The terrorist attacks of 9/11 changed the world. There is little doubt about it. Apart from the two wars that followed, and the huge impact on security and international politics, it brought the attention of religious fundamentalism in the Western society. This pushed some secular intellectuals to be more open and frontal in their criticism of religion. Between 2004 and 2007, four books came out to become bestsellers: The End of Faith, by Sam Harris; The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins; God is not Great, by Christopher Hitchens; and Breaking the Spell, by Daniel Dennett. The four men participated in many debates during their book tours, which made them the most prominent figures of the New Atheism movement.
During September 2007, the four of them met at Hitch’s house in Washington DC. They recorded a two-hour conversation—the video can be seen here. And more than eleven years later, on the 14th of February 2019, the transcript of the conversation has finally been published as a book—The Four Horsemen: The discussion that sparked an atheist revolution. It seems that Ayaan Hirsi Ali was supposed to attend the meeting as well but had to cancel at the last minute.
They focus the conversation, obviously, on religion. But they touch on a range of topic within religion. They discuss arrogance—a typical criticism that they receive—and offence, remarking that there is probably nothing more arrogant than to think that you are doing God’s work. They also talk about the literality of scripture and the space between theologians and the masses. They discuss authority in religion and science, highlighting how in the latter there is always competition. They wonder whether criticising religion could actually be a bad thing to do. And they finalise arguing whether some religions are worse than others.
The conversation is great especially if one is familiar with the different topics that they debate. Of the four, Sam and Hitch are the ones I have read the most. It is great, for instance, to see how Sam introduces the concept of spirituality without religion: “I think there is a place for the sacred in our lives, but under some construal that doesn’t presuppose any bullshit“. This would be a book several years later. Or to see Hitch talking about the many debates and conversations he has had with religious people, and being reluctant to say that he would wish that religion would disappear because he would have nobody to debate.
While reading the book one wishes that the conversation would have lasted twice or three times as much. Or more. This cannot be repeated—Hitch died seven years ago—but at least we get to relive it. Maybe too informal at time—this is a conversation among friends, not a debate—the only shame is that they did not spend more time on topics that they disagree. But it is overall a fantastic conversation that anyone with a slight interest in religion should read.