There’s no doubt about it: right now, God is on the side of the atheists.
The apostles of unbelief are having their Pentecostal moment. The spirit is upon them, endowing them with the gift of tongues and commanding them to spread the Bad News. British contrarian and journalist Christopher Hitchens’s current smash God Is Not Great (Twelve) was preceded on the bestseller lists by Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin) and Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation (Knopf). Then there’s Tufts professor Daniel Dennett, whose Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Penguin) has also been doing quite well.
In pure publishing terms, this mini-boom in godlessness can be interpreted as a backlash against the mumbo-jumbo juggernaut of The Da Vinci Code and its ilk. More profoundly, it has provoked serious public discussion of the role of faith in our current politics, and in the prosecution of the so-called war on terror. And more profoundly still, it has given the average unreligious Seinfeld fan, well, something to believe in. Secularism is not glorious: it’s a dude in Starbucks tweaking his Blackberry. Now at last, with these champions going before him, this slumped figure can rise and partake of that cosmic gallantry on which the faithful, hitherto, have had a monopoly.
With the exception of Dennett’s work (he mildly researches “the belief in belief”), the manner of these books is urgent and intemperate: atheism, their authors insist, is an idea whose time has come, and the sooner this religion business gets knocked on the head, the better things will be for everyone. And since the antidote to piety is disrespect, the believer can count on few courtesies in their pages. Dawkins labels churchgoers “faith-heads”: a word to be pronounced, presumably, with the same asperity as “crackheads.” Hitchens returns again and again to the idea that religion belongs “to the infancy of mankind,” and scolds and chides the religious accordingly. Harris’s style is hoarse and didactic, fitted to what he sees as a state of global emergency: “You believe that Christianity is an unrivaled source of human goodness,” he writes. “You believe that the Bible is the most profound book ever written and that its contents have stood the test of time so well that it must have been divinely inspired. All of these beliefs are false.”
Even the genial Dennett, who is bearded like Santa Claus, proposes with a professorial twinkle that the God-free be called “brights,” and credits them with a significant moral edge: apparently, brights have the lowest divorce rate in the United States.
The atheists have also carried their crusade to the media, where, so far, their opponents have been brought low like something from Psalm 18 (“Yea, he sent out his arrows, and scattered them; and he shot out lightnings, and discomfited them.”) Consider, for example, the recent woes of Al Sharpton. On May 7, the Reverend Al debated Christopher Hitchens at the New York Public Library, on the notion “God Is Not Great.” The debate was a rhetorical mismatch, without particular interest until the moment when the Creator, in His wisdom, allowed Sharpton to open his mouth spectacularly wide and insert the entirety of his own foot.
Alluding to the Mormonism of Republican candidate Mitt Romney, Sharpton grandly told his audience not to worry, because Romney would be defeated by “those who really believe in God.” Lazy chuckles from the crowd. But within hours, the Romney war machine had mobilized: the candidate went before the cameras complaining of “religious bigotry,” appealingly casting himself in the role of maligned believer and forcing the reverend into a blustery self-defense.
Worse, the suitability of Mormonism in a presidential candidate — a tricky area for Mitt — was suddenly off the table as an issue: which of Romney’s conservative opponents would want to be on the same side, even for a second, as Al Sharpton? Score one for the Mormonator. Hitchens, meanwhile, preened in triumph. He glittered with delight: here, on the front page, was the sort of low-brow tribal god-squabble that gave meaning to the subtitle of his book: “How Religion Poisons Everything.”
Hounds of Hell
Next, consider the fate of Ted Haggard. In 2005, the then-pastor of the New Life Church and chairman of the National Association of Evangelicals was interviewed-slash-confronted by Dawkins for a documentary on religion called The Root of All Evil? Filmed at the New Life compound in Colorado Springs, it was a leering, lip-curling encounter, a showpiece of contempt, in which the atheist Dawkins accused the Biblical literalist Haggard (somewhat tautologically, perhaps) of knowing nothing about evolution, while Haggard suggested that Dawkins’s grandchildren might one day “laugh at him” for his belief in natural selection. “You wanna bet?” snarled Dawkins, his mad-scientist eyebrows standing quill-like in fury. The pastor then threw Dawkins and the camera crew off his land, uttering the classic creationist retort: “You called my children animals!”