The Four Horsemen
In Good Company
Ever since the phrase ‘the New Atheists’ appeared in print, I have found myself celebrated or abused in the same breath with Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens. Needless to say, I’ve been greatly honoured by the association. It has, however, conveyed a false sense that we often schemed together in person. Although two or three of us would occasionally meet at conferences or other events, the book you are about to read provides a transcript of the only conversation the four of us ever had.
Christopher died in 2011, which gives this record a special poignancy. There is no question that his absence has been keenly felt in recent years. More times than I can count, strangers have come forward to say, ‘I miss Hitch.’ Their words are always uttered in protest over some fresh crime against reason or good taste. They are spoken after a bully passes by, smirking and unchallenged, whether on the left or on the right. They have become a mantra of sorts, intoned without any hope of effect, in the face of dangerous banalities or lies. Often, I hear in them a note of reproach. Sometimes it’s intended.
I, too, miss Hitch. But I will resist the temptation to offer further eulogy here. After all, the time will come when the rest of us have also left the stage. However, it seems that a record of our conversation will remain. We filmed it almost as an afterthought. I’m very glad we did.
Treating Richard, Dan, Christopher and me as a four- headed atheist has always elided significant differences of emphasis and opinion, but it was fair enough on the important points: Is there a distinction between believing things for good reasons and believing them for bad ones? Do science and religion differ in the degree to which they observe this distinction? Put this way, the debate is over before it even begins.
However disparate our interests, each of us was acutely aware that religious dogmatism hinders the growth of honest knowledge and divides humanity to no necessary purpose. The latter is a dangerous irony, of course, because one of religion’s most vaunted powers is that it unites people. It does that too, but generally by amplifying tribalism and spawning moralistic fears that would not otherwise exist. The fact that sane men and women can often be found doing good for God’s sake is no rejoinder here, because faith gives them bad reasons for doing good when good reasons are available. These are points that each of the four of us has made again and again, whether to applause or to stony silence.
In truth, not much need be said to close the door on belief in an omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent deity of the sort imagined by Christians, Muslims and Jews. Open any newspaper, and what do you find?
Today, a set of identical twin girls born with microcephaly in Brazil. How does something like this happen? Their mother was bitten by a mosquito carrying the Zika virus – which God, in his abundance, also made. Among the many unhappy effects of this virus is to produce tiny heads, tiny brains, and commensurately tiny lives for the offspring of any woman unlucky enough to be infected.
Imagine the woman herself a few months ago, doing everything within her power to prepare a happy life for her unborn daughters. Where does she work? A factory. How often does she pray? Daily, no doubt.
But at the crucial moment she sleeps. Perhaps she’s dreaming of a world better than the one we live in. Pic- ture a lone mosquito finding her open window. Picture it alighting upon her exposed arm. Will an omnipotent, omniscient and wholly benevolent God muster the slightest defence? Not even a breeze. The mosquito’s proboscis pierces her skin immediately. What are the faithful to believe at this point? One suspects they know that their God isn’t nearly as attentive as he would be if he actually existed.
So there was nothing to stop this tiny monster – descended from a long line of monsters that have been spreading disease for some 200 million years – from drinking this woman’s innocent blood and, in return for a meal, destroying the lives of her unborn girls.
The facts of a single case dismantle whole libraries of theological hairsplitting and casuistry. And yet the hor- ror compounds. Picture the woman noticing the welt on her arm the next morning – just a minor annoyance in a life soon to be filled with tragedy. Perhaps she’s heard reports of Zika and knows how the virus is spread. Her prayers now acquire a special fervour. To what end? Can the consolations of a faith so utterly misplaced outweigh the irony of worshipping a deity this impotent or evil – or, indeed, imaginary?
In the absence of God, we find true sources of hope and consolation. Art, literature, sport, philosophy – along with other forms of creativity and contemplation – do not require ignorance or lies to be enjoyed. And then there is science – which, apart from its intrinsic rewards, will be the true source of mercy in the present case. When a vac- cine or a cure for Zika is finally found, preventing untold misery and death, will the faithful thank God for it?
No doubt they will. And so these conversations must continue . . .