According to this post on Richard Dawkins’s Substack site, Jordan Peterson challenged him on Twitter to answer two questions. Dawkins decided to answer both because, as he said below, he respects Peterson:
A colleague sent two challenges to me, posted by Jordan Peterson, suggesting I should respond. I’m happy to do so because I greatly respect Dr Peterson’s courageous stance against a bossy, intolerant thought-police whose Orwellian newspeak threatens enlightened rationalism. The hero of 1984, Winston Smith, was eventually persuaded by O’Brien that, if the Party wills it, 2+2 = 5. Winston had earlier found it necessary to stake out his credo. “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows”.
Yes, Peterson is gutsy enough to say what isn’t popular but often worth saying, though he’s also vociferous about some stuff that isn’t admirable—like his admiration of religion. But you have to give him credit for not really caring whether his beliefs make him demonized. Click below to Read Richard’s answers.
The first question:
Richard begins his answer with a caveat:
My answer to the question is no if you include supernaturalism in your definition of a religion, and a dear colleague takes her stand on this distinction. But the following three similarities are enough for me to justify a yes answer to Jordan’s question. The first of the three is characteristic of religions in general. The other two are kin to Christianity in particular.
The similarities are Heresy Hunting, Hereditary Guilt, and Transubstantiation. This is his example of the last one:
Similarly, in the cult of woke, a man speaks the magic incantation, “I am a woman”, and thereby becomes a woman in true substance, while “her” intact penis and hairy chest are mere Aristotelian accidentals. Transsexuals have transubstantiated genitals. One thing to be said in favour of (today’s) Catholics: at least they don’t (nowadays) insist that everybody else must go along with their beliefs.
Hemant Mehta, who has long gone down the Woke Rabbit Hole, will be sharpening his knives when he reads that.
And the second question:
Part of Dawkins’s answer:
I see this accusation again and again in graffiti scribbled on the lavatory wall that is Twitter. Peterson’s tone is more civilised, of course, but the message is the same. We who have spoken out against the irrationality of religion are to blame for the rise of the irrationality of woke.
. . . I get the point, but I love truth too much to go along with it. I, along with Sam Harris, Dan Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Victor Stenger, Lawrence Krauss, Michael Shermer, and others, are against all religions without exception. And that includes the cult of woke. To oppose one irrational dogma by promoting another irrational dogma would be a betrayal of everything I love and stand for.
Whatever else there is to admire about Peterson, his affection for religion, which may be of the “Little People” variety (e.g., “I am no believer, but religion is essential for everyone else as a social glue”), is not only an acceptance of the unevidenced, but a false belief that superstition is necessary for a good society (viz. Scandinavia). It’s also patronizing.
But it may be that Peterson really believes in, say, Christianity. I’d love to sit him down and ask him questions about whether he believes in the Resurrection, heaven, and so on, but I’m 100% sure that his answers would be so tortuous that you wouldn’t get an intelligible answer.
UPDATE: Adam Rutherford reminded me that it was the now-demonized Francis Galton who did statistical tests on the efficacy of prayer. His most famous is finding out that British Royals, who are prayed for constantly, didn’t live any longer than non-royals at a similar level of well being. Galton did related studies of the success of sea voyages accompanied by prayer versus those with no prayer. Again, no effect. And, more recently, I’ve written about the Templeton-funded study of intercessory prayer that found no effect of such prayer on the rate of recovery from cardiac surgery (in fact, those who were prayed for did marginally but not significantly worse). This constitutes direct evidence against Brown’s implicit thesis. (But read the last paragraph of the NYT story I’ve linked to so you can see how the faith try to rescue God.)
Of course not! The ubiquity of a belief doesn’t tell us anything about the truth of that belief. Several hundred years ago the whole world believed that infectious diseases were caused by things like God’s will, or miasmas, or the Jews.
They were wrong.
Our species has grown up since then, because science, and science alone, has told us why those earlier beliefs were wrong. The problem is that science can’t disprove an equally unfounded belief in a deity. God is slippery, and smart theologians are paid to make him slippery, because they’d be out of a job if everyone was an atheist.
But that’s what the evidence says, so far as it exists, for we can make plenty of arguments against certain conceptions of God. The Abrahamic omnipotent, omniscient, and all-loving deity, for instance, is disproven by the many innocent people who die of physical factors like earthquakes or cancer. (Theologians have a number of magic tricks to get out of that argument.) As the late Victor Stenger said, “The absence of evidence is evidence for absence—if the evidence should be there.” And certainly any god worthy of its name, who wanted people to obey and worship him, would make his presence unequivocally known. The evidence should be there.
It isn’t. Using Bayesian analysis, the priors for an Abrahamic god are low.
But forget that. This article, from the conservative site WND, tries to argue that because most people pray (even atheists, they say!), it’s evidence for God’s existence, and atheists are out of luck. Click to read:
Michael Brown uses injured football player Damar Hamlin, who is recovering (though I doubt he’ll play ball again) as an example of the ubiquity of prayer. I saw this many times on television, even with news anchors on local news who send out “thoughts and prayers”:
Around the nation, in response to the life-threatening injury to Buffalo Bills football player Damar Hamlin, people prayed. Hamlin’s teammates and coaches prayed. Millions of fans joined in prayer, tweeting their support. Even on live TV, sports commentators stopped in the middle of their broadcast to pray.
But this is only natural. During times of crisis, especially life and death crisis, people turn to God.
We know the situation is grave, we know we cannot change things ourselves, and we know that only God – an all-powerful being who cares – can turn the tide.
That’s why, at such times, people do not turn to atheism. They turn to God.
Even non-religious people pray. In fact, many agnostics and soft atheists even turn to prayer.
It continues, showing that the God they are talking about is, of course, the God of Christianity:
As expressed by Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, “It is interesting to me as a person of faith that we tend to go to that core place [at moments of tragedy], that we start talking to God and talking about talking to God.”
He added, “I just find that rather refreshing in an affluent culture that has so much that we tend to ignore God that something like this happens and it reminds us of our own mortality, and we begin to talk about praying and talking about God. … It speaks to the yearning deep inside of us.”
But to ask again, what about Orlovsky’s sports and media colleagues? Were they also happy with him praying on live sports TV?
Yes, many of them were positive on this as well. As one headline announced, “Dan Orlovsky Praised After ‘Beautiful’ Prayer for Damar Hamlin Live on Air.”
Among those quoted in the article were ESPN presenter Ashley Brewer and Super Bowl champion Ryan Clark.
In Brewer’s words, “This is amazing, I teared up watching this in my living room today. Proud to call you my teammate & brother in Christ.”
This is what happens when, as a nation, we are drawn into a life-and-death crisis.
This is what happens when, suddenly and unexpectedly, in front of our eyes on TV, the health and well-being of a relative stranger now becomes our personal concern.
This is what happens when we realize that we need help outside of ourselves.
People pray, and prayer is welcomed rather than ridiculed.
It’s not all that welcome on this website, because, being an atheist, I think prayer is useless. If it makes you feel better, or helps you meditate, go for it. But don’t think that anybody up there is listening and will help you. For if he was and did, there wouldn’t be kids dying of cancer all the time.
Now I don’t think author Brown is trying to convince himself of anything; he’s already lost to the delusion. Nor is he trying to convince his fellow religionists, who have also drunk the Kool-Aid. I think he’s making fun of atheists by showing that we’re trumped by the ubiquity of prayer. And that wouldn’t bother us, he thinks, unless he thought that prayer’s ubiquity was evidence for God. People wouldn’t be praying all the time if they didn’t think there was really a god to pray to! Checkmate, you heathens!:
The reality is that we always need God. It’s just that, when all is well, we often forget about Him, putting our trust in ourselves and leaving Him out of our thoughts entirely. Many of us even become hostile to faith, doing our best to keep it excluded from public life. And then a crisis wakes us up as we recognize our own frailty and remember that death could be near at any time.
May we not forget these realities as life gets back to normal and, we hope and pray, Damar Hamlin makes a full and even miraculous recovery.
And may those who ignore or even scorn the idea of God think again. Eternity is always just one step away. Then what?
If the Bible is true – which I am 100% sure it is, personally – one day we will actually give account of our lives to God.
That is a sobering thought.
The sobering thought is that people who can actually think can be so deluded that they give their lives up to a belief that is totally lacking in evidence. (Brown even has a Ph.D.!) Another sobering thought is that people like Brown think that somehow the fact that lots of people pray means that God is up there listening. A third sobering thought is that Brown has not a scintilla of evidence that the God he’s so sure we’ll meet is the God of the Bible rather than the God of the Qur’an—or any other god. As for the possibility that there are no gods, well, fuggedaboutit!
Well, let me clarify my title above. In the article below on his Substack site, deBoer claims that he started his career attacking New Atheism, and he still sees issues with it, but now thinks he went too far, especially in light of the Vice article he cites. That article notes a rise of Internet scams dealing with supernatural phenomenon like clairvoyance and tarot cards, and he sees that the doubt about faith promoted by New Atheism could be used now to quash these other issues that victimize the credulous. But the so-called demise of New Atheism has deprived people of those tools.
Unfortunately, deBoer, whose writing I admire (but seems to be writing too much these days), still feels he to get in a few licks at Dawkins and Co., and I think those licks are gratuitous and unfair. Still, his call for a revival of skepticism and demands for evidence is absolutely the mark. Faith is faith, whether it involves pastors or psychics.
Click the screenshot to see deBoer’s piece:
There are, I think, six main reasons for the “backlash” against New Atheism, which I see as the reinvigoration of faithlessness by Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens (Pinker was a player as well):
1.) People bridle at criticism of religion, especially when it is passionate and vigorous. Religion is sacrosanct, and seen by many as off limits to criticism.
2.) People accused the New Atheists of being strident and trying to wrest religion from believers.
3.) People were jealous of the success of New Atheist writings
4.) Because Muslims are considered “people of color,” opponents of New Atheism were especially critical of its perceived “Islamophobia.”
5.) The perception, often without evidence, that New Atheists were sexists or even sexual assaulters.
6.) The claim that New Atheists ignored social justice because they concentrated too much on addressing, analyzing, and attacking religion. These critics see “progressive social justice” as inextricable from New Atheism, and thus New Atheists were fighting a battle but ignoring a wider war.
In this article, deBoer seems to sign on to reasons 1,2, and 4, though he’s walked back his criticisms a bit: he says that by criticizing New Atheism’s concentration on the need for evidence, people have become susceptible to new forms of woo. That sounds good, though I don’t know if it’s true, and too much of his piece still engages in atheist-bashing.
(Regarding #4, New Atheists often concentrated on Islam because it was in their view (and mine) the most dangerous species of faith in today’s world, as Catholicism was in medieval Europe. I don’t see that as “Islamophobia”, if you conceive of that word as meaning “bigotry against Muslims”. But a “fear of Islam” could also mean “a worry about how that religion is sometimes used to oppress and kill people.)
First, deBoer cites the article below in Vice, which describes the “fake” psychics (they’re all fakes, of course, but there are some who pretend to be other people)—fakers who are now being attacked on social media. (All deBoer’s words are indented).
I’ll say no more about the Vice article as you can read it for yourself. I was more interested—and distressed—by deBoer’s criticisms of New Atheism, which wasn’t really a “movement” but a term invented to describe the rise of unbelief largely prompted by the authors named above. Granted, deBoer has backed off some, but not far enough for me. The bolding is mine:
The first thing I ever wrote that got more than a couple dozen views, the piece that made the rounds in the blogosphere and in so doing kickstarted my writing career, was a piece of the type “I’m an atheist who can’t stand New Atheism.” Pieces in that vein became quite common over the years, but in 2008 it was still novel enough to attract all of that attention. This was an era in which the New Atheists still enjoyed a degree of cultural cachet, before the pomposity and shrill tone of so many in the movement curdled its public reputation, to say nothing of the accusations of Islamophobia. It was a different time. The basic contours of the piece still seem correct to me – atheism is almost certain factually true, and I am an atheist, but I have no interest in browbeating believers. I have no interest in converting believers into atheists, and atheism is not a movement. But not only would I not write that piece today, it’s one of very few pieces that I sometimes genuinely wish I had never published at all. Because the ground changed underneath us to such an extent that, well, millions of functioning adults proudly endorse astrology and other hooey in public.
Note first the attacks on New Atheism, but also his assertion that he wish he wouldn’t have written the piece not because he misunderstood or unfairly attacked New Atheism, but because his attack on the movement may have enabled people’s increased belief in woo. Also note, as I claim below, that deBoer is engaging in a form of virtue signaling here: not addressing the arguments of New Atheists but simply calling them names in a way that would appeal to atheist liberals soft on faith (“faithiests”).
Yes, the last sentence is true, though I’m not sure how much criticism on New Atheism enabled the rise of “hooey”. But I also think that deBoer is unfair by attacking New Atheists, especially the prominent ones, for being “pompous and shrill.” In what way, for example, were Dawkins and Company “pompous and shrill”? Perhaps some of their followers were (actually, some surely were given their numbers). But both of those words could be replaced by “passionate.”
Notice that when New Atheists are accused of stuff like this, no examples are ever given. What is called “shrillness” as a pejorative term strikes me as a nasty word for “writing passionately and strongly,” which doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Were Hitchens or Harris—or any of the five people named above—”shrill”? I don’t think so.
Moreover, I doubt that deBoer would call anyone writing about politics with that same passion as “shrill”. “Shrill and strident” are usually reserved for those who criticize religion, not politics. And these are ad hominem terms, for what was really important about “New Atheism” was its arguments, not the tone of its adherents.
At least, though, deBoer recognizes that what New Atheism—as “antitheism”—was mainly about: demands for empirical evidence for what one believes. It was largely an attack on faith, and on faith that is of the most damaging kind. But deBoer can’t resist saying that some atheists are “annoying,” and again I don’t think he’d say that about politicians with whom he agreed.
He continues and begins to walk back his earlier opinions:
At some point in the 2010s, the backlash to New Atheism became so commonplace, particularly on the political left, that it seemed clear to me that we had communally missed the forest for the trees. That is to say, no matter how annoying some atheists must be, the most important question when it comes to atheism remains (and must remain) whether or not God is real. If God is real, that is the single most important fact in the universe. Issues of comity and messaging take a backseat to the existence of a divine creator, and there’s something strange about being more concerned with how we express our skepticism about such a divine creator than about its actual existence. And while many people who disdain New Atheists will admit to a casual atheism themselves, they’re far less animated and passionate about that atheism than about their hatred of the New Atheists. On a really basic level this seems to be a failure of priority.
He’s correct in the last sentence, but he’s hasn’t retracted his claims about “Islamophobia” or New atheist “browbeating believers” or “converting believers into atheists.” But, after all, if you are arguing logically and rationally against the existence of God, and are arguing with the faithful, what else are you doing but “browbeating believers” (I’d use the term “arguing with believers”; for “browbeating” is a pejorative word). And if you are making empirical arguments against a divine creator, then of course you are also, even if unintentionally, “converting believers into atheists.” Every argument for a moral, political, or ideological stance is an attempt at conversion—to change people’s minds. deBoer spends his time “browbeating Republicans” in a “shrill way”, and trying to convert those with whom he disagrees. How does he differ from New Atheists in these respects.
There are other zingers against New Atheism, too. deBoer, while saying (admirably) that he probably went too far, still goes too far, saying that the demise of New Atheism was “self inflicted”. His inability to stop dissing New Atheism, although he recognizes its central merit—demand for evidence—is seen in his last paragraph (my bolding).
Ultimately, I think we should work to restore attention to the supernatural claims themselves rather than to the social ephemera that surround them. Of course we should want atheists to be circumspect and friendly and to avoid empty provocation. The question is when this concern about manners overwhelms our fixation on the central questions at hand; the fact that Reddit atheists are annoying can’t make God real. And for the record I think there’s a way to live life that avoids a cloying scientism and witless literalism while still not permitting any lazy mysticism to find its way into your day-to-day practices. There’s also a lot of low-hanging fruit when it comes to people believing things for no reason. I’m perfectly happy to say that I think we should restore a little stigma towards entertaining the idea that the date that you’re born (based on a largely arbitrary and human-made calendar system) dictates your mood, your love life, and your professional success. Maybe sometimes a little stigma is the healthiest option available to us.
So yes, here he admits that there’s too much woo, and the analysis of religion by New Atheists can also be extended to psychic phenomena, taro cards, and so on. But what is this “empty provocation” that deBoer speaks of? And the comment about “cloying scientism and witless literalism”—who, exactly, does that refer to? As most of us know, “scientism” is only used pejoratively, to criticize those who you think rely too much on science and evidence. It would have been nice if deBoer gave us some examples of “cloying scientism” from some of the well known New Atheists.
Don’t get me wrong: I think the point of deBoer article is a good one: faith applies not just to religion, but to wooish hooey—to all “supernatural” psychic phenomena. But he devalues this point by his inability to resist getting in some unwarranted licks at New Atheism.
In the end, deBoer is doing with New Atheism precisely what he criticizes with ideology: he is trying to tarnish ideas he agrees with by using pejorative words and ad hominem arguments—all because he doesn’t like the way those arguments are expressed. That is what the Woke do! And he’s appealing to popular ideology by bringing up “Islamophobia”, “scientism”, and “shrillness” in attacks on religion. In other words, I think he’s engaged in signaling his virtue.
deBoer should be remorseful for his own athiest-dissing not just because it enabled the Rise of Hooey (actually, I doubt that it did), but also because it was unfair and misguided.
Reader Daniel brought this article to my attention. It’s from The Critic; and when I asked about the site, Daniel responded:
It’s a print and online magazine – pretty big in Britain now, though quite a recent arrival on the scene. Nick Cohen has written for it I think – though it skews more right.
Nick Cohen is on the left, of course, but that’s irrelevant for this piece, which Daniel said was “very strange”.
In fact, “very strange” is a huge understatement. “Incomprehensible” is a better adjective: the piece is a total mess, conflating politics with atheism, science with politics, and with a thesis that’s simply made up, supported by wishes rather than evidence. Click to read it; it’s not long. (Reading time: Until you need a Pepto-Bismol.)
The thesis, that New Atheism is in effect dead, is hardly new: Salon regularly proclaimed it starting years ago. What’s new is Milbank’s explanation: that the “movement” has fractured, with one moiety moving Leftwards into progressivism and another moving to the Right, with both bits abandoning all the tenets that “New Atheism” had when it was started by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Dan Dennett. And those tenets were a trust in the power of science and rationality.
My first claim would be that “New Atheism” was never really a “movement”, but simply a rejection of gods in the tradition of Spinoza, Marx, Nietzsche, Ingersoll, Mencken, Russell, and so on down to the atheists of our day. There’s a list of contemporary NAs too, and I’m on it, quoted this way:
[Coyne] confesses to impatience with the New Atheists, remarking: “[H]ow much is there to say about a movement whose members are united, after all, by only one thing: disbelief in divine beings and a respect for reason and evidence. What more is there to say?”
I don’t remember saying that, but I certainly don’t have impatience with New Atheists, but with those who characterize it as a coherent “movement.” It’s not even an ideology, but an absence of belief in gods. Now there are certain traits of some New Atheism that make them differ a bit from Old Atheists, the most prominent being its reliance on science and evidence as a reason to reject gods, and its vociferous antitheism (though not all New Atheists are that vociferous!) Yet even Old Atheists like Bertrand Russell had science-oriented objections to god.
But let’s grant that there is a group of people sharing this disbelief and also a respect for evidence. Is that form of New Atheism dead? I would say “no”: it’s been absorbed into the mainstream, with the result that the West is becoming ever more secular. The books of the Four Horsemen sold like hotcakes, and America (and especially Europe) became more secular. “Nones”—those who profess no formal religion—not constitute the fastest-growing “faith” in the U.S. No more “New Atheist” books are being written now simply because we don’t need any more. All the arguments have been made, and the books did their job.
On to Milbank’s muddled argument. He argues, correctly, that faith in reality, science, and materialism is characteristic of New Atheism. But, he argues, Left-wing “New Atheists” have transmogrified into full Wokies, having given up science for the “feelies”. Have a look to see how he conflates “New Atheism” with “The Left”, though most Leftists wouldn’t call themselves New Atheists:
The great battles, we were told, were between moderate, rational liberals who just wanted to agree on objectively observable facts — we knew how old the earth was, and it wasn’t created 8000 years ago; we knew the climate was changing, and that humans were causing it. It was wild-eyed religious conservatives who put ideology before observable reality. But insisting too hard on the importance of genetics today gets you drummed out of academic institutions by the left, not the right.
Not that the left has wholly given up on the imprimatur of scientific authority — you will find scientific expertise wielded on behalf of the climate or trans rights or drug policy on a regular basis. But there has been a clear rhetorical and conceptual shift. Where once the left stood for cool-headed rationalism, taking the emotion out of how we punish criminals or police drugs, and asking “what works?”, it now embraces an ideology of “care”. Peer-reviewed papers are as likely to take on board the “lived experiences of victims” and “indigenous ways of knowing” as they are data-driven approaches. Environmental policy is less “2 minutes to midnight on the Doomsday Clock” than it is “how do I lower my carbon emissions as a vegan who likes holidays to Thailand?”
He’s talking here about the Progressive Left, not those who were (and are) New Atheists. Not only is Milbank a bad thinker, but also a bad writer.
Here he refers to the “old” New Atheists like Hitchens:
Anyone who had the ill fortune to cross swords with this type quickly discovered their curious bushido. The warriors of atheism would deploy strange sophistic arguments, saying for example that there were no atheist beliefs — or for that matter a thing called “New Atheism”. An atheist was “just someone who didn’t believe in God” (despite all being identical stormtrooper-like clones). Above all, they would never, ever, ever stop arguing with you. Having the last word was a way of life, a matter of honour.
Sorry, but it’s the religionists who wouldn’t stop arguing. After all, for the one book on atheism by Dawkins, The God Delusion, there were about a dozen responses by believers—responses Richard calls “fleas”. And what is this with “stormtrooper-like clones”? That’s just a slur, and a hyperbolic one.
It’s clear that Milbank mainly dislikes the New Atheists because they were hard on religion, though he won’t admit it. He’s particularly nasty towards those who criticize the oppressive tenets of Islam (I guess he never heard of New Atheist Ayaan Hirsi Ali). Here’s he’s talking about the dissolution of New Atheism:
But there were always tensions. Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens in particular were both strongly associated with hostility towards Islam — a feature of right wing politics. Dawkins was more of an equal opportunity offender, but his rhetoric against Islam was scarcely less ferocious. The very male and rational world of New Atheism was never a fully natural fit for the rising influence of sociological disciplines steeped in subjective emotion, postmodern philosophy and a strong sympathy with (often highly religious) ethnic minority groups.
This, he says, explains why New Atheists on the Left became woke. And yes, some New Atheists became woke, but not any of the famous ones I read (have you read the three remaining Horsemen lately?), but I’m not aware that this hypothetical change made them believers. How many of them re-embraced God after they got woke?
So, after mistakenly saying that New Atheism split between Leftists and Rightists, with both fractions abandoning what characterized the genre (yes, people got less vociferous, but that was simply because everything had been said), Milbank calls out the Atheists on the Right, too:
Much of what New Atheism embodied has now migrated rightwards. The young rationalist male of today is watching Jordan Peterson videos and listening to the Joe Rogan podcast. Dawkins himself is now an “anti-woke” figure. The people that are most furiously applying evolutionary psychology to human relations today are incels — with concepts like “hypergamy”, “assortative mating”, “alpha” and “beta males” popularised online by lonely young men looking for explanations as to why they can’t get a date.
As a movement, New Atheism has fractured and lost its original spirit. Its afterlife on the right sees it allied with pseudo-mystical Jungianism, veneration of the nationalist mythos, outright neopaganism and strategic alliances with religious conservatives. Another portion has moved leftwards, embodied by the “I Fucking Love Science” woke nerd of today. Where once nerd culture was marginal, it is now the dominant commercial force, and it is forcefully allied not with rationalism, but progressivism.
Incels? What does that have to do with New Atheism?
This is bogus. I’m a rationalist male, as are many readers of this site, and from what I read I don’t see much love for Joe Rogan or Jordan Peterson (Peterson, by the way, happens to be religious). As far as I can see, the New Atheists of yore haven’t moved rightward, but stayed where they were politically, but reacted (rationally) to the irrational rise of Wokeness on the left and the rise of the insanity of the more extreme Right. To characterize New Atheists (who, after all, are still with us) as advocates of Jung and Jordan Peterson is, as the Germans say, “Wahnsinn.”
I want to give on more quote from Milbank just to show what a bad writer he is, piling one slur atop another. Here he’s saying what happened to Left-wing New Atheists, of which I’m one:
The nerd of yesteryear railed against the hysterical right blaming D&D for satanic ritual murder (yes, really) and accusing violent video games of inspiring school shootings. Now however, the Rick and Morty-watching, comic book convention-attending, board game-playing geek is an enthusiastic supporter of LGBTQ+ rights, and bearded, pot-bellied podcasters take breaks from reviewing the latest superhero franchise to pontificate about police violence and women’s representation. His heroes are not Dawkins (though there’s lingering affection and shared canon there), but Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson. He’s not religious, but he’s a gentler sort of atheist, one who can spare a tear for the plight of Palestine and cheerfully celebrate his friend’s tasteful same-sex ceremony in a suitably enlightened Evangelical church. Science, this sort of character can assure you, is firmly on the side of every progressive cause and opinion.
He’s talking about Wokeism here, and conflating it with New Atheism. Is there any reason to believe that New Atheists are more prone to become Wokies than are gentler “old-style” atheists, or than believers? Moreover, the atheists I know do NOT use “science” as a reason to buttress progressivism. Rather, they (and I) see positive changes in morality as a result of philosophical and moral thought. “Is” does not tell us “ought”, and although science can be used to buttress moral stands, it does not tell us, for instance, that same-sex marriages are absolutely fine. Moral considerations do that.
At the end of his piece, Milbank goes completely off the rails and argues that all the New Atheists have now become solipsistic, selfish materialists. And he adds another sympathetic comment about religion. Get a load of this!:
New Atheism is dead, but the materialism that underwrote it lives on more powerfully and subtly than ever. The curious sort of pugnacious integrity has gone, replaced with a far more pragmatic and amorphous spirit appropriate to the age of liquid modernity. The New Atheists were perversely very concerned with questions of metaphysics and epistemology, whereas a newer generation of materialists of both left and right are concerned only with power, not capital “T” Truth. In many respects the neoconservative and New Atheist moment of the 2000s was, however perversely, the last gasp of idealistic, traditionally religious politics that prioritised truth over power, and imagined that society was united by a shared rationality and sense of the common good. But they also served to destroy the civilisation of which they were the final embodiment — and have left only sophistry and cynicism as their legacy.
That paragraph is a mess, and not even wrong. For here Milbank he conflates two forms of “materialism”: one being a form of greed and desire for money and “things”, the other being “materialism” as naturalism: the view that all things must obey the laws of physics, and that there is no divine intercession. The claim about new atheists being concerned with power and not truth is pretty much a lie.
Here’s a diagram Milbank gives (click to enlarge), supposedly showing how New Atheists have changed their views about science from a method to ascertain truth to a method to confirm what you already believe:
A lot of New Atheists were scientists or science lovers (see this list), and I don’t know any who have moved from the left to the right diagram.
In the end, Milbank’s article is a bunch of slurs against New Atheists, who don’t deserve (or warrant) this kind of attack. But we needn’t take it seriously because he can neither think nor write.
I think “New Atheism” is a bit of a cyclical phenomenon. The arguments against gods are made, and people either accept them or reject them. Given the movement of the West towards secularism, we have more of the former than the latter, and society becomes more secular.
From time to time, after people haven’t been exposed to the arguments for disbelief for a generation or more, they need reminding, and we’ll get a resurgence of atheism. And the ratchet will click once more towards secularism.
People like Milbank or the writers at Salon love to proclaim that New Atheism is dead, but it still refuses to lay down. The only thing missing are the best-selling “New Atheist” books, which were a passing episode that won’t be repeated for a while. In fact, maybe, when the U.S. becomes as secular as Northern Europe, they need not be repeated—at least in the West. Those who still need New Atheist books and arguments are the hyperreligious and largely Muslim countries of the Middle and Far East.
One problem with Bari Weiss and some of her acolytes is that they’re religious. I don’t hold that too strongly against them, but a journalist believing in religious dictates is a journalist who doesn’t care about evidence. It’s a journalist who falls prey to the bane of journalism—confirmation bias.
But a secular case for Christianity? Why not a secular case for Judaism, Islam, or Hinduism? It turns out that you could make a similar argument for all religions, but it’s an argument that involves gutting Christianity of everything that characterizes it: in particular, the belief that Jesus came to earth as God/The Son of God, was crucified and resurrected, and this story, taken as true, affords all who believe it the chance for eternal life. Author Tim DeRoche, instead, makes the “little people” argument for Christianity: he avers that even if the story isn’t true, the myth is good for the well being of yourself and society.
Click to read (if you subscribe; it may be paywalled otherwise):
DeRoche is described on the site this way:
Tim DeRoche is the bestselling author of Huck & Miguel, a modern-day retelling of Huck Finn set on the LA River. He is also the author of A Fine Line: How Most American Kids Are Kept Out of the Best Public Schools. His third book publishes in 2022.
I won’t dwell on his piece very long. DeRoche was brought up religious, drifted away from Christianity, and then returned to the faith when he married a “devout Christian”. That got him thinking about the religion and whether he was, indeed a true Christian, especially because that he didn’t fully buy into the Christian myths of crucifixion, resurrection, and salvation. But he was married to a Christian and going to church. What could he do?
He joined online communities that call themselves Christians, but not because they accept the Christian mythology. Rather, they are “Christian” for three reasons:
a.) Christianity helps you find meaning in your life. I won’t deny that this is true for many; it’s just that I prefer to find meaning without relying on stories whose veracity I doubt. And of course there are the downsides of religion, too numerous to mention.
It’s where Paul Vander Klay, the pastor of a dwindling Dutch Reform congregation in Sacramento, amassed over 20,000 YouTube subscribers by doing hours and hours of commentary on the biblical lectures of nonbeliever Jordan Peterson—much to the chagrin of some leaders of his denomination.
It’s where the Catholic Bishop Robert Barron engages with the cognitive scientist John Vervaeke on the failure of our institutions—including our Catholic ones—to help people find meaning in their lives.
Lots of folks in the Meaning Crisis community do not believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead on this day, Easter Sunday. But everyone is willing to listen across the chasm of faith and try to understand the root causes of our current discontent: the political rancor, the economic insecurity, the lack of trust in institutions, the mental health crisis, the collapse of the birth rate.
But the root causes of our current discontent are secular ones. It’s not clear to me how Christianity (or faith itself) can deal with those “root causes”, much less the discontent they produce. It might make you forget them, or, as Marx posited, help the desperate and downtrodden find solace in the presence of a heavenly father and the promise of better life to come (“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions”). But if, like DeRoche, you don’t believe in that stuff—in heaven or maybe not even in God—what solace do you get?
b.) Christianity helps you live a better life.
Just as any serious Christian thinker must contend with the dark history of Christians persecuting others in the name of their faith, every serious secular thinker has to contend with the fact that these stories—from the Hebrew Bible on through the New Testament—seem to contain a tremendous store of wisdom about how to live a good life and build a healthy society.
Two responses: The Bible also contains a lot of stuff that would worsen life: like the need to leave one’s family to follow Christ, or about how not to strike your slaves the wrong way, or about how women should not speak. To pick and choose the “wisdom” you use to lead a better life requires a winnowing process that, as we all know, presupposes a non-Biblical and secular point of view.
Second: secular humanism contains a lot more wisdom about how to life a good life and build a healthy society. If you want to do those things, don’t read the Bible, read the great secular ethical philosophers of the past and present, whose views are based not on superstition but cogitation and reason.
I needn’t point out the divisiveness of Christianity or of other religions, for DeRoche does that above. The question is whether the world would be better off now had religions never existed. I can’t prove that it would be—though that’s what I think—but neither can DeRoche prove that it wouldn’t be.
c.) Christianity’s rise is correlated with moral improvement in the world.
And most everyone, Christian and secular, is willing to contend with realities that our modern culture has chosen to ignore. Namely, that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is the most successful meme in the history of the world. And the spread of that meme over the last 2,000 years has largely been correlated with decreasing levels of slavery, war, crime, poverty, and general suffering.
Of course, the spread of the “Islamic meme” over the last 1500 years has also been correlated with moral improvement, though most of that moral improvement, as Steve Pinker documents, has actually taken place in the last couple centuries.
But do I really have to inform DeRoche that correlation is not causation, and a lot of things have happened in the last several millennia? The rise of rationality, science, transportation, commerce, democracy, and communication have also been correlated with moral improvement, an indeed, those features might indicate a genuine causal relationship. This is the case that Steve Pinker makes in his two books The Better Angels of our Nature and Enlightenment Now. (For a short read on his case for reason and secularism as pivotal in morality’s advance, go here or here.) Pinker makes the opposite case from DeRoche, and Steve actually has data and arguments, not just correlations.
I won’t go on, but I will say that I’d love to hear Pinker debate DeRoche on the subject: “Resolved: Christianity is the main cause of moral improvement in humanity.”
“The question is not how can you be moral if you don’t believe in God, but how can you be moral if you believe in God.” (Phil Zuckerman, below).
The most common criticism religionists make of atheists is embodied in the first part of the quote above, a quote from Phil Zuckerman in a speech he gave at the recent Freedom From Religion Foundation meeting. The notion that atheism destroys morality has been dismantled several times, most recently in an exchange between Diane Morgan and Ricky Gervais in the terrific show “After Life.” I’ll let you listen for yourself: it’s in Season 3. And here Zuckerman does it not philosophically, but with data (or rather, assertions about data we don’t see).
As you may know, Zuckerman is a professor of secular studies at Pitzer College in California, and was the first person to become a full-time professor in that area. Here’s a list of his books, of which I’ve read just one: the 2008 one, which shows how well two atheist countries, Sweden and Denmark, function without religion. (You can now add Iceland to that list.) It was that book that convinced me that there is no innate need for societies to be religious to function well. As Zuckerman remarks in his talk, and argues at length in Society without God. Scandinavia has some of the most “moral” countries on earth, yet they’re a pack of atheists. Moreover, Scandinavians have nothing I can see to “replace” religion: no “secular churches” or any of that nonsense. Yet religionists ignore this.
Zuckerman’s talk apparently relies heavily on his 2019 book below, but he mentions that he has a new book coming out, which surely has the data he mentions below.
His books (he’s been a busy atheist!)
Zuckerman, Phil (2019). What It Means to Be Moral: Why Religion Is Not Necessary for Living an Ethical Life. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press. ISBN978-1640092747.
Zuckerman, Phil (2016). The Nonreligious: Understanding Secular People and Societies. London: Oxford University Press. ISBN9780199924943.
Zuckerman, Phil (2014). Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions. London: Penguin Press. ISBN9781594205088.
Zuckerman, Phil (2011). Faith no more : why people reject religion. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN9780199740017.
Zuckerman, Phil (2010). Atheism and secularity. Santa Barbara, California: Praeger. ISBN9780313351815.
Zuckerman, Phil (2008). Society without God : what the least religious nations can tell us about contentment. New York: New York University Press. ISBN9780814797143.
At any rate, in this talk Zuckerman makes the case that atheists, agnostics, and secular humanists have a set of values that leads to a better “morality” than that espoused by believers. He adduces data from a variety of areas—vaccination, acceptance of science, wearing masks, recognizing the existence and importance of global warming, acceptance of LGBTQ rights, animal rights, reproductive rights, and reparations for slavery—showing that nonbelievers seem to group on the “more moral” side. And even religionists who accept these values tend to have, as reader Sastra noted yesterday, a more “secularized” view of religion. It’s the Euthyphro argument of Plato: we can only get goodness from God if we assume God is, a priori, moral, and that view must come from non-religious values. Saying that morality comes from God devolves to the odious “Divine Command” argument espouse by people like William Lane Craig.
Zuckerman then asks why nonbelievers are more moral than religionists, and his response is that we’re motivated by empathy and compassion when constructing our morality, rather than by trying to obey the “will of God.” Well, perhaps, but if you derive God’s nature from secular considerations, as noted above, then there’s not much difference. But where there is a difference is that religion considers as part of morality notions like how to have sex, what to eat, what to wear, and so on—issues that really aren’t what most people consider within the ambit of morality.
Zuckerman also notes that religious folks are more tribalistic than nonbelievers, and tribalism breeds xenophobia and hence immorality.
In the end, I’m a big fan of Zuckerman, and the data may well show that the moral values of nonbelievers are sounder than those of nonbelievers. But the real question, which is very hard to answer, is this: “On the whole, is the average per capita amount of net good done by atheists better than the amount done by believers.” I believe the answer is “yes,” but I’d be hard pressed to prove it. Hitchens answered it with anecdotal data, citing people like Mother Theresa who pretended to be moral but didn’t really help people. But we need more systematic data. Perhaps Zuckerman provides these data in his new book.
After all, as Karl Marx said, “The philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”
Well, I’ll be: of all the characters whom I’m compared to, the young-earth creationist Ken Ham is the one I find the most unlikely. But Joel Edmund Anderson, who presents himself as a Sophisticated Theologian®, sees profound similarities between Ham and me. Well, yes, we both have two arms, two legs, and presumably a Y chromosome. Yet Anderson sees another similarity—and there is one, though Anderson characterizes it wrongly. First, a bit about Anderson from his Linked In site.
Although I current am a high school teacher, I hope to eventually teach Biblical Studies at the college level. In addition to my masters degree from Regent College, I also have an MA in Old Testament from Trinity Western University, as well as a PhD in Old Testament from the University of Pretoria. I would also like to get more articles and books published.
According to Anderson’s blog, Resurrecting Orthodoxy, Ham and I are in fact like “two peas in a pod.” Click on the screenshot to see the 2018 post that someone called to my attention. But the arguments that Anderson makes are still around in 2021; I’ll talk about a more recent version of this argument against the “war between science and religion” next week. The narrative that there’s no incompatibility between science and religion, and that they’re not in opposition to one another, continues. In Faith Versus Fact I describe what I mean by “the war between science and religion”, and apparently Anderson either didn’t read that book, did read it and didn’t understand it, or read it and understood it but deliberately mischaracterizes my views.
. . . . for the purposes of this post, I am going to focus on a recent article Coyne wrote, entitled, “Yes, There is a War Between Science and Religion.” It came to my attention because Ken Ham tweeted about it three different times the other day. Ham’s tweets were as follows:
“Jerry Coyne (emeritus professor) is an atheist, & so such an article as this is totally expected from one who is against God & totally committed to his religion of atheism. Interestingly he sees Christians who compromise as inconsistent–which they are”
“There’s no war between observational science & creation, such science confirms Genesis account. But there’s a spiritual war between Christianity & blind faith religion of atheism & the belief in evolution which is contradicted by observational science”
“This scientist arbitrarily defines religion as involving the supernatural, declares atheism is not religion, arbitrarily declares evolution science & fact, so he can then falsely declare creation is at war with science! It’s how secularists work”
So Anderson’s point is that Ham and I are alike because we see a war between science and religion. In Ham’s case, the war is between evolution and creationism, and he sees creationism as “science” because it’s “observational science”, and views evolution as a religion, because it’s based on faith and the “religion” of atheism. In other words, Ham sees a war between the Bible and atheistic modern science.
My own view, which I’ll summarize in one sentence (read Faith Versus Fact if you want the whole megillah) is this: science and religion both claim that they involve “ways of knowing about the universe”, but while the methods of science really do enable us to understand the universe, the “ways of knowing” of religion (faith, authority, scripture, revelation, etc.) are not reliable guides to truth. If they were, all religions would converge on the same truth claims, which is palpably untrue.
Note that I do not claim that religion is the same thing as science, for it includes things like morality and worship and divinity. The Bible is not a “textbook of science.” But all religions do make firm claims about what’s true, and these truth claims, insofar as they’re not based on actual evidence, contravene the methods of science. That’s why science converges on what we think is real (and use to make correct predictions), while religions haven’t converged one iota. (Compare the truth claims of Hinduism, Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, Scientology, cargo cults, and so on.) Nor do I claim that religion has always been opposed to science, is always in conflict with science, that religionists can’t accept modern science, or all all scientists are or must be atheists.
End of my views. Now here’s what Anderson has to say:
Like Coyne, Ken Ham also sees the creation/evolution debate as being a war. Ham doesn’t see it as a war between science and religion, though. Ham simply throws in his made-up distinction between “observational science” and “historical science,” claims “observational science” confirms the creation account in Genesis, and then equates the scientific theory of evolution with “blind faith religion of atheism,” and claims the “war” isn’t between science and religion, but rather atheism and Christianity. But make no mistake, both Ham and Coyne agree: evolution is atheism, and evolutionary science is at war with the Christian faith.
No, evolution is a science, atheism a disbelief based on the absence of evidence. Science is atheistic in practice, for we do not use gods or the concept of miracles in our research. We don’t rule them out a priori—we’ve just found that dragging gods into science doesn’t help us understand anything. Evolutionary science is at war only with those Christians who deny evolution (or other scientific findings) and accept either an ex nihilo creation or the intervention of God in evolution.
Now, sadly, it is true that many people have abandoned their faith because they think evolution has disproven the Bible. In that respect, both Coyne and Ham are correct. But let’s be clear, the reason why evolution has led to a loss of faith of many people is that people like Coyne and Ham are mischaracterizing what science is and what the Christian faith is. Ham is actually correct in one of his tweets: Coyne essentially is hijacking the scientific theory of evolution and smuggling in his atheism into—later in his article, he claims, “science is practiced as an atheistic discipline.” Yes, it is “atheistic” in the sense that is simply studies natural processes, but to call it an “atheistic discipline” as Coyne does is to falselyequate the scientific theory of evolution with the philosophical worldview of atheism.
To the point, when atheists like Coyne and YECists like Ham are telling people that if you accept evolution then you must reject belief in God and accept atheism, then a whole lot of them are going to reject their faith because they are being told they have to.
I wish! Yes, I’ve met people who abandoned their faith because they were literalist Christians, and when they saw the evidence that the Genesis stories weren’t true, the whole edifice of their faith toppled. But I don’t tell people what to do. I either teach them evolution and let the results fall where they may, or I explain to them why I, Jerry Coyne, see science and religion as incompatible. People can ponder my arguments and make their own decisions. I don’t believe I’ve ever told anyone that they have to reject their faith if they accept evolution.
Just a bit more. Anderson touts himself as having a “correct” understanding of religion versus the “cartoonish” versions held by Ken Ham (and about 40% of Americans with him!) When I say that evolution is incompatible with creationism, I mean just that: it’s incompatible with a literal reading of the Bible. Anderson, however, being a Sophisticated Theologian®, somehow knows that much of (but not all of) the Bible was written as metaphor. Clearly Augustine, Aquinas, and many other church fathers didn’t understand Scripture properly either, for they always defended literalism—sometimes with a metaphorical veneer. Anderson:
And both Coyne and Ham lump the creation account in Genesis 1 in as being the same kind of writing as found in the Gospels. They see no difference between the genre of Genesis 1 and the genre of the Gospels. This failure of basic reading competency views anyone who acknowledges the difference in genre as trying to pull a fast one. Call it accomodationism [sic] or compromise, both Coyne and Ham think you are deceptive and dishonest if you simply acknowledge that the Bible is not written in one monolithic genre. Both men might think that failure to read Genesis 1 a literal history automatically means you have to reject the account of Jesus’ resurrection, but competent readers of Scripture know better.
In other words, Anderson knows that Genesis was metaphorical, but the Resurrection really happened. But we have no more evidence for the latter than for the former: they’re both assertions in a book that’s almost wholly fictional. Anderson is a Picker and Chooser, presumably anointed by God to know that sometimes God was speaking metaphorically, and at other times literally; and Anderson can tell us which is which. Piffle!
I could go on for hours, but we have celebrating to do, albeit many are celebrating the birth of a fictional being. I want to proffer one more bit of Anderson and let you have the laughs:
(5) Coyne(like Ham) misinterprets Hebrews 11:1 (“the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”) as referring to believing things about the origins of the natural world without evidence.
Both men are horrible biblical exegetes, as seen in their understanding of Hebrews 11:1. Both view it as defining faith as nothing more than blind belief about the past creation of the natural world. On AiG’s website, one can find an article entitled “Blind Faith” that says this: “So faith, as commended in God’s Word, is being sure about something that wasn’t witnessed firsthand (including creation), or that cannot be seen now, or that is yet to be revealed. By this definition, all faith is blind! If we can see something, then faith is no longer operative.”
Well, not quite. To the point, the “substance (or assurance) of things hoped for” and “the evidence (or conviction) of things not seen” has nothing to do with looking back and believing things about the creation of the material universe. Rather, the faith of Hebrews 11:1 is forward-looking to the fulfillment of the saving work of Christ and the new creation. Faith is being certain that what had begun in Christ and the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit will be completed in the New Heaven and New Earth. The faith that Hebrews 11:1 is talking about is the faith that sees the evidence of the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit in part, and that looks forward to the fulfillment of Christ’s work in the future. It is being certain of the outcome because we have been given, and now witness, a foretaste of that future reality. Contrary to what AiG (and Coyne) belief, the Christian faith is not blind, and Hebrews 11:1 isn’t about “blindly believing” that Genesis 1 is telling us exactly how God actually created the world.
Yes, Hebrews 11:3 says, “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible”—but it is not a scientific statement. It is saying something fairly simple: God created the universe and there is more to reality than just the material world.
No unevidenced claims in those paragraphs!
Ummm. . . .if you look at Hebrews 11, it’s not something forward looking, and it says almost nothing about Jesus, even though it’s in the New Testament. In fact, most of it tells people how faith was used in the Old Testament. What Anderson is doing here is exegesis: interpreting the Bible, and in a way that suits his beliefs. I would assert that the definition of faith in Hebrews 11:1 is accurate.
I’ll pass over Anderson’s claim that “Coyne says that religion is science”, as it’s a lie. I say that religion makes truth claims, but they aren’t asserted after using the methods of science.
End of story: I’m off to rest and have some bubbly. Happy holidays, and send in your cats!
Here’s Hebrews 11:1-8 (King James Version) being backward looking; you can read the rest of the chapter here.
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
2 For by it the elders obtained a good report.
3 Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.
4 By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts: and by it he being dead yet speaketh.
5 By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death; and was not found, because God had translated him: for before his translation he had this testimony, that he pleased God.
6 But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.
7 By faith Noah, being warned of God of things not seen as yet, moved with fear, prepared an ark to the saving of his house; by the which he condemned the world, and became heir of the righteousness which is by faith.
8 By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went.
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.