Newsweek: Can atheists save the world?

atheismMuch praise is due to Newsweek for running an article discussing atheism in its Sept. 11 edition. It is a unique way to approach religion’s influence on the country since the terrorist attacks of five years ago. My only complaint was that it mixed a bit too much opinion with the news. But author Jerry Adler snagged some real bits of news here, and his thoughtful 2,100-word article does the tricky issue adequate justice.

The article provides interesting and much-needed commentary on the status of atheism in America, with plenty of back and forth between the believer and genuine unbeliever. I would also like to contend that while the article is about people who promote the idea that religion is silly and should fade into history, it was accurately placed under the “religion” heading. I mean, even the most avowed atheists believe in something.

Alder tracks the responses of Sam Harris, Daniel C. Dennett and Richard Dawkins to the 9/11 attacks. All three have, in one way or another, argued that religion is outdated and that “the five-century-long competition between science and religion is sharpening.” Adler contrasts the beliefs of Harris, Dennett and Dawkins with those of the vast majority of Americans.

This was the most illuminating exchange in Adler’s extremely well-written article:

But Dawkins attempts to show how the highest of human impulses, such as empathy, charity and pity, could have evolved by the same mechanism of natural selection that created the thumb. Biologists understand that the driving force in evolution is the survival and propagation of our genes. They may impel us to instinctive acts of goodness, Dawkins writes, even when it seems counterproductive to our own interests — say, by risking our life to save someone else. Evolutionary psychology can explain how selfless behavior might have evolved. The recipient may be a blood relation who carries some of our own genes. Or our acts may earn us future gratitude, or a reputation for bravery that makes us more desirable as mates. Of course, the essence of the moral law is that it applies even to strangers. Missionaries who devote themselves to saving the lives of Third World peasants have no reasonable expectation of being repaid in this world. But, Dawkins goes on, the impulse for generosity must have evolved while humans lived in small bands in which almost everyone was related, so that goodness became the default human aspiration. This is a rebuke not merely to believers who insist that God must be the source of all goodness — but equally to the 19th-century atheism of Nietzsche, who assumed that the death of God meant the end of conventional morality.

But Dawkins, brilliant as he is, overlooks something any storefront Baptist preacher might have told him. “If there is no God, why be good?” he asks rhetorically, and responds: “Do you really mean the only reason you try to be good is to gain God’s approval and reward? That’s not morality, that’s just sucking up.” That’s clever. But millions of Christians and Muslims believe that it was precisely God who turned them away from a life of immorality. Dawkins, of course, thinks they are deluding themselves. He is correct that the social utility of religion doesn’t prove anything about the existence of God. But for all his erudition, he seems not to have spent much time among ordinary Christians, who could have told him what God has meant to them.

atheismI didn’t mind Adler’s editorializing as much as I would have on a subject with more practical implications, such as abortion or marriage policies. The debate over atheism is fairly basic. One either believes that God does exists or he does not. Also, in long-form journalism some liberties will be taken. Saying that one side’s position is clever is stating opinion, but it helps the reader walk through a tricky subject.

News coverage on atheism is difficult to find these days, largely because there is so little happening in that area. Also, the development of ideas, while very newsy in my mind, does not lend itself very aptly to the breaking news story the same way a development in science or medicine does.

The argument that atheism is out of vogue in America and does not deserve much coverage or commentary is not adequate because, as Adler clear points out, there are intelligent people proposing arguments for which Christian scholars still don’t have good answers (Alder highlights the “theodicy” problem). Some journalists have the privilege of covering the development of ideas, regardless of how popular those ideas are.

p.s. For more to chew on in the atheism debate, check out this cartoon.

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  • David N. Scott

    The argument that atheism is out of vogue in America, thus it does not deserve much coverage or commentary, is not adequate because as Adler clear points out, there are intelligent people proposing arguments that for which Christian scholars still don’t have good answers (Alder highlights the “theodicy” problem).

    Depends on your perspective, I would think. Obviously many of those scholars and their readers think the exact opposite…

  • Carl

    It’s my opinion that the ‘theodicy problem’ persists as an unsolved problem because Christian theologians insist on trying to solve it with one hand tied behind their backs. By which I mean, they ignore the role of Christ in redeeming and justifying the creation of what would otherwise be an ‘evil’ world and an affront to God’s goodness. Trying to solve the theodicy without involving Christ’s redemption of the sinful makes sense for Jews and Muslims, but why Christians try to do it is beyond me.

    Just my two bits on a hobbyhorse of mine.

  • Martha

    The one thing that does bug me about atheism (or rather, about certain atheists) is the touting of the notion that if only we all could get our heads straight and agree that science is right and religious belief is a delusion, we’d wake up one day and the world would be paradise.

    No religion, no war – as your T-shirt asserts.

    Oh, really?

    So, for instance, if only the Plantagenets had been atheists, the Wars of the Roses would never have happened? There were no other reasons, such as “(m)ajor causes of the conflict include: 1) both houses were direct descendants of king Edward III; 2) the ruling Lancastrian king, Henry VI, surrounded himself with unpopular nobles; 3) the civil unrest of much of the population; 4) the availability of many powerful lords with their own private armies; and 5) the untimely episodes of mental illness by king Henry VI.”? (taken from

    It’s the simplistic assumption and concomitant smugness that annoys me. If religion or the religious instinct evaporated in the morning, we humans would still fight over resources, status, and getting my own back at that bloke who looked at me funny.

  • Jeremy Pierce

    One further issue that both Dawkins and the article don’t mention:

    Most people, when they wonder why be good if there’s no God, are not asserting that someone can’t be good or can’t have reasons to be good if there’s no God. What they’re usually saying is that they don’t think there are any good reasons to be moral if there’s no God, and it doesn’t have anything to do with earning divine approval. It’s because they think there’s nothing moral at all if there’s no divine creator who gives purpose and meaning to the universe. It’s not that it’s about following commands. It’s that the universe has meaning only because it’s given meaning by a creator, and morality flows from that. So this is yet another misunderstanding of one side of a debate that a media presentation misses simply because many who engage in the discussion miss it.

  • Steve

    I’m assumed at the shortsighted of the t-shirt.

    Think of all of the deaths caused by atheists: WW2, Stalin’s purge, the Cultural Revolution, “the killing fields”.

    I guess they don’t count.

  • Rufus

    even the most avowed atheists believe in something.

    What exactly is that something?

  • FzxGkJssFrk

    Ultimately, it’s themselves.

  • Micah Weedman

    What I think the author misses here is that the atheism presented–specifically the notion that charity could be a product of evolution, is ripped off pretty directly from Adam Smith and classic political capitalism.

  • c.tower

    Steve: Don’t go blaming WW2 on atheists. The simple fact of it is that Hitler identified himself as a Christian, and the Nazis as a Christian movement. Read his writings annd speeches- he was especially fond of Martin Luthor, who was, like him, a vile anti-semite.(And, contrary to the current lies of the ID crowd, he was also opposed to Darwinism- the idea that he might be somehow related to “the lower races” offended him, and he saw Eugenics as a way of “defying” Natural Selection, and improving the race by his own egomanical version of “Intelligent Design”). Even today, most of the neo-Nazi groups out there actively refer to themselves as Christian…and as long as Christians refuse do deal with this little skeleton in the closet, it’s not going to go away…

  • Steve

    C. Tower,

    Just becauce one calls himself a Christian doesn’t make it so. Any serious study of the bliefs of the Nazi party will show that they are not Christian. Look at what the Nazis did to the Confessing Church in Germany that refused to all the Nazis to control their churches. It was the state church that gave in to Hitler which had adopted much of the liberal theology of the late 1900 and early 2000 centuries.

    Eugenics is a liberal movement from the 1920′s championed by the likes of Marget Sanger and the originals of the Abortion rights movement.

    Again, Atheists are responsible for more deaths in the 20th century than all the religious wars combined.

  • Larry Rasczak

    Absolutely right steve, absolutely right.

  • Atheista

    To say “it was accurately placed under the “religion” heading. I mean, even the most avowed atheists believe in something.” shows the author either misunderstands atheism or religion. True, some atheists may believe in Bigfoot or aliens but these do not fall under the heading of religion. If atheism is a religion, baldness is a hair color.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    “Atheism: Cures religious terrorism.” is certainly a joke, even considering the current Moslem spate of violence.
    The last time I looked the 20th Century was by far and away the boodiest century ever. And most of it was done or instigated by atheists. Maybe there should be a shirt that says: “Atheism love it, or we kill you.”–as so happened to millions upon millions in the Ukraine, in Cambodia, in Red China, in the Soviet Union, under Hitler (who they slanderously like to claim as religious, but who repeatedly expressed himself as hating all religions). The Inquisition-which
    atheists love to dredge up didn’t come close-not by a country mile–to the wholsale unescapable slaughter perpetrated by atheists. But supposedly educated people are already pretending the 20th Century never really existed and keep rolling the clock back to before the Great Atheist Slaughter Century to cover up their “faith’s” blood-filled footsteps.

  • Larry Rasczak

    If we want to talk about slaughter perpetrated by atheists there is no need to restrict oneself to the 20th Century. Lets not forget the French Revolution… though I’m not sure if “The Cult of Reason” technically qualifies as “Atheist” or not. The Vendee was certianly bloody enough for even the Nazis… can we also bring up the Martyrs of the Paris Commune while we are at it?

    I am more interested though in the “No Gods, No Devils, no Heaven, no Hell, Just the wonderful Universe around us.” It presupposes that the Universe IS indeed “wonderful”, an idea not supported by facts.

    It isn’t just Hobbes that said life in the state of nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”, but Darwin. The whole idea of “survival of the fittest” is that the less than fittest are ruthlessly weeded out of the gene pool through competition. Competition for mates, for food, living space, you know the drill. The sabertooth cat shows up and the slowest runners get eaten. Think of it as evolution in action.

    We humans are the end product of a millions of years of bloody dog-eat-dog battle for survival. Such a process does not an instinctively kind species make. Just ask the Neanderthals.

    And anyone who believes in “instinctive acts of goodness” within man has never lived with a two-year old.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Larry -very good point. Looking at it from a slightly different angle:: The strong altruism, the willingness to self-sacrifice, that exists among-at least some humans–is clearly the opposite of what one would expect to evolve in a Godless, Spiritless wholly mechanistic dog-eat-dog universe. This clearly points (at least to many open minds) to human life being slowly sculpted by a Being or by a Someone who is a Beyond-The-Universe.

  • Gary McClellan

    Yes, Hitler publically identified himself as Christian. However, the evidence is very strong that he was not Christian. I’m not simply saying “no real Christian could have…” but that in his own private writings he disavowed Christianity.

    Why would he say one thing and believe another? He was a politican. We are familiar with politicans today who are not above saying what they think is popular, despite their true beliefs. Of course, Hitler was not above lies either.

    Gene Veith discusses this in “Modern Facism”, and if you want to say that no book published by an active Christian author is worth trusting on such an issue, the fact that Hitler secretly disdained Christianity is also clearly mentioned in this book.

    (My copy is in my other office, so I can’t give page # offhand).

    As for “no religion= no wars”. One of their favorite examples was the 30 Years War. “Oh! Look at the Carnage! 30 years of religious bloodshed!!!”

    They need to look at the simple fact that the last half of the war was fought between the French Bourbon’s on one side, and the Hapbsburgs on the other. By the way… those were Roman Catholic dynasties. What was that all about? Politics as usual.

  • Michael Rew

    Perhaps an evolutionist’s less-than-obvious answer to “Why be good if there is no God?” is that we instinctively are good (at least if we want the human race and/or our strand of the genome to survive). We have no choice if we are genetically predisposed towards goodness.

    Many atheists and agnostics, however, believe, if God does exist, then that God must be good. Why must God be good? What if God is evil, and we are God’s playthings? What if our attempts to be good were designed into us by an evil God so that God could laugh at our misery and futile attempts to significantly better the world?

  • rjbowlin

    Nothing known passes hate on from generation to generation as well as theism. Fact.
    Not power, not wealth,not land. Nothing.

    Religion is not the cause of war, but due to its general “trust it on faith” base, any charismatic person can quickly lead a ready-made non-thinking group into a force of destruction, all without the need for evidence or just cause as long as a scripture of some sort is regularly qouted.

    The failure inherent in the inquisition,communitst movements… is the removal of choice. They were not failures due to religion/non-religion stances, but on the stance that human nature must be subdued and its choice removed.

    Atheists are now 15% of the population and growing, look around, 1 in 7 people you see don’t believe in a god. Fewer atheists by percentage go to jail. Fewer get divorces than Christians.

  • Gary McClellan

    Your quoted article itself acknowledges the possibility that Hitler was merely saying things to appeal to people Politically.

    rjbowlin: Ah, so now it is time to start saying that those movements “don’t really count” eh? I do find it interesting that when a Christian says that the hatred of the Crusades is a perversion of what Christianity truly is, people won’t buy that, but they are more than willing to say “well, Communism isn’t real atheism.”

  • c.tower

    Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether Hitler was a “real” Christian or not… what matters is that the nation that followed him bought into his CLAIMS of doing “the Christian thing”… the fact is, there has never been a more effective way of rallying a people to war then the claim that “God is on OUR side, and the Enemy are heathens/heretics/godless/etc.” (And frequently, the most passionatly fought wars are between peoples who follow this claim EVEN THOUGH THEY TECHNICALLY ARE PART OF THE SAME RELIGION- just ask the Sunnis and Shites…)

  • dpt

    “Nothing known passes hate on from generation to generation as well as theism. Fact.
    Not power, not wealth,not land. Nothing.”

    If powerful human impluses such as empathy, charity and pity can be attributed to evolution, then it seems to me that the base instincts of survival (food, shelter, security) can result in groups, families, etc. passing “hate” from generation to generation. Doesn’t make sense to have it both ways.

  • Larry Rasczak

    “Nothing known passes hate on from generation to generation as well as theism. Fact.
    Not power, not wealth,not land. Nothing.”

    Please site sources.

  • Larry Rasczak

    Deacon John,

    Thanks for the kind workds. You made my point better than I did.

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  • Jeffrey Weiss

    “Pure” atheism is as much a faith-based belief as any. One can no more empirically prove that a God does *not* exist than one can prove Dod does. Even leaving aside the difficulty of proving any negative. An agnostic says the evidence ain’t there. Theists and athiests believe it is. Emphasis on “believe.” Which is no knock on either. We all live our lives in faith — love, loyalty, the sun not going nova tomorrow…1:-{)>

  • mark riess

    “guns” (read: “religion”) don’t kill people, people kill people. It’s people that pass along hate, like a gecko trying to escape the futility of the egotism they’re trapped in by blending into the environment they’re in. How can the ant comprehend the mammoth? How can the 4 dimensional explain or conceive adequately the 11 dimensional? People will always be using one excuse or another for their behaviors that evoke shame and guilt within or reprehension from without. Without the concept of “good” the bottom falls out from all reason, and it’s just an absurd charade. In the immortal words of G.K. Chesterton, when asked what was wrong with the world, he had the wisdom and humility to confess: ” I am”. Let’s all go look in the mirror, be the change we want to see in the world, accept our finitude, stop expecting God to measure up to our expectations. Is making your argument congruent with reality your real goal or just a tool your genes are using to trump that other stud’s genes? Give us all a break!

  • Star Umbehant

    “Just becauce one calls himself a Christian doesn’t make it so.”

    Who exactly makes the decision on who is a “REAL CHRISTIAN?” It seems that there is a lot of controvery on this subject, the reason why there are over 33,000 CHRISTIAN denominations and counting…(from World Christian Encyclopedia) Plenty of people have killed in the name of god over the centuries. Were the inquistors right and Hitler wrong? Is the CHRISTIAN who kills the abortion doctor more right than the Muslim who blows up a bus full of people. Why is it that humans feel they have a direct link to the mind of GOD? Who is god? The Encyclopedia of Gods lists over 2,500. And that’s probably on the low end of the gods man has worshipped. I am not so arrogant that I can say who is a christian and who is not. Isn’t that determined by the relationship between god and the human? Couldn’t Hitler have asked for forgiveness before his death? Isn’t that what we’ve been told our whole lives? (those of us with christian backgrounds of course.) That Jesus came to save the sinner. Hitler was no doubt a “sinner”. Maybe he was also a christian. Now according to some denominations there’s no way he could have been ABSOLVED of his horrendous crimes against humanity. But who’s to say who is right?

    To me, it’s all BS. Hitler was a sadistic f#$ker. But I don’t believe he’s burning in hell.

  • D Rathan

    Glad we can comment about a subject in this blog without necessarily addressing the media coverage of it, after all.

    My two cents:

    Again, Atheists are responsible for more deaths in the 20th century than all the religious wars combined.


    Listen, war, as well as all of man-made (or man-contributed) misery can be reliably attributed in the end to idiocy of some kind, nearly 100% of the time. Idiocy is only dangerous when coupled with power, and before this age of technology, power used to be measured by the number of people willing to add their efforts into this or that cause. There are certainly many ways to lead large numbers of people into idiotic causes, but Religion In General is uniquely suited in its capacity to silence reason with faith whenever necessary, and as such is historically the tool of choice.

    The good news, is that education in general vaccinates people against said silencing, so those areas of the world that are rich enough to afford education are increasingly becoming inmune to religious -and- non-religious mass idiocy inducers.

    The bad news, is that technology is changing the definition of power, and where before you needed a whole stadium full of whackos to cause real harm, now you only need a handful of nutjobs, regardless of education.

    Anyway, I’m digressing too much, I’ll leave the two-cents at this. But to Summarize: Neither Atheism NOR religion is responsible for deaths in wars, or otherwise. Idiocy is. Religion simply happens to be a better conductor, when misused this way.

  • James Davis

    D Ratham: I would politely disagree with you about religion being more efficient than atheism at spreading deaths in wars. According to the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom, some 130 million people have died under Marxist (i.e., inherently atheistic) regimes. For sheer body count, I doubt all religions combined could come close to that.

  • James Davis

    Whoops, two corrections. It’s D Rathan, not D Ratham. And the proper name is the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. I should edit as well as I pontificate.

  • Rob Rumfelt

    True or not, atheism fails in 2 big ways. First, it is barren. I see few, if any, great atheist universities, hospitals, hospices, relief organizations, etc. Second, it is impotent. Atheism lacks the innate power to inspire humans and to fire their moral imaginations. It tells the story of a pointless universe which even some cosmologists refer to as dreary.

    Dawkins and Harris and other atheists must launch an attack on religion because their cause will never draw adherents by its shining light.

  • D Rathan

    James, I appreciate your comment, but it comes to mind that co-relation does not mean causation.

    In other words, people under Marxist regimes did not die necessarily because the regime was atheist, they died because it was Marxist. We need to distinguish attributes from causes; for instance most convicted criminals know how to drive a car, but no one is saying driving a car necessarily leads to a life of crime.

    “Renounce the existance of God, or die” would be the kind of scenario where I could honestly say Atheism is responsible for a death. Unfortunately, “Worship my God the way I do, or die” is sadly far more common, not just in past history, but still today.

    I still dont believe neither Atheism -nor- Religion are responsible for most of man-made tragedy (like war deaths), my opinion is simply that they have both been used as means to an end. Whatever this “end” is, if it results in loss of life, it becomes self-evidently stupid, and thus vulnerable to reason. And that’s where Religion’s capacity to overwhelm reason by means of faith makes it a better conductor than Atheism. Thats all I said, and there are other means.

    Rob, I see what you said, but I have to point out that most universities cope with religion out of a sense of political correctness more than true faith. In fact, universities have been known to be fountains of atheism. I dont know of any charity or relief organization that claims to be atheist, but I do know many that have no links to religion whatsoever. Same could be said of all federal institutions, and certainly most corporations.

    As far as being incapable of inspiring people, I would have to point you to Penn Jilette’s “This I Believe” essay for NPR radio. Have a listen, and see if the man was inspired or not. Dawkins and Harris seem fairly inspired themselves.

  • Dan

    Hitler was raised a Catholic but he most definitely was not a practising Catholic and harboured hatred for the Church. If you need proof, just flip through Mein Kampf. Or consider the thousands of priests the Nazis killed.

    Nazism was a secular ideology that was in part a deformed adaptation of Nietzche’s “will to power” and also took ideas from Marxism (hence the title: “National Socialism”). The principal ideologies from which it derived were secular and in opposition to Christianity. It is for this reason that it attacked the Church.

    Since the French Revolution the Church has warned consistently of the dangers of atheistic ideologies. She has often stood alone in doing so. The death camps of Nazism and Communism vindicated her warnings. Modern efforts of secular liberals to blame the Church for the sins of Nazism require bald faced lies about history. They are efforts to deflect attention from modern liberalism’s relationship to ugly ideologies.

  • Rob Rumfelt

    D Rathan, thanks for your thoughtful response. I read Jilette’s piece, as you suggested. He takes a more sedate tone in it than his usual use of ridicule (although he still slipped in his “invisible friend” comment). What caught my attention was his claim that he had this world and that it was “enough”. That is probably true for many people. But humans throughout history have always yearned for more. Some call it the transcendent. As for his remarks about someone needing to search for “proof”, well, just remember that absence of proof is not proof of absence.

    Dawkins and Harris don’t seem to be inspired. I think “obsessed” would be the better word. But that’s just me.

    By the way, I appreciate the civility of your remarks. It’s uncommon in these types of discussions.

  • Star Umbehant

    My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded only by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God’s truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was His fight for the world against the Jewish poison. To-day, after two thousand years, with deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before in the fact that it was for this that He had to shed His blood upon the Cross. As a Christian I have no duty to allow myself to be cheated, but I have the duty to be a fighter for truth and justice…. And if there is anything which could demonstrate that we are acting rightly it is the distress that daily grows. For as a Christian I have also a duty to my own people…. When I go out in the morning and see these men standing in their queues and look into their pinched faces, then I believe I would be no Christian, but a very devil if I felt no pity for them, if I did not, as did our Lord two thousand years ago, turn against those by whom to-day this poor people is plundered and exploited.

    -Adolf Hitler, in his speech in Munich on 12 April 1922

    More: Christian Hitler

    Between Harris and Dawkins, I prefer Dawkins mainly because he does seem more inspired. Harris can definitely seem obsessed but I don’t dimiss him out of hand. It is unfortunate that these are the two most outspoken atheists out there. There are a lot of atheists in america, but it’s hard to speak out about it here in this free country. I have found that among the moderate christians it’s okay if you have another religon. But none at all? Well, then you tend to have issues.

  • Cole

    1. It’s just a nasty and false stereotype, that atheists are especially selfish (“even the most avowed atheists believe in something” / “What exactly is that something?” / “Ultimately, it’s themselves.”). Don’t you any have nice atheist friends or colleagues? (Or are they mostly selfish prigs?) Or perhaps you have perfectly nice friends and colleagues who keep their atheism to themselves? In any case, go visit Japan or the Czech Republic or Sweden; they’re friendly people like anyone else.

    2. Blaming atheism for the atrocities of 20th century Communism is pretty silly. It’s not the atheism, it’s the totalitarian communism. It’s not atheism’s fault that Marx espoused it, or that Lenin and Mao got hold of Marx. And I very much doubt total state power in the hands of human beings of any religion would turn out too well, especially when in the grip of a rigid political ideology.

    3. People who think atheism is in trouble because it can’t answer questions about morality need to face up to the Euthyphro dilemma. The questions “why be good?” or “is there any objective foundation for morality?” are studied by philosophers who do ethics and metaethics. But the funny thing is, almost none of them think that these problems can be solved by bringing in God. Why? Because of the Euthyphro dilemma: if something is wrong simply because God thinks it is, then morality loses its objective authority (becoming a form of moral relativism); and if God thinks something is wrong because it really is wrong, then we’ve simply presupposed (without explaining) an objective foundation for morality apart from God. Typically, Christian philosophers (who tend to appreciate the force of the dilemma) will go with the second option and try to give some non-divine account of the foundations of morality, sometimes modeling morality on mathematics. In any case, this philosophical problem isn’t atheism’s problem, it’s everyone’s problem.

    4. Calling atheism a ‘religion’ or a ‘faith’ looks like low rhetoric. If someone thinks about whether God exists, and concludes no, then that’s not a religion or an act of faith. Similarly, if someone thinks about whether God exists, and concludes yes, then that’s not a religion or an act of faith. These are just intellectual conclusions concerning a philosophical topic. Now if someone makes some sort of commitment or dedicates himself to his position, or to some extensive way of life associated with this position, then religion or faith might be involved. Otherwise not. (When Bertrand Russell concluded that God had to exist because the ontological argument worked, and then later when he concluded that the ontological argument didn’t work after all and gave it up, neither change of mind was a matter of religion or faith)

  • D Rathan

    Excellent posts, Cole and Star, this is why I keep coming back to!

    Rob, likewise. As for Penn Jillette, I usually listen to his radio show, and he was on the air when his second child was born. A close friend of his told him “if this doesnt make you believe in God, nothing will”. And he replied, very emotional, saying that this was the happiest moment of his life, and he needed nothing beyond this life, to make it any brighter. That’s what he means, I think, when he says this world, this life, is -enough- to give him purpouse. Nearly all religions save the best rewards for the afterlife; from where no one comes back to verify anything, and we have to take them at their word; sometimes endure a life of suffering on their say-so. If one is to endure a life of suffering, I think its better to do it for one’s own moral reasons in this life, (ie: “because its the right thing to do”) and not just because one hopes to be duly compensated in the afterlife.

    Re nazism: although the point has been made before, I want to repeat that I dont see how atheism was responsible for nazism. Even if we blame all of nazism and its atrocities on Hitler alone (which is already a huge stretch), and then we concede that his magnificent christian facade was obviously fake (see Star’s post above), we still have to deal with the fact that he was a strong believer in the paranormal, the opposite, I would say, of most atheists. But for argument’s sake, lets ignore this too: even if he was a complete atheist in the vein of Stalin, was Nazism’s goal (or even one of its main goals) to make people renounce the existance of God? No. Nazism’s goal was old-fashion world domination; it didnt care what people worshipped, as long as they were pliable to the demands of the state. Jews were killed out of racism, regardless of their religion. And some religions were prosecuted (the Jehova’s Witnesses for instance) regardless of nationality because they refused to obey the regime and enlist in the army, not because their belief in a God. As painful as it is to admit it, its safe to say nearly all nazi soldiers believed in God. Again, causation vs correlation: believing in God (or being atheist) did not cause them to be nazi soldiers, and had little if anything to do with the atrocities they committed. Again, I would only chalk a death to atheism, if the person is killed after hearing “renounce the existance of God, or die”.

  • Rob Rumfelt

    D Rathan, I believe many people misunderstand the concept of eternal life. Indeed, Christians are the ones who seem to misunderstand it the most. Theology can be as tough as quantum physics! The simplistic view of heaven as reward for good behavior is essentially wrong and theologically naive. Stated as such, I would have to agree with you. However, it is much more than that and I have not the time or expertise to get into it here. If you’re not averse to some reading, I could steer you to some books.

    All of these arguments are fun to read, and contribute to, but everyday people aren’t really following the thread of whether Hitler was really a Christian or if Stalin’s murders were really the result of atheism. They don’t care. The ultimate issue, for them, of theism vs atheism, is how it comes into play in the way they live their lives. Does it add meaning and give direction? There is where the battle will be joined.

    But philosophy is still fun!

  • Star Umbehant

    Cole – Thanks so much for your post, Unfortunately I don’t know many atheists in “the real world.” Most of the atheists and agnostics I know are people I have “met” online. In my dealings I haven’t seen any selfish tendencies, just humans acting like humans. I came across a tract online describing atheists to chrstian teen witnesses…

    “If you find an Atheist in your neighborhood,

    You may be moved to try and witness to these poor lost souls yourself, however AVOID TALKING TO THEM!

    Atheists are often very grumpy and bitter and will lash out at children or they may even try to trick you into neglecting God’s Word.

    Very advanced witnessing techniques are needed for these grouches. Let the adults handle them.”

    Ah, hilarious. We’re all humans, and based on this we have a tendency to think, feel and act in similar ways. Regardless of whether we believe in a god. Steven Weinberg once said “…on balance the moral influence of religion has been awful…With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil–that takes religion.”

    D Ratham – thanks for posting Penns radio show! I have recently started watching Bullshit on DVD and have, of course, fallen in love with the man. Thanks for feeding my obsession!

    “The ultimate issue, for them, of theism vs atheism, is how it comes into play in the way they live their lives. Does it add meaning and give direction?” Rob – I am quite content with christians who feel that belief in their god adds meaning and gives direction in their lives. However, when that belief starts affecting my life, my family, my community, my society, it can get ugly. For instance consider the Pope: “[Pope] Benedict criticized the German church for putting social service projects and technical assistance to the poor ahead of spreading the Christian message.” WTF??? We certainly can’t have the poor, starving people dying without getting saved first. Also, make sure those people with Aids over in Africa aren’t using condoms, it’s against the will of god. And obvioiusly these people who got aids and the people who are starving – that’s god’s will too. Oh and if they die unsaved, was that god’s will? Anyway, I could go on and on – we all could!!! You’re right, philosophy is fun.

  • D Rathan

    Good post! I admit I dont know 10% of all that theologians know about the afterlife, but at the same time, neither does most people. I believe you at your word when you say the heaven-as-reward concept is wrong and naive, but I think thats sadly what most people believe nevertheless, and they live their lives accordingly.

    Which leads me to the second part of your post: I agree with you that what matters in the end is how theism vs atheism affects people’s lives. Thing is: if most people are as disinformed as I, then those effects fall accordingly. In other words, if most atheists are living their lives trying to do the right thing simply because “its the right thing to do”, while most deists are doing the same to “earn a treasure in heaven”, I’d have to give more credit to the former. Maybe the latter misunderstand heaven, as you say, and maybe the former are wrong. But from the flaws of the two groups, I’d give more merit to the atheists in this one; they find in -this- life the trascendence others hope for the -next-.

  • D Rathan

    Star, you’ve probably seen this before, but just in case:

    Penn & Teller Episodes on Google Video

    They’ve carried me through more than one boring teleconference. :)

  • Larry Rasczak

    “The ultimate issue, for them, of theism vs atheism, is how it comes into play in the way they live their lives. Does it add meaning and give direction?”

    Shouldn’t it rather be “is it TRUE”?

    Take for example the WNBA, Tofu, Dutch Elm Disease, “world”/”indigenous” music, and the planet Neptune. None of these things add meaning or give direction to my life. None of these things come into play in the way I live my life.
    None the less I believe in all of them, because they DO all exist; regardless of my feelings about them.

    God may “add meaning and give direction” to my life, but that is not why I believe in Him. I believe in Him for the same reason I believe every action will have an equal and opposite re-action… that is just the way it is.

    Don’t reason and logic and Truth, (all of which atheists venerate so highly) play a part here?

  • Rob Rumfelt

    Larry, theism and atheism are philosophical world views. WNBA and Tofu are not (Oh, my! at least I hope not!) Don’t confuse “truth” with “facts”.

    And D, if I’m walking down an alley, meet a man with a knife and he doesn’t kill me, I don’t care if he’s an atheist or a Christian. He can have ALL the credit he wants from me!

    I must say, this is one of the best threads I’ve been involved with in a long time. The level of courtesy is amazing. Good job everyone!

  • Timothy

    Religious traditions are rich enough to add meaning and direction to many people’s lives. It can be hard to ignore the fact that the great religions do not have the whole story of human history. In fact, they often find themselves in steadfast opposition to the findings of science.

    This is unfortunate, because although I admire a great deal of religion, I believe that the truth counts. If the religious people of the world (that includes the atheists) insist on a showdown between science and tradition, we face the danger of losing out on either ancient wisdom or eternal truths.

    Am I a hopeless idealist to believe that mythology can be both used and doubted?

  • Star Umbehant

    Thanks D for the google link – I’m on season two of bullshit right now, have a lot more to go!

    Tim – I think we’re all a little idealist at heart. I feel that mythology only supports my views that religion is moot. And we can certainly learn from the past – but “ancient wisdom?” “eternal truths?” Maybe a little too idealistic for me!

    Larry and Rob – perhaps instead of truth or facts we may want to say “something that is testable.” My son told his doctor that he didn’t believe in god. The doctor asked him why and he said he couldn’t see him. The doctor then proceeded to drop his pen and said “you can’t see gravity, but it’s there.” Yes, but gravity can be tested, observed. How can you test god?

  • Jeremy Pierce

    1. Do atheists get divorced less frequently than Christians as compared with how often atheists get married compared to Christians? Raw numbers of Christians might get divorced more than atheists, but that says nothing. What you need to compare is what percentage of Christian marriages end in divorce and what percentage of atheist marriages end in divorce, not whether the number of Christian divorces is higher than the number of atheist divorces. It’s also probably a good idea to distinguish between different ways the word ‘Christian’ is used. If people who follow a Spongian version of Christianity get divorced, how is that different from an atheist getting divorced?

    2. It’s fair to point that it isn’t atheism but totalitarian fascism that led to the slaughter of so many people in the 20th century. But why not say the same thing to those who pretend it was Christianity rather than a totalitarian fascism within Christianity that was responsible for all the deaths Christianity gets saddled with by atheists? It’s usually a good idea to be consistent in how one applies such defenses, and applying this particular defense to atheism requires applying it to Christianity as well.

    3. Cole does not represent the current views of philosophers on the Euthyphro issue, at least not those who have paid enough attention to the most important recent literature on this particular issue. Contemporary philosophers of religion who have dealt with that issue have noticed that the argument is a false dilemma, but it’s not as if this is a new observation. Thomas Aquinas pointed out that the argument assumes no middle ground between God arbitarily choosing moral truths and God having nothing to do with the explanation of morality. Cole’s presentation of the argument commits exactly this fallacy. Aquinas’ own view was that God’s metaphysically perfect nature grounds moral truths in a way that could not happen if there were no such perfect being. Morality is thus not an arbitrary decision of God, but it also is not grounded in something independent of God. A fair number of contemporary philosophers of religion do think there’s at least some merit to the moral argument for the existence of God, and this way of dealing with the issue shows that the dilemma is actually fallacious. There are other ways of dealing with it as well, but this one has seemed to me to be the most obvious thing to say.

  • D Rathan

    Nice posts all around!

    Jeremy, the answer to number 1 was two clicks away from Google:

    Variation in divorce rates by religion:

    Religion% have been divorced

    Jews 30%

    Born-again Christians 27%

    Other Christians 24%

    Atheists, Agnostics 21%

    I would definitely not count “spongian christians” (your term more or less) together with the atheists. The atheists are adamant about not believing in -solid- bodies of faith, much less spongian ones.

    It seems the divorce indicator didnt come too favorable for christians, but prison-ratio indicators come even worse, so dont even look :)

    It bears to say, these numbers are percentages, so the difference in raw counts of people (Christianity is obviously a majority) is already accounted for.

    For point number 2, I agree with you the same tests should be applied consistently: if we say the people who died under Stalin died not because he was an Atheist, but because he was Stalin, we should be able to say the same about other Christian leaders with blood on their hands, like Hitler. And I agree. Christianity is not responsible for Hitler’s crimes; Hitler is. However, I have to point here a reverse example of the Causation vs Correlation theme I’ve been talking about: While I am not aware of any war caused -because- of atheism, I am aware of many wars caused -because- of religion. In other words, we can say that everyone who died under Hitler would have likely died anyway even if he wasnt a Christian, and we can say that everyone who died under Stalin would have likely died anyway even if he wasnt atheist. But we -cannot- say that everyone who died in the Inquisition would have died anyway if Spain wasnt Catholic. I wouldnt tack -all- of the Crusades deaths to Christianity, but a percentage of them, yes, I sure would. Not all of sunni vs shiite and shiite vs sunni deaths would be tacked to Islam, but a fair deal for sure. Etc. My test, which I apply consistently to both deist and atheist groups is “Convert or die”. Using this test returns many hits for deists and almost none for atheists.

    As for number 3, I understand that you said Cole presented the Eutyphro issue wrong, but I didnt understand where was that. I’ll re-read again, but basically it just sounded to me like Thomas Aquinas said we can have it both ways, and therefore that’s that. I’ll read again and maybe I’ll get a bit more.

  • Rob Rumfelt

    Star, I really enjoy your posts. You seem like a person of genuine good will. I appreciate that. And you happen to be right: God can NOT be tested, at least not in the sense of a physical phenomenon. By definition, God is wholly other and transcendent. In other words, not of our physical universe. And yet. . . I agree with Sir William: “There are more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy…”

    The human brain would need to be larger than its ego if it were to understand everything. And THAT will never happen!

  • Cole


    As far as the current views of philosophers on the Euthyphro dilemma go, I insist that there is a strong consensus that it is a very serious problem for divine command theories and their kin. Maybe among Christian philosophers of religion this tendency is less pronounced, but I’d gladly put loads of cash on the line regarding philosophers in general.

    The charge that the Euthyphro dilemma is a false dilemma is an old one, but it’s an extremely controversial charge, and I hardly think it’s fair to call rejecting the charge a “fallacy”. I admit that there are a handful of people in philosophy of religion who try to ‘get between’ the dilemma (Philip Quinn and Robert Adams come to mind), but they usually do this by restricting God’s role to a specific class of moral facts (e.g., deontic facts). And I sincerely doubt there is some accepted solution or ‘false dilemma’ proof. (Grounding them in God’s nature avoids standard Euthyphro problems of literal ‘arbitrariness’, but it faces the same problems of any descriptivist reductionism, and certainly for most philosophers God’s nature is a less plausible reduction base for moral facts than, say, facts about pleasure or character or intention).

    In any case, look outside of philosophy of religion, to those who do metaethics. The only person who thinks bringing in God would help is J. L. Mackie, and he’s dead (maybe Linda Zagzebski?). Everyone else is off trying expressivism, Cornell realism, ‘Australian’ realism, non-naturalism, or error theory and moral fictionalism. People even enlist the Euthyphro dilemma against non-God views, like ideal observer theory. So my main point is quite untouched: in general, people who actually study the foundations of morality don’t see God as a promising foundation.

  • Alexei

    Timothy said:

    “Am I a hopeless idealist to believe that mythology can be both used and doubted?”

    Pragmatism, not idealism, is what arrives at this point. And, I might add, it’s offensive to people of faith.

  • Tom Breen

    Isn’t it maybe a little naive to quote politicians’ public utterances as reliable indicators of inner states or objective truths? I mean, we probably all have our favorites, but the two that leap to mind immediately are:

    “I did not have sex with that woman” (Bill Clinton) and “I am not a crook” (Richard Nixon).

    This wariness should probably be even greater when the politician in question is the (possibly) mentally ill leader of a (definitely) totalitarian movement. I mean, you never really hear Hitler praised for his honesty. But when it comes to Christianity, we’re just supposed to take his word for it? That didn’t get Neville Chamberlain anywhere.

    As far as press coverage goes, I agree that the relative dearth of coverage of atheism is interesting, particularly when you consider that atheists likely aren’t under-represented in the nation’s press corps. On the other hand, atheists are both relatively small as a percentage of the population and mostly disorganized, making it more difficult to focus on trends within atheism, as opposed to doing profiles of individual atheists.

  • Jeremy Pierce

    On the divorce issue, I don’t think that answers the question I asked. It gives the rates of divorce in terms of what perceentage of the population has been divorced. What I asked was what percentage of the population of people who have married has been divorced. Since it’s a much higher marriage rate in groups like evangelicals, it’s less surprising that there’s a higher divorce rate than in groups with a much lower marriage rate to begin with. There’s no data on that site that deals with that factor.

    Linda Zabzebski has a view she calls divine virtue theory. I haven’t looked at it, but I think it’s supposed to be like a divine command theory but with virtue ethics instead of a rule-based ethics. In her case, a good character reflects God’s character, so it’s got to be something like the Alston view rather than like divine command theories proper.

    It’s funny that you mention fictionalism, because one important enough version of moral fictionalism is a fictionalist divine command theory, where what makes something right is what God would command.

    On Euthyphro, I wasn’t talking about divine command theories. I was talking about views that base morality on God’s nature, not views that base morality on God’s choice. Adams and Quinn do have a view more like the latter, since God’s choice is based on God’s character, but I was actually thinking of Alston more than Adams or Quinn. He has an account that answers some of the problems with their formulations.

    I don’t actually care what philosophers in general think about philosophy of religion, because philosophers in general don’t tend to be very aware of the recent work in philosophy of religion. This is one issue that showed me that. James Rachels’ chapter on this issue in his intro to ethics book indicates an awareness that there is contemporary work on the issue (in his bibliography), but his presentation of the possible views seems to be to reflect nothing but ignorance of that work. Most of the faculty in my department never read philosophy of religion. So what I care about is what philosophers of religion think about the issue, and there isn’t any consensus like the one you speak of among those who are actually experts in the area.

  • Cole


    Again, my main concern was experts in metaethics, not experts in philosophy of religion. When it comes time to answer questions concerning the foundations of morality, God usually isn’t even brought up.

  • Star Umbehant

    Thanks Rob, I’m a pretty down-to-earth kind of person and certainly not as well-versed as most people posting here. But I like to learn and appreciate getting various view points – that’s what makes life worth living. I have a myspace page, blog and a member of various myspace groups if anyone is interested.
    Florida Atheists and Agnostics
    *Please see disclaimer.

    I know you were joking about the whole brain/ego thing but…I don’t think that one human brain will ever come close to understanding everything. A lot of people say that they want World Peace, I want World Knowledge. I love what the internet has fone for humanity. It is a way for us to bridge real-life distances, societal differences, religious differences, etc.

    All I can know is what I experience, through what I read, what I hear, what I see, feel…etc. Our brains are tricky things. The other day my husband pulled a fork out of the dishwasher and smelled it (he smells everything, it’s one of his little quirks), he asked if the dishes were clean. I said yes, because I BELIEVED that they were. He pointed out that the dishwasher had a strong odor coming from it. Even smelling it I thought the dishes were clean. It wasn’t until I examined the dishes themselves and found a measuring cup with grease on it that I was willing to change my belief that they were in fact – dirty. Our brains can cling on to the belief of something even with a new piece of evidence, but when the evidence keeps stacking up…How can we still cling to that belief?

    Now, there could be some other plane of existence wholly unlike ours, and there could even be a god there, but I don’t believe in it. If there is no proof of it’s existence, then I don’t need it.

    *Dislaimer: Above links may be posted due to human ego.

  • Star Umbehant

    “Isn’t it maybe a little naive to quote politicians’ public utterances as reliable indicators of inner states or objective truths?”

    It could certainly be seen as naive, and I’ll be the first to admit that in terms of religion, politics and philosophy I’m constantly learning. That may paint me naive, especially if you were to compare me to the likes of Gandhi, Mother Theressa, or maybe even Hitler.

    However, the point I was trying to make is that it’s not my place to say who is or isn’t a CHRISTIAN. I can tell you who is and isn’t a good person. Hitler was bad. (understatement of the millineum) Mother Theressa was good.

    My posting stemmed from an earlier post I made reagrding this topic. We don’t know the mind of god, if one exists, and Hitler may have been just what god ordered. I wasn’t saying that Hitler was a christian, I was pointing out that it’s not my place to say so. According to much of his writing, not just his “public utterances”, he seemed to think that he was.

  • Cole

    Hitler was probably too crazy. That is, too crazy for there to be any fact of the matter as to what he believed. Catholic, atheist, occultist, worshiper of old Teutonic gods, nothing exactly gets it right, because the man was out of his mind.

    In any case, Hitler is the wild card in this type of discussion. The Christians are supposed to point to Lenin and Stalin and Mao, and the atheists are supposed to point to the Crusades, the witch-hunts, the European wars of religion, and the Inquisitions.

  • colson

    I’ve found this thread quite interesting. There have been many assumptions made on the part of those on the atheist side and the theist side which wholly surmount to only one possible conclusion:

    The arguments are completely circular in nature and will lead to answers. For every point made, there is an adequate counterpoint to argue. I think for there to be any true dialogue of value, you need to strip it down to core philosophical arguments – from there you can build out a meaningful discussion on religion.

    To me there appears to be two primary facets to theism – a finite definition of morality and belief in a, for the judeo-christian-muslim model, sentient being who has passes knowledge to prophets.

    Agnosticism deals less with questions of morality but implies that all knowledge can not be obtained – we can not know the beginning and we will only know our own end. Making an untested assumption about knowledge that we can not meaningfully test is, for lack of a better word, pointless.

    Atheism also deals less (or doesn’t deal at all) with questions of morality and more with the point that there is no verifiable or testable proof that a form of sentient being exists. Without sustainable evidence of there being a “god”, it can not exist.

    Now what I mean in saying Agnosticism and Atheism do not deal with morality is that morality is not central to the ideas held by those who identify themselves as such persons. Morality is defined by the individual and is abstracted from any one, core belief system. This contrasts religion as there is generally a central core of moral belief built into the process.

    To argue effectively against religion you must narrow your focus to the counter-party’s views effectively. Because judeo-christian-muslim secularization exists to such a high degree, you can not make a very good argument that can effectively address the greater whole. This holds true for those of agnostic and atheistic persuasion. To effectively argue against an agnostic or atheist, you can only argue whether god exists, whether we have the capacity to fully know the answer to the question of god, or that god does not exist.

    Questions of morality should begin outside of the scope of the god question. What is morality? Can morality exist with and without god entering into the equation? From there you can branch into whether specific areas of morality are better than others. You can then contrast specific secular moral beliefs against specific, typically non-religious, concepts of morality.

    Regardless of which side of the table you sit on in this debate, I doubt that the majority of those people we meet daily have seriously thought about the more philosophical questions of life. What is good? What is evil? Do “good” and “evil” exist? What is morality? What is truth? What is knowledge?

    While some may feel these questions are given jokingly, how many have seriously sat down and attempted to answer these questions for themselves while willingly abstracting their existing beliefs and prejudices? It is as if somehow we have lost the capacity to really delve into deeply introspective self-dialogue to answer these questions of ourselves before rushing off to argue our finer points.

    This may not be the forum as I am sure this may cause some anger, but I feel that if there is to be some truly meaningful dialogue on the subject, then we must begin by having a common understanding of where everyone is coming from before muddying the debate with superficial responses to unarguable statements.

  • Dave Griffey

    “there are intelligent people proposing arguments for which Christian scholars still don’t have good answers”

    It should also be mentioned that people of faith have questions for which atheists still don’t have good answers. The one that brought me from trying to be an atheist to becoming a Christian: what is the basis for moral standards? If it is just evolution, then morality is, at its heart, a myth. It is an illusion. Thus Martin Luther King was neither good nor bad, nor was Hitler evil. I don’t love my wife, nor hate the 9/11 attacks. These things are illusions, cultural and social phenomena that have evolved in humanity’s ever pressing need to reproduce. 10,000 years from now, genocide might be the accepted form of population control. It may be universally accepted. Hitler may be seen as the enlightened founder of the solution to the over crowding of the planet. On what grounds then could we say that they will be wrong? Without a universal moral standard that transcends time and place, there simply isn’t one (without just saying because it is wrong, we’re right, and that’s that).

    Nope, to this date, no atheist can truly answer that question. That’s also why if you notice, atheists tend to get a bit belligerent when the issue of morals and ethics are brought up. As a former agnostic, I knew full well that was the Achilles heel.

  • D Rathan

    Well, you do love your wife and you do hate the 9/11 attacks. This you should known without any external aid, its self-evidently not an illusion. How that proves or disproves the existence of an all-knowing all-mighty being, is beyond me.

    Same with Hitler being bad, and MLK being good. I say the first was bad, on the grounds that he killed lots of people who didnt deserve to die, and MLK was good on the grounds that he tried to help lots of oppressed people who deserved better. An aryan-supremacist will disagree, not in 10,000, but today, and that would still neither prove nor disprove the existance of God.

    I’m not saying I am an atheist, I’m just saying that I dont see how morals or ethics can prove or disprove the existance of God.

    I’ve heard before the dilema on whether rightness/wrongess is universal, or subjective. I’ve heard also the dilema on whether truth/reality itself is universal or subjective, the Matrix movie painted that concept rather well. But again, I dont see how that has anything to do with whether there is a God or not. I understand that God is supposed to be the source of goodness and truth. The existance of God would prove that truth and goodness are universal and not subjective. But not necessarily the other way around.