“Are atheists mentally ill?”


“Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”
Should this warning label be affixed
to all publications of the “New Atheists”?


Those who think that my rhetorical style as a controversialist is brutal and rough don’t seem, to me anyway, to get out much.  I’m boring Mormon vanilla-nice compared to such folks as the late Christopher Hitchens, whom I often enjoyed, or the wonderful Mark Steyn.  Here, very much in opposition to the atheistic viewpoint that Mr. Hitchens favored — I’m quite certain that he no longer favors it, though — is an, umm, spirited piece that will undoubtedly ruffle some feathers and offend a few.  But I think it makes a very important point:




Posted from Park City, Utah



A Thursday in and around Berlin
"Sons of Nones"
What is most terrible?
Do atoms "know" whether or not they're being observed?
  • Lucy Mcgee

    This guy should be made to interview each and every member of the National Academy of Sciences, the vast majority of whom have no belief in a personal God. To me, this fact alone shows that religion is not necessary to live an amazing life, which of course totally negates this author’s ridiculous article.

    • DanielPeterson

      I don’t think such a survey would be at scientific. Far too small a sample, for one thing.

      I notice, Lucy McGee, that you don’t challenge the surveys and studies that he cites. Are they ridiculous, too?

      • Lucy Mcgee

        The survey has already been done with over 90% of NAS members (the entire population of NAS members) stating that they have no belief in a personal God. I don’t doubt that religion has positive benefits but I do find writing such as this very odd and quite silly:

        “So which is the smart party, here? Is it the atheists, who live short,
        selfish, stunted little lives – often childless – before they approach
        hopeless death in despair, and their worthless corpses are chucked in a
        trench (or, if they are wrong, they go to Hell)? Or is it the believers,
        who live longer, happier, healthier, more generous lives, and who have
        more kids, and who go to their quietus with ritual dignity, expecting to
        be greeted by a smiling and benevolent God?”

        And if this guy were to sit with even a few dozen of the 2200 members of the NAS, after having them read the above paragraph, he’d likely be blushing with embarrassment.

        • DanielPeterson

          I don’t think that he would be, Lucy McGee, and I see little reason why he should. As I’ve already pointed out, surveying a small and atypical sample of people provides little or no basis for making a sweeping judgment regarding all mankind. And besides, we don’t even know what the grounds of unbelief are for those members of the NAS who aren’t religious. Do they not care? Have they had too little time? Have they considered all the relevant arguments and found them wanting? Have they so focused their scientific attentions — presumably, that’s a factor in their scientific success — that they have neither the time nor the patience left over for broader questions? Do they have problems with relationships (whether human or with the divine) that affect their religiosity? Are they philosophically competent? I doubt that we’re in a position to know.

          This argument from a survey of most of the membership of the NAS strikes me as an obvious instance of the fallacy of arguing from irrelevant authority. It’s a bit more sophisticated — but not much — than claiming that “75% of major league pitchers use Crest toothpaste. Shouldn’t you?”

          • Lucy Mcgee

            I’m not making a sweeping judgement of mankind, just writing that this author, were he to sit across the table from some of the greatest scientists in the land, would likely feel uncomfortable in having written this ridiculous, unlettered, unsubstantiated paragraph.

            If you don’t believe a survey of 2200 of the most eminent scientists in the US is telling, then great. It is to me. My point is that people don’t require religion to live happy and meaningful lives, to give charitably or to exhibit any other positive human traits. That alone should be a clue.

          • DanielPeterson

            I think you’re missing part of my point.

            “I’m not making a sweeping judgement of mankind, just writing that this author, were he to sit across the table from some of the greatest scientists in the land, would likely feel uncomfortable in having written this ridiculous, unlettered, unsubstantiated paragraph.”

            I don’t see why he would or should, and, though you keep repeating it, don’t see what, in the article, is ridiculous, unlettered, and unsubstantiated.

            “If you don’t believe a survey of 2200 of the most eminent scientists in the US is telling, then great. It is to me.”

            It’s telling, of course. But what does it tell, exactly? That a sizable majority of a group of elite scientists are irreligious in the conventional sense. Nothing more.

            “My point is that people don’t require religion to live happy and meaningful lives, to give charitably or to exhibit any other positive human trait. That alone should be a clue.”

            And nobody has denied that.

            You’re sparring, very vigorously, with a straw man of your own creation.

            But a very large preponderance of the evidence does seem to show that, overall, humans tend to live happier and more meaningful lives, give more to charity, and exhibit other positive human traits in greater degree, if they’re religious believers.

          • Lucy Mcgee

            “I don’t see why he would or should, and, though you keep repeating it, don’t see what, in the article, is ridiculous, unlettered, and unsubstantiated.”

            Really? How many of your non-religious friends would agree with this sentence?

            “Is it the atheists, who live short, selfish, stunted little lives – often childless – before they approach hopeless death in despair, and their worthless corpses are chucked in a trench (or, if they are wrong, they go to Hell)?”

            To me, this is the stuff of someone who should be writing comedy.

            I would admit that belief in the supernatural plays a large and often positive roll in the lives of the vast majority of humans. But that fact alone does not mean that religion is necessary for human prosperity which can be witnessed real time in Scandinavian countries. Conversely, we can also witness, real time, how religious dogmas can tear nations apart.

            People seem to have a desire for a big truth about which they can organize their lives, be it offered by Holy Scripture, Mein Kampf, the Little Red Book or the Qur’an (among many others). Many seem to want something transcendent in their lives which will answer all the difficult questions and which will make them part of a group of like minded believers. From that perspective, all non theists have is science, which offers many “little truths”, but no large unifying dogma.

          • DanielPeterson

            Theists have science, too. Don’t try to claim it solely for your tribe.

            “To me, this is the stuff of someone who should be writing comedy.”

            He WAS writing comedy, in a sense. Which you seem to have utterly missed.

          • Lucy Mcgee

            Tribe? It would be enjoyable to be part of a tribe. I exist in a very small family, not worthy of tribal status.

            Some 33% of scientist claim a personal God. 7% of the members of the NAS do the same. Yet, over 33% of our 314 million people believe that Christ will be returning to earth in the next 40 years, and that the earth is under 10,000 years old. Another survey has indicated that over 33% of the US population believes that the earth does not rotate around the sun in one year. How ignorant we are. That’s comedy.

            I didn’t find anything funny in this author’s remarks. It is divisive rhetoric. The thing generated over 2700 comments. This guy is making money! And it’s sad because he isn’t portraying reality and I’m truly sorry you defend him. I thought better of you.

          • articulett

            As a scientist, I can assure you that most scientists don’t believe in magical beings because there is no actual evidence for such things. If there was, then we real scientists would be testing, refining, and honing that evidence for our own benefit and so that we could all learn more. The truth matters in science. Science doesn’t progress if we are on the wrong path. (See DNA, space travel, modern medicine, Higgs Boson,Atoms, gravity for examples.)

            People have long been making up gods and such for things they don’t understand. It turns out that Zeus doesn’t cause lightening after all and demons are not responsible for mental illness nor sexual urges. And as much as people don’t want to die– they will… just like every other animal– there is not the slightest bit of evidence for reincarnation nor any of the myriad other things people believe happen after death. You need a material brain to think, feel, remember, and experience. Immaterial beings make no sense at all– they are indistinguishable from imaginary beings as far as the evidence is concerned.

            I have a feeling that believers would require a lot more evidence for things that mattered. If a child was missing, it would not be comforting to say “God poofed them away” because he “wanted another angel’– they’d want to know where the body was and they’d hope to find it alive. When the truth matters, then evidence trumps faith every time. Religions have no means of getting at the truth– that’s why there are so many conflicting faiths. If god wanted a religionist to kill their child the way he asked of Abraham, I think they’d want evidence to be sure it was the god they “believed in” and not a demon or alien trickster or voice in their head or whatever. The reason they don’t require that kind of evidence now is because they really just believe in god because they are afraid not too. I tried that when I was a kid too. I tried not to think about all the craziness in god claims for fear I’d lose faith and then there’d be a real god who tortured me forever for not believing in the right magic. Now I feel sorry for all those Muslims, Christians, Mormons, etc. caught in the same trap. I look forward to a time when society moves beyond its superstitions.

          • kiwi57


            “As a scientist, I can assure you that most scientists don’t believe in magical beings…”

            Neither do religious believers.

            And I can assure you that anyone who can’t tell the difference between religious belief and “magic” is either being ignorant or arrogant; in which case, she either needs to go back to school and learn something outside her narrow, provincial little scientific speciality, or else she needs a good dose of humility; which fortunately can also come from a bit of additional education, although mostly from outside the classroom.

          • Anyotheruser

            “People have long been making up gods and such for things they don’t understand.”

            The idea that religion is nothing more than some sort of proto-science dedicated to explaining how things work is a discredited nineteenth century theory, believed by pretty much no scholars (including a large number of atheists) in religious studies or related fields today. A scientist should show more restraint before venturing to recycle Victorian anthropology they have no evidence for in other disciplines.

            “You need a material brain to think, feel, remember, and experience.”

            Since we’re not really any closer to working out what consciousness *is*, you’re making an assumption here.

            “Immaterial beings make no sense at all– they are indistinguishable from imaginary beings as far as the evidence is concerned.”

            And here I suspect you have some unfamiliarity with the precise beliefs that tend to be discussed here. A useful start on this very point is http://www.lds.org/scriptures/dc-testament/dc/131.7-8?lang=eng#6

          • DanielPeterson

            Thank you for that very clear statement of scientistic orthodoxy, articulett.

    • Ray Agostini

      The NAS isn’t representative of all scientists. I’ve done a lot of research on this, but I’m using Wiki as a summary: “Studies on scientists’ beliefs”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Relationship_between_religion_and_science#Studies_on_scientists.27_beliefs

      Hope the link works. The figure has remained roughly the same for a century, which is that about 60% of scientists (in all surveyed fields) are not believers, while about 40% are.

      “In 1916, 1,000 leading American scientists were randomly chosen from American Men of Science and 41.8% believed God existed, 41.5% disbelieved, and 16.7% had doubts/did not know; however when the study was replicated 80 years later using American Men and Women of Science in 1996, results were very much the same with 39.3% believing God exists, 45.3% disbelieved, and 14.5% had doubts/did not know…

      “In total, in terms of belief toward a personal god and personal immortality, about 60% of United States scientists in these fields expressed either disbelief or agnosticism and about 40% expressed belief.”

      • Lucy Mcgee

        I totally agree with you, which means there are tens of thousands of scientists who have no belief in a personal God. Given that, can anyone read this sentence and not find it totally ridiculous? I’m very surprised that Dr. Peterson would not speak out against such bizarre writing since he has a background in the sciences and surely has friends who are not religious.

        “Is it the atheists, who live short, selfish, stunted little lives – often childless – before they approach hopeless death in despair, and their worthless corpses are chucked in a trench (or, if they are wrong, they go to Hell)?”

        My thinking is that the author wrote this to add controversy to his article which means eyeballs and clicks and income. No journalist worth their salt would be so ignorant as to write such unsubstantiated garbage.

        I hope in the future, Dr. Peterson can find a more credible article to advance his view of religious supremacy. This one was a dud.

        • RaymondSwenson

          Being a scientist does not mean that you are someone who has a happy family life, and practices charity toward others. Most people would not expect the top lawyers in the country to be great parents, and the foibles of many political leaders, business leaders, and celebrities are the fodder of our daily news. Often it is a major challenge to be significantly involved in one’s own family and community, at the same time one excels in a profession.

          The characters in the sitcom The Big Bang Theory caricature scientists who come from strained family situations, in some cases where they were made to feel inadequate because of the intellectual achievements of other family members, while in others their interest in science went across the grain of family traditions. Their maladaptation to normal human life is the engine of the comedy, but it speaks to a sad reality behind the derogatory meaning of the terms “nerd” and “geek”. And the pressure to be productive and creative, and receive recognition from one’s peers, continues throughout the lives of scientists. Scientists have as much problem as anyone in creating a happy life for themselves, and are hardly in the best position to advise the rest of us on how to be happy.

          Again, there are also lots of smart people who go into the legal profession, and other careers, but their intelligence doesn’t guarantee they or anyone else in their lives will be happy or healthy, physically or emotionally. I make this observation as someone who works regularly with both lawyers and scientists.

        • kiwi57

          @Lucy Mcgee:
          Clearly that sentence you keep quoting over and over (and over and over and over and over) has upset you.

          Here’s a hint: please note that it is a question, not an assertion.

          Second hint: please take a look at the context.

          Note that it’s a thought question, not a serious inquiry.

          For some time now, we’ve had to put up with self-styled “Brights” telling us that we are intellectually stunted because we still believe in “magic” or “invisible pink unicorns” or some such derogatory twaddle. We are assured that science has unravelled all the truths that matter, or very nearly so, and is about to unravel all the rest.

          This is nonsense. It is at best a kind of starry-eyed hero worship, and at worst a form of idolatry.

          Yes, there are “eminent scientists” who don’t believe in God. This isn’t actually much of a clue about anything. There are similarly “eminent” people at the top of every field of human endeavour. They are just as “brilliant” at what they do as “eminent” scientists are at their work. Many such people are where they are because they are driven to succeed at whatever they are doing and have allowed their careers to consume their lives. Many or most of them are experts in what they do and only averagely well-informed, if even that, in matters outside their area of expertise. In such cases, their opinions tend to reflect those of their peers, because that’s who they spend most of their time talking to. Put another way, there are fads and fashions of opinions among such people that have no more genuine intellectual weight than fads in popular music, women’s clothing or TV shows.

          In other words, the assertion that 90% of eminent scientists don’t believe in God is every bit as relevant as saying that 90% of eminent accountants prefer Lexus over BMW. That is, it’s not relevant at all.

          Lucy, it’s not my way to break down people’s cherished beliefs. Everyone should believe something. But a white dust coat is not the new soutane. Scientists aren’t the people who can tell you all there is to know about anything they can’t examine under a microscope, measure with their instruments or model on a computer. If anything, they are even less qualified to talk about such things than others are, because their reliance upon the tools of their trade handicaps them when they are called upon to do without them.

          • Lucy Mcgee

            Appreciate the “hints” but it is still an unlettered, mean spirited and ridiculous sentence.

            “For some time now, we’ve had to put up with self-styled
            “Brights” telling us that we are intellectually stunted
            because we still believe in “magic” or “invisible pink
            unicorns” or some such derogatory twaddle.”

            Actually, in the case of the Mormon belief system, many non religious people discuss Joseph Smith translating reformed Egyptian writing from gold plates by using seer stones in a hat. Couldn’t this be considered folk magic by outsiders looking in?

            “We are assured that science has unravelled all the truths that matter,or very nearly so, and is about to unravel all the rest. This is nonsense. It is at best a kind of starry-eyed hero worship, and at worst a form of

            No scientists that I’ve listened to have assured anyone that all mysteries have been unraveled, which is why
            people continue to choose to devote themselves to scientific disciplines. Were that not the case, science would have stopped its inquiry centuries ago. There is no hero worship or idolatry because any scientist, no matter how distinguished or esteemed can be proven wrong which is quite different from church faithful challenging the authority of their particular religious dogmas.

            And of course scientists are a vastly diverse group who at times work together in solving the mysteries of the universe. Lawrence Krauss has used the example of the collaboration necessary in building the Large Hadron Collider, one of the greatest engineering feats ever accomplished. There were over 10,000 scientists from 100 nations working on this massive project.

            To me, what is most important about the sciences, is that they continually search for answers. This is much more exciting and important (to me), than listening to someone regurgitate religious scripture, trying to convince that these words, written by people thousands of years ago, hold the most important truths for all of humanity. And given that there are so many religious beliefs and interpretations, all of which can’t be true, I find it personally more useful to reject them all.

          • DanielPeterson

            So, instead, you adopt the very minority position — both historically and today — of rejecting all religious belief. Because there is disagreement about these issues, you’re right?

          • Lucy Mcgee

            I would adopt this position if I were the only one with it and it’s only right for me. The issues are fascinating and complex with many great thinkers on each side.

        • DanielPeterson

          It was deliberately exaggerated satire with a serious point. It was designed to be provocative, and it certainly provoked you. It was humorous, and you missed the humor.

          I think it raises serious issues, though, and that it’s quite appropriate to tweak the aggressive arrogance of certain vocal contemporary atheists.

          • Lucy Mcgee

            I’ve noticed that among the more vocal atheists/deists, there are often quite spirited debates when discussing astronomy, cosmology, Darwin, evolution, intelligent design, Islam, Newton, physics, war, religion, and science
            education, etc. I have no problem with aggressive arrogance because it challenges. Haven’t you ever been accused of such things?

            We are fortunate to be having such debates and it’s too bad more of the population isn’t paying attention. I read a survey where something like 33% of Americans don’t believe the earth revolves around the sun in a year.

  • hthalljr

    I confess I enjoyed this piece a bit too much! But he’s right, of course.

  • Doug Ealy

    Thank you for sharing this piece. I’m glad to have this information when one of my atheist friends does his best impression (unintentionally) of Dathan from the 10 commandments (http://youtu.be/D0Qcv3YV4aA ).

    Having wrestled with the questions of the existence of God and the issue of religion, I don’t need studies to tell me the advantages of a religious life because I have seen them and experienced them for myself. Without reservation, I would gladly discuss this with any member of the NAS.

  • articulett

    I think it’s mentally ill to believe in immaterial beings, and that you’ll live happily ever after after you die so long as you believe the right magic story. I also think it’s mentally ill to believe in 3-in-1 gods, talking snakes, floating zoos, and a supposedly “perfect” god who knowingly creates imperfect people and then punishes them for being exactly as he knew they’d be before he made them. This makes no sense; it’s clearly delusional. If believers in Scientology or Greek Myths are delusional than so are the people who believe in this stuff.

    You need a material brain to think and feel and experience– dead people are no more alive than other animals when they are dead– no more alive than rocks. And the same is true of gods, demons, angels, fairies, ghosts, and all other “immaterial beings” people believe in.

    But I understand why people believe these crazy things– they are told these things by people they trust– they are told they will live “happily ever after” for believing them… and the story is reinforced with threats of eternal torture for non-belief. People can be made to believe and do anything if you can get them to believe their imaginary eternity is at stake.

    • paizlea

      Did you read the article? Care to comment on that, rather than just on the title of the blog post?

    • RaymondSwenson

      Look, religious people are motivated to get outside their own group and mingle with the sick and impoverished. The religious, like Mother Teresa, confront the hard headed realities of our material world more often than most scientists, who tend to spend their time associating with their peers.

      Societies that have been dominated by the materialist perspective you praise have a tendency to go off the rails, as communist Russia and National Socialist Germany did.

      • Lucy Mcgee

        Didn’t mother Teresa lose her faith as evidenced by letters she wrote to her superiors as she confronted the terrible fate of those she cared for?

        The majority of citizens in both Stalinist Russia and Hitler’s Germany were religious. By use of propaganda and force, both Stalin and Hitler were able to supplant religious dogma with dogma centered around the supremacy of leadership, party and extreme nationalism, which clearly shows that we humans desire some “truth” to organize our lives around. There have been cases where religious dogmas have caused societies to “go off the rails” as well.

    • DanielPeterson

      “I think it’s mentally ill to believe in immaterial beings.”

      Thank you, paizlea, for that very clear expression of the ugly, dogmatic, contemptuous form of atheism that some more gentle unbelievers like to pretend scarcely exists.

      • paizlea

        Are you suggesting that I’m articulett?

        And if you simply mistyped, could you point to an example of one of those “gentle unbelievers” pretending that screeching, vitriolic faith bashing barely exists? I’d like to find out what cave that person’s been living in.

  • paizlea

    (copied from my FB reply, in case anyone in the broader Disqus crowd knows where I can find the studies mentioned in the article)

    The article’s fun little piece of trollery, and certainly fair play since so many atheist bloggers delight in “proving” their superiority over believers. But it seems to me that every study the author mentioned only found that people with broad, well-established social groups (most church-goers) are healthier than those who don’t (those who don’t go to church). Perhaps the studies controlled for social networks to isolate faith as the single measured variable – I can’t tell, since the author didn’t find it important to cite the studies he mentions.

    And while it’s certainly possible that believers give more to charity than non-believers, I’d be interested in seeing whether mandatory tithings and the like were factored into the calculations. Not that church-based charities shouldn’t be counted, but donations not used for charitable work should not.

    More than anything, this article has me curious, so I’m going to try to find the studies. If anyone has any links, I’d appreciate the help.

    • Lucy Mcgee

      If you are interested in how much various countries give and receive humanitarian aid, the Global Humanitarian Assistance website aggregates and displays this information in a variety of formats. http://www.globalhumanitarianassistance.org/

      What I found interesting is that some secular Scandinavian countries give more in world humanitarian aid on a gross national income basis than does the US.

  • Lucy Mcgee

    “At the end of the day, at the very nucleus of atheism is the inescapable
    observation that, if God does not exist, everything is permitted.”

    Says who? This is a very tired canard which can’t be substantiated in any way. The best proof that this statement is false is the fact that millions upon millions of atheists live moral, decent and productive lives and who are a positive force in their communities,etc.

    On the other hand, religion is built on a foundation of authority to a mirage with hundreds of thousands worldwide turning this authority into a business, sometimes a racket, to enrich themselves at the expense of others. Ever watch a Benny Hinn “Miracle Healing Service”? This guy lives like a rock star by preying on the superstitions of the ill informed and wish thinkers. There are many thousands like him. Religion has become big business which allows mere humans to put themselves on a pedestal, making claims with zero evidence and believed by the willing who continue to finance their lifestyles. Something is definitely wrong here.

  • paizlea

    I was only recently arguing on this very blog with someone who claimed that there was no widespread discrimination against atheists; I posted a version of your argument to prove otherwise. “If there’s no hope of Heaven/fear of Hell, how can we trust people to act ethically?” It’s as though folks like you believe the Golden Rule is some esoteric, counter-intuitive principle that only people of faith are capable of understanding the benefits of. How silly.

    The fact that you need a god-given “meaning” to make your life bearable and keep you acting responsibly is more an indictment of your faith than any refutation of atheism.

  • Lucy Mcgee

    History has shown us that what scientists believe about the universe is critically important since it has shaped the world in very profound ways. And what scientists believe about God should be of interest as well.

    Consider Isaac Newton, who it could be argued, was one of the greatest minds our world has ever known. In the 1780′s he published his Principia in which he described the motion of planets but was not able to account for some effects of planetary interaction. He doubted that a mathematical solution was possible, and because of his faith, concluded that divine intervention was necessary to insure the stability of the solar system.

    Then along came Laplace, almost 100 years later, who as an atheist dispensed with Newton’s hypothesis of divine intervention and set out to produce mathematical theories which were precise enough to demonstrate planetary stability.

    So I guess what I’m getting at is that scientists, who may be bounded by religious belief, may not search for answers outside that belief, just as Newton stopped searching for the answers to solar system stability, and instead added a supernatural component. Had he not been bounded by his belief in the supernatural, perhaps he would have found the mathematical solution. So for me, it is important what scientists hold as belief and I’m happy, quite frankly, that there are atheists in their number.

    • Anyotheruser

      “History has shown us that what scientists believe about the universe is critically important since it has shaped the world in very profound ways. And what scientists believe about God should be of interest as well.”

      History has also shown us that what tyrants believe about the universe is also critically important since it shapes the world in profound ways. Often far far bigger, and affecting many more people, than any but the most brilliant of scientists. So they’re of interest too.

      That doesn’t necessarily mean that their beliefs are an effective guide either to a) truth or (the point of the article) b) what makes people happy. Same with scientists, except where a) happens to intersect with their area of expertise.

    • DanielPeterson

      It’s very misleading to suggest that Newton would have been an even greater scientist had he been an atheist. It’s arguable that he might not have been a scientist at all, and that science might not have arisen in the first place, were it not for Christianity. (See, for example, the works of the late historians of science Pierre Duhem and Stanley Jaki.) Kepler characterized his own scientific pursuits as an attempt to “think the thoughts of God after him.”

      • Lucy Mcgee

        Misleading? What I wrote was that Newton stopped looking, not that he would have been an even greater scientist. And he did stop looking. He was one of the most brilliant scientists and his massive contributions to science could never be disputed. That science would not have arisen without Christianity is pure conjecture.

        • DanielPeterson

          So you mean to say that, if Newton had looked further and found more truth, that wouldn’t have been better?

          “That science would not have arisen without Christianity is pure conjecture.”

          Not entirely. I recommend the works of Jaki and Duhem, among others.

          • Lucy Mcgee

            Newton didn’t look further. In reality, it’s impossible to know exactly what he was thinking but clearly, his religious beliefs played a role. I’d submit that he was employing “creative design”, by filling in the space beyond the boundary of his knowledge.

            To imagine that Newton discovered the laws of motion and gravity before the age of 26 is astounding. His brilliant mind is a testament to human possibility. I don’t see how he could be better than that.

  • paizlea

    So I did a bit of digging, and my suspicion was correct: none of these studies have to do specifically with faith. It’s church-going activity that results in all the positives, not faith itself. Interestingly, there has been a slow but steady trend among atheists toward creating intentional communities in order to partake in the same social benefits as church-folks do. Thomas conflates belief with church-going, but that’s a poor analysis of these studies. As one article states, concerning the survey showing that religious folks are nicer,

    A sobering note for believers is that this study reveals that the
    content of a person’s belief isn’t what matters so much as their level
    of involvement in a religious community.

    An atheist who comes to church to support her partner will rate as well as any believer on these scores.

    Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/society-and-culture/gods-truth-believers-are-nicer-20110908-1jzrl.html#ixzz2d6U7bRiK

    As atheists became more comfortable coming out of the closet over the past couple of decades, they were still suspicious of church-like activities they associated with the hostility encountered from their believing neighbors and relatives. It’s good to see that atheists are coming around to understand the benefits of regular meetings with others who share their values.

    And I have to giggle at this guy’s misunderstanding of evolution. By not utilizing the “god spot” we evolved with, he claims that atheists are not “fully-functioning humans.” I guess it wouldn’t occur to a believer that lack of belief may be the next step in human evolutionary development, since we may no longer need the strong social ties created through the worship of the same deity. Or even understanding that using an evolutionary trait (or not) “means” nothing at all. But as I mentioned earlier, his entire article feels more like a clever bit of trolling than a sincere evaluation of the science.

    For those of you who may be interested, here are the sites I checked out to see what these studies really stated:

    • DanielPeterson

      I’m deeply, deeply, deeply impressed, Paizlea, not to say awed, by your capacity to find and read all of those dozens and dozens of studies, and even to thoroughly master them and identify their utterly stupid and completely consistent flaw, withiin just a few hours.

      I’ve read some of them myself, and — silly me! — imagined that some were about church attendance, while some were focused on other things.

      • paizlea

        I’m sorry, what? Where did this hostile and sarcastic attitude come from? Have I attacked you or disparaged some deeply held belief of yours? If so, I apologize. I’m trying to engage in friendly discussion about the merits of an article you posted, and you respond with insults and sarcasm. Until now, I’d wondered why you, who at first glance appears to be more concerned with facts than mindless partisan debate, seem to have so many online enemies. But if this is how you typically respond to the people you disagree with, it’s not so surprising.

        But back to the subject at hand. You seem to have misread my post, because I never claimed that any of these studies are flawed, only that the author’s interpretation of them is. I’ve no doubt that regular church attendance is good for people. But leaping from church attendance to simple belief in a higher power is a pretty egregious misinterpretation of those findings. If you disagree, I’d be interested to know why.

        Since you take offense to the admittedly shallow reading I undertook to build my case against the author’s claims, would you mind actually refuting my argument? Your well-worded “Nuh-uh!” may be enough for people who already share your clearly low opinion of atheists, but please indulge me. Since you have taken so much more time than me in reviewing the literature, what other factors besides church attendance were considered in these studies? Was faith ever isolated as a variable?

        • Lucy Mcgee

          Smarty pants. That was really good.

        • DanielPeterson

          Yes, in several of them faith was isolated as a variable.

          • paizlea

            I see you don’t want to discuss this exceptionally flawed article any longer. Thanks for posting it, though – it’s a great example of how atheists are, to this day, viewed with great disdain by the believing community.

            But you usually express a delightfully ecumenical viewpoint, so I’m a little confused. What is it about atheists that you dislike so much?

          • DanielPeterson

            No, I don’t particularly want to discuss it further, and I happen to be very busy at the moment (e.g., the new academic year is starting, I have to write a speech to deliver at a friend’s funeral tomorrow morning, I’ve got thirty or so paper proposals for an upcoming academic conference that I need to have evaluated by Friday at noon, and so forth).

            It was a funny, deliberately provocative little piece, though it alludes to some very serious studies. I’m frankly surprised at how defensive some unbelievers appear to be.

            My beliefs on the most fundamental issues are routinely caricatured and mocked on national television, on Broadway, on hundreds of websites and message boards, in newspaper comments sections, on the radio, and in lots of other places. I don’t take it too seriously, on the whole. If I were thin-skinned I wouldn’t survive, at least not with my sanity intact.

          • Lucy Mcgee

            Your religious life revolves around a truth you’ve found in scripture. Atheists/deists have no such thing.

            Your scriptural beliefs are available for all to see, with footnotes from those who’ve left the faith. People attack your documents.

            How do you pin down the belief system of an atheist/agnostic? What atheist doctrines can be discussed? None.

            This leads to an attack:

            “Is it the atheists, who live short, selfish, stunted little lives – often childless – before they approach hopeless death in despair, and their worthless corpses are chucked in a trench (or, if they are wrong,
            they go to Hell)?”

  • Lucy Mcgee

    “This is government foreign aid. Private giving to international charity
    in the U.S. dwarfs all of Scandinavia and the rest of the EU combined.
    I do suppose, Lucy, that in your mind, as with so many on the Left,
    unless the state does something it probably doesn’t count in your mind
    as anything having been done at all, but I’ve long ago grown used to and
    expectant of those attitudes.”

    I’m going to try this one more time. I hope you can find the time to read it, especially figure 7, page 17, “Total Assistance from OECD Donor Countries to Developing Countries: ODA, Philanthropy and Remittances as a Percentage of GNI, 2010.” These data are gathered from the OECD:


    By the way, if you have trouble understanding these data, please let me know.

    I find the Mormon belief system fascinating. Not only because it offers keys to absolute moral truth, but that eternal progression and an eventual exalted status in a Celestial Kingdom is offered, and further, that is was created by a group of men who saw an amazing opportunity to create something lasting and more importantly unique, among the many movements of their day spawned during the Second Great Awakening. This was an era of maximum superstition, so I can see why seer stones became an important part of the story.

    What is also interesting is that the Church, throws off apostates who then find the time and inclination to create some very amazing websites which continuously point out flaws within the Mormon belief system. For me, this has been the most interesting part of my limited adventure into things Mormon.

    By the way, my rice paper thin understanding of religious concepts is due in part to the fact that for the vast majority of my life, I’ve never given organized religion much thought. And you’re correct that I could never engage in the spiritual dimension you find so gratifying. But I hope you would agree that religion, has become a huge business enterprise and that many have and will continue to take advantage, while amassing great wealth for themselves.

    I wish you luck in your “latter days” and your spiritual journey. I’ll not be taking part in that.

  • Lucy Mcgee

    All that we now understand.

  • Lucy Mcgee

    “Again, so what? Why are scientists qualified to pronounce on the
    existence of God with any greater authority than anyone else in any
    other discipline, or no particular academic discipline at all?”

    I don’t recall writing anything about authority. What I find interesting is that a majority of all in the sciences hold no belief in a personal God, and a large majority within the NAS don’t.

    It’s just an interesting statistic especially when compared to what the general public believes. It simply shows that those within the sciences are far less religious than the general population.

    By the way, what I also find fascinating is that according to a Pew Research Center survey, 48% of Christians in the U.S. say they believe that Christ will return to Earth in the next 40 years, and 27% of them were so sure, they said Jesus would “definitely” be back soon.

  • Lucy Mcgee

    Your assertion that belief in God is required to be a moral person is simply untrue. On the other hand, religious proclamations such as the “curse of Cain”, caused discrimination against blacks in your own church, and I would argue, show how zealotry of belief in ancient texts, written by iron age peasants, and carried through the ages, can create long lasting racism.

    The Lord said I will not kill Cain, but I will put a mark upon him and it is seen in the face of every Negro on the earth, and it is the decree of God that that mark shall remain upon the seed of Cain and the curse until all the seed of Abel should be redeemed and Cain will not receive the Priesthood or salvation until all the seed of Abel are redeemed. Any man having one drop of the seed of Cain in him cannot hold the Priesthood, and if no other prophet ever spake it before I will say it now in the name of Jesus Christ. – January 1852: Governor B. Young

    I think a non believer could argue that such language does not offer the best moral code for harmonious relationships with others. .

    • DanielPeterson

      I don’t believe that religious belief is necessary to be moral, but I suspect that morality needs something like religious belief in order to be firmly founded.

      And I would be willing to put Brigham Young at his worst up against Josef Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao Zedong, and Che Guevara at their best.

      • Lucy Mcgee

        When you write “religious belief”, are you referring to Abrahamic religions only or would something like Jainism be reliable enough?

        Dr. Peterson, my point wasn’t to denigrate Brigham Young, but simply to show that religious belief doesn’t always lead to the best moral practices. If often takes societal growth and accumulation of knowledge to refine morality. The Old Testament is filled with dogmas we would never consider today.

        • DanielPeterson

          My argument has never been about isolate instances, particular people, or individual anecdotes, but about overall statistical trends. Any cogent rebuttal of it has to be framed in comparable terms.

          I don’t think many studies have involved Jains, and I intend to stick to the data.

          • Lucy Mcgee

            So big picture, what religious belief(s) are you referring to which would lead one to be firmly grounded in morality? Jainism, one of the oldest religions with over four million followers, teaches non-violence, independence and equality. You’ve written about them.

            Is it only empirical data you’re interested in or results? Someone has determined that the Jains are a non-violent people worthy of study. What more are you looking for? Such morality seems like an amazing benchmark from which to measure other belief systems.

  • Lucy Mcgee

    You do need help. Read this slowly. Figure 7, page 17
    Total Assistance from OECD Donor Countries to Developing Countries: ODA, Philanthropy and Remittances as a Percentage of GNI, 2010, the US is #12. If you can’t get that far, then there is no sense debating this issue.

    It seems like you’re in a hurry to just type things without understanding what you’re actually reading.

  • Lucy Mcgee

    I’d challenge you to present these data to any outside source and have them determine which nations on a GNI basis give most to world humanitarian aid. Or if you like, we can do it per capita.

    Dr. Peterson, please weigh in here, since this is a topic you bring up often on your blog.

  • Lucy Mcgee

    I’ve spent 30+ years working at companies owned and dominated by religious
    folk. I’ve watched showrooms “anointed” with oil each year to bring in customers and encourage sales while the faithful spoke in tongues. I’ve taken part in many management meetings at several oil field services companies
    where a prayer was always offered (we held hands). I was always comfortable. Yet, as an outsider, there was a feeling of loneliness.

    The 80′s were filled with the influence of the “moral majority” on the national politic. I listened and didn’t much care for what these religious operators had to say. According to Falwell, Robertson, Graham, and others, I was a sinner, a cast out from the table of faithful humans who would save humanity from itself. These guys sold themselves as being instrumental in ushering in a divine future, til the scandals hit. I didn’t like it, or them. I figured they were in it for the fortunes they made. Ted Haggard had an open phone line to both President Bush and God. Televangelists multiplied. TBN was a big deal.

    I’m a skeptic and a non religious human who has done my best to live a moral and just life. I love our family deeply. I’ve never cheated on my spouse of 25 years who is the love of my life and my best friend. I’ve never cheated anyone in any business transaction and my only thievery was at age eight or so at a candy store. I consider myself kind and respectful and I feel my life has deep meaning.

    So, when I read the stuff this writer offered, I couldn’t help but be annoyed.

  • paizlea

    Sorry I missed your comment – you didn’t reply to my post directly, so it didn’t show up in my Disqus feed.

    The golden rule is the best strategy ever devised for achieving what most people want, regardless of their faith (or non-faith): a life of relative peace and comfort. By the time we’re adults, most of us have learned through direct experience that treating others well maximizes our own chances of being treated well. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is simply common sense.

    Why do you believe people require external motivation to act in their own best interest?

  • Lucy Mcgee

    No. If I’m wrong in reading these data, then I’ll admit it. You obviously believe that my original statement is incorrect, so I’m asking for other opinions. These data were generated by the OECD to provide an understanding of humanitarian aid flows. Organizations rely on these data. There are billions of dollars at stake yearly and it’s important to understand the contribution landscape.

    Look, I’d be the first to admit that religious groups do great and important work. In fact, our family has been involved in meals on wheels for a decade in our Portland neighborhood and we see, weekly, all the time and effort spent by the Presbyterian Church faithful organizing things. We’ve grown to really like these people and their commitment to solving the problem of hunger among the elderly. Poor people need help.

    In fact I would submit that personal giving of time and money toward theistic causes within the boundary of the various places of worship far exceeds secular giving, which it should.

    The challenge I have, is that it is often denied that secular organizations care less, or do less internationally to assists the billions of far less than fortunate humans barely making a living. I don’t think I’ve ever gone a week, when I’ve not thought about this.

    On a personal note, we’ve given largely to Save the Children for over a decade, where we sponsor young kids living in poverty in Egypt. These are people we’ll never meet and who exist under oppressive regimes where resources are not shared. So we give up a percentage of our first world income to help third world kids. We see their often sad faces and wonder where is God? And we are certain, that there is much discrimination going on as we’ve seen all over the news these past months. But geopolitics would never cause us to stop sending money to the children we sponsor. We know they need our help. There is nothing more to understand.

  • Lucy Mcgee

    And by the way, I’d truly appreciate a reply from Dr. Peterson. I think any meaningful discussion should include the tolerance of other views and the recognition that our human proclivities and biases guarantee that we will be incorrect some of the time. That’s why data are important.