I have always thought that the New Atheists, including Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, were missing something logically in their arguments. I finally figured it out tonight.
Both Dawkins and Hitchens want an end to religion, which they see as pathological. Hitchens himself once said that it was time for humans to let go of these "stone age myths" and evolve. The problem for me is that I thought I had heard that argument before. And I had--in the work of the 18th century philosophes. (I'll get to that in a minute.)
Here's the problem: the New Atheists believe that moral behavior comes from human evolution, not religious training (or the God represented in that training). The idea is that certain human traits, like empathy or cooperativeness (or even philosophical logic), are part of the genetic inheritance and lead to moral behavior on their own, without the training of religion. However, the problem is that these traits will vary in human beings. Science has made it clear that humans differ in the amount and distribution of their traits, and that these are chemical phenomena. Studies have shown that traits like risk taking vary across genders, for example.
If we assume that genetic traits like empathy and cooperativeness are related to moral or ethical behavior, we then have a problem. Traits differ in people, and, like everything else in the natural world, they most likely fall along a Gaussian distribution--a normal curve. Some people will be very empathetic, for example, while, at the other end of the scale, you'll have your sociopaths. In between will be the rest of us with varying degrees of empathy, with some more empathetic and some a great deal less. If this trait is related to moral behavior, then relying strictly on the genetic endowment does not offer a stable outcome for a moral society, or even a halfway moral one.
In other words, evolution, based on the genetic endowment, is not a reasonable substitute for religious/moral training in childhood. Yet, the New Atheists speak as if religion just needs to be removed from society and everyone will be much better people. Of course, these atheists completely disregard the moral training provided by parents--especially mothers--on an hourly basis to their children. But I realized that the New Atheists remind me of Jean Jacques Rousseau. an 18th century philosophe. Remember his "man is born free, but is everywhere in chains"? The New Atheists feel that religion is the chains, that, if removed, would immediately let out the good person (via genetic endowment). However, Rousseau's Enlightenment era argument that the removal of cultural constraints would lead to the pure, good human being--the noble savage--was shown to be greatly mistaken. If you remember the Wolf Boy from Aveyron France (1799), the finding of this young pre-teen greatly challenged the idea of the noble savage. Put out by his parents, the baby boy was picked up by a wolf pack and was raised by them. When researchers found the boy, he was biologically human but culturally a wolf. He was not some superior human, but an animal with no language or recognizably human behaviors.
The New Atheists have the same problem as the Enlightenment philosophes: if they take away religion, they will not get a more noble human with more moral behavior. They will get a human trained by something other than religion: the public school, the media, the internet, etc. (our 21st century wolves). In other words, if the New Atheists get what they want, they will be replacing God the Father with god the state/popular culture. Perhaps that is their end goal.