More faitheism from Julian Baggini

Philosopher Julian Baggini is an atheist, and in fact the author of Oxford University Press’s Atheism: A Very Short Introduction.  Several years ago I wrote some posts about his lucubrations, which were largely soft on religion despite his own unbelief.

Later, however, after maintaining repeatedly that religion was not about belief in empirical propositions but was really about “practice,” Baggini took two informal polls of churchgoing Anglicans, and found, to his surprise, that far more of these Christians went to church “to worship God” than for “the feeling of community”. But there’s more. As I mention in Faith versus Fact (p. 52):

There was also widespread agreement that the stories in Genesis, such as Adam and Eve, really happened (29 percent), that Jesus performed miracles such as that of the loaves and fishes (76 percent), that Jesus’s death on the cross was necessary for forgiveness of human sin (75 percent), that Jesus was bodily resurrected (81 percent), and that eternal life required accepting Jesus as lord and savior (44 percent). Chastened, Baggini retracted his previous views:

“So what is the headline finding? It is that whatever some might say about religion being more about practice than belief, more praxis than dogma, more about the moral insight of mythos than the factual claims of logos, the vast majority of churchgoing Christians appear to believe orthodox doctrine at pretty much face value. They believe that Jesus is divine, not simply an exceptional human being; that his resurrection was a real, bodily one; that he performed miracles no human being ever could; that he needed to die on the cross so that our sins could be forgiven; and that Jesus is the only way to eternal life. . . This is, I think, a firm riposte to those who dismiss atheists, especially the “new” variety, as being fixated on the literal beliefs associated with religion rather than ethos or practice. It suggests that they are not attacking straw men when they criticise religion for promoting superstitious and supernatural beliefs.”

Of course this should be evident from not only other polls, but from the proposition that you can’t really accept the moral teachings of religion without at least some acceptance of its factual propositions. You can hardly call yourself a Christian, for instance, unless you accept the divinity of Jesus as well as his resurrection; or a Muslim if you don’t think Allah, via Gabriel, dictated the Qur’an to Muhammad. But good for Baggini for testing his propositions and admitting he was wrong—that Christianity did involve belief in facts.

After this, Baggini went quiescent, at least on his faitheism, which was once regularly espoused in the “Comment is free” section of The Guardian.

But he’s back again with a wonky piece in the Guardian, brought to my attention by reader Phil (click on screenshot to see it). As you can see, from the title, it’s an atheist-dissing piece based on the proposition that nonbelievers don’t really understand the nature of faith:

The point of Baggini’s article is that we atheists need to have more understanding of how apparently intelligent people can believe irrational things like the Easter story.  His points are these

  1. Doubt is an important part of religion
  2. Many Christians accept that their beliefs are implausible and irrational, and anyway, God is beyond comprehension, so it’s okay to believe pretty much what you want
  3. Atheists don’t realize that smart people can accept contradictions, sustaining a cognitive dissonance
  4. Atheists who denigrate true believers as “deluded” don’t really understand how it’s possible for believers to accept things they don’t really think are rational or plausible

Here are some quotes from Baggini’s piece supporting this interpretation:

Some believe the unbelievable because they have had religious experiences so strong that they are literally unable to doubt their veracity of. It’s hard for those of us who haven’t had such an experience to appreciate how powerful it can be. But once you accept the existence of a divine creator who has a personal relationship with you, almost anything else is possible. It is not crazy but logical to conclude that what such a God says or does will sometimes be beyond our comprehension. It follows that there is nothing irrational in accepting a story that we are unable to make sense of rationally.

Note that he accepts as a basis for faith the “religious experiences” described so thoroughly by William James. But that’s the first bit of pure irrationality: accepting your own revelations, without supporting evidence, as sufficient reason to adopt not only a belief system, but one that comes with a morality and empirical claims. And what about a Muslim who has a revelation that leads to an entirely different worldview?

Further, is it not logical to realize that humans have revelations that, amazingly, comport with the belief system already dominant in their own culture? And that people have all kinds of revelations that tell us nothing about what is true? And is it really logical to conclude that what God says is “beyond our comprehension”? Is that then a reason for believing anything? And given that different believers accept different bits of the “story,” even in Christianity, which stories should we accept? And if we can’t adduce reasons for the stories we do accept versus those we reject, we are indeed behaving irrationally. Further, if God is beyond our comprehension, why accept any stories, since they’re all filtered through humans? Is a revelation enough?

What atheists often forget is that many – perhaps most – religious believers are less than completely convinced anyway. [JAC: He apparently doesn’t know many Muslims or Evangelical Christians.] Many of them are fully aware of the dissonance between what their faith and their rational mind tell them. Religion offers many tools to help manage this. It tells people that faith is superior to belief based on evidence. “Because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed,” Jesus told “doubting Thomas”, adding: “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” Religion also tells believers that doubt is to be expected, even welcomed, as part of the journey of faith, all the time reassuring them that God is beyond our understanding. The Easter story thus ends up rather like quantum theory: if you find it easy to believe, you haven’t understood it. Illogicality is a design feature, not a design flaw.

Isn’t that convenient: the easier it is to believe a religious tale, the less likely you are to have understood it!

But no, the Easter story doesn’t end up “rather like quantum theory”, for quantum theory isn’t the same thing as wish-thinking. Quantum theory is based on evidence, and although we have trouble wrapping our minds around it from our everyday experience, there’s plenty of evidence that the theory is true. And it makes highly precise predictions that are in fact validated by further study. In contrast, there isn’t any evidence for the Easter story save what’s written in the New Testament—and even the different Gospels tell different stories. Those stories do make one prediction, but it’s a false one: Jesus will come into his kingdom before the death of some people who heard him preach.  We’re still waiting. Finally, quantum theory is not illogical, it’s just contrary to everyday experience.

In the end, Baggini somehow manages to turn the “cognitive dissonance” (he misconstrues this, for true cognitive dissonance leads to mental distress, which most believers don’t suffer vis-à-vis their faith) into a cudgel to bash atheists. We can’t understand it, so we have no basis for calling believers “delusional”:

Anyone surprised that people manage to sustain this dissonance all their lives hasn’t been paying enough attention to what psychology has taught us about our capacities to assert contradictions. What we call our “selves” are far less unified and coherent than common sense suggests. When we say “a part of me” believes one thing and another part something else, we are being more literal than we think. Dismissing believers as simply deluded could therefore itself be a way for us atheists to deal with our own dissonance between the belief that Easter is palpable nonsense, and the awareness that seemingly intelligent people believe in it. If we really do find implausible beliefs offensive, we ought at least to have more plausible explanations for why others have them.

No, there are plenty of theories of why people are religious, and most of us know some: it gives us comfort, provides a sense of comity with others, counters the horrible fact of our mortality, and appears to make sense of things we don’t understand (consciousness, the laws of physics, etc.). Are those not “plausible explanations”—plausible enough to make people believe in the face of counterevidence? And don’t we know many people who have adduced these reasons? Atheists aren’t as dumb as Baggini makes them out to be.

But no matter why people believe, for if they believe on the basis of no evidence, they are deluding themselves.  Would Baggini be so kind to anti-Obama “birthers” or 9-11 conspiracy theorists, many of whom seem otherwise intelligent? (I recently met a biologist who was quite smart, but then presented me with a bizarre document proving that the World Trade Center plane attacks were the work of the Jews).

It’s hard not to lose patience when one sees an intelligent person like Baggini trying to excuse a faith he rejects himself, presumably on the grounds of “no evidence”. The fact is that it is irrational to accept religious stories, no matter how comforting they are. It is a delusion to take things as true when all the evidence says they’re false—or we don’t have any evidence for them. While I’m harder on people whose faith prompts them to do bad things, like persecuting women and gays, than on those whose faith is less injurious to others, having faith is in general bad because it leads society to think that there’s something admirable about believing without evidence. And that general attitude is inimical to social progress.

In the end I have to agree with this commenter:

It’s heartening to read the comments, for, Britain being largely secular, most of them aren’t putting up with Baggini’s nonsense.


  1. GBJames
    Posted April 2, 2018 at 9:09 am | Permalink


  2. Posted April 2, 2018 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    Re “you can’t really accept the moral teachings of religion without at least some acceptance of its factual propositions”

    I keep asking Christians what the “moral teachings” of their religion are and the best I get is some utterance regarding the Golden Rule. There are many, many moral teachings in the OT, not so many in the NT. Christians cherry-pick the OT because they do not want to have to follow the 600+ laws of the OT, but the NT contains not a single thing which was new at the time, not does it contain any repudiation of the depredations of the OT.

    So, what are these “moral teachings” of the NT that they accept along with the accompanying assorted baggage?

    • Posted April 2, 2018 at 11:28 am | Permalink

      Not to covet my neighbor’s wife is one, right? I don’t.

      • busterggi
        Posted April 2, 2018 at 11:55 am | Permalink

        You can covet most of her just not her ass.

        • KiwiInOz
          Posted April 2, 2018 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

          I thought that it was about covering your ass.

    • Posted April 2, 2018 at 11:39 am | Permalink

      “Love your enemies”? (But I wouldn’t advise anyone to.)

    • Stonyground
      Posted April 2, 2018 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

      I did at one point wonder if it was possible for there to be a kind of secular Christianity, applying the moral precepts of Mr. Jesus without all the superstitious baggage. However, when I actually looked into it, most of the moral teachings of Mr. Jesus are either immoral or impractical to the point of absurdity.

      • Posted April 4, 2018 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

        T. Jefferson and others attempted this too – though in his case I would accuse the famous statesman of cherry picking.

    • John Conoboy
      Posted April 2, 2018 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

      For a light read about all the laws of the bible, there is the book by A.J. Jacobs called The Year of Living Biblically. He spends a year trying to follow all the rules from the bible. Not bad. It has, however, been turned into a sitcom on CBS that is beyond dreadful.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted April 2, 2018 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

      The ‘moral teachings’ are the humanist-flavoured precepts that the vicar* has carefully selected and used for his last sermon. That’s why they’re usually irreproachably benign.

      (*I’m excluding hellfire preachers and fundies from this, obviously).


  3. Ken Pidcock
    Posted April 2, 2018 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    It angered me when I read this. Most of the “believers” that Baggini and I know aren’t believers at all. In saying that they are, they are lying in order to receive respect from believers that would not be afforded them if they were honest. And I’m supposed to be more sensitive to their feelings?

  4. Larry Smith
    Posted April 2, 2018 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    Another great post on this topic, thanks!

    I think I understand why religious thinkers try to paint doubt as a common part of the “journey of faith.” I’m sure it really happens to people who want to believe, but are trying to reconcile their desires with the facts. Sometimes the desire to believe wins, sometimes the facts win.

    But I find it highly annoying and disingenuous to describe doubt both as a necessary and as a supporting component of faith. In other words, the mere existence of one’s doubt becomes a scaffold on which the existence of god is grafted. It is as if the presence of doubt somehow proves there is a god. This is like trying to levitate oneself by tugging upward on one’s own socks.

    • Ken Pidcock
      Posted April 2, 2018 at 11:07 am | Permalink

      Tina Beattie:

      At its most profound, faith is not an answer to life’s questions but a willingness to inhabit the darkness of knowing that there are some things we cannot know.

      That should be in the dictionary under disingenuous.

    • Posted April 2, 2018 at 11:34 am | Permalink

      I always assume that an answer to doubt was incorporated into the religion by its human creators in order to keep the conversation going with those that find they don’t believe the crap they are being fed and might leave the faith altogether.

      Virtually every tenet held by organized religion (I’m no expert) seems to be easily explained in terms of their leaders wanting to grow their flock and remain in charge.

    • Posted April 3, 2018 at 6:37 am | Permalink

      In my experience, doubt is painted by religions as something to be feared and vanquished at any cost. Science, on the other hand, embraces doubt and looks on it as an opportunity to learn something new about the Universe. Nothing confuses a religionist more when they ask you one of those hard questions like “how did life begin” and you happily answer “I don’t know”.

  5. Kirbmarc
    Posted April 2, 2018 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    Deep down the reason way The Guardian publishes this kind of op-eds is to defend the nonsensical NOMA position. NOMA was never epistemologically sound, it was a social compromise, which
    was broken by the religious thinkers with the creationist fad.

    Atheists and secular movements have been a reaction to the threats to separation of church and state, and of science, laws and religion. But these threats were inevitable: religions ARE sets of beliefs, if you take them seriously you ARE supposed to subjugate science, laws and the state to your religious beliefs.

    The only reason why “western democracies” are not theocracies is that many nominal Christians actually do not take their religion seriously, and many people are increasingly irreligious, at least in the “west”. In many muslim-majority countries islam is still taken very seriously, and that’s why theocratic leaders are still dominating and shaping Middle Eastern-North African-South East Asian policies.

  6. Bill Bass
    Posted April 2, 2018 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    This reminds me of something my long deceased mother said to me when I was 14 or 15 and trying out my new atheist wings. She said, “I don’t care what facts you come up with, I’m not changing my mind about God.” I, in fact, knew much more about her religion than she did because I studied it as well as the others, which is what led me to atheism.

  7. Posted April 2, 2018 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    Training each new generation to have unwarranted certainty is a disservice to them. Because the harm is often diffuse and/or deferred it can be difficult for people to recognize it, in much the same way we have a harder time recognizing the danger of driving too fast than the danger of sitting on a 10th story ledge.

  8. Martin X
    Posted April 2, 2018 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    The assertions that people go to Church for community and that they actually believe the fact claims of religion are not mutually exclusive.

    The trick is that the desire for community is heavy motivation to believe the religious fact claims. Cognitive Dissonance theory explains why they do.

    • Posted April 2, 2018 at 10:23 am | Permalink

      Yes, I agree. I was addressing the proposition, which Baggini once held, that the ONLY reason people go to church is for the social benefits, and real belief in religious factuality had nothing to do with it. Of course some people, perhaps most, go to church as a partly social act.

  9. jbaggini
    Posted April 2, 2018 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    “Note that he accepts as a basis for faith the “religious experiences””
    No I don’t.
    I’m explaining why many believers aren’t just stupid. I’m not justifying their belief. Is that such a difficult distinction to understand?
    Given I begin the piece saying how I too often ask “how can anyone believe this?” it should be obvious I’m not defending faith.

    • Posted April 2, 2018 at 10:12 am | Permalink

      Excuse me, but this appears in the article:

      Some believe the unbelievable because they have had religious experiences so strong that they are literally unable to doubt their veracity of. It’s hard for those of us who haven’t had such an experience to appreciate how powerful it can be. But once you accept the existence of a divine creator who has a personal relationship with you, almost anything else is possible.

      If that’s not an explanation, nay, a justification, for some people’s faith, I don’t know what is.

      Further, you begin the piece by saying that NONBELIEVERS find that stuff hard to believe, but go on to explain why believers can believe it. To wit:

      Most nonbelievers in traditionally Christian cultures would show a bit more respect. But inside, our reaction is often pretty much the same: how can people really believe this stuff?

      Is the distinction between “stupidity” and “delusion” such a difficult distinction to understand? I claim that believers are delusional, not that they’re stupid.

      You have your own website where you can defend yourself, so do it there. I’d have a look at the comments on your Guardian piece, though.

    • glen1davidson
      Posted April 2, 2018 at 10:22 am | Permalink

      Well I think you’re right in the sense that most unbelievers just don’t get religion. But then that, too, seems not something that’s going to change overall.

      The problem is that there’s not really any good explanation for ‘how anyone can believe this,’ and at this point we’re just going to have to invoke psychology.

      Glen Davidson

      • Torbjörn Larsson
        Posted April 2, 2018 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

        I was getting to “delusional” from the recent progress that makes *everything* religious claim on nature (modulo some historical facts) seem outright false – magic agency in the universe < 0.1 %, influencing the emergence or laws of the local universe – unlikely, 'soul'/'afterlife'/"it's a bargain" – rejected by consistency in 3 sciences and now latest by physics at 4 sigma, et cetera.

        So it looks to me like religious claims should be – certainly according to Baggini – of the category "bizarre delusions" [ ]. Dunno about the psychological pathology status, since it seems religious have a "get-out-of-prison" card: "[not] if the belief had a cultural or religious source." Not *much* of a source locally these days (< 5 % active religious), mind.

  10. busterggi
    Posted April 2, 2018 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    Apologetics – now for people who don’t believe in apologetics too!

  11. rgsherr
    Posted April 2, 2018 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    Wish Baggini could read your rebuttal.

    • Posted April 2, 2018 at 10:25 am | Permalink

      He did (see above), and commented. I answered him. He has a thin skin, as I recall, and used to answer me when I criticized him years ago.

      He is not going to admit that he said anything dubious, that’s for sure.

  12. Posted April 2, 2018 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    “Atheists who denigrate true believers as “deluded” don’t really understand how it’s possible for believers to accept things they don’t really think are rational or plausible”

    False. From my perspective, I understand completely how anyone can be deluded about anything or accept things they do not think are rationally plausible.

    At present, I cannot think of anyone’s delusion that puzzles me. Some of the reasons may be complicated and out of my empathy but that doesn’t change the fact that they are delusional.

    Knowing why someone is delusional is not the same as knowing that they can behave delusionally.

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted April 2, 2018 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

      Indeed, it is not the problem of understanding that irritates me, it is the delusions and their existence in the first place. Another irritation is the psychology area acceptance of culture or subculture influence, large scale delusions are more influential. (A good argument why even small sects are potentially harmful; “destroy them with fire” /web joke.)

  13. Randall Schenck
    Posted April 2, 2018 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    I know very little about the philosopher but am always suspicious about the atheist claim or at least how he got there in the first place. An atheist who spends time apologizing for religion and attempts to reason with delusion is wasting my time.

    • Ken Pidcock
      Posted April 2, 2018 at 11:22 am | Permalink

      Personally, I find Julian Baggini worth reading. Back in 2011, he had a series in the Guardian entitled Heathen’s progress, in which he tried to reconcile reason and faith. (Spoiler alert, he failed, which he acknowledged.) A good examples of the series is The articles of 21st-century faith.

      • Frank Bath
        Posted April 2, 2018 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

        I’ve found always found Baggini readable but when I read his Guardian piece I was very disappointed. One of my first thoughts was, I wonder what Jerry Coyne would make of it. Thanks Jerry.

        • Randall Schenck
          Posted April 2, 2018 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

          I have a hard time dealing with this kind of mushy feeling toward the religions. All I can think of is how much they trample on people’s rights and get into everything. How do we apologize while they attempt to cut off personal rights like abortion, family planning, education in the sciences, equal rights for all kinds of people. Not to mention killing people around the world because they might have a religion you don’t like. Name some atheists who do these things?

          • Posted April 2, 2018 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

            Stalin, Pol Pot, Hitler, and Mao will be the answer you get. It’s the answer you’ll always get, no matter how much it is BS.

            • Randall Schenck
              Posted April 2, 2018 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

              Don’t help them out…even BS. Hitler is an atheist then so is the Pope. Mao and Stalin were religions in their own name.

  14. glen1davidson
    Posted April 2, 2018 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    It tells people that faith is superior to belief based on evidence.

    The trouble is, it’s not. That’s why faith isn’t credited with anything in courts or in science.

    Baggini might come up with good psychological reasons for religion, but these can’t be what he’s saying in the excerpts. If they were said in defense of schizophrenic delusions they would not be considered reasonable at all.

    Religion gets a pass, and surely there are reasons why religion exists and gets to pass when other silly ideas don’t. But one can’t just repeat the excuses made for religion as if they themselves make religion reasonable.

    Glen Davidson

  15. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted April 2, 2018 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    One would think from this reading that people are religious after some careful thought or moment of revelation. In point of fact the majority of people have faith because they were indoctrinated into it. They did not enter into their religion out careful consideration of the whys’ and hows’,or after some crisis in which religion provided succor. The majority were literally brainwashed since earliest childhood.

    • Colin
      Posted April 2, 2018 at 10:35 am | Permalink

      And the immense power of that childhood indoctrination cannot be stressed enough.

    • DrBrydon
      Posted April 2, 2018 at 11:38 am | Permalink

      Yes, I was going to say, I’ve never met a Christian who came to his faith after a road to Damascus moment. No matter how they are raised, that instilling of a belief in belief is insidious.

      • Posted April 4, 2018 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

        Online years ago I used to debate one particular RC who would rest almost his entire argument for the existence of god on religious experiences. I asked him, delicately I hope, to describe his, to know why he put so much weight on this (no doubt singular) experience.

        *HE HADN’T HAD ONE*.

        I would not be surprised if most times the religious experiences are actually “reports” of same.

        • Posted April 4, 2018 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

          My guess is that religious experience is contagious. If many around you are claiming to have had one, it puts a lot of pressure on you to lie about having had one. Perhaps no one in history has ever had one that wasn’t a dream, a drug experience, or a malfunctioning brain. Yes, I’m going with that.

    • Posted April 4, 2018 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

      Or they adopted one “near by” for other personal reasons. (E.g., conversions from one branch of Christianity to another for marriage.)

  16. Jamie
    Posted April 2, 2018 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    One of the mistakes made here is to assume some kind of natural division between atheists and religious people. But many atheists started out as religious people. I was a deluded Christian before I became an atheist, and I took my faith very seriously. So anyone trying to tell me that religious people are not deluded has to contend with the fact that I know that I was deluded.

    A lot of the push back against the label ‘deluded’ stems from the continuing stigma associated with the term. In spite of years of effort by many well-intentioned people working in the field of mental health to destigmatize conditions of confusion, hallucination, delusion, depression and anxiety which we all feel from time to time, these things still carry significant stigma attached to them when they become chronic conditions.

    Religious people will continue to resent being told they are deluded as long as society isolates, neglects and otherwise mistreats people with so-called mental illnesses. To admit that one is deluded implies that an appropriate course of therapy could (and should) “cure” one of one’s religion. It generally (though not necessarily) accompanies acceptance of a mythical “normal” condition free from delusions.

    We all suffer from delusions. What is at stake here is a category of delusions historically agreed to be broadly socially acceptable, now coming under attack. It is not so much the fact of delusion that is the issue. What is at issue is whether particular delusions are still, or no longer, going to be socially acceptable.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted April 2, 2018 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

      A very good point, I think.

      And a lot of people are just comfortable with their wishy-washy feel-good vaguely humanist version of religion, and would resent a hellfire preacher as much as they would resent an atheist telling them it’s all untrue. They don’t want the dissonance pointed out since it would force them into more extreme positions they’re not happy with (and which would contradict their belief that their faith is benevolent).

      In fact on the line between full believers and full atheists (1 to 7 on Dawkins scale) most people are somewhere in the middle. I’m not sure that insisting they gravitate to the ends of the scale is a good strategy. I think ‘believe what you like but don’t impose it on others’ is a better appeal to their instinct for fairness.


  17. Randall Schenck
    Posted April 2, 2018 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    This is not only a very good posting but includes good reason to be sure and follow the comments. Good stuff.

  18. Posted April 2, 2018 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Perhaps religious people have “unrealized cognitive dissonance”, or perhaps “potential cognitive dissonance”. They would experience distress if they’d only wake up and realize what they believe is a load of crap.

    • DrBrydon
      Posted April 2, 2018 at 11:39 am | Permalink

      They seem to experience it if their beliefs are challenged.

  19. Posted April 2, 2018 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Inconsistent arguments by J Baggini – why does not that surprise me?
    Baggini has written the book “Freedom regained: The possibility of free will”: 1. Conclusion: We can be glad that in the history of philosophy, all important cornerstones of the concept of free will “have already been discovered, described and outlined”.
    2. Conclusion: The free will exists, within certain limits we can do what we want.

  20. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted April 2, 2018 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    Baggini is correct that many believers regard doubt as part of the “journey of faith”. But the analogy with quantum physics is flawed, because the theological claim is about whether faith-claims are easy to understand, NOT whether they are easy to believe!

    I know believers who say that God is incomprehensible up to a point! But they still claim that there are some definitely known statements about God. They don’t base everything on God’s incomprehensibility. And as above, the incomprehensibility is not used to justify reasons for why you should believe at all.

    Apophatic theology originated in ancient Greece with fellows like Plato. They of course did not use it to explain why you should commit yourself to Jesus.
    Basic evangelical apologetics is very focused on convincing people they are sinners in need of forgiveness, not on defending faith because it is hard to understand.

    The story of doubting Thomas implies faith is a virtue, but it does not necessarily imply it is superior to firmer knowledge.

    And of course Martin X (Comment 8) is correct that religion involves community AND beliefs.

    To the motivations for religion already listed by JAC- comfort, comity- I would add a sense of direction and groundedness.

    What Baggini is trying was done better by William James in his essay “The Will to Believe” and Bertrand Russell had a pretty decent rebuttal to it.

  21. Posted April 2, 2018 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    The experiences that are best filed under the category of “mystical” are completely real to the person experiencing them. They feel “shake you to the core” important. (I know from experience as well as reading.) We don’t have words that fit them. The experiences are kind of content free; no dogma attached. They are so different, so emphatically important that it’s necessary to somehow connect them to the rest of one’s life.

    How does one integrate them into one’s life? Dismissing them is “only” subjective just doesn’t do it. Who provides a framework for making them part of life? Most of the relevant literature and talking is religious. So the experiences take the form of the religion available to the person who has them.

    Modern mystics, with information from the whole world available, find that they have the same experiences as others in different religious traditions. Conclusion many of them have come to: the dogma doesn’t matter.

    I can respect people who interpret their experiences in religious terms. They’re standing by their observations), somewhat like Galileo stood by his. Galileo had the great advantage that eventually other shared his observations, but at first, it would have been hard to tell. Or perhaps the better analogy is to scientists who later turn out to be on the wrong side of debates (plate tectonics, the origin of igneous rocks, evolution) but thought they were right at the time, and stuck to it. One can totally believe in a religion based on revelation and be intelligent and reasonable. (Right is another thing.)

    • Jamie
      Posted April 2, 2018 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

      I think it is important to recognize that ‘observation’ and ‘experience’ are not the same thing. I submit that they are not standing by their observations but are clinging to a particular interpretation of their experiences.

      In the first case, the observations are central and the trust one puts in them stems from the care one puts into making them coupled with the notion that the universe is predictably orderly.

      In the second case, no matter how powerful the experience is, it is the meaning assigned to the experience that takes precedence, and other meanings can certainly be assigned without invalidating the experience.

      These are very different things.

      • Torbjörn Larsson
        Posted April 2, 2018 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

        Well said. The claim that an assignment of experience as personal and subjective is invalidating and/or insufficient as explanation (which can be used for integration into one’s life) is on the other side of the religious irrational vs reality rational divide.

        I don’t find mysticism reasonable. See what mystics like Plato did with the Greek mercantile empiricism [source: Sagan’s Cosmos].

  22. glen1davidson
    Posted April 2, 2018 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps the issue of religion is that it promises a systematic ordering of various irrational and unreasonable beliefs and drives that people have.

    How well that works is in question, of course. But people are at best only partially rational beings, and if the irrational and unreasonable are given the semblance of order and sense, the cognitive dissonance may be reduced (or at least one hopes that they will be). Even if this occurs at the cost of introducing some especially unlikely magical unknowns.

    Of course this always gets to one of the greatest unknowns and fears, death. The hope for life after death clearly drives much religious belief, and hopes for life after death tie one to the communal aspects of religion as well. We don’t want to die, but we also don’t want others (especially close relatives) to die either, and religion purports to deal with the problems of death and the separation it causes. So religion can persist via the communal hopes and rituals involving death and future hoped-for life.

    But that’s the easy part to get, I think. The rest of the irrational and/or evidence-free claims have to tie in with the hope for life after death, and I think it does so in part by its accounting for our emotions and drives as problems that can be ordered and controlled by invocations, rituals, and individual practices. Supposedly, spirit transcends the material in the religious community, and thus one may hope that spirit transcends the apparent end of life as well.

    It’s all complex, and I hardly think that this is anything like a full explanation. But I do think it’s important that religion is a purported means of making sense of the parts of our psyches that often aren’t dealing with matters that are rational or particularly sensible (in both senses). I don’t think it’s so much that the religious realize that their beliefs are rational, rather that they hope to make sense of their non-empiric and non-rational thinking. If it doesn’t work as well as hoped, well, you hope that it will improve over time.

    Glen Davidson

    • glen1davidson
      Posted April 2, 2018 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

      Oops, should have been:

      I don’t think it’s so much that the religious realize that their beliefs are irrational

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted April 3, 2018 at 1:44 am | Permalink

      Very well put.


  23. Stonyground
    Posted April 2, 2018 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    I feel that this part really needs fisking. I’m not sure if these are actual quotes or Prof Coyne’s concise interpretations of what was said so I might be doing the guy a disservice, though I doubt it.

    “Doubt is an important part of religion.”

    It is now that the secular authorities have ensured that you won’t be burned alive for expressing it.

    “Many Christians accept that their beliefs are implausible and irrational, and anyway, God is beyond comprehension, so it’s okay to believe pretty much what you want.”

    This is an argument against the atheist belief that Christians are delusional? you don’t think that it looks like an argument in favour of the atheist belief that Christians are delusional at all?

    “Atheists don’t realize that smart people can accept contradictions, sustaining a cognitive dissonance.”

    Really? How could we not realise it, when there are so many people who do precisely that? Anyway, how does this change the fact that such people are deluded?

    “Atheists who denigrate true believers as “deluded” don’t really understand how it’s possible for believers to accept things they don’t really think are rational or plausible.”

    Well yes, you actually got something right, we don’t. That doesn’t make us wrong though does it? Neither does it mean that believers in the absurd fables of Christianity are not totally deluded.

  24. garthdaisy
    Posted April 2, 2018 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    I have had many live discussions with friends who are atheists like Baggini. I ask them to list the things about religion that are valuable to humans. Then I ask them why they themselves don’t take advantage of these valuable gifts. I mean they sound so profound and important to the human soul. Why not partake yourself?

    Then they start to explain how religion works for some, or it is right for some, but maybe not for others. Then I ask them what is different about those people who it is right for or who need it. It’s about this time that they start stuttering or inadvertently insulting the people they were just defending.

    Then I ask them if that’s how the religious demographics actually play out in the world, where the religious people are the ones who it works for, or who need it, and the non-religious people are the ones who it doesn’t work for. I point out this is clearly not the case. Religious people are generally those who were raised religious and non-religious people are generally those who were raised without religion.

    They usually don’t want to continue the conversation at this point. Agree to disagree is their final play. These people are utterly confused, or after Templeton funding. One or the other.

  25. Mike Cracraft
    Posted April 2, 2018 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    BTW: Richard Carrier currently has an excellent article on the pagan origins of Christianity at his site:

  26. Posted April 2, 2018 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    His claim: “Doubt is an important part of religion.”

    Followed by: “Some believe the unbelievable because they have had religious experiences so strong that they are literally unable to doubt their veracity of.”

    What’s that about doubt being important?

%d bloggers like this: