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The church of unbelievers

Mairéad Carew

The Four Horsemen: The Discussion that sparked an Atheist Revolution, by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, with a foreword by Stephen Fry, Bantam Press, 160 pp, £9.99, ISBN: 978-0593080399

Some years ago I went to a talk by the evolutionary biologist and “New Atheist” Richard Dawkins in a marquee during Listowel Writers’ Week. He inquired of the audience about their acceptance of the theory of evolution and could not find a single dissenter in the tent. It’s probable that he would not have been able to find an evolution-denier on the streets of Listowel either. Considering that the theory of evolution was discovered by Darwin in 1859 and not by Dawkins in the twenty-first century and that even the Catholic church has recognised Darwinian evolution for the past sixty years this is hardly surprising. So what was the point of preaching to the converted? I felt that I had inadvertently wandered into a Leaving Certificate biology class and waited for Dawkins to make some new revelation about science or religion or both, but this didn’t happen. I picked up this book, The Four Horsemen: The Discussion that sparked an Atheist Revolution, to see what the point of spearheading a campaign of “New Atheism” was about and must admit that, after reading it carefully, I am still none the wiser.

Samuel Beckett’s opening line of his novel Murphy (published 1938) “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new” comes to mind. I was baffled as to why Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist; Sam Harris, a neuroscientist; Daniel C Dennett, a philosopher; and Christopher Hitchens, a journalist and political historian, could not stop pontificating about God. They featured for a time in a great variety of newspapers, magazines, television shows, radio programmes and YouTube videos. Between 2004 and 2007, they produced five bestselling books between them which spearheaded the “New Atheist” movement. They included Sam Harris’s The End of Faith (2004) and Letter to a Christian Nation (2006); Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell (2006); Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion (2006); and Christopher Hitchens’s God is Not Great (2007).

In September 2007, the annual conference of the Atheist Alliance International was held in Washington DC. Harris, Dennett, Dawkins and Hitchens, the four horsemen of the title, took part in a conversation which was filmed. This book consists of the transcript of this conversation along with new essays, but no new ideas, from Harris, Dennett and Dawkins. The reason given for publishing a transcript of their 2007 discussion was that it was the only conversation that the “horsemen” ever had. The central thesis of their discussion in this book, while ostensibly aimed at all God-fearing types, is a camouflaged attack on Muslims and Islam. In the transcript of their conversation Hitchens admits as much when he suggests that himself, Dawkins, Dennett and Harris, alongside the airborne infantry divisions of the US army, specialising in air assault operations, active in Iraq and Afghanistan, “are the real fighters for secularism at the moment, the ones who are really fighting the main enemy”. Hitchens believes that it is only because of the willingness of the United States to combat and confront theocracy that “we have a chance of beating it” and describes the US religious group Nation of Islam as “a racist, crackpot cult”. Richard Dawkins agrees that “when it comes to control-freakery, Islam is way out ahead, in a class of its own”.

Stephen Fry, in his foreword, sets the tone, stating his opinion that “the worst aspects of religion, from faith-healing fakery to murderous martyrdom, could not be separated from the essential nature of religion itself”. The problem with this book is exactly that: the essential nature of religion itself is not discussed. Instead Dawkins denigrates all religions and all practitioners are lumped in together, elderly daily churchgoers being considered in the same context as academic theologians and Islamic suicide bombers. There are also several derogatory references to “they”, “them” and “those people” to denote religious people in general, who are ridiculed with childish pronouncements about “tooth-fairy belief” and having “imaginary friend[s]”. Harris writes that “If the Bible isn’t a magic book, Christianity evaporates. If the Qur’an is not a magic book, Islam evaporates.” This type of simplistic analysis shows no understanding and demonstrates a lack of exploration of nuance, complexity or context in the discussion of a religious literary text. The four horsemen, like the religious fundamentalists they denigrate, tend to be very literalist.

Stephen Fry notes that offence is taken by “religion’s guardians” whenever their claims and practices are examined in “the forensic light of reason, history and knowledge”. If the same methodology were to be applied to the history of atheism and its believers it could be shown that this ideology, underpinning the rampages of Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot and other despots, resulted in the murders of millions of people. Throughout history, numerous ideologies, historical and archaeological information and scientific knowledge have been commandeered and misused for political ends. One of the worst examples included Hitler’s scientific world view, based on eugenics – the science of selective breeding of human beings, where institutes of race-biology and anthropology were set up to serve his political needs. Nazi doctors and scientists involved themselves in unethical scientific experiments as part of Hitler’s political vision for Germany on the world stage. Nazis targeted Jews for their race and their religious views. In the 1920s the English writer and philosopher GK Chesterton argued against a scientific world view in his book Eugenics and other Evils: An Argument Against the Scientifically Organized Society (1922) but he was regarded as a reactionary at that time as eugenics was considered to be at the cutting edge of science and was promoted by universities in Britain, the USA and Europe. The noted historian Richard J Evans, pointed out in his book The Third Reich at War (2009) that “Hitler emphasised again and again his belief that Nazism was a secular ideology founded on modern science”.

Atrocities have been committed throughout history by despotic atheists and religious fanatics alike. Religious and atheist people have an equal capacity for evil because they are all human. Blind faith in anything, including science, can be potentially dangerous. Dawkins and his friends are, perhaps, not “New Atheists” but heralds of a society where scientists are the new secular priesthood. They believe, like the American writer and “first New-Atheist” Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956), that science and religion are incompatible. Mencken was anti-democracy, anti-Christianity, an atheist and an elitist; he has been claimed by the alt-right in America. He opposed Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and was isolationist in his politics. Hitchens, in this book praises Mencken and describes him as “a very and justly celebrated American writer”.

The language in this book is pseudoscientific, applying the methodology of science in a false way to cultural beliefs and practices. Proof of religious beliefs is demanded by the four authors without explaining why a cultural practice and set of beliefs and religious observances need scientific validation. The arts don’t require scientific rubber-stamping either and it is not clear why the “New Atheists” are insisting that understanding can only be within a scientific framework and that philosophical and cultural perspectives are somehow unacceptable. Harris asserts bizarrely that “If the Bible had an account of DNA and electricity and other things that would astonish us, then OK, our jaws would drop and we’d have to have a sensible conversation about the source of this knowledge.” Dawkins expects scientific evidence to be presented for the existence of concepts such as “purgatory” to be found in the Bible as if the Bible was a scientific tome to be perused for scientific evidence rather than a literary text. The fact that the Bible has never masqueraded as a scientific treatise nor have religious people treated it as such is not considered.

Dawkins criticices religion because it has “contributed literally zero to what we know, combined with huge hubristic confidence in the alleged facts it has simply made up”. But religion has not claimed to contribute to scientific knowledge since the seventeenth century, when clergymen and scientists tended to be one and the same. In Richard Dawkins’s essay “The Hubris of Religion, the humility of science and the intellectual and moral courage of atheism” he is still doing battle with the seventeenth century archbishop James Ussher for Ussher’s erroneous calculation that the Earth began on October 22nd, 4004 BC. This demonstrates, according to Dawkins, that “it is characteristic of theologians that they just make stuff up”. But, it seems, famous scientists have made stuff up too. For example, the German scientist Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), calculated that the Earth was created in 3993 BC and Isaac Newton concluded that it was created in 3998 BC.

The “scientific” arguments presented about the existence or non-existence of “God” seem somewhat absurd if one interprets the concept of “God” in a philosophical framework. Even Hitchens concedes that “there may be a mind at work in the universe, a proposition we can’t disprove”. According to the four horsemen truth is absolute and that absolute is science. They are looking in the mirror of dualistic thinking. Black or white. Right or wrong. True or false. Dawkins writes that his concern is “actually not so much with the evils of religion as with whether it’s true”. Religion at its most simplistic is also dualistic. The “New Atheists” attack fundamentalists because they are, themselves, fundamentalists. Dawkins demonstrates his own hubris by sneering at religious people and waving the cultural authority of science in their faces even when the context is clearly inappropriate. There is no room for imagination or intuition in Richard Dawkins’s universe as he is a materialist. Science does not have all the answers, especially to questions about the meaning of life. Science cannot provide the answers to the human desire for transcendence. This defining quality in human beings can be understood through the medium of the arts and through spirituality. But, according to Hitchens “the only thing we’ve got that makes us higher primates” is the faculty of reason. In prehistoric archaeology one thing that separates the human being from the chimpanzee is evidence of belief in the transcendent, usually reflected in ritual burial practices, grave goods, ornamentation and art. Reason isn’t the only positive human attribute or characteristic worth preserving or revering. Art, sculpture, literature and music are not products of reason, they are products of the imagination.

Harris argues that “there is this domain of the sacred that is not easily captured by science, and scientific discourse has ceded it to religious discourse”. But scientific discourse does not belong in the realms of art or religion. These forms of cultural expression speak to the transcendent nature of human beings: their quest for understanding of their place in the world and the meaning of human existence. Harris even claims that the domain of the sacred is “not even well captured by art, in the same way that love is not well captured by art. And compassion isn’t.” This spurious argument lacks understanding and imagination and reflects a materialist perspective. Hitchens mentions that his favourite devotional poem is Philip Larkin’s “Church Going” but that “it goes without saying that it says nothing about the truth of religion”. Dawkins makes similar remarks about the writings of John Donne, a metaphysical poet and cleric: “If Donne’s devotional poetry is wonderful, so what? That doesn’t show that it represents truth in any sense.” This statement raises the question – why is Dawkins trying to reduce Donne’s poetry to scientific truth? Could it be because that is the only truth he understands or grasps as a materialist? What is “truth” in any case? In all scientific disciplines there are competing theories, some absolute truths and some truths that remain true subject to new scientific findings. In Dawkins’s opinion theologians “just don’t care about truth; aren’t interested in truth; don’t know what truth even means”. This scientific determinism suggests that there can be no philosophical truths underpinning religion, no truth of mystical experience, no truth of sacred music and sacred art. According to the four horsemen there is no truth in secular art and music, love or poetry either and that truth about the deep questions of human existence can only be answered by science. Neither science nor religion have the answers to questions such as how does the brain produce subjective consciousness? Where do the laws of physics come from? Did the entire universe come about by mindless atomic collisions with no architect? Or why is there something rather than nothing. The history of science is a history of trial and error. What is considered today as absolute tomorrow will be falsified. Scientists cannot answer why all the complexities of the universe happened any more than theologians or philosophers can. The language of religion is poetry, metaphor, symbolism and allegory. Each scientific discipline also has its own specialised and symbolic language. Scientists and religious people alike are both attempting to understand the deep mysteries of life, one from a scientific perspective and the other from a cultural, philosophical and artistic perspective.

It is noteworthy that the “New Atheists” generally do not engage in intellectual combat about religion in the media with their intellectual equals ‑ such as academic theologians and philosophers. Rather they carefully select their opponents because they prefer to win their arguments easily on their own turf and Fry’s assertion that their “breadth of scriptural and theological knowledge is impressively on display in the pages to come” is highly dubious.  Dennett dismisses sophisticated theology as being like “stamp collecting”. According to him it is full of “eye-glazing, mind-twisting, very subtle things that have no particular bearing on life”. As an academic philosopher himself he knows how obscure the concepts and theories of his own discipline must seem to the uninitiated. This playing to the popular secular gallery offers the false suggestion that religion does not have a deep history and a philosophical or contemplative basis. Just as mainstream religious people should not all be tarred with the fundamentalist brush, all atheists should not be either. Like all extremists the horsemen are critical of moderates. In Hitchens’s view “totalitarianism is innate in all religion”. It is, perhaps, a type of scientific totalitarianism to insist on compressing the cultural phenomenon of religion into one scientific straitjacket, as if one size fits all, in an effort to invalidate it.

The realms of the scientist and the theologian or religious practitioner are mutually exclusive, a point this whole book seems to miss. Artists are not obliged to hold their creative work up to scientific scrutiny and it is also the case that some scientists hold religious views. Dawkins is incredulous, for example, to discover that Kenneth R Miller (b.1948), “a very sophisticated biologist”, Royce Professor for Teaching Excellence at Brown University, and “a brilliant expositor of evolution” still believes in God. Stephen Jay Gould, an American evolutionary biologist, palaeontologist and historian of science, coined the concept of “Nonoverlapping Magisteria” in an essay published in 1997, where the legitimacy of science and religion are respected as separate fields of enquiry. Gould’s ideas are still relevant in 2019.

In this book, all the “New Atheists” are not singing from the same hymn sheet. Dennett, for example, breaks rank when he admits that he has known people “whose lives would be desolate and friendless if it weren’t for the non-judgemental welcome they have received in one religious organization or another”. He even believes in preserving the good that organised religions can do. He is also honest about the fact that he didn’t believe that the state or “secular successor organizations” would replace the churches and continue their “succouring, comforting role”. But Sam Harris disagrees with this sentiment and points out in his essay “In Good Company” that “In the absence of God, we find true sources of hope and consolation.” He notes that art, literature, sport, philosophy, creativity and contemplation “do not require ignorance or lies to be enjoyed”. Contemplation and creativity are core elements in most religious practice, mysticism, sacred art and sacred music. Harris expresses the desire to have “a different church” which seems a baffling and contradictory idea espoused by a militant atheist. He desires a church with “a different ritual, motivated by different ideas” but he doesn’t expand on these ideas. He believes that there’s a place for the sacred in the lives of humans but only “under some construal that doesn’t presuppose any bullshit”. He does not clarify what this means. Dennett desires a church “where the irrationality has simply been laundered out’. It is difficult to work out to what kind of alternative church he is referring. Dawkins, asserts that he would simply “like to see churches empty”.

The horsemen go on to discuss whether all religions are equally bad. Harris believes that “A majority of people in the United states clearly agree that the doctrine of martyrdom in Islam is appalling and not at all benign, and liable to get a lot of people killed, and that it is worthy of criticism.” Hitchens regards all religions to be “equally false” and “equally dangerous”. Hitchens considers that the Catholic church in the 1930s was “the most deadly organization, because of its alliance with fascism” but that in recent times “Islam is the most dangerous religion” and that “Judaism is the root of the problem”. He claims “that the howling wilderness of nothingness is much more likely to result from holy war or religious conflict or theocracy than it is from a proper secularism”. The destruction of the planet and the problems of climate change have not been wrought by religion. Religious people did not invent nor drop the hydrogen bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II. They did not murder six million Jews in the Holocaust. They did not invent weapons of mass destruction, chemical warfare or nuclear power. They haven’t decimated the Amazon rainforests.

Yet despite being militant atheists the four horsemen are sometimes attracted to traditions, even superstitious ones. Harris admits that they were all “outed with our Christmas trees last year”. But this is acceptable to them because Christmas can be explained away as “a good old Norse booze-up” or “a pagan festival”. As a pagan festival it is clearly worth celebrating as long as “they”, “them” and “those people” don’t get any spiritual notions and enjoy a Christian festival. Dawkins wonders why he was taken to task by a rabbi for his hypocrisy in saying grace in New College, Oxford when he was a senior fellow. His explanation was that he did it out of courtesy. This certainly seems strange in light of his vitriolic attacks on other people engaged in religious practice and traditions. The sentiment, expressed by Hitchens. that religions in general are “equally rotten, false, dishonest, corrupt, humourless and dangerous” is intellectually lazy. The authors have a tendency to use extreme examples of religious fanaticism to attack mainstream, benign religious people. For example Hitchens characterises the Dalai Lama as “evil” and “repulsive”.

In his essay “Letting the Neighbours Know” Daniel C Dennett credits the September 30th, 2007 meeting of the four horsemen as the catalyst for “the Great Reaction that is emptying churches around the world”. While the title of this book makes a big claim it is more likely that the horsemen were riding the crest of a wave that was already in motion when they arrived with their “New Atheism” surfboards. There are no scientific data or statistics offered in any of their essays to validate these boastful claims. The New Atheists gained notoriety, celebrity and plenty of money for their efforts, presenting old ideas in provocative language on podiums around the world. This is a political book with a religious title on its cover. Robyn E Blummer, executive director of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, praises the “extraordinary contributions” of the four horsemen, as well as of Stephen Fry “to the vital cause of reason and science”. She claims that “They have changed the world for the better.” I, for one, am not convinced. There is nothing new in their “new atheism”.


Mairead Carew is an archaeologist and cultural historian. Her most recent book is The Quest for the Irish Celt: the Harvard Archaeological Mission to Ireland,1932-1936. (Irish Academic Press, 2018).