The best-selling atheistic manifestoes by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens are now in the paperback phase of their remarkable cultural tour. Affordable editions of Dawkins’s The God Delusion, Harris’s The End of Faith (and Letter to a Christian Nation), and Hitchens’s God Is Not Great will soon show up not only on beach blankets but also on college-course reading lists.
Do they merit the attention of college students? Perhaps their depictions of the poisonous effects of religious faith will remain instructive and entertaining. But beyond that do they have any lasting intellectual or religious significance?
Other readers will have their own responses. I have to confess my own disappointment at the popularity of these books. It’s not that my own livelihood, that of a Catholic theologian, is in peril—although the authors in question might fervently wish that were the case. Nor is it that the new atheistic tracts consist mostly of breezy generalizations that would exasperate most scholars of religion.
Rather, it is that these celebrated works are so unchallenging theologically. Unlike the classical atheism of a Nietzsche, Feuerbach, Marx, Camus, Sartre, and even Freud—a body of criticism that still commands the attention of religious thinkers—the new atheistic provocations are as theologically limp as the...