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A less intellectually lazy atheism?
July 9, 2014 9:02 AM   Subscribe

Atheist bashing or tough love? A thought-provoking review by Michael Robbins of Nick Spencer's new book on the history of atheism in Slate magazine. It reads like an autopsy of the recently murdered religious/atheist dialogue, with the "intellectually lazy" new atheism atop the list of suspects.

Robbins, the reviewer in Slate, pulls no punches:

"What’s most galling about evangelical atheists is their epistemic arrogance—and their triumphalist tone: If religious belief is like belief in the Easter Bunny, as they like to say, shouldn’t they be less proud of themselves for seeing through it?"

Robbins', and Spencer's, point is not whether or not atheists can convince believers that God does not exist, but the fact that "Everyone is talking past each other and no one seems to be elevating the conversation to where it could and should be."
posted by cross_impact (369 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
I take the overall point, but that review seems muddled in the middle to me. I'm not sure I get this bit, for example:

The point is not that a coherent morality requires theism, but that the moral language taken for granted by liberal modernity is a fragmented ruin: It rejects metaphysics but exists only because of prior metaphysical commitments. A coherent atheism would understand this, because it would be aware of its own history. Instead, trendy atheism of the Dawkins variety has learned as little from its forebears as from Thomas Aquinas, preferring to advance a bland version of secular humanism.

What is he saying here, exactly? What's he proposing?
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:12 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


Also, I wonder if the supposed dumbing-down of atheism is simply a result of its growing popularity.

Also also, I reject the idea that atheists have an obligation to learn all about religion in order to justify their atheism. People should be able to say "eh I don't believe in god" and then never give it another thought for the rest of their lives, if they want to.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:16 AM on July 9 [102 favorites]


Atheists: The Origin of the Species seems to have been born out of frustration with these and other confusions perpetuated by the so-called “New Atheists” and their allies, who can’t be bothered to familiarize themselves with the traditions they traduce. Several thoughtful writers have already laid bare the slapdash know-nothingism of today’s mod-ish atheism, but Spencer’s not beating a dead horse—he’s beating a live one, in the hope that Nietzsche might rush to embrace it. Several critics have noted that if evangelical atheists (as the philosopher John Gray calls them) are ignorant of religion, as they usually are, then they aren’t truly atheists.

I guess to me this just seems like more rehashing of the old (and kind of tired, honestly) debate over which side of this argument has the burden of proof. I'm not sure it makes any sense to say that just because some atheist isn't an expert on all the religions they reject then they are intellectually lazy or not a 'true atheist' (/scotsman). In fact, to me, atheism seems to certainly be a more 'default' position, especially in today's world where scientific explanations abound and doubt is (rightfully) seen as a virtue.

What would make John Gray et al pleased here? That all atheists also be experts in every major and minor religion in order to arrive at their atheism? That seems like a backwards way of arriving at atheism to me. Atheism takes a premise that there are no gods, and then explains existence. I do not think the onus is on them to first deconstruct the human history of myth making before they move forward.

I imagine though that this derision of the so-called 'new atheists' is probably a sort of artifact left over from previous generations where atheism was much more rare and still somewhat novel/controversial.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:16 AM on July 9 [21 favorites]


(on preview, pretty much what showbiz_liz said in fewer words)
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:17 AM on July 9


Julian Baggini: "Atheists: The Origin of the Species – review"
What is more debatable is the contention that "the history of atheism is best seen as a series of disagreements about authority" rather than one primarily about the existence of God. "To deny God was not simply to deny God," writes Spencer. "It was to deny the emperor or the king who ruled you, the social structures that ordered your life, the ethical ties that regulated it, the hopes it inspired and the judgment that reassured it."

This is certainly true. But it does not follow that the tussle between religion and atheism is political rather than philosophical. Take his discussion of the early reformation in the 16th century. "Hundreds of Christians wrote thousands of pages demolishing the theological presuppositions of their opponents," he rightly says, before adding, "the fact that those theological differences might be a cipher for political or social threats is a nuance easily lost amid the aroma of cooking flesh."
posted by audi alteram partem at 9:17 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


showbiz_liz I agree that an Atheist is under no obligation to learn about other religions. However, they lose all right to speak about other people's religions if they do.

FWIW: I'm an Atheist, and find religion very interesting. The more I learn about various faiths, the less interested I am in joining any, but I'm certainly not going to pass judgment on anyone who does. Except Scientology.
posted by SansPoint at 9:19 AM on July 9 [9 favorites]


My dad's an atheist.

He's really more of ... what's the greek word for "give a fuck" he's an a-"give-a-fuck-about-god"-ist... as in without giving a fuck... I think he's more like what Showbiz Liz is saying. Why should it matter. It's not a lifestyle choice, it's a belief (or lack thereof).

The default, frankly, is atheism. Religion must be indoctrinated. It may serve a purpose, but the default belief system of humans based upon experience qua experience is belief in the here and now, not an invisible skyman who wants to kill people for not believing in him.
posted by symbioid at 9:20 AM on July 9 [4 favorites]


Further reading: Atheism in Christianity, by Ernst Bloch.
In the twenty-first century, religion has come under determined attack from secular progressives in documentaries, opinion pieces and international bestsellers. Combative atheists have denounced faiths of every stripe, resulting in a crude intellectual polarization in which religious convictions and heritage must be rejected or accepted wholesale.

In the long unavailable Atheism in Christianity , Ernst Bloch provides a way out from this either/or debate. He examines the origins of Christianity in an attempt to find its social roots, pursuing a detailed study of the Bible and its fascination for 'ordinary and unimportant' people. In the biblical promise of utopia and the scriptures' antagonism to authority, Bloch locates Christianity's appeal to the oppressed. Through a lyrical yet close and nuanced analysis, he explores the tensions within the Bible that promote atheism as a counter to the authoritarian metaphysical theism imposed by clerical exegesis. At the Bible's heart he finds a heretical core and the concealed message that, paradoxically, a good Christian must necessarily be a good atheist.
posted by No Robots at 9:26 AM on July 9 [4 favorites]


Yes, as practiced, atheism is often just another form of zealotry. That's why I refer to myself as a nontheist, one who simply can't be bothered to give the matter any thought whatsoever. A pox on all their houses...
posted by jim in austin at 9:26 AM on July 9


However, they lose all right to speak about other people's religions if they do.

Whoah, whoah, whoah; there may be good reasons not to speak, but not having the right to do so? No.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 9:26 AM on July 9 [23 favorites]


Speaking as an atheist: There is nothing to be intellectually lazy about. There is nothing to think about. I don't think about the fact that there's no unicorn standing next to me and I don't think about the fact that there's no God and I don't think about the fact that I don't have four arms. I just don't have any need to have a rigorous, fully-developed intellectual framework for not believing in things that I don't see any evidence for.
posted by Tomorrowful at 9:27 AM on July 9 [133 favorites]


Also also, I reject the idea that atheists have an obligation to learn all about religion in order to justify their atheism.

I agree with this. That being said, I only agree when we are discussing people's private beliefs. You can always speak with authority about what you do or do not believe.

But when you start discussing what other people believe, it is incumbent on you to actually know what they believe. So something like this:

an invisible skyman who wants to kill people for not believing in him.

That's not an actual expression of a common religious belief, it's a mocking paraphrase. I know a lot of people of faith, and that doesn't describe any of their beliefs. I would not appreciate having my atheism turned into a mocking paraphrase, and so I try to extend that same respect to people of faith, even though I do not share their beliefs.
posted by maxsparber at 9:27 AM on July 9 [67 favorites]


The default, frankly, is atheism. Religion must be indoctrinated.

I would argue that a specific religion has to be indoctrinated, but the default is very much believing that everything happens for a reason and that some entity is therefore controlling all of reality. There's a reason that kids ask "Why?" so much.
posted by Etrigan at 9:28 AM on July 9 [15 favorites]


This seems to be wanting to impose the internal logic and intellectual gymnastics required of a dogma or theology on something that inherently doesn't require it. If you want someone to come up with an alternate justification for judeo-christian morality without the big finger waving sky man at the other end, that seems like a job for philosophers, but atheism doesn't inherently require it.
posted by stenseng at 9:28 AM on July 9 [4 favorites]


Why shouldn't athiests shouldn't be intellectually lazy? If you want to suggest that a supreme being exists and that we should live a certain way because of that suggestion, the burden of proof is on you. I'll listen, but otherwise I'm stone cold chilling.
posted by the jam at 9:29 AM on July 9 [17 favorites]


the default belief system of humans based upon experience qua experience is belief in the here and now

Nothing in all of anthropology or human history bears this statement out. Religion arises in culture over and over and over again, inevitably, as though bubbling out of deep structures in the brain, which it probably does.

Empiricism, just the idea of empiricism and rationality and science and all that stuff, was hard-won and must be constantly fought for. Just look at the recent kerfuffle with the Less Wrong crowd—even a community explicitly dedicated to Total Rationality wound up falling down a hole of apocalyptic thinking and believer-panic.

What drives me crazy about "blah blah sky daddy"-type New Atheists is their blithe dismissal of the ways in which religion addresses what appear to be basic human psychological needs. Without providing alternatives to mechanisms religion provides to address the terrible difficulty of framing the meaning of human life in a way that makes it bearable, it's a hollow exercise in smugness, just as its detractors are saying.

I don't know, man. Shit's hard. Atheists who act as though saying "there is no god" is the end of the conversation are more inured to their long dark nights of the soul than I am to mine, is I guess all I'm saying.
posted by Sokka shot first at 9:30 AM on July 9 [56 favorites]



But when you start discussing what other people believe, it is incumbent on you to actually know what they believe.

The thing is that we are so rarely discussing what people believe, which is, in fact, unknowable. We are actually discussing what people are doing, which includes what they're saying.

It's very easy for me from a small city near Cambridge, MA to say "live and let live" but I don't have to consider whether my kid is going to get proselytized by his homeroom teacher or whether I will lose custody of him because I don't go to church.
posted by the young rope-rider at 9:30 AM on July 9 [12 favorites]


To me, the intellectually lazy aspect of some atheists is refusing to understand why religion has a particular place in communities, and pretending that that shouldn't matter to people.
posted by lookoutbelow at 9:31 AM on July 9 [16 favorites]


the default is very much believing that everything happens for a reason

Yeah.

and that some entity is therefore controlling all of reality.

What
posted by Quilford at 9:32 AM on July 9 [34 favorites]


That's not an actual expression of a common religious belief, it's a mocking paraphrase. I know a lot of people of faith, and that doesn't describe any of their beliefs. I would not appreciate having my atheism turned into a mocking paraphrase, and so I try to extend that same respect to people of faith, even though I do not share their beliefs.


I guess you're a little sensitive about a thing you don't believe in in the first place then? Sorry if I think someone else's nonsense is nonsense, but old nonsense is still nonsense. I find it interesting that old beliefs that still have a following are deserving of some level of respect, but if I told you the earth was flat and the sun revolved around it, you'd likely have no problem snickering at that notion.
posted by stenseng at 9:32 AM on July 9 [8 favorites]


What is he saying here, exactly?

Well, first he is saying that morality as "atheists" practice it is inherently derived from metaphysical beliefs. For example, we think that murder is wrong because back in the day, a metaphysical being was like "hey don't murder kthnx". But he doesn't like that atheists don't acknowledge it. Also something about a "coherent" atheism which I assume means an atheism which sucks up to religious people adequately.
posted by the young rope-rider at 9:33 AM on July 9 [12 favorites]


The default, frankly, is atheism. Religion must be indoctrinated. It may serve a purpose, but the default belief system of humans based upon experience qua experience is belief in the here and now, not an invisible skyman who wants to kill people for not believing in him.
I think a more relevant point is that religions (as in "organized religion") are traditional, hierarchical, and political. There is no one default way for human minds to experience and think about their place in the world. Julian Jaynes showed some compelling evidence for the vivid perception of external gods in the archeological/poetic records. (Better sources for this?)

As for me, I'm about as interested in theism as I am in any other ancient ideology. It seems debunked to the point of total ridiculousness. Believing in any kind of creator God with any specific attributes in any kind of falsifiable way, and the efficacy of prayer, etc, seems to require advanced postmodern self-trickery, and I mostly get the feelings that even believers don't really believe.

What this review is calling for is for atheists to recognize the immensity of not believing in any transcendental signifier. I guess the basic assumption, which seems reasonable to me, is that most people who speak in the name of atheism also bring with them a lot of ideological baggage, especially the kind of thing people call "scientism."

Y'all are focusing on the dictionary definition of atheism, but people like Richard Dawkins have the role of prophet-like scientists; they're not mere disbelievers.
posted by mbrock at 9:34 AM on July 9 [7 favorites]


I think he's basically saying, you learned your morals from the culture you live in. They don't just spring fully formed in your brain one day. Some folks are born to cultures where certain religious values pervade without them even knowing. Just assuming they were obvious and always there. Not knowing that someone, somewhere, back in time had to think of it first.
posted by CrazyJoel at 9:35 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


To me, the intellectually lazy aspect of some atheists

See, this is what kills me about this kind of conversations.

It becomes a sort of ridiculous free for all where people talk about random stuff that some random atheists did one time that, like, really bugged them. It's really tired.
posted by the young rope-rider at 9:35 AM on July 9 [23 favorites]


If you actually accept this argument, you must also accept that it cuts both ways. If an atheist must have a good reasons to reject all religions, a theist must have similar reasons to reject all other religions besides their own, right? Perhaps even BETTER reasons than the atheist, because they have already made this rather large step of admitting the supernatural into their world-view.

An atheist is saying, "I don't believe there's any teapots in orbit around the planet Neptune". A theist is saying, "I believe in the teapot orbiting Neptune, but I don't believe that there are any other teapots or typewriters or telephones or any such thing orbiting Neptune or Jupiter or actually any other planet anywhere in the universe." Once you have allowed that any teapot occurs orbiting any planet, it seems far more intellectually lazy to dismiss all the other possibilities? So, has this guy actually put in the legwork required to rationally refute the existence of infinity minus one gods?
posted by rustcrumb at 9:35 AM on July 9 [64 favorites]


the default is very much believing that everything happens for a reason

Yeah.

and that some entity is therefore controlling all of reality.

What


You don't have kids, I gather. The vast majority of them have to grow out of the belief that there are World-Parents that control stuff like their Family-Parents do.
posted by Etrigan at 9:36 AM on July 9 [4 favorites]


I find the idea it's a problem that most atheists are intellectually lazy about their atheism baffling. The great majority of religious people are just as intellectually lazy about their religion. And that's fine! I'm glad that we're not all gazing into [the eyes of the universe / our navels] all the time.
posted by gurple at 9:37 AM on July 9 [12 favorites]


Couldn't help myself and read that Slate review and it's so fucking boring and tedious, the level at with it is written. It's incredibly naive about actually existing religion and the sophistication of its believers, scolds atheists for having simplified views of religion (well, Christianity) that are actually hold by believers, confuses the conflict between religion and atheism with that between religion and science, et bloody cetera.

It never gets beyond 101 level and is wrong even on that.
posted by MartinWisse at 9:37 AM on July 9 [5 favorites]


I guess you're a little sensitive about a thing you don't believe in in the first place then? Sorry if I think someone else's nonsense is nonsense, but old nonsense is still nonsense.

Well, it's probably because I actually studied religion, and know that there is incredible variety to it, and that plenty of people who are religious don't read their religion literally, but instead as a metaphoric system that helps them address the world and their community. None of which I consider to be nonsense.
posted by maxsparber at 9:37 AM on July 9 [13 favorites]


You don't have to read Plato's dialogues in order to not be a Platonist. That is the default state.

You might be obligated to read Plato's dialogues, and not just the Cliff's Notes, in order to credibly condemn all Platonism as misguided and call Platonists fools.

You might be obligated to even *realize* that you are calling Kurt Goedel a misguided fool when you say that about Platonism.

There are no requirements to be an atheist, any more than there are to be a non-Platonist. But if you want to call bullshit on belief in God, you need to have any idea what exactly you are calling bullshit on, in order for your condemnation to have any meaning at all.
posted by edheil at 9:37 AM on July 9 [26 favorites]


I can't be the only atheist here who is an atheist because s/he grew with a healthy interest in classic and world religions. You don't get to have much respect for a divine Christ when you know of Dyonisos, Adonis, Attis and Tammuz.
posted by sukeban at 9:38 AM on July 9 [18 favorites]


The thing is that we are so rarely discussing what people believe, which is, in fact, unknowable. We are actually discussing what people are doing, which includes what they're saying.

The objection is that even there, all too often a number of anti-theists are getting "what they're saying" quite wrong, or are getting who "they" actually are quite wrong.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:38 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


Also, I think a lot of us nonbelievers get lumped together - I don't believe in god because I've never had any cause to, have never seen or felt any evidence of, and have never felt any particular *need* for a deity to exist. That said, I think Richard Dawkins is kind of a git.
posted by stenseng at 9:38 AM on July 9 [6 favorites]


I agree that an Atheist is under no obligation to learn about other religions. However, they lose all right to speak about other people's religions if they do.

They may not have agency to talk about how people worship, but they sure as Hell do have a right to speak about the effects on society of the exercise of a religion. Examples: bigamy; tax exemptions; political agitation in the area of women's rights to their bodies.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:38 AM on July 9 [12 favorites]


Whoah, whoah, whoah; there may be good reasons not to speak, but not having the right to do so? No.

I would distinguish an epistemic right (which they lose, or which is limited when speaking from ignorance) and a political right (which they retain.)
posted by Jahaza at 9:38 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


You don't have kids, I gather. The vast majority of them have to grow out of the belief that there are World-Parents that control stuff like their Family-Parents do.

I know a lot of people who were raised atheists and this is not the case for them.

Before you respond you should know that I am currently to blame for the ants on the porch and the fact that it is hot out, so I am a pretty powerful local god at the very least.
posted by the young rope-rider at 9:39 AM on July 9 [10 favorites]


You don't have kids, I gather. The vast majority of them have to grow out of the belief that there are World-Parents that control stuff like their Family-Parents do.

cite?


Maybe that's an overreach, and *maybe* in some cases they're being *raised* to think that way?
posted by stenseng at 9:39 AM on July 9 [4 favorites]


Just because one CAN construct a godless universe doesn't excuse berating an innocent for bad customer service, late fees, or the ideation of an ontological dialectic. And besides, money and sex account for 90% of the space-time continuum, leaving 10% that, even in the best of times, can't be adjusted for inflation. That said, FSM and Ceiling Cat memes have provided me with years of amusement and assurances some portion of people out there still "get it" with little or no inclination to begrudge less critically minded folks their traditions that only INDIRECTLY sabotage secular fashions and the general advancement of synthetics.
posted by lazycomputerkids at 9:39 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


first he is saying that morality as "atheists" practice it is inherently derived from metaphysical beliefs.

I think he's basically saying, you learned your morals from the culture you live in


Yeah, he is, which again, I think this argument is such a relic from yesteryear. The old 'but how will you know how to be good without religion?' is a totally ridiculous and outdated sentiment. Many folks think that even modern atheists still derived their non-religion based morals from religion, like some sort of skeuomorphs. But really, it has probably been the other way round the whole time, that is, that morals are deeply cognitive, inherent psychological drives, and that religions were established around those impulses to formalize them for political and power reasons.

Most modern atheists who think about ethics and their origin would argue in fact that acting ethically because a god told you to, or for some ultimate reward, is in fact not all that ethical, and that the truest moral actions we can take are those that arise purely from a deep impulse to not be a dick all the time.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:40 AM on July 9 [37 favorites]


There are no requirements to be an atheist, any more than there are to be a non-Platonist. But if you want to call bullshit on belief in God, you need to have any idea what exactly you are calling bullshit on, in order for your condemnation to have any meaning at all.


Why?
posted by stenseng at 9:40 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


I think in general the article is talking about scholars and thinkers of atheism vs. scholars and thinkers of religion, not random atheists & religious people on the street, which is a different dynamic and argument.

showbiz_liz: "I'm not sure I get this bit, for example:

The point is not that a coherent morality requires theism, but that the moral language taken for granted by liberal modernity is a fragmented ruin: It rejects metaphysics but exists only because of prior metaphysical commitments. A coherent atheism would understand this, because it would be aware of its own history
"

Modern Western moral systems that are not-God-centered by and large do not begin again from new, non-God first principals but take traditional Judeo-Christian moral commitments as a given (such as "thou shalt not kill" and "thou shalt not lie") and construct their moral systems from those pre-existing moral commitments. In short, "How can we come up with the moral system we basically already have, but without reference to God?" rather than "Starting from these first principals that we observe about the universe, what is morality?"

It's fine and possible and intellectually honest to say, "You know, I live in a Judeo-Christian culture where it seems like a lot of my neighbors' morality works pretty well, so I'm going to keep that Judeo-Christian-influenced morality but question it and probe it from an atheist viewpoint, but I'm not going to start over from scratch; instead, I'm going to understand and recognize its origins and treat my own moral system as an outgrowth of that moral system, and try to understand how rejecting the idea of a 'God' changes the implications of my moral system." But a lot of the "New Atheists" are so vehemently "RELIGION IS TERRIBLE" that they become stupidly ahistorical, and insist their moral system is sui generis instead of recognizing its at-least-partial roots in 5,000 years of religious thinking. The alternative would be to start all over from new first principals, which would also be fine.

This is referring to people undertaking to create a coherent moral philosophy (i.e., philosophers), of course, not someone just trying to get through the day being a good person.

showbiz_liz: "Also also, I reject the idea that atheists have an obligation to learn all about religion in order to justify their atheism. "

Atheists around the corner don't. Richard Dawkins, Public Atheist Thinker, certainly does, especially if he's going to say "Christianity says X, and it is so wrong!" Seriously 80% of the time, it is a thing that "Christianity" says either only in Dawkins' own mind or only on The 700 Club. Which, okay, a small segment of Christianity said that then, but if you're looking for people who are stupidly ahistorical about shit, it's hard to do better than The 700 Club. To serious religious thinkers/scholars, it often seems like Dawkins proclaims himself the world's champion boxer after either fighting straw men or going to an elementary school playground and beating up third graders.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:40 AM on July 9 [49 favorites]


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

-Percy Bysshe Shelley Ozymandias
posted by zenon at 9:40 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


I disagree that it is incumbent upon someone to learn much about a given religion before dismissing it. We do not demand that someone has "gone clear" before waving off Scientology as bunkum. Nor do the proponents of this stance take their own advice, as they themselves, in all but the barest handful of cases, do not know about all of the religions they have dismissed, which is to say, only one less than the atheist.
posted by adipocere at 9:41 AM on July 9 [20 favorites]


The objection is that even there, all too often a number of anti-theists are getting "what they're saying" quite wrong, or are getting who "they" actually are quite wrong.

Maybe. Liberal and/or progressive and/or spiritual Christians often claim this. However, it is often (though not always) a form of too-easily-offended special-snowflakism that serves to distract from the very real and very negative effects that mainstream Christian beliefs have on the people who have to share a nominally democratic society with the people who ascribe to those mainstream Christian beliefs.
posted by the young rope-rider at 9:42 AM on July 9 [15 favorites]


That all atheists also be experts in every major and minor religion in order to arrive at their atheism? That seems like a backwards way of arriving at atheism to me. Atheism takes a premise that there are no gods, and then explains existence. I do not think the onus is on them to first deconstruct the human history of myth making before they move forward.

I don't necessarily think that you have to have extensive knowledge, but so much of New Atheism, even amongst the top thinkers, is dependent on being intellectually lazy or even dishonest. There's a reason that places like /r/atheism are absolutely full of absolutely awful science and history like "The Chart," and it's because this kind of stuff gets signal boosts at the highest levels.

I imagine though that this derision of the so-called 'new atheists' is probably a sort of artifact left over from previous generations where atheism was much more rare and still somewhat novel/controversial.

As someone who would presumably fall under the "Old Atheist" label, the derision is mostly because New Atheism has started becoming just another form of evangelism, which looks like it's turning atheism into exactly what it professes to oppose. And not surprisingly, this evangelism has taken on much of the same baggage as evangelical religion: gender/race essentialism, defense/excusing of sexual harassment and abuse, ignorance or misunderstanding of wide swaths of history, etc. The fact that there's so often a complete lack of any understanding of theology, or a desire to gain it, seems like a big contribution to the problem.
posted by zombieflanders at 9:42 AM on July 9 [8 favorites]


the default is very much believing that everything happens for a reason and that some entity is therefore controlling all of reality. There's a reason that kids ask "Why?" so much.

Because they're curious and/or being irritating? P sure I used this one on my rents once, back in the day. I think it's just as if not more likely to be a fascination with the butterfly effect than because they believe deities exist.
posted by Quilford at 9:43 AM on July 9


I am a pretty powerful local god at the very least.

Do you accept dust bunny sacrifices?
posted by Zed at 9:43 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


Robbins commends Spencer's theme that “it is more proper to speak of atheisms and of various speciews of atheist,” with which I certainly agree. I am disappointed that the “true history of atheism,” like so many of our histories, elides the lives of women, people of color, and those pushed to the margins by dominant cultures.

There's a lot of exciting work done in atheist and Humanist circles beyond loudly proclaiming disbelief in deity, yesterday and today, that a true true history should capture. Going by a Google Book search of Spencer's book, he doesn't mention Harriet Martineau, Lucy Colman, or Ernestine Rose whose freethinking was inextricably linked to their social activism in the 19th century.

Today groups like the Black Skeptics of Los Angeles and People of Color Beyond belief are engaged in social justice work. BSLA runs a scholarship program for first-generation college students and works to increase women and minority enrollment in STEM programs. POC Beyond Belief holds a weekly twitter chat, #POCBeyondChat, that I find far more engaging than anything that Dawkins says. The Black Atheists of Philadelphia just put on an HIV testing event. The Center for Inquiry has a long-standing relationship with Humanists across Africa. The Director of CFI-Kenya just posted an update on their work.

The Grounded Parents Blog over at Skepchick offers great discussions on parenting, as does the Godless Family webcast. Women in Secularism recently had their third successful conference, after which participant Heina Dadaboy was profiled in the NY Times.

Fun Dawkins fact I learned yesterday on Twitter: He thought Buffalo wings came from buffalo meat.
posted by audi alteram partem at 9:43 AM on July 9 [18 favorites]


When did this turn into a Breaking Bad thread?

Nor do the proponents of this stance take their own advice, as they themselves, in all but the barest handful of cases, do not know about all of the religions they have dismissed, which is to say, only one less than the atheist.

Have you ever been to an interfaith dialogue? It is absolutely incumbent on the participants to be versed in the other religions they are interacting with.
posted by maxsparber at 9:43 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


Arg, this is a dumb article. Like, to begin with, citing Origen to prove that Christians have always seen the scripture as metaphor would be stronger if Origen hadn't been declared anathema in part because of views like that. And the handjob for Nietzsche is so weird, what with Nietzsche believing in all sorts of metaphysical mumbo jumbo (eternal recurrence, etc.).

I'm no fan of Dawkins, Harris et al., but this — right down to the "some of my best friends are atheists" bit — is a hack job with an agenda.
posted by klangklangston at 9:44 AM on July 9 [6 favorites]


Speaking as an atheist, I find evangelical atheism really gross. Evangelical anti-fanaticism I could get behind but, interestingly, that seems to be something that is more often expressed by religious people than by atheists.
posted by 256 at 9:44 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


"What’s most galling about evangelical atheists is their epistemic arrogance—and their triumphalist tone: If religious belief is like belief in the Easter Bunny, as they like to say, shouldn’t they be less proud of themselves for seeing through it?"
Lots of people should be less proud of themselves for lots of reasons. The better question is why someone should expect intellectual rigor to be expended on a belief like belief in the Easter Bunny.
posted by Flunkie at 9:44 AM on July 9 [4 favorites]


Atheists around the corner don't. Richard Dawkins, Public Atheist Thinker, certainly does, especially if he's going to say "Christianity says X, and it is so wrong!" Seriously 80% of the time, it is a thing that "Christianity" says either only in Dawkins' own mind or only on The 700 Club. Which, okay, a small segment of Christianity said that then, but if you're looking for people who are stupidly ahistorical about shit, it's hard to do better than The 700 Club. To serious religious thinkers/scholars, it often seems like Dawkins proclaims himself the world's champion boxer after either fighting straw men or going to an elementary school playground and beating up third graders.
Of course the problem is that while yer actual Christian scholars might have interesting, well thought out and intellectually challenging views about their religion, the 700 Club and all the other frothing at the mouth biblical "literalists" are not strawmen, but have actual political power and the desire to use it to promote their brand of Christianity.
posted by MartinWisse at 9:46 AM on July 9 [13 favorites]


Atheism takes a premise that there are no gods, and then explains existence.



NO. IT DOES NOT.


Atheism is the absence of belief that any deities exist. Full stop. It is not a system requiring an epistemology, cosmology, or philosophy.
posted by stenseng at 9:46 AM on July 9 [29 favorites]


You don't have kids, I gather. The vast majority of them have to grow out of the belief that there are World-Parents that control stuff like their Family-Parents do.

Sorry, Etrigan. I have kids, and while they ask "Why..." questions all the time, they've never asked "Who...". They know stuff happens, and they seem to have an default belief that things happen for a reason. But they have no natural assumption that there's something behind the curtain pulling the strings.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 9:46 AM on July 9 [7 favorites]


There's a reason that places like /r/atheism are absolutely full of absolutely awful science and history like "The Chart," and it's because this kind of stuff gets signal boosts at the highest levels.

I take your point, but I think generally we could all have a more interesting conversation about this altogether fascinating and interesting debate if we left the extremes and more shitty exemplars of the factions out of the whole thing altogether. I like parts of reddit, and in fact I like a lot of Dawkins' actual writing (and even got to spend an afternoon with him in a hotel room, where I found him to be a very quiet, nervous and nerdy guy), but /r/atheism and Dawkins' more obnoxious public statements (like the 700 club, really crazy God Militia types etc), are minority views that tend to just drag the whole higher conversation down.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:48 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


I would distinguish an epistemic right (which they lose, or which is limited when speaking from ignorance) and a political right (which they retain.)

I think the epistemic right is in the ears of the listener, to consider what the ignorant say to be horseshit. But to say being uninformed carries some obligation to silence flies in the face of human practice.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 9:48 AM on July 9


The 700 Club ...a small segment of Christianity

Seems like a heck of a non sequitur to me.
posted by Skorgu at 9:49 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


Sorry, Etrigan. I have kids, and while they ask "Why..." questions all the time, they've never asked "Who...". They know stuff happens, and they seem to have an default belief that things happen for a reason. But they have no natural assumption that there's something behind the curtain pulling the strings.


Exactly. And, ferinstance, most of the kids I know are raised in secular households in which principles of physics, chemistry, mathematics, etc., are just as easily accepted for the "why."
posted by stenseng at 9:49 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


...you should know that I am currently to blame for the ants on the porch and the fact that it is hot out, so I am a pretty powerful local god at the very least.

You forgot about being responsible for the fact that there's nothing to do!
posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:50 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


> ... people talk about random stuff that some random atheists did one time that, like, really bugged them.

A bit like cyclists, then?
posted by scruss at 9:50 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


I have kids, and while they ask "Why..." questions all the time, they've never asked "Who...". They know stuff happens, and they seem to have an default belief that things happen for a reason. But they have no natural assumption that there's something behind the curtain pulling the strings.

And they never did? That's amazing. Mine all independently came up with what you could call "religious" reasons for natural phenomena. Did they grow out of them? Yes, because we walked them through why it was a lot easier to explain lightning via electricity and meteorology than a four-year-old's version of Thor.

I know a lot of people who were raised atheists and this is not the case for them.
...
And, ferinstance, most of the kids I know are raised in secular households in which principles of physics, chemistry, mathematics, etc., are just as easily accepted for the "why."


So you're saying that children raised in a particular belief system accept that belief system. That's not at all what "default" means.
posted by Etrigan at 9:51 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


I'm not gonna participate in the usual atheism vs. religion flamewar, but there's one proposition here (itself rather modish of late) that I can't let slide: the notion that religion is purely concerned with ethical, aesthetic, philosophical, and social concerns, that any claims it makes about physical reality are only metaphorical, and that criticisms of religion for its failings at factual description and rational explanation are therefore making an embarrassingly elementary category error.

This is—if you'll forgive my atheistic jargon—bullshit.

There are certainly more philosophical strains of religion of which these things are true. But there are, just as certainly, more literalist strains of religion for which they are not.

There are millions of people who believe that God is a literal being; that prayer is not a form of meditation, but a petition for literal divine intervention; that they will literally live forever in another dimension after death; that we will see a literal apocalypse full of literal holy retribution; and so on.

And in many places and cultures—most of them, in fact—this latter, more literalist practice of religion is the prevailing one.

To deny that this is the case—to pretend that most people practice religion solely, or even primarily, as a metaphorical take on ethics or philosophy or whatnot—is patently absurd. Go look at Evangelical Christianity. Go read the Catholic Encyclopedia's endless treatises on transubstantiation and incorruptible relics. Go hear what everyday Christians and Jews and Muslims actually say they believe, not what liberal academic theologians say they should believe.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 9:52 AM on July 9 [65 favorites]


... people talk about random stuff that some random atheists did one time that, like, really bugged them.

A bit like cyclists, then?


Have you *heard* what this chick Rebecca Watson said?
posted by sukeban at 9:52 AM on July 9


Modern Western moral systems that are not-God-centered by and large do not begin again from new, non-God first principals but take traditional Judeo-Christian moral commitments as a given (such as "thou shalt not kill" and "thou shalt not lie")

No, I must disagree. Modern Western moral systems that are not centred around God take a look at such things as "thou shalt not kill" etc. and say things like "hey I agree, killing someone ends their ability to think and love and sense and harms emotionally those who love them". They do not take "thou shall not kill" as a given, as if it were machine code, or a mathematical axiom.
posted by Quilford at 9:52 AM on July 9 [7 favorites]


700 Club and all the other frothing at the mouth biblical "literalists" are not strawmen, but have actual political power and the desire to use it to promote their brand of Christianity.

Yes they do. Among a million other American groups who I disagree with and who it concerns me that they are voting on the same issues as I am. All of them should be addressed in terms of their actions, or as representatives of their own particular group of beliefs.

It's worth noting, however, these stats: 23 percent of 18- to 33-year-olds are religious progressives, 17 percent are religious conservatives, and 22 percent are nonreligious. Older religious folks are likely to be conservative, but there is a rising group of people of faith who share my politics, and I don't wish to lump them in with groups like the 700 Club because they happen to all believe in a God I don't.

These people are actually my allies in every way that impacts me and the people I love, and if they believe something I consider silly -- well, I believe that Machete is the most important movie ever made about the subject of Mexican immigration, so I would hope they have some tolerance for my own ridiculous ideas.
posted by maxsparber at 9:53 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


So you're saying that children raised in a particular belief system accept that belief system. That's not at all what "default" means.


The default is that there needs to be a reason things happen. What that reason is can vary, depending on who does the initial answering of the "why."
posted by stenseng at 9:53 AM on July 9


Religions are misrepresented as ahistorical ontological positions—and so is atheism.

But atheism is a cultural and historical phenomenon.

To see what it is about, how it operates, where it comes from, we have to go beyond dictionary definitions ("absence of belief").

That is what this book under review does.
Instead of treating atheism just as a philosophical or scientific idea about the non-existence of God, Atheists: The Origin of the Species places the movement in its proper social and political context. Because atheism in Europe developed in reaction to the Christianity that dominated the continent's intellectual, social and political life, it adopted, adapted and reacted against its institutions as well as its ideas. Accordingly, the history of atheism is as much about social and political movements as it is scientific or philosophical ideas.
Seems interesting. I might read it.
posted by mbrock at 9:53 AM on July 9 [4 favorites]


Sokka shot first: what was the kerfuffle in the Less Wrong crowd? Is there a summary somewhere?
posted by bendybendy at 9:54 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


Mine all independently came up with what you could call "religious" reasons for natural phenomena.

Or I could call them "superstitious" reasons.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:55 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


My breakdown:

First five paragraphs: Religious fundamentalism is a straw man. No one actually believes holy books are literal, and only lazy atheists believe that anyone believes that. This is, of course, nonsense.

Paragraph six: Why don't scientists struggle and fail to answer pointless questions like the rest of us? My response: Um, what?

Seven: More of the same, but a few things worth pointing out:

Ignorance of any particular religion does not preclude an atheist from rejecting that religion any more so than Christians are required to study Buddhism in order to claim they are Christian.

"At most, the New Atheists’ arguments are relevant to the low-hanging god of fundamentalism and deism." What do fundamentalism and deism have to do with each other? Also, didn't fundamentalists not exist just two paragraphs ago?

Lastly, "evangelical atheism" is even worse than "fundamental atheism" as a term that attempts to create the impression of false equivalence. The linked article makes all sort of dubious claims: Atheists say they want to not be oppressed by religious institutions, but what they really want from a secular society is the death of all religion. Also, they owe so much of their culture to religion, or something; I'm not really sure, because the author is barely coherent for most of the (overly-long, extremely repetitive) article.

Seven and eight: Boring and pointless.

Nine though thirteen: Why can't atheists accept that while morality doesn't come from religion, morality is actually inherently religious? To which I can only say again: Um, what?

The rest of the review: More wasted words, but the quotes are absolutely laughable.

Driven to the margins of a culture in which science claims authority over all of human knowledge, [religious believers] have had to cultivate a capacity for doubt.

Yep, all that marginalized religion. Boo hoo. And now they have to think about stuff. I'm sure they all do.

If someone is really interested in whether or not God exists, I’d say the best way is to have a little humility and experiment, with an open mind and heart, with the paths that Christians have claimed take you directly to him, in the ways that have worked.

In other words, if I'd just try to believe something that's plainly untrue (or at least no more true than other religious claims), I might find myself um...religious? This random person on the internet is promising to show me the way into Christ's loving arms. Seriously, this is your counter-argument, Mr. Robbins?
posted by WCWedin at 9:57 AM on July 9 [15 favorites]


maxsparber: "Also also, I reject the idea that atheists have an obligation to learn all about religion in order to justify their atheism.

I agree with this. That being said, I only agree when we are discussing people's private beliefs. You can always speak with authority about what you do or do not believe.

But when you start discussing what other people believe, it is incumbent on you to actually know what they believe. So something like this:

an invisible skyman who wants to kill people for not believing in him.

That's not an actual expression of a common religious belief, it's a mocking paraphrase. I know a lot of people of faith, and that doesn't describe any of their beliefs. I would not appreciate having my atheism turned into a mocking paraphrase, and so I try to extend that same respect to people of faith, even though I do not share their beliefs.
"

Oh I apologize - it's pretty much the denomination I grew up in. I was a Christian until I was 21, even briefly considered going to Bible College. I was not attempting to mock. What part of it is mocking?

Invisible? God is not visible. Depending on context, he never can be (i.e. Islam). Even in Christianity, God the Father isn't able to be seen due to his brilliance, only through his son can he be seen.

Skyman? Well - ok, that's a generalization. Sky = "Heaven". Many religious systems around the world see the sky as related to heaven and the earth as related to earth and the underworld/hell as below. There is nothing controversial there, no? "Man" - Christian faith says man is made in God's image... So does Judaism... And I think Islam would, too, but I'm not sure what their theological stance is. Of course, Islam would make a huge gulf between man/God (in fact, I would think that equating "man" to "God" (al-Lah) is equivalent to Shirk (idolatry). But for the most part, let's face it - many people see God as human-like. They have to in order to comprehend the supposed vastness of the deith.

Kill people for not believing in him? Standard par for the course for man modern western religious sects. We can talk physical death and the sort of radical Islam where the kafir is to be killed (most moderate Muslims do not have such an extreme view, of course). Kill in this sense was meant metaphorically (as was skyman, really)... I meant it as the "send you to eternal suffering" ("Man is appointed to die once and after that, the judgement"). Kill in this sense was part of the judgement not the death. Whether it be through an afterlife of loneliness and separation from god (as some theologies believe "hell" is); mere non-existence (the atheists general belief; though some atheists aren't necessarily non-spiritual, if you are to take "atheism" literally (no deity only, but other spiritual options might be available), so they might believe in some form of life beyond death), and there are those who believe that mere death itself is plenty "punishment"/"judgement" enough (a la Jehovah's Witnesses who do not believe in a hell, IIRC - at least the Bible Students (another Charles T. Russell offshoot) don't.

Though my initial statement was about "hellfire" and damnation, and for much of the time, such a believe is or was the dominant belief in Christnedom if not in larger monotheist theologies. Of course, that's ignoring many of the non-Western faiths, so yeah, go ahead and say I'm painting a wide brush. I thought it would be obvious I was mostly talking about Christianity in its historical and still thriving fundamentalist guise.
posted by symbioid at 9:59 AM on July 9 [12 favorites]


"Young children who are not indoctrinated into religion have to grow out of belief in a higher power" is, even if true, an extremely weak counter to the idea that disbelief is the default - if a counter at all.
posted by Flunkie at 10:01 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


"Young children who are not indoctrinated into religion have to grow out of belief in a higher power" is, even if true, an extremely weak counter to the idea that disbelief is the default - if a counter at all.


I dunno. Worked for me.
posted by stenseng at 10:01 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


That is what this book under review does.

This is what the book suggests it tries to do, but Spencer's own cultural and historical situation inevitably leads to overlooking and/or not correctly describing the lived conditions of atheists. This isn't to toss out all of his arguments, but in focusing on a particular instantiation of atheism (and doing so in a way that, I would say, isn't entirely fair to even those atheists in much the same way as he feels those atheists aren't far to his preferred religious ideas), Spencer misses or undervalues important cultural context, such as the considerable prejudice faced by atheists which plays an explanatory role in the vehemence of some public performances of atheism.
posted by audi alteram partem at 10:01 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


Jesus Christ has said no more than the most excellent philosophers have felt and expressed—that virtue is its own reward. It is true that such an expression as he has used was prompted by the energy of genius, and was the overflowing enthusiasm of a poet; but it is not the less literally true [because] clearly repugnant to the mistaken conceptions of the multitude. God, it has been asserted, was contemplated by Jesus Christ as every poet and every philosopher must have contemplated that mysterious principle. He considered that venerable word to express the overruling Spirit of the collective energy of the moral and material world. He affirms, therefore, no more than that a simple, sincere mind is the indispensable requisite of true science and true happiness. He affirms that a being of pure and gentle habits will not fail, in every thought, in every object of every thought, to be aware of benignant visitings from the invisible energies by which he is surrounded.--"Essay on Christianity" / Percy Bysshe Shelley
posted by No Robots at 10:02 AM on July 9 [5 favorites]


- it's pretty much the denomination I grew up in. I was a Christian until I was 21,

If you're not aware aware of it, the "invisible skyman" phrasing pops up all the time, and without the nuance you put into your own usage. People are going to assume, as I did, that you are simply engaging in the same mocking rhetorical flourish that everyone else who uses this phrase does, and not presume there is a complex analysis behind it. And, as you admit, it ignores most non-western (actually most non-Christian, and a huge swath of Christian) theology. So it may be too limited an expression to use effectively.
posted by maxsparber at 10:02 AM on July 9 [4 favorites]


Yeah, the New Pop Atheists are largely silly. And often worse than silly.

"Nietzsche realized that the Enlightenment project to reconstruct morality from rational principles simply retained the character of Christian ethics without providing the foundational authority of the latter."

Well, there's a confusion of a common type buried in a common way in there. The presupposition seems to be: Theism had a way to ground morality. But it didn't. Atheists have a problem grounding morality, but no more of a problem than theists have, because--and this is something we know: God does not help. Not for the purpose of grounding morality, anyway. (Maybe Kant is right about what's required to maintain our commitment to morality...maybe... but that's different.)

"Dispensing with his fantasy of the Übermensch, we are left with his dark diagnosis. To paraphrase the Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, our moral vocabulary has lost the contexts from which its significance derived,"

Well, again, so, MacIntyre thinks... Another way to go is: we grasp moral concepts like obligation and virtue before we make up God. God was just a not-terribly-great first go at a hypothesis about what morality required. Dispensing with him doesn't matter much, because he wasn't needed in the first place.

"and no amount of Dawkins-style hand-waving about altruistic genes will make the problem go away."

Absolutely true. All that stuff is just embarrassingly dopey. It's part of Dawkins's failure to understand just about anything about philosophy.

"The point is not that a coherent morality requires theism..."

Yeah, that had better not be the point... Because, again, it presupposes that theistic views of morality that make God essential to grounding morality are coherent. Which they aren't. Again: it may be that no non-theistic morality is coherent; but, if not, neither is any theistic one.

", but that the moral language taken for granted by liberal modernity is a fragmented ruin: It rejects metaphysics but exists only because of prior metaphysical commitments."

Well, see above: God may have been a bad philosophical add-on. Ordinary moral language may not be theism in ruin, it may be morality stripped of a bad philosophical add-on.

I don't have any idea what the stuff about metaphysics is supposed to mean...
posted by Fists O'Fury at 10:03 AM on July 9 [6 favorites]


Etrigan: The default, frankly, is atheism. Religion must be indoctrinated.

I would argue that a specific religion has to be indoctrinated, but the default is very much believing that everything happens for a reason and that some entity is therefore controlling all of reality. There's a reason that kids ask "Why?" so much.


Indeed. Chimps in the wild have developed clan-specific rituals that are performed before impending storms. These rituals vary a great deal: in some, branches are thrashed on the ground, while the next group over might run in circles about the howling Alpha.

Religion is being created by our kin, right in front of our eyes.

(38 years an atheist, myself)
posted by IAmBroom at 10:04 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


…there's one proposition here (itself rather modish of late) that I can't let slide: the notion that religion is purely concerned with ethical, aesthetic, philosophical, and social concerns, that any claims it makes about physical reality are only metaphorical, and that criticisms of religion for its failings at factual description and rational explanation are therefore making an embarrassingly elementary category error.

Yeah, I don't love the linked article, and to the extent that it says this, that would be wrong. Since the overwhelming history of human culture has been thoroughly religious in every aspect, it would be strange if the urge to explain how the world is had somehow been left untouched by it.

The category error I think the New Atheists do make has to do with God, not religion in general. This error, to paraphrase Hart who's quoted in the review here, entails seeing God as just one more (really impressive) item, which might or might not exist – as opposed to a way of describing the condition of the existence of anything. To theists, this argument goes, God is less an explanation of why things are the way they are, but that things are at all.

You can certainly criticize theism as a way of answering that question, or you can argue that the question is incoherent. But I think it's pretty undeniable that modern atheism chronically fails to confront it at all.
posted by oliverburkeman at 10:04 AM on July 9


The poor integrity of new atheism as an intellectual movement made itself known at Beyond Belief 2006 when Scott Atran brought up evidence-based conclusions on how religious thought operates and how it ought to be related to. Atran is an atheist and one of the world's foremost experts on religious extremism.

They didn't like that, nosiree.
posted by mobunited at 10:05 AM on July 9 [11 favorites]


Are the first 2 links designed to be identical? Or did they somehow eveolve that way?
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:05 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


One problem that I think we ultimately end up running into is that deists just don't seem to be able to wrap their head around "the absence of" and so atheism ends up being interpreted as an alternate belief system, which it is not.

It's like someone asking you if you want a Coke, and you say no thanks, and they go, "oh, you're a Pepsi guy, eh?"
posted by stenseng at 10:06 AM on July 9 [7 favorites]


I find it tiresome the way that those who attack the "New Atheists" keep insisting that somehow it is horrible and wrong and deceptive and simpleminded and bad of Dawkins et al to address the actual beliefs of the majority of Christians rather than the erudite beliefs of a tiny minority of theologians who would probably be kicked out of a lot of Christian churches.

They want to insist that it is simply not right for Dawkins et al to discuss the fact that for a great many American Christians the idea that the universe was created in six 24 hours periods around 6,000 years ago is held to be completely factual and true. That somehow Creationism is not real, or that maybe it is real but its really rude for atheists to bring it up.

And then we get to many paragraphs of the Courtier's Reply. Per the authors if you haven't read every bit of Bible fanfic ever written then you simply aren't serious enough in your atheism. Add in a sprinkle of how atheists used to be better because they all bewailed how awful atheism was.

Sounds like a standard, boring, tiresome, rehash of the usual anti-atheist screed.

I understand and appreciate that the more erudite and deeply theologically inclined religious people are embarrassed about their less educated, more "big father figure in the sky" believing co-religionists. But that embarrassment does not obligate us to stop taking the majority of religious believers seriously, nor does it obligate us to stop talking about what religion as it is actually practiced and believed entails.

But, again, I make my standard (and never yet accepted) offer: If you believe that the "New Atheists" have ignored the more thoughtful definitions of God and the more well grounded and thought out defenses of that God, then by all means either provide a link or lay out here those better gods and better reasons for believing in the better gods. Don't be shy, tell me. Bring the a game that you accuse the "New Atheists" of ignoring.
posted by sotonohito at 10:07 AM on July 9 [34 favorites]


stenseng, I strongly suspect that you misread me.
posted by Flunkie at 10:07 AM on July 9


As I get older, I find that the most insidiously productive outlet for my atheism is being the nicest, least combative, regular ol' person I can be, while making sure that people are clear that yeah, I also happen to be an atheist.

I don't see changing minds as any real obligation of mine. I just need to try and be a good neighbor, a good co-worker, a good parent, a good friend... all of that as best I can manage. And then the people around me will have to fit it into their understanding of me that I can be all of these things and also someone who doesn't hold a belief in a higher power.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 10:08 AM on July 9 [15 favorites]


It's like someone asking you if you want a Coke, and you say no thanks, and they go, "oh, you're a Pepsi guy, eh?"

I prefer to think of atheism as Coke in this instance, because Pepsi is some hideous sugar syrup invented, I am sure, by a Cthulhu cult in order to fatten us up for the eventual mass-feeding of their alien elder gods, while Coke is delicious, but I take your point.
posted by maxsparber at 10:09 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


This is what the book suggests it tries to do, but Spencer's own cultural and historical situation inevitably leads to overlooking and/or not correctly describing the lived conditions of atheists. This isn't to toss out all of his arguments, but in focusing on a particular instantiation of atheism (and doing so in a way that, I would say, isn't entirely fair to even those atheists in much the same way as he feels those atheists aren't far to his preferred religious ideas), Spencer misses or undervalues important cultural context, such as the considerable prejudice faced by atheists which plays an explanatory role in the vehemence of some public performances of atheism.
I don't doubt that the book is flawed. It's very hard to write this kind of cultural genealogy without missing something, especially when it concerns current events.
Well, again, so, MacIntyre thinks... Another way to go is: we grasp moral concepts like obligation and virtue before we make up God. God was just a not-terribly-great first go at a hypothesis about what morality required. Dispensing with him doesn't matter much, because he wasn't needed in the first place.
I assume the book referred to here is MacIntyre's After Virtue. The chapter about the breakdown of moral language in the Enlightenment does not hinge on theism being a correct grounding for morality. Its starting point is the "interminable nature of moral discussions," and makes a point about rhetoric and civic society, not about ultimate truth. The point is that the civic society in which the Enlightenment took place used to have a much stronger rhetorical/justificatory basis for moral claims, and that post-Enlightenment ethical thought suffers from what he calls "emotivism," etc.
posted by mbrock at 10:10 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


That silly New Atheist the Pope doesn't know what he's talking about.
posted by Your friend sounds kind of lame. at 10:10 AM on July 9


I don't believe in theism debates.
posted by srboisvert at 10:11 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


stenseng, I strongly suspect that you misread me.

I'm not sure what you're referring to.
posted by stenseng at 10:12 AM on July 9


But a lot of the "New Atheists" are so vehemently "RELIGION IS TERRIBLE" that they become stupidly ahistorical, and insist their moral system is sui generis instead of recognizing its at-least-partial roots in 5,000 years of religious thinking. The alternative would be to start all over from new first principals, which would also be fine.

Okay, sure. Religion got some things right, like 'don't kill people' and 'your neighbour's wife is his property, don't go there'*. And it worked those things out before nonreligious communities had time to flourish and arrive at the same conclusions theirselves (partly because athiest and nonreligious people have been persecuted since time immemorial). Congratulations for religion.

*irony
posted by Quilford at 10:12 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


I prefer to think of atheism as Coke in this instance, because Pepsi is some hideous sugar syrup invented, I am sure, by a Cthulhu cult in order to fatten us up for the eventual mass-feeding of their alien elder gods, while Coke is delicious, but I take your point.

Ah! A point of comity! Pepsi is nasty, and Coke is delicious and refreshing.

As these things go.
posted by stenseng at 10:13 AM on July 9


maxsparber: "Nor do the proponents of this stance take their own advice, as they themselves, in all but the barest handful of cases, do not know about all of the religions they have dismissed, which is to say, only one less than the atheist.

Have you ever been to an interfaith dialogue? It is absolutely incumbent on the participants to be versed in the other religions they are interacting with.
"

I dunno about you, but the church I grew up in, and, oh, like maybe DC Talk one of the big Christian Pop Bands totally misrepresents Buddhism (as if Buddha's non-risen body somehow falsifies something that he never claimed in the first place).

This isn't to say that there aren't sincere theologians working to solve difficult problems with their own theological stance or in meeting the others half way, but I think the original point was more along the lines I gave above. Misrepresenting via ignorance and mapping their own world view onto the "other" viewpoint.

If one believes that all that is not your revealed truth is a deception from the Devil, what cause have you to figure out the intricacies... it's all evil, anyways. That's why you have people calling Obama a Muslim, a Radical Black Nationalist Christian, a Nazi and a Communist all in the same breath.

Now - the same can happen with atheists or any other particular ideology - so I can't say that "my" side is in the clear. Then again, while I might agree with Dawkins et al on their non-theism, their methods aren't really ones I particularly like. I don't think they honestly engage, but then again, why should they feel compelled to engage... But this gets to the root of the matter "interfaith" vs "self-righteous faith".

How different is Dawkins refusing to engage honestly vs a Christian who thinks Gautama claimed to be God Almighty? Perhaps not very much.
posted by symbioid at 10:18 AM on July 9


Atran is an atheist and one of the world's foremost experts on religious extremism.

Nothing new here. But I'll point out that next week, we'll be back to business as usual where Dawkins can't fart in a bathtub without it getting discussed in a half-dozen different mass media outlets while professing complete ignorance that atheists like Atran, Robbins, and Spencer exist.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 10:20 AM on July 9


I dunno about you, but the church I grew up in,

I grew up in a Jewish family at a synagogue with a history of interfaith dialogue. Yes, there are religions that reject and misrepresent other religions. There are also a lot of interfaith organizations and efforts that make sincere efforts to understand other religions, which is why it is impossible to discuss the subject as monolithic.
posted by maxsparber at 10:21 AM on July 9


I disagree that it is incumbent upon someone to learn much about a given religion before dismissing it. We do not demand that someone has "gone clear" before waving off Scientology as bunkum.

Of course not, but if somebody knew literally nothing about Scientology except the name, you would also think they were being a little rash if they dismissed it out of hand, right? Somewhere in between those two extremes there exists a threshold of knowledge about a subject where you would agree that someone had enough information about Scientology to make a rational decision about whether they believed in it or not. For Scientology you would probably reach that limit with not very much knowledge (a few DC9's should do it).

A problem I have with New Atheism is just that I get the sense that people have not reached that threshold with regards to the question of the existence of God. The notion of God is inherently a metaphysical one, and as the article points out, science, being based on progressive experiments measuring the physical world, doesn't really have much to say about it one way or another. Instead you need to rely on philosophy, including theology which has been contemplating this very question for literally millennia.
posted by whir at 10:23 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


Bring the a game that you accuse the "New Atheists" of ignoring.

See Constantin Brunner's Our Christ: the revolt of the mystical genius. Here is an important passage:
Jahveh ehad, cried Moses: "Hear O Israel, Being is our God, Being is One" (Deut. 6:4).

Yet this quotation provides precisely the historically monstrous example of how Israel hears and how the truth is straightway transformed into superstition in Israel's ears. For this magnificent saying is at once a hymn of exultation and a wrathful protest against idol worship of any kind; but despite this protest, it now signifies—in the conception of Israel, the Jewish, Christian and Muslim Israel—the well-enough known, imbecilically wrong translation: "Hear O Israel, the Lord our god is the only God!" (Brunner, Spinoza gegen Kant, page 43). Moses said that thou shalt not make unto thee any image of this Jahveh, no imagination of it, i.e., it is that which cannot be thought as things are thought, as if it had the same sort of being as things—I am that I am (Ex. 3:14)! Jahveh, Being, is the term for the wholly abstract spiritual; it has no relation to the relative world. By Jahveh, the wholly great is meant. It means the same thing as Spinoza does in his great—his absolutely great expression, Ens constans infinitis attributis (Absolute Being with infinite attributes.) And Jahveh Tsebaot, Jahveh of infinite powers, is nothing but the mystical expression of the same thing as is expressed philosophically by Ens constans infinitis attributis. The whole tremendous concern of Judaism lies in this phrase Jahveh ehad, in that single word Jahveh, which was ultimately forbidden even to be pronounced, and to pronounce which was a deadly sin. The mystical primordial character of Judaism—so naturally mystical that the Jews, in spite of their having made Jahvism into religion, never established a mythology, even while their Jahveh always remained exalted as God over every god of other religions, so that other ancient civilizations did not recognize him as a god, and said the Jews were without religion and atheistic—the mystical primordial character of Judaism expressed itself in this, its ineffable holy word.—Constantin Brunner / Our Christ, p. 157-8.
posted by No Robots at 10:23 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


As an atheist, I'm glad religions exist in my local area, because they are a useful framework to help understand other people's beliefs. I attended church for a few months in high school, including youth groups in two countries, and found it a good experience. Of course, I live(d) in an area where religion is not mandated, and I do not work in any service position, which would just sap my belief of humanity in general.

If you require that people hold the same beliefs as you, but not reasoning faculty, then you're focusing on the wrong thing.
posted by halifix at 10:24 AM on July 9


I think this review is trying to have it both ways.

But Christians have recognized the allegorical nature of these accounts since the very beginnings of Christianity.

No. Some Christians have, others do not. Some actually claim literal truth in parts of the Bible that defy logic. Some don't think about things very hard, just like some "evangelic atheists" don't. It seems a little off to focus so much on taking down "evangelical atheists" without really acknowledging that they exist in a world where they interact with Christian evangelicals, and that their fundamentalism is what "evangelical atheism" and its army of 15-year-olds armed with image macros are directly responding to.
posted by Hoopo at 10:24 AM on July 9 [4 favorites]


To theists, this argument goes, God is less an explanation of why things are the way they are, but that things are at all.

You can certainly criticize theism as a way of answering that question, or you can argue that the question is incoherent. But I think it's pretty undeniable that modern atheism chronically fails to confront it at all.


The standard atheist answer to the question of why there is something instead of nothing is "I don't know, but positing a god only kicks the question up a level to "Where the hell did god come from?"

I don't know the how Christians answer that question so I googled "Where does God come from?" and the answer appears to be "Stop asking hard questions." "God has no beginning or end . . . He is outside the realm of time [and space].

From another site:
"We know that from nothing, nothing comes. So, if there were ever a time when there was absolutely nothing in existence, then nothing would have ever come into existence. But things do exist. Therefore, since there could never have been absolutely nothing, something had to have always been in existence. That ever-existing thing is what we call God. God is the uncaused Being that caused everything else to come into existence. God is the uncreated Creator who created the universe and everything in it."

So, yeah.
posted by nooneyouknow at 10:26 AM on July 9 [6 favorites]


I assume the book referred to here is MacIntyre's After Virtue. The chapter about the breakdown of moral language in the Enlightenment does not hinge on theism being a correct grounding for morality. Its starting point is the "interminable nature of moral discussions," and makes a point about rhetoric and civic society, not about ultimate truth. The point is that the civic society in which the Enlightenment took place used to have a much stronger rhetorical/justificatory basis for moral claims, and that post-Enlightenment ethical thought suffers from what he calls "emotivism," etc.

Well, I was referring to whatever the author was referring to, which I took to be a vague gesture at something MacIntyre-like. I haven't looked at After Virtue in a long time, and have no reason to doubt your interpretation. But on that interpretation, MacIntyre's point is merely psychological.

Do moral appeals have more authority when couched in talk about God? Maybe. But I doubt it. As for the interminability of debates, people seem to just adjust their view of God to cohere with their moral beliefs, so I'm not sure the debates are generally more easily resolved. In fact, God seems to make that problem worse. When people DO stick to some allegedly divinely-ordained moral position, there's no reasoning them out of it...

But I'm really just expressing skepticism here--I don't remember what MacIntyre says. I typically don't agree with the guy, but there's no sense arguing against a position I myself am making up...
posted by Fists O'Fury at 10:26 AM on July 9


A problem I have with New Atheism is just that I get the sense that people have not reached that threshold with regards to the question of the existence of God

Atheists did better than anyone in a quiz about general religion knowledge. They even did better than most Protestants and Catholics on questions about the Bible.
posted by 0xFCAF at 10:28 AM on July 9 [21 favorites]


But Christians have recognized the allegorical nature of these accounts since the very beginnings of Christianity.

No. Some Christians have, others do not. Some actually claim literal truth in parts of the Bible that defy logic.


QFT. I've been to the Creation Museum. My spouse and I might not have been the only people who were there ironically, but we were very much not in the majority.
posted by Etrigan at 10:29 AM on July 9


I don't know the how Christians answer that question so I googled "Where does God come from?"

Well, I guess if anyone needed an object lesson in intellectually lazy atheism here you go.
posted by griphus at 10:30 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


Welcome to the Metafilter Concern Troll Marathon.
posted by Dumsnill at 10:30 AM on July 9 [7 favorites]


But if you want to call bullshit on belief in God, you need to have any idea what exactly you are calling bullshit on, in order for your condemnation to have any meaning at all.

Yes, this. I don't believe in the strawman either. And just because there are people who still do doesn't lend the smashing of straw men, who are already pretty much flattened, any legitimacy.
posted by cross_impact at 10:31 AM on July 9


"We come from an inconceivable nothingness. We stay a while in something which seems equally inconceivable, only to vanish again into the inconceivable nothingness."

Works for me.
posted by todayandtomorrow at 10:31 AM on July 9


Modern Western moral systems that are not-God-centered by and large do not begin again from new, non-God first principals but take traditional Judeo-Christian moral commitments as a given (such as "thou shalt not kill" and "thou shalt not lie") and construct their moral systems from those pre-existing moral commitments. In short, "How can we come up with the moral system we basically already have, but without reference to God?" rather than "Starting from these first principals that we observe about the universe, what is morality?"

I think you're giving religion too much credit for shaping the default set of code of conduct that people start with. "Thou shalt not kill" was not exactly a revolutionary idea when it was written, there have been rules prohibiting things like unlawful killing as long as there have been communities. I don't think there has ever been a time where a thief stealing goods from a marketplace would tend to be more worried about retribution in the afterlife from a deity than getting punished by actual people in the real world enforcing their community's rules.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:34 AM on July 9 [5 favorites]


Sokka shot first: what was the kerfuffle in the Less Wrong crowd? Is there a summary somewhere?

I think the poster may be referring to this controversy.

Warning: knowing about the Basilisk may or may not immortal your immortal ego.
posted by Apocryphon at 10:34 AM on July 9 [5 favorites]


Speaking as a non-atheist, I think the problem non-atheists have addressing atheists is that they take the name "atheist" too literally. Atheism is more often not about the absence of God but about the whole concept of God being irrelevant, an explanation seeking something to explain. At least the lumeniferous ether was trying to account for something experienced in the world. By "explain," I don't mean scientifically--I mean adding coherence to disorganized data.

As a non-atheist, I'd not present arguments so much as focus the atheist's attention on what they're ignoring. Determined ignoring is difficult to address. It's like unformulated experience which can't be spoken of because it first needs formulation with the added problem that the tao that can formulated is not the real tao, or, equivalently, talking about God is the sin of idolatry.
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:36 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


But if you want to call bullshit on belief in God, you need to have any idea what exactly you are calling bullshit on, in order for your condemnation to have any meaning at all.

I believe in the value of respectful dialogue. I also believe that part of a respectful dialogue is limiting your claims to things you know--that is, don't tell someone they believe x when you actually don't know if they believe x.

However, you don't need to know a belief in detail in order to call bullshit on its basics. I don't need to know the history of gnostic Christianity in order to think that it's too incredible that any one religion is actually the true one, that the miracles claimed by Christianity are the ones that actually happened, and so on. I find a belief in an omnipresent, benevolent god who desires my faith incompatible with the fact that your religion depends in large part on where you live.

If understanding a belief system really well before rejecting it is a requirement, it's not one that most religious people--or really, any people--follow.

Likewise, I don't need to understand the theory of celestial spheres in great detail before I call bullshit. I would prefer to be empathetic toward the people who believed in it, by taking into account the context of their beliefs and how they developed over time. I would not dismiss them all as idiots and think that I'm necessarily better than them. But that's not the same as saying, "no, that's incompatible with what I know" to the basic idea.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 10:36 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


I find a belief in an omnipresent, benevolent god who desires my faith incompatible with the fact that your religion depends in large part on where you live.

After reading the discussion about category errors above, I want to add: I'm talking about this particular belief, not a belief I think is shared by all people who would call themselves "Christian."

This belief is the prevailing one in the community I hail from, though.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 10:41 AM on July 9


I also believe that part of a respectful dialogue is limiting your claims to things you know--that is, don't tell someone they believe x when you actually don't know if they believe x.

However, you don't need to know a belief in detail in order to call bullshit on its basics.


I think that's the crux of it. You don't have to know about another religion not to believe it. You don't have to know anything about religion not to believe it. The trouble comes when atheists start ascribing beliefs to other people, and insisting that it's what they actually believe, and being wrong. Or insisting that all religions believe something specific, when they don't.

It's always okay to say "I don't know about that." It's even okay to say "I don't know about that and I'm not interested in learning anything else." If you're an atheist, you don't have to know anything about religion if you don't want to.

But so-called evangelical atheists have a rhetorical habit of ascribing beliefs to other people, or characterizing their beliefs, and being wrong about it. And that's just a crappy way to go about making conversation.
posted by maxsparber at 10:44 AM on July 9 [6 favorites]


But that embarrassment does not obligate us to stop taking the majority of religious believers seriously

Not just adamantly disagreeing with people and thinking they are completely mistaken about important things, but holding vast numbers of them in contempt. That's not a common attitude among the atheists I actually know, but I do see a fair amount of it on the internet. It drives me crazy.
posted by Area Man at 10:47 AM on July 9


Yet this quotation provides precisely the historically monstrous example of how Israel hears and how the truth is straightway transformed into superstition in Israel's ears. For this magnificent saying is at once a hymn of exultation and a wrathful protest against idol worship of any kind; but despite this protest, it now signifies—in the conception of Israel, the Jewish, Christian and Muslim Israel—the well-enough known, imbecilically wrong translation: "Hear O Israel, the Lord our god is the only God!" (Brunner, Spinoza gegen Kant, page 43). Moses said that thou shalt not make unto thee any image of this Jahveh, no imagination of it, i.e., it is that which cannot be thought as things are thought, as if it had the same sort of being as things—I am that I am (Ex. 3:14)! Jahveh, Being, is the term for the wholly abstract spiritual; it has no relation to the relative world. By Jahveh, the wholly great is meant. It means the same thing as Spinoza does in his great—his absolutely great expression, Ens constans infinitis attributis (Absolute Being with infinite attributes.) And Jahveh Tsebaot, Jahveh of infinite powers, is nothing but the mystical expression of the same thing as is expressed philosophically by Ens constans infinitis attributis. The whole tremendous concern of Judaism lies in this phrase Jahveh ehad, in that single word Jahveh, which was ultimately forbidden even to be pronounced, and to pronounce which was a deadly sin. The mystical primordial character of Judaism—so naturally mystical that the Jews, in spite of their having made Jahvism into religion, never established a mythology, even while their Jahveh always remained exalted as God over every god of other religions, so that other ancient civilizations did not recognize him as a god, and said the Jews were without religion and atheistic—the mystical primordial character of Judaism expressed itself in this, its ineffable holy word.—Constantin Brunner / Our Christ, p. 157-8.

That's rather lovely. It also has pretty much nothing to do with what the vast, vast majority of believers (Jewish, Christian or Muslim) imagine to themselves when they talk about God. They love to attribute specific desires, thoughts, feelings, emotional states etc. to God. "God hates this...," "God wants you to do this...," "God gets angry when you do that...." is constantly on their lips. God as big-ball of ineffable unknowableness behind the curtain is one of those postulates that there's ultimately no point in debating; conceding it's "truth" or denying it can have no possible consequences and nor could one imagine any possible evidence that would prove or disprove the existence of such a God.

Worse, though, is that there's a now centuries long tradition of theists responding to atheist attacks on the Angry-Old-Man-with-a-Beard version of God by saying "no no no, you silly child--that's not what we mean by God! We mean this other, ineffable, timey-wimey-wibbly-wobbly principle of beingness thingy who is entirely invulnerable to your skeptical disproofs!" But then as soon as the atheist says "Okeydoke, keep that utterly characterless and indefinable God if you like, because really there's no point arguing over anything so invulnerable to any kind of evidence and so devoid of conceivable effect in the world" they turn around and say "Oh, and by the way, my ineffable ball of timey-wimey-wibbly-wobbly-essence just grew a beard, grabbed a lightning bolt and told me he is going to send anyone who wants to marry someone of the same gender to hell for all eternity."
posted by yoink at 10:49 AM on July 9 [13 favorites]


But so-called evangelical atheists have a rhetorical habit of ascribing beliefs to other people, or characterizing their beliefs, and being wrong about it. And that's just a crappy way to go about making conversation.

Do they? All of them? What else do they all do and believe?
posted by Your friend sounds kind of lame. at 10:49 AM on July 9 [5 favorites]


"We come from an inconceivable nothingness. We stay a while in something which seems equally inconceivable, only to vanish again into the inconceivable nothingness."

i'm from new hampshire
posted by Greg Nog at 10:50 AM on July 9 [10 favorites]


i'm from new hampshire

So...that's a yes on "inconceivable nothingness" then?
posted by yoink at 10:51 AM on July 9 [7 favorites]


That's rather lovely. It also has pretty much nothing to do with what the vast, vast majority of believers (Jewish, Christian or Muslim) imagine to themselves when they talk about God.

The man said bring the A game. Pro-tip: The A game has nothing to do with the B game.
posted by No Robots at 10:52 AM on July 9 [4 favorites]


Do they? All of them? What else do they all do and believe?

Yes, zing, Gotcha. Well done. Insert the word "some" where it helps. Or the hashtag #notallsocalledevangelicalatheists
posted by maxsparber at 10:52 AM on July 9


The New Hamshire is lazy. At least the old Hamshire was rigorous in defense of ham. And the Shire.
posted by Your friend sounds kind of lame. at 10:53 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


I don't know the how Christians answer that question so I googled "Where does God come from?"

Well, I guess if anyone needed an object lesson in intellectually lazy atheism here you go.


Yeah, you're right. I'm so ashamed of myself. I'm totally going to relearn Latin so I can read Aquinas and Augustine in the original to make a quick comments on Metafilter.
posted by nooneyouknow at 10:54 AM on July 9 [9 favorites]


I find it tiresome the way that those who attack the "New Atheists" keep insisting that somehow it is horrible and wrong and deceptive and simpleminded and bad of Dawkins et al to address the actual beliefs of the majority of Christians rather than the erudite beliefs of a tiny minority of theologians who would probably be kicked out of a lot of Christian churches.

If Dawkins was not parading around as an anti-theist, stating that religious belief tout court is irrational, then this would be a good point. But that's not the case. Dawkins and the "New Atheists" community are making a false equivalence between the two forms of religious expression, the crude and silly forms and the erudite and sophisticated forms.

But, again, I make my standard (and never yet accepted) offer: If you believe that the "New Atheists" have ignored the more thoughtful definitions of God and the more well grounded and thought out defenses of that God, then by all means either provide a link or lay out here those better gods and better reasons for believing in the better gods. Don't be shy, tell me. Bring the a game that you accuse the "New Atheists" of ignoring.

Well, two things. There's the basic point which is that Dawkins and company aren't at all educated regarding the Bible and Biblical interpretation. Sure, they're free to interpret it literally, and mock Biblical literalists, but that doesn't amount for much.

But let's also look at some sophisticated arguments. I'm sure Dawkins and the "New Atheists" think that the Christian concept of the Trinity is just nonsense. But first of all, they couldn't even articulate why it's nonsense. David Wiggins can, for he writes about how with Leibniz's Law of Identity, "the three Persons, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, would have been in danger of collapsing into one another. For, in exactly the same way, all the predicates of Christ that applied uniquely to him or applied to him at a time and place will have applied to the Father and Holy Ghost; how then could Christ fail to be the same person as these?" But then David Wiggins explores how the Trinity might be rescued. So for example, one can make a better defense of the trinity if it is the case that, "if a is the same f as b, then whatever properties transfer from a to anything that is the same f as a, these properties will transfer from b to anything that is the same f as b," which David Wiggins (and Wilfrid
Hodges) have argued for before as being an accepted proposition.

I'm obviously presenting this all in a very roughshod manner, but merely because the actual arguments aren't important here. If you want you can look them up. The point is simply that it is absolutely farcical to believe that there aren't actually any sophisticated arguments that the "New Atheists" are ignoring. I doubt Dawkins could even read symbolic logic and keep up with the debates that philosophers and theologians have.
posted by SollosQ at 10:58 AM on July 9


Why does atheism need to be intellectually rigorous? Our communitarian / individualist-cult-mind seems to demand that everything be pinned to a theory. Can't you simply believe there is no god?
posted by parmanparman at 10:58 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


But so-called evangelical atheists have a rhetorical habit of ascribing beliefs to other people, or characterizing their beliefs, and being wrong about it. And that's just a crappy way to go about making conversation.

In North America at least, this is very much a 2-way street. I don't talk much about being atheist, not simply because the topic has been boring as shit since I was about 16, but also because the mere mention of it has upset the religious side of my family. I'm sure I'm not the only one who has encountered "but if you don't believe in God, you could believe in anything!" The discourse is broken.
posted by Hoopo at 11:00 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


The default is terror before the immensity of existence.
posted by Saxon Kane at 11:01 AM on July 9 [7 favorites]


"erudite and sophisticated forms."

David Wiggins can, for he writes about how with Leibniz's Law of Identity, "the three Persons, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, would have been in danger of collapsing into one another. For, in exactly the same way, all the predicates of Christ that applied uniquely to him or applied to him at a time and place will have applied to the Father and Holy Ghost; how then could Christ fail to be the same person as these?" But then David Wiggins explores how the Trinity might be rescued. So for example, one can make a better defense of the trinity if it is the case that, "if a is the same f as b, then whatever properties transfer from a to anything that is the same f as a, these properties will transfer from b to anything that is the same f as b," which David Wiggins (and Wilfrid
Hodges) have argued for before as being an accepted proposition.


So this is an example of the erudite and sophisticated forms?

If so, God help us.
posted by Dumsnill at 11:02 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


Hoopo, I personally don't believe that pointing out "sometimes some zealot anti-theists do [foo]" means that you are by default denying the existance of the zealot theists who also do [foo]. It's not a zero-sum game.

I'm a theist who cheerfully agrees with you that the theist zealots who say shit like that are annoying as fuck. But that's a separate discussion from "some anti-theist zealots say dumb shit".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:04 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


Tired of the contrarian atheist bashing. Okay, we get it. You think you're superior to those smug, know-it-all atheists because you know more about religion AND atheism than religious people or atheists do. Give yourself a pat on the back.
posted by ChuckRamone at 11:04 AM on July 9 [10 favorites]


Here's the David Wiggin's passage: http://i.imgur.com/UabyLPO.png

I look forward to Dumsnill's enlightening remarks about how David Wiggin's book, Sameness and Substance, is just intellectual hogwash.

Some further examples. I highly doubt that Dawkins and company are well read to any degree such that they had already considered points such as: http://www.metafilter.com/126912/An-Open-Letter-to-the-Church-from-My-Generation#4917142
posted by SollosQ at 11:08 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


Hoopo, I personally don't believe that pointing out "sometimes some zealot anti-theists do [foo]" means that you are by default denying the existance of the zealot theists who also do [foo]. It's not a zero-sum game.

The review brings up those "zealot anti-theists" without the proper context. A culture that allows evangelical Christian thought a good deal of influence is sort of an important detail in explaining the whole irritating and snarky "r/atheism" culture he seems to be referring to.
posted by Hoopo at 11:09 AM on July 9 [6 favorites]


Many of these people claiming disbelief in Astrology can't even name all the signs in the Zodiac, let alone understand the implications of a waning crescent moon. If Jupiter doesn't control the yield of our crops, what does? And they go on and on about how astrologers try to predict the next elections, but No True Astrologer would try to do that. And everyone knows that the traditional understanding of the influence of Mercury is just allegorical; No True Astrologer takes that literally.

Plus, even if Astrology isn't true, you can't deny that we all enjoy reading our horoscopes in the newspaper. It's an important part of forming a community. Why is everyone hating on Astrology when it's the only thing bringing people together every time Neptune is in retrograde?
posted by 0xFCAF at 11:12 AM on July 9 [52 favorites]


Well, at least we can see the planets. Or are they merely holes in the celestial spheres allowing the light of heaven to shine through?
posted by Obscure Reference at 11:17 AM on July 9


0xFCAF: that was too awesome. Perfect satire.
posted by ChuckRamone at 11:19 AM on July 9


I look forward to Dumsnill's enlightening remarks about how David Wiggin's book

Yeah, you got me, I haven't read the book, and I probably would not be qualified to critique it. Perhaps I'm too dogmatic in my atheism. I was only responding to the selection you included, not the book, though.
posted by Dumsnill at 11:20 AM on July 9


I agree with the above post on astrology, but unironically. Even outside of organized religion people still engage in all sorts of superstitious and pseudoscientific beliefs and practices. So? Human beings are rational machines that automatically reject old practices once they've been obsoleted. Your post is to ridicule defenses of religion, by using an appeal of aesthetics (is that a thing?).

But I have nothing against it; as I've pointed out previously, most people believe in things because of aesthetics, as much as anything else. That's the luxury of living in a postmodern educated first world society where consumerism extends to everything, even epistemology.
posted by Apocryphon at 11:20 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


So I've studied the New Atheists (here I refer to those who write about New Atheism, specifically about a subset of the Four Horsemen: Dawkins, Harris, Dennett) a bit. Not as much as some in my program (religious studies), but a bit.

They are intellectually lazy in that they choose to write about religion--not about the reasons for rejecting religion, not about the non-existence of God, but about religion and how it is practiced--as though they are the first geniuses to ever hit upon the subject without 'bias'. Dawkins is especially egregious about this. They puke up theories of religion that were discounted a century ago and create a reified, static, funhouse mirror image of 'religion' that leads them merrily to their conclusion. Compare and contrast, say, Dawkin's The God Delusion and Cavanaugh's The Myth of Religious Violence. Even when Dawkins does cite authorities on the relevant religious traditions, he's often citing their pop-culture works that are often considered sensationalist (Ehrman et al.).

The New Atheists I mentioned above, with the exception of Harris (sometimes), don't give a damn about the history of non-theological approaches to religion, and their ignorance shows. I don't believe Dawkins knows Geertz from Asad from Otto from Berger from Tyler. For my part, I don't know much about the history of chemistry or the practice of modern chemistry, and yet, I manage to refrain from writing about it.

You can believe in God, or in no God, or in any other supernatural variation without "intellectual rigour." It's when they attempt to pin their snark to real people, without doing their research and often with Othering connotations, that my hackles get raised and their lack of "intellectual rigour" bothers me.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 11:23 AM on July 9 [6 favorites]


Tired of the contrarian atheist bashing. Okay, we get it. You think you're superior to those smug, know-it-all atheists because you know more about religion AND atheism than religious people or atheists do. Give yourself a pat on the back.

Tired of the meta-contrarian contrarian atheist bashing bashing. Okay, we get it. You think you're superior to those smug, know-it-all, atheist-bashers because you know more about religion AND atheism AND contrarian atheist-bashing than religious people or atheists or contrarian atheist-bashers do. Give yourself a pat on the back.
posted by officer_fred at 11:24 AM on July 9 [4 favorites]


I probably would not be qualified to critique it

And neither would Dawkins or any of the other "New Atheists." So, re: my point contra sotonohito who tried to claim that there actually aren't any sophisticated arguments that Dawkins and company are ignoring or haven't addressed. And my point isn't "Look! I've found an exception!" But rather, "They haven't addressed this argument or any other sophisticated argument because clearly they're nowhere well read in the literature."

Perhaps I'm too dogmatic in my atheism.

Well that's a shame. I'm pretty sure David Wiggins is an atheist too, but that doesn't prevent him or other philosophers from partaking in debates. Which brings us back to the point about New Atheists being lazy and arrogant.

I was only responding to the selection
Well, my textual selection is from the book, depicted in the image I provided, which you seemed to imply was intellectual hogwash given what you said about my quote (which again, is represented by the picture).
posted by SollosQ at 11:24 AM on July 9


I think it's fine not to believe in Astrology, but the New Antistrologists are all lazy zealots who refuse to even call me Starlord.
posted by Your friend sounds kind of lame. at 11:24 AM on July 9 [9 favorites]


Who?
posted by officer_fred at 11:25 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


Starlor- ...Nevermind.
posted by Your friend sounds kind of lame. at 11:28 AM on July 9 [9 favorites]


jim in austin: as practiced, atheism is often just another form of zealotry

I'm not saying Canadians are generally atheists, but this came to mind.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:30 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


I just met you
And this is o'erboard
But here's my horo
Call me Starlord?

posted by cortex at 11:30 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


It's very hard to write this kind of cultural genealogy without missing something, especially when it concerns current events.

It's also hard to write from an outsider perspective without extensive experience with insiders. Heck, even insiders from one corner of a subculture won't necessarily grasp the experiences of those in another as we've seen in the way the libertarian, sexist strain of skeptic/atheist advocacy dismisses the concerns of those atheists working for social justice.

What I find somewhat puzzling in these widely publicized criticisms of New or Big Name Atheism is a lack of follow-through. If one part of Spencer's project is to counter “evangelical atheists,” and if some of Robbins best friends are really atheists (and he listens to them), then wouldn't it make sense to engage the wider diversity Robbins claims exists among atheists? Yet the book gives us a recitation of white, male thinkers too common to histories of both theism and atheism.

There is, to me, a tremendously interesting bottom-up history, as yet unwritten, of atheisms in the United States, capturing how people worked against sexism and classism and racism while at the same time also battling anti-atheist prejudice.

Atheists don't always get their due in our histories. For example, scholars of African American freethought history like Norm Allen have written about Asa Philip Randolph's collaboration with religious activists in the Civil Rights Era. Knowing the prominence of Christianity in the African America communities where he worked, Randolph did not advertise prominently his atheism. It would be a shame, though, if Randolph's practical concessions at the time contributed to a history today that does not satisfactorily acknowledge the role of his and other atheists' work.

Understanding of today's atheist cultures in the US would benefit from reading works like Wendy McElroy's biography Queen Silver: The Godless Girl. McElroy, herself affiliating with libertarian political philosophy, charts a fascinating history of atheism on the west coast at the turn of the 20th century. McElroy drafts, though not in detail, a geneaology that describing the socialist, feminist strain of Silver and the libertarian progenitors of today's skeptics like Shermer. Atheists from both groups practiced fiery rhetoric that shows the New Atheism isn't at all new.

Many more atheists like Silver linger in historical obscurity. I've found that not even the large freethought organizations of today (FFRF, American Humanist Assocation, American Atheists) devote much time to recovering the rich, archival resources that could flesh our America's Humanist heritage. With the exception of FFRF's Annie Laurie Gaylor's terrific anthology Women Without Superstition.

I am profoundly uninterested, as an atheist, in debating the existence and nature of deity. I am content to know that I do not believe, that there are others who do and do not believe in various conceptualizations of deity. I am profoundly interested in (1) working out how to live productively in a pluralistic society and (2), following from that, educating about and redressing prejudices and misinformation about nontheist identities. Perhaps after Spencer's “true history of atheism” others might write true histories of atheists.
posted by audi alteram partem at 11:30 AM on July 9 [10 favorites]


The debate about whether there needs to be a theory of atheism, and specifically, "Why have we not come across a theory of atheism since atheism suddenly got all hip and in our face"?, reminds me terribly of the debate we have here about Scientology, another new thing that had barely been a blip and was exposed as ridiculous (it is quite ridiculous: anti-abortion, anti-gay, pro-space alien) before it had the time to plan for how to be intellectually rigorous like religion journalists demand. All that effort just so religion commentators can run around deconstructing X and Y and why these things do not seem to make any sense in light of Z and A.

In many ways, we should free religions and evangelical-anybodies to be simple and non-comprehensive, possibly even encourage them to be incomprehensible and intellectually "dumb". That way, we can stop seeing religion as a fact of life and start using our time on earth for really cool things, like eating breakfast in bed, house-cleaning, keeping abortion legal, or going to the dentist.
posted by parmanparman at 11:32 AM on July 9


I can't be bothered going through all of this thread, it's a sunny day out and there are food trucks nearby!

But there's no such thing as 'intellectually lazy atheism.' Believing in something that blatantly doesn't exist is intellectually lazy. It absolves you from actually considering how the world really operates.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:34 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


Believing in something that blatantly doesn't exist is intellectually lazy.
I'm not even sure how to respond to this.

It absolves you from actually considering how the world really operates.
Look, another strawman against theists. Clearly one cannot be a theist and still believe in physics and chemistry and science.

But there's no such thing as 'intellectually lazy atheism.'
Then I'm not sure how else to characterize your post just now.
posted by SollosQ at 11:36 AM on July 9 [4 favorites]


I'm an apatheistic agnostic, and like a lot of folks in here, I don't talk about it much. Part of that comes with the 'apatheism,' but it's also about this:

The review brings up those "zealot anti-theists" without the proper context. A culture that allows evangelical Christian thought a good deal of influence is sort of an important detail in explaining the whole irritating and snarky "r/atheism" culture he seems to be referring to.

Can't speak for everywhere, but the United States is hostile ground to non-theists. I live in a place where people can't wrap their heads around the notion that we're not lawless anarchists just because we don't believe in hellfire for the wicked. It's nearly impossible to be elected to public office. As mentioned above, it can be a factor in whether or not our people can keep their children during separations.

All this, and people can drape themselves in Christianity to get away with pretty much anything.

It's hard not to hate all theists back.

I don't. My weekly antidote to lying sleazebags like Michael Robbins is reading Slacktivist, and remembering that people like Fred Clark exist, and that maybe there can be a better world where we all do tolerate each others' differing beliefs and not be assholes... But it is hard not to just be angry, and it's no surprise that a lot of folks do hate them with a passion so fiery it clouds reasoned academic debate.
posted by mordax at 11:37 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


I can't be bothered going through all of this thread, it's a sunny day out and there are food trucks nearby!

Thanks for letting us know!
posted by Greg Nog at 11:37 AM on July 9 [4 favorites]


To respond to the last few immediate posts, perhaps there should be a theory of apatheism, which is really the default "intellectually lazy" (more like intellectually devoid) stance of most modern developed world middle class non-believers. How has our modern consumer culture, the rejection and obsoletion of older traditions, and exposure to many worldviews created a belief that's anywhere from a resounding "Meh" to "I pretty much just do whatever Oprah tells me to do"? Most people are just content and can't be arsed, which will make the religions that spring up in the dark post-collapse times all that much more interesting to contrast once the fin de siècle of late capitalism is over.
posted by Apocryphon at 11:38 AM on July 9


They haven't addressed this argument or any other sophisticated argument because clearly they're nowhere well read in the literature

Could you at least try to explain to me and anyone else who might care what these arguments are, how these are sophisticated arguments, why they will be difficult to refute, etc. Because all I hear is "sophisticated", "you don't understand", "if only you had read", and on and on, followed by silence or utter nonsense or at best an argument that was definitively refuted centuries ago.
posted by Dumsnill at 11:38 AM on July 9 [5 favorites]


I don't think you need to be an intellectual to be an atheist. But if you're going to write books about it and declare yourself to be a thought leader specifically in why religion is useless then it behoves you to know something about religion.

(Personal Context: I don't think there is a God but I do think Richard Dawkins is a schmuck.)
posted by jess at 11:39 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]




Believing in something that blatantly doesn't exist is intellectually lazy.

I'm not even sure how to respond to this.


Providing proof of the existence of God would be a useful response.

It absolves you from actually considering how the world really operates.

Look, another strawman against theists. Clearly one cannot be a theist and still believe in physics and chemistry and science.


Did I say that? No. Though the two so often go hand in hand. Death is final; there is no afterlife. That is how the world actually operates. Being nice to other people is better for everyone; that is how the world actually operates.

But there's no such thing as 'intellectually lazy atheism.'

Then I'm not sure how else to characterize your post just now.


Try reading it again. It is not lazy to not believe in some ridiculous stories, it's rational and thinking for yourself.

It's lazy to believe in ridiculous stories and let do the thinking for you.

Time to hit the taco truck, cheers.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:43 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


The man said bring the A game. Pro-tip: The A game has nothing to do with the B game.

But that's not true. The A game ought to be a more polished, thorough version of the B game (Major League Baseball compared to, say, Triple-A ball). The problem with a "god is the noumenal, mysterious, unknowable shadow behind the veil of being" thing is that it's not the "A game" of theism as it is normally understood or practiced--it's a different game altogether. It throws out all the stuff that the vast majority of theists actually prize most highly in their idea of God (which is why arguing for that kind of characterless, intentionless God has always stood you a good chance of being burned at the stake and denounced as an atheist down through the centuries) as well as throwing out pretty much all the things atheists object to about most religious positions beyond the bare act of positing the existence of some unknowable thing that we choose, for no very clear reason, to call "God."

It's as if you were to hear someone objecting to, say, Darwinian evolution as described solely by Darwin's own writings and said "yeah, but you're not arguing with the 'A game' of evolutionary theory"--but then instead of bringing in the latest discoveries of evolutionary science you gave them a copy of "The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock." I mean, yeah, it's great and you certainly can't 'disprove' it--but it doesn't really have anything to do with the issue at hand.
posted by yoink at 11:43 AM on July 9 [5 favorites]


I can't be bothered ... But there's no such thing as 'intellectually lazy atheism.'

The irony ... it vibrates.
posted by Jahaza at 11:46 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


I wonder whether there's any agreement on something like the following points:


1. Lots of theists hold really unsophisticated/implausible versions of theism.

2. Dawkins & co. are pretty unsophisticated atheists

3. Unsophisticated atheism isn't obviously less plausible than unsophisticated theism.

4. It's legitimate for the unsophisticated atheists to target unsophisticated theism.

But

5. There's are at least plausible grounds for thinking that unsophisticated atheism won't work against sophisticated theism.

Maybe something conclusion-ish would be:

This is an opportunity to push the public discussion toward more sophisticated versions of theism.

My own inclination is to think that the balance of reasons still heavily favors atheism in the more sophisticated debates...though I do have some sympathy for the Peircean view that, if you vague up theism enough--so that it becomes more like the hypothesis that something mind-like (in an attenuated sense of 'mind') more-or-less pervades the universe--you get something interesting.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 11:47 AM on July 9 [4 favorites]


Well how much more Pruf does one need?
posted by Your friend sounds kind of lame. at 11:48 AM on July 9


I've found that simplistic atheism is actually the more politic position when discussion religion with my theologically well-educated acquaintances. Whenever we've actually gotten into the details of epistemic theology, the number of logical errors seems (to my atheistic mindset) to exponentially multiply, until we're both in a deep lather of mutual incredulity.

But even that is better than a discussion that takes God as given. Then I might be tempted to admit that, if God exists, my moral system would consider God to be one of the most evil entities I can imagine. And then we get into the theology of why it's Good for God to refuse to save dying children, and that makes the first theology argument seem benign by comparison.

Much better to just blandly shrug and say I'm an atheist but YMMV.
posted by chortly at 11:49 AM on July 9 [11 favorites]


Could you at least try to explain to me and anyone else who might care what these arguments are, how these are sophisticated arguments, why they will be difficult to refute, etc. Because all I hear is "sophisticated", "you don't understand", "if only you had read", and on and on, followed by silence or utter nonsense or at best an argument that was definitively refuted centuries ago.

Here: http://imgur.com/a/yhCdT
(Sorry: first page got cut off. See the full first page here: http://imgur.com/S5wEWdj)

Start at the bottom paragraph of the first page.

at best an argument that was definitively refuted centuries ago.

First, this book was published in 2001. So, no.

Second, again, my point isn't refutation or not. David Wiggins' in fact unclear as to the suitability of the argument he just gives. But that's because it's a difficult problem. Again the point is that Dawkins, Evangelical "New Atheists", they like to spout how Christianity is dumb, or that religion is dumb. Sometimes, but rarely, they get into specifics. Say, how the concept of the Trinity is a contradiction, which it is not clearly so.

So again, there's the argument. Tell me if you think you've seen it refuted centuries ago.
posted by SollosQ at 11:49 AM on July 9


Also also, I reject the idea that atheists have an obligation to learn all about religion in order to justify their atheism. People should be able to say "eh I don't believe in god" and then never give it another thought for the rest of their lives, if they want to.

Well, of course. The problem the article describes, such as it is, is with people who don't never give it another thought, but who devote rather a lot of time and effort into debunking the beliefs of others. If you want to specifically debunk some particular faith, beyond the level of "Well, I don't believe in the supernatural," then you probably ought to familiarize yourself with the intellectual traditions associated with that faith.

If you actually accept this argument, you must also accept that it cuts both ways. If an atheist must have a good reasons to reject all religions, a theist must have similar reasons to reject all other religions besides their own, right?

I think the author of this piece would very much agree that Christians shouldn't tell Jews what the tenets of Judaism are, or tell Muslims what Islam really means, or tell the folks at a Japanese monastery what Zen is all about.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:51 AM on July 9


To respond to the above two immediate posts, perhaps there should be a theory of apatheism, which is really the default "intellectually lazy" (more like intellectually devoid) stance of most modern developed world middle class non-believers.

Intellectually devoid, are we?

Try this on for size:
Even atheists spend too much time worrying about God or gods. Five minutes spent changing a light bulb is more productive and valuable than fifty years arguing about the existence of supernatural beings, regardless of which side you come down on. It's positively masturbatory.

And on that note, I'm going to live my philosophy and get some work done. Enjoy your intellectual rigor.
posted by mordax at 11:52 AM on July 9 [7 favorites]


If you want to specifically debunk some particular faith, beyond the level of "Well, I don't believe in the supernatural," then you probably ought to familiarize yourself with the intellectual traditions associated with that faith.

...because otherwise you run the risk of saying that Buddhism is wrong in part because its central tenet of "Every man for himself" is ruinously awful.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:52 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


For whatever it's worth, a number of the most important contemporary philosophers are theists: Bas Van Fraassen, Hilary Putnam, Michael Dummett, Peter van Inwagen, Alvin Plantinga, William Alston, Eleonore Stump. That's just off the top of my head among the Boomer and older crowd. That list by itself is enough to tell me that theism isn't like believing in Green Lantern.
posted by persona au gratin at 11:52 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


Dummett died a few years ago, I guess I'll ask him then
posted by thelonius at 11:55 AM on July 9


Don't bother. His intellectual rigor is mortis.
posted by Your friend sounds kind of lame. at 11:57 AM on July 9 [4 favorites]


Intellectually devoid, are we?

I didn't mean it in a pejorative way. I meant it the same way the dictionary definition of atheism means "lack of belief in god(s)." To be apatheist doesn't mean you have to spend any time thinking about religion, or non-religion, or anything. It just is. There doesn't need to be any intellectual backing for the position, it can just be because people feel like not believing, the same way theists most feel like believing. And that's what I guess most people in say, Europe or Canada or Australia are. Religion? That's what crazy Yanks do. No need to construct sophisticated arguments to bother with differences in culture.

There's nothing wrong about having a stance that doesn't require it to defend itself. Intellectual devoid doesn't have to be a bad thing. It just is. Sorta Zen, if you think about it.
posted by Apocryphon at 11:57 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


I'll start by admitting that I can only speak with certain authority about my own spiritual journey, and I can only speak with any authority at all about Christianity, and particularly the fundamentalist strain I inherited then abandoned.

Anyway, there is a subset of Judeo-Christian apologetic works that attempt to explain why God lets bad things happen to good people. These works include C.S. Lewis's The Problem of Pain, Rabbi Kushner's When Bad Things Happen to Good People, and many other books, and hundreds more individual chapters in less focused apologetics. Some of these I have read; others I have not. These works use hundreds or thousands of words to square the existence of suffering with the existence of a God worthy of our worship.

Having no God, I need fewer than thirty words to explain why suffering happens: because the circumstances of our lives are the result of human action or inaction on an environment that is essentially random for its complexity.

When I became apostate -- intellectually apostate, I mean; I abandoned religious practice long before I abandoned faith itself -- I was very affected by the bleakness of my new worldview, but I was also very relieved. I was relieved that I no longer needed to dance the finely-choreographed logical steps required to square my former faith with observable reality. I was, to propose a metaphor, finally living in a world of simple orbits, rather than one of deferents, epicycles, and equants.

This journey is what informs my interactions with the religious, and what perhaps makes me the poster child for the so-called "intellectually lazy" interaction of new atheists with theists.

I propose a system of orbits.

If you propose a system of deferents, epicycles, and equants, I think the burden of proof rests on you.

And by proof, I do not mean passages from your Bible, presented as if it was a work of science rather than one of historical fiction, with heavy emphasis on the fiction.

And for God or goodness's sake -- take your pick -- don't fucking invite me to have faith unless you can prove that the faith which leads you to a Christian understanding of God is quantifiably different in nature from that which leads others to Allah, to Buddhism, to Hinduism, to Shintoism, to Mormonism, to Scientology, to David Koresh, to Jim Jones, to Arnold Cunningham...
posted by The Confessor at 11:58 AM on July 9 [16 favorites]


I just wish that people could stop conflating atheism with Richard Dawkins every time we have this conversation. It's exactly as annoying and incorrect as it is when those "new atheists" y'all are so exercised about treat all Christianity as if it were nothing but Westboro Baptists.

It's intellectually lazy to claim that atheists neglect to address the heterogeneity of Christianity and only focus on its zealots when you turn around and do the exact same thing in return.
posted by dialetheia at 11:59 AM on July 9 [5 favorites]


They are intellectually lazy in that they choose to write about religion--not about the reasons for rejecting religion, not about the non-existence of God, but about religion and how it is practiced--as though they are the first geniuses to ever hit upon the subject without 'bias'.

I must admit, I've chosen not to dive into God Delusion primarily because the last time I was reading his short published works, he was still flogging mind viruses and memetics, basically the Selfish Gene extrapolated into human culture. He can probably get away with it because cultural psychology is a soft science with serious problems of methodology, but as a quack theory ranks up there with Darwin's attempt at a psychology, alongside Hoyle's panspermia, and Sagan's dip into political climatology.

If we hold his claims regarding the psychology and anthropology of religion to the same standard that he demands WRT to evolution, they are either untestable claims or claims that have already been falsified by people willing to do the fieldwork on how complex social phenomena like religion actually work.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 12:00 PM on July 9


For whatever it's worth, a number of the most important contemporary philosophers are theists

That is worth precisely nothing, which should be obvious to anyone who thought about it for two seconds.

>Newton had all sorts of mystical beliefs. We remember him for his non-mystical theories, and rightly so.
posted by Dumsnill at 12:00 PM on July 9 [6 favorites]


I think the author of this piece would very much agree that Christians shouldn't tell Jews what the tenets of Judaism are, or tell Muslims what Islam really means, or tell the folks at a Japanese monastery what Zen is all about.

Except that this dodges what is, in fact, a profound problem in adhering to any one particular faith. If you claim that your faith is "true"--i.e., that its central beliefs are collectively a true statement about the nature of the universe (its origin, its moral purpose, our role in it etc. etc. etc.) then you are ipso facto telling Jews, Muslims, polytheists, animists, Zen buddhists et al. that their beliefs are incorrect and wrong. And, what's more, you really don't need to know the details of those beliefs other than that they are different than yours to logically hold that position. If your beliefs are true, then theirs are false, insofar as they disagree with yours.

Now, of course, the standard modern liberal theist dodge out of this is our good old friend the wibbly-wobbly-uncharacterizable-unknowable-Big-Ball-of-noumenal-hoodlidoodliness-behind-the-veil-of-existence guy. Everybody's faith traditions are all equally true--they are all just different paths towards that behind-the-curtain thing. Which is nice and sweet and all, but really profoundly contradicts centuries of traditional claims in all these faith traditions and, again, is precisely the sort of claim that got you burned at the stake as a heretic and an atheist by all of them at various times. And, again, it has no way of dealing with the fact that for the vast majority of adherents to these religions this claim has nothing at all to do with their understanding of what the God they pray to for special providence and whose faith-specific edicts and desires they seek to follow is. So the "sophisticated" theists, just like the "unsophisticated atheists" are maintaining positions that amount to devastating attacks on the beliefs of the overwhelming majority of the world's faithful.
posted by yoink at 12:05 PM on July 9 [10 favorites]


I'm aware Dummett died a couple years back. As did Alston for that matter.

It is certainly worth something. If one could compile a list like that of Green Lantern believers, I'd be obligated to take it seriously.
posted by persona au gratin at 12:07 PM on July 9


In fact, apparently there's this grand page: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/trinity/

Read it, check the bibliography. A whole host of arguments just waiting to be entertained.

Here's also an exploratory piece by Richard Cartwright: http://www.filosofia.unimi.it/zucchi/NuoviFile/Cartwright-OnTheLogicalProblemOfTheTrinity.pdf
posted by SollosQ at 12:08 PM on July 9


It seems to me that the time is long past where it makes sense from society's standpoint to politely accept the existence of religion. Clearly, in the past, its arguable that religion fulfilled a reasonable function or provided a moral framework, its no longer needed. In my opinion we are not well-served by any widely pervasive rejection of rationality or the polite acceptance of the same superstitions. I am not saying that individuals should be targeted or anything similar, but to allow the conversation or actual decisions to be based upon such thought processes cannot be good for society. These opinions should be rejected out-of-hand and laughed about in the public square.

The idea that somehow one must have some credentials or clear some hurdle to be qualified to hold atheistic beliefs is specious. The idea was well-refuted above. Just n'thing. I had to lol at the 'unsophisticated atheists' comment above. The ridiculous is just jarring, especially if you substitute 'Easter Bunny' and 'Santa Claus' for various religions.

I'd be interested to know f anyone has experience with people raised as atheists or agnostics and converting to a major religion as an adult. It just seems so much like this is something that has to be pounded into your brain when its soft.
posted by sfts2 at 12:08 PM on July 9 [2 favorites]


Could you at least try to explain to me and anyone else who might care what these arguments are, how these are sophisticated arguments, why they will be difficult to refute, etc. Because all I hear is "sophisticated", "you don't understand", "if only you had read", and on and on, followed by silence or utter nonsense or at best an argument that was definitively refuted centuries ago.

Most New Atheists I've read have no consistent (within a work) definition of what religion is, which matters and is actually a huge point of contention. Recent literature has divided into three broad camps:

One wing takes a very broad view of 'religion' which based on practice and sociological and anthropological approaches, can include studies of things like sporting events, freeganism, biker clubs, Fourth of July etc. in the study of "religion."

The second wing takes a more restrained view, relying and expanding on definitional efforts by people like Geertz, Asad, Beyer, Berger, and others. How the definition is created depends on the theorist. Even within this group, no one agrees on what religion is and it is an interminable debate.

The third movement denies that religion even exists as a 'thing that can be studied' in and of itself, or, alternatively, denies that religion is a global phenomenon (for example, for Tim Fitzgerald, Japan's native traditions actually map quite poorly onto the concept of "religion" as is held in the West). This critical religion movement claim that discussions of religion reify local, personal and private matters and, often, institute a modern, liberal European Protestant model to other people in order to insist that there is such a thing as 'religion'. Proponents include Timothy Fitzgerald, Russell McCutcheon, S.N. Balagangadhara (Balu) ("that when people from religious cultures [...] go to another culture to study [...] then it is my thesis that they are compelled to see religion and are compelled to bring together discrete phenomena that do not belong together"), and Naomi Goldenberg, among others.

I've yet to see a New Atheist engage with the third movement, despite it being a major movement in the study of religion at this time.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 12:12 PM on July 9 [5 favorites]


The idea that somehow one must have some credentials or clear some hurdle to be qualified to hold atheistic beliefs is specious.

But the problem is that you're conflating atheism with pure rationality. There are plenty of people who are atheist but also hold incorrect, even wildly irrational beliefs. Furthermore, you're assuming that maximizing rationality should be the ultimate end goal.

I'd be interested to know f anyone has experience with people raised as atheists or agnostics and converting to a major religion as an adult. It just seems so much like this is something that has to be pounded into your brain when its soft.

I'd think there would be rebellious kids out there who believe for the sake of going against rationalist mom and dad. And belief is as much a matter of the gut and emotions (and taste, as I keep pointing out!) as it is the brain. People make all sorts of life decisions regardless of their childhood backgrounds.
posted by Apocryphon at 12:14 PM on July 9


I'd be interested to know f anyone has experience with people raised as atheists or agnostics and converting to a major religion as an adult.

Lots of born-agains come from areligious backgrounds, yeah.
posted by Greg Nog at 12:17 PM on July 9


Yeah, that had better not be the point... Because, again, it presupposes that theistic views of morality that make God essential to grounding morality are coherent. Which they aren't. Again: it may be that no non-theistic morality is coherent; but, if not, neither is any theistic one.

I don't know about coherence, but I think religious explanations of morality have the potential to offer something that I believe is key to the concept of morality.

I would define morality as a reason to do something right in the absence of any reward or coercion. Now religions often involve promises/threats of reward or punishment, but religion also offers an explanation of what it could mean for me to regard something as right or wrong even if I get no reward or punishment. Religion provides a rationale for even a sociopath to acknowledge that hurting people is wrong other than, "The majority of humans have empathy and they'll gang up and reward/hurt me if I do/don't go along with them."

Because I don't think the primary human moral problem is that we don't know what is right or wrong. I think the primary problem is that we don't care. I think we all suffer from some degree of sociopathy. And I think religion can give us reasons for caring that we can't get from natural human empathy, reason, enlightened self-interest, or whatever other reasons non-religious morality has for doing the right thing even when we get no reward or punishment.

And let me be clear, I think many individual atheists are better, more moral people than many religious individuals (even devout ones). But I think that's because people have varying degrees of natural empathy that they get from their genetics and their environment. Some people just naturally care more about other people. But I don't think this natural empathy is enough for humanity in general, and maybe doesn't even take any individual person as far as they potentially could go in becoming a good person.

To me, morality is that which has the potential to call Kim Jong-un to repentance even if he never develops feelings of empathy for the people he has hurt and has every reason to believe he will never be held accountable for his crimes.
posted by straight at 12:21 PM on July 9 [2 favorites]


The third movement denies that religion even exists as a 'thing that can be studied' in and of itself, or, alternatively, denies that religion is a global phenomenon (for example, for Tim Fitzgerald, Japan's native traditions actually map quite poorly onto the concept of "religion" as is held in the West).

....

I've yet to see a New Atheist engage with the third movement, despite it being a major movement in the study of religion at this time.


If religion doesn't exist as a thing which can be studied, it does not need to be refuted, for there is nothing to refute. The argument arrives fully futed. Prefuted, if you will. QED. I am Groot.
posted by Your friend sounds kind of lame. at 12:21 PM on July 9 [8 favorites]


One of the biggest issues with this debate, as I see it, is that each side tends to view the other as a monolith that can be railed against as if it is a single, homogeneous entity. This is probably because the extremists on both sides are the ones that get the most press.

In truth, however, not all atheists are Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and not all theists are Jerry Falwell and Sarah Palin.

I know quite a few theists and atheists whose belief systems (or lack thereof) and worldviews are strikingly similar to each other's, and bear little resemblance to the "evangelicals" on either side of the debate.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 12:38 PM on July 9 [3 favorites]


it throws out all the stuff that the vast majority of theists actually prize most highly in their idea of God (which is why arguing for that kind of characterless, intentionless God has always stood you a good chance of being burned at the stake and denounced as an atheist down through the centuries) as well as throwing out pretty much all the things atheists object to about most religious positions beyond the bare act of positing the existence of some unknowable thing that we choose, for no very clear reason, to call "God."

Yes, indeed. The A game I’m talking should be called spiritual atheism. Its great players are Socrates, Moses, Christ and Spinoza. All the other games are mere superstitious analogs of this great game. And you’re right that the other games don’t like this game. And it seems that the burgeoning atheist game doesn’t like it either. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Except now there is no hemlock, no crucifixion, no anathema. There is just silence.
posted by No Robots at 12:40 PM on July 9


The third movement denies that religion even exists as a 'thing that can be studied' in and of itself, or, alternatively, denies that religion is a global phenomenon (for example, for Tim Fitzgerald, Japan's native traditions actually map quite poorly onto the concept of "religion" as is held in the West).

Interesting. I've sorta identified myself as a cultural ignostic on the grounds that "god" has no meaning absent a specific socio-cultural context which can't be fully understood in etic terms. I think similar problems exist when it comes to criticism of "atheism" however.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 12:40 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


There is just silence

No, there isn't.
posted by Your friend sounds kind of lame. at 12:43 PM on July 9


I'm honestly not seeing the whole: oh, we're all just seeing the worst of each other's side. This is Metafilter, not FOX News. I haven't seen anyone here who thinks atheism tout court is wrong or lazy. The majority of people here are atheists I bet, and the few theists are probably incredibly sympathetic to atheism. All I have seen are people who disagree with a certain subset of atheists: the Dawkins, the Evangelicals, the intellectual lazy ones. The only categorical rejection I've seen are a few atheists rejecting religious beliefs as categorically wrong.
posted by SollosQ at 12:44 PM on July 9 [3 favorites]


No, there isn't.

Well, then let's see some serious atheist investigation of this A game.
posted by No Robots at 12:46 PM on July 9


Now religions often involve promises/threats of reward or punishment, but religion also offers an explanation of what it could mean for me to regard something as right or wrong even if I get no reward or punishment.

I'm not convinced I've seen one of these explanations yet, so I'd be interested to know what you're thinking of.

Religion provides a rationale for even a sociopath to acknowledge that hurting people is wrong

ISTR that sociopaths know what's wrong, it's just that it's an abstract category for them, like "against the rules of golf", say, rather than being motivating (even if I'm wrong about sociopaths, I think a being like I've just described is possible). So I'm puzzled that you then go on to say that the problem isn't that people don't know what is wrong, but that they don't care. In what way does knowing God's opinion on morality cause the sociopath to start caring about that opinion, absent threats of punishment? (Which, like Kant, you've decided cannot motivate true morality).
posted by pw201 at 12:50 PM on July 9


Having no God, I need fewer than thirty words to explain why suffering happens: because the circumstances of our lives are the result of human action or inaction on an environment that is essentially random for its complexity

This is nearly exactly what I believe, minus a little bit about free will to tie it up. Not sure what makes it specially a or non theistic.
posted by Octaviuz at 12:51 PM on July 9 [2 favorites]


> ... but take traditional Judeo-Christian moral commitments as a given (such as "thou shalt not kill" and "thou shalt not lie")...

I disagree with the implication of this, that "thou shalt not kill" is in some way Judeo-Christian. I don't know if you intended it, but there's a strong implication that not-killing was invented by Jews and Christians, and everyone else is just copying it.

I'm guessing, based on everything else I've read by you, that you don't intend that, but it's a line I've heard often enough made explicitly by contemporary American Christians, and worth avoiding for that reason alone. It's a first step on their road to denying basic humanity to those they disagree with. (Which, to be clear, I do not in the least think that you are doing or believe in.)
posted by benito.strauss at 12:52 PM on July 9 [4 favorites]


I was about to say substantially the same thing, Octaviuz.
posted by The World Famous at 12:52 PM on July 9


SollosQ: In fact, apparently there's this grand page: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/trinity/

To be perfectly honest, while the discussion seems reasonably thorough, the whole piece amounts to semantic gymnastics if you don't accept the existence of the trinity. I'm not sure why someone would have to engage this particular line of reasoning or anything like it to make the case that there is no divine being.
posted by WCWedin at 12:57 PM on July 9 [9 favorites]


I know quite a few theists and atheists whose belief systems (or lack thereof) and worldviews are strikingly similar to each other's, and bear little resemblance to the "evangelicals" on either side of the debate.

Word.

I agree a lot with a lot of liberal theists I know. OTOH, a lot of atheists have a kind of standard-issue, scientistic, deterministic view of the world that includes deflationary social or biological views about moral obligations (and, probably, epistemic ones). Since I don't think disagreeing about God matters much, I think of myself as more similar to/closely allied with the former folk than the latter. One problem, of course, is that theists tend to think that disagreeing about God is a really important disagreement...so we disagree about that...
posted by Fists O'Fury at 12:57 PM on July 9


The point is not that a coherent morality requires theism, but that the moral language taken for granted by liberal modernity is a fragmented ruin: It rejects metaphysics but exists only because of prior metaphysical commitments. A coherent atheism would understand this, because it would be aware of its own history. Instead, trendy atheism of the Dawkins variety has learned as little from its forebears as from Thomas Aquinas, preferring to advance a bland version of secular humanism.

What is he saying here, exactly? What's he proposing?


Sorry if I've missed another version of this interpretation, but I thought it was a reference to the notion that moral positions are, in themselves, metaphysical positions: In a purely material universe nothing is right or wrong, good or evil because they are intellectual inventions. If an action is to be considered inherently evil, then there has to be a force in nature itself that makes that consideration, at which point you've reinvented God. That it would be contradictory to dismiss deity (as a universal source of Will, as it were) yet refuse to accept that morality is essentially arbitrary.

Something like that.
posted by Grangousier at 1:03 PM on July 9


I agree a lot with a lot of liberal theists I know. OTOH, a lot of atheists have a kind of standard-issue, scientistic, deterministic view of the world that includes deflationary social or biological views about moral obligations (and, probably, epistemic ones). Since I don't think disagreeing about God matters much, I think of myself as more similar to/closely allied with the former folk than the latter. One problem, of course, is that theists tend to think that disagreeing about God is a really important disagreement...so we disagree about that...

Word back atcha. Regarding the last sentence, however: as a liberal theist, I couldn't care less whether you believe in God or not. I'll have the debate if you like - cuz it's fun and I like to argue - but really, whatever floats your boat.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 1:03 PM on July 9 [3 favorites]


I disagree with the implication of this, that "thou shalt not kill" is in some way Judeo-Christian. I don't know if you intended it, but there's a strong implication that not-killing was invented by Jews and Christians, and everyone else is just copying it.

Yeah, this. In fact, moral philosophy is a very old tradition, probably older than any particular religious tradition. Socrates can be found refuting several of the positions in this thread.

Morality, as a system of behavior, is almost certainly older than religion. So far as I know, no other animals have any analogues for religion. But researchers have documented a wide range of what seems to be moral behavior in animals. Norms about aggression and cooperation fall right out of the game theory of our ecology, we don't need to borrow them from books written in the last 2,000-2,500 years.

So the sort of genealogical argument against non-religious morality is bizarre and should be a non-starter.

But there are some strange connections that still need to be explained. As far as I know, there is no reason to think that atheists behave less morally than religious people.

But people robustly report thinking that atheists are less moral and less trustworthy.

And a light comparative survey of religions turns up lots of features that seem to have to do with moral policing. An omnipresent invisible God is watching what you do, even if you seem to be alone; you will be punished or rewarded for your deeds in an undetectable after- or next-life, regardless of the advantage you find or don't find in this life; we are all nebulously equal before God, regardless of our stations in life; etc. It's very tempting to say that the function of all this stuff is to help enforce moral codes -- which would seem to support the widespread attitude that religious people are more moral.

But that attitude seems to be wrong.

It's sort of puzzling.
posted by grobstein at 1:09 PM on July 9 [9 favorites]


To be perfectly honest, while the discussion seems reasonably thorough, the whole piece amounts to semantic gymnastics if you don't accept the existence of the trinity. I'm not sure why someone would have to engage this particular line of reasoning or anything like it to make the case that there is no divine being.

I didn't offer up defenses of the Trinity because I think working out the coherency of the Trinity means the Trinity is real. Please try to keep in mind the posts to which I'm responding. All I offered up was a plethora of arguments about why belief in the Trinity is plausible. My whole point is simply that religious beliefs in their large variety (of God, of the Trinity, of this, of that) can be plausible; something which some people in this thread would disagree with.

Just as there are these many sophisticated arguments for the Trinity, there are the same amount for many other relevant topics.
posted by SollosQ at 1:10 PM on July 9


No Robots: The A game I’m talking should be called spiritual atheism. Its great players are Socrates, Moses, Christ and Spinoza

What? Spiritual atheism is the "A game" of theism and it was common to those four? I am, let's say, sceptical.

Octaviuz: you're saying you don't understand why there's (at least a prima facie) Problem of Evil for theism but not for atheism? The bit that's a problem for theism in what you and The Confessor believe is the question of why it wasn't set up better if God cares about human suffering and whatnot. "Free will" might do for showing that there's no necessary contradiction between theism and the existence of any suffering. Myself, I'm more interested in talking about what's more likely. The Confessor calls theodicies "epicycles" because it looks like they're made up ad hoc to preserve the desired conclusion.
posted by pw201 at 1:13 PM on July 9 [3 favorites]


In terms of more rigorous study of atheism and atheists, some recent posts from the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network blog might be of interest (as is the homepage of the NSRN). posted by audi alteram partem at 1:14 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


The poor integrity of new atheism as an intellectual movement made itself known at Beyond Belief 2006 when Scott Atran brought up evidence-based conclusions on how religious thought operates and how it ought to be related to. Atran is an atheist and one of the world's foremost experts on religious extremism.

I would always welcome critiques of religion from science. Take a look at that fascinating stuff from Atran and see how different what Dawkins and Dennett are offering is from actual science.
posted by straight at 1:16 PM on July 9


My whole point is simply that religious beliefs in their large variety (of God, of the Trinity, of this, of that) can be plausible; something which some people in this thread would disagree with.

No, they can be long and complicated. That's not the same thing as plausible.
posted by the young rope-rider at 1:16 PM on July 9 [3 favorites]


Spiritual atheism is the "A game" of theism and it was common to those four? I am, let's say, sceptical.

Brunner develops the case in detail. You can read a synopsis in a review entitled, "Jesus as the atheistic mystic" (the link is to my translation of the review on my website).
posted by No Robots at 1:19 PM on July 9


OK, so I see a lot of very in depth discussion of the True Nature of the Trinity. What I don't see is any A game supporting the basic thesis that there is a god, or defining exactly what is meant by "god".

I don't care, yet, about the minutiae of philosophical meandering on trinitarian thinking. I can't. We haven't yet established that all that detailed and incredibly thought out stuff is about something **REAL**, or if its just a variety of fanfic and fan wankery.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with fanfic and fan wankery. Just about everyone has engaged in it, some more than others. But when I'm talking about an a game for god I don't mean a really detailed and super well thought out theistic equivalent of the Star Trek Technical Manual. I mean I want an a game indicating that theology is more than just another branch of naval gazing and fandom. I want proof, or at least good strong empirical evidence, that the Enterprise is real before I delve into the symbolic logic explaining why the Prime Directive is essential and correct.

So far I see some stuff about a numinous and undefined (and apparently undefinable) sort of being thing in the shadows that does nothing and is undetectable that shall, for no reason that I can see, both be accepted to exist and be called god.

Where's the a game for establishing that theology is real?

If you want to say that there's a great deal of depth and complexity in theology I'll agree wholeheartedly. People have spent a lot of brainpower on the topic and it is every bit as complex as quantum physics, or evolutionary biology, or any other branch of science.

But I see no evidence that its real as opposed to just extremely complex and well thought through fan wankery about fiction.

I can even agree that there's intellectual value in incredibly complex fan wankery. You can learn formal logic and you learn all sorts of research skills and how to write persuasively and argue coherently and any number of other things. And that's useful as an intellectual exercise whether we're talking about deep writing on god, or deep writing on The Simpsons.

But is there really a god?

That's the core question I have and until that's answered I really don't care about trinitarian argumentation, or the rich layers of complex meaning in the Talmud, or whatever. If there is a god then such things matter a great deal. If there isn't then we can put them into the category of fandom and acknowledge that they have intellectual training value while not being rooted to anything in the real world.

Where is the a game on the definition and reasons to accept the existence of god? On the basic, core, question?

If you want to say that theology is a form of fandom then let's acknowledge that, join in collective work to prevent those who mistake that brand of fandom for reality from influencing politics, and each allow the others to enjoy their respective fandoms without prejudice or condemnation. If you want to argue that theology is a fascinating fandom and due to being so old that its filled with wonderful things to explore and think about I can agree 100%.

But if you want to argue that theology must be taken as seriously as physics, or biology, then I need to see the a game establishing that the core assumption is correct. And I've never seen that. Someone once told me in all seriousness that the answer was Aquinas and that if I didn't see that Aquinas settled the question of the existence of god then I needed to read Aquinas more closely.

That's the best answer I've ever gotten for the a game on establishing the existence of god.

What do you have?
posted by sotonohito at 1:20 PM on July 9 [21 favorites]


I picture theism as a vastly complex organization of minds, bodies, buildings, rituals, thoughts, emotions, even nations, ideologies, laws—all held together by this powerful signifier "God."

As an atheist, I might point out that this signifier "God" is just made up, an error, a hoax, like the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

However, I am still only looking at the center of the system.

The system still exists and functions despite my critique.

Nietzsche said it would take a long time for the "death of God" to register in its full impact.

In the most advanced theology, God is empty, deferred, weak, or bloodlessly ontological.

Some other things that don't exist: rights, love, knowledge, truth, justice, property, originality, causality.

You can't even prove that experience exists.

Wittgenstein had some interesting takes on religion.
With regard to religion, Wittgenstein is often considered a kind of Anti-Realist. He opposed interpretations of religion that emphasize doctrine or philosophical arguments intended to prove God’s existence, but was greatly drawn to religious rituals and symbols, and considered becoming a priest. He likened the ritual of religion to a great gesture, as when one kisses a photograph. This is not based on the false belief that the person in the photograph will feel the kiss or return it, nor is it based on any other belief. Neither is the kiss just a substitute for a particular phrase, like “I love you.” Like the kiss, religious activity does express an attitude, but it is not just the expression of an attitude in the sense that several other forms of expression might do just as well. There might be no substitute that would do. The same might be said of the whole language-game (or games) of religion, but this is a controversial point. If religious utterances, such as “God exists,” are treated as gestures of a certain kind then this seems not to be treating them as literal statements. Many religious believers, including Wittgensteinian ones, would object strongly to this. There is room, though, for a good deal of sophisticated disagreement about what it means to take a statement literally. For instance, Charles Taylor’s view, roughly, is that the real is whatever will not go away. If we cannot reduce talk about God to anything else, or replace it, or prove it false, then perhaps God is as real as anything else.
I am very tired of arguing about religion.
posted by mbrock at 1:23 PM on July 9 [7 favorites]


Apologies for this bit of meta-discussion.

This is Metafilter, not FOX News.

Years ago, I used to read and post to Metafilter from the newsroom at Fox News. It was both at the same time. Your mind, blown!

I haven't seen anyone here who thinks atheism tout court is wrong or lazy.

Because that's not what the thread is about. But as an aside, I think atheism is wrong (though not per se lazy). This is the irresistable conclusion of my a) theism and b) rejection of epistemic relativism.

The majority of people here are atheists I bet, and the few theists are probably incredibly sympathetic to atheism.

Er, no.

All I have seen are people who disagree with a certain subset of atheists: the Dawkins, the Evangelicals, the intellectual lazy ones.

Well, yes, because that is what the thread is about, not about a general argument about atheism vs. theism.

posted by Jahaza at 1:25 PM on July 9 [2 favorites]


Here is something on the reconciliation of religion and science from Herbert Spencer (First Principles, pp. 82-3):
Though the Absolute cannot in any manner or degree be known, in the strict sense of knowing, yet we find that its positive existence is a necessary datum of consciousness; that so long as consciousness continues, we cannot for an instant rid it of this datum; and that thus the belief which this datum constitutes has a higher warrant than any other whatever.... Common Sense asserts the existence of a reality; Objective Science proves that this reality cannot be what we think it; Subjective Science shows why we cannot think of it as it is, and yet are compelled to think of it as existing; and in this assertion of a Reality utterly inscrutable in nature, Religion finds an assertion essentially coinciding with her own. We are obliged to regard every phenomenon as a manifestation of some Power by which we are acted upon; though omnipresence is unthinkable, yet, as experience discloses no bounds to the diffusion of phenomena, we are unable to think of limits to the presence of this Power; while the criticisms of Science teach us that this Power is Incomprehensible. And this consciousness of an Incomprehensible Power, called omnipresent from inability to assign its limits, is just that consciousness on which Religion dwells.
posted by No Robots at 1:25 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


5. There's are at least plausible grounds for thinking that unsophisticated atheism won't work against sophisticated theism.

I don't actually think level of sophistication matters much.

An atheist can't pull back a curtain and reveal that god doesn't exist. The best an atheist can do is present an argument for why god doesn't exists, but theists have ben tackling such arguments for thousands of years. There are few, if any, new arguments for an atheist to present.

On the other hand, the best a theist can do is convincingly refute and atheist's argument. For example, an atheist might ask why there's evil, and a theist might have a convincing response for why the existence of evil is not incompatible with their belief. But this isn't an argument that god exists. The best arguments that god exists fall back on faith, which is always going to fail to impress the atheist, no matter how unsophisticated they are.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 1:27 PM on July 9 [3 favorites]


If you want to say that theology is a form of fandom then let's acknowledge that, join in collective work to prevent those who mistake that brand of fandom for reality from influencing politics, and each allow the others to enjoy their respective fandoms without prejudice or condemnation. If you want to argue that theology is a fascinating fandom and due to being so old that its filled with wonderful things to explore and think about I can agree 100%.

I pretty much agree.

The "core assumption" is either something you accept on faith or don't. There's no proof or argument for it.

I wouldn't give the time of day to those who'd say that the answer was in Aquinas. I also wouldn't give the time of day to those who'd say as equally dogmatic that anyone with religious beliefs had the wrong answer, which is all I've ever in this thread been opposing.
posted by SollosQ at 1:28 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


Furthermore, you're assuming that maximizing rationality should be the ultimate end goal.

After all, maximized rationality can lead to a conclusion that a far future superpowerful AI will torture a simulacrum of you for eternity unless you spend all your money and time assessing in it's creation. Further, that because that simulation is identical to you, it will be you.

Maybe the benefits of rationality are overstated a bit.
posted by happyroach at 1:28 PM on July 9


I'm not convinced I've seen one of these explanations yet, so I'd be interested to know what you're thinking of.
ISTR that sociopaths know what's wrong, it's just that it's an abstract category for them, like "against the rules of golf"


Grangousier's comment is sort of what I'm talking about. If the world has a creator, then it's possible that moral judgements are much more like the law of gravity than the rules of golf.

In what way does knowing God's opinion on morality cause the sociopath to start caring about that opinion, absent threats of punishment? (Which, like Kant, you've decided cannot motivate true morality).

I agree that even if you believe God created the world and human beings with a purpose, a telos, an objectively right way that those beings were created to be and live, that it's still possible not to care. But it seems to me that would be a far more radical rejection than shrugging your shoulders at the moral opinions of other human beings like yourself.

Just from a scientific standpoint it seems much more epistemologically suspect to say, "I know better than my creator what would constitute a good life for myself" than, "I know better than other people what is good for me." I might convince myself I know myself better than any other person could know me (and even that is pretty suspect), but I can't believe I could know myself better than God could know me.
posted by straight at 1:32 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


Prince Feisal: With Major Lawrence, mercy is a passion. With me, it is merely good manners. You may judge which motive is the more reliable.
posted by stenseng at 1:40 PM on July 9 [2 favorites]


But if you want to argue that theology must be taken as seriously as physics, or biology, then I need to see the a game establishing that the core assumption is correct. And I've never seen that. Someone once told me in all seriousness that the answer was Aquinas and that if I didn't see that Aquinas settled the question of the existence of god then I needed to read Aquinas more closely.

That's the best answer I've ever gotten for the a game on establishing the existence of god.

What do you have?


See, from my point of view, that's just the wrong question. I don't want to "prove" the existence of God (or whomever) any more than I want to "prove" why art or music makes me feel a particular way. It just does, and part of the benefit is in the mystery itself.

I am aware that such an explanation lacks intellectual rigor in the context of "proof" or "empiricism", and frankly I don't really care. I'm not the sort of theist who insists that everyone believes what I do, or argues that anyone who believes differently from me (or not at all) is going to hell or wherever. So, since it's a purely personal thing for me, I don't feel the need to prove it to myself or others. You may call me an idiot for that, but so be it.

At the same time, I consider myself an intellectual and a proponent of science. I don't think science and religion are mutually exclusive or even inhabitants of the same space. Poetry and textbooks may both be made up of words printed on paper, but they have entirely different uses. But when we talk about something like The Beginning of the Universe, there comes a point beyond which science is only guessing (ok, hypothesizing, but still), and since we don't really have any idea what happened before the Big Bang, there's still room for a big-C Creator in there somewhere.

That said, I don't believe that God (or whomever) is a white dude with a beard who sits in the clouds and passes judgment on me. I don't even necessary think He, She, or It is conscious, and I *certainly* don't think He, She, or It is omnipotent. That is, to the extent God created the rules of the Universe, God has to sit back and let it all run just like anyone else. [That, by the way, is an easy answer to the old "Why does God let bad things happen to good people?" thing - the answer is that bad things just happen and God is powerless to do anything about it.]

Sure, it would be just as easy not to believe in God (or whomever), and that's perfectly reasonable. But, to paraphrase Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, I believe in God because it give me pleasure to behave in a certain way towards what I perceive to be a cat.

To answer your question directly, I don't want to argue that theology must be taken as seriously as physics or biology, because I don't think they're directly comparable. That doesn't make theology useless however.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 1:44 PM on July 9 [2 favorites]


I've been re-reading Robbins conclusion, and it just doesn't sit well with me. I can, to an extent, sympathize with Spencer's and Robbins' frustration with unfair characterizations, because I experience a similar frustration with people who refuse to acknowledge my entirely naturalistic Humanism. Not people who disagree, mind you, but people who cannot let me define my lifestance as I would describe it but insist it is or I must hold in some way religious or transcendent beliefs or that it cannot be as fulfilling as their religious beliefs. And there's something similar going on in the conclusion of the review when Robbins poo-poos "a bland version of secular humanism."

There's a wide range of atheist lifestances that aren't positivist, science explains everything, "in the grip of unexamined dogmas" &c. Maybe my Humanism isn't coherent, whatever that might entail, and it sure as shoot doesn't hold any illusions about the imperfections of liberal political theory and the excruciating human costs they exact. But it is honest.

There's an axiom promoted by Felix Adler, founder of Ethical Culture, that I think applies in these sorts of discussions. Ethical Culture was, Adler insisted, religious for those who wanted it to be religious and non-religious for those who didn't. It's a little ironic to talk of axioms when it comes to Ethical Culture as Adler also promoted the idea of "Deed before creed," but he also said: " Act So As To Elicit the Best In Others and Thereby In Thy Self." Some atheists may be "galling," but we atheists also are galled, and while there should be a time to vent spleen, I also wonder where we go on from that point.
posted by audi alteram partem at 1:49 PM on July 9 [3 favorites]


If you claim that your faith is "true"--i.e., that its central beliefs are collectively a true statement about the nature of the universe (its origin, its moral purpose, our role in it etc. etc. etc.) then you are ipso facto telling Jews, Muslims, polytheists, animists, Zen buddhists et al. that their beliefs are incorrect and wrong.

No, you aren't telling anyone anything without some attempt at communicating with them. But if you'd rather:

I think the author would very much agree that Christians should not use any of the languages currently in use by human beings to verbalize or write statements that declare to Jews what Judaism means, or attempt to define Islam to Muslims, unless they've taken some minimal pains to explore the relevant traditions. Because otherwise they run the risk of looking like a total idiot to people who have their own ideas about what their religions say.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:54 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


I agree that even if you believe God created the world and human beings with a purpose, a telos, an objectively right way that those beings were created to be and live

I don't know what that really buys you. One can imagine a world or universe created by a malevolent entity, where the beings inside it exist to be tortured to death and to cause each other suffering for the creator's amusement. Would it be objectively right for for the creatures therein to torture and kill each other?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:57 PM on July 9 [5 favorites]


I think the author would very much agree that Christians should not use any of the languages currently in use by human beings to verbalize or write statements that declare to Jews what Judaism means, or attempt to define Islam to Muslims, unless they've taken some minimal pains to explore the relevant traditions. Because otherwise they run the risk of looking like a total idiot to people who have their own ideas about what their religions say.

That should read:

I think the author would very much agree that Christians should not use any of the languages currently in use by human beings to verbalize or write statements that declare to Jews what Judaism means, in such a way that there is clear communicative effort being directed at some specific Jew or Jews as opposed to writing it in a diary or something, or attempt to define Islam to Muslims where there is likewise a clear attempt to actually communicate these statements to real and specific Muslims, unless they've taken some minimal pains to explore the relevant traditions. Because otherwise they run the risk of looking like a total idiot to people who have their own ideas about what their religions say.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:59 PM on July 9


[Comment removed; complaining about in-laws is a-okay but please refrain from calling someone a bitch in the process.]
posted by cortex at 2:00 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


I think the author would very much agree that Christians should not use any of the languages currently in use by human beings to verbalize or write statements that declare to Jews what Judaism means, in such a way that there is clear communicative effort being directed at some specific Jew or Jews as opposed to writing it in a diary or something, or attempt to define Islam to Muslims where there is likewise a clear attempt to actually communicate these statements to real and specific Muslims, unless they've taken some minimal pains to explore the relevant traditions. Because otherwise they run the risk of looking like a total idiot to people who have their own ideas about what their religions say.

Why make the distinction regarding communicating directly to the adherents described? Should it be ok for Christians to make up bullshit about what Jews believe as long as they're only saying it to other Christians?
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 2:04 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


I think the author would very much agree that Christians should not use any of the languages currently in use by human beings to verbalize or write statements that declare to Jews what Judaism means, in such a way that there is clear communicative effort being directed at some specific Jew or Jews as opposed to writing it in a diary or something, or attempt to define Islam to Muslims where there is likewise a clear attempt to actually communicate these statements to real and specific Muslims, unless they've taken some minimal pains to explore the relevant traditions. Because otherwise they run the risk of looking like a total idiot to people who have their own ideas about what their religions say.

Or shorter, limit your claims to religious traditions you have personally studied, and communities you have personally participated in as a trusted member or observer.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 2:07 PM on July 9


You don't NEED to be intellectual to be atheist. That's the wonderful thing about reality. Why should sane, rational people have to learn a bunch of bullshit in order to have the proper intellectual underpinning to say it's bullshit?
posted by ReeMonster at 2:13 PM on July 9 [4 favorites]


I don't know what that really buys you. One can imagine a world or universe created by a malevolent entity, where the beings inside it exist to be tortured to death and to cause each other suffering for the creator's amusement. Would it be objectively right for for the creatures therein to torture and kill each other?

That would be a problem if religious morality were largely contradicting my every natural moral intuition. But instead what I find is that it largely reinforces the things that I suspect I ought to do (which is not at all equal to the things I want to do) and occasionally says, "Oh, and by the way here's a larger perspective from which you can see a few things that you've been getting wrong, but that seem right now that you think about it."

For me, religion explains why my sense that some things are Right and Wrong seems like so much more than an opinion or means to making my life better or an evolved strategy for making society work or any other non-religious explanation I've seen.
posted by straight at 2:21 PM on July 9 [2 favorites]


I'm reminded of a debate between Dawkins, Hitchens and one Nigel Spivey (among others) in which Spivey eloquently made the case for the intertwined nature of human existence, aesthetics and religious experience to a nonplussed Dawkins.
posted by Drexen at 2:37 PM on July 9


straight

For me, religion explains why my sense that some things are Right and Wrong seems like so much more than an opinion or means to making my life better or an evolved strategy for making society work or any other non-religious explanation I've seen.

So is it fair to say the reason for your belief in religion is basically a spiritual or philosophical adaptation of the intelligent design argument?

Instead of (or perhaps in addition to) doubting that evolution guided only by natural selection could produce an organism so complex as a man, or an organ so complex as an eye, you doubt that evolution could foster the common values that facilitate our communities?
posted by The Confessor at 2:39 PM on July 9


you doubt that evolution could foster the common values that facilitate our communities

No I don't doubt that at all. What I doubt is that that is an adequate description of what we mean when we say something is morally right or wrong.
posted by straight at 2:44 PM on July 9


You don't NEED to be intellectual to be atheist. That's the wonderful thing about reality. Why should sane, rational people have to learn a bunch of bullshit in order to have the proper intellectual underpinning to say it's bullshit?

Absolutely true.

Perhaps what's in order is simply a polite request that those who wish to engage in conversations wherein they attempt to present argument against religious belief based on the principles of empiricism and the importance of evidence should please remember not to include in their argument assertions (about religions, etc.) that are ill-informed or otherwise not evidence-based - if not out of a sense of social grace and politeness, then at least as an effort to avoid irony.
posted by The World Famous at 2:51 PM on July 9 [2 favorites]


The review and the following discussion here just has me more convinced than ever that atheists need to copy some pages from the feminist and LGBT playbooks and frame their case as a matter of social justice.

For instance, the whole religion-morality debate is illogical on its face and desperately tired, but worse, it's also actively and intentionally dehumanizing. The fact that Dawkins can be kind of an asshole should not be used to distract from the fact that he's fighting a real battle on behalf of real people. The fact that you (for certain values of "you") happen to be a deist (or whatever) has no bearing on how it feels for someone else to be an atheist and see the ten commandments on a plaque in a court that's supposed protect their rights (or any number of other subtle and not-so-subtle slights that add up to ... you know what, go read about privilege and oppression).

You want to talk about your religion? Okay, go do that. But maybe there's a time and a place to listen, and not tell the minority that what they really have to do is show more respect for the majority.

Michael Robbins thinks that modern atheism is "incoherent" and really just needs to respect its religious roots, and that we're just too angry. Maybe we should be. He thinks that the story of atheism as a cultural position with its own evolution is just too shallow, and instead should instead be framed in a way that keeps it squarely in the shadow of religion; I can't attest to the quality of Nick Spencer's book, but I can say that Robbins is explicitly trying to dictate how a minority group identifies and shapes itself. Robbins talks about atheist "laziness" and "triumphalism" while making a point of just how hurt religious people are by their agitation, which is just so classic I don't even know know what to say. And wasn't he supposed to be writing a book review?

Where's the Derailing for Dummies of atheism? Why haven't we adopted the language that has served other disenfranchised minorities so well? And while we're at it, where's my fucking openly-atheist president?
posted by WCWedin at 2:51 PM on July 9 [11 favorites]


I just wish that people could stop conflating atheism with Richard Dawkins every time we have this conversation. It's exactly as annoying and incorrect as it is when those "new atheists" y'all are so exercised about treat all Christianity as if it were nothing but Westboro Baptists.
Whoa, I don't know whether this would be more offensive to a theist or an atheist.

Surely it is worse to conflate the typical theist and Westboro Baptist Church than it is to conflate the typical atheist and Richard Dawkins. Not just a little worse. A whole lot worse. Absurdly worse. So I'd think theists could be validly offended by the idea that people who conflate them with to the WBC are merely as bad as people who conflate atheists with Dawkins.

But then on the flip side, treating Dawkins as a mirror-image analogue to the WBC is totally ridiculous. So surely atheists could be validly offended by the idea that the supposed worst of atheism is anywhere remotely as bad as the WBC.
posted by Flunkie at 3:38 PM on July 9 [2 favorites]


[This is much more fun than talking about that silly review, about which Jerry Coyne has said all that needs to be said.]

straight (on the possibility an evil creator making creatures who torture each other, for that creators own amusement): That would be a problem if religious morality were largely contradicting my every natural moral intuition.

I think it's still a problem for your claim that morality is just following your created purpose, because you've not supplied a reason why, if Xenophobe's counterfactual were true, it would be wrong for these creatures to torture each other. Yet I think we both agree it would be wrong. Since your concept of morality is quite Thomistic, I wonder how the Thomists deal with this one? Is there a Thomist in the house?

Since Less Wrong has already cropped up here, Yudkowsky's answer is quite interesting (though not entirely satisfactory) and involves no gods, just dualism and some kind of platonism (see, not all atheists are eliminative materialists). We got into it in the comments over here (self link). I think that a morality which coincides with a creator's purpose feels more natural and less arbitrary, but the fact that something is a creator's purpose doesn't seem to make it right.
posted by pw201 at 3:52 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


atheists need to copy some pages from the feminist and LGBT playbooks and frame their case as a matter of social justice.

As an atheist let me say: for the love of God, no
posted by Fists O'Fury at 3:54 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


straight

I'm hesitant to contend with this subject. I don't want to appear arrogant, and I don't want to give the impression that I am targeting you specifically... but when I suggested that you might believe evolution by natural selection could not foster moral values, I meant to include the spiritual dimension that you perceive.

I have had a few spiritual experiences myself, you see, although I was quite resistant to them even as a Christian.

When you're on the last day of a week-long Christian summer camp, however, and the guest speaker challenges you to rededicate your life to Christ, and you haven't cried once that week, and every other teenager there is sobbing their eyes out, and you wonder what sort of person would witness this obvious work of the Holy Spirit and remain unmoved... well, you can bet the tears are gonna fall.

It was, in retrospect, obviously a self-delusion aided by a form of contagious hysteria that was fostered by the manipulations of the well-meaning staff. God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit had nothing to do with it beyond the significance I assigned to those constructs.

This does not describe the spiritual dimension you see in morality, but just as my own spiritual experiences have all proven to be only the result of psychological (and thus ultimately biological) processes, might yours be the result of other such processes?
posted by The Confessor at 4:03 PM on July 9


But then on the flip side, treating Dawkins as a mirror-image analogue to the WBC is totally ridiculous. So surely atheists could be validly offended by the idea that the supposed worst of atheism is anywhere remotely as bad as the WBC.

Part of my dismay of waking up in the wrong science fiction future is the discovery that the Fox News religion panel for a while consisted of Donohue and Silverman with a moderately conservative Rabbi stuck between them to avoid fisticuffs. This shouldn't surprise me because television "news" these days is professional wrestling without the wrestling. It would be more honest if the talking heads wore tights and had stage names. America loves a conflict narrative.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 4:24 PM on July 9


The Confessor, I agree that it's entirely possible that those feelings I have that Right and Wrong are Important could easily be a trick that evolved to manipulate me into playing nice for the good of the genome. But rather than explaining morality, that seems to be explaining it away. What makes that particular biological desire so special that I should obey it rather than my desires for comfort and pleasure? Rather than giving me a reason to be moral, you seem to be offering me an excuse not to be moral.
posted by straight at 4:27 PM on July 9


Where's the Derailing for Dummies of atheism? Why haven't we adopted the language that has served other disenfranchised minorities so well? And while we're at it, where's my fucking openly-atheist president?

I dunno man. I grew up in Texas as an atheist for the first 18 years of my life, and I just can't sympathize with this idea. Don't get me wrong. I don't know what Fists O'Fury meant with his comment, but I completely agree that there's a lot of derailing (even on Metafilter) when it comes to LGBT/women's rights, and that it's good to be able to identify derail and call it out for what it is in conversation. But I just can't see it on the matter of atheism.

The fact that Dawkins can be kind of an asshole should not be used to distract from the fact that he's fighting a real battle on behalf of real people.

I'm pretty confused. Back when I was watching everything Dawkins did in 2006-2010, the fight he was fighting was literally anti-theism. Religious belief tout court is wrong, irrational, evil, unethical, bad, wrong, etc. etc. Maybe he's changed? But otherwise, I don't know what "real battle on behalf of real people" he's fighting.

If you're trying to equivocate this with other movements such as the LGBTQ movement, then Dawkins would be the equivalent of saying: "Heterosexuality is wrong, we shouldn't let heterosexual marry, and let's ban heterosexual sex."

how it feels for someone else to be an atheist and see the ten commandments on a plaque in a court that's supposed protect their rights

I mean, sure, the first commandment says that, "I am the Lord thy God," second that, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me," and then a few more after that... but then it goes on to say, "Thou shalt not kill." "Thou shalt not commit adultery. "Thou shalt not steal." "Thouh shalt not bear false witness." "Thou shalt not covet."

But you know what? On a frieze in the U.S. Supreme Court there's a depiction of the Prophet Muhammad, and on a plaque or some explaining documentation Muhammad is recognized as one of the greatest lawgivers of the world.

These were in fact lawmakers (if by the 10 Commandments one considers Moses, and ignore the fact that even Biblical scholarship believes him to be a historical fiction. Let's be realists about fictional persons for a moment) and they were influential on U.S. law. Muhammad maybe not so much on a causal account, but Moses, probably, Rome and other countries, sure. Our founding fathers knew the classical writers of Rome, and Augustus is appropriately represented on that U.S. Supreme Court frieze along with Muhammad and Moses, along with many others, as great lawmakers

And so, I don't see the disconnect between a statue of the 10 Commandments on the grounds of a Court. The 10 Commandments is an image of a culturally significant lawmaker (Moses). It just gets greater representation in these sorts of commemorations than other law makers like Confucius (also on the Supreme Court frieze) given the cultural significance Moses had rather than Confucius.
posted by SollosQ at 4:32 PM on July 9


I think the Ten Commandments is a bit of a distraction, more critical IMO is the demonization of humanist celebrants on the house floor, the BSA enjoying a loophole in civil rights law for their discriminatory policies, and a documented pattern of religiously motivated bias and harassment in some areas of the armed forces.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 4:38 PM on July 9 [2 favorites]


I think it's still a problem for your claim that morality is just following your created purpose, because you've not supplied a reason why, if Xenophobe's counterfactual were true, it would be wrong for these creatures to torture each other. Yet I think we both agree it would be wrong. Since your concept of morality is quite Thomistic, I wonder how the Thomists deal with this one? Is there a Thomist in the house?

The whole point here is that Good is real, not something arbitrary such that it's possible that evil things could have been Good if the creator had said so. (What you're talking about is known as the Euthyphro’s Dilemma and while Aquinas didn't address it directly, most Aquinas scholars think his teaching was that Good is good in itself and not arbitrary.) Nor is it something that could have been different if our social values had evolved differently.
posted by straight at 4:41 PM on July 9


I guess I'm not opposed to the idea and motivation behind a "Derailing for Dummies of atheism," but I suppose at the moment I don't see what actually for.

In fact, LGBTQ discussions are usually straightforward. It's just been with race and sex that I see derailing (I think there's a connection here between derailing and whether or not the issue is on the surface or not) and what is latent racism and sexism that a lot of people don't understand that they are spouting and the sort of institutionalized culture they are enabling by spouting that and derailing what is being said. This was really clear in that previous post on the Blue regarding that Student Body President Maya Peterson.

So, I guess I'd need to see how the issue of atheism is similar to racism and sexism such that there is this oppressive culture latently re-enabled by unsuspecting people.
posted by SollosQ at 4:53 PM on July 9


Looking at the website of Spencer's thinktank Theos, I'm seeing writers struggling with fairly describing Humanism as practiced by Humanists. Like the diversity of lived atheisms missing from Robbins' review & Spencer's text, Theos' approach to Humanism occludes important facets of Humanism in the 21st century.

For example, Trevor Cooling says in a blog post “humanists continue to claim a superior position in arguing that they are people of rationality alone, unlike the religious who are people of ‘faith.’” All of the major statements defining Humanism in the 20th and 21st centuries have stressed the equal role of emotion, art, the humanities and compassion alongside reason. Humanists do not claim to be “people of rationality alone.”

On a page describing a forthcoming project, “Why Christians should be humanists,” Theos says:
Moreover, [the project] contends that a number of the “fundamentals” of humanism – as defined by the International Humanist and Ethical Union – find their origins in Christian thought and faith commitments. Without it, they become dangerously weak. Without Christianity, humanism risks sawing through the branch on which it sits.
The claim of Christian origins is simply untrue. The principles described in the IHEU Amsterdam Declaration include some that are consonant with (some versions of) Christianity but which originated, in the Western tradition, in pre-Christian cultures and similar values arose independently in ancient African, Indian and Asian cultures.

The idea that Humanist values are “dangerously weak” and will give way without Christianity is certainly an argument that Spencer et al. are free to make, but that's sort of an endpoint of dialogue: one side's right, the other's wrong, especially if the Theos folk aren't going to engage the best, nuanced, accurate versions of Humanism.
posted by audi alteram partem at 4:55 PM on July 9 [5 favorites]


I mean, sure, the first commandment says that, "I am the Lord thy God," second that, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me," and then a few more after that... but then it goes on to say, "Thou shalt not kill." "Thou shalt not commit adultery. "Thou shalt not steal." "Thouh shalt not bear false witness." "Thou shalt not covet."

Adultery and coveting, not to mention disrespecting your elders, are not illegal. So out of the ten commandments, the only three that are currently illegal are murder, theft, and false testimony. You would be hard pressed to find a culture that doesn't prohibit murder, theft, and fraud-- these are not some amazing Judeo-Christian insight.

Meanwhile, the first four commandments are antithetical to the stated ideals of our putatively free society, in which we are allowed to take as many or as few gods as we want, to blaspheme at will, to create graven images, and to celebrate holy days as we see fit (or not).

Having a ten commandments plaque at a courthouse is sending mixed messages, to put it mildly.
posted by Pyry at 4:59 PM on July 9 [13 favorites]


The 10 Commandments is an image of a culturally significant lawmaker (Moses)

really? do believers think that Moses had something to do with the 10 commandments other than carry them?
posted by sineater at 5:02 PM on July 9


Is it not an excluded-middle fallacy to claim that science and religion are asking different questions and seeking different answers? Surely there is a good deal of overlap. The study of evolution fits somewhere in the middle, no? Just because the vocabulary has a metaphysical origin doesn't mean that non-metaphysical pursuits and answers somehow cheapen things.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 5:04 PM on July 9


Moreover, [the project] contends that a number of the “fundamentals” of humanism – as defined by the International Humanist and Ethical Union – find their origins in Christian thought and faith commitments. Without it, they become dangerously weak. Without Christianity, humanism risks sawing through the branch on which it sits.

I just do not buy this at all. If the IHEU is not a Christian organisation then it is not possible for its 'fundamentals of humanism' to have their origins in Christian thought and faith commitments. What really is the case is that the IHEU worked out a set of fundamentals from their own set of first principles, and hey: some of them share some similarity to Christianity. That's because some of their first principles are similar. That doesn't mean humanism cannot exist without Christianity.
posted by Quilford at 5:08 PM on July 9


really? do believers think that Moses had something to do with the 10 commandments other than carry them?

Having a ten commandments plaque at a courthouse is sending mixed messages, to put it mildly.

Well, Moses as a Lawmaker comes from not just the 10 Commandments but also all the other laws found in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible which Moses is contended to have written. Isn't there some figure in the 600's, which is supposed to be all the laws Moses gave? And so the 10 Commandments is a representation of Moses and all of these laws, so not just those specific 10, but all the others. And even then, again, it has ore to do with the significance and importance of this event even if these 600 or so laws aren't fully captured by U.S. law.

As for what believers think, on the whole I don't know. But most Jewish and Christian believers I have met don't see Moses as having been a proxy for God who thunder-bolted down the 10 Commandments, but actually some dude who came up with these laws (the commandments and all the others). Which is pretty similar to the historical view of Muhammad. He wasn't a proxy for the angel Gabriel who was proxy for God, but actually just some incredibly smart statesman/lawmaker.

Even as a proxy though, one could still view Moses as the lawmaker, because then you believed that God gave the laws to Moses to give to the others. Moses fulfills the same function either way. (Maybe more as a Lawgiver than Lawmaker, but okay...)
posted by SollosQ at 5:18 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


God gave the laws to Moses to give to the others. Moses fulfills the same function either way

this reminds me of some interesting questions regarding morality. We've all heard the suggestion that atheists have nothing to base their morals on. But isn't basing your morals on what you've been told by a supernatural being rather weak? It allows you to say at times when you can't defend your morals any other way that "god says so", which is hardly compelling. How is getting your morals from somewhere else better than thinking about things deeply and taking input from your environment and deciding for yourself what you believe to be moral? It seems to suggest that morals are incomprehensible and the best we can do is to be told what they should be.
posted by sineater at 5:29 PM on July 9 [5 favorites]


Before you respond you should know that I am currently to blame for the ants on the porch and the fact that it is hot out, so I am a pretty powerful local god at the very least.

Thus, my belief that somewhere, somehow a god of some sort controls the neurons of the world to the extent that it defies physics and the explanation that it is all a bouncing smatter of atoms....in other words, everyone believes in something even if it is that there is no god being....and any discussion is a great way to kill a few minutes.

posted by OhSusannah at 8:01 PM on July 9


But you know what? On a frieze in the U.S. Supreme Court there's a depiction of the Prophet Muhammad, and on a plaque or some explaining documentation Muhammad is recognized as one of the greatest lawgivers of the world.


Erm, isn't that a gross violation of Islam's ban on idolatry?
posted by murphy slaw at 9:27 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


We've all heard the suggestion that atheists have nothing to base their morals on.

The slavery issue destroys this feeble nonsense. The bible has no problem whatsoever with slavery. In Exodus 20, God says "I am the lord thy god and I done led you out of bitter servitude in Egypt" or whatever, and lays down a bunch of commandments which we have, with remarkable arbitrariness given the actual text, decided are ten in number. I can get as many as thirteen out of it without trying very hard, but some of them have to do with not going up to the altar by steps such that people can see your junk as you go.

But I digress... the very next chapter, Exodus 21, is all about keeping slaves, and it is a breathtaking horror. It says quite clearly that beating your servant with a rod such that he dies on the spot is pretty bad, but if the servant lives another day or two then no punishment because hey it's your money. Seriously. Read it. Selling your daughter into sexual servitude? No problem. Keeping the children of a slave as your property after that slave has gone free? It's in there. If the slave doesn't want to be parted from his wife and children? Then his only choice is to voluntarily recommit to permanent slavery. Mr. Jehovah is just fine with slavery, thank you very much.

And yet now all of civilized society despises slavery, considering it both officially and commonly to be among the very greatest crimes you can commit against a human being. We didn't get that from our religion. We didn't get that from our God. We worked that out for ourselves, as we are perfectly capable of doing and in fact we do all the time.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:37 PM on July 9 [15 favorites]


We've all heard the suggestion that atheists have nothing to base their morals on.

"...for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."

And yet, it does. Thinking does make it so. That's some kind of base, isn't it?
posted by Trochanter at 9:58 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


On these threads people often say atheists are ill-informed about religion. But surely almost all atheists grew up in a religious context. I think I know as much about Christianity as most Christians do. Because it upset me as a child, so I studied it and deliberated upon it. I would guess I have read more theology than 99% of Christians, and I think this is typical of 'booky' intellectual atheists. The process of becoming an atheist typically is a process of intellectual study of religion: after all one is making a significant life change.

The other thing I find is that there is a mismatch between what Christians say in discussions on public forums like this, when debating with atheists, and what they say within their own culture and houses of worship, particularly to children. For example in a discussion like this Christians will say that their religion does not privilege men over women, or celebrate eternal torture, or demean sexual expression. But within the Christian community god is explicitly gendered, hell is constantly referenced, and attitudes to sex are highly problematic.
posted by communicator at 11:45 PM on July 9 [4 favorites]


I am speaking as someone brought up, like Dawkins, in the Church of England in the 1960s, a time and place which is depicted in popular culture as wishy-washy and liberal. In fact it was wall to wall patriarchy and damnation.
posted by communicator at 11:46 PM on July 9 [4 favorites]


I am profoundly uninterested, as an atheist, in debating the existence and nature of deity. I am content to know that I do not believe, that there are others who do and do not believe in various conceptualizations of deity. I am profoundly interested in (1) working out how to live productively in a pluralistic society and (2), following from that, educating about and redressing prejudices and misinformation about nontheist identities.

This, so much this.
posted by MartinWisse at 12:06 AM on July 10 [3 favorites]


Who is God, anyways?
posted by Pudhoho at 2:29 AM on July 10


But you know what? On a frieze in the U.S. Supreme Court there's a depiction of the Prophet Muhammad, and on a plaque or some explaining documentation Muhammad is recognized as one of the greatest lawgivers of the world.

Erm, isn't that a gross violation of Islam's ban on idolatry?


Idolatry is worshipping false idols. You're thinking of Islam's commonly held ban on iconism (representation of living beings). The Quran only forbids idolatry, while the hadith (Mohammed's teachings, not the direct word of Allah but divinely inspired) is less of a "ban" on iconism than "Mohammed doesn't like it," and there has been much debate over the years as to whether it means all living beings or just people or just holy people, etc. There are many Muslims who believe that Mohammed can be depicted, as long as it's done respectfully.
posted by Etrigan at 5:44 AM on July 10 [1 favorite]


I'd like to speak up for an intellectually lazy theism. Specifically: If one's theism isn't amenable to lazy proof--the same way this chair is amenable to the laziest, shallowest analysis of its existence, by sitting on it with little other inquiry--then what good is it?

I come up out of fundamentalist Christian roots. And admittedly something happens between the founding of Christianity and the founding of fundamentalism--a deliberate historical amnesia, a piling on and sweeping away of credos and theologies--until the core of Christianity (the expression of your relationship with God through what you do) has been replaced with a purity test (the expression of your relationship with God through what you say you believe). But even with its faults (including its nonsensical insistence on reading poetry 'literally' as though there existed some pure reading that stripped away all metaphor and figure, rather than an acknowledgement that everything we portray as fact is actually a desperate clinging together of metaphors about sense experience that we hope map onto the world well enough to communicate), fundamentalism got one thing right: For God to matter, he must be a person, must be able to be spoken of as a person. If he is so ethereal that he can only be spoken of as a philosophical idea, a being created out of long paragraphs of grammar, then he ceases to be God, because he is then inaccessible to common people. He might be a figure available to mystics--since they always exist, and always sense the veil between themselves and the common--but he doesn't work as God as people think of God.

Since he must exist as a person, then he is wholly open to the criticism of the intellectually lazy atheist. (I'm not talking here about the intellectually ridiculous atheist who equates religious education with child abuse, just the one who doesn't want to have to read reams of philosophy in order to have a point.) The atheist can then say, "Where is he?" and have that be wholly valid and intellectually sufficient as an argument.

So the intellectually lazy theist and the intellectually lazy atheist were made for each other. They disagree on premises and conclusions, but they're speaking the same language, and live happily ever after.

For the intellectually rigorous theist, though, there is no perfect match. He lives a lonely life, waiting for the intellectually rigorous atheist to show up, but he is asking too much: "Won't you accept enough of my vast theological analysis so that you can dispute it point-by-point?" But the person willing to do that--to seriously do it--never shows up. The best he can do is have arguments with other theists.

I think about this all the time, when I think about the fiery God of my childhood, who is a sort of specter who haunts my thoughts even now, when I'm lying awake wondering if my lack of belief is going to send me to hell. And I wonder: What is the standard of proof for God? For God-the-person? Above, the phrase "the A game" kept getting used, and obviously the A game would be, hey look, here is God standing in this room right next to us, but that doesn't seem likely to happen. Our standard of proof for a chair seems so shaky. What on earth is it based on? Neurological impulses? Some sort of statistical comparison of everyone in the room's sensations? The chair becomes a ghost, the more you think about it. And then someone refers to a philosopher from a couple hundred years ago you haven't read, and the game really is over then, because the chair has become less than a ghost, has become a figure of speech.

What is the standard of proof of a chair? Is it different than the standard of proof of a computer program, a recipe, Batman? How does Batman exist well enough that you understand him through all his portrayals, and if you can understand him that well, does he exist? Is God more like Batman or like a chair? Is God a recipe? We know there can exist people we never meet, people we will never see, people we cannot see--they are too far away, they are not anywhere near a camera, they live in a cave, some situation where our senses and agreements will not pick them up. And we're pretty sure they exist. Is God more like Batman or like a man in a cave in a foreign country, where we have only heard second-hand stories, but no cameras are allowed? Is it enough to say that were there cameras, we could take a picture of a man in a cave, or is that in itself a bit of trickery?

I do not understand how people put any energy into this at all. I have unending respect for the intellectually lazy atheist and theist, because the moment you decide not to be lazy, you are faced with, on the one hand, books you cannot read (do they exist if you cannot read them?), and on the other, questions you cannot answer but will not stop being asked.
posted by mittens at 6:12 AM on July 10 [8 favorites]


Re: social justice (too lazy to go back up the thread and quote the specific post)

I think that the "live and let live" style of atheists are already adopting a sort of social justice model - i.e., "Feel free to go ahead and believe in God if you like, but it would be kind of nice if you wouldn't put a creche in front of City Hall or make my kids pray to Jesus during school."

The issue being discussed here (and in the article) are the type of atheists whose theme is "Anyone who believes in God is an illogical moron." Which makes it slightly harder to gain any traction from an equal rights model.

The gay-marriage movement would be far less successful if they also said that heterosexual marriage was an affront against human decency.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 7:29 AM on July 10 [1 favorite]


For the intellectually rigorous theist, though, there is no perfect match. He lives a lonely life, waiting for the intellectually rigorous atheist to show up, but he is asking too much

The intellectually rigorous atheist has it even tougher. He stands in opposition to lazy atheists, lazy theists and intellectually rigorous theists. All he has is his own kind, who are few and far between. “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.”
posted by No Robots at 7:55 AM on July 10 [4 favorites]


The issue being discussed here (and in the article) are the type of atheists whose theme is "Anyone who believes in God is an illogical moron."

Well, the issue is also, as Robbins himself says in his review, an expressed desire for "a popular atheism" informed by the insight that Humanism is a "degenerate and unwitting version of" religion. In voicing disappointment with one form of atheism, Robbins and Spencer are inviting response from other forms. These other atheists may also disappoint Robbins and Spencer because they will insist that their Humanism is distinct from religion and because they don't fit into the stereotypical hyper-rational, Christianity-dependent humanism preferred by Spencer, but there's a good conversation to be had so long as neither side gets to dictate how the other defines itself.

Greta Christina has written and spoken extensively on social justice in atheism and parallels with LGBT activism. She has a particularly insightful argument about the value of combining more and less conforntational tactics:
We need to recognize that not all activists pursue activism in the same say; we need to recognize that using both more confrontational and more diplomatic approaches makes us a stronger movement, and that both these approaches used together, synergistically, are more powerful than either approach alone.
The difficulty with critiques of atheist brashness is that challenges to a dominant cultural tradition may be perceived as indecorous no matter how politely they are phrased. There is a difference between the following claims that can get muddled (as it does in Robbins review): a particular atheist unfairly describes a particular religious argument, a group of atheists don't look at religious arguments they should look at, certain atheists have a “triumphalist tone.”

These claims can be argued productively, more or less, but they exist in the same context where certain religious ideas are culturally privileged, which raises two issues. First, any disagreement with the privileged idea can provoke backlash. Second, because the disagreement is with an idea that gets undue deference, it may be necessary to raise a ruckus to get change happening. Marriage equality advocates need not say heterosexual marriage is an affront to human decency to outrage their opponents. Their mere asking for equal rights outrages those opponents. Progressive reform in the US usually includes radical voices alongside pragmatic reformers as Christina describes.

In a conversation such as the one Robbins began, as opposed to contexts of activist action or a polemic commentary, it is incumbent on us to be as specific as we can in our discussions and to hear others as we would like to be heard.
posted by audi alteram partem at 8:03 AM on July 10 [2 favorites]


If Dawkins was not parading around as an anti-theist, stating that religious belief tout court is irrational, then this would be a good point. But that's not the case. Dawkins and the "New Atheists" community are making a false equivalence between the two forms of religious expression, the crude and silly forms and the erudite and sophisticated forms.

From this I can conclude that one of two things is true:
1: You have never read The God Delusion
2: You have read The God Delusion but don't actually understand what Dawkins was saying.

Dawkins was saying that the sophisticated definitions were irrelevant to the overwhelming majority of Christians, and those that supported them didn't appear to believe them either. It's not a claim of equivalence. If anything he has more time for the naive than for the irrelevant.

As for my approach to Sophisticated Theology, I've tangled with Jesuits and studied en chevrut with someone who later went on to become the first female Jewish scribe in modern times. Theology is fun. So is arguing who would win - the Enterprise or a Star Destroyer, or what happens if two comic book characters clash. I've also defended the belief that water is not wet to the point of having the person I was arguing with go away for five minutes and think after I asked him if blue copper sulphate crystals were wet.

But as Bertrand Russel proved, if you take a single incorrect fact you can "prove" anything you like. If 1+1=1 then Bertrand Russell is the Pope. And this also means that if there is one single mistake in any expression of Sophisticated Theology, built on the back of logic and invention, then the entire thing comes crashing down like a house of cards. (This does not apply to empirical approaches - but if you have an empirical approach and part of it is shown to be wrong, you need to update. Theology is batting .000 with such empirical tests).

But let's also look at some sophisticated arguments. I'm sure Dawkins and the "New Atheists" think that the Christian concept of the Trinity is just nonsense. But first of all, they couldn't even articulate why it's nonsense. David Wiggins can, for he writes about how with Leibniz's Law of Identity, "the three Persons, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, would have been in danger of collapsing into one another. For, in exactly the same way, all the predicates of Christ that applied uniquely to him or applied to him at a time and place will have applied to the Father and Holy Ghost; how then could Christ fail to be the same person as these?" But then David Wiggins explores how the Trinity might be rescued. So for example, one can make a better defense of the trinity if it is the case that, "if a is the same f as b, then whatever properties transfer from a to anything that is the same f as a, these properties will transfer from b to anything that is the same f as b," which David Wiggins (and Wilfrid
Hodges) have argued for before as being an accepted proposition.


And that reads to me like vacuous tripe and an attempt to blind with science. I have a background in mathematics. The Law of Identity states that if two entities have all their properties in common they are the same entity. Given that only God the Son was incarnated and died on the cross, suffered death, and was buried, and on the third day rose again supposedly in accordance with the scriptures, the Law of Identity says that the Son is not exactly the same as the Father. Unless Father and Holy Ghost also died on the cross at the same time.

From this I can conclude that either
a: You are misrepresenting Wiggins
b: Wiggins does not understand Liebnitz' Law of Identity and is unclear on subjects he has not grasped
c: Wiggins does understand Liebnitz' Law of Identity but suspects that his audience does not and is therefore using it to attempt to baffle the audience.

None of these possibilities suggest that Wiggins, as represented by you, is worth wasting time on. Which is a very good illustration of why invoking Sophisticated Theology in Atheist circles sometimes gets called "The Courtier's Reply". You don't need to study Haute Couture before you are able to say the Emperor isn't wearing clothes.
posted by Francis at 8:25 AM on July 10 [8 favorites]


For the intellectually rigorous theist, though, there is no perfect match. He lives a lonely life, waiting for the intellectually rigorous atheist to show up, but he is asking too much: "Won't you accept enough of my vast theological analysis so that you can dispute it point-by-point?" But the person willing to do that--to seriously do it--never shows up. The best he can do is have arguments with other theists.

That is because the "intellectually rigorous atheist" in question is pretty close to a figment of the "intellectually rigorous theist"'s imagination. Intellectual rigour involves testing premises. An intellectually rigorous atheist's response is more likely to be "No I don't accept your vast theological analysis. Here are your ten premises. Those two are empirically disproven as applying to the real world, those two are not technically disprovable but go against literally everything else we know on this subject, those four are not provable and not terribly likely, and that one isn't actually anchored to anything - it's a flying buttress used to counterbalance for the fact that this one doesn't actually exist.

Of course you do occasionally get an intellectually not terribly rigorous atheist who accepts all the theist's premises and rejects God. Some Atheists are Evangelical Christian Atheists, and the Ex-Catholic being a distinctive group is a well known phenomenon. Nietzche is loved by many philosophical theologians because he is just such an atheist - one who accepted a specific set of theology about what would happen if there was no God as true and then proceeded to work from the premise that there was no God - and by doing so validated the theology.

These claims can be argued productively, more or less, but they exist in the same context where certain religious ideas are culturally privileged, which raises two issues. First, any disagreement with the privileged idea can provoke backlash. Second, because the disagreement is with an idea that gets undue deference, it may be necessary to raise a ruckus to get change happening. Marriage equality advocates need not say heterosexual marriage is an affront to human decency to outrage their opponents. Their mere asking for equal rights outrages those opponents. Progressive reform in the US usually includes radical voices alongside pragmatic reformers as Christina describes.

This. And the outspoken Atheists have a purpose. First to point out that a lot of Christian doctrine (notably the notion of Hell) is downright offensive. There is no polite, nice, or kind way of saying someone will be tortured eternally - and this needs pointing out to any Christians who talk about politeness. Second if everything atheists say is going to be called offensive (and it will be) the radicals are needed to distract the outrage brigade so the pragmatics can talk and be listened to rather than jeered down. (This applies to just about any movement for social change).
posted by Francis at 8:42 AM on July 10 [9 favorites]


Perhaps it's a derail to go into specific criticisms of a religion, but one that doesn't get enough traction for me is how, if you take it at face value, amazingly free of useful information the Bible is.

Take these two things: 1) God says, "have dominion over the creatures of the Earth etc." 2) People throughout the Bible are getting afflicted with diseases -- which is reasonable enough since they actually were -- and this is attributed to supernatural causes if anything. Not once is a disease attributed to a physical cause.

Now, why doesn't God ever mention that there are overwhelming numbers of tiny creatures that swarm all over everything, outnumbering multicellular organisms by many orders of magnitude, and that it is these creatures that cause just about all of the afflictions that everyone gets? I mean given 1) might that not have been worth a mention at all? Wouldn't that have cleared up a few mysteries and confusion?

The answer, within a religious context, must be either A) God didn't know, or B) God didn't want us to know. A) is theologically insupportible, and B) is morally outrageous.

It requires far fewer mental contortions to suppose that God didn't know, because we didn't know and we invented God.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:23 AM on July 10


The answer, within a religious context, must be either A) God didn't know, or B) God didn't want us to know. A) is theologically insupportible, and B) is morally outrageous.

B) is only morally outrageous if you are working from the axiom that God is benevolent. This is, remember, the same God that tossed Adam and Eve out of paradise for literally satiating their hunger for knowledge. So: not outrageous; backed by precedent.
posted by grumpybear69 at 9:38 AM on July 10 [2 favorites]


As for my approach to Sophisticated Theology, I've tangled with Jesuits and studied en chevrut with someone who later went on to become the first female Jewish scribe in modern times. Theology is fun. So is arguing who would win - the Enterprise or a Star Destroyer, or what happens if two comic book characters clash.

Yes. A lot of this "but you're not engaging with the sophisticated theists" stuff is like the people who defend Freudian psychoanalysis. They mistake the extraordinary intellectual sophistication and subtlety of the vast edifice of argument and analysis that was built atop Freud's theories for evidence that those theories are a sound description of the structure of the human mind. So when someone comes along and says "you know what, we've pretty much disproven ALL of the premises of Freud's theories" they simply don't hear what's being said, because they live within an intellectual world in which you prove your bona fides not by actually proving that you have some compelling, empirically defensible grasp on the operation of the human mind, but by demonstrating your mastery of a hermeneutical universe constructed upon a particular body of writings (Freud's texts and those of some of his followers).
posted by yoink at 9:47 AM on July 10 [2 favorites]


I'd like to speak up for an intellectually lazy theism. Specifically: If one's theism isn't amenable to lazy proof--the same way this chair is amenable to the laziest, shallowest analysis of its existence, by sitting on it with little other inquiry--then what good is it?

For God to matter, he must be a person, must be able to be spoken of as a person...

Since he must exist as a person, then he is wholly open to the criticism of the intellectually lazy atheist. (I'm not talking here about the intellectually ridiculous atheist who equates religious education with child abuse, just the one who doesn't want to have to read reams of philosophy in order to have a point.) The atheist can then say, "Where is he?" and have that be wholly valid and intellectually sufficient as an argument.


While I agree this makes a sort of sense, it also seems a bit like objecting to claims physicists make because they are hard to understand. I have to take God and the universe as they are, not as I'd like them to be. I think there's reason to believe God is a person, and yet also kind of mysterious, baffling, and incomprehensible. I don't know why God doesn't make his existence more obvious (the most common suggestion is that it would be so overwhelming as to take away our moral agency). But looking at how weird and hard to understand the universe is, it hardly seems surprising that the creator would be weird and hard to understand, if there is one.
posted by straight at 9:57 AM on July 10 [1 favorite]


this reminds me of some interesting questions regarding morality. We've all heard the suggestion that atheists have nothing to base their morals on. But isn't basing your morals on what you've been told by a supernatural being rather weak? It allows you to say at times when you can't defend your morals any other way that "god says so", which is hardly compelling.

Indeed. There is simply no coherent account of the "origin" of morality. The existence or non-existence of God simply can't explain or account for moral behavior. Just as positing a God is a useless response to "where did the universe come from?" (because of the obvious problem of regression), positing a God is a useless response to "where do moral ideals come from?" So there's a supreme being who has divine opinions about what is right and wrong. Great. Now, where does the moral obligation to conform my moral opinions to that Supreme Being's opinions come from? Sure, he can inflict pain on me if I don't act the way he wants me to act, but that clearly has nothing to do with morality. A world in which we behave a certain way simply out of fear of punishment or desire for reward is clearly not a world of moral action. And sure, he can make me in such a way that I am inherently programmed to prefer the actions he thinks are 'good' and want to eschew the actions he thinks are 'bad.' But, again, that doesn't make me a moral actor. So we have the same problem of regression. We need a Super Supreme Being who comes along to say "it is morally right to conform yourself to the moral opinions of the Supreme Being." And then we need a Super Super Supreme Being etc. etc. ad infinitum.

(This, actually, relates to a favorite speculation of mine having to do with Catholic attitudes towards abortion. It seems to me that one could formulate a coherent argument in which the most morally "good" action, in a world that actually operated as at least certain Catholics believe it does, would be to directly disobey God's wishes. Imagine you are a devout Catholic doctor. You know that God will condemn you to eternal suffering if you practice abortion. On the other hand, you firmly believe that God will welcome all infants who die without baptism into eternal bliss. What could possibly be more morally good than to ensure eternal salvation for thousands upon thousands of souls many of whom would otherwise--if they were carried to term, born, and risked lives of sin--undoubtedly also suffer eternal damnation at the price of your own eternal life? What greater self-sacrifice with more certain positive benefit to others could there possibly be?)

Add to the above, of course, the fact that we know perfectly well that every human society develops moral codes that it more or less adheres to regardless of whether it believes in a god, or gods and regardless of whether or not it believes that those gods have moral opinions and regardless of whether or not it believes that those gods punish the evil and reward the virtuous, and it's pretty clear empirically that the belief in a deity is irrelevant to the formation or practice of morality.
posted by yoink at 10:02 AM on July 10 [2 favorites]


There's a pervasive assumption in this thread I'd like to take issue with. When we religious critics complain about Dawkins, Dennett, and Sam Harris, we're not only claiming that these people fail to grapple with the most intellectual and sophisticated theists. We're also claiming that they fail to grapple even with the faith of unsophisticated fundamentalists.

I don't think you could find any religious person who would agree that Dawkins, Dennett, or Harris have, in their books attempting to refute religion, presented a fair description of that believer's faith before going on to explain what is wrong with it. And I see no evidence that they are capable of doing so.

Uneducated people may be unable to articulate what exactly is wrong with these caricatures of their faith, but that doesn't make the caricature any less of a straw man.
posted by straight at 10:12 AM on July 10


So there's a supreme being who has divine opinions about what is right and wrong. Great. Now, where does the moral obligation to conform my moral opinions to that Supreme Being's opinions come from?

The actual argument is that morality seems to be more than a mere opinion (more even than the opinion of a god). And the only way for that kind of moral realism to be true seems to involve the same kind of metaphysics that implies God also exists and that the two are interdependent.
posted by straight at 10:23 AM on July 10


Shorter Robbins, D'Souza, and all the rest: any unsympathetic examination of a theistic position that yields an absurdity is by definition a shallow misreading, an ungenerous caricature.

You don't have to read very far into theology to get into realms of abstruseness far beyond anything in religion as it is ordinarily practiced or preached, but the fact that it's there means that Robbins can keep moving the "you just haven't understood it" goalpost forever.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:46 AM on July 10 [2 favorites]


I think the existence of the abstruseness in theology is a direct result of religious people honestly trying to explain their beliefs and having great difficulty doing so. Most people don't try very hard and are content with vague approximations that don't hold up to scrutiny.

That might be taken as evidence that the beliefs themselves are unreal and incoherent, but there are plenty of other things in the natural world that we have been unable to comprehensively describe despite increasingly abstruse attempts to do so, so I don't think the difficulty in describing religious beliefs is very strong evidence one way or the other of their validity.
posted by straight at 10:59 AM on July 10 [1 favorite]


I was making no observation about validity myself. I was saying that the simple existence of all that theology -- entirely irrespective of what it actually may or may not say -- provides a limitless well for counter-critics to say to atheists that they don't know what they're talking about. Somewhere in the library at Trinity College Dublin, or Oxford or The Vatican there will always be a dusty treatise that Dennett and Harris and Hitchens and Dawkins have not read, and therefore they have understood too shallowly and are caricaturing. Forever.

Here's a fun thing, for those who don't have an immediate allergic reaction to Dawkins. In conversation with Douglas Adams, here he is, much younger, talking about Adams' fictional creation "the electric monk" which is a device whose purpose is to believe things for you because you find it too troublesome to believe them yourself. I like the bit where he points out that what you're capable of believing is itself a kind of credential. After about 90 seconds he starts getting into territory that's become overfamilar more recently but I enjoyed that first bit. (The whole show is great, is not otherwise about atheism and there's some marvellous stuff from Stephen Fry toward the end of the preceding clip in that sequence.)
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:18 AM on July 10 [1 favorite]


To be truly rigorous, the atheist cannot content himself with mere critique of religion. He must advance his own programme, provide answers to the big questions. What, for example, is life? This is something that our current crop of prominent atheists do not want to do. As Harry Waton put it almost a century ago:
But in the realm of life, modern science accomplished nothing. Biology—this is the science of life. What shall be said about a biology that does not know what life is? And this is the biology of the Aryans? Study the thousands of books that were written on biology by the Aryans, and in all of them you will not find a single statement as to what life itself is. For instance, Spencer defines life to be a continuous adjustment of inner relations to outer relations. Is this a definition of life? This only tells us of a function of life, but what is life itself that makes this adjustment? Spencer himself admits that he does not know. And in all cases in which the Aryans come to the ultimate aspects of existence, they draw down the curtain on which is written: The Thing in Itself, Nihil Ulterius, The Unknowable. And ask no further questions. Now, the basis of the nazi philosophy is the blood theory, and we already saw that the nazis do not know what blood is, and they know absolutely nothing about life itself. What is life? We already saw that the Bible knew what life is. Life is what the Bible calls nephesh, it is the soul in its implicit state. Life is the Absolute, it is the cause of itself, it is the substance of all realities, and all infinite existence is a living reality.--A Program for the Jews, an answer to all anti-semites, a program for humanity
Since Waton’s time, atheists have maintained their silence on the question of life. Without a positive programme of their own regarding the big questions, is it any wonder that their critique is shallow and unconvincing?
posted by No Robots at 11:29 AM on July 10


Quantum mechanics might be "abstruse" and "difficult", and sensible people can disagree about what it tells us about how the world really works, but it makes ridiculously accurate predictions, which we can observe and confirm over and over again. Religious beliefs are "difficult" only in the sense that they are hard to make sense of, and the more you try to make sense of them, the less sense they make. This is apparently a good thing..
posted by Dumsnill at 11:33 AM on July 10 [1 favorite]


> ... He must advance his own programme, provide answers to the big questions. What, for example, is life? This is something that our current crop of prominent atheists do not want to do. ...

For some people, a wrong answer is better than no answer. I admire people who show us how to live morally without a definitive answer.
posted by benito.strauss at 11:38 AM on July 10 [1 favorite]


To be truly rigorous, the atheist cannot content himself with mere critique of religion. He must advance his own programme, provide answers to the big questions.

He most certainly doesn't. If you tell me without evidence that my computer runs on cheese, I don't actually have to understand what electrons are fundamentally composed of to tell you that you haven't made your case and that it bears every hallmark of being completely made up.

Since Waton’s time, atheists have maintained their silence on the question of life.

Again, nonsense. Not claiming to know all the answers isn't the same as being silent. Scientists -- some very significant proportion of them atheist -- are anything but silent on that question, are actively persuing it with all the tools at their disposal and will talk your head off if you let them.

Claiming knowledge that you don't have -- for example, revealed truth from a mystical entity -- is just a form of ignorance. Science is fundamentally not only admitting what you don't know, but getting very, very familiar with what you don't know: spending your entire career chipping away at the vast granite face of what you don't know in the hope of making it just a little smaller.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:40 AM on July 10 [10 favorites]


People who don't believe in ghosts aren't obligated to provide answers for "What is a haunted house?" to have a coherent theory of apoltergeistism.
posted by 0xFCAF at 11:43 AM on July 10 [4 favorites]


Quantum mechanics might be "abstruse" and "difficult" ... but it makes ridiculously accurate predictions, which we can observe and confirm over and over again.

Well, but for the vast majority of humanity, we are having to take someone's word for it, about these accurate predictions. We are having to exercise faith that this is a reasonable picture of the world. We don't have access to the equipment it would take to run our own experiments to convince ourselves of the truth of this. The difficulty creates a barrier between ourselves and those who hold the knowledge. Should we trust the people who have studied for decades with their giant machines who tell us the world works one way, or the people who have studied for decades with their ancient books who tell us the world works another way?
posted by mittens at 11:49 AM on July 10


Since Waton’s time, atheists have maintained their silence on the question of life. Without a positive programme of their own regarding the big questions

Not liking the answers they come up with isn't the same as their being silent. There are non-theist worldviews extending back to antiquity. Maybe they don't ask the questions some religious views would want them to ask, maybe they're content with not knowing answers to some of the questions they do ask, but there are plenty of positive, atheist programs out there.
posted by audi alteram partem at 11:55 AM on July 10 [4 favorites]


People who don't believe in ghosts aren't obligated to provide answers for "What is a haunted house?" to have a coherent theory of apoltergeistism.

And yet those apoltergeistists have ZERO compelling explanations for the scores of ghosts we see every October 31, running around the neighborhood, demanding candy. Just try and ask them; it's always "oh those are probably little kids." oh? And why are they all white and flappy? "Well they are wearing sheets." and yet sheets don't have eyes in them. How to explain that? "Uh I guess they cut holes in the sheets to look like eyes?" oh sure and they all just HAPPEN to be doing this on the same night? "uh well it's a holiday"

...and so on, just to try to save face and pretend ghosts aren't taking my candy. Ridiculous. Some of these apoltergeistists need to learn about a little concept called "Occam's Razor"
posted by Greg Nog at 12:01 PM on July 10 [3 favorites]


We don't have access to the equipment it would take to run our own experiments to convince ourselves of the truth of this.

A Do-It-Yourself Quantum Eraser is the first result when I Google "home quantum mechanics experiments".
posted by WCWedin at 12:03 PM on July 10


I stand corrected. Excuse me while I acquire a laser and a cat.
posted by mittens at 12:09 PM on July 10 [2 favorites]


(Hendrix should have kept the first draft. Way better than what he ended up using.)
posted by The World Famous at 12:12 PM on July 10


Well, but for the vast majority of humanity, we are having to take someone's word for it, about these accurate predictions [of quantum mechanics].

The silicon chips inside the device that you used to write that have small amounts of impurities introduced into them. The amount and shape of the impurities are precisely calculated so that they will reliably modify the flow of electrons that represent what you write. These calculations are nothing but quantum mechanics; you can't even start to discuss them in classical physics. Every time you use that device you are depending on the accuracy and reliability of those predictions.

To my view every time you power up your computer or smartphone you're testing the reliability of QM.
posted by benito.strauss at 12:14 PM on July 10 [4 favorites]


"Since Waton’s time, atheists have maintained their silence on the question of life. Without a positive programme of their own regarding the big questions, is it any wonder that their critique is shallow and unconvincing?"

Pish tosh.

1) Theists do not agree on a "program" or answers to the big questions of life.

2) Plenty of atheists do provide programs and answers to the big questions of life; quite a few ethicists are atheists.

Ultimately, this is an empty complaint based on not liking the answers provided.
posted by klangklangston at 12:14 PM on July 10 [8 favorites]


Since Waton’s time, atheists have maintained their silence on the question of life. Without a positive programme of their own regarding the big questions, is it any wonder that their critique is shallow and unconvincing?

For a while I was reading The Humanist on a regular basis, and it was really interesting to me that most of the essays and articles included had very little to do with arguing against religion, and a lot more to do with problems such as ethics, education, political theory, grieving, the purpose of ceremony and community, environmental concerns, life, wonder, feminism, and the universe. Vonnegut was a regular columnist at this time. Ebert and Hitchins, in the decline of their lives, both contributed a pair of brilliant and heart-felt testaments to the values of living well. The early Hitchhiker's novels are, beyond the absurdist snark, a parable about living in an universe that's absurd, in part, because of the insistence on searching for simple answers to big questions.

None of which is addressed by apologists who insist that atheists in the 20th and the 21st century don't deal with the big questions of life, living, and dying. Religious discourse about atheists perpetually comes across as ignorant, arrogant, and lazy. The milder versions seem to involve a Life of Pi argument for beauty (another version: J.S. Bach lived, therefore God exists) against an atheist caricature. More venomous versions are voiced. Even though I'm not strictly an atheist at this time, the arrogant double-standard that "interfaith" discussion demands dialogue and rich study except when it comes to atheism still offends.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 12:35 PM on July 10 [7 favorites]


Hey, don't get me wrong. I think there are great atheist answers out there. I've named and quoted some of them. Heck, even Dawkins shows some sense on the big questions:
I think we owe Jesus the honour of separating his genuinely original and radical ethics from the supernatural nonsense which he inevitably espoused as a man of his time. And perhaps the oxymoronic impact of 'Atheists for Jesus' might be just what is needed to kick start the meme of super niceness in a post-Christian society. If we play our cards right - could we lead society away from the nether regions of its Darwinian origins into kinder and more compassionate uplands of post-singularity enlightenment?--"Atheists for Jesus"
Despite the supernatural nonsense he espouses (post-singularity enlightenment?), Dawkins does well to recognize the continued relevance of biblical ethics. The real problem for him and those like him, though, and this is the point I was making through Waton, lies in the reigning paradigm of biology. Because it cannot address the question of life, it cannot adequately address any other question. If Dawkins were truly rigorous, he would recognize the need to revise his biology to make it compatible with Biblical insight. This might not even be so radical a change. Perhaps it would require no more than saying that we don't know how the life forms originate, but for the purposes of biology we only need to understand how they operate.
posted by No Robots at 12:59 PM on July 10


If Dawkins were truly rigorous, he would recognize the need to revise his biology to make it compatible with Biblical insight.

Why stop there? He should be prepared to reconcile it with classical Hellenistic theology as well. I mean, Zeus brought forth Athena from his brow, so he's got the biogenesis down. A well-placed lightning bolt into a tidepool full of amino acid soup and you've got abiogenesis as well.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:13 PM on July 10 [7 favorites]


I was making no observation about validity myself. I was saying that the simple existence of all that theology -- entirely irrespective of what it actually may or may not say -- provides a limitless well for counter-critics to say to atheists that they don't know what they're talking about. Somewhere in the library at Trinity College Dublin, or Oxford or The Vatican there will always be a dusty treatise that Dennett and Harris and Hitchens and Dawkins have not read, and therefore they have understood too shallowly and are caricaturing. Forever.

Yeah, this whole conversation hinges on who is attacking whom. I'm not insisting that you believe God exists and claiming such belief is scientifically falsifiable (although I acknowledge that many people are, some of whom may have attacked you in ways that completely justify a combative response). Those guys are writing books claiming to have falsified it, and I say they haven't. But my earlier point was that those guys can't even produce an account of belief that would be acceptable to an uneducated believer.

Quantum mechanics might be "abstruse" and "difficult", and sensible people can disagree about what it tells us about how the world really works, but it makes ridiculously accurate predictions, which we can observe and confirm over and over again. Religious beliefs are "difficult" only in the sense that they are hard to make sense of, and the more you try to make sense of them, the less sense they make. This is apparently a good thing..

I don't regard the difficulty of describing religious belief as a good thing or any sort of proof of their existence. I just don't think the difficulty is evidence that they are false.
posted by straight at 1:17 PM on July 10


> Because it cannot address the question of life, it cannot adequately address any other question.

That's certainly not true. Have you decided to not be vaccinated because of poor understanding of the origins of life?

> If Dawkins were truly rigorous, he would recognize the need to revise his biology (emphasis mine) to make it compatible with Biblical insight.

The Bible is not a scientific document. I can't imagine what insight(s) the Bible provides to biology. Ethics, maybe. Biology? Please tell me what they are.

> Perhaps it would require no more than saying that we don't know how the life forms originate, but for the purposes of biology we only need to understand how they operate.

One thing that disappoints me about some pro-science folk is that they won't embrace "We don't know" as an answer. I wish they would. Of course, the great thing about saying that is you get to add "yet" to the "we don't know". Unlike most revealed religions, where the final truth has already been completely spoken, science assumes we're not done. (BTW, this statement completely contradicts the first statement of yours that I quoted.)
posted by benito.strauss at 1:18 PM on July 10 [2 favorites]


Perhaps it would require no more than saying that we don't know how the life forms originate, but for the purposes of biology we only need to understand how they operate.

Seriously, have you read Dawkins, other than in pull-quotes of negative reviews? Dawkins and every other evolutionary biologist will tell you quite freely that they don't know how life originated, that they're fascinated by the problem, that lots of people are working on it, and that it is somewhat over the boundary of what constitutes a biological question. He talks about it every time he speaks, not least I'm sure because someone always brings it up thinking it's the ultimate gotcha question.

Interestingly, in their Reddit AMA the other day, both Dawkins and Krauss -- somewhat less authoritatively in the latter case, at least in terms of formal specialty -- expressed optimism that the problem of the origin of life will be solved in their lifetime.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:35 PM on July 10


Sorry for this: "Seriously, have you read Dawkins, other than in pull-quotes of negative reviews?" That was a bit rude of me, and your link indicates at least the answer is technically yes.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:38 PM on July 10 [1 favorite]


Have you decided to not be vaccinated because of poor understanding of the origins of life?

I guess I should have made clear that I was still talking about the big questions. No one would dispute that even a science founded on faulty premises can perform helpful work. And in your example we expressly find the reward of dwelling on operation rather than on origination.

Biology? Please tell me what they are.

The Bible puts forward the idea that reality is composed of forms (Hebrew sabaoth, Greek dynameis), each of which is a full and complete expression of the infinite and eternal. This doctrine corresponds exactly to Plato’s doctrine of forms, Spinoza’s doctrine of attributes, and German philosophy’s doctrine of Gattungen (genera). This is the foundation of all science. As Feuerbach puts it in The Essence of Christianity, "Science is consciousness of the genera."

Unlike most revealed religions, where the final truth has already been completely spoken, science assumes we're not done.

I’m afraid I must try your patience with one more quotation from Waton:
All human knowledge started with the abstract, the absolute, the infinite, the remote and the ultimate, and only slowly proceeded to the concrete, the proximate, the relative and the limited. Mankind started out with religious beliefs, then proceeded to metaphysical contemplations, then to philosophic speculations, finally to scientific investigations. At first, mankind concerned themselves about God, the universe, the soul, the beginning and end of things, and the purpose of existence; then they began to concern themselves about the material world, the stars, the earth, the land and water, the laws and processes of nature; and, finally, they began to concern themselves about man himself. Mankind started with God and ended with man; man was the last concern of man himself. Mankind plunged into religious problems, before they sought to solve the real problems of life; they speculated about metaphysical realities, before they sought to understand the physical realities; they studied the horoscopic relations of the constellations to man, before they directed their gaze heavenward for the purposes of astronomy; they concerned themselves about the psychology of God, before they took up the study of the psychology of man. And so it was in all other directions. For thousands of years mankind spent their best intellectual and spiritual endeavors to solve religious, metaphysical, philosophic and political problems, at the same time neglecting their material needs of life. Economics and human psychology have just begun.— A Program for the Jews, an answer to all anti-semites, a program for humanity

We are in fact essentially "done" with the abstract. Now that we have proceeded to the importance of the concrete, we must bear in mind that we do so on the basis of the abstract.
posted by No Robots at 1:41 PM on July 10


Dawkins and every other evolutionary biologist will tell you quite freely that they don't know how life originated

My quarrel is with the doctrine of descent. My own view is that each distinct life form has to be understood as originating independently from protoplasm, not as descended from another life-form.
posted by No Robots at 1:44 PM on July 10


I just don't think the difficulty is evidence that they are false.

What would such evidence look like? Outside of logic/mathematics, you can't prove that something is false. Given the total lack of evidence supporting these religious ideas, why would any sensible person believe them?
posted by Dumsnill at 1:50 PM on July 10 [1 favorite]


Some less intellectually lazy atheism:

Lloyd and Mary Morain. Humanism as the Next Step. Washington DC: Humanist Press, 2007. [pdf]
We ourselves must take responsibility for making the world a better place in which to live, as there is no being or power...to whom we can shift this task. We have the means to improve the world through effective use of our human abilities.
Corliss Lamont. The Philosophy of Humanism. Amherst: Humanist Press, 1997. [pdf]
A Humanist civilization will contain many different and contradictory currents of thought, including non-Humanist and anti-Humanist tendencies.
Frances Wright D'Arusmont. Course of Popular Lectures. New York: Free Enquirer, 1829.
I look round doubtless upon men of many faiths, upon Calvinists, Unitarians, Methodists, Baptists, Catholics, and I know not what beside, and yet, my friends, let us call ourselves by what names we will, are we not creatures occupying the same earth, and sharing the same nature? And can we not consider these as members of one family, apart from all our speculations respecting worlds, and existences, and states of being....
posted by audi alteram partem at 2:03 PM on July 10


> The Bible puts forward the idea that reality is composed of forms ... This doctrine corresponds exactly to Plato’s doctrine of forms, .. This is the foundation of all science.

That's interesting, No Robots. I'm only an amateur do-er of philosophy, but I've thought about this before and firmly disagree with it. I just don't believe the ideals exist. I understand that humans like to think about them, and they can be useful to our thinking and reasoning. My favorite example is taking the two-dimensional flat plane and adding a circle of ideal points at infinity, which is where parallel lines intersect. This makes the statement "any two distinct lines intersect at exactly one point" true without qualification. But the utility and beauty of these ideal points does not guarantee their existence. (I know it's ballsy to just assert that Plato was wrong, because he was a great thinker, but I guess I am.)
posted by benito.strauss at 2:04 PM on July 10


My own view is that each distinct life form has to be understood as originating independently from protoplasm, not as descended from another life-form.

Well, that's a fun requirement, and I can sort of guess where it comes from. Just out of curiosity which protoplasm is this? Where did it come from? Is it lying around on the ground? Can you define what you mean by "distinct" in terms of recognized classifications, e.g. genera, species, phylum or even kingdom? Was it a single protoplasm for all "distinct" life forms? Protoplasm is the body mass of a cell -- exclusive, I think, of the nucleus -- and includes many subcellular structures including organelles, which include mitochondria, which have their own DNA, all of which differs anywhere from a little to a whole heck of a lot between different organisms.

Or are you talking about an undifferentiated liquid which lacks these things and asking biologists how it acquires them, along with a cell wall and a nucleus containing the DNA of the specific, um, life-form? Because the only response you're likely to get is going to begin "wait, back up, whaaaaaaa....?"
posted by George_Spiggott at 2:05 PM on July 10


Baraminology?
posted by benito.strauss at 2:08 PM on July 10


He must advance his own programme, provide answers to the big questions. What, for example, is life? This is something that our current crop of prominent atheists do not want to do

What on earth

There is no need to answer "what is life?", not sure why you think an atheist would need to. It is entirely possible to deal with ethics when you start from a position of "here we are, let's deal with that" and not answer the "why?" of it. Questions about what life is? Yes, an atheist would probably tell you they don't know, and that neither do you, because no you fucking don't. We all get to choose what life is to us. The question of life is totally unimportant.
posted by Hoopo at 2:10 PM on July 10 [4 favorites]


My own view is that each distinct life form has to be understood as originating independently from protoplasm, not as descended from another life-form

"Has to", how? Or rather, why do you feel that this would be the case? Genuinely curious about your outlook on this question, which is an idiosyncracy I've never encountered before!
posted by Greg Nog at 2:23 PM on July 10 [1 favorite]


That person was not joking?
posted by Dumsnill at 2:24 PM on July 10 [2 favorites]


I think "the doctrine of descent" is kind of the giveaway here. Calling evolution by natural selection a "doctrine" -- one presumes, of the religion "Darwinism" -- is the flipside of "creation science": first dress up your religious dogma in pseudoscientific drag, then pretend the actual scientific field you don't like is simply a competing religion. It's basically false equivalence on steroids.
posted by George_Spiggott at 2:29 PM on July 10 [3 favorites]


Once again, here is Waton:
Things in the world are classified into orders, genera and species. Science tells us that the orders, genera and species are not realities, they are only mental concepts; they are aggregates of individuals. The individuals themselves are only forms of energy. What, then, distinguishes one order from another order, one genus from another genus, or one species from another species? And it is so in all cases. Science reduces all things to forms of energy. If we reduce all things to one universal energy, then we thereby destroy the world of realities. And so, instead of creating a world of realities, science destroyed the world of realities.--A true monistic philosophy, v. 1, p 82
What this means is that science must re-establish the realities (aka forms, attributes, Gattungen) as relative scientific fictions, useful aids in conducting practical scientific activity. As Brunner puts it:
It goes without saying that the concepts "genus" and "species" are in flux, considered from another point of interest than our actual one. Every species may be divided into subspecies, whereat the species becomes the genus, each subspecies becomes a genus again when divided into sub-sub-species for which then the subspecies constitutes the genus; and so without end, according to the marks of differentiation under consideration,-so that there cannot be said to exist either the lowest species, or the lowest genus, genus infimum.--The Attributes
So, science has destroyed the idea of the forms as absolutes. This is the achievement of the theory of evolution. Now biology, to truly become all that it must be, must restore the forms as relative absolutes. By understanding the different life-forms as full and complete expressions of the infinite and eternal, we can begin to provide sound management to the biosphere.
posted by No Robots at 2:30 PM on July 10


We are in fact essentially "done" with the abstract. Now that we have proceeded to the importance of the concrete, we must bear in mind that we do so on the basis of the abstract.

We are indeed almost done with the abstract. Because we have discovered something very important. Unless you check your facts every single step of the way the outcomes will be almost worthless. I have already mentioned Russell's proof that if 1+1=1 then he was the Pope. To that I would add the "highlights" of 1960s "Modernist" architecture, built on rationalist abstract principles and that proved almost unfit for human habitation.

Mathematics has born wondrous fruit because it traces back to exactly what the axioms are, so tells us when we can use it. On the other hand since Godel we've known that in any field of studly large enough to include arithmetic there are statements that are true but for which the truth values are unknowable. (In mathematics the answer to an unknowable question is to split the study and work out what happens if you assume it's true and what if it's false).

So. Between Godel and Russell we have proved, right from first principles:
1: If we allow one single false statement to slip in to a system of abstract reasoning we can prove literally anything
2: In any system of logical reasoning big enough to encompass arithmetic there will be statements whose truth value we can not know.

Combine the two and we discover that any abstract theory that claims to have the answers must have made guesses or be unable to cope with arithmetic. And one single guess being wrong is enough to collapse any abstract system like a house of cards.

Damn right we're done with the abstract for philosophy! The single most fruitful and honest (possibly the only fruitful and honest) branch of abstract philosophy has shown the entire approach to be a dead end.
posted by Francis at 2:32 PM on July 10 [3 favorites]


All philosophy and all religion comes down to very simple arithmetic:

Hear, Israel: Being is our god, Being is one.

posted by No Robots at 2:35 PM on July 10


Well, after all this, I must say that I hold my atheism to be somewhat... not lazy.
posted by No Robots at 2:40 PM on July 10


I feel cheated. It's like being offered a personality quiz and finding out they just want to sell you an E-meter.
posted by benito.strauss at 2:40 PM on July 10 [5 favorites]


I feel cheated. It's like being offered a personality quiz and finding out they just want to sell you an E-meter.

This is normal. As Brunner puts it:
The truly interesting thing is not the spirit, but rather the world. Is it not so? There is nothing at all to the spirit. One can say nothing about it: if you want to speak about it, you have only a single word—: One!—And that's it. The spirit thus is boring, no? Only the world is interesting; that is, varied and multi-hued and complicated and very exciting. And it is also mysterious; where does it come from, and where do all its individual things come from? But also in the whole: how does it actually come to pass that the world is in the world? It is all in essence entirely obscure—in spite of all science. We can find so much within it, and where would we be without it?! But finally all is nevertheless a mystery; the entire relative world is pure mystery. Only the absolute spirit has not the slightest mystery. The absolute is entirely clear. It is precisely that, the Absolute, that is: it is without all relations and therefore—simply boring.--quoted in Philosophie und Judentum (my translation)
So, go out and explore the world, looking for how spirit expresses itself in each distinct thing.
posted by No Robots at 2:47 PM on July 10


"The real problem for him and those like him, though, and this is the point I was making through Waton, lies in the reigning paradigm of biology. Because it cannot address the question of life, it cannot adequately address any other question. If Dawkins were truly rigorous, he would recognize the need to revise his biology to make it compatible with Biblical insight."

What? This is nonsense. You've failed to define your terms ("question of life"), then asserted that rigorousness of science would require conforming to an ancient metaphorical fiction. This is no real problem for Dawkins et al., but rather a problem for the religious in making their myths square with what we do know about science.

"The Bible puts forward the idea that reality is composed of forms (Hebrew sabaoth, Greek dynameis), each of which is a full and complete expression of the infinite and eternal. This doctrine corresponds exactly to Plato’s doctrine of forms, Spinoza’s doctrine of attributes, and German philosophy’s doctrine of Gattungen (genera). This is the foundation of all science. As Feuerbach puts it in The Essence of Christianity, "Science is consciousness of the genera.""

Platonic forms are nonsense too, and thus 1) correspondence with them proves nothing, and 2) science is not, in fact, based on the idea of Platonic forms in any meaningful way. Not only that, but a close reading of Plato versus Biblical forms should reveal that they do no correspond exactly — this was the subject of considerable wrangling in the Neo-Platonist era of the early church.

My quarrel is with the doctrine of descent. My own view is that each distinct life form has to be understood as originating independently from protoplasm, not as descended from another life-form."

This is nonsense based on personal intuition and doesn't track with modern biology.

"Things in the world are classified into orders, genera and species. Science tells us that the orders, genera and species are not realities, they are only mental concepts; they are aggregates of individuals. The individuals themselves are only forms of energy. What, then, distinguishes one order from another order, one genus from another genus, or one species from another species? And it is so in all cases. Science reduces all things to forms of energy. If we reduce all things to one universal energy, then we thereby destroy the world of realities. And so, instead of creating a world of realities, science destroyed the world of realities."

This is sophistry from Watton. "I love you" and "Die in a fire" are both words, but that doesn't mean that distinctions between them are not meaningful. His reductions are either incoherent or dishonest.

"It goes without saying that the concepts "genus" and "species" are in flux, considered from another point of interest than our actual one. Every species may be divided into subspecies, whereat the species becomes the genus, each subspecies becomes a genus again when divided into sub-sub-species for which then the subspecies constitutes the genus; and so without end, according to the marks of differentiation under consideration,-so that there cannot be said to exist either the lowest species, or the lowest genus, genus infimum.--The Attributes"

OH NOES XENO HAS DISPROVED MOTION!

"So, science has destroyed the idea of the forms as absolutes. This is the achievement of the theory of evolution. Now biology, to truly become all that it must be, must restore the forms as relative absolutes. By understanding the different life-forms as full and complete expressions of the infinite and eternal, we can begin to provide sound management to the biosphere."

This is woo-woo nonsense that is ignorant of biological classifications (let alone cladistics) and it really makes me wish that KirkJobSludder was still here.
posted by klangklangston at 2:49 PM on July 10 [13 favorites]


"So, go out and explore the world, looking for how spirit expresses itself in each distinct thing."

Or ignore the spirit entirely, as a nonsense ingredient meant to make cupcakes seem profound and eternal.
posted by klangklangston at 2:50 PM on July 10 [1 favorite]


^Well, then let's see which approach brings the greater success.
posted by No Robots at 2:54 PM on July 10


Because it cannot address the question of life, it cannot adequately address any other question. If Dawkins were truly rigorous, he would recognize the need to revise his biology to make it compatible with Biblical insight. This might not even be so radical a change. Perhaps it would require no more than saying that we don't know how the life forms originate, but for the purposes of biology we only need to understand how they operate.

Well, to put on the microbiologist hat for a second, biology doesn't address any other question because it doesn't need to. Biology is the study of living organisms and their environment. Period, end of discussion. Attempting to stretch that to any question outside of that domain, is rather like saying that we're all ethically obligated to gorge until we reach an ideal maximum weight because of gravity, or hop around a lot in imitation of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.

Evolutionary biology is quite comfortable with saying "we don't know" WRT both the specific origins of individual species and the question of abiogenesis. In fact, "we don't know" is a rather sexy phrase in biology because it's closely followed by "I have an idea for a research study to address that question, oh mighty grant committee."

From what little I know about theistic philosophy of science, I don't think it's a concession that's necessarily needed by that side either. Theology very much like Math exists independently of Science in those views, so if a clever organic chemist or geologist were to produce a primitive nucleic acid ecosystem arising from simple organic molecules, that's just the nature of those divinely ordained Forms to do so.

My quarrel is with the doctrine of descent. My own view is that each distinct life form has to be understood as originating independently from protoplasm, not as descended from another life-form.

That really needs clarification. The current model of the tree of life in which all living organisms are derived from three families of primordial microorganisms is supported by more, different lines of evidence than heliocentrism. I'll point out that heliocentrism has never been directly observed either, only inferred from piecemeal observations, with many minor objects observed for a fraction of their orbital periods. That everything orbits (chaotically over long time spans) around a center of mass located within the physical boundaries of a central star is a theoretical abstraction that's pretty much beyond question at this point in history. The broad implications of the evolutionary tree of life should be as well, with overwhelming evidence from more diverse observational methods in support of it.

This is aside from the problem that to the extent that we can identify anything approximating ideal forms (The Standard Model), they're inherently motile and relational. This is more a problem for people taking Greek metaphysics a bit too literally than it is for religion in general or for the sciences. Both can work with the idea that a dog is phenominologically a dog. The former can also work with the view that a dog is God, a god, and home to a multitude of gods, since the gods are mysterious in that way. This nicely cuts through the Xeno's paradox of classification you're trying to invoke. That and the fact that biologists are very explicit and specific in describing their sample populations and inferences beyond those populations are done with reasonable caution.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 2:55 PM on July 10 [1 favorite]


So, go out and explore the world, looking for how spirit expresses itself in each distinct thing

This is the mystical-silly version of the last Calvin & Hobbes strip.
posted by Dumsnill at 2:56 PM on July 10 [1 favorite]


Note that Brunner and Watton's idea of infinitely divisible species doesn't reflect even their biological contemporaries, much less the current scientific revolution where quantitative genetics has a fair bit to say about how we classify populations. But it doesn't strike me as an objection that's unique to biology. One could say that history is meaningless because nations can be divided into regions, regions into counties, counties into cities, cities into neighborhoods, neighborhoods into workplaces, workplaces into people, people into cells, ....

In fact, Brunner and Watton are incoherent by their own argument. Criticizing taxonomic classification requires reifying it as a category. Either it's a Platonic form, or it's a constructed convention. If it's a platonic form, then their criticism has no point. If it's a constructed convention, then their own arguments suffer from the same problem of infinite regress.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 3:32 PM on July 10 [1 favorite]


In short, we shall have to treat species in the same manner as those naturalists treat genera, who admit that genera are merely artificial combinations made for convenience.--The Origin of species / Charles Darwin
Brunner and Waton are agreeing with Darwin, and then going a step further to say that these artificial combinations made for convenience are the basis of science, and that they can only be fully explored on the basis of the philosophy of forms/attributes/Gattungen. In other words, we recognize that they are artificial, but we also take them as real. This is done in the same way with the idea of the indivisible particle.
posted by No Robots at 3:42 PM on July 10


"^Well, then let's see which approach brings the greater success."

Success at what? Cupcakes are delicious without believing that it's because of an underlying one-ness of spirit.
posted by klangklangston at 3:49 PM on July 10 [1 favorite]


Yes, the way we choose to categorize things is artificial, and it could not be otherwise. Obvious and banal blabber.
posted by Dumsnill at 3:50 PM on July 10


"Brunner and Waton are agreeing with Darwin, and then going a step further to say that these artificial combinations made for convenience are the basis of science, and that they can only be fully explored on the basis of the philosophy of forms/attributes/Gattungen. In other words, we recognize that they are artificial, but we also take them as real. This is done in the same way with the idea of the indivisible particle."

Brunner and Waton don't know what they're talking about. Artificial combinations made for convenience are not the basis of science, and the philosophy of forms has been a dead end for over 100 years. You are confused with regard to the usage of "real," and I'm still not sure what this has to do with indivisible particles.
posted by klangklangston at 3:55 PM on July 10 [1 favorite]


Egad, taxonomy is a social construct!
posted by George_Spiggott at 4:19 PM on July 10 [1 favorite]


All philosophy and all religion comes down to very simple arithmetic:

Hear, Israel: Being is our god, Being is one.

Cool. I guess we should follow up on this discussion when you've read past Parmenides in your History of Philosophy text?
posted by murphy slaw at 4:29 PM on July 10 [4 favorites]


Since Waton’s time, atheists have maintained their silence on the question of life. Without a positive programme of their own regarding the big questions, is it any wonder that their critique is shallow and unconvincing?

Biology has actually answered "the question of life," or, fairer to say, it has dissolved the question.

For a long time people assumed that living things had some essential basic property in common that was not shared by non-living things. This idea -- vitalism -- was a going concern even among scientists into the 19th century. For example, it was long believed that organic compounds could only be produced by life, and so couldn't be synthesized from inorganic ingredients. This particular prediction was refuted by the synthesis of urea in 1828.

Some form of vitalism feels intuitive to a lot of people -- there seems to be something basically special about life. This may be traceable to the ecological importance of distinguishing living from dead prey -- a live animal may be a meal while a dead one is poison. Who knows.

But biologists, chemists, and physicists all looked and looked, until it became obvious that the vitalist research program was a dead end. There was no élan vital to be found. When we look very closely at the workings of biological organisms, what we find is matter, obeying the same laws it obeys elsewhere. The ingenious arrangements of matter in life do not need to be explained by any life force; they are explained by natural selection.

Vitalism was a very natural and popular prejudice, but on exhaustive examination it turned out to be just a prejudice, and it has been cast aside.

The sciences today take a thoroughly reductionist view of what life is -- living things are elaborate machines that have been tuned for their ecological functions by natural selection. (Yes, this is particularly bald language and some biologists might object -- but I think it expresses the substance of the current consensus.)

This is why there doesn't need to be any "philosophical" debate over whether viruses are alive, say. There's no real answer; it depends on what you mean by "alive."

All of this might sound like an accession to the charge that biology (and / or atheism) has not tried to answer the question of life. That is because the question of life turned out to be ill-posed -- scientists kept trying to answer it until, with growth in knowledge, they realized it wasn't a meaningful question at all. This is one of the forms scientific progress takes -- a question that seemed to be at the heart of a research program is revealed over time to have been a non-question. There are many other examples, a famous one being the question of the inertia of the luminiferous aether.

Biologists are not just "assuming" that the question of life has no answer. Rather, through decades of experiment and debate, they built up solid evidence that there is no there there. You are trying to suggest that scientists have ignored this pressing question, but what in fact happened is that they investigated and discredited it.

Finally, I think the argument in the Waton quotation is in rather poor taste. It calls Herbert Spencer an "Aryan" and suggests that his views on "the question of life" constituted a prelude to Nazism. In fact, Spencer's views on this question (as on many) were rather forward-thinking, and the view attributed to him is (as I have argued) broadly the same as the modern scientific consensus. I feel like you have quietly "Godwinned" the thread by bringing this in, and are reinforcing the prejudice that "atheism" is responsible for the totalitarian crimes of the 20th century. Perhaps Waton can be excused for this, writing in 1939 against the urgent Nazi threat, but today it comes off as ignorant and offensive.
posted by grobstein at 4:40 PM on July 10 [13 favorites]


TLDR: 1) the "question of life" was debunked, not ignored, 2) it's not polite to compare your intellectual opponents to Nazis.
posted by grobstein at 4:41 PM on July 10 [1 favorite]


Well, let's set aside the fact that even in Brunner and Waton's time, biologists did not treat Darwin's Origin as gospel. That's a statement that's pulled badly out of context of a passage where Darwin does give a method for defining species in the preceding paragraph:
Systematists will have only to decide (not that this will be easy) whether any form be sufficiently constant and distinct from other forms, to be capable of definition; and if definable, whether the differences be sufficiently important to deserve a specific name.
And then in the following paragraph:
The terms used by naturalists, of affinity, relationship, community of type, paternity, morphology, adaptive characters, rudimentary and aborted organs, etc., will cease to be metaphorical and will have a plain signification. (emphasis added)


In fact, the entire passage, in context, critiques the notion that diverse phenotypes within a population can be considered a "species" so to speak. Immediately preceding the quote:
Hereafter we shall be compelled to acknowledge that the only distinction between species and well-marked varieties is, that the latter are known, or believed to be connected at the present day by intermediate gradations, whereas species were formerly thus connected. Hence, without rejecting the consideration of the present existence of intermediate gradations between any two forms, we shall be led to weigh more carefully and to value higher the actual amount of difference between them. (emphasis added)
Darwin quite explicitly isn't saying that species are genera divisible into species again, he's saying that species should be distinguished "in the same manner" as genera in the Victorian era: by differences that are "sufficiently important" and not "intermediate graduations." To translate that as "Every species may be divided into subspecies, whereat the species becomes the genus,..." is a ridiculous misunderstanding at best.

All of which becomes moot shortly after WWII when the grand synthesis made it possible to better characterize within-species variance. And utterly irrelevant after the development of computational cladistics and automated molecular biology. That said, taxonomy does involve a fair quantity of arbitrary thresholds for anatomical, metabolic, behavioral, and genetic differences. However most of those disputes have been lateral rather than vertical. If you're going to critique the social construction of categories in science, that's where you need to look. Or the construction of "plutinos." Posing an infinite regression of categories for a finite number of objects is absurd.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 5:30 PM on July 10 [3 favorites]


The actual argument is that morality seems to be more than a mere opinion (more even than the opinion of a god). And the only way for that kind of moral realism to be true seems to involve the same kind of metaphysics that implies God also exists and that the two are interdependent.

If morality is "more even than the opinion of a god" then it is true regardless of the existence of a God (i.e., we exist in an inherently moral universe). So it remains the case that God is irrelevant to the question of the origin of moral beliefs.
posted by yoink at 6:18 PM on July 10


The Bible puts forward the idea that reality is composed of forms ... each of which is a full and complete expression of the infinite and eternal.

Everyone else seems to have this issue covered from the biology side, so let me ask, from the Bible side: Where exactly does the Bible put forward this idea? If anything, scripture is constantly eschewing the abstract for the real, the physical, the bodily and instantiated. I don't think it goes too far to say that most of the Bible has no tolerance for forms and ideals, infinites and eternals. Dilute scripture with Plato and you get Aquinas and his fellows, attributing various omni- prefixes to God until he is a shapeless cloud of being; in the Bible, he is the sort of person you can't even look at without catching on fire. He schemes with Satan; he grows jealous and merciful by turns; he destroys his chosen people again and again. Even the poetry of the Bible cannot rest on form, cannot bear to contemplate the abstract; it is always turning to emotion, to loyalty and despair, to the physical, the dried potsherd of a tongue, the counting of one's own bones.

Even in the New Testament, even in the gospel of John, where we might expect to see more philosophy and less flesh, and a place where the eternal is tolerated, we can only have a few sentences of that abstraction of logos before we hit the overwhelming need of the author to get the story started, to talk about the things that matter, the people, what they said and did.

We don't start with abstractions and work our way out. We always start with what's in front of us. All of our knowledge is based on this.
posted by mittens at 6:34 PM on July 10 [7 favorites]


If morality is "more even than the opinion of a god" then it is true regardless of the existence of a God (i.e., we exist in an inherently moral universe). So it remains the case that God is irrelevant to the question of the origin of moral beliefs.

I think good is more than the opinion of a god, but not more than God. I think they're inextricably connected. In part I think this is because the most coherent description of morality involves teleology (that it involves talking about purposes), which seems to imply that good exists and is expressed in the actions of a God who creates and gives purpose which is good because God is good.

At a slightly less philosophical level, if you come to believe that Good must have an objective, metaphysical existence, then the existence of other metaphysical entities like God seems a lot more plausible.
posted by straight at 7:15 PM on July 10


None of which matter because,

1. Platonic metaphysics can be interpreted in any number of ways including ways that are largely silent when it comes to evolutionary biology.

2. Evolution still isn't a theory of moral value, virtue, the "good life," ethics, politics, economics, human behavior (evolutionary psychologists are neither), theology, meaning, phenomenology, literary criticism, or aesthetics. It's a theory about genes, populations, and environment.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 7:23 PM on July 10 [2 favorites]


At a slightly less philosophical level, if you come to believe that Good must have an objective, metaphysical existence, then the existence of other metaphysical entities like God seems a lot more plausible.

Why?
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:49 AM on July 12


Just that one reason for doubting the existence of God would be general doubts about whether any metaphysical entities exist. Sort of like if we found evidence of life on Mars we might reconsider whether some other ambiguous findings might also be signs of life.
posted by straight at 11:50 PM on July 12


I finally had a chance to read the Atran piece linked above, and it is remarkable. It really throws it all into a new light--the idea of these folk knowledge categories, and how breaking one category makes a belief memorable, but breaking too many just involves chaos that can't reproduce and survive.
posted by mittens at 7:25 AM on July 13


> Just that one reason for doubting the existence of God would be general doubts about whether any metaphysical entities exist.

Metaphysical entities is a pretty big category, about as big as "physical entities". So this is like arguing "I think unicorns exist. I mean, cheese exists, right? That supports the existence of unicorns".
posted by benito.strauss at 9:20 AM on July 13 [1 favorite]


I'm not aware of anyone who doubts the existence of cheese, unicorns, and all other physical entities (if there were, the existence of cheese would be relevant to that particular objection to the existence of unicorns), but there are certainly people who doubt that any metaphysical entities really exist.
posted by straight at 12:45 PM on July 13


That's because metaphysical entities that actually exist are physical entities. You don't disprove metaphysical entities, you prove them to be physical.
posted by Etrigan at 2:21 PM on July 13


That's because metaphysical entities that actually exist are physical entities. You don't disprove metaphysical entities, you prove them to be physical.

That's presuming a lot about reality and unreality, isn't it?
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:18 PM on July 13


> ... if there were, the existence of cheese would be relevant to that particular objection to the existence of unicorns.

Your proposed form of reasoning has the existence of cheese making the existence of unicorns "seem(s) a lot more plausible". I think that's a critique of your reasoning, not a point in its favor.

(Though honestly, I think you are already fairly certain that God exists, and should any form of reasoning run contrary to that belief you will reject the reasoning, not your belief. That's fine, though it's not my preferred style of argument.)
posted by benito.strauss at 11:03 PM on July 13


I guess we should follow up on this discussion when you've read past Parmenides in your History of Philosophy text?

It seems to still stimulate productive thinking:
If one were to substitute the word “Being” for “Lord” throughout the Bible, this would make for some startlingly fresh translations. Just to mention one, the central Jewish creed, the Shema, which is often translated as “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one,” (Deut. 6:1) would now read as, “Hear O Israel, Being is our God, Being is one.” In other words, rather than religion being the impetus for divisions between people and inciting hostilities among them based upon differences, this creed emphasizes the unity, not only among and between peoples, but with the entirety of creation.— "Richard Dawkins: Vox Populi" / Jason Giannetti. In Journal of Liberal Religion, v.8 no. 1, v.8 no. 1.
---
“Hear O Israel” --“Listen, my fellow-Jews!” “Being is our God; Being is one!”…. The only value of monotheism is to make you realize that all being, including every creature – and that means the rock and the blade of grass in your garden as well as your pet lizard and your human neighbor next door – are all one in origin. You come from the same place. You were created in the same great act of love. God takes delight in each form that emerges and bestows God’s own grace upon it. Therefore – and this is the “payoff” line, the only one that really counts: Treat them that way! They are all God’s creatures; they exist only because of the divine presence, the same divine presence that makes you exist. This realization calls upon you to get to know them! Get to love them! Discover the unique divine gift within each of them! Live in amazement at the divine light strewn throughout the world. That’s what it means to be a religious human being.— "A Theology of empathy" / Arthur Green.
Any atheist can affirm the spiritual unity of reality. Atheism that does not address this affirmation fails to engage with the essence of religious sensibility.
posted by No Robots at 9:05 AM on July 14


That's not the "essence" of religious sensibility; that's just the take that you and some other people have settled on. That's a No True Scotsman thing there.
posted by Greg Nog at 11:20 AM on July 14 [1 favorite]


Any atheist can affirm the spiritual unity of reality.

Unless they don't see the term spiritual as relevant to their worldview

There are people on all sides, theist and atheist, who are deeply invested in framing discussions in such ways as to make voicing of conflicting assumptions, let alone disagreement, difficult if not impossible. There are also people who try, with varying degrees of success, to understand the positions of others as they make them, to not focus on the extreme, crassest voice, and to explain where and why they disagree. Atheists don't need to affirm spirituality to engage in conversation with their theist fellows just as I wouldn't expect a theist to affirm naturalism to engage fairly with me in conversation.

Spencer chastises atheists for not engaging certain relevant lines of theist argument, but then he and his group also fail to engage certain relevant lines of atheist argument. Not that they have to. Frank Luntz has shown us that framing can certainly be effective if not conducive to inclusive, substantive dialogue. But then Spencer's effect is something other than the kind of erudite, nuanced engagement of ideas he and Robbins ask of atheists.
posted by audi alteram partem at 11:22 AM on July 14 [1 favorite]


"That's because metaphysical entities that actually exist are physical entities. You don't disprove metaphysical entities, you prove them to be physical."

"Metaphysical entity" is a term that should be defined clearly, especially in skeptical discussions. Like, I'm not sure I'd consider a Platonic form or Hegelian telos an entity, though I might think of a Hegelian spirit as one.

But those aren't disproven by proving them physical; they're disproven by pointing out incoherence. And I'd also point out that historically in philosophy, the end of metaphysics hasn't meant the end of mysticism or dubious non-material contentions. I mean, Heidegger basically said that metaphysics was dead, and then delved into a phenomenology based on the "epoche" of Husserl, which is essentially a magic wand for consciousness.
posted by klangklangston at 12:05 PM on July 14


Here, is Parmenides:
Thought and Being are the same.
Hegel echoes this affirmation:
The task of philosophy is summed up in taking as its object the unity of thought and Being, which is the fundamental idea of philosophy generally; and in comprehending it, that is, in grasping the inmost necessity of the concept.— Hegel / Lectures on the History of Philosophy (German original)
In contrast, here is Dawkins ("The Riddle of consciousness"):
Question: Is there a certain brain capacity necessary for the development of consciousness?

Richard Dawkins: Oh, nobody knows, because we don't know which animals are conscious. We don't actually, technically, even know that any other human being is conscious. We just each of us know that we ourselves are conscious. We infer on pretty good grounds that other people are conscious, and it's the same sort of grounds that lead us to infer that probably chimpanzees are conscious and probably dogs are conscious. But when we come to something like earthworms and snails, it's anybody's guess.
The real division in human thinking is between those who hold that thought is a property of all things, and those who hold that thought is a property of only a few things.
posted by No Robots at 12:08 PM on July 14


The real division in human thinking is between those who think that entire fields of inquiry can be simplified down to a simple dualism, those who don't, and those who don't care.
posted by murphy slaw at 12:13 PM on July 14 [6 favorites]


The real division in human thinking is between those who think that entire fields of inquiry can be simplified down to a simple dualism, those who don't, and those who don't care.

My whole point has been to show that atheism and Christianity are not necessarily mutually antagonistic.
posted by No Robots at 12:18 PM on July 14


But you seem to be doing this by asserting that Christianity is something other than many Christians following the Nicene Creed would identify as Christian.

Merely stating that pantheism is a possible (if sophisticated) reading of the Bible does not make pantheism a fundamental Christian doctrine.
posted by murphy slaw at 12:25 PM on July 14


If one were to substitute the word “Being” for “Lord” throughout the Bible, this would make for some startlingly fresh translations.

This makes no sense to me. If in translation you substitute a word that isn't what is meant by the original, for one that's as close as reasonably possible to what's meant...well, you no longer have a translation at all. You're just making stuff up, then.

Which may be valid in a very loose sense--religion is, if nothing else, ruthlessly pragmatic about that "what's meant" part, as it evolves to stay mentally useful--but it seems like a wholly inorganic substitution, arising more from a limited philosophical agenda than from what the religious community is thinking.
posted by mittens at 12:25 PM on July 14 [1 favorite]


This makes no sense to me. If in translation you substitute a word that isn't what is meant by the original, for one that's as close as reasonably possible to what's meant...well, you no longer have a translation at all. You're just making stuff up, then.

What is being referred to here is that "LORD" in English bibles (in a version of a Hebrew scribal and Latin translation practice) is already a substitution for the tetragrammaton. What is being suggested is that rather than using the present substitution another substitution be used instead. It would translate one aspect of the "name of God" and what it is taken to refer to rather than another aspect of the "name of God" and what it is taken to refer to presently.
posted by Jahaza at 12:32 PM on July 14


My whole point has been to show that atheism and Christianity are not necessarily mutually antagonistic.

Atheism only exists in antagonism with Christianity (or whatever local religion it crops up near). Its sole function is as an alert, a warning: you are worshipping incorrectly. Now, of course individual atheists and individual Christians can coexist. But good manners don't change the fact that atheism can't exist outside of, and without being devoted to the criticism of, the idea of god.
posted by mittens at 12:33 PM on July 14


But you seem to be doing this by asserting that Christianity is something other than many Christians following the Nicene Creed would identify as Christian.

Certainly. I’m arguing from a vantage point that stands above both traditional Christianity and popular atheism. This position has a long and venerable history that both traditional Christianity and popular atheism prefer to ignore. All the same, it has real power and commands real allegiance from fine minds throughout history. Ignore it at your peril.

This makes no sense to me. If in translation you substitute a word that isn't what is meant by the original, for one that's as close as reasonably possible to what's meant...well, you no longer have a translation at all. You're just making stuff up, then.

The translation is widely accepted as valid:
Moses conceived the Deity as Being, that has always existed, does exist, and always will exist, and for this cause he calls Him by the name Jehovah, which in Hebrew signifies these three phases of existence.—Spinoza / Theological/Political Treatise
---

It is possible that in the Hebrew language, of which we have now but a slight knowledge, the Tetragrammaton, in the way it was pronounced, conveyed the meaning of "absolute existence."—Maimonides / Guide to the perplexed, p. 215.
posted by No Robots at 12:37 PM on July 14


Ignore it at your peril.

I'm not ignoring it. I just think it ain't so.
posted by murphy slaw at 12:38 PM on July 14 [1 favorite]


I just think it ain't so.

Your disbelief does not impede those who do think it so.
posted by No Robots at 12:40 PM on July 14


Sorry, that was nonproductive. I react poorly to being told I am in peril. And I'm starting to lose the thread of the argument here.

I believe that you are saying "if atheists haven't contended specifically with my specific pantheistic interpretation of scripture, then they haven't really considered the issue of religion, and they might find that their thinking is compatible with same."

And I'm saying "I have found arguments about the nature of reality that aren't based in empirical observation about the world to be profoundly unhelpful for me, and the fact that yours is more sophisticated than most does not remove it from the realm of metaphysical speculation. I have found that metaphysical speculation doesn't provide me with anything I need to live well."
posted by murphy slaw at 12:50 PM on July 14 [4 favorites]


I don't want to get too out of my depth here, but my understanding is that Spinoza is simply wrong, and is applying an idea to Moses that wouldn't have been available to him for centuries. Does he offer any historical evidence at all, that this idea of God would have been current in Moses' day? The God of Moses is particularly local, with his insistence that he is also the God of Abraham--implying that there were those who would disagree with that, who might say that this fellow Moses presented was a newcomer, an interloper, a social climber. This insistence (including that dismissive "I am who I am," a smack in the face, a "mind yer own business") seems quite distant from any insistence that this God was Being Itself.
posted by mittens at 12:55 PM on July 14


I have found arguments about the nature of reality that aren't based in empirical observation about the world to be profoundly unhelpful for me

Observation must be accompanied by reason and intuition:
The fundamental illusion in scientific empiricism is always that it uses the metaphysical categories of matter, force, as well as those of one, many, universality, and the infinite, etc., and it goes on to draw conclusions, guided by categories of this sort, presupposing and applying the forms of syllogizing in the process. It does all this without knowing that it thereby itself contains a metaphysics and is engaged in it, and that it is using those categories and their connections in a totally uncritical and unconscious manner.--Hegel / Encyclopedia of Logic. S38, remark. In Hegel Reader

Spinoza is simply wrong, and is applying an idea to Moses that wouldn't have been available to him for centuries.

The same line of thought was developed in all the major ancient cultures:
In all of the principal civilizational centers the basic process leading up to these breakthroughs was, furthermore, the same. First there was a gradual process of rationalization. This process is most apparent in Greece, where we can trace a step by step movement from Homer, for whom the gods are essentially characters in a story, superhuman perhaps, but no less individuals with distinct personalities, through Hesiod, for whom they have become personified natural forces, the natural philosophers (Thales, Anaximenes, Heraclitus) for whom anthropomorphic gods have given way to abstract natural forces (water, air, fire) fire), and finally Pythagoras and the post-Pythagorean philosophers (Xenophanes, Anaximander) who describe the first principle in mathematical terms (the Infinite, the One, etc.)…. In Israel, similarly, we see a movement from the still largely anthropomorphic 'el yahwi sabaoth yisrael, to the God revealed in Exodus 3:13ff, who tells Moses that His name is eyeh asher. Eyeh is the imperfect indicative form of the verb "to be" indicating that this God is Being itself, acting still…. In the same passage we also find the revelation of the name (YHWH), which is the causative form of the verb "to be," and points even more clearly to recognition of God as the power of Being as such….This same process of rationalization can be traced in India and China as well.--Spirituality and Dialectics / Anthony E. Mansueto and Maggie Mansueto, p. 75
I don't agree completely with the Mansuetos here, but I quote them for the pan-civilizational development of the spiritual concept of Being.
posted by No Robots at 1:07 PM on July 14


Observation must be accompanied by reason and intuition

Sure, but argument from intuition can't be convincing to someone who doesn't have the same intuitions. Even if your reasoning is flawless, if your premises are intuitive, I am not obliged to grant them to you.
posted by murphy slaw at 1:12 PM on July 14 [2 favorites]


Even if your reasoning is flawless, if your premises are intuitive, I am not obliged to grant them to you.

Sure, but reasonable discussion usually requires that we accept some aspect of the interlocutor's premise on a provisional basis at least.
posted by No Robots at 1:16 PM on July 14


I have found that metaphysical speculation doesn't provide me with anything I need to live well

Or, in other words, someone's belief that something is so doesn't impede my disbelief. Maybe that puts me in some metaphysical peril, but I've never encountered any evidence that's true.

At any event, I'm much more interested in the tangible peril of my fellow citizens infringing the rights and liberties of myself and other religious minorities.
posted by audi alteram partem at 1:18 PM on July 14 [1 favorite]


reasonable discussion usually requires that we accept some aspect of the interlocutor's premise on a provisional basis at least

... which probably eliminates "mind is in all things" as a fruitful ground for reasonable discussion with a professed materialist?

Or in fact the entire prospect of convincing an atheist of the error of their ways by appeal to scripture and metaphysics.

What I'm hearing from you is "even an atheist could accept this theological premise", and I'm standing right here and saying "Er, no. Sorry, I can't."

I'm not even saying you're wrong. I'm just saying I can't believe it.
posted by murphy slaw at 1:24 PM on July 14 [1 favorite]


Or, in other words, someone's belief that something is so doesn't impede my disbelief. Maybe that puts me in some metaphysical peril, but I've never encountered any evidence that's true.

What I meant by peril is that when we misunderstand a mindset that has real social power, we run the risk of acting in ways that work contrary to our own best interest.

At any event, I'm much more interested in the tangible peril of my fellow citizens infringing the rights and liberties of myself and other religious minorities.

Exactly. So, doesn't it make sense to understand religion in order to protect ourselves from it? And doesn't understanding involve more than just contenting ourselves with superficial analysis? Ultimately, my point is that the noxious, popular forms of religion are an apeing of the authentic spirituality of the great thinkers. Doesn't it make sense that the way to control the negative aspects of religion is to understand their positive root?
posted by No Robots at 1:25 PM on July 14


which probably eliminates "mind is in all things" as a fruitful ground for reasonable discussion with a professed materialist?

Totally. I just want to make clear that this is not the only kind of atheism.
posted by No Robots at 1:26 PM on July 14


Doesn't it make sense that the way to control the negative aspects of religion is to understand their positive root?


I'm not sure if this follows. I mean, I think that reading philosophical and religious works is worthwhile for its own sake if only to understand the historical development of human thought.

But saying that I need to read Aquinas to really understand Pat Robertson is like saying you can't understand Kim Jong Un unless you've read a lot of commentary on Das Kapital.
posted by murphy slaw at 1:29 PM on July 14


But saying that I need to read Aquinas to really understand Pat Robertson is like saying you can't understand Kim Jong Un unless you've read a lot of commentary on Das Kapital.

I have found that the best way to control religious fanatics is to quote the Bible. Likewise, the best way to control political fanatics is to quote Marx.
posted by No Robots at 1:32 PM on July 14


but reasonable discussion usually requires that we accept some aspect of the interlocutor's premise on a provisional basis at least.

Actually, according to models of leading argumentation theorists like Douglas Walton and Frans Van Eemeren, the reverse is true. Any reasonable discussion requires that interlocutors are free to reject, and obligated to explain their reasons for rejecting, any premise introduced by other interlocutors.

when we misunderstand a mindset that has real social power, we run the risk of acting in ways that work contrary to our own best interest.

I don't have to understand all the ins and outs of every mindset that has social power in order to advocate for methods of governance that protect the rights of all. I don't have to understand the mindset. I have to understand the abuse of power and its remedies. If you think understanding their mindsets will help, that's fine for you, but it is not for me (because I believe bias and imperfect understanding are inevitable and that understanding is never reciprocated by the powerful: Spencer wants me to consider carefully his theology but can't give a basic historically accurate account of atheism).

So, doesn't it make sense to understand religion in order to protect ourselves from it? And doesn't understanding involve more than just contenting ourselves with superficial analysis? Ultimately, my point is that the noxious, popular forms of religion are an apeing of the authentic spirituality of the great thinkers. Doesn't it make sense that the way to control the negative aspects of religion is to understand their positive root?

No, it doesn't make sense to me. I think we have some conflicting basic assumptions here where we could just go in circles, but my position is that we don't have to understand the content of any one group's belief in order to understand how such a group can benefit from systems of oppression and exclusion, how liberal democracy imperfectly includes all groups within a society, and how its mechanisms can be used imperfectly to keep the powerful from abusing those with less power. Better understanding of each other's worldviews can help with that, but it isn't necessary, and as I said above is to some extent impossible in theory due to inborn biases and rarely occurring in practice.
posted by audi alteram partem at 1:47 PM on July 14 [3 favorites]


My whole point has been to show that atheism and Christianity are not necessarily mutually antagonistic.

Huh? Of course they're not. Is this a case of stating the obvious in a way that obfuscates the obvious?
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 2:49 PM on July 14


but my position is that we don't have to understand the content of any one group's belief in order to understand how such a group can benefit from systems of oppression and exclusion

That's an interesting point. Is it true? Wouldn't it make sense to say that a group's beliefs, the way it justifies and explains itself, has some bearing on the types of oppression and exclusion it seeks to employ, and that it would be tough to then understand how they benefit, without understanding how they view the benefits? Or is there a limited toolbox of oppressive technologies (self-righteousness, ideological policing, attracting the already powerful into the group, whatever else) that are replicated so much, no matter what the group-beliefs are, that the beliefs add nothing more than local color?
posted by mittens at 5:43 PM on July 14 [1 favorite]


how they view the benefits?

There's definitely something to be learned, and it may even help creating persuasive arguments to use for that group. But "controlling the negative aspects of religion" does not require understanding the most nuanced form of that religion. It requires creating laws that protect the rights of all and by which all abide. No easy task as Hobby Lobby shows, but I think a worthwhile project.

One of the functions of liberal democracy is to provide a means of living together when we don't agree with our understand our contradictory comprehensive doctrines.
posted by audi alteram partem at 6:27 PM on July 14 [1 favorite]


You're asking the wrong question; we don't have to understand the vagaries of Romantic pagan revivalism to adequately fight organizations dedicated to white supremacism, but an ignorance and misframing of Islam often leads to ridiculous policy suggestions.

The details are salient to the extent that they're salient; a panentheistic or pantheistic metaphysics or mysticism may have little actual relationship to the goals and political programs of the Religious Right.

This is actually one of those weird points where we round back around to relevance: Most of the abuses of religion are fairly apparent and can be atheistically opposed (or materially opposed) without limning the crumbling edges of theological epistemology. The only time that they become salient is when lazy atheists (some of whom the FPP refers to) make the broader argument that religion itself is detrimental or a negative force in human life. At which point, the pantheists can point out that their general soft woo is both less harmful and largely unaffected by the regular arguments that atheists bring out; that the lazy atheists are in effect attacking a straw man of faith.

However, this isn't a positive argument in favor of those softer, metaphysical or pantheist beliefs; it's merely a rebuttal to the most common arguments against.

And the thing to remember is that Plato, Hegel, Maimonides, etc., they all make positive claims that proceed from supernatural assumptions in a way that the inaccessibility of faith and shifting of social norms around supernaturalism have fairly conclusively weakened. Their conclusions might be true, but not for the reasons they give.

For an almost entirely secular example of that, see Rousseau's justification of democracy through the "general will," where mutual interest leads to superior outcomes and the law expresses the desires of the people. The problem is that there's no way to discern when you're looking at a proposal of the general will and when you're looking at one of misleading self interest or corruption or whatever. It has no predictive power; it's easy to look back and see which laws were good laws (generally), but attempting to apply Rousseau's framework to an actual political project leads to the magic of "because I said it's the general will." It's an appeal to outsourced authority.

So even as Rousseau is valuable despite the dubious assumptions of the general will, or Locke is valuable despite some dubious assumptions about liberty and capitalism, the metaphysics of Plato, Spinoza, Hegel, etc. all have to be regarded as dubious and magical assertions that can be interesting ways of framing things but ultimately can't carry the weight of reasoning from them.

(The traditional rejoinder here is about the secular problem of induction, but that's rarely a good faith argument — it's more along the lines of burning the house of reason down so that both atheists and the religious are sitting outside in the dark.)
posted by klangklangston at 6:59 PM on July 14 [3 favorites]


the metaphysics of Plato, Spinoza, Hegel, etc. all have to be regarded as dubious and magical assertions that can be interesting ways of framing things but ultimately can't carry the weight of reasoning from them.
The metaphysical foundations necessary to support an adequate scientific method, the vision of a unified science entailed by such foundationist propositions, the criticism, and, partly, correction of Cartesian physical theory, original use of the mathematical tradition, anticipations of twentieth century doctrines of space and time, the application of a complex investigative method in the emerging field of scientific hermeneutics: all these features are to be discovered when we look at Spinoza in the context of the history of the sciences, from his own time to ours.--Introduction to Spinoza and the Sciences / edited by Marjorie Grene and Debra Nails, p. xviii-xix

---


And how many callow youth have not sung triumphal hymns over Spinoza's gravemound?--Schelling

---


Our science is not yet developed enough to correctly assess Spinoza's significance for scientific thinking; our science is still stuck in children's shoes.... The more science grows, the higher will rise the image of Spinoza.--Constantin Brunner / Spinoza contra Kant
posted by No Robots at 9:05 PM on July 14


While I do appreciate the irony of responding to a charge of appeal to authority with quotes from dubious authorities, you've missed the point of me noting that, "Their conclusions might be true, but not for the reasons they give."

It's time to stop thinking that one more line from Brunner will convince anyone except yourself.
posted by klangklangston at 8:38 AM on July 15 [1 favorite]


I don't know if there's anyone left in here who hasn't already seen them, but I finally got around to reading the comments by Scott Atran that mobunited linked to above, and they are amazing.

The first one is more personalities and squabbling, but the second one is utterly fascinating, with details of his cross-cultural experiments on religious belief, and really interesting theories about the nature and function of religious belief that derive from his research. If it hadn't already been posted they would deserve an FPP of their own. benito.strauss says "Check it out".
posted by benito.strauss at 3:52 PM on July 16 [1 favorite]


Oh my, I missed that "already been posted" FPP the first time around, thanks for pointing it out, benito.strauss.
posted by mittens at 4:45 PM on July 16 [1 favorite]


Well, it is seven years old, and I only discovered it when searching for "Atran" on the way to making the FPP. I guess people do read the comments way down here.
posted by benito.strauss at 5:04 PM on July 16


Your proposed form of reasoning has the existence of cheese making the existence of unicorns "seem(s) a lot more plausible". I think that's a critique of your reasoning, not a point in its favor.

Good grief. If you refuse to consider a hypothetical person who finds cheese and unicorns almost equally incredible, that analogy is completely irrelevant to the point I was making.
posted by straight at 8:27 PM on July 17


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