“Let’s teach our children from a very young age about the story of the universe and its incredible richness and beauty. It is already so much more glorious and awesome — and even comforting — than anything offered by any scripture or God concept I know.” (Carolyn Porco, astronomer)

After four centuries of growing tension, the battle lines between secularism and religion have sharpened, owing in large measure to the efforts of Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins. Determined to reduce religion to the ash heap of Dark Age superstition, the crusading troika delivered four flaming arrows this year.

In Breaking the Spell, Daniel Dennett set out to defang religion with statements like this: "Everything we value — from sugar and sex and money to music and love and religion — we value for reasons. Lying behind, and distinct from, our reasons are evolutionary reasons, free-floating rationales that have been endorsed by natural selection."

By presenting religion as an outcome of evolutionary development, rather than as a framework about ultimate reality, Dennett hopes to “break the spell” of our religious enchantment. Come to think of it — since Dennett’s beliefs about religion are, likewise, the products of evolution, maybe he’ll disabuse us of those as well — but I wouldn’t count on it.

In October, Sam Harris’ book Letter to a Christian Nation became a New York Times bestseller. Harris, who after September 11 authored The End of Faith — a jeremiad against religion — discussed his latest work with NPR, insisting that religion was irrational and dangerous, and that faith had no place in a country founded on reason (The last time this writer checked, the founding document of our country mentioned something about rights that are endowed by a Creator).

Early this year Richard Dawkins produced The Root of All Evil — a film that places all the world’s horrors squarely on the doorsteps of the church, synagogue, and temple. Presumably, Mr. Dawkins skipped class the week they covered the social consequences of Stalin, Khrushchev, Mao Tse-tung, and Pol Pot — all anti-religious regimes, by the way.

Most recently, Dawkins issued a clarion call to arms with his book, The God Delusion. Convinced that there are far more atheists out there than meets the eye, Dawkins aims to embolden the silent throng with nothing less than atheist pride: “You can be an atheist who is happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled... Being an atheist is nothing to be apologetic about. On the contrary, it is something to be proud of, standing tall to face the far horizon, for atheism nearly always indicates a healthy independence of mind and, indeed, a healthy mind.”

Independence? Sure. Healthy? Only if you consider the greater incidence of suicide among atheists as healthy. But perhaps Dawkins’ most quixotic hope is that “If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.” Now that’s what I call a passion for proselytizing.

Clearly Dennett, Harris, and Dawkins are unsettled that three centuries of enlightenment have failed to rout religion from the cultural landscape. Their concerns are well founded. For today, two hundred years after the goddess of Reason was enthroned in Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral, there are over 5.5 billion religious adherents in a world whose populace is less than 3 percent atheist.

While the three firebrands of militant naturalism are trying to convert the masses through a take-no-prisoners stratagem, others are suggesting an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” approach — well, sort of.