Susan Jacoby’s last column: Jefferson, Hitchens, and the failures of atheism

January 1, 2012 • 9:42 am

Sadly, Susan Jacoby, who writes the “Spirited Atheist” column for the “On Faith” section of The Washington Post, has penned her last column for the nonce: she’s writing a book on the factors influencing religious conversion.

Her splendid last piece, “American atheists must define themselves, not be defined by the religious,” is both sad and pragmatic.  Sad, because she emphasizes how little influence atheists still have in the U.S. compared to the giant steam-roller of religious lobbies; and pragmatic because, instead of just extolling atheism, she lays out her solutions to the problem.

Here’s what she sees as the problem:

  • We atheists are far less influential than we think we are.

For a true measure of the limited influence exerted by atheism on popular culture, one need only turn to the closing bestseller lists for 2011. Leading the “nonfiction” New York Times paperback bestseller list (having been on the list for 56 weeks) is “Heaven Is for Real,” written by the minister-father of a 4-year-old boy who supposedly went to heaven during an emergency appendectomy and saw Jesus (“he had the brightest blue eyes”) and his baby sister, who was actually never born into this world because his mother suffered a miscarriage. This book is also No. 4 on the bestseller list of picture books for small children.

Guess what does not appear on any year-end Times bestseller list? Dawkins’s “The Magic of Reality,” an enchanting work which explains the origins of life to children in a non-didactic way that places religious myth in the context of the long human struggle to understand how we came to be, is nowhere to be found.

The point is that there is a much larger American audience for childish (in this instance, literally so) supernatural fantasies, which should no more be classified as nonfiction than Grimm’s fairy tales, than there is for any book that attempts to present the world as it is to the next generation. That 15 to 20 percent of Americans are no longer affiliated with any church does not replace the default position occupied in American political and cultural life by religion in general and Christianity in particular.

  • We don’t have anywhere near the political power or money of religious lobbies.

Even more important, the most potent religious influence on American politics is exercised by those on the far religious right, who — while they represent only a minority of all believers — are backed by huge amounts of money and organizational muscle. I have written many times in this column about the organizational and financial shortcomings that make it difficult for the secular movement, and indeed for liberal religious organizations committed to upholding secular government, to translate their values into real social and political influence.

  • Atheists are not politically united in a common goal.

There is a deep split, as demonstrated every week in the comments about my columns, between American secularists descended from the humanism of Thomas Paine and those descended from the social Darwinists of the 19th century and the Ayn Randian “you’re on your own” anti-government ideologues of the 20th century. The problem for the secular right is that politicians who share its anti-government views are also committed to far-right religion. But the split between the humanists and the neo-social Darwinists is a serious problem for the secular movement as a whole, because the two groups find it difficult, if not impossible, to support the same candidates.

  • Religion has controlled the dialogue in a way that puts atheists on the defensive.

First, the anti-abortion crusaders seized the brilliant label “pro-life” to characterize anyone who supported legal abortion as “anti-life.” The women’s movement adopted “pro-choice” as an alternative but was never entirely successful at marketing the label. . . Second, the right has made a pejorative out of both intellectualism and liberalism, often equating both with godless secularism.

She talks in detail about how the faithful are controlling government policy to impose their religious values, including denial of reproductive rights, on the rest of us. And the government is giving tons of money to faith-based organizations, even if they purport to use it for secular purposes.  At a congressional hearing in October, for instance, the faithful, whining that religious freedom is “under attack,” lobbied heavily for the government to enforce their views about reproduction:

A parade of right-wing evangelical Protestants and representatives of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops testified at the hearings against all attempts by the Obama administration to attach government regulations to taxpayer money. In this view, the administration is waging “war on Christianity” by, for example, mandating that providers with U.S. government contracts offer a “full range of reproductive services” to sex-trafficking victims in the United States and around the world. The church wants to help pregnant girls forced into prostitution by forcing them to have their abusers’ babies.

Bishop William C. Lori, head of the newly formed Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty formed by the bishops’ conference, attacked provisions of the new domestic health care law that impose any government mandates on religious health providers.

This is not the kind of “religious liberty” (another term co-opted by the faithful) conceived by the Founders, including Jefferson’s Virginia Act for Religious Freedom (see below).  That, the precursor of our First Amendment to the Constitution, erected a strict wall between government and religious activities.

What, then, does Jacoby see as the most important tasks for atheists now?  There are two:

  • “If secularists are to succeed in making any inroads on the default position of religion, they must reclaim the original definition of religious liberty, as exemplified by those who passed Virginia’s 1786 law.”  I’ve put that law below, and we should all read it for the New Year.
  • Get passionate like Hitchens did!

We must reclaim the language of passion and emotion from the religious right, which loves to portray atheists as bloodless, “professorial” (the word always applied to Obama) devotees of abstract scientific principles that have nothing to do with real human lives. This misguided but, again, ideologically useful portrait of atheists appeared frequently in the patronizing eulogies for Christopher Hitchens offered by religious believers who had fallen under the spell of his voice and his prose. . .

This is the sort of mindless obeisance to received opinion propagated by the missionaries for religion as the default position. Confronted by an atheist who does not fit their stereotype, their conclusion is not that the stereotype is awry but that the atheist, deep down, must not really be a true atheist. Because everyone knows that atheists are bloodless elitists (never honest Christian folk) who substitute science with a capital “S” for God with a capital “G.”

One reason why believers couldn’t quite dismiss Hitchens was that he did write and speak with the language of passion and emotion, as Robert Green Ingersoll, “the Great Agnostic” did in the 19th century and Thomas Paine in the 18th. I believe that the most crucial task for secularists today is to lay claim to the heritage that unites passion and reason.

This is one reason why we’ll miss Hitch so much.  Listen to any of his talks about religion—nay, about anything—and you’ll see a forcefulness and passion showing that, in his bones, he really believed what he said. He was not grandstanding. None of the other New Atheists, eloquent though they may be, come close to that passion, which, wedded with erudition, made Hitchens so mesmerizing. As for me, I’m going to stop smiling when I attack religion in public, a misguided tactic born of nervousness and an attempt to disarm the audience.

Here’s Hitch, in debate with Christian aplogist Frank Turek showing his passion:

Jacoby’s conclusion is powerful, and it’s the message she wants us to remember as she departs to write her book:

. . . let us talk about showing the heavens more just. This is the essence of humanist secularism and humanist atheism and it must be offered not as a defensive response to the religiously correct but as a robust creed worthy of the world’s first secular government. It is also time to revive the evocative and honorable word “freethinker,” with its insistence that Americans think for themselves instead of relying on default opinion. The combination of “free” and “thought” embodies every ideal that secularists hold out to a nation founded not on dreams of justice in heaven but on the best human hopes for a more just earth.

Our greatest weapon against religion, and especially against theologians, is this question:  What evidence do you have for your claims?  Theology will wither, and with it religion, if we just keep asking that question, which weds “bloodless” science to passionate conviction.

And finally, let’s read the document to which Jacoby pays homage, “The Virgina Statute for Religious Freedom“, written by Thomas Jefferson in 1786.  Here it is in its entirety (the link above gives an truncated and annotated version).  I’ve put in bold my favorite parts:

I. Well aware that Almighty God has created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal [civil] punishments or burdens or by civil incapacitations [lack of fitness for office], tend only to … [produce] habits of hypocrisy and meanness and are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion, who, being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate [spread] it by coercions [force] on either, as was in his Almighty power to do; that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical [religious], who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion [rule] over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible [ones], and, such, endeavoring to impose them on others, have established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time; that to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical; that even … forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor whose morals he would make his pattern and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness … ; that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than [on] our opinions in physics or geometry; that therefore the proscribing [of] any citizen as unworthy [of] the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which in common with his fellow citizens he has a natural right; . . . that to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous fallacy which at once destroys all religious liberty, because he [the magistrate], being, of course, judge of that tendency, will make his opinions the rule of judgment and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with, or differ from, his own; that it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt [open, or public] acts against peace and good order; and, finally, that truth is great and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate, [for] errors [cease] to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.  [Go Tom!]

II. Be it enacted by the General Assembly, that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

III. And though we well know that this assembly elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of legislation only, have no power to restrain the act of succeeding assemblies, constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act to be irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present, or to narrow its operation, such as would be an infringement of natural right.

Jefferson was so proud of this that it is one of only three accomplishments he wished to be put on his tombstone (he omits his Presidency!), near his home of Monticello, Virginia. (Note as well that he died on July 4, 1826—the very same day as his predecessor as President, John Adams.)

Alongside Hitchen’s Razor (“What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”) should stand Jefferson’s Dictum: “Errors cease to be dangerous when it is permitted to freely contradict them.”

Happy New Year!

h/t: Diane G.

94 thoughts on “Susan Jacoby’s last column: Jefferson, Hitchens, and the failures of atheism

  1. Double plus on the passion thing. And the not smiing when you are telling them how offensive religion is. Spirit of Hitchens. The seriously religious actually respect that more than ingratiation, as Hitch showed on his tour of the bible belt. They respond to sincere conviction, and a strong moral conscience, even if it is in opposition to their view. That’s been my experience. This is where accommodationists fall most obviously, in showing a milktoast commitment to their values. The faithful see that as a sign of their weakness, and all the more reason to ignore them.

    1. Who was the rabbi debating religion with Hitchens? The rabbi told a circumcision joke and Hitchens went into a coldly furious rant about precisely how morally reprehensible this was; the rabbi’s face was a suitable picture. I saw it on YouTube. I’d also be interested in the rabbi’s response, which wasn’t in the clip.

        1. Hitchens’ attack may have seemed harsh, but that rabbi’s kind of evasive, condescending drollery is how self-styled religious “moderates” try to deflect attention from the repellant cynicism of their core doctines, those assertions and customs that, as Hitch phrased it “offend us in our deepest integrity.” We do our values and image a disservice when we let ourselves get seduced into making light of the very attitudes against which we are there to make strong protest. We will not be patronized or danced around, thanks very much. That is exactly the way religious fan-dancers try to stay above scrutiny and blame.

  2. “religious liberty” – The religious right are successful with their labelling because they are prepared to abuse language, and basically lie. So what should be the “religious liberty to oppress”, is twisted to their advantage. The religious have centuries of practice at the misuse of language, the twisting of words, and downright dishonesty.

  3. “Our greatest weapon against religion, and especially against theologians, is this question: What evidence do you have for your assertions? Theology will wither, and with it religion, if we just keep asking that question.”

    I think the three most important things we should emphasize are:

    How the scientific method works and why it’s so successful.

    the poverty of human experience to explain reality.

    and how religion just makes shit up. And how we know that just making shit up does bad things in the world.

    Happy New Year!

  4. American atheists must define themselves, not be defined by the religious

    That can’t be done.

    You cannot have a belief system without beliefs. And you cannot have an active movement without a belief system.

    Jacoby mentions “secularism” a lot. And there she has a point. It would be better to look toward a secularist movement, rather than an atheist movement. You could get many accomodationists and liberal churches to join such a movement. And a secularist movement could arouse more passion than any atheist movement.

    1. There is a secularist movement. It includes many religious people, as you point out. It’s passionate.

      But there is also an atheist movement — and I think its separate existence is vital to not just the practical goal of secularism, but to its moral and philosophical underpinnings. We’re more passionate, I think, because we see more at stake.

      Religious people who, as an identified group of the faithful, support a separation of church and state generally do so by arguing either that true religion has no conflict with this position — or mandates it. There are rational arguments … which God supports. God does not want government to mix with religion or vice versa.

      I think atheists are better at seeing that framing the issue this way — on realizing what God must really be like — is rather missing the point.

  5. Several comments on the Virginia Statute:

    1- Thomas Jefferson drafted the statute in 1777 and introduced it into the General Assembly in 1779, however it wasn’t passed until 1786. By this time Jefferson was already in France. The person responsible for its passage was of course James Madison, who is the real backbone behind the principle of separation of Church and State. If anyone wants to read one of the most radical statements of this concept, read his Memorial and Remonstrance, the distribution of which was decisive in getting the Virginia Statute passed. As an exercise, circle the word Establishment in Memorial and Remonstrance and you will understand that Establishment of religion does not mean solely a State-established church as those on the right would interpret the First Amendment.

    2- A part that deserves to be underlined in the Statute is this:

    “… no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry WHATSOEVER … ”

    I capitalized the whatsoever, but it’s important to single it out. It has all the solidity and finality of a brick wall.

    3- Finally, another part that needs to be boldfaced is this:

    “if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present, or to narrow its operation, such as would be an infringement of natural right.”

    This is critical because it’s a direct rebuttal to those on the right who argue that Jefferson thought there should be no barriers between religion and the various states as opposed to the barrier between the Federal Government and the Church. (I’m looking at you Prof. Dreisbach and his book Thomas Jefferson and the wall of separation between church and state). Separation of Church and any State is a natural right that is not revocable by the actions of any single state in the Union, thus foreshowing the 14th Amendment.

  6. I’m inclined to think that “freethinker” is the best word. Religiosos already rabidly froth at the mention of “secular.”

    Considering how much they toss around words and phrases including “freedom,” “liberty,” “religious liberty,” and “individualism,” religiosos will be hard pressed to presume to reasonably condemn the use of “freethinker,” one who claims the “freedom” and “liberty” to think for her-/himself.

    1. Not to mention that “Freethinker” is a broader banner, which includes not only Atheists, but also Agnostics, Deists, Providentialists, and even several anti-authoritarian strains of Christianity such as the Quakers.

      1. Ar! Ar!

        Just making a statement of fact.

        A religioso will be hard-pressed, be stressed, and experience greater cognitive dissonance, if he objects to “freethinking.” He would have to admit to being an “unfreethinker.”

  7. In the clip above, at about 2:55, in response to Hitchens’ comment “how convenient,” Turek says, “It is quite convenient, and that is the very nature of God.”

    Therefore, based on Turek’s statement, God is convenient and it is more convenient to believe in God than to explore any other possibilities.

  8. (Note as well that he died on July 4, 1826—the exact same day that John Adams, Jefferson’s predecessor as President, also passed away.)

    Ergo, Jesus!

  9. “As for me, I’m going to stop smiling when I attack religion in public, a misguided tactic born of nervousness and an attempt to disarm the audience.”

    Great idea! When I watched that debate with John Haught I wondered, “Why is he smiling?” I couldn’t decide whether you meant to convey an amused, condescending attitude, or if it was a sincere, meek uncertainly about whether the audience would buy what you were saying.

    Either way, although you were really great in that debate regardless of the smiling, letting your style be more influenced by Christopher Hitchens in the future sounds like a plan!

    1. …letting your style be more influenced by Christopher Hitchens in the future sounds like a plan!

      It definitely sounds like a plan, if it also features what Hitchens called “observing one of the nicest armed truces it has been my pleasure to observe”, referring to his friendship with Francis Collins. One feature of the style of Hitchens that seems to receive less credit than is due is his ability to ‘separate people from ideas’ and maintain a personable, conversational camaraderie with say a Douglas Wilson or a Francis Collins. This seems doubly remarkable considering how this separation of people from ideas is hard to maintain even during Internet run-ins! The article linked to in this comment below speaks of a number of such armed truces, which of course can be maintained only from the position of strength that has been captured by the intrepid Horsemen.

  10. Dr. Coyne, I need to thank you every day for your blog as it is entertaining, informative, and inspiring. Many thanks. Please keep up the good work.

    Happy New Year.

    1. Haven’t read Rixaeton yet, but, o the extent that anyone puts stock in “The New York Times Style Book,” I gather that the NYT would print ” Hitchens’s “, adding apostrophe and “s” regardless of whether the word ends in “s.”

      BTW, what’s the predominant “received” spelling of the possessive impersonal third person singular pronoun? ” ones ” works for me; there’s no wondering otherwise whether a writer possibly means “one is” by “one’s”.

      Same thoughts on “its” versus “it’s.”

        1. I agree that some sort of Occam’s (Ockham’s? I’ve seen it both ways) Razor of spelling would dictate “Hitchens’ “.

          Just congenially curious, would “Hitchens’ ” when pronounced sound indistinguishable from “Hitchens”?

          Also, I gather that Strunk, Harbrace, and NYT Style Book would all agree that a group, such as a family, all with the last name “Hitchens,” would collectively be referred to as “the Hitchenses”? (re: Jones & Joneses)

        2. No, it isn’t.

          Both “Hitchens’” and “Hitchens’s” are acceptable; which is to be preferred is a matter of house style. A copy-editor would only admonish a writer to be consistent. (“Hitchen’s” is dead wrong, of course.)


          1. I have published a correction here.

            In summary: according to the Apostrophe Protection Society the correct use would be “Hitchens’s” due to the possession being singular. If there were multiple Hitchenses that owned the phrase, it would be “Hitchens'” but we all know there was only one Christopher Hitchens.

            I do recall from English classes that if the word ended in an “s” the apostrophe had to follow it, but that may be either mis-remembering, or bad teaching.

          2. A “naked” apostrophe always follows a plural ending in an “s”: The car’s spare tyre v. the cars’ spare tyres.

            Butcher’s Copy-Editing says, “The inclusion or omission of the possessive s should be decided on the grounds of euphony … but systems differ.

            I’d agree that |hitchens razor| sounds better than |hitchenses razor|, so I think you’re right to prefer “Hitchens’ Razor” to “Hitchens’s Razor”. “Hitchens’s” may still acceptable, according to some style guides; I just pronounce it as |hitchens| anyway…


          3. Greetings, Rixaeton.

            Pray, tell, do you know if there is a Relative/Reflexive Pronoun Preservation Society?

            I notice that the locution “persons ‘that'” (as opposed to “persons ‘who'”) is employed with increasing frequency in Amuricun general spoken and written discourse.

            In that Republican U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney has issued a pronunciamento from Mount Olympus that “corporations are people,” I wonder whether I should say “corporations ‘who’ ” or “corporations ‘that'”?

          4. It’s blitheringly obvious that ‘Hitchens” is the one to go with; because it’s the easiest to say. Try saying ‘Hitchens’s’. Me, neither.

            The real question is the ‘razor’ bit. What does it mean? Etymologically, it’s ‘to pull or knock down’ (a building or town). Ergo, and I won’t say ‘God’, but ‘demolition’.

            Therefore, ‘Hitchens’ demolition’. But I still prefer ‘Hitchen’s Synallagmatic’.

  11. Dream on. There is no way to get the human brain to accept reality nor turn away from dependence on childish fantasies.

    The money really just is using these all powerful ideologies — not creating them. Following not leading or creating.

    Also, since religion is a hyper-competitive form of power getting in the US, there will always be new and improved marketing tactics.

    Plus, we know from the lack of free will research that rational and word based strategies are pointless.

    Fact based knowledge will never have a mass audience nor be accepted by anyone other than a very tiny group of professionals and experts. Thus, it has always been.

    BTW< "passion" is for hobbies and romance not serious topics.

    1. Research is anyone’s passion!

      [The problem is mostly to make room for the rest of one’s passions.]

      1. Absolutely! Any job that stresses creativity or communication requires pasion.

        We were interviewing a job candidate who answered our interview questions knowledgeably but very flatly and seemed reluctant to defend his opinions. Discussing his suitability afterwards, one of the other interviewers noted that he lacked passion. “Bingo!” said our Group VP.


    2. sleeprunning #13 wrote:

      Dream on. There is no way to get the human brain to accept reality nor turn away from dependence on childish fantasies.

      THE human brain? Or are there more than one? Are they all exactly the same, or can we detect some small differences?

      Improvement counts. Only the religious measure all progress against Perfection and sink to their knees in defeat.

      1. Clearly, you can get human brains to accept reality – else we would not be having this discussion.

        A key is to demonstrate that childish fantasies are less useful and – frankly – less interesting!


    3. Let me see if I have this correct; sleeprunning doesn’t accept reality and is dependent on childish fantasy or the other possibility, sleeprunning is not human.

      If you want to continue to live in a christian pit you have the correct attitude.
      I’ve wanted something better for a long time and I won’t allow your pessimistic position to dissuade me.

      P.S. I’m not a professional in any way that would be germane nor an expert, yet I have a passion for fact based knowledge.

      BTW< "passion" is used frequently, much more than your statement would indicate you are aware of.

  12. The Virginia statute came up indirectly today in Ed Brayton’s blog post, “When Americans punished blasphemy”. A comment by Daniel Fincke on the 1887 blasphemy trial of C B Reynolds led to Robert Ingersoll’s magnificent defense of liberty against religion, based partly on the New Jersey incarnation of that statute:

    Ingersoll sounds like he would have been the fifth (and perhaps most passionate) horseman of atheism if he were alive today.

    1. Since “sophisticated” christians think several thousand is equivalent to two, they shouldn’t complain about forty thousand and more of both genders riding over their “sophistication”.

  13. Jacoby wrote “Freethinkers” which details roughly the past 250 years of American secularism and it’s from her I learned about that great old man, the Hitchens of his day, Robert Green Ingersoll (“We have retired the gods from politics. We have found that man is the only source of political power, and that the governed should govern.”), It’s from her I read Thomas Paine’s “Age of Reason” which is the reason Paine has been pretty much whitewashed out of the U.S. history books. The devout tend to be very intolerant of freethinking leaders and since God loves America which is the Greatest Country on the face of this Earth, Paine’s stature had to be diminished. The theists did and do all they can to whitewash all freethinking (and Deist thinking) out of the country’s Founding principles.

    I am quite certain that if many of these Deists of the 18th-century were afforded the opportunity to have read Darwin’s “Origin of Species”, this would have provided the groundwork for them to come out the closet as it were. So, I understand the references to a God of Nature, a non-intervening Creator, as Deists Jefferson and Paine used the word. Jefferson, after all, edited his own Bible, cutting out with scissors all miracles, references to Jesus’ Divinity, supernaturalisms (“The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazereth”. Jefferson believed the miracles and supernatural aspects had been gradually added into the mix by the four gospels). The 18th-Century, the Enlightenment, the Century of Light, is really the watershed century for reason and secularism. Confidence came from the visible progress of scientific thought. It was a century that assumed all knowledge was in its grasp and that everything could ultimately be known and “encircled”. It was the century of Denis Diderot’s great 28-volume “Encyclopedia or Systematic (raisonne)Dictionary of the Arts, Sciences, and Crafts” which surpassed in every way any other attempt at a knowledge compendium.
    (Encyclopedia: “the cirle of teachings”). All of this was a way to combat the cultural and religious superstitions of the day and replace them with sound knowledge and Reason.

    1. The Jan 1 NY Times reflects candidate Romney’s “poetic” and pure-as-the-driven-snow view of America as reflected in patriotic songs, specifically his exegesis of his favorite verses of “America the Beautiful.”

      He avoids any public reflection on the chorus of Katherine Lee Bates’s second verse:

      America! America!
      God mend thine every flaw,
      Confirm thy soul in self-control,
      Thy liberty in law.

  14. The first thing we should do is stop hiding behind pseudonyms and use our full names and affiliations, just declare who we are. I’m reading that this list/blog is populated by academics and researchers. Not stating who we are and what we do is the worst sign of weakness.

      1. Holy crap that’s comprehensive! I like my unreal name even though it still marks me out as female which is my only obvious reason for not wanting to use my real name online. Though I’m about to embark on an academic career rather late in life, so that also makes a difference.

    1. Not only academics and researchers.

      I think we have to respect anyone’s right to remain pseudonymous if they consider that they have good reasons for doing so. This is not a sign of weakness; it may be because of compassion for others, for example.

      But, for the record: I am Ant Allan (not a pseudonym!), I work for a commercial organisation that you’ve probably never heard of, and I am a philosophical naturalist, sceptic, freethinker and atheist.


      1. Probably just like you I’m the only “Alexander Hellemans” in cyberspace (to my knowledge). But accepting that disclosing that you are an atheist might hurt you in any way is accepting a quite serious violation of your freedom of expression, and your basic rights, akin to what happens in North Korea or Iran, for example. To me this looks absolutely unacceptable in a country that calls itself democratic.

        1. I respectfully disagree: “accepting that disclosing that you are an atheist might hurt you in any way” is acknowledging a matter of fact for some people, as David’s link illustrates. You can still have the freedom to express yourself but prefer not to.


          1. People must make this risk calculation for themselves, based on their particular circumstances and fortitude. Anonymity to protect oneself or others from serious harm is perfectly reasonable, but carries a special obligation to act fairly, when those you engage have no chance to identify their accuser/interlocutor. Too many use concealment as a way to avoid suffering consequences for their bad behavior, to shirk accountability, or seriously overstate the risk they would be under by speaking under their on name.

            Effecting difficult change demands a readiness to sacrifice a certain comfort and security. I don’t believe any of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were pseudonymous, even if they were occasionally pamphleteers under assumed names. Some things are important enough to stick your neck out and attach your identity to, in solidarity with others who are assuming similar risks. You can’t do every hard thing from behind a cyber-burka, if you want to be in the fight when it matters. The law is supposed to be there to defend us against harrassment and discrimination, but we have to use it, and take strength in numbers little by little. So I wouldn’t ban anonymity in fora like this, but I’d constantly beat the drum for “coming out” as a matter of principle. The more who come out, the safer it gets for all of us.

          2. “The more who come out, the safer it gets for all of us.”

            I agree completely. I lived on and off for about ten years in the US, and never met or talked to an evangelical fundamentalist. Of course, this had geographical reasons since I lived in in Princeton, New York, and New Haven. But what I encountered was an intensive and vibrant intellectual life, much more intense than you would find in Europe. Most of it seemed to me to be completely secular, free of religious interference or influence. However, this intellectual life seemed to be sequestered to the universities, and did not seem to couple very much to American society at large; you did not find the “maitres penseurs” like you have in France, for example. I think this is one of the reasons religion has so much of an impact on the US. And this is one of the reasons intellectuals in the US should crawl out of their protected niche.

          3. But this website (not “blog”!) is not a place to “stand up and be counted”. Sometimes we discuss, if not wine, food; others, jazz, cowboy boots, cats, &c. Not all the regular commentators are atheists, gnu or otherwise, anyway; even some who are openly unbelievers reject the label.

            Yes, to be open about one’s identity when expressing opinions is “a good thing,” but to use a pseudonym is not necessarily to hide behind it. Here, I think, how people express and defend their opinions is far more important than whether or not they do it under their real names. Over time, a pseudonym is just as real an identity as any other name; we know when, say, Occam or steersman is being authentic.

            To suggest that using a pseudonym is not just a sign of weakness but “the worst” sign of weakness seems arrogant and invidious.


          4. And remember it’s a world-wide web; some who post here will need anonymity. The reasons can be left to all our imaginations.

      2. I had wondered if yours was a real name. I would like to add that the pseudonimity provided here and on other sites is very soft. Jerry knows who we are, or at least our email addresses, and if anyone really wanted to track us down it could be done. All it offers is one layer of difficulty for random stalkers of whatever sort. I think the important thing is that people pick a name and stick with it so that a persona is built up and reputations are created. In fact my nym is far more distinctive than my actual name which is very dull, there must be millions of them.

        1. Your gravatar gives away your real name, of course… 

          “a persona is built up and reputations are created” Quite so! Exactly my point above, at 5:01 pm.


        2. That’s similar to my own reasoning. In real life I’m totally an atheist and anyone who presents a religious statement to me will be met with an atheistic response of the Gnu variety. The reason I selected Notagod as a nym was a desire to “plant” the phrase in the christian mind. I’m not in a position where my atheism would impact my career or family, however, I know of no other atheists in my daily life, having encountered only a few and mostly closeted atheists in my entire life, as far as I know.

  15. A good analysis is adamant for basing strategy, and Jacoby’s article has that.

    There are powerful secular people like Gates that can be useful in wresting back some of the special privileges offered religion. Maybe they can be enticed providing they don’t have to risk too much.

    There is a deep split, as demonstrated every week in the comments about my columns, between American secularists descended from the humanism of Thomas Paine and those descended from the social Darwinists of the 19th century and the Ayn Randian “you’re on your own” anti-government ideologues of the 20th century.

    Maybe OT, but as I am not well versed in US history, what is Jacoby describing here?

    – Is there a line from Paine to the humanist movement? I see very little here, suggesting some sort of forerunner by an enthusiast biographer.

    – What did social Darwinism have to do with secularism? Again, some very weak abstractions here, without much of any data as basis.*

    – And libertarianism? The US liberal party has ~ 0.1 % of the adult population, which doesn’t seem to be much compared to ~ 10 % “non-religion”.

    Is Jcoby constructing a (mostly foul) strawman?

    * Speaking of unreferenced claims, how come Ruse can get away with the following claim publicized in Wikipedia:

    “According to Michael Ruse, Darwin read Malthus’ famous Essay on a Principle of Population in 1838, four years after Malthus’ death. Malthus himself anticipated the social Darwinists in suggesting that charity could exacerbate social problems.” ?

    1. One of the goals of the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation is “to expand educational opportunities” so it’s not inconceivable that they would provide money to counter religionists interference that constrains science education…

      But likely… ?


  16. One singularly vital step would be to refuse to employ the word “god” in the singular.
    Susan uses ‘god’ by default, implying that there is only one in her writings.
    Over and over when I read her writings, the default assumption is that there is only one god to be considered, and she writes as though she grants that this god exists, as ‘a given’.
    It really grates on me.

    She can start by a bit of consciousness raising and substituting ‘gods’ or even ‘their god’ in place of voluntarily handing a major Ace card to the religious fascists at every opportunity.

      1. Following the lead of P.D.Q. Bach, who was excommunicated in 1787 for the follwing line in the Monk’s Aria form his opera Hansel and Gretel and Ted and Alice:

        “Credo in, at most, unum deum;”

        For clarity’s sake, n(gods) should be specified as any n satisfying:
        n ∈ {(N*, +)}

      2. That’s why I write “christian gods” and “their gods”. It allows the christians to understand they have many more than “One”.

        1. Even moderate Xtians have at least 4 gods:
          The trinity plus the entity who is able to overpower them with his hands tied behind his back: Beelzebub, (and that extraordinary super-power ability has to include one in the pantheon, surely?)

          The Cat’licks have another true god: Mary, plus several billions of minor gods (saints) at last count.
          The term ‘monotheism’ for most popular theologies is at best an egregious and entirely conscious fraud.

          But yes, I agree. Your “their gods” covers most exigencies more than adequately. It is a wake-up call to the more perceptive of the pathetically ignorant deluded infants.

          1. Thanks for the expansion, you added some of the christian gods that I don’t usually think of. Additionally, all christians worship gods that are solely their own, that is, there are differences between the gods of any two christians – they each define their gods differently.

            At times the christian will even admit to changing their gods as their life experiences change.

    1. Refusing to ratify the religionists’ pretense of a ‘God’ is a first step. Of course, we must incessantly point out the multitude of gods, but we should also point out the multitude of christianities and of bible-versions they cite.
      The word ‘Christian’ is meaningless, without qualification: I would wager that the beliefs of any two randomly picked ‘christians’ are not identical. It’s reported that about 30,000 to 40,000 distinct ‘christian’ tribes exist: even members of the same tribe seldom agree in toto about the dogma of the tribe.
      The ‘Holy Bible’ is the name of a variety of texts, differing in many ways: the canon, the sources of each writing of its canon, the amendments applied to the various sources, the cherry-picking of portions to accept vs ignore, the individual interpretations of those parts found acceptable, … There’s no singular bible — this word, too, must be qualified to be meaningful.
      IOW: each self-styled christian has a (possibly) unique belief set, derived from his chosen christianity, referencing his (possibly) unique bible. Yet each one claims to be the prototypical Christian.
      In my opinion, based of the observations above, the mushiness of their vocabulary about themselves, and of the ideas underlying it, is one of their most vulnerable areas. YMMV, of course.
      PS. Where’s the preview button?

      1. That’s why a preview button is a Good Thing: I manged to omit the slash in the tag following the word toto, so the italics just wouldn’t quit.

        1. Oh, yes: Muphry’s law is reflexive —
          manged should read managed, of course. Did I get things right this time?

      2. Exactly.
        I contend that are as many christian sects as there are christians x 24 or greater.

        One for each hour of the day in which their specific personal individual ‘roll-your-own’ sect changes or morphs, hour-by-hour, question-by-question inconsistency-by-revealed-inconsistency.

        The ‘versions’ of the bible do not enter into it mainly, as I have found that none of them have bothered to read what original texts exist all the way through.

  17. Along with the ridicule that is directed at us for being ‘professorial’ and indifferent to concerns of a workaday world, we are also accused of being inadequately sensitive to human suffering and loss. This recent article attempts to show how this accusation is unfounded, surveying the attitudes of a number of prominent contemporary freethinkers on the subject of human suffering.

  18. There is a third task for American secularists, freethinkers, atheists, rational people of all hues:
    to act politically, act in concert, act in numbers.
    Unless they do that, they don’t have a prayer.

    Religion is about power. Any attempt to remedy its effects must aim at the power structure.

    Jefferson’s Dictum holds sway if, and only if, reason and logic are allowed ultimate arbitration over what constitutes error. As long as religion and complicit politics project sufficient conditioning power (to use Galbraith’s distinction of the three categories), criteria based on evidence will be subverted.

  19. Susan Jacoby…’s writing a book on the factors influencing religious conversion.

    Destined to be heralded on the cover of the New Republic as “the worst book of 2012”, just as Leon Wieseltier did last year with Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality. Wieseltier, who must be one of Woody Allen’s inspirations for his stock of obnoxiously pedantic pseudo-intellectuals, is decidedly opposed to scientism for reasons unrevealed.

  20. Our greatest weapon against religion, and especially against theologians, is this question:  What evidence do you have for your claims? Theology will wither …

    I would modify this with the truthful assertion, not the question, that: There is no evidence for religious claims. The question, though it invites dialog, also invites a revisitation of the terrible arguments with which we are too familiar.

  21. the relgious lobbies do have a lot of power. They all smile at each other as long as they have a somewhat common goal, but all think the others are damned to some hell as soon as they turn their heads.

    IMO, an effective tactic would be to hammer home that each of them is sure that the others are wrong. Can you imagine, as soon as one religious group gets in power in the US? it’d be civil war in a heartbeat, each sect of Christians certain that their “god” was only on their side and intent on using any means necessary to “prove” it.

  22. One of the challenges for freethought, atheism, whatever as a movement is that apart from a very few, most of us are advocates in our spare time and often advocacy is incompatible with our full-time jobs. (I guess university professors get a bye here!)

    Whereas “ecclesiasticals” are full-time professionals…


  23. I very much like the expression “Hitchens’ Razor”, but it somehow doesn’t do justice to the raw strength of Hitch’s aphorism. Why not give him his own, distinctive tool? What about Hitchens’ Hammer, or Hitchens’ Mallet? Or – my vote because of the vowels and the required sharp edge – Hitchens’ Chisel?

        1. Hitchens’s

          Riposte: 1. “a sharp, swift thrust made after parrying an opponent’s lunge; hence 2. a sharp, swift return or retort.”

  24. Jerry wrote: “As for me, I’m going to stop smiling when I attack religion in public, a misguided tactic born of nervousness and an attempt to disarm the audience.”

    Interesting. My friend picked up on that when he watched the video; he said it seemed condescending. I thought it showed that you were having fun. After all, what can be more enjoyable than skewering bad ideas?

    There are certainly times to smile, and times to be angry. There’s plenty to be angry about.

  25. I didn’t know Jesus had blue eyes. Did he have blonde hair too? Is this the Aryan Jesus vs the Hamitic Amharic Semitic Jesus?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *