A flurry of books bashing religion are making best-seller lists and grabbing a lot of attention — so much so that anti-religion publications seem to have become a lucrative genre all their own.
Works such as Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, Sam Harris' End of Faith, Michel Onfray's The Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam and Daniel Dennet's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon are bare-knuckled, no-holds barred tracts that sometimes resemble the declarations of fundamentalists who are absolutely convinced of their truth.
Hitchens and Dawkins, who are the leaders of the New Atheism movement, have received the most media spotlight and are driving the growth of this industry. Hitchens presented recently at Sydney's Festival of Dangerous Ideas and appeared on ABC TV's Q & A program. And Dawkins will headline next year's Atheist Convention in Melbourne.
These atheists are angry that religion has not gone away and is thriving in various parts of the world. After all, calling other peoples' belief a delusion is not exactly respectful. Indeed, distinguished doctor and broadcaster Lord Winston found Dawkins' attitude to religious faith patronising, insulting and counterproductive, noting that it "portrays science in a bad light".
Hitchens and Dawkins build a straw man — they select the worst offences that have been done in the name of religion to prove that religion is a dangerous force and a kind of virus that infects the mind. At one point Hitchens writes, "Religious belief is not merely false but also actually harmful. But I think it is a mistake to condescend to those who claim 'faith'."
Employing a new name, Dawkins says atheists should refer to themselves as "brights" labelling the devout as "dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads" while Hitchens describes the religious mind as "literal and limited".
According to Hitchens (who discovered two years ago that he is Jewish by way of his mother) the Jews could have been the "carriers of philosophy instead of arid monotheism". What about Spinoza, Wittgenstein, Isaiah Berlin, Derrida, Maimonides, Emmanuel Levinas, Martin Buber, Karl Popper, Walter Benjamin and Ayn Rand to name only a few. Does it seem like Judaism is bereft of philosophers? He writes of kosher dietary laws: "In microcosm, this apparently trivial fetish shows how religion and faith and superstition distort our whole picture of the world."
So, the bottom line for these atheists is this: we are free to believe in whatever as long as it's not God.
For Hitchens and co, religion does little good and secularism hardly any evil. Never mind that tyrants devoid of religion such as Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, Mao and Pol Pot perpetrated the worst atrocities in history. As H. Allen Orr, professor of biology at the University of Rochester, observed, the 20th century was an experiment in secularism that produced secular evil, responsible for the unprecedented murder of more than 100 million.
Dawkins is mute on the terrors unleashed by science and technology, used by genocidal regimes such as Hitler's Germany, in a century that proved to be the worst tyranny mankind has ever seen. And what about weapons of mass destruction such as nuclear and biological bombs developed by scientists?
Does that mean that all atheists and scientists are evil? Of course not. The point is that fanatics can be found in both religion and atheism.
How can anyone argue that not a single human benefit has resulted from religious faith? There are millions who every day selflessly dedicate their lives to helping others all in the name of religious belief. The cruelty and viciousness of the past and the abuse of religion in the present cannot extinguish the solidarity and good-heartedness of people of faith.
Most would agree with the words of former atheist, Oxford University professor of historical theology Alister McGrath, who said: "There are some forms of religion that are pathological, that damage people. For every one of these atrocities, which must cause all of us deep concern, there are 10,000 unreported acts of kindness, generosity, and so forth arising from religious commitment."
True religious values are grounded in notions of community, charity, mercy and peace. All too often today we focus on individualism, greed and instant gratification.
Anyone wishing to discredit theology should at least know some. The God Delusion contains very little examination of Jewish theology and dismisses the finest minds of Western thinkers and theologians who have written on sublime theological questions as "infantile".
Hitchens cites the Binding of Isaac and "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" injunction as brutish and stupid. Yet, scholars have interpreted the binding as ending child sacrifice and the injunction as a caution against excessive vengeance. Hitchens says that the God of Moses never refers to compassion and human friendship, overlooking "love your neighbour as yourself".
For his part, Dawkins is clearly out of his depth when it comes to Jewish teachings and ethics. He claims, for instance, that "love thy neighbour" meant only "love another Jew". He apparently is not aware that in the same chapter, Jews are commanded to love the stranger that lives in their land as they would themselves. When Jesus, himself a Jew, was asked "Who is my neighbour" he did not refer to other Jews, but to a Samaritan, considered at that time as heretical and unclean.
Above all, for Dawkins and his contemporaries, billions of people across the globe have accepted stupid and harmful ideas.
Yet that iconic scientist Einstein, believed that God represented a great mind that sustained the laws of nature. We know for sure that he was not stupid or delusional. He famously remarked, "God doesn't play with the universe" and noted, when referring to the extraordinary intricacies of the universe: "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science." Einstein believed that a humble, open-ended religious attitude to the cosmos was preferable to a completely non-religious approach.
Consider also that in A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking ends his brilliant book (which sold more than 8 million copies) with the following: "If we discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable by everyone, not just by a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason — for then we should know the mind of God."
Dawkins and Hitchens assume all believers accept the Bible literally, which in the case of the majority of Jews and other co-religionists, has never been true. Theologians have often questioned institutional religion and have criticised the use of rigid orthodoxy and demagoguery to instill fear and obedience. In fact, most who embrace religious faith at the same time also exercise a healthy dose of skepticism and do not defend the way religion is often manipulated and distorted. Very few follow religion blindly.
The telescope and the microscope that Hitchens says has made religion redundant, does not answer for us why we are here and what is the purpose of human existence. Atoms and black holes leave little space for expounding on the measure of man, sin, holiness, dignity and the human spirit, sorrow, beauty, love, alienation and mortality.
Dr Owen Anderson, professor of philosophy at Arizona State University, says the problem with the argument promoted by Hitchens and Dawkins when he asks: "Can all reality be explained as atoms in motion? Is belief in something besides atoms mere superstition?"
Tina Beatie in her book The New Atheists: The Twilight of Reason and the War of Religion maintains that atheists are engaged in religious belief themselves because naturalists as authors such as Dawkins and Hitchens use their own beliefs to invest their life with meaning. Ironic, isn't it?
Lord Winston agrees: "Think there is a body of scientific opinion from my scientific colleagues who seem to believe that science is the absolute truth and that religious and spiritual values are to be discounted.
"Some people, both scientists and religious people, deal with uncertainty by being certain. That is dangerous in the fundamentalists and it is dangerous in the fundamentalist scientists."
One has to concede that a something inexplicably mysterious took place at the birth of the universe. I read that several years ago, astronomers working with NASA concluded that time began 13.7 billion years ago, a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. At that instant, the universe expanded from "submicroscopic to astronomical size in the blink of an eye". The great mystery is why it would want to do that. Thomas Nagel, the philosopher notes that even if we accept evolution and that the necessary seed material was present at the time of the Big Bang, there is no scientific theory as to why the material existed in the first place, and how did such material come into existence.
All we have done is to keep pushing the great question one step back. World-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking put it best, "Why does the universe go to the bother of existing?"
Many would identify with the father who's compelled to believe in the divine when he notices the beauty and perfection of his daughter's ears. Hitchens mocks him, pointing out that ears always need a clean out, are mass-produced and cats have lovelier ears. A moment of pure love is missed.
Dawkins claims that religion is a form of child abuse since parents teach their kids to believe in certain religious creeds. Is it fair to compare real child abuse with parents instilling in their children religious morals and codes?
Dawkins and Hitchens celebrate art over religion, forgetting that the wonder and mystery of the universe and God's role in it have provided inspiration for countless artists. Michelangelo's Creation of Adam paintings at the Sistine Chapel is only one such example.
Dawkins remarks that the human brain is a "design nightmare". Well, since we use that organ to contemplate these and other complex subjects, it can't be that badly designed.
In his introduction to The God Delusion Dawkins states: "If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put if down."
I wonder for how many readers this is true.
Dr Dvir Abramovich, the Jan Randa Senior Lecturer in Jewish Studies is director of the Centre for Jewish History and Culture at The University of Melbourne. He is editor of the Australian Journal of Jewish Studies and President of the Australian Association of Jewish Studies. He is co-editor of the book Testifying to the Holocaust published in 2008.