A slew of apologists and atheist butters in The New Statesman

The New Statesman, like other British publications including the Guardian, has recently decided to solicit some pushback against New Atheism (NA).  It includes the latest trope in critiques of NA: they decry it on the grounds that we don’t suggest ways to meet the human needs satisfied by religion.  Most of the anti-NA pieces never tout the successes of the NA “movement,” especially the mainstreaming of atheism, which has allowed many people, including some preachers, to openly declare their disbelief; nor do those pieces often deal with two important points: 1) if the tenets of religion are untrue, how valid is it to base one’s existence, morality, and behavior on lies?; and 2) do the benefits of religion outweigh its problems? The latter is a hard calculus; Dennett thinks that religion’s effect on society may be generally good (at least that’s my take on his view), while I think that we can have all the benefits of religion, and none of its problems, by creating secular societies, and thus would be better off without it.

As for whether atheism can fill that notorious “God-shaped hole,” well, it obviously can. Look at Sweden and Denmark—indeed, much of northern Europe—where atheism is common.  And yet the inhabitants are not casting about wildly for something to replace faith.  To some extent the state has met those needs, by providing health care, help for the sick and aged, social services, unemployment, maternity/paternity leave, and so on.  And people’s “needs” to engage with other humans seem to have been met in those countries as well.  As for the “need” to think that you’ll live on after death, well, I don’t think it’s our responsibility to replace such a lie, and it would be impossible to do so anyway.

At any rate, it’s my opinion that as religion wanes—and I think that’s inevitable—those ‘needs’ will be met by secular organizations and practices. Any attempts to set them up in advance, as in Alain de Botton’s prescriptions below, are artificial and will be ineffectual.  My view is that we should first cut out the cancer of religion, and then administer what plastic surgery we can to the holes that remain.

At any rate, in a piece called “After God: What can atheists learn from believers?“, the New Statesmen has collected five notables who criticize NA and have published mini-essays on why faith is okay. You need to read this yourself rather than just the summaries I give below, but here’s a brief guidelines to the beefs of the faithful and faitheists.

First, part of the invidious introduction by Alan Derbyshire:

Today’s New Atheists –Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens principal among them – are the heirs of Bentham, rather than Coleridge. For them, religion – or the great monotheistic faiths, at any rate – are bundles of beliefs (about the existence of a supernatural being, the origins of the universe and so on) whose claims to truth don’t stand up to rational scrutiny. And once the falsity of those beliefs has been established, they imply, there is nothing much left to say.

The New Atheists remind one of Edward Gibbon, who said of a visit to the cathedral at Chartres: “I paused only to dart a look at the stately pile of superstition and passed on.” They glance at the stately pile of story and myth bequeathed to humanity by religion and quickly move on, pausing only to ask of the benighted millions who continue to profess one faith or another that they keep their beliefs to themselves and don’t demand that they be heard in the public square.

Lately, however, we have begun to hear from atheists or non-believers who strike a rather different, less belligerent tone. These “New, New Atheists”, to borrow the physicist Jim Al-Khalili’s phrase, are the inheritors of Coleridge. They separate their atheism from their secularism and argue that a secular state need not demand of the religious that they put their most cherished beliefs to one side when they enter public debate; only that they shouldn’t expect those beliefs to be accepted without scepticism.

They treat religious stories differently, too – as a treasure trove to be plundered, in the case of Alain de Botton, or, in the case of the self-described “after-religionist” Richard Holloway, as myths that continue to speak to the human condition.

And then the “new, new atheists”:

Alain de Botton, “We have too often secularised badly.”  If you’ve read de Botton, you’ll already know what he’s saying. We need to replace with secular alternatives the accoutrements of religion that one finds in church; to wit: “New priests,” “new gospels,” and “new churches.”

For the new priests, he suggests psychotherapists, although he admits their deficiencies. And of course they’re not free, something he doesn’t mention!

For “new gospels,” he suggests using great secular books, poems, and music, but adds that this hasn’t worked because of academia: “Universities are entirely uninterested in training students to use culture as a repertoire of wisdom – a source that can prove of solace to us when confronted by the infinite challenges of existence, from a tyrannical employer to a fatal lesion on our liver.” In other words, we’re not moralistic and didactic enough.  I agree that we need to expose students to a diversity of areas: philosophy, literature, art, and so on, but I don’t know if our job is to show students how these help them live a better life. They can find that out themselves if they’re taught properly. I’m a professor, not a priest.

For “new churches” de Botton suggests, for instance, that art museums need to be more moralistic and didactic as well: they should mount exhibits in a way that fosters “consolation, meaning, community, and redemption.” That seems smarmy to me, for it really means that art curators function as moralists.  In fact, de Botton’s whole program smacks of condescension and moralism.  And whose moralism will be reflected in the exhibits?

*****

Francis Spufford: “The world cannot be disenchanted.” His message is that religion is here to stay, that New Atheists are guilty of scientism, and that we should distinguish between religions that are bad and those that are not so bad (as if we don’t already!). This is a boring and shopworn piece, as we’ve come to expect from Spufford. Some quotes:

It is reassuring, in a way, to find this ancient continuity at work in the sensibility of Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Jerry Coyne. It kind of makes up for their willed ignorance of all the emotional and intellectual structures of faith (as opposed to the will-o’-the-wisp “popery” in their heads). Dawkins may be showing indifference to every word ever written about the differences between polytheism and monotheism when he declares that Yahweh is the same as Odin, and that all he wants “is one god less” – but he is also keeping up a 400-year-old campaign against idolatry. That distant sound you hear is Oliver Cromwell applauding.

However, the project is impossible – as impossible for the New Atheists as for every previous builder of a purified New Jerusalem. Direct, unmediated apprehension of truth is not available, except in the effortful special case of science. That gunk the New Atheists scrub at so assiduously is the inevitable matter of human culture, of imagination. People secrete it, necessarily, faster than it can be removed. Metaphors solidify into stories wherever the reformers’ backs are turned. We’ll never arrive at the Year Zero where everything means only what science says it should. Religion being a thing that humans as a species do continuously, it seems unlikely that we’ll stop, any more than we’ll stop making music, laws, poetry or non-utilitarian clothes to wear. Imagination grows as fast as bamboo in the rain. The world cannot be disenchanted. Even advocacy for disenchantment becomes, inexorably, comically, an enchantment of its own, with prophets, with heresies and with its own pious mythography.

I think our recent, tentative turn away from the burning simplicities of The God Delusion (and the like) represents a recognition of this. Alain de Botton’s discovery in religion of virtues and beauties that an atheist might want is an anti-puritan move, a reconciliation of unbelief with the sprouting, curling, twining fecundity of culture. I don’t expect the puritan call will lose its appeal to the young and the zealous, but maybe we are entering a phase of greater tolerance in which, having abandoned the impossible task of trying to abolish religion, atheists might be able to apply themselves to the rather more useful task of distinguishing between kinds that want to damn you and kinds that don’t.

*****

Jim Al-Khalili, “Believing in a god is fine by me.” Khalili, the new head of the Humanist Association, has actually written a decent piece. And in stark contrast to people like Spufford, he argues that NA is winning. His argument is now that atheism is “mainstream” (well, Jim, we have a long way to go in the U.S.), we can afford to be more charitable to the faithful by taking a “softer approach.” Some quotes:

Believing in a god is fine by me, if it is important to you. If you firmly believe this as an ontological truth, then it is rather pointless having a theological debate about it. But what I, and many other atheists, take issue with is the arrogant attitude that religious faith is the only means of providing us with a moral compass – that society dissolves without faith into a hedonistic, anarchic, amoral, self-gratifying decadence. This is not only nonsense, but intellectually lazy.

We still have a long way to go if we are to rid the world of the bigoted attitudes held and injustices carried out in the name of religion. But the tide is turning. I would argue that to be an atheist in Britain today is so mainstream that we can afford to become less strident in our criticism and more tolerant of those with a faith. I say this not because I am less committed to my secular views or because I have weaker conviction than others, but because I believe we are winning the argument. We should not have to defend our atheism any longer.

. . .Our society is no longer predominantly religious. Atheists are the mainstream. This is precisely why we should set out our stall to be more tolerant and inclusive. . . we can often be more effective in getting our message across with a softer approach. The New Atheists have laid the foundations; maybe it is time now for the “New, New Atheists”.

I am well aware that some other atheists would call me an accommodationist. However, this patronising term needs to be replaced, so I have thought long and hard in search of an alternative – a more appropriate one to define my brand of atheism – until I realised it has been under my nose all the time: it is called being a humanist.

*****

Karen Armstrong, “The biblical God is a starter kit.”  This is the usual feel-good nonsense that Armstrong is famous for producing. Her thesis is that you can’t understand religion unless you’re religious: “If you don’t do religion, you don’t get it,” she argues.  Armstrong sees religion as a useful guide to life and not at all dependent on truth claims:

Throughout history, however, many people have been content with a personalized deity, yet not because they “believed” in it but because they learned to behave – ritually and ethically – in a way that made it a reality. Religion is a form of practical knowledge, like driving or dancing. You cannot learn to drive by reading the car manual or the Highway Code; you have to get into the vehicle and learn to manipulate the brakes.

. . . Religion, too, is a practical discipline in which we learn new capacities of mind and heart. Like premodern philosophy, it was not the quest for an abstract truth but a practical way of life. Usually religion is about doing things and it is hard work.

The Trinity was not a “mystery” because it was irrational mumbo-jumbo. It was an “initiation” (musterion), which introduced Greek-speaking early Christians to a new way of thinking about the divine, a meditative exercise in which the mind swung in a disciplined way from what you thought you knew about God to the ineffable reality. . . Trinity was, therefore, an activity rather than a metaphysical truth in which one credulously “believed”. It is probably because most western Christians have not been instructed in this exercise that the Trinity remains pointless, incomprehensible, and even absurd.

. . . If you don’t do religion, you don’t get it. In the modern period, however, we have turned faith into a head-trip.

Credo ut intellegam – I commit myself in order that I may understand,” said Saint Anselm (1033-1109). In the late 17th century, the English word “belief” changed its meaning and became the intellectual acceptance of a somewhat dubious proposition. Religious people now think that they have to “believe” a set of incomprehensible doctrines before embarking on a religious way of life. This makes no sense. On the contrary, faith demands a disciplined and practical transcendence of egotism, a “stepping outside” the self which brings intimations of transcendent meaning that makes sense of our flawed and tragic world.

What a bunch of nonsense! We’re suppose to commit ourselves to faith, in the complete absence of evidence, so that we can find something that makes sense of our world? As biologist Will Provine said, we might as well “check our brains at the church house door.”  What makes Armstrong think that religion is a better guide to making sense of the world, or helping us live, than is secular reason and humanism?  And the stuff about religion not resting on epistemic claims is total nonsense. Maybe for people like Armstrong it does, but what about those many Americans and Muslims who are young-earth creationists, or, for Christians, think that Jesus was resurrected and you can’t go to heaven unless you accept him as a savior?

No thank you, Ms. Armstrong: I’d rather retain my reason and figure out ways to live that don’t depend on the flawed morality of faith. Are Catholicism and Islam good “practical disciplines in which we learn new capacities of mind and heart”?  Forgive me if I abjure those “disciplines.”  Those “new capacities” include marginalizing women and gays, as well as policing our sex lives and instilling guilt and fear in children.

Armstrong, is, in effect, a secular humanist who for some reason must affix the language of faith to her nonbelief.  She is intellectually disingenuous, and I’m really puzzled why she’s so popular.

*****

Richard Holloway, “The word to grasp her is myth”. While admitting that religion makes no epistemic sense—that neither natural nor revealed theology gives good evidence for a god—Holloway nevertheless thinks that somehow atheism is deficient in lacking myths. (Note that Holloway was the bishop of Edinburgh until 2000, but admits below that there probably isn’t a god.)

A good approach here is not to try to stop the revelation argument from going round and round but to ask a different question, thus: given that there probably is no God, where did all this stuff come from? To which the obvious answer is that it came from us. All these sacred texts are creations of the human imagination, works of art crafted by us to convey meaning through story.

So it’s a mistake to do what most unbelievers usually do at this point, which is to dismiss them as fairy tales and thereby deprive themselves of a rich resource for exploring the heights and depths of the human condition. The word to grasp here is myth: a myth is a story that encodes but does not necessarily explain a universal human experience.

The wrong question to ask of a myth is whether it is true or false. The right question is whether it is living or dead, whether it still speaks to our condition. That is why, among all the true believers in church this Easter, there will be thousands of others who are there because they need, yet again, to express the hope that good need not always be defeated by evil.

This is the statement of someone who can’t completely rid himself of his faith.  All of us hope that evil can be dispelled, and many secularists work towards it (viz., Doctors without Borders). I’m not sure what “myths” Holloway thinks we need as secularists, or whether we really need any myths to sustain our existence.

This is a general problem with all of those who invoke a “God-shaped hole.” Very often they fail to lay out the “essential human needs” they see as filled by religion, and almost always fail to show that many of those needs can be met in a secular society.  Of course we can’t promise that prayer will work, or that there will be an afterlife, but I can’t bring myself to humor such nonsense. If people want to believe them, fine, but when they start monkeying about with my society based on such fictions, I have a right to criticize them.  I don’t hate religious people in general, but I do despise many of their ideas—particularly the ones, like hatred of gays and condoms—that are irrational and infringe on the freedom of others. And those things, too, will stay with us so long as religion (contra Armstrong) rests on truth claims and arguments about what God “wants.”

As for filling those God-shaped holes, I feel, as I said above, that this will happen naturally as religion goes away, like a hole in the beach eventually fills with water. I think it’s a mistake to first propose secular replacements for religion and then expect people, on that basis, to give up their faith.  What would be their motivation?

We should keep the heat on the false ideas of faith—and that includes “militants” like Dawkins as well as “softies” like Al-Khalili—and, as faith wanes, people will find other things to replace it. After all, many readers of this site were once religious, and have “tried out religion” in the way Armstrong suggests.  But that bicycle didn’t work for them. Indeed, many of us have found that “we have no need of that hypothesis,” and can nevertheless have fulfilled lives without it.

58 Comments

  1. Posted March 29, 2013 at 7:06 am | Permalink

    I don’t get it. The complaint against public atheism seems to be like saying that if we atheists find reason to think the building we are all of us (the nonreligious and the religious) in is about to collapse, keep it to yourself unless and until you have a solution to the problem.

    • Posted March 29, 2013 at 11:28 am | Permalink

      Here’s a good analogy: You’re onboard a train leaving the station, and as you watch the platform, a number of tardy people rush up toward the train, then slump their shoulders and express anguish on their faces!! So sad, just missed the train! Cannot be helped!

      And the remedy? Instead of a 14:05 departure time (24-hr clock), it should be 14:10, so all the people who just missed the train can make it onboard!!

      Never mind that the departure time had already been shifted from 14:00 to 14:05 to be compassionate toward the tardy.

      Look, this emphasis on the “strident schedule time” is all wrong. That is not the root cause of tardiness, and the “schedule time” is looking at the wrong problem.

  2. Peter Beattie
    Posted March 29, 2013 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    And isn’t it interesting that Jim Al-Khalili thinks he has to defend himself against charges of accommodationism (or more likely: distancing himself from the shrill New Atheists), when his text is every bit as strident as what RD writes?

    • Posted March 29, 2013 at 10:04 am | Permalink

      Jim Al-Khalili is trying to be the counterpart of Richard “Al-Acidly” Dawkins.

  3. Posted March 29, 2013 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    There are a few studies that point out that the “god shaped hole” isn’t about god at all, but community building.

    To like each other, sing and dance in synchrony.

    Religious attendance, but not beliefs, were linked to improved health, a reduction in suicides, and increased marital fidelity. Which suggests that it’s having social support networks (e.g. sing and dance in synchrony), and not god belief, that makes people happier and society better.

    Moreover, religion’s ability to provide happiness is relative to where you live. In poor areas with fewer resources, the well-being increasing effects of religion are more profound.

    Combine all of this with cognitive biases like hyperactive agency detection, promiscuous teleology, (biases which come to us intuitively and thus just feel right) and something like religion would be selected for naturally, based on whichever communities had the strongest bonds. There’s no reason we can’t decouple god from secularized communities if the science of “liking/trusting strangers” was more readily available.

    • Posted March 29, 2013 at 7:54 am | Permalink

      It probably says something about Catholicism that churches have pews to prevent dancing.

      • Posted March 29, 2013 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

        …and a litany of alternated kneeling, sitting, and standing to keep everyone awake.

      • schenck
        Posted April 1, 2013 at 7:11 am | Permalink

        Notice though that the catholic liturgy actually involves quite a bit of singing, and of course every mass has a procession of the priest in to and then out of the mass, along with a rotating procession of the laity (and a communal micro-feast, sometimes with wine!)

    • Kevin
      Posted March 29, 2013 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

      In other words, atheists need to have more singing and dancing events…right?

      As long as there’s a cash bar and some munchies, that’s fine with me!

  4. Peter Beattie
    Posted March 29, 2013 at 7:20 am | Permalink

    And all these geniuses are really saying is: “Well, God and everything is a myth that is supposed to make you feel good. If it comforts them and they don’t bother anybody else about it, why not leave them be?”

    I always imagine Richard Dawkins reading that kind of stuff, sending him into a whiplash loop, going: “That’s what I said!”

    • Sastra
      Posted March 29, 2013 at 8:20 am | Permalink

      It’s a Little People Argument: “we can handle the truth but the Little People can’t.”

      This isn’t respectful and considerate. It’s an insult to religious people. It’s very telling that apparently a lot of Little People are willing to put up with the insult if it means that maybe more atheists will shut up.

      And it’s even more telling when the Little People make this argument about themselves. “We KNOW we’re wrong! Don’t take away our crutch! We’re weak!”

      And then they spin around and sneer at how atheists don’t believe in God because atheists lack the appropriate depth in feeling, thought, character, appreciation, or analysis. Wtf. Do they think we don’t notice this?

      • Posted March 29, 2013 at 8:36 am | Permalink

        I’ve heard a variation of the “Little People Argument,” as you well put it, second-hand from a preacher in my old fundamentalist sect. From what a mutual friend told me, the preacher knows about the issues with the Bible, the tough questions about theology, etc., but doesn’t talk about any of that because he doesn’t think the people in the pews are sophisticated enough to handle it. A variation of Lying for the Lord, if you ask me.

  5. exsumper
    Posted March 29, 2013 at 7:23 am | Permalink

    When I was a child I was forced to go to Sunday School/Church, Had lunch, went back to Church for evensong, Had my tea and went to bed.

    Now that I am an adult non-believer. I may have a lie in or not,do whatever, perhaps have a pub lunch with friends family etc, do whatever again, have supper and go to bed.

    The difference being that I now get to spend my time doing whatever I wish, with my friends and family. Not doing something I’m forced to with a bunch of delusional strangers. How much of my life did that waste?

    Was married by a registrar in a place of our choosing.

    Plan to be buried in an eco-cemetery by my family.

    Thats the non-existant hole a lack of religion has made in my life.

  6. Posted March 29, 2013 at 7:27 am | Permalink

    I am human and I have never had a need satisfied by religion. It’s rather hard for made up nonsense to satisfy anything. I have had needs satisfied by people who beleive in religion; that is something completely different.

  7. Posted March 29, 2013 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    One must wait for the fibers to settle after removing the asbestos of credulity from the edifice of false hope.

    • lamacher
      Posted March 29, 2013 at 8:24 am | Permalink

      Excellent!!

  8. Posted March 29, 2013 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    Wow, Armstrong’s piece is particularly guff-filled. Painful to read!

    • Sastra
      Posted March 29, 2013 at 7:54 am | Permalink

      Armstrong is a piece of work. I think she’s popular because she sounds so sympathetic. You can apparently get away with quite a lot if you just make it seem as if you admire the view you’re skewering.

      A few years ago I wrote the following parody:


      Theist: I believe in God.

      Karen Armstrong: Yes. What I understand you to be saying is that you believe that reality exists. God is its mythic personification.

      Theist: No, I believe that God exists, and that God is real.

      Karen Armstrong: Of course God is real. It is a symbol which points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence.

      Theist: You’re not listening. God created the universe, and revealed His purpose in the Bible.

      Karen Armstrong: I hear you. The Bible was never intended to be historically or scientifically accurate or explain anything: no, it is a myth which helps you cope psychologically, akin to poetry or music. I really honor and respect that. Good for you.

      Theist: A myth? A symbol? No, God is our creator. He will judge us according to our sins. He’s not something I made up to feel better. There’s salvation and damnation in the afterlife!

      Armstrong: All of which is a metaphor for the cultivation of the human capacities of mind and heart as you discover an interior haven of peace. Believe me, I understand what you’re doing, and it’s okay.

      Theist: Fuck you.

      Of course, a lot of theists eat this stuff up. They are people of ‘faith.’ Clarity is not their friend and they know it.

      • Posted March 29, 2013 at 7:56 am | Permalink

        Brilliant

      • Brygida Berse
        Posted March 29, 2013 at 9:09 am | Permalink

        Sastra,

        Although I enjoyed your parody, I think that you ultimately failed to capture the stupendously nonsensical character of Armstrong’s writings. The clarity of thought that always shows in your posts, is working against you this time :-).

        Just look here:

        The Trinity was not a “mystery” because it was irrational mumbo-jumbo. It was an “initiation” (musterion), which introduced Greek-speaking early Christians to a new way of thinking about the divine, a meditative exercise in which the mind swung in a disciplined way from what you thought you knew about God to the ineffable reality. . . Trinity was, therefore, an activity rather than a metaphysical truth in which one credulously “believed”.

        I think it takes a very special kind of brain damage to be able to write this way.

        • Sastra
          Posted March 29, 2013 at 10:03 am | Permalink

          I don’t think it takes brain damage so much as a fluid ability to shift between categories as you think about things, blurring distinctions and considering this an insightful and “disciplined way” to go about thinking.

          “Believing in” the Trinity without actually *believing in* the Trinity is what you do when you have some other agenda than truth-seeking. You haven’t reasoned to a conclusion. No. You want to belong to a group or you want to have an experience or you want to be the kind of person who believes in the Trinity or maybe you just want to be the kind of person who believes in the Trinity without understanding or caring what the Trinity is. It’s all very muddled.

          There is a technical term in philosophy for the promotion of ideas which one does not necessarily consider false, but which one does not consider true either: one is unconcerned about the factual matter because one is really concerned about something else. This term is “bullshitting.”

          Karen Armstrong is a bullshitter. But she and her fans apparently feel she redeems herself because

          1.) her motives and agenda are good

          and

          2.) who knows? If God really exists then it might be so beyond our comprehension that talking a lot of driveling bullshit might be the closest we could ever get to understanding it.

          Faith makes people so humble.

    • Darth Dog
      Posted March 29, 2013 at 10:11 am | Permalink

      Yes, Karen Armstrong really needs to find different words other than religion and God. The way she uses them bears no resemblance to the way any of the religious folks I know use them. I’m really surprised that she doesn’t get more pushback from religious folks the way Sastra parodies above. I guess as long as you talk to them in a soothing tone, it doesn’t matter what you actually say.

  9. Posted March 29, 2013 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    I think this latest spate of accommodationist drivel is timed too closely to the publication of Grayling’s most recent book.

    I’ve only just started it, but it’s clear from the foreword that his whole point is to show clearly how there *is* something to fill the “god-shaped hole.”

    • revelator60
      Posted March 29, 2013 at 11:20 am | Permalink

      Unsurprisingly, Grayling’s book has been getting trashed by the press. Jerry has pointed out a couple of bad reviews, but I haven’t even seen a positive one.

      • Posted March 29, 2013 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

        Well, perhaps also unsurprisingly, I am so far enjoying it immensely. 🙂

  10. Posted March 29, 2013 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    Spufford using the term “year zero” was a touch snide
    Unless of course he’s a fan of Nine Inch Nails

  11. Sastra
    Posted March 29, 2013 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    Many arguments against atheism never touch on the existence of God. They don’t deal with what is meant by God or whether it exists or reasons why it is more reasonable to believe in God than not. Instead, they attack atheism head on and it all comes down to one basic premise: atheists need to shut up. They need to be less outspoken and less passionate and less focused on arguments against the existence of God. They need to be more respectful, more forbearing, and more eager to change the subject and find common ground.

    Right. The people who insist that faith in God is the most significant aspect of human nature and devote themselves to spreading theism are a great source for advice on how atheists can be more effective and acceptable. I don’t buy it.

    There are two opposing models of tolerance and diversity:

    1.) The Diversity Smorgasbord: a wide range of people present their personal and communal differences in a celebration of the varied ways there are to be human. There is no judgmental “right” or “wrong” here. The more diversity the better because we all want to be respected for who we are.

    2.)The Diverse Problem-Solving Group: a wide range of people present their unique ideas towards solving a problem. We then sift back and forth through all solutions, debating and arguing within the rational framework of more ‘right’ and less ‘wrong’ till we eventually come to a universal consensus. Diversity is only a means to an ends — the ends of being united.

    The dispute then comes down to where we place “religion.” Critics of New Atheism will usually do one or both of the following:

    1.) Place religion in the Diversity Smorgasbord.

    2.) Place religion in the Diverse Problem-Solving Group and then remove “What is the nature of reality?” and “does god/the supernatural exist?” out of the list of problems religion solves.

    The general idea seems to be that atheism will be accepted into the mainstream as a legitimate position as soon as the typical atheist does this. A Good Atheist says “I don’t believe in God but as long as I’m left alone I don’t care at all if other people do.” Atheists have to buy into the idea that theists don’t think God — or believing in God — is important. They don’t care. They have other concerns.

    Bull. As far as I can tell the ONLY time religious people don’t think God or belief in God is important is when they are making the argument that atheists need to shut up. They like us better when we don’t try to get them to change their minds. Despite the fact that we’ve “chosen” to be the “kind of people” who lack the ultimate value, they’ll be our BFF.

    I don’t think that will work. It will only result in them embracing special atheists who are acceptable because they “don’t act like an atheist.” That’s tolerance without respect.

    • Posted March 29, 2013 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

      BFF = “best friends forever” (I had to look it up). Spot on & the boiled-down essence. IANAA.

  12. Posted March 29, 2013 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    Dennett thinks that religion’s effect on society may be generally good (at least that’s my take on his view), while I think that we can have all the benefits of religion, and none of its problems, by creating secular societies, and thus would be better off without it.

    More precisely, that we could be better off with such secular alternatives.

    Any attempts to set them up in advance, as in Alain de Botton’s prescriptions below, are artificial and will be ineffectual. My view is that we should first get cut out the cancer of religion, and then administer what plastic surgery we can to the holes that remain.

    Contrariwise, I’d suggest it in evolutionary terms. Yes, most of the variations introduced will be miserable failures; however, some will be more effective at performing the same functions with more benefit, more efficiency, and less resources than religion… which will provide a selection advantage, which in turn will create a pressure to help drive religion out of the social ecology — or at least, into isolated microniches.

    Most of the ideas will be bad, and rapidly go bankrupt in the marketplace of ideas. Some will be neutral, and gain a bit of ground via drift. And some rare few will be good — and therefore grow exponentially until logistic curve limits kick in.

    Complaining that de Botton’s ideas are crap seems akin to Ken Ham complaining that most mutations are harmful rather than beneficial. It’s the rare exceptions that can be expected to have disproportionate impact over time.

    I think it’s a mistake to first propose secular replacements for religion and then expect people, on that basis, to give up their faith. What would be their motivation?

    As I suggest — having an alternative that offers greater actual reward with fewer detrimental side effects. Or at least, that would be the motive for people to stay with it.

    As for why people might try something else, that would remain much the same reason as why people switch religious practices today — dissatisfaction, possibly catalyzed by some point where their current system doesn’t provide as much comfort/benefit as they had expected. The “point” may be either a major life crisis, or an accumulation of persistent dissatisfaction — a spark, or slow heating. (There’s probably a model analogous to activation energy for chemical reactions.) Either way, they start looking about at alternatives; likely, based on what other people around them are doing — with the internet broadening the modern sense of “around”.

    • Steve Bowen
      Posted March 29, 2013 at 9:02 am | Permalink

      It’s not as though there isn’t a diversity of alternatives already; sports clubs, social clus, drama societies, glee clubs, gyms and saunas, walking groups, art appreciation societies, book clubs, pubs… the list is vast. I don’t object to contrived alternatives to churches it’s just that the necessity seems spurious.

      • Posted March 29, 2013 at 11:07 am | Permalink

        One slight difficulty with all of these is preventing them from being hijacked by religious individuals, “because of COURSE we’re all Christians, right?” Subjectively, this seems prone to happen when a group starts getting enough momentum to rival the religious groups. It’s more difficult for this to happen when the organization is explicitly secular, nonreligious, or atheist.

        Another is that some of these seem to tend less effective than religion at some of the social functions, which suggests the potential for more improvement.

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted April 1, 2013 at 5:58 am | Permalink

          It doesn’t seem to be a problem at all where I live (Sweden). The main societal force needed to get there is the one Coyne espouses, a functional society. Then you get functional societal clubs as a spin off.

          Going back to how artificial it is to look for alternatives modeled on religion.

    • Posted March 29, 2013 at 9:57 am | Permalink

      Whatever happened to the Benevolent Protective Order of Elks (B.P.O.E), Eastern Star? Shriners, etc? IIRC, they all had some religious bit, but, on the whole, they were social clubs who looked after members, held charity events, wore funny hats, but members fulfilled their sense of belonging. Now, I suppose, television is far more entertaining, so no one looks forward to going to social clubs (what a bother! you might have to =par-tici=pate! And, no sofa to stretch out.) Because the clergy have a paid interest in perpetuating their jobs, the churches (in spite of Sunday NFL) have kept going, whereas the Elks, Eastern Star, etc have basically disappeared. To me, this just demonstrates “different times” because of mass media. Heck, there were a lot more bowling leagues and teams, bowling alleys, way back. No one is lamenting their loss and loss of their function.
      The “Death Celebration” of memorials are what concern most people. I think the pagan-leaning ritual at Burning Man, where they have a “Temple” that serves as a focus of remembrance, then the temple is burned, points the way to a new type of function that serves to memorialize those that have gone….without clergy and religion.

      • Kevin
        Posted March 29, 2013 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

        Yes. There’s actually some sociological research on this.

        Those born prior to 1945 are much more likely to join groups for the social aspects — you may like to bowl or play bridge, but joining a bridge club or a bowling league is primarily about camaraderie. Even if those are “once a week” friendships. Like church.

        Those born after 1945 (in the US at least) are much less likely to join a group unless it meets some other specific need. Singers join a community chorus or a barbershop quartet, for example.

        So, in the end, I think that de Botton et al are proposing a solution for a problem that no longer exists, or is waning at the speed of every death of the pre-war generation.

        • Posted March 29, 2013 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

          Could you post a link or two pointing to said research? I’d love to use that info in my own blog.

  13. John K.
    Posted March 29, 2013 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    If you can find a “religion” that is not based on working to believe things in the absence of, or in opposition to, actual evidence, then I will be glad to give it a pass.

    I do not know how one can argue for the virtues of faith valuing the importance of having beliefs that are actually true. I cannot stop you from building your house upon the sand, but I will never shy away from expressing how bad an idea it is.

    • Posted March 29, 2013 at 10:08 am | Permalink

      Give it a “pass”, or “give it a try”?

      The dynamic at Burning Man, where people show up at the Temple (structural motif strictly the artist’s idea) with pictures and words on paper, for the dearly departed, and feel the effect of many people surrounding them (98% strangers, but then again, supportive), is an interesting dynamic, an interesting experience.

      Rather than one place, one building, I am more in favor of the transitive nature of this type of celebration/memorial. In the past, huge cathedrals were a bastion of permanence and humanity against a storm that was the world, the confounding features of the natural world. Now, we humans are as gods, who can destroy the natural world, fly over it, alter it. A mere cathedral is no expression of our relation to the natural world in the 21st century.

  14. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted March 29, 2013 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    As for the “need” to think that you’ll live on after death, well, I don’t think it’s our responsibility to replace such a lie, and it would be impossible to do so anyway.

    Debating whether that is a “need” which people generally think about is one approach to the big “fear-of-death” thing that seems so popular amongst the godly. It’s not a novel doubt – there’s a Greek myth about the horrors endured by some mortal (whose name I forget) who was rewarded for something by the gift of eternal life, but the Gods forgot to give him eternal youth too. Nightmare!
    Not everyone is afraid of death. Dying, on the other hand … that’s scary.
    Even so, it is starting to become more credible that, as computing technologies advance and our understanding of biology advance, replacement and repair of aged brains becomes possible. At which point, true immortality starts to be believable.
    Stick that in your pipe, Ghod, and smoke it!

    • Sastra
      Posted March 29, 2013 at 10:16 am | Permalink

      I was raised without religion and it seems to me that if you never really believed that you would live forever then you don’t have a major traumatic crisis over the realization that you aren’t going to live forever. It’s sad and it’s frustrating but you accept it and deal with it. You live with it. It can be done without superhuman means of strength.

      It might not be fair, but people who keep moaning about the atheist negation of the human “need” for immortality — or maybe it’s the human need to believe in immortality — always strike me as rather shallow. It’s a bit like listening to someone drone on and on about how their life was totally ruined when they missed their Senior Prom. You start to stop thinking that oh, I’m not as sensitive as this demoralized soul and start to secretly wonder whether maybe that other person doesn’t just need to step back and get a grip on reality.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted March 29, 2013 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

        It’s a bit like listening to someone drone on and on about how their life was totally ruined when they missed their Senior Prom.

        What’s a “Senior Prom” and why would one’s life be destroyed by missing it?
        (I do have some vague idea. But it’s all cultural relativism.)

        • Posted March 29, 2013 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

          It’s the USA Senior dance… in the spring right before graduation. Kind-of a culmination dress-up event, representing a coming-of-age of sorts, for those folks who put that much weight into it.

          • gravelinspector-Aidan
            Posted March 30, 2013 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

            Mixed schools?

            • Posted March 30, 2013 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

              Yes… if by that you mean schools with both boys and girls (and the very occasional ‘else’) in them. Proms in most ‘regular’ (i.e. public) schools here tend to be unchaperoned affairs, sometimes the first such official ‘date’ in the Senoir’s existence. (hence its importance)

  15. gbjames
    Posted March 29, 2013 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    Sigh. These guys do get tiresome.

    • Occam
      Posted March 29, 2013 at 10:51 am | Permalink

      I’m beginning to think that these chaps are rather like epiphytic lichens: a highly visible nuisance, perennial, ubiquitous, resilient, and tolerant — even thriving at the proper levels — of atmospheric pollution.

      Annoying, yes. Worth the amount of attention they have been getting lately, not least here? I’m beginning to doubt it. The expression ‘benign neglect’ comes to mind.
      We should keep working at the eradication of the problem, root and bough, not epiphenomena.

  16. Brygida Berse
    Posted March 29, 2013 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    What we can learn from snake oil peddlers and their customers. Right.

  17. Fastlane
    Posted March 29, 2013 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    I look forward to the follow up article: “There’s No God: What can believers learn from atheists?“

    Number one: the ability to say the following words: “Perhaps that is a mistaken belief. I will examine the evidence and modify my beliefs accordingly.”

    After that, the rest is gravy.

    • Sastra
      Posted March 29, 2013 at 10:21 am | Permalink

      Yes, I’d like to see that article, too. I especially long for the condescending but gentle tone of chiding disapproval towards believers, that they have not been listening to the new atheists and this is extreme and unfair and bigoted of them. Done tactfully, of course, and from the position of the fair-minded moderate.

  18. spud2006
    Posted March 29, 2013 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    I’ve a lot of time for Jim Al-Khalili, who’s a serious scientist and broadcasts (in print and on TV) extremely well for the non-scientist lay audience, though as a nice guy I strongly suspect that he’s still caught up in the kid-gloves approach of not wanting to appear too controversial by saying anything notably critical of religion, despite his Presidency of the BHA. Also for Richard Holloway, a highly intelligent, thoughtful non-believer (essentially that’s what he is) with a veneer of ecclesiastical respectability. All his books are well worth reading and I would positively recommend them – ‘Godless Morality’ is a book that I think every atheist ought to have on their shelves.

    The others, however, are just part of the all too well known rogues gallery of shameless and woolly accomodationists. None of them have said anything which I wouldn’t have put a lot of money on them saying beforehand. There was a time, many years ago, when I read Karen Armstrong’s ‘A History of God’ and thought that she had something (to me, at least) genuinely novel, fresh and different to say: but in recent years her public outings have been little more than reiterations of her apparent conviction that religion has little or nothing to do with propositional belief and everything to do with community and practice.

  19. Lilburn Lowell Decke
    Posted March 29, 2013 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    According to Karen Armstrong, “If you don’t do religion, you don’t get it.” That makes no more sense than saying that to understand pedophilia you have to molest children. No sane, intelligent person needs to be religious to know that it is immoral, cruel, evil to kill people because one’s religion says unbelievers and heretics should be killed in the name of God. Contrary to what Ms. Armstrong believes, many of us “New Atheists” DO understand religion because we are former believers and became non-religious because we came to understand religion too well

  20. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted March 29, 2013 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    Even if one were inclined to agree with Richard Holloway (and often I am), the question would remain as to why privilege the Biblical myths over the mythical stories of Shakespeare or JRR Tolkien or great Greek myths like the Odyssey or the inspiring stories of scientific discoveries of Copernicus and Darwin.

    Also, one would be left with the whole issue of the history of Christian oppression of both gays and lesbians and of good sound science, and the issue that some Biblical stories such as the bear who mauled the children making fun or Elijah simply cannot be made to spin in a way that is good.

  21. Kevin
    Posted March 29, 2013 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    I’m going to be generous here.

    I “get” religion. I “get” why it’s useful. In the US, at present, it is a very nice aggregator of volunteer effort. My local community counts on it (in the meta sense) to run the homeless shelter and the food bank and a bunch of other charities.

    I also “get” why people go to church. There is an instant sense of “we’re in this together” thing that I don’t think is properly appreciated by us. Especially since we truly don’t offer any alternatives.

    My objection to religion isn’t about those things. It’s about two major issues:

    1. The lies. Claiming knowledge of the existence of non-existent beings.

    2. The privilege. Claiming that because their non-existent being says so, I can’t buy a bottle of wine before 1 pm on Sunday (to cite a completely trivial example). Or marry someone of the same gender as me, if that was my want, to cite a nontrivial example.

    If all religion (meta) did was aggregate charity work and provide “support”, then I would be fine with it. Heck, my mother still goes to church on a regular basis. It neither breaks my leg nor picks my pocket.

    When religion does try to break my leg and pick my pocket is when I cry foul.

  22. DrBrydon
    Posted March 29, 2013 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    The New Atheists remind one of Edward Gibbon, who said of a visit to the cathedral at Chartres: “I paused only to dart a look at the stately pile of superstition and passed on.”

    Yes, it’s not just a monument to superstition, but also to a world of privilege and exploitation. Let’s pause to remember that, during a period of mass poverty, religion took money from peasants and serfs to build enormous buildings, and fill them with the most expensive furnishings. When we are told that we are missing the social aspect of religion, that we should look at all the THINGS the church has provided whether art, music, or buildings that nowadays so gratify our delicate sensibilites, we should remember that it is not just the church’s ideas that kept men down for fifteen centuries.

  23. Leigh Jackson
    Posted March 30, 2013 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    Religion detests an existential void. Here’s a group of people who are driven by just that fear, I propose. What would really happen if everyone were to face the void, I wonder?

  24. Posted March 30, 2013 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    &

  25. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 6:17 am | Permalink

    I am well aware that some other atheists would call me an accommodationist. However, this patronising term needs to be replaced, so I have thought long and hard in search of an alternative – a more appropriate one to define my brand of atheism – until I realised it has been under my nose all the time: it is called being a humanist.

    That is not the same. There is nothing preventing non-accommodationist atheists joining humanist organizations.

    In fact, I would be surprised if not some were. Al-Khalili is at the very least making a sweeping generalization, if we humor that also accommodationists are likely humanists (Al-Khalili being an example).

    • Sastra
      Posted April 1, 2013 at 6:44 am | Permalink

      Right. Gnu atheism is a version of secular humanism. Humanism is a broad category.

      This tactic would be like a liberal or conservative Christian wondering how to identify their brand of theism and realizing with surprise that the term they want has been under their nose all the time: it is called being a “Christian.”

      The conservatives/liberals on the other side are not going to let them co-opt that term without a fight.

      What’s so bad about being “accommodating?” My guess is that the only reason they consider it “patronizing” is that they didn’t come up with it themselves.

  26. schenck
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 7:08 am | Permalink

    This whole ‘we need these myths’ idea is nonsense. Roman pagans easily could’ve made the same claim against christianity (hell I bet they did), but here these authors are making the very same claim /for/ christianity.
    They also obviously don’t believe what they’re saying, otherwise they’d equally advocate for ‘new atheism’ mimicking Zoroastrianism or the Norse Religion, instead of talking about building church-steeples they’d equally be talking about planting Perkunas’s Oak Trees. But they don’t, because they know they’re spouting nonsense.

    Christianity replaced roman-paganism because it’s supporters and advocates were strident proselytizer and evangelistsm, the accomodationists amoung the early christians would’ve been something like the gnostics, who melded paganism and pythagoreanism with christ-ism. They were wiped out, by christians and pagans alike. And you also can’t argue that Christianity was somehow superiour to paganism, because it also out-competed the Cult of Mithras, which was mature, ethical, philsophical, scholastic, extremely well organised, “churchy”, /and/ had the support of the elite and common people, throughout the empire. Heck Mithraic cult practice /probably/ served the ‘ethical and deep’ needs of the public /better/ than christianity in a lot of ways.

    Just look at the major globe-spanning religions out there today, it’s no accident that all of them are what used to be called ‘propagandizing’ religions (Christianity, Buddhism, Islam).

    Or look at Islam, it sometimes converted pagans into monotheists, but very often was actively converting early eastern christians to Islam, but it didn’t offer anything ‘special’ in the way of ‘myths’ that the above others are claiming. Their argument is total BS.


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