Wall Street Opinion Journal Sam Schulman January 5, 2007
Modern atheists have no new arguments, and they lack their forebears’ charm.
When the very first population of atheists roamed the earth in the Victorian age–brought to life by Lyell’s “Principles of Geology,” Darwin’s “Origin of Species” and other blows to religious certainty–it was the personal dimension of atheism that others found distressing. How could an atheist’s oath of allegiance to the queen be trusted? It couldn’t–so an atheist was not allowed to take a seat in Parliament. How could an atheist, unconstrained by a fear of eternal punishment, be held accountable to social norms of behavior? Worse than heretical, atheism was not respectable.
In the 21st century, this no longer seems to be the case. Few acquaintances of Dr. Richard Dawkins, the world’s most voluble public atheist, wonder, as they might have a hundred years ago: Can I leave my wife unchaperoned in this man’s company? Indeed, the atheists are now looking to turn the tables: They want to make belief itself not simply an object of intellectual derision but a cause for personal embarrassment. A new generation of publicists for atheism has emerged to tell Americans in particular that we should be ashamed to retain a majority of religious believers, that in this way we resemble the benighted, primitive peoples of the Middle East, Africa and South America instead of the enlightened citizens of Western Europe.
Thanks in part to the actions of a few jihadists in September 2001, it is believers who stand accused, not freethinkers. Among the prominent atheists who now sermonize to the believers in their midst are Dr. Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett (“Breaking the Spell”) and Sam Harris (“The End of Faith” and, more recently, “Letter to a Christian Nation”). There are others, too, like Steven Weinberg, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Brooke Allen (whose “Moral Minority” was a celebration of the skeptical Founders) and a host of commentators appalled by the Intelligent Design movement. The transcript of a recent symposium on the perils of religious thought can be found at a science Web site called edge.org.
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