Response to Theodore Dalrymple

November 5, 2007

First, let me confess that I have long enjoyed Theodore Dalrymple’s writing. This only became an inconvenience yesterday, in fact, when I learned that Dalrymple had subjected my first book, The End of Faith, to especially malicious treatment in the pages of this magazine. I hope readers of City Journal will believe me when I say that it’s not every day I discover a writer whom I admire vilifying me in print. But there was Dalrymple, denouncing me for my “sloppiness and lack of intellectual scruple,” for my “assumption of certainty where there is none,” and for my “adolescent shrillness and intolerance.” As if these weren’t deficiencies enough, Dalrymple went on to declare me both a “sinister” person and the author of “quite possibly the most disgraceful” sentences ever written by “a man posing as a rationalist.” Where, I wonder, will Dalrymple be when I need my next blurb?

Beyond simply hating my book, Dalrymple seems to imagine that he has exposed me for what I am: not merely a fraud, and a lazy thinker, but a genocidal maniac. On Dalrymple’s reading, everyone who liked The End of Faith—my editor at Norton, the critics who favorably reviewed it, the deluded souls at the PEN America Foundation who awarded it their prize for nonfiction in 2005—must have simply skipped the chapter where I recommend that we murder millions of innocent people for thought crimes. Granted, the few sentences that Dalrymple lifted from my book with forensic care, like bloody fingerprints, seem alarming when viewed out of context. Indeed, I appreciated this liability when I wrote them. I am very happy to report, however, that no devout Christian, Muslim, or Jew—many of whom detested The End of Faith—has had the gall to excerpt these sentences and intentionally mislead readers the way Dalrymple has. His summary of my views is among the least honest I have come across, and his criticism of the “new atheist” bestsellers the least enlightening. This is more of an accomplishment, in fact, than it may appear. The race to the bottom has been fast and furious.

Needless to say, Dalrymple is not the first critic to respond to Dennett, Dawkins, Hitchens, and me as though we were a single person with four heads. He is not the first to claim, somewhat paradoxically, that our criticism of religion goes much too far without, he is sorry to report, going so far as to say anything new. He is not the first professed “atheist” to suggest that, while he can get along just fine without an imaginary friend, most human beings will always need to delude themselves about God—nor is he the first to fail to see just how condescending and unimaginative one must be to believe such a thing about the rest of humanity. Dalymple is, however, the first in one respect: he is the first writer to claim that he could have produced every argument found in the “new atheist” books (“with the possible exception of Dennett’s”) by the tender age of 14. I do not doubt this for a moment—though this leaves me wondering how many blows to the head Dalrymple has suffered in the intervening years.

In lieu of answering our arguments against faith—in lieu, even, of noticing them—Dalrymple simply misses the point of our books outright. He misses it petulantly at first, but his obliviousness to matters of substance soon swells to something like exultation. He then delivers what he clearly imagines to be the killing blow, comparing our misbegotten work to a few religious meditations he deems especially profound. Perhaps it was meant as a further insult to us that he sought to convey the invidious gulf between the “new atheists” and certain “Anglican divines of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries” by furnishing the readers of this journal with some of the most banal religious meanderings ever recorded. But I fear there is not this much method in Dalrymple’s madness. The man appears simply lost. He sees neither what is worst about religion, nor what is best, with anything like clarity. It’s a pity we don’t have the 14-year-old Dalrymple to reckon with. Then we all might have learned something.

Theodore Dalrymple responds:

I understand why Mr. Harris feels strongly about the way in which I expressed myself, and perhaps I was a little intemperate, in which case I apologize.

There seem to me three main points to discuss. First, the existence of God; second, the actual historical record of organized religion; third, the metaphysical difficulties of human existence without God.

The arguments for and against the existence of God are by now pretty well rehearsed, and I do not think that any of the new atheists (I call them that because their books came out at about the same time) add anything much to them. They are not entirely to blame for this: it would take a very great philosopher to do so. I certainly have nothing new to say on the matter.

Second, the historiography of religion employed by most of these authors, though admittedly not by Daniel Dennett, is one of bringing up only damning evidence. This does not seem to me to be an honest appraisal of religion’s role in human history, but one that is emotionally parti pris and fundamentally intolerant. It would be possible to write a history of medicine using only the stupidity and ignorance of doctors, and the harm that they had done, as material; but that would not be the history of medicine in its entirety.

Third, the metaphysical difficulties of human existence are considerable, and I do not think the abandonment of religion would make things any easier. Many people would find the reverse to be true.

Finally, with regard to Mr. Harris’s statement that it may be ethical to kill people with certain (unspecified) ideas: for myself, I fear the likelihood of mission creep. I cannot help recalling the wise words of a great British judge, Lord Mansfield, who said in the eighteenth century that so long as an act remains in bare intention alone it is not punishable by our law. Killing people for their thoughts alone is not a recipe for anything except bloody disaster.