The Four Horsemen: The Conversation That Sparked an Atheist Revolution

four horsemen.jpg

Anyone who’s ever gone down a Christopher Hitchens rabbit-hole on YouTube - and there are far, far more such people in the world than most people in the world would readily admit (among other things, for instance, that rabbit-hole is almost solely responsible for the entirety of YouTube’s vast, sprawling roster of rabidly sexist and xenophobic “rational” atheist channels) will instantly recognize not only the title of this new little book but also its exact provenance. In September of 2007, the four leading lights of the so-called New Atheist movement then in vogue, Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell), Sam Harris (The End of Faith), and Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great), met in Hitchens’ Washington, D.C. apartment and had a long on-camera talk about atheism and organized religion.

Every self-respecting Hitchens fan has watched that video at least once, and now those fans, surely this book’s target audience, have a handsome keepsake volume of that conversation. The Four Horsemen has a Foreword by Hitchens’ friend Stephen Fry, introductory reminiscences by Dennett, Dawkins, and Harris, and footnotes running throughout to provide quick glosses on the various terms and names dropped throughout the two hours of talk.

Dawkins strikes his customary high evangelical note in his essay:

As an atheist, you abandon your imaginary friend, you forgo the comforting props of a celestial father figure to bail you out of trouble. You are going to die, and you’ll never see your dead loved ones again. There’s no holy book to tell you what to do, tell you what’s right or wrong. You are an intellectual adult. You must face up to life, to moral decisions. But there is dignity in that grown-up courage. You stand tall and face into the keen wind of reality.

Dennett dives deep into the intricacies of his positions (and spares a mention of Hitchens only to the extent of disagreeing with him), Harris, writing about the depredations of the Zika virus, manages to signal the same prickly hubris that characterizes his books:

In the absence of God, we find true sources of hope and consolation. Art, literature, sport, philosophy - along with other forms of creativity and contemplation - do not require ignorance or lies to be enjoyed. And then there is science - which, apart from its intrinsic rewards, will be the true source of mercy in the present case. When a vaccine or a cure for Zika is finally found, preventing untold misery and death, will the faithful thank God for it?

The dialogue is reproduced here without editorial intervention; there are no stage directions to help newcomers picture the interpersonal dynamics at play. Some of it can be (you’ll pardon the term) divined from the transcript: Dawkins’ smooth pedagogical attempts to balance the talk and keep it moving, Harris’ cool intellectual reserve and subtle bossiness, Dennett’s courteous bonhomie, Hitchens’ voluble discourse, but the subtleties of the interplay, particularly as the talk goes on (in the video, the light lengthens and then lessens in the apartment), are missing from these pages. There’s a written record of all the name-dropping Dawkins and particularly Hitchens do throughout, but there’s no feel of its reality. Likewise the subtle mental fencing match that sometimes breaks out between Hitchens and Harris, and also the tinny tone that appears when Hitchens strikes a note the others find too absolutist even for that table:

HITCHENS: No, … I don’t have a difference of opinion with the jihadist.

HARRIS: Well, you do, in terms of the legitimacy of their project.

HITCHENS: No, not really. There’s nothing to argue about with that. I mean, there it’s a simple matter: I want them to be extirpated. That’s a purely primate response with me - recognizing the need to destroy an enemy in order to assure my own survival. I have no interest at all in what they think. We haven’t yet come to your question about Islam, but I have no interest at all in what jihadists think. I’m only interested in refining methods of destroying them. A task for which, by the way, one gets very little secular support.

The natural pang of reading a book like this is of course that there can be only one. As all the participants point out in these pages, one resounding voice in the quartet is now gone, and the New Atheist movement itself has somewhat petered out - it’s extremely unlikely that it will field four simultaneous bestsellers again in our lifetime, and there’s an undeniable magic in this gathering, even on paper.

—Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is