The Emperor’s New Nakedness

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Two decades ago, I wrote a book proposal for a volume to be titled The Atheist’s Bible. It was embraced by a major publishing house but not by my wife, who worried that such a book, appearing in the Age of Endarkenment then known as the Reagan administration, might well subject our children to ostracism, verbal abuse, and possibly even physical risk. I backed down, returned the advance, and have regretted it ever since.

That is my sole discomfort vis-à-vis the New Atheists: Envy. They have said, and said magnificently, pretty much what I wanted to but didn’t. I’m not surprised at the criticism heaped on these courageous thinkers and effective writers by the theological establishment and their academic and political enablers. But I am a bit perplexed at the response by certain others, including those who profess to share their views. Maybe they’re envious too, but can’t admit it. Maybe they worry about injuring the delicate sensibilities of our religious brethren and sistern. Maybe they would simply prefer a kinder and gentler atheism, to match the kinder and gentler religiosity that still animates at least some—maybe even most—of our fellow citizens.

I really don’t know.

One thing I do know, however, is that the alleged criticism of the New Atheists that I have seen has been remarkably devoid of substance, thereby comparing unfavorably to The God Delusion, Breaking the Spell, God is Not Great, and The End of Faith, each of which spelled out numerous, specific, and detailed criticisms of the currently regnant theological poppycock. The New Atheists, it seems to me, have outraged the religious establishment by following the lead of the child who sees the Emperor parading along in his alleged new clothes. They have had the effrontery to announce that He is naked, whereupon the critics complain that the boy doesn’t appreciate His detailed theological embroidery, hasn’t adequately studied the intricacy of invisible clothmaking, or invested the requisite years of hard-headed analysis required to understand why apparent nakedness is actually a special kind of ultra-sophisticated vestment.

We have a curious compact of silence here in the United States, or at least we did prior to the arising of the New Atheists. Were someone to announce a blatant absurdity (the Earth is flat, she has been abducted and inseminated by space aliens, etc.), she would be subjected to extreme doubt, often scorn. But claim that Mohammed ascended to heaven on the back of a winged horse, or that Jesus did so without a comparable equine assist, and you must be respected. Why? Because it’s your religion. That settles it.

How impertinent of those New Atheists to treat such claims with skepticism! How disrespectful to suggest that religious claims can and should be scrutinized just like any other pronouncements! How uncouth to speak of these things in anything other than a knowing and admiring whisper!

Thus, it is somehow naïve to point out that there is no evidence whatever for the existence of a soul, immortal or otherwise, that nearly every supposed factual claim in the Bible is either unverifiable or verifiably ridiculous, on a par with the Tibetan Buddhist insistence that the head of the embalmed body of the 13th Dalai Lama, which had been facing south-east, had suddenly and mysteriously turned to face the northeast, thereby pointing to the direction in which his successor (the 14th and current Dalai Lama) would be found. And so forth.

To point out such absurdities is, once again, to be “naïve,” crass, or ill-bred. Such people, we are told, should leave high-falutin’ theologically meaningful analyses to those who best understand them, who know the Magic Abracadabra and have plumbed the Mysteries. They should join the crowd, speak only in hushed tones, and, if they cannot bring themselves to admire the Emperor’s finery, at least have the good manners to keep quiet.

Reminds me of the story attributed to James Mill, who supposedly took aside his son, the brilliant seven-year-old John Stuart, and told him: “In fact, there is no god,” and then whispered: “But it’s a family secret.”

In Hans Christian Andersen’s original story, a child cries out “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”—a taunt that is mirthfully taken up by the Emperor’s subjects. Of course, this hasn’t happened as yet to the cries of the New Atheists (but perhaps we should recall Chou en-Lai’s response when asked his assessment of the impact of the French Revolution: “It’s too early to tell”). I suppose Andersen’s story would have been more realistic if the Emperor’s courtiers had simply told the child to be good and shut up.

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