Is it ever good to have faith?

National Public Radio in the U.S. continues its osculation of faith with a new article by Marcelo Gleiser on its “Cosmos and Culture site, “Science doesn’t want to take God away from you.” The title startled me, for “science” doesn’t “want” to do anything, except, perhaps, to discover what’s true about the universe. Of course people may react to those truths by abandoning God, but is that science’s aim, or fault?

It turns out that Gleiser was being interviewed in Brasilia about his new book, which apparently did affect someone’s faith:

The interviewer asked me questions about the scientific take on the end of the world, inspired by a book I had just published (The Prophet and the Astronomer: Apocalyptic Science and the End of the World). There are many ways in which science can address this question. We can see, from the devastating effects of Typhoon Haiyan, that the forces of nature are beyond our control, even if we pride ourselves on “taming” the world around us.

But the focus of my book was on cataclysmic celestial events and how they have inspired both religious narratives and scientific research, past and present. In particular, note the many instances that stars and fire and brimstone fall from the sky in the Bible, both in the Old (e.g., Book of Daniel, Sodom and Gomorrah) and the New Testament (e.g., Apocalypse of John), or how the Celts believed that the skies would fall on their heads to mark the end of a time cycle.

That doesn’t sound too malevolent, but the interview was conducted in the local bus station, and one local was disturbed:

It was then that the hand went up. A small man with torn clothes and grease stains on his face asked: “So the doctor wants to take even God away from us?”

I froze. The despair in that man’s voice was apparent. He felt betrayed. His faith was the only thing he held on to, the only thing that gave him strength to come back to that bus station every day to work for a humiliatingly low minimum wage.

If I took God away and put in its place the rational argumentation of science, with its empirical validation, what would that even mean to this man? How would it help him go on with his life? How could science teach him to cope with life in a world without the magic of supernatural belief?

I realized then how far scientists are from the needs of most people; how far removed our discourse is from those who do not already seek science for answers, as surely most of you reading this essay already do. . . I also realized how completely futile it was to stand up there and proudly proclaim the value and wonder of science to someone whose faith is the main drive behind all that he or she does.

. . I also realized how completely futile it was to stand up there and proudly proclaim the value and wonder of science to someone whose faith is the main drive behind all that he or she does.

Well, science certainly meets many of the “needs” of people: giving them longer lives, better medical care, improved sanitation, technical advances, and so on, but Geiser is talking about “spiritual needs.” His “solution”, as he implies, is a bit lame:

We must fill [science] education with the wonder of discovery. We have to take the same passion people direct to their faith and use it to fuel curiosity about the natural world. We have to teach that science has a spiritual dimension; not in the sense of supernaturalism, but in the sense of how it connects us with something bigger than we are.

That’s a hard task, one that falls to the Sagans of the world, but even that—as the futile ministrations of BioLogos have shown—doesn’t work very well. Not everyone is filled with awe when they learn about cosmology or evolution, and I bridle at the idea that we have to emphasize science’s “spiritual” dimension.

If you can’t turn people on to science by imparting some of the amazing things we’ve found, and showing our own enthusiasm about them, then what else can we do? The brand of science cheerleading in which a popularizer regularly exclaims “Isn’t that wonderful?“, seems a bit demeaning.

But this got me to thinking about a related question: “Is it ever good to have faith in something?” with “faith” construed as “believing something firmly in the absence of good evidence.” Or “under what circumstances should we just go along with other people’s faith?”

That brings up the “dying grandmother” scenario, in which someone on their deathbed is consoled by the thought that they’ll soon be with God. Few of us are churlish enough to counter those beliefs. But, as Gleiser notes, many people in horrible situations—dire poverty, illness, and the like—find consolation in religion: their hope that God will help them, or all will be set right in heaven.

I see that as useful to those individuals but bad for society. Such beliefs may bring consolation but, as Marx realized, remove the impetus to alleviate the situations that make faith necessary. To me, that’s a good reason to go after faith in general (and work towards the type of society that makes religion superfluous), but not necessarily to preach atheism to the afflicted. I still feel that faith—belief in the unevidenced—is a disease that requires a societal cure, for it’s always better to have good reasons for what one believes.

Or is it? At what point should we simply shut up and let people believe whatever fairy tales console them? Is it better to just work towards a better world and hope that that will erode faith? Or can we build a better society without working against religion?

h/t: Tom


  1. Posted November 14, 2013 at 8:34 am | Permalink


  2. lamacher
    Posted November 14, 2013 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    Individual circumstances vary. In my case, pushing my atheism at my aged, deeply devout parents who, at the ends of their very long lives, would have caused them unremitting emotional pain and actual physical distress; I decided that their sense of comfort in an imaginary future was none of my business, and I left them alone. I even acceded to my father’s request, and sang his favorite hymn at his funeral. It did me no harm, though it did raise very emotional memories.

  3. gbjames
    Posted November 14, 2013 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    We work for a better world AND we work against religion. But not every moment of every day should be dedicated to these things. Sometimes you need to relax a bit. Sometimes you need to save your energy for a more important effort.

    But you don’t stop telling the truth because some fellow passing by in a train station might be offended or hurt. That’s crazy talk, IMO.

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted November 14, 2013 at 9:57 am | Permalink

      Well said, gbjames.

    • darrelle
      Posted November 14, 2013 at 10:41 am | Permalink

      Yes, well said +2.

      Especially since the two are congruent. And it is a spectrum. There are going to be times where you clearly should speak up, times when you clearly shouldn’t, but probably mostly times when it isn’t at all clear whether you should or not.

  4. Diana MacPherson
    Posted November 14, 2013 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    Not wanting to sound arrogant, I still have to say that there are some people who just don’t get it and if you take god away from them, they fall a part. I have a cousin like this who is ignorant about everything science and believes she will see her dead brother and parents in heaven when she dies. The only thing I do is try to dispel her bad notions of evolution and other woo.

    • Rich
      Posted November 14, 2013 at 9:42 am | Permalink

      I think these people only think they’ll fall apart without religion. In point of fact, they just have to learn to have hope in life, and its our duty as human beings to give it to them. This hope is not necessarily that they will be in paradise on earth. Sometimes it’s just the hope that they can make a difference by living their life well.

  5. Posted November 14, 2013 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    in my experience, faith in some magical prize after one is dead allows one to give up and not try any longer. it says “accept and don’t question.” with the claim of reward to keep you quiet until you are dead. And after that, no one comes back to say if they got it or not.

    • darrelle
      Posted November 14, 2013 at 10:46 am | Permalink

      Precisely the mindset that religious leaders want to instill in their flock in order to maximize their temporal authority.

      • Gordon
        Posted November 14, 2013 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

        Usually abetted by political leaders of the autocratic variety.

  6. Posted November 14, 2013 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    Is it ever good to wear garlic around your neck? Carry a rabbit’s foot?

    Sure, unless there are better alternatives. This is what animates me as a humanist, creating the alternatives, the superior alternatives, to religious faith.

  7. Kevin
    Posted November 14, 2013 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    My mother is 88 years old and is a Christian of the liberal-conventional sort. No speaking in tongues, no fire-breathing against “sin” — she just believes that when she dies, she’ll go to heaven and see her mother and her husband.

    In all other respects, she’s a smart, capable, sensible, practical, no-nonsense, non-woo-woo type of a person. If I get to be 88 (unlikely), I hope I have half the ‘marbles’ she demonstrates.

    I’m SOOOO not going to tell her that magic isn’t real. Since my dad died, the church she attends has been her anchor. She volunteers twice a week at their food pantry, attends mid-week ladies meetings, and is a regular at services. I have neighbors who attend the same church and they positively ADORE her. And why not? She’s adorable. Why would I deprive her of those comforts and that sense of community just because the fundamental tenets that community is based on is a lie?

    I also am routinely in the company of people who are nominally-to-fervently religious. A Jewish friend firmly believes G-d healed his post-kidney transplant CMV infection (never mind the multiple courses of antiviral medications that I personally had a hand in developing/marketing). What am I to say to that person? Stop taking his meds and find out how effective prayer is absent science? He knows. He’s just more comfortable holding onto the talisman.

    There’s a time and a place. B*ogs, other forms of social media, even dead tree outlets can serve to reduce the amount of superstition in the world without having to go one-on-one in unwinnable battles at every mention of someone’s favorite deity.

    I did “hide” Facebook posts from a friend whose contributions to the interwebs is a daily babble verse, though.

    • Kevin
      Posted November 14, 2013 at 9:16 am | Permalink

      Faith used to be personal and even considered wholesome, but faith is no longer insular for many people. There are meaningful and provocative arguments why one’s faith is not necessarily better than, well, not having faith.

      Your mom, however, just due to her age might be out of the range of what other people (65 – 80 year old range) are becoming aware: that faith is not what it once was. I try never to bring that stuff up to my mom, who sounds just like your mom. My grandmother, on the other hand, nearly reached 100 and she died happy, stoic, and as secular as a Galapagos tortoise (one of her favorite animals). She was epic.

    • Posted November 14, 2013 at 10:29 am | Permalink

      >can serve to reduce the amount of superstition in the world without having to go one-on-one in unwinnable battles

      Well, we don’t know they’re unwinnable in advance. Social change occurs when progressive people (like feminists, freed slaves and homosexuals) test the waters.

      It boils down to a risk/benefit calculation given the political climate.

      At some point, it became worthwhile to force schoolkids to get vaccinated. In the beginning (and still with faith-healing parents), there was resistance. So what? The vaccinators’ conclusion won the day and we forced vaccinations.

      I have outgrown Santa Claus and I have outgrown the afterlife. It’s a political question whether we coax believers out of their illusions.

      Religious infection is helped by would-be competitors concluding it’s not worth attacking in the first place. This is a mistake. Humanist alternatives will not supplant religious ideas if we look the other way.

      If we are atheists for reasons other than fashion, if we think our reasons are good ones, then it seems we would act like it.

      When your grandma goes to the doctor, I bet she wants her to tell her the truth. But in Japan, for example, physicians sometimes are patriarchal and don’t tell the patient the truth. They tell the family, who collude in protecting the patient from the truth.

      Of course, your grandma may welcome some truths and not others. It is sometimes a complicated calculation.

      • BillyJoe
        Posted November 15, 2013 at 3:37 am | Permalink

        Don, you have your finger on the pulse.

  8. Posted November 14, 2013 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    To answer the query: no, it is not.


    Exactly 28 years ago, I did have come specifically on to me precisely the “dying grandmother” scenario: Widowed Adeline had had six children w / Willard being her eldest, a professed godless kiddo since his age of 12 years when he raised his hand and, thence, bucked his herr – teacher with the Scopes Trial / Lucy – Link details. Willard — my father.

    So. Adeline is 88, never hospitalized, a bit “tired,” suddenly diagnosed with cancer and on her deathbed — all in a couple of weeks.

    I road – trip a piece to her to say ‘good – bye’ and, there in lovely conversations, get sprung from her thus, “S o o o, Tennyson, your father’s favorite poet, Bluesy, not ?”

    “Aaah, Yeah, Grandma. Yes. How did you know?”

    “Okay yeah, well, Tennyson writes of crossing the bar, not?”

    “He does. Yeah, that was one of Willard’s favorites.”

    “Okay yeah, well, so Bluesy, do YOU believe there is an afterlife?”

    “O. O. O. W h o a, Grandma. Hmm. W e l l, … … far be it from me to tell you, at this time, if WHAT I believe or don’t believe has any relevance at all, Darling Grandma. What I believe doesn’t matter now.”

    Dead in a couple more days’ worth.
    All – in – all ( in my wee opinion ): a good death.


    ps Thank YOU for a word new to me: osculation !

    And it is absolutely TRUE: npr is s o o o, so kissing up — with an effing number of pieces on religious faith — presented by npr personnel in such a rainbow – ish / fairy / pixie – dust / foo – foo woo – manner !

  9. peltonrandy
    Posted November 14, 2013 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    I think working for a better world in the form of building a deeper and wider social safety net is one of the surest ways to erode the influence of religion. This seems to have been what has happened in Europe. But at the same time we must also actively work against those religious forces that pose immediate threats and dangers: efforts to make public policy decisions on the basis of antiquated religious beliefs, efforts to put prayer in school and other public places, efforts to teach creationism and/or intelligent design in our schools.

  10. Posted November 14, 2013 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    “I still feel that faith—belief in the unevidenced—is a disease that requires a societal cure, for it’s always better to have good reasons for what one believes.”

    As an anthropologist, I’m disturbed and a little off-put by statements like this. The notion that faith is belief in the absence of evidence is entirely ethnocentric. For the faithful person, today’s Christian for instance, faith is a multi-dimensional orientation that, when construed simply as belief in the absence of evidence, becomes problematic. A belief state is a sufficient, but not a necessary condition for faith as it is embodied and practiced by the religious. Moreover, the notion that faith and religion are somehow pathological, antiquated, and dangerous indicates an elite-culture value system that is somewhat at odds with the values of working-class and even educated religious folks, and smacks of a neo-colonial attitude not unlike the Victorian mentality that Protestant Europe had reached the pinnacle of moral progress.

    Faith, properly construed, is not belief in the absence of evidence. This view is childishly simple, insulting, and misrepresents the lived faith of religious people from a variety of religious persuasions. That is a big problem with “New Atheism”, it’s simplicity and ethnocentricity. But the even bigger problem with the New Atheism mentality is the assumption of the objective correctness of it’s secular-humanist value system at the exclusion of other value systems. History shows us that whenever a group of individuals believes it’s system of beliefs and values to be superior to all others, bad, and even violent things take place, sooner or later.

    • gbjames
      Posted November 14, 2013 at 11:42 am | Permalink

      As a former (recovered) anthropologist I’m embarrassed when I see cultural relativism being advocated by people who aren’t self-aware enough to recognize a self-negating argument when they make one.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted November 14, 2013 at 11:43 pm | Permalink


        I was expecting him to start on about ‘other ways of knowing’ any moment.

    • John Taylor
      Posted November 14, 2013 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

      What is faith, properly construed?

    • darrelle
      Posted November 14, 2013 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

      “Faith, properly construed, is not belief in the absence of evidence. This view is childishly simple, insulting, and misrepresents the lived faith of religious people from a variety of religious persuasions.”

      These are the faulty premises that have caused you to reach such inaccurate, and cliche, conclusions. Did you say anthropologist or theopologist?

    • BillyJoe
      Posted November 15, 2013 at 3:47 am | Permalink

      ” A belief state is a sufficient, but not a necessary condition for faith”


      I believe you just fell off your self-appointed pedestal.

  11. philosophercj
    Posted November 14, 2013 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    I like Peter Boghossian’s approach in his book “A Manual for Creating Atheists.” His approach is not to attack a person’s religion per se, but to criticize faith, i.e. pretending to know what we don’t know, as a bad method for finding out the truth. As you point out, Jerry, it is the bad epistemology leads to all of the other bad outcomes.
    Boghossian does admit to not doing this in a “dying grandmother” case.

    • Kevin
      Posted November 14, 2013 at 9:24 am | Permalink

      Death is never a good time to tell someone their faith is worthless…that is just not nice.

      However, in a distant form of death, e.g, airplane crash where some die, and some live, when people point out it was angels or miracles that saved the people. It is prudent to point out how inconsistent people are. Why didn’t everyone live? Why did the plane crash in the first place? Did the dead not have strong enough faith? If you want to make people think about how unfair their idea of faith is, those opportunities can be illuminating.

  12. Brian
    Posted November 14, 2013 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    I don’t have a problem with religious people in general, except sometimes their refusal to seek or accept evidence that they might not like. I do have a problem with religion when you try to push it in science, government, schools, politics, and use it as an excuse for your own bigotry and hatred. Sadly, those latter scenarios happen far too often.

    So no, I’m not having this fight with my 85 year old grandmother.

    • BillyJoe
      Posted November 15, 2013 at 3:49 am | Permalink

      And if she asks you if you believe in the afterlife, do you lie to her.

      • gbjames
        Posted November 15, 2013 at 5:46 am | Permalink

        That is an important question. When accommodation with religious friends and relatives involves deceit, the price is way too high. For me at least. They deserve to know who we are. Deceit may be convenient at times but is not respectful.

        • Diana
          Posted November 15, 2013 at 5:58 am | Permalink

          Yes. It can be lonely sometimes too. Many of my friends are believers, but I decided to not to hide my non belief and I use the word “atheist”. I want to reclaim it – you see me as a good person that you like and I’m an atheist. Now challenge your stereotypes. The people who accept me are the real friends. I’ve had a few reject me but I’m okay with that.

      • Brian
        Posted November 16, 2013 at 9:52 am | Permalink

        If she asked directly, no. But at the same time, the emotional distress it would cause her is not worth me bringing it up myself.

  13. Hempenstein
    Posted November 14, 2013 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    This past Sunday I was in a cathedral-like Presbyterian church – limestone and with lots of carved stone and stained glass, to hear an 80y/o friend give a piano recital. (Two Beethoven pieces totalling about an hour, which she played by memory and with only a brief pause in-between for some water!) There were no prayers or other religious references, except for a sign up front that said on three lines, GOD CREATED YOU // GOD LOVES YOU // GOD (something else that I’ve forgotten).


    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted November 15, 2013 at 5:46 am | Permalink

      Not the same message, but a better one based in reality and morality rather than tradition and fear.

  14. gbjames
    Posted November 14, 2013 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    I have trouble with the common framing of this problem… “if you take god away from them”, etc.

    Who exactly is in the business of “taking god away” from anyone? You can’t take religious beliefs away from people. What you can do is discuss the subject honestly when the subject comes up.

    There is nothing wrong with explaining why faith is bad to your grandma or grandpa, depending entirely on the context. It would be stupid to bring the subject up at someone’s deathbed. But it would be foolish, IMO, to not answer if Nana or Papa was at the dinner table and said something dumb about atheists.

    At least that’s the principle I used when dealing with my own mother. She died a couple of months ago at the age of 95. She was religious in the “Western Hindu” sense… she would no doubt have credited Deepak Chopra with great insight. (It drove me nuts.) Many years ago I determined that while I didn’t expect her to “wake up” from this delusion I was also going to be honest about what I thought about it. So we came to terms with one another.

    I don’t think it is respectful of other people to be dishonest with them.

    • Sastra
      Posted November 14, 2013 at 10:16 am | Permalink

      Good point.

      The thing is that from our point of view nobody ever “loses their faith.” They “change their minds.”

      Because that’s what often happens. You stop wrapping your whole identity up in a need to be right on an issue and slowly start to look at this issue as a real question — one that’s not all about you and your needs, wants, lifestyle, hopes, and so forth. Leave off self-seeking and just think about it, as a fact claim instead of a challenge to your ability to commit. Then you change your mind, from believing A to not believing A.

      And it turns out there is no crisis.

      As an atheist, if I am going to be in a discussion on religion I try to start out with a simple question:

      “If it were to turn out that I was right and you were wrong here — would you even want to find that out?”

      If they say “no” then the discussion is over.

      Well, okay — one discussion is over. You do have a lovely topic for a subsequent one.

  15. Posted November 14, 2013 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    Bogus Gods, Bogus Science?

    Marcelo Gleiser
    “………If I took God away and put in its place the rational argumentation of science, with its empirical validation, what would that even mean to this man?…..”

    George Rumens
    Just wait a minute! Suppose this daft argument is applied to bogus medicine such as the Four Humours Theory (4HT) of how the human body worked, with all its deadly ‘cures’ such as bleeding people to death with leeches. Both George Washington and the British Poet Byron probably were killed by iatrogenesis…(doctor induced misery)

    Marcelo Gleiser
    “… How would it help him go on with his life? How could science teach him to cope with life in a world without the magic of supernatural belief?
    I realized then how far scientists are from the needs of most people; how far removed our discourse is from those who do not already seek science for answers, as surely most of you reading this essay already do. . . I also realized how completely futile it was to stand up there and proudly proclaim the value and wonder of science to someone whose faith (In the Four Humours Theory of Medicine) is the main drive behind all that he or she does.
    . . I also realized how completely futile it was to stand up there and proudly proclaim the value and wonder of science to someone whose faith (In bogus medicine) is the main drive behind all that he or she does….”


    • Posted November 14, 2013 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

      That’s not a great analogy. There is no one for whom The Four Humours Theory of Medicine is the main drive behind all that he or she does.

      • John Scanlon, FCD
        Posted November 15, 2013 at 5:48 am | Permalink

        I bet there is, though. They probably hold conventions in Vegas.

  16. Sastra
    Posted November 14, 2013 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    The “Dying Grandmother” scenario is a version of the Little People Argument. The apologetic point is not to defend the existence of God; it’s a defense of faith itself aimed not at believers, but towards nonbelievers. The main message is “here’s why you need to shut up.”.

    Faith, you see, is for Little People, simple folks who are too weak, too unintelligent, too needy, or too shallow to be capable of doing what the atheists do and finding strength and meaning without religious faith. So don’t make demands they can’t meet or focus on things they don’t care about. They’re not up to it. They’re not like us.

    The Little People Argument throws out respect on the common ground and substitutes forbearance from above. The religion-friendly pay for our silence by offering us the coin of condescension. My, how special we atheists must be, that we differ so from the rest of the world and can walk without crutches. Have pity, show mercy o brave ones … please?

    They offer us this — and then turn right around and attack outspoken atheists for their presumed arrogance and smugness. Oh, atheists understand irony all right.

    Personal choices regarding personal relationships are … well … personal. There are all sort of Little People in our lives whom we can assume with some justification are incapable of handling the truth. So we go for Dinner Table Diplomacy (change the subject to something less controversial) — or Little People Forbearance. Concentrate on the personal level and go into Therapist Mode. Aunt Edna is finally making friends now that she’s joined her Ghosthunting Group. That’s nice, Aunt Edna. I don’t believe in ghosts myself — but good for you!

    Because we don’t just do this with religion. We do it with politics, medicine, art, science, tv shows, clothing — you name it. There are people in our lives we can have a healthy debate with and then there are people in our lives who need to be “handled” … with kid gloves, if necessary.

    The danger comes in when the majority view tries to shut up honest criticism and alternatives by pulling out a Little People Argument as a general policy.

    It’s one thing to be asked to refrain from criticizing religion because there is a recent widow in the room and this is a gardening group. But this sort of request for polite restraint can only be pushed so far. If the group is discussing the relationship between science and religion then the grieving folks of faith who need to hear only gentle approval and support need to figure out they have to stay away. THEY can deem themselves a Little Person.

    It’s damn insulting to them if WE’RE expected to do that.

    It was then that the hand went up. A small man with torn clothes and grease stains on his face asked: “So the doctor wants to take even God away from us?”

    “Scientists are like explorers, asking questions and going wherever they lead. Maybe this discussion isn’t what you personally want or need right now.”

    Or maybe it is. Just because he’s a “small man with torn clothes and grease stains on his face” doesn’t mean he’s Little. Let him make the call.

  17. Posted November 14, 2013 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    Frankly, I don’t think there’s much comparison between “preaching” atheism to the world at large and telling a dying individual that they are wrong about God. The former case is what has been happening lately in order to bring about big changes, like eliminating laws that favor or promote religion. It’s a public endeavor *in response to the proselytizing of the religious*.

    The latter is totally different. People are free to believe what they like in private and should be able to without someone coming in from nowhere and interfering. This is not the kind of spreading of atheism that has been encouraged by people like Sam Harris, etc.

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

      I think the liberal believers who make this argument ought to ask themselves why this doesn’t apply just as well to them.

      Would they try to aggressively convert a poor old dying atheist grandmother who has throughout her life made it very clear that she doesn’t want to hear any of their ‘religious nonsense’ when she is on her deathbed? Who begs them to stop with tears in her eyes?


      Well, then stop writing pro-religion articles. In public, avoid the subject.

      They’d probably find this problematic, too.

      • Posted November 15, 2013 at 7:49 am | Permalink

        Imagining the shoe on the other foot is not the theist’s strength, that’s for sure.

  18. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted November 14, 2013 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    Faith is IMO never a virtue in the way proclaimed by fideist philosophers and believers in belief like President Eisenhower.

    I tend to think faith should be opposed whenever it self-evidently is the source personal or cultural or scientific stagnation. When faith is inspiring anti-gay legislation, opposition to science, etc, then fight.

    At other times one should be wary of the extreme cultural disorientation that loss of faith can entail. For most of civilization, faith has been the !*framework*! within which discussions of morality and spirituality take place (with ancient Greece & the Renaissance era & the 18th century Enlightenment being notable exceptions). For many, removing that framework can create toxic behavior, as Bertrand Russell argued in “Religion and Science”. (Sorry I don’t have the direct reference handy.)

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted November 14, 2013 at 11:41 am | Permalink

      Correction. Russell is writing about the cultural disorientation created by advances in technology, not by loss of faith per se. I misread the passage.

      But I retain the same position. Think Star Trek’s Prime Directive.

  19. eric
    Posted November 14, 2013 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    At what point should we simply shut up and let people believe whatever fairy tales console them?

    Never shut up…but that doesn’t mean always harangue or proselytize. What happened to academic discussion? The salon? Intellectually honest debate (and no, I’m not counting fundies who use debate forums to gish gallup and use other tricks simply to try and look good)? Diagreement among friends?

    Why is the “dying grandmother scenario” even an issue? It shouldn’t be – there is simply no reason why sharing or discussing your atheism with your grandmother necessitates some attempt on your part to convert her. If this scenario is an issue for an atheist (or even a theist convert to some non-grandmotherly religion), it’s because you see no value in talking about an important part of your life with a loved one without some conversion attempt. If you did (see value in such an ‘agnostic’ discussion), then that would be a reasonable (albeit still imperfect) solution to the dying grandmother problem, wouldn’t it?

    As for that let…that somewhat implies that you’d want to prevent them from their belief, if you could. With the exceptions of some extreme beliefs, I don’t. I think its far healthier for our society in the long run to practice the same attitued towards free belief as we do towards free speech. ‘I disagree with what you think, but will defend to the death your right to think it.’ In my mind, that is much much better than the attitude of ‘I shouldn’t let these people believe their fairy tale.’

  20. Ken Elliott
    Posted November 14, 2013 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    To me it’s a slow, ages long battle for the future of cultural norms in which people develop better coping tools based on logic that is devoid of supernatural bugaboos. Right now, too many people have been inoculated, mainly from childhood, in the dangerous myths of religion. Some, like many of us, will logically come to better conclusions, especially with the help of New Atheism, which is so readily available to us. The more and more people who renounce religion will likely provide the type of environment in which their children aren’t bamboozled by the fear of some supernatural entity. I see it already with my own children, now young adults, where most of their social circle spend no time in a religious environment. It makes no sense to them to do so. I envision this attitude growing as generations come and go. Those young people will develop their own coping mechanisms for dire circumstances when their lives require it, I have no doubt. What that will be exactly remains to be seen.

  21. Brad
    Posted November 14, 2013 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    Faith should only be a concern so far as the activity it inspires.

    • Posted November 14, 2013 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      In a lifeboat, suppose we take a vote, and they guy sitting next to me votes Yes on a plan that leaves me in the water. Then, we find out that that vote was a hoax.

      Sure, that guy’s attitude hasn’t resulted in any activity, but I have gotten a peek into his mind.

      William Kingdon Clifford:

      “No real belief, however trifling and fragmentary it may seem, is ever truly insignificant; it prepares us to receive more of its like, confirms those which resembled it before, and weakens others; and so gradually it lays a stealthy train in our inmost thoughts, which may someday explode into overt action.”

      • darrelle
        Posted November 15, 2013 at 6:23 am | Permalink

        Nice quote. I have never come across it before. It states very clearly what I have sometimes tried to relate in a much more muddled way.

        Nice comments by the way, this one and the longer one above.

    • Kevin
      Posted November 14, 2013 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

      Faith tends to be systemic. One of the reasons Hitchens (and myself) was so interested in it. When you learn what sport or music or beer someone likes it can reveal something about that person, but it does not necessarily reveal other qualities about that person.

      When a person pronounces a specific faith in a god or religion or ghosts or prayer there is inevitable coherence to a much larger set of parameters that one can begin to formulate about this person. This is unlike other aesthetic features we, as humans, carry with us.

      I think that, on the whole, most people inevitably live secular lives, e.g., eat, drink, poop, sleep, walk, talk, so there are degrees in which their ‘activities’ are directly manufactured by their faith. Those types of activities, I content, are infrequent, but ‘faith’ is more pervasive than knowing what tea to drink (or maybe even being allowed to drink some type of tea based on faith!).

  22. Posted November 14, 2013 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    I’m not worried about the pleasing fantasies of dying grandmothers.

    I’m not even all that concerned with particular individuals and their beliefs.

    The goal is a rational society, and that’s something mainly achieved by honesty, even brutal honesty, with those young enough to not yet be set in their ways. And that, in turn, means doing all those things that the old guard decries as strident, mean, militant, and the like.

    I’m not at all about to break into an hospice in order to ridicule some dying stranger for play-pretend cannibalizing Christ as a dude in a black shirt with white neckwear smiles at her and offers her comfort.

    But I will open a “dialogue” with a door-to-door Jesus salesman with something along the lines of, “Aren’t you a bit old to still believe that sort of thing?”

    And people like you, Jerry, and Richard and Sam and all the rest need to continue using your bully pulpits to express as much in your own words.

    Don’t worry about the little old ladies on their death beds. They’re not reading evolutionary Web sites or queueing up Dawkins debates on Youtube. Speak and write for the masses, and don’t pull your punches.



    • Posted November 14, 2013 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

      one counter re “They’re not reading evolutionary Web sites or queueing up Dawkins debates on Youtube.”

      The above ?

      The above is s o o o o, so NOT.NOT.NOT true.


      • Posted November 14, 2013 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

        If there are little old ladies who, on their deathbeds, are visiting WEIT and watching Dawkins debate Deepak, then:

        a) more power to ’em;

        2) they know what they’re getting themselves into; and

        III) they’re not the proverbial near-dead little old ladies the faithiests keep getting their knickers knotted over.


        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted November 15, 2013 at 12:09 am | Permalink

          Absolutely agree with 2. We absolutely are not obligated to try to avoid offending someone who comes here knowing what they’re going to get. We just shouldn’t ambush anybody in a vulnerable moment.

          As for the guy in a bus station – it’s a public place. It’s his problem if his faith is so shaky it can be disturbed by overhearing a conversation. But I wouldn’t mount a concerted attack on his beliefs unless I could offer something to replace it – and even then I probably wouldn’t, who am I to judge what’s better for him.

          (Disclaimer: My wife gives Big J his orders for the day every morning. She knows I don’t believe but we just fudge around the issue. If she dies first I expect we’ll have a big Xtian funeral just to keep her family happy. If I die first I expect I’ll have a big Xtian funeral – it will console her and make no difference to me, not that I’ll have any say in the matter…)

  23. Bruce Gorton
    Posted November 15, 2013 at 12:54 am | Permalink

    If I took God away and put in its place the rational argumentation of science, with its empirical validation, what would that even mean to this man? How would it help him go on with his life? How could science teach him to cope with life in a world without the magic of supernatural belief?

    I can answer that.

    Without a God there is no divine plan, that the ‘strength’ to work in demeaning conditions is meaningless, and that things do not need to remain that way.

    There is no God, there is no purpose, there is no reason things have to continue to suck.

    Instead of having a head full of God, that man could clear the space needed to innovate and improve things for himself.

    Science doesn’t provide solace, but it does provide tools a person can apply to achieve real world aims. Instead of spiritual claptrap that anguished person could have the tools to not have to work for a humiliatingly low minimum wage, or at the very least reduce the effort of doing so.

  24. Posted November 15, 2013 at 1:41 am | Permalink

    David, a good friend and neighbour, and a really nice likeable guy, was an agnostic…. until, he got terminal cancer. He got sucked up by some evangelical christian sect that indirectly promised him a cure. It was heartbreaking to watch what I considered to be the destruction of this vibrant personality into becoming this fervent pathetic little figure, dressed all in black, bible in hand spending his remaining time in what I saw as a desperate madness. But I said nothing, how dare I do anything else? In one quiet moment together he said to me “I know I look totally absurd Howard, and I am, but I can’t help myself – I’m afraid”.

    I think that in certain circumstances such as this all we non-believers can do is look to our own lives and quietly give an example to others that it is actually possible for an atheist to cope with those bitter trials of life and draw strength from our own life values. Hitch did that so very well both during and at the end of his own life.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted November 16, 2013 at 12:22 am | Permalink


      Others, when faced with terminal disease, spend huge sums on spurious therapies and woo of various types. Exactly the same mechanism is going on. It’s hard to condemn people for clutching at straws.

  25. Owen Recognizance
    Posted November 15, 2013 at 5:22 am | Permalink

    I read Gleiser’s earlier book, A Tear at the Edge of Creation, a few years ago. He is a lapsed string theorist who has now lost faith in the possibility of a ToE of any kind–there are only broken symmetries all the way down, according to him. He suggested that the search for Theories of Everything was fundamentally the same thing as the search for god, & that we shouldn’t under any circumstances give in to the impulse…unless it makes us feel good.

  26. frothingslosh
    Posted November 15, 2013 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    To be quite honest, I REALLY dislike the ‘dying grandmother’ scenario because it’s intellectually dishonest. It presents itself as being about religion, but it’s really asking whether you should or should not undermine someone’s sense of hope. The dying grandmother (and people in general) usually clings to religion as a shield against the fear of death, in the hope that they won’t, in the end, truly die after all, because of a life after death.

    The question is really asking if it’s right to destroy someone’s sense of hope simply because you object to that from which the hope springs, and is an unwinnable question if you’re an athiest or tend that way – either you admit that religion has a place, or you admit you’re a terrible person with no compassion, which is precisely what the religious tend to make athiests out to be. It’s the theological version of the lawyer asking the defendant if he’s stopped beating his wife yet.

  27. Posted November 15, 2013 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    There’s two questions it seems – “is it good to have faith?”, “does it always make sense to try to remove the faith from someone who has it?” The answer to the first can be “no” without the second thereby being “yes”. The 100 year old smoker is a good parallel example.

  28. Marcel Volker
    Posted November 15, 2013 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    Faith is like a crutch for the weak or the cripple.

    Science* doesn’t want to take the crutch away. Science wants to heal the cripple – then they will throw away the crutches themselves.

    *scientists, rationalists, whatever.

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