Francesca Stavrakopoulou on her new book about God

January 16, 2022 • 12:45 pm

Reader Edward called my attention to a new video by Dr. Francesca Stavrakopoulou, Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Religion at the University of Exeter with a specialty in the Old Testament (but she knows her Jesus, too). She’s my favorite Biblical scholar because she’s an out-and-out atheist and a strong skeptic, not accepting much of the Old Testament as true. As Wikipedia notes of her:

The main focus of Stavrakopoulou’s research is on the Hebrew bible, and on Israelite and Judahite history and religion.Stavrakopoulou supports the academic consensus that important figures in the Hebrew bible were not historical figures as represented in that text.[ She has further stated that she believes “very little, probably” of the Hebrew bible is historical fact, based on the arguments that ancient writers had an understanding of “fact” and “fiction” very different from a modern understanding, and that the Hebrew bible “wasn’t written to be a factual account of the past”; she concludes, saying she does not believe accounts of Moses and King David in the Hebrew bible to be factual, and that “as an historian of the bible, I think there is very little that is factual”. In her 2021 book, God: An Anatomy, Stavrakopoulou “presents a vividly corporeal image of God: a human-shaped deity who walks and talks and weeps and laughs, who eats, sleeps, feels, and breathes, and who is undeniably male. Here is a portrait–arrived at through the author’s close examination of and research into the Bible–of a god in ancient myths and rituals who was a product of a particular society, at a particular time, made in the image of the people who lived then, shaped by their own circumstances and experience of the world”. This book has been described by John Barton as showing that the non-corporeal God of Judaism and Christianity “was not yet so in the Bible, where God appears in a much more corporeal form”.

I bow deeply to Dr. Stavrakopoulou in Biblical expertise, but I’m wondering how she knows for sure that “the Bible wasn’t written to be a factual account of the past.”  I’ll grant that it is fictional, but then why did Church fathers like Augustine the Hippo, Aquinas, and many others take both the Old and New Testaments literally? Were they unaware why the Bible was written? (Granted, some of these theologians saw both a metaphorical and literal meaning of Scripture, but the literal meaning was always there.)

That aside, Dr. Stav (pardon the shortening, but it’s laborious to write her whole name) is discussing her new book and Biblical worldview in this video with Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of Humanists UK, an organization much less woke than the American Humanist Association. Her book, which comes out in a week in the U.S., is called God: An Anatomy , and got good reviews in the UK.

I could describe the high points, but I think the whole video worth watching, for you’ll see somebody the addressing the Bible as a work of historical fiction. She also has an engaging style of speaking, why is why she often appears on British t.v. and did a 3-part BBC special that you can find, in bits, on YouTube.

She describes the story of Job as as “God screwing over Job for no reason” (true!), and my favorite bit of chat is at 8:40: “Christianity in particular has done a tremendous job of trying to pretend that there a triune God and that God is one and then three at the same time—what a scam!” How refreshing is that? I wonder if her students are flummoxed when they take her classes and learn that they’re being taught by a total nonbeliever.

As similar nonbelievers, it’s our job to know more about religion than believers themselves, for you can always best them by knowing your Scripture. If you haven’t read the Bible—painful as it is—do it. And read Dr. Stav’s book.

She pulls no punches on Twitter, either:

h/t: Edward

The Council of Europe retracts pro-hijab campaign

November 7, 2021 • 9:15 am

I haven’t written about the hijab, burqa, or other forms of Muslim female covering for a while, simply because I’ve written about them so much that I have nothing new to say (for all the posts, go here).  Now, though, the hijab is back in the news.

See here for a one-post summary of what I think, which is that the hijab (and similar garments) are forms of female oppression, are rarely “choices”, but that religious garments that obscure the face should not be banned except in situations when other religious symbols are banned, and in places like banks where one’s face should be visible. Overall, I share the feeling expressed below by Alishba Zaremeen, an ex-Muslim activist and feminist:

And a few more words about the “voluntary” nature of wearing hijabs. Many women, like Masih Alinejad in the video below, were forced to don the head covering at a young age and continue to wear it because of social or family pressure (Masih gave up Islam and her hijab, and is the world’s most active opponent of forced body covering). That is neither “voluntary” nor a “choice.” Of course some women truly do have a choice, and wear the hijab as a form of non-compulsory piety. That’s fine, but I believe that far fewer women who claim it’s their “choice” really had a choice.

To see how much of a “choice it is” in Muslim countries, you can do a kind of experiment: look at what women wore in those countries before the theocracy imposed religious dress codes. In that situation, hijab-wearing would be much more of a choice. But as I reported in two posts, in two such countries—Afghanistan and Iran—most women abjured the hijab until the theocracy came. Indeed,  in 1979 in Iran, when the theocracy began, over 100,000 women protested the hijab en masse; and in 2017-2019 there were smaller mass protests against the headscarf there. Headscarves remain mandatory in Iran, even for visiting foreigners.

Now for the news, reported in this BBC piece (click on screenshot):

What happened is the the Council of Europe, the continent’s leading human rights organization, started a pro-hijab campaign, emphasizing that the headscarf was a sign of freedom and “choice”. As the article notes (their emphasis):

Europe’s top human rights organisation has pulled posters from a campaign that promoted respect for Muslim women who choose to wear headscarves after provoking opposition in France.

The Council of Europe released the images last week for a campaign against anti-Muslim discrimination.

A slogan on one advert read: “Beauty is in diversity as freedom is in hijab”.

Several prominent French politicians condemned the message and argued the hijab did not represent freedom.

But some Muslim women who wear headscarves said the reaction showed a lack of respect for diversity and the right to choose what to wear in France.

France’s youth minister, Sarah El Haïry, said she was shocked by one poster, which showed a split image of one women wearing a hijab, and one not.

In an interview on French TV, the minister suggested the poster had encouraged women to wear headscarves. She said this message jarred with the secular values of France, which had expressed its disapproval of the campaign.

On Wednesday, the Council of Europe told the BBC that tweets related to the campaign had been deleted “while we reflect on a better presentation of this project”.

I too decry Islamophobia and feel that banning hijabs except in the most necessary situations is a violation of religious freedom, but images like the two below from the campaign don’t really convey the whole truth.

For example, there is no “diversity in dress” permitted in countries like Iran, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia. A woman who went out in shorts would be arrested. Even in Muslim families or communities in Europe, the hijab is not always optional.  To use Alishba’s metaphor, images like these are equivalent to a campaign for “express your views by flying your flag” and then advertising it showing people waving Confederate flags.

How boring would the world look if everyone would look the same? Just look at Saudi Arabia or Iran compared to, say, Berlin or Paris.

Here’s another.

In fact, the CoE doesn’t even hold the opinions expressed in the tweeted images:

The campaign was the product of two online workshops held in September and organised in collaboration with Femyso, a forum of Muslim youth organisations across Europe.

The wording of the campaign “reflected individual statements from people who took part in one of the project’s workshops”, the Council of Europe spokesman said.

The spokesman said the messaging did not reflect the position of the Council of Europe or its secretary-general, Marija Pejcinovic Buric.

The president of Femyso, Hande Taner, defended the campaign on Wednesday in an interview with the BBC.

She said “the campaign itself is still on” but added: “As for why the tweet was deleted, I can’t speak on behalf of the Council of Europe.”

Ms Taner said it was “really sad that the efforts of minority youth are being attacked and undermined” by politicians.

The reaction was “another example of how the rights of Muslim women are non-existent to those who claim to represent or protect notions such as liberty, equality and freedom”, she said.

Ms. Taner is partly right and partly wrong. First of all, it is Islam that largely abrogates the rights of Muslim women, who, even in Europe, are considered inferior to men and often relegated to domestic and child-rearing duties. Islamic pressure to wear hijabs is a violation of women’s rights. On the other hand, France does ban face coverings in public except during worship or traveling in a private car. Some could argue that this violates religious freedom. (For a counterargument in favor of the French law banning face coverings, see this article by Christopher Hitchens as well as his video clash with a Muslim woman in Australia.)

The Council of Europe made a misstep with this campaign. Promoting the hijab as a choice is disssimulation partly promoting the denial of women’s rights. There are better ways to combat bigotry against Muslims.

Why is a white Western man writing about the hijab? Because so few Western feminists do. Much of that is deliberate: we are supposed to ignore Muslim misogyny because they are “people of color.”  That has been called “the bigotry of low expectations.”

The going-along with hijab mandates is the topic of Masih Alinejad’s eloquent and passionate speech below:

 

h/t: Stephen

Pastor Warren compares pro-choice views with anti-vaxers ( touts the benefit of religion in helping us making sacrifices for society

September 27, 2021 • 11:30 am

In her weekly New York Times column, Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren makes two arguments. It’s not as bad as her other columns, as there’s actually some material for thought here, but, as usual, she winds up making bad arguments, and then touting the benefits of believing in God. Click to read:

Warren makes two arguments. The first is to point out what seems like hypocrisy when one considers “pro choice” people who don’t oppose abortion with “anti vaccine” people who object to getting shots. In both cases, says Warren, one is being asked to curtail one’s personal freedom (“my body, my choice”) for the benefit of society as a whole—or so she says. The implication is that this is doublethink:

At a protest against vaccine mandates, a hospital worker told New York’s Livingston County newspaper: “If you want it? Great. If you don’t? Great.” She continued: “Choice is where we stand. If you want it, we’re not against it. That’s your choice.” Those I know who have refused to get vaccinated or wear masks have echoed this same idea. They assure me that they aren’t telling anyone else what to do but that this is a matter of personal choice. They are doing what they think is best for themselves and their families.

“My body, my choice,” the rallying cry of the pro-choice movement, has been adopted by those opposing mask and vaccine mandates. People who are pro-choice have voiced outrage that their phrase is being co-opted, which in turn thrills those on the right who are using it.

In Vogue, Molly Jong-Fast said that the phrase, when used by conservatives who oppose vaccine mandates, shows that “for Republicans, it’s a case of government regulation for thee but not for me.” Of course, critics would accuse her of the same hypocrisy for being pro-choice but also favoring vaccine mandates.

What’s useful here is the inspiration to think about her premise: how far must we curtail our freedoms to help society What’s not useful—and she does say that “the complexities of abortion and Covid prevention are different”—is that the situations are not at all comparable in the nature of the “freedoms” curtailed. Unmasked and unvaccnated, you might be endangering strangers you come in contact with, and the masking will last only the duration of the pandemic. Shots are even less onerous, and protect more people than do masks.

Pregnant, you do not endanger society as a whole—unless, and this may be true of Warren—one thinks an abortion is committing murder. Further, you are bringing an unwanted child into the world who will require years of care, as reader Mike pointed out yesterday.

I’m pretty much in favor of unrestricted abortions, as I don’t see it as the equivalent of murder. Further, I also favor the termination of the lives of already-born infants who have invariably fatal conditions like anencephaly and will suffer horribly until the inevitable end. (Peter Singer has been demonized for holding this view.)

But you can think on your own about whether there is any “hypocrisy” in favoring vaccine mandates and also being pro-choice. It is food for thought.

The other argument is that only Christianity (she singles it out, but would probably add “religion in general”) gives us a moral basis for making self-sacrifice for the good of society.

Christian ethics call people to ideas of freedom that are not primarily understood as the absence of restraint, but instead as the ability to live well, justly and righteously. In Galatians, after an extended meditation on liberation, Paul says: “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Freedom, for him, had a purpose and end, a “telos.” We are freed not to do whatever we feel is best for us individually, but instead to love our neighbors.

. . . .Over the past year as we’ve asked people to go into lockdown, cancel their travel plans or family gatherings, close or curtail their retail businesses, wear masks and get vaccinated, we are asking them to assume some level of financial and personal risk for the greater good — for strangers, for the elderly, for the immunocompromised, for the medical community. We can and should enact legislation like paid family leave, no-cost health care and other measures to support mothers, just as we support economic relief for those affected by Covid prevention. But we cannot deny that even if we seek to lessen the load, we are asking people to bear a burden.

How do you call a society committed to personal freedom and happiness to bear the burdens of others? Most of us intuitively grasp that there’s more to life than living for oneself and one’s own happiness or comfort. But we lack a positive vision for the purpose of individual liberty.

Thomas Aquinas, a medieval Catholic theologian, gave us the gorgeous and helpful phrase “arduous good.”

. . . . Consumer capitalism is not going to teach us about how to pursue arduous goods, nor is technological progress, nor is either American political party. Theoretically, religious communities are places that train us toward ends other than individual autonomy. They point us to something bigger and higher than ourselves, calling us to love God and our neighbors. However, this is unfortunately not always the case. Many religious communities have lost their ability to articulate an alternative to the sovereignty of personal choice and individual autonomy.

. . . But as a culture, we desperately need religious communities that do not parrot the predictable ethical arguments of the right or the left. We need a rooted and robust call to love our neighbors, our families and the marginalized, the needy, the weak and the afflicted among us.

But the arguments she makes apply to secular humanism even more than to Christianity. After all, it is conservative Christians who “parrot the predictable ethical arguments of the Right” against abortion because it’s seen as murder, usually because the fetus is ensouled.  Secular humanists have a diversity of views on abortion, and often considered ones. They don’t need the buttressing of ancient scripture and authority to arrive at a position.

As for “a rooted and robust call to love our neighbors, our families, and the marginalized, the needy, the weak, and the afflicted among us,” what about that comes from religion? Was it Christianity that gave us income taxes, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and the other institutionalized forms of our sacrifices for those needier than we?  And wasn’t it Jesus who said this (Luke 14:25-27)?:

25 Many people were traveling with Jesus. He said to them, 26 “If you come to me but will not leave your family, you cannot be my follower. You must love me more than your father, mother, wife, children, brothers, and sisters—even more than your own life! 27 Whoever will not carry the cross that is given to them when they follow me cannot be my follower.

But let me admit that yes, studies have shown that Christians give more to charity than do nonbelievers. What I don’t know is whether how much of Christian charity goes to tithes or Christian organizations.  And countering that, let me say once again that the countries of Northern Europe, particularly in Scandinavia, are largely atheistic societies whose members give much more per capita to help their societies than do Americans. That’s one reason taxes are so high, and why state does what private organizations must take over in America.

No, what we don’t need is more love of God to spur us on to be more socially conscious. We need governments like those of Denmark and Sweden.

I wonder how longer the NYT will allow Warren to continue spoon-feeding us pabulum. At least she has a bit of a point in this week’s column. But surely there are pastors or theologians out there who can give us more food for thought, even if they’re victims of the God Delusion.

An Anglican priest pushes more religious palaver at the NYT

September 12, 2021 • 10:45 am

I’m sure Tish Harrison Warren, an Anglican priest, is a very nice person, but she’s put herself in the line of fire when the New York Times hired her to osculate the rump of religion once a week in their opinion section. I’ve beefed about this osculation before, and it’s continued this week with her anodyne column on the pandemic, which ends with an outright lie (or delusion; take your pick). The thing about these nice, liberal clergy who publish in mainstream media is that you’re so taken in by their niceness—though I find her boring and predictable—that they manage to slip in some outrageous stuff about religion before you know it.

Well, Jesus wept, and you might too if you read her piece. But you can read it only if you’re a NYT subscriber, so there is no link. (If you want to subscribe, go here.) I receive each column in an email because I’m a masochist.

Here is her thesis:

a. The pandemic should be over now. But it isn’t and Pastor Harrison and her family, like many, have “had it.” She’s fatigued. She doesn’t like the emotional roller coaster of the last 18 months, which reminds her of the emotional roller coast that the captive Israelites had in Egypt, who were freed (yay!) and then had to wander in the desert for decades (boo!). No matter that that entire story is pure fiction.

b. We may not know how the pandemic will end, but we should simply trust in God, for all will be well. Why? Because the Bible tells us so. Jesus is coming back!

After her boilerplate kvetching about how she and her family have suffered during the pandemic, and yet the uncertainty is still not over, she looks heavenward and finds solace. This is her ending:

. . . . But each of our lives is locked in the present tense. We can’t skip ahead in our own stories.

It has become a cliché, a bumper-sticker pat answer, to say “Let go and let God.” But why should we? What evidence is there that trusting God is such a great idea?

Again and again, the church has answered: because we have been given the gift of knowing how the story ends.

Christians see Moses as prefiguring Christ. Jesus, like Moses, delivered his people. Through his resurrection, we were rescued from the oppression of sin and power of death. The end of the story is that Jesus makes, as the Book of Revelation says, “all things new.” The church proclaims that in the resurrection, we have glimpsed the Promised Land. We have seen that God has defeated death. We cannot know the path ahead for any of our individual lives, but we can read the big story of redemption back into our particular life and our particular moment.

In this new phase of the pandemic, we sit poised between celebration and continued suffering. We aren’t sure how to feel. We aren’t sure when — or if — things will go back to normal.

So what must we do? We grieve. We admit we are worn out. We do what we can to help (which for most of us is simply to continue to wear masks and get vaccinated). And we take up the practices of patience and perseverance amid uncertainty. Perseverance isn’t simply a “grin and bear it” stoicism, much less a call to deny our frustration, disappointment or anxiety about what lies ahead.

Instead the Book of James presents perseverance as an artist, with our own souls as its medium. Perseverance, James writes, must “finish its work in us” that we might become “mature and complete.” It forms and shapes a kind of wholeness in us that comes as a gift: We don’t know what the next hour brings, but God can be trusted because we’ve glimpsed the end of the story. So now, in the present tense, with all its grief and frustrations, we can bear whatever comes to us, even if it lasts longer than we’d hoped.

This is the kind of thing you read in an evangelical tract, not in the New York Times!

And what makes Pastor Warren think that her church has the right answer, or that any church has the right answer? Many faiths don’t promise us that the divine being will “defeat death”: give us eternal life.  No, we do not know how the story ends, except in a heat death of the Earth five billion years from now. The Bible is a work of human confection, Jesus was not the Son of God, and he ain’t coming back. There is no Promised land of Heaven.

Yes, I’m an antitheist, because, really, look at the pabulum that Warren is dishing into our bowls: “God can be trusted because we’ve glimpsed the end of the story.” First of all, that’s not even logical. Yes, God has told us that in the end everything will be fine when Jesus (aka God) returns. But that doesn’t mean we can trust him for everything else! Remember, Jesus (who is God in human form) promised before he died that he’d return before some of those who watched the Crucifixion passed away. In other words, he said, “Hey, folks, I’ll be back within 80 years”. That was a lie! God lied!

And, after all, didn’t God allow the virus to ravage all of humanity, killing 4.6 million people already? And believe me, they weren’t all sinners. How is that supposed to engender trust?

All Warren is saying here—in fancy words and in the pages of the Paper of Record—is that we can lean on the promise of Jesus in hard times to make things right.  I think Marx had a quotation about that, with the famous part (usually taken out of context) put in bold by moi:

The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

I remain baffled why the NYT purveys delusions like Warren’s to their readers.

***********

UPDATE: I found this on FB, and you can verify the quote here.

Correction: Harvard’s “Chief Chaplain” may be an exaggerated title

August 29, 2021 • 8:45 am

I’m not writing this to diss atheist Greg Epstein, Harvard’s newly elected “chief chaplain” whom I wrote about a few days ago. By all accounts he’s a terrific guy who does a great job. But I have to issue a correction, as a reader who works at Harvard has characterized the New York Times article on Epstein (and hence my post, which drew from that article) as “misleading.” Apparently Harvard does have its own chaplain, who is religious (the NYT didn’t mention that), and Epstein was elected as a leader of the group of unpaid chaplains who deal with people from forty-odd faiths.

Here’s what the reader said, by way of correction:

The NYT article on Greg Epstein is somewhat misleading. It is true that Epstein is a widely admired chaplain within Harvard’s system, but he is not really the “chief chaplain.” Harvard has a two-tier structure of campus ministry. The university directly pays the staff of its Memorial Church, which is led by the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey minister in the Memorial Church, Matthew Ichihashi Potts. Potts is an Episcopalian priest; his predecessors Jonathan Walton and Peter Gomes were both Baptist ministers. None are/were atheists! Potts is in effect the university chaplain, responsible for the pastoral care of the whole university community and for various ceremonial functions. At the same time, Harvard provides office space but not salaries to about thirty tradition-specific chaplains who are supported in various ways by their respective traditions. Epstein is the humanist chaplain within this structure, and he is also the elected chair of the group—which, as the article explains, gives him the authority to represent the group to the university’s leadership.

Harvard’s head chaplain is now an atheist

August 26, 2021 • 1:15 pm

Well, I’ll be! There are over 40 university chaplains at Harvard and, according to this new article in the New York Times, they elected as their chief . . . an atheist! Click to read the news, which actually doesn’t surprise me:

Harvard has had a humanist chaplain for a long time, but several of the earlier ones were rather unctuous accommodationists. Nevertheless, the idea that there would be a chaplain who could serve the needs of the “nones”—people who don’t have a formal religion but could either be spiritual or believe in some divinity—is heartening. It’s not as good as an atheist chaplain, mind you, but it’s better than nothing. And, in fact, the new boss, Greg Epstein, raised Jewish, is an atheist, and has written a book about humanist morality: Good Without GodHere’s the Amazon blurb, which is a little too accommodationist for me, but I’m an antitheist and there is no chance that an antitheist could be a humanist chaplain at Harvard. After all, Epstein, who has a reputation as a good guy, has to deal with the problems of atheists and theists.

A provocative and positive response to Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and other New Atheists, Good Without God makes a bold claim for what nonbelievers do share and believe. Author Greg Epstein, the Humanist chaplain at Harvard, offers a world view for nonbelievers that dispenses with the hostility and intolerance of religion prevalent in national bestsellers like God is Not Great and The God Delusion. Epstein’s Good Without God provides a constructive, challenging response to these manifestos by getting to the heart of Humanism and its positive belief in tolerance, community, morality, and good without having to rely on the guidance of a higher being.

So be it. You really don’t want a Richard Dawkins trying to give psychological or spiritual aid to someone who has a penchant for the numinous. And electing someone who could minister to nearly everybody, including nones and atheists, is a savvy move for Harvard’s chaplains, who elected Epstein unanimously. By doing this, no defined religion has privilege over the rest, with all faiths are on the same plane. The hope, probably misguided, is also that Epstein can bring different faiths together. (Remember, they’re still “faiths”!) His election is also a recognition of the rise of the nones, who now make up over 20% of Americans, surely more than the percentage of students adhering to most of the 40+ “real” religions with Harvard chaplains. Further, as the article notes, a survey of Harvard’s class of 2019 by the Harvard Crimson (the student newspaper) found that those students were twice as likely to identify as atheists or agnostics compared to their age peers in the American population as a whole. In other words, I bet about 50% of Harvard students are “nones.”

Which reminds me: the definition of “spiritual” in this article is unclear. It clearly could include God, but could also include me, since in some ways all of us could be seen as “spiritual people”. There should be a “spiritual spectrum” corresponding to Dawkins’s “God spectrum”. It would range at one end to those who are besotted with the divine, to those at the other end who are simply moved by great art and music (that would be me).

At any rate, here’s how Epstein operated at Harvard:

Mr. Epstein, 44, author of the book “Good Without God,” is a seemingly unusual choice for the role. He will coordinate the activities of more than 40 university chaplains, who lead the Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and other religious communities on campus. Yet many Harvard students — some raised in families of faith, others never quite certain how to label their religious identities — attest to the influence that Mr. Epstein has had on their spiritual lives.

“There is a rising group of people who no longer identify with any religious tradition but still experience a real need for conversation and support around what it means to be a good human and live an ethical life,” said Mr. Epstein, who was raised in a Jewish household and has been Harvard’s humanist chaplain since 2005, teaching students about the progressive movement that centers people’s relationships with one another instead of with God.

. . .To Mr. Epstein, becoming the organization’s head, especially as it gains more recognition from the university, comes as affirmation of a yearslong effort, started by his predecessor, to teach a campus with traditional religious roots about humanism.

“We don’t look to a god for answers,” Mr. Epstein said. “We are each other’s answers.”

Mr. Epstein’s work includes hosting dinners for undergraduates where conversation goes deep: Does God exist? What is the meaning of life? He previously ran a congregation of Boston-area humanists and atheists who met in Harvard Square for weekly services that centered on secular sermons. In 2018 he closed that down to focus his time on building campus relationships, including at M.I.T., where he is also a chaplain. Mr. Epstein frequently meets individually with students who are struggling with issues both personal and theological, counseling them on managing anxiety about summer jobs, family feuds, the pressures of social media and the turbulence endemic to college life.

“Greg is irreverent and good at diffusing pressure,” Ms. Nickerson [a Harvard student who transitioned from Catholicism to humanism] said, recalling a time he joked that if her summer internship got too stressful she could always get fired — then she would have a good story to share.

Yes, there are woo-sters in Epstein’s  flock, as well as deists, but there are also atheists, humanists, and those questioning religion in general. Epstein will listen to them, but not give them answers, which they must find for themselves. And that’s the way it should be.

Public acceptance of evolution grows in the U.S.

August 24, 2021 • 11:30 am

According to a survey just published in Public Understanding of Science, acceptance of evolution is increasing in the United States. Click on the screenshot below to read the article (it’s free), or access the pdf here.

The survey continued data collected over 35 years, but a lot of the methodology is described in the Supplemental Materials, which are not given in this link nor on the journal page, where I can’t find this article (it’s clearly an early publication).  Now other surveys have found a smaller percentage of Americans who accept evolution (see below), but it’s surely because of the different ways the questions were asked.

Here’s the question this survey posed to Americans:

The following question was used in all of the years in this analysis:

For each statement below, please indicate if you think that it is definitely true, probably true, probably false, or definitely false. If you don’t know or aren’t sure, please check the “not sure” box.

Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.

Acceptance must be the sum of “definitely true and probably true”, while rejection would be the converse.

So the question at hand is simply: evolution or no evolution of humans? And for the first time, acceptance of human evolution, now at 54% , was seen in a majority of those surveyed—an increase of 14% in the last decade. Rejection of evolution (red line) appears to be about 37%, while “don’t know” is about 9%. As the authors note, the increase in acceptance since 2009 or so seems to be due more to those who “don’t know” moving into the acceptance column than to rejectors moving into the acceptance column.

If you look at a similar survey of a Gallup poll over 36 years (below), you see a different pattern, but that’s because they surveyed for more than just acceptance of evolution: they asked whether people accepted human evolution as purely naturalistic (22%), accepted human evolution but with God guiding it (33%), or simply rejected human evolution in favor of Biblical creationism (40%). The figure for rejection is pretty much the same as shown in the figure above, but the difference in “evolution acceptance” is undoubtedly due to the fact that “acceptance” below includes evolution guided by God. If you added that up with the naturalistic acceptors, the Gallup poll would show that 55% of Americans “accepted” human evolution, again close to the data above. But there are two types of evolution being accepted, one involving supernatural intervention. (Intelligent design would qualify, in this way, as “acceptance of evolution.”)

The data, then, are not that disparate between the two polls, but the apparently heartening 54% acceptance of evolution in the poll above seems to conceal the fact that most acceptors see a hand of God guiding evolution. I don’t find a teleological or theistic view of evolution all that heartening, for it still gives credence to divine intervention. And although the authors mention that disparate results of different surveys depend on the questions asked, it would have been nice had they compared the data above with that below.

A few other points. First, among the demographic data (age, gender, education, college science courses, children at home, etc.), the most important factor determining acceptance of evolution is whether the respondent took at least one college science course.

But “demographic data” did not include religion, which, as usual, turns out to be the most important factor determining how one answered the new polls. (The authors play this down in the paper, perhaps because the National Center for Science Education, two of whose members or former members are authors of the survey, have always been accommodationists.)

Nevertheless, when you do a path analysis of how these factors interact, and parse out the individual effects of factors that normally interact (for example, Republicans are more likely to be religious, and therefore to reject evolution), you find that “fundamentalist” religion has by far the biggest effect on evolution acceptance—in a negative direction, of course. (Because I can’t access the supplementary material, I can’t see how they determined whether a religious person was “fundamentalist”.)

Here’s the complicated path analysis and the weight of each factor. Religious fundamentalism has nearly twice the effect, in isolation, of any other factor on whether one accepts or rejects evolution.

Two more points. More men than women accepted evolution (57% vs 51% in 2019, a reduced disparity from 1988, when the data were 52% and 41%, respectively). This is probably because, on average, women are more religious than are men. And in terms of politics, here are the data for its relation to evolution. As you might expect, the more liberal you are, the more likely you are to accept evolution, and there is a huge difference between conservative Republicans and Liberal democrats in accepting evolution (34% vs. 83% respectively in 2019).  Republicans just can’t get with the program!

 

There’s one other point I want to mention. The authors claim that it’s really “fundamentalist religion” that’s at odds with evolution, not really other forms of religion, though I’ve maintained otherwise. Here’s what they say:

Religious fundamentalism plays a significant role in the rejection of evolution. The historical explanation of the low rate of acceptance of evolution in the United States involves the central place of the Bible in American Protestantism. In a country settled piecemeal by colonists of varying religious views and without a state church, it was natural for people of faith, especially Protestants who already accepted the principle of sola Scriptura, to privilege the Bible—or their interpretation of it—as the primary source of religious authority and an inerrant source of information about history and science as well as faith and morals. In contrast, religion in European countries is strongly structured by ecclesiastic institutions and the public receptivity to creationism has been limited as a result (Blancke et al., 2014Branch, 2009).

It is thus a particular form of religion that is at the foundation of American anti-evolutionism of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, not religion in general (see Coyne, 2012, for a dissenting view). Indeed, evolution is routinely taught in Catholic parochial schools in the United States, and mainstream Protestant denominations similarly accept evolution (Martin, 2010). While not all anti-evolutionism originates in Fundamentalism and its inerrantism about the Bible, it largely reflects a conservative form of Protestantism with relatively inflexible and inerrantist religious views (Scott, 2009), which we have been calling fundamentalism.

I would deny the claim that it’s only Protestant fundamentalism that’s at odds with evolution instead of religious belief in general. I say this for two reasons/

First, across the world, where Protestant fundamentalism doesn’t have such sway, you still see a negative correlation between religiosity and evolution. Here are data I published in a paper in 2012. There’s a strong negative correlation between religiosity and acceptance of human evolution across 34 countries, but it’s significant even omitting the U.S.point. Further, the only country lower in evolution acceptance than the US is Turkey, which is a Muslim nation.

More important, here are data taken from the Gallup survey mentioned above. Look at “religion”. Yes, Protestants are more likely to be creationists than are others (note that they don’t subclassify “fundamentalist Protestants”), but the Catholics, touted above as being good for teaching evolution in their schools, are still 34% young-earth creationist! What is taught is not always what is accepted!

No, it’s religion of all stripes in the U.S. that’s inimical to accepting evolution. I wish the authors would have mentioned these data as well.

Nevertheless, both surveys show a general acceptance of evolution, though I like the data from the Gallup poll better because it decouples theistic evolution from naturalistic evolution. What I teach is naturalistic evolution, and so I want to know what proportion of Americans accept evolution the way I teach it to students.

When will nearly everyone in America accept evolution, then? When America is like Iceland: a country that is basically atheistic.

Unbelievable osculation of religion at the New York Times

August 24, 2021 • 9:30 am

As John McWhorter begins his biweekly “Newsletter” for the New York Times (and there are some newsletters by others that look good), we also see the onset of one that promises to be much more dire. Author Tish Harrison Warren, according to her online bio, is truly washed in the blood in the lamb, and with bona fides like these, why wouldn’t the NYT hire her to to write every Sunday about “matters of faith in public live and private discourse”?

Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America. She is the author of Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life, which was Christianity Today’s 2018 Book of the Year, and the forthcoming Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work, or Watch, or Weep (IVP 2021). She has worked in ministry settings for over a decade as a campus minister with InterVarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministries, as an associate rector, with addicts and those in poverty through various churches and non-profit organizations, and, most recently, as the writer-in-residence at Church of the Ascension in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is a monthly columnist with Christianity Today, and her articles and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Religion News Service, Christianity Today, Comment Magazine, The Point Magazine, and elsewhere. She is a founding member of The Pelican Project and a Senior Fellow with the Trinity Forum. She lives with her husband and three children in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

What you have to ask yourself is this: do you really want to read about matters of faith from a true believer? Aren’t there tons of websites that already contain such stuff?

Well, the first sample is below. Read and weep—have a pack of hankies on hand.

I can find nothing substantive in this newsletter, nor do I think that liberal religionists will, either. These are the points Warren makes:

a. The priest’s first words in each week’s sermon are about God, not the congregation or “a mention of the weather or how nice everyone looks this week”. She finds that strange. I don’t.

Each Sunday in my Anglican church in Austin, Texas, the priest leading the service takes his or her place in front of the congregation and begins by saying the opening acclamation, usually, “Blessed be God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

What has surprised me since I first attended an Anglican service just over a decade ago is that we begin not with welcoming anyone in the pews but with a direct announcement about God.

. . . Part of why I find this moment strange is that I’m habituated by my daily life and our broader culture to focus on the “horizontal” or immanent, aspects of life — those things we can observe and measure without reference to God, mystery or transcendence. This can affect my spiritual life, flattening faith into solely the stuff of relationships, life hacks, sociology or politics.

But each week, as a church, the first words we say publicly directly address the “vertical,” transcendent dimension of life. We do not have just an urbane, abstracted conversation about religion, but we speak as if God’s presence is relevant — the orienting fact of our gathering.

b. Faith intersects with the secular world. (SURPRISE!)

Karl Barth, a 20th-century Swiss theologian, is credited with saying that Christians must live our lives with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. Barth, who was a leader of a group of Christians in Germany resisting Hitler, understood that faith is not a pious, protective bubble shielding us from the urgent needs of the world. It is the very impetus that leads us into active engagement with society. People of faith must immerse ourselves in messy questions of how to live faithfully in a particular moment with particular headlines calling for particular attention and particular responses.

c. We need to keep discussing faith and the secular world even when religion is on the wane. 

Membership in a house of worship has declined steadily in the United States over the past eight decades and, according to a Gallup poll, dropped below 50 percent this year.

So we must ask: Is faith worth discussing anymore? In the vast world of subjects that one could read about, from architecture to Zumba, why make space for a newsletter about faith and spiritual practice?

The answer to her last two questions are, respectively, “no” and “no good reason.”

But Warren has a reason, though I doubt it applies widely to NYT readers. It’s because those who are already religious want to read about religion, and they need religion to answer The Big Questions:

As a pastor, I see again and again that in defining moments of people’s lives — the birth of children, struggles in marriage, deep loss and disappointment, moral crossroads, facing death — they talk about God and the spiritual life. In these most tender moments, even those who aren’t sure what exactly they believe cannot avoid big questions of meaning: who we are, what we are here for, why we believe what we believe, why beauty and horror exist.

These questions bubble up in all of us, often unbidden. Even when we hum through a mundane week — not consciously thinking about God or life’s meaning or death — we are still motivated in our depths by ultimate questions and assumptions about what’s right and wrong, what’s true or false and what makes for a good life.

Clearly, and literally, this column is meant to preach to the choir. And just as clearly, Warren’s column is meant to emphasize our need to reach out to the divine, though any secularist with two neurons to rub together knows that we make our own meaning, and we can ponder what’s true and false and how to live without invoking gods. In fact, it’s better not to invoke a deity for which there’s no evidence when trying to find “meaning” or discern truth. Has Warren ever heard of secular humanism?

The rest is palaver, words without meaning, except to tell you to expect more of the same:

This newsletter, like our opening acclamation, acknowledges the presence of God in the world, believing that God, faith and spirituality remain a relevant part of our public and private lives. In it, I will talk about the habits and practices that shape our lives, the beliefs that drive our imaginations, the commitments that guide our souls.

So here’s my opening acclamation. Let’s discuss our deepest questions, longings and loves and the rituals and habits that form who we are and the way we walk through the world, week in and week out.

I have a better idea: let’s not.

Now I’m sure that Pastor Warren is a nice lady, but that doesn’t mean that her lucubrations deserve column inches in the Times every Sunday. Nor do I have to say, “This column is a valuable addition to media discourse.”  Rather, I ask myself WHY ARE THEY PUBLISHING THIS STUFF?  The Times is increasingly osculating not just faith, but also woo like dowsing and astrology. What explains this? I have no answer.

Wouldn’t it be better—wouldn’t it go ahead of the curve—to have a weekly (or at least a semi-regular) column on secularism and nonbelief? There are plenty of people who could write such a piece, and they wouldn’t have to purvey mindless platitudes to do so.

But, Ceiling Cat help me, I have subscribed. I feel like I’ve just bought a hair shirt or a cilice that will cause me constant irritation.

Pastor Warren

h/t: Barry

Scientific American: Denying evolution is white supremacy

August 22, 2021 • 9:30 am

As we’ve seen, the once-respectable journal Scientific American is circling the drain, with an increasing surfeit of articles pushing a particular ideological point of view—a woke one. Well, this article, by writer Allison Hopper, has a bit of science in it, but it’s mixed with politics in such a toxic way that it’s almost funny. It’s full of unsupported assumptions and false claims, is based on no logic at all, and is false in its main claim for two reasons.  Those of you who still subscribe to this rag may want to either write the editor, Laura Helmuth, or cancel your subscription.

Laura had a distinguished career before she took over this journal (she has a Ph.D. from Berkeley in neuroscience and has edited or written for Science, The Washington Post, and Smithsonian). I have no idea why she lets this kind of tripe into her magazine. But she’s less to blame than the author, who doesn’t even have a coherent argument. All Hopper wants to do is show that American creationism has nothing to do with religion, but that white supremacy, not belief in God, is at the core of creationism.

Read and weep: this is a this is a three-hankie article:

Now over the last 12 years I’ve given plenty of evidence that creationism stems from religious belief: belief in the Bible for conservative Jews and Christians, and belief in the Qur’an for Muslims, with both books having their own creation stories. For one thing, I’ve never met a creationist who wasn’t motivated by religion, and all creationist organizations, including the Discovery Institute, are at bottom manifestations of religious belief, regarding evolution as inimical to belief in God. This is so obvious that only someone with a bizarre agenda could deny it.

Well, Hopper does deny it.  She says that the roots of creationism really lie in white supremacy and not religion. Here’s the logical connection that leads her to that conclusion.

a. If two falsities are in the Bible, they can be connected as causal.
b. Two falsities that Hopper deals with are Biblical creationism as limned in Genesis, and the claim that humans started out with white skin and then God, marking the descendants of Cain, made them black.
c.  The supposedly black descendants of Cain have been historically portrayed as bad people, and then as black people, as the “mark” given to those descendants is said to be black skin.
d.  Therefore the Bible evinces white supremacy, since humans, made in God’s image, started out white, but a bad subset of them were turned black.
e.  In reality, human ancestors were black, so even the Bible story is wrong.
f.  The white supremacy story comes from Genesis (4:15), a book that also tells the creation story.
g.   Ergo, creationism stems from white supremacy.

(Note, as I say below, the white supremacy argument is itself based on religion!)

You’ve already noted a number of fallacies in this argument. One is that if two bad things are in the Bible, particularly in the same part of the Bible, they can be connected, and one can assert that one bad part gave rise to the other. Well, there are a number of mass killings in Genesis: beyond the extirpation of humanity by the Flood, there’s also the destruction of the Cities of the Plain, including Sodom and Gomorrah. And of course the Old Testament itself is full of genocide. By this logic, one could say that creationism stems from an impulse to murder. (Indeed, Hopper connects creationism with “lethal effects” on black people!).

The other bit of “evidence” Hopper adduces to draw creationism out of white supremacy is this (I am not making it up):

In fact, the first wave of legal fights against evolution was supported by the Klan in the 1920s.

Well that’s a strong proof, right? No matter that a lot of people who didn’t support the Klan still went after evolution in the 1920s and before.

And that’s all the evidence that Hopper has. She makes no case that creationism comes from a desire of whites to be on top save the occasional depiction of our African ancestors as white people (and, because they’re often men, this shows misogyny as well). But that claim really argues that our view of evolution comes from white supremacy!

Do you think I’m kidding? Here are a few sentences from Hopper’s article:

I want to unmask the lie that evolution denial is about religion and recognize that at its core, it is a form of white supremacy that perpetuates segregation and violence against Black bodies.

. . . At the heart of white evangelical creationism is the mythology of an unbroken white lineage that stretches back to a light-skinned Adam and Eve. In literal interpretations of the Christian Bible, white skin was created in God’s image. Dark skin has a different, more problematic origin. As the biblical story goes, the curse or mark of Cain for killing his brother was a darkening of his descendants’ skin. Historically, many congregations in the U.S. pointed to this story of Cain as evidence that Black skin was created as a punishment.

The fantasy of a continuous line of white descendants segregates white heritage from Black bodies. In the real world, this mythology translates into lethal effects on people who are Black. Fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible are part of the “fake news” epidemic that feeds the racial divide in our country.

One bit of advice for Ms. Hopper: besides the obvious one that you’re wrong about where creationism comes from, PLEASE stop using the term “black bodies” for “black people”. Yes, I know the phrase is au courant, but it dehumanizes black people in the same way that “slaves” dehumanizes “enslaved people.”  You are using racist language. And what, by the way, are the lethal effects of creationism on black people? Is Hopper speaking metaphorically or literally here?

But I digress.

Hopper is right that the Genesis account of the Bible is creationist, and says that Adam was made in God’s image. But does it say what color Adam was? I don’t think so. It’s just assumed that he was white, but on this point Scripture is silent. In fact, we don’t know, though Hopper asserts it confidently, that the earliest human ancestors were black, though humans certainly split from our closest relatives, the bonobos and chimps, in Africa, and evolved black pigmentation at some point. This is because humans probably evolved from chimplike primates (as “naked apes,” we’re outliers), and chimps happen to have white skin. As the Encyclopedia Brittanica says:

Chimpanzees are covered by a coat of brown or black hair, but their faces are bare except for a short white beard. Skin colour is generally white except for the face, hands, and feet, which are black. The faces of younger animals may be pinkish or whitish. Among older males and females, the forehead often becomes bald and the back becomes gray.

Here’s a photo from Forbes, but you can find lots of photos like this.

Old and young chimps from NBC News:

It’s entirely possible that the first members of the hominin lineage after it split from the chimp lineage had light skin, and darker skin evolved later via natural selection. If this is the case, Hopper’s argument falls apart. But it doesn’t matter, because, really, who cares besides evolutionists and anthropologists—and energetic anti-racists like Hopper—about the skin color of the earliest hominins? I’m not claiming that the earliest members of the hominin lineage were white, and I’m certainly not making a case for white supremacy, for our later hominin ancestors were surely much darker. All I’m saying is that these early hominins could have been white or gray. Hopper has no way to be sure, and in that case she has no argument.

It is likely that after several million years, hominins in Africa did evolve dark skin, and that those hominins were the ones that gave us fire, tools, and other rudiments of culture. But I don’t see how that buttresses Hopper’s argument. Even if it did, her big fallacy is not assuming that the first hominins were black, but connecting white supremacy supported by some religionists with creationism, with the former giving rise to the latter.

Why does Hopper make this argument? Because she has a goal:

My hope is that if we make the connection between creationism and racist ideology clearer, we will provide more ammunition to get science into the classroom—and into our culture at large.

Good luck with that!  Because creationism really comes from religion, and accepting evolution would overturn the faith of many Biblical literalists (about 40% of Americans), you’re not going to change their minds by telling them: “Hey! Your creationism is really a manifestation of white supremacy because the story of Adam and Eve is a tale of white supremacy!”

But were Cain’s descendants really black? Hopper assumes that they were, and that’s how many people have interpreted the story, but let’s read what the Good Book says (King James version; Genesis 4:15).

And the Lord said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him.

This is a “mark”, not dark skin, and I can’t find any scholar who interprets the Hebrew as meaning “dark skin”. Furthermore, the “mark” placed on Cain was not to identify him and his descendants as miscreants, but to protect them.  Here, from the King James Bible again, are verses 9-16 from Genesis 4:

And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?

10 And he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground.

11 And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood from thy hand;

12 When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.

13 And Cain said unto the Lord, My punishment is greater than I can bear.

14 Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth me shall slay me.

15 And the Lord said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him.

16 And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden.

The “mark” is clearly given by God to protect Cain, so even if it were dark skin, for which there’s no evidence, it means that dark skin marked Cain and his descendants as people protected by God. How does that comport with Hopper’s narrative?

I’ve already gone on too long picking additional in Hopper’s Swiss cheese of a narrative, but I have one more bit of evidence that tells against her risible theory.  And that is this: historically, in the United States black people have been far more creationist than whites. If creationism draws from white supremacy, then haven’t black people heard the news?

Here are some data from a Pew Study in 2015: see bars 4-6 from the top:

So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends: an insupportable argument, weakly based on erroneous science, and gracing the pages of what was once America’s premier science magazine. How low the mighty have fallen!

All I want to add in closing is that Hopper is dead wrong in claiming that the roots of creationism are not in religion, but in white supremacy. And, as the supreme irony in her argument, the “white supremacy” argument is rooted in, yes, the Bible! So even her main thesis is wrong. Yes, no matter how you slice it, even Hopper’s way, creationism is an outgrowth of religion.

In case they ditch this article, I’ve archived it here.

NYT readers, including Dan Dennett, respond to Ross Douthat’s column on the “increasing” evidence for God

August 21, 2021 • 1:15 pm

The other day I dissected Ross Douthat’s long-form NYT essay, “A guide to finding faith.” In short, it was dire, but no worse than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.  His thesis was that, in this age of science, empiricism gives us more reason than ever to believe in God, especially Douthat’s Catholic God. It still baffles me why the NYT would publish such tripe, but the proportion of tripeish material in the paper is approaching that of a bistro in Normandy.

But the readers have responded, and you’ll find five letters at the site below (click on link). Four of them are critical of organized religion, while one misguided soul supports Douthat.  There are two notable letters in the former category, and I’ll reproduce them below.

To the Editor:

On a weekend when fundamentalist Muslims were winning a war against the United States, and as fundamentalist Christians demand the right to cause their fellow Americans to suffer and die from a preventable disease, Ross Douthat had the gall to tell me that I ought to accept the same primitive explanations that led directly to their fundamentalism. Hard pass.

David Bonowitz
San Francisco

and:

To the Editor:

Ross Douthat is so frantic in his campaign to stop the erosion of faith in faith that he can’t resist twice committing the sin I call lying for Christ.

First, he unaccountably misinterprets the meaning of the title of my book “Breaking the Spell,” which called for scrutinizing the phenomena of religion with the same objectivity we adopt when studying viral pandemics.

Second, he misinterprets illusionism, the well-evidenced theory that says that evolution has designed us to be conscious of an efficient oversimplification of the physical world: a user-illusion that helps us track the features of the world that matter to us.

It is ironic that Mr. Douthat himself breaks the spell, taking a hard look at the difficulties confronting would-be religious believers today. His recommendation that they cultivate a return to the mind-set of the Dark Ages is particularly telling. We secularists can glory in the wonders of “creation” without the nagging worries he exposes.

Daniel C. Dennett
Medford, Mass.
The writer is co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University.

h/t: Barry