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Backward, atheist soldiers!

Books | Notable anti-religion and anti-Christian books of the past year-particularly Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great-make something out of, well, nothing

Issue: "The 2007 Books Issue," June 30, 2007

Nineteenth-century novelist Gustave Flaubert used to joke about archaeologists discovering a stone tablet signed "God" and reading, "I do not exist." His punch line had an atheist then exclaiming, "See! I told you so!"

These days, nothing stops atheistic caissons from rolling along the bookstore aisles. Maybe that's because atheists on average have small families and lots of discretionary doubloons jingling in their pockets. Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation (Knopf), Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell (Penguin), and Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin) all hit bestseller lists during 2006-and a new book, Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great (Twelve), has ascended this year.

Last year's trio emerged alongside anti-Christian books purportedly based on hard reporting. Michelle Goldberg's Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (Norton) typified the genre's misreporting when she wrote that Christian pregnancy counseling centers "usually" present false or exaggerated information-but there's no indication that she visited even one center, let alone the 3,000 or so that exist throughout the country. (Here's some evidentiary trivia: In four pages about me she makes five clear factual errors, along with many questionable interpretations.)

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This year it's the same: a new screed by Chris Hedges has as its title not "Mistaken People" or even "Lying Liars," but American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (Free Press). The genre is old, with new villains appearing as necessary. Ten years ago Frederick Clarkson's Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy stated that the sky was falling, with Promise Keepers as the spearhead of Christian dictatorship.

The ferocity of these books is sometimes astounding. Here, for example, is Dawkins' view of God: "arguably the most unpleasant character in fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully."

Even Publishers Weekly noted concerning The God Delusion, "For a scientist who criticizes religion for its intolerance, Dawkins has written a surprisingly intolerant book, full of scorn for religion and those who believe. . . . Even confirmed atheists who agree with his advocacy of science and vigorous rationalism may have trouble stomaching some of the rhetoric: 'The biblical Yahweh is "psychotic," Aquinas' proofs of God's existence are "fatuous" and religion generally is "nonsense."'

Happily, Alister and Joanna Collicutt McGrath have just come out with an effective response, The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine (IVP). The McGraths note, "Until recently, Western atheism had waited patiently, believing that belief in God would simply die out. But now a whiff of panic is evident. Far from dying out, belief in God has rebounded."

The McGraths also point out the folly of believing that if religion were eliminated wars would cease: After all, conflicts often reflect human desires to declare some people as "in" and others as "out," sometimes on the basis of religion, but at other times on the basis of race, ethnicity, tribe, class, gender, or whatever.

Christianity is above all others the religion that seeks kindness to those in the out-group: Jesus told us to love our neighbors and even to love our enemies. When Christians fail to live up to His teachings it's because of sin, not Christianity-and scapegoating religion delays efforts to deal with the real problems of social division.

Scapegoating is also evident in the writing of Sam Harris, who frequently forgets to use reason and instead falls back on words like "preposterous." He asserts certainty about what he admits not knowing: "How the process of evolution got started is still a mystery, but that does not in the least suggest that a deity is likely to be lurking at the bottom of it all."

He complains not only about ignorance but about moral failings: "An average Christian, in an average church, listening to an average Sunday sermon has achieved a level of arrogance simply unimaginable in scientific discourse."

Yet Harris, for all his attacks on Intelligent Design, does not even understand the distinction between macro-evolution-one kind of creature changing into another-and micro-evolution. One of his proofs of theistic obtuseness is that "viruses like HIV, as well as a wide range of harmful bacteria, can be seen evolving right under our noses, developing resistance to antiviral and antibiotic drugs."

The one good aspect of Harris' work is his understanding that theology has consequences: "There is no escaping that fact that a person's religious beliefs uniquely determine what he thinks peace is good for, as well as what he means by a term like 'compassion.'" Harris at least understands that the biblical theology he hates makes obnoxious sense in a way that liberalism does not; given a suffering world, "liberal theology must stand revealed for what it is: the sheerest of mortal pretenses."

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