Five Books: Selina O’Grady on the role of religion, and where New Atheists supposedly go wrong

April 5, 2015 • 11:15 am

Selina O’Grady is an author who had a strict religious upbringing but left it behind to become an atheist. She’s the author of And Man Created God: A History of the World at the Time of Jesus, a book about the growth of religions in general, and of Christianity in particular, as well as the connection between religion and politics.

Over at Five Books, Sophie Roell interviews O’Grady and asks her to choose five popular books on her area of interest—in this case, books that reject the truth claims of religion but still focus on its supposedly valuable role in building community. Here are O’Grady’s choices. Sadly, I haven’t read any of them (if you have, weigh in below). They’re a bit surprising, as four are works of fiction

The Aeneid by Virgil (she recommend’s Robert Fitzgerald’s translation)

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

Our Church: A Personal History of the Church of England by Roger Scruton

The Human Stain by Philip Roth

The Children Act, by Ian MacEwan

I’ll leave you to go to the Five Books site and read why O’Grady chose these books, and what we should take from them. What I want to emphasize in today’s Easter Sermon is her incessant message that New Atheists are simply missing the most important aspect of religion: that it’s not about truth, but rather about building and immersing oneself in a community, which she sees as a vital human need. She chasitises New Atheists repeatedly for our failure to recognize this, viz. (questions in bold, O’Grady’s answers in Roman type):

You’ve chosen as your topic the role of religion. I know you’re formerly Catholic but now an atheist. I don’t believe in God either. Once you accept that God doesn’t exist, it does feel a bit like one is living in a world where a lot of other people believe in the tooth fairy. It is just very odd that there are so many people who are living with these beliefs. But religion clearly has enormous power, so there’s more to it than that…

That’s my feeling. The beliefs I can’t believe anymore, but, especially having been a Catholic, I absolutely understand the importance religion has in people’s lives. This is what I feel the New Atheists fail to explain. You can’t just dismiss these ideas, it’s not really the ideas that are important, it’s what religion does. That’s why religion is still so important in people’s lives, because it does something that nothing else does quite as well: it creates meaning, it creates a community. Football can try to do this, the monarchy tries to do it, politicians try to do it. But still, nothing can do it quite as well as religion. The beliefs may seem silly, but it’s not the beliefs that make it important, it’s that community-making. Which of course Durkheim, one of the great founders of the sociology of religion, spotted.


Your second book, which again, I haven’t read but now want to, having read reviews about it, is Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. How does this novel fit in?

I’m addressing all these books to the New Atheists. This again shows their failure to understand that they’re too simplistic when they say how appalling religion is. . .


Your final pick is a novel by Ian McEwan, The Children Act.

Ian McEwan is the subtlest of the New Athiests. Most of his novels show that we, as humans, just as we need to live in groups, have a desperate desire to make meaning. Many neo-atheists fail to understand that religion is quite a good way of doing this. Stupid though its beliefs might be, nonetheless it does give us a meaning, which we so desperately need. . .

. . . What McEwan is saying there is that the beliefs are immaterial to the fact that they’ve found a community in what they are doing and they can’t leave it.

I’m not sure exactly what O’Grady is implying with her tut-tutting about the New Atheist blind spot, but it’s nothing that we haven’t heard before. People like Alain de Botton and (more sensibly) Philip Kitcher have written at length that those of us who wish to marginalize religion won’t succeed unless we somehow find a replacement for it. Usually the suggestions, as O’Grady implies, involve some way of replacing the “community” provided by a church with an atheist equivalent. There are, for instance, Sunday Gatherings in many places, where heathens forgather to read passages from Darwin, sing secular songs, or hear nonreligious sermons about the wonders of the godless life and the marvels of science.

I suppose some people enjoy these and benefit from them, but I am not among them. And among the small group of atheists who gathered yesterday at Toscanini’s, none of us had any desire to find a “church substitute,” though several people were engaged in either secular or humanist “causes”, including helping the poor.

I understand a desire for community, especially because humans evolved in small social groups, which likely produced an innate need for interaction with others. It’s nice to know, then, that there is a group who will take care of you by virtue of your belonging to the same church. This seems to be the main reason, for instance, why “megachurches” are drawing members away from smaller churches in the U.S. Those megachurches are almost like social agencies, with many having childcare, all kinds of activities for members, and help with those who are hungry or ill.

Yet I don’t think that atheists need to identify “church substitutes” and instantiate them before we draw more people into nonbelief. For one thing, plenty of Western secular countries, like those in northern Europe, function well without secular gatherings or church substitutes (churches are often used simply in rituals, as places to have weddings or funerals.) Somehow nonbelievers in places like France and Denmark seem to muddle through without belonging to a church, or even having churchy activities.

But this gives a clue as to what I think is really required to efface religion from our planet: a government that takes care of you.  It’s well known that those countries that are more socially dysfunctional, lacking government health care, having high rates of incarceration and income inequality, and so on, are those that are most religious.  Of course that could be merely a noncausal correlation, but there is other evidence that social dysfunctionality promotes religiosity. For example, in the U.S. the degree of income inequality fluctuates over time, and the degree of religious belief fluctuates in tandem—but a year behind! If income inequality rises, religiosity rises the next year. That implies that if there is a causation, as I think there is, social dysfunction promotes religiosity rather than the other way around. (I don’t have my sources at hand, but you can find them in my 2013 article in Evolution on “Science, religion, and society”; free download here).

So I think O’Grady gets it wrong in two ways by emphasizing the need for local community as the primary driver of religion. First, I think the truth claims of faith are absolutely vital to embracing it. Those communities cohere by a system of common beliefs, and, at least according to surveys, most adherents really do believe in things like the divinity of Jesus, his resurrection, the existence of a caring God, and so on. Likewise, followers of gurus like Shri Rajneesh really do think that the guru has godlike powers. Although communities coalesce around such charlatans, the shared belief is critical in holding them together. Without it, the communities won’t last.

Second, if religion goes away when a nation as a whole takes better care of its citizens, as do the countries of Scandinavia (the U.S., despite its relative per capita income, is high on both social dysfunction and religiosity), then what’s important is that you feel someone is looking out for you, not that you have a need for hymns, candles, and stained-glass windows. That is, we need church “substitutes” only to the degree that those substitutes make you feel like your life is under control, and that your basic needs for food, healthcare, and so on will be met.

In the end, religion will disappear when countries develop the same kind of social safety nets that they have in Northern Europe. Or so I think. That will take a long time, but it’s a worthy endeavor, though characterized as “socialism” by conservatives and Republicans. In the meantime, trying to spread reason and pointing out the lack of evidence for religious dictates—as well as the harm that religion does—is also a worthy endeavor, for it has helped loosen the grip of faith. The books of the New Atheists, for instance, have drawn many people away from faith, despite what O’Grady says.  There is no reason why we can’t have both long-term and short-term strategies for ridding the world of the virus of faith.

Amen, brothers and sisters. And in lieu of leaving $5 in the collection plate, weigh in below with your reaction to O’Grady’s claim that we’re missing the boat.


138 thoughts on “Five Books: Selina O’Grady on the role of religion, and where New Atheists supposedly go wrong

  1. I think the correlation you often point to between inequality and religion is quite plausibly a matter of causation, but I am pretty skeptical about this claim

    …in the U.S. the degree of income inequality fluctuates over time, and the degree of religious belief fluctuates in tandem—but a year behind! If income inequality rises, religiosity rises the next year.

    because the rate and magnitude of year-over-year changes in both inequality and religion are likely to smaller than fluctuations in things we use measure both.

    1. Don’t leave it there, then: look at the data. If the correlation is there in the time-series data, can your skepticism come up with another explanation?

    1. you have captured in a few well-chosen words the essence of the irrationality of O’Grady’s proposition.

      1. Indeed. The baby’s wallowing in the pigsty and she’s screaming at us to leave the baby there because rescuing it would somehow constitute throwing out the baby with the bathwater.


    2. They can’t, and religious ideas build judgmental communities of people all competing to be the most pious. Nothing of value is contributed to the world. Only about 7% of Australians go to church, but we’re doing fine.

  2. There is nothing wrong with socialism. European countries and many others (Canada, Australia, NZ – which I often joke is the most socialist not only because of the red stars in their flag, they were the first to have a lot of social programs) are socialist countries. The term is just made out to be dirty recently by neo cons.

    Selina O’Grady is really wrong in thinking that religion is all about community. I think that’s what keeps people doing it but it isn’t the reason for its existence.

    I also think she’s a bit wrong about the Aeneid. Yes, it is pure propaganda in that Augustus had his little club of poets and Virgil was chief among them and he commissioned Virgil to write the founding myth of Rome and to feature him, Augustus, strongly in it. However, it wasn’t really religion in the way we understand it today. Romans would have been pretty suspicious of Augustus if he directly said, “hey hey look at me, I’m a god” so he disguises it. The part about the Battle of Actium that she mentions is told in the Aeneid in a scene on a cuirass. Think of how removed this is: you’re reading an epic poem where a character in that story relates what he is seeing on a piece of art. Further, Augustus’s relation to Aeneas is skillfully played — it makes him sort of divine in that Aeneas is related to Venus and Venus therefore becomes an important state god. It is more political manipulation than religious manipulation. Religion is different for the Romans.

    And Jerry – you should read the Aeneid!

    1. I second the recommendation. Very unsubtle Roman propaganda (which is what made it fascinating). Virgil outlines family history of Julius and Augustus through to those that fled from Troy and to Venus herself. I’m sure some of the educated locals would have found this funny to read. It showed that you can build a great community by showing off strength, honour and ancestry without bothering about honesty. There was also a funny boxing match where leather and iron were used on fists and the fighters laugh through it.

    2. As Jerry pointed out yesterday, NZ is set to become one of the first countries to be majority nones, and as Diana has said above, we were also the first to have widespread social programmes. Despite what many Americans think of what they consider socialism, we currently have one of the most successful economies in the world amongst developed countries. I.e. high growth, low unemployment, gender income inequality lowest in OECD etc. NZers consider the provision of quality healthcare for all just as much a human right as free speech. We frankly find it appalling that a country like America doesn’t have it, alone in the Western world. Quite apart from anything else, the economic benefits to a country of having a healthy population are enormous, and I’m surprised those trying to get a single-payer system there haven’t pointed that out.

      1. I think it might help foreigners to understand the dynamics at play a bit better by pointing out that it’s not simply that we have a private insurance-based healthcare system…but that, overwhelmingly, it’s an employer-provided private insurance-based healthcare system.

        And the dynamics of those two working together — employers plus private insurance — make for an especially insidious form of entrapment that most people naïvely went extinct with the company towns.

        You see…switching jobs means switching insurers. Which means losing coverage for “preexisting conditions.” So, if your kid has cancer, you don’t dare do anything to jeopardize your job or else you lose your insurance (even if you get another job) and your kid dies.

        This situation is typically only whispered about — lest your boss catch wind of your insubordination and fire you, for example — but it’s very, very, very real and there’s no doubt but that the wealthy who both own the companies and the political campaign contribution funds are well aware of the power it gives them.


        1. Insidious is a good word for it. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be scared of losing your job, or unable to change your job because of healthcare provision. It’s just evil imo. Healthcare provision here is completely unrelated to employment. The only thing I can think of is some employers offer free flu shots to reduce time off in the winter, but a huge chunk of the population is eligible for free flu shots anyway.

          Prevention is cheaper than cure, so the government has an incentive to focus on high quality primary health programmes, free smoking cessation programmes, free diabetes support and prevention, lots of education, needle exchanges, free condoms for sex workers and lots more.

          1. Another interesting fact about NZ: You-all just deregulated Class 3 medical devices (implantables, mainly). Now you are sort of free-loading off the CE mark; but unregulated in this case (I think, I’ll have to check) means it can be marketed before CE mark. Or in absence of CE mark.

            1. I concur. My current job offers some of the best healthcare you can find in America, yet there’s still the choice between 100% coverage (no deductible) with a paycheck deduction (and what I’ll call “almost 100%” coverage with no paycheck deduction.) This year, I decided to move from the full coverage to the one with the deductible since the biweekly deduction was set to rise to $111 and the “free” one only has a $2000 yearly family deductible and a few things that aren’t quite fully covered. I rolled the dice, only to find out that I didn’t read (or find) all the fine print and my regular monthly visits to my allergist now have the deductible applied.

              I could’ve signed up for the FSA to pay this portion tax free, but of course the Government eats your FSA money at the end of the year so you must always be conservative. Of course, our convoluted health laws offer no way to change the FSA or the coverage outside of open enrollment season. Yes, everyone out there who isn’t American, this is what we call “top notch healthcare” here; even with great plans there’s still a significant amount of risk calculation an individual must do. Don’t even get me started on high deductible plans linked to HSAs that I’ve had at previous jobs…

              1. We have similar plans for insurance here but it is only for what government health care doesn’t cober: medication, massages, eye doctor (unless you have something wrong like cataracts), etc.

              2. Here’s hoping you can at least get the drugs included in your universal healthcare. So much of medical care is medicine that it seems strange to treat it differently. I mean, it’s okay to pay a surgeon to cut out a tumor but not to pay a pharmacist for a pill that’ll make the tumor go away…?


              3. Yeah I don’t see that happening. I also wish dental care was covered.

              4. Oh and psychiatrists. This is also not paid unless you are referred by a doctor sir an issue and then you wait forever. I think it is a hang up from the days when prople thought mental illness was the fault of the sufferer.

              5. Damn.

                Well, at least you’ve got a less uncivilized starting position than we do…here’s hoping you can manage a few tweaks to fix it than the Sisyphean re-architecting we’d need….


              6. I wondered about that weird enrolment season – much as the system sucks, you’d think people should be enrol at any time in order to see as many as possible get coverage.

              7. There are such things as qualifying events, which allows you to change your coverage at any point. Examples of such events are marriage/divorce, having a child, or having a spouse gain/lose coverage due to another job. Of course, the whole thing is ludicrous. America is all about freedom, unless the freedom steps on the toes of insurance companies looking to maximize profits in a system that embodies the very definition of a Catch-22.

                And, as Ben points out, people outside of America likely have no clue what an FSA or HSA is. Suffice it to say, they’re devices designed to easily screw most individuals out of the puny tax savings they might get if they figure out how the goddamn things work and perfectly plan how they’ll be used. Whether you go bankrupt playing medical bills shouldn’t hinge on your ability to properly game the system (and by game the system, I mean be lucky enough to have good coverage and figure out which combination of things to sign up for to follow the convoluted set of rules that change on a yearly basis). Somehow, this system is far superior to simply showing up at the doctor and receiving care, because you know, it’s not a tax, so it must be good.

              8. People know what an FSA and HSA is if they have private work insurance for coverage of things not covered by their universal health insurance. We had these options for our insurance for things like medication, massage, etc.

              9. Well, consider yourself part of the unlucky club in the know about these things then. What makes these tax saving vehicles utterly irrational is the fact that they would serve no purpose if not for the fact that medical expenses are tax deductible up to 2% of your salary. The FSA and HSA accounts allow for tax write offs sans the 2% restriction. Just one corner of the pointlessly convoluted web of bureaucracy where our tax and Healthcare systems meet…

        2. I remember a couple of Americans asking me what I as a Canadian thought of “Obamacare”. I said I thought it was a step in the right direction, but nothing like the Canadian system. She thought it was horrible – “My boss has an excellent plan for us, but if everyone gets the same plan no matter where they work, how will he attract good employees?” I didn’t get the chance to answer or ask her what would happen if she needed to change jobs, or her boss was replaced by someone who would change to a plan that was not as good. Or point out that some workplaces attract good employees by being good workplaces (proper pay, respectful, etc.)

          1. It’s difficult to understand that there really are people who want their employers to pick and choose who does and doesn’t get good medical care…but, as your anecdote so amply illustrates, these people exist and are legion in the States.

            A lot of it, I think, stems from the same source as, “Oh, well that could never happen to me.” Never mind the profound lack of empathy these people exhibit…they also fail to understand that most of those poor schmucks to whom it did happen never thought it could happen to them, either.


            1. Well, to me it’s even worse.

              The fools calling themselves the teabaggers (or whatever) like to scream about not wanting a government bureaucrat deciding what medical care they get.

              I’m not sure it they realize it (or whether they are liars) that right now, managers at their employer and bureaucrats at an insurance company, each of whose annual bonus depends on reducing payouts for medical care, is deciding what medical care they get. How exactly is that preferable?

              Medicare and VA Medical (despite the recent scandals) run much more efficiently than privately funded medical care.

              My mother sometimes grumbles about “socialist” this or that. “Socialized medicine”, eek! I ask her, do you like your Medicare? “Oh yeah, I like that.” Well, that-there’s socialized medicine. If you had to go on the private market no one would insure you (80 years old, cancer history, other issues). And, even if they did, it would cost you all of your income to pay the premiums.

              “Yes, but I don’t like socialized medicine.” (She’s a bit of a knee-jerk conservative.)

              1. My mom had back surgery this past fall, and some faceless bureaucrat actually — I shit you not — overrode her surgeon’s prescription for a particular painkiller. Some asshole with an MBA (if even that) who’s probably never come within a thousand miles of my mom thought he knew better than the surgeon who had operated on her what kind of treatment she should receive.

                Yes, I’m still furious about it.


              2. In the American medical system, insurance companies have the final say over what they will and won’t pay for. Their “out” is that you’ve contracted with them to pay for what they say they’ll pay for, and it’s up to you to pay for anything else you or your doctors might want.

                I don’t have chapter and verse handy, but I’m pretty sure Obamacare included even more indemnification for insurers in situations like this than they’ve ever had before.

                You might not remember the history of the law…but what became Obamacare started as the ultraconservative right-wing Heritage Fund’s ultimate wet dream of how they wanted to force everybody to become a “customer” of a private insurer. Mitt Romney championed it when he was governor of Massachusetts and got it enacted there. Obama embraced it as well…and, suddenly, since the nigger was for it, everybody else was now against it. Even though it’s still an insurance racket that even Nixon would have thought was far too radically pro-business conservative.

                We really are fucked, when it comes right down to it….


              3. I hope yous find a way to get universal healthcare. The ideological stance that it is somehow bad because people just shouldn’t pay for other people is just not sustainable.

                It is funny because I was stopped by someone on the street last week who works for MSF. The first thing he said to me was “do you believe that everyone should have access to health care”. Of course he asked me that because we were right in front of a medical building and school AND we are in Canada where most Canadians will answer yes without hesitation. BTW I plugged Jerry’s donation with the fancy book to him & I mentioned that I already support MSF through donations because they are a secular group that puts the majority of their donations to the actual work.

                America could have a world leading medical system if it were universal because you have a massive tax base! It wouldn’t even need for you to pay more tax probably. In Canada, we have a small population – it takes all 32 million of us working our asses off to make the damn country work and we are use to paying taxes for our health care.

                One piece of advice: start at the state level. In Canada, we got universal health care in the 60s by starting in one province. Doctors threw a fit about it but when given the choice, people naturally chose the universal one and in no time, other provinces started implementing their own system.

                If it weren’t for universal health care, I would have been broke now. I wasn’t working when I got my stupid cancer diagnosis and I had surgery then radiation and all the visits with my specialists. I would have lost my house or been in crushing debt. AND I got seen right away – it was 2 weeks between diagnosis and operation and my cancer wasn’t even quick spreading.

              4. Alas, healthcare reform at the state level is now basically impossible because the Federal government has stepped in and laid down the law.

                About our only option is expansion of Medicare to cover everybody. That would, of course, constitute universal single-payer “socialized” medicine, but, if you instead phrase it as “Medicare for all,” you get surprising levels of support.

                Did I mention?

                Americans can be very, very, very stupid.

                Oh — and talk to those who work in hospitals or for doctors, and they absolutely hate the insurance companies and the bullshit they put them through. They’d all of them leap at single-payer healthcare in an instant because it would free them up to get lots more actual patient care done and they wouldn’t have to waste nearly as much time on useless paperwork.


              5. A friend of mine lives in Florida. No job, no insurance. He has undiagnosed IBS. Constant pain, on the pooper for hours every day. Can’t work to get insurance because of his condition. Is ineligible for the ACA in Florida. Thus, no colonoscopy.

                If it turns out that he has Crohns, or gets colon cancer, too fucking bad, he can just suffer and die, as far as Rick Scott is concerned.

                The whole thing makes me very angry.

              6. But that’s what compassionate conservatism is all about! Feeling so terribly sorry for the people who lacked the will to pick themselves up by the bootstraps with that which was trickling down from the job creators. If only your friend wasn’t such a lazy bum, he’d have demonstrated his worthiness by starting his own Fortune 500 company!


              7. Very sorry to hear about your Mom, Ben — but not surprised.

                Recently, I had to rush my wife to the ER, thinking she might be having a stroke (luckily, she’s totally fine — long story, look up Transient Global Amnesia) and she spent the night in the hospital, got an MRI, etc.

                I was seriously dreading the bill. The total bill was $10K. I about fell over when we looked at it — she only owed $75 for an ER visit, MRI, multiple other tests, and a night in the hospital. She has good coverage.

                For my coverage, it would have started with a $300 co-pay for using the ER — and then go up from there. And I have pretty good coverage.

              8. Oh, she’s doing great now. Back out in the garden, going to the gym with dad a few times a week, all the rest. She doesn’t have full flexibility, but she’s not all that limited by now…and the pain is all gone. Before the surgery, it was really starting to slow her down.

                Her recovery was pretty rough…and the fuckwads at the insurance company didn’t help. But that’s all behind her now.


              9. I don’t get why people would rather have an insurance company making the decision, for all the reasons Ben says. Here, the doctor decides and can’t be overridden. If the government mucks around with our health system and stuffs it up, they’re likely to lose the next election. Insurance companies are making far worse decisions every day and getting away with it.

                Money is a bigger part of politics there. Is this why insurance companies have so much control?

                I’m horrified by how much this all costs you too. You have higher taxes than us anyway, then still have to pay huge medical insurance bills on top of that. Most have almost no health care costs. The rest, including all children, poor people, maternal and neo-natal, mental health patients, and a few others, have none at all. All hospital care is free for all too.

                It’s not a perfect system – there are some better ones in other countries – but we don’t have much to complain about.

              10. “I don’t get why people would rather have an insurance company making the decision…”

                Republican voters vote on issues like pro-life, religious freedom, “family values,” and of course, “small government” so their taxes won’t rise. Thinking ahead about insurance consequences is probably the last thing on their minds. But if they did think about it, they’re programmed to think socialized medicine is the work of the devil.

                GOP pols get (re)elected and then start to take care of their real constituency–corporations.

              11. Yes, Diane’s got it nailed.

                Most Americans, especially conservatives, will cheerfully pay thousands to a private company (or do without entirely) if it means saving hundreds on their taxes.

                No, it doesn’t make sense to me, either.


      2. And this is done with a small population. New Zealand also used to pay for visitors to the country if they fell ill or had an accident. I believe that stopped because NZ was going to go broke doing that! Now that’s socialist!

        1. We still pay for some foreigners – we have reciprocal agreements with several countries. Britain is one, and I think Canada and Australia are too – we look after them if they have an accident here and they look after us if we have an accident there. They’re happy to do it because our population is so small it’s a win for them, and we’re happy because it encourages tourism. The accident insurance scheme now has such good reserves that taxpayer contributions are about to be reduced.

          1. I don’t think Canada pays for foreigners at all but I could be wrong. I know even Canadians who have been out of the country have to wait around 6 months (In Ontario anyway) before getting healthcare again. A few years back the cheap government wouldn’t pay for a nurse with cancer who had returned to Canada to be with her family after being diagnosed with cancer. She was a nurse in the US. I thought this was terrible.

            1. That’s really sad – the last thing you should have to worry about at a time like that is money. As long as she had retained her NZ citizenship, we would pay.

            2. Re: paying for foreigners.

              Some decades ago I was a camp counselor at a US summer camp. I led my charges on a several day bike ride in Canada. A kid falls off his bike, hurts his arm, and off we go to the nearest clinic for x-rays. The very nice people on staff are aghast to learn that we are going to pay cash. “This is going to cost a fortune” they warn me. They pull out some ledgers to look up the price (this was pre-computer) and solemnly told me the price. I don’t remember the exact amount but I do remember that it was only slightly more than what I doled out for ice cream for the whole crew later that day. And that wasn’t because the ice cream was so expensive.

              1. Haha, as a Canadian, looking at the United States often provokes an opposing reaction – I occasionally hear what a good health plan costs Americans, and my reaction is usually “PER MONTH?!?!”

                I hope our government never hollows out, or collapses, our single payer system. It’s not just great for the most part; it has also become a big part of our national identity.

                Socialized medicine is the first thing many people think of, when they think of Canada.

              2. I’ve worked with numerous Canadians (USian here). Many, many of them continue to hold Canadian citizenship (even though they could easily get US citizenship) because of one thing: They want to retain their access to Canada’s Medicare.

                That speaks volumes to me. They are all well-paid, highly-educated professionals.

              3. At least you can hold dual citizenship between US and Canada now. It is a total PITA though because the US makes you fill in really annoying forms each year for tax even if you’re living in Canada (I have some friends who have to do this for their kids & each other).

            3. That’s a bit sad, and curious. Oz’ Medicare (and its forerunner) were modeled at least in part on the Canadian system, and we have reciprocal agreements with the United Kingdom, Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium, Finland, Norway, Slovenia, Malta, Italy, Republic of Ireland and New Zealand (from Wikipedia).

              Of course having a publicly funded universal health care scheme doesn’t automatically protect it from right wing politicians trying to dismantle it.

          2. I needed medical care in Denmark once (USian). At the time I had no money.

            We were staying with a family; friends of ours. They simply took me to their doctor, I got my care, my prescription for medication and the medication and it was all written in as care for the family. The doctor told me explicitly that that is what they were going to do.

            To say that I was grateful and that I felt cared for would be to put it very mildly.

            Now, it may have been just because I looked like a Dane (my heritage is all-Viking) but I don’t think so! 🙂

        2. My understanding is that (in NZ) if you have an accident here and are taken to a public hospital, you WILL be treated. If you are not an NZ citizen you are likely to be presented with the bill afterwards, but if you can’t pay then (I think) they probably waive it. But as I understand it, you will never be refused urgent treatment for financial reasons.

          1. I needed medical care in Denmark once (USian). At the time I had no money.

            We were staying with a family; friends of ours. They simply took me to their doctor, I got my care, my prescription for medication and the medication and it was all written in as care for the family. The doctor told me explicitly that that is what they were going to do.

            To say that I was grateful and that I felt cared for would be to put it very mildly.

            Now, it may have been just because I looked like a Dane (my heritage is all-Viking) but I don’t think so! 🙂

          2. If you have an accident in NZ you will be treated. If you’re someone who has to pay, that’s sorted out later. If you can’t pay, you won’t be treated any differently. It would be responsible to get medical insurance if you’re coming here though.

            1. Of course, most of our hospital emergency rooms have to provide “urgent care” whether or not the patient is insured. The people least likely to have insurance, of course, are the people who most need ongoing care as well.

              1. And that’s one reason why costs go through the roof – people have to wait until something gets really bad rather than getting proper preventative treatment.

              2. Ayup.

                The hospital is forced to pick up the bill, in which case, they start charging 500$ for surgical gloves.

                And then everyone’s premiums go up in order to account for the skyrocketing costs.

                Because you know, taxpayer funded *preventative* health care is pinko style fascism!!


    3. Errm, Diana, just to split hairs – the stars in the NZ flag are white, not red. There’s four of them, I think. Australia has a different number, possibly five? And there’s a Union Jack somewhere in the corner, too.

      That’s as much as I know 😉

        1. The stars on both flags represent the Southern Cross (4 stars). In addition, the Oz flag has the 2 stars of the Pointer (to the Southern Cross).

          1. Uh-uh. Southern Cross has five stars, not including any pointers (but including the small one just below centre on the right hand side = epsilon crucis). The big star on the left isn’t part of the constellation but mere heraldry (its 7 points are supposed to represent the seven states in the federation).

        2. Oops. Diana, you’re absolutely right. Well, they’ve got white surrounds. Musta been the Aussie flag I was thinking of. My ignorance is embarrassing.

          (I’d be even more embarrassed if I gave a monkeys about flags, as it is I’m more likely to want to burn a flag than fly one). [ <- pathetic excuse ]

          1. LOL, didn’t you once tell a story about how you went home from a party draped in a NZ flag?

            1. It was a tale about the fallibility of memory. I would have been prepared to swear on oath (some years later) that mine host had been wearing his flag, till I saw a photo of me walking around draped in it.

              A well-known phenomenon, transference of memories.

        1. And of course my reply to jblilie should have been a reply to Diana. It seems I can’t even get WP to post my replies in the right place.

          As penance I sentence myself to install the next roll in the ‘under’ position.

  3. I believe in some ways she is looking at religion backward. She says it provides a vital social club that people must have. I think the religious belief grabs them first and they go to the club simply to reinforce the belief. If you stop going to the club long enough the belief begins to fade.

    People would hardly buy into all the junk in the religion on there own and hang on to it. They have to find and associate with others just like them to reinforce the belief.

    1. I think that’s a good point. It’s like a semi-conscious reinforcement that believing such nonsense is normal.

  4. I heard on NPR the other day, that many Islamists are as violent as they are because to them, their religion is their identity. To criticize their religion is to attack their very identity.

  5. My mom goes to a weekly art class that does all the community stuff that I could imagine somebody could realistically get from a church.

    Ms. O’Grady fails to recognize that churches are damned bad at charity, with far more of their funds going to the clergy, overhead, and recruitment than to making the rest of the world a better place.

    But, worse, she fails to recognize that religions in general are much more a force for evil than for good. Yes, it’s clear that there’re lots of wonderful religious communities all throughout the world. But we’ve also got the Catholic Church that’s using AIDS to commit genocide in Africa whilst they run their private child prostitution network, all those imams issuing fatwas and beheading Christians and defenestrating homosexuals, American fundamentalists bombing reproductive health clinics and legislating bigotry of all sorts, and on and on and on and on.

    You can’t just look at the nice parts of religion and conclude we need more of it. You have to look at the whole picture to realize that it’s seriously fucked up and we’d be far better off with people going to art class instead of church.


    1. The charity that churches do perform comes with strings. The recipients have to convert or pretend to convert and put up with prayers and religious iconography all over.

      Who goes to a soup kitchen and wants to see “The Last Supper” on the wall? They want their next supper!

    2. In addition, the “good work” done by churches etc often simply means prayers. They feel good because they’ve said prayers for those who need help, which, of course, is of absolutely no practical help whatsoever.

    3. Furthermore, I object to a church taking credit for the charity performed by its members. The church’s contribution is often no more than a paid staffer doing some organizational work and providing a taxpayer subsidized space.

    4. considering that the local Christian homeless mission must beg for money from everyone, including us bad bad non-Christian shows just how non-charitable Christians are. My local yellow pages (how retro, right?) has at least ten pages in small font of churches. Funny how they can’t support one mission to the point that they don’t have to spend money on fundraising mailings.

      Of course, they are also sure that those “other” Christians aren’t Christian at all.

  6. Huge industries and academic disciplines have grown up around religion. Naturally they want to protect their investments. If you’ve devoted your life to this stuff, I suppose it would be hard to simply go ‘meh’ and retrain in something else.

    The big difference between the atheists of old and their modern counterparts, is that we don’t have to dance around the issues anymore. If at the core, it all involves some flavor of magic sky daddy to make it work, then it’s easy to dismiss without bothering to debate all the apologist or sophisticated theologian misdirection plays.

    As for all the good works credited to religion the reality is that these are the good works of men and women not gods. I suspect such people would do good things anyway, and charities have other effective means to guilt people into giving without religion. If we can’t motivate people to do good things on behalf of fellow humans, their own families, or the good of the future, we’re screwed anyway.

    In a universe devoid of even one shred of evidence for gods, it’s not naive to simply discount all the academic and literary smoke and mirrors and simply move on.

  7. I think she’s got it backwards. Religion (or the church) doesn’t fulfill human needs, rather it parasites off them. Sometines it does this by offering to fulfill them, but just as often it declares them a sin and condemns everyone for being human.

    As Blake said:
    As the caterpillar chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys.

    1. “Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion”

      He also said this which I rather like too.

  8. O’Grady is correct about one thing. Nothing can do it better. You just can’t get to the cult level with football or the garden club. Only with religion can you end up with a Jim Jones or What was the guy’s name down in Waco.

    Some use it like a dating service. A place to pick up girls. Possibly the internet has cut into that some with Christian mingle dot com. No need to dress up and show up at church any more.

  9. I agree, and I wonder if O’Grady has actually read any of the so-called “New Atheist” books. Dan Dennett’s “Breaking the Spell” was one of the main books a decade ago that brought about the “New Atheist” label, along with Dawkins’ “The God Delusion”, Hitchens’ “God is not Great”, and Harris’ “End of Faith” and follow-up “Letter to a Christian Nation”.

    “Breaking the Spell” was almost entirely about this topic and discussed in depth the possibility of religions morphing into secular institutions aimed at a sense of community. Dennett posed it more as a question than an answer, and I think O’Grady (and de Botton) would do better to pose it as such. As you hint at here, there is much evidence that “community” is not actually that big of a deal; yes, we often have feelings toward it but we all find it in many places, from workplaces to support groups to gaming to online blogging communities.

    Indeed, I might suggest a modification to the hypothesis; it isn’t our need for community interaction that creates a need for religions, but rather it is the religions that are extremely insular that keep people from *leaving* the religion out of fear of losing their *existing* community.

    You see the same stories over and over of atheists being abandoned by family and community that they’ve known for so long. This happens especially to clergy who become atheists, often shunned by everybody they know and left with few practical skills to acquire employment. It is the fear of losing their particular community that keeps them. But they do eventually find other communities to join.

    1. “Indeed, I might suggest a modification to the hypothesis; it isn’t our need for community interaction that creates a need for religions, but rather it is the religions that are extremely insular that keep people from *leaving* the religion out of fear of losing their *existing* community.”

      A very cogent observation.

    2. That sounds remarkably like the effect of changing employers has on one’s medical cover in the US, described above.

    3. “…it isn’t our need for community interaction that creates a need for religions, but rather it is the religions that are extremely insular that keep people from *leaving* the religion out of fear of losing their *existing* community.”

      Yes, I agree with clubschadenfreude, that’s a great insight. I think it’s eminently arguable that religion has much more of a fracturing effect than a solidifying effect, if you look at the big picture.

      It just goes to show how much privilege religion really has in our world. It often doesn’t even occur to atheists to question the alleged benefits religion traditionally claims it provides. It reminds me of the way religion similarly claims it gives life meaning and value and that an atheistic worldview is meaningless, clinical, and cold. In fact it’s just the opposite. Believing you will spend eternity in heaven devalues this life. I care more about my life, my loved ones, and the world they will have to live in because I don’t think there are any do-overs.

  10. Former religionists and accommodationists complains too often about lack of meaning. Or here (and it is the first time I’ve seen this) that religious do should have atheists “explain” their actions.

    I can’t but help to think they haven’t yet managed to stand on their own two feet and make their own meaning.

    If so I feel sorry for them. But it isn’t as if there is a lack of expertise and helpful pointers in how to do that. Or that the claim as such is a fallacy of personal incredulity.


    O’Grady’s claim that we’re missing the boat

    prompts my reaction:

    ‘Row, row, row your boat,
    Gently down your dream.
    Verily, verily, verily, verily,
    life is but a stream.’

  11. I don’t understand why you are all so skeptical of religion. Today’s “Sunday Times” in South Africa has a report of a baby girl born in India with a facial deformity resembling an elephant’s trunk.
    People are flocking to worship her as a reincarnation of the elephant-headed god Ganesh.
    How can anyone not believe that this is indeed the god Ganesh, the divine manifestation of wisdom and intelligence for Hindus.
    Truly this is a wonderful reincarnation, better than Jesus coming back after only 3 days, and at least people can go and see this god in person.

    1. That Hindus tend to deify rather than shun their evolutionary misfits instills in me a notch of respect for the religion; but then I have to wonder whether that attitude developed as a means to bypass the caste system.

  12. This is what I feel the New Atheists fail to explain. You can’t just dismiss these ideas, it’s not really the ideas that are important, it’s what religion does. That’s why religion is still so important in people’s lives, because it does something that nothing else does quite as well: it creates meaning, it creates a community.

    Aw look, it’s the Little People Argument under its social and academic guise. How cute. Religious people don’t really give a crap about the supernatural: they’re just grounding their identity and creating meaning. And oh my but the New Atheists don’t get this.

    No. O’Grady has it backwards. WE are the ones who have argued and pointed out and painstakingly made the case that ALL the valuable, important, significant aspects of religion have nothing to do with whether or not the beliefs are true. Community, charity, joy, relationships, appreciation of nature, and the humanist elements of religion stand on their own. The supernatural is an empty category: we need to get beyond it.

    The RELIGIOUS are the ones who insist that no, that’s wrong. The supernatural is not just necessary to religion — it’s the best explanation for existence and recognizing this is the entire damn point of what it means to be both Spiritual AND human. The Little People don’t know that God doesn’t matter to them. They think it does.

    I suggest O’Grady try an experiment. Without mentioning that she’s really bashing the New Atheists, try telling a devout person of faith that she thinks they are only using religion to express themselves and that whatever it is they profess to believe in is pointless. Religion is just a form of personal therapy. God doesn’t matter; God doesn’t even matter to them. Now watch what happens.

    See if they are happy that someone finally “gets” religion.

    The religious will embrace any atheist who seems to be telling other atheists to shut up.

  13. I’ve read – and loved the Roth( part of the trilogy which also includes American Pastoral ( his best, imo) and I Married a Communist). I don’t remember the “religious” aspects. There’s a very good movie of Human Stain with Anthony Hopkins and, surprisingly, Nicole Kidman. I’ve read a lot of McEwan, and know he’s an atheist (his ex-wifw went all goddy on him), but have yet to read this one.

  14. I agree that religion would become less relevant and important in the US if we improved our social safety nets and distributed services equitably. I despair, though, with doubt that such changes will occur in my lifetime.

    For a USAian like myself who is financially secure, the flip side of the “religion and social safety net” discussion might arise from a desire to do service and volunteer work for those who are less fortunate and in need. Of course if you want to donate money, it’s easy to find secular venues that have no religious affiliation. However, in some communities in the US, it can be difficult to identify non-religious service projects in which to participate as a volunteer, and offer time/expertise instead of money.

    Some types of projects (fostering or training pets for rescue groups, National Public Lands Day, museum docents, etc.) have little or no religious affiliation, but for others, religious organizations at the very least lower the activation barrier for participation. Here’s an example: I donate non-perishable items to the city food bank a couple times each year (easy, with collection barrels at work), but I’d also like to donate some of the excess produce from my backyard garden from time to time. Certainly, people who use food banks would like to have access to fresh organically-grown produce, but it turns out to be frustratingly difficult to arrange this. If I went through a church-run food pantry instead, it would be much easier to donate my backyard veggies. In fact, I could just drop off the produce when I went to church each Sunday for my little community fix. I’d very much like to be proven wrong on this latter issue, because I don’t want to be affiliated with a church, and I’d like to share my garden noms with people who can’t afford to buy such produce.

    1. I’d very much like to be proven wrong on this latter issue, because I don’t want to be affiliated with a church, and I’d like to share my garden noms with people who can’t afford to buy such produce.

      Many areas are now developing community gardens — sizable plots of vegetables with the deal that, if you help tend, you can join in the harvest. If you’ve got one near you, I’m sure not only would the welcome your volunteer assistance but your own surplus produce to distribute.


      1. I’ve read about such gardens in cities like Detroit and Berkeley, and they sound great. Unfortunately, my city has not taken the hint, which is a shame because we have a nice long growing season, and there’s definitely expertise in the city parks department.

        In my parents’ urban neighborhood (same state, different city), the public elementary school has a huge garden, both for vegetables and for native plants, and many people in the community help out with that project (whether they have young kids or not).

        1. They’re a relatively new phenomenon here in the Valley of the Sun…and they’ve all taken off because a single person decided to “make it so.” Maybe you’re not the person to start one yourself…but maybe one of those employees at the public park is, and you can plant the bug in the person’s ear…?


          1. We’re getting curbside pickup of organic waste, and the city will do large-scale composting, here very soon, so perhaps the time is right!

            1. If the city’s doing composting, then the time is more than ripe. At the least, the city needs a demonstration garden of the good that all that compost is doing…and what better demonstration garden than a community-run fresh food bank?

              Find the elected official who did the most to sponsor the composting program, and pitch the idea of a community garden to him or her. The rest will likely take care of itself.


  15. “That’s why religion is still so important in people’s lives, because it does something that nothing else does quite as well: it creates meaning, it creates a community. ”

    aka the Potluck Dinner effect.

  16. That implies that if there is a causation, as I think there is, social dysfunction promotes religiosity rather than the other way around.

    The other way around religiosity pacifies, sustaining social dysfunction, or worse as we see with the religious right opposing taxes, and arguing that churches, and voluntary donations make for a more effective social safety net. Are we correcting social dysfunction when we we replace religions communal warm cuddly feeling with a secular version, or just anesthetizing ourselves?

    1. I think one of the most insidious examples of the potential for religion to sustain social dysfunction is the “prosperity gospel” preachings of ministers like the odious Joel Osteen and Creflo Dollar. I have a couple of colleagues who are adherents of this version of Christianity, and when they’re not playing the “I got mine, reward for faithiness” card, they’re seething with resentment over perceived financial injustices. At its worst, prosperity theology is very much about blaming poverty and lack of material wealth on insufficient piety.

      The interesting thing to me is that it requires little more than a passing familiarity with the Bible to argue against prosperity theology, using scripture.

      1. Matthew 31-33;
        31 So do not worry; do not say, “What are we to eat? What are we to drink? What are we to wear?”

        32 It is the gentiles who set their hearts on all these things. Your heavenly Father knows you need them all.

        33 Set your hearts on his kingdom first, and on God’s saving justice, and all these other things will be given you as well.

        You can argue just about anything from the Bible.

        1. It’s a long way from sufficient food, water, and clothing to megachurches, private jets, and multimillion dollar mansions, but yeah, people will interpret the Bible to suit their own agenda for wealth, behavior, etc. etc.

          1. And so many of these people think that if you’re poor in a wealthy country it means you’re immoral, but if you’re poor in a Third World country, you have their sympathy.

    2. I’m not worried. The religions we are most familiar with are highly authoritarian (with God the ultimate, um, Lord) and that largely explains its pro-status-quo alignment. I don’t see any reason to expect atheist warm cuddly communities to be so authoritarian.

  17. I get this uncomfortable feeling that a caring, sharing community under the guise of religion is second hand, not because, as an atheist this is your only life and all that means, in short, directly from a considered process of understanding of what life is and how you can act on it but because you are commanded to do his will and the door is locked if your choice is otherwise.
    It is pseudo community caring, it may have had a place in our evolution but we now know more than enough to make it redundant.
    O’Grady needs a little vision (f**k, did I say that) and dig a little deeper.

  18. From the sociologist’s perspective, people do live in communities and their beliefs reflect the beliefs of those communities. Those of us who are atheists live in atheistic communities, and we didn’t choose to live in them any more than a Christian chooses to live in their community. That’s what the lack of free will is all about.

    The illusion is that one can changes another’s opinion through logic. Those people who do change going down that road were already heading down it. To successfully alter people’s opinions, it’s most important to alter people’s perceptions about what their community believes. This is what happened with gay marriage, for example. The sudden shift in acceptance of gay marriage wasn’t because suddenly everyone figured out the logic of gay marriage; it’s because suddenly everyone thought everyone else was in favor of gay marriage. Furthermore, those people who newly accepted gay marriage often have no memory of their previous position; they’ve assimilated the new message lock stock and barrel.

    In Oregon, only 4% of the population identifies as atheist. On the other hand, another 18% don’t go to church and do not believe in god, yet don’t identify as atheists. Clearly, the term “atheist” engenders a lot of negative feelings. It’s a steeper road to get people to identify as atheists than simply as non-believers, regardless of the actual definition of the word.

    The best campaign going, IMHO, is outing people as atheists; having them come out, so to speak. The more celebrities declare themselves as atheists, the more young people will identify with them. If I were to work on urging one group of people to come out, it would be the clergy. I suspect that the percentage of non-believers among the clergy either equals or surpasses that of the general population and many could be induced to come out.

  19. If American students were as well educated as students in Denmark, we might have another shot toward a secular society. The US has become an oligarchy rather than a democracy, so becoming a social democracy is unlikely. Education is not a priority, and neither is healthcare. We are turning into Mexico where there is an upper class, and the rest of us are servants. Hey! Will that solve the immigration problem?

    Living in the Bible Belt has taught me that too many Americans choose religion over education. Education is more important than belonging to a community.

    1. You are right as rain about all of it, including what we are but the democracy part – not so much and it is probably not something we should keep insisting on anyway. The next step after democracy is usually chaos. It means the 51 percent rules and the other 49 percent suffer. In a Republic form of government, which was the intended one, the minority are protected. They don’t get steamrolled by the majority.

      Recall, the only generally elected group by the “people” were those in the house of representatives. Senators were not elected by the people for a long time. The President for a while as well. Having 2 representatives in the senate if you live in Wyoming and 2 if you live in California is no democracy. Now the fact that most all the congress is bought and paid for and your vote, democratic or otherwise does not mean a thing, leaves it all mute.

      1. I think the word you wanted was “moot” not “mute”.

        You could try compulsory voting, like here in Oz. I wouldn’t say it’s perfect, and there are some important conditions. Penalties for not voting are pretty light. We have an independent Electoral Commission to conduct ballots, and they have to work hard in some instances (e.g. remote communities) to get the vote. Citizens don’t really have to vote, in reality all they have to do is get their name ticked off at the local school. Voters can leave the ballot paper blank, or write obscenities on it. Since the ballot is secret nobody knows what voter writes what on it. It is in a sense a denial of an individual’s liberty (to not vote), but too much of anything can be bad. However it is a pretty trivial chore, and it ensures everybody’s involvement in the process, and a sense of ownership of the result. Paying tax isn’t really voluntary.

        A friend of mine told me of a colleague of hers whose parents were immigrants. The colleague complained of having to vote, but her parents’ response was along the lines of “What’s your problem? YOU can VOTE!” Clearly they came from a place where that luxury wasn’t available to them.

        1. We don’t have computer voting in NZ, but we usually have at least an 80% turnout. America is lucky to get 50%. We have a much more representative system though, so people are more likely to feel like their vote counts.

          I can imagine many people in America who see their state dominated by one political party feel like it’s pointless voting.

  20. My first problems are I don’t know what new atheists believe universally and I don’t know what religious beliefs are held the same.

    Finally, the characterization of religion seems to be local — many (most? all?) new atheists dismiss any claim of non-theistic religion as bogus, which is their choice, but eliminates many (most?) religious scholars from the discussion.

    No matter, what we all get wrong is the “big bang” of religion. Opinions abound, but nobody knows. If they did they would find many sources, many purposes, many objectives.

    My take is probably best described in “Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus” by Karl Jaspers who proffered they were paradigmatic persons; i.e., they created a personal paradigm.

    When people speak of living a meaningful life, I believe that is what religion is about at its core, but the act of recording sacred texts rigidizes old ideas which need be dismissed as invalid; e.g., discrimination against GLBTQ persons.

    Many (most?) of us grew up in religious families and communities. The great problem I see is when people stop growing. What we may get wrong is thinking that others have it wrong.

    1. “Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus”

      Which one of these is not like the others?

      Socrates, Buddha and Confucius each predate Jesus by about 400 to 500 years.

      For the most part none of the first three is considered a god, and for the most part none of their philosophies require them to be divine.

      The curious thing is that there is virtually no independent evidence (i.e. apart from religious writings) for the existence of Jesus Christ, and yet of the four only his existence is necessary for the philosophies attached to him to be valid.

      1. Very well said. The dates and locations when those individuals supposedly flourished make it unlikely that any of Socrates, Buddha or Confucius had any influence on either of the others (pace Gore Vidal, though there may have been earlier works that indirectly influenced them all), but all of the first three could have been sources for writers of the life of Jesus. But looking at the actual content of the gospels, it’s pretty clear that they were composed with no awareness of any earlier Greek writings. No actual use of known Greek sources seems to have been demonstrated in the rest of the NT either (I’ve seen claims that Paul “must have” read Plato, but that style of argument leads directly to ancient astronauts and The Da Vinci Code).

        1. On the other hand, whoever wrote Hebrews did know something about neoPlatonism.

          There’s also that “vibe” from the authentic Pauline letters, too – it isn’t as if you can say that he categorically read this or that, though. For example, all this about the “spirit bodies” and the heavens above the moon, etc.

  21. Yup, religions provide a sense of community alright…a community based on varying levels of shared common belief in some truly batshit crazy ideas, the more conservative the Church, the batshittier these ideas are bound to be. How is it exactly that nonbelievers should acknowledge this? Should we show up and say we don’t believe any of this nonsense, we’re just here for the donuts? Yeah, that’d go over swimmingly…

  22. Yeah well she’s quite right. Everyone needs some society they can belong to. Of course that doesn’t have to be a religious society. A bowling club, or a fan club, or… almost any society will do.

    (Mine happens to be the MG Car Club. I run a Ford Escort. I’m their resident atheist 😉

  23. 78% of Danes are members of the state church, but only 2-5% go to church regularly. A resent survey found that only 42% of church members would re-join if they were administratively required to do so.

    So 95% of Danes do just fine without church but for some reason sticks with it – and pay around 0.9% church income tax. Puzzling

    1. They probably see it as maintaining old traditions. National cultural identity, that sort of thing.

      1. Yes, that is some of it.
        An still Danes are leaving the state church in droves.
        Now less than 78% are members. It used to be 90+.
        Yearly the membership is down by 0.6% points, soon leaving no argument against a separation of church and state.

  24. Dear Ms. O’Grady: Scandinavia.

    I don’t see people in Scandinavia wandering around in a fog trying to find meaning. They seem a lot happier that the general run of Americans.

  25. As an atheist I have no lack of community in my life – but it is based on real friendships and real community of interests and ideas; not on a set of false assertions by those who would control others in order to enrich themselves.

    O’Grady seems like my cousin the jesuit; both no longer believe the doctrines but neither can bring themselves to completely abandon the bogus “community”. Except that my cousin doesn’t preach at me. I’ve been an atheist since before O’Grady was born – I don’t need lessons from her on how to do it right.

  26. Just listened to the audiobook version of Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. I highly recommend it as an innovative reimagining of the Jesus narrative featuring Jesus’ twin Christ. Really lays bare inconsistencies and questionable ethics in the traditional story.

  27. There is no boat missing with science.

    Put science with religion and science has won every time. If New Atheists support this science, and all of them do, then what else is there.

    O’Grady appears to ignore science. When you get on with science you can get on with life.

  28. What people like O’Grady are saying is that it’s OK to promote lies as long as they make people happy and give them a sense of community. Don’t pop them out of the Matrix, because they might be disturbed by what they find on the outside. It goes without saying that they overlook or simply deny the myriad violent and oppressive manifestations of religious belief that are such a familiar part of our history. Beyond that, they are obviously indifferent to the fact that religious belief or the lack thereof is bound to profoundly affect how people live their lives, what their priorities are, how they relate to and judge other people, what goals they devote their lives to achieving, etc. Apparently we are to believe that all these things are a matter of indifference as long as people can have a sense of community and stay high on a bogus version of reality. Life is reduced to a mere matter of experiencing as few bad vibes as possible while stumbling from cradle to grave in a fog of delusional beliefs. It goes without saying that they also dismiss with a wave of the hand the existential threat that the lack of an accurate grasp of reality might pose to our species in a world full of nuclear weapons.

    I have to wonder how many “beneficiaries” of this grotesquely patronizing attitude there really are out there who would genuinely welcome being duped if they grasped what was going on. In other words, if you could actually make people grasp the fact, if only for a few minutes, that these self-appointed intellectual overlords were encouraging them to believe a pack of lies “for their own good,” how many of them would be grateful for this “service,” compared with the number who would feel betrayed and abused. Out of respect for my fellow human beings, I like to believe that the former number is comparatively small.

    O’Grady’s schtick is getting very familiar, isn’t it? All the attacks on the New Atheists, from whatever quarter, have the same thing in common. They seek to detract attention from the main point – whether God exists or not. They attack the attitude of the New Atheists, or complain about their arrogance, or whine that they are too “simplistic” and don’t understand “real” religious belief, or nod their heads sadly over their lack of tolerance, or, as in O’Grady’s case, complain that they are making people unhappy. As noted above, all these gambits seek to distract attention from the main point of all the New Atheist writings; whether or not religious beliefs are actually true. The reason is obvious. The O’Grady’s of the world realize that in attempting to debate the obvious objections against religious belief raised by Dawkins, and by Mencken before him, and by Ingersoll before him, and by Meslier and many others before him, they will only succeed in making themselves look absurd. Better to throw out a fog of ad hominem attacks than risk that!

  29. I’d like to recommend an alternative viewpoint to O’Grady’s which, nevertheless, like O’Grady, cautions us to take explicit religious beliefs less seriously. Razib Khan writes:

    Often these complex systems of belief and practice are centered around philosophical or revealed truths, and statements of confession which exhibit logical structures, at least superficially. Though it is probably a misleading analogy, many think of DNA as the blueprint for the form and function of organisms. In a similar fashion it is common to see religious texts and the opinions of seminal thinkers as the blueprint for a given religion. The empirical reality is that this view is upside down. Traits which we think of as seminal to religion, such as profession of specific elements of faith, are relatively recent cultural innovations on top of a far more robust and deep primal layering of religion as a psychological and cultural phenomena.

    This is not to deny that there may be important implicit spiritualist beliefs (largely shared among “different” religions, Khan argues in another post).

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