Michael Robbins uses a book review as an excuse to bash atheists—again!

July 9, 2014 • 8:28 am

On January 8 I discussed a review by Michael Robbins in Slate of  Molly Worthens’s, book Apostles of Reasona history of modern evangelical Christianity. As I wrote at the time, Robbins didn’t review the book so much as use it as a club to bash us “ignorant atheists.”  As I said in that post (my words are in Roman type, Robbins’s in italics):

Unfortunately, Robbins can’t stick to the book, but winds up using his article, “Your being here: the fundamental questions at the heart of the wars between fundamentalism and modernity,” to club atheists. Discussing a transformation among some evangelicals from “naive theism” to doubt that can shade into unbelief, Robbins simply goes off the rails:

One unfortunate consequence of this background shift is that as unbelief seems to more and more people the only plausible construal, they find it difficult to understand why anyone would adopt a different one. Thus “they reach for rather gross error theories to explain religious belief,” and we are subjected to ignorant books by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett. Take Dawkins on Thomas Aquinas, for example, a discussion so inept that it’s as if Noam Chomsky had decided to publish a primer on black metal. (See David Bentley Hart’s elegant demolition of Dawkins’ analysis in The Experience of God.)

The “undergraduate atheists,” as the philosopher Mark Johnston dubbed them in Saving God, have been definitively refuted by Hart, Terry Eagleton, Marilynne Robinson, Johnston himself, and others. As intellectual bloodbaths go, it’s been entertaining—like watching Jon Stewart skewer Glenn Beck. But of course Richard Dawkins is merely a symptom. I have encountered atheists who seem not only to have never met an intelligent, educated believer, but to doubt that such a creature could exist.

It’s the same tired old canard we keep seeing: the new “modern” atheists are simply ignorant, construing religion as fundamentalism and not seeing the subtle nuances of faith as espoused by Sophisticated Theologians™ like David Bentley Hart and Thomas Eagleton. Yet regardless of nuance, sophistication, subtlety, and apophatism, the question remains in the room like the Big Unexplained Elephant: “How do you theists know that?”  Where is evidence for what they claim?  And why is so churlish for us to ask for it?

Robbins, as far as I can tell, is not formally trained in either theology or biology, but he is a celebrated poet (see this article in the New York Times). Well more power to him as a poet, for he has no skills in atheist bashing—or, apparently, in theology. For in his new article in Slate, “Know Nothing” (subtitled “The true history of atheism”), he pulls the same misguided stunts he did before: purporting to review a book and then talking not about the book, but the stupidity of New Atheists.  If he actually had something new to say, that would be one thing, but he doesn’t.  This is the kind of piece that belongs in the atheist-bashing Salon, not the more respectable Slate. It’s simply recycled atheist-bashing.

Robbins’s thesis is, as it was last time, that New Atheists are crazy to think that religion is about factual claims, and that, in reality, it’s all metaphor.  We need to go back to those good old days of the Church Fathers like Aquinas, Augustine, and Origen, none of whom, he argues, saw the Bible as something meant literally. Further, atheists simply aren’t dolorous enough about our nonbelief; Like Nietzsche, we should be mourning the death of God, which takes away from us a grounded morality, and one that we haven’t replaced it with a solid secularly-based morality. We lack gravitas. 

The book Robbins is reviewing, or rather ignoring, is this one, which came out July 3 (click cover for Amazon link):

140708_atheists.jpg.CROP.original-original

It doesn’t seem to be doing all that well, with a rank of 21,552 this morning at a ranking of #28 in the “atheism” category.

Anyway, here’s Robbin’s major points that he makes in his “review”:

1. Atheists are a bunch of morons, especially Dawkins, me, and the “pop-cosmologist” Lawrence Krauss. That’s because we are intellectually lazy and haven’t taken the trouble to really understand religion. He drags me in twice, obviously butthurt that I sent after him before, and lumps us all as “evangelical atheists,” which simply means that we’re passionate about our ideas. Have you ever heard someone describe as “an evangelical Democrat”? To wit:

Several critics have noted that if evangelical atheists (as the philosopher John Gray calls them) are ignorant of religion, as they usually are, then they aren’t truly atheists. “The knowledge of contraries is one and the same,” as Aristotle said. If your idea of God is not one that most theistic traditions would recognize, you’re not talking about God (at most, the New Atheists’ arguments are relevant to the low-hanging god of fundamentalism and deism). But even more damning is that such atheists appear ignorant of atheism as well.

For atheists weren’t always as intellectually lazy as Dawkins and his ilk. (Nor, to be sure, are many atheists today—Coyne accused me of “atheist-bashing” the last time I wrote about religion for Slate, but I really only bashed evangelical atheists like him. My father and sister, most of my friends, and many of the writers I most admire are nonbelievers. They’re also unlikely to mistake the creation myth recounted above for anything more than the dreariest parascientific thinking.)

LOL: “Some of my best friends are atheists”! This implies, by the way, that Robbins is a believer, for he doesn’t include himself in the list (see photo at bottom). That brings us to the next claim.

2. Religion isn’t about epistemic claims. Robbins’s whole theme is that scientists have no business attacking religion because, á la Gould, religion and science occupy different spheres. Religion doesn’t make reality statements that can be tested. In fact, Robbins has his own definition of religion that completely insulates it from empirical and rational examination:

A formal definition of religion is notoriously difficult to formulate, but it must surely involve reference to a particular way of life, practices oriented toward a conception of how one should live. “You must change your life,” as the broken statue of the god Apollo seems to say in Rilke’s poem. Science does not—it isn’t designed to—recommend approaches to what Emerson calls “the conduct of life.” Nevertheless, Richard Dawkins claims that religion “is a scientific theory,” “a competing explanation for facts about the universe and life.” This is—if you’ll forgive my theological jargon—bullshit.

. . . Nor is the existence of God a scientific proposition: “Christians aren’t talking about a math problem, they’re talking about a Person. And in the vast experience of people who claim to have had a genuine encounter with the Personality called Christ, there are certain things that are involved, such as willingness [and] humility.”

What? How does Robbin’s definition of religion differ from moral philosophy, or any kind of life guidelines? What’s clearly missing there is any notion of a deity, of the supernatural, of a being that wants praise and propitiation, and can reward and punish you. I much prefer Dan Dennett’s defintion in Breaking the Spell:

Religions are “social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.”

with the addition that the Abrahamic faiths, about which Robbins is writing, also posit that one often has a personal relationship with the deity, and that the deity has a certain approved moral code, which comes with reward for obedience and punishment for disobedience.  This is the first time, in fact, I’ve seen someone define religion without mentioning supernatural powers or deities.

Robbins does this, of course, to make fun of us stupid New Atheists for seeing see religion as a hypothesis: as a set of claims about what exists that are, in principle, testable or susceptible to reason. And if they’re not, then there’s no reason to accept them. But if religion is just a “way of life,” like secular humanism, then Robbins exempts religion from rational scrutiny.

Robbins of course is dead wrong here, for the vast majority of believers (well over 90% in the U.S.) believe not only in God, but in a personal theistic God, and about 70% of all Americans believe in things like Heaven, Hell, Jesus’s divinity, and so on.

To show this, I reproduce the Nicene Creed, with the epistemic claims highlighted in bold. What part of those claims are metaphorical, Mr. Robbins? Do recall that this creed is recited millions of times a week, by both regular believers and Sophisticated Theolgians™:

I believe in one God,
the Father almighty,

maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.

I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Only Begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before all ages.
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation

he came down from heaven,
and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and became man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
he suffered death and was buried,
and rose again on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures.
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead
and his kingdom will have no end.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.

I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
I confess one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins

and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

But to Robbins, the views of the vast majority of religious people are irrelevant. What matters is what the church fathers thought, which brings us to the third claim:

3. The church fathers like Augustine and Aquinas saw scripture as metaphorical.  Therefore, things like the Genesis story and creation were never taken seriously  until recently. This is getting to be a very common claim (see my recent piece on Denis Alexander, who said the same thing), and it’s dead wrong. But first, Robbins’s assertions:

Instead, trendy atheism of the Dawkins variety has learned as little from its forebears as from Thomas Aquinas, preferring to advance a bland version of secular humanism.

. . . To be sure, several scriptures offer, for instance, their own accounts of creation. But Christians have recognized the allegorical nature of these accounts since the very beginnings of Christianity. Basil, John Chrysostom, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine—they all assumed that God’s creation was eternal, not something that unfolded in six days or any other temporal frame. In the third century Origen of Alexandria wrote:

To what person of intelligence, I ask, will the account seem logically consistent that says there was a “first day” and a “second” and “third,” in which also “evening” and “morning” are named, without a sun, without a moon, and without stars, and even in the case of the first day without a heaven (Gen. 1:5-13)? …. Surely, I think no one doubts that these statements are made by Scripture in the form of a type by which they point toward certain mysteries.

Well, no one but Richard Dawkins. As Marilynne Robinson writes:

The notion that religion is intrinsically a crude explanatory strategy that should be dispelled and supplanted by science is based on a highly selective or tendentious reading of the literatures of religion. In some cases it is certainly fair to conclude that it is based on no reading of them at all. . .

Robbins quotes Spencer’s book approvingly (Spencer’s words):

The creation myth in which a few brave souls forged weapons made of a previously unknown material, to which the religious were relentlessly opposed, is an invention of the later nineteenth century, albeit one with ongoing popular appeal.

Well, as Robbins says of New Atheism, that’s simply bullshit. It’s interesting that these people always concentrate on the allegorical nature of one thing: the “days” of creation. And that’s often true, as Church “fathers” argued over that one quite a bit. But let’s remember that Augustine and Aquinas believed in the instantaneous creation of species, as well as of Adam and Eve, in Adam and Eve as the historic progenitors of humans, in Paradise and the Fall, in Hell, in Noah and the great Flood, and so on. Oh, and of course they accepted the divinity of Jesus and his resurrection. Aquinas was obsessed with angels, which he believed in as literal beings.
Only someone who hasn’t read Summa Theologica or City of God could say that Augustine and Aquinas (and many other church fathers, if you’ve read them) could claim that the these people saw most of the Bible as metaphor. And of course the Qur’an is seen by virtually all Muslims as the direct word of God. You cannot call it metaphor without risking your neck.
Fundamentalism, in terms of literalism of many scriptural claims, exists throughout the history of Christianity. And it is those truth claims, like the Genesis story or the resurrection of Jesus, on which many believers stake their claim.  Literalism is not a 19th- or 20th-century invention, and I’m frankly baffled at those who say it is. They are either liars or ignoramuses.  As I’ve said, read Jonathan Edward’s sermon, “Sinners in the hands of an angry god,” from 1741, to see how metaphorically he took Hell:

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep.

. . . O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell. You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no interest in any Mediator, and nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment.

Is that “furnace of wrath” only a metaphor for “removal from God”? I don’t think so. Hell as a literal place of eternal fiery torment is not a 20th-century invention.

And even if the Church fathers did see everything metaphorically, which of course they didn’t, who cares? Who says that their interpretation of the Bible is the right one? I should have said “interpretations” in the plural, because of course all Christian denominations differ in how they interpret scripture. If you’re a literalist, there are far fewer ways: the Flood was a flood, and only eight people and a couple individuals of each “kind” survived it. What we should deal with is what kind of religion is on tap in our era, for that’s the version that does the harm (and perhaps a soupçon of good). Nobody, especially Robbins, can claim that the scriptural interpretations of the Church Fathers were the right ones. And of course he distorts what those Church Fathers said.

4. You can’t fathom religion until you’re a believer. That’s a trope taken from David Bentley Hart. Robbins quotes with approval a statement by someone named “Saint Cecilia,” who comments on Richard Dawkins’s website (her words):

If someone is really interested in whether or not God exists, I’d say the best way is to have a little humility and experiment, with an open mind and heart, with the paths that Christians have claimed take you directly to him, in the ways that have worked. If someone isn’t willing to do such a thing, and insists that a discussion about painting be one about mathematics, then the conversation isn’t going to go anywhere.

Yes, you can’t criticize any belief until you’ve actually believed it yourself. I needn’t refute that, for it refutes itself. If you’re not willing to write a novel, you can’t be a literary critic. If you’re not willing to don a sheet and burn crosses, you can’t criticize the Klan. It’s ludicrous.

I see this is running on, so I’ll end with Robbin’s other claim, one that we all know well:

5. Atheists aren’t serious and dolorous enough.  The words are familiar: whatever happened to the really serious atheists like Nietzsche—the ones who fully grasped the message of atheism and its dire implications for the human condition? Now those were atheists!!!

Nietzsche’s atheism is far from exultant—he is not crowing about the death of God, much as he despises Christianity. He understands how much has been lost, how much there is to lose.

. . . Nietzsche realized that the Enlightenment project to reconstruct morality from rational principles simply retained the character of Christian ethics without providing the foundational authority of the latter. Dispensing with his fantasy of the Übermensch, we are left with his dark diagnosis. To paraphrase the Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, our moral vocabulary has lost the contexts from which its significance derived, and no amount of Dawkins-style hand-waving about altruistic genes will make the problem go away. (Indeed, the ridiculous belief that our genes determine everything about human behavior and culture is a symptom of this very problem.)

. . . The point is not that a coherent morality requires theism, but that the moral language taken for granted by liberal modernity is a fragmented ruin: It rejects metaphysics but exists only because of prior metaphysical commitments.

Wrong again. Morality exists because a). we’ve evolved to have feelings of right and wrong and b). on top of our evolved emotions is overlain a veneer of secular morality derived from our preferences about how we should behave if we want a fair and harmonious society.  As for us not being miserable and serious enough, life is too short, and there’s nowhere to go after it’s over. Many of us are perfectly happy with a secular morality, and don’t spend time bawling about its supposed “metaphysical grounding.”

I could go on, but the ground is familiar and leads nowhere. And you’ve seen these arguments before. What I want to convey is the frequent and palpably false claim that scriptural literalism is a 20th century invention, a kind of interpretation scorned by Church Fathers. That’s refuted by the merest investigation of the history of theology. (I’m not mentioning Islam here, but of course that’s about as fundamentalist as it comes, and not just in in the 20th century.)

Robbins ends his piece with a Gouldian call for comity and dialogue:

This spirit of invitation and inquiry is far from gullible, a calumny better directed at the evangelical-atheist faithful who thoughtlessly parrot what Emerson called “the tune of the time.” Again, the point is not whether God does or does not exist, but that, as Cecilia writes elsewhere in the thread, “Everyone is talking past each other and no one seems to be elevating the conversation to where it could and should be.”

And where, exactly, should the conversation be?

What Robbins doesn’t realize is that the point really is whether God does or does not exist, along with Jesus, Muhammed, Moroni, Xenu, Brahma, and the rest. If there is no God, then religion loses its point, and theology has no subject.  The reason scientists and rationalists are talking past theologians and believers is because the religious keep shuffling sideways, trying to avoid admitting that their faith rests on claims about reality. Until they do that, there is no conversation, and nonbelief wins by default.

Here’s Robbins showing his faith:

Robbins_Michael_sized
I can haz heaven? Oh wait—iz just metafur.

I think the reason people like Robbins hate us so much is because we’ve got them dead to rights, asking them to give us reasons for what they believe. That’s a perfectly fair question. But they have no answer save wish-thinking, indoctrination, and revelation. They know that, and, to avoid having to give us evidence and reasons, they simply strike out at atheists like a bunch of petulant children.

UPDATE: I have an angry comment from Robbins that arrived just minutes after I posted this: he must troll the Internet for mentions of his name. Here is what he said:

That’s a Converge t-shirt depicting the porn star Traci Lords I’m wearing there, genius. Converge is a hardcore/metal band I wrote about in the May issue of Harper’s. They’re very atheistic. And the shirt is a parody of a Sonic Youth cover. Yep, I believe in God, but you’re not gonna prove it by noting that my author photo shows me wearing a fucking atheist metal band’s t-shirt. L. O. L.

I’m a Christian leftist who writes about metal. Totally comfortable with atheism. You really, truly need to distinguish between “allegory” & “metaphor.”

He doesn’t seem to realize that I was joking about the teeshirt, since it shows someone with a halo, although he did implicitly admit he was a believer.  Robbins clearly isn’t totally comfortable with atheism, or he wouldn’t spend so much time dissing it.  Further, he really has no sense of humor, despite his attempt at parody. I’ve banned him for Roolz violations: name-calling. Let him take out after me in his next misguided Slate column. And I’d simply love to hear his evidence for God, and why he thinks Christianity is a better religion than, say, Judaism, Islam, or Hinduism.

Oh, and here’s how I know I’m on the side of the angels (if you’ll excuse the metaphor):

Screen shot 2014-07-09 at 11.53.52 AM

 

 

 

 

 

391 thoughts on “Michael Robbins uses a book review as an excuse to bash atheists—again!

  1. Metaphor? Read the description of Hell in
    ‘Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man’ by Joyce.

    1. I thought the same thing.

      As well, look at the effect that that sermon (that describes hell) has on young Stephen and must have had on Joyce himself. I took a look at the notes in my copy of “Portrait”, and they say that it is modelled on Pinamonti’s “Hell Opened to Christians, to Caution Them from Entering into It” from 1688, a title that sounds pretty literal. The notes also say that it adheres to Loyola’s “The Spiritual Exercises” (1548). So, these texts are evidence that support Professor Coyne’s comments on “Hell as a literal place of eternal fiery torment”, and Joyce’s sources are older than the 20th century.

      Of course, there’s also Dante’s “Inferno”, a pretty physical description of hell. It is an allegory with many levels of meaning, and it is a poem, but the literal level of the narrative is meant to be taken as true. (One scholar remarked that Dante’s greatest fiction is that his afterlife pilgrimage is not a fiction.)

      1. They burned people at the stake, for god’s sake, on the premise that they might repent in the flames might and manage to forgo the infinite burning later. Seriously, you have to be dumb as a rock, or a world class liar, to claim that people didn’t take these things literally before the 20th century.

        1. Here’s a nice loaded statement from Pope Leo XIII, prior to the 20th century:

          “But he must not on that account consider that it is forbidden, when just cause exists, to push inquiry and exposition beyond what the Fathers have done; provided he carefully observes the rule so wisely laid down by St. Augustine-not to depart from the literal and obvious sense, except only where reason makes it untenable or necessity requires;(40) a rule to which it is the more necessary to adhere strictly in these times, when the thirst for novelty and unrestrained freedom of thought make the danger of error most real and proximate. Neither should those passages be neglected which the Fathers have understood in an allegorical or figurative sense, more especially when such interpretation is justified by the literal, and when it rests on the authority of many.”

          http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/leo_xiii/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_18111893_providentissimus-deus_en.html

      2. Augustine thought scripture was clear in respect of infants dying unbaptised – they went straight to hell. He suggested they would receive the lightest of punishments. Being roasted at a lower temperature? Gregory the Great was less squeamish, saying that these “children of wrath” were destined for “everlasting torments” – all on the basis of biblical authority, of course. Would the Ground of Being, really do that, Greg? Apophatics, my man, apophatics please.

        Thomas Aquinas opined that unbaptised children would not feel pain and might even enjoy a natural happiness in the hothouse downstairs. Happy to be roasted? God is strange and unknowable, yes he is.

        A recent committee set up to review the subject found the question impossible to answer.* The committee were not enthused by the notion of Limbo-land. They preferred to hope that heaven was at least a possibility for these perplexing souls.

        The question is a “limit-case” for the Church. These souls are indeed parked in a theological limbo of sorts. Catholic parents who lose their babies before baptism must be tortured by their faith.

        * International Theological Commission
        The Hope of Salvation for Infants who Die Without Being Baptised

        1. In my Protestant tradition we dodged this by saying babies are innocent and heaven bound until they personally sin. I thought, “Well then, why don’t we kill all the infants?” I mean, that’d guarantee they go to heaven. We know the odds aren’t good if we let them grow up so we’d definitely be doing them a favor. Sure, it’d mean I’d go to Hell for killing infants but, hey, that’s just the kind of selfless person we’re supposed to be, right?

          1. Glad to see that I’m not the only one who has thought this way. (By the way, Andrea Yates thought this way without the usual cognitive dissonance th at accompanies it and consequently drowned her five kids.)

            Let’s carry this out further. You left it at: kill (save) the babies and thus suffer Hell for killing. But, wouldn’t this be the most unselfish act possible? Suffering eternal torment to give it here eternal bliss? It’s infinitely more unselfish than Jesus and his 3 day (but really 39 hour) descent into the pit.

            The most rational thing to do is murder children, ask and be granted forgiveness, then head off to the most militant Islamic nation you can find and preach the Good Word. They’ll kill you but you’ve given up what is seen for that which is unseen. Oh wait, I recall almost precisely this type of behavior being documented somewhere in history…

  2. “I have encountered atheists who seem not only to have never met an intelligent, educated believer, but to doubt that such a creature could exist.”

    Yeah, and people like you aren’t making it any easier. L

    1. I would classify a good friend as intelligent and educated. And a believer in his version of a deity – ‘wisdom’ iirc.

      Same problem all flavours have with backing up the words, though. He’s also mentioned literalism being a recent thing.

    2. I would be willing to bet that the vast majority of atheists actually grew up in an ostensibly believing household. To say that atheists are unfamiliar with the best arguments of religion is to say that most average believers are likewise ignorant of them.

      1. Very true. Most of my family are devout “born agains” and I was one too until high school. The problem I had was none of my childish questions like “where do babies go if they die?” were ever answered sensibly. Also, if any human being could actually burn for eternity for not accepting Jebus, then why would anyone want to be human?

      2. I think many average believers are relatively ignorant of the arguments for religion. Many believers manage to stay believers by being selectively ignorant. Until you read the Bible, for example, you can comfortably assume that it’s the best book ever written. Until you explore the arguments for religion you can just assume they are out there and they are really good. Most believers are either not brave or curious enough to actually do the requisite studying and that ignorance allows them to always imagine that, somewhere, there are sensible answers to the basic questions that any 10 year old raises in Sunday school. All they want to hear is some bumper sticker length phrase that they can use like a shield when someone outside raises a question. But they aren’t really interested in any kind of understanding.

        Those of us who were curious enough to educate ourselves tend become non-believers or, if courage fails us, theologians who make up stuff to paper over the nonsense.

    3. There are tons of smart and educated believers. I personally know many dozens (and many dozens of ignorant ones too). They are deluded, not dumb. While it’s convenient to imagine that they are all simply ignorant, and they certainly seem ignorant from the outside, that does miss the point. It’s not because they are stupid that they believe, they believe because they are victims of a con honed to perfection over many centuries, a con that exploits our cognitive blind spots and plays on our hopes and fears. Churches are places where professionals play mind games with children and adults alike to manipulate us into accepting the con(You don’t believe it? Well, you’re a bad person. You’ll likely burn in Hell, but the ostracism starts now..)

      Outside religion smart, educated, people are conned all the time. Being educated and smart does not erase our weaknesses. Any lover of truth always has to struggle against those weaknesses.

      1. Most people, I’m sure, can be brilliant in certain fields but utter dunces in others. Of course, some people are dunces at everything to such an extent you might wonder how they figured out how to breath, but I seriously doubt there’s anyone who is a genius in every field of life or human endeavor, although they may pretend to be.

      2. Thank you. “Outside religion smart, educated, people are conned all the time. Being educated and smart does not erase our weaknesses. Any lover of truth always has to struggle against those weaknesses.”
        So insightful. I will sleep with a smile…but that smile might be shared w/ Argentina’s victory. Double smile.

  3. What ‘quality gate’ do theists apply to their own particular branch of faith? How do they know they are worshipping the ‘right’ god?

    Their arguments against the atheist’s dismissal of the existence of their own favourite god can often be generalised to apply to the dismissal of any god ever worshipped.

    Therefore they have to accept the existence of pretty much any other god ever worshipped.

    But here is the kicker; as competing faiths make competing claims (such as about the creation), how can they all be true? So we are back to the issue of what ‘quality gate’ do theists apply to their own particular branch of faith!

    1. On the liberal side of religion – the general response is that each faith is only glimpsing a “partial truth” about God. God is someone distorted by the imperfections of our own senses or something like that.

      Of course this just begs the questions – how do you know which parts are true?

      1. The liberal religionists are making a claim to know the truth just as strong as the fundies, they just hide it better. Specifically, the liberal religionists claim that fundies are wrong in thinking they worship different gods, or that God has aspects other people disagree with.

        “Its all different aspects of the same elephant” is not a compromise or consensus position. To say that is to make the bold assertion that all the people claiming “these are different elephants” are wrongity wrong wrong.

        1. Exactly. In the Land of the Blind Men, why is it that the narrator of the story sees so clearly? Perhaps it really IS a snake and everyone else — including the storyteller — is laughingly deluded.


            1. “Far beyond these castle walls
              Where I thought I heard Tiresias say
              Life is never what it seems
              And every man must meet his destiny”

  4. So Michael Robbins is telling me I’m not an atheist. What is funny is Robbins has a very narrow view of what a believer is. Has he considered all the world’s religions? Why has he not given their claims equal credence to the faith he chooses to espouse? He seems to be suffering from a serious case of ethnocentrism. As an atheist, I can say that I reject the belief in and existence all gods, not just Yahweh.

    As for Nietzsche, I think his angst was about the human race and its propensity for good and bad deeds. He wasn’t saying that it is disastrous that god is dead; he was contemplating how we go forward from there and are we ready to grow up. Give Nietzsche a break, the poor guy was suffering from syphillus and probably had to read a lot of Plato in the original Ancient Greek all at the same time.

    1. I think people like Robbins prefer the old atheists because they’re dead. Were Nietzsche alive today, I’m sure he’d despise him as much as Dawkins.

      As for Nietzsche being gloomy about “how much has been lost” – well:

      “The sick and perishing — it was they who despised the body and the earth, and invented the heavenly world, and the redeeming blood-drops; but even those sweet and sad poisons they borrowed from the body and the earth!

      From their misery they sought escape, and the stars were too remote for them. Then they sighed: “O that there were heavenly paths by which to steal into another existence and into happiness!” Then they contrived for themselves their by-paths and bloody draughts!

      […]

      Gentle is Zarathustra to the sickly. Verily, he is not indignant at their modes of consolation and ingratitude. May they become convalescents and overcomers, and create higher bodies for themselves!”

      1. The tumour would explain his ability to endure Plato in Ancient Greek. 🙂 Yeah, give the guy a break. Poor Nietzsche.

        1. It’s not like Plato wrote difficult Greek (OK my experience is limited to a parallel edition of Symposium, but I’d endured much more obscure writers at school).

          1. Ancient Greek is challenging to learn so when you through in abstract philosophical ideas in Ancient Greek, that is rough. It is particularly rough when you get a sudden sight test and it is Plato. I still remember exclaiming, “oh crap, this is Plato!” And getting in trouble because it helps people the more they know about a passage.

  5. Religion is not about epistemic claims. He got that right.

    Can I unfathom religion since I do not believe?
    Or do I need sophisticated permission?

  6. I’m not really an atheist until I chase down the little voice in my head and convince myself it’s Jesus?

    Okay – Robbins isn’t really a believer until he denies all possibility in god and realizes for himself that religion IS a scientific question.

    And he’s not really a poet until he never writes another poem.

    And he’s not able to drink another glass of water until he dies of thirst.

    And he can’t be a homeowner until he has burned down every house in the universe.

    These are all logical positions, right?

  7. Okay, so religion is nothing but one giant metaphor.

    …metaphor for what, exactly…?

    Oh, that’s right. It’s a metaphor for an all-powerful invisible friend who had his kid tortured to appease himself so he wouldn’t do likewise unto all of us. Or something.

    Somebody is very, very, very confused, and it ain’t Jerry.

    b&

    1. Of course God didn’t sacrifice His son on a cross. It was all a metaphor. No Christian really believes that something like God would do something so human as to have a child, and if he were to have a child and then to allow him to die in a horrific way. Resurrection and the torture of a demigod by humans. It’s all a metaphor, just like the stories in Genesis. Metaphor for what is a good question.

      1. And no rational adult would consider “eye-witness accounts” satisfactory evidence for a person coming back to life after being dead for two days, right? That’s also “metaphor”.

          1. A couple years ago I was involved in a scooter crash in Thailand. Nothing serious but it was my fault and the other guy had to be checked at the hospital.

            While they drove him to the hospital ( at that point I didn’t know how severe his injuries were ) me and an officer were left at the scene waiting for more officers to arrive. He looked me very calmy and said, “Your fault. Not good.”, lit a cigarette and turned around.

            Despite my atheism I was a that point ready to plea eternal obedience to buddhism if only they didn’t throw me in for life.

            I consider that the living equivalent of a death-bed conversion….never again. 🙂

    2. And don’t forget a metaphor that isn’t subject to rationality or reason. Everything else is, but not this. It is anything goes because Jesus.

    3. No, it’s an *allegory*, stupid. The idea that there is a being called God, that his son Jesus came to Earth and died for our sins, was resurrected, and will return some day to lift the faithful up to Heaven have a deeper meaning hidden behind/within their literal meaning. God doesn’t exist per se, but is just the name we give to the ground of all being/existence. Jesus also does not exist, did not die for our sins, etc., but is a symbol representing our own capacity for transformation/forgiveness/goodness/etc. (i.e., you don’t really have to believe in Him to get to Heaven [which also isn’t real]–duh, only an idiot would believe that). Obviously, the second coming just represents the process of transformation/exaltation resulting from realizing our transformative potential. Heaven is just the name Christians and other believers give to the profound joy and peace that arises from achieving this transformation. In short, these are just nice stories that point in the direction of some good ideas for how to live a good life, achieve happiness, and so forth, no empirical claims whatsoever are being made. To achieve the promised effects, however, it really helps if you behave exactly as if all of this were literally true. Only a fool or a New Atheist would fail to understand this 😉

    4. “Okay, so religion is nothing but one giant metaphor.”

      The Abrahamic religions are pretty crappy metaphors. Their literature goes into far excessive detail (much of it probably false) for something that is merely intended to convey an idea, rather than facts.

      Moreover, what little guidance there is to “good behavior” is only directed towards avoiding hellfire, not to make the present life worth living.

    5. This is a central point. I think it was Wittgenstein who stated something to the effect that a metaphor must stand for something. You should be able to drop the metaphor and the thing still stand. If, for example, you say, “God sees all,” of course you’re going to be met with, “What? With his eyes?” “Does he have a blind spot?” etc. To then state simply (and deceivingly) it’s just a metaphor, you must allow for same metaphor and still have the proposition make sense. I may be wrong but, in this case it becomes non-sense. I don’t know. I’m new to this and I’m pretty nervous.

  8. Robbins is using sources to find out what modern Christians believe in, except for modern Christians. That’s a weird thing to do. There are plenty of opinion polls out there that have asked them what they believe.
    There is something funny about Robbins calling scientists like yourself, Dawkins and Krauss “intellectually lazy”.

    It was nice of him to use Saint Cecilia to contradict his argument that you can not treat religion like science. She says “If someone is really interested in whether or not God exists, I’d say the best way is to have a little humility and experiment, with an open mind and heart…” Here she is treating god as a hypothesis, just like Dawkins and his ilk.

    1. I think her point is that “Dawkins and his ilk” do NOT treat the existence of God as a hypothesis. They treat it as a delusion.

      They have rejected the hypothesis that some god exists and accepted the converse hypothesis that no god exists. They may consider their acceptance provisional, but they show no interest in further exploration of the hypothesis that some gods exist.

      1. The method of “testing” which Saint Cecelia proposes is not a serious test nor is it an exploration of a hypothesis; it is a plea for the use of subjective verification and motivated reasoning. The way this is set up, only the experimenter can fail because they lacked a sufficiently “open mind and heart.”

        Nobody disputes that religious practice can be soothing or gratifying. The atheists say that it is so because of human nature; the theists add in an additional claim.

  9. There are thousands of comments on Robbins’ article at Slate. I only read a small fraction, but they are overwhelmingly critical of his piece.

      1. Slate mission for sure… click bait deluxe.

        I’m glad Jerry took it up today. I was very galled by this article last night and hoped that it would see some pushback outside the comments.

    1. The reason for the Slate article is found at the end of the article:

      “Michael Robbins is the author of the poetry collections Alien vs. Predator and the forthcoming The Second Sex, as well as a forthcoming critical work, Equipment for Living.”

      He’s fertilising the soil – engaging in pre-publication p.r. for his upcoming book.

      As a modern poet, Death Metal aficionado and self-appointed pop cultural know-all, his prospects of comfortably meeting rent and grocery commitments in the current economic climate are poor.

      Pandering to gullible theists may increase sales – even if, like a dog returning to its own vomit – he has to revisit the ordure he produced in Slate earlier this year.

        1. “Like a dog that returns to his vomit is a fool who repeats his folly.” Proverbs 26:11

          Who says atheists don’t know the Bible!

  10. That was a good rebuttal. I particularly liked the succinct response to all the hand-waving about morality.

    Yes, there are intelligent, educated theists, but their reasoning on this subject sounds to me like they didn’t do their homework.

  11. ” (Indeed, the ridiculous belief that our genes determine everything about human behavior and culture is a symptom of this very problem.)”

    Being an expert in literature, it is a shame that Robbins can not enjoy the extreme irony of this statement he made. That in the midst of a rant about how ignorant atheists are about religion he unwittingly demonstrates massive ignorance of atheists and science.

    But he will likely never be able to admit that he just stuck both feet firmly in his own mouth because indignation is just too much fun.

    1. Must confess I’d never heard of this guy until I came across his piece on metal in Harper’s, which was quite entertaining. Disappointing to find he’s not that bright.

  12. Any writer who resorts to calling renown scientists morons instantly looses both credibility and respect.

  13. Wow. It almost hurts to know that you spent this much time responding to this absolute nonsense.

      1. It’s surely a dirty job to engage in the conversation with the religious apologists, liars for Jesus, anti-evolutionists, and the like, but somebody’s gotta do it 😉 Their truth claims and non-arguments can’t be left unchallenged.

        I and am sure many other readers of your site greatly appreciate all the great articles you publish!

        1. Just to clarify, I do very much appreciate all of the great articles he writes.

          It is a bit upsetting that you’re right, though, that someone has to respond to the arguments in this ‘review,’ since they’re so obviously false and just absurdly intellectually dishonest. I wish more people could see it on their own.

        1. Not all boxes are equal, as Maru points out. And, in this case, when someone claims to know what I do not know, I want to know how he knows. Unfortunately, all I have learned is that Robbins is deluded to think what he thinks he knows.

      2. I’m glad you did. I read this galling article last night and hoped to see some pushback outside the comments. I only wish you hadn’t banned him. A little name calling from him in the comments would be amusing.

        1. Naaah, he’s a nasty piece of work and I don’t want him here as a chew toy, nor do I want him calling me or any of the readers names. Rudeness gets you banned no matter who you are!

    1. That’s because words and the books that contain them are literal. Robbins only deals in metaphor. 😋

  14. If literalism is a relatively recent perspective, it’s because for most of Western history, it was taken for granted.

    1. Or perhaps Robbins and his ilk are referring to the fact that the large majority of people could not read back in the good old days?

    1. It means that if you do not interpret Genesis the way Robbins interprets it, you are reading the bible wrong.

      Basically, its just the same claim of sectarian exceptionalism you hear from any sect, dressed up in universalist garb.

      1. I wonder if he would claim that the bible is great poetry? That would defintely make me (more) leary of reading his poetry.

        He does have the Romantic, Rebel, Martyr poet shtick down fairly well though.

  15. “If your idea of God is not one that most theistic traditions would recognize, you’re not talking about God (at most, the New Atheists’ arguments are relevant to the low-hanging god of fundamentalism and deism).”

    Quite. I’ve actually been thinking about this recently in relation to many pro-religion commentators who tout nebulous, god-ish religion. Can these people, can Robbins, identify any congregation that actually shares his views? I thimk he’s looked into the mirror, and found a religion that looks like him.

      1. Well, there is a mighty force in the world. We should definitely be paying attention to what they believe instead of the billion Catholics, Baptists, and assorted others.

  16. I think the point is driven to the ground here. The idea that religion is more philosophical than it is dogma is just not true. I do appreciate religious folks who want to help other people. But the central tenet to at least Christianity and Islam is if you do not believe you go to hell. And there is where there morality and reality ends.

    1. Its true for some people (like Robbins), untrue for others. The issue here is (IMO) folk like Robbins are trying to delitimize other believers, and insist that atheists and other believers only talk about his own religion-as-philosophy concept.

      The gnus are honest enough to recognize that there are a variety of religious beliefs worthy of discussion and argument. As far as I can tell, folk like Robbins want to sweep their co-religionists under the rug.

      1. He’ll have a job, then, starting with the doctrines of Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox Church followers, Lutherans, Anglicans, and Baptists, and progressing on to Mormons and more obscure Christian groups, which must number in the dozens. If those doctrines are not meant to be claims about how the world works, and therefore those claims are not really justifying the followers’ practices and lifestyles, is Christianity simply a worldwide role-playing fanbase of the New Testament literature? They will admit when asked that it’s a fiction, but still enjoy it like one can enjoy a good fictional story? And this is before asking similar questions about the thousands of other religions on the planet:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Religions

        1. Yeah, it does seem to approach an almost “what hump?” level of comedic myopia. The counterexamples are all over the place, how can they ignore them?

          I think there’s a component of wishful thinking here. They have the opinion “people ought to believe in a ground-of-being non-anthropomorphic deity,” and because they wish it were true, they act like it is.

    1. He obviously knows fark-all about the Christian religions’ history. The Calvinism vs Lutheranism violence during the Reformation is a great example of people not being able to take a metaphor.

    2. Funny, I’ve just been reading a bunch of witchcraft stuff. I was also struck by the idea that they had “died for a metaphor.” Title of a book to be written: “Religion: The Deadliest Metaphor.”

  17. Also bad form? Apparently Robbins was on Twitter making fun of the generally pretty reasonable comments being generated at Slate for being dumb.

    Classy.

  18. I suspect I am the kind of atheist Mr. Robbins would like; I was not raised in a religion, don’t have much animus towards it, and have extensively studied the bible (though never “believed” it). So fascinated was I that people could actually accept the book as something different from, say, Ovid, that I took Hebrew and Greek in college. I still like the bible. I still don’t believe it. But every time I read a piece like this, I am glad Professor Coyne, Professor Dawkins, and the others exist. What, exactly, is Mr. Robbins mad about? That we talk to each other and make snide comments about believers? That atheist books are published? As soon as an atheist knocks on Mr. Robbins’ door and tells him he is wrong in his conception of the universe, I’ll consider actually paying him some attention. Until then, he should try to rid himself of the haunting idea that somewhere, someone disagrees with him, and just relax.

    1. I too, as a lifelong atheist, thought that people didn’t really believe this stuff. It wasn’t until I went to university that I realized they did. I think it was some sort if mind blindness on my part as I often think others are thinking what I’m thinking.

    2. You cannot be the kind of atheist Mr. Robbins would like because your open-minded study of religion did not lead you to the conclusion that people like Richard Dawkins need to shut up.

  19. Superb rebuttal!

    It’s not enough for Robbins to let his mind be so open for his brains to fall out, he also wants folks who don’t to say, “Robbieboy, your brains are not smashed on the concrete sidewalk”. This kind of believer craves mediated validation; he has to convince others that he is not being irrational. Ridiculing religion takes away this comfort, and therefore does erode its societal attractiveness.

    I remember awhile back at the insistence of a believer that we two conduct a thought experiment at the Dawkins’ site: he would think that god does not exist, and I would think that it did. Results: I could not continue because I was laughing too hard despite my truly trying not to. He stopped his because he felt devalued and diminished. Without being validated via supernatural belief, this guy felt emotionally awful.

    Also:
    1) Research has shown that atheists not only know more about religion in general but know more about the believer’s specific religion than that believer.
    2) Many atheists did at one time believe.
    3) Honesty is valuable. Hence I will always say to believers that though I accept your right to believe, I wisely and thoughtfully find your beliefs to be nonsense.

  20. If your idea of God is not one that most theistic traditions would recognize, you’re not talking about God

    That, in my mind, is an argument in favor of modern atheists and against Robbins: the atheists talk about the idea of God that is recognized by most believers alive today. Robbins does not.

    “Christians aren’t talking about a math problem, they’re talking about a Person.

    And this supports the notion that religions don’t make factual claims…how? There is no consistency here. The notion that they are talking about a person directly supports the notion that they make factual claims.

    What we should deal with is what kind of religion is on tap in our era, for that’s the version that does the harm (and perhaps a soupçon of good).

    Completely agree, though I might reverse your two clauses to give it a slightly different spin: when a religion does social harm or promotes theocratic social policies, that’s when it makes the most sense to address it. Robbins seems to wonder why we address the squeakiest one wheel and not the other three (which comprise a larger majority of our cart’s wheelness). Well, because the squeaky one is the one stopping the cart from operating efficiently, and the point (for secularists) here is to make the cart operate – the point is not wheel treatment parity or addressing the most ideal wheel.

    “Everyone is talking past each other and no one seems to be elevating the conversation to where it could and should be.”

    I will happily discuss deism with deists. But you, Robbins, have no right to tell me I ought not discuss interventionist deities with interventionist theists. You also have no right to (through implication) tell the interventionist theists that they are believing wrong, doing religion wrong.

    Nor would getting every single religious believer in the world to buy on to the ‘different magisteria’ or ‘no factual claims’ definition of religion work. I still think you’d have a lot of beat-down, drag-out fights between atheists and (some) religious sects over subjects like abortion or climate change, where there can be disagreement over morality and public policy whene in the face of agreement over facts. A pro-lifer who gets all their facts right but opposes abortion because they think fertilized eggs have souls is still going to be in for a fight from most atheists. And a fundie who gets all their AGW facts right but opposes climate policy and regulation because they think Jesus is going to return in the next decade is still going to have a fight from atheists who want to hand a nice climate down to their grandkids.

    1. The notion that they are talking about a person directly supports the notion that they make factual claims.

      No, you clearly don’t understand Sophisticated Theology, it’s a metaphorical Person.

      1. Ah, but their metaphorical person is just a metaphor for real person, which is a metaphor for…

        Its metaphorical turtles all the way down.

        1. It can’t be metaphor all the way down … because that leads to naturalism. If that’s the case then theists are atheists doing poetry.

          Robbins has it exactly backwards: atheists take MORE of religion as a metaphor than the theists do. That’s our argument, that “God” is a symbol which stands in for human desires, tendencies, and mental and emotional shortcuts. THEY are the ones suddenly taking it literally.

          1. “Metaphors all the way down” was just a metaphor! Sheesh, you atheists always take everything so analytically….
            [/channeling]

  21. Forgot I wanted to address one more bad argument:

    If someone is really interested in whether or not God exists, I’d say the best way is to have a little humility and experiment, with an open mind and heart, with the paths that Christians have claimed take you directly to him, in the ways that have worked. If someone isn’t willing to do such a thing, and insists that a discussion about painting be one about mathematics, then the conversation isn’t going to go anywhere.

    This is a direct insult – and a complete handwave of – all the atheists who were raised Christian (or other religious), and converted during adulthood. Which, in the US, is probably most of them.

    Question: “Why don’t you try it?”
    Answer: “We did try it. Why are you ignoring the fact that we already tried it?”

  22. “Christians aren’t talking about a math problem, they’re talking about a Person”

    Wait a minute, I thought Sophisticated TheologiansTM didn’t believe in an anthropomorphic god? Describing god as a person sounds pretty anthropomorphic to me. There are times that I honestly wish I could stiff arm objective reality this way. Then, Deepakity might not seem so annoying and unsubstantiated philosophical rants wouldn’t read like the sticky fruit of a furious and epic bout of epistemological onanism partaken by an author of far greater ego than intellect.

    1. The capital P, I suspect, is supposed to give it loftier connotations. As is the “Personality of Christ”, whatever that means. Judging from the encounter remark, apparently it works like a special insight sense that activates if you are willing and humble enough to seek it out. Presumably, this is some kind of spiritual experience, like the one you’d get joining in at a church congregation, and the emotional experience is supposed to provide some kind of religious insight.

      What this invocation of revelation (implied in the “don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it” tone) demonstrates is that Robbins is trying anything to avoid a direct question of God’s existence, up to and including throwing red herrings around to avoid, redefine, and frankly obscure the issue.

  23. As an ex-Muslim, I should point out that while I agree with the general gist of the post, it’s actually acceptable in many mainstream sects of Islam to regard parts of the Qur’an as metaphorical.

    In fact, the Qur’an itself says that some verses are mukham (clear and definitive) and mutashabihat (obscure or esoteric).

    And while the Qur’an says God created the universe in six days, it also says: “But God will not fail in His Promise. Verily a Day in the sight of thy Lord is like a thousand years of your reckoning.” (22:47)

    The Ash’ari and the Maturidi theological schools of Sunni Islam permit ta’wil (allegorical interpretation), and make distinctions between the majazi (metaphorical) and the haqiqi (literal). When it comes to Islamic eschatology, they go on and on about metaphor in the prophecies of Muhammad.

    Of course, none of that alters the fact that the vast majority of Muslims believe in creationism. Even many highly educated Muslims from professional backgrounds will say they’re willing to admit that evolution could apply to other species, but God must have created man and woman in a special way.

    When you point out to them all the things that suggest common heritage, be it the stuff they can personally experience like blind spots in the eye to genetic and molecular evidence, they just get uncomfortable and quiet over it.

    It’s kind of sad, but I used to be there myself. In my case, the sunk cost fallacy made me reluctant to give up my beliefs (and I was only in my early twenties – it must be galling for older people!) But easily the biggest obstacle to abandoning Islam is the manner in which faith is wrapped up in identity. You can’t give it up because it’s like divesting yourself of a limb, or worse, the connection to your family, friends and wider community. It’s that notion of Muslim as core identity that has to be eroded if atheism is to make headway in Islamic countries.

    Anyway, enough rambling.

    1. I especially liked your last paragraph. Totally agree that the sunk cost fallacy and loss of social network are probably much much bigger hurdles for questioning believers than intellectual arguments.

      Its why I think it’s really important to put out the word that atheist social groups exist, are welcoming, etc… Its not enough to convince someone they’re on the wrong path. If you want them to switch, you often have to make the transition to the right path as painless as possible.

    2. Identity is the key difference between how religious people perceive their beliefs (It’s *who I am*) and how non religious people perceive their beliefs (These are crazy factual claims about the universe).

      This is one reason it’s so hard to have a decent discussion with the religious. If you point out the flaws of some belief of theirs they do not feel like you are talking about some truth claim about the world, they feel like you are attacking their identity.

      Christians think of themselves as A Christian, and a lifetime of indoctrination has made them associate the word “Christian” with every good thing. Asking them to give up being a Christian feels, to them, like asking them to give up everything good. Many Christians honestly feel like sunsets will lose their beauty, they won’t love their children, and on and on if they lose the “Christian” identity tag.

  24. You really, truly need to distinguish between “allegory” & “metaphor.”

    Hmmm, I didn’t know the difference between the two, so I Googled it. Seems like there isn’t much. A metaphor is a broader category than allegory, but includes it, so you can always say “metaphor” when referring to an “allegory”.

    1. But, he’s a poet! Surly he knows that?

      I’ve never been fond of allegory in literature. I came to the opinion, some time ago, that it is generally used merely as a way to not directly identify the target you are aiming at.

      1. That’s a good insight. Analogies can be useful to convey hard-to-grasp ideas, so they serve a useful purpose, but I’m not sure that metaphors serve the same end. They’re almost like dog whistles, in the political sense, which is similar to what you’re saying.

        1. I think that the most significant factor is whether someone is using them as tools to try to hide dishonesty or genuinely trying to express unintuitive ideas. Analogies are very often used for both and allegories can be used for both as well.

      2. Oh sure you like it! Come on, you must! What about Lord of the Rings and its allegories of war?

        1. Not to go off on a tangent of anything but, funny you should mention that.

          Because TLOTR is so often charged with being allegory, by professionals and consumers alike, it is usually the first thing that comes to mind when I hear / read the word. But, Tolkien himself stated that he “despised allegory in all its forms,” and that his intent was merely to try and write a really good story.

          Full disclosure statement. When I was younger, say from 3rd or 4th grade till early college, I really liked Tolkien. I read it all many, many times. I deciphered two or three different languages and alphabets and wrote in them. I drew countless pictures and collected all of the calenders (The Brothers Hildebrandt ones are still the best!) But then it lost its appeal. No matter how much time you spend spit shining them the themes so glorified in TLOTR and similar fantasy, really suck in real life.

              1. Yeah. Given Tolkien’s stated opinion on allegory, I’ve always wondered if their friendship was ever strained by Tolkien’s comments about his writing during their bull sessions.

              2. A pastiche of lame allegories. It doesn’t really reach the heights of actual ‘metaphor’.

          1. In fairness, Tolkien’s opinion on allegory is written in the foreword of nearly all post-1970 copies of Fellowship. The exact line is: I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence.

            To wit, merely opening the first book leaves us the answer.

            But. I do apologize for being pedantic (and off topic). I admire the fact that you actually wrote in Tolkien languages.

            1. Thanks for posting the actual quote.

              Tolkien, being a linguist of course, left plenty of information in various appendices and what not that deciphering the writing was not very difficult if you decided you wanted to make the effort.

              The language was, of course, much more difficult. I am sure that if real elves ever read anything I composed they’d think I was two or three years old.

              Though his stories do not have the same appeal as they did when I was young, I do still consider them to be the best example of world building I’ve ever come across. To really appreciate it you have to go far beyond TLOTR, which most people never do.

          2. One doesn’t have to adopt deconstruction or other nonsense to buy the idea that sometimes authors do not know what they’ve created. Could it be that TLOTR is allegory in spite of Tolkien’s intensions (or desires)?

            I adopt this viewpoint about many thinkers (particularly in ethics) from times past: they inadverently produced arguments that apply to more than their intentions. For example, many historical arguments for universal male franchise “inadvertently” make the case for universal franchise simpliciter. And so they were adopted by women’s rights campaigns, etc. And that’s why I am “pro-Enlightenment”. The E. was limited, and had many flaws. But it contains many tools we can use to make better ones and continue the work. Other traditions do not have as many, or as good (particularly there’s nothing quite like science, but others as well).

            1. “Could it be that TLOTR is allegory in spite of Tolkien’s intensions (or desires)?”

              I have often thought of this. In the specific case of Tolkien I think that his experiences as a young soldier in the trenches during WWI had a large and lasting impact on him, as would be expected. And he was a product of his society. To try and keep this short (I tend to ramble), I have no problem believing Tolkien intended no ulterior meanings, and that he was just telling stories that, of course, reflected who he was.

              It seems to me that intent is a key issue with allegory. If we are going to insist that TLOTR is allegory, that seems to lead to everything being allegory. Anything written by anybody is going to include reflections of who they are, and who they are is a result of, among other things, the times and places they lived. And the more “interesting” times and places (i.e. WWI) are more formative.

  25. That author’s response is so funny! He sounds like an angry teenager. “Da-addd, for your information, it’s a band t-shirt. Gaa-awd, you’re so ignorant!” A Christian Leftist who writes about metal. For Slate. And a poet. I bet he’s exactly the same person he was when he was getting his BFA.

    1. It’s funny and sad at the same time. His every argument was just thoroughly demolished by Prof. Jerry Coyne, and the only thing he could come up with in response was to address the t-shirt joke.

      1. Actually it points to a generally good strategy when engaging with theologians (and creationists): avoid editorialising. Don’t include any minor point or personal comment about them at all. Because if you do, they will respond to that instead of your major points. They use your sidedars as a way of avoiding having to address your argumets. So…give’em no sidebars.

        1. I’ll second that. Let their arrogance and hollowness speak for itself.

          If the sophisticated believers had any truth to offer, then why the deuce aren’t they busy preaching to their fellow bretheren?

          If what they say about G.O.B and the average believer is true the key to peace is in their hands.

          They claim to have the tools to end fundamentalism.

          Let them show it, then.

  26. I believe atheism is genetic and there will always be religion and us non-believing mutants just have to live with that.

  27. I think Eric MacDonald had about right on Augustine on the other thread. Mine was way of mark.
    Is religion as a general phenomenon, always dogmatic? Is it always about believing?
    Not all Christians are like Mr Robbins. Many of us have no problem whatsoever with atheism. Some people cannot believe, but would like to. Some cannot believe and are very happy about it. Some believe and are absolutely certain they are correct, others are in conversation between faith and doubt.
    Why is there a problem at all?

    1. “Some people cannot believe, but would like to.”

      Really?

      Why do you think they would like to believe if they cannot?

      1. Everyone believes something (even if it’s only some portion of one’s own phenomenological experiences). Well, every sane person, at least.

          1. Oops, sorry, meant to reply to Wildkennett. I just meant that the idea of someone who “cannot believe” is logically incoherent to me.

        1. “Everybody’s got to believe in something. I believe I’ll have another beer.”
          ― W.C. Fields

      2. I know this only anecdotally. People have said to me, on many occasions, ‘I would like to believe but I can’t’.

        1. I suspected so. 🙂

          How do you know that they’re not just saying that because they are afraid to disappoint you or to make you sad?

          Maybe many of the people you have talked to, if they were being completely honest, wouldn’t like to believe because if you really don’t believe then it makes very little sense to want to believe.

          Unless were talking social pressure.

          God is pretty easy to do without. It’s the reaction and the support of your friends and family that’s most important.

          1. I don’t know, I don’t have a window into their private thoughts. But I don’t live in a country in which atheism is something to hide or be ashamed of.

            1. Nope, me neither.

              I’m just saying that when you reach the point where you really don’t believe in a god anymore, then it makes no sense to want to.

              You might want to believe in the values associated with that particular god in that particular faith in that particular community, but the god itself is of no value anymore.

              It doesn’t exist.

        2. wildkennett–I don’t doubt that you’ve heard that, and I think we’re just using different definitions causing the problems here, so let’s leave it to one side. What do you understand people to mean by that? I would guess it’s something along the lines of “I would like to be a member of this community.” I’d be interested to hear your opinion.

          1. My take on it is that those that would be religious find something of value in it, and because our society is dominated by a kind of religion that deals in truth claims about the nature of the universe, they find they can’t belong.
            However I am suggesting that not all religion, even not all Christianity is like the dominant Religion of the United States.
            Graham Harvey, an anthropologist specialising in non monotheistic religions argues that:
            //Religion is more than a matter of worshipping a deity or spirit. For many people, religion pervades every part of their lives and is not separated off into some purely private and personal realm. Religion is integral to many people’s relationship with the wider world, an aspect of their dwelling among other beings – both human and other-than-human – and something manifested in the everyday world of eating food, having sex and fearing strangers.[He] offers alternative ways of thinking about what religion involves and how we might better understand it. Drawing on studies of contemporary religions, especially among indigenous peoples, [he]argues that religion serves to maintain and enhance human relationships in and with the larger-than-human world. Fundamentally, religion can be better understood through the ways we negotiate our lives than in affirmations of belief – and it is best seen when people engage in intimate acts with themselves and others.//

            1. I think the anthropologist is correct in his description — but that it’s a bad idea to stop at a description of What Other People Get From Religion. Those “others” are part of ourselves. When push comes to shove, do they care about the truth of their beliefs? Then they are colleagues who understand us, as we understand them.

              The Little Person Argument often comes from an anthropological or therapeutic perspective, mimicking respect and understanding while distancing Us from Them.

              1. wildkennett wrote:

                Could you unpack that a little, or say it in a different way.

                The parts of religion which are the most significant, vital, and enthralling have little to nothing to do with the existence of God.

                That is not a reason for atheists to shut up and let the Little People believe. It is instead a reason for us to reach across a false divide.

                They can handle the truth. What remains when you take away the supernatural is natural and human and it unites.

      3. “Why do you think they would like to believe if they cannot?”

        I can only spak for myself: I belonged to that group for several years, before I finally felt comfortable admitting my atheism to myself.

        I was jealous of the peace of mind I thought a belief in a loving deity would entail. I was jealous of the feeling of purpose I felt sure it would result in. I thought I would be a happier person as a believer, not as afraid of death, not as prone to depressive moods.

        Today, I think this was due to the fact that I had not yet fully accepted my unbelief. I grew up as a Lutheran, and while it was relatively easy to realize the absurdity of the factual claims, it was much harder to leave the emotionally charged parts of my religious upbringing behind.

        Peace of mind (well, most of the time), a feeling of purpose, acceptance of death – came, in the end, with my decision to be honest with myself. I have to admit that reading Harris and Dawkins played a part in that decision.

        1. I share that belief that honesty is what brings that peace of mind. Know thy self and thus be honest to oneself. So my honesty entails acknowledgement of agnosticism, I don’t know. One can be devout in practice, whilst being sceptical about ultimate truth and meaning.

        2. Maybe that’s how many non-believers feel when they realize they don’t believe anymore?

          There’s still doubt and that doubt is expressed as a desire for belief?

          I dunno, I was an agnostic before atheist in a relatively godless society so I can’t quite relate to growing up in a religious family and community, so please correct if I’m wrong. 🙂

          1. I can only speak for myself, but I have found that my religion is not just about believing. Its a complex matrix, a belonging system, an identity, its story telling and reflecting on those stories, its singing together, its sacred and participative drama. Its being solitary but not alone because others elsewhere are also choosing solitude, stillness and silence. The metaphysics might be the thing that binds and gives shape to all of that but it does not have to be real in any certain sense to do it.

            1. But does it matter to you if the ‘metaphysics’ that binds and gives shape to the complex matrix of your identity is actually true or not? If it isn’t — would you want to know?

              Be careful how you answer that. Think hard. Either way commits you to a difficult path.

              1. Well I am naturally curious, so I suppose I would want to know. BUT my question is ‘how would I know?’

                Does it matter?
                Does it matter to the navigator that the lines of longitude and latitude, are not to found in reality?

              2. If you would want to know if God doesn’t exist, then you have joined us in asking the question and seeking an answer. Not “seeking God” — but approaching the concept as objectively as possible. Without faith, this is probably going to go in a different way than any ‘seeking’ being done in a religious or spiritual framework. We are both involved in rational debate.

                If there is nothing which could or would change your mind even in principle, then there is a serious problem with your belief, and your search.

                I said I think you need to be careful because once you have committed yourself to caring more about whether God exists than you care about the benefits, comforts, and joys involved in believing in God and being religious — then that entire aspect is off the table. It doesn’t matter. You have picked something else that mattered more to you.

                On the other hand, someone asserting that they love loving God and being part of a faith community so much that God’s actual existence is irrelevant … then there’s Charybdis. Doesn’t go well.

    2. “Is religion as a general phenomenon, always dogmatic? Is it always about believing?”

      It’s difficult to call oneself a Christian if, to take a random example, one doesn’t think Jesus existed, much less did what the gospels claimed he did. That would strike me as a deliberately loose way to apply the word.

      To take a basic source, Wikipedia:

      “A religion is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence.[note 1] A critique of Geertz’s model by Talal Asad categorized religion as “an anthropological category.”[1] Many religions have narratives, symbols, and sacred histories that are intended to explain the meaning of life and/or to explain the origin of life or the Universe. From their beliefs about the cosmos and human nature, people derive morality, ethics, religious laws or a preferred lifestyle. According to some estimates, there are roughly 4,200 religions in the world.[2]”

      From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion.

      Religion generally does involve believing some kind of spiritualistic or “divine” claim about how the universe and humanity works, yes.

      “Why is there a problem at all?”

      Because claiming religion is something like a lifestyle choice or a set of cultural practices avoids the issue that those lifestyle choices and cultural practices come from and are based on claims of dubious origin, which often contradict the findings and stronger epistemological and methodological demands of science or even basic reason. It’s a problem when apologists of said lifestyles and practices resort to fallacies in a rhetorical attempt to belittling their critics.

      1. Not necessarily, I cannot claim to know that there is a God, or for that matter there is not. So one might be an agnostic and still choose to live ones life as if say, reality will find its ultimate meaning in love, compassion, the highest good and so.
        There is no reason to say one knows that is the case. That is the difference between belief and knowledge.

        1. “Not necessarily, I cannot claim to know that there is a God, or for that matter there is not. So one might be an agnostic and still choose to live ones life as if say, reality will find its ultimate meaning in love, compassion, the highest good and so.”

          This seems a very peculiar way to phrase it. So you’re saying you act like “reality will find its ultimate meaning in love, compassion, the highest good and so” in case it turns out there is a God, though admittedly you’re not sure? You didn’t understand my point if you think this is a good reply to it, because we’re still back with the point I made about people basing their lifestyles and practices on supernatural claims, however weakly. And we were talking about beliefs to begin with! We both used the word, so for you to suddenly veer off as if we were talking about knowledge is a non-sequitur.

          “There is no reason to say one knows that is the case. That is the difference between belief and knowledge.”

          Given that I was talking about belief in the first place, that doesn’t make a difference to what I said. Unless you’re claiming atheists “know” with certainty there is no God (depends on the type), in which case that suggests you haven’t actually questioned or listened to many of them.

          1. // So you’re saying you act like “reality will find its ultimate meaning in love, compassion, the highest good and so” in case it turns out there is a God, //
            Not just in case there is God. Rather that choosing to live with compassion, love, goodness etc is no bad choice even if nothing extra mental validates that choice, and belief.

            Most of the atheists I know are agnostics that veer towards atheism, a Dawkins 6.

            1. “Not just in case there is God. Rather that choosing to live with compassion, love, goodness etc is no bad choice even if nothing extra mental validates that choice, and belief.”

              I see no issue in people being compassionate, loving, good, etc., any more than I would see an issue in people feeling awe and wonder about the universe. There’s good reason to encourage such behaviour. To keep this on topic, though, I do see issue in calling that religion, as if religion had nothing to do with doctrines and beliefs, especially supernatural or divine ones that have little rational or scientific support. That seems more than a little No True Scotsman.

              That was the point we were discussing in the first place. It’s like when people in the 2011 UK census were taken aside in the IPSOS-MORI poll and asked why they self-identified as Christian, and a good chunk of them responded that they liked to think of themselves as good people. It’s misusing the term religion so loosely that it leaves no word to honestly describe the real phenomenon. That seems wrong to me, because it needlessly confuses two different issues for no good reason.

              “Most of the atheists I know are agnostics that veer towards atheism, a Dawkins 6.”

              Good to know. Then you should also know that this, according to that scale, puts theism on par with believing in fairies. After all, we don’t definitely know that fairies don’t exist, but we proceed as if they don’t, and freely criticize or even ridicule those who do. Oft-repeated as that comparison is, it is still fair given the double standard therein contained.

              1. I don’t think that it it is the no true scotsman fallacy.

                Person A: “Religious people believe in supernatural beings.”
                Person B: “I am religious, and I am not sure about the existence of supernatural beings.”
                Person A: “Well, no true religious person doubts the existence supernatural beings.”

                I am arguing the opposite of that.

              2. From what I read, most of those working in the study of the human phenomenon we call religion, suggest that won’t succumb to a simple analysis. Its complex. I can see why that might not suit polemicists, its so much easier to have defined target.

            2. Sorry, but there was no reply button to your most recent comment, so I’m adding my response here.

              The short response to that hypothetical dialogue is; “Why does that person identify as religious, then? More to the point, why do they identify as Christian?” You said in your original comment that “Not all Christians are like Mr Robbins. Many of us…” and then go on to list things that call into question naming those people Christian to begin with, like not believing but wanting to. By that standard, I’m a Panglossian because I don’t believe the world is the best one possible even though I would like very much to believe that.

              And it raises the question about other religions. You place yourself in with the Christian category. Do you think it particularly likely, therefore, that the events depicted in the gospels about Jesus actually happened? If you claim agnosticism, do you err towards theism, atheism, or the centre, and if so, why in this particular religion? Are you a Muslim who waxes agnostic about Allah, a Hindu who waxes agnostic about Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma, and a Pastafarian who waxes agnostic about the Flying Spaghetti Monster too? What about the positions of the 4,000 or so other religions on the planet, including animism, Shinto Buddhism, the Mormon history of America, and thetan interplanetary reincarnation in Scientology?

              If you’re not a “6” about those (effectively “atheistic”), then you’re giving undue credence to a lot of incompatible beliefs that I doubt you’d give to any claim just because it hasn’t been disproved, including Russell’s teapot and fairies (incidentally, what kind of agnosticism would you consider warranted for those?). If you single out Christianity (which branch, in any case?), then that’s presumably because there are good reasons to give it at least some more degree of confidence than these other religious claims, in which case let’s hear them.

              Before you reply that a religious person can be not sure about a belief and still be religious: what of the “6” atheists? Even an agnostic, unless they’re of the atheistic ilk (6 and all that), gives some undue credence to a religious claim by the fact that they’re not inclining towards the “atheistic” end of the spectrum, which is a double standard if they don’t extend the same courtesy to all the other unverified claims one can find in that category (Russell’s teapot, for instance, and fairies). The issue isn’t about the fact that belief is not 100%, the issue is that it isn’t closer to the 0% end.

              1. Why does a person identify as religious then?

                I can only speak for myself, if you were to look at me from the outside without being privy to my internal thinking, you would see that I say the office, receive Holy Communion at least every Sundays. From the outside I look very religious. This not play acting this gives substance and shape to the rest of my living.
                In thought I am happy to concur with Anthony Kenny when he says that “a claim to knowledge needs to be substantiated; ignorance need only be confessed.”
                I cannot claim to know that God exists, or indeed what kind of God that might be. I cannot escape the subject-world divide. I choose to live as if there were some ground to believing, but I could be wrong.

            3. Let me confirm that I understand, or at least can guess correctly, where you’re coming from. You participate in a specific set of traditionally religious rituals such as the Holy Communion (which suggests to me a Catholic background), but do not believe in the traditional justification for those rituals; in this example you neither think of the act as including Jesus’s presence in the room nor think that the Last Supper it is based on actually happened (feel free to correct me here). In this sense, you are play-acting.

              You do, however, feel fulfilled during these rituals and see them as important or at least helpful to you, and since you are confident in this purpose for doing them, they are genuine to you for these reasons. In this sense, you are not play-acting.

              You perform these religious rituals, say, because you were brought up Catholic or had a strong Catholic background at some point?

              On your last point:

              “I cannot claim to know that God exists, or indeed what kind of God that might be. I cannot escape the subject-world divide. I choose to live as if there were some ground to believing, but I could be wrong.”

              As I asked before, to get some idea of the scope of this agnosticism, how does this compare – from your perspective, if you like – with the other religious tenets, and with Russell’s teapot and fairies? On Dawkins’ scale of 1 to 7, how would you rank them, or at least the ones you are familiar with?

              1. Well when it comes to Russell’s teapot, its not of any real consequence to me. Does it exist? am I bothered. No. The same is true of fairies, although I know people for whom the question is a bit more serious. Both are hypothetical objects my subject. But God as traditionally defined is not an object.
                In the ordinary everyday world of means, my knowledge consists of me, the subject, knowing about a set of objects that are not me. In order to know anything I must maintain the subjective me. Without the subject there is no knowing the object. This knowledge depends on the subject-object divide; the self-world distinction. However, knowledge of God would not be knowledge of an object because an infinite being would have to include the subject, thus it would no longer be an object and can therefore be known.

              2. I am not a catholic BTW.
                I do believe that Jesus existed, and shared fellowship meals, including the last supper. I regard these as historical probabilities, I have had all the arguments. As to the supernatural aspects that’s beyond the scope of historical enquiry, therefore I regard it as secondary to my participation in something that others including my ancestors have done for centuries.

            4. Pardon me if I misunderstand, but in my defence your writing was a bit unclear. Also, I’m starting to feel we’re going off-topic.

              You’re saying that God is more plausible than Russell’s teapot because it’s more believable to think you’re part of a gigantic disembodied mind – which, despite requiring other ways of knowing, you nevertheless aren’t sure is there – and you act, at least in part, on the offchance that it responds favourably to your specific rituals? And this is so different from entertaining the idea of a celestial teapot or a tiny winged humanoid that it has nothing to do with science or rational inquiry, simply because the disembodied mind in question is a mind (despite the existence of mind sciences), and/or despite it being at least as big as the universe and superimposed on everything in it, which somehow makes it more credible than just any old disembodied mind invoked in other religions? And you base your level of belief not on the strength of the evidence but on the consequences of the premises in question, such that tiny winged humanoids who don’t bother you are less credible than gigantic disembodied minds who potentially reward you for your behaviours, in spite of the non-sequitur nature of this epistemological approach?

              You also think that Jesus was a real person, presumably due to the gospel accounts, yet think that the miracles claimed to have been performed in those same accounts are not matters that concern a subject trying to confirm what actually happened before we were born, presumably because virgin births, spiritual otherworlds, and walking on water aren’t scientific claims? And that historians cannot judge whether such actions are unlikely, given our modern knowledge and intellectual principles (for instance, that resurrection is biologically impossible and written claims from 2,000 years ago don’t gain any credibility simply because we weren’t there to witness them)?

              Moreover, you do not consider yourself a Catholic, despite admitting that you receive Holy Communion, and despite claiming that your agnosticism does not exempt you from the Christian category because you still devoutly follow the rituals, even though that same logic would not exempt you from the Catholic category either?

              Pardon me for saying this, wildkennett, but if so, then frankly I think you’re muddled at best and evasive at worst. You claim to be agnostic about a religion you devoutly participate in, you seem reluctant to say that you perform the rituals while being atheistic and not believing their traditional rationales, you bring up further claims about epistemology and then engage in special pleading for those beliefs you are agnostic about, and you haven’t yet indicated your positions to other religious tenets despite being asked twice. The best you’ve done is picked the “Russell’s teapot” and “fairies”, omitting whether by happenstance or design actual rival religious claims, and dismissed them on the spurious grounds that they are inconsequential to you, which is both an epistemological non-sequitur and not what I asked you in the first place.

              To get an idea of why I consider your claim dubious, consider Islam and Allah. Muslims would say that Allah is an infinite and omnipresent being who judges what we do, and they would recommend following Muslim practices and rituals like Ramadan. If you’re willing to perform rituals on the possibility that a judgemental omnipresent being is watching, are you willing to declare yourself a Muslim agnostic and begin practising the faith? Or why not sign on as a non-Christian pantheist, who regards the universe as god? Or why not practice any other religious ritual on the offchance the infinite being’s tastes go that way?

              To bring this back to the original point, I think it’s becoming clearer that you’re disproving your own point that religions don’t necessarily require belief, since it is becoming harder to take your absolute agnosticism at face value while you also make special pleading for beliefs that you plainly still see some credibility in, while you by your own admission behave as if those particular beliefs are true just in case, and while you avoid comparing, much less explaining the difference between, your agnosticism to agnostic atheists and especially to your positions on rival religious beliefs.

              1. You posts are rather long and I am dyslexic. So I just pick on bits.

                God as envisaged by Christianity is not an object in the ‘world’, fairies and teapots, or for that matter the Gods of polytheism are. The God of monotheism is a is a different category of being.
                Knowledge needs a subject to know and an object to be known. If the hypothetical being is not an object ie something with a subject outside of it, how could it be known?

              2. If the hypothetical being is not an object ie something with a subject outside of it, how could it be known?

                Why are you asking us that question, rather than yourself?

                On the one hand you claim to reasonably believe that this god of yours is real; on the other hand, you claim that it is unreasonable to know anything at all about it. Which is it? Either whatever you’re referring to is real and reasonable and knowable, in which case it should be rather obvious what it is; or it’s imaginary and unreasonable and unknowable, in which case you’re just fooling yourself and trying to get us to confirm your delusions.

                b&

              3. On the historical Jesus. I have read the works of Borg, Crossan, Sanders and Price. I think there is a case for the existence of such a person. Leaving aside the supernatural claims about him, its his story, as told, that first inspired my religious questions and my desire for a better more just order.

              4. Actually, it’s rather painfully obvious that Jesus is simply a bog-standard fictional Pagan death / rebirth / salvation demigod.

                There are no contemporary or near-contemporary accounts of anything even remotely resembling Jesus or the events surrounding him — and this despite the great wealth of contemporary accounts.

                The Dead Sea Scrolls are the actual pieces of paper and parchment penned by millennialist Jews living in and around Jerusalem before, during, and after the entire range of dates it could have happened. The Scrolls cover all sorts of topics of passionate interest to Jesus and Christianity, including the very prophecies Jesus was said to have fulfilled; beatitudes (but not those beatitudes); war and peace; moral standards; and more.

                Philo of Alexandria was the hellenized Jewish philosopher responsible for the integration of the Logos (of John 1:1) into Judaism. He was related by marriage to the Herod Agrippa whom the Gospels identify as the king at the time of Jesus’s ministry. He was an ambassador who participated in an embassy to Rome in the 40s to petition Caligula against the unjust treatment of Jews at the hands of the Romans, including excessive and unjustifiable crucifixions. He was a prolific author over the course of his life and mentioned many of his contemporaries, especially as they were relevant to philosophical and religious matters.

                Several Roman Satirists were active during that period. Their stock in trade was exactly the sort of humiliation Jesus heaped upon Pilate and the Sanhedrin as well as the type of scandal that was the scene with the moneychangers outside the Temple.

                Pliny the elder was obsessed with all things supernatural, especially prophets and magicians, but also spectacular events such as the Signs and Portents that accompanied the Crucifixion.

                And not a single one of them even made the most vague of parenthetical references to anybody or anything that could even remotely be mistraken for Jesus or the events of the Gospels.

                The earliest mention of Jesus in the historical record comes from Paul, and Paul established his bona fides by identifying his experiences of Jesus as visionary and spiritual, expressly non-material, in the exact same form that all the other early Christians had experienced Jesus. He is also nearly perfectly ignorant of Jesus’s biography and words, exemplified not only by his silence on such matters but by his use of weaker Hebrew scriptural examples to make rhetorical points that Jesus himself allegedly made far more emphatically.

                The next earliest mentions of Jesus are in the Gospels, which are palpable bullshit. They’re a non-stop magical mystery tour, and the authors couldn’t even get basic geography and chronology right.

                At about the same time, the earliest Christian apologists were writing the earliest defenses of the faith to the Pagans. Justin Martyr was perhaps earliest, and typical. His central thesis was that Pagans had no right to ridicule Christians because everything they mocked Christians for were the same things Pagans held most dear. He devoted entire chapters to the parallels between Jesus and Pagan “Sons of Jupiter,” as he called them. Martyr claimed that Pagans actually stole Jesus and his biography, through the work of evil daemons with the power of foresight who knew Jesus was coming and who attempted to lead honest men astray. Nevertheless, his analysis of the parallels (if not his explanation for their existence) is spot-on. Perseus was born of a virgin; Bacchus turned water into wine; the Mithraic Eucharist uses water rather than wine; and so on. Indeed, once you strip away everything that Martyr so clearly identifies that was the result of syncretism, there’s literally nothing left of Jesus. Even the Resurrection and the Ascension, even his fundamental role as the Logos — all came from long-established Pagan demigods.

                And not much longer after that we get the reactions from Pagans themselves to Christianity. They universally dismissed it as a wacky upstart cult, much the same way we today dismiss the Raelians or the Branch Davidians. Christians were seen as lunatic nutjobs completely out of touch with reality.

                Lucian of Samosata, in particular, wrote a delightful satire on the death of Peregrinus aka Proteus aka…. Peregrinus was a lovable scoundrel who immolated himself in front of the entrance to one of the Olympic Stadia. Before that he had a long and fruitful and dramatic career as a con artist, and the Christians were his favorite set of marks. They revered him as one of their holiest founders, and he “revealed” unto them many of their deepest mysteries — mysteries which were just re-packaged warmed-over Paganism.

                Though Lucian does not reveal Peregrinus’s name amongst the Christians nor the “mysteries” he taught to the Christians, there’s at least one example of that sort of thing that’s particularly obvious, even if it wasn’t Peregrinus’s doing. The most detailed biography of Jesus we get from Paul at first blush appears to be the story of the Last Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:23. But even the smallest expansion of the context makes it apparent that he’s not describing the Last Supper, but rather giving instruction on how to perform the Eucharist. The problem is that we know from Martyr that the almost-exactly-the-same Eucharist was central to Mithraism, and we know from Plutarch that Mithraism was a mere century prior primarily the religion of the Cilician pirates whose home base was in Tarsus. As in, “Paul, of.”

                So, yeah. Christianity and its Jesus is no different from any other syncretic Classical Mediterranean pagan mystery cult, for that’s exactly what it is. Entirely fictional, with not even the pretense of being based in actual events or people.

                Any argument you might make about how Jesus was really real despite all of that will apply in spades to any and every other Pagan demigod. If you think it would be silly to worship at the altars of Dionysus or Osiris or Bacchus or any of the rest, know that it’s every bit as silly for all the same reasons to worship at the altar of Jesus. If you’d be embarrassed to eat the flesh and drink the blood of Mithras in the form of bread and water, even symbolically, you should be equally embarrassed to eat the flesh and drink the blood of Jesus.

                Cheers,

                b&

            5. “God as envisaged by Christianity is not an object in the ‘world’, fairies and teapots, or for that matter the Gods of polytheism are. The God of monotheism is a is a different category of being.”
              “Knowledge needs a subject to know and an object to be known. If the hypothetical being is not an object ie something with a subject outside of it, how could it be known?”

              By you giving up your word games and thinking how you would go about testing the existence of some super-mind – in fact, any kind of mind – in the universe. I presume you’re not agnostic about the existence of conscious experience in other people’s heads, in which case you would have reasons for thinking that any particular mind could exist.

              And when you think of those reasons (people’s behaviour, expression, what the most parsimonious explanation for that is, and so on) then you should know, for one thing, why the object-subject distinction is being exaggerated by yourself.

              Then, instead of giving the “monotheism” a lazy pass because you think it’s superimposed on yourself, you’d realize that your excuse for dismissing some beings as objects and this one as not is nothing to do with the being in question filling up the universe and you, and everything to do with you not wanting to be skeptical about this particular being.

              If I told you there was a being superimposed on your brain that felt and thought what you did, but wasn’t actually you, you would dismiss it as an empty claim. Yet you’re treating your own pet religious belief differently.

              For one thing, you can’t claim that everything “not-you” (i.e. not you the subject) can be known, claim an infinite being includes you, and then wax agnostic about it. If you’re part of an infinite consciousness, I think you’d know about it.

              So since you claim to be agnostic, you’re either contradicting yourself on the point about it being an object external to yourself (since you just admitted that’s what a being other than you would be) or contradicting your agnostic position (how could you not know if you were part of an infinite being? I think you’d notice).

              You are basically repeating a mantra for special pleading for your brand of religious practice. You claim the “God of monotheism” (I notice you still haven’t answered the question about Islam and other religious practices) is a different category of being because it is not an “object”, yet a being like a polytheistic God is considered an “object”. Yet your argument for this special pleading, such as it is, can be refuted by a kindergartener.

              With little adaptation, I could use it to argue that I don’t know a thing about myself, about the universe which I am not outside of, time, space, my brain, and any hypothetical being superimposed on my mind. Does that make me an agnostic about those things? No more than Dawkins is about monotheism.

              Your artificial definition of knowledge as requiring “an object outside of subjective experience” to work (as if there were no such thing as self-knowledge, for a start) is, as a result, a desperate attempt to avoid any serious inquiry about a belief you are not atheistic towards.

              If we can understand the existence of beings in other human bodies, we can understand some being who occupies everywhere. The fact that there’s no reason to think it is so, especially in light of the mind sciences, highlights the lengths you’ve gone to in order to avoid the point.

              MY MAIN POINT: Religion is definitely about belief, even for you, or you’d be an outright atheistic practitioner of at least a Dawkins level 6. The fact that you’ve watered it down in your own case hardly makes a difference, considering you’re neither atheistic nor fully detached from the baggage of Christian mythology.

              1. My point was always that it is not just about belief, its complex phenomenon, which includes believing. Not all religion give it prime importance in the way that Dogmatic Christianity does. For evangelicals its the belief that saves. Thats not true of all religion.

            6. “My point was always that it is not just about belief, its complex phenomenon, which includes believing. Not all religion give it prime importance in the way that Dogmatic Christianity does. For evangelicals its the belief that saves. Thats not true of all religion.”

              And my point was always that the belief is there, however watered down, though not that every religious group put it front and centre. Your own lack of atheism falls into that. And if you go through the motions but are effectively atheistic (or basically don’t believe the tenets), then it becomes tricky to call it a religion. It just becomes a secular cultural practice.

              1. Even the word ‘belief’ is problematic, before 1600 the object of the verb belief was not a propositional truth but nearly always a person.

                So when early moderns said I believe in one God, they were not saying I believe that this God exists, they were saying they believe in this much in the way that a person might believe in their spouse.

                This is not about going through the motions, this about believing in the value of a particular way of living, within a particular body of people some of whom are ‘true believers’ and other in that anxious middle between faith and doubt.

                I am afraid that without my particular first person involvement in the world you are never going fully grasp the whys of this, nor I yours.

              2. Even the word ‘belief’ is problematic, before 1600 the object of the verb belief was not a propositional truth but nearly always a person.

                So when early moderns said I believe in one God, they were not saying I believe that this God exists, they were saying they believe in this much in the way that a person might believe in their spouse.

                The difference between a spouse and a god being that one of them exists and is made of real flesh and blood. The other one is not material and speaking of such an entity as a person is potentially a sign of a medical condition that may or may not need treatment.

                If you walk around saying “God want’s me to do this and god want’s me to say that”, and what you do and say isn’t within the secular law or is deemed dangerous to yourself and others, then you will get taken off the streets.

                Do you really believe in god as a person like you believe in your spouse?

            7. “Even the word ‘belief’ is problematic, before 1600 the object of the verb belief was not a propositional truth but nearly always a person. So when early moderns said I believe in one God, they were not saying I believe that this God exists, they were saying they believe in this much in the way that a person might believe in their spouse.”

              You can’t believe in a person if you don’t first believe that person exists. That’s like saying belief isn’t about a minor detail like thinking whether Santa exists or not, but trusting that he’s going to put us on the naughty or nice list. Belief is a necessary presupposition in both cases.

              You’re giving me half-baked excuses I’ve heard umpteen times before.

              “This is not about going through the motions, this about believing in the value of a particular way of living”

              Again, if it was only a question of lifestyle and cultural activities like rituals and celebrations, then those are secular cultural activities.

              From what I can tell, you’re not an atheist, an agnostic one or otherwise, so you clearly think there’s something to the premise that “god exists” that you wouldn’t entertain about an infinity of other things that you have no basis for being so agnostic about.

              This is demonstrated by the fact that you in part do Holy Communion, by your own admission, in case God happens to exist and be looking over your shoulder!

              “this about believing in the value of a particular way of living within a particular body of people some of whom are ‘true believers’ and other in that anxious middle between faith and doubt.”

              And yet all of them, you included, thinking that the premises of the beliefs, whether you believe wholeheartedly or confess ignorance, have some merit to them.

              You don’t know whether an infinite being exists, but you plainly don’t see a problem with going along with the belief anyway, or you’d have said “I choose to live like this because I find it fulfilling”, not “I choose to live as if there were some ground to believing”.

              Why would you choose that? Because, again by your own admission, in case there is a God. You still think there’s something to the belief itself! And your reasons for thinking this are no more compelling than reasons for thinking fairies exist. The conclusion that makes sense of this is that you’re trying to have your belief, however feebly, and make it as critic-proof as possible. If you’d said you do the rituals for secular reasons – i.e. made it plain you were not religious – instead of thinking that, because religions involve more than beliefs therefore beliefs are unimportant, in defiance of the common understanding of the role beliefs play in religion (justifying the rituals, for a start), then we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.

    3. Why is there a problem at all?

      Because religious beliefs often lead to proscriptions of other people’s freedoms.

      Not all do, for sure, but there are many believers out there who are ‘Ambrose Bierce Christians’ – “One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor.”

        1. There is a problem “at all” (your original question) because not none of believers are Ambrose Christians.

          1. Eric //Because religious beliefs often lead to proscriptions of other people’s freedoms.//

            So can any kind of belief, a belief in private ownership of land restricts the freedom of people to walk on that land, build a home on that land and so on.

            Private property is not a reality its a belief system, one which leads to the proscriptions of other people’s freedoms.

            1. When people supporting the concept of land ownership try and water down or undermine the teaching of sound science in High School, or try and prevent women employees from getting health insurance coverage for birth control, I’ll oppose them too. But, funny thing, it’s not ‘landownershipists’ who are doing that, is it?

              1. No, but that’s not to say that concept of private ownership is not or has not been harmful.

                As I understand it, indigenous people in the US had no real concept of land ownership in the western European sense, they nevertheless had that belief imposed on them, much to their detriment.

              2. Yes, okay. So we agree that one should oppose ideologies when they cause problems. And we agree that while landownership has caused big problems in the past, religion is causing problems today. That is the answer to your question, “why is it an issue.” It’s an issue because religions today are causing social ills.

              3. Eric, I agree that religion can be a problem, I look across to the US and shudder. Even in my own country the hitherto liberal Established Church is tying it self up in knots over Gay marriage. Yes I can see that it can be a problem and why. Nevertheless is religion necessarily a problem? Is there not the possibility of strands of religion developing into something more progressive?

                The Quakers seem to me to be a good example of this ahppening.

    4. It can be a problem when it leads to bad thinking, which leads to bad ideas and finally bad actions.

      If you believe god is the one who created everything, that belief interferes with scientific facts that say otherwise. Sometimes your belief is so strong, you get the idea that everyone should be subjected to it and before you know it, you’re figuring out ways to sneak it into school curriculums.

      1. Diana, it can be a problem, especially when linked to the kind of certainty we see amongst fundamentalists. But like I said not every religious person has or desires that kind of certainty.

        1. First of all, how can you say that these are only “fundamentalists” when evolution is presented in main stream media as “share the controversy”. The DI isn’t fundamentalist after all. These views are espoused by many liberal Christians.

          In the long term, moreover, I think unevidenced belief allows or even requires lazy thinking and that has ramifications in all kinds of places in society. I have liberal Christian friends who don’t even go to any type of church because they don’t like the dogma of religion but they believe that when they have bad thoughts “that’s Satan”. They also believe that they do not need to read the bible because they can just read what people tell them the bible is about.

          This lack of critical thinking over and over means these same people often go to quack healers who give their kids “vaccines” that aren’t vaccines.

    5. There is a problem because faith doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Religions aren’t just philosophical disciplines, they’re institutions. Powerful institutions with tremendous influence over culture and politics with very little accountability. The power and influence of these institutions has consequences and these consequences often negatively effect the humans living on this planet right now. Faith isn’t often personal or private at all. It manifests itself in the way its adherents think, act and, most unfortunately, vote. I understand that the nature of your question was philosophical, but faith has ramifications beyond the philosophical. When one considers the consequences of faith on this mortal coil, the problems abound.

    1. I remembered your name from the “A Christian Scientist…” post from a couple of days ago. You made an argument that Diana completely dismantled and I was going to mention that here, but when I went back to that post to make sure my memory was correct I noticed that you had responded (with your new username) and very graciously conceded the point. So now, instead of mentioning that thread as evidence against you, I mention it to commend you for a classy concession.

  28. Strong points, especially your answer to #3 and #4 against Robbins.

    I do have a question about your statement,
    “Wrong again. Morality exists because a). we’ve evolved to have feelings of right and wrong…”

    I’m trying to understand your point of view (I understand Robbins only too well and shudder.)

    It seems if “feelings of right and wrong” aren’t objectively true, real, then they don’t count for much, if anything. Imagine if I said I know math exists because we’ve evolved to have feelings about numbers?:-)

    I’m ribbing you a bit…

    Also, Jerry, I still don’t get how you combine this morality with your view that humans don’t have alternative choice, and yet your insistent condemnation of actions in Palestine/Israel (I do agree with you about HAMAS being murderous).

    How are Palestinians and Israelis to act any different if they don’t have the “free will” to do so?

    In some ways isn’t the Palestine/Israel conflict like the conflict of cats defending/attacking territory?

    A black cat came onto your property day before yesterday and sought to take over. My old cat Fizzy , normally rather lethargic, turned into a “terror” and they were at it,
    until I managed to drive the invading cat off with an empty card board box.

    How is that different from an evolutionary view of human interaction between groups of primates with opposing views, lifestyles, etc.?

    Sorry, if this sounds elementary, but I still don’t understand your basis for morality.

      1. ? I know about Euthyphro…

        What does that have to do with my question about both cats fighting and humans fighting over territory, morality, creative choice, and evolution?

        1. Mr. Wilcox–It’s a response about your question re: a basis for morality. To argue that morality is in any way objective is to beg the Euthyphro question, whether your basis for morality is a god, a rule of recognition, or some other mechanism.

          1. Except that morality can be epistemologically objective, given at least one working axiom, which puts it leagues ahead of the main forms of religious morality we can find in the world today.

            1. Objective morality to me is one of those diffuse oxymorons that somehow is supposed to be static, but never is.

              Exactly what morals are non-negotiable no matter what?

              1. Epistemologically objective morality doesn’t mean ‘morals that are non-negotiable.’ It means that the propositions produced by that morality are likely to be true or reasonable to believe are true. This is why I added in ‘given at least one working axiom.’ If you started with an axiom like “maximizing people’s values is morally good” or, for instance, Sam Harris’s axiom “The worst possible suffering for all conscious creatures is morally bad”, then you can come up with propositions based on those axioms that are reasonable to believe or likely to be true in reality. This is the difference between it being epistemologically objective and ontologically objective.

                Religious morality is simply a series of heuristic claims about right and wrong, based on the intuitions of ancient peoples, muddled by a ridiculous number of extremely improbable other claims about the nature of reality. I know which one I would choose.

              2. The problem with “maximizing people’s values” as an objective framework is that we yet have to devise a way to maximise these values without minimizing other people’s values. I’m thinking about wealth in particular, of course.

                I agree that basic human rights are a freebie in the sense that it is something a country grants upon itself ( ideally that is…I don’t think you can impose lasting rights upon a population that simply votes for another way of regarding the issue ).

                In other words, I simply disagree with Harris and others about the notion that the idea of an objective moral framework is necessary.

                Don’t get me wrong, I think discussing morality is fine as long as we agree that it fundamentally is a relative size.

                More often than not, though, I think it amounts to hypothetical dreams of global moral unification, but I must admit that I usually don’t stick around in those kind of discussions too long.

                I prefer morality on a case-to-case foundation.

              3. Sorry for replying here. I’m brand new to posting on this site and for some reason it wouldn’t let me reply below your last post.

                “The problem with “maximizing people’s values” as an objective framework is that we yet have to devise a way to maximise these values without minimizing other people’s values. I’m thinking about wealth in particular, of course.”

                I’m not sure I follow. Why can’t you maximize people’s values without minimizing other people’s values? If your only axiom is that you want to maximize people’s values, then it will necessarily follow from that, that you will want to maximize as many people’s values as much as possible so what you’ll end up with is a goal of maximizing *net* well-being. Maximizing people’s values without minimizing other people’s values unnecessarily seems as though it’s actually the very core of what morality is.

                “In other words, I simply disagree with Harris and others about the notion that the idea of an objective moral framework is necessary.

                Don’t get me wrong, I think discussing morality is fine as long as we agree that it fundamentally is a relative size.

                More often than not, though, I think it amounts to hypothetical dreams of global moral unification, but I must admit that I usually don’t stick around in those kind of discussions too long.

                I prefer morality on a case-to-case foundation.

                Harris is (and I am) advocating morality on a case-to-case basis, though. I’m not arguing that the moral police should take over and make all of our moral decisions for us. I’m advocating that people realize that moral questions have right and wrong answers in principle (some questions may be so ridiculously complex that we can never find answers in practice but this, itself, is something we should realize about questions like that and another problem with religious morality, is it will often assert answers to these types of questions too). I’m arguing for an ideological shift where people realize that we can’t merely rely on intuitions when making moral decisions and we definitely can’t merely rely on the moral intuitions of ancient people who were practically deranged by their misunderstandings of reality and the cosmos.

              4. “Sorry for replying here. I’m brand new to posting on this site and for some reason it wouldn’t let me reply below your last post.”

                No problem, this thread will do. 🙂

                “I’m not sure I follow. Why can’t you maximize people’s values without minimizing other people’s values? If your only axiom is that you want to maximize people’s values, then it will necessarily follow from that, that you will want to maximize as many people’s values as much as possible so what you’ll end up with is a goal of maximizing *net* well-being. Maximizing people’s values without minimizing other people’s values unnecessarily seems as though it’s actually the very core of what morality is.”

                Keep in mind that I’m mainly thinking of values in terms of relative wealth here.

                The problem, imo, is that the the mechanisms we currently have to implement this axiom in reality founded upon an oxymoron when you take into consideration that our resources are limited.

                As long as the core value is growth relative to the size of the competition, then there will always be winners and losers.

                I guess the question is; Can we reach a point were the losers still win some just for entering the competition?

                Otherwise succes will always be a question of remaining ahead of the competition.

                “Harris is (and I am) advocating morality on a case-to-case basis, though. I’m not arguing that the moral police should take over and make all of our moral decisions for us. I’m advocating that people realize that moral questions have right and wrong answers in principle (some questions may be so ridiculously complex that we can never find answers in practice but this, itself, is something we should realize about questions like that and another problem with religious morality, is it will often assert answers to these types of questions too). I’m arguing for an ideological shift where people realize that we can’t merely rely on intuitions when making moral decisions and we definitely can’t merely rely on the moral intuitions of ancient people who were practically deranged by their misunderstandings of reality and the cosmos.”

                I’ll admit my ignorance about his case-to-case ( real cases, mind you ) approach and all the more power to him then.

                I just think the idea of a moral ideological paradigm shift is a bit, well, naive for the time being.

                Countries can learn from other countries, but the real and lasting change has to come from within the population. A great leader can do great many things in a short time, but without the support of the wider population it doesn’t last.

                And who’s to say how our human rights look in a couple of hundred years from now?


              5. Keep in mind that I’m mainly thinking of values in terms of relative wealth here.

                By values, I mean our wants and needs in general. Everything that people value. I’m not specifically talking about money and economics is one realm where I think an objective morality would have a lot of limits in what questions it can answer in practice (I would still argue that it could answer just about all questions in principle, but the fact that economics is so ridiculously complex will likely keep those answers from actually being found by people for quite a while I’d guess).

                The problem, imo, is that the the mechanisms we currently have to implement this axiom in reality founded upon an oxymoron when you take into consideration that our resources are limited.

                Why would it be an oxymoron to try to help as many people fulfill their values as possible? I get that it could be difficult for various reasons but I’m not even arguing that it’s possible to maximize everyone’s values. I’m only arguing that what is morally best is that which does so. It could be conceivable that the ideal moral society could never exist in reality due to practical or logistic facts about reality, and acknowledging that fact (if it was one) would simply be a step for that objective morality to take.

                As long as the core value is growth relative to the size of the competition, then there will always be winners and losers.

                I guess the question is; Can we reach a point were the losers still win some just for entering the competition?

                Otherwise succes will always be a question of remaining ahead of the competition.

                Are you asserting that economics prevents us from uncovering morally true (or likely to be true, based on axioms) conclusions or are you just arguing that once we found those conclusions, we’d have trouble implementing them due to how our economic systems currently work? If the former, I’d ask you to elaborate because I’m not following how it does so. If the latter, then I would just agree that morality is very difficult and it will be very difficult to improve the well-being of people in the future but I’d much rather be armed with a type of morality that looks at everything objectively and bases its propositions on what is actually likely to be true than any other candidate ideas I’ve seen (like embracing intuition or ancient texts based on ancient intuitions).

                “I’ll admit my ignorance about his case-to-case ( real cases, mind you ) approach and all the more power to him then.

                I just think the idea of a moral ideological paradigm shift is a bit, well, naive for the time being.

                Countries can learn from other countries, but the real and lasting change has to come from within the population. A great leader can do great many things in a short time, but without the support of the wider population it doesn’t last.

                And who’s to say how our human rights look in a couple of hundred years from now?

                I’m not arguing that there must be a global shift so I don’t think there’s any naivety entailed by my stance. I understand that a global appreciation for the type of morality I’m advocating is very unlikely and will be for the foreseeable future. I’m arguing for an ideological shift starting with me and you, and hopefully others in this thread, and the readers of books that also argue for the propositions that I’m arguing for here.

              6. “By values, I mean our wants and needs in general. Everything that people value. I’m not specifically talking about money and economics is one realm where I think an objective morality would have a lot of limits in what questions it can answer in practice (I would still argue that it could answer just about all questions in principle, but the fact that economics is so ridiculously complex will likely keep those answers from actually being found by people for quite a while I’d guess).”

                But exactly what moral wants and needs do you mean and by talking about the needs of everyone aren’t you getting ahead of yourself?

                “Are you asserting that economics prevents us from uncovering morally true (or likely to be true, based on axioms) conclusions or are you just arguing that once we found those conclusions, we’d have trouble implementing them due to how our economic systems currently work? If the former, I’d ask you to elaborate because I’m not following how it does so. If the latter, then I would just agree that morality is very difficult and it will be very difficult to improve the well-being of people in the future but I’d much rather be armed with a type of morality that looks at everything objectively and bases its propositions on what is actually likely to be true than any other candidate ideas I’ve seen (like embracing intuition or ancient texts based on ancient intuitions).”

                I’m asserting ( crudely ) that morality by and large is completely irrelevant if you haven’t got any food or if your neighbour is trying to steal your food because they don’t have any.

                In other words, objective morality may be a noble purpose, but I honestly think it is a futile exercise as long as we haven’t figured out how to spread the wealth. Literally.

                “I’m not arguing that there must be a global shift so I don’t think there’s any naivety entailed by my stance. I understand that a global appreciation for the type of morality I’m advocating is very unlikely and will be for the foreseeable future. I’m arguing for an ideological shift starting with me and you, and hopefully others in this thread, and the readers of books that also argue for the propositions that I’m arguing for here.”

                Ok, maybe I’m the naive part here then. I do believe a global paradigm shift is necessary if objective ( as in everyone ) morality is supposed to make practical sense.

                And not to be snooty, but why do you think you, me or anyone else in this thread needs to shift their ideological stance on morality?

                Preaching to the choir and all that… 😉

              7. “But exactly what moral wants and needs do you mean and by talking about the needs of everyone aren’t you getting ahead of yourself?”

                People want all kinds of things. I want food, comfort, success, happiness, etc. Many people actually seem to value the well-being of others. These are the values that I’m talking about maximizing. Anything people want. And I’m not sure why talking about the needs of everyone would be getting ahead of myself?

                “I’m asserting ( crudely ) that morality by and large is completely irrelevant if you haven’t got any food or if your neighbour is trying to steal your food because they don’t have any.

                That wouldn’t make it irrelevant. It would still remain true that some moral propositions were likely to be true and some were likely to be false. I’m arguing for what is true about morality here, not what possible policies might be feasible. This is a philosophical argument about whether or not objective morality based on reason can exist or would be better than other types of morality.

                “In other words, objective morality may be a noble purpose, but I honestly think it is a futile exercise as long as we haven’t figured out how to spread the wealth. Literally.

                Well figuring out how to spread the wealth is by definition a moral dilemma, in so far as it relates to the well-being of people, as well. Do you want to solve it with reason or with heuristics from ancient books based on nothing more than the moral intuitions of ancient peoples – because very many of the people working on improving economic systems in the world are doing so based on their religious understandings of morality.

                Also, even if you couldn’t spread the wealth, there is already quite a bit of suffering happening in the world right now based on clearly immoral propositions and many of those situations could be improved without spreading any wealth. For instance, the fact that the American justice system seems to be based heavily on the desire for retribution or the fact that people are punished for theological crimes and for partaking in vices that are really only shunned for religious reasons.

                In any case, though, whether or not it’s a futile exercise seems like a secondary objection to whether or not it’s true that an objective morality based on reason can or should exist and this is what I’ve been arguing.

                “Ok, maybe I’m the naive part here then. I do believe a global paradigm shift is necessary if objective ( as in everyone ) morality is supposed to make practical sense.

                It would be nice, but we live in a very complex world, that is likely to be headed for very hard times for various reasons. I optimistically think humankind will prevail but it will be extremely difficult imo and I don’t really expect my arguments here will be picked up by the majority of extremely religious people in this world any time soon. :p I just argue for propositions I think are true where I can and hope truth spreads as far as it can. 🙂

                “And not to be snooty, but why do you think you, me or anyone else in this thread needs to shift their ideological stance on morality?

                Preaching to the choir and all that… 😉

                Well I am passionate about knowledge/truth. I try to align my beliefs as closely to what is likely to be true in reality as possible and arguing for points like this not only has the effect of refining my own position by considering the dissenting ideas of others but it also has the effect of refining their positions by hopefully raising challenges that they haven’t considered before. It’s a win win.

              8. Also, I’m at work and have to get back to it, then I’ll be heading home and might not be able to get back on until tomorrow so it was cool chatting with you and I’ll check back when I can to respond if you add anything.

              9. That’s cool. I don’t I have anything to add atm ( football!!! ). 🙂

                Great chatting with you too. I’m a regular here so if you stick around chances are we’ll bump into eachother again.

                Peaceout, mate.

            2. Kevin–while I can see descending into a Euthyphrian (!!) quagmire over the initial axiom assumed, I’d love to see any longer form discussion on this. I admit, my philosophy days are long behind me!

              1. Oh yeah, I grant you, there is absolutely a leap being made by that axiom, but we make axiomatic leaps in science all the time. I would read The Moral Landscape if you want to get more into this but I should add that I don’t quite agree with Harris’s argument in the book completely (he seems to be denying that he is leaping the is/ought problem with his axiom for some reason, plus I have a few other disagreements with him).

                This quote also expresses what I’m talking about:
                “It is the privilege of man’s moral genius, impersonated by inspired individuals, to advance ethical axioms which are so comprehensive and so well founded that men will accept them as grounded in the vast mass of their individual emotional experiences. Ethical axioms are found and tested not very differently from the axioms of science. Truth is what stands the test of experience.” – Einstein

    1. ” Imagine if I said I know math exists because we’ve evolved to have feelings about numbers?:-)”

      If he said math exists because humans evolved to create it, then he would be absolutely correct so I don’t really see the problem?

      “How are Palestinians and Israelis to act any different if they don’t have the “free will” to do so?”

      This seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of the free will debate, which is about whether people can take conscious credit for their choices (since they are not the ultimate authors of who they are and didn’t choose their intrinsic traits and values), not whether they can be persuaded or moved in some way to act differently than they otherwise would have. It is just absolutely clear that peoples’ actions can affect other peoples’ actions, regardless of whether free will exists or not.

    2. It seems if “feelings of right and wrong” aren’t objectively true, real, then they don’t count for much, if anything.

      Well, if humans have to create the rules by which humans live (because nothing else will), what else are they gonna base it on but human experiences? What’s the alternative?

      Subjective, human-based, consensus-driven morality is another one of those Churchill-Democracy things: its the very worst form of morality…except for all the others.

    3. You should use the search feature to find all the posts dealing with Free Will, then read them carefully (probably the comments, too). He’s been through this before, many times. Remember there is a difference between “morality” and “moral responsibility.”

      1. Thanks for the suggestion. I joined the conversation several months ago, so I should go back and read all the past posts.

        I don’t understand how there can be morality without moral responsibility.

  29. Even his poetry is actually terrible. Here’s a sample:

    To the Drone Vaguely Realizing Eastward

    This is a poem for President Drone.
    It was written by a camel.
    Can I borrow your phone?
    This is for President Mark Hamill.

    Newtown sounds a red alert.
    Mark Hamill asks is Ernie burnt?
    Every camel’s a first-person shooter.
    The Prez’s fez is haute couture.

    It seems strange that he should be offended.
    The same orders are given by him.
    Paging Pakistan and Yemen.
    Calling all the drone-dead children.

    The camel can’t come to the phone.
    This is for the drone-in-chief.
    Mumbai used to be Bombay.
    The bomb bay opens with a queef.

      1. Oh, you just don’t get it.

        Actually, neither do I.

        There must be some genius hiding in there somewhere though. Hold on a sec, I’ll get my profoundly sophisticated detector glasses and try reading it again.

    1. Ouch. Terrible. That last line might be the worst line of poetry ever written! I’m in a little over my head in these conversations, sometimes, but now my Ph.D. in English will allow me to affirm to you all that this is a terrible poem.

      1. I mean no disrespect when I say that one doesn’t need a PhD in English to see that this is a terrible poem. I stopped writing poetry when I realized I wasn’t very good at it, but sweet zombie Jesus, I was never this bad.

        1. Ditto ditto, but the last line was the best one.
          It’s like hitting yourself with a hammer, so good when it stops.

    2. That seems like something you might write after you dropped some acid for inspiration, but didn’t know that you had been ripped off and the acid was really a fish without a slithy tove.

      1. We used to write poems like this for LOLz when we in school to make fun of people who write poems like these. Damn, I wish I still had some of mine because I think they are just as bad and hilarious (but I made them that way on purpose).

        1. That’s too bad. If you didn’t make it past the first stanza, you probably didn’t notice the bottom of the page where it says, “You Might Also Enjoy: ‘I Fuck Sluts’ by Bo Burnham.” Bo Burnham is intentionally trying to be funny. I can’t tell if Robbins is; but it’s not funny.

      2. I looked to see if Kale is a rock band or something and found no mention, so I assume you compare kale the mighty cruciferous with the gawdawful so-called verse vomited out by that Robbins fellow. Most unfair, sir. I understand there are some few people who can not abide chocolate, and I have personally met one fellow who refuses to eat ice cream. I would not stand still for those people comparing either of those wonderful substances to a Robbins poem, so I must also defend this innocent and nutritious vegetable that I consume almost on a daily basis. I acknowledge kale raw is ultra bland and comes as close to flavor-free as any food I know of, but steamed and dressed with vinegar it is quite tasty.

        1. 😉

          They are comparable to me because I don’t like either, but I don’t hold it against anyone who loves either, or both. Tastes being subjective, fickle, and contextual, I try not to argue the merits of such things.

    3. It hurts to read that. And it totally alters my perception of him. Now I kinda feel bad for him. Also, it makes me wonder how he pronounces the words “shooter” and “couture.” Is that supposed to rhyme?

    1. Kinda ironic point coming from a guy who wrote a book review that doesn’t discuss the book very much.

  30. If he is honestly concerned about Know Nothings, perhaps he should direct his pen to the 180 million politically active Americans who believe in Noah’s Flood [1] or the 125 million who believe Jesus will return in their lifetime [2], rather than at the 12 million or so politically impotent atheists.

    Or just be honest, and say that he really wishes his religion, whatever it is, were true and that he finds it harder to make-believe with us laughing at him.

    [1] http://bit.ly/1r7zj9p
    [2] http://www.pewresearch.org/daily-number/jesus-christs-return-to-earth/

  31. I don’t know – maybe Robbins is an atheist. He seems so totally unaware of what religious people believe that I’d guess he’s never been in a church.

  32. Why are the humanities full of such douchebags? Just look at the picture of this guy – his hipster look fits exactly with the pretentious, pseudo-intellectual wankery that he writes. Lol at him citing Emerson – Emerson was not just a philosophical reactionary (ie, totally anti-rational) but a bullshit artist. As someone in the humanities I just want to note that thankfully not every writer, scholar, poet, cultural commentator, etc, is a resentful anti-rationalist new-ager who (mis)uses his or her education to cloak nonsense in long words, linguistic gymnastics and literary references. Sigh.

    1. Damn. That was very well said. I’d buy you a drink of your choice if we were colocated in meat space.

    2. The oddest thing about *that* kind of humanities person is that they think it perfectly OK to know NOTHING about, say, math, or physics, or biology (some are even proud of their ignorance) but have the temerity to call other people ignorant for not reading the manic/depressive ramblings of some long dead philosopher. I could as well insist that Robbins is a know nothing if he ever speaks on evolution without having a working knowledge of coalescent theory. What do you mean you’ve never even heard of it? Know nothing fraud!

      I think many are very very confused about what constitutes knowledge. I have no doubt that old writers said some interesting things using beautiful or interesting language, and some of it might even be novel insights. But if they were conveying any kind of real knowledge or insights there would be some other way to say it, and someone since their time would have said it better or in more contemporary language. It would have been refined and perfected in a hundred passing years. The constant harking back to ancient sources by the likes of Robbins comes across as a mere authoritarian fetish. It’d be insane to refer you to Newton’s original writings to learn about physics, or to call anyone ignorant of physics for not having read Newton. Newton’s style is archaic, the concepts fresh and rough and still in the process of being worked out. One way you can tell that physics is real knowledge is the very fact that we no longer refer to the original texts at all, they are mere history. Knowledge transcends it’s origins.

    3. My theory is most of these types of Humanities folk are secret theologians. However, just because he writes poetry doesn’t make him a Humanities guy. He’s a poet. A poet that isn’t very good and one that doesn’t know how to write a review of a book.

  33. “You can’t fathom religion until you’re a believer. ”

    The most ignorant trope of all. The ranks of atheists are filled with former believers. The arrogance to suppose that only current believers have ever been down this path is staggering.

    I’ve been there. And I wasn’t toying with it, or dabbling or not being honest and open hearted. Religion was reality for me for a good chunk of my life. I believed unconditionally for a time and then when I had doubts I still *tried* to believe with all my heart for many many years. I tried and tried and tried. I can’t count the times I’ve gone on retreats or pilgrimages or engaged in some other activity to open my heart and let God in. And at times I felt the high one gets from being surrounded by people singing together, from straining together to hear the inaudible sound or see the invisible sight. I can’t count the amount of religious writings I’ve read, from C.S. Lewis to Kierkegaard, looking for a thread that would work.

    It’s all bullshit.

    The subjective feelings religious people have, the feeling of being part of something, a community, a Bigger Picture, the occasional feeling of unrestrained oneness with the universe, what many call the numinous, are real enough. There is nothing wrong, I don’t suppose, with cultivating such feelings, and if such feelings are what you call “religion”, well, there may be something to it. But the very second you try to interpret those feelings as being about something outside of your own mind you will go off the rails… you will be in the realm of truth claims about the universe and religion fails, and fails miserably, at that.

      1. This is the most pernicious trick of religion. What? You have doubts about this great religion we’ve presented to you? Obviously you are morally defective. You have some deep evil in your soul that leads you to reject the *obvious* truth. What a mind game. They try to turn questions of fact into questions of character. It’s a dishonest game played by people who are numb to lying.

        FWIW, though, I’m quite fond of the Jesus I was presented as a child, though that Jesus doesn’t exactly match up with the Jesus in the text.

  34. “Know Nothing” (subtitled “The true history of atheism”)

    Robbins has no humor. That should have been titled “Know nothings”. =D

    I suspect he constrained the title to be a discussion of the magical description of magic (aka theology) in his piece. (Which isn’t worth reading, the atheist bashers copy each others nowadays.) But I think it is telling. The real title would be “Know The Universe” today. It is now well known that religion has nothing but lies about nature.

    Or, as Robbins will have it, in the modern iteration religion has no meaningful content.*

    According to Robbins religion has nothing to say. I Can Haz Burger without Religious Cheeze!?

    *That it has reverted to lies mainly about society (theology, morality), is something Robbins conveniently overlook.

  35. Once I took a quantum mechanics course where the professor explicitly showed, using two dry-erase boards, that two operators commuted (=0). He proclaimed, “I have done nothing!”

    Robbins, you are not only not wrong, you haven’t even done nothing.

    In earnest, I do look for a modicum of knowledge from people like you, but you provide no insight with regard to what belief has to offer and even less understanding what atheism can or cannot be.

  36. A formal definition of religion is notoriously difficult to formulate, but it must surely involve reference to a particular way of life, practices oriented toward a conception of how one should live.

    Fine, but any formal definition of ‘religion’ which leaves out the supernatural will end up including secular humanism — and possibly nationalism, ethnicity, hobbies, and sports.

    Come on. This is one of the oldest tricks in the book — redefine a point of contention as something nobody has any real problem with and then claim victory while denigrating the critics. For some people, it’s apparently their apologetic gold mine. That goose never stops laying.

    . . . Nor is the existence of God a scientific proposition: “Christians aren’t talking about a math problem, they’re talking about a Person. And in the vast experience of people who claim to have had a genuine encounter with the Personality called Christ, there are certain things that are involved, such as willingness [and] humility.”

    Damn it, this is a claim. It is a fact claim. If I said that I had a genuine encounter with Michael Robbins in the 18th dimension of Spirit World do I get to duck all requirements for reason and evidence because he’s not a theory, he’s a person?

    Clarity is not their friend. It is ours.

    Again, the point is not whether God does or does not exist, but that, as Cecilia writes elsewhere in the thread, “Everyone is talking past each other and no one seems to be elevating the conversation to where it could and should be.”

    No, the point IS whether God does or does not exist. Bottom line, this is the issue.

    Robbins and Cecelia and all the noble little non-fundamentalist theists want to elevate the conversation to “I don’t agree with you, but gosh, let’s agree that we’re both fine folks and we like each other just the way we are!” In other words, they want the actual topic to zoom over everyone’s heads while “God” turns into a metaphor for belief in God, which turns into the practice of opening one’s heart to God, which turns into isn’t-it-too-bad-atheists-suck.

    Ok: Here is my new and improved definition of religious faith: believing on evidence which is sufficient for someone who loves.

    Doesn’t it sound sweet? And doesn’t it change the issue from one of deriving a rational conclusion to one of pursuing a moral commitment? It’s all about framing. No definition of religious faith should ignore that.

    It would be interesting to run this by some theists and see if they like it. It would also be interesting to run it by theists and see if they change their minds if they know that the definition comes from an atheist who regards faith as a vice as opposed to a virtue.

    That’s why they hate the gnu atheists so. It’s not because we think all theists are fundamentalists. If that were the case then they’d be plaintively wailing that wait, no — we’re all on the same side!

    No, they hate us because we refuse to grant that faith is a virtue. It’s not an epistemic virtue, it’s not a personal virtue, it’s not a cultural virtue, it’s not the Virtue behind the concept of virtue. It’s freaking dishonest and a sly and divisive means of fooling oneself and denigrating dissent.

    1. “Here is my new and improved definition of religious faith:”

      I thought reasonable working definition was contained in the sentence before: thinking that atheists suck.

      1. A word’s definition is problematic if the people who use it the most don’t agree with it.

        Atheists will of course disagree that “believing on evidence which is sufficient for those who love” is either genuinely descriptive of the believer/event or epistemically reliable as a method (subjective validation? motivated reasoning?) but it does seem to me to accurately describe what is supposed to be going on in religious faith — and how it is differentiated by the faithful from ordinary hope, trust, or pragmatic reliance. The “belief without evidence” trope just doesn’t cut it and “beyond the evidence” isn’t specific enough.

    2. No, they hate us because we refuse to grant that faith is a virtue. It’s not an epistemic virtue, it’s not a personal virtue, it’s not a cultural virtue, it’s not the Virtue behind the concept of virtue. It’s freaking dishonest and a sly and divisive means of fooling oneself and denigrating dissent.

      You nailed it, sister!

      b&

      1. Yes, I too think Sastra nailed it. Loved the “It’s freaking dishonest and a sly and divisive means of fooling oneself and denigrating dissent” both for the meaning & the alliteration.

    3. But of course faith is placed beyond reproach, indeed beyond question, in scripture. Which makes it sly & divisive, yes, and also imbues it with the fearful trait of totalitarian mind control. Faith is only subject to examination to determine if one is lacking in pure and sufficient faith:

      ‘Because faith is all one needs; it is the deed that proves ownership of things hoped for.’ ‘Faith is a gift from god.’ If you ain’t got it, you better get it.

      http://www.jcblog.net/hebrews/11/1-2/now-faith-is-being-sure-of-what-we-hope-for

      “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for” ( Hebrews 11:1-2 )

      In the natural realm, faith doesn’t make sense. Because faith cannot be seen, understood or explained when situations beyond human control require its use. And yet faith is absolutely necessary for the believer. In fact, faith is the first and only thing required of us when we come to God (Ephesians 2:8-9). Later on in this chapter the writer draws attention to the fact that without faith we cannot please God, which means it is absolutely necessary (Hebrews 11:6).

      Paul told the believers in Corinth, “We live by faith, not by sight” (II Corinthians 5:7). If this is the case, it is important to know what faith is, so that we can regulate and conduct ourselves in faith, not by what we see, taste, touch, hear or feel.

      This passage in Hebrews is the mere definition of faith. It is being sure, certain and confident of the things we hope for. The King James Bibles tells us that faith is a substance. And the Amplified Bible puts it best when it calls faith the title deed of the things we hope for. If we have the title deed to something we own it.

      The Amplified goes on to explain it this way, “NOW FAITH is the assurance (the confirmation, the title deed) of the things [we] hope for, being the proof of things [we] do not see and the conviction of their reality [faith perceiving as real fact what is not revealed to the senses]” (Hebrews 11:1). Faith is what assures and having faith is perceiving as real what is not yet evident in the natural realm. The ancients had it; otherwise they would not have seen nor done the things they did. …

      1. “Faith” in the religious sense is best understood as a synonym for “confidence.”

        As in, “confidence scam,” “con artist,” and the like.

        There is, quite literally, no difference between the two. All the reasons the religious exhort that we should trust them are exactly the same as the ones any other fraud insists upon unquestioning trust.

        To be fair many religious people are so deeply indoctrinated into the scheme that they sincerely believe what they say. Nevertheless, those who would buy entire epistemologies and cosmologies and moralities on faith would be most offended if you suggested that they should buy an used car or Arizona oceanfront property or penny stocks on mere faith.

        b&

    4. I just got around to reading this, your illuminating post (New to all this). Your hypothetical counter about meeting the author in the “18th dimension of Spirit World,” is great because this, too, would require math. You’d have had to count the first 17. I guess math would be ‘math problems’ there as well. Again, very illuminating counter.

    5. I just got around to reading this, your illuminating post (New to all this). Your hypothetical counter about meeting the author in the “18th dimension of Spirit World,” is great because this, too, would require math. You’d have had to count the first 17. I guess math would be ‘math problems’ there as well. Again, very illuminating counter. Makes sense to me.

  37. Sastra
    Posted July 9, 2014 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    //The parts of religion which are the most significant, vital, and enthralling have little to nothing to do with the existence of God.

    That is not a reason for atheists to shut up and let the Little People believe. It is instead a reason for us to reach across a false divide.

    They can handle the truth. What remains when you take away the supernatural is natural and human and it unites//.

    I don’t disagree with that. I know Pagans who really believe in the reality of their gods and Goddesses. We have interesting and challenging conversations. I also know Pagans who are completely non realist about their God and Goddesses. That in no way impedes their celebration of the seasons and honouring the ‘spirits’ of place. By which I mean a tree or brook or some other such thing.

      1. From the article.

        //They really think that God exists, and is true, and has an observable and important effect on the world. They don’t really think that religion is simply a beautiful story, or a useful metaphor, or psychologically true. The metaphor stuff is just a cover story, to keep skeptics — and themselves — from questioning their beliefs too hard.
        They only think that when someone is watching.//

        I am sure there is truth in that. But I have asked the question of myself what if knew for certain none of it were true. What would change?

        I would probably still keep the Sabbath free from going to work.

        I would still rise early and spend time being still and silent.

        I would still celebrate the seasons, and I would tell the stories I have always associated with those turns of the year.

          1. I would not deny that.

            At the end of the second world war a German pastor in prison awaiting his eventual execution by the Nazis wrote this.

            //In the last few years I have come to know and understand more and more the profound this-worldliness of Christianity. The Christian is not a homo religiousus but simply a human being, in the same way that Jesus was a human being… If one has completely renounced making something of oneself… then one throws oneself completely into the arms of God, and this is what I call this-worldliness: living fully in the midst of life’s tasks, questions, successes and failures, experiences, and perplexities – then one takes seriously no longer one’s own sufferings but rather the suffering of God in the world. Then one stays awake with Christ in Gethsemane And I think this is faith; this is μετάνοια. And this is how one becomes a human being, a Christian.//

            I interpret him as saying that the Christian is one who is emptied of all but their humanity and human questions. We live as it were with Christ in the dark night of Gethsemane, keeping faith with him through prayer and action in the world. That’s what Christopher Hitchens described as a from of humanism.

            1. Okay, wildkennett, you have posted many times on this thread, so it is time to ask you these questions, whioh, according to the Roolz, are often asked to new posters who are believers.

              1. What are the facts that make you a believer. In other words, give us the hard evidence for God, your faith, and the divinity and resurrection of Jesus. Don’t just quote other theologians, but the real evidence itself.

              2. Why do you think that your faith is the right one rather than, say Islam, which would send you to hell for believing in the divinity of Jesus?

              You will not be allowed to post further until you have answered these questions, and thoroughly.

              1. Right I shall try again.

                Firstly what are the Roolz?

                //1. What are the facts that make you a believer. In other words, give us the hard evidence for God, your faith, and the divinity and resurrection of Jesus. Don’t just quote other theologians, but the real evidence itself.//

                I do not see believing as being about facts, its going beyond the facts currently known.
                “a claim to knowledge needs to be substantiated; ignorance need only be confessed.” Believing seems to me what happens in the absence of knowledge. Because it is not knowledge it cannot claim the same status as knowledge. We are entitled to our own beliefs but we are not entitled to our own facts. Facts seem to me that which can be publicly verifiable.

                The difference between me and say this person.
                http://littlecatholicbubble.blogspot.co.uk/p/purpose-of-my-blog.html is that she thinks that her beliefs are revealed truth. She claims her beliefs are facts.
                My starting point is ignorance from which I move to metaphysical speculations. But this is not a claim to truth and its fully contingent upon the next discovery.

              2. So you fill your gaps with god instead of leaving them as they are: gaps. Why fill gaps with anything?

              3. So I guess the gaps aren’t like the void because people really don’t much like the void & the void doesn’t give a crap about anyone.

              4. Of course. The gaps are just a metaphor. For in those gaps, goodness fills in and they are gaps no more. The void is bad, very bad indeed. Avoid the void, I always say.

              5. Yeah; ever since the Twenty-First, I haven’t worried about the Eighteenth, either. Now, if only that lesson could be learned outside Washington and the Rockies….

                b&

              6. Diana

                Firstly I have found da roolz and try to stick by them. I will answer questions but not make any more statements.

                Diana you ask.

                So you fill your gaps with god instead of leaving them as they are: gaps. Why fill gaps with anything?

                Good question here is personal answer. We are finite creatures who are aware of that finitude. Our existence, so far as we know is meaningless. The universe did not plan us and cares not.
                As AE Housman put it.

                For Nature. heartless, witless Nature
                Will neither care nor know.

                I am prepared to believe in the Ground of being.

                I exist, that is I existere, ‘stand out’ from the ground of being which does not exist that is ‘stand out’, it is the ground.

                I have no proof that it is there, I have chosen, for the time being to accept it as personal ground of meaning. Onto that rather blank canvas, we project our speculations and imaginings.

                But these speculations are not binding on anyone not even me. They are work in progress.

              7. What possible meaning could a deity of any flavor give to your life?

                Can parents give meaning to the lives of their children? If a mother wants her son to be a doctor, but he wants to be a painter instead, is is life therefore meaningless? If a good shepherd raises a lamb for meat, is that lamb’s meaning in life to be eaten?

                Meaning can only even in principle come from within. Even in principle, whether you like it or not, only you yourself can give your life meaning, and that meaning is whatever you choose it to be. And that’s your own life’s meaning, not the meaning of anybody else’s life (unless they choose it for themselves).

                …and if you’re all grown up and still don’t know what you want to be, that’s your problem….

                b&

              8. That sounds like you give your own meaning to your own life. In this way it is no different than how an atheist chooses to live. Are you sure you aren’t really an atheist that likes the the community and ritual of religion?

              9. //What possible meaning could a deity of any flavor give to your life?//

                I am not sure I would begin with deity accept in the broadest of terms.

                I begin with reverence.
                ‘For me, its not important how one envisions a creator or whether one envisions a creator at all. That we have a sense (1) of gratitude for the world, and (2) a realization that wherever the world came from, it was not us that made it—I think that those are two extremely important moral emotions that might be able to unite both secular and religious people.’

              10. Why gratitude, and what difference does it make that we didn’t make something?

                Don’t get me worng; I’m as bleeding-heart liberal as they come. Registered Green Party, roof covered in solar panels, the works. And if gratitude and a spectator’s sense of passive observation lead you to positions that cause you to tread lightly, that’s fine by me. But I don’t at all see where those would come from, let alone how you could possibly get from there to where I think you’re trying to get.

                Especially that latter point. What if space aliens made the planet and the ecosystem? (We know they didn’t, but treat it as an hypothetical.) Would we be under some obligation to leave everything exactly as we found it? What if we didn’t like the job they did; would we be forbidden, permitted, required to change things? And how do those answers change if it’s magical faery-tale book characters responsible for the creation of the world, or if no conscious entity is responsible?

                Indeed, outside the context of a world view dominated by a specific set of imaginary friends, it just doesn’t even begin to make sense.

                b&

              11. Diana,

                Yes and no, its not quite like that but I am not sure I can explain how. Sorry.

  38. Jerry,

    I read Herman Phillipse’s God in the Age of Science? on your recommendation–and I’m mostly writing to thank you for bringing it to my attention–but I do find it interesting that Robbins never mentions it. Obviously, no one can read everything, but that book takes every religious claim more seriously than it deserves, and, in my estimation, demolishes all of them. So, Robbins, if you’re reading this, please check that book out, if you have not done so.

    1. Yes, it’s a very good book although it takes concentration. Robbins is reading the site (despite his saying he wasn’t reading the comments on Slate, and is sending me repeated emails that I misunderstood him and he wants to “correct” me. He doesn’t like the readers criticizing him, either. Of course every theological type I criticize says that I misunderstood them, but in his case I doubt it!

      Anyway, I think everyone should look at PHilipse’s book as it’s one of the Best Arguments for Atheism.

        1. No worse than the Slate ones. They were harsh when I was reading comments in the 1000’s range.

      1. Also, Re: Nietzsche: I am not an expert on him, and I understand scholars have always been arguing about how to interpret him, but I’ve always found him far more inspiring than depressing. He told us we could tear down the slop of religion and start over with something so much better. What’s more inspiring than that?

        (I understand the converse argument is that he was a reactionary who only wanted the elite to exercise the will to power over the peons, but that’s not how I read him, though I could be wrong.)

        1. I never read him in that dower way either. I also don’t think he ever called himself an atheist; that was something we all called him (but I could be wrong).

      2. “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.” If his intent was to convey a message, and absolutely nobody read him the way he intended to be read, then he’s not an effective writer and ought to find a different line of work. If his intent was simple click-bait, then he absolutely succeeded, but he can’t have it both ways.

  39. Peculiar how Robbins’ first & only comment here was little more than an adolescent rant (as opposed to, say, a thoughtful counterargument or patient defence of his clickbait).

    Clearly his metaphorical/allegorical ground-beef-of-being morality-inventing universe-wizard doesn’t bestow upon him much grace or patience.

    1. It seems he was more concerned that Jerry wasn’t “hip” enough to understand his hip t-shirt. It did sound adolescent. I’m surprised it wasn’t followed by “you don’t let me do ANYTHING!!!!”

  40. All these new age woo theologians really make my blood boil with all their false statements. And they wear this so called “non bible literalism” so proudly, like if that makes their idiotic believes more credible. A jewish zombie is still a jewish zombie

              1. Ah, but, as Schrodinger demonstrated, things in boxes are quantum objects and can therefore tunnel. Cats are particularly adept at this. And, whilst my own tunneling skills aren’t everything they might be, I have a certain cat friend who’d be certain to rescue me should the need arise….

                b&

  41. An excellent comment by “Ron” in Slate:

    “Not Believing in God: You’re Doing It Wrong”

    Applicable to a large number of pretentious wankers, both theist and atheist, who spew painstakingly crafted spite at ordinary atheists who, in their lofty analysis, disbelieve on insufficiently erudite grounds.

  42. After reading Robbins’ article on Slate, the first thought was “This guy is full of crap,” followed quite closely by “Jerry Coyne is going to tear this to shreds!” Delightful.

  43. re:Update Angry comment-“That’s Traci Lords, Genius”
    Is it even really fair to refer to Traci Lords as “the porn star” anymore?
    …seems kinda rude anyway.

    I have an old Negativeland t-shirt that says, “Christianity Is Stupid” and I always get off the same way he tries to–never works–how lame….

    1. Yes, it is unfair to Lords as a porn star, her last porn movie was in 1986. Since then, she has been in over 40 movies, starred in two TV series and appeared in many others.

      I think it is time to move on…

  44. There’s another reason that some religionists try to define religion without bringing in the supernatural. That way they can try to equate every worldview or belief system or approach to life, including atheism. They claim that everyone believes in God, it’s just the nature of the god that they worship that differs. It may be a way to try to avoid having to explain how they can believe in magic and empirically-refuted propositions while more rational people don’t. It may also be akin to “projection”–their attribution to others of attitudes that they themselves have.

  45. I looked forward to your review of this article, and it did not disappoint.

    As a doctoral student of nineteenth-century science writing, the oft-repeated claim that “allegory” was the dominant mode of interaction with the Bible always frustrates me–and not just because I read day-in and day-out about scientific discoveries that posed a serious challenge to the practice and beliefs of Christian thinkers and laymen alike.

    Rather, when writers like Robbins assert that religion is distinctly removed from explanatory practice, they also deny a powerfully *human* history among many believers–Christians who held that the Bible was true and thus expected evidence of the Judeo-Christian god’s plan for humanity in the world around them.

    Reading 19th-century literature, one cannot help but sympathize with that struggle to make sense of so much competing information about how to live a good life. Theists who believed in a bible with explanatory power about the state of nature definitely grappled with whether or not trying to change the world (especially the strange one newly described by geology, astronomy, and biology) amounted to going against the will of that world’s creator.

    But reading modern works of “sophisticated theology”, I’m left with the impression that such theists wish they could sweep away even these admirably struggling forebears, and I wrote my own deconstruction of Robbins’ “review” to this end. I’m not usually one to promote my blog posts on other blogs, but I’m still a doctoral student working to translate my academic voice and research into more accessible forms, so any feedback (from any readers here) is very much welcome.

    Cheers to you all.

    http://respace.wordpress.com/2014/07/10/enough-already-the-anti-atheist-article-shows-its-age/

    1. Very nice article and comment. Keep it up! I really would like to see more scholarly antidote to the truly amazing claim that religious people, until quite recently, were not taking any of this literally or as having explanatory power for the world we live in.

      On the face of it, it seems that no one could be that ignorant, so the claim comes across as completely disingenuous. I have tried to imagine how someone could honestly believe this, or some alternative interpretation of their words, while still maintaining some vague awareness of history but it eludes me.

    2. Very nice.
      What is it with all these people promoting the silly idea that theists never took Biblical stories as being historical accounts? How can Robbins and so many others make such an implausible claim and not expect that they will be called on it?

    3. Nice article; I think the fact that you are writing about the 19th century only underscores the point that fundamentalism is not an invention of the 20th century. The obvious reason, that the 19th century is before the 20th, is secondary to the fact that you are writing about a time where society was already a couple centuries into the age of modern science.

      I’m sure you could write an article about the 18th century and find that the general views regarding scientific findings refuting Biblical literalism were less threatening than the were in the 19th. Likewise, as one walks back towards the early days of Christianity, it was more and more reasonable to accept literal stories from the Bible.

      I posted elsewhere in the thread a quote from Pope Leo XIII in 1880, citing Augustine’s idea that the Bible should be taken in its literal context except for when there are obvious and compelling reasons not to do so. This would seem to leave open a very real possibility that the entire book has to be viewed as metaphor, though I don’t think you’d get many Christians to go that far. After all, if the Resurrection and the afterlife is a metaphor, a metaphor for what? The eternal carrot and stick lose some punch if they’re not real.

      Possibly the most maddening part about these claims is the parallel claim that the Church has always been correct about the truth and this line of reasoning about metaphor and allegory is just one of the clever tricks in their arsenal, alongside such ridiculous distinctions between dogma and doctrine (E.g. Sure the Church could’ve been wrong about geocentrism, it was doctrine, not dogma). This formal idea of revealed truth and Papal infallibility, I’m sure you know is another 19th century invention as the Church scurried to align itself with science so as to hold on to its power.

  46. Of course nobody will see this, but here are my two cents anyway:

    Why must atheists “deal” with every form religion has ever taken in order for our atheism to be seen as legitimate by people like Robbins? Why doesn’t he have to be intimately acquainted with every religion past, present, and future for his preferred brand of theism to be legitimate? He’s doing almost as much dismissing as we are.

    And I don’t think folks like Robbins understand that their religious claims can be scientific theories whether they intend it or not. It seems that he thinks he’s defended against scientific scrutiny simply by saying “well I wasn’t trying to do any science.” Religious claims are, even at their wishy-washiest, claims about how reality is. That makes them scientific claims. Let’s take a look at reality and see if it validates those claims (ie, do science).

      1. That makes two of us.

        Don’t give up hope musical beef.
        If you write it, we will read it! 🙂

    1. I’d just like to say that your two cents is worth much more than, at least in my not so humble opinion. Why, indeed, is Robbins exempt from standards to which he holds other folks accountable?

  47. I’ve got to ask: do “sophisticated” theologians like Robbins ever get around to addressing the fact that there are atheists who actually were religious prior to losing their faith?

    Because, you know, it always seems like they ignore that. Granted, they ignore a lot of other stuff, like what the people they’re busy bashing are actually saying.

  48. To me the biggest tell is how most of his claims are directly addressed in The God Delusion, which you would assume the author would have read given how much Dawkins bashing goes on in his article.

    For example, the point that new atheists only focus on fundamentalist interpretations of Religion is clearly refuted by a cursory reading of The God Delusion, which devotes quite a lot of space to discussing Deism.

    Nor does the author come close to addressing one of the primary points made by Dawkins: that Religion is harmful simply by requiring belief in something that is unfalsifiable, eroding people’s capacity for critical thought.

    Never mind that, as Coyne clealry demonstrate, the claim that religious belief is mostly based on metaphors and allegories is patently false for the vast majority of the religious population (or is he going to claim that Catholics don’t really believe in communion and hell/heaven, for example).

    In any case, an excellent rebuttal.

  49. I’m not positive, but I think Robbins’ article might have been mostly computer-generated. There is nothing original in it, but it hits most of the compulsories for this sort of click-bait. I am also a bit surprised it wasn’t in Salon or Huffpo.

    I assume he added the “Happy Culture Warrior” ad hominem barbs once the anti-atheism article generator was finished citing Eagleton etc.

  50. Another point: that article, like so many of its ilk, reeks of the Ivory Tower separation between the sciences and the humanities.

    There is a subcategory of Humanities professors who have an extremely romantic world view that simply must contain religion for aesthetic reasons. See Virginia Heffernan’s infamous column about coming out as a theist.

    In it she quotes Yann Martel the author of Life of Pi:

    “1) Life is a story.
    2) You can choose your story.
    3) A story with God is the better story.”

    This is not exactly religion, it’s more akin to Polar Express where the theme is that you have to will yourself to believe in Santa to really enjoy Christmas and atheists are just trying to take the fun out of everything. It reeks of the privilege and decadence of those who have never personally suffered at the hands of religion.

    1. Very nicely said. I especially like the last sentence which sums up something that I haven’t quite been able to articulate.

  51. Thank you for this. Read Robbins’ review in Slate with the ad hominem attack on ‘new atheists’ with amused
    incomprehension. Knew this was coming.

  52. Why don’t they leave atheists alone? Aren’t religious people supposed to be happy, self-absorbed into their respective fairy-tale? They need to realize that this atheism-bashing is complete desperation to realize how easy is to deconstruct any religious or theological argument.

  53. Did anyone else notice Robbins’ use of the giveaway phrase ‘to be sure’? This is much beloved of polemicists who haven’t actually got a proper argument but want to simulate one: Terry Eagleton and John Gray are enthusiastic users. The way it works is that you say ‘To be sure’ followed by proposition A, which you sort of concede but don’t quite like; then you say ‘But’ or ‘However’ and follow it with proposition B, which you do like. There’s no real argument, of course – you could just as legitimately argue the opposite by swapping A and B – but it sort of looks like an argument. I don’t know if there’s a name for this fallacy, but I call it the Last Proposition Wins Argument.

    1. This is an especially powerful method when the second premise is “properly understood.”

      To be sure, God is not an object nor can he even be said to exist as pile of manure exists. Properly understood, it is blatantly obvious that God is only analogous to the manure as evidenced by our observation of maggots.

      Or something like that…

  54. Why waste time having this discussion ?

    Not a single individual will ever change camps as a result of Athiests and Believers debating..

    1. a. you’re wrong; people have changed their minds in this kind of debate. Check Dawkins’s converts corner. Minds are changed.

      b. You are banned, as you have violated the rules by telling me what to post or not post on. You will never post here again, and I urge you to read other sites.

  55. Jerry, I’m just going to quote on thing from your post, because it seems to me you still don’t get the point. Here it is:

    Fundamentalism, in terms of literalism of many scriptural claims, exists throughout the history of Christianity. And it is those truth claims, like the Genesis story or the resurrection of Jesus, on which many believers stake their claim. Literalism is not a 19th- or 20th-century invention, and I’m frankly baffled at those who say it is.

    As I have tried to point out, fundamentalism and literalism are different. Fundamentalism is a modern response to science, and in many respects an attempt to ape science by using not the world by the Bible as the source of truth. Literalism, which was sometimes used by earlier Christians to interpret scripture, was not a general doctrine regarding the interpretation of the Bible, namely, that the Bible was inerrant in its literal sense. Literalism was used when it was believed that the Bible spoke the simple truth, so, of course, not being familiar with Darwin, immediate creation by God was believed. This lasted until the 18th century. Even Hume had no answer to it, and Darwin himself, in The Origin, often used it as a foil to his own theory. But this did not mean that those who believed, as many early theologians (the Church Fathers) did, that life was zapped into being by God were fundamentalists, because, when they had good reason not to read the Bible literally — that is, where the Bible contradicted what was known to be true independently of the Bible — they were quite prepared to read it analogically or allegorically or figuratively. So there is a world of difference between contemporary fundamentalism (which is certainly a response to the growing influence of science) and earlier litaralism (which was not).

    1. If I’ve confused fundamentalism with literalism, then I apologize. But the issue at hand is whether the Church Fathers and early believers were LITERALISTS. And people like Augustine and Aquinas certainly were, as were believers through history. The non-literalism stance is taken by those accommodationists who think that New Atheists are wrong in attacking people who believe what the Bible says, because the Bible is just a big mess of metaphor.

      That stance, the one of Hart and others, is just dead wrong. And anyone who reads Aquinas, Augustine, and other theologians knows it. Yes, some of them were more metaphorical than others, and people like Aquinas thought the Bible could be read both as literal truth and as metaphor or allegory, but the literalism always took precedence.

      Eric, the important issue is the disingenuous claim that people like Aquinas and Augustine never saw the Bible as conveying literal truth. Even an atheist like me know that’s just bullshit, and people who makes those claims should know better.

      And surely you don’t think that literalism died out with Darwin? It did for some poeple, and for evolution, but it didn’t die out for claims about heaven and hell, about Jesus dying to redeem us from sin, and so on. Every believer is a literalist about some things.

      1. Fair enough, Jerry. I certainly would not deny that Augustine and Aquinas and more especially ordinary Christians, often use literal interpretation. What I am trying to say is that it is simply mistaken to align this with contemporary fundamentalism, which is a completely different project, and is an immediate response to science, by treating the Bible as a science-like textbook. Earlier Christians, and most responsible theologians, do not make this mistake. In the end, of course, since the apophatic tradition in Christianity is so strong, it is clear that even the creeds and theological doctrines are treated in a symbolic way. Indeed, the creeds are themselves often called symbols of faith. What I am trying to say is that it is easy for Christians as well as their critics to fall into the trap of (to coin a word) simplisticism. Christians tend to fall back on apparently literal understandings of doctrine at the same time that their critics accept the most simplistic understanding of what theologians are saying. If you look at the development of Christian doctrine you will see that, in many cases, the attempt is made to accept the lex orandi – lex credendi principle by trying to fit popular commitments into much more complex and discriminating discussions of faith. This is discussed in some detail by Maurice Wiles in his book The Making of Christian Doctrine, and he is clearly not satisfied that the best decisions were always made, as well pointing out that the extension of such contextual adaptations of doctrine is often quite disastrous theologically if retained indiscriminately in novel situations.

        At one level anthropomorphising is nearly impossible, for we have to speak in some way about ultimate reality (if we are going to say anything about it at all, which religious believers want to do), but at the same time such language carries the rider that anthropomorphic language is misleading, for ultimate reality is indescribable. Very similar things are said by Ronald Dworkin in his last book Religion without God, who points out that it ultimately comes down to the claim that this is the way I see the world, even though you seem unable to. Even scientists use metaphorical language as you are aware, but often speak in quite literal ways about particles they cannot see, or selecting processes that are only visible as the product of such processes (cf. Hawking’s “Model Dependent Realism”). ‘Natural selection’ is a metaphor, but it is hard not to think of it in anthropomorphic (teleological) ways. Some claim (for example, Ed Feser) that teleological language is ineliminable. That, of course, is another question, but it is just as well to bear in mind that anthropomorphic language is a very natural way to respond to things which have only a analogical relation to anthropos and his doings.

        At one level, therefore, theology seems to be simplistic and illegitimately applied to the world we know. Indeed, arguments to the existence of God often end up with an indescribable something that in some sense is a logical condition for the existence of anything at all, and then this (deistic) concept is filled with the particulars of the favoured theological tradition, as though the original logical argument can be cashed in in quite local theological terms. When it is pointed out that this is an illegitimate move, the argument is then introduced (McGrath style) that we can expect some sort of revelation from the logically defined origination of being, and then argue that there are reasons for believing that the Christian revelation (or any other) is reasonably thought to be such a revelation. This is, as I say, an illegitimate move, for there is no way that such revelation can be demonstrated to originate in a source which is indescribable and quite unknowable in itself. This is where the hang-up really occurs, and no one, to my knowledge, has provided a satsifactory answer to the question (even if we accept the arguments to the existence of “God” — which has to be placed in scare-quotes because this being is simply unknowable.)

        The opposition to fundamentalism is really a red herring, because fundamentalism is simply baseless. Even if the Bible did claim to be infallible (as some fundamentalists insist — wrongly, as it turns out), the claim itself is circular. Gerald Downing, in his 1964 book, Has Christianity a Revelation?, discusses all the terms in both the Jewish and Christian Scriptures that might mean revelation, and concludes that there is none that can be taken to refer to a communication from a god to man. He concludes by arguing that there is an ethical/spiritual sense in which religious belief makes sense, but that the claim to have received a revelation cannot be sustained. The argument, therefore, leads to something like Don Cupitt’s non-realism, where religious beliefs are human constructions based on human experience and aimed at human ends, but still using religious language in which to express them. An interesting book in these terms is D.Z. Philips’ The Concept of Prayer, where prayer is seen as something which changes us, makes a difference to us, but cannot be thought (given the concept of God) to be received by or answered by (a) God, or to bring about changes within this being. This is one of the reasons why, in the Jewish Scriptures, God is both the bringer of good and evil (for if we receive good at God’s hands, shall we not also receive evil?). I think there is a perfectly reasonable sense in which this is a legitimate human project, and while anthropomorphic language may be used (it’s hard to live life with religious urgency without it), it is used to express human ideals and desires, which must be subject to human critique, without the presumption of higher authority. In what way this differs from humanism is certainly a question, but in spite of this, there is no reason not to think of it as a perfectly legitimate human project. This is why I take exception to harping on about literalism, since much that seems literal can be meant in perfectly non-literal ways, and very often is.

        This does not mean that much religion is not literalistic, for much of it is, but it is good to guard against exaggeration in condemning literalism. I said the Nicene Creed every Sunday (several times a Sunday), but it never occurred to me to take the words literally, though they did serve to link us, historically, with people who may have take the words much more literally than it is possible to do today.

        1. Eric, how do you reconcile this view with the fact that 46% of Americans are creationists?

          Do you not see that as a literal belief?

          And I’m a bit puzzled about who you want us to direct our criticisms at?

        2. In the end, of course, since the apophatic tradition in Christianity is so strong, it is clear that even the creeds and theological doctrines are treated in a symbolic way.

          I’m sorry, but this doesn’t even pass the sniff test.

          Anybody who says, “I believe,” and then doesn’t actually believe the words that follow is a liar. I’m willing to believe that many Christians are confused, but I just can’t believe that those billions of Christians over the ages didn’t actually believe that Jesus was crucified under Pilate, was buried, three days later rose again, Ascended, and now sits at the right hand of the Father in Heaven from whence he will come to judge the quick and the dead.

          They’re not saying, “I believe that the symbology of the Christ story reveals important truths about human nature,” though I’m sure they’d generally be happy to express agreement with that in addition.

          No; they’re actually saying that they actually believe that all that is actually true. And most would be quite offended for anybody to suggest that they don’t really believe.

          Is it too much to trust billions of people publicly professing what they describe as that which is most important to say what they actually mean?

          Sure, there’re likely plenty of closeted atheists, or others who don’t actually believe the creeds but in something more obscurantist and who mouth the words to make life easier. But they’re liars, and I would suggest that they’re not that common and not to be taken seriously — they are, after all, blatantly lying about that which they say is the most important Capital-T-Truth there is.

          But if, as you claim, such lies are widespread and common in Christianity, why on Earth should we take anything they have to say seriously? Is not lying while professing the faith the greatest impeachment of character conceivable? Should not such liars have their faces rubbed in their lies, and everything else they have to say be dismissed until they demonstrate a willingness and ability to debate in good faith?

          b&

        3. ultimate reality is indescribable.

          Since we know reality is excellently descriptive, all the way down, you are not speaking of reality.

          Your “reality” is a religious deepity of no consequence re analysis or religion. It is still a claim of magical agency assumed to work within the physical reality we know independent of such agency and indeed for fundamental reasons is independent of such agency (say, thermodynamics).

          Do we really have to have a discussion of religion and its attack on atheism spiced with apologetics? It just confuses the issue, which of course is its very construction.

          Perhaps there should be a new Roolz: “no unwarranted excuses”.

    2. Eric,

      There’s no disputing that Augustine did establish a precedent to interpret the Bible literally, except in cases where reason dictates that it obviously can’t be literal. You are certainly right that this is not remotely the same view that modern day fundamentalists have, but classical Christianity having a problem with this view has been very well established by even a cursory reading of history since 1517 when Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses, not to mention the view on such heresies well prior to that.

      Where theologians go off the rails with their current arguments is when they use Augustine’s views, along with the views of other Church Fathers to pretend that science poses no threat to religious beliefs. Augustine had no way of knowing about the scientific revolution that would take place over a millennium after he lived and certainly had no reason to think that so much of the Bible simply would not be able to be taken literally anymore.

      The line has to be drawn somewhere with this view, lest the entire Bible become metaphor/allegory, in which case what is the point? Classical Christianity has always mandated belief in the bodily Resurrection of Jesus. In Biblical times, there was no reason to think writers were using metaphor when they spoke of the “waters above” or that Heaven wasn’t literally up and Hell down. Using Augustine’s logic, science quite clearly tells us that there is no firmament, there is no Heaven above (for above doesn’t even have any meaning once you’re a very short distance away from the Earth); likewise, there’s no Hell below, so we best attempt to show what in the world the writers were actually talking about with such metaphors (or how it can be reasonably demonstrated that they’re talking about anything real).

      Science tells us that dead bodies don’t get up and move tombstones, walk through walls, or fly “up” into Heaven, body and soul intact. I’ve discussed here before how the Resurrection would violate the Law of Conservation (if Jesus and his matter and energy simply disappeared) not to mention the other biological violations that would need to occur for him to somehow make his way through space or to another realm/dimension/wherever.

      Any theologian would tell me that I’m taking too much of a literal approach to it if I bring up these points and Augustine would say that we can’t take all of this literally since reason dictates otherwise, which is valid. Applied consistently, this approach needs to be applied to the entire central thesis of Christianity. We have no reason to believe that people in Biblical times were speaking metaphorically about Adam and Eve, the Fall, or certainly, within Christianity, Jesus and the Resurrection. Yet, we also have scientifically based reasons to believe none of this stuff is, or even could be, literally true.

      If Genesis is allegorical, Noah’s Ark is allegorical, Jonah and the whale is allegorical, Jesus magically violating laws of Physics with food and drink is allegorical, etc.; why not apply allegory to the whole thing (insofar as claims to historical events are concerned)? The real question then becomes, what is this an allegory for? If there’s bits that are good moral allegories for how to treat our fellow humans, great; but almost no religious person leaves it there. It’s inextricably linked with hopes of an afterlife and what actions will earn either eternal bliss or eternal suffering; a ridiculously immoral dichotomy for actions in a finite life. Of course, this is now all speculation as even the most sophisticated views neither view this eternal afterlife as something either unreal, nor as a far-fetched idea.

      Perhaps you’re right, religion may end up either innocuous or even helpful if the supernatural stuff is relegated to the realm of fantasy where empirical findings have shown it belongs. If that happened, wherein lies the difference between this newly refined classical religion and modern humanism? Speaking for myself, if the major world religions got to this point, I don’t think I’d much care whether Christianity, for example, carried on in this form and I highly suspect New Atheism would never take the hold that it has in such a world.

      1. Chris, just a short response. You say:

        We have no reason to believe that people in Biblical times were speaking metaphorically about Adam and Eve, the Fall, or certainly, within Christianity, Jesus and the Resurrection.

        Well, are you so sure? After all, the story of Adam and Eve was interpreted in a variety of different ways. Indeed, the fact that there are two creation stories in the Bible that disagree with each other is an indication that nothing quite literal is meant by either of them. As for the Fall, the Jews never interpreted the story in that way, so far as I know. I heard a rabbi point this out at a school graduation ceremony, where he spoke of it in terms of the development of self-consciousness and the coming to be of the questioning, probing, curiousity of human beings. As for the resurrection, since the record of the resurrection in the gospels is so diverse in the way that it is described, it is fair to think that this was not a literal description of a body rising from the dead, but the appearance of an eschatological being, a being of the end times in the midst of time, a spiritual apparition, if you like, and not the rising of a man from the dead in any ordinary sense. And there is plenty of theological interpretation for this view.

        1. I suppose that I should’ve used “early Christians” rather than “Biblical” since I’m quite aware Judaism has a very different take on things. This speaks to that quip that if one wants to know what’s wrong with his religion, ask someone from another religion.

          I think your lengthy response to Jerry spoke to many of the points I made in my previous post. In particular, I completely agree that the jump from a deistic argument for a Ground of Being to a particular set of religious dogmas is a non sequitur. I happen to find the philosophical arguments interesting as they serve to improve critical reasoning skills and are not weighed down by claims of revealed dogma. However, even conceding the entire Ground of Being argument doesn’t even begin to allow support for the claims of revelation and adherence to dogma in the name of attaining eternal life (or even an authoritative moral code for life) that people such as Feser and Hart clearly cling to and I still maintain that New Atheists, including Jerry, have spoken to this again and again.

          I also won’t claim that there were not some people who held the type of views you outline throughout the history of Christianity but it never was, nor is it now, a view remotely approaching the mainstream views. Certainly, in the case of the Catholic Church, they speak very clearly on the requirement to believe certain dogmas in a literal sense. If the intent is to provide an allegory for how to live a good life and stories of miracles and a real afterlife really have no legitimate evidence in light of our current body of knowledge, then the Magisterium and leadership in other Christian denominations have done a horrible job conveying this message to people. We should fight for the demise of institutional religion, even if it doesn’t get rid of belief whole cloth; we need look no further than the rampant superstition in Africa where the Church is quickly making gains to see there’s no widespread desire to convey allegory to people.

          In fact, I would say the clergy has even missed the message (if we grant that this is the message) as I attended an Easter Mass this year where the priest gave a nod toward skepticism regarding the truth of the Resurrection. He said many other explanations may be more reasonable, but it is our faith that allows us to believe it and in fact necessitates that we believe it lest the whole message of Christianity become false, as is often cited from Corinthians 15.

        2. My question is: why does it matter whether long dead authors and theologians interpreted a bit of scripture metaphorically or literally?

          People now take it literally, and those people now are doing untold damage to society, civilization, and even to the prospect of life on Earth.

          I’m flabbergasted by some peoples’ inclination to hem and haw and squabble about arcane details in the face of this situation.

  56. It appears that your critique of Robbins is flawed on almost every point.

    “1. Atheists are a bunch of morons, especially Dawkins, me, and the “pop-cosmologist” Lawrence Krauss. That’s because we are intellectually lazy and haven’t taken the trouble to really understand religion.”

    I don’t read him accusing atheists of being morons, his accusations were directed at a clearly defined subset of atheists, and laziness and stupidity are two very different things.

    2. Religion isn’t about epistemic claims … What’s clearly missing there is any notion of a deity, of the supernatural, of a being that wants praise and propitiation, and can reward and punish you.”

    Leaving aside the point that there are atheistic religions (such as some forms of Buddhism), Robbins’ point was that a key component of religion – the conduct of life – is ignored by those atheists who want to make it solely about epistemic claims

    “3. The church fathers like Augustine and Aquinas saw scripture as metaphorical. Therefore, things like the Genesis story and creation were never taken seriously until recently.”
    Again, Robbins never made the claim you are accusing him of. He speaks particularly of the Genesis creation accounts, and that from the earliest theologians, such as Origen, onwards, have interpreted that particular passage as not intended to be read as a flat, literal report of ‘what happened when’. I know that it is convenient for atheists if orthodox Christian belief is that promoted by AiG and Ken Ham. However, it is not the case, and the fact that non-literal views were preferred by many theologians well before the critique of modern scientific rationalism shows that these views are not a retreat position for theists against the advance of science, but rest on an authentic traditional interpretation.

    “4. You can’t fathom religion until you’re a believer.”
    I think his point is that if you are taking a mocking, condescending posture towards a position, then you are unable to fairly appraise it. Unfortunately, reading through the comments here, it seems that such a posture is not uncommon.

    “5. Atheists aren’t serious and dolorous enough. The words are familiar: whatever happened to the really serious atheists like Nietzsche—the ones who fully grasped the message of atheism and its dire implications for the human condition? … Wrong again. Morality exists because a). we’ve evolved to have feelings of right and wrong and b). on top of our evolved emotions is overlain a veneer of secular morality derived from our preferences about how we should behave if we want a fair and harmonious society.”

    Again you appear to have misread Robbins. He explicitly says that theism is not required for a coherent morality, and you counter this by promoting an atheistic explanation for morality?! His point was that whether grounded in theism or atheism, we seem to be unable to avoid using the language of theistic morality when we talk about morality (Good/evil, anyone?)

    1. I deny that I misread him. He went after New Atheists including me; he clearly made the point that literalism is a new phenomenon, and then cherry-picked only the “days” argument of Church Fathers, ignoring all their literalism; neither Robbins nor you seem to realize that many atheists, including myself, wer eonce religious, and experienced it (as many commenters note), and that mockery is only part of our tactics (I usually don’t mock religious arguments but analyze them). Further his argument wasn’t just about whether we use the words “good” and “evil” as our holdover from theistic morality. He claimed that morality is not grounded without theism. I’m sure the word “good” for example, preceded Christianity.

      What you’re doing is ignoring Robbins’s cherry picking to portray his piece in the best possible light. If I’ve misread him, then so have many others, including Maggie Clark and many of my readers, who also read his entire piece. I guess many of the thousands of readers who dissed him in the comments section of his piece misread him too, eh? If someone is misread so easily, he’s not a clear writer. But given Robbins’s history, I maintain that he meant exactly what I said he did, and now is butthurt because I called him on it. Really, you think he didn’t claim that literalism is a new theological view? You really think he didn’t say that?

      I’m not getting into an argument with you on this; I stand by what I originally wrote. You wrote a long piece, and you’ve had your say.

      1. I have often thought that the likes of Karen Armstrong and Robbins are projecting their own version of religion onto the past I have done it as well. I think it is partly because we like to see past precedence for our own particular viewpoint.
        However I wonder whether you and others might be offering a portrait of religion which is too static and homogenous and does not take account of its plurality and ability to change and adapt over time.
        I do think that the likes of Armstrong, Robbins, and others can find antecedents in the religious thinkers of the past, but these antecedents are inchoate, and perhaps marginal. They may just consist of single line of thought, left for us to develop in our own time.
        My question I suppose is why does religion have to conform to any particular past template? Cannot it not be a process?
        I am not trying win an argument here, just interested in your response.

        1. The problem is the source ( in this case the bible ) of the thoughts. It’s stories are static and fixed, and depending on the circumstances believers throughout history and in the present have shown an uncanny ability to justify/rationalize horrible atrocities based on biblical teachings or god’s word if you will.

          Those horrible teachings will always be there and there will always be people who can find justification and a sense of righteousness for holding these barbaric and uncivilized values as eternal truths. Misogony, for one thing, is ingrained in the bible. It is a book composed of stories from primitive and ignorant times, and to regard it as profound knowledge about the human mind/experience is to surrender yourself to the ignorance of the ancient past.

          You know so much more than those people you hold in such high regard. Trust in yourself and know that the morality you hold dear is not a christian invention devised by men who, if they lived today, would be institutionalized for doing and saying what they did.

          It is ingrained in your brain given the right circumstances and is commonly known as good ol’ plain logic; Treat others as you would like to be treated and odds are you won’t get on eachothers nerves regardless of difference of opinions.

          So yeah, faith may be flexible, but religion sure as hell isn’t.

          1. I would characterise that as dogmatic religion, not religion per se. Be that as it may, we won’t resolve that in a few paragraphs of text.
            I agree with you general point that Christianity, especially in its more conservative forms is slow to change that it appears to be static. (over history it has changed quiet a lot).

            //So yeah, faith may be flexible, but religion sure as hell isn’t.//

            But that is because they are different things, faith tends to be individual whereas religion by is communal. Religare means ‘to bind’, hence its communal aspect.

            Individuals are I would suggest more flexible than groups because what binds groups together is what they hold in common, therefore to change what is held in common takes the agreement of all.

            1. “I would characterise that as dogmatic religion, not religion per se.”

              One man’s dogma is another man’s religion.

              “But that is because they are different things, faith tends to be individual whereas religion by is communal. Religare means ‘to bind’, hence its communal aspect.”

              Which is why we oppose religion in pretty much all its forms. Mass-delusion is delusion nonetheless.

              “Individuals are I would suggest more flexible than groups because what binds groups together is what they hold in common, therefore to change what is held in common takes the agreement of all.”

              For the most part yes, but when what the group officially holds in common is not necessarilly grounded in what appears to be facts and reality, then there is no limit to what the group can accept as “common” values.

              Every single individual in the group could be in doubt and still go along with absurd and false notions about reality. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bandwagon_effect

              Change can happen fast, but there is no telling whether it will be for the good or for the bad when it comes to religion.

              Religion isn’t source of agreement, it’s a source of division. Always have been, always will be.

              1. //For the most part yes, but when what the group officially holds in common is not necessarilly grounded in what appears to be facts and reality, then there is no limit to what the group can accept as “common” values.//

                That’s true systems of value or morality isn’t. They all begin with an a priori which cannot be grounded in the facts of the world.

                There are, very minority I agree, religious ways of thinking that are self critical, and therefore have a built in means of and motivation to change.
                for example.
                http://www.doncupitt.com/ordinary-life

              2. “They all begin with an a priori which cannot be grounded in the facts of the world.”

                Whether that claim is true or not you’re displying bandwagon behaviour right now. Just because all other systems may also be wrong ( in your view ) you’re willing to go along with one that is obvioulsy wrong/ not grounded in facts.

                You’re basically saying “it’s okay beacuse all the others are doing it too”.

                “There are, very minority I agree, religious ways of thinking that are self critical, and therefore have a built in means of and motivation to change.
                for example.
                http://www.doncupitt.com/ordinary-life

                And those people are rarely the ones atheists are addressing.

                Did you know that the Dawkins foundation, despite the frequent nonsensical allegations about the man’s character, is collaborating with people of religion and “spirituality”?

                http://www.openlysecular.org/

                “In addition, we are working with a big tent of people from all across the secular spectrum – nonreligious groups including atheists, freethinkers, humanists, agnostics, and even the spiritual but not religious. We are also working with the nontheistic religious: people like deists, secular Jews, humanistic Unitarians, ethical culturists, and other religious humanists who are skeptical of theistic claims.”

              3. wildkennett — could you please clarify the following:

                ‘That’s true systems of value or morality isn’t. They all begin with an a priori which cannot be grounded in the facts of the world.’

              4. Jesper

                //And those people are rarely the ones atheists are addressing.//

                And that is very important to know that.

                On Richard Dawkins, see my comment below.

                //You’re basically saying “it’s okay beacuse all the others are doing it too”//.

                No I am just saying that we rely on quite a lot of things that rely an initial a priori. I am not suggesting that they are all of equal value. Perhaps the implicit question is how do we decide which is of value and which is not?

              5. Which initial a priories are you thinking about in particular?

                Regarding values we could start by deciding what is true and what is not ( science ) and then, depending on some basic requirements, start discussing what goals we have in common.

                That might be a good starting point.

              6. lsnrchrd1

                wildkennett — could you please clarify the following:

                ‘That’s true OF ANY system of value or morality isn’t IT. They all begin with an a priori which cannot be grounded in the facts of the world.’

                First, sorry for the missing words.

                Maybe that was all that was needed, but just in case its not.

                It seems to me that there is no extra mental morality or value system ‘out there’ that can be discovered or revealed.
                Morality emerges when self conscious individuals live with others and are able to be reflective, thoughtful and critical. The social situation provides the context in which actions, omissions and their consequences can be reflected on, critiqued and thought about. But we still have to choose the basis upon which we negatively critique an action and its consequences or positively critique.

            2. //I would characterise that as dogmatic religion, not religion per se. Be that as it may, we won’t resolve that in a few paragraphs of text.//

              Actually ignore that, I think its wrong, as you can see, I contradict that in my final paragraph.

            3. Jesper

              //Regarding values we could start by deciding what is true and what is not ( science )//

              I have no problem with that at all but that only tells us about a state of affairs.

              Its true that the earth goes round the sun.

              It is morally correct to be honest.

              Do you see the difference, the former describes a state of affairs that can be observed and verified, the latter describes a choice about how we should conduct our lives. I choice I share. But it is not grounded in a state of affairs that we can observe and verify.

              1. “I have no problem with that at all but that only tells us about a state of affairs.

                Its true that the earth goes round the sun.

                It is morally correct to be honest.

                Do you see the difference, the former describes a state of affairs that can be observed and verified, the latter describes a choice about how we should conduct our lives. I choice I share. But it is not grounded in a state of affairs that we can observe and verify.”

                Science doesn’t tells us about a state of affairs, it tells us about our state of affairs.

                Whether it is morally correct to be honest depends on the situation.

                Science doesn’t just describe what happens around us, it very much tells us about what is going on within and between as well.

                Of course morallity is grounded in our state of affairs and most of us base our choices not on what is prescribed by a religion, but on what we decide is morally correct in a given situation.

                If common morality is not grounded in human nature, but in a god/religion, then how come modern human rights are not described in holy scriptures?

                How come every religion needs to adjust its views according to the zeitgeist of their respective societies/adherents if the religious moral code is static and transcends time?

                How come these old books of fables, psychoses and neuroses are revered as books of truth without a shred of evidence to support them?

                Wildkennett, what is it in the Christian moral code that makes it any better than any other moral code ( if you subsribe to one )?

        2. Humans are by their nature tribal. I’ve come to the conclusion that because of this, we tend toward dogma and authoritarianism and it takes checks and balances and thinking that comes unnaturally to us to overcome it. Many of us hate dogma and authoritarianism but we tend toward it anyway in spite of ourselves.

          Religion tends toward the same because it is a construct by humans. It can change (Christianity it much tamer than what it was in the Mediaeval period) but it does so slowly because it is authoritarian by nature. When humans break away from dogma, they tend to change more quickly than the institutions they have set up.

          So, I would say humans can change over time. Religion cannot.

          1. Diana I mostly agree with that, just a couple of points.

            //Religion tends toward the same because it is a construct by humans.//

            I am not so sure its a construct in any kind of active sense, religion is not designed, I think that it occurs naturally in Human society, and is shaped by a kind of natural selection, I thinks that Daniel Dennett’s view and I agree with it.

            //So, I would say humans can change over time. Religion cannot.//

            Doesn’t that contradict what you said above?

            //It can change (Christianity it much tamer than what it was in the Mediaeval period) but it does so slowly because it is authoritarian by nature//.

            1. The difference is the people are changing not the dogma…not really the religion. Religion to me is an institution. Beliefs change, people change their minds but typically institutions are stagnant….they change when we replace them with other institutions.

              1. Diana Again mainly I agree, the religions that dominate are institutional. But there are religions out there, I am thinking of contemporary Paganism, which not institutional, it may go that way but has not yet.

                The Religious Society of Friends, the Quakers, is institutional, but is able to change far more quickly than dogmatic religions. and it does.

              2. Bit paganism is a bunch of oroscribed I evidenced beliefs set down. It is a social construct that governs how people think and behave ergo institution.

        3. My question I suppose is why does religion have to conform to any particular past template?

          At least with revelatory religions, and especially ones with holy texts, they are ostensibly the creation of a divine entity. So how, without said entity doing a flip-flop, could they possibly change?

          Put it this way: has Jesus read the King James Bible?

          Not, of course, “Did he read the KJV Bible during his ministry to Judea in the first century,” for the KJV Bible wasn’t actually written for another sixteen centuries.

          But it is billed as Jesus’s authorized biography, and widely regarded as a work whose creation he directly participated in.

          So has he, whilst sitting at the right hand of the Throne of God, before he passes Judgment on the departed, read the KJV Bible?

          If he hasn’t, Christianity is instantly and obviously made absurd. He knows all and sees all but hasn’t even read his own Bible? How on Earth is he supposed to be a competent judge of humanity if he hasn’t even read the Bible?

          But, if he has, that presents a different problem. For it’s quite clear that he hasn’t