In the early modern and modern periods of Western history, the religious establishment comprised of the various churches and the political establishments with which they were affiliated or which they supported feared liberal philosophies and the secular governments that reflected them and with which they were allied. Today, in the post-modern era, it is the liberal philosophies and the liberal governments that represent and reflect them that fear religion, religiously minded people, and the churches themselves, save for the most theologically liberal ones that have, to all intents and purposes, abandoned traditional religion—Christianity in particular—which they replaced with social activism of the progressive sort or New Age philosophy.
This process began in the late 19th century and gained force and influence throughout the 20th, by the close of which it appeared to the actual enemies of religion and the secularizers alike that they were winning their campaign to secularize the state, relegate the churches to the margins of society, make religious faith (again, the Christian faith especially) intellectually and professionally discreditable and socially embarrassing, and stifle the religious impulse itself. Then, beginning around the first decade of the third millennium, liberals’ confidence in liberalism’s ability to defeat religion and the churches, replace the one with secularism and—effectively—shut down the churches and the whole apparatus of organized religion failed, more or less abruptly and was succeeded by a perceptible—indeed expressed—fear that ridding the world of its religious dimension, and even of religious people themselves was a far more difficult thing than liberal secularists had imagined.
In short, the coming of the new millennium and the bold and regularly repeated assertion that “This is the twenty-first century!” could not make religion, the churches, and the churchgoers vanish overnight as if by simple incantation. Religion, apparently, had a great deal more life in it than secularists in general, and liberals especially, had supposed. These people had always understood that taming—first—and eradicating—eventually—the wild fierce faiths lying (mostly) beyond the boundaries of the western world was a tall order; but even as religious wars, or wars in which religious rivalries were involved, broke out in the Middle West and elsewhere, the benighted and uncouth Christian sects at home not only showed no sign of withering away but rather of strengthening themselves, including by helping to elect an American president who, whether a Christian or not, was clearly a fellow traveler of Christians, their churches, and the “populists” who attend them on Sunday mornings.
Between Ronald Reagan’s presidency and Donald Trump’s liberals expressed, with what probably started, for tactical reasons, as a largely feigned and widely expressed fear of conservatives and religious people generally, but beginning with George W. Bush’s first administration seemed increasingly genuine and during Trump’s four years in office verged on hysteria. The fact that the majority of liberals are seemingly unacquainted, socially at least, with religiously minded and observant people, and that their knowledge of the Bible—let alone the Koran—evidently lies somewhere between negligible and non-existent, probably helps to explain their hostility to religion in any form that reinforces their fundamental and apparently insuperable resistance to the possibility of the supernatural and the Holy, both of which affront their concept of the nature and dignity of man.
Three books published over a period of three years in the first decade of the new century thoroughly express and amply document the contempt, the revulsion, and ultimately the fear that secular liberals today feel toward religion in any form, the organized variety in particular. These are The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (2004) by Sam Harris, The God Delusion (2006) by Richard Dawkins, and God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007), by Christopher Hitchens.
Two of these authors (known collectively as the New Atheists), Dawkins and the late Mr. Hitchens, are Englishmen and one, Sam Harris, is an American. Harris is a neuroscientist, Dawkins professes “the public understanding of science” at Oxford, and Hitchens was a literary gadfly and enfant terrible: a pair of scientists, then, and a literary chap raised as an Anglican. Interestingly enough, despite their differing backgrounds, their arguments against the existence of a possible deity and thoroughgoing evil of religion—all religions—are strikingly overlapping and repetitive.
Partly for these reasons, I take their view of the gods and their cults as being broadly representative of the thinking of the majority of post-modern liberals today. I note further that God Is Not Great received glowing reviews in the Boston Globe, the New York Times Book Review, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Library Journal, the New York Sun, Kirkus Reviews, the Orlando Sentinel, Publishers Weekly, the Providence Journal, and on Bloomberg.com; the End of Faith in San Francisco Chronicle, Peter Singer, the president of Union Theological Seminary, the New York Times, The Economist, and The Guardian; and The God Delusion from Steven Pinker and Desmond Morris—a pretty fair sampling of contemporary liberal opinion on the subject of the religious mind and temperament.
“As I write these words, and as you read them,” Christopher Hitchens asserts in the first chapter of God Is Not Great, “and as you read them, people of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction, and the destruction of all the hard-won human attainments [by human civilization]. Religion poisons everything.” It is, in fact, the true Original Sin, or a form of it. “Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of woman and coercive toward children [a form of child abuse]: organized religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience.”
And elsewhere: Religion kills, it can be hazardous to health. “To accept the spread of cervical cancer in the name of god [as he claims George W. Bush’s administration did] is no different, morally or intellectually, from sacrificing these woman on a stone altar and thanking the deity for giving us the sexual impulse and then condemning it.”
Further, “The connection between religious faith and mental disorder is, from the viewpoint of the tolerant and the ‘multicultural,’ both very obvious and highly unmentionable.” More, religion and religious people are threateningly intrusive. Religion “must seek to interfere with the lives of unbelievers, or heretics, or adherents of other faiths. It may speak about the bliss of the next world, but it wants power in this one….It is, after all, wholly man-made.”
Sam Harris agrees with all of this, and much more; while Christopher Hitchens goes so far as to argue in The End of Faith that unbelievers ought to demand that one can make a valid moral case for the slaughter of believers by unbelievers, if they are unable to offer “better reasons for maintaining their religious differences, if such reasons even exist.” “There is no reason whatsoever,” he insists, “that we can survive our religious differences indefinitely,” just as we could not safely tolerate a diversity of belief about the principles of hygiene and epidemiology. Therefore, “it is time we recognized that belief is not a private matter; it has never been merely private.” Like Hitchens, he thinks that the demonstrable link between belief and behavior points up the perils religion poses to the future of civilization, humanity, and the world itself:
Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. …There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured…otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense. This is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan, and it is what we and other Western powers are bound to attempt, at an even greater cost to ourselves and to innocents abroad, elsewhere in the Muslim world. We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas.
(Richard Dawkins quotes Ann Coulter, a person he says might have been invented by The Onion for having written, “We should invade [Muslim] countries, kill their leaders, and convert [the people] to Christianity.”) History, “or a glance at any newspaper,” shows that human conflicts and the slaughter that arose from them have generally been rooted in religion. “[I]t is what people do with words [in books] like’ God’ and ‘paradise’ and ‘sin’ in the present that will determine our future.” Contemporary liberals and conservatives have got far beyond religious disputation in their understanding of the world-and thus their prescriptions for governing it—after reaching a rare consensus, Harris claims: “religious beliefs are simply beyond the scope of rational discourse.”
Like most other postmodern atheists, including Hitchens and Dawkins, Harris has a special hatred of the Christian religion, reflecting “
Elsewhere he says, “In thinking about Islam, and about the risk it poses to the West, we should imagine what it would take to live peacefully with the Christians of the fourteenth century—Christians who were still eager to prosecute people for crimes like host desecration and witchcraft.” (Harris nowhere compares the evils of Mohammedanism with those of Christianity; presumably, having a head start of six centuries on Islam, the Church has managed to effect more terror and mayhem then its junior religion.) Sam Harris’s conclusion, like Christopher Hitchens’, is that religion must go. “We must find a way to a time when faith, without evidence, disgraces anyone who would claim it. Given the present state of the world, there appears to be no other future worth wanting.”
In Harris’ and Dawkins’ view, religion is such an unmitigated evil that both men are (no doubt unwittingly) in agreement with the sentiment expressed by Barry Goldwater in his presidential campaign in 1964 that extremism in pursuit of a worthy end is no vice, and moderation no virtue. “[R]eligious moderates,” Harris argues, “are themselves the bearers of a terrible dogma; they imagine that the path to peace will be paved once each of us has learned to respect the unjustified belief of others…[T]he very ideal of religious tolerance…is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss.” He explains: “Religious moderates are, in large part, responsible for the religious conflict in our world because their beliefs provide the context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed.”
Moderation is based on religious toleration, which is based on a relativistic philosophy that considers all religions equal, more or less, and embraces moral relativism, which he dismisses as nonsensical, as “moral relativism, when used as a rationale for toleration of diversity, is self-contradictory.” Similarly, what Dawkins calls “non-fundamentalist, ‘sensible’ religion” is guilty of—among many other things—“making the world safe for fundamentalism by teaching children, from their earliest years, that unquestioning faith is a virtue;” a crime of which Christians and Muslims are equally guilty and is only one among the many forms of child abuse committed by religious people to some extent or another due to what Hitchens describes as religion’s “obsession with children,” its insistence on rigid authoritarian control of their lives, and “compulsory inoculation of faith and on religious instruction from an early age. “We can be sure,” he says, “that religion has always hoped to practice upon the unformed and undefended minds of the young, and has gone to great lengths to make sure of this privilege by making alliances with secular powers of the material world.” (Hitchens, for his part, calls the term “child abuse” as it is used today “a really a silly and pathetic euphemism for what has been going on [in the Catholic Church]: We are talking about the systemic rape and torture of children, positively aided and abetted by a hierarchy which knowingly moved the offenders where they would be safer.”) Inculcating faith in children—or anyone—Dawkins finishes up, “[is] an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument….If children were taught to question and think through their beliefs…it is a good bet that there would be no suicide bombers.”
There is an obvious counter-argument available to oppose Harris’ and Hitchens’ thesis that religion is the root of all evil in the world today and throughout history, one they have not failed to note and attempt to rebut. It is that much evil has been worked in the world by political theories, ideology, and ideological constructions, and by conflicting, passionate, and unreasonable loyalties to these things—a historical fact that has been noted many times before and by innumerable people, George Orwell among them. “A totalitarian state,” Orwell wrote in the 1940s, “is in effect a theocracy.”
Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris alike jump at this argument with full confidence. “A political scientist or anthropologist,” Hitchens remarks, “would have little difficulty recognizing what the editors and contributors of The God That Failed put into such immortal prose: Communist absolutists did not so much negate religion, in societies they well understood were saturated with faith and superstition, as seek to replace it.” Harris: echoes him. “[C]onsider the millions of people killed by Stalin and Mao: although these tyrants paid lip service to rationality, communism was little more than a political religion….The anti-Semitism that built the crematoria brick by brick—and that still thrives today—comes to us by way of Christian theology [my italics]. Knowingly or not, the Nazis were agents of religion.”
Needless to say, anti-Semitism, though it has undeniably been entertained by some Christians and Christian communities over the past two millennia, has never been any part of Christian theology. As for the argument that all politics is religious in nature, that is an inversion of the traditional Marxist maxim that everything in human society—indeed in human life—is political. The imagined insight that everything in life and history is one thing or another is in fact of leftist origin. Leftists, including liberals, cannot have it both ways.
Liberalism and liberals have a horror of “irrationality” and a fear of people whose thinking and beliefs they view as “irrational,” while making rationalism a secular idol. And because nothing to them in this world is more irrational than religion, because its supernatural claims cannot be proven in natural terms and by rational arguments as rationalists understand logical disputation, nothing is more greatly to be feared in the heavens or on earth than religion and religious people.
Christopher Hitchens was probably speaking for the large majority of secular liberals (and non-liberal ones as well) when he wrote that “religious faith is, precisely because we are still-evolving creatures, ineradicable. It will never die out, at least not until we get over our fear of death, and of the dark, and of the unknown, and of each other.” Religion, he believes, is “a relic of humanity’s infancy” that belongs to the fearful [strange but telling adjective] childhood of our species.”
Sam Harris seems slight more optimistic—when the mood takes him, at least—while agreeing that religion is a dangerously atavistic force. “There is no reason,” he says, “that our ability to sustain ourselves emotionally and spiritually cannot evolve with technology, politics, and the rest of our culture. Indeed, it must evolve, if we are to have any future at all.” His optimism appears lessened when one realizes that this last sentence could be accurately reconstructed as saying, “The only reason that our ability to sustain ourselves,” etc., is religion. This is why he is more dogmatic and inflexible even than Christopher Hitchens: It is why he insists time and again that the various religions, and religion in general, must alter its teachings, or be eradicated—by whom or what, again, he does not suggest. Hillary Clinton made the same claim at a global women’s conference some years ago. (Mr. Harris may consider himself the most rational person in the world, but he is plainly also one of the most unrealistic.)
And indeed the Mssrs Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins refuse to make the slightest attempt at employing “reason” in trying to falsify religious truth, for precisely the same reason that believers cannot prove the truthfulness of their various creeds by similar means. Atheists, from time immemorial, have demanded triumphantly to know “Who made God?” while refusing (for obvious reasons) to consider “Who made the material from which the Big Bang created the materials that evolution subsequently worked upon to form the world and Homo sapiens?” Hitchens suggests that “If religious instruction were not allowed until the child had attained to the age of reason, we would be living in a quite different world.” How can he be so sure of that, short of allowing for a “leap of assumption” far less justified, logically and rationally, than the famous “leap of faith” that Christians, at least, have always acknowledged making, and to which both Harris and Hitchens refer, only to dismiss it as “irrational” and therefore unjustified?
“Religion,” Hitchens writes dismissively, “understands perfectly well that the ‘leap’ is subject to sharply diminishing returns, which is why it often doesn’t in fact rely on ‘faith’ at all but instead corrupts faith and insults reason by offering evidence and pointing to confected ‘proofs.’” (It doesn’t occur to him to wonder why, if religions don’t believe in their “own truths,” they go to the bother of erecting churches around them. Could the founders of those churches have possibly been working from a number of examples from ancient times of modern Ponzi schemes?) Here, however, the polemical journalist is in over his head by a couple of thousands of feet of sea water—since anyone who has troubled himself to study Catholic theology has recognized that, once one has made that (supposedly irrational) leap of faith, Catholic belief is unrelentingly logical and wholly and starkly rational.
Atheists have always failed to comprehend that irrationality has its reasons that reason knows not of, to paraphrase Blaise Pascal. Hitchens admits that scientists have “sometimes been religious,” an acknowledgement he qualifies by adding “or at any rate superstitious,” before citing Sir Isaac Newton “who was a spiritualist and alchemist of a particularly laughable kind,” and Fred Hoyle, an ex-agnostic “… [who] was the Cambridge astronomer who coined the term Big Bang, “that silly phrase.” (Once Christopher Hitchens gets going in his personal crusade against godliness and the godly, he is prepared to beat up rhetorically on anything and anybody who stands in or alongside of his way.)
“Faith of the sort…that can stand up at least for a while in a confrontation with reason,” Hitchens asserts, “…is now plainly impossible. The early fathers of faith [Aquinas and Maimonides] (they made sure there would be no mothers) were living in a time of abysmal ignorance and fear.” (Every reputable historian of the period would make short work of that historically and culturally illiterate claim.) Today, “All attempts to reconcile faith and reason are consigned to failure and ridicule.” Elsewhere, he asks, “Who are the clerics to interpret nature?” I have at hand a copy of fascinating essay by Charles Jaigu, published in Le Figaro (08/10/21) and titled “Quand la science croit en Dieu, le livre qui boulverse nos certitudes” (“When science believes in God, the book which overturns our certitudes”), being a lengthy and comprehensive review of Dieu, la science, les preuves (God, Science, the Proofs) by Michel-Yves Bolloré and Olivier Bonnassies, who ponder whether the faint light of distant galaxies perceived by the James Webb Telescope might not be “the face of God?” M. Jaigu concludes his essay by announcing the “anthropocentric principle” constituted by “incredible coincidences” revealed by “the accumulation of all the physical improbabilities … that end all discussion: The Universe was not born by chance. The existence of a creator god is incontrovertible.” In a Preface, Robert Wilson, the American astronomer who received a Nobel Prize in 1978 for having discovered in 1964 the first light of the Universe, writes:
There has certainly been something that regulates the whole. In my view, if you are religious, according to the Judeo-Christian tradition, there exists no better theory of the origin of the Universe than Genesis that corresponds with this point.
Bolloré and Bonnassies show that 90 percent of Nobel Prize winners have claimed religious affiliations, two-thirds of them Christians. (The percentage of atheists among winners of the Prize for Literature has recently increased to 35, compared with 10 percent of scientists awarded the same prize for their discoveries. )
“Who are the clerics to interpret nature?” Christopher Hitchens asked. Yet their interpretations coincide with those of the scientific faculty. The fact is that among the religious, people who are convinced that science and faith are irreconcilable are also the fundamentalist believers of every faith. Pope Benedict XVI frequently expressed his view that science is a blessing, one of the chief accomplishments of Western civilization—what was up until the 20th century called Christendom—and a friend rather than an enemy of the Bible, the Jewish and Christian faiths, and the Church. Thus when Hitchens writes that “It is a tragic and potentially lethal irony that those who most despise science and the method of free inquiry should have been able to pilfer it and annex its sophisticated products to their sick dreams,” he is writing—quite literally—nonsense of the most deliberately mendacious sort. He died in 2011, too soon to have benefitted from the discoveries of the James Webb Telescope but not from the previous findings of the astronomers they confirmed, had he chosen to search them out and study their implications.
Philosophical materialists, including atheists and agnostics, are simply unable—or unwilling—to think in supernatural terms and to consider the possibilities for extra-materialist, extra-rational modes of thought that point to an extra-material and super-natural world, the very concept of which offends and frightens them about equally. A very beautiful prayer by David M. Turoldo begins: “Lord, thank you for the day and for the night, for what we understand and for what we do not understand….” The idea that a human being should be grateful for the inability to comprehend anything at all is profoundly foreign and highly insulting to the modern progressive mind, even if three-quarters of the world’s most famous scientists can live comfortably with it.
Nothing angers Richard Dawkins more than what he terms “the presumptuousness whereby religious people know, without evidence, that the faith of their birth is the one true faith, all the others being aberrations or downright false,” suggesting a deep and angry resentment, common to unbelievers generally, of the calm certitude of what they see believers as possessing—and enjoying. This resentment of the gift of faith, or the belief in it far, goes far in explaining Hitchens’, Dawkins’, and Harris’s inability to imagine any motive for religious belief beyond the desperate and craven need—unworthy, in their minds, of the dignity of a human being—for affirmation that after death they will not “fall into darkness,” as Theodore Roosevelt imagined death. For them, religious believers embrace religion because they want something, and—worse still—they want it because they need it.
This is why all three men understand all religions as being fundamentally alike, even interchangeable beneath the obscure differences in the tangled, aggressive, jealous, man-made doctrines, all of them perilous to humanity, including the promise of eternal life. “In countless ways,” Sam Harris claims, “the doctrine of personal immortality in its Christian form has had disastrous effects upon morals….” How, he does not explain.
A chapter toward the close of The End of Faith is titled, “What’s Wrong With Religion? Why the Hostility?” From the author’s point of view the answer is, I suspect, that religious belief denies secular humanism’s claim that no being higher than man exists, that the human is the standard by which all else in the universe should be measured, and that through the proper use of their applied reason human beings at the beginning of the 21st century age are becoming gods; a belief whose logical end is transhumanism, a type of science fiction. “We,” Mr. Harris announces in challenging tones and with supreme confidence, “are the final judges of what is good, just as we remain the final judges of what is logical.” “We,” in other words, are the Masters of the Universe, and “we” will not tolerate the denial by anyone of that fact. Christopher Hitchens recounts how, at the age of nine, he rebelled (inwardly, it seems) against his religious instructor, a Mrs. Watts. “Why, if god was the creator of all things, were we supposed to ‘praise’ him so incessantly for what came naturally to him? This seemed servile, apart from anything else.” (Some children never grow up, though too many of them go on to become authors.)
This attitude amounts to a boast, but it is a boast that has a desperate quality about it; a quality that suffuses all three books and is probably attributable to their authors’ ignorance of the classic philosophical defenses of theism, their brazen and unapologetic attitude of parti pris, their unashamed rhetorical dishonesty, their sloppy argumentation and childish illogic (including the assumption that without religious differences to separate them human beings would find nothing to argue or fight about), their hyper-emotionalism, hostility, and anger, their insults and ad hominem attacks; all of which convey the impression of three fiercely determined polemicists writing not just against their intellectual and philosophical adversaries, but themselves as well.
This all this could further explain the vast and obvious omissions that allow the authors to reference every horror ever committed by anyone in the name of religion, while ignoring the grandeur of the historical cultures created and sustained by the world’s great religions. Hitchens at one point quotes Freud: “Where questions of religion are concerned, people are guilty of every possible sort of dishonesty and misdemeanor.” Freud was right, of course, as he himself proved in his own writings, which amount to—and were accepted by his followers as—a religion. The same goes for Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins, whose secular humanism is religion cast in yet another form—as indeed post-modern liberalism itself is—and that like every other religion is in fervent competition with all the rest to be universally recognized as the One True Faith.
If Jesus Christ never lived, died, and rose again (St. Paul wrote), we Christians are the most miserable of men. The same can be said of liberals today in their relationship to their own faith. If liberalism and the liberal program fail to prevail in nations and societies around the world, if the liberal utopia proves to be unworkable and unrealizable, or if, after having done so, it is displaced by a counter- or anti-liberal dystopia, then liberals everywhere in the world and at every time in history have lived, worked, died for nothing—and, having failed, fallen directly and forever into the bottomless pit of Roosevelt’s darkness.
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom.” Secular liberals, knowing no lord, do not fear him. Instead, they fear him and his religions—their emotional, logical, intellectual, instinctual, and human claims and appeals which, taken together, are ultimately more compelling and infinitely more satisfying than those of any social, political, and purely man-made system of belief, and ones to which even liberals—merely human themselves, of course—are susceptible. Most of all, it may be, liberals fear the notion, and therefore the possibility, of an omnipotent God of All the Nations Who made the world and everything in it and rules them according to the nature He gave them, the rules He made for them, the limits He set for them, and the dominion He holds over them.
The one great thing that liberalism fails (or refuses) to recognize is that man is even more Homo credens than he is Homo sapiens. Marxists will tell you that “Everything is political,” Freudians that “Everything is sexual.” Contrary to both parties, the truth is that “Everything is religious,” because religion is for human beings what Isaiah Berlin called the One Big Thing, and the First of All Things human. That is why we will never stop fighting about it for as long as the world lasts, and ourselves with it; while the suffering this brings, and that liberals deplore, continues.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!