9 Great Freethinkers and Religious Dissenters in History

This article was originally published on AlterNet. What kind of world would we have if a majority of the human race was atheist? To hear religious apologists tell it, the triumph of atheism would mean a swift descent into selfishness and chaos. The defenders of the faith argue that atheism inevitably leads to selfishness and nihilism, and that only religion can justify charity or compassion, bind people together in community, or inspire a lively and flourishing culture. But this assertion can … [Read more...]

Blogging Better Angels: The Escalator of Reason

In my last post, I talked about some of the cultural factors Steven Pinker identifies that have led to a reduction in violence. There are two other major forces he discusses which are worthy of note. The Flynn Effect The first of these is a truly strange phenomenon. If you go by the results of IQ tests, average intelligence has been steadily rising for decades. This is called the Flynn effect, and it's been found consistently in countries all around the world since IQ tests first started being … [Read more...]

Blogging Better Angels: Changing of the Norms

In my previous post, I discussed how the invention of government led to a major reduction in the level of violence in human civilization, as compared to the constant battles of tribal societies. But while democracy, laws and police forces can account for most of the decline, they can't account for all of it. To get to the extraordinarily low levels of violence seen in most developed nations today, we need to invoke other cultural forces that tilt the balance toward peace. In Better Angels, … [Read more...]

Blogging Better Angels: Hobbes Was Right

The most famous human being of prehistoric times is probably Otzi the Iceman, a Neolithic human whose mummified body was discovered frozen in a glacier in the Alps in 1991. What's less well known about Otzi is that he met his death violently: an arrowhead was lodged in his back, and he was carrying an arrow and a flint knife which had traces of three people's blood, none of them his own. Anthropologists speculate that he was part of a raiding party that attacked a rival tribe and was killed … [Read more...]

The Godless Constitution and the Ratification Battle

Over the weekend, JT linked to this post on Patheos by Ben Witherington, an evangelical Bible scholar, opining about the legal basis for separation of church and state in America.But what about those founding documents— the Declaration, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. Didn't they set up a secular society for America? Didn't they set up 'a separation of church and state'? Look hard— can you find any clause that uses that phrase in our founding documents? Basically this … [Read more...]

Blogging Better Angels: The Bad Old Days

Back in May, I reviewed Steven Pinker's hugely ambitious new book The Better Angels of Our Nature, about the decline of violence through history. I couldn't do justice to all the ideas in this book with a single post, so I promised to return to it and write about Pinker's argument in more detail. It's taken me a while, but I'm getting back to that promise now. I plan to write several posts exploring some of the major ideas put forth in the book, which I intend to eventually collect into an essay … [Read more...]

Apocalypse Soon: Why Are Christians So Obsessed With the End Times?

This essay was previously published on AlterNet. In the summer of 2010, I saw him several times a week: a portly, dark-skinned gentleman, leaning against a pillar in Penn Station and holding out two fistfuls of pamphlets to the disinterested commuters. He wore glasses and earbuds connected to an MP3 player in his coat pocket, and always had a serene, almost bored expression that was in sharp contrast to the urgency of his message:He was, of course, one of the devotees of … [Read more...]

Book Review: The Better Angels of Our Nature

I've just finished reading Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature, an extraordinary book that I think deserves wider attention. I want to write a full review, but this book is far too vast (696 pages!) and too broad in scope to do it justice in a single post, so I plan to split my review up into several installments over the coming weeks. This post is just to serve as a brief overview of the book and a few of its more startling data points. The book's thesis is that humanity is … [Read more...]

Rehabilitating the Inquisition

These days, one of the blogs where I spend the most time commenting is Leah Libresco's Unequally Yoked on Patheos. This isn't just because its author has a unique and interesting perspective unlike any I've seen elsewhere, but also because there's a lot more give-and-take between atheists and theists (mostly Catholics) than you find in the comments section of many atheist blogs. And while debating and attempting to persuade believers is a fun and worthwhile pursuit in and of itself, I also do … [Read more...]

Book Review: Letters From an Atheist Nation

(Author's Note: The following review was solicited and is written in accordance with this site's policy for such reviews.) Summary: A surprising, welcome reminder that atheism has a long and storied history in the U.S. Letters from an Atheist Nation, edited by Thomas Lawson, is a compilation of reader letters printed by the Blue Grass Blade, a pro-atheist, pro-freethought newspaper published in, of all places, Kentucky in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Its editor, Charles Chilton Moore, was a … [Read more...]