The Frontal Cortex

Atheist Evangelists

Richard Dawkins has been everywhere lately. Dawkins is even keeping an online journal while on his book tour. It’s full of amusing, if slightly mean-spirited, vignettes like this:

The large hall at Randolph Macon Woman’s College was packed. I gave a fairly short program of readings from The God Delusion, and then the bulk of the evening was given over to much more than an hour of Q & A. The first questioner announced himself as coming from Liberty (Falwell’s ‘University’), and he began by saying he had never been so insulted, yet simultaneously so amused, by any lecture. Many of the questioners announced themselves as either students or faculty from Liberty, rather than from Randolph Macon which was my host institution. One by one they tried to trip me up, and one by one their failure to do so was applauded by the audience. Finally, I said that my advice to all Liberty students was to resign immediately and apply to a proper university instead. That received thunderous applause, so that I almost began to feel slightly sorry for the Liberty people. Only almost and only slightly, however.

Needless to say, if there happens to be a God, Dawkins is going to the deepest Dantean circle of hell.

And here’s a Wired profile of Dawkins, Harris and Dennett by Gary Wolf. After summarizing their various anti-religion books – they don’t say anything that David Hume didn’t say better – Wolf concludes:

The irony of the New Atheism — this prophetic attack on prophecy, this extremism in opposition to extremism — is too much for me. The New Atheists have castigated fundamentalism and branded even the mildest religious liberals as enablers of a vengeful mob. Everybody who does not join them is an ally of the Taliban. But, so far, their provocation has failed to take hold. Given all the religious trauma in the world, I take this as good news. Even those of us who sympathize intellectually have good reasons to wish that the New Atheists continue to seem absurd. If we reject their polemics, if we continue to have respectful conversations even about things we find ridiculous, this doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve lost our convictions or our sanity. It simply reflects our deepest, democratic values. Or, you might say, our bedrock faith: the faith that no matter how confident we are in our beliefs, there’s always a chance we could turn out to be wrong.

Finally, there’s this profile of Harris, which actually went through the trouble of asking theologians and religious scholars what they make of these atheists:

The un-gospel according to Sam has found a huge audience, but every bit as striking is the counter-reaction to Harris among religious scholars. Mention his name to academics of just about every religious persuasion and you can almost see their eyes roll. Oh, that guy.

Harris has grossly oversimplified scripture, they say. He has drawn far-reaching conclusions based on the beliefs of radicals. As bad, his stand against organized religion is so unconditional that it’s akin to the intolerance he claims he is fighting. If there is such a thing as a secular fundamentalist, they contend, Harris is it. Even some who agree with his conclusions about the dangers of fanaticism find his argument ham-handed.

“I think this country needs a sophisticated attack on religion,” says Van Harvey, a retired professor of religious studies at Stanford University. “But pushing moderates into the same camp as fanatics, that seems like a very crude mistake.”

According to Harvey, not only has Harris picked a fight with those who could be on his side, but his solution — let’s all ditch God — is laughable given the role that religion plays in so many lives. Others say that he has taken these “Old Books” at their literal word, instead of studying the way that the faithful actually engage the scriptures. Put more simply, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

“Religion doesn’t make people bigots,” says Reza Aslan, author of “No God but God,” a history of Islam. “People are bigots and they use religion to justify their ideology.”


  1. #1 Anon
    October 27, 2006

    That’s a hilarious anecodote about the Liberty students. I wonder if their faith can actually be shaken at this point, or if it’s just too late.

  2. #2 Corkscrew
    October 27, 2006

    Needless to say, if there happens to be a God, Dawkins is going to the deepest Dantean circle of hell.

    Depends on the kind of God that’s out there. Quite possibly She approves of proper logical rigour as much as the next hypothetical entity.

  3. #3 Jonah
    October 27, 2006

    If She liked rational logic so much, then she should have given us more of it.

  4. #4 Jordan
    October 27, 2006

    These characterizations of Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett as “fundamentalists” or “evangelicals” are missing a central point of the argument, particularly Harris’.

    To paraphrase Harris, an atheist is simply acknowledging the very obvious. The ranting that the reviewers above find so distasteful stems from the fact that they can’t shake the idea that supernatual religious tenets are something to be taken seriously, or that warrant extensive intellectual discourse and interpretation. D, H, and D are pleading with the audience to apply the same reason and logic that they would to any issue besides religion. The reviewers quoted are patently refusing to do that, and want to go on respecting these beliefs despite the lack of any evidence.

    If an individual pens a highly charged argument for one or another side of a political issue, they are not generally labeled as “evangelical” or “fundamentalist” or “extremeist.” But that’s all D, H, and D are doing. From their chair, this issue has no more significance than any other important issue facing humans. They rail against the other side, because they feel passionate about it, and observe that the emperor really does have no clothes on. The discussion does not deserve kid gloves because it’s about invisible men in the sky.

  5. #5 Caledonian
    October 27, 2006

    All this talk about excluding “extremists” and embracing “moderates” is nonsense. By praising the position that the majority of people take, you can indeed get much greater social support for your claims than you can otherwise, but there’s nothing particularly credible about mass opinion.

  6. #6 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    October 27, 2006

    Let’s look up fundamentalist in the American Heritage Dictionary (as found on

    1. A usually religious movement or point of view characterized by a return to fundamental principles, by rigid adherence to those principles, and often by intolerance of other views and opposition to secularism.

    Fundamental principles? Atheism has only one proposition, that god(s) does not exist, or cannot be shown to exist. Opposition to secularism? That doesn’t sound like Dawkins or Harris. The only part that might be relevant is the “intolerance of other views”. If only the one phrase applies, surely a better word could be found. Zero for one.

    2a. often Fundamentalism An organized, militant Evangelical movement originating in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century in opposition to Protestant Liberalism and secularism, insisting on the inerrancy of Scripture.

    b. Adherence to the theology of this movement.

    Most certainly not. Zero for two.

  7. #7 Robert Krulwich
    October 30, 2006

    Since they were at loggerheads for so long, I’d like to compare Dawkins to Stephen Jay Gould. Where Dawkins is cool, testy and adamant in his condemnation of religious folks, Gould was gentle, forgiving and curious about his opponents. Why, he wondered, did they embrace something that cannot be seen, tested, that is not ‘probable’? It’s not criminal or wrongheaded to shout at your opponents and call them names as Dawkins did to the kids from an evangelical college. It’s just rude. And not the kind of thing that’s likely to persuade.
    By comparison, I invite people to take a look at Gould’s wonderful essay about William Jennings Bryan, called “William Jennings Bryan’s Last Campaign”. It’s in
    Gould’s booky Bully for Brontosaurus where he wonders why a guy who was so progessive (fiercely advocating child labor laws, health laws, womens’ sufferage, fiercely opposing oligopolies, U.S. imperialism, the U.S. invasion of the Phillipines), why would such a man demand that evolution not be taught in schools? Bryan was, to the end, a militant anti-evolutionist. Gould’s essay doesn’t chide. He doesn’t call Bryan names the way Mencken did. He just inquired. “I am not trying to snipe from the depth of Harvard elitism, but to understand,” he wrote.
    And the essay does what essays ought to do: long after it mattered, he brought the two sides together, he kept it light, gave readers room to smile, to listen, to appreciate why a decent, talented, politically sensitive man might want to ban an idea, keep it out of classrooms.
    “Why do you feel the way you do?” is a powerful question.
    “Why can’t you see it my way?” is a question that takes you nowhere you haven’t been.

    That’s what I don’t like about this new gang of so called “brights” — they don’t want to go where they haven’t been.

  8. #8 Ben 10
    April 19, 2009

    Let’s look up fundamentalist in the American Heritage Dictionary..

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    April 22, 2009

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    May 1, 2009

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