The Four Horsemen – Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens

24-4-19

Dear Partners in thought,

Like with “The Diversity Delusion” I was a bit hesitant to cover a topic that is probably the most controversial of all but I will nevertheless tell you about “The four Horsemen” by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens (I can feel the tremors already) a.k.a. Atheism, Inc. that relates the famous two hour discussion they had in 2007 in Washington DC which then would have launched the new atheistic drive of our times. It is also clear that such a Book Note that is focused on fostering discussion is not done at the most easy of times considering the shocks of the recent fire at Notre Dame de Paris and the dreadful terror attacks in Columbo on Easter Day.

Most people will have known the very colourful, uber brilliant and bon vivant Christopher Hitchens, the author, journalist and literary critic but above all “the master of debate…unmatched in his lifetime”, who sadly departed in 2011, and Richard Dawkins, Fellow of the Royal Society, Oxford New College Senior Fellow and once its Professor for Public Understanding of Science from 1995 until 2008 most known for “The God Delusion” that was published a year before that “mindful” get together. Fewer will know Daniel Dennett,  the Tufts Philosophy Professor who is probably the leading beacon in his field today in the world and Sam Harris, the eminent UCLA neuroscientist and founder of NGO “Project Reason”. The four of them published a major book in the mid-2000s that spearheaded a movement rejecting religion, defining atheism and stressing the importance of rationality and science as the only ways forward for humanity. Not a trivial matter indeed. Those books were “Breaking the Spell” (Dennett; 2006); “The God Delusion” (Dawkins; 2006); “The End of Faith” (Harris; 2004) and “God is Not Great” (Hitchens; 2007, who also wrote many great books like Hitch 22 and lastly little-known Mortality, a remarkable collection of Vanity Fair essays on his own decay as he was dying from cancer).   

As this topic is very personal to many I wanted to add a personal touch for background purposes. In covering “The Four Horsemen” I do so as religion has had a major impact on international affairs and geopolitics throughout history well beyond its sheer tenets if only thinking about the Crusades and Jihadism. I also chose to do so based on free speech, albeit highly respectful, and the beauty of discussing matters however sensible they can be among civilised people if not all perhaps “souls”. As a Catholic school-educated Parisian youth (College Stanislas, the same beacon of excellence attended by the likes of Charles de Gaulle and… Carlos Ghosn) I was raised in a simpler world where questions were just not asked and you went along as the good boy you were. Sadly this matter-of-fact approach peppered with weekly bible studies often given by the devoted but mostly-blindly believing rather than scholarly-trained mothers of my peers did not make me “think”, something that I realised was not really the objective in any case. Today while respecting all religions and beliefs I do not really know where to stand but naturally would be on the side of rationality and facts (like with dealing with fake news in our challenging digital and political age). One temporal aspect of religion that is neither forgettable nor forgivable to me have been the slaughters and misery unleashed on behalf of religion by men throughout history against non-believers and “other” believers alike – even if accepting that many people would indeed welcome the structured  religious guidance for their lives and indeed after-life (rejecting deathly oblivion) so they could manage the former and their anguish regarding the latter much better. It is also clear that church groups have provided to many the real joy of belonging to a community and sharing experiences with its members in some practical and enjoyable earthly addition to the divine. There are topics one prefers to avoid and I am not yet there even if I relate more and more to the Horsemen today than I would have thirty years and a brain tumour ago, again based on life experience and sheer rationality. Once again with total respect for those who find in religion a way to define who they are and their life, as long as we do not fall into any lethal and doomed form of fundamentalism of the kind that killed theatre goers in Paris in November 2015 or Mosque attendants in Christchurch in March 2019. And yes I also believe that religion should be a private matter, oppose theocracy of any kind and feel quite French (for once) about laicity. And if I no longer attend church my wife and I made sure our daughters received a wholly traditional European cultural education that indeed included bible studies so they could make up their own minds – which I think they did.

The book starts with a preface from another great character who is none other than Stephen Fry, the complicated, brilliant character who once fled the stage of his London theatre not to come back and was known early as Jeeves in the Jeeves & Wooster of anthology with fellow Cambridger Hugh Laurie (if only all actors and “celebs” could be that bright today!). Of note Fry was reported in Ireland for blasphemy after describing God in words that were deemed unbecoming. The Four Horsemen are each given a name of Alexandre Dumas’s three musketeers (which as you you know were four) with Dennett being Athos (who was also a bit older and less fiery than the other three in the novel), Hitchens being Porthos (indeed the bon vivant), Harris being Aramis (the refined ladies man and gifted swordsman, doubtless my favourite) and Dawkins of course being d’Artagnan (the thinking swordsman) as perhaps the leader of the pack. Fry sets out the landscape of the discussion which was heavily marked by 9-11 and the rise of Jihadism and Islamic fundamentalism and introduces the key themes of rationality, free thinking and the “supremacy of evidence”, all which do not make for easy bedfellows with religion. While they have championed free speech, the musketeers were often accused in their drive of illiberalism as they were also questioning the sheer idea of faith.

Following Fry’s crafty introduction about this new secular and humanistic drive, the three surviving authors provide a short piece written today, or 12 years after the DC discussion. Dawkins in the longer essay of the three (shortened “The hubris of religion” ) reaffirms even more strongly that science and religion can’t function together, the latter “having contributed literally zero to what we know combined with huge hubristic confidence in the alleged facts it has simply made up”. Focusing on Islam he goes deep into the Concise Commandments from a respected Iranian scholar about the wet-nursing of babies that could have come from Comedy Central or John Oliver if not for the likely penalty of fatwa that would have come with blasphemy. One of the key conclusions of Dawkins is about human courage which is required in the atheistic world given the dangerous stance it represents in many quarters, though also including the moral kind. As an atheist, one abandons his or her imaginary friend, foregoing the comforting props of a celestial father figure to bail one out of trouble. There is no holy book to tell one what to do and what’s right and wrong. One is an intellectual adult, facing up to life and moral decisions though standing tall and facing the wind of reality. For Dawkins the atheist has company: warm human arms around him or her, and a legacy of culture which has built up not only scientific knowledge and the material comfort that science brings but also art, music, the rule of law and civilised discourse on morals. For Dawkins, an atheist has the moral courage to live to the full the only life one is ever going to get, inhabiting reality, rejoicing in it and doing the best finally to leave it better than one has found it.    

Dennett, the Tufts philosopher, who takes the mantle of “the good cop” is more conciliatory seeing that organised religion did provide some “order” that we should preserve. He also stresses that many people whose lives would have been desolate if it weren’t for the non-judgemental welcome they have received in one religious organisation or another, even if regretting the residual irrationalism valorised in almost all religion, though not seeing the state, down here, playing the “succouring, comforting role” to people that need guidance and something else to feel whole. Dennett does not have plans to usher churches off the scene but would rather “assist” in their transformation into organisations that are not “caught up in the trap of irrational and – necessarily insincere – allegiance to patent non-sense”.

Harris, the neuroscientist, stressing the four of them only met once for such a conversation (and like all of them missing “Hitch” who was one of a kind), discusses the irony of religion that unites people though “by tribalism and spawning moralistic fears” (taking it to its extremity, leading actually to religion-based terrorism at least in the mind of misguided perpetrators) and giving bad reasons through faith for “doing good” when good reasons are naturally available. Harris ponders on the belief in the omniscient deity of the sort imagined by Christians, Muslims and Jews, using the example of the mosquito that bites the expecting Brazilian mother at night in her sleep while she dreams about the future and giving her the Zika virus that will eventually give her twin born daughters microcephaly while an omnipotent and omniscient God does nothing to prevent in the slightest the horror that will unfold. What are the faithful to believe in that point and how would they explain that? Harris feels that “they know that their God isn’t as nearly attentive as he would be if he actually existed”. Nothing stopped that long line of tiny monsters that have been at work for 200 million years from destroying that woman’s and her unborn girls lives in return for a quick drink. Harris feeling that the fact-based story dismantles whole libraries of “theological hairsplitting and casuistry” still knows that if a vaccine or a cure for Zika were to be found by science, that is not based on lies and ignorance however blessed, the faithful would still thank God for it. And given the fire at Notre Dame de Paris one is tempted as the devil’s advocate (pun intended) to wonder if Harris would adopt the “Zika principle” to this tragedy.

The conversation sees Harris wondering if all religions are equally awful, meeting a very even-handed Dawkins in his overall religious rejection while Hitchens finds Islam the far more damaging for the mind and indeed body given the ambient terrorism, a felling that is clearly followed by both Harris and Dennett again based on “evidence” and the number of deaths attributed to Jihadism. This approach in many ways that smells of bigotry did prevent Dawkins from sharing some conference platforms due to perceived Islamophobia, which he would defend on scientific, indeed statistical grounds. On this point, it is interesting to note that Ayaan Irsi Ali, the black Somali-born author, one time Dutch politician fighting for her life and fierce critic of Islam (now US-based and wife of renowned historian Niall Ferguson) had not joined at the last minute the DC discussion as originally planned (but will be with the surviving three at a big conference down under in 2011 to discuss the same themes). It is also interesting to note that Christianity seems less of a target for the Horsemen given the times and the central role of Islamic fundamentalism even if all religions remain the targets of the group.

Hitchens no longer with us will of course not write anything in terms of update or introduction to the discussion (I know some will wonder if he would have done it from paradise or hell…). One feels he is missed due to his superior intellectual brio and as he was indeed the most incisive and greatest debater of the four, something that the others will almost acknowledge. He focused on distinguishing the numinous (or divine will) from the supernatural while never desecrating and falling to the level of profanity as in Sophocles’ Antigone, “leaving the pious to destroy churches and burn synagogues or burn each other’s mosques” (on the quote his atheism as we will see had taken a very acerb anti-islamic tone post 9-11).  

The famed “discussion” will lead to several meandering conclusions along the way of their discussion following a loose framework:

– Whatever the softness of the criticism or invitation to debate religion and God, atheists will get hammered by the true religious and be deemed rude on the grounds of the hurt-feelings card which should lead them to say “nothing” (Dennett). It is akin to “trespassing a taboo” where it is safer to leave people to their own superstitions from a secularist and atheist standpoint (Harris) even if one should still try harder and indeed engage (Dennett).      

–  The Musketeers do not want religion to be desecrated as it happened with various contemporary art pieces harshly going after the Virgin Mary in the mid-2000s sharing with Sophocles and other pre-monotheists the revulsion for this and profanity and indeed being awed by some of the “aesthetic achievements” of religion (Hitchens) – something that the fire of Notre Dame reminded everybody vividly along other great things we usually take for granted only to miss them when they suddenly go away. The Musketeers just want to tell the religious that they are wrong to be offended even by existential type topics wanting them like physicists not to be offended by disproval or challenge to their view of physics. (Harris)  

– It is obviously challenging not to be rude when telling someone that she has wasted her life “believing” (Dennett). Based on former Christian preacher Dan Berker’s “collection”, some clergymen having lost their faith will not dare say so because it is their only living and the only thing they know how to do (Dawkins). They want to be able to say things about religion in the same way one says things about and against some of the less savoury aspects of the oil and pharmaceutical industries (Bennett), including denying them tax exemptions or state subsidies (Hitchens). Religion having benefitted from a charmed status has been historically immunised, a status that is accepted by most if not all people, religious or not (Dawkins). “What if I am wrong?” is not in the repertory of the faithful (Dennett) while it should be because religious people are in permanent crisis of faith as if they prayed to believe in something that will turn out to be real as deep down faith is a challenge to their inner unbelief (Hitchens)

–  Faith indeed does not require evidence but needs to be “rationalised” to some small degree. The fact that we have an intuition of God is itself a subtle form of evidence that allows to start a process without evidence with the demand for more evidence itself a kind of corruption of the intellect or a mere temptation to be guarded against, all of which creating a perpetual machine of self-deception (Harris).

– Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, a.k.a. “Mother Theresa”, the Catholic nun who founded Missionaries of Charity in 1950 and was immune of criticism given her literally sainthood status on this earth once shocked her own religious hierarchy in saying that she couldn’t “hear a voice, feel a presence, even in the mass, even in the sacraments” to which the Clergy replied to her that it was actually good as she was in fact suffering, giving her a share in the Crucifixion and making her part of the Calvary” (Dawkins).

– The very same tricks used by religious leaders to strengthen their position and the faith of the believers are the same as those that could be used to sustain something that would be manifestly fraudulent, making a virtue out of sheer, wonderful trust (Dennett). When Einstein is deemed, by some trying hijack the scientist into the religious camp, to have felt a spiritual force in the universe, he really meant that there were “no miracles” (Hitchens).  
– The religious person who rejects the atheists who attach their beliefs also reject all other religions and their pseudo-miracles, pseudo-claims and the certainties of others, seeing the confidence tricks in other people’s faith. Every Christian would indeed know that the Q’ran can’t just be the perfect reflection of the creator and must be reading it more closely (Harris).

– Making the point about inventing ideologies or religions, the Musketeers postulated that a new religion could be created insisting that children study science, maths, economics and other terrestrial disciplines to the best of their abilities and if they didn’t persist would all be tortured after death by seventeen demons.  While the Musketeers laughed at the proposal (from Harris) they all agreed that there was zero chance the seventeen demons would ever exist – amusingly a very feeling that could be shared by many, including those of the faith whatever it might be.

– It is condescending not to confront people one by one or en masse. Public opinion is often wrong. Mob opinion is always almost wrong. Religious opinion is wrong by definition. What made H.L. Mencken (famed American author in the 1920s and 30s) respected of so many is that he said that the people who believe what the methodists tell them, or William Jennings Bryan (an anti-evolution Christian activist and US Democratic politician of the times) tells them are fools and they should make themselves undignified and ignorant. This was arguably the most successful anti-religious polemic ever uttered in the world in the 20th century. (Hitchens)  

– Addressing the word “mystery” the Musketeers mention that Noam Chomsky (US linguist and scholar) said there were two kinds of questions: “problems and mysteries”, which Stephen Pinker, the en vogue and ever optimistic Harvard philosopher, adding that the former were solvable while the latter weren’t. However even if accepting that premise there are no mysteries in science, only problems even if deep ones. There are things we don’t know and things we will never know but they are not things that aren’t systematically incomprehensible to human beings. The glorification of things that are systematically incomprehensible (like religious beliefs) has no place in science leaving the reader understanding that it has no place elsewhere in life. (Dennett). 

– Christianity and Islam evaporate if the Bible and the Qur’an are no longer “magic books” reflecting omniscience. There is not the slightest shred of evidence that these books (which incidentally mutually reject each other even if sharing some similarities if not shared history) are the product of omniscience “or that these words could not have been uttered by a person for whom the wheelbarrow would have been emergent technology”. However with the eyes of faith one can discover magical prescience in any text like (a weird example) walking into the cookbook aisle of a book store, picking a cookbook randomly and then coming up with a mystical interpretation of the recipe. It is possible to “play connect-the-dots” with any crazy set of things and finding wisdom in it” (Harris). As science writer and historian Michael Shermer did with the Bible Code in 2007, finding hidden messages in the Bible (Hitchens). 
– Asked why he still believed in God a renowned biologist and brilliant expositor of evolution answered “proudly and defiantly” that it is simply about faith screaming that “there’s a reason why it’s called faith” as a knock-down clincher (Dawkins). And the argument that “if faith is real to them, why can’t you accept it?” would not be accepted in any field of argument at all (Hitchens) adding that “faith, as often as it’s cut down or superseded or discredited, replicates principally to do with the fear of extinction or annihilation”.                

– Addressing the matter of Islam they all view as the worst religion in terms of its destructive effects on humankind (we are in 2007 so in the midst of the post-9-11 era and the ever going Iraq war, well pre-Arab Spring and the massive negative impacts on the Middle East and the world engineered by said Iraq war) the Musketeers are more interested in destroying (or “extirpating”) the Jihadists than understanding how they could think (Hitchens) even if they recognise that most Atheists would rather “go off and dump on Billy Graham” than going after the Iranian mollahs or their Saudi cousins (Hitchens). They nevertheless ponder on whether there would be any remote chance for a reformed, more moderate Islam (Dennett) given that the present savagery is relatively recent (Dawkins) a feeling that is supported (Harris) also looking back at the Andalusian period where Islamic civilisation was relatively at peace with its neighbours and un-Jihadist. Even if stressing that all religions have to espouse totalitarianism as they have to want an absolute, unchallengeable and eternal authority (Hitchens). At the time Jihadists were indeed killing more people than Christian fundamentalists were killing abortion doctors (Harris) though today Jihadists kill more in the West though through less terror strikes than Christian fundamentalists, Christchurch being a sad and despicable counter-example of that awful trend.

– The Musketeers do not want churches to be empty even if they would like religions to evolve as they somehow respect the “sacred” given its impact on humanity and the way mysticism was crafted. One aspect where atheists all agree is the artistic impact of and on religion if only thinking of music, painting, sculpture or devotional poetry (Harris and all), to which again we should add architecture and the cathedrals like Notre Dame de Paris and other great human achievements driven by religious faith. Listening to Bach in the beautiful church of Saint Sulpice in Paris indeed would strengthen religious belief and could make some mild atheists reconsider. It is interesting to note that the Musketeers have a deep religious culture that also includes art which provides religion with a high degree of aestheticism (Dawkins). Also, some have had close and rich friendships with clergymen (Hitchens). Some would even argue that one could not understand literature without knowing the Bible even if not adhering to its tenets (Dawkins). None of them have a problem with Christmas trees, while stressing that Christmas is a pagan Norse fest and reminding it was Oliver Cromwell and the puritans who first forbade the tree (Hitchens and his “good old norse booze-up”).          

– The fundamentalists and theocrats are winning the global fight and may destroy civilisation (Hitchens, who is keen on “fighting” and “confronting” together with the 82nd and 101st airborne – clearly 9-11 having had a big impact on him and again reminding us of the timing of the discussion and the main target of this key atheist), a feeling that is not unanimous among the Musketeers even if nobody offered other views as the discussion was coming to a close “due to a lack of time…”and possibly tape” (Hitchens again).          

While the Musketeers concur that there is a general queasiness about upsetting the pious, which is also impacted by an uneasy mix of political correctness and ingrained respect for such deep beliefs, it is clear that the atheist revolution has not started twelve years after the DC discussion and launch of a movement. The atheist movement seems to be still the domain of a few highly educated scholars and intellectuals and their societal elite-belonging followers who can think for themselves at all levels and do not fear any backlash, proving that deeply ingrained habits of that sacred nature are indeed hard to die or to evolve. It would not seem that the technology drive we have witnessed so far has dented “broad and generic faith in God or a God” in the West even if church attendance in Europe (unlike America) is at an all time low, while Islam’s mosques and Hinduism’s temples are doing well.

It is clear that at a minimum religion can assist people find moral directions and rules to lead lives they find fulfilling and they can also combine with a set of temporal laws, regulations, customs and acceptable manners of living in society. It is also clear that religion does help many to find solace in front of some of the terrible turns life can bestow like losing a child or a spouse or suddenly being faced with an incurable disease or medical condition. Having said all this very religious people are not usually equipped or willing to reflect freely upon the existence of God or the value of religion as if the subject matters were too dangerous for them to even consider – indeed as if a road to hell later or some form of inquisition now were the outcome of such moral deviance. It is somewhat hard to believe that rational men and women, many of them living with their times, can lead lives according to old scriptures so they feel better about the way they conduct themselves in the 21st century and can in doing so hang on to some feeling of fleshless immortality while visiting earth. In the meantime most people in Western Europe for sure, including notional believers, simply do not think in their daily lives about God or religion, these being by and large secular while usually not being formally atheist individuals (many would like the comfortable definition of “deist” that provides a sense of rationality boosted by minimal hedging), indeed happy to take Pascal’s bet that in the end “and usually right at the end” there is little to risk in finally believing in God – something the Horsemen or Musketeers would nobly reject preferring being whole and clear in their own full beliefs…in man and life “now”.

The book is a great read on many very interesting and challenging topics beyond the one of God’s existence and is an invitation to deal wth great minds even if the key subject matter could be summed up in a few words. Religion is based on faith and not on evidence or facts so if faith is not a good enough ingredient or driver for the rational mind then religion has no basis to be taken seriously. There is no need for a long book and a quasi-theological journey to disprove religion if faith is deemed to be too thin a burden a proof to the Cartesian mind. In many ways and with all due respect to the believers, the more one thinks the less one will believe – unless one is attracted by mysteries and indeed mysticism and is happy to let go any search for evidence. Having said all that, what matters is that everybody is happy and that believers and atheists happily coexist in mutual respect.

So much to think about…if one is willing, “in good faith” that is.

One cannot indeed write a Book Note like this one in April 2019 and not having a respectful thought for Notre Dame de Paris. The famed cathedral that was built and finished in 1345 was a prime example of the beauty that religion brought to the Parisians, not to mention humanity, throughout history as one of the greatest architectural contributions of the Catholic Church. Believers from all religions and non-believers stand together in the face of such a loss that touches us all, including doubtless the Musketeers. As star philosopher, Bernard-Henri Lévy a.k.a. BHL put it Notre Dame was (and still is as the firefighters did a master job) “a treasure of civilisation, for those who believe and those who don’t” – a symbol of the Europe of civilisations…of grandeur and softness”. The House of God for many, the symbol of French identity for many others, often both for the former. And well beyond religion an iconic historical and cultural testimony the world over.              

Warmest regards,

Serge  

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