When Christopher Hitchens published God is Not Great in 2007, Salman Rushdie told him that his title was one word too long – because God, of course, isn’t anything; God is not. A few years ago I read most of the recent(ish) “New Atheism” books – Hitchens; Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion (2006); Sam Harris’s The End of Faith (2004) – as well as stuff like Bertrand Russell’s Why I am Not a Christian (1927). These books all marshal clear, logical arguments against religious belief – like Russell’s Teapot. But no logical argument will ever convince anyone to abandon their faith. The New Atheists seem to think that if everyone abandoned religion, the world would be improved. But a world without religious faith would just fill up with other faiths – with people who believed in Marxism, homeopathy, Tarot. As Don DeLillo wrote in Underworld (1997), “When the Old God goes, they pray to flies and bottletops.” As a utopian crusade, the New Atheism is doomed.
Because faith is illogical, it is not amenable to logical argument. This is one possible objection to faith – that it is irrational and therefore to be scorned. But human beings are not really rational creatures – or rather, they are only rational in certain narrow utilitarian ways. My own objection to religious belief isn’t actually, I think, a rational one. I think that fundamentally, religious belief is stupid and cowardly. It is stupid to believe in magic. It is cowardly to ignore the meaninglessness of the world in favour of a consoling fantasy. My objection to religious belief is therefore moral. We must not be stupid. We must not be cowardly. But to hope for a world that is neither stupid nor cowardly is to ignore human nature – precisely the trap into which the New Atheists have fallen.