Did religion give us doubt? And a note on envy

April 14, 2011 • 5:48 am

Jacques Berlinerblau and R. Joseph Hoffman are back with their one-two sucker punch, still banging on about the perceived ignorance of New Atheists.  And they’ve found a new reason why atheists should be indebted to religion.

At the Chronicle of Higher Education (whose new motto seems to be “All the Gnus That Are Fit to Diss”), Berlinerblau makes what he sees as a telling point: there have been no atheist martyrs!

In any case, Hoffmann’s essay [see below] makes the point that it is tremendously difficult to identify an atheist who has been martyred for his or her non-belief. The author notes that such martyrdom operations have usually been reserved for heretics and apostates—yet the heretics and apostates, of course, were believers themselves.

I don’t get it.  Who among us has ever claimed that there were atheist martyrs? And so what if there weren’t? Would it give us more credibility if some of us had been burnt at the stake?

Berlinerblau then adds helpfully that in the olden days, “atheist” was a term not for a god-denier, but for someone whose faith was different from yours:

In this sense, countless “atheists” were imprisoned, tortured, and murdered in Europe of the 16th-18th centuries. This was a Europe, incidentally, were [sic] historians are very hard pressed to find unambiguous atheists as we know them today—that is to say, people who explicitly denied the existence of any God whatsoever.

This suggests a multitude of possibilities and future areas of research for non-Gnu Atheism. One which I have been exploring in the book that I am currently writing concerns the “genetic” affinity between atheists and heretics..

(Note the implication that Gnu Atheists aren’t interested in research.)

And if that isn’t enough, Berlinerblau gets in one last preen about his superior wisdom: unlike the rest of us, he recognizes that atheists truly owe a debt to religious discourse.  Why?  Not because, as you might think, religion gives us false ideas on which we can hone our brains, but because faith vouchsafed us the very notion of skepticism! Yes, it’s true:  we are deeply indebted to those Muslims who were skeptical about Jesus, and to those Christians who cast a cold eye on Mohamed:

Nonbelievers would gain much by seeing themselves as heirs of a skeptical tradition, one whose roots extend to religious forms of reasoning and dissent.

Berlinerblau was inspired by Hoffmann’s new piece, “Atheist Martyrs? Gnus to Me,” which makes the same point at much greater length.  I never cease to be amazed at the creativity of faitheists who, denying god themselves, come up with new explanations of why religion is really good.  In this case it’s because our  rejection of all gods is a direct inheritance from those who clung firmly to just one god.

When Professor Dawkins in his now famous remark says that “We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further,” he is right in one respect (as well as funny) but wrong in another. Because the process of rejecting 99% of the gods and most of what has  been believed about the remainder is not a conclusion that atheism has forced. Unbelief has been forced to the surface of our consciousness by critical processes that are rooted in religion: in the empiricism of Maimonides;  in Aquinas’s disputational method; in Luther’s critique of Catholicism and sacraments;  in Abelard’s stress on the subjectivity of ethics and Roger Bacon’s contributions to scientific thinking.  In so much more.  Perhaps to state what is too obvious to be obvious to many people: in the fact that the transmission of knowledge through books was the labour of clerics and monks. . .

. . . It is strange to me that men and women committed to the paradigm of evolution and historical change are often willing to postulate creation ex nihilo or spontaneous generation for their own ideas.

What Hoffman really means, of course, is that the Gnu Atheists ignore him.  Why can’t we see his superior knowledge about the history of unbelief? Why must Hoffmann fester in obscurity while Dawkins and Hitchens rake in the cash and encomiums?

It’s palpably clear that what Hoffmann and Berlinerblau really can’t stand is that their tedious screeds languish unread in university libraries while the Four Horsemen get all the attention—attention that translates into effectiveness. After all, how many converts from faith have Hoffmann and Berlinerblau made?

I’m not just guessing about this: Hoffman says it explicitly in a comment at Butterflies and Wheels:

Before anyone adds to the list of my “calumnies” that I am now being self-defensive, I am. Part of that has to do with (as I suggested) a record that goes back long before most Americans had heard of Richard Dawkins. Some of us older and old atheists remember what a lonely battle that was. Many who came to the movement since 2000 will not. And that is precisely the point. Without saying jealousy is involved, there are many (not just me) who know that the Dawkins revolution could not have taken place without the almost invisible work of many of my associates in and out of the academy over many many years. On the one hand, we need to be grateful that the New Atheists have been successful in garnering support; on the other hand, and I know this from experience, nothing ensured the death of a book in this country before 1995 like putting the word atheism or humanism in the title. So, there were laborers in the trenches.

So says the Rodney Dangerfield of atheism.  Wounded feelings lately abound among faitheists: for a particularly bizarre specimen, see Michael Ruse’s latest post at the Chronicle of Higher Ed:

On occasions I have been faced with a choice between the easy path and the more difficult.  For instance, should I publish with a commercial press that will take basically anything I offer because they know they will make money or should I go with a university press, even though it involves refereeing and possible rejection, something I hate and fear as much today as I did 40 years ago.  (“It’s easy for you, Mike. You’ve got a thick skin.” Nonsense! There is no such thing as a thick skin. It is just that some of us learn to live with our thin skins.)  I just don’t want to end up on my deathbed and feel that I could have done better. I coulda been a contender. (Of course whether or not I am going to end as a contender, whatever I do, is perhaps a moot point. But here I am blogging for the CHE. Who says that after four billion years of evolution there is no progress?)

Translation: I could have been as popular and rich as Dawkins, but I was too noble to sell out.

Statements like this make it clear that much of the criticism of Gnu Atheism by fellow atheists like Ruse, Hoffmann, and Berlinerblau stems from a universal but deplorable human emotion—jealousy.  Perhaps Hitchens should have added an eleventh commandment:  Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s books.

158 thoughts on “Did religion give us doubt? And a note on envy

  1. i love this post
    jerry shows cxlearly the power of pecking order and the default human condition – no matter how much we may not like the fact that we have “to make money” it is the reality of life and those who expect things be any other way are making mistake

    but we can also say that “pure science” is steadily advancing because it is function of us as intelligent species – species that are deliberatively capable

    an atheism, as byproduct of advancing science (evolution, mathematics, physics and other hard sciences) therefore is as inevitable an as certain to eventually extinguish religion as evolution itself

  2. I’ve been an atheist for over 40 years, why haven’t I heard of the “3 Ghost Riders” (Hoffman, Berlinerblau and Ruse) until the past 6 months?

    1. Yeah, I have the same question when it applies to Hoffman and Berlinerblau — who are they?

      I know of Carlson Chambliss, Wesley Elsberry, Martin Leipzig, John Wilkins, and a whole of people from the 1980s, 1990s and even the 00’s.

      Ruse, btw, did have a bit of a name as he was a plaintiff’s witness in McLean vs. Arkansas. He’s since gone off the deep end as far as I’m concerned with his trolling of Dawkins, Coyne, etc. in what appears to be nothing more than attention whoring.

    2. I agree Jeff I’m over fifty and have always been an atheist, I only remember Bertrand Russell and Carl Sagan. It was very lonely in the trenches and they are just bitter that they missed the boat.

      1. One always gets the strong impression from US media that Marilyn Murray O’Hair was the only American atheist who ever lived.

        No atheist martyrs? A twenty-year-old student of Edinburgh University, Thomas Aikenhead, was hanged on the 8th of January 1697 for atheism and blasphemy. Or does the blasphemy mean he doesn’t count?

        1. Thanks, Shuggy.

          Thomas Aitkenhead was “charged under both of Scotland’s Blasphemy Acts, one enacted before and one after the Revolution of 1689.

          “The 1661 Act ordained death for anyone “not being distracted in his wits” who shall “rail upon or curse or deny God, and obstinately continue therein” …

          “Aikenhead was accused of having said that theology was “a rhapsody of feigned and ill-invented nonsense” and made up of “poetical fictions and extravagant chimeras”.”


          Part of the indictment against him stated that he had said “That the Holy Scriptures were stuffed with such madness, nonsense, and contradictions, that he admired the stupidity of the world in being so long deluded by them: That he rejected the mystery of the Trinity as unworthy of refutation; and scoffed at the incarnation of Christ.”


          It sounds like he was a pretty convinced atheist!

          Coincidentally, Thomas Aitkenhead will be remembered next Saturday during the Humanist Society of Scotland’s ‘March for Enlightenment’, celebrating the 300th anniversary of the ‘father of the Enlightenment’, David Hume.


    3. Indeed. (And I love “the Three Ghostriders!”)

      I did identify a bit with Hoffman’s remarks about a time when most Americans hadn’t heard of Dawkins. I’ve tended to phrase it, “I knew [of] Richard Dawkins before he became Richard Dawkins” (that last said in atheist-reverent tone…). And RD would no doubt be among the first to credit Paul Kurtz for being one of the few US champions of atheism, rationalism, freethought, and humanism before the computer age. He (PK) certainly recognized and featured Dawkins regularly early on…

      (And at the “height of his powers,” I remember him taking Dawkins to the metaphorical woodshed for failing to observe PK’s strict boundaries between what were then CODESH and PSICOP. 😀 )

      Thinking of the visibility of atheism a few decades ago, I think first of Kurtz and the authors he featured (esp. Sagan), then of O’Hair and all the uproar surrounding her; of the successful school-prayer-challengers in the 60’s & on…But I do have a US bias, I realize…

    1. Yes, indeed. But there’s no point in directing argument to Hoffman at his own site, because if he doesn’t LIKE IT (and do understand that this includes even temperate, well-written rebuttal) he disallows it.

      Instead, what this towering paragon of courage does is to use Ms. Benson’s website to address comments, because people are talking about him there.

      Hoffmann is not serious about engaging argument and joining a discussion. He’s in it for the attention. There’s really no need to give it to this self-important gnu-basher.

  3. Nonbelievers would gain much by seeing themselves as heirs of a skeptical tradition, one whose roots extend to religious forms of reasoning and dissent.

    That’s some mighty powerful faithful posterior osculation, that is.



    1. And what’s the frickin’ point being made? Sure, religion historically involved scepticism regarding other religions — so what? How does that actually impact on today’s arguments? In what way does that undercut the claims currently being made?

      Just like tone trolls complain about comportment rather than address the substance of the arguments, these “history trolls” complain about lack of acknowledgement of history rather than address the substance of the arguments.

      1. It’s a bit akin to the rather disgusting arguments made about rape: “Well, we may not be here if our early ancestors hadn’t procreated that way from time to time, so it’s not *all* bad, is it?” No, no, no. Try telling that to the victims.

        And humanity’s capacity to make chicken salad from chicken shit does not alter the inherent shittiness of what we had to work with at the time. There were better ways to get to the same end result, and that those pathways weren’t used is a source of shame, no matter the ends that came of them.

    2. While Thomas Aquinas may be credited with dusting off a few forgotten classical Greek books and injecting theology with a fresh veneer of the language of logic, he was only willing to do so because he believed it would lead directly to God. (In other words, it wasn’t from a dispassionate interest in learning the truth.. which is hardly a good reason for celebrating religion’s contribution to western philosophy.) But, alas, one cannot merely employ the language of logic while rejecting its methods. Follow the argument wherever it may lead? Oops, better go scurrying back to the Dark Ages from whence you came.

      I have found a book by Charles Freeman to be a very interesting study on this topic, called “The Closing of the Western Mind: the Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason”

  4. These guys are fucking idiots. Tell them about Theo Van Gogh. Just dreck. They build their strawman (ignorant of recent history and the crimes of religion) and then tear it down with their patented arrogance.

  5. I’ve been dealing a lot with envy in my personal life lately… It really is quite an unpleasant feeling, especially when you recognize it for what it is.

    religion gives us false ideas on which we can hone our brains

    I value this part very highly. It’s creationism that is responsible for why I understand evolution as well as I do, and for helping me hone my critical thinking skills.

    1. Similarly, it’s Christianity I have to thank for my (still very limited) knowledge of Classical history.

      I dunno. I seem to be doing fine with knowing next to nothing about pre-Columbian Aztecs or the Qin empire, so I’m not entirely sure what I gain by being marginally more familiar with their Mediterranean counterparts….


    2. Envy! You want envy! I’ll give you envy – spend a couple of hours chatting with Anthony Grayling sometime. The guy does the work of about ten people. Books, plays, an online review, editor of this, president of that, ballet, music, Shakespeare – !

      :- )

      He’s a lovely fella.

      (He’s doing an interview for Fox News today. That should be amusing!)

    3. Its like Diogenes learning to speak well by putting pebbles in his mouth, or the Karate Kid learning to fight by waxing cars. Certainly some people can do so by putting themselves in opposition to a restricting force, or by putting skills learned in one area to another, but isn’t is just easier to take a speech class, or learn karate directly?

      Evolution should just be something we learn in the 6th grade with basic biology. It’s such a basic, ground level thing you need to understand all of biology, it shouldn’t be so hard to just freaking learn it, without getting involved in a culture war.

      1. Karate Kid, nice movie but totally phony. Bottom-line is you show up at a black-belt tournament after learning how to do karate by waxing cars, you’re spitting teeth. It takes YEARS of practice to develop the reflexes necessary to compete at that level.

        1. And likewise, it is probably better learning evolution directly without having to displace creationist ideas first.
          Course, there is something to be said for conversion zeal…

          1. The value, I find, is in trying to understand why creationist ideas are wrong.

            Why *can* living things cause localized decreases in entropy?

            Why *can* complexity increase on its own?

            Why *can* statistically improbable events happen?

            I wouldn’t have had to think about these and other questions half as much if there weren’t people trying to tell me that all of these “cans” are really “can’ts” and that evolution is impossible!

            Of course learning evolution directly and without interference is a better model. I’m just saying that I have reaped rewards by having to fight this mental battle.

        2. Give Karate Kid a chance: it’s just a well-honed story, for Jebus’ sake. Of course there are problems if you pretend it’s real (remind you of any other story btw?).

          1. Karate Kid: The wrong kid won.

            In one corner you have a kid who has spent his life training under an accredited dojo, who has gained something of a rep as a great martial artist.

            In the other you have a kid who uses a basic jump-kick. The story represents the triumph of mediocrity and laziness over hard work and dedication.

            An appealing message for Hollywood executives.

  6. Ouch. That paragraph in the Ruse piece sticks out like a sore ego. He can’t seem to write anything (in a popular venue) without dragging in his precious Self. It’s a piece about movies and philosophy, an interesting subject, and all of a sudden pop! there’s a lurch into All About Ruse.

    1. I thought the thick skin/thin skin comment was especially funny. There’s some truth to that, but Ruse has not shown himself to have what would traditionally be known as a “thick skin”, so….

    2. sticks out like a sore ego.


      There are at least a dozen “I’s” in that paragraph, and even a few other self-referrals. Jumped out at me immediately on first reading. Is this guy a narcissist?

  7. Did Hoffmam ever think the see change likely had nothing to do with his “trench warfare” but with the events of Sep 11 2001?

    1. I speculated here at WEIT about a connection between 9/11 and increased secularization a while ago. Razib Khan checked this with General Social Survey data, and, basically, I was wrong. Here’s the update to my post after Razib posted his analysis:

      Razib has done exactly what I had hoped: he’s tested my suggestion by looking at survey data (26 surveys from 1973 to 2008). While not a decisive refutation of my suggestion, there’s not much support for it. Secularization increases from 1993 to 2008. The biggest increases occur from 1991 to 1998, with something of a plateau from 1998 to 2004, then there’s another bit of a jump from 2004 to 2006. It might be safest just to say that it increased from ’93 to ’08, and not try to interpret what may well be random variation around that rise. I would say the evidence for a lagged post 9/11 jump is modest at best, and most of the increase occurred pre -2001, so 9/11 is at most a lesser contributing factor.

      1. Yeah, but 9/11/2001 changed the publishing climate a lot.

        I do think it had a fair bit to do with the successes of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, etc., in getting critiques of religion published by trade imprints with a lot of commercial muscle.

        I think Dawkins has said something about his personal experience with this.

        1. That hypothesis could probably be tested using online bookstores like Amazon.com.

          I actually used that to furnish a link to fact check Hoffman’s claim on B&W that books with “atheism” in the title would flop or not be published (whatever “the death of a book” means) prior to 1995. (It’s comment #150 on the same B&W thread linked to as the source of Hoffman’s comment as quoted above.)

          1. So “New Atheism” is a theist term? Somehow I suspected as much.

            Dear FSM, I hope “accommodationist” is an example of our own terminology at the very least.

    2. What Hoffmann and company were doing was valuable. I don’t think we should lose sight of that. They were keeping the flame of reason alight, or at least helping. Yay for them. Seriously.

      But yes, they were unable to get published on a mass scale; and there were historical reasons for it, just as there were historical reasons for the commercial breakthroughs of the Gnus – including Sept. 11.

      I don’t think we have to denigrate the work Hoffmann and co. were doing then, nor what they have done since (Hoffmann’s 2006 edited volume on religious violence, from Prometheus Books, is on my must-read list, though admittedly along with a lot of other things).

      But what they don’t seem to understand is that their opportunities to get their message across have been massively increased by the success of Dawkins and company, most of whom (Sam Harris is the exception) were much bigger names. Hoffmann mentions that he’s grateful, but then seems to forget it.

      I’m certainly grateful that Dawkins and the others have helped open up opportunities for me and people like me. I can see how it could be galling for someone like Hoffmann, at least at first glance … but really, this was Richard frakking Dawkins getting involved. Of course it upped the whole thing to a new level of popularity. It’s not as if Dawkins, who was already a best-selling author, needed to do this. Something simialr applies to Dan Dennett. As for Hitchens, he never had to touch this issue with a barge pole to be a famous and respected political and literary journalist.

      How is Hoffmann not now better off? I don’t understand why he can’t just take advantage of the new opportunities that have been opened up for him. Maybe if he were more positive about it all, people who are currently being alienated by him would be more interested in running off and reading his books, rather than characterising them (probably unfairly, Jerry) as “tedious screeds”.

      1. Russell,

        I don’t really object to these guys’ academic work, though I’m not sure how much it really “kept the flame of reason alive.” What I object two are two things. First, their attempt to kiss the butt of faith buy showing how religion itself was the source of doubtfulness. And second, that their overarching envy makes them mount ridiculous attacks on the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens.

        1. Part two of my current blog topic will say some more about that, though I’ve said so much here in comments that I’ve stolen my own thunder. But I certainly do object to the ridiculous attacks on the Gnus.

          I do think, though, that all this work helps keep the flame of reason alive. Prometheus Books did a lot of valuable work and continues to do so. It’s a good thing that there were markets for such material through the 80s and 90s. But it’s also a good thing that there are now more markets and larger markets. And I’d bet that Prometheus Books now sells more copies of its publications than ever as a result of the synergies that Dawkins and company have created.

          I don’t see Victor Stenger complaining – his books from Prometheus seem to be doing well. And of course, Hitchens even helped him out with an intro to one of them. It’s not a zero-sum game.

          That’s what bugs me – the Gnus have actually helped the situation of people who want to publish critiques of religion, no matter what publishers they work with.

          1. On the subject of whether doubt came from monotheistic religion … well, it either did or it didn’t. It’s interesting either way. No reason not to explore it, though I don’t know what it would prove.

            But FWIW I think it more came more from the rediscovery/revival of Epicurean thought in early modernity. I don’t understand why these guys don’t mention that.

            Let’s give a vote of thanks to Epicurus and Lucretius if we’re going to thank someone.

          2. I don’t think there is anything that the monotheists did philosophically that was terribly different from anything the Greeks and Romans did, and did first.

          3. Jennifer Michael Hecht’s book Doubt: A History covers Epicurus, and the revival of Epicurean thought in early modernity. (Speaking of which, although Hecht sometimes criticizes gnu atheists for going to far, if Harper is a major publisher, her 2003 book Doubt probably deserves a mention in your blog article. I had more about this in the draft of the comment that I posted to your blog, but I stripped it out due to blogger’s draconian 4096 char limit.)

          4. Well, it’s only a subtitle, and with an indefinite article: The Good Book: A Secular Bible

            But when will we see «The Secular Qur’an»?

          5. I wonder if that is why Grayling’s book is subtitled “A Humanist Bible” in the USA, to avoid trampling on the rights of Berlinerblau.

      2. Very simple: When your average 14 year old can consisely deliver the atheist argument in a manner that undermines centuries of theological dogma, while correctly pointing out the logical flaws and fallacies in theology, it takes away the rebel intellectual cache in a 40 to 70 year old professor pontificating on length on it.

        He can’t argue against that 14 year old directly because, well that 14 year old is right, so he needs to come up with a straw-man he can argue against just to show that he hasn’t wasted the bulk of his professional life pompously belabouring the obvious.

    3. I suspect that 911 and Bush had a role but it is arguable that the biggest challenge to religion in the past decade and a half has been the rise of the internet as a means of gaining and disseminating information and views. Just look at the comments at the end of any HPo or CNN religion article and you will find plenty of skeptical comments that the religious would never have faced two decades ago.

  8. Hoffman ought to be careful about calling a group of people he opposes, “atheist dickheads”.
    Jeremy (the snarkhunter) Stangroom will not be amused.

    1. Oh yes he will. They became Facebook friends right after Joe defriended me (for the second time! and this time without changing his mind). Gnu haters rush to embrace each other. (Stangroom of course defriended me long ago.)

      1. I’ve yet to defriend anyone just because I disagree with them.
        …Although my friend/acquaintance from college who just became an ordained Catholic priest, and who would like to see abortion made illegal, has tempted me.

        Still, separating myself from those I disagree with doesn’t seem to have much benefit. It facilitates an us/them mentality and makes discussion between us less probable.

        I guess I would cut off communication with someone if there just plain wasn’t any talking to them to begin with.

        1. My daughter defriended me because I publicly disagreed with her about her anti-vaccine position 🙁

    1. But you see, Dominic, even if there was (and is) plenty of discrimination, that doesn’t mean there were martyrs. And even if there were martyrs, they weren’t really true martyrs. It’s extremely important that there be true martyrs. Extremely important.

      1. I want to ask why it’s extremely important that they be true martyrs, but I expect that I’d just be told that this question is unimportant. What is extremely important, of course, is that the gnu atheists are mean and bad and stupid and ugly.

  9. Getting published by reputable academic presses is not easy, as I know very well, but the idea that it is easier to get published by a large trade press is just bizarre. The processes are different, but Ruse is in a very unusual situation indeed if he finds the former more difficult than the latter.

    1. And Dawkins was publishing controversial books since the 1970s too. The Selfish Gene started a lot of controversy, and he has been publishing consistently since then to popularize evolution and counter religious thinking since then. Likewise Hitchens has been doing various anti-theist articles and programming for decades. I’m less familiar with Harris pre-End of Faith, but Dennet seems so nice and has been around a long time too.

      To suggest that they were suddenly famous is absurd and insulting to men that have worked just as long as Hoffman and Ruse.

      1. And some of that controversy was genuine controversy, from people who had read the book and understood it. And then there was Midgely, who did neither.

  10. Those articles are so dripping with jealously and spite, that they are truly embarrassing. Ouch! I would say that I lost all respect for them, except that I never really had any.

  11. To respond to Hoffman’s notion that doubt and skepticism are indebted to religious writers, I can’t help but remember the first time I read Descartes’s ‘I think therefore I am’ screed. He manages to sound reasonable and made his points well, and then he just drops God in there, like its some self evident thing. The same applies for a lot of those religious writers… they are not really good examples of ‘doubt’ and ‘critical thinking’, they are examples of cowardice. The people who argue that pagan beliefs are absurd, but fail to notice that the arguments for that apply equally well to their own faith, or monotheists who argue about doctrine, yet fail realize that there is no real way of deciding between dogmas other than the arbitrary fiat of those who are in power, all of them show a stumbling of intellectual rigor when their own cherished ideas are held up to view. Ibn Warraq, who wrote Why I am Not a Muslim, told a similar story where a Muslim friend was pleased to see Russel’s Why I am Not a Christian on his shelf, not realizing that most of the objections raised there applied to Islam as well. Certainly those religious authors are indeed part of the culture of scholasticism, but its like lauding a sponge laying the groundwork for the evolutionary achievements of chordates.

    1. +1

      Not just Descartes, either. It’s amazing how many Enlightenment figures almost got there — and then drew back in horror at the most-obvious logical conclusion.

      Voltaire’s deism is just as puzzling.

        1. I think that there were a lot of atheists hidden throughout the years, because it is so easy to ape religious belief. And I wonder, is it really a good thing to die just for a belief? Martyrs are only powerful if you’re side has a chance of winning. Otherwise they’re just more bodies being dropped. Its not like anyone remembers the martyrs of the dead religions.

          1. I am quite sure there have always been atheists, and that they mostly had the sense to do the bare minimum and keep their mouths shut. I have read so many stories in which people relate how they went to church and lived among religious people but never believed a word of it or understood why others believed, that it is obvious that some people will never be religious regardless of their upbringing. It is also obvious that it wouldn’t take an intelligent kid long to realise that they’d better keep their atheism to themselves. This is still the case in most of the world.

      1. Though it should be noted that Diderot and D’Holbach were two that got all the way there and didn’t draw back–which led to them being attacked by Voltaire and Rousseau…much like Dawkins and other Gnus are sniped at today by the likes of Hoffman and Ruse. Some things never change alas…

  12. You mean ‘envy’, not ‘jealousy’.
    Or is that yet another useful distinction that has evolved away?

    But yeah. Whatever you call it, these guys are pitiful.

  13. I used to have time for Ruse, until I read an article he wrote about the grandeur of Natural History Museum in London shows the religious nature of science, and especially evolution.

    Now it is true the Natural History Museum is an incredible building, as those of you who have been there will confirm. But all that tells us is that the Victorians who built it considered it an important building. It does not tell us that they saw it as religious in anyway.

  14. I don’t get it either. The very fact that there have been martyrs for going against the Church, the Empire, or other theistic regimes shows how poisonous religion can be. To think differently from them is a thought crime in their eyes. To speak about your different thoughts is so offensive to these oppressors that they will have no choice but to kill you or torture you for it.

    The actual beliefs of people who have been killed or tortured for blasphemy or heresy does not matter; the fact that they were tortured or killed for thinking differently from what was allowed is what matters.

    And of course many martyrs labeled “atheist” at the time were in fact not atheists in the sense of not believing in any god and not having any religion. That has never been disputed by Gnu Atheists! But it hardly helps the argument that religion and theism are all about love, does it?

    As Rieux has been showing us on Butterflies and Wheels, even the most liberal quasi-Christian religion, the Unitarian Universalists, has difficulty not being drastically offended in some top quarters by atheists flaunting their disbelief. Should we expect anything different when they have inherited a great cultural tradition that views different thinking as a thought crime?

  15. it is tremendously difficult to identify an atheist who has been martyred for his or her non-belief. martyrdom operations have usually been reserved for heretics and apostates

    No shit. For the simple reason that heretics believe equally absurd nonsense as do orthodox believers and can be willing to suffer torture and death on earth for the illusion of paradise after death.

    Atheists suffer from no such illusions and know that there will be no eternal consequences for making any necessary compromises about their true convictions. Thus, as many have decried throughout history, it is very easy to find examples of people lying about their faith either to escape persecution or for political, social, or financial gain.

    I would be the first to lie about my atheism if I thought it would save my skin, and have lied about it when it was socially necessary. In this I am no different from a plurality of the “faithful”, very few of whom actually believe the nonsense specific to their sect. This is why so few are murdered for atheism.

    Given this intrinsic asymmetry between faith and nonfaith, Hoffman is a fool for thinking it significant that there have been few atheists murdered for their atheism, and for working so hard to downplay well known murders of atheists.

    1. And how is martyrdom relevant to any argument about atheism and religion? I don’t even understand the significance of the claim being made, much less how it is supposed to speak to issues of religion today. This seems like a complete non sequitur.

      1. They’re trying to make the repulsive claim that Gnus claim persecution to seek legitimacy. No murder—no persecution! Read “martyr” in the broader sense of someone persecuted for their beliefs, religious or not.

          1. None at all. That is what makes the argument all the more untenable. The fact that Hoffmann assigns martyrdom the metric of credibility is just sheer lunacy.

            And the obverse of this position therefore must be true. Therefore,

            * Because Japanese kamikaze pilots existed, the cause of Imperial Japan must be considered credible.
            * Because suicide bombers exist, repressive-fundamentalist Islam must be credible.
            * Because Joseph Smith got himself killed by an angry mob, therefore Mormonism must be credible.
            * Because Timothy McVeigh went to the death chamber thinking himself a martyr, therefore his whackaloon positions on the government have credibility.

            And on and on.

          2. Christians are actually quite fond of this one.

            Because Romans fed Christians to the lions in the Arena, therefore Jesus was real and the real deal.

            After all, these were people whose lives might have overlapped with those of people who were infants at the time it all went down, so they were in an excellent position to know whether or not it really happened. And you don’t think they would have thrown their lives away on something they new was a lie, do you?

            I mean, it’s not like we’re talking about flying saucers hiding behind comets or Guyanan Kool-Aide or Waco fundamentalists or anything like that….



          3. How could I have forgotten the Xtians!

            “Wouldn’t die for a lie” is one of William Lame Craig’s favorite phrases.

            Xtian apologists are speaking primarily of the apostles in this setting, of course. And each and every apostle – with the exception of Peter – that you research with regard to their death is listed as “according to history” — which is a nice way of saying “we don’t know so we’re making this up.”

            Have to know the theist code words.

        1. Tulse has nailed it, though. It’s just a really weird, left-field argument. What do atheist martyrs have to do with anything?

          Since there were no incontrovertible atheists (in the modern sense) in Western Europe until the relatively civilised time of Diderot, we wouldn’t expect to see mass persecutions of atheism during the medieval period and early modernity. How could there have been? That’s just never been an issue in the debate. Why bring it up now?

          And how does it make the persecution of other groups, such as heretics and Jews, during those centuries any more palatable?

          1. Wouldn’t the Spanish Civil War count as an instance of persecution and martyrdom of atheists by Christians?

          2. Or, if you like, the persecution of fascists by atheists. Take your pick.

            Orwell: “The thing that had happened in Spain was, in fact, not merely a civil war, but the beginning of a revolution. It is this fact that the anti-Fascist press outside Spain has made it its special business to obscure. The issue has been narrowed down to ‘Fascism versus democracy’ and the revolutionary aspect concealed as much as possible. In England, where the Press is more centralized and the public more easily deceived than elsewhere, only two versions of the Spanish war have had any publicity to speak of: the Right-wing version of Christian patriots versus Bolsheviks dripping with blood, and the Left-wing version of gentlemanly republicans quelling a military revolt. The central issue has been successfully covered up. … it would appear that the downright lying scoundrels included members of the Government for which we were bidden to fight. Some of the foreign anti-Fascist papers even descended to the pitiful lie of pretending that churches were only attacked when they were used as Fascist fortresses. Actually churches were pillaged everywhere and as a matter of course, because it was perfectly well understood that the Spanish Church was part of the capitalist racket. In six months in Spain I only saw two undamaged churches, and until about July 1937 no churches were allowed to reopen and hold services, except for one or two Protestant churches in Madrid.”

          3. Atheism would be considered a heresy, so it would be extremely difficult to tease out just how many heretic-atheists there were.

            But if I had been living in an era of persecution of heresy, and I were an atheist, I would keep my yap shut and bow in whatever direction the people with the swords told me to bow.

            Martyrdom is a completely ineffectual method of advancing your arguments — because you’re DEAD and can’t advance them.

            Diderot and others published their overtly atheistic pamphlets anonymously or pseudonymously. Because the very real threat of a horrible death by torture hung over their every word — Chevalier de la Barre was proof positive of that.

          4. What do atheist martyrs have to do with anything?

            Nothing, but don’t let that stop you from fully appreciating the ugliness of Hoffmann’s deranged argument, such as it is. It is Hoffman’s claim that the relative rarity of murdered atheists shows that atheists have the religious heretics to thank for paving the way of skepticism about orthodoxy. But Gnus scoff at those same heretics, which just shows their historical naiveté, as Hoffmann has it, because the Gnus “crave the legitimacy that comes from being able to show it has suffered”.

            Hoffmann is actually arguing that atheists should celebrate religious persecution because it “[paved] the way for the Enlightenment, free speech, and constitutional limitations of the church.” This exactly like thanking murderers for laws against murder.


            understand that Gnu atheists, like the Christian community that was also Gnu once upon a time, crave the legitimacy that comes from being able to show it has suffered. But history is against that. Being unpopular and being actually burned alive for your beliefs, or lack thereof, is an option foreclosed to atheists by the bravery of women and men who fought the battle against religious oppression one doctrine at a time, paving the way for the Enlightenment, free speech, and constitutional limitations of the church. That’s the real story. … this puts atheists in the difficult position of celebrating the work of people they regard as deluded.

          5. stvs ‘This exactly like thanking murderers for laws against murder.’ Nicely put.

          6. I have no problem with celebrating the work of people who I think were deluded… Newton would seem to be a prime example. Gravity: worth celebrating. Alchemy: delusion.

          7. Yeah – you can both celebrate the work (or some of it) of some people, while decrying their idiocy at the same time.

            The whole argument seems to me to be another “Respect my authoritah…I mean, knowledge and scholarship…and dang-nabbit, you Gnus just don’t know yer history!” argument.

      2. It is a non sequitur. It’s just been made up. Mendacity pure and simple. How funny to sit back and watch all those Gnus tripping themselves up over a piece of whole cloth: there have been martyrs, there haven’t been martyrs because, who cares anyway… It makes me very angry, because it appears to be deliberate malice.

  16. I just couldn’t get past the “there are no atheist martyrs” claim. I mean, just statistically speaking, there must have been at least some atheists who have been killed by the religious for their atheism, given all of the purging and inquisiting the latter tend to do; the problem is, until even ten years ago, atheists simply had bad PR.

    By saying “there are no atheist martyrs”, Berlinerblau is really saying “although atheists have been killed in the past for being atheists, history was kind enough to forget about all of them so none of them really matter.”

    I mean, would we consider Joan of Arc a martyr, if Pope Callixtus III hadn’t declared her one? She would probably just be little more than a historical sidenote like the Children’s Crusades if not for bit of intervention.

    (and there’s the other problem, I just realized: declaring someone a martyr is a fundamentally religious thing. What religion would declare someone who opposes them a martyr?)

      1. She wasn’t an atheist (I think she was a pagan of some sort) and she was killed by a lynch mob (which Huff-and-blow have disallowed as a real execution).

        1. A lynch-mob of Christians, btw, raised and abetted by Bishop Cyril of Alexandria, naturally raised to sainthood by the RCC.

      2. The movie Agora certainly presents her as one.



        The Religious Anti-Defamation Observatory (Observatorio Antidifamación Religiosa), a Spanish Catholic group, claimed that the film was responsible for “promoting hatred of Christians and reinforcing false clichés about the Catholic Church.”

        Do you need any better recommendation to go and see this movie?

    1. A couple of good catches. Though this is a made up party game of accommodationists and we shouldn’t humor them reflexively, it is nice to hone one’s views when given opportunity.

      – If theists are adamant that anti-theistic governments are atheistic, we would have a great deal of “atheist martyrs” indeed. Early communists, Hitler (says some theists), Stalin, Pol Pot, …

      – I don’t know about you, but I hold Archimedes & Hypathia as “atheist martyrs”, since they were likely killed for their science and engineering (of war respectively education, in this case). Empiricism is the foundation of mine and some other’s atheism, so it counts.

      Sigmund, where and why were mobs disallowed as making “martyrs” out of people? I tried to find it, but no such luck.

        1. Ah, thanks! I would never have found that, as I wasn’t aware of the larger discussion.

          Well, Hoffman is specious in his non sequiturs. He starts out his piece with “persecution”, when he switch to “martyr” in the sense of christianity. In for a penny, in for a pound.

          If you want to go that route, Hypatia [sp] was “witnessing” by speaking with Orestes, and was “called” to the church where she was butchered by “official” christian priests. That is no more specious and elaborated than Hoffman’s argument.

    2. “declaring someone a martyr is a fundamentally religious thing.” If a martyr is defined as someone who dies for their beliefs, then by definition an atheist who dies for their unbelief is not a martyr – but I would give them the benefit of the doubt.

      1. I would imagine that atheists, in general, realize that it is better to live for their beliefs – hence the lack of a historical atheistic presence, when such things would get you killed 🙂

  17. Wait a second.
    I just realized there are also no atheist saints!

    How about atheist bishops, popes, nuns, or angels?

    1. How about atheist crosses, hats, head-bags, chasubles, hymns, prayers, communion wafers, muezzins, fonts, baptisms, fasts, pilgrimages, stampedes, drownings, executions for blasphemy?

      Man we’re impoverished.

      1. I always thought that Helvetica is an atheist font, myself — unlike Comic Sans, which is definitely a Christian fundamentalist font.

        And, as for hymns, how is one supposed to top “Imagine”?



      2. At least we have the “wine into water” trick down pat. Excuse me while I go wash my hands, I accidentally did the same to my coffee just now.

      3. Exactly. It’s a non-argument. Since when was suppression or opposition ever a measurement of the validity or relevance of an opinion?

        Vehement opposition may indicate a lot of things; but in itself is neither an endorsement or a pertinent criticism of anything. Claims and opinions have to stand or fall on their own merits.

  18. I eagerly await Berlinblau’s follow-up piece, in which he lectures feminists on how they should be grateful to the patriarchy for giving them something to rebel against. And where would the American civil rights movement have been without slavery and Jim Crow?

  19. Nonbelievers would gain much by seeing themselves as heirs of a skeptical tradition, one whose roots extend to religious forms of reasoning and dissent.

    I think Berlinerblau is confusing “religious forms of reasoning and dissent” with philosophical forms of reasoning and dissent. One of the distinguishing hallmarks of religion is its appeal to revelation and faith as justification for its “special,” non-secular, un-worldly facts.

    Religion’s epistemology is faith, not reason. Prophets and mystics do not seek to persuade skeptics to follow them by setting up rational arguments and presenting objective evidence: they seek to convert by proclaiming truths of their own experience, in hopes that others will choose to accept their personal testimony. See and hear me — and believe.

    The Western tradition of reasoning and dissent came out of the Greek philosophical tradition, and were incorporated by Christianity into the subjective, mystical, prophetic traditions of the mideast as a sort of back up plan added to faith. Apologetic is a non-religious approach within religion — not a uniquely religious approach.

    When the ultimate appeal is to Faith and dogma, the secular nature breaks down. As it must be, if it is in fact a religion.

    Sure: humanism grew out of the intellectual struggles of those within the churches who were trying to reconcile faith with reason. The debt is not to faith and religion, then, but to the rational nature and integrity of human beings. There was an internal conflict.

    “Sure, science arose out of Catholicism…in the same sense that plumbing, sanitation systems, and public health policies arose out of sewage.”(PZ Myers)

    1. Prophets and mystics do not seek to persuade skeptics to follow them by setting up rational arguments and presenting objective evidence: they seek to convert by proclaiming truths of their own experience, in hopes that others will choose to accept their personal testimony.

      I’m reminded of how oppressed believers have a way of becoming the oppressors if given the opportunity.

  20. um… is there perhaps an Urban Dictionary for Atheists, somewhere? When I considered such matters many years ago, it was: religion, atheists and agnostics. Now there are Gnu Atheists, Faitheists and… Catheists. Is there a list out there? Perhaps a graph? Venn Diagrams? Anything?

  21. Where is Dan the troll? Isn’t he going to tell us if it weren’t for his god we would all be cannibalizing one another and we’d never even get to discuss who gets the credit for skepticism?

  22. “At the Chronicle of Higher Education (whose new motto seems to be “All the Gnus That Are Fit to Diss”),…”

    WTF is up with CHE lately? I never read the articles, I usually just look at the job ads. But the articles used to have titles that suggested they were relevant to life in academia. Now they are another forum for atheist vs. Gnu atheist?

    Unsubscribing now.

  23. I hate to point this out to Berlinerblau but Skepticism was an ancient Greek invention starting plausibly with Socrates and then Arcesilaus at the Academy. Later Pyrrhonean was put forward by Aenesidemus. Ancient skepticism is only one thread that lead to modern Atheism. The other big one was ancient atomism and naturalism, exemplified by Epicurus.

    I have great respect for religious dissenters and religious freethinkers through history. Dissenters made it possible to be Deists, and Deists made it possible for people to be Atheists. It’s just galling to say that religion made Atheism possible, when it was religion that was the cause of the persecution in the first place.

  24. Faitheists do like their little party games.

    First we had “name atheist dickheads in action” by Mooney. Then there was “cold reading for atheist dickheads” by Plait. And now we have “non sequiturs for atheist dickheads” by Hoffman.

    At least they have established a trend. When will we see “looking for atheist dickheads”?

    Oops, my mistake! Hoffmann covered that as well: “the small but dwindling new atheist community”.

    This looks like another made up party game. If atheism is on the rise worldwide and in US specifically (doubled from 1990 to 2005), where would Hoffman’s unmentioned (or unmentionable) statistics derive? If I understand accommodationists correctly, “new atheists” are what you get when you deduct the subset of accommodationists from atheists at large. So where is the statistic on accommodationists?

    As for the non sequitur, it is analogous to complain that science is a late invention with old roots. It is neither here nor there where the ideas came from, the point is that they work now. If skepticism is such a powerful method, why are there still things like religion to be skeptical about?

    The fact is likely that it isn’t reasoning and dissent alone that is the basis for successful skepticism such as atheism. It is the use of empiricism that makes it a useful endeavor, just as it did in science.

    Instead of endlessly splitting hairs and accommodate hair treatments to color the mess blandly, we can cut off failed ideas and throw them in the dust bin of history. The remaining actual facts look so much more sexy and fashionable, don’t they?

  25. Unbelief has been forced to the surface of our consciousness by critical processes that are rooted in religion: in the empiricism of Maimonides; in Aquinas’s disputational method; in Luther’s critique of Catholicism and sacraments; in Abelard’s stress on the subjectivity of ethics and Roger Bacon’s contributions to scientific thinking.

    The Genetic Fallacy in its full flowering.

    1. It’s not the Genetic Fallacy. It’s just bad history. None of these people figures in the intellectual history of Atheism except as background that was influencing everything. If he just wants to list theists who were important in the history of atheism, then Descartes, Locke, Galileo, Newton, and Gassendi would be better examples.

  26. Jacques Berlinerblau and R. Joseph Hoffman, how are these two even academics, don’t they think their arguments through. It’s no wonder that they haven’t had much success in the publishing world if this is the best they can offer. Their views have been thoroughly dissected by both Jerry and Ophelia and the commentators on both blogs, plus what sort of bloodbath is going on at PZ blog and his comments section right now. Though if you don’t allow dissent on your own blog then you must just believe your right and everyone else is wrong.

  27. The first two books I read on atheism were Atheism: The Case Against God by George H. Smith, and Atheism: A Philosophical Justification by Michael L. Martin. The first was published in 1974, the second in 1992. Both managed to stay in print, and remain in print long enough for me to buy them on Amazon in 1998, and remain in print to this day.

    You’d think, from what these guys are writing, that getting a book about atheism published was impossible at the time.

    1. True, but one was from an academic press (Temple University Press) and the other was from Prometheus Books.
      The difficulty was getting published by large trade imprints with commercial muscle. It was getting published by those sorts of publishers that created the impression of a New Atheism.

      Likewise, J.L. Mackie’s The Miracle of Theism was from OUP.

      1. The first ‘atheist book’ I read was Bertrand Russell’s ‘Why I am not a Christian’. I suspect Russell’s works would have been widely available for quite some time before the recent ‘new atheism’ trend (the original essay was published in 1927 0r 1928!) and laid some important groundwork that is evident in later atheist texts.

        1. Sure. But we’re talking about what publishing opportunities were available in the decades immediately prior to the big Gnu Atheist breakthroughs in 2004-2006.

          Bertrand Russell’s book was very well known back in the 1970s (and before), and it even attracted responses similar to those received by Dawkins et al. E.g. I have an edited volume called Why I Am Still A Christian somewhere on my shelves.

          1. What is it in the criticized’s psychology that makes them childishly adopt and reflect the same meme?

            Rationally, the best they can say in extremis is “I accept your reasoning and/or terminology, but I don’t accept the conclusion – never mind my reasoning is on those same terms”. The lack of fresh insight is odious.

      2. Can you give a list of the publishers you are talking about? Otherwise, we can keep pointing to book after book on atheism that was published before 2004 (Harris’s first book, published by W.W. Norton) and get nowhere.

        I already have Houghton Mifflin down (which, incidentally, did publish on atheism in the 1920s). Stenger is published by Prometheus but you won’t accept them. Hitchens is published by Twelve. What other publishers should we be looking at?

      3. The difficulty was getting published by large trade imprints with commercial muscle. It was getting published by those sorts of publishers that created the impression of a New Atheism.

        That’s incorrect—the Gnu publishing trend “caught fire” with Harris’s book, encouraging other big names and publishers to jump in. The first “atheist book” I read was The Prince, but never mind the classics, there were plenty of atheist books being published. Until Harris’s, none were explicitly marketed as such, but they were certainly being published.

        Recent pre-Harris examples:

        Hitchens, Letters to a Young Contrarian (Perseus 2001), “Only a humorless tyrant could want a perpetual chanting of praises that, one has no choice but to assume, would be the innate virtues and splendors furnished him by his creator, infinite regression, drowned in praise!”

        Wood, The Book Against God (Macmillan 2004), “I denied my father three times, twice before he died, once afterwards.”

        Jacoby, Freethinkers (Metropolitan 2004), “Now let it be written in history and on Mr. Lincoln’s tombstone: `He died an unbeliever.'”

  28. While we’re on the subject of martyrs, you know who else the Nazis sent to the camps? Unitarians! Specifically Norbert Čapek, who gave us the flower communion.

    Another Čapek also died there, Josef the painter, brother of the writer Karel. Among many other things they gave us the word “robot”.

    The Nazis killed so many people that we can choose exemplars at our leisure.

  29. The pagan romans regarded the early christians as atheists, because they denied the gods.

    Does that make them atheist martyrs?

  30. So their argument is essentially that atheists evolved from theists who had pointed their skepticism in the direction of other religious, right?

    So my question is: If atheists evolved from theists, then why are there still theists?

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