. They simply may not understand the correct way to articulate their argument. This is entirely possible with Harris and Hitchens, who are impressively incoherent thinkers at the best of times, but it isn’t credible in the case of Dawkins or Dennett. Dawkins, at least, clearly understands the difference between his enthusiasm for science and his advocacy of an alternative secular morality,11 even if he does not provide a concise description of precisely what that morality is or the basis of its claim on anyone’s behavior.

The second possibility is that they genuinely believe science leads ineluctably toward certain moral conclusions. Although the careless reader could be convinced of this by a judicious selection of quotes, both Dawkins and Dennett specifically deny this to be possible and even Harris only dares to base his moral appeals on reason, not science. Hitchens, meanwhile, is almost completely indifferent to getting either the science or the theology straight. (He’s just a journalist after all—he’s not expected to make sense.)

The third and most likely explanation is that the New Atheists are pulling a deceptive bait-and-switch for marketing purposes. All four authors state outright that their books are works of atheistic evangelism, meant to either convince the Low Church atheist to publicly identify with the High Church or to convert a theistic reader by destroying his faith. Three of the four books are marketed as quasi-scientific works and are filled with a panoply of references to science and concepts that sound vaguely scientific, although Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell is the only one that actually utilizes a recognizably scientific approach or makes any use of the scientific method; unsurprisingly, Dennett is also the only New Atheist who presents the reader with a reasonable hypothesis worthy of consideration instead of a philosophical conclusion meant to be accepted at face value.

The division between science12 and the moral and philosophical purposes toward which scientists ultimately direct the scientific method was always inevitable. Richard Feynman understood this, pointing out that scientific knowledge provides the ability to do good or evil, and that using it to do good is not only to the credit of science, but to the credit of the moral choice that led to the good work as well. And like Daniel Dennett, Feynman regretted that Man’s accomplishments had fallen far short of what had been believed possible at the beginning of the Age of Reason.

 

Why can’t we conquer ourselves? Because we find that even great forces and abilities do not seem to carry with them clear instructions on how to use them. As an example, the great accumulation of understanding as to how the physical world behaves only convinces one that this behavior seems to have a kind of meaninglessness. The sciences do not directly teach good or bad.

 —RICHARD FEYNMAN

 

But Feynman’s response to this division was a commendably scientific one that is profoundly different from the moral philosophy advocated by Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens. Feynman believed that it was the responsibility of scientists to proclaim the value of intellectual freedom, to support open discussion and criticism, and to welcome doubt, not suppress it. He declared that demanding this freedom for all future generations was a fundamental scientific duty.13 He was far more dedicated to protecting science as an effective means than he was to using it to advocate any specific ends.
The New Atheists harbor no similar dedication to open discussion, let alone criticism. To them, science is but a means to a specific end, something to be prostituted in order to sell the secularist Enlightenment morality that they see in competition with the Christian faith. Having already sold out science, they reject any sense of scientific responsibility and thus will tolerate no skepticism, let alone outright opposition. Dawkins is the worst offender—his prickly reaction to criticism is not to address it, not to discuss it, but to disdainfully dismiss it, unread. When Douglas Wilson14 published his response to Letter to a Christian Nation, Dawkins lost no time in labeling him “Sam’s Flea.” According to Dawkins, arguably the most visible representative of science today, any published criticism of him and his fellow militants can only be driven by the desire for book sales.15

Feynman wept.

The key to understanding the New Atheism is that it is not based on science. The New Atheists have no commitment to scientage or scientody when either aspect of science happens to stand in the way of the secular morality they are selling with a scientific sheen. While their attacks are theoretically directed against all religions, they betray their focus for the main object of their hatred in both their language and the examples they choose. For all that he was supposedly inspired to write The End of Faith by the jihadist 9/11 attacks, Sam Harris will never write Letter to an Islamic Nation and Christopher Hitchens expends more of his bilious vitriol on one dead Catholic nun than he does attacking the entire Hindu pantheon worshipped by one billion individuals around the world.

So what, specifically, is this morality? Because it is never described in its entirety, it is necessary for us to piece it together from the hints sprinkled throughout the atheist canon. We know that Christianity stands in its way, courtesy of Bertrand Russell, who declares that the Christian religion is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world. And we know that it is in opposition to even the most moderate forms of religious faith, thanks to Sam Harris.

 

My biggest criticism of religious moderation . . . is that it represents precisely the sort of thinking that will prevent a fully reasonable and nondenominational spirituality from ever emerging in our world.16

 

However, Harris never gets around to describing his proposed morality due to a tendency to meander into oxymoronic discussions of his New Age, neo-Buddhist rational spirituality. For a system of morals and ethics, Harris offers nothing more concrete than half-baked utilitarianism in declaring that morality is merely a recipe for maximizing happiness and minimizing suffering.17 Hitchens is a bit more helpful, as god is not Great builds up to a final chapter that informs us that there is a definite need for a New Enlightenment, and in the process asserts that the following things are positively immoral: presenting a false picture of the world to the innocent and credulous,18 the doctrine of blood sacrifice, the doctrine of atonement, the doctrine of eternal reward or punishment, and the imposition of impossible tasks. Other moral evils that go beyond this list of doctrinal thought crimes include frightening children, exploitation, suicide bombings, opposition to birth control, circumcision (male and female), banning and censoring books, and silencing dissenters.
Regarding the basic moral structure of this new and shinier Enlightenment, Hitchens is, like Marx describing the long-awaited Worker’s Paradise, more than a little vague. After 282 pages of furious anti-religious foreplay, the climax is disappointing indeed, amounting to only a single paragraph of seven sentences.19 But we are informed that the New Enlightenment will be based on the idea that the proper study of Mankind is man and woman. Literature and poetry will replace sacred texts, and most importantly, the sexual life will be divorced from fear, disease, and tyranny, all on the sole condition “that we banish all religions from the discourse” by knowing “the enemy” and fighting it. Sadly, it appears there are no seventy-two virgins in store.

Despite his grand eloquence and enlightened posturing, Hitchens is almost indistinguishable from a conventional Low Church atheist, who is content to dwell as a moral parasite on traditional Christian morality except when he wants to get laid without feeling guilty or catching a venereal disease.

Both Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, on the other hand, are not looking for a New Enlightenment as they are still pledged to the old one. While it’s absolutely true that atheism is not a religion, most High Church atheists subscribe to a specific denomination of the Enlightenment faith known as humanism.20 In The God Delusion Dawkins describes his belief in humanism, “the ethical system that often goes with atheism,” and testified to his faith that “the broad direction of history is toward enlightenment”21 in an interview with Salon. Although he’s much more famous for his atheism, his humanism is no secret—the American Humanist Association named him the 1996 Humanist of the Year, while in 2004, it was Daniel Dennett’s turn to be so honored.22 Richard Dawkins is also a public signer of the third Humanist Manifesto, which summarizes the principle articles of the humanist faith thusly:

 

1. Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis.

2. Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change.

3. Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience.

4. Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals.

5. Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships.

6. Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness.

 

Specifically what those humane ideals and ethical values might be is not explained, although we are informed that Dawkins and company “aspire to this vision with the informed conviction that humanity has the ability to progress toward its highest ideals.” This is all very scientific, of course, because we are assured that the humanist conviction—which is of course not to be confused with “faith”—is informed. But it is evidence that even the world’s most militant atheists find that belief in a universally applicable morality is something to preserve, so when they find the theistic foundations of Christian morality incredible, they don’t give up, they seek a substitute instead. In The God Delusion, Dawkins suggests substituting the following for four of the Ten Commandments. Although he doesn’t indicate which he’d leave out, his hatred for God combined with his marital history suggests that he has numbers One, Three, Four, and Seven in mind.

 

  Enjoy your own sex life.

  Do not discriminate or oppress on the basis of sex, race, or species.23

  Do not indoctrinate your children.24

  Value the future.25

 

The British Humanist Association, which Dawkins serves as an honorary vice president, provides some additional detail on humanist tenets in its ten-question quiz26 meant to help one determine whether one happens to be a humanist or not. According to the BHA, the following answers indicate that one is either a humanist already or is very close to humanist thinking:

 

1. There is no evidence that any god exists, so I’ll assume that there isn’t one.

2. When I die, I will live on in people’s memories or because of the work I have done or through my children.

3. The scientific explanations for how the universe began are the best ones available—no gods were involved.

4. The theory that life on Earth evolved gradually over billions of years is true—here is plenty of evidence from fossils showing that this is how it happened.

5. When I look at a beautiful view I think that we ought to do everything possible to protect this for future generations.

6. I can tell right from wrong by thinking hard about the probable consequences of actions and their effects on other people.

7. It’s best to be honest because I’m happier and feel better about myself if I’m honest.

8. Other people matter and should be treated with respect because we will all be happier if we treat each other well.

9. Animals should be treated with respect because they can suffer, too.

10. The most important thing in life is to increase the general happiness and welfare of humanity.

 

As it turns out, Harris’s morality of happiness is ultimately humanist in origin. From these examples, the educated reader should be able to see that the religion of reason is little more than a memetic chimera crossing the Summer of Love with Darwinism and scientific socialism: be happy, be nice, be Green, to each according to his needs, individuals exist for the purpose of serving the common good, human progress toward an earthly paradise is inevitable, all shined up with a thin veneer of science. It’s no wonder Christopher Hitchens is seeking a New Enlightenment, he only recently disavowed his secular faith in the old one.27

 

RESURRECTING THE RED HAND OF REASON

The Marxist worldview has a relationship to the Enlightenment. I think that’s impossible to doubt.

 —CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS

 

The original Enlightenment led directly to the French Revolution, and only 349 days after the citoyens sans-culottes established the French Republic, the bloody Reign of Terror began. On 20 Brumaire An II,28 the cathedral of Notre Dame was renamed the Temple of Reason and a dancer named Mademoiselle Maillard was enthroned upon the altar as Reason’s goddess. Like a lethal virus transmitted from corpse to living carrier, Enlightenment ideals survived the collapse of the First Republic and were preserved by utopian socialists such as de Rouvroy, Fourier, and Cabet. De Rouvroy, who died in 1825, anticipated the Actually Not So New Atheists by nearly two centuries in arguing that a new religion purged of divisive Christian dogma, with scientists serving as priests, was required for the good of society. Twenty-three years after de Rouvroy’s death, Marx and Engels put a scientific spin on their socialism, which inspired the Russian Revolution of 1917 and all the humane joys inherent in seventy-four years of Communist rule.
Although the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 briefly left the enlightened humanists of the world without a state to call their own, that was soon remedied by the 1992 Treaty of Maastricht, which established the European Union29 as a political entity dedicated to Enlightenment ideals30 and from which all reference to Europe’s historic Christian heritage has been carefully excised.31 While the European Convention on Human Rights has not yet been ratified by the European Union because the EU is not yet a recognized state, the Convention serves as a good measure of Enlightenment morality in action since it has been ratified by all the EU’s member states and is considered to be the basis for the EU’s own Charter of Fundamental Rights.32
The Convention is a cornucopia of Enlightenment rights, including the right to life, the prohibition of slavery, the right to liberty and security, the right to freedom of expression, and so forth. Unfortunately, these rights come with strict caveats that leave holes in these theoretical protections large enough to drive a truck through...or an overcrowded train rattling along the tracks pointing toward a gulag. Nor do they come as unalienable rights endowed by a creator, they are merely notional rights granted by the forty-seven signatory governments that belong to the Council of Europe, subject to the political and legal processes of those governments. Some of the limitations are even articulated in the explication of the rights themselves, while Article 17 ominously prohibits what it terms “the abuse of rights” granted in the Convention.33

 

“Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society....” (Article 9) “The exercise of these freedoms [of expression], since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society....” (Article 10) Similar caveats restrict the rights granted in articles 5, 6, 8 and 11.

 

The multiple references to the need for a democratic society to limit human rights is particularly ironic, as for all its democratic pretensions, European integration has been pushed inexorably forward without the democratic consent of many of Europe’s peoples. Every significant step in the integration process has been the result of negotiations between the bureaucratic and political elites, and when the people have been given the opportunity to express their opinion democratically and rejected the results of these negotiations, they have either been forced to vote until they get it right, as was the case in Denmark and Ireland,34 or simply ignored and overrun with semantic games.35
The president of the European Union, Jean-Claude Juncker, answered with commendable, if anti-democratic, honesty when asked about the French vote on the EU constitution: “If it’s a Yes, we will say ‘on we go’, and if it’s a No we will say ‘we continue.’”36 And after the signing of the “treaty” to allow the governments of the nations who voted the constitution down to proceed with its adoption without the consent of the people, the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, declared, “We are unique in the history of Mankind. . . . Now what we have is the first non-imperial empire. We have twenty-seven countries that fully decided to work together and to pool their sovereignty.”37
Perhaps because he is a recent apostate from Marxism, Christopher Hitchens alone among the New Atheists appears to see the creeping authoritarianism inherent in the religion of reason. When asked why so many individuals with theoretically anti-authoritarian beliefs somehow end up supporting authoritarian government actions, he explained that this was because of the way in which temporary expedients considered necessary for the achievement of a primary goal are easily transformed into dogma38 that cannot be questioned lest the attainment of the goal be jeopardized. This is the very rational reason that the historical religion of reason so quickly produced massive violence and why its revival is very likely to lead to the same result. If the desired end cannot be reached without resorting to an ugly means, then either the end must be abandoned or the ugly means must be adopted. Therefore, while a decision to engage in mass slaughter can be an irrational one, it clearly cannot be considered inherently irrational. The process can be entirely based on reason, from utopian start to bloody finish. The problem is not in the logic or its absence, but rather in the basic premises that the logic serves.
This is why the humanist vagaries regarding their moral premises are so troubling, and it also explains why atheists in positions of power have been inordinately disposed to commit mass murder in service to their ideals. History shows that it is easy enough for Christians to violate their fairly explicit moral strictures, and it is even easier for humanists to ignore their own nebulous moralities in self-righteous, rational pursuit of their ultimately irrational goals. As evidence of this, I note that while the European Union has not even formally adopted the European Convention on Human Rights yet, some of its member states are already exploiting the aforementioned caveats to violate the right to respect for private and family life, the freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and the freedom of expression.39

After Belgian police beat up two leading Flemish politicians protesting pro-immigration policies in Brussels on September 11, 2007, the secretary general of the Council of Europe was inspired to announce: “The freedom of expression and freedom of assembly are indeed preconditions for democracy, but they should not be regarded as a license to offend.” Free speech is permitted by the enlightened eurofascists, as long as one doesn’t actually say anything they deem unacceptable.

 

Das Europa über alles

Über alles im Erdteil.

Einigkeit und Gewaltherrschaft

Für die neue Erleuchtung.…

 

The Europe above All

Above All in the Continent

Unity and Tyranny

For the New Enlightenment...

 

So, what is the ultimate goal of the religion of reason? And is it a rational one? Sam Harris’s description of the result of this inevitable humanist progress is precisely the same as the end prophesied by the humanist and New Atheist icon40 Bertrand Russell eighty-four years ago.41 It is not the end of faith that is the ultimate goal, this is merely a necessary prerequisite to the economic, cultural, and moral integration required for establishing the world government that the devotees of Reason hope will bring a permanent end to war.

But world government and a subsequent end to war is not a rational goal given the way it flies in the face of everything we know about human history and human nature, to say nothing of the grim results of past monopolies on legal violence. While Harris attempts to argue that the humanist dream is feasible based on the historical example of slavery, his argument requires ignoring the inability of modern society to bring an end to the sex slavery and human-trafficking that persist today in even the most civilized Western nations. The terrible tragedy of the New Atheists is that they are laboring to lay the foundation for yet another reprisal of the very horrors they think to permanently prevent in the name of Reason. Voltaire may have been correct to write that “those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities,” but a more meaningfully rational statement would be to say: If you commit atrocities, then you believe absurdities.

And the undeniable fact is that the absurdity most often believed by those who have committed Man’s greatest atrocities is that there is no God.

 

 

V – SAM TZU AND THE ART OF WAR

 

The rule with regard to contentious ground is that those in possession have the advantage over the other side. If a position of this kind is secured first by the enemy, beware of attacking him. Lure him away by pretending to flee—show your banners and sound your drums—make a dash for other places that he cannot afford to lose. . . .

 —SUN TZU HSU LU, Pi I-hsun

 

IN THE HISTORICAL INTRODUCTION to his famous military treatise, the Chinese general Sun Tzu advised the wise general to lure his opponent from ground where the opponent holds a strong position in the hopes of being able to attack him in a weaker one. It is interesting to see that Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins both make inadvertent use of this tactic with their mutual assertion that religious faith bears responsibility for enabling the making of war even when it is not, in itself, a primary cause of conflict. It is also ironic, given their near total ignorance of military history and the art of war.

On a superficial level, the assertion appears to make a good deal of sense. It is certainly reasonable to postulate that the religious individual who believes in some form of life continuing beyond death would be more willing to take the chances with his life that war demands than would the non-religious individual. The religious soldier is only risking a part of his existence, a rather small and unimportant part in the case of the Christian soldier who confidently expects eternal life awaiting him in the New Jerusalem. The shaheed finds courage in the prospect of seventy-two virgins and the delights of paradise. The pagan Norse warrior fearlessly anticipated endless feasting and battle in Valhalla; his only terror was an ignominious death in bed, far from the battlefields haunted by the Choosers of the Slain.

Even the Hindu soldier risks nothing but a single turn of the wheel, whereas the atheist stakes the totality of his existence. There is, then, an economic argument to be made in logical support of this claim of religious war-enabling, since the perceived cost of war is obviously much greater for the atheist than for the theist.1

There is etymological support for this notion as well. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “fanatic” is derived from the following source:

 

c.1525, “insane person,” from L. fanaticus “mad, enthusiastic, inspired by a god,” originally, “pertaining to a temple,” from fanum “temple,” related to festus “festive” (see feast). Current sense of “extremely zealous,” especially in religion, is first attested 1647. The noun is from 1650, originally in religious sense, of Nonconformists.2

 

For who can today hear the term “religious fanatic” and not immediately think of the suicide bombers of the Islamic jihad, who have struck terror into hearts around the globe? Nor are the modern jihadists the first religious fanatics to be inspired to deeds of astounding horror, as witnessed by Raymond of Aguilers’s account of slaughter-maddened Christian knights riding through blood up to their knees after the fall of Jerusalem in the First Crusade, or the more recent example of the Basij Mostazafan, an Iranian teen militia famous for voluntarily clearing minefields with their own bodies during the Iran-Iraq War.

And yet, even in these examples, one can see the first visible cracks in the argument. The First Crusade was a long time ago, it has been more than a thousand years since the massacre at Solomon’s Temple took place. In that millennia, many wars have been fought, very few of which have involved unarmed youth militias inspired by insane devotion to a god. Moreover, from a military perspective, suicide attacks are a negligible tactic.3 They are not intended to win battles, much less wars, and even if one goes as far back as the Japanese kamikazes of World War II, one will not find a single battle that is recorded as having been won by suicide tactics, with or without the presumed benefit of religious fanaticism.

Even so, Sam Harris insists that religion is a uniquely dangerous source of the intersocietal tensions that produce wars:

 

Religion raises the stakes of human conflict much higher than tribalism, racism, or politics ever can, as it is the only form of in-group/out-group thinking that casts the differences between people in terms of eternal rewards and punishments. One of the enduring pathologies of human culture is the tendency to raise children to fear and demonize other human beings on the basis of religious faith. Consequently, faith inspires violence in at least two ways. First, people often kill other human beings because they believe that the [C]reator of the universe wants them to do it.4

 

There are four errors in these four sentences.

(1) Harris implies a direct connection between the commission of individual crime and mass inter-group conflict, however, he never bothers to explain just what this connection might happen to be. And while I shall address both forms of lethal violence, I note that it is simply not credible to suggest that the same motivation guides the killer who rapes and murders a stranger and the national leader who orders his troops to defend against a military invasion by an enemy.

(2) It is impossible to raise the stakes of human conflict any higher than the total eradication of the opposing out-group. Due to the possibility of religious conversion present in most religions, it can be reasonably argued that religious conflict actually offers a less intractable form of conflict than that created by tribalism or racism; the release of Fox News journalists Steve Centanni and Olag Wiig after their coerced “conversion” to Islam is only one of the many examples of this. Whereas one cannot so easily change one’s skin color or one’s tribe, and one need merely cite the murderous deeds of the pagan Genghis Khan or the atheist Saloth Sar to prove that non-religious motivations are sufficient to raise the stakes to the highest level.

And while bringing children up to fear and demonize others may be a pathology of human culture, there is no shortage of evidence demonstrating that this is done more often, and to greater effect, for reasons other than that of religious faith.

(3) It is no coincidence, after all, that public schooling is one of the ten pillars of the Communist Manifesto, that Germany’s National Socialist regime passed a compulsory school attendance law in 1938, and that the infamous Hung Wei Ping who launched the bloody Cultural Revolution in 1966 that killed 400,000 people5 in only two years were children in junior high school6 who had been raised from birth as atheists.
It is true, of course, that people have been known to kill other human beings because they believe that the Creator of the universe wants them to do it. The Bible is replete with such examples, and there are a few pitiful specimens of humanity spending the rest of their lives in lunatic asylums7 for this very reason.

(4) But Harris’s use of the word “often” is more than a little questionable here, given how much more often people are known to murder other human beings for reasons unrelated to religion.

Harris frequently points out the extreme religiosity of American society compared to the rest of the world, which therefore makes the United States an ideal subject of investigation on this particular point. Fortunately, the FBI not only keeps track of how many murders take place in the United States in its Uniform Crime Reports every year, but also records who committed them, how they were committed, against whom they were committed, and why.

In 2005, there were 16,692 American murders.8 Of these, precisely six9 were attributed to hate crimes, a definition that encompasses all racial, religious,10 sexual orientation, ethnic, and disability motivations for criminal actions. Of the other 10,283 murders for which the motivations have been determined, none were attributed to anything that could conceivably be related to a belief in a deity’s desire to see a particular individual dead. Instead, the two most frequent motivations were arguments (36.7 percent) and felony offenses such as robbery and narcotic drug laws (21 percent).11
Unless the vast majority of arguments that end with one interlocutor murdering the other are inspired by erudite debates between individuals belonging to divergent schools of soteriological thought,12 it is obvious that Harris is wildly incorrect about the frequency with which religious faith inspires murderous actions. Even if we were to categorize every murderer who successfully pleads a “not guilty by reason of insanity”13 defense among the religious faithful—a dubious proposition at best—this would only add an additional forty-one murders to the total that could conceivably be blamed on religion.
Since the maximum number of potential victims of religious faith is six percent of the number of American bicyclists killed annually, and only six-tenths of 1 percent of those killed by doctors with poor writing skills,14 I wonder if we can look forward to a future book from Mr. Harris decrying the moral evil of the bicycle accompanied by a call for mandatory calligraphy classes for all medical professionals.

 

KILL THY NEIGHBOR

If he is unsuccessful in demonstrating that the religious are unusually inclined to commit lethal hate crimes, Harris appears to find somewhat more promising ground on which to do battle with his concluding notion, wherein he blames intercommunal conflict on religion.

 

Second, far greater numbers of people fall into conflict with one another because they define their moral community on the basis of their religious affiliation: Muslims side with other Muslims, Protestants with Protestants, Catholics with Catholics. These conflicts are not always explicitly religious. But the bigotry and hatred that divide one community from another are often the products of their religious identities. Conflicts that seem driven entirely by terrestrial concerns, therefore, are often deeply rooted in religion. The fighting that has plagued Palestine (Jews vs. Muslims), the Balkans (Orthodox Serbians vs. Catholic Croatians; Orthodox Serbians vs. Bosnian and Albanian Muslims), Northern Ireland (Protestants vs. Catholics), Kashmir (Muslims vs. Hindus), Sudan (Muslims vs. Christians and animists), Nigeria (Muslims vs. Christians), Ethiopia and Eritrea (Muslims vs. Christians), Ivory Coast (Muslims vs. Christians), Sri Lanka (Sinhalese Buddhists vs. Tamil Hindus), Philippines (Muslims vs. Christians), Iran and Iraq (Shiite vs. Sunni Muslims), and the Caucasus (Orthodox Russians vs. Chechen Muslims; Muslim Azerbaijanis vs. Catholic and Orthodox Armenians) are merely a few, recent cases in point.

 

This long list might appear to be persuasive, were it not for the fact that the list of potential examples to the contrary is considerably longer, to say nothing of the fact that nearly every example given here includes Muslims. To Sam Harris, all religions might be equally mythical and therefore the same, but it is hard to fail to notice that it is not the Jains, Mormons, Hindus, or Christians who are actively stirring up violence all over the world. In fact, Harris even left out a few relevant examples, such as East Timor, while mistakenly assigning religious motivations to at least four of the conflicts mentioned.

 

1. The conflict in Palestine is primarily ethnic, not religious. Atheist Jews, who represent 22.9 percent15 of the Israeli population, are targeted by their Arab enemies as readily as the ultra-Orthodox. (Another 21 percent call themselves secular and do not practice any religion, but nevertheless profess to believe in God.) Moreover, the violence in Palestine began with the secular Zionists attacking the Christian British.

2. The conflict in Northern Ireland is primarily ethnic and political, not religious, being a holdover from the British colonial establishment of the Ulster Plantation in 1609. Indicative of this is the fact that more people were killed in the intra-nationalist Irish Civil War of 1922–23, which pitted Catholic against Catholic, than the 3,523 deaths resulting from the thirty-two years of the modern inter-denominational troubles.

3. Although foreign Muslims have come to the aid of their co-religionists in the Chechen war, the cause has absolutely nothing to do with any religious conflict between the Chechen Muslims and the Orthodox Russians, but the fact that Chechnya has been seeking independence from Russia since it was forcibly annexed in 1870 by Tsar Alexander II. While the Chechens tried, and failed, to take advantage of the collapse of the tsarist empire in 1917, they have been marginally more successful in the more recent set of wars for independence they have waged following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

4. In Sri Lanka, the political divide is linguistic, not religious. Tamil-speaking Hindus and Christians are allied against Sinhalese-speaking Buddhists and Muslims. The government’s main rival, the revolutionary Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, are secular Marxists seeking political independence for a Tamil speaking state. The LTTE’s own Internet FAQ settles the matter conclusively, stating in no uncertain terms that the Tamil Tigers is not a religious organization.16

 

To list the many historical counterexamples that disprove Harris’s contention would require a book of its own, but a short list of territorial conflicts between co-religionists would have to include the Roman wars of the Italian peninsula, the Renaissance wars of the Italian city-states, the wars of the Greek city-states, the wars of the petty German principalities, the eleven Russo-Swedish wars, the English War of the Roses; in short, nearly the entire history of European warfare.17 It is simply not true that most conflicts that “seem entirely driven by territorial concerns” are “often deeply rooted in religion.” They almost never are.

For as Jared Diamond, the author of the award-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel, informs us, territorial conflicts are predominantly rooted in geography, not religion. To suggest otherwise would be to eviscerate his explanation for how Europe’s technological development managed to leapfrog that of China during the fifteenth century, as it was European political disunity created by geography that prevented the centralized stasis that left a backward-looking China mired in the past.

 

Hence the real problem in understanding China’s loss of political and technological preeminence to Europe is to understand China’s chronic unity and Europe’s chronic disunity. The answer is again suggested by maps. Europe has a highly indented coastline, with five large peninsulas that approach islands in their isolation, and all of which evolved independent languages, ethnic groups, and governments. ... Europe is carved up into independent linguistic, ethnic, and political units by high mountains (the Alps, Pyrenees, Carpathians, and Norwegian border mountains), while China’s mountains east of the Tibetan plateau are much less formidable barriers....Unlike China, Europe has many small core areas, none big enough to dominate the others for long, and each the center of chronically independent states.18

 

In a continent with only four religions or religious denominations of note in 1400,19 Europe was divided into more than 1,000 independent political states.20 This number was reduced by half only 117 years later, at the start of the Protestant Reformation. And while there was certainly an amount of violent inter-denominational Christian conflict during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, it is difficult to imagine that even with the increase in the amount of potential religious conflict, more wars took place than occurred during the century leading up to it, wherein half the political entities disappeared, swallowed up by their larger, more powerful neighbors.

Indeed, the contrast between the largely peaceful spread of Christianity throughout the continent of Europe with the violent migratory invasions that wracked it from 300 to 700 A.D. as the Goths, Vandals, and Franks moved westward, later followed by the Slavs, Alans, Avars, Bulgars, Hungarians, Pechenegs, and Tatars, underlines the fundamental absence of historical support for Harris’s assertion.

 

IN-OUT ENMITY

But while the points raised by Harris on religion and the art of war are obvious and easily dismissed, Richard Dawkins is rather more subtle. Having wisely refrained from directly suggesting a causal relationship between religion and warfare (and in fact, as was previously demonstrated, he actually contradicts Harris on that very point21), he nevertheless cannot stop himself from slyly implying in numerous places throughout The God Delusion that this “divisive force” is nevertheless somehow responsible for the fact that wars take place, mostly due to the way in which it supplies labels for “in-group/out-group enmity and vendetta,” which aren’t necessarily worse than other labels such as language and skin color, but are “often available when others are not.”
The problem with this is that in-group/out-group22 enmity has next to nothing to do with either waging or inspiring war. Most endo-exo rivalries stem from basic territorialism and the will to power, not rival group identities; the champions of reason have it backward. Consider the rival groups we currently identify as “French” and “German.” As recently as 814, they were a single ethnic group known as “the Franks.” While the French national identity was forged early on, thanks in part to the open geography of France, there was no German nation as such, instead there was only the multiplicity of principalities known collectively and inaccurately as the Holy Roman Empire, which over time came to be dominated by the Austrian Hapsburg dynasty in the south and the Kingdom of Prussia in the north.

It was not until after the Napoleonic wars and the Franco-Prussian wars that anything resembling what we would recognize today as being “Germany” came into existence, in 1871. By 1941, Germany had invaded France twice, conquered it once, and been defeated twice by France’s allies. France was estimated to have lost 1.4 million dead in the Great War, plus another 520,000 killed in round two.

Is it more reasonable, then, to assume that any latent French hostility toward Germans stems from an out-group identity that didn’t even exist for most of French history, or from a simple and understandable distaste for being invaded and slaughtered by a group of distant cousins with a proven historical predilection for doing so?

 

CRUSADER OR CONSCRIPT?

The Crusades have long been the sine qua non of the atheist case against religion on the grounds of its causal relationship with war. And it would be foolish to insist that any war conceived by a monk, blessed by a Pope, marked by the sign of the Cross, inspired by the battle cry Deus le volt,23 and fought against a rival religion in order to reclaim a holy site did not have anything to do with religion.
Still, it must be noted that the consensus among modern historians is that religion was not anywhere nearly as central to the Crusades as is customarily thought to be the case. Sir Charles Oman points out various times when, following the Crusaders’ establishment of the four principalities of Outremer, alliances between Christian kingdoms and Muslim emirates flowed freely across religious lines; indeed, without the vicious internecine Muslim rivalries that existed at the time, the First Crusade would never have succeeded in taking Jerusalem nor would the Crusader lands carved out of Muslim territory have survived for nearly 200 years.24
While Oman sees religion as only one of the “many complicated impulses” that led the European nations to invade the Levant, John Julius Norwich goes so far as to write of the First Crusade: “The entire Crusade was now revealed as having been nothing more than a monstrous exercise in hypocrisy, in which the religious motive had been used merely as the thinnest of disguises for unashamed imperialism.”25

Nevertheless, if we set aside the historians’ pedantic insistence on detail for the moment and concede that the Crusades are quite reasonably considered to be the classic example of a religious war by the average individual, we may find them to be a very useful model in demonstrating how a religious war comes about, how religion can be used to inspire individuals to commit violence at the behest of religious leaders, and the impact such a religious motivation makes on behavior of the individuals so inspired. For by conceding the point, the Crusades thus provide us with a means of dividing the religious aspects of war-making from those aspects that have little or nothing to do with religion.

The salient features of the First Crusade that are relevant for considering the question of religious inspiration are the following:

 

1. It was publicly advocated by religious leaders.

2. Its appeal transcended national and political boundaries.

3. Large numbers of civilians voluntarily took part.

4. Individuals with neither military nor organizational authority held prominent leadership roles.26

5. Professional soldiers volunteered to fight without demanding wages up front.

 

With the exception of the first great wave of Islamic expansion, very few wars in history can be described by any of these five features, let alone all of them. And it is this last aspect that is particularly intriguing, for while it was unnecessary to pay many of the civilians and the soldiers who volunteered to take the Crusader’s Cross, nearly every military leader before or since has found it to be an absolute requirement.

Livy informs us that the Romans found it necessary to begin paying wages to their knights as early as 405 B.C. as a result of the Siege of Veii, although the plebs’ complaints27 about the need to pay a war tax in addition to being forced to serve in the military, the levy required for the four simultaneous wars in which Rome was engaged at the time make it clear that the infantry was being paid wages long before then. In the later Republican and Imperial eras, conscription was seldom required except in the event of civil war, although the standard legionary pay was 112.5 denarii per year (later doubled by Julius Caesar), which was almost twice the sixty-eight denarii it is calculated that was required for a family of four to live for a year. Put in modern terms, this would equate to roughly $32,471.71 in 2005 dollars. Considering that this was the annual salary of the lowest-ranking legionaries and that centurions drew annual wages equivalent to $520,000,28 it is not hard to understand why Rome had no need to play upon the religious sentiments of prospective recruits in order to convince them to join the army.
Now, if it were true, as the New Atheists suggest, that religious faith is a source of military fervor, it logically follows that the militaries of avowedly religious countries would rely less heavily on conscription than do the militaries in secular countries. However, an examination of the world’s militaries29 reveals that even in Muslim countries, there is no correlation between religious fervor and a low rate of forced military service. The high rate of conscripts in the Islamic Republic of Iran is particularly worthy of note here, in light of Western fears of the warlike nature of its bellicose and theocratic government.

 

 
 

It is also perhaps worth noting that the world’s five largest militaries, those belonging to China, the United States, India, North Korea, and Russia, are controlled by two atheist governments, a country that was formally atheist until recently, and two legally secular governments.

 

THE SILENCE OF THE CLASSICS

But the most conclusive evidence against the idea that religion is a vital aspect of the art of war can be found in the collective writings of Man’s greatest military strategists. Or rather, it cannot be found. One will scour the works of Sun Tzu, Julius Caesar, Vegetius, Maurice, Leo the Wise, and Clausewitz in vain for instructions on how to make use of the gods, the faith of the soldiers, or anything even remotely religious in their recommendations about how to best execute the art of war. If religion were an important element of war-making, one would expect to find a great deal of text commenting upon it. Instead, one finds that Sun Tzu devotes one of his thirteen chapters entirely to spies and fully half of another to instructions on starting fires.

Clausewitz dedicates entire chapters to military concepts such as friction, boldness, perseverance, and geometry, while Vegetius has sections dealing specifically with the importance of individualizing shields, what music is the most inspirational, and the proper way to combat elephants. The emperor Maurice, in his Strategikon, addresses heralds and trumpets as well as “Dealing with the Light-Haired Peoples” and “Hunting Wild Animals Without Serious Injury or Accident,” while Caesar is predominantly concerned with chronicling the astonishingly heroic martial deeds of a certain Gaius Julius.

Of all classical military strategists, Machiavelli alone sees sufficient benefit in making use of religion to mention it in passing, as in The Art of War he reminds Lorenzo di Filippo Strozzi of the way in which Sertorius assured his troops of a divine victory guaranteed by a talking deer, and how Charles VII of France found Joan of Arc to be of some utility in convincing his men that God was on their side. Machiavelli believed religion to be useful in much the same way that Richard Dawkins imagines it to be, as a means of instilling morale and military discipline into the soldiery.

However, there is a fundamental contradiction between the idea that the same religion that produces unruly militias full of fanatics like the Basij Mostazafan will simultaneously provide the basis for the rigid military discipline required by elite troops. Given that the penalty for breaking military discipline has been death by execution in nearly every military force in history regardless of its religious identity, from Sun Tzu’s famous beheading of the King of Wu’s favorite concubines to the U.S. Army’s execution of Pvt. Eddie Slovik in 1945, it is clear that it is the very material fear of death at the hands of the military authorities, not religious faith, that provides the foundation for this discipline.

It is worth noting that Machiavelli is not only the lone classic strategist to see the military usefulness of religion, he is also the only one to have never held a combat command. His attempt to build a Florentine militia to replace the mercenary companies then ubiquitous in Italy was a failure, and the value of his military acumen can perhaps be best judged by the following anecdote from Bandello about the Florentine’s famous visit to the mercenary camp of the condottiere Giovanni delle Bande Nere:30

 

The men were training and Giovanni mischievously invited his guest to try out on the ground some of the formations he had described in The Art of War. The author accepted with delight, and in the course of the next hour reduced the troops to a chaos of puzzled and perspiring humanity, whereupon Giovanni tactfully intervened, murmuring that it was a very hot day and past dinner-time, unraveled the tangle with a few decisive orders and quickly produced the disposition Machiavelli had been trying to achieve.31

 

I believe that on the basis of the historical evidence, the reasonable reader will correctly conclude that both Machiavelli and Richard Dawkins can be safely ignored with regards to their speculations about the source of military discipline as well as the utility of religion in maintaining it.

However, I should note that when I mentioned this significant omission of all things religious from the great works of military strategy and tactics in a column last year, I received an e-mail complaining that Sun Tzu, at least, had made mention of “Heaven,” and in fact had laid some degree of importance upon it. While this is true, as Sun Tzu lists Heaven as one of the five constant factors32 of the art of war that must be taken into account when seeking to determine the conditions obtaining in the field, the general also goes on to explain in chapter I, section 7 that Heaven “signifies night and day, cold and heat, times and seasons.” In this particular case, “Heaven” merely means the environmental setting in which the battle takes place.

This demonstrates the importance of actually reading the text instead of merely running a word search on it or relying upon what one vaguely remembers seeing one evening on the History Channel.

However, it must be admitted that religion is not entirely without application in times of war. It is, after all, an extremely effective means of applying Sun Tzu’s Moral Law in order to inspire those who are not a part of the soldiery during wartime, quite possibly the most effective means. More than 2,000 years ago, after Hannibal crushed the Roman army led by the consul Gaius Flaminius at Lake Trasimene, a fearful and despairing Rome turned to Fabius Maximus to save it from the brilliant Carthaginian and his army. To the modern reader, the first actions of Fabius after being named dictator might seem more than a little strange, but no doubt Sun Tzu would see the wisdom in them and agree with Plutarch’s verdict:

 

After this, he made the best of beginnings, that is by turning his attention to religious matters, and he left the people in no doubt that their defeat had not been brought about by any cowardice on the part of their soldiers, but by their general’s neglectful and contemptuous attitude towards religious observances....By encouraging the people in this way to fix their thoughts upon religious matters, Fabius contrived to strengthen their confidence in the future.33

 

For what is the purpose of religious faith, after all, but to provide hope in a time of despair? The faith of the Roman people was rewarded in the end, as Fabius patiently wore Hannibal down over a period of fifteen years until the Carthaginian was finally forced to withdraw from Italy. But the agnostic reader will no doubt be pleased to learn that despite his ready willingness to make use of the religious superstitions of the Romans, Fabius Maximus himself chose to place his own trust in rather more material forces.34

Still, providing the promise of light when all seems dark and preventing the civilian population from sinking into a slough of desperation is a far cry from whipping the god-addled masses into a blood-maddened frenzy of slaughter. While religion can play an important role in the lives of noncombatants during wartime, history and the written works of Man’s greatest military minds clearly demonstrate that religious faith is not a tool in the blood-stained hands of those who practice the arts of war.

 

 

VI – THE WAR DELUSION

 

Religion makes enemies instead of friends. That one word, “religion,” covers all the horizon of memory with visions of war, of outrage, of persecution, of tyranny, and death. ...Although they have been preaching universal love, the Christian nations are the warlike nations of the world.

 —ROBERT GREEN INGERSOLL, “The Damage Religion Causes”

 

THUS BEGAN AN INFLUENTIAL nineteenth-century essay by Ingersoll, the famous American freethinker and atheist. While Ingersoll’s assertion might be contested by modern atheists who deny that America was ever a Christian nation, and by sociologists who have conducted numerous polls confirming European post-Christianity, many people surely agree with his general sentiment that religion is the primary cause of war throughout the world.

Sam Harris agrees enthusiastically, or at least he appears to do so at first glance:

 

A glance at history, or at the pages of any newspaper, reveals that ideas which divide one group of human beings from another, only to unite them in slaughter, generally have their roots in religion. It seems that if our species ever eradicates itself through war, it will not be because it was written in the stars but because it was written in our books. …

 

Because Harris is a careless writer, lurching from baseless assertion to errant conclusion with all the elegance of a drunken orangutan, it is always wise to examine his words closely. Most readers, scanning quickly over the paragraph, will conclude that Harris is stating that most martial slaughter has its roots in religion, and because of that, conclude that religion is a threat to eradicate humanity. But the fact that Harris attempts to condemn religion through implication instead of direct accusation is a clear indicator that Harris knows how weak his argument is, and the historical evidence proves that both his statement and his subsequent conclusion are incorrect.

Religion does not endanger our species because religious faith does not cause war.

Harris is far from the only atheist who makes a habit of incessantly implying or even outright stating that religion is the cause of most military conflict, and he is not the only one expressing the belief that if only there was no religion polluting the planet, Mankind might finally know an end to war. It could even be plausibly suggested that adherence to this notion is one of the Ten Commandments of the High Church atheist: Thou shalt believe that religion causes war.

The concept is articulated at the heart of John Lennon’s atheist anthem, “Imagine”:

 

Imagine there’s no countries

It isn’t hard to do

Nothing to kill or die for

And no religion too1

 

Lennon, of course, is here blaming nationalism in addition to religion, but since both Harris and Dawkins tell us that nationalism is a function of religious belief, we know that from the atheist’s point of view, the two are one and the same. Dawkins, for example, approvingly quotes a Spaniard who states that religion and nationalism operating in tandem “break all records for oppression and bloodshed.” Ergo, without religion and its haphazard division of humanity into warring nations, there will be nothing to kill or die for and we can all live together in stoned and naked bliss.

However, it’s more than a little risky to base one’s basic concept of global geopolitics and world history on a folk song written by a college dropout who failed all of his O-levels.2 I imagine few would consider it worthwhile to consult Britney Spears about the continual crisis in the Middle East; indeed, the mere fact of learning that one’s understanding of the geostrategic situation is in accordance with a pop singer’s, however successful, should serve to give one cause to reconsider the matter post-haste.
And yet Dawkins inadvertently reveals the illogic underlying this atheist dogma when he writes of how “thousands” of people have died “for loyalty to one religion against a scarcely distinguishable alternative.”3 But these thousands of deaths, however tragic, are a trivial number, a statistically insignificant fraction of the billions of human beings who have been killed for reasons wholly unrelated to religion; World War II alone accounted for an estimated 60 million deaths while Hulagu Khan slew around 130,000 in the 1258 sack of Baghdad.

 

A VERY SHORT MILITARY HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES

The New Atheists are not very happy about the fact that the United States of America is the most religious nation in the Western world. This clearly annoys them, as they tend to dwell on the matter. But if the hypothesis that religion causes war is true, then we can safely assume that the U.S.A. must be a particularly warlike nation, and moreover, that it regularly goes to war for reasons associated with the strong religious faith of its people. In order to see if this is indeed the case, I have constructed the table below, which consists of all the wars fought by the United States, the enemy against whom it was fought, the primary religious faith of the two sides, and the number of American deaths as a result of the military conflict.

 

 
 
 
 

* Precisely how many U.S. fatalities occurred during the various Indian Wars is unknown, but they are generally estimated to be less than 1,000 in total. I have therefore distributed 1,000 deaths between the Navajo, Sioux, and Apache wars.

** The Ottoman Empire, today’s Turkey, was one of the Central Powers.

*** This has got to be one of the nominees in the “War, Dumbest Name Ever” category. Although its other name, The War on Terror, is right up there, too. But given how embarrassed they are about GSAVE, I insist on using it.

 

In 232 years, the United States of America has fought seventeen wars. That’s about one new war every fourteen years it has existed, which isn’t exactly peaceful, but also isn’t anywhere nearly as aggressively martial as the pagan Roman Republic, which regularly launched simultaneous wars against as many as four different and unrelated foes in a single year, or the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III, whose Black Obelisk records his habit of regularly crossing the Euphrates and instigating twenty-three wars in the first twenty-three years of his reign.4

Of those seventeen wars, the only one that can properly be characterized as religious is the strangely named Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism, of which the invasion and subsequent occupation of Afghanistan has been an integral part. Due to the secular nature of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist dictatorship, the fact that the current Iraqi War is technically a continuation of the Persian Gulf War, and the absence of a direct connection between Hussein and the 9/11 attacks, I deem the Iraq war to be a separate war to which it would be incorrect to assign a religious motivation, the various Muslim factions now battling for power in post-Hussein Iraq notwithstanding.

Looking at the list, it is clear that Christian America was as likely to make war against other Christian nations as it was to fight pagan Indian tribes, Muslim pirate nations, or atheist Communist regimes. It even allied with an atheist regime to fight two historically Christian nations. After perusing the list, it should be clear to even the most casual observer that the United States does not go to war for reasons associated with the particular religious faith of its people.

Over the centuries, 671,070 Americans have died fighting in its wars. Less than one-half of 1 percent of those deaths, or 3,302, can be reasonably blamed on religious faith. Over the course of U.S. history, that amounts to 14.2 American deaths per year attributable to religion-inspired war, and while every American death is lamentable, it should be noted that religious war is actually less lethal to Americans than their dogs, as they annually suffer 15.7 fatalities due to dog bites.5 And yet, I rather doubt that Dawkins and Harris will soon be publishing books entitled The Dog Delusion and Letter to a Canine Nation while angrily urging Americans to abandon their misguided attachment to Man’s best friend.

 

WAR AND RELIGION

It would be foolish to insist that religion never causes war. The ongoing occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq clearly bear some relation to religion, as does the nonsensically named War on Terror. In this age of Islamic jihadist revival, it is easy to see why a theory of religious causation holds some appeal for the historically ignorant. The recent conflicts in Sudan, Nigeria, East Timor, the Philippines, Kashmir, and Chechnya certainly have a strong Islamic element, and the thought of an army of the West swooping down on the Middle East cannot help but conjure up images of Raymond, Godfrey, and Bohemond before the walls of Jerusalem.

But much time has passed between the taking of Jerusalem in 1099 and the fall of Baghdad in 2003, and very little of it has been peaceful. Furthermore, Islam did not exist prior to the year 610, nor did Christianity prior to 33 A.D. And yet, ancient documents such as the Chronicles of the Assyrian Kings are filled with descriptions of what certainly appear to be matters of martial concern. For example, the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III records some of the bloody-minded Assyrian king’s martial deeds:

 

In my 24th year, the lower Zab I crossed. The land of Khalimmur I passed through. To the land of Zimru I went down. Yan’su King of the Zimri from the face of my mighty weapons fled and to save his life ascended [the mountains]. The cities of ’Sikhisatakh, Bit-Tamul, Bit-Sacci, Bit-Sedi, his strong cities, I captured. His fighting men I slew. His spoil I carried away. The cities I threw down, dug up, [and] with fire burned. . . .The cities of Cua-cinda, Khazzanabi, Ermul, [and] Cin-ablila with the cities which were dependent on them I captured. Their fighting men I slew. Their spoil I carried away. The cities I threw down, dug up [and] burned with fire. An image of my Majesty in the country of Kharkhara I set up.

 

To cite a more recent example, historians record that all of Europe anticipated that Charles VIII of France, upon coming into his own in 1491 (he had been subject to an eight-year regency upon inheriting the crown at thirteen), would launch a military campaign because that was what was expected of young, energetic kings with armies. And within three years, Charles had invaded Italy and laid the groundwork for thirty years of war on the Lombard plain. This was not war caused by religion or even economics; it was simply war for war’s sake.

But there is no point in arguing from anecdotal evidence. A more systematic review of the 489 wars listed in Wikipedia’s list of military conflicts, from Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars to the 1969 Football War between Honduras and El Salvador, shows that only fifty-three of these wars—10.8 percent—can reasonably be described as having a religious aspect, even if one counts each of the ten Crusades separately.

Of course, Wikipedia is not an ideal foundation on which to base an argument, not if one wishes it to be taken seriously. I have no doubt that my contention that religion does not cause war in the overwhelming majority of circumstances would meet with more than a little skepticism were I content to rely on an open-access encyclopedia as the primary support for it. Still, it served as a reasonable starting point. I was not looking forward to the arduous task of sitting down amidst a mountainous pile of military histories and painstakingly assembling a more comprehensive list of wars, nor did I have much confidence that anyone would take it very seriously given my lack of academic standing, but I was fully prepared to do so since there didn’t seem any other way to prove my hypothesis.

I had barely begun separating the teetering stacks of books dedicated to ancient and medieval warfare when Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod fortuitously happened to publish their three-volume Encyclopedia of Wars,6 a massive 1,502-page compendium compiled by nine reputable professors of history, including the director of the Centre of Military History and the former head of the Centre for Defence Studies, of what amounts to a significant percentage of all the wars that have taken place throughout recorded human history.

America’s seventeen previously mentioned wars account for less than 1 percent of the 1,763 wars chronicled in the encyclopedia. These 1,763 wars cannot be considered entirely comprehensive—for example, Shalmaneser III’s thirty-four campaigns against various Syrian kingdoms are included in the single entry entitled “Assyrian Wars (c. 1032–c. 746 B.C.).” If one considers that Shalmaneser, despite his martial success, managed to conquer less territory than his father, Ashurnasirpal II, did, we should probably note that what is counted here as a single war could cover as many as 250 separate Assyrian conflicts. But we shall leave that for the compilers of a future military encyclopedia that will surely require another volume or ten, as the current encyclopedia contains more wars than anyone but a military expert has ever heard of. In any event, the very large size of the sample set definitely provides enough detail for the purpose of determining what percentage of Man’s wars are caused by his diverse religious faiths with some degree of accuracy.

At the risk of providing significantly more ammunition to those who argue that religion causes war and invariably cite 1) The Crusades, 2) The Wars of Religion, and 3) The Thirty Years’ War, here is a list of all the wars that the authors of the Encyclopedia of Wars saw fit to categorize as religious wars for one reason or another:

 

Albigensian Crusade, Almohad Conquest of Muslim Spain, Anglo-Scottish War (1559–1560), Arab Conquest of Carthage, Aragonese-Castilian War, Aragonese-French War (1209–1213), First Bearnese Revolt, Second Bearnese Revolt, Third Bearnese Revolt, First Bishop’s War, Second Bishop’s War, Raids of the Black Hundreds, Bohemian Civil War (1465– 1471), Bohemian Palatine War, War in Bosnia, Brabant Revolution, Byzantine-Muslim War (633–642), Byzantine-Muslim War (645–656), Byzantine-Muslim War (688–679), Byzantine-Muslim War (698–718), Byzantine-Muslim War (739), Byzantine-Muslim War (741–752), Byzantine-Muslim War (778–783), Byzantine-Muslim War (797–798), Byzantine-Muslim War (803–809), Byzantine-Muslim War (830–841), Byzantine-Muslim War (851–863), Byzantine-Muslim War (871–885), Byzantine-Muslim War (960–976), Byzantine-Muslim War (995–999), Camisards’ Rebellion, Castilian Conquest of Toledo, Charlemagne’s Invasion of Northern Spain, Charlemagne’s War against the Saxons, Count’s War, Covenanters’ Rebellion (1666), Covenanters’ Rebellion (1679), Covenanters’ Rebellion (1685), Crimean War, First Crusade, Second Crusade, Third Crusade, Fourth Crusade,7 Fifth Crusade, Sixth Crusade, Seventh Crusade, Eighth Crusade, Ninth Crusade, Crusader-Turkish Wars (1100– 1146), Crusader-Turkish Wars (1272–1291), Danish-Estonian War, German Civil War (1077–1106), Ghost Dance Uprising, Siege of Granada, First Iconoclastic War, Second Iconoclastic War, India-Pakistan Partition War, Irish Tithe War, Javanese invasion of Malacca, Great Java War, Kappel Wars, Khurramite’s Revolt, Lebanese Civil War, Wars of the Lombard League, Luccan-Florentine War, Holy Wars of the Mad Mullah, Maryland’s Religious War, Mecca-Medina War, Mexican Insurrections, War of the Monks, Mountain Meadows Massacre, Revolt of Muqanna, Crusade of Nicopolis, Padri War, Paulician War, Persian Civil War (1500–1503), Portuguese-Moroccan War (1458–1471), Portuguese-Moroccan War (1578), Portuguese-Omani Wars in East Africa, Rajput Rebellion against Aurangzeb, Revolt in Ravenna, First War of Religion, Second War of Religion, Third War of Religion, Fourth War of Religion, Fifth War of Religion, Sixth War of Religion, Eighth War of Religion,8 Ninth War of Religion, Roman-Persian War (421–422), Roman-Persian War (441), Russo Turkish War (1877–1878), First Sacred War, Second Sacred War, Third Sacred War, Saladin’s Holy War, Schmalkaldic War, Scottish Uprising against Mary of Guise, Serbo-Turkish War, Shimabara Revolt, War of the Sonderbund, Spanish Christian-Muslim War (912–928), Spanish ChristianMuslim War (977–997), Spanish Christian-Muslim War (1001–1031), Spanish Christian-Muslim War (1172–1212), Spanish Christian-Muslim War (1230–1248), Spanish Christian-Muslim War (1481–1492), Spanish Conquests in North Africa, Swedish War, Thirty Years’ War, Transylvania-Hapsburg War, Tukulor-French War, Turko-Persian Wars, United States War on Terror, Vellore Mutiny, Vjayanagar Wars, First Villmergen War, Second Villmergen War, Visigothic-Frankish War.

 

That is 123 wars in all, which sounds as if it would support the case of the New Atheists, until one recalls that these 123 wars represent only 6.98 percent of all the wars recorded in the encyclopedia. However, it does show that skeptics would have been right to doubt my Wikipedia-based estimate, as I overestimated the amount of war attributable to religion by nearly 60 percent. It’s also interesting to note that more than half of these religious wars, sixty-six in all, were waged by Islamic nations, which is rather more than might be statistically expected considering that the first war in which Islam was involved took place almost three millennia after the first war chronicled in the encyclopedia, Akkad’s conquest of Sumer in 2325 B.C.

In light of this evidence, the fact that a specific religion is currently sparking a great deal of conflict around the globe cannot reasonably be used to indict all religious faith, especially when one considers that removing that single religion from the equation means that all of the other religious faiths combined only account for 3.23 percent of humanity’s wars.

The historical evidence is conclusive. Religion is not a primary cause of war.

 

THE ONTOLOGICAL ARGUMENT FOR RELIGIOUS WAR

An ontological argument is one that depends solely on reason and intuition rather than observation or evidence. Its most famous application is an argument for the existence of God, first used by St. Anselm of Canterbury, and it states that because we can conceive of God, something of which nothing greater can be imagined, God must exist. René Descartes also made use of a variant of this argument, but it has never been an important part of Christian theology due to its rejection by Thomas Aquinas. Its fame is more due to its later resurrection and rejections by David Hume and Bertrand Russell.

Richard Dawkins describes the ontological argument for the existence of God to be an infantile one. He pronounces himself offended at the very idea that “such logomachist trickery” could be used to produce such grand conclusions.9 And he’s correct to reject it, in my opinion, as ontological arguments boil down to the idea that if something can be conceived, it therefore must exist. No supporting evidence is necessary, mere reason and intuition suffice to prove the matter. Daniel Dennett scorns it as well, describing it as the logical equivalent of a carnival fun-house illusion.
It is curious, then, that Dawkins, like Sam Harris, so blithely subscribes to an ontological argument in support of the idea that religion is the implicit cause of war. While both men are too cautious to ever come right out and state that they believe religion is the direct and primary cause of war, most likely due to the fact that it is so easy to disprove such a belief, they nevertheless attempt to insinuate that this is the case by repeatedly associating religious faith with group violence and military conflict. For example, despite admitting that “wars...are seldom actually about theological disagreements,” Dawkins makes nineteen specific connections between religion and war in The God Delusion while Harris does likewise on twenty-nine occasions10 throughout The End of Faith.
They justify these accusations by insinuation on the basis of an argument concocted in order to attack religion as “one of the most pervasive causes of conflict in our world.”11 This is done by claiming that while religion is not the explicit cause of most wars, it is still responsible for the fact that those wars are taking place because religious faith is the reason there are two different sides in the first place. Of course, this is nothing more than an ontological argument based on their ability to imagine why war happens to exist in the first place, but both men try to conceal that fact by constructing a pair of shaky parallel arguments based on the idea that religion causes division.

Their arguments go like this:

 

1. Religion causes division between people.12

 

“Religion is undoubtedly a divisive force.”

 —DAWKINS

 

“The religious divisions in our world are self-evident.”

 —HARRIS

 

2. Religion provides the dominant label by which people are divided into groups.

 

“Without religion there would be no labels by which to decide whom to oppress and whom to avenge.”13

 —DAWKINS

 

“The only difference between these groups is what they believe about God.”14

 —HARRIS

 

3. Wars are fought between divided groups of people with different labels.

 

“Look carefully at any region of the world where you find intractable enmity and violence between rival groups. I cannot guarantee that you’ll find religions as the dominant labels for in-groups and out-groups. But it’s a very good bet.”

 —DAWKINS

 

“Religion is as much a living spring of violence today as it was at any time in the past.”

 —HARRIS

 

4. Therefore, religion is the implicit cause of war.

 

“The problem’s name is God.”15

 —DAWKINS

 

“Faith ...the most prolific source of violence in our history.”

 —HARRIS

 

Quod istis erat demonstrandum.

 

Superficial thinkers who know very little history find this argument compelling because the statements flow nicely from one into the other, and because there is a certain amount of truth in each of the assertions that lead up to the final conclusion. It cannot be denied that religion HAS been known to divide friends and families as well as entire nations. Religion HAS provided a marker by which opposing groups identify each other. War IS fought between divided groups of people bearing different labels; it takes two to tangle. The problem is that merely stringing together three statements that are factually true in some circumstances does not always lead to a logical conclusion.

Consider the same argument, only this time substituting three similarly valid assertions.

 

1. Pelicans eat sardines.

2. Pelicans improve the sardine species through aiding natural selection.

3. Natural selection is the mechanism through which evolution occurs.

4. Therefore, pelicans are the implicit cause of evolution.

 

Now, I’m no evolutionary biologist, but I’m fairly certain that human evolution is not dependent upon pelicans. Or elephant evolution, penguin evolution, or even, for that matter, the intelligent machine evolution16 that will lead us all into joyous mental union with Gaia in the next three decades. The fourth statement cannot be logically concluded from the preceding three assertions, no matter how much these great rationalist champions of reason would like to pretend it does.

This lack of a logical conclusion is not the implicit argument’s only flaw, because the first two assertions are demonstrably more false than true. For example, in Breaking the Spell, Daniel Dennett informs us that language is far older than any current religion or religion for which we possess historical evidence. If Dennett is correct, then it is obvious that the existence of diverse languages (and therefore different human groups) in the absence of different religions slashes the legs out from under this surreptitious attempt to blame the reality of war on religious faith by way of the back door.

Consider the division of the Franks, a single nation ruled by Charlemagne, as he is known today in France. Karl der Grosse, as Charlemagne is known in Germany, died in 814 A.D., whereupon Louis le Débonnaire (or if you prefer, Ludwig der Fromme) inherited the Kingdom of the Franks, which thanks to Charlemagne/Karl der Grosse’s conquests, was now styled an empire. Louis/Ludwig had four sons and his ill-considered attempts to divide the empire between them led to four civil wars that finally came to an end with the Treaty of Verdun in 843. His eldest son, Lothar, received the Middle Frankish Kingdom, which is now Italy, the Netherlands, Alsace-Lorraine, Burgundy, and Provence, while his third son, Louis the German, inherited what is now, unsurprisingly, known as Germany, and his youngest son, Charles the Bald, ended up with the lands west of the Rhône, or France. (Pepin, Louis/Ludwig’s second son, died before his father.)

When Lothar died in 855, he divided his kingdom into three more parts, one for each of his three sons, Louis II, Charles of Provence, and Lothar II. As one might expect, by 858 war had broken out, with Louis II allying with his uncle Louis the German against Lothar II and Charles the Bald. More wars were fought over the centuries, the Eastern and Western Franks grew more and more apart, until finally it reached the point where they spoke separate languages, possessed separate identities, and, in the end, adopted different forms of Christianity. But the division of the Franks into Germans and Frenchmen predates the division of Christendom into Catholics and Protestants by more than 675 years.

Religion obviously had no more to do with the division of the Franks than it did with the 1993 division of Czechoslovakia into Slovakia and the Czech Republic or last year’s divorce between Serbia and Montenegro. It couldn’t have, because there was no religious difference between the divided parties.

Regardless of whether one argues that religion is the explicit cause of war or the implicit one, the argument simply does not stand in the face of the historical evidence. History shows very clearly that the vast majority of divisions between different groups of people are not based on religious faith, and that religion is not the dominant label by which most distinct groups are identified. The New Atheist argument that religion is the implicit cause of war fails in every single way.

And it is more than ironic, it borders being completely bizarre, that both Dawkins and Harris should insist on the absolute need for scientific evidence to prove God’s existence while simultaneously basing the major part of their case against religious faith on arguments that are ontological, illogical, and empirically incorrect.

The historical evidence is conclusive. Religious faith very seldom causes war, either implicitly or explicitly. God is not the problem.

 

 

VII – THE END OF SAM HARRIS

 

If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion.

 —SAM HARRIS

 

SAM HARRIS IS A GRAVE EMBARRASSMENT to atheism, intellectuals, and the Stanford University philosophy department. The awarding of the 2005 PEN/Martha Albrand award for Nonfiction to The End of Faith bears more than a little resemblance to Columbia University’s decision to give the 2001 Bancroft prize to Michael Bellesiles1 for his alternate history novel, Arming America. Harris’s basic thesis, which asserts that religious faith poses an imminent danger to humanity, is every bit as demonstrably incorrect as Bellesiles’s argument ever was. If his arguments in support of that thesis are less intentionally fraudulent than those presented by Bellesiles, they are no less invalid.
Harris isn’t attacking any specific religious faith, but all of them at once.2 However, his definition of religious faith is as prone to bursts of punctuated mutation as are his multiple definitions of atheism quoted in the first chapter. His ignorance of the basic tenets of the faiths he targets most directly is astonishing, especially considering that he’s not attacking obscure Iraqi Mandaeans or Bakongolese worshippers of Nzambi Mpungu, but the world’s two most popular religions. For example, Harris repeatedly demonstrates an inability to distinguish between the relative significance of the Old Testament and the New Testament to Christians, while raising issues that have been debated by theologians and philosophers for nearly 2,000 years as if they were new and no one had ever thought of them before. Reading Harris, one would never know that the evidential problem of evil, or reconciling the idea of a benevolent God with the fact that evil exists, is considered to be one of the principle intellectual puzzles of Christianity and has been for centuries.3
To put into perspective how completely Harris ignores the active and ongoing intellectual debate that has continued within the Christian community since the Apostles Paul and Peter were arguing over whether Jewish Christians—about the only Christians at the time—were required to keep kosher, I note that my friend and pastor, Dr. Greg Boyd, published a book on the subject entitled Satan & the Problem of Evil: Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy4 in 2001. He then published Is God to Blame?: Moving Beyond Pat Answers to the Problem of Evil in 2003. His 1997 book, God at War: The Bible & Spiritual Conflict also went into the subject in some detail, while Letters From a Skeptic: A Son Wrestles with His Father’s Questions about Christianity, published in 1995, provided a less arduous look at some of the same issues. And Dr. Boyd is far from the only theologian to examine the subject. In addition to the many other Christian authors who have also addressed it, you may remember there was a very popular book entitled Why Bad Things Happen to Good People written by a rabbi, Harold Kushner, back in the early 1980s.

It’s clear from both the nature of his arguments and the absence of any relevant references in his bibliography that Harris has never bothered to examine these specific and, in some cases, incredibly detailed responses to the old dichotomy; instead, he merely repeats it and prances away congratulating himself for having posed what he declares is an “insurmountable” conundrum. But how can he possibly know that, considering that he clearly hasn’t even looked at most of the proposed answers? This behavior demonstrates Harris’s intellectual immaturity as well as his irresponsible failure to do even the most rudimentary research into his chosen subject.

But perhaps that’s not entirely fair. While Harris doesn’t once cite minor Christian intellectual figures such as Tertullian, Ambrose, Jerome, Gregory the Great, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, John Wesley, G. K. Chesterton, or even C. S. Lewis, he does find it relevant to provide one reference to Tim LaHaye, thirteen references to Hitler, Himmler, and Hess, and six whole pages dedicated to Noam Chomsky. Because, after all, no one is more suited to explain the Christian faith quite so well as an elderly author of pop religious fantasies, a trio of dead Nazis, and a left-wing Jewish linguist.5

Harris is also shamelessly intellectually dishonest. Anyone planning to debate Sam Harris would do well to ensure that there is a moderator, preferably one with a shock collar, as Harris is one of those slippery characters who invariably attempts to avoid answering all questions posed to him while simultaneously accusing the other party of arguing in bad faith and failing to address his points. I haven’t been pursuing a doctoral degree in neuroscience for the last twenty years or anything, but I seem to recall that “projection” is how psychologists describe that sort of behavior. It doesn’t matter whom he’s debating, Harris will invariably declare himself to be misrepresented and misunderstood, usually by his second response. It seems to escape him that if he’s so often misunderstood, the only solution is to express himself more clearly.

Finally, for an individual who claims to be passionately dedicated to reason and names one section of his book “The Necessity of Logical Coherence,” Harris is an appallingly incoherent logician. He frequently fails to gather the relevant data required to prove his case, and on several occasions inadvertently presents evidence that demonstrates precisely the opposite of that which he is attempting to prove. His postulates are often only partially true, and even when the information on which he bases an argument is reliable, the conclusions he draws are seldom reasonable.

But there is no need to take my word for any of this. Unlike Sam Harris, I believe in offering substantial support for my assertions. One might even dare to call it an empirical approach. So, in the best spirit of scientific inquiry, here is the hypothesis: Sam Harris is an ignorant, incompetent, and intellectually dishonest individual who attacks religious faith because it stands in the way of his dream of the ultimate destruction of America. While this may sound more than a little extreme at the moment, allow me to present the evidence, and you, the reader, shall be the judge.

 

THE IGNORANT ATHEIST

In his two books, Harris commits dozens of easily demonstrable factual and logical errors. While detailing these errors in their fullness would fill a book in its own right, perhaps highlighting a few of the more obvious mistakes will suffice to illustrate the case.

 

1) Factual error. Harris begins The End of Faith by strongly implying that almost all suicide bombers are Muslim. Jane’s Intelligence Review reports that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who are not Muslims but a Marxist liberation front that committed 168 of the 273 suicide bombings that took place between 1980 and 2000, have historically been the leading practitioners of suicide bombing.6 Harris tries to cover up his blunder in the notes section of the paperback edition by claiming that to describe the Tigers as secular “is misleading” because they “are Hindus who undoubtedly believe many improbable things about the nature of life and death.” But the Tamil Tigers themselves expressly claim secular status, a declaration supported by the fact that the recently deceased Anton Balasingham, the LTTE’s chief political strategist and ideologue, was a Roman Catholic.7 It’s also worth noting that slain Tigers are buried rather than cremated according to Hindu ritual. More importantly, there is no definition of “secular” that precludes a belief in improbable things about the nature of life and death or anything else, including the Labor Theory of Value, String Theory, or multiple universes.
2) Logical error. In Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris borrows from Stephen F. Roberts in challenging Christians with a variant of the One Less God argument.8 He informs Christians that they reject Islam in “precisely the way” that Muslims reject Christianity, which is also the same reason he rejects all religions.9 So, either Harris believes that the Christian God exists and there is a powerful spirit of evil or he doesn’t know what is almost literally the first thing about Christian theology. Christians WORSHIP the one Creator God, but they BELIEVE in the supernatural existence of many spiritual beings that are often worshipped and are legitimately described as gods. Harris has not read the Bible very closely if he is under the impression that Christians do not believe in “the god of this age,” “the prince of this world,” or any of the rulers, authorities, and powers mentioned in Ephesians 6:12.10
3) Factual error. Harris claims “religion has been the explicit cause of literally millions of deaths in the last ten years” in these places: Palestine, the Balkans, Northern Ireland, Kashmir, Sudan, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Eritrea, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, the Caucasus.11 However, even if we accept his assertion that these conflicts are all religious in nature, the sum total of deaths in all these places since 1994 is most likely below 750,000. Palestine is often in the headlines, but there have only been about 7,500 deaths on both sides combined over the last ten years. In the Balkans, there were 96,495 deaths (most of which occurred before 2004), while fewer than 100 of the 3,225 deaths in Northern Ireland since 1969 occurred in the last decade. The Timor-Leste Commission for Reception, Truth, and Reconciliation reports that most of the 102,800 deaths in formerly Indonesian East Timor took place in the 1970s, and the estimated 150,000 fatalities in the 1998–2000 Ethiopian-Eritrean war pale in comparison with the 1.5 million deaths attributed to the “Red Terror” previously committed by Ethiopia’s atheist Derg regime.
4) Factual error. Harris says that certainty about the next life is simply incompatible with tolerance in this one. But since Sam Harris is tolerated and allowed to live unmolested in a nation where 150 million people, by his account, possess such certainty, this is obviously wrong. The statement is particularly ironic given how he argues explicitly against tolerance for the religious faithful.12 Given the evidence of Harris himself, it is certainty about the nonexistence of the next life that is incompatible with tolerance in this one.
5) Factual error. Harris claims that human standards of morality are what Christians use to establish God’s goodness.13 This is incorrect. Christians do not believe that God is subject to human morality. This should be obvious from considering the Ten Commandments. Is God prone to have another god before Himself? Does God have a neighbor whose wife He might covet? Who is God’s father and how might He fail to honor him?
6) Factual error. Harris states that “questions about morality are questions about happiness and suffering.”14 They are not. Questions about morality concern what action is correct in light of the moral system to which the individual subscribes. Questions about Christian morality, the specific moral system Harris is addressing in Letter to a Christian Nation, are questions about what actions are deemed right in the eyes of God. In any case, morality should never be confused with a hedonic metric of happiness or suffering.

7) Logical error. Harris claims religious moderates are responsible for the actions of religious extremists. But no individual can possibly be held responsible for the actions of another individual over whom he has no authority or influence and has never even met.

8) Logical error. Harris asserts that competing religious doctrines have shattered the world into separate moral communities.15 He also claims that the objective source of moral order is distinguishing between better and worse ways of seeking happiness.16 However, he cites no evidence that Christians seek happiness any differently than Hindus, nor does he explain, precisely, how Jews seek happiness differently than Muslims. It’s worth noting that Harris has probably caused greater human unhappiness with his books than his fellow atheist, Jeffrey Dahmer, ever did with his exotic diet, so by his own reckoning, Harris is less moral than Dahmer.
9) Logical error. Harris claims that religious prudery contributes daily to the surplus of human misery while bemoaning the existence of AIDS in Africa and other sexually transmitted diseases in the United States. But this widespread disease is the direct result of the sexual promiscuity that Christians condemn as immoral and which Harris praises as the pursuit of happiness. More to the point, scientific research shows that religious individuals are both happier17 and more sexually satisfied18 than non-religious individuals.
10) Factual error. Harris asserts that the entire civilized world now agrees that slavery is an abomination. Given that there are 700,000 slaves19 being trafficked across international borders every year, this is a significant exaggeration. In September 2003, National Geographic reported that “there are more slaves today than were seized from Africa in four centuries of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.” Obviously, more than a few people in the civilized world disagree.

11) Logical error. Harris says Muslims have “far fewer grievances” with Western imperialism than the rest of the world and that these grievances are “purely theological.” As of this writing, the United States and twenty-one other countries have more than 225,000 troops occupying Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia. Regardless of one’s opinion about the wisdom of the ongoing occupations, one should be able to recognize that there’s nothing theological about being aggrieved at the military occupation of your country.

12) Factual error. In Letter to a Christian Nation, Harris twice cites the high American rate of infant mortality in a disingenuous attempt to associate poor health and/or inferior medical science with the American rate of religious adherence, despite his subsequent claim that he isn’t actually making any such argument. Regardless, he neglects to mention that this rate—the second highest in the developed world—is primarily due to the fact that the U.S.A. has the best neonatal care in the world, with the most neonatologists and neonatal intensive care beds per capita. Premature babies have a fighting chance to live in the United States; whereas in other developed countries, most live births below 3.3 pounds are not registered and never appear in their infant mortality statistics. Religious America’s superior medical technology likewise accounts for the world’s highest five year cancer survival rate, which at 64.6 percent for all cancers is as much as 81 percent higher than some European countries and 22.5 percent higher than the acclaimed Dutch health care system. More importantly, while comparing American societal health to that of “the most atheist societies,” Harris forgets that he has defined Buddhism as a form of atheism, therefore the societies to which religious America’s health must be compared are not historically Christian countries like Norway, Iceland, Australia, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, and Belgium, but rather heavily Buddhist countries such as Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Laos, and Vietnam. The U.S.A.’s Human Development Index rank is 10, significantly better than the average rank of 114 for the seven “most atheist” countries, so both Harris’s implied and explicit arguments fail based on his own measures and definitions.

 

THE INCOMPETENT ATHEIST

One of the most oft-cited passages in Letter to a Christian Nation is Harris’s Red State-Blue State argument, in which he purports to prove that there is no correlation between Christian conservativism and social health. Richard Dawkins found the data to be “striking,” so much so that he quotes the following paragraph from Harris’s book in its entirety:

 

While political party affiliation in the United States is not a perfect indicator of religiosity, it is no secret that the “red [Republican] states” are primarily red because of the overwhelming political influence of conservative Christians. If there were a strong correlation between Christian conservatism and social health, we might expect to see some sign of it in red-state America. We don’t. Of the 25 cities with the lowest rates of violent crime, 62 percent are in “blue” [Democrat] states and 38 percent are in “red” [Republican] states. Of the twenty-five most dangerous cities, 76 percent are in red states, and 24 percent are in blue states. In fact, three of the five most dangerous cities in the U.S. are in the pious state of Texas. The twelve states with the highest rates of burglary are red. Twenty-four of the twenty-nine states with the highest rates of theft are red. Of the twenty-two states with the highest rates of murder, seventeen are red.20

 

There are several layers of problems with this apparent proof of Christian immorality. The first is that political identity is a very poor substitute for religiosity. As the 2001 ARIS study showed, only 14.1 percent of Americans are adherents of one of the various churches of atheism. Since about half of eligible Americans bother to vote, the maximum potential number of godless blues in the country is 28.2 percent of the total, which would have accounted for 29.4 percent of John Kerry and Ralph Nader’s combined 59,028,109 votes, if every atheist, agnostic, and non-believer in God had voted Democrat or Green in 2004.

But they didn’t. In fact, the exit polls indicated that atheists were less likely to vote than the religious faithful, as only 10 percent of voters in the CNN exit polls described themselves as “no religion.”21 That godless 10 percent did lean heavily blue, as more than two-thirds voted for Kerry or Nader,22 but a third went red without an imaginary friend providing them with instructions to vote for George W. Bush.
This means that out of a potential 17,338,916 godless voters in 2004, only 12,148,002 showed up to vote, of whom 8,260,641 can reasonably be described as blue. This leaves another 51,178,772 voters who are blue, but not godless. Setting aside the fact that Harris provides no evidence indicating that the 121.4 million Americans who voted committed all, or even any, of the violent crimes, burglaries, and thefts he mentions—there were another 80,451,439 eligible Americans who didn’t vote, not including the 2,861,915 felons out on parole or probation who couldn’t vote23 and just might have committed a crime or two that year—it is absurd to credit all the supposedly law-abiding behavior of blue voters to the 16 percent of them who lack religious faith.

If this isn’t sufficient evidence of the foolishness of trying to equate Democratic votes with atheism, the ARIS 2001 survey reported a higher percentage of Democrats among Jews, Baptists, Catholics, Methodists, Pentecostals, Episcopalians, Buddhists, and Muslims than among the not religious, of whom only 30 percent reported a preference for the Democratic Party. (However, the not religious tend to describe themselves as political independents, not Republicans.)

So while the data may be striking, the argument based upon it can only be described as strikingly stupid. But just for kicks, let’s pretend that it is not a measure so ridiculously inaccurate as to be completely useless. Let’s imagine that Harris’s metric really is relevant, that an American voter’s 2004 presidential vote truly is indicative of his religious faith, or the lack thereof, and that statewide criminal statistics are a reasonable measure of an individual’s predilection for immoral behavior.24 This exercise in imagination is necessary, in fact, because only by accepting his measure at face value and examining it in detail can one fully grasp the true depth of Harris’s exceptional incompetence.

Richard Dawkins may be excused for his ignorance of the American governmental structure since he is not an American, but rather a subject of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, in right of the United Kingdom. But Sam Harris has no similar excuse for overlooking the fact that there is a unit of regional self-government below the state level, a useful little unit by which both electoral votes and criminal acts are recorded.

In other words, Sam Harris should have been looking at the electoral and criminal data by county, not by state. Consider the red state of Florida. Its eleven blue counties account for 44 percent of the state’s population, but more than 50 percent of its murders and 60 percent of its robberies.25 The bluest county, Gadsden, voted for Kerry by a 70–30 margin and had the state’s highest murder rate at 12.8 per 100,000, while the two reddest counties, Baker and Okaloosa, averaged a murder rate of 0.7 per 100,000 to go with their identical 78–22 margins for George Bush. And this was the case even though the population of the two red counties is more than four times that of blue Gadsden.

This tendency for blue counties to be home to higher crime rates is true in blue states as well. For example, the blue state of Maryland’s five blue counties possessed an average murder rate of 13.22 per 100,000 residents, which is nearly fifteen times higher than the 0.89 murder rate in Maryland’s nineteen red counties. And the District of Columbia, which voted 91 percent blue in 2004, also happened to possess the highest murder rate in the nation, which at 35.7 per 100,000 was nearly seven times the U.S. national average of 5.5. Given that red counties have murder rates that tend to range from five to twenty times lower than blue counties, this is a pretty powerful sign that the “strong correlation between Christian conservatism and social health” that Harris claimed to be unable to find does, in fact, exist. But in case you’re not convinced yet, consider the cities to which Harris refers and see what the red-blue divide reveals once one looks at the political orientation of the county in which those safe and dangerous cities are located instead of the state.

The first thing one notices is that Sam Harris can’t even manage elementary school math. The percentage for the safest cities determined by state voting patterns is not 62 percent; seventeen blue state cities divided by twenty-five total cities equals 68 percent safe blue cities. (Apparently it’s only division that gives him trouble because he does manage to subtract 62 from 100 successfully, which explains his incorrect percentage of 38 percent safe cities located in red states.)26
His math issues are minor. What is much more important is the way in which using the more accurate county data demonstrates that Harris’s conclusions are precisely backward. Thirteen of the twenty-five safest cities are situated in RED counties and twenty-one of the twenty-five most dangerous cities are located in BLUE counties. This provides precisely the information that Harris claimed to have sought in vain, it is definitive proof that the social health of Red America is significantly superior to that of Blue America by Harris’s own chosen measure.27