I’d never read the Wikipedia entry on “New Atheism” before, and so I just did. It’s pretty good, and clearly not heavily edited by theists. But the section on “Criticisms” of New Atheism reports a bale of the usual twaddle: New Atheism is a religion (I always read this as “See? You’re as bad as we are!); New Atheism is overly strident (one person calls it “mean-spirited” which it’s apparently okay to call Republicans but not religion); New Atheism provides a straw man by going after only “folk religion” rather than sophisticated theology (which isn’t that different from fundamentalism, but just gussied up with fancy words); and New Atheism is “scientistic” (that hit is from Massimo Pigliucci).
But one quote particularly struck me, and I’ll give the Wikipedia entry verbatim. If you don’t recognize the name, Sacks used to be Britain’s Chief Rabbi. Now he’s a fricking baron!
Jonathan Sacks, author of The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning, feels the new atheists miss the target by believing the “cure for bad religion is no religion, as opposed to good religion”. He wrote:
Atheism deserves better than the new atheists whose methodology consists of criticizing religion without understanding it, quoting texts without contexts, taking exceptions as the rule, confusing folk belief with reflective theology, abusing, mocking, ridiculing, caricaturing, and demonizing religious faith and holding it responsible for the great crimes against humanity. Religion has done harm; I acknowledge that. But the cure for bad religion is good religion, not no religion, just as the cure for bad science is good science, not the abandonment of science.
So there’s a tidy bundle of criticisms, but none of them hold water. Let me respond off the top of my head:
a. Many new atheists used to be religious, and thus have a deep understanding of not just practicing and believing, but also of theology and the Bible. You can see this knowledge displayed frequently on this website.
b. As for our supposedly pitiful knowledge of religion, let me refer you to a Pew study of two years ago, which revealed that, overall, Jews, atheists, and agnostics showed a better knowledge of religion than did adherents to more traditional faiths, and also beat the other “nones”: those who believe in “nothing in particular”. Atheists and agnostics were also on par with Christians in understanding Christianity, and much better at understanding “other world religions”. At the very least, you can say that atheists and agnostics are at the top of Americans in their knowledge of religion. (You can find the full pdf of the study here.)
I’ll throw this in as lagniappe, which shows that atheists and agnostics know a lot more than others about the relationship of church and state in America:
By the way, you can take the 15-question religious knowledge test that they asked here. I got a perfect score! You should take it and report your score below. (It’s an easy quiz.)
But I digress (it happens when I’m looking up references). Back to Rabbi Sacks’s criticisms:
c. Re New Atheists: “abusing, mocking, ridiculing, caricaturing, and demonizing religious faith and holding it responsible for the great crimes against humanity.” Well, mockery, satire, and ridicule have been staple tools of criticism for years; they’re not just abusive, but, like Jesus and Mo, they are ways to reveal hypocrisy and craziness of religion and other ideologies. Mencken was particularly good at this. And as for holding religion responsible for great crimes against humanity, that’s simply true, and we saw it enacted again yesterday. Of course nobody claims that all the great crimes of humanity come from religion, though many come from tribalism, but I still can’t think of any great crime of humanity motivated by the desire to promulgate atheism. You can argue that the Soviets killed theists and downgraded religion, but I’d respond that that was done more to eliminate a competitor to the religion of Communism than to promote atheism.
Here’s a relevant meme from Barry:
d. This statement is particularly repugnant: “But the cure for bad religion is good religion, not no religion, just as the cure for bad science is good science, not the abandonment of science.” This comes from Sacks’s unevidenced belief that “good religion” (one of them is surely his) creates better societies than does atheism. That’s wrong. Scandinavia, for example, is pretty much a group of atheistic countries, and they are not palpably worse than religious ones, even ones adhering to “good religion”. (I’d argue that they’re among the most moral and caring of the world’s societies.) The thing is, we’re already doing good science, and don’t need to proselytize scientists to do good science to drive out the bad stuff. (Further, “bad science’ is usually seen as “lame or incompetent science” not “harmful science”.) Sack’s statement is analogous to saying “the cure for bad delusion is good delusion, not the abandonment of delusion.”
You’re on shaky ground these days if you try to maintain that society absolutely requires some form of religion to give people hope and communality as a form of social glue. All I have to do is point at Denmark, Sweden, and Iceland and ask, “Well, what have they replaced religion with?”
What I thought would be a pretty uncontroversial post the other day about Ross Douthat’s ridiculous arguments for God as the most parsimonious explanation for nature, turned out to generate a lot of heat. You didn’t see all of it because some came down in the form of emails and of comments so inordinately intemperate or stupid that I didn’t post them. I don’t want interminable discussions of dumb and long-refuted arguments for God to contaminate this website, though I did allow a few believers to have their say.
Among the accusations were these:
a. You can’t prove atheism. This amuses me because atheism is simply the failure to accept the existence of gods, mainly because there’s no evidence for them. But yes, you can’t prove that there’s no god because you can never prove a negative like this. But you can’t prove that there are no fairies, either, yet I remain an a-fairyist. All I can say is that the less and less evidence we have for God, when (as Victor Stenger often said) there should be evidence for God, the less likely it is that God exists. Just look at it from a Bayesian perspective.
b. The presence of God is not an empirical matter. This was said by someone who characterized himself as a “firm believer”, in which case I wonder why he believes so firmly!
c. The question of moral evil in a world run by God was solved by Alvin Plantinga, and most philosophers accept his explanation as a valid one. However, my argument was not about moral evil—Plantinga’s explanation is that we have free will, a higher good than the moral evil it creates)—but about physical (or natural) evil, like tsunamis or childhood cancers. Plantinga’s explanation for that is outlined on pp. 148-149 of Faith Versus Fact, and involves invoking Satan. It’s ridiculous and no sane person would accept it.
d. Even physical evil is compatible with God, for what is a mere lifetime of suffering from disease compared to the glory of eternity with God? My response: what kind of sadistic god would allow even a mere lifetime of suffering if he could prevent it?
e. Atheism is a faith, like religion. This old chestnut is equally risible. Atheism is LACK of faith, for faith is believing in something without sufficient evidence. Atheism rejects belief in god because there is no good evidence for him (or her or it). If atheism is a faith, so is a-fairyism—the refusal to believe in the existence of fairies. Those who say that atheism is a faith must also say that everything they themselves reject because there is no good evidence, is also a faith like religion.
I guess I saw what we already know: much of America is religious, and not religious in a liberal way like the Unitarian Universalists or Quakers. People are willing to make the most ridiculous statements to defend their belief that God exists. One of the most ridiculous is that “atheism is a religion, too”, which I always read as “See? You’re as bad as we are!”. But it ain’t so.
The persistence of belief in God in an age where all evidence once adduced for His existence has vanished (creationism was the most powerful argument) still perplexes me. I can give reasons, like people want something MORE than what exists in the natural world, people want an afterlife, or people want to fob off on God things that they don’t understand (consciousness, or, in the case of Intelligent Design, “irreducible complexity”). There could be evolutionary reasons behind it, like Pascal Boyer’s “agency” theory, and so on. But explaining the ubiquity and strength of religion gives religion no credibility at all; it is a sociological question, not a theological one. Nevertheless, some people still claim that because religion is pervasive, that goes on the “God exists” side of the ledger.
In Faith Versus Fact I lay out a scenario that would convince me—provisionally, of course, because I’m a scientist—of the existence of a divine being. Even my rigorous criteria have been criticized, because they could, some say, merely involve trickery by space aliens. So be it. But nothing has come close to the kind of evidence I’d require.
I’d like to know what evidence would convince believers that there is no God. That evidence, of course, is already there: childhood cancers, tsunamis, the failure of prayer, the failure of God to instill a single religion in humanity, the failure of God to appear to humans for the vast majority of the hominin lineage, the disappearance of miracles that used to occur all the time, the uselessness of invoking supernatural forces to understand nature, the failure of Jesus to return, the paucity of evidence for Jesus, and so on, and so on, and so on. What about Auschwitz and the Nazis? Doesn’t that count against God, at least a benevolent and powerful one? I guess not—not if killing 10 million people was necessary so that Nazis could have free will.
If you’re a believer reading this, let me know what it would take to convince you, in this life, that there is no God.
Reader Barry sent me this link as “the embarrassing essay of the day”, though the “day” was June 29. It is embarrassing, though and barely worth noticing, much less refuting. I intend to say only a few words about it, but I tend to forget myself. Should we just ignore intellectual pabulum like this?
The essay comes from the site Mercatornet, an Australian conservative magazine rated with a moderate to high level of bias to the right, though its “factual reporting” is ranked “high”. The essay below, however, is not factual reporting but pure osculation of religion (specifically Christianity) with a claim that without Christianity our society cannot endure. Christianity, it’s averred, is the source of moral values; and no other religion or ideology, much less humanism, can act as such a social glue or save the West from lapsing into barbarity.
I have a smidgen more optimism. I see in the long-delayed backlash to the social-justice movement an inkling of a new respect for individual and creative freedom and for the old idea of toleration rather than conformity. I see in the economic and educational success of women since the 1970s a possible cease-fire in the culture wars over sex. I see most homosexuals content to live out our lives without engaging in an eternal Kulturkampf against the cis and the straight. Race? Alas, I see no way forward but a revival of Christianity, of its view of human beings as “neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This means such a transcendent view of human equality that it does not require equality of outcomes to see equal dignity and worth.
I’m glad you’re making this essential point about right-wing postmodernism as well. I agree largely, and should devote more attention to it — as I have done in the past. But the honest answer is: I don’t know whether liberalism can survive without some general faith in an objective reality and a transcendent divinity. That’s why I suspect a reinvention and reboot for Christianity is an urgent task.
But what this shows, as does the article below by Jonathon Van Maren, is that smart people can be seduced by delusions, and can rationalize their beliefs by saying that without such delusions, society would fall apart.
This baffles me. Surely you can’t force yourself to be a Christian just because it would help society, for the values that supposedly help society (sin, forgiveness, and so on) are based on things for which there is no evidence. It’s like saying that without Dumbo’s magic feather, he’d fall from the sky, so it’s imperative that Dumbo believe in the power of that feather. And can one really force oneself to believe Christian palaver just to improve society? It seems to me that you have to have some belief that the central story of Christianity—original sin from Adam and Eve, our collective guilt, and its expiation by the Crucifixion and Resurrection—must have a grain of truth. Either that, or you have a cynical “belief in belief”, as Dennett calls it. That is, one can be a nonbeliever but say feel religion is still a social good—for other people.
And that’s what Van Maren, who apparently is a believer, argues in his new article. The site identifies him as “a freelance writer and communications director for the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform. His work has appeared in National Review, The Federalist, National Post, and elsewhere. His book, The Culture War, was published in 2016.”). Another site notes that “Jonathon was raised in a Reformed Christian home and currently attends the Netherlands Reformed Congregation of Norwich, Ontario.”
Van Maren interviews a number of people, including conservative Niall Ferguson (the spouse of Ayaan Hirsi Ali; do they talk about religion?), all of whom say that atheism is a nonstarter when it comes to supporting an “ethical system”. Here’s a quote from Ferguson:
“I was brought up an atheist—I didn’t become one,” he said. “I regard atheism as the religious faith I happened to be brought up in. It is, of course, as much a faith as Christianity or Islam—and I have the Calvinist brand, because my parents left the Church of Scotland. I was brought up, essentially, in a Calvinist ethical framework but with no God. This had its benefits—I was encouraged to think in a very critical way about religion and also about science, but I’ve come to see as a historian that you can’t base a society on that. Indeed, atheism, particularly in its militant forms, is really a very dangerous metaphysical framework for a society.”
“I know I can’t achieve religious faith,” he went on, “but I do think we should go to church. We don’t have, I don’t think, an evolved ethical system. I don’t buy the idea that evolution alone gets us to be moral. It can modify behaviour, but there’s just too much evidence that in the raw, when the constraints of civilisation fall away, we behave in the most savage way to one another. I’m a big believer that with the inherited wisdom of a two-millennia old religion, we’ve got a pretty good framework to work with.”
For one of the most prominent historians in the world—himself an agnostic—to say that we should go to church is rather startling, but Ferguson’s sentiments also appear to be part of a growing trend. . .
Now that is belief in belief. I won’t go into detail, but it’s pretty clear that some aspects of our ethical system (fairness, reciprocity, etc.) are the products of evolution, probably evolved when we lived in small groups of hunter-gatherers. But that aside, he also claims that atheism is a religious faith, which it’s not (it’s an absence of religious faith). And that aside, where does he get the idea that without Christianity civilization would revert to savagery? Is that the case in nonreligious Scandinavia, or in Iceland, where 0% of people under 25 are religious?
I suppose, in response, that one could argue that, well, Scandinavia and other countries that may give up religion will still inherit an ethical system from their previous Christianity. But that implies that non-Christian societies, like those of Jews or Jains, are also full of “savagery”.
And what does it mean “to base a society on atheism”, anyway? I wouldn’t want some society in which there was an official doctrine of atheism enforced on its adherents. That stifles discussion and thought. An atheistic society seems to be one in which no religious values are enforced and secularism is institutionalized. That is, for example, like France. But you could still argue that France is civilized because it still adheres to moral values derived from Christianity.
Further, if morality absolutely depends on belief in Christianity, one can draw two conclusions.
First, the “ethics of Christianity” don’t come from God, or even from belief in the Christian myth, but from some non-Christian views of what is good and right. That’s because even Christians don’t adhere to a Christian morality because they think God or Jesus told us what is right. No, they adhere to it because they think that God and Jesus were exponents of a good that pre-existed before Christianity, and is independent of what they declare to be good. That, of course, is the basis of Plato’s Euthyphro Dilemma, one of the greatest contributions of philosophy to clear thinking.
Second, if you have to adhere to Christianity to be moral, that implies that your morality is somehow enforced or upheld by God: what Hitchens called a “celestial North Korea”. For if that’s not the case, one can reject all of Christianity itself and just keep the preexisting moral sentiments. (Christianity did not originate any new beneficial moral sentiments, though Van Maren says “forgiveness” is uniquely Christian. But surely Christianity created and supports many bad moral sentiments. You can name many yourselves.). If you remove the religious palaver, you wind up with secular humanism.
“With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil – that takes religion.”
Weinberg is an atheist, and there are many of us who have never embraced Christianity, even if some of us once adhered to other faiths. It takes a special kind of blindness to think that a society constituted of people like atheists would fall apart.
Van Maren quotes some other authorities, accumulating a pile of Believers in Belief:
The late philosopher Sir Roger Scruton began attending church himself despite struggling with belief, regularly playing the organ at All Saints’ in Garsdon. His secular friends say his faith remained cultural; other friends were not so sure. What we do know is that he thought Christianity was in many ways the soul of Western civilisation, and that the uniquely Christian concept of forgiveness was utterly indispensable to its survival.
And Douglas Murray, a good foe of Wokeism, also purses his lips to osculate the rump of Christianity:
Scruton’s friend Douglas Murray, the conservative writer who was raised in the Church before leaving it as an adult, has occasionally referred to himself as a “Christian atheist.” In a recent discussion with theologian N.T. Wright, he described himself as “an uncomfortable agnostic who recognises the virtues and the values the Christian faith has brought,” and noted that he is actually irritated by the way the Church of England is fleeing from its inheritance, “giving up its jewels” such as “the King James Bible and The Book of Common Prayer” in exchange for progressive pieties.. . .
. . . Murray believes that Christianity is essential because secularists have been thus far totally incapable of creating an ethic of equality that matches the concept that all human beings are created in the image of God. In a column in TheSpectator, he noted that post-Christian society has three options. The first is to abandon the idea that all human life is precious. “Another is to work furiously to nail down an atheist version of the sanctity of the individual.” And if that doesn’t work? “Then there is only one other place to go. Which is back to faith, whether we like it or not.”
On a recent podcast, he was more blunt: “The sanctity of human life is a Judeo-Christian notion which might very easily not survive [the disappearance of] Judeo-Christian civilisation.”
Apparently Scruton is unaware of how atheist and humanists philosophers have constructed moral systems without Christianity: people like Bertrand Russell, John Rawls, and Peter Singer. None of this depends on the “sanctity of human life”, but rather on the value of human life. I looked up “sanctity” in the Oxford English Dictionary and reproduce the only two definitions that are relevant:
Holiness of life, saintliness. odour of sanctity
The quality of being sacred or hallowed; sacredness, claim to (religious) reverence; inviolability.
Both of these have to do with religion. But you have to be a moron to think that one must accept that humans are made in God’s image to behave morally. The observed morality of lifelong atheists absolutely refutes that, as well as the fact that when religion wanes, as in northern Europe, the U.S.,and the U.K., society seems to get better (and certainly, according to statistics, people are happier).
A few more Arguments from Authority by Van Maren:
The American social scientist and agnostic Charles Murray, too, told me in an interview that he believes the American republic is unlikely to survive without a resurgence of Christianity. Echoing John Adams, he noted that the Constitution of the United States and the liberties it upholds can only govern a religious people.
Historian Tom Holland’s magnificent Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, published in 2019, makes a similar case. For years, Holland—an agnostic—wrote compelling histories of the ancient Greeks and Romans, but he observed that their societies were rife with casual, socially-accepted cruelty towards the weak, rape, and sexual abuse towards the massive slave class as an unquestioned way of life, and the mass extermination of enemies as a matter of course. These peoples and their ethics, Holland writes, seemed utterly foreign to him.
It was Christianity, Holland concluded, that changed all that in a revolution so complete that even critiques of Christianity must borrow precepts from Christianity to do so.
As if no “Christian” society ever had slavery, genocide (yes, Hitler was a Christian), sexual abuse, or The Inquisition!
Finally, there’s a bit of atheist-bashing, as if somehow atheists realize the force of Van Maren’s argument:
[Holland] defended this thesis brilliantly in a debate on the subject “Did Christianity give us our human values?” with atheist philosopher A.C. Grayling, who seemed actively irritated by the idea. Not so long ago, unbelievers like the late Christopher Hitchens claimed that “religion poisons everything”—a sentiment that appears to be retreating as we advance further into the post-Christian era.
Hitchens frequently claimed to be not an atheist, but an “anti-theist”—he didn’t believe in God, and he was glad that he did not. It is fascinating to see intellectuals come forward with precisely the opposite sentiment—they do not believe, but they somehow want to believe. The psychologist Jordan Peterson, who speaks about Christianity often, is a good example of this.
Increasingly, some intellectuals from across the disciplines—history, literature, psychology, philosophy—are gazing out of what was once a refuge and wishing that, some how, they could believe it. They have understood that Christianity is both indispensable and beautiful, but their intellectual constraints prevent many of them from embracing it as true.
Increasingly? Does Van Maren have data on the per capita increase among atheists in their desire to believe Christianity? No, of course not: he finds a few anecdotes and then makes up a general thesis. I wonder how many atheists like Grayling and Hitchens would say that they don’t believe but want to. Hitchens is gone, but Grayling is with us, and I’ll ask him.
At the end, Van Maren maintains, without any evidence, that Christianity is our main bulwark against totalitarianism—indeed, is essential for the survival of the West.
“It disturbs me that in so many ways, totalitarianism is gaining ground today,” Ferguson said. “Totalitarianism was bad for many reasons, and one of the manifestations of its badness was its attack on religion. When I see totalitarianism gaining ground not only in China but in subtle ways in our own society, that seems to be the disaster we really need to ward off. Why am I a conservative and not just a classical liberal? Because classical liberalism won’t stop wokeism and totalitarianism. It’s not strong enough. Ultimately, we need the inherited ideas of a civilisation and defences against that particular form of disaster.”
The survival of Christianity is essential for the survival of the West.
I have news for Van Maren: religion is declining precipitously in the West, and that means Christianity. What we find is that Nones, atheists, and agnostics are on the rise at the expense of Christians. In America, the party of Christianity is the Republican Party, a party that nearly wrecked America when it got a chance. Such is the “ethical system” of Christianity.
As I wrote yesterday, the American Humanist Association (AHA), interpreting some of Richard Dawkins’s tweets as “transphobic”, revoked his Humanist of the Year Award from 1996, saying that he “demeaned marginalized individuals,” both transsexual and black (the AHA’s statement is here). And as I said, I think this “cancellation” was a mistake. Though the AHA has a right to do what they want, I disagree that Dawkins’s statements have been either transphobic or racist.
Apparently Rebecca Goldstein and Steve Pinker do, too. In a tweet from Steve yesterday, the pair, who had separately received Humanist of the Year Awards, objected strongly to what the AHA did. I’ll reproduce their letter as screenshots:
It’s hard to take issue with what Rebecca and Steve say. The penultimate paragraph of their letter, “This will only intensify. . . “, is especially good.
And crikey, while I knew that the anti-Semite Alice Walker had gotten the same award, I didn’t know that Margaret Sanger had as well. She’s been accused of racism and eugenics by the group she founded, Planned Parenthood, which is in the process of cancelling her. (See this response from a biographer of Sanger.)
You can see the list of Humanist of the Year Awards here, and I already spotted several that would, by Woke standards, now be seen as “problematic.”
I won’t adjudicate the Sanger debate, but it’s clear that Walker was anti-Semitic and has made clear statements to that effect. If a case for bigotry is to be made against award recipients, that against Walker is far clear than any case against Dawkins. The AHA, if it’s to be consistent, should take away Walker’s award immediately. Or, better yet, stop this Pecksniffery.
I doubt that the AHA will restore the award, but if they read what Dawkins actually said, and abided by their own dictates, they should give it back. They have indeed turned themselves into a laughingstock.
I’m getting really tired of social media pile-ons, especially when the victim isn’t really guilty of a gross transgression. One of these is happening now, and the object is—once again—Richard Dawkins. The reason: his rather awkward attempt to discuss transphobia and transracialism on Twitter, which isn’t the place for this kind of discussion. (I suppose Richard needs a “blog.”)
Here are two of Dawkins’s tweets that caused all the trouble:
I do not intend to disparage trans people. I see that my academic “Discuss” question has been misconstrued as such and I deplore this. It was also not my intent to ally in any way with Republican bigots in US now exploiting this issue .
As I wrote a week ago, Richard’s tweets were interpreted as transphobic by several people, including Hemant Mehta, the “Friendly Atheist”, who wasn’t so friendly this time. My view is that Richard was trying to discuss the same issues Rebecca Tuvel did in her paper in the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia, an article on “transracial” people like Rachel Dolezal. Tuvel, an academic philosopher, was also demonized for merely asking the question of what relevant differences there are between feeling like you’re in a body of the wrong sex versus feeling like you’re in a body of the wrong race. This is an intriguing and relevant question to ask, and it should be discussed, not dismissed. And those who ask this question, like Tuvel, should surely not be damned.
For writing that article, Tuvel was viciously attacked and her article nearly pulled, but it remains online.. And, like Tuvel, Richard was damned as a “transphobe” for asking the same question. I don’t think he’s transphobic at all. He’s just a bit awkward about how he tries to discuss stuff on Twitter, and somewhat insensitive to how his words might be construed (i.e., “choose to identify as men” are not words I would have used). I myself have urged him to stop trying to have serious conversations on Twitter, but to no avail.
Anyway, I’ve been informed by multiple people that, because he’s seen as a transphobe and has repeatedly “demeaned marginalized groups”, Dawkins has lost his 1996 Humanist of the Year Award conferred by the American Humanist Association. Their rationale for withdrawing the award is given here. I don’t think they should have done this, especially in view of their not having withdrawn the very same award given to Alice Walker the next year, for Walker is writer who is a blatant and pretty vicious anti-Semite (see here, here, and here). But the AHA has the right to make its own decisions, and I’m not going to wail about this one. It just shouldn’t be hypocritical about them.
What bothers me is the glee with which Dawkins-haters see the withdrawal of this honor. The article below by Stephen Knight summarizes the reactions of the DHers and is also a defense of Dawkins. I’ll direct you to it by telling you to click on the screenshot below. On his website, Knight summarizes the opprobrium heaped on Richard by several prominent atheists, including Mehta and Matt Dillahunty; Dawkins was also damned by P. Z. Myers, who flaunted his own AHA award crowing “I’ve still got mine”. Knight’s column seems reasonable and measured, unlike the hysteria permeating the internet from other directions.
And to point out the hypocrisy of withdrawing Dawkins’s award but not doing the same with the award given to Alice Walker, click on the screenshot below. There is no question that Walker is an arrant bigot and Jew-hater, so why is she still a “Humanist of the Year”?
Lord, I’m so tired of these kerfuffles, but if you want to see the fracas, read the articles above and below. And, as they say, “have a good one.”
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.
👑 In the name of “Imhotep” Chief Priest and God of Science we shall reclaim Science from the impostors. 🙏🏿GOD🙏🏿 pic.twitter.com/Be48GaHQwr
Osculation of ID. Let the IDers propagandize Hammer, for they’d love to have a famous rapper on their side:
Fantastic conversation !!! Explains what I just experienced the last 48hrs with the “mad scientists” and my take was extremely accurate. as I said, “It felt like religion” #Hamm400aos 👑 https://t.co/ZQpRlPWHvz
In fact the vertebrate eye is a striking example of *bad* design. The light-detecting parts of the retinal cells are at the far side of the retinal layer, not where a designer would put them. That is not the case in cephalopod eyes, so maybe Mr Hammer’s god is Cthulhu. https://t.co/a7jEcb4Cqi
.@MCHammer You can't be pro-science and pro-creation at the same time unless you believe God used evolution as the means of creation. And in that case God is incompetent, failing in 99.9% of his "creations." Don't try to embrace everything at once; it doesn't work. https://t.co/XImPHKbUmS
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.
You again Coyne? Sheesh.@MCHammer is correct. Science & religion aren’t incompatible. They both seek to understand our world.
You are entitled to express your opinion, but not as fact. Science neither proves nor disproves religion.
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):
Good God, here we go again! Rowan Williams, formerly a “sophisticated” Archbishop of Canterbury, now bearing the appropriate title of Lord Williams of Mealymouth Oystermouth, is still kvetching about Richard Dawkins and his supposed New Atheist posse, and on two grounds.
First, Dawkins (and we) damaged Christianity, and it needs to be repaired.
Second, New Atheists don’t know jack about theology.
As to the first, I say “GOOD FOR US! Christianity needs to be damaged, for it’s harmful and delusional, and enables the vice of belief without evidence—in other words, faith. As to the second claim, I’ve dealt with it many times before (it’s gone under the name of “the courtier’s reply“), and address it here only briefly.
Here’s the short article from The Tablet. Click to read, and shake your head about the lucubrations of poor Lord Oystermouth:
A few short excerpts:
The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord (Rowan) Williams of Oystermouth, has made a scathing attack on Richard Dawkins and other “new atheists”, while cautioning that their negative impact on religious faith could still take time to repair.
“Many people who aren’t religious believers regard writers like Richard Dawkins as extremely bigoted and authoritarian, and I think their writings are less popular now,” Dr Williams told Polish Radio in an interview.
“But secularisation has also meant a lot of ignorance, and there’s a suspicion towards religion, sometimes intensified by anxiety about militant Islam. It’s as if every form of religion is the same and the local parish priest would like to cut your head off or impose some alien law on you.”
The 69-year-old theologian and poet, who was 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, from 2002 to 2012, said he planned to engage in a new debate during 2021 with Professor Dawkins, whom he viewed as a “very good biologist and absolutely brilliant writer”, but also as a “very bad philosopher” with virtually no knowledge of theology.
He added that a “rash of books” a decade ago by Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, AC Grayling and other “New Atheists” had damaged Christianity, by fostering an assumption that “the consensus among intelligent people was anti-religious”. [JAC: This is getting truer and truer every day.]
. . . He said: “The bad aspect of secularisation is that people forget what religious doctrine really is, and become subject to distortions and charicatures. It’s as if people have a very trivial picture of what religion is and why it matters.
I have news for Lord Oystermouth: yes, New Atheists damaged Christianity by turning people away from that delusional faith (is “delusional faith” a tautology?). But no, Christianity will not be repaired. All over the West, and especially in the UK, Christianity is waning rapidly—so rapidly that I needn’t look up links to document its disappearance.
Further, none of the New Atheists named above think that all religions are the same, or are identical to militant Islam. Has Oystermouth even read Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett, or Harris? None of them say that all forms of religion are the same and, in fact, all say that different faiths are indeed different. In their writings they make distinctions between more harmful and less harmful faiths, but always emphasize that faith itself, as instantiated in nearly every “religion”, is not a virtue but a vice.
And bad philosophy? Who’s a worse philosopher? Who’s a bad boy? A guy who spends his life touting a deity for which he has no evidence, and bolstering the idea that it’s fine to believe without evidence, or a guy who simply points these things out? That’s not philosophy, but empiricism. For surely all theology, even Oystermouth’s “sophisticated”® brand, must begin with the proposition that there is a God of a certain sort. If you can’t even buttress that first assumption, the rest is commentary, and ridiculous commentary. As Dan Barker likes to say, “Theology is a subject without an object.”
Look: Here’s Oystermouth blathering on about the certainty that there is a deity, and, in fact, a deity of the Anglican persuasion (my emphasis):
Asked about the prospects for Christianity across Europe, the retired archbishop said he was “completely confident” the faith would survive.
“The Church exists because God wanted and wants it to exist, so we shouldn’t have any anxiety about its disappearance,” Dr Williams said. “Despite the New Atheists, people are not hostile to the Christian faith, nor do they regard Christianity as their enemy or as something completely ridiculous. They want to know and learn, and I think we have to be out there, arguing, persuading, doing what we can from a place of basic confidence.”
See? Some readers have defended the claim that bad things happen because “we don’t understand God’s ways” by saying, “Well, see, that’s just like what scientists do! What’s wrong with saying ‘We don’t understand?'” We had one of these commenters today.
But the difference between scientists and believers, my brothers and sisters, friends and comrades, is that scientists say they don’t understand in a uniform way, not pretending that we understand some stuff but not other stuff, when there’s no evidence for either. Yet Oystermouth blithely tells us that he knows not only that there’s a God, but that God wants the Anglican Church to exist, so it won’t go extinct. How does he know that about God?
I get peevish when I read stuff like this, so I can’t resist commenting on his eyebrows, which have always freaked me out, making me fear that he’d take off in a high wind.
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.
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?
If you’ve followed the Intelligent Design (ID) mishigass, you’ll have heard of Michael Egnor, a neurosurgeon, a Christian who was once an atheist, and a big supporter of ID and senior fellow of the Discovery Institute. Egnor writes for the Evolution News website. Like several people there, he’s obsessed with me, but instead of taking apart my views on evolution, he goes after me personally, criticizing my attacks on theology and, worse, calling me names. This tells you two things. First, that religion is intimately entangled with ID. Although IDers disingenuously claim that they’re driven to the idea of a Designer in the Sky by the science alone, it’s curious that virtually all of them (biker David Berlinski may be an exception) are religious. Why are all the Discovery Institute flaks religious?
Also, it shows the intellectual failure of ID to replace evolution, which according to the Wedge Document timetable, it should have done by now. So they result in apologetics, theodicy, and philosophy. They’ve already lost on the science.
This week Egnor goes after me because of what I wrote about David Attenborough the other day. You can read his rant, which includes name-calling, by clicking on the screenshot below from the comment-free Evolution News site (I’ve archived the link below so their site doesn’t get clicks.)
Here goes Egnor’s argument, which is indented.
A shimmering example of atheist idiocy (there is no other word for it) is Jerry Coyne’s recent argument, at Why Evolution Is True, against God’s existence in his post on David Attenborough’s agnosticism. Attenborough, who is a Darwinist producer of nature films (quite good films I must say, despite the Darwinist taint), was interviewed about his views on God.
To Coyne’s chagrin, Attenborough declares that he is agnostic about God’s existence. Attenborough raises common objections to theism (e.g., the problem of evil), but he invokes a rather nice metaphor about a termite mound. He points out that termites, blind and busily working away in a mound, are unaware of human observers. Their unawareness is not evidence that an observer doesn’t exist — they lack the sense organs to perceive the observer. Attenborough says that is why he is agnostic — he doesn’t sense that God exists, but perhaps that is because he lacks the capacity to know God.
I do sometimes feel that maybe I’m lacking in some sense organ, and I don’t know whether there’s anybody else involved in all this sort of thing. And it’s a very confident thing, saying that you’re absolutely sure that there’s nothing in this world that I don’t have the sense organs to appreciate. That would be my position.
Coyne hops on this:
[O]f course, if a god wanted to make himself known to humans, he would have given them the sense organs to detect divinity.
A Breathtaking Ignorance
My goodness. In this one assertion, Coyne (culpably) and Attenborough (more innocently) betray a breathtaking ignorance.
God is not a physical thing. It is only physical things that can be sensed by sense organs. If God could be sensed via an organ, He would not be God. What would be sensed would be a part of creation, not the Creator. God is not in nature. He is prior to nature. He is the Source of nature.
And, contra Coyne and Attenborough, God did endow us with an organ by which we may know Him. He endowed us with reason. Alone among animals, human beings have the power of abstract thought — to contemplate ideas separated from concrete particular (sensible) objects. We have intellect, by which we can understand immaterial knowledge and will by which we act on our abstract knowledge.
Reason and Will
Our capacity for reason is the “organ” God gave us to know Him, and our will is the “organ” God gave us to love Him.
Reason is our divine “sense organ.” It is perfectly adapted to its task — it allows us to know and love our Creator. In this sense we are created in His image: we have the capacity to know immaterial reality and to act on our knowledge.
Atheists ask where is our “divine sense organ?”, when the very capacity by which they ask the question — their capacity for reason — is the “sense organ” they seek.This utter atheist idiocy helped lead me to God. What I found, when I looked at the arguments for and against His existence, is that the arguments against His existence were vapid nonsense.
There are many problems here. First of all, even if God is not a physical thing, nearly all Christians—the theistic ones—think that God interacts with the world in a physical way. After all, God sent his son/alter ego down to Earth as a scapegoat to be killed for our sins, thereby expiating us. IDers believe that God The Intelligent Designer either brought new species into being or made the requisite mutations to promote their appearance. Indeed, the very concept of Intelligent Design presupposes that empirical evidence—science and observation itself—inevitably brings us to the concept of an Intelligent Designer. And that evidence is “sensed by sense organs.”
In other words, ID itself refutes Egnor’s claim that God The Intelligent Designer cannot be sensed via an organ. The stupidity here (and I’m not pulling punches given that Egnor engages in name-calling) is to assume that a deity who is nonphysical cannot be apprehended through sense organs. If you’re a theist, that’s palpably ridiculous.
As for God giving us our “capacity for reason” specifically so we can know Him (do chimps know Him, too, since they have a capacity to reason?), that’s also ridiculous. If our capacity for reason gives us the “capacity to know immaterial reality and act on our knowledge”, then how come every religion has a different conception of immaterial reality? Egnor is a Christian; does he reject the Muslim belief that Jesus wasn’t the son of God but merely a prophet, and that Muhammad was given the true religion by Allah through Gabriel? Does he reject Hindu pantheism, or the animism of some tribes? Does he reject the thetans and Xenu-beliefs of Scientology?
Yes, if God gave us reason to know the truth about Him, how come the “truths” that “reason” tells believers are so disparate? Our divine sense organs must be defective in some way.
And why, over time, has “reason” turned more and more of the West into atheists? After all, God gave this reason to each of us, and gave it to us specifically so we’d know Him (or Her or Whatever). Are some people lacking in this reason? And that includes people who seem to have plenty of reason on other fronts: atheist intellectuals like Bertrand Russell, Stephen Hawking, Dan Dennett, Stephen Fry, Richard Dawkins, and so on. And David Attenborough lacks it, too? Why did God give these people lots of ability to reason, but prevented that reason from apprehending His existence? Why are more and more people not using their organs of reason properly as time progresses?
And why is this blather on a site called Evolution News & Science Today? Because that’s also a site where Egnorant fools who are slaves to ancient superstitions parade their inability to reason. And that’s why they promote ID. Every time an IDer like Egnor writes about theology on that site, it affirms Judge Jones’s decision, back in Dover, that ID is not science but a form of religion.