A religion-addled reader writes in denigrating atheists

June 9, 2023 • 9:15 am

Yes, I get these emails quite frequently, but this one was so full of repressed anger that I had to post it. This morning’s emailer was one “Ian Coombe”, and though you can find that name all over the Internet as an author and “decision-making strategist,” I’m not sure this is that guy.  But I do think it’s his real name because his gmail address (not given) includes it. (While I don’t reveal real names of commenters here without permission, I don’t adhere to that for personal emails, especially if they’re aggressive and nasty.)

At any rate, Mr. Coombe’s email was headed “Lennox bashing,” which I suppose refers to my quarrels with John Lennox, including a post about his pathetic attempts to reconcile science with his Christianity. At the previous link I reproduced Lennox’s bona fides from Wikipedia.

John Lennox is a Northern Irish mathematician, bioethicist, and Christian apologist. He has written many books on religion, ethics, the relationship between science and faith (like his books, Has Science Buried God and Can Science Explain Everything), and has had public debates with atheists including Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

I presume the peevish Mr. Coombe had read the post I mentioned (there are others, too), and was out to set me straight about my misguided criticism of religion and accommodationism.

I submit his email for your approval (or, more likely, disapproval):


There are many people in this world who derive strength from their religious faith especially today with so much suffering and lack of civility. We have lost our compass.
Perhaps your band of shallow atheist followers could develop a little empathy and or compassion for those who are not as sure of themselves and are content to grasp beliefs that work for them.

I always found the arrogance of Hitchins and others of his ilk astounding.

Perhaps the ‘evolution’ of quantum physics, quantum eraser and the fascination of quantum entanglement will reduce your followers smug out dated convictions and suggest new possibilities that would take them out of their sad black hole. It’s all plain sailing for them until personal tragedy strikes and then they search for a parachute, imaginary or otherwise, that doesn’t exist for them.

At the moment our world needs help from a source other than our own over blown egos and you’re not helping.


This is the old “you have to respect/embrace religion because it makes people feel good”, coupled with the old saw that “atheists turn to God in rough times.”  The first was handily refuted by George Bernard Shaw, who said this:

“The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. The happiness of credulity is a cheap and dangerous quality of happiness, and by no means a necessity of life.”

Or, as Richard Dawkins said in his interview that I discussed yesterday, “I think that truth actually is a genuine value. I believe that a true scientific outlook on the world would actually be best for the flourishing of humankind.”  Religion is, to anybody with two neurons to rub together, a belief system lacking evidence, or, as Dawkins called it, a “delusion.”

Sadly, Mr Coombe conceives of atheism as a “conviction”, but it’s really not—except for diehard atheists who declar “I know that there’s no god.” If atheism is a claim, it’s simply a claim about evidence: “I don’t think there’s a god because I see no evidence for one.”

As for all of us atheists clinging to a “parachute” in times of personal tragedy—a parachute “imaginary or otherwise”—that’s a red herring.  Yes, we all seek consolation in hard or tragic times, but I prefer to look to reality than to fiction. When a friend or relative dies, I am not consoled by thinking, “Well, he/she is with god, and I’ll meet them again someday.”  That’s not only a false consolation, but one I find impossible to believe given my nature. Rather, we can be consoled by truths: that we had some good years with the person, that the person will persist in our memory, that the world may have been a better place because of that person, and so on.

But I digress. If you have a response to the email above, I’ll send it to Mr. Coombes tomorrow. Simply put it in the comments below (especially if you’re an atheist), and I’ll send him the link to this whole post tomorrow.

56 thoughts on “A religion-addled reader writes in denigrating atheists

  1. Impressed that Mr. Coombe lasted a full nine words, from his declaration that we need more civility in the world, until he started lobbing needless insults at atheists.

    1. Perhaps your band of shallow atheist followers could develop a little empathy and or compassion for those who are not as sure of themselves and are content to grasp beliefs that work for them.

      Hardly creditable words for a soi-disant Christian.

  2. Creationists used to claim that evolution was tautological since “the fittest” in “survival of the fittest” just meant those who survive. So the theory was vacant as it just stated the survival of those who survive. Biologists responded that fitness is actually a measure of survivable offspring. Amish have a fertility of 5.5, atheists 1.2. Amishness is incredibly fitness enhancing while atheism is a weapon of mass fitness destruction.

      1. Not genetically, but culturally, for sure (even though heritability is less than 100%). How many Amish do you know who were not born to Amish parents?

        1. How many Amish have become atheists? I’m not sure about Amish, but I know a lot of Christians, and rarer (excessively rare indeed, but not zero), even some Muslins from fundamentalist backgrounds that became atheists (all three I know were Iranian, btw).
          I came from a Christian background myself (albeit not very fundamentalist, and my late father was contemplating conversion to Judaism, but he never actually did, still he was an inveterate ‘semitophile’ *) and here I am, an atheist. Like a child that believed in Santa, but knows better grown up now.
          *I have great admiration for Jews, they are so prominent in science and are generally intelligent and great to get on with, but I’m less uncritical than my late father. One may not generalise, but still. When I worked in Antwerp, in a Catholic Hospital (of all places), where lots of Hassidim used to go, they said my surname was Jewish (it is not). I wonder if they pulled that one on other surnames as well 🙂

  3. There are many people in this world who derive strength from their religious faith especially today with so much suffering and lack of civility.

    This is a variant of what my Geography (and later, Geology) teacher used to call the “4 million housewives” argument – which was a reference to a then-current advertisement series that asserted “4 million American housewives can’t be wrong” for choosing to use some utterly unnecessary and long-forgotten household product. When very clearly 4 million American housewives could be wrong, necessitating an increasing advertising spend as the product bombed on crossing “the pond”. I can’t even remember what the product was, but I think of the phrase every time I forget to hit the fast-forward button and get subjected to yet another advert for water-softener chemicals in a country where the large majority of the water supply (outside the capital) is naturally soft.
    As an argument, it’s an absolute red flag for someone who is, in the same teacher’s phrase, one of the “hard-of-thinking”. How considerate (?) of the poster to start with it.

    1. Reminds me of the old joke, perhaps inspired by the ad that you mentioned: “A million flies can’t be wrong – eat dog shit!”

    2. 4 million housewives can indeed be wrong. So long as they don’t hurt or pester people I couldn’t care less what they derive comfort from. However, I think your real concern with all this religion vs atheism stuff is the horrible effect religion has had, is having and evidently will continue to wreak on nonbelievers and their behavior, politics and society at large. I wish the religious could keep their beliefs to themselves. Shouldn’t spirituality (not the same as religion, I know) be a personal thing?I’ll probably be lectured for presuming to know what you think or what drives you. I also am not nearly the gifted writer/communicator you and most of your readers are. Forgive me if I sound like a dummy taking up space I don’t deserve. You know how I adore this blog. Thank you, sorry, goodnight

  4. Please read Victor Stenger, who wrote :

    “Science flies people to the moon. Religion flies people into buildings.”


    Were they comforted? I have to conclude yes.

    Why is this confusing and disturbing?

    “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever wrought.”

    Immanuel Kant, 1784


    Where is “comfort”?

    I think “comfort” is not accurate. Peace of mind might be more accurate, at peace with your self (whatever that is), with inconsistency, with absurdity, a stick in the pile of the crooked timber of humanity.

  5. … can’t edit, in haste as usual, sorry:

    The Stenger quote is:

    “Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings.”

    In The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason’ (2009), 59.

    As attributed on a web page using the quote as a title at web site of Richard Dawkins Foundation.


  6. It’s remarkable how often people saddle these “arguments” about the “need” for religion with terms such as “especially today…”, as if humanity were enduring a particularly and especially bad state and time. The modern world is actually far more prosperous and full of happiness and wellbeing than in any past time. This is despite there being much acrimony and, of course, continuing new and old problems, as there always have been and almost certainly always will be. Science, reason, the Enlightenment…these things have a lot to do with that prosperity, and with our ability to face and address current and future problems, whereas religion has little to nothing specific to do with the progress the world has made. It’s also unlikely to have much to do with any future progress.

    Have we indeed lost our compass? That’s okay. We have GPS now.

    1. However, we should not loose sight of the fact that we only have GPS as a courtesy of the US Department of Defence. There are other systems but the US system is by far the best in my experience.

  7. When I was about 13 some missionaries came to speak at our church. I decided then and there I wanted to become a missionary and spread the word of God. I thought about little else for quite some time (even though my parents weren’t keen on this concept, which position I found baffling). But a question kept coming up in my thoughts: Why did My God create whole civilizations on the other side of the world who believe in the Wrong God, thus necessitating me going over there to correct them? This was the beginning of the end of my faith. Even when you are passionate (especially when you are passionate) you must examine your beliefs.

  8. I always snicker when the faithful point to the very most recent discoveries of science, like this guy pointing to quantum physics, to “prove” god. Obviously the ancient originators of the god hypothesis didn’t “know” god that way — they didn’t know the first thing about the natural world! They didn’t know the earth was round, what caused storms, what caused disease, or where babies came from. But they knew all about god, did they? And we should take their word for it?

    1. I happened across some writing of Victor Stenger / Frank Wilczek / Lawrence Krauss in which the idea of “nothing”, as understood by physics, is difficult or highly unstable – that “something” is more stable. I’ll have to look it up (from under my pile of things looked up).

      1. Found it :

        Frank Wilczek:

        “The answer to the ancient question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” would then be that ‘nothing’ is unstable.”

        Quoted in an article, “Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?”, by Victor Stenger (June 2006).


        Also see:



    2. My take was slightly different. They mentioned quantum entanglement, which is weird and mind blowing. Religion is also weird and mind blowing, therefore religion is credible too! Well, no. Physicists were forced to accept entanglement after a series of hypotheses and experiments that knocked out the other serious contenders for explaining the data.

  9. It is curious that the only argument that I see him making is that religion makes you feel good. There is no assertion about religion being based on truth, and so for all I know he knows it is a lie.

  10. I’m really not sure what Mr Coombe is trying to say. On the one hand he’s criticising us for our success in demonstrating the lack of a foundation for religious belief, implying that he, himself, is at least agnostic to some extent. But then he seems to show his hand, adopting some of the criticisms of religionists in finding Hitchens arrogant (I don’t think he was, he was just very assured in himself), and then playing silly word games with concepts about which he has no knowledge, presumably trying to imply that somehow these might one day lead to God. Then he goes back to his ‘comfort’ argument.

    As you say in America “this is one confused dude”!

  11. Sometimes the emails you print remind most of the letters to the editor in the Bloom Beacon (for those of you that remember Bloom County). 31January1983 is still stuck to my fridge.

  12. Mr. Coombe accuses atheists of being shallow, lacking in empathy and compassion, arrogant, smug, etc. He must be right, for he is clearly an expert on those subjects.

  13. Mr Coombe’s tirade is bereft of any fact or even any argument. It is just bashing with contempt and hate. This person needs therapy.

  14. I doubt whether Mr Coombe will accept the point, but it really is not the case that atheists are less empathetic and compassionate than believers. On the contrary: because we understand that this world is all we have, and that we have only one shot at existing on it, we are quite likely to be particularly empathetic towards those we have to share it with.

    Similarly, we can see that there really is no supernatural source of help available. We have to depend on ourselves and on each other to have a chance of flourishing in the future – overblown egos or not.

  15. Well now, I will counter with being an atheist deriving strength and a grin at not wasting anymore time and energy on religious ideology that lacks any evidence. Static and wedded to an afterlife with no grounding in facts or truth. Gods come and go and so be it with the current batch, Mr. Coombe may think be has bought his “ticket to ride” only it’s on a bus to nowhere.
    Atheists are to me already at ‘home’, one life, this planet, and very much now.

  16. Religious people and donkeys: A donkey is a simple creature it would follow a carrot on a stick, but… It is still capable, even with its most basic of intellect of determining when there is no carrot.

  17. Perhaps your band of shallow atheist followers could develop a little empathy and or compassion for those who are not as sure of themselves and are content to grasp beliefs that work for them.

    This is a very old tactic, part of the apologetic arsenal atheist Greta Christina used to call The Argument From Shut Up — but it has a modern ring to it. So does the implication that, if religion comforts the desperate, then it must be true. A compassionate person will see that it’s true. It’s a close cousin to PZ Myers’ “Grandmother Gambit” — if you wouldn’t tell your devout dying grandmother she’s not going to heaven, then search your conscience about being a talkative atheist, or even a quiet one.

    Perhaps it seems fresh because it may not be that different than the way those concerned with Social Justice apparently want us to approach society’s marginalized, fragile victims. If spokespeople for racial minorities say they’re harmed by the use of an academic term like “field,” then have a little empathy and compassion for those who lack your privileged resilience and don’t argue about whether there’s really systematic racism in the university. If you wouldn’t tell a suicidal trans-identified teenager their pronouns are wrong, then don’t ever criticize the ideology of those who are grasping beliefs that work for them. Be kind. Go along.

    And try to believe the believers: it’s evidence, and the compassionate thing to do.

    1. “If you wouldn’t tell a suicidal trans-identified teenager their pronouns are wrong, …”

      If suffering could be prevented by saying a specific word, shouldn’t society do it? Only those who suffer would really know, because of their lived experience.

  18. That struck me as an oddly insightful remark. I do have empathy and compassion for those poor fools! Yes, I am sure of myself, and I am aware of the fact that I was extremely fortunate to grow up in a family of intelligent, broad-minded people, which made it easy for me to know the difference between faith and fact from a young age.

    I have an elderly relative-by-marriage who to this day remains proud of his long ago membership in the Hitler Youth, fondly remembers the good old days of the German Democratic Republic (communist East Germany), and of course he’s a staunch Christian. Well, I ask myself, what would I believe if I’d only ever been lied to?

    1. [That was supposed to be a reaction to Sastra’s comment at #17 immediately above. No edit button today!]

  19. I think that folks like Hitchens ARE arrogant, but how not to be when forced to deal with idiots and zealots–often the same people. Apologists deliberately misunderstand atheism, science in general, and evolutionary science in particular. After fielding the same illogical claims over and over, arrogance is the inevitable and legal response–bludgeons being frowned upon in polite society!

  20. Ah, the comfort of belief in a god… but which god or gods? And how do we know he/she/it/they care at all for our wellbeing? How do you feel about people who are happy believing in the wrong god or gods?

    1. It’s usually quite fun to watch monotheists’ facial expressions when I mention to them, ” We’re quite similar! Of all the gods being worshiped nowadays, I believe in only one fewer than you!”

  21. Again, when I read comments like this, I am reminded of the immaturity of the religiously addled- especially those of the Christian faith. And I also find it rich when Christians call atheists arrogant. I argue that adhering to Christianity is the most arrogant stance one can take in assessing the world: they believe the world was made for them, and they were made to dominate said world; they believe the Creator of the universe created them as well, loves them deeply, listens to their every prayer, and even knows how many hairs are on their head; they believe upon death that they will float to heaven where they will bask in the glory of God, while the vast majority of non-believers will burn for eternity in hell; they believe THE TRUTH is revealed in their bible and that is all they need to know (including impossibilities like 7-day universe creation, Adam and Eve and resurrection).

    It’s hard for me to imagine a more arrogant world-view.

    1. Well put, indeed. We can add, as someone has said, that they believe in a deity that runs the universe as if it were North Korea.

  22. “ There are many people in this world who derive strength from their religious faith…”

    I am an atheist now but I was immersed in the Methodist church for the first two decades of my life and used to believe it all. Only recently I was reflecting on how completely inadequate my Christian beliefs and upbringing were in helping me deal with difficult times I had in my late teens and early twenties; I’d even say they added to my difficulties.

  23. I always find it interesting when religious people take atheism as a personal attack on their ability to take comfort in their religion. It’s as if they know their position is weak and cannot handle being reminded of that. I think that atheistic arguments will always feel personal and arrogant to believers as long as they cling to beliefs that cannot be supported rationally but only through consensus of belief. They need that consensus.

    This reliance on consensus of belief leads some religious people to feel they need to impose that consensus through control of education, the judiciary and government overall. Nothing good can come from that.

    But the feeling that one needs religion is to some extent a function of the fact that one IS religious – usually due to early indoctrination. But it can be a bit like loss aversion: when you have something you often feel you need it. But when you lose it, sometimes you find that you never needed it in the first place.

  24. Mr. Coombe, I would remind you that, willy nilly, there is no religious authority outside of you. You yourself license the Bible as inerrant or John Lennox as beyond criticism. Wake up, free your thoughts from the bondage of belief, and embark on the lifelong, joyous journey of seeking ever greater understanding, wisdom, and love!

  25. Coombes calls Hitchens arrogant and then, in the next breath, presumes to know how an atheist will respond in times of trouble. I’ll take Hitchens – arrogant or otherwise – over that smug, unfounded certainty any day.

  26. I am one of those die-hard atheists who know that there is no God. I have had a very good look. I have also had a very good look at believers.
    There is no God, as a matter of fact. Fact as strong as any fact other than formal logic.

    Also, I have had plenty of tragedy and do not need, and never needed the absurd notions of religious belief to help in any way.

    Relious believers need to have a good look around.

  27. Mr. Coombe, believe what you want and leave the rest of us alone. We are not bothered by your beliefs except when you think you have a God-given right, obligation even, to preach to and control us.

  28. “atheists turn to God in rough times.” Well this atheist has been through, and is going through, rough times and no I did not turn to ‘God’. Why would I turn to a supposedly all-powerful god-creature that stood by whilst my wife died of breast cancer age 57 and whilst my current partner is tortured hourly by Alzheimer’s?

  29. Most industrialised countries are post-religion. Western Europe, where most countries are social democracies, is mostly pot-christian. Similarly for Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Japan and South Korea are both post-religion. Crime rates tend to be lower in non-religious countries than in e.g. christian or muslim countries

    Religions come and go. Perhaps this time they will go for good. Then the world will have a better chance of peace and no more religious intolerance and violence.

  30. Mr Coombe says:”Perhaps your band of shallow atheist followers could develop a little empathy and or compassion for those who are not as sure of themselves and are content to grasp beliefs that work for them.

    This shallow atheist agrees, which is why I refuse to validate their religious ideas. Nearly everyone who ‘believes’ this stuff doesn’t actually believe it. This is even more the case in people who sway towards religion in hard times. A bold claim I know, but if they did believe, why would they be so grief stricken? They know they’re not seeing their dearest again, and the emotional torment gives them an excuse to override common sense and lie to themselves. And to stay comforted they must keep that ever growing whirlpool of cognitive dissonance under the surface. That’s not healthy.

    Lying to yourself comes with a cost, maybe it’s an ongoing sense of desperation or a lack of closure, or something else. I’ve seen this in my own family many times. Just recently my mum’s brother died and although she isn’t at all religious, she convinced herself he was still here in some way. Yet that sense of self-deception and desperation was making her more distressed. After speaking at length over many weeks, my mum finally admitted that he wasn’t ‘here’ in any spiritual sense (which she knew anyway), but he is in the way that most matters: in the memories of people he loved. We still remember the kind things he did, making us laugh, his conversation and company. In that sense he is very real and present, and knowing and accepting that, my mum is no longer kidding herself and is much more at peace.

    Her other brother was unsure of himself, he was troubled and needed to grasp beliefs. He was unable to deal with many things in life and lacking the tools to deal with them, he grasped a belief that worked for him: drink. He was a lovely guy, but died at 46 from alcoholism. Grasping religious beliefs is no different to alcohol in this sense – it allows one to brush reality under the rug. It’s much better to deal with life as it is as self-deception comes with a cost. Also, reality is beautiful, isn’t that enough?.

  31. A shallow letter that show a lack of compass.

    But this is problematic too: “Mr Coombe conceives of atheism as a “conviction”, but it’s really not—except for diehard atheists who declar [sic!] “I know that there’s no god.” If atheism is a claim, it’s simply a claim about evidence: “I don’t think there’s a god because I see no evidence for one.””

    Modern cosmology makes secularists declare “I know there is no magic [such as gods]”, a claim based on evidence.

    I can agree that it is not atheism as commonly perceived, which needs a claim based on conviction that there is a lack of evidence that rejects magic. But atheism may no longer be supportable, nor needed.

    Atheists should perhaps take a look at the new evidence of what processes resulted in nature and in doing so significantly excluded magic. Or the “diehard” characterization may start to apply to all of it.

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