Salon pulls out all the stops in dissing New Atheists

May 10, 2015 • 1:30 pm

If you want to see every shopworn criticism of New Atheism rolled up into one splenetic article, then it’s this one (in Salon, of course): “New atheism’s fatal arrogance: The glaring intellectual laziness of Bill Maher & Richard Dawkins.” The writer is Sean Illing, a graduate student in political science at Louisiana State University, who professes to be an atheist. And, like Maru, this is a box I cannot help but enter.  I will try to be brief, but will probably fail.

So what exactly is the intellectual laziness of Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins? It is one of Illing’s several accusations leveled at New Athiests, which I’ll summarize below:

1. New Atheists are just too stupid to realize that religion isn’t about truths, but about fictions that make people feel good, and structure their lives.  Yes, Illing appears to be a nonbeliever, and sees religion as promulgating untruths, but that doesn’t matter, for those untruths give people meaning. This is a variant on the “Courtier’s Reply” trope, in which believers fault us for not tackling the Most Sophisticated Forms of Theology™ (the so-called “best arguments”). In this case, defenders of faith like Illing simply admit that religious “truth claims” are all bogus, but they don’t really care. In fact, the people who are at fault are not the believers who structure their morality and behavior around those bogus claims, but the atheists who take believers at their word, apparently thinking erroneously that believers really believe. That, says Illnig, is the fatal weakness of Maher and Dawkins (my emphasis):

But there’s something missing in their critiques, something fundamental. For all their eloquence, their arguments are often banal. Regrettably, they’ve shown little interest in understanding the religious compulsion. They talk incessantly about the untruth of religion because they assume truth is what matters most to religious people. And perhaps it does for many, but certainly not all – at least not in the conventional sense of that term. Religious convictions, in many cases, are held not because they’re true but because they’re meaningful, because they’re personally transformative. New Atheists are blind to this brand of belief.

It’s perfectly rational to reject faith as a matter of principle. Many people (myself included) find no practical advantage in believing things without evidence. But what about those who do? If a belief is held because of its effects, not its truth content, why should its falsity matter to the believer? Of course, most religious people consider their beliefs true in some sense, but that’s to be expected: the consolation derived from a belief is greater if its illusory origins are concealed. The point is that such beliefs aren’t held because they’re true as such; they’re accepted on faith because they’re meaningful.

 The problem is that the New Atheists think of God only in epistemological terms. Consequently, they have nothing to say to those who affirm God for existential reasons. New Atheist writers tend to approach religion from the perspective of science: They argue that a particular religion isn’t true or that the empirical claims of religious texts are false. That’s easy to do. The more interesting question is why religions endure in spite of being empirically untrue. There are, of course, millions of fundamentalists for whom God is a literal proposition. Their claims concerning God are empirical and should be treated as such. For many [JAC: How many? Most?], though, God is an existential impulse, a transcendent idea with no referent in reality. This conception of God is untouched – and untouchable – by positivist science; asking if God is true in this sense is like asking how much the number 12 weighs – it’s nonsensical.

Now, really? How many religious people wouldn’t give a hoot if they were told that what they believed was false? Would they say, “I don’t care: I have existential reasons for believing in God.” As I wrote yesterday:

Sadly, the data show that while religion does have these other functions, it’s simply not the case that truth is irrelevant. Even theologians (the honest ones) admit that without an underpinning of beliefs about what’s really true about the universe, religion crumbles. Where would Christianity be if adherents thought that Jesus’s divinity, crucifixion, and resurrection were just a fictitious but convenient framework on which to hang their emotions? Would Mormons wear their sacred underwear if theyknew Joseph Smith was really a con man who fabricated those plates? Do the Sophisticated Critics really believe that if Muslims knew for certain that Muhammed didn’t get the Qur’an from the mouth of God, via an angel, but made it up himself, that Islam would have the sway it does? Get serious.

I challenge Illing to stand on the steps of any mosque in Pakistan or Iran and tell believers that it doesn’t matter whether what they think about Muhammad or the inerrancy of the Qur’an is irrelevant; all that matters is that the beliefs motivate their behavior. I suspect his longevity would be severely reduced. And there are 1.6 billion Muslims on this planet.

Note as well that Illing really does admit that believers must undergird their behavior with acceptance of factual propositions, for he says this:

“Of course, most religious people consider their beliefs true in some sense, but that’s to be expected: the consolation derived from a belief is greater if its illusory origins are concealed.”

I’m not sure what he means by “true in some sense”, but I suspect that the 57% of Americans who think that Jesus was born of a virgin take it as a real fact that Mary was not penetrated by a human male before baby Jesus was born. And I think the 42% of Americans who think that humans were created by God in their present form within the last 10,000 years are really thinking of actual years and an actual creator God. (By the way, if the facts here aren’t all that important, why do creationists keep trying to get this stuff taught in public schools?)

And what about this?:

The point is that such beliefs aren’t held because they’re true as such; they’re accepted on faith because they’re meaningful.

Illing has not thought this through.  What is accepted on faith is the religious epistemology: statements about the existence of God and Jesus, Mohammed or Moroni, and the moral codes that stem from the scriptures. They may not look at these propositions too closely, but they believe them, and they undergird the faith of everyone except for the highly rarefied and well-fed theologians who eschew the need for truth.

But really, religion is not treated like fiction. Religious people don’t act like all of scripture is fictional, nor do they act like they don’t care whether scripture is fictional.  At least some truths matter. (For Christians, the one non-negotiable is the salvific effect of Jesus’s death and resurrection.) You don’t see people basing their lives and hopes and morality and meanings on things that are palpably untrue, like the Harry Potter series or even The Brothers Karamazov. If you’re a normal person (i.e., not Karen Armstrong or David Bentley Hart), you must accept some fundamental truths about your faith if it’s to inspire you.

Hell, this is kindergarten stuff, realized even by theologians. I’ll give a few quotes, starting with the Bible itself:

But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen:And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.—Paul, 1 Cornithians 15:13-14

A religious tradition is indeed a way of life and not a set of abstract ideas. But a way of life presupposes beliefs about the nature of reality and cannot be sustained if those beliefs are no longer credible.—Ian Barbour

I cannot regard theology as merely concerned with a collection of stories which motivate an attitude toward life. It must have its anchorage in the way things actually are, and the way they happen.—John Polkinghorne

Likewise, religion in almost all of its manifestations is more than just a collection of value judgments and moral directives. Religion often makes claims about ‘the way things are.’ —Karl Giberson & Francis Collins

That’s only a small sample; I have more for Illing if he wants them. And here is what Americans actually believe to be true (percentage of all Americans accepting the propositions below). This is not a small minority of Americans—it’s MOST OF THEM:

A personal God concerned with you 68%

Absolutely certain there is a God  54%

Jesus was the son of God  68%

Jesus was born of a virgin  57%

Jesus was resurrected  65%

Miracles  72%

Heaven  68%

Hell and Satan 58%

Angels  68%

Survival of soul after death 64%

2. Without the (false) verities of religion, people’s lives will lose meaning. 

For [Dostoyevsky’s] part, God was a bridge to self-transcendence, a way of linking the individual to a tradition and a community. The truth of Christ was therefore less important than the living faith made possible by belief in Christ. . .

“I’ve never seen anyone die for the ontological argument,” Camus wrote, but “I see many people die because they judge that life is not worth living. I see others getting killed for ideas or illusions that give them a reason for living.” Today is no different; people continue to kill and die in defense of beliefs that give their lives meaning and shape.

. . . The New Atheists don’t have a satisfactory alternative for such people. They argue that religion is false; that it’s divisive; that it’s unethical; that it makes a virtue of self-deception; that it does more harm than good – and maybe they’re right, but if they don’t understand that, for many, meaning is more important than truth, they’ll never appreciate the vitality of religion. To his credit, Sam Harris’ most recent book, “Waking Up,” grapples with these issues in truly fascinating ways. Indeed, Harris writes insightfully about the necessity of love, meaning and self-transcendence. But he’s a fringe voice in the New Atheist community. Most are too busy disproving religion to consider why it is so persistent, and why something beyond science will have to take its place in a Godless world.

What we see here is the incredibly arrogant and condescending Little People Argument: while rationalists like Illing can easily reject religion’s truths and get along fine without them—he says, “It’s perfectly rational to reject faith as a matter of principle. Many people [myself included] find no practical advantage in believing things without evidence”—the Little People can’t. They need their faith! I guess the Little People who populate much of Northern Europe don’t count.

Let us make one thing clear: it is a benefit to humanity to rid it of false beliefs, even if you have nothing to put in their place. Many people in the South structured their lives around the implicit assumption that whites were far superior to blacks, and that a decent society demanded the subjugation of blacks. Did the civil rights movement offer something to replace the need of Southern whites to feel superior? Nope; the movement simply rid society of a false and invidious notion that people were inherently unequal and thus should be treated unequally.

Likewise, New Atheists rid society of the belief that it’s being monitored and tended by a celestial dictator. That alone is a good, for it’s better to see the truth. I don’t see it as an inherent responsibility of atheists to replace religion with something else that gives people meaning, for I think that most people (as they have in atheistic Europe) will find such meaning for themselves, and that it will differ from person to person. I bet if you asked most Swedes how they can possibly find meaning in their lives without religion, they’d just look like you were crazy.

Which brings us to the last point:

3. New Atheists should be faulted for attacking religion without at the same time suggesting replacements for religion.

The New Atheists have an important role to play. Reason needs its champions, too. And religion has to be resisted because there are genuine societal costs. One can draw a straight line between religious dogma and scientific obscurantism or moral stagnation, for example. That’s a real problem. But if religion is ineradicable, we have to find a way to limit its destructive consequences. Satire and criticism are necessary, but they’re not sufficient.

People like Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens make a powerful case for a more humanistic ethics. Harris writes admirably about the need to be more attentive to the present, to the suffering of other human beings. I agree. But if we want to encourage people to care about the right things, we should spend as much time encouraging them to care about the right things as we do criticizing their faith.

Here we see more arrogance—not from the New Atheists but from Illing. Who is he to tell us how to spend our time? In fact, some of us criticize religion, while others, like Phil Kitcher, Chris Stedman and Alain de Botton—spend their time finding the substitutes for religion. Isn’t that just as good as all of us spending our time doing both?

After all, we have the principle of comparative advantage at work: let each of us do what he or she is good at. I am not good at suggesting religion substitutes because I don’t believe that we need formal substitutes, and the evidence from modern Europe supports me. Nor do we have good studies to show a). what will count as a religion substitute for people, and b). whether people really need those things to have a meaningful life. Since I think that religion is on balance a harmful superstition, standing in the way of rational discourse, and as a scientist who’s read theology I can do something about that, that’s what I do. I’m not keen on finding religion substitutes, and neither Illing nor I (nor anyone, I think) is well qualified to tell people what can replace church. As water finds its own level, so will people find their own meaning.

In the end, it’s not the New Atheists who are arrogant. How could we be, if we’re wedded to rationality, doubt, and the use of evidence? Who asks themselves more often questions like, “Could I be wrong?”, or “How would I know if I were wrong?” Hint: it’s not the believers.

No, it’s Illing who’s the arrogant one, for he presumes that he, who sits proudly at the Big People’s Table and can dispense with the need for religion, must preach to all of us that those Little People at the Children’s Table must have their pabulum faith—or a substitute for it. It is he who doubts the ability of people to live without convenient fictions. I have more faith in humanity than that, and I use the word “faith” as a metaphor.

h/t: Barry

211 thoughts on “Salon pulls out all the stops in dissing New Atheists

  1. I believe truth IS the issue. The reason I am no longer a believer, is because I realize the things I believed were not true.

    Once I changed my beliefs, no longer accepting the false beliefs of religion, I certainly had to wrestle with some emotional laden issues of life’s meaning, but dealt with those based on truth, not on the emotional satisfying falsehoods I had previously believed.

    1. It’s about truth for me too.

      And simple Humanity plays a big part as well. I see religion as about power and control and exclusion of people based on arbitrary factors. It’s institutionalized bullying.

      From an early age, I was also aware that being female meant I was less, and I thought that was just unfair from a god who was supposed to be so loving. The two (female = less vs love) just don’t gel.

    2. yep. at the edge of my conversion I was practically a deist, I found no sense of the various rules in the bible and their explanations, and the only thing that kept me believing there was a god pascal’s wager. When that failed the test of logic, I turned.

      I now count myself as a deistically agnostic atheist.

      1. I envy you apostates. I was never in so I can never climb out. You people have such dramatic stories to tell.

        1. We (or at least I) envy you atheist lifers, as you never wasted years on religion. That beats a dramatic story every day of the year.

        2. Envious of the stories, but stunned. My family has never been church goers so I have no idea what it’s like to be taught this stuff. I was in my twenties when I met my first believer, or at least when I met someone who talked about the bible as if it were true. That was thirty years ago and I’m still amazed when people I think are intelligent tell me they believe in some religious bafflegab. It’s difficult to get my head around the fact that there are millions of people who believe brand X religion is true.

  2. Unevidenced belief in one’s self is what makes most entrepreneurs successful. In the discipline of Neuro Linguistic Programming people are taught neurological techniques to create and destroy strong beliefs, using them as a tool kit. The idea is that what you believe will drive your behavior. Having used these techniques to great effect, I don’t dismiss using beliefs as a method of directing my behavior to my own goals.

    For me there is a huge difference in holding beliefs about the potential of one’s self and one’s ability to create an outcome through the force of will and effort and holding beliefs in opposition to scientific evidence.

      1. Unevidenced optimism without the accompanying determination and grit accomplishes nothing. Optimism, IME, is not the same as belief in self. Belief, determination and grit certainly do not guarantee anything.

      1. They are unsuccessful. The question is does belief take some who would otherwise be unsuccessful and enable them to succeed? Is failure through lack of effort any worse than failure from no effort?

        In my experience with self and clients, belief and create grit. Grit leads to achievement of goals. But it is neither necessary nor sufficient, just an advantage.

        1. Is there data on those who practice the techniques, like you and still fail?
          Success seems to depend on quite a few factors. Many contingent occurrences and luck. It may seem as though this thing works when it may be some other congruence of contingent circumstance.
          One particularly terrible thing about right wing notions of success is the failure to acknowledge all those other factors, which then leads to morals failures on their part (imho) due to overvalue of themselves and there rights and the undervaluing of others and theirs.
          I am not saying this of you though, I will have a bit of a look at it.

          Also, I wonder what you mean by entrepreneur.

          Also, are these techniques used to bypass pesky beliefs like consideration for others, and promote stuff like, if you don’t exploit them someone else will?
          That kind of thing?

      1. But…I don’t believe in “NLP”. There is nothing to believe in. NLP is a collection of techniques taken from other fields that are sometimes effective and sometimes not. With each client, a skilled practitioner will not limit themselves to one or another, but keep trying different things until something works (which it doesn’t always do).

        My point here is that there are techniques for willfully creating beliefs about self and once one holds beliefs about one’s self that behavior can change, behavior does sometimes change. It’s the old “fake it till you make it” which seems to consistently (if not scientifically) produce better results than doing nothing at all.

        1. What does “consistently (if not scientifically)” mean? How can a technique be said to be consistently effective if its effects aren’t measurable?

  3. Prof. Coyne, your response to my Salon piece is much appreciated. I’d love to engage you a bit more on some of these points, but I’d prefer to do so via email or some other way. You now have my email address, so I hope to hear from you soon.

    For now, let me say this: I did not write the headline to the article (editors do that). If I had, it would have been different. I don’t consider any of the New Atheists (many of whom I admire and read) to be intellectually lazy. That’s not my view at all.

    1. If you believe what you wrote (absent the title) why don’t you engage the group here? You’ll find many reasonable and well-informed people ready to engage.

      1. Can’t wait to read all the rest of the comments to see if the author posted a reply in the wrong place to your comment. Why wouldn’t he want to engage here??

    2. I find the divergence between your views and the editor’s headline to be quite disturbing.

  4. I suppose this is another bit of evidence of the failure of our public higher education system if Mr. Illing is a grad student. His logic is so deeply flawed that any one of his professorial advisors should have kicked out the flimsy struts holding it up. The religious understand that what they believe is not true, just “meaningful”? What does that even mean? He needs to visit any one of the 200+ churches in my town and ask them if they think heaven and hell and god and the devil are real, or just nice stories that give their lives meaning.

    1. I hope that the other grads are simply not given the opportunity to write for Salon. If you bash atheists and especially if you’re an atheist bashing atheists, then Salon welcomes you.

    2. His logic is so deeply flawed that any one of his professorial advisors should have kicked out the flimsy struts holding it up. The religious understand that what they believe is not true, just “meaningful”? What does that even mean?

      I was raised in very liberal very middle, and upper class city in very liberal Massachusetts. Church was something you did at Christmas, and Easter. Heaven was something you hoped was true, and the god you hoped existed was very different than the sadist described in the bible, and most everything was metaphor.
      If Mr. Illing were describing that bubble, or believed all theists were like that some of his points might make sense, at least from his perspective, but given he’s a student at Louisiana State University I find it impossible to imagine he doesn’t know better.

      1. If I didn’t make my point clear enough. We believed because we didn’t want to believe life ended at death. Not because we really believe, or had good reason too. Whether there was reason or not was something you avoided thinking about.

      2. I too lived in Liberal Massachusetts, although as an adult and non-practicing Jew. I’d find it hard to believe that someone in Louisiana (whether in a University or not) would know better. Louisiana has the distinction of being the fifth most religious state in the US.

        The only way he could live in more religious place would be to move to Mississippi, Utah, Alabama or South Carolina. My takeaway from this is that even the atheists in those areas can’t survive without at least pretending to be friendly to religion.

        1. You misunderstood Mike.

          He meant that someone in Louisiana should know better than to claim that theists don’t care whether the religious propositions they believe are true or not.

          Because there are lots of fundamentalists in Louisiana.

          You and he are on the sand page.

    3. Things do not have to have logic and meaning to work. Sheer belief is sufficient.

      An example is the placebo effect. If individuals believea sugar pill is a real medicine, often it will work. Harvard Medical School recently hired a full time staff menber to explore this further

      Another case where sheer belief works is hypnosis. A subject under hypnosis can produce blisters on his/her arm by simply believing they are there.

      Sheer belief is a real and powerful and measurable force. (Ploubere, I’m glad you aren’t my graduate thesis evaluation committee!)

  5. I just heard someone on CBC say that for something to be true it doesn’t have to be literal. Nice dodge. Yes, metaphor is also true because it is a way of describing something that is true. This sophistry still doesn’t show that religion can tell us things about the natural world as well as science does. It is why we don’t build rockets on prayers.

    Another thing worth pointing out is you’ll often witness companies who ignore evidence based decision making (usually going with whoever’s opinion is the loudest or comes from the mouth of the person who is the most charming or most powerful) die pretty quickly if they are in highly competitive markets. Those that based decisions on evidence tend to thrive. So to is the planet. If we ignore evidence in favour of feeling good, we are doomed as a species. This guy writing this arrogant piece, isn’t helping.

    1. I just heard someone on CBC say that for something to be true it doesn’t have to be literal. Nice dodge.

      I started thinking of it this way: metaphors and symbols, when you get down to it, are just codes and ciphers for real messages which themselves are literal. Invoking metaphor is, at best, a delay tactic.

      There’s no rule that says a claim or statement hidden behind a metaphor or symbol is any smarter or more impressive than a claim or statement made point blank. The people who chortle at atheists for being so damn literal prove this every time they provide their conspiracy-theory-esque reason for why Bronze Age mythology texts are still relevant as more than ancient history and religious study topics.

    2. I find the best way to respond to generalities is to get specific. Okay, maybe for some things they don’t have to be literal to be true…now tell me, speaker, do you think the resurrection of Christ is literally true or literally untrue but true in a nonliteral sense?

  6. It looks like this is an argument for the ends justifying the means. The end here, is an orderly society with citizens who feel self-fulfilled, are willing to put the welfare of others as a higher than usual priority, and individuals not troubled by existential issues like what will happen to them when they die.

    It truly is a paternal view. Atheists, here, want to upset all of this fine social engineering by pointing out that it’s all a big magic show put on to coerce people. ‘Let them have their religion because it makes the feel good, and it also helps keep everyone acting in the interests of civilization. Never mind whether it’s true or not; that’s not the point of it all.’ It comes from a view of the population (of any country) as ultimately unsophisticated, with little capacity to go beyond fables and magical thinking.

    Sorry, but I think people can break these habits of mental laziness and uncritical acceptance, but I admit that this is, for some, a hard thing to do, just like trying to run a marathon with little training or build-up of those muscles and endurance. It is an uphill climb, because there is no personal ‘reward’ for someone attempting the ascent. Everyone around them is looking on and shaking their heads. The metaphor of exercise to thinking here is important: your brain is a muscle, and if you don’t use it in certain ways (in some not insignificant number of cases, people _never_ use their brains in this way), you are going to have a very hard time thinking critically, especially with little to no encouragement. Better to take the path of least resistance.

    Illing seems to be saying, ‘Why bother? If it works for them, it must be good for them. Don’t try to dissuade them from religious beliefs because that’s like telling a baby to stop suckling.’

    I think we need to grow up, but I accept the fact that for some, growing up is not only hard, it’s almost impossible.

        1. Yeah…well…if he could tell the difference between good and bad writing, he wouldn’t have written all that bad SF in the first place….


          1. True, but if he wasn’t a huge narcissist he would’ve recognized that his SF was terrible. Oh narcissists. Can’t live with them, can’t have crazy religions without them.

          2. …well, without religion, what would we do with all our spare time? What would the internet be for, anymore? Who would be left to draw out our scathing critiques? The idleness! – it’d be enough to drive you to drink.

    1. Excellent analysis imo. Too many people are in the habit of taking their opinions from other people, and a religious leader is one they frequently turn to. One of the most common things you will hear from those of us who were once religious is that we realized that what we had always been told wasn’t true. Even if it is comforting, living a live is simply not a good thing.

      This is why, imo, the teaching of critical analysis is so important, so everybody has these skills. A lot of very intelligent people, and Illing appears to be one, assume those that aren’t as smart as them can’t learn these skills. That’s arrogant, paternalistic and just not true. The reason more haven’t become atheists in the past is not because of intelligence, it’s because of how our society worked.

      These days, kids are getting taught this stuff, and average years of education are increasing too. An advantage of a wealthy society is how much we can educate people before they go to work to support the next generation.

    2. Indeed, but on top of the patronising paternalism, the final irony is that it doesn’t even work. If it did we wouldn’t need a police force, prisons, or any of the other institutions designed to make us behave ourselves.

        1. Why? Obviously, because we don’t have enough faith. Or, more commonly, because the others don’t have the right faith, which is something only the Third Reformed New Life Church of the Risen and Glorious Christ Jesus has — as clearly evidenced by the horrible blasphemies you’ll hear coming from the Fourth Revised Newly Living Family of the Gloriously Rising Jesus Christ.


          1. I love that point! It reminds me of a little ‘fable’ (but one for the atheists):

            The village elders saw that a storm was coming, and summoned the town’s High Priest, who went about casting a ‘protection spell’ over the town, pacing back and forth, moaning and waving his arms. After an hour or so of this, he reported that he was finished, and went back to the Temple.

            That night, the storm indeed came, and a tornado all but levelled the town. The damage was horrific and many were left homeless, their houses nothing more than splintered wood and rubble.

            The elders again summoned the Priest. “Your dramatic incantations and theatrics are clearly a sham! What have you to say for yourself?”

            The Holy Man answered: “See all the good I’ve done for you? If not for my protection from sorcery that defended against the effects of the storm, you would not even be alive today to be asking me this today! You should be grateful that I have made it possible for you to rebuild the village. Now, get to work on first rebuilding the Temple!”

            That’s how it works. No matter what the question is, Religion has the upper hand, because we are always capable of imagining something worse.

          2. Yes. It could be worse. I usually say “Yeah you’re right. It could be worse. I could be sitting in church right now.”

          3. Thought of Firesign Theatre: Pastor Rod Flash, leader of the Powerhouse Church of the Presumptuous Assumption of the Blinding Light.

          4. Haha, yes, I remember that!
            “Oh blinding light,
            Oh light that blinds,
            watch out for me,
            I cannot see!”

    3. Problem is, the ends don’t justify the means, because the ends is a shitty society with morons who accept illogical religious arguments as fact, and then apply the same dumbass attitude to other aspects of their life.

      All that is required for change is a paradigm shift, it is in fact easier to be moral in a secular context than in a religious context because you can recognize clearly the returns from being rationally altruistic, how it affects society and benefits your self interest.

  7. He’s like a first year student who thinks they have had a clever insight. On further examination one discovers that it is not so clever nor so original.

    As far as I am aware this aspect of things has been addressed to one degree or another by the new atheists.

    1. I agree.

      So he might have described some of the psychology underpinning some peoples’ adherence to this or that religion.


      It’s not news that religion us meaningful to people. That’s neither here nor there in the context of rebutting the Gnu Atheists™. I’m sure we all actually do know how meaningful religion is to some people. That has nothing to do with the fact that it’s plainly false and we’d be better off trading it in for accurate beliefs. You don’t engineer a successful society by ignoring truth and privileging faith.

      1. Truth, yes.
        One of the things that keeps people believing is that they don’t have good answers to the deep and meaningful questions.
        One example being evolution.

        You only have to look at the continuing pathetic error laden attempts by preachers and the like at parodying evolution. They and their followers understand it wrong.

        Richard Dawkins and Jerry and others have written great books that if understood, will answer pretty much all of those questions.
        My observation of the world, you tube and you tube commenters is that this is still a major factor.
        Dawkins has done so much in this area it’s not funny.
        There’s more but it is getting a bit long winded.

    2. Yes. All the arguments in the article are the same tropes that have been said many times before. It is as if repeating them will make them somehow makes them true.

  8. Here is the problem that I see: I’ve had practicing Christians tell me that they do NOT care about the “supernatural mumbo-jumbo”. Seriously.

    Some go to church because the story gives them..”spirituality”; they really don’t care about the truths of the myths.

    Yes, that is a small fraction of church goers and these people (the ones that I talked to) tend to be highly educated.

    But some people really are like that.

    1. I know. I’ve been one of ’em. I’m very comfortable with liberal Christians, and it was a comfortable home for me. Eventually, though, the mendacity got to be too much. Truth is, you really cannot be an intellectually honest Christian naturalist. No matter how many times you try to tell yourself that the supernaturalism is inconsequential, you can never fool yourself into thinking that it’s inessential. Which means that you’re lying when you say that you’re a Christian.

    2. And not caring about truth – which people do in almost every context of their lives otherwise – is terrifying. How will they know if their fuzzies get coopted by authoritarians or whatever?

      (Hint: this seems to have happened in some places …)

  9. This “meaning” argument is the worst anti-atheist argument.

    Even if it were somehow true that hundreds of millions of people absolutely, utterly, and oddly specifically needed the bullshit beliefs and rituals in order to prevent themselves committing angsty nihilist suicide – even if you could actually show us that this wasn’t sheer status-quo-defending presumption invented as a lazy and defeatist pro-religion argument – then how the hell is that a good thing?

    Seriously, Illing is trying to defend bullshit by invoking what would have to rank as one of the most serious psychological disorders in history. And he thinks we’re the ones missing something in our critiques?

    While we’re at it, what about the elephant in the room? Religion has a huge historical and geographical inertia from centuries of spreading and proselytizing and mass killing, and is rammed down people’s throats – sometimes from birth – so much and so widely that many never get a chance to experience any other kind of life.

    Surely, if people need religion as a crutch, it’s because religion breaks their legs first. Or has convinced them they can’t walk. Or never really taught them to.

    Well, thank you, Illing et al. You’ve actually given us the best reason ever why religion needs to come down and come down hard.

    1. Surely, if people need religion as a crutch, it’s because religion breaks their legs first.

      I’ll try to remember that one.

      1. Alternatively: “Religion tries to convince you that you’re sick, and then offers to sell you the medicine.”

    2. This, BTW, was exactly Marx’s point. We should give a darn that people are so despondent and so broken (sometimes) or so warped (he missed this) that they need something off the wall …

      I would just add, following Marx, that it might not be religion per se that broke their legs, etc. It might be political or economic power that did it, often in *collusion* with the others.

  10. To me, Point #3 is the equivalent of asking why all those arrogant medical researchers attacking cancer aren’t proposing a replacement for cancer, other than being cancer-free, that is.

  11. One issue- people can find the same meaning in obvious fiction, including the aforementioned Harry Potter series.

    1. And they do – a couple here got married on 4th May (Force Day – Star Wars). The celebrant and all the guests were dressed as characters from the movie. The bride was Princess Leia, the groom Han Solo.

      Tens of thousands of NZers (popn 4.6 million) identify as Jedi each census since 2001. Unfortunately 🙂 Statistics NZ doesn’t include it as a category in the official stats. If they did, in 2001 it would have been our second biggest religion.

      1. But how many of them are really Trekkies and how many are just taking the piss out of the census?

          1. Oops, so I am. Star Wars, Star Trek, is there a difference? (Gets massacred by both camps).

            Admission: I’m a Farscape fan myself.

          2. It’s expected that the US Supreme Court will soon guarantee recognition of marriages such as yours in all 50 states….


  12. You know what it looks like when you have a group of people that are motivated or inspired by an ideology or philosophy, but who don’t care if there is actual truth behind it? Trekkies.

    When the religious are indistinguishable from Trekkies in how they treat the truthiness of their beliefs, then I will consider Illing to have a case. When I can tell a religious person that their beliefs aren’t based on fact, and have that person agree with me the way a Trekkie will agree that the Federation doesn’t exist, then I will consider Illing to have a case. But so long as religious people continue to argue, identify with and fight over factual ideas about how reality works… Illing’s got no case.

    1. +1

      If it’s so obvious that our atheist arguments are banal, then why, for instance, are there so many voices – from creationists to S’phisticated Theologians – insisting and trying to argue that god’s existence isn’t on par with that of fairies?

      I’d love to hear people treating religions in the same vein as fans around a much-loved series of fictional stories. But they can never just leave it at that.

    2. You left out: when the Religious Right has the same degree of political power as the Star Trek lobby, then I’ll agree that their belief is harmless.

      1. Absolutely. I for one look forward to the day when we take power as the third political party and direct taxpayer money towards building highly unrealistic starships in order to wage war to the stars FOR DILITHIUM erm I mean those dastardly Klingons and their WMDS!!!

      2. Imagine the reverse – the Trekkies having the power of the religious right. A multi-billion dollar lobby for a secular, scientifically-minded peaceful socialist government? I want.

    3. You and jasonorthrup above made a very handy Institutionalized Religion Detection Kit that will help us New Atheists finally detect what religion is really about, according to Illing.
      But either he is wrong, or the Detection Kit needs new batteries. I bet on the former.
      Well done.

  13. Has this person considered another ‘new atheist’ Dan Dennet, who has written whole books exploring this issue.

  14. Jerry, here in Finland among my 30-something y.o. friends it’s rare to believe in a divine creator, let alone the biblical god. Maybe 9 out of 10 of my friends, from your Average Joes to the more educated, would be defined as agnostics or atheists.

    A politician who brings biblical/religious reasons on the table in legislative discussions lose the popularity contest by a large margin among the more educated younger generation. Among the youth, you’re rather looked at as a Jesus-freak if you reveal your faith, especially or at least when it’s even somewhat biblically accurate (!).

  15. I think you have completed misread this article, interpreting it incorrectly.

    In fact, the people who are at fault are not the believers who structure their morality and behavior around those bogus claims, but the atheists who take believers at their word, apparently thinking erroneously that believers really believe.

    But he doesn’t that it isn’t important to believers. He states quite plainly that many do consider it important and relevant. Rather, he’s saying that if you consider that there exist believers that don’t consider that aspect important, the argument that it isn’t true is not a persuasive argument. He’s right about that.

    Let us make one thing clear: it is a benefit to humanity to rid it of false beliefs, even if you have nothing to put in their place.

    Perhaps. This statement seems an article of faith on your part. What solid scientific evidence do you have for this belief?

    Who is he to tell us how to spend our time?

    Why do take his essay as issuing marching orders? You are free to pursue your evangelical atheism as you see fit. I read it as the author pointing out that if you want to be successful in evangelizing atheism, you must adapt your argument to be meaningful to the listener. For those that religion is not a matter of truth, but a matter of living a meaningful life “God is an existential impulse, a transcendent idea with no referent in reality.” demolishing the ‘truth’ of religion will not win them over.

    Or as he put it:

    if we want to encourage people to care about the right things, we should spend as much time encouraging them to care about the right things as we do criticizing their faith.

    1. Rather, he’s saying that if you consider that there exist believers that don’t consider that aspect important, the argument that it isn’t true is not a persuasive argument. He’s right about that.

      For that subset of believers, yes. I think the point Jerry and many others have tried to make is that’s really a very small subset. The overwhelming majority of Christians think that the Jesus’ literal existence and resurrection is a critically important part of their faith, so Illing’s argument isn’t very relevant to the actual population of actual believers (at least in the US).

      I’m sure there are some non-proselytizing Christian Deists out there (no matter how paradoxical that label may be). But our beef really isn’t with them: its with the people who want to put prayer back in school and teach our kids that the earth is only 10,000 years old. So when we argue against theism, we argue against the sort of theism held by the people who want prayer and creationism back in schools.

    2. The basis of christianity isn’t some vague golden-rule love-thy-neighbor feel-good set of platitudes. It’s that a deity created two original people, who disobeyed him and caused all of their descendants to be condemned to hell, and the only way out is to swear fealty to Jesus to get an automatic ticket to heaven. And to be a christian, you have to believe in the literal truth of that story. Go to any church and ask them if they think it’s just a fancy metaphor and see what answer you get.

      The rhetorical attempt to downplay that central tenet by so many defenders of the faith is simply an attempt to avoid dealing with how silly that story sounds when you say it out loud.

  16. Thanks for putting in the effort PCC. I skipped over that one and went straight to Jeffrey Taylor’s new article:p

    1. Yes, that struck me as a “I’m going to say something stupid here, and hope that no one notices” moment.

  17. the first issue, the courtier’s reply variant, might as well be called the Linus’ blanket effect. Having your blanky just makes you feel good, even if the impact of carrying the damn thing around actually interferes with the rest of your life. Likewise, for me, Mr. Anxiety, I sucked my thumb until about age 10, even though I knew it was dumb, that family members teased me and made my life miserable whenever anyone caught me, but I continued to labor under the delusion that it was more comforting than disrupting. I have no idea why I quit, any more than I know why I stopped praying at night or stopped living in fear of a bearded punisher in the sky, but I did and now have no real understanding of why I bothered in the first place (although, unlike religion, I probably started in utero for self-soothing; I knew life would suck, so I sucked back, I guess).

    1. My son Andrew, he of the three dummies, one in each hand and one in him mouth, was born sucking his thumb! You have to wonder what there is to be anxious about in utero!

    2. Oh, that is exactly me too! I had a huge callous on my thumb from sucking it. We moved to a new city when I was about age ten and of course attended a new school. It was noticed and commented on – I made up some story of ancient injury and never sucked it again. I’d almost forgotten that story until yours reminded me. We can achieve wonderous results in our efforts to conform.

  18. Cleaving to truthiness instead of truth is a general human problem as the former since it requires little cognitive effort appears to be familiar, nice, comforting, and therefore ‘true enough’ while the latter with its emphasis on vigorously using one’s noodle feels alien, odd, off-putting, and most likely untrue or at the very least, irrelevant. A recent study points this out.

    Religious beliefs have been shown as not even being equivalent to some secular approaches in terms of supporting psychological well being (that’s another study).

    Sam Harris is an advocate for mindfulness, and that requires some hefty cognition. I am guessing that there is some sloppy, overlapping of functionality between truthy religious beliefs and evidence-based mindfulness. Though hitching cognition onto psychological health is challenging, nobody ever has done terrible things in the name of mindfulness. It’s time to embrace an approach that improves deeply our mental and emotional states rather than some easy fix, like religion. And, it won’t come easy as our brains like easy.

    1. “A recent study points this out.

      Religious beliefs have been shown as not even being equivalent to some secular approaches”

      Do you have citations for these, Michelle?



  19. This author claims:

    “New Atheist writers tend to approach religion from the perspective of science: They argue that a particular religion isn’t true or that the empirical claims of religious texts are false. That’s easy to do. The more interesting question is why religions endure in spite of being empirically untrue.”

    Clearly, he hasn’t read Dennett’s “Breaking the Spell” or Harris’ “Waking Up”. Both Dennett and Harris have been identified as leading “New Atheists” (whatever that means).

  20. “New Atheists should be faulted for attacking religion without at the same time suggesting replacements for religion.”

    Not everything in life that we grow out of gets replaced. We don’t supplement the belief in Santa Claus with another belief.

    We grow out of it, we move on. Life is wonderful. Nature is wonderful enough without having to add an additional layer of supernatural magic on top of it.

    1. Yes, it is a matter of growing up and putting childish things behind us.

      This reminds me of a quote from Dawkins’ book ‘The Magic of Reality’:

      “The truth is more magical – in the best and most exciting sense of the word – than any myth or made-up mystery or miracle. Science has its own magic: the magic of reality.”

    2. I’m not letting him off the hook, but perhaps he’s also taking a path of least resistance. I notice that all of his academic career (or at least all that is listed on the link) is in the American Deep South, including not only Louisiana State but the University of West Florida although he is now working as a freelance writer back in in Baton Rouge. If I’m not mistaken, this area is the very heart of the ‘bible-belt’ and I can imagine that many atheists in that area would have to keep quiet about it, or, in this case, attack some part of atheism in order to survive in terms of career and avoid becoming a social (and perhaps academic) pariah.

      So perhaps, he is trying to have it both ways. The tiny little parenthetical clause in ‘Many people (myself included) find no practical advantage in believing things without evidence.’ is the one place we get any clue where he really stands on this.

      Despite that one little clue, he mainly spends the essay dignifying religious faith as a sort of noble savagery, and in doing so, manages to both condescend and to promote a romanticised view of the faithful.

      Worst of all, he suggests that without some sort of godhead, humans are poorer (i.e. his ‘moral stagnation’). I wonder if he feels that he’s morally stagnant?

      All in all, it’s ‘Do what I say (Religious public), not what I think.’

      1. Worst of all, he suggests that without some sort of godhead, humans are poorer (i.e. his ‘moral stagnation’). I wonder if he feels that he’s morally stagnant?

        I’m sure not. The bias “I don’t need religion, but those other folks do” is extremely common and we probably all suffer from some variant of it. Even us atheists show a bias (thinking we are better than average) like that, though we parse it differently: if the police were not around, would you rape pillage and murder? Answer: no. Would other people rape pillage and murder? Answer: yes. That’s the same bias. So on this point, I’m willing to give him a pass because while he’s making a biased judgment, his bias is one we almost all have.

        1. if the police were not around, would you rape pillage and murder? Answer: no. Would other people rape pillage and murder? Answer: yes. That’s the same bias.

          I don’t see that as necessarily a bias so much as it is a reality about the world we live in. People rape, pillage and murder with the police around, albeit usually not within eyesight of them, though there’s numerous and recent exceptions to that too.

          The difference from my perspective is that while I do think people would act out without police, I also think that the behavior is reparable; i.e. it is possible to create a society where the majority of people would not rape, pillage and murder and those who attempted to would be such as small minority that large scale rioting wouldn’t ever happen. Likewise, I think it’s possible for people to live without religion, but it’s silly to think that for extremely conservative fundamentalists that the rug could be pulled out from under them overnight. For many people who lose religion, it’s a slow and self-reflective process of questioning, but unlike crime in absence of police, there’s no evidence that losing religion makes people behave less morally.

  21. I have to admire Jerry Coyne’s restraint in commenting on the Illing piece. My reaction was that it is so silly and illogical as to be undeserving of civility and courtesy. As Thomas Jefferson said: “Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions.” Illing’s proposition that some significant portion of religious persons know that the dogma to which they subscribe is untrue is itself demonstratively false (and unintelligible.) Illing is a student of political “science,” an “academic” pursuit that could be recommended only on the basis that it is perhaps a step above that of the utterly worthless study of theology.

    1. I had to restrain myself. I will normally reply to a civil article with the same civility. But if the author is nasty or snarky, I don’t feel the same restraint. This article was borderline in that respect, so I thought I’d lay off the ad homs and just go after the arguments.

      1. Since you declined to reply to my initial invitation for dialogue, I’ll make one last comment. First, I’ll repeat: I didn’t write the headline or the subheadline, which are the only parts of the piece that are remotely uncivil. Anyone who has written op-eds should know the business – headlines are designed to get clicks. Period. Second, I’m surprised how badly the spirit of the piece has been lost on most readers. I’m on your side of this conversation. I believe the world would be a finer place if more people were reasonable and empirically-minded. I’m not an apologist for religion. At all. I’m interested in two things: why the religious impulse is so enduring and how best to persuade religious people to care more about things that matter. If the aim is to make religious people less religious, it seems prudent to fully understand the appeal of religion in the first place. Furthermore, I’m not arguing that people ought to believe in false claims because they make them feel better. I don’t believe that. I think Hitchens is right when he says there’s more to be gained by thinking for one’s self. I’m simply saying many people affirm false beliefs, and they appear to hold those beliefs because they fulfill some function in their lives. That seems to me an obvious observation. Maybe you disagree. At any rate, I’d prefer not to have a lengthy debate in a comment thread, so I’ll leave it here. Just know that I honestly believed the piece would be seen as an attempt to focus on an aspect of the problem that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. That’s all. I’m an admirer of the work of people like Harris and Hitchens. Perhaps my attempt was clumsy. Perhaps the headline and the content are sufficiently disjointed that my points seemed more incoherent than they really are. I don’t know. But again, if you’ve any interest in continuing this conversation, feel free to email. If not, I understand.

        1. Why not reply to the most thoughtful comments here? A comment thread can be a great place to communicate.

          1. Because that’s tiresome, and I don’t want to debate multiple people simultaneously. If Jerry won’t accept my offer, perhaps I’ll post a response on my blog this week. But the notion that I’m not engaged with any of the so-called New Atheists is just untrue. I read Harris’ recent book with attention, for instance. I even blogged about it ( I’m especially interested in Sam’s project. Perhaps it was mistake to call him a “fringe voice” in the article. What I really meant was that his views on self-transcendence are quite distinct from his fellow-travelers in the New Atheist movement.

          2. Because that’s tiresome, and I don’t want to debate multiple people simultaneously.

            Then why bother to show up here in the first place? If a private conversation is what you wanted, Jerry’s email address is not hard to find; and if you seriously hope to convince him you’re one of the good guys, publicly disrespecting his readers is probably not a good place to start.

          3. Not sure in what sense I disrespected his readers. That certainly was not my intent. Perhaps tiresome was the wrong word. I just have no interest in carrying on a debate with multiple people in multiple threads. But I take your point. I’ll reach out privately. No need to comment here further.

          4. I too felt the commentariat had been dissed. I suspect Sean I. is unaware of the superior quality of the many of the comments on this site. He might benefit considerably if he took the time to read them, instead of assuming that Jerry is the only person worth talking to around here. On the contrary, Jerry has often mentioned how much he has learned from the comments on WEIT, and many people have said, including myself, that it is one of the best things about the place. This is not Pharyngula, you will find insightful and thought provoking ideas here, rather than splenetic teenage trolls.

          5. “tiresome” hmmm…

            Methinks that one like you could learn something from the comment herein

            OTH, methinks you probably won’t

            But I would that you would and that accordingly we also could

          6. Much as I love Sam, he has been amazingly privileged and lucky to able to devote so much time to meditation and meditation retreats.
            Sometimes months and years.
            It is great to have a good atheist mind exploring and reporting on these things but there may be good reasons others haven’t.

            And, still, Dan Dennett?

        2. “I didn’t write the headline or the subheadline”

          The problem is the content not the headline.

          “I’m simply saying many people affirm false beliefs, and they appear to hold those beliefs because they fulfill some function in their lives.”

          If that’s what you intended to say then you failed.

          1. Well, Sean I. might be saying that, but he’s saying more besides and neither simply nor lucidly.

            I’m not sure that the article is quite as terrible as it first seems (the title imposed on the author misleads), but it’s poorly structured, poorly written (“And perhaps it does for many, but certainly not all – at least not in the conventional sense of that term.” That term? “all”?) and poorly informed (re Harris and Dennett inter alia as others have commented).

            But if we want to encourage people to care about the right things, we should spend as much time encouraging them to care about the right things as we do criticizing their faith.

            Perhaps Sean I. hasn’t read Dawkins widely enough?

            Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it?


        3. I’d call this a serious case of back-pedaling, but if you’ve realised you were mistaken then this is the place to say so. We have the usual scientific regard for those with the courage to change their minds. I see you have already admitted that it was an error to call Sam Harris “fringe”, I had been going to protest about that, Sam is a Horseman, and as such very central to the current debate. May the Force be with you. 🙂

        4. If the aim is to make religious people less religious, it seems prudent to fully understand the appeal of religion in the first place.

          Yes, but you don’t seem to understand it. The appeal comes in part from it being thought true. From it making true claims about the world.

          I’m simply saying many people affirm false beliefs, and they appear to hold those beliefs because they fulfill some function in their lives.

          I think you are statistically wrong about that. Survey after survey after survey shows people stating that they actually believe religious claims such as the existence of God, the afterlife, a young earth, and so on.

          You can probably go to a UU church and survey people and get responses that are consistent with your statement. But I think if you go to a mainstream Catholic, mainstream protestant, or evangelical church you will not. You’re making an argument about a subset of believers which is vanishingly small, and your argument simply isn’t relevant to the much much larger subset of normal or standard believers.

  22. Even if atheists are intellectually lazy, I have yet to hear a convincing and intelligent response from the religious.

  23. Gee. Who would have imagined that an atheist graduate student in political science would be condescending?

  24. Sean and the other new anti-atheists are misguided in their criticism of atheists and don’t understand that atheists actually believe in god and just say the
    things they do because atheists think that the world would be a better place without religion and this quest gives them purpose.

  25. If he is a student of political science, he should just quote Karl Marx, and point out that “religion is the opium of the people.”

    It is not a new argument. Yes, giving up the illusion is hard, but yes, it is also better that you do give it up, without reaching for a methadone-religion as a substitute.

  26. All the points I’d make have already been made, either in Jerry’s original or the comments, so I’ll just check the box to subscribe….


  27. Well Done Jerry. This type of ill-thought-out drivel is becoming all too common and needs to be countered. The fact Mr Illing is an atheist no doubt lends credence to his article in the eyes of believers and this make incisive critique like your own all the more essential.

  28. I really don’t get #3. Does religion need any replacements? There are alternate metaphysical views out there, alternate epistemologies, alternate metaethics, alternative meaning systems, alternative communities, etc. Does anyone really think religion has a monopoly on any domain of the human condition?

  29. I do think there is something to this:
    “The point is that such beliefs aren’t held because they’re true as such; they’re accepted on faith because they’re meaningful.”
    But I think the point is being used wrongly. Even if it is the case that they are accepted because they are meaningful, they are still nonsensical. If it’s meaningful but illusory, then they have a problem. It’s why those same theists who go on about how their beliefs are meaningful try to argue at the same time that the atheist case against their beliefs is misguided.

    In other words, it’s not enough that they are meaningful, but that they have to be meaningful with a degree of plausibility. Otherwise, why all the effort to shoot down the truth-centric criticisms?

  30. ‘Religious convictions…are held not because they’re true but because they’re meaningful, because they’re personally transformative.’

    The only “church” I know of that openly acknowledges anything like this is the UUs — them, and maybe the Jesuits, but who knows wtf those guys are thinking (only God and Ignatius of Loyola, and, per Nietzsche, both of them are dead as disco).

    When are these soi-disant atheists like Illing going to stop calling in artillery strikes on their own position?

  31. Prof. CC’s rebuttal is spot on. Why is it that the Illings of the world never get around to answering these arguments? We see the same hackneyed stuff, over and over and over again. According to the Illings of the world, truth doesn’t matter as long as intellectual overlords like him can manage to keep all the little people in the world as happy and delusional about the “meaning” of their lives as possible as they are benevolently conveyed from cradle to grave. To the extent that there even is such a thing as a “meaning of life,” what Illing is suggesting is the ultimate act of betrayal; collaboration in so bamboozling the “little people” that they can have no chance of ever discovering the reality of what that meaning might really be. Of course, he never mentions the “collateral damage” that is the direct result of this “benevolence”; a Jordanian pilot burned alive in a steel cage, people of the wrong faith beheaded because they don’t “think right,” heaps of dead Yezidi children, millions of murdered Jews, millions of slaughtered “heretics,” tens of millions more butchered in religious wars. No matter! As long as bashing New Atheists is the intellectual fashion of the day, what’s the harm of piling on?

  32. Not that such people don’t exist at all, but in my religious days I met nary a person who was religious because they thought it felt good but was false. In fact, the overwhelming evidence for testimonies all over the Web from people claiming to believe religion but think it is false are people who are completely miserable with the cognitive dissonance and agony it causes. Look no further than the Clergy Project for reasons why religion survives if people think it is false. Illing needs to step down from his pedestal and take a look at the real world.

  33. I share your sentiments about the latest hit job on atheists at Salon but I suspect that their motive is slightly less lofty than the ideological battle over who controls truth—science or religion? Think click bait instead of ideas debate. Note that Illing’s title says his article is about the intellectual laziness of Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins, and yet Maher is barely mentioned in the first paragraph and never again after. Yet his picture graces the top of the article, along with that of Dawkins.

    I immediately recognized the pattern because when Salon published an excerpt in January from my new book, The Moral Arc, I was quite surprised at the title they gave it: “Bill Maher is right about Religion.” And instead of a photograph of the book cover or its author, there at the top, above the line explaining “Excerpted from ‘The Moral Arc’” is a giant picture of Bill Maher, who is not mentioned in the excerpt or the book.

    What gives? I wondered. After clicking around the site for a few minutes (just type in “Bill Maher” and you’ll see what I mean) I came to the conclusion that Salon’s primary concern is with getting web page hits, with a secondary focus on social media links, and a tertiary motivation of instigating debate. Bill Maher is a genuine celebrity and an opinion shaper through his hugely popular HBO show Real Time. By linking articles to his name and likeness Salon may get more page views, click throughs, and social media links. Maybe, perhaps, possibly…I wondered…more people read my excerpt and bought my book than would have without tying it to Maher’s name and likeness. With an N of 1 and no control group I have no way of knowing, but it will be interesting to see if they review your new book, Faith vs. Fact, next week, and if so don’t be surprised if it features Maher’s image and a title like: “Bill Maher disses religion again!” And maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing for your book!

    1. “O ye of little faith!” I would exclaim to the editors at Salon.

      Do they really think nobody will bother reading them unless they jump up and down with their underwear on their heads waving pictures of half-naked celebrities?

      …actually…come to think of it…the more they keep up this sort of stuff, the more they demonstrate that that really is all they have, alas….


      1. It’s not that they think no one will read, it’s about them greedily trying to get as many clicks as inhumanly possible.
        And for that being silly and flashy works.

  34. “If a belief is held because of its effects, not its truth content, why should its falsity matter to the believer?”

    Because it’s not true.

  35. “[B]elieving in God is more than accepting the proposition that God exists. Still, it is at least that much. One can’t sensibly believe in God and thank Him for the mountains without believing that there is such a person to be thanked, and that He is in some way responsible for the mountains. Nor can one trust in God and commit oneself to Him without believing that He exists: ‘He who would come to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of those who seek him’ (Heb. 11:6).”

    (Plantinga, Alvin. God, Freedom, and Evil. 1974. Reprint, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977. p. 2)

  36. Regarding the “if we take away religion, what will the little people do” issue, I am reminded of the old story, probably apocryphal, of the philosophy professor confronted by a student at the end of the semester. “Professor, you have systematically demolished all my beliefs, one after another. I don’t know what to think any more!” To this, the professor replied, “the labor of Hercules was to empty the Augeaan Stables. He was not required to refill it.”

    1. And I’ll bet your apocryphal professor had to roll that same boulder up that same hill, Sisyphus-style, semester after semester after semester.

  37. I think there is a useful point that comes from Illing’s article (that unfortunately he hasn’t explained well). We tend to discuss thinking in terms of facts leading to conclusions, in which facts are established and then conclusions drawn. Often within religion, conclusions are asserted, and then “facts” (assumptions) are appended to them, as “proof” of the assertions, disguising the need for the “facts” themselves to be proven.

    For example a young child may be told “You’re a special boy, because God loves you.” Rather than starting at the beginning, and pondering the existence of God and any possible nature, before going on to make conclusions, the parent asserts the boy is “special” and offers a loving God as proof with no thought of evidence for the claim.

    Or “The world will keep getting worse, because we’ve turned away from the timeless morals of the Word.” Again an assertion buttressed by an unquestioned assumption about the Bible. They are propositions made up to look like facts.

    People who grow up on a steady diet of this sort of reasoning have a very difficult time sorting out actual facts from assumptions. On today’s episode of the Atheist Experience broadcast there was a fellow from Ireland who was a perfect example of this, making statements about people and morals and “proving” them with statements about God or the Bible.

    The hosts had to slow down to a crawl to try and help him identify his “facts” as assertions and to help him realize why those assertions needed their own proof. I think many of the religious readers who lob clumsy arguments at Jerry do so for just this reason, believing they are sharing “facts” that will be convincing, while actually offering a large pile of assertions.

    It is also the source of questions like “Where do you get your morality?” or “Why don’t you take advantage of everyone?” as conclusions about morality have been tied to assumptions (“facts”) about religion, making it very difficult for them to think of one without the other unless the assumption is addressed explicitly.

    Recognizing this difference in reasoning could make discussion more profitable and less frustrating for us, as we help them separate their alloy of conclusion and assertions so that proper questioning and a search for evidence can occur.

    1. This is a very good comment. I grew up in the South, and have seen religious people employ exactly this type of reasoning many times.

  38. It is really pretty amazeballs is it not? We hear over and over how the New Atheists are smart…, but gosh darn it, they keep misunderstanding the actual nature of the vast bohemoth that is organized religion. All that pomp and ritualistic circumstance of the Catholic church? Just kidding. Vast, masses of devout Muslims praying toward Mecca? Well, maybe some of them did not get the memo but most really do it ardently, several times a day, because it gives them a spiritual center.

  39. I believe my own Messiah, Dr House said something apt about this; “if religious people were rational, there would be no religious people”. Amen!

  40. The only good thing about this sort of atheist dissing is that the religious love it, but I suspect it surreptitiously undermines their faith all the same. This article is so patronising and condescending that surely they must realise that they are being pandered to like children, which would hardly be necessary if there were any truth to this religion nonsense. There are all kinds of believers susceptible to all kinds of sign posts to reality, I expect this sort of thing works better than people realise.

  41. Oh, here we go again! Why must theologians, and some agnostic, circle around this specific drain? It is wet, dirty, not Enlightened, and fundamentally of no use:

    But there’s something missing in their critiques, something fundamental. For all their eloquence, their arguments are often banal.

    While facts can be banal, their nature is never banal as such. It tells us something about the world!

    But especially for this context, that religion is false, found out after millenniums of reign or influence, and that science can predict everything religion claimed it could, is a deep accomplishment.

    The rest is predictable, boring and long since irrelevant too:

    The New Atheists don’t have a satisfactory alternative for such people.

    I find this blindness of Illing appalling. Like Jerry I respond with that secular societies long had an useful alternative in parts of Enlightened Europe. And by the numbers a more functional one than religious societies to boot.

    But if religion is ineradicable, we have to …

    It isn’t.

    1. It strikes me that there might be a kernel of truth in Sean I.’s meanderings.

      Yes, there are secular, Enlightened alternatives to religion. And they’re clearly very satisfactory for people who realise that the god-shaped hole in their lives isn’t there or isn’t, in the end, god-shaped.

      But it seems that there are people who just won’t find such alternatives as psychologically or emotionally satisfying as religion. And not all atheists are naturalists; there are many who hold to some kind of supernaturalistic woo. Is the preference for “mystery” innate in these people? Is it something that we can even address by “encouraging them to care about the right things”?

      This might sound like a “Little People” argument, but given that their are professionally well-respected scientists such as Francis Collins who cleave to their faith, I don’t think that holds up to scrutiny.


      1. There does seem to be an innate human predilection for seeking mysteries. Everything from detective/adventure/science fiction to conspiracy theories to ancient astronauts/Velikovsky/Nostradamus/astrology and all the other forms of woo. People do seem to have a psychological need for something beyond their everyday lives.

  42. The only reason that Religion exists to my mind is the Believers fear of the finality of Death, and the hold the great monotheistic Religions have on their believers is the promise of an afterlife, thats a very seductive lure because how do you prove they haven’t? you can’t ,so Paradise is a great attraction say, to someone living in the Refugee Camps of Gaza et al and if becoming a Martyr is a golden ticket to Paradise so to speak then lets have it. Education is the key to getting people to see these false Gods for what they are, but it must be the right Education.

    1. I don’t think it’s so much a fear of death as it is a need to attach meaning to existence, and a frankly egotistical assumption that it all revolves around us. Thus, good or bad things befall us as a result of divine forces either rewarding or punishing us, and everything that happens is either an omen or a message from heaven, because the deity’s sole purpose is to look after us. It is hugely self-centered, really.

  43. Myron,

    That quote from Plantiga is interesting. But what I find most interesting about it is how little it affirms. That an Intelligent Mind, i.e. a “Logos” of some sort, exists? It seems to me that Rebecca Goldstein is basically going in that direction now as well (Plato at the Googleplex), even if this Logos is impersonal for her (and personal for Plantiga).

    I find it interesting that even more conservative religious persons do seem to be affirming less and less every day – looking to perhaps keep the kernal of what they believe while getting rid of so much more. For instance, I recently saw this re-posted on FB by an up and coming conservative theologian:

    “Consider the proposition, “the sun is on average 93,000,000 away from the earth.” Notice that the truth of the statement does not depend upon the one asserting it. Now consider the proposition, “God loves Molly deeply even though she is young, very sick, and dying a horrible death.” Notice that the truth now seems to depend upon the one declaring it so. Or do you not see the problem? Some fact of the matter falsifies the first, but not the second. Failure to specify what would count against the truth of the latter statement has traditionally been used to declare it meaningless. The idea is that a statement consistent with any way the world might be really makes no assertion, and a statement making no assertion is meaningless.

    But “the square root of two is irrational” also seems to be consistent with anyway the world might go. But surely it is not meaningless!

    So is God loving Molly despite her condition more like the square root of two being irrational or more like the sun being 93,000,000 miles from earth? If the former, is this a bad thing for meaning and truth?

    Mathematical propositions have truth values that neither depend upon the ones who entertain them nor are logically dependent from how the world is. Such statements are true in all possible worlds. So why precisely would anybody want the truth value of a theological statement to depend upon how the actual world is?

    (The deepest questions in theology often return to Lessing’s “broad ugly ditch.”)”

    See what I am saying? One might think that a good, conservative and theological answer to this last question (“So why precisely…”) would simply be this:

    “…because theological statements often can’t be separated from God’s work in history and because he has given us statements about Himself that can’t be separated from the past.” (I.e. that the theological statements don’t really depend on how the actual world is but depend on God simply choosing to tell us what He desires to tell us in accordance with the way the world was and is).

    But the person who posted this on FB is basically saying that theology statements should just be like those solid math statements – and should be untethered from actual historical fact and occurrences…. This is a God akin to Plato’s then, not the Christian God. There is much in common here with Spinoza’s god (who Goldstein seems to like as well).

    Again, I would submit that that’s a pretty flimsy argument for a purportedly conservative Christian theologian. One would think that there would be a more robust defense of other truth claims (incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ, miracles and prophecies in history pointing to Christ, etc) – other than basically saying that the real world doesn’t matter.

    So I am saying that Illing may not be that far off… even some conservative theologians of the religion which almost certainly has the greatest reason for saying their beliefs are true and related to what has really happened on earth seem to backtrack.

    He simply seems to be saying that the existential questions really are more prominent here and important here than we usually give credit for. I think that is right. Beliefs certainly drive behavior, but sometimes behavior has a big impact on what we believe as well – and as long as what they believe seems to go along with what they want to do – and seems plausible enough to them and the ones they know who they care to please – perhaps that is enough for some persons.


    1. I thinkI get your drift, but I’m not sure that specific math[s] example you cite is the best to illustrate your point. That √2 is irrational can be validated computationally, at least to a numerical precision that exceeds the ratio of the Planck length to the size of the universe.


      1. Ant,

        That quote is offered as an example from a conservative Christian theologian who is trying to say that we should be saying that Christian truth claims are analogous to mathematical truth claims. The point: Which leaves the importance of facts and history for Christianity where?


        1. Ah — right. I didn’t see that that was part of a quoted passage.

          For such a lengthy quotation you’d be better off using blockquote tags!

          Otherwise, for multi-paragraph quotations, good style is to use “ at the beginning of each para!


  44. Richard Dawkins on Twi**er, citing this page:

    No, I DON’T give a damn if people find religious belief comforting or “meaningful”. I care only whether it’s TRUE.


    PS. I notice PCC’s aversion to the full name of that social media site does extend to the link in the sidebar, at the top left of this page!

    1. Sounds bitter.
      Funny how he mentions Noam Chomsky, I recently got a closer look into his views, having only very peripherally been aware of his existence, and then I ended up seeing the ~2h discussion he and Krauss had in the Origins event, and his views were not stimulating, he was on purpose dreary without any sympathy for his listeners, and spouting typical stuff I expect from a cynical borderline conspiracy theorist liberal from the street (not a classical liberal).
      This uninteresting sight was made frightenigly creepy by the strange reverence given from the audience and Krauss, who feverishly clapped and cheered at every mundane proclamation made by Chomsky.
      This was the first time I actually felt like I was seeing a secular deification of a man, of mindless followers entranced by the mere presence of their idol.

  45. Po-Mo bullshit 101.
    If Illing thinks that meaning trumps fact, then he has no right to complain about climate change deniers. Truth isn’t important to them and having a big-ass V8 to vroom, vroom down the highway is way more meaningful than the fact that the polar ice-caps are melting.
    I simply fail to see how the denial of objective reality is a benefit in any situation outside of writing fiction.
    And saying that New Atheism doesn’t have a real alternative for demonstrably harmful, numinous belief is like saying that counseling doesn’t offer junkies a satisfactory alternative to heroin.

    1. Veering off topic a bit…but…to be fair, though a “big-ass V8” is often environmentally irresponsible, it’s not always.

      Several months ago I bought a 1964 1/2 Mustang with the original 260 cu. in. engine, the smallest V8 Ford put into Mustangs. I’m in the process of ordering a replacement, an high-performance 347 cu. in. V8 that’s as big and badass as can reasonably fit under the hood.

      Even though it’s a pre-pollution-controlled vehicle with a big-ass V8, it’s still going to get better mileage and produce less pollution per mile than my pollution-controlled 1986 VW Westfalia Campmobile with its puny 1.6L (100 cu. in) flat four — though, to be fair, it’s not going to be as good as my parents’s 1955 VW Bug, which, itself, gets about the same mileage as the Honda Accord they’re renting this week for their California vacation.

      The Mustang’s going to get better mileage than the Camper because it’s lighter and much more aerodynamic…and the Mustang is going to get a throttle body electronic fuel injection system that will automatically keep it perfectly tuned at all times, guaranteeing optimum fuel economy and minimum emissions.

      It will, in other words, out-perform any car you could buy from any dealer in the decade in which it was made, and it’ll get unprecedented fuel economy and clean tailpipe emissions for its era.

      But wait! There’s more!

      The plan is to get it on the road as a seriously upgraded gasoline-powered vehicle, work out any kinks…and then put in a front-wheel-drive front axle with an high-powered electric motor attached to its input and a few hundred pounds of batteries in the trunk, thereby making it a plugin hybrid. It’ll have an all-electric range of dozens of miles (depending on the battery specs, still to be determined), ideally as much as a Chevy Volt, possibly more, acceptably less. All-electric performance should be slightly superior to when the car rolled off the assembly line with its original V8. With both the electric motor and the V8 running, performance will be at least comparable to that of a Tesla in “insane mode”…and hybrid-mode fuel economy should be at least as good as if not better than any non-hybrid passenger car you can buy.

      All this, again, in a 50-year-old Mustang with the proverbial “big-ass V8.”

      I’ll be the first to note that what I’m doing is quite unusual…but not only is there no reason something similar couldn’t be done to most any other car with a big-ass V8, it’d do more for performance than any supercharger or nitrous or whatever else would for the big-ass V8.


      1. Sounds like a fun project and a sweet ride, but also to be fair, you have to add up all the environmental costs: building and transporting the engine parts, batteries etc. to you, the energy required to do the work, the disposal of the old parts and ultimately of the batteries, etc. etc. If we all did this, we would have more fuel-efficient vehicles, but there is still an environmental price.

        1. Those same objections refer to every object ever made — and especially all the other vehicles.

          In reality…this car took the first big environmental manufacturing hit half a century ago and is taking a much smaller one now. And there’s not much to the car aside from a bunch of metal…very little plastic in comparison with modern vehicles. When you consider that this is my second car in my lifetime, that it and my other car (that I still drive) are both older than I am, and how many other new vehicles other people have bought during a similar timespan and the multiple environmental hits affiliated with each…

          …well, the only way to tread more lightly than what I’m doing would be to not tread at all.

          Oh — and did I mention? My roof is covered with solar panels that produce about half again as much electricity as I use, enough that I’ll be able to charge the Mustang (and, perhaps, at some point, also the VW Camper; I’m considering a similar hybridization project for it) without using electricity from the utility.

          I’m not quite personally carbon-neutral, but I might as well be. On any graph that shows the average American’s carbon footprint, you won’t be able to tell mine from zero.

          And, yes. That will soon include a very fast Mustang with a big-ass V8.

          Not (only) to brag! I’m writing these words in the hope that it’ll inspire others to follow in my very light footprints.

          You, too, can have both the environmental responsibility and the conspicuous consumerism…just so long as you do it wisely.



      2. I understand your point, that’s really cool what you;re doing to that old Mustang,but, generally speaking the more fuel efficient vehicles are lighter in curb weight and have less displacement.
        Not to meander even further, but performance isn’t even the primary concern of people who drive gas guzzlers. I’ve pointed out to many friends of mine whom are also mustang enthusiasts, that the new eco-boost mustang has a turbo-charged 2.3L 4-cyl that produces 10 bhp more than the 4.6L v-8 that in the 2005 Mustang GT. The response, every single time, is, “yeah, but what’s it gonna sound like.” Hence my comment about vroom, vroom.

        1. If it helps…electric vehicles are in the process of eating alive the gasoline-powered ones. There are absolute records held by electric vehicles, and strong indications that it’s not that much longer before the only way to be competitive in racing is with an electric vehicle. That’s happening on the street, too…drivers of the Dodge Hellcat, one of the vroomiest of the “vroom, vroom” cars, know that they should think long and hard before challenging a Tesla to a drag race lest they wind up on YouTube as the butt of a joke; the V8 needs some expensive performance upgrades, such as special tires, to be able to beat the stock Tesla, and it takes a lot of skill and practice to be able to get maximum performance out of the V8 whereas anybody can get everything out of the Tesla that it can give.

          Once the major manufacturers start making electric versions of their “pony cars” (Mustang, Camaro, Challenger), that’ll basically be the public end of the gasoline era. The electric versions will stomp all over the gasoline ones, and noisy cars will come to be thought of as slow cars from a bygone era. Might as well grab the shovel to feed hay to the front end and scoop the poop that comes out the back. Great for nostalgia, but not if you want to be a winner.

          And it’ll happen sooner than you think….


          1. The top-of-the-range Tesla Model S in “Insane” mode can out accelerate even a McLaren F1.

            Range is the sticking point, so hybrids are the best bet for anyone who does long-distance driving. The Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV is next on our list …


          2. I’m hoping by the time I replace my winter car, there are better EV options available. If not, I will get a hybrid or plug in hybrid.

          3. The next generation of EVs should have 200+ mile ranges. Aside from range, the current crop are, best I know, superior to their gasoline trim-level equivalents in all instances.

            When you’re considering an EV, the range question isn’t so much, “How far can it go on a charge?” but, rather, “What’s the most miles I’d want to drive in a single day?” Especially if you have another car for longer trips or can rent for vacation road trips, most EVs on the market today have more than ample range for most (but certainly not all!) people.

            For example, if it’s to be a commuter car and work is 15-20 miles away, the Leaf’s range is luxurious overkill. But if work is 60 miles away, especially if your boss won’t let you plug in at work, it might not be such a good idea. And it’s likely not at all a good idea for real estate agents….


          4. The other question is how well can the batteries perform under harsh conditions. For me, it’s extreme cold – for you it would be extreme heat. The Leaf won’t cut it for me in winter as the batteries are severely limited by the cold…you wouldn’t know this from the ratings but if you read some of the real world use of them in Canada, you can see it. I’m hoping battery technology improves over the next few years and this is no longer an issue. I’ve seen a couple of people driving the Nissan Leaf and the BMW i3 but their commutes are probably much shorter than mine as I do mostly country road driving.

          5. Yes, that’s a good one.

            From what I’ve learned, most batteries don’t run as long in the cold but perk back up again when it warms up. They run great in the heat…but are easy to kill by over-charging at high temperatures or by being heated when fully charged.

            Both problems will become moot when high-capacity batteries become more common. Manufacturers won’t feel compelled to eke every last erg out of them, so they’ll specify “full” at some safe state of charge less than the theoretical maximum. And there’ll be enough extra capacity that the fact that they shrink in the cold won’t be as worrisome.


          6. Depends on what you mean by, “accelerate.”

            The Tesla will narrowly beat the McLaren at 0-60 MPH and in the first 60 feet. The McLaren will handily beat the Tesla at 0-120 MPH and in a quarter mile. Those’re all acceleration races.

            Range is less of a problem for people that most think. Save for road trips, damned few people drive as many miles in a day as you can on a Tesla’s charge, and Tesla’s got those superchargers that cover most road trips. Remember, you plug in the car when you get home and start the next day with a full “tank,” so every day starts with maximum range.

            Other manufacturers lag behind Tesla for range and fast charging…but it looks like 200+ mile range is about to become the industry standard in the next generation of electric vehicles, at which point, again, save for road trips, range is a moot question for almost everybody.

            But, yes…if road trips are your thing, or if you’re one of those few who adds triple digits to the odometer on a regular daily basis, a plugin hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) is the answer.

            …which is why that’s the plan for the Mustang….


          7. A plug-in hybrid is also good if most of your trips are in town but you occasionally drive further. With a plug-in, you can spend most of your time on your electric if you are driving in town.

          8. Sounds like fun!

            How’d the whole mid-race car swap thing go? And wasn’t there some sort of audience vote for a turbo button or the like…?


          9. I’m not sure about the turbo button thing, but the mid-race car swap wasn’t as odd as I thought it was going to be. There were times when it was obvious that the circuit is in it’s infancy, some of the liveries looked as though they were done w/ a can of krylon spray paint, but I think there is a lot of potential. I was just as excited and happy to be in the crowd as I have been at any of the races I’ve seen at Daytona.

  46. Illing displays what I have always called “The Expert Principle”: The belief that having expert knowledge of one subject (in Illing’s case, political philosophy) gives one automatic expert knowledge of any subject for which they have an opinion.
    Political “philosophers” should not think that political beliefs and religious beliefs are in any way related.
    Political philosophies may be held “religiously”, but the expediency principle by which many in government “flip-flop” in their beliefs on a regular basis, does not hold true for religious people. The religious people hold their beliefs DESPITE all arguments or attempts at persuasion. The prominent “religious leaders” who preach one thing while practicing another do not represent the majority of “the faithful”.

    As for finding a philosophical substitute for religion: Any substitute for religion will BE a religion (or become one once many people adopt it).
    We even see this in politics (which Illing should be well aware of): People who are religious about their political beliefs are unwilling to compromise for the greater good. “Better to deny a good result to *some* than to compromise what is *right*.”

  47. I myself do leave the religious to there beliefs, they can die with that lie it is not my concern. However if your going to shoot at us from behind (because that’s exactly where they are) they deserve a correction by way of parting shots as we move off into the sunset. In this case the Prof is the conveyor of our parting shot. He does it well and was polite to this naive young man. It is sad but some people just need to be left behind I include my 92 year old mother, she will just humph at me and that will be the end of it.
    If there is going to be a time when secular enlightenment values dominate our planet this conversation will be history but unfortunately there has to be a lot of dying off to happen and a lot of atheist to hold a steady course.

    1. I read it. Lot of platitudes. The TL;DR version is just ‘Be an atheist without being a dick about it’.

  48. On the point that religion is not treated as fiction I must agree. Many, especially of my persuasion and generation, take their morals and ethics from Star Wars and/or Star Trek and other such works. They memorize the scripts, debate intricate points of ambiguity endlessly, attend worldwide conventions where they emulate their heroes, and, if I may use the term, worship the actors portraying said characters–all while retaining full knowledge that these are entirely fictional. I think the consolations of philosophy, satire and irony, human solidarity, and even plain materialism are more than enough to fill the void in a world bereft of religion.

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