In this segment of yesterday’s Bill Maher show, the host beefs about the failure of Americans to pay attention to the increasing titer of atheists in America (we’re 32% “nones), due partly to the failure of atheists to “out” themselves (he mentions Obama).
Where, he asks, is “Atheist Day” at a time when schools all over America are celebrating Ramadan—a whole month observed by Muslims who are far outnumbered by nonbelievers? And Maher gives many reasons why an Atheist Day is superior to all other religious holidays.
SciGlam is a science communication magazine intended to be a space for dialogue between three major spheres of knowledge and culture: art, science and society.
We believe that normalizing scientific conversation is essential in the pursuit of a healthier and more skeptical society.
Our mission is to inspire scientific curiosity and involvement. For this reason, we end each interview with one last question for the interviewee: if you could ask a scientist of any background a question, what would it be? The answers to these questions can be found in SciGlam Answers.
I believe the site is run by young women scientists and journalists, and they wrote me last fall asking me to give a short answer to the question, “Can scientists believe in God?” The question came from their earlier interview with bookseller S. W. Welch, in which the Q&A ended like this:
If you could ask a scientist of any background a question, what would it be?
Do scientists believe in God?
And Sciglam gives those questions to appropriate people, ergo me. I was eager to answer, not only to help out some aspiring young folks, but also because the question, being a bit ambiguous, gave me the chance to clarify a common misconception about science and religion.
That misconception is that science and religion must be compatible because there are religious scientists (and science-friendly believers). If you construe the question literally, then of course the answer is “Yes: lots of scientists are religious.” But that, to me, fails to demonstrate that science and religion are compatible—only that someone can believe in two incompatible “ways of knowing” at the same time.
And so I took the opportunity to give both the literal answer (yes) with statistics, and then go on to argue that the more meaningful answer involves the second way of construing the question—are there fundamental incompatibilities between the practice of religion and science? As you know if you’ve read my book Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible, you’ll know that any scientist who believes in God is embracing two incompatible practices at once, adhering to two divergent ways of apprehending what is true. (Yes, I know that religion is about more than accepting “facts” that haven’t been demonstrated, but all the Abrahamic religions are, at bottom, grounded on factual claims that could in principle be tested.)
To answer the second question I’d have to summarize the thesis of my book, and I had only a few hundred words to do that. So, if you’ll click on the screenshot below, you’ll see my answer.
There are two corrections that I asked for which haven’t been made as of this writing. The body of scientists I mention is the “National Academies of Sciences“, not the uncapitalized “national academies of science.” And the statement “Science is an atheistic enterprise: we don’t invoke gods or the supernatural to explain the world, nor do we need to” should read “Science is an a-theistic enterprise in the sense that we don’t invoke gods or the supernatural to explain the world, nor do we need to.” I didn’t want to imply that science demands that its practitioners to adhere to atheism (creationists always claim I say that), but to say that the practice of science doesn’t involve invoking divine or supernatural explanations. I add that naturalism is not something that began as an inseparable part of science, but has been added over time because we’ve learned that invoking gods doesn’t help us understand the universe. Creationism, for example, was once a “scientific” explanation—until Darwin found a better and naturalistic explanation—and one that could be empirically teste.
But I run on; I’ve already written more here than in the short piece itself. Click below to read it, and be aware of the two small corrections.
One quote from me:
The fact that science can find truth but religion can’t is shown by the remarkable progress made by science in 300 years, while no progress has been made in theology. If there is a God, we know no more about Him than did St. Augustine.
Furthermore, there are hundreds of different religions, all making claims about what’s true, and yet many of the claims are incompatible (eg, “Was Jesus the son of God, or only a prophet?”). There’s no way to decide among these claims, since religion has no way to test them.
Actually, Augustine lived in the fifth century, so I should have said “no progress has been made in theology in 1500 years”. But the important point is that theology is pretty much a useless enterprise, as its sweating practitioners, who actually get paid to make stuff up, have brought us no closer to understanding God or His ways—or even, of course, if God exists. Their job is simply to continuously re-interpret religious scripture and dogma so it adheres with the going morality. Theology is different from straight Biblical scholarship, which can tell us stuff about how the Bible or other scriptures came to be written and what their antecedents were. Biblical scholarship is useful as a form of historical inquiry and literary exegesis, while theology is a remnant of our childhood as a species, a vestigial belief that’s the mental equivalent of adults holding blankets and sucking their thumbs.
I doubt that many readers went to church today, but they will find good company in this Guardian article, inspired by the recent census showing that fewer than half of people in England and Wales are Christian. Secularism is on the rise (note, though: so is Islam in the UK), and the paper found four people willing to explain why they gave up their Christianity.
Click to read the heartening tales of deep-sixing superstition:
I’ll summarize the four people who spoke publicly (last names not given); their quotes are indented, and my take is flush left.
Diana, 44, a retail worker from Yorkshire:
“Losing my faith was a process of gradual disengagement,” she says. “At some point, I didn’t think that I, as a woman, was made to submit to a man. But the final straw was watching my father die of cancer and trying to do so without pain relief as it was ‘God’s will’, while waiting to be healed. I finally admitted to myself that I didn’t believe in a supernatural being, and couldn’t pretend any more.”
Horrible deaths of the innocent are really a God-killer. As I always say, theodicy is the Achilles heel of faith.
James, a programme manager from Birmingham:
“I was raised as a Christian: church every Sunday, C of E [Church of England] school, taught to say grace before dinner.
“At some point in my late teens the stuff that provided comfort, such as the idea of an omnipotent, omniscient god, suddenly started to feel more like a fairytale you tell kids to help them sleep, and posed questions. And then I thought: ‘If God knows exactly what I’m going to do, and lets it happen, then I no longer have a free will’,” the 44-year-old says.
Well, James, I have some bad news for you. . . . .
Pauline, 54, retired and lives in Bristol:
“I probably stopped calling myself a Christian in my 30s. I was brought up as a strict Roman Catholic with Irish parents. We always went to church on Sunday, and for most of my childhood it was a ritual that was nice and comforting,” she says.
But as she got older she began to have doubts. “I felt that if God made everyone in his image, then why were people who were gay so hated by the church? It felt as if they were saying: ‘Jesus loves everybody but only if they’re like us’. The church was peddling a form of hate, and it didn’t sit right with me.
“All of the hell and damnation stuff as well, plus the amount of money the Catholic church has, it led me to be totally disillusioned by the whole thing.”
Not surprising. I’m amazed that there are people who can think but also remain Catholic (e.g., Andrew Sullivan).
Stephen Hunsaker, raised as a Mormon:
“I had been very devout my entire life, but when lockdown happened and I just stepped back, that made me realise there was so much that I no longer identified with. I felt like I had to justify it at every turn and it was bringing me an immense amount of guilt and hurt,” Hunsaker says, explaining that he also felt alienated by some Christians’ treatment of minorities and LGBTQ+ people. “Religion is meant to help you be a better person, but I felt like it was holding me back.”
Hunsaker says leaving his faith was the hardest decision he ever made. “I was very fearful that my relationship with my family and friends would be affected – my world was so wrapped up in it. [But] it went better than I thought.
“Guilt is an incredibly powerful emotion,” he says. “But as I lived without religion and found other people in solidarity it allowed for me to figure out who I am. I feel a lot more at peace.”
He’s a gutsy guy, as Mormons who leave the church are virtual apostates, and are often shunned, though he apparently wasn’t.
I admire all these people: they are true “freethinkers.” Imagine no religion! And imagine the Guardian publishing the “confessions” of four atheists—I wouldn’t expect that even in a Leftist paper.
I’m sure there have been atheists in Congress before, but I can think of only one who was open about it: Pete Stark, a Democratic representative from Congress who served from 1973-2013—a long forty years. But he announced his atheism only in 2007, six years before he retired. Barney Frank (remember him?) a Massachusetts Congressman from 1981-2013, was also an atheist, but he admitted it only after he left office. (Frank was also gay, but was open about that when he was in office, which shows you where atheists stand!)
Frank was, like me, an atheistic Jew—something that Dave Silverman asserts is an oxymoron. Here’s what he said to the Religion News Service in 2014:
CS: You became the first openly gay member of Congress in 1987, but you didn’t reveal your nontheism until after you left office. Why?
BF: It was never relevant. I never professed any theology. And it’s complicated by my Jewishness. Obviously, being Jewish is both an ethnicity and a religion. I was concerned that if I were to explicitly disavow any religiosity, it could get distorted into an effort to distance myself from being Jewish—and I thought that was wrong, given that there is anti-Jewish prejudice.
For years I would go to temple, but I suddenly realized it doesn’t mean anything to me. So I decided, I’m not going to do this. I’m not going to pretend. During my service I never pretended to be a theist. It just never became relevant that I wasn’t, and I guess I was not as conscious of the discrimination nontheists felt. But I’ve always been opposed to any imposition of religion. I fought hard, for example, with other members of Congress to oppose any notion that a religious group getting federal funds could discriminate in hiring.
When I took the oath of office, I never swore and said, “So help me God.” But members of the House take the oath en masse, so nobody noticed. I’ve said that if I’d been appointed to the Senate, as I wanted my governor to do but he decided he had other plans, I would’ve had my husband hold the Constitution.
The subject just never came up. The only religious services I’ve attended for the last 20 years were funerals; I’ve attended more masses than a lot of my Catholic friends.
I think we all know that there are lots of “hidden” atheists in the government, but they won’t admit it (Trump is surely one).
Why put your nonbelief out of view? You know why. Americans demonize atheists, and I suspect that even many of the ‘nones’, who have no declared affiliation with a church, don’t like us, either. As an article in The Conversation noted:
But in the United States, self-identified nonbelievers are at a distinct disadvantage. A 2019 poll asking Americans who they were willing to vote for in a hypothetical presidential election found that 96% would vote for a candidate who is Black, 94% for a woman, 95% for a Hispanic candidate, 93% for a Jew, 76% for a gay or lesbian candidate and 66% for a Muslim – but atheists fall below all of these, down at 60%. That is a sizable chunk who would not vote for a candidate simply on the basis of their nonreligion.
. . . In fact, a 2014 survey found Americans would be more willing to vote for a presidential candidate who had never held office before, or who had extramarital affairs, than for an atheist.
We’re not trusted, and the article discusses why. One reason is the common misconception that if you don’t believe in God, you can’t be moral.
Here’s a plot from the Conversation article showing that only SOCIALISTS are less likely to be elected than atheists. (But what about Bernie?).
Now, though, Congressman Jared Huffman of California, a Democrat (of course only Democrats would admit such a thing) has also come out as an atheist. Again, he admits it now although he’s been sitting Congress since 2013, so nobody has actually runs initially for Congressional office stating that they’re nonbelievers.
Huffman announced his apostasy at the FFRF convention; click on the announcement below to read:
Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., made his views on the nonexistence of God extremely clear at the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s recently concluded annual convention in San Antonio.
In his taped remarks welcoming convention-goers, he stated, “I feel like I have sort of become the surrogate representative for countless folks across the United States that identify as nonreligious. As many of you know, I am the token humanist in Congress. A few others are coy about how they describe their religious views but I’ve come right out and said it: I’m a humanist and I don’t believe in God.”
Well, he didn’t say the “a-word” but he is one. It’s weird how you can say you don’t believe in God and yet not call yourself explicitly an “atheist”. The article continues.
Huffman has been a stalwart defender of secularism in Congress, as a founding member and co-chair of the Congressional Freethought Caucus. Its mission statement is “to promote public policy formed on the basis of reason, science, and moral values; to protect the secular character of our government by adhering to the strict constitutional principle of the separation of church and state; to oppose discrimination against atheists, agnostics, humanists, seekers, religious and nonreligious persons, and to champion the value of freedom of thought and conscience worldwide; and to provide a forum for members of Congress to discuss their moral frameworks, ethical values, and personal religious journeys.”
The caucus currently has 17 members, more than quadruple its size since its establishment four years ago.
This revelation isn’t entirely surprising considering past statements and advocacy. A 2017 article proclaimed Huffman wasn’t “sure” if there was a God. He said he used to ignore questions about his faith but has changed course in recent years.
“I don’t believe in religious tests, and I don’t believe my religion is all that important to the people I represent, and I think there’s too much religion in politics,” he told the Post at the time. “For those reasons, I felt good about not even answering it.”
Huffman became more vocal, though, crediting former President Donald Trump and others who were relying on Christianity in policy-making; thus, he, too, started speaking up. Rather than embrace the “atheist” label, though, he called himself — much like in the most recent video — a “humanist.”
“I’m not hostile to religion, and I’m not judging other people’s religious views,” Huffman said in his Post interview. “I suppose you could say I don’t believe in God. The only reason I hesitate is — unlike some humanists, I’m not completely closing the door to spiritual possibilities. We all know people who have had experiences they believe are divine … and I’m open to something like that happening.”
So here are the lessons. If you want to be a politician who actually gets elected:
Never call yourself an “atheist”; you can say you’re a “humanist” or even a “nonbeliever”
Only reveal your atheism after you’ve been in office for a while.
Never say anything bad about religion: antitheism is a non-starter.
But there is something good in this, too, of course. A guy can openly declare he’s an atheist now and even get re-elected (like Pete Stark) after you’ve admitted it. But first you have to have been in government for a long time and kept your mouth shut.
Second, there’s a Congressional Freethought Caucus, and I didn’t know about that. It’s small, though: the FFRF says this:
Other members of the Congressional Freethought Caucus include Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Calif., Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., and Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md. FFRF hopes that additional representatives will join their lead.]
I haven’t yet subscribed to Freddie deBoer’s Substack site, but I get emails when he posts, and you can read this one for free. And you should (click on screenshot):
First deBoer attacks “belief in belief” (a term I believe was coined by Dan Dennett): the “little people” argument adduced by nonbelievers who claim that religion is good because it’s a form of social glue, and also because it fills the need to believe in something: the “god-shaped hole” that we supposedly all have. He said this in an earlier post on Jon Haidt:
. . . belief in belief is belief in delusion – worse, in other people’s delusion. It is one thing to argue that religion is true or is not true. It is another to say “it isn’t, incidentally, but go on pretending, it’s good for you.” In the inherent condescension of that attitude I see something worse than Christopher Hitchens ever unleashed against the faithful. Whatever Christianity is, it is not worship of the God-shaped hole. Whatever Judaism is, it is not the worship of the God-shaped hole. Whatever Islam is, it is not the worship of the God-shaped hole. And in fact if you take the precepts of those religions at all seriously, you can see praying to the God-shaped hole for what it is: idolatry.
Now, however, deBoer sees the rise of another form of religion, one that has occasionally been adduced by Andrew Sullivan:
There’s a new wrinkle to all of this: nowadays I frequently encounter people online who not only say that postmodern religion (post-belief religion) is good, I regularly hear that there has never been another kind. That is, I am told that, according to an extremely tendentious and evidence-light perspective, pretty much nobody ever believed any of the supernatural claims in religious stories – not the burning bush, not water into wine, no splitting of the moon, no siddhis, none of the supernatural events common to Mahayana Buddhism. In this telling nobody, or almost nobody, has ever believed in transcendent extra-material deities or their magical works in the world of man. Do these people think Jesus’s apostles never really believed that he died and rose again – not metaphorically, but actually, in the physical and literal realm – but went out to spread his gospel anyway? Unclear! Haidt cited St. Augustine and Pascal as two people who spoke to his idea about the god-shaped hole. Neither of them professed any belief in belief as such, any belief in belief with no actual divine referent.
This is projection on a whole other level, to me. People find that they can’t summon belief in the supernatural, but they want what people who can summon that belief have.
If you think that Church Fathers like Aquinas, Augustine the Hippo (that’s a joke, folks) or Tertullian saw the Bible as pure metaphor, you don’t know your theology. (Yes, they saw the Bible as metaphorical in some bits, but also as literal truth as a whole.) I lay this out in Faith Versus Fact.
deBoer takes apart this idea of Relgion as Metaphorical Comfort:
If you want to say that belief in the supernatural elements of religion has always been complicated; if you want to say that at least some doubt in the existence of God is common to lived religious practice; if you want to say that it’s all more complicated than I’ve laid it out here – fine. But I continue to find belief-in-belief to be a dead end. I cannot for the life of me understand why you’d engage in religious practice without any belief in the actual transcendent claims on which religion is based rather than simply participating in moral philosophy. It is admittedly difficult to craft a transcendently/objectively true moral philosophy without some conception of a deity that determines right and wrong, but people have been working on it for a couple thousand years. I also understand the desire for the community and fraternity that religion can engender, but surely these are possible without religion, and our Bowling Alone present (the death of communal life in contemporary times) is a bigger and separate issue. The basic question remains: why bother with the bric a brac if you know that the crucifix you pray towards reflects only a deluded carpenter who tried and tried and finally got Rome’s attention? There are many pretty buildings in the world. You can eat your own bread and drink your own wine. You can burn your own incense. It’s all available to you.
The only way that such belief is justifiable is if you admit that you don’t accept any of the truth claims of the religion but simply like seeing the candles, hearing the choir, and smelling the incense—and think that it’s good for society to have such rituals. To me, the real believers that enable the incense-sniffers are a drag on society, though, and we always have books, soccer, and wine for entertainment. Why is smelling the incense when you lack all belief better than smelling the bouquet of a fine old Bordeaux?
Just a note to say that H.L. Mencken was born on this day in 1888. His powerful essay, “Where are the Grave-yards of the Dead Gods?” is, of course, always worth revisiting.
It was too late to include his birthday in the Hili Dialogue, which was already published (I don’t put birthdays in there any longer, anyway), but I did remember that famous essay and decided to put it here for your delectation.
Mencken was of course a very famous writer in his day, despised by the conventional and religious but beloved by apostates, heretics, and the heterodox—as well as by lovers of good writing. He had a uniquely academic/popular and acerbic writing style, and didn’t pull any punches. And he despised religion publicly and loudly—unusual in that day.
I happen to love Mencken, even though he had his flaws. But he wrote like a dream with prose that was sui generis; he was passionate in advancing his views; and he also liked classical music, a good cigar, and a schooner of beer. If you want a good introduction to his work, I highly recommend the book below (click on screenshot to go to the Amazon link). It’s a selection of his work that he compiled himself. I especially recommend Mencken’s essay “Professor Veblen”, also found in this book, which you can read online for free. It’s his savaging of the pretentious Thorstein Veblen’s books, especially Veblen’s then-famous The Theory of the Leisure Class. Read it; it’s the funniest book review I know of. What was the sweating professor trying to say?
And here, from the Millennium Project, is his essay on (or rather against) religion. It gives a good sense of his writing style.
H. L. Mencken
Where is the grave-yard of dead gods? What lingering mourner waters their mounds? There was a day when Jupiter was the king of the gods, and any man who doubted his puissance was ipso facto a barbarian and an ignoramus. But where in all the world is there a man who worships Jupiter to-day? And what of Huitzilopochtli? In one year–and it is no more than five hundred years ago–50,000 youths and maidens were slain in sacrifice to him. Today, if he is remembered at all, it is only by some vagrant savage in the depths of the Mexican forest. Huitzilopochtli, like many other gods, had no human father; his mother was a virtuous widow; he was born of an apparently innocent flirtation that she carried on with the sun. When he frowned, his father, the sun, stood still. When he roared with rage, earthquakes engulfed whole cities. When he thirsted he was watered with 10,000 gallons of human blood. But today [in 1921] Huitzilopochtli is as magnificently forgotten as Allen G. Thurman. Once the peer of Allah, Buddha, and Wotan, he is now the peer of General Coxey, Richmond P. Hobson, Nan Petterson, Alton B. Parker, Adelina Patti, General Weyler, and Tom Sharkey.
Speaking of Huitzilopochtli recalls his brother, Tezcatilpoca. Tezcatilpoca was almost as powerful: He consumed 25,000 virgins a year. Lead me to his tomb: I would weep, and hang a couronne des perles. But who knows where it is? Or where the grave of Quitzalcontl is? Or Tialoc? Or Chalchihuitlicue? Or Xiehtecutli? Or Centeotl, that sweet one? Or Tlazolteotl, the goddess of love? Or Mictlan? Or Ixtlilton? Or Omacatl? Or Yacatecutli? Or Mixcoatl? Or Xipe? Or all the host of Tzitzimitles? Where are their bones? Where is the willow on which they hung their harps? In what forlorn and unheard of hell do they await the resurrection morn? Who enjoys their residuary estates? Or that of Dis, whom Caesar found to be the chief god of the Celts? Or that of Tarves, the bull? Or that of Moccos, the pig? Or that of Epona, the mare? Or that of Mullo, the celestial jack-ass? There was a time when the Irish revered all these gods as violently as they now hate the English. But today even the drunkest Irishman laughs at them.
But they have company in oblivion: The hell of dead gods is as crowded as the Presbyterian hell for babies. Damona is there, and Esus, and Drunemeton, and Silvana, and Dervones, and Adsalluta, and Deva, and Belisama, and Axona, and Vintios, and Taranuous, and Sulis, and Cocidius, and Adsmerius, and Dumiatis, and Caletos, and Moccus, and Ollovidius, and Albiorix, and Leucitius, and Vitucadrus, and Ogmios, and Uxellimus, and Borvo, and Grannos, and Mogons. All mighty gods in their day, worshiped by millions, full of demands and impositions, able to bind and loose–all gods of the first class, not dilettanti. Men labored for generations to build vast temples to them–temples with stones as large as hay-wagons. The business of interpreting their whims occupied thousands of priests, wizards, archdeacons, evangelists, haruspices, bishops, archbishops. To doubt them was to die, usually at the stake. Armies took to the field to defend them against infidels: Villages were burned, women and children were butchered, cattle were driven off. Yet in the end they all withered and died, and today there is none so poor to do them reverence. Worse, the very tombs in which they lie are lost, and so even a respectful stranger is debarred from paying them the slightest and politest homage.
What has become of Sutekh, once the high god of the whole Nile Valley? What has become of:
All these were once gods of the highest eminence. Many of them are mentioned with fear and trembling in the Old Testament. They ranked, five or six thousand years ago, with Jahveh himself; the worst of them stood far higher than Thor. Yet they have all gone down the chute, and with them the following:
Diana of Ephesus
You may think I spoof. That I invent the names. I do not. Ask the rector to lend you any good treatise on comparative religion: You will find them all listed. They were gods of the highest standing and dignity–gods of civilized peoples–worshiped and believed in by millions. All were theoretically omnipotent, omniscient, and immortal. And all are dead.
A great economy of prose there! Of Mencken it can truly be said: there was nobody like him before, and there will be none like him again.
Reader Daniel brought this article to my attention. It’s from The Critic; and when I asked about the site, Daniel responded:
It’s a print and online magazine – pretty big in Britain now, though quite a recent arrival on the scene. Nick Cohen has written for it I think – though it skews more right.
Nick Cohen is on the left, of course, but that’s irrelevant for this piece, which Daniel said was “very strange”.
In fact, “very strange” is a huge understatement. “Incomprehensible” is a better adjective: the piece is a total mess, conflating politics with atheism, science with politics, and with a thesis that’s simply made up, supported by wishes rather than evidence. Click to read it; it’s not long. (Reading time: Until you need a Pepto-Bismol.)
The thesis, that New Atheism is in effect dead, is hardly new: Salon regularly proclaimed it starting years ago. What’s new is Milbank’s explanation: that the “movement” has fractured, with one moiety moving Leftwards into progressivism and another moving to the Right, with both bits abandoning all the tenets that “New Atheism” had when it was started by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Dan Dennett. And those tenets were a trust in the power of science and rationality.
My first claim would be that “New Atheism” was never really a “movement”, but simply a rejection of gods in the tradition of Spinoza, Marx, Nietzsche, Ingersoll, Mencken, Russell, and so on down to the atheists of our day. There’s a list of contemporary NAs too, and I’m on it, quoted this way:
[Coyne] confesses to impatience with the New Atheists, remarking: “[H]ow much is there to say about a movement whose members are united, after all, by only one thing: disbelief in divine beings and a respect for reason and evidence. What more is there to say?”
I don’t remember saying that, but I certainly don’t have impatience with New Atheists, but with those who characterize it as a coherent “movement.” It’s not even an ideology, but an absence of belief in gods. Now there are certain traits of some New Atheism that make them differ a bit from Old Atheists, the most prominent being its reliance on science and evidence as a reason to reject gods, and its vociferous antitheism (though not all New Atheists are that vociferous!) Yet even Old Atheists like Bertrand Russell had science-oriented objections to god.
But let’s grant that there is a group of people sharing this disbelief and also a respect for evidence. Is that form of New Atheism dead? I would say “no”: it’s been absorbed into the mainstream, with the result that the West is becoming ever more secular. The books of the Four Horsemen sold like hotcakes, and America (and especially Europe) became more secular. “Nones”—those who profess no formal religion—not constitute the fastest-growing “faith” in the U.S. No more “New Atheist” books are being written now simply because we don’t need any more. All the arguments have been made, and the books did their job.
On to Milbank’s muddled argument. He argues, correctly, that faith in reality, science, and materialism is characteristic of New Atheism. But, he argues, Left-wing “New Atheists” have transmogrified into full Wokies, having given up science for the “feelies”. Have a look to see how he conflates “New Atheism” with “The Left”, though most Leftists wouldn’t call themselves New Atheists:
The great battles, we were told, were between moderate, rational liberals who just wanted to agree on objectively observable facts — we knew how old the earth was, and it wasn’t created 8000 years ago; we knew the climate was changing, and that humans were causing it. It was wild-eyed religious conservatives who put ideology before observable reality. But insisting too hard on the importance of genetics today gets you drummed out of academic institutions by the left, not the right.
Not that the left has wholly given up on the imprimatur of scientific authority — you will find scientific expertise wielded on behalf of the climate or trans rights or drug policy on a regular basis. But there has been a clear rhetorical and conceptual shift. Where once the left stood for cool-headed rationalism, taking the emotion out of how we punish criminals or police drugs, and asking “what works?”, it now embraces an ideology of “care”. Peer-reviewed papers are as likely to take on board the “lived experiences of victims” and “indigenous ways of knowing” as they are data-driven approaches. Environmental policy is less “2 minutes to midnight on the Doomsday Clock” than it is “how do I lower my carbon emissions as a vegan who likes holidays to Thailand?”
He’s talking here about the Progressive Left, not those who were (and are) New Atheists. Not only is Milbank a bad thinker, but also a bad writer.
Here he refers to the “old” New Atheists like Hitchens:
Anyone who had the ill fortune to cross swords with this type quickly discovered their curious bushido. The warriors of atheism would deploy strange sophistic arguments, saying for example that there were no atheist beliefs — or for that matter a thing called “New Atheism”. An atheist was “just someone who didn’t believe in God” (despite all being identical stormtrooper-like clones). Above all, they would never, ever, ever stop arguing with you. Having the last word was a way of life, a matter of honour.
Sorry, but it’s the religionists who wouldn’t stop arguing. After all, for the one book on atheism by Dawkins, The God Delusion, there were about a dozen responses by believers—responses Richard calls “fleas”. And what is this with “stormtrooper-like clones”? That’s just a slur, and a hyperbolic one.
It’s clear that Milbank mainly dislikes the New Atheists because they were hard on religion, though he won’t admit it. He’s particularly nasty towards those who criticize the oppressive tenets of Islam (I guess he never heard of New Atheist Ayaan Hirsi Ali). Here’s he’s talking about the dissolution of New Atheism:
But there were always tensions. Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens in particular were both strongly associated with hostility towards Islam — a feature of right wing politics. Dawkins was more of an equal opportunity offender, but his rhetoric against Islam was scarcely less ferocious. The very male and rational world of New Atheism was never a fully natural fit for the rising influence of sociological disciplines steeped in subjective emotion, postmodern philosophy and a strong sympathy with (often highly religious) ethnic minority groups.
This, he says, explains why New Atheists on the Left became woke. And yes, some New Atheists became woke, but not any of the famous ones I read (have you read the three remaining Horsemen lately?), but I’m not aware that this hypothetical change made them believers. How many of them re-embraced God after they got woke?
So, after mistakenly saying that New Atheism split between Leftists and Rightists, with both fractions abandoning what characterized the genre (yes, people got less vociferous, but that was simply because everything had been said), Milbank calls out the Atheists on the Right, too:
Much of what New Atheism embodied has now migrated rightwards. The young rationalist male of today is watching Jordan Peterson videos and listening to the Joe Rogan podcast. Dawkins himself is now an “anti-woke” figure. The people that are most furiously applying evolutionary psychology to human relations today are incels — with concepts like “hypergamy”, “assortative mating”, “alpha” and “beta males” popularised online by lonely young men looking for explanations as to why they can’t get a date.
As a movement, New Atheism has fractured and lost its original spirit. Its afterlife on the right sees it allied with pseudo-mystical Jungianism, veneration of the nationalist mythos, outright neopaganism and strategic alliances with religious conservatives. Another portion has moved leftwards, embodied by the “I Fucking Love Science” woke nerd of today. Where once nerd culture was marginal, it is now the dominant commercial force, and it is forcefully allied not with rationalism, but progressivism.
Incels? What does that have to do with New Atheism?
This is bogus. I’m a rationalist male, as are many readers of this site, and from what I read I don’t see much love for Joe Rogan or Jordan Peterson (Peterson, by the way, happens to be religious). As far as I can see, the New Atheists of yore haven’t moved rightward, but stayed where they were politically, but reacted (rationally) to the irrational rise of Wokeness on the left and the rise of the insanity of the more extreme Right. To characterize New Atheists (who, after all, are still with us) as advocates of Jung and Jordan Peterson is, as the Germans say, “Wahnsinn.”
I want to give on more quote from Milbank just to show what a bad writer he is, piling one slur atop another. Here he’s saying what happened to Left-wing New Atheists, of which I’m one:
The nerd of yesteryear railed against the hysterical right blaming D&D for satanic ritual murder (yes, really) and accusing violent video games of inspiring school shootings. Now however, the Rick and Morty-watching, comic book convention-attending, board game-playing geek is an enthusiastic supporter of LGBTQ+ rights, and bearded, pot-bellied podcasters take breaks from reviewing the latest superhero franchise to pontificate about police violence and women’s representation. His heroes are not Dawkins (though there’s lingering affection and shared canon there), but Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson. He’s not religious, but he’s a gentler sort of atheist, one who can spare a tear for the plight of Palestine and cheerfully celebrate his friend’s tasteful same-sex ceremony in a suitably enlightened Evangelical church. Science, this sort of character can assure you, is firmly on the side of every progressive cause and opinion.
He’s talking about Wokeism here, and conflating it with New Atheism. Is there any reason to believe that New Atheists are more prone to become Wokies than are gentler “old-style” atheists, or than believers? Moreover, the atheists I know do NOT use “science” as a reason to buttress progressivism. Rather, they (and I) see positive changes in morality as a result of philosophical and moral thought. “Is” does not tell us “ought”, and although science can be used to buttress moral stands, it does not tell us, for instance, that same-sex marriages are absolutely fine. Moral considerations do that.
At the end of his piece, Milbank goes completely off the rails and argues that all the New Atheists have now become solipsistic, selfish materialists. And he adds another sympathetic comment about religion. Get a load of this!:
New Atheism is dead, but the materialism that underwrote it lives on more powerfully and subtly than ever. The curious sort of pugnacious integrity has gone, replaced with a far more pragmatic and amorphous spirit appropriate to the age of liquid modernity. The New Atheists were perversely very concerned with questions of metaphysics and epistemology, whereas a newer generation of materialists of both left and right are concerned only with power, not capital “T” Truth. In many respects the neoconservative and New Atheist moment of the 2000s was, however perversely, the last gasp of idealistic, traditionally religious politics that prioritised truth over power, and imagined that society was united by a shared rationality and sense of the common good. But they also served to destroy the civilisation of which they were the final embodiment — and have left only sophistry and cynicism as their legacy.
That paragraph is a mess, and not even wrong. For here Milbank he conflates two forms of “materialism”: one being a form of greed and desire for money and “things”, the other being “materialism” as naturalism: the view that all things must obey the laws of physics, and that there is no divine intercession. The claim about new atheists being concerned with power and not truth is pretty much a lie.
Here’s a diagram Milbank gives (click to enlarge), supposedly showing how New Atheists have changed their views about science from a method to ascertain truth to a method to confirm what you already believe:
A lot of New Atheists were scientists or science lovers (see this list), and I don’t know any who have moved from the left to the right diagram.
In the end, Milbank’s article is a bunch of slurs against New Atheists, who don’t deserve (or warrant) this kind of attack. But we needn’t take it seriously because he can neither think nor write.
I think “New Atheism” is a bit of a cyclical phenomenon. The arguments against gods are made, and people either accept them or reject them. Given the movement of the West towards secularism, we have more of the former than the latter, and society becomes more secular.
From time to time, after people haven’t been exposed to the arguments for disbelief for a generation or more, they need reminding, and we’ll get a resurgence of atheism. And the ratchet will click once more towards secularism.
People like Milbank or the writers at Salon love to proclaim that New Atheism is dead, but it still refuses to lay down. The only thing missing are the best-selling “New Atheist” books, which were a passing episode that won’t be repeated for a while. In fact, maybe, when the U.S. becomes as secular as Northern Europe, they need not be repeated—at least in the West. Those who still need New Atheist books and arguments are the hyperreligious and largely Muslim countries of the Middle and Far East.
Here’s a new episode from “The Big Conversation” (sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation!) in which Francis Collins, former director of the National Institutes of Health and an evangelical Christian, debates—or rather discusses—a variety of issues with evolutionist and atheist Richard Dawkins. The moderator is Justin Brierly.
The argument centers on religion, especially on what constitutes “evidence” for God. You might ask, “Why on earth would Dawkins debate Collins, since there’s no chance that either will change their minds?” But I think Dawkins took the time to do this to show the intellectually depauperate nature of Collins’s “evidence” for God. That evidence includes the laws of physics, our appreciation of beauty, the moral behavior of humans, and so on. Collins is not a “sophisticated” theologian, but remember that he’s not a theologian but a scientist who came to believe in Jesus through observing a waterfall frozen in three spouts (“the Trinity”). Collins seems to have picked up most of his arguments for God from a combination of C. S. Lewis and more modern “apologetics”, like the “fine-tuning” argument for God based on physical constants.
Reader Rick, who sent me this link, says “I’ve watched most of this and Collins is irritating. When Richard points out a contradiction in his God hypothesis, he simply shrugs it off and says God can be anything He wants. What a copout!”
But more about that contradiction below. In the meantime, if you want to hear a discussion between two smart guys, one of whom is subject to delusions, have a listen to this 1½ hour video. Let me add that Collins is an amiable and likable fellow, and was friends with Hitchens, helping Hitch with his cancer treatment. What puzzles me is how such an apparently nice guy can buy into a passel of religious nonsense for which there’s no evidence.
But click to listen. It’s a better discussion than you might think.
They begin by discussing covid: Richard thinks that the lockdowns were premature, but Collins extolls scientific community’s rapid response in creating the mRNA vaccines.
With that out of the way, it’s onto the Big Questions of religion. Collins recounts his conversion from atheism to religion, saying that he found that “faith was more rational than atheism” given the nature of the world. As for why Collins became a Christian rather than a Hindu or Jew, he says that he “needed an anchor for his faith”, and found one in “Jesus Christ, a historical figure about which we know a great deal”. Of course that “great deal” is solely from the Bible, and many of us aren’t even convinced that the anchor for Collins’s faith even existed. It would have been better for Collins to admit that “the great deal” is found entirely in the Bible, and different accounts of Jesus say different things.
The bit where I think Collins’s argument for God starts going awry is in his discussion with Richard about evolution. Richard asks Collins the penetrating question, “If God could do anything, why did he choose to produce humans via the tortuous process of evolution?” Couldn’t He have just poofed all life into existence, as Genesis describes? And given—and Collins seems to agree—that a perfectly naturalistic process of evolution via natural selection could explain the appearance of organic design, why did God choose a mechanism that made Him superfluous?” (The question doesn’t arise about whether Collins thinks that with the appearance of H. sapiens the purpose of evolution has now been fulfilled: we have a product that evolved into God’s image.)
Collins’s answer smacks of a posteriori-ism, making the necessity of evolution into a virtue. As Collins says, “Evolution makes me even more in awe of the Creator than if God had just poofed things into existence.” In other words, God had a Big Plan for creating humans, and that Big Plan was evolution. Isn’t that mah-velous? But he doesn’t explain why going through this Big Plan is more admirable and elegant than poofing things into existence. After all, several lineages of Homo, as well as of hominins, went extinct.
Collins has a further response: God is all about order, and wanted a Universe that follows elegant mathematical laws. (Collins notes that the existence of those laws themselves constitutes evidence for God.) Ergo, we had evolution, which followed physical laws. But this conflicts with Collins’s later assertion that it would be foolish to presume anything about the mind of God. After all, until 1859, all theologians thought that God cared more for creating humans instantly than for “following mathematical laws”.
The fine-tuning argument—the notion that the laws of physics were set up by God to allow the appearance of life and God’s Chosen Species—is especially appealing to Collins, even though there are naturalistic explanations for it. But Richard notes that if there were any argument that would convince him of God, it would be one related to fine-tuning. However, he adds that, as Hitch would say, “Collins has all his work before him.” Even if “fine-tuning” were to constitutes some sort of evidence for a Creator who made physical law, it gives no credence to Christianity and Jesus, who are smuggled in by Collins as an afterthought.
Richard adds the usual argument about how a a creator could come into being who ws so complex that he could bring into being the laws of physics. Collins responds that God could do it because he resides “outside of space and time.” Richard rightfully dismisses that notion as another a posteriori argument brought in without evidence to save God, noting that Collins’s “beyond space and time” argument “smacks of inventing a new cop-out instead of providing a proper explanation.”
Finally there’s Collins’s “contradiction,” which begins about 47:45 in the discussion. It is of course about theodicy. Why is there physical evil in a world created by an omnipotent and benevolent God? But Collins has a response, which I’ll call the “Let Her Roll Hypothesis”. It is this: God created the world so that it would obey his physical laws. And those physical laws simply allow for the existence of evil. Tectonic plates create earthquakes and tsunamis that kill innocents, cancers arise from mutations that obey physical laws, viruses evolve. In other words, God is more concerned with maintaining a Natural Order instead of mitigating suffering by interceding.
In response to Richard’s query that, if God can do miracles, couldn’t He have mitigated natural evil?, Collins says that miracles are a special case, to be used only in very special circumstances when convincing the world of God’s existence and power are overwhelmingly important. (One of these miracles, avers Collins, was the Resurrection.) Otherwise, it’s Let Her Roll, and if a kid gets leukemia, or a tsunami kills several hundred thousand people, or a virus kills several million people, well, that’s just the byproduct of how God has chosen to run the Universe. It’s a remarkably sneaky but clever argument. (It could also be called “The Argument for the Rarity of Miracles.”) Evil, in other words, is simply a byproduct of God’s penchant for natural order and natural law, even if he could flout natural law if He wanted.
On to the query, “Where did the laws of physics come from?” (Dawkins says that if anybody would convince him of God, it would be that point.) But he adds, why smuggle in Christianity and Jesus? Collins says that God was in a position to create the laws of physics because “God exists outside of into space and time.” (This doesn’t sound like a real argument to me.)
Richard responds that saying God is “outside time and space” is another a posteriori explanation, something that “smacks of inventing a new cop-out instead of providing a proper explanation”
The last part of the discussion is about human altruism, an altruism that Collins sees as evidence for God. In contrast, Dawkins sees it a carryover from the millions of years over which our ancestors lived in small bands in which reciprocal altruism (and kin selection) would have been adaptive. The “rule of thumb” to be nice and helpful to others, argues Dawkins, shows that “altruism” could have been a product of adaptive evolution. The same goes for beauty, with Collins seeing human appreciation for music, art, and landscapes as evidence for God, while Richard notes that if birds can show a preference for beauty (this is Richard Prum’s argument for sexual selection), then so could humans.
My take? It’s an interesting discussion, but of course was doomed from the outset by both men holding incompatible worldviews. I have to say though—and call me biased if you will—that the ability of naturalism to solve scientific problems gives me a preference for Richard’s naturalism over Collins’s supernaturalism. In fact, Collins appears to believe in a lot of things for which there’s no evidence, like the Resurrection, and this detracts from his scientific worldview in other areas. Further, Collins appears to make stuff up as he goes along to buttress the weaknesses in his evangelical Christianity. But of course that’s the way theologians and regular believers have always operated.
In the end, the debate is a very clear demonstration of the philosophy of naturalism versus that of supernaturalism. To me, the ability of naturalism to explain the world (“we have no need of the God hypothesis”), plus the absence of miracles at a time when, one would think, Collins would find them especially useful (the world’s becoming more secular!)—all of this puts much heavier weight on the naturalistic side.
It’s hard to dislike Collins, but I am repelled at his uncritical approach to his religious beliefs.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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?