Too correct for beers

PrestonJones2The cover copy for the November Wired invokes the giddy atheist triumphalism of John Lennon's "Imagine": "The New Atheism: No Heaven. No Hell. Just Science. Inside the Crusade Against Religion." Theistic readers of Wired may be relieved to know that contributing editor Gary Wolf's report of 7,000 words does not deliver on the cover's double-barreled marketing copy, especially on its promise of "Just Science." Wolf repeatedly expresses misgivings about the certitude and belligerence of what he calls the New Atheism. (In a revealing MP3 interview on Wired's website, Wolf describes his beliefs as a matter of temperament: "I find that when I'm among religious people I tend to think of myself as an atheist, but among the atheists I tend to think of myself as religious.")

Wolf devotes his first three paragraphs to comparing New Atheism with revivalist preaching:

My friends, I must ask you an important question today: Where do you stand on God?

It's a question you may prefer not to be asked. But I'm afraid I have no choice. We find ourselves, this very autumn, three and a half centuries after the intellectual martyrdom of Galileo, caught up in a struggle of ultimate importance, when each one of us must make a commitment. It is time to declare our position.

This is the challenge posed by the New Atheists. We are called upon, we lax agnostics, we noncommittal nonbelievers, we vague deists who would be embarrassed to defend antique absurdities like the Virgin Birth or the notion that Mary rose into heaven without dying, or any other blatant myth; we are called out, we fence-sitters, and told to help exorcise this debilitating curse: the curse of faith.

Wolf profiles the three heaviest hitters of New Atheism, beginning at the most belligerent end of the spectrum (Richard Dawkins), moving to Sam Harris, then closing with Daniel Dennett, who is kind enough not to shatter children's faith in Santa Claus:

He is a renowned philosopher, an atheist, and the possessor of a full white beard. I suspect he must have designed this Father Christmas look intentionally, but in fact it just evolved. "In the '60s, I looked like Rasputin," he says. Children have come up to him in airports, checking to see if he is on vacation from the North Pole. When it happens, he does not torment them with knowledge that the person they mistake him for is not real. Instead, the philosopher puts his fingers to his lips and says conspiratorially: "Shhhh."

As Wolf talks with Dawkins and Sam Harris, and makes a Sunday pilgrimage to The Center for Inquiry West near Hollywood, he describes the social challenges of being a vocal atheist: Is it possible to be a New Atheist without becoming a nuisance to people who believe in God? We hear Dawkins equate theism with belief in a "Flying Spaghetti Monster," which says more about Dawkins' taste for caricature and contempt than about whether Dawkins' atheism stands on a solid foundation of science.

Wolf performs an efficient critique of Dawkins' notion that New Atheism is in the same place as the gay-rights movement was a few decades ago:

When atheists finally begin to gain some power, what then? Here is where Dawkins' analogy breaks down. Gay politics is strictly civil rights: Live and let live. But the atheist movement, by his lights, has no choice but to aggressively spread the good news. Evangelism is a moral imperative. Dawkins does not merely disagree with religious myths. He disagrees with tolerating them, with cooperating in their colonization of the brains of innocent tykes.

At The Center for Inquiry West, Wolf retreats from the room when a guest speaker "starts to recite the names of atheists who may have contributed to the television program Mr. Show With Bob and David between 1995 and 1998."

Other Wired contributors provide brief profiles of four other well-known atheists: Greg Graffin of the punk band Bad Religion (who recently collaborated with history professor Preston Jones on the book Is Belief in God Good, Bad or Irrelevant?; Penn & Teller (the latter breaks his frequent silence to deliver this battle cry: "Atheists are saying, 'All right, we've had enough'"); and Warren Allen Smith, author of Who's Who in Hell.

Wolf's report reminds me of Al Craig, who lives in Colorado and -- like Dennett -- could easily pass for Santa. I met Al in the early 1990s, when I was working within the Christian subculture and found myself missing good arguments about ideas. I attended a Great Books discussion group in search of such discussions. On my first night at Great Books, Al cheerily described himself as "a former born-again" who was an agnostic bordering on an atheist. I called him later that week, and he has been one of my dearest friends ever since. Al and I have argued about faith every time we've spoken, repeating ourselves to the exasperation of my wife and our mutual friends, but our affection for each other has always been clear. One reason we enjoy each other so much is that we both care enough about religion to consider it worth a lively argument.

On a grander scale, G.K. Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw would hold public debates about faith and then retire to the nearest bar for beers. The ideologically hardened atheism that Wolf describes does not seem to have much room for sharing beers with mere theists, which renders it less interesting, less culturally engaged and less likely to persuade many God-fearing souls to join the secular cause.

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