An increasingly common argument of religionists and faitheists

As science advances at the expense of religion, the faithful evolve new strategies to keep to the trenches and avoid a retreat. One of these runs something like this (not a literal quote; I’m confecting the argument):

“The New Atheist accusation that religion rests on literal beliefs is bunk. Dawkins and all you miltant atheists are always oversimplying things, and assuming that, for a believer, literalism is important.  It isn’t.  The faithful run the whole gamut from almost complete Biblical literalists who take scripture at its written word, to those whose belief in the divine is deistic-—indeed, almost atheist.  But what you are too militant and blind to see is that religion plays an important role in people’s lives—a role infinitely more important than just believing in some “truths” of scripture.  The problem with New Atheists is that you think that by eradicating false beliefs, the problem is solved. But you can’t improve human lives that way! The onus is on you atheists to first descry the real role that religion plays in the lives of believers, and then use that knowledge to show people how they can live without faith. Dispelling falsehood is not enough. The failure of New Atheism is that it doesn’t provide a transition into secular humanism, and so is a failure. Making religion go away is not enough.”

This is, for example, the argument of Alain de Botton, who wants us to have secular worship services and cathedrals. And we’ll see this argument become increasingly common as the truth claims of religion are dispelled. “You tear down, but don’t build up in its place.”

An extended example of this argument is Gary Gutting’s piece, “The way of the agnostic,” published two days ago in the New York Times section “The Stone,” a section devoted to “the writing of contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless.” Gutting is a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. In August of 2010 I critiqued another NYT piece of his claiming that New Atheists never dealt with the “best arguments” for God, that there were some arguments that had convinced smart people, and that atheists should at least be agnostics rather than disbelievers.  It was basically the “Courtier’s Reply” argument gussied up with philosophy.

In his new piece, Gutting still claims there are valid arguments for God, but admits that maybe they’re not so absolutely convincing. But at least they’re better than tales about Santa and the Easter Bunny! And atheists have no support for their case, either!

Contemporary atheists often assert that there is no need for them to provide arguments showing that religious claims are false.  Rather, they say, the very lack of good arguments for religious claims provides a solid basis for rejecting them.   The case against God is, as they frequently put it, the same as the case against Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy.  This is what we might call the “no-arguments” argument for atheism.

But the no-arguments view ignores the role of evidence and argument behind the religious beliefs of many informed and intelligent people.  (For some powerful contemporary examples, see the essays in “Philosophers Who Believe” and “God and the Philosophers.”)  Believers have not made an intellectually compelling case for their claims: they do not show that any rational person should accept them.  But  believers such as Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne and Peter van Inwagen, to cite just a few examples, have well-thought-out reasons for their belief that call for serious discussion.  Their belief cannot be dismissed as on a par with children’s beliefs in Santa and the Easter Bunny.  We may well not find their reasons decisive, but it would be very difficult to show that no rational person could believe for the reasons that they do.

The cases intellectually sophisticated religious believers make are in fact similar to those that intellectually sophisticated thinkers (believers or not) make for their views about controversial political policies, ethical decisions or even speculative scientific theories.  Here, as in religion, opposing sides have arguments that they find plausible but the other side rejects.  Atheism may be intellectually viable, but it requires its own arguments and can’t merely cite the lack of decisive evidence for religion.  Further, unless atheists themselves have a clearly superior case for their denial of theistic religion, then agnosticism (doubting both religion and atheism) remains a viable alternative.  The no-arguments argument for atheism fails.

Well, I’ve read a lot of Plantinga, Swinburne, and van Inwagen, and, to someone who isn’t already convinced, their arguments are not only “not decisive”, but not even remotely convincing.

As for Gutting’s claim that these philosophers make it “very difficult to show that no rational person could believe for the reasons that they do,” well, that’s a red herring. Those “people” believed before they concocted their silly arguments (e.g., Plantinga’s ludicrous “naturalism-gives-us-no-reason-to-think-that-our-beliefs-are-accurate-ergo-we-have-a-God-given-sensus divinitatus), and although these folks seem like rational academics, their beliefs did not result from their arguments, but gave rise to their arguments.  Theology, after all, is the post facto defense of things that you already believed. There’s a reason it’s called “apologetics.”

And of course atheists need no case for denying theistic religion beyond this: “We see no evidence for a theistic God.”  The same argument supports a disbelief in Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the Loch Ness monster. The only reason Gutting finds these latter fictions not comparable to God is because there are no theologians who write on Santa or the Easter Bunny.  But believe me, if the human mind turned its enormously creative powers to Christmas, there would no doubt arise a Plantinga for Santa.  After all, people are convinced of the equally ludicrous fables of Mormonism and Scientology. If agnosticism is a “viable alternative” concerning God, then it’s an equally viable alternative for Santa, UFOs, Zeus, Krishna, and Aphrodite.

But Gutting’s main point is the one I discussed above: the “deep truths” of faith reside not in its epistemic claims, but in its ability to foster love and a community of kindred souls. Truth claims about God, Jesus, transubstantiation, the Resurrection, and so on, don’t really matter:

Critics of a religion — and of religion in general — usually focus on knowledge claims.  This is understandable since the claims are often quite extraordinary, of a sort for which we naturally require a great deal of evidence — which is seldom forthcoming. They are not entirely without evidential support.  But the evidence for religious claims — metaphysical arguments from plausible but disputable premises, intermittent and often vague experiences of the divine, historical arguments from limited data, even the moral and intellectual fruitfulness of a religious life — typically does not meet ordinary (common-sense or scientific) standards for postulating an explanatory cause.  Believers often say that their religious life gives them a special access (the insight of “faith”) to religious knowledge.  But believers in very different religions can claim such access, and it’s hard to see what believers in one religion can, in general, say against the contradictory claims of believers in others.

Gutting then goes off on scientism, saying that “art, literature, history, and philosophy” also contribut to human understanding, and as for religion, well, it brings us moral understanding:

Every mode of understanding has its own ontology, a world of entities in terms of which it expresses its understanding.   We can understand sexuality through Don Giovanni, Emma Bovary and Molly Bloom; the horror of war through the images of “Guernica”; our neurotic behavior through Freudian drives and complexes; or self-deception through Sartre’s being-for-itself, even if we are convinced that none of these entities will find a place in science’s final causal account of reality.   Similarly, it is possible to understand our experiences of evil in the language of the Book of Job, of love in the language of the Gospel of John, and of sin and redemption in the language of Paul’s epistles.

The fault of many who reject religious ontologies out of hand is to think that they have no value if they don’t express knowledge of the world’s causal mechanisms.  The fault of many believers is to think that the understanding these ontologies bring must be due to the fact that they express such knowledge.

Gutting winds up by reiterating that the true value of religion is almost completely independent of whether its epistemic claims are true:

To evaluate a religion, we need to distinguish the three great human needs religions typically claim to satisfy: love, understanding, and knowledge.  Doing so lets us appreciate religious love and understanding, even if we remain agnostic regarding religious knowledge.  (For those with concerns about talking of knowledge here:  I’m using “knowledge” to mean believing, with appropriate justification, what is true.  Knowledge in this sense may be highly probable but not certain; and faith—e.g., belief on reliable testimony—may provide appropriate justification.)

A religion offers a community in which we are loved by others and in turn learn to love them.  Often this love is understood, at least partly, in terms of a moral code that guides all aspects of a believer’s life. Religious understanding offers a way of making sense of the world as a whole and our lives in particular.  Among other things, it typically helps believers make sense of the group’s moral code. . .

Knowledge, if it exists, adds a major dimension to religious commitment.  But love and understanding, even without knowledge, are tremendous gifts; and religious knowledge claims are hard to support. We should, then, make room for those who embrace a religion as a source of love and understanding but remain agnostic about the religion’s knowledge claims.  We should, for example, countenance those who are Christians while doubting the literal truth of, say, the Trinity and the Resurrection.  I wager, in fact, that many professed Christians are not at all sure about the truth of these doctrines —and other believers have similar doubts.  They are, quite properly, religious agnostics.

Now I have a marvelous response to Gutting’s piece, but the margins of this post are too narrow to contain them.  It does involve the fact that though religion can motivate good behaviors (and we should not deny that), it also motivates bad ones.  Secular humanism, on the other hand, can promote the good but not the bad.

But what I’m most interested in is my readers’ response to Gutting’s argument, and to my own hypothetical objection to New Atheism raised at the top of this post. How would you respond if told that the benefits of faith don’t rest on the truth of its claims, but on its meeting basic human needs, and that New Atheists won’t make a dent in religion until we replace it with institutions that fill those needs?

h/t: Michael

396 Comments

  1. Posted January 22, 2013 at 6:27 am | Permalink

    “You tear down, but don’t build up in its place.”

    You doctors destroy disease but don’t replace it with anything!

    • Posted January 22, 2013 at 7:29 am | Permalink

      Oh yes they do. They replace it with good health without disease!

      • fubar
        Posted January 23, 2013 at 8:35 am | Permalink

        And sometimes they even replace it with a sponge or clamp!

    • Occam
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 9:27 am | Permalink

      “It’s one thing to install sanitation, but must you tear down the old outhouse and drain the cesspit?”

    • gluonspring
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

      Another medical analogy that lept to mind was:

      “First, do no harm”

      Even if we don’t know how to cure the patient, we can refrain from administering poison to him. We atheists are in the position of witnessing the religious administering poison and we admonish them to stop. They turn to us, indignant, and say that they won’t stop, that they shouldn’t stop, until we provide them with a substitute “cure” to administer. If not mercury, then something… the patient must be given something.

      • Jim Bradley
        Posted January 23, 2013 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

        I think you’d be hard pressed for those that believe they’ve been helped by getting off drugs and alcohol that your position is better. I mean – there’s this idea that unless religion is *perfect* there’s no utility. But perhaps religion is simply the search for a higher existence, as imperfect as it may be, and that, like all thinking, it can be used for evil or for good. Certainly science can be used to harm or heal.

        • gbjames
          Posted January 24, 2013 at 5:40 am | Permalink

          “higher existence”

          Please define your terms.

  2. Posted January 22, 2013 at 6:33 am | Permalink

    I would first point out that practically every person in the history of religious people would say that claims to metaphysical knowledge are integral to religious thought. The degree to which such an argument ignores historical awareness about what religous people actually have believed is not to be excused.

    Secondly, if there are earthly benefits to faith, surely the faithful wouldn’t mind giving earthly (read empirically justified) support for such a claim. It’s completely changing the subject, but fortunately it changes it to something where scientists have a stronghold. If they’re going to say that the benefits of faith are not found in metaphysical arguments, then science and has purview there…

    • Sastra
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 8:25 am | Permalink

      Right. The argument Jerry sets out here is a plea that atheists need to go into what I call Therapist/Anthropologist Mode. Stop examining the topic of religion and trying to get the subjects to change their minds — that’s not our job! We must remain neutral!

      Look at the people, consider the individuals. What is happening? What is right for them? Does their religion work? Do some religions work better than others? Let’s explore without judgement.

      If you’re a therapist that’s what you care about. If you’re an anthropologist, that’s what you focus on. Don’t try to force your own views, your own values, your own goals, on other people. They’re not you: don’t try to turn them into you.

      Demands that atheists go into Therapist/Anthropologist Mode is what I like to call a “Hey! Look Out the Window!” tactic. Because you start trying to address the main issue and all of a sudden no, they want to you to address some OTHER issue. Presumably because it’s more important — but really because it’s further away and thus less threatening.

  3. bacopa
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    I absolutely agree that we wont make much more of a dent in religion without finding other means that meet the needs that religion meets.

    And what are those means? Anything that reduces oppression and uncertainty in life. Anything that makes people feel like they are safe and have the capacity to address their problems effectively.

    Religion thrives best where life sucks most, make it suck less and religion becomes weaker.

    I still believe it is important to encourage critical thinking and to address the truth claims of religions, but we won’t really do it in until we can create communities that work.

    • darrelle
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 8:40 am | Permalink

      Religion thrives best where life sucks most, make it suck less and religion becomes weaker.

      Yes, but at the same time religion pushes back against trying to make life suck less.

      “I absolutely agree that we wont make much more of a dent in religion without finding other means that meet the needs that religion meets.”

      I am not so sure about that. I don’t see any mystery. It seems to me that the means to meet peoples needs are already known and utilized and have been for a long time. Some of those means have been around for all of human history. The trick to me seems to be to get religious people to stop believing / claiming that they need religion to meet those needs.

      • Nicole
        Posted January 25, 2013 at 8:47 am | Permalink

        Can evolutionism eliminate death? Can I get freedom from a life of guilt-ridden depression from evolution? Do atheists have a way to explain anyone’s actual religious experience without calling it all delusion? That would be a massive cop-out. Since experience is by its nature empirical, it exists in reality. Reality includes the unrepeatable, the inexplicable and the mysterious. If it did not, you yourself could not be, since those three adjectives describe you. But I could easily deny the existence of your experience/soul/humanity because no one can prove it. If only the provable has value, then at least to me, life is not worth living because I am the only being who I can be sure exists. Thanks, Descartes. And Camus. Positivism is where this all ends up and it is not an experience I’d wish on anyone, even if by some stroke of “luck” you are correct in believing it.

        So yes, I’m saying that because I don’t want to live in that drab and dank world of meaninglessness, I refuse to do so. I have my own better reasons than that for being religious, but they are nothing I can ever prove, thousands though they be.

        • gbjames
          Posted January 25, 2013 at 9:32 am | Permalink

          Can evolutionism eliminate death? No. Nor can religion.

          Can I get freedom from a life of guilt-ridden depression from evolution? The question doesn’t even make sense. But no. Nor can you get such a thing from religion.

          Do atheists have a way to explain anyone’s actual religious experience without calling it all delusion? Yes. The answers are found in the sciences of neurology and psychology.

          • Ryan
            Posted January 25, 2013 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

            Thanks for sharing your faith!

            • Nicole Platte
              Posted January 25, 2013 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

              Just miracles. But since you can’t reproduce them, you don’t believe them. So they aren’t real in your world.

              • gbjames
                Posted January 25, 2013 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

                Or any other (real) world, for that matter.

              • truthspeaker
                Posted January 25, 2013 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

                But since you can’t reproduce them, you don’t believe them.

                Exactly. That’s called “thinking”.

              • Nicole Platte
                Posted January 25, 2013 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

                Okay so this will be a new skill. Something happens only one time. Therefore it didn’t happen at all. That’s called thinking.

                Weird. I’ll try, but this will be very challenging. “Unique events don’t happen.” How many times should I write that on the blackboard?

              • truthspeaker
                Posted January 25, 2013 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

                Even we have only one report of something happening, and it differs from how everything else behaves, then we should be very skeptical of that report.

              • Nicole Platte
                Posted January 25, 2013 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

                Should? Says who? Maybe we should attend to it more carefully be ause it is different.

              • truthspeaker
                Posted January 25, 2013 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

                Human experience says so.

              • Posted January 25, 2013 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

                @ truthspeaker

                Oh, isn’t there some obscure quotation that’s germane here? Something about “extraordinary claims” … ? ;-)

                /@

              • Nicole Platte
                Posted January 25, 2013 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

                Somebody said that once. Therefore I must adhere to it. Right.

        • truthspeaker
          Posted January 25, 2013 at 9:33 am | Permalink

          Can evolutionism eliminate death?

          No. Nobody can. Anyone who promises you an escape from death is offering you false hope.

          Can I get freedom from a life of guilt-ridden depression from evolution?

          Not from evolution. Talk therapy with a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist could help with that, as could certain medications, depending on the reasons for your guilt-ridden depression. If this describes you, I’m sorry you feel that way. I have suffered from depression myself and, with help, got better. I hope you are able to do so as well.

          Do atheists have a way to explain anyone’s actual religious experience without calling it all delusion?

          The experiences themselves aren’t delusions. The explanations for the experiences some people come up with are.

          If only the provable has value, then at least to me, life is not worth living because I am the only being who I can be sure exists

          That’s nonsense. There is abundant evidence for you to be reasonably sure that other people exist.

          • Nicole
            Posted January 25, 2013 at 9:46 am | Permalink

            There is reasonable evidence for most of what I accept and you reject. If I apply the standards you use to determine if the spiritual world exists to whether you have a soul and an experience, it cannot be done.

            I have no guilt-ridden depression. But I did before I found true religion. I also take no anti-depressants nor drugs of any kind. The entire understanding of the world for an Eastern Christian puts everything in order and brings immense peace. The missing piece for replacing the role of religion is to bring inner peace. You can’t have inner peace without God. Not an invented God, the actual God, the one most adamantly disbelieved by atheists.

            I bring up death because it’s the real enemy and you can’t touch it. Never mind what Christians do with death; it’s too freaky for atheists.

            • gbjames
              Posted January 25, 2013 at 9:49 am | Permalink

              “There is reasonable evidence for most of what I accept and you reject.”

              Then produce it. You will be the first to do so.

              • Nicole
                Posted January 25, 2013 at 11:29 am | Permalink

                It is the same reasonable evidence that allows me to assume you exist. That’s my point. You believe other people are conscious although you can’t prove it. In fact you believe a LOT of things you can’t prove. Without those beliefs you could not function as a person. I believe just as many things I can’t prove, but only my theism and related beliefs are rejected in your worldview. Amazing selective application of supposed principals.

              • truthspeaker
                Posted January 25, 2013 at 11:43 am | Permalink

                You believe other people are conscious although you can’t prove it.

                That’s ridiculous. I have plenty of evidence other people are conscious. I’m conscious. Other people are the same species as me and look and act in similar ways. It would be irrational to think that I’m the exception, the only human that’s conscious.

              • gbjames
                Posted January 25, 2013 at 11:33 am | Permalink

                “It is the same reasonable evidence that allows me to assume you exist.”

                Really? God is chatting with you on the Internet?

                That is the very definition of delusion.

            • truthspeaker
              Posted January 25, 2013 at 9:51 am | Permalink

              Never mind what Christians do with death; it’s too freaky for atheists.

              You’re certainly right about that!

            • wads42
              Posted January 25, 2013 at 10:30 am | Permalink

              “I bring up death because it’s the real enemy and you can’t touch it. Never mind what Christians do with death; it’s too freaky for atheists”.

              No Nicole, I believe reasonable well-balanced atheists have no fear of death because we regard it as a normal part of existence. All living individuals die, but life goes on in their descendants and their works. If we could not die as individuals, lfe would be even more full of terror than it already is for some people. Death can be a merciful release, and as atheists we do not have to fear a vengeful, judgemental God and his eternal lakes of fire as the final solution for humans who have filed to live up to his demands,-or rather those of the people who invented him.
              Atheists do not live lives of “guilt-ridden depression”.
              Perhaps you cannot understand why not?

              • Nicole
                Posted January 25, 2013 at 11:53 am | Permalink

                No, I get why not, but that’s not everybody. Most people have needs your system of belief cannot address. It is unbelievably narrow-minded to imagine that people will be happy if you just get rid of God! Shows immense ignorance of history and of human experience.

              • Justin
                Posted January 25, 2013 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

                Of course atheism’s “system of belief” doesn’t address anything, because there aren’t any beliefs in the first place.

                So what if it doesn’t address needs? It doesn’t have to because there are plenty of other resources to do that. Like realizing that death will be no different than before we were born, or that we can experience joy by sharing real emotional connections with others and by bringing them joy as well. Why do you want more? Isn’t the garden beautiful enough without having to pretend there are fairies in it?

              • wads42
                Posted January 25, 2013 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

                At age 72 I hardly think I am lacking in human experience, and I am in fact an amateur historian.
                My only belief system is anti-superstition. I am perfectly happy having got rid of God from my life. If you cannot be happy without God in yours because you have crippling needs, then that is your problem, not mine.

              • wads42
                Posted January 25, 2013 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

                Nicole–If you have crippling needs that require superstition and delusion that is your problem not mine.
                I think that being 72 I have learned plenty of history and experienced life fully.

              • Justin
                Posted January 25, 2013 at 11:59 am | Permalink

                Or more likely, she’s projecting her own guilt-ridden depression.

        • Posted January 25, 2013 at 9:50 am | Permalink

          “Can evolutionism eliminate death?”

          It doesn’t claim to. But can religion? Some certainly claim to, but are you suggesting religion actually *does* do this, and that you know it for a fact?

          “Can I get freedom from a life of guilt-ridden depression from evolution?”

          You’re attaching far more importance to evolution than is warranted. It’s just an explanation for why biology is the way it is, just as gravity(/relativity) explains the movements of planets, just as nuclear physics explains the energy production inside stars and the radiation produced by uranium.

          “Do atheists have a way to explain anyone’s actual religious experience without calling it all delusion?”

          Things happen. Our minds are fallible. We have dreams, some people hallucinate. People can be greatly affected by these experiences, but that doesn’t require that such experiences be caused by something external to us.

          “If only the provable has value, then at least to me, life is not worth living because I am the only being who I can be sure exists.”

          It’s not too difficult to get from only you existing to others existing–realize that you cannot, only by thinking about it, cause any changes in others or the world around you.

          There is plenty of meaning to be found, wonder to be seen, hope to be had in life, without believing in things beyond observable reality. I’m sorry that you feel otherwise.

          “You can’t have inner peace without God. Not an invented God, the actual God, the one most adamantly disbelieved by atheists.”

          That version of god has only been around for about 2000 years, and back then only in a small region of the world. Funny that a god would require human messengers to spread it, if it was really true and universal.

        • Justin
          Posted January 25, 2013 at 11:10 am | Permalink

          What’s depressing is that your life is so empty and meaningless that you need fairytales and magic to make it seem worthwhile. I don’t have that problem, because it isn’t a problem with life, it’s a problem with you. You may need to sit down with a professional and work out whatever emptiness burdens you, before it undermines the temporary solace you’ve found in religion.

          • Nicole
            Posted January 25, 2013 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

            My life is so full and rich with deep meaning because of my “fairy tales” which are nothing of the sort.

            I’m amazed that people with beliefs like I read here actually exist. I used to be able to understand how people could live life in such a way, but it has become impossible with all the beauty and wonder I’ve seen.

            • gbjames
              Posted January 25, 2013 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

              What beauty and wonder have you seen that the rest of us haven’t? (Here in the real universe, I mean.)

            • truthspeaker
              Posted January 25, 2013 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

              A story about someone coming back from the dead is a fairy tale no matter how you look at it.

              • Nicole Platte
                Posted January 25, 2013 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

                Only a fairy tale if it didn’t happen. You don’t get to make it untrue by not believing it. I don’t make it true by believing it. It either is or isn’t. And it’s up to you to disbelieve it. Not up to me or anyone else to prove it. But when the “fairy tale” goes on, continues, into the here and now… It is true. What I don’t understand is begrudging other people their faith. Is it really so offensive and harmful that you must try to convert us to the gospel of skepticism? To believing there is no source of love in the universe? That life has no higher meaning other than one I make up? That we evolved from animals? That we are nothing but smart animals? None of these ideas have anything to commend it to me. None of them appeal to very many people. It’s going to be an uphill battle to win people to your side unless you can keep them very comfortable. If people have no needs at all, are very happy and satiated, and in good health, it might be possible. Or if you can drug their diseases well enough to keep them from feeling them. That might work. Good luck!

              • Justin
                Posted January 25, 2013 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

                Generally when you claim something’s true, it’s up to you to prove it.

              • Nicole Platte
                Posted January 25, 2013 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

                And you can’t prove evolution. You also can’t prove yesterday or consciousness or Abraham Lincoln. You can only induce from evidence. If you choose to disqualify the evidence then you decide that you don’t believe the thing in question. But you can’t prove it. Proof is a very narrow thing. And neither can I prove anything to you. I have evidence, but it’s not admissible to your court beside you’ve already dismissed my conclusion as false based on your own worldview. It’s ridiculous to go about trying to improve the world by lashing out at the precious parts of life. Pretty lame strategy. And I don’t see the goal.

              • Posted January 25, 2013 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

                “I have evidence, but it’s not admissible to your court beside you’ve already dismissed my conclusion as false”

                Evidence comes first. If the evidence is strong, the conclusion is unambiguous. It is never a good practice to accept a conclusion as true before considering the evidence for it. No one believed that evolution was true *until* the evidence built up to point to it. What you seem to be doing is taking the unproven conclusion and interpreting everything in light of that.

                “It’s ridiculous to go about trying to improve the world by lashing out at the precious parts of life.”

                What precious parts of life are being lashed out? If the only ‘parts of life’ you appreciate are those that are written about in ancient books and unverified promises of life beyond death, I really feel sorry for you.

                “I told you I’ve seen miracles.”

                What kind of miracles? Anyone grow an arm back after an amputation?

                “You have the same source of love as everyone else but you choose to deny his existence!”

                Love is just as much an emotion as hate. Why do you assume love has a source but hate does not?

                Love exists because we feel it.

                “If we were mere animals we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

                We’re really smart, tool-using animals. But we’re still animals.

              • truthspeaker
                Posted January 25, 2013 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

                And it’s up to you to disbelieve it. Not up to me or anyone else to prove it

                You have the burden of proof backwards there.

                hat I don’t understand is begrudging other people their faith. Is it really so offensive and harmful that you must try to convert us to the gospel of skepticism?

                As long as people of faith continue restricting women’s rights, treating gay people like crap, and flying airplanes into buildings, then yes, it’s offensive and harmful.

              • gbjames
                Posted January 25, 2013 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

                What right do you have to claim that non-believers have no source of love in their lives? Jeebus, talk about arrogant!

                My irony alarm just started shrieking. A Christian whines about someone trying to convert someone else!

                I hate to break it to you, Nicole, but we are all of us animals. “Smart”, of course, is another matter.

                Oh…. we’re still waiting for that evidence you said was so convincing. And that list of wonders that you’ve seen that isn’t visible to the rest of us.

              • Nicole Platte
                Posted January 25, 2013 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

                No you don’t wonder! I told you I’ve seen miracles. Plenty of them. But that’s not admissible by definition. You’ve defined out of the argument all possible evidence. I’m not saying that you have no source of love!!! You have the same source of love as everyone else but you choose to deny his existence! You have no explanation for love or any other immaterial thing! But you would not deny that love exists, would you? Prove that it exists!

                Yeah, there are some annoying Christians out there. Sorry about that. Therefore, you should be extra annoying about trying to prevent people from believing in God. That makes sense– thanks for explaining.

                If we were mere animals we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Animals do not build computers, among other things.

              • gbjames
                Posted January 25, 2013 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

                Can’t prove evolution? Really? Do you have any idea how ignorant you sound on a website which exists because of “Why Evolution Is True” (the book)?

                You need some basic education on the subject before anyone here will take you seriously, Nicole. Go get a copy of the book. Read it. It isn’t going to hurt you. It may not remove your faith but at least you won’t be so profoundly ignorant.

              • Nicole Platte
                Posted January 25, 2013 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

                Really. And I already know the entire evolutionary argument inside our and backwards. I’m not the dummy you’d like to be arguing with. I already have more than a basic education on the topic. Seriously, lob one. Some actual evidence.

              • Nicole Platte
                Posted January 25, 2013 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

                No theory of origins is provable by any method in science. Outside the realm of the here and now, you can’t prove the past. The straw man set up in that book is not the creationist position, nor is it the only possibility outside evolution. In terms of plain intellectual honesty, evolutionary theory does not cut it for me. The cover shows an archaeopteryx! The thing they “found” was fake! Not coincidentally, evolution is also fake!

              • Posted January 25, 2013 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

                Evolution is how the biological world works. It just so happens that all the evidence of the biological past matches up quite well with the extension of evolutionary processes into the past. The same is true for stellar fusion, solar system formation, plate tectonics, etc.

                And how is archaeopteryx fake? From my brief reading, the only people who made such claims were unfamiliar with fossil formation and biology in general.

              • Nicole Platte
                Posted January 25, 2013 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

                There was a particular specimen of archeopterxy which was a fake. And it’s no missing link between birds and reptiles. I have no problem with “change” in historical biology. That’s not what this is about. Those changes do not disprove a creator and never can. Nor do they take organisms from *monera*to *animalia*. Or any other large distance. If by evolution you mean the change from wolves to the myriad breeds of dogs we have today, great! I agree! But find fossils of a those dogs, and suddenly they are a chain of species that came from one another and prove that there is no designing entity behind their very existence. That’s intellectually dishonest.

              • truthspeaker
                Posted January 25, 2013 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

                There was a particular specimen of archeopterxy which was a fake

                You’re thinking of archeoraptor, a fake fossil that was alleged to be a link between birds and dinosaurs.

                There are eleven Archaeopteryx fossils, none fake.

                So far, religion has inspired you to:

                Ignore the evidence for evolution

                Make false statements about fossils

                Still think it’s harmless?

              • Posted January 25, 2013 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

                “Nor do they take organisms from *monera*to *animalia*”

                Yes, they do. Unless you think there’s another perfectly good reason why all eukaryotes share nearly-identical ribosomes, the ‘nearly’ part being small differences that don’t really have a functional impact but clearly show a pattern of relationship in the same way that DNA testing allows us to show a pattern of relationship between you and your cousins, why the simplest forms are the oldest and the more complex ones the newest.

              • truthspeaker
                Posted January 25, 2013 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

                Archaeopteryx isn’t fake.

              • gbjames
                Posted January 25, 2013 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

                We don’t wonder? How do you know that? What gives you the right to say I have no sense of wonder? Jeebus!

                You are making standard religionist claims that the things that EVERYONE experiences (beauty, wonder, etc.) are sourced by your deity (how do you know you have the right one?). And your proof is that you’ve seen MIRACLES! And that is supposed to be convincing evidence! Come on! You don’t even bother to describe these miracles.

                Oh, and yes, animals do build computers. You were using one when you typed that nonsense.

                I need to stop. I’m using up my supply of exclamation points.

              • Nicole Platte
                Posted January 25, 2013 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

                You don’t wonder what my “evidence” is. You know what it is. I never said you don’t have a sense of wonder. What is this, a test of whether I can spot your ridiculous argumentation skills? Reinterpret what I said and Nyah Nyah. That’s smart human beings acting smart. I TOLD you you won’t allow miracles in your worldview. I do allow them, which disqualifies me as one of the smart animals. I get that. And so did the various butcher-dictators who killed millions in the name of godless progress. Not that they had to, but their beliefs permitted them to. This is what Nietzsche was talking about, folks. If God is dead, we will all soon follow.

              • truthspeaker
                Posted January 25, 2013 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

                That’s where you’re wrong. If I saw compelling evidence of a miracle I would have to accept it. If that mean I had to change my worldview, then I would. To hold onto a worldview that has been demonstrated to be inaccurate would be the height of irrationality.

                So where’s the evidence?

              • Nicole Platte
                Posted January 25, 2013 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

                You won’t see miracles if you don’t expect to. You have to believe it to see it. If you saw compelling evidence, you’d call it non-compelling. If I told you I could grow a tomato that would last without rotting you wouldn’t believe me. If I showed you the tomato you’d call it a trick.

                Here’s the trouble: The God in question, real or not, is a PERSON. To be able to see miracles you have to actually interact with the person. But to behave as if such a persons exists, by speaking to him, would be the height of irrationality for you. Where for me, to act as though there is no God would be irrational because my experience tells me otherwise. That is absolutely correct and I thank you for the honesty.

              • Posted January 25, 2013 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

                “You won’t see miracles if you don’t expect to. You have to believe it to see it.”

                You mean like how if you know a magic show isn’t really magic, you won’t be impressed by the tricks? Or how you can’t be hypnotized if you don’t want to be?

                People are extraordinarily capable of self-delusion. That’s why the scientific method was developed, to correct as best as we can for the innate logic errors and biases and delusions we all suffer from.

                You very well may have seen something great happen. But how do you know it was a miracle and not just a rare chance event? Or a process that is known to happen but not well-known to you?

              • truthspeaker
                Posted January 25, 2013 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

                You have to believe it to see it.

                Things that are real are there whether you believe in them or not. If something is only apparent to you if you already believe in it, then that’s a sure sign that you’ve been fooled.

              • gbjames
                Posted January 25, 2013 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

                “I already have more than a basic education on the topic.”

                Clearly not. Reading creationist tracts does not constitute an education. Anyone with a basic education wouldn’t claim that archaeopteryx is a fake.

              • Posted January 25, 2013 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

                @ Nicole

                Yes, you’re absolutely right.

                Archaeopteryx is a fake. Just like all the other fossil evidence for evolution. Fakes, very clever fakes, buried seamlessly under tons of rock by God-hating scientists.

                Archaeopteryx is a fake. Just like all the evidence for evolution from comparative anatomy. When scientists have been dissecting animal cadavers, they were just very clever fakes, made to make it look like other animals had the same bones, the same organs, the same glands, &c., as we do. Because scientists are better at manufacturing all that than the best Hollywood sfx artists.

                Archaeopteryx is a fake. Just like all the evidence for evolution from biochemistry. All those drug tests on animals were completely worthless. Vivisectionists only carried them out because they were sadistic, Godless, bastards, purely for the sick pleasure of it, not because the animals’ biochemistry was anything like our own.

                Archaeopteryx is a fake. Just like all the evidence for evolution from genetics. What has been passed off as animal DNA has been created in a lab by unscrupulous chemists so that it looks suggestively like human DNA. How cleverly they snipped apart one of our chromosomes to make two chimp chromosomes – and then artfully added the right “caps” to the two cut parts. How clever to manipulate the genes of segmented worms to make it look like there was the origin of the segmentation in the human spine. &c. &c.

                Archaeopteryx is a fake. All the evidence for evolution is a fake. An incredibly complex and exquisitely detailed fake, requiring consilience across multiple branches of science, confected by the most elaborate, secretive and successful conspiracy in human history, involving thousands of heretical, godless, profane scientists over hundreds of years.

                Archeopteryx is a fake. … 

                Oh. Wait a minute. No, it isn’t.

                /@

              • Nicole Platte
                Posted January 25, 2013 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

                So what if biology shows that you and monkeys have similar DNA! Irrelevant! Doesn’t prove a thing. This Apple keyboard and this Dell keyboard both have qwerty, USB, and there innards look about the same. So, which one parented the other? Did they arise out of a junk pile and self assemble? What if I claim they did? Does that make me irrational? We are talking about something WAY WAY more complex than a piece of electronics, but it’s not designed, created, or in any way directed, just is. Matter as well, exists with no source. And the laws which govern physics and chemistry down to the quantum level. All of it accidental and causeless. Right. Can’t believe it. Don’t have enough faith.

              • Posted January 25, 2013 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

                Apple and Dell keyboards don’t reproduce themselves, do they? Organisms self-assemble and produce new versions of themselves. These new versions are often imperfect copies.

                You believe that God exists with no source. Why is that idea easier to believe than that the laws of the universe had no source? I know that you believe it because God says so and you have faith, but why do you think it is objectively the easier explanation?

              • Nicole Platte
                Posted January 25, 2013 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

                Because the evidence for God’s existence IS the world at large. But that is the point I’m making, that you have to have faith to believe that the material world exists with no source. You also have a need to believe that it is all there is. I don’t understand this need because that worldview does not take into account all of my experience. So I opt for the faith-in-God view over the faith-in-matter view.

              • Dermot C
                Posted January 26, 2013 at 3:31 am | Permalink

                @ Ant and his ‘archaeopteryx fake’ post

                Thank God some proper scientist has finally posted this reductio ad absurdum against metaphysical ‘how-can-you-prove-anything-is-real’ tiresomeness.

                Good on ya, Ant.

              • Posted January 25, 2013 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

                @ Nicole

                “Outside the realm of the here and now, you can’t prove the past.”

                Ergo, the Bible is completely unreliable.

                Thanks. Now we know what you think of your holy scripture.

                /@

              • Nicole Platte
                Posted January 25, 2013 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

                The past includes any book written any time but this present moment, so toss your textbooks in the same fire. And any thought and any action and everything. You can’t use science outside of its niche.

              • Posted January 25, 2013 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

                @ Nicole

                “If people have no needs at all, are very happy and satiated, and in good health, it might be possible.”

                Well, science has been rather good at meeting people’s needs, making them happy and satiated, and keeping them in good health. Religion’s track record on the other hand … well, it might keep people happy, but then so do opiates. (Full marks if you get that reference.)

                And in fact, we see a correlation between increased well-being – facilitated not just by science, but by secular social care – and a decline in religiosity.

                So, yes, given those things, it is possible for people to live happy, fulfilled and worthwhile lives without the need for any Imaginary Friend.

                /@

              • Posted January 25, 2013 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

                @ bioturbonick

                “Anyone grow an arm back after an amputation?”

                Yes! Indeed! So, Nicole: Why won’t God heal amputees? Now that would be a miracle!

                Hmm… or it might just be somebody tinkering about with salamander DNA… or lizard DNA?

                /@

              • Posted January 25, 2013 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

                @ Nicole

                “If I told you I could grow a tomato that would last without rotting you wouldn’t believe me. If I showed you the tomato you’d call it a trick.”

                No, I’d say, “Oh, that looks like a successful GM crop*. Is it tasty?”

                /@

                * #3, if that wasn’t obvious.

              • Posted January 25, 2013 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

                @ Nicole

                “biology shows that you and monkeys have similar DNA”

                No, biology shows that we and monkeys have almost identical DNA.

                We and every living thing on this planet have similar DNA. It’s a single lineage, a tree (webby in parts), all pointing back to a single common ancestor. Why should it look like that if we are God’s special creation? (For that matter, why did God create the world so it looks exactly as it would if He didn’t exist? And please don’t spout any nonsense about it being a test of faith!)

                And what bioturbonick said.

                Our known universe can be describe by a very simple physical model. (The maths can be written on a single sheet of A4/legal paper.) This model explains how energy and matter works, how elements are formed in stellar furnaces, how the heavy elements in our bodies are forged by the explosions of huge dying stars, how chemistry amongst these elements works to spontaneously* create complex molecules, how replicators arise from complex molecules**, how genetics works, how genes marshall amino acids to make proteins, to make cells, to make every living thing on the planet, to make us.

                All from a very simple model that needs no Omnipotent, Omniscient, Omnipresent Imaginary Friend***.

                /@

                * With the right energy flow, catalysts, &c.
                ** Imperfectly at present, but see Addy Pross’s What Is Life?
                ***Or, as Grayling might put it, Imaginary Fred.

              • Posted January 25, 2013 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

                *described

              • Posted January 25, 2013 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

                @ Nicole

                “You also have a need to believe that it is all there is.”

                No. We simply have no need to believe that it is not all that there is. Why? Because there is no evidence to the contrary. Science is, in part, the quest to find out why there is what there is, and it’s been remarkable successful in this quest, all the way back to the instant our observable universe formed (the Big Bang). And throughout that quest, Laplace’s response to Napoleon continues to be validated.

                “… that worldview does not take into account all of my experience.”

                Actually, it does. All your experiences are human experiences and can be explained naturalistically. As gbjames pointed out, it is all a matter of neurochemistry and psychology — to which I’d add culture (sociology and anthropology), since you interpret your experience in the light of the bronze- and iron-age fantasies which you were led to believe were true. Had you been born in dark-age Scandinavia, or Classical Greece, or modern-day India, or amongst the Mayans, &c., &c., your interpretation of those experiences would be rather different. (And still you are less than candid about what those experiences were and why you consider these “miracles” to be miracles.)

                “So I opt for the faith-in-God view over the faith-in-matter view.”

                There’s no need to have faith in matter. It is extremely well evidenced. ***kicks rock*** (And triple points if you get that reference.) Whereas, God… yes, faith is the only thing that you have.

                /@

              • Posted January 25, 2013 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

                @ Nicole

                “The past includes any book written any time but this present moment, so toss your textbooks in the same fire. And any thought and any action and everything.”

                Nah. Since I don’t agree with your premise.

                “You can’t use science outside of its niche.”

                This is obviously a meaning of the word “niche” that I wasn’t previously aware of. (42 points if you get the reference there!)

                If you think you can define the boundaries of science’s “niche”, please enlighten us!

                /@

              • Posted January 26, 2013 at 4:17 am | Permalink

                @ Dermot

                WordPress’s email notifications are wildly asynchronous — I’ve only just seen this, even though you commented while I was commenting last night… 

                Anyway, it’s nice to be appreciated, although calling me a “proper scientist” is too kind when yer actual evolutionary biologists comment here and I haven’t done any science since I got my Ph.D. (and that was only in theoretical particle physics). This is what I do now… 

                /@

              • Dermot C
                Posted January 26, 2013 at 5:43 am | Permalink

                @ Ant

                I actually commented this morning; my tardiness, not wordpress’s fault. Good luck with the meeting: ‘attenders’, not ‘attendees’, pedantic, I know, but that illogical structure, ubiquitous, hair-on-the-back-of-my-necks me.

                A losing battle on my part, I know.

                Cheers.

              • Posted January 26, 2013 at 6:07 am | Permalink

                And yet WP shows it before mine… ?

                Thanks! But a lost battle I think. It seems perfectly idiomatic to me; cf. “absentee”. Though there may be a fine distinction in meaning… 

                /@

  4. Posted January 22, 2013 at 6:37 am | Permalink

    Further, unless atheists themselves have a clearly superior case for their denial of theistic religion, then agnosticism (doubting both religion and atheism) remains a viable alternative.

    Yet another agnostic who thinks of atheism and agnosticism as mutually exclusive.

  5. gbjames
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    My response to de Botton, Gutting, and other faithiests of this world is simply this: Have at it. Please create the institutions you believe are needed. Put up or shut up.

    Meanwhile, those of us who are motivated to reduce the influence of religion by attacking the absurd claims upon which they are all built will continue to do so. Stop telling us that we are doing it wrong. Stop demanding our polite silence. We are not willing to be quiet or give religion a free pass from criticism.

    • Posted January 22, 2013 at 6:45 am | Permalink

      +1

    • Posted January 22, 2013 at 7:02 am | Permalink

      Boom!

    • Sastra
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 9:01 am | Permalink

      Well put.

      You know, part of the problem with this plea that you just CAN’T get people to give up religion unless you first put a whole bunch of new institutions in place is that every single atheist knows this is wrong. I mean, don’t we count as “people?” Apparently not.

      According to this argument, are we supposed to think of ourselves as kind of superhuman … or as a bit subhuman?

      • Posted January 22, 2013 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

        @Sastra I think the point they are poorly making is that some people need what religion offers more than others. Just like some people can be indoctrinated by religion as children, yet still reject it later when presented with evidence, while others reject the evidence.

        So the point is what is it that religion offers that those who flock to religion need? I think that security is the answer. Where people have to worry about their health, community, security, finances, education, freedom, etc. religion thrives, so if we can continue to improve those then the need for religion will die as well.

        • Jim Bradley
          Posted January 24, 2013 at 7:48 am | Permalink

          There’s research out there, rather than (unscientific) speculation, although I can respect that some on this board may be former theists and so have personal experience. But still, I see quite a few atheistic arguments about why people do or don’t believe theism and I am not sure any are really that representative. For example, see http://www.youthandreligion.org/publications/reports.html

      • Posted January 22, 2013 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

        Yep, it’s the “little people” argument.

        /@

      • Jim Bradley
        Posted January 24, 2013 at 8:01 am | Permalink

        (1) There are an infinitude of things one can believe about what is unseen

        (2) therefore, none of them are true…

        Note 2 does not follow from 1. If one is in a room, it is ridiculous to say there is nothing on the outside because one hasn’t seen it or have evidence for it. I think that’s the point. We’re not sure there’s an “outside” to the universe, but we’re not convinced there isn’t such a thing either. The big problem I see, is the following:

        (1) Without any falsifiable evidence, atheists are making claims that have no basis in known facts (i.e. there is no such thing as any God), hence overstepping the boundaries of science

        (2) Atheists have thus started establishing their own form of religion – under the rubric of “science” which has nothing to do with science, as properly exercised – that of atheism – meaning there is no such thing as God

        (3) Atheists thus hold theists in disregard for their beliefs, poking fun, mocking them, doing all the things that would not be allowed on this forum to individuals should Jerry discover it done

        Curious isn’t it? And this attitude is supposed to foster peaceful, integrative, beneficial use of power (and public funding, forcibly taken)? It sounds more like a culture war, in which the disenfranchised losers will be persecuted in the future. Personally, I can only hope there are roughly equal numbers of both extremes and thus perhaps have a “balance of power”.

        • truthspeaker
          Posted January 24, 2013 at 8:08 am | Permalink

          (1) There are an infinitude of things one can believe about what is unseen

          (2) therefore, none of them are true…

          That’s not the claim we’re making. Here’s the real atheist claim

          (2) therefore, there is no reason to think any of the speculations we make about what is unseen are true

        • Posted January 24, 2013 at 9:07 am | Permalink

          “(1) There are an infinitude of things one can believe about what is unseen
          (2) therefore, none of them are true…”

          No, the logic is this:

          (1) There are an infinitude of things one can believe about what is unseen.
          (2) Therefore any particular claims about what is unseen is most likely to be false.
          (3) Therefore no claims about what is unseen should be entertained as true.

    • Posted January 22, 2013 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

      Ooh! You are so strident! ;-)

      /@

      • gbjames
        Posted January 22, 2013 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

        Really? I was going for “shrill”!

  6. Shane
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 6:43 am | Permalink

    “Secular humanism, on the other hand, can promote the good but not the bad.”
    I don’t think this is demonstrably true. It’s quite a claim. “Good” for who? Who decides? Even as a secular humanist I would have a lot if trouble with this statement!

    • Sastra
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 8:13 am | Permalink

      Well, perhaps that statement is best interpreted as pointing out that secular humanism starts out without the baggage of having non-worldly “special knowledge.”

    • Posted January 22, 2013 at 8:15 am | Permalink

      Agreed. Though religion does a worse job at truth claims and probably at morality as well, I don’t believe secular humanism is perfect. The debates between conservatives, libertarians, Objectivists, liberals, socialists, and fascists would still remain if religion ceased to exist.

    • Sameer
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 8:23 am | Permalink

      Well, at least we can say that whatever “bad” may be there will be in spite of secular humanism and not because of it.

      • Shane Street
        Posted January 22, 2013 at 8:31 am | Permalink

        I’d like to believe this, but I’m not certain. It is quite easy to imagine the evil that can be done by those who are most strongly in the grip of their reason and “science”.

        • Sastra
          Posted January 22, 2013 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

          Sure it can. But at least the system is designed so that irrationality and “science” can eventually be weeded out through internal criticism.

          • Doug
            Posted January 23, 2013 at 5:53 am | Permalink

            just like it was under Mao and Stalin…

            but facts rarely displace irrational faith (in this case, in “the system”), do they?

            • gbjames
              Posted January 23, 2013 at 6:03 am | Permalink

              To which system does that comment apply?

              • Doug
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 6:10 am | Permalink

                the “system” referenced immediately above (by Sastra)

              • gbjames
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 6:37 am | Permalink

                Since you don’t clearly answer, I’ll assume you are referring to the system of the scientific method. That allows me to conclude that your statement is nothing but religious trolling since neither Mao nor Stalin ran political systems that were organized around principles of the scientific method.

              • Doug
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 6:50 am | Permalink

                the point (since you missed it) was that both Stalin and Mao CLAIMED to run political systems that were organized around principles of the scientific method. It’s history, bro’.

              • gbjames
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 6:56 am | Permalink

                The point you missed is that neither did. Bro.

              • Doug
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 7:07 am | Permalink

                denial won’t change history.

              • Doug
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 7:11 am | Permalink

                sorry – you were saying that they didn’t ACTUALLY; I was saying they CLAIMED to.
                It is an important distinction, of course.

              • Doug
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 7:14 am | Permalink

                But here is the thing: how do we determine if someone who CLAIMS to be following the scientific method is ACTUALLY? Do we reproduce their experiments? Or do we trust the “consensus”? Or do we trust the media? Or do we trust the government? Or do we trust some “spokesman”? Do we have REASON to trust one over the other? When is skepticism legitimate?

              • truthspeaker
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 7:31 am | Permalink

                Trust no one.

              • gbjames
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 7:27 am | Permalink

                If you can’t tell the difference between claims of being scientific with actually being scientific then you need to study up on the nature of science. Otherwise you are an easy mark for all manner of pseudoscientific scammers.

              • Doug
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 7:33 am | Permalink

                That’s part of the human condition. We’d all like our preferred gullibilities to have the protection of “the assured results of modern science”. But human history makes it clear that we all-too-easily deceive ourselves. Me, sure. You, too. Even Jerry. Everybody.

              • gbjames
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 7:41 am | Permalink

                “all-too-easily deceive ourselves”

                And that’s the point. Science is the only tool humans have created that systematically is designed to counter this fact. That’s the reason for the scientific method. That is what differentiates science from pseudoscience and religion. And that is why your Mao/Stalin argument is flawed.

              • Doug
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 7:46 am | Permalink

                Science is awesome. I got that Ph.D. because I believe in it. But politics, personality, and personal interest have this way of trumping real science. Shame, really.

                http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21528826.000-is-medical-science-built-on-shaky-foundations.html

              • truthspeaker
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 8:10 am | Permalink

                That’s what we’re trying to combat.

              • Doug
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 7:48 am | Permalink

                And btw – if you were half as good at logic as you are at cheer-leading, you’d appreciate that there is legitimate warning in the ghosts of Mao and Stalin.

              • Posted January 23, 2013 at 7:50 am | Permalink

                A warning about what humans can rationalize themselves into. Not about atheism and science.

              • gbjames
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 7:57 am | Permalink

                I’m not cheerleading, Doug. I’m countering what I perceive is a classic religionist’s argument, creating a false equivalence of science and ideology. Your cautionary note is true about humans in general, we can all fool ourselves. The trick is to employ tools counter that proclivity. We have such tools. We fail when we don’t use them. We fail worse when we don’t even recognize the value of the tools.

              • Doug
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 8:11 am | Permalink

                There is another kind of failure: when we don’t recognize the limitations of those tools. Sober assessments of reality are a hallmark of scientific thinking.

              • gbjames
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 8:17 am | Permalink

                Therefore what, Doug?

              • Doug
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 8:23 am | Permalink

                Therefore: regularly turn those tools of skepticism and critical thinking inward. Of course it is always much more fun to bash (typically) straw-folk (indeed, the construction and destruction of strawmen is the second most common activity on the internet) — but it is never scientific to do so.

              • truthspeaker
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 8:46 am | Permalink

                regularly turn those tools of skepticism and critical thinking inward

                What makes you think we aren’t?

              • gbjames
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 8:37 am | Permalink

                If that is the extent of your argument I wish you had said so before. Yes. It is usually good to be maintain a level of skepticism. It is good to be a cheerleader for skepticism.

              • Doug
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

                It is good to be skeptical of skepticism. Enthusiasm/cheer-leading is always anti-skeptical (even with regard to skepticism!)

              • gbjames
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

                I’m skeptical of skeptics of skepticism. Especially of cheerleaders for skeptics of skepticism.

              • Doug
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

                tu quoque fail. nice try, though: cute.

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 24, 2013 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

                Doug, check out http://www.thennt.com/

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 24, 2013 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

                Doug – for example: http://www.thennt.com/nnt/statins-for-heart-disease-prevention-without-prior-heart-disease/

            • Doug
              Posted January 23, 2013 at 8:08 am | Permalink

              Nick — no rationalization about what we call science? No rationalization about what we’d prefer to be scientific results? No rationalization about metaphysics (i.e., that which separates agnosticism from atheism)? Neither atheism nor this-social-construct-we-call-science are immune from rationalization. You’d need a hefty dose of rationalization to think otherwise.

            • Sastra
              Posted January 23, 2013 at 9:03 am | Permalink

              Doug wrote:

              …just like it was under Mao and Stalin…

              Mao and Stalin weren’t humanists because (among other things) their “science” blocked the free flow of information and dissent, and therefore wasn’t really science.

              A system which is deliberately crafted to encourage debate (such as science or humanism) assumes that human nature is biased, bigoted, and eager to assume power and close ranks. But such obstacles will eventually be overcome over time given the nature of the system.

              Tyrants who overthrow a system of checks and balances and keep the term are not representatives of the system. Mao and Stalin also considered themselves humanitarians who improved the lives of the needy. Does charity “not work?” Is “humanitarianism” flawed as an idea or ideal — or only difficult to implement?

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 24, 2013 at 8:22 am | Permalink

                Following that line – more fundamental than the “scientific method” is a moral society – and one in which what is called “science” is forcibly limited to true moral uses … I think that’s what happens (moreso, but not perfectly) in a market is that products have to serve consumer needs and they have to work, while in dictatorial countries, the things that are most important are those that please the authority: population control, military weapons, disinformation, etc; all the forces of knowledge are bent to evil uses. Seems to me, we are heading rapidly more to the latter than the former, and in the meantime, the “New Atheists”, under the guise of “science” are claiming authority over matters outside the rubric of science, and thus establishing a new religion; it’s bait and switch. None of this stuff (anti-God) is science (i.e. testing a falsifiable premise), but rather a philosophy of authoritarianism – much more than theism. After all, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ was the guiding light of Christianity, where is the sacrificial guide for the “New Atheists” that is the unifying example of restraint and respect for fellow men in this new philosophy? I constantly hear the main problem of the world, from the Christian viewpoint, is personal sin. What sort of self-control, now that “science” isn’t even science, can we expect from this new philosophy?

              • truthspeaker
                Posted January 24, 2013 at 8:31 am | Permalink

                Humanism isn’t a “new” philosophy.

                And there’s nothing authoritarian about atheism. We’re not calling for believers to be locked up, tortured, or executed. We’re saying they’re wrong.

              • Posted January 24, 2013 at 8:30 am | Permalink

                After all, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ was the guiding light of Christianity most likely never happened.

                FIFY!

                /@

      • Nicole
        Posted January 25, 2013 at 11:55 am | Permalink

        Are you out of your mind?

        • whyevolutionistrue
          Posted January 25, 2013 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

          Okay Nicole, you’ve posted too many times on this thread and have displayed your abysmal ignorance of evolution. I’d suggest going away and read my book. It’s ridiculous for you to deny the scientific truth of evolution.

          • Nicole Platte
            Posted January 25, 2013 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

            Okay. I don’t care what you think of my evolutionary understanding. Enjoy your book.

            It just doesn’t follow from the existence of similar organisms that they turn into one another. There are not any true transitional forms in the fossil record, though they should dominate. No one has bothered to comment on my observation about dogs.

            • whyevolutionistrue
              Posted January 25, 2013 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

              Nicole, if you post here you have to understand evolution and you don’t. You haven’t provided any refutations of the transitional forms like Archaeopteryx. You’ve merely spouted creationist lies. If you provide a good refutation of the idea of Basilosaurus as a transitional form between whales and land animals, or Tiktaalik as between fish and amphibians, you can stay. Until then, go away, please.

              I’m a professional biologist, and when I say that your understanding of evolution is embarrassingly ignorant, you should listen to me.

              • Posted January 25, 2013 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

                I was wondering when you would address this cookie-cutter. Didn’t think I would see so many creationist bullet-points in one post.

            • Posted January 25, 2013 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

              “There are not any true transitional forms in the fossil record, though they should dominate.”

              Every* fossil is a transitional fossil!

              /@

              *Except the last in any extinct taxon. Of course.

          • Nicole Platte
            Posted January 25, 2013 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

            I misread your message. You are the book’s author? K, I’ll check the library and read it. Not buying one, though. All the examples of “microevolution” in the world don’t justify it as an explanation for existence itself.

            • Posted January 25, 2013 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

              D’uh!

              “All the examples of ‘microevolution’ in the world don’t justify it as an explanation for existence itself.”

              That is true. And yet — since you (claim to) know “the entire evolutionary argument inside our and backwards” – you already know that there is far, far more evidence for evolution that… or don’t you?

              As for “existence itself”, try Lawrence Krauss, or Sean Carroll, or Stephen Hawking, … 

              /@

  7. Posted January 22, 2013 at 6:47 am | Permalink

    “New Atheists won’t make a dent in religion until we replace it with institutions that fill those needs”

    The central flaw here is in thinking that religion is so important that everything needs to be centered about religion, such that even if something is not about religion, it then needs to be about the absence of religion.

    Of course humans need all sorts of social activities and charities and sports clubs and drama societies and youth clubs and etcetera, but they don’t need to be about religion and they don’t need to be about not-religion.

    • Posted January 22, 2013 at 8:17 am | Permalink

      Agreed.

    • RandomCommenter
      Posted January 23, 2013 at 7:39 am | Permalink

      QFT.

  8. Dermot C
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 6:48 am | Permalink

    In answer to JAC’s final points and Gutting’s emphasis on the need for community and for religious organisations to provide that, well the apologist argument is nothing new.

    Of course, we all need community; Pascal, aware of the double-think involved in his wager, proposed that one should join the religious community and act in the same way as them; and in this wmanner, through, I suppose, a sort of Skinnerian rote-learning come to a shared belief in the Christian God.

    But Gutting (which Pascal didn’t) even points to the many such communities (Christian and non-Christian) that one could join. I don’t see Gutting addressing the notion that the repetition of shared behaviours leads to the individual acquiring and truly believing that church’s dogmas. What kind of a provisional groupuscule is this?

    Nevertheless, I think the strongest argument, rather by default, for religion IS its sense of community. When you look at the other ones, moral, historical, teleological, cosmological, doesn’t community come in a very poor first?

    • Occam
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 9:21 am | Permalink

      Well said.
      There is one true statement in Gutting’s paper:
      “A religion offers a community.” Period.
      Humans being social animals, kicking the belief entails kicking the community. That makes it one hell of a lot harder.

      There is also the vexed matter of identity. Belief systems come with a ready-made communal identity wrapping. Non-belief systems seem rather bare in that respect. Former believers who have shed their beliefs sometimes report a sense of nakedness. So, by the lights of Gutting, de Botton & Co., secular humanism should also be required to provide a vestiary, or at least an ideological fig leaf.

  9. sailor1031
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 6:51 am | Permalink

    Gutting states “…We can understand sexuality through Don Giovanni, Emma Bovary and Molly Bloom; the horror of war through the images of “Guernica”; our neurotic behavior through Freudian drives and complexes; or self-deception through Sartre’s being-for-itself, even if we are convinced that none of these entities will find a place in science’s final causal account of reality. Similarly, it is possible to understand our experiences of evil in the language of the Book of Job, of love in the
    language of the Gospel of John, and of sin and redemption in the language of Paul’s epistles”

    There’s a slight problem with this idea. Don Giovanni, Emma Bovary, Molly Bloom are fictitious characters who act in fictitious ways that may, or may not resemble some reality. We really understand sexuality through our own experience of it. I have seen Picasso’s “Guernica”. It tells you little or nothing of the experience of war because it is an experience of Art not war. If you want to experience war you have to live in one. We understand not our own neurotic behaviour but the neurotic behaviour of others because we see it. We seldom make the connection with our own behaviour; we’re really not good at true introspection and deceive ourselves all the time. Likewise we learn of evil by seeing it; of love, not from John’s gospel but from our own experiences, horrendous, frightening and embarrassing as they often are; sin and redemption a la Saul of Tarse are ideas i’m just not very clear about so I’ll pass on that…except to say that I think redemption is a human idea not dependent on religion – more the “paying your debt to society” kind of thing than walking to Rome on your knees to get absolution…

    He also states “A religion offers a community in which we are loved by others and in turn learn to love them.”

    Didn’t work for me. I remember the religion I grew up in as being populated with narrow-minded, judgemental, largely uninterested people who didn’t care much about one another. You know – like people anywhere!

    • Kiwi Dave
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

      Yes. I also thought that claiming parts of the Bible are as convincing as works of fiction was a bit self-defeating.

      And even when I finished reading such a tremendous work as The Sound And The Fury, I still had to ask myself if it really was an accurate picture of how an idiot sees the world, how a racist thinks etc.

    • Marella
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

      Works of art are just one person’s understanding of something. Great works of art are more accurate and better communicated understandings but they are all just one person’s intuition about what’s going on. For example the book “The Lord of the Flies” describes the author’s opinions about what would happen to a bunch of boys if stranded on a desert island (which I was forced to study at school) but he was almost certainly wrong. The tribes would probably have formed around the two school groups of boys who already knew each other, not around the ‘jocks’ and the ‘geeks’ as Golding suggests. So here a work of art which has been generally hailed as ‘great’ turns out to be seriously mistaken.

      • Posted January 22, 2013 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

        Golding got the science wrong, too; viz. Piggy’s glasses.

        /@

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted January 23, 2013 at 2:05 am | Permalink

      If I was looking to understand aspects of the human condition, my first choice wouldn’t be the Bible. (Or my second, or third, or ninety-seventh). One could probably do better (and certainly no worse) reading tweets on Twitter.

  10. wads42
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    I have just finished reading Paul Zak’s book, “The Moral Molecule” (oxytocin).
    I think it’s arguments resemble those featured in your article in that he emphasises the feelings of togetherness and empathy generated by oxytocin release in the brain, as well as feelings of trust and fair dealings (trade) which are a part of it. Actual doctrines are not emphasized, but rather the warmth of human connections and the assertions that empathic people live longer and are healthier, who live in cooperative societies,-which seems reasonable; but of course an empathic club of atheists would I am sure have similar results.

  11. beyondbelief007
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    Religions arise out of a variety of human needs: community foremost, though “faith” also provides a motive for common action, and common action is a means of survival and thriving when individuals cannot achieve the same results.

    Beliefs and dogmas OF that religion arise out of a need to keep the group cohesive: so the cohesiveness is the thing that needs “replacing” when you tear down the beliefs. A cohesive group continues providing for the needs that the group arose to fulfill. Community, protection, empathy.

    Humans, for whatever reasons, have found that imagining “faiths” of all flavors and stripes somehow promote these communities and fulfillment of basic human needs. At some level, religions have successfully kept communities together… even though we can acknowledge the ways in which they drive larger, diverse communities apart.

    Until we imagine a replacement, these “proven” (simply through repetition and childhood indoctrination) systems of providing for human needs will continue to thrive, with all of the attendant negative consequences that we all so readily acknowledge and point out.

    Atheists “correcting” the excesses of religion ARE acting as an evolutionary factor on the shape of these faiths. More absurd beliefs are pared away over time. More humanistic reasons for sharing community are recognized. It’s too slow for most of us who like to live life on human, not evolutionary, time scales.

    There IS some truth to the idea that a replacement for dogmatic religion, as the means of fulfilling some basic needs is needed… start imagining!! The combined efforts of the imagineers of the new and the critics of the old will speed evolution, no?

  12. Posted January 22, 2013 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    Hmmm, immediate claims of Sophisticated Theology(tm) being oh so much better and not one scrap of evidence they are. Lots of claims about the Christian “God” and nothing showing that the claims for it are the same as the claims for those other gods that ST’s don’t beleive in. “deep truths” that foster a community, golly football must have the same “truths”!
    And I have more moral understanding from watching Star Trek, reading Captain American and reading Edgar Rice Burroughs than I ever got from the pathetic primtive hatred that is in the bible.

    • Dermot C
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 8:18 am | Permalink

      On Microsoft Word, press alt+ ctrl+ t for ™, clubschadenfreude. Alternatively, Insert, symbol, special character. Hope this isn’t a sucky-eggy point.

  13. Bruce S. Springsteen
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    People already fill the needs religion purports to specialize in – community, ethical education, ceremony, and so forth – in many ways. Because there is no single activity or institution that claims to be a one-stop shop for all that, as churches have tried to do, doesn’t mean the better alternatives aren’t in place and always arising.

    Go to a concert. Volunteer in some worthy cause. Attend a sporting event. Read a book. Help pass a law. There are myriad ways to fill whatever holes are left when religion withers. But religion needs a push to make room for those things, and allow their natural emergence. That’s what we religion-bashers are here for, to get the dead carcass out of the road so the traffic can move.

    • Bruce S. Springsteen
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 7:15 am | Permalink

      BTW, never say “dead carcass” as I have done. It’s like “rise up” or “extra bonus.” Drives me batty, especially when I do it.

      • Mark Joseph
        Posted January 22, 2013 at 7:18 am | Permalink

        Well, we’ll forgive your unnecessary repetitious redundancy, but unrepeatably, only this once, and not again.

      • Posted January 22, 2013 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

        BTW, never say “dead carcass” as I have done. It’s like “rise up” or “extra bonus.” Drives me batty, especially when I do it.

        Sophisticated Tautology™ ? No ? Seriously…

    • Newish Gnu
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 8:58 am | Permalink

      “Go to a concert”

      Well!! Isn’t that just a little self-serving, Mr. Springsteen?

  14. Posted January 22, 2013 at 7:16 am | Permalink

    Well, I would start with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and… well, that’s about it really. Every schoolroom should have one.

  15. Mark Joseph
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 7:16 am | Permalink

    My somewhat indirect response is as follows:

    1) I don’t have time for a well-thought out response to the very last sentence in Dr. Coyne’s post, as I have to go to work.

    2) But, in a wider sense (and without any denigration of the bravura work Dr. Coyne and others have done critiquing Sophisticated Theology™), I still agree with Richard Dawkins that the main battle lies elsewhere:
    “If only such subtle, nuanced religion predominated, the world would surely be a better place and I would have written a different book. The melancholy truth is that this kind of understated, decent, revisionist religion is numerically negligible. To the vast majority of believers around the world, religion all too closely resembles what you hear from the likes of Robertson, Falwell, or Haggard, Osama bin Laden or the Ayatollah Khomeini. These are not straw men, they are all too influential, and everybody in the modern world has to deal with them.” (The God Delusion, 2nd edition, page 15)

  16. Tim Harris
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 7:16 am | Permalink

    de Botton, Gutting – nostalgia-mongers

  17. Posted January 22, 2013 at 7:17 am | Permalink

    If by “meeting basic human needs” you would include the ability to sit on a couch all day eating Doritos and watching marathon runs of the Brady Bunch while grooming ones ignoramity and knowing that you are unquestionably “loved and understood” by a larger community of like-minded simpletons and intellectually challenged buffoons then, yes, I wholeheartedly agree.

  18. Tulse
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 7:18 am | Permalink

    it’s hard to see what believers in one religion can, in general, say against the contradictory claims of believers in others.

    Yes, and this includes moral claims as well, which we keep getting told is religion’s strength. Some religions think that murdering non-believers is not only OK, but mandated by their god. Some religions think that their god ordered the massacre of nations, the killing of children, and the rape of girls. Some religions think that women should submit to the sexual demands of their husbands regardless of their own desires.

    So where is all this “fostering of love” bit? How is the love one sees in religion different from basic tribalism, in-group vs. out-group distinctions?

  19. onkelbob
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    Couple of things, first the idea that “nature abhors a vacuum.” Given that most of the known universe is “vacuum,” this doesn’t seem to be particularly accurate. What does appear to be true is the idea of pressure gradients, that things in abundance attempt to equalize the pressure. It appears that the same appears in psychological phenomena, that plausible explanations, and especially those that are emotionally satisfying, have a tendency to push out other explanations that are less intuitive and less emotionally reassuring. Then there is the old Maslow pyramid and the need for “belonging.” It is the first of the psychological needs and in theory is the strongest one. I myself don’t really have a strong urge to belong, (I have very strong hermit tendencies) but history shows people like being part of something, even when that something is detrimental to their well being. I cannot offer solutions or strategy, I only have obvious observation that overcoming the inherent laziness and emotional immaturity of the overall population is a difficult task.

  20. Graham Martin-Royle
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    “A religion offers a community in which we are loved by others and in turn learn to love them. Often this love is understood, at least partly, in terms of a moral code that guides all aspects of a believer’s life. Religious understanding offers a way of making sense of the world as a whole and our lives in particular. Among other things, it typically helps believers make sense of the group’s moral code. . .”

    And this sophisticated theology still doesn’t actually prove that the claims of religion are true.

    • Tulse
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

      A religion offers a community in which we are loved by others and in turn learn to love them.

      Of course, those outside the community may have to be forcibly converted or killed, but inside it’s all love.

      • Jim Bradley
        Posted January 24, 2013 at 8:38 am | Permalink

        That’s a general claim that is immediately false as it is not specific enough to be true. Plus, it ignores the high level of restraint some religions put on violence – whether or not their adherents follow that restraint is another question. I might add that war-making is very much a scientific endevour responsible for the deaths of millions. But, it sounds as if, using the same logic, we should hold “scientists” and “science” responsible for that. I suppose, those outside the “scientific nation” had better watch out – because that country has far better weapons, and will use them in the efforts to convert the unbelievers …

        • truthspeaker
          Posted January 24, 2013 at 8:53 am | Permalink

          it ignores the high level of restraint some religions put on violence

          Only in the last 150 years.

  21. Posted January 22, 2013 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    On New Atheism, and Dawkins:

    I’d say that the believers and their accommodationists often ignore the following about atheists:

    1) They fully support the freedom of belief as outlined in statements like this: http://www.atheistalliance.org/about-aai/declarations/324-dublin-declaration-2011. They do not want to ban belief, or churches. Of course some atheists might want to ban religion, but that would bring into question the extent to which they balance commitment to various freedoms.

    2) They do want to stop the privileges of religions and the oppressiveness of religions, wherever these exist.

    3) They have an intellectual interest in promoting reason and evidence, and because they see religious belief through faith as being counter to reason and evidence their promotion of them will naturally bring them into intellectual conflict with theists.

    Here’s one example of how they are conflated. Richard Dawkins thinks religious belief is a bad idea because it is counter to reason and evidence (3). As such he thinks that religious belief can be dangerous. Not always dangerous because there are evidently many very good religious people. But dangerous in principle. The danger comes from the commitment to belief through faith, which is anti-reason and anti-evidence, and the commitment to the authority of God, and perhaps more important to the self-appointed authority of God’s agents on earth: priests. Through indoctrination and through the authority of priests believers can be persuaded to do whatever the priest declare God wants. I’m sure many Christians of varying sects think that such unevidenced authority is completely bogus when applied by sects such as Scientologists. The problem is that without any evidence of God priests of all religions are acting on their own authority that they impose on the lay believers. This can lead to oppression (2). Belief through faith and the authority of the priests enables both good and bad behaviour. And, by persuading large numbers of the population to support them, and from the historical power that religions have enjoyed, this can also result in the maintenance of privileges for religions (2).

    By not understanding these distinctions they see Dawkins as totally anti-religious to the point of wanting to ban belief, so that (1) is totally lost in translation.

    • Jim Bradley
      Posted January 24, 2013 at 8:46 am | Permalink

      There is no unifying commitment to restraint by atheists, as there is no cohesive atheist position. The Catholic church has various positions which are well publicized, unfortunately also a “just-war” policy which perhaps is better than otherwise. In sum, it is an extraordinarily rich source of thought and deserve careful study (I wish I had more time). The Christian church, no-as-much, but still, theology answers many questions and poses others. Buddhism has variants as well. I am not sure anything can really be said unless it is about a cohesive group, and it should be evidenced that there is such a group. All the generalized statements are inaccurate. There is no such thing as a “God Delusion” in general (although I understand the reason for the title and rhetoric). There is such a thing as belief in a God or gods that don’t exist because those gods are falsified by evidence. However, there is no legitimate claim that NO God exists, or that there is nothing outside of the constraints of natural law (a ridiculous claim from ignorance) – however, that is what is said again and again: in essentials, “since I’ve never been outside my room to see what’s out there, there is nothing there”.

      • truthspeaker
        Posted January 24, 2013 at 8:52 am | Permalink

        Again, that’s not our claim. Our claim is “since neither of us have ever been outside this room to see what’s out there, and there is currently no possible way to do so, your claim about what is out there is false.”

  22. Posted January 22, 2013 at 7:42 am | Permalink

    I strongly agree with this bit, as it is clear that it is not only the promise of eternal life that draws religious followers, but also the challenge of making sense of lives lived:

    “Religious understanding offers a way of making sense of the world as a whole and our lives in particular.”

    However, we are constantly told that religion works well in this way, but if you were starving you would consider a mess of maggoty porridge to be delish too.

    More vigorous research needs to be done to determine just how much relief in this regard religions do deliver consistently to their followers. I suspect religious belief is not such a balm as it is touted to be. The need for something does not equate to its fulfilment so matter how frequently lip-service is paid to said equivalence.

    As been discussed here, European society is a more caring society and lo and behold, there is much less fooling around with an religious approach that just claims to make you feel better if there is governmental infrastructure that is truly there for you to show that you do matter and are not alone.

    Therefore, we have the solution, we just need to implement it. Established religious institutions for the most part may seem to support this approach, but why should they? Their fundamental claim that their divine brand of mercy and charity is essential in shaping a society to be a kind and loving one basically allows them to get away with their plying their non-evidential nonsense which keeps humanity in a state of confusion. Rinse and repeat.

    Clearly, it is people who care for people, and people are fully capable of doing that without divine prodding via earthly representatives.

  23. Posted January 22, 2013 at 7:42 am | Permalink

    This is all very interesting.

    In response to your request at the end:

    1. Can debunking false beliefs persuade people away from theism?

    If we can persuade people to change their basic standards for belief, then, I suspect, we don’t need to replace theism with anything. Some people insist on high standards for believing something: they need good evidence, or (going beyond what Gutting attributes to the famous theist philosophers) good evidence that applies to everyone, not just to themselves. Those people who insist on high standards are often philosophers or scientists. Not everyone can pursue those careers, obviously, but maybe everyone can be taught to require good epistemic reasons to believe something, especially when those beliefs can be (as you point out) morally problematic. But even if we can’t persuade them merely by debunking their beliefs, we may be able to replace those beliefs after all …

    2. Should we persuade people away from theism? (Relatedly: Is religion an important source of other kinds of knowledge, or of love?)

    We should persuade them away from false beliefs unless that causes a great harm without an outweighing benefit. We can avoid this harm by explaining that (1) objective ethical truths exist; (2) death is not to be feared; and (3) the world is really amazing and awesome in itself. And we can learn those truths through philosophical and scientific argumentation; we don’t need religion.

    • StewedPrune
      Posted January 23, 2013 at 5:48 am | Permalink

      Thanks: that’s very helpful.

  24. truthspeaker
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    Did he seriously say that Plantinga’s ideas are “well thought out”?

    • darrelle
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 8:52 am | Permalink

      I too did a double take on that one. So vigorous I think I sprained my neck.

  25. Posted January 22, 2013 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    The problem with New Atheists is that you think that by eradicating false beliefs, the problem is solved. But you can’t improve human lives that way!

    This argument fails to realize that by removing this false beliefs we then allow our lot in dealing with our problems. An example in point is if we eradicate the belief that a god gets angry because there are gays, we are able to guarantee our fellows the same rights we demand for ourselves.

  26. Posted January 22, 2013 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    Theists themselves belie the need for faith to motivate people and to assuage them, as they participate in other organizations where they receive the same benefits as with their churches and most believers don’t attend church and are just as happy, etc. That is, they and others have already created what the faitheists wanted- rituals, etc.
    So, Bruce Springsteen tells them exactly what to do!
    clubscahdenfreude, expresses the truth that scriptures have no value for truth-claims and salvation : reason saves, with the help of Aesop’s Fables and what he mentions!
    beyondbelief007,to imagination!
    wads42,ah,to oxytocin
    sailor1031, gb james, Dermot and al kimeea, indeed!
    Coe,yes: agnosticism,epistemological and aatheism, metaphysical. Also some theists are agnostic about His qualities. Spencerian agnostics find that no way would we ever know one way or the other. They just prattle as we do know no God can possibly exist!
    bacopa, indeed, psychology comes forth to help the superstitious – supernaturalists and paranormalists- to overcome their obsessions with woo.
    Albert Ellis’ ” The Myth of Self-Esteem” and Robert Price’s ‘ The Reason-Driven Life” are the means to do so. Ellis would have said that religion is a “mustabatory” notion: we don’t must have a relationship with Being Itself or Sky Pappy!
    And Patrick, that remark deserves reverberation! We ” doctors ,” whilst we still need to keel haul the woo of the superstitious arguments and scriptures, need to encourage them to read those such as those two books and to assuage them however we can.
    The late Paul Kurtz’ ” The Transcendental Temptation” belies the claims of the two superstitions the supernatural and the paranormal. Oh, remember telepathic and clairvoyant God!
    Why do faitheists want to keep the superstitious in bondage instead of leading them to enlightenment? The religious themselves with their arguments from happiness-purpose and from [Augustine] from angst affirm what we naturalists maintain that they depend on arguments to explain why they believe to others as excuses, as they believe anyway! Thus, whilst they might commit other errors, those naturalist explanations do not reflect the genetic fallacy as those two of their arguments themselves affirm our case!
    This gnu atheist goes to the heart of theism: we would owe nothing to putative God anyway! No divine right for divine rights exists!
    I am an anti-Christ: Yeshua was an idiot of a cult leader! I certainly wouldn’t love him more than others, would hate him, would not follow his dangerous and silly advice, would not divide families, would not seek persecution and so forth.
    Was he a schizotypal and his sheep schizoids as someone suggests?
    I have schizotypy myself, but fortunately, the part about having weird ideas never took hold of me, as I objurgate all woo!
    WEIT, eh?

  27. eric
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    …believers such as Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne and Peter van Inwagen, to cite just a few examples, have well-thought-out reasons for their belief that call for serious discussion. Their belief cannot be dismissed as on a par with children’s beliefs in Santa and the Easter Bunny. We may well not find their reasons decisive, but it would be very difficult to show that no rational person could believe for the reasons that they do.

    This argument can be easily refuted by pointing out that there may be rational people who nevertheless hold some irrational belief. People are not binary, separated into Spocks on one side and gibbering maniacs on the other. 99.999% of us fall in the midddle. We each of us hold a mix of rational and irrational beliefs; a mix of well justified positions and biases.

    The fact that Newton dedicated lots of time to alchemy does not mean alchemy is worthy of serious attention. Pauling won two Nobels, but his vitamin C ideas were crackpottery. And so on.

    So no, Virginia, the fact that Plantinga believes in God and Plantinga is a smart, rational person does not mean God-belief is any more rational than Santa Claus-belief.

    • Sastra
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 8:09 am | Permalink

      Exactly. Most of the people who believe in Bigfoot, ESP, angels, alternative medicine, perpetual motion machines, alien abductions, and conspiracy theories are not raving loons either. They DO have their evidence, their reasoning, their line of argument and conclusion.

      Noting this doesn’t mean that we now have to leave pseudoscience alone, it’s respectable enough to change the subject and look at how the beliefs are so fulfilling.

    • Beth
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 9:35 am | Permalink

      I think the point he was making was that because Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne and Peter van Inwagen have rational arguments for their beliefs, their beliefs cannot simply be dismissed as irrational – i.e. on a par with belief in Santa or the Easter Bunny.

      The argument that rational people can hold irrational beliefs is extraneous. You would need to establish that their belief is actually irrational to counter his point.

      That their rational beliefs might have been constructed after-the-fact to justify their belief is also irrelevant to his point “it would be very difficult to show that no rational person could believe for the reasons that they do”

      • whyevolutionistrue
        Posted January 22, 2013 at 9:51 am | Permalink

        Fine; I’ve already posted plenty on Plantinga showing why I consider his arguments irrational. But one reason they’re irrational is because one cannot construct an a priori, rational argument that would convince a skeptic that God exists.

        Perhaps you haven’t read my posts on Plantinga, and I’ve done plenty of other reading about his beliefs and the people who have refuted his IRRATIONAL claims (one of which is, by the way, that natural selection would never give us faculties able to discern the truth about the world).

        Plantinga also supports Intelligent Design, another irrational belief.

        • Beth
          Posted January 22, 2013 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

          I’m not a regular reader of your blog, so I can’t say I’ve read your previous posts on the matter. Certainly, I don’t recall them.

          I would have to disagree with the standard for rationality you are applying here: “one reason they’re irrational is because one cannot construct an a priori, rational argument that would convince a skeptic that God exists”.

          Mr. Gutting indicated that this was not his standard for a rational belief: “We may well not find their reasons decisive, but it would be very difficult to show that no rational person could believe for the reasons that they do.”

          As I read his article, he is saying that their reasons cannot be shown to be irrational. IOW, showing their reasoning to be unconvincing to skeptics is not sufficient to prove their reasoning is irrational unless you can convince him/me/others that the only rational beliefs are those based on arguments that will convince skeptics.

          BTW – how are you defining skeptic here? Skeptic does not imply atheist although the percentage of skeptics who are also atheists is likely higher than the percentage of atheists in the general population. But there are plenty of people who self-identify as skeptics AND believe in a god and/or a religion. So apparently some skeptics are unconvinced by the lack of a priori rational arguments regarding the existence of god.

          • truthspeaker
            Posted January 22, 2013 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

            Mr. Gutting indicated that this was not his standard for a rational belief: “We may well not find their reasons decisive, but it would be very difficult to show that no rational person could believe for the reasons that they do.”

            Even by that standard he’s wrong. Have you ever read one of Plantinga’s arguments for the existence of a god? No rational person would take it seriously. It’s that bad.

          • Dermot C
            Posted January 22, 2013 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

            I may be wrong, Beth, but I suspect that JAC is referring to Ss. Anselm and Aquinas in discussing the a priori rationale for the existence of God, beyond the need for faith alone.

            In other words, that the high medieval Christians themselves sought to prove His reality through a type of scholastic thought experiment. Philosophers have traditionally raised a doubting eye-brow at Anselm’s ‘proof’; even Anselm’s contemporary and fellow-Christian, Gaunilo of Marmoutiers cast a sceptical glance at the Saint’s queasy reasoning; briefly, if the most perfect thing (i.e. God) must exist, then why doesn’t, say, the most perfect tree exist? Anselm did attempt to counter this, but none too convincingly.

            Aquinas’ argument for God as the uncaused cause of all that is, is countered philosophically, at least, by the idea that one does not need to ascribe to that starting point a Godhead. The more evolutionarily and scientifically-minded Christians would posit that, even if this first cause existed, it could be ‘merely’ a surge of energy, rather than some deity.

            To sum up I would amend your quotation of JAC to read “one cannot construct an a priori, rational argument that would convince a sceptic or even a believer that God exists”. (My amendment in italics).

      • truthspeaker
        Posted January 22, 2013 at 10:03 am | Permalink

        I think the point he was making was that because Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne and Peter van Inwagen have rational arguments for their beliefs, their beliefs cannot simply be dismissed as irrational – i.e. on a par with belief in Santa or the Easter Bunny.

        Then his point fails, because none of those men have presented rational arguments for their beliefs.

        • Sastra
          Posted January 22, 2013 at 10:14 am | Permalink

          Oh, but they have presented rational arguments for their beliefs. The arguments fail to be convincing. But the form is lovely, and it takes a while to pick them apart and show what is wrong. Their rational arguments look good on the surface.

          For some people, that’s enough. “Well, I can’t prove I’m right, but at least I can’t be so wrong as I might be.” To use an analogy, they want us to put them in the same category as a doubtful minority position in a scientific controversy, instead of classifying them with cranks and crackpots.

      • Sastra
        Posted January 22, 2013 at 10:07 am | Permalink

        Is belief in Santa or the Easter Bunny irrational?

        Depends on what you mean by “irrational,” on how you are setting the criteria. Children do not believe in Santa for “no reason,” or without any good evidence. If you really examine the arguments for the belief, you can see why a perfectly rational child would believe in Santa, given what he or she knows about the world.

        And if belief in a literal Santa was seen as important to the identity of an actual adult culture, then the arguments would become much more sophisticated. I suspect you’d find a Swinburnian Bayesian argument or a Plantingan Properly Basic Santa lurking around and reassuring the faithful that no, their faith was not blind, but a reasonable faith. Santa lives.

        But still, of course, a faith.

        Technically speaking, I think you can say any belief short of incoherent lunacy is “rational” — and apophatic theology pushes the borders of even that.

      • eric
        Posted January 22, 2013 at 11:49 am | Permalink

        AFAIK most of their arguments could provide equal justification for a wide variety of contradictory, un-evidenced entities. (An example: the ontological argument. Another would be Pascal’s Wager, though I don’t know if these folks have ever appealed to that one specifically.)

        Leaving aside the problem with any argument that supports contradictory conclusions, preferring one such entity over the others when your own argument provides no justification for that preference is irrational. I may have a good and rational justification for believing that the roulette ball will fall on a number between 0 and 32. But if I then tell you, “I believe it will fall on a 16,” you will rightly recognize that belief as insufficiently justified and therefore irrational.

    • Jim Bradley
      Posted January 24, 2013 at 8:50 am | Permalink

      And similarly, the fact that Dawkins and Harris spend time on atheistic beliefs makes them no more worthy of promulgation than any other belief … you leave us with nothing in that argument.

  28. Sastra
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    How would you respond if told that the benefits of faith don’t rest on the truth of its claims, but on its meeting basic human needs, and that New Atheists won’t make a dent in religion until we replace it with institutions that fill those needs?

    I would respond by first pointing out that religious people themselves do not believe they became religious primarily because their religion fulfills their basic human needs. Religious people believe they became the religious people they are because their religious beliefs are true. And they think that believing such true beliefs even in the absence of compelling evidence is good for them, and says something good about them.

    “If God does not exist — if there is no supernatural higher truth — would you still want to believe there was because of all the great benefits believing in it brings to you? Would you rather not know?”

    If they answer “yes” then they are de facto atheists. Religion really IS about community, comfort, ceremony. It’s a therapy program — and that’s that.

    So we need to point that out. “Hey, guys — you don’t care about God! You don’t believe in God, you only believe in belief in God and you know that’s not the same thing, is it? So notice this. Be honest, remove that unnecessary element explicitly, and keep the organizations around.”

    But if they answer “no” — “no, we DO care whether God exists or not” — — then let’s cut the crap. No more waxing eloquent over the beauty of belief and the fulfillment of faith. No more concern over the Little People and what “they” really care about. The benefits of faith DO rest on the truth of its claims. The believers themselves admit it. Pay attention to them. Stop playing games, stop trying to change the subject, and notice this.

    The second thing I’d point out is that everything that makes sense in religion makes sense because we’re measuring it by humanist standards. Everything that is wonderful in religion –valuable, useful, inspiring, uplifting — can only be argued as being so if you can argue it on secular grounds. They have analogs in the world because that’s where they drew their strength. We atheists know this.

    When the religious figure this out — I mean really figure this out and stop trying to shoehorn all the meaning and value into the necessity of having a Higher Power — then the “replacements for religion” won’t have to be discovered or invented. We already have them.

    • gbjames
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 8:14 am | Permalink

      I agree. We already have them. Which is why my challenge to faitheists is to “put up or shut up”. They keep demanding institutions that they claim don’t exist. Well then… prove us wrong! I may think they are wasting their time, but I’m not going to stand in their way. If they manage to create one of their fabled missing institutions, I’ll be the first to say I was wrong.

    • Posted January 22, 2013 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

      This has happened in the past, of course.

      Conway Hall (formerly South Place) Ethical Society embodies the Freethought spirit, from the dissenting congregation of the 1780s to the present day lectures and debates on hot issues. The Ethical Churches movement that grew away from the South Place ‘congregation’ in the 1890s and 1900s became eventually the British Humanist Association.

      /@

  29. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    Check out Sam Harris’ argument of the diamond the size of a refrigerator in the backyard

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 8:13 am | Permalink

      Could you explain that a bit? I don’t want to have to root around in his writings to find what you’re talking about?

      Thanks.

      • gbjames
        Posted January 22, 2013 at 8:20 am | Permalink

        One can find it here: http://www.rationalresponders.com/an_atheist_manifesto_by_sam_harris

        • ThyroidPlanet
          Posted January 22, 2013 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

          thanks for this one – I found it in an interview by copy/googling the words in my post above, and then that list had it in a good talk/book promo of his in i think Canada.

      • gbjames
        Posted January 22, 2013 at 8:44 am | Permalink

        The relevant passage:

        “It is perfectly absurd for religious moderates to suggest that a rational human being can believe in God simply because this belief makes him happy, relieves his fear of death or gives his life meaning. The absurdity becomes obvious the moment we swap the notion of God for some other consoling proposition: Imagine, for instance, that a man wants to believe that there is a diamond buried somewhere in his yard that is the size of a refrigerator. No doubt it would feel uncommonly good to believe this. Just imagine what would happen if he then followed the example of religious moderates and maintained this belief along pragmatic lines: When asked why he thinks that there is a diamond in his yard that is thousands of times larger than any yet discovered, he says things like, “This belief gives my life meaning,” or “My family and I enjoy digging for it on Sundays,” or “I wouldn’t want to live in a universe where there wasn’t a diamond buried in my backyard that is the size of a refrigerator.” Clearly these responses are inadequate. But they are worse than that. They are the responses of a madman or an idiot.”

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

      ( I know I said I wouldn’t post while parenting, but I did it again, and again just now – couldn’t resist. nap time is letting me re-read this now. )…

      My attempt to answer the question posed at the end of the post (which I glossed over) follows:

      the reason Harris’ argument came to mind – IIUC and to be brief:

      asking a/non/anti/etc.-thiests to replace the meaning wrought in religious peoples’ lives through their faith is simply the wrong question. just like asking to replace the meaning in one’s life that was derived from thinking that a refrigerator-sized diamond is buried somewhere in their backyard. It is not necessarily the same thing, and probably not at all the same thing. Significance, meaning, what changes you, I think should have no preconceived notions. Consider, the loss of one’s faith would very likely be a touchstone for meaning in their life, given its intense emotion.

      … but I admit I thought this post would be an appropriate way to raise awareness of that delightful gem from Harris that I never heard about until last week. thanks to Ceiling Cat again for WEIT!

  30. Posted January 22, 2013 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    Alcohol and drugs meet a lot of people’s basic needs…so should we worship them and ignore their dark and dangerous side of these common panaceas?

    Our atheist movement(s)is making strides in differentiating ourselves from believers in superstitions and nonsense. I think it is inevitable that it will coalesce into broader goals (see Atheism+) as to how we organize society and take care of one another without having a deity at its center. One personal observation about the power of religion to help us love one another: the feelings of good will and grace faded pretty quickly after church service. It was always a bit of a mystery to me as to why after church I became more irritable and intolerant of others. Now I think it may have been an artifact of the service itself — like coming down off a high into everyday reality. So I don’t think the benefits that the apologists tout are all that profound or even real. I recall having much more doubt, guilt, and uncertainty when I was a believer than epiphanies.

  31. eric
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    We should, then, make room for those who embrace a religion as a source of love and understanding but remain agnostic about the religion’s knowledge claims.

    There is something ironic in a bunch of American theologians arguing for the love and understanding components of religion, when the US safety net for the poor is so must smaller and crappier than atheist/agnostic Europe’s.

    Sure, in principle religion could provide these things. But in real life, it seems that whether it does provide these things is highly dependent on cultural and other contextual factors.

  32. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    The problem with Gutting’s argument is that the ‘goal’ of religion is to do what your god wants. This might be worship, it might be submission, it might be leading a life in a manner pleasing to god. Any social benefits are byproducts. Truth values are (to the religious) incidental to the ‘goal’ of worship etc.

    This means that New Atheist arguments about truth are not important to the godstruck. Sorry.

    I don’t think atheists have to do more – it’s already being done. I live in country which collectively delivers education, healthcare, social security, good food and sanitation. All done through taxes rather than prayers. Although the religions would try to make you believe otherwise.

  33. Posted January 22, 2013 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    They keep recycling the same old non-arguments. They are no more convincing than the last time.

    On top of the arguments being unconvincing, they offer so little of practical value to doubters. What little I can extract of practical value is that this kind of thinking could easily lead to dishonesty and/or confusion. For example, what does Gutting believe an atheist in a very religious family should do? Lie to his family, and pretend to be religious? Lie to himself, because the religion is more about family togetherness anyway, rather than the specific beliefs? Pretend that “God” is merely the fabric that holds the family together, and so he should force himself to believe in this for the good of his family and community?

    • Sastra
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 8:38 am | Permalink

      My guess is that what Gutting would have that atheist do — what all accomodationists and faitheists want that atheist to do — is be honest but tactful. They should say:

      “I do not believe what you believe — yes, I am an atheist — but I would never try to take away your faith. I respect and admire all the wonderful things about religion and am glad you have it. See how I love you? So now show me the same love.”

      It’s the equivalent I think of a dog lying down and baring its belly to another dog.

      • gbjames
        Posted January 22, 2013 at 9:03 am | Permalink

        Yeah, except that in an example like that one may be tactful (whatever that means) but one is not being honest. At least if _I_ were to say such a thing it would not be honest. I am not remotely happy a believer has his faith. And while I would not try to “take away” their faith (whatever that means) I would argue that faith is a bad thing because if one must choose, honesty trumps tact.

        • Sastra
          Posted January 22, 2013 at 10:20 am | Permalink

          That’s because you are not a ‘Good Atheist.’

          The opposite of a Good Atheist is a Militant Atheist. “Stand back — I’ve got a rational argument against God, and I’m not afraid to use it!”

  34. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    IMO, Mr. Gutting speaks many half-truths that never really gel or combine into a whole truth!!

    First of all, folks like Mr. Gutting tend to hang out with fairly healthy religious communities and read some of the better religious authors but they either remain in considerable denial about the terrors wreaked by unhealthy ones and/or they tend to unconsciously think (a la Karen Armstrong) that healthy religion is the antidote to unhealthy religion. On this point, Dan Dennett made a powerful point about how in the post-Bush era we can no longer afford the luxury of the very notion of convenient fictions.

    If your notion of Christian spirituality is mostly formed by reading Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer you will come away with a quite positive view of the Christian ethos and spirit. (Anyone whose introduction to Christian thought is Dostoevksy’s “The Brothers Karamazov”, Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” or some of the sermons of Bonhoeffer ought to be impressed, IMO.) On the other hand, James Dobson, Pat Robertson, and Jerry Falwell are not only wayyyy less impressive- they’ve also had wayyy !*more*! influence on American life and politics!!!

    I’ll agree there are some arguments for the existence of God that show more thought and reflection than others, but honestly Plantinga is not in the first category. Arguments from either the existence of a moral sense or from ecstatic religious experiences (such as offered by Immanuel Kant or the Catholic philosopher Etienne Gilson) are thought-provoking and interesting though I think don’t ultimately require embracing the Christian tradition.

    A few years ago Fox News “graced” us with the worst argument for God in the entire history of Western thought and civilization, Bill O’Reilly’s cant-explain-the-ocean-tides argument!! So this is what popular apologetic is falling back on in modern America!! This combined with all the retro anti-gay anti-progressive hysteria and paranoia in America fostered by religion is the obvious reason why “nones” are on the rise. At least this style of Christianity needs to die.

  35. John
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    “Religious understanding offers a way of making sense of the world as a whole and our lives in particular.”
    Yes, religion offers a way of making sense of the world, but in EXACTLY the same way that a belief in Santa and elves and reindeer and entering homes by sliding down chimneys might help us understand how presents appear under the tree on Xmas morning. However, many of us simply do not find such fantastical explanations comforting or satisfying in the least, and we’re frightened by the knowledge that others can so readily and passionately embrace them.

  36. Blair T
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    Those who hold most strongly to the truth claims of their religion are the ones most likely to hold to act immorally on behalf of their religion. Attacking the truth claims of religion reduces the certainty that derives the worst religious behavior.

  37. Marta
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    “How would you respond if told that the benefits of faith don’t rest on the truth of its claims, but on its meeting basic human needs, and that New Atheists won’t make a dent in religion until we replace it with institutions that fill those needs?”

    Our biggest obstacle to making a dent in religion, I think, is not that we’re tearing down institutions without erecting others to take their places, but that we’re killing off immortality. To my mind, this has always been the essential promise of religion, that belief in God promises “everlasting life”, or some such. We could replace religion with incredibly robust alternate institutions, but replacing immortality with permanent death is going to be a very, very hard sell.

    • Posted January 22, 2013 at 8:56 am | Permalink

      That’s a very good point. My understanding of how Christianity took off in pagan Roman times was that it offered eternal life and salvation which none of the other religious choices offered at that time.
      And even now, that ‘going home’ thing is what they all look forward too – I have a 95 year old auntie lose to death who smiles and tells us all that she wants to die so she can be ‘taken home’.

    • Sastra
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 9:20 am | Permalink

      If it is a hard sell then I think we have to appeal to something they value more. We have to appeal to the reason they think made them “choose” religion in the first place.

      “Which is the better path — the easy one which goes nowhere, or the one which forces you to struggle, grow, learn, and become stronger?”

      They always pick the last one … because they are religious. They think.

      The belief that the road to faith is HARD but it makes you a better person is one of its strongest selling points. It’s also totally bogus. At its origin religion is a surrender, not a discipline. All the little disciplines come after, in order to make the easy path look like no, it’s the one less taken, the difficult obstacle course that sharpens and improves your character and life. Do what is difficult, if it’s the right thing to do. So says God. They think.

      We already have the instrument to make a hard sell. It’s their own tool, the one they’re most proud of. They wave it around in the air when it comes to their foundation: we can dig in where it counts, because we’re on firmer ground.

  38. MAUCH
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    It is our responsibility to listen to people whose advanced degrees and positions bring with them an acceptance that they should have an intellect and rationality that is superior to our own. It is also our responsibility to be profoundly skeptical when their claims are not backed up by evidence. Time and again we will find examples of supposedly highly intellegent and rational people who assert we do not understand that their profoundly irrational beliefs are valid because they come from a magisteria outside of evidence. Though they may think otherwise we have enough of an understanding to dismissed these claims as no more that pure bonk.

  39. Martin
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    “…New Atheists won’t make a dent in religion until we replace it with institutions that fill those needs?”

    For one, I think it already does, in that it allows me to have interesting conversations with like-minded people (who don’t believe in gods). But this is where religious apologists don’t get it – atheism isn’t another religion, it’s not even the equivalent or replacement for religion, because atheism isn’t about faithful adherence to a few texts or even to a particular worldview. It’s about questioning and arguing and trying to figure things out as we live our lives. Being an atheist doesn’t mean trying to live the best atheist life, it means trying to live the best life, period. Religion just takes away from the completeness of life by issuing its own archaic, bizarre, arbitrary rules about what’s true, right, etc, that only serve to distract us from the real world.

    The point is that being an atheist I’m free to find community wherever I want – it can be with a weekly soccer game, visits to a museum with my kid, getting involved with neighbourhood activities or local politics. I don’t have to only associate with other atheists because, god being imaginary, life as it is goes on with or without religion. The fact that religion is still around and an intrusive force in the world means I do still have to deal with it, which is why I take an interest, but ideally we should be able to confront the problems (moral and otherwise) of life without the irrelevancies that religion offers.

    • Mark Fuller Dillon
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 9:07 am | Permalink

      Well said.

  40. revjimbob
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    We get this ‘religion fills human needs’ stuff all the time. I manage perfectly well without it – I am not so arrogant as to think I am somehow better than others in this respect.
    We don’t need it.

  41. Sastra
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    The faithful run the whole gamut from almost complete Biblical literalists who take scripture at its written word, to those whose belief in the divine is deistic-—indeed, almost atheist.

    Yes. And the one thing that unites this entire diverse group of faithful people is a central core belief: Thank God we are not atheists.

    Because being an atheist would be awful.

    Every religion, at whatever point in the ‘gamut’ it is, sticks right on this point. They have to. The more significant, transcendent, important, inspiring, transforming, and valuable recognizing and acknowledging our spiritual element and origin is, then the more insipid, lowering, depressing, degrading, and worthless it is to fail to recognize and acknowledge this great Truth. It follows because it has to follow. They rise ABOVE the world that we are “stuck” in … thank God and their own higher nature.

    Really, now — are atheists expected to ignore this?

  42. Barney
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    My response to “New Atheism doesn’t provide a transition into secular humanism, or won’t make a dent in religion until we replace it with institutions that fill those needs”, would be that secular humanism nevertheless exists, and it’s quite possible to be a ‘New Atheist’ and a ‘secular humanist’ at the same time; I don’t see that one has to lead to the other to be valid.

    The institutions that fill the human needs are, when run well, things like democracy ( giving people control over their lives – something sadly lacking in most religions, which are literally hierarchical), social welfare systems, or media run to educate and form a community (Sesame Street, or a David Attenborough film, if you want), rather than for profit. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that opposition to a decent welfare state, public broadcasting, or democracy, comes from groups that tend to shout about their own religiosity rather a lot. These institutions are not, of course, atheist – they’re secular. And that’s the point – good religious people will fully support and take part in them. Lots of people liked the tribute to the NHS they did in the London Olympics opening ceremony; it’s a secular institution that does bind people together.

    As for the de Botton wish for ceremonies: I’m not convince we need that many of them. But secular memorial services are perfectly easy, as are secular wedding ceremonies, and they don’t need dedicated buildings, but general purpose public buildings. Not having a set-in-stone order of service makes them more relevant to the people concerned. I’m not convinced there’s a large desire for coming-of-age ceremonies; they’re big in some religious communities, such as Jewish and Catholic ones, but not in others, such as many Protestant ones. And I can’t see the desire for regular services, either; but people could always start taking more of an interest in local council meetings, if they want something formal.

  43. Posted January 22, 2013 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    This is a great post. I really enjoyed it. I fear however that a proper response might be a little long winded for your comments section. So I thank you in advance for providing the fodder for a piece of my own. A couple of quick observations do come to mind that I’ll share though.
    First, on this popular myth that agnosticism is somehow a middle ground between atheism and belief. It’s just not so, agnosticism is atheism, it’s atheism pretending to be a kinder gentler form of it’self. Being uncertain of a thing is still a lack of belief in a thing. Agnosticism has always struck me the shy little brother of Atheism. It agrees with atheism, but doesn’t want to risk saying so to loudly or stringently for fear of upsetting anyone.

    As for this idea of replacing the mythologies and their rites with “secular rites and cathedrals” these things already exist, they’re all around us. The rites are called art,science,music, philosophy, love, charity, respect,debate, discussion, education et cetera. The cathedrals of secularism? Museums, libraries, universities,concert halls, parks, auditoriums, sports stadiums,our own homes, and of course there is the grand cathedral it’self: This vast and glorious universe in which we all live and which so few of us stop to appreciate! We don’t need new rites and cathedrals, we need new ways of thinking, new ways of judging what is valuable. We need new ways of opening the eyes of those who refuse to see so that they can share in the simple but endlessly vast and varied truth which is that our world, the world of the real is a far more glorious, awe inspiring and enriching thing than any of the backward, confused and confining constructs they’ve built around themselves.

    Once again, thanks very much for the post. I’ll be looking for others in the future.

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

      Americans tend to identify “atheism” with a specific form of politically activist atheism. It’s the source of a lot of fallacies, IMO.

  44. darrelle
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    Seems you Gnu Atheists have inspired a whole new field of apologetics. Apologetics aimed at justifying apologetics. We could call it Apologetics^2.

    • steve oberski
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 9:19 am | Permalink

      meta apologetics

      • corio37
        Posted January 22, 2013 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

        metapologetics?

  45. Robert Bray
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    Do we want to know, or do we want to live by the lie? This is not a rhetorical question with an obvious answer. Some days my emotional spectrum bends toward the ultra-violet: I feel so bad that I want and seek comfort in the fantastic: that I may see my mother again in another life. Other days, the infra-red. Like Thoreau, I say to the world, ‘be it life or death, we crave only reality.’ That is, I want to know. Desire for knowledge; knowledge of desire; and again. . . .

    How to get from the individual ‘me’ to the social whole, supported by vital institutions? It is my sense that the Christian churches in the United States have failed, abjectly, to provide either a common ground of morality or a cohesive way of living together as individuals with social needs. Christianity’s is a qualitative failure that can be sensed quantitatively. Consider what millions of Americans do with their Sundays. What institutions do they endue with their time, money and emotions? Professional sports: they belong to a team in the same elemental sense in which folks used to belong to a denomination; they engage with their team in just the way their ancestors made religious services the center of the week, year, life.

    It doesn’t take a sociologist to study this: we need only take a look around. What is important is what you give yourself to. And there are fewer and fewer donations of American passion to god. Even among those who do regularly attend church, I suspect many can’t wait to get out the door and to the television. A fiver in the collection plate, a nod to the belief book, sure, but the popular heart swoons elsewhere.

    I do not think a virtuous republic requires religion in the caissons of its foundation; but nor do I believe one can sustain itself on the
    monoculture of bread and circuses. Secular humanism has its saving institution: the university. But ‘the world is too much with’ our universities these days–Saturdays are their sports sabbaths, as Sundays are the NFL’s. If our colleges and universities do not get healthy by fighting off and thus immunizing themselves against the sports culture, offering a communal alternative of slow and steady and healthy growth, I do not see how, in the long term, republican democracy can survive.
    Sports and recreation

  46. truthspeaker
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    How would you respond if told that the benefits of faith don’t rest on the truth of its claims, but on its meeting basic human needs

    If this is true, then why such strong resistance to showing the untruth of its claims?

    • neil
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

      In other words, religion tells the lies that the people want to hear. Wow, what an endorsement.

  47. @eightyc
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    lol.

    It’s because religious people really are like children when it comes to this stuff.

    They crave pseudo-mysteries and vagueness and dress it up as being “spiritual”.

    They think the universe owes them continued existence after their death.

    That’s the only way they can manage their inherent fear of oblivion. They know full well it is imminent.

  48. JonathanH
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    My response to asserting that the value of religion isn’t in it’s truth claims, but in all of the other things such as community, art, ect is this.

    Religion doesn’t provide those things, it piggybacks on them. Religion doesn’t create community, or art, or literature, or ontologies on love and suffering. Those things would and do exist independent of religion. One cannot stop the writer from writing, the painter from painting, the philosopher from thinking, or the community from gathering.

    All religion does is put a collar on those aspects of our humanity. It tells the writer what he can and cannot write, the painter what is blasphemous to paint, the philosopher what it is appropriate to think, the community how and when to gather. And should anyone deviate from these arbitrary prescriptions, it burns them at the stake, stones them, or at the least makes them into pariahs until they adjust themselves to be in line with the religions dictates.

    Religion isn’t awe, wonder, appreciation for nature, it isn’t our humanity our ontologies for love, sacrifice, or empathy. Those things exist in any culture with or without formal religion. Religion is just the parasite the holds these things back, and then takes credit for their accomplishments.

    • Sastra
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 9:54 am | Permalink

      +1

    • Mark Fuller Dillon
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

      I agree.

  49. Matt Bowman
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    I attended Catholic Sunday school, a year at a Catholic prep school, a Catholic high school, and a Catholic university. You don’t build a community and institutions like these without taking religious claims seriously. Reciting the Apostles’ Creed at every mass is a reminder of what a Catholic must believe. Being a Catholic involves a lot of religious training. Indeed, the Catholic Church does claim that without religious training you won’t gain the love, understanding, and knowledge that you need to live a good (moral) life.

    In truth, I can recall times where I prayed for love, knowledge, and understanding. If anything, I learned that the church can’t provide it. Really! Gutting is wrong even in his last most desperate attempt to keep some relic of religion alive. Love, understanding, and knowledge are human values. You can attach these values to your actions whether they are religious or not. It doesn’t matter. So often religion is on the wrong side of love, understanding, and knowledge that you learn it can’t be trusted. There is nothing of religion that I find worth keeping.

  50. MNb
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    JAC, if you are in a friendly mood and have some 100 bucks to spend, could you send Gutting a sample of Herman Philipse’s God in the Age of Science? Final sentence, after some 340 pages: “if we aim at being reasonable and intellectually consientious, we should become strong disjunctive universal atheists”.
    Philipse thoroughly discusses Swinburne. You should first read it yourself of course.

    “our experiences of evil in the language of the Book of Job, of love in the language of the Gospel of John and of sin and redemption in the language of Paul’s epistles”
    1) Yes, the OT-god is evil. 2) No, I don’t experience love in John 12:25. 3) Sin in the meaning of doing wrong according to god is a psychologically unhealthy concept. Instead of redemption it’s better to do your best to repair the damage you have caused.

    “the three great human needs religions typically claim to satisfy”
    I don’t need religion to satisfy my and other people’s need for love; what Gutting means with knowledge is just a set of personal prejudices; religion only makes it harder, at least for me, to understand the world around me.

    “response to my own hypothetical objection to New Atheism”
    I am not that interested. I don’t believe in god, gods, astrology, ghosts, demons, spirituality or whatever. It’s my right to shout it from the roofs and if anyone has a problem with it it’s not my problem. Living in a very religious community (Moengo Suriname) like I do, including protestants, catholics, muslims, buddhists and hindus, it’s not my intention to deconvert anyone. But I’m not going to be silent or tactful, whatever that means. People should take me for what I am and my atheism is an essential part of it. I’ll do the same and as a result we can nicely live and work together – accommodate if you like. But I’m not going to compromise.
    As a result I’m not sure if I’m a New Atheist.

  51. Posted January 22, 2013 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    Rather than atheists needing to emulate the social and community aspects of religions, it is my experience that religions are increasingly emulating secular activities.
    On a recent Sunday, I spent several hours at a local church. While services were going on (which were broadcast on monitors around the church campus), there was a food stand selling tacos, a hall with recruiters from local charities, a separate building for youth activities.
    It seemed more like a local fair than a church.

    I think it just another lie from theists that atheism needs to find something to fill the gap left by religion. People will find plenty to do, they just won’t claim it has anything to do with an imaginary sky daddy.

  52. Bob Carlson
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    I have just finished reading Susan Jacoby’s The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought, and I see it as a refutation of everything that Gutting claims. In his eulogy for his like-minded brother, who was two years his elder, Robert said “He believed that happiness is the only good, reason the only torch, justice the only worship, humanity the only religion, and love the only priest.” According to Jacoby, Robert had used the same lines in many of his speeches. The paragraph ending her book is:

    You “new” atheists should consider it your special duty and privilege to work tenaciously for the restoration of this old American freethinker. You owe him. So does every American, religious or nonreligious, who enjoys and takes for granted that liberty of conscience is meant for thee as well as for me&emdash;the greatest secular idea of all.

    • gbjames
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 10:22 am | Permalink

      +1

      (I, too, just finished reading this book.)

    • Bob Carlson
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

      Tested the html before posting, but WordPress didn’t handle the emdash as it should have.

  53. Posted January 22, 2013 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    There are benefits to the trappings of religion, but these aren’t tied to any specific beliefs–they’re just elements of human culture used by religions to perpetuate themselves.

    The cultural activities provided by religion aren’t unimportant to those in those religions, and I know of a lot of people in them who appreciate having a peer group they have close ties to that isn’t a work relationship, who they see regularly, and who they could count on if they encounter hardship. It might even be more important to people, with smaller and more dispersed families being more common.

    As an atheist and former Catholic, I’m sympathetic to these desires even while I’m hesitant about attempts to just copy religious services. But I also think, why not build monuments and buildings that reflect our current state of knowledge? Imagine for instance a ‘cathedral’ of sorts focused around electromagnetic energy–prisms, refraction and reflection, interference patterns, solar panels… A mix of art and a science museum, where events could be held.

    There’s nothing wrong with, as an atheist, embracing cultural activities. All I care about is that they reflect reality and not ancient stories.

  54. Vaal
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    We are often supposed to accept the idea that religion fulfills basic human needs and “what do we do without it?”

    But even if you grant religion arises in response to certain human needs, it’s just as important to point out it also CREATES more needs in the process: the need to worry about our eternal souls, the needs to worry if we are pleasing a God, the need to worry about whether we have worshiped enough or correctly, the need to proselytize, to reign in others by persuasion or force to tow the line of one’s particular religious beliefs, the need to adhere to various religious practices, to adhere to often outdated morals, inflexible understandings of the world, the need to square all the suffering in the world with the Good God who is supposed to answer all these questions…the list goes on and on.

    What happens when formerly religious people drop their religion? Plunged into existential hell and disorientation? No, once they are truly out of their religious mind-chains they are typically RELIEVED both of burdens they had become conscious of, and burdens and religious “needs” and concerns they only now realised they had bore.

    I live a happy life and when I look at Orthodox Jews for instance rocking at a wailing wall or Muslims churning by the thousands around Mecca I sure don’t think “Well, I feel I’m missing out on that!”

    I’d previously given the example of my Christian mother who lost her husband to illness, vs my father in law the atheist who lost is 1st and 2nd wife to cancer. Was it any harder on my father in law for having a more realistic view of reality vs my mother’s praying and beliefs in an afterlife?
    Not at all. He got along fine. Whole countries get along fine mostly being non-religious.

    As some have already pointed out, the issue of needing religion for meaning, community etc is like needing it for morality. We already had and have the basis for morality – it derives from the very nature of creatures like ourselves. Social life, meaning, value, purpose also naturally arise from human beings…no magic required.

    Vaal.

    • Vaal
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 10:29 am | Permalink

      Er..”and concerns they only now realised they had borne.”

      Vaal

    • Sastra
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 11:17 am | Permalink

      That’s a very good point. The role religion plays in the life of the believer puts them in some very difficult positions, and gives them worries which have no basis.

      Even the so-called ‘liberal’ religions require a lot of mental contortions and rationalizations which can get very wearing psychologically. If “all things happen for a reason” and “there are no coincidences” then the cosmic drama revolves around its main character being able to figure out the plot, pick up the cues, and make all the right choices. What if you’re not spiritual enough? What if your instincts don’t feel magically guided? What if God is silent — or, worse, misunderstood?

      And what if the deep important lesson which you are supposed to learn from suffering doesn’t seem like it’s worth it? Being human is a failure if your aspiration is supposed to be towards what is Higher and Better than that.

  55. Ken Pidcock
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    But what you are too militant and blind to see is that religion plays an important role in people’s lives—a role infinitely more important than just believing in some “truths” of scripture.

    I think that people maybe map aspects of their lives to religion that are, in fact, totally independent of it. When they let go of the superstition, they might realize this and see that nothing is actually missing.

  56. FormerComposer
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    Coyne reiterates at the end, “How would you respond if told that the benefits of faith don’t rest on the truth of its claims, but on its meeting basic human needs, and that New Atheists won’t make a dent in religion until we replace it with institutions that fill those needs?”

    I think the meme seen around the Internet is appropriate: “Science — it works, bitches!”

    Over the centuries, a wide variety of activities have replaced parts of religion and religious thinking because they ended up being a better explanation or a more exploitable method for people to get what they wanted. Religion becomes irrelevant in some sphere when something more effective is found. And people want results, not the spinning of just-so (or kinda-sorta-so) stories. Increased observation of the heavens revealed mechanisms of weather, thunder/lightning, planets, moons that undercut the fairytales and had actual predictive value. Similar trajectories have been followed by what we know call sociology, anthropology, biology, philosophy, literature, etc.

    As much as I sometimes agitate for the destruction of religions, I often think that they will end in the whimper of irrelevance to human needs. The dust-ups we see now are just the final death throes of something that is already dead at the core.

    Back in the 60s, a common poster was “Suppose they gave a war and nobody came?” The parallel for today is “Suppose they gave a religion and nobody followed?”

    • FormerComposer
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 10:51 am | Permalink

      … what we now call …

    • Posted January 22, 2013 at 11:00 am | Permalink

      I agree with you. I see science as the natural successor to religion over time, and it’s only a matter of time even though that might be hundreds of years. But I am positive it is a one-way ticket. We are all impatient here but I don’t think we can rationally persuade those already too far gone, so we might miss out on passing the winning post. The key is education, education, education – to quote quoting Blair, as did Dawkins – and just continuing to knock at the door as much as we can in our time on this planet.

  57. JimV
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    How would I respond?

    Sweden.

  58. Posted January 22, 2013 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    Jerry Coyne channels Fermat…. :-)

  59. Posted January 22, 2013 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    Seriously, I just shrug when I get arguments like these. I think that Mano Singham (physics professor at Case Western) said it well:

    “What atheists like me say to religious believers is simply the following: If the existence of your god has empirical consequences, then provide empirical evidence that supports your contention. If it has no empirical consequences whatsoever, then say so and we will not interfere with your theological and philosophical ruminations because we do not really care to speculate on the properties of what we consider to be a mythical entity.”

  60. purvis
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    The Templeton foundation is interested in scientism too:

    http://www.ph.vu.nl/en/Images/Science-beyond-scientism-PHD-positions_tcm59-307723.pdf

  61. Larry C
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    My response is much less academic than those I’ve read here. I think the intellectual arguments are important and most of the above arguments are well thought out and more clearly articulated than they would be if I had written them. However, as a former Catholic, I admit that it felt good that I was part of something bigger; there was a sense that we Catholics had a worldview and ways of dealing with things that set us apart from others. We were close knit. We took care of each other, watched out for each other and, when push came to shove, we’d fight for each other. Although very authoritarian and paternalistic, the church also felt like a brotherhood to me. But when my doubt turned to disbelief, my sense that there was wrongdoing by the leaders of the church turned to anger and then resentment. When I realized during my ninth or tenth year of religious education that their arguments for belief and their justifications for the behavior of the church were fabricated from fables, I stopped participating almost completely. And I didn’t miss anything even though I used to enjoy it. Going to mass became intolerable. I came to terms with the fact that the sense of brotherhood I thought was so important and felt so good to me was based upon self deception and very quickly understood that I had no desire to be brothers with a group that avoided reality as policy. Furthermore, as I turned away from them, I began to be treated as an outsider, former “brothers in Christ” were full of anger and even hatred toward me. That continues today. As social media has put me in contact with old school mates I have found that, although many have open minds and some even disbelieve as I do, though forty years have gone by, many still become angry when they find out I no longer believe what we were taught by the nuns and priests. It’s pathetic. And I am grateful that my fellow atheists haven’t substituted anything for the rituals and mindless behavior associated with belonging to a “brotherhood” of fearful freakish phony followers of faith. I enjoy reading and studying different points of view and deciding for myself what is true and what is not true. I have my code of morality based upon my sense of truth and reality that I’m able to change and grow as my understanding and knowledge grows. I no longer have to engage in any sort of “groupthink” and it’s okay with me if you or anyone else disagrees with me. I can learn from you but I’m not forced to think what you think because we’re “humanists” or “atheists” or any other “ist” with a formal set of beliefs. And that doesn’t mean I think I can make up any rules I feel like making up to justify my aberrant, perverted behavior. Societal norms and my evolved sense of morality are my starting points. There are those among us who would tell us what a “real” atheist is supposed to think. The times when I hear or read those people are the times my gratitude for not having to follow a set of beliefs (or a set of non-beliefs) is reinforced. The day atheism becomes a kind of religion with rules and structure and formal arguments in order to substitute for religion as we know it is the day I change what I call myself.

  62. corio37
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    It’s for people like Gutting that I wrote the Accommodationist’s Anthem:

    http://religiousatrocities.wordpress.com/2013/01/08/global-the-accommodationists-anthem/

  63. LW
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    What the New Atheists movement seems to be demonstrating is that reason and debate are getting us nowhere. Both sides have their best men on it. Literally. And yet neither side is losing adherents to the other side in any significant measure.

    Time to try something else? Maybe so. But what?

    Sometimes I think our civilization’s best option would be the emergence of a very compelling new religion. A religion that takes all of today’s most humane and progressive values as its doctrinal starting point.

    Maybe that would give us the headroom we need to evolve into a more rational civilization in the long run.

    • gbjames
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

      Your premise is false.

      http://www.pewforum.org/unaffiliated/nones-on-the-rise.aspx

      • LW
        Posted January 22, 2013 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

        The numbers are definitely trending in the right direction, in my opinion. But they seem to be carried by more by the changing youth demographic than by the winning arguments of atheist debaters.

        (The very small sample of kids personally known to me indicates that the growth of atheism in the youth cohort is fueled by the musical and video memes of iconoclastic youth artists. In other words, kids are finding their own ways of subverting the dominant paradigm. They may know who Ricky Gervais is, but they are surely not paying any attention to Dawkins, et al.)

        • gbjames
          Posted January 22, 2013 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

          I might ask “and how do you know that?”

          But I’ll point out that “winning arguments” and “youthful demographic” are not mutually exclusive components of the change.

        • Gary W
          Posted January 22, 2013 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

          The very small sample of kids personally known to me …

          “Very small sample.” That’s the basic problem with your argument right there.

          • LW
            Posted January 22, 2013 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

            “A very small sample of kids personally known to me” was my attempt to use humor to qualify an opinion that was clearly limited to my own experience. I guess it fell flat. Even though closely followed by wording like “in my opinion” and “they seem to be”.

            I’ll try to resist the temptation to be funny next time.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

      Sometimes I think our civilization’s best option would be the emergence of a very compelling new religion. A religion that takes all of today’s most humane and progressive values as its doctrinal starting point.

      It’s been tried. Wait 500 or 1000 years, and that compelling new religion is what’s holding society back.

  64. Posted January 22, 2013 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    How would you respond if told that the benefits of faith don’t rest on the truth of its claims, but on its meeting basic human needs, and that New Atheists won’t make a dent in religion until we replace it with institutions that fill those needs?

    That hides a lot of cans of worms. There’s the distinctions between “faith” versus “religion”, “needs” versus “desires”, “meeting” versus “seeming to meet”, and what exactly is meant by “rest on”. But anyway…

    First, one of the needs humans have is for an internally coherent worldview; cognitive dissonance is uncomfortable. And in so far as knowledge of empirical truth tends to allow more effective goal seeking (looking at the cards in draw-five poker doesn’t guarantee winning, but seems to help), the lack of truth to religion’s claims acts as a detriment; and may in fact hinder their ability to recognize detriment.

    Contrariwise, a simple ecological model suggests that yes, the most effective means for getting rid of religious institutions is to introduce competing alternative secular institution(s) that more effectively provide for human needs.

    Nohow, the existing trend suggests secular institutions may already be doing exactly that, producing the current “rise of the Nones”. This shift long precedes the arrival of the New Atheists, but they’re a continuation of pre-existing trends. There’s likely room for introducing more effective competitors, to allow the shift to accelerate; and “New Atheist” variants that do this seem likely to come to predominate over “New Atheist” variants that don’t.

    Of course, that probably won’t ever drive religion all the way to extinction; but the niche in the social ecology may be radically reduced.

  65. Sastra
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    You know, I see an uncomfortable parallel between “you won’t make a dent in religion until you can replace it with institutions which fulfill certain human needs” and “you won’t make a dent in the acceptance of evolution until you can reassure people that they won’t have to give up their religion.”

    Although they deal with different things and one is pro-religion and one anti, both arguments seem to think that the REAL goal is the end-point. We have to reduce the numbers of people who believe in religion; we have to increase the numbers of people who believe in evolution. Okay. Let us come up with a strategy for doing what will work, given who we are dealing with. Let’s be practical.

    But those end-points aren’t the real goal. The actual goal is inextricably wrapped up in the method: rational, critical thinking in the pursuit of truth. The truth matters, and we want to make it matter. “Getting” a bunch of atheists or evolutionists who only come to the correct conclusion because we figured out how to make the conclusion less “threatening” seems … cheap. It seems like missing the point. It seems like putting the cart before the horse. Or something…

  66. Andrew Fredriksen
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    The last argument by the Religious is to posit the human side of religion. God and religion are a human invention and at the core of just about every religion is a kernel of humanism. As human understanding of the natural world continues to grow, religion’s central humanist core continues to expand, while the trappings of religion and concept of God diminish. Left alone, the humanist core will eventually crack and break through the vestigial carapace of superstition, dogma and wishful thinking. In fact, the cracks in the mantel of faith are already obvious.
    With God and religion out of the mix nothing in the “human-verse” will really change, that much – we will keep most of our institutions, ceremonies, rituals and rites of passage – they will just be reframed. Perhaps we will return to a simpler informed appreciation of the natural universe and the joy of living.
    Unfortunately those vested in religion – for reasons of livelihood, for power and control, for money, or for just plain zealotry – don’t want to go the way of Santa Claus. They have dug in their heels, turned religion into a political agenda to try and maintain their power base. This is what we have to challenge and fight against while this transition takes place, and to help those who ask, to transition from God and religion.

  67. DV
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    The arguments for the benefits of religion sound to me essentially an argument for the benefits of superstition.

    There is no need for a replacement “institution” at all. Superstition works as well without institution. Just look at how Shinto works in Japan or how ancestor-worship works in China. No formal institutions, just disorganized set of folklore and mythologies. None of it is true of course, but at least they don’t have a rigid set of dogma. It is easier for folklore to evolve so to speak with the times, so you don’t see much if any resistance to the idea of old earth or evolution in Japan or China.

  68. gillt
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    our neurotic behavior through Freudian drives and complexes

    How about the ontology of understanding our lucky lotto numbers by way of a horoscope?

  69. Posted January 22, 2013 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    I think scientists and other writers have pointed out the survival benefits of a community knit together by a strong common belief that calls for some sacrifice. De Botton’s Religion for Atheists seems consistent with that view, and my own limited experience of church is similarly that its community of people is its most striking feature, with rituals and the fine points of the creed as less important for most members. Perhaps church congregations will continue on with a steadily narrowing basis in supernatural truth and a growing implicit acceptance of humanism. A movement toward Unitarianism but with enough magical thinking to help members feel they have some control over their lives. My own interest is in our broad picture of the history of life on the planet and how it can, more than it currently does, point us toward surviving and thriving as our purpose and toward a shifted perspective on dying. Scientists in the future may not be completely comfortable with what people, looking for belief, come away from scientific description with. But that’s not the worst thing.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted January 22, 2013 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

      …but with enough magical thinking to help members feel they have some control over their lives.

      I just can’t see that as a good idea.

      • Sastra
        Posted January 22, 2013 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

        Sure you can! Quantum physics tells us that consciousness controls physical reality and therefore our thoughts have the power to attract whatever we visualize. So if you just make up your mind to believe that magical thinking is a good idea — then you will see it become a good idea!

        There is no conflict between science and spirituality.

        • Posted January 23, 2013 at 6:31 am | Permalink

          I have mixed reactions to the magical thinking stuff myself, but the case for its benefits, including survival ones, is pretty strong. I’m looking at Matt Hutson’s book on The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane. He writes that if you accept that the brain constructs reality and its role is to help the owner survive and reproduce, “it follows that the brain constructs reality in the most useful way possible… Useful does not mean accurate.” Huttson’s countless examples include beliefs like “everything happens for a reason” and “whatever goes around, comes around.”

          • truthspeaker
            Posted January 23, 2013 at 7:06 am | Permalink

            Huttson’s countless examples include beliefs like “everything happens for a reason” and “whatever goes around, comes around.”

            In what way are those beliefs useful? They seem detrimental to me.

            • John Scanlon, FCD
              Posted January 26, 2013 at 11:36 pm | Permalink

              To me they seem to be pithy expressions of basic truths (macroscopic events have causes, instances fall within a statistical distribution) that may also be misunderstood or abused. YMMV.

          • Posted January 23, 2013 at 7:35 am | Permalink

            I can also recommend Stuart Sutherland’s book Irrationality on this subject.

  70. Cremnomaniac
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

    Forgive my comment if it duplicates anything others have said, as I didn’t read them all.

    faith don’t rest on the truth of its claims, but on its meeting basic human needs

    It is always somewhat odd to me that so much credibility is given to those who argue for religion. Its as though people, even atheist, are subconsciously allowing god to exist in their arguments.

    I see it this way. Everything about culture, morality, religion, all those “other” ways of understanding are derived from mankind, period. Since they are already the product of man, then everything claimed to be the from other sources is a non-sequitur.

    The correct conclusion is that mankind already meets its basic needs, and is the primary source no matter how hard the faithfool try to disclaim credit.
    Hence, we don’t need religion for anything as its simply a mythical cognitive structure, of mankind.

    Personally, I feel philosophy as interesting an exercise as it can be, and as a useful framework from which we began to consider the universe, has about run its course. It no longer tells us anything “about” the world, anymore than religion tells us about human nature or morality. Again, the source for any of it is us.

    • Posted January 23, 2013 at 6:37 am | Permalink

      Granted that all our ways of understanding are derived from mankind, as you say, but if you are really including all people in all their mix of cultures, capabilities, problems, successes, and tragedies, it’s not farfetched to think that portions of mankind would find understanding and reassurance in religion of some kind, whether it is deity-based, nature-based, even science-based!

      • Cremnomaniac
        Posted January 23, 2013 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

        Reassurance is likely despite being a false comfort. But understanding, of what? religion starts with erroneous beliefs, and ends with erroneous conclusions. Garbage in, garbage out.

        So what “understanding” could it possible provide? Certainly, nothing based in reality, and most likely false. Sounds like misunderstanding at best.

        It seems that your comment, does in fact, hint at my earlier suggestion that assumes some underlying truth to religious claims.

  71. MorsGotha
    Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:45 am | Permalink

    My answer to your final question Prof ceiling Cat is this:

    When I stopped believing in santa, I still got presents. If I were a believer and stopped believing in God, I would still have other social situations.

  72. Ludo
    Posted January 23, 2013 at 4:33 am | Permalink

    - “How would you respond if told that the benefits of faith don’t rest on the truth of its claims, but on its meeting basic human needs, and that New Atheists won’t make a dent in religion until we replace it with institutions that fill those needs?” –

    My first reaction would be to dissect the wording used in this statement, and point out how manipulative it is. This is by no means a neutral (objective) statement, because of the use of tendentious (biased) words like ‘benefits’ or ‘needs’. This statement departs from the point of view that faith has (unspecified) ‘benefits’ and somehow fulfills (unspecified) human ‘needs’. Furthermore it implies that such needs are universal. The manipulative of this proposition is that it is tacitly and implicitly oriented towards a pro-faith point of view.
    A more neutral statement would avoid colored concepts like ‘benefits’ and ‘needs’. Instead of ‘benefits’, try ‘effects’. Instead of thinking in terms of ‘basic human needs’ supposedly fulfilled by faith, try thinking in terms of evolutionary and cultural processes explaining the fact that so many (but certainly not all!) humans adhere to some religion (since ‘faith’ as used in the above proposition has (again: implicitly) the meaning of religious faith, a subjective belief in supernatural agencies.

  73. Jane
    Posted January 23, 2013 at 4:39 am | Permalink

    We atheists ARE busy filling basic human needs of “community”. Just look at the number of atheistic, humanistic, agnostic, freethinking organized groups around the USA that meet and greet every month. These organizations provide their members (and usually, the public, at large, is invited to attend any of their meetings and social gatherings) with comraderie, a sense of belonging to a “community”. I feel heartened by the thought that one day, in the not too distant future, these groups will be as prolific as, say, the Knights of Columbus or the Masons.

  74. RandomCommenter
    Posted January 23, 2013 at 7:02 am | Permalink

    Jerry Coyne says: “How would you respond if told that the benefits of faith don’t rest on the truth of its claims, but on its meeting basic human needs, and that New Atheists won’t make a dent in religion until we replace it with institutions that fill those needs?”

    (Context: I am a militant antitheist.)

    I’d say I think it’s pretty remarkable that when Alain de Botton suggests that something should replace religion, he’s vilified in the global atheist blogosphere, but when Daniel Dennett says essentially the same thing, his comments are met with resounding silence.

    We’ve got to face the fact that people do religion for reasons that have nothing to do with belief in antiquated (and possibly always allegorical) truth-claims about the universe, and everything to do with shared traditions and the reinforcement of community.

    Dan Dennett on “What Should Replace Religion” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m5tGpMcFF7U

    • gbjames
      Posted January 23, 2013 at 7:44 am | Permalink

      I think you have a point although I’m not sure that Dennett and de Button are quite advocating the same thing.

      • RandomCommenter
        Posted January 23, 2013 at 7:56 am | Permalink

        Not exactly the same thing, no. But it is recognizable that religion provides things that people consider valuable, and even that they are particularly good at that, compared to other forms of institutions. Dennett nearly argues, ALL other forms of institutions.

        Maybe we should ask the Norwegians what they do instead of church.

        (Before everybody piles on a load of flames, pretend I repeated all the usual tropes about how false and harmful the central beliefs of religion are. Stipulated, OK?)

        • gbjames
          Posted January 23, 2013 at 8:07 am | Permalink

          “Dennett nearly argues…”

          It is the “nearly” part that saves it for me. All of the things he uses as illustrations can be, and are, available in non-religious forms already. (Example, although I don’t do this myself, in my neighborhood there are secular choirs I could join, amateur theater groups I could participate in, and so forth). His TED example is well stated. But all of these things exist already. They can grow. And they will grow as more people abandon church going… they will have time for it.

          De Botton, on the other hand, seems to be arguing for some sort of unspecified ersatz ritual. That’s why he rubs me the wrong way. I have no need for a humanist chaplain in my life although in hard times it might be good to have easily available social support services available… counseling, etc.

          • RandomCommenter
            Posted January 23, 2013 at 11:14 am | Permalink

            I don’t think it takes ersatz religious faith, either. But what does it take? And to do what? Here’s one thing Dennett says in the video:

            “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” [Quoting Robert Frost.] Most of us have a place like that, but not all of us. There are a lot of people — and they live in houses and may even have families — but they don’t have a place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. But churches do that very well. They are a safety net of last resort for many people, and not just poor people, not just the homeless in the traditional sense, but people who have simply lost hope, who’ve lost any sense of self-respect or confidence. And churches open their doors to those people. And they can do a better job at this than government agencies. Not necessarily than private, atheist agencies, but this is a task that a good society should make sure gets done one way or another.

            It’s just one example of many.

            So I guess that I would just point out that your objection presupposes that that that is offered by religions is being replaced. Ergo, religions do offer something worth replacing, and I think that it’s worthy to think about that, as such. I’ll say this: when I was hungry, no one opened their doors to me but the Catholic Church. NO ONE. Are there secular charities that I might have found? Sure, and more all the time — and they replace a function traditionally served by churches. What about the less tangible services provided by churches? Are they ALL completely without merit?

            • gbjames
              Posted January 23, 2013 at 11:45 am | Permalink

              Nobody is claiming that services provided by churches are ALL without merit. Or even MOSTLY without merit. What is at issue is wether these things are UNIQUELY provided by churches or not.

              Nor is anyone I am aware of claiming that existing secular services are sufficient. Everyone I know would advocate for more of them.

              So that leaves you having to defend the proposition that if religion evaporated the world would be a worse place because (presumably) ONLY they can provide a place to go if you are hungry.

              • RandomCommenter
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

                So that leaves you having to defend the proposition that if religion evaporated the world would be a worse place because (presumably) ONLY they can provide a place to go if you are hungry.

                That is not at all what I’m saying, so it’s probably time to bow out here :-)

              • gbjames
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

                Perhaps one or both of us have fallen prey to communication gremlins that lurk here on the interwebs.

              • RandomCommenter
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

                I think so.

                One says what one says; some understand, some don’t. Better sometimes to part friends than spend a week parsing grammar, prior to a flame war ;-)

  75. gr8hands
    Posted January 23, 2013 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    Drug pushers artificially create a “need” for their particular drug from their clients — people don’t come pre-wired with an addiction to drugs (BOCTAOE). And you don’t have to “replace” their addiction with something else in order to help someone off their addiction.

    Similar to religion. You don’t need to replace religion with something else — because what it has given people is artificial (false hope, false “answers”, false “peace”, etc.). The religious were pushers for their drug, hoping you’d become addicted to it, using fear as a constant threat to keep you using.

    • Jim Bradley
      Posted January 23, 2013 at 11:43 am | Permalink

      Science is giving a false hope if it cannot (mostly) remove the corruption in men … in other words, there will be no science if we live in a dictatorial (Marxist, Communist, etc) society — and there can be no science with a society of people who will lie for gain. Given the fact that we use money created by elite finance, we are in their service, however indirectly. That continues to be a polluting effect on our country and will destroy it, as it has every country before ours that went down this path.

      So the rise in immorality (organized theft, lack of honesty, loss of self control, decline in charity as a percentage of income, etc) will absolutely kill science. The whole idea that science is “it” in terms of organizing society, is breathtakingly foolish. Moral living is the organization of society, and it precedes (and has preceded in history) any use of science for the betterment of humankind.

      • truthspeaker
        Posted January 23, 2013 at 11:46 am | Permalink

        I don’t think anyone was proposing science as a tool for organizing society.

        • Jim Bradley
          Posted January 23, 2013 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

          It was implied that secular humanism is the organizing philosophy – in conjunction with science.

          • truthspeaker
            Posted January 24, 2013 at 7:07 am | Permalink

            Secular humanism does not equal science.

  76. Jim Bradley
    Posted January 23, 2013 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    I don’t think you can support the claim that secular humanism promotes the good and not the bad without some theory behind it – and then we’re getting pretty far afield of science. All normative theories ultimately rest on sociological, experimental, and environmental realities – so objectively true ways to organize societies do not exist, they rely on *someone* at *some time* making decisions what is better versus worse and that is subjective … i.e. the fact/value dichotomy. After all, where’s the starting point? The definition of what/who is human? And how would that be decided (and by whom?).

    I also thing “Plantinga’s ludicrous “naturalism-gives-us-no-reason-to-think-that-our-beliefs-are-accurate-ergo-we-have-a-God-given-sensus divinitatus” is the same error that scientists make when they assert atheism … So it is somewhat ironic that it is used in the effort to point out the foolishness of the theistic position. I can’t perceive God using sense-data (or an extension of them), therefore he ain’t … I find the idea that our sense data, however extended by machines, are the ultimate in information, and literally nothing else can be discussed as influencing our existence because we can’t see it, to be patently unsupportable. I find that also to be alarmingly foolish in light of current knowledge. We can’t “see” subatomic particles or gravity, yet we are reasonably sure they exist.

    And of course, I find the lack of imagination a real impediment as well. Consider that perhaps the regularity of nature’s laws are in fact the presence of God, rather than the reverse. After all, chaos and randomness seems to be the “natural proclivity” of the universe (or at least “heat death”). The “evidence” in this case simply depends on the point of view one chooses to take and neither side can claim an ultimate authority as neither side has any ability to separate themselves from the universe and look from the outside-in.

    And it is impossible to do anything
    with raw data anyway. Scientists try on theories and THEN interpret data to see how well it works out. They don’t “gather data” without any theory and then attempt to spring ex-nihilio, a theory from it. They bring to bear all other acquired knowledge (which may be true or false or in-between). All thinking is interrelated, and there is no pure separation of theory and data – and in fact, we cannot ever observe their separation either (we cannot observe a situation that we are not observing). Hence the claims of atheism, etc, are just not worth making.

    What might be worth making is the claim that certain things in the Bible are actually false or not literally true – getting us back to using real-world data, rather than an imaginary state of affairs. I think the U.S. Christian community is very much in that camp already. One can always find crazy believers in any group (including scientists – that believe science is “it” — the final frontier of truth), but that doesn’t mean the rest of us, that hold a middle-ground position should be ignored.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted January 23, 2013 at 11:45 am | Permalink

      We can’t “see” subatomic particles or gravity, yet we are reasonably sure they exist.

      We are reasonably sure they exist because we can detect them, either directly or we can detect their influence.

      • Jim Bradley
        Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

        And how do you know that what you are seeing now (natural law, mathematics, etc) isn’t evidence of God’s existence?

        • gbjames
          Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

          The same way you know that it isn’t evidence of Kinich Ahau.

          • Jim Bradley
            Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

            “God” is a generic term for an entity outside of our conceptual limits because of our limited nature. A conceptual being, such as Zeus, or in your example, the Mayan sun God, wouldn’t qualify.

            Even a casual thinking experiment (such as “flatland”) clearly shows that we do have limits. Science makes an assumption that what is “true” stays within the boundaries of our limits, an assumption I find particularly foolish given the amazing nature of the universe from what we know already.

            (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flatland)

            • truthspeaker
              Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

              “God” is a generic term for an entity outside of our conceptual limits because of our limited nature

              So you’re playing the “redefine God” game.

              A conceptual being, such as Zeus, or in your example, the Mayan sun God, wouldn’t qualify.

              So that would be all the gods ever believed in by humans. These are the gods atheists don’t believe in.

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

                Nope. It’s an open question, but there are some that have already made up their mind.

            • gbjames
              Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

              Fine. Play with language so that the word “god” becomes meaningless. But don’t pretend that you are doing anything more valuable that the emptiness of your definition. And don’t ask the rest of us to pretend that your particular infinite-fuzz-ball version of god is any more real than Zeus or the other of thousands of gods humanity has invented. We are as confident of it’s imaginary nature as you are of Ranganātha.

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

                *Pretending* is of course starting with an assumption (such as a theory) and seeing where it leads – something that scientists do every day.

              • gbjames
                Posted January 24, 2013 at 5:42 am | Permalink

                No. “Pretending” is nothing more sophisticated than making believe. It is important to know when one is engaging in make-believe.

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 24, 2013 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

                Scientists do make believe, of course – but they don’t stop there. I think the problem is that you’re hung up on having an open question in regards to God. You’ve got to have it one way. I don’t feel that I do. If it turns out another way, that’s okay.

              • Posted January 24, 2013 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

                Jim Bradley: “You’ve got to have it one way. I don’t feel that I do. If it turns out another way, that’s okay.”

                We keep telling you this, and you don’t seem to be listening:

                *We don’t have to have it one way.*

                If it turned out there actually was a god or something, we’d be completely fine with that.

                All we are saying is that in the absence of evidence pointing in any particular direction, it makes no sense for anyone to talk about what lies in that unknown realm as if it were true.

              • gbjames
                Posted January 24, 2013 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

                It isn’t a question of me “having to have it one way”. It IS one way or the other. The two points of view are mutually exclusive. I might be wrong, but either I am or I am not. And the evidence is all on one side.

        • truthspeaker
          Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

          Because that would be drawing a conclusion not supported by the evidence.

          • Jim Bradley
            Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

            As true as it’s contrapositive statement – there is no God …

            There are indeed many things in this universe that you, I, other scientists, and the human race have not ever seen, directly or indirectly. We simply cannot assert either their absence or presence.

            • gbjames
              Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

              Really? What if I assert that there is a small invisible dragon living in your closet? Are you open minded enough to tell me with a straight face that I’m quite possibly right? Are you open to that? If not, why not?

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

                I cannot assert it’s presence or absence. However, if you were to make a claim about it’s nature, THEN I could possibly test that claim.

                The problem comparing this example with “God” is the “composition problem” … i.e. you are asserting a being within the natural universe that is unseen, while theists assert there is a being outside the natural universe (or at least unconstrained by it) that is not seen – entirely different. Hence the disprovability of the “invisible dragon” is far easier than that of God. And of course, if you make said dragon with characteristics that simply cannot be falsified, then one asks whether the dragon makes any difference at all. Whereas the existence of God, if ever shown to be a consideration, would make a profound difference in how we view humankind.

              • truthspeaker
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

                Theists believe in gods that can interact with the universe. Such interaction should be detectable.

              • gbjames
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

                I did make a claim about its nature. I claimed its nature was to live in your closet. I claimed it was a dragon. To clarify I’ll claim that it breathes a very particular kind of fire that is neither hot nor cold and travels between gas molecules in the air. I assert that this dragon has lived in your closet since the home was built and that it only comes out when you are shopping for groceries. This kind of dragon is responsible for potato blight and leukemia.

                I assert that all of this is part of the nature of this particular class of dragons.

                If the existence of this class of dragons is ever shown to be a consideration, it will make a most profound difference in how we view humankind.

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

                Gbjames, Okay, so then how can it be detected?

                But ultimately this is going to fail, because the question of God is more along the lines of “how do we interpret the evidence we have” not “where’s the evidence”?

                In other words, it seems you might already be stumbling by making your dragon “undetectable” when in fact, there are, according to theists, already good reasons for believing in God … atheists simply reject that evidence. So to be a better example, your dragon should have ambivalent evidence as to it’s existence.

              • Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

                Here you go: someone a thousand years ago wrote that the dragon briefly appeared to him and gave him leukemia, and every now and then people claim to see dragons in grilled cheese sandwiches.

                People claiming that there is compelling evidence isn’t sufficient to make something compelling evidence, by the way.

              • truthspeaker
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

                Gbjames, Okay, so then how can it be detected?

                It can’t. That’s the point.

              • gbjames
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

                The reasons for believing in my dragon are precisely as good as those you credit theists for providing as reasons to believe in their deity.

                Perhaps the regularity of nature’s laws are in fact the presence of my dragon, rather than the reverse. (I can’t remember where I heard that logic.)

              • Posted January 23, 2013 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

                Lamberh’s argument from inherency is that chaos, order, regularity and its laws inhere in Nature, such that they are the primary cause, and He could only be a secondary one!
                He fails as the Aquinas Shelley superfluity, the ignosticOckham and the Flew -Lamberth the presumption of naturalism all hind Him a useless redundancy, despite Dawkins’ nemesis, Alister Earl McGrath.
                WEIT, he and haughty John Haught delight in faulting us naturalists with their sophistry.

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

                Well I don’t credit theists for having good arguments, but I certainly make the claim that atheists have very bad arguments. As far as evidence goes, the nature and structure of the universe is apparently enough evidence for some people (quite a few, historically) to believe. The problem with science is that it – at the outset – says that “what we cannot conceptualize” is “outside of science” and then goes on to say that “God doesn’t exist because there’s no *scientific* evidence” … a circular argument to be sure.

              • Posted January 23, 2013 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

                Jim, do you know what science is? Because this statement is false:

                “The problem with science is that it – at the outset – says that “what we cannot conceptualize” is “outside of science””

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 24, 2013 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

                bioturbonick – I doubt that we can observe events that are logically contradictory – say an event where A and not A exist at the same time. Hence we may be necessarily limited in our ability to see patterns which obey a rule-set of “non-logic” — consider the rotation of a 5 dimensional cube collapsed into 3 dimensional space, etc. While we may have tools that describe such states, we in fact, may not be able to loop back and provide the evidence, being unable ultimately to affirm it.

            • truthspeaker
              Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

              In the absence of evidence, we can indeed assert their absence.

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

                http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argument_from_ignorance

              • truthspeaker
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

                The argument from ignorance is a fallacy when their is evidence, but the arguer is unaware of it, not situations where there is no evidence.

              • truthspeaker
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

                ^there

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

                Read it again, truthspeaker. I am not making an assertion, the atheists are. I am simply pointing out that there are alternative views with no way to mediate between them, given the fact that we are ignorant. Another way of saying this, is we have no real way to interpret the evidence we have, because we do not have experience of “multiple universes” or “universes with God” or “universes without God”. Hence ANY argument either way necessarily fails.

              • Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

                There’s no evidence of unicorns, so I don’t believe in unicorns.

                There’s no evidence of god, so I don’t believe in god.

                Atheism really isn’t more complicated than that.

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

                bioturbonick, and you may never have seen a black swan, so they don’t exist, do they?

              • truthspeaker
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

                That depends. Is there credible evidence they exist?

              • truthspeaker
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

                We also have no experience of “universe with Ubik”. Does that mean we can’t rule Ubik out?

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

                truthspeaker, don’t go round and round … science simply cannot assert the non-existence of something unless there is a fact that is falsifiable. In the question of God, there aren’t facts, so far of which we are aware, that definitively makes such an existence impossible. Until then, no statement can be made.

              • Posted January 23, 2013 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

                The only reason why “god” is even in our lexicon as a possibility is because of ancient peoples which believed in deities they could interact with, that controlled the weather, that controlled their fates, which could be angered or made happy. There is no reason otherwise to seriously entertain the concept as a reasonable explanation–certainly not above all other infinite ideas one could come up with–for anything except that there are people who strongly want it to be true.

          • Jim Bradley
            Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

            truthspeaker, maybe the interactions are detectable … we just don’t recognize them as such, at least that seems to be a theistic argument that is made. I think there are questions that we leave open because of our limits, and this is one of them. Plus, “where does knowledge come from” is also a good question. The whole idea that “an arrangement of atoms” can yield something so disparate as “knowledge” is truly an interesting question – one that pushes the boundaries. Energy and matter are the same thing, I wonder how knowledge and matter are related?

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted January 23, 2013 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

          The same way we can reject all magic beyond reasonable doubt – local energy conservation tests for no influence from non-physics.

          • Jim Bradley
            Posted January 24, 2013 at 11:53 am | Permalink

            Ahhh, but we are not talking the same thing are we? We are not talking about something inside this universe, but something outside it, and we do not know the conditions.

            • truthspeaker
              Posted January 24, 2013 at 11:56 am | Permalink

              We’re talking about something outside of the universe that influences the inside.

    • Posted January 23, 2013 at 11:56 am | Permalink

      It makes no sense to assert something without evidence that it exists. All we can conclude from there being laws by which the universe works is that there is some reason for those laws to be there. To go and call this reason a deity is ludicrous. It is of course formally possible that things exist beyond what our “sense-data” can provide, but the number of possible things that exist beyond our “sense-data” is essentially infinite. Picking out one version and believing in it above all else makes little sense. Atheism simply points out the absurdity of that kind of reasoning. It’s better to leave a blank than to fill it with what is probably fantasy.

      By the way, entropy is one of those laws by which the universe works. It’s not some ‘natural proclivity’ that is overridden by laws. Every law of how the universe works is part of its ‘natural proclivity’, and you cannot rightly separate some out as “defaults” and others as “must have come from some special source”.

      • Jim Bradley
        Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

        Ludicrous to who? Scientists? And why should they decide? After all, we are not talking about scientific questions, or learned observation, but pure speculation at this point.

        Your last paragraph is indecipherable. The question is whether the universe needed something to “wind it up” as it is most clearly (at least from our point of view – not being able to step outside of time), winding down. There is a lot of work underway to “show” that the universe needs no intervention (methodological materialism, of course: I guess the question is decided ahead of time, no?) … but of course, that is foolishness as it is an impossible task. Start with the same data and reach different conclusions depending on the beliefs.

        And I find the statement “there is some reason for those laws to be there” to be an unsupportable statement. There is no way for us to “step outside the universe” and observe circumstances of natural law as anything but what they are. To say that there is a reason (or not) is not possible. I offer the argument that natural law *could be* evidence of God in the context of people that might choose to believe such a thing. But ultimately, those claims rest on the same sand as the contrary claim. All sorts of assertions are popping up from the new atheists and those assertions are just another religion with unfalsifiable claims, and apparently a worshipfullness of “scientific authority”, some claims of which you and I have no chance of truly verifying, even with a Phd (such as Stenger’s numerous assertions about how a universe would look if there were no God – how is that possible to know?). If we are going to dispense with religion, then let’s do that. I think what we are seeing is a new religion under the guise of “science”. These questions simply are not scientific ones. They cannot be falisified, and we have no method of determining the veracity of either side.

        So it is a fair bet that humility is in order, something I find distinctly lacking in the aggressive tone of the “New Atheists”. They are as strident as the dogmatic theists, and perhaps share more in common than either side cares to admit.

        • truthspeaker
          Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

          After all, we are not talking about scientific questions, or learned observation, but pure speculation at this point.

          Which is precisely why we can rule it out.

          • Jim Bradley
            Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

            Wrong – you cannot claim something is false because it is speculative! You can make no claim at all. Someone did speculate about the existence of atoms before additional evidence confirmed their existence (or what we regard as “atoms” … after all – who knows what “they” really are?)

            Scientists can make no claims about a variety of things using the rubric of science. Scientists speaking of their own opinion is a different matter, and that of course means that scientists are no authority at all on “whether God exists” – none of is.

            Hence the claims of atheists (and theists) about the existence of God are empty. Plus, there may be good reasons for God to remain outside the universe – given that such a being would necessarily alter the nature of universal reality, and use “messengers” instead – who knows? And there may be good reason that man is limited in his knowledge – given that he is corrupted when he gains power (very evidence based, that claim). I find the “Christian view” has quite a few useful concepts which are sociologically true.

            • truthspeaker
              Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

              Wrong – you cannot claim something is false because it is speculative

              If there is no evidence for it despite looking, or no way to find evidence, then yes, you can.

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

                I am not sure anyone could ever assert that there is “no way to find evidence” … that is a claim outside the boundaries of knowledge … although I think I see your point. How would one know that an entity is God (and not an advanced alien race) even if presented with the evidence? Of course, if God were real, then it is likely that such a being could produce evidence that would satisfy – in the end – the critic.

            • Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

              Epicyles upon epicycles. You’re making up stories completely unsupported by anything to explain why a being you can’t even be sure exists doesn’t seem to exist.

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

                Not at all – I am asserting that both sides: theists and atheists, are incorrect in their stridency.

        • gbjames
          Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

          Jim Bradley…. you left out “shrill”. Please, when calling atheists strident also include the word “shrill”. Otherwise we are diminished.

          • Jim Bradley
            Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

            “Atheists” in general are neither strident nor shrill … I cannot make a claim for a group. What is referred to as the “New Atheists” such as Dawkins and Harris and the late Hitchens were indeed strident, but I would not call them shrill, especially Hitchens whose argumentation was very good, although I sometimes got the feeling that his rhetoric replaced argument.

            • gbjames
              Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

              All of our feelings are hurt.

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

                I know that’s a sarcastic comment – but I’ll add that truly it’s better to acknowledge the truth of ignorance than to run about asserting some position without evidence – don’t you think so?

              • truthspeaker
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

                Yes.

                And in the case of every single God ever described by humans, we have enough evidence to confidently assert they do not exist.

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

                However, truthspeaker, we cannot assert that “God” (i.e. the concept) is false.

              • truthspeaker
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

                Which concept?

                Every god concept every invented by humans can be considered false, because there is no evidence for any of them.

              • gbjames
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

                Asserting positions without evidence seems to be what you are advocating in a great many of your comments on this page.

                I don’t know what you mean by “truth of ignorance”. If you are calling people ignorant of something then you should just say what you mean. If you are claiming that in ignorance one finds truth, then you are just slinging words together without regard to advancing communication. If you are claiming that someone here claims to know something that they don’t then you should provide reference where someone went awry.

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 24, 2013 at 11:36 am | Permalink

                “Truth of ignorance” which means we are ignorant, and that is a true statement. As far as assertions, I think we are all making them, but we try to focus on the essentials. Going over every minute claim is going to bog down the conversation terribly. I’ve tried to focus on the basic theme that, without evidence, we have no basis of making any claim, that there is some acceptable evidence for God – at least for some people (what type of evidence would you personally accept? – Not a miracle of course, but what type of regular, repeatable, testable evidence would be acceptable: an interesting question I wish we had explored), that the “New Atheists” are at least in part guilty of the same ‘argument without evidence’ that are the theists (or that the evidence is equivocal), and that science is a social construct which is as important a fact as the conclusions with which it presents.

              • truthspeaker
                Posted January 24, 2013 at 11:48 am | Permalink

                We are not asserting the existence of something without evidence. We are asserting the non-existence of something because there is no evidence for its existence. Do you really not understand the difference?

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 24, 2013 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

                Yes I understand the difference, I understand that the statement “black swans do not exist” illustrates well the fallacy.

            • Jim Bradley
              Posted January 23, 2013 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

              … meaning we have no data with which to make a decision – we don’t observe universes with and without God and thus aren’t able to make a distinction between one and the other, nor are we able to step outside this one and observe other possibilities. The arguments of theists and atheists both commit this composition fallacy. And as far as evidence, you reject the evidence given but other accept that evidence: so who is right? How to decide?

              • Posted January 23, 2013 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

                How do you decide which evidence to accept? I’d go with the method that has consistently and steadily increased our knowledge of how the universe works over the other approach, which doesn’t even try to remove biases or apply rigorous standards of inquiry. You know, systems that resulted in homeopathy, psychics, astrology, the humors, etc.

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 24, 2013 at 11:30 am | Permalink

                It’s probably more important to cast weight on the conclusions that are best supported rather than side with a particular group – and of course when no conclusion can be had, then to freely admit it.

            • Jim Bradley
              Posted January 23, 2013 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

              Oh, and by the way, deism still seems to be well within the realm of current scientific thinking – so the claim that “every God posited by men is necessarily false” is not true.

              • Posted January 23, 2013 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

                The problem is that the concept of deism is basically null and, again, only exists by virtue of the prior ancient beliefs in a god.

                Sure, it is formally possible for there to be a deist god that created things but has no interaction whatsoever with the universe. It is also formally possible that we are living in a Matrix-type world. These may be true, but if we have no way whatsoever to detect anything, it may as well be false, and we are right to treat it that way.

        • Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

          Tell me, if you found a horn-like object lying in the woods, would you conclude it must have belonged to a unicorn? That is precisely the type of ludicrosity (to coin a term) involved in your claim “there are rules, therefore god”. Of course it is speculation–that’s exactly the point. It is speculation that people give the weight of knowledge.

          Atheists in general do not simple say “there is no god”. It is a statement contingent on absence of evidence. If there’s a gap in knowledge, don’t fill it with an imagined creature or entity far beyond what the evidence says.

          “And I find the statement “there is some reason for those laws to be there” to be an unsupportable statement.” — You just said that “god” could be that which put the rules there. Do you use some exotic definition of “reason” that the rest of us aren’t privy to?

          Winding up, winding down–all of it are behaviors of the universe. Why would you assume that one is default and the other requires cause?

          • Jim Bradley
            Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

            First, I didn’t make the claim that natural laws point to God, just that there is, on these talks, a failure to use enough imagination to make the best argument on either side. A horn in the forest is hardly in the same league as “natural law” encompassing mathematics, and construction of the universe, etc. Some people take that as evidence, as that’s fine – just as it is fine to assert that it is the “stopping point of regression” and that God is not necessary. For now, we cannot mediate between the two views due to lack of sufficient knowledge.

            • truthspeaker
              Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

              A horn in the forest is hardly in the same league as “natural law” encompassing mathematics, and construction of the universe, etc.

              What league they’re in is irrelevant to the analogy. The purpose of the analogy was to demonstrate that it’s not rational to speculate beyond what the evidence suggests.

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

                Oh it’s perfectly relevant, because it’s a failure of considering the composition of argument. We are not talking about a single data point indicating a being not ever evidenced before, but the totality of knowledge (and our limits, as well as potential) being evidence for a being unconstrained by the present universe – and that is not reasonably compared to an isolated fact indicating the presence of a mythological animal. On the one hand there is clearly an unjustified conclusion, on the other hand, there is the universe itself as being the evidence — which is pretty darn big and amazing.

              • truthspeaker
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

                Oh it’s perfectly relevant, because it’s a failure of considering the composition of argument. We are not talking about a single data point indicating a being not ever evidenced before, but the totality of knowledge (and our limits, as well as potential) being evidence for a being unconstrained by the present universe – and that is not reasonably compared to an isolated fact indicating the presence of a mythological animal.

                Why not?

              • Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

                The universe itself is not evidence for a BEING outside the universe. The MOST anyone can say is that there is some thing that existed that explains the universe. You cannot ascribe anything else to it, including the idea of it as a being and not a thing.

                We have an n of 1 universe and a mythological being said to explain its presence. How are they different?

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

                bioturbonick – it’s not evidence to *you*, but it might be reasonable evidence still the same. I am not sure that, if you ask a number of scientists, given our current state of knowledge, and excluding any of the Gods in history, that any tentative statement can *scientifically* be made about the existence (or non-existence) of any reasonably possible God.

              • Posted January 23, 2013 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

                Evidence isn’t subjective. It either fits or it doesn’t. The fact of the matter is that there is no evidence whose explanation requires a self-existing supernatural being to have existed over all other possibilities.

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 24, 2013 at 8:57 am | Permalink

                Au contraire – evidence is always at least partly subjective – and what passes for science is consensus – in other words, the practice of science is a social construct, with all of the foibles, shortcomings, inaccuracies, and problems of such entities. Bottom line, the practice of science is far, far from the “pure ideal”.

                I think a good argument can be made that the advance of science cannot be made without a difficult-to-dismantle legal commitment to personal freedom (personal property, restraint on theft), a moral society (interested in truth and non-violent), and markets (which constrain activities to wealth-producing behaviors). Any other combination would cause disintegration of the foundation upon which science relies. So it is ironic to hear that science is “IT” when the practice is very much dependent on other sociological realities.

              • Posted January 24, 2013 at 9:01 am | Permalink

                What’s your point, other than getting completely off topic?

          • Jim Bradley
            Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

            “Of course it is speculation–that’s exactly the point. It is speculation that people give the weight of knowledge.”

            And similarly, it is that assertion that God does not exist, despite our own vast ignorance of the universe (which seems to grow larger with every discovery), that is unsupportable.

            “Atheists in general do not simple say “there is no god”. It is a statement contingent on absence of evidence. If there’s a gap in knowledge, don’t fill it with an imagined creature or entity far beyond what the evidence says.”

            And the universe itself is not evidence? Why not? You can make an argument from parsimony, but even then it is not a very strong argument.

            ““And I find the statement “there is some reason for those laws to be there” to be an unsupportable statement.” — You just said that “god” could be that which put the rules there. Do you use some exotic definition of “reason” that the rest of us aren’t privy to?”

            I didn’t make that claim – remember. I made the claim that is it not a supportable position to affirm or to deny such a being. We simply don’t know what is outside our universe – if anything.

            “Winding up, winding down–all of it are behaviors of the universe. Why would you assume that one is default and the other requires cause?”

            I don’t make those assumptions. Atheists make the assumption that the universe does not require “God-like” explanation, even given the extraordinary appearance of life.

            • Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

              “And the universe itself is not evidence”
              “extraordinary appearance of life”

              I smell an argument from incredulity.

              You said the exact words I quoted. You can’t claim that you didn’t say the words I quoted you as saying, because it’s right there!

              “And the universe itself is not evidence? Why not?”

              Can you point to one reason why the existence of the universe should be evidence of anything other than that the universe exists?

              By the way, if a piece of evidence fits infinite possible answers, it isn’t evidence for any of those answers.

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

                You can call it “incredulity” if you want, but that would be inaccurate. An argument made by theists is that the regularities of the universe require an explanation – and indeed they may. If they do, then the question is how to explain those regularities. Scientists have to stop there, as the rest (so far at least) isn’t a testable theory (and neither is the “multiverse”: a completely untestable theory which is, philosophically, religious). My beef is that, picking up an edition of Scientific American, you’ll find all sorts of wildly speculative assertions under the guise of “science”, but if a theist comes out and says they believe in God, then that’s a huge faux pas. So “religion” is okay if it doesn’t include God. In either case, I see the stridency of both sides an error. We simply don’t know where the boundary of knowledge will lie in the future and we cannot make claims beyond that boundary.

              • Posted January 23, 2013 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

                Scientific American is not a scientific journal. It’s whole point is to draw fancy figures and sell magazines to lay people interested in science, not reflect actual, testable, scientific investigation. But I’m willing to bet that almost every one of those people saying those speculative things 1) knows that what they are saying is speculative, 2) their speculation has at least some foundation in facts about the world and some sort of mechanism, and 3) would be quite happy to find out that they were wrong. Which is exactly the opposite of what people who propose religious ideas do: They hang their entire life’s meaning on god existing, they treat it as a near certainty, and they will fight tooth and nail to not shed their belief, no matter what the evidence says.

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 24, 2013 at 10:09 am | Permalink

                The point wasn’t that scientists don’t make speculative arguments (they do, and they do so in scientific journals even moreso perhaps, because that venue is more restrictive than Scientific American, so unevidenced assertions are more readily self-identified as speculative), but that speculating on the existence of multiverse, or 10 dimensions, or exotic matter, or other such unobservables is okay, while speculating on the existence of God (at least publicly) is a quick ticket to mockery, at least here and on other atheistic boards. Bottom line, I’ve heard little on these boards respecting people of religion or taking them seriously enough to “go and find out” … the fundamental activity of science; and that attitude persists even to the point that “there should be so little respect for theists that all attempts at taking any of them seriously should cease – or at least be on the level of believing in fairies” … and the general attitude that religious people are stupid, vapid, unintelligent fools that know nothing. Frankly, what I have been seeing does not enthuse me at all about the movement of “New Atheists” (at least the ones that post on this and other boards) but instead makes me wonder what would happen to theists should the atheists get an upper hand legislatively. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of the same in theism (although I think that theists, at least Christians, can be called on it, because they have a moral code which dictates they respect other people even to the point of death). I don’t believe the critical activity against theists is from a deep seated need to improve society, but from a need to externalize hostility. But surely that is anti-scientific – as it closes the ability to observe and understand phenomena.

              • Posted January 24, 2013 at 10:28 am | Permalink

                Every time you type something, this comes to mind:

                http://www.xkcd.com/774/

              • truthspeaker
                Posted January 24, 2013 at 10:35 am | Permalink

                while speculating on the existence of God (at least publicly)

                Theists don’t speculate on the existence of gods, they assert their existence, and many of them tell you you’re going to hell if you don’t believe in their particular god.

                Bottom line, I’ve heard little on these boards respecting people of religion or taking them seriously enough to “go and find out”

                Go and find out what? Atheists have been asking for good reasons to believe in gods for over two thousand years. So far, bupkis. The main author of this blog has made a concerted effort to read what are presented as the most advanced, sophisticated arguments for the existence of various gods, and written about them here. We’ve tried to find out, and discovered nothing.

              • Posted January 24, 2013 at 11:26 am | Permalink

                the general attitude that religious people are stupid, vapid, unintelligent fools that know nothing A very disingenuous straw man.

                /@

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 24, 2013 at 11:23 am | Permalink

                Some of the comments on these boards lead me to believe that there is an unfamiliarity with the philosophical questions that are brought up … it’s not like this is the first conversation in history along these lines, and fantastic observations have been made throughout history; I might remind some that the university was once a religious institution. In other words, it was in the service of knowledge and that religion was considered part of it. While I, unfortunately, can’t claim professional historical knowledge of philosophy, I have read enough to encounter some sophisticated arguments. And the argument that “so far each God has been false, therefore there is NO God” is not a good one. It might be a working hypothesis that the universe needs no cause, but perhaps it does. It is hard to say where our search for knowledge will lead us, but surely having an opinion one way or the other (which includes those dedicated to theism) is going to reduce the likelihood of recognizing the truth when it is found.

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 24, 2013 at 11:25 am | Permalink

                bioturbonick – I don’t feel superior to either – I think we need rigorous pursuit of truth and part of that is to respect our own ignorance and to keep the door open to our own inability to see the truth. That is one reason I enjoy arguing multiple sides of a debate (hence on other boards I’ve argued the other side), just to keep that “it can go any way” faculty alive. In any case, I’ve enjoyed the exchange.

              • whyevolutionistrue
                Posted January 24, 2013 at 11:32 am | Permalink

                Mr. Bradley, I respectfully request that you do NOT “argue either side” on this site to keep debate alive. That not only gives you the appearance of being smug and superior, as someone has note, but it could be seen as trolling (“keeping the debate alive”). From now on I’ll ask that you restrict your posts to 10-15% of the total thread AND argue what you really believe for the benefit of my other readers.

              • Posted January 24, 2013 at 11:50 am | Permalink

                “And the argument that ‘so far each God has been false, therefore there is NO God’ is not a good one.”

                But that’s oversimplifying the argument. Again, everything in science is provisional. But while epistemic humility is all very well the sheer success of methodological naturalism – and it’s well to reflect for a moment upon the real magnitude of that success, the vast reticulation of knowledge that it has provided, the richness and reliability of science – justifies philosophical naturalism as a rational conclusion and makes the possibility of supernatural explanations – and certainly any explanation that invokes an “intelligent” “personal” supernatural agent – vanishingly small. Yes, there may still be a “god” but the only possible “gods” that remain has to be so unlike any historical conception that the best that the religious can hope to cling to is a vague deism.

                So, when we claim that there is no “God” that is certainly true of any conception of the god of Abraham (or others) that intercedes in the world and tells people who can have sex with whom, &c. Which for the purposes of gnu atheism is more than enough. (Others will go further and claim that even deistic agencies are incoherent, but since no deist has used their religion to foist arbitrary standards of behaviour on society, that doesn’t really matter.)

                /@

            • truthspeaker
              Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

              The universe is evidence for the existence of the universe.

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

                The question is whether it is contingent or not, not whether it exists…

              • Posted January 23, 2013 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

                Any god which is posited to explain the universe necessarily has the same potential problems as the universe–there is no fundamental reason why the universe *must* be contingent and a god *must not* be contingent.

              • truthspeaker
                Posted January 24, 2013 at 7:10 am | Permalink

                You asserted that the existence of the universe is evidence for something besides the universe. You have yet to support that.

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 24, 2013 at 9:04 am | Permalink

                Since we don’t know the mechanism with which the universe “sprang into existence” it would be foolish to take either side of the argument and scientists in fact, not having data either way, cannot legitimately do so. But in either case, we can see from evidence that all things have prior causes that brought them to their current state, and by extension, the universe either (1) had a cause or (2) caused itself or (3) some state-of-nature of which we are yet not aware where existence is not what we think it is and we will discover this later or (4) a state-of-nature which we will not discover.

                Honestly, none of us can make a claim either way, so if one posits the presence of a universal cause, it is as good as it’s absence. To say that the cause is not necessary, is begging the question.

              • truthspeaker
                Posted January 24, 2013 at 9:12 am | Permalink

                But that has nothing to do with the existence of any gods.

                The question you are proposing is a scientific question. Currently there is no way to determine the answer. There may never be. But we can rule out all the religious explanations, because the people who came up with those explanations don’t have access to any data that we don’t.

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 24, 2013 at 10:18 am | Permalink

                truthspeaker, In one paragraph you have managed to contradict yourself several times.

                “The question you are proposing is a scientific question. Currently there is no way to determine the answer.”

                >> Then how can it be a scientific question? That’s the point. If is is unfalsifiable, there is no scientific statement possible.

                “But we can rule out all the religious explanations, because the people who came up with those explanations don’t have access to any data that we don’t”

                >> Other than those explanations that are already falsified (presence of Zeus, etc), we cannot rule them out. It is also possible that those people that “see” God have only seen a part, whichever they are more inclined to see. The idea that personal experience is to be negated and replaced with group experience (consensus) is fraught with problems. Truth isn’t nearly so simple, and brave individuals have persuaded others of truth despite that mass of humanity feeling otherwise.

                I just see the “New Atheists” doing a lot of the same stuff (while, ironically dissing philosophy, which might inform them of the error) that the theists do.

              • Posted January 24, 2013 at 10:26 am | Permalink

                It’s not about personal vs. group, it is about having *demonstrable evidence*. If your “personal experience” is completely inaccessible to anyone else, why should anyone believe claims you make based on that experience?

              • truthspeaker
                Posted January 24, 2013 at 10:36 am | Permalink

                It’s not that it can’t be falsified, it’s that we don’t have the technology to gather evidence from outside the universe. That’s what makes it a scientific question that we currently can’t answer.

              • Jim Bradley
                Posted January 24, 2013 at 11:16 am | Permalink

                bioturbonick and truthspeaker,

                I guess I’ll close on a note of agreement. While I don’t think it’s a scientific question (no falsifiable theory, etc), I do agree that evidence matters – which is why I’ve been (off-site) critical of the theism position. It’s a fine opportunity to have to discuss with you. Thanks for the conversation.

  77. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted January 23, 2013 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    My response is contained within the larger context of agnostics and/or accommodationists driving “Atheism + something else, that we can’t define”.

    As for the in-group needs, skeptic and atheist organizations can do whatever they want. There are also attempts to further secularism at large, which is splendid.

    As for the out-group, there may be no need.

    That functional societies diminish religiosity is rather well tested.*

    Another tested theory is that all we need to do to extinguish religion is to make it more socially costly than secularism. (I recently linked to that research on WEIT.) Showing that religion is non-factual and/or morally dubious (the good but also bad morals mentioned) and therefore laughable is then enough. And something similar appends to agnosticism and accommodationism, the first is non-factual (we _can_ make likelihoods here as elsewhere) and the latter is … non-factual (lacks evidence that accommodationism works and that atheism doesn’t).

    Maybe the above outline isn’t enough, but it is a reasonable strategy for the time being.

    Still 0-1+ accommodationists-atheists.

    unless atheists themselves have a clearly superior case for their denial of theistic religion, then agnosticism (doubting both religion and atheism) remains a viable alternative.

    Well, yeah, the standard cosmology means all universes has to start spontaneously. Ask Krauss.

    —————————

    * Which is why it heartens me that UK discussing voting on EU prompts a discussion whether or not EU needs a common social security platform. There is such, but of varying quiality and no guarantee for its existence. Changing that would mean even less room for religion!

  78. Justin
    Posted January 24, 2013 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    //How would you respond if told that the benefits of faith don’t rest on the truth of its claims, but on its meeting basic human needs…//

    That’s it’s an implicit admission of falsity.

    //…and that New Atheists won’t make a dent in religion until we replace it with institutions that fill those needs?//

    That such an argument merely stems from the cruel co-dependency of indoctrination.

    Atheism merely addresses religions’ claims of truth. Acts of good will are not dependent on those claims and can easily be continued by those who wish to do so, without having to bear the burdens of falsehood or piety.

    The fact that these people refuse to simply commit to doing good works without using them as a vehicle to spread their belief system tells me that they are more interested in the beliefs than the works. So no, I really don’t see why criticism of the beliefs necessitates a replacement for the works of the institutions, when the beliefs are more important to the institutions that are being criticized.


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