The Atheist Contribution to World Civilization

I find myself becoming somewhat weary of opponents of Christianity and of religion in general who point to its flaws but offer no appreciation of its strengths, who criticize its failures but make no mention of its successes.

I thus wish to offer an open post today in which I ask a question: What is the atheist contribution to world civilization? What have atheists offered that was not offered before them by philosophers who believed in some sort of God, by Liberal Christians, by Deists or Pantheists or others who have some God concept as part of their worldview?

Please post your answers as comments, and feel free to use that forum to discuss the answers that have been given.

Hopefully the focus can be kept on this specific question, without getting sidetracked into the shortcomings and negative contributions that any impartial observer would acknowledge exist on all sides.

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  • Even if Christianity was the main motivator in starting most all early American universities, most all of our hospitals and many food kitchens, and the like, these things still would have been started anyway, if for no reason other than necessity. Every society has these kinds of things in it, even those not dominated by Christianity. It just so happened to be that Christianity is the dominant religion in America for a couple of centuries, that’s all. Besides, these things were probably not started by Christian churches out of altruism, or any desire for a better society, but as a way for those churches to convert people. After all, who are most vulnerable to the Christian message? They are the sick (hospitals), the poor (food kitchens) and young people leaving home for the first time to enter universities (which were mostly started to train preachers).Atheists have made contributions in literature, history, politics and science. They have advanced our knowledge base and helped to eliminate superstitious and imoral beliefs which have killed many people.See this, and this.

  • Some of the following people weren’t actually atheists, but they can be called skeptics. They have made contributions to society.

  • Come now John. The idea that the early hospitals, soup kitchens and universities were used to convert people is absurd. Why? Because as you know they were already Christians to begin with. There WERE no noticeable amounts of atheism or even agnosticism (which i think in a rediculously more reasonable position) when these institutions were founded. I will agree atheists have increased all the things you mention. But so to have Christians and, on a macro-perspective, on a far greater level almost certainly. I think the far better road to take in this discussion John is to just admit that western civilization would almost certainly be a far worse place without the Christian religion having formed it, but that doesnt mean Christianity is at all true. But to say that the churches started these institutions to convert people is a masterful work of poor historical interpretation as you readily will admit that the persons those institutions helped were (for the most part) already Christian.

  • BSM

    I’m never that good at following instructions so I’m going to deviate from yours. Methinks you may be spending too much time trying to dialog with internet atheists who have no desire to dialog whatsoever.My advice is go watch Dr. Who and have a nice glass of wine. ~BCP

  • Carlos

    Funny you should ask. A few weeks ago I served as a representative of atheism on a student-organized World Religions Panel, and the moderator asked each of us that question: “what has your belief-system contributed to civilization?”I borrowed a line from Louis Dupre about the Enlightenment, and responded that atheism at its best contributes an insistence on criticism of all authority and a principled rejection of arbitrary and illegitimate authority. Atheists played an important role in inspiring the American and French revolutions, so if one thinks that casting off the shackles of crown and church was a step forward in the moral evolution of humanity, then atheists deserve some credit. If society is more “open” today than it was say, 500 years ago, then some credit must go to Spinoza or Hume. (Spinoza is not technically an atheist, but it’s clear that his metaphysics is incompatible with all legitimizations of organized/revealed religion; this was not lost on his contemporaries, some of whom reviled him as “the atheist Jew”.)

  • Ian

    If you phrase it that way, then atheists (modern freethinkers) can claim every contribution by a “freethinker”, by people who refused to be shackled by the dominant religious paradigm of the time…like maybe Jesus? 😉

  • Carlos

    In fact the early Christians were accused by the Romans of being “atheists” — because they refused to worship the Emperor. What I’d like to do, I suppose, is link atheism with that moment of “speaking truth to power.” And in one sense of course I can’t get away with that, since so many in the prophetic tradition claimed to be speaking on behalf of the demands of a theistically grounded ethics — in opposition, many times, to a theistically justified political order. So what is going on, in those cases where a theistic ethics (“truth”) confronts a theistic politics or political theology (“power”)? On my reading, it is a moment of challenging the dominant conception of the divine: smashing the idols, burning the golden calf, chasing the moneychangers from the Temple, invoking Creator-endowed inalienable rights against the power of Church and Crown. Is that atheism? I want to say that there is a moment of atheism here — that atheism is the moment where one rejects a dominant conception of the divine, and a space is created in which some other conception of transcendence can come into consciousness.I might be distorting the sense of atheism too much, and if so, I want to find some other label for what I’m interested in talking about. Suggestions?

  • On a slightly different track, I think atheism forces believers of all stripes to acknowledge that their arguments and beliefs will not be convincing to everyone. At its best, it serves as a wildcard, challenging every unrecognized assumption. At its worst, it builds its own unvoiced assumptions into its arguments, but that’s a topic for a different thread.It also represents a kind of freedom. There’s no cavalry on the way, no one to make sure it all comes right in the end, so we all have to do our best to make things come right. This is a good way to live, atheist or not, imo.

  • Carlos

    Galmlea,I think you’re right. Your point echoes a insight of Charles Taylor (the philosopher, not the warlord). Taylor asserts that faith can’t be naive anymore. Any person of faith within ‘modernity’ suffers from an inescapable reflexivity — that there are people of other faiths or no faith at all, and that such people are no less rational or ethical. The basic rationality or goodness of one’s own faith-position can no longer be taken for granted.

  • Were it not for the fiercely committed skeptics who toiled during the Enlightenment and after, the very progress we have made as a civilization would have not been possible. Skepticism is the engine of science (and of knowledge in general, I think).Was Jefferson an atheist? It depends on who you ask(no?).Everybody’s an atheist to someone else.As far as feeding the poor and other such altruistic expressions . . .Whereas countless charity programs: hospitals, food banks, shelters, etc… originate in churches (honorably and commendably), and people are never timid in affirming the name of their Christian faith as their reason for doing these things (or the Q’uran—charity is one of the most important commandments in that tradition too), when the atheist takes up altruistic activism (volunteering, feeding the poor, et al. …), she is not doing it in the name of her “atheism.” It would be presumptuous to think that the atheist is somehow “acting Christian” in caring for others (has anyone else ever cringed at the phrase,”that’s mighty Christian of you . . .“?).Who will argue that religion is the only cause of altruism?It seems to be hard-wired into the species.peaceÓBCP:Here’s 3¢ change. 😉

  • Anonymous

    Gautama Buddha 🙂

  • george

    One might also ask what fraction of the world population was atheist at the time most of these innovations took place. When you consider the twentieth century, we see a strikingly disproportionate number of scientific advances being made by atheists, especially in fields such as physics and cosmology. We see a disproportionate representation of atheists among those active in many civil rights aims, such as extending full rights to GLBT persons.On most disputes within the new-atheists, I tend to find myself in agreement with Sam Harris in opposition to Dawkins, and this holds true here: I believe that the good accomplishments of religion can in fact be ascribed to that religion. There are many cases where a worthwhile achievement would not have been accomplished as it was without religion as a motivating force. Certainly most of these things would have been accomplished in some other way.However, religion is at least equally a motivating force for bad; and I do not think atheism can be such. More importantly, however, religions just aren’t true.

  • jan c.

    This is a preposterous question, for it assumes that ones declaration of their beleif system and identification with a religion has everything to do with their motivations. I volunteer at a historical farm museum. I do it because I love history. I am an atheist. My friend volunteers at the same farm. Because he loves history. He is a bible study leading Episcopalian. I volunteer for a prairie stewardship group. Because I love the prairie. My friend who is Methodist does the same because she love prairie. I landscape for a living. So does my Fundamentalist friend. Because we love plants and the outdoors. Most of the choices people make in terms of volunteering and careers have little to do with their religious beleifs and everything to do with basic human instincts to succeed and contribute. Religion is irelevent in the accomplishments and successes of most people. You feel obligated to try to tie the good people do to their religion out of defensiveness, because of the accusation that Christians do harm in the world because of Christianity. And if the thing is done BECAUSE of Christianity, it IS related to their religion. If the thing is done for other motives, it does not count to your question. You are attempting a sideways attack with your tired premise that ethics and morality are somehow tied to religion, and that Christians are more moral and ethical than atheists. Your corrollary seems to be that accomplishment, achievement, and contribution are linked to religion but they are no more so than ethics and morality are. The burden of proof should be on you to show what harm has been done by atheists because they were atheists.

  • I would have to echo the comments already made to the effect that it is difficult to ascribe to religion any particular contribution. We seem to be too naive to accept that there is a drive for progress and the general good within Human Nature along with the bad and selfish bits.I also would say that the Enlightenment, irrespective of the believes espoused by its participants , was atheistic in spirit. It would have been impossible, and extremely disruptive, for it to sweep away the Christian culture within which it flowered. As always, demanding black-and-white distinctions leads only to intellectual dead-ends.

  • Anonymous

    it’s very difficult to argue that Christianity or other religions leads directly to violence that wouldn’t exist otherwise. Religion often serves as an EXCUSE for warmongers and warlords to create conflict. Urban II wasn’t motivated solely by religion when he launched the crusades. He was motivated by a desire to conquer the Holy Land, and he also wanted to send the warriors of Europe to fight in the Middle East so they wouldn’t kill each other at home.Also, do not forget that some of the most horrific acts in human history were not committed for religious reasons. Religion did not motivate Stalin to banish his opponents to Siberia, and atheism motivated Mao to launch the Cultural Revolution.

  • Anonymous

    One aspect not yet discussed in all this is the effect faith and religion have on the development of the human intellect and human emotions. Most believers tend not to question anything too much and are quite willing to let others do their thinking for them. Most believers also rely on God, faith and religion to provide emotional support when life becomes difficult. Both of these tendency would appear to be evolutionary dead ends. As the world becomes more complicated and difficult (mostly due to over population), those who have learned to think for themselves and who can hold together when the going gets tough, are going to be the survivors. Further, the world and the human condition need to be understood by a lot more of the populace if we are to survive as a species. Faith and religion are not conducive to this need.

  • That's a pretty sweeping statement but these days I am almost willing to grant it to you for Calvinsts at least. ;^)

  • Lise

    absolutely nothing….

    • Matt Begley

      Any atheist has probably contributed more than you.

  • The question reflects a logical confusion that bedevils discussions of the issues related to atheism. Atheism sometimes merely refers to an absence of belief in God, but more often it is used to name a far more specific set of ideas that belong to particular social/political groups such as Marxist/Leninists or new atheists. Mixing the two meanings of the word wouldn’t be so serious if there were one atheistical philosophy, i.e. philosophy that includes disbelief in God. In fact, however, there are many. Lenin didn’t believe in God and neither does P.Z. Myers, but disbelief in God is pretty much all that you’ll find in the overlap of their Venn diagrams. Asking for the contributions of atheists to world civilization is thus a badly formed question unless you think for some reason that not believing in God determines the rest of one’s attitudes and actions. How about the question of the contribution of red heads to world civilization?

    Aside from the way that your original paralogism gives rise to an interminable series of invalid syllogisms with undistributed middles*, thinking of atheism primarily as a positive set of beliefs misses what’s most interesting about the current situation where atheism (=not believing in God simpliciter) is much more a default than a tenet.

    * For example:
       All Communists are atheists.
       P.Z. Myers is an atheist.
       P.Z. Myers is a communist. 

    which is formally identical to:

      All lions eat meat.
      I eat meat.
    I am a lion.

  • Ian Harac

    We are the ones who tell Dumbo that he doesn’t need the magic feather. All the actual truths which have come from religious people are separate from the religion itself. The fact you include deists, pantheists, etc, in your original post shows you understand full well that “religion” is a lie, that there are no objective truths underlying it; any set of marginally internally consistent beliefs will do. Scientology is no sillier than Christianity; Wicca is as true as Mormonism; Judaism and Hinduism make equally as much sense. So having established — by your own admission, in your own post — that there is no particular value to WHAT one believes, that all myth structures are equally real (or equally unreal), the contribution of the atheist is to point that out, to get rid of the parts of philosophy and ethics we don’t need (all the parts that rely on the “spiritual” or the “supernatural” or the “mystical”) and focus on the parts that are true.

    If I can show you a dozen recovering alcoholics who all claimed their faith helped them get on the wagon — and they all have different, wholly incompatible, faiths, with different gods, different creation myths, different ideas about life and death — then, one must conclude that none of their faiths actually helped them, that none of their gods were real, that the actual strength to quit was within them all the time, that it was their will, not any god’s power, that helped them. Once they know that, aren’t they better for it?

    As long as you think you need the magic feather to fly, all it does is weigh you down. You don’t need it, Dumbo, and you’re a lot better off without it. That’s the atheist contribution to the world.

    • Thank you so much for your comment. I am a little puzzled, since you distinguish between the phenomenon of religion itself and specific religious beliefs or belief sustems, but then at the end, you seem to assume that if one’s specific religious beliefs do not matter, somehow any and all phenomena that could be labelled religious are thereby shown to be worthless.

      It may well be that all forms of belief in a “higher power” are the equivalent of Dumbo’s magic feather. I suspect that those with experience of having stopped drinking through Alcoholics Anonymous might ask for evidence that the same effect can be achieved without the element of reliance on a Higher Power. Obviously neither the effectiveness of AA nor the effectiveness or non-effectiveness of an alternative AAA (Atheist Alcoholics Anonymous) would demonstrate the existence of an actual Higher Power. But it might suggest that humans have evolved to find the act of relying on a higher power helpful, and may not be able to simply discard the usefulness of such beliefs, or substitute effectively for them, through a sheer act of will.

  • Ian Harac

    But that’s my point. If the “higher power” is absolutely anything one believes in, then, what reason is there to believe the “higher power” has any objective reality?  Every religion begins somewhere; the difference between a “wacko fringe cult” and “genuine faith” is almost always a matter of time.

    We are most certainly evolutionarily “programmed” for belief; you can stimulate religious ecstasy with a few well-placed electrodes. Religion has an obvious role in forming communities (the fact is, religion is not about understanding the world as much as it is about defining one’s community and helping expand the monkeysphere) and some form of religious belief seems to be a part of every human culture. However, this does not mean that there is any real, objective, actually existent “higher power”, just that it was, at one point, an advantage to our ancestors to think there was. The usual response to this is, “Well, then, we should keep doing it!”, but that’s a contemptuous and condescending approach. It is saying, “We smart people know there aren’t really any gods, but we all have to keep pretending there are, for the sake of the stupid people who need to believe in them.” Attempts to distill all religion to some vague, nebulous, “higher power” are a form of this; it’s a meaningless idea. It gives me no guidance on either objective issues (How did the universe come to be?) or moral issues (Should I cheat on my income taxes?). If my “higher power” says to kill all people who disagree with me, and yours says not to, how do we determine which “higher power” is correct? The only way to resolve the conflict is by setting aside “revelation” of any sort and working with those parts of the world we can both perceive equally well. (Or, more likely, one of us just kills the other. That’s the real harm to religion. If you believe your philosophy, ethics, morality, etc, comes from other people, you acknowledge the possibility, however slim, they might be wrong. Humans are capable of error; we all know this. If you believe your morality, etc, comes from “revelation” or “the gods”, you leave no possibility of error (except, rarely, your own error in interpreting their will). Gods don’t make mistakes, or they’re not really gods, just space aliens with super cosmic rays or something. It’s certainly the case that atheists can be as pig-headed and irrational as anyone else, and there’s no guarantee that two atheists will limit themselves to cold reason in their debates; emotional blinders and negative feedback loops are part of the human mind no matter what. There is, however, a *slim* improvement in the odds of a reasoned conclusion because of underlying acknowledgement of the *possibility* of error, and slim odds beat none.)

    The “higher power” model is an attempt by intelligent people to reconcile their instinctive, evolutionarily programmed, need to believe with their rational knowledge that there is no means of showing any religion to be “true”, and that all the benefits of “religion” to a person, or to a community, tend to apply no matter what the religion is, implying that they spring from an internal, not external, source.

    IAE, you asked what the atheist contribution was, and I offered my take on that. If Dumbo refuses to toss away the feather, it’s not my job to yank it from him.

    PS: I strongly dispute the idea atheism implies any particular morality, set of ethics, and so on; all it does is say, in the words of Brian of Nazareth, “You’ve got to work it out for yourselves.” There’s no such thing as “atheist justice theory”, “atheist economics”,”atheist environmental policy”, or the like. The only thing atheists have in common is that they don’t believe in any form of supernatural or mystical phenomenon. (Anyone who claims to be an atheist but embraces “higher consciousness” or “crystal power” or “revealed wisdom of the ancients from Atlantis” isn’t an atheist. Atheist doesn’t mean “not a Christian”.)

    • Sorry to be a stickler on details, but it seems to me that perhaps you are using “atheist” in the sense of “not a Theist” as opposed to “anyone who thinks that any sort of spirituality or transcendence is nonsense.” It isn’t clear that a naturalistic view of religious experience is in any way incompatible with pantheism, or many varieties of modern Buddhism. Of course, there are some like Richard Dawkins who would say that pantheism simply is a variety of atheism, but one could argue that it is also a variety of religion, and so perhaps it is possible that atheism and religion can overlap?

      You also seem to assume that, if human beings perceive themselves to be part of a greater reality that transcends their ability to describe or comprehend, then that inability to articulate indicates that the conviction itself must be false. Again, I am not persuaded that that necessarily follows.

      • Hi Jim, 

        I noticed this post for the first time (because of your recent comment). I have to agree with James Harrison that you haven’t really asked a valid question. Atheism is not system of beliefs. It’s simply the absence of one specific belief. And as Dawkins is fond of saying, most of us are atheists with respect to every god except the one we worship.

        Sam Harris makes a great analogy on his site, comparing religious belief to wood burning fires. For thousands of years, wood burning fires served an important purpose for humanity. But now that we have cleaner, safer means of heating our homes, cooking our meat, and keeping wild animals at bay, we have to recognize that wood burning fires are harmful to the environment, dangerous for asthma, and more carcinogenic than a room full of smokers.

        • I used to say that I wouldn’t be able to call myself an atheist until somebody identified what it was I wasn’t supposed to believe in. There are, after all, versions of “God” that are so abstract, so etiolated that it would be a challenge to reject them and pretty much pointless to try. 

          If you wanted to be accurate, you could define the state of your theological opinions by a code: about G sub one, 0 for disbelief, 1 for belief, 2 for suspension of judgment; about G sub two, 0, 1, or 2; and so forth up to G sub n. My stance might be defined by the ordered n-tuple 00120201…2, for example. It might then be possible to define certain characteristics that the G’s you don’t believe in or do believe in or can’t decide about have in common. For Professor McGrath, I expect, there would be a lot of zeroes for traditional concepts of God and a lot of ones or, maybe twos, for concepts that included connotations of transcendence since that seems to be what he cares about. Now putting aside that what Transcendence means is at best only slightly less hard to pin down than God and you might have to eventually go in for a T sub one etc. ordered n-tuple for that too, it seems to me that the question that McGrath is asking can be usefully formulated as “What are the contributions of the deniers of transcendence to world civilization?” (Note that many, if not most, of the deniers of transcendence are believers in traditional religions—denial of transcendence is not equivalent to atheism since superstitious believers flatten religious symbolism into science fiction and thus deny transcendence while various nonbelievers retain their interest in ultimate things.)

        • Beau, I probably would not have bothered even posting something like this, had it not been for a feeling of exasperation at that time, interacting with some atheists who mistakenly thought that the points about errors and dubious morality in the Bible were something that they as atheists had only just discovered and brought to light, rather than these things having been highlighted by Deists and Liberal Protestants a century or more ago. 

          I wonder whether religion is a particular type of stove, or can be any kind of stove – in which case, it may be that a better stove will be more appealing than no stove at all!  😉

          • Interesting, James, but is religion really the only stove we’ve got?

            In the absence of an afterlife (because heaven and hell are the ultimate argument ender), what does religion do for us, that couldn’t be done without religion.

            To change the analogy, it’s vital to know if religion is the best medicine for us; because, if it isn’t, the side-effects range from harmful to deadly in a significant proportion of the population.

          • I have a colleague who is persuaded that the net social effect of religion is probably close to zero – people do great harm in the name of religion, and great good. I’m not sure that those heroic and atrocious acts could not or would not exist without religion. Religion is simply one of the ways human beings express deep convictions, but it is a real question whether, if religion in the sense that you seem to be using the term were to vanish, other things that might equally be considered “religion” would not take its place.

            The focus on afterlife in Jewish and Christian religion seems to be both an attempt to address the problem of evil, but the notion existed before then in other traditions. And so it may be that religious focus on the afterlife is an effect of prior belief in an afterlife, while the direction of influence has subsequently reversed.

            But at any rate, maybe the question is not whether religion is the only stove we’ve got, but whether anything we might substitute would not be simply a stove by another name.

          • Slomo

            Rahter than asking what religion does for us, ask what we get in its absence? If you base value on need, such as shelter and food, then you could say that self becomes the preeminent resource, and therefore must be protected at any cost.
            You do not need a village to sustain an individual, therefore why should the individual work for the betterment of the village? Why should the individual not take what he wants when he wants for no other reason than he wants?
            The laws of man, imprisonment, trial and so on, only apply to the individual who is caught, and only when those laws can be enforced. Applying this to a real world concept gives us the United Nations.
            Morals, ethics, codes of conduct come from somewhere outside of the self, all of which even atheists attribute to religions.
            Atheism does not provide any basis for hese concepts, but focusses on the human inability to prove their is a higher power; the bottom line being since it cannot be proven to exist it cannot exist.
            In the end, if a particular set of beleifs causes you to have a positive impact on even one other human being, or on society or culture, isn’t that enough to justify living by that code?
            The original question- what has atheism contributed- can be answered thusly; nothing. Since you cannot prove that there has been a contribution by atheism, or by atheists from their atheism, it must not exist. .
            Furhtermore, as atheism is sometimes thought of as a beleif in nothing, well then that is the obvious contribution. Last, I would propase that atheism has done little to clear the pphilosophical air, but has instead casued a quagmire of schoolyard soap boxxing. If we do not beleive in something we cannot describe, would we bother looking for it? Would Carl Sagan have looked to the stars wondering what was there, or would he have simply accepted it as things he could not explain?

          • There is a category error here. Asking what atheism has contributed to humanity is like asking what has string theory contributed to humanity. It is one area of inquiry with limited scope.

            A more appropriate question might be … what has humanism contributed?

  • Ian Harac

    Well, we may be using differing terms here. I think it’s well established that humans have specific neurological reactions to religious experience. If that’s what you mean by “naturalistic”, then, fine, we agree — it’s just a chemical stew in our brains, one which happened to be useful enough that most of our ancestors were selected for having it, but which doesn’t mean it’s still useful or can’t be replaced. If you mean “there is an actual, external, something that we are responding to”, then, I have to disagree, because a)there’s no evidence for it, and b)it’s so vague as to be meaningless.

    Assuming I had the charisma and lack of ethics, I could go found a religion, convince people to believe in it, and, once their faith was certain, you’d find no difference between their minds as they worshipped whatever it was I told them to, and the minds of a Christian, Buddhist, etc. Which is the more likely explanation:

    a)I somehow connected them to a genuine “higher power”, despite the fact I just made it all up.
    b)Humans create religious experience in their brains, and it has no connection to anything outside of their brains.

    It is not the inability to articulate a higher power that renders it false; it’s the lack of any kind of definition at all. If there were a “higher power” that had specific, defined, traits, then, there would pretty much be only one religion. Any religion which was out of sync with the “higher power” wouldn’t allow humans to connect to it; the followers would get no feedback of religious experience and the faith would die off.

    A person who is drunk enough to see the cliche pink elephants is “genuinely” seeing them, that is, his brain is responding as if they were externally there. However, they’re not, and his subjective experience, no matter how real-seeming (after all, everything we perceive is just our brains reacting, and we can pursue this down the rabbit hole until we get to “we’re all plugged into the Matrix”), isn’t “real” in an objective sense, and neither is the “transcendental” experience. It’s “real” in that it’s a measurable phenomenon — these neurons fire, that part of the brain lights up, etc. It’s not real in that it’s not triggered by any actual “higher power”. We can show the biochemical reactions caused by religious belief; we can show that there are thousands of faiths which trigger these reactions, and which have nothing else in common; we must conclude, therefore, that either the reaction is purely internal, or that the “higher power” is basically some sort of mindless physical phenomenon that we react to, just as we react to gravity or electricity. I can trigger all sorts of reactions by applying electricity to the right parts of your brain; this doesn’t make electricity a “higher power” or give it any utility in solving ethical dilemmas. (Heck, it can’t even tell us when it’s moral to use it to kill someone.)

    Given the two possibilities, internal phenomenon or unidentifiable, mindless, “something”, we should pick the first, until we can demonstrate the existence of the second outside of subjective experience. There really is no third option; there’s nothing to indicate the existence of a higher power which is conscious, which has desires, which holds values, and which can impart information. The sheer diversity of human religious experience is the strongest argument AGAINST there being any singular higher power, and if there’s infinite “higher powers”, then, it’s a useless bit of trivia, because none seem to be “right” and we can create new ones by penning a new “holy book” and finding a few converts to sincerely believe it.

    Given the fact that religious experience is, as we both agree, divorced from any particular religious belief, you basically end up with three possibilities:

    a)All religions are true. This is self-evidently false, as they contradict each other on so many different points.

    b)All religions have some “aspect of universal truth”. This is the typical modern, liberal, trying-to-be-tolerant viewpoint. It falls apart as soon as you try to define precisely what the “universal truth” is, because it takes about 0.05 seconds to find a religion that doesn’t share it, and then we get into No True Scotsman territory. (“Oh, that’s not a real religion,  then!” “But the adherents feel the same experiences as do the adherents of ‘real’ religions.” “Hey, over there! That squirrel looks like Abe Lincoln!”)

    c)All religions are false.

    I pick ‘c’. It’s the answer that best fits the available evidence. Provide new evidence, I’ll change my answer. (This is not “agnosticism”. I’m not saying “No one knows.” If I said, “There is NOTHING which could make me change my mind!”, then, I’d be acting irrationally. Conclusions are based on facts known; if presented with new facts, you have to be willing to examine your conclusions against them. There’s almost nothing I’d class as *impossible*, just very, very, very (x1000) improbable, such that the weight of new facts needed is very high… but not infinite.)

    And if I don’t get back to Java coding, the facts are that my boss will be very, very, unhappy with me. I hope I’ve answered your initial question.

    • Well, I don’t want to get you in trouble with your boss, or interfere with Java coding that for all I know I might need to have work in some program I will use in the future! 🙂

      I do think I should point out that you still seem to be limiting yourself to God as defined in theistic and polytheistic traditions: anthropomorphic deities with emotions, desires, values, etc. And I would also say that I am not clear why “it is just something to do with brain chemistry and nothing more” is the appropriate interpretation of human beings’ intuition about the transcendent, as opposed to “human beings are genuinely intuiting something, but inevitably botch things when they try to articulate their intuition about this aspect of existence that defies their comprehension.” You might be right, but I am not sure that the evidence clearly requires the former rather than the latter.

      Let me let you get back to work, and I think I may feel inspired to blog about this in a separate post to try to explore and ponder some of the important points you brought up in your comments…

  • Ian Harac

    Taking a very quick break, I’d like to posit something simple as a way of narrowing down the problem area.

    You believe there is a “higher power”, whatever that may mean, that exists external to the physical human brain, and that religious experience is a response to that external phenomenon, not a purely internal affair. Is this correct?

    Given that, and leaving aside all issues of deliberate hoax, lying, etc, would you agree that it is possible that some completely sincere claims of religious experience, that is, people who feel they’ve touched the divine, had a revelation, been spoken to by god/the gods/spirits/their ancestors/whatever, are not “genuine”, in the sense of actually coming from this “higher power”, while others are? That is, there are people who genuinely believe that have “visions” or “revelations” that seem to be of a truly religious nature, but, in fact, are not — they do not spring from the “higher power”, whatever it might be.

    What methodology would you use to separate them? Given two people, both reasonably sane-seeming, who sincerely believe they’ve had a religious experience, and being certain (for purposes of this thought experiment) that one of them has NOT, how would you determine which one?

    Even if there is a “higher power”, even if most religions are “fragments of the cosmic all”, it follows there must be at least SOME people who just get it wrong, who have the biochemical reaction of a religious experience without the external power triggering it or responding to it. There must be some truly false religions which are nonetheless sincerely believed — correct? “Belief” is not “truth” — otherwise, President Obama is not an American citizen, the World Trade Center was brought down my micronukes planted by MOSSAD, and man never walked on the moon. No matter how sincerely someone believes something, they can be wrong. We concur on this principle, yes?

    Can you articulate a test which can be used to determine a false religion, or a false, personal, religious experience? Can someone tell you of their vision, their transcendental moment, their experience of the divine, and you tell them, “Well, sorry, pal. I’m sure it felt real, but, in fact, it was not. There is a divine, but you did not touch it.”

    If you cannot, then, I’m sure you’re familiar with the phrase “A difference that makes no difference is no difference.” If there is no way to sort true from false, we are left with:
    a)All religious experiences touch the “higher power”, which renders the “higher power” essentially meaningless, for reasons discussed earlier.

    b)There is no higher power.

    One thing that’s fascinating about long-lived conspiracy worldviews (I hate to use the word ‘theory’, they’re nothing of the sort) is that their unwillingness to falsify any claims except obvious hoaxers leads to increasingly ridiculously complex conspiracies in order to be inclusive — this is because any method used to falsify one person’s claims can be turned around, so the only way to sustain belief is to accept everything and keep wedging it into a framework. Thus, UFO nuts, confronted with multiple species of aliens and types of ships and claims of purpose keep trying to integrate everyone’s beliefs into their increasingly baroque cosmologies and timelines, because there’s no way, again excluding hoaxes, to have reliable tests that say, “This person was kidnapped by aliens; this person had too many pizzas before going to bed.” (You can also get into “heresies” and “fundamentalisms”, which simply exclude all beliefs but a narrow subset, mostly by applying rigorous tests to all BUT that subset… which is pretty much how most religions work, where people can be perfectly clear about the flaws and contradictions in other people’s faiths but never their own.) Obviously, I see a parallel here. (There are many patterns of human behavior which are identical to religion except for the trappings; religion may best be seen as a *subset* of a larger set of human behaviors, rather than as a special-case phenomenon in itself. Whether you study schisms among Baptists or sci-fi fans, you will see exactly the same types of behaviors. This is why I do not think we will “outgrow” religion, per se; the underlying patterns are too much a part of our nature. We can, however, strive to consciously recognize them and fight against them, instead of embracing them.)

    That was not as brief as I’d hoped. Sigh.

    • Lizard Lizard, I’m not as persuaded as you are that the use of metaphors and symbols pointing towards something dimly perceived and vaguely conceptualized is necessarily a bad thing. But it sounds like we’d agree on the importance of weeding out beliefs and views that are demonstrably false?

      • Ian Harac

         Yes, we should weed out those which are demonstrably false… and I go one step further, and say, we should weed out those which are not demonstrably TRUE, as well.

        It is always possible to hammer the facts into a convenient hole, but that just shows human imagination and creativity is powerful, not that one’s learned anything about the world. Let me tell you a story about some transforming robots. It is, in fact, actually relevant.

        When the Constructicons first appeared on the classic “Transformers” cartoon, Megatron stated he built them on Earth within the past few months.

        In a later episode, it was shown that the Constructicons existed on Cybertron, 4 million years ago, as good-aligned robots, but that Megatron (again, 4 million years in the show’s past) reprogrammed them to be evil.

        In an even later episode, it was shown the Constructicons built Megatron in the first place.

        Now, many years back, when I was an active poster to (long before the current revival, when there was only the original cartoon and toys, we’re talking 1994, here), I came up with an explanation: The Constructicons built Megatron when they, like all Cybertronians, were slaves of the Quintessons. After the Quintessons were overthrown by A-3, they existed as peaceful citizen of Cybertron, until Megatron, in his mad quest for power, had them reprogrammed for evil. Since another episode had established that you could fit a Cybertronian personality on a tiny chip and then implant it in an Earth vehicle, I concluded Megatron must have brought the personality-chips of the Constructicons to Earth (no episode says he did, but, no episode says he DIDN’T), and then placed them into Earth vehicles, thus allowing him to say that he “Built” them on Earth.

        This is an “explanation” for the facts. But the real explanation is this: It was a cheaply made cartoon to sell toys to 8 year old boys, and the writers didn’t give a damn about continuity; in those pre-internet days, there was no organized “fandom” for a children’s toy cartoon and no one working on it could imagine that anyone would be taking about it a decade later or even watch the episodes more than once or pay close enough attention to notice any discrepancies.

        The point is, if one is determined to start with the conclusion that the original TV series is, ahem, “inerrant”, then, one can always find *some* way to explain away every contradiction. We see this behavior in all aspects of human life, not just religion; people have an innate tendency to try to fit new facts into a framework, not to re-evaluate their frameworks in light of new facts.

        Believing that the experience of “Transcendence” or “divinity” or what-have-you is the result of brain chemistry, and brain chemistry alone, requires assuming nothing, creating nothing, inferring nothing. There’s plenty of observations showing what parts of the brain are involved. There’s plenty of room for debate as to why we evolved this, if it’s still needed, if it can or should be triggered by artificial means without the pretext of faith, etc, but that’s not the issue under debate.

        Believing that the experience of “transcendence” involves something more than brain chemistry requires you to make up, from nothing, that “something more”, in order to keep your framework intact — just as I made up the “explanation” for the contradictory origin of the Constructicons in order to maintain coherence in a fictional universe. (There is a technical term for fans of a series explaining a creator’s gaffes — “fanwanking”.)

        It may not be a “bad thing” if people want to believe there’s a Giant Cosmic Whatsis out there… but is it a GOOD thing? Is it better than the truth — that there’s no evidence there is, that you don’t NEED a Giant Cosmic Whatsis to explain any facts? (Or, in the case of unexplained facts, making up a Giant Cosmic Whasis to explain them isn’t an explanation at all — it’s just something you made up and which has no real explanatory power.)

        There is no good done by Faith which is not also done by people of Non-Faith. Have you ever heard a soup kitchen worker say, “Boy, I sure wish I was an atheist, so I could stop helping these poor people!” No. It’s not their faith that makes them help people, as many people “of faith” perform no acts of charity at all. They’re just charitable people. Likewise, for all the people who say, “If we don’t have religion, people would run wild!”, have any ever said, “That includes me, of course. The only thing that keeps me from killing and raping is my fear of hell. I’d be a homocidal maniac in a second if you convinced me there was no God.”

        If faith doesn’t make people better (it doesn’t), and non-faith doesn’t make people worse (it doesn’t), then, I cannot see how it’s superior to assume a Higher Power in the absence of any need for one. To use the cliche “invisible dragon” argument, you can’t prove there ISN’T an invisible dragon in my garage, but does that give you any reason to assume there IS? Wouldn’t the wisest course of action always be, “In the absence of proof that something does exist (degree of proof needed based on degree to which the claim contradicts normal experience), assume it doesn’t.”? (There’s a huge number of questions to which I must answer “I don’t know.”, and nearly as many to which all humans must answer “I don’t know.” None of these, however, CAN be answered by saying, “Aha, that proves God did it!” Why can’t we, as individuals and a species, be happy with “Nobody knows, but maybe someday someone will find out, and, until then, we’ll stick with ‘Nobody knows’.”?)

        PS: I agree there’s a lot of atheists who are more focused on the flaws of Christianity in particular than on religion in general. This is a pretty understandable knee-jerk response to the militant religious right in America, but it’s a poor argument against religion, and I hate poor arguments for my side more than I hate good arguments for the other. “Christianity sucks” does not mean “There are no gods”, and, likewise, no amount of examples of good deeds done in the name of the Christian god proves he exists — for if it did, then, good deeds done in the name of Allah proves he exists, and good deeds done in the name of Thor (and I have quite a few pagan friends who’ve done very good deeds for me) prove Thor exists, and so on. The argument AGAINST any particular god is easy — there’s no reason to believe that Yahweh is any more real than Mr. Spock. I can name things people have believed in from now until the sun goes nova, and no one is going to tediously try to prove each and every one doesn’t exist. It’s the default assumption: They don’t exist. Why should we privilege some tiny subset of imaginary beings — or even your vague, inchoate, undefined, “higher power” — over all the others?

        PPS: Isn’t it an astounding coincidence that, no matter what any person’s politics, ethics, morals, etc, whatever god, gods, or higher powers they believe in AGREE with them? I have never once heard someone say, “I believe in God, I believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God, but God is TOTALLY WRONG about homosexuality.” Nope, it doesn’t matter what you believe, God (or the Higher Power) is always on your side. Do you support socialized medicine? Whatever god/higher power/etc you believe in does, too. Do you oppose it? Ditto. (I have heard many people say they bounced from one religion to another until they found a “good fit”. I just have to facepalm at that entire concept. I mean, I’m pretty sure if I ever stumbled onto the One True Truth Of The Universe, it’s not going to be anything I find comfortable, uplifting, or self-confirming; it’s more likely to make me realize I’ve been totally wrong about everything and wasted my life. Of the tens of thousands of faiths in existence, the odds of the “true” one being the one you’re most personally comfortable with are so slim as makes no odds….but this is precisely what most people seem to believe is the case.)

        PPPS: I do go on, don’t I? Sorry. I find it important to qualify, explain, and detail points, instead of just writing bumper-sticker slogans.

  • Ajipon

    1. If the question is what has atheists (as persons) contribute to civilization, then it is rather more obvious in the late 20th century, as a simple labeling of a list of scientists (or any other endeavors or Nobel price winners will tell). It’s more tricky before that because a lot of notable people, due to limited knowledge or societal pressure, do not label themselves as an atheist (even Charles Darwin in the end label himself as agnostic if I get my information correctly). Most of the American founding fathers were Deists – they don’t believe in an intervening God. And perhaps if Newton were to know of Laplace’s work (from his future), he might then discard his Theism.

    You could think of the other way as to how Theism actually retards civilization. Democritus had speculated about matters made of atoms and the lack of necessity of any Deity for more than two thousands of years ago. This line of thinking was continued with Epicurus. However, this idea – which was more or less in line with modern science – got wiped out by Christianity. Or consider the works of Erastothenes that got suppressed (burned?), which deprived generations of people from knowing the shape, size, and nature of the Earth, moon, and the sun, just because it doesn’t square with a portion of the Bible.

    2. Atheism as a set of belief probably contribute in a subtle way as answering questions about nature without divine explanation is the basic of any advances in scientific understanding. Humanism, which based itself not on any divinely revealed text but of basic understanding of human values, is the underlying concept in abolishing slavery, universal suffrage, etc DESPITE religious teachings (Hindu’s caste system, slavery, Abrahamic religions’ treatment of women, etc.) even before the humanist label even got used (or even existed).

    3.Since the question is what contribution was made by atheists to *World Civilization*, then perhaps it’s fair to ask what contribution has [one religion] made in [a region without said religion]’s civilization? For example, what contribution has Christianity made in the Chinese civilization?

    • arcseconds

      Classical atomism and Erastothenes were suppressed? I’ve never heard that before. Do you have references?

      I would have thought that in Western Europe, at least, they’d just have been lost along with virtually everything else with the sharp decline of literacy accompanying the decline and fall of the western roman empire.

      I’m not sure that we should be particularly impressed with the classical atomists, myself. It was pretty much just idle speculation, by our standards, like every other piece of natural philosophy of the time. They happened to get lucky and hit upon a notion that seems vaguely reminiscent of what you get taught in primary school — atoms as we know them today are nothing like the atoms of Democritus.

      (Plato got a lot closer, actually. )

      • And when Christianity in the West after the decline in literacy largely neglected the Greek philosophers, they were preserved in the Islamic world, from which they found their way back to Europe in the Renaissance.

        I wonder how one avoids the penchant for wishful thinking in claiming that great thinkers were really atheists but said otherwise because of social pressures. We see that penchant at work when conservative Christians try to claim Deist founding fathers as Christians. But it seems to be more or less the same thing when those same individuals are claimed as atheists. Why jot simply accept that agnostics are agnostics, Platonists Platonists, Deists Deists, and Epicureans Epicureans, at least most of the time?

    • Slomo

      I beleive that if you did some deeper study into religious history you would find that the Catholic Church as a political institution is the culprit in the the scientific, theological and philosophical developements you mention. You should not confuse Christianity (followers of Chist) with any particular church or sect (Baptist, Catholic, Protestant, Mormon, etc).
      I have noticed that Christianity by way of the attrocities commited by the Catholic Church, is the primary target of the atheist argument.
      If Catholics were Christians, wouldn’t they be called Christians instead of Catholics?
      This may seem to be a matter of semantics, but in reality it is a matter of theology; at therri core, the Catholic Church teaches and practices a specific brand of Christianity- the Saints, praying to the Mother Mary, requiring their clergy to be male and single and so on. None of this comes from the core Christian religous texts, but rather from laws, codes and rules created by the leadership of the Cathiolic Church.

  • ron depalma

    life without purpose, design or reward! thanks for nothing!

  • Matt Begley

    Albert Einstein as well as 93% of the members of The National Academe of Science realized atheism. All of the modern necessities and luxuries we all enjoy are the result of science and technology. The vast majority of these people, and other brilliant minds, have also realized atheism. Most of us owe our existence to intelligent people who happened to be atheist. Intelligence doesn’t accompany atheism, although atheism often accompanies intelligence.

    • Thanks for your comment. Out of curiosity, why do you identify Einstein as an atheist, as opposed to say a pantheist? Or do you mean by atheist someone who rejects theism, as opposed to someone who would reject any use of the term “God” as appropriate?

  • KStacy

    Easy: Communism, China, North Korea, Russia, Marx, Lenin, Stalin (some of the greatest mass murderers in history under atheist governments), the devaluation of human life leading to increased abortion, the increase of depression, just off the top of my head. More people where murdered in the 20th century under atheistic governments (above mentioned) than if you combine every murder done from religious reasons since the dawn of time. That is what atheism gives us, no value, just matter.

    • Saying that atheism gave us communism is like saying that christianity gave us democracy.

      … er … no.

  • Alan

    Atheism especially in its new form is a religion like any other based on faith not scientific proof or fact!