Atheism does seem to have taken on a more “evangelistic” tinge in recent years. Books such as Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation are an open pitch to religious believers to cast aside the darkness of superstition and embrace the robust verities of the atheist faith. I’m surprised Dawkins doesn’t issue an altar call at his lectures. Actually, perhaps he does. And maybe his next book could be a condensed version of The God Delusion called, oh, I dunno, Mere Atheism has a certain ring to it.
I’m sure this trend is largely motivated by 9/11, which is read by many non-believers as a sign that “religion”, as such, is inherently dangerous. It can therefore no longer be merely tolerated, and must be vigorously opposed. Hence, for example, church schools (part of the educational landscape for over 150 years) have now been rebranded as the more sinister sounding “faith schools”, an unacceptable source of division and intolerance within our society.
However, I suspect these books are not really aimed at converting religious believers to atheism. If they were, they might make more of an attempt to engage constructively with religious beliefs and believers, rather than treating the former as vacuities unworthy of any serious attention, and the latter as dangerous morons who should be grateful they are only being ridiculed rather than forcibly silenced, as they deserve (Dawkins is on record as saying that religious “indoctrination” of children by their parents should be regarded as child abuse). Really, the books are aimed at making the already-converted feel better about themselves. Of course, the same could be said about a lot of Christian evangelistic literature.
Couldn’t Help Noticing linked to reviews of two of these “athei-vangelistic” books recently: Alvin Plantinga’s review of The God Delusion, and David B. Hart’s review of Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. I hope to post more on the latter in due course, not because the book itself deserves so much attention, but because the review is such fun (“one of the most devastating book shreddings I have ever read”, as CHN puts it).
Plantinga’s review of Dawkins is similarly scathing. “One shouldn’t look to this book for evenhanded and thoughtful commentary”, he observes. Indeed, “the proportion of insult, ridicule, mockery, spleen, and vitriol” is such that Plantinga finds himself wondering if “[Dawkins’] mother, while carrying him, was frightened by an Anglican clergyman on the rampage”!
As for Dawkins’ forays into philosophy:
You might say that some of his forays into philosophy are at best sophomoric, but that would be unfair to sophomores; the fact is (grade inflation aside), many of his arguments would receive a failing grade in a sophomore philosophy class. This, combined with the arrogant, smarter-than-thou tone of the book, can be annoying.
One helpful point made by Plantinga concerns the argument made by Dawkins that invoking a supernatural creator explains nothing, because it just pushes the problem one stage back (as Dawkins puts it, “To explain the origin of the DNA/protein machine by invoking a supernatural Designer is to explain precisely nothing, for it leaves unexplained the origin of the Designer”):
[S]uppose we land on an alien planet orbiting a distant star and discover machine-like objects that look and work just like tractors; our leader says “there must be intelligent beings on this planet who built those tractors.” A first-year philosophy student on our expedition objects: “Hey, hold on a minute! You have explained nothing at all! Any intelligent life that designed those tractors would have to be at least as complex as they are.” No doubt we’d tell him that a little learning is a dangerous thing and advise him to take the next rocket ship home and enroll in another philosophy course or two.
The point being that “in invoking God as the original creator of life, we aren’t trying to explain organized complexity in general, but only a particular kind of it, i.e., terrestrial life.” (Though in any event Plantinga disputes Dawkins claim that God would have to be more complex than what he creates.)