Richard Dawkins can be especially smug. “It is, when you think about it, remarkable,” he muses, “that a religion should adopt an instrument of torture and execution as its sacred symbol, often worn around the neck.” In fact, it is precisely when you think about it — when you consider, that is, what the cross means to its followers — that the crucifix worn close to the heart makes all the sense in the world. Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris also share a peculiar quality of being pissed at God: for professed disbelievers in a Supreme Being, their attacks on him are rather personal. Dawkins says He’s lazy. Hitchens compares Him to Kim Jong-Il. “Our own bodies,” writes Harris irritably, “testify to the whimsy and incompetence of the creator.”
But perhaps we should allow them their smirkings and sulks. They’re only human, after all, and Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris are in the fight of their lives against rocks-in-the-head religious fundamentalism. The woolly middle ground of faith — embraced by the majority whose devotions are more dubious — they’re less bothered about. “I have little doubt,” writes Harris, “that liberals and moderates find the eerie certainties of the Christian right to be as troubling as I do.”
If you’re neither a rancidly closeted anti-gay preacher nor a television blowhard for Christ, if you’re not a child-molesting priest or a suicide bomber, but simply one of the modestly fallible millions who suspects that you might have some other-than-biological relation to the force that brought you into being, you may feel that the current atheist crusade is not about you. You’d be wrong. Put your faith against the whetstone, brother and sister: these books can be read with profit by any believer, from the most frigid Catholic to the wishy-washiest homemade transcendentalist. (A joke from Hitchens: what did the Buddhist say to the hot-dog vendor? “Make me one with everything.”)
There might be something unwholesome, even slightly insane, in their attempt to remove the category of the divine from human experience. But by storming into the catacombs of doctrinal absurdity, and into television studios where the air is so thick with sanctimony one is surprised that the camera lenses are not in need of a regular wiping-down, the atheists are doing us all a favor. They’re turning up the glare of reality. You’d better thank God for them.