Some excerpts from another atheistic critic of atheistic critics:
The Celestial Teapot
by James Wood
The End of Faith starts well and then becomes a bit predictable, because it begins to follow the rules of its rather thin genre. Letter to a Christian Nation, which is an open letter to the many Christians who wrote to Harris in complaint, is even thinner.
Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not a Christian made a great initial impact on me when I was a teenager--it was like seeing someone in the nude, for the first time--until I began to get bored with its self-exposure. Russell complaining that Jesus was not a moral teacher, that he was really rather a bad example because he threw the money lenders out of the temples and cursed the fig tree, seemed somehow a little undignified. Russell is reliably at his least philosophical when he is at his most atheistical.
The genre tends to proceed thus: the atheist must first remove all possible respect from religious belief. The tone is a little perky, and lively thought-experiments bloom. They go a bit like this: if I told you that President Bush prays every day to his vacuum cleaner, you would judge him insane. But why is there any evidence that the God he prays to exists? It is fun, knockabout. Harris likes to compare belief in God with belief in Wotan or Zeus: "Can you prove that Zeus does not exist? Of course not. And yet, just imagine if we lived in a society where people spent tens of billions of dollars of their personal income each year propitiating the gods of Mount Olympus."
The model is Bertrand Russell's "celestial teapot," gleefully quoted by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion. If, says Russell, I told you that a celestial teapot was orbiting the sun but that you could not see it, nobody would be able to disprove me; "but if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense." God is like the teapot, we are supposed to infer. Dawkins uses Russell to argue that we cannot prove God's non-existence, but then we cannot prove anything's non-existence. "What matters," writes Dawkins, "is not whether God is disprovable (he isn't), but whether his existence is probable.... Some undisprovable things are sensibly judged far less probable than other undisprovable things."
I agree with Dawkins's conclusion, and consider God highly improbable, but I dislike the way he gets there. It seems to occur neither to him nor to Russell that belief in God is not like belief in a teapot. The referent--the content of the belief--matters here.
This brand of public atheism is very good at the necessary disrespecting of religion, and it has a properly hygienic function. But how worthy of respect is it itself? The problem is that its bright certainty about the utter silliness of religion leads very quickly away from philosophy and argument. There is a dismaying gap, in these books, between the righteous anger of the critique of the many absurdities of religious belief and the attempts to account for why people have believed this apparent nonsense for so many centuries. I would rather that these writers refrained from speculation altogether than plunge into their flimsy anthropological kit bag. It is peculiar indeed to read Dawkins's eloquent pages on evolution, and on how evolution may in the end solve the question of who created us, and then to find that very evolutionary theory being applied in the most hypothetical, rampantly unscientific ways to the question of why we have believed in God for so long.
For Dawkins, it may all be explained by our evolutionary need to fall in love, or perhaps by our childish need to have a big friend. At the same time, we have also evolved a HADD, a "hyperactive agent detection device": "we hyperactively detect agents where there are none, and this makes us suspect malice or benignity where, in fact, nature is only indifferent." (Daniel Dennett is also fond of the argument from HADD.) Dawkins's example of this tendency is a moment in Fawlty Towers when John Cleese's car breaks down. Cleese, drunk with HADD, one supposes, starts thrashing his car to death. Dawkins truly appears to think that this high-table guffawing will do as an explanation of why thousands of generations have been drawn to believe in God. And mystical experience of the divine does not detain him, either. We have evolved superb "simulation software in the brain," which is "especially adept at constructing faces and voices.... It is well capable of constructing 'visions' and 'visitations' of the utmost veridical power. To simulate a ghost or an angel or a Virgin Mary would be child's play to software of this sophistication." And he concludes: "That is really all that needs to be said about personal 'experiences' of gods or other religious phenomena." Evolutionary biologists never seem happier than when they are talking about humans as crafty but malfunctioning computers, with "toolkits" and "menus" and "software." The possibility that this might itself be a mad "vision," an example of a highly evolved Oxonian computer on the blink, does not occur to Dawkins's own simulation software.
These are not easy questions, then, but the jauntily unphilosophical way in which most popular atheistic writing simply ignores the Wittgensteinian dilemmas is disappointing, and explains why its explanations of the sources of religious belief are so jejune.
Sam Harris gets himself into a telling knot in The End of Faith, when he attempts to float a kind of vaguely Eastern, vaguely New Agey form of meditation. (The dirty secret of that book is that Harris turns out to be a Buddhist.) He dislikes having to use words like "spirituality" and "mysticism" because they have "unfortunate associations." But use them he does, explaining that mystical meditation makes us happy and is good for us, and suggesting that we should do it from time to time. Of course, he thus falls into the very consequentialism that he dislikes in some religious discourse (the kind that says that you should believe in order not to be sinful). Perhaps realizing this, he explains that his kind of mysticism "is a rational enterprise. Religion is not." He continues:
“The mystic has recognized something about the nature of consciousness prior to thought, and this recognition is susceptible to rational discussion. The mystic has reasons for what he believes, and these reasons are empirical. The roiling mystery of the world can be analyzed with concepts (this is science), or it can be experienced free of concepts (this is mysticism). Religion is nothing more than bad concepts held in place of good ones for all time. It is the denial--at once full of hope and full of fear--of the vastitude of human ignorance.”
But this rational mysticism seems a pretty poor substitute for the grandeurs of religious mysticism, however one judges the latter's empirical content. Harris is welcome to sit on his floor and get off on his Buddhism; I'll go and sit in a cathedral.