A letter to atheists from a believer

The cover of my latest issue of New Humanist (Sept./Oct.) is emblazoned with a big picture of Anthony Grayling with his resplendent hair: the article is about his New College for the Humanities scheme, which I’m dubious about (see here and here for dissenting views).  But the topic of this post is another piece in the same issue, a three-page letter by Francis Spufford called “Dear atheists. . .” (now free online; reference below). Spufford is an English writer of nonfiction whose books have been widely praised.

In his letter, though, he decries the stridency of modern atheism and claims that it’s almost a religion itself in its zeal and fervor.  He faults atheists for a lack of empathy, a failure to understand that believers, too, have doubts, and for  a dogmatism that overlooks the possibility that we, too, may be wrong.  He notes that, in response to doubts on both sides, “The proper response is humility.” (That word always sets my teeth on edge, for I find the faithful far less humble than the doubters.)

But it behooves us to listen to the criticisms of our opponents, if for no other reason than to sharpen our arguments. I’m not going to change my mind about the absence of God, but I want to understand the faith of someone as smart as Spufford.  Maybe people like him do have some valid points to make about our behavior.

The first is his attitude toward the question, “Are the assertions of religion true?”  That, of course, is one of the defining questions of New Atheists.

Along with many Sophisticated Believers™, Spufford remains ambivalent on the question of the role of evidence in religion.  At first he says it’s largely irrelevant: religion is not about evidence, but about community and feeling, and you believe in God as a result of those feelings. That, of course, was one of the main points of William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience: faith comes largely through personal revelation and experience. Here’s Spufford:

“In any case, over here on the believers’ side too, we don’t spend that much time fixated on the question of God’s existence, either. Religion isn’t a philosophical argument, just as it isn’t a dodgy cosmology, or any other kind of alternative to science. In fact, it isn’t primarily a system of propositions about the world at all. Before it is anything else, it is a structure of feelings, a house built of emotions. You don’t have the emotions because you’ve signed up to the proposition that God exists; you entertain the proposition that God exists because you’ve had the emotions.”

Well, that may seem true for Sophisticated Believers™, but remember that the vast majority of religious people are believers not because they have emotions that have driven them to faith, or because they’ve examined and signed on to the evidence for God: they’re religious because they were brought up to believe.  So you may have the emotions and then later find evidence for God, but preceding all that is the childhood brainwashing.

Nevertheless, Spufford admits that without real evidence for God, religion means nothing.  All the stained glass, flying buttresses, and religious music in the world mean nothing if there’s not really a God or a Jesus:

“. . . And yet, of course, we don’t know, and knowing matters. The ultimate test of faith must still, and always, be its truth; whether we can prove it or not, the reality of the perspectives it brings us, and the changes it puts us through, must depend in the end on it corresponding to an actual state of the universe. Religion without God makes no sense (except possibly to Buddhists). So belief for most Christians who respect truth and logic and science—which is most of us, certainly in this country—must entail a willing entry into uncertainty. It means a decision to sustain the risks and embarrassments of living a conditional, of choosing a maybe or perhaps to live out, among the many maybe or perhapses of this place; where conclusive answers are not available, and we must all do our knowing on some subjects through a glass, darkly.”

So in the end, like many Sophisticated Theologians™ including Polkinghorne, Haught, and Plantinga, Spufford says that religion must rest on a base of truth.  The problem of course, is that what the faithful see as “truth” is not the same as what scientists see as truth, or even what the layperson sees as truth when not thinking about God.  To Spufford, truth is “a willing entry into uncertainty” when we have no answers.  But think about how that comports with scientific or everyday truth. Do we “willingly enter into uncertainty” when we undergo a medical treatment, or do want the evidence that it actually works.  Do scientists willingly enter into string theory when we don’t yet know of a way to test it?  If Christians really respected “truth and logic and science”, then they wouldn’t willingly enter into the uncertainty of Christianity, for there is no good evidence for its tenets.

This is the ambivalence of the science-friendly believer.  They see the disparity between the evidential bases of faith and of science, get nervous, and then write piffle like the paragraph above to justify the fact that they, too, have “evidence.” This is what leads to the follies of accommodationism.  The main thing I want to highlight here is that many smart believers, when pressed, do admit that their faith is based on evidence, and that puts religion into the realm of empirical testability.

But there’s one part I am posting to solicit reader response: the accusation that we atheists revel in certitude, self-righteousness, and delicious anger at religion.  This is in fact the ending of the piece, and Spufford’s main point.

“. . . I think you need to be a bit clearer about what the emotional content of your atheism is. . . It isn’t enough that you yourselves don’t believe : atheism permits a delicious self-righteous anger at those who do. The very existence of religion seems to be an affront, a liberty being taken, a scab you can’t help picking. . . The Belief section of the Guardian’s Comment is Free site—where you’d think that it wouldn’t be that surprising to find discussion of, you know, belief—is inhabited almost entirely by commenters waiting for someone to have the temerity to express a religious sentiment, whereupon they can be sprayed with scorn at fire-extinguisher pressure. It’s as if there is some transgressive little ripple of satisfaction which can only be obtained by uttering the words “sky fairy” or “zombie rabbi” where a real live Christian might hear them. Now this, dear brothers and sisters, cannot be good for you. It is never a good idea to let yourself believe that the pleasures of aggression have virtue behind them. Take it from a religious person. This, we know.”

I was going to post my response to this common accusation (especially to the comment “it is never a good idea to let yourself believe that the pleasures of aggression have virtue behind them”), but I thought that it might be better to let the readers, with their diverse opinions, respond.  Some of you might agree with this, while others disagree. But I’d like to hear how atheists respond to Spufford’s accusation.  Have atheists really become too smug, self-righteous, self-satisfied, aggressive, and dogmatic?

__________________

Spufford, F. 2012. “Dear Atheists. . .” New Humanist 127:34-36.

__________________

UPDATE:  Over at Choice in Dying, Eric MacDonald posted his take on Spufford’s letter, including something that Spufford seems to have neglected:

But still, Spufford manages to avoid the real issue about belief and unbelief, and that has to do, as I said earlier, and will not repeat at length here, with the political and social implications of religious believing.  Looked at from this point of view, the decision to base your life on beliefs which not only can you not prove, but which, on the balance of the evidence, seem unlikely to be true, seems incredibly irresponsible. If religious believing had implications only for the individual believer, then it could be easily dismissed as a harmless idiosyncracy, but since almost all religious beliefs have incredibly serious implications for many people, religious belief cannot be regarded as harmless. Indeed, a glance at the behaviour of religious believers worldwide day by day makes it very clear that religion is something to be feared and justly criticised. “Houses built of emotion” is one thing, but beliefs that can lead to mass beheading for mixed-sex dancing, or the marginalisation and victimisation of gay and lesbian people, and the second-listing of women, is quite another, and it is for the latter that religious belief is justly held to require more justification than Spufford offers. I think I will withold my respect for now.

311 Comments

  1. Mike W
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 5:29 am | Permalink

    If the adherents of religions were as relatively inoffensive as those who frequent woo-fairs full of crystals and energy channelling, then I doubt that atheists would spare so much breath. They could go and emote to their shiny aura-filled heart’s content.

    However when you grow up in a world where religions demand respect and authority from cradle to grave, where they get tax-free indulgences that allow to them to fund political lobbying to deprive me of rights, then I think a little bit of heat and scorn may be just a small tipping of the scales back towards a neutral position.

    • Posted August 29, 2012 at 6:29 am | Permalink

      Yes, this, except that you’re far too generous towards religion by failing to omit the full depth and breadth of the depravity it encourages or enables. Just to pick but two examples from one single religion: the Catholic Church is the leading cause of AIDS deaths (thanks to its anti-condom propaganda), resulting in a racial holocaust of incredible proportions in sub-Saharan Africa; and the Church is continuing unabated its protection of those of its members who’ve been running, for decades if not centuries, an international child rape ring.

      The other part of the equation is that we don’t hesitate to laugh at and ridicule (or at least shun) adults who still literally believe in enchanted gardens with talking animals and angry wizards or talking plants that give magic wand lessons to the reluctant heroes or zombies that liked having their intestines fondled through a gaping chest wound…except when they wrap such nonsense in the week-old newspaper of religion. The undeserved politeness we bestow upon the foolishly religious merely enables and encourages them to persist in all this childish nonsense.

      Most children are able to figure out the truth about Santa on their own, and most of the rest are able to figure it out with some hints and / or a good talking-to from their peers. But for those who don’t get the message, when they get old enough, it’s scorn and ridicule that finally does the trick. If you don’t need to take off your shoes to count your age, you’re waaaaaay too old to still believe in Jesus or Harry Potter or any other imaginary superfriend. It’s high time you grew up, and it’s high time for the rest of the adult world to shame and ridicule those who don’t take the hint into at least shutting up about their imaginary friends.

      And, no. You don’t need to stop reading the books or watching the movies or making your own fanfiction or otherwise enjoying playing make-believe. All you need to do is learn the difference between make-believe and reality.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Ali
        Posted August 30, 2012 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

        Pretty sure this is my favorite reply :)

        • logicophilosophicus
          Posted August 31, 2012 at 12:55 am | Permalink

          But it needs detail. If you Google “availability of condoms in Africa” you’ll find this Catholic statement:

          http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/facts/fm0045.html

          Of course South Africa and Botswana, for example, are not Catholic countries – condoms there are not only via donor organisations but by government purpose. There just aren’t enough: nothing to do with the Catholic church. See e.g.

          http://www.bmj.com/content/323/7305/139

          • logicophilosophicus
            Posted August 31, 2012 at 1:01 am | Permalink

            purpose? PURCHASE. Not woken up properly yet.

    • ManOutOfTime
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 9:06 am | Permalink

      As “Give ‘Em Hell” Harry Truman famously said, “I just tell the truth about them and they think it’s he’ll.”

      My guess is that sober, thoughtful comments like Mike W’s above would fall into the “angry” category per Spufford’s reckoning. I don’t know if it’s a sincere view that his ilk takes or not – if professional believers are making intentionally false straw men or not I can’t tell. I suspect they know better, but to paraphrase another 20th Century smart person, Upton Sinclair, it is difficult to get a person to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.

      I happen to be a Pharyngulite and as is well known, the venom on PZ’s “odious blog” (h/t Sam Harris) is not reserved for believers; atheists can be pretty rotten to one another, too! A fellow commenter once called me a “moron who doesn’t nderstand how to argue from statistics” over a minor difference in interpretation of a single data point in a Pew survey despite our 100% agreement on everything else in the conversation.

      The style of discourse among academic scientists can be pretty frank and brutal to the outsider eye. I suspect a big, big part of the disconnect is cultural and believers don’t get that rough, locker room conversation is not hateful: we are the bones on which we sharpen one another’s teeth. The flip side is that movement atheists see believers and accommodationists as dilettantes and snake oil sellers.

      Until believers and faitheists can dispassionately view atheist culture and integrate it honestly into their analysis, which is to say get over it and stop mischaracterize it, they will continue to demonstrate their disingenuousness and lack of depth.

  2. toniclark
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 5:33 am | Permalink

    Anger, yes. Delicious or self-righteous, no. There are a thousand and one good reasons to be mad about religion. It’s the cause of seemingly endless hatred, brutality, and immorality. Read Greta Christina (Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless). It’s a great read – or listen (The audiobook is excellent!) – straightforward, plainspoken, yet intelligent, precise, nuanced, damn brilliant.

    And what the heck is this “entry into uncertainty” gibberish? Why is there any uncertainty? Is there any evidence for God, anything at all? No. An imaginary being that it makes us feel good to believe in, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever. Spufford pisses me off with his arrogance and chastising.

    • Frank
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 7:58 am | Permalink

      Hitchens said it well (no surprise there) when he was asked why he doesn’t just keep his atheism to himself. He said that the religious won’t allow him to, that he is insulted every day by what he reads, by what they want his children taught in school, by how they want society to make rules just to satisfy their cultish beliefs, etc. Hitchens turned the question on its head and argued that atheists should be given CREDIT for NOT responding in kind to religious based violence, intimidation, arrogance, etc.

      • pulseteresa
        Posted August 29, 2012 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for this reminder of Hitchen’s response. It’s so perfect that I need to remember it.

      • penny gibbins
        Posted August 30, 2012 at 8:08 am | Permalink

        Hitchens was a clever man who was being thoroughly disingenuous with such a reply. He could not have kept his thoughts to himself in one hundred years, nor would he have wanted to, especially as he made his living out of them.

        Such a question would have given him exactly the stage he needed to strut upon – as, of course, he, charmingly and excoriatingly, did.

  3. markkoop
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 5:35 am | Permalink

    “Have atheists really become too smug, self-righteous, self-satisfied, aggressive, and dogmatic?”

    Hard to blanket statement all of us. But there is definitely the potential in many/most to be agressive and dogmatic and smug (the current Atheism+ semantic wars spring immediately to mind, but there are other instances as well).

    And maybe there’s a place for that. It’s just so damn hard some times to figure out when.

    • Posted August 29, 2012 at 6:25 am | Permalink

      Exactly. Some people are just that way inclined, but there are times when it is entirely justified to get worked up about some of the actions of religious organisations.
      Tim Minchin’s Pope Song springs to mind as an example (link – NSFW)

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 6:47 am | Permalink

      To paraphrase the book of Ecclesiastes: “A time for scorn, a time for patience”

  4. Posted August 29, 2012 at 5:36 am | Permalink

    “. . . I think you need to be a bit clearer about what the emotional content of your atheism is…”

    Well Mr Spufford, if the UK didn’t have (1) laws (laws!) requiring (requiring!) schoolkids to worship the Christian god, and (2) taxpayer-funded “faith” schools with preferential access for religious families, coupled with the ability of these schools (but not others) to pick their intake, thus being socially selective and rejecting less-desirable pupils, thus rigging the entire system against non-religious families, and (3) automatic places for CofE bishops in the legislature (yes, amazing isn’t it!), where they can block legislation on anything from assisted suicide to gay marriage, (4) a government presumption that religion is a Good Thing, and thus government funding for all sorts of wacky groups, such as extremist Islamist ones, and (5) charitable exemptions whereby churches get out of paying taxes, and (6) heavy media biases towards religion, for example the main BBC TV channels never promoting atheistic ideas yet having prime-time slots for religious commentators, and much else besides, then you might find there was a lot less “emotional content” to atheistic expression.

    How about we update our laws with an end to establishment of religion, and a basic stance of religious freedom and equality: equality, in that no taxpayer-funded entity may discriminate on the basis of religion, and freedom, in that no taxpayer-funded agency may coerce or favour religious belief?

    How about that Mr Spufford? Or would you prefer the religious establishment to continue blocking all such advances?

  5. Jose
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 5:41 am | Permalink

    We live in very religious societies.
    It’s not that we pursue religious people. It’s that religion is not good for us as society. It’s counter-productive to spend money on it. And yet we spend too much. Religion has imposed a delay of 1500+ years in progress, and still has the habit of judging how people live their lives. And yet we have to discuss about the same topics, almost as if we were Galileo. Religious people have the right to act based on feelings, not reason, and still see reasoning as a threat or agression. They think they’re good persons because of their faith and usually claim loss of faith as the suspicious cause (in the best case) of bad citizenship.

    I personally feel the need to try to expand atheism because religion is slowing us, threatening our rights. Its role in society has always had too much power, and therefore needs to be confronted.

    Not to mention how difficult religion makes (even today) some people’s lives, particularly women.

  6. Stephen Barnard
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 5:44 am | Permalink

    “Have atheists really become too smug, self-righteous, self-satisfied, aggressive, and dogmatic?”

    Some have (there are also varieties of nonreligious experience), but considering the staggering self-righteousness, intolerance, casual cruelty, willfull ignorance, and dishonesty of many theists, it’s hard for me to get worked up about it.

    • morkindie
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 5:59 am | Permalink

      +1

  7. LuminiferousEthan
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 5:45 am | Permalink

    “smug, self-righteous, self-satisfied, aggressive, and dogmatic”

    Maybe, but at least we are doing so with words. And not rocket launchers. And I don’t see a problem with that.

  8. brainyape
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 5:47 am | Permalink

    Ah, good old concern trolling. “Cannot be good for you”. Well, it is not us telling them they’ll burn in hell forever for having wrong beliefs. And if they have silly beliefs that can be subjected to ridicule that is not my problem. What they used in the past to silence criticism was the stake, and now that it doesn’t work any longer they try this.

  9. Christian
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 5:51 am | Permalink

    An other thing that gets my blood boiling is how most sophisticated believers act as if all those unsophisticated believers didn’t exist or were only some insignificant minority.

    That’s not even true here in Europe. Most believers here may be a bit more laid back and apathetic than their brethren in the U.S. but that doesn’t make them sophisticated believers. They have just the same naïve, anthropomorphic view of their deity as the fundies (just not as petty and vindictive).

    So it seems these sophisticated theologians in their ivory towers are completely oblivious of the unsophisticated ways of the common folks or they simply don’t care as long as the unwashed masses just believe in their god, even if for completely ridiculous reasons.

    This might also explain why you see so little Sophisticated Theology™ in churches. It’s just the same old, same old even in the more liberal congregations.

    So, shouldn’t they be more active in promoting their Sophisticated Theology™?
    Or are they aware of the fact that this will just drive away the sheeple into the arms of fundy preachers?

    • eric
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 6:18 am | Permalink

      An other thing that gets my blood boiling is how most sophisticated believers act as if all those unsophisticated believers didn’t exist or were only some insignificant minority.

      Its worse than that; IMO some of the so-called sophisticated believers are just switch hitting. I’m not accusing Spufford of this, but I think there are a lot of believers who will defend a deistic god only in debate and argument with nonbelievers. In their normal lives, ‘among friends,’ the sophistication disappears and they have absolutely no problem declaring belief in a very detailed, theistic, miracle-working God.

      • eric
        Posted August 29, 2012 at 6:19 am | Permalink

        Arg, blockquote fail. The first paragraph in my post above is a quote from Christian’s original #8 post.

      • darrelle
        Posted August 29, 2012 at 6:58 am | Permalink

        No doubt about it. Actually seems to be quite common.

      • Christian
        Posted August 29, 2012 at 6:59 am | Permalink

        In their normal lives, ‘among friends,’ the sophistication disappears and they have absolutely no problem declaring belief in a very detailed, theistic, miracle-working God.

        Yes, that’s the other thing that makes me see red.
        Sean Carroll made this observation some six years ago in an excellent blog post “The God Conundrum”.

        So it seems it’s not just the common folks that fall prey to the “Tragedy of the Theologian” but many theologians (even sophisticated ones) as well.

  10. Posted August 29, 2012 at 5:53 am | Permalink

    Sorry, Mr. Spufford, but until you and your ilk show one iota of evidence for your particular gods, your claims of equivalency are simply false. I do not need to be “humble” in the face of primitive baseless claims of some god finding certain people its special snowflakes. I can happily and strongly declare that religion is nonsense, no more worth respect than the believe in the tooth fairy.

    • toniclark
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 7:01 am | Permalink

      Exactly. Well said.

  11. Posted August 29, 2012 at 5:57 am | Permalink

    Yes, of course atheists’ commenting on CIF is *much* worse, and more letter-worthy, than the liberties taken around the world now, and for centuries, by believers.

    Does Spufford issue letters to those who hotly comment on political or other non-religious matters in the Guardian, telling them ‘this, dear brothers and sisters, cannot be good for you. It is never a good idea to let yourself believe that the pleasures of aggression have virtue behind them.’ I doubt it, and we know why, I think.

    In any case, over here on the believers’ side too, we don’t spend that much time fixated on the question of God’s existence, either. Religion isn’t a philosophical argument, just as it isn’t a dodgy cosmology, or any other kind of alternative to science. In fact, it isn’t primarily a system of propositions about the world at all. Before it is anything else, it is a structure of feelings, a house built of emotions.

    What gives Spufford the right to claim this about religion on behalf of believers? I see many believers fixating on the question of God’s existence, since their world view would be baseless if there were no deity. Remember when Julian Baggini discovered that most believers believe that God exists and in their church’s doctrines (possibly against his expectations)? This surely makes it primarily a system of propositions for them:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/dec/09/myth-religion-practice-belief

    Have atheists really become too smug, self-righteous, self-satisfied, aggressive, and dogmatic?

    No, not atheists as a group. Some people who are atheists have, no doubt; they always have, so I expect they always will.

    • Chris
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 6:08 am | Permalink

      Someone said something about splinters and planks. Can’t think who it was!

    • FastLane
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 9:39 am | Permalink

      Spufford needs to go explore some creationist forums, and tell them all that the evidence doesn’t matter, and religion isn’t an alternative to science.

      I suspect, he might get two posts made before being banned…..

      And before he comes back with ‘they’re just a small minority’, last I checked, creationists were around 50% of the US population.

  12. Posted August 29, 2012 at 6:01 am | Permalink

    Oops. I’m totally one of the Guardian commentators who says Sky-Fairy, which I feel entitled to do since I’m a real life fairy.

    The problem, as I see it, is that religionists have always known that religion can’t stand on its own two feet. That’s why, for centuries,they bastardized language, tried to co-opt science and still rely on faulty logic.
    Monotheists have created a distorted reality and that’s a real problem.
    Just consider their use of the word “truth”, it’s certainly nothing to do with truth as we know it. Catholic Natural Law? Nothing to do with nature or law.

    I also take issue with his sensitivity. Non-conformists are constantly attacked by the religious. As a gay man I regularly see expression much more offensive than sky-fairy linked to my identity by religious people. I don’t see how they can wrongly associate pedophilia and homosexuality and then claim sky-fairy is offensive.

    • darrelle
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 7:10 am | Permalink

      I think “It’s as if there is some transgressive little ripple of satisfaction which can only be obtained by . . .” might go double for “. . . insulting religious believers by being gay,” as opposed to merely “. . . uttering the words “sky fairy”.

  13. Cornelius
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 6:02 am | Permalink

    What is Spuffords emotional response to the evidence for evolution, geology, cosmology, medicine etc. Is it stronger than his emotional response to God? Should we be less assertive, or less energetic in our communication about this evidence?

  14. eric
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 6:09 am | Permalink

    I’m fine with the sentiment he expresses at the very end. Sure, lurking in newspaper e-fora just to pounce and insult someone who disagrees with you is obnoxious. If your content is pure insult without any intellectual response, I have a hard time seeing how its not just trolling from the other side.

    Having said that, however, I’d point out that we’ve had thousands of years of religious oppression, zero of atheist oppresssion. We have many hundreds of religious TV shows, radio broadcasts, and web sites, going back to the very start of TV and radio. Contrast that with about 10 years of active atheist net presence (podcasts, websites, and posts). If someone knocks on your door looking to proselytize their beliefs, I bet Spufford would assume they are some form of theist, not atheist. Why? Because many theistic sects do that; atheists don’t.

    So to me this is very much a pot-kettle issue. Yes Mr. Spufford, it is upsetting to me when nonbelievers copy some of the more obnoxious behaviors that believers have been doing for millenia. What of it?

    • Christian
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 6:38 am | Permalink

      And we still have clergy dissing and badmouthing atheists/unbelievers/infidels every Sunday, Saturday or Friday and making us responsible for every evil in the world.

      But of course, no one would call that aggressive because that’s what people usually expect of them and what we all have gotten way too used to.

  15. steve oberski
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 6:09 am | Permalink

    Dear Mr. Spufford,

    Cast your mind back as recently as 1834 which is when the Inquisition in Spain was abolished and imagine an atheist attempting to write a similar letter to believers.

  16. Rob
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 6:11 am | Permalink

    Yes, atheists have gotten “too” aggressive.

    Of course, in the believers eyes, just stating we exist is aggressive. IMHO, until religion’s influence over government is gone we’re not aggressive enough. Staying quiet hasn’t worked for millennia, so assuming it’s going to work now is foolish.

  17. Marjorie Spencer
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 6:14 am | Permalink

    Good post. I was struck by the very sentence you’ve singled out because my own experience tells me that when I’m enjoying my aggression I’m stepping over a personal line that offends my own moral code. That of course is without respect to religion, or a religious basis for ethics, in my case, which is why I regard the argument as a psychologically worthy one.

    I do believe that some highly intelligent people have undergone the emotional conversion Spufford describes and thereafter are unable to shake the conviction (sic). They themselves may not think that the sense of knowing it produces in them is rational, but they nonetheless _feel_ that they know something. IMHO this is purely phenomenological, just as our sense that our identity resides in our brain – no less material or electric than any other body parts – is unshakeable. So I guess I’m saying that this sensation is part of the human condition for some thinking people, and not for others. Many of the most active and concerned atheists are those others, who should on occasion consider that believers have had an experience to which they themselves are immune. This experience may be involuntary.

    What I like best about this post is the clear statement that the experience is rare indeed, and most believers, rather than actually believing, are simply conditioned to call themselves religious. Those are both the ones I wish I could save, and the ones I fear.

  18. logicophilosophicus
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 6:24 am | Permalink

    @coelsblog

    Let’s not get carried away. The Bishops in the House of Lords have no right of veto. They are outnumbered about 30 to 1 by the Peers (and over 3 to 1 by the hereditary peers). They tend to vote soft left on a lot of issues, with some exceptions, being generally “Pro-Life” as you would expect. Also note that the Bishops are against gay marriage but not against civil partnerships with fully equivalent rights. Sure, they are an anachronism, but they represent the views of a lot of people. The Lords will be reformed sooner rather than later, and they’ll disappear.

    What they are not is a sufficient reason for the anger and abuse that Spufford correctly identifies.

    (BTW I don’t perceive the BBC as you do – they don’t “promote” anything in theory, but they are appalling PC and generally leftist apart from the occasional – and, these days, badly done – state ceremonial etc.)

    • Rob
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 6:36 am | Permalink

      Fully equivalent rights?
      “Seperate but equal” you mean?

      • logicophilosophicus
        Posted August 29, 2012 at 7:29 am | Permalink

        I mean they see marriage as religious ceremony defined long ago. They don’t think gay people shouldn’t make the same commitments, have the same property rights (and custody rights) etc.

        • Rob
          Posted August 29, 2012 at 7:39 am | Permalink

          But it can’t be the same. Once a couple leaves the country, how is it recognized?

          • logicophilosophicus
            Posted August 29, 2012 at 8:14 am | Permalink

            As any other binding contract.

            • Rob
              Posted August 29, 2012 at 8:45 am | Permalink

              Yeah, right.

              They visit the US. One ends up in the hospital. Civil union does not grant visitation rights the way marriage does.

              • logicophilosophicus
                Posted August 29, 2012 at 11:57 am | Permalink

                If the Church of England has to base its attitudes to marriage on the dubious premise that a gay partner needs that C of E Marriage certificate to make a hospital visit in America (???) then, in that universe, I suppose you have a point.

              • Rob
                Posted August 29, 2012 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

                They don’t need the CoE one, they need the UK one.

                Can you get a UK *marriage* certificate, rather than a UK *civil union* certificate? Cause every other place gives different rights to the different names. You’re the one in a different world.

              • Mike W
                Posted August 30, 2012 at 12:58 am | Permalink

                Even if married in the UK, the US (like Australia and others) would not recognise the marriage because it’s same sex. Once on foreign soil, the marriage doesn’t exist.

                What US politicians always (intentionally sometimes I’m sure) overlook in defending states’ rights for marriage is that there are massive federal implications of marriage in terms of immigration issues, federal tax and benefits for federal employees.

              • logicophilosophicus
                Posted August 30, 2012 at 10:27 am | Permalink

                The “other planet” remark was meant to express my extreme surprise that only spouses have hospital visiting rights in the US; and that such an odd situation on foreign soil should regarded as overriding lawmaking in a sovereign state. No doubt being found in possession of a “civil union certificate” anywhere from Damascus to Islamabad might be more disadvantageous than in America. Should they not, then, be allowed at all?

    • Posted August 29, 2012 at 7:05 am | Permalink

      The Bishops in the House of Lords have no right of veto.

      Correct, but they form a voting block that makes it much harder to get some legislation through. Their cushy dinner parties with government ministers don’t help either.

      Also note that the Bishops are against gay marriage but not against civil partnerships with fully equivalent rights.

      Isn’t it true that more of them voted against the civil-partnership bill than for it, yet they now claim they are in favour of it, presumably as a tactic “civil partnership is all you need” stance?

      The Lords will be reformed sooner rather than later, and they’ll disappear.

      Nick Clegg’s recent proposed reforms retained the bishops.

      What they are not is a sufficient reason for the anger and abuse that Spufford correctly identifies.

      Perhaps not in themselves, but as one item among many. The spending of tens of billions of taxpayers money on schools in a way rigged in favour of the religious is a bigger issue.

      In the recent equality act, schools were given special exemption and allowed to discriminate over religious belief. That is wrong and should be stopped, both in principle and because the system gives the religious preferential access to the better schools.

      I don’t perceive the BBC as you do – they don’t “promote” anything in theory,

      They promote religion in “Thought for the day”, “Songs of Priase” and many others. Indeed they have a whole “Religion and Ethics” department aimed at promoting religion.

      Have a read for example of this and see whether it seems to you neutral about religion.

      • Posted August 29, 2012 at 7:07 am | Permalink

        Oops, messed up an end-blockquote there; oh for a preview function!

        • Stonyground
          Posted August 29, 2012 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

          We have Bishops in the UK* who are so phenominally stupid that they think that failing to persecute gays has a detremental effect on the weather. Are these really the kind of people that we want in positions of authority, affecting our laws?

          *The former Bishop of Carlisle.

          • logicophilosophicus
            Posted August 30, 2012 at 10:46 am | Permalink

            In a long address Dow suggested that floods and other natural disasters were God’s judgment on a greedy, permissive and environmentally exploitative society. He was much criticised in the Church of England for this view, though other senior figures tried to damp down the fuss. His views on sexual orientation are indeed a part – but a tiny part – of that argument. I think it’s nonsense, too, but it is consistent with the views of C of E churchmen and members on the erosion of marriage.

            Anyway, not just “the weather”. Dow was claiming Biblical Proportions – a miracle.

      • logicophilosophicus
        Posted August 29, 2012 at 8:13 am | Permalink

        A voting block? There are 26 bishops. 23 of them in this paliament have voted the same way as the Archbishop of Canterbury (their leader) less than three quarters of the time. On the issue you mention – civil partnerships – I think it was the Bishop of Winchester who spoke against, giving the reason (and he appears to have been correct) that it would be seen as an enabling step on the road to gay marriage in the Church of England: but not all the Bishops voted against. After the usual discussions and accommodations, the majority – but not all – voted for, I think (this is all second-hand stuff of little interest to me). Not a block, then.

        I thought Clegg’s proposals were for a fully elected Lords, or a partial change (if the wholesale revision could not gain sufficient Commons support) keeping some of the appointed Members – in that latter case some (less than half?) of the Bishops would remain. Personally I think an elected Upper House is a bad idea – that’s not because I want to hang on to the Bishops!

        The BBC has always given airtime to atheists. When I was a youngster I watched Russell and Bronowski. Now I watch Hawking, Dawkins and of course David Attenborough, who’s never been off the air since TV was monochromatic, and has been Director of Programming for BBCTV. We’re talking Prime Time TV. Religious programming is not Prime Time.

        Your “read this” item merely advertises some easter programmes to those who are interested. If you think it’s ramming Christianity down people’s throats, read it again: notice that the Head of Religion and Ethics for the BBC is Aaqil Ahmed – he’s in the header and footer. The Beeb is crazy about multiculturalism.

    • Posted August 29, 2012 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

      The fact that there are bishops in the House of Lords is bad enough in itself!

      (Hereditary peers are the next problem, but whatever their ancient privilege, they are at least secular.)

      /@

      • logicophilosophicus
        Posted August 30, 2012 at 10:35 am | Permalink

        Bad enough for what? My point was this:

        “Sure, they are an anachronism… What they are not is a sufficient reason for the anger and abuse that Spufford correctly identifies.”

        Bishops in the House of Lords are probably a defect in the British Constitution which is pretty much of an irrelevance to actual legislation – not a justification for anger and abuse at religion/Christians.

        • Posted August 30, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

          I was replying only to a point in your first para., viz. that it doesn’t matter that they don’t have a right of veto, it’s bad enough that they’re there with any influence on public policy. So, really in accord with your sentiments later in that para., I think.

          /@

          • logicophilosophicus
            Posted August 30, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

            Well, I was deliberately cagy. Without going too far off topic, I think that history shows the House of Lords to have been a good thing over the last century, basically because they are (ideally) the Great and the Good, independent of electoral pressure, and they represent groups of people with important interests – scientists, sportsmen, religions, owners of our heritage (castles etc), philanthropists, jurists, people from the arts and the media… It’s a typically eccentric British institution, but effective, born out of evolution not revolution (well – the revolution was a compromise 800 years ago), and obviously in need of modification to ensure a rational balance, to retire the senile and expel the criminal… But, basically, better than an elected senate which would just be more of the same.

  19. Greg Esres
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 6:26 am | Permalink

    “sprayed with scorn at fire-extinguisher pressure.”

    And I hope to see a lot more of that. Not because it’s right, but because it’s useful. We all learn to become more well-adjusted human beings by having people get pissed off at us, whereby we learn what’s acceptable and what isn’t. Much the same as when driving a car; people honk at us when we do something stupid and we promise ourselves not to do THAT again. Believers need to be honked at to teach them how to play nicely with others.

    So, yeah, there needs to be a bit of anger in order to stir atheists out of the apathy that historically surrounds their non-belief.

  20. Posted August 29, 2012 at 6:27 am | Permalink

    Spufford needs to pray to the spirits of the suffragettes and let them know that they should not have been so aggressive, and that they should not have enjoyed their aggression, because besides his ability to strut blind confidence, better known as faith, he can read minds.

    Though fundies can be horrendous, I appreciate their honesty and clarity way more than the psychological manipulative stuff, compulsion to guide others, and obvious ‘wisdom’ at which Spufford excels.

    I certainly encounter atheists who are into converting others and who will relentlessly go at theists. I don’t tell them to stop. I just don’t hang out with them. If they start a conversation focusing on how unhappy they are with their behaviour, then I will give them my feedback.

    Christian loves to act as if they can solve problems but the problem is that the problem is in their own minds. I got to wonder how their own self control is as they seem to be very upset and unable to exercise comfortably the full emotional palette of humanity.

  21. ReasJack
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 6:28 am | Permalink

    First of all, the emotional content of my atheism is as variable over time as the emotional content of my marriage, and I daresay the emotional content the average believers theism. The means that emotional content of atheism is also variable across atheists. Its unreasonable to expect anything else. When something that seems to make no sense is pressed, it triggers an emotional response, not just a cognitive one. One is bothered, aroused, even angered. The cool kids call it “giving a fuck”.

    As for the aggression, I’ll say what I always say to criticisms of this type. The post-Judaic derivative faiths are designed to be hegemonic. From the Great Commission, to the Koranic insistence that the world be made Muslim, to the Mormon practice of baptising other kinds of believers into their own faith post-mortem, we see that nothing is spared from the hegemony, not even the cities of the dead. These confessions are aggressive invasive species, an intellectual Kudzu. They are less about their right to exist, as their right to spread. We have the historical evidence of the consequences of leaving such things to control themselves in both the botanical and social sphere. Perhaps Spufford, as a Sophisticated Believer(TM) represents a new, non-invasive, non-hegemonic species of belief, one which can be left to its own devices. Even if that is the case, he’ll have to grant some forbearance to those of us unready to take his word for it. Especially those of us with the blisters from trying to pull his invasive cousins off of textbook committees. We’ve heard that claim before.

    Finally, I’m not sure what to say regarding his discovery of lurking thugs in an internet comment section at The Guardian. I am quite certain they are there as described, but this is akin to discovering sand and water at the beach. I don’t know what it tells us about atheism.

    • Christian
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 7:05 am | Permalink

      These confessions are aggressive invasive species, an intellectual Kudzu.

      +1

      I’m so gonna steal that ;)

    • darrelle
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 7:21 am | Permalink

      Like. Good post.

    • Greg Esres
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 8:10 am | Permalink

      Excellent.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

      If there are to be antibodies for this type of Kudzu, I think you would provide a good prototype.

  22. Michael Fisher
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 6:30 am | Permalink

    You will feel your life bleed away as you watch this YouTube video where he pushes his NEW BOOK on the Faber&Faber channel ~ he talks complete bollocks for 9mins & 33 seconds:- Francis Spufford introduces Unapologetic

    Francis Spufford’s new book, Unapologetic, is much more personal and polemical than anything he has written before. The subtitle makes plain his purpose: ‘Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense’.

    Rejecting arguments about the existence or non-existence of God as an ultimately futile pursuit, he instead offers an impassioned account of what Christianity means to him as a lived experience, and one which meshes very well with the true character of human nature, an attribute which, he contends, the new atheists take little account of.

    It is, he says, ‘a report from inside my head, because some of this stuff has been boiling on my tongue for a while — I’ve been wanting to get it said, with a mixture of frustration and passion’.

    After listening I conclude that he’s a ‘Christian’ who doesn’t think there’s life after death & there’s no god. I didn’t have the patience to listen twice to check because the man is boring, he doesn’t deal in facts or ‘truths’ & he talks sideways ~ addressing his subject areas in such vague terms there’s nothing to pick apart. The latter is central to the theologian’s tool kit & it fits him like a glove.

  23. Posted August 29, 2012 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    Is that “respendent” supposed to be “resplendent”?

  24. Curt Cameron
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 6:36 am | Permalink

    Do scientists willingly enter into string theory when we don’t yet know of a way to test it?

    Uh, yeah, they do. Not sure what your point was here.

    Have atheists really become too smug, self-righteous, self-satisfied, aggressive, and dogmatic?

    There’s a little bit of bait-and-switch going on here. You’d think from the rest of his article that he’s probably addressing the more prominent outspoken atheists, but he’s really talking about the comments that get posted to the Guardian’s site. Sure, I have no doubt that many of them are too smug and aggressive. The Internet seems to be teeming with that kind of behavior, but of course it’s on both sides. Most of the nastiest comments I have seen were from believers, but there’s plenty of blame to go around.

    That doesn’t really have anything to do with the real world, though.

    • Rob
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 6:39 am | Permalink

      Whoever named string theory needs to get some sense slapped into them. We have enough trouble with “just a theory” on evolution and they had to go call something a theory that isn’t?

      • Kevin
        Posted August 29, 2012 at 8:07 am | Permalink

        Physicists do that a lot. They name their models and hypotheses as “theories”, when they’re nothing of the sort.

    • logicophilosophicus
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 8:39 am | Permalink

      The point about string theory is that it is famously “Not Even Wrong”, because it makes no testable predictions

      http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/

      That could seem, to a theist, to be a pure act of faith.

      • Rob
        Posted August 29, 2012 at 8:47 am | Permalink

        Isn’t it not testable yet rather than not testable?

        I thought we were starting to get to the resolution to be able to think about looking for some of the effects.

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted August 29, 2012 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

          Indeed. Timing of photons, and if supersymmetry becomes evidenced in LHC also polarization, from GRBs, reach down to the Planck scale, and in some cases with the requisite 3 sigma to test theories.

          Interestingly they show that “quantum foam/loop” theories should be rejected, spacetime is smooth below Planck scale. On the other hand string theory tells of smooth world surfaces swept by strings (and branes), so naively you would think they can accommodate this.

      • Posted August 29, 2012 at 9:01 am | Permalink

        That could seem, to a theist, to be a pure act of faith.

        Except that physicists know that string theory is provisional and untested and thus don’t “believe” in it.

        There is nothing wrong with exploring ideas and trying to work out ways of testing them, so long as you bear in mind what is and isn’t supported by evidence.

        • logicophilosophicus
          Posted August 29, 2012 at 11:21 am | Permalink

          I suppose that’s a bit like saying theologians have “sophisticated” and evolving/flexible views about spirituality; unsophisticated followers assume there’s a known body of truth. In this conversation, I take Rob’s comment on string “theory” to imply that he is an unsophisticated follower of modern physics, who seems to think that superstrings are more than theoretical(?)

          I read Peter Woit’s book – actually I finished re-reading it a couple of weeks ago, and I think he’s right: the commitment to Suerstring Theory has thoroughly stifled research into alternatives, despite thirty years of zero progress. I’d call that “belief”.

          • J.J. Emerson
            Posted August 29, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

            I suppose that’s a bit like saying theologians have “sophisticated” and evolving/flexible views about spirituality; unsophisticated followers assume there’s a known body of truth.

            I disagree. Theologians don’t routinely propose models for testing against evidence. On the other hand, physicists are aware that the right kind of data could in principle contribute evidence in favor of or against any model or theory. That proposing feasible tests of string theories is often viewed as virtually impossible is a common reason why many physicists have opted not to accept string theory. Such analogs are vanishingly rare for theists of any stripe, sophisticated or otherwise.

            • logicophilosophicus
              Posted August 30, 2012 at 10:07 am | Permalink

              “That proposing feasible tests of string theories is often viewed as virtually impossible is a common reason why many physicists have opted not to accept string theory.”

              Peter Woit would disagree. He states that no particle physics postgrad would be likely to find funding for research in alternative fields (e.g. LQG) in the USA, which is the trendsetter for the planet. He points out that virtually all funding in the field goes to String (and Brane) theorists (including innumerable funded conferences in farflung and exotic locations) despite a third of a century wihout any empirical result or any prospect of such.

              His own book was accepted by Cambridge (Mass., not UK) for publication; but one referee was a String Theorist and gave a vicious review containing only one substantive criticism – based on a misinterpretation-cum-misquotation. Woit quickly answered this, but Cambridge said they were not happy to proceed if their elite textbook customers/writers were so hostile – the book had to go to a non-specialist publisher: reminiscent of the Velikovsky-Doubleday affair. (Velikovsky, of course, was somewhat of a crank; Woit is a reputable scientist.)

              Woit has even been compared to Creationists for what was seen as an attack on scientific orthodoxy.

              So, no, physicists are not reasonable in the sense you suggest. They should be, of course.

              • J.J. Emerson
                Posted August 31, 2012 at 11:24 am | Permalink

                So, no, physicists are not reasonable in the sense you suggest. They should be, of course.

                You haven’t established this. Simply asserting it doesn’t make it so. Indeed, quite a lot of physics and physicists haven’t adopted string theory. And among those who have, the ones I’ve read about are properly circumspect about the shortcomings of string theory (I don’t deny there might be some dogmatists for any topic in any human endeavor, but this is irrelevant unless dogma is a driving force — it is not in physics).

                Another point: the “string theory is like religion” analogy goes only so far. Insofar as they may both escape testing, the analogy may way work to a point. On the other hand, string theory was developed in such a way as to not only comport with the observed world as theorists knew it when they proposed various iterations of the theory, but also to generate new predictions. Theology does not do this. Theology of the “sophisticated” variety is an ad hoc, post hoc, tendentious construct that takes its premises from human superstition (or, to be kinder, human emotion) rather than skeptical interpretation observations of the natural world.

              • logicophilosophicus
                Posted August 31, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

                I don’t think you can say I “simply assert” unreasonableness on the part of a number of physicists. I cited Peter Woit, simply because he is the source of the “Not Even Wrong” tag wrt SUSY etc; I could equally have cited Lee Smolin. You may deny that evidence if you wish. I don’t think it would affect my points

                a) that there are reasonable grounds in published material for suggesting that commitment to superstring theory is an act of faith unsubstantiated by experimental results

                b) that a high proportion of particle physicists in the US appear – again according to published material – to be unreasonably defensive and dogmatic about this theory – another example: Polchinski slated Smolin’s book (“The Trouble with Physics”), but his mindset is highly dogmatic (Woit quotes him as saying “there are no alternatives” to string theory).

                Do I know Woit and Smolin are not delusional/dishonest? Of course not. Do I think their work allows nonphysicists (Spufford in this case) reasonably to draw a general conclusion of faith-based dogma (among at least some physicists)? I think so.

              • J.J. Emerson
                Posted September 4, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

                Again, you cannot make your original assertion stick:

                I suppose that’s [string theory in physics] a bit like saying theologians have “sophisticated” and evolving/flexible views about spirituality; unsophisticated followers assume there’s a known body of truth.

                First of all, string theory was proposed as a framework to explain existing observations. Sophisticated theology is proposed as a supporting framework to prop up something that has no factual basis. Its only intersection with facts is to rationalize as many disconfirming facts as possible given certain doctrinal constraints. String theory has no inherent doctrinal constraints. So, all of the examples of physicists disagreeing is in no way supportive of your thesis that it is like religion. The worst offense a string theorist can be accused of is defending an over-determined physical model with unjustified vigor. But underlying that offense is a physical model which, by its very nature, is predicated on observable reality. Sophisticated theology does not operate in this way.

                Secondly, as I mentioned earlier, the analogy breaks down relatively early. Unique predictions from string theory may be impossible to test, sure. But string theory also conforms very closely (quantitatively so) to observable reality. No religion can make this claim. And somewhat redundant with my first point above, string theory is motivated by a desire to explain observation rather than a desire to rationalize away contradictions with observation, as is the case with the class of theology we have been discussing.

                I stand by my original contention. Your facile comparison between theology and string theory (and by extension physics and science more generally) is flawed in important ways that render the analogy useless for the purpose you intend.

              • logicophilosophicus
                Posted September 5, 2012 at 1:44 am | Permalink

                Superstring Theory is not, as you assert, constructed to explain existing observations. It was devised to extend the existing explanatory theory in a way which – it is generally agreed – has made no testable predictions (I’m not party to that agreement, I merely quote physicists). This theory has a different status from – say – Newton’s laws, which predict the measurable results of any possible mechanical experiment (ignoring relativistic effects). To say that I express doubt on the whole of science by mentioning these issues is ridiculous. Me and Major Major can beat the hell out of any man in this outfit…

                As I (vaguely) understand it, between the Standard Model and Superstring Theory there is another layer, Supersymmetry, which predicts a whole range of Supersymmetric particles, none of which has been found. Beyond strings we “have” branes. Theory is piled upon theory, and it certainly could be correct, but the proof is out of sight; yet the particle physics community, especially in the USA, is jealously committed to strings. That mindset exists and is the unreasonable part. Its extent is irrelevant to me.

                I don’t make any “facile analogy” – I merely pointed out that in terms of somewhat dogmatic adherence to an undetected explanatory mechanism I could accept that the theologian had scored a minor point. I could see where he was coming from. My wording makes it perfectly clear that certain attitudes to string theory are “a bit like” religious belief, or reasonably “could seem” so to a religious person.

                As I understand it, religious people do not deny any observable fact. Their explanations don’t satify you or me, but to say “no religion… conforms to observable reality” is plain wrong. They all do, but they add an invisible explanatory layer. That sounds familiar…

              • J.J. Emerson
                Posted September 5, 2012 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

                Superstring Theory is not, as you assert, constructed to explain existing observations.

                It is and it does. This is not to imply that it doesn’t also have loftier (and unobtainable) goals. But before proceeding, name the observations that disagree with superstring theory. It seems to me that you’d have to come up with some before continuing in this vein. Otherwise, you’re merely criticizing the theory for being over-determined and untestable. These are criticisms I am very susceptible to. Yet, for your analogy to have an ounce of validity, superstring theory would also have to share salient parallels with “sophisticated theology” like attempting to resolve contradictions with reality by moving them beyond testability. As far as I understand (and am now re-paraphrasing for the third time now), string theory is not a response to criticism of an untenable precursor. Moreover, as I’ve said numerous times now, string theory in fact DOES recapitulate the physical features of the standard model. Moreover, the model is proposed precisely to do just that. Moreover, it was designed in part to unify gravity with the other forces. Indeed, the motivation of string theory is entirely tied explaining phenomena observed in the natural world. That meaningful tests of string theory are difficult (or in some contexts virtually impossible) to conceive is an important mark against the theory. But it is still in a different universe than the execrable practice of sophisticated theology, which is composed of little more than rationalization, god of the gaps thinking, question begging, and wishful thinking.

                Backing up to a previous comment to underline where you go wrong:

                commitment to superstring theory is an act of faith unsubstantiated by experimental results

                The same could be said of any human belief, no matter how rigorous its foundation. Every. Single. One. This is a trivial component of human psychology. Again, what you fail to acknowledge is that beliefs grounded in even the most speculative of sciences (even when they are wrong) are categorically different than theological commitments. The former are grounded in observation whereas the latter are not.

                That mindset exists and is the unreasonable part. Its extent is irrelevant to me.

                There have always been unjustifiable redoubts of skepticism in favor of the previous paradigm whenever new scientific results arise. Even if it is only a handful of aged scientists (or even laymen! — you don’t care abou the extent, remember). In this case, that such people exist taints the entire endeavor with “dogma” and “faith”, ergo all of science is guilty of the same sins as sophisticated theology. Yet, in the same breath you say:

                This theory has a different status from – say – Newton’s laws, which predict the measurable results of any possible mechanical experiment (ignoring relativistic effects).

                This is wrong on so many levels. First, for whatever reason, you are making a special plea for classical mechanics. Any observer of scientific history can find nascent objections to relativity or quantum mechanics (by no less a personage than Einstein, no less), etc. ad nauseum. Next, string theory does predict the physical world we have so far been able to observe. Very precisely. Finally, no you can’t ignore relativistic effects, as that’s a very concrete failure of classical mechanics. And it is a failure of a magnitude not present in string theory, despite its other significant failings (which I freely grant).

                but to say “no religion… conforms to observable reality” is plain wrong.

                religious people do not deny any observable fact.

                Virgin births, transubstantiation, resurrection, regional floods, global floods, halting the revolution of the earth, souls, efficacy of prayer, unrecorded censuses, unrecorded executions, unrecorded mass-slavery in Egypt, the list goes on. This is merely a very short list of the persistent wrong propositions in Christianity alone. Once you strip out everything in this category across all religions (calling them metaphors perhaps), you end up with a religion that is practiced by nobody I’ve ever met. They may in fact exist (perhaps John Shelby Spong is one), but the point is that religions most definitely do not conform to reality. They routinely attempt to define it as a matter of course, and in the process contradict reality. Of course religions don’t always seek to contradict reality. But religious methodology is very different than scientific methodology. Scientific methodology starts with observations and applies skepticism and consensus. Religion starts with wishful propositions (be they moral, social, political, etc) and proceeds from there.

                I’m being long-winded. In a nutshell: science and religion (even sophisticated theology) have opposed methodologies. Religious methodology embraces faith and is usually indifferent (NOMA anyone?) or hostile (Ken Ham) towards evidence and eschews skepticism of its own propositions. Science grudgingly accepts faith only when forced to (the problem of induction), embraces skepticism, absolutely requires evidence, and welcomes skepticism of its propositions.

              • logicophilosophicus
                Posted September 5, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

                Yes, you were long-winded, and yet yo managed to ignore the salient points:

                a) I made no strong assertions, just a very general (“a bit like”/”could seem”) expression of understanding of a point theologians make.

                b) Newtonian mechanics predicts results, actual quantitative values engineers can use. Cite any one example of a similar predictive use of string theory. Any. One. Example.

                c) Religions do not fail to conform to observable reality. Your examples of past miracles, which you and I are certain never happened, are no longer available for observation. Cite any one example of an observation you could make today whose reality a religious person would deny. Any. One. Example.

                I’m parodying your style because I think you should consider how unpleasant it is on several levels.

              • Posted September 5, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

                It is interesting how when matters of the brain and biology come up and strike mute the ideologues — they trot out extreme physics.

                Like cosmology, string theory or anything in extreme physics has anything to do with psychiatric matters of brain and behavior.

                Like Deepak Chopra.

                It must be an availability bias. There is lots of space and extreme physics in the pop press so it’s easy and cheap to pretend you understand.

              • J.J. Emerson
                Posted September 5, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

                a) I made no strong assertions, just a very general (“a bit like”/”could seem”) expression of understanding of a point theologians make.

                Would it be appropriate to agree we aren’t that far apart, at least here? Because I already granted, in my early replies, a small measure of analogy and tried to refine the disagreements further. Namely that, outside of the testability issue, string theory is unlike theology. The lack of testability, I granted and continue to grant. Any other similarity I reject.

                b) Newtonian mechanics predicts results, actual quantitative values engineers can use. Cite any one example of a similar predictive use of string theory. Any. One. Example.

                I think I may have pinpointed a misconception that is handicapping your ability to deploy your argument effectively. String theory is a very flexible (many who reject string theory will argue “too flexible”) mathematical framework that includes AS A SUBSET, gravitation and quantum mechanics. So, take your pick of predictions, including all of the accurate predictions of classical mechanics and none of the ones superceded by general relativity. Same for other predictions in physics. Mass of a proton? Check. Mass of an electron? Check. Any of the multiple decay pathways observed in particle accelerators? Check. The relationship between spacetime and the presence of matter and energy? Check! What string theory DOESN’T have going for it are easily testable unique predictions. If there were even one uncontroversial example of this, this would allow us to provisionally accept string theory as a suitable replacement/fusion of general relativity and quantum mechanics. However, such predictions to my knowledge do not exist. This is the basis of my happy concession that there is insufficient warrant to uncritically accept string theory (a position shared by many physicists).

                c) Religions do not fail to conform to observable reality. Your examples of past miracles, which you and I are certain never happened, are no longer available for observation. Cite any one example of an observation you could make today whose reality a religious person would deny. Any. One. Example.

                Why the special focus on the historical perfidy of religion? So, evolution isn’t subject to empiricism? The classical mechanics predictions of the past state of the solar system aren’t either? Can we not reject the Adam and Eve “theory” of human origins? Population genetics has a lot to say on this matter, and indeed, many Christians accept this as literal truth, mainly because it undergirds the doctrine of original sin and therefore justifies Jesus’s sacrifice.

                As for any one non-historical example, the numbers are legion. Many Christians I have personally talked with (including close acquaintences, friends and family) will deny the results of the prayer study funded by Templeton, they have denied the sequence and dating of fossils discovered in the last decade (tiktaalik eg), they have denied that recent examples of observed speciation are examples of speciation, they deny that novel genetic material can be created despite my own specialty showing that such variation is ubiqtuitous (this is trivial really, scientists have long predicted this). People routinely claim that miracle cures happen despite evidence to the contrary, people accept that their religious gurus do amazing things (like resurrection or other miracles — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sathya_Sai_Baba eg).

                I’m parodying your style because I think you should consider how unpleasant it is on several levels.

                The parody isn’t evident. I don’t consider your writing to be unpleasant before or after the supposed parody. Well, with the exception of this bout of tetchiness. Perhaps your feeling of unpleasantness derives from some other source? I generally find that people experience vigorous debate as unpleasant, especially online when misundertandings happen easily.

                One final note, I think we’re starting to impinge on da roolz, #2. So I apologize in advance if a reply is not forthcoming.

              • logicophilosophicus
                Posted September 6, 2012 at 7:57 am | Permalink

                @ J.J. Emerson

                “Would it be appropriate to agree we aren’t that far apart, at least here? Because I already granted, in my early replies, a small measure of analogy and tried to refine the disagreements further. Namely that, outside of the testability issue, string theory is unlike theology. The lack of testability, I granted and continue to grant. Any other similarity I reject.”

                I agree, but there is another level, of competition rather than similarity. Basically the world consists of our experience, plus agreed explanations (some entities, some laws, some constants) plus an unknown deeper reality. We can either “shut up and calculate” or else speculate. The religious position seems to be that all those laws require a lawmaker; and plenty of deist-tending physicists take the view that there is some source of meaning, or some place for consciousness. Religious fundamentalists, of course, believe God can suspend his own laws to create a miracle (a very unsatisfactory position but still arguably conformable to observable reality; some hold an even more unsatisfactory view that God deliberately hides modern miracles to test faith). Hence the insistance – standard in science – for current reproducibility (and the reason theists reclassify evolution and the Big Bang as “historical” – for their own ends. The strict materialist position implies either an infinite regress or a deepest inexplicable reality (and – assuming self-creation is bunkum – so do religions).

                I asked you to “Cite any one example of… predictive use of string theory,” wth the emphasis on “use”. You replied: “String theory… includes AS A SUBSET [the whole of pre-string theory physics ... so] take your pick of predictions, including all of the accurate predictions of classical mechanics…” But that’s the point. The existing theory ALREADY predicted all those results. To be predictive – some would say, to be scientific at all – a theory must make new, testable predictions. [However you do say that theoretical physics accounts for: "Mass of a proton? Check. Mass of an electron? Check." I'll need a source for that. I haven't read anything past the view that the p:e mass ratio is an unexplained constant of nature.]

                “Can we not reject the Adam and Eve ‘theory’ of human origins? Population genetics has a lot to say on this matter, and indeed, many Christians accept this as literal truth, mainly because it undergirds the doctrine of original sin and therefore justifies Jesus’s sacrifice.” Certainly we reject it, but again there are levels of sophistication. Uneducated or intellectually challenged Christians believe it literally (and use the miracle “excuse”). I know educated but philosophically unsophisticated Catholics who think it is a metaphor for some real act of original sin. Sophisticated theologians think humanity is potentially sinful because God granted free will, and the Eden story is a concrete analogy or prop; and – here’s the sting – they may sincerely believe that literal belief in Eden is the nearest understanding of that “truth” available to simple human beings. (Of course there are dishonest pretenders – American TV evangelists who ask for money all the time spring to mind).

                So what I am trying to argue here is that theologians have a very subtle, multilevel argument that is not easily refuted by jibes of “woo” and “Bibble-babble”. Personally, in the well known Harris-Schermer/Chopra-Houston debate, I thought Michael Shermer was just playing to the gallery when he got on the “woowoo” tack. Pity – the set-up was great; but, as Sam Harris remarked, the lack of physicists in the forum was a major limitation.

                ["I’m parodying your style because I think you should consider how unpleasant it is on several levels." No big deal, but your punctuating single words as sentences was reminiscent of trying to get through to Village Idiots and deaf geriatrics. Maybe on the other side of the Atlantic it might more readily echo the merely emphatic: "No. New. Taxes." Sorry if I misread you.]

                —–

                @ Brain For Business

                “It is interesting how when matters of the brain and biology come up and strike mute the ideologues — they trot out extreme physics.”

                It is inevitable that when matters of ultimate reality come up everybody trots out – either to endorse or query – deep physical explanations “Like cosmology, string theory…”

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted August 29, 2012 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

        I wouldn’t cite a crackpot site for making claims on science.

        Depending on what you mean by string theory, it has made well tested predictions, see my other comment below.

        • logicophilosophicus
          Posted August 30, 2012 at 11:44 am | Permalink

          Experimental results predicted – that’s what I meant.

          “Crackpot site” – that’s the kind of remark Woit gives as evidence for the string theory “mafia” (his term). I’ve just reread the whole homepage from the link I gave – about 7,000 words I suppose. I couldn’t find anything “crackpot” or obviously false in the whole thing. I think you probably need some evidence for your remark.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

      Well, theories are worked on speculatively, but string/brane/M/F/whatever theory has left that stage. It is very useful in predicting aspects of solid state physics and quark-gluon plasmas. It also serves as complementary means to study black hole and inflationary landscape physics.

      But maybe you mean as a separate prototype for physics at the Planck scale? Not yet. But theorists now have sufficient reason to continue study the theory of strings itself.

  25. Martin
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    Three points:

    1. Atheists hardly have a monopoly on “delicious self-righteous anger”. I don’t think this needs any explanation.

    2. The “emotional content” of atheists is in no way homogenous. For many atheists, coming to the conclusion that there is no god after a lifetime of belief can be difficult, painful even, to say nothing of the negative social effects. But he probably

    3. If he’s basing his opinion of New Atheists on the comments section in the Belief section of the Guardian, he should probably do more reading. I wouldn’t base my opinion of any group based on the comments in an online newspaper. It’s almost ridiculous to do so.

    • darrelle
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 7:24 am | Permalink

      I disagree. It should be “most” not “almost”.

  26. Comrade Carter
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    I just don’t care what religious people say about me, or about their “faith.” I don’t care.

    They have NO relevant factual basis for their belief, therefore they have none for me to change my mind about… But they spend an awful lot of time here (in America) demanding that we all bow our heads and believe, especially believe in THEIR (almost exclusively Christian) religion.

    They’ve gone far too far.

  27. Jack Henderson
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    I would’ve expected better from someone as apparently intelligent as Spufford. To label us as smugly aggressive theistic fox hunters is a sad display of a lack of understanding for atheists or why they hate religion in the first place. We hound theists who are ignorant (passively or wilfully) of the effect their religion on us and on everyone who is not a part of their religion, Christianity and Islam in particular. I could write a novel thicker than the Bible on the reasons atheists hate religions, but I doubt any of it hasn’t been said before. Instead, I will gesture in the general direction of the USA, and point out the verbal abuse, violence and one-sided estrangement atheists suffer there daily. Not to mention the religious aggressively and insensitively working to undermine the rights of harmless groups that atheists such as myself typically support, think the LGBT community.

  28. Roo
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 6:47 am | Permalink

    “But it behooves us to listen to the criticisms of our opponents, if for no other reason than to sharpen our arguments. I’m not going to change my mind about the absence of God, but I want to understand the faith of someone as smart as Spufford. Maybe people like him do have some valid points to make about our behavior.”

    Um, this is why I heart you, Jerry Coyne. Seriously, that’s cool, almost nothing non-kitteh related is more impressive than people who can honestly listen to criticisms and be open to revisions of opinion, it seems to be a very rare trait. Squee. That is all.

    Do I think atheists are too ‘mean’? Oftentimes, yeah – for ME. I respect that social intuitions are like any other type of intuitions – there are those of us who love a good fight; those of us who want everyone to hold hands in a field of flowers; those of us who don’t care as long as you keep it funny; those who just show up for the free coffee, and so on. Most issues of social activism that appeal to me involve walks. Large groups of women planning walks for various causes. Donation drives. Booths. Coffee dates to decide who is going to bring water bottles and who’s in charge of bagels this year. That I can handle. Angry confrontations? No. Not my thing. I end up feeling to bad for the theists in question, because even if we don’t know what they are, everyone has their reasons for what they do. Granny won’t love me anymore; I need to believe my daughter is in heaven with Jesus; I really believe anarchy and all hell would break loose without religion; I don’t know enough science to hang out with those smarty pants atheists so I’ll stay loyal to ‘my group’, and so on. My intuitions lead me to believe that your average Jane isn’t some evil, finger-tenting baddie that just likes to visit harm upon the world – rather, I assume if I fully understood their rationale I’d probably be sympathetic, even if I didn’t agree.

    Again, that all comes down to intuitions, though, and I don’t think there’s a ‘right’ or a ‘wrong’ in that area. We probably have differing social intuitions specifically so that we CAN function as a society and fulfill different roles. That said, I do find atheism overall a bit one-sided in that respect, probably because it’s a newer movement and a few groups (scientists, males, etc.) are hugely overrepresented at this point. I imagine that will smooth out as things progress – I’m still waiting for the annual walk…

    • Posted August 29, 2012 at 7:05 am | Permalink

      My intuitions lead me to believe that your average Jane isn’t some evil, finger-tenting baddie that just likes to visit harm upon the world – rather, I assume if I fully understood their rationale I’d probably be sympathetic, even if I didn’t agree.

      That’d be fine if religion were something harmless, like the Society for Creative Anachronisms or the latest boy band or weekly poker games.

      I have a neighbor across the street who puts on an annual fundraising talent show for the parochial school her kids go to. A couple years ago, she hired me and my brass quintet to play dinner music for the affair, and she also roped me into being a ringer for the big band she had as backup for the main event. Nice woman, and the event was reasonably fun.

      Several months later, the head priest at that school resigned amidst a flurry of child rape allegations spanning decades — except, of course, the word, “rape” was never used and I don’t know if the Church has released enough of its own internal records for police to press charges. This is the same nice old man in a black shirt who was so enthusiastically thankful for the music the quintet had played a dozen feet from his dinner table that night.

      I have no reason to think that my neighbor is herself anything other than the nice person she appears to be…but the money raised by her many musicals over the years (unwittingly) played a significant role in enabling a serial child rapist.

      I don’t blame my neighbor for enabling a serial child rapist, but I do blame her religion, and I am quite confident that, had she grown out of Jesus the same time she grew out of Santa, she would not have been subject to the mental shackles that led to her obediently raise money for a well-known international child rape ring.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Roo
        Posted August 29, 2012 at 7:33 am | Permalink

        I don’t think we disagree, though. By sympathetic, I don’t mean I think you should be a part of the annual fundraiser. I just mean we’d probably be inclined to take a different tone within communications. I was talking to a friend last week, for example, who’s an atheist but comes from a super-Catholic family. He’s now going to church with his mom to try to find “what she sees” in it. My intuition in that situation is to get all therapeutic and ask him why he thinks he needs to do that, what he’s afraid will happen if he doesn’t, etc. Another person’s might be to get a bit more confrontational and toss out the atrocities of the Catholic Church. I think they both have a time and a place, you just see a lot more of one communication style within the atheism movement at the moment.

      • steve oberski
        Posted August 29, 2012 at 8:32 am | Permalink

        I don’t blame my neighbor for enabling a serial child rapist,

        I do.

        She provided financial and moral support to an organization that aids and abets child rapers.

        Even if she was completely ignorant of the circumstances in her local church and the organization in general, which I doubt, she chose to remain willfully ignorant of the reality around her and instead decided to take comfort and solace in disgusting bronze age myths.

        These organizations could not exist without individuals like your neighbour and it is precisely the individuals members that must be pointed out and criticized.

        You can’t blame an idea, you can only assign blame to those who by accepting an absurd idea then go on to commit atrocities.

        And I levy the same charge on myself for as long as I was a member of that odious organization, which was far too long.

      • joe piecuch
        Posted August 29, 2012 at 10:12 am | Permalink

        “I don’t blame my neighbor for enabling a serial child rapist…”

        oh, it’s EVEN WORSE THAN THAT…you also enabled that child rapist, by participating in that fundraiser. i’ll refer you back to your own logic right here:

        http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/03/01/a-giant-insect-saved-from-extinction/#comment-191372

        indeed, by your standards of causation and morality, you are a child rapist yourself.

        • Posted August 29, 2012 at 10:23 am | Permalink

          Yes, but at least I marinade and slow-roast (alive) my babies after raping them. And I even let Baihu play with their extremities while preparing them. You, on the other hand, don’t even have the decency to eat them.

          joe, why is it that you try to derail every single thread I post in with your PETA bullshit? Do you want to further enhance the public image of vegans as a bunch of lunatic nutjobs?

          I will admit, however, to being curious to see how long it takes before Jerry drops the banhammer on you.

          b&

          • joe piecuch
            Posted August 29, 2012 at 10:37 am | Permalink

            “joe, why is it that you try to derail every single thread I post in with your PETA bullshit?”

            i suggest that you exaggerate. be that as it may, i will admit to being to see how long it takes to get a cogent, relevant response, and to generally finding myself provoked and amused by smug, self-righteous hypocrisy.

            • joe piecuch
              Posted August 29, 2012 at 10:39 am | Permalink

              …i will admit to being CURIOUS to see…

            • darrelle
              Posted August 29, 2012 at 11:32 am | Permalink

              He doesn’t exaggerate. I can’t claim that my point of view is shared by anyone else, but to me you do seem to have an unusual preoccupation with Ben Goren. And your comments to him follow the same pattern of low to zero relevant semantic content and maximum scorn.

              In contrast, while Ben Goren can definitely be scornful, I have never seen him stalk anyone the way you are doing.

              • joe piecuch
                Posted August 29, 2012 at 11:42 am | Permalink

                “He doesn’t exaggerate”

                “…why is it that you try to derail every single thread I post…”

                the premise of that question is unequivocally and demonstrably an exaggeration.

              • Posted August 29, 2012 at 11:48 am | Permalink

                Enough with the off-topic threadjack troll, already! Do us a favor and post something on topic or shut the fuck up, will you?

                b&

          • joe piecuch
            Posted August 29, 2012 at 11:18 am | Permalink

            “I will admit, however, to being curious to see how long it takes before Jerry drops the banhammer on you.”

            oh, dear…well, i do try to follow the rules, so let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

            • Posted August 29, 2012 at 11:33 am | Permalink

              Threadjacking with a troll intended to elicit a long, drawn-out, off-topic bitchfest between yourself and a regular is almost a textbook example of breaking the rules. At least, as I understand da roolz.

              Even if Jerry hasn’t explicitly banned trollish threadjacks, it’s one of those common courtesy things that Just Isn’t Done™ on other people’s Web sites. If you haven’t learned that lesson by now, you should brush up on your Emily Postnews.

              Cheers,

              b&

        • whyevolutionistrue
          Posted August 29, 2012 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

          Okay, joe, knock it off. You’re on a vendetta that is irrelevant to this thread. I’m serious. Stay on topic.

          • joe piecuch
            Posted August 29, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

            got it; i apologise.

      • Roo
        Posted August 29, 2012 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

        Also, Ben, I was thinking that I disagree with your assessment of your neighbor. Sorry, my point here isn’t to nitpick and start fights, I actually think points like that are important. There is nothing within the Catholic doctrine that supports child rape. If it were well known that the priests involved deferred to some passage from the Gospels defending such an act, that would be one thing. As it stands (unless I’m misinformed,) there’s nothing specific to Catholicism that supports such an act.

        I bring this up because I think consistency is important when talking about beliefs. If a Catholic started a webpage featured evolutionary biologists who committed crimes and used it as an example of the inherent evil in evolutionary theory, what would your first response be? Probably that the two are unrelated – yes, scientists can commit crimes, but there’s nothing in science that compels people to do so.

        By the same token, a Christian can easily say the same thing when the Catholic Church is committing such crimes. There may be some way that religion is tied to the crime itself here that I’m missing, but if not I don’t think it’s a fair comparison. It would be like saying education is evil because the same thing happened at a boarding school. There are plenty of things that Catholicism does endorse and should be held accountable for, but that doesn’t seem to be one of them.

        Of course, religious arguments aside, common sense and common decency tell you not to support an organization – be it the Boy Scouts, Wal-mart, or the local knitting club – that is well known for systematic crimes of that nature. So I’m not saying the church should be excused, just that it seems an inconsistent argument, unless you’re hypothesizing that evil things are simply bound to be the end result of such dogmatic thinking and should be expected.

        • Posted August 29, 2012 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

          There is nothing within the Catholic doctrine that supports child rape.

          It is on this point that your post hangs, and it is on this point that I would disagree with you.

          Yes, there is nothing in the Bible or the Catechism that says, “And thou, mine priest, go forth and bugger the babies.”

          But the Catholic Church has a long-standing policy, pattern, and practice of doing everything in its power to protect and enable child-raping priests. This includes repeatedly shuffling well-known rapists from parish to parish not only without reporting the crime to the local authorities but without informing the new presumed victims. It also includes vicious PR campaigns to both hush up public knowledge of “incidents” and to demonize the victims when they do speak out.

          Basically, they kept their priests happy with a steady supply of children to rape, moved them on to greener pastures when they started to over-graze and run out of fresh victims, and did everything in their power to ensure that their priests had as many children to rape as they could ever want and never had to worry about the authorities interrupting them.

          And all of this, it has been revealed in court, has been according to official Vatican policy distributed to the local parishes and kept in secret files. Dressed up, to be fair, in language about protecting the public image of the Church so as to not risk loss of tithing parishioners and thereby have fewer souls to feed to Jesus…but the end result not only is exactly as I described, it can only ever had an effect as I described and can only have been known to the Vatican to have had such an effect.

          I can’t blame my neighbor for not seeing through the lies fed to her by people (and expert psychological manipulators) she was brought up to trust, or even for failing to consider that the wide-spread cancer might include that kindly old man she thought she knew. Indeed, she almost certainly didn’t even know any of the priest’s victims well and had no real way of knowing that anything out of the ordinary was going on.

          But I can blame the Church that deliberately runs a covert international child rape racket, and I can blame the primary psychological weapon (faith) they use to perpetrate their perfidy.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Roo
            Posted August 29, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

            “But I can blame the Church that deliberately runs a covert international child rape racket, and I can blame the primary psychological weapon (faith) they use to perpetrate their perfidy.”

            Yeah, that’s kind of the crux of the argument, isn’t it? Again, if such a scandal occurred via the (imaginary) International Hopscotch Association, you’d say the institution itself was terrible, but not that hopscotch is a causal factor in child abuse. So are the atrocities of the church in fact related to faith? It’s a topic that interest me greatly (the expected outcomes when you compare dogmatic vs scientific thinking,) but I think it’s shaky ground where we have to appeal to common sense and assume that if we had the evidence, it would back our position. This is why I prefer to hedge my bets with “even if” thinking – even if we somehow found out that dogma does more good than harm on the whole, even if we found out that religion is no more likely than any large, secular institution to be involved in scandals – even then, I’d still promote rational thinking over dogma.

            • Posted August 29, 2012 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

              The big difference between the Catholic rape scandal and the scandals that have afflicted other organizations (most notably the Scouts and the random schoolteacher) has first been the institutional response and secondly the response of the general membership.

              The Catholic institution is still sheltering rapists and rape assistants from prosecution, and its general membership is either vociferously championing the rapists (Donohue leaps to mine) or doing its best to ignore the matter. With the Scouts, and especially random schools, the general membership would have ripped the organization to shreds had nothing been done.

              That difference can be directly attributed to the Church’s position as the official representatives of Jesus, and that position can only be sustained through faith.

              It’s one thing for some suit at a press conference to try to spin the criminal actions of employees…it’s another thing entirely for those whom you’ve entrusted with your eternal soul to grant you a private audience on holy ground and tell you that these unpleasantries will be handled appropriately, and you needn’t worry about them further.

              Cheers,

              b&

            • DiscoveredJoys
              Posted August 29, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

              Swimming against the tide perhaps, but I’ll agree that religion, as such, is not the root cause of people doing bad things to each other.

              What I would assert is that religion is a particularly effective enabler of people doing bad things to each other. Religion doesn’t justify child rape, but the threat of eternal Hell and Damnation for talking about it certainly makes it easier to get away with the criminal acts. And of course religion has been used to justify slavery, subjugation of women, genocide etc. etc.

              Religion is toxic because it enables bad people to get away with doing bad things. Whether it is ‘true’ or engenders good behaviour as well is trivial in comparison.

    • Jack Henderson
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 9:15 am | Permalink

      “Coffee dates to decide who is going to bring water bottles and who’s in charge of bagels this year. That I can handle. Angry confrontations? No. Not my thing. I end up feeling to bad for the theists in question, because even if we don’t know what they are, everyone has their reasons for what they do. Granny won’t love me anymore; I need to believe my daughter is in heaven with Jesus; I really believe anarchy and all hell would break loose without religion; I don’t know enough science to hang out with those smarty pants atheists so I’ll stay loyal to ‘my group’, and so on.”

      Angry confrontations? Is that what you call debate? Debate is formal, intelligent discussion (at least I try to keep it that way). Unlike most, I am a proud introvert and see no reason for beating around the bush with feigned social pleasantries, there’s this thing called “getting to the point”, I wish more people would try it. If people I’m talking to care more for politeness and flattery than the truth in my words, well, let them stay that way. Secondly, why feel bad for people who can’t justify themselves? This and your reasons for staying Christian embody two of my least favorite traits of humankind – a greater care for emotion than the pursuit of truth, and susceptibility to peer pressure.

      You believe there would be anarchy without religion? Religion certainly is NOT a necessary evil. If the “anarchy” you are referring to is a few mentally weak people having no emotional crutch, I say let it happen, it’s ok not to be ok, religion or none, all problems pass.

      I would say I’m sorry if my manner of speech seems rude to you, but I’m not sorry, I just have no patience for pointless formalities.

      • David Sepkoski
        Posted August 29, 2012 at 10:39 am | Permalink

        Jack,

        2 things:

        1) Nowhere in Roo’s post does she (I’m assuming) say she’s a Christian. In fact, she implies she’s an atheist several times.

        2) Roo brings up some issues that many other people have before, here and in other places, about how hospitable the atheist community is to women. It sounds like she–and many other women and men both–are turned off by a climate where a bunch of angry men with hair-trigger keyboards start shouting the minute someone says something they disagree with (whether or not they paused to carefully read the opinion in question). That you instantly deride this position–and to boot do so with hair-trigger, self-righteous, and angry condemnations (without evidently having carefully read Roo’s post first) just confirms this perception. You seem to have little patience for what most people would call “civility,” which is just another way of saying you’re not really interested in discussing things with other people–just with making your points.

        But thanks for perpetuating the stereotype of the angry (male) atheist who just can’t fathom how anyone could see things any differently than he does. Unless, of course, your post was intended as satire, which it seems it almost has to be…

        • Roo
          Posted August 29, 2012 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

          Thanks for listening David – and yes, I am an atheist, but only within the past year, so the community itself is new to me.

          Jack, I know that pointless formalities can be annoying when overdone. I’m not looking for a bunch of southern pageant queen types to hang out with (shudders,) just saying that, yes, different people do communicate in different ways, and that can be important.

  29. AndrewD
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 6:50 am | Permalink

    I think you need to be a bit clearer about what the emotional content of your atheism is. . . It isn’t enough that you yourselves don’t believe : atheism permits a delicious self-righteous anger at those who do. The very existence of religion seems to be an affront, a liberty being taken, a scab you can’t help picking. . .

    I shall cease being angry about Religion when people like Alexander Aan or the 14 year old girl in Pakistan are not imprisoned or threatened with death for “blasphemy”

    I shall cease being angry when LGBT people can be honest about their identity without fearing a religious backlash

    I shall cease being angry when atheism is accepted through out the world

    I shall cease being angry when the causes of the anger have been righted.

  30. Alex SL
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 6:50 am | Permalink

    Isn’t it always the same old special pleading? People who would think nothing of loudly proclaiming their own views on economic policy, who would publicly express absolute consternation how somebody could doubt the roundish shape of the planet, and who would often ridicule somebody who believed in Bigfoot or alien abductions suddenly cry intolerance or dogmatism if one dares to publicly proclaim atheism no more vigorously.

    Quite apart from this special pleading – you can criticize people’s beliefs in all other areas, but not their religious ones – the great irony is that the religious ones are generally much more wacky and much more easily shown to be unfounded than the others, only that the deference granted to them helps to hide that fact.

    What, after all, could be more conceited than the belief that the creator of the entire universe cares specifically about who we have sex with or whether your football team wins? What could be more incoherent than to proclaim belief in a being that is at the same time omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent, or in a being that is all-forgiving but damns “sinners” for all eternity? Really, these beliefs should be treated like belief in the existence of married bachelors. Pointing and laughing at them is not a sign of intolerance but merely of sanity.

  31. darrelle
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 6:50 am | Permalink

    I can’t guess whether Spufford is afflicted with the ignorance that people in a demographic that is privileged due to cultural norms often have of people outside their demographic, or whether he is merely being disingenuous.

    “It isn’t enough that you yourselves don’t believe : atheism permits a delicious self-righteous anger at those who do.”

    So? Pot, meet kettle. Any belief “permits a delicious self-righteous anger at those” who do not share it. Not relevant.

    “The very existence of religion seems to be an affront, a liberty being taken, . . .”

    In a sense, religion very often is an affront. As in, religious believers imposing their beliefs on others that do not share them is offensive. Not to mention morally reprehensible. As far as “a liberty being taken,” that is a concept dear to the believers heart but is not of much concern to non believers. If religion were benign atheists couldn’t care less if believers carried on believing.

    “Now this, dear brothers and sisters, cannot be good for you.”

    Based on the context established earlier in the paragraph it seems very likely that this sentence was calculated to be a condescending insult. Fine by me, insult away, but apart from expressing some emotion it is not relevant.

    “It is never a good idea to let yourself believe that the pleasures of aggression have virtue behind them.”

    I disagree. Nice sounding platitude, but it just doesn’t hold up. For example, aggression towards an overbearing opponent that has treated your kind badly for a thousand years, because you don’t believe in gods for which there is no evidence, and that even now continues to oppose, subvert or poison the tools that have the proven ability to better the existence of all human beings, that is without doubt virtuous. Aggression can be a very useful tool. Whether it is virtuous or not depends on the circumstances of its application.

    This whole paragraph is merely a smack down of atheists, though well worded. As is often the case I think it tells readers more about Spufford than it does about atheists. In it he has demonstrated several of the blind spots that make non believers roll their eyes. In the context of real history, including current history, it smacks of a bit of victim blaming, quite a bit of projection and a good deal of laughably unwarranted persecution complex.

    • Caroline52
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

      Nice exposition, very satisfying. Thanks.

  32. Nicolas Perrault
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 6:53 am | Permalink

    To honestly claim an affirmation to be true is to welcome the most rigorous inquiry as to its veracity. The claimant should not be afraid to expose the claim to the repeated assaults of impeccable logic, meticulous observations and the most ingenious of experimental tests. If the claim is true it will stubbornly resist every attempt at falsification. To think otherwise is fooling oneself. In a nutshell this is the message of the new atheist. The faithful is quite unable to honestly deal with it. So killing the messenger has much appeal. The new atheist becomes smug, self-righteous, self-satisfied, aggressive, and dogmatic. A new religion is born!

  33. FTFKDad
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 6:55 am | Permalink

    “It isn’t enough that you yourselves don’t believe : atheism permits a delicious self-righteous anger at those who do.”

    Mr. Spufford, please, please, please understand this. I am not angry that you believe what you believe. I AM angry that these beliefs lead to some horrendous acts. Just this week, 17 people beheaded in Afghanistan because they … danced?

    Believe what you want.

  34. Sajanas
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 6:57 am | Permalink

    I did a bit of commenting over at the On Faith section of the Washington Post, and I saw quite a few pleas by believers for atheists to stop posting, because they wanted only religious people posting in religious blogs. Why shouldn’t that be the case?

    Because religions deliberately cultivate ignorance in their followers. How honest are clergymen about the real, historical uncertainties about the Jesus stories, or how most first few books of the Old Testament never even happened, or just how different the scientific view of the world is from the view of that in the Bible, as the Bible writers would have seen it? Or even just how much the current Christian or Jewish viewpoints have evolved since the Bible was written? Even in largely good, religious churches, that sort of information isn’t given to younger members, if its talked about at all. People who question their faith are just asked to leave after a while, and most people don’t react well to their faith being questioned in real life.

    Posters on these forums probably can get too nasty, but I think by and large they’re doing a good thing by giving religious readers and commenters their first real taste of disagreement, which their religions have been trying to hide from them.

  35. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 7:01 am | Permalink

    The most generous I can be toward Mr. Spifford is to suggest there is some value to the experiences of transcendence he finds in Christianity, and to suggest these experiences are a complex mixture of the real and the imaginary, but need not be entangled with anti-empirical beliefs.

    As both Carl Sagan and Christopher Hitchens have argued one can honor the “numinous” (their term- originally coined by Christian philosopher Rudolf Otto in his book “The Idea of the Holy”) without entangling it with the supernatural as humanity has traditionally done.

    Still as with the glass that’s either half-empty or half-full, I think atheists should take a look at whether they want to view the Spiffords of the world as halfway TO Crazytown or halfway OUT. Contrary to most posters at this site, I am more comfortable with the second alternative.

    One of the greatest freethought blogs that repeatedly deals with responses to folks like Spifford is “Camels and Hammers” written by Dan Fincke.

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers

    I particularly recommend his column
    “What I Think About How To Engage Religious Liberals, Moderates, and Fundamentalists” at http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/09/02/what-i-think-about-how-to-engage-religious-liberals-moderates-and-fundamentalists/

    especially his third recommendation “We should not define religions by their fundamentalist strands, but aid progressives in their reformations of their religions while not allowing them to whitewash either the histories or the present stagnant/regressive states of their religions.”

    • Gary W
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

      I strongly disagree. There comes a point at which it is simply dishonest for religious adherents to claim that they are merely “reforming” their religion when what they’re really doing is appropriating the name of the religion for a radically different kind of belief system. I would put the more liberal strains of Christianity in this category. Their “Christianity” is often little more than a set of secular liberal ethical beliefs dressed up with some Christian trappings and terminology. It’s like Creation “Science” and the “Demokratische Republik” we know as the former East Germany. You can appropriate the word, but that doesn’t mean you’re using it in a way that is honest or meaningful.

  36. Jeff Johnson
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 7:02 am | Permalink

    I’m sure there is a grain of truth in what Spufford says, that atheists can be over-bearing. We would be wise to pay attention to that warning and to moderate ourselves. I’m sure I’ve been rude at times when I went further than I really believe is appropriate. And that is done out of anger. But Spufford is only looking at this in one direction, and not putting it into proper perspective.

    I used to be fairly indifferent toward religion. My anger at religion began with 9/11, the horror of such an attack in the name of God, and also with the smug certainty of George W Bush’s pronouncements on religion. When the commander in chief was telling the foreign secretary of Jordan that God wanted him to invade Iraq, that really pissed me off and embarrassed me for our nation. Why is it that religious can’t grasp the incredible irony of an all powerful and infinitely loving God who is so helpless that he needs humans to try to guess what he wants and do it for him? This need to do God’s will seems to me one of the greatest expressions of lack of faith possible.

    There are hundreds of other reasons to be upset with the domination of religion, that are covered in other posts.

    This kind of major effect on the world being caused by people with ideas and beliefs in their minds that appear to be entirely imaginary is as frightening as the idea of living with a world full of nuclear weapons primed for launch, especially when we hear talk of a holy war between Christians and Muslims.

    Religion enjoys a ubiquity that is similar to that of oxygen. It goes unnoticed by most. Even I find myself occasionally saying My God, or God Damn, and it means nothing to me other than an expression of surprise or anger. The Christian assumption runs deep in our entire culture and language.

    So this invisible assumption is so natural to Christians, and having those assumptions challenged so novel, that it sticks out like a sore thumb when they see public expressions that don’t adhere to their Christian consensus.

    It is kind of like gay liberation. We have been a persecuted and reviled minority for so long, when the time comes that one feels free to come out of the closet, there is a kind of exhilarating feeling of freedom that may delight a bit too much in flaunting it, in mocking the straights who still believe in fairy tales. I can’t count the times I’ve heard someone grudgingly say they are okay with gay rights, but do they have to flaunt it so much as in those parades, so in your face? I’d say there are arguments on both sides. Flaunting pride is both a celebration, but also a political act of defiance that is a response to long oppression. I think if atheists overdo the mockery at times there is this element to it, both a celebration of the liberty and an assertive reaction to long standing suffering and the undeserved dominance of religion.

    As to why that dominance is undeserved, Spufford’s argument has that “fair and balanced” illusion to it. It’s simply not like choosing pop music or favorite foods, where style, personal preference and opinion are all that matters, and to each his own, live and let live. There are objective issues that matter, like the teaching of science rather than pretending that creationism is a serious alternative that rivals evolution. Such pretense has to be either ignorant or dishonest. And that certainty is not a false dogmatic blind faith of fundamentalism; that is based on innumerable pieces of evidence vs not one shred of evidence. And I feel the same with the existence of God: it’s simply not credible to say that believers have an equal probability to atheists of being right. It just doesn’t make sense that every single God and religion ever devoutly believed in is false, yet Christianity, or religion X really is the exception. I simply can’t buy it, and I don’t doubt that this logic is correct.

    We also know a lot about the biochemistry of emotions in the brain, and what the basis is for the feelings he gets from group singing and dancing and the bonds of community, and we have a fairly decent grasp of how these things make evolutionary sense for a social animal that depends on cooperation for its survival.

    When you add it all up, I’m sure Spufford receives benefits from his religious activities, but it’s hard for me to have intellectual respect when people who are smart are so willing to suspend disbelief to accept God, and at that same time willing to turn away from the overwhelming evidence that the entire religion is a by-product of middle eastern bronze age desert culture that does not deserve such a place of privilege in our society. This seems inescapable to me. I’m prepared to have a benevolent attitude toward religion if it were accorded the same status as Rotary club or other types of social clubs of common but limited interest. I really have a hard time tolerating the assertion of the supremacy of religion as either a keeper or source of truth, or a dominant political force on which public policy and law should be based.

    • darrelle
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 7:44 am | Permalink

      Like. Good post.

      This,

      “Flaunting pride is both a celebration, but also a political act of defiance that is a response to long oppression.”

      was especially well said, I thought. I would have clumsily used three times the words in a tortuous arrangement to express the same thing.

  37. Chris Quartly
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    One problem is that a lot of “atheist” talk is online, where the emotional context is absent or very hard to put across. Sometimes I have read critiques that are so mild-mannered and terrified of offending, and yet then later still see people getting upset.

    And of course, some people will be offended by anything at the drop of a hat, how are we supposed to tip-toe around this?

    Thirdly, there isn’t enough condemnation within religious circles when some of the loonies start spouting their complete nonsense. Because of course, they themselves have to believe in things with insufficient evidence and may see the rocky road they are going down.

  38. Reg Le Sueur
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    “It isn’t enough that you yourselves don’t believe : atheism permits a delicious self-righteous anger at those who do.”

    Yes I admit, we do enjoy bashing religion,-but only because it is so eminently bashable. Apart from its horrendous history, (from which it tries to absolve itself by continually carping about Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and even Hitler (who was not even an atheist), religion generally continues to propagate these and other lies; lies about the origin of the Universe, of Life, of Ethics, of Emotions, about whether there is an overall Purpose, about history, about how it “loves” little boys in the nicest possible way;-about education, contraception, AIDS, the “evils” of euthanasia, about how it does good works without any underhand schemes of converting the whole world to its way of thinking, about not trying to take over the world and found a Christian Empire, modelled on Rome in Constantine’s reign;- and so on.
    For those theologians who claim how progressive and sophisticated they now are,-this merely demonstrates how the whole Christian experience to date has been unprogressive and unsophisticated. Go into any modern Church service for a demonstration of the lies that are still being taught to children, eg about “how God made their tiny wings”; Evolution?–I don’t think so.

  39. James Walker
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 7:20 am | Permalink

    Atheists are perceived by believers as angry and aggressive for the same reason that gay people are perceived as angry and aggressive by (some) straight people – when who you are is considered the default by society, anyone who questions that becomes a threat.

  40. truthspeaker
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    His complaint about “certitude” seems like sour grapes to me. The reason we feel certitude is because the facts are overwhelmingly on our side. It’s like he’s complaining that we claim to have won the game just because our team scored more goals than his team.

    • Stonyground
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

      Yes! I really wish that I had thought to say that. What do you suppose the score was?

    • Nikos Apostolakis
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

      This is a good point. However the expression “sour grapes” doesn’t mean what you seem to think it means, look it up.

      • Caroline52
        Posted August 29, 2012 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

        Probably by way of the ubderstandable association of sour grapes (criticism of the thing one wants but can’t get) with the idea of being a sore loser. Why quibble about a purely ancillary inaccuracy? It got the point across

        • Nikos Apostolakis
          Posted August 29, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

          Well, I didn’t complain, it was more of a FYI.

          Why do you complain about my complaining? ;)

    • Posted August 29, 2012 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

      Peter Atkins: It’s not arrogance if you’re right.

      (This was [paraphrased] from a video interview that I couldn’t quickly find, but I came across this which is a great perspective on the pride and humility of scientists.)

      /@

  41. Sastra
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    How do I respond to Spufford’s accusation that atheists are smug, self-righteous, dogmatic, and angry? By explaining that the issue which ultimately upsets us isn’t just the Fundamentalists who try to intrude their religious views into our lives: it’s the idea that “faith” — religious faith — is a sign of noble character. THIS is what insults us, denigrates us, marginalizes us, demonizes us, shuts our ability to protest down and rips away the common ground we ought to be standing on. Spufford’s defense of his faith is an explanation of the very problem we have with it.

    Look at this:

    “(Religion)… is a structure of feelings, a house built of emotions. You don’t have the emotions because you’ve signed up to the proposition that God exists; you entertain the proposition that God exists because you’ve had the emotions.”

    Emotions? What kind of emotions do the religious have — which atheists lack? What have we not felt?

    The BEST emotions, of course. The sort of emotions which define us as human, as the best humans, as better than humans can be. The more important and significant God is, then the more important the emotions surrounding the connection/relationship/contemplation of God. Love, hope, trust, appreciation, virtue, gratitude, discipline, humility: yes, all of these are exemplified through an ‘act’ of faith. An act which atheists do not make.

    Not that they mean to imply anything negative by that.

    Bullshit.

    Sorry, I have to say it again. Bullshit. Even if we accept it, Spufford’s plea for understanding that belief in God isn’t really about reason and evidence, but about emotion doesn’t make it all better. It makes it all worse — much worse. Instead of atheists just being mistaken in conclusion, we get to be wrong at the level of our humanity. Thanks.

    How the hell could it work otherwise? Would Spufford really prefer someone telling him that the reason he doesn’t believe in the Loch Ness monster isn’t because he hasn’t properly examined the eyewitness reports, but because he hasn’t made – can’t make — an emotional connection to the respect for animals, concern for the environment, and appreciation of the beauty of nature? Would he really feel better if believers focused not on evidence and argument, but on promoting their own sensitivity, insight, love, and humility while throwing him under the bus when it comes to those virtues? Would he like it if these people who believe in the Loch Ness monster were both insistent on the importance of doing so AND in the majority? If they had the power and he was seen as the fringe?

    I suspect not.

    If you approach the question of God objectively, avoiding motivated reasoning, then atheism is more likely than theism. What Spufford and all theists say though is that motivated reasoning is IN THIS CASE a good thing, a wonderful character trait, a fulfillment of human potential. Motivated reasoning is another way of defining religious faith: spin the evidence towards the way you hope it will go, and call this modesty. Switch those categories up. The concept of God isn’t supposed to be approached like one would a hypothesis, but it’s supposed to be approached like one would approach a friend… a lover … life’s meaning. Atheists are smart enough, sure — but lack the emotional capacity and depth to see this. They can’t reach out to the purpose of existence because they are stunted and blind with hubris. That’s all. No offense intended.

    Bullshit. Screw this whole line of defense. It’s an offense. A deep and serious insult, smug, self-righteous, and dogmatic. We can tell that, even if the theists can’t. And we’re angry. Good. We should be.

    • DiscoveredJoys
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 7:55 am | Permalink

      I was just thinking to myself that I “would like to read Sastra’a comment on this” – and there you were.

      +1

      • truthspeaker
        Posted August 29, 2012 at 7:59 am | Permalink

        +2. Sastra often makes my day.

        And yes, this is yet another instance of a believer offering a defense of faith that is identical to our indictment of it.

    • darrelle
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 8:02 am | Permalink

      Well said, as usual.

      I am always surprised that otherwise intelligent adults, often proud academics, can devise such juvenile rationalizations about their religious beliefs, while at the same time maintaining a belief that they are superior because of them.

      Religions seems to effectively institutionalize the Dunning-Kruger effect.

      • Sastra
        Posted August 29, 2012 at 8:08 am | Permalink

        Ah, but they’re superior only because they’re more humble, meek, and modest. So that works out okay.

      • DiscoveredJoys
        Posted August 29, 2012 at 8:16 am | Permalink

        I’ll agree, but I think it is due to a human cognitive trait, rather than just religion.

        If you observe carefully you will often see poor justifications put forward for scientific conclusion, political decisions, legal judgements.

        Nor do I exclude myself – I can be endlessly inventive in putting forward reasons for not doing (or doing) something, only to have Mrs DiscoveredJoys puncture my ‘motivated reasoning’. Mind you, I do the same for her…

        And of course it is so irritating to have your cunningly crafted justifications punctured… which brings us back to Francis Spufford’s complaints about the unkind atheists.

        • darrelle
          Posted August 29, 2012 at 8:49 am | Permalink

          “I’ll agree, but I think it is due to a human cognitive trait, rather than just religion.”

          Ohh, absolutely! Unfortunately religion is so pervasive, so foundational to so many peoples self worth, and thereby wields so much power over all of our lives that this cognitive trait is especially dangerous when paired with religious based world views.

          Knowing of this human weakness shouldn’t people, especially academics, be held accountable to some degree for giving an extra effort in avoiding that pitfall when something so important is at stake? Regardless of their claims to the contrary I can’t help but think that many of these Sophisticated Believers™ don’t take their religious beliefs, and those beliefs implications, very seriously at all.

    • Posted August 29, 2012 at 10:42 am | Permalink

      I agree with most of what you said, but if I’m allowed to quibble just a bit, I might add that, uh… well… er… umm…

      Nevermind. Spot on, as usual.

    • Posted November 6, 2013 at 9:53 am | Permalink

      >Spufford’s accusation that atheists are smug, self-righteous, dogmatic, and angry?

      We don’t have to answer Spufford on this point at all.

      Commenting on the character and emotional state of the speaker is simply an irrelevant ad hominem. It has nothing to do with the veracity of the claims being made, in atheism or any arena.

      It is standard fare in rhetoric and politics, but is a distraction in philosophy.

      I don’t spend much time being offended because I’m more interested in the strengths and weaknesses of claims and positions, as opposed to emotional states and personalities.

  42. Posted August 29, 2012 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    The issue which ultimately upsets us isn’t just the Fundamentalists who try to intrude their religious views into our lives: it’s the idea that “faith” — religious faith — is a sign of noble character.

    Amen.

    Faith, in the sense of belief not in proportion with the soundness of available empirical evidence, is the ultimate enemy of civilization.

    Religious faith is the exact same unwarranted trust that conmen foster in their marks. Once you accept such faith as a virtue, you immediately surrender yourself to the will of those who’ve stolen your trust.

    A conman says, “Trust me,” and you buy that car with the sawdust-filled transmission to your loss and his gain.

    When a priest says, “Have faith,” and you do, he can then speak on behalf of what he has conned you into thinking is the ultimate force in the universe. The Emperor isn’t merely naked but imaginary…but his undersecretary is very real, and he bears the Emperor’s ring and thus can (and does) act with the full authority of the (non-existant) Emperor on his behalf.

    I still say that Richard should have left off the question mark at the end of his BBC series on the root of all evil. It’s faith that’s the root of all evil, but religion is pure, unadulterated faith.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Posted August 29, 2012 at 7:51 am | Permalink

      Sorry…meant as a reply to Sastra’s #41, which I quoted….

      b&

    • Sastra
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 8:01 am | Permalink

      Religious faith manages to place the believer into a position where he either cannot be wrong — and therefore cannot change his mind — or considers changing his mind to be like death. When you infuse your very identity into a fact claim, then you’re motivated to hang on to your belief as if your life depends on it. You’ve defined it that way. Your whole ego and sense of self rests on keeping one view over another. You don’t want to be like the people who have that other view. They’ve lost what you’re trying to hold on to.

      The religious are sloppy: they conflate secular forms of faith with the religious one, so as not to seem to be doing anything too extreme. But really — if they don’t just have faith (confidence, trust, hope) in that politician, car salesman, or priest but a specifically RELIGIOUS faith in these folks, what would they not do or believe?

    • Scott near Berkeley
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 10:54 am | Permalink

      “Faith is the root of all evil”.
      That is succinct, and an excellent statement of the true nature of religion.

      I have a cousin who sends me Xmas cards every year, and this year it came with several single words, floating about…”Joy”…”Faith”..<= and the husband underlined that word vigorously, knowing my atheist worldview; kind of a "we got it, YOU don't!!" It has annoyed me for some time, and your good statement, Ben, finally clarifies why it has bugged me in 2012..
      thanks, cheers!

      • Posted August 29, 2012 at 11:18 am | Permalink

        Die nodding. “We maim two peas.”

        b&

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 11:17 am | Permalink

      A further problem is that it is mainly Protestant Christianity where the central virtue of the religion is faith. In Islam, it is submission/obedience which is just as bad. I don’t want to romanticize Eastern religions, but the main virtue in Hinduism and Buddhism and Taoism is the acquiring of knowledge, enlightenment, and wisdom. The recommended paths to these things often have bigggg problems with them, I realize (the Indian caste-system and the practice of executing widows are especially barbaric!), but these religions don’t make the basis of their community as insistence that you MUST hold to unwarranted beliefs.

      • Posted August 29, 2012 at 11:26 am | Permalink

        Christian faith leads to submission of the will and thus obedience; it’s what it’s designed to do. The Muslims have simply removed one of the steps.

        Besides, if you submit to something, your faith (though not necessarily belief) is implicitly granted. Even if you’ve been bullied (or tortured) into acting on another’s behalf, you’re now (reluctantly) trusting that other person, and without good empirical reason to trust the person.

        In other words, the one path may be seductive and the other coercive, but the final destination is the same.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • JonLynnHarvey
          Posted August 30, 2012 at 7:25 am | Permalink

          I wouldn’t describe anything that goes in American Buddhism as submission but as conditional trust which one is free to withdraw at any time. It remains that the goal is to understand one’s self and the world more authentically, rather than to submit to an authority’s claims about the supernatural. (However, many practitioners would do far better to go to a Western psychologist than a Buddhist leader!!)

          Another difference is that Western religions claim to bring you back to same pristine state that you once had but have “fallen” from. While there’s a bit of that motif in Taoism (a state of nature), for the most part Eastern religions allow that we have always been flawed, so there is no “original sin” as a basis for moralistic guilt trips, let alone any notion that unwarranted “faith” is the remedy for same original sin.

      • Sastra
        Posted August 29, 2012 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

        My understanding is that the eastern religions in practice do insist on belief or at least acquiescence in order to be a member of the community. They don’t deal with dissent by acknowledging and addressing it, but by dismissing it as insufficiently “enlightened.”

        If the Westernized form of Eastern religion is New Age, then the value placed on faith is just as high as in the traditional religions. They don’t focus so much on exactly WHAT form of the supernatural you believe in — but you damn well either believe in some form of it or stfu.

        • Posted August 29, 2012 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

          Hmm… I think some Christians have the same way of dealing with dissent: “You just don’t understand. Open your heart to the Holy Spirit and God will show you the error of your ways.”

          /@

  43. benjdm
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    “what the emotional content of your atheism is”

    Is that like what color is my voice? Or how loud my eyes are?

    The emotional content of my criticism of awful thinking is frustration. Sometimes anger, sometimes despair. Theism is a conclusion from lots of lines of awful thinking and therefore is often the target of my frustration. But that group is much larger than theism. Other examples in my personal experience include insisting on the wrong answer to the Monte Hall problem, insisting 6÷2(1+2)= 1, etc.

    What is the emotional content of Francis Spufford’s aSantaism?

    • Posted August 29, 2012 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

      OK… 6÷2(1+2) = 6×½×3 = 9?

      /@

    • Posted August 29, 2012 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

      And… disappointment that he gets no presents in his stocking…

      /@

  44. Greg G
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    …uttering the words “sky fairy” or “zombie rabbi” where a real live Christian might hear them.

    Maybe those terms should be used more often where a “real live Christian” will defintely see them so more will become inured to words like “Millions are good without God”.

  45. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    “The proper response is humility.”
    That argument always gets an eyeroll from me. Here’s an example illustrating why in spades:

    Sam Harris and Rick Warren, from NewsWeek, 2007.

    HARRIS: It is quite possible for most people to be wrong—as are most Americans who think that evolution didn’t occur.
    WARREN: That’s an arrogant statement.

    Suggesting that those who do not accept well-established science are wrong is not humble. Boo Hoo. Meanwhile, how humble is Rick Warren’s religion?

    WARREN: I talk to God every day. He talks to me.

    Wow, he converses daily with the Creator of the universe! How could a man get more humble than that?

    • Posted August 29, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

      Thank goodness Harris didn’t say, “It is quite possible for most people to be wrong—as are all Americans who think that evolution didn’t occur.”

      /@

  46. Posted August 29, 2012 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    All of my knowledge of the universe is contingent. Personally I start here:

    http://ronmurp.net/2010/05/03/contingency-of-knowledge/

    From cogito ergo sum, which itself comes from a contingent position of doubt, I don’t think there’s any way of deciding between solipsism on the one hand and materialism on the other. The decision is arbitrary. Solipsism seems to allow anything I imagine to be both real and unreal. Solipsism is the ultimate philosophy that in explaining everything explains nothing. So I choose materialism. I contingently presume there really is a world out there that I’m looking at.

    This rules out the various philosophies that rely on reason alone, the Idealisms and Rationalisms and the like, because whatever you can imagine about, idealise about, reason about, can always be thwarted by taking that extra step into solipsism.

    Empiricism seems the best option. Once we go down that route we come to science. And science gives us Evolution. And evolution tells us that all early creatures didn’t have brains; and of those that did acquire brains few, and possibly only one, have been able to reason. Reason is an add-on, and evolutionary upgrade. So, if that earlier choice of going for empiricism over rationalism is right, then the evidence it supplies suggests that we were always experiential creatures and that our reason adds to that capacity to experience to give us empiricism: reasoning about our experiences. It’s consistent, self-affirming, but still obviously contingent.

    From there we also learn, come to know, how fallible we are, in both our capacities to experience and reason. And all the science we have about the brain should be screaming out that we do not have certainties, we cannot be sure about many things that we imagine might be the case, and that the only reliable way to compensate for these fallibilities is through science – but, again, it’s still contingent.

    http://ronmurp.net/2010/05/03/human-fallibility/

    This leaves us with a few ideas that are as close to certainty as anything. One is that all the mysterious stuff that does not have scientific evidence to support it is highly suspect (which turns out to be all of it). Another is that the internal conflicts and the inconsistencies of these mythical stories should make them highly suspect. At least to the extent that they cannot be relied upon for the prescription of rules. They are totally inadequate as authorities on how to live. They go way beyond the contingency I’ve expressed so far.

    One particular tragedy is that believers are so enamoured by their particular belief system that they are grossly offended by the comparisons between their beliefs and beliefs in fairies; they really do not see how appropriate that comparison is. They are so locked into the history of their belief they mistake that belief system for a description of actuality; they mistake the reality of the religion (the religion itself exists) for the reality of its content.

    This commitment is not the case with atheists. We can even entertain the God hypothesis – the hypothesis of the religious that there is some entity that has something akin to agency and intelligence (i.e they apply the illusion that we have free-will onto their illusion of a deity and they let this convince them that both free-wills are real – ironic). But, maybe free-will does actually exist in some entity, though it does not exist in us. We can entertain this hypothesis too. But there we have to stop, because not one jot of evidence exists to support these hypotheses.

    Just let an atheist claim that neuroscience can tell us something about love and the theist gets all empirical on his ass. And yet the theist can infer all sorts of mystical, miracle, personal God, goodness and evil, heaven and hell crap – all from the simple God hypothesis
    When there is so little empirical support for an imagined deity, and so much empirical support for craziness, if you are lucky (unfortunate) enough to experience a ‘revelation’ how the hell do you know you’ve really had one? When something odd happens in your head why on earth would you suspect divine intervention over having a bit of a funny do? And I’m sorry, but Alvin Planting is crazy. Oh, hang on, I get the connection. You have to have a little craziness in order for your craziness to convince you you’ve had a revelation. Is that how it works? Is that what makes some of them certain in their belief? Is certainty a form of craziness?

    Anyway, we atheists are not certain. Just pretty sure. How often do we have to spell it out that this is a contingent position and not one of certainty. How ignorant do the faithful have to be on this issue? How could any respectable theologian seriously miss the contingency underlying atheism?

    • Posted August 29, 2012 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

      I’m pretty sure that’s excellent. Bravissimo!

      /@

  47. Sastra
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    What gets me is the way so many believers seem to think they’re offering the atheists an olive branch when they admit they “struggle with their faith.” Yes, our points make a lot of sense and seem to be reasonable — so we should be quite happy to know that they find that the sort of problem which requires them to put all their energy and strength into their effort to fight, fight, fight against giving in to the temptation to become what we are. We ought to give them credit for noticing that we aren’t totally unreasonable AND for for having the good character to stand firm anyway and not be persuaded by us.

    WTF? That is not an olive branch, a reaching out for common ground. That’s a slap in the face. “Wow, your arguments for X are pretty compelling — so I hope you’ll appreciate how hard it is for me to ignore them. After all, I wouldn’t want to fall into the cesspit of becoming someone like you and believe what you believe. I’m trying to remain noble and true to my highest ideals; surely we can both respect THAT motivation!”

    Oh, please. Context.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 8:27 am | Permalink

      Subscribing

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 10:25 am | Permalink

      They have a few thousand years of experience of shoring up their ship against all kinds of leaks. One of the brilliant weapons in that arsenal is the temptation of Satan. It enables them to regard anything that challenges their faith, any clever argument that seems to invalidate it, to be the work of Satan and thus a welcome opportunity to renew their faith and to fight that war against evil. They don’t even have to engage the argument rationally; if they feel doubt creeping in, if they don’t know how to respond, the conditioned response is to suspect it must be Satan’s guile and trickery, and to flee back into the security of faith.

      It’s a kind of semi-permeable membrane that keeps members of the flock from straying. Then they can feel smug and superior because their virtue is superior to your foolish yielding to Satan’s temptations.

      It’s all so disgustingly self-serving.

      • Posted August 29, 2012 at 10:34 am | Permalink

        I’ve also never heard how it is that they can be sure that Satan, the Great Deceiver, hasn’t deceived them into thinking what he wants them to about Jesus. How do they know the true source of that infamous “still small voice”? Especially considering how many “good christians” have (e.g.) gone on to become mass child rapists.

        Satan sure does do in an awful lot of people who at least appear to have sincerely and fully devoted themselves to Christ. How can you be so sure that he’s not playing mind games on you?

        Oh — and how do you know that it’s really Satan who’s doing all this evil stuff, and not Darth Vader, Voldemort, and / or the monster who lives under your bed? Gremlins! I bet you fed yours after midnight, didn’t you? Well, that explains it….

        b&

      • Sastra
        Posted August 29, 2012 at 11:04 am | Permalink

        It’s not always Satan tempting from the other side. For the moderate and liberal believer (or those in other religions,) the enemy is often “despair.” Or “materialism” — with its deliberate blurring of distinction between metaphysical materialism (“all is matter and energy in motion”) and social materialism (“the only thing that matters is money, power, status, and having lots and lots of things.”)

        What does God and belief in God save them from? What would the world be like — and what would they be like — without God?

        The sad and empty portrait they paint is a portrait of us.

        The liberals often even wax more eloquent — unless they’ve managed to get down to “pretty much the same” in which case they’re probably just humanists arguing over our tone. Which they can do only by ignoring the implications of those believers who answered far otherwise.

  48. Posted August 29, 2012 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    It’s scarcely fair of Spufford to claim that evidence is unimportant for religion when so much emphasis is placed by Christians on the historical truth of the resurrection. Indeed, Christianity rather stands or falls depending on one’s answer to this question. Of course, arguments for God’s existence can scarcely be at the centre of religious belief. If it were, the practice of belief would simply not be able to get off the ground. But as a defence of those beliefs presumably such arguments must have their place. It sounds to me as though Spufford is faulting atheists for issues which, of course, must be central to atheism, and which, in response, religion must be prepared to defend. Suggesting that religious faith can stand on its own, without such defence, is a kind of presumptuousness for which he apparently deplores atheists.

    And, despite Greta Christina’s book, while no doubt there are lots of reasons to be angry at religion — occasions arise almost hourly — much of the atheist criticism of religion is careful, thoughtful and balanced. Dawkins gets an undeserved reputation for stridency, but when you listen to him interview religious fundamentalists or even sophisticated believers like Rowan Williams, he is the soul of politeness and quiet charm. I do sometimes show some anger, but, by and large, I try to be as moderate in the expression of my views as I hope others will be in response to them. And while it is true that there are some very ugly expressions of opinion in the comment stream after some Guardian articles, this is scarcely the place to look for the norms of the style of atheist disputes with religion. Sometimes I think we are altogether too kind to religious belief and practice, and that our rhetoric might with advantage be ramped up a bit at times. I simply do not get the impression that atheist rhetoric is quite so angry and violent as Spufford apparently suggests. Compared to some of the responding religious rhetoric, much of it comes off as particularly refined and cautious.

    It is true, and I have emphasised it several times, that doubt and faith are near cousins in religious belief, but the while that is true, it is also true that doubt tends to inflate the public expression of religious certainty. Whilst the individual religious experience may often include doubt and uncertainty, the public institutional expression of belief is often correspondingly dogmatic and certain, without the qualifications that individuals might express to themselves in secret. Atheism must be different to this, since unbelief is not a belief position, but merely a claim that there is simply not enough evidence upon which to base belief, which should follow on to the exploration of ways of living in which belief is not central. That part, if undertaken seriously, would immediately raise all sorts of questions about how indidividual lives can be given meaning and purpose. In its destructive mode — and much new atheism is still in that mode, and must remain so so long as the religious footprint in society is as large as it is — atheism may seem negative and nasty, but that is not characteristic of the life of unbelief, which will be seen to be one of the celebration of life, and of the wonder of being alive.

    • Christian
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 10:12 am | Permalink

      Excellent post ;)

      I have a question concerning Sophisticated Theology (ST) and church services.
      As I remarked in one of my posts above, I haven’t encountered any of this ST during any of the church services I attended. Being an atheist with a liberal Lutheran background I may have only a limited perspective on this whole matter.

      So I wanted to ask you as a former priest if you know of any efforts by different churches to introduce more ST into their services and to get the faithful to abandon their often naïve, anthropomorphic god concepts (which undoubtedly many of them have) in favor of a more sophisticated version of this god.
      Are the sophisticated theologians like Plantinga, Swinburne, Hartshorne, etc. and their ideas ever mentioned or are they still following the old patterns?

      • Sajanas
        Posted August 29, 2012 at 10:54 am | Permalink

        As another atheist formerly of liberal Lutheran background (the ELCA), I actually had a little experience with Sophisticated Theology… for a while, we had an older retired pastor who was a theologian serve as a substitute pastor, and he actually would delve into ST in sermons. And they bombed. 45 minute lectures about various aspects of theology put everyone to sleep… I can’t even remember what they were about.

        I do think that some of it might come out in adult bible study classes, but from what my parents describe, its still softball stuff… and it would almost have to be since most theology is barely understandable as it is.

      • Posted August 29, 2012 at 11:09 am | Permalink

        Christian,

        I don’t know of any general programme to introduce ST into church services. I remember one young priest saying to me, shortly after beginning in his first parish, that if he told the people what he really believed they would think that he was not really a Christian. He has since become much more orthodox in belief.

        The problem with trying to introduce ST to congregations is that in order to do so you must be fairly quick on your intellectual feet, be ready with an answer when asked for one, and generally be able to support your point of view with some sophistication, however ironically you may use the term Sophisticated Theology. Most clergy are not prepared to do this, and I found that, on beginning a ministry in a parish, that it took some time to work up to the point where you were actually getting people to think. Indeed, I think it would be fair to say that people came to church, ultimately, because they were (i) challenged, or (ii) could not accept straightforward orthdosy. Elizabeth used to say that I had “groupies” and that a good proportion of the congregation were really atheists — both of which were probably true. In my experience in other churches, on holiday, etc., I never encountered anything that even approached ST, so attending church became something of a trial, unless I was in charge of what was said!

        There is a movement, fairly strong in both England, Australia and New Zealand, called Sea of Faith, and based broadly on the writings of Don Cupitt. I think there are a number of clergy who introduce this more radical idea of Christianity into their homilies, and into whatever instruction they provide. Jack Spong has some followers in the US who do similar sorts of things. Unfortunately, the number who do this is quite small, I believe, and its effect fairly limited on the greater number of Christian believers. That’s only an impression, but I think it’s fairly accurate. The Anglican church started to become more conservative through the nineties and into the first decade of this century. I think the trend continues, if the Church of England is anything to go by.

        • Christian
          Posted August 29, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

          Thanks for your response.
          As I said, I’m from a liberal Lutheran background and as such I had to be confirmed in the Lutheran church (ca 14 yo). The year prior to the confirmation we had to go to a “confirmation class” at church but I can’t remember any Sophisticated Theology there either.
          Neither did I see any traces thereof in the handful of Catholic services I attended (Catholic friends, and by that time I was already an atheist).

          It’s been always my suspicion that most priests stick to more traditional services because introducing Sophisticated Theology is too much work, it will probably go over the head of most of their congregation anyway and most likely will alienate the more conservative part of their flock.
          So better stick to what works and never change a running system.

    • Gary W
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

      It is true, and I have emphasised it several times, that doubt and faith are near cousins in religious belief

      Andrew Sullivan often says something like this, referring to his “doubt-filled faith,” and it has never made any sense to me. What exactly is this relationship between doubt and faith? If you hold your beliefs on the basis of evidence, then doubt is the rational response to a lack of evidence. The less evidence, the more doubt. The more evidence, the less doubt. But if you hold your beliefs on the basis of *faith* rather than evidence, why do you have any doubt? What determines your degree of doubt? Why not have complete, doubt-free faith in your belief rather than just weak, doubting faith? I think these questions help to illuminate the absurdity of faith as a basis for belief.

      • Sastra
        Posted August 29, 2012 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

        The religious apparently consider “doubt-filled faith” to be similar to successfully working with a handicap — though you are weak, you manage to brace yourself and rise up to the task. Just as courage is not the absence of fear, but the mastery of fear, religious faith is not the absence of doubt: it’s the mastery of doubt. Your faith is in some ways worth MORE than the simple and unquestioning faith of a child. You FIGHT for it … and it makes you stronger.

        None of which of course makes a damn bit of sense when placed in the context it should be placed: drawing a rational conclusion from the evidence. But of course the religious don’t want to think this clearly. They mix up epistemology with ethics and imagine themselves as loyally living up to a commitment. They believe.

        They see the problem clearly enough in other contexts, usually. They don’t look at people who hold a political position in the teeth of all the rational evidence and consider them brave and noble soldiers standing steadfast against great opposition. They, like the rest of us, usually consider such people to be blockheads.

        • Gary W
          Posted August 29, 2012 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

          I would say that it is precisely because of the lack of evidence for (or the amount of evidence against) the beliefs they supposedly hold as a matter of faith that they admit to doubt about those beliefs. They just refuse to acknowledge this or confront the implication that faith is worthless for distinguishing truth from falsehood.

        • truthspeaker
          Posted August 30, 2012 at 4:42 am | Permalink

          Well said, as usual. I think that’s what believers mean when they speak of faith being “difficult” or “tricky”. They believe despite their doubts, and they see this as a good thing, like if you were running a marathon and kept pushing forward even though your body feels like it can’t go any farther.

  49. David Sepkoski
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    In terms of Jerry’s question, it really depends on the context, doesn’t it? I’d say that–as many people have already pointed out–given the objective harm organized religions and religious believers have caused and are causing society, there’s no amount of righteous indignation and principled opposition among the atheist community that has gone “too far.” You can’t possibly live in the US, care about civil liberties and democracy, and not recognize this.

    On the other hand, if the context is the much more specific political debate about teaching evolution in schools, then some of the angry rhetoric–as justified as it may be–doesn’t help all that much. It makes one’s blood boil to read about some inane comment made by some ignorant Texas school board member, for example, but it’s probably not good strategy to march into a school board hearing and denounce that person as an idiot.

    But the thing is, most of the angriest rhetoric is on blogs and websites frequented by atheists who are fed up, not in books and articles written by people like Jerry and Dawkins, which tend to be reasoned and moderate, if firm. I don’t recall either of those authors mocking religious believers for worshiping a “sky fairy” or “zombie rabbi” in any of their books or essays.

    It seems like most of the time a religious believer like Spufford gets upset is because he’s wandered into an atheist conversation and gotten his feelings hurt. I might ask Spufford why he hangs around discussions frequented by people who clearly don’t agree with him if he’s going to get upset. Is he a masochist? It’s one thing to suggest, as a matter of good strategy, moderation in tone in public arguments in favor of science education, but are we really supposed to watch what we say when we’re talking to one another (and venting) on websites like this one, for fear that a christian might overhear us and get offended? While at the same time, of course, “respectable” religious leaders and politicians can feel free to denounce us in the vilest possible terms with full public approbation.

    Sorry, but that’s a double standard. We may have our own internal disagreements about the rhetoric we use for public discussions of evolution, but we’re fully entitled to get as angry as we want about religion. The day that the majority of our society becomes atheist, and our politics and public discourse is entirely secular, then people like Spufford can whine about their hurt feelings and maybe I’ll listen. But if it will make him feel better, maybe we should have a rule where every time we say something critical of religion, we add the statement “but of course this doesn’t apply to Francis Spufford, who is a really nice person.”

    • Sastra
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 11:07 am | Permalink

      No, I think Spufford is upset about the atheist comments coming in to religious sites — or to ‘neutral’ (mainstream) ones.

  50. squinky101
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    Have we become too self-righteous and vociferous?

    Yes, many of us have. I would defend this behavior on two fronts though, one from Harris and one from Hitch. Harris contends that religion must be pressured on all sides in all areas of discourse from comedy to the classroom to the political podium. I agree and this unrelenting pressure is what is different about what atheists have done in the past and it’s working! Further, it is appealing to logic and reason of our youth which, in the end, spells the demise of religious indoctrination. Hitch’s mission was to publicly criticize and shame all religion-based oppression or behavior that stands against the basic tenets of humanism such as genital mutilation, opposition to birth control, indoctrination of children, a perverse relationship with women from honor killing to menstrual blood to the hymen, etc.

    Both are right and I don’t care about the threats from timorous religious apologists. A pox on their houses for trying to oppress people and their right to free expression. Lastly, some of this is blowback from atheists having to publicly edit themselves for decades for fear of being outcast from their community. Hitch told Dawkins (who put it in his eulogy) to never fear the charge of stridency. I agree and in the end, we’re only defending the truth.

  51. saguhh00
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    to me, the problem with God is in the worshipping of gaps:

    1- an unexplained phenomenon is found.
    2- the argumentum ad ignorantiam “Goddidit” is used to explain the phenomenon.
    3- the phenomenon explained with the argumentum ad ignorantiam is considered evidence for God.
    4- any real explanation is seen as an attack against God, because it is removing the argumentum ad ignorantiam which makes the phenomenon evidence for God.

    Thus believe in God glorifies ignorance, because the less you know, the more you can explain with the argumentum ad ignorantiam “Goddidit” and the more the unknown becomes evidence for God.

  52. Posted August 29, 2012 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    I haven’t read all the comments above so I have to apologize if any of this sounds repetitive.

    To answer Jerry’s last question “Have atheists really become too smug, self-righteous, self-satisfied, aggressive, and dogmatic?” I think we have. Or speaking of myself; I have, on occasion. And I’ve lost a friend because of it. But even when trying my best not to be any of the above adjectives; I still think we are right and they are wrong.

    It gets trickier though when arguing with someone that just believes because is comfortable to them, but at the same time they know virtually nothing nor care what the bible says and instead they come up with all kinds of assertions out of whole cloth, because it gives them hope and makes them feel happy and they still think that all is very Christian, even Catholic. For example: A friend of mine left a high paying job for another even higher paying job and when he shared the news with me he said “I know you don’t believe god exists, but I know he does because he helps me and he is good with me and that’s why I found a better job”

    So when the topic comes up, he uses his socioeconomic position, that includes smart and popular kids, fancy cars and vacations and a trophy wife to “prove that god is real and is good to him”

    I can’t argue against that.

    But if I try, I do come across as smug, self-righteous, self-satisfied, aggressive, and dogmatic.

    This is not the friend that stopped talking to me (not yet anyway). But as an immigrant and a non-church goer is not easy to make new friends and build a sense of belonging to a social group. So I have started to tread lightly even if I still find it very irritating when he puts god first instead of his skills and favourable circumstances as the source of his good fortune.

    The irony to this is how he helped me understand that religion also makes people more selfish. And he is the poster boy for this even he fails to see it.

    • Scott near Berkeley
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 10:33 am | Permalink

      Fancy car and trophy wife do not mean that “god is good to him.” Consider (and ask them to consider) if there was a god who favored those who worshiped him, why is the huge number of extremely fervent worshipers in Latin American living in dire poverty? And why does the Bible say, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than a rich man to enter heaven.”?? And, there is another passage that says (I cannot recall the exact place) but it says, if you are a Christian, and a stranger asks for all your wealth, GIVE YOUR WEALTH TO HIM that asks. And, if that person asks again, GIVE HIM MORE.
      I still cannot fathom that people think it’s beneficial to show up at a Christian church on Sunday in their “Sunday best”. Christianity became popular BECAUSE PEOPLE WITH NOTHING were the favored, the ones to enter heaven. Slaves and the poor flocked to it, and heads of households grilled them, rooting out the believers, so it was often a “nod and wink” underground religion for many years (“Heh! Heh! We’re going to eternal bliss! The master, he has NO IDEA that he’s headed for HELL!! Ha! Ha! Wooo! Eternity in HELL! Yeah, sure, turn the other cheek! Reward is mine! The master will be tortured. Wise men, Jesus, they all tell me it is TRUE!”)

    • Scott near Berkeley
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 10:39 am | Permalink

      Dennis, the kind of logic that sez “Look at my wealth and happiness, as a result of my religion, is known in logic as

      illusory correlation: seeking data that supports our beliefs, preconceptions, and hypotheses.

      also..

      “cognitive misers”: we look for simple solutions and base our decisions upon the first piece of information we receive.

      also…
      selective perception: Individuals are more likely to notice events that support their beliefs than those that do not (e.g. extreme poverty and suffering in Latin American, where religious devotion is very very high).

      • Posted August 29, 2012 at 11:08 am | Permalink

        I totally agree, but he doesn’t care.

        I did question him “How can you believe that you get all these things because god is good to you with the suffering we see around us?”

        His easy answer was “I don’t know why god wants other people to suffer, but I am happy that he allows me a good life”. This is a case example of after-the-fact confirmation bias among other logical fallacies including wilful ignorance. But when he lets the real conservative shine through; he comes up with comments like “They are poor because they’re lazy and/or stupid”.

        Besides, I could quote the bible against some of his assertions and still he wouldn’t care. Whatever his brain produces and sounds good to him, sticks; whereas anything written on any book/website/source is irrelevant. We have to keep in mind that this is the type of person that brags about never having read a book beyond what he had to study in college. He would make a great addition to the GOP. Please don’t ask why we are friends, we just are.

    • Sastra
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 11:22 am | Permalink

      I’ve found it useful sometimes to take their pragmatic argument as evidence that they have only a pragmatic belief — and accept this.

      “Ah, I see — whether God exists or not is for you not the real point. This is more like personal therapy. You’re finding what “works” for you. Okay. I get it. I care more about whether God actually exists or not, but I can understand that you’re comfortable and satisfied with your individual search for meaning. You believe in belief more than anything and you’re getting a lot from it. I hear you.”

      If you say it nicely (and they’re not all that bright, reflective, or attentive) then they might not even detect the snark. You’ve been honest –brutally so — but you’ve also been courteous on the surface and they can accept that and move on … if they so choose.

      Not aggressive atheism. Passive-aggressive atheism. As a compromise :)

  53. dunstar
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    Dear Believer,

    You are no longer 8 years old. Please kindly take responsibility for your own actions.

    Regards,
    God your Father in Heaven.

  54. Posted August 29, 2012 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    Among the many things I found wrong with nearly every sentence of that final paragraph, this part especially stood out to me:

    “It isn’t enough that you yourselves don’t believe : atheism permits a delicious self-righteous anger at those who do. The very existence of religion seems to be an affront, a liberty being taken, a scab you can’t help picking. . . ”

    These two sentences reveal either ignorance or dishonesty on Spufford’s part. The first sentence refers to atheists being angry at PEOPLE — actually, Spufford tries to claim that atheism itself, and not just some particular atheists, gives rise to anger. The second sentence refers to atheists being angry at RELIGION.

    There is a huge difference between attacking believers and attacking beliefs, and Spufford confounds them within the span of two sentences.

    • dunstar
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

      lolz. As an atheist, it is not anger I feel. It’s more like entertainment. I find it enjoyable to have discussions with Believers about their God and all the sorts powers He has.

      And in the end, as Mr. T puts it:

      “I pity the fool”

      lolz.

      They are like children.

  55. truthspeaker
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    OK, here are the emotional components to my atheism:

    I am offended by irrationality. I consider it an affront to human dignity and to the intellectual accomplishments of the past 200,000 years of human experience.

    I get sad when people fly airplanes into skyscrapers.

  56. FastLane
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    So, would Mr. Spufford suggest humility and polite acceptance if all of his neighbors were to start worshiping Zues, Athena, et. al., and politely accept them into the community, and gladly accept that the evidence doesn’t really matter for all these other gods as well?

    Place your bets, folks….

    • Sastra
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 11:36 am | Permalink

      My guess is that he quite possibly would. A lot of Christians have no problem with other people having different beliefs — as long as they agree to the Mutually Assured Destruction Pact and not proselytize. Faith is sacred; don’t touch a person’s faith.

      It is one of the deficits of religion that it blurs the distinctions between proselytizing, advocating, persuading, and forcing.

  57. MNb
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    I wrote it on Jason Rosenhouse’s blog and I repeat it here. It’s not a shame to be inconsistent (I am on four points); it’s a shame not to admit you’re inconsistent. And way too many believers who want to combine modern science with their belief system have huge problems admitting inconsistencies.

    “Before it is anything else, it is a structure of feelings, a house built of emotions.”
    This accurately describes how my female counterpart, a muslima, experiences her belief. As a result she doesn’t give a d**n about arguments I often get involved in/at/to. This btw is not contradicting her being brought up to believe, which also is the case.

    • Posted August 29, 2012 at 9:44 am | Permalink

      Just because many, including you and your counterpart, take pride in their willful ignorance doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be ashamed of it — nor that they shouldn’t be shamed into doing something about their ignorance.

      Cheers,

      b&

  58. MNb
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    My point is that Sophisticated Believers never stop there. If Spufford had done so I just would have shrugged. He believes; I don’t; so what? And Spufford doesn’t disappoint, Sophisticated Believers never do.

    “atheism permits a delicious self-righteous anger at those who do”
    So according to Spufford I am angry 24/7. You see, I am probably the only atheist in a very religious community – and most members know about me. After all I teach their children.
    In fact it’s this kind of nonsense that makes me angry – not at my co-villagers, but at Sophisticated Believers. My co-villagers are the uncomplicated, “unwise” believers the NT speaks so high of. I’m not angry at them; they respect my atheism, I respect their beliefs (yeah, we have catholics, protestants, evangelicals, jw’s, buddhists and two brands of muslims overhere; population 5000).
    It’s judgmental bs like that quote I can’t stand.

  59. meeh
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    I want to know who Spufford is on CIF Belief and where he was savaged badly enough to write this mean spirited attack on the atheists who hang out there!?

    Typically there are a good number of regularly posting theists and atheists who get on very well over on CIF Belief. Yes there is all the argy bargy of excitable debate but it is typically polite amongst the regular posters.

    The main source of rude comments are typically from drive by posters from both camps, or put towards religious posters who come on and are out right bigoted. There are occasional outbursts but usually folk apologise.

    The sad truth of it is that in the years I’ve been posting there is a serious lack of intellectual theists. Those who have come and gone usually only last a few months before leaving as they are singularly unable to actually come out with any justification for their faith.

    Sadly that means we get left with theist posters who “hit the reset button” in every topic and discuss the same thing again and again despite having been shown to be completely wrong multiple times. Or people that would find it hard to get out of a paper bag and just can’t make a straight argument.

    Even still we wouldn’t be savaging theists if they didn’t keep coming out with the same bone points that have been dismissed many times over the years.

    • meeh
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 11:02 am | Permalink

      To spite my own face I just pre-ordered Spuffords new book which claims to be “fresh, provoking and unhampered by niceness”. Which seems rather at odds with his complaints about New Atheists.

  60. Scott near Berkeley
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    The dividing attribute between “a religion” and “not (a religion)” per Francis Spufford, et. al., appears to be the level of emotion the followers put into it. Thus, Special Forces Ops, Man U football fanatics, and Newt Gingrich accolades are certainly following a religion, and are religionists by Spufford’s point of view.

    Are followers of certain tenants religious, or not a religious? Is the focus of their lives, a religion?

    To me, the dividing attribute is this:

    What is the penalty for apostasy?

    Severe = religion

    inconsequential = not a religion

    By this simple litmus test, the Unitarian Church might be considered more of a social club than any sort of religion, and I am fine with that appraisal. Certainly, the word “Church” holds no special place (see “Church of Reality”, an atheist group).

    Obviously, Islam is a religion, as apostasy is punishable by death, as was the fact of being either a Catholic or non-Catholic during the 100 Years War (location, location, location!). But consider: National Socialism in Germany, and Stalinism in the USSR must also be considered as religions, and I am extremely favorable to this recognition. “Traitors” (i.e. apostates) to the ‘one true party’ meant your death. And, probably the death of anyone associated with you. No questions asked. Yet people attempt to bundle Stalin and Hitler as “atheists”. Nothing is more absurd. The two were, actually, God on Earth to their accolytes, and acted in ways that would make the Old Testament God envious of the ingenuity they employed to kill the non-religious. You worshiped Stalin or Hitler, or your life was in danger of termination. Apostasy, publicly, meant death.

    There is no punishment for abdicating one’s position as an atheist (strident, or concealed) and thus it is in no sense, in any sense, a “religion”.

    Atheism is not a religion, because publicly abdicating your view of atheism results in no harm to the abdicate. << That is the Divide.

    • Sastra
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 11:47 am | Permalink

      I don’t agree with that divide: not only is “penalty for abdication” not definitive of religion, it allows the theist to shift the real debate onto other grounds. Take God and the supernatural out of religion and you have something else. You seem to be instead defining “totalitarian dogma.”

      There’s also some fuzziness on what’s meant by “penalty” or “punishment.” If apostasy is punishable by eternal damnation but the believers otherwise leave you alone, where would that fall on the scale.

      (I also disagree with you a bit on the UU’s: an apostate there would not be someone with a different “faith” — it would be someone with a different mindset. Ask how happy they’d be to accept an outspoken fundamentalist, homophobe, teapartyer or even gnu atheist and watch those accepting smiles turn to righteous anger and banishment.)

      • Gary W
        Posted August 29, 2012 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

        If you look at the UU’s statement of principles, there’s nothing that categorically excludes fundamentalists, homophobes, teapartiers or gnu atheists. But in practise, as you suggest, none of those groups would be very welcome in a UU “congregation.” The “religion” of Unitarian Universalism is really just a club for people with a certain, and rather narrow, set of political/social views.

  61. Curt Nelson
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    The thing is, religion is not and never has been a private thing. It’s been the opposite, an in-your-face assault on everyone to do this, don’t do that, believe this way or you’ll burn in hell…

    Now that science has helped us to understand how things actually work (and the story doesn’t jibe with religious ones) we have a real basis for saying no, religion is just wrong about it. So we answer thousands of years of religious brow beating with evidence based rejection, and we’re (atheists) being rude? I don’t think so.

  62. Stonyground
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    This is the response that I sent to the New Humanist.

    Dear Francis Spufford.
    Firstly, your assertion that both atheists and theists are in the same position regarding evidence for gods, albeit on opposing sides is simply false. In the complete absence of any credible evidence for the existence of gods, the atheist position is entirely consistent with the available evidence. The theist position, that it is reasonable to believe in a god because it is impossible to prove that none exist is not consistent with the available evidence. This is made clear by the fact that there are an infinite number of things that cannot be disproved, but for which there is no evidence. Is it unreasonable to refuse to believe them all unless such evidence is provided? It is also true that the vast majority of theists see no reason to be agnostic about the gods of religions other than their own.
    It is a very basic principle that the burden of proof always lies with the side that is making the positive assertion. My default position is that gods do not exist. I am, however, willing to entertain the possibility that a god or several gods do exist should a theist provide some evidence that this is the case. So far, no credible evidence has been forthcoming. I am also left wondering why you felt the need to make this incorrect assertion five times in five different ways in your letter.

    Is it actually too much to ask that you make your case without throwing a totally gratuitous insult in the direction of Richard Dawkins? Your empty assertion that Dawkins knows nothing about religion is slightly at odds with the fact that he wrote a best selling book on the subject. Your claim that atheists do not “believe” in anything is nonsense. Atheists that I know believe in many things but only if there are good reasons to believe them.

    As for the “whole crazy business of taking positions about entities you can’t see” this is the reason that we atheists are involved in the first place. Theists torture and kill people over this matter. If people believed in their imaginary deities and did no harm, the New Atheists would have no reason to exist. These reverse-trappists, as you call them, are only making a noise because of the great harm done by religion throughout the world.

    As for religion not being dodgy cosmology, I’m sorry but a dodgy cosmology is exactly what it is. According to the Bible, the infallible word of God, the Earth is flat, the centre of the universe, doesn’t move and has corners, edges and pillars holding it up. Religion constantly makes claims to be an alternative to science, these claims are constantly exposed as being false.

    If you believe in God because your religion gives you a positive emotional response and helps you to deal with the ups and downs of life, this doesn’t make the case that he exists. In fact this seems to be an open admission that you believe in God for reasons that are not valid. You mention that all Christians seem to be troubled with periods of doubt, could that be because they are constantly faced with the fact that their beliefs are at odds with reality? I wonder why atheists are not troubled by these periods of doubt. Speaking for myself, it is only a very vaguely defined deist kind of god that I am agnostic about. The more positively defined gods of the various religions are ridiculous, the Christian god is no exception. I ditched my Christianity when I was in my late teens, in the forty years since then I have never once thought about changing my mind on the matter, not for a second. Having said that, if I do find that my beliefs are at odds with reality I change them, that is the only rational thing to do, to revise your beliefs on receipt of new information.

    • Posted August 29, 2012 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

      Nice letter! Here’s hoping it gets published.

      If you spend a bit of time ruminating on what the word, “god,” means, I think you’ll lose your agnosticism over even the vague deist gods.

      Essential for any god to be considered a god is the ability to perform miracles. Whether that means bringing rain or creating our corner of the Universe, it is the miracles that define the gods and set them apart from humanity.

      Never mind that, save for creating the Universe, all the miracles previously attributed to gods have long since been very well understood as entirely natural and devoid of the divine — or that even the origins of the Universe are now starting to be understood. One can easily posit some previously-unencountered miracle that some hypothetical god could perform, and we’re right back to square one.

      …or are we? After all, a miracle is nothing more than an instance of the impossible. But, as soon as a miracle is observed, we know that it is in fact possible, and it is merely our understanding of how the universe works that is limited.

      The alleged miracle may well be impressive, or even beyond our ability. Marathoners these days are running 4:30 miles at the end of the marathon, a pace that was record-setting for even a single mile in the 19th century. And one can easily imagine some space alien visiting us from Betelgeuse and wowing us with its impressive tricks. Or, for that matter, being hooked into the ultimate virtual reality and “experiencing” any and all fantasies come to life.

      But we also already know that, since these miracles are happening, they must be real in some sense or another — and, since they’re real, they’re obviously not impossible. Impressive, maybe, yes, but definitely not impossible.

      And, so, by actually performing a miracle, the miracle is rendered mundane.

      It is for this reason that miracles — and, by extension, miracle-workers, including the gods — can clearly only be understood as literary devices and never something of the real world.

      Even if Jesus were real, walked on water, raised the dead, and resurrected himself, that would not have been miraculous or evidence of divinity. It would have been evidence that he had access to power / and or knowledge far beyond our own, and it’s even conceivable that he or some other force or limit could prevent us from ever doing as he did…but that would be no different from me never being able to run even a single 4:30 mile (let alone 26 of them consecutively), or from alien invaders simultaneously wowing and subjugating us.

      So if neither marathoners nor hypothetical little green men deserve deification, then no other entity outside of a book does, either.

      Thus: no gods, not even the most impressive and mysterious ones.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Stonyground
        Posted August 29, 2012 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

        To clarify. I am only agnostic to the extent that it is impossible to prove that the vague deist gods don’t exist. I see no reason to believe in them and think that it is almost certain that they don’t exist, but I can’t prove it. YHWH, on the other hand, is a ridiculous character who definately does not exist. I could give a great many reasons why I know this to be true but that would make for a very long and boring post.

        • Posted August 29, 2012 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

          I am only agnostic to the extent that it is impossible to prove that the vague deist gods don’t exist.

          I get that.

          My point is that the reason that it’s impossible to prove they don’t exist is that they can’t even be defined. After all, I also can’t prove that there aren’t any married bachelors living north of the North Pole, can I?

          Could this all be a Matrix-style simulation running on a computer even more impressively vast than the observable universe? Sure — of course. But would that then make the programmers of the Matrix deistic-style creator gods? Only if a pimply-faced kid becomes a god when he plays Sim City or builds an ant farm.

          The only context in which the term, “god,” is coherent, is the literary one — and you can demonstrate this to yourself by trying to come up with some sort of criteria that would set apart an entity as a god from one that isn’t a god.

          Examples can help, but only if, for each example of something that would qualify as a god you also try to come up with a parallel example that strictly fits the criteria but isn’t a god. Shifting scales — as I did when I compared the pimply-faced youth to the programmers of the Matrix — helps.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Gary W
            Posted August 29, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

            My point is that the reason that it’s impossible to prove they don’t exist is that they can’t even be defined. After all, I also can’t prove that there aren’t any married bachelors living north of the North Pole, can I?

            “Married bachelor” and “north of the North pole” are nonsensical terms because they involve a self-contradiction. What is the self-contradiction in “Deist God?”

            • Posted August 29, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

              Each word, “deist” (in the sense of creator) and “god,” is every bit as much of a self-contained contradiction as “married bachelor” and “north of the North Pole.” Putting the two together just results in some extra rhetorical oomph in both cases.

              The god named “God” of deism created the Universe, and nothing more. This God god comes in two flavors: one that inhabits some sort of meta-universe not unlike what some modern physicists propose, and God kicked off the Big Bang; and the other one is Aristotle’s Primum movens distilled to its purest essence.

              Granted, the first one isn’t a contradiction, but it’s also no more divine or supernatural than the programmers of the Matrix. Impressive, sure, but no more deserving of worship than the pimply-faced youth playing Sim City. We can create universes of our own; just not on the same scale as the Big Bang.

              And Aristotle failed at basic set theory. The First Cause is no more coherent than the largest prime number — or, for that matter, the largest integer or smallest fraction. Even if you grant the demonstrably false premise that everything requires a cause, only special pleading most obvious can get you out of the infinite regress. Remember, the ancient Greeks had lots of problems with the various concepts of infinity…as do, too, most people today and all theologians. Most people still persist in thinking of infinity as a really big number, like nine hundred million quadrillion thousand billion times four, only much bigger.

              I’ve explained the inherent contradictory nature of the concept of a god elsewhere in this thread, but the short version is that gods must do miracles, but miracles are (by definition) instances of the impossible. When you perform a miracle, you demonstrate its possibility, and the miraculous becomes mundane. Thus, no miracle can be real outside the pages of a book or off a stage.

              Cheers,

              b&

              • Gary W
                Posted August 29, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

                Granted, the first one isn’t a contradiction, but it’s also no more divine or supernatural than the programmers of the Matrix. Impressive, sure, but no more deserving of worship than the pimply-faced youth playing Sim City.

                The proposed God may not be “divine,” “supernatural” or deserving of worship, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a coherent concept. You concede that it’s not a contradiction, so your comparison to a “married bachelor” or “north of the North pole” doesn’t make sense.

                The First Cause is no more coherent than the largest prime number

                It doesn’t need to be the “First Cause” any more than the universe does. You claim the concept of a deist God is somehow incoherent, that it “can’t even be defined.” You still haven’t explained what’s incoherent about it.

                but the short version is that gods must do miracles, but miracles are (by definition) instances of the impossible.

                No one said anything about “impossible miracles.” The proposition is that this God created the universe. Why is that “impossible?”

              • Posted August 29, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

                The proposition is that this God created the universe. Why is that “impossible?”

                We’d first have to start with the definition of the term, “universe.”

                Most commonly, the term is used with the same definition as Sagan gave for the Cosmos. And, if that’s the definition we’re working with, then it’s just as impossible to create the Cosmos as it is to stand north of the North Pole.

                If you’re using the term, universe, in the sense of, “observable universe,” and more specifically are proposing an entity that initiated the Big Bang but had nothing to do with the <whatever /> that the Big Bang was initiated from, then I must question you as to why this entity deserves the title of, “god.” What makes this entity more deserving of that title than the pimply-faced youth playing Sim City?

                b&

              • Gary W
                Posted August 29, 2012 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

                If you’re using the term, universe, in the sense of, “observable universe,” and more specifically are proposing an entity that initiated the Big Bang but had nothing to do with the that the Big Bang was initiated from,

                The proposal is that this God created the universe. That doesn’t mean the proposed God “had nothing to do with the that the Big Bang was initiated from.” You keep arguing against strawman conceptions of God that no one has proposed but you. You still haven’t explained why a deist God is simply incoherent. The proposition that such a God exists may be false>, but “false” doesn’t mean “incoherent,” let alone “self-contradictory.”

              • Posted August 29, 2012 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

                The proposal is that this God created the universe.

                You still haven’t defined what you mean by, “universe.” However, you have explicitly rejected the “kicked off the Big Bang inside of a larger something-or-other” model of a deist god, which leaves as the only remaining useful definition for “universe” being the one that Sagan used for “Cosmos.”

                And “creating the Cosmos” is as incoherent a phrase as “standing north of the North Pole.”

                As a reminder, Sagan put it thus: “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”

                In order to create the Cosmos, there must at some point be no Cosmos. That sentence is clearly absurd on its face, but we’ll plow ahead.

                An entity that wishes to create the Cosmos must somehow not be a part of the Cosmos in order to create it. But the Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be, so anything that’s not part of the Cosmos simply isn’t.

                Again we can stop right here and observe that we’ve just demonstrated that your deist god doesn’t exist, but we can plow ahead even further and note that things which don’t exist can’t do anything, let alone create everything.

                Want more? Just look up any standard demolishment of the typical Christian’s “First Cause” argument for Jesus.

                So, all you’ve done by holding the door open for a deistic god is said that you think the most incoherent of all Christian apologetics is plausible. That’s hardly a stellar intellectual achievement….

                Now, if I know you from your past arguments, this is your cue to bitch and moan about how unreasonable my definition of “Cosmos” is, You’ll also fail to present your own definition for us to work with. Go ahead, if you like, but don’t expect a response from me — Jerry has made it clear that he gets bored by that sort of thing, and I really can’t blame him.

                b&

              • Gary W
                Posted August 29, 2012 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

                You still haven’t defined what you mean by, “universe.”

                Because it doesn’t particularly matter. It could be just the “observable universe,” as you put it, or it could be some kind of broader reality. Either way, there is nothing incoherent, let alone self-contradictory, about the proposition that the universe was created by a deist God. As Stonyground pointed out, the hypothesis is unprovable. Unprovable does not mean incoherent.

              • Posted August 29, 2012 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

                You still haven’t defined what you mean by, “universe.”

                Because it doesn’t particularly matter.

                Definitions matter, especially when a term can have differing and ambiguous definitions.

                Either “universe” is universally all-encompasing, in which case it can no more be created than you can stand North of the North Pole — as I have repeatedly explained, as has everybody else who’s ever addressed the “First Cause” argument of theists.

                Or it’s not universally all-encompassing, in which creating some subset of the totality of all existence, though impressive, is no more the act of a god than somebody playing a video game.

                If your “God” created an all-encompassing universe, then it’s a married bachelor north of the North Pole.

                If your “God” created a subset of reality, then whatever you’re referring to, and despite the confusing name you’ve given to it, it’s not a god — and so it’s totally irrelevant to the discussion.

                Or, you’re using some definition of the term “universe” that is so far afield from any I’ve encountered that you might as well be blathering about Scotsmen making oatmeal.

                So, which is it? Bachelor, not-a-god, or boiled grass seed?

                b&

              • Gary W
                Posted August 29, 2012 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

                Or, you’re using some definition of the term “universe”

                I just told you. “The universe” could refer either to just the “observable universe,” or to some broader kind of reality. In neither case is the proposition that the universe was created by a deist God incoherent.

                You are pretending that deism includes the premise that God created himself. It does not. Your premise is false.

              • Posted August 29, 2012 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

                “The universe” could refer either to just the “observable universe,”

                Then, though not logically incoherent and despite being impressive, the entity in question is no more a god than a pimply-faced kid playing video games; calling it a god is a red herring.

                or to some broader kind of reality.

                If this reality is broader but still not all-encompassing, it’s simply a more impressively red herring. But, if it is all-encompassing, then you’d have to go somewhere north of the North Pole to catch that fish.

                Neither option gets us to a creator god…so why is it that you’re trying to convince us that it does?

                What I continue to find most distressing about this argument is, like a young child, you still to fail to distinguish between the very big and the infinite. The two aren’t any more related than kittens and sporks. And it’s your inability to distinguish between the two that’s causing you to muddy the waters non-stop.

                b&

              • Gary W
                Posted August 29, 2012 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

                Then, though not logically incoherent and despite being impressive, the entity in question is no more a god than a pimply-faced kid playing video games;

                Of course he’s a God. He created the universe. Still waiting for your explanation of why this hypothesis is not simply implausible or wrong, but incoherent.

              • Notagod
                Posted August 30, 2012 at 5:40 am | Permalink

                If your god didn’t create itself, from whence did it come? If It didn’t create itself then It is obliged to Its creator and is not really a god at all, and in such case where then is your god’s God’s creator? And so forth. As you can easily see proposing a god, any god, given our evidenced understanding of the processes of the universe, is nonsensical not least because it adds nothing to our understanding nor does it explain anything. Most especially It explains nothing on a foundational level nor does It help us to develop our societies in a non violent and justly considered fashion.

                Everything that we can observe with verification points to a universe that is naturally sustaining without any voodoo included. Without verification any of an endless variety of possibilities can be proposed, but for that very reason they are not helpful to explaining nor useful to developing non violent and justly considered societies.

                Naturally occurring universe and naturally occurring life is what needs to be a fundamental basis for our societies because that is, from verified observation, what we have. We can use our intelligence to hopefully improve on the rather haphazard natural processes that have developed life on earth but, to deny that history is unwise for our societies would be built on faulty foundations that are vulnerable to crumbling.

                Incoherence is defined this way at The Free Dictionary:

                1. Lacking cohesion, connection, or harmony; not coherent: incoherent fragments of a story.

                And that is what your god proposal, ANY god proposal, lacks. That is, your god (any god) lacks cohesion, connection or harmony. Your god is Incoherent.

              • Gary W
                Posted August 30, 2012 at 9:52 am | Permalink

                If your god didn’t create itself, from whence did it come?

                It’s not “my” God. If the universe didn’t create itself, where did it come from? If this question is a problem for deism, it’s also a problem for atheism.

                As you can easily see proposing a god, any god, given our evidenced understanding of the processes of the universe, is nonsensical not least because it adds nothing to our understanding nor does it explain anything.

                It’s your claim here that’s nonsensical. Just because a proposition doesn’t explain anything or add to our understanding doesn’t mean it’s “nonsense.” It may be redundant or unnecessary, but that’s not “nonsense.” Or “incoherence.”

              • Posted August 30, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

                Of course he’s a God. He created the universe.

                Then you’d agree with me that the kid playing video games is a God. He simulated the city, after all.

                b&

              • Posted August 30, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

                If the universe didn’t create itself, where did it come from?

                It came from the same place where you stopped beating your wife, of course: the land of leading questions.

                The universe didn’t “come from” anywhere, just as there isn’t anywhere north of the North Pole.

                The universe simply is.

                The Big Bang may well have come from somewhere. But, if so, that simply means that the Big Bang is but a subset of the universe.

                b&

              • Gary W
                Posted August 30, 2012 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

                Then you’d agree with me that the kid playing video games is a God

                No, of course not. If you really can’t see the difference between playing video games and creating the universe, I guess it’s not surprising that you’re trying to defend such an absurd position.

                The universe didn’t “come from” anywhere.
                The universe simply is.

                In that case, a deist may say that God didn’t “come from” anywhere and that God “simply is.” If the ultimate origin of whatever exists is not a problem for atheism, it’s not a problem for deism either.

              • Notagod
                Posted August 30, 2012 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

                You would need to forget how that claim would work historically. Atheism is consistent with naturally occurring processes that act over very long times scales to slowly build more connecting structures.

                Christians think your god just happened from nothing, appearing as a super powerful super intelligence.

                A deist/christian has far more explaining to do before they have a coherent proposition.

                If the gods, christian or otherwise, were created then they aren’t gods but instead children playing in a sandbox.

              • Gary W
                Posted August 30, 2012 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

                A deist/christian has far more explaining to do before they have a coherent proposition.

                The proposition is “God created the universe.” Why does this need “far more explaining” to be coherent? “Explaining” of what? You seem to think “incoherent” means the same thing as “unproved” or “unnecessary.” It doesn’t.

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted August 29, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

          This reminds me of an argument Hitchens used to make when faced in debate with a Cosmological Argument specialist or other logical so-called ‘proof’ of the existence of God. Of course there is no conclusive proof or disproof, but even if for the sake of argument you suppose that some kind of creator or first cause intentionally made our universe, at best this is Deism, and “you still have all your work before you” to get from that to a monotheistic religion.

      • Posted August 29, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

        My 14 yr old son and I sometimes compare gods, just for fun:

        The bible god creator of the universe might be impressive, but not so in the form Jesus.

        Give me Doctor Manhattan (from the Watchmen comics) and then I’d be impressed.

        Walking on water? Resurrecting? That’s child’s play to Dr Manhattan!

        How about walking on the surface of the sun or building complex machines out of thin air, manipulating energy and atoms at will? Not bad eh?

        Today’s comic artists and writers show how the writers of the bible had their imagination limited to the knowledge available at the time. It could be said that the bible was the comic book/fairytale of their time, but people peddled it as real.

        Good letter. I also hope it gets published.

        • Posted August 29, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

          Sounds like some fun conversations.

          If you really want to get into the thick of things, try to figure out the moral responsibilities that ensue from the various superpowers. Should or shouldn’t Superman become the ultimate cop, and should or shouldn’t he use his X-Ray vision…and with or without a warrant? And what if Superman uses his Superpowers to make himself Super-smart, much smarter than any judge in the land?

          Cheers,

          b&

    • logicophilosophicus
      Posted August 30, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

      “Speaking for myself, it is only a very vaguely defined deist kind of god that I am agnostic about. The more positively defined gods of the various religions are ridiculous, the Christian god is no exception.” I agree with that. But I think the apparently universal belief in some kind of god across all pre-scientific cultures is some kind of evidence – not proof, of course, since the lack of agreement on details proves all (or, conceivably, all but one) wrong in all their detail. But the shared intuition in a conscious creator needs explanation.

      The God of Trinitarian Christian sects is not only “no exception” – it is possibly the most ridiculous of the lot (believers tend to appeal to essential and inescapable “mystery” when pressed, in my experience).

      • Posted August 30, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

        But the shared intuition in a conscious creator needs explanation.

        Oh, that’s an easy one. Humans have a really hard time with the concept of infinity and really suck at set theory. And we have a strong tendency to assume agency in everything that moves. Both are what you’d expect from our evolutionary origins — nothing on the savannah was infinite or requires anything even remotely akin to set theory to survive, and those who assumed that the bushes were moving because there’s a frightened rabbit or hungry lion were more likely to eat and less likely to be eaten.

        Until recently, humans also shared an intuitive knowledge that rain was caused by rain gods, volcanic eruptions were caused by angry mountain gods, and so on.

        The creator god hypothesis is just one of the last hangers-on of our doomed-to-failure early attempts at understanding the world.

        Also, insert here Richard’s excellent explanations that the reason that living things look designed is that they were — but designed by evolution. Humans recognize their own designs and understandably but falsely extrapolate that to the rest of the living world.

        Let’s not forget, either, that the rest of science shows us how badly our intuition fails…only recently did we figure out where the Sun goes at night, let alone come to understand that the very small and very large works radically different from anything we encounter in our daily lives.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • logicophilosophicus
          Posted August 30, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

          Easy as in facile. Those Just So Stories don’t solve h problem.

          The idea of an Infinite god is very late, so not causal.

          The agency involved when a person is killed by a lion or a landslide is visible and material; how should that lead to the idea of invisible gods?

          But the real problem is that gods always communicated with people. What has that to do with those agencies? Where would that idea have sprung from?

          Perhaps a kernel of truth lurks at the heart of religion after all.

          • Gary W
            Posted August 30, 2012 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

            Those Just So Stories don’t solve h problem.

            Yes they do. They’re an alternative explanation, based on evolutionary mechanisms, for the prevalence of belief in Gods.

            The agency involved when a person is killed by a lion or a landslide is visible and material; how should that lead to the idea of invisible gods?

            But the agency may not be visible. Is that rustling in the bushes just the wind, or is it a tiger stalking me? A tendency to attribute events of unknown cause to agents rather than natural processes may have been adaptive. Hence the tendency to attribute diseases and natural disasters, or good health and bumper harvests, to Gods.

            But the real problem is that gods always communicated with people. What has that to do with those agencies? Where would that idea have sprung from?

            The fact that agents tend to communicate. Even simple agents like animals. It’s hardly surprising that people believe the agents they call Gods communicate with them.

            • logicophilosophicus
              Posted August 31, 2012 at 3:28 am | Permalink

              Way off target. Evolutionary arguments are based on the self evident fact that lineages with a selective advantage thrive, and those with a selectiv disadvantage wither away. There is NOT WORD ONE about selective advantage – but plenty of hints about selective disadvantage – in these Just So stories about early religious humans. If that is what satisfies you as being an “evolutionary mechanism” then I suspect you are thinking refexively rather than logically.

              • Ichthyic
                Posted August 31, 2012 at 4:09 am | Permalink

                evolution of traits in populations is about relative fitness, PERIOD.

                whether a selective factor increases a traits fitness in one individual, or decreases it in others, is irrelevant.

                you should quit while you’re behind, you just don’t get this stuff.

              • logicophilosophicus
                Posted August 31, 2012 at 8:55 am | Permalink

                You have not identified a selective advantage. There is therefore no mechanism. You definitely don’t get this stuff.

              • Gary W
                Posted August 31, 2012 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

                There is NOT WORD ONE about selective advantage … in these Just So stories about early religious humans.

                I just described a possible selective advantage. A tendency to attribute events of unknown cause to agents rather than natural processes may have resulted in greater success at avoiding predators.

              • logicophilosophicus
                Posted August 31, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

                The only selective advantage you suggest is that religion enabled humans to avoid potential predators more successfully. If you consider the universal elements of primitive religion I mentioned – auditory hallucination, appeasement including human sacrifice… you’ll see they have nothing whatsover to do with avoiding predators, and are definitely selective DISadvantages. Meanwhile, you’d need to give reasonable evidence that the prehuman/prereligious avoidance strategies were inferior. Either way your argument is rather silly.

              • Gary W
                Posted August 31, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

                The only selective advantage you suggest is that religion enabled humans to avoid potential predators more successfully. If you consider the universal elements of primitive religion I mentioned – auditory hallucination, appeasement including human sacrifice… you’ll see they have nothing whatsover to do with avoiding predators, and are definitely selective DISadvantages.

                I see no evidence that that those elements are either universal or maladaptive. And you misunderstand the explanation from agency. The tendency to attribute events of unknown cause to agents may have evolved because it was useful for avoiding predators, but that doesn’t mean it is limited to events involving a risk of predation. It affects the way people think about causation in general.

              • logicophilosophicus
                Posted September 1, 2012 at 8:13 am | Permalink

                “Explanation from agency” sounded very grand, so I wondered if I was missing something. I Googled “explanation from agency” + “evolution”. Rather than the usual hundreds of thousands of hits there were two. I tried “…” + “religion”. Five hits. All but one were followed by a “person” word (“explanation from agency staff” etc) and none had anything to do with your Theory.

                For comparison I tried a couple of nonsense phrases (so I thought) – “religious squirrel” and (by way of evenhandedness) “atheist squirrel”, scoring hundreds of hits on each. So congratulations for originality, having gone Where No Man Has Gone Before, but otherwise no cigar.

                You see no evidence that auditory hallucination or human sacrifice were effectively universal. The relevant studies are in “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” and “The Golden Bough”. I already gave those citations. You say you see no evidence in the same sense that Nelson said, “I see no signal.”

                Animal predators communicate with humans – doesn’t that spoil the surprise? However, belief in gods enabled humans to avoid predators. How? I wish you luck with this Doctor Dolittle theory of evolution. I don’t expect I’ll be seeing it again.

                Religion, you say, is not maladaptive. In that case I wonder why everybody here is so hostile to it? But of course it is. How much of the productive labour of the ancient Egyptians was spent on Karnak, the Pyramids, Deir el Bahari, Abu Simbel, Abydos, etc, etc? That time could have been spent on building more defences, making more weapons, digging more irrigation ditches or just picking grit out of flour and lice out of hair.

                Still, if you’re right that humans had no instinct for avoiding predators until they got religion, perhaps it was all worth it.

                I see that, like that other person I stopped replying to when he wandered off into “crazy-ass wanker” territory, you think I believe that God/s actually exist. I have already made it clear that I am an atheist, and that communications from the Gods are hallucinations. Again you “see no signals”. Where is your evidence that I “believe” God/s actually exist?

                Bottom line: religion is a major human activity historically, not to be explained away by off-the-cuff pseudo-evolutionary theories. If you think it’s not maladaptive, think Waco, think Massada, think Poverty, Chastity and Obedience, and so on.

            • logicophilosophicus
              Posted August 31, 2012 at 3:32 am | Permalink

              And communication: animals don’t communicate with humans in any real sense; gods always communicate in the human way, with language. That’s pretty well a universal rule. And, in any case, once again where is the selective advantage (to outweigh the disadvantage of fruitless time spent appeasing nonexistent and invisible entities)?

              • Ichthyic
                Posted August 31, 2012 at 4:12 am | Permalink

                the teleological belief structures of religion have already been explained to you.

                the ORGANIZED social structures surrounding religion have likely to do with group dynamics and manipulating group dynamics for personal gain.

                again, there is a huge body literature on the evolution of religion, should you care to actually educate yourself.

                might start looking around here; this guy does a lot of work on the subject:

                http://www2.psych.ubc.ca/~henrich/Published.html

              • logicophilosophicus
                Posted August 31, 2012 at 9:10 am | Permalink

                “…already explained…” In which posting? No, let’s be less coy: no they haven’t. My posting was about language and gods. I suggest you read the sections on auditory hallucination in Julian Jaynes’s “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”. (I don’t who.eheartedly agree with Jaynes’s conclusions, but his survey of religious practice and experience in early times is superb.)

                Frazer’s “The Golden Bough” is another way of looking at the common elements of early religions. I would suggest that the universal prevalence of human sacrifice – typically high status ondividuals, the king, the king,s children or, more generally, the supplicants’ nearest and dearest – is in no way adaptive.

                I have been studying religion for fifty years, and have a library of over 1000 books on the subject. If we are to understand human beings this enigma requires understanding – not just writing off with glib “evolutionary” protestations which include no indication of selective advantage. Hamlet without the Prince.

              • Gary W
                Posted August 31, 2012 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

                And communication: animals don’t communicate with humans in any real sense;

                Of course they do. They communicate through sounds and behavioral cues. My cat is very good at communicating when he wants food, when he wants to go outside, when he wants to be petted, etc.

                gods always communicate in the human way, with language. That’s pretty well a universal rule.

                Of course. Gods are conceived as sophisticated agents with the ability to communicate through language, like humans. So it’s hardly surprising that people believe their Gods talk to them.

                And, in any case, once again where is the selective advantage

                Already answered above.

              • logicophilosophicus
                Posted August 31, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

                I don’t think lions and tigers and bears are quite as communicative/cooperative as felis domesticus. It would make for ineffective predation, don’t you think? Silly alredy – but the point, in any case, was about language.

                And the suggestion that auditory hallucination of a god has already been explained by avoidance of predation… It wouldn’t work, and it would be replacing instincts which did work. Just think about it.

              • Gary W
                Posted August 31, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

                I don’t think lions and tigers and bears are quite as communicative/cooperative as felis domesticus.

                I don’t either. The point is that they do communicate. So do people and other kinds of animal. All of these things are agents. So it’s hardly surprising that people tend to believe that the much more sophisticated agents they call Gods also communicate, and do so in sophisticated ways that involve language.

                And the suggestion that auditory hallucination of a god has already been explained by avoidance of predation… It wouldn’t work, and it would be replacing instincts which did work. Just think about it.

                That’s not the suggestion. The suggestion is that a tendency to attribute events of unknown cause to agents may be adaptive, and that this mechanism may account for the tendency of people to believe in Gods.

                The alternative explanation for the prevalence of theism that you apparently favor — that Gods really exist and people believe in Gods because they really perceive or communicate with them — has no basis in evidence or scientific thinking at all.

  63. Posted August 29, 2012 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    Many atheists are smug, and so are many Christians. Atheists have been saying this since I discovered the word with youtube videos of Richard Dawkins. It’s true of life, some people are shitty and some people aren’t. That doesn’t come from whether you are religious or not; there are shitty Buddhists, Methodists, Sikhs, Atheists, etc. But, being an atheist doesn’t lead you to any more harm, as say, the Christian belief that homosexuality is immoral does. Nonbelievers may accrue a certain amount of smugness from the fact that atheism is supported by so many intelligent, inspirational, exceptional, individuals, many of whom are scientists. These are the faces of atheism. Who are the faces of Christianity? George Bush, Sarah Palin, Pat Robertson, Rick Warren. But, I guess that depends what kind of Christian you are. I mean, the pope is in this list, certain theologians like …people I’m unfamiliar with. Compare that to people like Richard Dawkins, Eugenie Scott, A.C. Grayling, Neil Tyson etc. This is just my opinion as to what is intelligent, inspirational, exceptional, etc. I’m sure creationists think these people are ignorant because they have different beliefs.
    I also think it’s a difficult position to be in as an atheist who is trying to make a convincing argument that what she/he believes is the best way to live, compared to (we’ll say for this topic) Christianity. There are so many, not just beliefs, but, conflicting beliefs among Christians alone. When you make an argument one way about a certain person or group, you always get someone like Spufford saying “well, that’s not what I believe. I believe ‘this,’ ‘this,’ and ‘this,’ which is going to be completely opposed to the next Christian you are likely to engage with (not saying that I would seek these out, but they do occur online frequently). This is the most annoying thing to me about these arguments, and that’s why I wonder why bother? I prefer to focus on those Christians that, because of their religious beliefs, oppose abortion, oppose stem cell research, oppose equal rights for non white males, oppose teaching evolution, and a innumerable other ideas that are negative for society. A lot of atheists on the net take can take things too far and get really antagonistic with harmless believers who just want to be happy with their nebulous descriptions of what god/religion mean to them. For me, I do get angry at these people too, because they give the rest of the harmful believers a place to hide, in a way. I think we need to ally with people like Spufford and get them on our side to stop what the negative people I described are doing. Make them a scrutinized section of society and let the (basically) deists go on believing as long as they’re not a harm to anyone else. But, perhaps also have more prominent atheists do the same for atheists who incite violence or bigotry.

    • darrelle
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

      “But, being an atheist doesn’t lead you to any more harm, as say, the Christian belief that homosexuality is immoral does.”

      I am not sure what you mean by “lead you to more harm”, but I would like to point out that one of these things leads directly to mistreatment of people who have not even inconvenienced you, let alone harmed you in any way. In most other contexts this behavior would be considered reprehensible, and that christianity engages and encourages this behavior regarding homosexuality reveals how farcical it is for christianity to claim superior morality.

      “Nonbelievers may accrue a certain amount of smugness from the fact that atheism is supported by so many intelligent, inspirational, exceptional, individuals, many of whom are scientists.”

      I am sure smugness, or at least comfort does result from just that. But, what is more compelling and persuasive is that all verifiable evidence indicates that all religions are wrong about the existence of their various deities, and that there is no verifiable evidence that suggests that any of the deities proposed by any religion actually exist.

    • Posted August 29, 2012 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

      See that key with the bent arrow at the right of your keyboard, pt? Please use it. Often.

      (And double tap.)

      ;-)

      /@

      • Posted August 29, 2012 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

        Will do.
        I was at work when I wrote that, so it was copied/pasted from Outlook, to make it look like I could be writing a work related e-mail.
        I promise to try harder next time.

    • logicophilosophicus
      Posted August 30, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

      “Nonbelievers may accrue a certain amount of smugness from the fact that atheism is supported by so many intelligent, inspirational, exceptional, individuals, many of whom are scientists. These are the faces of atheism. Who are the faces of Christianity?”

      Heisenberg, Planck, Compton, Millikan, Hahn… Nobel Prize winners in science.

      Further back, Newton was devout. Faraday. Probably the vast majority of pre-industrial European scientists.

      That’s without looking at moral issues. It’s often been claimed in this discussion and others here that Christianity justified slavery. The truth is that slavery was a universal scourge of civilisation until William Wilberforce and other non-conformist and Anglican Christians in the British Parliament harangued and shamed their fellow members into outlawing the slave trade, and passing legislation which enforced that ban on the high seas – which involved paying major comensation to Spain and Portugal, for example.

      Christians may have a bizarre mythology, but that shouldn’t obscure the fact that many of them have achieved great things and/or been good and humane people.

      • Ichthyic
        Posted August 31, 2012 at 4:20 am | Permalink

        Heisenberg, Planck, Compton, Millikan, Hahn… Nobel Prize winners in science.

        yes, I do recall seeing posters of these people as religious icons when I went to church as a lad…

        lol

        Newton was devout

        Newton was a crazy-ass wanker who believed more in alchemy than christianity.

        he just also happened to be good at math.

        is it fun to lie for Jesus?

        • Reg Le Sueur
          Posted August 31, 2012 at 4:30 am | Permalink

          I believe he was also a Unitarian,ie he denied the Holy Trinity. Some Christian!

          • logicophilosophicus
            Posted September 1, 2012 at 8:45 am | Permalink

            When I was nine, I challenged my class teacher concerning the Trinity and monotheism. He didn’t retreat into the usual “beyond human understanding” business: he told me he was a Christadelphian, and that indeed Jesus was just specially close to God, rather than being God, and that there is no mention of the Trinity in the Bible. He was certainly a Christian, but a Unitarian. There are many thousands of them all over the world.

            But so what – Newton was devout, and was a great mathematician, theoretical and experimental physicist, inventor, cosmologist, scriptural commentator…

            In his day, btw, chemistry had not grown out of alchemy (nor astronomy out of astrology). Brahe and Boyle were also alchemists. Personally, I think that anyone with religious/spiritual beliefs should expect some interaction between the physical sciences and, say, “the spiritual” – else dualism, which is philosophically dubious. A modern parallel is Rupert Sheldrake’s view that, say, a chemical reaction once achieved becomes easier elsewhere because of a “morphic field” or some such. I don’t endorse that.

            • Reg Le Sueur
              Posted September 1, 2012 at 9:47 am | Permalink

              Yes I suppose it depends upon what is meant by “Christian”; there are innumerable definitions, according to whether one believes Jesus to have been fully, partially, or not at all, God. I am presently wading through the long version of Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall”; the descriptions of the antics of “Christians” of Constantine’s time are enough to make one puke, also of all the different varieties, beginning with the Docetists, the Arian “heresy” etc.

      • Ichthyic
        Posted August 31, 2012 at 4:22 am | Permalink

        Christians may have a bizarre mythology, but that shouldn’t obscure the fact that many of them have achieved great things and/or been good and humane people.

        you made his point for him.

        it’s not the religion that did this, it was PEOPLE.

  64. gravelinspector
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    “Take it from a religious person. This, we know.”

    What are your grounds for believing this? Why should I believe you, as a representative of a group of habitual liars and (self-)deluders?

  65. Daryl
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    Civility tends to be lost with the anonymity of online forums, blogs etc., regardless of the beliefs of the people posting. To say that this is something unique to atheists strikes me as a tad silly.

  66. Posted August 29, 2012 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    Here’s the problem:
    – Humanity faces unprecedented and brand new problems – largely do to accelerating population growth
    – ANY fact-based attempt to even address these crises is met IMMEDIATELY with dishonest and very well-funded attacks by people and interest groups playing directly on the population’s magical beliefs.
    – These attacks have one goal – stop discussion or even acknowledgement of these growing problems.

    This has been a very successful strategy since it is universally popular, blocks any admission of problems and reactively gets the support of professionals who should know better – philosophers, theologians and other folks with hi IQs and no sense.

    So any attempt to “call the con” is immediately deflected into matters of personal beliefs. Personal beliefs are irrelevant to matters of policy, fact and practice but one of the best rhetorical and ideological tricks to deny and avoid. “WE don’t have a problem — YOU have a problem.”

    And the philosophers, apologists, compatabilists and Chron of Higher Education jump on board! The deniers have devolved everything into a discussion of personal preferences — like ethnic food tastes! Clever and deeply dishonest.

    The stridency is another gross, dishonest distortion of the problem-solving process into the personal. Is your doctor “strident” if they insist on a treatment against your opinions.

    Power seekers, like the Koch Bros./Templeton’s son love these kinds of attacks because if everything is just about personal opinions and there are not objective facts, then whoever has the most money will fund the most opinions, endowed chairs, prizes, theologians and philosophers, think tanks, articles, etc.

    You can’t buy facts, you can always by opinions — paid by the word.

    Look at WEIT commentators. Even this agust and, we hope educated, group mainly devolves into personal debates. The moderator has had to caution on this ad nausem – to little avail. Human nature. We have to admit — any attempt to discuss facts in the comment section is ignored in favor of “He said, she said” or personally attacked. “Look at him/her, they’re trying to talk science — isn’t that an insult to all of us!!?” lol So silly.

    Just the way our brains (don’t) work. The fact seems to be that pretty much nothing is a personal matter. But it’s the best sales and attack strategy.

    • logicophilosophicus
      Posted August 30, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

      Point of information: population growth has been decelerating for decades; population will peak at 9-11 billion possibly around 2050, probably a bit later; the UN projections indicate that those 10 bn people will (on average) be much better fed, healthier and more prosperous than the average today.

      Not so much of a problem.

      • Posted August 30, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

        Citation, if you will. Thx.

        /@

        • logicophilosophicus
          Posted August 30, 2012 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

          The figures are from various sources, ultimately United Nations.

          Start with

          http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/longrange2/WorldPop2300final.pdf

          which gives a peak of just over 9bn in, I think, 2075, just higher than the 2050 figure. (Or you could find this all summarised at Wikipedia under “World Population” I suppose.)

          • Posted August 30, 2012 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

            I suppose you could, if you were aware that there was such an article…

            Thanks for the link.

            /@

            • logicophilosophicus
              Posted August 31, 2012 at 1:18 am | Permalink

              Trust your Google – if you put in the obvious keywords you’ll find a Wikipedia article near the top. I just tried the two most unlikely pairs that I could manufacture: satanist duvet and Uranus Ferrari – both have hundreds of hits, but add a third term in the search bar (satanist duvet Wiki or Uranus Ferrari Wiki) and up it comes. “If you were aware that there was such an article…” There’s always such an article.

              • Posted August 31, 2012 at 8:58 am | Permalink

                I should’ve said, “an article with such a name”.

                Not all Google searches are equal. Bubbles!

                And there’s no guarantee that Google will quickly turn up the exact source that someone else was using.

                /@

  67. Jack Henderson
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    Sorry to have given the wrong impression, then, early mornings and controversial issues tend to do that to me.

  68. MadScientist
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    “religion is not about evidence”

    What nonsense. Someone claimed that some god made some claims and that those claims are written down in something called the bible and that those claims are true. Investigations have since shown that many of the historic claims in this bible are not true – they are as fictional as Harry Potter. With so many untruths uncovered by investigators, why should we believe that the book is somehow the word of some god at all? Biblical claims frequently contradict reality and yet people still believe in the inerrancy of an ancient conglomeration of fairytales. Other cultures have similar fairytales and many claim to be the One True Religion. Religions are as true as psychics.

  69. Pete
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    “Religion isn’t…isn’t primarily a system of propositions about the world at all…. it is a structure of feelings, a house built of emotions.”

    I had this told to me by many that were similarly inclined. Each time, I’ve immediately recalled that Albert Morris song:

    “Feelings, nothing more than feelings….”

  70. Neil
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    The emotional content of my atheism.

    Anger–at the zealots and fundies who force their beliefs on others.

    Pity–for the poor deluded fuzzie-wuzzies who believe something because they want the world to be the way they wish it was.

    Bemusement–at the logical contortions some people try in their vain attempts to rationalize the irrational.

    Disgust–at the pomposity and true arrogance of religious leaders who claim to know the purposes of their imaginary god.

    Fear–that the great accomplishments and advances of science are being threatened by silly superstitions.

    Relief–because I have freed my mind from the pernicious virus of religion.

    Hope–that as more and more atheists speak out, others too will be freed from their delusions.

  71. gluonspring
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    “In his letter, though, he [...] claims that it’s almost a religion itself in its zeal and fervor.”

    At least he knows a damning insult when he sees one.

  72. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    Well, I think Coyne and MacDonald, and certainly between the two of them, have produced an excellent rebuttal.

    But this I take personal:

    He faults atheists for … a dogmatism that overlooks the possibility that we, too, may be wrong.

    Give me the evidence that your claims are well tested, and I will change my mind. No dogmatism is necessary to be an atheist, and as we all know very few atheists are actually dogmatic.

    And this:

    It’s as if there is some transgressive little ripple of satisfaction which can only be obtained by uttering the words “sky fairy” or “zombie rabbi” where a real live Christian might hear them. Now this, dear brothers and sisters, cannot be good for you. It is never a good idea to let yourself believe that the pleasures of aggression have virtue behind them.

    Depending on the culture, we all wade in utterly unsubstantiated and absurd religious claims every day. Religion poisons everything.

    Therefore it instills a measure of sanity and a sense of promoting the social good to respond, either factually as needed or even better comically.

    And really, if the equivalent descriptions of gods as “sky fairies” or as factually descriptions of a “zombie rabbi” are taken as signs of aggression, I do think Spufford doesn’t know what aggression is. Criticism of subject is not attacking or even criticism of the individual.

    If Spufford can’t distinguish between emotions and analysis, why would I listen to his claims of “lack of empathy”? I can’t trust that this can be evidenced.

    It is a, likely willfully, arrogant description based on the usual special pleading for religion. Add that to the list of utterly unsubstantiated and absurd religious claims.

  73. Posted August 29, 2012 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    Have atheists really become too smug, self-righteous, self-satisfied, aggressive, and dogmatic?

    Undoubtedly that’s true of some atheists.

    Some atheists are accommodationists.

    Some atheists are completely apathetic about religion.

    Some atheists are away with the fairies or crystals of psychics or goodness knows what other kinds of supernaturalist woo. Ditto pseudoscience.

    Some atheists are smug, self-righteous, self-satisfied, aggressive, and dogmatic … about politics*, economics*, football, jazz, American Idol, … and lots of other things other than religion & atheism.

    (* These might not be completely orthogonal to religion!)

    Atheism isn’t a monoculture.

    Atheists are people and people who are atheists are quite as diverse as those who aren’t.

    Atheists who are smug, self-righteous, self-satisfied, aggressive, and dogmatic just tend to stand out more — even to religionists who are equally smug, self-righteous, self-satisfied, aggressive, and dogmatic!

    /@

    • Posted August 29, 2012 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

      * + if not more so!!

    • Persto
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

      Agree.

  74. gluonspring
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 11:41 pm | Permalink

    “It’s as if there is some transgressive little ripple of satisfaction which can only be obtained by uttering the words “sky fairy” or “zombie rabbi” where a real live Christian might hear them”

    Almost like, I don’t know, many of us were abused at the hands of believers or something. Oh, wait, we were! At least, I know I was. Not in the Catholic priest sense, but in the sense of being terrorized from an early age by religion, by being made to contort my mind to try to believe the obvious lies I was being brainwashed with on pain of eternal torment. By having all the adults in my life work as hard as they could to instill extra fears into my life instead of calm my child’s fears.

    I suppose atheists who were never believers have plenty of their own reasons for feeling a tad hostile to religion, there are certainly enough to go around, but for me it’s personal. Religion tormented me throughout my youth. I am hostile towards religion the way anyone is towards an abuser.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted August 30, 2012 at 4:46 am | Permalink

      For me, there is a ripple of satisfaction for saying “sky fairy” or “zombie rabbi” (actually new to me, but I’m going to use it). It’s the chipping away at religious privilege that gives me satisfaction, and I make no apologies for it. The story of Jesus’s resurrection is not categorically different than an issue of “Walking Dead”, but the religious would like to believe it is, and they want society to play along.

      I got a similar ripple of satisfaction when I had a bumper sticker that said “Bush lied, soldiers died”. The press wouldn’t say it, most Democratic politicians wouldn’t say it, but it was true. Countering lies with truth does indeed give me a feeling of satisfaction.

  75. Reg Le Sueur
    Posted August 30, 2012 at 1:06 am | Permalink

    “Of course he’s a God. He created the universe. Still waiting for your explanation of why this hypothesis is not simply implausible or wrong, but incoherent”.

    It’s incoherent because this “God” has no proven existence. When asked where the Universe came from you say God created it.
    Then when asked again “who is God?”, you say he is the entity who created the Universe.
    This argument is self-referential and circular.Therefore to say “God created the Universe” is a vacuous sound-bite, a mere noise plucked out of the air with no epistemic content.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted August 30, 2012 at 4:47 am | Permalink

      I disagree with Ben here. I wouldn’t say it’s incoherent, just so vague as to be almost meaningless.

      • Posted August 30, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

        No small part of the incoherence comes from Gary’s inconsistent use of the term, “universe.”

        Just as the religious freely and with reckless abandon use “faith” to mean both “well-earned trust placed in another person” and “belief in a proposition not in proportion to the available evidence,” Gary is freely and with reckless abandon using “universe” to mean both “the observable portion of our surroundings dating back to the Big Bang” and Sagan’s Cosmos (“all that is, was, or ever will be”).

        If we’re talking about a hypothetical entity that kicked off the Big Bang whilst sipping tea and crumpets in some monster data center somewhere, sure, that’s not incoherent…but it’s no more divine or supernatural (though, granted, a hell of a lot bigger and more impressive) than a kid playing Sim City. (It’s also not merely completely without evidence, but instantly raises even more profound questions: what is the nature and origins of the entity that kicked off the Big Bang?)

        But if we’re talking about a hypothetical entity that created all that is, was, or ever will be…then that’s even more incoherent than a married bachelor living north of the North Pole.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Gary W
          Posted August 30, 2012 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

          No small part of the incoherence comes from Gary’s inconsistent use of the term, “universe.”

          I haven’t used the term inconsistently. You falsely attributed to deism the premise that God created himself. That seems to be one of the reasons why you’re so confused about it.

    • Gary W
      Posted August 30, 2012 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

      It’s incoherent because this “God” has no proven existence.

      This is nonsense. The mere fact that a proposition is unproven does not mean it is “incoherent.”

      When asked where the Universe came from you say God created it. Then when asked again “who is God?”, you say he is the entity who created the Universe.

      No, I didn’t say either of those things. I said that the proposition “God created the universe” is not incoherent or self-contradictory. Unlike Ben Goren’s “married bachelor,” which *is* self-contradictory.

      • Reg Le Sueur
        Posted August 31, 2012 at 12:04 am | Permalink

        Maybe. Then how about, “Santa Claus created the Universe”? I would say this is incoherent because Santa Claus is also just a proposition snatched out of the air. It may be syntactically correct as a sentence, but it means nothing unless Santa Claus is actually real. Or, “a jelly-fish created the Universe”;- now that is coherent and meaningful, but false.

        • Gary W
          Posted August 31, 2012 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

          It may be syntactically correct as a sentence, but it means nothing unless Santa Claus is actually real.

          Nonsense. The sentence has *meaning* whether Santa Claus is real or not. A statement is not meaningless simply because it refers to characters that may be fictional.

          • Reg Le Sueur
            Posted September 1, 2012 at 1:51 am | Permalink

            IF it is meaningful to say that Santa Claus created the Universe, and if Santa Claus is known to be a fictitious character (which he is), THEN it is equally meaningful to suggest that any other person or thing that you can imagine,-created the Universe; eg “Merg” created the Universe; or was it “Flugpoops”?–and so on to an infinity of possible meaningful creators, and if I can’t disprove it, then it is meaningful, and therefore, if you accept the (discredited Ontological argument),-it must also be true.
            Thois is also the Argument from Ignorance,-which I am sure you know, is a logical fallacy.To propose a speculative scientific hypothesis like String Theory, is I think, maningful,-as it works with coherent scientific quantities such as space/time, and subatomic particles, QM and wave theory. To propose “God” as the creator of the Universe has no theoretical background (unlike String theory). “God” is obviously a humanoid Superman concept based upon existing humans, (who definitely do not create Universes). Therefore to say that God created the Universe is “not even wrong”,-if God is just a fictition based upon being a superman in the sky; (men are not super”, nor do they live in the sky). It also commits another logical fallacy “the double statement”,-it assumes “God”, in order to further assume that this assumed “God” created the Universe.
            So to sum up, the claim is based upon two logical fallacies, confused semantics, and the discredited Ontological argument for God (and Santa Claus). I think we will have to accept that it was the jellyfish afterall; at least jellyfish are known to exist.

            • Gary W
              Posted September 1, 2012 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

              IF it is meaningful to say that Santa Claus created the Universe, and if Santa Claus is known to be a fictitious character (which he is), THEN it is equally meaningful to suggest that any other person or thing that you can imagine,-created the Universe; eg “Merg” created the Universe;

              No, that’s not equally meaningful. Unless “Merg” is defined at least as clearly as “Santa Claus” it would be less meaningful.

              Thois is also the Argument from Ignorance,

              WHAT is the argument from ignorance?

              To propose a speculative scientific hypothesis like String Theory, is I think, maningful,-as it works with coherent scientific quantities such as space/time, and subatomic particles, QM and wave theory. To propose “God” as the creator of the Universe has no theoretical background (unlike String theory).

              So what? Sherlock Holmes has no “theoretical background.” He’s just a made-up literary character. That does not mean statements about Sherlock Holmes are meaningless.

              “God” is obviously a humanoid Superman concept based upon existing humans, (who definitely do not create Universes).

              No, “God” is not necessarily “humanoid” at all. In deism, “God” is generally described as the “supreme being” that created the universe.

              Therefore to say that God created the Universe is “not even wrong”,-if God is just a fictition based upon being a superman in the sky; (men are not super”, nor do they live in the sky).

              Wrong yet again. If God does not exist, then “God created the Universe” is most definitely “wrong.” It would be a false proposition. But we don’t know whether God exists. I don’t believe God exists. That’s why I’m an atheist. But I don’t know that God doesn’t exist.

              You just seem deeply confused about the nature of arguments regarding God. You keep confusing truth with meaning. The proposition “God created the universe” may or may not be true, but it isn’t meaningless.

              • Reg
                Posted September 1, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

                Well I think it is all just down to semantics.  Sherlock Holmes is meaningful, yes, because he is human like us real people, although fictional. Santa Claus is a supernatural character, (real people do not drive sleighs in the sky and come down chimneys). The deist god is not meaningful because he is a Being that is unscriptural, and therefore not the God we have been bought up to believe in,- but just something completely made-up, and as far as we can tell, impossible; because although possessing human attributes like intentionality and creativeness, he is still sufficiently unhuman and unnatural as to be meaningless. If Everything is meaningful, as you seem to suggest, then there is nothing that is meaningless,- which seems to make the concept of “meaninglessness”, meaningless. The Argument from Ignorance is in suggesting that what cannot be disproved; ie any imaginary notion off the top of your head,-is therefore true. If as you say, “God created the Universe ” isn’t meaningless, then I disagree unless and until you can not only define God in a way that is not taulological and circular, and also demonstrate his existence as well as his alleged interaction with humans throughout history.  Then perhaps we might be able to ask him directly if he did or did not create the Universe, and if so how exactly. If you cannot, then I disregard the God-hypothesis as useless, meaningless  incoherent and a waste of time. If, as you allege, I am confused about the nature of arguments about God, then I think this also confirms the incoherence of the proposition; of course I am confused.  The very fact that it takes a human to define God, confirms tht he is a fiction in all his countless varieties.  I suggest that you must be on the side of the theologians, who are the ones who actually make confused arguments about God.  Don’t you think we atheists should stick together? That is all I have to say on the subject. I am not here to win a debate at all costs.

                ________________________________

              • Reg Le Sueur
                Posted September 1, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

                Well I think it is all just down to semantics. Sherlock Holmes is meaningful, yes, because he is human like us real people, although fictional. Santa Claus is a supernatural character, (real people do not drive sleighs in the sky and come down chimneys). The deist god is not meaningful because he is a Being that is unscriptural, and therefore not the God we have been bought up to believe in,- but just something completely made-up, and as far as we can tell, impossible; because although possessing human attributes like intentionality and creativeness, he is still sufficiently unhuman and unnatural as to be meaningless. If Everything is meaningful, as you seem to suggest, then there is nothing that is meaningless,- which seems to make the concept of “meaninglessness”, meaningless.

                The Argument from Ignorance is in suggesting that what cannot be disproved; ie any imaginary notion off the top of your head,-is therefore true.

                If as you say, “God created the Universe ” isn’t meaningless, then I disagree unless and until you can not only define God in a way that is not taulological and circular, and also demonstrate his existence as well as his alleged interaction with humans throughout history. Then perhaps we might be able to ask him directly if he did or did not create the Universe, and if so how exactly. If you cannot, then I disregard the God-hypothesis as useless, meaningless incoherent and a waste of time. If, as you allege, I am confused about the nature of arguments about God, then I think this also confirms the incoherence of the proposition; of course I am confused. The very fact that it takes a human to define God, confirms tht he is a fiction in all his countless varieties.

                I suggest that you must be on the side of the theologians, who are the ones who actually make confused arguments about God. Don’t you think we atheists should stick together?
                That is all I have to say on the subject. I am not here to win a debate at all costs.

              • Gary W
                Posted September 1, 2012 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

                The deist god is not meaningful because he is a Being that is unscriptural, …

                I have no idea what the claim that the deist god is “unscriptural” is supposed to mean, or why you think that would mean that the proposition that he created the universe is meaningless.

                If Everything is meaningful, as you seem to suggest,

                I haven’t suggested, and do not believe, that “everything is meaningful.”

                The Argument from Ignorance is in suggesting that what cannot be disproved

                “Suggesting” something (such as “God created the universe,” which is the suggestion you seem to be objecting to here) is not an argument at all. It’s simply a proposition.

                I think I’m just going to give up on you at this point. You keep ignoring what I actually write, attributing to me beliefs I have not expressed and do not hold, and going off on weird digressions. I’ve read your latest rambling comment twice, and I can’t find any clear argument in it for your claim that “God created the universe” is a meaningless statement. I understand that you don’t believe the statement is true. I don’t believe it’s true either. But it does have meaning.

  76. Mike W
    Posted August 30, 2012 at 4:15 am | Permalink

    Perhaps Spufford could write a book addressing the complete lack of doubt that characterises political speeches like this one from GOP VP nominee Paul Ryan: http://www.youtube.com/all_comments?v=uWJbgQkm0ig

  77. Posted August 30, 2012 at 5:47 am | Permalink

    Whenever someone makes the argument “Oh, belief in god is just emotions” or something similar, and then think that this somehow justifies it, I always respond with the following:

    The most religious places to live are also the worst places to live.

    Teen pregnancies are highest in the most religious parts of the US. Porn is bought more in the more religious parts of the US. Out of first world democracies, the most religious ones are positively correlated with rates of homocides, STDs, teen pregnancies, and other societal ills.

    fMRI scans show that people simply assign their own beliefs to god in order to validate them.

    Belief in god doesn’t reduce substance abuse, and makes people more intolerant.

    Religious attendance, but not beliefs, were linked to improved health, a reduction in suicides, and increased marital fidelity. Which suggests that it’s having social support networks, and not god belief, that makes people happier and society better.

    So, no, just being human emotions isn’t good enough. If it were, then we could get away with any other form of rank bigotry (racism, sexism, etc.) just because those are also just emotional experiences. Religion does a lot of empirical harm; whether it is the cause or the result of the above data is unknown. But it’s a matter of fact that getting rid of religion seems to be correlated with better societies.

    • logicophilosophicus
      Posted August 30, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

      Correlation is not nevessarily causation. Historically, more primitive societies are more superstitious, and that’s still true: mature, wealthy, educated democracies happen to be more lawful societies and also provide a cultural climate for progress to skepticism and agnosticism/atheism.

      • Ichthyic
        Posted August 31, 2012 at 4:30 am | Permalink

        Correlation is not nevessarily causation.

        think about that when next YOU claim Christianity ended slavery.

        the fact is, there’s not even a CORRELATION between christianity and a reduction of any of the bad behaviors in his list.

        thus there is no need to even check for causality.

        there is none.

        his point was christianity has helped cure NONE of the bad behaviors in that list.

        • logicophilosophicus
          Posted August 31, 2012 at 9:29 am | Permalink

          You missed the point. J.Quinton wrote:

          ‘Whenever someone makes the argument “Oh, belief in god is just emotions” or something similar, and then think that this somehow justifies it, I always respond with the following: The most religious places to live are also the worst places to live.’

          The meaning is clear – religion cannot be justified as “just emotions” (i.e. neutral – a silly argument anyway, but never mind) because all these social ills are caused linked with it.

          My point is that people in deprived, underprivileged communities rely on religion; prosperous, educated communities are nurseries for atheism. There is correlation, but the causation is clearly in he opposite direction. Atheism does not drive industrial development, but post-industrial prosperity enables freethinking.

  78. Posted August 30, 2012 at 6:21 am | Permalink

    Here is my response:

    I find it a bit difficult to understand whether you defend religion on the whole or just your particular version of Christianity? If you ask me a question “Do you know for sure that there is no invisible powerful beings affecting our lives”, – of course I would have to say: “No, I don’t know”. But real religions are precise. They have sacred books which content could be proven historically incorrect, they’ve got creation myths which could be shown to be just myths and shouldn’t be told at schools instead of science, they got moral code which could be shown unkind. Religions can have rituals which my moral duty could be to declare cruel and ideas which I feel I must warn people as of potentially dangerous. For me Atheism is not about abstract unknowable things, it’s about concrete details.

    People are very different in respect of what they cherish the most – hence their understanding of their own religion vary. For you, the emotions are the most important things, for others they will be something else: dogmas, rituals, moral, sacred texts, model of the world, power, hierarchy and so on. Please don’t make all believers to be just like you.

    Atheists are not a political party or a club, it’s just all sort of independent people who don’t subscribe to any religion while you subscribe to just one of them – this is why there can’t be much emotions involved in the idea of Atheism. “I probably hurt your “atheist” feelings,” – sarcastically said one Christian to me. I don’t have any “atheist” feelings. I am human and I have human feelings. I can’t understand why having ordinary human feelings (which of course could be hurt) counts by believers as something less important than them having their “religious” feelings… By the way that praised by you highly emotional state that many religious people experience, together with non-questioning, dogmatic thinking, may be responsible for horrific things believers sometime commit. We all got natural empathy of social beings – towards other human beings and some animals, but there are situations when it could be overridden. On the mass scale – by feelings and ideas provided by religion, nationalism or ideology.

    You are saying that a lot of Christians were atheists at some point. A lot of atheists were Christians (me included) so we know what we are talking about.

    I noticed that believers like to say “we are so similar to atheists” or “atheists are really believers too” – like they feel some sort of insecurity, the fear of being left behind.

    I love the comparison with Stamp Collectors and use it all the time myself. If all believers were like Philatelists I don’t think you would had much opposition at all! Just minding your own business… Philatelists (and atheists too!) never knocked on my door, approached me on the street, came to my kids’ school to teach their ways without my consent… Stamp Collectors (as far as I know) never claimed that all non-Philatelists are perverted sinners, lost souls and will burn in hell forever, they never invented a law punishing non-Philatelists for not bothering about stamps… They never executed anybody who said that stamps are rubbish. If you reject barbaric things like that it doesn’t mean that all believers do!

    It is not the pleasure to oppose religion and humiliate religious people which moves atheists like me but the desire to warn of the dangers of religion, especially of the dogmatic set of mind – listed above and others, sometime much less obvious.

    Honestly, which side, religious or non-religious, exhibits throughout the World and exhibited through the History more aggression and intolerance?

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted August 30, 2012 at 10:18 am | Permalink

      Nice post. My aphilately has never caused the slightest controversy! :)

      I don’t know how to measure whether more aggression and intolerance is caused by religion or not. Humans are what they are, and totalitarian fanaticism can occur with or without religion.

      But the association between religion and totalitarianism is quite natural, and what is certain is that religion has not done anything to eliminate these natural human tendencies, so it has no right to blame Stalin on atheism.

      Regarding invisible powers affecting our lives, what we can know is that if they exist and actually can affect our lives, we should be able to measure that effect. If religion is to have any more credibility than any other fantastic speculation, they need to specify when and how these invisible forces alter the laws of physics so that we can measure the effect. Absent such predictions from the religious believers, we can be quite confident in doubting these invisible forces, much more so than a simple 50-50 uncertainty. Until they can indicate some reliable way these invisible mysteries affect material reality, these invisible forces are effectively powerless and thus effectively non-existent.

      • Mike W
        Posted August 31, 2012 at 12:01 am | Permalink

        I thought aphilately had been stamped out….

        • Posted August 31, 2012 at 12:53 am | Permalink

          Oh. No. One day it’s going to give philately a good licking… 

          /@

          • Jeff Johnson
            Posted August 31, 2012 at 7:36 am | Permalink

            lol. Perhaps so, but it’s still not such a sticky subject as atheism.

      • Posted August 31, 2012 at 1:01 am | Permalink

        Thanks! My point is that religious often either are dishonest or don’t think carefully when they first say “You can’t deny there is unknown” and then by same strange reason concluding “This is why my faith in my particular religion is justified”…

        As for amount of aggression between religious and non-religious… The only examples of really bad atheist aggression they can think of are few relatively modern totalitarian regimes – based on ideologies reminding religions… (sorry if my English is not very clear)

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted August 31, 2012 at 2:58 am | Permalink

          It’s clear. I totally agree that totalitarian political ideologies tend to use the same cultural and social forces as religion does to unify people. North Korea is an excellent example of a political religion with the leader standing in for God.

          The most annoying claim is when Nazism is falsely attributed to atheism, which is easily discounted with a few points of history and a little thought.

          Here is something we must admit on religion’s side: it’s not true that religion is necessary or sufficient to cause war or totalitarian repression. It’s an historical contingency that most people involved in most wars that we know of we’re religious and often fighting to advance their religion. But people who avoided or opposed war have been religious as well.

          So I think that even though many acts of violence are acts of faith, blaming war and violence on religion as a cause is one of atheism’s weakest arguments. I think the truth is more like that religion is a result or symptom of the social and psychological forces that lead humans to bind together behind a set of ideas and fight or kill to defend or spread those ideas. Religion is a variety of powerful social engineering technology, and staying away from religion means refusing to be a tool, regardless of the ostensible purposes of the leaders.

    • Ichthyic
      Posted August 31, 2012 at 4:32 am | Permalink

      I noticed that believers like to say “we are so similar to atheists” or “atheists are really believers too” – like they feel some sort of insecurity, the fear of being left behind.

      authoritarianism is the single largest driving factor behind the formation of ALL organized religion throughout history.

      either formed BY authoritarians for their own sense of self-cohesion, or else formed by others to manipulate authoritarian groups.

  79. Jeuan David Jones
    Posted August 30, 2012 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    I was never really an ‘angry atheist’ – at least from the time I first rejected religion until the last few years. But the violent rhetoric and bigotry that have become characteristic of radical and fundamentalist religious reaction since 2001, have made me very much more alert to the dangers and active in my opposition. It always amuses me that to rant about the injustice of famine in a world of plenty attracts little of the venom that rants about the injustice of religious privilege , or about the absurdity of superstition receive !

  80. Posted August 30, 2012 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    Have just realized that most freethinkers/atheists and science folks are now revealed to be guilty of magical thinking of our own — well, not me.

    I will think and write about this some more but essentially most are pretending that words matter and that “right thinking” (really right talking) will change the harmful behavior that is correlated with religious talk.

    That is both logically and factually, probably wrong. In fact, the behavior of individuals (the only basis for selection) is (was) “optimized” for the local ecology. Words about that behavior are many levels of analysis away from causing behavior, it appears.

    So the hyper-concentration on right thinking(talking) is delusional. Of course, this is endemic to human thought/talking about stuff.

    More likely, for example, local weather patterns will effect behavior and quite a bit. Certainly, food availability directly translates into energy intake which quickly drives hormonal factors effecting behavior and physiology,eg alertness levels, etc.

    Lot more productive to study these kinds of physiological factors than more academic and philosophical-ideological shit chat.

    • Ichthyic
      Posted August 31, 2012 at 4:37 am | Permalink

      So the hyper-concentration on right thinking(talking) is delusional.

      correct.

      Lot more productive to study these kinds of physiological factors than more academic and philosophical-ideological shit chat.

      you need to get yourself a degree in sociology.

      or, if you want to armchair it, try guiding your reading towards things like this:

      http://www.psychwww.com/psyrelig/

      for understanding the modern psychology of religion

      or this:

      http://www2.psych.ubc.ca/~henrich/Published.html

      where you can find a good start on understanding studies regarding the evolution of religion.

      • Posted August 31, 2012 at 6:17 am | Permalink

        The point is, if we want to look at magical thinking we can do so inside of the free thinker/atheist community.

        This is a constant of human brains process — “right thinking” or not.

        We don’t need any self-help advice, thank you. Always best to look to oneself.

  81. Posted August 31, 2012 at 2:48 am | Permalink

    Spufford spews all over CIF belief:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/aug/31/trouble-with-athiests-defence-of-faith

  82. Posted August 31, 2012 at 6:28 am | Permalink

    Sophisticated Thinkers ATTACK!!

    Bullying rhetorical behaviors are the response of professional intellectuals to the major problems of our time.

    Overwhemlingly the response of “sophisticated” theologians/philosophers/men of letters/public intellectuals/professional commentators/etc. to the legitimate questions raised by the new atheists has been to use the reactive-defensive, schoolyard bully tactics of name calling, personal attacks, lying, blaming, finger pointing etc.

    Nowhere do any of these professional thinkers and writers actively and authentically engage in collaborative problem-solving let along mutually respectful discussions of serious matters. We see the same on the WEIT comment boards.

    Personal attacks and platitudes are the norm. What a disappointment. So much for the value of professional and public intellectual.

    Instead of leading an tuturing a princiapled and serious public debate they actively and aggressively have dedicated themselves to making sure this never happens.

    Are any philosophers, theologians, etc contributing to the crisis in public discussions of global warming, vaccines denial, etc?

    No they are fully engaged in calling Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, etc names and blaming critical thinking and research for the ills of the world and their professions.

    Freethinkers and scientists doggedly, and pointlessly, keep trying to come up with new ways to seriously engage with these professional intellectuals which just results in further bullying and abuse.

    The expansion of voices with the blogs, etc has just proliferated these abusive, dishonest tactics — not successfully defused them. More openness in public communications has just strengthened the dominance of the worst qualities of human responses to serious problems. Predictably.

    For example, the heroic effort of WEIT to speak truth to power and genuinely engage on these issues has just resulted in more personal attacks on the author. Very human but and obstacle to anyone learning anything.

  83. Kirk
    Posted August 31, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    The Belief section of the Guardian’s Comment is Free site—where you’d think that it wouldn’t be that surprising to find discussion of, you know, belief—is inhabited almost entirely by commenters waiting for someone to have the temerity to express a religious sentiment, whereupon they can be sprayed with scorn at fire-extinguisher pressure.

    *Puts on discourse analysis hat.*

    If you’re going to make claims on the basis of an online forum, such as the comment section of a Newspaper’s Blog, you first need to show you have a way to systematically put your own biases aside. Second, you need to deal with the strong probability that your sample is deeply skewed, and third, wrestle with the fact that the pragmatics of language and rhetoric in that medium are radically different from other human interactions.

    In the case of the study that purported to show a correlation between atheism and high-functioning autism by auditing discussion-board posts, it’s was sloppy methodology. Here, it’s just a matter of identifying the evidence that best fits the prejudice.

  84. bruce
    Posted September 4, 2012 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    Hmmm… interesting. “Have atheists really become too smug, self-righteous, self-satisfied, aggressive, and dogmatic?” Yep. It is only “natural”… It think that it is a general function of the species to view their perspective as the “absolutely right one.” Yes, the evidence is very clear… but what starts to happen to us is that we shift from evidence to belief almost immediately, and belief involves emotion… and emotional positions quickly deteriorate into arguments with both sides becoming “smug, self-righteous, self-satisfied, aggressive, and dogmatic.”

    We know that it is highly unlikely that we will EVER change someone’s mind through our aggressive and angry positions… Their position only changes if they are already questioning their beliefs. Many of us came to atheism through a long messy journey from religious beliefs or encounters that just didn’t fit and forced us into questioning our perspectives… and eventually digging for better answers – answers that had evidence. I doubt if any of us got here as a result of “loosing” an argument with an aggressive, abrasive, condescending, “know-it-all” who emotionally or intellectually overwhelmed us with their cleverly crafted debate.

    Do I believe religion should be countered and challenged? Absolutely! Do I believe I am going to change a religious person’s perspective by overwhelming them with my “smug, self-righteous, self-satisfied, aggressive, and dogmatic” arguments? Not a chance.

  85. 5ecular4umanist
    Posted September 5, 2012 at 7:05 am | Permalink

    Spufford’s New Humanist piece is online at http://newhumanist.org.uk/2858/dear-atheists


3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] to Jerry Coyne — who also writes on this topic – for sending me a copy of Spufford’s [...]

  2. […] (And Sastra) […]

  3. […] (And Sastra) […]

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 28,175 other followers

%d bloggers like this: