Beta testing a book: Chapter 1: Don’t Panic!: On Finding Atheism Unfamiliar and Scary

In continuation of the plan I posted about last week, here’s  a draft of the first chapter of the book I’m working on. It’s called Don’t Panic!: On Finding Atheism Unfamiliar and Scary. Summary and a few other bits of info below the fold:

In this chapter:

  • Atheists exist! How offensive!
  • What is atheism?
  • New atheists! Militant atheists! Angry atheists!
  • Pascal’s Wager
  • Finding happiness without God

As with last week’s entry, before commenting you might want to look at my ignorable advice for people who want to comment on drafts. I’ve also made some edits to the Introduction, including to attempt to clarify the purpose of the book.

  • ibelieveindog

    I’m only six pages into chapter one, but I have to say that your voice and style make the information very accessible and pleasant to read.

  • ibelieveindog

    This is probably not helpful but I want to copy and paste the whole chapter and write, “This!”

    I look forward to reading the rest, and to buying it in tangible form when it’s published!

    • Chris Hallquist

      That is very helpful! Thanks!

  • mnb0

    Nice! You give one of the very, very few Bertrand Russell quotes I disagree with.
    “I do not know of any others.”

    That’s what I used to think before I emigrated to Suriname. Here I have seen what fear for ghosts, ancestor worshipping and especially faith in black magic can do to people. If the relaxed forms of christianity, islam and hinduism so typical for Suriname can protect people from that awful frightening stuff I am willing to accommodate.
    This doesn’t mean that I hide my atheism (everybody knows about it) but I am willing to give those three major religions much more credit. Certainly I am not going to apply the tactics of Dawkins and Harris.
    For now it’s enough that people know that I’m an atheist and that superstitious shit doesn’t have any influence on me.

    • Robert B.

      I’ve seen relaxed forms of belief in ghosts and magic, too, though. They are just as relatively harmless as relaxed major religions. So it’s not a matter of certain supernatural beliefs being intrinsically better or worse; rather there are “styles” of religion, bad and not-so-bad, that you can find in any religion or type of faith belief. And the problem with trying to reform religion, to promote not-so-bad religion over really-bad, is what do you base your argument on? Neither of them have evidence or reason on their side.

      Now, if you’d like to argue for values like science and reason and humanism without being explicitly anti-religion, then hey, that sounds both good and useful. I’m not going to be down on anyone because they choose one good cause over another to spend their time on. And if there are religious people with whom you can make common cause against, say, witch burning, then go for it! I don’t even call that accomodationism. But in the long run, the idea is for everyone to know as much truth as possible, which means sooner or later, religion has to go.

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  • Disagreeable Me

    General praise:

    I appreciate and approve of the aim of the book, and I think it has a valuable contribution to make to the discussion about atheism. I look forward to reading more. I also find myself agreeing with most of what you have to say.

    I particularly like the bit of background you give to the history of atheism and the coining of the phrase “New Atheist”, as well as the discrimination against atheistic views in contemporary America.

    Your description of the distinctions between different types of atheists and agnostics is also very helpful.


    Personally I dislike this casual, conversational style of writing in a non-fiction book, using many contractions such as “you’re” and “they’ve” etc. While I don’t mind it in a blog or an email, in book form it seems inappropriate. This is a matter of taste, however, and others have commented that they appreciate it and find it easy to read. Therefore I’m not suggesting you change it, I’m just letting you know that not everyone might like it.


    I find it hard to judge as the book is not targeted at me, but it seems like it may be a little on the patronising side in general. Coupled with the conversational voice of the writing, it seems like your targeting a child or young adult audience. Is this the case?

    Any Christian who reads this is going to be put on the defensive by words like “silly” and is not going to engage with what you’re saying. In some ways, “silly” is worse than words like “misguided” or “wrong” or “incorrect”, because it’s condescending and dismissive. It trivialises the attitudes of the reader and this is unlikely to be productive.

    Similarly, I doubt many Christians would describe atheism as unfamiliar and scary. They would describe it as incorrect or immoral. Ascribing these feelings to them is likely to turn them off.

    Also, there’s some stuff you explain in a way that illustrates your low opinion of the reader’s intelligence or literacy.

    I’ve heard many people’s deconversion stories (stories of how they gave up religion), and there’s one book I hear credited with helping cause people to deconvert more often than any other.

    Here, you’re explicitly defining “deconversion” because you’re afraid the reader won’t know the word. Your fear may be justified, but there might be better ways of dealing with it than defining it explicitly. For example:

    I’ve heard the stories of many people who have given up religion, and there’s one book I hear credited with helping cause people to deconvert more often than any other.

    This avoids using “deconversion” but does use “deconvert” in a way which makes it hard to mistake your meaning. Then the next sentence uses “deconversion” as before, and your meaning should be established without the reader feeling insulted.

    Another example of this kind of thing is “(Note: from here, the first time I mention someone who has died, I’ll always give the years they lived in parentheses, like this: Bertrand Russell (1872-1970).)” Is this a note to yourself or an editor or is intended for publication?

    Despite all this, sometimes derision is clearly warranted. “This is nonsense. Plenty of people see no reason to pass through any metaphorical wilderness” – I applaud this and agree with it wholeheartedly.

    Pascal’s Wager / Hell:

    I’m not sure that this section fits in a chapter which is predominantly about the background to atheism and types of atheism. It may be related to why atheism is a scary belief to adopt, but it is not directly related to fearing atheists themselves, which seems to be the thrust of what you’re talking about here.

    Yeah, you can make a case that it fits in and I see why you put it here, but it just seems out of place to me. I mean, if you’re going to write about the fear that atheism condemns us to hell, then why not write about the fear that atheism leads to immorality too? I note you give a quote about this from Luke Muehlhauser towards the end of the chapter, but that’s not the same as a discussion from you. Maybe these types of concerns deserve to be fleshed out more and put in a different chapter? You could also talk about the fear of ostracising friends and relatives, the fear that life would have no meaning, the fear of fear of death, etc.

    Anyway, you assert that Hell doesn’t exist yet you don’t really prove this, instead you argue successfully that Pascal’s wager is, well … yeah, actually …”silly”.

    Maybe here is not the place to assert that hell doesn’t exist and you should instead focus on discussing Pascal’s wager more thoroughly. Perhaps God rewards critical thinkers and punishes the intellectually lazy? Perhaps God doesn’t care whether we believe in him or not? Perhaps we go to hell for not believing in unicorns or fairies or the FSM?

    Militant Atheism:

    I disagree with you that this terminology is problematic. Nobody thinks it means violence. Everyone understands that it means you are forthright in your views and care a great deal about the harm caused by religion. This is just a matter of opinion, however. You may be right and if you feel strongly about it then of course you should discuss it. If we can’t use this term then you should suggest a better one.

    Actually I think the term is possibly helpful in that it helps to highlight the difference between extreme atheism, where “militant” is metaphorical, and extreme religion, where it is not. The more religious people call us militant, the more opportunities we have to remind them that there are no atheist suicide bombers.

    Instead of discouraging the usage of the term, therefore, I think you should possibly just remind the reader of the distinction.


    (These are more than likely due to it being a work in progress)

    The subheadings at the beginning of chapters don’t match up exactly with the subheadings in the text.

    You might want to have subheadings in the introduction rather than sentences such as “That’s my public service announcement for reading the Bible” or “So now let me give you a little background on this book.”


    Good work, looking forward to reading more!

    • Chris Hallquist

      “I find it hard to judge as the book is not targeted at me, but it seems like it may be a little on the patronising side in general. Coupled with the conversational voice of the writing, it seems like your targeting a child or young adult audience. Is this the case?”

      Yes and no. My real target audience is adults, but to some extent I imagine my target audience as children based on this advice. And the reality is that you can be an intelligent adult while knowing fuck all about these debates, the jargon used in them, and conventions of academic writing (like the one that says NAME (XXXX-YYYY) is a way of giving when a person lived.) And this stuff may seem simple, but respected scholars with Ph.D.s in relevant fields

      I agree that the parenthetical note about deconversion was probably excessive, though (I just changed it), and the one explaining the years lived convention feels clumsy. Any ideas on a better way to introduce that convention?

    • Chris Hallquist

      Okay, dates thing tweaked slightly.

  • Disagreeable Me

    On the dates issue – I’m not sure that’s a purely academic convention. Isn’t the same convention used on tombstones? I would have thought it should be readily apparent what you mean.

    But maybe that’s because I was in the habit of reading encyclopedias for fun when I was a kid!

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  • Paul Twohey

    I know you’ll be proofreading and correcting errors. I actually noticed several, but expect you’ll fix them. This one, however, “spoke” to me:

    Blaise Pascal (1663-1662)

    It’s amazing that he could develop such a knowledge of mathematics in a lifespan of -1 year!

    Not my real name above, but it is my real email address. (And my real gravatar, too.) I’m not quite ready to confess what at this point is agnosticism and don’t want a possible internet search by someone I know, or who knows of me, to turn up this note.

    I do have a comment that you might find useful: The thing that shocked me into realizing that the Bible is not of divine origin was reading Genesis 3. You’ve mentioned this narrative in some of your writings, but not with the same reasoning.

    I was in Sunday morning assembly as the preacher read a couple of verses, and having turned there (being in a Church of Christ, you always read along) I read the entire chapter. It suddenly hit me that there is no “Satan” in the chapter, that as far as the author was concerned, this was a real snake.

    Importantly, I also realized that not a single person there that morning actually believes what the chapter says. No Christian I’ve ever met actually believes Genesis chapter 3, yet every one of them who claim to take the creation story literally will tell you that they do believe it. They have inserted Satan into the narrative because that’s the only way it makes any sense.

    That’s my “conversion” story.

    It makes me wonder whether members of churches of Christ are good candidates for atheism. We reject original sin, and create logic trains to support our doctrine. We reject modern miracles because we they’re obviously fake, and find Biblical passages to try to prove that this is the Bible view. We even take verses about physical healing and suggest that perhaps they’re really about spiritual healing, because we don’t really see people get well when they’re expected to die. It seems that we’re really close to waking up and realizing that it’s all a myth.

    • Paul Twohey

      Never mind… you said exactly the same thing in chapter 4!

  • patrick jlandis

    “Many people find atheism unfamiliar and scary. This book is going to cover a lot of ground, but when it comes to understanding anti-atheist backlash, I think that’s the most important thing.

    So again: many people find atheism unfamiliar and scary. I know this in part because I used to find atheism unfamiliar and scary. Back when I was a teenager–raised in a liberal but church-going household–I stumbled across Bertrand Russell’s essay “Why I Am Not a Christian.” There, Russell says that he grants Jesus “a very high degree of moral goodness,” but also gives reasons for thinking he was not “the wisest and best of men.”

    I was shocked, and thought it must be a sign of spiritual blindness on Russell’s part. I mean, how could he not see the wisdom contained in the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree? (Right now, I am having trouble remembering what I thought that wisdom was.”

    These are two paragraphs. One is about how atheism is familiar and scary (which doesn’t need to be repeated twice in the space of three sentences), the other is about your experience reading Bertrand Russell and how it illustrates your old fears of atheism.

    Plus, let the book cover whatever ground it’s going to cover. Explaining what the book is about belongs in the Introduction.

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  • smidoz

    Just a couple of things that jumped out:

    One of the only criticisms I’ve heard about atheism here in South Africa that seems as bad as the stuff you’re talking about, is that they are stupid. One persoan actually couldn’t believe that there is such a thing, I was flabbergasted, it isn’t such a stigma here, & not that unusual either. Once I pointed out that there are definitely atheists, she stated that, “people must feel so stupid if they don’t believe in God.” I fail to see why not believing in God would make you feel stupid.

    I am a Christian, & when I’m told that the Bible sas something, I don’ only check the verse I was given, the Bible is pretty clear on faith & good behaviour (works) being critical, you don’t provided any references for me to check, which, as a Christian (even when I was doubting as a teen) gives me the feeling your statements are well supported. You do give a reference for everyone going to Heaven, funnily enough, the next verse makes it clear that wasn’t anywhere close to what Paul was writing. The SAB, which you recommend as a good source often does the same thing.

    The “no good evidence” statement sounds like a cop out, “your evidence isn’t good enough” could now be used against any argument, and makes it seem like it isn’t about evidence a all. I have no problem people saying they believe there is no god, but if that’s all it is, then they shouldn’t make it about evidence. Dawkins provides a number of theories regarding the origin of the concept of deity, but admits the theories aren’t really supported by evidence, so we can assume the same reasoning that you do for God/gods, there is no origin. The same goes for the origin of life, there’s actually no evidence it happened, & a mountain of statistical evidence it did, this may not be good evidence (in your opinion) for a supernatural being, but it’s better than no evidence at all that there is an origin for life, therefore, consitency would say, there is no origin for life. This is probably where the nihilist remark came from (although I’m not sure it is the correct term) basically, if the same reasoning was applied to everything as atheists applied to the existence of the supernatural, then we’d have to have an enormous amount of doubt about many things that he vast majority of atheists take for granted. I’m not saying you have to agree with this reasoning, or put it in the book, but I do think you should rebut the reasoning that leads Christains to make statements like this.

    I appreciate the bit about people getting angry, & applaud anyone encouraging anger for injustice, unfortunately it’s eaier to focus on homosexuality than on the sins of the saved, like the Christian God has a grading system for sins.

    • smidoz

      Sorry, without giving reference it looks like your statments aren’t well supported.

      Also, a mountain of evidence that the origin of life didn’t happen, after all, all observed living things come from other living things, the only reason we need evidence for an origin for life is because we assume one happened. The argument from biogenesis is the argument I hardly ever find rebutted, not surprising since most apologists stuff it up (but what do you expect from people who think the cosmological argument is a good one?) Dawkins (probably inadverently) dismisses it with one sentence, “we know there is an origin for life because there is life” or something to that effect. This obviously is a useless argument if the origin of life is in question. This criticism should probably go with Chapter 9, but I(ks something to think about, maybe.

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