My newest piece in Quillette: Another response to John Staddon

May 11, 2019 • 10:30 am

My contretemps in the pages of Quillette continues with the psychobiologist John Staddon. I hope this is the end of it, as it’s no fun to write what I’ve written many times before to criticize a man who’s repeating old and tedious arguments that have been rebutted many times before. But so great is Staddon’s animus against atheism that he simply can’t learn.

As you may recall, Staddon originally wrote a piece in Quillette called “Is secular humanism a religion?” His answer was “yes,” even though his own concept of religion didn’t fit secular humanism in two of its three defining characteristics. But his main point was that secular humanism is religious because it has a morality—a morality that, as a conservative, he considered odious. (One of the supposedly repugnant aspects of secular morality was gay marriage.) He also argued that, like religion, secular humanism has “blasphemy rules,” like the criticism of those who wear blackface. That’s what’s known as “straining to support your argument”, and it causes mental hernias.

Well, I couldn’t let his piece stand, and so wrote a substantial reply, “Secular humanism is not a religion.” I won’t reiterate it here, as you can read it at the link or read about it on my website (here and here).

Staddon was apparently peeved that I didn’t swallow his half-digested pabulum, and so wrote a response to me called “Values, even secular ones, depend on faith: A reply to Jerry Coyne” (you can read my note about it here, which didn’t give a rebuttal because I knew I’d write one for Quillette). In this response, without admitting it, he retracts his original claim that secular humanism is a religion. He first argues that he didn’t choose the title (and that may have been true), but neglects to add that the very first sentence of his first piece, a sentence that he surely wrote himself, was this:

It is now a rather old story: secular humanism is a religion.

Oh well, let the readers be deceived. But he went on to claim that well, maybe secular humanism and its morality really isn’t religious, but they do have religious aspects: they’re based on faith. As Staddon said,

My argument is simple: religions have three characteristics: spiritual, mythical/historical, and moral. Secular humanism lacks the first two and is often quite critical of these aspects of religion. But they are largely irrelevant to politics. Hence the truth or falsity of religious myths is also irrelevant, as are Coyne’s disproofs of the existence of God. The fact that religious morals are derived from religious stories—myths in Mr. Coyne’s book—does not make them any more dismissible than Mr. Coyne’s morals, which are connected to nothing at all. In his own agnostic terms, all are matters of faith.

I couldn’t let that stand, either, as “faith” means something very different in secular humanistic ethics and religious ethics. And the claim that secular morality is based on “nothing at all” is completely stupid.

I explain the difference in the construals of “faith” in my article, while noting that, at bottom, any ethical system is based on “preferences”. In religion it’s for following the dictates of your particular sect, while in humanism it’s usually based on what kind of world you’d like to see and inhabit. There can be no claim that this and that morality is “objective and scientific” as all are grounded on preferences. (Some differ from me: Sam Harris and Derek Parfit, for instance, think that we can construct a perfectly objective morality.)

Nevertheless, secular morality can be based on a rational and coherent set of principles (I give one example in my piece), can be informed by science, and can also change based on changing mores. (When religious morality changes, that’s not based on changes in theology but on changes in secular morality that then force changes in theology. The Euthyphro Dilemma applies here.)

But I’m getting ahead of myself. You can read my response by clicking on the screenshot below.  And thanks to Rebecca Goldstein for discussing the issues with me; one can have no better critic.

As I found before, the commenters on my piece, already active, are disappointingly unthoughtful.

Atheist bashing at Al-Jazeera: Columbia professor claims that New Atheism is a resurrection of imperialism, white supremacy, Islamophobia, and so on

May 6, 2019 • 10:30 am

I don’t know if I should spend any more time going after pieces like this, but I’ll call it to your attention. This one, at Al-Jazeera USA, is particularly invidious. The author, Hamid Dabashi, is an Iranian-born Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, and has been involved in several altercations and controversies. He states in the piece that he’s a Muslim.

Read by clicking on the screenshot:

The occasion for Dabashi’s splenetic eructations is the publication of a transcript of the “Four Horsemen Discussion” in book form, The Four Horsemen: The Conversation that Sparked an Atheist RevolutionI’ve read the book, but if you’ve seen the publicly available video, it doesn’t add much to it. (There are some introductions by the three living Horsepersons as well as a foreword by Stephen Fry, but they’re very short).

Here’s the two-hour video, which is good, and I suspect most of us have seen it.

Dabashi’s beef is that all four of these men are ignorant of Islam, are “Islamophobic”, are white supremacists and imperialists, and are in league with Christian conservatives in espousing a “toxic ideology”. Moreover, he implies, they bear some responsibility for the attack on the mosques in New Zealand, for the Easter terrorist attack in Sri Lanka, and for the deaths of Palestinians during “right of return” demonstrations at the Israel-Gaza border. In the end, though, his whole critique rests on these men’s criticism of Islam:

So who are these four “new atheist” crusaders (yes, they may deny it, but they are indeed very much the product of the white Western Christian crusader tradition)? They are all white older men, who have never embarked on studying Islam, do not speak Arabic – the language of the Qur’an – and certainly have no special insight into any Muslim community on earth. They are, literally, illiterate.

I guess you have to read Hebrew and Greek to criticize the Bible, too, as those are the languages of scripture. As for “white older men”, that’s both ageist and racist, and Sam was only 40 at the time of this conversation. As for needing “special” (as opposed to “general”, I guess) insight into Islam before you can criticize it, I’ll leave that for you to judge.

Across religions and cultures, there are decent and reasonable atheists, as there are equally decent and reasonable believers, who can and should openly engage in debate about religion and the belief in God without succumbing to hatred and convictions in one’s supremacy. Such open and honest conversations are indeed healthy for any community or nation and should be encouraged.

But what the so-called “four horsemen” have engaged in during their 2007 discussion and in their public appearances and writings, is not an open and honest debate. Instead, the entirety of their work is just a vicious attack on a 1.5-billion-strong, immensely diverse and dynamic community.

To those who have followed these men and their writings, these charges are palpably ridiculous. They have all separated criticism of Islam from criticism of Muslims, have decried not only the Christian Right but also Christianity (and other faiths), and are certainly not white supremacists. As for the terrorist attacks, it’s ridiculous to blame these men for what happened in New Zealand, and of course the attacks in Sri Lanka were carried out by Muslims.

What is happening here is that Dabashi is simply upset that these men are not “good atheists,” and by “not good” I think he means that they haven’t refrained from criticizing Islam. I’ll give a few quotes to support that. First, his criticisms of each Horseperson (quotes from Dabashi’s piece are indented):

Sam Harris

In his book, End of Faith, he dedicates a whole chapter to the “The Problem with Islam.” There, he explains that: “While Christianity has few living inquisitors today, Islam has many … In our opposition to the world view of Islam, we confront a civilization with an arrested history. It is as though a portal in time has opened, and fourteenth-century hordes are pouring into our world. Unfortunately, they are now armed with twenty-first-century weapons.” One is left breathless considering whether to address the unabashed racism, the astonishing ignorance, or the barefaced vulgarity of such utterances.

This isn’t of course racism: it’s criticism of a faith and its effects on extremist adherents. Note that Sam says “many living inquisitors,” which is true, but he doesn’t indict all Muslims, and has repeatedly separated extremist from moderate Muslims. He’s clearly speaking about terrorists.

Christopher Hitchens

Last but not least, Hitchens is equally creative with his spurious conclusions about Islam in God Is Not Great. Just one example would suffice: “Real horror of the porcine is manifest all over the Islamic world. One good instance would be the continued prohibition of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, one of the most charming and useful fables of modern times, of the reading of which Muslim schoolchildren are deprived.” 

I am a Muslim. I was born and raised in a Muslim country. I read Orwell’s Animal Farm in Persian in Iran when I was a teenager. The book was translated into Persian soon after its publication in English, and ever since has had numerous Persian translations and I, myself, have repeatedly included it in my courses.

This is the only indictment that can carry any weight, although its weight is that of a feather. Note that Dabashi was born in 1951, and thus was 28 when the 1979 Islamic Revolution occurred in Iran. That means he certainly read the book when the country was more liberal and the theocracy hadn’t started wholesale censorship. (He seems to have moved to the US before 1979). I doubt that Animal Farm is prescribed in Iran today (though I could be wrong); but as for Dabashi “including it in his courses,” well, his courses are at Columbia University. 

Richard Dawkins

The other rabid Islamophobe, Dawkins uses the infamous Jyllands-Posten cartoons of Prophet Mohammed, which sparked mass protests in a few Muslim countries, to portray in his book, The God Delusion, all Muslims as a gang of delusional psychopaths. In his opinion: “Danes just live in a country with a free press, something that people in many Islamic countries might have a hard time understanding.” With this one sentence, Dawkins tries (but fails) to erase the long and sustained history of Muslims’ struggle for freedom of expression and truthful journalism.

I deny that Richard argues in The God Delusion that “all Muslims are a gang of delusional psychopaths”.  As for ignoring the long history of Muslims’ struggle for freedom of expression, well, why did they have to struggle for freedom of expression if the religion wasn’t denying it? Certainly it does these days (which are the days that are relevant), as there is little freedom to criticize Islamic governments. In fact, you can be jailed or murdered for such criticism, as in Bangladesh. The Jyllands-Posten cartoons are but one example: Dabashi doesn’t mention The Satanic Verses or the Charlie Hebdo incidents; and there are many more. No, Islam indeed has a serious problem with dissent, at least in Islamic countries.

When I sent this article to Richard, he sent a response, which I quote with permission:

At least as far as The God Delusion is concerned, what is revealing in this ridiculous article is the grotesquely inflated obsession with Islam. To my regret, my ignorance of Islam and other religions led me to concentrate on attacking Christianity almost exclusively – so much for being a “Christian-enabler”. One of the most common criticisms I receive is precisely that I concentrate on attacking Christianity and ignore Islam (Christian hurt expressing itself in what has been called “Fatwa Envy”). My couple of sentences about the Danish cartoons is almost the only mention of Islam in the entire book. Perhaps it’s the only bit he read – maybe looked it up in the index.

Dan Dennett

In Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Dennett, too, engages in some sweeping and vastly inaccurate conclusions. For example, he makes the following mind-boggling observation: “It is worth recalling that the Arabic word Islam means ‘submission’. The idea that Muslims should put the proliferation of Islam ahead of their own interests is built right into the etymology of its name.” Yet, Islam means submission to the will of God, which is a central theological pillar in many religions and which has nothing to do with “proliferation of Islam”.

Oh, for crying out loud! This is a distinction without a difference. Islam is nothing if not a proselytizing faith, and, as many have pointed out, the distinction between religion and culture in many Muslim societies is nil. And yes, many Muslims, including terrorists and Islamists, do indeed put the proliferation of Islam ahead of their own interest; or rather, the proliferation of Islam is their chief interest.

In all of this, Dabashi picks on particulars, not addressing the general critiques of religion tendered by the Horsepersons, the criticisms that promoted the resurgence of atheism. These include the fact that there’s no evidence for religion’s fact claims or for a divine being, that the various religion conflict with each other in both claims about reality and, on the ground, militarily, and that all religions promote dogma and behavior that is divisive, oppressive, and inimical to the progress of liberal society. Instead, Dabishi just tars New Atheists with various slurs. Here are a few:

In other words, it is quite clear from the writings of the “four horsemen” that “new atheism” has little to do with atheism or any serious intellectual examination of the belief in God and everything to do with hatred and power.  

Indeed, “new atheism” is the ideological foregrounding of liberal imperialism whose fanatical secularism extends the racist logic of white supremacy. It purports to be areligious, but it is not. It is, in fact, the twin brother of the rabid Christian conservatism which currently feeds the Trump administration’s destructive policies at home and abroad – minus all the biblical references. 

And then he starts blaming New Atheism for the killings:

And just as religious white supremacy encourages individual and state-sponsored violence against those perceived as “inferior”, so does its “new atheist” version. Historically, the “liberal atheists” have always eagerly joined their “Christian conservative” brethren in the battle call in advance of any US aggression anywhere in the world. 

However, this is, not to say that such deadly fanaticism occurs only in the US (and by extension Europe). Militant Islamism and extremist Zionism have the same exact roots. If Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Osama bin Laden are the symbols of Muslim fanaticism, Meir Kahane, Benjamin Netanyahu, Ayelet Shaked, and Naftali Bennett are the prime examples of the Zionist equivalent, while the “four horsemen”, along with Steve Bannon, Mike Pompeo et al are the flag bearers of secular-Christian imperialism in full power.  

I’m not sure that all of those things are like the others.

And, finally, this:

In the raging battle between these hateful, toxic ideologies, they thrive and feed off of each other. Caught in the crossfire of this clash of ignorance and barbarity, are billions of human beings – Jews, Christians, Muslims and atheists – who pay the price with their lives. 

Thus, Robert Bowers, who killed 11 Jewish worshipers in the US, Brenton Tarrant who massacred 51 Muslims during Friday prayers in New Zealand, members of National Thowheed Jamath, who murdered 257 people during the Easter massacre in Sri Lanka and the Israeli soldiers who over the past year have slain more than 260 unarmed Palestinian during right of return protests at the Israel-Gaza fence are all kindred souls.

In today’s world, mass murder and religious and secular fanaticism go hand-in-hand.

Well, if you’re going to blame Dawkins et al. for this kind of stuff, we could blame Dabashi for every form of Islamist malfeasance perpetrated in this world, including the pervasive oppression of women, gays, apostates, the existence of corporal punishment and censorship, and so on. While Dabashi decries “Militant Islamism,” at the same time he decries reasonable criticism of Islam—the only thing that will ever stop Islamic violence and oppression (and that’s a long shot). Reasonable criticism of all religions is what is on offer by the Horsemen. As Dennett says at the beginning of the video:

“I came to realize it’s a no win situation; it’s a mug’s game. Religions have contrived to make it impossible to disagree with them, critically, without being rude. They simply play the hurt feelings card at every opportunity and you’re faced with the choice of well, are you going to be rude, or are you going to articulate this criticism and button your lip.”

Dabashi’s article is in fact one big Hurt Feelings Card. 

The worst article ever to appear in Quillette: Psychologist declares secular humanism a “religion”

April 12, 2019 • 9:45 am

In general I like the articles in Quillette: they’re generally left-wing but also critical of the Left’s excesses—a theme that has led some misguided ideologues to call the site “alt-right.” But this time the editors screwed up by accepting a piece that makes very little sense, and arrives at its conclusion by some risibly tortuous logic (click on screenshot). The author, John Staddon, is identified as “James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Professor of Biology, Emeritus, at Duke University”. His answer to the title question, by the way, is “yes”.

This may in fact be the worst piece that Quillette has ever published:

Staddon begins by claiming that there are three elements common to all religions (his defining traits are in bold). I won’t argue with him except to say that the first and second claims show substantial overlap:

1.)  “The first is the belief in invisible or hidden beings, worlds and processes—like God, heaven, miracles, reincarnation, and the soul. All these are unverifiable, or unseen and unseeable, except by mystics under special and generally unrepeatable conditions. Since absence of evidence is not, logically, evidence of absence, these features of religion are neither true nor false, but simply unprovable. They have no implications for action, hence no bearing on legal matters.”

I’ll leave it to readers to judge whether this claim is true of all religions (Staddon mentions no exceptions). But this characteristic is certainly not true of secular humanism, which is SECULAR.  So on this count Staddon shows that secular humanism doesn’t share an important feature of religion.

However, he fails to realize that claims about God, miracles, the soul, and so on, can indeed be testable under some circumstances. I summarized in Faith Versus Fact how there could be evidence for God and miracles (all provisional, of course, because this is empirical and semiscientific evidence). Carl Sagan also wrote about the conceivable but unobserved evidence for God.

2.) “The second element are claims about the real world: every religion, especially in its primordial version, makes claims that are essentially scientific—assertions of fact that are potentially verifiable. These claims are of two kinds. The first we might call timeless: e.g., claims about physical properties—the four elementary humors, for example, the Hindu turtle that supports the world, properties of foods, the doctrine of literal transubstantiation. The second are claims about history: Noah’s flood, the age of the earth, the resurrection—all “myths of origin.” Some of these claims are unverifiable; as for the rest, there is now a consensus that science usually wins—in law and elsewhere. In any case, few of these claims have any bearing on action.”

First of all, this overlaps almost entirely with claim 1, for things like resurrections and miracles and the soul are claims about the real world, and some are testable. There could, for example, be a soul that is somehow detectable (people used to weigh dying people to see if they lost weight when they died and their “souls” left the body). In fact, I’d say that claims about heaven are in principle more testable than claims about literal transubstantiation, which the Vatican has immunized against disproof by making the “transubstantiation” undetectable by empirical means.

But we see in the last sentence of #2 what Staddon really wants to see as the defining trait of religion: something that “have a bearing on action”. That brings us to #3:

3.) “The third property of a religion are its rules for action—prohibitions and requirements—its morality. All religions have a code, a set of moral and behavioral prescriptions, matters of belief —usually, but not necessarily—said to flow from God, that provide guides to action in a wide range of situations. The 10 Commandments, the principles of Sharia, the Five Precepts of Buddhism, etc. 

Secular humanism lacks any reference to the supernatural and defers matters of fact to science. But it is as rich in moral rules, in dogma, as any religion. Its rules come not from God but from texts like Mill’s On Liberty, and the works of philosophers like Peter Singer, Dan Dennett and Bertrand Russell, psychologists B. F. Skinner and Sigmund Freud, public intellectuals like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, and “humanist chaplains” everywhere. “

Yes, most religions do have a morality, at least the theistic ones. But Staddon doesn’t seem to realize that the morality of religion has two features which differentiate it from the morality deriving from secular humanism. (I’ll add here that there isn’t really a morality of secular humanism beyond “Do what benefits other people.”) The variety of secular-humanistic morality makes it far less comprehensive than the morality of religions, for secular humanists differ drastically from each other in how they construe ethical action beyond the Golden Rule. Indeed, Staddon recognizes this:
Because secular-humanist morals cannot be easily identified, they cannot be easily attacked

First, much of religious morality, as Maarten Boudry and I argued, derives directly or indirectly from its supernatural claims. So the view that abortion is murder, for instance, comes from the view that fetuses, like adults, have souls, and therefore aborting them is murder. The prohibition of homosexuality comes from scripture, both in Islam and Christianity. And so on.

Second, religious morality largely comes from interpreting what is God’s will—sometimes in the “divine command theory”: the view that whatever God says is good is good. (This overlaps, of course with my point above.) In contrast, the morality of secular humanists usually (and should) come from some basic non-divine principles about how we ought to act—principles based largely on reason but in the end are grounded on preference. While the foundations of secular morality are subjective, they largely coincide for most of us, and encompass some version of Sam Harris’s view that “objective” morality means maximizing well being.

I’ve objected to Sam’s view not because it’s not a good guideline for action (it almost invariably is), but simply because it’s not as objective as he thinks. You have to sign on to the idea that “maximizing well being” is the highest good, and not everybody might do that. How do you show people who reject the well-being criterion that they’re objectively wrong?

In other cases Sam’s criterion is not practicable. How do we weigh the well-being of animals versus humans when we cut down rain forest, eat meat, or use animals in medical research? How many mice have the well being equivalent to one human? How do you trade off wealth versus health? My objection, in other words, is not that Sam’s utilitarian rule is not generally the best one, but that it’s not objective in its claim that science can decide the most moral thing to do. (Given some constraints, science may be able to decide what will maximize well being, however.)

If you do accept the idea that most secular humanists have a similar morality that derives from an intuitive grasp of maximizing well being, a view that goes hand in hand with liberalism and empathy, then you get a very different morality from secular humanism than you do from religion.

Most important EVERYONE has a moral code, but that doesn’t make everyone religious. For, in the end, Staddon decides that only item #3, rules for behavior and right action, counts as religion. Thus everyone in the world is religious save sociopaths and others who have no moral rules. That makes Staddon’s characterization of secular humanism pretty much of a tautology. To wit:

But it is only the morality of a religion, not its supernatural or historical beliefs, that has any implications for action, for politics and law. Secular humanism makes moral claims as strong as any other faith. It is therefore as much a religion as any other. But because it is not seen as religious, the beliefs of secular humanists increasingly influence U.S. law.

This is about as dumb a claim as you’ll see a respected academic making. It completely evades both the dictionary and the vernacular conceptions of religion, and makes everybody religious who has a view of right and wrong. It also ignores the diversity of moral views among secular humanists. I’d take issue, for instance, with Staddon’s argument that secular humanism makes moral claims as strong as that of, say Sunni Islam or Southern Baptists.

So the whole piece is bogus, resting on a nonstandard definition of “religion”. But why does Staddon twist language this way?

Apparently because he doesn’t like the kind of morality that he sees flowing from secular humanism, which contravenes what I think is his own conservative view of morality. He gives three examples of how secular humanistic “faith” has affected people’s actions and the law in ways he clearly disapproves of.

One is the legalization of same-sex marriage. The second is the existence of “blasphemy rules,” like “it’s immoral to dress in blackface or use the “n-word”. I myself object to the extreme censoriousness affecting some of these actions (though the two cited are abhorrent), but I see this as the result of people trying to create a harmonious world (sometimes in misguided ways), and not at all the same thing as a religious dictate. The passion of opposing blackface may be of the same intensity as the passion of opposing abortion, but that doesn’t make the former religious, except insofar as you use “religious” as a synonym for “passionate.”

Staddon’s third example is weird: humanist Fred Edwords’ (Staddon misspells it as “Edwards”) opposition to the erection of a 40-foot cross in Maryland on public land. Not realizing that opposing that is simply enforcing the First Amendment (an Amendment supported, by the way, by many believers), Staddon argues that “It seems to be the faith of a competitor that Fred objects to.” In other words, by allowing people to erect nonreligious monuments on public land but opposing religious ones, Edwords is supposedly showing the religious side of secular humanism:  no competitor monuments allowed. To make a pun, this is monumentally stupid.

Staddon goes on objecting to asking political candidates about their religion, something I think is fair if their faith would influence their actions as an elected official, but I desist. In the end, Stodden fails to prove his thesis since he admits that secular humanism lacks two of the three defining traits of religion, and then he implies that anybody with a moral code is religious.

That reminds me of Stephen Jay Gould’s weaselly reconciliation between science and religion in his book Rocks of Ages. In that book, Gould’s NOMA Hypothesis was that science is about finding the facts of the universe, while religion’s bailiwick is meaning, morals, and values. Gould ignored the long tradition of secular ethics, and, addressing that lacuna when I reviewed the book for the Times Literary Supplement, I said this:

Finally, it need hardly be pointed out that atheists are not automatically amoral. Gould senses this difficulty, but finesses it by claiming that all ethics is really religion in disguise. To distinguish the two, he says, is to “quibble about the labels”, and he decides to “construe as fundamentally religious (literally, binding us together) all moral discourse on principles that might activate the ideal of universal fellowship of people”. But one cannot evade this problem by defining it out of existence.

Gould was wrong, and so is Staddon. Why did the editors of Quillette publish this odiferous serving of tripe?

h/t: Michael, who says, “I remember this same guy rabbiting on about ‘scientific imperialism’ a decade ago.  I found a video of Staddon doing that; it’s only two minutes long, and I’ll leave it to you to react/rebut.


Articles you don’t need to read because you’ve already read them: New Atheism-dissing in the Guardian

February 3, 2019 • 1:45 pm

Good Lord, when will places like the Guardian stop publishing the same article over and over again? Do people ever get tired of dumping on New Atheism or, in this case, the “Four Horsemen”? I haven’t heard of author Steven Poole, a British journalist and author, but here he reviews a book I’ve already read, The Four Horsemen: A Conversation That Sparked an Atheist Revolution.  And he uses his review to try to eviscerate Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Dan Dennett, and Richard Dawkins. Click on the screenshot to read:

My own short review: This is a transcript of the well known “Four Horsemen” conversation that took place in Christopher Hitchens’s apartment in 2007. There is a full video that you can find here. What’s new is simply the addition of a foreword by Stephen Fry and, as I recall, short commentaries by a few Horsepeople. But the meat of the discussion is already on YouTube. If you want to buy the book, you’d be buying it for the forewords, and to me it’s not worth it. Caveat emptor.

Now about the review: well, it’s the same pap that all liberal venues put out about the New Atheists, including smarmy but untrue remarks like these:

Contrary to the book’s subtitle, the “atheist revolution” was not sparked by this cocktail-fuelled pre-dinner round of chat and backslapping, which took place in 2007. By then the participants could already salute one another for the impressive sales of their books, boast about how willing they were to cause “offence”, and reminisce about how brilliant they were when they befuddled this or that bishop with some debating point.

That’s not what these guys did, although I’ll admit that the “brights” thing was misguided. But I’ve hung around most of these guys a fair bit (Hitchens I met only once), and I’ve never heard anything like the kind of boasting and back-patting that Poole reports. Those things, like the dumb atheist-dissing in Salon, are just character assassination.

Then there’s the obligatory claim that that that 2007 discussion is “dated”, and maybe it is, but so what? To answer Poole’s title question, what happened to the New Atheism is that it won: it exposed a new generation to old arguments about atheism (and some new ones based on science), and thus helped with the increasing secularization of the West. Their books were best-sellers, and for a reason; it wasn’t the Dawkins haters who bought millions of copies of The God Delusion. Finally, none of the Horsemen write about atheism any more because they don’t need to: the ball is rolling and it’s going to suck up religion with it.

Poole then makes the familiar argument that New Atheism was not sophisticated about religion and also neglects the benefits of religion. But would we have algebra even if Islam hadn’t existed? Of course we would, although the word for it might have been different. Newton and Lemaitre: well, yes, some religious people made scientific advances, but in most cases religion had nothing to do with it, as nearly everyone in the West was religious two centuries ago (yes, I know Lemaitre is more recent). Was the Human Genome Project the result of Francis Collins’s religiosity? I doubt it, and the other contributor, Craig Ventner, is an atheist.

Poole goes on:

New Atheism’s arguments were never very sophisticated or historically informed. You will find in this conversation no acknowledgment of the progress made by medieval Islamic civilisation in medicine and mathematics – which is why, among other things, we have the word “algebra”. The Horsemen assume that religion has always been an impediment to science, dismissing famous religious scientists – such as Georges Lemaître, the Catholic priest who first proposed the big bang hypothesis, not to mention Isaac Newton et al – as inexplicable outliers. At one point Harris complains about a leading geneticist who is also a Christian. This guy seems to think, Harris spits incredulously, “that on Sunday you can kneel down in the dewy grass and give yourself to Jesus because you’re in the presence of a frozen waterfall, and on Monday you can be a physical geneticist”. Harris offers no reason why he can’t, except that the combination is incompatible with his own narrow-mindedness.

This is irrelevant, of course, to the point made by these four men: that religion is a melange of foolish and unsubstantiated superstitions, that it doesn’t belong in this era nor in any rational mind, and that, by and large, it is harmful. And even if it does some good things, it’s simply not TRUE and there are ways of getting those good things without having the bad things.

Poole’s review continues, with Sam getting the worst of it, as he always does, in the end being accused of flirting with the alt-right. That’s simply not true, as Sam is on the Left. He’s just not woke enough for Poole.

In the end, these men did us a big favor by acquainting a new generation with arguments about why religion is false and harmful. They are the Ingersolls of our generation; and each generation, indoctrinated with religion by parents and peers, needs to hear the arguments anew. What people like Poole are trying to do,  by discrediting the Four Horsemen, is to somehow justify and vindicate religion. Even if they be nonbelievers, they somehow can’t bear to say bad things about faith. But they are on the losing side, for in two centuries religion will have waned to a small band of superstitious holdouts. Or so I think.

Another religionist emails me, accusing me of reading only my own writings

January 1, 2019 • 10:00 am

The emails—most either annoying or downright pompous, keep coming in, inspired by my piece at The Conversation on the incompatibility of science and faith. With over 100,000 views and over 750 comments, that piece has legs—legs that have apparently kicked some believers in the tuchas. The email below, both annoying and pompous, came from a gentleman (and I use the term loosely) whose name will be omitted to protect the arrogant and delusional.

I will, however, let him know that I’ve posted it, and I’ll crowdsource the reply to you folks. I have a few comments (flush left); the email I got is indented.

And while I like readers to call me “Jerry” on this site, I don’t appreciate people I don’t know, who are about to take me to task, calling me by my first name. It’s patronizing.


Would you agree there is only one truth, therefore there can be only one God for any legitimate faith to exist?  Even though it was 2000 years ago, there were witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus.  Is the witnessing of an event a fact or just faith?  Of course we were not there to personally witness that event but there are many events that we believe are true even though we weren’t there.

Answer: The question of “is there only one truth” isn’t clear even for science, as some questions, particularly those involving quantum mechanics, have multiple true answers. For example, is an electron a wave or a particle?

But when you get into nonexistent beings, then the answer to the first question is “no”. Hindus, for example, certainly consider their faith to be legitimate, yet has many gods. And even if there were just one deity (Muslims consider Allah to be identical to the Christian and Jewish god), the answer then depends on what you mean by “legitimate”. I suppose the writer thinks that there can be only one “legitimate” faith in the sense of being “a faith all of whose contentions are true.” But in that case Christianity is not “legitimate” because it depends on statements like the six-day Genesis creation and the existence of Adam and Eve as our literal ancestors—claims that have been scientifically disproven.

I suppose people have considered in detail what one means by a “true” faith, but for Christianity the minimum would be the beliefs that Jesus existed, was the son of God/God himself, was crucified, resurrected, and now will give us all eternal life. Plus he’s coming back!

This guy claims that there’s good evidence for the “truth” of Christianity because he takes the Bible as true. That, of course, is the sole source of “witnesses,” yet we also know of the contradictions in even the accounts of the Resurrection. Which “witness” is correct? (The gospels were of course written decades after Jesus’s supposed death, and not by witnesses at all.)

Personally, I’m skeptical of accounts that aren’t well attested by multiple independent accounts by contemporaries. I’m not even that sure that Socrates existed! But I’m even less sure that someone on whom Jesus was based existed, for there is only one account in history, and that’s all in the Bible, complete with contradictory accounts of Jesus’s life and death.

The chap goes on:

The belief in evolution requires great faith to believe something can grow out of nothing.  Most mathematical scientists are not atheists when they study the probabilities regarding evolution and creationism.  And mathematics are true scientific facts and not just speculation or theories.

Three comments. I don’t accept evolution based on faith; I accept it based on evidence. I don’t know how life began, but I do know that it originated about 4 billion years ago, that all living species descended from one ancient common ancestor, and that things evolved and branched, often via natural selection.  Finally, mathematics does not comprise “true scientific facts”, as the writer should know, and we don’t have any calculations showing that life could not have originated from non-life or that evolution could not have occurred.

But wait! There’s more!

You might benefit from reading something besides your own writings.  The Case For Faith by Lee Stroble would be a good place to start.

Actually, the author’s name is Lee Strobel; get your names right, dude!

Of course I read more than my own writings. I read tons of theology, plus the Bible and the Qur’an (and some of the Book of Mormon) for Faith versus Fact. I’m absolutely sure I know a lot more about theology and religion than this benighted chap knows about evolution. It’s odd that believers don’t think they have to study evolution or science in detail before criticizing me for not knowing enough theology! If you say that you have to have studied both to pronounce on the incompatibility of science and religion, well, I’ve done my job and almost none of my critics have.

Good luck in your search for God.  He knows where you are.  I hope you figure out where He is before you must face the real truth.

If there is a God, I’ll repeat what Bertrand Russell said when asked what, as an atheist, what he’d say to God if Russell died and found out he was wrong: “Not enough evidence, God! Not enough evidence!” I’m sure God would forgive me, him being loving and omniscient and stuff.

As for this guy, I have contempt not for his belief, but for his certainty and his willingness to lecture me on why I should share his personal superstitions.

Feel free to respond to this person, and I’ll email him the link to this post and the comments.

Note added at 6 pm Chicago time: I’ve sent the link to this believer.

More emails from readers who question my philosophical cred

December 28, 2018 • 10:00 am

Emails from strangers about my science-versus-religion piece in The Conversation continue to pollute my inbox. I’ve put one more below.

How much do you have to study religion before you can say that Abrahamic religions are a.) often based on assertions about what exists and what is real and b.) adjudicate their truth statements in a manner completely different from how science decides what is (provisional) truth? Just look how many Americans believe in Heaven and Hell, and the evidence for that, versus why scientists accept the existence of viruses and bacteria, and the evidence for that. It’s a no-brainer.

I’d say that a moderate knowledge of religion and of religious people would suffice, but people like the one below, who sent me a petulant email, think that years of study are required to claim the two assertions above. This person, who apparently lives in Utah (a Mormon?) is wrong.  But here’s the email I got at 3:30 this morning (I have an early flight.) This person’s email is indented; my comments are flush left.

Hi Jerry,

I read your op-ed in the 12-27-2018 edition of the Logan Herald-Journal

Not having heard of you until now, I checked out your bio at There you’re described as an atheist, a secular Jew, and a metaphysical naturalist. I don’t question your credentials in evolutionary biology. However, please explain why you consider yourself an expert in analytic philosophy and metaphysics? For example, can you explain the difference between atheism-theism-agnosticism on the one hand and theological noncognitivism on the other? If theism is not false but empirically meaningless, then why wouldn’t atheism and agnosticism likewise be meaningless (i.e., neither empirically true nor false)?

This is the hurdle one must leap, apparently, to be able to write a popular essay on science versus religion. But I wonder if this guy knows as much about evolutionary biology as I do about theology and religion? Has he read On The Origin of Species? Where is HIS expertise. The fact is, though, that it doesn’t take years of study to make the points I did in my article.

As for theism being “empirically meaningless”, I never said it was, for there is potential evidence for assertions about God. It’s just that we haven’t seen any. In contrast, there is evidence for accepted truths in science. Atheism, the simple rejection of belief in gods, is based on the absence of evidence for gods, not the “empirical meaninglessness” of religion. This guy hasn’t read enough about atheism!

He goes on:

Your bio includes a quote by you taken from The New Republic in which you claim that “all scientific progress requires a climate of strong skepticism.” [My italics] Besides reading your above op-ed, I also viewed one of your lectures on YouTube. Both lead me to doubt your understanding of philosophical skepticism. Therefore, I suggest you read the following article by Keith Lehrer, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Arizona. He’s clearly an expert on what it means to be epistemically dogmatic:

See “Why Not Scepticism?” Philosophical Forum, vol. II, (1971), 283-298.

(According to the author’s bio, this article is required reading in undergraduate courses on cognitive theory.)

Best wishes,

Well, if I’ve made some major error about religion or philosophy, this person should tell me what it is. They never do (or when they do they’re wrong), but rather they almost always refer me to one or another article to read in the endless rabbit-hole that is academic philosophy and theology.

I stand by what I wrote.

I get emails from theists

December 22, 2018 • 10:00 am

Since my piece on the incompatibility of science and religion was published yesterday at The Conversation, I’ve been bombarded with emails and “requests for interaction” (The Conversation allows readers to contact you this way), with the latter being largely “requests for you to listen to my point of view.”

Here’s an email from someone who found my address and sent me a confusing message masquerading as a request to “engage me in meaningful conversation.” But it doesn’t look like the person (name redacted) wants a meaningful conversation. Rather, the person wants me to absorb his/her/zir views.

I’ve learned two things through bitter experience. The first is that if you try to have a discussion with someone like this, no minds get changed, nor does it wind up as anything besides mutual acrimony.  The second is that I need to learn the lesson given by Christopher Hitchens, who said something like: “Unsolicited emails deserve to go unanswered.” (I’d appreciate it if anyone could give me his actual quote.)

Engagement on social media is pretty much useless with an issue like accommodationism, and my tactic has been to just publish what I think, read some of the comments, and examine my views to see if they need modification. I try not to engage in online catfights or exchanges. The comments posted at The Conversation and, especially, on Pinker’s retweet of my article (see below) are largely ignorant (also ignorant of what I actually wrote), angry, or irrelevant.

Anyway, here’s the email that greeted me this morning.

I appreciate your point of view in the recent article; “Yes, There is a War between Science and Religion” published December 21, 2018. I would like to engage you in meaningful conversation in regards to your view that science and religion are incompatible. I would argue that you are morphing science into a religion in regards to what answers you expect science to be able to produce. I would agree with you that science is the set of tools we as humans use to discover “truth” (a more appropriate term to use in the definition you provide would be facts) about the universe, with the understanding that the truths/facts are provisional rather than absolute. In other words, inductive reasoning allows for the generalization of a set of data or observations to describe the probable way in which the world or some phenomena functions. Repetitive experiments increase the probability of the generalization being true, but there is no possible way in which the generalization could ever be 100% certain, yet alone able to be extended to other areas to make 100% certain predictions in that area. In fact you argue that faith without evidence is a vice. Do you not take many things on faith in performing your experiments? Have you replicated every possible experiment personally and validated its veracity? Of course not, and it is not necessary. However there is some degree of certainty in the uniformity of the universe that allows you to function and to make predications in vastly differing fields. While science has made great and amazing gains in understanding the universe, it still relies on the underlying assumption of uniformity. It would seem to me then that you are suggesting that science would thus be able to function in such a manner distinct from faith? If so, then science has moved beyond science and has become philosophy. What is religion but other than a philosophy? In arguing that science can serve as more than what its capacity as science permits (and subsequently using it to derive meaning) you have made science a religion. You have simply created yet another god to which you adhere to unknowingly.

The reader, as happens so often, mistakes “faith” (the belief in “verities” that lack evidence) with “confidence” (the prior probability you develop from experience). So yes, I don’t assume, when doing an experiment, that a tornado nearby will change the barometric pressure and affect fly behavior. That’s not faith but confidence born of experience.

Likewise, “uniformity” is not a “faith” but an observation that hasn’t been contradicted: the laws of physics operate the same everywhere we know. That’s why we’re able to get probes sent to distant planets, and to confidently make predictions and conclusions based on observing distant bodies. That’s a long way from religious faith, two notions that—at the risk of repeating myself too often—I distinguished in my Slate article “No faith in science.” Thus, the reader’s conclusion that confidence based on experience turns science into a “religion” or “another god” is arrant nonsense.

But the reader went on, immersing him/her/zirself into the quicksand of Sophisticated Theology™. Clearly my definition of religion wasn’t nuanced enough! I’ve put the mindmush in bold:

Moreover your definition of religion is much too simplistic and arguably a straw man. While religion is a social system, it is also much more than what your definition would permit, especially in regards to how it applies to Christianity. You argue for the incompatibility of religion as a belief system in relation to science, I would presume because you view that science is a better belief system. Why else would you be making such an argument as outlined in your article? Religion is at its essence a system of beliefs by which the adherent seeks to come to transcendental truth and meaning. As religion is a philosophy it rests on deductive reasoning. I’m not here to outline the numerous arguments for God. If you are interested, maybe we could have that argument in a future correspondence. I do however want to clarify the view of God that you hold.  From the Aristotelian perspective, God is that which its essence is existence. In other words, God is that which is. Stated another way, God is subsistent being itself. Everything else in the world is contingent upon what we refer to as God (to you it very well may be your assumption of universal uniformity or some other principle). Given that everything in the universe is contingent (nothing sustains itself in being/existence, but can easily perish or go out of existence), we would argue that we are all dependent upon God for existence. Subsequently any action of matter would then be, ultimately, an action of God (through secondary causes). Therefore in relation to your field, evolutionary biology does not explain away God. Once matter is in existence, it has its own set of actions and causes. Therefore life arising from nonliving matter and subsequently changing does not preclude the existence of God. It simply cannot answer, nor can any science fully explain, why there is existence in the first place (even if it is just matter/gravity/universal laws/etc). Science however can detail how the universe works, deepening our understanding and bringing to light the true beauty of God in the universe. Science and religion are absolutely compatible.

This, of course, is the cosmological argument for God, also called the “argument from contingency” or the “first cause” argument. The rebuttals to this claim are numerous and you should already know some of them; I’ll refer you to this section of Wikipedia for the most common ones. Suffice it to say that contingency and first-cause arguments are unconvincing.  The reader’s last sentence, “science and religion are absolutely compatible”, is simply an assertion, apparently resting on his/her/zir bogus argument that science is a religion based on faith.

Here’s a private message I got from The Conversation (name redacted), asking for discourse. How on earth would that be possible here? But I love the last sentence.

Finally, check out some of the 193 comments appended to Pinker’s tweet. I’m pretty sure Steve doesn’t read comments, as he’s busy and most of the comments are pretty nasty.

Here are a few:

Andrew Sullivan: the bad (atheism-bashing and religion-osculation) and the good (seeing American ideologies as religions)

December 9, 2018 • 10:00 am

Several people sent me links to Andrew Sullivan’s latest column in New York magazine (click on screenshot below). The curious thing is that half the senders thought the article was great while the other half despised it.  After reading it (it’s long, but read it anyway), I can see why. His opening attacks on atheism as a dysfunctional religion are deeply misguided, but his criticism of both Right and Left extremist ideologies as religions is trenchant and on the mark. And the last bit, where Sullivan talks about the new Churchill movie Darkest Hour, shows Sullivan at his best, a thoughtful person and a writer who can be moving.

I used to get into fracases with Sullivan, and it was always over religion. Now that he writes less about it and more about politics—in which he’s moving left towards becoming a centrist—I like him better and read him more often. But his reversion to atheist-bashing is simply, as Wayne and Garth would say, “heinous.” In my view, Sullivan gets atheism almost completely wrong.  I’ll put up some excerpts (indented) and my take on them (flush left).

Sullivan starts off badly:

Everyone has a religion. It is, in fact, impossible not to have a religion if you are a human being. It’s in our genes and has expressed itself in every culture, in every age, including our own secularized husk of a society.

By religion, I mean something quite specific: a practice not a theory; a way of life that gives meaning, a meaning that cannot really be defended without recourse to some transcendent value, undying “Truth” or God (or gods).

Which is to say, even today’s atheists are expressing an attenuated form of religion. Their denial of any God is as absolute as others’ faith in God, and entails just as much a set of values to live by — including, for some, daily rituals like meditation, a form of prayer. (There’s a reason, I suspect, that many brilliant atheists, like my friends Bob Wright and Sam Harris are so influenced by Buddhism and practice Vipassana meditation and mindfulness. Buddhism’s genius is that it is a religion without God.)

Note the link in the first sentence, which doesn’t at all show that religion is “in our genes”—whatever that means. We don’t know of any “God genes”, and if by “religion genes” Sullivan means either “we like to look for greater meanings” or even “we have a tendency to accept the delusions of our elders,” well, yes, that’s probably true. But if religion is in our genes, how come so many people don’t express it? Or have those “genes” been selected out of the population of northern Europe?

But Sullivan claims that there aren’t really atheists: all of us, churchgoers or nonbelievers, he argues, are fundamentally religious. There are many responses. First, we atheists don’t deny God as absolutely as others believe in gods. Most atheists simply reject the notion of God because there is no evidence for one. Many of us, including the scientifically minded, reject God in the way we reject the Loch Ness Monster: there could have been evidence for both creatures, but none has shown up. There is evidence that could surface that would convince many of us—I am one, Carl Sagan was another—that a divine being existed. But we haven’t seen any such evidence. In contrast, for many believers there is no evidence that would dispel their notion of God. If evolution, the Holocaust, and the persistence of evil and physical disasters didn’t do it, then nothing will.

Nor does atheism entail a set of values to live by. Many of us become humanists, realizing that because there’s nobody Up in the Sky, our best bet is to live our lives helping fellow humans and other creatures. But not all atheists are humanists; some are Republicans.  The fundamental difference between atheists and believers is that the former don’t accept the existence of the supernatural or the truth claims of established religions. If religion is construed, as Dan Dennett sees it, as “social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought,” then no, atheists aren’t religious at all.

As for Buddhism, well, the forms embraced by atheists are philosophies rather than religions, since they don’t deal with the supernatural. And that philosophy can provide quietude in your life and a way, as Yeats wrote, to cast a cold eye on life and on death. I know that’s the way Sam sees it, but I can’t speak for Robert Wright—nor would I want to.

I’ll pass charitably over Sullivan’s praise of John Gray’s latest atheist-bashing book, and show Sullivan’s disdain for progress and science, at least as substitutes for religion (which they aren’t):

[Religion] exists because we humans are the only species, so far as we can know, who have evolved to know explicitly that, one day in the future, we will die. And this existential fact requires some way of reconciling us to it while we are alive.

This is why science cannot replace it. Science does not tell you how to live, or what life is about; it can provide hypotheses and tentative explanations, but no ultimate meaning. Art can provide an escape from the deadliness of our daily doing, but, again, appreciating great art or music is ultimately an act of wonder and contemplation, and has almost nothing to say about morality and life.

Well, yes, surely some religions are in place because of our knowledge of mortality, but not all religions posit an afterlife (many Jews, for instance, reject that notion).  And Bulletin to Andrew: we don’t see science as a replacement for religion, at least not most atheists. We like science, we enjoy learning about it, and it even provides some awe—”spirituality,” if you will. But it’s not the supernatural, we don’t take it as absolute truth, and it offers no moral guides. The substitute for the bogus morality pushed by religion is not science, but secular morality and humanism. Those involve reason, not the diktats of the big guy upstairs.  As far as giving us “meaning,” yes, religions do, but different faiths give us different meanings, and a given faith can mean different things to different people. To many Catholics, abortion is murder and homosexuality a sin; the more liberal Sullivan rejects these notions.

And what is ultimate meaning, anyway? One of the most popular posts I put up was a short one asking readers “What’s your meaning and purpose?” There are 373 comments, and, as I recall, most people say that this is either a meaningless question or that we rationalize our “meaning and purpose” by elevating the things we simply like to do to that noble three-word phrase.

As for “ultimate” meaning, well, that’s a notion that’s intimately connected with God, and so the question answers itself—and wrongly. With no evidence of a God, there’s no use asking for an ultimate meaning and purpose. All we can do is answer that for ourselves but not others.

Sullivan continues, going after Hitchens:

Ditto history. My late friend, Christopher Hitchens, with a certain glee, gave me a copy of his book, God Is Not Great, a fabulous grab bag of religious insanity and evil over time, which I enjoyed immensely and agreed with almost entirely. But the fact that religion has been so often abused for nefarious purposes — from burning people at the stake to enabling child rape to crashing airplanes into towers — does not resolve the question of whether the meaning of that religion is true. It is perfectly possible to see and record the absurdities and abuses of man-made institutions and rituals, especially religious ones, while embracing a way of life that these evil or deluded people preached but didn’t practice. Fanaticism is not synonymous with faith; it is merely faith at its worst. That’s what I told Hitch: great book, made no difference to my understanding of my own faith or anyone else’s. Sorry, old bean, but try again.

Note the bit where Sullivan says that God is Not Great “does not resolve the question of whether the meaning of that religion is true.” What, exactly, does he mean by “meaning”? If he means “the factual claims about gods and prophets made by Scripture,” then yes, Hitchens’s book makes hash of those. If he means “how I interpret and accept the morality that comes from religion?”, then that is not a true-or-false question, since there is no objective morality. Morals are a result of preference—preference for what kind of world we want, combined with some empirical evidence for how to achieve that world. Science doesn’t give us morality, nor does it purport to. Its purpose is to understand the world, not to change it. (That’s what technology is for.)

And Hitchens’s book should certainly have caused Sullivan to at least question what he believes. Does he think Jesus was not just based on a real person, but was really God’s son? And that said Jesus was crucified and resurrected? What about the other claims of Catholicism? If Sullivan doesn’t accept those claims, why is he still a Catholic? Does he like the music and incense? Because for sure, Catholicism is about the least gay-friendly faith going, and Sullivan is gay.

Then, like Gray, Sullivan bashes progressivism, conflating it with material well being and neglecting the moral progressivism that is largely the subject of Steve Pinker’s last two books. In fact, Sullivan construes Pinker as being deeply religious!

Seduced by scientism, distracted by materialism, insulated, like no humans before us, from the vicissitudes of sickness and the ubiquity of early death, the post-Christian West believes instead in something we have called progress — a gradual ascent of mankind toward reason, peace, and prosperity — as a substitute in many ways for our previous monotheism. We have constructed a capitalist system that turns individual selfishness into a collective asset and showers us with earthly goods; we have leveraged science for our own health and comfort. Our ability to extend this material bonanza to more and more people is how we define progress; and progress is what we call meaning. In this respect, Steven Pinker is one of the most religious writers I’ve ever admired. His faith in reason is as complete as any fundamentalist’s belief in God.

I’ve addressed the notion of “faith in reason” before, and rejected it. As I wrote in Slate:

What about faith in reason? Wrong again. Reason—the habit of being critical, logical, and of learning from experience—is not an a priori assumption but a tool that’s been shown to work. It’s what produced antibiotics, computers, and our ability to sequence DNA. We don’t have faith in reason; we use reason because, unlike revelation, it produces results and understanding. Even discussing why we should use reason employs reason!

I won’t reproduce Sullivan’s attack on materialism (he mentions kale, Netflix, and Pilates), though of course Sullivan is a member of the liberal elite (well, “centrist elite”) that he decries so loudly:

And if you pressed, say, the liberal elites to explain what they really believe in — and you have to look at what they do most fervently — you discover, in John Gray’s mordant view of Mill, that they do, in fact, have “an orthodoxy — the belief in improvement that is the unthinking faith of people who think they have no religion.”

That is not “faith” in the sense of “faith in Catholicism”—not by a long shot.  The “belief in improvement” is simply a hope and a wish that the world gets better, and even Sullivan surely adheres to that. It’s not “unthinking” by any means. The belief in progress is simply confidence that the exercise of reason will improve things. As I said, reason is neither faith nor religion.

I don’t know why Sullivan got things so badly balled up here, but I was saddened to see him make the same mistakes as so many less thoughtful atheist-bashers. But of course Sullivan is a Catholic, and that surely played a role in his polemic. “Give me the boy. . .  .” said the Jesuits.

So that’s the bad bit. Sullivan improves dramatically when he compares both the Far Right and the Authoritarian left to religions, but I’ll let you read that for yourself. One teaser:

Now look at our politics. We have the cult of Trump on the right, a demigod who, among his worshippers, can do no wrong. And we have the cult of social justice on the left, a religion whose followers show the same zeal as any born-again Evangelical. They are filling the void that Christianity once owned, without any of the wisdom and culture and restraint that Christianity once provided.

For many, especially the young, discovering a new meaning in the midst of the fallen world is thrilling. And social-justice ideology does everything a religion should. It offers an account of the whole: that human life and society and any kind of truth must be seen entirely as a function of social power structures, in which various groups have spent all of human existence oppressing other groups. And it provides a set of practices to resist and reverse this interlocking web of oppression — from regulating the workplace and policing the classroom to checking your own sin and even seeking to control language itself. I think of non-PC gaffes as the equivalent of old swear words. Like the puritans who were agape when someone said “goddamn,” the new faithful are scandalized when someone says something “problematic.” Another commonality of the zealot then and now: humorlessness.

And so the young adherents of the Great Awokening exhibit the zeal of the Great Awakening. Like early modern Christians, they punish heresy by banishing sinners from society or coercing them to public demonstrations of shame, and provide an avenue for redemption in the form of a thorough public confession of sin. “Social justice” theory requires the admission of white privilege in ways that are strikingly like the admission of original sin. A Christian is born again; an activist gets woke. To the belief in human progress unfolding through history — itself a remnant of Christian eschatology — it adds the Leninist twist of a cadre of heroes who jump-start the revolution.

After vetting some of the proposed Democratic Presidential candidates for the 2020 election, Sullivan recounts how he teared up when he saw the movie Darkest Hour, which I also liked (Gary Oldman won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Churchill). Here Sullivan’s writing is excellent and positively elegiac:

Why had my response been so intense, I asked myself when my bout of blubbering had finally subsided? Part of it, of course, is my still-lingering love of the island I grew up in; part is my love of Churchill himself, in all his flaws and greatness. But I think it was mainly about how the people of Britain shook off the moral decadence of the foreign policy of the 1930s, how, beneath the surface, there were depths of feeling and determination that we never saw until an existential crisis hit, and an extraordinary figure seized the moment.

And I realized how profoundly I yearn for something like that to reappear in America. The toll of Trump is so deep. In so many ways, he has come close to delegitimizing this country and entire West, aroused the worst instincts within us, fed fear rather than confronting it, and has been rewarded for his depravity in the most depressing way by everything that is foul on the right and nothing that is noble.

I want to believe in America again, its decency and freedom, its hostility, bred in its bones, toward tyranny of any kind, its kindness and generosity. I need what someone once called the audacity of hope. I’ve witnessed this America ever since I arrived — especially its embrace of immigrants — which is why it is hard to see Trump tearing migrant children from their parents. That America is still out there, I tell myself, as the midterms demonstrated. It can build. But who, one wonders, is our Churchill? And when will he or she emerge?

Good writing and a great final question—one that only time will answer.

Andrew, O Andrew, pray give up your foolish faith and join the Reasoning Heathens!

The New Yorker once again slams New Atheism

November 16, 2018 • 10:45 am

About two weeks ago I dissected an interview at Vox in which Sean Illing talked to John Gray about Gray’s new book, Fifty Shades Seven Types of Atheism, and both interviewer and interviewee embraced each other in their hatred of New Atheism. Their mutual beefs (both are atheists but are “atheist-butters”) include these four:

1.) Religion is not mainly about factual assertions but about other things, and ignorant New Atheists fail to recognize that.
2.) Atheism is just an attempt to replace conventional religion with other forms of “religion”, and contains its own mythology.
3.) Religion answers the questions that science can’t, and tells us about meaning and purpose.
4.) Science is seen by New Atheists as a substitute for religion, and a bad substitute, because science can cause harm.

You can see my response to these canards (an insult to ducks) at the link above.

The New Yorker, which like Vox is a left-wing website that dislikes New Atheism, recently published an article that is a combination of a review of Gray’s book (along with some history taken from Laurence Moore and Isaac Kramnick’s new book Godless Citizens in a Godly Republic: Atheists in American Public Life) along with the New Yorker‘s usual overwritten bloviating on the topic of atheism. You can read the article by clicking on the screenshot below:

The potted history of atheism won’t tell you much you don’t know (e.g., “In God we Trust” was added to currency only in the 1950s), but may interest those not involved with atheism. But much of the article is an uncritical presentation of Gray’s ideas, which include a critique of New Atheism and a denial of progressivism. One gets the strong idea that author Casey Cep, identified as “a writer from the Eastern Shore of Maryland”, is a big booster of Gray’s ideas. (Cep also appears to have no expertise in religiosity and its denial.) Her long and uncritical exposition of Gray’s ideas begins, of course, with a shot over the bow of New Atheism, demonstrating where Cep’s allegiance lies:

[Gray’s book] is also a refreshing look beyond the so-called “new atheists” who have lately dominated the conversation surrounding unbelief. Gray does not brook what he describes as their “tedious re-run of a Victorian squabble between science and religion,” and, in contrast to Moore and Kramnick, who believe that new atheists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have generated an “Atheist Awakening,” Gray dismisses them in a single chapter. “New atheists have directed their campaign against a narrow segment of religion while failing to understand even that small part,” he writes. By Gray’s account, they ignore polytheism and animism almost entirely, while insisting on reading verses of Genesis or lines of the Nicene Creed as if they were primitive scientific theories. Not all monotheists are literalists, and, for many of us, both now and throughout history, the Garden of Eden is not a faulty hypothesis about evolution but a rich symbolic story about good and evil.

Here again we have a Sophisticated Believer asserting that he is representative of most believers in not being a literalist and in not accepting that Abrahamic religions are based on factual assertions. Try telling a Catholic that Jesus wasn’t divine or can’t forgive your sins; try telling a Southern Baptist that Adam and Eve are lovely symbols of good and evil; try telling a Muslim that Muhammad’s “night flight” from Mecca to Jerusalem and back on the steed Buraq is just a lovely but a false story, or that the Qur’an wasn’t really dictated to Muhammad by an angel in a cave. I’d love for Gray to go to, say, Tehran and give a lecture about how the Qu’ran is a “rich symbolic story about good and evil.” Well, actually, I wouldn’t, because he’d be dead within a day or so.

As I’ve shown repeatedly on this site, and in my book Faith Versus Fact, a huge fraction of believers in both the UK and US take things like the existence of an afterlife, Heaven and Hell, angels, Jesus’s resurrection, and so on as literal truths. Granted, not all religionists take the whole Bible or Qur’an literally (though a higher proportion of Muslims than of Christians are literalists) but, as I’ve said in one of my few bon mots, “Some believers are literalists about everything, but every believer is a literalist about something.”

You can hardly call yourself a Christian if you don’t believe that Jesus existed, was divine, and was crucified and resurrected. And so on and so on and so on. As the Bible says, in fact, “And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14). In claiming that religion has very little to do with literal (i.e., “scientific”) truth, Gray and Cep are simply ignoring how religion works, and how, at bottom, it depends on literal adherence to at least a few supernatural assertions. It is not a “small segment” of religionists who have some literal beliefs in the supernatural!

Another claim of both Gray—and by extension, Cep—is that atheism doesn’t offer a solid ground for morality. Here’s Cep osculating Gray:

Gray’s larger complaint is that the new atheists fail to offer a more coherent moral vision than the one they want to replace. The strategy they champion, scientific ethics, has been tried before, with a notable lack of success. Auguste Comte and his fellow nineteenth-century positivists envisioned a Grand Pontiff of Humanity who would preside alongside scientist-priests; unfortunately, scientists at the time were practicing phrenology. Later on, evolutionary humanists and monists replaced God’s order with “scientific” anthropologies, then constructed racial hierarchies and put white Europeans on top. Today, the voguish version of science as religion is transhumanism, which claims that technology will overcome human limitations both physical and mental, perhaps through bioengineering or artificial intelligence or cyborgs that can carry around the contents of our brains. Gray is not sanguine about such developments, should they ever occur, because we already have a model of the mayhem that takes place when some mortals are granted godlike powers: “Anyone who wants a glimpse of what a post-human future might be like should read Homer.”

Umm. . . . the only New Atheist who champions scientific ethics, as far as I know, is Sam Harris, who claims there are empirically determinable “right” and “wrong” statements. I disagree with him, though I think most versions of morality do rely on a consequentialist view of what constitutes greater or lesser “well being.” But defining “well being” is slippery, and in some cases the currency of morality might not be “well being.” In the end, I maintain, as do other New Atheists, that morality is grounded on what kind of world you prefer, which is a subjective judgment. As for transhumanism, that’s irrelevant.

True, consequentialists know that empirical data does play a role in secular ethics (as oppose to the divine fiat of religious ethics). But really, isn’t it better to base your morals on how they affect people’s lives rather than on propitiating the dictates of a God who, to even Gray, doesn’t exist? In the end, why does having a God in your sights give you a better morality than relying on reason and preference? After all Plato showed with the Euthyphro argument that even religious morality has an extrabiblical (i.e., nonreligious) philosophy behind it.

Cep goes on:

On the whole, Gray is a glass-half-empty kind of guy, and what others regard as novel or promising he often sees as derivative or just plain dumb. He argues, for instance, that secular humanism is really monotheism in disguise, where humankind is God and salvation can be achieved through our own efforts rather than through divine intervention. Unlike the linguist—and new atheist—Steven Pinker, Gray regards the idea that the world is getting better as self-evidently silly. “The cumulative increase of knowledge in science has no parallel in ethics or politics,” he points out. Religions are still thriving, as are wars between them, and secular regimes have wrought as much, if not more, havoc under the auspices of Jacobinism, Bolshevism, Nazism, and Maoism.

Secular humanism is the philosophy that humans can find moral and material fulfillment without the need for gods. In what respect is that “monotheism” in disguise? Does it put humanity as a sacred and numinous object, like God? No way! There’s a big difference between saying we have to help ourselves on one hand, and saying on the other that we need the intervention of a being for which there’s no evidence. Gray should know this, and Cep, as a supposedly savvy New Yorker writer, should know that difference even better. But she falls for Gray’s “sophistication”, offering not a word of critique.

As for the statement that it’s “self-evidently silly”, to say the world is getting better, that statement itself is arrant nonsense. Clearly we’re materially better than we were a few centuries ago (would Gray like to live as a medieval peasant with infected teeth?), and you can see the evidence for that in Pinker’s last two books. And we’ve improved not just materially (here I count “health and well-being” as material goods), but also morally. Attitudes towards gays, women, minorities, children, and other once-oppressed groups have changed much for the better. Slavery is no longer tenable, and we have much more concern about the welfare of animals.

Finally, I needn’t address the canard (a word that’s an offense to ducks) that “secular regimes” are fraught with “havoc.” From Nazism to Bolshevism, the state simply replaced God with Dear Leaders, and Nazism wasn’t even atheistic. Perhaps Gray and Cep should be pointed toward Scandinavia to see that “secular regimes” in the modern world, so long as they’re democratic, need not be bastions of immorality or oppression.

Cep goes on to note that Gray’s version of “good” atheists include those atheists who (like him) have no faith in humanity, as well as “apophatic atheists” who simply shut up about their unbelief and, indeed, accept some kind of numinous philosophy like pantheism.

At the end, Cep alludes to the specious claim that all of us, atheists and nonbelievers alike, are similar in having faith. We’re all brothers and sisters under the skin!

Still, as Gray might have predicted, it is difficult, in this particular political moment, to believe that the circle of rights is expanding for atheists or for anyone else. Moore and Kramnick, who have written a thorough and useful history of the legal and political status of atheists in America, unsurprisingly believe that such work is salvific—that understanding the bias against atheists in the past can help end it in the future. Gray holds no such hope, and yet his book offers a way forward. In it, he helps us understand how those who do not believe in God, or, for that matter, those who do, have oriented themselves in the universe. Faith, after all, drove the Puritans to Plymouth Rock but then led them to execute three of their Quaker neighbors; it inspired American slavers but also American abolitionists; and, whatever else atheism is accused of doing in this country, it sustained the scientific curiosity and profound pacifism of the two-time Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling, the philanthropy of Andrew Carnegie, and the art and activism of Lorraine Hansberry. All of us, nihilists included, believe something—many things, in fact, about ourselves, the cosmos, and one another. In the end, the most interesting thing about a conscience is how it answers, not whom it answers to. ♦

This conflates “faith” as “a belief in a proposition not well supported by evidence”, with “optimism” (the Puritans) and “confidence based on data and reason” (i.e. Linus Pauling, the abolitionists). Saying that Jesus was resurrected does not lie on the same playing field as the statement that “Slaves are better off not being slaves.” “Belief” can be based on wish-thinking, as it is in religion, or on data and experience, as it is in science and many other areas. Those simply aren’t equivalent ways of determining what’s true, or equally valid supports for what you believe.

And the last sentence is classic New Yorker nonsense: a nice-sounding Deepity that, if taken seriously, dismisses religion as of no importance whatsoever—after Cep and Gray have just told us why religion remains important.


John Gray and Sean Illing go after New Atheism for the bazillionth time, but offer no new (or incisive) arguments

October 31, 2018 • 10:15 am

Well, several readers sent this article to me, expecting or asking me to respond to it. But do I really have to go through this again? Really? In a new piece in Vox featuring an interview of philosopher John Gray by journalist Sean Illing (click on screenshot below), the old criticisms of New Atheism, made by both Gray and Illing (who claim to be agnostics or atheists) are once again recycled. But the interview has nothing new.

The occasion is the publication Gray’s new book, Seven Types of Atheism (click on screenshot of the book). In the interview Illing and Gray fall all over each other in agnostic brotherhood explaining why New Atheism is not only bad tactics, but also a form of bullying as well as a view that is polluted with its own mythology.  And they both make the claim that although religion may be something the two men don’t themselves accept, it supplies something essential for people. In other words, Gray and Illing make the Little People Argument, which is both condescending and fails to explain why they are not religious. How do they find meaning and purpose without religion?

I’ve dealt with both Gray and Illing before (see here for posts on Gray, especially this one, and here for a takedown of Illing’s rantings in Salon recycled in this Vox piece), so it really makes me cranky to have to do it again. There are no new points made by either: the two men are simply bawling into the ether and bleating about the dangers of New Atheism. (Remember, neither of them believes in God.)

Gray’s new book; I’ll read it but I can almost guarantee that there’s nothing there that I haven’t seen a bazillion times before.

I’ll try to be brief, though it’s hard. Here are their main arguments:

1.) Religion is not mainly about factual assertions but about other things, and ignorant New Atheists fail to recognize that.  

From Illing’s intro:

New Atheism is a literary movement that sprung up in 2004, led by prominent authors like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. Although they were right about a lot of things, the New Atheists missed something essential about the role of religion. For them, religion was just a protoscience — our first attempt at biology and history and physics. But religion is so much more than a set of claims about the world, and you can’t fully understand if you don’t account for that.

My complaint with the New Atheists has always been their insistence on treating God as a purely epistemological question. I don’t think you can make sense of religion if you only see it as a system of beliefs. (Illing)

It is NOT a literary movement, for crying out loud! It’s an intellectual movement that got its start in several prominent books. But let’s move on.

From Gray:

These New Atheists are mostly ignorant of religion, and only really concerned with a particular kind of monotheism, which is a narrow segment of the broader religious world. (Gray)

. . . For example, there are still people who treat the myths of religion, like the Genesis story, as some kind of literal truth, even though they were understood by Jewish thinkers and theologians of the time as parables.

Genesis is not a theory of the origins of the world. It’s not obsolete, primitive science. It’s not a solution to the problem of knowledge. Religion isn’t like that. Religion is a body of practices, of stories and images, whereby humans create or find meanings in their lives.

In other words, it’s not a search for explanation. Even if everything in the world were suddenly explained by science, we would still be asking what it all means. (Gray)

This canard is so old that it’s too tough to swallow. No New Atheist claims that religion is solely about factual claims. What we argue is that religion, at least of the Abrahamic stripe, rests on factual claims, and those factual claims give it force. The force is of course instantiated in non-factual things like moral strictures and religious acts, but ultimately without beliefs in some facts, religion loses force.

The truth that religions rest at bottom on factual claims is one of the topics in my book Faith Versus Fact, and many theologians and believers explicitly recognize and admit this. It’s even in the Bible! I quote from my earlier critique of Illing from three years ago (does the man ever have new ideas?), in which I gave statements from the Bible as well as from science-friendly religionists:

But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen:And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.—Paul, 1 Corinthians 15:13-14

A religious tradition is indeed a way of life and not a set of abstract ideas. But a way of life presupposes beliefs about the nature of reality and cannot be sustained if those beliefs are no longer credible.—Ian Barbour

I cannot regard theology as merely concerned with a collection of stories which motivate an attitude toward life. It must have its anchorage in the way things actually are, and the way they happen.—John Polkinghorne

Likewise, religion in almost all of its manifestations is more than just a collection of value judgments and moral directives. Religion often makes claims about ‘the way things are.’ —Karl Giberson & Francis Collins

That’s only a small sample; I have more for Illing if he wants them. And here is what Americans actually believe to be true (percentage of all Americans accepting the propositions below). This is not a small minority of Americans—it’s MOST OF THEM:

A personal God concerned with you 68%
Absolutely certain there is a God  54%
Jesus was the son of God  68%
Jesus was born of a virgin  57%
Jesus was resurrected  65%
Miracles  72%
Heaven  68%
Hell and Satan 58%
Angels  68%
Survival of soul after death 64%

I can’t help but think that when Gray says that theologians recognized Genesis and other stuff in the Bible solely as parables, he’s willfully distorting history. For yes, although some early thinkers like Aquinas and Augustine thought that there was a metaphorical interpretation of many claims in Scripture, those claims, like the existence of Adam and Eve, were also seen as literal truths. And they were seen by most Christians as literal truths until science dispelled many of them.

And what about the resurrection of Jesus? Is that seen as a parable, too? Once you start going down the parable road, there’s no bar to viewing the entire Old and New Testaments as one big parable. This becomes clear when Gray says that Original Sin is merely a metaphor, and implies that everybody already knows that:

To give you an example, I think the Christian idea of original sin has an important truth in it, which is that humans are divided animals. They’re different from any other animal on the planet in that they regret and sometimes even hate the impulses that guide them to act as they do. It’s a key feature of the human animal, captured by this myth of original sin.

We don’t need religion to tell us that humans have good and bad instincts; this is instantiated in all the world’s literature, secular or otherwise. What religion adds to this is, for example, the notion that if you don’t purge yourself of original sin, you’re going to hell rather than heaven. (Yes, Dr. Gray, most Americans think that those are literal places, not metaphorical ideas.) And think of all the nasty baggage that goes along with Catholics’ literal view that they’re born tainted with original sin.

I needn’t go on. Gray and Illing are wish-thinking here, proposing a “sophisticated” view of religion not held by most believers, yet one that the New Atheists rightfully attack. New Atheism isn’t directed, by and large, at Sophisticated Theologians™, but at what most people believe. If you want attacks on Sophisticated Theology™, read Faith versus Fact. (Short take: it’s just more palaver, but gussied up in fancy language. If you want an example of ridiculous arguments pretending to be rational and sophisticated, read some Alvin Plantinga or John Haught.)

2.) Atheism is just an attempt to replace conventional religion with other forms of “religion”, and contains its own mythology.

In many cases, the New Atheists are animated by 19th-century myths of various kinds: myths of human advancement, myths of what science can and cannot do, and all kinds of other myths. So yeah, I’m compelled to attack anyone who is debunking others for their reliance on myths when the debunkers themselves can’t see how their own thinking is shaped by myths. (Gray)

Gray is an anti-progressivist, but the idea that humans haven’t advanced materially or in well being is not a myth—it’s the truth, a truth well documented by Steve Pinker in his last two books. As for “myths of what science can and cannot do”, I’m not sure what he’s talking about. Most of us (Sam Harris is one exception) recognize that science can’t tell us what is right or wrong, and that it has its limits in other ways.  But these are not “myths” that in any way correspond to the myths of religion.

Gray also claims that secular humanism is equivalent to a religion:

 Most forms of organized atheism are attempts to fashion God surrogates. In other words, one of the paradoxes of contemporary atheism is that it’s a flight from a genuinely godless world.

. . . But [atheists] are still stuck with core assumptions that come from the monotheistic traditions. The idea, for instance, that humanity has a collective identity is fundamentally a religious notion — that’s how it came to us. We can make secular arguments in defense of this belief, but you can’t simply ignore its historical roots.

Yes you can ignore those “roots”—if they even are roots. First, I’m not so sure that “collective identity” has cultural roots at all, much less religious ones. It may stem from evolution, from a time when we lived in small cohesive bands. We just don’t know, despite Gray’s assurance. Further, every tenet of secular humanism can find some parallel in religious scriptures. The fact that many religious scriptures have some similarities, like the “golden rule”, may in fact reflect secular antecedents: evolutionarily-based morality. To use Gray’s arguments that secular humanism is fundamentally religious is to ignore the different claims of religion that it has absolute truth, that it’s based on the existence of a God, and that our job is to do God’s will as instantiated in religious morality. These notions are fundamentally different from the precepts of secular humanism, which is to help humanity (and other species) survive and flourish. Secular humanists also abjure the idea of an afterlife, an idea inherent in and absolutely essential for many religions. Secular humanism is not in any meaningful sense “religious”, unless you take “religious” to mean “beliefs to which people adhere.”

3.) Religion answers the questions that science can’t, and tells us about meaning and purpose. 

I don’t think that all religions are the same, but I do believe that they’re equivalently untrue in the conventional sense of that term. But it’s obvious that religion contributes something essential to the human condition that we need, and whatever that is, we’ll still need it in a Godless world. This is the thing that atheists dismiss too easily. (Illing)

. . . Genesis is not a theory of the origins of the world. It’s not obsolete, primitive science. It’s not a solution to the problem of knowledge. Religion isn’t like that. Religion is a body of practices, of stories and images, whereby humans create or find meanings in their lives.

In other words, it’s not a search for explanation. Even if everything in the world were suddenly explained by science, we would still be asking what it all means.

That’s where religion steps in. (Gray)

Well, religion purports to tell us what it all means, but every religion has a different answer. So what’s the true answer? The fact is that religion gives us no real answers about means, values, and purposes, because a). these answers differ among faiths and there’s no way to adjudicate them, and b). religiously-based morality is, with little doubt, much inferior to a secular morality that involves rationality laid atop certain preferences for how we want society to be structured.

As far as “what it all means”, how about an answer from Mr. Natural?

That seems facetious, but it is in fact true in the sense that there’s no external “meaning” that we can clearly divine from religion. We make our own meanings and purposes, and in the end that’s all we can do. To ask whether there’s some “purpose of life” that can be answered by religion is to waste your time looking for your keys, dropped somewhere else, under the streetlight, because that’s where it’s easier to see.

Yes, people can claim to find meaning in their lives through religion, but most of them aren’t really doing that anyway, and those that are doing that are pretty much wasting their time. As most readers noted when I asked how we, as unbelievers, find “purpose”, there was a surfeit answers, but none of them involved God.

Here’s an amusing claim from Gray:

Something as ancient, as profound, as inexhaustibly rich as religion or religions can’t really be written off as an intellectual error by clever people. Most of these clever people are not that clever when compared with really clever people like Wittgenstein or Saint Augustine or Pascal — all philosophers of the past who seriously engaged the religious perspective.

These New Atheists are mostly ignorant of religion, and only really concerned with a particular kind of monotheism, which is a narrow segment of the broader religious world.

Of course religion can be written off as an intellectual error, because it is! That is, the idea that there’s a divine being who gives us meaning and morality is simply insupportable from the facts. Wittgenstein and St. Augustine were clever, but all their fine words cannot substitute for the complete lack of evidence for divine beings. And, absent that, religion predicated on such beings becomes an intellectual error, for one can have discussions about morals and values—and even purpose—without God. An entire tradition of secular ethics proves that. So any discussion based on the existence of God becomes meaningless in the absence of that God—and that’s an intellectual error.

People of yore were religious because they didn’t know any better, and because science hadn’t started dispelling the factual assertions that buttress many faiths. For most of human history, for instance, diseases were imputed to divine wrath—an idea dispelled only in the last two centuries. That, too, was an intellectual error.

4.) Science is seen by New Atheists as a substitute for religion, and a bad substitute, because science can cause harm.

There’s this silly idea that we have no need for religion anymore because we have science, but this is an incredibly foolish notion, since religion addresses different needs than science, needs that science can’t address.

. . . .But from the very start, the idea of original sin was caught up with a kind of obsessive interest in and hatred of human sexuality, which poisoned it to the core. At the same time, we should remember that many of the secular religions of the 20th century condemned gay people, for example.

Homosexuality was illegal for most of the time that the Soviet Union existed. Doctors who performed abortions in communist Romania could be sent to prison, and in some cases even subjected to capital punishment. Many of the worst features or the worst human harms inflicted by monotheism have been paralleled in the secular religions of modern times. (Gray)

I often wonder if the Enlightenment skepticism that birthed atheism ultimately leads us to a moral abyss — and by that I don’t mean to imply that people can’t be moral without God, which is one of the stupidest claims I’ve ever heard. What I mean is that science cannot supply moral values, and I’m not sure this is a fact we can really own up to as a civilization, because it requires a conversation about human values that we seem incapable of having. (Illing)

The fact that many people no longer need religion does indeed stem in part from the advances of science. Religion once explained great puzzles of humanity, like where all life came from and why people got sick. The God essential in answering those questions suddenly became superfluous when science provided the real answers.

As for the needs of people not being completely met by science, well of course that’s true. Science can’t tell us what is right or wrong, despite Sam Harris’s assertion to the contrary. Science can’t tell a given person how to live their life, because that depends on the psychological constitution of a person and what their desires are, something that science cannot (yet) address. Science is not the alternative to religion—rationality is. Science is one form of rationality, but not the only form.

The final refutation of Illing’s claim that dispensing with religion is silly and harmful consists one word: Scandinavia.

I could go on, but I grow weary from writing and from addressing the dumb ideas of Illing and Gray over and over again. I’ll just add one more bit. Below Gray brings up the Nazi and Communist tropes, ignoring contemporary godless but well functioning societies like those of northern Europe.

And we see this happening now: Many people believe science can validate our deepest values, and it just so happens that those values are conventionally prevalent in society — they’re fundamentally liberal democratic values.

If the prevailing values are good, then great. If they’re not, though — as was the case in Nazi Germany or communist Russia — then science becomes a handmaiden to the most awful crimes in human history; and almost always, those crimes are committed in defense of some grand project to improve human society.

So I think we just have to accept that science has limitations. All values come from the human animal, and that’s just the way it is. That doesn’t mean all values are equally good or bad or wise — I think that’s a mistake, too. We have natures, and there are certain constants in human life, and that’s a moral foundation we can build on. (Gray)

I’ll leave you to rebut that for yourself, as I want a snack.