The recent publication of four books—The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins; The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, both by Sam Harris; and Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel Dennett—has provoked great controversy and consternation.* The fact that books by Dawkins and Harris have made it to The New York Times best-seller list has apparently sent chills down the spines of many commentators; not only conservative religionists but also some otherwise liberal secularists are worried about this unexpected development. We note that the people now being attacked are affiliated with FREE INQUIRY and the Center for Inquiry. The editors of FREE INQUIRY, of course, are gratified that the views espoused in these pages have received a wider forum. What disturbs us is the preposterous outcry that atheists are “evangelical” and that they have gone too far in their criticism of religion.
Really? The public has been bombarded by pro-religious propaganda from time immemorial—today it comes from pulpits across the land, TV ministries, political hucksters, and best-selling books. Indeed, at the present moment, the apocalyptic Left Behind series, coauthored by evangelist Tim LaHaye, is an all-time blockbuster. Other best-sellers include The Purpose-Driven Life by Rick Warren and a slew of books attacking liberal secularists and humanists by religious conservatives such as Ann Coulter and Bill O’Reilly.
Let’s be fair: Until now, it has been virtually impossible to get a fair hearing for critical comment upon uncontested religious claims. It was considered impolite, in bad taste, and it threatened to raise doubts about God’s existence or hegemony. I have often said that it is as if an “iron curtain” had descended within America, for skeptics have discovered that the critical examination of religion has been virtually verboten. We have experienced firsthand how journalists and producers have killed stories about secular humanism for fear of offending the little old ladies and gentlemen in the suburbs, conservative advertisers, the Catholic hierarchy, or right-wing fundamentalists. It is difficult to find any politicians who are not intimidated and will admit that they are disbelievers or agnostics, let alone atheists. Today, there are very few, if any, clearly identified atheist personalities in the media—Bill Maher is a notable exception. The war against secularism by the Religious Right is unremitting. Even New York Times columnists are running scared. We note the column by Nicolas Kristof (December 3, 2006) calling for a “truce on religion.” He deplores the “often obnoxious atheist offensive” of “secular fundamentalism.”
Science columnist William J. Broad, in a piece published earlier this year in the Times (February 28, 2006), criticized both Daniel C. Dennett and Edward O. Wilson (another Center for Inquiry stalwart). Dennett, complains Broad, “likens spiritual belief to a disease” and looks to science “to explain its grip on humanity.” Broad faults E.O. Wilson for writing in an earlier book (Consilience [Knopf, 1998]) that “the insights of neuroscience and evolution . . . increasingly can illuminate even morality and ethics, with the scientific findings potentially leading ‘more directly and safely to stable moral codes’ than do the dictates of God’s will or the findings of transcendentalism.” Broad remonstrates against such views, maintaining that they exhibit “a kind of arrogance,” and he likewise recommends that scientists declare a truce in their critiques of religion. To which I reply that it is important that we apply scientific inquiry as best we can to all areas of human behavior, including religion and ethics. I fail to see why it is “arrogant” to attempt to do so.
Another Times op-ed piece by Bernard A. Shweder of the University of Chicago (“Atheists Agonistes,” [Novem¬ber 27, 2006]), denigrates the Enlighten¬ment and reminds us that John Locke, author of “Letter Concern¬ing Toleration,” de¬fended tolerance in democratic societies for everyone but atheists. We note that the National Review and the Jewish Forward are also worried by “militant secularists” who question established religions—they were ob¬jecting to an advertisement the Center for Inquiry/Transnational ran on the op-ed page of The New York Times (Novem¬ber 15, 2006), headlined “In Defense of Science and Secularism.” We think it appropriate to defend the integrity of science and the importance of secularism at a time when both are under heavy attack.
We should point out that, over the years, Prometheus Books, a company I founded, has consistently published books examining the claims of religion. Now, the fact that mainline publishers, largely owned as they are by conglomerates, have published books by scientists critical of belief in God—because they see that they can make a buck by doing it—has shocked the guardians of the entrenched faiths. But why should the nonreligious, nonaffiliated, secular minority in the country remain silent? We dissenters now comprise some 14 to 16 percent of the population. Why should religion be held immune from criticism, and why should the admission that one is a disbeliever be considered so disturbing? The Bush administration has supported faith-based charities—though their efficacy has not been adequately tested; it has prohibited federal funding for stem cell research; it has denied global warming; and it has imposed abstinence programs instead of promoting condom use to prevent the spread of AIDS. Much of this mischief is religiously inspired. How can we remain mute while Islam and the West are poised for a possible protracted world conflagration in the name of God?
Given all these facts, why should the criticism of religion provoke such an outcry?
One charge often hurled at disbelievers is that we have nothing positive to offer. On the contrary, we at Free Inquiry have always maintained that it is possible for an individual to lead a good life and be morally concerned about others without belief in God. We have pointed out that the traditional creeds often condoned heinous crimes: censorship, repression, slavery, war, torture, genocide, the domination of women, the denial of human freedom, and opposition to new frontiers of scientific research. We surely cannot condemn all religions, and we recognize that some religions have performed good works: providing charity to the poor and consoling the sick and weak at times of suffering or tragedy. Religions are among the oldest human institutions on the planet. They developed in agricultural and nomadic societies. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” expresses the metaphors of premodern and prescientific cultures. Many of them would later oppose modern secular trends and fight against democratic reforms. Indeed, the achievements of human progress in the past have often been in spite of opposition from devout religious believers. Today is another day, and religious liberals now support many of the ideals and values of modern secularism and humanism; they may support science and even not be unsympathetic to biblical criticism. Yet in spite of this, they often cling to earlier mythological creeds spun out in the infancy of the race.
What is often overlooked by the critics of “evangelical atheism” is that skepticism about the existence of God does not by itself define who and what we are. For there is a commitment to the realization of human freedom and happiness in this life here and now and to a life of excellence, creativity, and fulfillment. Life is meaningful without the illusion of immortality. There is also the recognition that the cultivation of the common moral decencies—caring, em¬pathy, and altruism—is an essential part of our relating to other human beings in our communities of interaction. Humanists have always been concerned with achieving justice in society. Many of the heroes and heroines in human history were freethinkers who contributed significantly to democratic progress and a defense of human rights. Indeed, the agenda of secular humanism is twofold: first is the quest for truth, a critical examination of the assumptions of supernatural religion in the light of science; second is the development of affirmative ethical alternatives for the individual, the society in which he or she lives, and also the planetary community at large. To label us “evangelical atheists” without recognizing our affirmative commitment to secular humanist morality is an egregious error.
Of special horror today is the carnage inflicted by the Sunnis and Shiites, the two major branches of Islam, upon each other in Iraq. We’re told that the conflict is “sectarian,” as though we should leave it at that. We beg to differ. This is a religious conflict, driven by clashes over theology and history. That fact, which the blander word sectarian underemphasizes, should not be overlooked.
The horrendous slaughter between two factions of Islam, claiming thousands not only killed but tortured each month in Iraq, proceeds from doctrinal differences about the origins of Islam and the proper successors of Muham¬mad. The Shiites (concentrated mostly in Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Pakistan) comprise about 15 percent of the world’s Muslims; the Sunni most of the remainder.
The Shia Muslims believe that the rightful successor of Muhammad after his death should have been Ali, the second person to accept Islam (after Muhammad’s wife Khadija). Ali was the male head of “the people of the prophet’s house” (Ahlul Bayt). Shiites believe that Ali was appointed by direct order of Muhammad himself. The branch supporting Ali is also known as the “Party of Ali.” Upon the death of Muhammad, however, the majority of Muslims favored Abu Bakr as the first caliph. He was succeeded by the second and third caliphs, Umar and Uthman; the fourth was Ali. The Sunnis recognize the heirs of the four Caliphs (including Ali) as the only legitimate Islamic leaders, the Shia recognize only those of Ali. There are also important doctrinal differences in the interpretation of the Hadith, allegedly based on the testimony of the Prophet’s original companions.
One can only imagine why, thirteen centuries later, men and women are so concerned about these differences that they will destroy each others’ mosques and slaughter one another over them. This, of course, is reminiscent of the battles between Roman Catholics and Protestants in Europe, such as the Hundred Years War in the early modern period, when there were disputes about the hegemony and authority of the Bishop of Rome. The alleged statement of Jesus to Peter in the New Testament, “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church,” has led to vast bloodshed and violence when Protestants and the Eastern Orthodox rejected the authority of the pope. But this happened centuries ago, and Christians by and large have learned to tame their animosities and have abandoned the Inquisition and Holy Crusades. Appar¬ently, the disputes in the Muslim world are as great as ever, and the world watches in horror as violent jihad is unleashed. The key lesson to learn is that it’s not so much the existence of God (or Allah) that is in dispute, for both factions claim to believe in the deity, but the authenticity and legitimacy of divine Revelation, delivered, in this case, to Muhammad, who transmitted it to humanity. The key issue is whether these ancient revelations (those of Muham¬mad, Jesus, Paul, Moses, Abraham, etc.) have been corroborated by reliable eyewitnesses or rather have been corrupted by an oral tradition and insufficient eyewitnesses. But that is another matter.
“Enough already,” we say in disgust. Surely, there must be other sources of morality besides religion. From the fatherhood of God, one can deduce all sorts of contrary moral prescriptions, as one can justify bloodshed, torture, punishment, and death in the name of Allah. This is an old story in human history that has been repeated time and time again. When religion becomes dogmatic, when it becomes thoroughly entrenched in human civilization and institutions, the only way to overcome differences of creed seems to be violence. The best antidote for such devastating nonsense, in my judgment, is the cultivation of critical thinking and the administration of a dose of scientific skepticism to unmask the claims of faith.
The war in Iraq has degenerated into a bloody religious war between two factions of Islam on the one hand, yet, on the other, it is also a brutal confrontation with Western interests and values.
The editors of FREE INQUIRY opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. We argued that a preemptive strike against Iraq without the support of the United Nations had no legal or moral justification, unlike Afghanistan. The fear that Saddam Hussein had amassed weapons of mass destruction was mistaken. Weapons of mass destruction could not be found. There did not seem to be any direct connection between Al Qaeda-supported terrorism and the Iraqi government. While we were well aware of the dangerous ideological views of radical Islamists across the region, we were concerned that the invasion of Iraq could make matters worse by exacerbating the situation (as it has).
We submit that the plausible motive for the preemptive strike against Iraq was to secure a base in order to protect the future export of oil and gas deposits in the region. The claim that we wished to establish democracy and human rights in Iraq (a noble, if perhaps impractical, goal) might be viewed as a rationalization after the fact.
One aspect of the Iraq war that has been unfortunately minimized by the media is the vast numbers of casualties among the Iraqi people. The lands surrounding the Tigris and Euphrates rivers—the “cradle of civilization”—have undergone absolute devastation, an enormous human tragedy for the Iraqi people. The destruction of cultural artifacts and treasures in Iraq’s museums illustrates the insensitivity to priceless historic values. The number of Iraqi refuges who have fled the country is enormous. The malnutrition suffered by Iraqi children during the years of sanctions as well as during the war is another concern. We are especially disturbed, however, by the excessive loss of life in the civilian population—let alone the dead and wounded American soldiers.
Representative Dennis Kucinich (D–Ohio) convened a special House hearing on December 12, 2006, devoted to an examination of the extent of “collateral damage,” as it is euphemistically called. This was broadcast over C-SPAN. The key participants were Les Roberts (Columbia and Johns Hopkins) and Gilbert Burnham (Johns Hopkins), who had conducted a survey to ascertain the number of civilian deaths caused by violence over and beyond normal death rates. Their work was published in the British medical journal The Lancet, one of the leading publications of its kind in the world. Roberts and Burnham used the “cluster method” of tabulation, in which a randomized selection process in certain areas throughout Iraq was used as the basis for the survey. The Lancet article estimated that 650,000 to 900,000 Iraqi civilians had died since the American and British invasion in 2003. The mass media has basically ignored or underreported the number of casualties. The Bush administration insisted that the number was much lower, but Roberts and Burnham maintain that there were actually at least 650,000 deaths among people who are in essence noncombatants. Some defenders of the administration question the cluster methodology for estimating deaths, but Roberts and Burn¬ham insist it is reliable. (It was reliable enough to be used by the American military in Bosnia, the Congo, and elsewhere.)
The basic issue concerns innocent civilians, not Iraqi soldiers nor the combatants of the various tribes that wander the streets and kill people. On the basis of these tragic casualties, a good case can be made that the “gang of four” (Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Rice) have made enormous blunders and that Pres¬ident Bush may have committed impeachable of¬fenses.
*The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins (Houghton Mifflin, 2006); The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, both by Sam Harris (W.W. Norton and Company, 2004, and Knopf, 2006, respectively); and Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel Dennett (Viking Adult, 2006).
Paul Kurtz is Editor in Chief of Free Inquiry, a professor emeritus of philosophy at the University at Buffalo, and Chairman of the Center for Inquiry/Transnational.