Templeton hands out nearly $3 million to learn why people are atheists

Here is three million dollars down the tubes—money that could be used to advance our understanding of nature. Yes, the John Templeton Foundation—which is again mad at me for criticizing them yesterday and has asked for a “meeting”—has given a grant of nearly $3 million to the University of Kent so that underemployed religious scholars, sociologists, and anthropologists can figure out why people don’t believe in God. The amount of money far exceeds grants normally given out in the humanities, so penurious scholars will be flocking to the trough.

Here’s the announcement:


Will anything useful come of this? I’ve learned that any proposal, no matter how useless-sounding, can be defended, so I’ll allow readers to defend this one. I’ll say only two things. First, I’d prefer a study of why people are religious and believe in gods, since it seems to me that the answers to the questions above are be 1). People are born nonbelievers and have to be taught conventional religion, and 2). Most nonbelievers, either those who never were religious or those who gave up faith, did so because there is no evidence for gods.  It’s a more interesting question why people believe in ridiculous myths in the absence of evidence. So the Big Question is really why born unbelievers become inculcated with nonsense that their parents and elders have chosen to believe? How did religious mythology get started, and why is it so appealing?

Second, here are the two principal investigators:

Dr Lois Lee, Religious Studies, University of Kent
Dr Stephen Bullivant, Religious Studies and Theology, St Mary’s University, Twickenham

To me this is like asking creationists to direct a sociological study of why so many scientists accept evolution.

If you want to see how the money will be used, here’s a link to the announcement and call for proposals from the University of Kent.

h/t: Alexander


  1. Griff
    Posted September 13, 2016 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    They only had to ask.

    • Billy Bl.
      Posted September 13, 2016 at 10:24 am | Permalink

      I’d charge at least 50 bucks. These folks seem to have money to burn.

    • busterggi
      Posted September 13, 2016 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

      or just read a few blogs.

      But there’s no prophet in that.

  2. Curt Nelson
    Posted September 13, 2016 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    It would also be interesting to know just what it is that makes people believe the Earth is spherical.

    • rickflick
      Posted September 13, 2016 at 11:24 am | Permalink

      I learned that the Earth is an oblate spheroid…and I’m sticking to it.

      • August Berkshire
        Posted September 13, 2016 at 11:26 am | Permalink

        Why are you so close-minded?

        • rickflick
          Posted September 13, 2016 at 11:48 am | Permalink

          Good question. Well worth a million dollar study. You’ll get a self-addressed, stamped envelope within 10 days.

        • Posted September 13, 2016 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

          “Why are you so close-minded?” is probably going to be the subtitle of their study.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted September 13, 2016 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

          The technical reason rickflick is sticking to it is known as ‘gravity’ …


          • rickflick
            Posted September 13, 2016 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

            That’s generally true relatively speaking. I always follow the shortest path through space-time and when heading out for ice cream.

      • Glandu
        Posted September 15, 2016 at 6:46 am | Permalink

        Even this is just an approximation.

  3. Reginald Le Sueur
    Posted September 13, 2016 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    This is like the “shifting the burden of proof”  fallacy.

  4. Barry Lyons
    Posted September 13, 2016 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    Well, I hope you have that meeting, and I hope you bring up your better idea: provide funding for a study on why people are NOT atheists! “It’s a more interesting question why people believe in ridiculous myths in the absence of evidence.” Exactly!

    • peterstanbridge
      Posted September 13, 2016 at 11:17 am | Permalink

      Exactly, I agree entirely.

  5. Posted September 13, 2016 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    It quite amusing that Templeton folks want to “meet” with you. Obviously they keep track of most everything that is written about them, especially negative pieces. You are of course wise to decline such a meeting, since it would be like Nye engaging Ham – that only benefited Ham. But it sure would be tempting to have a fantastic meal with a $500 bottle of wine and maybe a $100 a sip cognac whilst not discussing anything.

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted September 13, 2016 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

      The movie “Generosities”, starring Jerry and Hili-shirt as Adam & Eve, Templeton as The Snake, and Oriole as The Garden, opens soon at a theater near you!

  6. NormG
    Posted September 13, 2016 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    How did I end up in a world where not believing in a deity or afterlife is an extraordinary claim?

    • johzek
      Posted September 13, 2016 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

      Otherwise,you would have to live in a world where our minds did not have the ability to imagine or in a world in which imagined things were not confused with perceived things for whatever reason. That doesn’t answer your question but it does identify the source of the problem.

  7. Posted September 13, 2016 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    Wow, the JTF really asked you for a meeting? I’d take that as a really good sign that your criticisms are having a real effect. Nice work!

    • Posted September 13, 2016 at 11:21 am | Permalink

      They did it last year, too, and offered me a fancy dinner at an expensive restaurant. They explicitly wanted to convince me that I was wrong about them, and weren’t interested in my criticisms of them. The executive who asked for the meeting also made what I considered a veiled threat: he said he was going to publish a review of Faith Versus Fact.

      I refused that meeting, and now this one. When they stop spending millions of dollars buttressing myths, then I’ll reconsider.

      • Posted September 13, 2016 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

        Sounds like the smart move to me. For not being interested in your criticisms, they sure seem interested in your criticisms!

      • HaggisForBrains
        Posted September 14, 2016 at 3:17 am | Permalink

        Did they publish the review? Can we have a link, please?

        • Alexander
          Posted September 14, 2016 at 4:40 am | Permalink

          Interesting. Do they also pay for the trip (plane, hotel)?

  8. Mr B Collins
    Posted September 13, 2016 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    I’ll do it for a mere million. I am baptized and confirmed in the C of E and I have a philosophy degree so I must be qualified (it’s not exactly a hard question, is it?)

  9. Alexandra M
    Posted September 13, 2016 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    “…which is again mad at me for criticizing them yesterday and has asked for a “meeting”…”

    Agree to the meeting and tell them your rate is $3 million per hour.

    I see a lot of other people had the same idea!

  10. Frank Bath
    Posted September 13, 2016 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    I wonder how many of the 500 million buddhists they will ask?

  11. BobTerrace
    Posted September 13, 2016 at 10:07 am | Permalink


    I will apply for part of this grant. If they give me the $526, I will answer their questions and they can then give the $2,877.000 to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

    • Wunold
      Posted September 14, 2016 at 4:51 am | Permalink

      Why this one in particular? It has been criticised on many fronts, just search the Wikipedia page for “critic” (without “s” to find all variations of the word).

  12. Kevin Meredith
    Posted September 13, 2016 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    So, a $3 million study on how to turn people into atheists. I hope they publish the results!

    • Alexander
      Posted September 13, 2016 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

      In Social Text ?

      • Kevin Meredith
        Posted September 13, 2016 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

        If they discover the magic formula to turning people into atheists, I hope it’s published beyond that

        • Alexander
          Posted September 13, 2016 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

          You mean “the magic formula that turns atheists (as we are born) into believers?”

          Answer: Brainwashing

          • Wunold
            Posted September 14, 2016 at 4:53 am | Permalink

            We need the formular for reversing it.

            • Kevin Meredith
              Posted September 14, 2016 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

              I have a long background in marketing. So when someone says they’re going to spend $3 million to figure out how someone arrived at a certain point of view, I anticipate a blueprint for helping others arrive at that point of view.

              I mean, I was kinda joking. I doubt the study would have much value, given the sponsor.

  13. Kevin
    Posted September 13, 2016 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    Would society be better off funding my research proposals? I don’t know. I’d like to think so. I’ve been part of a few programs that are questionable, at best. Does money like this fund higher education? Probably. Will the people be able to (very likely) pursue other research while being funded by Templeton? Almost certainly.

    A lot of ‘work for others’ can be accomplished in a small portion of a workday; the rest can be left for curiosities that drive humanity.

    I seem to recall a patent clerk who changed everything…


  14. Mark Cagnetta
    Posted September 13, 2016 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    Here is the influence of Templeton at ASU:

  15. Posted September 13, 2016 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    Send them a copy of FvF and an invoice for $2,877,526.

  16. Historian
    Posted September 13, 2016 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    I get the sense that the project leaders are treating atheism as a disease and they view finding the causes of its growth as the first step in devising a strategy to exterminate it. I also think this project is another manifestation of how defensive the faithful have become in recent years. For them, atheism is no longer a minor irritant, but a major threat. This, by the way, is why I think that the centuries long hostility between Catholics and Protestants has greatly diminished. There is now a marriage of convenience to fight the common foe. If the “threat” of atheism were ever to diminish, they would quickly go back to hating each other.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted September 13, 2016 at 11:28 am | Permalink

      That’s the impression I got to – that there’s something wrong with people who are atheists and they need fixing. It appears they have the assumption that the Abrahamic God exists and want to explain the bewildering phenomenon that more and more don’t get it.

      Even if God is real, the study still should be why people believe that since we’re not born believing. The problem is we already know that of course; the only reason we believe is because we’re taught to as children.

      So then we need to move onto why it’s okay to teach children to believe something for which there’s no evidence and is not beneficial to them. I would argue time spent teaching religion would be better spent teaching ethics, coping strategies, logic, and other things that support strong mental health.

    • eric
      Posted September 13, 2016 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

      I get the sense that the project leaders are treating atheism as a disease and they view finding the causes of its growth

      They know one of the primary causes: better normal (mainstream) education. The fundies and evangelicals realized that a long time ago, its why the homeschool and private Christian school movement took off. Its why low-quality high-cost private Christian colleges survive.

      For some reason, the mainstream believers either don’t want to discuss it, don’t want to admit it, or want to believe it’s correlation without causation.

      I guess we should be glad they don’t really want to admit it. Otherwise, they’d probably do what the fundies decided to do, and stop supporting mainstream education.

    • eric
      Posted September 13, 2016 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

      We already know one of the major causes: better education.

      The fundies know it too; that’s why they homeschool and private school their kids.

      Mainstream believers seem to have their head in the sand about the impact of education on faith; its not consistent with knowledge. As one goes up, the other goes down.

      My apologies if this is a repeat post; I tried to post a similar comment earlier but it didn’t seem to go through.

      • rickflick
        Posted September 13, 2016 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

        The better education that causes atheism is independent of reading, writing, and arithmetic. The fundies I know with home schooling are excellent students and do well on all the tests. But, their brains are marinated so that they attribute anything good in life to the grace of God. Their household band plays mostly hymns and gospel stuff. I hope they don’t waste their talent as they mature doing proselytizing and theology.

    • Glandu
      Posted September 15, 2016 at 6:49 am | Permalink

      Same in the muslim world. Shias & Sunnis hate each other, but throw an atheist in the room, and th’yell be allied until he’s exterminated. Before switching back to their old rivalry.

  17. Nicolas Perrault
    Posted September 13, 2016 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    Why would they want to meet with you if it was not to try limit further “damage” to their ridiculous enterprise? I suspect they will try to silence you by dangling an advantage of some kind. Better not to have an exchange with such people. Virtue has its own reward.

    • Sastra
      Posted September 13, 2016 at 10:57 am | Permalink

      I suspect they will ask for Jerry’s input. Biased doesn’t always mean close-minded.

      Templeton also has a history of occasionally wanting to be “fair” to both sides. Inside the agenda is a somewhat diverse group.

      • loren russell
        Posted September 13, 2016 at 11:31 am | Permalink

        According to Jerry, they seem to have all the input they want from his writings — seems they want to supply the input if they can get him in front of them. Don’t suppose they’ll show him the torture tools beyond the dreaded book review, though.

        • Grammarian
          Posted September 13, 2016 at 11:38 am | Permalink

          If you are alluding to Galileo, the anecdote about the torture tools is, like many of the facts, not true.

          • Alexander
            Posted September 13, 2016 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

            I’m sure Galileo was aware about the methods the Holy Inquisition used.

          • loren russell
            Posted September 14, 2016 at 12:16 am | Permalink

            ..a true fact, however, is that sarcasm is wasted on the nitpicking grammarians..

        • Sastra
          Posted September 13, 2016 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

          Hey, if they say they want his “input” then I say he call their bluff. Ask that atheist(s) who are respected by the community either be added to the “Understanding Belief” project or receive funding for a second version of the same project. Will they get the same results?

          They have the money, the popularity, the power of the status quo. Any impact we make is not to their benefit — unless they really are just interested in research and discovery.

          • Posted September 13, 2016 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

            I am pretty sure that they don’t want his input. They know what they would be getting via JAC’s posts about the Foundation. What they most likely are after is to be able to tout the fact that they met with Jerry, regardless of any outcome. Another likely part of the the strategy would be try to show Jerry all of the wonderful projects that they fund, for which he should be giving them kudos. As Jerry knows, he has nothing to gain from such a meeting.

  18. S Pimpernel
    Posted September 13, 2016 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    Be happy to accompany you as your attorney. Never know what these representatives might do, or say, or try.

    • Grammarian
      Posted September 13, 2016 at 11:12 am | Permalink

      Perhaps Templeton just misunderstood. It’s not a lot of money once one realized there are virtually hundreds of gods to not believe in. The unbelief of some, but I’m guessing not all, atheists is directed at the Christian God. Being both fair- and high-minded, Templeton would not want to exclude from measurement unbelievers in all those other gods. That takes real money.

      There’s also this to consider: Grant-making institutions like Templeton don’t really do or produce much; they exist to find entities to give money to. So vetting grant applications – however absurd – is, for these bureaucrats, production. It matters little of what quality or substance the final work turns out to be. If you put the patients on a terminal ward, some will turn out to be the healthiest and to have the longest life expectancy.

      Templeton staff spend their days vetting applications, creating new grant opportunities, arranging meetings and conferences, and managing Templeton Money.

      So meetings are production.

      And high-level meetings with high-value targets are bonus-worthy.

      You arranged a meeting with Jerry Coyne? You’re like the tax nerd that figured out how to get Al Capone.

      Given enough time, the improbable becomes virtually certain. I’m sure Dr. Coyne that eventually Templeton will award you with either a grant or a prize, neither of which will require you to assist them with anything.

      • tubby
        Posted September 13, 2016 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

        I’m pretty sure that atheism is directed at all gods.

        • Glandu
          Posted September 15, 2016 at 6:55 am | Permalink

          Well, in theory, yes, but for those who live in a country with one single overwhelming religion(think Alabama, or Saudi Arabia), the relations of “I don’t believe” is usually not even thought about by the atheist against other religions.

          If you ask him/her if he believes another thing, he will answer you “no”, and this will make you right. But in his/her world, noone will ask him/her the question. The other gods are simply not part of the equation.

          That’s how I understand it. I’m surrounded by catholics, muslims, (and atheists, it’s France, after all), and my wife is evangelical, so for me, the Gods to say “no” to are in big numbers. For the Godless in Dixie, not so much.

  19. Tom
    Posted September 13, 2016 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    I blame religion for making people athiests.

    • Posted September 13, 2016 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

      I blame religion for making God.

    • Posted September 13, 2016 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

      I agree, Tom. The modern notion of “atheism” is a direct reaction to the modern, fundamentalist conceptions of “God” as a discrete Being or Object that “exists” in relation/contrast to a material world. Atheism is the appropriate response to such an absurd and historically invalid definition of “God.”

      • GBJames
        Posted September 13, 2016 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

        No. It is the direct reaction to the idea of gods, period. Not just “fundamentalist conceptions”.

        • Posted September 13, 2016 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

          It assumes, as fundamentalists do, that “god” is something with an ontological status as either existent or not. That definition is fundamentally fundamentalist. It follows from a long line of physicalist assumptions (adhered to by fundamentalist conceptions of religion) that have dominated western thought since Aristotle, but especially since the enlightenment.

        • Posted September 13, 2016 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

          There are many ancient and modern conceptions of “god” wherein “god” IS natural order, or IS existence itself, or IS consciousness, or IS the cosmos. Unless you are a true nihilist who reject any validity to the practice of science, these definitions mean “god” is simply defined into existence via language. Same as calling everything that we experience the “universe” means that the universe exists, definitionally, regardless of that actually means (metaphysically). Similarly, “god” is a word game. You reject a particular dedinition of “god” (a supernatural being) and I agree with you. But there are many definitions of “god” that do not make any ontological claim, they make a definitional assertion.

          • GBJames
            Posted September 13, 2016 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

            My sophistry detector has been buzzing pretty loudly.

            Please provide a list of “non-fundamentalist” religions that atheism isn’t a reaction to.

            • Posted September 13, 2016 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

              Ha. Indeed. Mine too. “Non-fundamentalist” religions would include versions of … Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufism, Mystic Christianity, Taoism. Basically any conception of “God” that is fundamentally Idealist or Nondual (most versions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Mysticism (Christian, Islamic, Judaic)) or is strictly naturalistic (like Taoism or Stoicism) wherein nature is metaphorically a dynamic and creative organism, rather than a machine that obeyed laws (of indeterminate origin). There are many in religious community who recognize this word game re: “God” and consider themselves “atheist” (in Hinduism and Buddhism for instance). If you want quotes from theologians or “scripture” denying “God” I can provide. Ha.

              • GBJames
                Posted September 14, 2016 at 8:27 am | Permalink

                I’ve heard this line before… that people didn’t actually believe any of their religious tales were true until along came “fundamentalists”. Just a bunch of metaphors, doncha know.

                I have no use for quotes from theologians, thanks. Their discipline represents a concentrated effort at understanding things for which no evidence exists. The ultimate waste of time.

                Sociology/Anthropology/Psychology/History can offer insights to the extent that real humans have held to a great variety of ideas over time, both religious and not. To assert that people didn’t think religious ideas were true (until along trots a fundamentalist) is unsupportable historically and anthropologically.

              • Posted September 14, 2016 at 9:05 am | Permalink

                Well, I don’t suppose either of us will convince the other. My contention is not that people didn’t believe their notions of ‘god’ as literal. I agree that most did. My point is that there has always ALSO been an esoteric understanding that any physical representation was symbolic, nothing more. This denial of explicit physical or literal representation is explicit in all eastern religions, but also Judaism and mystic version of Christianity and Islam. But you can discover that easily enough if you want, and I could provide thousands of quotes both old and new (but won’t, per your request :)). If you want to believe as you currently do, that all religious ideas go no deeper than their exoteric images, suit yourself. No loss. I suppose you can go on imagine that electrons are really little bits of energy that spin around a nucleus like a little solar system too. Lord knows science is literal truth, not metaphorical.🙂

                My larger point is that all human conceptions are metaphorical, even things we imagine to be literal (like science, history, anthropology, so forth). All conceptions of knowledge are framed in the present, based on trust in authority (sources of information, education, so forth), our own perception and reason, then extrapolated to build a concept of the past and future. All concepts, even ones we imagine to be literal, are metaphorical. And whatever story we tell ourselves about what ‘reality’ IS is our mythology of choice.

                I’ll go back to Nietzsche, since I think he said it better than anyone (and long before there was any empirical evidence from quantum physics or cognitive science to support epistemological skepticism), “What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions.”

              • Posted September 14, 2016 at 9:24 am | Permalink

                I completely agree with you that “Sociology/Anthropology/Psychology/History can offer insights to the extent that real humans have held to a great variety of ideas over time, both religious and not.”

                Funnily enough it exactly those sources that provide overwhelming evidence against your following assertion:

                “To assert that people didn’t think religious ideas were true (until along trots a fundamentalist) is unsupportable historically and anthropologically.”

                And it comes down the very vexing quandary of what we mean by “true.” Coherent? Correlative? Pragmatic? Perceptual? Explanatory? Predictive? Does it mean physical? What flavor of “true”? Can a thought be “true”? Can a symbol be a “true” representation of something else? Can a metaphor (say our description of an electron) be “true” even if not literal? “True” is tricky business!

                I have yet to encounter some “true” statement that can’t be construed as “false” by juggling the flavor of truth.

              • GBJames
                Posted September 14, 2016 at 9:32 am | Permalink

                “My point is that there has always ALSO been an esoteric understanding that any physical representation was symbolic.”

                And how could you know that? And if it was the case then it would ALSO include all fundamentalists. It is a concept that covers everything and explains nothing. Similarly this:

                “all human conceptions are metaphorical… All conceptions of knowledge are framed in the present… All concepts are metaphorical…”

                These are useless statements. They differentiate nothing from anything else. They explain nothing because they pretend to explain everything. They work in conversation within certain Humanities departments and on Dr. Bronners Soap packaging, but out here in the world where you can stub your toe on an honest-go-goodness rock, they don’t offer much.

              • Posted September 14, 2016 at 9:42 am | Permalink

                Ha. Yes. I agree that ‘fundamentalism’ (what might be called ‘exoteric’ religious understanding) has always been present. Furthermore, to your point, it has always been far MORE popular than esoteric views. So I agree with you about that.

                The role of metaphor in language is a deeper discussion about language, psychology, philosophy, so forth. There is plenty of evidence, and I’m a big fan of what is called ’embodied cognition.’ This view holds that human conceptualizations are fundamentally metaphorical, based on embodied experience of existence. That physical embodiment would frame our metaphors for reality isn’t so surprising. More surprising are experiments that have shown novel metaphors (like ‘the past is heavy’ versus ‘the present is heavy’) to influence how we PHYSICALLY experience something that represents the metaphor (subjects told ‘the past is heavy’ subjectively determined the old version of textbook to be heavier than a new version. subjects told ‘the present is heavy’ determined the new version of textbooks to be heavier than the old version. the old and new books weighed the same). This ties into the decades of research by Kahneman,et al that showed how profoundly subjective experience is, and how remarkably blind we are to our own biases.

                But I am fundamentally a skeptic. I don’t think ‘justified true belief’ is possible. It amusing me to no end that I play the role of skeptic as a Theist among Atheists. I am Theist in the same way that Neitzsche was. Funny how the world turns.

              • Posted September 14, 2016 at 10:19 am | Permalink

                I think it’s a false dichotomy. That is, it is strictly a question of the metaphor we use to conceptualize the cosmos. Creating an “OR” for something that is perhaps better understood as “both.” Since Newton’s Clockwork universe, I think the cosmos has been understood using the machine metaphor (inanimate, dead, inert, works according to strict programmatic laws). Another (more ancient and more eastern) metaphor is to conceive of the universe as an organism, creative, evolving, and metaphorically alive. But to imagine it IS one or the other is, as I think you were pointing out, a mistake.

                As it relates to the idea of “god” (specifically in pantheism/panentheism), I think it is harder to imagine “god” as an inert machine cosmos than as an alive, dynamic cosmos. That is how I think the metaphor we use to imagine the cosmos can relate to what we imagine “god” to possibly mean.

              • Wunold
                Posted September 14, 2016 at 9:42 am | Permalink

                Please explain the difference between “a dynamic and creative organism” and “a machine that obeyed laws”, because

                – any dynamic, creative organism we know also is a (biological) machine that obeys laws (of nature),
                – thermoDYNAMICS are part of the laws of nature, and
                Computational creativity, although in its infancy, already is a reality.

              • Posted September 14, 2016 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

                Wunold, I agree with you. I think it is a false dichotomy. I think the difference is conceptual. It’s just a question of the metaphorical associations we that attach to our idea of the cosmos.

                The answer above (“I think it’s a false dichotomy…”) was intended for here.

            • Posted September 13, 2016 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

              I should first add that I think any assertion that language can provide propositional truth is itself the finest of philosophical parlor tricks.. sophistry indeed. So I agree with you that whatever extent we think we are talking about ‘truth,’ we are engaging in sophistry. Perhaps Nietzsche said it best: “Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions.”

              But to provide a quick example of the varied meanings of “god” from a non-religious source. Marcus Aurelius in “Meditations” contrasts our two very different conceptions of “god.” He belittles the notion of supernatural “gods,” as you and I do:
              “To a thoughtful mind such a religion as that of Rome would give small satisfaction. Its legends were often childish or impossible; its teaching had little to do with morality. The Roman religion was in fact of the nature of a bargain: men paid certain sacrifices and rites, and the gods granted their favour, irrespective of right or wrong.”

              But elsewhere, he speaks of natural order or what we might call “the laws of nature” as revealing an inherent orderliness to the universe (the basis of what call science today): “Either this universe is a mere confused mass, and an intricate context of things, which shall in time be scattered and dispersed again: or it is an union consisting of order, and administered by Providence.”

              I take “Providence” to mean “god” in the Pantheistic sense, roughly the same as the Monad of Leibnitz, or God of Spinoza and Einstein (both atheist/agnostic by your definition). Taosim seems to me very much in this spirit as well.

              This does not touch on the Idealistic conceptions of “God” (or “No God” if you prefer) in Hinduism and Buddhism.

    • Posted September 13, 2016 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

      Going back a few millennium, the term “atheism” seems to have had more to do with societal “order” (which was often seen as a reflection of divine order… the old Hermetic saying, ‘as above, so below’). Thus social troublemakers like Socrates and Christians were labelled “atheists” by authorities. The notion that “order” was the fundamental attribute of “God” seems lost on many modern atheists who gladly recognize order in nature (hence the validity of science), but sensibly reject the idea that this order was created by a magical being of some sort. However, I’d say modern “atheism” is just a reprisal of any number of many ancient forms of “theism.”

      • Alexander
        Posted September 14, 2016 at 11:58 pm | Permalink

        I think this is just babble, trying to get the idea of the existence of a god in trough the back door. It is this kind of woolly thinking that has opened the floodgates in Germany to a fascistic religion imported by massive funding by the religious authorities in Turkey. And the Christian organizations in Germany love this woolly thinking, any god, how monstrous it may be, is better than no god.

        • Posted September 15, 2016 at 6:44 am | Permalink

          Funnily, like a good Judeo-Christian, you are assuming “the existence of god” is an ontological question. Then, perhaps troubled by the ambiguous nature of language, you assert any non-propositional approach to be “wooly thinking.” I do not believe God exists in any ontological sense. No more than your thoughts exist. Do they exist?

          • Alexander
            Posted September 15, 2016 at 7:34 am | Permalink

            Yes, they do exist, I just wrote them down. Your arguments remind me of the French postmodern thinker, Bruno Latour, who, upon the discovery in 1976 by researchers that the pharaoh Ramses II died of an infection with the Koch Bacillus, that this discovery had to be wrong. Latour argued that the Koch bacillus did not exist during the time Ramses II lived because it was not yet discovered, so it could not be responsible for the death of the pharaoh.

            • Posted September 15, 2016 at 7:42 am | Permalink

              Ha. I don’t have any idea of how the Latour story relates to my argument, but it’s a great story. Seems more pertinent your side of the argument to me, but our cognitive biases and blindnesses likely make it inevitably so for eachnof us. You assert that your thoughts exist and that words appearing on a page are proof of them. Similar to how a Theist might say a tree is proof of “god”? Funny how that works. I don’t think either is proof of anything.

            • Posted September 15, 2016 at 7:50 am | Permalink

              These are recursive word games. We base our concepts of what is “real” or what “exists” (profoundly nebulous terms) upon definitions of words that are themselves nebulous. We define things into and out of existence in how we use language. Word games. Someone saying “god exists” can hold the exact same ontological position as someone who does “god does not exist.” And Carnap just vomited in his grave. But “the map is not the territory.” Perhaps you are a believer in Carnap project and think the ‘map’ of symbolic language CAN describe the ‘territory’ of ‘reality’ perfectly someday. To which I say good luck, you are a man of more faith than any Catholic. Ha.

            • Posted September 15, 2016 at 8:16 am | Permalink

              That recursive relationship between how we define terms and how we define reality is why I mentioned the accounts of Socrates and Christians being charged with “atheism.” Not because they were or weren’t “atheists” but because it informs us regarding how the definition of “atheism” has changed over time and provides clues as to what it may have meant in the past. I see no reason to assume that the definition of “atheism” won’t continue to morph. It seems to me all language, all meaning, does.

  20. Sastra
    Posted September 13, 2016 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    The easiest defense of this study is to point out that, if done with a neutral, scientific approach, there is no reason to assume that the results will show that atheism is a sort of pathology which ought to be eliminated. It’s just as likely to come to the opposite conclusion — that atheism is a reasonable conclusion and that atheists tend to lead more healthy, balanced lives than theists. Plenty of people with a degree in Religious Studies are atheists themselves.

    The easiest rebuttal to this defense is to point out that this study is being funded by the Templeton Foundation. Their track record on The Big Questions is … biased. Believing in God is wise, good, and makes people better.

    • Jenny Haniver
      Posted September 13, 2016 at 11:05 am | Permalink

      To me, the very use of the terms “scientific” and “scientifically” in this context is oxymoronic and offensive, and I think there’s an inherent bias in the formulation of their thesis/proposal, so it’s hardly going to be neutral.

      • Sastra
        Posted September 13, 2016 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

        Yes, the wording is strange. They put “unbelief” in quotes, and refer to it as a “phenomenon.” It sounds like it was written by people who believe in God.

        As far as “understanding the nature and variety” of “unbelief,” I’ve read about studies done by atheists and others which seemed intent on just collecting accurate data. I think it’s useful to know what sorts of reasons and attitudes range across atheists, if we’re going to involve ourselves in an atheist ‘movement.’ Or just try to understand what’s happening in the world.

    • WT
      Posted September 13, 2016 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

      Agreed on both defense and rebuttal.

      I can easily see value in rigorous, unbiased studies into unbelief. However, given JTF’s involvement and the phrasing of that grant description, I would be extremely skeptical that the results will be either rigorous or unbiased.

      • GBJames
        Posted September 13, 2016 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

        Huh? Please outline what a study of unbelief in, for example, John Frum might look like.

    • Posted September 13, 2016 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

      Religion is a social construct, enter the centre of all that is subjective, as the results are no more true from a foundation of social consensus — no more than claiming red is better than green.

  21. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted September 13, 2016 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    I am not bothered in principle by a research project that aims to learn how people come to atheism. Atheism is worth understanding, is it not?

    I say in principle, but what is of course problematical is the amount and source of the funding, given the known history of meddling from the JTF.

    • Posted September 13, 2016 at 11:31 am | Permalink

      Similarly some people in religious studies departments some places are decent social scientists. So maybe … But I wouldn’t want to take that source of money.

  22. August Berkshire
    Posted September 13, 2016 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    I can give you their conclusion right now: A loving, all-powerful God exists but atheists are in denial and refuse to acknowledge Him because they either want to be their own god (they lack proper humility) or they have had a bad experience with man-made religions that don’t properly reflect this wonderful God.

    • Tom
      Posted September 13, 2016 at 11:23 am | Permalink

      You are probably right and they are probably wrong, although they would deny that.
      For some reason it reminds me of an old song “The Windmills of your Mind”

      • August Berkshire
        Posted September 13, 2016 at 11:29 am | Permalink

        “Like a circle in a spiral,
        Like a wheel within a wheel;
        Never ending or beginning,
        Like an endless spinning reel…”

    • Sastra
      Posted September 13, 2016 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      What, you think they’d be that blatant?

      No, their conclusion is more likely to be something like “nonbelievers rate higher on arrogance and anger, and are unhappier than believers. It remains to be seen if an acquaintance with less fundamentalist and more reasonable versions of God would be successful in changing this.”

      Let other people connect the dots.

  23. Graham
    Posted September 13, 2016 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    They want to look at the nature and variety of unbelief. This could be an interesting exercise. Self defining “atheists” or people seen as unbelievers are as varied (or are they?) as those describing themselves as Christians. There are people who are ‘unbelievers’ with regard to gods whilst still believing in afterlives, there are the ‘not religious but spiritual’ brigade (Do they count?), the humanists, the non-Christocentric Quakers, the apatheists and so on. I think it would be interesting to map out this terrain but a) share your concern that this study is being lead by the (apparently) religious and b)it sure as hell isn’t something that needs nearly $3 million spending on it.

  24. Posted September 13, 2016 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    The description is a challenging exercise in reading between the lines. It’s impressive how it subtly conveys the well-camouflaged question, “what’s wrong with these people?”

    • Sastra
      Posted September 13, 2016 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

      Another Big Question! But they’re whispering this one!

    • Glandu
      Posted September 15, 2016 at 6:57 am | Permalink

      What’s wrong??? They’re right, here is what is wrong with them…

  25. J.Baldwin
    Posted September 13, 2016 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    People believe in myths in the absence of evidence in part because to stop believing is a kind of social suicide and they intuitively recognize that.

    Atheists, especially former believers, have quit belief in such myths because they have strong social bonds outside of believers.

  26. bronsen
    Posted September 13, 2016 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    There is also The Atheist Personality (Book) of which I only know its kickstarter page: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1818798739/the-atheist-personality-book/

    I still have to read it myself though. It is, however, in the top-third of my guilt pile of unread books.

  27. Flemur
    Posted September 13, 2016 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    Christians often state that atheism itself is a sort of faith-based religion, with important impacts on the atheists’ thinking, morality and actions, and which largely consists of ‘rejecting’ their god.

    I ask them if their disbelief in, and ‘rejection’ of, Zeus, Vishnu, Huitzilopochtli, etc., is also a religion, and how often and how much that religious (dis)belief impacts their thinking, morality and actions – or whether they just don’t think about those imaginary creatures from one week to the next.

    • J.Baldwin
      Posted September 13, 2016 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

      Stealing this.

  28. docbill1351
    Posted September 13, 2016 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    Because I learned to think for myself.

    Thank you very much. I’ll take a check or stacks of $100’s.

  29. tubby
    Posted September 13, 2016 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    It could be in interesting question, but from the way the grant is presented it appears what they want is to define atheism as a mental disorder associated with bad ‘outcomes’ and come up with recommendations for tackling it to save people from whatever they make up.

  30. GBJames
    Posted September 13, 2016 at 12:41 pm | Permalink


  31. alexandra moffat
    Posted September 13, 2016 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    What a stupid study. Why don’t I believe in god? No evidence. Now I want 3 million dollars please.
    Maybe its next study will be why don’t we believe in pink unicorns.

  32. Ken Kukec
    Posted September 13, 2016 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    Next up for the JTF: a cool $3 mil to study why medicos eschew homeopathy?

    • Glandu
      Posted September 15, 2016 at 6:58 am | Permalink

      Not enough words…..

  33. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted September 13, 2016 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    There’s already a field of sociology of religion (as well as psychology of same), and religion is studied a lot by cultural anthropologists, but not much officially on the sociology/psychology of atheism.

    The social sciences don’t have any kind of unified theory of what accounts for religion but some of them look more promising then others.

    It could be a promising project but I’d like to see someone other than TF involved.

  34. Posted September 13, 2016 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    They’d be better off studying why as we grow up we eventually give up belief in Santa Claus (that’s if you were taught about Santa Claus).

  35. eric
    Posted September 13, 2016 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    I’ve learned that any proposal, no matter how useless-sounding, can be defended, so I’ll allow readers to defend this one.

    Sounds like an excellent source of funding for atheist and skeptical conferences. Here’s hoping that whomever gets it generously funds a topical speaker’s session at Women in Secularism, FFRF Convention, Mythinformation Conference, Skepticon, and so on. After all, if you want to know why people are atheists, a good way of finding out would be to go to an atheist gathering, set up a big Q&A session, and listen to the answers.

  36. Posted September 13, 2016 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    One might say that when it comes to religious mythologies, cynicism is the flip side of fundamentalism. Both make the mistake of treating something metaphorical as if it were literal. Unfortunately for cynics who suppose science offers ‘truth’, treating ‘realism’ or ‘objective’ reality as though it were literally ‘true’ is itself a form of myth. A slew of physicists & cognitive scientists have pointed this out, but the dominant mythology of our time remains staunchly entrenched.

    As Berkeley’s George Lakoff points out, “All cultures have myths, and people cannot function without myth any more than they can function without metaphor. And just as we often take the metaphors of our own culture as truths, so we often take the myths of our own culture as truths. The myth of objectivism is particularly insidious in this way. Not only does it purport not to be a myth, but it makes both myths and metaphors objects of belittlement and scorn: according to the objectivist myth, myths and metaphors cannot be taken seriously because they are not objectively true. The myth of objectivism is itself not objectively true.” He continues, “What objectivism misses is the fact that understanding, and therefore truth, is necessarily relative to our cultural conceptual systems and that it cannot be framed in any absolute or neutral conceptual system. Objectivism also misses the fact that human conceptual systems are metaphorical in nature and involve an imaginative understanding of one kind of thing in terms of another.”

  37. RGBowman
    Posted September 13, 2016 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    Let’s look at it from a different angle:
    If they can determine why people become ‘this way’, maybe they can find a way on how to combat it.

  38. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted September 13, 2016 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    They’ve asked you for a meeting and they’re offering $3m to find why people are atheists?

    Get in there, Jerry! The $3m’s in your pocket!


    (suggestion made cynically)

  39. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted September 13, 2016 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

    Less frivolously,

    “How did religious mythology get started, and why is it so appealing?”

    My theory, which is not new, is that people are aware how weak and puny they are. So they just naturally long to imagine a big powerful friend who will rescue them or smite their enemies.

    It may be an ingrained tendency in any intelligence capable of reasoning and drawing inferences from known facts. All that’s needed is the capability to imagine what ‘ought’ to be, and some blurring of the ‘is-ought’ divide.

    If that’s the case, it may be that religion can never be wiped out as smallpox was. It will keep arising as ideas mutate, just as diseases can. All we can do is keep fighting and make sure people acquire the ‘right’ beliefs. But then, that’s life.

    There. Question answered. May I have my $3m please, prof CC?


    • busterggi
      Posted September 13, 2016 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

      The first thing an infant sees with its blurry vision are giant beings able to grant its’ every wish (mostly to be fed) or punish it by not giving it what it wants (to be able to stay awake, to change its’ poopy diaper). It has no awareness of what those beings are, they come & go beyond the infant’s control & without any understanding of why.

      That first thing, which occurs before an infant is able to reason, is something many, maybe most, people never outgrow and is the seed for all religion.

      I’ll take my three million in small bills, thank you.

  40. Roger
    Posted September 13, 2016 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

    atheism and other forms of ‘unbelief’

    Color me cynical but I get the funny feeling that they really mean “denialism” when they say unbelief.

    • Roger
      Posted September 13, 2016 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

      Because why else would they lump it in with “other forms”.

  41. geckzilla
    Posted September 14, 2016 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    If you can, for a moment, put yourself in the shoes of the person who wrote this proposal, think of what their idea of “natural” means. It’s natural to believe, perhaps, in their minds, because how can one look at the wonders of this world and think otherwise? Ergo, denial of this can be seen as “unnatural” and therefore worthy of study in this way. It is worth noting that the notion of naturalness can vary quite considerably from one individual’s frame of reference to another’s.

  42. Wunold
    Posted September 14, 2016 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    But that doesn’t mean all frames of reference are on a par. For instance, if it can be shown that children don’t develop some kind of religious belief without learning it by example from adults, the hypothesis that belief is (more) natural (than unbelief) isn’t justified and vice versa.

  43. Posted September 18, 2016 at 12:42 pm | Permalink


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