The Second Evident Truth

The cause of so much unnecessary distress, Harris declare^ is faith, particularly in the form ol belief in God. Faith is ' belief without evidence" (58-73, 85), and for Hicchens this is what "poisons everything." Dawkins agrees (308), and all three authors try to convince their readers that the monotheistic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—underlie a sizable portion of the evils human beings have afflicted on one another throughout the last three millennia. But it is not just horrifying ideas of God such as those of ai-Qaeda and other fanatics that cause so much unnecessary pain. It is faith, pure and simple.1

This claim is not quite the same as the Buddha's Second

Noble Truths which states thac the cause of suffering is greedy desire (tanha}, But there is a resemblance, since faith too seems to be an inexhaustible craving, in this case for insane ideas to satisfy rheseemingly bottomless appetite so many humans have for delusions (Harris 23, 26-27, 38-39> 58-73). In a formula almost as compact as the Ruddhas—the cause of suffering is faith—our new atheists want to focus our attention on exactly what needs to be eradicated if true happiness is to be realized.

Fhe idea of Cod fabricated by faith is "intrinsically dangerous (44) and morally evil, no matter wrhat form it takes in our imaginations. Why? Because there is no evidence for it, and in fact4 no evidence is even conceivable' (23), Basing knowledge on "evidence is not only cognkionallv necessary but morally essential as well. By failing the rest of evidence that makes science reliable, "religious faith represents so uncompromising a misuse of the power ot our minds that it forms a kind of perverse, cultural singularity—a vanishing point beyond which rational discourse proves impossible. When foisted upon each generation anew, it renders us incapable of realizing just how much of our world has been unnecessarily ceded to a dark and barbarous past" (25).

The new atheists want to make it very clear that what is so evil about the God religions is not only the crude anthropomorphic images of deity that arise from our "baser natures— forces like greed, hatred, and fear" (15), but also that they arise from lfaith rather than from "evidence. Both "faith" and "evidence^ need to be understood carefully. Here the term "faith" functions for [he new atheists almost as "greedy desire ' does for rhe Buddha. The Buddha had attributed our suffering to our tendency to cling to things so obsessively that we set ourselves up for disappointment whenever we have to face the transience of all beings. So if we want happiness it would be better not to cling to anything at alL For the Buddha, ' greedy desire is the source of our suffering. For the new atheists it is our tendency to believe in anything without evidence. Faith makes the world so much more miserable than it needs to be.

Belief in God is an especially noxious version of faidi. Just consider all rhe ways in which belief in God and the afterlife «ire messing up the world today. 1 am writing this page, (or example, on the most deadly day to date of the Iraq fiasco (August 15, 2007), when Muslim extremists slaughtered as many as five hundred members ol the Yazidi sect. Blindly believing improbable propositions concerning God and the afterlife, a band of religious believers blew themselves up in the name of God in order to blow up other religious believers at the same time. What more proof do we need that theistic faith is not only deluded bur also dangerous? Faith in God may seem innocent to most of us, but according to Harris, faith can lead ro anything, The foolish credulity that leads Christians to believe, in Harris's words, that Jesus "cheated death, and rose bodily into the heavens, or the preposterous idea of transubstantiation that allows Catholics to believe that Jesus can be 'eaten in the form of a cracker" and that rhe faithful can drink his blood by virtue of aa few Latin words spoken over your favorite Burgundy," may seem harmless enough (73). But the opening that failh makes tor such innocenr nonsense unfortunately also provides the space for unjustified beliefs that lead to "the most monstrous crimes against humanity1 (78-79).

1 he new atheists define faith as belief without evidence. 'Evidence is a crucial term, showing up innumerable rimes in Harris's book and at key points in Dawkinss (2S2—83). But what is "evidence"?The authors never carefully define what they mean by the term, but it is clear that it signifies tor them whatever is scientifically testable, empirically available, or publicly observable. Extraordinary claims such as those of religion, as Harris asserts, require an "extraordinary kind ot testing/ but none ts available (41), Since science alone can reliably verify or talsify human propositions, one must conclude that religious ideas, lacking any physical evidence as they do, cannot legiti-niarely claim to be truthful. Without passing through some kind of empirical testing, almost anything could become admissible in the religious mind, including the belief that martyrdom by suicide bombing will launch one immediately into paradise. So, only claims for which there is "sufficient evidence ' arc acceptable to those who want an end to human misery.

Theologians today understand faith as the commitment of one s whole being to God* But the new atheists, echoing a now-obsolete theology think of faith in a narrow intellectual and propositional sense. The sear ot faith for them is not a vulnerable heart but a weak intellect. I Iarris, Dawkins, and Hitchens consider all forms of faith to be irrational and abusing reason by harboring faith in one's mi nd is shockingly unethical as well. It is morally wrong to believe anything without sufficient evidence. In this respect the new atheists adopt what an older generation of atheists called the 'ethic of knowledge'1 as the foundation of both moral and cogmtionai life. In the late 1 960s the noted biochemist and atheist Jacques Monod claimed that the "ethic of knowledge" must be the foundation oi all moral and intellectual claims. He declared that it is unethical to accept any ideas that fail to adhere to the "postulate of objectivity.11 In other words it is morally wrong to accept any claims that cannot be verified in principle by 'objective" scientific knowing. Hut, then, what about that precept itself? Can anyone prove objectively that the postulate of objectivity is true? Here Monod was much more honest than the new atheists. He admitted that an exception must be made for the postulate of objectivity. The ethic of knowledge is itself an "arbitrary" choice, not a claim for which there could ever be sufficient scienti fic evidence. Faith, ir seems, makes an opening wide enough for atheism too,*

Of course, all knowing has to start somewhere, and that somewhere is rightly called faith, even if our critics are offended bv the term. At some foundational level all knowing is rooted in a declaration of trust, in a "will to believe." For example, we have to trust that the universe makes some kind of sense before we can even begin the search for its intelligibility. Unacknowledged declarations of faith underlie every claim the atheist makes as well, including the formal repudiation of faith. In a classic essay entitled "The Will to Believe," which our atheists show no sign of ever having read, the philosopher William James took W. K. Clifford to task for issuing so arbitrarily the ethical proclamation that it is always wrong to believe anything without sufficient evidenced All you have to do is read Jam ess very important essay to observe thai, at least in what wrc have seen so far, rhere is absolutely nothing new in the new atheism* But let us keep looking,


The way to avoid unnecessary human suffering today is ro abolish faith from the face of the earth. The Buddhas Third Noble Truth states thar the way to overcome suffering is to find release from clinging desire. The new atheists—especially Harris, who favors a very highly edited version of Buddhism— believe that release from bondage to faith can help rid the world of unnecessary suffering. Here ^faith"' is the bottomless cave in consciousness chat gives domicile to everything from belief in UFOs, to witches, souls, angels, devils, paradise, and God, Most of these beliefs seem harmless enough, but if we allow people to get away with even the most innocuous instances of faith, what is to prevent a Muslim radical from believing that Cod's will is the destruction of Israel and the United States, or a Zionist from believing that God wants us to murder innocent Palestinians, or a CChristian Irom believing that it is God s will to bomb abortion clinics? Once God's will is fancied to favor such acts of violence> then anything is possible—including the most unthinkable horrors.

Understandably, then, the new atheists ask how we can bring about a world where indiscriminate kin ing and maiming in die name of God become truly unthinkable. Since such a world does not yet exist, a radical solution is required: we must get rid of faith altogether. Everyone needs to just stop believing in any assertion that cannot be backed up by "evidence/ This applies especially to all the books that religious people have held holy for ages- Since the allegedly inspired literature of the Ciod religions is a product of faith, there is no reason to take it seriously Aside from an aesthetically appealing passage here and there, the Scriptures of all religions are worthless. Furthermore, whatever seems morally right or aesthetically charming in our allegedly sacred books and traditions could have been arrived at by reason operating independently of faith.

This censuring ol faith applies also to theology, which the new atheists hold in utter contempt, aghast at the fact that in our day and age there are even such absurdities as academic departments with that name. They wonder why more scholars and other people whom we expect to be smart do not seem to notice how dangerous theology is to the world. Theology after allj leads one Muslim taction to slaughter another in the name of Ciod, It is in rhe heads of theologians that incentives for inquisitions and massacres are hatched. The evidence is undeniable. The history of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is a trail of untold suffering and death engendered by ridiculous theological disputes. Such is rhe judgment of all three of our critics. Look honestly at the root of todays terrorism, they would advise us. Look at all the national and international problems caused by ideas of God thai arise from theological fantasies that feed on our pathetic propensity for faith. Every time you remove your shoes at your airport's security control, one might add* just reflect on the ultimate cause of this nuisance as well.

The unprecedented dangers that threaten us today, Harris insists, will only get worse unless a drastic solution can be found. l iberaU and socialists naively suggest that if we wranr peace we all need to practice justice. But such a solution is not extreme enough for the new atheists. The root cause of the most insane forms of violence is not poverty and injustice anyway- Rather, it is faith and theology. Faith and theology may lead some people to prayerful services such as the one I mentioned at the beginning of this chapter. But since prayer is based on [he irrationality of faith, by worshiping God we are only perpetuating the suffering oí humanity in the long run. The day after 9/11, instead of participating in a religious service, my wife and I would have made better use of our time, according to Harris, by working toward a radical secularism that denies any status to faith of any sort. Only "the end of faith" holds any promise for saving the world.

Rather than embracing the ancient Buddha's milder Third Noble Truth as the way to end suffering, the new atheists seek to initiate us into a radically different but, they think, more effective kind of asceticism—namely, cleansing our minds of faith. This new discipline of purification, if executed according to the new atheists' severe standards, will lead to the suppression of all childish inclinations to believe without evidence. The idea of God must therefore be erased forever from human awareness, but rhis cannot take place apart from the 'end of faith/' Cleansing the wrorld of the likes of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda by force is not going to do the job. What needs eliminating is faith in every form, and our new atheists all think of themselves as pioneering rhis unprecedented purge.

At this point our debunkers might seem to be finished, but they are just getting started. Here they begin offering something startlingly new, at least outside the reach of atheistic dictatorships, It is not just faith, they say, but our polite and civil tolerance oí faith that must be uprooted if progress toward true happiness is to be made. Harris is most explicit on this point. Religious moderates and their defense of the right to faith, he fumes, are, "in large part, responsible for the religious conflict in our world . . / (45). Dawkins fully supports him:

As long as we respect the principle that religions faith must be respected simply because it is religious faith it is hard to withhold respect from the faith of Osama bin Laden and the suicide bombers. The alternative, one so transparent that it should need no urging, is to abandon the principle of automatic respect for religious faith. This is one reason 1 do everything in my power to warn people against faith itself not just against so-called "extremist'' faith. The teachings of "moderate religion, though not extremist in themselves, are an open invitation to extremism. (306)

Tolerance of faith remains an unquestioned part of democratic societies, but the evil illusions that this torbearancc allows will continue to cause untold misery, if we indulge any kind of faith at all we set ourselves up for victimization by " true believers' of ail sorts. Indiscriminate rcspcct for faith is enough to make each tolerant soul among us a de facco accomplice in evil. Instead of compromising with religious faith in the genteel way that secular and religious moderates have done in the past, the new atheists want us to abandon any such respect for freedom ol faith and religious thought altogether. Nothing impedes a clear-sighted grasp of the worlds most urgent problem todav- -religiously inspired terrorism more thoughtlessly than moderate theology and liberal secular tolerance of faith. We must realize at last that our theological, secular, leftist, postmodern, and simply good-mannered tolerance of faith has become intolerable itself Religious moderates, Harris writes, "imagine that the path to peace will be paved once each of us has learned to respect the unjustified beliefs of others." Bur the "very idea of religious tolerance—born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God—is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss" (14-15). Abjuring any concern lor political correctness, Harris seems deadly serious in his proclamation that we can no longer tolerate the liberal tolerance of faith. Here, then, we meet something fairly new in the writings of the new atheists.

Also new in Dawkins* Harris, and Hitchens is an intolerance not only of theology but also of the soft, "Neville Chamberlain' accommodation that most of their fellow atheists and scientific naturalists have made toward the existence of faith (Dawkins 66—69), In many years of studying and conversing with scientific naturalists I have yet to encounter such a sweeping intolerance of tolerance. Intolerance of tolerance seems to be a truly novel feature of the new atheists' solution to the problem of human misery. Nearly everything else that Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens (and their philosophical mentor Dennett) have to say about religion* faith, and theology has been said already. Certainly their blanket rejection of religious faith's cognitional standing is not new, nor is rheir indictment of religion on moral grounds. Scientific naturalism, in whose tenets our new atheists have been methodically schooled, has long held that nature is all there is and that science is the privileged road to understanding the world. However, most devotees of scientific naturalism in the modern period have recognized that they are fortunate to live in cultures and countries wThere a plurality of faiths is accepted. They have been grateful for this leniency, since otherwise scientific naturalism may never have been allowed to exist alongside belief systems that are ideologically opposed to it. In fact, if it were up to a vote in the United States today as rhe new atheists would surely agree, scientific naturalism would be voted off the map by a majority of citizens.

The new atheists are right in pointing out how so many other belief systems than their own are often intolerant and barbaric- But surely they must realize that their own belief system, scientific naturalism, would never have established itself in the modern world were ii not for the tolerance extended to "freethinkers by rhe same religious cultures that gave rise to science. Their reply is that religious cultures themselves never had any real moral or rational justification for existing in the first place. Faitht since it is intrinsically evil, should ideally never have been rendered any right to exist at alL Furthermore, when human intelligence first emerged in evolution it should never have allowed itself to be taken captive by faith, no matter how biologically adaptive this alliance of mind with unreason happened to be,

Harris rhinks he can get by writh this extreme intolerance since as far as he is concerned it is based on reason rather than faith. However, Harris's and Dawkinss own scientism, the intellectual backbone of their scientific naturalism, is a belief for which there can be no "sufficient" scientific or empirical "evidence either. There is no way, without circular thinking, to set up a scientific experiment to demonstrate that every true proposition must be based in empirical evidence rather than faith. The censuring of every instance of faith, in the narrow-new atheist sense of the term, would have to include the suppression of scientism also. The truly thoughtful scientific naturalists- -Einstein is a good example- have been honest enough to admit that faith, especially faith that the universe is comprehensible ac all, is essentia] to ground the work of science itsdf. Moreover, the claim that truth can be attained only by reason and science functioning independently of any faith is itself a faith claim. Complete consistency would require that the new7 atheists' world of thought be cleansed of scientisni and scientific naturalism as well.

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