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The God Damners

The Now Not-so-New Atheism

BETWEEN 2004 AND 2007, FIVE BOOKS WERE published in the United States attacking theism and theistic religion, and all ultimately became bestsellers: Sam Harris’s The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (Norton, 2004) and a follow-up book addressing that book’s critics, Letter to a Christian Nation (Knopf, 2006); Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion (Bantam, 2006); Daniel C. Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Viking/Penguin,2006); and Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (Twelve Books, 2007).

I read Sam Harris’s The End of Faith in 2005 and agreed with much of his polemic against religion while being far less sanguine than he about change being possible. This book had an obvious genesis in the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but when the other books appeared their motivation could not clearly be traced to those events. The books of Dennett, Hitchens, and Dawkins all make brief reference to 9/11, but all involved earlier research and in some cases parts or related works had been published that predated the events of 9/11. Hitchens insists in the acknowledgments in his book that he has been writing it all his life. There was more in the air than the dust of the World Trade Center that led to these books at this time. I decided to read them to determine what they have in common and what the unique approach of each was, as well as to explore the question: why these books and why now? The answer to the last question turned out to be a startling combination of forces beginning with the attack on the homeland but also including widespread attacks on public education and attempts to usurp political power by the forces of anti-reason.

Of course there have been books attacking organized religion and religious belief before. As several of these authors point out, the psalmist’s “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God” should make it clear that there have always been unbelievers. But many organized religions do a good job of systematically suppressing their dissidents, and links between religion and governments made dissent very difficult—and in many cases dangerous—over many centuries, so that assaults on religion did not get much traction until the Enlightenment. One of the first books to openly critique organized religion was Thomas Paine’s 1794 The Age of Reason, a defense of deism and “natural” religion. Voltaire fired a number of satiric salvos at the proponents of various religious theories. The 19th century’s most profound attack on biblical inerrancy and its chronology, as well as on the argument from design, came in Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859, though Darwin initially did not see these consequences, and he argued in his conclusion that there was no reason to see his work as inimical to religion. All of the New Atheist authors have much to say about Darwin.

Bertrand Russell’s 1927 “Why I Am Not a Christian” systematically dismantles the traditional proofs for the existence of God while articulating a personal stand on one organized religion. H. L. Mencken treats religions—he thinks they’re “pretty much alike”—with “amiable skepticism” in his 1930 Treatise on the Gods. “The case of religion is not proved,” Mencken says in his understated way, but he is convinced “men simply credit to the gods whatever laws they evolve out of their own wisdom or lack of it” and that religion is an effort of humankind “to penetrate the unknowable, to put down the intolerable, to refashion the universe nearer to their heart’s desire.”

The one 20th-century treatment of the subject that should not be ignored by subsequent writers is Sigmund Freud’s little book published in 1927 called The Future of an Illusion. Freud looks at religion as one of the psychical forces that keep civilization in order, controlling its “discontents”—a topic he would explore in detail three years later in Civilization and Its Discontents. Religious ideas have, according to Freud, two main sources. The idea that a superior intelligence promises a new existence beyond death and underwrites the moral law is an illusion that comes out of infantile wish fulfillment, but is still available to the grown-up, who retaining it can thereby remain a child forever. The other source he had described earlier in Totem and Taboo (1913): a prehistoric event resulting in the killing of the father (accidentally or as the result of an ostracized band of brothers returning for revenge) was the origin of the murder taboo as well as the deification of the father figure. About the latter event, Freud almost seems to chortle as he writes, “Hence the religious explanation is right. God was actually concerned in the origin of that prohibition.” Since he equates the transformation of the primal father into God and collective guilt at the killing of the father figure with a cultural neurosis (as well as with the formation of the original sin myth), religion is “the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity.” Its abandonment will be a slow process, according to Freud, and we are in the middle of it. But anticipating one of Sam Harris’s thought experiments, Freud says “I think it would be a very long time before a child who was not influenced [by religious teaching] began to trouble himself about God and the things beyond this world.”

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About Skeptic

WHY IS THERE SOMETHING RATHER THAN NOTHING? COLUMNS The SkepDoc: Health Freedom, Right to Try, and Informed Consent, by Harriet Hall, M.D. • The Gadfly: Do You Have Traits or Are You a Type? by Carol Tavris • SPECIAL SECTION ON TACTICS FOR DISCUSSING CONTENTIOUS ISSUES Personhood and Abortion Rights: How Science Might Inform this Contentious Issue, by Gary Whittenberger • How to Teach Evolution to Religious Students, by Surat Parvatam • The Arguments for Creationism and the Arguments for Evolution: A Study in Contrasts, by Ralph M. Barnes • Meeting Our “Enemies” Where They Are: The Advantage of Understanding Your Adversary’s Arguments, by Andrew Cooper-Sansone ARTICLES The Grandest of Questions Why is There Something Rather Than Nothing? by Michael Shermer • Reports of Mysterious Attacks on U.S. Diplomats Continue: Separating Fact from Fiction by Robert E. Bartholomew • The God Damners: The Now Not-so-New Atheism by Michael Cohen • Quackery in America: An Inglorious and Ongoing History, by Morton Tavel, M.D. • What Is It like to Be a Human? by Colin McGinn REVIEWS Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress • The Equations of Life: How Physics Shapes Evolution • The Human Instinct: How We Evolved to Have Reason, Consciousness, and Free Will • SCAM: So-Called Alternative Medicine • Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life • The Biological Mind: How Brain, Body, and Environment Collaborate to Make Us Who We Are JUNIOR SKEPTIC Secrets of the Ouija Board, by Daniel Loxton