DD: I don’t remember. But I have a whole chapter [on] this subject in my forthcoming book, Godforsaken.
Slate: The idea that “the world would be better off without religion” seems like a modern one. What are the factors that led us to question its merits?
DD: The immediate driving forces of so-called new atheism are 9/11, the rise of Islamic terrorism, and the fact that we're living in a kind of information revolution—a further stage of the scientific and technological revolution. [These factors have] produced this idea that religion is not only mistaken but also dangerous, hence the 9/11 side. [They have also] produced the idea that science can explain everything, can give a full account of the world.
Slate: Why are we having the debate now?
DD: The atheists are getting restless. They thought they were winning. If you went to college between 1968 and 1985, the basic idea was that the world was automatically becoming more secular. Why? Because as people become more affluent, modern, and scientific they automatically turn away from God. The vanguard example of this is Europe. But it turns out that the European experience is a peculiarity. America has not gone the way of Europe, and nowhere in the rest of the world is anything like this happening at all. Religiosity in the rest of the world has nothing to do with modernization. Christianity is the fastest-growing religion in the world, Islam is the second. It's spreading in Asia, Africa, and South America. So the world is in a kind of religious revival, and the atheists are totally flummoxed. They thought they were winning, and now they see that they aren't. Now they are becoming more aggressive in those precincts where they are powerful.
Slate: What would a world without religion be like? Las Vegas?
DD: A world without religion would not represent Las Vegas at all, and here's why. The whole appeal of Las Vegas is as a sort of naughty, sinful contract with the rest of staid America. So Las Vegas has this appeal because there is a Peoria, Illinois. That allows people to run ads that say things like, “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” i.e., we are the really naughty bad boys of America. Remember now that this whole point of being the naughty bad boy is dependent on everybody else being a good boy. In other words, you can't play the truant or the troublemaker if everyone else is not playing straight. So Las Vegas can pretend to be an escape from the rest of America, only because the rest of America is not Las Vegas. Let’s imagine that all of America was like Las Vegas. There would be nothing distinctive about Vegas. I don't think it represents secular society. It represents a sort of an attempt at creating an adult Disneyland, a fantasy enclave within a largely nonsecular surrounding country.
Slate: So if not Vegas, where can we find a truly secular, nonreligious society? You spoke before about the increasing secularization of Europe.
DD: Europe is not secular. Europe is drenched in Christian history. Christian morality is embedded in the bones of Europe. For example, if there was a big famine tomorrow in Rwanda, most of the countries in the world would just keep doing what they're doing. The universal point of view is that we owe things to our siblings and our neighbors. But we owe nothing to the stranger. But if there was a famine in Rwanda tomorrow, all of the Western countries would be in a big hubbub. Then suddenly you'd have the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, church groups, and even atheists writing checks. This is all the effect of 2,000 years of Christian morality.
For a truly secular society, we should look to Stalin's Russia or Mao's China. But that's the tip of the iceberg. Within Russia alone, there’s a 70-year history that began with Lenin and Stalin but continued through Khrushchev and Brezhnev and Chernenko. Outside of the Soviet Union there was Ceaușescu, Kim Jong Il, Fidel Castro, and Pol Pot. The result [of these societies] has inevitably been repression, totalitarianism, persecution of the churches, and just a miserable society. And they are still with us—some of the most miserable outposts in the world are North Korea and Cuba.