Back in 2007, four intellectuals, the figureheads of New Atheism, met for drinks and an informal discussion of their views. Each individual had taken it upon themselves to bash organised religion in the wake of 9/11, and the resulting video of the conversation, recorded for posterity, quickly went viral.
Now, twelve years later, a transcript of that discussion has been published by Random House, complete with preliminary essays and statements by the three surviving ‘horsemen’ and a bookselling foreword by Stephen Fry.
The arguments and opinions of Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris and Dennett retain their validity within their own, rhetorical scope. What is missing, however, is any widening of that scope. In the interim between the discussion and its recent publication, much work has been done to highlight the socio-economic foundation of religious and superstitious belief.
In particular, Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, in their 2012 book Sacred and Secular, draw on the vast pools of data compiled by a series of World Values Surveys, to convincingly argue the existential security hypothesis; that “transcendent religion is usually weakened by a sense of existential security – that is, a feeling that survival is secure enough to be taken for granted.”
Despite such widely published studies and surveys, our horsemen cling possessively to the opinion that religion itself is “the root of all evil.” In his introductory essay, Dawkins claims that: “Rather than rehearse old themes, I thought I’d use this essay to develop new points that I might make…today.” He then goes on to bash away at the same old familiar tropes, well-honed since The God Delusion (2006): religion is irrational, arrogant and dangerous; science is humble, questioning and honest; and that “the atheistic worldview has an unsung virtue of intellectual courage.”
Curiously for such a devotee of Scientism, and an actual scientist, the scientific studies of Norris, Inglehart and others (which also aim to promote atheistic secularism, though less rhetorically) never touch Dawkins’ worldview. For someone who claims, rather naively, that “having won the battle against religion, we can go back to science,” Dawkins appears willfully indifferent to the way in which science can be used to highlight the socio-economic foundation of organised religion’s mass appeal.
In many ways, The Four Horsemen transcribes a discussion of morality. Hitchens argues that he would not do away with religious faith as he would then lose a dialectical opponent on which to sharpen his arguments. Dawkins, unsurprisingly, cannot fathom such a position, and dreams of a pure future where investigative science rules supreme, all power and politics mysteriously drained from the world along with religious faith. Dennett argues that, at least hypothetically, there is knowledge we would be better to prohibit ourselves; pushed and goaded by Hitchens, however, he is unable to supply a concrete example. The four discuss whether all religions are equally bad, whether religious artworks would be equally moving under secular patronage, and whether military force is justified in the face of religious extremism.
None of these arguments are developed to any satisfactory extent, and are all carried further in the horsemen’s bestselling books, published before this discussion took place. More importantly, however, from today’s perspective, the discussion feels comfortably smug rather than outwardly offensive; a commentary on the world from the safety of armchair rhetoric rather than an honest attempt to reach possible solutions. There is much discussion of what they would like to achieve but, other than Hitchens’ flagrant support of the American military (“the 82nd Airborne and the 101st”), very little talk of how such goals may come to pass.
Early in the discussion, Dawkins states that it would be “a good idea to have somebody from the political right who’s an atheist, because otherwise there’s a confusion of values,” brazenly aligning himself and his compadres with the political left. This alignment is nonsense. The group leans firmly to the political right: Hitchens’ later-life role as White House apologist and espouser of capitalism as a revolutionary force (complete with sinister Social Darwinist undertones) and Harris’s outspoken support for Israel, show both men attempting to legitimise Western imperialism. In light of these later positions, Hitchens’ reformulation of Harris’s question as to whether “all religions are equally bad” feels ominously leading.
It has also been argued, by Eagleton, LeDrew and others, that New Atheism is fundamentally political; that “its latent project is the universalization of the ideology of scientism and the establishment of its cultural authority” and that it is “only manifestly a critique of religion.” If the bashing of religious faith is indeed a smokescreen, this may help to explain the lack of evolution in the New Atheist argument.
Can Dawkins really be innocent of such political observations? If he is, then it is to his discredit.
If the publication of The Four Horsemen serves a purpose (other than shameless self-promotion and increased book sales), it is as a soft introduction to the thoughts, opinions and rhetoric of the New Atheists — or as a collectors’ item for the converted.
There can be no doubt that these men raised the profile of Atheism as a world view. Today, however, the arguments themselves feel woefully out of date.
It is to the source of mass religious and superstitious zeal – socio-economic inequality and insecurity – we must look to counteract its dangers, rather than simplistically and belligerently dismissing religion as a root cause of violence in itself.
The common worldview in post-industrial and developed countries may be shifting from faith to science, with much overlap and conflict in between, but politics and economics always propelled the powerhouses of Western organised religion. With the rise of scientism, the playing field may be changing, but the game remains the same.
The Four Horsemen: The Conversation that Sparked an Atheist Revolution, by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, is published by Random House. 160 pp. £9.99.