Newsweek: Can atheists save the world?

atheismMuch praise is due to Newsweek for running an article discussing atheism in its Sept. 11 edition. It is a unique way to approach religion's influence on the country since the terrorist attacks of five years ago. My only complaint was that it mixed a bit too much opinion with the news. But author Jerry Adler snagged some real bits of news here, and his thoughtful 2,100-word article does the tricky issue adequate justice. The article provides interesting and much-needed commentary on the status of atheism in America, with plenty of back and forth between the believer and genuine unbeliever. I would also like to contend that while the article is about people who promote the idea that religion is silly and should fade into history, it was accurately placed under the "religion" heading. I mean, even the most avowed atheists believe in something.

Alder tracks the responses of Sam Harris, Daniel C. Dennett and Richard Dawkins to the 9/11 attacks. All three have, in one way or another, argued that religion is outdated and that "the five-century-long competition between science and religion is sharpening." Adler contrasts the beliefs of Harris, Dennett and Dawkins with those of the vast majority of Americans.

This was the most illuminating exchange in Adler's extremely well-written article:

But Dawkins attempts to show how the highest of human impulses, such as empathy, charity and pity, could have evolved by the same mechanism of natural selection that created the thumb. Biologists understand that the driving force in evolution is the survival and propagation of our genes. They may impel us to instinctive acts of goodness, Dawkins writes, even when it seems counterproductive to our own interests -- say, by risking our life to save someone else. Evolutionary psychology can explain how selfless behavior might have evolved. The recipient may be a blood relation who carries some of our own genes. Or our acts may earn us future gratitude, or a reputation for bravery that makes us more desirable as mates. Of course, the essence of the moral law is that it applies even to strangers. Missionaries who devote themselves to saving the lives of Third World peasants have no reasonable expectation of being repaid in this world. But, Dawkins goes on, the impulse for generosity must have evolved while humans lived in small bands in which almost everyone was related, so that goodness became the default human aspiration. This is a rebuke not merely to believers who insist that God must be the source of all goodness -- but equally to the 19th-century atheism of Nietzsche, who assumed that the death of God meant the end of conventional morality.

But Dawkins, brilliant as he is, overlooks something any storefront Baptist preacher might have told him. "If there is no God, why be good?" he asks rhetorically, and responds: "Do you really mean the only reason you try to be good is to gain God's approval and reward? That's not morality, that's just sucking up." That's clever. But millions of Christians and Muslims believe that it was precisely God who turned them away from a life of immorality. Dawkins, of course, thinks they are deluding themselves. He is correct that the social utility of religion doesn't prove anything about the existence of God. But for all his erudition, he seems not to have spent much time among ordinary Christians, who could have told him what God has meant to them.

atheismI didn't mind Adler's editorializing as much as I would have on a subject with more practical implications, such as abortion or marriage policies. The debate over atheism is fairly basic. One either believes that God does exists or he does not. Also, in long-form journalism some liberties will be taken. Saying that one side's position is clever is stating opinion, but it helps the reader walk through a tricky subject.

News coverage on atheism is difficult to find these days, largely because there is so little happening in that area. Also, the development of ideas, while very newsy in my mind, does not lend itself very aptly to the breaking news story the same way a development in science or medicine does.

The argument that atheism is out of vogue in America and does not deserve much coverage or commentary is not adequate because, as Adler clear points out, there are intelligent people proposing arguments for which Christian scholars still don't have good answers (Alder highlights the "theodicy" problem). Some journalists have the privilege of covering the development of ideas, regardless of how popular those ideas are.

p.s. For more to chew on in the atheism debate, check out this cartoon.

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