Atheism is nothing more than a commitment to the most basic standard of intellectual honesty: One’s convictions should be proportional to one’s evidence. Pretending to be certain when one isn’t—indeed, pretending to be certain about propositions for which no evidence is even conceivable—is both an intellectual and a moral failing. (Sam Harris, 2005)
I really don’t like to spend over an hour each morning criticizing poorly-argued essays against New Atheism written by atheists. But I’ll do so if they appear on a reputable site or, if, as in this case, they make arguments that are seemingly novel. What’s annoying about David V. Johnson’s piece, “A refutation of the undergraduate atheists“, is that it appears on 3 Quarks Daily, a site that I thought was science friendly and dedicated to rational thought. The site had garnered a lot of prizes for its science and philosophy content. And though its writers have gone after me several times for my anti-accommodationism and other “philosophical errors”, I saw those pieces as Quirks rather than Quarks.
But Johnson’s piece, which accuses New Atheists of practicing what he calls the “Undergraduate Atheists’ Thesis” (UAT), sets a new low for the site. (Johnson is described as “the online opinion editor for Al Jazeera America. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Stanford University.”)
In a nutshell, Johnson, who describes himself as an “atheist raised Catholic” is espousing the theory of Belief in Belief. He himself doesn’t believe, but he thinks that New Atheists are making a huge mistake by criticizing those who do. We are, he says, guilty of the UAT, characterized as follows:
Humanity would be better off without religious belief.
Johnson then tells us why the UAT is a bad argument:
This view — call it the Undergraduate Atheists’ Thesis (UAT) — asks us to compare two different lines of human history, one in which the vast majority of human beings have held and continue to hold religious beliefs, and one in which they haven’t and don’t. Their argument is that the world will be better off in the latter scenario.
I am an atheist who was raised Catholic and, like Lazaro, I am also someone who frets about the public’s general lack of scientific understanding. Yet I am deeply skeptical of UAT.
First, demonstrating the truth of UAT would require an enormous calculation of the two competing scenarios. It demands that we add up all the good and bad consequent on human beings being religious, from the beginning to the end of human history, and all the good and bad consequent on human beings not being religious. We are then supposed to compare the two totals and see which version of human history winds up better.
My impression of UAT advocates is that they think it obvious that human beings would be better off without religion. Their typical mode of argument suggests this. They tend to argue by piling up a litany of anecdotes that, in total, suggest such a massive sum of evil from religion that it tips the scales so strongly toward the negative that a more careful weighing is unnecessary. But I remain unconvinced. In fact, I suspect the scales might tip the other way.
Why?. . . The psychological consequences of religious faith — the deep satisfaction, reduction of existential anxiety and feeling of security and meaning it provides — would represent an enormous and underappreciated part of the calculation. Imagine the billions of believers that have lived, live now, or will live, and consider what life is like for them from the inside. Consider the tremendous boon in happiness for all of them in knowing, in the way a believer knows, that their lives and the universe are imbued with meaning, that there is a cosmic destiny in which they play a part, that they do not suffer in vain, that their death is not final but merely a transition to a better existence. This mental state is, I submit, so important to human happiness that people are willing to suffer and die for it, and do so gladly. . .
Under the comparative scenario on which UAT rests, we are to imagine, as far as we are able, a course of human history without religious belief. This is exceedingly difficult to do, since religion is nearly universal across cultures. Yes, in this alternate universe, there would be no religious wars — but I suspect there would be wars. There would be no superstition — but I suspect there would be nonsense and folly all the same. But what this universe would lack is the ability of human beings to have religious faith and reap its subjective psychological benefits. I submit that this would be a huge net negative for humanity, even if we granted that the religious universe would have more war, more intolerance and more folly than the non-religious one — something I’m not willing to grant.
Johnson then blithely informs us, apparently ignorant of the fact that many “strident” atheists were once quite religious, that he Knows Better because he was once a believer:
As someone who knows what it’s like from the inside to be a believer, I suspect that I’m better able to appreciate this point than the undergraduate atheists, who perhaps never grew up as part of a faith. For them, the only thing worth calculating is the objective consequences of religious superstition. But that would represent a gross error.
This is dreadful, dreadful stuff: an argument that hasn’t been thought through fully.
First of all, Johnson makes a calculation, too: a calculation that humanity is better off with religion than without it because faith has provided a “deep satisfaction, a reduction of existential anxiety and feeling of security and meaning it provides.” He doesn’t show that this “solace” outweighs all the psychological misery inflicted by religious dogma, but simply presumes that the net results are positive. Moreover, how does he know that, considering just psychological well-being and leaving aside wars, inquisitions, crusades, and so on, that religion has been a net good? Many religions operate on fear and guilt, and create a morality underlain by those emotions. Are Catholics really happier with their Catholicism than they would be without it? Yes, many people embrace religion for psychological reasons, but more often than not they don’t choose their faith but are raised believing it. It may provide “solace” simply because it’s the familial and social framework in which people were raised. If they were raised by atheists, would they be psychologically unstable? (Johnson apparently thinks so: see below).
Are Muslim women, oppressed as they are, really happier than they would be without Islam? Surely many of them feel stifled, unable to achieve their potential, and resent their status as wombs on legs. Perhaps their “psychological solace” comes from living the only life they know. And of course the many people who are dead because of religion, say, the 3000 people killed in the World Trade Center massacre, or the thousands of Muslims killed by Muslims from other sects, have no chance of psychological well being at all. How do you weigh the solace of Islam against the nonexistence of people killed by Muslims, or the misery of their families and friends?
Johnson also fails to consider that the delusional consolations of religion, whatever they may be, may be an excuse for people to avoid taking action in this life to better their lot—or the lot of others. If all will be set right in the next life, then why bother? That is not just a speculation, but the guiding philosophy of the Catholic Church, which makes a fetish and a virtue of suffering, most prominently instantiated in Mother Teresa, who wouldn’t even relieve the pain of terminal patients because, she believed, they were experiencing the suffering of Jesus. Mother Teresa in fact said, as quoted in Hitchens’s The Missionary Position, “I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people.”
Further, there are societies that are largely nonreligious and as good as or better than religious America: the countries of northern Europe like Denmark, France, Germany. Nonbelievers there, including those who are atheists or believe in only a “spirit or life force” but not a personal God, run from 50%-80% (58% in the UK), while the figure in America is just 18%. But I defy Johnson to say that Americans are better off than the French or the Danes. Where, oh where, do those nonbelievers find consolation, and why aren’t their countries dysfunctional, riddled with angst and malaise? It is simply wrong to claim that people need religion for their psychological well being. After all, Johnson doesn’t, and neither do most of us—and about 70% of Scandinavians.
Johnson claims that the UAT is dispositive against atheism:
Note that I do not need to secure agreement with the conclusion that humanity with religion is better off than without. All I need to put UAT in doubt is the consideration that a full investigation into its truth would require calculating not only all the good and bad objective consequences of religious belief versus the good and bad of a world without belief — wars, intolerance, violence, etc. — but also the subjective psychological consequences of human beings with religious belief versus humans without.
Well, yes, it’s hard to make those calculations, but we know that now, in the age of science and reason, that countries and people can do perfectly well without the crutch of faith. We may not have the theory, but we have the data, and those data come from the “experiments” of Northern Europe, plus the palpable positive correlation across countries (and across states) between religiosity and social dysfunctionality. Granted, a correlation doesn’t prove causation, but other studies suggest that social dysfunction is indeed, as Marx realized, one cause of religiosity. That suggests that the consolation brought by religion stems from a dissatisfaction with life in uncongenial societies, and a vain hope that God will help you. Well, God may make you feel a bit better, but he’s not going to improve your lot, and belief in Him weakens peoples’ drive to improve the situation of themselves and others.
Religion perpetuates social dysfunctionality, itself a cause of psychological distress. What religion does is give you a crutch when you’re crippled. That’s better than not having a crutch, but it doesn’t necessarily make you better off than those who can walk on their own. And of course humans can walk on their own: look at us, look at northern Europeans, look at the many people, like Dan Barker or Jerry DeWitt, who have abandoned their faith and live happy and fulfilled lives. Those people have made the psychological calculation suggested by Johnson, but gotten the opposite answer.
Perhaps the most odious of Johnson’s arguments is his suggestion that world populated mostly by unbelievers, lacking any drive toward religion (he calls its inhabitants “Dawkinsians”) would be a world completely different from the one we know, for nonbelievers aren’t fully human. I kid you not:
What would it be like, from the inside, to be a Dawkinsian in a world of fellow Dawkinsians? To be a human-like creature, but to be satisfied with the rational belief that there is no God, no ultimate meaning or goodness to the universe, no life after death, and so on. Would Dawkinsians dread their own deaths? Would they have any capacity for mystical feeling? Would they suffer existential angst? Would they worry about the ultimate grounds of good and evil? If they did, then they would likely be worse off, I submit, than a world of human beings with religion. If they didn’t, then Dawkinsians are a species that is so unlike ours that it’s not a fair comparison.
The curious thing is that Johnson himself is such a person: he’s an atheist! But he’s also a diehard Believer in Belief. (I’ve found that atheists most sympathetic to religion tend to be ex-religionists.) As reader Sastra once pointed out, this is a profoundly hypocritical and condescending pose. It says, “I don’t see evidence for a god and have therefore discarded my belief; and I can function fine without it. But the others—the Little People—well, they must have their faith. Without it they would psychologically disintegrate.”
Johnson is a hypocrite. What he sees as the rational stance is one that, he thinks, is incapable of being embraced by everyone else. But I disagree, for I think that people can live with the truth, just as nonbelievers can learn to live with the truth that they are mortal on this planet and that this life is all we have. How can one possibly urge one’s fellows to live under a delusion? How can that be good for society? Although Johnson won’t be so crass to say it, he is arguing that societal atheism should be rejected because there are substantial arguments to be made for allowing—indeed, urging—one’s fellows to believe in something false.
As a scientist and believer in the value of reason, I think that in virtually every circumstance of life—save rare cases like the “dying religious grandmother”—it’s better to know the truth than pretend to know something you don’t. That means suspending belief in gods in the absence of evidence for them—in other words, becoming an a-theist, and not pretending that there’s a specific kind of God who prescribes specific ways of life. As George Smith said in his superb but little-read book, Atheism: The Case Against God (read it!):
“It is my firm conviction that man has nothing to gain, emotionally or otherwise, by adhering to a falsehood, regardless of how comfortable or sacred that falsehood may appear. Anyone who claims on the one hand, that he is concerned with human welfare, and who demands, on the other hand, that man must suspend or renounce his use of reason, is contradicting himself. There can be no knowledge of what is good for man apart from knowledge of reality and human nature—and there is no manner in which this knowledge can be acquired except through reason. To advocate irrationality is to advocate that which is destructive to human life.” (p. x)
The cherry on Johnson’s hot-ordure sundae is the common but false contention that atheists, like religious fundamentalists, are dogmatic in their beliefs:
Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, and their followers have something remarkably in common with religionists: they claim to know something (UAT) that cannot, in fact, be known and must be accepted on faith. The truth is that we cannot know what humanity would be like without religious belief, because humanity in that scenario would be so much unlike us that it would be impossible to determine what it would be like in that alternate universe. Their inability to acknowledge the immense calculation that would be required is unscientific. Their conclusion is as intolerant and inimical to the liberal tradition as the ranting of any superstitious windbag.
But the alternative universe already exists: it’s called Northern Europe. And Johnson is just as fundamentalist in this respect as the atheists he decries, for he claims to know that the “immense psychological benefits” conferred by faith outweigh the psychological burdens imposed by faith. He has done a calculation!
Really, just think of the psychological debility inflicted by, say Catholicism: an overweening and constant sense of guilt (especially if you’re gay), a recurring fear that you may sin and must expatiate those sins, and that you’ll fry forever if you don’t, the inability to get pleasure by masturbating or having sex at will, the inability to divorce someone with whom you’re no longer compatible, and so on. And what about the psychological “well being” of Islamic women? Is that a real well being, or an illusion they’ve adopted from their upbringing, their imams, and the males in their society?
Johnson’s essay is about the most blatant statement of Belief in Belief I’ve seen, and, sadly, it comes from an atheist. Other names for such a stand are Condescension and Hypocrisy. It’s the idea that we must never raise doubts in the minds of the Little People, for they can’t handle the same reasons that made Johnson (and many of us) abandon religion.
222 thoughts on “One more attack on New Atheism from an atheist who should know better”
Reblogged this on Stooshie's Blog.
I think the most offensive thing in his article is the term “UAT”, a complete ad hominem!
How would he like it if Coyne had referred to his ‘belief in belief’ as ‘the childish belief in belief’ or ‘stupid faith’, it doesn’t do anyone favours to slip in sarcastic personal attacks into your arguments.
Exactly, right from the get go he starts condescending as if to say, “oh you think religion is bad, how quaint. Here, let me tell you the right way of thinking because I am smarter than you and can understand things more fully”.
The establishment of that one phrase as it sets up Johnson as the gnostic pedagogue and we, the pitiful learners, argues completely from authority (and badly at that). I find it amusing that Johnson starts off saying the premise that a world without religion would be a better one as incalculable and therefore unproveable, then goes on to attempt to prove the opposite (mostly through ad hominems).
It bothers me for a different reason. I work in IT, and when I see UAT I automatically think “User Acceptance Testing”.
LOL I actually thought that too (I’m also in IT). 🙂
moi aussi heh heh
I quite agree. I picture the author simpering away with his friends: “Dawkinsians are sooo sophomoric. So pedestrian. And so unbecoming in their failure to comport with my sophisticated, liberal sensibilities.” Ick.
“Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, and their followers have something remarkably in common with religionists:”
Interesting how those who attack the New Atheists from a “philosophical” perspective always seem to miss off Dennett from that list…
That’s the thing about philosophers – they’re allowed to omit confounding data.
Because Dennett is smarter.
Since Dan Dennett advocats for a world where religion is reduced to the status of hobby, I’m forced to conclude that you don’t really know the views of the people you assess. And I am forced to wonder (again) what the point of your condescension is. It is embarrassing to watch.
… or to the status of a shameful vice, like smoking
College Dropout’s Belief Thesis, CDBT?
So does Johnson really think that “new” atheists haven’t considered the subjective aspects of doing without religion, and, further, that atheists don’t already know from personal first-hand experience what it is like subjectively to be without religion? Does he really think that?
[PS, Jerry, not sure your link to the piece points to the right place.]
I caught that link error and fixed it. Thanks.
So it appears you didn’t read either article.
Oops. That was a response to David Johnson below.
No, that they underrate it when they claim that humanity would be better off w/o religion, esp. about people in the past.
Well, certainly the people, especially women, who’ve been vilified, tortured and murdered in the name of religion throughout history would agree with you.
That wasn’t what Johnson said. He said they erroneously rate it.
The problem with that claim is that it is itself erroneous, see the article.
Which is funny, because I see you may be the writer to one of them.
If so, a clearer writing may be needed.
So often reading your posts I think – “Yes, & what about ‘x'”, only to see you cover it in the next paragraph.
“the delusional consolations of religion, whatever they may be, may be an excuse for people to avoid taking action in this life to better their lot” – exactly what I thought when I started reading.
As someone who was brought up with religion, had it every day as a chorister, yet never believed it, I think I can understand what religious belief is all about & how absurd it is when you stop & think about it.
The world would be better off if it appreciated the truth of things.
David Johnson is not so sure of that.
Yeah, that was the big gaping hole for me too. Net social positive or net social negative, theism still appears to be wrong.
There is ethical and social value in not misleading people when they have a wrong belief. It goes against the golden rule, for one thing: unless you are volunteering to be the one lied to for the greater good of society, you shouldn’t be volunteering anyone else for that position.
Neither is Nietzche, FWIW.
“reduction of existential anxiety”
This is unadulterated horseshit. The very edifice of religious submission intensifies disorganized attachment, anxiety, unstable identity, and the inability to cope with impermanence. Freud and Albert Ellis got it right.
If that were true, amazing that it has lasted so long, don’t you think?
It’s lasted so long because the many who’ve tried to make truth claims and demands for evidence have been stigmatized and marginalized, at best, for centuries.
Philosophers such as yourself have given the perpetrators a wave-off, because believing in belief makes the religious happy.
That’s the problem with accommodating philosophers like you. You think the fee-fees of the religious are more important than truth and reality.
Philosophers. Almost as useless Catholic bishops.
Almost as amazing as how long monarchy, patriarchy, slavery, ignorance of the true causes of disease, and war have lasted. Clearly, these are all gardens of human delight just beneath the superficial surface, otherwise we wouldn’t have held onto them for so long.
As an evolutionary adaptation, our brains absorb everything adults tell us as truth in our first few years of life. This is why religion has lasted so long.
I think in all cases knowing the truth is better than believing a falsehood, even if that truth is unpleasant. In knowing the truth that we only have one life we can make the most of it and not put off our potential for the afterlife.
Date: Tue, 10 Dec 2013 14:15:47 +0000 To: email@example.com
Quite right. Only for Johnson one must not say so, because that might upset those who like to walk in the fog of ignorance. Reminds me I had a short sighted friend who used to say sometimes she liked to delay putting in contact lenses in the morning because the world seemed to be a dreamier sort of place (paraphrasing her).
The point being rationalism is like a corrective pair of specs to filter out the nonsense & bring clarity to what we see & how we see it..
But at least your friend knew she was deliberately fuzzing the world. No harm in that.
Same way I like to watch Doctor Who more than docos on depressing subjects like global warming. I know global warming is real and the Doctor isn’t (though I suppose there may be just a few weird TV fans who lose the distinction…) but it’s nice to escape for a while.
But I’m not aware of any faith-heads who say “Okay, I’m going to believe in Jesus just for the next half hour or so because it makes me feel good”. You’re either stuck with it or you’re not.
That may be true for you, but is it true for everyone? Unamuno’s story raises that question very effectively.
I don’t know Unamuno’s story but for every scenario that I can come up with knowing the truth is better than not.
Johnson is saying that as long as some people feel good about religion, that offsets all the cruelty and evil that it has spawned.
Now who is being sophomoric, even childish in his thinking.
No, I am not saying that. I am saying that it is a relevant consideration and far weightier than you give credit.
HOLD ON NOW.
Many–if not most–atheists would agree that religion helped to bring our civilizations through difficult times–even if it was itself responsible for so much bloodletting. But it has now served its purpose; we cannot, in good conscience, BELIEVE in its fundamental assertions, given what we now understand of our physical reality. (That religions codified natural human morality to serve their own narratives is a separate issue.)
As we look to the future, and as scientific knowledge, intellectual scrutiny and critical thinking prove themselves by exploding measures each day, there is no place for folklore except as universal moral allegories.
Many–if not most–atheists would agree that religion helped to bring our civilizations through difficult times
I have no idea what you mean by that. Could you please explain?
I think the question is, in the absence of rational inquiry, in our distant past when the only explanations for the world could be nothing but untestable assertions, would humans have been better off without organized religion? That’s unlikely because any explanation would be some form of religion. Controlling that dialog was simply a way of asserting authority, but it would have happened one way or another.
It’s only with the emergence of science in the last several centuries that we have a better choice. So this whole argument is inapplicable to times before that.
How are we to know that the difficult times weren’t a consequence of faith in Jeebus? If that was the case it seems circular to praise faith as a vaccine. Even if christianity was helpful in some way, I think non- superstitious tools would have been a better choice and would have resulted in a better outcome.
I’ll meet you halfway – maybe a little more than halfway. I will agree that even if religion has served a useful purpose in the past, it has outlived its usefulness.
and that is more important than the question of whether it has had a positive effect throughout history.
Now, I don’t agree “that religion helped to bring our civilizations through difficult times”. I think that religion has probably hindered the advancement of civilization, but I think that defending that proposition is considerably less important that advancing the proposition that, going forward, we would be better off if religion were abandoned as part of the childhood of our species.
The “The world would be better off” argument again? People who aspire to scholarship should really avoid starting arguments with logical fallacies, like the Appeal to Consequences used here. Just sayin’….
Solace? Before becoming an atheist I would sometimes lie awake at night because of the terror that death would hold for me as the result of a traditional catholic education. Never happens any more. Sure, death still holds some discomfort, mainly at the prospect of a painful one, but I accept it as a part of living. I think Johnson might be hedging his bets: when the theocrats in the future drag him from his house to burn him at the stake, one of them might be kind enough to give him a painless death by putting a bullet in his head.
Yeah, ironically, it always seems to me that many theists are much more unhappy and fearful. They’re continually worrying about whether their faith is strong enough, whether they’re really doing what God wants, and what about their deaths? They seem to have more existential anxiety (or just anxiety): what will happen when they die, what does it all mean? Why don’t they have more meaning in their lives?
They never seem to feel that they’re good enough, and always have to try harder. I literally never think about it, am quite carefree.
I don’t care about dying, though I would prefer not to suffer a lot beforehand. The only thing I regret is that I won’t be able to satisfy my endless curiosity: what will happen next? What will be the next scientific, literary, artistic achievements? How will humanity advance next towards rationality and morality?
But it’s not worth living forever to find out. After a long life, people need a rest.
Why, indeed, don’t they have more meaning and peace in their lives?
I think this is one reason they fear atheism so much. They know how little meaning, peace, and so on they currently have with religion and imagine that giving up religion means abandoning even what little meaning and peace that they have. It is not the fear of a rich man worrying about losing his mansion, it is the fear of a poor man worrying about losing his shabby coat.
It is always the central con of religion that all good things flow from it: beauty, love, peace, meaning. Many people who come to doubt specific claims of their religion (e.g. that there was a global flood, or Jesus was raised from the dead) without coming to doubt the deeper con that religion is the source of beauty, love, peace, meaning, etc.
“At least you believe /something/!” (actually said to an atheist in my presence — the ‘agnosticism is better than “nothing”‘ argument
Yup. Is Johnson really tolerant and supportive of what he thinks the masses need or is he a simply a coward who in bowing down to irrationality hopes he will save his own arse?
Lovely rebuttal and some exceedingly wonderful Coynisms:
“I saw those pieces as Quirks rather than Quarks.”
“Surely many of them feel stifled, unable to achieve their potential, and resent their status as wombs on legs.”
“The cherry on Johnson’s hot-ordure sundae is the common but false contention that atheists, like religious fundamentalists, are dogmatic in their beliefs.”
Keep it up, babe. 🙂
Often when I read the Bible growing up, I’d come across yet another instance of God’s capricious and cruel nature. The Bible made it impossible for me to feel like I could possibly gain entry to Heaven–even if I did everything possible right, a single wayward thought (such as the one that prevented Moses from ever seeing the Promised Land) could easily sink me to the deepest pits of hell.
I became so much happier when my belief in god dropped away at age 20. It is much more straightforward to worry about the direct consequences of my own actions on other people, as opposed to always fretfully looking over my shoulder to assess the possible mood of an arbitrary arbiter of final judgement.
I used to get sent to Sunday School and I felt kinda guilty because I didn’t really believe any of it and I thought I really ought to. I still remember the sense of relief when I worked out (at about the age of 13) that if, as I suspected, none of it was true, then *it didn’t matter* in the slightest whether I believed it or not.
My first minor triumph of logic, or cynicism.
It seems many people figure out the god thing is false when they are about 12 or 13. I wonder if the brain undergoes some sort of development at that time.
Puberty can wreak havoc on authority figures…maybe it’s the hormones. 🙂
There are serious emotional quagmires even in the so-called benign religions which lack belief in hell or judgements. The idea that “everything happens for a reason” is a double-edged sword in times of crisis. Although one is offered the proverbial Happy Ending, this comes at a heavy price: you must reinterpret pain and suffering as being not random — but deliberate.
It wasn’t a mistake, an accident, blind chance, or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. No, the awful thing that has happened to you — or, worse, to those you love — was deliberately and knowingly inflicted by Someone or Something it is YOUR TASK to love and trust. And it was done for your own good. Accept with a smile.
Not everyone finds this comforting. Not everyone welcomes the challenge. What to an atheist is impersonal is personal to the believer. It’s the distinction between a tumble over a slippery, windy cliff and being PUSHED.
Is it always easier to accept murder over accident if you’re reassured that the goal is a good one? What if you’re simultaneously reminded that your life on earth isn’t supposed to matter much?
Spirituality isn’t a bed of roses either. There are dark issues the atheists avoid.
Definitely. I can’t express what a relief it is to see random things as random. I don’t have to look for some meaning or justice in an earthquake or a disease.
And the toll of wading through a reality that doesn’t fit your doctrines and beliefs is pretty high too. Trying to force yourself to believe something that is obviously false creates a sort of constant state of unpleasant dissonance.
Of course, I was also raised with the terror Hell and that was a dreadful kind of abuse. To say that people would be better off with that is to say they would be better off being submitted to a bit of torture as children.
Is it possible that someone is better off with religion? Sure. Is it possible that humanity is better off? I guess it’s possible, but it seems exceedingly unlikely.
We get the “you can’t prove it isn’t true” argument all the time and it always makes me laugh. I combat it by explaining that we can’t ever know anything is 100% true, because you would have to know that there was no way for you to have been fooled, which means you would have to be all-knowing. However, we claim to “know” something when we believe the probability of it being true is virtually 1.
When people tell me that I cannot be 100% certain that the Abrahamic god does not exist, I agree, and say however, that I am as certain of that as I am that I am here talking to you now and not just in a very lifelike dream.
A) You can’t prove there is no god!
B) How do you know I can’t? Prove it.
I’ve already had a conversation with the author in the comments at 3quarks. I attempted to concentrate on the logical structure and ignore the condescension. Luckily you can ignore the main argument in his article because his posit has not been established. He says that New Atheism’s central thesis is that the world would have been better without religion, specifically looking backwards in history (this revision is only in the comments). The authors he attempts to denigrate seem to me motivated by the religiosity of the future and make no claims about how history would have been without religion – something that we probably all agree would be impossible to measure. So until he can establish that posit (and he makes no attempt to do so) his later reasoning can be ignored.
That’s an important point.
I mean really — what would the world have been like if there had been no violence? No overweening ambition or cruelty or injustice to spur people towards discovery and achievement and improvement? Would the world have been better or worse without war and conquest and vast empires?
I think one can be against all sorts of things without having to invent an alternative reality where we reaped none of the side benefits.
Exactly. His UAT is a strawman because New Atheism is not and never was about wishing religion had never existed. It’s about opposing the pernicious effects of religion on science, education, and public policy in the present and future.
If Johnson thinks the Little People need their security blanket, fine; they can keep it — so long as they keep it to themselves.
Aside from the already mentioned problems with this article in its entirety – am I the only one who finds the use of “undergraduate” as a pejorative to be offensive? I fear that those who hold graduate degrees often find themselves devaluing a basic college education in an attempt to bolster their personal credentials. This is the exact opposite of what educators should be doing. If everyone had a chance to obtain an undergraduate degree, the world would be a far better place.
No, you’re not the only one. See, for instance, comment #2 .. 😉
Yes, I found the word “undergraduate” used as a pejorative term offensive. The fact is that lots of undergraduates are smart, and probably philosophically savvier than the average person in the world—who hasn’t had the advantage of a higher education. It’s just another example of the condescension of the piece.
Nope, I think a lot of us saw that. It’s a shame because he is basically legitimizing anti-intellectualism when he sets himself up as superior. Caste system much?
I was taking it to mean that the new atheists are ‘like’ undergraduates. They are working toward some sort of next step in how atheists should think, but have not yet achieved that step — which is that we should ‘believe in belief’, or be ‘faitheists’. Yes, it is still condescending.
I think Johnson intends for it to be perjorative. He wants to imply that Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris have immature views.
Yes… Immature is one implication, but the suggestion that he (or others) holds “graduate level” understanding is just pure appeal to authority or credentials, all wrapped up in condescension.
Yes, they are amateurs. Whereas Dennett, e.g., is a professional.
Rating ideas based on the professional qualifications of the holders of those ideas rather than on the content? Who is the undergraduate here??
Amateur what? Philosophers? So we’re arguing from authority again? You need to be a professional philosopher to consider these questions? Or are you just condescending again?
We aren’t philosophers so we have no right to proffer our opinions. Hell, we aren’t even fully human!
Indeed, and what’s worse, there seems to be no shame in thinking it. I guess we just don’t know our places, we aren’t stoic enough (oh darn, did I make a philosophical reference…I shouldn’t because I’m not a professional).
Oh, I see. Because Dennett, like you, is a philosopher and thus has special insight into what you spew. I don’t think the word ‘condescending’ even comes close to describing your attitude.
Oh boy. You just shot yourself in the foot there. With an elephant gun.
That just reeks of condescension and appeal to authority. I obviously can’t speak for Dan Dennett (wouldn’t even try) but I like to think he would be acutely embarrassed by such a naive and gauche argument.
Please, just keep firing…
How can Dawkins with his record and incisive analysis, far better than any philosophers I’ve seen, be an “amateur” atheist?
I think you mean these persons are “amateur” philosophers. Luckily atheism isn’t agnosticism or theological clams of NOMA, it is about the lack of observational evidence for an existence claim of magic (and sometimes about a lot of observational evidence against).
If the thesis being criticised is undergraduate, then that’s a primary school attempt at refutation.
I read it as a code word for “sophomoric”, which he apparently lacked the guts to say straight out.
I think he partially has a point that this is an impossible calculation, but he then oxymoronically tries to do it anyway.
He judges new atheists by their commitment to scientific rigour, but somehow fails to apply this rigour to his own arguments. What gives?
Yes, right from the beginning he contradicts himself but then again, he has set himself up as that gnostic pedagogue so maybe he thinks the calculations are impossible for everyone except him.
I give a reason for why the calculation might go the other way and admit that my bet would be on it going the other way. But be that as it may, we can’t know for sure.
You complain that the claim is unscientific and impossible to decide and simply turn around and do exactly the same.
Why should any of us listen to you when you can’t even live up to your own standards of arguments?
As a philosophical layman I think your proposed reasons are nothing but wild speculation backed up by nada evidence. Furthermore I find your lack of trust in the “masses” condescending and downright dumb.
Sophistication my arse…
What’s it like to be a “Dawkinsian”? Well, I’m quite human, have no dread of death and no existential anxiety. I don’t “worry” about the ultimate grounds of good and evil, I think about it and try to make rational conclusions. Since “mystical feeling” doesn’t seem to have any well-defined meaning, I can’t say if I have any.
And I’m doing mighty fine. Thanks for asking.
Yes the “What’s it like to be a ‘Dawkinsian’?” line of reasoning seemed to say, “How can anyone stand thinking differently than I do?”
“…even though *I* think differently than I do!”
LOL! Good one.
Damn! They’ll give a Phd to anyone these days. You nailed it down very thoroughly Jerry. Not much more to say.
One thing I’ll say though is that as I get older the more it seems to me that views, and the reasoning given to support them, like Johnson displays here seem like a serious moral failing to me. Or to put it simply, Johnson comes of as a sanctimonious prick here. Reminds me of a priest. Same mind set, same point of view. The authority figure who knows that feeding delusions to the poor fragile masses is really what’s best for them.
Notice how this implicitly requires that the poor fragile masses need to be miserable enough in the first place for the comforting delusions to have the claimed affects.
This guy clearly knows a thing or two about belief that we uneducated masses are too dumb to realize… what a douche…
Yep, this party just took a turn for the douche.
Not to be confused with douchebag according to the urban dictionary…
Lol! Where in the world did you run across that??
I’m a fan of Garfunkle & Oates. Those girls are hilarious and smart & once I found them, I watched everything they’ve done.
I live in LA (county) and have seen Garfunkel & Oates “live” twice.
I <3 LA
I’m with Merilee. That was hilarious.
Don’t forget the deep satisfaction and feeling of meaning in knowing that a large portion of humanity is going to burn in Hell for eternity. Surely that counts to the good of religion, doesn’t it?
Richard has a recent post on Is Philosophy Stupid?
Johnson’s piece could be Exhibit A. Certainly philosophy poorly done can be quite stupid.
Oops. Richard Carrier.
Doesn’t the same basic argument work for belief in Santa?
And I find it extremely odd that he thinks most atheists grew up in atheist households. I’d wager that less than 25% of adult atheists were raised that way.
Indeed. How many of them (us) suffer “existential anxiety” from our decision to leave faith? Not many, I reckon.
Honestly, I had more anxiety during the transition away from faith than I ever feel about lack of meaning, afterlife, etc. that I’m supposed to feel now. That initial rejection involved deviating from a primary tenet of the way I was raised, which is difficult no matter the strength of the evidence against it. But again, that’s just indoctrination. Nothing about that makes it good or true.
No evidence is required to reject a proposition for which there is no evidence. The responsibility of proof rests rests with the person making claims for which there is no evidence. The atheist has NO RESPONSIBILITY to provide evidence to counter a claim for which there is no evidence.
He’s arguing against the positive claim that the world would’ve been better off without religion.
He makes a claim, but offers no evidence at all. Not one iota. One could charge him with “begging the question” because his charge contains the answer. To take his premise (if he has a clearly stated one — I am not sure)seems contained in his charge. It is a little like saying “The Bible is true” because “The Bible says so”.
Trust me. I have a PhD too!!
The other claim being made is that the ‘new atheists’ make a claim about a fictional world where religion never existed.
If I could, I’d live there. But I doubt any atheists bring it up as a ‘thing’ except to defend non-belief against theists who don’t realize that people were harmed in, for example, the inquisition, Salem, the crusades, and on and on
Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, and their followers have something remarkably in common with religionists: they claim to know something (UAT) that cannot, in fact, be known and must be accepted on faith.
Only someone totally unfamiliar with Dawkins’ writings could make such a preposterous statement. Dawkins has made his position on the existence of god (as opposed to the issue of religion; the two are not necessarily the same. Consider Thomas Jefferson, a theist who rejected Christianity for instance.). Dawkins’ position is that the existence of god is a scientific proposition, subject to the same evidential claims as any other such proposition. Thus far, he has been presented with no scientific evidence for the existence of god; therefore, he has tentatively concluded, subject to reversal if such evidence should turn up, that god does not exist.
Yeah, I left a comment on his article on this specific point. Dawkins writes a book called The God Delusion, and Johnson summarizes his (Dawkins’) argument for atheism as a social consequentialist one. Uh?
Same team! But I wish you hadn’t attributed 9/11 attacks as done by a religion. The attackers were fundamentalists of a religion, but their motivations were based on prior actions by the US government.
The most convincing argument against New Atheism is attaching the movement to “Islamaphobia”. It is wrong to classify the whole of a religion by their fundamentalist fringe, though it is true that unchanging dogma can reliable produce such a fringe.
You personally know their motivations? Have you discussed this with them individually or as a group? It is a bizarre claim to say that the probably the most important part of their worldview has had no effect on their actions. I don’t think individuals work that way.
The US government isn’t entangled in the Jeebus of christianity?
That is weird because Osama Bin Laden disagreed with you, according to him his motivations for organizing and ordering the attack were purely religious in nature. I’m sure you know his motivations better than he does though.
How can it be a “convincing argument against” ‘New Atheist’ to identify the most violent religion of today?
It may be a convincing argument against accommodationism that it prohibits such analysis by concern trolling…
The world’s happiest countries are also some of the most secular.
Wow. I suppose that Johnson would want his doctors to honestly tell him when test results show that he has cancer, but purports that they should lie to other terminally ill patients so that they can feel a “deep satisfaction, a reduction of existential anxiety and feeling of security and meaning [the lie] provides.”
It doesn’t matter in what proportion religion or atheism has been beneficial in history. What matters is the future. Burning wood to cook meals has been beneficial to humankind. But we no longer do it. Wood smoke causes cancer and we now have better mothods to cook our food.
+1… There is no denying that religion is a part of what got us to where we are today, good/bad/indifferent. What is important is asking, “Is the benefit (presuming one can tease out a BENEFIT from just other effects) it used to provide still needed?”
It seems to me that finding a way to gull large groups of people into fighting to the death in support of your position, MIGHT have an impact on whether your group survives the next incursion… by a group willing to fight to the death for a belief, and so on.
So, the “power” of religion is often to promote solidarity and group action, by any means necessary. Both solidarity (loyalty?) and group cooperation can be argued as having been important in the events and achievements of the past.
But aside from condoning the establishment and maintenance of power, through lying to those you wish to control, can anyone make a positive argument for why we NEED to actively curry “loyalty” and “group action” by any means necessary in this day and age?
From the article linked,
“New research from the US and Australia shows that reducing the emissions of wood smoke in residential areas has a significant effect on the development of asthma in children, and also on mortality.”
Cancer is not mentioned at all there (as the studies reported only considered short-term effects, excluding asthma), but components of wood smoke (e.g. dioxins) are known carcinogens.
So yes, just yes.
It’s as if the press release was sponsored by the firewood industry.
Johnson’s piece is so bad that it is hardly worth discussing. I would add just one of the missing pieces in his “argument”, namely the role that (organized) religion has played in suppressing a proper debate on ethics. Just imagine if the progress in ethics since Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics had been as significant as the advances in physics since his Physics.
Just a thought.
I wonder if a lot of the ‘atheists attacking New Atheism’ arises from feelings of inadequacy felt by some philosophers and atheist theologians.
“How dare those New Atheists be loud, assertive, active and effective, when they haven’t spent years working for tenure by endlessly discussing minor details about increasingly self-referential hypotheses?”
This is a tempting position if someone was (as I was) raised in what I call “rarified religion”- very low on dogma and creedal commitments and with ethical values that I would continue to embrace today (with the exception of belief in belief).
(Bertrand Russell talks of a Christianity “purified of inessentials inherited from a barbarous age” as a consequence of its encounter with science which has now become benign- “Science and Religion” p, 247)
At that point the main comfort religion provides is a sense of grand cosmic purpose aka teleology and it can indeed be very psychologically supportive. It’s difficult to be uprooted from it.
However, like folks here, I became eventually disconcerted in the way even the best of the religious turn a blind eye to obvious faults of both New Age religion and those of militant Islam, have no answer to the problem of evil, denied that wars of religion were about religion, and multiple other problems with good sound critical thinking.
For example, one of the smartest, most ethical and inspiring Christian ministers I know has a blurb endorsing Deepak Chopra’s book on Jesus- ‘nuf said!! When I submitted an article many years ago to a prominent liberal religious publication, they refused to allow me to even mention that the 9/11 hijackers were Muslims. Referencing a recent post at WEIT: to say religion is not entirely about God has some limited credibility, to say as David Dunn did that “theology is not about God” is ridiculous.
The term “undergraduate” does grate because it is gratuitous. Even a slightly less pejorative term such as “sociologically naive” would have helped Mr. Johnson a lot (at least in my book.)
Douglass, DuBois, King and their followers have something remarkably in common with slaveowners and racists: they claim to know something that cannot, in fact, be known and must be accepted on faith. The truth is that we cannot know what humanity would be like without slavery and racism, SO STFU CIVIL RIGHTS ADVOCATES!
Johnson’s whole thing is just a defense of the status quo. With reasoning like his, we’d never change anything!
(I do wish Jerry would institute a +/- ranking system (like that found on Disqus, Hemant Mehta’s “Friendly Atheist” site being a good example), to allow great comments like this to float to the top!)
I think you misunderstood my piece.
For example, you write: “He thinks that New Atheists are making a huge mistake by criticizing those who do.”
No, I don’t think this. By all means, criticize people for believing in God. My essay focused on the general question: “Is humanity better off without religion?” And my answer is (i) that we don’t know and (ii) that the benefits of the delusion are quite strong and are an important part of the calculation.
You go on to claim: ” He doesn’t show that this “solace” outweighs all the psychological misery inflicted by religious dogma, but simply presumes that the net results are positive.”
I don’t presume anything. I’m quite explicit that I don’t know what, all things considered, the calculation would show. The point is, neither do Hitchens et al.
As for this: “Perhaps the most odious of Johnson’s arguments is his suggestion that world populated mostly by unbelievers, lacking any drive toward religion (he calls its inhabitants “Dawkinsians”) would be a world completely different from the one we know, for nonbelievers aren’t fully human.”
I think you’re misunderstanding my point. Yes, it may very well be the case that an alternate world in which everyone is like David Hume, happily denying religion, is a far better world. But it’s not a world that compares to our own. That’s it. It’s not a claim that “Dawkinsians” aren’t human. It’s a claim that a world filled with Dawkinsians isn’t similar enough to ours to serve as a reasonable basis of comparison.
So, I really think you totally misread my piece.
How can you think that believing in a false world view may be better than believing what is true?
Read my piece. Or better yet, read Unamuno’s “San Manuel Bueno, Martir.”
The way I read the story is that the sheepish people of Valverde de Lucerna, Spain can’t think for themselves and need a “philosopher king” to tell them how to behave.
I have respect for honesty and truth, even if I don’t always reach that standard.
You have respect for dishonesty and manipulation, because you think everyone but you needs it?
If there are people that are having such hardship that they need to immerse themselves in thoughts of life after death, don’t you think it might be better to find the problem and at least try to fix it instead of buttressing there delusion? And wouldn’t they be better off as well? Because life after death isn’t going to happen, it’s fraudulent.
Frankly, a better response would’ve been to clarify what you actually meant, instead of demanding that people read it again (or read something else).
For the record, the source of friction here isn’t that your point was unclear or poorly expressed or confusing – it’s that it was a mischaracterisation, an attack on a caricature, a piece of utter condescension, and wrong.
I fail to understand your fondness for this story. It’s fiction. As fiction it tells us precisely nothing about the actual world. It’d be as easy to write the same story where the town converted to happy atheists in the end, and that revised story would tell us as just much about the world: zip.
The use of this fiction smells of trying to use the vividness of the story to persuade, relying on our brains natural tendency to absorb stories as though they are experiences, as though they are real, so that we unconsciously conflate the story with reality. It’s an effective ploy. Years later, I still feel in my gut as though I personally know Hermione Granger. If philosophy now consists of telling ourselves vivid stories which we accept because they are vivid, well, the reputation of philosophy, low as it has become, is not yet low enough.
Or perhaps you invoke this story merely as a thought experiment? It’s entirely redundant then because it is not credible that the Three Horsemen you criticize in the article, or probably anyone here either, are not able to imagine the hypothetical world where people could be happier believing a falsehood. The only valid use of fiction in the search for truth is to expand the imagination include ideas or scenarios you might not have been able to imagine before. The idea that people could, hypothetically, be better off being lied to isn’t hard to imagine. We don’t fail to be able to imagine it we just fail to believe it.
How can you think that believing in a false world view may be better than believing what is true?
Because it makes the believer feel good. That’s what his argument boils down to.
Your piece is nothing but a dressed up version of ‘nothing can be known for certain’, with a ‘therefore every opinion is equally valid, but mine is more equal’ attached at the tail end. And some gratuitous insults scattered about, too, I guess.
You could make literally the exact same argument against antibiotics – nobody can calculate to any degree of precision how the world would look if penicillin was never invented. Any sane person, however, who hasn’t had his mind poisoned with excessive philosophical sophistry, has no problem concluding that antibiotics are better than exorcisms, and the inductive leap to conclude that rational thinking is better than delusional superstition is of roughly the same order.
“No, I don’t think this. By all means, criticize people for believing in God. My essay focused on the general question: “Is humanity better off without religion?” And my answer is (i) that we don’t know and (ii) that the benefits of the delusion are quite strong and are an important part of the calculation.”
This is backpedaling. If you didn’t have a problem with frank criticism of religion why would you try to show that the reason for the criticism is unfounded or irrelevant?
I do have a problem. The problem is not about truth claims … I’m an atheist. The problem is exaggerated claims about the damaging consequences of religious belief.
Why would one criticize something if not for its damaging consequences? By trying to show that religion’s damaging consequences are exaggerated you’re effectively calling criticism of religion unfounded.
And truth claims do not get a separate category, here. Ignoring the truth is damaging, as I expect you’d agree in any number of other contexts.
…I feel good /not knowing/ that my car will run out of gas… How dare the gas station suggest otherwise!
(that is: “what you said”)
I think the gnu atheists would agree that there are fewer damaging consequences to religious belief when it is humanized, secularized, and/or kept very private and hidden away. Sort of like when Alternative Medicine becomes less harmful when it sticks to therapies or recommendations which overlap with modern medicine.
But this doesn’t entail that focusing on the areas which are unique and defining makes the criticism “exaggerated.” Or that we’re somehow missing the mark.
Ah but you’re balking. You say repeatedly that calculating if humanity would be better off without religion is impossible but then you go on to suppose a world without it and conclude that it would be horrible because ignorance is bliss:
That conclusion may be condescending: poor fragile psyches can’t handle that there are no gods, but it’s completely inline with the rest of the condescension in your piece that sees most of us as inexperienced undergrads with our silly “UAT”.
Please stop condescending us further by suggesting we can’t read what you said. You’ve done that enough in your essay.
Your defense of your piece, both here and in a dialog in your comments, seems to come down to ‘you don’t understand what I meant’. However, defending what you meant vs what you wrote would indicate that you did not write what you meant.
At that point, wouldn’t retraction and re-working of your article be apt? If it does not say what you meant to say, then how can you defend it or support it?
But aren’t atheists in general not that different than the religious when push comes to shove? And isn’t the average believer no less intelligent, strong, thoughtful, and ethical than the average “Dawkinsian?” Individuals certainly vary, but when you consider the world — and humanity as a whole — I daresay it evens out.
Or do you disagree?
That’s the problem with the Little People Argument. It assumes that when it comes to the divide between the TYPE of person who has faith and the TYPE of person who does not there is “no reasonable basis of comparison.” But of course there is. There has to be, in a world which has no grand and final division between sheep and goats.
No, I suspect most of us here think that you miswrote your piece.
Is miswrote a word? Damn, what a terribly undergraduate thing for me to say.
Nope, we didn’t misread your piece.
First, you say that New Atheists make a mistake by saying that the world is better off without religion. Now you say that you’re not asking them to stop saying that. What in the world are you maintaining?
You do presume that the psychological benefits of religion outweigh its psychological costs, so there’s a net benefit. How dare you say that you don’t presume anything? You are in fact making the the same kind of calculation that you fault the New Atheists for.
And do you really think that Denmark or Norway are not worlds that compare to our own? Of course they do; they’re great countries, in many ways happier and more moral than the US.
Nope, we didn’t misread your piece; you’re only backpedaling. By the way, do you really think that it’s bad to take people’s religion away from them when you yourself recognize the reasons why religion is untenable? That is deeply condescending.
I don’t think you read MY piece!
I’ll indulge you one more time.
**First, you say that New Atheists make a mistake by saying that the world is better off without religion. Now you say that you’re not asking us to stop saying that. What in the world are you maintaining?**
There are two things being conflated here: (1) Is religion true? (2) Is religion good for people? I think these should be kept separate. On (1), we agree; religious beliefs are false. On (2), we disagree; the “New Atheists” — at least on my contested construal — believe that religion is bad for people. I think, on the other hand, that it’s a difficult question to answer with certainty and that we have good reasons for doubting it.
**You do presume that the psychological benefits of religion outweigh its psychological costs, so there’s a net benefit. How dare you say that you don’t presume anything? You are in fact making the the same kind of calculation that you fault the New Atheists for.**
Our rough calculations disagree. But I think the confidence that Hitchens, Harris and, to a lesser extent Dawkins, suggests presumption on their part. I am quite explicit that I am stating an opinion but that I don’t know for certain how the calculation would go.
**And do you really think that Denmark or Norway are not worlds that compare to our own? Of course they do; they’re great countries, in many ways happier and more moral than the US.**
I think Denmark and Norway compare well with Denmark and Norway. The world is a big place, with lots of different people.
You present a fictional story and a completely made up alien planet as yielding insights about human nature and happiness and are completely dismissive of, you know, actual humans in actual human societies. “Denmark and Norway compare well with Denmark and Norway.” I actually snorted when I read that.
In any case, it is very unclear to me what you would have us do in response to this argument. Suppose I found the alien planet and the fictional story totally convincing. Suppose I really buy the argument you’re making that, at the very least, we can’t know how harmful religion has been or will be and that there is a possibility that it might be a net good? So, as an atheist like yourself, what should my response to this new insight be? Should I, like the character in the story, convert back to my religion for the mental peace it supposedly brings? Should I pretend to be religious in order to uphold and reinforce the general social good, say by saying fervent prayers with my extended family on holidays, or attending church? Or, since you claim not to be saying that religion is known to be a net good either, only that it could be, should I just sprinkle my criticisms of religion with more caveats that, of course, I don’t *really* know how things would be without religion, that these just my opinions, etc.? Perhaps you are suggesting that we should confine our criticism of religion purely and solely to the scientific accuracy of it’s claims, to debunking the 6000 year old earth, the efficacy of prayer, and so on, but to not address religion as a general phenomenon or to make claims about it’s social worth? Or is there no practical upshot of your argument at all? Is it just a parlor argument about the limits of certainty?
2nd para: Yes.
I questioned him about that, also. No response. If he doesn’t want to admit that he’s just engaging in “parlor argument about the limits of certainty”, and thinks his argument has practical applications, then he has to admit that he’s trying to curb criticism. A silencing tactic. STFU. Etc.
I wonder whether any of you have actually read the people I’m criticizing. It’s as if Christopher Hitchens was the most balanced, non-polemical, hedging writer imaginable.
Again with the condescension! Did you minor in the technique?
Actually, DJ, “we-ins” have read the people you’re criticizing a great deal, a fact that you would know if you had read this website much before you wrote your hit piece.
Of course, most of us aren’t “professionals” like you. So maybe that accounts for our inability to recognize the insights you seem to see in your own writing.
David, honestly I haven’t seen so much uniformity in opinion on this site ever. From my experience, people here don’t agree to conform, so that leads to the inevitable conclusion that your piece was consistently read a certain way and therefore it just might be you, and not the reader, that has the problem.
Stop telling us we have misread you, we haven’t read any of the new atheists, we revere Hitchens to the point of uniformly agreeing with all he says and that we’re somehow beneath you as non professional philosophers. Instead take this criticism as something you can learn from.
No no no. It should be (2) Is religion good for OTHER people?
You know, the Little People who can’t handle the truth, who need to rely on supernatural crutches, who want to believe in implausible things on insufficient evidence and feel virtuous about it — THOSE people. Simple folks. Pious folks. Spiritual. Salt of the earth.
Well, we reckon religion is good for them when they abide by our standards and don’t go too crazy. Sure it concerns the whole meaning and purpose of existence, but it works like a placebo — so it needs to be used strategically, as a supplement and not the whole treatment. Religion which mimics humanism and a God which an atheist won’t find threatening is just fine. We can be trusted to calculate: they can not.
I suspect they’re not going to be okay with that. I wouldn’t be.
The religious apparently want those questions kept separate only for us atheists (it shuts us up.) Never for themselves; placing them harmoniously together seems to inspire them.
Responding to criticisms of condescension by starting your reply placing blame on the reader’s inability:
“I think you misunderstood my piece”
Persuasion: You’re doing it wrong.
Then perhaps you should take a close look at Pinker’s Better Angels, in which he goes to considerable effort to make a calculation of this general sort. He argues pretty persuasively that the dramatic decline in violence over the past century or so is due in large part to movement away from moralities based on sanctity, authority, and group membership and toward those based on rationality and empathy, and that the lives improved by this profound shift number in the hundreds of millions.
So all things considered, I’ll take Pinker’s carefully reasoned argument from extensive research over your off-the-cuff argument from ignorance.
It’s not a claim that “Dawkinsians” aren’t human.
See al kimeea’s response @ #40 below. You certainly made poor word choices.
“First, demonstrating the truth of UAT would require an enormous calculation of the two competing scenarios. It demands that we add up all the good and bad consequent on human beings being religious, from the beginning to the end of human history, and all the good and bad consequent on human beings not being religious.”
Ken Ham and similar creationists make similar arguments about the theory of evolution, they did not see it happen and ignore it happening now. He uses their way of thinking too, here is something that (he assumes) can not be proven, therefore speculate confidently using your bias trying to defend the culture you grew up in.
And all we need to put what you’re calling the UAT back on the table is to descend from the lofty tower of Making Decisions for Others and sit down with the believer, at the table, by their side, today.
And we do NOT ask them “Would you, personally, be better off with or without religion?” We don’t ask them that because it’s not the right question. It’s not a respectful question.
Instead, the gnu atheist asks “Does it matter much to you if your religion is true — or only whether it is useful?”
And listen to the answer. If the believer chooses to care primarily about truth then guess what? THEY took the whole argument about the benefits vs. Problems of religion off the table. It’s gone. It doesn’t matter to them THE MOST. They’re willing to trust themselves.
Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful. -Seneca
If I bent over backwards to believe this stuff, so far in fact that, just like Janus I could survey my anus, I might just make the following concession.
Religion may have been useful during our warlike hunter gatherer societies. Sending in an army who were fighting a religiously inspired war (and going straight to heaven if they were killed) would be a very smart evolutionary tactic. It could be explained by kin selection arguments perhaps. It reminds me of the saying by Seneca which goes. “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.”
Oops, I should have read a little further before posting.
Wrong: George H. Smith’s book is indeed superb, but my understanding is that before The God Delusion (or maybe it was End of Faith ) Atheism:the Case Against God was the best selling book on atheism of all time.
It was hard to run into an online atheist who hadn’t either read it or become tired of being told they really should.
But yes — people really should read it!
What kind of crap? So he’s an atheist, but woe those stupid masses?
Weren’t we just given a lesson in adversarial journalism? Of course Johnson is going to take a condescending stance toward prominent atheists. I imagine the glee he felt when he put together Undergraduate Atheists’ Thesis. Heh, heh.
And, hey, I’m afraid that’s the way things are at 3QD on Mondays. I love the site (and it deserves subscribers) but, in original content, the editors do seem to reward provocation.
On twitter someone told me ‘everyone wants to be Dawkins’ — that is, jealousy motivates these ‘atheists’ who (perversely) speak out against atheism.
An atheist for some forty of my sixty years for whom atheism is simply disbelief in the absence of evidence, I’ve had little interest in reading about something so simple for most of those years. Consequently, even after reading David V. Johnson’s, “A refutation of the undergraduate atheists“, as presented here; I have no idea what an undergraduate atheist is and wonder what it would take for such an undergraduate to achieve graduate status.
Johnson must be an elitist. He treats atheism as if if were a forbidden fruit of life suitable for certain enlightened individuals but not for the masses as if religion were to adults what Santa Claus or the Tooth Faerie is to 5-year-olds. I suppose the masses, once they surrender belief in flying reindeers, are ready to graduate to belief that there once was a very large wooden boat tossed upon stormy seas with all the world’s fauna safe in its hold or a winged horse capable leaving earth’s surly bonds for the moon.
I don’t know if there really are atheists who call for a comparison of “two different lines of human history” one with religion, the other devoid of it but that strikes me as an odd way to make the argument that the world is better off without religion there being so many more obvious and compelling arguments.
In other words, he is a Sophisticated AtheistTM and we are not.
Poorly chosen words then, “human-like” and “unlike our” species. The long paragraph also strongly implies it is more human to suckle the teat of a magic monkey in the sky than not.
Personally, I’m atheist because I read the BuyBull at around the age of 10-12 and not because I read any books of the three gents mentioned. Memory is muddy, but I remember it being tedious and endlessly repetitive.
Yes, two different lines of history is a weak argument. Of course we can’t say what would have happened after Oct 31 1517 without religion.
We do know what did happen with religion and it weren’t any prettier than the previous 1200 years…
But we can say with certainty what things are like on our made up planet of imaginary beings not like ourselves. 😉
Louis Pasteur said:
A bottle of wine contains more philosophy than all the books in the world.
I’ll drink to that.
Countries like Denmark, Holland, Norway and Sweden do not only work as secular states, they have been repeatedly found as the most happy countries in the world. One could say that this is because of their relative wealth, but their lack of religion sure doesn’t seem to do it any harm.
What do real people have to do with it? We can learn all we need to know by reading stories about fictional people and making up more stories about aliens. 😉
Many people here have indicated that they have personally been happier once they had jettisoned religion. There’s a flip side to this too. I know a lot of people, particularly older people, who were disinterested Christians during most of their adulthood who have now become much more “devout” in their dotage. I can speculate about why such things happen, but their hypocrisy nauseates me. There are few things worse than a mother-in-law or father-in-law who spent their 30’s thru 50’s drinking and carousing who now hector the world on Facebook with their sermonizing and holier-than-thou pronouncements. The religiosity of their bullshit makes them that much worse to be around.
Look on the bright side. At least people had a couple of decades free from being sermonized at by these people!
Not particularly comforting, I know.
You can block their comments from appearing on your page without “unfriending” them.
Quite useful, that feature.
Oh yeah – I did that quite some time ago.
twitter needs a “I’ll read your original tweets, but if you @ me, I won’t know it” button.
“The cherry on Johnson’s hot-ordure sundae…”
Professor Ceiling Cat, I am a devout acolyte of the Fundamental Church of Ice Cream Worship, but that image has rather shaken my faith.
Apart from that, an excellent fisking.
Too much dumb to read.
Pro: Deeply satisfied child rapists, …
Con: Six million dead Jews.
We should get some ice for that burn.
There is a difference between “can’t know” and “can’t make an argument for or against”.
I suppose the main thing is, he can feel superior to both theists and atheists. Have a nice day.
XKCD FTW 🙂
Condescending tripe – both to Johnson’s precious believers who need their tales like a child needs his favourite blanket and to his “undergraduate” atheists, described so presumably to characterise them as smug six year-olds who’ve discovered the falsity of Santa and are now gleefully ruining it for the younger kids. It’s incredibly ironic that the writer accuses “new” atheists of infantilising believers even as he himself does so to both groups. Talk about your “undergraduate” philosophy – this smug piece has it in spades.
Religion is, of course, an extremely strong cultural weight and for some people would be (is!) near-impossible to shed without serious consequences, be they psychological, social, even physical. But those consequences – especially the psychological – are the result of of the cultural conditioning of the believer. If you’re told from infancy – and thus internalise – that you will burn in Hell forever by God’s command if you do the wrong things, the fear of that fate will remain even after you divest yourself from the underlying irrational belief.
It would be possible to argue that, in some cases, it may be better for someone to continue being a believer – even in false things – because leaving the faith may cause irreparable damage to their state of mind, social network, etc. However – and I can’t stress this enough – this is an indictment of religion and its crippling effects on human psychology, not a “net positive”; it is a data point in support of divesting people of religious beliefs.
Johnson’s not just a finger-wagging, patronising scold, he’s also bass-ackwards wrong.
Thanks Diana. It just grinds my gears when atheists are so willing to throw each other under the bus like this – especially after so many years (either ignored or avoided by Johnson) of solid atheist argumentation on every conceivable topic, both from the Gnus and the wider community. And the whole “for thee, but not for me” attitude to faith speaks for itself as rank, superior hypocrisy.
Perhaps Johnson, raised Catholic, hasn’t left behind all the trimmings of the sect – he’s certainly adept at using the entire length of his nose when looking at others. But for a quirk of fate he might well have ended up in the theology department. He certainly wouldn’t have looked out of place.
The cultural conditioning need not be as dramatic as “believe or you will burn in hell.”
It can be as insidious as “believe or you will be satisfied with the rational belief that there is no God, no ultimate meaning or goodness to the universe, no life after death — and thus be like no normal human being who has ever existed.”
Even after you’ve become an atheist, you can remain culturally conditioned to believe this — and believe that it is very, very bad.
I completely agree. I chose the fear of Hell as an obvious extreme but as you say, it can be as subversive as “you’ll be a pseudo-human whose life has no meaning.”
Johnson appears to sail close to these waters by othering “Dawkinsians”, but apparently we’re misreading him (and should of course immediately re-read him for clarity).
As a professional writer, I can only advise Mr. Johnson that if so many people get the precise same interpretation of his work, then that indeed is what he wrote.
If he didn’t “mean” it in the way it was taken, then it only proves himself to be a poor communicator.
Oh dear…someone’s competency at his craft has just been questioned.
Retract, rewrite, resubmit.
As a completely unprofessional writer (but longtime reader) I completely agree with you.
Effective communication requires a little foresight and empathy; a consideration ahead of time of how your message will be received and interpreted. If everyone ends up “getting it wrong”, think about what “everyone” has in common.
Further, Johnson’s demand upthread to “read it again” was a lazy and petulant response where a simple and brief clarification would have been appropriate; his other demand to read some obscure fable on a similar topic was a mere deflection. If you won’t clarify your point and instead refer people to another writer’s work (which implies you think that writer made that point better than you in the first place), what are you doing writing for public consumption to begin with?
Johnson’s piece would have been immensely improved had he submitted it here for editorial review before publishing the thing. At a bare minimum he may at least have reconsidered his unfortunate Templeton-ish tone.
Not when he gets a Templeton grant!
Hah, that is how I feel when I read a piece by David Brooks at the New York Times. The comments section demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that his readers are far more clever than he.
I think the second to last paragraph of this post (about the Catholic church)actually makes a better argument for the benefits of religion than David Johnson does. If you think back to the first millennium AD, how do you get a population of ignorant, wretchedly poor humans to behave? Your options are pretty much execution, physical maiming, or frightening them with even direr (although fictional) consequences in the afterlife. With better education, people are more able to reason out right and wrong for themselves, and if they are not on the brink of starvation, they have more to lose from milder punishments for misbehavior.
Is Johnson considering any of the following when he drafted this ?
We have a government stacked with religionists who are actively fighting against using science and reason to solve the current problems we are facing. They are attempting to knee-cap education, waving about bibles to claim that global warming is false and not a problem because Yahweh said so, that the big bang and evolution are lies from the devil, etc. These deluded individuals are on committees of science, technology, education, energy and more. These people have their hands on the levers of power.
These are active fights today that are not going to be solved by saying “Meh, it ain’t so bad. let our fellow psychotic apes have their false comfort.”
With this framing, are we better off without religious belief ? Is it somehow still a “sophomoric” argument to propose that we are ?
Excellent point! There may be consequences for speaking out against religion (e.g. being called “strident”, being told we “don’t have to live here”, etc.), but the consequences of NOT doing so while this steamroller of delusion rumbles onward seem much, much worse.
Here’s an example that occurred just today Wednesday Dec. 11th …
GOP Holds ‘Factual’ Climate Hearing, Says Scientists Know It’s All A Hoax
“Republicans in the House of Representatives on Wednesday held a so-called “factual” hearing about climate change and concluded that at least half of scientists suspected global warming was a hoax.”
One could argue that many factors might be at play here. But if you try to tell me that religion isn’t in the mix for at least some of these shmucks I’m done listening.
“Consider the tremendous boon in happiness for all of them in knowing, in the way a believer knows, that their lives and the universe are imbued with meaning, that there is a cosmic destiny in which they play a part, that they do not suffer in vain, that their death is not final but merely a transition to a better existence. This mental state is, I submit, so important to human happiness that people are willing to suffer and die for it, and do so gladly. . .”
The author is ignoring the flip side of this: the cost of these beliefs. The cost I speak of is the misdirected use of economic resources and humans resources; resources directed toward propping up and maintaining religious institutions rather than combating the problems afflicting humanity such as disease, poverty,starvation, and a variety of environmental issues. Of course I am not saying we haven’t applied resources to these problems. I am pointing out that a great deal more in resources might have, could have, been applied; resources that instead went to religion because people have held the beliefs that the author portrays as having done so much good. I suspect that what we have lost in this regard has been greater than what was gained.
This article, the UAT, is definitely condescending. Mostly because it is confrontational. I win you lose.
Actually, there is some truth on the errors of gross critics of past religions, especially if it is done in confrontational and condescending way as above.
There are several reasons:
1. Not all people are cat-like, not everybody really care very much about objectivity. This is not supposed to be weird or anything, the same way that not everybody is a pianist. Definitely you have to be very rational and objective if you want to be a successful scientist or academicians, but not for everybody (even majority of people). And of course we all need to be careful when we make laws and regulation that applies to all, need to be clever (read: objective, scientifically minded, fair) about it.
2. For those masses of laymen, they need solace from daily hardships, while most of them have no interest nor capabilities to understand the intricacies of modern scientific arguments. Religious thoughts, same as myths, folk-beliefs, superstitions, have been holding the major market shares here. Many of these people will continue to find solace from the same source as their ancestors. And they are within their rights to that, definitely.
3. History of mankind is something in the past, it is history, done. What happened in the past is done, and it create who we are today. Most of our scientific understanding about the universe and ourselves only came in the last century. It is very understandable that people milenium ago believe in flat earth, but not today. There are many things like this, in medicine, in techs, in sociological studies (understanding aggregates is one), consciousness, you name it.
4. I am not saying that clinging to old superstitions just for the sake of habits (or worse money and power) is right, of course not. But understanding that different people will take these things differently, different pace. Plus the fact that a lot of things in science are inherently have some ambiguities. I always think that science say much more on what is NOT possible rather that what something truly really is (and unfortunately this is what have been claimed by cultures / religions in the past).
5. Most of what current science says about many things are new to humanity. A lot of people have nothing to do with it, and want to do what is easiest for them, just continue the culture. This is something that need to be understood by the scientists (or New Atheists) side as fact of life.
So in conclusion, I am in for what Jerry is doing, people should not mislead by claiming to the public something that is known to be in error (more often proven scientifically). We should always look out for those who want to cheat others (like Chopra) for money for power or even just for fun (!). But we should not shout that people should be ‘like us’ (means scientific, objective etc etc) too.
And yes, somebody like Johnson here should still be responded, like Dobbs before him. We don’t need warriors, especially blood (or fame?)-thirsty ones, on both camps.
I might add, most of cultures of the past (read: religions) are mostly thinking in term of I win You lose, my boss is bigger than yours. So, it is common to expect some of that attitude from most people (including us?).
Swell. More provincial nonsense from someone who doesn’t even know that the term “religion” doesn’t have a well-defined meaning.
Taoism is fairly woo-filled, but doesn’t look at all like religion in comparison to the Judaism/Christianity/Islam and Hinduism. Confucianism is clearly not religion. And that’s all the ancient Chinese had for centuries, until Buddhism arrived, which itself is arguably not a religion (no gods in most sects). China made do without any Abrahamic influence for over a thousand years, and during this time, was the most advanced civilization on the planet.
So not only is this guy’s philosophy pretty poor, but his grasp of history – all Earth’s history – is beyond pathetic.
“It demands that we add up all the good and bad consequent on human beings being religious, from the beginning to the end of human history”
Who cares about the past? It can’t be changed – what is important is how we live from now on.
I care about the past. It is the only thing we can learn from.
Imo he completely misses the point, what good does it make to theorise on how the world would look like without fait? What is truly important is what we as an species can improve today and how we can make things better with our current knowledge of the world.
Fictitious scenarios can provide some entertaining conversations but i hardly see how that would be good for judging one side or the other.
Imo it doesnt matter wich side has more good or bad ppl but that we manage to act more efficient against the bad ones, and if that means changing or erasing current beliefs than that is the way to go.
All right; let’s keep it simple, here: if the benefits of religion were so obvious and valuable, there wouldn’t BE any atheists! Or, what tiny percentage there would be would be made up of completely ignorant and/or stupid individuals and the mentally ill. Humans will ALWAYS seek that which benefits them; the situation today is that rational people are seeking things and beliefs that improve their lives in a rational manner, for rational reasons- people who have been inadequately trained in critical thinking are still seeking their “warm and fuzzies” in irrational belief systems.
It’s just another form of the argument that “We should leave religion alone, as it makes some people feel good” and goes on, as this type of argument always does, to denigrate any of those who would oppose this stance; a tactic commonly used by religious belief systems to demonize their detractors: “Any who disagree are either (1) ignorant, (2) mentally ill, or (3)- downright evil.”
As someone who at times are considered mentally ill, I’d like to object to option 2.
How about “inadequately medicated” instead?
This is, sadly, not true. Evidence against: the large number of middle class and lower middle class voters who support Republican politicians in the USA. (What’s the matter with Kansas?)
It is an altogether different subject but the phenomenon of middle class and lower class citizens repeatedly voting against their own interests is fascinating. Maybe many, rather than make a diligently informed choice, simply vote for the candidate that most uses the words, liberty, and, family values, never considering that a loss of purchasing power and upward mobility amounts to a grave loss of liberty.
Religion plays a prominent role in this phenomenon.
So Johnson claims that atheists use “a litany of anecdotes” (which I take it here means stories of analysis) but want to use an “anecdote” (story telling) to claim that faith is functional.
Condescending and irrational.
Meanwhile we have data (Scandinavia) and theory (Paul’s theory of religion, showing how religiosity is correlated to dysfunctionality of societies). The data is perhaps 50 years old and the theory describing it 10 years soon. Johnson isn’t up to date either.