With delicious irony, they are derided by some philosophers and social pundits as the “new evangelicals”: the small but rather vociferous group of atheistic proselytizers — Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, serving as the principal protagonists — who contend that the end is nigh (or, at least, should be) for all forms of religious belief.
Religious belief, these so-called New Atheists contend, is a great collective and individual delusion, and the sooner it’s consigned to the cognitive ash bin, the further along humans will travel toward self-actualization and true moral enlightenment — or something to that effect. And, needless to say, a moral condemnation of such breadth has drawn its share of detractors, including a few reputable philosophers.
One question these detractors almost invariably raise: If religion is so contemptible, why do the vast majority of human beings still hold to some version of it? “What if belief in the supernatural is natural for human beings?” asks philosopher and New Statesman columnist John Gray.
Their argument goes something like this: For eons, human beings have thought and acted as if they are under the watchful eye of some benevolent or, as they case may be, not so benevolent deity or deities, or, at least, have have ultimately been meted out some kind of justice based on these thoughts and actions. And over the ages, this pattern of thinking has arguably afforded us humans with an immense evolutionary benefit.
As Gray states the case, “The belief that we live under some kind of supernatural guidance is not a relic of superstition that might some day be left behind but an evolutionary adaptation that goes with being human.”
From my own modest perspective, I really have a hard time understanding the New Atheism. In fact, I’ve never understood why the possibility that our existence is due entirely to random events should detract at all from religion. If the materialists are right and we owe our existence entirely to spontaneous order, we still are immensely indebted to our various religious system. In that case, religion amounts to a kind of exoskeleton that we have constructed over eons from random experiences to protect us from the vicissitudes of life and to secure a measure of moral comfort in the same way that we’ve fabricated hunting and cutting tools to secure physical safety and comfort. To me, at least, religion resembles an exquisitely shaped seashell, as integral a part of human existence and identity as science and technology.