Contemporary Atheists and their Reception by Critics

Explicit proponents of atheism today are prone to receiving somewhat emotionally charged responses – though not on the same level of hysteria as the original version of The Robbers. At the time of their respective release in 2006/2007, The God Delusion, Atheist Manifesto and God is Not Great received predominantly negative reviews by mainstream Australian newspaper and television critics.

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins is a polemic against religion and the existence of god. Dawkins claims he seeks to raise our collective consciousness. Using the scientific disciplines of physics, chemistry, biology, anthropology, psychology, sociology, astronomy, quantum theory and others, he presents a passionate and aggressive case that all religions are ambiguous, illogical and dangerous man-made constructs which is possibly a “by-product of a particular built-in irrationality mechanism in the brain” (184). He dissects both the Old and New testaments for their inherent sado-masochism, historical inaccuracies and moral ambiguities. The institutionalised teaching of these texts ultimately fuels intolerance, “amplifies and exacerbates” fundamentalism and perpetrates a form of “child abuse” (315) by forced indoctrination of children, he says. Given the chance, religious fanaticism ultimately leads to more religious fundamentalist states (not unlike Iran is today) and further inter-religious self-righteous destruction.

An enthusiastic exponent of Darwin’s
Theory of Evolution, Dawkins challenges the belief of Creationism with cold hard scientific facts and comes to the conclusion that we, as a species, have all moved on, or evolved, since biblical times. A “moral zeitgeist” (262) has taken place in recent history, he observes - whether it be in regards to slavery, women, child rights, race, animal protection, language and so on - which is both undeniable, inevitable and evolutionary. While he admits there are some positive aspects to having faith in religion he asserts “religions power to console does not make it true” (352). Just as the arrival of monotheism annihilated many already existing gods, Dawkins insists he’s simply going “one god further” (53). But what happens if god disappears? What will fill the gap? He’s not sure but suggests “a good dose of science” is a start (351). At this time of transition, he says, “perhaps we may eventually discover there are no limits” (374).

On Dawkins,
The Age’s Religious Affairs Editor, Barney Zwartz bluntly stated “…when it comes to religion he is simply a bigot” who espouses as much “a dogmatic form of fundamentalist faith as those he despises” (24 Nov 06). The Sydney Morning Herald’s Jon Casimar found the most “confronting” aspect of the God Delusion “is not what it says, but the fact its being said at all”.(4.1106) P.J. Moss – a Sydney Lawyer – writing in the The Australian a week earlier was evasive but suggested the book is “an unpleasant eye-opener to Christians”(28.10.06). ABC TV’s The First Tuesday Book Club host Jennifer Byrne stated off the mark, “there’s nothing subtle, or tactful about it, it is a full frontal assault on religion”, but concludes rather diplomatically, “I must admit, I think it was a fascinating book”. Not so guest reviewer Germaine Greer who thinks atheists should “stop talking about God” and turn their attention to “the problem of evil”. Dawkins is “shrill in this book” she declares. It contains “some very bad science, and is a mess”. In addition, she curiously announces, “…he doesn’t understand another thing… and that’s the kind of atheist I am” (ABCTV, Dec 2006). Regular reviewer Marieke Hardy, who was uncharacteristically quiet, only managed to murmur, “Well he is a fundamentalist in his own regard.” (ABCTV, Dec 2006)

In the introduction of
The Atheist Manifesto, Michel Onfray announces “On a world stage saturated with monotheism, it is high time to expose the back side of the theological scenery. This is an opportunity for philosophical deconstruction” (7). Philosophers have long debated the concept of god(s) but was Nietzsche premature in his declaration that god is dead? Onfray suggests the question of god’s existence is “still undecided” (11) but whether god existed in the first place is hard to verify for example, “God has no date of birth” (14). Atheism, according to Onfray, “rejects the existence of God as a fiction” which was invented by people with an innate fear of death, unable to come to terms with the finite nature of their existence, “desperate to keep living” (15). Therefore Christianity, Islam and Judaism’s glorifies the perfect afterlife so their followers to live by a strict doctrine of submission and obedience to a what is essentially a fabricated myth.

Onfray delves into the documented history of the big three monotheistic religions to argue that “nothing of what remains can be trusted” (117). Whether Jesus actually existed is “reduced to a status of a mere hypothesis”(120). Paul of Tarsus according to Onfray was “hysterical, misogynistic, masochistic and impotent”(133), who as “an elect of God” (132) sought to create the world in his own image. Constantine’s Christian coup has left a “fatal heritage” (143) that we still live with today. It is the start, he says, of destruction in god’s name, the first totalitarian state and the dangerous collusion of church and state, the birth of theocracy ultimately leading to a denial of democracy.

The shared fundamentals of the three great monotheistic religions is hatred: hatred of intelligence, life in the here and now, science, the human body, women, and of each other. Neither Jew, Christian or Muslim can claim to hold a high moral ground, he says, as their respective histories exist in a place where “contradictions abound” (159) referencing texts that contain “two-thousand year logic” (189) and used selectively to justify a whole range of ignoble actions and deeds. These actions and deeds, Onfray suggests, is proof of widespread nihilism in our era in which our gods have become a “mere signifier” (209) and an “empty shell” (209). We are in a “new transition phase”, he says, not unlike the period when we went from paganism to Christianity. Despite the nihilism permeating much of the world today, a new atheism is called for which will “place morality and politics on a new base… post-Christian”. Onfray believes we can create a world where “all discourse carries equal weight”. A “Postmodern atheism” (58).

The release of
The Atheist Manifesto in early 2007 spawned much criticism. A vitriolic and unrelenting review in the Sydney Morning Herald by Gerard Windsor, an author whose “most recent book is a comic history of Australia” said it “is a bad, bad, book”, “a thoroughgoing dud”, “is no help to anyone”, “a series of shrill anathemas”, “it’s a dishonest cop-out” and “a tawdry bit of opportunism by a local publisher” (ie.MUP) to boot. (20.4.07). in the hands of The Age’s Religious Editor Barney Zwartz, its not much better. “It is another deliberately distorted, bile-filled jeremiad” that is “not going to persuade a fair-minded thinker” as “almost every sentence contains dramatic flourishes, florid rhetoric, elaborate metaphors, exaggerations, hyperbole - eventually it becomes tedious” (25.5.07). Interestingly, a review in the Canberra Times by Anglican Bishop to the Australian Defence Force, Dr Tom Frame is more diplomatic. He writes, “Although I disagree profoundly with Onfray's contentions and conclusions… he is, I must confess, more respectful of views with which he disagrees that I expected” and “should be read by Christians, Jews and Muslims” (21.4.07).

The title of Christopher Hitchens’ treatise
God is Not Great subverts the Muslim declaration “Allahuh Akhbar” - god is great. Hitchens, a socio/political commentator and contrarian, does not flinch when he takes aim at god(s) and religion. In the post-9/11 world, he believes, we should hear “a little less about how ‘people of faith’ possess moral advantages” superior to non-believers (32). In his book he makes three provisional conclusions: “religions and churches are manufactured”, ethics and morality “exist independently of faith” that religion is “immoral” (52).

The Bible, he declares, is a “nightmare” brimming with countless reprehensible examples of human depravity, that was essentially “put together by crude uncultured human mammals” (102). “All religions” he says “take care to silence or execute those who question them” (125) which he equates as being in line with “the very essence of the totalitarian” (234). Unapologetically presenting a forceful argument for why religion is immoral, he concludes that in the future the “odds rather favour the intelligence and curiosity of the atheists” (254). But before we are able to make a transition into a post-religious world we must first “transcend our history” (283).

Hitchens’ book received more favourable, or at least more balanced, responses from the media.
Sydney Morning Herald’s Matt Buchanan found it “a thrillingly fearless, impressively wide-ranging, thoroughly bilious and angry book… believers will find it challenging, perhaps diabolical, most certainly offensive.” Overall he found it “clever, broad, witty and brilliantly argued” (25.5.07). Michael McGirr, author and Head of Faith and Mission at St Kevins College Melbourne, speaking as guest reviewer on Romana Koval’s The Book Show on ABC Radio found Hitchens to be “often outrageous and unfair but never entirely predictable” and despite declaring “Hitchen’s… is doing a real service to both disbelievers and believers” he instructs that “Faith is not about knowing; it is about hoping” (5.7.07).

When comparisons of these three (and other similar) so-called “Militant Atheist” writers are made by critics, they soon became tangled in a web of conflicting opinions. Christopher Hitchens is better than Dawkins because the latter “notably lacks… a sense of humour and… a rich sense of irony” (ABC Radio Book Show 5.7.07). Compared to Onfray “Dawkins is… comprehensive, rational and entertaining. So read Dawkins. And Ignore Onfray” (SMH 20.4.2007). “Onfray is deeply erudite…” while Dawkins is “undergraduate diatribe” (The Age 25.5.07). “Unlike Dawkins, Onfray does not attack parodies of religious belief or set tip defenceless straw men to lay waste.” (CT 21.4.07). “Christopher Hitchens is far better company as a writer than Richard Dawkins” and so on (ABC Radio 5.7.07). When reviewed together as a group, the rhetoric becomes even more extreme. Writing in
The Australian, author and Jesuit Priest Frank Brennan, announces “these authors are proposing a scorched earth policy of killing off all religion”. Hitchens he says “is a belligerent, unyielding disputant”. Onfray’s book is “one of those books you can judge by its back cover” and like “Islamic fundamentalists” these writers “fail to understand the rules for civil discourse and engagement…” (2.6.07). Finally The Australian’s John Heard proclaims “God is not responsible for war and suffering” but instead it’s “the human heart”. He denounces Dawkins and Hitchens’ books as works where “a cacophony of historical, philosophical, political and more obviously silly reasons are advanced” (7.6.07). Whatever the opinion in the media, there is no doubt these books have generated much debate into the historic, scientific, cultural, political and social legacies of these three highly influential primordial monotheistic religions. Furthermore, with high sales recorded across Australia (most notably for The God Delusion) there is undoubtedly much interest from the general population in these provocative, aggressive and persuasive investigations from a distinctly contemporary atheist perspective.

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