Templeton funds more atheist-bashing

September 27, 2018 • 10:30 am

Lois Lee, a religious scholar whom I’ve written about before, is the lead investigator on a big Templeton grant, or, as The Conversation describes her in erroneous spelling, “Principle [sic] Investigator on the Understanding Unbelief programme.” Templeton gave her and her co-PI Stephen Bullivant (also a religious scholar) nearly three million dollars to study the nature and variety of “unbelief”. While the grant summary pretends that this is a dispassionate inquiry into the origin and nature of atheism, I wrote at the time that giving the grant to these two was “like asking creationists to direct a sociological study of why so many scientists accept evolution.”

And indeed, it’s clear from Lee and Bullivant’s writings that their study is tendentious. It’s not a rational inquiry into atheism, but rather an attack on atheism, and, in Lee’s latest article in The Conversation, “Why atheists are not as rational as some like to think” (click on screenshot), she positively celebrates irrationality. Note that the obligatory picture of the Satan Atheist accompanies the article:

I’m not sure I want to dissect this egregious and lightweight piece; it’s best summed up by saying its thesis is this: “Atheists are irrational, just like religious people.” In other words, “You’re just as bad as we believers are”: not a very persuasive argument.  In fact, Lee adduces no strong evidence that atheists are just as irrational as believers. Rather, she uses a series of arguments, many of which rest on opinion rather than data, e.g. “some atheists are irrational” or “many atheists don’t arrive at their nonbelief through reason or science, but because they’re indoctrinated by their parents.

Who would deny this? Certainly not all atheists arrive at their stand by reason, but many of them have enough rationality to think “there’s no evidence for religious beliefs”, which is all the rationality you need to reject religion. You don’t have to be rational in every aspect of your life. Further, Lee fails to mention that religious belief is completely irrational—in the sense that there’s no evidence supporting the existence of Gods or the factual (and conflicting) assertions of the world’s many religions.

So yes, perhaps to some people “atheists aren’t as rational as you’d like to think”, but so what? What matters is not whether atheists are 100% rational, or whether some of them become atheists for reasons other than reason, but whether the claims of religion are true. That crucial issue isn’t discussed. Lee’s purpose here is simply to criticize atheists rather than to examine whether atheism can be seen as it truly is: a rational response to a lack of evidence for gods.

Here are a few of her assertions that I’ve summarized in bold (Lee’s direct quotes are indented):

Atheism is a sad way to live. Here Lee begins her celebration of irrationality, which I take to be osculation of religion (I’m betting she’s religious):

When you ask atheists about why they became atheists (as I do for a living), they often point to eureka moments when they came to realise that religion simply doesn’t make sense.

Oddly perhaps, many religious people actually take a similar view of atheism. This comes out when theologians and other theists speculate that it must be rather sad to be an atheist, lacking (as they think atheists do) so much of the philosophical, ethical, mythical and aesthetic fulfilments that religious people have access to – stuck in a cold world of rationality only.

That I don’t get. Why does atheism “not make sense” because it’s “sad”? And of course many of us nonbelievers are not sad at all. We fall in love, enjoy friendship, beauty, books, art, and food. What we don’t do is proselytize or believe in divine fairy tales. What we have here from Lee is a knowingly distorted indictment of nonbelief.

Many atheists arrive at nonbelief for non-rational reasons.

Even atheist beliefs themselves have much less to do with rational inquiry than atheists often think. We now know, for example, that nonreligious children of religious parents cast off their beliefs for reasons that have little to do with intellectual reasoning. The latest cognitive research shows that the decisive factor is learning from what parents do rather than from what they say. So if a parent says that they’re Christian, but they’ve fallen out of the habit of doing the things they say should matter – such as praying or going to church – their kids simply don’t buy the idea that religion makes sense.

This is perfectly rational in a sense, but children aren’t processing this on a cognitive level. Throughout our evolutionary history, humans have often lacked the time to scrutinise and weigh up the evidence – needing to make quick assessments. That means that children to some extent just absorb the crucial information, which in this case is that religious belief doesn’t appear to matter in the way that parents are saying it does.

. . . Some parents take the view that their children should choose their beliefs for themselves, but what they then do is pass on certain ways of thinking about religion, like the idea that religion is a matter of choice rather than divine truth. It’s not surprising that almost all of these children – 95% – end up “choosing” to be atheist.

My response is “so what?” Many atheists give up religious beliefs as adults, not children.  And again, the main issue for me is whether it IS rational to be an atheist, not how you come to be an atheist. Of course not everyone gives up or rejects faith for the same reason.

Atheists purport to think scientifically and love science, but not all of us are that way.

But are atheists more likely to embrace science than religious people? Many belief systems can be more or less closely integrated with scientific knowledge. Some belief systems are openly critical of science, and think it has far too much sway over our lives, while other belief systems are hugely concerned to learn about and respond to scientific knowledge.

But this difference doesn’t neatly map onto whether you are religious or not. Some Protestant traditions, for example, see rationality or scientific thinking as central to their religious lives. Meanwhile, a new generation of postmodern atheists highlight the limits of human knowledge, and see scientific knowledge as hugely limited, problematic even, especially when it comes to existential and ethical questions. These atheists might, for example, follow thinkers like Charles Baudelaire in the view that true knowledge is only found in artistic expression.

Yes, of course not all atheists are completely rational in everything they do. But some are more rational than believers, especially in the crucial area of embracing superstitions. And any believers who see “scientific thinking as central to their religious lives” are, I submit, deluding themselves.

I’ll give one more quote and pass on:

Clearly, the idea that being atheist is down to rationality alone is starting to look distinctly irrational. But the good news for all concerned is that rationality is overrated. Human ingenuity rests on a lot more than rational thinking. As Haidt says of “the righteous mind”, we are actually “designed to ‘do’ morality” – even if we’re not doing it in the rational way we think we are. The ability to make quick decisions, follow our passions and act on intuition are also important human qualities and crucial for our success.

It is helpful that we have invented something that, unlike our minds, is rational and evidence-based: science. When we need proper evidence, science can very often provide it – as long as the topic is testable. Importantly, the scientific evidence does not tend to support the view that atheism is about rational thought and theism is about existential fulfilments. The truth is that humans are not like science – none of us get by without irrational action, nor without sources of existential meaning and comfort. Fortunately, though, nobody has to.

Check out that link. It doesn’t really show that “rationality is overrated” but that “gut instincts can be correct and we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss them.” But “gut instincts” can also be the result of rationality, whether conscious but not pondered at length, or unconscious but either the result of evolved ways of thinking or unconscious ways of thinking that have been adaptive in the past.

In the end, I’d like to see Lee justify the rationality of theism. Is there any scientific evidence for gods or the divine? If so, where is it?  Templeton, of course, doesn’t care: their purpose here is to cast aspersions on nonbelievers.

Lee’s article is accompanied by a “disclosure statement”:h/t: Michael

70 thoughts on “Templeton funds more atheist-bashing

  1. “Why theists are not as rational as some like to think”

    So, people who don’t believe in Zeus, Thor, Ra, Odin, etc., are “not as rational as some like to think?”

    1. I personally know at least two atheists who use homeopathy and acupuncture So yeah, some of us are not as rational as we’d like to think.

        1. Exactly, paraphrasing Dawkins (about being alive or dead): however many ways there may be of being rational, it is certain there are vastly more ways of being irrational.

  2. “Understanding unbelief” ?

    What’s to understand?

    Isn’t this a bit like investigating the chemistry of a vacuum, or the biology of distilled water?


    1. Actually, that’s a surprisingly badly chosen example. The Casimir effect shows that a vacuum is highly active and is a good distinguisher between classical and quantum physics. So studying a vacuum is really quite important.

      1. “So studying a vacuum is really quite important.”

        You apparently missed the important fact that infiniteimprobabilit specifically stated “the *chemistry* of a vacuum”, which is, as was very clearly implied, completely nonsensical. Should we also investigate the temperature of false facts?

  3. It’s so simple, and you don’t have be a very rational person to see it. If the god-believers want us to believe their claim, they have to back it up with evidence. It would help if the evidence were in proportion to the claim, and their claim of an omni-max-yet-undetectable god is rather a large one.

    We’re waiting.

    Meanwhile, two pithy recent quotes by thoughtful atheists:

    Matt Dillahunty, The Atheist Experience TV show, June 17, 2018:

    Why is it that we have to sit here for years, answering the same questions and having the same arguments, and all we’re really saying is, please present an evidence-supported argument for your claim? Cut out the fallacies, construct a valid syllogism, put sound evidence in the propositions, and I have to accept the conclusion. I have to! It’s unavoidable! Now if I can figure this out, why can’t your god?

    Adam Lee, Daylight Atheism blog, September 10, 2018:

    To say that God’s existence is beyond scientific inquiry is the same as saying that God’s existence makes no difference to the world.

  4. In response to the claim that “rationality is overrated,” I’d say on the contrary that rationality is the single most important moral virtue that a person can have.

    As an example, consider this webpage we’re using to communicate. A webpage is built by a developer who makes a series of conscious, rational choices aimed at a functional and aesthetically pleasing product. He or she has to arrive at the correct answer to hundreds of specific technical issues in order to do this. The only way to accomplish this is through the conscientious use of reason, which rests on the developer’s decision to focus and use his or her mind.

    Every human action, from the simplicity of planning a trip to the grocery store to the complexity of writing the code for the Google search engine, depends on rationality. To say that rationality is overrated is to say that success, life, and human happiness are overrated. That, I submit, is no less than death worship.

  5. Atheists will always be one step ahead of believers in rationality: They have already left faith in a god/deity behind them.

  6. Unbelief is on the rise: hence the drive behind Templeton’s investment. To an extent, this is a good-news’ story.

    Let them dump $30 million into it, further highlighting their fear of the world waking up.

    1. Actually the opposite is true. Organized religion is growing robustly in Latin America, Africa and Asia and is only declining significantly in rapidly aging areas such as Western Europe.

  7. Does anyone else find it interesting that much of the language used by anti-atheist organizations and religious figures is similar to the language used by regressives who bash the “New Atheists”? There are so many similarities, and the only difference is in the details: the religious groups and figures bash them for not believing in the goddy stuff, and the regressives bash them for not believing in their politics.

    1. Classic example of what you refer to is the British literateur Terry Eagleton, who has published elaborate denunciations of Dawkins, Hitchens (whom he refers to as “Ditchkins”) and other atheist writers. In Mr. Eagleton’s case, the line connecting Right and Left is dazzlingly clear: he himself claims to be a Catholic Marxist, thus presenting two regressive superstitions together.

      1. “he himself claims to be a Catholic Marxist”

        That is fucking fascinating. If we had the technology to see into people’s minds, I’d love to know what his looks like.

        1. Maybe not as contradictory as it sounds.

          Marxism is primarily a social position and only secondarily atheist, probably by historical circumstance as much as anything in that, in Marx’s time, the Establishment everywhere was propped up the the church.

          Catholicism is (obviously) religious, which over the centuries has acquired the trappings of political power structures. But many semi-lapsed Catholics still hang on to the religious part while discounting the Catholic hierarchy. They still identify as Catholics while only accepting maybe 50% of official doctrine.

          One could imagine that any Catholic priest in South America with a strong social conscience might be a ‘Catholic Marxist’.

          Not that I’m defending Mr Eagleton.


          1. You’re absolutely right. I didn’t think about that carefully at all. Marx may not have liked religion, but many Catholic teachings and interpretive philosophies are completely compatible with a Marxist worldview.

  8. Instead of all this shilly-shallying around the edges,why doesn’t the Templeton Foundation put its money where its mouth is, and fund a study to find the definitive answer to “Which religion is the *right* one?”

    1. I don’t think they’ve even funded an expedition to find Noah’s Ark. What kind of a research funding agency do they think they are?

    2. Templeton is like all the oil industry titans, or the cigarette companies, in that they aim at muddying the waters, sowing conflict and doubt, tempting people with money and recognition to play the “skeptic” or “contrarian” who denounces orthodox science for good sport and fame.

  9. Certainly not all atheists arrive at their stand by reason, but many of them have enough rationality to think “there’s no evidence for religious beliefs”, which is all the rationality you need to reject religion.

    Exactly so.
    You know, not all people who believe 1+1=2 are fully rational. And many of them learned 1+1=2 through indoctrination by their parents. And most of them turn out to be non-scientists! We can also add on to that that 1+1=2 people commit crimes at the same rate as others, and that they smoke as much as others, that they don’t (on average) earn any more than your average person, and that this knowledge of 1+1=2 doesn’t seem to lower their rate of depression or make them immune to nihilism! In fact, there doesn’t appear to be any psychological, sociological, or cultural benefit to believing 1+1=2 at all! The only thing it’s got going for it is it’s true. And really, what benefit is that in this day and age? [eye roll]

    This comes out when theologians and other theists speculate that it must be rather sad to be an atheist, lacking (as they think atheists do) so much of the philosophical, ethical, mythical and aesthetic fulfilments that religious people have access to…

    Bold is my emphasis. To extend Jerry’s analogy, this is like asking creationists to “speculate” on why mainstream scientists accept evolution. Hey know! To get a really independend, unbiased look at why Red Sox fans like the Red Sox, we should ask a bunch of die hard Yankess fans to speculate on what’s going on inside their heads! What a masterfully scientific approach!

    1. I can prove 1+1=3 so long as I’m allowed to redefine what “1” or “3” mean… it just doesn’t achieve anything to do so.

  10. When you ask atheists about why they became atheists (as I do for a living), they often point to eureka moments when they came to realise that religion simply doesn’t make sense.

    Oddly perhaps, many religious people actually take a similar view of atheism.

    Equivocation. Atheists are analyzing whether the claim makes sense (ie stands up to scrutiny.) From what I can tell by the description, religious people are having insights about themselves (ie whether being an atheist would make sense in light of the way they’d like the world to be.)

    Some parents think that their children should choose their beliefs for themselves, but what they then do is pass on certain ways of thinking about religion, like the idea that religion is a matter of choice rather than divine truth. It’s not surprising that almost all of these children – 95% – end up “choosing” to be atheist.

    Okay, this gives the whole damn show away. So if you consider that whether or not God exists is a rational proposition — a conclusion arrived at based on thinking about the evidence, the alternatives, and the probabilities — then OF COURSE you’ll be an atheist. But if you’re just indoctrinated from birth with OF COURSE God exists as a bland fact, then you’re more likely to believe.

    That’s basically how one distinguishes a rational belief from an unexamined assumption. For cryin out loud.

    The ability to make quick decisions, follow our passions and act on intuition are also important human qualities and crucial for our success.

    So that means it would be irrational to fail to make quick decisions, follow our passions, and act on intuitions if those are our goals.

    Anytime someone tries to defend something “irrational” as reasonable they overthrow their case. The trick though is that we need to use reason as a check and balance to sort out the good quick decisions, passions, and intuitions from the bad ones. Not even the authors of this study would unilaterally defend irrationality. You have to take each step apart.

    1. When theists demand a prioi respect for their belief in a secular environment, they are demanding that their belief is unassailable by logic and rational thought.

    2. Remember folks, “eureka moments” are horribly bad justification for holding a belief. Unless you’re Paul the Apostle, author of what is effectively the bulk of Christian theology.

  11. I am now working on several grant proposals to offer to the Templeton Foundation. One will look into the psychology behind the acceptance of the germ theory of infectious disease by physicians. Another will be research into why geneticists believe in the existence of DNA. A third will inquire into the roots of belief in physical laws by auto mechanics. How many millions should we apply for in each grant proposal?

    1. “A third will inquire into the roots of belief in physical laws by auto mechanics.”

      Auto mechanics don’t believe in physical laws. They believe in guesswork, voodoo, ‘hit it harder’ and, if all else fails, the workshop manual.

      [I hasten to add there are some very good auto mechanics out there too.]

  12. Three million bucks is a lot of dosh. So I assume Templeton will be keen to ensure that her “research” is published in the most rigorously peer-reviewed journals available, and that she will allow other researchers to scrutinise her raw data.

    Won’t they?

  13. If some asks me if I am an atheist I’ll not argue about it, because it is near enough true.

    But really I’m an apatheist. I don’t care whether or not god(s) exist, I don’t feel moved to worship or obey or deny, and I’ve seen no evidence that god(s) interact with the material world.

    How are the godstruck going to challenge my feelings or reason when I am indifferent?

    1. Of course, whether you care or not is irrelevant to the question of whether you believe or not. So, should someone ask if you’re an atheist, an argument really isn’t appropriate. The answer is really only “yes” or “no”.

      1. It’s a Jordan Peterson flourish. To answer the question (yes or no) is to accept belief as a valid binary question by the questioner.

        I don’t accept the question as valid – not unless we can spend several hours discussing what each of us mean by god, belief, and the implications. So mostly I don’t care.

        1. To deny that believing in deities (or not) is an invalid question is, frankly, a silly dodge. One might be uncomfortable answering it, for any number of reasons. But the question itself is pretty clear and actually does have an answer. It is no more difficult than answering “Do you believe in unicorns?” without discussing what each of us means by unicorn, belief, and implications.

          Cheap dodge, IMO.

          1. Adding another false binary choice makes the argument no more convincing.

            Take unicorns as a less controversial matter. Do unicorns exist? The answer is contextual.

            Yes, in dictionaries.
            Yes, in mythological stories.
            Possibly yes, as misdescribed rhinos.
            Overwhelmingly probably no, as real creatures (for certain values of ‘real’) in zoos or the wild.
            Yes, as heraldic devices.
            Probably no, as real creatures that used to exist, but are now extinct.
            Yes, in my head, when I dream after a late night snack.

            Am I a ‘unicornist’ or an ‘aunicornist’? I can’t tell what sort of unicorn you are thinking of, so the question, and answer, is not clear.

            FWIW I’ve come around to the Jordan Peterson view about belief in god. I think he makes a distinction in his own mind between what is ‘real’ and what is ‘relevant’ to people. Until you pick that apart a simple yes or no answer is misleading.

            1. If you really have trouble understanding the question when someone asks “Do you believe in unicorns?”, you are purposefully avoiding the question. That sort of obfuscatory response would make it impossible to prompt a response to anything.

              “Would you like eggs for breakfast?”… to which you respond with a bunch of verbiage about what eggs are, whether we’re talking about chickens or frogs, the age of eggs, and so forth. Your simply refusing to discuss normal matters with normal people using normal language. I repeat… a cheap dodge.

              Own your discomfort. You don’t want to answer, but the reason is not because the question isn’t direct enough.

              1. He doesn’t seem uncomfortable to me. He seems quite happy with his answer. He really doesn’t care.


              2. You seem oddly determined to demand an absolute answer to an ill-defined question.

                Rephrase the question as “Do you believe in the type of god(s) I’m thinking of at the moment?” and you will see why I think the question is ill-defined. I have no idea what god you are thinking of nor do I know how emotionally invested you are in the answer.

                Bertrand Russell said that he would describe himself as an atheist to ‘the working man’ but as an agnostic to other philosophers. Richard Dawkins does not claim to be an absolute atheist, but rather that god almost certainly doesn’t exist. Jordan Peterson’s response I have already mentioned. If my young granddaughter asks if Santa Claus exists I will almost certainly say ‘yes’ until I know her parents have told her differently. If you ask me if I believe in the Christian God (as set out in the Nicene Creed of 325 AD) I will tell you ‘no’.

                But is it worth my time and effort to worry about the existence of an ill-defined god that almost certainly doesn’t exist? No.

              3. I can’t speak for GB, but I’d be quite happy for you to give a “yes” or “no” answer. You can easily answer on your own terms, without worrying what your interlocutor means.

                1. “Yes, I do. [And this is the (kind of) god I believe in … ]”

                2. “No. I don’t. [For any (non-metaphorical) conception of “god” I can think of.]”

                I just don’t see why that’s hard … ?

                I’m a #2.

                I’m convince Dawkins doesn’t ¡believe! in any god, however uncertain he might be about the potential existence of such an entity.


              4. @Infinte… I disagree. When someone expends as many key-clicks as AC for the purpose of not answering a question, he/she cares. Far more energy has been spent avoiding a direct answer than pretty much any sort of “Yes/No” (with relevant modifiers) would take.

                A person who actually didn’t care wouldn’t take the time to compose paragraphs about refusing to answer such questions.

              5. @GBJames
                1. Calling Harper’s ‘don’t care’ a ‘cheap dodge’ was insulting IMO
                2. Considering the debates that have taken place including on this site over what ‘atheist’ means, insisting it can automatically be answered yes/no is incorrect
                3. Drawing him into a lengthy discussion then using that as proof that he ‘cares’ is disingenuous at least. He may care more about being misinterpreted/misrepresented than he does about gods.

                Not that I care…


              6. The rhetorical tactic is a cheap dodge. To point that out is not to insult a person, it is a comment on a argument.

            2. Reply to Ant.

              If you think you will get to qualify your simple yes/no answer, or at least have it reported properly, in today’s polarised debate environment then I hope you are not too upset when some Twitter mob hashtags you for something you were not given chance to explain.

    2. “I don’t care whether or not god(s) exist,”

      You should if it’s the god in question here because he’s going to fry your butt if you don’t believe. The truth is that you don’t.

      1. I’ve already explained several times my approach to questions of belief about god(s).

        I consider the belief in existence of god(s) to be small stuff, and I don’t sweat the small stuff. Why do you feel motivated to tell me that I believe in something else? I’m much more likely to know what my beliefs and attitudes are than you are.

        1. You sure seem to be sweating the small stuff as evidenced by your comments here.

          I’m not telling you what you believe(in), but it’s obvious from your comments what you DON’T believe.

  14. Re: ” Some Protestant traditions, for example, see rationality or scientific thinking as central to their religious lives.”

    The word “central” is misleading here, if you follow the link.

    What’s true is that in some forms of Protestantism, there is a sense that the world behaves in a coherent way because it comes from a Deity, and therefore understanding how it works is a kind of religious enterprise.

    But the link does not say that these Protestant traditions see scientific thinking as central to their religious lives, simply that it’s a fairly important part of it.

    Some elements of some theistic belief-systems are also fairly sad or pessimistic.

    For me, the question is whether there’s a difference between believing things on thin evidence if you know it’s thin, and admit you are guessing, as opposed to claiming there’s all kind of evidence for your views which is actually quite artificially manufactured.

  15. So many of these religious attacks on atheism assume, mostly without acknowledgement, that being religious is the default belief system for humans. They use language such as “arriving at their atheism” to reinforce this idea. Instead, atheism should be the default. If someone claims the world is supported by a turtle, it is on them to show us the turtle.

  16. In your section “Atheism is a Sad Way to Live” I think you are missing Lois Lee’s point. I think she is saying that (1) Believers in god are happier than non-believers (she doesn’t present any evidence for this) (2) Happiness is desirable (3) Thus the rational thing is to convince yourself that god exists, even if god doesn’t exist

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