Atheism's radical new heroes: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and an evolving new moral view

From Dawkins to Harris, the new debate between science and religion is being led by fascinating, surprising voices

Published March 2, 2014 5:00PM (EST)

Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins          (ABC News/Reuters/Andrew Winning)
Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins (ABC News/Reuters/Andrew Winning)

Excerpted from "The Age of Atheists"

In the preface to Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder (1998), Richard Dawkins, then Oxford’s Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, recounted two incidents that in part prompted him to write his new book. One concerned an unnamed foreign publisher who had told him that, after reading his first book The Selfish Gene (1976), he could not sleep for three nights, so troubled was he by its “cold, bleak message.” The other story concerned a teacher “from a distant country” who had written to him reproachfully that a pupil had come to him in tears after reading the same book “because it had persuaded her that life was empty and purposeless. He advised her not to show the book to any of her friends, for fear of contaminating them with the same nihilistic pessimism.”

Dawkins then went on to quote from his colleague Peter Atkins’s book The Second Law (1984) [i.e., of thermodynamics]: “We are the children of chaos, and the deep structure of change is decay. At root, there is only corruption, and the unstemmable tide of chaos. Gone is purpose; all that is left is direction. This is the bleakness we have to accept as we peer deeply and dispassionately into the heart of the Universe.”

Dawkins comments: “[S]uch very proper purging of saccharine false purpose; such laudable tough-mindedness in the debunking of cosmic sentimentality must not be confused with the loss of personal hope. Presumably there is indeed no purpose in the ultimate fate of the cosmos, but do any of us really tie our life’s hopes to the ultimate fate of the cosmos anyway? Of course we don’t; not if we are sane. Our lives are ruled by all sorts of closer, warmer, human ambitions and perceptions. To accuse science of robbing life of the warmth that makes it worth living is so preposterously mistaken, so diametrically opposite to my own feelings and those of most working scientists, I am almost driven to the despair of which I am wrongly suspected.” On the contrary, he wanted to convey the sense of awed wonder that science can give us and which makes it “one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable.”

The title of Dawkins’s book comes from a poem by Keats, who believed that Isaac Newton had destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to the prismatic colors. Dawkins did not accept this argument. He insisted that scientists and scientifically literate people everywhere who can read Keats as well as Newton have two ways of experiencing and understanding rainbows, not one, and that must be an advance.

He then set about demonstrating his own wonder at the natural world and the cosmos, ranging from bacteria, insect ears, birdsong, the rings in the trunks of sequoias, cuckoos and their habits with eggs, to snail polymorphism and much else. Along the way he dismissed paranormal activities, astrology, all forms of superstition and gullibility. He peppered his text with poems—some good, some indifferent—in a fulsome attempt to show that an appreciation of science in no way compromises enjoyment of poetry, not least because “[s]cience allows mystery but not magic.” That, in fact, an awareness of scientific inaccuracies in literature was and is another form of poetic appreciation.

At the end, he made a claim for what he calls “poetic science”: the notion that a Keats and a Newton, listening to each other, “might hear the galaxies sing.” Thanks to language, which separates us from the other animals, “[w]e can get outside the universe ... in the sense of putting a model of the universe inside our skulls. Not a superstitious, small-minded, parochial model filled with spirits and hobgoblins, astrology and magic, glittering with fake crocks of gold where the rainbow ends. A big model, worthy of the reality that regulates, updates and tempers it; a model of stars and great distances, where Einstein’s noble spacetime curve upstages the curve of Yahweh’s covenantal bow and cuts it down to size. ... The spotlight passes but, exhilaratingly, before it does so it gives us time to comprehend something of this place in which we fleetingly find ourselves and the reason that we do so. We are alone among the animals in foreseeing our end. We are also alone among animals in being able to say before we die: Yes, this is why it was worth coming to life in the first place.”

In the past few decades, both evolutionary biologists like Dawkins and cosmologists—physicists and astronomers—have mounted a spirited attack on the basic dimensions of religion, in particular the main monotheisms, and in doing so have tried hard to reshape what—for the sake of a better phrase—we may call our spiritual predicament.

The collective achievements of these two sciences have been threefold. First, they have sought to show that religions are themselves entirely natural phenomena; they have evolved, like so much else, and from this it follows that our moral life is also a natural (evolved) phenomenon, not rooted in any divine realm or mind. In this sense, the details of evolution teach us how to live together without any reference to God. Nothing is put in his place, because nothing is needed. Second, science has discovered— or reconfigured—some new aspects of the human condition, which provide us with principles for arranging our affairs for the greater benefit of the greatest number. Again, there is no need of God. Third, evolutionary biology and cosmology have given us some radically new ideas about the organizing principle(s) underpinning the universe. Some have gone so far as to call these new principles divine in themselves, but many others see them as entirely natural features of the world.

Some of these innovations are controversial, some are fantastical (part of their point being to gain our attention) and some are contradictory. They bring us up to date.


Richard Dawkins is probably the most controversial figure in the current debate between science and religion. In Unweaving the Rainbow, he sought to show that a scientific approach to creation can be just as “awesome” and fulfilling as religious belief. In The Blind Watchmaker (1986), he set himself two more objectives. First, to explain in the only way possible—as the result of thousands and thousands of incremental evolutionary advances—the great biological complexity we see around us. And second, to argue that, if complexity can arise only in this way, there is no need of a complex God in the first place—in fact, it is a contradiction in terms. He insists that “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”

He returned to the attack in 2006 with The God Delusion. Here he repeated some of his arguments against God—for example, that God would have to be complex to create the evolutionary mechanism, so why would he need to create evolution to manufacture complexity all over again? He looked at the several projects that have subjected prayer to experimental verification—and found them severely wanting. He looked at the roots of morality and examined a number of religious stances, which he found suspect. For instance, he believed that hardly anyone any longer “looked forward” (if they ever did) to the afterlife. So religion for him was a sham.

Dawkins didn’t have much to say about how we should live without religion—he took it for granted that his own lifestyle as perceived via his writings was evidence enough—but in typically combative fashion he described several instances of individuals “escaping” (his word) from their faith, to show that it could and can be done, and he published as an appendix a list of “friendly addresses,” mainly of humanist associations around the world, where people escaping from their church could find refuge and intellectual support.

In Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (2006), Daniel Dennett, a philosopher at Tufts University and a colleague of Dawkins, argued that it was now time for religion “as a global phenomenon” to be subject to multidisciplinary research, “because religion is too important for us to remain ignorant about.” Until now, he said, there has been a tacit agreement that scientists will leave religion alone, but with fundamentalist terrorism so widespread “we are paying a terrible price for our ignorance.” He pointed out that two or three religions come into existence every day and that their typical lifespan is less than a decade, with even the great monotheisms not being that long-lived by the standard of other human institutions—writing, say, which has been around for five thousand years, or agriculture, ten thousand, or language, hundreds of thousands of years.  By examining humans’ need for intensity, for ritual, for attributing agency to anything that puzzles them, for finding patterns almost everywhere, for some people to assume the role of steward and others to cede it, he showed how folk religions evolved seamlessly into organized religions.

It is “belief in belief ” that really matters, Dennett asserted; many people don’t actually believe many of the tenets of their religion (a belief in hell, say, or in the golden calf), but they do believe in the concept of God. Belief in belief is an elusive matter, but it has played an important role in the development, in the twentieth century in particular, of the concept of God as “apophatic”—meaning that God is “ineffable, unknowable, something beyond all human ken.” He was particularly dismissive of this concept (made popular by Karl Barth in the 1920s).

He concluded by asking if people are right in thinking that the best way to live a good life is through religion; the world is “sick and tired,” he said, of the demonstrations of devotion by one fundamentalist terrorist or another. The political agendas of fundamentalists and fanatics often exploit the organizational infrastructure of the religions they profess to belong to and their traditions of unquestioning loyalty. Al Qaeda and Hamas terrorism are Islam’s responsibility.

In writing his book, he said, he had come across one widespread opinion, albeit expressed in a variety of ways: in essence, this was that “man” has a “deep need” for spirituality. “What fascinates me about this delightfully versatile craving for ‘spirituality’ is that people think they know what they are talking about, even though—or perhaps because—nobody bothers to explain what they mean.”

Dennett had three things to say about how we should live. The secret to spirituality had nothing to do with the soul, or anything supernatural—it was this: let your self go. “If you can approach the world’s complexities, both its glories and its horrors, with an attitude of humble curiosity, acknowledging that however deeply you have seen, you have only just scratched the surface, you will find worlds within worlds, beauties you could not heretofore imagine, and your own mundane preoccupations will shrink to proper size, not all that important in the great scheme of things. Keeping that awestruck vision of the world ready to hand while dealing with the demands of daily living is no easy exercise, but it is definitely worth the effort, for if you can stay centered, and engaged, you will find the hard choices easier, the right words will come to you when you need them, and you will indeed be a better person [italics in original].”

It was a matter of urgency, he thought, that people understand and accept evolutionary theory. “I believe that their salvation may depend on it! How so? By opening their eyes to the dangers of pandemics, degradation of the environment, and loss of biodiversity, and by informing them about some of the foibles of human nature. So isn’t my belief that belief in evolution is the path to salvation a religion? No. . . . We who love evolution do not honor those whose love of evolution prevents them from thinking clearly and rationally about it! ... In our view there is no safe haven for mystery or incomprehensibility. ... I feel a moral imperative to spread the word of evolution, but evolution is not my religion. I don’t have a religion.”

As indicative of another way forward, Dennett recommended the work of the British psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, who has pioneered, he said, the consideration of the ethical issues involved in deciding how to decide “when and whether the teaching of a belief system to children is morally defensible.” Humphrey advocates teaching them about all the world’s religions, “in a matter-of-fact, historically and biologically informed way,” just as we teach them about geography, history and mathematics. “Let’s get more education about religion in our schools, not less.” We should teach rituals and customs and the positive and negative aspects of religious history—the role of the churches in the civil rights movement and the Inquisition. No religion should be favored, and none ignored. And as we learn more about the psychological and biological basis of religion, this should be included too. “The field of public health expanded to include cultural health will be the greatest challenge of the next century.”

In fact, Dennett’s call for more research into religion overlooks the fact that this is already under way, most notably as recorded in David Sloan Wilson’s Darwin’s Cathedral (2002), which looks at a variety of religions— those of the Nuer, Dagara and Mbuti, of John Calvin’s Geneva and of the Christian Koreans in Texas. He concludes that religions are adaptive units that form in order to access resources (often, material resources) that can be obtained only through coordinated group action. Catechisms and the concept of forgiveness can also be regarded as evolved phenomena, he claims.


Sam Harris, in The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (2004), mounted a coruscating attack on all religions, stating that both the Bible and the Koran contain “mountains” of life-destroying gibberish; that the “land” most terrorists are fighting over is not to be found in this world; and asking why God would make Shakespeare a better writer than himself. Science, he said, is gradually encompassing life’s deepest questions and we are beginning to understand why humans flourish. We are beginning to understand, for instance, the role of the hormone oxytocin in the brain and its link with human well-being.

Thanks to such discoveries we will eventually be able to say, objectively, that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, because once we put religion in its place, “[w]ell-being captures all that we can intelligibly value.” Harris argued from the failures of the kibbutzim in Israel that some forms of social life are less moral than others; that conservative societies have higher rates of divorce, teenage pregnancy and pornography; that it is societies whose members are allowed to maximize themselves and others that are the most successful. We are changing morally, and improving, he emphasized—for instance, we are less prepared than we used to be to accept collateral damage in conflict situations. One of his prime conclusions was that “there may be nothing more important than human cooperation.”

This was the conclusion, also, of Matt Ridley, a British polymath who combines being a scientist with a number of other roles, including chairman of a bank. In his book The Origins of Virtue (1996), he argued that “moral sentiments are problem-solving devices to make highly social creatures [us] effective at using social relations to ensure their genes’ long-term survival.” Moral life, he concluded, is based on the fact that “selfish genes make us social, trustworthy and cooperative.” There was morality before the church, trade before the state, exchange before money, social contracts before Hobbes, welfare before the rights of man, culture before Babylon, self-interest before Adam Smith, and greed before capitalism. The main element in cooperation, he said, is trust, “a vital form of social capital.” Where authority replaces reciprocity, the sense of community fades. For trust to grow, we must reduce the power of the state and devolve our lives into parishes, computer networks, clubs and teams, self-help groups and small businesses—“everything small and local.”

In The Rational Optimist (2010), Ridley argues that, in contrast to what many people think, in the last thousand years life expectancy has increased dramatically, indicators show a decrease in violence, and average income has increased exponentially. Humans are the only living beings, he points out, to have been able to continuously increase their quality of life. No other species with a prominent brain, such as dolphins, chimpanzees, octopuses and parakeets, have achieved this, so it cannot be simply a matter of brain size. His answer is trade. It is trade between unrelated parties that has increased our collective intelligence, to the benefit of all. More open trade should be the faith of the future.

Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist, very largely agrees. In The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002), he explores what he thinks are humanity’s greatest fears so far as human nature is concerned—the fear of inequality, the fear of imperfectibility, the fear of determinism and the fear of nihilism. Against this, religions have traditionally provided “comfort, community and moral guidance” to countless people, and according to some biologists the sophisticated deism toward which many religions are evolving “can be made compatible with an evolutionary understanding of mind and nature.”

Furthermore, with increasing knowledge our moral circle has in fact been expanding. Instead of religions focusing on their own kind, greater biological understanding has led to the entities worthy of moral consideration being “poked outward” from the family and the village toward the clan, the tribe, the nation, the race and, most recently (as in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), toward all of humanity. Nor will it stop there, as some seek to include within their orbit certain animals, zygotes, fetuses and the brain-dead. The latest cognitive science has agreed upon a list of “core intuitions,” he reports, on which we base our understanding, such as an intuitive physics, intuitive engineering and psychology, spatial and number sense, sense of probability and intuitive economics. We once had an intuitive sense of the soul, which it is no longer possible to reconcile with biology, and that means we now need to reconfigure our moral understanding, which is better understood as a system of trade-offs according to circumstances. This is, in effect, a return to situation ethics.

Pinker himself tends toward a “tragic” intuition of life, rather than a “Utopian” one, which contains these elements at least: the primacy of family ties; the limited scope of sharing and reciprocity which leads to “social loafing”; the universality of dominance, violence and ethnocentrism; the partial heritability of intelligence, conscientiousness and antisocial tendencies; the prevalence of defense mechanisms; biases in the moral sense toward preference of kin and friends; and a tendency to confuse morality with conformity, rank, cleanliness and beauty. In The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011), Pinker identifies six periods in which violence decreased significantly, proving, he argues, that we are getting more moral.

Though Pinker has been widely criticized, as was Ridley, for his Panglossian tendencies, and though Pinker thinks that the advent of a strong state has a lot to do with the decline in violence, he also believes that another major factor has been commerce, “a game which everyone can win.” “As technological progress allows the exchange of goods and ideas over longer distances and among larger groups of trading partners, other people become more valuable alive than dead. They switch from being targets of demonization and dehumanization to potential partners in reciprocal altruism.”

For Harris, Ridley and Pinker, then, moral progress has been and is being made—it has nothing to do with religion and never has. Trade is perhaps not usually pitched against religious values as much as science has been; but the effect is much the same. Trade is a horizontal activity, carried out between people on the same level, and by definition it is a this-worldly activity. Like most other human activities, it has evolved.

From "The Age of Atheists" by Peter Watson. Copyright © 2014 by Peter Watson. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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