Accommodatheism #2: More gratuitous atheist-bashing in an mainstream article on the Creation Museum

September 23, 2014 • 12:34 pm

I don’t want to complain too much about this article, as it’s actually pretty good. I just want to point out how, in the middle of a perfectly good magazine piece on creationism, an author will take time out to show he’s a Good Guy by bashing atheism and its Dear Leader, Richard Dawkins.

The author is Jeffrey Goldberg, a correspondent for Atlantic (previously for the New Yorker) and a guy with a lot of journalistic experience. His article, in the new Atlantic, is called “Were there dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark?“, is about his trip to the Kentucky Creation Museum and interview with Ken Ham and Terry Mortenson, a “scientist” on the staff.

While most of us know about the Creation Museum (I’ve never visited), Goldberg notes that it has bigger aims than just teaching Biblical literalist creationism:

What I didn’t understand until I visited Ken Ham is that his museum, which is devoted to a literal, historical reading of the first book of the Bible, is in itself a forward operating base in the conservative war against legalized abortion, gay marriage, and the belief that man is at least partially responsible for climate change (the creationists’ retort being that God will not allow man to destroy a world that he created).

In fact, the people at the Museum seem especially exercised by gay marriage:

Mortenson stayed on the subject of gay marriage. “The homosexual issue flows from this. Genesis says that God created marriage between one man and one woman. He didn’t create it between two men, or two women, or two men and one woman, or three men and one woman, or two women and one man, or three women and one man. If other parts of Genesis aren’t true, then how could this idea of marriage be true? If there were no Adam and Eve and we’re all evolved from apelike ancestors and there’s homosexuality in the animal world and if Genesis is mythology, then you can justify any behavior you want.” I found this preoccupation with gay marriage significant, because it suggests that perhaps at least some of those who profess a belief in creationism might simply be signaling their preference for a more traditional social order, rather than a rejection of modern science and free intellectual inquiry.

What’s important is more than just a traditional social order, though: it’s a divinely-grounded morality. “Traditional” marriage is part of that, of course, but note Mortenson’s statement, “if Genesis is mythology, then you can justify any behavior you want.”  This is the crux of their ideology, and what we as secularists should be spending more time on. The Euthyphro argument is not hard to get across, and perhaps we should, in our attempts to spread rationality,  be putting more pressure on the idea that morality comes from God.

Goldberg is good at reporting the facts which, without his having to editorialize too much, discredit Ham and his odious venture. Here’s a funny bit:

How could dinosaurs have coexisted with other animals within the teeming confines of Noah’s Ark? Because, you see, Noah’s Ark, in Ken Ham’s understanding of the world, was crammed stem to stern with dinosaurs. The cleverest creationists don’t deny the historicity of dinosaurs; they simply argue that they were alive at the start of the Flood, which, by their calculation, occurred approximately 4,350 years ago. (What happened to the dinosaurs after the waters receded is another story.) One sign of Ham’s genius—and he is, at the very least, a marketing genius—is his ability to shape a conversation on his terms, which is why I heard myself arguing against the possibility of a dinosaur-laden ark, rather than arguing against the notion that the ark itself was an actual thing that existed. My argument, in case you were wondering, is that the Tyrannosauruses would have eaten the sheep. QED, right? Except, no. “Many dinosaurs,” Ham says, “were smaller than chickens.”

Now that’s pretty damn funny. What about the ones that weren’t smaller than chickens?  At any rate, if I were Ham I suppose I’d claim that the big ones didn’t get aboard and drowned in the Flood, but that may contravene the Bible’s description of every “kind” on Earth (pairs of some, sevens of others) boarding the big ship.

So far so good. But then, right in the middle of the article, you will find this:

My sympathies, by the way, do not lie entirely where you might think. I find atheism dismaying, for Updikean reasons (“Where was the ingenuity, the ambiguity … of saying that the universe just happened to happen and that when we’re dead we’re dead?”), and because, in the words of a former chief rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathan Sacks, it is religion, not science, that “answers three questions that every reflective person must ask. Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live?” Like Ken Ham, I am appalled by the idea, as expressed by Richard Dawkins, that “the universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

Really, even if I weren’t a heathen I’d say that this is a superfluous insertion in an otherwise good piece, a gratuitous solipsism meant only to establish the author’s status as “not one of those damn atheists.” Why else would it be there?

What Goldberg’s saying is that he’s “dismayed” by atheism because he doesn’t like the implications of there being no God. Well, I don’t like the implications of being dead, either, but I’m not pretending I’ll be immortal.  And, of course, religion DOESN’T answer those questions that every reflective person asks, for different religions give different answers. If you’re a Muslim you’re going to get a different answer to “How shall I live?” than if you’re a Jew. (I have no idea whether Goldberg, though bearing a Jewish name and referring to a rabbi, is Jewish.) And if he’s appalled by the idea that there’s no divinely-ordained purpose to the universe, well, that’s simply what the data tell us. I haven’t seen God spell out “I am who I am” in the stars lately.

What Goldberg is saying, then, is that he doesn’t like what science seems to say and so is sympathetic toward religion. That’s a pretty lousy reason to like religion. As Voltaire said:

The interest I have in believing in something is not a proof that the something exists.  (“De plus, l’intérêt que j’ai à croire une chose n’est pas une preuve de l’existence de cette chose.”)

And so we have another good piece of journalism, by a good author, spoiled by an atheist-bashing superfluity, one based on simple dislike of what science tells us. Goldberg can get away with this because it’s currently fashionable to diss atheism—something, a reader pointed out, that is actually heartening, for it’s showing that we’re making headway.

But Goldberg needs a better editor.

 

141 thoughts on “Accommodatheism #2: More gratuitous atheist-bashing in an mainstream article on the Creation Museum

  1. “The homosexual issue flows from this. Genesis says that God created marriage between one man and one woman. He didn’t create it between two men, or two women, or two men and one woman, or three men and one woman, or two women and one man, or three women and one man.”

    Apparently he must have glossed over the part about King Solomon and his… help me out here, how many wives did he have?

    1. Based on the stories about Solomon in the Bible, I don’t understand why he is considered an exemplar of wisdom. Oh, so he figured that if he threatened to have a baby cut in half the real mother would relent to the fake mother — what bogus bunk! That strikes me as more sadistic than wise. The fake mother could have just as easily reacted in horror as the real mother, and likewise the real mother could have also said, oh, fine, go ahead and chop it in half if that’s what the wisest man in the world insists. And Solomon certainly wasn’t very moral or good by any genuine standards. Just a typical tyrant who treated the world as his playground and the people he ruled as his playthings to do with as he pleased.

      1. Solomon was a good example of what happens when a not terribly clever person tries to come up with a clever fictional character.

        1. OT historians and archaeologists generally agree that a Solomon existed, probably much more minimal than the Bible account.

          The Deuteronomist historian(s), who are the source for the Solomon stories, pre-date by about a century Herodotus’ first Greek attempt at a historical narrative: their interpretation constitutes one of the pillars of Jewish self-definition. It further influenced later monotheisms to consider that what made them special was the nature of their covenant with the one god.

          Whatever else you can say about the writer(s), that is some achievement. x

    2. Does the bible say that god created *only* marriage between, etc.? Or just the one, the implicit one of the first couple? It seems that this is a bad argument even on the the fundy’s own terms.

        1. You’ve read of Adam’s trucks
          With Eve whose dirty looks
          Were black as sin,
          And ‘though her kin,
          Thought, “F*ck me, fiat lux.”

          x

  2. He didn’t create it between two men, or two women, or two men and one woman, or three men and one woman, or two women and one man, or three women and one man.

    Ah, but Genesis did say it could be between a man, his wife, and his wife’s handservant.

      1. Are you implying that religion has frequently changed and betrayed previously fundamental principles in order to stay relevant in a changing world and continue to propagate itself? Why, I never! Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go check on how my loans are collecting interest before getting a steak dinner on Friday.

    1. That’s true of most* believers, whatever their ilk. They can’t bear the thought of there being a ‘lights out’ ending.

      What they need to get their heads round is that, when the end comes, they will no longer exist as a conscious entity, and will not, therefore, be able to worry about it.

      *I say most, because there are, of course, those religious folk who are in it because they crave the control over others or the gathering of others’ wealth.

  3. I find atheism dismaying, for Updikean reasons (“Where was the ingenuity, the ambiguity … of saying that the universe just happened to happen and that when we’re dead we’re dead?”), and because, in the words of a former chief rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathan Sacks, it is religion, not science, that “answers three questions that every reflective person must ask. Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live?” Like Ken Ham, I am appalled by the idea, as expressed by Richard Dawkins, that “the universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

    Christ, I thought this was going to be yet another snide attack at Dawkins’ alleged sexism but this is actually fractally dumb.

    Religion doesn’t even begin to answer any of those questions. It gives fairy tale ‘answers’ for people who don’t want to think too deeply.

    In any case, the idea that the universe is utterly indifferent to its inhabitants is hardly exclusive to Dawkins. It’s something that runs through the work of Kurt Vonnegut.

    1. And earlier in Stephen Crane:

      A man said to the universe:
      “Sir, I exist!”
      “However,” replied the universe,
      “The fact has not created in me
      A sense of obligation.”

      Such wisdom, in writing, goes back to the pre-Socratics and is incomparably embodied in Lucretius’s “De Rerum Natura.’

    2. ‘…in the words of a former chief rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathan Sacks, it is religion, not science, that “answers three questions that every reflective person must ask. Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live?”’

      A far wiser author wrote: “The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why, and Where phases. For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question ‘How can we eat?’, the second by the question ‘Why do we eat?’ and the third by the question ‘Where shall we have lunch?'”

      1. Douglas Adams’ death was a huge loss to atheism. Creative, rational and very very funny. When he died it felt like I’d lost an uncle. Kudos for the quote.

  4. He likes the idea of the idea of fairies at the bottom of the garden, just not Ham’s idea of the idea.

    This also struck me, though:”…the creationist retort being that God would not allow man to destroy a world he created….” Why, because he’s saving the fun for himself? It seems like god isn’t particularly concerned about what other works of his man destroys, including other men. What woild the difference be between this and the Flood, after which the Earth must have been one stinking mass of decaying plants and animals?

  5. What about the ones that weren’t smaller than chickens?

    For informations’ sake (not defending the notion), I believe some YECs claim that Noah took lots of babies rather than adult specimens on board. So, baby t-rex might not have eaten sheep because it was the size of a chicken.

    Really, even if I weren’t a heathen I’d say that this is a superfluous insertion in an otherwise good piece, a gratuitous solipsism meant only to establish the author’s status as “not one of those damn atheists.” Why else would it be there?

    I’m okay with it, honestly. It’s not a hit piece. He’s not saying Dawkins is wrong, stupid, or evil, he’s saying his sympathies don’t lie with Dawkins’ position, that he wants to believe the universe has a purpose. It’s definitely an unnecessary editorial aside, and it might be in there for the exact reason you claim – to tell the reader “I’m not one of those stinky atheists” – but at the same time, as ‘Dawkins bashing’ goes, it’s pretty insiginificant. Yeah he says some negative things, but they are pretty much the same negative things you hear every non-atheist say.

    1. It should be noted that the latest interpretation of spinosaurs as semi- to fully-aquatic gives Ham a little more elbow room inside the ark.

      No doubt he’ll soon depict the ark sailing up to Ararat propelled by an outrigger pair of Spinosauri.. He may in believe that God made their outsize foreclaws for this purpose. One hand on the ark, the other anchoring the menagerie.

      1. The whole argument is pointless. Anyone who’s seen Jurassic Park would know the Velociraptors would massacre everyone on board anyway. 😉

        1. I think you’ve just solved the problem of how Noah fit so many species on the ark — he simply had mosquitos collect DNA samples.

            1. The most “Vonnegut” of all of Vonnegut’s stories, in my opinion. One of my favorite shorts of all time, though I’m sure that is at least partly because of the memories of how it affected my 12 year old self.

  6. if Genesis is mythology, then you can justify any behavior you want

    Just because you don’t like that people could justify any behavior (which they can’t) doesn’t mean Genesis is not a myth.

    And even with people that do think Genesis is real, it seems like they can still justify any behavior they want, they just “interpret” it differently.

    1. Just because you don’t like that people could justify any behavior (which they can’t) doesn’t mean Genesis is not a myth.

      It’s a standard move for religious apologists to use the Appeal to Consequences Fallacy.

      1. And it’s usually a twofer fallacy because the consequences they want to avoid typically do not actually follow from whatever premise(s) they’re advancing. Claiming god must exist because if it didn’t then we’d all go on murderous rampages fails because it invokes an appeal to consequences but also because there is no demonstrable condition that necessitates we all become murderers in the absence of a god.

        1. As I understand it, the presupposition is that we are all afflicted by original sin, an undemonstrable condition. Without religious indoctrination, we must all murder and steal whenever it is possible to do so without being caught.

          I like the thought that sin is an imaginary disease invented to sell an imaginary cure.

    2. “Just because…. Not a myth.”

      Four negatives in one sentence! It took some time for my breakfast-time brain to process that sentence.

  7. “gratuitous solipsism meant only to establish the author’s status as “not one of those damn atheists.” Why else would it be there?”

    One could also argue that he’s applying the research that suggests that confirming someone’s worldview makes them more receptive to information they would otherwise reject without considering it.

    1. And is there anyone who is receptive to Ken Ham’s worldview who will be satisfied with this slap on Dawkins’s hand?

      I am appalled by people who think that it makes a shred of difference to the truth of how the universe works whether it appalls them or not.

  8. The Dawkins quote, if it does not answer Goldberg’s three questions, points to answers – I think by “appalled” and “dismayed” he means to say “do not liked” and “choose not to believe” and, to Bogghosianize it, “prefer to go on pretending to know things I do not know.”

    Who am I? A human being. Why am I here? There is no why, except in the sense of “how”: a chain of events going back billions of years. How then shall I live? Like you do, like you’re gonna – dress it up in faith or reason or chance or whatever – but really you’re just going to live, until you don’t.

    1. We can call this “the argument from dismay”.

      For me the ark thing always cracks me up, I mean, seriously no one in full command of their mental faculties can possibly genuinely believe this right? We must surely be talking about different definitions of “believe”

  9. Mortenson:
    “Genesis says that God created marriage between one man and one woman. He didn’t create it between two men, or two women, or two men and one woman, or three men and one woman, or two women and one man, or three women and one man.”

    I love this kind of stuff. Takes me right back to my childhood, watching Monty Python.

  10. “answers questions that every reflective person must ask.”
    Religion answers these questions by referencing stories in a book of fiction and saying “just believe” instead of using a rational approach. Kinda like the approach most parents use when answering a child’s deep questions, an approach I find “dismaying”

  11. It’s understandable that a person would be uncomfortable with the finality of death with no afterlife and that he would accept fatuous answers to the “three questions every reflective person must ask. (BTW I think introspective would have been a better word here, it sounds he’s referring to people off of whom light bounces) But, I also think there is a lot of truth to JAC’s original analysis.

    “a gratuitous solipsism meant only to establish the author’s status as ‘not one of those damn atheists.'”

    JAC’s analysis here seems pretty accurate to me. All things being equal, the easiest explanation for the atheists bashing is probably the correct one. It’s Occam’s screed.

  12. “. . . in the words of a former chief rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathan Sacks, it is religion, not science, that “answers three questions that every reflective person must ask. Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live?”

    Those are the three real problems with religion right there, especially the last one.

    1) Who am I? Well, if you are xian your religion says you are a worthless piece of meat born predestined for eternal torment, unless you beg for forgiveness and abase yourself to your god. Swell. I feel so special now.

    2) Why am I here? Lucky xians, you are here to praise your god and do whatever he asks, even killing your own child for no other reason than your god testing to see if you are sufficiently subserviant. And if you are a bit more sophisticated, you are here to have your faith in your god tested for a while to see if you are worthy to go on to the real deal, heaven. If you fail, well too bad it ain’t curtains for you, that would be a blessing compared to what you’ve got coming. And more seriously, why do you feel that there just has to be a why?

    3) How then shall I live? Didn’t you listen to Ham’s pet scientest? You shall live to hate gay people! You shall live by sharia! This third one is the real trouble maker. This is the one that makes religion so damn dangerous. This is the main tool that religious leaders have used since ancient times to keep the masses ignorant and in line.

    I disagree with others who have said that religion doesn’t answer these questions. It does, very badly, and that is why it is such a problem. Because the answers it typically gives have more to do with small groups of elites maintaining secular power and wealth than it does helping people to live better lives. In that respect, if you look at it from that point of view, it answers those questions very well. But, like any good carny, religion is largely responsible for creating and maintaining a belief among the masses that these rather juvenile questions (very much like Dennett’s deepities) are of superduperspecial importance in the first place. Like any good drug dealer, create a dependency, and then work it.

    1. Great comment.

      I do think that when an atheist says religion doesn’t answer those questions, they actually mean what you wrote, ie, it answers them badly. Religion doesn’t make an earnest effort of answering them with honesty, integrity and objectivity. Religion just makes up answers based on prejudice and wishful thinking, and so, religion’s answers are not real answers.

      1. Yes, you are right. A preference for how to argue the issue, “does not answer those questions” vs “it does but awfully,” is closer to what I was actually thinking. But even there, thinking a moment more on it, your right, there really is no difference.

  13. I find it a much more horrifying idea that God exists and yet allows such cruelty and suffering here.

    And if there really was a God there’s no way he would allow Ken Ham to have a beard like that.

  14. I find atheism dismaying, for Updikean reasons (“Where was the ingenuity, the ambiguity … of saying that the universe just happened to happen and that when we’re dead we’re dead?”)…

    Way to both strawman atheism en masse as nihilism, and stumble headfirst into the Argument from Consequences fallacy in one go.

    Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live?

    Those are science questions. A large part of solving the question of identity is grasping human psychology and social science, as well as possibly a bit of biology too. The question of explanations for how a person arose is hugely biological and historical, and many people find fulfilment and meaning by exploring what both of these gave to them in their current cultural “ocean”, which itself is the result of history and social and biological factors all interacting in complex and not-entirely-understood ways. And asking how one should live is an application of this kind of knowledge, as well as a critical examination of the system of ethics and meta-ethics that makes up said knowledge.

    The notion that they’re solved by pretending the universe somehow has a plan or cares for us is not a sign of bravely defending meaning and human interests from the forces of atheistic nihilism. It’s just desperately sad, both as a rational response and as a portrayal of atheism to begin with.

    I am appalled by the idea, as expressed by Richard Dawkins, that “the universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

    Well, yes. The universe at bottom does not go out of its way to coddle, protect, moralize, map out meticulously, and otherwise cater to our tendency to view even basic physics through strongly human-centric spectacles. Atoms do not conspire to make your life comfortable; gravity does not spare innocent mothers or cheerfully save a few souls from airplane crashes; clouds do not take time out to teach people what morality is. The world isn’t a human playground built by a caring protector, and we are not going to solve genuine problems in human affairs by pretending otherwise.

    And we’re certainly not going to do it by pretending that ethics and meaning are magic that miraculously defy or stand apart from the material world, or that theodicy is anything but an attempt at ad hoc whitewashing of these unpleasant facts. People who try to use the mere existence of suffering to claim that we don’t live in a material universe can’t make such a grandiose claim without treating human minds, much less good and evil, as if they were non-material magic, which goes further in revealing the primitiveness of their understanding of these phenomena than in crediting religion with anything more than stupid distractions from real issues.

    Of course, anyone who’d actually read Dawkins’ “scary” quote in context would understand that this was what he really meant when he used it in River Out of Eden, where he explicitly says that his point was a counter to someone trying to use theodicy to solve “the problem of evil”.

  15. I’ve developed the impression that Dawkins-Harris-Coyne-Krauss bashing atheists aren’t really atheists at all. They merely pretend to be as a means to be more persuasive just as creationists pretend creationism is based on science deviously referred to as intelligent design.

  16. Goldberg seems to need a bedtime story with a happy ending. Here’s a short one. We are children of the universe, made of the stuff of stars long passed and to whence we shall return.
    As for Ham, he is unfortunately mentally constipated so it’s just as well he has something to play with.

  17. Are the standards of objectivity (to the extent that they exist) different for magazine articles than for newspaper articles and, if so, who presumes to say so? And why should they be different from those of newspapers? And as it is in newspapers there is way too much reportorial opinionating and bloviating. One can find it almost every day in ones newspaper-of-choice, especially in reporters’ use of adjectives.

    (E.g., a reporter describing something or someone “appearing” “odd” or “strange” or “unusual.” To WHOM doth it so appear? The reporter can’t presume to know the mind of any given reader. So it has to be reportorial opinionating and preening.)

    Thank you for your opinions, Mr. Goldberg. Perhaps you’ll soon hire on as editor somewhere.

    (I’m reminded of one of Hitch’s encounters with Laura Ingraham, when he said in response to her protracted opinionating and monopolizing of the interview/conversation words-to-the-effect, “You should invite me on more often so that you can say what you think.”)

  18. “it is religion, not science, that “answers three questions that every reflective person must ask. Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live?”

    The answers religion provides to those three questions are akin to answering the question, where does the wind come from by saying it is the sighing of a lovelorn giant who retreated to his cave.

  19. As with all these types of Dawkins bashing, the complaint seems to be about the temerity of Dawkins to say such a thing rather than the presenting of a cogent counter-argument. They’re actually offended by his lack of politeness.

    1. “They’re actually offended by his lack of politeness.”

      I agree, they are. But, they have a special metric for what constitutes impoliteness in the context of religion that is different from the metric they typically use in other contexts. By typical standards Dawkins is rarely impolite, even when discussing religion. But people choose, or are conditioned to perceive even gentle, polite criticism of religion as impolite.

  20. For the record, the Dawkins quote in context because I have never seen it put in proper context:

    Theologians worry away at the “problem of evil” and a related “problem of suffering.” On the day I originally wrote this paragraph. the British newspapers all carried a terrible story about a bus full of children from a Roman Catholic school that crashed for no obvious reason, with wholesale loss of life. Not for the first time, clerics were in paroxysms over the theological question that a writer on a London newspaper (The Sunday Telegraph) framed this way: “How can you believe in a loving, all-powerful God who allows such a tragedy?” The article went on to quote one priest’s reply: “The simple answer is that we do not know why there should be a God who lets these awful things happen. But the horror of the crash, to a Christian, confirms the fact that we live in a world of real values: positive and negative. If the universe was just electrons, there would he no problem of evil or suffering.”

    On the contrary, if the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies like the crashing of this bus are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind. In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. As that unhappy poet A. E. Housman put it:

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

    DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.

  21. [quote]..it is religion, not science, that “answers three questions that every reflective person must ask. Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live?”[/quote]

    Well, gee whiz. Anyone can ANSWER those questions. Does it matter if the answers are right or not?

  22. As a regular reader of Goldberg’s two web sites, Bloomberg and The Atlantic, I am able to inform Prof. Coyne that Goldberg is, indeed, a religious Jew (I don’t know what brand he favors but suspect that he probably belongs to a Conservative temple.

    A full grown TREX tips the scales at about 6 tons. Some chicken!

  23. “Where was the ingenuity, the ambiguity … of saying that the universe just happened to happen and that when we’re dead we’re dead?”

    And why do Goldberg and Updike fail to see the stark beauty in that circumstance?

  24. One thing is for sure, Ham and his ilk are indeed marketing geniuses. At least, he’s carrying on the genius of whoever first decided that it made sense to say life is meaningless with no God and no hope for eternal life. It has become so engrained in our culture, that the assertion is often not questioned.

    Viewed in any analogous sense, however, it is simply absurd. Has anyone ever become depressed about anticipating viewing a good movie or become depressed about watching it because it isn’t an eternal movie? What about a vacation? Who would savor an exotic trip if you stayed in the location permanently and the routine ultimately became mundane? If we can enjoy such fleeting activities as film and leisurely travel, it is utter nonsense to declare that the life we have that has granted us the opportunity to enjoy them, among many other pleasures, is automatically meaningless because when the curtain drawn, we have no choice but to exit the stage.

  25. I’m a bit more charitable towards Goldberg. At least he didn’t quote RD out of context (see Roger’s post for the full RD context), and it was RD’s ideas he was disputing, not a personal attack on Richard Dawkins.

    It’s really a bit sad when someone who is specifically not an atheist, is better behaved than the prominent atheists we were discussing in a recent post.

    1. Maybe. Usually one shouldn’t impute malice when stupidity suffice. But Dawkins is a target for malice specifically.

      If Goldberg shows malice, and why else would he quote Dawkins instead of Krauss, say, he is but a step more advanced than unthinking bashing.

      I read it as a quote out of context. Dawkins is addressing theology’s acute problem of evil. He wasn’t addressing Goldberg’s problem with empirical answers in the form of inflationary cosmology, biological death, evolution/neuroscience and relative morals. Dawkins, I’m sure, has those good answers, especially about evolution.

  26. Goldberg wins a Dawkins Award.

    It is the intellectual analog to a Darwin Award. Your stupid actions don’t kill yourself, but your stupid Dawkins bashing kills your intellectual credibility.

    it is religion, not science, that “answers three questions that every reflective person must ask. Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live?”

    Q:
    1. “Who am I?”
    A: Science has answered that long ago. (Darwin, duh.)

    2. “Why am I here?”
    A: Science has answered that long ago. (Darwin, duh.)

    3. “How then shall I live?”
    A: No one but yourself can answer that. Certainly not religion! (Which?)

    1. Goldberg does not bash Dawkins. He is merely appalled by the scientific image of the world described by Dawkins. There is no personal animosity towards Dawkins expressed in Goldberg’s article. Why this kind of exaggeratedly personal animadversion based on such an innocent statement.

      By the way, Darwin never answers the question why we are here, but only how. And Who am I? is never answered by science. As to How, then should we live? I hope that there is more than individual choice here, and that there is some kind of moral framework within which we live our lives. Science deals with none of this. Why do you suppose that it does? And can you not see that because science does not, we need some other approach to living the good life? Only someone living in an affluent society could possibly write what you have just done.

      1. Sorry, but no scientist, including me (with the exception of a few people like Dan Fincke and Harris), pretends to tell us that science shows us how to live. Why do you keep maintaining that? In my view, morality and our decisions on how to live are based on preferences that are INFORMED by information about the world.

        You keep bashing science as if we scientists are trying to answer questions about the meaning and purpose of life. We have shown that there is no evidence for a Sky Father to give us meaning and purpose, and that we must find them for ourselves. That is a step forward. All we can do is provide empirical information to inform those decisions. But I tell you, Eric, that empirical information is far better than the pie-in-the sky fictions that “inform” religious people how to live. Really, are we supposed to listen to preachers to tell us how to live, and what our purpose is? That purpose, of course, always requires the presence of god, in whom you do not believe.

        Or maybe you think I should become an Anglican because by so doing I will better find meaning in my life. Don’t just tell me to read literature and see art, as I already have been doing that for years.

        1. Jerry, that is unfair. I never suggested any such thing, nor does anything I say here constitute a “bashing” of science. I accept Larsson’s point that science does not tell us how to live and merely suggest that there needs to be more than individual decision involved here (but not that science answers why questions or who questions). You may disagree with that, but that is all I claimed. As for pie in the sky fictions, I do not mention any such thing. I simply suggest that there are interpretations of the human scene which may, indeed, provide meaning for life, more general descriptions of what makes for a fulfilling life besides the recommendation to go and find out for yourself (which is, of course, to some extent, involved in every life, even a religious one). This is Ronald Dworkin’s point, and I see no reason why it should not be considered, even by scientists. That science does not provide answers to how we live suggests either than there are no such answers or only individual ones, or, just possibly, that there are interpretations of life that provide guidance as to how a life might be lived most fully and with a sense of fulfilment. This does not presuppose beliefs in gods or ecclesiastical structures of any kind, but it does not rule out some kind of humanism that has what we might call a “religious” quality or dimension. It does not even rule out the kind of “awakeness” that Sam Harris commends to our consideration. And I have claimed no more than this; nor have I in any way impugned science of scientists.

          Of course, I assume that Goldberg wants to go further than this, but I said nothing which supports Goldberg’s apparently religious position, and he says nothing specifically as to what this position consists in — something which alone would make such support reasonable.

      2. And Who am I? is never answered by science.

        You’re kidding, right? The science answer is: a homo sampiens, the product of your genetics and your upbringing.

        As to How, then should we live? I hope that there is more than individual choice here, and that there is some kind of moral framework within which we live our lives. Science deals with none of this.

        Of course it does, because it helps inform us as to what courses of actions will really help us live the way we want, and what courses of actions are the result of biases and bad judgment. Answers to “how shall we live” includes “if I want my crops to grow, I don’t burn witches, I irrigate properly instead.” And that correct answer was brought to you by science. How shall we treat the bipolar? The schitzophrenic? Shall we lock them up as criminals, or shall we give them medical treatment? The correct answer to that question was also brought to you by science. Do women and blacks deserve equal rights? Historically, one of the reasonns for a “no” was based on bad misunderstanding of facts, where (white male) people thought they were not as intellectually advanced. Science corrected that misunderstading, paving the way for a better morality.

        You seem to forget that moral judgments are made based on an understanding of facts, and our understanding of facts has changed with science. That causes a change if what we think of as moral or immoral behavior, and very much impacts the “how should we live” question.

        Only someone living in an affluent society could possibly write what you have just done.

        Yes, well, only someone completely ignoring the role changes in understanding have played in influencing changes in morality could make the statement you’ve made.

  27. the justification of any behaviour is a reflection of how dirty religious people’s minds are. When discussing atheism with a muslim, the first question: how do we stop people from rape, murder and pedophilia if there is no religion? ‘Well’, i say to those people, ‘is this the first thing you would do if you find out that there is no god?’

  28. Talking about “atheist-bashing” here is totally uncalled for. Goldberg is merely stating his own preferences, that he is dismayed (where is the “bashing” in this word?) by atheism and appalled (for obviously personal reasons) by the world picture described by Dawkins. Other than that he shows how silly the Creation Museum is, and states clearly that the Bible, used religiously, is only mistakenly used to learn anything scientific about the world.

    However, there is another dimension to human life that is, arguably, missed by the scientific world view, and here religion pulls up the slack (for an atheist account of such a dimension consult Ronald Dworkin’s Religion without God). Whether it amounts to knowledge or not is not something I am willing to argue at this point, but it seems to me that a more humane context for living a life is one in which we make some basic assumptions about ourselves concerning meaning and purpose that cannot be comprehended by a scientific view of the world. To deny that more humanistic approach to human life, as Jeffrey Goldberg does, by suggesting that he is living in cloud cuckoo land, scarcely amounts to anything less than personal denigration, especially in the light of the accusation of atheist bashing which is misleading at best, and unwarrantedly insulting at worst. Surely the man is entitled to express an opinion? The Creation Museum, after all, is established to affirm and defend a comical view of religious belief. Is it so wrong of Goldberg to place himself in relation to those who affirm this caricature and those who would deny any purchase to religious life whatever?

    1. Really, Eric, do you think it’s more defensible to base your worldview on a nonexistent mythology than on rational considerations or judgments about what helps others and gratifies you? Do you really think that religion provides “meaningful” questions to the answer of “who am I?” etc., given that those answers invariably involve the presence of a nonexistent deity?

      I’m a scientist; do you claim that my worldview is totally “scientific”? I’d prefer to call it “rational.” I consider myself a humanist. And answer this question: do you think that I would be better off following the dictates of some religion? PLEASE tell me what I’m missing, and how I’m less than fully human by being a scientist or weighting my conclusions about what exists based on the evidence supporting them?

      It’s too bad that there’s no God, but I can’t understand why you seem to want there to be one so it will give purpose and meaning to one’s life, and some divine reason for the universe, as Goldberg seems to want. You don’t think there’s a God, so why not face up to that and find meaning in the reality we know?

      Yes, the man is entitled to express his opinion, and I am entitled to express mine. He is wrong, as are you, to suggest that nonbelief in gods somehow removes from us humanists the ability fto find meaning and purpose in our lives. The readers here have already shown how that can be done.

      You’re an atheist, as far as I know. Why, then, do you continue to point out the advantages of religion and denigrate a strawman caricature of what we scientists who happen to be humanists believe? Surely it’s better to find meaning and purpose in life by facing up to the lack of evidence for a god than to base your life on assumptions for which there is no evidence.

      1. Jerry, my main point was to suggest that nothing that Goldberg says in his article amounts to science or scientist bashing. I still maintain this to be true.

        Of course, I suppose that, in one sense, we must face up to the fact that science presents us with a world without ultimate purpose or final goals. But I take it you think that it is possible for us to be moral (save for the problem of free will, which you deny), and to appreciate beauty, and to approach with wonder the stunning magnitude of the universe or the manifold wonders of the natural world, things which do, indeed, inspire awe, and even, perhaps, a sense of the numinous. I suppose, then, it is also possible to generate ideals as to how life might be lived to produce the greatest good as well as to achieve the greatest fulfilment (within the narrow compass allotted to us). Nothing that science says rules out such a possibility, and one who was aware of that possibility might reasonably be appalled by the idea of a universe which, to quote Dawkins from Goldberg’s article, “has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” For this simply ignores the human world, which has different properties than that, both good and evil, design, purpose, creativity, relationship, friendship and love — or might have, given insight, imagination, and will enough. And is that human world not part of the universe too?

        So the universe is not characterised only by blind, pitiless indifference, and there is no reason to suppose that it is, unless, of course, there is some reason to exclude the human world and its creative wonders (including science) from the universe. If saying this is to point out the advantages of religion (and, of course, it may be), then there are advantages to religion. I am undecided whether such things are religious. Ronald Dworkin obviously thought so, but his is obviously not the final word on the matter, nor, of course, is mine. But it is worthwhile considering that there are non-theist religions — such as Jainism, which holds all life to be sacred, or some forms of Buddhism, where the quest for a form of enlightenment (not rational enlightenment, but enlightened consciousness), is held in great respect, and even devotion.

        1. * So the universe is not characterised only by blind, pitiless indifference, and there is no reason to suppose that it is, unless, of course, there is some reason to exclude the human world and its creative wonders (including science) from the universe. *

          But the human world is only an infinitesimal part of the universe!

          I think the sense is clear in Richard’s quotation (especially in it’s context re theodicy) that (?) Roger posted.

          That (the rest of) the universe is indifferent /to/ the human world.

          And do you not think that Richard himself would agree that there is in the human world meaning and value that we find for ourselves, in love, art, music, science, &c.?

          /@

          1. So what, Ant? The human world may be an infinitesimal part of the universe, but it is the only world we have, and this the only life we will ever have, so, from the human point of view, it has enormous significance. Why we should, just because human life is an infinitesimal part of the universe, think the universe is simply characterised by blind pitiless indifference is beyond me. After all, from what we know, much of the universe doesn’t care, as we not only can but do, and our experience is not only one of blind pitiless indifference. So why should we think that the universe must be thought of in such terms?

            1. “So why should we think that the universe must be thought of in such terms?”

              Because it is true?

              You’re welcome to live a make-believe pretend intellectual life if you like. Many of the rest of us would rather look at reality without those rose-colored glasses.

              1. But it isn’t the only truth, as I have been at pains to say, for there is that human world of meaning and purpose, value and love, beauty and telling significance. All of them parts of the universe, just as is the unrelenting and unthinking destructiveness of the onrush of invincible power.

              2. ….or all of them parts of our brains, which are part of the universe. Your speaking of qualia, no? The parts that make us conscious? Those things we have yet to understand like why I like the colour red and why things feel a certain way?

          2. So what, Ant? That the human world is only an infinitesimal part of the universe is neither here nor there. It is still part of the universe, and in that world there is not only blind, pitiless indifference. I did not suggest that Dawkins does not agree that there is a human world of meaning and value, but that simply means that he is wrong when he says that the universe is characterised by blind, pitiless indifference, for there is meaning and beauty, concern, relationship, love and all the rest in the universe that we know. If all he wants to say is that humans cannot expect anything but indifference from the other than human parts of the universe, then it would be better to say this, instead of mischaracterising the universe that we in fact know. Some people, like Ronald Dworkin, argued from this fact that there is some objective meaning and purpose in the universe, even though there is no reason to believe in a god, and that the existence of such reason and purpose could underwrite a religious attitude to the world. I suspect he was right, though I do not know how to argue it, and Dworkin, unfortunately, died before he was able to put more flesh on those bones. But I think it is nevertheless worth serious consideration.

              1. Not a guru, by any means, GBJ, but I do find much of his philosophical work not only compelling, but superlative. His books, Life’s Dominion, Justice for Hedgehogs,, Law’s Empire, and others are works of outstanding philosophy. He is the one philosopher that I know who has written about the possibility of religion without god, and it, unfortunately, remained a series of lectures delivered in Switzerland not long before he died, otherwise I am sure it would have been another magisterial study of the matter, the lack of which I deeply regret. But it is a good introduction to the idea of religion without god, and deserves any atheists attention. Of course, he’s not the only one who offers a religion without God, because Don Cupitt does the same thing, as well as numerous other Anglican theologians. Roger Scruton, in his recent Stanton Lectures in Cambridge, also develops the idea of religion without God or supernatural consolations. I see no reason to ignore these explorations of the a nature and possibilities of religion.

              2. My own reasons for ignoring them is that I find no particular use for the idea of “religion without god”. I don’t need it to better understand the universe, I don’t need it to enjoy music. I don’t need it to find pleasure in the company of my fellow humans. It doesn’t seem likely to offer me a way to advance social causes I’m supportive of. So I conclude, provisionally, that my time is better spent elsewhere.

                I’ve found nothing in your references to comments by any of these theologically incident folk that appeals to me. That seems sufficient to ignore it. If I’m missing some gem of insight put it on the table.

              3. GBJ. How sad for you. Of course, you don’t need to take an interest in anything that Dworkin or his kind have to say, but they are nonetheless of value in understanding human life. The best place to start is not with his book about religion without god, but with his Justice for Hedgehogs,where some of his ideas are developed at length. It’s a good (though difficult) introduction to a holistic system of value, and right now I know nothing in philosophy to match it. I’ve read it through once — these things take time — but it’s time for a thorough reread, during which, of course, one has to think the author’s thoughts along with him in a fairly strenuous way.

                Of course, you don’t have to have an over-arching theory of human meaning in order to understand music or to appreciate art, though I daresay such a theory would be a good step towards placing art within a much more extensive context, which should, in turn, give greater depth to your appreciation. Understanding the English novel, for instance, is much better done by placing it the context of Richardson, Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, DH Lawrence, than by reading one all on its own, without this background.

                As you can tell, I’m much more concerned with system than you seem to be. Perhaps it comes more naturally to a philosopher (where most of my training lies), but it’s not a point of view on theory that I can simply let go. Which is no doubt why we have so many disagreements, though, as I say, what would my day be, if GBJames didn’t disagree with me about something?!

              4. Spare the pity, Eric. I’m doing fine in my life and there are much more needy recipients of it.

                In any case, you miss the point. I’m not going to go study up on something simply because someone says to go do it. I require some reason. To date, while you bring up Dworkin in the majority of your recent comments, I’ve seen nothing in the comments that provides a sufficient reason. It is all reference to “magisterial study”, “developed in length”. Perhaps it is. The same, however, can be said of The Urantia Book.

                Like I said upstream, put the gems on the table. If they twinkle even half as much as you claim then maybe there’s a reason to go invest in some lapidary equipment. Barring that, it sounds like an acolyte praising his guru.

              5. I have, actually, tried to seriously “engage” with theologians. I have, in the past, gone off and read books of theology recommended to me in forums not unlike this one. (And I’ve read the entire Bible, parts fo the Koran, a lot of the Hindu and Buddhist “scriptures”.)

                And it honestly just sounds like making stuff up to me. If that gets you through the night, then more power to you. It does nothing for me.

                After reading far too many of them, I’ve decided there is no there there and I have much better things to do with my time.

            1. Well, maybe this is the point that you and maybe Neumann are getting mired in. When Richard wrote “the universe” he did indeed mean “the other-than-human parts of the universe” and assumed that readers would take that meaning without his having to labor the point. I really don’t think that feverishly poring over sentence fragments to discern a meaning in what is a stylistic choice (see Pinker’s _The Sense of Style_) is terribly helpful.

              What you say about the human world is not wrong, but it remains that 99.999 999 999 999 999 999 999 999 999 999 999 999% of “the universe that we in fact know“ *is* truly indifferent to humankind. (Even more if you consider the universe over time as well, in the past as well as into the future: “… the human race will disappear. Other races will appear and disappear in turn. The sky will become icy and void, pierced by the feeble light of half-dead stars. Which will also disappear. Everything will disappear. And what human beings do is just as free of sense as the free motion of elementary particles.” — H. P. Lovecraft.)

              /@

              1. Oh yes, I know, but Russell put it more poetically:

                “Brief and powerless is Man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for Man, condemned to-day to lose his dearest, to-morrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day; disdaining the coward terrors of the slave of Fate, to worship at the shrine that his own hands have built; undismayed by the empire of chance, to preserve a mind free from the wanton tyranny that rules his outward life; proudly defiant of the irresistible forces that tolerate, for a moment, his knowledge and his condemnation, to sustain alone, a weary but unyielding Atlas, the world that his own ideals have fashioned despite the trampling march of unconscious power.” (“A Free Man’s Worship” from the Penguin, Mysticism and Logic, p. 59)

                Of course, this makes one look very courageous and stoic no doubt, and no one, not even the religious can deny that the world at least seems blind to good and evil, and reckless of destruction, as omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way. Indeed, it is because of this awareness that some people take succour from pious dreams, just as Russell takes courage from his fruitless defiance of the trampling march of unconscious power. But meanwhile, there is the human world, shot through, no doubt, with tragedy, as most of us are aware, a world of great evils, but also great good, of monstrous hatreds, but also sublime beauty and love. Why should we focus our attention on the unyielding power of the physical universe instead of on the goodness of much of the human world? Or set up some opposition between them, as though the relentless meaninglessness of the physical universe is the most salient aspect of our brief stay upon this earth?

                I can see, of course, that Russell, like Dawkins, borrows a conviction of courage from conceiving of things in this way. But why should they? We all face the end of our brief stay, and those who hopelessly cling to faith in the conviction that those who have fulfilled certain religious obligations will no know death, may look like cowards to those who have not met them, but theirs is, like everyone’s just as desperate a struggle, and just as desperate an attempt to hold onto some meaning, whether the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day, or the patient “waiting upon the Lord” in times of darkness and despair. There is very little new in the human situation, and religion of course has known it all along.

                The danger of the devotees of religion, of course, as well as the danger of the devotees of science, is the belief that they know, and can determine for all what it is reasonable to hope for. Not many of us have lofty thoughts to ennoble our little day, but there may be other things that we can hang onto in the storm. And meanwhile, there are lives to live, which, as if mesmerised, we live as though there will be no tomorrow when we will pass that gate of darkness. Schumaker, in his book Wings of Illusion points out that it takes something like mild psychosis to live in the light of oncoming death without flinching. And with all of this, whether or not we recognise it, we are caught up in religious thinking. Is there anything more religious that Russell’s evocation of the relentlessness of the universe that will in the end crush us? It sounds to me like the evocation of religious courage to face the worst that life has to bring. The Stoics, after all, when it came right down to it, were deeply religious, and lived lives of probity and duty, to be worthy of the brief gift that had been vouchsafed to them.

                What I have been pointing out all along is that the new atheists seem to be simply ignorant of how set about by religious concerns they really are, for gods were always, in some sense, a pious dream, the way that the ideal entered the human world and was celebrated. The sad part of it is that so many of those ideals were (and often still are) devoid of humanity. One only has to look at ISIS to see the religion in its worst form in action, but that defiance in the face of death, and indeed the celebration of it, is a way to face up to the trampling march of unconscious power. Atheists at least have to learn to deal with the psychological repercussions of the threat that hangs over us, when a drop of water can kill us, and comfort and courage must be sought somewhere, if only in the act of killing and being killed, and the conviction that some eternal value resides in being careless of life, just like the universe. So far I see no evidence that atheists really see what it is they face, so eloquently, if a bit “purply”, expressed by Russell. And anyone who thinks that science itself can be the answer, he has not yet seen the problem.

              2. Well, I can’t speak for Bertrand, or really for Richard either, but I don’t think Richard means to be stoic or courageous by this view of the universe. It just /is/. There’s probably no God: Now stop worrying and get on with your life. → The universe is pitiless and indifferent: Now stop worrying and get on with your life.

                And of course we don’t need to turn to Dworkin to see religion without God, at least for some definitions of religion (i.e., not the one A. C. Grayling or I would ordinarily use): Buddhism (some kinds) and Daoism, for example.

                But even so, I think you give the adjective “religious” far too great a compass. Those existential questions might traditionally (in /some/ traditions) have been answered by religion, but that doesn’t make them, or attempts to answer them, intrinsically “religious”.

                And I think that saying that atheists pay no attention to these questions beyond what science can tell us is a pernicious straw man. The mistake may be in thinking that the best way to answer these questions has to /look/ something like a religion. (See above.) Clearly some – many – people find the /structure/ that religion provides helpful, but for /everyone/ their life stance is, fundamentally, a personal endeavour. “The meaning of life is what you make it. There will be as many different meaningful lives as there are people to live them.” — A. C. Grayling.

                /@

              3. Why should we focus our attention on the unyielding power of the physical universe instead of on the goodness of much of the human world?

                You shouldn’t. But that’s pretty much the atheistic, Dawkinsian (and/or Coynian?) position, isn’t it? Stop trying to claim some grand metaphysical meaning to the whole shebang, and instead focus on the meaning humans can give to human life.

                IMO it’s the theists in this debate who seem obsessed with showing or arguing that the universe writ large has some overall meaning. The reason folk like Dawkins bring up the lack of some grand meaning is because he keeps being told by theists that there is one. When someone tells you the sky is green, you say “no, blue.” Absent all these theologians claiming the sky is green, he probably wouldn’t spend so much time saying “no, blue.”

              4. Eric,

                This:

                “So far I see no evidence that atheists really see what it is they face, so eloquently, if a bit “purply”, expressed by Russell. And anyone who thinks that science itself can be the answer, he has not yet seen the problem.”

                Sounds like that silly criticism of the “New Atheists” that we aren’t serious enough about life.

                Certainly Jerry has directly addressed this question. Just because atheists haven’t become all bummed out about it doesn’t mean they don’t understand the finality of death, the tribulations of life as it is. That statement just seems ridiculous on its face.

                What is the point of feeling bad about it now? That is just wasted time and life, in my opinion.

                I’ve had enough (really) nearly fatal incidents in my life to feel it knocking, constantly, just over the horizon. I do my best to begin each day with the realization that it may be my last (and try to act accordingly). Isn’t that the right stance here? Would feeling sad about some future (distant future, I hope) event over which I have no real control be a better approach? I don’t see it.

                Are our brows not wrinkled enough for you? I’m not sure what great insight it is that you are trying to dangle in front of us. Please ellaborate.

              5. It’s weird: half our critics say we’re supposed to be more dolorous, the other that we’re supposed to be happier to show that atheism doesn’t make us dolorous. But atheists are pretty much like everyone else!

              6. Of all the things that are said by atheists, the saying, “There is no god, so stop worrying and get on with your life,” is surely amongst the stupidest. I thought so when it was put up on English buses and I still think so. The German slogan, which I forget now, said something to the effect that, there is no god, so we are responsible for our values, which sounds a much more sensible thing to say. Stop worrying and get on with your life is simply not applicable to so many people who read that sign that it is simply unintelligible to me that atheists in Britain thought it worthwhile putting it on buses so that those who run might read.

                The mistake that is being made here is that, just because I suggest that there is something about life that is worth taking seriously (and not just having fun), I am accused of trying to introduce religion into the discussion. As to there being value “out there” in the universe, I suggest that there actually is, and those who have not sensed that there is such a value are missing something that can be sought and found, and ought to be, before it is to late.

                When I speak about moral values I am not talking solely about the benefit to human beings (I am not a utilitarian, though utility must figure in many moral decisions), but that there is something of value “out there” that is worthwhile preserving, something which, with the untrammelled use of scientific discoveries, we are quickly destroying.

                So, let me do a bit of science bashing. Of course, it is a great achievement, what we have learned by means of scientific methods of investigation and discovery, but we have also lost much that is of value as we have done it. The undoubted values of medical science have also created social and environmental problems which science is apparently incapable of dealing with. It has destroyed valuable communities that gave nobility and value to the lives of those who lived in them. It has destroyed traditions of art and the sacred that have ennobled many people whose lives are now lived out in city slums and squalor.

                The sacred is not bound to belief in supernatural beings, and Christianity, despite the derision of those who think that religion is all about supernatural beliefs, can do without the supernatural as easily as Buddhism can. Narrative traditions of Judaism are not dependent on the belief that there was really a god who chose the Jewish people from amongst the nations, but are such as to give value to the lives of those who live within the narratives in which that was once a presupposition. Hinduism and its many gods is really a worship of the world spirit as much as it is a belief in real gods shaped like elephants, or like Kali, that fearful black figure with a garland of heads around her neck. It is at once a recognition of the value and wonder of life, as well as the understanding that nature is cyclic, and that life as we know it is doomed to die. Shiva both dances the universe into existence as well as out of existence, trampling on a symbol of ignorance as he carries out his eternal dance of life and death.

                The denial of these traditions and the intent to destroy them out of some misguided idea that the only reality in the world is revealed by science is so petty as to beggar belief, as well as being culturally impoverishing. The image of a Jain monk sweeping the path before him so that he does not tread on any insects in his path may seem comical to some, but it is a devotion to an ideal of respect for life that should honoured and not derided. But I would rather many of these things to have been preserved than to have witnessed, in a short lifetime, the depredations of the world that has been enabled by science, and furthered by it without any apparent sense of the harm that is being and has been done.

                We revel in our technological gadgets — I as much as any — but is this really better than life that was deeply rooted to time and place, and to its natural rhythms, and the rituals that marked them, as so many of the holy days of the Jewish calendar do? I value many of the advances of science that have improved the lives of many, but I regret the exploitation of the earth that those discoveries presaged, exploitation that has been accelerated rather than controlled, so that the world is now threatened with anthropogenic destruction. The powers unleashed by science, while a great tribute to the human mind, are also powers of death that will likely cause the greatest catastrophe that the world has ever known. So, if you are wondering whether I think there are values out there, yes I do, and they are values that we have trampled on and desecrated at our cost, and very possibly at the cost of many lives, if not the very civil order of the continent itself. To stop worrying and get on with your life is the last thing that you should do. There’s plenty to worry about, and while I do not suggest that our lives should be one long mournful act of penitence in dust and ashes, there is at least some room for penitence for our failure to respect the limits of our planet, and the responsibilities that we owe to it. To suggest otherwise sounds to me like pure folly.

              7. I find your arguments in generally very interesting, and get irritated by some of the knee-jerk responses that are offered to them. Here, though, I think you’re conflating two things: (1) science and (2) technology (or applied science).

                Science itself is a voyage of discovery, whose products — such as our ever-advancing understanding of the universe in which we live — I find often awe-inspiring. When people talk to me of spirituality (it’s a much-abused word and I detest it, but that’s another story) I think of my own reaction to, for example, so many of the Hubble photos, or to watching the descent toward Titan, or to seeing the complexity of some of the microscopic creatures that dwell in us . . . The description of the universe as indifferent, hostile and without purpose actually fills me with that same “spiritual” awe, as does the fact that’s up to us to give ourselves — and thereby our universe — a degree of “meaning.”

                What you’ve lumped in with science is technology — and not even si much technology per se as the application of technology to the world by various political/economic systems, most of which have some form or another of greed at their core. Often the application is beneficial — you mention the medical sciences/technologies, but it’s easy enough to think of others; even there, though, it’s easy enough for those in control of a political/economic system (which can be us, individually) to screw up the use of something beneficial such that it has grossly deleterious effects — a point which you make, sort of. The use of the automobile is a good example: yes, it gave people greater freedom of mobility; but, now that we realize the concomitant problems that automobile-use generates (climate change), the political/economic system (us) is reluctant to act in the actual best interests of people, instead focusing on the satisfaction of an immediate want. I don’t think you can possibly lay it at the feet of science that we’re heading pell-mell toward climate catastrophe (which science may indeed help us avoid); the blame surely has to lie with greedy political/economic systems . . . or people, as they’re often called.

              8. dealing with some of those problems, esp. climate change, is often being obstructed by religious people

                Absolutely! At the same time, other religious people are in the forefront of moves to counter it. A few years ago I’d have said that, at least here in the US, the former were predominant; now, although I’ve no figures to back this up, I’m not so sure. It seems to me that liberal religionists have been making the effort to hit back against their more dimwit brethren.

              9. I hope you’re right because atheists and liberal believers have a lot more in common than liberal believers and the fundamentalist types.

                Yes, we disagree on the God wuestion, but I bet we agree in a lot of other areas that matter.

              10. Actually, I misquoted (from memory); the tail is, “and enjoy your life”. Which you might think is no better, or even worse. But perhaps you missed the point in any case. It was a direct response to Christian adverts, running on London buses, that featured the URL of a website which said non-Christians would burn in hell for all eternity. It was not meant to be a deep philosophical statement, just an antidote to these religious killjoys. In any case, just like my recasting of it, I you can take it to mean that there being no God (or the universe’s indifference) is not a cause for Nietzschean angst.

                * just because I suggest that there is something about life that is worth taking seriously (and not just having fun), I am accused of trying to introduce religion into the discussion *

                No, I “accuse” you of trying to introduce religion into the discussion because you *are* introducing religion into the discussion. * new atheists seem to be simply ignorant of how set about by religious concerns they really are * * And with all of this, whether or not we recognise it, we are caught up in religious thinking. * &c.

                The rest of your essay seems like a wistful non sequitur to me; John, I think, has responded as well as I could.

                /@

            2. The meaning there is in the universe we know as humans is put there by us. Outside of our experiences and interactions with the world, there is no meaning – no external thing that provides meaning. Are you saying this is false and if so, can you explain why?

              1. And in line with what I have just said above, Diana, I do not think that the values in the world are all put there by us, but that they are present in the structure of things. We owe something to the world, not because of its value to us, but because it is valuable.

              2. “… not because of its value to us, but because it is valuable.”

                Sez who? Are you the arbiter of these matters? Or do I need to check with someone’s god?

              3. Well, to take one example, GBJ, someone like EO Wilson, who believes that wilderness has its own value, quite apart from its value to human beings. There are some things, even if very few, or no one, should ever see them, are valuable, and worth preserving, and to destroy which would be a moral evil. And, goodness knows, there have already been enough of those.

              4. Something we can see as “valuable to” someone else does not mean that that thing carries an objective intrinsic value. How would you measure such an objective value aside from its usefulness amongst all different things?

              5. Well, I like E.O. Wilson as much and the next fellow. He was one (along with Richard Dawkins) who made a profound contribution to my own intellectual worldview back in the 70’s.

                But.

                I don’t find this view of the subject convincing in the least. There are things worth preserving did someone say otherwise? But they are worth preserving because we agree that they are worth preserving. If the planet was struck by a wandering black hole and vanished in a crush of gravity this evening, the universe would neither care nor notice.

              6. Thanks Diana, nailed it.
                Although I can’t help but equivocate a little and add, no meaning we know of or have any evidence for.
                Why all the waffle Eric? Do you believe in an afterlife? If not, relax, you’re one of us.

          3. Sorry, for some reason my comment got published before I was finished with it, and I just went on writing, and then editing the whole. Please ignore the first edition of the comment. The second is the completed one.

        2. one who was aware of that possibility might reasonably be appalled by the idea of a universe which, to quote Dawkins from Goldberg’s article, “has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” For this simply ignores the human world, which has different properties than that, both good and evil, design, purpose, creativity, relationship, friendship and love — or might have, given insight, imagination, and will enough. And is that human world not part of the universe too?

          I think you are misreading Dawkins here…AND misreading his critics, too. I think Dawkins and in fact most atheists would agree that humans are a part of the natural universe, that humans can give meaning to their lives, and thus a part of the natural universe can give meaning. But that is not what Dawkins’ critics are talking about when they talk of meaning, and that’s not the position Dawkins or Jerry or I think anyone else is refuting. I think it is pretty clear that the theistic opposition to Dawkins is asserting a meaning to the universe apart from the meaning humans construct, and this meaning apart from the meaning humans construct is what Dawkins is arguing against or taking issue with.

          In some sense you seem to be reversing the positions of the two sides: you’re attributing to the theist arguers the position that Dawkins holds (meaning is human-derived), and then claiming he’s arguing against that position.

      2. I cut off rather abruptly there. I should add that non-theist religions accept the universe as coming without any sort of universal goals or guarantees, but that there are still things that we can rightly aim at, as human beings, which will be productive of good, whether that good be the protection of life (in the Jain tradition), or the destruction of individual consciousness (in the case of Buddhism), which is held, in itself, to be evil. The point is, though, that there may be overarching conceptions of what constitutes the good for human beings in the absence of belief in supernatural beings or sacred texts. I take it that Goldberg thinks that the tradition that he belongs to offers those benefits, whether or not he believes that there is a God who supervises and supervenes upon life for good. (There are, I understand, humanistic Jewish traditions, and Goldberg may belong to such a tradition, for all I know. Or he may belong to a religious tradition without being bound by the beliefs specific to that tradition, as in the case of a number of non-theistic Christians.)

      3. I should add to what I have said by pointing out that I have never, to my knowledge, have “point[ed] out the advantages of religion [or] denigrate[d] a strawman caricature of what we scientists who happen to be humanists believe.” If I have done so, I apologise, but I can’t remember doing this, and surely this is something I would remember. My concern, Jerry, was simply that you seemed inappropriately to have accused Goldberg of science bashing, and I don’t think he did that. That he was appalled at the picture of the universe conjured up by Dawkins does not have the effect of bashing either Dawkins or the picture that science provides of the universe. No doubt he agrees that this is what science does provide. He is simply glad to belong to a tradition which humanises the universe. I don’t defend that, but I think, in all fairness, we must let the religious take a religious point of view without accusing them too hastily of bashing science. No doubt, were Goldberg a scientist and a religious believer, he would concur with Dawkins that that is indeed the picture of the universe produced by the physical and biological sciences (although, of course, he might argue that theism and evolution are not really contradictory — Plantinga at least makes a stab at showing this in his book Where the Difference Lies, but I hold no brief for his defence of religion, and have never done so).

        As to humanism, I do in fact believe that you have a problem with your denial of free will. AC Grayling points out that free will is of course a necessary presupposition of humanism, and he expresses himself confident that this can be resolved. But I do honestly think that the denial of free will makes humanism difficult if not impossible of achievement, as even Russell seems to imply in the last paragraph of “A Free Man’s Worship” which I quote below. I often think you are unaware of the implications of the denial of free will to the possibility of creating a framework within which it would be possible to live a meaningful life, and therefore to create a meaningful humanism, but that must be an issue for another time.

        1. …“point[ed] out the advantages of religion [or] denigrate[d] a strawman caricature of what we scientists who happen to be humanists believe.”

          Does the word “scientism” ring a bell? You might also search your own blog posts for discussions about the hazards of disposing of religion, aka “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”. I’m sure you’ll find examples of why Jerry would have made his comments as he did.

          1. Ah, well, if that is what Jerry has in mind, then I think the accusation was well aimed. Scientism, it seems to me, is a serious error. It claims that all knowledge is scientific (with science broadly construed — which of course hides a multitude of sins), but the claim itself is not a scientific one. The claim, in other words, is logically self-defeating. Of course, those who care not a fig for logic can dismiss this point, but then, of course, anything is true, for from a contradiction anything can be inferred (logically). Despite Quine’s peculiar objection to the “two dogmas of empiricism”, there are, after all, logically necessary truths, and not one of them is demonstrable by the means of science. That should be proof enough that scientism is simply a mistake.

            1. Well, yes, if science were logical positivism. That said, it is both glib and thoughtless to call every successful intellectual endeavour a science in a strict sense, and the looser the sense, the more iffy it gets.

              For instance, I can think of examples where a specific scientific principle would be hard to apply. For sheer practical reasons, recreating a historical event is considerably more difficult than finding out a general principle from repeatable experiments. Peer review is made decidedly tougher when you reduce the number of witnesses to a specific event. Some things just simply aren’t going to be solved no matter how sophisticated the science gets (what caused the Permian Mass Extinction, for instance, and many other specific unsolved forensic cases). And while science relies strongly on mathematics and logic several times, it’s hard to say those subjects are themselves technically sciences, since most them rely on extending strict rules past the point where even the most generous funding could reasonably support enough empirical tests.

              My own general recourse is to say science is simply a subset – if a big subset – of the more general phenomenon of rational inquiry, alongside practical concerns, which in turn are subsets of reason in general.

              I’d also add that a lot of things get passed off as rational inquiry and reason which, on closer inspection, turn out not to be.

              1. I don’t see anything that precludes science from determining the cause of the Permian Extinction. You’re simply excluding historical sciences like archaeology, paleontology, geology and even astronomy from the domain of science by fiat.

              2. I don’t mean to do so. As far as I’m aware, the Cretaceous-Paleogene Mass Extinction Event’s main culprit is the meteor that hit the Gulf of Mexico, so clearly science is not ruled out of examining history by fiat. Heck, the whole principle of forensics is to apply science to figure out what happened in the past. I’m just saying it’s harder to apply the principle of repeatability here, at least directly, for the simple reason that specific events only happen once, by definition. That doesn’t open a gate for anti-science; it just points out science is not some homogenous lump that can be straightforwardly stereotyped.

              3. I think you misconstrue or oversimplify the nature of “repeatability”. Archaeology examines the physical residue of human activity. There are things that are, in fact, repeatable. If you examine undisturbed layers of sediment in a place where humans have lived you will repeatedly find older material near the bottom. You will find that the techniques and materials used to create tools are predictably associated with one another in particular ways.

                Paleontologists, similarly, predict the existence of transitional fossils in particular types of rock formations and when they look, with luck and persistence, find them. Example: Tiktaalik. This is possible because the science of paleontology, and all historical sciences, contain practices that are repeatable. These practices define theses sciences.

                Not all science is done in a chemistry lab.

          2. Besides, GBJ, do recall that Socrates was known as a gadfly. I may not be in Socrates’ class, but at least I can bite. I think of my function (and of course Jerry is at liberty to ban me) as raising questions to the orthodoxy that is often expressed in the comments.

            1. I guess it falls to me to push back, Eric. That is my function in the sense that I don’t really have the choice not to. It just happens.

        2. Eric,

          “I do in fact believe that you have a problem with your denial of free will.”

          How would life be different if you had (real, libertarian*) free will? How could you tell the difference?

          Consciousness is a phenomenon of brains. Does that make it feel one whit different (than if it were the product of some fictitious soul-thing)? How can that fact possibly diminish it?

          (* And what other kind is worth talking about?)

          1. Did I say libertarian free will?
            And if you must know what other kind is worth having you might try Dennett (a number of books, but especially The Evolution of Freedom), or Flanagan’s The Problem of the Soul

    2. a more humane context for living a life is one in which we make some basic assumptions about ourselves concerning meaning and purpose that cannot be comprehended by a scientific view of the world

      Those basic assumptions are most humane when they are informed by an accurate understanding of the world. Religion (often) provides a highly inaccurate understanding, thus (often) leading to basic assumptions which are very likely to be wrong.

      So, for instance, a more humane context for living a life is one in which we make the basic assumption – informed by science – that all the visually different “races” of man are really just one race, that we are all individually equally deserving of moral consideration. A less humane context for living a life is one in which we make the basic assumption – informed by Christianity – that the Curse of Ham makes blacks less worthy of moral consideration.

      Or how about the Christian Science’s rejection of modern medicine because they believe prayer is the only effective treatment? When your neighbor’s kid is dying in agony from a painful yet easily treatable disease, do you think the parents are exercising “a more humane context for living a life” than someone who accepts the facts of modern medicine? I certainly don’t.

      To repeat: your “more humane context for living a life” may not come exclusively from scienec, but it is certainly made more humane when someone incorporates science into it. If for no other reason than it makes your basic assumptions about life more accurate than the bible or any other religion ever has.

  29. “Genesis says that God created marriage between one man and one woman.”

    But later in the Bible it says that King Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. So clearly the Bible defines marriage as between one man and one thousand women.

  30. My wife and I were discussing this the other day.

    What is the attraction of religion?:
    – Fear of death (religion tells me I don’t have to die).
    – An eternal parent to comfort and direct me (an external source of comfort, someone to tell me what to do, the comfort of conforming to a plan that we think is right)
    – A social group that will accept me and often support me
    – Public, mass rituals that probably have therapeutic effects on minds

    Goldberg is saying he prefers to embrace his religion instead or reality.

    1. Where does Goldberg say this? Apparently, reading between the lines, Goldberg believes that the description of the world in terms of physical necessity is not the only vision we might have of the world. I tend to agree. We can have a vision of the world of living communities in which life is celebrated in common, and rituals are celebrated which have significance in terms of the community’s story. Lots of religions do this without invoking gods, and some religions which use god language do not believe (as real existents) in the gods invoked by that language. Are you really going to say that such communities are not real, or that the social benefits of belonging to such communities offer nothing that is real to those who experience them? If you are, then I would need to hear your definition of ‘reality’.

      1. and some religions which use god language do not believe (as real existents) in the gods invoked by that language.

        I suppose that is the loophole that gets us out of the otherwise obvious conclusion that Goldberg is a personal-god-theist because he doesn’t like a cold universe. Which is what he says, by the way. I guess we don’t believe what he says because of these “some religions” for some reason.

  31. Argh it’s so annoying trying to guess what people are intentionally being vague about. We don’t even know why Jeffrey is making us guess. Embarrassment maybe? Who knows! We can only guess, and then we can only guess about why he is deliberately making us guess lol.

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