A Modest Proposal for a Truce on Religion
December 3, 2006
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
If God is omniscient and omnipotent, you can't help wondering why she
doesn't pull out a thunderbolt and strike down Richard Dawkins.
Or, at least, crash the Web site of
http://www.whydoesgodhateamputees.com. That's a snarky site that notes
that while people regularly credit God for curing cancer or other
ailments, amputees never seem to enjoy divine intervention.
"If God were answering the prayers of amputees to regenerate their
lost limbs, we would be seeing amputated legs growing back every day,"
the Web site declares, adding: "It would appear, to an unbiased
observer, that God is singling out amputees and purposefully ignoring
That site is part of an increasingly assertive, often obnoxious
atheist offensive led in part by Professor Dawkins — the Oxford
scientist who is author of the new best seller "The God Delusion."
It's a militant, in-your-face brand of atheism that he and others are
He counsels readers to imagine a world without religion and conjures
his own glimpse: "Imagine no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7, no
Crusades, no witch hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian partition, no
Israeli/Palestinian wars, no Serb/Croat/Muslim massacres, no
persecution of Jews as 'Christ-killers,' no Northern Ireland
'troubles,' no 'honor killings,' no shiny-suited bouffant-haired
televangelists fleecing gullible people of their money."
Look elsewhere on the best-seller list and you find an equally acerbic
assault on faith: Sam Harris's "Letter to a Christian Nation." Mr.
Harris mocks conservative Christians for opposing abortion, writing:
"20 percent of all recognized pregnancies end in miscarriage. There is
an obvious truth here that cries out for acknowledgment: if God
exists, He is the most prolific abortionist of all."
The number of avowed atheists is tiny, with only 1 to 2 percent of
Americans describing themselves in polls as atheists. But about 15
percent now say that they are not affiliated with any religion, and
this vague category is sometimes described as the fastest-growing
"religious group" in America today (some surveys back that contention,
while others don't).
Granted, many Americans may not yet be willing to come out of the
closet and acknowledge their irreligious views. In polls, more than 90
percent of Americans have said that they would be willing to vote for
a woman, a Jew or a black, and 79 percent would be willing to vote for
a gay person. But at last count, only 37 percent would consider voting
for an atheist.
Such discrimination on the basis of (non) belief is insidious and
intolerant, and undermines our ability to have far-reaching
discussions about faith and politics. Mr. Harris, for example, makes
some legitimate policy points, such as criticism of conservative
Christians who try to block research on stem cells because of their
potential to become humans.
"Almost every cell in your body is a potential human being, given our
recent advances in genetic engineering," notes Mr. Harris. "Every time
you scratch your nose, you have committed a Holocaust of potential
Yet the tone of this Charge of the Atheist Brigade is often just as
intolerant — and mean. It's contemptuous and even ... a bit
"These writers share a few things with the zealous religionists they
oppose, such as a high degree of dogmatism and an aggressive
rhetorical style," says John Green of the Pew Forum on Religion and
Public Life. "Indeed, one could speak of a secular fundamentalism that
resembles religious fundamentalism. This may be one of those cases
where opposites converge."
Granted, religious figures have been involved throughout history in
the worst kinds of atrocities. But as Mao Zedong, Joseph Stalin and
Pol Pot show, so have atheists.
Moreover, for all the slaughters in the name of religion over the
centuries, there is another side of the ledger. Every time I travel in
the poorest parts of Africa, I see missionary hospitals that are the
only source of assistance to desperate people. God may not help
amputees sprout new limbs, but churches do galvanize their members to
support soup kitchens, homeless shelters and clinics that otherwise
would not exist. Religious constituencies have pushed for more action
on AIDS, malaria, sex trafficking and Darfur's genocide, and believers
often give large proportions of their incomes to charities that are a
lifeline to the neediest.
Now that the Christian Right has largely retreated from the culture
wars, let's hope that the Atheist Left doesn't revive them. We've
suffered enough from religious intolerance that the last thing the
world needs is irreligious intolerance.