Theodore Dalrymple: What the New Atheists Don’t See

Theodore Dalrymple on the “New Atheists“:

Lying not far beneath the surface of all the neo-atheist books is the kind of historiography that many of us adopted in our hormone-disturbed adolescence, furious at the discovery that our parents sometimes told lies and violated their own precepts and rules. It can be summed up in Christopher Hitchens’s drumbeat in God Is Not Great: “Religion spoils everything.”

What? The Saint Matthew Passion? The Cathedral of Chartres? The emblematic religious person in these books seems to be a Glasgow Airport bomber—a type unrepresentative of Muslims, let alone communicants of the poor old Church of England. It is surely not news, except to someone so ignorant that he probably wouldn’t be interested in these books in the first place, that religious conflict has often been murderous and that religious people have committed hideous atrocities. But so have secularists and atheists, and though they have had less time to prove their mettle in this area, they have proved it amply. If religious belief is not synonymous with good behavior, neither is absence of belief, to put it mildly.

In fact, one can write the history of anything as a chronicle of crime and folly. Science and technology spoil everything: without trains and IG Farben, no Auschwitz; without transistor radios and mass-produced machetes, no Rwandan genocide. First you decide what you hate, and then you gather evidence for its hatefulness. Since man is a fallen creature (I use the term metaphorically rather than in its religious sense), there is always much to find.

The thinness of the new atheism is evident in its approach to our civilization, which until recently was religious to its core. To regret religion is, in fact, to regret our civilization and its monuments, its achievements, and its legacy. And in my own view, the absence of religious faith, provided that such faith is not murderously intolerant, can have a deleterious effect upon human character and personality. If you empty the world of purpose, make it one of brute fact alone, you empty it (for many people, at any rate) of reasons for gratitude, and a sense of gratitude is necessary for both happiness and decency. For what can soon, and all too easily, replace gratitude is a sense of entitlement. Without gratitude, it is hard to appreciate, or be satisfied with, what you have: and life will become an existential shopping spree that no product satisfies.


#1 null on 11.03.07 at 1:53 am

Concise and beautiful.

#2 Antish on 11.03.07 at 5:13 pm

“The thinness of the new atheism is evident in its approach to our civilization, which until recently was religious to its core.”

Depends on what you mean by “our civilisation”. Most of the Greeks who founded High European civilisation it weren’t especially religious, nor the Romans. “Our civilisation” as Europeans know it today began in the Rennaissance with a decisive breaking-free from dogma. The much older (and arguably more sophisticated) “our civilisation” of China wasn’t especially religious either.

#3 Touchstone on 11.04.07 at 11:05 pm

Atheist arguments would be more plausible if they concentrated on criticising the incoherence of ‘holy texts’ and the superstition and dogma which plagues religion, rather than criticising the behaviour of those with religious belief.

#4 Cinna on 11.05.07 at 3:15 am

As those with religious belief justify their behaviour with their religious belief it’s very reasonable grounds to criticise it.
What are the differences between superstition, dogma and religion?

#5 Andrew Reynolds on 11.05.07 at 12:43 pm

Atheism, being the belief that there is no God, is just as much a religion as any other. To be certain it is correct you would need positive proof of the negative – that there definitely is no God. Given that vastly more people have died in the name of atheism over the last century I would say its track record is just as bad, if not worse, than other religions.
It is in what religions teach, rather than the body count, that they should be understood and judged.

#6 Cinna on 11.05.07 at 9:11 pm

Atheism is the lack of belief there is a god, actually. Even if your definition was accepted, which people have “died in the name of atheism”? What are the rites and rituals of the Church of God Nonexistent? As the body count is a consequence of what religions teach it’s a pretty good way to judge them.

#7 Bruce on 11.07.07 at 5:51 pm

I’ve found this article by Dalrymple to be flat out dishonest and I believe that Muslims (as well as anyone else) navigating the modern world would be mislead by it.

I hope I’m not being too presumptuous, but I’ve posted a response about it here (which really would have been too long for a comments thread).



#8 Bruce on 11.07.07 at 8:07 pm


Atheism, being the belief that there is no God, is just as much a religion as any other.

Strawman. Atheism in its most common form is “no belief in God”, not a “belief in no God”. There is an important epistemological differences that differentiate the two (weak from strong atheism – the latter a lot rarer) that has been popularly recognised by atheists for rather a long time now.

It is a far better thing to do to represent the epistemology and views of a group, rather than to make them up in lieu of investigation. I suggest in future that when disclosing the views and thinking of atheists, you check what they actually think first. It saves a lot of embarrassment.

But back on the subject;

“Having no belief in God is just as much a religion as not collecting stamps is a hobby.” (I paraphrase) is the phrase that’s done the rounds of atheist forums and newsgroups for the better part of two decades.

As for the hard atheists (“belief in no God”), I guess you could call them religious after a fashion. You won’t get much disagreement from me on that. But again, they are a minority of atheists and attributing their views to the majority of atheists is like attributing Young Earth Creationism as a view to the majority of Australian Christians who don’t buy into it.

“Given that vastly more people have died in the name of atheism over the last century…”

You can demonstrate a theory of atheism that mandates killing anyone? Given your less than accurate representation of something as basic as what atheism actually is, I’m sorry but I rather doubt it.

Don’t take it personally, but having seen “killed in the name of atheism” pop up as a meme over and over again, each and every time during the past couple of decades without any evidence of a causal link between the two*, I’m skeptical of your claim being any different.


* And inductive fallacies such as correlation=causation, or guilt by association don’t count as evidence.

#9 Bruce on 11.07.07 at 8:08 pm

Apologies for typos and singular/plural confusion.

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