Closeted Christians

Ada Calhoun has an article in Salon about how she has been a closeted Christian (until now). She kept her beliefs to herself because she was surrounded by atheists and those who joke about her faith.

… Walking to the subway, I ran into a friend heading home from yoga class. She wore sweats and carried her mat over her shoulder. “Where are you going so early all dressed up?” she asked, chuckling. “To church?” We shared a laugh at the absurdity of a liberal New Yorker heading off to worship.

The real joke? I totally was.

So what’s the right reaction to this piece? Should we feel bad that atheists are being critical of her just because she happens to be religious, or is her tirade unwarranted?

It’s unwarranted.

The problem with her article is that her friends are generally right. They’re not mocking the few positive aspects of faith that Calhoun wants to hype. They’re going after the Christian mindset — the one that is sadly held by tens of millions of people in America — that is anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-science, and tightly aligned with the Republican party.

Look at what Calhoun likes about her faith:

All of us need help with birth and death and good and evil, and religion can give us that. It doesn’t solve problems. It reminds you that, yes, those challenges are real and important and folks throughout history have struggled and thought about them too, and by the way, here is some profound writing on the subject from people whose whole job is to think about this stuff.

She wants hope and comfort rather than the truth. She wants community. She doesn’t understand that Humanists have ways of dealing with all of these things. They’re not as well-established, but they’re there.

Calhoun implies that atheists are attacking the natural human desire for comfort and answers. As far as I can tell, though, her friends aren’t laughing at her for any of those reasons. We’re focusing on the notion that anyone’s faith has those answers, in some “holy” book, and that if you don’t accept those answers you’re eternally doomed.

Maybe her ignorance of the negative aspects of religion is better explained by her ignorance of atheists. When she doesn’t understand what motivates us, it’s easy to ignore what we’re upset about.

When she complains about atheists, she only digs herself into a deeper hole:

… atheists are at least as fundamentalist and zealous as any religious people I know, and they have nothing good to show for it: no stained glass, no great literature, no great art, no comfort in the face of death. Just dissipated Christopher Hitchens sounding off on “Larry King Live” and a stack of smug books with childishly provocative titles.

Wow.

Christians have entire TV stations, radio stations, and publishing empires dedicated to their faith. And she’s going after Hitchens for being a guest on a show and atheists for writing books? (We’re “smug”? Has she seen the titles of bestselling Christian books?)

If atheists had the money and power hundreds of years ago, we may very well have those things to show for it. Unfortunately, the Church saw to it that that wasn’t the case. Thankfully, there are atheist artists and writers, and we do have ways of dealing with difficult times.

But to claim atheists are “fundamentalists” because we stick to logic and reason? It’s an old argument that has never worked in the past and won’t work in the future. We’re not blowing up buildings in the name of atheism and we’re not trying to legislate our beliefs into law. Our beliefs are based on reliable evidence and not stories passed down through the generations. They can change depending on new evidence and that’s a sign of strength, not weakness.

We’re just frustrated that so many people try to suppress the truth in the name of their personal mythology. And every time we show that frustration, people like Calhoun label us as “angry,” “aggressive,” “militant,” or “fundamentalist.”

It all just ties into this idea that Calhoun doesn’t understand atheism or why atheists have a problem with religion.

She tries to cite the Episcopal Church as a force for good:

I could reassure my atheist friends that the Episcopal Church is a force for equality and social justice. It ordained its first gay bishop, Gene Robinson, in 2003. It takes the Bible as a mandate to fight hunger and disease and to rebuild after disasters.

She doesn’t mention, though, that non-religious people have been fighting for civil rights and social justice long before the Episcopalians saw the light. Where’s our due credit?

The same church, regardless of their “progressive doctrine” believes in the existence of heaven and hell, the divinity of Jesus, Jesus’ resurrection, and the magic of Baptism. Every one of those beliefs is based in superstition. Every one of those beliefs has no foundation to stand on.

That’s why religious beliefs deserve to be criticized. You don’t get bonus points because you happen to hit a couple singles when the rest of your team is striking out.

We’re not going after straw men or individual figureheads like Pat Robertson or James Dobson. We’re going after the entire belief system.

If your church is only now coming around to accepting gay people and promoting good science and fighting against the Christian Right, you’re years behind the rest of us who have been doing all that for decades.

We criticize religious beliefs because of their basis in the supernatural. While it’s nice that some of those beliefs cause some people to do good works, the non-religious among us do those same things without needing a god to tell us to act that way.

When you support a power structure and belief system that has caused and continues to cause so many problems in this world — just because you feel it brings you “comfort” — you should have to defend yourself.

You shouldn’t be able to get away with saying your church does a few good things without defending all the other rotten and wrong beliefs they also hold — such as the existence of hell and the resurrection of a dead person and the refusal to marry gay people in their churches because homosexuals are not equal to you (at least in the eyes of some bigoted god).

It also makes no sense to claim a sense of persecution when, as the author herself mentions,there are churches on virtually every block and Christians in every branch of government.

It’s waaaaaaaay tougher to be an atheist in Alabama than a Christian in California.

Does saying all this make me “unfriendly”? I don’t think so. I still believe that progressive religious people can be among atheists’ greatest allies. But that doesn’t mean I have to agree with them. And I certainly don’t have to sit back and take it when someone attacks my beliefs without good reason. As Massimo Pigliucci said, “we should think of them as allies, not as kindred spirits.”

Atheists aren’t perfect by any means. And all people, regardless of their beliefs, deserve decency and respect.

But your beliefs are fair game, they have not earned any special protection, and we are going to keep criticizing them (when deserved) as long as you hold them.

  • Claudia

    What I find most striking about her article is that she never, not once, defends being a Christian on the basis that Christianity is true. She mentions community, comfort, a sense of purpose etc. She discusses how nice it feels to go to church, but she never ever says that, you know, you should be a Christian because Christianity is true, because Jesus really was the son of God and you really need to have your sins forgiven to get into heaven and avoid hell.

    Dawkins was once asked why he cared so much about what other people believed, and once he had given an (abreviated) list of the harm done by religions, he said that even besides that, he deeply cares about truth. It matters if something is true or not. That being religious is going to make you feel nice and cozy is totally besides the point. If she is a Christian presumably she believes at least a few basic things about sin, and Jesus, and heaven and hell. Does she propose that if those beliefs don’t make you feel good you shouldn’t have them? Does truth not actually matter?

    Unless her friends are very poor friends indeed she is probably overly-paranoid about how awful it would be to confess to being a Christian. She’d get quizzed plenty; on her views on Gay rights, abortion, evolution. Once it was established she was in fact still sane and educated, all but the nastiest people would shrug and move on.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    I have friends that belief crazy things. One friend of mine believes he saw a formation of UFOs. Another friend of mine strongly believes in ghosts. Do I mock them? Yes a bit, when they bring it up, but only for a bit. We see past that one issue and don’t let it define our friendship. We remain friends. I think that her friendships could survive her publically being a Christian. On the other hand, if she were an evangelist and “witnessed” to them about Jesus all the time, it might start to grate on their nerves.

  • PrimeNumbers

    Indeed, a very straw man attack on atheism, and a miserable defence of Christianity.

    Even the criticism of Hitchens is laughable when any perceived flaws in Hitchens are so rendered into the realms of the negligible by Benny Hinn.

    That atheists have not created anything of artistic worth is a miserable lie, and she knows it.

  • Carrie

    I think her problem is that she’s ashamed of who she is. It’s all about image to her. I was a vegan and atheist teen in rural Kentucky and while it caused some problems, my friends always respected who I was. And that included my prom date, who went on to attend the Oral Roberts University and my best friend in college, a Pentecostal. I don’t think I could be friends with them if they pretended to agree with me only to disparage me behind my back. And that is exactly what the author does.

    And I would say that atheists have plenty of great literature. What would the state of robotics currently be if we didn’t have Asimov (quite a vocal atheist) influencing generations of scientists?

  • http://duoquartuncia.blogspot.com Duae Quartunciae

    You say:

    Does saying all this make me “unfriendly”? I don’t think so. I still believe that progressive religious people can be among atheists’ greatest allies. But that doesn’t mean I have to agree with them. And I certainly don’t have to sit back and take it when someone attacks my beliefs without good reason. As Massimo Pigliucci said, “we should think of them as allies, not as kindred spirits.”

    Well put. Being a friendly atheist does not mean being a milksop. Ada Calhoun might find that some of her atheist friends really are friendly, if she was more open to them. She’d run the risk of there being a few jerks as well, but surely it is better to be honest?

    If so, her atheist friends may still be critical of religion, but if they are her friends they won’t harp on it with her all the time or be nasty about it. Friends can have different viewpoints.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    She doesn’t mention, though, that non-religious people have been fighting for civil rights and social justice long before the Episcopalians saw the light. Where’s our due credit?

    Heh. Don’t wait up. Why does Susan B. Anthony’s face appear on some U.S. dollar coins? Because Elizabeth Cady Stanton was too much of a freethinker.

  • Ron in Houston

    They’re going after the Christian mindset — the one that is sadly held by tens of millions of people in America — that is anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-science, and tightly aligned with the Republican party.

    However, there in lies the bigotry of certain atheists. Yes, certain Christians hold that viewpoint; however, to attribute it to all is nothing but bigotry.

  • Ron in Houston

    Atheists aren’t perfect by any means. And all people, regardless of their beliefs, deserve decency and respect.

    But your beliefs are fair game, they have not earned any special protection, and we are going to keep criticizing them (when deserved) as long as you hold them.

    I’m confused. To me being decent and respectful of a person means being decent and respectful of their beliefs. I suppose you can engage in the same odd dichotomy as certain Christians with the “hate the sin but love the sinner” paradox. However, that just doesn’t add up to me.

  • Trace

    From your link:

    “The Church was organized shortly after the American Revolution when it was forced to break with the Church of England on penalty of treason as Church of England clergy were required to swear allegiance to the British monarch,”

    Such a sad chapter in US history.

  • http://whoreofalltheearth.blogspot.com Whore of All the Earth

    @Claudia, NonStampCollector just made a great video about why atheists should care about what other people believe.

  • Lymis

    I think your piece misses the bigger point. Why is she closeted about it?

    If she has friends whose biggest objection to her Christianity is that she dresses up for church, then she needs better friends.

    If her religion makes her a better person than she would otherwise be, if it makes her more loving and more compassionate, if it makes her a better friend, more open to the social needs of those around her, and a fiercer advocate for justice, equality, and tolerance, then she has absolutely nothing to be ashamed of or to hide from her friends.

    She doesn’t say, for example, whether she does yoga, but if she doesn’t, she presumably sees that it is of value to her friend, even if she might occasionally make pretzel jokes.

    On the other hand, if the reason she is closeted about her religion to her friends is that the people she hangs out with at church are bigoted, ignorant, closed-minded, self-righteous, or exclusionary, then her friends have every right to call her on it.

    I can’t help but wonder if she is equally closeted at church about her non-Christian friends. She bemoans that in the public mind Christianity is only associated with right wing assholes. Go figure.

    If religion (and I would say, spirituality) is as central to her experience as she claims, then if her “friends” are really that intolerant of her, she needs to dump them for more open-minded people. Or give them a chance to be more open-minded.

    Why am I skeptical that when she sits and listens to her friends trash religion, they are making fun of feeding the poor, helping the sick and homeless, providing shelter for battered spouses, or of the great works of art and music, philosophy and literature?

  • http://atheistcamel.blogspot.com/ Dromedary Hump

    Ron said above:

    “I’m confused. To me being decent and respectful of a person means being decent and respectful of their beliefs.”

    I don’t understand your confusion. A person and a belief are two different things, and not necessarily are both worthy of respect.

    Why are beliefs that promulgate ignorance, denial of reality/science, bigotry, and seek to truncate the freedoms of certain people worthy of “respect?” Simply because they are beliefs?

    Are we obliged to respect the beliefs of those who would practice human sacrifice (if it were still practiced) simply because it’s their belief? Nonsense.

    A belief predicated on ignorance, superstition and falshood is due no respect. But I respect the right of people to “believe” if that’s what they have been conditioned to do. I may even respect the person inspite of their theistic infirmity.

    Hemant…excellent aricle.

  • http://olivenyc.wordpress.com/ Olivia

    I have lived in NYC all my life, and I’m calling BS on Calhoun’s editorial. A liberal Christian in NYC? They’re EVERYWHERE!!! Posted on my blog:

    This is in response to a friend’s comment about an editorial I posted on Facebook (a great forum for stirring controversy, apparently). I am a closet Christian by Ada Calhoun begins by relating the author’s experiences of covering up her Christianity in New York City. Odd, I’m sure, since NYC is the largest American city with the most religious houses of worship. But Calhoun thinks that, since she’s a liberal with liberal friends, she can’t possibly be a proud Christian. Nevermind the fact that plenty of liberals also wear their religion on their sleeve. The Panel Study of American Religion & Ethnicity cites 26.5% of those participating in its poll as having liberal religious views, and 37.4% as leaning to the left. Of those confirmed liberals, almost 40% consider themselves “very liberal.” Calhoun also uses the Panel Study of American Religion & Ethnicity to validate one of her points, but more on that later.

    So my friend notes that Calhoun isn’t playing the victim here since her points seem to be valid. And my belittling of the editorial adds to the “outrageous vehemency of the anti-religious.” I’ll admit it: I am a lot more vocal than most about my atheism. And when a suppressed, discriminated minority begins speaking up for itself, I can see how some would interpret that as “vehement.” But that doesn’t mean we’re not correct.

    But on to those points that seem to be valid. Here they are:

    1.“All of us need help with birth and death and good and evil, and religion can give us that. It doesn’t solve problems.” Yes, but it definitely creates problems.

    2.“[Closeted Christianity] definitely exists in Manhattan, some Democratic corners in Washington, and I’d bet parts of Northern California.” Really? Manhattan, where just today I saw a woman praying on a rosary in the subway and walked by 3 churches in a 4 block radius? And DC, where there is only one open atheist in Congress, Pete Stark from CA? Not to mention the whole world of politics, where almost 50% of Americans would never vote an atheist into the Oval Office and religious people recently tried to usurp open atheist Cecil Bothwell from his elected position as Asheville, NC city councilman. Why? Because the NC state constitution, plus at least 6 others, bars atheists from holding public office.

    3.“The Panel Study of American Religion and Ethnicity asked people how they felt about those outside their close friends and family knowing they were religious. About 2 percent said they didn’t want people to know, and that percentage is higher among people with liberal politics and people, like me, who are part of Generation X.” Maybe Calhoun should have added that over 40% of those polled want people to know they are religious. I also find it interesting that Calhoun provides links to promote a religious book and a reverend’s personal website in her article, but fails to provide the link to this piece of evidence that would expose her narrow-mindedness – but I digress. To address the point that more than 2% of liberal Gen-X’ers don’t feel comfortable wearing their religion on their sleeve: I can’t think of a college that doesn’t have a religious group on-campus. In fact, there are colleges specifically for religious people! And if those +2% of liberal Gen-X’ers are finally listening to criticism, then that’s not a bad thing.

    4.“But if you’re in a place like New York City…the ‘new atheists’ surround you.” Calhoun then goes on to point out the recent poster campaigns by the Big Apple Coalition of Reason and by Richard Dawkins in London. And that atheist authors criticizing the religious is like “shooting Christian fish car magnets in a barrel.” Okay, a few posters on buses and in subway stations does not equate “surrounding” you. Over 6,500 houses of worship in NYC is more like it. You don’t see atheists handing out the next Dawkins best-seller, but plenty of people hand-out pocket-sized Bibles and pamphlets proclaiming the “Word.” As for shooting fish in a barrel? It’s not the atheist’s fault that so many people are religious. If religion didn’t corrupt politics and education, there’d be a lot less of us pointing out the fallacy of faith.

    5.“The Creation Museum is a riot. The psychos shooting up abortion clinics and telling gay couples they’re going to hell are evil, and anyone of faith has an obligation to condemn them. Abominable stuff has been done in God’s name for centuries. The Bible has a lot of crazy shit in it about stoning people for using the wrong salad fork. Up with science and reason!” Really the first and only valid point Calhoun has made.

    6.“atheists are at least as fundamentalist and zealous as any religious people I know, and they have nothing good to show for it: no stained glass, no great literature, no great art, no comfort in the face of death.” Let’s see… “fundamentalism” as defined by Merriam-Webster: skipping over the blatantly obvious definition relating to Christianity, “a movement of attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles.” The only principle we have is that we do not personally believe in a supernatural deity. There is no adherence to a set of rules. Atheism may be a movement, but it is by no means fundamentalism. But even disregarding Calhoun’s warped dictionary, it is a slap in the face to the world of art and literature that she thinks only religion can inspire great works. There have been, and still are, plenty of nontheist authors, entertainers, and musicians, some of whom are professed atheists.

    7.“When I’m getting a ride from some friends and they start talking about how stupid religious people are and quoting lines from ‘Religulous,’ do I have an obligation to point out how reductive and bigoted they’re being, the way I would if they were talking about a particular race?” Yes and no. Yes, you are obliged to let your friends know that you are religious so that they can finally have a worthwhile conversation about religion with you. No, you are not allowed to equate your religious “persecution” with racial bigotry. Why? Simply because religion is not the same thing as race. You cannot choose or abandon your race; you have every freedom to choose your religion (or lack thereof). So freethinkers criticizing religious dogma and their adherents is in no sense similar to racists insulting ethnic minorities.

    So there is my response, certainly too lengthy to put on my profile. I suppose I would have respected Calhoun’s editorial a little more if she were actually insulted by her friends for being a Christian, but she wasn’t. She hides her practice like a dirty little secret so she can still partake in the carpool gossip. So if Calhoun wants to play the victim, she should postpone her acting career until an atheist is president, the Pledge of Allegiance is restored to its original glory, Trinity Church and St. Patrick’s Cathedral become meeting places for American Atheists, and theists are barred from public office in 6 states.

  • Greg

    Ugh – the same tired old canards.

    Atheists are fundamentalist (Which by definition is impossible – there’d need to be an ‘atheist belief (system)’ to be fundamental about.)

    Atheists write books with childish titles. (Right… ‘The God Delusion’ – the most ‘childish’ I can think of really, which says how ludicrous that claim is. ‘The Dawkins Delusion’ however…)

    Church makes me feel warm and fuzzy. (Uh – so? Maybe serial killers feel warm and fuzzy each time they take a life. Something feeling good to you doesn’t mean it’s correct, or the right action to take.)

    Religion has given all this wonderful architecture, atheism hasn’t. (A bit like saying that Hinduism didn’t give Spain any items of cultural beauty during the Spanish Inquisition years. Or while men were still cavemen, come to that.)

    Religion is a force for equality and social justice. (Do I really need to put a comment here? Sigh. Why are they that social force – their religion, or because our secular morals have countered the dogmas inheritent in their religion, and these people are open enough to ignore the bigotry in their holy books?)

    One of these days I should write out conclusive responses to these, and save it to bring out on special occ… every other day.

    The thing I find most amusing about this is that from personal experience people only make humorous comments like that to friends if they believe they can take a joke.

    Maybe the friends aren’t particularly good judges of character.

    One last thought. Given that atheism and theism are by definition two diametrically opposed points of view, if people talking about their beliefs openly, or taking action based on those beliefs, offends you, they have just as much right to take offence whenever you talk about your beliefs openly, or take actions based upon your beliefs. Why can people (particularly fundamentalist theists) not see this? Taken offence from people who’ve dared to talk about atheism? Then shut up about your religion or prove yourself a hypocrite.

  • Ed

    And yet, atheists are at least as fundamentalist and zealous as any religious people I know, and they have nothing good to show for it: no stained glass, no great literature, no great art, no comfort in the face of death.

    Ridiculous. People, regardless and sometimes in spite of their beliefs, did and do all these things. Human beings built stained glass, wrote all literature, made all art and are the only beings I have ever seen working in hospice or grief counseling or simply hugging the bereaved. This is not a function of theism or atheism, it is a function of humanity.

    Even if we were to draw artificial barriers around human behavior like the lables theism or atheism, one could make a very strong case that atheism has indeed produced many of these things, science being but one obvious example. Even when particular scientists happen to be religious, science itself as a whole, rejects religion precisely because supernatural explanations don’t provide any explanations at all, but rather serve to preserve ignorance (or if you prefer, mystery). List of atheist scientists

  • Trixie

    “Surrounded by atheists”? Wow. I wanna live in New York.

  • TychaBrahe

    OK, see, I don’t really care if she believes in resurrection or heaven or whatever any more than I care that Shintoists believe in kami. I have friends who believe in UFO’s and panspermia and astrology. Who cares what they believe? Their life, their head, their clutter in it.

    Living with people with stupid beliefs is like living with a roommate whose room looks like a tornado blew through it but who does her chores and keeps the kitchen and bathroom tidy. If she wants to sleep cuddled by last year’s newspapers, that’s her problem, and as long as the common areas are clean, I don’t care.

    The problem is when her beliefs are used to justify affecting other people. If you don’t like gay sex and feel its antithetical to your religion, fine, just keep that clutter in your room. It’s the idea that your beliefs should be used to define public policy, such as restricting the rights of gays, or banning gay marriage, or–in Uganda–suggesting that we should execute people who have gay sex, well, now you’re messing up the public areas. And that makes you a bad Earth-mate. Keep your crap to yourself.

    If you want to believe that God created the Earth in six days, or that it was manufactured by Ringworld engineers, or that it’s flat and supported on the back of elephants, fine. You are an adult and can believe what you want. If you want to take that crap into the classroom and force children to be taught your baseless hypotheses, well, no. That’s the public space, and we have to keep it clean for company.

    Keep your crap in your head and no one will care.

  • http://www.Dead-Logic.com Bud

    By claiming atheists are fundamentalists Ada Calhoun is employing the Tu Quoque form of the Ad Hominem fallacy. Not only is it unwarranted, it neither addresses nor defends the real fundamentalism running rampant among religious practitioners today. I’m not sure she wants to defend religious fundamentalism, but she’s using the fallacy nonetheless.

    Calhoun seems reasonable enough; that is, she won’t be bombing abortion clinics or protesting that “god hates fags.” But she has assumed that her atheist friends will certainly reject or belittle her for her faith, so up to this point she has stayed “in the closet.”

    She should give her atheist friends a chance instead of assuming the worst. Even if those particular atheists do treat her like garbage after she’s gone public with her Christian belief, that doesn’t mean all atheists would do so. She suggests that not all Christians (including herself) are liable for every monstrous thing ever done in the name of Jesus (and I agree). She should also accept that not all atheists are closed minded or cruel. She suggests that Christianity is not monolithic. She has no reason to think atheism is either.

    Does she really think she’s a persecuted minority? She lives in New York City. Most of the United States would welcome her Christianity with open arms. She’s hardly a minority, much less a persecuted one.

    Calhoun seems to confuse criticizing a person’s beliefs with criticizing the person herself. That is, of course, another flaw in her reasoning. Someone can respect me yet disagree with everything I think. I am not my beliefs. My beliefs are, well, what I believe. They are always subject to change in light of newly discovered evidence. Are hers? Doesn’t seem like it.

  • Rick M

    If Ada Calhoun wants to describe herself as a Christian then she’s going to have to live with the negativity and suspicion that that label has among her peers, NY hipsters, intellectuals, and other folks who are just not impressed by any religious beliefs. She could take comfort in the fact that many US Christians don’t consider the Episcopal denomination as christian and that many of the anti gay and women clergy Episcopalians are jumping ship.

    When I used to travel to Europe on business I would wear a Canadian flag pin (I’m a US citizen) because of the widespread anti-American sentiment. My French and German colleagues understood the dodge.

  • Parse

    Does Ms. Calhoun strive to reclaim Christianity from the fundamentalists? From the prosperity gospel preachers? From those who use their faith as a bludgeon against those they hate? From those who put their words in the mouth of God, and claim it’s absolute truth?

    It looks to me that she is hearing a lot of badmouthing and criticism about the vocal representatives of Christianity. She should trying to demonstrate or explain to her friends that the Creflo Dollars and Pat Robertsons of the world do not speak for her church and her faith. Instead, by taking the criticism personally and viewing herself as being oppressed, she is saying that they DO speak for her.

    Perhaps she should spend more time thinking about why her friends complain about Christians, not thinking about how persecuted she feels.

  • Ron in Houston

    Dromedary

    It really has nothing to do with whether I internally respect your belief of not. If I want to believe that Angelina Jolie is secretly in love with me, then so long as I don’t break the law or otherwise do something that negatively impacts others then why can’t I have my belief. Who appointed anyone else the atheist messiah who must save the world of their delusions.

  • Tim Carroll

    Okay – this woman’s critiques of atheistic “fundamentalism” has more holes in it than… well, never mind that.
    Atheists are attacking the beliefs and not the people. To many christians, just saying that you are an atheist is an attack on their beliefs.
    I wonder this – if she feels that she must keep her faith secret, while christians everywhere are only too vocal about theirs…
    if she feels that she must keep her faith secret, in spite of the fact that she has an entire church to fall back on…
    if she feels that she must keep her faith secret, in a country where religious tolerance is law…
    perhaps it is because she knows how silly and unreasonable her beliefs are. Perhaps she is really embarassed because she has them in the first place, and cannot commit to looking at them honestly.
    Just a thought.

  • http://www.sacredriver.org Ash Bowie

    It is frustrating when Christians feel persecuted (however unjustified) and cannot translate that into empathy for what it is like to be an atheist in this country. You might think that just one of them might say, “Wow, just by having my beliefs lightly challenged by some friends makes me feel insecure and put upon. It must be a thousand times worse to have a worldview that inspires otherwise kind and reasonable people to despise and vilify you.”

    I maintain that Ada’s feelings about her experiences are grounded in doubts about her own beliefs. As has been pointed out, even in New York she is surrounded by Christians and Christian institutions, and yet that is not enough to prevent her from feeling threatened and insulted by the few atheists who mock her beliefs. Instead, Ada responds with tired straw man arguments against atheism and cherry picking some positives about her religion that she refuses to acknowledge exist in non-theistic contexts as well (art, humanitarianism, community, etc).

    Chances are, Ada is perfectly aware of the irrational nature of her beliefs and the plethora of real-world negatives that find their source in Christianity; her irritation is a response to being reminded of those things. What she is asking for in her article is protection from reality, a warm, cozy blanket that she can wrap herself in, insulation from all the aspects of her religion that causes embarrassment and perhaps even shame.

    But atheists, in general, aren’t out to embarrass or shame Christians; a lot of us simply want to promote reason, fairness, and freedom from religion within the public sphere. But as long as we do that (much less offer direct challenges to supernatural beliefs), we can expect the kind of oversensitive response that Ada wrote in Salon.

  • Parse

    One other thing that I cannot let go unchallenged. I have looked up the study that Ms. Calhoun says claims that 2% don’t want those beyond their close friends and family to know they are religious. The specific statistic that she references is available here. The full page of questions about this is here.

    So I do not take her out of context, the exact wording that she uses is:

    The Panel Study of American Religion and Ethnicity asked people how they felt about those outside their close friends and family knowing they were religious. About 2 percent said they didn’t want people to know, and that percentage is higher among people with liberal politics and people, like me, who are part of Generation X.

    What the page actually says the question is: “How do you feel about letting others outside of your closer friends and family know that you are a member of the religion you stated earlier?”
    This includes the unaffiliated and other categories.
    When looking at the breakdown of the numbers, it looks even worse for Ms. Calhoun’s statistics. Of the 1896 Christians of various flavors that replied to the survey, 16 replied negatively: either “Probably do not want people to know” or “Definitely do not want people to know”. For those not doing the math at home, that’s .84%. The two non-Christian categories, unaffiliated or other, had 714 participants, of whom 33 replied negatively – that’s 4.6%.

    Simply put, the survey Ms. Calhoun is using does not support her claim of Christian persecution.

  • http://miketheinfidel.blogspot.com/ MikeTheInfidel

    Regarding:

    All of us need help with birth and death and good and evil, and religion can give us that.

    If you’re good enough with “religion” helping you, why Christianity, specifically? This is something I realized in my last few steps out of the religion. If you’ve come to the point where you’ve rejected the literal truth of the claims of the religion you follow (e.g. that faith in Jesus is the only true path to God), you’ve come to the point where you’re basically choosing to follow that religion (even if in name only) just because it’s familiar.

    If you believe that all religions are valid or that they all have truth, it quickly becomes difficult to justify, to yourself, following one specific tradition. This is how “nondenominational Christian” can really be read as “nominal Christian”.

  • Neon Genesis

    Atheists have never produced any art? What about Yip Harburg, who wrote the lyrics of Somewhere Over The Rainbow and composed musicals and wrote many poems? What about the poet Emily Dickinson? What about Ralph Vaughan Williams composing the classical music, A Sea Symphony? What about the novels of Philip Pullman and Ursula K Le Guin?

  • aerie

    @Ron in Houston:

    Why don’t you read the post from TychaBrahe who is just a couple of posts prior to yours. She explains it well. Do you read anyone’s posts or do you just post blindly without regards to what others say?

  • Alec

    PZ Myers has written a good blog entry on this as well:
    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2009/12/christian_shame.php

  • Stephen P

    Ron:

    They’re going after the Christian mindset — the one that is sadly held by tens of millions of people in America — that is anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-science, and tightly aligned with the Republican party.

    However, there in lies the bigotry of certain atheists. Yes, certain Christians hold that viewpoint; however, to attribute it to all is nothing but bigotry.

    In the case of most groups of people, whether identified by occupation, skin colour, native language or whatever, you would have a justifiable complaint. But Christians are different. Christians claim to be in contact with the one all-knowing, all-powerful, unchanging dictator of all that is right and moral. Christians claim – sometimes only implicitly, but often explicitly – to speak for all Christians. (After all, admission that that was not the case would be admission that they aren’t in contact with the deity.) It is not bigotry to take them at their word.

    If some Christians do not wish to be tarred with the fundamentalist brush, then let them first admit that there is no such thing as the Christian religion. Christianity is a host of religions, only rather loosely related to one another, none of which is able to demonstrate any better contact with a purported deity than any other.

    If some Christians do not wish to be tarred with the fundamentalist brush, then let them first renounce the bible. That primitive book is after all undeniably anti-gay and anti-woman, not to mention anti-reality, anti-democracy and opposed to freedom of expression. (I can’t immediately recall anything about the Republican party, but there’s probably a relevant passage somewhere in Revelation.) Let them stop quoting the bible, stop giving bibles to my children and stop coming around to my door to ask me if they can talk about the bible. Let them replace the bible with a book that they actually do believe in. And until they do, they have no grounds for complaining about bigotry.

  • http://www.sacredriver.org Ash Bowie

    Ron in Houston wrote:

    ***************
    They’re going after the Christian mindset — the one that is sadly held by tens of millions of people in America — that is anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-science, and tightly aligned with the Republican party.

    However, there in lies the bigotry of certain atheists. Yes, certain Christians hold that viewpoint; however, to attribute it to all is nothing but bigotry.
    ***************

    Ron, a standard definition of bigotry is: “stubborn and complete intolerance of any creed, belief, or opinion that differs from one’s own.” Within this context, it is not bigotry to point out that large groups of Christians do in fact promote anti-gay, anti-woman, and anti-science perspectives, and that the vast majority of those who hold such views in America are Christians (many of whom are indeed in the GOP). Also, Hemant did not “attribute it to all”…to suggest he did is called a straw man argument.

    The irony here, of course, is that you are calling atheists bigots for condemning bigotry and ignorance.

  • jacobus

    Yawn.

    “When she doesn’t understand what motivates us, it’s easy to ignore what we’re upset about.”

    This applies to both sides, believe me. Do you care what motivates Christians?

    (admittedly, that’s a big category, there are many many different motivations for being Christian, but I rarely see atheists even try to understand)

  • Wandering Irishwoman

    I read this piece in Salon, and frankly, as a Roman Catholic, found it disappointing and a bit bizarre. I mean, I took the author’s point that one can be just about anything _but_ a Christian in most “liberal” circles these days (please note I use the term in a gingerly fashion because I am not an American and am not completely au fait with your terminology), and while many non-believers on Salon seemed to be quite hostile to this, well, kids, it’s true. I don’t find it a problem, because I don’t care to engage with others on the topic of my faith, but I found it a fair point. I did, however, find the author’s _reasons_ for adhering to her faith (or any faith) to be most odd. Now, I don’t actually feel I have the right to question the grounds for another person’s belief anymore than I care to challenge an atheist on why he or she thinks what he or she thinks; that notwithstanding, I really found myself wondering why this woman needed church, when I thought she just needed to stand up straight and be a grown-up. So I think I’m agreeing with many people here.

    I would then like to say simply that, as a believer, I don’t get a great deal of “comfort” out of my beliefs; I don’t really think that’s what they’re there for. I’ve never for the life of me understood why people seeking to “defend” Christianity make assinine arguments having to do with moral behaviour, comfort, etc., as it seems to me that those things are in no way dependent on a belief system. As I don’t go in fear for my life everytime I walk down a street in most cities, I have to assume that there’s something more than fervent religious passion keeping people from stabbing me, y’know? I believe because my faith makes sense to me, in my heart and in my head. It makes life more challenging, not less, and while it has often given me grace to face hard things, and love that I need because all people need love, it’s never given me a break, a pass, a bye. I do not expect to be rewarded when I die; indeed, the chances are good I will be punished if I don’t change my behaviour. I don’t care if anybody else here, or elsewhere, agrees with any of that–my point is, I don’t see my religion as some sort of lean-to to which I can run in a storm. If others do, and that works for them–hey, okay. But I’ve gotta wonder how long that can last.

    Anyway, just thought you might like to hear a different voice from the other side. Cheers.

  • http://www.sacredriver.org Ash Bowie

    Ron continues…

    *********************
    It really has nothing to do with whether I internally respect your belief of not. If I want to believe that Angelina Jolie is secretly in love with me, then so long as I don’t break the law or otherwise do something that negatively impacts others then why can’t I have my belief. Who appointed anyone else the atheist messiah who must save the world of their delusions.
    *********************

    What you seem to be suggesting here is that we atheists should not promote our views, e.g. that reason and science are the most effective tools for understanding Nature, that supernatural beliefs have no basis in evidential fact, and that it is possible to live fulfilling and moral lives without religion. Further, you suggest that to do so is insulting and bigoted.

    But in this country, the marketplace of ideas is a basic institution; their free exchange is a key component to progress. While many atheists do argue that supernaturalism is absurd and that religion has a net-negative impact on society, neither do we propose legislation or public policy to enforce our views, except insofar as we demand that a firm wall remain between church and state.

    I know of no atheist who has suggested that something should be done to you because you hold a belief we disagree with (beyond perhaps being mocked). Of course, the same cannot be said of Christians, many of whom speak very loudly about their worldview, about the moral corruption of atheists (or anyone of a different religion), and how their religious views should be forced on everyone via legislation.

    To demean our right to speak our minds as being akin to “atheist messiahs” only undermines your position because it is such a ludicrous argument. It is simply a way of asking us to shut up.

    In the meantime, you might consider going on a few Christian sites and telling them what you are telling us, that they should stop voicing their religious opinions, stop insulting atheists, stop trying to convert others, and stop trying to legally enforce their beliefs on everyone. I would be curious to see what kind of response you get.

  • Fett101

    Jacobus, Understanding and caring are two different things.

  • Fett101

    It is very likely that many atheists were raised in or explored a faith. I would hope/think that experience would give them some first hand experience in understanding the motivation of belief. I know I’ve spent a good deal of time myself considering such.

    Whereas some religions attach a stigma to doubt that would seem to make second guessing or contemplating the atheist lifestyle a crisis of their belief. The doubting Thomas as it’s called. While I was a Catholic I was made to feel that I was sinning by simply considering these questions.

    P.S. Darn edit timer.

  • http://atheistcamel.blogspot.com/ Dromedary Hump

    Ron said:

    “… as I don’t break the law or otherwise do something that negatively impacts others then why can’t I have my belief. Who appointed anyone else the atheist messiah who must save the world of their delusions.”

    Ron read my post again. I don’t give a fiddler’s damn what you or they believe. I responded to your comment that peoples beliefs need to or should be “respected”.

    My response to that was “bullshit” and I gave an example which you conveniently ignored, and then changed the subject.

    Idiocy, self imposed ignorance and delusion are not worthy of respect… at least not mine. If you respect those things, that’s your right. If you respect modern day witch burnings in Africa because it’s their belief, then I’ll proffer that you are entitled to respect it, but also that you are an unthinking imbecile. I’ll assume that you don’t and that you aren’t.

    I DID NOT say you or anyone can’t believe what you / they want..,.just don’t ask for or expect respect for it just because it’s a belief. I can’t imagine how that isn’t as clear and sussinct as can be.

    Good luck with Angelina.

  • BobN

    Uh… if someone you know runs into you all dressed up and laughs when you say you’re going to church, it’s because:

    1) You must be joking because the life you lead doesn’t lead people to even think you might be religious

    2) You’re dressed more for a nightclub than a house of worship

    Assuming that their laughter is directed at the faith itself is a stretch.

  • http://atheistcamel.blogspot.com/ Dromedary Hump

    [ atheists ] have nothing good to show for it: no stained glass, no great literature, no great art, no comfort in the face of death.

    Doesn’t this kind of statement expose her for the under-educated, unread, vapid, and reality ignoring theist that has become the characature of religionists?

    A simple Google search of “great / famous atheists” would have educated her and averted her nonsensical comment. But it wasn’t worth her time nor would it have supported her contention. Thus, she ignore it and went with her “belief” that she was correct.

    Ignorance is indeed bliss, and it’s alive and well among theists.

  • Claudia

    @Whore of All the Earth: watched the video. The argument he fights is probably one of the highest up on my “you can’t possibly be serious” category, but the way he defeats it is awesome. Thanks for the link.

    @Wandering Irishwoman thanks for the perspective. Like I said originally, I can’t understand the justification of religion, any religion, because of it being comforting, or better for you, or whatever. If you believe it’s true, then you need to follow it, whether it brings you comfort or pain. Mind you, I don’t think it’s true at all, but even if we are diametrically opposed on what the truth is, you and I at least seem to think that what is true is important, whereas Calhoun seems to find this to be a minor issue at best.

  • http://www.twitter.com/shocktwist Brittany

    Oh, it must be soooo horrible for her to have to keep her religion a secret from a few of her atheist friends who may or may not accept her as she is.

    Forget about the atheists who are disowned from their families for being an atheist. Or those who are killed by their families for being non-religious, or for being a different religion than what their family wants.

    What a joke. I’m so sick of people like her complaining about how Christians are so damn oppressed.

  • http://atheistyogi.com Mikel

    Hummm…if she was upset over a friend teasing her over going to church, she needs to stop taking herself so seriously. A bit of teasing is not oppresive when you are mature enough to handle it.

  • Wandering Irishwoman

    Whoa. Dromedary Hump. Some angry. Sorry I’m an unthinking imbecile. Most people have to actually _meet_ me before they come to that conclusion. :-D

  • Erp

    Someone mentioned atheist/agnostic Vaughan Williams above. I wonder how many hymns she has sung that he arranged or wrote the music for. O Little Town of Bethlehem with the Forest Green tune (the one generally used in England) was arranged by him. The hymn tune Sine Nomine (For all the saints) is one he wrote.

    People have been inspired by and used the mythos whether Christian, Greek, Jewish, et cetera without buying into the religion’s hierarchy or dogma.

    I do wonder what her friends are saying now she has come out of the closet.

  • Vas

    Dromedary Hump wrote:
    If you respect modern day witch burnings in Africa because it’s their belief, then I’ll proffer that you are entitled to respect it, but also that you are an unthinking imbecile.

    Wandering Irishwoman replied:
    Whoa. Dromedary Hump. Some angry. Sorry I’m an unthinking imbecile. Most people have to actually _meet_ me before they come to that conclusion.

    This is indeed a strange exchange as Wandering Irishwoman seems to saying that; she respects modern day witch burnings in Africa, resents being called an unthinking imbecile because of it,thinks someone who supports witch burning shouldn’t be ridiculed for their support of murder justified by religious beliefs until they are introduced in person , and can not understand why justifying murder with religious beliefs would make someone angry.
    Funny her first post seemed lucid and frankly a breath of fresh air from a religious person even if it had a false premise up front,

    I took the author’s point that one can be just about anything _but_ a Christian in most “liberal” circles these days

    Come on now there are a lot more liberals who are Christians than atheists, in fact in most liberal circles it is fine to be a Christian. It is not true and it is not a fair point, perhaps non-believers at salon where “hostile” to this idea for a reason, because you made up this “fact” and it is baseless.
    Wandering Irishwoman goes on to say she feels she has no right to to question the grounds for another person’s belief and then proceeds to question the grounds of their belief. So what are you saying? You think you have no right to do something but then you do it anyway? You didn’t just find yourself wondering about the grounds for her belief, you found your self writing about the grounds for her belief, and then judging her and writing that,

    I really found myself wondering why this woman needed church, when I thought she just needed to stand up straight and be a grown-up

    all this without ever actually meeting her before coming to your conclusion.
    Personally I think you do have the right to wonder about and/or question the grounds for another persons beliefs, I think it would be foolish not to. Heck I even believe you have a right to write about it, but then again we Americans are notorious for our ridiculous notions about rights and such.

  • http://atheistcamel.blogspot.com/ Dromedary Hump

    Vas..

    What makes Irishwoman’s response to me particularly bizarre is not that she seems to accept witch burning as a valid belief after all the bible does say “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” …
    But that she was responding to something I wrote in response to “RON’s” comment, which was totally unrelated to her inane rant.

    How hard can reading be…even for a theist??

  • Vas

    @Dromedary Hump…

    … she was responding to something I wrote in response to “RON’s” comment, which was totally unrelated to her inane rant.

    That is the reason I was forced to the conclusion that she supports witch buring, why else would she jump in to say

    Sorry I’m an unthinking imbecile

    At least she is sorry rather than unapologetic.

  • http://atheistcamel.blogspot.com/ Dromedary Hump

    Vas…

    heheh… well said.

    Even more revealing is that “most people have to meet” her before they decide she’s an imbecile. I guess “most people” who meet her are theists who lack the necessary perception to ascertain her mental infirmity simply by reading her blog postings.

    As atheists I guess we are just more astute.

  • Gibbon

    I’m going to go out on a limb here and state something that most people here are unlikely to agree with.

    It doesn’t matter what a person believes, not to me at least. If a person believes that the universe and all life in it are only 6000 years old, then that really doesn’t concern me that much. By all means it may be false, but what they believe is of less concern given that at any time they can freely exercise their choice to accept that which is fact. What concerns me the most is a person’s actions; how people treat people and how they behave towards one another.

    What I really don’t understand is why there is such a big concern over what someone believes, especially when it comes to belief in a god. One person who is offended by another who believes in god is no different to a person who is offended by someone who doesn’t. How can you claim to better than a fundamentalist when you do the exact same thing as them? And shouldn’t the actions and behaviour of a person be what is important rather than the beliefs?

    There appears to be a tradition within the atheist and secularist communities whereby Thomas Jefferson is generally held in high esteem. But it seems that a lot of the people in those communities miss what must be one of his most eloquent quotes:

    “But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

    It shouldn’t be of immediate concern if a person chooses to believe what by all means appears to be false, what that concern should be is whether that person is righteous or not. As far as I can tell, believing a lie doesn’t preclude one from being righteous, rather it makes that goal more difficult to achieve than if you believed the truth. On a side note, if a person can achieve righteousness despite believing something that is false, then I have that much more respect for them.

    P.S. This is also going to piss off a lot of people here, but being an atheist doesn’t prevent a person from being a fundamentalist. If a person is a fundamentalist it means that they have an unwavering and absolutist commitment to their ideology. And where a lack of belief in god is a (or the) core principle of their ideology then it is entirely appropriate that in the event that they do become a fundamentalist, to regard them as an atheist fundamentalist. Alternatively, a person can be an atheist fundamentalist in a respect where each was arrived at independently of the other.

    One can not ignore that there have been atheists throughout history who most certainly were fundamentalists; Josef Stalin is the first name of such a person that comes to mind.

  • Vas

    “But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

    But what if what they believe makes them think they have license to “pick my pocket” or rip me off, I mean it is a common practice of christian ministries in America, or what if they think their beliefs justify “Break[ing] my leg”, or murdering me because I’m a physician, (Dr. Tiller anyone?). Hey I agree with much Jefferson had to say on quite a few topics, but come on, there are a lot of Christians who are dangerous, why should I not be concerned about what they believe and how that belief translates into harmful actions like picking pockets or breaking legs, must it be my pocket or my leg for me to be concerned?

  • Greg

    Gibbon said:

    P.S. This is also going to piss off a lot of people here, but being an atheist doesn’t prevent a person from being a fundamentalist. If a person is a fundamentalist it means that they have an unwavering and absolutist commitment to their ideology. And where a lack of belief in god is a (or the) core principle of their ideology then it is entirely appropriate that in the event that they do become a fundamentalist, to regard them as an atheist fundamentalist. Alternatively, a person can be an atheist fundamentalist in a respect where each was arrived at independently of the other.

    One can not ignore that there have been atheists throughout history who most certainly were fundamentalists; Josef Stalin is the first name of such a person that comes to mind

    It doesn’t piss me off. It’s just plain wrong. Atheism is a position, not an ideology. An atheist is simply someone who answers no to the question: Are you a theist? The person doesn’t even need to understand what the word theist means. Anyone who has never heard of the concept of theism is an atheist by default. There is no possible way of deriving a set of beliefs from there. You can have ideologies which include atheism (E.g. Buddhism, antitheism), that perhaps derive beliefs from their atheism (e.g. no afterlife/reincarnation), but simply being an atheist does not require you to have any belief whatsoever.

    Anyway, moving onto the word ideology, and why atheism isn’t one – I used the first definition that came into the search engine, thefreedictionary.com (my dictionary isn’t close to hand).

    i·de·ol·o·gy (d-l-j, d-)
    n. pl. i·de·ol·o·gies
    1. The body of ideas reflecting the social needs and aspirations of an individual, group, class, or culture.
    2. A set of doctrines or beliefs that form the basis of a political, economic, or other system in 2.

    First off, the fact that both definitions refer to a body, or set of ideas or beliefs disqualifies atheism immediately from being an ideology. But if you look at both definitions, it’s clear that even if it stated a single belief, atheism still couldn’t be classified by either definition.

    In no way does not believing in a theistic god reflect social needs and aspirations as in 1.

    Neither is it a doctrine or belief, let alone one that forms the basis of a political/economic/other system as in 2.

    Don’t get me wrong – an atheist can be a fundamentalist; just not in respects to atheism. You could be a fundamentalist antitheist, for example. I also happen to know some jerks who are atheists – I’m not defending all atheists, or anything, merely the English language… ;) :p

    As for Stalin being a fundamentalist, I don’t have the detailed historical knowledge to say either way – he may have been, if he was, tho’ he was not a fundamentalist atheist.Not all bad people are fundamentalists. Not all fundamentalists are bad people, it depends on the belief system. They’re invariably irritating in at least one way, though.

  • http://lyvvielimelight.blogspot.com/ Lyvvie

    When you support a power structure and belief system that has caused and continues to cause so many problems in this world — just because you feel it brings you “comfort” — you should have to defend yourself.

    I’m printing that and keeping it in my wallet. Thanks Hemant!

  • http://www.sacredriver.org Ash

    @Gibbon,

    People can use language however they like, but using fundamentalism to describe strong atheism is something of a corruption of its utilitarian definition. The word as generally understood can be defined as an unwavering dedication to a rigid set of doctrines and rules of behavior, many of which involve claims that are irrational, bigoted, and demonstrably false. However, atheism simply has no parallel. The key difference is this: no amount of reason or evidence will change the mind of a fundamentalist; but the strongest atheist will change her mind the minute reliable and compelling data comes to light. For this difference alone the term fundamentalism simply does not and cannot apply to atheism.

    Further, you are making something of a straw man argument. The issue isn’t that atheists have a problem with what people believe, or more precisely, with the right to believe whatever one wishes. Rather, we generally have a problem with how many religious people behave. Believe me, if theists kept their beliefs to themselves, and didn’t try to legislate their morality, teach their myths as science, demand fealty as a requirement for public office, discriminate against various minority groups, murder innocent citizens, and so on, then you would likely not see the atheistic movement that exists today. We would simply have different beliefs, happy to mind our own business.

    But as long as religious belief has a negative impact on the world, then such beliefs are fair game for criticism and counter offers.

  • http://atheistcamel.blogspot.com/ Dromedary Hump

    “But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

    I doubt when Jefferson wrote that he was faced with a neighbor who was a Religious Right fanatic who wanted to tear down the wall of separation and establish a theocracy.

    I doubt he was thinking of religious neighbor who will do more than break your leg… but is more than happy to kill 3,000 people with airplanes;, or shoot abortion doctors because of their belief in that God; or deny people equal rights because of their sexual preferences.

    Yes,.. the words are nice.. and they certainly speak to those who believe in a “harmless” manner and let it guide their OWN life. But if there is one thing we’ve learned it’s that if religious fervor that can negatively affect others is left unchecked, tolerated and ignored it will suck the life and freedom from you. And we’ve learned it the hard way.

  • Staceyjw

    Ada (if you’re reading)
    If your friends make jokes about something and you LAUGH WITH THEM, they will assume its OK to keep making those jokes! They will also assume (rightly) that you agree or think it’s as funny as they do- and it doesn’t matter what the joke/comment is about!

    If MY friends made jokes or rude comments about something I believed/liked, you bet I wouldn’t LAUGH WITH THEM! That’s the least you can do. How can your friends know they are bothering you if you go along with whatever they are mocking?

    Many people find religion ridiculous, but would be more than happy not to make mean jokes to those they know are faithful. Also, you shouldn’t take it so personal, your friends probably like you for YOU and just weren’t aware that you didn’t share their anti-religious attitudes. How could they know? Most people aren’t rude, but NONE are MIND READERS.

    besides, no xtian in the USA is persecuted, its ridiculous to call a few off color comments PERSECUTION.

    Staceyjw

  • http://atheistcamel.blogspot.com/ Dromedary Hump

    Lyvvie Says:

    December 23rd, 2009 at 6:37 pm
    When you support a power structure and belief system that has caused and continues to cause so many problems in this world — just because you feel it brings you “comfort” — you should have to defend yourself.

    I’m printing that and keeping it in my wallet. Thanks Hemant!

    I’ll second that… and if I were a tattoo kind of person, i’d have it inked on my arm.

  • Pseudonym

    Hemant:

    When you support a power structure and belief system that has caused and continues to cause so many problems in this world — just because you feel it brings you “comfort” — you should have to defend yourself.

    And, pray tell, precisely what problems do the Episcopal Church in the United States continue to cause today? Yes, I’m sure there must be a few problems; any organisation big enough will inevitably have that. But I’m going to wager that it’s fewer and farther between than the significant problems caused by one organisation that most people here support and consent to be part of: the United States of America.

    I happen to agree that Ada Calhoun seems to be missing some perspective. As an urban, sufficiently affluent, liberal New Yorker, she is in a position of privilege. She is not being persecuted, and she should realise this.

    But what most responders seem to be missing is that she feels that she feels very much alone. Those publishing houses, and TV channels are not hers. They are not run by people like her, and they are not for people like her. If pressed, she may find it hard to describe them as “Christian”. She does not support them in any way whatsoever, and would, I have no doubt, resent the implication.

    If anyone has hard evidence to the contrary, present it now.

    Liberal Christians get hell from fundamentalists and self-described “evangelicals” all the time. When you get hell from your friends too, it’s hard not to feel just a little bit paranoid.

    Final point to Reginald Selkirk: Elizabeth Cady Stanton may not be on a dollar coin, but she is on the Episcopal church’s calendar of saints. July 20, in case you were curious.

  • liz

    if my friend was a ‘closeted christian’ i would sure as hell make fun of her. not because she was a christian, but because of the closeted part.

    i dont think you can be a liberal without being able to accept yourself of all people.

    if she ‘came out’ to her friends, they probably wouldnt care at all.

    but that aside…the reasons she gave for religion as a good thing could pretty easily be found in other communities and organizations.

  • Gibbon

    Hey I agree with much Jefferson had to say on quite a few topics, but come on, there are a lot of Christians who are dangerous, why should I not be concerned about what they believe and how that belief translates into harmful actions like picking pockets or breaking legs, must it be my pocket or my leg for me to be concerned?

    It is not so much the belief that you should be concerned about, rather it is the practice or application of those beliefs that the focus should be on. Two people can share the same beliefs but there is nothing which says that they have to apply them in the exact same manner. Francis Collins and Rick Santorum may share many of the same beliefs, but based on their actions they are worlds apart; one is opposed to teaching creationism the other supports it. That is where the difficulty of criticising religious beliefs lies, in the fact that there is not a single correct way to both interpret and practice the writings of religious texts, whether that scripture be the Qur’an or the Bhagavad Gita.

    The mistake I’m seeing with the criticisms made by so many atheists is that there seems to be an assumption that it starts with religion and proceeds from there. But the religion of choice, and more importantly the interpretation of scripture that someone takes up, is largely influenced by preceding factors, including socio-economic and political ones. To put it simply, whatever religion an individual takes up is determined to a large extent by environmental (nurturing) factors.

    This is where I have always been sceptical of the atheist criticisms of religion, even back when I thought of myself as one. A person may have a set of beliefs based on religious scripture, but what is it that makes them interpret any given passage of text the way they do? In other words, what makes Biblical literalists interpret their sacred text literally? One can’t simply attribute that interpretation to religion because to do so would be to commit a fallacy; I believe that would be a case of circular logic.

    Atheism is a position, not an ideology. An atheist is simply someone who answers no to the question: Are you a theist? The person doesn’t even need to understand what the word theist means. Anyone who has never heard of the concept of theism is an atheist by default. There is no possible way of deriving a set of beliefs from there. You can have ideologies which include atheism (E.g. Buddhism, antitheism), that perhaps derive beliefs from their atheism (e.g. no afterlife/reincarnation), but simply being an atheist does not require you to have any belief whatsoever.

    I’m not going to argue with you on whether atheism is an ideology or not, because I agree that it is not. What I was describing is when atheism is incorporated into an ideology as a core principle of it, and then being fundamentalist about that ideology. Admittedly, it is rather disingenuous to then say that being fundamentalist in regards to that ideology also makes one an atheist fundamentalist, because one would in fact be fundamentalist about the whole of the ideology and not just the atheism. For that reason one can’t describe communist fundamentalism as atheist fundamentalism. On that point I would have to favour the second definition I provided to explain how an atheist can be a fundamentalist, which says that the two positions were arrived at independently of one another and that there is no causal relationship between the two.

    But what do you say about someone who would start an ideology from the position of atheism and then eventually become a fundamentalist? Certainly there is a legitimate debate on that question.

    Side note, Buddhism is not an atheist religion. There very much are deities within the Buddhist religion, they are the same gods as in Hinduism; they are just not worshipped. In fact, without the belief that there are gods, there would be no Buddhist religion, because the history of the religion starts when Gautama having achieved Enlightenment is persuaded by one of the gods to teach others including them, how to achieve it. The difference with the other theistic religions is that even the gods are not exempt from samsara and the cycle of rebirth that all living things go through, and thus also desire to achieve Nirvana.

    The key difference is this: no amount of reason or evidence will change the mind of a fundamentalist; but the strongest atheist will change her mind the minute reliable and compelling data comes to light. For this difference alone the term fundamentalism simply does not and cannot apply to atheism.

    Okay, this is where you guys need to find some consistency, because on the one hand Greg is saying that atheism is nothing more than a lack of belief in god, while you Ash are attributing certain beliefs and principles to it, such as the idea that an atheist is someone who is willing to change their mind. If there are certain ideas and principles which fall under atheism then you open it up to the possibility of fundamentalism, because you are starting to turn it into an ideology. But if atheism is nothing more than a lack of belief in god as Greg suggested, then you’re right fundamentalism can’t be applied to atheism.

    The issue isn’t that atheists have a problem with what people believe, or more precisely, with the right to believe whatever one wishes. Rather, we generally have a problem with how many religious people behave.

    I don’t believe that for one second, and I have good reason as well. If it was true that atheists were more concerned with the actions of religious people then explain why Richard Dawkins is so adamant about proselytising for what he regards as the truth. I’ve listened to plenty of his radio and podcast interviews, and many times he has said that the “truth matters” and he has also implied that he has a problem with people believing things that contradict his “world view”, which he regards as the truth.

    Then there is Sam Harris. We saw earlier this year where his priorities lie, and they are not with criticising peoples actions. He went after Francis Collins purely for the reason of the man’s beliefs; I saw no criticism of the geneticist’s actions. Nor can I think of Harris alluding to anything Collins has done that has got in the way of him doing his job.

    If you want me to believe that atheists are more concerned for the actions of religious people rather than their beliefs, then how do you explain the Prophets of New Atheism showing much more antagonism and hostility towards religious belief rather than religious practice?

    But as long as religious belief has a negative impact on the world, then such beliefs are fair game for criticism and counter offers.

    This is one of those points where I believe there is a case of double standards amongst atheists. There is that typical criticism and condemnation from them when religion is used to justify or achieve bad things, but what about for other institutions that have been used for similar goals? I’m thinking science for example. There is no denying that there would be no weapons of mass destruction if it wasn’t for science; Hiroshima and Nagasaki would never have been incinerated; nor would it be possible to fire explosive devices over long distances such as the English Channel. Surely you have to admit that there is far greater destructive power in science than religion, the latter can’t provide you with more efficient ways of killing people. As the saying goes, ‘knowledge is power’, and science provides far more knowledge than religion does.

    On a final note, I would be extremely reluctant to say that it is religious belief that has a negative impact on the world; rather it is certain religious practices. But even in respect to the beliefs I would be more inclined to say that when religion is present wherever evil occurs, it is more often the case that religion was used to justify the actions rather than being the cause of the actions.

  • welkie

    I’m an atheist. I produce art. Usually the subject matter does not involve scenes from a weak, poorly-written and even more poorly-edited/translated, though popular, tome. Does that mean my stuff doesn’t count?

  • Jeff Dale

    Gibbon, I appreciate your willingness to offer different views here, and to do so thoughtfully and respectfully. But although atheists are not immune from error (nor from being challenged on it by you or anyone else), I think some of your points need to be readdressed. If I misunderstand anything, please know that it’s inadvertent, and correct me.

    I’ll start with what seems to be the main recurring point of your post. Your last paragraph seems to sum it up pretty well:

    I would be extremely reluctant to say that it is religious belief that has a negative impact on the world; rather it is certain religious practices. But even in respect to the beliefs I would be more inclined to say that when religion is present wherever evil occurs, it is more often the case that religion was used to justify the actions rather than being the cause of the actions.

    I think by “practices” you mean the things people do as part of their religion, anything from praying in church, to campaigning for creationism in schools, to blowing up embassies. And I think we can all agree that if religious believers didn’t do the “practices” that are harmful, we probably wouldn’t be talking about the harms of religion. So on that basis, one could say that beliefs do no harm. On the other hand, many atheists think that beliefs do cause harm (and many believers think that about other people’s religions), so they are presumably arguing from a different basis, one in which beliefs are seen as a strong enough motivator of harmful actions that the harm can, to some extent, be attributed to the belief.

    I think you actually agree that this basis has merit, though you might disagree with some folks here on how far to apply it. For example, I’m sure you understand that people in suicide cults have been led to believe that they should end their own earthly lives, and the belief has been drilled into them so strongly that it overrides all their natural curiosity and sense of self-preservation. You could, of course, say it’s the brainwashing (a “practice”) that is responsible for their deaths, or that the poisoned punch is the proximate cause of their deaths, but clearly the belief is an indispensable part of the mix. Brainwashing and punch are the bloody tools, but they would have no effect without a belief.

    Another example, perhaps the most serious, is the belief among some Muslims, based on the what’s written in their holy texts, that they should make war on non-Muslims, thereby earning a shortcut to a supernatural paradise for them and their loved ones. Now, obviously, the proximate cause of the harm from these people is the combination of explosives and murderous intent. But not one of these people would be within a country mile of forming this murderous intent or strapping on a vest of explosives without a firm belief in the divine command.

    We can’t rid the world of explosives and poison, but we also can’t rid the world of credulous people, and as long as there are beliefs like this that can be used to brainwash the credulous, we will have religiously-inspired harms in the world. And in a world where WMDs are increasingly powerful, and increasingly easy to come by, we simply can’t afford to let these beliefs stand unchallenged. And ANY religion, no matter how outwardly benign, that teaches its adherents to form beliefs without consulting evidence is part of the problem, because its adherents are not well placed or prepared to challenge the more obviously harmful beliefs, and the whole climate of belief without evidence lends legitimacy, or at least provides cover, for the more harmful varieties.

    That is where the difficulty of criticising religious beliefs lies, in the fact that there is not a single correct way to both interpret and practice the writings of religious texts

    Actually, I would use this fact to make the opposite point that you do. The fact that religious texts can be interpreted in many ways makes it easier for some people to come up with harmful interpretations and harder for their putative co-believers to criticize them. The Islamicists who overtly or covertly make war on non-Muslims actually have a pretty accurate interpretation of their holy texts, so the nonmilitant majority of Muslims can’t criticize the militants without repudiating their religion or contradicting themselves. As long as these religious texts have any legitimacy, even years from now someone could pick up one of those texts and start a new jihad. We have to challenge unwarranted beliefs, more so because they are ambiguous, not less so.

    The mistake I’m seeing with the criticisms made by so many atheists is that there seems to be an assumption that it starts with religion and proceeds from there. But the religion of choice, and more importantly the interpretation of scripture that someone takes up, is largely influenced by preceding factors, including socio-economic and political ones.

    I agree that there are a lot of other factors, including some that precede religion. For example, some Islamic countries where female circumcision is common already had that practice as part of their native pre-Islamic traditions. And we could probably find examples where, say, an area became economically depressed and turned to religion for relief, or perhaps had it imposed on them by a ruling party who stepped up to take advantage of the situation. But the same equation holds here as in my earlier examples: without the religious belief, these people would not have come up with the harms that arise in their religious practices. To get back to female circumcision, no sane human could ever inflict that on another without believing that their god insists on it.

    Thus, we start with religion because it it the one thing that, if pulled out of the equation, would end all the harms. Again, we can’t rid the world of implements of harm, and we can’t rid the world of credulous people who can be taught to use the implements of harm, so we have to try to rid the world of beliefs that connect the two.

    Okay, this is where you guys need to find some consistency, because on the one hand Greg is saying that atheism is nothing more than a lack of belief in god, while you Ash are attributing certain beliefs and principles to it, such as the idea that an atheist is someone who is willing to change their mind.

    It’s true that an atheist can become hostile to opposing views and stubborn about holding his own in spite of evidence. But even if ALL atheists were perfectly open to changing their minds on any issue if given sufficient evidence, Ash’s statement is simply that it’s an attribute of atheists. One can be an atheist without having any particular view on whether someone ought to be open to changing their mind.

    Some people HAVE put forward lists of principles that they intended to be embraced by atheists, or by some group of atheists, and so if some group of atheists did just that, and held doggedly to those principles, I suppose you could call them fundamentalist, by definition. But there’s an equivocation of terms here. When people say “fundamentalist,” there’s frequently more to the intended definition than merely holding doggedly to a set of principles. The typical subtext is that the fundamentalist would continue to hold to those principles even if you showed them what harm is being caused by acting on those principles.

    So, a fundamentalist Christian who believes gays are sinful (holding to the biblical principle) and worries about gays influencing his kids, will believe that we ought to do anything we can to limit the rights and influence of gays. And he’ll keep believing that even after scientific evidence shows that gayness is not a choice, is ubiquitous among other species, and is not transmittable from one person to another.

    Let’s compare that to what I suppose you could call an atheist fundamentalist. Let’s suppose an atheist becomes part of a humanist movement with a list of principles, one of which is something like “We should provide moral education in our secular public schools.” If this atheist advocates tirelessly for moral education in public schools, and sticks firmly to all the other principles in the list, then I suppose he fits the definition of a fundamentalist. But let’s see what happens when that equivocation gets in there. Suppose that a series of good studies came out showing that moral education in public schools was ineffective, or at least that the education could be done more effectively in other venues. If this atheist continued doggedly to advocate moral education in the schools in spite of the new evidence, he’d be a fundamentalist WITH the subtext typically added for religious fundamentalists. But I think most atheists, and certainly most atheists leading groups of other atheists and setting policy for such groups, would follow the evidence. That’s because principles like these for atheists, to the extent that they’re promulgated at all, are formulated for the purpose of doing good in the world, not for the purpose of fulfilling a divine command (which is then assumed to be doing good we can’t see to compensate for the harm it does that we CAN see). Thus, there’d be no basis for forming the kind of fundamentalism we see in religions.

    What I think we need, if we want to speak clearly and agree on as much as we can, is another way to describe what you’re referring to as “fundamentalism” among atheists. The charge of “fundamentalism” is one of the rhetorical tactics some religious debaters and commenters use to change the subject rather than address the validity of the points the atheists are raising. (Of course, some atheists also use rhetorical tactics, but I always encourage them to resist the temptation, since our arguments speak for themselves and we’re better off taking the high road.) I think I could suggest a few terms that might work. Some atheists are closed-minded, aggressive, or just plain rude. I think some atheists could benefit from a little compassion and understanding. Some atheists should be more even-handed in their debates with theists, both out of respect for the theists (the people, not the beliefs) and to enhance their own standing in the debate. To say “fundamentalist” just doesn’t do the job, because it’s either a trivial assertion (if using the strict definition of adhering to principles) or a misleading comparison (if adding the subtext about ignoring evidence against the principles), and it misses the real issue (which is probably one of the items I suggested above).

    Now also I think I’ve exceeded the length of your lengthy post, so I’ll resist the temptation to go on at greater length (which, if it’s an atheist “principle,” is one on which I’m probably one of the most strident fundamentalists) and will now back slowly away from the keyboard. Thank you for listening. Peace.

  • Wandering Irishwoman

    I was referring to the assertion (which I thought I’d interpreted correctly) that all believers are unthinking imbeciles. Pardon if my response seemed a bit too diffuse for you. There was an attempt at something called “humour” here. That may be lacking in atheist circles. Or perhaps among Americans in general, I dunno. And, again, I used the term “liberal”, as I mentioned, carefully, because I’m not sure how you folks define it anymore. I know that where I live, it’s rather hard to be a Christian and what we would consider a liberal. But then, my lot tend to be discreet folk who just don’t talk about personal beliefs a lot, so we can sometimes get around it.

    I guess, in short, my sense is that, as far as I can tell anyway, atheists (’round this part of the internets) believe that believers are imbeciles, whereas I believe that atheists are people who don’t believe in God. Beyond that, I sort of have this crazy notion that I actually have to know a person a bit before I can make further judgments about them. But, you know, I’m a crazy mick. I’m sure your way is much better.

    And I’d like to go on record as saying that I no longer support witch burning. I find by the time they get to the age where they’re likely to be rumbled for burning-worthy offenses, most witches are too tough for good eating. I thus prefer to scarf the odd infant instead. Well-marbled, tender.

    Happy, er, Friday, all!

  • Greg

    Ugh – IE keeps stops working on me and I keep losing what I’ve said. Mental note: write the rest of this message in notepad, and then paste it in…

    First off, about Buddhism. From what I understand, there are two forms of Buddhism, one in which theistic gods are believed in, one in which they aren’t. Certainly, in all I have read about the subject – which admittedly, isn’t huge – and, more importantly, from the few Buddhists I have talked to, the original form of Buddhism has no deities, that is only the more recent version of the faith that has adopted the Hindu gods. I’m open for corrections here, being short on time, I haven’t been able to look anywhere before writing this, but the bits I have skimmed through seem to back up that view.

    Anyway, away from that sidetrack. I think (at least in the relevant responses in our part of the conversation) we aren’t too far away from each other here. What I was essentially objecting to was calling someone whose atheism makes up part of their ideology a fundamentalist atheist, as opposed to a fundamentalist antitheist (say). You seem to have agreed with that in your response.

    But I don’t understand your second definition of fundamentalist atheism. Maybe I just don’t understand you, but it seems to be the same problem I was objecting to before, just slightly differently put. From what I understand, you’re saying that if someone is a fundamentalist atheist they are both a fundamentalist, and an atheist. This isn’t how the terms are used in any other field. A fundamentalist Muslim, for example, is a fundamentalist about their religion.

    Put another way, you seem to be saying that if someone is a genious, and also makes love, then you are justified in saying they are a genious at making love.

    But what do you say about someone who would start an ideology from the position of atheism and then eventually become a fundamentalist? Certainly there is a legitimate debate on that question.

    My immediate question is how can you start an ideology from the position of atheism? I quite honestly don’t know. I am an atheist, therefore I believe that: what? I can’t see how you fill the blanks. My personal position as regards, morality, say, can probably be summed up as: morality is the set of rules you could wish the world to operate by without knowing beforehand what your own position in that world is (I.E. the way you want the world to work without knowing beforehand if you’re a prince or a pauper). Now, I can get from that starting block to a belief that murder is wrong, say. I can get from there to a belief that progres is better than stagnation, and a myriad of other beliefs, but atheism does nothing to help me there. (Even if atheism was believing that there were no gods, as opposed to not beliving in gods, it wouldn’t help)

    Like above, an atheist can become a fundamentalist, but being an atheist cannot lead you to anything to be a fundamentalist about.

    Okay, this is where you guys need to find some consistency, because on the one hand Greg is saying that atheism is nothing more than a lack of belief in god, while you Ash are attributing certain beliefs and principles to it, such as the idea that an atheist is someone who is willing to change their mind. If there are certain ideas and principles which fall under atheism then you open it up to the possibility of fundamentalism, because you are starting to turn it into an ideology. But if atheism is nothing more than a lack of belief in god as Greg suggested, then you’re right fundamentalism can’t be applied to atheism

    I think Ash was making more of a generalisation than anything. The thing is, that atheism tends to get used as a placeholder for all people who aren’t theists, but also aren’t antitheists, or Buddhists (again, open to correction), or Deists, or Raellians, or anything else that has a group they can be included in. I think that that is probably the way that Ash was using it, but I don’t presume to speak for anyone else, so I may be wrong.

    Then there is Sam Harris. We saw earlier this year where his priorities lie, and they are not with criticising peoples actions. He went after Francis Collins purely for the reason of the man’s beliefs; I saw no criticism of the geneticist’s actions. Nor can I think of Harris alluding to anything Collins has done that has got in the way of him doing his job.

    If you want me to believe that atheists are more concerned for the actions of religious people rather than their beliefs, then how do you explain the Prophets of New Atheism showing much more antagonism and hostility towards religious belief rather than religious practice?

    Prophets of New Atheism is a bit of a silly term imo. It’s a derogatory term that religious commentators have given them, that has stuck. The big worry about Francis Collins from what I understand (not being American myself, I may not understand at all!) was that his religious views would influence where money was granted for scientific research. For example, the attack on stem cell research, is afaik, entirely religiously based. If Collins’ religious views influenced him there, then there would be a very big problem. But also, people like Harris attack religion as a whole, not individuals. His attacks I have heard on Collins have all been on his religious views, not on the man himself, there’s a difference.

    The hostility towards religious belief from someone like Sam Harris is primarily directed towards the fact that religious belief is considered sacrosanct and can’t be questioned. That is his material point – if you read, say, the end of faith, he regularly makes the point that because religious moderates refuse to allow the subject of religion to be brought up and questioned, religious fanatics are safe in their beliefs. Take one of Hitchen’s examples:

    When the fatwa for Salman Rushdie’s execution was declared, all the religious moderates – the Pope et al – all declared the the problem was Rushdie’s ‘Blasphemy’, rather than the maniacs who wanted to kill him. That is the kind of thing that Sam Harris and the rest rail against. The fact that you are not allowed to question the existence of god, for fear of ‘offending people’ (so much they try to kill you, in Rushdie’s case) is their major problem with religion.

    As an aside, you would probably find that people like Sam Harris would attack moderate theists less, if these same moderate theists stamped out the extremism themselves. The argument is that religion isn’t the problem, extremism is, but the problem is so large, that if stamping out religion entirely is the only way to stop them, is it not justified?

    But I’m in danger of putting words in other people’s mouths here, and I have no more time to write in, anyway, so I’d better stop.

    Merry Christmas, by the way. (I’m not one who objects to the word, apologies to anyone who does)

    Greg

  • Jeff Dale

    my sense is that, as far as I can tell anyway, atheists (’round this part of the internets) believe that believers are imbeciles

    Hi Wandering Irishwoman. I’m an atheist, but I don’t think believers are imbeciles. Moreover, as a humanist, I find it impossible to summon hatred for any of them, even if their belief motivates them to kill (though that fact wouldn’t reduce my motivation to prevent them from killing). I wasn’t really following the exchanges you had with some folks here, so I don’t have anything good or bad to say about what they said, but in any case they were only a few folks, so their views may not be representative of everyone else here. All views, respectfully expressed and open to fair and respectful criticism, should be welcome here. Cheers!

  • http://atheistcamel.blogspot.com/ Dromedary Hump

    Gibbon said:

    ” But even in respect to the beliefs I would be more inclined to say that when religion is present wherever evil occurs, it is more often the case that religion was used to justify the actions rather than being the cause of the actions.”

    Gibbon, Really??
    So “god’s” word that one “shalt not suffer a witch to live.” didn’t give credibility to the superstitious concept of witches, and wasn’t an impetus for Christian witch hunts?

    Leviticus’ demand for the death of those who committ homosexual acts didn’t give specific directive and thus godly justification for the killing of and intolerance toward homosexuals?

    There are other verses that glorify genocide; that planted the seed of anti-Semitism that Christians have practiced toward “the Christ killers” for 1500 years. Please.

    Religion WAS the cause of those particular prejudices,ignorances,hatreds and murders. But I suppose it’s convenient for Xtian apologists to ignore it since it doesn’t support their agenda.

  • http://atheistcamel.blogspot.com/ Dromedary Hump

    Irishwoman said:

    sense is that, as far as I can tell anyway, atheists (’round this part of the internets) believe that believers are imbeciles, whereas I believe that atheists are people who don’t believe in God. Beyond that, I sort of have this crazy notion that I actually have to know a person a bit before I can make further judgments about them.

    A face to face exchange isn’t necesary to assess one’s degree of intellect or capacity to think. A statement offered in a forum of atheists that there are no artistic or creative atheists; that they do not contribute to art and culture, was a statement of gross ignorance.

    It could have been averted by searching Google with a few simple strokes on your keyboard. But you didn’t bother. You prefered to make a statement that you have internalized with no evidence, one that likely you heard from a similarly imparied Theist, or that you just made up on your own. Here, start with this:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_nontheists

    That your comment was offered in a group of thinking people who respect fact and reality and who could dismantle your ill advised and ignorant statement with a simple link further supports my contention that religiosity, Christianity in particular, does not encourage thought, examinatiion, or reason… it stifles it.

    Perhaps imbecile was a tad strong. I withdraw that epithet, and proffer you are simply an under-educated, poorly read, product of your mind stunting belief system.

  • stoat100

    At the risk of stating the obvious: perhaps she is lying, and her atheist friends are made of straw?

    If there is one thing that is consistent about atheists, it’s this: they respect the beliefs of others as long as the latter keep it to themselves.

  • stoat100

    @Trixie

    “Surrounded by atheists”? Wow. I wanna live in New York.

    You want to live in the UK: I’m 44 and have been surrounded by atheists for my entire life, despite being raised a Catholic. ;)

    What is it with the US? Do they put something in the drinking water other than fluoride?

  • Jeff Dale

    If there is one thing that is consistent about atheists, it’s this: they respect the beliefs of others as long as the latter keep it to themselves.

    Better to say (generalizing, of course) that we respect theists as people, and respect their freedom of belief, and don’t gratuitously attack their beliefs, but don’t respect the beliefs themselves.

    religiosity, Christianity in particular, does not encourage thought, examinatiion, or reason… it stifles it

    This may be over-generalization. For example, in some liberal congregations, there is some honest and searching dialogue about how to address the social ills around us, and that probably does help many of the congregants to become more thoughtful than they otherwise would have been about many of things we humanists favor. And many of those same congregants have a view of the supernatural elements of their religion that is so attenuated as to almost blend harmlessly into the background. I don’t worry about offending theists when it’s justified and unavoidable, but I’d rather give them statements that stand on their own merits, rather than ones with weaknesses they can attack and thus detract from the overall force of the argument.

    Merry Krismas Eve!

  • stoat100

    Better to say (generalizing, of course) that we respect theists as people, and respect their freedom of belief, and don’t gratuitously attack their beliefs, but don’t respect the beliefs themselves.

    Yes, you are correct, of course – I have no respect whatsoever for their beliefs, but would fight to the death for their right to believe them, as a wise man once said.

    However, if you look at my last implied ‘if’ statement (yes, I’m a programmer!) it will never return true – if theists really *did* keep it to themselves, we would not even know that religion existed!

    Happy holidays. :)

  • Jeff Dale

    if theists really *did* keep it to themselves, we would not even know that religion existed!

    Sounds like a John Lennon song. Let’s imagine it together! Cheers.

  • http://www.sacredriver.org Ash Bowie

    @Gibbon

    I won’t reply to everything you wrote, because I think the Jeff did a pretty good job.

    The mistake I’m seeing with the criticisms made by so many atheists is that there seems to be an assumption that it starts with religion and proceeds from there.

    I generally don’t find it very useful to think in causal terms within complex situations like this. Rather, religious or supernatural thinking is a component in the overall process of how people interpret phenomena and choose how to behave (just as reason and naturalistic thinking are). Some atheists, myself included, argue that religious thinking strongly influences irrational and detrimental behavior within this process. [*This is an important distinction: I am arguing that while beliefs can be positive, negative, or neutral, religious thinking will always have a net negative effect because it is grounded in the unreal. An example is the thought process that allows parents to pray over a sick child rather than seek medical care]. As a psychotherapist, I also think that supernatural thinking often inhibits cognitive maturity. This isn’t to say that ONLY religious thinking leads to irrational, detrimental, or immature human states; other conditions can do that, too. But that doesn’t let religion off the hook.

    Side note, Buddhism is not an atheist religion.

    I’m not sure where this came from, but Buddhism isn’t a theistic religion. With exceptions, Buddhism as a whole does not recognize what a Westerner would call a god and Buddha explicitly rejected the idea of a creator deity and the worship of gods. Sorry, but Buddhism is no more theistic than atheism is religious.

    Okay, this is where you guys need to find some consistency, because on the one hand Greg is saying that atheism is nothing more than a lack of belief in god, while you Ash are attributing certain beliefs and principles to it, such as the idea that an atheist is someone who is willing to change their mind.

    You are mistaking a common trait or principle for a religious tenet. Atheism has no creed; if you don’t believe in gods, then you are an atheist as a matter of definition. But in general, it is my experience that atheists are such because of a lack of evidence, so it is reasonable to suggest that many would change their minds if adequate evidence came to light. Of course, what would be considered adequate probably wouldn’t be agreed upon either.

    Listen, I know it’s a popular new tactic to make atheism out to be just another religion—we’re being called fundamentalists, told that it takes more faith to disbelive in god, and other nonsense. These are rhetorical tactics designed to dismiss and divert attention away from the core arguments that atheists offer.

    If it was true that atheists were more concerned with the actions of religious people then explain why Richard Dawkins is so adamant about proselytising for what he regards as the truth.

    I think there is some conflation going on here. I maintain that the passion underlying the current atheist movement is largely powered by our distress over religion-inspired behavior. One domain of such behavior involves how we as humans discover and understand the nature of reality (i.e. truth), along with how we transmit those understandings.

    In the last few years, we’ve seen an embracing of anti-scientific thought in this country, Christians who are proud to ignore hard evidence and adopt falsifiable beliefs because they conform with religious texts. We are not talking about mere abstractions, but about physical reality, such as the age of the Earth and how life developed. For many atheists, the religious behavior of promoting scripture-based ignorance and irrational thinking is worth countering.

    Again, if believers kept their beliefs to themselves and didn’t try to teach them in school or try to block science-based policy (e.g. climate change legislation, stem cell research, condom distribution), then books like The God Delusion probably wouldn’t be published, or at least not become best sellers. After all, atheists have been writing books for a long time; their current popularity is largely due to what many see as a deleterious Christian fundamentalist movement. This is why Harris “went after” Collins, because the man is openly promoting the junk science of “intelligent design.” If Collins wasn’t trying to promote bad science, Harris would not have a reason to discuss him.

    Dawkins and Harris are academics, their domain is knowledge. It makes perfect sense that they would feel compelled to argue against those who promote ideas and ways of thinking that undermine science and rationality. One can argue that the problems of the world are such that we need, more than ever, knowledge and policies grounded in reason, universal compassion, and empirical evidence. Dawkins et al provide compelling arguments for how theism acts against this need; again, the issue is real-world consequences, not mere bigotry against personal beliefs. They both go out of their way to say that people have a right to believe what they want and that they would never do anything to limit that right, and I stand with them on that point.

    There is no denying that there would be no weapons of mass destruction if it wasn’t for science; Hiroshima and Nagasaki would never have been incinerated; nor would it be possible to fire explosive devices over long distances such as the English Channel.

    Yes, knowledge is a two-edged sword and potentially very dangerous. But certainly you are not arguing that ignorance is better. After all, as horrible as Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, science has saved many more than it has killed and improved the lives of countless others. So, the real issue isn’t science being equitable with religion in terms of its cost/benefit to society, but rather the issue is ethics and the proper use of knowledge.

    With this in mind, it is more important than ever that we develop a social ethic grounded in reason and reliable knowledge. Your point actually works against your argument, since the myths, ignorance, cruelty, bigotry, and outdated commandments inherent in the Abrahamic religions inhibit developing exactly the kind of ethic the planet needs.

  • Wandering Irishwoman

    Um . . . I may be a wee bit lost in the thread here, but I did not make any of the statements to which Dromedary Hump is referring . . . did I miss something? I simply rather chafed at the idea that I’m an imbecile. I didn’t say anything about atheists not being creative, etc.

  • muggle

    I apologize if I repeat anyone above. I saw 72 comments, it’s 25 minutes to “It’s a Wonderful Life” (one of my all-time favorite movies) is on and decided to jump right in here with my comment then start to read what I can get through.

    Frankly, it’s all in her head. In fact, she decided to hide her Christianity? I’m puzzling why? Does anyone here hate Christians on sight? I know I have Christian and other theist friends and imagine most everyone does in our plural society, especially Christians since they are such a huge segment of our population.

    I know I’m too polite to mock Christianity to my friends’ faces as they too show me enough respect to not say stupid things like this nincompoop did in her tirade here. They don’t say you’re gonna burn in hell. They probably pray for my soul since they care about me but don’t tell me about it and, likewise, I don’t tell them that I wish they’d free themself from basing their life on a fabrication. Sometimes they will ask me questions and when they do, I make a point of answering politely. If it gets too much for them, they say okay we’re going to have to agree to disagree, I say okay and we end that conversation right there and move on to other topics.

    Mostly we know what the other thinks and we respect our right to be who we are and merely agree to disagree. I think they’re sadly mistaken and they think I am. We understand this and shrug it off. We are friends because we find each other good, respectable, kind people. Frankly, that’s what’s important.

    I seriously doubt she’s even given her “friends” the chance to respect her. Her own prejudice had her assuming they wouldn’t respect her as a human being even while they disagreed with her beliefs. So what does she do? She comes out of the Christian closet (yeah, right) in this real hostile way mocking their beliefs, in such a way as to be sure to alienate them. Then when she does, she can point her bigoted finger and say see how they are.

    Next time, smile and say to that friend coming from yoga class, well, yeah, I am actually. She’d probably apologize for laughing and tell you she meant no disrespect.

    Okay, now off to catch up on everyone else’s comments — which I probably won’t get through entirely until the grandson goes to his father’s at noon tomorrow.

  • http://gaytheistagenda.lavenderliberal.com/ Buffy

    She embraces the stuff that makes her feel good and disregards all the bad stuff. Then she not only expects her friends to respect her religious beliefs just because they’re religious beliefs, but she expects them to respect them even though they have no idea she has them. Typical.

  • Shannon

    Wandering Irishwoman, I think maybe humor doesn’t work on the interwebs sometimes ;-) Merry Christmas to you, and put a baby in the oven for me ;-)

  • http://religiousliberal.blogspot.com Dwight

    I’m a Christian who doesn’t believe in the supernatural. Presumably if God is a subject of experience than whatever we mean by God must be something in the world of nature, of space, time, etc. That may be something like John Spong’s “ground of being” which is a rip from Tillich’s understanding of God as the depth of experience. It could be pantheism or panentheism (like process thought, some forms of liberal calvinism) or it may be whatever is at work in the world that makes for transformation, for the better. What I’m arguing for can be found in liberal Christian and Jewish writers in the last few centuries.

    So um, yeah this isn’t new. And while it isn’t the majority view, anyone who lives in a city or college town will definitely have a church that sounds something like that in America today. So we’re not that obscure either. And we’ve had many of the same social positions that atheists in the US have tended to be drawn towards for such as long..so again, we’re allies, we can be friends, atheists and liberal theists ought to work together and should find some basis for mutual dialogue and yes even disagreement as well as agreement.

  • Wandering Irishwoman

    Thanks, Shannon. I celebrated the birth of my Saviour today without managing to bother too many atheists, I think. I do need a larger crock pot, though; it’s just getting too difficult to stuff those infants in the one I have.

    At all events, I’ll leave everyone here to enjoy their, um, statutory holidays, and simply state that which you already know, but that which I still feel bears repetition: Not all believers are witch burners/wild-eyed zealots/morons, although I realise that acknowledging that may make things a bit more complex for those of you who must see things in black-and-white. Neither end of the spectrum (those fanatically atheist/those fanatically religious) tends to be terribly interested in listening respectfully to anyone else along that spectrum, so people often end up talking to themselves. Which maybe is just as well. But I find it unfortunate.

    Cheers!

  • Gibbon

    I have written a very large response, so it will be split up into three posts.

    Jeff

    I think by “practices” you mean the things people do as part of their religion, anything from praying in church, to campaigning for creationism in schools, to blowing up embassies. And I think we can all agree that if religious believers didn’t do the “practices” that are harmful, we probably wouldn’t be talking about the harms of religion.

    That’s a good point. What do I mean by religious practice? Admittedly, I didn’t give much thought as to what a religious practice is when I wrote that. If anything I was probably referring to those practices which occur outside of the religious institutions despite being partly based on religious scripture. So something like Communion or Hajj wouldn’t be an example (those would be rituals), but campaigning for creationism in public schools would constitute as a religious practice as I intended the term to mean.

    The thing about those religious practices though is that in most circumstances they are not mandated or required by the religious dogma; they are not intrinsic to the religion it self. Flying jetliners on suicide missions into skyscrapers is not a “tenet” of the religion, but is instead a consequence of the individual interpreting and applying religious texts in ways that are dictated by their perception of the world.

    On the other hand, many atheists think that beliefs do cause harm (and many believers think that about other people’s religions), so they are presumably arguing from a different basis, one in which beliefs are seen as a strong enough motivator of harmful actions that the harm can, to some extent, be attributed to the belief.

    However, there is that difficulty of determining how a religious belief contributes to harm, that prevents anyone from directly attributing to that belief any responsibility for the damage that was done. It is not so simple that one can draw a straight line from the belief to the damage without encountering any obstacles; there are many different factors which can differ from person to person, and from religion to religion, that change both how the belief is practiced and what its outcome will be. For example, in Iran it was political and social factors that led the Ayatollahs to reinterpret the belief behind the Shi’a ritual of the Mourning of Muharram, which then allowed them to utilise the ritual itself for the purpose of making the case for the overthrow of the Shah; it was also used to gain support for the revolution. Interestingly, it was the ritual and not the belief that did the damage, although considering what the Shah had done to the people that damage was justified. There are always forces external to religion which contribute to and aide in determining what the net effect of the applied belief will be and how it will be practiced. There is no avoiding that fact.

    We can’t rid the world of explosives and poison, but we also can’t rid the world of credulous people, and as long as there are beliefs like this that can be used to brainwash the credulous, we will have religiously-inspired harms in the world. And in a world where WMDs are increasingly powerful, and increasingly easy to come by, we simply can’t afford to let these beliefs stand unchallenged.

    And you think it is the place of the non-religious and atheist people to criticise those beliefs and change or kill them? I just can’t see how that is in any way practical or constructive, rather I consider it ill-mannered and dangerous. Theologians and other philosophically minded members of religious cultures have throughout the course of history made contributions that have changed the way that scripture has been interpreted and applied. There is no denying that religions have not remained fixed and unchanged for their entire history. It just seems to me that religion when subjected to hostile forces, especially external ones, will adopt a more hostile persona to defend it self from those forces. On the flipside when exposed to more positive or benign forces religion tends to evolve in a more positive direction. Aside from that, it is impossible for someone to kill an idea. If the War on Terror has shown us anything it’s that you can’t kill an idea.

    And ANY religion, no matter how outwardly benign, that teaches its adherents to form beliefs without consulting evidence is part of the problem, because its adherents are not well placed or prepared to challenge the more obviously harmful beliefs, and the whole climate of belief without evidence lends legitimacy, or at least provides cover, for the more harmful varieties.

    I’m not sure what to make of this. The most I can say about this concept is that it is an unintended facet of religion due primarily to some of the issues which it addresses not having foundation in objectivity, I’m thinking of that spiritual or transcendent experience. How does one interpret in any meaningful sense an experience that occurs beyond the material? I can’t possible see how transcendence can make sense without personal or subjective data. It is simply unfortunate (and possibly due to human nature) that some people interpret their subjective experiences in a way that exposes the dark side of humanity.

    But the same equation holds here as in my earlier examples: without the religious belief, these people would not have come up with the harms that arise in their religious practices….

    Thus, we start with religion because it it the one thing that, if pulled out of the equation, would end all the harms. Again, we can’t rid the world of implements of harm, and we can’t rid the world of credulous people who can be taught to use the implements of harm, so we have to try to rid the world of beliefs that connect the two.

    To attribute blame for those events to religious beliefs is a gross oversimplification of the situation. Running with the equation theme:

    1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 = 15

    What you’re in effect arguing is that because the sum changes to 14 when the value of 1 is removed from the equation, then the 1 is the reason you get 15. But the sum of 15 is the result of adding ALL five values together, no single value is any more responsible for the sum than any other. And pretty much every scenario in the real world follows a similar pattern. I can’t think of a single situation where it was a case of 1 = 15, or religion = harm. If you took religion out of the equation would 9/11 not have occurred? No one knows. It is possible that an attack could have occurred, just not a suicide attack. Or it might be that al Qaeda would have attacked a Middle Eastern target rather than a foreign one. We simply don’t know.

    There are reasons to believe things would not get any better without religion, humans have after all committed great atrocities in the absence of it. Religion was absent from the two largest body counts in history. Stalin and Mao didn’t need religion to justify killing more people than anyone else ever has; in fact by virtue of communism they were non-religious. They were by all means secular governments. There is no guarantee that things will be better if religion is removed from the equation. Things would certainly be different, but it is impossible to predict whether they would get better.

    Just one final note on fundamentalism. Having given it further thought, it doesn’t seem accurate to reduce fundamentalism to little more than a high degree of commitment; there are other traits which identify whether someone is a fundamentalist. One that pops into mind is the tendency for such people to view all relevant topics as being dichotomous in nature, which is to say they consider only two positions as being legitimate, their own and that of the opposition. They typically also consider themselves to know what the truth is, and at the same time believe that anyone who holds beliefs inconsistent with, or contradictory to theirs to be wrong.

  • Gibbon

    Ash

    Rather, religious or supernatural thinking is a component in the overall process of how people interpret phenomena and choose how to behave (just as reason and naturalistic thinking are). Some atheists, myself included, argue that religious thinking strongly influences irrational and detrimental behavior within this process….

    As a psychotherapist, I also think that supernatural thinking often inhibits cognitive maturity. This isn’t to say that ONLY religious thinking leads to irrational, detrimental, or immature human states; other conditions can do that, too. But that doesn’t let religion off the hook.

    There is one very important reason why I can’t agree with this: you’re making an argument from typology. This argument of yours requires that all thinking, particularly that of all people within certain communities, be grouped into types and then treated as if all thoughts under a single type are identical. Just as no two people are alike, except for monozygotic twins, I would think that no two people think exactly the same, even if they are members of the exact same religious tradition.

    I’m not sure where this came from, but Buddhism isn’t a theistic religion. With exceptions, Buddhism as a whole does not recognize what a Westerner would call a god and Buddha explicitly rejected the idea of a creator deity and the worship of gods. Sorry, but Buddhism is no more theistic than atheism is religious.

    Buddhism is in no way atheistic. There are entities within the religion that are in a sense the equivalent of gods or deities, but they are different from the gods of Western religions in that they are neither worshipped nor believed to have created the universe. They are supernatural and do have powers that exceed what humans are capable of, and in almost any sense they can be regarded as higher beings. But as I have already said, Buddhism holds that it was one of those deities, a Brahma, that persuaded Gautama to teach others how to achieve Enlightenment after he had originally decided not to. That is why you can not regard Buddhism as an atheist religion.

    It is much easier to understand how Buddhism is NOT atheistic once you distance yourself from those Western biases that shape your perceptions; it essentially requires a relativist approach.

    Would one say that Zeus is not a god because he wasn’t believed to have created the universe?

    But in general, it is my experience that atheists are such because of a lack of evidence, so it is reasonable to suggest that many would change their minds if adequate evidence came to light.

    But by making that argument you are beginning to force atheists into a stereotype. You’re ignoring all those people who are atheists for reasons other than a lack of evidence, such as never having made the choice to believe in the first place, or never having been brought up in a religion. James Watson is someone that can be described by either or both of those, and I know that it is either one or both of those that applies to me, even though I no longer regard myself as an atheist. If atheism is simply a lack of belief in god then you can’t pigeon-hole it into a stereotype.

    For many atheists, the religious behavior of promoting scripture-based ignorance and irrational thinking is worth countering.

    However, you’re not addressing the real issues. Atheists such as yourself keep bringing it back to religious belief and saying that it’s what is causing so many problems, but there is no indication that you’ve given any real thought as to what the underlying causes of those beliefs are. And that’s what it keeps coming back to for me. Why believe? Why believe that Jesus is the path to salvation? Why believe that the Qur’an is the transcribed word of Allah? Atheists like Richard Dawkins may dismiss these beliefs as failed attempts to explain the natural world, but given that many religious beliefs, including the specifically mentioned beliefs above do not address questions of objective truth, and also that for thousands of years individuals of almost every religious persuasion have fully accepted the findings of science without problem, that “failed science” hypothesis is a failure; it’s contradicted by a lot of evidence.

    Again, if believers kept their beliefs to themselves and didn’t try to teach them in school or try to block science-based policy (e.g. climate change legislation, stem cell research, condom distribution), then books like The God Delusion probably wouldn’t be published, or at least not become best sellers.

    Firstly, it may be possible to keep religious beliefs to one self, but the same can’t be said for the rest of religion; a significant portion of religion does reside outside of the self and in the public square. If you try to marginalise religion and prevent people from exercising their religion properly, then they are going to push back defensively and usually with an equal amount of force. It is generally believed amongst religious scholars that the “secularisation” or marginalisation of religion in American society is what ultimately gave rise to the Religious Right, with the tipping point being Roe v. Wade. You may actually be surprised to know that religious-inspired behaviour does not occur in a vacuum; more often than not religiously motivated activism is typically given life by changes in society.

    This is why Harris “went after” Collins, because the man is openly promoting the junk science of “intelligent design.” If Collins wasn’t trying to promote bad science, Harris would not have a reason to discuss him.

    Dawkins and Harris are academics, their domain is knowledge. It makes perfect sense that they would feel compelled to argue against those who promote ideas and ways of thinking that undermine science and rationality.

    So when Francis Collins uses his credentials to gain an audience and use them as a platform to speak in part about his personal beliefs, that is wrong, but when a scientist like Richard Dawkins uses his credentials in the same way, that is not wrong. Give me one good reason for why neither Dawkins nor Harris are hypocrites for doing the exact same thing that they accuse Collins of.

    The credentials of Richard Dawkins gives him the platform to speak with authority on matters of evolution, and the same is said for Sam Harris in respect to neuroscience, but neither of these two men have the credentials to speak with any authority on religion; what they say about that topic is their own personal opinion. I will gladly take their advice on issues relevant to their areas of expertise, but when it comes to religion I will favour the professional opinions of religious scholars, which includes people such as Mircea Eliade or Paul Morris and not these atheist novices. Hate to break it to you but the age of the polymaths is gone. Just because someone is an authority on one subject doesn’t mean that they are also on another. It is my opinion that when discussing religion neither Dawkins nor Harris knows what they are talking about, hence calling them novices.

    Dawkins et al provide compelling arguments for how theism acts against this need; again, the issue is real-world consequences, not mere bigotry against personal beliefs.

    Yet their prejudices and biases against religion show through and explain their attitudes. We know why Richard Dawkins at least has a problem with religion, it’s because his experience with it was through only the teleological argument, which goes against his profession of choice: evolutionary biology. Thus we can understand where his biases lie. I’m not as familiar with the backgrounds of others like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, but from what I have seen of Harris his motivations at least appear to be political.

    Your point actually works against your argument, since the myths, ignorance, cruelty, bigotry, and outdated commandments inherent in the Abrahamic religions inhibit developing exactly the kind of ethic the planet needs.

    My point is that you can’t condemn a utility because of how someone uses it. None of us would seriously consider blaming science for the levelling of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or for the German bombing of London, so why blame the utility that is religion when a person uses it to commit acts of evil? Just as there are certain things absent in science which leave it open to destructive purposes, so too is there in religion. Shouldn’t responsibility be placed on the person rather than the tool? It seems like anyone who lays responsibility for the stabbing of a person on the knife, is simply looking for a scapegoat to avoid placing the responsibility on the accused. You’re not a Confucianist are you?

  • Gibbon

    Greg

    Prophets of New Atheism is a bit of a silly term imo. It’s a derogatory term that religious commentators have given them, that has stuck.

    I don’t consider it a silly term, and quite frankly I wasn’t aware that anyone else had used it. Typically prophets are reformers; they have the effect of reshaping religious traditions into newer forms. Jesus was a reformer of Judaism, and his changes created Christianity. Similarly Mohammed was also a reformer.

    The reason why I regard the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens as prophets is because they’re in a way leading the reforming of secular or atheist institutions. The effect they have had is to very much organise large followings and grow communities around secularism or even a lack of belief in god, I only need to point to those atheist bus ads and the annual atheist alliance for any reason to believe this. In fact from my point of view there has been a large enough jump in the level of organisation within these groups to justify calling it “Organised Atheism” rather than New Atheism, especially since many atheist and secularist groups are starting to exhibit some of the traits typically expected of religious traditions.

    The big worry about Francis Collins from what I understand (not being American myself, I may not understand at all!) was that his religious views would influence where money was granted for scientific research.

    Yet there is no evidence to suggest that Francis Collins has ever let his religion get in the way of his job. Sam Harris could not point to any actual evidence that Collins’ beliefs would get in the way, because it has never happened. The man has done his job well, both in administrative positions and in positions where he actually practiced science, he never let that crossover happen. What Sam Harris sparked was a witch hunt against religious scientists being given important administrative positions, and he did so without any justification.

    His attacks I have heard on Collins have all been on his religious views, not on the man himself, there’s a difference.

    And yet you can’t separate the two. A person’s religious beliefs as a part of their religion, lies at the heart of their identity.

    The hostility towards religious belief from someone like Sam Harris is primarily directed towards the fact that religious belief is considered sacrosanct and can’t be questioned.

    If that were true then I would contend that it would be a very recent phenomenon. Religious beliefs have been critiqued for thousands of years. The tenets of Christianity alone have been questioned since the beginning. What do you think theologians do? One of their jobs is to critique and interpret scripture so as to make it relevant to changing social conditions. There have been plenty of people who have criticised different religious beliefs without repercussion, Saint Augustine for example, who is one of the Church Fathers, in the 5th century criticised Biblical literalism. If this idea that religious beliefs are sacrosanct and above criticism is real, then it is most likely a product of the original fundamentalist movement, which is less than two hundred years old.

    There is a strong tradition of critiquing religious beliefs. With Christianity it goes from St Paul in the beginning of the religion all the way up to John Haught in the present day, and the same can be said for the other major religions.

    The argument is that religion isn’t the problem, extremism is, but the problem is so large, that if stamping out religion entirely is the only way to stop them, is it not justified?

    Perhaps this perceived “problem” is so large because its source can’t be placed in a single location. Instead they are spread out across both religious and non-religious elements of human life, so kicking out just one of them wouldn’t bring the tower down; in order to take it down you would have to take out a majority of the supports, including non-religious ones. This question begs another question: is it even feasible to stamp out religion? Because I don’t think it is. I may only be in the third course of many required for my major in Religious Studies at the local university, but based on the material I have read in that short time (only since July) I have this strong suspicion that religion, rather than being an invention, or even a discovery, is almost a natural outgrowth of various elements of the human condition. And from that I have concluded that even if you could somehow exterminate religion as we know it, something else would emerge without any effort or choice and that would by any means be identical to the previous religion.

    Wandering Irishwoman

    Neither end of the spectrum (those fanatically atheist/those fanatically religious) tends to be terribly interested in listening respectfully to anyone else along that spectrum, so people often end up talking to themselves. Which maybe is just as well. But I find it unfortunate.

    On that theme perhaps the hallmark of a truly reasonable person is the willingness to listen, regardless of the tone with which the other person is speaking. Personally I would listen to what a fundamentalist says rather than attack their beliefs, because at least that way I could gain a far greater understanding and appreciation of the person and the situation they re in, which would make it far less difficult for the both of us to reach a common goal in resolving whatever problem there is.

    P.S. If anyone is up for reading a properly academic article on the relationship between religion and war, I would recommend checking out the following piece:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/spl/hi/world/04/war_audit_pdf/pdf/war_audit.pdf

  • http://www.sacredriver.org Ash Bowie

    @Gibbon

    I can’t help but think that you are simply arguing for the sake of argument at this point. I and others here have clearly and politely corrected several of your false concepts about atheism and atheists, and it seems to have done little good. So I have little hope that you will hear what I have to say now. Therefore, I will offer just a few answers without dragging things out.

    There is one very important reason why I can’t agree with this: you’re making an argument from typology. This argument of yours requires that all thinking, particularly that of all people within certain communities, be grouped into types and then treated as if all thoughts under a single type are identical.

    It is well established that people in groups tend to think and act in similar ways; not uniform ways as you are suggesting, but as on a bell curve. Psychological and sociological science strongly backs me up on this. My claim was not that every single theist thinks in exactly the way I described, and it is that straw man that you are rebutting. But my original argument holds that, on the whole, religious thinking strongly contributes to irrational, detrimental, and immature human states.

    Buddhism is in no way atheistic.

    Personally, I don’t find this to be a constructive argument. Buddhism as tought by Siddhartha Gautama and practiced by the majority of adherents does not recognize or worship gods, being far more concerned with the Noble Eightfold Path, achieving liberation (i.e. enlightenment), and studying Buddha’s laws of nature. Some modern Buddhists sects are starting to incorporate gods, and various areas in Asia kept their original Hindu deities. So, it depends on what you are referring to when talking about “Buddhism”. Either way, “once you distance yourself from those Western biases that shape your perceptions” then you will see that their ideas about gods are very different from a Christian’s anyway.

    At the same time, the fact that some Buddhists incorporate gods into their religion is simply evidence that no gods exist. After all, with all the various conceptions of gods out there, it is more likely that none of them are real; instead being inventions of the human mind. Think about it—Buddhism is arguably the second oldest religion out there (after Hinduism), dedicated to mindfulness and exploration of reality absent of judgment or preconception, and they still cannot agree about non-material beings.

    But by making that argument you are beginning to force atheists into a stereotype.

    You keep changing your argument. First you claim that mentioning such a trait is akin to creedal dogma, and now you are saying that it is stereotyping. It is neither; it would be like claiming that the statement “track runners are fast” or “members of chess clubs try to think in terms of strategy” are stereotypes, when they are basic observations of common traits.

    A stereotype is a two-dimensional conception about groups based on simplistic preconceptions (for example: All Christians hate gay people). Offering an observation of a common trait, on the other hand, especially from a member of the group in question, is not invoking a stereotype (eg. Christians tend to believe in Jesus). On top of that, you took my statement and twisted it into something I did not claim (i.e. that lack of evidence is the only reason people become atheists)…you’ve made a lot of straw man arguments like this here and it seriously undermines your credibility as a good-faith participant.

    Why believe? Why believe that Jesus is the path to salvation? Why believe that the Qur’an is the transcribed word of Allah?

    Actually, atheists discuss these things often. We are generally very curious about why people would believe in things for which there is no evidence. My own theory is that people believe supernatural claims for a multitude of reasons: (a) children have evolved to be credulous and so tend to adopt the beliefs of parents without question, especially when those beliefs are reinforced in the community, (b) existential anxiety inspires many to seek out the comfort of a supernatural source of protection, love, and the promise of eternal life, c) humans are hungry for a sense of control over their environment (a byproduct of #b) and in the absence of naturalistic explanations about the workings of the world will be satisfied with supernatural ones, (d) the human mind frequently experiences what are called cognitive or perceptive intrusions, which over the millennia have inspired supernatural explanations, such as ghosts, divine communication, and so on, (e) the powerful human need for belonging will influence many to accept even preposterous ideas in order to be accepted by others, and (f) many people want their lives to have a sense of meaning, of purpose, of belonging to a larger narrative, and many religions provide a context for this. These are all backed up by research, and there are of course other reasons besides these.

    Atheists in general do not dismiss these underlying needs, only the solutions that religions offer. We suggest that these needs can be met within a naturalistic framework.

    Atheists like Richard Dawkins may dismiss these beliefs as failed attempts to explain the natural world…that “failed science” hypothesis is a failure; it’s contradicted by a lot of evidence.

    Atheists like Richard Dawkins do more than dismiss supernatural theories, they show why they are poor ones in terms of understanding the natural world. This is why such books are getting so much pushback, they are very effective in explaining how religious ideas about reality are irrational or straight out wrong.

    To suggest that religions have simply gone along with scientific advances is to be stupendously mistaken. Religion has and still fights science tooth and nail (very effectively, unfortunately; about 50% of Amerians still do not believe in the factually established theory of evolution). The ID movement is a prime example of trying to counter scientific knowledge that undermines religious teachings. And even when groups do not overtly attack science, many nevertheless maintain supernatural and verifiably false ideas about how the world works, and support the teaching of those beliefs to children. Dawkins et al are trying to fight this public anti-science movement and I am right there with them.

    If you try to marginalise religion and prevent people from exercising their religion properly, then they are going to push back defensively and usually with an equal amount of force.

    That’s funny. I love the “Christians are persecuted” arguments. It basically says that believers have the right to promote their beliefs in the public square, but atheists are wrong to challenge those ideas and offer naturalistic ones. Atheists have not tried to “marginalise religion and prevent people from exercising their religion properly” in any way, shape, or form, and to again offer such a straw man argument is simply another attempt to divert attention away from our core arguments.

    So when Francis Collins uses his credentials to gain an audience and use them as a platform to speak in part about his personal beliefs, that is wrong, but when a scientist like Richard Dawkins uses his credentials in the same way, that is not wrong.

    You are still trying to make it personal when it just isn’t. Collins isn’t “wrong”, his ideas are. Harris isn’t attacking Collins, he’s attacking Collins’ proposals about nature. Harris hasn’t made a single suggestion to censure, punish, or in any way harm Collins; all he has done is vigorously argue against Collins’s bad science, and he has every right to do so. When you can understand the difference between debating ideas and attacking individuals, then you will see more clearly what is really going on.

    The credentials of Richard Dawkins gives him the platform to speak with authority on matters of evolution, and the same is said for Sam Harris in respect to neuroscience, but neither of these two men have the credentials to speak with any authority on religion…

    This is a red herring. Religion makes claims about reality and inspires people to act in ways we can see and respond to. The “New Atheists” aren’t trying to be theologians or religious historians, they are debating the claims of religion and condemning many of the behaviors of believers.

    I will gladly take their advice on issues relevant to their areas of expertise, but when it comes to religion I will favour the professional opinions of religious scholars, which includes people such as Mircea Eliade or Paul Morris and not these atheist novices.

    I don’t blame you…their critiques are blistering and (so far) impossible to counter. If one is determined to believe in what religion teaches, it makes sense to ignore people who make effective arguments against those teachings.

    Yet their prejudices and biases against religion show through and explain their attitudes.

    Everyone has biases and prejudices; the difference is that atheists have empirical evidence and reason on their side (or should I say that believers lack empirical evidence and reason for their positions). The biases of Dawkins et al are not arbitrary, but grounded in logic, ethics, and science, as their books lay out clearly.

    why blame the utility that is religion when a person uses it to commit acts of evil?

    Science is necessary to promote human well-being (think medicine, engineering, psychology, and the knowledge we need to make responsible and effective social policy), while religion is not. Meaning, community, fulfillment, creativity, love, compassion, hope, courage, integrity, and all such things are perfectly possible without faith. Countries with low levels of religiosity, like Denmark, show that it is possible to have high levels of happiness and social stability without faith. In fact, the countries that are the most miserable are some of the most religious. Supernatural beliefs are simply not necessary, are often destructive, and are objectively wrong.

  • Jeff Dale

    @Gibbon:

    I haven’t had a chance to read the rest of the responses both ways after your last response to me, but I’ll wade in here with a few points.

    You’ve explained your points very well, and put a lot of thought into them. I think, though, that you haven’t quite grasped the force of the counter arguments. Some clarification should help.

    The thing about those religious practices though is that in most circumstances they are not mandated or required by the religious dogma; they are not intrinsic to the religion it self.

    What I have maintained is that this is precisely the problem with religious texts: they admit of various interpretations, which then can’t be challenged (because of the ambiguity) and are taken by their adherents to be immune from challenge, even in their own minds.

    If a religious text contained nothing but unambiguous exhortations to kill everyone who doesn’t submit, it’d have only a small number of adherents, all of them homicidal fanatics. Instead, we have religious texts with some passages that could be interpreted in extremist ways, but also containing a whole lot of other stuff, some of it moral, and some of it contradicting the extremist passages. Thus, these texts have large numbers of adherents, most of them not so extremist, but unable to argue against the extremist adherents of those texts without denouncing their own “faith.”

    If religious people really think their ancient texts are effective guidebooks to a moral life, they obviously haven’t considered the possibility of writing a different book, with all the moral stuff and none of the extremist stuff. But religion demands that its holy texts be maintained intact, in spite of moral considerations.

    On the flipside when exposed to more positive or benign forces religion tends to evolve in a more positive direction. Aside from that, it is impossible for someone to kill an idea.

    Religions have, on the whole, evolved in more positive directions compared to centuries ago, no doubt about it. They’ve evolved that way because we as a species have evolved that way, to have a greater respect for human rights and human dignity, not to mention a much greater understanding of how the world actually works.

    But obviously religions themselves have had little or no part in that evolution, both because they’ve refused to update their ancient texts to weed out the awful stuff, and because they’ve generally resisted many of the major societal changes and movements that have brought about a better humanity. The evolution of the people within the religions is what we’ve seen, and they’ve done it by adopting values closer to those of humanism.

    I’m all for using positive influence whenever possible. But a big part of making such efforts effective is addressing the truth about religion head-on. I happen to think some atheists could do better at this task if they went about it with a little more compassion and understanding, but on balance I think increasing the sheer number of voices in this critical enterprise outweighs the extraneous noise thus generated.

    Can you kill an idea? Well, an idea dies if nobody believes it anymore. Each time someone is persuaded of the truth of atheism, one less person is attached to the old ideas. But as long as these ancient religious texts are maintained, even as little more than tokens in more liberal congregations, there’s always the potential for bad ideas, or bad interpretations of ambiguous ancient “holy” writings, to resurface and threaten humanity again.

    1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 = 15

    What you’re in effect arguing is that because the sum changes to 14 when the value of 1 is removed from the equation, then the 1 is the reason you get 15. But the sum of 15 is the result of adding ALL five values together, no single value is any more responsible for the sum than any other.

    Actually, this is cleverly explained, but it misses the point of my argument. I’m not saying that all of the pieces are not responsible for the outcome, I’m saying that there’s only one of the pieces (religion) that we have any hope of removing from the equation. I’ll demonstrate what I mean with a representative example:

    A = Ancient religious texts with passages that can be interpreted as divine commands to make war on nonbelievers.

    B = Credulous and/or ambitious leaders who will take advantage of A.

    C = Large numbers of credulous people who will believe in the literal truth of A as interpreted for them by B.

    D = Weapons (anything from guns to poison gas to commandeered jets to nuclear bombs).

    E = Deaths of large numbers of people because of B leading C to use D.

    A + B + C + D = E

    We can’t get rid of B. Without A, some of those people would try to find political or economic means of fulfilling their ambitions, but that’s a whole different problem.

    We can’t get rid of C without a massive education campaign that seems unlikely to come about anytime soon, and probably not while A retains respect in any case.

    We can’t get rid of D, obviously. There’s just too many things that can be used as murder weapons.

    We want to avoid E, since at its extremes it could include attacks that end civilization or even our existence as a species.

    What’s left? A. I’m saying we have to persuade the world to leave behind dogmatic adherence to ancient religious texts and the poisonous ideas that people have derived from them. What else can we do?

  • Gibbon

    Rather than arguing with you point by point, which because of this impasse wouldn’t achieve anything, I’m just going to describe what I see as being the reason(s) for why we can’t agree.

    These disagreements fundamentally come to down to a matter of semantics, more to the point the definition of religion it self. As far as I can tell the New Atheists including yourself, have perceived religion to be little more than supernatural belief, and that it is intended primarily to provide empirical explanations. With my side of the debate however, I’m starting from a position that regards religion as a social phenomenon more than anything else, and in respect to religious beliefs focuses on what non-empirical value they have. I ignore the supernatural because in one of my first Religious Studies classes it was pointed out by the lecturer that it doesn’t meaningfully contribute to understanding what religion is, which is precisely why I chose Religious Studies as my major. I’m very much a curious alien when it comes to religion; it’s unknown to me and I’ve never experienced it before, and so I wish to know more about it.

    On that note I will say that it is starting to appear as if the modern criticisms of religion are relying almost entirely on the natural sciences. Religious beliefs are being critiqued and dismissed based on their empirical veracity; if what they say is not consistent with a scientific understanding of the natural world they are considered redundant and must therefore be exterminated. It’s disappointing actually, because it seems like the atheists are completely ignoring the social sciences; it’s almost as if they are disinterested in the more-qualitative and less quantitative study of religion. That is in fact precisely why, as previously stated, I would consult with a religious scholar and not a natural scientist on matters of religion, because a religious scholar is in essence a social scientist that has made enough of a professional career studying religion and hence knows enough to teach about it. But what does someone like Richard Dawkins know? He appears to know about little more than the beliefs, and it seems the same with so many other prominent atheists; the focus is on belief and nothing else.

    The last thing I will say in this whole debate is that there is an incredible sense of irony to the atheist criticisms of religion, which is that those criticisms rely on a definition of religion that is not based on evidence or reason, but instead on Protestant beliefs. Any historian of religion can tell you that the definition of religion which says that it is ‘belief in god or the supernatural’ is in essence Protestant in origin. On top of that, the first dictionary to ever include that definition was in fact Noah Webster’s, which known to be a notoriously Protestant dictionary.

  • Gibbon

    I didn’t see you post Jeff, so I will address your points. Try to ignore the previous post, which was focused more towards Ash, who quite frankly I find less tolerable than you. Just give me some time to write a response to your post.

  • http://www.sacredriver.org Ash Bowie

    These disagreements fundamentally come to down to a matter of semantics, more to the point the definition of religion it self.

    I think these arguments mostly come down to how people determine what is true. Some people rely on scripture, religious authority, and perceptual feelings. Other people look to empirical evidence, the scientific method, and reason. It isn’t that black and white, of course, but the fundamental disagreements are not semantic, but epistemological.

    As far as I can tell the New Atheists including yourself, have perceived religion to be little more than supernatural belief…

    Then you aren’t looking very deeply, because we frequently voice a complex view of religion. We are perfectly aware of the cultural, psychological, and even economic elements that make up religion. What we mostly write about lies within two domains, that of epistemology (as mentioned above) and real world ethics. Perhaps the reason for your perception is that atheists generally see supernaturalism as the key problem with religion—if that were absent on a larger scale, then the other components of religion would be seen as less detrimental.

    On that note I will say that it is starting to appear as if the modern criticisms of religion are relying almost entirely on the natural sciences. Religious beliefs are being critiqued and dismissed based on their empirical veracity; if what they say is not consistent with a scientific understanding of the natural world they are considered redundant and must therefore be exterminated.

    This is true until you get to the redundant and exterminated part… if an idea is shown to be untrue, then it isn’t redundant, it’s just not true. And the object isn’t to “exterminate”, it’s to promote the best knowledge we have. For example, we stopped using leeches for medicinal purposes because better solutions came along.

    If science shows something to be probably true and that discovery contradicts religious models, then it is logical to conclude that the supernatural explanation is wrong. The massive success of science and the consistent failure of religion to accurately and reliably explain reality strongly supports abandoning religion as a source of knowledge about anything other than itself. But we aren’t interested in persecuting believers, regardless of the claims…we will simply continue to argue against supernatural explanations and promote rational ones grounded in empirical observation. One thing atheists have been suggesting recently is that religious beliefs should not get special treatment in the realm of ideas; if a religion makes a claim about reality, then those claims should be open to debate.

    But what does someone like Richard Dawkins know? He appears to know about little more than the beliefs, and it seems the same with so many other prominent atheists; the focus is on belief and nothing else.

    I’m not sure how to say this in a different way, but I’ll try. Dawkins et al are not trying to be experts in a given religion. They are trying to show two main things: (1) that scientific methods are vastly superior than religious ones for understanding the workings of the natural world, and (2) that religions, to one degree or another, are responsible for needless suffering. It doesn’t make sense to criticize them as lacking expertise in the full breadth of, say, Christianity because they do not claim to offer such expertise…one doesn’t read them to study a particular religion, but to understand how supernatural thinking promotes ignorance, injustice, and violence.

    The last thing I will say in this whole debate is that there is an incredible sense of irony to the atheist criticisms of religion, which is that those criticisms rely on a definition of religion that is not based on evidence or reason, but instead on Protestant beliefs.

    This is a common reply: “the atheists aren’t talking about MY god or MY religion.” Atheists frequently discuss Christian fundamentalism and Islam because those two movements are currently causing the most amount of direct damage. Atheists don’t worry about Sikhs much, for example, because they are passive and compassionate to an extreme. But if you actually read the books, you will see that their arguments apply not just to Protestantism, but to any set of beliefs about reality or ethics that are grounded in scripture, myth, revelation, or otherwise irrational thinking.

  • Jeff Dale

    @Gibbon:

    Turns out I found something in your dialogue with Ash that begs a response.

    So when Francis Collins uses his credentials to gain an audience and use them as a platform to speak in part about his personal beliefs, that is wrong, but when a scientist like Richard Dawkins uses his credentials in the same way, that is not wrong. Give me one good reason for why neither Dawkins nor Harris are hypocrites for doing the exact same thing that they accuse Collins of.

    You’ve sounded pretty intelligent through this debate, though in need of some critique, but this one is really out there.

    Collins and Dawkins and Harris are all equally entitled to use their credentials to gain a platform for their views. They are also equally entitled to use those platforms to criticize each other’s views. As Ash correctly and articulately responded, it’s not personal.

    But it should be obvious that the problem here is not the expression of views. The problem is the influence of those views on one’s job duties. Collins is in a position of influence in the promotion of scientific endeavor and the development of national policy on science. His anti-scientific views favoring supernatural explanations could lead him to give inaccurate testimony in decision-making relating to funding or legislation for scientific research, or to influence the performance of scientific research under his purview. Obviously, this is a conflict with his role, and Harris was justified in calling attention to it. By contrast, Dawkins’s naturalistic views are perfectly in accord with his role as a biologist, so there’s nothing to criticize unless you happen to be a partisan of creationism. (And THAT theory is so utterly bankrupt, so devastatingly trashed by the evidence, that I assume we don’t need to get into it here.)

    when it comes to religion I will favour the professional opinions of religious scholars, which includes people such as Mircea Eliade or Paul Morris and not these atheist novices

    You know, if you actually are interested in obtaining professional opinions of religious scholars, it’s pretty silly to write these guys off as “novices” just because they’re atheists. If you want an authoritative voice on religious scholarship, you could try someone like Dan Barker (“Losing Faith in Faith”) who was a preacher and soul-saver for two decades before realizing that his “faith” was absurd. Plenty of atheists can hold their own quite well against any theologian you want.

  • Gibbon

    Jeff

    Instead, we have religious texts with some passages that could be interpreted in extremist ways, but also containing a whole lot of other stuff, some of it moral, and some of it contradicting the extremist passages. Thus, these texts have large numbers of adherents, most of them not so extremist, but unable to argue against the extremist adherents of those texts without denouncing their own “faith.”

    There is a problem with having an unambiguous and fixed text though. If it is fixed, or to frame it another way, absolute, then it is not open to modification which is what any good text requires, especially if it is the basis for a moral code. You are right to point out that the ambiguity of the text leaves it open to abuse, but if it was fixed and absolute then its application would result in oppression and quite possibly the collapse of society. What the ambiguity allows for is the reinterpretation of the scripture in light of changing social conditions, which in the last two hundred years has been fuelled in large part by scientific advancement. That ambiguity or flexibility is what makes it possible for religions to evolve.

    If religious people really think their ancient texts are effective guidebooks to a moral life, they obviously haven’t considered the possibility of writing a different book, with all the moral stuff and none of the extremist stuff. But religion demands that its holy texts be maintained intact, in spite of moral considerations.

    People have tried something to that effect. Thomas Jefferson made whole scale changes to the Bible, editing out all references to the supernatural, but it obviously didn’t catch on despite retaining Jesus. I’m not sure if there really is much need write a whole new book to replace the old one. The evolution of religious belief shows us how scripture has responded to a changing society, and it will most likely continue to follow that trend. The only way that it might be possible to fully rewrite scripture would be if there was a large enough shift or revolution in society, and it would probably have to be much larger than any previous social revolution in history.

    But obviously religions themselves have had little or no part in that evolution, both because they’ve refused to update their ancient texts to weed out the awful stuff, and because they’ve generally resisted many of the major societal changes and movements that have brought about a better humanity. The evolution of the people within the religions is what we’ve seen, and they’ve done it by adopting values closer to those of humanism.

    But in the event that evolution of any type does occur, when does it ever happen by choice? The land-based vertebrate ancestors of whales didn’t choose to evolve to marine environments, and birds didn’t make the choice to evolve the capability of flight. One might be getting a little too hasty when suggesting that religion should evolve by force or conscious choice.

    The evolution of religion is much more like biological evolution than we might imagine. Just as evolution has left us with a lot of junk DNA and vestigial structures as well as certain biological flaws, so too has the evolution of religion left us with scriptural redundancies and flaws; it is simply a matter of selecting for constructive/positive interpretations and passages, rather than maladaptive ones.

    Can you kill an idea? Well, an idea dies if nobody believes it anymore.

    But you would have to make damn sure that the idea is more than just not believed, it would also have to be forgotten. I doubt anyone believes in Zeus anymore, but the idea still survives. And even if you could somehow bury it historians and archaeologists in the future might very well uncover it. You would have to in effect set up a Ministry of Truth, à la Orwell’s 1984.

    We can’t get rid of B. Without A, some of those people would try to find political or economic means of fulfilling their ambitions, but that’s a whole different problem.

    This is obviously where we disagree. I don’t think it is a whole different problem; it is my opinion that this is the true nature of the problem, which is human nature. You get rid of religion and those people who choose to do great evil will simply find other reasons to commit that evil. Some will even go so far as to invent whole new ideologies to justify great harm, as Hitler did with Nazism and the Holocaust. It just seems that while it is human nature to express great compassion and righteousness, it still comes back to the fact that harm and great evil are also inherent to humans. (You’re not a Confucianist are you?)

    The problem is the influence of those views on one’s job duties. Collins is in a position of influence in the promotion of scientific endeavor and the development of national policy on science.

    Obviously, this is a conflict with his role, and Harris was justified in calling attention to it.

    I feel like I’m repeating myself. No one pointed to any evidence that Francis Collins’ beliefs had ever gotten in the way of him doing his job before, as far as I can tell Harris’ arguments were little more than conjecture.

    By contrast, Dawkins’s naturalistic views are perfectly in accord with his role as a biologist, so there’s nothing to criticize unless you happen to be a partisan of creationism.

    Dawkins’ background in biology may give him the authority to speak on matters of biology, as well as refuting creationism, which is failed science, but it doesn’t give him license to speak with authority on anything else in religion.

    You know, if you actually are interested in obtaining professional opinions of religious scholars, it’s pretty silly to write these guys off as “novices” just because they’re atheists. If you want an authoritative voice on religious scholarship, you could try someone like Dan Barker (“Losing Faith in Faith”) who was a preacher and soul-saver for two decades before realizing that his “faith” was absurd. Plenty of atheists can hold their own quite well against any theologian you want.

    I think that quip on theology at the end is where you’re getting your wires crossed. I’m talking about professional scholars of Religious Studies, the academic discipline that is the study of religion from outside of it, which stands in contrast to theology where the religion is studied from the inside. The sorts of people I’m talking about that you might be familiar with include the likes of Stephen Prothero and Hector Avalos. And the reason I regard Dawkins and co. as novices in comparison to these guys is not because they’re atheists, but because they don’t have a background in the scholarly study of religion.

    I can’t believe you’re suggesting Dan Barker can be an authority on religious scholarship; this is the same guy who put up the sign that said “Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds”. That is hardly the type of behaviour expected of a professional scholar.

    Ash, with our conversation I think the only other thing I can say is that when it comes to religion I see little point in judging the empirical value of religious beliefs, I won’t even debate whether gods or deities exist or not.

  • http://www.sacredriver.org Ash Bowie

    Ash, with our conversation I think the only other thing I can say is that when it comes to religion I see little point in judging the empirical value of religious beliefs, I won’t even debate whether gods or deities exist or not.

    You mentioned semantics before as being a problem, and that’s true here. The term empirical, in the context of our conversation and as scientists use the word, refers to that which can be subject to observation or experiment.There are all kinds of evidence available to us, of course, including intuition and cognitive perception. The question is, what kind of evidence can we rely upon to determine what is true about the world? History has shown us that empirical evidence put through the rigors of the scientific method is the single best way we’ve yet devised to counter subjective errors. The scientific method isn’t perfect, but it has an exceptional track record of building a reliable database of knowledge.

    A large number of religious beliefs either deal with the natural world or should have some kind of indirect impact on nature. As such, religious beliefs are just as worthy of scientific examination as any other claim about how the universe is put together. And when we put those claims side by side with naturalistic explanations, the empirical evidence blows religion out of the water.

    This has happened again and again and again throughout history—and it isn’t about beating up on religion, it’s about dedication to truth, to the eternal challenge of discovering how the world works.

    And when we find that the supernatural claims in religion are wrong, it severely undermines the structure of religion itself. This is why there is such push back, because science is undermining people’s religious worldviews by replacing them with verifiable, reliable, rational, naturalistic explanations. And people are emotionally attached to their worldviews, so it makes sense that there is a reaction. But the goal is not to destroy religion (in general), but to promote our best knowledge and a universal ethics grounded in reason and compassion.

    PS. a great read on some excellent reasons not to believe in a god, I point you to Greta Christina’s Blog.

  • http://www.sacredriver.org Ash Bowie

    @Gibbon,

    If you are interested in books from naturalists who do have “expertise” in religion, I recommend the titles below. Some are less direct than those from Dawkins, Harris, and friends, but nevertheless make the same essential arguments.

    Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity, By John W. Loftus

    Religion is Not about God, By Loyal Rue

    Religious Naturalism Today: The Rebirth of a Forgotten Alternative, By Jerome A. Stone

    Reason and Reverence: Religious Humanism for the 21st Century, By William R. Murry

    When God Is Gone, Everything Is Holy, By Chet Raymo

    There are many different voices in atheism, some of whom even adopt a spiritual tone, like Raymo. Dawkins and Harris focus on epistemology (how we know things) and arguing that faith is ultimately detrimental to society. But other books, such as those above, address the topic of religion and faith more directly. They provide fewer fireworks and so don’t make the best seller lists, but offer significant arguments against supernatural belief.

  • Gibbon

    Ash

    The question is, what kind of evidence can we rely upon to determine what is true about the world? History has shown us that empirical evidence put through the rigors of the scientific method is the single best way we’ve yet devised to counter subjective errors. The scientific method isn’t perfect, but it has an exceptional track record of building a reliable database of knowledge.

    And yet while science is an incredibly powerful tool for understanding the natural world, it does have its limits. It doesn’t work nearly as well in describing social and cultural phenomenon, which is what religion falls under. One can certainly perform experiments to test some of the things said in scripture, like Mark 16:18 which says that a Christian can drink any poisonous fluid and not suffer ill effects, but one can’t really apply science to the belief that Jesus’ died for our sins. The ambiguity inherent to the texts that Jeff and I have been discussing means that any scientific refutation of a belief only renders it useless as an explanation for natural phenomenon, it doesn’t make the belief false in any other way. Would the fact that animals can’t talk make the majority of Aesop’s Fables redundant in all other respects?

    As far as I’m concerned the social sciences are far more appropriate for studying religion than the natural sciences.

    This has happened again and again and again throughout history—and it isn’t about beating up on religion, it’s about dedication to truth, to the eternal challenge of discovering how the world works.

    And when we find that the supernatural claims in religion are wrong, it severely undermines the structure of religion itself.

    But actual history shows us that science doesn’t undermine religion. Scholars in the medieval Islamic world were practicing science under rulers, the Caliphs; that based their governance on Islam, with no repercussions suffered against either science or religion. In fact there has been a long history of religion supporting science; a lot of the earliest universities were founded by religious institutions for the purpose of studying nature. The idea, which was present in the first few centuries of Islam, as well as in renaissance Europe I believe; was that god could be more fully understood not by scripture alone but also through nature, and experimental science was the means by achieving that. I also know that the historian of science Ronald Numbers has said that any actual conflicts between science and religion have been the exception and not the rule.

    Religion is a social phenomenon, and like science it is defined by how it is practiced; it is most likely that even without any recourse to the supernatural, religion would still exist. Simply refuting supernatural beliefs isn’t going to kill it.

    Dawkins and Harris focus on epistemology (how we know things) and arguing that faith is ultimately detrimental to society. But other books, such as those above, address the topic of religion and faith more directly. They provide fewer fireworks and so don’t make the best seller lists, but offer significant arguments against supernatural belief.

    Okay, this is getting irritating. I’m not looking for any reason not to believe, because I have no reason to believe in the first place. I have never believed in deities or belonged to a religion, and most likely never will. What I’m looking for is an understanding OF religion; it is alien to me, and I wish to know more about it. To that end I have come to the conclusion that the people best qualified to provide the information for which I seek, are people who have professionally studied religion, like the academics in the Religion or Religious Studies departments of universities (not Theology), like these people here:

    http://www.victoria.ac.nz/religion/staff/index.html

    In fact it is this very department at this exact university, the Victoria University of Wellington, in New Zealand, where I am doing my BA major in Religious Studies.

  • Jeff Dale

    @Gibbon:

    Getting into Ash’s part of the discussion again…

    I’m not looking for any reason not to believe, because I have no reason to believe in the first place. I have never believed in deities or belonged to a religion, and most likely never will. What I’m looking for is an understanding OF religion; it is alien to me, and I wish to know more about it. To that end I have come to the conclusion that the people best qualified to provide the information for which I seek, are people who have professionally studied religion, like the academics in the Religion or Religious Studies departments of universities (not Theology)

    I got this when you referred to it a little ways up-thread, and I assume Ash sees it now. I commend you on seeking atheist perspectives (other than your own, I mean), which I assume will be useful as part of your religious studies education. What you may discover is that those of us who get involved in these kinds of discussions meet very few people like you, and far more of believers who just keep passing along and repeating bogus arguments no matter how often and thoroughly they’re refuted. And we may reflexively proceed as though we’re dealing with yet another of the latter, when it’s actually not the case. I humbly beg pardon, and hope you will continue to visit and comment.

    Anyway, you’re right that religious studies faculty ought to be, generally speaking, excellent sources for in-depth learning about religion. However, it might be wise to find out about whether (and to what extent) these professionals’ scholarship is influenced by a wish to believe, which could bias the way they teach the material. You might not need that warning, but I figured it was worth mentioning.

    but one can’t really apply science to the belief that Jesus’ died for our sins. The ambiguity inherent to the texts that Jeff and I have been discussing means that any scientific refutation of a belief only renders it useless as an explanation for natural phenomenon, it doesn’t make the belief false in any other way. Would the fact that animals can’t talk make the majority of Aesop’s Fables redundant in all other respects?

    As far as I’m concerned the social sciences are far more appropriate for studying religion than the natural sciences.

    It’s true that a belief that Jesus died for our sins is not something on which we could subject to an experiment of natural science. But we can apply historical and textual analysis to the biblical accounts, and we can subject the propositions of belief to logical analysis. We do indeed seem to be talking at cross-purposes here, so perhaps our views are not so far apart. Our interest is not limited to natural sciences, so we expect to get into debates where there’s no easy way to pin down a precise answer, where different interpretations may hold.

    When you say “false in any other way,” and “redundant in all other respects,” I’m not sure what you mean, but I’m guessing that you’re referring to value or worth. Aesop’s fables seem unlikely to be literally true, but that doesn’t impair their value in teaching lessons. Is that what you mean? If so, I think it’d be hard to disagree. On the other hand, atheists’ interest in refuting biblical stories stems from the fact that a lot is riding on the degree of literal truth of those stories. Some of those stories may indeed have value, but some (as we’ve discussed) may be interpreted in ways that lead people to do harmful things. It’s hard to talk those people out of doing those harmful things without undermining the belief system that motivates them. And their belief system is firmly based on a belief that the stories are literally true to some extent, which means it’s worthwhile for us to show (thru various forms of analysis) that the stories have much less literal truth than they believe.

  • Jeff Dale

    @Gibbon:

    My part again…

    There is a problem with having an unambiguous and fixed text though. If it is fixed, or to frame it another way, absolute, then it is not open to modification which is what any good text requires, especially if it is the basis for a moral code. You are right to point out that the ambiguity of the text leaves it open to abuse, but if it was fixed and absolute then its application would result in oppression and quite possibly the collapse of society. What the ambiguity allows for is the reinterpretation of the scripture in light of changing social conditions, which in the last two hundred years has been fuelled in large part by scientific advancement. That ambiguity or flexibility is what makes it possible for religions to evolve.

    I think I see where you’re coming from, but I still think you’re missing something. You seem to be saying that if a religion had a text that was rigid and unambiguous, then when society evolved around it, the religion would not evolve, but would continue to prosper in its old ways and old beliefs, and this would hold down the rest of society. This sounds promising the way you put it, but in the long run I don’t think it works out that way.

    Let’s just take Islam for illustration. In earlier centuries, in some times and places, scholarship did indeed flourish under Islam. Its holy texts don’t rigidly and unambiguously prohibit such scholarship. Presumably, many Muslims of the time either interpreted the texts to be supportive of such scholarship or interpreted such scholarship as an expression of their religious devotion. If, instead, Islam’s holy texts did prohibit scholarship, one of two things would’ve happened: [1] Islamic societies would’ve stagnated in oppression and orthodoxy, which would’ve allowed the Christian societies of the time to surpass and eventually overwhelm them, or [2] enough Muslims would’ve realized that they couldn’t go on with such rigid texts and would develop a new way without those texts (or simply leave the society). In either of these cases, the influence of the Islamic texts would’ve been severely reduced, and Islam as a force today would be marginal at best, and Islamic terrorism probably wouldn’t be nearly the threat it is today. On the other hand, if the Islamic texts did nothing but rigidly and unambiguously endorse scholarship, Muslims might’ve evolved a belief such that “God” (as they understand him) is a transcendent being who wants nothing more than for us to pursue knowledge for our own positive development. Muslim societies would’ve continued to thrive to the present day while attracting even more admirers and adherents. Maybe almost everyone would be Muslims today. Certainly, such a rigid and unambiguous belief system couldn’t give rise to terrorism.

    What we have instead of these happy alternatives is an Islam that has survived because many people across the centuries have found ways to interpret it for their own updated views of what it should be. An Islamic text that had nothing in it except an exhortation to holy war against non-Muslims would have little use beyond the immediate needs of Muslim conquerors. It would survive only as long as the conquerors kept conquering. Once the conquests were beaten back, there’d be nothing left in the text to inspire and instruct people who were no longer in the business of conquering. Moreover, if such a text did survive today, it’d be easy to fight it: everyone would either be for it or against it, and most would be against it. The vast numbers of modern Muslims who want no part of holy war wouldn’t be Muslims under such a text, so we wouldn’t have to worry about offending or embarrassing them (or making them become militant) by attacking the fanatics who believed in that text.

    To sum up: A rigid, unambiguous text would be good for only one thing: its plain meaning. It would have currency with the public exactly to the extent that its plain meaning was felt to be worthwhile. We’d know exactly where its adherents stand.

    Or to look at it another way: Why should it be valuable for a text to be ambiguous so that later generations can reinterpret it in vastly different ways? The content, written by the ancients, will either be timeless (and thus not in need of much interpretation, but rather application to new circumstances, as with Aesop’s fables) or it will be worthless to us moderns (in which case, it’s worse than useless to pretend it has some value and try to reinterpret it for modern use). We can read the writings of, say, Plato and Aristotle, and find some points that speak to us across the ages, and discard the rest as a product of its time. That’s not reinterpretation, but reapplication. But what about the points we find in ancient biblical texts? Just to take one example, how about the command that homosexuals be stoned to death? Was it “right” for the ancients to “interpret” that as a good commandment because they thought homosexuals were evil? And is it “right” for us to “reinterpret” that commandment today so as to make things as difficult for homosexuals as we can in a pluralistic modern society? Passages like this were used to justify evil acts in ancient days, and are used to justify discrimination today. What is the value of such passages? Must we keep these ancient texts, or couldn’t we simply write something new that makes sense to our modern outlook? In other words, if you don’t have any religious motivation to preserve the texts intact, I don’t see why you would argue that we should think it’s a positive trait that they can be reinterpreted, rather than simply acknowledging that it’d be better to have a modern text that culls out the horrid stuff from the ancient text and wouldn’t need any “reinterpretation” in the first place.

    The evolution of religion is much more like biological evolution than we might imagine. Just as evolution has left us with a lot of junk DNA and vestigial structures as well as certain biological flaws, so too has the evolution of religion left us with scriptural redundancies and flaws; it is simply a matter of selecting for constructive/positive interpretations and passages, rather than maladaptive ones.

    I absolutely agree that it’s like a biological evolution. (I happen to take that analogy to be applicable across all sorts of sociological phenomena, as I suspect you’d agree.) The problem, again, is that you and I can select out the maladaptive passages, but many others won’t do so, or haven’t been educated to know how to do so, or have been indoctrinated to believe that they must not do so. If this were Plato’s Republic we were talking about, no problem. Lots of people read the Republic, but nobody today is going to set up a society along the lines of Plato’s ideal. But some people who read the Qu’ran come to believe that the omnipotent ruler of the universe wants them to kill nonbelievers. You and I can’t stop this by excising those passages and pointing out the good parts that people ought to pay more attention to. We can only stop it by convincing as many people as possible that they should regard the Qu’ran as no more than a historical document, to be read like Plato (though frankly, if it came to it, I think most people would rather read Plato).

    But you would have to make damn sure that the idea is more than just not believed, it would also have to be forgotten. I doubt anyone believes in Zeus anymore, but the idea still survives. And even if you could somehow bury it historians and archaeologists in the future might very well uncover it. You would have to in effect set up a Ministry of Truth, à la Orwell’s 1984.

    Haha, yeah, I guess I oversimplified. Obviously, we’re not going to kill the idea to the extent of wiping it out of the stream of history. If anything, it’s probably better to retain the idea as a warning to future generations, who might be confronted by newly minted fanaticisms and need to be prepared by learning about our experiences with the old ones. What I mean is that we should strive to attenuate the influence of religion as much as possible. Over time, today’s religions would go the way of Zeus and his ilk, relegated to a marginal few who eventually die out or give up and move on.

    {@JD: We can’t get rid of B. Without A, some of those people would try to find political or economic means of fulfilling their ambitions, but that’s a whole different problem.}

    This is obviously where we disagree. I don’t think it is a whole different problem; it is my opinion that this is the true nature of the problem, which is human nature. You get rid of religion and those people who choose to do great evil will simply find other reasons to commit that evil. Some will even go so far as to invent whole new ideologies to justify great harm, as Hitler did with Nazism and the Holocaust. It just seems that while it is human nature to express great compassion and righteousness, it still comes back to the fact that harm and great evil are also inherent to humans. (You’re not a Confucianist are you?)

    What I mean by it being a whole different problem is that it’s not a problem that takes away from the force of needing to get rid of “A”. Just because we can’t get rid of all options open to “B” doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to get rid of one such option. And what a potent option it is, as history has shown. Just to take one example, Nazism has only risen once in history, and is gone and unlikely to return in more than token form, whereas by contrast, the Catholic Church has given us the Crusades, the Inquisition, the witch trials, a tradition of persecution of Jews (with biblical basis) that was key to justifying and spreading Nazi ideology in the first place, and the Ratlines that helped those Nazi criminals escape into hiding, and it’s still in business today to give us anti-condom preaching in Africa, among other things. When “B” is prevented from using “A”, one of its best opportunities, it has a lot less to work with and is less likely to do much harm in the world.

    No one pointed to any evidence that Francis Collins’ beliefs had ever gotten in the way of him doing his job before, as far as I can tell Harris’ arguments were little more than conjecture.

    I will agree that it might be better to see if evidence of effect on job duties actually turns up. On the other hand, one’s views have to be taken to some extent as evidence of what one will do, so there is a case for the kind of concern Harris raised, even if his concern in this particular case were overblown.

    Dawkins’ background in biology may give him the authority to speak on matters of biology, as well as refuting creationism, which is failed science, but it doesn’t give him license to speak with authority on anything else in religion.

    Here, I think you’re saying that he’s not an authority on religion on par with a religious scholar such as the professionals in your religious studies department, and if that’s what you mean, I agree. But he’s certainly done some reading on religion and in religious texts, and surveyed the effects of religion in the world, so he’s qualified to speak on the subject to the extent that he’s studied it, just as you and I are. I don’t think you mean to suggest, or ought to suggest, that he isn’t qualified to speak on religion at all. As far as I can tell, he’s not trying to speak in the depth that a religious scholar would speak, but only in as much depth as he has obtained for himself, which (he would argue, and I would agree), is enough to speak out against religion as a whole. (For what it’s worth, although I admire the content and eloquence of Dawkins’s writing, I abhor the tone-deaf contemptuous attitude he often takes.)

    I think that quip on theology at the end is where you’re getting your wires crossed. I’m talking about professional scholars of Religious Studies, the academic discipline that is the study of religion from outside of it, which stands in contrast to theology where the religion is studied from the inside.

    You’re right: I had my wires crossed, still thinking that you were arguing like an apologist instead of a scholar. Dan Barker is very knowledgeable on HIS religion, and is devastating in his refutation of apologists and those who parrot their arguments, but is probably not as knowledgeable on his or any other religion as we might expect a religious studies professor to be. The extra layers of scholarship are what you need for your studies, though the lack of them doesn’t disqualify Barker (as with Dawkins) from speaking on religion to his own depth, which is still considerable.

    Haha, shall we dance some more? It’s late here, and I’m going to bed. Cheers!

  • http://www.sacredriver.org Ash Bowie

    Jeff,

    Dan Barker is very knowledgeable on HIS religion, and is devastating in his refutation of apologists and those who parrot their arguments, but is probably not as knowledgeable on his or any other religion as we might expect a religious studies professor to be.

    John Loftus who wrote “Why I Became an Atheist” is a full blown religious scholar.

  • http://www.sacredriver.org Ash Bowie

    Gibbon,

    It honestly sounded like you were being a theistic apologist, and so I was arguing from that perspective. I still strongly disagree with many of your positions, but I believe that my powers of persuasion have run out. I do agree that if your interest is in the academic study of religion itself, then Dawkins, Harris, and other New Atheists are not the way to go.

    I renew my recommendation to read:

    John Loftus, M.Div in theology and philosophy from Lincoln Christian Seminary, Th.M degree in philosophy of religion from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

    William R. Murry, former president of Meadville Lombard Theological School

    Loyal Rue, professor of religion and philosophy at Luther College, and Pulitzer Prize winner

    Thomas L. Thompson, professor of theology at the University of Copenhagen

    These academic writers are a great place to start to study religion from a naturalistic orientation.

  • Gibbon

    Jeff

    On the other hand, atheists’ interest in refuting biblical stories stems from the fact that a lot is riding on the degree of literal truth of those stories. Some of those stories may indeed have value, but some (as we’ve discussed) may be interpreted in ways that lead people to do harmful things.

    The desire to refute historical interpretations of stories that can’t be true, such as the idea that the Genesis creation story is literally true, is understandable; some of them can’t be true. However, when refuting any particular belief or scriptural interpretation there is a need to be aware of what value that story has to the believer, and quite often it is that value which holds the person to the belief and prevents them from giving it up even in the light of evidence. For example, I have read comments from creationists saying that if the story of Adam and Eve was not literally true then they could no longer believe that Jesus was the path to salvation, which means that the Genesis story has value in the context of the Jesus story. This presents us with what I view as an interesting problem when trying to refute religious beliefs: what is the purpose of demonstrating the falsity of a belief when its relevance is determined either by its personal value or by its relationship to other beliefs, ones which are much more difficult to refute? This might be the problem with scientifically refuting creationism; science can’t address the value of those beliefs.

    Must we keep these ancient texts, or couldn’t we simply write something new that makes sense to our modern outlook? In other words, if you don’t have any religious motivation to preserve the texts intact, I don’t see why you would argue that we should think it’s a positive trait that they can be reinterpreted, rather than simply acknowledging that it’d be better to have a modern text that culls out the horrid stuff from the ancient text and wouldn’t need any “reinterpretation” in the first place.

    So correct me if I’m wrong, you’re saying that because the ambiguity of the text lends itself to nefarious interpretations it therefore has a weakness that a more definitive text doesn’t, even though the ambiguity makes it possible to adapt and evolve? As long as a more definitive text was open to modification and amending I would have to agree, because as I pointed out earlier the text would have to be flexible enough for updating to remain relevant in an evolving society. If you can provide that adaptive quality without the ambiguity then it can serve the same function.

    There is a foreseeable problem with amending or updating religious texts though, they tend to be regarded as sacred or holy, which in the case of the Abrahamic religions is due to them being held as the word of god, who is supposed to be infallible. One would first have to address the issue of god before making changes to scripture, and the only way I can conceive of achieving that is to treat god as a very real component within religion, and then discern what it represents and what its function within religion is. There is one other way though, and it’s an astronomical long shot: being visited by aliens from another planet; to meet with what would obviously be a superior species would force us to rethink the image of god.

    The problem, again, is that you and I can select out the maladaptive passages, but many others won’t do so, or haven’t been educated to know how to do so, or have been indoctrinated to believe that they must not do so.

    This is where I think theology is of enormous benefit. The way I see it is that within the evolution of a religion theology serves as the mutation generator; when the environment changes the theologian is forced to find new ways to adapt scripture and make it relevant to those changes, then the selective forces favour the mutations which ensure it has application and hence relevance (survival). There is a catch though. Since the selective forces are most often social in nature, mutations which are beneficial to the religion but harmful to society can be selected for by way of the religion reacting against certain types of social pressure. More bluntly, forces that are antagonistic or offensive towards the religion can favour mutations that make it more aggressive, since the religion would be required to defend itself. Those negative selective forces can come in a variety of forms as well, including as politics, other religions, and criticism of religion, hence why I prefer to approach a fundamentalist type more diplomatically.

    What I mean is that we should strive to attenuate the influence of religion as much as possible. Over time, today’s religions would go the way of Zeus and his ilk, relegated to a marginal few who eventually die out or give up and move on.

    That is something that I most earnestly disagree with. Marginalising or minimising the influence of religion in my opinion is unwise, because it appears that the practice itself plays a relevant and important role at the level of the both individual and community. On the surface it may appear to be concerned with other-worldly issues, but fundamentally its objectives lie within society it self.

    As I have previously stated, even if you could send the current major religions of the world in the direction of the Greek religion, they would just be replaced by newer ones. In fact, as far as I know of, the only force that can get rid of a religion is another one. Buddhism pretty much killed the Vedic religion, and Christianity did it to the pre-existing European religions such as the Norse religion, and it did the same for the New World religions like the Aztecs, as well as those in the Pacific. The only thing that is known to kill a religion is another religion. Perhaps a way of killing off the supernatural religions would be with what I call a secular religion, one that doesn’t rely on the supernatural.

    What I mean by it being a whole different problem is that it’s not a problem that takes away from the force of needing to get rid of “A”. Just because we can’t get rid of all options open to “B” doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to get rid of one such option. And what a potent option it is, as history has shown. Just to take one example, Nazism has only risen once in history, and is gone and unlikely to return in more than token form, whereas by contrast, the Catholic Church has given us the Crusades, the Inquisition, the witch trials, a tradition of persecution of Jews (with biblical basis) that was key to justifying and spreading Nazi ideology in the first place, and the Ratlines that helped those Nazi criminals escape into hiding, and it’s still in business today to give us anti-condom preaching in Africa, among other things. When “B” is prevented from using “A”, one of its best opportunities, it has a lot less to work with and is less likely to do much harm in the world.

    There is a big difference between religion and a political ideology like Nazism, and it is that something like Nazism is more or less inherently absolutist; there can be no disagreement over what it says. But with a religion on the other hand, while there is the possibility of absolutism, it is not inherent to it. This is undoubtedly due to the fact that the majority of religious texts tend to have multiple authors from many different time periods, which makes it next to impossible to write with a single voice. Nazism on the other hand was pretty much the creation of one man: Hitler.

    Let’s say for a moment that you are right, that there is something about the religions which puts them in the position of being uniquely dangerous. The thing is that it doesn’t necessarily hold true for all of them. There is no danger in Jainism, which is an avowedly non-violent religion, in many respects the same goes for Buddhism, and possibly even Confucianism. I would argue that it isn’t religion per se, but rather the nature of specific religions that makes them dangerous.

    But he’s certainly done some reading on religion and in religious texts, and surveyed the effects of religion in the world, so he’s qualified to speak on the subject to the extent that he’s studied it, just as you and I are. I don’t think you mean to suggest, or ought to suggest, that he isn’t qualified to speak on religion at all. As far as I can tell, he’s not trying to speak in the depth that a religious scholar would speak, but only in as much depth as he has obtained for himself, which (he would argue, and I would agree), is enough to speak out against religion as a whole.

    Maybe it’s just higher standards considering where I am at this point in time, but I don’t think Dawkins is informed enough to argue seriously against religion. As far as I can tell what he says about religion is his own personal opinion, which appears to me to make rather naïve and simplistic claims about religion. To say that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict or the Northern Ireland Troubles wouldn’t have occurred without religion, as he does in The God Delusion, suggests to me that he doesn’t have enough information to fully grasp the various ways in which religion influences events. The situation appears to be similar with Sam Harris, as I heard him comment on a Point of Inquiry podcast that if there was no Islam then Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda would have no reason to object to the placement of US military personnel in Saudi Arabia. In fact I think Harris is far worse than Dawkins, as he seems so willing to dismiss from the equation all things that are not religion; I saw him do something to that effect in a debate with Reza Aslan. How can one take these people seriously on the topic of religion when they demonstrate with such comments how ill-informed they are on the subject?

    Quick anecdote. One of my very first essays at university was a book review, (for a course that introduced the world’s religions) and there was a huge range of books to choose from. Typically the book had to be about religion. Early on I had a discussion with my tutor about the appropriateness of choosing a book like The God Delusion, and the decision that we both agreed with was that a book like Dawkins wasn’t appropriate. I think the overall opinion was that the book is highly polemical and possesses very little academic rigour for a serious discussion on religion.

    Ash

    I still strongly disagree with many of your positions….

    So you and I will simply have to agree to disagree.

  • http://www.sacredriver.org Ash Bowie

    So you and I will simply have to agree to disagree.

    Read those academic authors I mentioned, then get back to me… :)

  • Jeff Dale

    …what is the purpose of demonstrating the falsity of a belief when its relevance is determined either by its personal value or by its relationship to other beliefs, ones which are much more difficult to refute? This might be the problem with scientifically refuting creationism; science can’t address the value of those beliefs.

    I think we’re talking in circles. I’ve already said that I’m not suggesting that scientifically refuting biblical stories is the only issue, or that it’s unrelated to other beliefs or sociological phenomena. I would argue the following:

    [1] Much of the biblical text is morally questionable at best, as I think we can all agree. And those parts that are morally valuable could just as easily (and therefore should be) promulgated in texts that don’t have the morally bad stuff. For these reasons, refutation is morally valuable, not just an attempt to ascertain truth for its own sake.

    [2] As you pointed out, some Christians (and perhaps many, consciously or subconsciously) base their “faith” in large part on some conception of literal truth in the bible. And as I explained, the prevalence of religious belief (or, by extension, religious modes of forming belief) is a major contributor to a climate in which extremist beliefs can flourish — in large part because it compromises the ability of moderate believers to challenge the extremists, and in part because the extremist beliefs are based on some of the same myths or types of myths (such as the idea that there’s a post-mortem paradise) as those of the moderates. For these reasons, refutation is morally valuable.

    [3] Teaching people, especially kids, to form beliefs without or in spite of evidence, based on appeal to supposedly infallible authority, and that unquestioning “faith” is a virtue, constitute a severe warping of people’s reasoning faculties, which are in most people not all that well developed in the first place, so that they are more or less completely overpowered by the dogma. Inevitably, some people (even those with stronger minds) will tend to make a habit of forming beliefs in other areas with inadequate consultation of the evidence, deciding important questions on a “hunch” or a “gut feeling,” or with unjustified reliance on authority, or with insufficient caution because of a belief that a supernatural being is watching over us. Undermining the belief in the literal truth of the bible would cause many people to question what they’ve been taught and actually start using their minds more effectively. For these reasons, refutation is morally valuable.

    So as I said, it’s not all about natural science. It clearly heads deep into the social sciences, and clearly touches on value apart from the simple question of truth or falsity of the biblical stories. If all you’re trying to say is that it’s a complicated case, not as simple as refuting ancient stories or individual beliefs in isolation, I’ll say here (in case it’s not clear from all I’ve said before) that I agree. But if you’re trying to argue that attempting such refutation leads into a quagmire in which the aims of refutation (elucidated above) are hopelessly thwarted, or if you’re trying to argue that my reasoning of moral value from refutation (above) is weak, then I think we’re going to have let our arguments stand on their own. I’ve stated my case as effectively as I know how.

    So correct me if I’m wrong, you’re saying that because the ambiguity of the text lends itself to nefarious interpretations it therefore has a weakness that a more definitive text doesn’t, even though the ambiguity makes it possible to adapt and evolve? As long as a more definitive text was open to modification and amending I would have to agree, because as I pointed out earlier the text would have to be flexible enough for updating to remain relevant in an evolving society. If you can provide that adaptive quality without the ambiguity then it can serve the same function.

    The point is that ALL texts should be open to modification or discarding. When you talk about texts that can adapt to the times, I think what you mean is that their content is timeless. Quite a lot of the Christian bible clearly is NOT timeless, and in many passages is quite repugnant. We don’t NEED to reinterpret it: we need to extract the good parts and disregard the rest (or at least limit it to historical interest). As I tried to explain, unambiguous texts would either be timeless or useless, or a combination of the two; our job in each era would be to maintain the timeless and discard the useless, just like we do in every other area of discourse. An ambiguous text is NOT better, because the ideas that are timeless are good (“adaptive”) on their own without ambiguity, and the ideas that are useless should be clearly seen as useless, not covered up by ambiguity.

    There is a foreseeable problem with amending or updating religious texts though, they tend to be regarded as sacred or holy, which in the case of the Abrahamic religions is due to them being held as the word of god, who is supposed to be infallible.

    It is a big problem, certainly. I wouldn’t suggest trying to amend or update religious texts; I’d rather people left behind the religious texts altogether and discarded the idea that anything can be “holy” or infallible. Then they’ll see those religious texts as the historical curiosities they are, and look for better texts to fill the gap. And that, by itself, is a big problem. You might say now that a lot of people would be cast adrift when their lifelong moorings in “faith” are destroyed, and I would agree. We humans have done such a good job through the ages of promoting religion (and oppressing its critics), and ceding it the entire practical and epistemological playing field for moral education, that we haven’t had much opportunity to develop and promulgate secular alternatives. I think we ought to have much stronger values education in our secular public schools, at all levels, but we’ll never get it while the public is so bewitched with the notion of deference to religion.

    This is where I think theology is of enormous benefit. The way I see it is that within the evolution of a religion theology serves as the mutation generator; when the environment changes the theologian is forced to find new ways to adapt scripture and make it relevant to those changes, then the selective forces favour the mutations which ensure it has application and hence relevance (survival). There is a catch though. Since the selective forces are most often social in nature, mutations which are beneficial to the religion but harmful to society can be selected for by way of the religion reacting against certain types of social pressure. More bluntly, forces that are antagonistic or offensive towards the religion can favour mutations that make it more aggressive, since the religion would be required to defend itself.

    I agree with all of this except the first sentence, if by theology you mean scholarship within and in the service of a religion (as opposed to people in your field, religious studies, who study religion objectively from the outside). I think theology (as you’ve described it) is part of the problem, because in cases of competing interests (e.g., promotion of religion vs. good of humanity), the theologian will tend to favor either the religion (for its own sake), or his own interpretation of it, or his own personal agenda. On average, that’s bound to be no better than, and often worse than, a disinterested but comparably educated critic or analyst or theoretician would do. Sure, a disinterested theoretician is just as susceptible to error, or to the lures of promoting a personal agenda, as a theologian, but the latter has a powerful reason to get things wrong that the former doesn’t have, all other things being equal.

    Those negative selective forces can come in a variety of forms as well, including as politics, other religions, and criticism of religion, hence why I prefer to approach a fundamentalist type more diplomatically.

    I agree with the need for diplomacy. My view is that humanity’s dilemma with religion is serious, but obviously we’re a long way from general agreement on the relevant points. Actually, though, I’m more impressed with the potential for diplomacy (and productive dialog generally) with religious moderates and liberals. When dealing with fundamentalists, who by definition are irrational, sometimes dangerously so, diplomacy can too easily drift into accommodation or paralysis. Iran is a good point of illustration. If we could somehow persuade them to accept ongoing unrestricted verification that they’re not working on nuclear weapons, while letting them save face (making it seem as though they came out well in the bargain), that would seem to be a good result. But if they continue to drag their feet and stall for time while secretly working on nukes, we have to know when diplomacy has failed, and we’re likely to be hindered in our next steps if other countries don’t recognize (or don’t want to acknowledge) that diplomacy has failed.

    Marginalising or minimising the influence of religion in my opinion is unwise, because it appears that the practice itself plays a relevant and important role at the level of the both individual and community. On the surface it may appear to be concerned with other-worldly issues, but fundamentally its objectives lie within society it self.

    As I have previously stated, even if you could send the current major religions of the world in the direction of the Greek religion, they would just be replaced by newer ones. In fact, as far as I know of, the only force that can get rid of a religion is another one.

    Religion apparently does have roots in our nature, and thus would be hard to eradicate, but it doesn’t follow that we shouldn’t try to attenuate it, or at least divert the religious impulse into something healthier. Plenty of people have set aside religion, and have gone on to live normal, happy lives. I’m speaking in generalities here. Arguably, there are some healthy aspects to religion, and much of what religion does is connected with things in the real world, but I’m not aware of any reason to believe that religion does those things better than any secular alternative. Would it be unwise to work for such a result? In the long run, I don’t think so, though in the short run it might be accompanied by some pains.

    JD: “Just because we can’t get rid of all options open to “B” doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to get rid of one such option.”

    I probably shouldn’t have used Nazism as an example, because it’s unnecessarily provocative, even though I wasn’t suggesting an equivalence between religion and Nazism. But more significantly, it led us off topic. Remember I started off by saying that if religion became a less potent force in the world, ambitious people who lead religious movements would look for other ways to satisfy their ambitions, and I said that this was a different problem (i.e., not one that meant we shouldn’t try to reduce their ability to use religion to satisfy their ambitions). If you meant to dispute this point, I think you’ve overlooked two things:

    [1] These leaders currently have both religion and things other than religion (such as political movements) to satisfy their ambitions. If religion were taken out of the equation, they’d have only the other things. They could try to make more of those other things than would otherwise have come into being, but by applying economic reasoning it should be apparent that those things would tend to be less effective than the religious options they lost (otherwise, they would’ve used those things instead of religion to begin with). In any case, I can’t see any reason to think that those other things would likely be so much worse than the religious options they lost that it outweighs all our other reasons for wanting to attenuate the influence of religion.

    [2] Even if every one of those leaders was able to find a comparably effective outlet other than religion, which I think extremely unlikely, we’d be no worse off as a whole than if they were wreaking the same havoc with a religious movement instead. Thus, the question of what these leaders would do if they lost the option to use religion for their ambitions has no effect on the equation and argument I proposed, which may be summarized as follows:

    P1: Religion + Ambitious Leaders + Credulous Masses + Weapons = Death and Destruction

    P2: We’ll always have ambitious leaders. (Without religion, they might find other outlets, but at worst we’ll almost certainly be no worse off because of that.)

    P3: We’ll always have credulous masses, at least until society evolves to a much higher standard of mass education.

    P4: We’ll always have weapons.

    C: Therefore, to reduce the death and destruction in this equation (P1), we must undermine religion.

    I used this argument to explain why so many atheists focus on religion, when you suggested that we should focus on religious behaviors (“practices”) instead. I think this argument clearly shows that it DOES make sense to attack the belief, so to speak, because it is the only part of the equation we have any hope of significantly influencing.

    Let’s say for a moment that you are right, that there is something about the religions which puts them in the position of being uniquely dangerous. The thing is that it doesn’t necessarily hold true for all of them. There is no danger in Jainism, which is an avowedly non-violent religion, in many respects the same goes for Buddhism, and possibly even Confucianism. I would argue that it isn’t religion per se, but rather the nature of specific religions that makes them dangerous.

    For the most part, I grant this point. I was speaking in generalities for the sake of simplicity, but I think it’d be fair to say that Christianity and Islam are the biggest part of the problem. However, I do think there’s a place for religion as a whole in this discussion, because (as I’ve said elsewhere), the prevalence and persistence of religion, any religion, fosters the climate in which harmful belief systems can flourish. (For this point, I’m taking the term “religion” to mean contra-evidence belief systems generally. Even Jainism, apparently harmless though it is, holds supernatural beliefs, and the more people who discard supernatural beliefs, the more marginalized the fundamentalist remainder will be.)

    Maybe it’s just higher standards considering where I am at this point in time, but I don’t think Dawkins is informed enough to argue seriously against religion. As far as I can tell what he says about religion is his own personal opinion, which appears to me to make rather naïve and simplistic claims about religion. … In fact I think Harris is far worse than Dawkins, as he seems so willing to dismiss from the equation all things that are not religion … How can one take these people seriously on the topic of religion when they demonstrate with such comments how ill-informed they are on the subject?

    I have not been equally impressed with everything these men have said. Dawkins irritates me with his contempt for believers, which he seems too tone deaf to notice in himself. So I don’t generally recommend him, even to atheists, but it’s a shame, because he really does have some smart and worthwhile things to say. I’ve read both of Harris’s books and some of his articles, seen (or read transcripts of) a few of his speeches, and seen many clips of his debates. I haven’t agreed with everything he’s said, but I’ve found his views generally well supported, at least worthy of a thoughtful critique, not a brute dismissal.

    Both of these men are brilliant but not infallible. I can see why they might not hold much appeal for you, particularly for purposes of your in-depth scholarship. But I think it’s simply a mistake to assert that they’re not qualified to argue against religion at all. Anyone who reads the common apologetic arguments and theodicies, and their refutations, will be able to see that the “God” of all perfections almost certainly doesn’t exist. Anyone who reads the holy texts of the Abrahamic religions will be able to see the bad stuff, if they don’t rationalize it away. Anyone who reads about the Inquisition, for example, will be able to see that religious belief was the sine qua non of that horror. Anyone who thinks objectively about the doctrine of eternal damnation, and watches theistic friends squirm when asked whether particular nonbelievers among their friends and family will burn, can see the problem with this kind of dogma. There are quite a few people who have gained some knowledge in these areas, and are adequate to the task of explaining what these things say about religion, though they may have less erudition and eloquence than Dawkins or Harris.

    Wonder if anyone else (Hemant included) is still following this thread? Well, it’s been enjoyable in any case. I wish you well in your studies, and hope to see more from your perspective in the future.


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