Robert Wright’s faitheist manifesto

July 31, 2009 • 5:55 am

A couple of days ago I published a review in The New Republic of Robert Wright’s new book, The Evolution of God.  Although Wright claims that he doesn’t believe in God, the book was a very strange attempt to give people “evidence” for divinity in the world, with that divinity manifested as a “transcendent” force that pulls humanity towards ever-greater morality. (The increasing morality, which constituted the “evolution of God,” is, says Wright, a byproduct of increasing interaction between peoples, which required them to change their theologies in a manner that made them more inclusive.)

Wright’s effort was intended, I think, to give solace to people longing for affirmation of God’s existence (or its euphemism, what Wright slyly calls “a transcendent source of meaning”):  a way to let them know that there was still a divine purpose guiding the world, even if those vociferous and pesky atheists have attacked the notion of God as a bearded old man who answers prayers. I called The Evolution of God “chicken soup for the brain” — a way to show people who believe in God how they can still feel smart.

One of my friends, who saw Wright on television in conversation with Bill Moyers, allowed that Wright may have been affected by his Southern Baptist upbringing, so that, although he says he’s “not qualified” to pass judgment on God’s existence, the scent of faith still clings to him. Many faitheists have had a devoutly religious upbringing, and cannot bear to admit that what they wasted all those years on is complete bunko.

Today Wright has a bizarre essay in The New York Times online confirming that his upbringing produced his faitheistic belief that, whether or not God exists, religion is good for you.

Wright notes that despite rejecting his Baptist upbringing, he still is plagued by guilt and the longing for a sky-father to expiate it:

Which raises the question: If I no longer believe in a personal God, looking down and judging me, why do I still feel guilt over my wrongdoings and shortcomings? Why do I still want some father figure (a God, ideally, though a resurrected version of my dad would do) to pat me on the shoulder and tell me I’ve done O.K. and can now go play golf for a millennium or so? Is godlessness not, in fact, as some born-again atheists seem to promise, a path to happiness? And, anyway, where did this need for forgiveness and affirmation come from?

He suggest natural selection as one explanation, since it may have built the sense of conscience into the human psyche as a way of promoting harmonious societies.  Religion then came along to codify that conscience as an awareness of sin, but also as a way of giving absolution for that sin.  But this isn’t enough for Wright — he wants to think that, even if the traditional God doesn’t exist — the sin-and-absolution cycle is good:

But why, now that El Paso and Christianity are both in the rear view mirror, do I still feel that I could use a born-again experience? Why, if I don’t believe in heaven, do I still want something you could call salvation? . . . The sense I got back in El Paso was that salvation wasn’t just about taking the bath and believing in Christ. Sure, that was the technical pre-requisite for getting to heaven. But a thoroughgoing sense of salvation — a sense of being a truly good Christian — depended on, for example, pursuing a “calling,” finding the career path that allows you to do the most good for the world. . . Besides, it’s the sense of sin, the sense of human frailty, the deep Calvinist suspicion of yourself, that can keep the self-dramatization in check. Salvation, at the most abstract level, is the sense that you’re on the right side of the moral law, and the sense of sin is what keeps you not-quite-sure that you are.

There you have it.  Yes, you may be ridden with guilt about masturbating, having sex while unmarried, or not having gone to Mass, but it’s all good.  Religious belief helps us find meaningful jobs!  And religion keeps you moral!  What better statement of faitheism could there be?

Of course, there’s not the slightest evidence that the religious guilt/absolution cycle keeps us in line or makes us good. (Atheists also seem to have no trouble finding their “calling.”)  In fact, as I argue in my essay, there’s plenty of reasons to think the opposite — that those who reject God are just as moral as the faithful.  I’ve never seen any of the religion-defenders respond to this statement, though they continue to harp wearyingly on the need for faith as a wellspring of morality.

And, in the end, Wright can’t help claiming once again that religiously based morality is evidence for that “transcendent source of meaning,” his code language for “God.” (If you don’t think they’re equivalent, read how some reviewers interpreted the book.)

You can be an atheist and feel that there’s such a thing as right and wrong, and that you’ll try to align your life with this moral axis. In fact, I think you can make a sheerly intellectual, non-faith-based case that there is some such transcendent source of meaning, and even something you could call a moral order “out there.” I even think it’s fair to suspect that there’s a purpose unfolding on this planet, leaving aside the much tougher question of what’s behind the purpose.

But, for my money, there’s nothing quite like the idea that what’s behind that purpose is something that can approve or disapprove of you. It keeps you on your toes, and it keeps your life mattering, even when it’s only a feeling, and no longer a belief.

I ask Wright: if there’s nothing to justify “faith,” but if there’s still “transcendent meaning” out there, where does that “meaning” come from? Who’s running the show?

After I read The Evolution of God, I was puzzled at the attention it got from intellectuals like Bill Moyers, Andrew Sullivan, and now the New York Times.  His book is deeply confused; you don’t have to know much theology to see that his description of religion is tendentious at best; and his argument that the moral advance of society is evidence for God is simply wrong (there are plenty of alternative explanations for that advance).  But I am slowly realizing that faitheism runs deep, very deep.  Even atheist-intellectuals want to pat the faithful on the head: there’s a lot of mileage to be gained by attacking the “new atheists,” even if you share their feelings about God. It makes you look so nice, so friendly and inclusive. Indeed, some of the positive reviews of The Evolution of God have come from those who say that Wright’s arguments give believers “relief and intellectual ballast” against atheism.

I’m sorry, but if you’re an atheist it is simply condescending to tell people that their mistaken beliefs — beliefs with which you don’t agree — are just fine because, after all, even if you’re not going to heaven and God doesn’t hear your prayers, it’s good for you and society that you continue to hold these mistaken beliefs. It’s even more condescending — and cynical — for someone like Wright, who doesn’t accept God, to tell people that there’s “scientific evidence” for a “transcendent source of meaning” out there.  If that’s not God, what is it?

Finally, I’d like just one of these religion-coddlers to grapple honestly with the observation that, as the atheist bus slogan says,”You can be good without God.”**  Entire countries like Sweden and Denmark are atheistic and yet moral — indeed, more moral than the religion-ridden U.S.  These countries, and many like them, are not dysfunctional, despite the claim that we desperately need religion to shore up our society.  Don’t the smoothly-functioning societies of Sweden, France, and Denmark tell us that we don’t need religion?


**Apropos of this, the Indiana atheists just won their case in federal court to have this “controversial” (though undeniably true) slogan put on Bloomington buses.

96 thoughts on “Robert Wright’s faitheist manifesto

  1. So Wright admits that there is no god but he misses the safety of his mommy and daddy, so he looks for a sky daddy substitute (transcendence is such a stupid word) to justify his belief in belief.

    Well, I guess he is human, and his fears and ghosts are overwhelming to him. Too bad for him that he airs his silly fears and hope publicly.

    Prescription for Wright: Take two Daniel Dennett’s and then don’t call me in the morning.

  2. I completely agree with the point that this is condescending. In fact, its down right manipulative, in my opinion.

    We tell children (up to a certain point) about Santa Clause knowing fully well about its bankrupt reality. This is considered ok – in fact, it’s so commonplace that its considered good.

    Wright is basically telling adults that its ok to still believe in Santa Clause.

    1. Strangely enough, my daughter does not believe in god but still believes in Santa Clause and the tooth fairy for that matter (but I suspect she has ulterior mtives for those beliefs)

  3. What if it’s a basic need that humans have to do good, and a basic tendency, if in doubt, to accept a simpler explanation over a more complicated one? If that’s even anywhere near the truth, I wouldn’t want to blame anyone for that. (I’m not saying that anyone is doing that, I’m just trying to be sympathetic.)

    This whole thing reminds me of the genre of fantasy, where there is always a struggle of ‘good against evil’. This rather simplistic dichotomy might speak to a basic desire to identify with ‘good’, mightn’t it? In the more worthwhile specimens of that genre, of course, the picture is much more nuanced, and the characters convey a sense of the necessity to weigh, and argue, and generally just not to fool yourself.

    Curiously enough, that second part is actually helpfully and beautifully addressed by the ideals of good scientific thinking. I’m wondering, should we then not concentrate on trying to feed off the desire to be good and show people the tools of thinking about this kind of thing and, of course, the enormous rewards in terms of intellectual gratification that one can reap by employing them?

    1. I’m not exactly sure how inserting a deity into any situation for whatever reason makes things ‘simpler’. In fact, you’ve just complicated matters because you cannot account for the deity itself.

      So in the attempt to come up with a simple answer to a complicated matter, you’ve increased the complexity of the dilemma by adding a factor (god) that is supposedly infinitely more complex than that which you trying to account for…

      1. I’m not exactly sure how inserting a deity into any situation for whatever reason makes things ’simpler’.

        And I didn’t say that, either. What makes the situation simpler (as long as you don’t think about it, of course) is an absolute idea of good and bad. That is, among others, the product that religions try to sell. What science does, on the other hand, is to deal in tools that help you manage relatives and probabilities. And I think that kind of thinking can be shown to be altogether more exciting.

      2. I wasn’t disagreeing with what you wrote, I was just pointing out an observation that I think is implicit (unless you don’t think about it, as you’ve said). In fact, I agree with the idea that people are more content with a ‘simpler’ answer – but I think this is not a desirable trait, even if at times we can’t help ourselves.

      3. I wasn’t disagreeing with what you wrote

        Sorry, my mistake. 🙂

        In any case, I’m not so sure that people who believe in absolute good and bad have to trace that back to any sort of ‘god’. They would, though, have to trace it back to some kind of authority, and I think that’s the broader and perhaps even more appropriate target for us. Why, for example, do you think Republicans tend to love their religion so much?

    2. …should we then not concentrate on trying to feed off the desire to be good and show people the tools of thinking…

      Absolutely! But I think this is already done by many people. This is best achieved by educating youngsters. I fear it is too late for many adults who have had the opposite hammered into them.

    3. I’m dubious of the idea that “the genre of fantasy” can tell us about “basic” desires. The genre is embedded in the current culture, so it can tell us about this culture, but I don’t know if what it tells us generalizes to human nature or to ethics as a biological inheritence.

      1. I’m dubious of the idea that “the genre of fantasy” can tell us about “basic” desires.

        That’s probably why I didn’t say that, but only that I was reminded of the genre. I only used the respectable examples of it to lead to the real point of the comment.

  4. Ok, I’ll take “the other side”, so to speak.

    Case I

    You have a friend who is, say, eating themselves to death. They weigh 300 pounds and are gaining weight.

    They enter a 12 step program, “rediscover their faith” and 12 months later, they are at a normal weight and seem to be doing much better.

    So, I’d be very reluctant to upset the apple cart; sometimes placebos work.

    Case II
    Myself. No, I don’t believe in supernatural powers, but I find that meditation/quiet reflection sometimes works and I find that yoga has made my sore back feel better.

    So tools from religion sometimes work, even if it isn’t for the reason that religious people say that they work. So SOME religious practices can have value.

    1. I. You just say, “good for you.” You don’t need to tell your friend that his religion is fine even though you yourself don’t accept it. Nor do you tell him that you can see an alternative source of transcendent meaning. It’s the head-patting about faith that is condescending.

      II. Who said meditation is a “tool from religion”? It’s been arrived at by plenty of secular people; in fact, I know of no evidence that it even had a religious origin.

      1. Ok, about the “meditation”: I should point out that in this society, meditation is a practice that is usually associated with religion; I should NOT have said it was a “tool from religion.” I regret the error. 🙂

      2. Actually, meditation and yoga are huge parts of Eastern religious practices. In Hinduism one practices yoga to understand the Brahman and in Buddhism people practice meditation to become awakened to the reality.

    2. Case I: If people want to practice religion in private, then there is no reason to intervene. It is the public expression and the attempt to foist it upon others that is the problem.

      Case II: Just because religion usurped or created tools is no reason to abandon those tools or methods. Just like in case I, If one wishes to meditate to Stephen Colbert as a god of truthiness, then we should just say “whatever floats your boat”, as long as it is done privately without impacting others.

    3. In both cases the value of the ‘religious’ practices is independent of their supernatural motivation – the supernatural component is superfluous.

    4. Case 1: The fact that something makes you feel better does not necessarily mean that it’s good for you. I’m told that heroin makes you feel fantastic, but I wouldn’t exactly recommend using it.

    5. Case I – This is the same problem I have with Alcoholics Anonymous. They do pretty much the same thing and teach people that it isn’t their fault that they became addicted and that God will heal them if they have enough faith.

      I’ve lost several friends due to his unfortunate program since they were taught to sever ties with most of their friends.

      I’m happy that their addiction is under control, but I don’t agree with the means by which it was attained.

  5. My copy of The Evolution of God just arrived so I will wait to read the review until after I finish it. I have a question for Jerry even though I’m not sure if he answers questions left on these threads. How long did it take you to read the book and then how long did it take you to write your review? Just curious. Best regards from Owen Sound, Ontario, Canada. TAM

    1. The answer is this: I read the book three times (every book I review I read at least twice; you get more on subsequent readings); and it took several months to do the research for the review and write it; the research included lots of study of theology and conversations with Bible scholars.

      1. Aha, he isn’t Superman, with the powers to read a book and review it in 2 days.

        He toils and sweats and works hard (or harder) just like us.

        Oh, I am crushed – who do I turn to for godlike powers and inspiration? Oh yeah, myself 🙂

      2. Hey, looky here, taking several months to do the research and read the whole entire Koran and stuff like that there does take godlike powers! Some people would content themselves with a skimpier job.

  6. I actually liked quite a bit of Wright’s book – his tracing of the history of monotheistic religions of the Near Middle East is interesting and really does seem a decent argument that religion arose through natural sociological forces among human communities and not through some sort of miraculous intervention by a divine force. (Though I must admit, being mostly a layman in the realm of ancient history I have no idea how much of it was accurate and how much evidence was ignored to support his conclusions – I don’t recall him spending a lot of time raising counter-thesis and knocking him down).

    His arguments for a divine hand being behind all of this ultimately was frankly silly stuff, though. It really did read like he had all of the evidence right in front of is face and just couldn’t face the conclusion so he punted. After all, if religion is just a socio-political development shaped via human interactions, then why can’t morality be the same way? Why does there have to be some “divine force” pushing us towards a particular version of morality and not just that moral codes also arise naturally from human interaction and possibly some genetic basis for tribalism? It certainly fits all of the evidence provided – at least as well as postulating some mystic divine force behind it.

    (Halfway though the book I was wondering if Wright was working himself up to make some kind of argument that the process of evolution itself was actually the divine “force” that he was talking about. Not that evolution is directed by an outside divine force, but that natural selection IS that divine force. He didn’t make that argument, be he sure set up the pins as if he were going to start making it.)

    1. After all, if religion is just a socio-political development shaped via human interactions, then why can’t morality be the same way?

      An astute point.

  7. Wow – I never knew that atheism was a path to happiness. I musn’t be atheist. How the hell could not believing in a sky fairy be a path to happiness? Of course if you accept nature as it is but try to push and change what you can, you’ll get a hell of a lot farther than people who pray for a sky fairy to fix things.

  8. I’d want to argue more strongly that relying on religious authority for moral judgments makes you less moral. It allows an out, a rationalization against conscience and reason, and the excuse of “temptation.” And once you have identified a person or a group as “evil” or “other” or “Satanic,” violence and the extremes of hatred become unquestionable.

    A reason-based golden-rule ethics is never so untempered.

  9. You’re likely aware that these sorts of arguments have been around at least since the 1700s, probably before. From Hume’s Dialogues:

    My inclination, replied Cleanthes, lies, I own, a contrary way. Religion, however corrupted, is still better than no religion at all. The doctrine of a future state is so strong and necessary a security to morals, that we never ought to abandon or neglect it. For if finite and temporary rewards and punishments have so great an effect, as we daily find; how much greater must be expected from such as are infinite and eternal?

    How happens it then, said Philo, if vulgar superstition be so salutary to society, that all history abounds so much with accounts of its pernicious consequences on public affairs? Factions, civil wars, persecutions, subversions of government, oppression, slavery; these are the dismal consequences which always attend its prevalency over the minds of men.

    I’m surprised people keep thinking they have something new to add, or are going to make the argument that finally puts it to rest.

    1. Well, maybe some people still can not hear the arguments even though they have been around for so long.

    2. This to-and-fro would be superfluous if every citizen were as well read as to having all of Hume’s essays under their belt…

      But look around you. Look at the number of wage slaves who have exactly zero non-fiction books in their homes.

      But we DO have something new to add.
      The “New Atheists” are doing exactly that by flatly refusing to move to the back of the bus.

      1. This to-and-fro would be superfluous if every citizen were as well read as to having all of Hume’s essays under their belt

        no, that’s the point–no matter if people read Hume’s essays, some good fraction of them would side with Cleanthes. This argument is not going away.

        Maybe in 200 years someone with quote WEIT in a comment thread just like this, who know? I just wonder the point is.

        One hypothesis is: all the problems attributed to “religion” by many here (ie. the fact that someone has to write a book about why evolution is, in fact, true) is in fact due to cynical manipulation of religious sentiment for the sake of politics. I’m not sure what the practical implications of this hypothesis would be, but one possibility is that laying into the factual claims of religion, while legitimate, is actually chasing a red herring.

  10. If the faithiests are right, and religion is – broadly speaking – a positive force, but not one that has any factual basis outside the human mind, their next logical move should be to invent a better world religion than the ragbag of unpleasant cults we are plagued with at the moment.

    Such a new, entirely synthetic religion would not persecute women and gays, or teach children to hate and condemn most of the human race, but instead give its adherents all the (supposed) benefits of faith with none of the undeniable harmful effects religion can have on society. It would be a religion that would never inspire anyone to murder a doctor or strap on a bomb-belt.

    So, faithiests, get weaving. Assuming you have faith in your ideas…

      1. He persecuted gays. His own kid, Quentin killed himself because he was gay. Scientology has been accused of arranging fake marriages for homosexual stars.

        I think humanism is the best attempt at capturing the good of religion without the dishonest claims of “higher truths”. In any case, there are secular means of achieving all possible good things religion achieves without the silly invisible spy in the sky involved.

    1. If only that were true.
      But world statistics bely that notion.
      The correlation between fundamentalism and happiness is strongly inverse.

      As Hitchens theatrically asserts: Religion Poisons Everything.

  11. “that those who reject God are just as moral as the faithful. I’ve never seen any of the religion-defenders respond to this statement, though they continue to harp wearyingly on the need for faith as a wellspring of morality.”
    “grapple honestly with the observation that, as the atheist bus slogan says,”You can be good without God.” Entire countries like Sweden and Denmark are atheistic and yet moral — indeed, more moral than the religion-ridden U.S.”

    Coyne mis-characterizes the argument from morality.

    It has never been that atheists can *be* moral, but rather that they make moral judgments and can not ground them or provide a rational basis for them.

    It is a question of epistemology (where do they come from, how do we know) not ontology (do they exist, can we be moral).

    1. It has never been that atheists can *be* moral, but rather that they make moral judgments and can not ground them or provide a rational basis for them.

      Have you heard of evolution? It’s a stunning new idea that can explain a surprising lot of things about living creatures.

      1. evolutionary explanations of morality either lead to determinism or relativism, which do you prefer?

      2. » Josh Caleb:
        evolutionary explanations of morality either lead to determinism or relativism, which do you prefer?

        Here’s what I do not prefer: argument by assertion.

        As to your points: Read Dennett’s Freedom Evolves. Evolutionary morality leads to no such thing, and even if it did that wouldn’t mean what you seem to imply.

      3. Thats all they lead to really? Wow. Josh Caleb is like, an expert on evolution. Maybe he should write a book.

    2. Let me correct that statement:

      It has never been that theists can *be* moral, but rather that they make moral judgments and can not ground them or provide a rational basis for them.

      Now it makes sense.
      and I fixed this other one:

      Josh Caleb mis-characterizes the argument from morality.

      1. One has to actually MAKE an argument to have someone refute it. Your opinion is irrelevant. Major fail on your part.

    3. Sorry, Josh, but there are a TON of books on how you can ground and provide a rational basis for moral arguments. Apparently you have not read them. Perhaps you should do so before you keep trolling here.

      1. Josh thinks that this doesn’t happen (or isn’t common): “theists claim atheists can’t *be* moral”

        But Josh, they DO claim that atheists can’t be moral! Every day! Don’t you read WingNutDaily?

      2. those who claim atheists can’t *be* moral are incorrect and are not making the classic moral argument for theism.

        Coyne, above, offers the bus slogan claim “you can be good without God”, suggesting that the moral argument for the existence of God is based upon *being* good instead of *grounding* a standard for goodness. Coyne thus mis-characterizes the moral argument for theism.

    4. “It has never been that atheists can [sic] *be* moral, but rather that they make moral judgments and can not ground them or provide a rational basis for them.”

      No, that’s what the atheist argues is the position that *theists* find themselves in. Claiming that your morality was handed down from God in the form of a burning bush is the *exact opposite* of what a rational basis would consist.

      “It is a question of epistemology (where do they come from, how do we know) not ontology (do they exist, can we be moral).”

      Exactly! And the atheists has a rational, fact-based, scientific answer to the question, “Where do morals come from?” and “Hoe do we know?” while the theist has fantastic, illusory, and faith-based answers to both questions.

    5. Atheists get their morals the same way you get yours, from culture, example, empathy, and laws.

      We just don’t pretend it comes from a higher source. You theistic nutters would realize yours does not come from a higher source if you learned how very different your morals are from those who are equally certain that their morals come from a divine source. No one even agrees on what your magical book is saying or advising, hence the myriad of interpretations and sects.

      You’d think your magical sky daddy would have put you all on the same page. The fact is, every theist feels that those who believe as they do are the “most moral”. But this is not evidenced by any facts. It’s an illusion the same as the sky daddy whom they imagine gave them their morality.

      Osama Bin Laden thinks he’s more moral than you, because his god told him so. And you can’t prove him wrong.

      I find atheists (of the non faitheist variety) to be the most moral because they tend to be the most honest; they are tired of lying to themselves and they don’t make claims of having accessed “divine truth”. They understand that everyone’s morality is relative–even those who imagine it’s not… and that it depends on interpretation by material minds. They don’t cover and enable the illusions of liars or give lip service to this inane idea that faith is a means of knowledge.

      I, personally, would not want to raise any child in a religion that could make him/her grow up to sound as daft and self-important as Josh Caleb.

      1. “every theist feels that those who believe as they do are the “most moral”.”

        This is patently false. Actually, the message of Christianity is that we all (theist or not) are moral failures, no one keeps even our own arbitrary standards, let along a supreme being’s standards, of right and wrong. We expect virtue in others and excuse vice in ourselves.

        “I, personally, would not want to raise any child in a religion that could make him/her grow up to sound as daft and self-important as Josh Caleb.”
        I’m happy for that, I make a poor example.

      2. Actually no one agrees on what the “actual message of Christianity” is… that’s why there are so many different sects. But most xians will claim to know exactly what that message is even though you folks can’t agree with each other.

        Every xian engages in the “no true Christian” fallacy.

        Every xian imagines that their morality is objective when it’s clearly just as subjective as all other morality. Xians imagine that their morality comes from a higher source but they all cherry pick the supposed tome inspired by that supposed higher source to justify whatever they want to justify and then credit god.

        No one but Xians think that xians are the most moral. And given their history of the Inquistion, crusades, and pogroms they are stuck justifying some pretty heinous things done in the name of their god as they continue to imagine that their beliefs make them moral. And they pretend that people who claim to be christians like Hitler, Phelps and Falwell weren’t “true christians” to help complete their delusion.

        It gets old. Spin your delusions on a woo site. Your religion has made you too stupid to contribute to a site dedicated to scientific truth.

      3. wow you know a lot about Xianity.
        (I’m glad your up on your early church history: X greek for Chi the first letter of Christ. The Chi-rho was one of the earliest monikers for Jesus. great usage!)

      4. Yep, I know all about Christianity. I was indoctrinated young, but was lucky enough to think my way out. (Of course I was a smart kid; I understood analogies like “take the ball and go home” that you don’t seem to have a clue about even in adulthood.)

  12. “Besides, it’s the sense of sin, the sense of human frailty, the deep Calvinist suspicion of yourself, that can keep the self-dramatization in check. Salvation, at the most abstract level, is the sense that you’re on the right side of the moral law, and the sense of sin is what keeps you not-quite-sure that you are.”

    That’s just a flat contradiction! And it makes the whole thing unfalsifiable, and nonsensical. Everything is good – a sense of sin is good and salvation is good; they’re opposites, but they’re both good, because they are. Similarly, smoking is good for you, and not smoking is good for you. Jumping off high bridges is good for you, and not jumping off high bridges is good for you. As the saying goes, it’s all good. Apparently that’s a quote from God itself.

    1. Apart from the fact that I can’t make head or tail of that passage, wouldn’t Wright claim to be saying that the concept of ‘sin’ is the equivalent of the need for the concept of falsification, i.e. our limited epistemic capabilities with regard to the Truth?

  13. Robert Wright, like many people, will go to great lengths to preserve his particular brand of wishful thinking. Humans have an innate child-like need to crave security, protection, and reward.

    And these themes are constantly being reinforced not only by religion but also by our popular media. It is the good guys who play by the rules who receive redemption while the bad guys receive just punishments. Miracles await those who are pure of heart and steady in spirit.

    As atheists our mission is to point out the immaturity and pitfalls of wishful thinking in a positive way. We have our work cut out for us.

  14. What follows below is, essentially, a re-posting of some of my words over at Russell Blackford’s “Metamagician …”. It elicited zero comments! I had hoped to provoke some discussion of what is now being discussed here. It was probably my fault. The changes I have now made, I hope, will frame the issues better. (I am not casting any aspersions at RB or his bloggers.)

    We know that several goals need to be set to change current attitudes to religion.

    1) All children must be taught the facts about biology and any other parts of their syllabuses infected by religious myths.
    2) Atheists, agnostics, humanists et alia must be encouraged to state their attitudes and views if circumstances warrant it.
    3) Voters need to be assured that candidates for political offices who have acted on 2) above are not thereby seen as threats to social order.

    Such goals are not easily achieved and will require much effort and time. (Please note that I am not advocating any form of proselytising.)

    I assume those of us who post blogs and enjoy the ensuing discussions have admirable intentions and would support any reasonable actions to achieve these three goals. Of course, a major problem is the limited audiences reached by the expression of our views. To flog an almost dead aphorism “We are preaching to the choir.” I believe it would be useful to think deeply on how we can distill some of the many cogent, well-argued positions put forth in our blogs into a form for dissemination to wider (non-chorister) audiences.

    I can hear you shouting “You’re statin’ the bleedin’ obvious!”. Yes I am, but sometimes stating such mundane and “obvious” matters is needed to focus and move towards some productive actions. I do not pretend that I have many solutions to this difficult problem. Let’s see if we can apply our collective skills and abilities to developing some practical ideas.

    In particular, there are two issues we could start with: first, that we as atheists, and many other groups too, use “scientific methodology”, specifically logic and rational argument, to reach our conclusions; secondly, that the link frequently drawn between religion and moral behaviour can be addressed with such arguments and easily be shown to be fallacious.

    All atheists are not immoral scientistic monsters!

    It occurs to me that the current “accommodationist”, or if you prefer “faitheist”, discussions could be addressed in the following way. We could ride on the coattails of Stephen J. Gould’s reputation and his NOMA arguments to show, with respect, how he was wrong. We could show that, inter alia, he used a very narrow definition of religion to make his arguments.

    Also, I do not understand why Victor Stenger’s magnum opus “God: the failed hypothesis” is not being more widely referred to as the most succinct and well-argued exposition most of the bases for our views. (I have not yet found any serious rebuttal of his views.) It is replete with logical and rational arguments which we can use, with attribution of course, to present our views strongly.

    I am willing and able to do some of the writing needed. However, I do not have any contacts or mechanisms which would allow us to reach the audiences we are seeking. Do you?

    1. robert chamberlain, you put a lot out there and it is difficult to even gather my thoughts on these issues, mostly because you didn’t just ask ‘what” but also “how”.

      To answer your last question “Do you?”, I certainly do not have contacts or mechanisms.

      Is this something that could/should be handled by a conference to begin with? Who would attend? Who would organize it? Who would fund it? Has this been attempted before?

      1. NEB … thanks mate! (I may live in Canada but I come from “the land downunder”.)

        My expectations are not as grandiose as your response implies but I do think such grand plans have much merit!

        My line of reasoning was as follows: many informed and well-intentioned views are expressed in blogs; most of it is “preaching …”, in other words almost ephemeral and hence wasted; can something be done to get some lasting value from such efforts?

        Clearly, this is a long-term project which, I think, should be approached in a “softly sofly” way. (I, aged 69, may not be alive to experience its fruition!) My initial thoughts are to get our, measured, words to “non-choristic” audiences.

        If we have some measure of success in such an endeavour. We could move towards seminars, meetings and, perhaps, something as grand as you think I meant.

  15. I want the freedom to be as vocal in my beliefs as the faitheists and theists are in theirs.

    My beliefs are:

    1. There is no evidence that there is any such thing as “divine truths”.

    2. There is no evidence that any being can exist without a material brain (this makes gods and souls as unlikely as demons, ghosts, and sprites.)

    3. Faith is not a way to know anything true.

    4. Humans have been making up stories for eons to explain that which they don’t understand and to manipulate the actions of others.

    5. There is no evidence that the faithful are more moral than the nonfaithful and some evidence to suggest that they are acting with a lesser morality due to fear of the spy in the sky.

    6. Believing something with all your might cannot make it true and beware of those who think that what you believe is more important than what is true–they lie to themselves and others.

    7. Religion is identical to superstition… the atheist feels the same way to all religions that religionsist feel towards old myths and conflicting beliefs and superstitions. And for good reason.

    8. Magical thinking is something that should be outgrown or kept private. It’s not something we should glorify or enable in adults. We need to help each other grow up and learn about the real world we all share as the information is revealed. We must not support delusions that get in the way of learning these facts. The only respect you own to a believer is the respect they give you for your opinons, feelings, etc. and/or the respect they show for those indoctrinated in a cult they find harmful.

    9. If no amount of evidence will change a persons mind and/or they seem to purposefully be missing what you actually said, then THEY are the closed minded person–even if they claim that you are. The stupid people are too stupid to realize they are the stupid people.

    10. No one has the right to claim to know what some invisible undetectable being wants. No one has the right to claim knowledge of what happens in some supposed afterlife because there is no evidence that there can be an afterlife and lots of evidence to suggest that an immortal soul cannot exist. We can’t even make new memories without a simple brain part called a hippocampus… how can we be anything without a brain at all?

    11. Religions are all based on human fears and desires and all make claims they cannot support with evidence. Moreover, everyone is going to hell according to someone’s religion. And there is no way to tell a true revelation from a delusion.

    12. An invisible entity that requires “faith” in him is not benevolent or worthy of worship. It would be smarmy for a human to manipulate faith from others for facts not in evidence, and it’s even worse for the supposed example of morality that god(s) are supposed to be.

    I think there are a lot of people who want the freedom of speech to talk about their silly beliefs and malign those who don’t share those beliefs, but they’d call my beliefs as outlined above “hate speech” and attempt to silence me with claims that I’m saying something much more sinister than I’ve actually said.

    Religionsists and their faitheist counterparts tend to want “freedom of speech” for a certain brand of superstition AND they want the freedom to eviscerate other superstitions, BUT they don’t want the atheist or anyone else treating their beliefs in an identical manner. They are hypocrites, and I wish they’d stick to their own little woo blogs instead of infesting websites for the rational.

    Robert Wright’s tome is a justification for the belief he desperately wants to keep. Hopefully future generations will not be indoctrinated so they will not need such silly semantics to support their untenable desires.

    Maybe Robert Wright is in the process of segueing out of his childhood manipulations. Most atheists are glad they did, and would wish to encourage him to keep taking steps forward.

    I hope he doesn’t stay stuck in the faitheist pit. I hope he takes the further steps towards honesty and doesn’t feel beholden to support “faith in faith” via logical fallacies and semantic gymnastics. Perhaps Jerry’s writing will encourage such steps forward, though if Mooney is correct, it’ll just make him more unscientific (ha!).

    1. “I wish they’d stick to their own little woo blogs instead of infesting websites for the rational.”

      in other words, “I’m taking my ball and going home! Waaaaaa”


      1. Only in your delusional mind does this analogy make sense.

        I blame faith-inspired stupidity and anosognosia.

        You illustrate why early indoctrination can be akin to child abuse. It makes the stupid and arrogant feel knowledgeable and humble.

        –Ah well, at least you amuse…

    2. Wow, Josh Caleb can not even interpret a simple sentence.

      According to Josh Black equals green and white.

      1. do you all go to science meetings and stuff? I’d really actually like to meet you, cuz I think its easy to be a prick on the internet, but I wonder if your so bold/obnoxious face to face.
        Have a good weekend.

      2. I’m not this bold in person to people like Josh, because I’m afraid of irrational blowhards. Plus I tend to be kind to the slow, brainwashed, mentally ill, and children. I just can’t tell the difference between such folks on line.

        Moreover, the woo-ish in my real life tend to hang out amongst their own or keep their woo to themselves. Hallelujah! (Josh could learn from such people if he weren’t so sure he knew everything already.)

  16. Robert Wright’s curious flirtation with religion can also be seen in his New Yorker article from December 13, 1999, titled The Accidental Creationist where he says:

    “Though modern Darwinism is incompatible with various religious beliefs (such as a literal interpretation of Genesis), it needn’t alienate religious seekers of a liberal-minded variety: those with no attachment to any scriptural creation scenario but with a suspicion—or, at least, a hope—that life has more meaning than meets the eye. Indeed, the Darwinian account of our creation, once stripped of the misconceptions that [Stephen Jay] Gould has covered it with, is not only compatible with a higher purpose but vaguely suggestive of one.

    Scientific progress, as the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote, has long spurred the amendment of religious doctrine—”to the great advantage of religion”—while religion’s essence remained intact. For many religious people, part of that essence is the belief that, above and beyond the vestigial cruelties and absurdities of the human experience, there is a point to it all, a point that, even if obscure, may yet become manifest. So far, biological science has provided no reason to conclude otherwise.”

    1. “Scientific progress, as the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote, has long spurred the amendment of religious doctrine—”to the great advantage of religion”—while religion’s essence remained intact.”

      I don’t agree that “religion’s essence remained intact”. That seems a bizarre claim, given that “religion’s essence” used to be conveyed entirely in Latin to illiterate peasants and is now, apparently, a vague source of “meaning” for wealthy academics.

    2. You are correct, of course, Bryan.

      Religion has been in retreat since the 1600’s when the Church screwed over Galileo. Religion regresses into the crevices more and more as science progresses.

  17. Yes, you may be ridden with guilt about masturbating, having sex while unmarried, or not having gone to Mass, but it’s all good. Religious belief helps us find meaningful jobs!

    Or anyway, lucrative book deals.

    The truth is, I don’t see how my religious upbringing makes me desire religion at all. The pull of the “spiritual” is still there (and in truth, much of “New Atheism” doesn’t get that aspect in people), but what does religion have to do with the spiritual except to reduce and to pollute it?

    I doubt, though, that a book on that theme would make a load of filthy lucre.

    Glen Davidson

  18. 17: Glen Davidson

    The pull of the “spiritual” is still there (and in truth, much of “New Atheism” doesn’t get that aspect in people)

    You just have to skim Dawkins’ works to tip that on it’s head!
    And Dennet’s or Coynes or Harris’ output to recognise the sense of “spiritual” wonder that is to be had in reality.
    Hitchen’s has a term for this sense of spiritual awe: “numinous”, which he uses superbly to describe this spiritual feeling.

    Every one of these folk might be considered a “New Atheist”**, and EVERY ONE of them exudes a vital enthusiasm for the numinous.
    (And the list is only scratching the surface)

    Have I misread your assertion?
    ** By “New Atheist”, I apply the term in a positive manner.
    For me, the term represents educated folk who have had enough of being cowered into affording religion immunity from criticism.
    I used to hate the term, but now wear it as a badge of pride.

  19. Wright had a diavlog on Bloggingheads with Joel Achenbach. You can just watch this snippet.

    Wright says there is a “backstory” to the “relentlessly negative review (in TNR by Jerry) of it (the book) and me.” He implies that Leon Wieseltier has it out for him. He promises to post a “point by point rebuttal” to Jerry’s review.

    Achenbach wrote a review of Wright’s book – and seems to be in agreement with Jerry.

    With all deference to Jerry, the best critique of Wright’s book is by John Horgan in a diavlog with George Johnson. He destroys it in less than ten seconds.

    1. I just finished watching that diavlog, and was about to post a link when I saw your post.

      One interesting point is that Wright conceded that a common criticism made in the various reviews is that his conclusion about a “purpose” to the universe is an ill-supported leap from the history he sets out in the book. He didn’t say he agreed with the criticism, but he did take great pains to point out that the vast majority of the book is the historical summary. I think he’s implicitly acknowledging that his “conclusion” (which he calls more of a “conjecture” isn’t terribly strong.

  20. Andrew Sullivan has needed a mental religious salve ever since Sam Harris worked him over like a speed bag in their web debate. Poor Andrew never knew what hit him.

  21. Entire countries like Sweden and Denmark are atheistic

    Just to get the inevitable nit-pick out of the way, that’s an exaggeration. But it’s true that they are largely non-theistic. (instead of a personal god, many people answer in surveys that they believe in some sort of ‘life force’ or ‘higher power’, but it’s often so vague that it hardly qualifies as a source of meaning or morals)

    1. Windy is right. It would be more true to say that deism, or ‘higher power-ism’ is the default position in many secular European countries. This can shift over to atheism but it can just as easily turn to belief in ghosts, nature worship and new age rubbish. I know many people who scorn belief in God but are quite happy to believe in a whole host of supernatural entities.

    1. 104 of 123 people found the following review helpful:

      3.0 out of 5 stars Good Science, Bad Philosophy
      This book has a lot in common with many Stephen King novels: it starts off intriguing, becomes more and more engrossing, and then concludes with some improbable and disappointing final chapters. Essentially, “The Moral Animal” can be clearly divided into two sections. The first three quarters are a clearly stated, honest presentation of natural selection via the very…

    2. Time to wake up, then. I would say Why Evolution Is True is on a par with The Moral Animal. (I liked both books.)

    1. I read that too, and I hope Coyne either concedes or replies soon.

      Wright makes a pretty definitive case that Coyne’s complaints attribute positions to Wright that are the exact opposite of what he actually argues. Wright also demonstrates that Coyne’s replies on most of these points involve arguments that are quite close to the ones that are actually made in The Evolution of God.

      I’m sympathetic to those who are left wondering what Wright’s stuff about “direction in history” amounts to. But on a number of less wishy-washy topics, Coyne’s criticisms of Wright are so off the mark that I really do have to wonder if he read the book he was supposed to be reviewing.

  22. I have to admit, I am with Robert Wright on this one. it doesn’t appear that Coyne actually read Wright’s book. Wright appears to be arguing pretty much the same things that Coyne argues in supposedly rebutting Wright.

    Sure, his last chapter was speculative and openly so. But the fact that he isn’t as unsympathetic with deism as Coyne would like him to be doesn’t seem to be a good reason to actively distort the arguments he makes.

    All of which makes me wonder- what exactly is the motivation for Coyne’s review? It’s hard to believe that he’d so drastically misread Wright, without some kind of external motivation.

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