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Joseph Sobran’s
Washington Watch

The Atheist Renaissance

(Reprinted from the issue of June 6, 2007)

Capitol Bldg, Washington Watch logo for The Atheist RenaissanceLast week, having some loose change in my pocket, I splurged on three recent best-selling books by militant atheists: Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great), Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), and Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation), as well as a shorter, and much more reasonable, tract by an atheist philosopher, Julian Baggini.

I’m still reading the three best-sellers. Not many surprises, since they have already received lots of publicity and some hilariously deflating reviews. In essence, they all offer versions of the Phil Donahue argument: How could a benevolent Creator permit the existence of mean old nuns?

The arguments are pretty bad, ignoring the first rule of honest controversy: State your opponent’s position in a form he could accept as accurate. Only Baggini’s little book, Atheism, passes this basic test. The others rely heavily on accusation, overstatement, ridicule (Dawkins terms believers “dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads”), and the like. Banalities abound: Crusades, jihads, “the” Inquisition, and televangelists are adduced without much distinction as conclusive proof of what religion “leads to.”

And atheism? Doesn’t it too lead to rough stuff at times? No, our authors explain, Stalin doesn’t really count as an atheist, because he behaved like a believer. As one of Hitchens’s reviewers commented, this is the kind of argument that gives syllogisms a bad name.

Harris’s book is just childish. Hitchens, though sometimes surprisingly empathetic with believers (having painfully lost his own Communist faith), knows a smattering about an awesome number of subjects (you may be less impressed with his erudition when he deals with ones you are familiar with). Dawkins is probably the smuggest of the three — something of an achievement, in this competition.

The real trouble with all three authors is that they appear to be perfect strangers to religious experience. A huge area of humanity is closed off to them. They speak of believers as suckers, as if gullibility could explain everything; for them there are no “varieties of religious experience,” only one kind, and that a contemptible one.

The logic of belief is crudely parodied rather than seriously explored. Not that this prevents them from accusing the suckers of cunning malice when it suits their purposes. Well, which is it?

The point is that you should at least be able to imagine your opponent’s point of view, if your object is anything but mere defamation. And on this score, I have to commend Baggini. He is scrupulously fair and precise; he was raised a Catholic, but exhibits no trace of rancor; he tries to define, isolate, and answer the central questions without rhetorical gimmickry.

No wonder he’s not on the best-seller lists. Maybe he doesn’t believe in God, but he doesn’t seem to hate God.

Alas, even Baggini joins the others in the great atheist dogma: He too assumes that Darwin has destroyed the argument from design. Does all atheism depend on the Darwinian revelation? If so, I feel sorry for it.

If I may draw my own lesson from history: Whenever the atheists get their way, it’s never long before they start persecuting each other.

Marx was lucky he didn’t live to see the triumph of Marxism.

Compulsory Fads

Liberalism seems to be prone to a special kind of bigotry: demanding that people who reject its premises accept its conclusions. The other day a writer I usually enjoy and respect wrote casually that “of [Franklin] Roosevelt’s greatness there can be no question.”

Doesn’t that depend on whether you believe in the U.S. Constitution, limited government in some sense, alliances with the Stalins of this world, slaughtering civilian populations, and so forth?

Read Joe Sobran's columns the day he writes them!I should think the creation of the atomic bomb would by itself give even a liberal some qualms about celebrating the memory of FDR.

Liberals tend to think their latest enthusiasms impose moral duties on the rest of us. Consider the instant orthodoxy about global warming and the necessity of virtual totalitarian government power to control it. I can well believe that the planet is heating up; but if so, I suspect that the sun has more to do with it than the automobile (or is it second-hand smoke? I can never keep these things straight).

I’ve already mentioned the Darwinian orthodoxy. Liberals want the public schools to make our children little materialistic atheists, sensing none of the First Amendment problems they instantly raise whenever someone urges even a brief and perfunctory nonsectarian prayer in those schools.

And there are no limits to it. In Canada and the progressive countries of northern Europe, where “gay rights” are enshrined in the legal code, clergymen may be convicted of human rights violations if they cite scriptural passages condemning sodomy.

These and other countries have also made “Holocaust denial” a criminal offense. Though I myself have been called a Holocaust denier in print (without evidence, of course), I’d consider it presumptuous for me to “deny” the Holocaust, since I can’t read German, don’t know a thing about chemistry (what is Zyklon B?), and am quite incompetent to evaluate the evidence.

These are only a few of liberalism’s sacred tenets. One might cite many more, from Lincoln and the Civil War to contraception and sexual freedom, on which intelligent skepticism is not exactly welcome in liberal precincts.

If you now believe in things practically everyone believed in only 50 years ago, you risk being called a bigot, and maybe even being prosecuted as a criminal.

In fact, even keeping an open mind about certain matters is now considered a sign of bigotry. And they talk about the Dark Ages!

“If you play Monopoly, you can still buy Park Place or Boardwalk for a mere $2,000. The value of a Milton Bradley dollar has stood up pretty well since 1932; compare the Federal Reserve System over the same period.”

Regime Change Begins at Home — a new selection of my Confessions of a Reactionary Utopian — is culled from my most recent lucid moments. If you have not seen my monthly newsletter, SOBRANS, yet, give my office a call at 800-513-5053 and request a free sample, or better yet, subscribe for two years for just $85. New subscribers get two gifts with their subscription. More details can be found at the Subscription page of my website.

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Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2007 by The Wanderer,
the National Catholic Weekly founded in 1867
Reprinted with permission

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