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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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 :)

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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&

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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?

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

                /@

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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….”

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. 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!

    /@

  25. 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.

  26. 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.

  27. 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

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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 !

  31. 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.

  32. 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

  33. 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.

  34. 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.

  35. 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.

  36. 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


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