In defence of faith
A.J. Philip

The Delusion Of Disbelief
David Aikman. Tyndale House Publishers. Pages 250. $16.50.

The Delusion Of DisbeliefATHEISM is as old as Charvaka maharshi whose philosophy focused on sense perception and matter. He propounded the theory that matter is the only reality and perception through the senses the only method of gaining knowledge. The all-encompassing Hinduism accepted atheism as another strand of faith like monotheism and polytheism. Few realise that Buddhism is essentially based on the belief that God is non-existent.

However, Semitic religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam cannot accept any thought that denies an all-merciful, all-knowing, all-controlling God called variously as Jehovah, Jesus and Allah. Their followers feel rattled when atheists try to rock the foundations of their belief systems, particularly when the so-called rationalist ideas are either half-baked or patently false.

When Princeton theologian Paul Ramsey said in 1966 that "ours is the first attempt in recorded history to build a culture upon the premise that God is dead," – the quote with which the book under review begins -- anybody who had heard about Brihaspati, a proto-atheist, would have had a hearty laugh.

The provocation for David Aikman was the publication in the US of four books that sought to undermine religious faith in 2006. They are Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, Breaking The Spell: Religion As A Natural Phenomenon by Daniel Dennet and God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens.

Thanks to some hard-selling techniques, they turned out to be bestsellers in their genre. With one of the publishers wanting every believer to read these books so that they stopped practising their faith, the author, a veteran journalist who reported from trouble spots the world over for Time magazine, read between the lines and saw a larger, though sinister, purpose in the attempt.

While the attack is against all religious belief systems, it is Christianity that gets the hardest knock. Aikman admits that his Biblical scholarship is inadequate to be an apologist. Yet, he is able to do a splendid job because the four authors were themselves ill-equipped to repudiate the historical validity and the moral value of Scripture, a la Arun Shourie, who relied on a couple of books to mount an assault on Christianity a few years ago.

It is easy for all of them living in the US to publish such books, become the toast of atheists and earn millions of dollars. They do not bother to ask why no atheist book has been published in any of the Islamic countries.

One of them, Christopher Hitchens, earned notoriety by doing a hatchet job on Mother Teresa using abusive terms like "the ghoul of Calcutta", "sinister", "fanatical", "an obscurantist" and "a demagogue" against her. Her crime: she did not check whether some of those who contributed money to the Sisters of Charity had fulfilled their income tax obligations.

The strategem the ‘New Atheists’, also called the ‘Fundamentalist Atheists’, have adopted is simple: pick up some verses at random from the Old Testament and claim that the Jewish and Christian God is cruel, revengeful and murderous. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac is "child abuse" and the "unfortunate Midianites" were the "victims of genocide in their own country".

Since Jesus Christ cannot be accused of endorsing violence as he voluntarily suffered crucifixion, an odd verse in the New Testament is chosen to claim that He, too, approved of the tyrannical laws of the Old Testament: "For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished". They overlook the fact that Jesus’ endorsement of the law is to enable him to build upon it. The dozens of amendments the Indian Constitution has undergone have not invalidated the original document adopted in 1950.

Once the cardinal faith is undermined, the next step is to claim that the believers have committed atrocities and mass murders in the name of faith, the crusades being a case in point. The final denunciation is in the claim that a religious person is a great threat to humanity. In between are efforts to draw upon Darwinism to claim that science has all the answers for all the questions that have been bothering mankind since it surfaced on the earth. The ultimate certificate for atheism is a quote or two of dubious origin from Albert Einstein.

Aikman has a quote which makes Einstein’s position doubly clear: "I’m not an atheist. I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but does not know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws".

Aikman marshals facts and figures to prove that atheist regimes like in the erstwhile USSR, Hitler’s Germany, North Korea, China and Cambodia were responsible for the killing of more people than those who were killed in the Crusades or at the stake. While the ‘New Atheists’ claim that it is possible to build a moral order without faith in the divine, the author argues forcefully, "atheism opens the door to life-destroying myths in a way that caused more misery in the 20th century than any other single fundamental worldview".

As regards the claim that the believers are dim-witted and dangerous, Aikman quotes Roy Hattersley, a self-confessed atheist: "We atheists have to accept that most believers are better human beings". He observed that "almost all" the aid groups that stayed on in Hurricane Katrina-ravaged parts of New Orleans long after the first wave of relief workers had left "have a religious origin and character". Ditto in the case of tsunami where organisations like Caritas, World Vision and that of Mata Amritanandamayi stayed on to help the affected people to rebuild their lives. Not one atheist body showed up there.

Yes, it is true that the trainee pilots who hijacked American aircraft to crash them into the World Trade Center towers in New York were inspired by religion but for every one of them there are millions of believers who condemn such acts and strive hard to make the world a better place to live in.

The devout Hindu who worships his favourite deity every day, the Muslim who goes to the mosque on Friday and the Christian who has his fellowship with the faithful on Sunday is less likely to be a threat to society than the godless who is answerable to none, not even his Creator. In this well-argued book David Aikman proves that "belief is, well, a far more intelligent way of looking at the universe than atheism". It is a commendable achievement for a journalist, who is new to apologetics.