Time magazine gets everything wrong about atheism (and a lot wrong about religion, too)

December 23, 2011 • 6:26 am

There’s a pretty dreadful piece by Tim Padgett in the latest online Time Magazine (I’m not sure about the print version) called “Having faith: what both Hitchens and fundamentalists don’t get about religion.”  It’s an attack on both fundamentalist Christianity and Christopher Hitchens, who stands for all New Atheists, and they’re guilty of the same faults.  Guess what they are?  Narrow-mindedness and intolerance, of course—the usual trope about “fundamentalist atheists”.   But along the way, Padgett (and I can’t find much information online about who he is) manages to proffer a lot of distorted, shopworn clichés and misstatements about both religion and atheism.  Here are a few:

Islam respects Christianity.  Padgett, who is correct in decrying the blanket vilification of American Muslims by American Christians (and by the Florida Family Association), nevertheless throws this in:

Every imam I know here in Miami rejects the idea [of putting the U.S. under shari’a law].  “Muslims are only 6 million out of 300 million in this country,” one reminds me. “We rely on U.S. law to protect our rights as a minority.” They’re also a minority who wish Christians well at Christmas: the Koran reverently mentions Jesus and the Virgin Mary almost 60 times.

Yes, American Muslims have a right to worship, and of course many aren’t into jihad. But just remember what happens in many places when Islam is no longer a minority but gets the upper hand. More important, it’s simply stupid to pretend that the Qur’an preaches friendship to Christians (or Jews).  As everyone knows who has even glanced at the sacred document of Islam, it’s loaded to the gunwales with verses inciting followers to kill unbelievers, those who diss Allah, and Christians and Jews.  Here’s a very small sample:

(5:72) They surely disbelieve who say: Lo! Allah is the Messiah, son of Mary. … Lo! whoso ascribeth partners unto Allah, for him Allah hath forbidden paradise. His abode is the Fire. For evil-doers there will be no helpers.

(9:29) – Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.

(9:30)  The Jews say, “Ezra is the son of Allah “; and the Christians say, “The Messiah is the son of Allah .” That is their statement from their mouths; they imitate the saying of those who disbelieved [before them]. May Allah destroy them; how are they deluded?

“People of the book,” of course, are Christians and Jews.  If you want to see a lot more along these lines, go here: there are dozens of such statements in the Qur’an.  Padgett, of course, would respond that only extremist Muslims take the Qur’an literally, but if he’s citing that document as evidence of Islamic/Christian amity, he should be fair.

New Atheists like Richard Dawkins are “angry atheists” and “fundamentalists”. Padgett uses these terms several times, as here:

That’s also one of the best ways to answer Hitchens as well as other angry atheists like Richard Dawkins and quite a few members of my own hypersecular profession. It’s a fairly widely accepted maxim that atheist fundamentalists, as I call them, can be just as intolerant as religious fundamentalists.

Sometimes atheists do get angry when talking about religion, but most of the time they’re pretty calm. I haven’t ever seen Sam Harris lose his temper, and Dan Dennett is a kindly and usually placid man.  When people mean “angry” in this context, they simply mean that atheists are criticizing religion.  The assumption, which is flat wrong, is that one can’t do that without losing one’s temper. It is the criticism of religion itself that is regarded as “anger.”  And as for “fundamentalist” atheists, well, see Grayling’s eloquent refutation of that term here.

Christians either don’t literally believe in critical parts of the Bible (e.g., the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus) or wouldn’t care if they were shown to be wrong. In other words, people don’t take the bedrock assertions of Christianity literally.  It’s not about the real truth of those claims, it’s about how good the claims make them feel.  It’s all about the redemptive power of the story.  And we’re not talking about fundamentalists here, but just regular believers.  Padgett says:

And the problem they share is that both [atheists and fundamentalists] take religion way too literally. Just as Christian fundamentalists insist on a literal reading of the Bible, angry atheists tend to insist that belief in God qualifies you as a raving creationist. . .

Here’s what they [the “angry atheists”] refuse to get: Yes, Christians believe that Jesus’ nativity was a virgin birth and that he rose from the dead on Easter. But if you were to show most Christians incontrovertible scientific proof that those miracles didn’t occur, they would shrug — because their faith means more to them than that. Because in the end, what they have faith in is the redemptive power of the story. In Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, an agnostic says to his Catholic friend, “You can’t seriously believe it all … I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.”

“Oh yes, I believe that. It’s a lovely idea.”

“But you can’t believe things simply because they’re a lovely idea.”

“But I do. That’s how I believe.”

I’m willing to bet it’s how most believers believe. Before Hitchens died at 62 from esophageal cancer, he made a point of declaring he was certain no heaven awaited him. But that swipe at the faithful always misses the point. Most of us don’t believe in God because we think it’s a ticket to heaven. Rather, our belief in God — our belief in the living ideal of ourselves, which is something even atheists ponder — instills in us a faith that in the end, light always defeats darkness (which is how people get through the wars and natural disasters I cover).

With all due respect to Padgett (I don’t really mean that, of course), that is hogwash.  Has Padgett even examined what most Christians really believe?  And I’m sick of quoting these statistics, but here they are again, from a 2007 Gallup Poll, and note that those polled are from the American public as a whole, not just Christians:
  • 81% of Americans believe in Heaven
  • 75% of Americans believe in angels
  •  70% of Americans believe in Satan
  •  69% of American believe in Hell (presumably 1% think that Hell has no overseer)
Some other stats:
So much for non-literalism.  Padgett should get out more.   I always wonder how many Christians would remain Christians if they knew, absolutely, that the New Testament was a fabrication and that there was no afterlife?  We don’t know for sure. How many Muslims would remain Muslim if they knew that the Qur’an were also a fabrication? Based on the statistics above, I suspect that if these unlikely disproofs occurred, religion would wane rapidly.
We need religion to have a good world.  Padgett’s own religious beliefs are unknown to me, but he’s certainly a believer in belief:

Rather, our belief in God — our belief in the living ideal of ourselves, which is something even atheists ponder — instills in us a faith that in the end, light always defeats darkness (which is how people get through the wars and natural disasters I cover). That does make us open to the possibility of the hereafter — but more important, it gives us purposeful inspiration to make the here and now better.

With all due respect to the memory of Christopher Hitchens, making the here and now better would be difficult without religion. But it’s also hard enough without the un-Christian antics of people like David Caton. As Christmas ought to remind us.

Excuse me, but I think making the here and now better would be much easier without religion.  Or so recent studies have told us. Religious societies are dysfunctional societies.

Here’s a graph I made from Greg Paul’s (2009) survey of 15 countries correlating the religiosity of a society (i.e., the proportion of inhabitants who absolutely believe in God) with how successful that society is.  Success was quantified using Paul’s “successful society scale”, or SSS, which ranks societies on a scale from 1 (least successful) to 10 (most successful), incorporating a number of sociological indices of functionality including incidence of crime, venereal disease, corruption, infant mortality, alcohol consumption, poverty, and so on). You can download Paul’s paper at the link below.

Among the First World countries surveyed, the US, at 2.9, has the least successful society, and, more important, Paul found a strong negative correlation between societal “success” and religiosity.  (The Darwin figure at the upper left is just meant to show that those successful countries are also the ones whose inhabitants more frequently embrace the idea of evolution). Here’s the correlation (which is still significant with the US omitted), and the least-squares regression line:

A more recent study by Solt et al (2011) showed that both among countries and across years in the U.S., religiosity is negatively correlated with income inequality: the more inequality, the more religious the country or, in the U.S., the more religiosity in that year.  Solt et al. also showed that income inequality appears to be causal here: a time-series analysis of data in the U.S. showed that changes in income inequality in one year affected religiosity in subsequent years, but not vice versa.

And of course there’s Steve Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of our Nature, which shows a dramatic decrease in violence not only in the last several thousand years, but even in the last two centuries.  And all the while religion has been on the wane, especially in Europe. Not strong evidence that religion sustains a good world!

All the data show that societies that are less religious are better places to live. You can argue that this might reflect either the discarding of sky-fathers in countries that take care of their residents, or the pernicious effect of religion on societal health—I think both operate—but it doesn’t matter.  What it does show is that, contra Padgett, you don’t need God to be good. In fact, the best societies are those that reject God.

What world a world without God look like?  Sweden and Denmark, I think.  Imagine no religion. . . . .


Paul, G. 2009. The chronic dependence of popular religiosity upon dysfunctional psychosociological conditions. Evol. Psychol. 7:398-441.

Solt, F., P. Habel, and J. T. Grant. 2011. Economic inequality, relative power and religiosity. Social Science Quarterly 92:447-465.

h/t: Michael Dowd

72 thoughts on “Time magazine gets everything wrong about atheism (and a lot wrong about religion, too)

  1. You may have found this already:

    Matthew Balan from NewsBusters calls Tim Padgett “Time Bureau Chief to Catholic Church.”

    Here is the last line of Balan’s article:

    “All in all, what the liberal Time bureau chief is trying to justify in his indefensible pro-abortion view, placing his apparent Catholicism behind his left-leaning political ideology, something that far too many American Catholics also do.” http://tinyurl.com/7d8stsf

    1. Veronics, Balan isn’t calling Padgett the “Time Bureau chief to the Catholic Church”. The article is about Padgett’s call to the Catholic church to admit that the Catholic population as a whole are not anti-abortion. Rather Balan is accusing Padgett of being a liberal pro-abortion supporter.

    1. Well, actually, because religion is around, it is easier to make the here and now better, by reducing the impact of religion. See? Religion is so helpful in that regard. Of course, so is malaria.

    2. Aside from being factually incorrect, aren’t any of those folks who right “atheists and fundamentalists are BOTH wrong” even a little worried about being trite? Don’t the purveyors of this smug “middle” ground read each other’s babble, and notice that it has all been said already? To me, anyone asserting exactly what a mind like Hitchens’ “didn’t get” (and I hate having to use the past tense now) is likely to be vacuous and self-important.

  2. Interesting graph. If you extend the line to include the Vatican, you find that it is well below the x-axis.

  3. Because in the end, what they have faith in is the redemptive power of the story.

    Jeebus Christ this pisses me off.

    He just brushes off the faith that most Christians, Muslims and Jewish folks have in their religion. Says that it’s unimportant. And then presents HIS OWN faith as THE DEFINITIVE version that everyone else “should” have. And he doesn’t even realize that he’s doing it.

    This is the kind of believer that truly pisses me off. I could give a tinker’s damn whether you believe in the literal creation of the Earth in 7 days, or in the literal resurrection of Jesus from the dead, or that there’s going to be a literal accounting of the world as proclaimed in Revelations. Believe that or not all you want. But when you decide that YOUR belief is the TRUE one and everyone else needs to change their beliefs to yours, I’m going to start demanding evidence. And so should everyone else.

    And that’s what he’s doing here. He’s taken his beliefs, decided that they are the “norm” from which all beliefs should be judged, and then castigates the folks to either side of him for not believing the same way he does. In the “redemptive power of the story”. Which is idiotic – if a few centuries of religious warfare were all over whose story was the one with “true redemptive power” then the world would be an EVEN STUPIDER PLACE than it actually is.

    1. Good point well made. This season let’s listen out for xmas sermons which say ‘it’s just a story’. Somehow I think we’ll be waiting a while.

      1. The last time I was in a church was when my 84-year-old mother wanted everyone to attend Christmas services as a “present” to her. We only grumbled on the inside.

        The minister seemed like a nice-enough fellow. His homily was very odd — he talked about Dec. 25 as being a “tradition” and most likely not the date of Jesus’ birth. Frankly, by the end of it, I came away with the vague feeling that he was one of those non-believing pastors that Dan Dennett has been studying.

        The music was nice.

    2. An excellent point. He indeed does not even seem to realize that he is telling the great majority of religious people “you’re doing it wrong”. But when it comes right down to it, that’s what all religious people do. The Christians think the Moslems are wrong. The Moslems think the Hindus are wrong.

      What is truely amazing to me is how quickly most religious people shift. One minute they are debating an atheist and they are all people of faith. The next minute their allies turn into heretics, infidels and cultists.

  4. “Ours is assuredly the most ridiculous, the most absurd and the most bloody religion which has ever infected this world.

    “Your Majesty will do the human race an eternal service by extirpating this infamous superstition, I do not say among the rabble, who are not worthy of being enlightened and who are apt for every yoke; I say among honest people, among men who think, among those who wish to think. … My one regret in dying is that I cannot aid you in this noble enterprise, the finest and most respectable which the human mind can point out.”

    Letters of Voltaire and Frederick the Great (New York: Brentano’s, 1927), transl. Richard Aldington, letter 156 from Voltaire to Frederick II of Prussia, 1767-01-05

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  6. Notice Padgett never comes clean about which stories he takes literally, and which he thinks you’d have to be a fool to believe. The “liberal” religious never do get specific on the embarrassing details. Watched Ken Miller do that fan dance right before my eyes once.

  7. Well, of course we’re intolerant: We’re intolerant of intolerance (among other things):

    Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.

    — Sir Karl Popper (28 July 1902 – 17 September 1994), The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945), Vol. 1, Notes to the Chapters: Ch. 7, Note 4

    And of course we’re angry, as Greta Christina said:

    One of the most common criticisms lobbed at the newly-vocal atheist community is, “Why do you have to be so angry?” So I want to talk about:

    1. Why atheists are angry;

    2. Why our anger is valid, valuable, and necessary;

    And 3. Why it’s completely fucked-up to try to take our anger away from us.

    Or as some evolutionary biologist said:

    I, for one, was never indoctrinated, and nevertheless I’m angry.

     I’m angry that these scams (that’s what I’ll call them) have such horrible effects on the world. 

    I’m angry that millions of Catholic kids get permanently traumatized with visions of hell, and permanently riddled with guilt about “sins” like masturbation.

    I’m angry that priests, under cover of their own superior wisdom and spirituality, sexually victimize their flocks. 

    I’m angry that mullahs are calling for their followers to kill innocent people, while other more “liberal” mullahs refrain from calls for murder but don’t decry those murders when they occur. 

    I’m angry that thousands of Africans will die because the Pope and his priests won’t sanction condoms for their flock. 

    I’m angry that many religions see, and treat, women as second-class citizens, stoning them, swathing them in burkas, or making them sit behind screens in the synagogue and purify themselves in ritual baths during menstruation. 

    I’m angry at the stupid dogmatism that’s behind creationism, and behind the idea that even if evolution might have happened, God did it all. 

    I’m angry at the faithful who dispute global warming, or environmental depredation, because they think God gave us stewardship over the earth. 

    I’m angry at those people who oppose abortion or stem-cell research because of the absolutely stupid idea that a ball of cells is equivalent to a sentient person. 

    I’m angry at the faithful who, on religious grounds, prevent suffering and terminally ill people from deciding to end their own lives. 

    I’m angry that one of the greatest pleasures of being human, the act of sex, is subject to insane restrictions and prohibitions by many faiths—especially when it’s between two people of the same gender. 

    And I’m angry that religious people try to suppress freedom of speech when it deals with religion, trying to prevent us from calling attention to all this damage.


    1. And now some “Christian environmentalists” have announced they suddenly heard a call to protect the environment on behalf of God. To them I say, don’t do us any favors. You’ve done enough damage already. First they should apologize.

    2. Who cares if the wing nuts think us Atheist are angry! I agree with you…anger is a very human emotion and when used properly is very effective. I am very angry at the wing nuts because they keep telling my ma, who is dying from cancer she is going to a heaven that does not exist…its called FALSE HOPE! I’ve had some tell me well at least that gives her comfort…not really…people need to read the book “Society Without God”, Phil Zuckerman the author states he had interviewed people that worked in Hospice Homes. The workers stated that all the people that were religious were scared when they died where as the athiest were at peace…what does that say about religion…not much

  8. Though I can understand the allure in wanting to believe that we’re all going to live happily ever after, you have to admit that it’s a very childish belief.

    And, though such self-deception might give some the courage to struggle on in the face of adversity, an even stronger argument could be made for the positive benefits of going into bad situations with your eyes open. If you acknowledge the possibility of disaster, you’re much more likely to attempt to avert it in the first place and be prepared ahead of time to deal with it if it can’t be avoided.



    1. And, though such self-deception might give some the courage to struggle on in the face of adversity…

      Oh if only that were all the “promise of Paradise after death” granted to religious believers I would not have to be involved in these kinds of conversations at all. If religion was all about the beliefs that people used for themselves to get through a tough spot there would be nothing wrong with it. Everyone uses a bit of self-delusion to get through those rough patches (“anything that doesn’t kill me makes me stronger”, or “if I just keep pushing through things have to get better” both come to mind as secular versions of “if I just keep praying to Jesus things will turn out alright”.)

      The problems come when people use the promise of an afterlife to excuse letting the world become a crappy place to live in – or even to actively MAKE It a crappier place to live in. The problem also comes when the believer decides that THEIR belief in the afterlife trumps everyone else’s beliefs – those who don’t believe in the afterlife, those who believe in a different afterlife, and those who believe in the same damn afterlife but believe that the pudding will be vanilla instead of chocolate.

      And guys like Padgett, whether they realize it or not, fall into that last camp. They want to believe that they are “live and let live” folks but they aren’t – they come squarely down into the camp of “my interpretation of religion is the correct one and everyone around me is wrong”. And people like that of any stripe piss me off to no end. If you’re going to make a claim that your path is the “right” one and everyone else’s is the “wrong” one you need to provide evidence to back that claim up. And it never, ever happens.

      1. And that’s why people like Padgett think we atheists are so angry- it’s from dealing with condescending, sanctimonious hypocrites like him.

  9. our belief in the living ideal of ourselves

    Hmm… that’s what God is, is it? Why bring Him into it? (Otherwise, it sounds quite humanistic… We should always strive, as the Doctor would say,  “[to]be the best that humanity can be.”)


  10. Two observations:

    1. The odd man out in the Paul 2009 study is Japan, all other nations being nominally Christian. This shows that it is entirely possible to have a society evolving within completely different belief structures than European monotheisms and still be highly successful and highly advanced technologically. I think a study focussed on Asian moral/social values is called for; this would definitely debunk the EuroMonoGod social benefit assumption.

    2. The high rankings of Scandinavian countries on the ‘successful society’ scale raise the question whether the study hasn’t got the sequence backwards: it may be that a society needs to achieve, through good governance and education, a certain level of social development before religion can be successfully dislodged from the power structure. Given the pernicious nature of entrenched religious power groups in the U.S., this may be hard to achieve. A recent study* on the nexus between ‘good governance’ and socioeconomic success suggests as much:
    “The Scandinavian model was not the result of intelligent design, but rather of social, economic and political evolution… Many critics would claim that Scandinavian model is only possible in consensual, homogeneous and affluent societies with an extraordinary commitment to equality[…]. But conditions in Norway and Sweden in the period preceding the social democratic ascent to power were anything but consensual, egalitarian and affluent… While the Nordic countries were relatively homogeneous in terms of religion and language, the working population was far from homogenous in terms of living conditions. In particular, the social and economic cleavages between rural and urban residents were striking. Measured by income per capita, the gap between the poorest and richest rural municipalities was 1 to 14 […].
    Scandinavian social democrats came to power in societies no less economically divided than many poor countries of today. The majority of citizens in Scandinavia became rich under the Scandinavian model of governance, not before. Consensus, homogeneity, and affluence are products of the Scandinavian governance, not prerequisites.

    * http://www.esop.uio.no/research/publications/Goverance_and_Development.pdf

    1. But that is precisely the point in Paul’s study. GOOD GOVERNANCE, CONTRARY TO PADGETT, DECREASES RELIGIOSITY.

      1. Er, no, see “Testing the competing socioeconomic hypotheses” in Paul 2009. The study is evidencing correlations, not causation; the latter is hypothetical. The low U.S. rank may reflect paths not taken, opportunities missed, minds closed.

        There is a legitimate worry that the entrenched power of religion in America may pull off a vicious cycle: religious groups encroaching upon politics, impeding or dismantling ‘good governance’ (together with their ideological allies), thus in turn eroding the prerequisites for socioeconomic progress and consequent emancipation from religion. Progress is never to be taken for granted. Opinion-makers like Padgett are not just wrong, not just being idiotic; witting or not, they are fullfilling a function in buttressing the status-quo. They are ideological agents against change, wardens of the existing order.

      2. Causation is actually addressed in one of the sources Paul names for his research. That is, the 2004 book Sacred and Secular. Temporal trends showing longitudinally decreasing religiosity in post-industrial nations along with lower rates of religiosity in younger generations compared to older ones (something you don’t see in agrarian societies) points to a cause and effect relationship between the two, no just a coincidence.

  11. I always find it strange that liberal defenders of a faith almost inevitably undermine that faith by criticizing atheists for taking its claims at face value.

    If you don’t really believe the religion you’re defending, why are you defending it?

    Take away its claims and what’s left?


    And not even particularly good ones.

    1. Take away its claims and what’s left?


      And notice that that’s EXACTLY what Padgett himself is defending:

      “Because in the end, what they have faith in is the redemptive power of the story.”

      His personal faith – which he is projecting out onto the body of believers as a whole – is that “it’s a nice story and I wish it were true, so even if it isn’t I’ll act as if it were”. That is probably true for many liberal believers, though I’d be surprised if it were even MOST liberal believers, let alone MOST believers in general.

      And I honestly don’t know what story he’s talking about either – when you really get into the weeds of the Christian story of redemption it’s a really nasty story of a Creator who blames his creations for the flaws he created them with, who demands blood sacrifice from them because of those flaws, who millenia later has a change of heart about the whole thing but can’t actually change his mind without committing deicide on himself. It’s kind of a fucked up story – not really something that modern readers would look at as a “redemptive story” at all, since the only character in the narrative that gets “redeemed” seems to be God Himself and you really have to spin away from “authorial intent” to get that reading.

  12. // Before Hitchens died at 62 from esophageal cancer, he made a point of declaring he was certain no heaven awaited him. But that swipe at the faithful always misses the point. //

    Wait, so now we can’t even express our personal beliefs without insulting believers? What a ridiculous statement.

  13. Really outlandish that he can say ‘all due respect to Hitchens’ and then try to make a case that “Good is Great”. Hitchen’s dismantled these arguments before, and now that he’s dead, immediately one of these dolts trots them out again.
    They got the ‘all clear’ sign I guess and can now come out of their foxholes (where there are of course no atheists).

  14. I pretty much agree with 99% of this article. The only issue I would take up is this: The Solt paper on page 462 (available online) states the following: “Inequality would appear to drive religiosity, and not the reverse.” is the important message as this supports the Relative Power Theory and I believe that this is the point in the above article as well. However, the last two paragraphs become slightly equivocal on this and actually skew the point of the Solt article (Thanks Jerry Coyne for first directing me to the Solt article).

    E.g. “The best societies are those that reject God”. This seems to stand the Solt et al.’s point on it’s head or at least blur the distinction.

    Another way of looking at this is: The best societies are those that redistribute income effectively so that religiosity decreases. (again, if you believe that on the whole religion is a negative force in the world).

    What would happen if the relationship was the other way?: Religiosity begets economic inequality? We would have a positive feedback loop and this would continue to worsen – increased religiosity and increased inequality in redistribution of wealth (we don’t have this happening, again because there seems to be a causal relationship as pointed out in the article from economic inequality to religiosity).

    If it’s economic inequality (unequal distribution) causing increased religiosity, than religiosity may then be seen as a way for the majority of people do deal with the economic hardships they find themselves in (e.g. make do – there is no positive feedback of one reinforcing the other). So, in effect, we see religiosity as a symptom of perceived economic hardship. If we were to govern a country, what would be best (again, if we assume that on the whole religion is a negative force), we would focus on creating a fairer distribution of wealth than actually on the religiosity of it’s people as this seems to be a symptom of psychological hardship. Just wondering – this is not written in stone…

  15. I had subscribed to Time Magazine for over 30 years, even though they leaned too far to the right, politically. The magazine became poorer over time (no pun intended) and the quality of the articles went downhill. I stopped subscribing or reading Time about 5 years ago.

  16. Christians either don’t literally believe in critical parts of the Bible (e.g., the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus) or wouldn’t care if they were shown to be wrong.

    Wow. Is this guy hopelessly naive or a bald-faced liar? And which do I have more contempt for? Hard to decide.

  17. 81% of Americans believe in Heaven

    I tend to express that as “81% of Americans believe in Heaven when asked.” That’s admittedly a more cynical view. When you ask people, their reply will often reflect what they think you want to hear.

    So, sure, maybe 81% have some sort of superficial belief in heaven. But the number who have a strong belief in a literal heaven is surely far smaller (though well above zero).

  18. Most of us don’t believe in God because we think it’s a ticket to heaven. …

    Oh, please.

    …Rather, our belief in God — … — instills in us a faith that in the end, light always defeats darkness (which is how people get through the wars and natural disasters I cover).

    Taking just the war part, let’s focus first on starting the war. Could WWI have had a chance of getting off the ground without the righteousness of Gott Mit Uns? Maybe, but it surely greased the skids, at least. I expect that those who once embodied the skulls at the Ossuary at Verdun would have more than a few words about how much the light defeated the darkness.

  19. If there is one thing that makes me angry, it is being called an angry atheist. There may be one or two angry sentences in The God Delusion, but you’ll have to search hard to find them. One colleague told me she delayed reading the book for a long time because she had read so many times that it was an aggressive, angry book. When she eventually read it she became more and more mystified, and finally ended up going back to check that she was actually reading the right book, so unaggressive and un-angry did she find it.

    Michael Ruse, who claims not to believe, but fervently believes in belief, somehow managed to detect anger on the very first page of The God Delusion. Here is the whole of that very first page. Do you see what he means?

    “The boy lay prone in the grass, his chin resting on his hands. He suddenly found himself overwhelmed by a heightened awareness of the tangled stems and roots, a forest in microcosm, a transfigured world of ants and beetles and even – though he wouldn’t have known the details at the time – of soil bacteria by the billions, silently and invisibly shoring up the economy of the micro-world. Suddenly the micro-forest of the turf seemed to swell and become one with the universe, and with the rapt mind of the boy contemplating it. He interpreted the experience in religious terms and it led him eventually to the priesthood. He was ordained an Anglican clergyman and became a chaplain at my school, a teacher of whom I was fond.

    Our sport during lessons was to sidetrack him away from scripture and towards stirring tales of Fighter Command and the Few. He had done war service in the RAF and it was with familiarity, and something of the affection that I still retain for the Church of England (at least by comparison with the competition) that I later read John Betjeman’s poem:

    Our padre is an old sky pilot/
Severely now they’ve clipped his wings/
But still the flagstaff in the Rect’ry garden
/Points to Higher Things . . .

    In another time and place, that boy could have been me, under the stars, dazzled by Orion, Cassiopeia and Ursa Major, tearful with the unheard music of the Milky Way, heady with the night scents of frangipani and trumpet flowers in an African garden. Why the same emotion should have led my chaplain in one direction and me in the other is not an easy question to answer.”

    Angry? Obviously not. As Jerry says, religious people hear any criticism of religion as angry, no matter how mild it is, because they are so unaccustomed to it.

    1. Richard, thanks for writing ‘The Magic of Reality’ – I’ve just bought it for my 8 year old son for Christmas. I just went to his school Christmas play this morning, where he told me he would be playing the part of ‘Yoda’ (it turned out to be Joseph – although, come to think of it, Yoda makes as much sense!)
      I taught him you should look for evidence before you believe anything – with the result that he announced, unprompted, his conclusion that stories about God are “just a fairy tale” – so he assumed he was acting out a myth rather than a historical scene.
      It’s a pity so many of the world population haven’t figured it out.

    2. Your violent, subversive anger is evident in the sly suavity of the botanical description.
      Love of nature must constitute a savage onslaught upon religion.
      As the Chancellor retorts in Goethe’s Faust when Mephisto, disguised as a Court Jester, argues in favour of man’s nature and spirit:

      “Nature and Spirit—words not fit for Christian ears;
      It is for such words we burn Atheists.
      For such orations full of danger are.
      Nature is Sin, Spirit’s the Devil,
      Between them both they nurture Doubt,
      Their misbegotten hybrid child.”

      (Goethe’s original:
      “Natur und Geist—so spricht man nicht zu Christen;
      Deshalb verbrennt man Atheisten.
      Weil solche Reden höchst gefährlich sind.
      Natur ist Sünde, Geist ist Teufel,
      Sie hegen zwischen sich den Zweifel,
      Ihr mißgestaltet Zwitterkind.”)

    3. A friend of mine told me how much she disliked your ‘angry’ attitude. I asked her if she’d ever actually read your books and she dodged the question. Since I have ‘The God Delusion’ in Kindle as well, I will give her my hard copy and see if I can get her to finally do so.

      1. I have yet to find anyone who describes Richard Dawkins as “angry” that could go on to actually provide an example of such anger, with a couple of exceptions who tried pointing to some of his interviews with American Christian fundamentalists.

        They were specifically talking about his annoyed responses to people who’d he’d just talked to for 5 minutes about the evidence for evolution, at the end of which they immediately asserted that there was no evidence, and not any other part of the interviews.

        My personal favorite, however, was one person complaining about Professor Dawkins’s “angry tone” when he was giving an interview about the then forthcoming Magic of Reality.

        I mean, really, there was someone talking about how angry he sounded when he said that he hadn’t read Harry Potter. At that point I realized that there’s a large group of people who, for reasons unknown to me, think that Richard Dawkins is an angry, angry person and see everything he does in that light.

  20. Modern humans have a natural tendency toward religious thought; it comes with the neurophysiology. The rest is just rationalizing what we already believe.

  21. I haven’t time to read the whole thread just now, so forgive me if some one has already said this. The New Testament is pretty much known by Biblical scholars to be mostly a fabrication. There are no witnesses to the life of Jesus in it. The notion that he lived on Earth at all is supported by one document only, the Gospel of Mark, no-one knows who wrote it or why, the other Gospel writers copied it and added new information from unknown sources. About half of Paul’s epistles are known to be forgeries. The whole thing was cobbled together in the fourth century out of a huge pile of such writings and the stuff that got left out was burned.

    Christians don’t abandon their faith when confronted with this information, they will argue untill they are blue in the face that black is white instead.

  22. PZ has a great take on this bit of religious bloviation over at Pharyngula, which I think adds an important point.

    It’s not whether Padgett or anyone else wishes to believe in fairy stories. It’s about whether or not they can defend them in reality; and whether as a result of their beliefs they adhere to a political philosophy or ethical construct that is other than human-centered.

    Without Padgett’s “stories”, embryonic stem cell research is 10 years ahead of where it is now. Without those “stories”, no 12-year-old girl who has been raped by her stepfather has to worry about carrying that monster’s child to term.

    And on and on.

    The “stories” are the problem. And Hitch was right in this instance. Religion poisons everything.

  23. “# 70% of Americans believe in Satan
    # 69% of American believe in Hell
    presumably 1% think that Hell has no overseer)”

    (presumably 1% think satan is homeless)

    There, fixed that for you…

  24. Jerry,
    What happens if you submit your rebuttal to Time? Does it just end up in the ewaste basket? This article has so many patently wrong statements in it, it should not go unchallenged.

  25. “70% of Americans believe in Satan
    69% of American believe in Hell (presumably 1% think that Hell has no overseer)”

    Check that again. That’s more people who believe Satan is real, not Hell. So 1% believe Satan just hangs around Earth, fugging shiz up, I guess.

  26. “…religiosity is negatively correlated with income inequality: the more inequality, the more religious the country or, in the U.S., the year.”

    I think you mean positively correlated.

  27. Trivers cites evidence of parasite load and religiosity. The idea is that likelihood of illnesses leads to stronger in-group/out-group behaviors.

    You may love your neighbor but they are Satan if they get your kids sick.

  28. ” The New Testament is pretty much known by Biblical scholars to be mostly a fabrication”

    Does everyone on this site believe that? Because it was only the other day that the following was stated on the blog:
    “The followers of Jesus are supposed to have wept after his death, too, and that’s what we’re seeing here: the effect of a theocracy on its credulous victims.”

    What is the evidence for this characterisation of Christian society? The “unreliable” New Testament?

    Also, my initial impression of the correlation study is that I could not rely on it. First of all, the two variables involved do not appear to be genuinely quantitative. It would be helpful to see the full workings in calculating the Pearson coefficient. 

    Secondly, there is this comment in the paper:
    “The degree to which abortion is a measure of societal pathology is controversial, but it often signals a failure to use contraceptives.”

    I do not have time to study the paper, but I am not encouraged by dubiety on the subject of the evil of abortion. Again this comes back to the question of whether the variables are genuinely quantifiable.

  29. It must be some form of the christian persecution complex. 82% of the population may believe the bible contains literal truth – they are an actual majority and this makes them the persecuted minority. The religious folks who don’t really believe that the bible contains true claims are a very small minority – perhaps even smaller than the godless minority – and they are perceived as a majority by the cuckoos with a persecution complex.

  30. As Richard illustrated, the religious perceive that even the slightest mention of atheism gets the speaker described in ridiculous terms like ‘angry’, ‘outspoken’, ‘fundamentalist’, ‘evangelist’, ‘militant’ and doing so on a public forum like Twitter (as Ricky Gervais has recently) results in moaning that he’s ‘trying to force it down people’s throats’.

    Utterly pathetic.

  31. There’s an equivocation going with the use of the word intolerant. To listen to Richard Dawkins speak of religious belief, it’s clear that he doesn’t want to force everyone to be atheist, but to think for themselves (he’s even said as much). The intolerance, if there could said to be any, is not putting up with what he sees as nonsense arguments.

    Meanwhile, the intolerance that we associate with fundamentalists is forcing their religion upon others, to push their beliefs and values onto others. It’s a very different kind of intolerance, one that goes against everything that’s part of an open society.

    It’s a sad state of affairs where holding something as true is considered intolerance. The exercise of consciousness raising that the “new atheists” have been trying to do is clearly vindicated by the spiteful language that’s accompanied almost all criticism. There clearly needs to be more consciousness raising because the very suggestion of religious falsity has such a visceral reaction.

    And because of the nature of the criticism, meaningful criticism is being lost under swathes of indignation and hostility.

  32. How dare this guy say the here and now cannot be better without religion. It is a slap in the face to those of us who may have given years of our life volunteering, or made our life professions ones that are undervalued and pay minimum wage.

    I suppose to them making the world better entails missionary work and wiping out local cultures and languages.

  33. I guess everyone with insight knowledge in a certain subject know from hard experience that most newspaper articles are more or less wrong. This is due to short time of research, misunderstandings, hidden political agendas, poor understanding, creative imagination to please the reador with fairy tales etc. I never believe journalists. Only via many independent sources you can get a dim picture of what is really going on. A recent example is the flooding in northern Bangkok, frequently referred to in international media as ‘northern Thailand’ (which was/is dry), thereby devastating the tourism income for a whole region.

    1. Subscribe to some press release feeds, and you’ll discover that that’s exactly what the overwhelming majority of news stories are — those same press releases, plagiarized with the blessings of the company (or government agency) that originally authored them.

      Investigative journalism is all but dead. The few remaining true journalists are marginalized and / or strongly ideologically biased.



  34. “As everyone knows who has even glanced at the sacred document of Islam, it’s loaded to the gunwales with verses inciting followers to kill unbelievers, those who diss Allah, and Christians and Jews.”

    Sam Harris has gathered together in “The End of Faith” several pages of these sacred humanitarian pearls of compassion for convenient reader access.

  35. “69% of American believe in Hell (presumably 1% think that Hell has no overseer)”

    Oh, no, obviously they figure God – who created everything including Hell and Evil incarnate (for our edification, natch) – must be the Guy in charge down there too.

    Makes a kind of gruesome sense: God’s a Control Freak and micro-manages everything.

    You know. Tough Love, and all that.

    The fascinating implication is that the most accomplished evil-doers can aspire to cozy up as near to Him as any saint in Heaven.

    Of course, one must be dysfunctionally insane to trust a two-faced psychopathic bastard deity with an alternate personality disorder, with the flip side named Satan – something rather like His conjoined evil twin, except the faces share the same Godhead.

    Oy, wait…what’s it say on US currency again? Uh oh.

  36. if we need religion to have a good world then why does Sweden, Holland, and Japan which are the most unrelgious countries are better off in all areas of life than religious countries or supposely religious countries. They have better health care, less poor, and etc…religion has NOTHING to do with making the world “better”…history shows us that it actally makes it worse….look at the Dark Ages…it was due to religion…do these wing nuts want to go back to the Dark Ages? If it would not have been for the Dark Ages we as a human race would be further in technology and health care and so on…religion has dampered advancement espically in Science!

  37. In a short column in this week’s print edition of TIME, I think James Poniewozik gets it right, particularly the last sentence:

    To read Christopher Hitchens, the brilliant, pugilistic essayist and journalist who died Dec. 15 at 62, was to be deeply impressed–envious, if you were a writer–and at some point to be deeply pissed off by him. Maybe Hitchens pissed you off with his devastating attacks on religion, his takedowns of Mother Teresa or his endorsement of the war in Iraq. And maybe he also impressed you with any combination of those or his reflections, after he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2010, on the approach of death. Maybe he impressed you with a lifetime of political writing that, while it zigzagged across the ideological lines that other people assiduously draw, was singularly dedicated to freedom, the rights of the individual and independence of thought.

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