Gentler Atheism

“In his new book Waking Up, neuroscientist and popular atheist Sam Harris recounts that ‘a feeling of peace came over me’ as he followed in Jesus’ footsteps on a hill by the Sea of Galilee, and it ‘soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts. In an instant, the sense of being a separate self—an ‘I’ or a ‘me’—vanished.’” David Skeel

A New Kinder, Gentler Atheism

Searching for the meaning and consolation offered by religion—but without bringing God into it.

David Skeel, The Wall Street Journal, October 24, 2014, p. A 11

In his new book “Waking Up,” neuroscientist and popular atheist Sam Harris recounts that “a feeling of peace came over me” as he followed in Jesus’ footsteps on a hill by the Sea of Galilee, and it “soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts. In an instant, the sense of being a separate self—an ‘I’ or a ‘me’—vanished.”

Mr. Harris doesn’t use religious terms, but his musings about meditating on a mountaintop have left some fans wondering what happened to the pugilistic author of “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation,” which declared that “faith is nothing more than the license religious people give to one another to keep believing when reasons fail.”

Mr. Harris isn’t the only one who has changed his tone. The atheist Richard Dawkins recently devoted an entire book, “The Magic of Reality,” to showing how scientific inquiry has made sense of the seemingly miraculous—from rainbows to the origins of the universe. The discoveries of science, Mr. Dawkins writes, offer as much wonder and life satisfaction as religious belief. The evolutionary biologist and atheist Olivia Judson calls “the knowledge that we evolved a source of solace and hope.”

Since when are these well-known atheists so concerned with consolation and connection, with solace and hope? Mr. Dawkins and his fellow atheists were famous for their zingers dismissing religion. The title of the late journalist and outspoken atheist Christopher Hitchens ’s 2007 book sums it up: “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.”

The kinder, gentler atheism echoes a striking shift in religious culture. Millennials—Americans born after 1980—were not even a gleam in their parents’ eyes in 1976 when Mr. Dawkins published “The Selfish Gene,” a textbook for the mainstream atheist movement. Millennials are a promising audience for atheists, as nearly a third of them are religiously unaffiliated (compared to 20% of all Americans, and 9% of those 65 and older), according to a 2012 Pew Research Center study. But millennials are much less interested in debates over evolutionary theory, which most see as settled, than in the puzzles of existence: Why do we experience beauty as transcendent and suffering as somehow wrong? What is our purpose?

In the past, atheists tended to dismiss the intangible sources of meaning in our lives, as when the Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson famously defined ethics as “an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate.” Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker suggested in his 1997 book “How the Mind Works” that our sense of beauty in nature is simply “the mechanism that drove our ancestors into suitable habitats.” The new popular atheism is taking these mysteries of consciousness much more seriously.

If a system of beliefs is true, or at least plausibly true, it should help its adherents to better navigate our world. This is why testimonials are so central to nearly every religion or system of thought. The Meditations of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius extolled the benefits of the ancient Stoics’ approach to living. Christians read Augustine ’s Confessions or the Biblical account of St. Paul’s defense of his faith before a Roman judge, and testify to one another about how their own conversion has transformed their lives. At a Jewish Passover, the youngest child prompts a collective testimonial by asking “What makes this night different than any other?”

Messrs. Harris and Dawkins and other atheists seem to have recognized the essential role of testimonials. Their recent books reflect this, as does a wave of other recent essays extolling the consolation and connection possible for an atheist. “You have to trust that your individual life is linked to something bigger,” as Kristin Dombek, a columnist for the trendy literary journal n+1, recently put it: “that you belong, body and soul, to a larger story for which you are responsible.”

So far the testimonials seem to be limited to a handful of atheist intellectuals in the West, but they could spread. Perhaps stories will soon pop up about how a reader in China pulled her life out of a ditch after reading “Waking Up,” or how a man in Africa was once blind but now sees thanks to the power of the atheist explanation of our existence.

Even those of us who doubt there will be a great atheist awakening, and are skeptical of atheistic attempts to explain what consciousness, beauty and our longing for justice mean, can agree that Messrs. Harris and Dawkins and their peers have taken an essential step. They are no longer simply trying to poke holes in the religious beliefs of ordinary Americans. They have now offered a testable claim: that an atheist theory of reality can offer the same consolation and connection that religion has provided from the beginning of human history.

Mr. Skeel is the author of “True Paradox: How Christianity Makes Sense of Our Complex World” (IVP Books, 2014).

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