Guest post: Uncle Karl says atheists are ignorant of religion

March 16, 2012 • 4:03 am

Alert reader Sigmund spotted Karl Giberson going into tut-tut mode at the HuffPo, criticizing atheists for their profound ignorance of religion.  LOL! Doesn’t Karl know that on average we know more than the faithful do about faith? (Be sure to keep up with Sigmund’s Sneer Review website, too.)


Uncle Karl on what atheists need to do

by Sigmund

For those of us who frequent the online skeptical community it is sometimes easy to forget that many people see the world, not through the lens of reason and evidence, but through that of authority and orthodoxy. This kind of worldview, particularly when associated with the more fundamentalist religions, views everything in terms of black-and-white certainties. For such individuals it is preposterous to question whether their God is real.  To these folks, nonbelievers who reject this God do so because they simply haven’t thought about it enough—either through being unfortunate enough to grow up in a region where the Good News has not yet reached, or through some willful act of immature rebellion. The idea that someone might have thought long and hard about religion and come to the conclusion that it is false never seems an option.

A prime example of this kind of thinking is on show in a new Huffington Post (where else!) article by former BioLogos director (Uncle) Karl Giberson: “Take an atheist to church.” Giberson’s theme is simple. Atheists are mistaken about religious people and indeed about religion in general, for the straightforward reason that they know too little about it.

“Atheists often talk about religion like scientists at the Center for Disease Control talk about plagues and epidemics — unambiguously bad things that we should work to eliminate.”

Although there may be more than a grain of truth in that particular analogy, it is an imperfect one.  The gnu atheist position is generally not one of prioritizing the eradication of religion. Instead it can be better viewed as the public promotion of evidence-based policies and the restriction of religious actions to the private domain. A better analogy for religion as seen by the gnus is perhaps something akin to a sexual peccadillo. If you want to indulge in it in your own private life then fine, go ahead. Just don’t force the rest of us to join in.

Giberson clearly views atheists’ position on religion as the product of ignorance.

“Atheists, however, speak with great confidence about the evils of a religion that they seem to have encountered only in headlines — a terrorist incident here, an assault on evolution there, a new survey connecting religiosity to young earth creationism, and so on. Religion as practiced by ordinary people is nothing like these headlines.”

He seems particularly annoyed with atheists’ portrayal of the religious:

What I am not OK with, however, are the mean-spirited caricatures produced by people who have virtually no real experience with religious people, beyond reading about them in headlines. I don’t recognize these religious people.”

I guess Uncle Karl has never been to Cranston.

For Giberson, atheist’s lack of knowledge about religion can, however, be easily rectified through means of directly introducing them to church life.

“Atheists should go to church and do some research if they want to keep talking about religion.”

So we need to hush up about religion unless we go to church? But which church, Karl? There are just so many from which to choose!

“I would like to invite atheists to join me at St. Chrysostom’s Church in Quincy, MA — or whatever church is convenient — and spend a year doing research into what real life religious people are like — the people who are not in the headlines. You may be surprised to discover that we don’t all think the same.”

Apparently, once we learn about ‘real’ religion, we will suddenly realize that religious people are not all the extremists that we’ve mistakenly assumed.

“None of us have ever bombed an abortion clinic, or held a sign protesting gay marriage. In fact, our fellowship includes openly gay Christians. We are worried about climate change, widespread lack of healthcare, and the excesses of the Tea Party. In these and other ways, we find common cause with many of our fellow citizens, both believers and atheists.”

Well, if Giberson’s own church truly promotes freedom of choice for women and marriage equality for all, they will indeed find some common cause with atheists. Where Karl is likely to find disagreement, however, is with the brand of mainstream Christianity in which many churches seek to impose their opposition to these policies on the rest of the population, whether we agree with them or not.

Unsurprisingly, informing atheists that they are ignorant of religion is not getting much traction in the comment section below Giberson’s article. Giberson’s tactic is having the equivalent effect of turning up to face the lions at the Coliseum while wearing Lady Gaga’s meat dress. As can be expected, Giberson’s entire thesis is getting eviscerated by atheist after atheist pointing out that, far from being ignorant of religion, many atheists have plenty of experience of churches. Indeed it was the experience of going to church and reading what the Bible actually says that turned many of them into atheists in the first place!

Click to enlarge:

It’s hard to understand the point of such an article other than as an act of singing to the evangelical choir. Giberson must surely know that many atheists come from religious families. He must also know that atheists in general are more knowledgeable about religion than most religious people.

If Giberson isn’t simply trolling, and if he really does think atheism’s opposition to religion is primarily the result of ignorance, then I would have one suggestion for him. If he truly wants to talk to atheists in his church, he could try asking his fellow congregants what they really believe. If it’s anything like the kind of church that I attended for sixteen years, Karl is going to find plenty of non-believers already there.

102 thoughts on “Guest post: Uncle Karl says atheists are ignorant of religion

  1. Been to church plenty of times (forced, as a kid). Never found anything in there that would change my atheist stance…

    On the other hand, I’ve learned more about religions and their tennets since I’ve been free from them.

  2. Yep; many of us were brought up in religion. Religious people are tolerable to the degree that they find ways to rationalize away or ignore the more noxious teachings of their religion.

  3. Funny that he claims that we’re so ignorant, despite the fact that atheists tend to be the more intelligent (or at least better educated) in society.

    Spending a year in the company of Church Folk?

    My idea of hell.

    (actually, having me spend a year with them would probably be THEIR idea of hell)

  4. “Atheists, however, speak with great confidence about the evils of a religion that they seem to have encountered only in headlines — a terrorist incident here, an assault on evolution there, a new survey connecting religiosity to young earth creationism, and so on. Religion as practiced by ordinary people is nothing like these headlines.”

    What, Uncle Karl’s argument is that “don’t worry, we are not all psychos”?

    I suspect that parts of the real audience for this article are atheists that have never encountered religion and would be receptive to find out what the fuss is about. More importantly it is an article to reassure the faithful that they are “normal” and what they are doing is OK. Like all advertising, it is saying to the faithful that, “whatever you believe in, or how you follow your faith, you are OK, and can ignore those gnu atheists that hold irrelevant views that do not impact on your personal faith.”

    The reason religious faith is regarded as something that requires eradication is because faith is the rejection of critical thinking and evidence (or lack thereof). We gnus care about the real basis of claims of how the world works. But note how Karl only argues that faith is OK because a lot of people in church are nice, and not because what those nice people believe is true. Maybe as a gnu I am selfish, and want nice people and the truth.

  5. Do I just not see the link to the original article? Can’t find it on HuffPo.

    Is he confusing the meaning of atheist as someone that doesn’t believe with not knowing about religion?

    He really has a warped view of atheists.

    All the religious people I personally know are nice. How does that make their religion any more true?

  6. I agree with most of what you say, but I think “He must also know that atheists in general are more knowledgeable about religion than most religious people” is a little simplistic. I followed the link to the online quiz and scored 15/15. However I think someone could be fully informed about Christianity (and not about other religions or the US constitution) and score 7 or less. That would not make me more knowledgeable about Christianity than such a person. Less so, in one sense, because I don’t have the experience of participating as an adult in a Christian community.

      1. The point I wanted to make, and didn’t do so clearly enough, is that many of the questions in the survey test quite trivial knowledge. Of what relevance to a deep understanding of religion is knowledge of the names of Hindu gods, or even of Mother Teresa? Christianity existed before her.

        By analogy, I could at one time tell you the specifications of all the Royal Air Force’s jet fighters, past and present. That doesn’t amount to an understanding of how to fly a jet, or what it’s like to fly one.

        However, I agree with you on so much else that I don’t want to follow this up.

  7. Against the charge of religious ignorance, the helpful advice is that atheists need to read theology. But when we do (e.g. Jerry Coyne – in a fit of masochism ;)) and still retain our disbelief, we’re obviously doing it wrong. (We haven’t read correctly… or enough.) So it seems that respect for the knowledgeable atheist will only be extended… when the atheist ceases to be one. Brilliant!

    1. Yep, I agree, I think Gilberson is making a No True Scotsman argument here. If you went to church for his year (or many more), studied scripture and what people believe, and come out of it atheist, then that was No True Research.

  8. Even if it’s true that the majority religion isn’t typified by the extremes, that the extremes exist and that they are carried out in the name of religion is something that still needs to be addressed. A more accurate statement might be that atheists are ignorant on the norms of religion – but to the point the atheists are making it doesn’t matter. There’s still religious incursions on our freedoms whether they be a fringe or the majority. And those need to be addressed without someone with a more benign bent trying to claim ownership of the narrative.

    Religion is both, it’s just that the benign religion is for the most part compatible with the aims. The problem isn’t the new atheist attacks (they may be problematic in some ways but that’s another issue) but that framing religion in the context of the benign is missing the point. It’s not the benign religion that’s the problem, even if fundamentalist religion is bad religion and something most avoid, it’s still a problem that needs to be addressed.

    1. Actually, the Gnu Atheist critique isn’t just aimed at the fundamentalist and theocratic strains of religion. We also rudely insist on pointing out that the whole idea of faith — of making fairly large assertions about the nature of reality based, not on evidence, but on a gemisch of traditional scribblings and personal feeling — is itself horribly flawed at its heart. We may be able to get along and even work on issues with the moderates in a way we never can with the extremists, but they still don’t get the Atheist Seal of Approval [tm Greta Christina].

      The fact that the moderates keep insisting that they are the Real Christians (or whatever), as opposed to those nutters over there, merely serves to obfuscate this fact. Yeah, we like them a whole lot better than the other lot, but they’ve got no better claim to be representing the Will of God.

      1. “Actually, the Gnu Atheist critique isn’t just aimed at the fundamentalist and theocratic strains of religion. We also rudely insist on pointing out that the whole idea of faith — of making fairly large assertions about the nature of reality based, not on evidence, but on a gemisch of traditional scribblings and personal feeling — is itself horribly flawed at its heart. ”

        I’ve noticed many believers don’t seem to understand this.

      2. Actually, the Gnu Atheist critique isn’t just aimed at the fundamentalist and theocratic strains of religion.

        Agreed. For the purposes of my argument it doesn’t really matter to capture the nuances of the “new atheist” critique (which, sadly, is very much misrepresented) but to highlight the problem in what Karl Giberson seems to be advocating.

        Yeah, we like them a whole lot better than the other lot, but they’ve got no better claim to be representing the Will of God.

        It would be pretty hard to be a better representative of an imaginary entity. 😉

        Though I think there’s some difference in how the “moderate” believer is in touch with reality. There’s a huge difference, functionally, between someone who believes in faith healing and someone who doesn’t – even if both of them believe that there’s a God capable of healing. The latter would seek medical treatment while the former would seek a miracle. And that’s a difference worth noting.

        1. Oh, I’ll grant there’s a difference (and one that I think is under-appreciated in these parts) between the fundies and the moderates, having spent time in both camps. It might be summarized as: when science meets theology (ie. in the mind of a particular believer), which is more likely to give way? There’s the difference between Ken Ham and, say, Ken Miller. Of course, if you keep doing that consistently, you’re likely to “give” all the way into atheism….

        2. That difference is worth noting. But it’s also worth noting that the latter agrees with the former that believing in faith healing is reasonable.

          1. Provided they use hospitals (or at least take their children to hospitals), does it really matter that they hope for a miracle while seeking real world treatment?

            1. Yes, because by pretending it’s reasonable to believe in miracles, they’re providing social cover for the people who don’t use hospitals or doctors.

    2. While I agree with most of your comment, I think it must be the majority of christians that are acting against the betterment of the nation.

      I was going to post this at the HuffPuff but I’m not willing to get an account yet. I’ll paste it here not because it is any good but, because it comes from a different angle from your comment:

      Hi Uncle Karl, we are always happy to engage you but you always seem to fail to reciprocate. I challenge you to get your particular herd of christians to vote on some of the recent republican christian legislation that atheists would clearly disagree with, then post the results. Your caricature of christianity and of atheism is simply wrong, christians dominate the voting in most places in the United States, if the christians weren’t as atheists describe them typically, there wouldn’t be all the introduction and passing of anti-ethical laws. It matters not what your herd of christians do within church services, what matters is the very real damage that christians are doing by supporting lawmakers that pass unethical laws. Let us see through a series of reports what your herd of sheep are doing to oppose the obvious majority of christians that want deception to be taught in science classes and shame to be taught to women and christianity to be infused into goverment. Let us see what you’ve got Uncle Karl or give us a report withdrawing your implied claim that christians are innocent.

      1. Maybe, while they’re in the voting booth pulling the lever for extremist political candidates, they internally struggle with doubts.

        And that makes it all OK.

    3. I also wonder if benign religion isn’t suffering significantly more from the loss of doubting people leaving to become non-religion than the more zealous religions that put a lot more social pressure on people, or just people who take the idea of ‘personal religion’ one step further to just not going to church and saving all that money and time. So they imagine that the non-religious and the new atheists are ignorant second or third generation rather than their disenchanted children and friends.

      It would make an interesting survey to see just what religions the ‘no religion’ people are coming from. Cause I can easily imagine a “the more you tighten your grip, the more you lose” being true, but “let your parishioners believe whatever they like as long as they still come” seems like its just as likely to cause people to leave if they didn’t find that particular church useful.

  9. Has anyone looked at this issue of the New Scientist?
    Can’t buy it where I live and I refuse to pay double the price for a month’s access as compared to the US.

    Special Edition dated 17 March on sale now

    The surprising new science of religion

    Why our minds have a god-shaped space

    The idea that launched a thousand civilisations

    God’s existence put to the test

    Reclaiming the best bits of religion for atheists

    Why religion may outlast science

    1. I’ve bought it to read those articles, although I have low expectations.

      In my opinion New Scientist has drifted away from scientific debate and into entertainment (with controversial articles just for the sake of being controversial).

  10. Take an atheist to church

    I believe that I live close to Giberson, and it would be difficult for him to find a harder atheist. I volunteer to attend a local church of Giberson’s choice if he agrees to attend a local science museum of my choice.

    1. I went to a church service for a coworker who died and was horrified – they really did go the whole “it’s good that she died since she’s in heaven” route. I could just sit there in silence, sickened by their twisted beliefs. They did offer condolences, but their mindless parroting of “God is Good!” smacked of unthinking desperation – if she had died for nothing, then their beliefs were for naught, so, their god had to have this plan and was welcoming her home, and the human suffering was not that important – sublimating grief into this bizarre happiness (or pseudo-happiness maybe, it was hard to tell just how far they were gone).

      I have no desire to associate with people like that, so, no thanks Karl.

      1. I may have posted this before and, if so, I apologize for being repetitive.

        I come from a die-hard Missouri Synod Lutheran family. When a favorite uncle in far west Texas died some years ago, I made an all day trip to go to the service. Got in very late. Went to the service the next morning. The minister gets up and says, “Well, we could talk about what a wonderful man [Joe] was and how he lived a wonderful life but I can’t imagine that anyone here would find that comforting.” And then he preached a prosyletizing sermon that never once mentioned my uncle [Joe].

        I guess I had been away from that crazy mentality long enough to be dumbfounded. Later, one of my aunts — who knows I’m atheist — loudly said, “[Newish Gnu], didn’t you think that was a wonderful sermon?”

        I shocked the room into silence when I said, “No, not really. I would have found it much more comforting to hear about Uncle [Joe].” I had the impression that I said what others thought but no one in my extended family would ever say.

      2. OTOH, during my United Church years I went to quite a few memorials (I was in the choir, and we always tried to put together a quorum if the family asked), and I don’t recall any talk about the deceased being at home with Jesus now — in fact, very little about the afterlife at all. Mostly, it was straight-up humanist “celebrating the life of X” stuff.

        Great bunch of people, the UC — even if they do talk a load of nonsense about the G-word.

        1. Just so non-Canadians know, Eamon is talking about the United Church of Canada, not the United Church of Christ. It is (or was, last time I checked), the largest Protestant denomination in Canada. Most American theists would find the UCC shockingly liberal, and perhaps even heretical. For example, they have female, gay and lesbian ministers.


    2. I initiated an email discussion today with Giberson, accepting his offer to attend church if he would agree with me to visit a science museum. We had a (what I hope he would agree) was a mutually respectful yet frank discussion.

      After some introductions and airing of our views, Giberson appeared to back away from the opportunity to take this atheist to church, concluding that our views are too far apart to lead to constructive discussion. My offer to take Giberson to the Warren Anatomical Museum and drinks afterward stands if he reconsiders.

      Excerpting my part of the initial exchange:

      … I’m writing because you express the belief in your recent HuffPo article, “Atheists should go to church and do some research if they want to keep talking about religion” as if atheists are not generally fully knowledgeable about religion and religious faith. Do you actually believe this? On the contrary, all the atheists I know, and I include myself, have comprehensive knowledge and experience with religion. Based on several obviously false claims in your published writing, I would return the charge and tell you that you should educate yourself about what real atheists say before criticizing straw men.
      Do you accepted my counter offer to visit a local science museum of my choice? …
      I’ve never belonged to any church as an adult, I’ve had extensive personal experience through various family members and serious relationships with Catholicism, Lutheranism (Missouri Synod), Judaism (Orthodox and Reform), Unitarianism, and Islam (Sunni). In fact, I was married in the mosque in Quincy that I believe is 10 minutes south of you. Personally, I am a hard scientific atheist and materialist because that is the only conclusion supported by all evidence and because of the inherent illogic of faith in any god or gods. …
      I would attend yet another church if you would visit a science museum with me and try to engage with real world atheist arguments and criticism. …
      You just wrote an article on a popular website about the benefits of taking atheists to church. I’m an atheist volunteering to take you up on your offer, so long as you go to a science museum with me in return. …
      I do believe that it would benefit you to visit the science museum I have in mind. It’s a fantastic yet little-known collection in the heart one of Boston’s science cathedrals: the Warren Anatomical Museum at the top floor of A Building at Harvard Medical School. It houses the physical consequences of developmental and genetic errors, as well the skull of Phineas Gage. This museum’s contents will shake any thinking person’s faith in a Christian or any sort of god. I challenge you to visit it with me and tell me face-to-face that its exhibits pose no challenge to your faith in a Christian god. Besides, it’s a fascinating museum in its own right and not to be missed, especially if you live in Boston. In turn, I do not expect to have my atheist conclusions about religion altered by a church visit, but I’ll tell you honestly if I feel otherwise.
      Especially after your recent HuffPo and other articles, I don’t think coffee is adequate, though I am game for drinks after a visit to the Warren. Do you accept the challenge to look for yourself at its exhibits with a scientific atheist?

  11. Here is a comment I posted Tuesday afternoon to Uncle Karl’s article on HuffPo:

    “For everyone critizing Uncle Karl for not understanding that atheists know a lot about religion and have many experiences with religion and religious people, note that it’s not that Uncle Karl doesn’t recognize this, it’s just that it doesn’t fit with his narrative of “sophisticated” theology that we atheists tend to dismiss as easily as the fundmentalist and evangelical versions. Because Karl and his ilk have rationalized their brand of Christianity and reconciled it with science (to some degree), it isn’t open to the same type of criticism that literalist interpretations are, at least according to Uncle Karl. So, when you read statement that we should get out more, translate it as follows: Uncle Karl is being disingenuous because he doesn’t want his fancy faith criticized by atheists who can counter all arguments for belief in God, not just the “easy” ones.”

  12. Belief in God is complicated and every thoughtful Christian I know will admit privately to having doubts about the existence of God from time to time.

    We’ve said it before, Karl, and we’ll say it again: Doubts are to be resolved, not suppressed.

    Some of us are properly called agnostic because we have serious doubts — but doubts we prefer to explore from within the Christian community, rather than from outside.

    OK, now you’re just fucking with us. You know full well that, at St. Chrysostom’s Church in Quincy, MA, you don’t spend any time “exploring” doubts. But suggesting otherwise does provide some insight into your own perspective. Let go, man. You don’t know it now, but the personal integrity will be uplifting.

    1. Yes! The fact that he has doubts but still goes to church anyway is one of the things we criticize.

  13. I was force fed religion for 18 years. I probably stopped believing at age 13 or 14. I never went back to church after my parent’s minister stated duting his sermon that it was only his belief in Christ that kept him from raping and murdering. Unfortunately most of the congregation agreed with him.

  14. A minister who met Carl Sagan once remarked that Sagan knew the Bible by heart better than a lot of religious folks he knew!

    Not to be cruel, but it does seem that the smarter a person is, the less likely they are to believe in a mystical deity. I know this is generalizing.

    1. Unfortunately, that only works if they apply their smarts to critical thinking. There are plenty of smart people who instead use their intelligence to rationalize their preferred deity.

    1. I guess this could go on the new Rowan Williams thread, but the theme fits better here, I think: Dr Rowan Williams: too many people do not know how religion works [video, requires Flash]:

      [Williams] said the Church was still relevant for millions of people.

      “I think there is a great deal of interest still in the Christian faith,” he said.
      The Archbishop warned there was a willingness by many to misunderstand how religion, but he welcomed the debate.

      “There is also a lot of ignorance and rather dim-witted prejudice about the visible manifestations of Christianity, which sometimes clouds the discussion, he said.

      “What I think slightly shadows the whole thing is this sense that there are an awful lot of people now of a certain generation who don’t really know how religion works, let alone Christianity in particular, and that leads to confusions, sensitivities in the wrong areas – ‘does wearing a cross offend people who have no faith or non-Christians?’ well I don’t think it does.”


      1. I don’t get offended when I see someone wearing a cross, I get frightened because I know there’s a good chance they will torture or kill me because I’m not a Christian.

        1. I find the public display of an instrument of torture and execution quite offensive. Just imagine people walking around with a little guillotine around their neck.

  15. Mr Giberson is making the mistake of thinking that atheists think that all or the majority of theists are extreme and that’s why we don’t like religions.

    I’ve got a little bit of news for him. I don’t really care if someone is a fundamentalist religious type or a wishy washy religious type. That has no bearing on my dislike for religion.

    I dislike religion because they are all based on the false premise that there is or are supernatural beings known as gods. Once you take away this premise, there is nothing left of religion.

    Or to put it better, what Rixaeton said at comment 5.

  16. Spend a year in church? Been there, done that — about 30 times over, in groups ranging from fundamentalist to gay-positive liberal, with occasional flings with pentecostalism and others. I know what actual religious people are like, from inside observation and experience, that they range from pathologically delusional and dangerous through to Mostly Harmless.

    So can we stop with the being patronized by the Uncle Karls of the world already?

  17. Are there any people at all here who “have virtually no real experience of religious people”? Maybe a scandinavian or two?

    What an utterly bizarre claim to make.

    1. Well, I have virtually no personal experience of religious extremists. All the religious folks I’ve met have been nice, friendly, and pretty liberal, interested in doing all sort of good works and very much like me in so many ways.

      And yet, I’m still one of those damn gnu atheists, and think religion does more harm than good.

      Would Giberson suggest I do some remedial study in some ghastly fundamentalist enclave?

      Of course humanistic values pervade many churches. That was never the issue. It’s that every thing which is UNIQUE to religion is either wrong, bad, or both.

      1. Of course humanistic values pervade many churches. That was never the issue. It’s that every thing which is UNIQUE to religion is either wrong, bad, or both.


  18. I invite Dr. Gibberson to attend services at Rick Warren’s Saddleback church, or any Pentacostal or Assemblies of God church, or any Catholic church, and then try to tell us that “most” religious people aren’t like that.

  19. For my part, I have zero belief in the existence of a god and no interest in participating in a church community, even as a social activity.
    Am I informed? I think so: thirteen years of Catholic school, including K-8th grade in a parochial school next to my parish church followed by acceptance to a diocesan high school with an entrance exam. This school was built in the shape of a cross with a chapel at its center. I was in high school before I had a teacher who was not a priest or nun, but then it was a mix. My high school biology teacher was a priest. Each, a theologian of sorts answering any and all questions with a variation of, “Well, that’s the mystery of God, isn’t it.” Such that on the one hand – mystery, and on the other – authority.
    Religious instruction was had every day and twice on Sunday, mostly. I attended mass many times a week, both during school hours and beyond. As an altar boy, I assisted even with mass for international clergy at the Vatican pavilion at a World’s Fair.
    Toss in Catholic summer camps and silent weekends at Jesuit monasteries and you’d have to grow up in compound to have more “immersion” in a religious childhood that I had!
    And this was not intense or forced, it was assumed to be the way everyone lived. I have no trouble imagining that’s the way of life for most growing up religious, no matter the name.
    And Karl, I’m comfortable here and now in saying there is no god and no purpose put upon you for your life and no life after death. (Of course this afterlife hooey deludes us often into wasting bits and pieces of this one life.)
    Without, or even with, a religious upbringing most of us figure out how to live a life: finding ways to help others within our species and otherwise. There are plenty of good people around us and fine reads available to inform this life. Without a god, a church, a bible.

    1. I have a similar background: parochial (i.e., Catholic) school from first grade to senior high school, altar boy, trips to a seminary, several week-long monastic retreats. It’s absurd to say that I don’t know religion as it is practiced and believed, at least by Catholics.

  20. I’ve been to Baptist and Episcopalian church and I found the experiences to be either extraordinarily dull and uninspiring or creepy and bizarre, watching a the proceedings of a cult. Church is a ritual of weekly brainwashing, nothing more, nothing less. You sit when you are told to sit. You sing when you are told to sing. You shake hands and hug people nearby you with as much fake enthusiasm as you can muster when you are told to do so. You are told what to believe. You are told what you are for and what you are against. You read together the dogma for the day. You drink the blood and eat the flesh of your god. And then you give them money. And all of this for what? A magic ritual for immortality.

  21. I think its important to note that religions educate with the goal of indoctrination, not to actually give you a full view of all the stories and history behind the religion. Which is part of the reason why I am a bit disgusted Giberson’s attempts to blame atheist disbelief on lack of knowledge. In my 16 years as a Lutheran, I never heard word one about about the Book of Job, or really any OT book outside of the Torah and the Psalms. And while they talked about Martin Luther, they never talked about how virulently anti-Semitic he was (finding out that later was a bit of a shock).

    I’ve always found that, particularly for the sort of liberal churches that Uncle Karl is talking about, they gloss over and hide most of the worst stuff in the Bible, they don’t mention the real history and modern understandings of the text, *even though* every liberal pastor is taught this in school. In short, he has some never coming and telling us that we’re uneducated, when the only way to *be* educated is to do reading outside what churches teach you.

  22. You can see for yourself some of what his church teaches without needing to register for it:

    Also, their website states they recite the Nicean Creed. Perhaps they believe it is a metaphor, or they merely repeat it due to “tradition” but don’t believe it (which makes them liars/hypocrites for repeatedly stating ‘I belive . . .’). Not the best way to instill any morality I would value.

    1. Yep. Privately holding doubts while publicly stating that you believe something without question is not an admirable trait, Dr. Gibberson.

      Neither is sitting in respectful silence while your pastor preaches things you disagree with. Silence implies agreement.

  23. Lots of atheists & agnostics have abundant personal experience with churches, including myself. My break from religion occurred after a long and thoughtful examinationof Christian thought and history over many years.

    While it is true that our criticisms of Christianity often focus on extreme examples of it, yet those examples are no less real expressions of Christianity than the more benign ones. There is no single “Christianity” to speak of, but many “Christianities” (see “Lost Christianities” by B. Ehrman). Those who teach hatred and discrimination in the name of Jesus are in fact following certain prescribed instructions in the Bible (although by ignoring certain other instructions). And that’s the crux of the issue, no single group can lay claim to Christian orthodoxy because there is no such thing as Christian orthodoxy.

    Many folks have trouble accepting that Westboro Baptist Church is as much a real Christian church as your friendly Episcopalian church on the corner.

    Also, one of the most articulate and compassionate memoirs which critically examines Christian faith comes from a former missionary and Bible translator, Ken Daniels. He’s not widely known, but he ought to be. His entire book is available free online here:

  24. Uncle Karl suggests that we sojourn with him for a year at his St. Crysostom’s (Anglican) church.

    First, Anglicans on the whole cannot give you a coherent answer on who qualifies to be a saint and how they qualify. Mostly, (say I, who was once an Episcopalian) they treat the word “Saint” as a mere honorific and not, say, as someone that the church at large has somehow “qualified” to be an “interceder” for oneself with their god, their Jesus, or even their “virgin” Mary.

    So on that first Sunday I attend Uncle Karl’s St. Crysostom’s church, I’d want to learn what Uncle Karl and the rest of his Anglican congregation think the word “Saint” means, and, as a corollary, why that is different (and it is different) from what Orthodox and Roman traditions believe.

    Second, John Crysostom was by many accounts (and no, I’m not going to post links — Google is your friend), a misogynist and an anti-semite. The former (his misogny) goes largely undisputed, excused because of the time he lived in. (The late 300s BCE.) The latter (hatred of Jews) is still the topic of dispute in at least some apologist circles.

    So in my second week with Uncle Karl at his Church, I’m going to want the sermon to be about what “Saint” John Crysostom teaches the modern atheist (or even the modern Christian apologist) and then I’m going to want the subsequent Sunday morning church discussion groups to explicate, in some detail, their individual knowledge and understanding about who John Crysostom was, how, and in what way(s) he contributed to Anglican religious knowledge, practice, morals, and/or ethics.

    I’m also, during that second Sunday, going to be particularly interested in the description and instruction (for I know them not) Uncle Karl’s fellow congregants give me of the specific “miracles” that qualified John Crysostom to be a “Saint.) I assume that Uncle Karl and his fellow congregants can rattle these miracles off in their sleep, and “explain” them to an atheist.

    After that, only 50 weeks to go in bringing my religious knowledge up to snuff. I suspect it’ll be a long year, Uncle Karl.

    BTW: “Crysostom” is an epithet, not a name. It is an anglicization (not an “Anglicization”) of the Greek, and it means “Golden-Mouthed.” In other words, John Crysostom was probably a Liar for Jesus.

    (I assert that before I’ve benefited from the superior and sophisticated religious teaching of Uncle Karl and his fellow congregants at “Saint” Crysostom’s Church (Anglican) Quincy MA.)

    1. Saint John Chrysostom, one of the only Three Holy Hierarchs and a Doctor of the Church, used Jesus’ words from Luke 19:27 in the 3d century to call for the murder of Jews in his Eight Homilies Against the Jews: “The Jewish people were driven by their drunkenness and plumpness to the ultimate evil; they kicked about, they failed to accept the yoke of Christ, nor did they pull the plow of his teaching. Another prophet hinted at this when he said: “Israel is as obstinate as a stubborn heifer.” … Although such beasts are unfit for work, they are fit for killing. And this is what happened to the Jews: while they were making themselves unfit for work, they grew fit for slaughter. This is why Christ said: “But as for these my enemies, who did not want me to be king over them, bring them here and slay them.” (Luke 19:27)”

      Steven Katz cites Chrysostom’s homilies as “the decisive turn in the history of Christian anti-Judaism, a turn whose ultimate disfiguring consequence was enacted in the political antisemitism of Adolf Hitler”.

  25. I laughed when I read that piece. I’ll put my Christian cred up against Gibbergibbon’s any day of the week. Radical conversion at 17, biblical studies degree from an evangelical college, street evangelist and preacher, helped translate a gender-inclusive gospel from the Greek, worked for Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. I’d take him on in theology or Bible trivia anyplace, any time. Plus, as the blog Camels With Hammers so elegantly puts it: “What I am stressing here is something that both the faithful and the always-secular rarely seem to understand about at least some of us apostates. For some of us, our rejection of our faith is not merely the abandonment of our religious values but, at the same time, very much our fulfillment of them. It was Christianity that led me to reject Christianity.”

    1. Reminds me of an observation from Bob Altemeyer and Bruce Hunsberger, who wrote a book on conversions to and from.

      We think the apostates rejected their religion primarily because their religious training made them care so much about the truth and having integrity. Its not that their upbringing failed; indeed it worked so well that ultimately the family religion failed the test it helped establish.

  26. One aspect of Giberson’s latest missive worth noting is that it is yet another example of the extremely low standards applied to anything one says about religion. Giberson is nominally a physicist. Presumably there are areas of physics he knows quite a bit about and many areas he knows very little about – even less than I do, for example, as a chemist whose research overlaps with some areas of physics. Now, I’m guessing that Karl wouldn’t write articles at HuffPo expounding on areas of physics he doesn’t know much about – scientists rarely do that because the members of their community don’t put up with a whole lot of uninformed bullshit even from other scientists in closely allied fields without heaping scorn on them. I suspect that even Karl knows this and so his commentary in physics is likely to be of better quality than his religious nonsense. (I don’t know this, it’s a guess. Maybe he’s not even a respectable physicist.)

    It is utterly implausible for anyone in our society to “have virtually no real experience with religious people, beyond reading about them in headlines”. Religious people are everywhere, religious people are pandered to by politicians everywhere, crucifixes are all over the place, … I doubt that even Karl would make such a stupid claim in physics, but hey, if it’s religion…anything goes, and he’ll suffer no ‘professional’ consequences for having been so publicly stupid – even among “sophisticated” theologians.

    1. “Now, I’m guessing that Karl wouldn’t write articles at HuffPo expounding on areas of physics he doesn’t know much about…”

      I may be wrong, but I take it that you are unfamiliar with HuffPo – where science is a dirty word, and any crackpot “theory” or idea – such as homeopathy, anti-vax, the Secret, whatever – gets far more cred than anything that actually follows scientific or materialistic thinking (critical thinking, etc). I’m sure if Gibby had some pet hypothesis about physics, especially if it allowed him to continue his religious beliefs, then he wouldn’t hesitate to print it. Especially if HuffPo continued it’s old trend of deleting dissenting comments (not sure of that, I gave up on HuffPo years ago and never go to the site willingly).

      1. Oh yes, you are undoubtedly correct about HuffPo – and I’m well aware of that. I was referring to Karl’s standing among physicists vs. his standing among fellow god botherers. The latter can write any dreck they want a HuffPo even if it makes no sense at all (and it isn’t even the religion I’m talking about, per se) and they suffer no professional penalty for saying something obviously untenable in their own academic community. Not so with physicists, I think.

  27. I eagerly await the followup article excoriating all the evangelicals (those bad (TM) xians) to attend some atheist meetups and get to know some atheists in their area. Also, the next followup article to all the churches, and publications, online and in paper, who regularly villify atheists in horrible slander attacks.

    *holding breath*

    1. I wrote Karl and said he should do just that (and also pointed him to this post and the many good comments).

  28. If an atheist went to church for an “Take an Atheist to Church” Day, the side which is most likely to have their preconceptions challenged is probably not going to be the atheist side. Assuming both the religious and the atheist turn out to be “nice” — the religious are more likely to be impressed and a bit taken aback. Hey, that’s not what they expected! Atheists are mean, militant … and marginalized.

    How could Giberson think otherwise? When you build a straw man, you should not be fooled by your own creation. Nor should you worship it.

  29. “…spend a year doing research into what real life religious people are like — the people who are not in the headlines.”

    So what about the people who ARE in the headlines? Aren’t they in the headlines for a reason, and isn’t that why we criticize them and their religious motivations?

  30. “Atheists should go to church and do some research if they want to keep talking about religion.”

    That’s funny. I was an ordained lay minster. And there were no professionals allowed, in my faith, until you got way up in the hierarchy.

    And wasn’t like you were being paid to be some kind of ‘minister,’ rather you were being paid as an administrator who had to otherwise be a minister. A small, but significanticant difference to the body of the Church.

    I think Mr. Giberson needs to stop attacking his imaginary atheist opponents and try to understand his real ones… If he did, he might say something that might make sense.

  31. Uncle Karl’s view of Christians seems to be basically the same as the description of Earth by Ford Prefect: “Mostly harmless.”

  32. Dear Uncle Karl:

    You’re confusing “religion” with “people who go to church and claim to be religious”.

    Please stop it.



    1. And to explain.

      I know a lot of religious people. I’m solid friends with many, including some current and retired ministers, who are as bible-believing as you are. I have no problem with people. I like them – a lot. And they like me.

      I have a problem with the institutionalization of bigotry — which is practiced by every single religion, including yours. You’re undeservedly biased against me. You’re a bigot against people who do not believe in god. You think we’re immoral. You think we’re under the spell of Satan. You think we’re going to burn in hell for all eternity. You treat us like second-class citizens…if you treat us at all. You ALSO treat the adherents to every other non-Christian religion the same way. You look down on them. You think they need to be “converted” or “evangelized” into believing that your set of myths are superior to their set of myths. Heck, you even treat some Christians the same way — quick, are Catholics Christian or not? Mormons? Christian Scientists?

      Institutionalized religion is also at the heart of the worst behaviors and the worst laws that politicians can dream up. Who other than a religious person would force a woman undergoing a first-trimester abortion to be raped with an ultrasound wand? Who besides the religious would deny women simple, cheap, effective and safe contraception? Who besides the religious would oppose stem cell research? Who offers anything other than a religious argument against gay marriage? Who other than a religious nut would deny a gay couple the right to adopt an otherwise unwanted child?

      Religion is evil, per se. Immoral. To be fought tooth and nail. I do not want to “make nice” with religion, even though I’m clearly “nice” to a lot of religious people.

      You’re going to have to do a LOT better than “walk a mile in my shoes”, Karl. A LOT better.

      Start with the truth claims of your religion. Tell me how you came to the conclusion that Jesus really existed, that he was the son/sameas a deity, and that he was executed by Roman authorities, rose from the dead, and ascended bodily (where, exactly?) into heaven. Please use only extra-biblical sources for this — otherwise, next, I’ll ask you to defend the Labors of Hercules as being real.

      1. Oh, and by the way, I spent 18 years in church.

        My emancipation as an adult was also my emancipation from having to attend church every week.

        So, screw that noise. I have better things to do on Sunday. Anything’s better than that.

  33. I wish I lived closer to that gimp’s church. What do you think would happen if 100 or more atheists all turned up one Sunday to be educated in the ways of religion. It would be reasonable, surely, in the name of research to ask some questions. Quite a few questions.

    Surely there must be 10 or 20 atheists who are close enough and would be willing to turn up at his church, I think that would be enough. I doubt they’d be made very welcome after a week or two.

    I also get very irritated by people like KG talking about xtianity as if it is the only religion. How about he spends a bit of time in his local mosque or hindu temple? Does he understand his fellow non xtian theists’ beliefs well enough to understand why they’re so wrong compared to his? I doubt it. Then he could move on to the Toaists, Buddhists, spend a little time in Japan investigating shinto. He better hope he can go on for eternity, he’s going to need most of it to properly understand all the religions which are currently practiced, let alone go back and find out about why those which have been abandoned.

  34. Attending mass these days, it’s just comical what goes on with their rituals an their teachings and homilies. Lol. Most of the time the metaphors and analogies priests make are just bizarre.

  35. I have to say, this really rattled me, made me feel quite depressed. I wouldn’t call myself a religious person but I’m one of those people who remains unconvinced by Same Harris et al’s assault on religion. If I reject religion outright, it will have to be for better reasons. Though, by the looks of things, I may also find myself cursing God if I lived in the Bible Belt like some of you do.

    What totally rattled me was that blog post with screen shots of responses to that young woman who had some prayer thing taken down at her school. Reading that stuff was like … shit, I don’t know how to describe it. It made me feel really kak, depressed and angry at the same time. Is anyone here familiar with the Rwanda genocide? That is exactly the kind of thing that got pumped out all over the place until one day the dam burst and suddenly 800 000 people were murdered. I really don’t care if these people are supposedly Christians at heart or by allegiance or what, and I have seen similar language from atheists, though not such a flood. In my opinion, what defines you here is not whether you are a Christian or an atheist or whatever, but how you conduct yourself in the conflict. I’m asking myself, is this what Americans – Christian or atheist – are really made of?

    I’m all game for some sharp discussion – the fencing can be more enjoyable than the point of it – and I don’t mind if someone loses their temper with me either, throwing insults can even be fun, but this kind of thing, this hate speech, how does one respond to it?

    After I read that stuff, my wife dragged me off to some Church thing – a young children’s / family get-together. I snapped at her on the way. The talk afterwards was all about humility and pride, presented along with a mixed bag of religious and some pretty good real-world examples. The Bible verse it all hung on was “… clothe yourselves in humility toward one another, because God opposes the arrogant, but to the humble he gives grace.” That is what they were teaching the kids – and something I needed to hear again, myself – and I really don’t care who’s selling it, I’m buying.

    1. “because God opposes the arrogant, but to the humble he gives grace”

      They are obviously teaching the kids what the arrogants in the world cherish, this attitude gives them free reign to exploit and trample over the humble. And it fits the function of religion as a tool to control the masses: keep them humble and meek.

      1. He sure opposes the arrogant, just not here on Earth. He makes sure they get theirs in Heaven (or Hell). You just need to be humble and go along with what the arrogant say.

        Pride can be a good thing, and kids should be proud of their accomplishments (assuming they are worth such pride – based on age, circumstance, etc). Being arrogant has nothing to do with what a god wants, being arrogant makes you an ass, and you have to take the consequences of that, whatever they may be.

      2. Ah, the doormat view of humility – I don’t buy it. Jesus’ speech about turning the other cheek and walking the second mile comes to mind but a little history casts it in a very different light to what you might think:- back then, men slapped women, Romans slapped Jews, generally superiors slapped inferiors, and they did it in a particular way to to assert their authority. You had to be careful how you did it because the other way of doing was challenge to a fight – something done between equals. Jesus’ suggestion to turn the other cheek is a suggestion to challenge your superior to treat you as an equal. Similarly, the second mile thing is much more interesting in the light of the fact that a Roman soldier was only permitted to make someone carry his pack for 1 mile and no more. Apparently they regularly made someone going in the opposite direction do this. Having someone insist on carrying it further puts him under the threat of punishment and perhaps has him asking some questions about what he was doing.

        I wouldn’t make light of this approach to humility and grace, the Marcos regime in the Philippines was overthrown with relative peace using tactics like this, as was the British rule in India.

    2. I totally support you wanting whatever is best for your kids, but here’s the thing about humility.

      The haters in Cranston could attend your church’s sermon about humility and find it totally supports their position, because they’re scapegoating Jessica Ahlquist for their problems, and to scapegoat is to make someone ELSE the bad person — so the haters can go on feeling they’re the good people, they’re the ones being humble and tolerant, and Ahlquist is the bad person, she’s the one being arrogant and intolerant. From the sermon you quoted — “God opposes the arrogant” — they hear your church’s sermon say their god is against Ahlquist being the arrogant one.

      This mob behavior and scapegoating scales up from Cranston to the Holocaust, where a country of Lutherans and Catholics scapegoated 6 million Jews and 7 million other “undesirables” to death. And just like the Cranston haters deny their real loss to the Constitution and a Reagan-appointed conservative judge, the Nazis denied the real causes of their economic trouble and blamed it on the Jews and the other “undesirables” supposedly dragging them down.

      If humility is an emotional state, that’s a fine thing, like Chanel N°. 5, but I’m wary of basing my ethical decisions on an feeling, or a smell. Whenever I see a blame game, I ask myself, am I scapegoating? And I work to evaluate that. Like right now, I ask myself, am I scapegoating you, or Christians, or Christianity in general, or the all Abrahamic religions in general, or all religions in general? Every time I write a comment for the Internet, I ask myself those questions before I click to post. That’s what I consider, instead of humility.

      I’m sorry about you snapping at your wife, if the Cranston tweets had anything to do with that, because I appreciate you need to hold your family relationships together while you navigate this. I’ll suggest two books that helped me see social dynamics, and they might help you without making you antagonistic. One book was the classic Games People Play: The Basic Handbook of Transactional Analysis, and the other book was The Four Agreements (the audiobook of that worked for me too). These two books are mainly about psychology and social transactions, so they’re not antagonistic to the Abrahamic religions per se, and you could bring them into your home without hurting your situation. The skills I got from them continue to guide how I evaluate my ethical behavior.

      1. Dave, I’ve just been looking them up and those look like really interesting books. Thanks.

        Sorry to have seemingly ignored your thoughtful response. I just hit a busy patch. Here’s the thing about humility. It is not a feeling or even an attitude. It is classed as a virtue, along with stuff like patience, love, courage, wisdom, grace, etc. A virtue is a skill of relating and the thing about them is none of them make sense on their own. All the virtues are moderated by other virtues. So your PATIENCE is not good if you don’t have the KNOWLEDGE and PRUDENCE to know when to stop. Your HUMILITY is just doormat stuff if you throw out the sense of JUSTICE and COURAGE to stand up when you should and your being OUTSPOKEN is just arrogance if it is is not backed by KNOWLEDGE and DIFFIDENCE. Etc. What you say about not scapegoating sounds no different to JUSTICE to me and it depends on having the good judgement to know when blame is warranted or not, constructive or not. A whole family of virtues comes in to play. In fact it is possible to define vice as a lonely virtue. So it’s pointless to object to a virtue by saying yes but what about this and that because balancing it with the this and that is the whole idea of it.

        Am I making sense? You mention skills in your last sentence so I think we might be on the same page about virtues if you can see them as skills.

  36. “What I am not OK with, however, are the mean-spirited caricatures produced by people who have virtually no real experience with religious people, beyond reading about them in headlines. I don’t recognize these religious people.”

    But religious people are so rare. How will I ever find any?

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