The New Atheists - Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens –have become immensely popular in the last decade through a series of blistering attacks on religion.
While their starting point was the lack of scientific evidence for God’s existence, they quickly expanded their target to argue that religion is in fact the “root of all evil” in the world. Far from being tolerated, religion should be banished. It obstructs the progress of the human race; progress based on the pursuit of science and reason.
At first, I was sympathetic to their cause. I too was angry with the hypocrisy and false piety of religious leaders, their cover up of abuse, their oppressive views on homosexuality, contraception, and the treatment of women. Not to mention the fact that I don’t believe in heaven, hell, the power of prayer, or miracles.
Yet, the more I considered the arguments of the New Atheists the more I found their understanding of religion intellectually shallow, and their faith in science and reason naive and dangerous.
The New Atheists offer a binary world-view, neatly divided into good and evil. Science and reason on the one hand, religion and faith on the other. The implication being: if we get rid of religion, we get rid of evil.
They make the mistake here of treating evil as if it exists exclusively within a set of beliefs or practices, rather than as an inherent part of human nature. As Chris Hedges puts it, they externalize evil. Fundamentalist religious groups do the same, only for them evil resides in liberal secularism.
The danger here is that it deludes both groups into believing that all we need to do in order to banish evil, is to rid the world of a certain set of practices and beliefs.
This is a fool’s errand: the capacity for oppression and intolerance is not unique to the religious, or the secular, it is part of our corruptible nature. Countless political movements and revolutions throughout history have promised a new and better future if we just got rid of some other group of people, only to find the same, or worse, problems surfacing time and again.
With religion out of the way, the New Atheists argue that we ought to put our faith in science and reason to deliver us from evil and usher in a future of unfettered human progress.
This kind of thinking misunderstands the role of science and technology. Technology and science are morally neutral: they are tools that can be used for good and for bad. We use science to feed the hungry, explore the universe, cure disease, and to create nuclear weapons, chemical and biological warfare, gas chambers, and bureaucratic systems of surveillance and oppression.
The danger in assuming that science and technology are inherently good is that it tempts us to have blind faith in whatever they allow us to do. We are seduced into assuming we no longer need to be cautious and wary of our tendencies for violence and domination. We forget that at the root of all our remarkable innovation is our nature; something we have not yet mastered.
Given the blinding array of scientific and technological progress we confront every day, it is easy to fall prey to this type of thinking: that we are somehow better people, or more civilized because of our scientific progress. The New Atheists confuse material progress with moral or psychological progress.
While scientific progress is welcome, it does not come pre-packaged with an instruction manual. We still must struggle with how we should use it and what we should care about.
The very idea that we are the culmination of centuries of progress runs into difficulties when we look to our recent history. The 20th century was remarkable for two things: unprecedented scientific advancement (relativity theory, space travel, quantum mechanics, the internet) and the bloodiest, most murderous wars the earth has ever witnessed.
The two types of progress – scientific and moral – do not walk hand in hand.
The New Atheists’ account of religion and science fails to appreciate the complexity of human nature. Practices like religion, politics, economics, education, science, and even knowledge are neither good nor bad in themselves. They are tools that, when institutionalized, are used to express the values of those who have control and power within them.
The human capacity for evil doesn’t banish with a set of particular individuals or practices. It is part of being human and forgetting so risks the destruction of other ways of being for the sake of a naive belief that we can somehow escape our complex and corruptible nature.