Today is the feast day of St Francis de Sales, patron of journalists and writers, who said “whoever wants to preach effectively must preach with love.” So it is with love that we turn to the so-called New Atheists who have done so much to force thoughtful believers to define just what it is, exactly, they believe, and why.
I’m afraid to read them. These men – and they’re all men – are sizzling wicked smart and a couple of them can even write words. Our faith is weak and the Four Amigos are strong. But if “God is Truth,” as Augustine claimed, then It has nothing to fear from any man, woman or idea. If these New Atheists are telling us the Truth, then any real God would want us to know. Right?
So let’s line them up, the usual suspects, in order of perceived coolness:
- Sam Harris – neuroscientist, philosopher, youngest of the four. Kicked off the current Bad-God craze in 2004 with his book “The End of Faith,” essentially a howl against fundamentalist Christians and Islamists in the wake of 9/11. He wrote a groovy rant recently about how rich people should be less impressed with themselves, which reminded me (though not, of course, Harris) of Paul’s rant against the Corinthians: “What do you have that you did not receive?!”
- Christopher Hitchens – British journalist, ex-Marxist, friend of Graydon Carter, now battling cancer. More of a freelance provocateur and debater-for-hire, he’s easily the best writer in the group, probably because that’s his actual profession. His “God Is Not Great” is a lot of fun (I hear). Known as “Hitch.”
- Richard Dawkins – biologist, expert in evolution, author of “The God Delusion.” Not quite a Hitch-level wit, at least down there on the page, he’s most righteously offended by fundamentalists’ stupid Darwin-bashing.
- Daniel Dennett – cognitive scientist, expert in intentional systems, author of “Breaking the Spell.”Rumor has it he’s a bit of a snooze prosaically. Sees no need for intelligent design (Aquinas’ “Fifth Way”) since he knows systems can organize themselves.
A few observations. These are not disaffected religious who’ve turned on their faith, as far as I know. They’re true atheists, indifferent to religion if it hadn’t begun to seem so powerful. Two are brain scientists; one an evolutionist. From different angles, they have expert knowledge that makes them bristle at the two big science-claims of fundamentalists: (1) intelligent design, and (2) creationism – that is, God as organizer and God as starter.
Our strengths are our weaknesses. Their strength in countering religious-science claims is obvious. Their weakness is, as scientists, they don’t seem to know much about religion. But we shall see.
* Francis de Sales wrote a spiritual classic called “Introduction to the Devout Life” that’s an attempt to adapt a kind of Catholic mystical practice for people who are not monks, i.e., the rest of us. It’s filled with practical advice on how to meditate and handle daily problems. Four paws up!