Confused science writer claims that atheists might not exist

July 13, 2014 • 8:40 am

Here we go again, and I’m beginning to question the wisdom of taking on atheist-bashing articles. The readership here is nowhere near as large as at the places such articles are published, and, more important, they rarely say anything new. So I constantly recycle my refutations of claims that have been recycled by theists or faitheists. There’s only so many ways you can argue for God or bash atheists.

The piece I’m highlighting today, however, is slightly different, for it makes the astonishing claim that atheists probably don’t even exist. Well, that’s an exaggeration, for it turns out that the author construes as “religious” all manner of things that most people don’t see as religious. And those of us who reject gods will be surprised at the dumb ways the author claims that we’re really religious on some level.

Over at Science 2.0, the piece is “Scientists discover that atheists might not exist, and that’s not a joke“, by Nury Vittachi.

Here is Nuri’s bio from the site, which leaves it unclear whether he’s a believer or not. But he’s clearly steeped in faith.


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And here is Vittachi’s thesis (my emphasis):

 Cognitive scientists are becoming increasingly aware that a metaphysical outlook may be so deeply ingrained in human thought processes that it cannot be expunged.

While this idea may seem outlandish—after all, it seems easy to decide not to believe in God—evidence from several disciplines indicates that what you actually believe is not a decision you make for yourself. Your fundamental beliefs are decided by much deeper levels of consciousness, and some may well be more or less set in stone.

This line of thought has led to some scientists claiming that “atheism is psychologically impossible because of the way humans think,” says Graham Lawton, an avowed atheist himself, writing in the New Scientist. “They point to studies showing, for example, that even people who claim to be committed atheists tacitly hold religious beliefs, such as the existence of an immortal soul.”

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, since we are born believers, not atheists, scientists say. Humans are pattern-seekers from birth, with a belief in karma, or cosmic justice, as our default setting. “A slew of cognitive traits predisposes us to faith,” writes Pascal Boyer in Nature, the science journal, adding that people “are only aware of some of their religious ideas”.

In other words, we’re hard-wired for supernaturalism, and even if we aren’t believers, we really are, because we’re only dimly aware of our religious tendencies.

This is a surprise to me. I am not superstitious, have no believe in God or anything metaphysical like “immortal souls”, and know lots of similar people, many who comment on this site. How can atheists not exist when they seem to be all around us? Well, it’s because Vittachi, by stretching the definition of the adjective “religious,” manages to find something numinoous in all of us. Here is a list of the traits that supposedly make us not atheists. (Vittachi’s words are indented in the following.)

1. We tell ourselves narratives about our lives.

Scientists have discovered that “invisible friends” are not something reserved for children. We all have them, and encounter them often in the form of interior monologues. As we experience events, we mentally tell a non-present listener about it.

The imagined listener may be a spouse, it may be Jesus or Buddha or it may be no one in particular. It’s just how the way the human mind processes facts. The identity, tangibility or existence of the listener is irrelevant.

That’s just hogwash. An interior monologue doesn’t mean that it’s directed at someone other than ourselves; it’s just a way of processing what we experience. And to equate that with the “invisible friend” of God is ludicrous. No more need be said.

2. Many people are spiritual.

In the United States, 38% of people who identified themselves as atheist or agnostic went on to claim to believe in a God or a Higher Power (Pew Forum, “Religion and the Unaffiliated”, 2012).

While the UK is often defined as an irreligious place, a recent survey by Theos, a think tank, found that very few people—only 13 per cent of adults—agreed with the statement “humans are purely material beings with no spiritual element”. For the vast majority of us, unseen realities are very present.

When researchers asked people whether they had taken part in esoteric spiritual practices such as having a Reiki session or having their aura read, the results were almost identical (between 38 and 40%) for people who defined themselves as religious, non-religious or atheist.

The implication is that we all believe in a not dissimilar range of tangible and intangible realities. Whether a particular brand of higher consciousness is included in that list (“I believe in God”, “I believe in some sort of higher force”, “I believe in no higher consciousness”) is little more than a detail.

Little more than a detail? And “we all believe in a not dissimilar range of tangible and intangible realities”?  (The “not/un” phrase, by the way, reminds me of Orwell’s parody of that usage: “The not unblack dog ran over the not ungreen grass.”) But what on earth does that sentence mean? How “not dissimilar”? And if a reality is tangible, in terms of being discernible through observation and reason, it’s not religious.

Note, too, that if 38% of atheists or agnostics (probably mostly the latter) who believe in a God, that means that 62% don’t—hardly the complete absence of atheism that Vittachi claims.  And of course while Reiki and homeopathy are based, like religion, on faith (belief without evidence), they are not the same thing as theism, which accepts a supernatural “being” who is to be proptiated and who generally propounds a moral code. That’s not the same thing as thinking that having needles stuck in your body will cure arthritis.

And this claim is simply stupid as well:

If a tendency to believe in the reality of an intangible network is so deeply wired into humanity, the implication is that it must have an evolutionary purpose. Social scientists have long believed that the emotional depth and complexity of the human mind means that mindful, self-aware people necessarily suffer from deep existential dread. Spiritual beliefs evolved over thousands of years as nature’s way to help us balance this out and go on functioning.

If a loved one dies, even many anti-religious people usually feel a need for a farewell ritual, complete with readings from old books and intoned declarations that are not unlike prayers. In war situations, commanders frequently comment that atheist soldiers pray far more than they think they do.

Really?  An evolutionary “purpose”? If Vittachi has read Boyer, as he claims, he’ll know that Boyer, as do many of us, see religion or belief in deities as spandrels: byproducts of an evolved brain but not hard-wired into it. Children, for example, do not come to belief in God without indoctrination.

But religion might well be the byproduct of evolved tendencies: tendencies to see agency (as Boyer thinks), to be credulous when we’re young (it’s adaptive to believe what your elders tell you), or to deal with our unique and dispiriting knowledge of mortality. But we can overcome all these tendencies, and many of us atheists have. Certainly most of the readers of this site go on functioning perfectly well knowing that we’re going to die without an afterlife, and believing pretty confidently that there is no God.

As for funerals, I go to them, but only to have a foregathering of friends with whom I mourn the loss of another. Of course we feel awful when a friend, relative, or loved one dies, and we’re social animals who get solace from the presence of others. Ergo we have wakes, funerals, and whatever “ritual” is involved in burying and mourning the dead. Is that religious? I don’t think so. And I’d like to see the data about “atheists in foxholes” that Vittachi reports.

3. People feel interconnected. 

Why is this so? Religious folk attend weekly lectures on morality, read portions of respected books about the subject on a daily basis and regularly discuss the subject in groups, so it would be inevitable that some of this guidance sinks in.

There is also the notion that the presence of an invisible moralistic presence makes misdemeanors harder to commit. “People who think they are being watched tend to behave themselves and cooperate more,” says the New Scientist’s Lawton. “Societies that chanced on the idea of supernatural surveillance were likely to have been more successful than those that didn’t, further spreading religious ideas.”

This is not simply a matter of religious folk having a metaphorical angel on their shoulder, dispensing advice. It is far deeper than that—a sense of interconnectivity between all things. If I commit a sin, it is not an isolated event but will have appropriate repercussions. This idea is common to all large scale faith groups, whether it is called karma or simply God ensuring that you “reap what you sow”.

So what? Religion is a form of social control, and if you do good simply on the grounds that you’ll go to heaven, or that God is watching, I’d call that a pretty superficial basis for morality. Besides, as I said, we’re social animals and feel interconnected, and we have rules for how to behave (probably both evolved and culturally developed) that rest on our behavior having social repercussions. That doesn’t mean we’re religious, or cannot be true atheists. Many of us are moral because we think that our behavior has social consequences, and that we should approve or disapprove of behaviors that have good or bad social consequences.

4. Narratives tend to have “happy endings”.

It’s not that a deity appears directly in tales. It is that the fundamental basis of stories appears to be the link between the moral decisions made by the protagonists and the same characters’ ultimate destiny. The payback is always appropriate to the choices made. An unnamed, unidentified mechanism ensures that this is so, and is a fundamental element of stories—perhaps the fundamental element of narratives.

In children’s stories, this can be very simple: the good guys win, the bad guys lose. In narratives for older readers, the ending is more complex, with some lose ends left dangling, and others ambiguous. Yet the ultimate appropriateness of the ending is rarely in doubt. If a tale ended with Harry Potter being tortured to death and the Dursley family dancing on his grave, the audience would be horrified, of course, but also puzzled: that’s not what happens in stories. Similarly, in a tragedy, we would be surprised if King Lear’s cruelty to Cordelia did not lead to his demise.

Indeed, it appears that stories exist to establish that there exists a mechanism or a person—cosmic destiny, karma, God, fate, Mother Nature—to make sure the right thing happens to the right person. Without this overarching moral mechanism, narratives become records of unrelated arbitrary events, and lose much of their entertainment value. In contrast, the stories which become universally popular appear to be carefully composed records of cosmic justice at work.

. . .  While some bleak stories are well-received by critics, they rarely win mass popularity among readers or moviegoers. Stories without the appropriate outcome mechanism feel incomplete. The purveyor of cosmic justice is not just a cast member, but appears to be the hidden heart of the show.

Again, this is not necessarily an expression of karma, or the working out of divine justice. An atheists’s love of happy endings comes from our inculcated and inherited feelings of fairness.  As Paul Bloom and others have shown, we show feelings of inequity from a young age, and animals show them as well (see the wonderful video of capuchin monkeys that Frans de Waal often mentions).  If the good is not rewarded, or the bad not punished, that violates our sense of fairness. That makes us unsatisfied, and that’s why we like stories with happy endings. In fact, I think this is a much better explanation than one involving God or karma.

5. We lack the free will to choose atheism.

Of course these findings do not prove that it is impossible to stop believing in God. What they do indicate, quite powerfully, is that we may be fooling ourselves if we think that we are making the key decisions about what we believe, and if we think we know how deeply our views pervade our consciousnesses. It further suggests that the difference between the atheist and the non-atheist viewpoint is much smaller than probably either side perceives. Both groups have consciousnesses which create for themselves realities which include very similar tangible and intangible elements. It may simply be that their awareness levels and interpretations of certain surface details differ.

Well of course “we” don’t make decisions about what we believe: the laws of physics do (those include, of course, the influences of our environment and other people). But so what? Does that mean that people can’t be genuine atheists, lacking belief in God? Of course not!

As for the difference between atheism and non-atheism being small because we’re influenced by forces we don’t understand, that’s just crazy. It’s like saying that the difference between psychopaths and “normal” people is very small because they’re also influenced by such forces. Or the difference between someone like Bill Gates and Bernie Madoff. Different genes and different environments can produce big differences in morphology, in physiology, in culture, and in beliefs.

As for the last two sentences of Vittachi’s paragraph above, they’re simply bafflegab: they don’t say anything, and certainly don’t suggest that differences between atheists and nonatheists are much smaller than we think. For one thing, atheists don’t kill each other over differences in what we think our favorite deity wants us to do.

There’s more to Vittachi’s piece, but it’s equally dire, but I really don’t want to go on. I’m starting to realize that I really don’t need to debunk this stuff, as you readers well know how to do it yourselves, and can do it on your blogs, your Facebook page, or whatever.


Finally, there’s Vittachi’s inevitable ending about how we need to talk to each other, get along, and that the truth is somewhere in the middle:

       In the meantime, it might be wise for religious folks to refrain from teasing atheist friends who accidentally say something about their souls. And it might be equally smart for the more militant of today’s atheists to stop teasing religious people at all.

We might all be a little more spiritual than we think.

Yep, that’s the happy ending that journalists all love.  But really, religious people “teasing” us for our atheism? I don’t know when I’ve last been “teased” by a believer. “Excoriated” or “vilified” is more like it.  On the other side of the religious teasers are the “militant atheists” who, says Vittachi, should stop “teasing religious people” completely. In other words, we should shut the hell up about religion.

Vittachi doesn’t seem to understand that the theist-atheist discourse is a serious one, one that bears not on the most pervasive superstition in the world, but on how we support what we believe, on the malign influences of religion, and on beliefs that have serious consequences—not just for society, but for many people’s conceptions of how to behave and what will happen to them when they die. I see it as the most important intellectual debate of our time, for it’s a debate that has weighty consequences in the real world, and whose resolution will affect what happens to our future. One of the biggest threats to our planet now is religion, particularly the extreme versions of Islam that are violently opposed to secular reason and society. Tell me, Mr. Vittachi, are we supposed to stop “teasing” Muslims?

h/t: Nikki

88 thoughts on “Confused science writer claims that atheists might not exist

  1. He seems to make a big leap from humans possessing the cognitive predisposition to recognize patterns and endowing those patterns with agency to everyone being a born believer. Yes, it’s somewhat unnatural to break out of those patterns but humans are also born with the ability to reason so it can’t be all that alien to us! His line of reasoning (!) seems to ignore the capability of humans to break out of instinctual behaviour.

    1. “His line of reasoning (!) seems to ignore the capability of humans to break out of instinctual behaviour.”

      Good point. But one might wonder if humans actually do this “breaking out” or only construct reasonable explanations for their behavior to maintain the idea that they are rational creatures. I certainly know what rationality is and can construct rational explanation for my behavior, but I am not sure my behavior is ever actually originating out of rational thought. I’d like to believe it is, but most of the scant scientific research says otherwise. As a species, I don’t think we want to find out.

      1. We make decisions usi.g a lot of information and not always is it rational. However, we have built mechanisms & processes to compensate: statistics, scientific method.

  2. You have a typo (“numinoous”) that fired some errant neuron of mine, suddenly clarifying the distinction between the “numinous”–a quality of some experiences that may defy easy explanation (i.e. the “spiritual” in Sam Harris’ sense)–and what he see in Vittachi, namely the “woominous.”

    1. This is a surprise to me. I am not superstitious, have no believe in God or anything metaphysical like “immortal souls”, and know lots of similar people, many who comment on this site.

      Can you find the error in this one? I notice them, as well. I’m sure he was as frustrated by the bozo that wrote the original piece. Glad someone posted a link to this page in WFLA.

  3. I talk to my cat. Perhaps he is god. He seems to think so. Ah well, good commentary, thanks for writing it, but it almost seems profligate to expend quality analysis on such drivel.

  4. What do you expect. This is what happens when you spend too much time in a “creativity research lab”! Whatever that could be? is it like a playschool or kindergaten type place?

    1. You’re right – HK has a secular rather than an atheist government. My impression from living in HK for ten years, including six years teaching in a religious school, is that religion has a very low public profile and that the principal religion is making and spending money.

      I took Vittachi’s article, despite the ‘that’s no joke’ part of the title, as an attempted semi-humorous comment. My recollection is that Vittachi writes exaggerated, light-weight, commentary straining for comic effect for the South China Morning Post, and this looks like one more example, not to be taken very seriously.

      1. I’ve never heard of him. And when The Week published a very small piece of this garbage in their magazine, it annoyed the hell out of me. It’s nonsense.

        Shame on the The Week for publishing this.

  5. “Well of course ‘we’ don’t make decisions about what we believe: the laws of physics do (those include, of course, the influences of our environment and other people).” – J. Coyne

    Philosophers have long been discussing the question of whether doxastic voluntarism is true.

    “Doxastic voluntarism is the philosophical doctrine according to which people have voluntary control over their beliefs. Philosophers in the debate about doxastic voluntarism distinguish between two kinds of voluntary control. … Direct doxastic voluntarism claims that people have direct voluntary control over at least some of their beliefs. Indirect doxastic voluntarism, however, supposes that people have indirect voluntary control over at least some of their beliefs, for example, by doing research and evaluating evidence. … [P]hilosophers seem to have reached a consensus on one aspect of the debate, recognizing that indirect doxastic voluntarism is true. In light of this consensus, they focus the majority of their attention on the more contentious question of direct doxastic voluntarism[.]… Is direct doxastic voluntarism true? On this issue, philosophers are divided. Many argue that it is not, but some argue that it is. To each position, however, there are important challenges.…”


  6. If seeking/recognizing patterns is considered religious by default then I serioulsy doubt we’re the only religious species on this planet.

    And if believers insist I’m religious then it’s simply their version of religion I’m opposed to.

    It changes nothing, which is kind of funny.

    If a loved one dies, even many anti-religious people usually feel a need for a farewell ritual, complete with readings from old books and intoned declarations that are not unlike prayers.

    Aye, and the religious who believe they’ll be reunited in a jiffy cries too. What gives?

    Maybe some of us couldn’t care less about what believers believe we believe.

    The “atheists believe too” is a bit worn out at least in online discussions, but I have yet to met a believer that claimed I was religious irl….that kind of clairvoyance regarding other people’s thoughts is generally considered poor taste around here.

    Theologians seems to be big on that, though.

    1. “And if believers insist I’m religious then it’s simply their version of religion I’m opposed to.

      It changes nothing, which is kind of funny.”

      Exactly. A lot of theists, especially theologians, and even faitheists, make these abstruse and fiddling arguments as though they’re scoring points. I’m trying to point out that the ship we’re on is sinking and they’re arguing that it should properly be called a catamaran. I made this point to Eric MacDonald in the Robbins thread when he was very concerned that we weren’t appreciating a difference between literalists and fundamentalists.

        1. Aye, frustrating and silly at the same time.

          Not to long ago I spent a couple of days trying to explain an agnostic buddhist that atheism wasn’t a belief.

          He would have none of it and no matter from what angle I tried to explain it he simply stated that atheism was an a priori belief in the universe.

          Living in the universe = faith in the universe according to some pseudo solipsists, so not having faith to them is simply impossible.

          Whaddaya gonna do….:-)

  7. We all know that most people who identify as non-religious still have other supernatural beliefs, whether it’s their idiosyncratic version theism or the many varieties of woowoo. It seems Vittachi wants to define religious belief as supernatural belief, and that’s fine with me, but there are plenty of people (about 1% of human population is my guess) like me who reject all supernatural belief in principle. It’s fine to point out the inherent human susceptibility to conceptualize imaginary worlds and the fact much ordinary cognition relies on mechanisms of fantasy/imagination/hypotheticality and that atheists can have the same spiritual experiences as supernaturalists, but none of that changes the fact that a cognitive experience and the conceptualization of that experience are fundamentally distinct. An atheist might have “god experiences” without believing in any “god concepts” to explain the experiences. And of course plenty of atheists participate in the ordinary use of culturally and linguistically embedded concepts like “soul” and “spirit”, but atheists understand these concepts as metaphors. This is the same as using the liquid theory of heat transfer in everyday discourse as a convenient metaphor. And of course atheists are often guilty like everyone else of errors in scientific reasoning like overgeneralizing anecdotal data, but it’s possible to have false beliefs without appealing to supernaturalism. Atheists can experience the same fantasy worlds as theists, but atheism/non-supernaturalism is the distinction between reality and imagination, between the literal and the metaphorical.

    I have to agree with you that people like Vittachi are wasting our time with their incoherent babbling and waffling.

  8. I don’t have time to comment on all of this (kudos for Professor Ceiling Cat for taking on such a thankless and probably Sisyphean task!), but here, if my math is correct, is my six cents worth.

    1) “My mother is Buddhist…the multiverse and so on”

    I thought he said he was a science writer. Has he not yet realized that science goes where the preponderance of evidence leads, not to what some individual might happen to think, based on his mother’s religion or his country’s laws?

    2) Yes, if you widen the definition of “religion” enough (cue Humpty-Dumpty), I suppose you could make the vacuous claim that everyone is religious. A Ken Hamist, YEC with whom I’ve too frequently clashed in the comment threads at likes to say that atheism is a religion, but he uses “religion” in the sense of “basic principles one uses in one’s life”, thereby defining reason, respect for evidence, and non-belief in god as a “religion”; I’m sure he’d say that the drunken bum in the gutter has ripple for his religion. As Garfield so famously said, “Big, fat, hairy deal.”

    3) Narratives tend to have “happy endings”

    Uh huh. In the versions of christianity and islam with which I am most familiar, upwards of 90%, possibly even 99%, of all humans who have ever lived are going to be tortured forever. Your honor, I rest my case.

    1. I think he was probably trying to show what an open minded guy he is with #1. It has a whiff of Life of Pi about it.

  9. we’re hard-wired for supernaturalism, and even if we aren’t believers,

    I think this is probably true, even for the most atheistic of us. I still have the vague feeling that universe will exact its revenge if I do something stupid, like embed me in stop and go traffic if my fuel tank needle is hovering on empty.

    I also find the feeling of portents popping up, which is an interpretation of an event in such a way that it indicates what the universe wants, rather than the random chance that it is.

    These seem to be the planks that superstitions and religions are built of.

    1. Given the ways our brains have evolved, yes it is no surprise that we are religious or superstitious. Interestingly, the more stressed a person becomes, the more religious/superstitious – just look at all the fans at the World Cup completing little OCD rituals when their team isn’t doing very well. Clearly, we are capable of reasoning our way out of these rituals so that superstition does not have to be the end result every time. Therefore, we have the capacity to overcome our instincts and Vittachi seems to ignore this fact.

      1. So long as you don’t assume such instinctive responses are authoritative truth-tellers, it can even be kind of fun. I can look at inanimate objects and see character or personality in them. For instance, a wide-screen TV looks wide-mouthed and gluttonous, an alarm clock looks rounded surprised, and a draped towel looks lazy and non-committed. I can even imagine objects thinking and responding as I manipulate them, like a backpack getting pumped for the next outdoor excursion, or my shoes being nasty and vicious when they don’t fit and rub my heel something fierce.

        An over-active pattern-detector can be a fun little indulgence, when you don’t take it seriously. 🙂

    2. I don’t think we’re hard wired for supernaturalism. We’re just hard wired to be wrong frequently given the shitload of information we’re processing at all times.

        1. Some of the time, no doubt.

          But it is entirely possible to be wrong in a way that would not require the laws of physics to be suspended in order for the assumption to be true, even though it turns out to be false.

          If you catch my drift.

  10. I have no clue how you do it, Jerry. I had trouble even making it past the first half-doze words:

    WHILE MILITANT ATHEISTS like Richard Dawkins


  11. New Scientist is one of the most sensationalist sciency publications. I ignore them as a source. If it is worthwhile, a better source will have mentioned it.

  12. Religious talk at funerals is so generic and ritualistic that it usually makes me remind my wife that if she has any respect for me at all, she’ll leave any such crap out of my send off, should I be the first to go. Religious funerals are at best a soporific anesthetic and at worst cheap exploitation of the event to yet again proselytize the attendees.

    1. Very much agree.
      At my grandfather’s funeral the pastor said (paraphrasing): Just think where {grandfather} is now, and how great heaven is. Also remember that heaven was described in the bible over 2,000 years ago. Just think that if God could create the universe in 6 days, think how much greater heaven is since He’s had 2,000 years to improve it.
      No shit…I almost laughed out loud. Where do these people come up with this stuff?

      1. It’s hard to pipe up with, “Excuse me, but that’s bullshit” followed by a refutation of everything he said. I often wonder if I’m rolling my eyes without being aware of it or if I’m making a face that betrays my emotions.

        1. The clever trick behind this tradition is that they’ve got their pet ideas in a place where refuting them makes you look like an asshole. It’s the ultimate way to force your critics into the sadistic choice where the religious win either way, because the critic will either silence themselves or self-administer an instant character assassination. You get the best of the Argument from Silence and the Ad Hominem.

  13. I always found many-Worlds Quantum Mechanics pretty compelling, but seeing that this guy finds it fascinating makes me wonder whether I should reconsider…

  14. Even the atheists among us live with a kernel of faith; to wit – we believe the universe exists. Ray Kurzweil among others, has pointed out that, phenomenologically-speaking we take the universe-exists leap of faith despite that we cannot really know it to be true. This may be a curse of any self-aware being; the paranoid sense that the universe around us “could” be a sham or simulation. So YES, we must have faith to function, but after that leap, of course we can do quite well without any of the further faith-based gibberish.

    1. I have practical reasons for not wasting my hours and days worrying about every conceivable future surprise, however global. I have reasons even to explain why I could still be surprised in the future, based on knowledge of my own limitations. I have reasonable expectations based on prior experience that everything won’t suddenly dissolve around me and reveal I’m… well, what? A brain in a jar? A hallucinating nutball since birth? A devil’s playtoy? President of the United States? A dog? Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer? Scradje? And what should I worry about then? That I’m none of those things, and this reality will dissolve to reveal I’m Pikachu? Then dissolve again to reveal I’m Batman? Then Samus? A puppy-dog hybrid? Exactly the same as originally, but dyslexic and with six fingers? In an infinity of collapsing realities, all giving way to each other? In a meta-reality, watching myself dissolve into the infinite realities? In a meta-meta-reality, watching myself watching myself dissolve into the infinite realities? Then in Alice’s Wonderland? Then spend a million years travelling Mars, insulting immigrant Jovians for not paying their Mars taxes? Where does the infinite regress, the arbitrariness, and the circularity all end?

      That the “Matrix” theory is an unfalsifiable, unverifiable invention of a hyperactive mind isn’t “faith”. It’s a rational stance coupled with practical considerations and a healthy dose of skepticism. That’s the thing about reason: it’s all-encompassing. Try to jump out of it, and it will already be there waiting to explain patiently why you can’t, even if it won’t be able to explain everything.

    2. Nonsense, if for only one reason (though I’ve got plenty more) – were any actual evidence that the world is not real to arise, my judgment would change based upon it. That is not how faith, in the context of belief without evidence, works. If you are using a different definition of the word faith, you are being misleading because none of us object to having faith in propositions that are rationally justified.

      Right now, the proposition that the universe is not real has zero value – it explains nothing the same way that positing a creator god explains nothing, and even if it were true we are forced to live as if the universe is real by practical necessity.

  15. I was concerned by his statement that he writes science and history books for children.
    I did a brief search to find titles so I could read them and warn students of any factual errors or other mistakes, should any of my students choose to read his books. I did not find any real non-fiction titles. He does have a series of mystery books. Judging by the cover his detective is a cat. He is not an author stocked by our school library; I’m not sure if his books are in the local public library. If he is published by Scholastic, I’ll have to check out his books. Thanks for bringing this (chilren’s literature?) author to my attention.

  16. Even we atheists cannot truly function in the world without a kernel of faith. As Ray Kurzweil, among others, has observed – being conscious beings we have to take the phenomenological leap of faith that the universe actually exists: it is not an elaborate simulation designed to deceive us. Once we take that leap, of course we can function quite well without all the other faith-based gibberish. So the idea that we are prewired for faith may be a trait that is common to ALL sentient beings.

    1. “we have to take the phenomenological leap of faith that the universe actually exists: it is not an elaborate simulation designed to deceive us.”

      Well, something that elaborate that is unsupported by evidence doesn’t take a “leap” faith to disbelieve. Rather it would be hugely unreasonable to consider true, which is why it isn’t.

      The best you can argue is that it could be reasonable to be a fence sitter on the issue. But this doesn’t leave us with any different way to proceed with our lives, so even then we could indeed “truly function” and you are wrong.

    2. “being conscious beings we have to take the phenomenological leap of faith that the universe actually exists: it is not an elaborate simulation designed to deceive us”

      You have it backwards – the leap is assuming that it IS a simulation. Either answer – it is real, it is a simulation – makes the same basic assumption: it exists. The only difference is that to assume it’s a simulation is to assume the existence of an extra context to the universe’s existence – essentially, both sides are granting X, but to assume it’s a simulation is to assume X(with the added complexity of being a simulation of a reality following basic rules rather than simply being a reality following basic rules) + Y(the reality the simulator exists in).

      It is absolutely more reasonable to make the fewest assumptions necessary, and to assume that this reality is the one we have to accept, the existence of which is simply a brute fact, is at LEAST one less assumption than to assume that this reality is a simulation within another reality which we have to accept the existence of as a brute fact. It adds another variable without making the equation any simpler to solve.

  17. Science journalism often consists of sensationalistic, overblown interpretations of data that don’t actually warrant the claims made. This just seems like a particularly egregious example.

    Also –

    “…evidence from several disciplines indicates that what you actually believe is not a decision you make for yourself.”

    Uh…yeah. We’ve been saying this for years. We say it when we argue against libertarian free will, when we refute Pascal’s wager, and when we discuss the role of compelling, objective evidence in epistemology. This is the new, paradigm-busting discovery that makes atheism impossible? It could just as easily go the other way (and in fact does): I can’t choose to be a theist because all the information available to me convinces me theism is a mistake.


  18. This has to be near the top of my list as the worst drivel I have waisted my time reading. He seems to have zero understanding of free will and can’t even correctly quote his chosen experts. The fact that humans are basicly irrational is no profound revelation. That is why we have scientific and skeptical inquiry.

    1. For someone who claims to be a champion of science he seems to be clueless about the characteristics of science that set it apart from other activities. Unfortunately common in science journalism.

      This is worse than the worst evolutionary psychology babble I’ve ever seen. It is comparable to the most pretentious art criticism.

  19. . . . While some bleak stories are well-received by critics, they rarely win mass popularity among readers or moviegoers.

    I don’t read much fiction, but finally did read Farewell to Arms, so there’s one.

    1. Tragedy, as a dramatic and literary form, has persisted in western culture since the 4th century BCE. ‘Macbeth,’ ‘La Boheme,’ ‘The Sound and the Fury’ and oh so many others continue to be read and seen, deeply felt and admired. Aristotle was the first to show that the painful affects of pity and fear aroused in an audience by a represented tragic action, followed by their ‘purgation’ as tragedies end, are emotionally satisfying.

  20. “I’m a science writer based in a creativity research lab”
    Sure that isn’t a CREATION research lab?

    On another facet, as I understand it the average density of the universe is less than one atom per cubic metre. Therefore (since we occupy less than a cubic metre of volume each), to a first approximation we all don’t exist. Ain’t statistics lovely? 😉

    1. To a first approximation, the solar system has no planets.

      To a first approximation, the Earth has no life.

      To a first approximation, all livings things are dead and extinct.

      To a first approximation, all animals are insects. Mostly beetles.

      To a first approximation, I’m a cloud of hydrogen. Or oxygen. Take your pick: (

      And to a first approximation, I never sleep or eat or drink or talk at all.

      “Ain’t statistics lovely?”

      Yup. 🙂

  21. “While the UK is often defined as an irreligious place, a recent survey by Theos, a think tank, found that very few people—only 13 per cent of adults—agreed with the statement “humans are purely material beings with no spiritual element”. For the vast majority of us, unseen realities are very present.”

    ‘Spiritual’ is often taken loosely to mean something along the lines of aesthetic or artistic appreciation, so the question would need to be far better worded to support the conclusion that 87 percent of us believe in woo. My appreciation of Pink Floyd is an ‘unseen reality’ but it doesn’t mean I think they have supernatural abilities…

  22. “I’m beginning to question the wisdom of taking on atheist-bashing articles”

    Jerry, you may recall the old joke about comedy night in prison where instead of telling the joke they just give the number of the joke and everyone falls about laughing (punchline -‘It’s the way you told it”).

    You might consider adapting this technique to overcome this problem given the regular readership here.

  23. In war situations, commanders frequently comment that atheist soldiers pray far more than they think they do.

    I was about to [citation needed] this, but instead I’ll give you this little pearl.

  24. ROTFLMAO!!!

    Someone once claimed that I “couldn’t possibly be an atheist” because I worked out regularly and derived pleasure from athletic competition.

        1. Which I also read. So am I only half-heretical? Or an even worse heretic, for not realizing that there is only one True Fiction™?

    1. I just got back from dinner with Mom and Dad, and I’m playing with Baihu right now. I must be the Pope!

      (Well, actually, I am, but that’s another story….)


  25. I reckon Hyper Agency Detection (HAD) covers most of the points he raises. And I only need to speak to my wife to know that non theists can believe in all sorts of woo.

  26. “the difference between the atheist and the non-atheist viewpoint is much smaller than probably either side perceives.”

    Vittachi, it is not the case that this is true for the reasons you think.

    We live, by definition, in a secular world. The observable universe is secular. If it part of physics, secular. Biology, secular. Going to the grocery store, secular, picking your nose, secular.

    The only part of the universe that includes God, is metaphysical, by defintion.

    All people on planet earth live in the secular world, we live secular lives. The only difference is some people believe stupid things and others do not.

  27. The Science 2.0 owner clearly has a conservative agenda, and he loves to irritate more liberal readers, hoping to draw more hits to the site. So I’m sure he smiled when he saw Vittachi’s title. I refuted several of the author’s feeble arguments, but it’s a waste of time to fall into the owner’s trap. Few young, impressionable readers frequent Science 2.0, and older ones have already made up their minds.

  28. wow. It’s amazing on how theists are so desperate for external validation and pretending everyone agrees with them deep down, really honest and for true. it’s like a child who is sure that everyone likes Barbie or GI Joe and can’t possibly accept that someone doesn’t. it might mean that they are *wrong* 🙂

  29. For what it’s worth, during the course of the comments on Science 2.0, I note that Vittachi says “wonder if I have been unclear. The post has absolutely nothing to do with the existence or otherwise of God or gods” and then “should have been much clearer in my original post” and “By ‘atheists might not exist’ I am NOT saying that humans who call themselves atheists do not exist, but the opposite: humans who call themselves atheists definitely do exist but may have more of a spiritual side than any of us realize.”

    I also noted with amusement that one commenter chose to describe herself as a polytheist, even though she sees these gods as a projection of her mind, not an external reality. Wordz sometimes haz fuzzy meanings, at least for some people some of the time.

    1. I wouldn’t think that needs clarifying. His accusation seemed clear enough to me. “Atheists are just lying or confused or in denial about their own atheism”, this is not a new trope.

      1. I agree that “atheists are lying/confused/in denial about their atheism” is a well-travelled road, and that it’s not an unfair characterisation of an underlying theme in Vittachi’s post. However, it’s not what he actually wrote. Words can sometimes be kept fuzzy for a reason, or even more than one reason.

        If I was to hazard a guess, he over-did the theme in order to add a bit of journalistic spice to the pot, and he really didn’t expect quite such a heavy-duty response (which elicited his semi-apologies). I’d also guess that he may well feel that maintaining an ambiguous public stance on the question of God serves his professional (and personal) self-interest well. I’ve known plenty of people who maintain a carefully calibrated public stance on the question.

  30. “Cognitive scientists are becoming increasingly aware that a metaphysical outlook may be so deeply ingrained in human thought processes that it cannot be expunged.”

    Ok, people need to stop using the word “metaphysical” when they mean “supernatural”.

    Coyne does it here too:

    “have no believe in God or anything metaphysical like “immortal souls””

    Indeed I think this is one of the ignorances in our society that supernatural views benefit from on: the inability to imagine alternative hypotheses. Metaphysics are basically hypotheses fyi. “Metaphysical naturalism” is the hypothesis that nothing supernatural exists.

    Here is a lecture by Richard Carrier that may help:

    Or google his name and “metaphysical naturalism”.

    1. Unfortunately, there’s been a shift in meaning.

      I do (or did, when I was an academic) secular, scientific metaphysics. However, the ship has sailed on the meaning. Now, “metaphysics” can be synonymous with “woo”, though I would love to “reclaim it”. If I had time …

  31. Strange article! It sounds like a hodge-podge and the misuse of normal English word definitions. Nearly all the atheists I’ve known have been 100% unreligious and they let me know it repeatedly:-)

    I do have a question about those scientists who align themselves in the middle–neither orthodox religionists,
    nor atheists.

    Einstein for instance. I recently finished a long biography about him and have read his various statements for and against religion.

    And there are a bunch of other 20th century scientists who rejected organized religion but didn’t affirm atheism either.

    Any opinion about such scientists?

    1. Perhaps it may have something to do with the time and place in which they lived, where public discussions of religion, sex and politics were seen as impolite — an attitude that still persists in places today. Saying that one doesn’t go to church is one thing; saying that one is an atheist could perhaps be regarded as implying an emotional rejection of religious belief.

      1. I think that may be true of at least part of Einstein’s seeming paradox. Not only did he see order and beautiful structure in existence, so didn’t think the cosmos was meaningless and purposeless, but he also emphasized he wasn’t an atheist, because of the connotative negative meaning of that word.

        For some others such as biologist Francis Collins and a number of scientists I’ve read about–they seem to be compartmentalizing, keeping their science and their religious views separate.

  32. Are you ready to stop engaging their claims and arguments and start engaging the psychological motivation that writes these articles?

    These are cowards. They are afraid of Christians: powerful, threatening Christians. They are no afraid of atheists. They have a belief that atheists need to be silenced in order for the genie of extremist religion to be put back in the bottle. It is a wrong belief, but it is the fear that supports and makes it strong.

    Christians are not scary to them because of us.

  33. regarding the idea that people tend to behave better when they believe someone is watching over what they do: some time back I read the book “Conservatives without Conscience” by John W Dean. One thing in particular stuck in my mind (actually only one thing): a certain type of religious, conservative personality believes that when you behave unethically, you simply go and confess your sin, the slate is wiped clean and you can go on your merry way, behaving unethically again should you see fit. In other words, while not necessarily driving their unethical behaviour, their religious views are making it dangerously easy for them to behave unethically.

  34. Hmmmm… if one utilises Vittachi’s exact line of argument it is also totally consistent to argue that RELIGIOUS people do not exist at all and that everyone is either an atheist or an agnostic – given that evolution has “hard wired” us to harbor doubts about the certainty of our mental impressions.

  35. To mis-quote an old song about the carpetting of female children,
    These two bricks and mortar /will teach you not to doubt the existence of atheists.
    Otherwise known as “the argument from reality is“.

      1. Yes, “a Higher Power” is an ambiguous phrase, isn’t it? Tacking “a Higher Power” on the end draws the Somethingists into the net. And potentially others. Anyone who believes in the higher power of gravity, or the Much Higher Power of E=MC2,, could go for this option if they chose to take the question literally.

  36. When Vittachi writes of “consciousness which create for themselves realities” he can only be referring to the theistic worldview. This view says that consciousness holds primacy over the objects of its awareness, both at the personal and social levels but also in conceiving of an all controlling consciousness able to alter and to create the identities of the objects that exist. This is subjectivist.

    In contrast I would think that most atheists would be objectivists. This is the recognition that objects which exist, exist independently of our conscious awareness of them and we consequently don’t make our reality but simply observe and identify it.

    1. It’s possible that Vittachi is expressing a theistic worldview. However one reading of his sentence is “Both groups [atheists and non-atheists] have consciousnesses which create for themselves realities [some of which are the realities of holding false beliefs, and] which include very similar tangible and intangible elements.”

  37. Blah blah blah. I could not care less what someone thinks I must believe about myself or anything else. If you can’t prove it in practical and testable terms then it’s just creative writing. I don’t believe what I read in works of fiction, they are just entertainment. Giving a fool a platform is pointless. Him thinking he is clever does not make him so. Just like the rest of us. But there is no God, no Odin, no Harry Potter.

  38. your response to the article was fantastic (and I’m an agnostic btw – I do believe in some sort of higher power, maybe, because it makes more sense to me than no higher power).

    however, you had to ruin your otherwise wonderful article with this line:

    “One of the biggest threats to our planet now is religion, particularly the extreme versions of Islam that are violently opposed to secular reason and society. Tell me, Mr. Vittachi, are we supposed to stop “teasing” Muslims?”

    there are over a billion muslims in the world, most of whom are peaceful. the whole muslim = terrorist stereotype is extremely tired and harmful. christians and jews and other religions that I’m less familiar with ALSO have extremists who are violently opposed to a secular society. so why call out just muslims? call them all out.

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