Julian Baggini discovers, to his chagrin, that atheism and “real” religion are incompatible

December 9, 2011 • 10:28 am

Philosopher Julian Baggini has written a series of seven essays on religion and atheism at the “Comment is free” section of The Guardian.  His avowed purpose was to find common ground between atheism and religion, and his arguments are set out in these pieces:

As he said in the first essay:

Broadly speaking, the problem is that the religious mainstream establishment maintains a Janus-faced commitment to both medieval doctrines and public pronouncements about inclusivity and moderation; agnostics and more liberal believers promote an intellectualised version of religion, which both reduces faith to a thin gruel and fails to reflect the reality of faith on the ground; while the new atheists are spiritually tone-deaf, fixated on the superstitious side of religion to the exclusion of its more interesting and valuable aspects. A plague on all their houses: all are guilty of becoming entrenched in unsustainable positions. For there to be movement, all are going to have to recognise their failings and shift somewhat. The battlelines need to be redrawn so that futile skirmishes can be avoided and the real fights can be fought. This is the first in a series of articles which together will attempt to do just this.

I thought from the outset that this enterprise—though some of Baggini’s essays proved quite good—was futile.  It’s not likely that religious people will abandon their beliefs in the supernatural, for even the most liberal faiths retain beliefs in things that are scientifically untenable, like the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus, or the active intervention on Earth of a theistic God.

And some New Atheists have indeed recognized the valuable aspects of religion—its social work or function as a supportive community—but think that we can have all that without basing it on tenets that are palpably false, and have pernicious side effects like promoting AIDS or denigrating women and gays. How many Christians on this planet would remain Christian if they knew with certainty that Jesus, if he even existed, was not the son of God, but an itinerant preacher who didn’t differ from other itinerant preachers? How many Muslims would remain Muslim if they knew without doubt that the Qur’an was a man-made fiction and that Mohamed was not a prophet but a merchant with delusions of grandeur? The “valuable aspects” of religion would simply vanish if its adherents knew their faith was based on lies, for religion itself would disappear.

And, on balance, New Atheists see religion as a net problem: the bad aspects outweigh the good.  Clearly we can have good, caring societies that aren’t religious, as we see in Scandinavia, so you needn’t have faith to do that, and you can do that without the pernicious side effects of faith.

Given all this, it seems almost impossible to find common ground between the faithful and the Gnus.  Indeed, why would we want to find common ground between such implacably opposed systems of thought?  Do we want to find common ground between Western medicine and homeopathy?  No, we want to get rid of the latter, for, although many people claim that homeopathy is helpful, we know that on balance it’s harmful.  Did we want to find common ground between segregationists and integrationists? Nope; we wanted to get rid of the former, despite their bogus claim that segregation had its good points.

The whole issue of why we need “common ground” between religion and atheism (or between religion and science, which is philosophically and methodologically free from gods) needs to be examined.  Do we want this comity solely because we desire less conflict in society?  Conflict and rancor always occurs when we’re trying to dispel entrenched but harmful beliefs.

And in whose interest is such a reconciliation? Clearly many “modern” religious folks, because they need both the psychological comfort food of religion but don’t want to appear backwards by rejecting science.  It’s also in the interest of scientists who are religious and don’t want to experience cognitive dissonance.  And it’s also in the interests of accommodationists who feel (wrongly, I think) that by showing religious people that because science doesn’t necessarily entail atheism, so that their beliefs need not conflict with science, they will then lose their aversion to science.  For the rest of us non-accommodationist athiests, I see no reason to pursue common ground with a system of superstition that is, on the whole, bad for society.  We don’t want to make common cause with religion, but to hasten its disappearance.

And indeed, Baggini discovered that he couldn‘t find common ground.  He describes his failure in his latest Guardian piece, “Is common ground between atheism and belief possible?” This is based on the reaction of people to Baggini’s description, in his penultimate post, of “The articles of 21-st century faith,” his proposal for a kind of faith that would quell the dispute between theists and atheists.  Here’s what he proposed:

To do this I’ve formulated four “articles of 21st-century faith”: beliefs that I think would make religion entirely intellectually respectable, even to the hardest-nosed atheists. They are neither so vague that anyone could put their name to them, nor so specific that people who are broadly sympathetic should feel unable to do so. They are brief and minimalist, stating clearly and concisely only as much as needs to be stated to establish the legitimacy of superstition-free belief. Here they are:

Preamble. We acknowledge that religion comes in many shapes and forms and that therefore any attempt to define what religion “really” is would be stipulation, not description. Nevertheless, we have a view of what religion should be, in its best form, and these four articles describe features that a religion fit for the contemporary world needs to have. These features are not meant to be exhaustive and nor do they necessarily capture what is most important for any given individual. They are rather a minimal set of features that we can agree on despite our differences, and believe others can agree on too.

1. To be religious is primarily to assent to a set of values, and/or practice a way of life, and/or belong to a community that shares these values and/or practices. Any creeds or factual assertions associated with these things, especially ones that make claims about the nature and origin of the natural universe, are at most secondary and often irrelevant.

2. Religious belief does not, and should not, require the belief that any supernatural events have occurred here on Earth, including miracles that bend or break natural laws, the resurrection of the dead, or visits by gods or angelic messengers.

3. Religions are not crypto- or proto-sciences. They should make no claims about the physical nature, origin or structure of the natural universe. That which science can study and explain empirically should be left to science, and if a religion makes a claim that is incompatible with our best science, the scientific claim, not the religious one, should prevail.

4. Religious texts are the creation of the human intellect and imagination. None need be taken as expressing the thoughts of a divine or supernatural mind that exists independently of humanity.

Okay, how many religious people do you think will agree with those? Or, rather, how many religious people will disagree with those but say that they agree because it makes them look “sophisticated”?  By conceiving religion as practice rather than belief, and omitting belief in superstition and in God-given scripture, you’re immediately cutting out a huge fraction of all religious people on Earth.  The only ones who agree would be ultra-sophisticated theologians or near-atheistic religious people like Unitarian Universalists.  Atheists and agnostics would object mainly on the grounds that if you accept all four points, what you’re left with is not a recognizable form of religion, for you’ve cut out any explicit recognition of the supernatural—including God.

And that’s what Baggini found. He ran these tenets past several people. Four generally agreed with them: apophatic theologian Karen Armstrong, agnostic Mark “Holy Rabbit” Vernon, and atheist philosophers John Gray and Massimo Pigliucci.  But the fact that these were the only people who agreed left Baggini feeling rather empty:

 Qualified support, then, but only from a confirmed atheist who is unusually supportive of religion, an agnostic ex-priest, an ecumenical former nun who has rejected all dogma, and another atheist.

It’s like discovering that central state socialism has its defenders, it’s just that none are actual central state socialists.

And, Baggini’s money quote:

In this case, the worry is that people who do not at all represent real, existing religion are defending it by appealing to characteristics it doesn’t actually have.

Most of the religious people surveyed by Baggini rejected the tenets, including Nick Spencer, Giles Fraser, and Theo Hobson.  And their reasons were similar: the articles leave out anything supernatural, including God, and don’t bear any resemblance to their own faiths.

Surprisingly, Baggini’s manifesto was also rejected by atheist Anthony Grayling, who makes the obvious objection: that the articles “leave out the crucial bits about religious belief, which are that there is powerful supernatural agency or agencies active in or upon the universe, with … responsibility for its existence, an interest in human beings and their behaviour, a set of desires respecting this latter, etc”.

So Baggini’s efforts, though well intended, were a failure.  He concludes that religion really is largely a matter of belief and not practice:

Hence the rejection of the articles suggests that either most liberal religious commentators and leaders are inconsistent or incoherent; or that they ultimately do believe that when it comes to religion, creeds and factual assertions matter; belief that supernatural events have occurred here on Earth is required; religion can make quasi-scientific claims; and that human intellect and imagination are not enough to explain the existence of religious texts.

Is that so surprising? I didn’t find it so. If everyone agreed with Baggini’s points, there would be no conflict between science and faith, nor would we see theists and atheists at each other’s throats.

Finally Jonathan Chaplin, director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics at Cambridge, and a Christian, rejects the four tenets in a Guardian piece called “Julian Baggini’s articles of faith are a nonstarter.”  An excerpt:

Even more problematically, his understanding of the natural is, contrary to what he has implied earlier, itself a contestable philosophical presupposition that cannot be proved either by science or reason. So while I would certainly claim that my Christian faith requires me to believe that God brings about certain events on earth – including what he calls the spooky ones like the bodily resurrection of Jesus – I won’t accept as a starting point for discussion Baggini’s insistence that these be described as supernatural. . .

I don’t get why he rejects the “supernatural” label here.  These are certainly not events that would not happen if only purely natural processes operated in the universe.  But so be it.  It’s not really the label Chaplin objects to—it’s Baggini’s suggestion that the stuff described in the New Testament didn’t happen.   Chaplin goes on:

Baggini wants a form of religion that is the “benign, unsuperstitious thing that liberals and agnostics have said it is all along”. He will have no problem finding adherents to such a form, though they are a diminishing minority. But let’s not kid ourselves that the ensuing debate would be of any interest at all to the vast majority of intelligent religious believers today.

Though I disagree with Chaplin’s beliefs, I think he’s being absolutely intellectually honest here. Most religious people would have no truck with Baggini’s manifesto of twenty-first century religion. It was doomed from the outset.  Finally, Chaplin asks for comity nonetheless:

The first article of common ground I’d like to suggest to him is this: “We acknowledge that both atheistic and theistic beliefs can legitimately claim reasonable epistemic warrant and therefore proceed in debate on the basis of an attitude of mutual intellectual respect for each other’s convictions.” If he can accept that, then perhaps we can begin to work on article 2. If he can’t well, what the heck, let’s just start talking anyway.

This I totally reject.  Theism has no epistemic warrant (i.e., that stuff didn’t happen), and I have no respect for those beliefs. I can have respect for believers, in the sense that they are fellow humans with dignity and certain rights, but I have no respect for the convictions themselves.  If this is what Chaplin requires, then he’ll find no common ground.  And the rest of us can get on with showing the falsity of faith.

105 thoughts on “Julian Baggini discovers, to his chagrin, that atheism and “real” religion are incompatible

      1. I actually came at his articles from a different angle. I thought he was basically playing them at their own game. Let’s go along with the Armstrong crowd. Let’s try to pin down precisely what it is that such fuzziests/nuancists are actually advocating when indicating that atheists are tackling a strawman. In the end, he’s all but gotten them to admit that atheists are challenging real religion, and they’re the ones who are out of touch with the theists they claim to defend.

        Bloody brilliant in my book.

    1. I think he really wanted to believe that there was something there, that all the friendly and intelligent religious people he knows aren’t being as irrational as we think they are.

  1. When non-believers bemoan the “positive aspects of religion” that they are loath to abandon, they generally refer to charity and art.

    But a healthy society takes care of its own in the first place, rendering charity obsolete. And in our modern unhealthy society, non-religious charities like Doctors without Borders are doing everything the religious are doing without the added burden of religion dragging down their efforts.

    And the arts?

    The cult of Orpheus died out at least 1500 years ago, yet more operas have been written about Orpheus than any other individual. And some of the greatest Christian Masses have been written by non-Christians — I’m particularly thinking of Bernstein’s. And who can forget Wagner’s Ring, which is all about the zany antics of the Teutonic pantheon.

    So I find the pleas to not throw out the baby with the bathwater quite unconvincing. Just because people stop pretending they’re cannibalizing a zombie every Sunday morning doesn’t mean that Sing-Along Messiah performances are going to stop any time soon.



    1. This is a great point. It’s possible that Coltrane might not have created A Love Supreme had religion not existed, but then again it’s not like the rest of his work was crap.

              1. Oh, I think Harrison was a brilliant musician. “My Sweet Lord” just wasn’t an example of said brilliance…he was under the influence of religion, and boy did it show!


    2. John Rutter, atheist, devotes himself solely to composing wondrous works performed almost exclusively in churches.

      1. Orly? Rutter is an atheist, interesting. If you’re going to write choral music I guess you’d better do christian music unless you want to starve.

    1. Which Grayling, for example, is careful to describe as “a philosophy not a religion” at heart:

      That the core of Buddhism is a philosophy not a religion, in the all-important sense that it is free from belief in deities or supernatural beings, is a significant fact about it.

      Ideas That Matter, p. 59

      So, Grayling’s comment above is hardly surprising, pace Jerry’s remark.


          1. To be fair, many people who identify themselves as “Buddhist” have various superstitious beliefs that they lump in with Buddhism.

            1. Yes, that’s certainly true.

              … it has been transformed into various forms, almost all of them replete with imported religious and supernaturalistic elements; Tibetan Buddhism is a case in point.

              — ibid.


      1. It was my understanding that this is a self description of a sanitized US buddhism?

        The original religion has many supernatural elements, like souls and their rebirth, together with the usual paraphernalia of modern religions such as non-historical founders that works wonders.

        It would be remarkable if the US variant has managed to scour all supernatural elements out. My guess it hasn’t, but that it find more adherents if it claims it is based on philosophy.

        1. I think it is rather the other way round. Sometime around the reign of Kanishka (if I remember correctly), Buddhism split into two main sects, Hinayana (literally “lesser vehicle”, probably referring to the numbers) now called Theraveda, and not the version popular in the US, which adhered to a very non-ritualistic version (which is what Siddhartha Gautama is said to have promulgated), treating Gautama only as a teacher and no more, and Mahayana (literally “Great vehicle”) which proceed to deify Siddartha Gautama and writing stories about his previous births (Buddhas and Bodhisatvas) and worshiping them more or less as gods. This was especially ironic since the basis of Buddhism was a rejection of this highly ritualized form of Vedic religion popular in India at that time. Descendents of the the Mahayana sect, such as Tibetan Buddhism seem to be more popular in the West.

          It is true that both sects believed in rebirth, which was more a tenet of Indian philosophy rather than religion at that time. However, Siddhartha Gautama is known to have declared that the question of the existence of gods did not concern him. One of his contemporaries, Vardhaman Mahavira, who founded a somewhat similar, bit more acetic religion called Jainism, was strictly atheist. Similar to Buddhism, current versions of Jainism are however seldom atheistic. In their acceptance of rebirth, both these movements were similar to several other atheistic viewpoints in ancient Indian philosophy, such as Mimansa. My understanding is that in these schools rebirth was seen more as a natural law than anything else. The only ancient Indian schools of philosophy which completely rejected rebirth, as far as I know were the Charvakas and the related Lokayats.

          Disclaimer: I last took history 10 years ago, and hence there might be a few rather serious errors here.

  2. The first article of common ground I’d like to suggest to him is this: “We acknowledge that both atheistic and theistic beliefs can legitimately claim reasonable epistemic warrant and therefore proceed in debate on the basis of an attitude of mutual intellectual respect for each other’s convictions.”

    Yep, that fails hard, and it’s the “reasonable epistemic warrant” that really kills it. “Mutual intellectual respect for each other’s convictions” is not something I’d be inclined to agree to either, but it’s not entirey off the table. But “reasonable epistemic warrant” I shall not grant, ever. In fact, that’s basically our main fucking point: Religion has no way of unambiguously establishing truths about the universe. None at all. And I will not pretend that it does for the sake of comity.

    I frankly applaud Baggini for doing this, and appreciate the responses it has generated. By seeking to find this mythical common ground in a persistently intellectually honest way, he has clearly demonstrated that it ain’t happening.

    1. I frankly applaud Baggini for doing this, and appreciate the responses it has generated. By seeking to find this mythical common ground in a persistently intellectually honest way, he has clearly demonstrated that it ain’t happening.


    2. Chaplin certainly has chutzpah, baldly claiming “epistemic warrant” for religion with no argument. That’s indeed the whole damned point of contention — if religion did produce warranted true beliefs, we’d call it “science”.

  3. Not only is it not surprising; it’s exactly what NAs were trying to explain to him back when he was asserting that religion and science are compatible. Somehow new atheists are “spiritually tone-deaf” for being “fixated on the superstitious side of religion to the exclusion of its more interesting and valuable aspects”. But Baggini ultimately concludes that the “superstitious side of religion” is actually very important to most theists, that belief is an essential part of religion. This is exactly what the new atheists have argued from the beginning. So who is spiritually tone-deaf?

    Incidentally, this sort of thing provides evidence for a notion I’ve been considering for a long time: that atheists are some of the least “spiritually tone-deaf” people on the planet. Whenever folks ask me if I’m religious I’m tempted to say “spiritual but not religious,” which isn’t quite true — I don’t consider myself spiritual — but would be understood by the other person more clearly than if I simply told the truth. The truth is something more like: “I’m not religious but I’ve spent a lot more time thinking about religion and the nature of the universe than you have.” That is, beliefs about the universe and potential explanations for it, including theistic ones, are more important to atheists than to theists — hence the accusations that atheists spend all their time talking about stuff they don’t believe in.

    More evidence is lent to the thesis by the fact that atheists and agnostics seem to have more general religious knowledge, on average, than do theists. As an atheist, I don’t have to back Christianity or any other particular religion against all comers. I can compare Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shinto, Taoism and Confucianism, Zoroastrianism, paganism, and any number of shamanistic religions in terms of metaphysical commitments and explanatory power without risk of bias because I am not committed to any of these worldviews and I’m willing to consider any that have something to offer.

    1. I’m not religious but I’ve spent a lot more time thinking about religion and the nature of the universe than you have.

      This. Exactly. The blindly obedient and obeisant theist is the one I confess I have the most difficult time being charitable towards.

      1. I have trouble being charitable toward anyone who is blindly obedient and obeisant. If there’s one lesson to be learned from the 20th Century, it’s that blind obedience is BAD BAD BAD.

  4. My dad used to have a phrase which describes Baggini’s situation. He would say that “the man has just crashed through an open door.”

  5. Baggini’s four points: I think the chess club applies, but its members might be too dogmatic. What a waste of time.

  6. I’m afraid I can’t too strongly approve of this post until I find out whether I’m to be adopted (well, rented) by the Catholic League in its adopt-an-atheist campaign.

    (or, in other words, I’m subscribing to this post)

  7. Baggini seems to be simply updating Gould’s NOMA, but leaving out the silly part about religion getting to be responsible for moral values.
    Gould’s NOMA was never accepted by the religious for the same reason that Baggini’s current list is rejected – they DO claim supernatural intervention in the natural world.

  8. I’ve read all the articles in the series and I’m not sure why anyone thinks he was all that surprised by this. As quoted above he says, “agnostics and more liberal believers promote an intellectualised version of religion, which both reduces faith to a thin gruel and fails to reflect the reality of faith on the ground.” My take on these articles is that they were an attempt by him to show this part to be true.

    He also recently published the raw data from his other survey of church goers. It can be found here http://julianbaggini.blogspot.com/2011/12/churchgoers-survey.html. The results are somewhat mixed but should give no comfort for anyone who is “fixated on the superstitious side of religion to the exclusion of its more interesting and valuable aspects.” Yes, community and guidance are important to religious people and literal inerrancy doesn’t rule the day.

    Obvious problems with the data are that it wasn’t collected with a rigorously scientific survey methodology and it focuses very very heavily on the UK so it is hard to say much about the US. Also, I think all sides could have legitimate complaints about how Baggini characterizes their position.

    Overall I think he is just trying to establish his premises… and doing a good job of it so far.

    1. Sadly, I think any similar attempt to survey attitudes and beliefs in the US would come to an even-more distressing conclusions. The US is far more religious than the UK.

      I have friends — good friends who I spend a lot of time with — who are absolutely convinced there actually existed on earth an honest-to-Betsy real half-god with superpowers, and that by merely thinking good thoughts about him, they get to spend an eternity in heaven with him and Papa Smurf.

      1. Well the UK folks mostly believe that too. That is why I said it was kind of mixed. They are not literal about the old testament, mostly are literal about the new testament, are open to the Bible having errors (of what kind I don’t know). But, they place community and guidance way above salvation and life after death for reasons to go to church. They also place “worship God” above every reason to attend church and it isn’t clear to me that gives much to any side of the inter-atheist debate.

        With regards to science the results were mixed also. The surveys handed out at church show picking the Bible over science (in a plurality) and the online version of the survey shows the opposite (also in a plurality).

    2. Then why all the shit talk? Again, why label new atheists as “spiritually tone-deaf” when he ultimately concludes that the new atheist argument — that supernaturalism is an essential part of religion — is actually correct?

      This is not something Baggini has been saying all along. This is something Baggini was criticizing new atheists for arguing — criticizing them quite stridently, as a matter of fact.

      “It’s like discovering that central state socialism has its defenders, it’s just that none are actual central state socialists.”

      That doesn’t sound like surprise to you?

  9. Funny, I posted four rules for coexistence of faith and atheism on my Facebook page a while back. Mine are a little harsher than Baggini’s.

    1. Keep it out of public schools and other public places to avoid making claims that impact the status of non-believers. Religious truth claims have consequences to other people. Please recognize this and act accordingly.

    2. Accept that science has modernized our understanding of the natural world and that the ancient stories found in religious doctrines are not worthy of equal consideration in the continued development of this understanding.

    3. Don’t use “faith” as a justification for criminal activity that harms the well-being of any other member of humanity who may or may not share your “beliefs,” such as denying children medical care in favor of “faith healing,” suicide bombing, and death by stoning as punishment for non-capital offenses.

    4. Don’t expect tax breaks or other public subsidies of your particular “beliefs” at the expense of any other set of “beliefs.”

    1. KP, don’t you realize? Females going outside — even to escape a burning building — without their covering IS a capital offense!

  10. Okay, how many religious people do you think will agree with those?

    I’m not religious and I don’t agree with them. If some philosopher’s definition of ‘religion’ doesn’t include divine revelations and acts, he r doin it rong.

    Trying to claim religion ought not make miracle claims or claims to knowledge of the physical world is basically equivalent to saying you either know Gods wouldn’t do those things, or that you’re ordering God(s) not to do them. Either way, its’ a ridiculous proposition. It was ridiculous when Gould tried it, and its ridiculous when Baggini does it.

    1. Religious belief does not, and should not, require the belief that any supernatural events have occurred here on Earth,…

      I loved the “crashed through an open door” too. I guess now we’ll get a theist attempt at accomodation of science that offers the tenet:

      Scientific investigation does not, and should not, lead us to conclusions concerning the plausibility of supernatural events that have occurred here on Earth,…

      Sadly, this might find a lot of supporters.

  11. Maybe the years I spent in Fundyville spoiled the whole thing for me, but I don’t get why some atheists feel the need to rescue “religion” (or the related concept, “spirituality”). Yes, religion has often, and still does, included some valuable things — to the Good Works, I would add a lot of esthetic and emotional experience. But those are all *human* things that happen outside religion/spirituality as well, and get along just fine, maybe better. So I’ll take all that stuff for itself, without entangling it with superstition.

      1. Spem in alium

        I had to look that up to find out that it wasn’t a paean to garlic ;-). But since you mention Tallis: my single favorite piece of music may be Vaughn Williams’ Fanatasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. If I wanted to call something “spiritual” that might be it. But I don’t: adjectives like “beautiful” and “moving” and “heart-breaking (but in a good way”) are preferable because they actually *describe* it concretely, rather than gesture in the direction of ill-defined abstractions.

        As it happens, my MP3 just shuffled up Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, Finale. Ie: the great Ode To Joy. I looked up the words — there’s a bit of God-talk in there, but damn there’s great swaths that are pure Humanism as well.

        1. I love that too (although it always makes me think of Die Hard*), although it’s appeal is rather different from Spem, but I’d never looked up the lyrics before. Interesting.


          * Just like “The Ride of the Valkyries” always makes me think of Bugs Bunny…

  12. I can’t help laughing at Baggini – he must look very silly to all parties. Starting with “the problem is …” and ending with complete rejection by all religious and all but one of the non-religious people approached. I don’t like his loaded and rather silly language either, for example “… while the new atheists are spiritually tone-deaf, fixated on the superstitious side of religion to the exclusion of its more interesting and valuable aspects”. I do not personally know any atheist who is fixated on the superstition itself; I almost unanimously hear people say the problem is with the blind acceptance of nonsense (both the superstitious and non-superstitious nonsense peddled by religion) and its immunity from demonstrable fact. I get the impression early on that Baggini doesn’t really understand the problem (an opinion supported by the sweeping rejection of his opinion).

  13. I am unfamiliar with Baggini, but his propositions seem hopelessly naive – did he REALLY think the religious would adopt this as common ground?

    “Religious belief does not, and should not, require the belief that any supernatural events have occurred here on Earth, including miracles that bend or break natural laws…”

    Seriously? My experience of Xians is that miracles are a BIG thing for them. And if it doesn’t break physical laws, it isn’t a miracle. Who is this man?

    1. He really wanted to believe that “My experience of Xians is that miracles are a BIG thing for them” is a naive caricature of religion. After all, people like Karen Armstrong keeps saying it is.

      But it’s not a naive caricature. It’s an accurate description.

      1. Absolutely – I haven’t yet met a Xian who didn’t believe in the miracles. As a child, I had the miracles pumped down my throat in public schools. They are FUNDAMENTAL.

  14. I don’t think there can be common ground with what is ultimately superstition. Religion is basically largely accepting the viewpoints of the mythology and irrational fears of stone age people placed into the form of texts. Totally irrational. However in some cases we should still seek common cause, such as EO Wilson’s attempt to engage Christians in environmental issues such as global warming or larger social issues such as gay rights (though I know most of the religious are the ones we are fighting). I know this may be quixotic, but there still are many practical things that if there is a sense in which someone needs Jesus to motivate themselves to practical action there is still value in it. I know that probably no one would deny this, I just wanted to make this point. As a purely practical matter there are important things going on which still will require alliance with the religious if we hope to make progress.

    1. I know that probably no one would deny this, I just wanted to make this point.

      I don’t deny it, and I agree with you.

    2. I think it’s obvious that, in a pluralistic world, you always have be prepared to work with people on practical issue A while disagreeing with them on practical issue B. And you have to find ways to do it that don’t involve either party denying or subverting their positions on A.

      Of course, if you’ve been bad-mouthing me about A on Monday, I might have trouble getting along with you on Tuesday when we get together to do B stuff.

  15. Growing up in a religious family I was, as a child and young adult, impressed by many things that I thought at the time were unique products of the religion. Bach’s wonderful music, for example, filled me with a sense of awe and ecstasy that I assumed was a religious experience of God himself. The Bible, also, seemed very rich to me at the time. And the vaulted churches and cathedrals were physical spaces that seemed to me to echo something holy and grand. Eventually, though, I came to realize these things that I attributed to God were really testaments to the effort of people over centuries, often of the brightest of people. The richness that I attributed to the Bible itself was really the product of thousands of years of the brightest minds applying themselves to putting various glosses on it. It was the glosses that impressed me more than the Bible itself (and the Bible itself is the product of a long process of revision and gloss). The sense that this story is central, that everything is connected to it or relates to it, is real because in The West, at least, it is. The story is as impoverished and “palpably false” as ever, but a cathedral built around a “palpably false” story is still a cathedral.

    And this is the rub for New Atheists. There is no ready made alternative to two or three thousand years of human culture. Last week I went to a live performance of Bach’s Magnificat at a grand old mission, candle lit and dripping with atmosphere. It was sublime. I don’t believe a word of what it said, but it’s effect on me was more than just the music alone. I like Beethoven’s purely secular 9th Symphony quite a bit more as a piece of music (and, as it happens, I heard a performance of it by the same group in the same mission). Beethoven’s music is more intrinsically inspiring to me, as music. But what propped Bachs music up and made it better than just the music alone was the weight of thousands of years of telling and retelling this story, was the fact that this mission was built in service to that story, the knowledge that there are other cathedrals and history behind it. Even my atheism is, however much I would like to portray it as the same as a-unicornism, or a-zeuseism, a very palpably and specificly a-juedo-christianism. My experience of it is a Christian experience, of a Christian steeped in the Christian tradition losing a faith.

    Similarly, there is no ready made alternative to the community that people find in church. I have no doubt that a non-religious community with all the benefits of a religious community could be built, but in practice, it is not so easy to find. Many of my friends are atheists and they are good and well balanced people and I like spending time with them. But it is only a hand full of us. When I have gone to events pitched as a secular or atheist community, the mix was not as balanced as my own friends. It felt artificial and contrived, a bit more like a political rally than a community. There was no feeling of tapping into a long vein of culture. Again, it doesn’t have to be that way, but that is the practical difficulty. Even though I live in one of the most liberal cities in the country, I find myself going to church, though a liberal one, just to have a community that feels organic, steeped in some kind of cultural milieu, and of reasonable size.

    I think much of the reaction to New Atheists comes from this lack of positive alternative to the culture and institutions we have. Of course you have to undo the old to make the new, but if you tear down the cathedral to the virgin birth without building one to science or reason or whatever, you will be just short a cathedral. For many people, this feels like a loss, and in some very real ways it is.

    This is not to argue for accomodationism, but just to emphasize why accomodationism has appeal. People don’t want to lose the things of value that they have, and it is not enough to convince them that religion is baseless, one has to find a substitute for the things we get from religion. This is no trivial task, not because religion is intrinsically great, but because people have been working at religion for a long time.

    1. A very good comment, but do consider that many countries in Western Europe, especially in Scandinavia, are effectively atheistic and yet somehow their inhabitants manage to satisfy their sense of community (yes, they may go to church occasionally for the ceremonies, but don’t build their social lives or support network around the churches). I agree that atheist “support groups” seem contrived and not a good alternative (after all, all that unites us is disbelief!), but somehow people make due in atheistic countries. I think the US’s dependence on religion for this may come from the fact that, sociologically speaking, we live in a dysfunctional society, and there’s a strong correlation among countries between dysfunctionality and religiosity. We may need need that sense of community so desperately if we feel our nation is looking after our health and welfare (as they do in Scandinavia).

      Phil Kitcher in particular has echoed your points about replacing the social benefits of religion in his book “Living without Darwin.”

      1. Thanks. I would not dispute the dysfunctional aspect of US society and it’s contribution to the dependence on religion. Nor do I doubt that it is possible to satisfy the sense of community without religion, even in this country. It is just not obvious to me how to go about it in my own personal life. I think the same issue affects many people and it manifests itself in the various forms of accomodationism.

        I think our response to various stories we know are not true is interesting in itself. I feel uplifted while watching Luke discover The Force, even though I know it is rubbish. It taps into something in my brain. I suspend my disbelief to get that experience. Something similar is going on when I went to the performance of the Magnificat. I suspect that something similar is going on when the people you mention go into churches “for ceremony”. People like ceremony, it seems. This can be dangerous, of course, the Nazi’s used this tendency to bad effect. But the tendency seems like something real that needs to be addressed by secularism.

        I should like to spend some time in Scandinavia to see how it goes for them there. In the mean time, I have to muddle through here.

        1. Ever been to a science fiction convention? There’s a real sense of community there, formed around a common culture.

          1. True enough. But you’ve not going to have a local sf con every weekend, are you! Sports – any kind of football, baseball, &c. — probably come closer! 😉


            1. I don’t think so: sports, music, and historical re-enactment* are three that don’t.

              *which sometimes includes some fiction

              1. There is a lot of fiction in sports. For example that individual players of tactics matters. According to the little science done they persistently find that it doesn’t, it is the season fitness (average result) of the teams that matters. You can as well mark dice accordingly and shoot for the series result. All the sports talk is then (mostly) fiction.

                Music is different though. Or so say my fictionalized description of it. =D

        2. I think society has to “muddle through”.

          Any attempt be anyone to set up anything with the deliberate intent of filling the “gap” left by the lack of a church community is doomed to fail, I think. (Maybe there will be some interesting failures…)

          And it’s certainly not the job of gnu atheists to try.

          Whatever social vacuum is formed by the ebb of religion will be filled gradually, spontaneously, and organically. But whatever arises, it won’t be a “secular church”. (Although, perhaps, UU comes closest to this.)

          I doubt that if you look at Scandinavia you will see anything that is a complete and direct replacement for church. (Scandinavians: Please confirm or refute!)

          Humanists — at least in the the BHA – provide celebrants for conducting weddings, name-givings, &c. But not much beyond that that a church would’ve provided.


          1. Whatever social vacuum is formed by the ebb of religion will be filled gradually, spontaneously, and organically.

            I agree.

            1. I don’t think there ever was a vacuum to fill. Humans are naturally gregarious, altruistic, and artistic. To claim that religion filled any of these needs is false. What happened was that religion attached itself to these needs and created doctrinal justifications for them.

              1. Agreed, I think the natural urges toward community have just been sublimated into and subjugated to religion for so long, and as Christianity (and religion in general) does, it marks it as “this is ours”. After that being the case for so long, many people just assume that it’s true.

    2. And the vaulted churches and cathedrals were physical spaces that seemed to me to echo something holy and grand.

      They do echo something grand – human imaginations.

      1. Yes. That is my intended point. The human imagination has expressed itself through religion for a long time. Replacing that with something non-religious is a big project, if only because of the investment of human effort in the religious project is vast.

        1. But human imagination has also expressed itself through secular art and literature for thousands of years.

        2. Haven’t universities and museums provided physical spaces that echo something profound and grand.*

          The main hall of the Natural History Museum in London is as impressive as the nave of Lincoln or Durham cathedral or York Minster.

          (More so with the Diplodocus skeleton in situ!)

          These are our genuine “temples of reason”.


          * Although there is certainly something lacking in much modern architecture.

    3. If you tear down the cathedral to the virgin birth without building one to science or reason or whatever, you will be just short a cathedral.

      I know of nobody who would advocate demolishing Notre Dame or the Mission at San Luis Obispo or who would ban performances of the Magnificat or even who would prohibit Catholics from celebrating Mass.

      The goal is not, and never has been, the destruction of anything simply because it’s religious.

      The goal is, and always has been, to get people to think critically and base their decisions on objectively-verifiable evidence — at least, those decisions that impact other peoples’s lives. And, in a certain set of specific instances, to get the religious to stop actively causing harm to others.

      Christmas is effectively an entirely secular holiday. The only religious aspect left to it is the higher-than-normal church attendance that day. And that’s the model I would hope to see realized for everything religious in the future.

      Nobody really thinks that Santa brings presents, but it’s sure fun to pretend he does. So why not have fun at the same time pretending that this one “virgin” sang a heavenly love song to the god who just knocked her up? The music really is heavenly, after all — might as well enjoy it!



      1. Absolutely. Just because we don’t believe in gods, doesn’t mean we don’t have a sense of wonder – it’s just that the wonder has a natural explanation. I love Stonehenge, and I’m glad it’s there, regardless of the motivations for it’s construction. I also love Borobodur, the Taj Mahal, the Jama Masjid etc. I would hate to see them torn down.

        Having said that, I think the Great Barrier Reef, Mount Bromo and the Grand Canyon, well, piss on anything humans have constructed. All built by natural laws.

    4. I think much of the reaction to New Atheists comes from this lack of positive alternative to the culture and institutions we have.

      Actually, I don’t, and I suspect that if any offered an alternative, they would be mocked for it because, don’t you know, the alternative would be Godless and, therefore, worthless.

      For many years, I had this notion that Christianity could evolve beyond theism and, in fact, identified as Christian by way of living my vision. Eventually, I was forced to realize. It ain’t gonna happen. So I had to decide whether I really wanted to contribute to the preservation of a lie.

      And that needs to be kept in mind. Unless one really does hold unjustified beliefs, religious traditions can only be sustained mendaciously.

    5. Really great, thoughtful commentary like this is what makes a blo…errr…website like this great. I think Jerry’s addendum is on target too. To a sadly increasing extent, we live in a culture where the architecture is being reduced to billboards and strip malls, entertainment in small- to moderate-sized towns can consist of shopping at the mall, and the “news” media is a shriveled purveyor of infotainment/propaganda. Accomodationism may indeed be just an ill-conceived attempt to avoid the loss of something more contemplative in a sea of superficiality. On the other hand, aren’t traditional churches are losing adherents to megachurches and televangelists? Those bastards don’t have anything of value – even the trappings of the religion are gone, replaced by Walmart religion.

  16. Oooh, nice long thoughtful post. Here is our perspective:

    – Availability of research, data, facts and studies widely and for a popular audience is brand new. Really since the start of blogs. Before “science” was kept away in journals.
    – Most people simply don’t know anything on most topics beyond their local ideologies. These are complicated topics and anyone needs to read and study a lot to have an informed opinion.
    – The information is always changing and getting more complex.

    It seems one of the reasons physics and philosophy are always trotted out is that physics pseudo information is cheaply available in pop media and philo uses ordinary language and appeals to common sense.

    So it’s logical to assume that most commentators don’t know what they are talking about and mainly make mistakes.

    But we are all learning. This is all brand new.

    With all things fact-based who ever reads and studies the most wins. With ideology, it’s al marketing. Whoever has the strongest emotional “hooks” wins.

  17. Science is methodological naturalism. Religion has always been, and always will be, methodological supernaturalism (i.e. disembodied minds). There is no common ground between the two; the methodology behind science assumes the natural, the methodology behind religion assumes the supernatural.

    Going a step further, most atheists take methodological naturalism as an inductive argument towards philosophical naturalism. Religion, on the other hand, assumes philosophical supernaturalism.

    It was always about the supernatural. Once you get rid of the supernatural, you no longer have religion. No one who actually believes their religion can remove the supernatural elements and still claim to be following “religion”. And if religion was not all about the supernatural, just about anything could be called religion (like politics, football, social dancing, etc.).

    Again, it was always about the supernatural. And there’s no brook between a fundamentally supernatural worldview and a fundamentally natural worldview.

  18. I respect Julian Baggini’s intelligence, and because of that, I believe that his attempt at “reconciliation” is not a real one.

    Maybe he wanted to prove that reconciliation is impossible. Maybe he wanted to score some rhetorical points by appearing to be an open-minded person about religion and atheism, then being able to say that nobody else is ready to try too. Maybe it was something else. But no intelligent person would believe that his “intellectually respectable” form of religion would be actually acceptable by anyone claiming to be religious, no more than she would believe that a spiritually acceptable form of science along the line of “recognizing the existence of supernatural entities that affect the material world but that cannot be examined by science” would be actually respectable by anyone claiming to be an atheist.

    No intelligent person would suppose that a good starting point for reconciliation is for one side to drop everything that defines it. So, whatever Baggini was trying to do there, it was definitely not reconciling religion with atheism.

  19. Baggini’s first paragraph describing his hypothetical religion:

    “1. To be religious is primarily to assent to a set of values, and/or practice a way of life, and/or belong to a community that shares these values and/or practices…”

    pretty well describes the truth about a great many churches. Mormonism has some distinctly unusual theology, but guess what? There is such a thing as a “cultural Mormon” who doesn’t actually believe any of the hooey, but stays involved to a degree because that is the kind of social circle he/she grew up in.

    Cultural Jews are the same, as Prof. Coyne would probably agree.

    And an awful lot of other religious groups are just the same.

    The problem is that most adherents to these groups haven’t stepped up to the plate and accepted the rest of Baggini’s description. Instead, when someone questions the theological nonsense that most religions peddle, they have hysterics, sometimes followed by burnings at the stake.

    IOW, we are about 1/8 of the way there.

  20. Just a note on Baggini- a friend of mine and I were interviewed by him for an article on atheism in America. The last I heard it should be out in Jan. of 2012, but it has been put off many times before. He seemed quite incredulous about how hard it is, and sometimes dangerous it is, to be identified as an atheist in certain parts of the country. It will be interesting to see what his conclusions are.

  21. “1. To be religious is primarily to assent to a set of values, and/or practice a way of life, and/or belong to a community that shares these values and/or practices…”

    Izzat so? Really? I’m an Old Fart, and I live with my Old Geezer Sweetie in a working class neighborhood in a small town. Our values here include caring about our neighbors and being helpful and good to each other. You mean my sharing my homegrown heirloom tomatoes with my neighbors is a religion? You mean it’s a religion when the guys down the street turn up unasked to help shovel the snow because they know Ol’ Sweetie has a bad heart and that I’m older than I look? It’s religion when we care about the well-being of the neighbors’ great granddaughter? It’s religion when my neighbor stops to chitty-chat with me as she passes by? It’s religion when I put out a bag of canned foods when the Scouts are collecting for the Food Bank? It’s a religion to be a social animal who is hard-wired to relate to other human beans?

    Hot damn! And here I thought I was a snarky atheist, but I’m RELIGIOUS!! How ’bout that?!

    1. Oooh, oooh, I just thought…if being neighborly with our neighbors is a religion, does that mean my house is a church and that I’m a preacher? Does this mean that I can get tax breaks and exemptions?

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