by Robert Wright

As my week of guest blogging ends, I want to excerpt a few more reader emails on the subject I’ve spent much of my time blogging on: the “new atheism”. But first I want to say that I hope I haven’t antagonized too many new (or old) atheists. I have no beef with atheism per se. In fact, as one reviewer at a prominent atheist website noted, the historical stretches of my new book The Evolution of Godabout 95 percent of the bookare atheist-friendly; they trace developments in religious thought to material causes and tend to weaken claims of special revelation. (It’s the other five percent that, from an atheist point of view, is the problem.).

Now, I do have a beef with what one Dish reader helpfully labeled “anti-theism”. Anti-theism is easily conflated with atheism because it is championed by so many vocal atheists these days. I’ve personally tried to avoid that conflation by describing  anti-theism as characteristic of "new atheism" but not intrinsic to atheism. In other words: New Atheism = Atheism + Anti-theism.


But that formulation, in attributing anti-theism to all prominent new atheists, may be too simple, as one Dish reader’s email suggests:  

[I]n the writings of Dennett and Dawkins specifically, there are plenty of disclaimers clarifying that they don't mean to suggest that all religion is equally dangerous, and in the introduction to The God Delusion Dawkins specifically makes clear that he's addressing religion of the hard-core, Biblically-literalist, creationist, dominionist-trending sort.  You can hammer Dawkins over the use of the word virus rather than meme -- which are essentially interchangeable in his writings about the spread of ideas -- but doing so is to miss the forest for the trees, psychoanalyzing one word rather than turning to the writer's full text and history to try to clarify his meaning. 

There’s some truth to this; I’m certainly no Dawkins scholar. Still, whatever disclaimers Dawkins makes, he does seem to subscribe to what I believe is the fundamental confusion of many anti-theists: the idea that religion is the cause of conflicts that involve religion. That’s the presupposition of his assertion that if it weren’t for religion there would be no Israeli-Palestinian conflicta belief that strikes me as dangerously naïve for reasons I’ve spelled out elsewhere.

Regarding my argument that Dawkins and Dennett are tendentious in using the term “virus” for religious belief, a reader writes:

Has anyone considered the possibility that the use of the term "virus" to describe religion has been taken up not to illustrate the harmful effect of religion but rather to parallel the use of the term "computer virus" to describe those bits of code that command computer to spread copies of themselves?  In 1976, it might have been a stretch to call religion a virus, because at that time, the only example of a virus was a DNA/RNA-based biochemical one.  Thirty years and a computer revolution later, everyone has an expanded sense of what the word virus can mean, and the metaphorical extension of the word is helpful in clarifying the logic of the situation.  And most of us are aware that not all computer viruses are harmful, that some are just playful.  So when I hear religion referred to as a virus of the mind, my assumption is not that religion is being described as harmful, but that it is able to command successfully its own replication.

Actually, I think computer users overwhelmingly think of viruses as bad things. But, intriguingly, the same reader adds:

I suggest doing a Google search on "spread virally".   Most of the hits seems to be about non-harmful replication of ideas.  I don't think that the term "virus" as it is used these days has the negative connotations that Wright thinks it does.

This is a better example of a usage with non-negative connotations--though, interestingly (and I’m not sure what to make of this) it’s the adjectival form“viral”--that here has the most positive connotations. If you describe a marketing technique that spreads virally as a “virus,” it seems to me to then acquire a dollop of negativity.

Another reader writes:

Dawkins is first and foremost an evolutionary biologist.  His strong opinions on the existence of god flow from his extensive knowledge of biology and genetics, not the other way around.  When Dawkins came up with his "meme" idea thirty-some years ago it was not conceived as a tool to bash religion with.  It's an analogy between how genes propagate through populations and how ideas propagate in and between the minds of people.  Any ideas.  My point is that when Dawkins says a meme is like a virus, he's not just name-calling.  He really means that it is like a virus in some specific details - i.e., how it propagates through the population.

I guess my point is that both Dawkins (in The Blind Watchmaker and The Selfish Gene) and Dennett (in Breaking The Spell - an entire book about this specific topic) consider the effects of religion on society in great depth.  They both readily acknowledge the many positive aspects of religion.  I'm not sure where Robert is quoting the "virus" statements from, but he makes it seem like this is a term they are throwing around willy-nilly without context.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Of course, the big point that any atheist worth his salt will always bring up now, and which every apologist will try to twist away from by changing the subject, is that whether religion has positive effects on individuals or society tells us nothing about whether god exists.

Point taken. But it also works the other way around: Some atheists, having concluded that religion is wrong in the sense of mistaken, move too easily to the conclusion that it’s wrong in the sense of having bad effects.

OK, enough Godtalk. Let's close with some Dogtalk. I give you Frazier, a dog so cute as to constitute a one-animal argument for the existence of God. If you'd like to be Dog's best friend, here's where you start.    

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