Accommodationism returns, this time with a nasty streak

October 5, 2020 • 9:00 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I refrain from being rude back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Science has an atheism problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But wait! There’s more!

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

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

I’ll just list a few relevant points:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 2, 2020 • 1:15 pm

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

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

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

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

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

A few short excerpts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

h/t: Enrico, Barry

The New Humanist goes after the New Atheists

February 12, 2020 • 1:00 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

December 8, 2019 • 9:00 am

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

h/t: Dave

Another breathtaking example of creationist Egnorance

September 27, 2019 • 10:45 am

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

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

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

Here goes Egnor’s argument, which is indented.

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

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

Attenborough:

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

Coyne hops on this:

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

A Breathtaking Ignorance

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

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

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

Reason and Will

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a Channel 4 interview, Richard Dawkins describes his new book

August 30, 2019 • 9:15 am

Although I heard rumors that Richard Dawkins was publishing a new book, I wasn’t aware that it was already finished and scheduled for publication. But Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide is will be out October 8. I haven’t seen it, but it’s apparently intended for young people. And I’ve put below a 45-minute video interview about the book on Channel 4; the interviewer is Krishnan Guru-Murthy.

The Beeb’s description of the interview:

Richard Dawkins is one of the world’s most famous atheists. An evolutionary biology at Oxford and best-selling author of The God Delusion – his new book ‘Outgrowing God – A Beginner’s Guide’ aims to inform young people about religion and atheism. He talks to Krishnan about why he wrote it, his passion for scientific truth and whether he thinks there’s life outside of Earth.

Guru-Murthy is described in Wikipedia as having “gained notoriety for causing awkward moments in interviews with celebrities by asking increasingly probing questions, most notably Quentin Tarantino and Robert Downey Jr..” I haven’t heard any of his interviews, but this one is tolerable but marred by the interviewer’s repeated claim that Richard’s criticism of Islam is unfair. (I don’t know if Guru-Murthy is religious, but he’s certainly soft on religion in general and Islam in particular.)

Even at the outset Guru-Murthy appears to have an agenda, as he introduces Richard as “perhaps famous as the world’s biggest atheist.” Well, maybe that’s why he’s famous, but Richard has written only one book about atheism—though I guess The God Delusion is his most famous book. Well, Richard is famous as well as a popularizer and writer about science.

But up until about 23 minutes, when he gets onto Islam, Guru-Murthy asks some pretty good questions, and draws out Richard’s views. If I have a beef about the questions, it’s that they tell us a lot about Richard’s views on religion (although you probably know much of this), but give us very little insight into the new book. And Guru-Murtha doesn’t appear to have done a lot of background research.

A few notes:

16:00: Guru-Murthy asks Richard if people can really live morally without fear of divine sanction, and I was sad to hear that Richard tentatively agree, for the morality of atheistic countries like Sweden and Denmark show that you don’t need God to be moral. (The interviewer does suggest the old canard that even secular countries inherit their morality from older Christianity, but I think that’s bunk.)  Richard does add, however, that the idea that religion is necessary for morality is a “patronizing reason” to be good. (Note that the police strike Richard mentions, as described by Steve Pinker, occurred not in Toronto but in Montreal.)

18:30:  Would the world be better if we jettisoned all our superstitions, including religion, and moved, as Richard wants, towards evidence-based thinking? Richard’s answer is good, bringing up secular ethics and noting that even the winnowing of the “good” from the “bad” parts of the Bible presupposes a non-goddy ethics—the Euthyphro argument. Richard also points out that morality has changed hugely over time (viz., The Better Angels of Our Nature), belying the idea that morality comes from religious doctrine (which of course changes, at best, very slowly).

At 23:15, Guru-Murtha starts trying to stick the knife in, telling Richard that “You annoy people”, and asking him if he’s peevish and lacks humor. Then you can see what really pisses off the interviewer: Richard’s insistence that Islam is the most dangerous and harmful of the world’s religions. Responding to the accusation that he hates Islam more than other faiths, Richard replies that he hates Islam’s tenets and religiously-motived acts—like killing apostates and suicide bombings—that draw from the wells of Islam but are vanishingly rare in, say, Christianity. The interviewer goes on, boring into the following infamous tweet of Richard’s:

Perhaps an unwise tweet, but Richard explains it (as he does in the tweet below), and keeps his cool despite Krishna-Murthy’s attempt to rattle him by asking him if he’s an “Islamophobe.”

 

Finally, at 26:53 Krisnan asks Richard whether he’s clouded his scientific message with his atheism and anti-theism. (I get the same question, implying that I should just talk about evolution and stop banging on about religion, though I rarely mix the two subjects in a single talk.)

Richard’s response: “I’m not a politician; I’m a scientist, and I care about what is true. . . I’m not trying to be popular.” And that’s a good response. The new book (shown at bottom), is apparently a message for young people to care about what’s true—the claims that have good reasons supporting them.

Anyway, Richard looks in good nick and is as eloquent as ever despite his stroke. If you’ve read The God Delusion and already know a lot about Richard’s views about religion vs. science, you might skip to 23 minutes in when the fireworks (well, small ones) begin.

The video:

The new book (click on screenshot to get to the site for Amazon US):

h/t: Karin

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

August 29, 2019 • 10:30 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And as Samuel tells us:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

h/t: Enrico

Discovery Institute puts out video purporting to refute materialiam and atheism

June 27, 2019 • 1:30 pm

The Discovery Institute has put out a series of videos that, they claim, will do in atheism—and presumably lead us to Intelligent Design and then to Jesus. I hate to give publicity to a bunch of superstitious yahoos, but will put up one sample of what they consider to be a convincing attack on atheism. First, though, the blurbs about these videos:

From Evolution News, written by Jonathan Witt:

A new YouTube series, Science Uprising, challenges the notion that the smart money is on atheism. I was part of the creative team behind the project. One of our aims was to reach those “digital natives” who get much of their impression of the wider world from the Internet, including streaming services like YouTube.

This group tends to encounter well-articulated arguments for unbelief earlier than ever before, and they often encounter those arguments online. Science Uprising is part of an increasingly rich body of material that pushes back against anti-theistic online propaganda.

From the YouTube video site:

This episode of Science Uprising investigates claims by scientists and professors like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Carl Sagan, and Daniel Dennett, who try to hijack science to promote materialism—the idea that physical reality is all there is. Hear from experts who challenge this view of science, and learn about scientists who have to hide behind a mask because they face intimidation and censorship from dissenting from materialism. People featured in this episode include Jay Richards, PhD, Assistant Professor at The Catholic University of America, filmmaker, and author or co-author of books such as The Human Advantage, The Privileged Planet, The Hobbit Party, Infiltrated, and Money, Greed, and God; and Michael Egnor, MD (from Columbia University), neurosurgeon and professor of neurological surgery at Stony Brook University. Dr. Egnor is renowned for his work in pediatric neurosurgery.

Watch the 7-minute video below. I’ve put a few comments below it.

My comments:

1.) The video gives no evidence against atheism; that is, it adduces no evidence for the existence of a god. The gist of the video is that the implications of godlessness are unpalatable (e.g., the “purposeless of the universe”). Pity, but what exists—or doesn’t exist—doesn’t always comport with how we want things to be.

2.) Their evidence for god? The assertion that “Most people and cultures around the world have a profound belief that life extends beyond the physical—that compassion, ideas, joy and sorrow, aren’t made of matter.”  Since when has the ubiquity of a belief constituted evidence for its truth?

3.) Science is based on materialism, which they say is an unsubstantiated worldview. But materialism and naturalism (I prefer the latter term) are the only ways we’ve ever attained truth about the universe. Certainly faith and religion have given us no truth, as evidenced by the diverse and conflicting claims of the planet’s many religions. After years of trying, I’ve seen no “truth” about the universe adduced by religion itself that doesn’t require confirmation by science, but I’ve seen plenty of religious “truths” disconfirmed by science (creationism, the Flood, the Exodus, and so on).

4.) According to the video, scientists are stupid to claim that we have no (libertarian) free will. If that’s the case, say the dupes, “how can we be responsible for our actions?” I’ve already explained why determinism is still compatible with personal responsibility for our actions—and for punishment and reward—but not moral responsibility in the sense of “we could have done otherwise.”

5.) The implication of materialism is racism and murder (see the pictures).

6.) Our consciousness and a sense of self are illusory, say people like Dan Dennett and Sam Harris. This, claim the benighted, is not only incompatible with materialism, but conflicts with the claim that consciousness and self have real consequences. Well, these people don’t understand what “illusory” means, which is, in the Harrisian and Dennettian senses, “These things aren’t what they seem to be.” Further, if you’re a determinist, then consciousness and self are themselves the byproducts of natural processes—epiphenomena, if you will—and cannot exercise some non-deterministic, non-physical forces on our actions.

7.) And that’s about it, except that Michael Egnor (and the charlatan Rupert Sheldrake) make appearances. Egnor, misidentified as a scientist (he’s a neurosurgeon who doesn’t do science), says, “The deeper I look into the science, the more I realize what a catastrophe for science materialism/atheism really is.” Of course, Egnor doesn’t explain that statement. It is, in fact, theism and faith that have been catastrophes for science, as evidenced by the large number of people on this planet who reject the existence of evolution on religious grounds.

8.) At the end, the female narrator gets it exactly backwards when she says, “We want to follow the evidence, wherever it leads, and decide for ourselves.” Well, if they follow evidence that is strongly agreed on by all rational people, what they get is science—science that can work only without assuming a god. The kind of “evidence” that these people accept is evidence from scripture, from their preachers, and from their own feelings about how the world is or ought to be. That is not the way to find scientific truth.

Pity that the cowards at the Evolution News site don’t accept comments, but you can “like” or “dislike” the YouTube videos

 

The New Yorker praises atheism (sort of)

May 19, 2019 • 10:00 am

UPDATE: James Wood has responded politely to this piece in a comment below, which you can find here.

*************

The article below (click on screenshot), by New Yorker literary critic and Harvard English professor James Wood, is a review of Martin Hägglund’s new book, This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, but also a paean (of sorts) to secularism and atheism.

I once spent a pleasant few hours with James in a Harvard Square coffeeshop, trying to find out if he thought literature was a “way of knowing” (as I recall, he agreed that we can’t find truths about the universe from literature itself), and I don’t want to be hard on him. Most of his pieces for the magazine are excellent, and his literary judgment is keen. But I think he’s somewhat off the mark in this review. And that is mainly because he takes some gratuitous swipes at New Atheism (and, of course, the Great Satan Dawkins), as well as implying that we don’t need to consider evidence—or, rather, the lack thereof—when we give up religion.

When New Yorker writers bestir themselves to say something good about nonbelief, you can be sure of five things:

1.) They may praise atheism, but they will also diss New Atheism.
2.) They will disdain the need for evidence when deciding whether to be a believer or an atheist. Evidence is irrelevant. This is part of the magazine’s perpetual favoring of the humanities and their “ways of knowing” over science.
3.) They will conflate religion with “passion”. One example came from a piece in the New Yorker that, while praising this website, implied that I was quasi-religious:

If atheists underestimate the fudginess in faith, believers underestimate the soupiness of doubt. My own favorite atheist blogger, Jerry Coyne, the University of Chicago evolutionary biologist, regularly offers unanswerable philippics against the idiocies of intelligent design. But a historian looking at his blog years from now would note that he varies the philippics with a tender stream of images of cats—into whose limited cognition, this dog-lover notes, he projects intelligence and personality quite as blithely as his enemies project design into seashells—and samples of old Motown songs. The articulation of humanism demands something humane, and its signal is disproportionate pleasure placed in some frankly irrational love.

4.) They will show a sneaking sympathy with religious belief and ritual; and
5.) They will lard their arguments with heavy literary knowledge and references

These features are all on view in Wood’s article, and all but #5 are missteps, though, as I said, I think the piece is generally good and certainly worth reading.

According to Wood, the thesis of Hägglund’s book includes these ideas:

a. Religion is bogus, but it’s not bogus just because there is no evidence for gods. In fact, evidence is irrelevant to nonbelief.

b. Religion is bogus because the notion of eternity, which Hägglund sees as inherent in most religions (including Buddhism and Judaism, which don’t have a concept of heaven), is incoherent and, even if comprehensible, is palpably undesirable.

c. Even religious people act as if they’re atheists because they mourn the loss of loved ones who die, and have no concrete notion of seeing them again. This is an attachment to the secular—a hidden atheism.

d. If we reject eternity, and realize that the here and now is all we have, then we must construct our secular values around that notion. Hägglund thinks that this drives us to a form of socialism. Why? Because we are all striving for maximal freedom in our finite existence, and thus must balance our drive for individual freedom with our social duties. According to Hägglund, capitalism is opposed to this by constantly trying to increase our work time and reduce our free time. To counterbalance this, we need a form of democratic socialism that will “reduce, in the aggregate, socially necessary labor time and to increase socially available free time.”

Hägglund’s book, then, is a bipartite meditation on the uselessness of eternity and the need to accept our finitude, and then a set of ideological and political prescriptions on how to construct a society that takes our finitude on board. I’m not going to discuss this part: Wood talks heavily about Marx and Feuerbach, the architects of the kind of society Hägglund wants, and while this is interesting I’m not sure how convincing it is. Even Wood finds the author”s arguments for how to negotiate necessary labor with freedom unconvincing:

Rather than simply replace the realm of necessity with the realm of freedom—which would be impossible anyway, because there is always tedious and burdensome work to be done—we should be able to better “negotiate” the relationship between those realms. Hägglund gives an example of how this might be done when he talks about the way his own work on the book we are reading unites the two realms: writing “This Life” was labor, of course, but it was pursued as an end in itself, as a matter of intellectual inquiry. In a Hägglundian utopia, labor would be part of our freedom.

As Church Lady would say, “isn’t that convenient?” Academics like Hägglund already have that freedom. And Wood stresses the hypocrisy:

An ideal democratic socialism that harmonizes Hägglund’s idea of freedom with the state’s necessarily different idea of freedom will come to America, I guess, not just when the mountain comes to Muhammad but when the tenured academic willingly gives up his Yale chair for a job at New Haven’s Gateway Community College. Like many readers, I get anxious when literary academics use the verb “negotiate” at tricky moments; it forecloses argument, and seldom means actual negotiation. Indeed, Hägglund is unusually weasel-wordy when he concedes that such negotiation will demand “an ongoing democratic conversation.” That’s putting it optimistically.

Indeed. But let’s get to Wood’s criticism of New Atheism. Here’s some of it, channeled through Hägglund’s book (these are Wood’s words):

The problem with eternity is not that it doesn’t exist (Hägglund is uninterested in the pin dancing of proof and disproof) but that it is undesirable and incoherent; it kills meaning and collapses value. This is a difficult truth to learn, because we are naturally fearful of loss, and therefore attached to the idea of eternal restoration.

It’s clear that Wood isn’t interested in evidence, either, calling it “the pin dancing of proof and disproof”. But that’s bogus, for why would one reject eternity at all if you didn’t think that there was no evidence for it? If there were convincing evidence for a heaven, then surely we’d like to know about it and take it on board. If we knew that we would see our loved ones for eternity in some form or another (and yes, considering precisely what form gets you mired in the hinterlands of theology), we’d surely behave differently from how we do—perhaps mourning less when a loved one dies. Wood and Hägglund give plenty of evidence for literary figures showing the kind of mourning that seems inconsistent with a belief in eternity, including C. S. Lewis as well as writers like Primo Levi, Chekhov and Montaigne, but of course some mourning can still be consistent with belief in a heaven. After all, it may be some time before you see your loved ones again—if you even do. (If you believe in reincarnation, you won’t even remember them in the next life.)

It’s almost as if Wood (and Hägglund) don’t think evidence is even relevant to giving up religion: one can instead just say that the notion of heaven is incoherent, many people don’t act as if eternity exists, and therefore there are no gods.

But Wood is right that many religious people act as if this life is all they have. And he’s right that the notion of eternity as limned by various faiths isn’t something we’d really want. But he can’t help going after New Atheism and its dogged insistence on empirical evidence:

The great merit of Hägglund’s book is that he releases atheism from its ancient curse: its sticky intimacy with theism. Hägglund has no need for a parasitical relationship to the host (which, for instance, contaminates the so-called New Atheism), because he’s not interested in disproving the host’s existence. So, instead of being forced into, say, rationalist triumphalism (there is no God, and science is His prophet), he can expand the definition of the secular life so that it incorporates many of the elements traditionally thought of as religious.

This is an explicit criticism of New Atheism by Wood and an explicit rejection of the empirical argument made by people like Dawkins and Hitchens.  But again, that’s bogus. For, after all, why would you even be an atheist unless you were convinced, though a lack of evidence—or in the case of theodicy, positive evidence against a god—that gods and heavens didn’t exist? Only once you have dispensed with the idea of gods and heavens can you then buckle down and do the kind of work that Hägglund prescribes.

Note, too, that Wood calls New Atheism a form of “rationalist triumphalism” (a clear slur) and also gets in a lick against science when he implies that the New Atheist creed is “there is no God and science is His prophet”. This is unworthy of Wood and in fact inimical to his argument. I’d ask both Wood (who may be an atheist; I’m not sure) and Hägglund this question: Why don’t you believe in gods, heaven or eternity?” I’d bet their answer would be “Because there is no evidence for them.” And presto, you’re talking about the arguments of New Atheists.

I see I’m running on here, and can leave the rest of the article to you, but I’ll give one more quote. Again we see Wood apparently agreeing with Hägglund that the trappings of religion may be valuable, or even necessary, for modern humans. There’s also a gratuitous slap at Dawkins, who is apparently the Great Satan of Atheism.

Feuerbach wanted to liberate human beings from their harmful self-deceptions, but Hägglund sees no imperative to disdain this venerable meaning-making projection, no need to close down all the temples and churches and wash them away with a strong dose of Dawkins. Instead, religious practice could be seen as valuable and even cherishable, once it is understood to be a natural human quest for meaning. Everything flows from the double assumption that only finitude makes for ultimate meaning and that most religious values are unconsciously secular. We are meaning-haunted creatures.

This is the old argument that humans need ceremony and bonding, and religion gives us that. My response is that the churches and temples of Scandinavia have been closed down for a long time, and the country is no worse for it. People find their ritual and meaning in many ways, and as the growth of secularism and of the non-churchy “nones” continues even more churches will close of their own accord. And don’t forget that those temples and churches don’t just provide comity: they are often divisive toward those of other faiths, and enforce a kind of morality that is far inferior to secular morality. Not to mention that they buttress the habit of faith: belief without substantial evidence.

The reader who called this article to my attention said that Wood’s piece was “very positive on atheism.” I’m not so sure, and it’s certainly not positive on New Atheism nor its reliance on empirical standards. But you be the judge.

h/t: David

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.