A book I remember vividly from school is George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” I remember thinking the book was gloomy, depressing, and foreboding. Looking back on it, I have changed my mind. It is still gloomy, depressing, and foreboding … but it is also insightful.
Among many disturbing ideas found in the book is the Big Lie Theory. The Big Lie Theory is based on two principles. First there is the “Black-White Principle.” Like so many Newspeak words created by Orwell, this word has two mutually-contradictory meanings. When applied to an opponent, it means the habit of impudently claiming that black is white, in contradiction of the plain facts. Second there is the concept of “Doublethink.” Doublethink is the act of ordinary people simultaneously accepting two mutually-contradictory beliefs as correct, often in distinct social contexts. Doublethink is notably due to a lack of cognitive dissonance on the part of the person doing the thinking. Thus, the person is completely unaware of any conflict or contradiction.
What makes the Big Lie Theory so disturbing is that it has been employed quite successfully by tyrants for thousands of years. Perhaps the greatest political figure in history to adapt and use the Big Lie Theory was Adolf Hitler. Hitler combined the art of skillfully telling lies with the power of repeating things and convinced an entire nation that racial hatred, violence, and genocide were good and proper actions necessary for growth and peace. Hitler’s primary rule was that people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one, and if a big lie is repeated often enough, people will sooner or later believe it. He convinced millions to believe these lies, and tens of millions died as a result. In recent times, Islamic terrorists continually used the Big Lie Theory to entice and win over converts by making them believe they are doing the world a favor by causing death, suffering, and destruction.
One of the watchwords and phrases to come about in the past few years is “New Atheism.” Though there is nothing new about atheism, this phrase came about around 2006 and was penned by Gary Wolf. Wolf, himself an atheist, wanted a clever slogan to be used when referring to a handful of new books that had recently been published touting the virtues of atheism over religion. One of these books was “The End of Faith,” written by Sam Harris, which was a rhetorical attack on religion in general. It should be noted that Harris was not largely concerned with defending atheism but rather with portraying all religion as dangerous and irrational. In Harris’ book, getting rid of all religion would result in human progress and social cohesion. The only problem with that is that it has never worked in the entire annals of history. Hitler tried to get rid of religion by relegating it to a minor role in his new social order. Lenin and Stalin made it illegal, with those who practiced any type of religious acts likely to be put to death or end up in a slave labor camp. Other failed governments, such as the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, have also tried to do away with religion. In all of these cases, no real progress was made in alleviating human suffering (in fact human suffering usually increased), and there was certainly no cohesion. In making this case, Mr. Harris and others (such as Danial Dennett and Richard Dawkings) cannot point to any single nationality, culture, or society in which the “human condition” was ever improved by removing religion.
Of course, this is not to say that everything done in the name of religion has been peaceful. However, as is often the fact, those who object to religion fail to comprehend that much of the cruelty and hatefulness done in the name of religion is also in stark contrast to the actual tenets of that religion. Medicine has been used as a means of torture and murder, but that doesn’t mean the practice of medicine is evil. Likewise, just because an act of violence or bigotry is done in the name of religion doesn’t mean that religion itself of evil.
Harris’ book was widely applauded by atheists because it openly attacked those who practice religion in the United States. Finally, they concluded, it was acceptable to be rude, vulgar, and outright hateful to anyone wishing to uphold his or her faith. In other words, Harris condoned acting in the same way for which he condemned others. However, in the book “Why God Won’t Go Away: Engaging the New Atheism” (2011), Alister McGrath, himself a former atheist, made this observation:
“His analysis of the question of religious violence is based on an alarmist rhetoric; excessive reliance on anecdote; an appeal to popular prejudice and predisposition rather than evidence-based analysis; and above all, a failure to engage with the massive scholarly research literature on religion. He presents a highly simplistic narrative that depicts religion as the cause of the world’s ills. (The weakest part of the book is a particularly unpersuasive section that invites us to believe that religion lies behind the USA’s problem with drugs.) Yet his analysis is so biased and inattentive to the evidence that many are left wondering if there’s a fatal disconnection here between rhetoric and reality.”
Scott Atran, a University of Michigan anthropologist, is one of several mainline scholars who has raised alarms about Harris’ work, referring to it as a “simplistic approach to what is clearly a complex issue.” If religion causes problems, it’s important to understand properly why this is so—otherwise the solutions offered will be worthless and possibly even counterproductive. Atran launched a frontal assault on the methodology of the New Atheism, declaring that:
“By ignoring the scholarly literature on religion, Harris and others were offering responses to religion that were ‘often scientifically baseless, psychologically uninformed, politically naive, and counterproductive.” http://edge.org/discourse/bb.html#atran2
Harris’ more recent attempts at authorship have generally produced results that are widely regarded as nothing more than second rate rhetorical ramblings. What Harris and others have succeeded in proving is that there is more to “Nineteen Eighty-Four” than many originally thought. The society imagined by George Orwell would be proud to embrace the actions of the New Atheism. In other words, say and write enough unfounded half-truths loud enough and long enough, making sure to cloak comments in hateful, bitter, self-contracting language, and you are sure to eventually convince others and create a following. Look at the world Orwell described in his book. This is the world that the New Atheists think is beneficial to humankind. Christians need to stand up and speak up now.
“But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear:” (I Peter 3:15 ASV)