Books discussed in this essay
The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason
by Sam Harris
W.W. Norton (2004), 256 pp.
Letter to a Christian Nation
by Sam Harris
Alfred A. Knopf (2006), 91 pp.
The God Delusion
by Richard Dawkins
Houghton Mifflin (2006), 374 pp.
Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam
by Michel Onfray
Arcade (2007), 219 pp.
Agorgeous spring evening in Paris, cool and windy, the sky a radiant, mineral blue. I was in the throes of a personal crisis and I walked the city aimlessly, its legendary beauty as vacuous and desolate as a strip mall. Eventually I found myself standing in the square in front of Notre Dame Cathedral. Through its arched portals, studded with eroded stone reliefs of the kings of Judah and flanked by winged gargoyles, I could see that this twelfth-century monument’s interior was illuminated by thousands of long, thin, burning tapers. Inside, I pressed through the crowd to the front, and there, at the altar, were the priests, resplendent in their gold brocaded ecclesiastical vestments, performing the mass with a sombre deliberateness. The organ boomed; the candles flickered. Then the lights in the cathedral blasted on, and the priests followed the bishop with his crozier and tall red hat, and left the cathedral in slow procession.
Walking back to my hotel, I felt transported, as though the world had been given substance and purpose again. But when I woke the next morning, I was mortified. At a moment of vulnerability, I had been seduced by the luxuriant spectacle of an institution whose core beliefs—the virgin birth of Jesus, Jesus having been crucified in order to redeem a sinful world, the Eucharist transubstantiating wine and bread into the blood and flesh of the Messiah—I found literally absurd, and whose history included the Crusades, the Inquisition, and savage pogroms against Jews.
Over the past few years, a number of books have attempted to answer the question: how is it possible that, nearly 150 years after Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, in an era in which both the history of the earth and the natural history of human beings are known in considerable detail, religion continues to exert a powerful presence? And given the divisive and often repressive impact of religious belief—to which the events of September 11, 2001, bore witness—why do we in Western liberal democracies still tolerate religion as a legitimate part of public discourse rather than attempting to eradicate it in favour of a more rational form of humanism? These books include Sam Harris’s The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason and Letter to a Christian Nation, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, and Michel Onfray’s Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
The target of New York-based writer Sam Harris’s polemical The End Of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation is not just religious faith, but also liberal tolerance of religion. “I hope to show that the very ideal of religious tolerance—born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God—is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss,” Harris writes. “Religious moderation, insofar as it represents an attempt to hold on to what is still serviceable in orthodox religion, closes the door to more sophisticated approaches to spirituality, ethics, and the building of strong communities.”
Religious faith, whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, is if nothing else a belief in a transcendent being that does not need to meet the same standards of reason and evidence to which we hold ordinary beliefs; faith is a form of belief with a special status. Yet to believe something, Harris points out, is to believe that it is true and to be willing to act on it. “Either the Bible is just an ordinary book, written by mortals, or it isn’t,” Harris writes in Letter to a Christian Nation. Parallel statements could be made about the Koran and the Torah. “Either Christ was divine, or he was not. If the Bible is an ordinary book, and Christ an ordinary man, the basic doctrine of Christianity is false.” The sacred texts of the dominant religions today are of largely unknown provenance, assembled from multiple manuscripts over hundreds or even thousands of years, and they are riddled with internal contradictions. And the claims made by these texts—God parting the Red Sea, Christ raising Lazarus from the dead, Muhammad’s vision—have no more intrinsic credibility than the activities of Zeus or the events that unfold in Norse legends. In that case, according to Harris, “the truth is that religious faith is simply unjustified belief in matters of ultimate concern.” Unfortunately, religious faith is by no means a benign form of unjustified belief—of irrationality, of superstition. Rather, it is one that has caused an enormous amount of suffering in the world.
Yet in his polemical fervour, Harris takes it for granted that concepts like “belief,” “justified belief,” and “faith” are free of gradation or indeterminacy. “The conflict between science and religion is reducible to a simple fact of human cognition and discourse: either a person has good reasons for what he believes, or he does not.” But we are, individually, limited beings, bound by time, chronically suffering from lack of information yet needing to act, deeply conflicted, buffeted by passions. And as human beings, we have a terrible need to have an emotionally immediate sense that the world and our lives in it have meaning and purpose. “Secularists once hoped that with the advance of science and enlightenment, and the articulation of a new, humanist ethic, the illusory nature of religion would be more and more apparent, and its attractions would fade,” Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor writes in his beautiful commentary on William James, Varieties of Religion Today. “But this is not how it has worked out…. People go on feeling a sense of unease at the world of unbelief: some sense that something big, something important has been left out, some level of profound desire has been ignored, some greater reality outside us has been closed off.”
Richard Dawkins’s invective against religion, The God Delusion, covers much of the same ground as The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation. There is the usual tour of atrocities committed in the name of religion, from the tortures of the Inquisition to the bombing of abortion clinics in the United States; Dawkins even finds space to denounce early religious training as a form of child abuse. A distinguished evolutionary biologist and the author of The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins is at his best when addressing the so-called argument from design, a popular creationist alternative to Darwinian evolution. Dawkins regards the existence of God—“a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us”—as a hypothesis like any other. The core assertion of The God Delusion is this: “Any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of… gradual evolution.” Such a creative intelligence could not, therefore, have actually created the world.
The argument from design claims that the emergence of something as complex and precise as, say, the human eye or brain could not have occurred by chance, and therefore must have been fashioned by a higher intelligence. But according to Dawkins, the fact that something could not have appeared by chance does not imply that it was designed—Darwin’s theory of natural selection provides a powerful explanation of how intricate, finely tuned organisms can evolve over vast stretches of time. In addition, the argument from design simply pushes the problem back, for it does not offer an account of the origins of the transcendent designer.
Dawkins also addresses a version of the argument from design that focuses on the origins of life on Earth. Earth is ideally situated in its relationship to the sun, in the shape of its orbit and the composition of its atmosphere, to sustain life. In the grand scheme of things, it is highly improbable that this would be the case or that life would arise spontaneously; therefore, it must have been planned purposely by a higher intelligence. Dawkins responds to this with what he calls the “anthropic principle.” We know that life emerged on Earth because we are here. We also know that there are roughly a billion billion planets in the universe. Even if the odds of life arising on a given planet are vanishingly low, life will still arise on many planets, ours included. “The anthropic principle, like natural selection, is an alternative to the design hypothesis,” Dawkins asserts. “It provides a rational, design-free explanation for the fact that we find ourselves in a situation propitious to our existence.” And as always, he writes, “design certainly does not work as an explanation for life, because design is ultimately not cumulative and it therefore raises bigger questions than it answers.”
Reading The God Delusion, as with The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, one gets the sense that these authors have virtually no feeling for the impulse to faith and that their knowledge of religion is mostly second-hand and in translation. And despite their insistence on the importance of critical thinking, both Dawkins’s and Harris’s styles of reasoning are remarkably unreflective. Here is Harris, aping an argument Dawkins rehearses in The God Delusion: “If God created the universe, what created God? To say that God, by definition, is uncreated simply begs the question. Any being capable of creating a complex world promises to be very complex himself.” Naturally, the nature of the “complexity” in question is never examined.
There is something touching about the fact that both Dawkins and Harris think religion can be dispatched with arguments of this kind, as though faith and the religious world view, which have occupied some of the great minds of the last thousand years and more—Augustine, Aquinas, and Maimonides, for instance—were the result of a childish logical error. Faith in the modern era, I suspect, comes from a far darker, more anxiety-ridden place—the need to see the world and our place in it as substantive, as meaningful, from the point of view of the universe.
I was wandering across the rooftops of the Jewish quarter in the old city of Jerusalem. The city was quiet and luminous, its soft pink stone aglow. In one direction I could see the gorge that opens out onto the Judean Desert; scanning in the other direction, the Wailing Wall, the al-Aqsa mosque, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Then the Muslim evening call to prayer erupted, grand, aching, and melancholy, and I could see, in the Arab quarter, a river of the faithful cascading down toward the entrance to one of the most charged places in Jerusalem—the Haram al-Sharif. Entranced by the beauty of the muezzin’s voice, by the almost hallucinatory scene—the ancient city, the wooded hills, the shimmering desert—it suddenly dawned on me that this was the place where rivers of blood had flowed over competing holy books, prophets, and messiahs, and that among those who would soon be prostrating themselves in the al-Aqsa mosque were men willing to kill and be killed for their faith. A chill ran through me.
Written in the tradition of Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals and Freud’s The Future of an Illusion, French philosopher Michel Onfray’s Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam is less burdened by a reductive view of reason and science and an underestimation of the religious temperament than either Dawkins’s or Harris’s books, but it has similar aims. Having described the many places of worship and prayer he has visited—a mosque in Benghazi, a synagogue in Venice, an Orthodox church in Moscow, a voodoo temple in Haiti—Onfray comments, “Everywhere I saw how readily men construct fables in order to avoid looking reality in the face. The invention of an afterlife would not matter so much if it were not purchased at so high a price: disregard of the real, hence willful neglect of the only world there is.” Atheist Manifesto is an attempt to unravel those fables and the demonic power they have over us, and to rekindle the Enlightenment. “Not faith, belief, fables,” he writes, “but reason and properly directed thought.”
According to Onfray, the three great monotheistic religions—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—are equivalent in their deeper origin and structure. The drive to construct these fables rises from the subconscious as a response to a primordial fear of death, the void, and meaninglessness. “When a soul collapses before the cold body of a loved one,” Onfray writes, “denial takes over and transforms this ending into a beginning… God, heaven, and spirits come forth to dispel the pain and violence of death.” Monotheistic religions were fabricated as the very opposite of the human, Onfray claims, and in that rest the seeds of their destructiveness. Human beings are mortal, God is immortal; human beings have limited knowledge, God is omniscient; human beings are material and riddled with desires, God is ethereal and pure.
Atheist Manifesto argues that what the three monotheisms share in common is a profound hatred of humanity—of intelligence, of life, of the present, of sexuality—and that the repression, torture, executions, and genocide these religions have so relentlessly perpetrated throughout history are not incidental but internal to them, lavishly supported by their sacred texts. But more importantly, Atheist Manifesto aims to promote an “atheistic atheism,” a vision of the world wholly free of the influence of religion. This raises an essential question: can we really imagine, and live in, a world without religion?
The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, The God Delusion, and Atheist Manifesto are all strident in their insistence on making atheism a dominant world view, beginning with properly educating children on the death of God. “We desperately need a public discourse that encourages critical thinking and intellectual honesty,” Harris writes. “Noth-ing stands in the way of this project more than the respect we accord religious faith.” “The knowledge that we have only one life should make it all the more precious,” Dawkins claims. “The atheist view is correspondingly life-affirming and life-enhancing.” Onfray: “The laughers, materialists, radicals, cynics, hedonists, atheists, sensualists, voluptuaries. They know that there is only one world, and that promotion of an afterlife deprives us of the enjoyment of the only one there is.”
Yet the issue surely isn’t the appreciation of our own subjectivity (Harris), or of the wonders of nature and science (Dawkins), or of our minds and bodies (Onfray), or of, in short, our relatively brief passage through our one life on Earth. If we are genuinely reflective, it is rather our experience of life and the world as having a higher, integral meaning—that is the gap, the fear, the isolating wound that faith and religion fill. It is the fear of the abyss of meaninglessness, of the void, of evil, of “desperation absolute and complete, the whole universe coagulating about the sufferer into a material of overwhelming horror, surrounding him without opening or end,” as William James puts it in The Varieties of Religious Experience. It is that which a creator and redeemer allays. Perhaps the reason the religious impulse has survived the Enlightenment and beyond is that we cannot otherwise honestly read our experience of the world as substantive.
I was at a beautiful old Orthodox synagogue in Kensington Market in Toronto, attending the Kol Nidre service on the eve of Yom Kippur. Wrapped in his white, fringed shawl, the cantor literally wailed out the service, his tone tragic and pleading. Clustered near the rabbi and the cantor were mostly older men, swaying back and forth, mumbling prayers in Hebrew, singing; women looked on from their separate section on the balcony above. Occasionally a few distinguished senior members of the congregation carried heavy Torah scrolls sheathed in embroidered cloth out from the ark, its wooden doors flung open. I had brought my six-year-old daughter to this moving service, not because I wanted to poison her mind with divisive tribal superstitions, but because I wanted her to be exposed to the rites of many of her ancestors and to a world view that is deep and powerful. But I was also there with an Israeli-Canadian who was raised in the Orthodox tradition. At one point he turned to me and said, “I would never go to this service in Israel. There religion is a political statement.”
A few weeks later, I went to the office of a professor of divinity, expecting to discuss the nature of faith in the twenty-first century. The shelves in his narrow, congested office were packed floor to ceiling with books—on theology and the history of religion, of course, but also on cognitive science and evolution. Raised and educated a Mennonite, he had spent thirty years of his career attempting to resolve the apparent conflict between science and religion. It was not long before he told me that a few years earlier he had, finally, lost his faith. “But I still have a Christian body,” he told me. “My lifestyle is still the same as it was before.”
“Do you think it’s possible that we simply can’t bear to see life and the world as it really is? ” I asked him.