The Crusade Against Religion
The battle between naturalists and supernaturalists.
Reprinted with permission from Wired.
My pilgrimage is about to become more difficult. On the one hand, it is obvious that the political prospects of the New Atheism are slight. People see a contradiction in its tone of certainty. Contemptuous of the faith of others, its proponents never doubt their own belief. They are fundamentalists. I hear this protest dozens of times. It comes up in every conversation. Even those who might side with the New Atheists are repelled by their strident tone. (The founders of the Brights, Geisert and Futrell, became grim at the mention of Sam Harris. "We don't endorse anything from him," Geisert said. We had talked for nearly three hours, and this was the only dark cloud.) The New Atheists never propose realistic solutions to the damage religion can cause. For instance, the Catholic Church opposes condom use, which makes it complicit in the spread of AIDS. But among the most powerful voices against this tragic mistake are liberals within the Church -- exactly those allies the New Atheists reject. The New Atheists care mainly about correct belief. This makes them hopeless, politically.
But on the other hand, the New Atheism does not aim at success by conventional political means. It does not balance interests, it does not make compromises, it does not seek common ground. The New Atheism, outwardly at least, is a straightforward appeal to our intellect. Atheists make their stand upon the truth.
So is atheism true?
There's good evidence from research by anthropologists such as Pascal Boyer and Scott Atran that a grab bag of cognitive predispositions makes us natural believers. We hear leaves rustle and we imagine that some airy being flutters up there; we see a corpse and continue to fear the judgment and influence of the person it once was. Remarkable progress has been made in understanding why faith is congenial to human nature -- and of course that still says nothing about whether it is true. Harris is typically severe in his rejection of the idea that evolutionary history somehow justifies faith. There is, he writes, "nothing more natural than rape. But no one would argue that rape is good, or compatible with a civil society, because it may have had evolutionary advantages for our ancestors." Like rape, Harris says, religion may be a vestige of our primitive nature that we must simply overcome.