Also from this week's New Yorker, by Anthony Gottlieb. It's basically a critique of “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” by Christopher Hitchens. It also touches on, inter alia, “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation,” by Sam Harris, “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon,” by Daniel Dennett, and “The God Delusion,” by Richard Dawkins.
Great portents and disasters turn some minds to God and others away from him. When an unusually bright and long-tailed comet was tracked through the sky in the last two months of 1680, posters and sermons called on Christians to repent. A hen in Rome seemed to confirm that the Day of Judgment was near. On December 2nd, it made an extraordinarily loud cackle and produced an exceptionally large egg, on which could be seen a likeness of the comet, or so it was said. This added to the religious panic. But the comet also sparked a small triumph for rationalism. In the next few years, as Armageddon somehow failed to arrive, a stream of pamphlets across Europe and America argued that heavenly displays were purely natural phenomena. The skeptics won the day. From the eighteenth century onward, no respectable intellectual saw comets as direct messages from God—though there were still some fears that one might eventually hit the earth.
The felling of the World Trade Center in New York, on September 11, 2001, brought its share of religion. Two populist preachers, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, called it divine punishment[*] (though both quickly withdrew their remarks), and not only the bereaved prayed for help. But September 11th and its aftershocks in Bali, Madrid, London, and elsewhere are more notable for causing an outbreak of militant atheism, at least on bookshelves. The terrorist attacks were carried out in the name of Islam, and they have been taken, by a string of best-selling books, to illustrate the fatal dangers of all religious faith. . . .
Bertrand Russell, who had a prodigious knowledge of history and a crisp wit, claimed in 1930 that he could think of only two useful contributions that religion had made to civilization. It had helped fix the calendar, and it had made Egyptian priests observe eclipses carefully enough to predict them. He could at least have added Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and more than a few paintings; but perhaps the legacy of religion is too large a conundrum to be argued either way. The history of the West has been so closely interwoven with the history of religious institutions and ideas that it is hard to be confident about what life would have been like without them. One of Kingsley Amis’s lesser-known novels, “The Alteration,” tried to envisage an alternative course for modern history in which the Reformation never happened, science is a dirty word, and in 1976 most of the planet is ruled by a Machiavellian Pope from Yorkshire. In this world, Jean-Paul Sartre is a Jesuit and the central mosaic in Britain’s main cathedral is by David Hockney. That piece of fancy is dizzying enough on its own. But imagine attempting such a thought experiment in the contrary fashion, and rolling it back several thousand years to reveal a world with no churches, mosques, or temples. The idea that people would have been nicer to one another if they had never got religion, as Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris seem to think, is a strange position for an atheist to take. For if man is wicked enough to have invented religion for himself he is surely wicked enough to have found alternative ways of making mischief. . . .
I have to agree with the Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume (1711-1776), who "had a horror of zealotry," religious or otherwise.
In Paris, meanwhile, a number of thinkers began to profess atheism openly. They were the first influential group to do so, and included Denis Diderot, the co-editor of the Enlightenment’s great Encyclopédie, and Baron D’Holbach, who hosted a salon of freethinkers. Hume visited them, and made several friends there; they presented him with a large gold medal. But the philosophes were too dogmatic for Hume’s taste. To Hume’s like-minded friend the historian Edward Gibbon [who wrote The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire], they suffered from “intolerant zeal.” Still, they represented a historical vanguard: explicit attacks on religion as a whole poured forth within the next hundred years. . . .
* After the September 11, 2001 attacks, Falwell said on the 700 Club, "I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen.'" (Wikipedia)