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The Anti-God Squad

Why even some of the most zealous non-believers may abandon the crusade against religion.

Three years ago Wired magazine popularized the term "New Atheism" with a cover story about the "crusade against belief" launched by Richard Dawkins (No. 18), Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris. (Christopher Hitchens, No. 47, filled out the roster later.)

Now the crusade is encountering powerful and possibly pivotal resistance.

It isn't that the citadels of faith are rolling back the tide of unbelief. Among intellectuals -- a target audience of the New Atheists -- professing traditional faith is no more common than it was three years ago, and may even be less common.

But the New Atheists' main short-term goal wasn't to turn believers into atheists, it was to turn atheists into New Atheists -- fellow fire-breathing preachers of the anti-gospel. The point was to make it not just uncool to believe, but cool to ridicule believers.

And this year doubts about that mission have taken root among the New Atheists' key demographic: intellectuals who aren't religious and aren't conservative. Even on the secular left, the alarming implications of the "crusade against religion" are becoming apparent: Though the New Atheists claim to be a progressive force, they often abet fundamentalists and reactionaries, from the heartland of America to the Middle East.

If you're a Midwestern American, fighting to keep Darwin in the public schools and intelligent design out, the case you make to conservative Christians is that teaching evolution won't turn their children into atheists. So the last thing you need is for the world's most famous teacher of evolution, Richard Dawkins, to be among the world's most zealously proselytizing atheists. These atmospherics only empower your enemies.

So too with foreign policy: Making "Western" synonymous with "aggressively atheist" isn't a recipe for quelling anti-Western Islamist radicalism.

And there's a subtle but potent sense in which New Atheism can steer foreign policy to the right. Axiomatic to New Atheism is that religion is not just factually wrong, but the root of evil, which suggests that other proposed root causes of the sort typically stressed on the left aren't really the problem. Sam Harris, in discussing terrorism, wholly dismisses such contributing factors as "the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza," "the collusion of Western powers with corrupt dictatorships," and "the endemic poverty and lack of economic opportunity that now plague the Arab world." The problem, Harris states, is religion, period.

Most New Atheists aren't expressly right wing, but even so their discounting of the material causes of Islamist radicalism can be "objectively" right wing (as in George Orwell's assertion that pacifists were "objectively pro-fascist" regardless of their views about fascism).

Dawkins, for example, has written that if there were no religion then there would be "no Israeli/Palestinian wars." This view is wrong -- the conflict started as an essentially secular argument over land -- but it's popular among parts of the U.S. and Israeli right. The reason is its suggestion that there's no point in, say, removing Israeli settlements so long as the toxin of religion is in the air.

All the great religions have shown time and again that they're capable of tolerance and civility when their adherents don't feel threatened or disrespected. At the same time, as some New Atheists have now shown, you don't have to believe in God to exhibit intolerance and incivility.

Maybe this is the New Atheists' biggest problem: As living proof that religion isn't a prerequisite for divisive fundamentalism, they are walking rebuttals to their own ideology. 

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