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Why atheists are just plain right

“Religion comes from the period of human history where nobody, not even the mighty Democritus, who concluded that all matter was made from atoms, had the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our own inescapable demand for knowledge, as well as for comfort, reassurance and other infantile needs.” – Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great

Once you get past the pomposity of Christopher Hitchens and the mockingly condescending tone and flattering of science of Richard Dawkins, what you find in the determined and powerful writings of the “new atheism” is that they are, well, right. “New atheism” is stupid nomenclature. There is nothing new about it, except that for reasons one could debate at length, it’s suddenly on the best seller lists.

Perhaps their only misstep is to characterise atheists as cultured, fey intellectuals who despite their rejection of god and his various incarnations, are nonetheless still up for a good cognac before a majestic production of Handel’s Messiah. Appreciating, of course, the majesty of the music and not the message. This, I think, is damaging to those atheists who have no particular interest in high European art forms, but just simply don’t buy the bullshit.

Following on from this, is the apparent assertion that we atheists are all peace-loving democrats who have no problem with people practising their own brand of religious devotion as long as they leave us well alone (which, of course, they rarely do). That too is disingenuous I think, particularly since both these writers (and others) hold little back in solidly attacking god and all the various religions, often in amusing and scathing passages (such as the one quoted above).

The truth is that we atheists hold religion, and its gods, in some contempt. We are contemptuous of its tendency to cause suffering and conflict. Of its arrogant claim to know truths which not even the greatest geniuses alive would ever claim. Of the paltry and insulting body of evidence it wields in its own defence. And of the, to paraphrase Hitchens, childish stories it offers as moral guides, ethical tools and metaphysical insights.

And we are contemptuous with or without a taste for fine wine and Degas.

Dawkins’s “The God Delusion” and Hitchens’s “God is not Great” have both succeeded as very popular books in Europe and, crucially, in the US. The Hitchens got to number two on Amazon.com, just behind Harry Potter. This is no small achievement in a country still so obsessed with god and Christianity — arguably, as close to being governed presently by the church as it ever has. Not the Catholic variety, of course, which would no doubt simply be angling to pinch some of the state treasures.

These kinds of sales and readerships imply that these authors are right in another sense too: atheism is growing. Perhaps for the first time, people are willing, at least, to understand the case properly. And I think a lot of people are realising, as they read Dawkins in particular on evolutionary biology, that the explanations offered by atheism to compete with some of the simple-minded myths of Christianity or Islam or Hinduism, are satisfyingly right. There is a certain kind of note that is struck when these theories sink in that sounds a hell of a lot like the truth. Or, at least, a lot closer to it than anything the bible or similar have to offer.

Madeleine Bunting wrote in the Guardian, in a piece that was syndicated in the Mail & Guardian some months back, that “The danger is that hostility to religion in all its forms deters engagement with the really interesting questions that have emerged in the science/faith debate. The durability and near-universality of religion is one of the most enduring conundrums of evolutionary thinking”. This in an apparent attack on Dawkins’s and similar stances.

However this seems like more an attack on method than on conclusion. Bunting never tries to defend religion per se, simply to argue that the phenomenon is worth understanding more before dismissing it. And on this she may be right, although all of these writers, Hitchens in particular, come across as extremely well-read and educated on religion in all its many forms. Just because they are hostile does not mean they have not done their homework.

I too think that it’s past time for niceties. The horrors in which religion has a hand are too countless to list. From paedophilia in the confessional to female circumcision; from religious war to fanatical terrorism; and from banning contraception (and thereby encouraging unwanted children and the spread of HIV/Aids) to raging against homosexuality. Organised religion has done enough damage. Perhaps at some point in the past it may have held to argue that it played an important role in making sense of an unfathomable world. Or instilled hope where there was little to be had. But in the first we no longer need it. And in the second, we should all be ashamed of allowing poverty and misery to be comforted in this way.

And the attack isn’t just on religion, though that is the prime evil. God himself, itself, herself, is also equally to be renounced and shed. This idea, that the universe was designed and created. Or that there is some figure lurking behind each moment, listening to our prayers and directing us this way and that according to his will. Even in the most abstract sense, even decoupled from the Bible or the Qur’an, even simply relegated to a force of nature, even this must be stamped out, because it encumbers us. It prevents the generations that succeed us from thinking as big as they need to; from facing and feeling the true enormity of the life and the universe; and from sitting with the bewildering mysteries in which, I believe at any rate, true wisdom lies.

These fairy stories and fairy characters belong in the past. And it’s time we stopped worrying about offending people by saying so.