The shallow arguments against religion that refuse to die

A billboard in America promoting atheism (AP Photo/The Capital Times, Rich Rygh)

Why bother to read a book with the title Dangerous Illusions: How Religion Deprives Us of Happiness (Arcadia Books)? The short answer is that it landed on my desk; the longer answer is that I was curious to see what arguments the author, Vitaly Malkin, had constructed to persuade the reader of his provocative thesis. It proved to be hard work.

Malkin, of whom we are informed by the blurb, is a Russian businessman, formerly a physicist, banker and senator, now an investor, traveller and philanthropist, lacks atheist Richard Dawkins’ ability to convey the beauty of the natural world or Christopher Hitchens’ powerful prose style. The result is a remorseless mixture of miscellaneous quotations from authors he approves of, such as Freud, Nietzsche, Hitchens and Bertrand Russell, combined with his own uninspiring reflections, born of anger against all religions and an entirely reductive approach to human nature.

His chapter titles tell us much: Reason or Chimeras (Malkin’s word for the monstrous imposition of religious illusions on men’s minds); Hello Death, Our First Step towards Heaven; The Unbearable Joy of Suffering; Sex is God’s Greatest Enemy; the Crusade Against Onanism and so on. Inevitably, given the author’s private crusade against religious belief, he makes no distinction between the three monotheistic ones and does not recognise that Judaism and Christianity share inseparable theological and historical roots or that Islam should be seen as distinct from them.

Malkin is like one of those tiresome people who accost you in a bar, who have done wide but undirected private reading, yet who have never been challenged by any rigorous intellectual discipline in an area, in this case theology or comparative religions, that would bring their rambling arguments up short and force them to see that almost all their conclusions are plain wrong.

Thus he can make unsupported general statements such as that religious chimeras “have been torturing humanity for thousands of years”; “The opposite of reason is faith”; “Religious wars were unknown to paganism”; “Scientists and philosophers are confident that consciousness dies with the person”; “Psychiatrists mention that [sexual] abstinence destroys people’s minds” without any understanding that these are unoriginal opinions that have been refuted countless times before his own mission: to inform us that happiness comes from accepting we are “a perfect biological machine with an incomparable mind” or that “common sense” and our own experiences are all we have or need to rely on.

Malkin makes fleeting references to a personal deity he approves of: a “Creator God” who respects the human intellect, who is the “centre of light and warmth” and who is “the fire” (presumably behind human inventiveness and energy.) He approves of Gnosticism, which tolerated “all people whether they believed in Christ or not” and thinks the “true Christians were the Cathars “who chanted love and denied any possibility of revenge, murder or war.”

Malkin, like a latter-day Voltaire but without the wit, demands that we “crush the infamy” of the religious chimera. In particular, his own brand of atheism leads him to ruthlessly mock human sexuality. The result is a series of graphic illustrations (in a lavishly produced book) of degraded sexual acts. They remind one, if nothing else in this turgid volume does, that when you remove true nobility, self-sacrifice and love of others from the human equation, this may be all you are left with.