John Gray and Sean Illing go after New Atheism for the bazillionth time, but offer no new (or incisive) arguments

Well, several readers sent this article to me, expecting or asking me to respond to it. But do I really have to go through this again? Really? In a new piece in Vox featuring an interview of philosopher John Gray by journalist Sean Illing (click on screenshot below), the old criticisms of New Atheism, made by both Gray and Illing (who claim to be agnostics or atheists) are once again recycled. But the interview has nothing new.

The occasion is the publication Gray’s new book, Seven Types of Atheism (click on screenshot of the book). In the interview Illing and Gray fall all over each other in agnostic brotherhood explaining why New Atheism is not only bad tactics, but also a form of bullying as well as a view that is polluted with its own mythology.  And they both make the claim that although religion may be something the two men don’t themselves accept, it supplies something essential for people. In other words, Gray and Illing make the Little People Argument, which is both condescending and fails to explain why they are not religious. How do they find meaning and purpose without religion?

I’ve dealt with both Gray and Illing before (see here for posts on Gray, especially this one, and here for a takedown of Illing’s rantings in Salon recycled in this Vox piece), so it really makes me cranky to have to do it again. There are no new points made by either: the two men are simply bawling into the ether and bleating about the dangers of New Atheism. (Remember, neither of them believes in God.)

Gray’s new book; I’ll read it but I can almost guarantee that there’s nothing there that I haven’t seen a bazillion times before.

I’ll try to be brief, though it’s hard. Here are their main arguments:

1.) Religion is not mainly about factual assertions but about other things, and ignorant New Atheists fail to recognize that.  

From Illing’s intro:

New Atheism is a literary movement that sprung up in 2004, led by prominent authors like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. Although they were right about a lot of things, the New Atheists missed something essential about the role of religion. For them, religion was just a protoscience — our first attempt at biology and history and physics. But religion is so much more than a set of claims about the world, and you can’t fully understand if you don’t account for that.

My complaint with the New Atheists has always been their insistence on treating God as a purely epistemological question. I don’t think you can make sense of religion if you only see it as a system of beliefs. (Illing)

It is NOT a literary movement, for crying out loud! It’s an intellectual movement that got its start in several prominent books. But let’s move on.

From Gray:

These New Atheists are mostly ignorant of religion, and only really concerned with a particular kind of monotheism, which is a narrow segment of the broader religious world. (Gray)

. . . For example, there are still people who treat the myths of religion, like the Genesis story, as some kind of literal truth, even though they were understood by Jewish thinkers and theologians of the time as parables.

Genesis is not a theory of the origins of the world. It’s not obsolete, primitive science. It’s not a solution to the problem of knowledge. Religion isn’t like that. Religion is a body of practices, of stories and images, whereby humans create or find meanings in their lives.

In other words, it’s not a search for explanation. Even if everything in the world were suddenly explained by science, we would still be asking what it all means. (Gray)

This canard is so old that it’s too tough to swallow. No New Atheist claims that religion is solely about factual claims. What we argue is that religion, at least of the Abrahamic stripe, rests on factual claims, and those factual claims give it force. The force is of course instantiated in non-factual things like moral strictures and religious acts, but ultimately without beliefs in some facts, religion loses force.

The truth that religions rest at bottom on factual claims is one of the topics in my book Faith Versus Fact, and many theologians and believers explicitly recognize and admit this. It’s even in the Bible! I quote from my earlier critique of Illing from three years ago (does the man ever have new ideas?), in which I gave statements from the Bible as well as from science-friendly religionists:

But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen:And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.—Paul, 1 Corinthians 15:13-14

A religious tradition is indeed a way of life and not a set of abstract ideas. But a way of life presupposes beliefs about the nature of reality and cannot be sustained if those beliefs are no longer credible.—Ian Barbour

I cannot regard theology as merely concerned with a collection of stories which motivate an attitude toward life. It must have its anchorage in the way things actually are, and the way they happen.—John Polkinghorne

Likewise, religion in almost all of its manifestations is more than just a collection of value judgments and moral directives. Religion often makes claims about ‘the way things are.’ —Karl Giberson & Francis Collins

That’s only a small sample; I have more for Illing if he wants them. And here is what Americans actually believe to be true (percentage of all Americans accepting the propositions below). This is not a small minority of Americans—it’s MOST OF THEM:

A personal God concerned with you 68%
Absolutely certain there is a God  54%
Jesus was the son of God  68%
Jesus was born of a virgin  57%
Jesus was resurrected  65%
Miracles  72%
Heaven  68%
Hell and Satan 58%
Angels  68%
Survival of soul after death 64%

I can’t help but think that when Gray says that theologians recognized Genesis and other stuff in the Bible solely as parables, he’s willfully distorting history. For yes, although some early thinkers like Aquinas and Augustine thought that there was a metaphorical interpretation of many claims in Scripture, those claims, like the existence of Adam and Eve, were also seen as literal truths. And they were seen by most Christians as literal truths until science dispelled many of them.

And what about the resurrection of Jesus? Is that seen as a parable, too? Once you start going down the parable road, there’s no bar to viewing the entire Old and New Testaments as one big parable. This becomes clear when Gray says that Original Sin is merely a metaphor, and implies that everybody already knows that:

To give you an example, I think the Christian idea of original sin has an important truth in it, which is that humans are divided animals. They’re different from any other animal on the planet in that they regret and sometimes even hate the impulses that guide them to act as they do. It’s a key feature of the human animal, captured by this myth of original sin.

We don’t need religion to tell us that humans have good and bad instincts; this is instantiated in all the world’s literature, secular or otherwise. What religion adds to this is, for example, the notion that if you don’t purge yourself of original sin, you’re going to hell rather than heaven. (Yes, Dr. Gray, most Americans think that those are literal places, not metaphorical ideas.) And think of all the nasty baggage that goes along with Catholics’ literal view that they’re born tainted with original sin.

I needn’t go on. Gray and Illing are wish-thinking here, proposing a “sophisticated” view of religion not held by most believers, yet one that the New Atheists rightfully attack. New Atheism isn’t directed, by and large, at Sophisticated Theologians™, but at what most people believe. If you want attacks on Sophisticated Theology™, read Faith versus Fact. (Short take: it’s just more palaver, but gussied up in fancy language. If you want an example of ridiculous arguments pretending to be rational and sophisticated, read some Alvin Plantinga or John Haught.)

2.) Atheism is just an attempt to replace conventional religion with other forms of “religion”, and contains its own mythology.

In many cases, the New Atheists are animated by 19th-century myths of various kinds: myths of human advancement, myths of what science can and cannot do, and all kinds of other myths. So yeah, I’m compelled to attack anyone who is debunking others for their reliance on myths when the debunkers themselves can’t see how their own thinking is shaped by myths. (Gray)

Gray is an anti-progressivist, but the idea that humans haven’t advanced materially or in well being is not a myth—it’s the truth, a truth well documented by Steve Pinker in his last two books. As for “myths of what science can and cannot do”, I’m not sure what he’s talking about. Most of us (Sam Harris is one exception) recognize that science can’t tell us what is right or wrong, and that it has its limits in other ways.  But these are not “myths” that in any way correspond to the myths of religion.

Gray also claims that secular humanism is equivalent to a religion:

 Most forms of organized atheism are attempts to fashion God surrogates. In other words, one of the paradoxes of contemporary atheism is that it’s a flight from a genuinely godless world.

. . . But [atheists] are still stuck with core assumptions that come from the monotheistic traditions. The idea, for instance, that humanity has a collective identity is fundamentally a religious notion — that’s how it came to us. We can make secular arguments in defense of this belief, but you can’t simply ignore its historical roots.

Yes you can ignore those “roots”—if they even are roots. First, I’m not so sure that “collective identity” has cultural roots at all, much less religious ones. It may stem from evolution, from a time when we lived in small cohesive bands. We just don’t know, despite Gray’s assurance. Further, every tenet of secular humanism can find some parallel in religious scriptures. The fact that many religious scriptures have some similarities, like the “golden rule”, may in fact reflect secular antecedents: evolutionarily-based morality. To use Gray’s arguments that secular humanism is fundamentally religious is to ignore the different claims of religion that it has absolute truth, that it’s based on the existence of a God, and that our job is to do God’s will as instantiated in religious morality. These notions are fundamentally different from the precepts of secular humanism, which is to help humanity (and other species) survive and flourish. Secular humanists also abjure the idea of an afterlife, an idea inherent in and absolutely essential for many religions. Secular humanism is not in any meaningful sense “religious”, unless you take “religious” to mean “beliefs to which people adhere.”

3.) Religion answers the questions that science can’t, and tells us about meaning and purpose. 

I don’t think that all religions are the same, but I do believe that they’re equivalently untrue in the conventional sense of that term. But it’s obvious that religion contributes something essential to the human condition that we need, and whatever that is, we’ll still need it in a Godless world. This is the thing that atheists dismiss too easily. (Illing)

. . . Genesis is not a theory of the origins of the world. It’s not obsolete, primitive science. It’s not a solution to the problem of knowledge. Religion isn’t like that. Religion is a body of practices, of stories and images, whereby humans create or find meanings in their lives.

In other words, it’s not a search for explanation. Even if everything in the world were suddenly explained by science, we would still be asking what it all means.

That’s where religion steps in. (Gray)

Well, religion purports to tell us what it all means, but every religion has a different answer. So what’s the true answer? The fact is that religion gives us no real answers about means, values, and purposes, because a). these answers differ among faiths and there’s no way to adjudicate them, and b). religiously-based morality is, with little doubt, much inferior to a secular morality that involves rationality laid atop certain preferences for how we want society to be structured.

As far as “what it all means”, how about an answer from Mr. Natural?

That seems facetious, but it is in fact true in the sense that there’s no external “meaning” that we can clearly divine from religion. We make our own meanings and purposes, and in the end that’s all we can do. To ask whether there’s some “purpose of life” that can be answered by religion is to waste your time looking for your keys, dropped somewhere else, under the streetlight, because that’s where it’s easier to see.

Yes, people can claim to find meaning in their lives through religion, but most of them aren’t really doing that anyway, and those that are doing that are pretty much wasting their time. As most readers noted when I asked how we, as unbelievers, find “purpose”, there was a surfeit answers, but none of them involved God.

Here’s an amusing claim from Gray:

Something as ancient, as profound, as inexhaustibly rich as religion or religions can’t really be written off as an intellectual error by clever people. Most of these clever people are not that clever when compared with really clever people like Wittgenstein or Saint Augustine or Pascal — all philosophers of the past who seriously engaged the religious perspective.

These New Atheists are mostly ignorant of religion, and only really concerned with a particular kind of monotheism, which is a narrow segment of the broader religious world.

Of course religion can be written off as an intellectual error, because it is! That is, the idea that there’s a divine being who gives us meaning and morality is simply insupportable from the facts. Wittgenstein and St. Augustine were clever, but all their fine words cannot substitute for the complete lack of evidence for divine beings. And, absent that, religion predicated on such beings becomes an intellectual error, for one can have discussions about morals and values—and even purpose—without God. An entire tradition of secular ethics proves that. So any discussion based on the existence of God becomes meaningless in the absence of that God—and that’s an intellectual error.

People of yore were religious because they didn’t know any better, and because science hadn’t started dispelling the factual assertions that buttress many faiths. For most of human history, for instance, diseases were imputed to divine wrath—an idea dispelled only in the last two centuries. That, too, was an intellectual error.

4.) Science is seen by New Atheists as a substitute for religion, and a bad substitute, because science can cause harm.

There’s this silly idea that we have no need for religion anymore because we have science, but this is an incredibly foolish notion, since religion addresses different needs than science, needs that science can’t address.

. . . .But from the very start, the idea of original sin was caught up with a kind of obsessive interest in and hatred of human sexuality, which poisoned it to the core. At the same time, we should remember that many of the secular religions of the 20th century condemned gay people, for example.

Homosexuality was illegal for most of the time that the Soviet Union existed. Doctors who performed abortions in communist Romania could be sent to prison, and in some cases even subjected to capital punishment. Many of the worst features or the worst human harms inflicted by monotheism have been paralleled in the secular religions of modern times. (Gray)

I often wonder if the Enlightenment skepticism that birthed atheism ultimately leads us to a moral abyss — and by that I don’t mean to imply that people can’t be moral without God, which is one of the stupidest claims I’ve ever heard. What I mean is that science cannot supply moral values, and I’m not sure this is a fact we can really own up to as a civilization, because it requires a conversation about human values that we seem incapable of having. (Illing)

The fact that many people no longer need religion does indeed stem in part from the advances of science. Religion once explained great puzzles of humanity, like where all life came from and why people got sick. The God essential in answering those questions suddenly became superfluous when science provided the real answers.

As for the needs of people not being completely met by science, well of course that’s true. Science can’t tell us what is right or wrong, despite Sam Harris’s assertion to the contrary. Science can’t tell a given person how to live their life, because that depends on the psychological constitution of a person and what their desires are, something that science cannot (yet) address. Science is not the alternative to religion—rationality is. Science is one form of rationality, but not the only form.

The final refutation of Illing’s claim that dispensing with religion is silly and harmful consists one word: Scandinavia.

I could go on, but I grow weary from writing and from addressing the dumb ideas of Illing and Gray over and over again. I’ll just add one more bit. Below Gray brings up the Nazi and Communist tropes, ignoring contemporary godless but well functioning societies like those of northern Europe.

And we see this happening now: Many people believe science can validate our deepest values, and it just so happens that those values are conventionally prevalent in society — they’re fundamentally liberal democratic values.

If the prevailing values are good, then great. If they’re not, though — as was the case in Nazi Germany or communist Russia — then science becomes a handmaiden to the most awful crimes in human history; and almost always, those crimes are committed in defense of some grand project to improve human society.

So I think we just have to accept that science has limitations. All values come from the human animal, and that’s just the way it is. That doesn’t mean all values are equally good or bad or wise — I think that’s a mistake, too. We have natures, and there are certain constants in human life, and that’s a moral foundation we can build on. (Gray)

I’ll leave you to rebut that for yourself, as I want a snack.


  1. mikeyc
    Posted October 31, 2018 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    Sorry you have to deal with this nonsense again. I have to run and will finish reading later but wanted to comment that Gray is wildly wrong in his claim that we humans are the only animals who “regret and sometimes even hate the impulses that guide them to act as they do.” Anyone who’s come home to their sofa pillow assploded all over the living room and the pup hiding behind the sofa knows this is just wrong.

    I’m hoping we’ll see a wrap up on your meeting with the TESC people, Dr Coyne.

    • Posted October 31, 2018 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

      LOL, now that warms the cockles of my heart. Gray damned by Eagleton!

      “Gray condemns secular humanism as the continuation of religion by other means, but his own faith in some vague, inexplicable enigma beyond the material is open to exactly the same charge.”

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted October 31, 2018 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

      Eagleton’s cardinal problem IMO was his dovetailing all atheists into exactly the same box, and his obliviousness to the significant internal differences of opinion within the atheist community. This is reflected in his dreadful portmanteau “Ditchkins”.

  2. Ken Kukec
    Posted October 31, 2018 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    … there’s nothing there that I haven’t seen a bazillion times before.

    To paraphrase the comment often attributed to the late velvet-voiced Illinois senator Everett Dirksen (who, btw, would be heartsick over today’s GOP), a bazillion here, a bazillion there, and pretty soon you’re talkin’ some insipid new-atheist critics who’ve made real pains in the ass outta themselves.

  3. Posted October 31, 2018 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    This stuff is really not worthy of your attention as it is filled with flaws. Here are a few:

    “The human mind is programmed for survival, not for truth,” (Gray’s book quoted by Illing)

    The truth humans learn about the world has been very helpful to its survival. Pinker’s “Enlightenment” book tells all about it. The human species success owes itself largely to its ability to learn truth and apply it to survival.

    Gray’s answer regarding religion causing harm in the world, pretends that the harm is all in the past. Clearly religion still causes harm and is the main reason atheists fight against it.

    One of the main things that pisses me off with this kind of thinking is that they assume that a godless world must be one lacking in morality and meaning. That “profane; wicked.” is one meaning of “godless” is used to subtle advantage.

    • Posted October 31, 2018 at 11:55 am | Permalink

      Take away their semantics, and these Sophisticated Philosophers would be naked.

    • Posted October 31, 2018 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

      PLEASE do not tell me what’s worthy of my attention or not. (See the Roolz.) I already wrote about it, so what’s the point of telling me that I wasted my time?

      • Nicolaas Stempels
        Posted October 31, 2018 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

        (Regardless of Tha Roolz)
        It is true you have addressed this before.
        It is true that these intellectual sloths are basically (objectively?) not really worthy of your attention. I can agree with Paul there.
        On the other hand, I greatly admire your energy and stamina in arguing against it again and again, and the arguments remain interesting. I think we’re all grateful for that, at least I am.

      • Posted October 31, 2018 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

        Ok, but I was focusing on the flaws and, I thought, paying you a compliment at the same time. I guess I have to set my “not telling you what to write about” filter on 11.

    • Harrison
      Posted October 31, 2018 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

      I mean it’s technically true that human minds are not precision machines for reality testing but a kludged together system that works “well enough” but still falls prey to irrational patterns of thought.

      But that’s not a justification for accepting magical thinking as an inevitability. It’s a cause for constant vigilance and critical thinking to weed out our biases and bad mental habits. It may not be possible to ever clear every last weed from the garden of the mind, but the least we can do is keep working.

      • Posted October 31, 2018 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

        Agreed. We should do the best we can to understand reality. Rejecting woo is a big part of that.

  4. Posted October 31, 2018 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    I’ve been hanging around with religious folk for a good portion of my adult life and can say, with full confidence, that most religious people are so because they believe facts to be on their side. Not all but a great majority.

    • Posted October 31, 2018 at 11:26 am | Permalink

      By “facts”, do you mean things that other people can point to and verify? What kinds of facts are they talking about?

      • Posted October 31, 2018 at 11:54 am | Permalink

        Gawd nothing. Facts of their choosing. Like the fact that the earth is young and the fact that evolutionists are just figuring out a way to do want they want and avoid having to do what god says.

  5. Posted October 31, 2018 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    Well done. Theists and defenders of religion have a strategy: the Big Lie. The just keep telling the same BS over and over and we get tired of defending against it, so it becomes The Truth(tm) thereafter.

    What they don’t point out is that if humans have a desire for religion, it is personal; we all make up our own. The number of definitions of “god” surely must equal the number of believers. The only reason a religion can become monolithic is through state power. Political states like religion and support it because of its ability to coerce the masses labor to support the interests of the religious and secular elites. Christianity tells us that when we die we will get our reward and our enemies will be punished. All of said benefits, of course, are hypothetical and very beneficial to those who oppress the masses of people.

    No religion became major without fitting into a coercive system of those with the power and wealth.

  6. Posted October 31, 2018 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    Science is not a replacement or substitute for religion. Religion is incapable of accurately describing or predicting any part of the natural world. How can it be that science replaces something that is the antithesis of science?

    Religion is epistemologically empty or always less satisfactory than other explanations with regard to providing any answers to our universe and our existence in it.

    I dare say that Jane Austin uncovered more in a single novel about the nature of our relationships to one another than all organized religions combined.

  7. Posted October 31, 2018 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Do I detect marketing on the part of Gray?

  8. Historian
    Posted October 31, 2018 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    Illing and Gray do not care whether there actually exists a deity. But they do care whether or not religion exists. For them, religion is essential to the well-being of human society and the belief by the masses in a deity is what allows religion to survive. Religion and its fictive stories provide the bonds that keep societies together by supposedly providing them moral values that science does not.

    Perhaps not knowing it, they mimic what Dwight Eisenhower said in 1952, per Wikipedia:

    “And this is how they [the Founding Fathers in 1776] explained those: ‘we hold that all men are endowed by their Creator…’ not by the accident of their birth, not by the color of their skins or by anything else, but ‘all men are endowed by their Creator’. In other words, our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is. With us of course it is the Judeo-Christian concept, but it must be a religion with all men are created equal.”

    Their view is the Little People argument. I’m not sure of Gray’s politics, but Illing is an arch liberal. It disappoints me that he doesn’t understand atheism. I think he may hold these views because he quite mistakenly associates atheism with conservatism. Any person who frequents this site knows that there is no apparent correlation between atheism and political ideology. He also doesn’t seem to know, as pointed out on this site a multitude of times that atheism is simply the non-belief in gods due to lack of evidence. Of course, the vast majority of atheists credit science as the primary cause of human advancement, but this belief, although implied, is not inherent in the definition of atheism.

    Illing and Gray believe that the benefits of religion, as nonsensical as it may be, outweighs the pursuit of truth. I wonder how they square their arguments with the fact that the greatest threat to democracy in the USA comes from a person who is overwhelming supported by the religious right.

    • Posted October 31, 2018 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      “providing them moral values that science does not”

      Of course, atheists generally don’t look to science for their moral values either. Instead, they are better addressed by philosophers, or at least philosophical thinking.

    • Sastra
      Posted October 31, 2018 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

      I wonder how they square their argument that the pursuit of truth is outweighed by the need to feel significant with the greatest threat to democracy in the USA — the idea that the pursuit of truth is outweighed by the need to feel significant.

  9. Posted October 31, 2018 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    Why do I always get the impression that criticisms of the New Atheists amount to “those guys have more book sales than me”?

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted October 31, 2018 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

      Nasty, but probably true..

  10. Posted October 31, 2018 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    Religion answers the questions that science can’t, and tells us about meaning and purpose.

    That again. My response to that is, as always, “what good is an answer, if you can’t tell if it is right?”

    • Desnes Diev
      Posted October 31, 2018 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

      Moreover, as the questions often make sense only in a religious perspective, to answer them can be an exercice in confirmation bias.

    • Sastra
      Posted October 31, 2018 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

      My own response to that is “so I take it you reject philosophy?”

      • Posted November 1, 2018 at 7:02 am | Permalink

        If a philosopher makes a claim, how do you judge that claim?

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted October 31, 2018 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

      I’d say “what good is an answer, if you can tell it is not right, but made up piffle?”

  11. CJColucci
    Posted October 31, 2018 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    I don’t think that all religions are the same, but I do believe that they’re equivalently untrue in the conventional sense of that term.

    Doesn’t that give the game away? If you want to go on and argue that religion as an institution and practice has some sort of social or psychological, or practical value apart from its (lack of) truth “in the conventional sense,” then have at it — though I suspect that you’ll have a hard time making a case for the value of religions not believed to be true “in the conventional sense”* by their adherents. But that’s a different question.

    * I include those who do not believe literally in the specifics, but have a “big picture” belief that the religion they adhere to expresses some real truth about the world, even if it’s just that there’s Something Out There that wants us to be nice and that it will all work out somehow if we are.

  12. Posted October 31, 2018 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    Illing is, by no coincidence, a member of the leftist elite ‘creative class’.

  13. Posted October 31, 2018 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    If the prevailing values are good, then great. If they’re not, though — as was the case in Nazi Germany or communist Russia — then science becomes a handmaiden to the most awful crimes in human history; and almost always, those crimes are committed in defense of some grand project to improve human society.

    I do not agree that the awful things done by those regimes had anything to do with good science. In fact, I think science invalidates the idea that certain “races” of human are inferior to others and therefor should be exterminated. And I think millions of lives would have been saved in the USSR if Lysenko had been a competent scientist.

    • TJR
      Posted October 31, 2018 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      Nazi Germany and Communist Russia show us that political religions can be just as bad as supernatural religions.

      • Historian
        Posted October 31, 2018 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

        The misuse or loose definition of words leads often to poor communication and misunderstanding. Such is the case when the word “religion” is attributed to belief systems as atheism (if in fact it is a system), communism or fascism. For a belief system to be referred to as a religion, it must have the presence of a deity or supernatural element at its core. Other belief systems should be referred to as ideologies, although religion can be classified as a variant of an ideology. Merriam-Webster refers to an ideology as:

        1: a manner or the content of thinking characteristic of an individual, group, or culture
        b : the integrated assertions, theories and aims that constitute a sociopolitical program
        c : a systematic body of concepts especially about human life or culture
        2 : visionary theorizing

        • TJR
          Posted October 31, 2018 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

          So would you call Confucianism an ideology rather than a religion?

          I’m not sure we can cleanly separate out a religion from an ideology. You can argue that one is a subset of the other, or that they are variants of the same sort of thing.

          For example, if you’d said that was the definition a religion then I would have believed you.

          IMHO “political religion” is much clearer than the vaguer “ideology”, but YMMV.

          • Historian
            Posted October 31, 2018 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

            I did say that religion is a subset of an ideology.

            Regarding Confucianism, the test of whether it is a religion depends on whether it has a supernatural component at its core.

            • Nicolaas Stempels
              Posted October 31, 2018 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

              Could not the higher destiny of the proletariat or the Aryans, or Utopia, not be seen as a supernatural component?
              Moreover, I’m sure that in the Nazi and Communist ideology/faith some supernatural traits are ascribed to the supreme leader.

            • Posted November 2, 2018 at 11:35 am | Permalink

              The answer to that seems to be that it started out not, and became one. (Similar to Daoism, and maybe also to Buddhism.)

              Unfortunately I am skeptical of the merits here, since the division of “natural” vs. “supernatural” is hard to do: in the Inuit context, say, is Sedna supernatural? An Inuk would (traditionally) deny it or not understand the question – she’s of a piece of you and I and the shaman who he says can travel to the moon.

              In the other direction, Platonism holds there is life after death, a realm of Forms, etc. Does that make Platonism a religion rather than a philosophy? Both?

              • Posted November 3, 2018 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

                Mind independent from matter is a pretty clear indicator of the supernatural (Sastra’s razor).


                Sent from my iPhone


          • Posted October 31, 2018 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

            What I’ve learned of Confucianism says that it’s more of an ideology than a religion, and it always confuses me why people call it a religion.


            • Posted November 1, 2018 at 3:33 am | Permalink

              I’d suggest that it’s because it fulfils a similar role in people’s lives.

              Some are careful to distinguish* between religious and non-religious worldviews or life stances; others lump them altogether under “religion” – maybe because the majority of people wouldn’t understand “worldview” or “life stance”. (“Ideology” is too broad, I think, and more typically applied to political or economic thought.)


              • Posted November 1, 2018 at 3:34 am | Permalink

                * (missing footnote) * The distinctions might be to do with belief in a deity, supernatural elements, and so on.

    • Posted October 31, 2018 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

      So you are saying that science DOES establish moral values.

      • Posted October 31, 2018 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

        No; but it can falsify some bases of morality. If you believe enslaving sub-Saharan Africans is moral because of their innate inferiority, science can invalidate that. But if you think enslaving Britons is moral because you defeated them in conquest, science doesn’t pertain. (I think.)


      • Posted November 1, 2018 at 6:55 am | Permalink

        No. I’m refuting the claim that science had anything to do with the atrocities committed by the Nazi and Stalinist regimes.

  14. TJR
    Posted October 31, 2018 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    The enormously clever Saint Augustine, who explained that the collapse of the Roman Empire didn’t matter because it was the City of God that really mattered.

    This must have been a great comfort to him when he was dying during the Vandal siege of Hippo Regius.

  15. Posted October 31, 2018 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    “…Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens…”

    Oh for heavens goddam m#ther####ing sake. Why do they always trot out the same three privileged white male authors as if they are representative of atheism? Why? And by “they” I meran the horde of idiots who have been compulsively writing this same critique since 2006. Why haven’t they bothered to deal with any of the others yet? (A brief reading of any of the aforementioned authors would have given them a few dozen names!)

    “These New Atheists are mostly ignorant of religion, and only really concerned with a particular kind of monotheism”

    This mob of critics are mostly ignorant of New Atheism. Of the three authors all of them are obsessed with, Sam Harris is a practising Buddhist, whose book Waking Up uses secular language to examine aspects of subjective conscious experience under the heading of ‘spirituality’. Hitchens spent much of the second half of God is Not Great considering in great depth the political implications that have always followed once authority is granted to religious figures. Dawkins drew out the obvious implications of modern science for religion. It’s not his fault that science revealed these things about nature, so there’s no point in complaining that he pointed them out.

    “In other words, it’s not a search for explanation.”

    In that case, why not concede all of Dawkins’ objections, and move to considering the more important cricisms mentioned above? Why not? Because if they were serious about that statement and allowed the fact claims of religions to fall, the religions would collapse with them: they get their rhetorical and political power from implying that they’re either literally true, or ‘somehow’ true. You can’t have it both ways.

    They should have dealt (as Jerry notes) with Faith vs Fact — which is utterly devastating for theology on exactly this point.

    “But [atheists] are still stuck with core assumptions that come from the monotheistic traditions.”

    Well that’s nice — at the core of the monotheistic religions is a bunch of assumptions. At least that’s cleared up now. They could have at least acknowledged where they picked up that devastating insight from. Harris, Hitchens or Dawkins might be a good place to start, for example, especially if you insist on only reading white privileged male authors.

    “it’s obvious that religion contributes something essential to the human condition that we need, and whatever that is, we’ll still need it in a Godless world.”

    Ah, it’s “obvious”. Well that’s that cleared up then.

    “This is the thing that atheists dismiss too easily”

    Um, dismiss *what* too easily? ..Ah, the obvious thing that we all need… Right, ok. I’ll try to stop.

    “Something as ancient, as profound, as inexhaustibly rich as religion or religions can’t really be written off as an intellectual error by clever people.”

    I guess that’s obvious too. This philosophy stuff is pretty powerful.

    4.) Science is seen by New Atheists as a substitute for religion

    Hitchens and Harris both deal with this at length — distinguishing the numinous from the supernatural. There is no reason at all that religious people can’t join Harris and Hitchens on this path for at least some of the way.

    The biggest mystery to me is why the book isn’t called ‘The Science Delusion’. That title has only been used three other times, and still must have some mileage in it.

    • Posted October 31, 2018 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

      1. Well, they were the New Atheists.

      Failure to see beyond that to others who have flourished since is intellectual laziness that’s completely consistent with the flawed criticism.


      • Posted November 1, 2018 at 2:54 am | Permalink

        I guess the fundamental difference between the New Atheists and all the others is that if you write a book criticising all the others, no one will publish it.

        • Posted November 1, 2018 at 3:19 am | Permalink

          Well, there is that!

          Gray: “Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture is a crock.”

          World: “Meh.”

          Which is a shame, as Carroll’s book (which I chose only because it’s first on my bookshelf, just ahead of Jerry’s FvF) very solidly rebuts any supernatural claims that are foundational to many religions – or all, depending on your definition.


  16. Sastra
    Posted October 31, 2018 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    . Gray and Illing are wish-thinking here, proposing a “sophisticated” view of religion not held by most believers, yet one that the New Atheists rightfully attack. New Atheism isn’t directed, by and large, at Sophisticated Theologians™, but at what most people believe.

    I disagree; as you’ve frequently pointed out, one of the main targets of New Atheism is religious faith — and that damns both the folk religion of the Ordinary People and the elite religion of the Sophisticated Theologian along with everything in between. Gray and Illing are both wish-thinking that most religion is Sophisticated metaphors AND wish-thinking that New Atheists ONLY attack literal religions and thus don’t know about, haven’t considered, and can’t (or won’t) deal with the Sophisticated metaphorical versions which are more reasonable and ethical.

    Why are these versions more “reasonable?” Because they’re too vague to pin down as saying anything specific. Why are they more “ethical?” Because they dress up moral philosophy. It’s not religion which lies behind the big ideas: it’s secular humanism.

    • darrelle
      Posted October 31, 2018 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

      Completely agree, and well said.

    • Posted October 31, 2018 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

      Yep, you have a good point. What I meant was that people like Richard and Sam and Christopher didn’t engage with the arguments of Sophisticated Theologians directly, like the arguments of Plantinga. But yes, they were all, as I am, anti-faith.

  17. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted October 31, 2018 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    #2 is especially weak and weakened by the word “just”! As Bill Maher said,”Until someone says they saw Christopher Hitchens face in a tree stump, we cannot say atheism is a religion” and “Abstinence is not a sex position”

    the other one that is IMO 100% completely false (no half-truths, quarter-truths, or tenth-truths) is….
    Science replaces religion primarily in the field of observations about the natural observable world. In the wake of the decline of religion, other forms of moral reflection have emerged ranging from existentialism, to various forms of consequentialism (in which I would include Harris).
    I can’t think of any place where any of the 4 horsemen describe science as a complete substitute of religion on all fronts.

    Religion is about other stuff AND factual assertions at least in the case of the more creedally oriented churches, perhaps less so in the minimal creed ones. These are the churches that Carl Sagan kinda sorta liked, but he regarded the more theologically minded ones as essentially engaged in pseudo-science. (See Chapter 1 of “The Demon-Haunted World”).

    #3 has some element of truth as it is correct that religion provides a sense of purpose or what the Greeks called “telos”. But it is associated with guesswork. Even if you reject the terms of Pascal’s wager (as I vigorous do!!), there is a gamble involved.

  18. phoffman56
    Posted October 31, 2018 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    Wittgenstein is mentioned here by Gray, to do with gods and religiosity. One need only quote the former’s attitude to Darwinism, which is likely his penultimate stupidity (the ultimate one being his no-nothing remarks and worse about Godel’s incompleteness).

    Quoting from :

    Wittgenstein was a lifelong skeptic of Darwinism and … he observed there:

    “I have always thought that Darwin was wrong: his theory doesn’t account for all this variety of species. It hasn’t the necessary multiplicity. Nowadays some people are fond of saying that at last evolution has produced a species that is able to understand the whole process which gave it birth. … you can’t say [that today].”

    I’ve not checked whether that website fabricated that dopey Witt-ischism, but likely not.

    The greatest 20th century philosopher??

    • phoffman56
      Posted November 1, 2018 at 8:40 am | Permalink

      ‘know-nothing’ not “no-no…” Sorry!

    • Posted November 2, 2018 at 11:37 am | Permalink

      I am half-admiring of Wittgenstein’s work, but:

      “There is nothing so absurd but some philosopher has said it.” – Cicero.

  19. revelator60
    Posted October 31, 2018 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    I have always been mystified by John Gray’s popularity with the intelligentsia, just as I wonder why so many otherwise intelligent upper class feel the need to babble about religion for the little people. Does Gray appeal to some sort of intellectual masochism or guilt among the cultural elite?

    He certainly has nothing to offer the world. All he says is that mankind is awful, progress is non-existent, and that the best thing is to retreat into nebulous semi-mysticism while spewing invective at anyone seeking to improve the world. If only someone with a time machine would bundle him off into the dark ages and leave him there to test his opinions!

    As for Science and morality, science cannot dictate our morals but it certainly informs them, because morality is based on our knowledge of humanity and its place in the world, and science has revolutionized our conception of these. Science even warns us of our own irrationality as a species.

  20. Diane G
    Posted November 1, 2018 at 2:52 am | Permalink


  21. Posted November 1, 2018 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    I haven’t read either of these gentlemen but imagine that they refer to religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism and, maybe, Zoroastrianism. Would they make the same claims for more ancient religions (some of which are still practiced by millions)such as:

    Fertility worship of Penis and Vagina
    Worship of Nature Gods and Goddesses
    Worship of Sky and Weather Gods such as Thunder
    Worship of Underworld Deities in Caves and Water
    Worship of Sea and River Gods
    Worship of Sky Father and Earth Mother
    Ancestor Worship

    In reading about Genghis Khan, I’ve found no reference to his treatment of atheists, but he was tolerant of most religions:

    “The Mongols were highly tolerant of most religions during the early Mongol Empire, and typically sponsored several at the same time. At the time of Genghis Khan in the 13th century, virtually every religion had found converts, from Buddhism to Eastern Christianity and Manichaeanism to Islam. To avoid strife, Genghis Khan set up an institution that ensured complete religious freedom, though he himself was a Shamanist. Under his administration, all religious leaders were exempt from taxation, and from public service.[1] Mongol emperors were known for organizing competitions of religious debates among clerics, and these would draw large audiences.”

    I will assume that he was also tolerant of atheists. If so, I consider him a better example of tolerance than Gray and Illing.

  22. Kirbmarc
    Posted November 1, 2018 at 7:01 am | Permalink

    Ultimately the problem with these defenses of Sophisticated Theology is that they confuse “is” with “ought”, and want you to confuse it, too, to believe that only through religious belief you can talk about morality.

    Morality is based on assumptions of value which ARE non-falsifiable, that’s true. For example the assumption that all human beings, regardless of their intelligence, strength, ethnic origin, gender, etc. have equal dignity and a right to live that, for example, objects do not have, is not falsifiable, because it is a matter of value, not of fact.

    There’s no physical or chemical or biological law that tells you that it is wrong to own, sell or scrap a human being, but it is not wrong to own, sell, or scrap a boat or a car.

    You may make a good argument about humans being able to feel pain, and to self-reflect and communicate about this feeling, but that is simply assuming that pain-feelers who can communicate it have a dignity that non-pain feelers do not have.

    So the Sophisticated Theologians can rightly point out that “science cannot answer” the matters of value, and, with a sleight of hand, claim that religion “can”.

    The truth is that no one “can” answer matters of value, because they’re not a question, they’re an assumption.

    Religions simply pretend they can answer those matters by delegating the assumption onto an external “validator” (the Divine) but this is simply throwing the problems onto the interpreters of the “divine will”.

    Historically speaking many religious leaders have made religious arguments in favor of, say, slavery which are no less reliable, from a religious perspective, than religious arguments against slavery.

    Indeed it’s rather easy to find in most old religious books justifications for slavery, because slavery was a widespread social phenomenon when those books were written.

    Religious and non-religious people are all unable to give a Definitive and Unobjectionable theory of ethics, because there’s simply no such thing.

    The difference is that non-religious people are able to make coherent Situational and Axiomatic theory of ethics based on assumptions that can change when new evidence is discovered, while religious people are forced to “re-interpret” the old assumptions.

    For example if we created self-aware, pain-feeling artificial intelligence in some robots we non-religious people could easily verify that they too like humans feel pain, can understand it and communicate it, and so do not deserve to be treated as objects but as human beings.

    Religious people would have to “re-interpret” their Holy Books to make sure that it’s not just “god-created” humans who deserve dignity, but “human-created” AI-robots, too.

    It’s not that religious people are inherently more or less immoral than non-religious ones, it’s that non-religious people have less of a burden, since they can re-adapt moral axioms to new contexts without the hassle of having to continuously reinterpret an old book.

    • darrelle
      Posted November 1, 2018 at 7:28 am | Permalink

      Good comment.

  23. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted November 4, 2018 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    As a reminder, social scientists argue that statistics show the entire Europe, not only northern or Scandinavian parts, are now fine with being dominantly secular.

    1.) Religion is not mainly about factual assertions but about other things, and ignorant New Atheists fail to recognize that.

    This is like saying astrology is not mainly about factual assertions. So what? They are both scams.

    The analogy is extensive and telling. Blind tests of horoscopes tell us astrology methods do not work; blind tests of intercessory (wishful) prayer tell us religious methods do not work. Physics of stars tell us putative “signs” do not affect the universe; physics of cosmology tells us putative “gods” do not affect the universe. QED. 😉

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