The Four Horsemen: The Conversation That Sparked an Atheist Revolution

The rise of the "New Atheist" movement.

Jun 16, 2022
Dimitris Passas

You don't have to boast a PhD or have read Thomas à Kempis, the Qur'an, the Book of Mormon and the teachings of Siddhartha (or indeed On the Origins of Species and Principia Mathematica) to be able to take part in such wrangling and disputation. But boy, isn't it wonderful when you can eavesdrop on four who have". (Foreword by Stephen Fry)

In the dawn of 21st century, a collective of intellectuals from a variety of scientific fields introduced the so-called "New Atheist" movement, a school of thought that aimed to criticize the irrational fundamentalist and dogmatic claims of religion of any kind, and argued in favor of the scientific method in order for man to get closer to what is true. It was through the publication of five books, written by the four founders of this new faction, that took place between the years 2004 and 2007 that the New Atheism acquired its own distinctive voice and made its arguments explicit to the public. These books were The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris, Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great. The four of them were nicknamed "The Four Horsemen", a term coined by journalist Gary Wolfe in 2006, and in this book the reader gets the opportunity to witness the proceedings of the one and only conversation that they conducted all four of them together. It took place in September 30, 2007 in C. Hitchens' apartment in Washington and lasted two hours. The Four Horsemen: The Conversation That Sparked an Atheist Revolution contains the transcription of the discussion along with a foreword note by the prolific English author of Mythos and Heroes, Stephen Fry, and three short articles that prelude the transcript, written by Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett.

It is necessary to tell a bit more about the stature of the four individuals participating in this heated debate as to put the text in its proper context. Richard Dawkins is the world-renowned evolutionary biologist and author of several books such as The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker in which he attacks the cornerstone foundations of the deist notions of creationism and intelligent design, rejecting any form of metaphysical sense concerning the explanational paradigms we use to understand the world around us. Dawkins is deemed a rather controversial academic and his work has been severely judged by the devotees of monotheistic religions, especially Christianism. Sam Harris, an neuroscientist and philosopher, has provoked massive reactions from Christian readers with his book The End of Faith that forced him to write a response to the criticism in the subsequent Letter to a Christian Nation. In both books, the American author attempts, with a cool head, to explain in the simplest possible terms his views on critical aspects of the religious phenomenon and stresses the link between religion and violence. Daniel Dennett is a popular American philosophy, mostly known for his work in the fields of evolutionary biology and cognitive science. He has studied under Gilbert Ryle, a prominent representative of British ordinary language philosophers, in Oxford and his 2006 book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon became one of the milestones for the emerging New Atheist school of thought. Christopher Hitchens, a vocal antitheist who died of esophageal cancer in 2011, was perhaps the most daring member of the closed-knit group, author of the God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything and the last addition in the Four Horsemen who until then were called the "Three Musketeers" by the critics.

The book begins with Stephen Fry's wit and cunning in a short introduction that succeeds in making the reader all the more eager to observe this deliberation on different dimensions of religion. He also points out that the New Atheist movement was not a detached, purely scholarly club pondering on an entirely theoretical level counter-arguments that deconstruct the concepts of an omnipotent deity and grand designs, and other principal theist beliefs. The work of the four actors of the conversation, that is divided into two parts, has had an effect on the minds of the simple people: "Sitting on these dialogues by Dawkins, Harris, Dennett and Hitchens reminds us that open enquiry, free thinking and the unfettered exchange of ideas yield real and tangible fruit". As I mentioned above, the actual discussion is preceded by three small articles that, in a way, prepare the reader in order to more thoroughly grasp even the smallest nuances in a dense dialogue that has no chairman or predetermined agenda, thus flows naturally and follows the cerebral rhythm of the four subjects. I found Dawkins's brief treatise on hubris and humility as it appears in both religion and science particularly interesting as in the few pages, the author lets loose his ideas on the hubristic arrogance of theism and the difference of the notion of ignorance between the two -opposing?- modes of thinking. Dawkins argues that the religious claim that the world can be comprehended in its entirety solely by the means of the faith in a supernatural entity is profoundly irrational and immature. On the contrary, science is more candid regarding its own ignorance and accepts it as a part of the living world: "The frank admission of how much we don't know (...) is the very antithesis of hubristic arrogance".

Dawkins also claims that there is a profound intellectual courage to be found in atheism in the sense that "atheists have the intellectual courage to accept reality for what it is: wonderfully and shockingly explicable". What religion proclaims as humility is nothing but a guised form of arrogance that is manifested through putting the individual on the center of the whole vast universe. In world created by a mighty God, there is no room for doubt or incomprehension. On the other hand, as Sam Harris clearly puts it: "there is no discourse that enforces humility more rigorously than science (...) we're most candid about the scope of our own ignorance". The battle between science and religion as two radically opposing ways of reaching out to the truth is ever-present during the discussion with the Horsemen advocating in favor of rational explanation, the power of evidence and the infallible scientific method of knowing things. Metaphysics is dismissed as made-up, fictitious little stories that aim to provide comfort and hope to the believer. Every a priori claim and ex-cathedra pronouncement is deemed invalid. The scientific lifestyle, however, with the embracement of its own inadequacy suggests another worldview and life stance: "You must face up to life, to moral decisions (...) You have company: warm, human arms around you, and a legacy of culture which has built up not only scientific knowledge (...) but also art, music, the rule of law and a civilized discourse on morals". In Nietzschean terms, the atheist looks the abyss in the eye and is not scared by an absence of an inherent grand plan for the world. In that way, he learns to appreciate humanity with all of its weakness that often becomes source of inspiration for major works of arts and science.

In the beginning of their debate, all four of the participants, mention their problems with the external critique to their works and the tendency of their adversaries to feel deeply offended by their claims. As D. Dennett says: "The religions have contrived to make it impossible to disagree with them critically without being rude". Defending their intentions, they underline their respect to the religious people and even express their admiration for some of the aesthetic achievements of religion. They also emphasize on their aversion to desecration and profanity which are both treated as enemies to their cause that is not to totally eradicate faith and close down each and every church in every corner of the globe. Rather, they recognize that there are some ranges of experience and domains such as the sacred that have become sole responsibility of religion over the course of history. S. Harris says: "I think there is a range of experience that's rare and is only talked about -without obvious qualms- in religious discourse (...) People can have self-transcending experiences and religion seems to be the only game in town when talking about these experiences and dignifying them". Moreover, at the final pages of the second part R. Dawkins argues about the vast historical and cultural significance of the Bible for all humanity: "Because you cannot understand literature without knowing the Bible. You can't understand art, you can't understand music, there are all sorts of things you can't understand for historical reasons (...) And so aven if you don't actually go to church and pray, you've got to understand what it meant to people to pray, and why they did it, and what these verses in the Bible meant". Thus, the Horsement do not wish to frivolously exempt religion from all its social functions, but rather to exercise a gentle, nevertheless sharp, critique on the philosophical and theological underpinnings of faith and religion.

The broad topic is the good old "Science Vs. Religion" much-debated antagonism that have been active throughout the course of centuries and remains an inflammatory subject even today for a fair share of the public opinion. The Horsemen are all well aware of the potential as well as the limitations of scientific procedure and method, but they can't accept the supernatural "truth" based on pre-conceived ideas about the divine creation and the providence. They support a secular view on morality, independent of rules given from above, and they endorse an ethical perspective that elevates the importance of the individual as an agent of free will. They treat religion as being inextricably linked with totalitarianism and the idea of an absolute authority, an omnipotent, all-knowing creator who is responsible for the formulation of the universe as a whole. During the discussion, the meticulous reader will be able to observe some minor, or sometimes more significant discrepancies, between the views of the members of the group on certain issues. We can also witness the differences in temperament between the four participants with Christopher Hitchens being the most impulsive and explosive actor in the dialogue, while Sam Harris plays the role of the "good cop", the one who calms down the rest and attempts to achieve a better understanding of the major points in the criticism directed toward the Horsemen. There are also moments of self-reflection where the four individuals try to clarify their intentions in regards to the main objectives of the New Atheist movement: Do they truly wish to see a world in which faith has been completely eradicated?

The Four Horsemen is a fast read as it mainly consists of the discussion between the four Horsemen that conjures up several crucial questions which however remain eventually unanswered or at least underdeveloped. In many parts, I had the sense that the Horsemen changed the subject too abruptly leaving the reader wonder about the conclusion of their last enquiry. There are a lot of enticing thoughts and ideas flying around, I advise you to keep notes while reading, but the limited length of the conversation doesn't allow the in-depth exploration of some topics that should be more consistently analyzed. It is an optimal choice for those who are not familiar with the Horsemen's individual work and it should prompt you to learn more about important contemporary figures in philosophy and science such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. I have to admit that I've been waiting something more, something that would give me food for thought regarding the weaknesses of the religious ontology, but in the end I had the sense that I've read a discussion that I have been already read. It should be noted that you can find the video recording of this discussion free on youtube here:

The Four Horsemen HD: Part 1

The Four Horsemen HD: Part 2

To conclude, this is a book that will appeal to those who are interested in the subjects of philosophy and religion and it can be easily understood by the common layman as the participants don't show off their academic knowledge, but rather wish to communicate ideas in their simplest form in order to make the ordinary folk to rethink their place in the world.


The Four Horsemen: The Conversation That Sparked an Atheist Revolution
Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Stephen Fry (Foreword)
Random House

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