Joe Bob Parties With the Atheists

By Joe Bob Briggs | 05/30/2008

The biggest security guard I’ve ever seen in my life–this guy could work for Blackwater, and he’s got the coiled listening device spilling out of his left ear to prove it–has parked his burly self squarely in front of me, making it clear that I’d best slink back against the wall while the Rock Star of Atheism makes her entrance and a hundred entranced admirers take a collective breath, not quite believing they’re in her presence.

The exotically beautiful Ayaan Hirsi Ali travels with not one but two Blackwater types, part of a security contract supplied by the government of the Netherlands at the rate of two-point-five mill a year, and she’s clearly the main attraction at the opening-night fundraiser for the Atheist Alliance International, an umbrella group of 59 atheist organizations in 10 countries that have all come together in a spooky section of Arlington, Virginia, called Crystal City, which looks like some Nordic vision of the perfectly planned society–hermetically sealed high-rise apartment buildings, underground shopping malls, and claustrophobic hotels, with streets devoid of pedestrians but elaborately landscaped, like a Brobdingnagian potted plant.

AAI Poster

We’re all wedged into the Arlington Ballroom of the Crowne Plaza Hotel at an event that’s been sold out for weeks, with hundreds more tuning in on the Internet, and we’ve been warned not to pet the bomb-sniffing dogs. The heavy security is specifically the result of a fatwa declaring open season on Ayaan Hirsi Ali, but there’s a little paranoia even when she’s not around, perhaps because any well-placed explosive device in this low-ceilinged meeting hall could wipe out the entire sanhedrin of the atheist movement, and, after all, you never know what those abortion clinic bombers are likely to do next. Besides Ali, the assembled pantheon includes Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation), Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great) and Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell), which, if you’ve been paying attention, collectively amount to about 2 million New York Times best-selling copies during the past year with variations on the themes of “There is no God,” “Belief in God is a plague on society,” and “The religionists must be stopped.” So I guess there’s one other reason we need security: Any attack on the building would result in an extremely low afterlife quotient–we have to party now!

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Ayaan Hirsi Ali

At last Ayaan Hirsi Ali makes her entrance–she’s actually kind of bashful, so she sidles awkwardly toward her assigned table as Burly Two bumps off dawdlers like a human mine-sweeper, clearing a path through the cocktail jungle–and as her presence slowly dawns on people (there she is! she’s so slender! don’t pet the dog!), there’s a little wave of spontaneous applause and then a jostling for position for what will be a solid hour of effusive outpourings (“Thank you for your courage,” “I admire you so much,” “My family is Muslim and you give me strength”), mostly from women, many of them clutching Ali’s book Infidel, the story of her odyssey from Somalia to Saudi Arabia to Ethiopia to Kenya to the Netherlands as she evaded an arranged marriage, denounced the religion of her family, became a member of the Dutch Parliament, and made a film on the oppression of Muslim women with director Theo Van Gogh, who was knifed to death by an Islamic fanatic as a result. I notice a man in line who looks remarkably like Tom Wolfe–only to realize it is Tom Wolfe. He chats with her for about five minutes, and she looks alternately embarrassed and joyful. On this night, it’s good to be an atheist in Crystal City.

The next three days will be a combination political convention, pep rally, scholarly conference and gathering of fans–in their undergraduate exuberance some of the attendees are a little like the monomaniacs at science fiction conventions–and it’s obvious that for many of the celebrants they’re experiencing an epiphany, a sense of “It’s okay to be atheist” or “Wow, there are more of us than I thought.” The gathering, in both senses, has begun.

When Harvey Cox wrote The Secular City 43 years ago, he noted in passing that “the anti-Christian zealot is something of an anachronism today” because “the forces of secularization have no serious interest in persecuting religion. Secularization simply bypasses and undercuts religion and goes on to other things. It has relativized religious world-views and thus rendered them innocuous. Religion has been privatized.”

I didn’t spot Dr. Cox in Crystal City–although it’s the kind of event he would relish–but I would expect that even from his cloistered Harvard study there would be a sense of a culture shift. Just four years ago I spoke at a national convention of atheists in Boston, and it was a ragtag group of a few dozen that couldn’t even fill up the bar at a Logan Airport hotel. During the years when Madalyn Murray O’Hair was the most famous atheist in America (and we’re not just saying that because she was a fan of The Door), you always had the sense that the roots of her movement didn’t go much further than the storefront in Austin where she sold sloppily printed pamphlets and brochures. The favorite joke of Ellen Johnson, O’Hair’s right hand for much of that time and president of American Atheists today, was always that “organizing atheists is like herding cats.”

Sweeney and Downey
Julia Sweeney and Margaret Downey

What a difference a few best-sellers make. Mingling with the opening night audience are Matthew Chapman, great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin who normally makes his living writing screenplays and directing films but couldn’t resist writing a book about the recent “intelligent design” case in Dover, Pennsylvania; Greydon Square, the only known atheist rapper; Julia Sweeney, the former Saturday Night Live comedienne who has a one-woman show about “coming out” as an atheist; and our colleague Chris Harper, better known as “Pastor Deacon Fred,” who presides over the satirical Landover Baptist Church website when he’s not doing spot-on impersonations of a wildly deluded pulpiteer. And those are only the celebrities I noticed. Atheists are a brainy sort, so the room is also full of academics with multiple letters behind their names.

There’s a first-day-of-school feeling about the event, breathless, headed for the Finland Station. Part of it is anti-religion, but another big part of it is not so much fighting the religionists as establishing some new . . . uh . . . I can’t call it a religion because they don’t like that . . . some new . . . hmmm . . . belief system . . . Weltanschaung . . . ethical construct . . . well, anyway, some organized effort to herd the cats. There was much talk over the three days of emulating the civil rights movement and, even more to the point, the homosexual rights movement. Richard Dawkins noted a couple of times that the appropriation of the word “gay” had been the beginning of acceptance for that minority, and he invoked the old feminist concept of “consciousness raising” for the first time in decades. Daniel Dennett, whose day job is in the philosophy department of Tufts University, suggested that they get rid of the negativity of “atheist” (after all, it means “against theism”) and start calling themselves “brights.” His suggestion was met with less than universal acclaim, but he continued to press it, saying that, if “straight” is the opposite of “gay,” then the opposite of “bright” would be “super” (for belief in the supernatural). Of course, you couldn’t be bright without some kind of light source, and if we assume that it comes from within, then he’s already oriented the terminology so that illumination can’t come from any place that a religionist believes it comes from. But let’s not quibble!

In other words, this was not just a social event, it was an event full of planning, organizing, and . . . uh . . . well . . . again . . . I think I have to call it proselytizing. The atheists, you may be surprised to know, have a political action committee, and part of their lobbying efforts involve finding out which members of Congress are atheists. (There are 23 of them, according to the organizers, but only one is “out of the closet”–Pete Stark, a representative from California.) The policy of the group, articulated by Dawkins, is never to “out” an atheist, but to encourage them to publicly affirm their proud lack of superstition. And Dawkins is especially committed to programs that would educate children in an atheist-friendly way, since he believes that many of the most damaging superstitions are inculcated during the formative years of primary education.

My question about all this, from the outside looking in, was: Why now? Why, in the western civilized nations of the year 2007--in America yes, but especially in England--should there be this delirium over atheism? It’s not exactly a new movement. There have always been religionists on one side and atheists on the other, and in certain periods–I’m thinking of Alexandria in the 3rd century B.C., where the Jewish scholars mingled with the Neo-Platonists–the two sides have been intellectually grateful for one another. Even more recently, at the turn of the previous century, when Americans were decamping for London instead of vice versa, it was still possible for the decadent Swinburne-loving Ezra Pound to befriend T.S. Eliot, the American-turned-Brit who would become the most intellectually honest exponent of the Anglican church for the past 300 years. But those days are gone. Speaker after speaker made the point: this is war. There will be no accommodation with those “who believe in the imaginary man in the sky,” in the words of Daniel Dennett. “We seem to be having some impact [by being aggressive] in ways that decades of niceness have not,” said Dawkins. Theologians who would engage the atheists in a friendly manner are, in the words of one attendee, “enablers.” ”The moderate religious people,” said Dawkins, “make the world safe for the extremists.”

Whew! Heady stuff. And all this time I thought it had something to do with either Bush or the Christian Coalition or those strange little committees that tilt at Darwin in Appalachian fastnesses. But the main atheist books–all on sale at the makeshift lobby bookshop, with tables run by EvolveFish (get it?) and the Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science–are not about politics at all. These guys aren’t so much interested in the separation of church and state as the exposure of God as a fraud who will sometime soon, in the economy of evolutionary thought, be dispensed with entirely. It’s the ancient argument–as old, at least, as Rome–that all monotheistic religion, but especially Christianity, is not just false but immoral. It’s one thing to say God is an illusion, but the speeches of the weekend made it clear–God is also wicked, or at least the things done in his name are crimes against humanity and, by the way, unscientific.

AAI Convention

If they have a patron saint, it’s Darwin–I would have thought Einstein, or at least someone from physics rather than biology–but no, it’s Darwin to such an extent that “natural selection” analogies are de rigeur for every speaker. The always entertaining Christopher Hitchens, whose prose reads like an Oxford don writing for the New York Post, is their Thomas Paine, a literary flamethrower whose latest book reprises his famous savaging of Mother Teresa while taking us on a journey through most of the other theological abominations of past centuries, while Sam Harris serves as the more sober theorist of the movement, mainly because of his 2005 book The End of Faith, not his more recent screed Letter to a Christian Nation. Dawkins, darling of the PBS special and the good-natured quip, is an actual Oxford don who seems quite comfortable as the de facto archbishop of the movement. (A strange disconnect: None of these guys seem particularly perturbed about the state-sponsored Church of England, and in fact they seem to get on famously with all those daft Anglican divines who spend their lives writing impenetrably flabby tomes about 18th-century liturgical music.)

So, given that this group has serious intellectual pretensions–and here I thought it was going to be another weekend of drinking and making fun of televangelists, like the event in Boston–I had to sober up and figure out what schools we’re drawing from here. It’s hard to tell. If the purpose is not so much political as educational–the latest, most up-to-date assault on divinity, no matter which of its multifarious forms it takes–you would think someone would quote Hobbes or Locke sometime during the weekend. Nope, neither. (What kind of Brits are these?) How about Kant? Nope. How about–if just to refute them–Kierkegaard or Barth? How about that behemoth Nietzsche, since these debates tend to be centered in Germany and, after all, wasn’t he the first to declare God’s demise? Nope, there was none of this, not even from Dennett, the professional philosopher on the dais. Surely Dennett would feel compelled to address the “Death of God” theologians of the sixties, or the post-modernists like Vattimi and Caputo who go beyond Nietzsche to–dare we utter his name?–Jacques Derrida. No. Nyet. Negativo. (Derrida, by the way, was an Algerian Jew noted for the playful statement “Thank God I’m an atheist,” which would seem to me an excellent starting point for at least a seminar.)

Instead what we get is the god of Science. Not just the scientific method–although that was ever on display, with the assumption that if it can’t be proven by objective testing, then it has no reality–but the idea that the whole progress of the human race has taught us that our highest aspirations will be realized through deductive laboratory-type reasoning. In some ways history, for these men, begins with the Enlightenment, and their faith in progress could stir the passions of the most zealous Marxist. I would best describe them as scientific positivists. One of the most startling passages in Dawkins’ book The God Delusion has to do with his belief in the essential decency of humankind. I’m not sure of his point there–I think he’s denying original sin–but he seems to be of the opinion that most people, left alone, will co-exist in peace and harmony. Please give this man a tour of the Ellis Unit of the Texas Department of Corrections. Although he wrote a book called The Selfish Gene, he’s apparently not aware of the mundane brutality in abundant evidence on any episode of Cops.

Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say Dawkins believes that, if we could only get rid of religion in all its noxious forms, the result would be peace on earth and goodwill among men, as interpreted by the Linus speech in A Charlie Brown Christmas (minus the word “savior,” emphasis on the wise men and the awe of the shepherds, of course). Hence the convention’s opening lecture, hosted by Dawkins, was a presentation by University of Virginia psychologist J. Anderson Thomson on “this vexed question of suicide terrorism,” as Dawkins put it. Darwinian atheists would like to know: How is it possible for a member of the species homo sapiens to destroy his own life as well as other members of the species in the name of God?

J. Anderson Thomson
J. Anderson Thomson

To get to the root of the problem, the lanky, bearded, intensely professorial Thomson quickly reeled off all the terrorist acts of the past week, ran through a brief history of suicide terrorism (and I do mean brief--2,000 years in 60 seconds), then traced modern suicide bombings from 1981, when the Iraqi embassy in Beirut was attacked, showing a troubling upward trend that approaches 500 bombings per year worldwide in the new millennium. All of this to make the point that there are three underlying causes: 1) “male-bonded coalitionary violence” (the age-old tendency of “this band of brothers” to stage pre-emptive raids on the nearby village that’s larger and more threatening), 2) the universal capacity for suicide when there’s a feeling that the suicide will help the family, and 3) “religion as a cultural construct” (bingo!).

Since most of us can imagine situations in which suicidal violence would be attractive–to save the life of a child, for example, or to get rid of Hitler–the first two reasons aren’t that weird. So let’s focus on the third one. According to Thomson, “religion hijacks the human brain” just as a certain ant will become suicidal when infected by a parasite. (You’re not allowed to speak at this convention unless you have a Darwinian example.) To illustrate his point, Thomson ran through a list of not two, not three, but a couple of dozen reasons that the brain becomes actively deformed by religion, including “decoupled cognition,” “relationships with unseen others,” “reciprocal altruism” (the feeling of indebtedness), childhood credulity, deference to authority, the hijacking of the mother/infant relationship by another “attachment system,” romantic love (nuns who martyr themselves as “the bride of Christ”), “hyperactive agency detection,” “coalition psychology” (us vs. them), “transference” (the Dalai Lama, or Billy Graham, as a “kindly older brother”), an inauthentic moral feelings system, “altruistic punishment,” and “the most powerful mechanism of all”–kin psychology. You do it because your families, both your natural and your spiritual families, want you to do it. And when those families are led by a “charismatic leader” who has “authority without responsibility,” then the natural compassion of young males gets switched off.

Having set out to tell us how the brain becomes “hijacked,” Thomson succeeded, I thought, only in reminding us of how many ways we can be persuaded to do things that aren’t necessarily in our own best interests. In my case, for example, credit card companies and young women in stiletto heels have both, at various times, hijacked my brain.

But here’s the best part. In the question-and-answer session, Thomson is asked how we can stop the epidemic of suicide bombing, and his answer is “education, honesty and good leadership.” I don’t know what I expected him to say, but that was a letdown for me, not least because I would expect that all three are already being emphasized in the common schools of England, from which many of the suicide bombers have emerged. “My wish,” he said, “would be that high school psychology textbooks taught that human minds are vulnerable to supernatural beliefs.” Such an anti-climax! All that buildup and then the answer is to replace the madrassas with “use your noggin” classes. My mother was a primary school teacher for most of her life, and I can assure you that there are already plenty of state-mandated programs requiring the teaching of “Me-ology”–that’s a real term used in the public schools of Little Rock, Arkansas–as well as “Think For Yourself” in all its permutations (“Are You a Robin or a Bluebird?”), and that references to the supernatural have been unwelcome in the classroom at least since 1963.

At any rate, the convention was less about this sort of thorny atheist dilemma–there would be plenty of fat speakers fees available for that--than a sort of triumphal procession at the end of a very good year, with Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett and others parading into the Colosseum with booty and captives. Leading the cheers and setting the tone at the official welcome ceremony on Friday night was Atheist Alliance president Margaret Downey, an unfailingly good-humored Philadelphian who favors pearls and stylish hats and is best known for being the mother of a defrocked Boy Scout, drummed out of the organization for his atheism, a galvanizing event that resulted in her founding of the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia, which in turn led to her being named the atheist representative at several United Nations events. Take that, Lord Baden-Powell!

Joking about a myriad of technical problems on stage (“Is there a Jesus in the audience that can turn this microphone into three?”), she spent several minutes welcoming all the people who couldn’t get into the ballroom, including several hundred watching on closed circuit in other parts of the hotel, and several thousand viewing via the Internet, including the Oklahoma Atheists, a group of atheists at the University of Arkansas, some atheists meeting at a woman’s home in Atlantic City, and atheist groups in India and, for some reason, Iceland.

Downey and Poster

Downey talked about how it’s time for everyone to become tub-thumpers for “the atheist lifestyle,” which involves “the light of reason” and “the sense of pride we have about the conclusions we have reached–because atheism is a conclusion, not a belief.” With the audience warming to her pep talk, she went on to say that the atheist movement is “a solid force” for the first time in living memory, but that “the future of atheism depends on unity,” to which the whole room shouted “Amen!” (Yes, it’s corny, but it’s one of their favorite jokes.) After several more introductions and Pastor Deacon Fred’s impersonation of a froth-mouth creationist (“An open mind is the devil’s playground!”), everyone rose as one for a prolonged standing ovation as the man himself took the podium, looking lean and spiffy in a grey suit, playing the gentle warrior with his opening salvo: “We are in a propaganda war.”

Yes, it was Dawkins, apostle to the gentiles, bringing glad tidings from Corinth. “There is a new wave of reason. Our enemies, superstition and dogma, are on the wane.” To prove it, he cited “the unprecedented sales figures for atheistic books,” noting that his own The God Delusion had sold 1.25 million copies in one year in the English language, with 31 foreign-language editions yet to come. He then spent the rest of his time shooting down the critics who have appeared in the wake of this manifest success.

Richard Dawkins
Richard Dawkins

“Are we too aggressive?” he asked rhetorically. “Do we play into the hands of the creationists? I met Rothschild, the lawyer for our side in the Dover evolution case. He said ‘Thank God we didn’t call you as an expert witness.’ Are we shrill? Are we strident? I’ve been accused of ranting.”

Then, to prove how not shrill he is, Dawkins reads passages from The God Delusion, emphasizing their satirical nature, garnering generous laughter and ovations after each one. Conclusion: aggression is good for atheism. Dawkins then shows how desperate the religious opposition is. He plays several video clips of himself looking silly when asked questions about evolution–the clips are, of course, all phonies, posted on the web by the lunatic fringe, including one in which Dawkins supposedly says that Jews were tipped off to not going to work at the World Trade Center on 9/11.

He then talks about how often he’s asked “Why don’t you treat religious people with more respect?” and “How can you criticize religion if you’re not learned in theology?” and “Why do you always attack the worst of Christianity–why not my kind of Christianity?” and “Don’t you know that we don’t teach literally?”–indicating that he’s tired of hearing these arguments about the argument, and that they are all refusals to engage with basic premises, juxtaposing science against the supernatural. (Dawkins was the first of several speakers during the weekend who bristled at the constant admonition that they should be “nicer.” They see it as an evasion.)


Continuing with his “State of the Atheist Union,” Dawkins went on to outline three initiatives for the future, starting with politics. “In America it’s almost impossible to elect an atheist–but we can try. We’re starting the Out Campaign. Reach Out, Speak Out, Stand Out for reason. And Keep Out for religion.”

His second suggestion, oddly enough, was to teach comparative religion in the schools. “Teach religion in literature and language, the use of common idioms from religion. We have to raise consciousness about the tying of religious labels around the necks of children. There is no such thing as a Christian child or a Muslim child, but when you Google those terms, you can see how many times they’re used.” (The purpose of this initiative was not crystal clear to me, but I think he was saying that if everyone is ecumenical, then all extremist positions will be neutralized.)

And finally, said the arch-atheist, “we need to teach children to think. Think for yourself.” (All the speakers showed an inordinate faith in education, as though their theistic opponents simply needed more credit hours in the basic sciences to become upright rationalists.)

I’m assuming that Dawkins couldn’t have known how closely his three goals correspond to a typical rally of those scary “On Fire For Jesus” teenagers:

1) Speak out and stand up for Jesus, no matter what your secular friends say!
2) Know your Bible so you can share when people quote from secular books!
3) Don’t follow the crowd!

The only difference is that Teens For Christ would conclude with a group hug and hysterical girl-shrieks, whereas atheists are not, as a rule, huggers.

Dawkins closed with a reference to his film The Root of All Evil?: “Religion is not the root of all evil, but it gets in the way of the appreciation of truth, and that is an evil in itself.”

After his third or fourth standing ovation (I’m starting to lose count), Dawkins submitted to a brief question-and-answer session in which he was asked, as a scientist, to explain the difference between atheists and believers.

“We’re right!” he answers, to general laughter, then, more seriously: “At the behest of a vicar I’m acquainted with, I had magnetic fields put through my skull and the vicar did the same. It did nothing for me. The vicar said, however, that I was an ace responder to the EEG. We were looking for a neurological difference. Is there one? I suppose there could be, but I find that very unsatisfying.”

(This was a continuing theme of the weekend, by the way–the idea that someday, perhaps through such a Sherlock Holmes-style experiment, we will learn the scientific reason why some members of the species believe in God and some do not, because there’s no obvious “natural selection” benefit for believing in the God of the three monotheistic religions. There are, however, quite a few psychological benefits for believing in nature gods, the traditional gods of success, a distinction that I never heard anyone make.)

And so it went, through the rest of the weekend, with each celebrity atheist running through the main themes of his book but also talking about how good it feels–at last!–to be in a nice cozy room full of fellow atheists. “How strange,” said Sam Harris, “that a meeting like this is even necessary. That we live in a world where most people believe in an imaginary god. Twenty-four million people believe that Jesus will return with magic powers. And that belief affects our political discourse, our public policy, the teaching of science, and America’s stature in the world.”

Sam Harris
Sam Harris

And yet it was Harris–the handsome, smooth-talking American in his Al Gore-style sport coat–who became the first apostate! The Harrisy began as most heresies do, with a few simple offhand musings. Harris noted that he’s an atheist only by default. After writing The End of Faith he was constantly questioned about his own religious beliefs, and for a long time he didn’t give any answer. Eventually he started calling himself atheist because he thought it was becoming intellectually dishonest to say anything else. Still, he continued, he doesn’t think atheism should be a movement, and that perhaps the term itself is a mistake. “After all, did you have to be a non-racist? Atheism is not really a philosophy or a worldview. So we run the risk of being seen as a cranky subculture. And I think that could be a trap that is deliberately set for us. It allows people to reject our arguments without meeting the burden of actually answering them. We should not call ourselves anything. We should be under the radar.”

You could already sense the crowd starting to move toward the audience-participation microphone–this was a cold-water moment for those who had shown up to start the revolution–but then Harris went further to say that much in atheism was lazy: “We have to admit that Islam is quite a bit scarier than Christianity. So we are constrained to talk about Islam. To be evenhanded is bullshit. Some religions don’t have extremists.”

More murmuring. Moses is temporarily absent on Horeb–what’s this guy doing?


But Harris, it turned out, was saving his real bombshell for the end. He concluded his talk with a review of “the rich vein of contemplative literature” indicating that there might be some value to religious mysticism! “Our pleasures are fleeting,” he said, sounding a little like Billy Graham. “We enter into a search for happiness, a victory over boredom and doubt. So many people wonder: Is there a deeper form of well-being? Is happiness possible? This question lies at the periphery of all religion. And we love our answer. For many of us, that answer is No. And yet certain people are led to spirituality and meditation. If happiness exists, it should be available somewhere. Otherwise this life is a form of solitary confinement. So we have this rich vein of contemplative literature. Is it all psychopathology? Is it all a fraud? Perhaps there are alternatives to neurosis. . . . As atheists, we can be accused of purging the universe of mystery.”

I was stunned. Did I just hear the leading exponent of atheism in America, the guy who told Rick Warren what a crock his Jesus was, make some Ecclesiastes-style observations about the emptiness of day-to-day life and then say “haven’t you ever thought there must be more than that in life”? Isn’t that the traditional lead-in to . . . gulp . . . the altar call?

Well, yes. Yes, he did, and the atheists weren’t happy about it.

“But we have to unite under some sort of banner!” said Kelly of the “Rationalist Thought Squad,” almost pleading with him to take back his abandonment of the term atheist.

“I was very disappointed in your speech!” said another audience member. “You seem to believe in the supernatural!”

Harris backed off slightly. “Nothing I believe requires the supernatural. I was just pointing out that there is a range of human experience. There are mystical traditions within religion that we should investigate. I believe in the plasticity of the human brain. There’s the possibility of transforming moment-to-moment experience into something better.”

But Daniel Dennett wouldn’t let him off the hook. “I disagree with you violently,” said Dennett after making his way to the front of the room. “You say maybe it’s not psychopathology--about mysticism. I was courted by the transcendental meditation people. They have a history of more extreme contemplatives and ascetics. It doesn’t seem that they come back with anything interesting. Why isn’t it just one big waste of time and effort?”

Harris’ answer: “It’s nowhere written that anything is easily acquired or explored. Most of us can’t do it. It’s an inconvenient fact–that some desirable things are difficult to cash out. Losing the sense of subjective self, for example, is most common in Buddhism. Dropping the sense of self reduces anxiety, selfishness, fear. It creates compassion and empathy. Nobody says it’s easy. But the words of mystics can be separated from metaphysics. The people I’m talking about are moral athletes. They are the Tiger Woodses of spirituality.”

But Dennett continued to huff, and the issue was left unresolved.

Alas, that was to be the only real fistfight among the luminaries. Saturday night was much more of a lovefest, starting with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who basically summarized her book but still captivated the crowd with her charming asides: her chief influence as a young Muslim girl in Kenya was Nancy Drew novels, at age 16 she was “proud” of her decision to wear the full hijab, she turned from the Koran to Spinoza in her twenties only after learning about civil liberties and secular law in the Netherlands, and when she made her final break from Islam she still regretted leaving her family and her clan, especially since she suspects her brother to be a secret atheist. At the end of her adoring question-and-answer session (“I was disgusted by what Muhammad has to say in the Koran,” “In Islam any form of doubt is called atheism,” “I want to create dissonance for Muslim women”), Dawkins took the stage to say, “May I have your permission to nominate you for the Nobel Peace Prize?”–resulting in the most prolonged standing ovation, and the most prolonged blush, of the entire event.

Christopher Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens was an amusement of a different sort–first because he didn’t show up for his speech and several people had to go looking for him (“Check the bar!”), then because his thrown-together 19-minute talk was peppered with hysterical invective, as he described the “moon-faced Baptist preachers” and “smug smarmy rabbis” and “ghouls from Islamic organizations” he’d been forced to debate during the past year. Hitchens says most of them try to argue from some morally superior position, as though religion itself benefits society. “And yet there is this property of the supernatural–it attacks us in our core, despoils our sexuality, it is a source of misery, guilt, shame and immorality. And so my suggestion to you, when you encounter these people, is to say this: your antagonist has to make a moral statement that could not be made by a non-believer. Actually one was posted on my website. ‘Love your enemies.’ I don’t think that’s a moral statement. It’s immoral to say you love them.”

To make another point, Hitchens turned to Dawkins and asked “How long has the species been on the planet?” Dawkins shrugged at first, then ventured, “Three hundred thousand years.”


“Okay,” said Hitchens, “Let’s be generous to the young earth people and say 100,000. How can there be a belief that a loving God watched that human history, with its misery and gruesomeness–heaven watched that with folded arms for 94,000 years, and then said ‘It’s time to intervene’? Either there was a very bad design, or there was a wicked design.”

Hitchens was especially exercised–apparently he’d encountered it on talk shows–of the new Bush mantra about evolution: “Teach the argument! Let’s hear both sides!”

“First, there isn’t an argument. We don’t say let’s teach chemistry and alchemy. Let’s teach astronomy and astrology. A corollary of that argument would be that any church with a tax break has to teach Darwin in Sunday school.”

And lest he leave the podium without doing his most beloved trope, he used a question about Al Sharpton and the poor to say that not only are Sharpton and Jesse Jackson frauds, but Mother Teresa (you could feel the audience waiting for this one, like concertgoers waiting for the band to play its most famous hit) was “a hideous virgin and fraud and fundamentalist shriveled old bat.” It was around this time that he stuck an unlit cigarette between his lips, indicating that he’d like to wrap things up if he could.

Most of what I picked up about atheism, though, came not from the distinguished headliners but from the little backroom gatherings of the rank and file. There’s a New Jerseyan named David Silverman who, in the space of about 45 minutes, ran through every single argument against God, past and present, complete with answers to the most common challenges from Christians and other theists. This was immensely entertaining. Among his practical debating pointers: “When they say ‘You cannot deny the possibility of God,’ answer ‘You can’t deny the possibility of Zeus.’” “Point out their belief is Ignoratio Ergo Deus–‘I don’t know, so it must be God.’” “Oh, I hate it when they use the ontological argument! It’s a fake argument. It’s wordplay. The short answer is that a perfect being would not allow suffering to exist. All these arguments depend on God not being self-contradictory.” And on and on. My favorite: “The first religion was 100,000 years ago: Neanderthals prayed to bears.”

Silverman is a smart guy, and if I had to sum up the common characteristics of the people who gathered in Crystal City, that would be it: they’re smart. Atheism is for smart people. That’s both its strength and its weakness. It’s a trait they share with the Libertarian Party, by the way, which probably has a fair number of atheists among its adherents. I’m not sure you could be mentally retarded and also be an atheist. There’s no sense of responsibility for making “the least of us” part of the secret.

But it’s not just that they’re intellectuals. They’re also ghostbusters. They’re on a mission, and that mission, I would presume, is partly influenced by horrible experiences they’ve had with believers. Most of what the atheists say about religion is absolutely true. We don’t need to look any further than the Catholic sex abuse scandals–11,000 victims of 4,300 priests, and that’s only the ones we’ve been able to count–to find concrete examples of active evil done in the name of God. And it’s certainly not surprising if some of those victims leave the church and become atheists. What is surprising is what the atheists want to replace that with. Scientific positivism as a way of life doesn’t look any more secure or sexy than, say, trade-unionism. If all the churches, mosques, synagogues and ashrams disappeared tomorrow, what would be the defining belief that holds the atheists together in fellowship? Or would they have done their work at that point? Would they wither away like the ideal communist state, since this is basically a form of 18th-century anti-clericalism? Their faith in capital-R Reason ultimately seemed a little naive. Didn’t we just go through a whole century of challenges to science and reason, with questions about what we know, how we know it, and how we know what can be known. Forget the world wars and the nuclear arms race–did they miss the whole “Waiting for Godot” part in the middle? Encountering this sort of faith in human intelligence in 2008 is a little like visiting Wall Street and finding a 1920s-style industrialist who’s still investing in giant dam projects. We tried that already!

The O'Hares
Madalyn Murray O’Hair with Jon and Robin
Copyright ©2000 American Atheists, Inc.

There’s also an occasional dark side that emerges among the professional atheists. We saw it for years in the personality of Madalyn Murray O’Hair. But even if you make an exception for her–she was in many ways sui generis--there’s a certain joy in humiliating their opponents that wouldn’t be attractive to any jury. On one level it’s just a matter of knocking down the straw men of East Tennessee snake-handler cults. But even in academia, they can play dirty. For example, there’s a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University named Michael Behe who, from what I can tell, has pretty much earned the universal contempt of his colleagues. His own university puts an extensive disclaimer on the biology department website, making it clear that everyone thinks he’s a nut. He was called as an expert witness at the Dover “intelligent design” trial because apparently he’s the only academic who will speak up for it, even as a theory–and the judge dismissed his testimony as worthless. He’s the equivalent of the pimply-faced weakling in the schoolyard who has been beaten up so often that the bullies are starting to tire of the exercise. But not the Darwinists! They relish every appearance Behe makes. They lie in wait for him. They dogpile him. They make sure that not only does he lose his glasses, but someone crushes them underfoot, and then bends the metal on his dental braces in the bargain. They don’t just attack him in obscure journals of biology–they go after him in the popular press. Meanwhile, nobody is listening to him! He has zero support. You would think that, even in the year 2008, there’s some modicum of collegiality among tenured professors. (I thought this sort of venom was limited to Behe, but then I saw an exchange in the London Review of Books last fall after Jerry Fodor published an article called “Why Pigs Don’t Have Wings,” saying that some aspects of Darwinian adaptationism were being called into question. The article was fairly abstruse and specialized, but some kind of clarion call went out and Fodor was not just attacked–almost everything written in a book review gets attacked–but gang-tackled and head-butted by a dozen or so academics, Dennett among them, and those are only the ones that made it into print somewhere. There’s something about Darwinism that has to be fought out in the open, although, if you asked most people, they would probably say that, yes, we accept most of Darwin’s assumptions at this point.)

Daniel Dennett
Daniel Dennett

One of the most touching moments (for the atheists) and troubling moments (for me) came on the final evening of the convention, when Daniel Dennett was presented with the 2007 Richard Dawkins Award . . . by Richard Dawkins. (Yes, things were getting ridiculous by then.) In presenting the award, Dawkins told the story of a life-threatening illness that Dennett had suffered through the previous year. During Dennett’s time in the hospital, he was upset by the number of people who said “We will pray for you.” He thought the focus should be on the wonderful staff and technology available in the hospital, not on appeals to a fictitious force in outer space. Dawkins tells this story with great admiration, and the audience agrees–what a brave and honest man.


The name for this is stoicism, and they’re committed to it. They don’t even realize that when people say “We will pray for you”–sometimes even non-religious people–it means they have run out of any other thing to say to you. They’re overwhelmed by the enormity of what you’re facing, and what they’re facing, and so they use this phrase to mean “I love you.” I think most people would instinctively know this. I can imagine few people on the planet who would be offended or upset by the offer of intercessory prayer. I don’t even think that most people offering intercessory prayer at a time like that intend to follow through on the prayer, at least not in any formal way. There’s a connection made at that moment, and it’s recognized by both parties as love. This may be the main reason atheism has no long-term legs. It has no cubicle for love.

On my final day of the convention, I decided to skip the “secular naming ceremony” of two young children–I take it this is one of the atheist initiatives designed to replace christenings–and instead I hopped on the Washington Metro and went to an exhibit at the National Gallery of Art. The Renaissance sculptor Desiderio da Settignano of Florence was being honored in an exhibition that required the cooperation of three countries, the Louvre, and the foremost art historians in Italy, and it was easy to see why. Working in marble in the middle part of the 15th century, Desiderio produced altarpieces, busts, tombs, Madonnas, and fireplaces, and he specialized in young children, especially boys, especially the child Jesus and the young John the Baptist, and in every case he did such fine chiseling that the marbled skin is preternaturally smooth and soft and . . . suddenly I’m hearing the voice of Christopher Hitchens . . . look at that sensuality, look at all the naked children, the man is a filthy perverted pederastic moron! And as soon as I had the thought, I couldn’t think of anything else as I walked past all the pieces in the show, trying to suppress a grin. Look at the catalog, if you get a chance. It’s true. Hitchens will agree with me. The man was a child molester.

Obviously, my brain had been hijacked by atheists.


RecreacionSP | 09:45 pm on 1/16/2011

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Anonymous | 03:48 pm on 3/26/2011

Well, atheism deserves its aggressive and overtly hostile fundamentalists, too. I mean, every other religion has nuts.

As long as we recognize that taking the scientific method as "truth" (rather than as a collection of highly conditional assumptions) is a leap of faith.

(Which is why it feels so much like a religion, by the way.)

شات الرياض | 06:22 am on 4/16/2011

I think its disgusting how the majority of "christians" could be asked "Why do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God?"

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