Adam Gopnik on atheism in the New Yorker

I consider Adam Gopnik a friend, as we have occasional email exchanges about the things that matter (e.g., food, atheism, and “other ways of knowing”), and I’ve taken him to my favorite Hunanese restaurant in Chicago. And of course I admire his writing: his book Paris to the Moon, for instance, is a witty and hilarious tale of his family’s five years in Paris.  His New Yorker articles, which span a diversity of subjects (how does he read so many books and synthesize them so adeptly?), are often wonderful, even if he did ruin my favorite restaurant in Paris by writing about it in the magazine, alerting tons of (shudder) visiting Americans to it.

So it is with some reservation that I want to discuss—and critique—Adam’s piece in the latest New Yorker, “Bigger than Phil: When did faith start to fade?” (free online).  My reservations are even larger because Gopnik gives this website (he calls it a “bl*g”) a nice shout-out in his piece. But since the New Yorker is such an important venue—in my view the best magazine for writers in the U.S.—I want to weigh in briefly.

The title of Gopnik’s piece, by the way, comes from a Mel Brooks skit:

Mel Brooks’s 2000 Year Old Man, asked to explain the origin of God, admits that early humans first adored “a guy in our village named Phil, and for a time we worshipped him.” Phil “was big, and mean, and he could break you in two with his bare hands!” One day, a thunderstorm came up, and a lightning bolt hit Phil. “We gathered around and saw that he was dead. Then we said to one another, ‘There’s something bigger than Phil!’ ”

At any rate, Gopnik’s point, though it’s swaddled (and almost hidden) in blankets of nice prose, is simple: although religion is disappearing, with it goes some beneficial things that aren’t recognized by atheists. Those include the “irrationality” of loving beauty, cats, and other things, and the notion that there is more to the cosmos that can be understood (perhaps even in principle) by science. In other words, Gopnik’s produced a very sophisticated essay defending what Dan Dennett calls “belief in belief.”

The essay purports to be a review of two new books on atheism, The Age of Atheists: How We have Sought to Live Since the Death of God, by Peter Watson, and Imagine There’s No Heaven: How Atheism Helped Create the Modern World, by Mitchell Stephens. But, like all good book reviews, it uses the books as a launching pad for the reviewer’s own ideas. And while Gopnik and I agree on many things—foremost among them the lack of evidence for any tenets of religion—we disagree on the supposed problems with New Atheism and on Gopnik’s claims that a.) religion will always be with us and b.) religion, in the main, has some good stuff that atheism can’t replace. (One thing Adam doesn’t do is mention the problems with religion.)

Gopnik begins by reiterating the rise of the “nones” (people without professed faith) in America, and then argues that New Atheism is in effect superfluous, for it’s simply being strident about a trend that’s already happening on its own:

Only in the past twenty or so years did a tone frankly contemptuous of faith emerge. Centered on the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, the New Atheists were polemicists, and, like all polemics, theirs were designed not to persuade but to stiffen the spines of their supporters and irritate the stomach linings of their enemies. Instead of being mushy and marginalized, atheism could proclaim its creed. But why did the nonbelievers suddenly want stiffer spines and clearer signals? Why, if the noes indeed had it, did they suddenly have to be so loud?

This is wrong on two counts. Yes, those “polemics” were designed to persuade people, and have in fact been highly successful in doing so. (See Dawkins’s “Converts Corner” if you disagree.) Second, I attribute the sudden jump in frequency of the “nones” largely to New Atheism, along with the increasing use of the internet as a way for the godless to have a virtual community and see that they’re not alone.

Gopnik then goes through a brief history of atheism, in which he sees three peaks: one in the late 18th century before the French revolution, one in the late 19th century, and one now.  The “now,” of course, involves the New Atheism, and if it’s a peak, then Gopnik has to explain why it’s peaking at the present time. If that’s the case, then it’s not simply the result of a continuing trend.

He follows this with the parable of Phil as an indication that, as Gopnik says, “the need for God never vanishes.” But of course it does: it’s vanished in much of Europe, for example, and among many of the readers here.  There will, of course, always be the faithful, but it’s worth mentioning that there are societies in which the faithful are a minority. You can indeed live without God.

One of the best parts of Gopnik’s piece is his decrying of God-of-the-gaps strategies (e.g., the “fine-tuning” argument), and his frank admission that there is no evidence for religion:

And here we arrive at what the noes, whatever their numbers, really have now, and that is a monopoly on legitimate forms of knowledge about the natural world. They have this monopoly for the same reason that computer manufacturers have an edge over crystal-ball makers: the advantages of having an actual explanation of things and processes are self-evident. What works wins. We know that men were not invented but slowly evolved from smaller animals; that the earth is not the center of the universe but one among a billion planets in a distant corner; and that, in the billions of years of the universe’s existence, there is no evidence of a single miraculous intercession with the laws of nature. We need not imagine that there’s no Heaven; we know that there is none, and we will search for angels forever in vain. A God can still be made in the face of all that absence, but he will always be chairman of the board, holding an office of fine title and limited powers.

I couldn’t have said it better myself! And yet Gopnik still sees a need for religion, or a need for the numinous—it’s the “Little People” argument.  Yes, religion is a delusion, but that delusion has its benefits.  In fact, he claims, atheists avail themselves of the same benefits as do believers: we all are united in our need to believe in irrational things:

What’s easily missed in all this is something more important: the clandestine convergence between Super-Naturalists [those who, according to Gopnik, “believe that a material account of existence is inadequate to our numinous-seeming experience” and Self-Makers [straight naturalists, including nonbelievers]. Surprisingly few people who have considered the alternatives—few among the caucus who consciously stand up, voting aye or nay—believe any longer in God. Believe, that is, in an omnipotent man in the sky making moral rules and watching human actions with paranoiac intensity. The ayes do believe in someone—a principle of creation, a “higher entity,” that “ground of being,” an “idea of order,” an actor beyond easy or instant comprehension, something more than matter and bigger than Phil. And they certainly believe in some thing—a church, a set of rituals, a historical scheme, and an anti-rational tradition. But the keynote of their self-description typically involves a celebration of mystery and complexity, too refined for the materialist mind to accept. Self-Makers often do an injustice to the uncertainty of Super-Naturalists, who, if anything, tend to fetishize the mystery of faith as a special spiritual province that nonbelievers are too fatuous to grasp, and advertise their doubt and their need for faith quite as much as their dogma. “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” not “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” is the Super-Naturalists’ anthem these days.

Well, that’s not bad, although Gopnik goes badly wrong when claiming that surprisingly few people believe in God as “an omnipotent man in the sky making moral rules and watching human actions with paranoiac intensity.” Has he listened to the likes of Ken Ham, Rick Warren, William Lane Craig, or any Southern Baptist? Does Gopnik know the statistics showing that between 70% and 80% of Americans (and a high proportion of Brits) believe in a personal, interventionist God, as well as in Satan, angels, heaven and hell? How can he possibly think that the average believer sees God as a “ground of being”? It’s time for Gopnik to leave Manhattan and head for the rural South.

But then comes the inevitable claim, unworthy of Gopnik, that materialists have faith, too! It’s the same claim we hear from accommodationists, theologians, and other “believers in belief”:

But, just as surely, most noes believe in something like what the Super-Naturalists would call faith—they search for transcendence and epiphany, practice some ritual, live some rite. True rationalists are as rare in life as actual deconstructionists are in university English departments, or true bisexuals in gay bars. In a lifetime spent in hotbeds of secularism, I have known perhaps two thoroughgoing rationalists—people who actually tried to eliminate intuition and navigate life by reasoning about it—and countless humanists, in Comte’s sense, people who don’t go in for God but are enthusiasts for transcendent meaning, for sacred pantheons and private chapels. They have some syncretic mixture of rituals: they polish menorahs or decorate Christmas trees, meditate upon the great beyond, say a silent prayer, light candles to the darkness. They talk without difficulty of souls and weapons of the spirit, and go to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve to hear the Gloria, and though they leave early, they leave fulfilled. You will know them by their faces; they are the weepy ones in the rear.

Really? Having a Christmas tree means you have faith? And it’s simply wrong to think the “nones” all go to church, stand in the back, and weep at the music. How many of us do stuff like that?

And indeed, maybe few people are rationalists in every aspect of their lives, but some people are more rational than others. In fact, it’s impossible to be rational in matters of the heart, if for no other reason than in issues of love or friendship, or of avocations or penchants, we are conditioned by our genes and environment to like what we like, and no amount of rational consideration can change that. I love sweet wine like Sauternes, and others can’t abide them. Is that a “rational” decision? Is the person with whom we fall in love someone we’ve considered “rationally” as the best possible mate? No, because we’re driven by things over which we have no control—not only our evolutionary heritage—the source of the hormones we call “chemistry”—but our background, over which we had no control. But such emotions and likes are far from “transcendent meaning”! When I listen to music, it’s not a “private chapel,” nor a pretense that I know something I don’t.  And my love of a rare steak is not a “faith” or a numinous belief.

Throughout the piece Gopnik errs, I think, in mistaking instinctive likes and dislikes with religious faith. Yes, both are “irrational,” but they’re irrational in different ways.  Our penchants and loves are the result of our experiences and genes, and often not the result of reflection but simply instinctive feelings, while one can indeed reflect on whether the tenets of one’s faith are correct. It’s possible for me to reject (often influenced by others) the tenets of Judaism, but not my liking of a Chateau d’Yquem or the music of Smokey Robinson. In fact, I can’t even defend my love of Sauternes against someone who simply doesn’t like sweet wine.

The same issue comes up in the generous praise Gopnik bestows on this site:

If atheists underestimate the fudginess in faith, believers underestimate the soupiness of doubt. My own favorite atheist blogger, Jerry Coyne, the University of Chicago evolutionary biologist, regularly offers unanswerable philippics against the idiocies of intelligent design. But a historian looking at his blog years from now would note that he varies the philippics with a tender stream of images of cats—into whose limited cognition, this dog-lover notes, he projects intelligence and personality quite as blithely as his enemies project design into seashells—and samples of old Motown songs. The articulation of humanism demands something humane, and its signal is disproportionate pleasure placed in some frankly irrational love.

I appreciate the shout-out, I honestly do, even if I don’t perceive the “soupiness of doubt” on this site (not a “blog”). But is my posting of LOLcats really equivalent to what creationists do when they impute a divine designer to seashells? There is evidence against the latter, but I make no claim for the transcendence of cats, and surely readers must know that I don’t see them as having the same complex emotions or motivations as do humans.  To say that the incursion of kittehs, food, and music into this site is equivalent to the irrationality that pervades religion is to mistake “irrationality” (i.e., a love of something that comes without deliberation) with “faith” (a belief in empirical propositions for which there is no evidence). While they’re similar, in that faith is irrational, they don’t converge in all respects. And that, I think, is Gopnik’s main mistake. So eager is he to take the middle ground that he conflates the human emotions of atheists with the delusions of religious believers—and so sees a convergence of the twain.

A few final remarks. First, Gopnik sees the nucleus of New Atheism to be evolutionary biology:

And here we may come at last to the seedbed of the New Atheism, the thing that made the noes so loud: the broad prestige, in the past twenty years, of evolutionary biology. Since the Enlightenment, one mode of science has always been dominant, the top metaphor that educated people use to talk about experience. . . With the great breakthroughs in understanding that followed the genomic revolution, evo-bio has become, insensibly, the model science, the one that so many of the pop books are about—and biology makes specific claims about people, and encounters much coarser religious objections. It’s significant that the New Atheism gathered around Richard Dawkins. The details of the new evolutionary theory are fairly irrelevant to the New Atheism (Lamarckian ideas of evolution could be accepted tomorrow, and not bring God back with them), but the two have become twinned in the Self-Making mind. Their perpetual invocation is a perpetual insult to Super-Naturalism, and to the right of faith to claim its truths.

I don’t think that evolution is the “seedbed” of New Atheism—after all, that form of atheism took off before Dawkins’s The God Delusion, and most of its proponents are not evolutionists. The seedbed is not evolution but science.  If there’s one thing that unites most New Atheists, it’s that they are deeply respectful of the methods and accomplishments of science. And that has fed into the driving questions of New Atheists to believers—something that truly is New in New Atheism.  It is the incessant tendency of New Atheists to ask, What is the evidence for your hypothesis of God? What reasons do you have to think that you’re right and that adherents to other faiths, or nonbelievers, are wrong?  The hallmark of New Atheism is the questioning of the tenets of religion on empirical and rational grounds, and the refusal to privilege or respect faith itself—for faith is belief without evidence. That hallmark comes not from evolutionary biology, but from science.

Finally, Gopnik notes the negative correlation between religiosity and increased prosperity, something that is evidenced both over time within a country (i.e., the US), and among countries at a given time (the most socially successful countries are the least religious). But Gopnik sees this as an insoluble mystery:

Yet the wondering never quite comes to an end. Relatively peaceful and prosperous societies, we can establish, tend to have a declining belief in a deity. But did we first give up on God and so become calm and rich? Or did we become calm and rich, and so give up on God? Of such questions, such causes, no one can be certain. It would take an all-seeing eye in the sky to be sure.

That sounds good, but it’s wrong.  There are indeed ways to parse out the causal nexus here. For instance, we know from time-series analysis in the U.S. that religiosity goes up shortly after an increase in the inequality of personal incomes, but not vice versa. That implies—and there is other evidence as well—that becoming “calm and rich” comes first, and then the abandonment of God.  Sociologists may not have “all-seeing eyes in the sky,” but they have the statistical tools to descry the causation within the correlation.  And besides, if we first give up on God and then become calm and rich, that itself implies that religion was holding us back.

In fact, I find it odd that Gopnik wrote an entire piece on the problems with New Atheism, and the social benefits of religion, without mentioning the immense damage that religion does to our world—even in the U.S., where Catholics and Christian Scientists warp or even kill their children.  But of course it’s a characteristic of mainstream media in the West to avoid at all costs pointing out the evils and harms of faith.  It makes readers uncomfortable.

h/t: Chris, formely known as “Occam”

213 Comments

  1. Susan Freiman
    Posted February 11, 2014 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    May I cross-post this to a list of Mensan atheists?

    Susan

    Susan Freiman

    [image: cid:3.3437162163@web172503.mail.ir2.yahoo.com]

  2. gbjames
    Posted February 11, 2014 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    sub

    • francis
      Posted February 11, 2014 at 7:59 am | Permalink

      //

  3. Posted February 11, 2014 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    Conflating the phenomenology of aesthetics with the divine is about as useful as attributing one’s desire for breakfast to Dionysus.

    • Juggler_Dave
      Posted February 11, 2014 at 8:31 am | Permalink

      But that does remind one that wine for breakfast can be nice.

      • Posted February 11, 2014 at 11:30 am | Permalink

        Indeed. Relapse prevention has no seductive value in the face of cinnamon crepes paired with a glass of Côtes-du-Rhône Rouge.

  4. john matthews
    Posted February 11, 2014 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    thoroughly enjoyable piece many a rebuke I will save for future reference.

    I hope Gopnik replies to your blog would make for an interesting open letter debate!

    • ploubere
      Posted February 11, 2014 at 11:26 am | Permalink

      I am curious as to why Jerry objects to this site being called a blog? It’s a WordPress site on which he posts commentary and photos several times a day, which is commonly referred to as a blog – “a truncation of web log”, according to Wiki. A website is simply any site with a unique URL, or domain name. Whyevolutionistrue is a subdomain of wordpress.com.

      • Posted February 11, 2014 at 11:41 am | Permalink

        !* sharp intake of breath all round *!

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted February 11, 2014 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

        Like I don’t like toilet paper hung in the over position, Jerry doesn’t like the word “blog”.

        • Posted February 11, 2014 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

          Just roll with it, ploubere!

          /@

        • Mark Joseph
          Posted February 11, 2014 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

          I’m not sure you’re helping Jerry’s case here… ;-)

      • darrelle
        Posted February 11, 2014 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

        I think that you taking the time to type that explanation is even funnier than Jerry not liking the word “blog.”

      • Greg Esres
        Posted February 11, 2014 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

        “I am curious as to why Jerry objects to this site being called a blog”

        I think he finds the word to be ugly. In truth, it is.

        • papalinton
          Posted February 11, 2014 at 11:51 pm | Permalink

          Yes
          Connotations of ‘bloghead’, ‘blockhead’, ‘boofhead’ or some such.

          Website is tad less slighting.

  5. eric
    Posted February 11, 2014 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    In a lifetime spent in hotbeds of secularism, I have known perhaps two thoroughgoing rationalists—people who actually tried to eliminate intuition and navigate life by reasoning about it

    That’s because trying to eliminate other modes of decision-making is, IMO, insane. Science and rationalism are spectacularly good decision-making mechanisms, but they are also data-hungry, analytical resource-intensive, and typically much slower to come to a definitive conclusion than other human decision-making mechanisms. Try and use them in anything resembling a ‘deer in the headlights’ situation, and you’ll end up figuratively dead on the road.

    I get really tired of this ‘worship of Spock’ type of thinking. The most sane way to use science and rationalism isn’t to apply it to every single decision you will ever make, it’s to understand when it’s applicable and use it to the extent that you can. Most of us don’t use it enough – we use other decision-making mechanisms out of laziness or bias when we shouldn’t – so it’s true that we need to encourage greater use of it. But the end state is not 100% use of it. It can’t be; we simply don’t have the data and time in our lives to make every decision scientifically.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted February 11, 2014 at 9:11 am | Permalink

      It _is_ tiresome. It is easier for me to see Spock as irony, a comment on a behavior taken too far. That excuses some of dumbest dialogue.

      The reason for Spock’s popularity though is perhaps the implicit acceptance of that we could use more of the behavior, especially when emotions gets in the way. (At the same time that the role acknowledges emotions.)

      It is interesting to see that the first uses of AI (say Watson) seems to be Big Data. Not because of Spock-ification but because neither our trained intuition nor our reasoned rationale suffices. I think that nicely demonstrates what you are saying.

      • beyondbelief007
        Posted February 11, 2014 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

        I wanted to hit this same point for the conflation of “using rationality” vs “decision making.”

        It doesn’t matter whether I’m being analytical, or intuitive in making a decision: I am most decidedly NOT “Godding” my way there.

        We all face “decisions” with various time horizons, some more conducive to analysis while others require immediate decisions. What bright line would this author draw to say, “right…up to here are the decisions you can think about, and on the other side of this line are the decisions that “God” is involved in.

        It simply does not, nor need not, work that way. Feed your mind a steady diet of reason, and scientific problem solving, and just as a piano player can improvise without a second thought after years of rigorous practice, so too will our minds make snap, improvisational decisions firmly based on reason-honed-second-nature.

        And this says NOTHING about god or faith.

        • Jim Vaughan
          Posted February 18, 2014 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

          “Women are made to be loved, not understood”
          (Oscar Wilde)

          I wonder if it is the same for theists with “God”? Falling in love is not a rational decision, nor amenable to analytic problem solving – and without faith (aka trust), there is no relationship.

          • Posted February 24, 2014 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

            Women are real.

            • Jim Vaughan
              Posted February 25, 2014 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

              …and God is not – because God is not physical??!

              So, is beauty real, or meaninglessness?

              Devout believers seem to be in relationship with something that gives their lives meaning. The interesting question I think is what….?

              Some things are not amenable to rational analysis. It’s just the wrong tool.

              Probably they don’t know either.

              • Posted February 25, 2014 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

                Devout believers have been TOLD they’re in a meaningful relationship.

                Look, I can understand the person who has an “epiphany experience” and invents a god explanation. But by and large people don’t come to churches via that route.

                Your question about beauty reminds me of a Tim Minchin bit in which a Christian is pressing him, “What about Love? You don’t have any evidence for LOVE do you, eh? What about Love?”

                “Why, of course I have evidence for love. Love without evidence is… well… stalking!”

                Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and life means what you make it mean for you. EVERYTHING is amenable to rational analysis and scientific analysis/testing. It may not be explained by them, but in principle, all of our observations and experiences are the subject of the same set of tools.

                Or… are you proposing the venerable “Other Ways of Knowing?”

              • JIm Vaughan
                Posted February 25, 2014 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

                “EVERYTHING is amenable to rational analysis and scientific analysis/testing.”

                This is a common fallacy. (See Godel’s incompleteness theorem)!

                Have you read Carl Sagan’s “Contact”?
                At the end the protagonist “Ellie” has an extraordinary experience she can never prove – it is subjective, unrepeatable and therefore it’s “reality” is not amenable to rational analysis.

                Science depends on repeatable objective phenomena, but we live in a post-modern world.

                Take ethics – it’s rationality is confounded by e.g. the trolley problems. Take politics – who’s values are “real”? Take qualia – how can we ever know if we see the same “red” exposed to light of ~650nm? Take love – can you really explain why you love someone?

                Rational analysis can take us only so far and then… yes, for most important things we rely on the venerable “other ways of knowing” aka direct experience.

              • Posted February 25, 2014 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

                Er…Gödel doesn’t say anything at all about empirical observation. He merely says that there are (an infinite number of) true statements within any given formal system that cannot be proven true using the system itself.

                For example: “All but God can prove this sentence true.” It is logically impossible for God to prove that the sentence is true, but simply proposing as a premise that it is true and observing that it necessarily logically follows that it is, indeed, true, is sufficient for anybody else to prove that it’s true — which is exactly what it says. That’s a decidedly informal presentation of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem and its proof, but the presentation should be sufficient to get the point across.

                At the end the protagonist Ellie has an extraordinary experience she can never prove it is subjective, unrepeatable and therefore its reality is not amenable to rational analysis.

                Her experience is a form of observation. But we also know from other observations that such experiences are notoriously unreliable, as emotionally powerful as they often are. The rational conclusion is that she really did have the experience and that it really did mean an awful lot to her, but that she also has no way of knowing whether it really happened or if it was just a garden-variety hallucination. That is, she should set her error bars wide enough to include both possibilities, and she would be foolish to narrow her error bars such as to rule out the hallucination possibility. You’re suggesting that perhaps she should conclude that the experience was really real, but, again, doing so would be foolish (even if understandable).

                Remember: “I don’t know” is not only a perfectly valid answer, it is the only valid answer when you really don’t know. Just making up an answer in order to have an answer you can be confident in when no confidence is warranted is the very essence of insanity and credulity.

                Take ethics its rationality is confounded by e.g. the trolley problems.

                Please. The trolley problems are bullshit. They’re nothing more than crude variations on Milgram’s famous experiments, with the subjects too-predictably agreeing to do horrific things at the command of the authority figure. Real ethicists don’t fuck around with that nonsense; instead, they’re too busy doing things like analyzing patient outcomes and correlating with survey results.

                Take qualia how can we ever know if we see the same red exposed to light of ~650nm?

                Color science is a very mature field. As a result, we know that not everybody sees the same “red,” but most people see very similar “red”s. Color blindness is an extreme example of a case where perception differs. Fatigue is another example, and one you can very easily demonstrate for yourself. On a sunny day, step outside, close both eyes (very important!), cover only one eye with your hand, turn your face to the Sun (keep your eyes closed! do not look into Sun with remaining eye!) and stay that way for a minute or so. Turn your face away from the Sun (do not look at Sun!), and open your eyes. The difference in color perception between your two eyes will be very dramatic.

                Rational analysis can take us only so far and then yes, for most important things we rely on the venerable other ways of knowing aka direct experience.

                Direct experience is a form of empirical observation, but it’s notorious for its unreliability; that’s why we invented measuring instruments of all sorts of varieties.

                But you’re right that science can only take us so far. Where you go off the rails is in thinking that something else can get you to your destination when science can’t. In the real world, we know that, if science can’t answer the question, the answer is, “I don’t know,” and anybody telling you otherwise is deluded, foolish, or trying to sell you a bill of goods.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Jim Vaughan
                Posted February 26, 2014 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

                >>”Er…Gödel doesn’t say anything at all about empirical observation.”

                Er… Who’s talking about empiricism? I’m challenging the statement “Everything is amenable to rational analysis”! Math is a purely rational system, yet has this paradox at the heart (Godel); that the truth or falsehood of some numerical relations are inherently “not amenable to rational analysis”. If so with a purely rational system, how much more for an empirical one!

                >>”The trolley problems are bullshit. They’re nothing more than crude variations on Milgram’s famous experiments, with the subjects too-predictably agreeing to do horrific things at the command of the authority figure.”

                LOL! I think you are confused! They are a set of thought experiments, nothing to do with Milgram. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trolley_problem

                >>”Remember: “I don’t know” is not only a perfectly valid answer, it is the only valid answer when you really don’t know.”

                At last we agree! You make my point for me.
                (see my previous post). Gopnik also is raising such doubts about dogmatic certainty.

                Where we still disagree is on other ways of knowing. Do you know the “Mary’s Room” thought experiment?

                Existing in a monochrome room, Mary reads everything about the science of colour perception. There is no knowledge she lacks. Then, one day, she steps outside, and experiences the blue of the sky for the first time….
                So, does she gain any knowledge?

                Answers on a postcard! Phenomenology is the neglected subjective sister discipline of Science.

              • Posted February 26, 2014 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

                LOL! I think you are confused! They are a set of thought experiments, nothing to do with Milgram. Seehttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trolley_problem

                Milgram’s famous experiment had an authority figure tell the subject to do something horrific. He found that his subjects complied to an alarming degree, often past what would have been the point of death.

                In the Trolley Bullshits, an authority figure tells the subject to imagine doing something horrific. Best I know, none of the reports of the literature have any indication that the subjects ever refuse or insist on a more appropriate course of action — such as calling for help, assisting in the ensuing post-incident investigation, or the like.

                It can only be through a profound contempt of not just the value of empirical observation but of professional ethics that one could possibly think that the Trolley Bullshits have any value whatsoever. Indeed, quite the contrary; we know from all sorts other studies that visualizing something makes people more likely to do it, meaning that what the philosophers are really doing is encouraging huge numbers of people to fuck with critical safety equipment in the middle of a crisis situation, which is exactly the worst possible thing one could conceivably do.

                Philosophy might not be as overtly hostile to civilization as religion, but it’s certainly not civilization’s friend. The sooner we stop giving it the air of respectability it so desperately needs to survive, the better.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Jim Vaughan
                Posted February 28, 2014 at 2:34 am | Permalink

                >>”It can only be through a profound contempt of not just the value of empirical observation but of professional ethics that one could possibly think that the Trolley Bullshits have any value whatsoever. Indeed, quite the contrary; [...] what the philosophers are really doing is encouraging huge numbers of people to fuck with critical safety equipment in the middle of a crisis situation, which is exactly the worst possible thing one could conceivably do.”

                ROFL! Wonderful rant!

                You certainly have an original take on the trolley problems.

                I have to admit, most philosophers do show a shocking disregard for health and safety in designing their thought experiments!

              • Posted February 28, 2014 at 10:24 am | Permalink

                One thing’s for certain: that sort of nonsense would never make it past the ethical review board of any the psychology research departments I’m familiar with.

                b&

    • Posted February 11, 2014 at 9:24 am | Permalink

      Thinking fast /and/ slow!

      /@

      • krzysztof1
        Posted February 11, 2014 at 10:28 am | Permalink

        You beat me to it. But Kahneman think both fast and slow at the same time? That’s the question. ;)

        • Posted February 11, 2014 at 10:57 am | Permalink

          It depends. For instance, James can but Immanuel cant. (And Scottish Walt disnae think at all.)

          /@

          • krzysztof1
            Posted February 11, 2014 at 11:05 am | Permalink

            You deserve a bottle of Lavagulin for that one!

            • beyondbelief007
              Posted February 11, 2014 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

              Yes…Lavagulin comes cheap, so don’t get it mixed up with that Islay Scotch whiskey, Lagavulin, which will cost you a pretty schilling or two. ;-). (Hopefully not too pedantic… I thought i saw you trying to sneak out of an expensive payment on a spelling tenchnicality) :-)

              • Posted February 11, 2014 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

                Oh, any Islay will do. (I do quite like Smokehead.)

                /@

              • krzysztof1
                Posted February 11, 2014 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

                Haha! You’re talking to someone who can’t even remember when to spell the beverage “whisky” or “whiskey”, although I think I’ve finally learned that one. . .

    • darrelle
      Posted February 11, 2014 at 9:56 am | Permalink

      Yes. A strawman and a false choice. Gopnik’s criticisms of Gnu atheists in this piece are nearly all aimed at caricatures that are not reasonable representations of actual atheists.

      Gopnik sounds like a romantic. I have tendencies in that direction myself, but they don’t make me fear that giving up religion will mean the loss of beauty or transcendent experiences. Just the opposite in fact. One of the key features I often notice in people with strong religious convictions is a lack of imagination and a shallow capacity to be moved by, or even notice, amazing experiences. That is just anectdote and opinion of course.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted February 11, 2014 at 10:11 am | Permalink

        This discussion makes me think of the book, Stroke of Insight the link to the book on Amazon includes an interview with the author, a neuroanatomist who had a stroke in her brain’s left hemisphere and her experience of intuition, etc.

        I thought it might be woo-y when I saw it in the bookstore but maybe that was just my bigoted left side of the brain (left side of brain: “you don’t want to read that, I’m the only choice you need”. Right side of the brain, pictures of cute baby animals :D). Perhaps I’ll put it on my to-reads list.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted February 11, 2014 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

      I reject the premise that decisions arrived at intuitively or unconsciously must therefore be irrational. I trust my brain to make sensible choices in most instances without requiring it to show every step of its work.

      • eric
        Posted February 11, 2014 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

        I suspect what you’re saying is that they are based upon a body of emperical knowledge or experience already existing in the mind, which makes them empirically/observationally based even if they aren’t formal or rigorous or include error-checking mechanisms.

        But it’s not just about data source or validity, it’s also about data use. Humans have strong biases and we weight experiences very irrationally. Scientific procedures weed the worst of our cognitive and emotional biases out, but when we make fast gut choices, there’s nothing preventing those biases from having a major impact on our conclusions. So I wouldn’t say “therefore must be” irrational (because that implies some lockstep connection of intuitive to irrational), but I would say “are likely to be a lot more” irrational.

        • eric
          Posted February 11, 2014 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

          To make an analogy, consider a drunk making intuitive decisions: he (or she) has the same empirical knowledge base undergirding their snap decisions as they do when they are sober. But they don’t use that knowledge base well. Their brain doesn’t draw all the connections it should and it weights some connections much more or less than it should, which leads to less rational decisions. Does that make sense?

          Well in a sense, we are all drunk, all the time. Our brains are always not making every connection it should or weighting things wrongly, the difference is simply a matter of degree. The way we make “even more sober than regular sober” decisions is by using other people and the world around us to verify and validate our decisions before we make them. And just as the rationality of a drunk person compares very unfavorably to the rationality of a sober person, the rationality of an individual sober person’s intuition compares very unfavorably to the rationality of collective, science-based decision-making.

      • alanlarue
        Posted February 11, 2014 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

        Agreed. “Intuition” is informed by data, be it acquired by reading, schooling, experience, or evolution. Better intuition simply has more data behind it.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted February 11, 2014 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

          I suspect we make logical decisions using intuitive inputs more than we think since that intuition may reach us sub consciously. It’s that gut feel we get or that sense that something is just off but we can’t put our fingers on it.

          • gbjames
            Posted February 11, 2014 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

            Something tells me you’re right.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted February 11, 2014 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

              I can’t put my finger on it, but I sense you are mocking me.

        • papalinton
          Posted February 12, 2014 at 12:03 am | Permalink

          I think intuition is an indiscriminate feature of our decision-making circuitry. We make decisions pretty much on anything and everything, with or without data, knowledge or experience. The greater the level of knowledge, experiences or data we have accumulated the more informed our intuition is likely to be. But that’s no guarantee, and it doesn’t stop any of us from making bad decisions. In the matter of religion; religion is not always wrong. It’s just that it has no better chance of being correct than guessing. And religion is not so bad, unless you believe it.

    • Occam
      Posted February 11, 2014 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

      This is one of too many quirks that make me despair of Adam Gopnik’s judgment in this matter.

      Giving up on intuition would be, well, irrational, precisely because we can assess rationally that we have not evolved into Spocks. (We can even surmise how a seat-of-the-pants capacity to guess risks fast in natural surroundings, erring on the side of prudence by a wide margin, has helped our ancestors survive — and how ill-equipped we are to deal intuitively with complex problems of our own making.)

      As other contributors have noted, I’m saddened to see that Adam Gopnik’s grasp of evolution appears at best incomplete. This, in someone whom Jerry Coyne considers a friend, seems odd and unfortunate. But, with Jerry’s luminous guidance, it may be remedied.

      A grasp of rationalism so lopsided it might be charitably mistaken for a caricature is even more worrisome. Paraphrasing Adam Smith on the emancipation of slaves by Pennsylvania Quakers, I cannot help but wonder whether the actual number of rationalists personally known to Mr. Gopnik can be very great, if he misunderstands them so thoroughly.

  6. Posted February 11, 2014 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    again, it seems that Gopnik has no idea what irrational actually means. I have plenty of rational reasons why I love cats, my husband, etc. I don’t just love things for no reason, like some insane Seussian character.

    And the need for god/s does go away. As soon as you realize that they don’t exist, you realize you don’t need them just as much as you don’t need fairies, leprechauns, djinn, etc. We “gave up on” god/s because there is no reason to believe in belief isn’t required to be good and that does indeed cause harm in many many cases.

    • Kevin
      Posted February 11, 2014 at 10:03 am | Permalink

      Agreed. Religion wants badly to usurp everything. It wants to be the leader. It wants the modes of metaphysicality to extend into cats and wives and husbands and children’s laughter. It wants all that we can or cannot ascribe with reason.

      Jesus Christ, this idea is a dead end. Why can’t these people muster the wisdom to look outside their hidebound vesicle of faith? They are scared of life and scared death and surrounded by the injustice of labeling everything they do not understand as a bleak and puerile God.

  7. Posted February 11, 2014 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    The source of non-belief, in my experience, is neither from evolution nor science in general; it is from logic and reason. I have meet many non-religous people that know little of any type of science outside daily life, for them its just common sense that these tales can’t possibly be true.

  8. Charles E. Jones
    Posted February 11, 2014 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    I find it strange that Gopnik and others so frequently conflate an emotional experience with a religious one. When I lived in England, I happened to visit the Medieval Wells Cathedral on Easter Sunday, and I popped in to see the spectacular interior. The sermon happened to be in progress, with the cleric reading the first lines of John. Despite being a non-believer, the poetry of the lines plus the ancient setting of the service resonated deeply with me. It was moving, but it was not really a religious experience. I felt no connection with god.

    Similarly, after 3 years of England I developed an appreciation for cricket. But upon my return to the U.S. I was surprised to notice that my first accidental viewing of a baseball game on TV felt strangely moving. The baseball somehow felt right and true, the way all ballgames are meant to be. The feelings could easily be described as religious, but they, like the Wells Cathedral experience, were an emotional response to stimuli evoking aspects of my childhood. They were mysterious, irrational emotions like love, but they had nothing to do with a strictly religious experience. I felt no connections with god.

    I propose that the word ‘religious’ should be used with greater precision!

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted February 11, 2014 at 9:21 am | Permalink

      Yes this conflation is troubling as Gropnik sees those who espouse reason as:

      …people who actually tried to eliminate intuition and navigate life by reasoning about it

      We can be rational and also recognize that is not the default position of humanity. We have emotions for a reason and it is foolish to ignore them. Rational people use intuition as well, they just don’t let it run the show. Lack of emotion is not beneficial (ask sociopaths who must navigate an emotional world in confusion and often get themselves in a lot of trouble and they, like us, do not have a choice; they can’t feel and we can. We all have to use what we have.

      • Larry Gay
        Posted February 11, 2014 at 9:41 am | Permalink

        That is about as clear and well-stated as is humanly possible.

      • beyondbelief007
        Posted February 11, 2014 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

        Exactly my point, but much more clearly stated. +1

    • Posted February 11, 2014 at 9:36 am | Permalink

      So what shall I make of the voice that spoke to me recently as I was scuttling around getting ready for yet another spell on a chat-show sofa?

      More accurately, it was a memory of a voice in my head, and it told me that everything was OK and things were happening as they should. For a moment, the world had felt at peace. Where did it come from?

      Me, actually — the part of all of us that, in my case, caused me to stand in awe the first time I heard Thomas Tallis’s Spem in alum, and the elation I felt on a walk one day last February, when the light of the setting sun turned a ploughed field into shocking pink; I believe it’s what Abraham felt on the mountain and Einstein did when it turned out that E=mc².

      It’s that moment, that brief epiphany when the universe opens up and shows us something, and in that instant we get just a sense of an order greater than Heaven and, as yet at least, beyond the grasp of Stephen Hawking. It doesn’t require worship, but, I think, rewards intelligence, observation and enquiring minds.

      I don’t think I’ve found God, but I may have seen where gods come from.

      — Terry Pratchett, interview, Daily Mail (2008)

      /@

    • gluonspring
      Posted February 11, 2014 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

      “I find it strange that Gopnik and others so frequently conflate an emotional experience with a religious one.”

      It’s one of the central cons of religion to claim for itself what is our common human heritage. So effective has been the religious propaganda on this point that even the non-religious often fail to notice the con.

      • Sastra
        Posted February 11, 2014 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

        Yes. Widen the net so that people think that your dodgy belief system includes them. Then hope they begin to identify with the rest of it through a sort of osmosis of superficial similarities.

        “I think sunsets are beautiful. I guess I must believe in God or else I couldn’t think that. Boy, I sure feel sorry for people who don’t believe in God. They must not know what it is like to experience a sunset.”

        • gbjames
          Posted February 11, 2014 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

          Let alone a frozen waterfall.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted February 11, 2014 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

            Ha!

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted February 11, 2014 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

          Or the equally dastardly*: “I like sunsets. Sunsets are beautiful. I don’t believe in god. I must force myself not to like sunsets because that’s irrational. Something feels wrong.”

          *the rare instance I get to use “dastardly” makes me irrationally giddy.

          • Sastra
            Posted February 11, 2014 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

            Sometimes I think that religious people believe that this is how atheists really think, a dastardly interior monologue which expresses the poverty of the atheist world view.

            I mean, that read like a Jack Chick track put out by Sophisticated Theologians.

            Oh. Now there’s an execrable* concept.

            *also a giddy-inducing word.

            • Sastra
              Posted February 11, 2014 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

              Tract, not track.

              You do not want to go down the Jack Chick Track. ‘Tis a Trail of Tears.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted February 11, 2014 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

              That DOES read like a Jack Chick tract!

      • Posted February 11, 2014 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

        It’s easy to see why theists want to equate emotional experiences with religious one (cf. “OprahGate”): *they have nothing else left*.

        Once upon a time religion had all the answers. Then those nasty scientists had to come along and start explaining things. Well that wasn’t good but hey, religions still had morality, right, because people can’t possibly know what’s good or evil without Gawd to tell them. Nope, here come the secular philosophers constructing workable theories of morality that don’t require imaginary friends. They’re even setting up constitutional governments that don’t require divine right!

        They’ve lost everything. They’re down to “well…well…we’re *happier* than you! You can’t possibly appreciate the joys or wonders of life! You’re all a bunch of rude morose jerks who want everyone else to be just as miserable!” The horribly offensive implications of this position are completely lost on them.

        Touching on this is the pressure to deny the use of the word “atheist” (cf. the recent Plantinga piece in the New York Times, which I should be blogging about myself). “Atheist” is cast as the most egregious of straw men (i.e. someone who KNOWS FOR CERTAIN that god doesn’t exist, etc.) with all the above pejoratives attached to it so those who do not believe are encouraged to call themselves “agnostic” or “non-believers”. The goal, of course, being to keep them one step closer to the theistic side of the issue.

    • Posted February 11, 2014 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

      I believe Sagan describe the emotions you felt as “numinous”, which is larger than religious (religious is numinous feeling toward a god).

      Yes, this is a big misunderstanding. For most people, religious or otherwise, do not experience the numinous directly only through stories.
      And most religionistas assume numinous feeling is something holy, trancendent, happens to “good people”, and therefore logically can not happen among heathens.

      Implicit assumptions.
      While as Sagan said (and implicitly by all new-atheists) numinous feeling is still there! Jerry’s rumination on boots, cakes and cats is proof of the same, even the professor is silly, human, emotional and yes .. numinous (see the Chicago pictures? this guy is a romantic that love Chicago!)

      The problem with religionistas is the same as in teaching kindergarten, we know they know so little, but we have to hear to what they say and be nice to them even if they crap on their pants …

      The League of Pre-schooler Teachers!
      :D

  9. Beau Quilter
    Posted February 11, 2014 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    Professor Ceiling Cat –

    At the beginning of your 6th paragraph you say:

    ‘Gopnik begins by reiterating the rise of the “noes”’

    I think you meant to say “nones”.

    Great Post!

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted February 11, 2014 at 9:15 am | Permalink

      Are you sure? The quotes say “noes” repeatedly. (But I haven’t checked with the source.)

    • Posted February 11, 2014 at 9:40 am | Permalink

      Gopnik says “noes” – those that answer, “no religion” – throughout.

      /@

      • Beau Quilter
        Posted February 11, 2014 at 10:10 am | Permalink

        I stand corrected …

        apologies to Professor Ceiling Cat!

  10. marathonjon
    Posted February 11, 2014 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    Gopnik should have asked Dr. Coyne to review his article before publishing it. In fact, I would advise all critics of atheism to do so.

    • ROO BOOKAROO
      Posted February 11, 2014 at 9:13 am | Permalink

      Marathonjohn:

      But then you kill the sincerity and authenticity of the debate.
      If we have an editor-in-Chief, the spontaneity of views and opinions will simply be rubbed out.

      No, it’s far better to let Adam Gopnik have his say his own way, then let him ponder Jerry Coyne’s reply, and (hopefully) come to his new conclusion and understanding.

      That is the Socratic method, and a surer diffusion of ideas than imposed (and undigested) correction from the top down.

    • Posted February 11, 2014 at 9:40 am | Permalink

      That might overwhelm Jerry!

      /@

  11. Barry Lyons
    Posted February 11, 2014 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    You hit the nail on the head again.

    I’m getting tired of this “ground of being” nonsense which, as you point out, is simply not true for most believers. Why does this idea have any traction at all when there’s little evidence for it? Is it possible that Sophisticated Believers exist in large numbers among the practitioners of the literary arts thereby giving a distorted view of the larger picture?

    • ROO BOOKAROO
      Posted February 11, 2014 at 9:45 am | Permalink

      Barry Lyons:

      As is the case with most ideas, it is illuminating to try to trace it back to its origins, if it can be found.

      “God is the ground of being” is a simplification and slight distortion of the original phrase “God is the ground of OUR being”, and it was popularized by John A.T. Robinson in his famous book, “Honest to God” (1963).

      From the Wikipedia article on the book “Honest to God”:

      “The dominant theory of Honest to God is the idea that having rejected the idea of ‘God up there’, [heaven in the clouds, medieval Catholic style] modern secular man needs to recognize that the idea of ‘God out there’ [beyond time and space, as a kind of primordial cause, back to a modernized kind of Aristotelian scheme] is also an outdated simplification of the nature of divinity. Rather, Christians should take their cue from the existentialist theology of Paul Tillich and consider God to be ‘the ground of our being’.

      Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s notion of religion-less Christianity is also a major theme in the book. Robinson’s interpretation of this phrase is—inevitably—controversial. He claims that secular man requires a secular theology. That is, that God’s continuing revelation to humanity is one brought about in culture at large, not merely within the confines of “religion” or “church.”

      The book also introduced the idea of situational ethics to an English speaking audience. This was a form of relativism, based on the idea that moral codes are not set in stone, but may be subject to circumstances.”

      “The Ground of Our Being” launched a wave of existential assertions similar to ‘sensing the presence of God’ or ‘sensing the real presence of Christ’ (always very popular among Christians).

      This existential approach opens the gates to a huge variety of mumbo-jumbo descriptions of “the experience of God” (no longer the “knowledge” of God] — the delight of modern theologians.

      They all bathe in a pretentious literary quagmire of slippery abstract words, all nonsense-sounding, but delivered with a straight face, for the goal of projecting the image of modernity or even “post-modernity”. Academics love this kind of swampy language.

      Read about “Controversy and Criticism” in the Wikipedia article on “Honest to God”, short but to the point.

      • Sastra
        Posted February 11, 2014 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

        The idea that “God is the ground of OUR being” seems like a lovely little deepity.

        The true-but-trivial interpretation turns it into a simple profession that the believer believes in God. Apologetic apologetics: instead of giving good rational reasons to believe in God, all a believer can do is explain either why they believe (your mileage may vary) or just get eloquent over the fact that they do in fact believe (“God is how I ground my being — interpret the fact of my existence … but your mileage may vary.”)

        It can’t really be argued against because it’s not an argument. It’s a personal statement. And there it lies, inert and harmless, like someone saying they absolutely LOVE the beauty of astrology. An astronomer stands by, inert and helpless, with nothing to argue about. De gustibus non est disputandum.

        But it’s a deepity. It does double work. GOB is still theism; it has to contradict atheism. It measures mileage and if yours varies then you got it wrong.

        As I see it, the extraordinary-but-false interpretation of God as the Ground of Being is their assertion that consciousness, intelligence, love, intention, virtues, values, or other aspects of the human mind run all the way down to the center of Reality. They’re saying that when you peel everything down and/or back to the fundamental beginning — the ground of existence itself — it’s kind of like a person.

        Maybe not an actual Person, okay — but an essence or maybe a force which is familiar because it resembles something in our minds, or about our minds, or like our minds, or something in the general area. Reality is not indifferent to us. It establishes our worth the way a story sets up the background for its characters. It makes us matter to something Greater than just ourselves.

        I don’t agree with people who insist that this GOB version of God is “not at all like” the more obviously anthropomorphic versions which get pissed over what people do with their naughty bits. I think it’s the same thing — but stripped of all inconvenient details. The common versions are subsets of the larger idea that Good and Evil are structured into the basic nature of reality.

        It’s “sophisticated” because there are less specifics to worry about oneself or defend to others, so one can believe they’ve found and understood the Major Point. And one can also feel justified in sneering at GOB critics for their lack of depth, sensitivity, and feeling… which is I think a top contender for the title of Major Point.

        • gluonspring
          Posted February 11, 2014 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

          Indeed, I’d say the most fundamental schism in world views is whether, in some sense, mind is prior to everything else, or whether mind is merely a contingent subset of everything else that comes about after the fact. The evidence of evolution gives us a very strong reason to think the latter since we see, to some degree, how minds are constructed out of mindless matter, but we have no evidence for a mind that is not so constructed. Long after people have seen the folly of various specific religious views they cling pretty stubbornly to the idea of prior-mind. Maybe it’s our own mind’s evolutionarily endowed agency bias, or maybe it’s just training, but there it is. A lot of arguments could be made shorter by skipping right to this basic schism because it would cut out the constant series of tactical retreats that draw any discussion of the existence of god out into a nearly endless exercise (each retreat cutting the distance Zeno-like).

  12. Posted February 11, 2014 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    Here’s the thing I don’t get about non-believers who write pieces like this: does it never occur to them to reach out to the folks who really know their stuff, and who have already provided thoughtful responses-in-advance? Obviously this writer has a relationship with Professor Ceiling Cat so, busy as PCC is, I bet he could get a thoughtful response to an email that started “Hey, Jerry, whaddya think …” As a reader and fan of WEIT he should have a better idea anyway. And I might expect the same goes for Dawkins, Dennett, Shermer, Krauss, Harris, Boghossian – if Mr. Gopnik doesn’t have them on speed dial I would understand but, geez, don’t his name and publication open some email doors? Isn’t Sam working on an atheist “spirituality”?

    I’m sure I don’t understand how journalism works, and maybe the requirement of “balance” means he’d have to talk to Ken Ham or something.

    I just really have to wonder what’s going on, though, in a person’s head if he is going to make assertions about atheists’ inability to acknowledge irrationality or appreciate beauty or experience wonder: I just listed eight guys who explicitly and directly address it in their work! Even curmudgeonly PZ Myers is a big mush when it comes to the humanities – what’s with the straw men when there are so many fine accessible actual humans who’ve already published volumes which I’m certain Mr. Gopnik has read? Very confusing to me.

    • Sastra
      Posted February 11, 2014 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

      From what I can tell the gnu-bashing argument here is not that atheists don’t feel beauty, wonder, love, and so forth — it’s that atheists “can’t account for it.” The philosophical point is that we’re contradicting ourselves.

      • gluonspring
        Posted February 11, 2014 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

        I just read the whole article and I have to say that it didn’t strike me nearly so gnu bashing as the excerpts made me think it would be. Overall, I felt he was trying to be more descriptive than prescriptive, even if in places it maybe came across as dismissive of the gnu stance. In any case, if this article is gnu bashing, would that all the gnu bashing were so harsh. ;-)

  13. Richard Olson
    Posted February 11, 2014 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    This piece is far below typical Adam Gopnik standards. His writing has always either informed or amused me, or both when that is his intent. In this instance AG himself is clearly poorly informed about his own topic.

  14. hazur
    Posted February 11, 2014 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    Jerry says: “For instance, we know from time-series analysis in the U.S. that religiosity goes down after an increase in the inequality of personal incomes, but not vice versa. …” Shouldn’t this be “increase in equality of personal incomes”?

    • Posted February 11, 2014 at 9:16 am | Permalink

      You probably read an earlier version. I caught that and fixed it a while back. But thanks.

  15. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted February 11, 2014 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    Oh, noes! Noes are winning, and aye-es are … whining:

    And here we arrive at what the noes, whatever their numbers, really have now, and that is a monopoly on legitimate forms of knowledge about the natural world. They have this monopoly for the same reason that computer manufacturers have an edge over crystal-ball makers: the advantages of having an actual explanation of things and processes are self-evident. What works wins.

    That said, it is stimulating to see two great analysts and writers work on a subject.

    I wish it were about something more worthwhile than accommodationists “irrational love” of, inordinate fondness for, faith. As Jerry says, they can’t really defend it. But yes, discussing the evils of religion may be the backdoor to accommodationism.

  16. Greg Esres
    Posted February 11, 2014 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    “in my view the best magazine for writers in the U.S.”

    No doubt it is, which is why I hate it. I read to gather information, and writers proud of their art bury information in fields of pretty prose.

    I started to read this article the other day, but quickly abandoned it when he started to go into the history; if I wanted that, I’d go to Wikipedia.

    • TJR
      Posted February 11, 2014 at 9:04 am | Permalink

      Yes, I found the article painfully waffly, as against Jerry’s comment which got straight to the point.

      • Jo5ef
        Posted February 12, 2014 at 7:03 am | Permalink

        I agree, not feeling patient tonight, the article was pure bilge IMO.

    • ROO BOOKAROO
      Posted February 11, 2014 at 10:28 am | Permalink

      Greg Esres:

      I cannot but concur with you.

      I was painfully uncomfortable reading this literary essay on a rather serious subject touching on sociology, history, and cultural evolution.

      To me, the problem is the impressionistic style adopted by Gopnik. He tries to say something not in one single nervy or meaty sentence, but by accumulating a series of little touches lifted here and there, creating a little maze of ideas and references, many appearing as if out of thin air, to finally build a global impression of some idea that is only sketched, but not clearly defined.

      Gopnik likes to invent, like a French painter of the 19th c., a composite image made up of small distinct brushstrokes, when another, more robust style, would have been to focus on existing atheists to describe individually their strengths and weaknesses, as a way to anchor his own ideas and criticisms. This would have given his diatribe (to me, anyway) a better sense of reality.

      We have to admire the art and literary brilliance, but, at the level of conviction, I am left uncomfortable by the lack of direct focus in this impressionistic style.

      Perhaps Gopnik has been too much influenced by the French impressionists, (which we all love as paintings, but not as means of intellectual analysis), and perhaps I belong to a new school more conditioned by photography in our search for a sharper and more trustworthy picture.

      • Greg Esres
        Posted February 11, 2014 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

        He tries to say something not in one single nervy or meaty sentence, but by accumulating a series of little touches lifted here and there, creating a little maze of ideas and references

        Very elegantly put. Makes me mad at the author again to even read it. ;-)

      • jack
        Posted February 28, 2014 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

        A beautiful description of AG’s technique. It may be artful but it’s completely inadequate as a means of understanding and explaining a weighty subject.
        Off topic, but Hendrik Hertzberg does something similar in his New Yorker pieces – floods them with tenuously related facts, names, tidbits and descriptions, in the hope that his egregious errors and omissions will take too much time and effort to decipher. Unfortunately this practice works well with most people most of the time.

    • Posted February 12, 2014 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

      The best magazine for writers perhaps in the sense that they get paid well. I tend to enjoy books written by New Yorker staff writers, like Thurman and Gopnik, but I can’t abide when excellent writers produce cobwebby prose which gets snagged on it own compulsive spinning in order to fit the New Yorker predictable pattern.

      The non-rational is not irrational, for goodness sakes! Love of sweet wine has not a drop of irrationality in that sentiment.

  17. Scientifik
    Posted February 11, 2014 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    “I don’t think that evolution is the “seedbed” of New Atheism—after all, that form of atheism took off before Dawkins’s The God Delusion, and most of its proponents are not evolutionists. The seedbed is not evolution but science. If there’s one thing that unites most New Atheists, it’s that they are deeply respectful of the methods and accomplishments of science.”

    You hit the nail on the head. And because science is so effective at debunking erroneous beliefs and superstition there is an attempt to infect it with magical thinking (see the efforts to teach religion in science classes, invite theologians to teach science at the World Science Festival, etc).

    • Posted February 11, 2014 at 9:51 am | Permalink

      But New Atheism is fed and watered by evolutionary biology — and physics/cosmology (LHC and Planck leave little room for God, as Torbjörn, Ben and I keep reiterating).

      /@

      • Kevin
        Posted February 11, 2014 at 10:15 am | Permalink

        To the public, biologists are the first to be attacked and that means basically evolution. So they stand on the front line. Poor physicists have to stand back and watch the battle ensue. It is like we are unapproachable by the public and that can be infuriating. “Evolution is a done deal, people.” (I am speaking to the ignorant masses in America.) “Why don’t you move on to cosmology or length scales where ontological arguments might actually stand some chance (which they do not, but find us some arguments worth debating)?”

        Still, there is nothing in New Atheism that will not, on the mean, continue to serve humanity well.

        • Posted February 11, 2014 at 10:36 am | Permalink

          Part of that is the conflation of “everything I don’t like” by folks into evolution.

      • Scientifik
        Posted February 11, 2014 at 11:02 am | Permalink

        That’s true, but what ultimately makes religion irrelevant is the lack of evidence for any of its claims. You want more atheists? Educate people in the methods of evidence-based inquiry.

        • Posted February 11, 2014 at 11:12 am | Permalink

          Disagree.

          You still run into the “absence of evidence isnt evidence of absence” wall (however misguided that is).

          But evidence from evo-bio and phy/cos !*refutes*! specific claims. No single pair of human ancestors. No hidden variables. No act of creation (zero-sum energy). No unknown forces. &c.

          /@

          • Scientifik
            Posted February 11, 2014 at 11:26 am | Permalink

            Well, in that situation, you still run into the God of the gaps. If, on the other hand, you educate people that they shouldn’t be making any claims without sufficient evidence, the God of the gaps disappears.

            • Posted February 11, 2014 at 11:44 am | Permalink

              But it makes the gaps very very small! (Ingersoll or Tyson quote goes here.)

              I think it is a clearer and (philosophically) stronger first step. Clobber them with what we know! Then work on the critical thinking skills.

              /@

              • Scientifik
                Posted February 11, 2014 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

                Well, we still don’t know what 97% of DNA is responsible for, and don’t have a clue about what dark matter and dark energy are, and they constitute some 96% of all the stuff in our universe. But despite the gaps in our knowledge, the scientific method (and the history of science) teaches us that we shouldn’t be filling them with ‘dragons’ and ‘gods’. That’s the starting point to developing a superstition-free society.

              • Posted February 11, 2014 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

                Yes, yes. Science doesn’t know everything. (Dara Ó Briain quotation goes here.) But I think that what science does know (and what it can thus rule out) has a far greater impact than the more abstract course you suggest.

                /@

              • Scientifik
                Posted February 11, 2014 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

                Ant and Sastra,

                you are both making my point about the need to educate people about the scientific process even stronger.

              • Posted February 11, 2014 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

                I have not argued against that, only against doing that as a first step. Stick, then carrot, not just carrot. (Kind of.)

                /@

              • Scientifik
                Posted February 11, 2014 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

                If people don’t understand the underlying process of science, they are forced to accept its findings on faith.

              • Posted February 12, 2014 at 7:12 am | Permalink

                To a point. It depends on the religionists acceptance of science in the first place.

                Those who distrust or are hostile to science in the first place seem unlikely to be receptive of such education. Something more pointed is needed for them to shake their faith.

                Others who generally accept science (including some scientists!) but who nonetheless find gaps for God need prompting to address their cognitive dissonance, to turn their critical-thinking skills upon their own belief. Showing how vanishingly small the gaps are will likely push them in the right direction.

                /@

              • Scientifik
                Posted February 12, 2014 at 8:57 am | Permalink

                Again, you fail to understand Jerry’s point.

                It’s not just facts of evolution that stand in the way of religion, but the science itself.

        • Sastra
          Posted February 11, 2014 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

          Scientifik wrote:

          … what ultimately makes religion irrelevant is the lack of evidence for any of its claims. You want more atheists? Educate people in the methods of evidence-based inquiry.

          The trouble with this common atheist talking-point re the lack of evidence is that it doesn’t really fit the evidence, in that religious people religiously believe that there’s LOTS of evidence for their religious beliefs. They can and will tell you what it is. The Bible, the universe, consciousness, sunsets, miracles, prophesies, mystical experiences, a “sense of wonder” and on and on and on.

          They’re not just sitting around deciding what to believe on whims from nowhere. They DO have evidence for their claims. Bad evidence. And then they reason from it — or to it.

          However, helping people learn how to tell bad evidence from good, how to carefully weigh competing alternatives and analyze an explanation — “the methods of evidence-based inquiry” — seems to me like a wise strategy. I agree.

          • Scientifik
            Posted February 11, 2014 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

            “The trouble with this common atheist talking-point re the lack of evidence is that it doesn’t really fit the evidence, in that religious people religiously believe that there’s LOTS of evidence for their religious beliefs.”

            That’s just doesn’t make any sense.

            • Sastra
              Posted February 11, 2014 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

              Many if not most religious people believe that when push comes to shove their faith is a reasonable faith and say so with alarming regularity. They think atheism is absurd. Every argument for the existence of God or the truth of the Bible is technically a rational argument. It goes from evidence to conclusion.

              That is why we can argue that their evidence doesn’t stand up. If all they ever did was shrug their shoulders and insist that it was nothing but “faith” and faith makes no sense at all then there would be nothing to grab into and bite.

              • Scientifik
                Posted February 11, 2014 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

                “Many if not most religious people believe that when push comes to shove their faith is a reasonable faith and say so with alarming regularity. ”

                It’s a failure of their science teachers, who didn’t explain to them what it means to have a reasonable faith in something.

              • Posted February 12, 2014 at 7:21 am | Permalink

                I don’t think you can necessarily lay the blame on the teachers.

                I studied science through high school and university (I have a Ph.D. in physics) and never received any tuition in the philosophy of science, the scientific method, epistemology, critical thinking, &c. It was just never part of the curricula in the UK.

                Nonetheless, I agree with you that this should be taught.

                OTOH, there are stories from teachers who have taught critical thinking skills on their own initiative, only to receive complaints from parents and fellow teachers that the pupils were zealously applying those skills at home and in other classes … 

                /@

              • Sastra
                Posted February 12, 2014 at 7:48 am | Permalink

                I agree — any teacher at a public school who gave a philosophical lecture to young students on why the pragmatic reliance of scientific reasoning is better than the ‘having faith’ of religion would get their head handed to them (even in a philosophy class, I think.) They could skirt the issue and hope that the kids put 2 and 2 together, but nothing direct.

                The blame for the “reasonable faith” meme is to be placed on the heads of the churches and families specifically, and more generally on a culture which thinks that it’s “rude” to debate religion in the public square. Thus they shift back and forth between thinking the evidence for God/Christianity is solid and air-tight — and believing that the acceptance of the Truth is more about the heart than the head. Either way, atheism is always a sort of insanity.

              • ROO BOOKAROO
                Posted February 12, 2014 at 8:23 am | Permalink

                Ant:

                Very funny.
                So they should forbid reading the books of John Mackinnon Robertson, who insists on using rationalist analysis wherever it is possible (enough knowledge of the effective factors involved). Very dangerous for young UK kids.

              • Scientifik
                Posted February 12, 2014 at 9:12 am | Permalink

                “I agree — any teacher at a public school who gave a philosophical lecture to young students on why the pragmatic reliance of scientific reasoning is better than the ‘having faith’ of religion would get their head handed to them (even in a philosophy class, I think.) They could skirt the issue and hope that the kids put 2 and 2 together, but nothing direct.”

                Are you saying that science teachers are not allowed to teach their students about the scientific method, its power and scope?

              • Scientifik
                Posted February 12, 2014 at 9:16 am | Permalink

                “The blame for the “reasonable faith” meme is to be placed on the heads of the churches and families specifically”

                No. Sorry, but the blame rests solely on science teachers. If they educated their students properly, they would be immune to the theistic brainwashing.

              • Kevin Alexander
                Posted February 12, 2014 at 9:28 am | Permalink

                “Students should be taught that the scope of scientific process is very wide, as it can be used to anything from testing the effectiveness of new medicines, to the effectiveness of prayer.”

                I agree completely but in the real world it doesn’t get past the ‘should.’
                My daughter teaches math and science in a private girls school. If a twelve year old asks about god she knows what she ‘should’ say but, since she wants to keep her job, it’s NOMA all the way.

              • Scientifik
                Posted February 12, 2014 at 9:24 am | Permalink

                “OTOH, there are stories from teachers who have taught critical thinking skills on their own initiative, only to receive complaints from parents and fellow teachers that the pupils were zealously applying those skills at home and in other classes … ”

                Thank you for bolstering my point.

              • gbjames
                Posted February 12, 2014 at 9:42 am | Permalink

                “Sorry, but the blame rests solely on science teachers. If they educated their students properly, they would be immune to the theistic brainwashing.”

                This strikes me as a trifle naive. By the time kids get into a science class they have been marinating for years in delusional faith-sauce. Good and rigorous science teaching is critical but letting parents and churches off the hook here makes little sense to me.

              • ROO BOOKAROO
                Posted February 12, 2014 at 10:23 am | Permalink

                gbjames:

                “This strikes me as a trifle naive. By the time kids get into a science class they have been marinating for years in delusional faith-sauce. Good and rigorous science teaching is critical but letting parents and churches off the hook here makes little sense to me.”

                Agree with every word.

              • Scientifik
                Posted February 12, 2014 at 10:32 am | Permalink

                “By the time kids get into a science class they have been marinating for years in delusional faith-sauce.”

                I’m sorry, but that’s a very poor excuse. And by no means it absolves science teachers of their responsibility to equip their students in the firm understanding of the process of science, and its power.

                It pains me to say this, but science teachers have to take the blame for creating the hordes of scientifically naive people, whom pastors, quacks, and other fraudsters are all too eager to exploit.

              • gbjames
                Posted February 12, 2014 at 10:45 am | Permalink

                Scientifik: It is not a question of whether science teachers have a responsibility to teach science properly. Our dispute is whether parents and churches are “off the hook”. I think it is marginally nutty to deny these influences on a child’s understanding of their world and the tools they have to (mis)understand it.

              • Scientifik
                Posted February 12, 2014 at 11:01 am | Permalink

                gbjames,

                Well, I can’t blame pastors, rabbis, and imams for not teaching science properly (their job is to teach ignorance and superstition), or the scientifically illiterate parents who just don’t know better.

                The very root of the problem lies in the poor scientific education, which puts too much emphasis on passing down the scientific facts to students without explaining the process of science which makes all those facts possible.

              • gbjames
                Posted February 12, 2014 at 11:15 am | Permalink

                Can you blame them for laying the groundwork against which science teachers have to push? Can you blame them for providing the environment in which a science teacher who teaches well (by your and my agreed definition) will lose his/her job?

                Why are these not relevant considerations?

              • gbjames
                Posted February 12, 2014 at 11:17 am | Permalink

                (forgive my bad mixed metaphor!)

              • Scientifik
                Posted February 12, 2014 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

                Yes, we can blame religious ignoramuses for spreading ignorance, and criminals for committing crimes, but what’s the point?

                Sorry, I just can’t sympathize with science teachers who compromise on their work, and don’t stand firmly for the scientific method.

              • gbjames
                Posted February 12, 2014 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

                It is very noble of you to hold accountable the teachers as you do, without compromise of principle. I expect you are willing to provide livelihoods to those who lose their jobs for not following the NOMA line.

                I don’t know, but I suspect, that a very large number of science teachers (biology in particular, the others aren’t much affected) would like nothing better than to teach the way you and I would like them to teach. But you job and my job aren’t at risk.

              • Scientifik
                Posted February 12, 2014 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

                It’s unbelievable that in the 21st century science teachers still have to worry about what shamans think.

          • Scientifik
            Posted February 11, 2014 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

            If people knew what the scientific process is, they wouldn’t be deluding themselves that the Bible constitutes evidence.

            • Sastra
              Posted February 11, 2014 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

              Yes and no. The Christians who do know what the scientific process is seem to be intent on deluding themselves into thinking the Bible is unscientific evidence … but still very strong and persuasive because religion uses different methods.

              It’s not enough for someone to know what the scientific process is. They have to really understand its power and scope. Otherwise they reserve it for some facts and feel free to use Other Ways of Knowing on others.

              • Scientifik
                Posted February 11, 2014 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

                “It’s not enough for someone to know what the scientific process is. They have to really understand its power and scope.”

                Oh, absolutely. Students should be taught that the scope of scientific process is very wide, as it can be used to anything from testing the effectiveness of new medicines, to the effectiveness of prayer.

          • Scientifik
            Posted February 11, 2014 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

            “They’re not just sitting around deciding what to believe on whims from nowhere. They DO have evidence for their claims.”

            Nonsense, they are basing their entire belief system on the authority of one book. And authority means nothing in science.

            • Sastra
              Posted February 11, 2014 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

              Well, if they’re using a book then they’re not just sitting around deciding what to believe on whims from nowhere, are they? They’re thumping on a big fat Bible. We attack the authority of their authority, the book.

              Authority can mean something in science — but not because of prestige. Experts are respected only because of the method we know they followed. And part of the method is to attack the authority of the authorities whenever you can.

              It’s so hard to get people to recognize that when they believe that God said something in a book there are lots and lots of steps in that line of assertions. It’s humans all the way down.

              • Scientifik
                Posted February 11, 2014 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

                “Well, if they’re using a book then they’re not just sitting around deciding what to believe on whims from nowhere, are they? They’re thumping on a big fat Bible.”

                The book of Middle East mythology.

              • Scientifik
                Posted February 11, 2014 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

                “Authority can mean something in science — but not because of prestige. Experts are respected only because of the method we know they followed. ”

                Well, you really just proved my point. It’s all about the method, not authority.

  18. Posted February 11, 2014 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    “images of cats—into whose limited cognition…he projects intelligence and personality quite as blithely as his enemies project design into seashells”

    Gopnik must’ve missed the rational discussions that have appeared here on the intelligence, instincts, emotions, and physical abilities of cats and other animals. We’ve even discussed whether animals have a concept of death, and if so, what it is like. This is not religion or a substitute for religion. The mind that has discarded religion in favor of science and nature does not miss the imaginary world, since the real one is infinitely more interesting and beautiful.

    Gopnik has utterly failed to Spot The Nightjar.

    • Posted February 11, 2014 at 9:10 am | Permalink

      I hereby nominate “failed to Spot the Nightjar” as this site’s summary TM phrase for those who don’t get the point.

      • Posted February 11, 2014 at 9:17 am | Permalink

        I agree with Matthew. It is now the Official Website phrase for “doesn’t get it” or “fails miserably” or “is not even wrong.”

        • gbjames
          Posted February 11, 2014 at 9:44 am | Permalink

          Except…. it really is hard to spot the nightjar. What these guys are failing at is much easier.

          • TJR
            Posted February 11, 2014 at 9:52 am | Permalink

            Maybe “has failed to spot the nightjar even when it is circled in red” would be more accurate, perhaps shortened to FSNEWCR.

            Admittedly it loses something in clarification…..

        • Kevin Alexander
          Posted February 11, 2014 at 9:45 am | Permalink

          “spot the nightjar?”
          .
          I don’t get it.

          • Posted February 11, 2014 at 9:53 am | Permalink

            Put “nightjar” in the Search box top left.

            /@

            • Kevin Alexander
              Posted February 11, 2014 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

              The correct response was ‘I see what you did there”

              • Posted February 11, 2014 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

                Ah. That’s what comes from try to work at the same time I’m commenting. Or, um, vice versa.

                /@

              • Posted February 11, 2014 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

                *trying (That was just bad typing!)

        • Posted February 11, 2014 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

          But .. I never successfully spot the nightjar!

          (combination of lack of visual acuity and probably keener interest ..)
          :D

      • Kevin
        Posted February 11, 2014 at 10:20 am | Permalink

        I love that. ‘failed to spot the Nightjar’. It is right there in front of him. What is? Goethe-esque: What is, is. It is and it is all that is. Get it? It’s all there, right in front of everyone and he fails. Gopnik: such intellect, such ability to write and still fails to spot the nightjar.

        • Dave Lush
          Posted February 17, 2014 at 10:35 am | Permalink

          Nightjars are a lot tougher to spot than the falsity of theism, however.

  19. MrHolbyta
    Posted February 11, 2014 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    I’m not a fan of the way he conflates intuition with irrationality. Intuition is neither more nor less intrinsically rational than explicit reasoning. Intuition is just reasoning where our brain doesn’t show its work. Just as with math and science problems, not showing your work can lead to serious errors and miscalculations, but intuition is still a computational process ourr brain undertakes using actual concrete data. We may not know what all the data points are (that’s part of the skipped steps), ineed some of the data are things like small behavioral clues and patterns we aren’t aware we see. Nonetheless, when we employ our intuition, we are reasoning. We are simply at greater risk for error because we are not explicit in what factors into our reasoning.

    • TJR
      Posted February 11, 2014 at 9:56 am | Permalink

      Indeed, and it has been pointed out that mathematicians are quite happy to talk about using intuition, scientists less so.

      I’m pretty sure I overuse the word “intuitive” in my lectures, anyway.

    • Notagod
      Posted February 11, 2014 at 11:10 am | Permalink

      Thanks for making that point. I was wanting to ask where Gopnik thinks intuition comes from? My intuitions are often good and sometimes bad. Intuition seems to be a reflection of past experience, its the brain’s quick route to a decision but, is there anyone that hasn’t experienced incorrect intuitive decisions?

      Intuition might also be the back door to what is known to christians as faith but, when they put garbage in they get garbage out. The christian has faith that their god will heal their child. If the child gets well it reinforces the parent’s intuition (faith), if the child dies, well, they always have the excuse that their god wanted it that way. Thus, strengthening their unwarranted, dangerous, and wrong intuition (faith).

  20. NewEnglandBob
    Posted February 11, 2014 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    “The details of the new evolutionary theory are fairly irrelevant to the New Atheism…”

    Well, of course, just as the order of the periodic table is irrelevant to art appreciation.

    First, I am not so sure Gopnik understands evolution and second is that he does not understand that evolution does not “support” atheism but is consistent with it, unlike religion which often has dogma that is contradicted by evolutionary facts.

  21. squidmaster
    Posted February 11, 2014 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    I echo an earlier poster’s note that people often confuse emotionality, creativity, empathy and simply being an ethical person with ‘spirituality’. This is often driven by a person’s concern that my being an atheist must drive me to sociopathy. Since I don’t *appear* to be a sociopath (little do they know, bwahahaha), therefore, I must be ‘spiritual’. I get a chill every time I listen to the ‘Laudamus te’ from Bach’s Mass in B Minor. I love Handel’s Messiah. These are incredible works of art and I can appreciate the intent of the composers. But my admiration, chills and sometimes tears are not religious or spiritual experiences. They are simply appreciation of human genius.

    I must say, though, that this piece by Gopnik is worlds better than yesterday’s interview of Alan Platinga in the NYTimes (http://nyti.ms/1dF2IOS). I wonder, sometimes, who the audience for those ‘Stone’ articles are. The comments were virtually all critical. My favorite, though, was the woman who posted, ‘The comments are more interesting than the article’.

    • Kevin
      Posted February 11, 2014 at 10:29 am | Permalink

      I get similar un-admiration when I do yoga on a pool deck. Some think I look too meditative…too, god forbid, spiritual. Atheists are not allowed to be so peaceful in their brain-mind. Good grief.

      As for the NYT piece, that was utter trash and yes comments parsed through the sophistry well enough. Ugh, Plantinga = stubborn theistic pedantry that goes no where but circles.

  22. Larry Gay
    Posted February 11, 2014 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    The Gopnik family is unusually talented. I have always been able to learn more from Alison (who studies brain development in children)than Adam.

  23. Taz
    Posted February 11, 2014 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    “people who don’t go in for God but are enthusiasts for transcendent meaning”

    “They have some syncretic mixture of rituals: they polish menorahs or decorate Christmas trees…”

    Any such “rituals” I engage in have nothing to do with transcendent meaning and everything to do with friends and family.

    • Sastra
      Posted February 11, 2014 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

      Apparently “transcendent” is a word which is just as confusing as “spirituality.”

      The simple meaning of “transcend” is “to rise above or go beyond the normal limits of (something or other.)” Seems reasonable enough. No woo necessary.

      Ok. Now we have to define “normal limits.”

      So I suppose if someone enjoys kittens they’ve gone beyond the “normal limits” of doing no more than noting the physical existence of the bodies of kittens. They’ve gone into the emotional area where they react with pleasure. They’re atheists but they’ve “transcended” in a perfectly natural interpretation of the term.

      Or have we now shifted into dealing with the supernatural?

      I think religion has the capacity to discover Truth through fuzzy thinking alone.

  24. NoAstronomer
    Posted February 11, 2014 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    “It’s time for Gopnik to leave Manhattan and head for the rural South.”

    He doesn’t even need to go that far. Remember the instance of the yokels trying to burn down a billboard with a FFRF ad on it?

    That was a scant 50 miles from NYC in Pitman, New Jersey.

    Mike.

    • Kevin Alexander
      Posted February 11, 2014 at 9:49 am | Permalink

      Sorry Mike but from most Manhattanites perspective, Jersey is on the other side of the planet.

      • NoAstronomer
        Posted February 11, 2014 at 9:52 am | Permalink

        Which would make the rural South the far side of the moon…

  25. alexandra moffat
    Posted February 11, 2014 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    Please explain what is the diff between old and new atheists. I have been an atheist since I can remember and I’m 85. So which am I? I dont feel that my atheism has changed, except to perhaps become more fierce – and of course the evidence, as science enlarges, has increased.

    • Kevin Alexander
      Posted February 11, 2014 at 9:50 am | Permalink

      If you’re becoming more fierce then you are transitioning from old to new.

      • Richard Olson
        Posted February 11, 2014 at 10:50 am | Permalink

        Atheist’s who wrote during the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods were often more vitriolic than the writer’s identified as New Atheists. I expect this is due in no small part to the fact that when they lived religious authority routinely confined, tortured, and executed significant numbers, almost always employing horrifically barbaric methods, and they risked exactly the same fate for publicly defying that authority.

        Writer’s of atheist tracts 16th – 20th centuries differed from all previous writers on atheism only in that they had the benefit of the results of nascent scientific method, and their works were far more readily distributed via printing press technology combined with increasingly available rapid transportation methods.

        The writer’s identified as contemporary New Atheist leading proponents, while disparaging and dismissive of faith and religious beliefs, seldom if ever meet, much less exceed, the level of hostility in tone found in works produced during the previous several centuries.

        I think so-called New Atheists — another on a growing list of terms I wish would vanish — are only “new” because video and internet exposure brings them to the attention of some very threatened people whose knowledge of atheism past is insufficient to inform them of atheism present.

        • Larry Gay
          Posted February 11, 2014 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

          In the US the recent louder voice of atheism, I think, is largely a response to increased political power of religion, especially christianity. The increased power is felt in Washington, in our military and through town government into schools and almost every aspect of American life.

    • darrelle
      Posted February 11, 2014 at 11:15 am | Permalink

      Does that mean . . .

      . . . that you were Gnu before you even knew that there was a new?

    • Sastra
      Posted February 11, 2014 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

      New Atheism in a nutshell: “God” is a failed hypothesis; Faith is the underlying problem; and human beings are sturdy and capable of improvement in this area.

      New Atheism isn’t the opposite of “Old Atheism” (whatever that is.) It’s measured against Accomodationist Atheism. Or at least that’s my take.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted February 11, 2014 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

        I see the New Atheists as breaking the polite silence and criticizing religion for foolish as one would criticize any other idea or practice as foolish.

        • Sastra
          Posted February 11, 2014 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

          Yes — that defining aspect was meant to be implied by the “hypothesis” part, thre criticism of faith, and the mention of humans being “sturdy.”

          I was trying to do it in three short phrases ;)

        • Posted February 11, 2014 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

          But he is that different from Ingersoll or Twain or . . .

          /@

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted February 11, 2014 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

            I think for our times it’s a bit different. I was always taught not to mock someone else’s religion as it is impolite to make fun of someone’s faith. I don’t know where that started but it certainly was and is part of being polite today.

      • gbjames
        Posted February 11, 2014 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

        I like your take, Sastra.

      • Kevin
        Posted February 11, 2014 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

        Well said. New Atheism: give humans a chance and we will show you what we can do.

      • H.H.
        Posted February 11, 2014 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

        New Atheism in a nutshell: “God” is a failed hypothesis

        Yes, I think the major difference between “new” atheists and the old is our insistence that the question of God’s existence should be treated as essentially a scientific one. It’s a hypothesis about our world, and it succeeds or fails on the evidence. Faith has no place in the matter.

  26. Ken Pidcock
    Posted February 11, 2014 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    I read the piece rather differently. Which is easy enough to do, because it was rather unfocused. In any event, I thought that Gopnik was pretty adamant that the decline of faith is a good thing and that we would do well to resist backsliding on account of aesthetics.

  27. Posted February 11, 2014 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    Two things:
    1) “Our penchants and loves are the result of our experiences and genes, and often not the result of reflection but simply instinctive feelings, while one can indeed reflect on whether the tenets of one’s faith are correct.”

    Yes! This is wonderful. Religion says something about the universe which may be right or wrong. It’s a claim about truth.

    My likes and dislikes are a feature of the universe: someone can believe I like X or Y and be wrong or right. But the dislike/like itself cannot be reasoned into oblivion, just as I cannot convince the sun that it should not exist.

    2) Why not a blog?

    • Larry Gay
      Posted February 11, 2014 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

      Jerry conceives of WEIT as a website and has done a very good job of it for several years now.

      • Posted February 11, 2014 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

        No doubt. It’s one of my favourite sites. But it seems a blog and I don’t think that’s a bad thing…

        • gbjames
          Posted February 11, 2014 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

          Your mama should wash that mouth out with soap!

  28. Posted February 11, 2014 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    It is important to recognizmany commentators seem to, that between the rational and the irrational lies the *arational*. E.g. one’s preference for vanilla Ice cream over chocolate is simply not subject to rationality. It doesn’t make sense then to call it ”irrational”. Now, if (e.g.) it were to be shown that vanilla was mildly toxic and continued consumption would lead to death, then one could claim a preference for it was irrational.

    • Sastra
      Posted February 11, 2014 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

      Exactly. Rather than “arational” I prefer the term “nonrational.” The nonrational involves those goals, preferences, emotions, or aesthetics which aren’t matters of discerning true or false, or right or wrong. They just are.

      If you love someone, that is neither rational nor irrational. It’s a feeling, a reaction. The love itself is nonrational.

      However, we can still talk reasonably about love which is “rational” and love which is “irrational.” We do this by bringing in the reasons and goals of the lover and seeing if they ‘fit’ the object which they love or the situation they’re in. It may not be true that the person you love is faithful; you may not be right about “love conquering all” when the challenges are intractable enough.

      I think the religious/spiritual have a lot of problem with making a distinction between ‘irrational’ and ‘nonrational.’ Thus the “Spock” image of the atheist: someone who feels no emotions, values no aesthetics, appreciates no relationships — or would be like that if they were consistent!

      If atheists do care about such things, it must be a slip. It seems they can’t do without religion after all!

      I hate that argument. It’s bigoted. It’s like insisting that black people are intrinsically stupid and then explaining any and all evidence to the contrary as “they’re acting white.”

      It’s an irrational argument.

  29. Posted February 11, 2014 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    With respect to atheists who worship cats and put up Christmas trees and the like, Gopnik is missing the critical distinction between fanciful play and serious delusion.

    A Pastafarian knows the whole thing is satire. A Catholic is certain it’s all true. Both get similar types of enjoyment out of the superficialities; then again, so do all humans. The difference is in knowing that you’re fooling yourself or not.

    Besides, there are very real reasons to worship cats or the Sun or what-not. You’re not going to magically change the world, of course, but the actions associated with atheistic types of worship have real and beneficial consequences: cats who live longer and happier lives, brighter homes powered by clean energy, and so on.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted February 11, 2014 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

      He’s also incorrectly concluding that just because we know we’re soulless doesn’t mean we lose the characteristics incorrectly attributed to have a soul. We feel emotions and enjoy things that make us happy.

      • Posted February 11, 2014 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

        Any time somebody tries to disclaim the existence of soul or its potential for profound emotional impact on atheists, I like to pull up some empirical evidence to the contrary.

        Cheers,

        b&

    • Kevin
      Posted February 11, 2014 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

      I can think of no songwriters or musicians who did not worship someone or many persons when they grew into their art. Worship is part of what makes art…art.

      • gbjames
        Posted February 11, 2014 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

        I hope you are joking here regarding
        “worship”. If not.

        • Posted February 11, 2014 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

          Ah! Greydon Square is there!

          /@

        • Posted February 11, 2014 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

          Assuming Kevin is using a secular definition of, “worship,” he’s absolutely right. For me as a young trumpeter, it was Bud Herseth, amongst others….

          b&

          • Kevin
            Posted February 11, 2014 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

            Yes, what Ben says.

            Imagine Jeff Buckley lionizing his heroes. Imagine teenage Zappa filling his every cell with Varese. Imagine them all and your own earliest recollection of hearing sounds that transformed your life. Nothing religious about that kind of worship.

  30. Pete Cockerell
    Posted February 11, 2014 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    It seems that the more people turn away from religion, the harder some try to cover a whole raft of unrelated human behaviors with the blanket of “faith”. What’s so incomprehensible to me is that many of these proponents of “Ah, but isn’t that just your own kind of religion?” proclaim themselves to be non-believers!

    I guess you know religion is in trouble when people try to equate the enjoyment of LOLCats with the need to believe in someone bigger than Phil just to get through the day.

  31. SESE
    Posted February 11, 2014 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    There is line from a Vienna Teng lyric that seems to fit well here:
    Let your faith die.
    Bring your wonder.

  32. Posted February 11, 2014 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, I thank Ceiling Cat daily for your website. I believe we are in the midst of a revolution that will marginalize religious lunacy, and we have people like yourself and the Four Horsemen to thank for it. For me, the revolution began in an airport during a business trip in 2004. I was searching around for something to read on the plane and there was The End of Faith. It was like a jolt of electricity to hear Sam verbalize so clearly all the things I had thought for years. Keep up the good work…

    • Cliff Melick
      Posted February 11, 2014 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

      Interesting. I was in an airport going on vacation looking for something to read in the airport bookstore, and latched on to Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Spurred my transition from an apathetic atheist to a more active one. Moral: Never underestimate the power of an airport.

      • Posted February 12, 2014 at 7:40 am | Permalink

        …and the power of trenchant writing. For everyone who has actually read books like TGD there are thousands more who haven’t, yet the ideas unleashed by these books slowly percolate upwards into public consciousness. The foolishness of religion is becoming more evident daily and I couldn’t be happier.

  33. gluonspring
    Posted February 11, 2014 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    “Why, if the noes indeed had it, did they suddenly have to be so loud?”

    Because the background roar of religion is still so deafening.

  34. ROO BOOKAROO
    Posted February 11, 2014 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    Scientifik:

    “If people don’t understand the underlying process of science, they are forced to accept its findings on faith.”

    You probably mean “as beliefs.”

    But even if people have an understanding of the scientific method, they are forced to accept MOST findings as beliefs.

    I can verify the evidence of a scientific finding in a very narrow area of my limited life experience. All the rest I have to accept “on faith” as you say, “as beliefs,” which seems to me the more correct term.

    Even a top scientist, be it Einstein or Dawkins, can verify evidence only in his specialty field, and has to TRUST all other experts in their fields.

    Even at the time of Aristotle (325 BC) knowledge was too extensive for any man to physically check the evidence on everything. His school (the famous “Lyceum”) already had 10,000 manuscripts. None of the students had read them all.

    Most of our scientific knowledge consists of beliefs in other people’s findings and representations. (The electron? The Andromeda galaxy? The speed of light? The number of genes on a given DNA?)

    The interesting question goes beyond understanding the scientific method, but how to TRUST the millions of findings we have NO WAY of ever verifying personally.

    This is where the organization of the scientific world comes into play, its system of distribution of findings (books, journals, universities, professional scientific societies, peer reviews, etc.), all aimed at consolidating and strengthening the foundations of TRUST in other people’s findings.

    Anyway we cut it, we cannot avoid our limitations to verification, and are condemned to know most things AS BELIEFS.

    But they are justified beliefs, based on many other factors, formation of experts, trustworthiness of experts, verification of experts’ communications, inner coherence and consistency of the body of knowledge in a given field, etc…

    This, in practice, is the most important aspect of the diffusion and dissemination of knowledge, including in schools.
    The key question is: Spotting the genuine experts from the fraudsters and charlatans. Back to the old question the ancient Greeks were asking: how to tell the true from the false.

    • The Militant One
      Posted February 12, 2014 at 9:21 am | Permalink

      This brings us back to Scientifik’s point about teaching the scientific method. The most important thing would to be to teach epistemology, of which the scientific method is part. As was pointed out, delusionals feel that they have plenty of “evidence” to support their delusions, but it’s all invalid. A man I know holds the position that the only worthwhile discussion that believers and nonbelievers can have is about epistemology – everything else is pointless. Until a believer stops accepting nonsense as evidence, you are wasting your time trying to hold a rational discussion with them.

      • Posted February 12, 2014 at 10:23 am | Permalink

        You need a metaphysics discussion too. Otherwise you run into Plantinga’s “sensus divinitatus” and other nonsense. Or put more generally, metaphysics constrains epistemology (somewhat) so working on that too is necessary (but not sufficient).

  35. Posted February 12, 2014 at 7:16 am | Permalink

    You can argue or differ & still be friends.

  36. ROO BOOKAROO
    Posted February 12, 2014 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    Scientifik:

    “It pains me to say this, but science teachers have to take the blame for creating the hordes of scientifically naive people, whom pastors, quacks, and other fraudsters are all too eager to exploit.”

    Thomas Edison held that the time line was the reverse.

    Convincing believers brainwashed by their dearest ones and most trustred ones since babyhood that they live in a fantastic make-believe universe of images and concepts force-fed since infancy is absolutely impossible through just lectures of anonymous teachers or books borrowed from the library.

    Thomas Edison had already said it clearly: “The great trouble is that the preachers get the children from six to seven years of age and then it is almost impossible to do anything with them.”

    During those early critical years when the brain is a window open to anything and everything, parents and priests have the absolute power of imposing their credo on any young child: find God, accept Jesus, fill your heart with joy, etc..all the simple beliefs expressed every day, before every meal, and while going to bed.
    And this unceasing repetition of the same basic sentences to the faithful has gone on for days, years, centuries, to the point all the credo came to seem to be a natural given, just like air or water.

    Some indoctrinators are brave enough to describe God’s psychology as if they had received the manual on how to deal with God. Not even wondering once why should there be just one god, and not many gods as the Greeks and Romans had it, why should this be a “He”, a kind of superman in fact, so no, there’s no discussing against the Church’s propaganda and dogmas with firm believers.

    Something stronger than just school teachers’ lectures are needed. Some personal existential crisis.

    For Charles Darwin, he had to go through a life-changing traumatic loss: the death of his beloved daughter, to make him abandon any Christian belief in a loving Christ and a just God.

    For many people, the change of sides from childhood beliefs to doubt and denial is more gradual, and takes many years, if not a lifetime.

    Just look at all those honest Christians who slowly abandoned their faith and realized they were victims of a major illusion and fraud: Herman Reimarus, Ralph Emerson, David Strauss, Ernest Renan, Kersey Graves, Edwin Johnson, Joseph McCabe, Arthur Drews, Rudolf Bultmann, Joseph Wheless, George Albert Wells, Hermann Detering, Gerd Lüdemann, Robert Price, Tom Harpur, Bart Ehrman, etc…

    They all started with strong Christian beliefs since infancy, many became even priests and knew the story inside out with all the possible arguments and the scholarship to support them. Some became able scientists, and even top experts in their field.

    And, when it happened, it is only through their own life-long gestation of doubt that they gradually abandoned their Christian beliefs in Christ the Redeemer, or God the all-lover of mankind.
    For Einstein, a non-Christian, it was much simpler: “The Bible is only fairy tales for adults.”

    So all this nagging and lecturing, and our postings here are interesting, as non-believers have to articulate in words their assumptions and denials. But infancy beliefs have a strong BIOLOGICAL predisposition to stick into lifelong beliefs. Words are not enough to undo them.

  37. Posted February 12, 2014 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    I think the big issue here is conflating religion with the components, or cognitive biases if you will, that make religion attractive in the first place.

    First, we would have to define what we mean by “religion”. If you define religion as “interacting with and trying to gain favor with superempirical agents” then it seems like it would be non-controversial that religion might disappear one day, as it seems children need to be taught to defer to supernatural explanations.

    If you define religion in some other way, then I think that not only will “religion” never go away, but it also means that a bunch of stuff that we don’t associate with religion would also be considered “religion”. Like football games, rock concerts, cults of personality, being a Democrat/Republican, etc.

    Religion, just like rock concerts or cheesecake, are things that humans invented. And if we invented it, then we can live without it. Indeed, we can create something better that tickles the same circuits but with healthier outcomes.

  38. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted February 12, 2014 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    Gopnik:

    Centered on the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, the New Atheists were polemicists

    Hmmm, so sorry to hear of Dawkins’ death. He won’t get a chance to finish (and hopefully, improve) his autobiography. Sad to hear of JAC’s demise too. Hili will be so discombobulated.

  39. Posted February 14, 2014 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    Mr Gopnik, I was an atheist, loud and insistent, long before I had ever heard of the name Richard Dawkins.

    Mr Gopnik sounds like just another quantum mysticist; another in a long line of purveyors of the human-as-vessel-of-faith fallacy. He is STILL desperately trying to create _meaning_ and _purpose_ in his cosmos out of nothing but the discrete chemical pathways of our head organs.

    Religion hijacked natural, instinctive, and learned moral behaviors and recast them to serve their narrative. And you need know nothing else about it.

  40. Jeff
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

    Is Gopnik’s article really that contentious? I found it as generous as it was mild.
    And are we that ungenerous? Gopnik (and Wood before him, on this site) seem to suggest that there are some elements of atheism in need of leavening or excising. Is that really that remarkable or contentious? Is any and all done that helps to promote Atheism a good? I hope not.
    Obviously you know the unending majesty and surprise that Science can provide. Surely you understand that many lack the aptitude or rigor to adopt this system. Can you really fault those for adopting something grand in its place, be it football, God, or gardening? Because we don’t find them ‘grand’ does that negate the experience? Must we really all be of this one specific mind? Would (relative) utopias suddenly sprout?

    You also seem to scoff at Wood’s and Gopnik’s “book” smarts- literature has no place on this stage? Perhaps you caught that recent scientific study correlating lit-readers with higher degrees of empathy. Many currencies in the world, with science certainly not being the least, but I would hope we could all agree that empathy is the one we are in direst need of.

  41. Jim Vaughan
    Posted February 15, 2014 at 3:56 am | Permalink

    I like what Adam Gopnik says…

    There is some explaining to do as to why believers are on average physically and mentally healthier, happier, live longer, do better educationally etc. The research findings are very clear.

    What I hate about any belief system is when it becomes dogmatically certain of itself. Adam Gopnik is opening up that crucial space for doubt.

    • Posted February 15, 2014 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

      “There is some explaining to do as to why believers are on average physically and mentally healthier, happier, live longer, do better educationally etc. The research findings are very clear.”

      I could quote Shaw (IIRC): “The fact that a believer may be happier than an atheist is no more to the point than the fact that a drunk man may be happier than a sober one.”

      But I’d rather point out that just like the beliefs that #include was one or more of {lazy,violent,immoral,stupid,weak,etc.} which all had “very clear research findings”, this is just prejudiced codswallop.

      • Posted February 15, 2014 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

        Eh, formatting got mangled: should say “beliefs that (insert minority group)…”

      • Jim Vaughan
        Posted February 15, 2014 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

        Like most arguments from analogy, Shaw’s argument doesn’t quite work here. What is “to the point” is the combination of happier AND healthier AND greater longevity etc. which cannot be claimed for being drunk.

        Likewise, unlike “lazy, violent,immoral, stupid, weak” which are simply personal “prejudiced” opinions (usually of someone else), and therefore of little value, self reported measures of happiness are of value as a measurable subjective state, e.g. as “life satisfaction” – and frequently used in psychological tests.

        Measures of health, longevity, and educational achievement are objectively
        measurable, and therefore cannot be dismissed as “prejudiced codswallop”.
        Argument by analogy in both cases leads into fallacy.

        There’s lots of research out there by people like Harold Koenig or David Myers, and several polls by Gallup and others. Correlation doesn’t prove causation of course, but….

        • GordonHide
          Posted February 27, 2014 at 6:29 am | Permalink

          I would say that research carried out to demonstrate the efficacy of being religious are probably flawed. While it might be true the the religious in the US are happier and healthier the causative reasons for this are more likely to be:

          If you are a member of the majority group in society rather than one of the disadvantaged minorities you are likely to get a positive effect on your sense of wellbeing with a consequent effect on health, happiness and achievement.

          If you know where you are going in life with a widely held and confident world view you are probably more focused and less subject to doubt and indecision. This to will have an effect on your general wellbeing.

          I dare say that if the same surveys had been done on committed National Socialists in Germany in 1938 similar results would have been achieved.

          And finally I might say whenever scientific research is well funded by organisations in the hope of discovering that which they would like to be true, (that is that which props up an irrational world view), the effect is corrosive of the integrity of science.

          • Jim Vaughan
            Posted February 28, 2014 at 2:10 am | Permalink

            This may be a partial explanation, but certainly isn’t the whole story.
            Other researchers have found strong correlations in countries outside the US e.g.

            http://www.res.org.uk/SpringboardWebApp/userfiles/res/file/Conference/2008/Press/clark-lelkes.pdf

            “Religious people across Britain and Europe are likely to be happier than atheists or agnostics. That is one of the findings of new research by Professor Andrew Clark and Dr Orsolya Lelkes presented at the Royal Economic Society’s 2008 annual conference.”  

            I think you are correct in so far as the correlation in richer countries is much weaker –  but research universally seems to show religion provides some protection against trauma or unhappiness due to adverse circumstances.

            Ed Diener, Louis Tay, David G. Myers. The religion paradox: If religion makes people happy, why are so many dropping out? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2011; DOI: 10.1037

            “In societies under stress, those who are religious outnumber — and are happier than — their nonreligious counterparts. Where peace and plenty are the norm, however, religious participation is lower and people are happier whether or not they are religious, the researchers found.”

            There are probably many positive contributing factors to religion e.g. greater social involvement etc. which I think we should acknowledge. Otherwise we are just special pleading.

  42. Posted February 25, 2014 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

    ” religion will always be with us”

    I suspect that humans will always have some form of religion.

    But then, I am a pessimist.

  43. jack
    Posted February 27, 2014 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

    I was glad to find this reply by Mr. Coyne. I’ve enjoyed Mr. Gopnik’s pieces in the past but found this latest New Yorker one wrongheaded, misleading, and insubstantial.
    For his own benefit, I would direct Gopnik to the wealth of writing and video presentations by Coyne, Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, Harris, and Krauss on the subject of religion.
    Until he does, and gives the subject more, and deeper, thinking he would in my opinion be well advised to stick with the usual politically correct dinner party conversation type subjects that the New Yorker finds appropriate.

  44. jack
    Posted February 28, 2014 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    Thanks so much to all the commenters here (with the possible exception of the bit about the health and happiness of the religious, which I think was refuted nicely by GordonHide).
    I found the vapidity of AG’s piece so enervating that I searched for some light to cheer me up and here it is! What outstanding thinking by so many.
    Thank you.

    • Jim Vaughan
      Posted March 1, 2014 at 5:35 am | Permalink

      Michael Shermer (skeptic.org) writes at length in “The Believing Mind” about the dangers of various biases – including confirmation bias.

      Our “opinion” is irrelevant – its what the research (e.g. on correlations between religion and happiness/longevity/health etc.) reveals. That is science.

  45. Oscar
    Posted May 3, 2014 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    Reading all this made me think of my favorite Oscar Wilde quote: “The advantage of the emotions is that they lead us astray.” I’m not sure there is anything greater than Oscar Wilde, not even me.


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