When nineteen Muslims (most from Saudi Arabia) hijacked four planes simultaneously and used them to destroy the World Trade Center and a section of the Pentagon, they forced into the open a belief that many in the Western world had harbored since the 1980s; that being that there is a special connection between Islam and terrorism. Commentators on the right were quick to blame Islam. Commentators on the left were just as quick to say that Islam is a religion of peace; that the blame should be placed on the hate of fundamentalism.
After decades of the culture war in the United States over the teaching of evolution in public schools, some scientists saw little distinction between Islam and Christianity. All religions, they said, are delusions that prevent people from embracing science, secularism, and modernity. The horror of 9/11 motivated several of these scientists to write books.
The titles were combative, taking on the concept of a supreme being. The first one was Sam Harris’s The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, followed by Richard Dawkin’s The God Delusion, Daniel Dennet’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, and Christopher Hitchen’s God Is Not Great: How Religion Spoils Everything. Harris, Dawkin, and Dennet are scientists, while Hitchen was a journalist. Harris was a graduate of neuro-science, Dawkins a biologist, and Dennet a philosopher who had written widely on evolution. They each claimed to speak for science and exemplify the values of science — particularly such values as open-mindedness and its insistence that claims be grounded in reason and empirical evidence, not faith and emotion.
Harris: “Throughout this book, I am criticizing faith in its ordinary, scriptural sense — as belief in, and life orientation toward, certain historical and metaphysical propositions.” That said he examines what happens in people’s brains when people believe or disbelieve various propositions and justifies his focus on religious belief with this psychological claim: “Belief is a lever that, once pulled, moves almost everything in a person’s life.
Dawkins: Defining the “God Hypothesis” states that: “there exists a superhuman man, a supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.” Describing this a delusion he argues: “God, in a sense defined, is a delusion; and, as later chapters will show, a pernicious delusion.”
Dennett: Religions are “social systems whose participants avow a belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.”
In Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind, he states: ”To Dennett and Dawkins, religions are sets of memes that have undergone Darwinian selection. Like biological traits, religions are heritable, they mutate, and there is a selection among these mutations. The selection occurs not on the basis of the benefits religions confer upon individuals or groups but on the basis of their ability to survive and reproduce themselves. Some religions are better at hijacking the human mind, burrowing in deeply, and getting themselves transmitted to the next generation of host minds.”
Dennet proposes that religions survive because, like parasites, they make their hosts do things that are bad for themselves but good for the parasite. Dawkins describes religions as viruses. Just as a cold virus makes its host sneeze to spread itself, successful religions make their hosts expend precious resources to spread “infection.”
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