A spate of publications on atheism has been thrust at us recently: Richard Dawkins with The God Delusion; Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell; Michel Onfray’s The Atheist Manifesto; and Christopher Hitchens’ The Portable Atheist. The last mentioned following almost immediately on his God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.
They raise many questions, the dominant ones being whether they give us any deeper insight into ourselves, our needs as human beings, and ways to conduct our lives.
On this score they fail miserably. They are negative, destroying much of mankind’s history, replacing it with an empty nothing - and they avoid a fundamental quest of the human race in the process.
They, of course, give their answer to a question that has engaged thinkers for centuries. God does not exist, or as Dawkins puts it more believably: “There is almost certainly no God.” But rather than arguments for the non-existence of God, their attacks are primarily against religion. And with those attacks Dawkins does take on the arguments for the existence of God, and succeeds in convincing us that nobody can present believable proof either way. His greatest efforts, as also with the other three, however, are spent in telling us of the evils of religion .And within that limitation they attack only the three Abrahamic religions, Islam, Judaism and Christianity.
Religion is a man-made device, they claim, developed from our fear of the unknown and of life after death. Our need for consolation in times of difficulty and to ask for help from a loving God, have also been contributors.
Dennett takes our religious history back further, ascribing to shamanism the role of forerunner to today’s organised religions. How witch doctors transformed their practices into Christian beliefs, however, or into any structured religion, and why they waited the greater part of human existence to do so, he does not explain.
The viciousness of their attacks on the three religions is disconcerting - it is difficult to pick which is the most unpleasant.
Hitchens’ introduction is brash to the point of being offensive. Religion is “irrational” or “evil nonsense”. It exposes the believers’ “dumb credulity”, characterised by an Archbishop of Canterbury who is an “old fool” or a “cretinous” Bishop of Carlisle. First prize in this slanging match, however, must go to the philosopher Michel Onfray, who writes with an overblown turgidity, without references, footnotes or an index: presumably to avoid us checking the “nonsense” and “man-made foolery” of today’s religions; and their “deceptive, travestied and hypocritically” promulgating of their beliefs.
The bellicose history of religion is a common theme of attack. “The assertion of one God, violent, jealous, quarrelsome and intolerant, has generated more hate, bloodshed, deaths and brutality than it has peace”, Hitchens tells us. Dennett, perhaps the least intolerant of these militants, is still not above describing the “fanatical … delusion” of believers, nor of placing responsibility on religion for the genocides of mankind. They do have some substance in asserting this evil face of religion, although it is not the only cause. None of them will admit that the cause of war may equally be in the winning of territory, power or resources. Nor in the megalomania of unfettered rulers.
Hitchens issues a challenge: “Name me an ethical statement made, or an action performed, by a believer that could not been made or performed by a non-believer”. His challenge, of course, is nonsense. Ten minutes walk from where this writer lives is a church that feeds the lost and homeless daily. Scattered over this city are church-run refuges, homes for the elderly, and community assistance programs. In the pubs members of the Salvation Army collect money daily for their charities.
Hitchens’ challenge is easily reversed: to identify any atheist run charity, replicated many times over, than gives help to the poor. Fortunate perhaps, that atheists are not into helping others in any organised way, given the evangelical vitriol with which the current atheistic writings condemn the beliefs of the majority of the human race.
Their failures lie more in the nature of human beings. That over history the greater part of mankind has sought comfort against the fear of the unknown is an acknowledged fact. That we also seek comfort in difficult times is human. These needs may well be the root cause of religious beliefs. But we also seek meaning in our lives. We need to have a reason for being, even though we may be no more than an accidental emergence from the primordial slime.
Peter Bowden is formerly Professor of Administrative Studies at Manchester University and now Research Associate in the Department of Philosophy at Sydney University. He is currently a Research Associate in the Department of Philosophy at Sydney University, working on institutional ethics, runs with others a Philosophy Cafe (Philo Agora) in Sydney and is on the National Committee of Whistleblowers Australia.