The value of reading a new book that is basically a free-wheeling discussion among the four leading lights of the so-called “New Atheism” movement is delightfully summarized in a forward by erudite comedian and writer Stephen Fry.
“You don’t have to boast a Ph.D. or have read Thomas à Kempis, the Qur’an, the Book of Mormon and the teachings of Siddhartha (or indeed On the Origin of Species and Principia Mathematica) to be able to take part in such wrangling and disputation,” Fry wrote in the forward. “But boy, isn’t it wonderful when you can eavesdrop on four who have. It warms the heart, tickles the soul and fires up the synapses. And that’s exactly what this book allows us to do.”
“This book,” titled The Four Horsemen: The Conversation That Sparked an Atheist Revolution, is a transcript published this year of a round-table conversation involving uber-atheists Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens (he died in 2011), Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett.
These estimable fellows—two Americans, a British-American and a Brit, all science-bullish academics—have arguably written the five seminal books in the revival of American atheistic debate in the early 2000s.
The ‘New Atheism’ books
The books are Dawkins’ hugely popular and influential The God Delusion (2006); Hitchins’ God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007); Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (2006); and Harris’ The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (2004) and also Letter to a Christian Nation (2006).
In opening chapter of The Four Horsemen, Dawkins notes the evolving relationship of these influential thinkers in the debate about reason and religion:
“For a time, Sam, Dan and I were dubbed ‘the Three Musketeers.’ Then, when Christopher’s broadside arrived, we expanded into ‘the Four Horsemen.’ We were not responsible for those journalistic coinings but we didn’t disown them. Nor did we collide with each other: there was no organized mustering of the guns, although we had no objection to being bracketed together, and we were happy to be joined by such respected authors as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Victor Stenger, Lawrence Krauss, Jerry Coyne, Michael Shermer, A.C. Grayling and Dan Barker, among others.”
I have personally read all the Horsemen’s key books on nonbelief (and others they’ve written) and found each rational and sane and persuasive about the supreme folly of supernatural enthrallment. I was a solid atheist before I read any of them, but, afterward, I was armed with exponentially better arguments.
A serious conversation
As Fry wrote, the conversation between these four fellow activist-atheist authors is a treat, and I found it revealed in them, besides intellectual range and sharpness, kindness, humility, loyalty and laugh-out-loud humor.
But, at heart, the conversation is serious.
The first topic the quartet started discussing was the central issue of “offense”:
“… [of] how offense is taken by religion’s guardians whenever their claims and practices are examined in the forensic light of reason, history and knowledge,” Fry wrote. “Reading the four Horsemen on this subject now, one realizes that all conversations about any ideology or belief are subsets of the religious debate. … The rules of all intellectual activity—whether scientific or non-scientific—spin down to one golden precept: the testing of assertions on the anvil of logic and verifiable fact.”
As Dawkins and others in the group have often pointedly insisted, religious ideas, despite how fervently they are held by believers, do not give the faithful a pass in blind public acceptance of their program. Fry writes:
“Enquiries into the legitimacy of claims that spill out into the public arena and influence education, law-making and policy have no obligation to consider bruised feelings.”
That’s an essential principle in this debate. If religious ideas are corralled into remote “safe” spaces impervious to criticism, they essentially become immune to accountability. Considering the shocking damage to mankind and human progress—to believers and skeptics alike—that religions have inflicted over millennia, it is dangerous to allow such critical immunity.
Why fantasies perpetuate as truth
The four authors at one point consider why religions perpetuate nonsensical notions as true. A passage from the conversation explains Dawkins’ take on this:
“It isn’t that theologians deliberately tell untruths. It’s as though they just don’t care about truth; aren’t interested in truth; don’t know what truth even means; demote truth to negligible status compared with other considerations, such as symbolic or mythic significance. And yet, at the same time, Catholics are compelled to believe these made-up ‘truths’—compelled in no uncertain terms.”
For an example, Dawkins cited 18th-century Pope Benedict XIV’s declaration that the Virgin Mary’s bodily assumption into heaven after her death was “a probable opinion which to deny were impious and blasphemous.” Dawkins exclaimed,
“If to deny a ‘probable opinion’ is ‘impious and blasphemous,” he wrote, “you can image the penalty for denying an infallible opinion!”
This is important. Without a shared acceptance of what “truth” means, the point for discussing these things evaporates.
“Listening in” as these lions of new-millennia atheism wrestle with similarly essential existential issues, I am reminded of the importance of skepticism, hard evidence and ruthless fealty to truth in effectively navigating our oh-so-material existence.
What a treat being reminded of this by those who ignited the contemporary conversation about belief.