Susan Jacoby: her new book and “strident” editorial

January 7, 2013 • 6:10 am

Susan Jacoby is an eloquent voice of secularism and atheism, and one who manages to get those views published in major venues.  One reason is that she has solid scholarly cred, having written the excellent book Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism and the subsequent The Age of American Unreason. And readers take notice—her new book will be released tomorrow: The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought (only$16.50 in hardback at Amazon). I don’t know a great deal about Ingersoll, one of the earliest “strident atheists” in America, but he produced one of the best quotes I know of about the relationship between science and religion:

There is no harmony between religion and science. When science was a child, religion sought to strangle it in the cradle. Now that science has attained its youth, and superstition is in its dotage, the trembling, palsied wreck says to the athlete: “Let us be friends.” It reminds me of the bargain the cock wished to make with the horse: “Let us agree not to step on each other’s feet.”

It’s about time we had an up-to-date biography of this colorful man, and I look forward to Jacoby’s book.

In the meantime, go read Jacoby’s nice op-ed in Saturday’s New York Times: “The blessings of atheism” (the piece was actually headlined on the op-ed page). It’s a strong—some will of course say “strident”—call for atheists to speak out, inspired by the faithfest surrounding the Newtown shootings.

Jacoby first recounts her conversion to atheism which, as for many of us, involved the insuperable problem of gratuitous suffering in a supposedly God-guided world:

Now when students ask how I came to believe what I believe, I tell them that I trace my atheism to my first encounter, at age 7, with the scourge of polio. In 1952, a 9-year-old friend was stricken by the disease and clinging to life in an iron lung. After visiting him in the hospital, I asked my mother, “Why would God do that to a little boy?” She sighed in a way that telegraphed her lack of conviction and said: “I don’t know. The priest would say God must have his reasons, but I don’t know what they could be.”

Just two years later, in 1954, Jonas Salk’s vaccine began the process of eradicating polio, and my mother took the opportunity to suggest that God may have guided his research. I remember replying, “Well, God should have guided the doctors a long time ago so that Al wouldn’t be in an iron lung.” (He was to die only eight years later, by which time I was a committed atheist.)

The first time I told this story to a class, I was deeply gratified when one student confided that his religious doubts arose from the struggles of a severely disabled sibling, and that he had never been able to discuss the subject candidly with his fundamentalist parents. One of the most positive things any atheist can do is provide a willing ear for a doubter — even if the doubter remains a religious believer.

Indeed. The article is a call for atheists to stand up, speak out, and proselytize. She also details what, for her, is the great solace of nonbelief:

It is primarily in the face of suffering, whether the tragedy is individual or collective, that I am forcefully reminded of what atheism has to offer. When I try to help a loved one losing his mind to Alzheimer’s, when I see homeless people shivering in the wake of a deadly storm, when the news media bring me almost obscenely close to the raw grief of bereft parents, I do not have to ask, as all people of faith must, why an all-powerful, all-good God allows such things to happen.

It is a positive blessing, not a negation of belief, to be free of what is known as the theodicy problem. Human “free will” is Western monotheism’s answer to the question of why God does not use his power to prevent the slaughter of innocents, and many people throughout history (some murdered as heretics) have not been able to let God off the hook in that fashion.

The atheist is free to concentrate on the fate of this world — whether that means visiting a friend in a hospital or advocating for tougher gun control laws — without trying to square things with an unseen overlord in the next.

I’m not sure how much solace, though, that aspect nonbelief provides for me. Does the relief from theodicy outweigh the knowledge that our death represents final extinction?

I’d like to live on after death, and am deeply suspicious of those who say that they don’t fear extinction.  As Hitchens once put it, it’s not so much that you have to leave the party, but the party goes on after you leave.  And for us there’s no party in heaven. Can any of you truly say that you welcome death with open arms? (I know, a few people will, but wait until you’re at that doorstep!)

Further, there are plenty of believers who do concentrate on this world, and don’t think so much about the next, or who do good not because they expect a celestial reward.  There are good people who are religious, and would be so, as Steve Weinberg noted, regardless of their beliefs. For me, the problem of religion is threefold: Weinberg’s correct claim that it makes many good people do bad things, and some of those bad things mean imposing irrational and inimical views on the rest of us.  Belief also conditions people to believe in other things without good reasons, or to coddle those who do so. I am an atheist because I cannot do otherwise: the evidence is just not there for a God, and I’m not so constituted to believe without evidence. But I’m not sure how much it’s “freed” me, except from the bonds of superstition. At least I don’t waste my time going to church, praying, or nomming wafers.

But I think Jacoby is correct when she argues that belief in an afterlife is one of those causes of bad religious behavior:

Atheists do not want to deny religious believers the comfort of their faith. We do want our fellow citizens to respect our deeply held conviction that the absence of an afterlife lends a greater, not a lesser, moral importance to our actions on earth.

I add that atheists have a much better impetus to be moral: we don’t expect rewards for our behavior in the hereafter, and act not out of fear of punishment or hope of a berth in a cloud, but simply because we think it’s the right thing to do. It’s more honest. Whom do you like more: someone who really cares about you for who you are, or someone who does that only because they think you can help them?

At any rate, Jacoby talks about Ingersoll a bit, obviously promoting her book, and then says something I much approve: let’s do away with all the euphemisms for “atheist” and call ourselves what we really are. Forget the pabulum word “agnostic,” or meaningless arguments about how it differs from “atheist.” The real reason people call themselves “agnostics” is because they’re afraid to be tarred with the other a-word, not because they’ve arrived at the monicker via arduous philosophical lucubration.

Atheism is nothing to be ashamed of—indeed, it’s a badge of honor to follow the dictates of reason. And in the case of America, familiarity with nonbelief will breed not contempt but curiosity—and tolerance:

Today’s secularists must do more than mount defensive campaigns proclaiming that we can be “good without God.” Atheists must stand up instead of calling themselves freethinkers, agnostics, secular humanists or “spiritual, but not religious.” The last phrase, translated from the psychobabble, can mean just about anything — that the speaker is an atheist who fears social disapproval or a fence-sitter who wants the theoretical benefits of faith, including hope of eternal life, without the obligations of actually practicing a religion. Atheists may also be secular humanists and freethinkers — I answer to all three — but avoidance of identification with atheism confines us to a closet that encourages us to fade or be pushed into the background when tragedy strikes.

I have only a tiny beef—a filet mignon—with Jacoby’s call for action. It’s this:

Finally, we need to show up at gravesides, as Ingersoll did, to offer whatever consolation we can.

Well, we’re not really wanted at gravesides! That will happen someday, but not now. Nevertheless, Jacoby ends her piece with a wonderful characterization of what President Obama should have said at the Newtown memorial. Go read it yourself.

Robert Ingersoll
Robert Ingersoll
Susan Jacoby
Susan Jacoby

h/t: Gregory

169 thoughts on “Susan Jacoby: her new book and “strident” editorial

  1. Excellent article, but I feel there’s far too much focus on labels we and other might use upon ourselves, and others.

    It’s not the label that’s important, in the end; that’s merely a small handle with which to grasp the angle another is coming from. It’s the actions of the individual that matter.

  2. Atheists must stand up instead of calling themselves freethinkers, agnostics, secular humanists or “spiritual, but not religious.”

    There was a recent web poll of nonbelievers that made you choose your preferred label. Probably not a well designed question, in that a “check all boxes that apply” style of question might have been better.

    Methodology aside, I chose secularist, because I frankly think that’s the more socially important description of my beliefs. What goes on in my brain may be nonbelief by whatever label you want to give it, but what other people in the world encounter in dealing with me is someone who talks about and supports secularism.

    To me, the different label might be thought of this way: an atheist is someone who may drag you into an unwanted theological discussion. A secularist is someone who will may drag you into an unwanted public policy discussion, but who may have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the theological one.

    1. I think you have your definition of “atheist” wrong, at least based on _this_ atheist’s views. I’m equally likely to drag you into a public policy discussion as a theological one. (cringing at the word “theological” here)

      My atheism drives many of my public policy positions.

      1. My last paragraph was a bit tongue in cheek. 🙂 It was not meant as a formal definition but rather a humorous caricature of the worst aspects of various types of nonbelievers. The spittle-flecked guy backs you into a corner and starts ranting at you. What does he rant about? Belief in gods? Then call him an atheist. Government involvement in religion? Then call him a secularist. Yes, I agree that if we were to take that charicature seriously, the real lesson would be: don’t be either guy.

      2. My atheism drives many of my public policy positions.

        Huh? ‘I don’t believe in God, therefore I support public policy position X.’ Not seeing the connection. Atheism is clearly consistent with a huge range of conflicting public policy positions.

            1. LOL. I have had many people assume because I am an atheist that I naturally held X and Y position on public policies. Don’t know why they assume that.

              1. Probably because of the people who foolishly attempt to link atheism to particular political positions that have nothing to do with atheism (e.g. Atheism+).

              2. This happens way too often in both directions. Because I’m a relatively clean cut middle class white guy, I am very often assumed to be very conservative politically. And many liberal minded atheists think I agree with their very liberal viewpoints because I’m also an atheist. Probably a good idea to at least have a conversation before applying labels to others.

              3. @ Gary

                I think you’ll find is that Atheism+ is a banner for those atheists who also have a particular set of values, not an attempt to impose that set of values on every atheist. See Aron Ra’s post that I linked to elsewhere on this page.


              4. I think you’ll find is that Atheism+ is a banner for those atheists who also have a particular set of values, not an attempt to impose that set of values on every atheist.

                Then I suggest you read Richard Carrier’s own commentary on Atheism+. It’s very much about judging and excluding other atheists. The wording and selection of issues is clearly code for a liberal political agenda. But the bigger problem is that atheism simply doesn’t have any particular political and social implications, so trying to associate them is misguided.

              5. I’m afraid you’re wrong again, Gary.

                Atheism+ is no more exclusive or excluding than any other social grouping of like-minded people. (And frankly, why wouldn’t you want to exlude people who [in the words of Ophelia Benson] “have taken to using a fairly large number of women as verbal punching bags, using gender-specific words and sexual disgust as boxing gloves”?)

                Yes, there is a set of “positions” that are linked to Atheism+, but, as Aron Ra noted, no one is insisting that all atheists must share these positions* or even that all atheists who happen to share the same set of political positions must belong to Atheism+.**

                *Carrier deals with this issue directly: “[Q] To be on our side, do you have to adopt every conclusion of every Atheism Plusser on every question of policy or morality? [A] No. This has never been said (not even by me), so it is an irrational thing to conclude.”

                **And this: “I am not talking about defining whether you are ‘in’ or ‘out’ by adopting any label (what you call yourself doesn’t matter), but by whether you thumbs-up or thumbs-down the values of Atheism+”

                I could ask you why you would object to Atheism+’s espousal of social justice, women’s rights, diversity, and skepticism with an unlimited scope***, but I think I’ll leave it there, as Ceiling Cat disapproves of contentious discussion of “deep rifts” on this site.

                *** That’s a non theological example of apophasis, btw. 😉


              6. Atheism+ is no more exclusive or excluding than any other social grouping of like-minded people.

                Proponents of Atheism+ clearly disagree with you. Again, you need to read Carrier, for example.

                I could ask you why you would object to Atheism+’s espousal of social justice, women’s rights, diversity,

                I already told you: atheism is about (lack of) belief in God, not politics. Trying to link atheism to political positions that have nothing to do with atheism is seriously misguided. Atheism doesn’t have anything more to do with women’s rights than gun rights.

  3. The reality is there are lots of ways people have of indicating that they are not theists. Insisting that they all embrace the self-description atheist is like saying the only way of not being a Republican is to call yourself a Democrat. I think of Neil deGrasse Tyson:

    It’s not my position but I’m not going to get judgemental about it.

    1. This video has been sufficiently argued over in other WEIT postings. Suffice to say that many of us find Tyson’s comments here problematic.

      1. First, I didn’t intend to embed it ?!

        But to the point, which is not to agree with his position but to understand there are a wide variety of self-descriptions non-believers use and the most sensible approach would be an accepting pluralism.

        From a sociological POV atheists and agnostics are indistinguishable, anyway.

        1. And that is pretty much Ingersoll’s/Jacoby’s point. Both (atheists and agnostics) are both. The issue has to do with avoidance of the word “atheist”, what this avoidance means, and what it masks.

          1. Talking about “avoidance” and masking is already making a whole series of judgements, and all it does is piss people off.

            1. Masking the truth in the service of not pissing people off does nobody any good.

              Perhaps I misunderstand your point, but Tyson seeking to avoid being described as an atheist is a fact in the real world. If you are advocating make-believe in order to “not make judgements” you are not thinking clearly, IMO. If people are pissed off by the truth, so be it.

              1. There really is nothing unifying atheists apart from lack of belief — witness the s**tstorm PZ unleashed by suggesting otherwise. Contra Jacoby, there are a large number of bloodless robots in our ranks, as well as a good many who have simply replaced Jesus with Ayn Rand.

                While I don’t reject the atheist label, I prefer “humanist” and “naturalist”.

              2. I may prefer being called “citizen” to being called “voter”. Doesn’t really matter. I AM a voter by virtue of voting. It would do no good for me to pretend I’m not.

              3. @ JB

                I’d agree with you about atheists generally — Aron Ra wrote a blog post about Atheism(+) that touched on this:

                Most atheists are apathetic, not activists at all. In fact most atheists don’t even know they are atheist, or won’t accept or admit that they are. Most atheists call themselves agnostics, because they think that ‘atheist’ means someone who doesn’t believe in anything, or who is determined to reject any possible aspect of metaphysics, someone who ‘knows’ there is no god. Of those atheists who figured out what the label really means, and how it applies to them, and who have stopped making excuses to get out of a shoe that fits, not all of them are skeptical critical thinkers. There are vast numbers of non-theists who still believe in supernatural spiritual healing, chiropractic homeopathic herbal acupuncture, transcendental psionic projection, alien reptilian government conspiracies, and the Loch Ness sasquatch from Area 54 of the Bermuda Triangle. Yes there are atheists who are afraid of vaccinations, genetically-modified foods, bad karma, and fluoride toothpaste.

                But while there are some clear exceptions (say, Penn Jillette), there does seem to be a tendency for atheist “activists” to be more politically liberal, more concerned about free speech, social justice, &c., &c., dontcha think?


        2. In a 1996 interview in Skeptic magazine, Carl Sagan also described himself as “agnostic”, but he combined this with an overt advocacy of seeing the sacred or “divinity” in the natural world reminiscent of Spinoza’s pantheism (or Albert Einstein’s for that matter).

          Sagan made it clear that he regarded only the natural world as a source of truth and that “religious experience” should be interpreted naturalistically.

          Like Vinccent Bugliosi, Sagan simultaneously was forthright in declaring Christianity to be an illusion (he would be 7.0 on the Dawkins scale re the Christian God) while still claiming the label agnostic. In “The Demon-Haunted World” (p. 278) Sagan states that the idea of a cosmic creator is difficult to prove or disprove unless you could prove the universe is infinitely old.

          My own thinking is pretty much the same as Tyson and Sagan.

        3. I think the point is that if “an accepting pluralism” is the goal, there may be better ways to get there than insisting that “I’m not one of those guys!”

          Acceptance cuts both ways. Tyson is free to label himself however he likes — just as we’re free to label him as we see him.

    2. Of course it’s not my place to tell others what words they need to use to describe themselves, but theist/Republican atheist/Democrat is not an apt analogy.

      “Atheist” is the perfect, one-size-fits-all term for indicating one is not a theist. That’s all it means. It is the most broad, general term.

      “Democrat” does not actually mean “not-Republican.”

      I don’t see how anyone claiming not to be a theist can avoid the fact that they are an atheist. When they do try to avoid it, it just seems political in a slimy kind of way.

      All that writ, I still agree with Sam Harris that, ultimately, no label should be required. In my spare time, I avidly refrain from collecting stamps.

      1. “I don’t see how anyone claiming not to be a theist can avoid the fact that they are an atheist.”

        When you look at the data, most non-religious people don’t fit into easily definable categories, with self-declared atheists being a distinct minority.

        “When they do try to avoid it, it just seems political in a slimy kind of way.”

        And is that really how we want to describe our fellow non-believers, not to mention scientists such as Tyson, Sagan, Attenborough, Huxley, Gould …

        1. What data?

          If you are not a theist, you are an atheist, in the same way that if you do not have hair in your head, you are bald.

          Self-identification has nothing to do with it. Wearing a toupee and insisting you’re not bald doesn’t make it true. You’re still bald.

          I’ll let you call yourself whatever you like, but it won’t change the facts. And I won’t find the fact-denialism very respectable. Even if your last name is Tyson.

          1. “What data?”

            There is an extensive academic literature on this, but even looking at the Pew breakdowns (see their report on the none’s) shows the same thing.

            Further, your “fact-denialism” is “definition-denialism”, where you have arrogated to yourself the right to set the definition.

            1. Really, johncozijn? We’re really arguing about the definition of the word “atheist”? I don’t think so, but can we agree on this?


              musical beef is not “arrogating it to himself the right to set the definition”.

              If you want to live in a world where everyone gets to use their own definitions for words then conversation is going to get pretty stochastic.

              1. “Atheist — theist” are not mutually exclusive, binary terms, as even you dictionary quote makes clear. So even at a semantic level this ideological purity does not hold water.

              2. ““Atheist — theist” are not mutually exclusive”

                Odd. The English speakers I know understand that the “a–” version of a word refers to it’s “not” version, pretty much the binary opposite. Perhaps it is geography that accounts for the atheists who believe in gods who you seem to hang out with?

              3. Depends whether you think term “atheist” captures all the ways of not being a theist. Clearly many don’t, and while you apparently do, that is itself a self-identification.

                If there is a reality here it clearly must be sociological, not semantic, and the sociology tells us that non-believers are a pretty diverse bunch, despite what you or PZ or anyone else may fondly wish.

              4. You know, johncozijn, you use “non-believer” in exactly the same way as I use “atheist”. Neither word describes the infinite number of “ways” one not believe, whatever that means. If it has meaning, it is irrelevant. (Are there an many ways to not collect stamps? I suppose so. Does it make a bit of difference in describing what a non-philatelist is? Nope.)

                Go back and read the threads in the WEIT posts about Tyson and the word “atheist”. There is no point in belaboring it again here.

            2. My point in asking “what data” was to imply that data is irrelevant.

              Surveys may return the information that someone with exclusively Western European ancestry prefers to be identified as a female, or as a Smith, or etc. This doesn’t mean we can’t describe her as “white”.

              See gbjames’ comment about ants.

        2. One might as reasonably say “When you look at the data very few ants self-identify as insects.”

          This is not a question of how “we want to describe our fellow non-believers”. It is what our fellow non-believers ARE.

          1. I just realized I should have used something else, perhaps “bees”, as my example. To avoid any confusion with our friend, Mr. Allen, §.

            1. Are you talking about me, Dr. Allan? 😉 But then I’ve got you name wrong in the past (thinking James was your forename – and I should be more wary of making that assumption!), so who am I to criticise?

              & “§” just means I’m subscribing; my sig is…


              1. lol.

                Now a Dr. is also a Mr. (if pre-filtered for gender)! But to replace your “a” with that awful “e”… well I have no excuse whatsoever! The shame of it!

                And “§” and “/@”! What a # I have made of it!

              2. “Now a Dr. is also a Mr.”

                I think that depends on your culture. I’d say that that was incorrect in British English usage (as well as in several European countries where “Dr.” or the equivalent is formally part of your legal name … we have these arguments all the time with our US paymasters) — and certainly in the medical profession, where “Mr.” is reserved for surgeons! (But then I’m a Ph.D., not an M.D.)


              3. Someday, Ant, I will make it back to the UK and I’ll have to look you up. You can buy me a pint and explain. Then I’ll buy you one and you can explain again. As long as the pints are good we can continue until it is all made clear.

          2. “It is what our fellow non-believers ARE.”

            This reminds me of gay activists 25 years ago insisting bisexuals were really gay, but trying to avoid the stigma. This kind of totalitarian labelling was in due course retired after people insisted on their right to self-identification. Hence LGBT.

            1. Again, the analogy isn’t apt.

              “Bisexual” is a distinct sexual state, easily distinguished from both homosexual and heterosexual states.

              Where is there room for more “states” between “atheism” and “theism”? It really is a binary situation: either you believe in god(s) or you don’t. Acupuncture, chiropractic, homeopathy, crystals, vibrations, all sorts of woo, etc, etc, do not constitute a third way between atheism and theism. They have nothing to do with god(s). Not even pantheism can fill your bill; one still must answer the question: “do you believe in a god/discrete supreme being/creator?” If the answer is “no”, I will call you an atheist. You can call yourself whatever you want.

              1. Belief, like sexuality, is complicated and messy. People actually don’t often fit into neat binary boxes, and rightly resent being shoved into them by those they perceive as arrogant know-it-alls, including Christians who try to claim the “spiritual” as closet theists. It’s not a game we should be playing. Let’s have some respect for people’s right to identify themselves how they choose.

              2. What exactly is complicated, johncozijn, about the distinction between believing in deities vs. not believing in them? Please provide specific examples of the shadowed gray zone between these two because from everything I can tell this distinction is as binary as they come.

                Enough of abstract characterizations of “messiness” and “complication”. Some things are neither. Tell us exactly how someone who is not mentally ill can claim to simultaneously both believe and not believe in the existence of a deity.

                And leave out discussion of self-identification. It is not relevant. (I self identify a minotaur. Not. Relevant.)

              3. “And leave out discussion of self-identification.”

                But that is precisely the core of the difference. We are not classifying insects, but trying to understand how people understand their own relationship religious belief.

              4. I think those are two separate issues and not mutually exclusive.

                We can set criteria for a description such as “overweight”, but people meeting these criteria might self-identify as “overweight” (I do… 🙁 ), or “plump”, or “cuddly”, or “big boned”, or none of the above. 

                None of gbjames, musical beef or me is insisting that people-who-don’t-believe-in-any-gods self-identify as atheists (in fact the others have each made this point explicitly), only that, by definition, people-who-don’t-believe-in-any-gods can be described (not labelled!) as atheists.


      2. I don’t see how anyone claiming not to be a theist can avoid the fact that they are an atheist.

        Words have both a denotation and a connotation. When different terms have the same denotation but different connotations, a person may rationally prefer one term over another. It doesn’t mean they are claiming ‘not to be’ the denoted thing, it means they prefer a descriptive term that may be less value-laden (or laden with different values).

        Non-believer and atheist have pretty much the same denotation but different connotations. They are laden with different values. Its pretty silly to demand everyone use the one of those terms you prefer – whether that be atheist or nonbeliever.

        We don’t insist everyone use a single label when it comes to other groups. Within reason, we let people choose their label from synonymous words with different connotations. I’d argue atheists and nonbelievers should be consistent: grant the same freedom to each other you/we/they do to other groups.

        1. If you read my comments again, you’ll notice that I actually wrote that what word a person wants to use to describe him or herself is indeed up to that person. I’m not telling anyone to describe themselves in any particular way.

          Tyson is free to avoid “atheist.” But if he doesn’t believe in (a) god, that’s what he is, connotations notwithstanding. I might roll my eyes as he tries to tap dance around “atheist”, but I won’t try to stop him.

          1. Do you roll your eyes when someone calls themself “Native American” rather than “Indian?”

            Its good that we agree that he has the freedom to self-identify using the term he chooses, but if deep down you still think he’s doing something wrong, you’re not getting the point of what he’s doing.

    3. I’m largely with musical beef and gbjames here; I’d describe anyone who doesn’t believe in any god, including myself, as an atheist. But I wouldn’t insist that the use that term to describe themselves.

      I think there is a legitimate reason that someone might baulk at the label, however, quite apart from any negative social connotations.

      Atheism has a “strong” sense, the absolute conviction that there is no god, rather than the broader “weak” sense (as above).

      Someone who understands or defines “atheist” only in the “strong” sense but fits the “weak” sense would (rightly) eschew the term. IIRC, Sagan fits this scenario.


      1. Someone who understands or defines “atheist” only in the “strong” sense but fits the “weak” sense would (rightly) eschew the term.

        I don’t think they are doing it rightly. If there were another word that means only “someone who doesn’t believe in any god,” then they’d be right to eschew “atheist” in favor of that other word. But there isn’t. “Atheist” isn’t perfect, but it’s more accurate than any alternative. “Agnostic” is simply incorrect, and “secularist, “skeptic,” “rationalist,” etc. are too broad.

        1. Hmm… I do think they would be right from their point of view — given, “Someone who understands or defines ‘atheist’ only in the ‘strong’ sense”. Perhaps “understandably” would’ve been more accurate than “rightly”. Nevertheless, right or wrong, that distinction does exist in some people’s minds and that can explain why they might honestly (un-slimey-ly, apolitically, pace musical beef) reject the label.

          But I don’t think “agnostic” is “simply” wrong, as that meaning (or something similar) does attach to it; e.g., “a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God.” [NOAD] This was Sagan’s position, iirc. You might argue that this is a degraded usage – and I might agree with you – but it is not an uncommon one. (I’m sure we could all find many other words – e.g., refute – that have been similarly abused.)


          1. I think most people take “agnostic” to mean someone who is undecided or on the fence, which is simply wrong as a description of an atheist. As is the original and formal meaning of the word as someone who merely claims to lack knowledge of God.

            I think all this handwringing is ridiculous. There is a simple, accepted word to refer to people who don’t believe in God. That word is atheist. Any “weak atheists” who are seriously worried about being misidentified as “strong atheists” can say “I’m an atheist because I lack a belief in God” or somesuch.

            1. I fear you’re wrong on both counts.

              Huxley (the first to self-identify as “agnostic”): “Nevertheless I know that I am, in spite of myself, exactly what the Christian would call, and, so far as I can see, is justified in calling, atheist and infidel.” [my emphasis]

              And that “simple word” is evidently not accepted by everyone, whether or not you think it should be.


              1. I don’t understand the point of your Huxley quote. It seems to support my position about the word “atheist,” not yours. And the fact that “not everyone” accepts that “atheist” means someone who doesn’t believe in God isn’t a valid reason not to use the word in that way.

    4. When anyone tells me they are an agnostic I sigh and think, “one of those”. It generally indicates a smug kind of false humility, coupled often with a failure to spend much time thinking about the issues. There usually follows a quick question and answer about their beliefs, and soon they are telling me that atheists are certain there is no god and are disinclined to accept my assurances that this is not the case. I find it tedious in the extreme.

  4. I read Jacoby’s book “The Age of American Unreason” a few years ago and came away impressed with her sweeping view of the limits of Americans’ willingness to confront their superstitious beliefs. I was reading it at an outdoor bar in Port Aransas, TX. The waitress said “I just finished that book and it’s GREAT!” A bit of surprise for Texas!

    As a result of an editorial I wrote to a local paper I’ve been invited to be a participant in a discussion before a local men’s church group on “Religion, Morality and the Founding Fathers”. We’ll see how it goes.

    1. Port Aransas! I’ve got the tee-shirt! They were really cheap, and have lasted twenty years (though I don’t wear them but a few times a year).

    1. Meaning that in the wake of tragedy, at public memorials and such, it’s perfectly acceptable for theists to openly display their theism, and to invoke theism in their efforts at condolence.

      Try replacing “theist/m” in the above with “atheist/m”.

  5. I admit my journey to atheism began with a reading of the Bible (while in high school); the deity there struck me as, well, the type of deity those so-called “uncivilized” tribes in the old movies worshiped.

    Later, evolution (in particular, that it is directionless) sealed the deal, at least in terms of deities that specifically created humans.

    Suffering: that was never a problem for me, because I was taught to believe that suffering, no matter how horrific, was temporary compared to the bliss that our loving deity had awaiting us in the “afterlife” (e. g., drying cruelly over a few years was nothing compared to the billion an billions of years of bliss that we were going to get).

  6. I can understand how Jacoby sees the “spiritual, not religious” as a dodge. Me, I’m a full-fledged atheist and never hide from the word. That said, we are “spiritual” beings in the absolutely non-supernatural sense of the word. What can I mean by that? If you haven’t read it already, take a look at “The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality” by Andre Comte-Sponville to see what I’m referring to.

    1. I remember even Christopher Hitchens said we atheists needed to recapture ‘spiritual’ from the religious crowd.

      1. It would be hard to “recapture” something that is a term with originally religious/supernatural meaning.

        But Hitchens may have been thinking more of the word “spirits”, Johnny Walker in particular.

        1. I think that Ann Druyan said that bit about recapturing spirituality from religion. I say ditch that word, and focus instead on embracing the ‘non-rational’ which is experienced via literature, art, nature, friendship, employment of empathy, etc.

          I am glad and hope that the party will go on once I am gone until science figures out how to make us immortal. 🙂

          I don’t welcome or want death, but I accept that inevitability, just as I accept that each moment of my life goes away. Death is just the end of all those impermanent moments, a sort of closure or the ultimate letting-go. I expect my last thought will be exactly that–my thinking this is REALLY my last thought. And maybe, thanks for all the fish.

            1. There are better words than ‘spiritual’, try ‘numinous’ for example. ‘Spiritual’ is too covered in woo and bullshit for sensible people to use without taking huge risks of getting the mess all over themselves.

              1. Hmm… While you might say, “I had a numinous experience”, can you really say, “I am numinous” in the same way that you can say, “I am spiritual”? I don’t think so.


              2. Is it acceptable to call yourself numismatic instead? Not quite right.

                Yes, there’s apparently a term missing that would mean “devoted to / in pursuit of the numinous.” Numinist, muminism, nuministic have the correct form, so feel free.

                However, I submit that they’re semantically pretty vacant. “Numinous” (from Latin numen, ‘divine will, divinity’ according to OED; probably not related to Greek noumenia, which is ‘new moon’ according to Liddell & Scott) in current usage is a deliberately vague word, used appropriately to imply a vague feeling of portentousness associated with sensations, like a colour without a form. Not exactly something to found a movement or a life’s work on, in my opinion. And yet it so often is…

    2. I do not see why anyone would want to identify themselves with a word as utterly meaningless as “spiritual.” Why meaningless? Because it has far too many different – sometimes wildly different – definitions to be a useful, meaningful word. What do you mean by the word atheist? I’m not going to read a book to find out.

      But I can guarantee you that religious people are going to disagree with your definition (and disagree with each others’ definitions) and other atheists will disagree with your definition (and each others’ definitions). So what’s the point of using this word if you have to explain what it means to anyone you’re sharing it with before you can have a conversation about? It sounds like woo-based nonsense because that’s what it originally meant.

      By the way, my apologies if this post angers you. It’s the usage of the word spiritual by atheists that bothers me. I’ve never known what anyone means by it, even after they explain it, such is the nebulous nature of the word.

  7. I have found most descriptions of a positive afterlife to be completely intolerable. I can toss out the constant praise of a creator immediately. Quite frankly, no amount of virgins or sex or food or anything else is going to be sufficient to distract me for eternity. I may worry somewhat about the ones I leave behind, but being completely gone strikes me as far preferable once all the suffering of the act of dying is at an end.

    1. I couldn’t agree more. A sober contemplation of the meaning of eternity and what the fuck you are going to do to keep yourself amused for it, makes me damn sure I want no part of it. This is not to say that I wouldn’t like to live longer than the projected 80-90 years, but eternity? No, and I certainly don’t want to be dead for eternity, where there is nothing to do and forever to do it in.

      1. What about reading, learning languages and musical instruments and art methods, doing science, teaching, watching species and ecosystems and planets and galaxies evolve?

        I reckon that would make a fair dent in a billion years, but it would require having actual parts that functioned as eyes and hands and tools. Eternity would certainly be wasted on the disembodied.

        1. The problem is that eternity is not a billion years. It’s not even a billion to the billionth power x a billion to the billionth power years. It’s way, way longer. : )

  8. Although there’s no particular reason to believe in one (and I don’t myself), someone could be an atheist and believe in an afterlife if they wanted to (though it’s incredibly doubtful that it would be one as described by religion). It would probably take some intellectual acrobatics of course…

    1. Most non-theists who also claim a belief in life after death “believe” in reincarnation. Substantial majority of women in this group.

      1. A many-worlds cosmology could be used to rationalise a preference for reincarnationism. If we want to believe that everyone gets the afterlife they deserve, there’s a narrative in which this is the case and one could choose a ‘realty principle’ that makes that narrative a relevant physical world…

        I’m aware that some physicists regard many-worlds as incoherent, but also that others (eg David Deutsch) take the opposite view. Please don’t turn this into a derail, I doubt it can be settled here.

        1. Oh, I forgot to mention the obvious: no gods required to supervise many-worlds reincarnation.

          Only the slight downside that as well as the afterlife they truly deserve, everyone also gets an infinite number of afterlives that don’t make any sense at all, including all the truly nasty ones.

  9. “I’m not sure how much solace, though, that aspect nonbelief provides for me. Does the relief from theodicy outweigh the knowledge that our death represents final extinction?”

    Would it be better not to have ever existed (or perhaps to exist as a pampered pet blissfully ignorant of such things – “fat, dumb and happy” as I heard it said in the U.S. Navy) so as to avoid the contemplative melancholy brought about by this knowledge? (Re: Dawkins’s reflections on the stupefyingly improbable likelihood of any one of us existing.)

  10. I have recently read several of R. Ingersoll’s lectures and books and the one question I ask is what happened to the American people.
    When he talks of heretics and blasphemy, he says the old leaf calls the new one a heretic and that the priests called others blasphemers to stop people from questioning their authority.
    I think there is need to resurrect Ingersoll, Paine and other greats.

    1. MY favorite Ingersoll quote, particularly the second paragraph:
      “We have already compared the benefits of theology and science. When the theologian governed the world, it was covered with huts and hovels for the many, palaces and cathedrals for the few. To nearly all the children of men, reading and writing were unknown arts. The poor were clad in rags and skins — they devoured crusts, and gnawed bones. The day of Science dawned, and the luxuries of a century ago are the necessities of to-day. Men in the middle ranks of life have more of the conveniences and elegancies than the princes and kings of the theological times. But above and over all this, is the development of mind. There is more of value in the brain of an average man of to-day — of a master-mechanic, of a chemist, of a naturalist, of an inventor, than there was in the brain of the world four hundred years ago.
      These blessings did not fall from the skies. These benefits did not drop from the outstretched hands of priests. They were not found in cathedrals or behind altars — neither were they searched for with holy candles. They were not discovered by the closed eyes of prayer, nor did they come in answer to superstitious supplication. They are the children of freedom, the gifts of reason, observation and experience — and for them all, man is indebted to man.”
      Robert Green Ingersoll, God in the Constitution (1890)

      1. I like when he says in “The Ghosts” that the bible wasn’t believed when it was written.
        He also says truth does not need a miracle only falsehood does and then he attacks revelation asking why should we take it that Moses or anyone talked to god if we are not going to accept that from our next door neighbor

    2. As to what has happened to the American people since the days of Ingersoll, I’ve read that part of the reason the robust atheism of the late 19th and early 20th century went into remission was the fact that it had largely succeeded against its major enemy: mainstream hellfire and brimstone. The nasty, mean-spirited Puritanism which railed about damnation for every little sin (or none at all) was a popular target which gained a lot of public support.

      As a result, the moderates turned the God of Judgement into the God of Love — and most Christians began to believe that God would find some way to save anyone who was nice, regardless of what they believed. This change wasn’t universal, of course. But it took away some of the most obvious villains and allowed religious leaders to introduce the general public to what looked like a new, improved Christianity.

      Sermons from Ingersoll’s time look different than the ones in modern churches — influenced, perhaps, by a need to respond to Ingersoll.

      1. And then “The Fundamentals” were published. Then (50-60 years later) those who took The Fundamentals seriously decided to they needed to be involved in politics. Then they became a powerful influence in politics. Now we are still dealing with them.

  11. When people say that atheism is pessimistic, ask them this:

    Which is more pessimistic, Believing that all pain comes to an end, or that some pain lasts forever?

  12. “…the absence of an afterlife lends a greater, not a lesser, moral importance to our actions on earth.”

    This has been my internal philosophy for many years now. When you eliminate the fall-back of heaven correcting all wrongs then the one life we have has to stand on it’s own.

    “Well, we’re not really wanted at gravesides!”

    I didn’t read Jacoby’s call for action as an instruction to show up at random funerals and preach to the mourners. Rather to not stay away, to out ourselves as atheists but to go to the funerals of friends and family and give what comfort we can.

    PS I do still occasionally have panic attacks about my inevitable demise. Even writing this is difficult. I cope with it by acknowledging there is nothing I can do about it and then not thinking about it and living my life as well as I can.

  13. This seems to me a very limited kind of Atheism, applicable only to the Judaeo-Christian Moslem ethic. It’s about not believing all that nonsense about How can God allow this etc etc. The world would be an impossibly overcrowded place if there was no death, and the means of death are as varied as they are beyond morality or goodness or whatever you want to call it. Forget the old man in the sky idea of What Is.

    I don’t believe in priests or religion but I am pretty sure there’s something going on here, I just don’t know what it is. Read the Vedas, read the thoughts of Buddha. Get confused and stop trying to know the unknowable, to have an answer for everything. Sometimes there just isn’t an answer, or at least, not one we can understand.

    1. In other words, anyone can go deepity deepity deep.*

      Or we can leave that superstition behind and embrace nature for what it is.

      *Btw, evolution predicts why there is death. Its existence makes populations more fit over time under generic constraints. (Say, compared to only procreation, and even more so in a finite biosphere.)

      1. evolution predicts why there is death

        I don’t think that is quite right. There isn’t anything out there who would value that requirement. Evolution doesn’t work in order to make populations more fit. They get more fit as a result of evolution, but that is quite different.

        And one might note that death is the default condition. Nothing lasts forever.

    2. Do you think someone is claiming to know the unknowable? There is no evidence for life after death. That’s a good enough reason not to bother with even thinking about it. Unless you are into mental masturbation. Do the Vedas and the writings of Buddha tell us not to bother spending any time contemplating the completely incoherent concept of “life after death” and living our lives instead? If they do, I’ve no need to read them. If they bother to toy with the idea of any form of afterlife – including reincarnation – then they’re not worth reading.

      1. Only the Christians, taking a lead perhaps from the religions of the Romans and Greeks, have the idea of Heaven and Hell. The Sanskrit religions tend to posit an eventual and welcome oblivion in the One, with multiple lives on route to that. Judaeism has no theory of an afterlife.

        I have an theory (sort of) that, as dream time is slower than reality, and that time appears to slow down in close to death situations, when the brain loses its ability to control the mass of information it is getting, it might well be that your last dream, as it were, would seem to you to last a long time (e.g. forever). But until that day, my approach is that it is best to live life in the Now, give no thought to the possibility of an afterlife or an intervening God or what have you, but this is not to say it definitely doesn’t happen. Like I said, it is unknowable. Maybe we all wake up at a drug party in another universe and all our friends there ask what we made of that trip??

        But I guess I don’t share your idea that I won’t think about things I don’t accept as true or untrue. As one French philosopher once said (I forget who), the joy of such subjects is that one can discuss them endlessly since there is no final conclusion to be drawn. As for instance, this Comments section demonstrates!!

  14. Ridicule and hyper-sarcasm are by far the best weapons.

    The faith-heads really can see how much of a fairy tale their belief in the magic bearded man really is.

  15. “There are in nature neither rewards nor punishments, there are consequences.”

    – Ingersoll. [ ]

    Does the relief from theodicy outweigh the knowledge that our death represents final extinction?

    I don’t think one can make a weighted list (simplest a +/- list) like that. Does the simplicity of Newton gravity outweigh the knowledge that it works acausally (non-relativistically)?

    One must perhaps tackle each empirical problem as they come, as elsewhere. No shortcut (outside of fables) for emotionally laden problems, I am sorry to say.

    let’s do away with all the euphemisms for “atheist” and call ourselves what we really are. Forget the pabulum word “agnostic,” or meaningless arguments about how it differs from “atheist.”

    I don’t see the problem, we are all “nones” and most of those are atheist petering out to various degree of indifference.

    The first problem I have is with agnosticism as an idea is that you can adjudicate whether there really are gods as much as you can infer and test that magicians really don’t use magic.

    Which, sometimes combined with a weakness for unsubstantiated belief in belief but at other times perhaps cognitive dissonance, makes many if not most agnostics hide behind theological claims which no skeptic should hide behind, my second problem.

    So I have to add to Jacoby’s list:

    Atheist, secular humanist, freethinker and skeptic.

    Without the empiricism of skeptics/scientists it all falls apart, and you can as well attempt to use religion, theology or philosophy as imagined “other ways to knowledge”.

    1. The word freethought actually encompasses (for the most part) both atheism and skepticism. The problem is that most people (in the US anyhow) don’t know what it means, or think that it means something that it doesn’t mean, like “Anything goes! I’m free to think whatever crazy, unevidenced bullshit I want” (seriously, my local freethought group has had people join who consider themselves freethinkers even though they are Christian creationists or believe they can create their own reality).

      Freethought – a philosophical viewpoint which holds that opinions and beliefs should be formed on the basis of logic, reason and empiricism and not authority, tradition, or other dogmas.

  16. No one can reasonably call Jacoby militant or strident, and this is one of her finest (indeed “spiritual”) pieces of writing.

    The only atheist that could reasonably called militant and strident was Madelyn Murray O’Hare. She was a great political organizer, but in other respects gave atheists a bad name which later generations have had to live down.

    (OK, a mild whiff of the Murray stridency in Christopher Hitchens, but he was also hundreds of times funnier!!)

    The Woody Allen clip I posted late last night on a different post (Comment 31 at also includes the line “Don’t think of death as the end, but as a way of drastically cutting down expenses”.

  17. A friend once remarked to me that the Bible is just a really old comic book. lolz.

    That pretty much sums it up.

  18. “As Hitchens once put it, it’s not so much that you have to leave the party, but the party goes on after you leave.”

    It’s been a long night. All the people you know have left a while ago. Faces come and go, but you don’t recognize anyone anymore. They dance to some tune you don’t like. Won’t like. It’s the next big thing, they say. Shrug. There is soft music at the bar. Occasional conversations are boring and meaningless. You are tired of small talk. Soothing quietness settles in. Time to go.

    Unfortunate, that it wasn’t more like that for Hitchens.

    1. That line of Hitch reminds me of this one from Gore Vidal: “It’s not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”

      Irony required.

  19. It reminds me of the bargain the cock wished to make with the horse: “Let us agree not to step on each other’s feet.”</i.

    When I was a kid I had a pet chicken (Dick Duke). Couldn't keep him in city (suburb) limits so we had to give him to a person we knew who had a farm.

    A horse stepped on him and killed him.

    So I found the quote amusing. Because it's one of those 'makes no sense' country homilies that are, sadly for Dick Duke at least, true…

  20. I’m very surprised to hear that Jerry wishes there were life after death. To me the very idea sounds horrifying.

    As a child I believed in some sort of theistic afterlife, and this made me terribly afraid of death. Even a small chance of spending an eternity in hell was very disquieting.

    I still can’t fathom why anyone would want an eternal life in the hereafter. I realize heaven might be ok, but why are most theists so confident they are going to heaven? How can you be sure you’ve done the right things to avoid the damnation? The rules of the game are always very blurry and inconsistent, there is no universal agreement on them.

    I remember myself as a nice kid, I considered myself a good person, but why would that be a guarantee of a place in heaven? This world is pretty unjust, the good are often punished and the bad rewarded. Why would you trust some capricious deity to judge you fairly in death, since the world, supposedly created by this same deity, does not judge us fairly in life. So, even when I vaguely believed in God, I did not trust him.

    I also had a certain fear of the supernatural forces, anything that my juvenile imagination was able to conjure up. All in all, my supernatural beliefs were all about fear. Thankfully, growing up and learning about the reality of this universe dispelled these fears.

    The absolutely greatest solace of atheism is knowing this all ends sooner or later. And then there will be no fear, no suffering, no discomfort. So my atheism is also emotionally comforting, not just intellectual rigor.

    1. I find your attitude bizarre in the extreme. Yes, if there is no afterlife and death means the end of existence, then it will mean the end of fear and suffering. But also the end of joy and pleasure. If someone genuinely thinks of life as a burden and of death as relief from that burden, then I’m not sure why they wouldn’t just commit (painless) suicide. Of course, for many very old and sick people who are living in chronic pain or debilitation, death may be a relief. But if the afterlife we’re talking about is not some form of chronic suffering, but rather something more akin to the mix of pain and pleasure of ordinary life, then I would very much like there to be an afterlife, although not necessarily an eternal one.

      1. Childhood memories are often bizarre. Other than that, you apparently you read only my last paragraph.

        Normal life is fine with its ups and downs. But take a terminal cancer patient, living in daily pain. Would they wish for such life to go on and on, even if there are some moments of joy here and there? After I sustained a sciatic nerve injury in my youth and experienced some serious incessant pain for months, I know I wouldn’t.

        According to the Abrahamic canon, the tornment of hell is much worse, much more intense, extending for trillions and trillions of years. Not only does that sound scary to a child, it also sounds insanely sadistic to an adult. What sick mind ever came up with such an idea?

        It’s kind of a twist to Pascal’s wager. What if you were given two choices: Door #1 leads to an afterlife with a 99% chance of eternal bliss and a 1% chance of eternal unimaginably excruciating torture. Door #2 lead to just nothingness, living only in the memories of your loved ones and contributions to your fellow humans. I would certainly take the latter one, having not enough greed for the bliss to risk even a minor chance of an endless agony.

        So, I absolutely do find it very comforting that no evidence indicates we have even a remote chance of this eternal torture ahead of us.

        1. I read your whole comment. I clearly said “if the afterlife we’re talking about is not some form of chronic suffering, but rather something more akin to the mix of pain and pleasure of ordinary life.” So I’m not talking about an afterlife akin to the life of a terminal cancer patient. And I’m not talking about any sort of wager where there’s a good chance the afterlife would involve eternal torment. I’m talking about an afterlife more akin to ordinary healthy life. As I said, this hoped-for afterlife isn’t necessarily eternal.

          Why wouldn’t you want that?

      2. And Gary, I find your attitude bizarre in the extreme. I do not understand (or perhaps just cannot relate to) you or anyone else who does not view the idea of eventual death as comforting. Perhaps your joys outweigh your sorrows. I do not believe that is true for most people on this planet.

        1. Perhaps your joys outweigh your sorrows. I do not believe that is true for most people on this planet.

          Seriously? Then why aren’t people committing mass suicide? If they think they’d be better off dead, why do they go on living?

  21. Maybe we’re going about it all wrong.

    The faith-heads are already a credulous and gullible bunch. We just need to use their own gullibility against them using theology as a tool. So we can just start making stuff up using their own doctrines against them as well as their tendency to embrace vagueness.

    For example, we can start promoting this thing called Chrislam! And start beginning to fuse the doctrines and theologies of Christianity and Islam into one! lolz.

    Just start making stuff up and let it catch on and their own theologians will do the rest of the fabrications once it gets going.

  22. I’m real glad to see Ingersoll get a mention here. In Dresden, NY, there is a very small museum devoted to him, in a building that was (I believe) his birthplace. Among his many writings are “God and the Constitution” and “The Many Mistakes of Moses”. I don’t know if links work in comments, but his complete works are available at

  23. The real reason people call themselves “agnostics” is because they’re afraid to be tarred with the other a-word, not because they’ve arrived at the monicker via arduous philosophical lucubration.
    I wonder why you think yourself qualified to conclude as to why people choose a certain label for themselves – perhaps mind reading is an ability you possess that you haven’t bothered informing us about?

    Ah well the real reason people call themselves atheists is because they are philosophical ignoramuses.

    1. My conclusion comes from observing their behavior: what they believe and why they say they’re agnostics. Neil deGrasse Tyson is an example. And I’ve seen it many times.

      And I expect you to apologize for implying that I, and all the readers here, are ignoramuses. It’s not proper to insult the host, you know.

  24. No, I don’t necessarily “welcome death with open arms;” i.e., look forward to it. I have, however, accepted that death is inevitable and that there is nothing after death. It’s been a liberating experience and has greatly changed my ideas about what is important in life.

    1. It isn’t the death part that I fret about as much as the dying part. I would hope to evaporate quickly when the time comes and live in an environment that doesn’t institutionalize prolonged and miserable dying.

      1. I agree. Jerry Coyne says

        I’d like to live on after death, and am deeply suspicious of those who say that they don’t fear extinction.

        I want to reassure him of my sincerity when I say that I don’t fear being dead.

        I do fear the process of dying: the loss of autonomy, the pain.

        But I don’t fear actually being dead, no more than I fear sleep.

        1. Come to think of it, the phrase “being dead” is kind of weird, “dead” isn’t really “being” anything! I suppose philosophers have worked that puzzle every which way from Sunday.

          1. If you are a materialist, you believe we are all simply bodies with some property that we call “consciousness.” Brain death is simply when the brain permanently stops working. That isn’t too difficult to make sense of — you become an inanimate collection of molecules that will eventually decompose just like the chair you are sitting on. As I think Epicurus or Lucretius put it, consciousness is like the smell coming from an open perfume bottle — it simply fades away into nothing as the atoms dissipate.

            1. Well, yeah. We tend to think of ourselves primarily in terms of the thinking part of ourselves. And that part has evaporated by the time the word “dead” applies.

        2. I agree with your fear of the process of dying. But I disagree with Jerry, I don’t really get what there is to fear about extinction. Instead, I would fear the idea of an afterlife, since there is no guarantee that it’s enjoyable.

          Living this life for a few centuries more through scientific progress might sound good, but that’s not what “afterlife” is about. If there were a hereafter, we might as well all be heading to the Islam Hell.

  25. Ambrose Bierce memorialized Robert Ingersoll in his revision of the ten commandments as published in The Devil’s Dictionary:

    DECALOGUE, n. A series of commandments, ten in number—just enough to permit an intelligent selection for observance, but not enough to embarrass the choice. Following is the revised edition of the Decalogue, calculated for this meridian.Thou shalt no God but me adore:’Twere too expensive to have more.No images nor idols makeFor Robert Ingersoll to break.Take not God’s name in vain; selectA time when it will have effect.Work not on Sabbath days at all,But go to see the teams play ball.Honor thy parents. That createsFor life insurance lower rates.Kill not, abet not those who kill;Thou shalt not pay thy butcher’s bill.Kiss not thy neighbor’s wife, unlessThine own thy neighbor doth caressDon’t steal; thou’lt never thus competeSuccessfully in business. Cheat.Bear not false witness—that is low—But “hear ’tis rumored so and so.”Cover thou naught that thou hast notBy hook or crook, or somehow, got.G.J.

    1. Sorry – all the line break formatting got lost. Here it is in more readable form:

      DECALOGUE, n. A series of commandments, ten in number—just enough to permit an intelligent selection for observance, but not enough to embarrass the choice. Following is the revised edition of the Decalogue, calculated for this meridian.

      Thou shalt no God but me adore:
      ‘Twere too expensive to have more.

      No images nor idols make
      For Robert Ingersoll to break.

      Take not God’s name in vain; select
      A time when it will have effect.

      Work not on Sabbath days at all,
      But go to see the teams play ball.

      Honor thy parents. That creates
      For life insurance lower rates.

      Kill not, abet not those who kill;
      Thou shalt not pay thy butcher’s bill.

      Kiss not thy neighbor’s wife, unless
      Thine own thy neighbor doth caress

      Don’t steal; thou’lt never thus compete
      Successfully in business. Cheat.

      Bear not false witness—that is low—
      But “hear ’tis rumored so and so.”

      Cover thou naught that thou hast not
      By hook or crook, or somehow, got.


  26. I do not have to ask, as all people of faith must, why an all-powerful, all-good God allows such things to happen.

    As many people have pointed out, the universe looks exactly like it would if there was no purpose. And no gods.

  27. “It is a positive blessing, not a negation of belief, to be free of what is known as the theodicy problem.”

    I had a problem with this sentence. Both with the word “blessing” and the whole idea that to be free of “the theodicy problem” is “not a negation of belief.”

    I quit believing in belief a long time ago. Decades later, Dan Dennett writes a book suggesting that belief itself is the problem. It’s impossible for theists and apparently some atheists to lose the need to believe. If something is not cognitively apparent, there is no point thinking about it. I find that I can substitute the word “think” for the word “believe” and be far more accurate in the truthfulness of the statement. After all I think all kinds of things, almost none of which I could say “I believe in”.

    Atheism has got to be the ism that isnt’. There’s nothing to believe in there, and rightfully so. It’s a definition based on the infinitely many things that I don’t believe.

  28. I’d like to live on after death, and am deeply suspicious of those who say that they don’t fear extinction.

    A few thoughts, some of which I don’t think have been entertained on this thread so far:

    1. Of course I wish I could see how the world continues.

    2. But forever? There must be an end to it, first of all because, as somebody above pointed out, we would soon become weary, and also because the universe will dissolve into an entropic soup at some point.

    3. I will see how I think if I get that far, but it does not seem so bad if one dies after a long, productive life full of diverse experiences. What I find depressing is when people die early, even as children, especially people who are close to me of course. (Or if I knew I would die soon and could not take care of my family any more.)

    4. But then the idea of the souls of two year old children appearing in the afterlife without their parents is precisely one of the things that is so sickening that annihilation seems like the nicer variant. Think about it: any rationalization that makes it non-nauseating assumes that what lives on is not really you anyway. I assume that if I were religious, that issue would trouble me greatly.

    5. A similar problem pops up with a combination of theodicy and heaven: If free will solves theodicy, that implies that either there will be evil and suffering in heaven, or alternatively that our free will is removed in heaven. Again, it would not be you that achieves the afterlife but some kind of zombie. (Any other solution to the dilemma, such as the obvious one of there not being dualist free will, must assume that god could have created a world without evil, and we are back to that problem.)

    It is not only that an afterlife might get boring after some time; it is also that it would have some pretty nasty implications once you think it through.

    1. There must be an end to it, first of all because, as somebody above pointed out, we would soon become weary…

      I don’t see how this conclusion can be justified. No human being has ever had the experience of living more than a few decades with a young, agile brain. We can’t possibly know what it feels like to live centuries or millennia in that mode. All we know is what it feels like to grow old and lose our youthful vigor. Obviously no one wants that process to go on forever. But if youth could continue indefinitely, why shouldn’t we want it?

      If I get bored with my career, I’d love to be able to spend a couple of decades mastering another. And then another, and another after that. I see no reason to suppose I would eventually grow tired of new challenges, so long as my brain remained capable of meeting them.

      1. One recalls the character in the Douglas Adams book who became immortal and spent his time insulting every sentient being in the universe in alphabetical order

      2. Can you actually master another career in the afterlife? To be able to judge it, one would have to know more about it.

        That being said, once you really try to visualize what “forever” or “eternity” mean, the conclusion appear inescapable. The thing is just that we cannot really grasp eternity anyway.

        But my point were more the unpleasant consequences of all the ideas of an afterlife that theists come up with. Either it is horrible or it is not really me anymore that survives.

        1. Sorry, I assumed (perhaps mistakenly) that as materialists we’re all agreed that the fanciful immaterial afterlives of religion are incoherent and need not be taken seriously. So any afterlife worth worrying about must involve re-embodiment of one’s memories and consciousness in some physical substrate in the real world.

          That sort of life-after-death would necessarily be a lot like life-before-death; indeed, death becomes just a minor setback not much worse than a hard disk crash (assuming one has proper backups).

          So yes, it would certainly be possible to master new careers in such an indefinitely extended life.

          Nor is “forever” much of a concern. As you say, we can’t really grasp eternity — a finite brain can’t hold infinite knowledge — so our actual experience would necessarily be focused on the present and the recent past (for some definition of “recent”), not on the overwhelming span of eons.

          I find nothing in the prospect of this sort of materialist afterlife that makes me recoil in horror or long for oblivion.

          1. Yes, indeed. If it ever becomes possible to “back up” a person’s brain state and restore it into a new body (or recreate it in a computer simulation) — and I know of no scientific law or principle that would rule this out — then we may be able to create an afterlife for ourselves. And I think most people would want to do this.

  29. Atheists must stand up instead of calling themselves freethinkers, agnostics, secular humanists or ‘spiritual, but not religious.’ …  Atheists may also be secular humanists and freethinkers — I answer to all three — but avoidance of identification with atheism confines us to a closet that encourages us to fade or be pushed into the background when tragedy strikes.

    Well, I can see the sense in this. This gels with the motivation and reasoning behind the Out Campaign.

    I have no qualms about the fact that I am an atheist (in the “strong” sense!) or about saying so. But my conviction that God doesn’t exist (any more than the luminiferous aether does) doesn’t say anything about what I do believe, so, if asked about my “religious beliefs”, I’d generally say that I am a humanist. I also describe myself as a philosophical naturalist (which most lay-people don’t understand! & just “naturalist” gives the wrong idea), freethinker, sceptic (with a “c”!) and secularist – a pretty full non-believer bingo card! (Although, of course, you can be religious and a secularist.)

    Without going down a rat-hole that Ceiling Cat might disapprove of, I think that one of the notions behind Atheism+ is a reconciliation of these ideas; firstly, to be out about being an atheist and very clearly so; and second, to indicate that there is more to one’s worldview than simply not believing in any god (a set of values which is not dissimilar to humanism).


    1. Oh, and regarding attitudes to death, I’m largely with Epicurus: “When a man dies, he does not feel the pain of death because he no longer is and he therefore feels nothing. Therefore, as Epicurus famously said, ‘death is nothing to us.’ When we exist death is not, and when death exists we are not. All sensation and consciousness ends with death and therefore in death there is neither pleasure nor pain. The fear of death arises from the belief that in death there is awareness.” [quote from Wp, not directly from E!]

      But still the thought now of no longer being with and being able to care for those I love, and no longer being able to do the things I love, causes me… well, not sadness as such; more a profound frustration.


      1. I have life insurance for a hefty sum. The thought that when I die my children will be provided for is a great consolation.

  30. JC: “I’d like to live on after death, and am deeply suspicious of those who say that they don’t fear extinction.”

    Well, I think every rational person fears extinction in terms of experiencing their death. But I take it you are talking about
    ever dying – desire for an afterlife, for the self to continue forever.

    I am made uncomfortable, even alarmed by the idea of eternal life. I’m fine with there being an end to my life. And I absolutely LOVE life.

    I suppose it may have come from first putting serious contemplation into the concept of eternal torment in Hell – a fear originally put into me by attending a Baptist church during a time in childhood.
    The torments of Hell were frightening in of themselves. Later, reading descriptions of Hell in Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man, the most mind expanding portion for me was Father Arnall’s attempt to open the mind to just what “eternity” means. That, and my own contemplations, gave “eternity” an extremely sinister connotation.

    Perhaps that is what sticks with me when I contemplate eternal life, even one that is not in a hell. It’s the idea of never..absolutely NEVER being able to “get off the ride,” even if you want to. Sort of akin to the right-to-death issue, where I’d much prefer to have the option to have my life ended if I were in some terminal or never-able-to-recover state of being an invalid. It’s not that I relish the idea of dying…but not having the CHOICE is unsettling.

    Similarly, having contemplated just what “eternity” means, so far as my mind can barely grasp it, it registers in a somewhat overwhelming, sinister, no-choice-ever way to me – disorientating, like looking down into a pit that goes on forever.

    So, even if I could start to say things like “Well, imaging an eternity of bliss”…then it’s hard to imagine the actual “me” in there, since I and no one I have known has experienced any such steady state. It’s more like an intellectual exercise, rather than an actual urge, and again…that “eternity” part still doesn’t sit right.

    Further, being an atheist and having long accepted the normal arc and finality of human life, I have not bothered spending my time WISHING for some afterlife. So asking me “Don’t you desire an afterlife?” doesn’t really resonate with any actual active desire for one. I could talk about it as an intellectual exorcise, and theorize about how I MIGHT feel in such and such a situation. But am I sitting here pining for something “beyond the grave?”



    1. Your last point is especially worth emphasizing. When I hear nonbelievers say “they wish they could believe” I find it very strange (if they’re telling the truth, which I think they often aren’t). Do I miss Santa Claus? C’mon! Do I miss not believing in God? Of course not – the entire concept strikes me as ridiculous and it doesn’t get any less so the older I get. Do I desire an afterlife? Taking the question seriously is difficult to do. It is as if I were asked , “Do you regret that I can’t soar through the galaxy like the Silver Surfer?” I just can’t take it seriously.

    2. Well thought and expressed, I agree completely. As I’ve stated previously, I’d like to continue living for a few centuries more through scientific progress, both out of human curiosity and because evolution has kind of programmed my brain to avoid dying.

      But that’s not what the concept of ”afterlife” is about. It would be something very different, possibly enjoyable, possibly excruciating. Even a remote chance of an eternal tornment (the muslims are certain all of us unfidels are heading for that) is too horrible. So I find it strange that anyone would find the prospect comforting.

  31. Ingersoll, my all-time hero! Somme 55 years ago Ingersoll’s writings changed my mind and my whole life. Those who came later – Russell, Dawkins, Hitchens, Sagan, et al – merely cemented what Ingersoll had shouted from the rooftops to a hostile uninformed world more than a century ago.

    1. I too read Ingersoll before the New Atheists. His articles on were very refreshing. He was quite prolific too.

  32. From Susan Jacoby’s article:

    It is a positive blessing, not a negation of belief, to be free of what is known as the theodicy problem.

    These are some of the issues I wished Jacoby had hammered home more in the article.
    One’s I often bring up to believers and people “on the fence” but worried about what life without religion may bring.

    It’s similar to the issue: “How can we be good without God?” Religious and even secular people have used that as a “problem” to solve, whereas the very presumption in the question itself: that if God existed, He would be a good basis for morality, needs uprooting.

    Similarly, “How will we face things like death without the comfort of religion?” seems to be a “problem” that, sadly, even many secular people fall in line as accepting outright the premise that religion IS such a comfort.

    We need to point out is that this is not so obvious. Nothing is for free. The psychic burdens of religion have been just so long part of culture many have a blind spot, and it’s only when many people shed their religion that we often see a joy for burdens having finally been lifted. Over and over in deconversion stories the end result is not usually people being plunged into existential angst, but rather of having veils lifted from eyes, weights of questions, insoluble puzzles, theodocies, fitting square pegs into round holes, being lifted, and a joy and excitement coming from all of this. Of seeing the world how it is. Religious people carry burdens of their belief they have simply accepted and don’t even see as liabilities UNTIL they are free of them. Belief in an afterlife is often attached to many such burdens.

    I find claims of it’s comfort appear greatly exaggerated, as if people are trying to convince themselves they have or will find comfort in their religion. Does believing in God really LOOK like it stops the anguish of believers? It sure as hell doesn’t to me: look at the wild states of anguish you see from mothers and fathers in Islamic countries, from Jewish parents, from Christian parents when tragedy strikes their children. They are as anguished as any secular person I’ve ever seen. But in many cases, ADDED to the anguish is the further mental anguish of “Why…Why did God cause/allow this to happen?” It’s not for nothing that after every major catastrophe, the typical minister/preacher/religious potentate’s first duty seems to be to address this worry to the flock.

    And even if you take the most blithe forms of religious spiritual belief, I doubt it’s real-world advantages over clear thinking. My mother is the perfect example of a “cafeteria Christian,” selecting only the most comforting aspects of a “loving God” and an “afterlife” and never worrying about logic or theodicies. My father passed away in middle age and my mother still thinks he can still “be there” hanging around, hearing her at certain times. Whereas my father in law is an atheist. Both his first and then second wife died of cancer – ovarian and then brain cancer. He was as devoted to their bed side as any husband could be, but when they were gone he understood “That’s it. That is how life can work. Time to move on.” He now is many years into a great relationship with another woman and at age 79 just got his physics degree at university! I only hope I could do old age like this man has done it. So my father in law orients his attitude to how reality actually works and seems no worse off for it whatsoever – in fact thrives. My mother may ASSUMED that her belief in an afterlife was the only way she could have coped with my father’s passing. But whose to say if she wouldn’t have made out just as well or better, had she my father in law’s orientation to reality? Religious people always ASSUME “without my faith I wouldn’t have made it through this,” but they don’t know it. People without faith get through the same situations people with faith live through. (Look at mostly secular societies vs religious – are the secular ones in more anguish over daily issues, or those of life and death? Not that I see).

    So this assumption that, in terms of a person’s psychological well being, accepting a fantasy of an afterlife somehow automatically trumps a realistic take on the world is an assumption that needs to be rejected itself. Just like atheists point out that it was wrong in the first place to assume God would have made a good foundation for morality, we need to show why belief in an afterlife, and religion itself, is not some all good, consequences-free trump card religion has over atheism.

    There are always costs.


    1. ^^^^
      I shoulda probably just submitted the second last two paragraphs instead of the whole thing. *kicks self*. Sorry.


      1. No, the whole thing was excellent. The notion that religion provides comfort is something that has been sold like snake oil to believers and, unfortunately, many non-believers as well. I think that the whole fear of death thing is a religion-based exaggeration. There are likely many people who would likely not fear death – at least not to the degree that they do – were it not for religion. The only thing frightening about ones own extinction – aside from the probable painful process of dying – is the contemplation of the pain that it will cause those one leaves behind, and that’s not so much fear as it is sadness.

        I personally think those who – on an intellectual level, not on an irrational adrenalin-induced at-the-moment-of-impending death level – fear their own extinction are just…weird. What’s to fear about not being?

        Really, Vaal, your posts on this thread have been nothing short of excellent, essential even.

  33. I’m late to the party, but wanted to share this video I just watched. I was reminded of it by this statement,

    “let’s do away with all the euphemisms for “atheist” and call ourselves what we really are. Forget the pabulum word “agnostic,” or meaningless arguments about how it differs from “atheist.”

    Brother Sam Singleton Atheist evangelist has some words for those that eschew the title Atheist. He’s quite pointed but funny. PZ calls him “The only honest evangelist”.

    1. Ahh, poop. Wrong link above. Oh well, go to his UToob channel to see “Gimme an A”. It’s the video I tried to share.

      I haven’t read Jacoby, but its on my list as soon as I finish “Did man create God?” Thanks for suggestion.

  34. Jacoby is a terrific writer. But does she object to people calling themselves agnostic? And does she think agnostic is a pablum word even though Ingersoll was known as the great agnostic?

    Call me agnostic, atheist, non-theist, non-believer, secularist, humanist, secular humanist. It doesn’t matter much. Any way you look at it, I don’t believe in what theists preach about “God.”

  35. Good article – got me thinking about the quote from Stephen Weinberg – That it takes religion for good people to do bad or evil things. I am not sure I agree with this anymore – the crux of my problem being “When does someone become Bad/evil?”

    If someone had evil thoughts, like killing tens of people, but never actualised these thoughts, are they bad or evil. Take for instance the recent spate of mass shootings in the US and England, etc. Where the perpetrators of these acts bad or evil before they carried out their hideous acts? Could they have been classed as good citizens or is there a special class for such people who for all intends and purposed are living normal lives and then in a moment of gross insanity unleash unimagineable acts of violence upon their communities. Case in point, the Cumbria Killer, Derrick Bird, who in 2010 killed 12 and injured 11. He did not seem to have any religious motivation for his act and he seem to have been a good citizen before he committed this act. Or was he a bad and evil person even before he committed the act? Is is morally right to class people as good/evil just from the sorts of thoughts going through their minds?

  36. You have convinced me. I now choose to delude myself and believe in an afterlife. It makes me feel better already.

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