Is atheism an emotion

Free University of Berlin

There was not enough space: after the audience in the lecture hall had already taken the stairs, a second hall had to be opened. The organizers had hardly expected this rush when they invited the British biologist Richard Dawkins to the ruined lecture hall of the Berlin Charité in October 2007. The presentation of his book critical of religion the God Delusion became a crowd puller. Last but not least, the audience dodged into the exhibition halls of the neighboring Medical History Museum: There they stood between wet and dry anatomical specimens and the technical achievements of modern medical history and listened reverently over loudspeakers to Dawkins' plea against belief in God, against any form of Religion and especially against creationism. It seemed as if Richard Dawkins had a home game on this subject in Berlin - sometimes referred to as the capital of atheism. His work became a bestseller on the German book market, and he appeared on German television with Johannes B. Kerner and Sandra Maischberger.

Criticism of religion as a crowd puller

In his book the God Delusion Dawkins argues that any form of belief in God is irrational and that religions have seriously negative effects on society. With scientific and philosophical arguments he tries nothing less than a demonstration against the existence of God. In doing so, he distributes against religious hardliners as well as against religious-moderate forces: He accuses them of giving the fundamentalists a cover by insisting that religious belief per se is something good and worth protecting, which should be tolerated and not criticized may be. The reactions came promptly: There was a violent, emotionally charged controversy surrounding his book among the German public. Critics like the Protestant theologian Friedrich Wilhelm Graf described Dawkins as a "biologistic hate preacher". Others, like the atheist religion critic Joachim Kahl, accused him of lacking knowledge of the history of religion, overestimating himself and arrogance.

In Germany, however, it was less perceived that Dawkins' work critical of religion was not an isolated case: In the English-speaking world, in which his book was first published, there was a real handover of those critical of religion during the second term in office of US President George W. Bush Books on the bestseller lists: Neurobiologist Sam Harris started it off in 2004 The End of Faith (German: The end of faith, 2007). Two years later - almost at the same time as Richard Dawkins' work - the book came out Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (German Breaking the spell: religion as a natural phenomenon, 2008) by the well-known philosopher and cognitive researcher Daniel Dennett into bookstores. A year later, Christopher Hitchens, journalist and well-known provocateur in the English-speaking media world, published his counterpart that was critical of religion under the pointed title God is not great. How Religion Poisons Everything (German: The Lord is not a shepherd. How religion poisons the world, 2007). Like Dawkins' book, these religiously critical bestsellers sparked wide media coverage, be it in the print media, on the Internet or on television. All of the well-known US daily newspapers and magazines conducted interviews with the four authors or dedicated articles to them, including extensive editorials and covers. The time accumulation of writings critical of religion and their content parallels prompted newspaper commentators to summarize this phenomenon under the catchy label “New Atheism”. The books also found their echo in the universities, where the discussion of the theses and arguments of these four so-called New Atheists was conducted with great passion. It is interesting that the criticism was not only expressed from the theological side, that is, from the academic representatives of the religions. Historians and philosophers alike positioned themselves, who also often characterized themselves as atheistic and critical of religion. The soundboard on which the writings of the authors Harris, Dennett, Dawkins and Hitchens fell is already shown by the enormous amount of skeptical reviews: The number of books by their critics exceeds that of the "New Atheists" by fifteen times in the USA alone.

Old wine in new bottles?

When these four books critical of religion were received, it was often asked whether the “New Atheists” were not just offering old wine in new bottles. Ironically, the authors had never claimed this title for themselves. As often as the handy label was used - it remained a foreign name. Harris, Dennett, Dawkins and Hitchens characterize themselves as atheists, as infidels, as godless, as secular humanists or as so-called brights - none of them calls themselves a "new atheist". Against this background, one could rightly ask whether the characterization of the authors as “new atheists”, combined with the accusation that there is nothing new to be found here, is primarily a rhetorical trick. Voices critical of religion are neither new nor are they an exception in the history of religion - they are rather the rule. On the one hand, however, a distinction must be made between internal and interreligious criticism and, on the other hand, an atheistic criticism of religion that is applied to religions from outside. Within the religious communities, the question of the central beliefs was and is present and repeatedly gives rise to passionate discussions and sharp criticism. Different answers to this question lead to internal religious differentiation or even to divisions. The Protestant Reformation is arguably the most prominent example in the Western context. We should also remember Buddhism as a critical response to Hinduism. In this sense, the entire history of religion can be understood as a continuous criticism between different religious communities. Here, however, the framework of religion is not broken. Criticism of religion does not necessarily mean a rejection of religion in principle.

The situation is different with atheistic criticism of religion. Atheism, derived from the Greek átheos, “godless”, is the denial of the existence of God or gods - and thus the decisive basis of most religions. Of course, it is controversial at what point in time it is possible to speak of an explicitly atheistic criticism of religion: According to some views, atheism is a very late and very isolated product of the Age of Enlightenment; others, however, assume that atheism already existed in antiquity. A radical atheist criticism of religion can certainly be found in Paul Henri Thiry d’Holbach (Le christianisme dévoilé, 1761; System de la nature, 1770). 

The theses of the "New Atheists"

From this thinker, who explicitly sees himself as an atheist, - to name just a few outstanding representatives of atheist criticism of religion - through Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Jean-Paul Sartre and Bertrand Russell, there is a continuity of atheist criticism of religion up to the present day to recognize the so-called "New Atheists". In view of the numerous counter-reports and the strong media reception, the question arises as to which arguments, theses and formulations critical of religion, Harris, Dennett, Dawkins and Hitchens offer. In their four books, in addition to differences, broad correspondences can also be found in terms of content: Based on a naturalistic worldview, they largely reject religious statements and claims. This applies above all to the question of the existence of God or of gods. As expected, the professing wicked give a negative answer. But not only when it comes to the question of God, in their opinion, religions simply say the untruth. Looking at religious stories in the Bible or the Koran, they doubt the resurrection of Jesus or the virginity of Mary, as well as the prophet Muhammad's ascension to heaven. For them these are all myths, far from any historical verifiability. But the questions of religious truth are not as decisive for the "new atheists" as the dangerousness of religion. Again and again they point out that religions are risky, they “poison” society (Hitchens) and, especially in view of the attacks of September 11, 2001 in the USA, represent the main danger for peaceful coexistence on our planet. A few key words for this are: religion as the main reason for conflicts and wars, religion as the reason for the suppression of female sexuality and homosexuality, religion as "child abuse" (Dawkins). With these strong references, they oppose all those who see religion as something positive for the cohesion of society or in it the sole source of morality and values.

Even if they fundamentally and comprehensively reject religion and may not see any function in it for society: They are confronted with the simple fact that there have been and are religions all over the world and at all times. How is this problem solved argumentatively? Thoughts about the origins of the phenomenon of religion are frequently encountered. Of course, they do not consider the gods as the origin of religion. So the view of religion as a "natural phenomenon" (Dennett) remains, which - for example as a by-product of other evolutionary mechanisms - arose in the course of human evolution.

Open atheism and political demands

Often there are calls to atheist readers to profess an open or binding atheism, to come out publicly in analogy to the gay movement. Against the background that an overwhelming majority of US citizens state that they do not want to elect an atheist to the White House, this coming-out appeal is particularly polarizing and explosive. These calls are - which is often overlooked - to be understood primarily with regard to American society: All four “New Atheists” emphasize that they wrote their books for an American audience - and not so much as a scientific treatise , but as a sociopolitical pamphlet. Dawkins even advocates forming atheist lobby groups modeled on evangelicals in order to influence politics. It is interesting in this context that all of the “new atheists” refer to the constitution of the United States of America, in which the separation of state and religion is enshrined. You vehemently warn against the influence of Christian lobby groups on the politics of President George W. Bush and see it as a violation of the constitution. In this regard, the four books grasp the American self-image as one Christian Nation an - a self-image that was increasingly publicly discussed, especially during the presidency of George W. Bush.

But the four protagonists are not limited to appeals and warnings. There are clear tendencies to organize oneself politically and in this way to gain social influence and to contribute to the spread of atheistic ideas: This is the goal pursued by those founded by Dawkins in 2006, for example Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science and the foundation created by Harris in 2008 The Reason Project. But also the offensive public appearances are to be evaluated in this sense, be it individually as talk show guests or together in a video that shows the four “New Atheists” literally at the fireplace chat on the subject of “God and the World” - and under the title The Four Horsemen has appeared. An obvious allusion to the four horsemen of the apocalypse, who in the Christian Revelation of John usher in the end of the world.

More media coverage in the USA

The tailoring of the books to US circumstances raises the question of why Dawkins - and to a lesser extent his three colleagues - received such waves of attention in Germany. Because at the same time as the translations of the “New Atheists”, writings critical of religion by German-speaking authors came onto the book market: Ulrich Beck and Peter Sloterdijk should be mentioned here as well as the journalist Robert Misik with his book God forbid Why we have to keep religion out of politics and Michael Schmidt-Salomon, author of the atheistic children's book Where are you going to God? asked the little piglet, which the Federal Ministry of Family Affairs wanted to put on the list of media harmful to young people because of alleged anti-Semitism. Like the reactions to Dawkins' bestseller, the heated debates sparked by this ultimately rejected application for a ban show the mood of a society that is confronted with fundamental questions: What should the adequate relationship between belief and knowledge, between religion and politics look like? What significance do religious communities have for the common good? And: how far can criticism go? Can there be areas in an open society that remain outside of criticism?