Atheist-bashing quote of the day

August 27, 2021 • 9:30 am

I’d never read the Wikipedia entry on “New Atheism” before, and so I just did. It’s pretty good, and clearly not heavily edited by theists. But the section on “Criticisms” of New Atheism reports a bale of the usual twaddle: New Atheism is a religion (I always read this as “See? You’re as bad as we are!); New Atheism is overly strident (one person calls it “mean-spirited” which it’s apparently okay to call Republicans but not religion); New Atheism provides a straw man by going after only “folk religion” rather than sophisticated theology (which isn’t that different from fundamentalism, but just gussied up with fancy words); and New Atheism is “scientistic” (that hit is from Massimo Pigliucci).

But one quote particularly struck me, and I’ll give the Wikipedia entry verbatim. If you don’t recognize the name, Sacks used to be Britain’s Chief Rabbi. Now he’s a fricking baron!

Jonathan Sacks, author of The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning, feels the new atheists miss the target by believing the “cure for bad religion is no religion, as opposed to good religion”. He wrote:

Atheism deserves better than the new atheists whose methodology consists of criticizing religion without understanding it, quoting texts without contexts, taking exceptions as the rule, confusing folk belief with reflective theology, abusing, mocking, ridiculing, caricaturing, and demonizing religious faith and holding it responsible for the great crimes against humanity. Religion has done harm; I acknowledge that. But the cure for bad religion is good religion, not no religion, just as the cure for bad science is good science, not the abandonment of science.

So there’s a tidy bundle of criticisms, but none of them hold water. Let me respond off the top of my head:

a. Many new atheists used to be religious, and thus have a deep understanding of not just practicing and believing, but also of theology and the Bible. You can see this knowledge displayed frequently on this website.

b. As for our supposedly pitiful knowledge of religion, let me refer you to a Pew study of two years ago, which revealed that, overall, Jews, atheists, and agnostics showed a better knowledge of religion than did adherents to more traditional faiths, and also beat the other “nones”: those who believe in “nothing in particular”. Atheists and agnostics were also on par with Christians in understanding Christianity, and much better at understanding “other world religions”.  At the very least, you can say that atheists and agnostics are at the top of Americans in their knowledge of religion. (You can find the full pdf of the study here.)

I’ll throw this in as lagniappe, which shows that atheists and agnostics know a lot more than others about the relationship of church and state in America:

By the way, you can take the 15-question religious knowledge test that they asked here. I got a perfect score! You should take it and report your score below. (It’s an easy quiz.)

But I digress (it happens when I’m looking up references). Back to Rabbi Sacks’s criticisms:

c.  Re New Atheists: “abusing, mocking, ridiculing, caricaturing, and demonizing religious faith and holding it responsible for the great crimes against humanity.” Well, mockery, satire, and ridicule have been staple tools of criticism for years; they’re not just abusive, but, like Jesus and Mo, they are ways to reveal hypocrisy and craziness of religion and other ideologies. Mencken was particularly good at this. And as for holding religion responsible for great crimes against humanity, that’s simply true, and we saw it enacted again yesterday. Of course nobody claims that all the great crimes of humanity come from religion, though many come from tribalism, but I still can’t think of any great crime of humanity motivated by the desire to promulgate atheism. You can argue that the Soviets killed theists and downgraded religion, but I’d respond that that was done more to eliminate a competitor to the religion of Communism than to promote atheism.

Here’s a relevant meme from Barry:

d. This statement is particularly repugnant: “But the cure for bad religion is good religion, not no religion, just as the cure for bad science is good science, not the abandonment of science.” This comes from Sacks’s unevidenced belief that “good religion” (one of them is surely his) creates better societies than does atheism. That’s wrong. Scandinavia, for example, is pretty much a group of atheistic countries, and they are not palpably worse than religious ones, even ones adhering to “good religion”.  (I’d argue that they’re among the most moral and caring of the world’s societies.) The thing is, we’re already doing good science, and don’t need to proselytize scientists to do good science to drive out the bad stuff. (Further, “bad science’ is usually seen as “lame or incompetent science” not “harmful science”.)  Sack’s statement is analogous to saying “the cure for bad delusion is good delusion, not the abandonment of delusion.”

You’re on shaky ground these days if you try to maintain that society absolutely requires some form of religion to give people hope and communality  as a form of social glue. All I have to do is point at Denmark, Sweden, and Iceland and ask, “Well, what have they replaced religion with?”

71 thoughts on “Atheist-bashing quote of the day

  1. I suggest forwarding this blog post directly to Baron Sacks or Lord Sacks or however ‘honorary’ Peers of the Realm title themselves. He shouldn’t be allowed to get away with writing such tripe without being made aware that there are plenty of people out there who see this kind of pathetic apologetics for what it is: the distortion and contortion that inevitably accompanies efforts to deny the hard truth.

    1. Ooops…. a little late for that, it seems. I think I registered his death at the time, but it just didn’t sink in.

      Maybe the Wiki entry on the New Atheism need to be augmented a bit? Often, when some philosopher’s entry includes a discussion of criticism aimed at his/her ideas, there’s also a summary of (or at least a pointer to) the entry subject’s rebuttal or rejoinder to that criticism….

  2. I answered all 15 questions correctly, and I am an atheist. The image was broken on one of the questions, but I chose the correct answer anyway (because I knew the answer).

  3. I missed 2 questions. When does the Jewish sabbath start, and which Christian sect(s) believe salvation comes through faith alone (I thought both did).

    The good Rabbi sounds exactly like someone who knows they have no valid arguments and isn’t ready to accept that. He stoops pretty low to impugn the character of New Atheists. Aren’t religious leaders supposed to provide an example of high ethics? He sounds more like a politician.

    1. That sola fide and sola scriptura stuff is for the Proddies; Catholics are expected to earn their heavenly reward through good works — and a sincere Act of Contrition before the Grim Reaper comes a-calling.

      1. I’m pretty sure I knew that at one time, but those brain cells must have died. So I was relying on my personal experiences with Catholics, and it sure seems like plenty of them must believe that all you have to do, no matter the sin(s), is ask for forgiveness before you draw your last breath and the Pearly Gates will open for you.

        1. I’m sure it would come as a surprise to the nuns and priests of my old parish, but I still remember a thing or two from before they ran me out of the altar boys (just because some of the older boys had put me up to boosting a bit of sacramental wine for their imbibing. I got it out of the sacristy before the priest said any mumbo-jumbo turning into the blood of Christ, so, way I saw it, it was a venial sin at worst. I’m pretty sure what pissed ’em off was I wouldn’t give up any names. Catholic doctrine is one thing, but the neighborhood code against snitching was sacrosanct. 🙂 )

          1. Actually your “ran me out of the altar boys” reminded me that St. Charles College, Sudbury, Basilian priests, used to hold a day or two of more-or-less forced so-called retreat when I was there for last two years secondary education.

            But it was easy to discern that truly it was potential priesthood recruitment behind it.

            When we had individual ‘counselling’ on that, one of my life’s subsequently proudest moments was when the Reverend Whoever interviewed me on becoming a priest. All he said, in a friendly but serious way, was something like “We all realize you’re a hopeless case”, so it was a nice short interview.

          2. After my last day of catholic school, I rode my bike eight miles from our new house, so I could spray paint “F*** All Nuns” on the side of the school/ I was caught red handed by my father, who almost tipped the 66 Mustang over racing around the corner. never did find out who snitched on me

  4. … Sacks used to be Britain’s Chief Rabbi. Now he’s a fricking baron!

    Wow, a cleric and a royal — the synergy of the loathsome and the abhorrent.

      1. I think you’re thinking of Voltaire’s contemporary and philosophical confrère Denis Diderot, Jez, though I wholeheartedly agree.

        1. My favourite quote about Voltaire:

          There’s a Bible on that shelf there. But I keep it next to Voltaire – poison and antidote.

          Bertrand Russell (in the posthumous Kenneth Harris Talking To: Bertrand Russell (1971)

          1. This depends on having ORDERED pairs: (bible, Voltaire)–>(poison, antidote), so then you know which is the poison, and which the antidote.

            Not just 2-element sets.

            But Russell prefers elegant and clear enough English, over my schoolmarm fussiness!

    1. No, not a royal, a noble. Life peers are the only kind we create these days, and they make the vast majority of peers who sit in the House of Lords. The title cannot be inherited, and it is a reward for the great and the good ie those who make sufficient donations to a political party. It is not obligatory for the Chief Rabbi to get a peerage, but it has been the usual way of things in recent years. Others are automatically ennobled such as archbishops and Lords Chief Justices of the High Court. Apart from them, the life peers function exactly like Canadian senators; appointed for life and can sit in the second chamber.
      You might like to watch some of Lord Sacks’ many videos on YouTube, as he was the very personification of the stereotypical kindly, wise rabbi (even if a deft and deadly politician in the rabbinical court), and if we atheists consider ourselves to be in the right, we might as well be gracious winners and not rub the losers’ noses too hard in the dust.

  5. Denmark, Sweden, and Iceland don’t need religion to unify them or get them to be good to one another as they are ethnically and racially homogeneous. There is this more natural trust and social cohesion. Sacks may be looking for an alternative form of solidarity that does not rely on that.

    1. To be able to do that after death is truly an accomplishment. Presumably it would never increase our already overburdened population.

      Well I guess Islam has that, but I thought their 80 virgins were maybe sex dolls.

      I better shut up—getting over the limit! Pretty feeble joke anyway.

  6. Do we get a cookie if we get all 15 right? Regarding religious literacy, I shall report what I found to be a very amusing moment with my sister in law.

    Now, my parents are very staunch non-denominational evangelicals. What does that mean? They church shop, and if there isn’t one suited to their liking they start one. We attended Baptist, Pentecostal, AoG, Four Square and many others. So all of us kids have a pretty robust understanding of the various protestant sects.
    Little brother finished growing up in North Carolina, where my dad worked for the odious Franklin Graham. He then went to a Christian university in Texas, and now lives in the south. His wife is from Texas, and had mentioned how much their church community meant to her.
    I asked her what flavour her church was. She blinked at me, and said, “Christian?”. And I said something like, “Oh, yes I know, but which flavour?” and she looked even more confused and said, “Christian?”. Little brother tried to save the moment, but to me, that is how I think most culturally Christian folks are in the US. They don’t even know their own faith tradition.

  7. Same old, same old. Rather than get rid of the poison, what we *really* need to do is cure it with a better poison. Lazy reasoning, unfortunately promulgated by a prominent person whom people listen to.

  8. “You can argue that the Soviets killed theists and downgraded religion, but I’d respond that that was done more to eliminate a competitor to the religion of Communism than to promote atheism.”

    I was in elementary school when the whole “Godless Communism” thing was being cranked up to full volume. Putting “In God We Trust” on the money, adding “under God” to the pledge, the whole nine yards.

    I thought the whole thing was really stupid. Even by age nine, I couldn’t see any difference at all between communism and religion.

    Communism and religion, and indeed ALL authoritarian systems, spring from an identical premise, which is, “I know what’s better for you than you do”.


    PS: I got 15 on the quiz.

    1. As the Hitch was wont to point out, ol’ Joe Stalin was a former Russian Orthodox seminarian. He’d’ve been a damfool not to put that training to use in developing his cult of personality.

  9. What society needs is killing authority, a sanctioned rationale for killing people. Obviously, if one person kills another, it is murder. However, when one person executes another person, or kills someone in their capacity as a soldier in a war consistent with rules of engagement, it is not murder.

    As a person X, X cannot claim any higher status than a person Y, such that they would justify killing Y (except self defense where Y initiates the threat on X’s life). Only if X is sanctioned by something higher (say a god or an ideal) could killing Y be justified, and, of course, that god or ideal is related to a cult or “culture”, so it implies membership in a kind of social structure, and some kind of role in that structure related to enforcement of social norms, not just selfish or brutal acts of an individual.

    In the old days, it was necessary to kill in the name of God. In parts of the world, it still is. However, these days, it is perfectly acceptable to kill in the name of the People, or in the name of the Communist Revolution, or in the name of Liberal Democracy and Human Rights. From this perspective, bombing wedding parties in Afghanistan in the name of Liberal Democracy and Human Rights is no different from beheading apostates, they are both religiously sanctioned acts of violence.

    Secular ideologies are often called “quasi-religious” precisely in connection with their relationship to bloodshed. Communism and Nazism are referred to as “quasi-religious,” and this has everything to do with the large body counts of these ideologies. It is clear that you cannot justify killing unless you believe that you are acting in accordance with something higher than yourself, which would be the best definition of what a god is, an entity/ideal that is higher in value than human life itself. Hence the connection between religion and sacrifice. Atheists say that they don’t believe in God or gods, but there were plenty of atheists ready to kill or be killed in connection with the Communist cause, so they clearly believed in something, whether they want to call it History or God. Obviously, in a world of organized blood cults in conflict asserting territorial claims over every inch of the planet, your choice is either to join, submit, or start your own. I can no less believe in gods than I could deny the existence of insect hives, although from the cosmic perspective, can’t find any greater ultimate value in human blood cults with their gods than I can in hives of army ants. In this sense, I would say I am religious without being spiritual.

    Christianity has long since abandoned claims to killing authority since the 16th Century or so, which now rests with the State. [Catholicism was always more ambivalent than Protestantism, as well their close connection to the Old Regime in Europe, leading to a lot of the anti-Catholic sentiment in the 19th and early 20th Centuries.] Most other world religions have not, so Christians may make better subjects or citizens for tax farming purposes, but you could argue Christianity is no longer actually a religion, its more of a form of identitarianism. In the same sense, religions are actually dangerous from the standpoint of States, because they tend to subvert the capacity of state’s to maintain a monopoly of violence, unless they are controlled by the State. It is not clear, from the standpoint of a state that real religion is desirable because it creates a security risk if not managed, hence the source of a lot of religious persecutions.

    Moving on, Christianity in the US mostly functions as a basis for social identity. Atheists may know more about Christianity than a lot of Christians, but its not about knowledge, its about belonging to a group. Generally speaking, if you feel like you belong to the Remnant of the Righteous, probably the less you know about their history, the less qualms you will have. Its pretty clear that you don’t need religion for states or non-state actors to engage in killing (which they perceive as justified), and you don’t need religion for a sense of group belonging capable of committing collective violence (Antifa and Proud Boys can get the job done). However, surrogate groups cannot escape being religious in the above sense, members are true believers, often risking their own lives, in order to carry acts of collective violence.

    Note that organizations like gangs engage in collective violence, that is to say they are capable of collective violence, but they lack legitimacy and don’t make claims to legitimacy. In contrast, Islamic terrorists engage in violence and claim legitimacy, which is what makes it religious and distinguishable from say the Mexican Cartels. Criminal syndicates engage in collective violence that is neither legal nor legitimate. Non-state organizations engage in collective violence that they claim is legitimate, and while it may be illegal, states are sometime unwilling to prosecute (for example, Klan murders in the American South). States engage in violence that they consider to be both legal and legitimate, but can be subject to subversion by non-state actors (often foreign-funded) that claim the State is not legitimate.

  10. Atheist, 13 of 15. I botched the beginning of the sabbath (although I wavered 50:50 in that and chose the wrong half) and one of buddhisms noble truths.

  11. TYPO alert: “You can argue that the Soviets killed atheists and downgraded religion…” I think you mean that the Soviets killed theists.

    As for Rabbi Sacks, I am disappointed that his peerage did not include an appointment as a Bishop in the Church of England. Had he been both the
    Chief Rabbi and Bishop of St..Johns Wood, I could have enrolled him as an honorary member of my own organization, Kosher Goyim.


  12. “But the cure for bad religion is good religion, not no religion, just as the cure for bad science is good science, not the abandonment of science.”

    This would be a fine statement if, instead of “religion,” Sacks had said “morality” or “society” or “philosophy” or “politics” or anything else which involved finding the best way to live — as opposed to finding the true God who will then direct us to the right way to live.

    Good science involves winnowing out errors. How do we determine who’s wrong about the supernatural? Surely not Sacks, who seems so concerned that he not look like a simplistic “fundamentalist” that his fundamentals are probably sophisticated enough to lack clarity, and charitable enough to want to throw out concepts like “wrong.”

    1. Quite so. You can make a decent argument that feelings of spirituality or of a spiritual nature can be rewarding and even enlightening (lower case ‘e’). But some achieve those beneficial feelings through meditation, or contemplation of nature, or even psychodelic drugs. God(s) are not necessary for these positive experiences. Religion (someone doing the interceding or interpretation on your behalf) is just an industry generating status and employment – even if some of those purveyors are well intentioned.

      I’m pretty much a naturalist, a materialist, and don’t expect there to be anything supernatural. I am quite comfortable with the idea that people can have ‘spiritual’ experiences without the supernatural, and that perhaps one day science will explain them. How divine does a tab of LSD or a magic mushroom have to be?

  13. I did score 15 of 15. Atheist too.
    Just over a week ago, I had a Pentecostal stop me while I was on a walk. He tried to convert me. He didn’t know the Gospel authors are unknown. He was certain they were Matt, Mark, Luke, and John. Sigh. I actually talked to him for a while, and he was loaded with falsehoods.

    1. I once had a similar conversation with a traveling Jehovah’s Witness. I talked to her so long and earnestly that she never came back!

  14. “But the cure for bad religion is good religion, not no religion, just as the cure for bad science is good science, not the abandonment of science.”

    Well, yeah. Just like the cure for bad astrology is good astrology, not an abandonment of astrology. Or divination or alchemy or …

    1. And what defines good religion? I expect he’d say religion that does not instruct one to kill members of different religions, or to disown LGBTQ persons. But all growth in those directions are more a matter of people gaining a worldly and less insular perspective, and allowing humanism and all manner of secular values to infiltrate their faith. In short, good religion is more dilute religion.

  15. A measly 14 … was not familiar with what purgatory was. And I admit had to guess at a couple of other answers.

    As Sacks went, I thought he was not bad as apologists go.
    Are all religions and takes on religion equally harmful? Which would you prefer as a neighbour, a fundamentalist (Muslim, Christian) or something a little more Sophisticated? I would have in common way more with say Karen Armstrong than say Ken Ham. And I think talking with Jonathon Sacks would have been an interesting experience.

    Having said that, talking with Ham could be very educational for me.

  16. “But the cure for bad religion is good religion, not no religion, just as the cure for bad science is good science, not the abandonment of science”.

    Obvious “False equivalence” fallacy. There is absolutely *nothing* in religion that mimics science. Religions do not create testable hypotheses and then seek to disprove them. Instead they start by claiming their irrational beliefs are true and not to be questioned. It would be *far* closer to the truth for the idiot religionist to have stated: “But the cure for bad superstition is good superstition, not no superstition.” As Asimov pointed out long ago, once religion is shown to be unquestionably wrong its adherents simply pretend that they were always at that new correct understanding all along.

  17. 15, yay.

    Sacks used to be the Jewish contributor to BBC’s radio 4 Thought for the Day. He was dry and humourless, especially compared to his predecessor Rabbi Lionel Blue, who at least had a good stock of Jewish jokes- and also came out as gay shortly before his death.

    Also, being a baron doesn’t make you royal, it just makes you a baron.

  18. Atheist 15/15
    A similar test a few years ago elicited a comment from a nominally catholic friend that it was more a measure of education and general knowledge than of religiosity. A lot of the most fervent bible bashers seem to lack even a basic education and experience of the world outside of their own cult.

  19. Got 14 out of 15. I totally forgot the Sabbath begins on Friday and realized my mistake as soon as I punched the little button. 🙁

  20. 13/15
    Atheist around age 15 to 20, too interested in girls, beer, etc. to think it out much for awhile. But on my own, away from parents more than most, not their ‘fault’, likely good for me.
    Stuck with Basilian priest teachers for 3 years of secondary education.
    Brought up Catholic, much negative ranting, etc. re Protestants, made many questions easy.
    1/ Missed the word ‘beginning’ of Jewish sabbath, rushing through.
    2/ Is it really the case that Protestantism in the modern US thinks you go to heaven as long as you have faith, no matter how evil is your behaviour right till the end? I doubt it, but may be wrong. I said neither.

    None were lucky guesses if you’ll believe me. But I’m probably in the bottom of the class of thoughtful atheists.

    However, sometimes you can do logic e.g. even Jewish sabbath I only said Saturday by remembering Sunday and Friday for R.C. and Islam, plus that the three differed, and none Thursday. But wrong there anyway as above. But right about Abraham, only because I remembered the rote: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in that order, Isaac was no option, and sons of Jacob were not biblical celebrities.

    As well as purgatory, we also had limbo for new borns or something. Maybe that was peculiar to the Irish brand of Catholicism, which English Canuck Catholicism amounted to before there was much Italian immigration, or Polish, Lithuanian, etc. I cannot be bothered to look that up.

    Generally this had far more to do with memory than to do with justifications supposedly for the truth of the biggest, most dangerous heap of bullshit the human species is unfortunately subjected to.

  21. 13/15
    Failed on
    Which of the following is one of Buddhism’s four “noble truths”?
    On which day of the week does the Jewish Sabbath begin?

  22. Pretty much everyone here who didn’t get a perfect score missed the Jewish Sabbath question. Here’s my question: Did you guess Saturday? I did.

    1. Yep, thought it was Saturday.
      Also, I had no idea that Buddhism was so obsessed with suffering.
      The 4 truths:
      the truth of suffering, the truth of the cause of suffering, the truth of the end of suffering, and the truth of the path that leads to the end of suffering.

      I was under the impression I was some kind of secular Buddhist. I had no idea about the suffering obsession. Lighten up.

  23. Sacks used to be Britain’s Chief Rabbi. Now he’s a fricking baron!

    He died last November.

    I see the Wikipedia entry mentions he was one of the “Lords Temporal”. This is to distinguish him and most of the other members of the HoL from the Lords Spiritual who sit in the House of Lords by virtue of being bishops in the Church of England. Yes, it’s somewhat bizarre.

    14 out of 15. Got the Kabalah mixed up with the Kaaba. Also took an educated guess on the Buddhism question and didn’t fall into the Sabbath trap.

  24. Interesting perspective. As a pastor, I would often interact with my atheist and agnostic friends at the Secular Student Alliance Club. They thought more deeply of religion and faith than most of those who were professing Christians in my Church. Thanks for sharing.

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