Did New Atheism go too far?

May 15, 2022 • 10:00 am

Here we have a 30-minute talk given on April 24 by British philosopher Julian Baggini at the Institute of Art and Ideas’ annual philosophy and music festival, HowTheLightGetsIn. You can find it on their site, but you’d have to pay to see the whole thing.

Fortunately, Baggini has posted it on his own site, and you can see the whole talk by clicking on the screenshot below. It was billed to me as a discussion of the question “has New Atheism gone too far?”. Though there’s precious little discussion of that (if you want to see repeated “yeses,” go to Pharyngula), but Baggini does give a qualified “yes” toward the end of the talk.

While I disagree with Baggini’s view that there can be a general coalition of the “reasonable” that includes both believers and atheists working together to find truth, Baggini is generally sensible and measured in his views, as he was in his book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction, published by Oxford University Press. It’s a good introduction to the ins and outs of atheism, and to the widespread but mistaken consequences to most people of embracing it (i.e., atheism leaves us no grounds for morality).  Below are the introductory notes from both sites.

Atheism revisited

The first decade of the 21st century saw an extraordinary rise in confident atheism. Now the whirlwind has settled, what does the future of belief look like? In this talk philosopher and author of Atheism: A Very Short Introduction, Julian Baggini explores the new landscape of atheism.

The Speaker

Julian Baggini is a British philosopher, journalist and author of over 20 philosophical books. Since graduating with a PhD from University College London in 1997, he has co-founded The Philosopher’s Magazine and been a regular contributor to both national and international newspapers.

Click below to go to the vieo.

Baggini begins with a very short history of Western atheism, mentioning three prominent exponents:  Jean Meslier (1664-1729), a Catholic priest whom Baggini considers the first “modern” western atheist (his Catholicism was not really his own belief, but his framework for helping others), David Hume, and Bertrand Russell.

The common strand of all three men is that they were atheists in the sense of being “rational skeptics.” That is, they maintained that there was no reason to believe that God existed, and therefore the probability was strongly against it.  Some people call those “agnostics”, but I prefer Baggini’s definition: “a -theists”: those who dont embrace theism.

Like all who are empiricists, I adhere to a form of Dawkins’s “spectrum of theistic probability,” which scores in a Bayesian way one’s degree of certainty that there’s a God. Dawkins constructed a seven-point scale of increasing atheism, with “1” denoting the view “Strong theist. 100% probability of God. In the words of Carl Jung: ‘I do not believe, I know,'” and with  7 denoting the view “Strong atheist. ‘I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung knows there is one’.”

Richard ultimately put himself at 6.9 on that scale, but I’d probably be even closer to 7 given the total absence of evidence for God. After all, where would you rest on a “spectrum of leprechaun probability”?

And indeed, that’s the true scientific attitude towards something. One can never say with absolute certainty that something does not exist, but you can come damn close to certainty. In my book Faith Versus Fact, I draw out one scenario that would make me believe in the Christian God, but even that scenario would confer on me only provisional belief.

At any rate, I’m happy with Baggini’s definition of atheism as “one who does not accept the existence of God” and will leave it to others to argue about the slippery term “agnostic”.

Baggini adds that there is an add-on to this definition of atheism (not, thank Ceiling Cat, the necessity for promoting “progressive” social justice), but the view that this form of atheism, being empirical, also entails “naturalism”:  the notion that “the natural world is the only world there is, a world described in physical terms at its most fundamental level” by the natural sciences. To Baggini—and again I agree—everything else, like emotions and consciousness, are emergent phenomena of natural processes. There is no evidence for the “supernatural”. Although people are put off by the “dogmatism” of atheists, when you embrace it as a provisional position that can be quantified on a scale, it doesn’t look so dogmatic.

The good part starts when Baggini tackles New Atheism (NA), whose onset he attributes to Dawkins’s 2006 The God Delusion, though Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, which I take as the real beginning, was published two years earlier. (It all, says Baggini, was formented by the 9/11 attacks.) Clearly Dawkins’s book did the most to popularize NA, but Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris (and, says Baggini, to a lesser extent Dennett) were the main promulgators of NA.

Baggini then ticks off what he sees as the distinctive claims of NA, which he says in the main created a “problematic view of atheism”. (I disagree.) The claims (not direct quotes) are indented; my comments are flush left.

a. Religion was about offering a quasiscientific view of origin of the world. It was explanatory, the way that science was, and this created a false clash between science and religion. In reality, as Baggini says later , there were theologians like Karen Armstrong who argued that religion was more about practice than fact: “ways of understanding the world that would give us a moral framework.”

Yes, there are apophatic and Sophisticated Theologians®, but Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins explicitly addressed religion as it is practiced and taught by regular folks, not tendentious pseudointellectuals like Armstrong. And as I argue in my book, without some empirical assertions about the world (i.e., Christ was the son of God, was crucified, resurrected, and can bring us eternal salvation), no Abrahamic religion, nor most religions, have credibility and would have no believers. Even cargo cults depend on assertions about the existence of John Frum, for crying out loud!

b.  Religion was harmful in various ways, valorizing faith and dogma, discouraging people not to think for themselves, and making people enemies of reason (a quality said to be monopolized by the atheists).

To me this claim is largely true and I have nothing much to say about it. Of course most believers behave rationally at most times, but they abandon that the moment they walk through the door of the church, synagogue, or mosque. Nobody thinks that all religionists are automatons or zombies who never think for themselves.

c.  Religion was a source of evil by promoting absolutist world views, tribalism, extremes, and division.

There’s no way to determine whether, over history, religion has been a net good or bad in the world. I’d argue for the “bad” side, but at least one can make a good case that it’s outmoded today based on the a-reglious countries of northern Europe which seem, if anything, morally better than religious countries like the U. S. And then we have the annoying issue of “is it good to make people believe something for which there is no evidence?”

d.  Religion’s respect by society was undeserved; this taboo had to be broken.

Again, this is palpably true. How many charlatans have gotten respected (and rich) by becoming pastors? As Christopher Hitchens said of Jerry Falwell soon after the Reverend’s death, “”The empty life of this ugly little charlatan proves only one thing: that you can get away with the most extraordinary offenses to morality and to truth in this country if you will just get yourself called ‘reverend’.”

e.  Religion is a monolith; New Atheists ignored nondogmatic and intelligent religious people.

I see this as untrue, and know that several times the NA’s have discussed this problem. What they did not do was assert that because some believers are smart and nondogmatic, that this somehow gives extra credibility to their religious beliefs.

Given that these assertions of NA supposedly caused unnecessary division in the West—and especially the U.S.—what does Baggini recommend? What he calls for is a  “coalition of the reasonable”, an alliance in which people, “no matter what their fundamental convictions about God or not God are, are committed to a way of thinking reasonably and rationally about the world.”

Well, we already have that, and it’s called humanism. Insofar as religious people start thinking rationally about the world in arms with their atheist comrades, they are abandoning their religious belief, which is perforce irrational.

Now I’m not exactly sure how this coalition is supposed to work (Baggini slips it in at the end), or how one can get to get many Muslims, Orthodox Jews, or Southern Baptists to sign on to an adherence to reason. (Baggini mentions one Muslim of the past who believed that empirical truth trumped the dictates of the Qur’an, but that was ages ago.)

This all sounds good, but I don’t see it happening. A world of rationality has no room for religion, nor for any sort of harmful superstition.

Have a listen and see what you think.

Fom Barry:

h/t Ginger K

NYT op-ed proposes ditching the idea of God because He’s “hateful”

April 15, 2022 • 10:15 am

Well I’ll be blowed, as a sailor might say: the New York Times has published a full-on article calling for atheism—the rejection of God. The author, brought up as an orthodox Jew, says we should simply give up the idea of God because the Biblical God, at least as portrayed in the Passover/Exodus story, was “hateful”.

It’s an old and classic argument, but not one you expect to see in the New York Times. Click on the screenshots to read:

You surely know the Jews-in-Egypt story and the Passover tale. Here’s the Wikipedia summary:

In the Book of Exodus, the Israelites are enslaved in ancient Egypt. Yahweh, the god of the Israelites, appears to Moses in a burning bush and commands Moses to confront Pharaoh. To show his power, Yahweh inflicts a series of 10 plagues on the Egyptians, culminating in the 10th plague, the death of the first-born.

This is what the LORD says: “About midnight I will go throughout Egypt. Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn of the slave girl, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well. There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt – worse than there has ever been or ever will be again.”

—Exodus 11:4-6

Before this final plague Yahweh commands Moses to tell the Israelites to mark a lamb‘s blood above their doors in order that Yahweh will pass over them (i.e., that they will not be touched by the death of the firstborn).

Those were some formidable plagues on the Egyptians, including frogs, boils, hail, locusts, pestilence, and so on. And each time Pharaoh was on the verge of giving in and releasing the Jews, God would “harden Pharoah’s heart”, so he wouldn’t let those Israelites go.  Finally, after the “passover” incident, in which God killed every first-born Egyptian (Jews were “passed over” by marking their doors with lamb’s blood), Pharoah’s heart softened, and he let the Jews go. It is this incident that’s celebrated by Passover.  This year Passover begins this evening and lasts until the evening of April 23.

(We’ll ignore the four decades of wandering in the Sinai, which is inexplicable.)

The thing is—and I believe I mention this in Faith Versus Fact—all those deaths and plagues and boils were God’s fault! It was God Hmself who hardened Pharoah’s heart. He didn’t have to do that–he could have made Pharoah let the Jews go after the first plague. But he didn’t! God kept hardening his heart, over and over again.

And this is what bothers Auslander (as well as another perfidy):

Two aspects of the Passover story have troubled me since I was first taught them long ago in an Orthodox yeshiva in Monsey, N.Y. I was 8 years old, and as the holiday approached, our rabbi commanded us to open our chumashim, or Old Testaments, to the Book of Exodus. To get us in the holiday spirit, he told us gruesome tales of torture and persecution.

“The Egyptians,” he told us, “used the corpses of Jewish slaves in their buildings.”

“You mean they used slaves to build their buildings,” I asked, “and the slaves died from work?”

“No,” said the rabbi. “They put the Jewish bodies into the walls and used them as bricks.”

This is the part that should make a rational person give up God:

. . .God, it seems, paints with a wide brush. He paints with a roller. In Egypt, said our rabbi, he even killed first-born cattle. He killed cows. If he were mortal, the God of Jews, Christians and Muslims would be dragged to The Hague. And yet we praise him. We emulate him. We implore our children to be like him.

Perhaps now, as missiles rain down and the dead are discovered in mass graves, is a good time to stop emulating this hateful God. Perhaps we can stop extolling his brutality. Perhaps now is a good time to teach our children to pass over God — to be as unlike him as possible.

“And so God killed them all,” the rabbis and priests and imams can preach to their classrooms. “That was wrong, children.”

“God threw Adam out of Eden for eating an apple,” they can caution their students. “That’s called being heavy-handed, children.”

Cursing all women for eternity because of Eve’s choices?

“That’s called collective punishment, children,” they can warn the young. “Don’t do that.”

“Boo!” the children will jeer.

This is a simple argument. If God is benevolent and omnipotent, He could have prevented this misery and death.  That means that if he exists, he’s either cruel or relatively powerless, and that’s not the conception of God held by any in the Abrahamic faith.

The existence of moral evil, like one human killing another, has been excused by various theologians as an unavoidable consequence of the free will vouchsafed to us by God, or by other sneaky and ludicrous devices of theodicy. But none of them explain physical evil—deaths by tsunamis, earthquakes, childhood cancer, and so on. And in this case, it’s not moral evil unless you conceive of God Himself as immoral—for it was God himself who caused all this suffering and death.  Again we run into a problem.

So it’s not just physical evil that is a death blow to the Abrahamic conception of God, but also God’s own maliciousness as described in scripture, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic alike. Who wants to believe in a God who lets innocent people suffer and die? “God’s ways are mysterious,” answer the theologians, but yet they seem to know everything else about God. It’s just the hard-to-understand stuff that they fob off as “mystery.”

Auslander’s ultimate lesson is to be kind and try to mend the divisions between humans:

This year, at the end of the Seder, let’s indeed throw our doors open — to strangers. To people who aren’t our own. To the terrifying them, to the evil others, those people who seem so different from us, those we think are our enemies or who think us theirs, but who, if they sat down around the table with us, we’d no doubt find despise the pharaohs of this world as much as we do, and who dream of the same damned thing as us all:


Well, though Auslander’s  intentions are good, he’s wrong here. Not everybody dreams of peace. I know of certain Russians, for example, who dream of war.  So I’ll let Auslander have his “Imagine” moment here, but what I’d like NYT readers to take on board is Auslander’s argument against God from evil. It’s a syllogism:

a. God is omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent (assumption)
b. But the world isn’t organized as if it’s run by an omniscient and benevolent God (observation)
c. Therefore we must either conceive of a God who is malicious, weak, or sadistic, or else deny the existence of God.

I vote for the “no god” part of “c”. It’s more parsimonious.

I also vote for more such atheism in the NYT. After all Tish Harrison Warren spews her Anglican palaver in the op-ed section once a week. How often do we see an article like this? Shouldn’t atheism at least get equal time, especially given the absence of evidence for god?

h/t: Enrico

Washington Post runs rare column that praises atheism

March 26, 2022 • 1:00 pm

With things going to hell in Eastern Europe and the U.S. sliding into wokeness, perhaps there’s one area where we can expect good news: religion seems to be inexorably disappearing ain the U.S., Canada, and most of Europe. “None-ness” is just a step from godlessness.

In fact, this is the first time since 2019 that the Post has published a pro-atheism editorial by a regularly contributing columnist (that was Max Boot calling for an atheist President of the U.S.), and the first time since 2011 that outside contributors were allowed to publish an atheist piece (“Why do Americans still dislike atheists?” by Greg Paul and Phil Zuckerman). Today’s contributing columnist is Brian Broome, who writes about “politics, culture and the African American perspective.” Atheism is hardly an African-American perspective, making this both both more unusual and more laudatory.

Click on the screenshot to read:

What turned Broome into a godless person is that Achilles Heel of theism: the presence of physical evil, like childhood cancers. No rational theologian can explain the conundrum that drove Broome over the line: innocent children suffering. If you’re going to be parsimonious about this, the most likely explanation, given the absence of evidence for God when there should be such evidence, is that there simply is no God. Alternatively, there could be a malicious or indifferent God, but that’s not how most Christians, Muslims, and Jews like their deities.

Broome spells it out plainly:

I was raised in a Christian household, and my family is still religious. But, at a certain point in my childhood, the whole thing stopped making sense to me. I couldn’t work out why a loving God would let so many children suffer. The idea of eternal life seemed to be a way for people to skirt their fear of death or assuage the pain of grief. I noticed that the things people told me God wanted were, more often than not, things that they wanted as well.

I didn’t give it up all at once. Like many people, I went on a spiritual quest. But, like some of those, I quit the hunt after a while.

I stopped looking for the meaning of life and instead decided to just live it.

Living life is of course finding its meaning, for as a determinist, I’m convinced that the “meaning of life” is simply our following our evolved program to do whatever gives us satisfaction.(Much of that involves family–reproduction–and garnering the approbation of others.)

Not only is Broome an atheist, but he also espouses some antitheism, even rarer in the “MSM”:

 I often think that faith in God can be just as self-serving as staring at yourself in a mirror. The way a religion is practiced too commonly reflects the person who is practicing it.

If you want to be rich, you can find a religion that tells you that’s what God wants you to be. If you’re a misogynist, you find a church that will reaffirm your misogyny. If you don’t like our politics, or some of our political leaders, there’s a pew with your name on it somewhere, maybe closer than you think. If you are a hateful person, there are preachers for that, too. I watch people cherry-pick their religious texts to find what they want and ignore the rest. It was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. who said that the most segregated hour in Christian America is 11 o’clock on Sunday morning.

We are not the only country where things work this way. For those who think it is a good idea to invade other countries, the battle cry will always be that God is on your side. Wars and atrocities have been committed in the name of religion throughout history. People fight over who’s doing religion right and who’s doing it wrong — or who are not doing it at all. Some religious leaders make no distinction between their role and that of their nation’s political ambitions.

Broome explains below why he think religion will inevitably vanish. (Like many, I don’t think it will ever disappear completely, but I’m confident even the U.S. will become as areligious as Scandinavia in the next hundred years):

Church attendance and membership have long been on the decline in America. My guess is that because many folks realize that fear is at the root of so much religious conviction, the proposition has become untenable. Those fears have led too many people of faith to police the way that others choose to live their lives.

Well, I don’t agree 100% with that. If divisiveness and policing caused movements to decline, wokeness would be on the wane. More important, though, I think there are better reasons. Mixed in with the avoidance of fear and divisiveness is the well-known negative correlation between how well people are doing in their lives and their religiosity. As people get better off, and have better access to food, shelter, medical care, and other amenities that bring security, their need to rely on an unhearing god wanes. And of course as science dispels mysteries once seen as evidence for god, that takes its toll, on faith as well. .

Whatever the causes, and despite the lies of those who tell us we NEED religion as a form of social glue (the “little people argument”), we can do just fine without faith. Just ask the Danes and Swedes.

h/t: Greg Paul for the link to this and the earlier columns.

Phil Zuckerman on the advantages of secular morality

February 1, 2022 • 1:30 pm

“The question is not how can you be moral if you don’t believe in God, but how can you be moral if you believe in God.”  (Phil Zuckerman, below).

The most common criticism religionists make of atheists is embodied in the first part of the quote above, a quote from Phil Zuckerman in a speech he gave at the recent Freedom From Religion Foundation meeting.  The notion that atheism destroys morality has been dismantled several times, most recently in an exchange between Diane Morgan and Ricky Gervais in the terrific show “After Life.” I’ll let you listen for yourself: it’s in Season 3. And here Zuckerman does it not philosophically, but with data (or rather, assertions about data we don’t see).

As you may know, Zuckerman is a professor of secular studies at Pitzer College in California, and was the first person to become a full-time professor in that area.  Here’s a list of his books, of which I’ve read just one: the 2008 one, which shows how well two atheist countries, Sweden and Denmark, function without religion. (You can now add Iceland to that list.) It was that book that convinced me that there is no innate need for societies to be religious to function well. As Zuckerman remarks in his talk, and argues at length in Society without God. Scandinavia has some of the most “moral” countries on earth, yet they’re a pack of atheists. Moreover, Scandinavians have nothing I can see to “replace” religion: no “secular churches” or any of that nonsense. Yet religionists ignore this.

Zuckerman’s talk apparently relies heavily on his 2019 book below, but he mentions that he has a new book coming out, which surely has the data he mentions below.

His books (he’s been a busy atheist!)

  • Zuckerman, Phil (2019). What It Means to Be Moral: Why Religion Is Not Necessary for Living an Ethical Life. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press. ISBN 978-1640092747.
  • Zuckerman, Phil (2016). The Nonreligious: Understanding Secular People and Societies. London: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199924943.
  • Zuckerman, Phil (2014). Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions. London: Penguin Press. ISBN 9781594205088.
  • Zuckerman, Phil (2011). Faith no more : why people reject religion. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199740017.
  • Zuckerman, Phil (2010). Atheism and secularity. Santa Barbara, California: Praeger. ISBN 9780313351815.
  • Zuckerman, Phil (2008). Society without God : what the least religious nations can tell us about contentment. New York: New York University Press. ISBN 9780814797143.

At any rate, in this talk Zuckerman makes the case that atheists, agnostics, and secular humanists have a set of values that leads to a better “morality” than that espoused by believers. He adduces data from a variety of areas—vaccination, acceptance of science, wearing masks, recognizing the existence and importance of global warming, acceptance of LGBTQ rights, animal rights, reproductive rights, and reparations for slavery—showing that nonbelievers seem to group on the “more moral” side. And even religionists who accept these values tend to have, as reader Sastra noted yesterday, a more “secularized” view of religion. It’s the Euthyphro argument of Plato: we can only get goodness from God if we assume God is, a priori, moral, and that view must come from non-religious values. Saying that morality comes from God devolves to the odious “Divine Command” argument espouse by people like William Lane Craig.

Zuckerman then asks why nonbelievers are more moral than religionists, and his response is that we’re motivated by empathy and compassion when constructing our morality, rather than by trying to obey the “will of God.” Well, perhaps, but if you derive God’s nature from secular considerations, as noted above, then there’s not much difference. But where there is a difference is that religion considers as part of morality notions like how to have sex, what to eat, what to wear, and so on—issues that really aren’t what most people consider within the ambit of morality.

Zuckerman also notes that religious folks are more tribalistic than nonbelievers, and tribalism breeds xenophobia and hence immorality.

In the end, I’m a big fan of Zuckerman, and the data may well show that the moral values of nonbelievers are sounder than those of nonbelievers. But the real question, which is very hard to answer, is this: “On the whole, is the average per capita amount of net good done by atheists better than the amount done by believers.” I believe the answer is “yes,” but I’d be hard pressed to prove it. Hitchens answered it with anecdotal data, citing people like Mother Theresa who pretended to be moral but didn’t really help people. But we need more systematic data. Perhaps Zuckerman provides these data in his new book.

After all, as Karl Marx said, “The philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”

Blogger: Ken Ham and I are like “two peas in a pod”

December 24, 2021 • 1:30 pm

Well, I’ll be: of all the characters whom I’m compared to, the young-earth creationist Ken Ham is the one I find the most unlikely.  But Joel Edmund Anderson, who presents himself as a Sophisticated Theologian®, sees profound similarities between Ham and me. Well, yes, we both have two arms, two legs, and presumably a Y chromosome.  Yet Anderson sees another similarity—and there is one, though Anderson characterizes it wrongly.  First, a bit about Anderson from his Linked In site.

Although I current am a high school teacher, I hope to eventually teach Biblical Studies at the college level. In addition to my masters degree from Regent College, I also have an MA in Old Testament from Trinity Western University, as well as a PhD in Old Testament from the University of Pretoria. I would also like to get more articles and books published.

According to Anderson’s blog, Resurrecting Orthodoxy, Ham and I are in fact like “two peas in a pod.” Click on the screenshot to see the 2018 post that someone called to my attention. But the arguments that Anderson makes are still around in 2021; I’ll talk about a more recent version of this argument against the “war between science and religion” next week.  The narrative that there’s no incompatibility between science and religion, and that they’re not in opposition to one another, continues.  In Faith Versus Fact I describe what I mean by “the war between science and religion”, and apparently Anderson either didn’t read that book, did read it and didn’t understand it, or read it and understood it but deliberately mischaracterizes my views.

Ham, “creator” of the Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum in Kentucky, was on a roll three years ago tweeting about me. I don’t have the tweets but Anderson repeats them:

. . . . for the purposes of this post, I am going to focus on a recent article Coyne wrote, entitled, “Yes, There is a War Between Science and Religion.” It came to my attention because Ken Ham tweeted about it three different times the other day. Ham’s tweets were as follows:

    • “Jerry Coyne (emeritus professor) is an atheist, & so such an article as this is totally expected from one who is against God & totally committed to his religion of atheism. Interestingly he sees Christians who compromise as inconsistent–which they are”
    • “There’s no war between observational science & creation, such science confirms Genesis account. But there’s a spiritual war between Christianity & blind faith religion of atheism & the belief in evolution which is contradicted by observational science”
    • “This scientist arbitrarily defines religion as involving the supernatural, declares atheism is not religion, arbitrarily declares evolution science & fact, so he can then falsely declare creation is at war with science! It’s how secularists work”

So Anderson’s point is that Ham and I are alike because we see a war between science and religion. In Ham’s case, the war is between evolution and creationism, and he sees creationism as “science” because it’s “observational science”, and views evolution as a religion, because it’s based on faith and the “religion” of atheism. In other words, Ham sees a war between the Bible and atheistic modern science.

My own view, which I’ll summarize in one sentence (read Faith Versus Fact if you want the whole megillah) is this: science and religion both claim that they involve “ways of knowing about the universe”, but while the methods of science really do enable us to understand the universe, the “ways of knowing” of religion (faith, authority, scripture, revelation, etc.) are not reliable guides to truth. If they were, all religions would converge on the same truth claims, which is palpably untrue.

Note that I do not claim that religion is the same thing as science, for it includes things like morality and worship and divinity. The Bible is not a “textbook of science.” But all religions do make firm claims about what’s true, and these truth claims, insofar as they’re not based on actual evidence, contravene the methods of science. That’s why science converges on what we think is real (and use to make correct predictions), while religions haven’t converged one iota. (Compare the truth claims of Hinduism, Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, Scientology, cargo cults, and so on.) Nor do I claim that religion has always been opposed to science, is always in conflict with science, that religionists can’t accept modern science, or all all scientists are or must be atheists.

End of my views.  Now here’s what Anderson has to say:

Like Coyne, Ken Ham also sees the creation/evolution debate as being a war. Ham doesn’t see it as a war between science and religion, though. Ham simply throws in his made-up distinction between “observational science” and “historical science,” claims “observational science” confirms the creation account in Genesis, and then equates the scientific theory of evolution with “blind faith religion of atheism,” and claims the “war” isn’t between science and religion, but rather atheism and Christianity.  But make no mistake, both Ham and Coyne agree: evolution is atheism, and evolutionary science is at war with the Christian faith.

No, evolution is a science, atheism a disbelief based on the absence of evidence. Science is atheistic in practice, for we do not use gods or the concept of miracles in our research. We don’t rule them out a priori—we’ve just found that dragging gods into science doesn’t help us understand anything.  Evolutionary science is at war only with those Christians who deny evolution (or other scientific findings) and accept either an ex nihilo creation or the intervention of God in evolution.


Now, sadly, it is true that many people have abandoned their faith because they think evolution has disproven the Bible. In that respect, both Coyne and Ham are correct. But let’s be clear, the reason why evolution has led to a loss of faith of many people is that people like Coyne and Ham are mischaracterizing what science is and what the Christian faith is. Ham is actually correct in one of his tweets: Coyne essentially is hijacking the scientific theory of evolution and smuggling in his atheism into—later in his article, he claims, “science is practiced as an atheistic discipline.” Yes, it is “atheistic” in the sense that is simply studies natural processes, but to call it an “atheistic discipline” as Coyne does is to falsely equate the scientific theory of evolution with the philosophical worldview of atheism.

To the point, when atheists like Coyne and YECists like Ham are telling people that if you accept evolution then you must reject belief in God and accept atheism, then a whole lot of them are going to reject their faith because they are being told they have to.     

I wish! Yes, I’ve met people who abandoned their faith because they were literalist Christians, and when they saw the evidence that the Genesis stories weren’t true, the whole edifice of their faith toppled. But I don’t tell people what to do. I either teach them evolution and let the results fall where they may, or I explain to them why I, Jerry Coyne, see science and religion as incompatible. People can ponder my arguments and make their own decisions. I don’t believe I’ve ever told anyone that they have to reject their faith if they accept evolution.

Just a bit more. Anderson touts himself as having a “correct” understanding of religion versus the “cartoonish” versions held by Ken Ham (and about 40% of Americans with him!)  When I say that evolution is incompatible with creationism, I mean just that: it’s incompatible with a literal reading of the Bible. Anderson, however, being a Sophisticated Theologian®, somehow knows that much of (but not all of) the Bible was written as metaphor.  Clearly Augustine, Aquinas, and many other church fathers didn’t understand Scripture properly either, for they always defended literalism—sometimes with a metaphorical veneer. Anderson:

And both Coyne and Ham lump the creation account in Genesis 1 in as being the same kind of writing as found in the Gospels. They see no difference between the genre of Genesis 1 and the genre of the Gospels. This failure of basic reading competency views anyone who acknowledges the difference in genre as trying to pull a fast one. Call it accomodationism [sic] or compromise, both Coyne and Ham think you are deceptive and dishonest if you simply acknowledge that the Bible is not written in one monolithic genre. Both men might think that failure to read Genesis 1 a literal history automatically means you have to reject the account of Jesus’ resurrection, but competent readers of Scripture know better.

In other words, Anderson knows that Genesis was metaphorical, but the Resurrection really happened. But we have no more evidence for the latter than for the former: they’re both assertions in a book that’s almost wholly fictional. Anderson is a Picker and Chooser, presumably anointed by God to know that sometimes God was speaking metaphorically, and at other times literally; and Anderson can tell us which is which. Piffle!

I could go on for hours, but we have celebrating to do, albeit many are celebrating the birth of a fictional being. I want to proffer one more bit of Anderson and let you have the laughs:

  • (5) Coyne (like Ham) misinterprets Hebrews 11:1 (“the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”) as referring to believing things about the origins of the natural world without evidence.

Both men are horrible biblical exegetes, as seen in their understanding of Hebrews 11:1. Both view it as defining faith as nothing more than blind belief about the past creation of the natural world. On AiG’s website, one can find an article entitled “Blind Faith” that says this: “So faith, as commended in God’s Word, is being sure about something that wasn’t witnessed firsthand (including creation), or that cannot be seen now, or that is yet to be revealed. By this definition, all faith is blind! If we can see something, then faith is no longer operative.”

Well, not quite. To the point, the “substance (or assurance) of things hoped for” and “the evidence (or conviction) of things not seen” has nothing to do with looking back and believing things about the creation of the material universe. Rather, the faith of Hebrews 11:1 is forward-looking to the fulfillment of the saving work of Christ and the new creation. Faith is being certain that what had begun in Christ and the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit will be completed in the New Heaven and New Earth. The faith that Hebrews 11:1 is talking about is the faith that sees the evidence of the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit in part, and that looks forward to the fulfillment of Christ’s work in the future. It is being certain of the outcome because we have been given, and now witness, a foretaste of that future reality. Contrary to what AiG (and Coyne) belief, the Christian faith is not blind, and Hebrews 11:1 isn’t about “blindly believing” that Genesis 1 is telling us exactly how God actually created the world.

Yes, Hebrews 11:3 says, “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible”—but it is not a scientific statement. It is saying something fairly simple: God created the universe and there is more to reality than just the material world.

No unevidenced claims in those paragraphs!

Ummm. . . .if you look at Hebrews 11, it’s not something forward looking, and it says almost nothing about Jesus, even though it’s in the New Testament. In fact, most of it tells people how faith was used in the Old Testament. What Anderson is doing here is exegesis: interpreting the Bible, and in a way that suits his beliefs. I would assert that the definition of faith in Hebrews 11:1 is accurate.

I’ll pass over Anderson’s claim that “Coyne says that religion is science”, as it’s a lie. I say that religion makes truth claims, but they aren’t asserted after using the methods of science.

End of story: I’m off to rest and have some bubbly. Happy holidays, and send in your cats!

Ken Ham and his life-sized Ark



Here’s Hebrews 11:1-8 (King James Version) being backward looking; you can read the rest of the chapter here.

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

For by it the elders obtained a good report.

Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.

By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts: and by it he being dead yet speaketh.

By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death; and was not found, because God had translated him: for before his translation he had this testimony, that he pleased God.

But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.

By faith Noah, being warned of God of things not seen as yet, moved with fear, prepared an ark to the saving of his house; by the which he condemned the world, and became heir of the righteousness which is by faith.

By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went.

America is rapidly losing its religiosity

December 15, 2021 • 10:00 am

We occasionally see some ignoramus claiming that religion is making a comeback everywhere. Well, that might be true in some places, but certainly not in the U.S., Britain, and continental Europe, whose residents are becoming nonbelievers at a very rapid pace.

I have no real explanation for that save that mythology is no longer tenable in an age of science, and, most probably, because as people become more well off, they become less religious. The last phenomenon has been well documented, and has been explained this way: “when you have society to take care of you, and have a place to live, money, health care, and food, you no longer need to believe in a divine being who will support you or to whom you can appeal for succor.” There’s a ton of evidence for that hypothesis, including negative correlations between happiness and well-being on one hand and religiosity on the other. These are just correlations, and not necessarily indications of causality, but they hold not just for the countries of the world, but for the states of the U.S. And there’s independent evidence for the latter hypothesis, which was first suggested by Marx. Most people just quote the bit in bold, but it becomes clearer what Marx was getting at when you read the real quote, which is from A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

At least in that assertion, Marx pretty much got it right.

The data on reduction of religiosity are given in this summary of a recent Pew poll (click on the screenshot below to read; the pdf of the full report is here).  And here’s the methodology:

The 2021 National Public Opinion Reference Survey (NPORS), conducted online and by mail among a nationally representative group of respondents recruited using address-based sampling (ABS). The survey was conducted among 3,937 respondents from May 29 to Aug. 25, 2021. The response rate was 29%. Complete details about how the 2021 survey was conducted are available here.

The 2020 NPORS, conducted online and by mail among a nationally representative group of respondents recruited using ABS. The survey was conducted among 4,108 respondents from June 1 to Aug. 11, 2020. The response rate was 29%. Complete details about how the 2020 survey was conducted are available here.

Polls from earlier years are described in the pdf.

What has become clearer to me from this poll is that the “nones”, the fastest-rising group of “believers”, aren’t really people who believe in God and haven’t affiliated themselves with a church. Some of them may well be, but I believe they call themselves “nones” because it’s less damning than saying you’re an “atheist” or an “agnostic.” From this I take the lesson that the percentage of Americans who believe in a divine being is dropping rapidly, and about a quarter of us are nonbelievers, whether you call them “nones,” “atheists,” or “agnostics.”

First, let’s look at what the categories mean. All are by self-identification, and, in particular, “nones” are “people who describe themselves as atheists, agnostics, or nothing in particular.”  The crucial part is what “nothing in particular” really means. Does it mean you believe in a divine being? It’s a bit ambiguous, which makes it hard to suss out the proportion of nonbelievers in America. We’ll get to that in a second. First, I’ll show data on the drop of religiosity and rise of “no religion” (atheists, agnostics, and nones) over the last 14 years. Remember, that’s not very long!

Christians, including Catholics, evangelical Protestants, and non-evangelical Protestants, have dropped 15% over the period; as we’ll see, most of this involves Protestants. People of no religion, on the other hand, have nearly doubled in proportion—from 16% to 29%. Other religions (Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, etc.) haven’t changed much, but they are only 6% of the population—about a fifth of those with “no religion”. As the report says:

Currently, about three-in-ten U.S. adults (29%) are religious “nones” – people who describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular” when asked about their religious identity. Self-identified Christians of all varieties (including Protestants, Catholics, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Orthodox Christians) make up 63% of the adult population. Christians now outnumber religious “nones” by a ratio of a little more than two-to-one. In 2007, when the Center began asking its current question about religious identity, Christians outnumbered “nones” by almost five-to-one (78% vs. 16%).

Nearly all the declines are among Protestants (and, as we’ll seen, among both evangelical and non-evangelical Protestants). These graphs speak for themselves. Catholics appear to cling more tenaciously to their faith, perhaps because they fear the terrors of hell. (I’m joking!)

There’s a graph showing, surprisingly, that “born again” or evangelical Christians (Protestants) outnumber non-evangelical ones. I guess the Protestants I know are a non-random sample:

Within Protestantism, evangelicals continue to outnumber those who are not evangelical. Currently, 60% of Protestants say “yes” when asked whether they think of themselves as a “born-again or evangelical Christian,” while 40% say “no” or decline to answer the question.

This pattern exists among both White and Black Protestants. Among White Protestants, 58% now say “yes” when asked whether they think of themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians, compared with 42% who say “no” (or decline to answer the question). Among Black Protestants, evangelicals outnumber non-evangelicals by two-to-one (66% vs. 33%).

The decline of religiosity is also instantiated by the following two graphs, showing a decline in Americans who pray daily (an oft-used sociological index of “religiosity”), as well of those who consider religion “important in their lives”:


I won’t show the graphs, but will just state that, in the 2020-2021 data, about 32% of Americans say that go to religious services “monthly or more”, about 67% “a few times a year or less”, and of the latter, about a quarter of adults say they never go to church, which comports with the percentage of nones (29%).

And (drum roll), what percentage of those nones self identify as “atheists”, “agnostics” or “nothing in particular”? Here are the data over the last 14 years. Note that in all three subclasses, the proportion who self-identify as godless or “nones” has risen since 2007. Atheists have doubled (though they’re at a scant 4%) agnostics have risen 2.5-fold, and the “nones”—by far the largest segment of “not religious”—have nearly doubled. The total again: 29% of Americans are either nonbelievers or not particularly religious.

That’s good news, and the trend is going to continue over all religions in the U.S. (and in the UK and Europe). As for the other faiths, here’s what the survey says:

In addition to the 63% of U.S. adults who identify as Christians, the 2021 NPORS finds that 6% of adults identify with non-Christian faiths. This includes 1% who describe themselves as Jewish, 1% who are Muslim, 1% who are Buddhist, 1% who are Hindu and 2% who identify with a wide variety of other faiths. (While 1% of NPORS respondents identify with Judaism as a religion, a larger and more comprehensive Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Jews conducted in 2020 estimates that 1.7% of U.S. adults identify as Jewish by religion.)

Only 1% Jews—I believe that used to be 2%.  We’re a rare breed!


FFRF interviews Dawkins

September 12, 2021 • 9:15 am

The first thing I have to say is that Richard Dawkins has stolen my signature garment: Hawaiian shirts. Why couldn’t he stick with the hand-painted biology ties he used to wear?

That aside, Richard has just been interviewed by Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker, co-presidents of the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF). It will be on some television stations today. The details are on their website, telling you which stations will be broadcasting it, and when, but since it’s already been posted on YouTube, you needn’t bother; just watch it here. It’s 28 minutes long.

Here are some of the questions they ask Richard (dressed in a Hawaiian shirt):

Why should we be proud to be atheists? Why is science superior to religion?

Why are terms “A Catholic child” and “Muslim child” (and so on) offensive?

Why is Richard somewhat offended by the ubiquity of the term “meme,” which he coined.

Why is science denialism so strong in the U.S.?

There are two ads for the FFRF at 13:27: a new version of Ron Reagan’s “not afraid of burning in hell” ad as well as a statement from a young woman, Gabrielle Hanahara.

Finally, they discuss Richard’s newest issue: Books Do Furnish a Life: Reading and Writing Science, a collection of his “Incidental writing” and a continuation of his previous book, Science in the Soul.

Unlike the last one, this one has “everything to do with books”. Pieces include his forewords to books, book reviews, essays about books, and with people like Pinker, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Christopher Hitchens. (The audiobook version has the whole interview with Hitchens, recorded with an iPHone at dinner.

At the end, Richard, wearing a Hawaiian shirt, discusses his newest book that will come out in October, Flights of Fancy, about flying in animals and humans. They wind up with a discussion of The Clergy Project, a refuge and community of support for pastors who have lost their faith, and a project set up by the Richard Dawkins foundation.

Click below to listen.

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?”

Harvard’s head chaplain is now an atheist

August 26, 2021 • 1:15 pm

Well, I’ll be! There are over 40 university chaplains at Harvard and, according to this new article in the New York Times, they elected as their chief . . . an atheist! Click to read the news, which actually doesn’t surprise me:

Harvard has had a humanist chaplain for a long time, but several of the earlier ones were rather unctuous accommodationists. Nevertheless, the idea that there would be a chaplain who could serve the needs of the “nones”—people who don’t have a formal religion but could either be spiritual or believe in some divinity—is heartening. It’s not as good as an atheist chaplain, mind you, but it’s better than nothing. And, in fact, the new boss, Greg Epstein, raised Jewish, is an atheist, and has written a book about humanist morality: Good Without GodHere’s the Amazon blurb, which is a little too accommodationist for me, but I’m an antitheist and there is no chance that an antitheist could be a humanist chaplain at Harvard. After all, Epstein, who has a reputation as a good guy, has to deal with the problems of atheists and theists.

A provocative and positive response to Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and other New Atheists, Good Without God makes a bold claim for what nonbelievers do share and believe. Author Greg Epstein, the Humanist chaplain at Harvard, offers a world view for nonbelievers that dispenses with the hostility and intolerance of religion prevalent in national bestsellers like God is Not Great and The God Delusion. Epstein’s Good Without God provides a constructive, challenging response to these manifestos by getting to the heart of Humanism and its positive belief in tolerance, community, morality, and good without having to rely on the guidance of a higher being.

So be it. You really don’t want a Richard Dawkins trying to give psychological or spiritual aid to someone who has a penchant for the numinous. And electing someone who could minister to nearly everybody, including nones and atheists, is a savvy move for Harvard’s chaplains, who elected Epstein unanimously. By doing this, no defined religion has privilege over the rest, with all faiths are on the same plane. The hope, probably misguided, is also that Epstein can bring different faiths together. (Remember, they’re still “faiths”!) His election is also a recognition of the rise of the nones, who now make up over 20% of Americans, surely more than the percentage of students adhering to most of the 40+ “real” religions with Harvard chaplains. Further, as the article notes, a survey of Harvard’s class of 2019 by the Harvard Crimson (the student newspaper) found that those students were twice as likely to identify as atheists or agnostics compared to their age peers in the American population as a whole. In other words, I bet about 50% of Harvard students are “nones.”

Which reminds me: the definition of “spiritual” in this article is unclear. It clearly could include God, but could also include me, since in some ways all of us could be seen as “spiritual people”. There should be a “spiritual spectrum” corresponding to Dawkins’s “God spectrum”. It would range at one end to those who are besotted with the divine, to those at the other end who are simply moved by great art and music (that would be me).

At any rate, here’s how Epstein operated at Harvard:

Mr. Epstein, 44, author of the book “Good Without God,” is a seemingly unusual choice for the role. He will coordinate the activities of more than 40 university chaplains, who lead the Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and other religious communities on campus. Yet many Harvard students — some raised in families of faith, others never quite certain how to label their religious identities — attest to the influence that Mr. Epstein has had on their spiritual lives.

“There is a rising group of people who no longer identify with any religious tradition but still experience a real need for conversation and support around what it means to be a good human and live an ethical life,” said Mr. Epstein, who was raised in a Jewish household and has been Harvard’s humanist chaplain since 2005, teaching students about the progressive movement that centers people’s relationships with one another instead of with God.

. . .To Mr. Epstein, becoming the organization’s head, especially as it gains more recognition from the university, comes as affirmation of a yearslong effort, started by his predecessor, to teach a campus with traditional religious roots about humanism.

“We don’t look to a god for answers,” Mr. Epstein said. “We are each other’s answers.”

Mr. Epstein’s work includes hosting dinners for undergraduates where conversation goes deep: Does God exist? What is the meaning of life? He previously ran a congregation of Boston-area humanists and atheists who met in Harvard Square for weekly services that centered on secular sermons. In 2018 he closed that down to focus his time on building campus relationships, including at M.I.T., where he is also a chaplain. Mr. Epstein frequently meets individually with students who are struggling with issues both personal and theological, counseling them on managing anxiety about summer jobs, family feuds, the pressures of social media and the turbulence endemic to college life.

“Greg is irreverent and good at diffusing pressure,” Ms. Nickerson [a Harvard student who transitioned from Catholicism to humanism] said, recalling a time he joked that if her summer internship got too stressful she could always get fired — then she would have a good story to share.

Yes, there are woo-sters in Epstein’s  flock, as well as deists, but there are also atheists, humanists, and those questioning religion in general. Epstein will listen to them, but not give them answers, which they must find for themselves. And that’s the way it should be.

John Horgan: a proud agnostic

August 21, 2021 • 12:00 pm

Here’s a new Scientific American column by science writer John Horgan who, unlike many of his fellow op-ed writers on the magazine, at least has the decency to stick to science and not foist social justice dogma on the  science-minded readers. (There a dreadful Sci. Am. column this week on that issue, and we’ll deal with it tomorrow.)

In this new piece, Horgan declares himself an agnostic about three matters noted in the title: God, quantum mechanics, and consciousness. What they have in common is simply that Horgan is agnostic about them.  And he does seem “agnostic” about God, though the difference here between agnosticism and atheism is a matter of degree rather than kind. As for quantum mechanics and consciousness, Horgan seems to evince no doubt that they work; rather, he’s agnostic about the explanations that people offer about why they work.  I have a different take on Horgan’s thoughts in each area, so I’ll divide them up below. Click on the screenshot to read his lucubrations.

GOD:  Horgan is more of an agnostic than, say, Dawkins or I, because he seems to find some positive evidence that there might be a God (I know of none). Therefore, on the “believer scale”, he’d put himself closer to 1 (firm believer) than Richard or I on Dawkins’s “spectrum of theistic probability.” (In that scale, 1 represents no doubt that God exists, while 7 represents strong atheism, that is, “I know that God doesn’t exist”). Now no scientist would put themselves at 7, simply because there’s always a finite probability that some godlike creature exists and you’d have to change your mind (of course, you’d have to proffer your definition of God before positioning yourself on the scale). Dawkins puts himself at about 6.9, and I’d be close to that point as well.

The question is this: what difference is there between an agnostic and an atheist? I’m not going to argue about this at length, but simply give my view. An atheist, to me, is someone who simply doesn’t entertain a belief in gods, which would mean 4 and above on that scale. But an agnostic who says, “I just don’t know about God don’t see the evidence, so I profess no belief in gods”, could also be seen as an atheist. As many have pointed out, agnosticism could be considered atheism.

But Horgan’s agnosticism isn’t really atheism as many of us hold it, since he seems to see some evidence that God exists. To wit:

Francis Collins, a geneticist who directs the National Institutes of Health. He is a devout Christian, who believes that Jesus performed miracles, died for our sins and rose from the dead. In his 2006 bestseller The Language of God, Collins calls agnosticism a “cop-out.” When I interviewed him, I told him I am an agnostic and objected to “cop-out.”

Collins apologized. “That was a put-down that should not apply to earnest agnostics who have considered the evidence and still don’t find an answer,” he said. “I was reacting to the agnosticism I see in the scientific community, which has not been arrived at by a careful examination of the evidence.” [JAC: Seriously? I’ve seen frozen waterfalls and I’m still not convinced.] I have examined the evidence for Christianity, and I find it unconvincing. I’m not convinced by any scientific creation stories, either, such as those that depict our cosmos as a bubble in an oceanic “multiverse.”

Well, yes, we should be an agnostic about the “multiverse” since there’s no evidence for it. But not all “scientific creation stories” warrant agnosticism. Evolution is one, with the Ur-organism forming via naturalistic processes. I assume Horgan accepts that, though I don’t know. And I also presume he doesn’t doubt the big bang, which is the “scientific creation story of our Universe.” He may doubt what made the Big Bang happen, but that’s a different kind of agnosticism. Maybe Horgan is agnostic about only those creation stories for which there’s no evidence.

And there’s this. Horgan avers that evil poses a problem for most Abrahamic theists, and the “free will” explanation for moral evil isn’t convincing (and there’s no good explanation for the existence of physical evil, though Horgan mentions “free will of cancer cells). But then he comes out with this:

On the other hand, life isn’t always hellish. We experience love, friendship, adventure and heartbreaking beauty. Could all this really come from random collisions of particles? Even Weinberg concedes that life sometimes seems “more beautiful than strictly necessary.” If the problem of evil prevents me from believing in a loving God, then the problem of beauty keeps me from being an atheist like Weinberg. Hence, agnosticism.

I’m not sure there is a problem of beauty. First of all, it has to have something to do with evolution, because to a planarian or a lizard, I doubt that the world “seems more beautiful than strictly necessary.” In other words, the more complex your nervous system, the more beauty you can experience, which to me points not to god, but to beauty as either an evolved perception—one Ed Wilson suggests in Biophilia or, alternatively, the perception of human beauty connected with reproductive fitness—or an epiphenomenon of our nervous system (music could be such a reaction, playing on aural tropes that somehow affect emotion). But at any rate, I don’t see this problem of “excess beauty”, and therefore I don’t see it as any kind of evidence for God. One could just as well argue that for virtually all organisms, there is excess pain, danger, and unpleasantness.

And there are good evolutionary explanations for friendship and love: bonding to a mate or to members of small, cohesive groups. Also, there’s reciprocal altruism. . .

QUANTUM MECHANICS: There’s no doubt that quantum mechanics is a good theory because it predicts everything that we see, down to the umpteenth decimal place. The controversy about it is not whether it works, but what it means. Does it involve an observer, as some have evoked for the “double slit” experiment, does it involve wave functions that don’t need observers, and could it involve multiverses? We don’t know. And it’s above my pay grade to adjudicate explanations like the “Copenhagen Interpretation” against its rivals.  It may be that there will never be any explanation of quantum mechanics that makes sense to us for we’re evolved creatures with limited comprehension.

That’s summarized in biologist J.B.S. Haldane’s famous quote, “The world is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” Quantum mechanics may be one of those things that evade supposition. Because of that, Horgan is agnostic not about quantum mechanics as a workable (or “true”, if you will) theory, but about how we can make sense of it on a human scale. And we might never be able to. I’m not agnostic about it, though: I’m ignorant about it.

CONSCIOUSNESS: Horgan is also hung up about explanations of consciousness, in particular the “hard problem”. How do neural impulses and their interpretation by the brain lead to “qualia”—subjective sensations like that of redness, or sadness, or pain. He seems to need a “theory” of consciousness that he can understand, as opposed to my view, which is if you have parts A, B, C, D, and so on, then you get consciousness—as either a phenomenon or epiphenomenon. To me, that is the only “explanation” or “theory” that we need, though of course one requires some kind of self-report or assessment to see if something really is consciousness that has the requisite parts connected in the requisit way.

In his search for the solution, Horgan is agnostic, but flails about to the extent that he might want Buddhism in his theory, or even panpsychism!

Gradually, this consensus collapsed, as empirical evidence for neural theories of consciousness failed to materialize. As I point out in my recent book Mind-Body Problems, there are now a dizzying variety of theories of consciousness. Christof Koch has thrown his weight behind integrated information theory, which holds that consciousness might be a property of all matter, not just brains. This theory suffers from the same problems as information-based theories of quantum mechanics. Theorists such as Roger Penrose, who won last year’s Nobel Prize in Physics, have conjectured that quantum effects underpin consciousness, but this theory is even more lacking in evidence than integrated information theory.

Researchers cannot even agree on what form a theory of consciousness should take. Should it be a philosophical treatise? A purely mathematical model? A gigantic algorithm, perhaps based on Bayesian computation? Should it borrow concepts from Buddhism, such as anatta, the doctrine of no self? All of the above? None of the above? Consensus seems farther away than ever. And that’s a good thing. We should be open-minded about our minds.

Indeed, but the idea that we’re actually falling behind in our efforts to understand consciousness is wrong: we already know how to assess it, and which parts of the brain are necessary to show it. We know how to fool it and how to take it away, and then how to restore it (removing anesthesia). Consensus is not farther away than ever.

As for integrated information theory, well, it’s intimately connected with a theory that Horgan has called “self-evidently foolish”: panpsychism, which, as he notes above, “holds that consciousness might be a property of all matter, not just brains.” IIT is one way that panpsychists say you can combine dimly conscious things like molecules into deeply conscious things like human brains.  But panpsychism isn’t even a scientific theory. For one thing, it can’t be tested, and second, the “combination” problem is finessed with fancy language that explains nothing. There is no there there.

Horgan is right that we don’t yet understand how consciousness arises, either mechanistically or evolutionarily. So yes, he’s right to be agnostic about how it comes about. But I’m confident that we will understand it one day, and not through Buddhism or panpsychism. We have to keep plugging away, and using not religion or Buddhism or panpsychism, but straight old laboratory and experimental naturalism.

As for God, well, if Horgan thinks that an “excess of beauty” constitutes a tick on the God side of the ledger, let him. I don’t buy it. And as for quantum mechanics, well, the universe may be queerer than we can suppose, and while we may know the laws, they may never make “common” sense to our evolved brains.

Horgan ends his piece by saying this:

I’m definitely a skeptic. I doubt we’ll ever know whether God exists, what quantum mechanics means, how matter makes mind. These three puzzles, I suspect, are different aspects of a single, impenetrable mystery at the heart of things. But one of the pleasures of agnosticism—perhaps the greatest pleasure—is that I can keep looking for answers and hoping that a revelation awaits just over the horizon.

I don’t know why he sees these three diverse issues as part of a single mystery, as they’re not very related. Their only commonality is that we are ignorant about some aspects of these phenomena. Is Horgan’s “single, impenetrable mystery” a divine one? Why does he think they’re even connected?

But, just sticking with God for the moment, what kind of “revelation” would convince Horgan that there is no God? If the Nazis and kids getting leukemia won’t do it, what would? I can’t imagine how he’d answer.