How New Is the New Atheism

"When the Son of Man comes, will he find faitk on earth?1'

The day after the World Trade Centers twin towers came down in September 20011 my wife and I attended a special service at Holy Trinity Catholic Church near Georgetown University where 1 bad been teaching for many years. Bill Byron, the Jesuit pastor and former president of the Catholic University of America„ celebrated Mass and delivered a prayerful homily. If you want peace, he said, practice justice, People of faith should never give up their hope for improving the quality o! life all over the world. We need to avoid simplistic solutions and blanket condemnation of religions. We must all work for a more just world no matter how long it takes, and without the use of violence. Amid the enormous shock and grief in the aftermath of 9/1 1, a similar encouragement to practice tolerance, love, and justice pealed through places of worship all over the world. Around the same time these services were going on, a young Stanford University philosopher and student of neuroscience named Sam Harris was devising another, much more radical solution to the escalating problem of worldwide terrorism. Tolerance and compassion simply will not work, he thought.

Indeed, tolerance of faith is a major cause of the problem, Harris's proposal, as presented in his best-selling books The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, is crystal clear.1 We can rid the world of faith not by violence but by reason and the spread of science. Envisioning himself aim ostasa new Buddha, Harris resolved to share with his readers—and with the whole world—something like a new version of the ancient Buddhas Four Noble Truths. Richard Dawkins and Christopher Mitch ens make essentially the same set o( claims.


Many people in the world are living needlessly miserable lives, Harris norcs^ faintly cchoing the Buddhas First Noble Truth that *all life is suffering." Harris's background assumption is that the purpose of human life is to find happiness, in contrast, the philosopher Imrnatiuel Kant and other wise thinkers and spiritual masters have taught that happiness can come only as a byproduct of the search for something eternal. Aiming for happiness directly is a sure way not to find it. However, if God does not exist and the universe is purposeless, the best we can do is strive for a world in which happiness, l'a form of well-being that supersedes all others, ' is ensured for the greatest number of individuals (I I arris 205)-2 Harris does not define happiness, nor does he distinguish it from other kinds o( gratification. He simply assumes that we all know intuitively wrhat happiness is and that we should make it die goal of all ethical existence (170-71), That we all suffer and eventually die is inevitable, Harris realizes, because that's how nature and evolution work. We can alleviate some natural afflictions and lengthen our lives even if wre cannot eliminate pain completely. However, the senseless suffering that terrorism causes is another matter. Mavbe we can do something about that, something radical. As with the Buddhas first realization, we must begin by facing up fully to the fact that the actual world features a great deal of nnnecessary wretchedness, most notably such events as the 9/11 massacre.

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