Freddie deBoer disses New Atheism while attacking psychic phenomena and “hooey”

July 21, 2022 • 10:00 am

Well, let me clarify my title above.  In the article below on his Substack site, deBoer claims that he started his career attacking New Atheism, and he still sees issues with it, but now thinks he went too far, especially in light of the Vice article he cites. That article notes a rise of Internet scams dealing with supernatural phenomenon like clairvoyance and tarot cards, and he sees that the doubt about faith promoted by New Atheism could be used now to quash these other issues that victimize the credulous. But the so-called demise of New Atheism has deprived people of those tools.

Unfortunately, deBoer, whose writing I admire (but seems to be writing too much these days), still feels he to get in a few licks at Dawkins and Co., and I think those licks are gratuitous and unfair. Still, his call for a revival of skepticism and demands for evidence is absolutely the mark. Faith is faith, whether it involves pastors or psychics.

Click the screenshot to see deBoer’s piece:

There are, I think, six main reasons for the “backlash” against New Atheism, which I see as the reinvigoration of faithlessness by Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens (Pinker was a player as well):

1.) People bridle at criticism of religion, especially when it is passionate and vigorous. Religion is sacrosanct, and seen by many as off limits to criticism.

2.) People accused the New Atheists of being strident and trying to wrest religion from believers.

3.) People were jealous of the success of New Atheist writings

4.) Because Muslims are considered “people of color,” opponents of New Atheism were especially critical of its perceived “Islamophobia.”

5.) The perception, often without evidence, that New Atheists were sexists or even sexual assaulters.

6.) The claim that New Atheists ignored social justice because they concentrated too much on addressing, analyzing, and attacking religion. These critics see “progressive social justice” as inextricable from New Atheism, and thus New Atheists were fighting a battle but ignoring a wider war.

In this article, deBoer seems to sign on to reasons 1,2, and 4, though he’s walked back his criticisms a bit: he says that by criticizing New Atheism’s concentration on the need for evidence, people have become susceptible to new forms of woo. That sounds good, though I don’t know if it’s true, and too much of his piece still engages in atheist-bashing.

(Regarding #4, New Atheists often concentrated on Islam because it was in their view (and mine) the most dangerous species of faith in today’s world, as Catholicism was in medieval Europe. I don’t see that as “Islamophobia”, if you conceive of that word as meaning “bigotry against Muslims”. But a “fear of Islam” could also mean “a worry about how that religion is sometimes used to oppress and kill people.)

First, deBoer cites the article below in Vice, which describes the “fake” psychics (they’re all fakes, of course, but there are some who pretend to be other people)—fakers who are now being attacked on social media. (All deBoer’s words are indented).

An actual story from Vice:

I’ll say no more about the Vice article as you can read it for yourself. I was more interested—and distressed—by deBoer’s criticisms of New Atheism, which wasn’t really a “movement” but a term invented to describe the rise of unbelief largely prompted by the authors named above.  Granted, deBoer has backed off some, but not far enough for me. The bolding is mine:

The first thing I ever wrote that got more than a couple dozen views, the piece that made the rounds in the blogosphere and in so doing kickstarted my writing career, was a piece of the type “I’m an atheist who can’t stand New Atheism.” Pieces in that vein became quite common over the years, but in 2008 it was still novel enough to attract all of that attention. This was an era in which the New Atheists still enjoyed a degree of cultural cachet, before the pomposity and shrill tone of so many in the movement curdled its public reputation, to say nothing of the accusations of Islamophobia. It was a different time. The basic contours of the piece still seem correct to me – atheism is almost certain factually true, and I am an atheist, but I have no interest in browbeating believers. I have no interest in converting believers into atheists, and atheism is not a movement. But not only would I not write that piece today, it’s one of very few pieces that I sometimes genuinely wish I had never published at all. Because the ground changed underneath us to such an extent that, well, millions of functioning adults proudly endorse astrology and other hooey in public.

Note first the attacks on New Atheism, but also his assertion that he wish he wouldn’t have written the piece not because he misunderstood or unfairly attacked New Atheism, but because his attack on the movement may have enabled people’s increased belief in woo. Also note, as I claim below, that deBoer is engaging in a form of virtue signaling here: not addressing the arguments of New Atheists but simply calling them names in a way that would appeal to atheist liberals soft on faith (“faithiests”).

Yes, the last sentence is true, though I’m not sure how much criticism on New Atheism enabled the rise of “hooey”. But I also think that deBoer is unfair by attacking New Atheists, especially the prominent ones, for being “pompous and shrill.”  In what way, for example, were Dawkins and Company “pompous and shrill”? Perhaps some of their followers were (actually, some surely were given their numbers). But both of those words could be replaced by “passionate.”

Notice that when New Atheists are accused of stuff like this, no examples are ever given. What is called “shrillness” as a pejorative term strikes me as a nasty word for “writing passionately and strongly,” which doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Were Hitchens or Harris—or any of the five people named above—”shrill”? I don’t think so.

Moreover, I doubt that deBoer would call anyone writing about politics with that same passion as “shrill”. “Shrill and strident” are usually reserved for those who criticize religion, not politics. And these are ad hominem terms, for what was really important about “New Atheism” was its arguments, not the tone of its adherents.

At least, though, deBoer recognizes that what New Atheism—as “antitheism”—was mainly about: demands for empirical evidence for what one believes. It was largely an attack on faith, and on faith that is of the most damaging kind. But deBoer can’t resist saying that some atheists are “annoying,” and again I don’t think he’d say that about politicians with whom he agreed.

He continues and begins to walk back his earlier opinions:

At some point in the 2010s, the backlash to New Atheism became so commonplace, particularly on the political left, that it seemed clear to me that we had communally missed the forest for the trees. That is to say, no matter how annoying some atheists must be, the most important question when it comes to atheism remains (and must remain) whether or not God is real. If God is real, that is the single most important fact in the universe. Issues of comity and messaging take a backseat to the existence of a divine creator, and there’s something strange about being more concerned with how we express our skepticism about such a divine creator than about its actual existence. And while many people who disdain New Atheists will admit to a casual atheism themselves, they’re far less animated and passionate about that atheism than about their hatred of the New Atheists. On a really basic level this seems to be a failure of priority.

He’s correct in the last sentence, but he’s hasn’t retracted his claims about “Islamophobia” or New atheist “browbeating believers” or “converting believers into atheists.” But, after all, if you are arguing logically and rationally against the existence of God, and are arguing with the faithful, what else are you doing but “browbeating believers” (I’d use the term “arguing with believers”; for “browbeating” is a pejorative word). And if you are making empirical arguments against a divine creator, then of course you are also, even if unintentionally, “converting believers into atheists.” Every argument for a moral, political, or ideological stance is an attempt at conversion—to change people’s minds. deBoer spends his time “browbeating Republicans” in a “shrill way”, and trying to convert those with whom he disagrees. How does he differ from New Atheists in these respects.

There are other zingers against New Atheism, too. deBoer, while saying (admirably) that he probably went too far, still goes too far, saying that the demise of New Atheism was “self inflicted”.  His inability to stop dissing New Atheism, although he recognizes its central merit—demand for evidence—is seen in his last paragraph (my bolding).

Ultimately, I think we should work to restore attention to the supernatural claims themselves rather than to the social ephemera that surround them. Of course we should want atheists to be circumspect and friendly and to avoid empty provocation. The question is when this concern about manners overwhelms our fixation on the central questions at hand; the fact that Reddit atheists are annoying can’t make God real. And for the record I think there’s a way to live life that avoids a cloying scientism and witless literalism while still not permitting any lazy mysticism to find its way into your day-to-day practices. There’s also a lot of low-hanging fruit when it comes to people believing things for no reason. I’m perfectly happy to say that I think we should restore a little stigma towards entertaining the idea that the date that you’re born (based on a largely arbitrary and human-made calendar system) dictates your mood, your love life, and your professional success. Maybe sometimes a little stigma is the healthiest option available to us.

So yes, here he admits that there’s too much woo, and the analysis of religion by New Atheists can also be extended to psychic phenomena, taro cards, and so on. But what is this “empty provocation” that deBoer speaks of? And the comment about “cloying scientism and witless literalism”—who, exactly, does that refer to? As most of us know, “scientism” is only used pejoratively, to criticize those who you think rely too much on science and evidence.  It would have been nice if deBoer gave us some examples of “cloying scientism” from some of the well known New Atheists.

Don’t get me wrong: I think the point of deBoer article is a good one: faith applies not just to religion, but to wooish hooey—to all “supernatural” psychic phenomena. But he devalues this point by his inability to resist getting in some unwarranted licks at New Atheism.

In the end, deBoer is doing with New Atheism precisely what he criticizes with ideology: he is trying to tarnish ideas he agrees with by using pejorative words and ad hominem arguments—all because he doesn’t like the way those arguments are expressed. That is what the Woke do! And he’s appealing to popular ideology by bringing up “Islamophobia”, “scientism”, and “shrillness” in attacks on religion. In other words, I think he’s engaged in signaling his virtue.

deBoer should be remorseful for his own athiest-dissing not just because it enabled the Rise of Hooey (actually, I doubt that it did), but also because it was unfair and misguided.

Accommodationism returns, this time with a nasty streak

October 5, 2020 • 9:00 am

There seems to be a resurgence of accommodationism this week, with people arguing that science and religion are perfectly compatible. The argument goes further, and along familiar lines: scientists like Dawkins and me are deemed “arrogant loudmouthed jerks” because our our vociferous atheism supposedly turns people away from science.  And so we encounter the familiar old arguments for compatibility that I thought had disappeared outside of theology: religious laypeople can love science, scientists can be religious, science can’t prove that God doesn’t exist, and so on. I tackled all these in Faith Versus Fact, but people either didn’t read it, or did read it but would rather repeat the old tropes rather than answer the arguments for science/religion incompatibility.

I have to admit that perhaps I’m a bit responsible for this pushback, as I (and others) engaged in a Twitter dispute with rapper MC Hammer last week. Hammer, trying to cover all bases, basically said that he was down with Intelligent Design (citing the old canard of the eye’s complexity), but also was down with God and with creationism as well. Well, you can’t be down with all of those at once without some vigorous scientific and theological tap-dancing. Here are some tweets by and exchanges with Hammer, including Matthew’s and mine.

Osculation of ID. Let the IDers propagandize Hammer, for they’d love to have a famous rapper on their side:

Unfortunately, I lost my cool at one point in the Twitter exchange and called Hammer an “ignoramus,” violating my own dictum to refrain from name-calling. For that I apologize, and I deleted the tweet. Hammer is, I’m sure, a nice person, although he’s confused about religion and science, and I feel bad that I insulted him. I would be delighted to discuss evolution and God with him, but that will never happen. Besides, Stephen Meyer is busy convincing Hammer of the truth of Intelligent Design.

But the exchanges between Hammer and others have brought other accommodationists out of the woodwork again, toting their old, tired arguments. You may remember Sheril Kirshenbaum, for instance, co-author with Chris Mooney of the book Unscientific America How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, which had a strong accommodationist streak. In 2009 I reviewed that book for Science; here are two excerpts from my review:

In Unscientific America, a book slight in both length and substance, science writers Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum argue that America’s future is deeply endangered by the scientific illiteracy of its citizens and that this problem derives from two failings of scientists themselves: their vociferous atheism and their ham-handed and ineffectual efforts to communicate the importance of science to the public. According to Mooney and Kirshenbaum, atheistic scientists such as Richard Dawkins and P. Z. Myers [who runs the immensely popular science blog Pharyngula] drive people away from science by forcing them to choose between the facts and their faith. Further, most scientists are neither trained nor deeply interested in selling their work to the public, Congress, or Hollywood. This disconnect could be fixed, say the authors, if scientists would just keep quiet about their atheism and if universities would train a new generation of scientists in public outreach, producing more “[h]ip, fun, trailblazing research pioneers.”

. . . Unscientific America prescribes just the opposite: science illiteracy would diminish if vocal atheists like Richard Dawkins would just keep quiet about religion, a sanction that the authors don’t impose on publicly religious scientists such as Francis Collins. Unfortunately, Mooney and Kirshenbaum provide no evidence that this prescription would work. Do they really think that if Dawkins had not written The God Delusion, Americans would wholeheartedly embrace evolution and vaccination and finally recognize the threat of global warming?

Apparently Kirshenbaum hasn’t changed a bit, for she issued a rude tweet.

I refrain from being rude back.

Apparently not having read my argument for the incompatibility of religion and science, Kirshenbaum asserts “Science neither proves nor disproves religion.” Well, no, Dr. Kirshenbaum, that’s not the case.

First, many tenets of religion have been disproven by science. One of those is, of course, the creation story of Genesis 1 and 2, as well as creation stories of Islam and other religions. Other claims refuted by empirical work are those of the Jewish Exodus and the Roman census of Herod the Great.  And don’t get me started on Mormonism, the golden plates, and the Mormons’ claim that Jesus visited America. The fact is this: although, as Kirshenbaum argues that “religion seeks to understand our world,” it hasn’t provided any understanding, at least of factual claims like is there a God?; was Jesus his divine prophet/son?; did Gabriel dictate the Qur’an to Muhammad and Moroni tell Joseph Smith where the golden plates were?. And so on. The many religions on this planet make hundreds of factual but conflicting claims. Which are right? We don’t and usually can’t know.

“Understanding of our world”, if it means knowing how the cosmos works and what is true, cannot be gained by religion. It can be gained by science, though, and it is this disparity that I describe in Faith Versus Fact as the incompatibility between science and religion. Sure, religious people can be down with science, and scientists can be religious, but there’s the indubitable fact that both religion and science make factual claims—existence claims—and have different ways to adjudicate those claims. Science uses empirical methods (observation, hypothesis formation, testing, falsification, and so on), while religion uses scripture, authority, and revelation. Only one set of these methods—the empirical set—can really tell us what’s true. That’s why there’s only one brand of science, practiced by people of diverse faiths and ethnicities, while there are a gazillion religions, each claiming that it’s right and all the others are wrong. You can find ways to figure out if there are gravity waves, but no way to figure out if you’ll go to hell if you don’t accept Jesus as your savior.

Science, Dr. Kirshenbaum, doesn’t prove anything—it just gives us more or less confidence in various propositions about the world. And, as Victor Stenger noted, there’s an absence of evidence for any of the claims of religion. Importantly, he added that that absence of evidence could indeed be taken as evidence of absence if the evidence should have been there. And it isn’t—not for gods. That’s why more than half of scientists are atheists—and nearly all of them at the top of their profession. Kirshenbaum’s claim that “science neither proves nor disproves religion” could also be stated a “science neither proves nor disproves the existence of leprechauns and fairies.” But I doubt that Kirshenbaum would defend those who believe in fairies and leprechauns.

The statement “science and religion aren’t incompatible; they both seek to understand our world” covers a multitude of sins and misunderstandings. That’s why I wrote my book.

Now a young scientist at the site shown below (click on screenshot) has expanded another old argument, claiming that we loudmouth atheist scientists are “massive jerks”.  We should, they say, just keep our big mouths shut because being a vociferous atheist and antitheist keeps people of faith from accepting science.

It’s tiresome to have to go through all these arguments again—though none of these critics addressed my own claims in Faith Versus Fact—but I’ll do so briefly. First, excerpts from the Small Pond Science piece, written by Terry McGlynn, one of the three scientists who run the site. (I note in passing that McGlynn has closed the comments on this post.)

Science has an atheism problem

An alternative title for this post might be: Atheism has a jerk problem.

Our scientific communities do not fully accept scientists of faith. As I’ve said before, this is a problem, and it actively hinders our efforts for equity and inclusion.

You can be a great scientist and still be religious. You can fully accept an empirical worldview for the laws and theories that govern life and matter as we know it, but also be part of a religious tradition.

I have to admit, I don’t fully understand the choice that people make to have faith, and that’s not for a shortage of study, inquiry and contemplation. Just because I don’t understand why some people have chosen religious faith, that doesn’t mean I’m going to claim that they’re delusional because they have different perspective on the world than I do.

. . . When technology and theory advance far beyond our current capabilities, will there remain some questions about the nature of existence and reality that are best addressed by faith? Well. I dunno. There aren’t for me. But clearly others might see things differently. Why would that be a problem for any one of us?

Yes, some questions can be addressed by faith, but they can’t be answered by faith

The piece goes on, telling us to shut up because “science needs everybody; that includes people of faith.” Presumably we need flat-earthers and anti-vaxers, too, even though they accept their delusions on religious grounds. I’ve put McGlynn’s “data” in bold.

The most visible New Atheists try to win over converts by being loudmouth arrogant jerks. It might work for some, but it looks to me like it’s hardened the hearts of many more against reason and science in general. Clearly, it’s put atheism in an adversarial posture. Which is bad marketing for science, considering how many of us are atheists, or at least not religious.

Folks who don’t hang out with scientists on the regular might mistake the New Atheists for widely recognized representatives of science. They might see Bill Maher on TV, and read a blog post by Jerry Coyne, and catch a quote from Michael Shermer in a facebook meme. What do all these guys have in common? They’re anti-religious jerks, who are unfortunately the public face of contemporary atheism. Which in the eyes of many religious people might as well be the face of science too. You and I know that science is much more than bunch of old white jerky dudes who judge religious people. But we’re not doing so well in the marketing department.

Oy, I’m an old white jerky dude! But what does my age and race have to do with my arguments?

But wait! There’s more!

We need a cohort of people in the public eye who identify as atheists, but also are not massive jerks about it. We could use folks from all backgrounds, writing op-eds and appearing on TV, who make a point to say that they don’t have a problem with Muslims and Christians and other people of faith. Who can describe atheism as a rational choice but not as a judgement of other people.

I really don’t want to run through all the arguments why atheist/scientists shouldn’t shut up; they’re covered in my book, in Dawkins’s The God Delusion, and in other books like Stenger’s God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion.

I’ll just list a few relevant points:

1.) Accepting science is not the only issue here: the other is the harms of religion. It may not kill you to reject evolution, but if you reject Islam in places like Iran and Afghanistan, your life is in peril. And even if you’re not killed, the tenets of several faiths (including Catholicism) deem homosexuality immoral and women second-class citizens. Are we then supposed to shut up about the harmful tenets of Islam, Catholicism, and evangelical Christianity?  Must one harm (ignorance of science) take precedence over all others?

2.) Much religious dogma has led people to reject science. This includes the rejection of evolution, vaccination, global warming, and wearing masks during the pandemic (“God will save us”), as well as advocacy of spiritual healing, theocracy, and the demonization of abortion. Are we supposed to shut up about these issues, too, lest “science lose people of faith”? Give me a break. There are many issues in the world, and scientists are not required to shut up about politics or religion. We are citizens as well as scientists.

3.) Religion is generally a malign influence. The countries that are the happiest, most well off, and most progressive on this planet are the most atheistic countries, like those in Scandinavia and northern Europe. Religion in these cases acts as a stultifying placebo, inhibiting social progress because people can turn to god rather than to their governments.

4.) There is no evidence that the atheism of scientists like Dawkins and others has kept people from accepting science. As I’ve said repeatedly, if you go to “Converts Corner” on the old Dawkins site, you’ll see dozens of people saying that Richard’s atheism and scientific status helped weaned them from religion and brought them to evolution and science. In contrast, I’ve never heard a single person say, “Well, if Dawkins would just shut up about atheism, I’d gladly embrace evolution.” It’s the combination of science and atheism that has done wonders for many people, leading them to reject delusion (yes, religion is a delusion) and embrace science. I know, because I’ve met many of them, and Richard’s site describes hundreds more.

5.) Religion is a more malign force in getting people to reject science than is ignorance itself. A lack of knowledge can be remedied by education, but it’s much harder to overcome religious indoctrination. Which do you think would be the best way to get Americans and Middle Easterners to accept evolution: a) waving your wand and getting rid of religious belief completely, as if it never existed? or b) Giving every evangelical Christian and Muslim a course in evolution and a copy of Why Evolution is True?  The answer, of course, is (a). For virtually all opposition to evolution, and much other opposition to science, comes from religion. I know of only one anti-evolutionist who isn’t motivated by religious belief. That would be David Berlinski, but I suspect he’s secretly at lest a deist.

So there’s no reason why a scientist shouldn’t wear two hats: that of science and that of atheism. Sure, you shouldn’t mix your messages too immiscibly in lectures: I don’t rail against religion when I give talks on the evidence for evolution. That just confuses people. But I do give lectures that show why science and religion are incompatible, and that’s why I wrote a book about it.

I’m not going to shut up, but I don’t demand that other scientist-atheists be as vocal as I. To each their own. That’s true even for religion—so long as your beliefs don’t harm the community of humans. And there are precious few religions that are innocuous in that way.

As for Dr. McGlynn calling me and people like Richard “loudmouth arrogant jerks,” and an “old white jerky dude”,  well, I’ll restrain myself this time and not respond with namecalling. Those names reflect poorly on McGlynn. All I’ll say is that there are cogent arguments for the incompatibility of science and religion and good reasons for scientists to criticize the tenets of religion. Dr. McGlynn might want to read those arguments and answer them instead of making unsupported assertions that Richard Dawkins’s atheism has, on the whole, been bad for the public understanding of science.  (Hint: finding one or two people who say that happened to them is not data.)

And here’s a final source on both incompatibility and the absence of evidence that atheism impedes the acceptance of science (click on the screenshot):

Rowan Williams, Lord Oystermouth and former Archbishop of Canterbury, faults Dawkins and New Atheists for damaging Christianity and not knowing theology

April 2, 2020 • 1:15 pm

Good God, here we go again! Rowan Williams, formerly a “sophisticated” Archbishop of Canterbury, now bearing the appropriate title of Lord Williams of Mealymouth Oystermouth, is still kvetching about Richard Dawkins and his supposed New Atheist posse, and on two grounds.

First, Dawkins (and we) damaged Christianity, and it needs to be repaired.

Second, New Atheists don’t know jack about theology.

As to the first, I say “GOOD FOR US! Christianity needs to be damaged, for it’s harmful and delusional, and enables the vice of belief without evidence—in other words, faith. As to the second claim, I’ve dealt with it many times before (it’s gone under the name of “the courtier’s reply“), and address it here only briefly.

Here’s the short article from The Tablet. Click to read, and shake your head about the lucubrations of poor Lord Oystermouth:

A few short excerpts:

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord (Rowan) Williams of Oystermouth, has made a scathing attack on Richard Dawkins and other “new atheists”, while cautioning that their negative impact on religious faith could still take time to repair.

“Many people who aren’t religious believers regard writers like Richard Dawkins as extremely bigoted and authoritarian, and I think their writings are less popular now,” Dr Williams told Polish Radio in an interview.

“But secularisation has also meant a lot of ignorance, and there’s a suspicion towards religion, sometimes intensified by anxiety about militant Islam. It’s as if every form of religion is the same and the local parish priest would like to cut your head off or impose some alien law on you.”

The 69-year-old theologian and poet, who was 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, from 2002 to 2012, said he planned to engage in a new debate during 2021 with Professor Dawkins, whom he viewed as a “very good biologist and absolutely brilliant writer”, but also as a “very bad philosopher” with virtually no knowledge of theology.

He added that a “rash of books” a decade ago by Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, AC Grayling and other “New Atheists” had damaged Christianity, by fostering an assumption that “the consensus among intelligent people was anti-religious”. [JAC: This is getting truer and truer every day.]

. . . He said: “The bad aspect of secularisation is that people forget what religious doctrine really is, and become subject to distortions and charicatures. It’s as if people have a very trivial picture of what religion is and why it matters.

I have news for Lord Oystermouth: yes, New Atheists damaged Christianity by turning people away from that delusional faith (is “delusional faith” a tautology?).  But no, Christianity will not be repaired. All over the West, and especially in the UK, Christianity is waning rapidly—so rapidly that I needn’t look up links to document its disappearance.

Further, none of the New Atheists named above think that all religions are the same, or are identical to militant Islam. Has Oystermouth even read Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett, or Harris? None of them say that all forms of religion are the same and, in fact, all say that different faiths are indeed different. In their writings they make distinctions between more harmful and less harmful faiths, but always emphasize that faith itself, as instantiated in nearly every “religion”, is not a virtue but a vice.

And bad philosophy? Who’s a worse philosopher? Who’s a bad boy? A guy who spends his life touting a deity for which he has no evidence, and bolstering the idea that it’s fine to believe without evidence, or a guy who simply points these things out? That’s not philosophy, but empiricism. For surely all theology, even Oystermouth’s “sophisticated”® brand, must begin with the proposition that there is a God of a certain sort. If you can’t even buttress that first assumption, the rest is commentary, and ridiculous commentary. As Dan Barker likes to say, “Theology is a subject without an object.”

Look: Here’s Oystermouth blathering on about the certainty that there is a deity, and, in fact, a deity of the Anglican persuasion (my emphasis):

Asked about the prospects for Christianity across Europe, the retired archbishop said he was “completely confident” the faith would survive.
“The Church exists because God wanted and wants it to exist, so we shouldn’t have any anxiety about its disappearance,” Dr Williams said. “Despite the New Atheists, people are not hostile to the Christian faith, nor do they regard Christianity as their enemy or as something completely ridiculous. They want to know and learn, and I think we have to be out there, arguing, persuading, doing what we can from a place of basic confidence.”

See? Some readers have defended the claim that bad things happen because “we don’t understand God’s ways” by saying, “Well, see, that’s just like what scientists do! What’s wrong with saying ‘We don’t understand?'” We had one of these commenters today.

But the difference between scientists and believers, my brothers and sisters, friends and comrades, is that scientists say they don’t understand in a uniform way, not pretending that we understand some stuff but not other stuff, when there’s no evidence for either. Yet Oystermouth blithely tells us that he knows not only that there’s a God, but that God wants the Anglican Church to exist, so it won’t go extinct. How does he know that about God?

I get peevish when I read stuff like this, so I can’t resist commenting on his eyebrows, which have always freaked me out, making me fear that he’d take off in a high wind. 

Photo credit: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

h/t: Enrico, Barry

The New Humanist goes after the New Atheists

February 12, 2020 • 1:00 pm

Reader Daniel sent me a link to a dreadful anti-antheist article from, of all places, the New Humanist, and I, like he, was horrified. It’s nothing less than a distorted attack on New Atheism, especially the “Four Horsemen” (Dennett, Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens), as well as on the conversation they had on YouTube (here and here) which has been turned into a book. This New Humanist screed is so appallingly bad that it might have been “ripped from the pages of Salon.”

I asked Daniel who published the New Humanist, and he responded this way:

The Rationalist Association, formed in 1885; the magazine is also that old. So it has a good pedigree—indeed, the Rationalist Association’s presidents have included Bertrand Russell and the late Jonathan Miller. Past contributors to the magazine have included David Aaronovitch, Peter Atkins, and all of the ‘four horsemen’ except Hitchens (though he was interviewed by it once)! And honorary associates of the Association include Aaronovitch, Richard Dawkins, A.C. Grayling, and Philip Pullman. So it’s a fairly serious and eminent publication in the freethinking world. Not that all freethinkers have to sign up to ‘new atheism’, of course—but one would think that such a respected magazine would publish half-decent rather than half-baked arguments against Dawkins et al.

Indeed. But read and weep (click on screenshot). You can already see one criticism in the title: that the New Atheists are “religious” in their passion and ardor. (Note to Tiso: passion is not the same as faith.)

I didn’t know of Giovanni Tiso, but he’s identified here as “an Italian writer and translator based in Wellington. He’s a featured writer at Overland, blogs at Bat, Bean, Beam and tweets at @gtiso.”  He hasn’t appeared on this website before.

What are his claims? Besides asserting that the New Atheism  was a “flawed intellectual project” (it wasn’t a project but a reflection of the Zeitgeist), he says it failed (has he seen the statistics on the rise of “nones”?), and that it failed because it attacked “strawmen,” “largely imaginary opponent(s)”. The latter isn’t true, either, as there are many religionists of all stripes—not just fundamentalists—who do damage to our societies.  And there are many New Atheists besides Dennett, Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens.  But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll just summarize Tiso’s accusations:

1). New Atheists are spiteful and shrill and “laugh people out of their faith” by mocking them. This is not always the case, and if you read the four books that started the “movement”, you will find far less mockery than judicious examination and critique of faith. But yes, sometimes mockery is on tap given the bizarre behavior and arguments of believers, just as mockery is sometimes on tap with respect to creationists (who, by the way, are all religionists).

2.) New Atheism is a form of Western cultural supremacy, designed to buttress imperialism. I kid you not; here’s a quote:

Now, as we survey what’s left of the movement from its smouldering ruins, we may wonder what the fuss was about, and how these authors managed to build such formidable straw men of religion and human history on their way to selling millions of books. But New Atheism was never about faith nor, indeed, atheism. It was about asserting the supremacy of Western culture in spite of the enduring place of religion in Western institutions and societies, for the purpose of giving renewed justification to Western imperialism. It doesn’t matter that three of the four horsemen were initially opposed to the war in Iraq, for theirs was always primarily a war against Islam itself.

Do I really need to point out that criticizing Islam—and yes, it was the rise of militant Islam that prompted the writing of the first New Atheist book, by Sam Harris—is NOT the same as “justifying Western imperialism”. I don’t have to say more here; Tiso’s claim discredits itself.

3.) New Atheism neglects the palpable benefits of religion. These include ethics morality, and charity.  In fact, New Atheists have not neglected these benefits; they just claim that, by embracing secular humanism, we can have the same benefits without the many downsides of religion, which  include oppression of women, gays, and opponents; a fatuous and restrictive “morality” that’s largely about sex; fostering violence and divisiveness; torturing children’s minds, and so on.

4.) Dawkins made mean tweets. Yes, that’s right. Dawkins hasn’t always been adept on Twitter, but that doesn’t mean that New Atheism is in “smouldering ruins”. This is another Salon-like red herring that doesn’t address the substantive arguments of New Atheism against religion.

5.) New Atheism’s arguments against religion, so far as they go, are not only mean but incoherent. Here’s one example from the essay, in which Tiso goes after Sam Harris:

A rhetorical woman appears in The Four Horsemen, too. In his essay, Harris asks us to imagine that on this day a set of identical twin girls was born with microcephaly in Brazil due to their gestating mother having been bitten by a mosquito carrying the Zika virus.

Imagine the woman herself a few months ago, doing everything within her power to prepare a happy life for her unborn daughters. Where does she work? A factory. How often does she pray? Daily, no doubt. But at the crucial moment she sleeps. Perhaps she’s dreaming of a world better than the one we live in. Picture a lone mosquito finding her open window. Picture it alighting upon her exposed arm. Will an omnipotent, omniscient and wholly benevolent God muster the slightest defence? Not even a breeze. The mosquito’s proboscis pierces her skin immediately. What are the faithful to believe at this point? One suspects they know that their God isn’t nearly as attentive as he would be if he actually existed.

I find this vignette quite upsetting. What are we to make of it? Does the existence of the mosquito and the fact that it’s prepared to bite a member of the flock prove that this woman’s God doesn’t exist? Is the fact that the woman works in a factory implicated in her faith? Is she unwittingly but nonetheless ultimately co-responsible for her own misfortune, by wasting her time in prayer instead of promoting scientific and medical discoveries?

It’s not hard to make out what Sam is saying here: he’s raising the classic argument about what kind of god would create “physical evil”—the torture and/or death of innocent people by natural circumstances. If god is ominipotent, he could prevent such evil, and if he’s omnibenevolent, he would have. There is no convincing religious answer, at least in the Abrahamic faiths, to the existence of this kind of evil, though many theologians have tried. How could Tiso have missed this simple lesson?

It goes on, but you won’t find anything in the piece that you haven’t seen in Salon or in the many other pieces trying to denigrate New Atheism. Tiso even manages to drag in “Elevatorgate”!

Why did the New Humanist, which as Daniel said is a respectable magazine, publish such tripe? Your guess is as good as mine. If you’re a member of The Rationalist Association, and object to this scattershot and ill-informed attack of New Atheism, you might let them know.


Quote of the month: Bertrand Russell on why we shouldn’t believe in fictions that supposedly make us behave better

December 27, 2019 • 9:00 am

Most of you have heard of Russell’s Teapot, the hypothetical but undetectable orbiting object that Bertrand Russell used to show why we shouldn’t believe things for which there is no evidence (i.e., “religion”). But perhaps you don’t know where that simile came from.  While futzing around on the Internet, I came across Russell’s essay “Is there a God?“, which is described as “commissioned by, but never published in, Illustrated Magazine, in 1952.” It’s apparently been published in his collected papers, though, and I give that reference at the bottom. And it’s the first mention of the fabled Teapot.

A lot of the stuff in this essay was taken from Russell’s famous and earlier piece, “Why I am Not a Christian“, first published as a pamphlet in 1927.  If you think that the hallmark of New Atheism is its vociferous, in-your-face anti-theism, think again, for people like Russell, Ingersoll, and Mencken were going hammer and tongs at religion since the 19th century. The two Russell essays are examples. (My own take on what makes New Atheism “new” is its connection with science and its insistent demand for evidence.)

At any rate, while you may be conversant with Russell’s arguments in “Is there a God?”, it’s still worth reading for the concision of its prose. I could make the same arguments as Russell, but not nearly as well or as readably. He’s particularly good at using examples.

I also noticed that his essay deals with issues I’ve written about lately.  For example, the first excerpt below takes up two claims: that religion is a fount of morality essential to make a society behave well (see here), and that even if we don’t buy the existence of a god or the claims of a particular faith, we should lie to our kids about this stuff so they’ll behave better (see my piece on the odious psychotherapist Erica Komisar).  If you haven’t formulated a solid argument against why we should lie to our kids to make them morally upright and happy, Russell has the answer:

There is a moralistic argument for belief in God, which was popularized by William James. According to this argument, we ought to believe in God because, if we do not, we shall not behave well. The first and greatest objection to this argument is that, at its best, it cannot prove that there is a God but only that politicians and educators ought to try to make people think there is one. Whether this ought to be done or not is not a theological question but a political one. The arguments are of the same sort as those which urge that children should be taught respect for the flag. A man with any genuine religious feeling will not be content with the view that the belief in God is useful, because he will wish to know whether, in fact, there is a God. It is absurd to contend that the two questions are the same. In the nursery, belief in Father Christmas is useful, but grown-up people do not think that this proves Father Christmas to be real.

Another argument is, of course, that if a kid grows up and finds her parents lied to her, she’ll not only distrust her parents, but have wasted any number of years of her life.

Indeed, I’m not the first to point out that Santa serves the same purpose as God to many kids: you have to behave well to propitiate Santa so you’ll get good presents at Christmas rather than coal. Likewise, you have to propitiate God lest you be tortured by burning coals after you die. And Russell is right that you can’t force someone to be religious unless they really believe that there’s a God as well as a minimal set of religious assertions.

Russell goes on to explain the bad consequences of lying to people for their own good. While such lies may help individuals in some ways, it instills an unwarranted respect for “faith” in society, and that respect undermines a lot of salubrious social practices:

. . .  it is always disastrous when governments set to work to uphold opinions for their utility rather than for their truth. As soon as this is done it becomes necessary to have a censorship to suppress adverse arguments, and it is thought wise to discourage thinking among the young for fear of encouraging “dangerous thoughts.” When such mal-practices are employed against religion as they are in Soviet Russia, the theologians can see that they are bad, but they are still bad when employed in defence of what the theologians think good. Freedom of thought and the habit of giving weight to evidence are matters of far greater moral import than the belief in this or that theological dogma. On all these grounds it cannot be maintained that theological beliefs should be upheld for their usefulness without regard to their truth.

There is a simpler and more naive form of the same argument, which appeals to many individuals. People will tell us that without the consolations of religion they would be intolerably unhappy. So far as this is true, it is a coward’s argument. Nobody but a coward would consciously choose to live in a fool’s paradise. When a man suspects his wife of infidelity, he is not thought the better of for shutting his eyes to the evidence. And I cannot see why ignoring evidence should be contemptible in one case and admirable in the other.

What a great and concise pair of paragraphs!

In many places the social opprobrium of criticizing religion is effected through blasphemy laws, still enforced as capital crimes in a half dozen Muslim-majority countries and as criminal behavior in several Western ones. But there’s also “social censorship” practiced by those who osculate religion or go after those who criticize it. For an example of the latter, see the mean-spirited and misguided essay by Rupert Shortt, religion editor of the Times Literary Supplement, who takes apart Richard Dawkins’s new book Outgrowing God: A beginner’s guide to atheism for being “relentlessly confrontational.” (Shortt also cites a handful of religious scientists, like Simon Conway Morris and the muddled Denis Noble, to demonstrate that science and religion aren’t at odds.) It’s this social opprobrium—the ostracism you receive for criticizing widespread religious lies—that keeps many atheists from “coming out.”

Of course Russell mentions theodicy, which I consider the most powerful evidence against an omnibenevolent and loving God (and who thinks that God is otherwise?):

. . . I will say further that, if there be a purpose and if this purpose is that of an Omnipotent Creator, then that Creator, so far from being loving and kind, as we are told, must be of a degree of wickedness scarcely conceivable. A man who commits a murder is considered to be a bad man. An Omnipotent Deity, if there be one, murders everybody. A man who willingly afflicted another with cancer would be considered a fiend. But the Creator, if He exists, afflicts many thousands every year with this dreadful disease. A man who, having the knowledge and power required to make his children good, chose instead to make them bad, would be viewed with execration. But God, if He exists, makes this choice in the case of very many of His children. The whole conception of an omnipotent God whom it is impious to criticize, could only have arisen under oriental despotisms where sovereigns, in spite of capricious cruelties, continued to enjoy the adulation of their slaves. It is the psychology appropriate to this outmoded political system which belatedly survives in orthodox theology.

Finally, here’s the bit on Russell’s Teapot, which Mark Alpert should have read before he wrote his recent Scientific American piece on why science hasn’t ruled out God:

Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.  It is customary to suppose that, if a belief is widespread, there must be something reasonable about it. I do not think this view can be held by anyone who has studied history.

While the teapot analogy has been criticized on various grounds (some, for example, say it’s unlikely because there’s no evidence that anyone ever put a teapot in orbit), it has been restated in modern form by the New Atheist Christopher Hitchens. Here’s what’s known as “Hitchens’s Razor“, and we should remember it when trying to argue with believers:

“What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”

The question, “What’s your evidence?” should shut up believers, but of course it doesn’t because they mistake emotion for evidence. Perhaps a more effective question is “What makes you so sure you’re right as opposed to, say, a Muslim, Hindu, or Mormon believer?” If a Christian or a Jew answers that one, the answer is always amusing.


From Bertrand Russell, “Is There a God?” (1952), in The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, Volume 11: Last Philosophical Testament, 1943-68, ed. John G. Slater and Peter Köllner (London: Routledge, 1997), pp. 543-48.

Therapist advises atheists to lie to their kids, pretending there’s a god and a heaven

December 8, 2019 • 9:00 am

The Wall Street Journal is of course a conservative venue, but this time it’s exceeded even the normal right-wing love of religion. The article below, by psychoanalyst Erica Komisar, is behind a paywall, but I’ll give some quotes. And judicious inquiry might turn up a copy.

Komisar’s argument is based on a 2018 study showing that church attendance and prayer or meditation are positively associated with some measures of well being in growing children. She concludes that we should tell our kids that there’s a god and an afterlife, even if we are atheists. In other words, we should lie to our kids. After all, don’t we care about their welfare? Here’s the article, which leads to a paywall:

Komar’s thesis is based on the paper below from the American Journal of Epidemiology; a free pdf is available by clicking on the screenshot.

I couldn’t be arsed to read the whole paper in detail because it’s long and tedious, but I did look it over. The authors used longitudinal data from the Nurse’s Health Study II and the Growing Up Today Study, enrolling 116,430 nurses aged 24 and 42, and, using questionnaires, assessing their children aged 9 to 14. There were three categories of “religious service attendance”:  never, less than once a week, or at least once a week.  Religiosity (actually spirituality) was measured as answers to the question, “How often do you pray or meditate?”, with answers ranging from “never” to “once a day or more”. They then correlated these measures with other measurements that, they say, indicate well being.

The authors report that going to church at least once per week was associated with greater volunteering, great forgiveness, less marijuana use, later sexual initiation, and fewer lifetime sexual partners (the last three are clearly considered positive traits).  More frequent praying or meditating was associated with greater positive affect, better emotional processing, greater volunteering, a greater sense of mission, more forgiveness, lower drug usage, later sexual initiation, and fewer lifetime sexual partners. However, more frequent prayer or meditation (these weren’t separated) was also associated with more physical health problems. But the authors dismiss that result by arguing that those in poorer health may pray more often. They don’t consider, however, whether more puritanical or virtuous  people might have a tendency to want to go to church or pray more often. In other words, the negative result (poor health) is assumed to drive religiosity, while the positive results are assumed to result from religiosity.

As an alert reader noted (see comment #7 below), the funding for this study came in part from A Usual Suspect:

Based on that work, Komisar simply tells everyone to pretend that there’s a god and and afterlife when their kids raise the questions. Presumably we want our kids to be better off (and use less drugs and lose their virginity later!), so why not lie?  What’s the downside? Here are some excerpts from her article:

Nihilism is fertilizer for anxiety and depression, and being “realistic” is overrated. The belief in God — in a protective and guiding figure to rely on when times are tough — is one of the best kinds of support for kids in an increasingly pessimistic world. That’s only one reason, from a purely mental-health perspective, to pass down a faith tradition.

I am often asked by parents, “How do I talk to my child about death if I don’t believe in God or heaven?” My answer is always the same: “Lie.” The idea that you simply die and turn to dust may work for some adults, but it doesn’t help children. Belief in heaven helps them grapple with this tremendous and incomprehensible loss. In an age of broken families, distracted parents, school violence and nightmarish global-warming predictions, imagination plays a big part in children’s ability to cope.

. . . [Gratitude and empathy]can be found among countless other religious groups. It’s rare to find a faith that doesn’t encourage gratitude as an antidote to entitlement or empathy for anyone who needs nurturing. These are the building blocks of strong character. They are also protective against depression and anxiety.

And so the good psychoanalyst concludes that we need to cram religion down the throats of our kids, for it’s for their own good:

Religion or spiritual practices can teach children mindfulness, a sense of physical and emotional presence necessary for mental health. No matter how active my children were when they were young, they knew when they entered our temple for services they had to calm their bodies and relax their minds. Though they complained when they were kids, and still complain at times as adolescents, they have developed the ability to calm themselves when overwhelmed.

Today the U.S. is a competitive, scary and stressful place that idealizes perfectionism, materialism, selfishness and virtual rather than real human connection. Religion is the best bulwark against that kind of society. Spiritual belief and practice reinforce collective kindness, empathy, gratitude and real connection. Whether children choose to continue to practice as adults is something parents cannot control. But that spiritual or religious center will benefit them their entire lives.

Now I’m not going to quibble with the J. Epidemiology paper, as it would take too long to scrutinize it carefully, but I invite readers to have a look if they’re interested. One thing worth looking at is whether the size of the positive effects are substantial enough to prompt one to interfere in their kids’ lives. But let’s assume that the effects are real and palpable. Should we then lie to our kids?

The idea that we should pretend that there’s a god and a life after death, even if we ourselves reject them, goes against my grain, and I simply can’t accept the idea of lying to children about such things, no matter how salubrious the lie. One could say, “we’ll discuss that when you’re old enough to understand,” but even taking a kid to church is roughly equivalent to affirming the truth of church doctrine.

So why do I instinctively reject Komisar’s advice to lie? (I don’t have kids, so the isn’t doesn’t really come up for me.)  First, if you are an atheist, your kid is going to know it, and see that you don’t practice what you preach. That might confuse the kid, and at any rate I don’t see Komar telling atheist parents to try to believe. But she does seem to be telling us that we should drag our kids to church and make them pray, which of course is bad for us atheists. After all, if our kids go to church, we have to take them there.

Further, there’s no control for other social activities that may foster mental health, like being on sports teams or clubs. It’s just religion versus no religion, yet those in nonreligious countries like Sweden probably find well being in other social activities that weren’t assessed in this study.

And what happens when the kid grows up and figures out for him/her/hirself that religion is bunk and we go nowhere when we die? They’ll not only feel cheated, but they’ll realize that you lied to them. And if you’re an out atheist, it’s even worse, for they’ll see you as an arrant hypocrite.

Finally, as I don’t want to rant at length, Komisar asserts at the end that if you’re religious as a kid because your parents lied to you, then even if you reject religion as an adult, you’ll still carry the benefits of your youthful belief. Now where is the evidence for that?

h/t: Dave

Another breathtaking example of creationist Egnorance

September 27, 2019 • 10:45 am

If you’ve followed the Intelligent Design (ID) mishigass, you’ll have heard of Michael Egnor, a neurosurgeon, a Christian who was once an atheist, and a big supporter of ID and senior fellow of the Discovery Institute. Egnor writes for the Evolution News website. Like several people there, he’s obsessed with me, but instead of taking apart my views on evolution, he goes after me personally, criticizing my attacks on theology and, worse, calling me names. This tells you two things. First, that religion is intimately entangled with ID. Although IDers disingenuously claim that they’re driven to the idea of a Designer in the Sky by the science alone, it’s curious that virtually all of them (biker David Berlinski may be an exception) are religious. Why are all the Discovery Institute flaks religious?

Also, it shows the intellectual failure of ID to replace evolution, which according to the Wedge Document timetable, it should have done by now. So they result in apologetics, theodicy, and philosophy. They’ve already lost on the science.

This week Egnor goes after me because of what I wrote about David Attenborough the other day. You can read his rant, which includes name-calling, by clicking on the screenshot below from the comment-free Evolution News site (I’ve archived the link below so their site doesn’t get clicks.)

Here goes Egnor’s argument, which is indented.

A shimmering example of atheist idiocy (there is no other word for it) is Jerry Coyne’s recent argument, at Why Evolution Is True, against God’s existence in his post on David Attenborough’s agnosticism. Attenborough, who is a Darwinist producer of nature films (quite good films I must say, despite the Darwinist taint), was interviewed about his views on God.

To Coyne’s chagrin, Attenborough declares that he is agnostic about God’s existence. Attenborough raises common objections to theism (e.g., the problem of evil), but he invokes a rather nice metaphor about a termite mound. He points out that termites, blind and busily working away in a mound, are unaware of human observers. Their unawareness is not evidence that an observer doesn’t exist — they lack the sense organs to perceive the observer. Attenborough says that is why he is agnostic — he doesn’t sense that God exists, but perhaps that is because he lacks the capacity to know God.


I do sometimes feel that maybe I’m lacking in some sense organ, and I don’t know whether there’s anybody else involved in all this sort of thing. And it’s a very confident thing, saying that you’re absolutely sure that there’s nothing in this world that I don’t have the sense organs to appreciate. That would be my position.

Coyne hops on this:

[O]f course, if a god wanted to make himself known to humans, he would have given them the sense organs to detect divinity.

A Breathtaking Ignorance

My goodness. In this one assertion, Coyne (culpably) and Attenborough (more innocently) betray a breathtaking ignorance.

God is not a physical thing. It is only physical things that can be sensed by sense organs. If God could be sensed via an organ, He would not be God. What would be sensed would be a part of creation, not the Creator. God is not in nature. He is prior to nature. He is the Source of nature.

And, contra Coyne and Attenborough, God did endow us with an organ by which we may know Him. He endowed us with reason. Alone among animals, human beings have the power of abstract thought — to contemplate ideas separated from concrete particular (sensible) objects. We have intellect, by which we can understand immaterial knowledge and will by which we act on our abstract knowledge.

Reason and Will

Our capacity for reason is the “organ” God gave us to know Him, and our will is the “organ” God gave us to love Him.

Reason is our divine “sense organ.” It is perfectly adapted to its task — it allows us to know and love our Creator. In this sense we are created in His image: we have the capacity to know immaterial reality and to act on our knowledge.

Atheists ask where is our “divine sense organ?”, when the very capacity by which they ask the question — their capacity for reason — is the “sense organ” they seek.  This utter atheist idiocy helped lead me to God. What I found, when I looked at the arguments for and against His existence, is that the arguments against His existence were vapid nonsense. 

There are many problems here. First of all, even if God is not a physical thing, nearly all Christians—the theistic ones—think that God interacts with the world in a physical way. After all, God sent his son/alter ego down to Earth as a scapegoat to be killed for our sins, thereby expiating us. IDers believe that God The Intelligent Designer either brought new species into being or made the requisite mutations to promote their appearance. Indeed, the very concept of Intelligent Design presupposes that empirical evidence—science and observation itself—inevitably brings us to the concept of an Intelligent Designer. And that evidence is “sensed by sense organs.” 

In other words, ID itself refutes Egnor’s claim that God The Intelligent Designer cannot be sensed via an organ. The stupidity here (and I’m not pulling punches given that Egnor engages in name-calling) is to assume that a deity who is nonphysical cannot be apprehended through sense organs. If you’re a theist, that’s palpably ridiculous.

As for God giving us our “capacity for reason” specifically so we can know Him (do chimps know Him, too, since they have a capacity to reason?), that’s also ridiculous. If our capacity for reason gives us the “capacity to know immaterial reality and act on our knowledge”, then how come every religion has a different conception of immaterial reality? Egnor is a Christian; does he reject the Muslim belief that Jesus wasn’t the son of God but merely a prophet, and that Muhammad was given the true religion by Allah through Gabriel? Does he reject Hindu pantheism, or the animism of some tribes? Does he reject the thetans and Xenu-beliefs of Scientology?

Yes, if God gave us reason to know the truth about Him, how come the “truths” that “reason” tells believers are so disparate? Our divine sense organs must be defective in some way.

And why, over time, has “reason” turned more and more of the West into atheists? After all, God gave this reason to each of us, and gave it to us specifically so we’d know Him (or Her or Whatever). Are some people lacking in this reason? And that includes people who seem to have plenty of reason on other fronts: atheist intellectuals like Bertrand Russell, Stephen Hawking, Dan Dennett, Stephen Fry, Richard Dawkins, and so on. And David Attenborough lacks it, too? Why did God give these people lots of ability to reason, but prevented that reason from apprehending His existence? Why are more and more people not using their organs of reason properly as time progresses?

And why is this blather on a site called Evolution News & Science Today? Because that’s also a site where Egnorant fools who are slaves to ancient superstitions parade their inability to reason. And that’s why they promote ID. Every time an IDer like Egnor writes about theology on that site, it affirms Judge Jones’s decision, back in Dover, that ID is not science but a form of religion.

Atlantic article pretends that atheists are really religious by lying about the data

August 29, 2019 • 10:30 am

When I saw this article from last year’s online Atlantic, I thought it was going to push the usual guff: “atheists are religious because they adhere fervently to the doctrine of No God, with no proof of their (non)beliefs.” But no, it wasn’t that. It was worse. In fact, the title is an arrant lie in at least two respects, and a distortion in another.

So how did author Sigal Samuel (a staff writer at Vox and former religion editor of The Atlantic) come to this conclusion? By distorting and misreporting the results from a 2018 Pew survey on the attitudes of Christians in Western Europe. That survey involved estimating the religiosity of Americans and Europeans by using standard questions like “Do you believe in God with absolute certainty?” and “Do you pray daily?”

Unsurprisingly, they found that Americans were more religious than Western Europeans. From Pew:

. . . Americans, overall, are considerably more religious than Western Europeans. Half of Americans (53%) say religion is “very important” in their lives, compared with a median of just 11% of adults across Western Europe. Among Christians, the gap is even bigger – two-thirds of U.S. Christians (68%) say religion is very important to them, compared with a median of 14% of Christians in the 15 countries surveyed across Western Europe.

Well, we’ve known this for a long time.

Second, as Samuel reports, there’s a difference between “nones” in America and “nones” in Europe:

. . . the researchers found that American “nones”—those who identify as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular—are more religious than European nones. The notion that religiously unaffiliated people can be religious at all may seem contradictory, but if you disaffiliate from organized religion it does not necessarily mean you’ve sworn off belief in God, say, or prayer.

Is there a deficit of neurons here? Lots of people who believe in a Higher Power don’t identify as members of a particular church. We all know some of these people.

Here’s what Pew says, affirming Samuel’s statement:

But even American “nones” are more religious than their European counterparts. While one-in-eight unaffiliated U.S. adults (13%) say religion is very important in their lives, hardly any Western European “nones” (median of 1%) share that sentiment.

Again, no surprise. Remember that “nones” aren’t all atheists, but simply a grouping term for people who don’t consider themselves affiliated with a formal religion. Atheists are only a small proportion of “nones”. And yes, you can still believe in God and be a “none”—you just don’t align yourself with the Catholic Church, Judaism, Islam, or any formal religion. Given that Americans are on the whole considerably more religious than Europeans, why is it a surprise that unaffiliated Americans are more religious than unaffiliated Europeans?

But here’s the result that got Samuel to her clickbait headline. As Pew said:

Similar patterns are seen on belief in God, attendance at religious services and prayer. In fact, by some of these standard measures of religious commitment, American “nones” are as religious as — or even more religious than — Christians in several European countries, including France, Germany and the UK.

And as Samuel tells us:

The third finding reported in the study is by far the most striking. As it turns out, “American ‘nones’ are as religious as—or even more religious than—Christians in several European countries, including France, Germany, and the U.K.”

“That was a surprise,” Neha Sahgal, the lead researcher on the study, told me. “That’s the comparison that’s fascinating to me.” She highlighted the fact that whereas only 23 percent of European Christians say they believe in God with absolute certainty, 27 percent of American nones say this.

Note the Pew statement (my emphases) “by some of these standard measures of religious commitment, American “nones” are as religious as—or even more religious than — Christians in several European countries, including France, Germany and the UK.

Two points here. First of all, “nones” aren’t all atheists, especially in the U.S. So Samuel has erred mightily in her headline, saying “atheists are sometimes more religious than Christians” when she means “nones are sometimes more religious than Christians”. Atheists, by definition, aren’t religious—at least according to the criteria Pew used for “religious”. And, of course,  her headline, even if corrected, doesn’t hold true for all European countries (Pew mentions three; I can’t be arsed to find the country-by-country data).

Here’s Pew’s table that’s apparently the basis for Samuel’s breathy conclusion:

The comparison we want to make is with Western European Christians (dark red dots in middle column) with “nones” in the U.S. (grayish dots in right column). It turns out that using the criteria “religion is important in my life” or “I attend religious services at least monthly”, American “nones” aren’t as religious as European Christians, belying the headline. (The difference is greatest for churchgoing, with 31% of European Christians going to church at least monthly compared to 9% of American “nones”.) And the “higher religiosity” of American nones than of European Christians isn’t impressive for the other two criteria: a difference of 2% in “praying daily” and 4% in “believing in God with absolute certainty.”

And if you compare European nones with European Christians, the “nones” are less religious—by a long shot—for every one of the four indices of religiosity.

So that is the lie, and Samuel should have known better. But telling the truth would have spoiled her headline: it would have had to be “Americans who don’t consider themselves affiliated with a church are, according to some criteria for religiosity, more religious than Europeans who identify as Christians.” That’s not very exciting, is it?

And given the secularism of Europe, and the fact that many who identify as “Christians” do so in a cultural rather than religious way, just as I identify as being a Jew, it’s not surprising that American “nones” are sometimes more religious than cultural European Christians. That’s a second contributor to the distortion in Samuel’s headline: that many Christians (she means European Christians) are really atheists and therefore don’t pray, go to church, or believe in God at all, much less with absolute certainty.

The Pew report has some interesting data; look for the table of how many European “nones” (as opposed to church-attending Christians or non-practicing Christians) think that science makes religion unnecessary (hint: it ranges between 53% and 69%.

One surprising result: a substantial proportion of the European “unaffiliated,” including those who are religious and those who aren’t, believe that they have a soul (see graph below). Such is the power of dualism. Perhaps some of it comes from the dualism inherent in many forms of free will. (I’ll get my coat.)

All in all, the headline really has the import of “Dog bites man” rather than the other way round. I guess the Atlantic doesn’t vet their headlines very well. And the rest of Samuel’s article is pretty much boilerplate reporting. It’s not worth reading once you find out that there’s little new here except some serious distortion.

h/t: Enrico