Newsweek Discovers Atheists

P.Z. Myers of Pharyngula draws my attention to a Newsweek article by Jerry Adler, “The New Naysayers“, about several prominent atheists and the impact they have had on American culture and society.

In sum, I agree with Myers: this article was terrible. (Newsweek in general has a poor track record when it comes to atheism.) Although any attention paid to atheists is welcome, Adler’s article was characterized by the heavy-handed application of logical fallacies and an intrusively opinionated tone that makes the article seem to waver between a simple factual report and an editorial hit piece. His attitude toward his subjects seemed half dismissive and half bemused, as if he himself was having a hard time believing that atheists really exist.

Following are some comments on sections of the piece I found especially vexing:

Dawkins and Harris are not writing polite demurrals to the time-honored beliefs of billions; they are not issuing pleas for tolerance or moderation, but bone-rattling attacks on what they regard as a pernicious and outdated superstition.

On the very first page of this article we see the intrusive editorializing begin, as Adler strongly implies that religious beliefs are “time-honored”, that “billions” of people hold them and therefore they are automatically worthy of respect, and that they should be treated “politely”. This is just a masked version of the standard plea that religious beliefs should be exempt from criticism.

Yes, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and many other atheists are attacking superstition, and all I have to say to that is that it is about damn time. For ages now religious fundamentalists all over the planet have been killing, waging war, committing acts of terrorism, subverting the democratic process, violating human rights, and openly stating their intent to take over the world. It is about time that a strong and vocal atheist movement stood up to these bullies and fanatics and informed them in no uncertain terms that we will not permit them to destroy what we hold dear. At long last, such a movement is emerging. And yet when it happens, pundits like Adler sit on the sidelines and simper at us that we are the rude ones, that these beliefs are “time-honored” and should not be criticized.

A wrong idea is a wrong idea, no matter how old it is. If a religious belief calls for the killing and enslaving of innocents, it does not become more respectable just because it has been around for centuries or because millions of people believe it. If religious groups want atheists to stop criticizing them, then they should stop doing and believing things that are worthy of criticism.

What Adler fails to grasp is that most prominent atheists are arguing for tolerance and attacking religion. The two are not incompatible. Tolerance simply implies that you recognize another person’s right to hold some belief, without stating that you agree with that belief or even that it is worthy of respect. One can tolerate a belief while also criticizing it scathingly. If anything, it is the atheists who are more tolerant: we recognize religious people’s right to exist, but demand that they not be allowed to force their religion on us. Many religious people are unwilling to make that concession.

These are not brand-new arguments, of course, and believers have well-practiced replies to them, although in some cases, such as the persistence of evil and suffering (the “theodicy” problem), the responses are still mostly works in progress.

Adler seems anxious to assure his readers that religious apologists have answers to all the arguments an atheist might propose, so they need not worry themselves. And yet this confidence is belied by his very next clause, where he admits that theistic replies to the argument from evil are “works in progress”, which in practice translates to: “We have no response at all to this argument, except to encourage believers to shut their eyes and pray harder.” As Adler admits, the argument from evil is not “brand-new” and is in fact quite ancient, so why is it taking so long to come up with an answer?

But Dawkins, brilliant as he is, overlooks something any storefront Baptist preacher might have told him. “If there is no God, why be good?” he asks rhetorically, and responds: “Do you really mean the only reason you try to be good is to gain God’s approval and reward? That’s not morality, that’s just sucking up.” That’s clever. But millions of Christians and Muslims believe that it was precisely God who turned them away from a life of immorality. Dawkins, of course, thinks they are deluding themselves. He is correct that the social utility of religion doesn’t prove anything about the existence of God. But for all his erudition, he seems not to have spent much time among ordinary Christians, who could have told him what God has meant to them.

This paragraph is probably the most condescendingly dismissive of the entire essay. It sneers that Richard Dawkins overlooks what “any storefront Baptist preacher” might have told him, and assumes without evidence that he has “not… spent much time among ordinary Christians”, as if such a thing were even possible in our pervasively pious society. On the contrary, it is getting away from the omnipresent spamming for theism that takes effort. Although it reluctantly acknowledges that the mere existence of belief does not prove the existence of God (how could it, when members of numerous incompatible religions claim that their belief has beneficial effects on their life?), it then commits an implicit version of that very fallacy.

As for the Bible, Harris, like the fundamentalists, prefers a literal reading. He quotes at length the passages in the Old and New Testaments dealing with how to treat slaves. Why, he asks, would anyone take moral instruction from a book that calls for stoning your children to death for disrespect, or for heresy, or for violating the Sabbath?

This is a very good question. However, Adler shows no interest in dealing with it, as he immediately moves on to the next section of his diatribe without acknowledging that Harris has raised a point that deserves to be answered.

Believers can take comfort in the fact that atheism barely amounts to a “movement.” American Atheists, which fights in the courts and legislatures for the rights of nonbelievers, has about 2,500 members and a budget of less than $1 million.

It does not speak well of Adler’s knowledge of his subject material if he thinks American Atheists is the only or even the largest organization of nonbelievers. The Freedom from Religion Foundation, for example, has over 6,000 members and growing, and other groups such as the Secular Coalition for America are larger still. More importantly, nonbelievers make up a substantial 14% and growing of the American population, and that figure is even higher in many other countries. 14% of the population equates to about one in seven people, and outnumbers nearly all of the identifiable religious dominations. These are undeniably relevant facts. Why are they not mentioned by Newsweek?

If Dawkins, Dennett and Harris are right, the five-century-long competition between science and religion is sharpening. People are choosing sides. And when that happens, people get hurt.

Despite the fact that Adler opens his article with an allusion to September 11, he seems blissfully unaware of the obvious truth that millions of people have already been hurt and killed in the name of religion throughout human history, and the killing is still going on today. The terrorists of al-Qaeda still want to destroy the West because we do not share their fundamentalist beliefs; Iraq is rapidly sliding into civil war between Shia and Sunni; Hezbollah is on the ascent in Lebanon; Iranian mullahs who regard killing infidels as a sacred duty are growing nearer to getting their hands on an atomic bomb; our own Christian fundamentalists cheer every explosion in the Middle East as another step towards Armageddon and regard those who work for peace as enemies of God; and atheists are the ones we should be worrying about? How much worse could a strongly worded argument for reason possibly make things?

(Author’s Note: An abbreviated version of this complaint essay was sent to Newsweek‘s editors at I encourage my readers to do likewise.)

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.