Try a little Hume

DavidHumeAnthony Gottlieb's New Yorker essay on contemporary atheists came to my attention earlier this week through that magazine's much-improved website. I did not want to write about Gottlieb's essay before receiving the issue in the mail, largely because I wanted to be sure of his current connections. Internet searches turned up articles that placed him with The Economist, but those were all a few years old. The issue finally reached me, and the payoff on the Contributors page was satisfying:

Anthony Gottlieb (Books, p. 77), a former editor of The Economist, is the author of "The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance." He is writing a book about nothingness.

What a perfect choice to discuss three books on atheism! The same dry wit appears throughout Gottlieb's essay, which draws from God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, The End of Faith by Sam Harris and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.

As Gary Wolf did in a much lengthier essay for Wired, Gottlieb criticizes the tone of today's atheists. He does this primarily by comparing them to David Hume:

Voltaire, like many others before and after him, was awed by the order and the beauty of the universe, which he thought pointed to a supreme designer, just as a watch points to a watchmaker. In 1779, a year after Voltaire died, that idea was attacked by David Hume, a cheerful Scottish historian and philosopher, whose way of undermining religion was as arresting for its strategy as it was for its detail. Hume couldn't have been more different from today's militant atheists.

. . . Hume sprinkled his gunpowder through the pages of the "Dialogues" and left the book primed so that its arguments would, with luck, ignite in his readers' own minds. And he always offered a way out. In "The Natural History of Religion," he undermined the idea that there are moral reasons to be religious, but made it sound as if it were still all right to believe in proofs of God's existence. In an essay about miracles, he undermined the idea that it is ever rational to accept an apparent revelation from God, but made it sound as if it were still all right to have faith. And in the "Dialogues" he undermined proofs of God's existence, but made it sound as if it were all right to believe on the basis of revelation. As the Cambridge philosopher Edward Craig has put it, Hume never tried to topple all the supporting pillars of religion at once.

Gottlieb quotes one of Hitchens' funnier anecdotes, in which he recalls being asked by radio talk-show host Dennis Prager (an observant Jew and one of the more irenic voices in talk radio today) whether he would feel less threatened by a group of men, walking along the street at night in another country, if he knew they had just left a prayer meeting. Anyone who knows Prager's program and style can hear him asking the question. And anyone who knows Hitchens' style can just pretty much imagine the answer, but it's worth repeating for the thoroughness and energy of the answer:

With justified relish, the widely travelled Hitchens responds that he has had that experience in Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem, and Baghdad, and that, in each case, the answer would be a resounding "less safe." He relates what he has seen or knows of warring factions of Protestants and Catholics in Ulster; Christians and Muslims in Beirut and in Bethlehem; Hindus and Muslims in Bombay; Roman Catholic Croatians, Orthodox Serbians, and Muslims in the former Yugoslavia; and Shiites, Sunnis, and Christians in Baghdad. In these cases and others, he argues, religion has exacerbated ethnic conflicts. As he puts it, "religion has been an enormous multiplier of tribal suspicion and hatred."

Still, the most fascinating angle in Gottlieb's review is that he closes it on a triumphal note about the current and future numbers of unbelief in the world today:

Reviewing a large number of studies among some fifty countries, Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist at Pitzer College, in Claremont, California, puts the figure at between five hundred million and seven hundred and fifty million. This excludes such highly populated places as Brazil, Iran, Indonesia, and Nigeria, for which information is lacking or patchy. Even the low estimate of five hundred million would make unbelief the fourth-largest persuasion in the world, after Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. It is also by far the youngest, with no significant presence in the West before the eighteenth century. Who can say what the landscape will look like once unbelief has enjoyed a past as long as Islam's -- let alone as long as Christianity's? God is assuredly not on the side of the unbelievers, but history may yet be.

If that prediction proves accurate, I think unbelief is more likely to take the form that Gottlieb describes earlier in his essay:

The World Values Survey Association, an international network of social scientists, conducts research in eighty countries, and not long ago asked a large sample of the earth's population to say which of four alternatives came closest to their own beliefs: a personal God (forty-two per cent chose this), a spirit or life force (thirty-four per cent), neither of these (ten per cent), don't know (fourteen per cent). Depending on what the respondents understood by a "spirit or life force," belief in God may be far less widespread than simple yes/no polls suggest.

At one point Gottlieb mentions that Edward Gibbon was put off by the "intolerant zeal" of a group of atheists he visited in Paris. It's difficult to build a popular movement, one that doesn't engage in intolerant zeal, if your message is that the majority of people are stupid or foolish because they are deists, monotheists or polytheists. The future of unbelief is far more likely to rest with Jonathan Rauch's apatheism than with Christopher Hitchens' entertaining verbal fireworks.

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