The End of Atheism

They say that without religion, we would not have the Sistine Chapel or Handel’s Messiah or the cathedral at Rouens. Well, without atheism Julia Sweeney would not have made Letting Go of God. After an hour of listening to Julia’s heartbreaking journey from devout catholic to accidental atheist, there is no need to read or write anything else about atheism or religion. Case closed.

This is the first video of thirteen. Everyone one of them is a masterpiece. Listen to it with your children.

Science is Weird

John Derbyshire’s cuts to the chase in his commentary on D’Souza’s new book.

To judge from the extracts — and of course, if this is the kind of thing that interests you, you should read the whole book — D’Souza seems to lean heavily on arguments of the type:

  • Science currently has no explanation for X. (In the extracts, X = moral behavior).
  • Therefore we must go to religion for explanations.

The overall schema there is contrary to an empirical style of thinking, which would prefer:

  • Science currently has no explanation for X.
  • Therefore we must press on with our investigations in hope of finding an explanation.

The empirical style is, though, a minority taste.

Quoting from his own book

The ordinary modes of human thinking are magical, religious, social, and personal. We want our wishes to come true; we want the universe to care about us; we want the approval of those around us; we want to get even with that s.o.b who insulted us at the last tribal council. For most people, wanting to know the cold truth about the world is way, way down the list.

Scientific objectivity is a freakish, unnatural, and unpopular mode of thought, restricted to small cliques whom the generality of citizens regard with dislike and mistrust. Just as religious thinking emerges naturally and effortlessly from the everyday workings of the human brain, so scientific thinking has to struggle against the grain of our mental natures.

No Conflict

There a tiny storm in my corner of the interwebs. Bob Wright wrote a book – The Evolution of God – and Jerry Coyne wrote a review trashing it. Then Coyne and Jim Manzi got into a blogs ‘n’ handbags  fight over it.

From what I can gather, the gist of the argument was that Coyne claimed that the fact of evolution debunks religion’s claim of intelligent design. Manzi said “no it doesn’t”. Coyne said “yes it does” etc before they spiralled off into a discussion of what the world ‘random’ means.

Anyway, the whole tedious debate was worth it to read the round-up in The American Scene. It turns out that the whole thing turns on whether religion is making factual claims or hermeneutical claims (yep. new one for me too).

We have to distinguish between factual and hermeneutical claims. Factual claims are claims about the nature and operation of reality: “how” things work, not “why.” Darwin’s theory, which is the basis of all modern biology, makes factual claims: that the various forms of life we observe on earth today came to be via the operation of natural selection on populations of organisms that experience random variation. The question, “does life have a purpose” or “are we put here for a reason” is not really a factual question; it’s a hermeneutical one, an interpretive one. The same factual claims could, potentially, sustain different hermeneutical claims. Scientists do, sometimes, noodle about with hermeneutical claims because they turn out to have factual claims buried in them, in which case they may be investigated scientifically. But if there are no such claims buried in them, then the questions aren’t really scientific.

So, if I understood that right, if religion makes factual claims, they can be debunked by science. But religion’s hermeneutical claims can only be debunked if they are in conflict with science’s claims.  The claim the universe is designed is a hermeneutical claim and cannot be debunked by science. Any particular claim that attempts to describe how the universe was designed is a factual claim and collides with science.

Stephen Gould coined a phrase for this.

Non-overlapping magisteria.

Because science and religion answer different questions, there can be no conflict.

He who is without sin

I don’t know why but Pat Robertson is suddenly on my TV and he and his co-host are taking it in turn to say things like:

I am sensing that one of our viewers has a torn meniscus but God says it’s gonna be fine.


The viewer with a mass in your stomach that you think might be cancerous…you just need to pray some more and God will make it right.

I don’t know what that’s about but I just got through reading a huge thread in which two communities of atheists are arguing whether Richard Dawkins is intellectually lazy because he attacks a strawman version of religion, the hypothetical adherents of which believe in a personal God who intervenes in our lives. Apparently no one believes in that kind of God any more and Dawkins should address more sophisticated conceptions of the divine.

The accommodationist atheists also say it’s rude to point out that people like Pat Robertson might not be telling the truth.

[The argument happens way down in the comments of a post claiming that the New Atheists are right-wing, foreign policy hawks. I read it so you don’t need to. ]

Go fish

Whenever I read something crazy in the Times – usually by Brooks – I bookmark it with the intention to blog my reaction. I have a whole backlog of Brooks columns to comment on and half-written posts brim full of bile.

More often though, I’ll run across someone else who did  better tear down than I could ever write.

Read Taibblog’s – more than half crazy himself – tear down of Stanley Fish’s nonsense review of Terry Eagleton’s new book. He captured both the points that annoyed me so – and then some.

First, Fish’s/Eagleton’s claim that God is not a knowable thing:


For one thing, of course, God differs from Unidentified Flying Objects or the Yeti or the Tooth Fairy in not being even a possible object of cognition… it’s not just we cannot see Him, it is as it were that our not seeing him is inherent to God Himself, which is presumably not true of the Yeti.


Got that? It’s not that we can’t see God — it’s that God is inherently unseen! Take that, atheists!

Second is the claim that science doesn’t have all the answers therefor we need religion.


Reason dismisses faith because faith lacks the certainty of knowledge.

But, reason alone has been proven to be completely inadequate to solve the problems of the world, and has proven especially feeble at providing man with the answers to his questions about the nature of existence.

Therefore, reason was wrong about faith.


The whole premise recalls Woody Allen’s famous syllogism: “Socrates is a man. All men are mortal. Therefore, all men are Socrates.”

I Don’t Believe You

Professor Fish, and the book by Terry Eagleton which he is reviewing, claims that Christians don’t believe what their most vocal critics say they believe.

When Christopher Hitchens declares that given the emergence of “the telescope and the microscope” religion “no longer offers an explanation of anything important,” Eagleton replies, “But Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It’s rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.”

Is it really true that Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything? A great deal of recent apologetics in response to atheist criticism has taken the form those atheists are missing the point. No true Christian believes in <idea>. Where <idea> is, variously,

  • a personal God
  • a God who intervenes in the world
  • biblical claims about actual events and truths about the world

I suspect that if Eagleton were correct and Christians have stopped believing what the bible says, there would be less calls for atheists to assert themselves.

But I suspect that Eagleton is wrong and, outside a handful of Christians in academia, the vast majority believe in exactly those things.

Ross v Heather has captured the market in political debate where the debators actually listen to one another and address each others points. They sometimes even agree! Gasp!

I gave up listening to atheist vs believer debates a while back as they never seem to move the argument forward in any meaningful way – there are only so many times you can hear that religion gave us the Inquisition and that morality without God is not possible. I decided to risk one more encounter because I thought the Bloggingheads format might lead to a more enlightening discussion and because I enjoy reading both Ross Douthat’s and Heather MacDonald’s writings.

I was not disappointed.

Heather MacDonald was magnificent. I wish she were getting Ross’s spot on the NYT Op-ed page. It’s great that Kristol is gone and it’s great that a non-crazy, non-partisan conservative is getting his spot – but it would be sooo much more fantastic to have smart, secular conservative who does not argue in ALL CAPS in such a prominent seat.

I have never seen such polite passion as Heather’s in a debate and she has the BEST debate winning technique – if I ever go on BlogggingHeads, I am so gonna get me one of those web cams that will hyper-zoom at the most intense moments so I can go all googley-eyed on my opponent. I don’t know how Ross was able to withstand the pressure.

Ross seemed to be on his best behavior and didn’t fling any of the wild accusations that believers usually fling at non-believers.

Heather made fantastic point after fantastic point – so many I lost track. I don’t know if she had prepared notes but her soundbites could not have been better had she rehearsed them in the mirror beforehand.

Here are a few I remember:

The sermon on the mount is not necessarily a defence of unfettered capitalism.

I don’t think many of us would want to have lived during a time when the church was at the peak of its power.

Humans are endowing Christianity with values that comes from ourselves. not from God.

If you want to posit “God” as a placeholder for ignorance of the first cause, fine, but I will not grant you the Christian version of God as loving and just.

Ross did an admirable job under the googley-eyed circumstances but didn’t quite hold his own. His best defence was to fling non sequiturs whenever Heather landed a particularly powerful shot.

Ross v Heather was worth a thousand  Hitchens v Mad Creationist debates. Bloggingheads FTW!

Don’t Break the Chain

John William Waterhouse - The MissalEver in search of new experiences, I went to church on my own for the first time ever.

Church-going folk always seem delighted to welcome non-church-going folk. That pleasing fact makes me smile down deep inside. I sat discreetly in the most out-of-the-way spot I could find and was all alone until an older lady came and sat in the same pew. You tend to stand out when you don’t know the whole stand-up/sit-down ritual and my pew companion noticed the newcomer right away and tried to make me welcome.

She went and found me a copy of the missal so I could follow along with the reading and she made sure I always found the right hymn number. She nodded knowingly when I didn’t go up to receive communion but politely excused herself so that she could. More touching still, a friend, who I know only casually and rarely, spotted me and trekked the whole length of the church to exchange peace-be-with-yous.

My favourite bit of going to church is usually the bish’s sermon. The bish at the chapel we attended in New York put on a remarkably fine performance week after week and I always enjoyed his sermons immensely. But last night’s was poor. Even the readings seemed starkly shorn of significance given how important Maundy Thursday is to the Christian calendar. But what the occasion lacked in it profundity, it made up in ceremony.

Christ Washing the Feet of the Apostles by Meister des Hausbuches, 1475I got to witness the foot-washing thing – another first for me. Perhaps because of the Judas and Mary song, I found the whole ceremony strangely intimate which, I guess, is the point. Even the unfamiliar parts of the ceremony are strangely familiar – like walking down fifth avenue for the first time and realizing you have been there a thousand times before. The only bit that seemed distinctly odd was the lap of the church that we did at the end. Not sure what that was about.

I have now been to catholic church many, many more times than I have been to the church of my childhood but the Book of Common Prayer still seems familiar and the catholic liturgy foreign. I can now predict when they will “Bring forth the Holy Condiments” or whatever is in those little bottles but I still don’t know all the call-and-response bits or when I am supposed to be standing or sitting.

Ethical dilemmas abound. How can I be true to my own beliefs without causing offence? Which parts of the ceremony signify 2000 years of tradition and which signify a sacred vow that I’d rather not take lightly?

Singing hymns? Easy! I love hymns. I love singing. I sing.

I skip the spectacles-testicles-watch-and-wallet stuff because it seems to have more meaning than I want to convey. Neither do I bow to the altar when I cross the aisle.

Sermon On The Mount - BlochThe Lord’s Prayer is trickier. It comes from a favourite passage in Matthew and transports me instantly back to assembly at Sidcup Hill Primary School but it says more than I want to say out loud in church. Not to mention that the Roman Catholic version misses out the best lines.

I would’ve liked the rest of the Clown family to come with me. Mrs Clown was going to come but changed her mind (leaving me with no money for the collection plate 🙁 )  luckily there was no collection for some reason).

The smallest Clown child loves ceremony (she made us celebrate our anniversary this year) but was doing something more important and I didn’t want to push it. Other child thinks it violates the Laws of Reason for an atheist to go to church – a not uncommon reaction, sadly.

So why did I go? Why did I suddenly choose to go yesterday? It may have been a reaction to a just published study showing an abrupt  increase in the number of non-believers – up 10% in two decades.

Europe seems to be doing a better job of transitioning from fervent belief to ceremonial deism. In Sweden, a large majority of the population is atheist but a similar number are members of the Church of Sweden. The proportions are probably not so different in England, Spain, France and Italy all nominally religious countries but far more secular than America in practice. Europeans stopped believing but continued following the traditions and teaching the mythology. That’s a good place to be.  Even myths have meaning.

In America, however, the gulf between belief and disbelief is too wide to straddle and once you cross that gulf you leave the other side behind. You either got faith or you got unbelief and there ain’t no neutral ground.

The Finding of Moses - Edwin LongIn the neutral ground of Europe, my kids would take part in nativity plays in school and sing songs of the risen Christ. Over here, if you want to expose your kids to religion, you have to hand them over to True Believers like the dudes teaching bible class at my littlest’s school; telling the story of Moses in the Bulrushes as though it were true and making it clear to them the horrible consequences of doubt. Their literal belief seems to blind them to the true meaning of their mythology.

I see myself as a tiny, weak link in a chain stretching back to the beginnings of western civilization. The chain is stretched taut in America. Five years ago, I feared the revivalist fervour flooding out of the South but, with hindsight, I now see that period as a last ditch attempt to hold back the tide of secularism. Europe has found a way to make the transition gracefully. If America does not, the chain will break.


By a pleasant coincidence Judith Warner in the Times has a This I Believe article describing a similar experience with her family’s Passover experience.

I am Jewish. But for nine years, from age 5 to 13, I attended an Episcopal school, went to chapel, sang in the choir. To this day, in good moods, my mind fills with hymns, and on a certain kind of spring day, a day that’s full of promise and hope, I see sunshine streaming in through stained glass windows, graceful specks suspended in the light over highly polished wood pews.

I would never call myself a Christian. But if you begin the Lord’s Prayer, I will join in, with feeling.

I enjoyed Judith’s story even more than I enjoyed writing my own.

Scandinavian Deism

Many people point to Scandinavia as an example of a successful, moral atheism.

Anyone who has paid attention knows that Denmark and Sweden are among the least religious nations in the world. Polls asking about belief in God, the importance of religion in people’s lives, belief in life after death or church attendance consistently bear this out.

It is also well known that in various rankings of nations by life expectancy, child welfare, literacy, schooling, economic equality, standard of living and competitiveness, Denmark and Sweden stand in the first tier.

I actually think that it’s a better example of ceremonial deism;

The many nonbelievers he interviewed, both informally and in structured, taped and transcribed sessions, were anything but antireligious, for example. They typically balked at the label ‘atheist‘. An overwhelming majority had in fact been baptized, and many had been confirmed or married in church.

That sounds a lot like the Church of England of my youth.

The interviewees affirmed a Christianity that seems to have everything to do with “holidays, songs, stories and food” but little to do with God or Creed, everything to do with rituals marking important passages in life but little to do with the religious meaning of those rituals.

Amen to that.