The public responds

August 2, 2011 • 2:20 am

Waiting for my flight in the St. Petersburg airport, I looked at some of the comments on my USA Today piece on the secular origin of morality.  Here are a few of the more interesting ones.  I noticed that when Richard Dawkins’s site republished my piece, the first two comments were that my rehashing these arguments was completely unnecessary.

I suspect these folks don’t live in the USA, and maybe they’ll rethink the utility of emphasizing the secular basis of morality when they look at comments like these:

GolanTreviz.  Anyway, militant fundamentalists and militant atheists are essentially psychologically the same. They both stick to misinterpretations of their own dogma and believe not only that all important questions in life have been answered, but that they themselves have all those answers. Me, I’m a well educated Christian and I accept that we know far less than we think as a species.

jeffreyamo  It takes more faith to believe there is NO higher power than it takes to believe there is one.

Its jobs stupid What is “good” without God? Atheists simply change the laws and make their evil legal and call it good.  But look at the facts…Mao, Stalin, Lenin, the French Revolutionists, etc. murdered a combined total in the hundreds of millions. And they all did it in the name of their secular humanists beliefs. Even in America, leftists have murdered 53 million unborn since 1973…all you have to do is call it a “right” and because they have no moral compass they think that makes it right.  “Legal” and “good” are two totally different concepts…and without God, good simply becomes what is legal.

JimF.  Does anyone notice that at the same time athiests/evolutionists are pointing their long, “evolved,” bony fingers at Christians, they talk in hushed tones about evolution as if were their religion…which in reality, it is?

Dan Hochberg. This article has too many errors to deal with in a short post. Coyne knows his subject on evolution but has not thought much about religious issues. I only want to take time to respond to his chief assertion, that we can be good without God.  When atheists do something good (and not for hidden self-serving motives), it is not “without God”, it is because they are still created in the image of God, having his moral nature.

am123 Morality does not come from evolution. We get morality from within (we are all made in the image of God) and we get morality from the Bible. Jesus changed history by telling us to care for the least among us. No such altruistic behavior was to be pursued according to Darwin, who thought it was foolish to care for the least among us.  The idea that morality comes from evolution can be shown to be folly by this: if morality did come from evolution, then evolutionists and atheists like Jerry Coyne would have to admit that believers in God are more evolved than atheists because when it comes to hospitals and good will organizations, those founded by Christians are vast in number and those founded by atheists are virtually zilch.

I’ve also received about two dozen private emails, most of them incredibly hostile and pitying me for my lack of faith in Jesus.  I’m always amazed at such a hostile response to an article that is, after all, pretty calm and reasoned. Such is the reaction when one’s faith is criticized. But really, how can people believe that their morality comes from God’s dictates? That notion defies even a few moments of rational thought.

And yet I’m immensely heartened by the many supportive comments, and by the many who criticized the arguments of the faithful. I doubt that we would have seen such pushback twenty years ago.  And, in honor of those rational folks, I’m putting up Sam Cooke’s wonderful song “A Change is Gonna Come” (along with “Blowing in the Wind,” I consider this one of the two best songs about civil rights).  We can think of it as applying to rationality as well, but regardless, this song always makes me tear up.

156 thoughts on “The public responds

  1. It’s incredible see how little people commenting are engaging in any way with what you actually said in the article. So many people have commented saying the article is inaccurate without bothering to say why.

    Also, what-on-earth is “militant atheism”?

  2. It *was* a very calm and rational article. These responses are way over the top and the hostility is telling. They are holding a position they have held for a long, long time and, finally, someone like you comes along and makes them question it.

    Don’t take the hostility personally, it means they are sensing the doubt in their own minds!

    I know, I used to be one of them (many years ago!).

    1. I hope you’re right. When I read these comments, the question that keeps coming to mind for me is “Did they even read the article?”

      1. “No such altruistic behavior was to be pursued according to Darwin, who thought it was foolish to care for the least among us.”

        He clearly has not read The Descent of Man yet he “knows” Darwin’s feelings on altruism. I’m suspect that most of them have never read anything that disagrees with their views before rushing to attack it.

        1. I think that a big part of the problem is they get their “science” from religious leaders. I speculate they heard that “fact” in a sermon somewhere.

        2. Even in “On the Origin of Species…” as Jerry posted a few weeks ago, Darwin explicitly condemned the notion that ideas on natural selection should prompt us to treat others badly. Darwin clearly understood that observing how nature frequently behaved was no reason to behave in the same manner. And yet fools who can’t be bothered reading simply parrot the ancient lie about “Darwinism”.

      2. I was en-route to be a minister. I changed through reading Dawkins and others and by ending up with a degree in Anatomy, Physiology and Biochemistry. So if it’s possible for me, it’s possible for anyone! 🙂

        1. “Possible for me, possible for anyone”

          That’s a huge faith statement! Quick, get rid of it by studying psychology as well! 😉

    2. Yes, I agree with you.

      Hostility is the response of someone who in his/her heart-of-hearts knows that what’s being said is true, but they don’t want to believe it.

      I suspect that anger is a common reaction when a child first learns there is no Santa Claus.

      It really all boils down to fear of death. They’re afraid of the after-death and want reassurance. Except the type of reassurance they’re clinging to is patent nonsense.

      1. It also has to do with the fact that if their beliefs are wrong, then that makes them an idiot/stupid/etc, which is hard for most people to accept – they just take the emotional reaction and lack the rational response which is to say “Damn, I was wrong, I’m embarrassed but I’m glad I know better now and have learned from this experience.” (ok, a bit long-winded, but it’s true). When you invest so much into something that it becomes a part of who you are, anything that attacks that belief becomes a personal attack and we apes don’t do well with attacks.

        1. Realising you were wrong is painful, changing your mind hurts so they really look for any excuse not to have to do it.

    3. One common trait that I’ve seen is that reading AND writing are at best rusty skills in the hard core religious. It is much easier to to sit back and let Pastor Billy Bob TELL you what you know.

  3. There are so many ridiculous comments it is hard to know where to start.

    I get annoyed by the numbers game – Stalin killed more, Mao killed more etc. Proportionately taken as a percentage of world population I would bet that religious killings in the past accounted for a similar percentage of the world’s population.

    The nutter who says “When atheists do something good (and not for hidden self-serving motives), it is not “without God”, it is because they are still created in the image of God, having his moral nature.” – that is clear then – immorality must therefore ALSO come from god. This ‘image of god’ idea is just stupid.

    1. I should have said, immorality must also be a part of god’s nature. They pick & choose what they want their gods to be like because they make the gods in their own images, so the Rowan Williams god is a kindly fluffy old soul whereas the god of one of these people is vicious & vindictive, etc. etc.

      Excuse me, I now have to point my “long, “evolved,” bony fingers” at christians for a bit.

    2. I get annoyed by the “secular leadership = genocide!” argument as well, but for a different reason. Stalin, Mao, Lenin and the “French Revolutionists” did not kill in the “name of atheism.” It’s hard for me to articulate, but they each had unique belief systems which they did not derive from their “lack of faith,” and which, generally speaking, were really “about” a variety of other issues with atheism tacked on. Generally, anti-religion policies were about squashing possible dissenters or, in the case of the French Revolution, revolt against an organization which had been a powerful tool of oppression. (Sure, the atheism may have been an extension of the materialist beliefs, but the hostility towards Christianity was more due to the Catholic Church being such dicks before the revolution, and those in power associating themselves so closely with the church.)

      That is to say, you can have an atheist who is a moral, sensitive and compassionate individual, and who believes in progressive ideals and social justice, and you can have an atheist who is an amoral, heartless bastard who holds conservative, racist views. Atheism does not automatically lead to any other conclusions (not even rationalism, sadly).

      By contrast, you can have a religious person who condones or commits horrific deeds because they believe they are sanctioned by god, or you can have a religious person who condemns such acts and would never harm a fly.. but the second person is actually ignoring or contorting bits of their religion to fit a secular morality when they are appalled by the notion of killing infidels or stoning adulterers to death.

      Sorry, I’ve always had trouble specifying exactly what it is that drives me nuts about the “Atheism (not communism, or bureaucratic incompetence, or the thirst for obtaining/maintaining absolute power) killed millions of people!” trope. Maybe someone else has said it better; I’ve always been fond of that quote from physicist and Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg: “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil — that takes religion.”

      1. I think I can suggest a different approach that’ll get you to the same ends.

        If Stalin had but abandoned his atheism and embraced a true and abiding faith in Wotan, all those millions would have been spared.

        Had Mao only declared his undying fidelity for Quetzalcoatl, those millions would still be alive.

        ‘Twas naught but Pol Pot’s lack of faith in Siva that led to the killing fields.

        Or, in other words, implicit in every claim that it was atheism that drove those men to do their evil is a claim that only the believer’s own personal favorite gods can provide protection from such horrors.

        Once one understands the true nature of atheism — that all gods are rejected, not just one particular favored pantheon — then these “atheism causes genocide” canards are laid bare as the absurdities they truly are.



        1. Mao and Pol Pot killed millions of Buddhists in their respective countries. I guess that shows what a man can do when he rejects the teachings of the Buddha.

          1. ???

            I don’t subscribe to Buddhism, but I’m pretty sure mass-murder isn’t one of the things I’m yearning to cross off my bucket list.

      2. What upsets me about the argument is that Stalin and Mao (as individuals and as regimes) exhibit the very features I think are most dangerous in religion. They were dogmatic, violently opposed to criticism of any kind, and believed they had the One True Answer which was found via revelation and not through evidence and reason.

        If you have a chance to discuss this with a religious person, it can sometimes be a good teachable moment. Ask them what they think led so many people to behave in such a deplorable fashion. Some will say “because they didn’t follow Christ” but you will occasionally find someone who’s willing to think a bit.

        1. And you have to throw in the cult of personality you got with each of them. I think they were less atheists and more new versions of the old God-Emperors like the Pharaohs and the Roman and Persian Emperors. Religion gets opposed because it seeks to put itself above the rulers… and you see plenty of Christian Kings and Emperors (not to mention Muslim, Hindu, and even Buddhist rulers) throughout history clearly chaffing at the constraints of their religion. But they’re opposition to the church isn’t because of atheism, its because they want power, and they want to control everything, and they would no more tolerate critics of themselves than theocracies would tolerate critics of religion.

        2. “What upsets me about the argument is that Stalin and Mao (as individuals and as regimes) exhibit the very features I think are most dangerous in religion.”

          Which is why I think we should make it clear that we oppose certain religious for very specific reasons (cult of personality, inerrant text, infallible leaders, emphasizing in-group out-group divide) that exist/have existed in other ideologies. We oppose certain religions based on the presence of these (and other) troublesome characteristics.

          This is why, I suspect, Sam Harris has said we shouldn’t use the word atheist. All we need is to point out that specific attitudes and ideas are profoundly unreasonable and potentially dangerous and that many of them find their home in religion.

      3. Actually, I think you said it rather well. When large numbers of individuals become more devoted to “the cause” than their fellow human beings, bad things tend to happen. That cause could be the Revolution (France), communism (Stalinist Russia, Maoist China, Pol Potist Cambodia), or, and the religious never seem quite willing to apologize for this, Papist Europe (Crusades. Inquisition). Just because Stalin happened to have been an atheist doesn’t mean millions died in the name of atheism, and the fact that the religious seem to think of this as a legitimate defense of their chosen nonsense is pathetic.

      4. It doesn’t seem to me you had much trouble articulating the problem w the canard. Well said.

        Dawkins has a couple of pithy refutations, also: 1) that atheism had as much to do w Stalin’s and Hitler’s barbarity as their moustaches. And, clearly, since they both had moustaches, moustaches are harbingers of evil! /sarcasm

        2) That there is no logical pathway a non-believer can take (starting from his/her non-belief) to condone acts of barbarity. Religion, OTOH, is largely made up of rationalizations for barbaric behavior.

    3. This is a good resource for countering that nonsense: “Red Crimes: The alleged bloody history of atheism.”


      The basic conclusion is that it isn’t atheism which leads to rampant disregard for human life, but adherence to any dogmatic, anti-rational ideology that rejects science and embraces anti-intellectualism.

    4. Also, the folks the dolt listed apparently killed “hundreds of millions” … clearly contrary to historical fact – but why let facts get in the way of blind faith – after all, faith is a virtue – or so the self-professed messengers of god say.

  4. Read your piece via the Dawkins site.The sad things about the adverse comments are the cliched comments from the ‘educated christian’ but worse the truly abysmal lack of even the beginnings of clear thinking. Keep writing.Thanks

  5. Jerry, of course I support you as a person, that’s not the same as having to agree with everything you write in your article.

    I think there are problems in how you define morality as secular, and its origins. I can’t agree with you on that I’m afraid.

    You have my emotional support, and I condemn the prejudice made by some of these comments against atheists, but don’t let that distort criticisms of your article by fellow rationalists.

      1. I define morality as caring for others.

        And secular means all sorts of things, but if you or Jerry mean secularism as meaning atheism or non-religious, then that does not automatically mean someone is moral.

        1. Nobody said that being secular (in whatever form that takes) would automatically make you moral. Being secular means having to think hard about effects and consequences in order to be moral.

        2. Btw, Egbert, are you AtheistEgbert on


          PS. In the interest of transparency, I’m Ant Allan/AntAllan/antallan/ant.allan everywhere on the net except deviantArt (deviAntAllan) and Wikipedia (Ant).

          1. Hey Allan/Ant etc.

            Yes that’s me on I started a discussion there asking people for various definitions of morality and it resulted in some interesting responses.

        3. I think you’re looking at it backwards. Jerry’s not saying secular = moral, he’s saying moral = secular. That is, that we actually define what is “moral” without religion, as evidenced by the disparity between Old Testament and modern ideas of morality. It’s the difference between something being malum prohibitum (bad because someone, in this case god, says so) and malum in se (bad in and of itself).

          1. The word “secular” just means something like “worldly” – as opposed to “otherworldly”. For example, in the political sphere “secularism” is the doctrine that the state should concern itself solely with worldly issues and considerations, not with otherworldly concerns. In particular, it should not attempt to impose a body of otherworldly beliefs and associated practices on its citizens.

            Jerry is saying that the origins and grounding of morality are worldly. Morality, according to Jerry, is not grounded in, and did not originate from, anything supernatural or otherworldly. Putting it another way, nothing spooky is required for moral goodness as we understand it.

            That’s an important point to make, because the opposite is very widely believed.

          2. It is not clear what Jerry means by secular in the article.

            Obviously it’s an article in a popular newspaper read by ordinary people, not philosophy professors.

            And do we have a consensus about morality yet? I don’t think so, I think it’s a new area with lots of interesting ideas, but no full consensus among the atheist community.

          3. It is not clear what Jerry means by secular in the article.

            Um… maybe he meant, ah, secular: “denoting attitudes, activities, or other things that have no religious or spiritual basis : secular buildings | secular moral theory [sic!]. Contrasted with SACRED.” [NOAD]

            What else could he have meant? This is perfectly good, idiomatic English: Surely you don’t have to be a philosophy professor to understand this?


          4. I think you’re obstructing your own view of this issue by supposing that an “intellectual” approach is necessarily a “grey”, or ambiguous one, rather than a black and white one.

            True, most things can’t be thought of in such clear-cut terms. But the use of “secular” here is not problematic. Even if “secular” has many meanings, it’s obvious that the sense in which Jerry intends it is as an opposite; i. e., “not religious.” Which can subsume all the other meanings you might have in mind.

            The absence of an exact definition of morality is also not a problem. It is enough, for the purposes of this conversation, to understand that the category “morality” is filled with details and definitions (whatever those might specifically be) that arise from “secular” considerations.

          5. Yeah, morality is not grounded/did not originate in the sorts of things religion concerns itself with: stuff to do with eternity rather than our time-bound existence, otherworldly stuff, sacred stuff, spooky stuff…

            None of that is needed for morality. That’s the thesis.

            Egbert, it looks as if the word “secular” threw you here, but Jerry’s use of it was just fine, and the word is reasonably well known. It’s not as if he was using obscure philosophical terminology.

          6. I disagree. Secular is a well known word but covers such a variety of umbrella ideas that I’m afraid it’s incoherent in the article. Also the terms “secular reason/reasoning” and “secular morality” are entirely new to me, and don’t show up any particularly large hits when googled.

            I think some people are probably correctly interpreting what Jerry is trying to get at, but that’s not at all clear in the actual article and to its readers.

          7. Sorry, Egbert, but I’m just not seeing it.

            It’s pretty clear from context that Jerry is using “secular” in the sense of “not religious,” and he even gives the examples of Sweden and Denmark if you have any questions.



          8. When I (on a whim) looked up “secular”, it only had one meaning. If it has more, I’d say that most are either distortions created by the religious/political right (in the US), or some obscure ones that philosophers have created. Hell, even the origin (from is simple and plain:

            1250–1300; < Medieval Latin sēculāris, Late Latin saeculāris worldly, temporal (opposed to eternal), Latin: of an age, equivalent to Latin saecul ( um ) long period of time + -āris -ar1 ; replacing Middle English seculer < Old French < Latin, as above"

            If some moron doesn't know the meaning of the word, that's not the fault of the writer.

          9. Secular is a well-known word with a well-known meaning. I don’t know about this “variety of umbrella ideas” you speak of. As I said before, What else could he have meant?

            (NOAD does cite four other meanings, none of which are remotely applicable this context.)

            It seems very odd that you haven’t seen it used in the context of reason and morality, esp. when the NOAD definition I cited gives “secular moral theory” as an example, so it can hardly be obscure. Perhaps you just need to get out more… ? 😉


        4. Egbert – you say “I think there are problems in how you define morality as secular, and its origins” but you have not told us where YOU think morality comes from, only that you think Professor Coyne has it wrong over that. So where does ‘caring for others’ come from?

          1. Egbert, you are sooo going to hate my new book in which I use the word “secular” throughout in just the sense we have discussed here (though I do define it as interchangeable for my purposes with “worldly” or “of this world”).

            But really, it’s meaning is quite clear and well-known. Tust me on this, the word is used correctly by Jerry and its meaning is usually clear enough to a broad, educated audience.

            OTOH there’s no reason to call you a moron as someone did above – we all learn something new each day and when we do we frequently have little things that we kick ourselves for not already knowing. This certainly happens to me all the time. It’ll probably happen to me over something today, as it does most days.

          2. To be fair to Badger3k, he didn’t actually call Egbert a moron…

            But I’m sure we will all kick ourselves once Egbert reveals this “variety of umbrella ideas” he speaks of.


          3. I really have no problem with the word ‘secular’, but I just do not understand why you keep insisting that its meaning is clear, it isn’t. My dictionary (Collins English Dictionary) defines at least 10 definitions. And then you have the historical, political, international and philosophical interpretations.

            I have no problem with your definition of secular as ‘worldly’ although it is as general and vague as the word ‘natural’ or ‘well-being’. This is my point–it’s not specific to anything, and doesn’t tell us anything about morality.

            Also, I am not criticizing your posts, only the article which was vague and incoherent about the origins of morality.

            And of course, it’s unacceptable to use personal insults against posters with disagreements. But it seems you are actually agreeing with the sentiments expressed! I won’t take it personally.

            And good luck with your book, I will certainly look forward to criticizing it.

          4. Well, it just so happens I have a copy of CED by my desk – not as convenient as the electronic copy of NOAD on my iMac, but occasionally worth turning to.

            It does indeed have ten definitions, but the last two are nouns, not adjectives, and you’d surely agree that Jerry was using secular as an adjective, ne?

            Of the remaining eight, the last four correspond exactly with the four definitions from NOAD that are not remotely applicable in this context, so I can’t see why those would be a source of confusion.

            So, the first four: “1. of or relating to worldly as opposed to sacred things; temporal. 2. not concerned with or related to religion. 3. not within the control of the Church. 4. (of an education, etc.) a. having no particular religious affinities. b. not including compulsory religious studies or services.” (4.b. really falls into the same class as 5.6.)

            Well, these strike me as nuanced variations of NOAD’s “denoting attitudes, activities, or other things that have no religious or spiritual basis” — I can’t see how any of these should have caused confusion to the man on the Clapham omnibus.

            And then you have the historical, political, international and philosophical interpretations.

            You do? Where are the dictionary definitions for these “interpretations” then? If they were at all in common use, with meanings distinct from other definitions, surely they’d be in the dictionary… ?

            OK, granted, some narrowly specialist definitions of words don’t get mainstream dictionary entries. But Jerry was writing a piece for the U.S. popular press, not a historical, political, international or philosophical journal, so I think it’s entirely disingenuous to suppose that he might have been using a meaning other than an idiomatic English one.


          5. Dominic,

            I think it comes from empathy, or more specifically from sympathy or compassion. I think most people would basically agree, although plenty of people are adding interpretations on what empathy is.

            I went into some detail about this on the thread if you want to read it there.

          6. Forgive me if I’ve addressed something along these lines to you in the past; I can’t remember every conversation….

            But you leave wide open the question of, “Whence empathy?” Where do these feelings come from, and why should it be good for us to have them?

            …which is why it’s my position that morality is, in the sense used by Game Theory, an effective strategy for life. Societies prosper more when their members are compassionate, meaning that compassionate people, in the aggregate, tend to thrive more than soulless monsters. But our emotions are akin to reflexes that let us throw and catch things without much conscious thought; they’re evolved innate shortcuts to the underlying math.

            They’re also imperfect, though they do provide an excellent foundation — which is why we need to carefully and consciously analyze such things and bring all our intellects and other tools to bear so that we may transcend our genetic heritage.

            For example, it is a common innate emotional response to heinous crimes for people to want to torture and kill the perpetrator by way of revenge and retribution. This harms society and does nobody any good; fortunately, in more modern times, we have been able to grow past the drive for revenge. Such would not be possible without reasoned analysis of empirical evidence. Our emotions fail us in such cases, but our reason does not.



          7. Ben,

            Yes, we all have our different interpretations for morality. What interests me is if we can all find a consensus, a beginning point where we can all agree that, yes, that’s what morality is, and so then we can analyse it.

            I think empathy (specifically sympathy or compassion) is a good candidate for that beginning point.

          8. +1

            Although our compassion and intellect are also part of our genetic heritage, are they not? So, do we really transcend that or (?) refine it?


          9. @Egbert:

            Empathy is not good enough for a starting point. As Ben asked, whence empathy? I’ve seen and heard several explanations as to how and why empathy might get selected for, from Coyne, Dawkins, et al. Ben’s explanation has to do with what types of behaviors enable a prosperous population, and therefore propagate. Empathy is not an explanation. Empathy needs to be explained.

          10. Hey, Ben, can you recommend a good introductory book on game theory? (Or anyone else?)

            Have you read Axelrod’s The Evolution of Cooperation (1985?; rev. 2006)?



          11. Hey, Ben, can you recommend a good introductory book on game theory?

            Oh, gee. That’s a tough one.

            I’m certain I first encountered game theory back when I was a teenager. I’m pretty sure we spent some time on it in a non-major psychology class at ASU. I seem to remember one or more PBS-type programs that dealt with it, and I know there’ve been lots of articles over the years in the popular science press. Gaps I’ve often filled in with the usual Internet suspects.

            I know there are actual mathematicians here; maybe one of them is still reading and can offer some suggestions.


  6. “I’m always amazed at such a hostile response to an article that is, after all, pretty calm and reasoned.”

    But it is precisely calm and reasoning that these critics are objecting to. If you had made a passionate emotional appeal for atheism they would merely have dismissed it as nonsense; it’s only because it’s calm and reasonable that it is perceived as a threat. In their world view communication is not for changing minds; it is for testimony.

    1. LOL! Good point. They know how to deal with other dogmatic, irrational religionists. People who disagree based on reason and evidence is a new and unwelcome change.

    2. Absolutely. As Dawkins points out, clarity is what gets him branded as strident, or militant. He has the audacity to cut to the chase, say what he means, and not to burden his syntax with waffle-words or unnecessary polysyllables. Theists aren’t accustomed to such potent communication.

      1. Quite so.

        Additionally, it’s the very bread and butter of apologists and theologians to indulge in the exact opposite of a clear expression of ideas and well-reasoned points of view while they pander to their fanbase (why else were English bibles & masses banned for so long in England?).

        Start talking in plain freakin’ English and that unwashed lot in the pews might actually start understanding some of the conversation – which of course leads to the possibility that some might not buy it anymore.

  7. It takes more faith to believe there is NO higher power than it takes to believe there is one.

    I don’t know who is in charge of synonyms, but if the above commenter is correct, then whoever made faith a synonym for religion has made a grievous error. Lol.

    1. It really doesn’t take faith (in the normative religious sense) to accept that morality is an emergent process out from evolution and resultant culture. On the other hand, only faith can sustain a belief that Great Diddle Fingers magically infuses moral understanding into the “hearts” of homo sapiens.

    2. At best I would refer to a god as “another power,” because I don’t accept the premise that its alleged existence means that we have to submit to it like the dominant hominin in our pack.

  8. It seems to me that most of the pro-theism comments are reactionary and defensive because you’ve touched a nerve. It’s like you’ve just told a child that Santa Claus isn’t real, and he’s throwing a tantrum saying, “He is! He is! He is!”

    It’s kind of sad that this sort of article even needs to be written, but it obviously does.

    1. Children in American culture seem to handle the transition from belief in Santa to clausphemy without experiencing existential angst, despair, nihilism, anomie or the other evils attributed to atheism. In fact, if you met a kid who, upon hearing the truth about Santa, lamented that he had based all his hopes on a live, and now had nothing to live for, you’d find that pretty damn peculiar; it would sound like something from an episode of “South Park.”

  9. Religion remains a means of reinforcing tribalism / us vs. them mentalities.

    Meanwhile, atheism, particularly as supplemented by recent biological (genomic) information, reinforces a sense that we’re all on this planet together.

  10. interesting, the people who argue that mroality is because we’re ‘in God’s image’ are sort of half agreeing with your argument… that morality comes from inside rather than from some ‘holy book’.

    Now it’s time for them to take the next step…

    1. One other thought. Even a few hundred or few thousand responses reflect only a fraction of the people who’ve read the op-ed. For each defensive nutter, there are probably far more who at least got something to think about, some additional understanding, even if they themselves have a religious belief.

  11. GolanTreviz’s comment is a huge and obvious straw man… Where are all these atheists who feel we’ve already answered all of the important questions?

    As Richard Dawkins pointed out in The God Delusion, awareness of what you don’t yet know is the key to finding new areas of study and research.

    Perhaps there are some rebellious, unthoughtful, perhaps teenage ‘atheists’ who foolishly think they know it all, but I haven’t met any of them, and they certainly don’t speak for me.

      1. Unless the “divine truth” is “I Don’t Know” – that seems to be our “answer” to the big questions (assuming such big questions are valid. A “big question” such as “where do we go when we die” isn’t really one (even though we have an answer: nowhere, the grave, etc.

    1. … Where are all these atheists who feel we’ve already answered all of the important questions?
      At Discover magazine; you remember Sean Carrol? “But I do know how close we are to having a comprehensive theory of the basic laws underlying the phenomena we encounter in our everyday lives… Namely, we already have it!”

      1. Marshall, if you honestly think that’s an answer to that question, you need to re-read Carrol’s article, but this time actually pay attention to what he says.

  12. Note the lame attempt in the Hochberg comment to go for the discussion ending thrust: “When atheists do something good…it is because they are still created in the image of God…” Sort of like, “You say the earth is spherical not flat? but that’s just because God in his infinite wisdom made the earth so great that it looks as if it stretches out forever”; “You say the earth revolves around a modest star in a modest galaxy in a remote corner of the universe and isn’t the center of it all? but that just magnifies God’s greatness by having it appear that the sun, moon and stars move around us, we who are the centerpiece of His creation.” “You say…” Oh, crap; my head is about to explode.

  13. The article may be calm, but the content and the message is one that strikes right at the heart of what many Christians hear preached from the pulpit on a regular basis.

    Back in the day when I considered myself a Christian, I would have been upset but that article. No I would not have been the type to send you messages of hate or anger, but I would certainly have been upset or even angry at it.

    I think the reason is that when you hear over and over again that the only reason you are good is because of God in your life and that without God, the default mode is selfish and evil, then it becomes very hard when those “selfish” and “evil” people come up with an different suggestion and your best response gets laughed out of the room.

    I can understand the anger and upset that article has caused. Its because of how its written, its because of the message it contains. I wager it’ll be impossible to raise the points in that article without some sort of un-Christian response.

    1. That phenomenon is properly known as, “cognitive dissonance.” And it’s a really, really, really nasty one that can be a real bitch to overcome.



    2. Were you a Baptist?

      I hear a lot from Baptists about the “sin nature” of man.

      Funny though, is that I’ve found that most people are kind, generous, cooperative, friendly, and prone to behaving according to established cultural norms (ie, not “sinning”).

      To me, this line of argument is just a way for the preacher to reinforce why people need to come to church every Sunday (and fill the collection plate). It’s emotional abuse is what it is.

      1. I wouldn’t have called myself Baptist, just Fundamental literalist Christian.

        Over the years I was involved with a variety of churches, Baptist, CofE and Pentecostal.

        That line of teaching was more strong in the Pentecostal and least strong in the CofE, but in all honesty, it has existed in all in varying degrees.

        I wouldn’t say that its preached to fulfill a need, I’d say its preached because its believed.

    3. At first I questioned the need for the Atheist Billboards, but when I started looking at the signage in front of the local churches, again and again its “Be good with God”, “Take God into work and be Good” and all other manner things that fuse God so heavily to the notion of goodness, that its not hard to see why so many people equate piety with goodness.

      Of course, being the son of a church secretary, I went to church every Sunday, and pretty much any other sort of meeting as a kid, and I saw just as much petty, spiteful politicking, lack of charity, and grumpiness there as any place else. That’s why I always found those people who were super happy optimistic Christians so unsettling… did they go to a different place than I did?

  14. Yes, Jerry, how come you lack faith in Jesus? So much FAIL in one little sentence…

    Have a safe trip home.

    Here’s what I’m missing from the responders to the article: Which God(s) provide morality? Will any of them do, just as long as you have some kind of religion? Where do you draw the line? Oh sure, Baptists, but how about Methodists? Presbyterians? Catholics? Seventh Day Adventists? Mormons? Unitarians? Amish? Muslims? Scientologists? Pastafarians? Hindi? Shintoists? Wicca? Satanists? Norse? Greek Pantheists? Pagans?

    Overwhelmingly they’re talking about Jesus, as though that’s the only possible religion that has any morality. People were decent and moral before their imaginary Christ was invented, and will be so long after he is forgotten.

    1. Yeah,

      And how does one tell the voice of god from avoice in one’s head?

      And is there anything a believer wouldn’t do if he was convinced god wanted him to?

      (Oh yeah– and what is atheist dogma; I didn’t get the memo.)

      1. Never mind the voice in your own head — how do you tell the difference between Jesus talking to you and Satan talking to you?

        If you drink the kook-aid and buy into the fantasy, Satan is constantly tricking us mere mortals into thinking that he’s Jesus, and there’s no defense short of an exorcism for that. But even priests can be possessed, so how do you know that your exorcist is the real deal?

        It’s not turtles all the way down, it’s a festering swamp of insanity.



        1. There’s one commenter, Echo22, who essentially insists several times that when s/he hears voices it’s god, but when atheists hear voices it’s satan. And satan only made JAC think he was doing a good deed by helping the FedEx guy and ruining god’s plan for him.

          I wonder if Echo’s handle comes from the 22 voices echoing in his/her hollow head?

          1. Because you would feel compelled to correct them and it would never end. I just read it for the lulz. Slow day yesterday.

          2. It’s just the incorrect forum to make that argument. Believe me, I suffer from SIWOTI on occasion, although not as much as you two. If I let it take over, I won’t even sleep that night. I just remind myself that I have better things to do, such as interacting with people I care about. I refuse to let the interwebs take over my life.

        2. How long have you been doing the TrumpetPower logo thing? It looks so much like the automated ones, that I missed it until now.

          1. Here? At least a few months. The logo itself…the first Bush administration. No, not the first of W’s two, but papa’s….



          2. When I log in with the wordpress website I have a dead vole as my ‘gravatar’ 🙁 Unfortunately at some point thinking I needed to do that I created another as domtheobscure & one PC always tries to change my log in to that so I am a bit schizophrenic!

        3. Not to mention even god tell folks to go out and murder. I always wondered why those bits weren’t purged when the apocryphal verses were expurgated. Perhaps it was because they were part of the Old Testament, but then again surely the devil wasn’t born the same day as Jesus?

          1. Actually, yeah, the concept of Satan (capital S) as an actual being was first forged by the all-loving awesome hippy, Jebus. There are only a few (I think 2) references to a satan (lowercase s) in the OT, and in that regards it is more about a natural opposition to reaching a goal.

            It’s not until revealations that the debil goes back and takes credit for being the snake in the garden, and other such post hoc “oh yeahs! I waz that guyz too!”

            43Alley’s latest video on The YouTubes goes into great detail about this transition in the holey book (don’t want to link to it and somehow end up embedding).

          2. That’s not quite right. Satan is a major character in the introductory part of Job, but there he’s not so much the devil as a critic or the quality control guy. Job’s afflictions are the result of a wager between God and Satan. It’s a funny book, worth a look (at least the beginning and the end).

        4. That’s one of the main reasons why I’ve grown to really hate the Exorcism horror movies. Clearly, they exist in a world with a God and a Devil, but the devil seems to think its a productive use of his time to horribly possess a kid (rather than say, hit them with a truck), while God seems to think that an ageless, powerful entity is better dealt with by some old guy with a rosary than with an angel with a flaming sword. And no one ever really calls God out on that kind of bullshit, since its clear that this isn’t a situation that a persons freedom of choice put them in. Its *always* God’s fault for not locking Satan up properly, and not providing humans with an equivalent force to deal with these things.

          And even more than that, they seem like a sneaky campaign to cover the child abuse of mentally ill people by priests that think their magic helps people.

        5. Yes, I always wonder what method they are using to tell the real immaterial beings from the mythological ones.

    1. Yeah, we may not have much in common but we can all agree that Mooney is wrong and can never, ever be right about anything. Bloody splitter!

  15. The triggering of a “kill or be killed” response in so many people with magical-religious beliefs is universal — mainly MA + men it appears. We have looked for some research on the neurology of this but all we can see is the general problem of a hyperactive amygadala.

    There is an increase in disinhibition in MA+ men.

    Would lover references to brain research on this. Not just magical thinking and religiosity but the triggering of murderous reactions.

  16. I too read the first couple of comments at, and I suspect that they came from a pair of insular, mollycoddled Brits. I am also a Brit but I realise that a dialogue about what it means to be an atheist is extremely important in America and beyond, and the stupefying idiocy and ignorance spewing forth from the religious dissenters to Jerry’s article is testament to that. When the majority of the world’s population consists of misinformed woo-merchants then our message needs to be shouted from the rooftops as often and as loudly as possible.

    1. I am not convinced that the “woo-merchants” are misinformed. They see a tremendous cash cow for their makeshitupology. And in this economy you go for all you can get.

      1. Of course, I do not for a second doubt that there are a great number of disingenuous people out there who are knowingly peddling nonsense for their own selfish ends, although some of the comments that Jerry has posted, and others that I have read at USA Today, strike me as being classic examples of gross ignorance from people who truly believe the nonsense that they are spouting, and who unquestioningly believe the guff that they have been systematically indoctrinated to believe from a young age.

        I think that to say that the majority of those who are atacking Jerry’s article are being disingenuous, and don’t actually believe what they are saying, is both patronising to those people and ignoring the pertinent point that, yes, many people actually do not understand what Jerry is saying and instead parrot the nonsense that they have been indoctrinated to believe.

  17. “I’m always amazed at such a hostile response to an article that is, after all, pretty calm and reasoned. Such is the reaction when one’s faith is criticized.”

    Humans are, by nature, stupid, ignorant and vicious. Any improvements over this are a result of social conditioning. Some are not much conditioned. Most only cover their nature with a thin skin, easily scratched off.

    It takes little to turn a group into a mob, lynch or other. It takes less to offend the mob.

    1. ‘Humans are, by nature, stupid, ignorant and vicious.’
      That is not true. A few may be, by nature, but R & H got it right when they said, “you’ve got to be carefully taught”. Far too many children of religious parents are indoctrinated into their stupidity, ignorance and viciousness. Many other ideologies can claim the same ‘virtues’.

  18. I posted a link to a discussion that I am in and got this response as well:

    Wow, outstanding essay, John. Thanks for the link. I don’t read USA Today, but from what I think I know of it, this strikes me as uncharacteristic. Do they often publish essays like this?

    I don’t know the answer to the essays question though.

  19. Anyone else get the impression that the nasty comments come from people who never even read past the title provided by USA Today? There should have been something 2/3 into the article saying “please mention ‘banana’ somewhere in your comment if you actually read the article.”

    1. I get that impression often when I read article comments in general, and not just with this particular article. Doubly so if the topic is religion vs. atheism, evolution, or politics.

    2. I think what we’re reading is the defensive reaction of people who are realizing that atheists find their magical beliefs as wrong, silly, and potentially harmful as they find all those “other” “wrong” faiths– and for the same reasons!

      It seems much easier for believers to lump in atheism with other “wrong” religions rather than consider the fact that it’s identical to the believers own lack of belief in Greek Myths,fairies, etc.

  20. Sam Cooke himself had to deal with religious folks hassling him after he left gospel music for pop. There’s a funny bit in Peter Gurlanick’s biography of Cooke where he holds up a wad of money and tells one of his old gospel colleagues “This is my God now!”

    Religious types who point to Stalin and Mao and so on never seem to have realized that the only reason religious conflicts haven’t killed more people is because they lacked the technology. If guns and atom bombs had been around 500 years ago, there would be no one left on earth.

    1. If the maniacs running around the Middle East during the Crusades had a-bombs… Well, let’s not think about that.

  21. So much stupidity, so little banana (re MadScientist):

    “It takes more faith to believe there is NO higher power than it takes to believe there is one.”

    It is evidently true … because it needs no explanation?

    Besides, even if true it doesn’t contradict the article. It was concerned with the secular origin of morality, not the secular origin of anything else.

    “if morality did come from evolution, then evolutionists and atheists like Jerry Coyne would have to admit that believers in God are more evolved than atheists because when it comes to hospitals and good will organizations, those founded by Christians are vast in number and those founded by atheists are virtually zilch.”

    Again with the religious ladder of progress. Both are equally evolved; one is more moral.

    As it happens, IIRC even in US when you run the numbers and remove the tax exemptions and the money that goes to churches instead of the intended help, you come up short compared to over all secular contribution.

    And in any case you have always the mentioned Sweden and Denmark. So again an argument that doesn’t make the article a target for valid criticism.

    1. when it comes to hospitals and good will organizations, those founded by Christians are vast in number and those founded by atheists are virtually zilch.

      So we get stuck with Stalin, but we don’t get credit for government-provided socialized medicine?

      1. …or the Red Cross. (oh yeah, most Christians think that’s a religious organization). Or Doctors w/o Borders, UNICEF, Mercycorps, Oxfam, United Way…

        1. Yup – it’s a serious issue, which is why there’s also the Red Crescent. The cross in the Red Cross did originally have a tenuous tie to the christian cross.

    2. ““if morality did come from evolution, then evolutionists and atheists like Jerry Coyne would have to admit that believers in God are more evolved than atheists because when it comes to hospitals and good will organizations, those founded by Christians are vast in number and those founded by atheists are virtually zilch.””

      And of course the Christians who founded these organizations often did so for reasons that, in my view, do not respect the humanity of other people.

      1) God told them to/Get to heaven
      2) Opportunity to save souls

      Neither of which express a true concern for other people. Of course these aren’t the only reasons Christians form charities/hospitals, but it would be naive to assume these reasons aren’t part of the equation.

  22. I think the very fact that rational criticism of religion elicits such hostile reaction by so many is one good reason for engaging in such criticism. It is unseemly to me that adults can behave so shamefully and immaturely. Maybe if their reactions can be pointed out to them somehow they will become aware of how inappropriate and irrational such responses are. Maybe also they can reflect on what such a response says about their beliefs/confidence in them. Perhaps by our collective criticism we can cause society to grow-up somewhat.

  23. Here’s a wonderful video of a dog instinctively helping to pull another dog – that had been struck by traffic – off of the highway. The dog is in considerable danger of being struck himself but helps nonetheless.

  24. Altruism towards animals can turn ridiculous such as when people risk their life to save a pet. Some animal loving kooks care more about cats and dogs than about human beings. At least religion elevates mankind above the beasts.

    1. There are definitely some people I care less about than my dogs. My dogs have never blown up innocent humans, or raped children, or killed girls just for going to school. Are you honestly suggesting I should have more consideration for the perpetrators of those acts than for my loving companion animals?

    2. How does religion elevate mankind above beasts? If anything, religion condemns humans to universal hatred and ignorance while hypocritically and sanctimoniously professing love and divinely revealed truth.

  25. Perhaps I can offer a counterweight to the religionists attacking Professor Coyne for his (gasp!) perversity and blasphemy. I am a Conservative rabbi (I’ll match my religious credentials against anybody) and yet I find it convoluted in the extreme to argue that morality comes from God.

    Jerry makes a thoroughly reasonable case. I personally agree with him. But even if one disagrees, there is no legitimate room for the haughtiness or the nastiness of the opposition.

  26. Those responses make me sadface.

    I would like to pretend that people like that don’t live in Australia, sadly, I’m sure some of them do. ):

    1. People like that are everywhere except perhaps Antarctica. It just seems like the USA has more than its fair share.

  27. I bet Egbert at 6. would prefer to say there are naturalistic reasons why: A) animals jump away from painful contact, B) dogs can play nice with each other, and C) Jerry sprang into action reflexively.

    Conversely, if you call C secular — and if you say the evolutionary origins of C are secular — then I think you find yourself working backwards to say: B) dogs can play nice with each other for secular reasons, and A) animals jump away from painful contact for secular reasons. I suppose you could shoehorn all these effects into a dictionary definition of secular, but then you could say: D) birds have wings for secular reasons. I’ve never seen a biologist use the word “secular” this way before reading this article.

    Personally, I reserve the word secular for human constructs, like how to organize a society with conventions — like laws and traffic lights — that are worldly or non-religious. And those human constructs are not the evolutionary origin of morality.

    To argue all this in the positive, if you want to talk about the origins of morality in terms of evolutionary biology, I would recommend the adjective naturalistic over secular. Or maybe you can find a better word than naturalistic. Anyway, I bet this was Egbert’s original point.

    1. If that had been Egbert’s original point, I think he could have as clearly articulated that, rather than maundering about an unsubstantiated “variety of umbrella ideas”.

      I see what you are driving at, but (a) I suspect that “naturalistic” would have been less meaningful to USA Today’s readership than “naturalistic”, and (b) I think “secular” does better reflect the social and intellectual (“memetic”?) strata of morality that overlay it’s genetic, evolutionary origins.


    2. Dave Ricks,

      Yes, I think naturalistic is a slightly better and more meaningful term, but that also has a few philosophical pitfalls.

      I asked the question “Naturalistic fallacy?” in the previous thread, which got more or less ignored. Does Jerry fall for the naturalistic fallacy? I think he might, and yet, I question the naturalistic fallacy itself, since I might also be breaking it by bringing up ’empathy’.

      1. Really? What are the philosophical pitfalls of “naturalistic” here? Philosophical naturalism underlies science generally and is central to sceptical (gnu) atheism.

        The “naturalistic fallacy” (so called) has very little to do with philosophical naturalism as far as I can see (nor is it actually a logical fallacy), but with erroneously equating shared natural qualities.

        I think your earlier interjection was largely ignored because you provided nothing to rebut. If you really think that Jerry falls for the naturalistic fallacy, it behooves you to explicate that, not leave it to the rest of us to hazard why you might think so!

        Matt was quite right to say, “Well clearly, but in reference to what ? As it stands it makes no sense. It is an incomplete question.” Absent a cogent argument, the flippant responses you did get are probably the best that you could hope for.


    3. if you want to talk about the origins of morality in terms of evolutionary biology, I would recommend the adjective naturalistic over secular.

      I would think it depends on context. If someone makes the claim that “we are moral because we are made in Gods image” or that “Birds have wings because God deemed it to be so” then the word secular does make sense. if on the other hand you are having a conversation between biologists then the word secular is probably not appropriate.

      1. OK, I can agree with this: Science can explain the origin of morality with naturalistic or secular storytelling. In that sentence, I can exchange naturalistic and secular, and the human activity of storytelling is the same.

        I confused myself by reading Jerry as saying something like, “The explanation for morality is secular” and I compared that to something like, “The explanation for orbits is gravity.” Those two sentences look similar, but they’re talking on different levels of abstraction. If I wanted those two levels of abstraction in the same paragraph, I might say, “Our explanation for morality is a secular story” and, “Our mechanism for orbits is gravity.”

  28. I personally thought it was an excellent article, I posted it up on my Facebook wall and it started some interesting discussions along the lines of the above comments.

    My favourite comment though was this one:

    “if morality did come from evolution, then evolutionists and atheists like Jerry Coyne would have to admit that believers in God are more evolved than atheists because when it comes to hospitals and good will organizations, those founded by Christians are vast in number and those founded by atheists are virtually zilch.”

    Such idiocy doesn’t warrant a response.

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