• July 29, 2014

The New Atheists' Narrow Worldview

The New Atheists' Narrow Worldview Photo 2

Jerry Redfern, OnAsia.com

An offering of rice is left in a “spirit house” in a Laotian town; in a mix of Buddhism and animism in Southeast Asia, local spirits are said to inhabit almost every farm, home, river, road, and large tree.

With tongues in cheeks, Rich­ard Daw­kins, Chris­to­pher Hitch­ens, Sam Har­ris, and Dan­iel Dennett are embracing their reputation as the "Four Horsemen." Lampoon­ing the anx­i­eties of evan­geli­cals, these best-sell­ing athe­ists are em­brac­ing their "dan­gerous" sta­tus and dar­ing be­liev­ers to match their for­mi­da­ble philo­soph­i­cal acu­men.

Ac­cord­ing to these sol­diers of rea­son, the time for re­li­gion is over. It clings like a bad gene rep­li­cat­ing in the pop­u­la­tion, but its use­ful­ness is played out. Sam Har­ris's most re­cent book, The Moral Land­scape (Free Press, 2010), is the lat­est in the continuing bat­tle. As an ag­nos­tic, I find much of the horse­men's cri­tiques to be healthy.

But most friends and even en­e­mies of the new athe­ism have not yet no­ticed the pro­vin­cial­ism of the cur­rent de­bate. If the horse­men left their world of books, con­fer­ences, classrooms, and com­put­ers to trav­el more in the de­vel­op­ing world for a year, they would find some un­fa­mil­iar religious arenas.

Hav­ing lived in Cam­bo­di­a and Chi­na, and trav­eled in Thai­land, Laos, Viet­nam, and Af­ri­ca, I have come to ap­pre­ci­ate how re­li­gion func­tions quite dif­fer­ent­ly in the de­vel­op­ing world—where the ma­jor­ity of be­liev­ers ac­tu­al­ly live. The Four Horse­men, their fans, and their en­e­mies all fail to fac­tor in their own pros­per­i­ty when they think a­bout the uses and a­buses of re­li­gion.

Har­ris and his colleagues think that re­li­gion is most­ly con­cerned with two jobs—explain­ing na­ture and guid­ing mo­ral­ity. Their sug­ges­tion that sci­ence does these jobs bet­ter is pret­ty con­vinc­ing. As Har­ris puts it, "I am ar­gu­ing that sci­ence can, in prin­ci­ple, help us un­der­stand what we should do and should want—and, there­fore, what oth­er people should do and should want in or­der to live the best lives pos­si­ble." I a­gree with Har­ris here and even spilled sig­nif­i­cant ink my­self, back in 2001, to show that Ste­phen Jay Gould's pop­u­lar sci­ence/re­li­gion di­plo­ma­cy of "nonoverlapping mag­is­te­ri­a" (what many call the fact/val­ue dis­tinc­tion) is in­co­her­ent. The horse­men's mis­take is not their claim that sci­ence can guide mo­ral­ity. Rather, they're wrong in imag­in­ing that the pri­ma­ry job of re­li­gion is mo­ral­ity. Like cos­mol­o­gy, eth­ics is bare­ly rel­e­vant in non-West­ern re­li­gions. It is cer­tain­ly not the main func­tion or lure of de­vo­tion­al life. Science could take over the "mo­ral­ity job" to­mor­row in the de­vel­op­ing world, and very few re­li­gious prac­ti­tioners would even no­tice.

Bud­dhism, for ex­am­ple, is a­bout find­ing a form of psy­cho­log­i­cal hap­pi­ness that goes be­yond the usu­al pur­suit of fleet­ing plea­sures. With in­tro­spec­tion and dis­ci­pline, Bud­dhism and oth­er contem­pla­tive tra­di­tions at­tempt to find a state of well-being that is out­side the usu­al game of desire ful­fill­ment. Bud­dhism aligns meta­physic­al­ly with the new athe­ism and psychologically with the hu­man­is­tic tra­di­tions. Many of the new athe­ists have rec­og­nized that Bud­dhism doesn't quite be­long with the oth­er re­li­gious tar­gets, and they re­serve a vague re­spect for its philosoph­i­cal core. I'm glad. They're right to do so. But two days in any Bud­dhist coun­try will pain­ful­ly dem­on­strate to its West­ern fans that Bud­dhism is an e­lab­o­rate, su­per­nat­u­ral, devotional re­li­gion as well.

Those who ar­gue that we must do away with all re­li­gion to set hu­man­ity on the true path gener­al­ly ac­cept some for­mu­la­tion of Marx's fa­mous argument: "Re­li­gion is the opi­ate of the masses." It is the su­per­sti­tious as­pect of re­li­gion that usu­al­ly war­rants the drug met­a­phor. But the zeal­ous at­tempt, on the part of the Khmer Rouge in Cam­bo­di­a and the Red Guard in Chi­na, to root out this "opi­ate" also root­ed out all the good stuff a­bout Bud­dhism that I've la­beled "psy­cho­log­i­cal." The at­tempt to do away with all gods or re­li­gions al­ways throws the baby out with the bath wa­ter. There is much good "med­i­cine" in Bud­dhism (just as there is much good in oth­er re­li­gions), but if the Asian Com­mu­nists found you prac­tic­ing it in the 1970s, you were as good as dead. And that form of mil­i­tant athe­ism should ring a cau­tion­ary note: Re­li­gion is not the only ide­ol­o­gy with blood on its hands.

But I'd advance a much more rad­i­cal ar­gu­ment as well. Not only should the more rational and therapeutic elements be distilled from the opi­ate of re­li­gion. But the wacky, su­per­sti­tious, cloud-cuck­oo-land forms of re­li­gion, too, should be cherished and preserved, for those forms of religion some­times do great good for our emo­tion­al lives, even when they com­pro­mise our more-rational lives.

The new de­bates a­bout the mor­al val­ue of re­li­gion as­sume mono­the­ism as a cen­tral pre­mise. Har­ris and the oth­er horse­men are wring­ing their hands pri­mar­i­ly a­bout Is­lam and Chris­tian­ity, which they think con­sti­tute our main com­bat­ants in a "zero-sum con­flict" with sci­ence. So far I've men­tioned one ma­jor al­ter­na­tive re­li­gion (nonmono­the­is­tic) by in­sert­ing Bud­dhism into the dis­cus­sion. So why not veer further from the de­vel­oped West­ern per­spec­tive and look at the less­er-de­vel­oped world and the variations of an­i­mism? It is, after all, the world's biggest religion.

An­i­mis­tic be­liefs dom­i­nate the ev­ery­day lives of South­east Asians. Lo­cal spir­its, called neak ta in Cam­bo­di­a, in­hab­it­ al­most every farm, home, riv­er, road, and large tree. The Thais usu­al­ly re­fer to these spir­its as phii, and the Bur­mese as nats. Even the short­est vis­it to this part of the world will make one fa­mil­iar with the ever-pres­ent "spir­it houses" that serve these tu­te­lary spir­its. When peo­ple build a home or open a busi­ness, for ex­am­ple, they must make of­fer­ings to the lo­cal spir­its; oth­er­wise these be­ings may cause mis­for­tune for the hu­mans. The next time you visit a Thai res­tau­rant, no­tice the spir­it house near the cash reg­is­ter or kitch­en.

The ubiq­ui­tous spir­it houses of­ten con­tain min­ia­ture carved peo­ple who act as serv­ants to the spir­its who take up res­i­dence there. The of­fer­ings can be in­cense or flow­ers or fruit or any­thing val­u­a­ble and pre­cious, but the spir­its are par­tic­u­lar­ly pleased by shot glass­es of whis­key or oth­er li­quors. The of­fer­ings are de­signed to please neak ta and phii, but also to dis­tract and pull mischie­vous spir­its into the mini-homes, there­by spar­ing the real homes from mal­a­dy and mis­fortune. The mix of an­i­mism with Bud­dhism is so com­plete in Asia that monks fre­quent­ly make offer­ings to these spir­its, and Bud­dhist pa­go­das ac­tu­al­ly have spir­it shrines built into one cor­ner. The Bud­dhist re­li­gion is built on top of this much old­er an­i­mis­tic system. An­i­mism was nev­er sup­plant­ed by mod­ern be­liefs.

The be­lief that na­ture is load­ed with in­visi­ble spir­its that live in lo­cal flo­ra, fau­na, and environmen­tal land­marks is gen­er­al­ly char­ac­ter­ized by West­ern­ers as "prim­i­tive" and high­ly irration­al. Even re­li­gious dev­o­tees of mono­the­ism in the de­vel­oped West look down their noses at an­i­mism. An­i­mism is the Rod­ney Dan­ger­field of re­li­gions. But most of the world is made up of an­i­mists. The West is naïve when it imag­ines that the ma­jor op­tions are mono­the­istic. In ac­tu­al num­bers and geo­graph­ic spread, be­lief in na­ture spir­its trounces the One-Godders. Al­most all of Af­ri­ca, South­east Asia, ru­ral Chi­na, Ti­bet, Ja­pan, ru­ral Central and South America, indig­e­nous Pa­cif­ic Islands—pret­ty much ev­ery­where ex­cept West­ern Eu­rope, the Mid­dle East, and North America—is dom­i­nat­ed by an­i­mis­tic be­liefs.

Even places where lat­er re­li­gions like Buddhism and Roman Ca­thol­i­cism en­joy for­mal rec­og­ni­tion as na­tion­al faiths, much old­er forms of animism constitute the dai­ly con­cerns and rit­u­als of the peo­ple. The well-trav­eled Charles Darwin not­ed the uni­ver­sal­i­ty of an­i­mism in The De­scent of Man, when he wrote: "I am aware that the as­sumed in­stinc­tive be­lief in God has been used by many per­sons as an ar­gu­ment for His ex­is­tence. But this is a rash ar­gu­ment, as we should thus be com­pelled to be­lieve in the existence of many cru­el and ma­lig­nant spir­its, only a lit­tle more pow­er­ful than man; for the be­lief in them is far more gen­er­al than be­lief in a be­nefi­cent De­ity."

Most West­ern­ers think that an­i­mists are just un­ed­u­cat­ed and un­sci­en­tif­ic, and that even­tu­al­ly they will "evolve" (ac­cord­ing to the­ists) toward our sci­en­tif­ic view of one God—a ra­tional God of nat­u­ral laws (who is also om­ni­scient and om­nip­o­tent). And even­tu­al­ly (ac­cord­ing to the new athe­ists) these prim­i­tives will join the march be­yond even mono­the­ism, to the im­per­son­al, secular laws of na­ture. We all pre­vi­ous­ly be­lieved that storms, floods, bad crops, and dis­eases were caused by ir­ri­tat­ed lo­cal spir­its (in­visi­ble per­sons who were an­gry with us for one rea­son or another), but now we know that weath­er and mi­crobes be­have ac­cord­ing to pre­dict­a­ble laws, with no "in­ten­tions" be­hind them. The view of na­ture as "law­ful" and "pre­dict­a­ble" has giv­en those of us in the de­vel­oped world pow­er, free­dom, choice, and self-de­ter­mi­na­tion. This pow­er is real, and I am sin­cere­ly thank­ful to ben­e­fit from den­tist­ry, cell the­o­ry, anti­bi­ot­ics, birth con­trol, and an­es­the­sia. I love sci­ence.

But here's a rad­i­cal sug­ges­tion: Con­trary to the progress-based sto­ry the West tells it­self, an­i­mis­tic ex­pla­na­tions of one's dai­ly ex­pe­ri­ence may be ev­ery bit as em­piri­cal and ra­tional as West­ern science, if we take a clos­er look at life in the de­vel­op­ing world.

Con­sid­er an­i­mism in con­text. An in­di­rect way to see the geo­graph­i­cal dis­tri­bu­tion of an­i­mism is to look at the UN's map of the Hu­man Development Index—a com­pos­ite statistic for each coun­try that con­tains data on per-cap­i­ta GDP, life ex­pec­tan­cy, and edu­ca­tion. There is a strik­ing cor­re­la­tion be­tween an­i­mism and the indexes for coun­tries designated "de­vel­op­ing" and "un­der­de­vel­oped."

An­i­mism can be de­fined as the be­lief that there are many kinds of per­sons in this world, only some of whom are hu­man. Your job, as an an­i­mist, is to pla­cate and hon­or these spir­it-persons. But it's im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that the dai­ly lives of peo­ple in the de­vel­op­ing world are not filled with the kinds of in­de­pend­ence, pre­dict­a­bil­i­ty, and free­dom that we in the de­vel­oped world en­joy. You do not often choose your spouse, your work, your num­ber of chil­dren—in fact, you don't choose much of any­thing when you are very poor and tied to the sur­viv­al of your fam­ily.

When I lived in Cam­bo­di­a, some of my col­lege stu­dents at the Bud­dhist Institute, in Phnom Penh, didn't even have homes; they slept at a hum­ble lo­cal tem­ple. I reg­u­lar­ly watched children on the streets rais­ing their lit­tle sib­lings, while their nec­es­sar­i­ly ab­sent par­ents slaved for pit­tance wages. Many of the kids, like their par­ents be­fore them, will not get for­mal edu­ca­tions. Many will not have clean drink­ing wa­ter. Many will die from sim­ple, al­most triv­i­al­ly treat­a­ble illness­es, or perhaps from land­-mi­ne ex­plo­sions. Add the myr­i­ad bar­ri­ers to op­portu­ni­ty, the om­ni­pres­ence of lo­cal cor­rup­tion, and un­pre­dict­a­ble vi­o­lent po­lit­i­cal up­heav­als.

In that world, where life is particularly ca­pri­cious and more out of individuals' con­trol than it is in the developed world, an­i­mism seems quite rea­son­a­ble. It makes more sense to say that a spite­ful spir­it is bring­ing one mis­ery, or that a be­nev­o­lent ghost is grant­ing fa­vor, than to say that seam­less neu­tral and pre­dict­a­ble laws of na­ture are un­fold­ing ac­cord­ing to some in­visi­ble log­ic. Un­less you could dem­on­strate the real ad­van­tages of an im­per­son­al, law­ful view of na­ture (e.g., by hav­ing a long-term, well-financ­ed med­i­cal fa­cil­i­ty in the vil­lage), you will nev­er have the ex­pe­ri­en­tial data to over­come an­i­mism. Our first-world claim a­bout neu­tral, pre­dict­a­ble laws will be an in­fe­ri­or caus­al the­o­ry for ex­plain­ing the cha­os of ev­ery­day third-world life. In the de­vel­op­ing world, an­i­mism lit­er­al­ly makes more sense. The new atheists, like Hitch­ens, Har­ris, Daw­kins, and Dennett have failed to no­tice that their me­chan­istic view of nature is in part a prod­uct (as well as a cause) of pros­per­i­ty and sta­bil­ity.

Is an­i­mism a mere "opi­ate," as the athe­ists ar­gue? Well, yes, but don't underestimate opi­ates. They can be high­ly in­spi­ra­tion­al and con­sol­ing. Af­ter all, a drunk­en man is usu­al­ly a lit­tle hap­pi­er than a so­ber one. In fact, to con­tin­ue the met­a­phor, op­pos­ing re­li­gion is a lot like pro­hi­bi­tion­ists' oppos­ing drink­—a rath­er cru­el pro­ject in my view. I'd glad­ly give my copies of Mao's Little Red Book, and Daw­kins's The God De­lu­sion for a six-pack of Grolsch. But if all that is too of­fen­sive, we might re­place the word "opi­ate" with "an­al­ge­sic," and my point may be more a­gree­a­ble.

Religion, even the wacky, su­per­sti­tious stuff, is an an­al­ge­sic sur­viv­al mech­a­nism and sanc­tuary in the de­vel­op­ing world. Religion pro­vides some or­der, co­her­ence, re­spite, peace, and trac­tion against the fates. Per­haps most im­por­tant­, it quells the emo­tion­al dis­tress of hu­man vulnerabil­i­ty. I'm an ag­nos­tic and a cit­i­zen of a wealthy na­tion, but when my own son was in the emer­gen­cy room with an ill­ness, I prayed spon­ta­ne­ous­ly. I'm not naïve—I don't think it did a damn thing to heal him. But when peo­ple have their backs against the wall, when they are tru­ly help­less and hope­less, then grov­el­ing and ne­go­ti­at­ing with any­thing more pow­er­ful than themselves is a very hu­man re­sponse. It is a re­sponse that will not go away, and that should not go away if it pro­vides some gen­u­ine re­lief for anx­i­ety and ag­o­ny. As Rog­er Scruton says, "The consolation of imag­i­nary things is not imag­i­nary con­so­la­tion."

Religion is not real­ly a path to mo­ral­ity, nor can it sub­sti­tute for a sci­en­tif­ic un­der­stand­ing of na­ture. Its chief vir­tue is as a "cop­ing mech­a­nism" for our trou­bles. Pow­er­less peo­ple turn to religion and find a sense of re­lief, which helps them psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly to stay afloat. Those who wish to a­bol­ish religion seek to pull away the life pre­serv­er, mis­tak­en­ly blam­ing the de­vice for the drown­ing.

I am not sim­ply re­hears­ing the adage "reason for the few, mag­ic for the many." Har­ris, in The Moral Land­scape, thinks he sees my ar­gu­ment com­ing. "Be­cause there are no easy rem­e­dies for so­cial in­equal­ity," he states, "many sci­en­tists and pub­lic in­tel­lec­tu­als also be­lieve that the great masses of hu­man­ity are best kept se­dat­ed by pi­ous de­lu­sions. Many as­sert that, while they can get along just fine with­out an imag­i­nary friend, most hu­man be­ings will al­ways need to be­lieve in God." He con­sid­ers this live-and-let-live po­si­tion to be "con­de­scend­ing" and "pes­si­mis­tic." His dis­dain is driv­en by his characterization of mono­the­ism, which he sees as di­vi­sive and ex­clu­sion­ary—a bad be­lief ob­struct­ing a good be­lief.

But un­like West­ern fundamentalism, animism is not locked in a zero-sum bat­tle with sci­ence (nor, for that mat­ter, are mod­er­ate Christianity, Judaism, and Is­lam). In­stead of be­ing ex­clu­sion­ary, an­i­mism is high­ly syncretic, adopt­ing any and all spir­i­tu­al be­liefs and prac­tices as com­ple­men­tary rath­er than compet­ing op­tions. The more the mer­ri­er is how we might char­ac­ter­ize animism's pro­mis­cu­ous atti­tude toward be­liefs and rit­u­als. There's not much con­cern for, or his­tory of, or­tho­doxy in animism, a trait that can po­ten­tial­ly ren­der it lib­er­al and tol­er­ant toward al­ter­na­tives, in­clud­ing science.

More im­por­tant­, my ar­gu­ment—that re­li­gion soothes emo­tion­al vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty—can't be "conde­scend­ing" if I'm also ap­ply­ing it to my­self. Like Sam Har­ris, I know a fair share of neu­ro­sci­ence, but that didn't al­le­vi­ate my an­guish and des­per­a­tion in the emer­gen­cy room with my son. The old saw "there are no athe­ists in fox­holes" ob­vi­ous­ly doesn't prove that there is a God. It just proves that high­ly emo­tion­al be­ings (i.e., hu­mans) are also high­ly vul­ner­a­ble be­ings. Our emotional limbic system seeks homeostasis—it tries to reset to calmer functional defaults when it's been riled up. I suspect there are aspects of religion (and art) that go straight into the limbic system and quell the adrenalin-based metabolic overdrive of stress.

So how do we dis­crim­i­nate be­tween dan­ger­ous and be­nign re­li­gions? That is the more fruit­ful ques­tion, be­cause it in­vites the oth­er world re­li­gions into the dis­cus­sion. Both the de­vel­oped and the de­vel­op­ing worlds can prof­it­ably ex­am­ine their unique be­lief sys­tems in light of larg­er hu­man val­ues. Like Har­ris et al., I a­gree that we should em­ploy the usu­al cri­te­ria of ex­pe­ri­ence to make the nec­es­sary dis­crim­i­na­tions. Re­li­gious ideas that en­cour­age de­hu­man­iza­tion, vi­o­lence, and fac­tion­al­ism should be re­formed or di­min­ished, while those that hu­man­ize, con­sole, and in­spire should be fos­tered.

In 2009, in Bra­zil, the arch­bish­op ex­com­mu­ni­cat­ed doc­tors for per­form­ing an a­bor­tion on a 9-year-old girl who had been re­peat­ed­ly raped by her step­fa­ther. The step­fa­ther had impregnated her with twins. The girl's moth­er, too, was kicked out of the church, but the rap­ist was not. That is the kind of de­hu­man­iz­ing and dog­mat­ic re­li­gion that should be elim­i­nat­ed. Cath­olics de­serve a better re­li­gion than that. But there are still as­pects of Ca­thol­i­cism that are hu­man­iz­ing, consol­ing, and in­spi­ra­tion­al. Wheth­er it is Ca­thol­i­cism, Protestantism, Is­lam, Bud­dhism, or animism, the vir­tues can be re­tained while the vices are mod­er­at­ed. In short, the re­duc­tion of human suf­fer­ing should be the stand­ard by which we meas­ure ev­ery re­li­gion.

The Four Horse­men and other new atheists are mem­bers of lib­er­al de­moc­ra­cies, and they have not ap­peared to be in­ter­est­ed in the so­cial-en­gi­neer­ing agen­das of the ear­li­er, Com­mu­nist atheists. With im­pres­sive arts of per­sua­sion, the new atheistic proponents just want to talk, de­bate, and ex­change ideas, and of course they should do so. No harm, no foul.

But Sam Har­ris's new book may be a sub­tle turn­ing point toward a more nor­ma­tive so­cial agenda. If pub­lic pol­i­cy is even­tu­al­ly ex­pect­ed to flow from athe­ism, then its pro­po­nents need to have a more nu­anced and glob­al un­der­stand­ing of re­li­gion.

Ste­phen T. Asma is a pro­fes­sor of phi­los­o­phy and a fellow of the Research Group in Mind, Science and Culture at Co­lum­bi­a College Chi­ca­go. His lat­est book is "Why I Am a Bud­dhist" (Hamp­ton Roads, 2010).

Comments

1. johnny6 - January 21, 2011 at 08:57 pm

This is a deeply problematic and very, very poorly reasoned article.

At one point Professor Asma says, "Con­trary to the progress-based sto­ry the West tells it­self, an­i­mis­tic ex­pla­na­tions of one's dai­ly ex­pe­ri­ence may be ev­ery bit as em­piri­cal and ra­tional as West­ern science, if we take a clos­er look at life in the de­vel­op­ing world."

So let me get this straight.

Professor Asma says, "An­i­mism can be de­fined as the be­lief that there are many kinds of per­sons in this world, only some of whom are hu­man. Your job, as an an­i­mist, is to pla­cate and hon­or these spir­it-persons."

So, according to that definition, Professor Asma (a professor of philosophy, no less) thinks that animism is "empirical" and "rational"?

Really?

So a belief in spirit-persons (ghosts; fantastical invisible creatures) that is based on absolutely no evidence, no rigorous method is somehow empirical and rational?

Wow.

Way to change the very definitions of empiricism and reason, Professor Asma.

Moreover, this article implies that atheists should apologize for the poor by thinking relativistically: the religions of the "developing" world are somehow different in thrust than the irrational, non-evidence based monotheistic religions of, for example, primary English-speaking countries.

But you don't have to go to South Asia to see extremely poor cultures that cling to superstition and illogic in ways that disadvantage their health and welfare.

The USA, for example, is a mostly poor country (only 1-2% holds the real wealth) with high rates of severe poverty, unemployment, homelessness, child death, and disease.

I wish Professor Asma had visited some of the section 8 housing projects or homeless shelters that I grew up in, for heaven's sake.

What made me different is that I studied. I wasn't waiting for God to fix my problems.

None of this article's convoluted, poorly reasoned thinking dismisses the fact that evidence-based science, reason, and logic trumps superstition and communal belief.

Superstition (including animism) is deeply provincial.

Superstition is about local customs that become dogmatic and hegemonic: believe in this or that because someone said so or because your clan or community says so.

Nice try, Professor.

But, in the end, religion, faith, or superstition are not empirical and not rational.

2. davidinnm - January 22, 2011 at 02:35 pm

I like Dr. Asma's article and I appreciate johnny6's response. My experience leads me to appreciate the importance of both the rational and the irrational. Surely one is not better or more important than the other.

I want rational from the folks who build the bridges I drive over and formulate the prescription drugs I take. I want irrational in matters of love, sex, dance, music and sweet sweet emotion. I wonder about the edge of reason and all the mysteries that are there and doubt that science (with all of it's wonderful accomplishements) can "solve" the mysteries of being alive and human.

3. panacea - January 23, 2011 at 10:05 pm

@johnny6: it would help if you quoted Prof. Asma in context. He said animism could be viewed as empirical and rational IF we look at it in relation to the developing world where it is predominant. He doesn't mean that we can assign classifications to spirits the way we do to insects. He means that we can predict the role and effect of animist beliefs on both a society and in indiviual responses.

There is already a significant body of literature that shows that people of faith cope with illness better than those who do not have faith. Whether you believe that God is extending His hand, or if the belief has a pyschological effect on homeostasis is irrelevant. It has a measurable effect.

4. christof - January 23, 2011 at 11:29 pm

An error that must be pointed out:

The Brazilian archbishop did not excommunicate the doctor. The doctor caused his own excommunication by performing the abortion. It's an automatic thing. Moreover, excommunication is a poorly understood issue; it's not a damnation, nor is it absolute. It's simply a declaration that such a person may not be permitted to participate in the Eucharist.

Contrarily, the person who committed rape has committed a sin of grave nature, meaning that, according to church teaching, his immortal soul is in peril. So is the doctor's soul (having committed murder, according to church teaching). And these are the real issues at hand, not the excommunication, which is an internal church issue that Prof. Asma doesn't seem to grasp.

Prof. Amsa, I respect your research and thought in this article, but you show a lack of understanding of how Catholicism really works. Please be more careful before tossing around epithets like dehumanizing. A quick browsing of Wikipedia would have taught you what excommunication really means, in which case you would be more reluctant to use the term as if it were an eternal condemnation. In the reality of Catholic doctrine, both men have sinned gravely; the church does not castigate the doctor more than the rapist, despite what you imply.

5. johnny6 - January 24, 2011 at 01:39 am

@panacea:

Nope.

With all due respect, I did not quote Professor Asma out of context.

Animism is not empirical or rational even if you somehow examine it within the context of the South Asian or other cultures to which Professor Asma refers.

The good professor is distorting the very semantics--the root meanings--of empiricism and reason, which are based on VERIFIABLE, COMPETITIVELY ASSESSED AND CHALLENGED, PEER-REVIEWED ***EVIDENCE***.

Even within their culture "spirits" cannot be empirically assessed, tested, and verified according to peer review and according to the dictates of LOGIC and REASON.

Please, if you are a scholar of any kind, stop apologizing for this kind of illogic and distortion of the most basic tenets of good science and good research.

Religion (be it Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or Animist) is NOT science; it is not empirical it is not rational; and it is not logical.

Religion may have its place in the world for many and I respect this.

But Professor Asma is making relativistic arguments that corrupt basic scholarly research that thrive on scientific, evidence-based, empirical reason and review.

6. neil_f_brown - January 24, 2011 at 01:44 am

Religion is about relationship. Religion is about more than morality. Perhaps the foxhole cliche doesn't "prove" that God exists, but the foxhole cliche most certainly cannot disprove a human's basic longing and desire for a higher power/being.

Nor do I fall into the either/or trap when dealing with science and religion. They are not mutually exclusive.

7. pertinax - January 24, 2011 at 01:48 am

Of course Animism is irrational. So is literal Monotheism and so, above all, is 'Humanism'

8. johnbeauregard - January 24, 2011 at 03:05 am

"Thou shall have no other god before me."

Every monotheistic system espouses it, and in my view, it's the source of all the trouble. There's simply no place (and no tolerance) for anyone else's belief system.

9. pertinax - January 24, 2011 at 05:00 am

johnbeauregard

Monotheism is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for intolerance and bloodshed.

The first great, tolerant multi-faith empire of which we have knowledge was run by the essentially monotheist Medes and Persians.

There were wars and massacres galore long before Monotheism developed and there would continue to be wars and massacres in the unlikely event of Monotheism disappearing.

Nor, over recent years, have Monotheisms been the only religions responsible for mayhem and bloodshed, as the rise of Hindu nationalism in India eloquently exemplifies.

I also recall that the polytheistic Shinto faith helped bring about several hundred thousand deaths in East Asia in the 1930s and 1940s, whilst, back in the twelfth century, up to 15 million Iranian Moslems were massacred by Shammanistic Mongols. Meanwhile, sincerely doubt whether the monotheistic Jews slaughtered more polytheistic Romans than the Romans slaughtered Jews.

And that's before we even start considering the records of the various secular religions of the twentieth century (e.g. Marx-Leninism and the faux Darwinism of National Socialism).

Like many of our fellow simians, we are a species prone to both inter and intra group violence and exclusiveness. Religion, monotheistic or otherwise, is one of the things that stimulates and drives these destructive urges. But so do fear, lust, greed, sadism, megalomania, narcissism and all those other warm and wonderful human traits.

But, of course, religion doesn't just act as a warrant for cruelty and violence. It also animates cultures and inspires most of the best art and music.

In addition, it providing a fulcrum for communal life, feelings of personal wholeness and togetherness, solace for the bereaved, a clear sense of ethical obligation and(for those interested in such things) an account of who we are and why we are what we are.

As Marx rightly points out, it's the "heart of a heartless world" and not to be lightly dismissed.

10. xpetzix - January 24, 2011 at 05:59 am

The information within the article is flawed. First of all, it fails to take into account that buddhism has been addressed by the "Four Horsemen". Secondly, Richard Dawkins was born in Kenya and spent his childhood there. Christopher Hitchens has been to over 60 countries throughout his career due to his journalistic work. You really can't say he needs to get out more. It seems he has been out more than the author of this article.

Third, the author's idea of empiricism is certainly not an empiricism that can be compared to the kind of empiricism employed in science. He might never have heard of the kind of error we are all prone to and that science is very aware of: The idea that correlation automatically means causation, plus a healthy dose of confirmation bias. Doing a rain dance might occassionally be followed by rain, but while it empirically seems that the dance leads to rain, it doesn't. Those familiar with the human brain even know that if the dance fails a lot of times, the false connection will still be made. This "empiricism" is not endorsed in science and claiming that "an­i­mis­tic ex­pla­na­tions of one's dai­ly ex­pe­ri­ence may be ev­ery bit as em­piri­cal and ra­tional as West­ern science, if we take a clos­er look at life in the de­vel­op­ing world" is frankly ridiculous.

On another note, what is Stephen T. Asma thinking endorsing the idea of distributing "opiates" to make people happier with a lot that he, I and other people in the Western world are partially responsible for? That *is* quite condescending. Opposed to what he wrote, not many people underestimate the power of opiates, be they of material or virtual making. The difference is that most people of rational minds do not endorse their distribution for low-grade purposes - like making poor people happy. That's the most shameful thing I've read in a long while.

Also, none of what Mr. Asma writes here is in any way new or revolutionary. Nobody argues that believing all unfairness will be redeemed and someone is looking out for you is peaceful to the mind. What people are arguing about is whether this is a good thing. Asma's answer seems to be "yes", but his argument is far from new and revolutionary. Many people have considered it and they have come to a different conclusion, namely that shutting people up by encouraging them to cling to an imaginary being or beings, while thinking our societies are too mature and developed for that same belief, is condescending.

And for a last point, I regard animalism no less "primitive" than Christianity, Islam or any kind of theology. To me, rather than "primitive", all religions are superstitious and irrational and what *is* primitive is your modern-day Catholic or Muslim pointing at less "western" religions and calling them primitive - when that same person believes in transsubstantiation, or gets worked up about blasphemic comics or about having partners of the wrong belief, or even just believes in life after death or "something supernatural" or whichever specifically modified version of superstitious belief he holds. Primitive is the inability to realize that your own belief is just as superstitious as animalism or tribalism. Atheist seem to reject all religious belief alike, and while many outspoken ones are primarily concerned with the superstitions that surround them and impact their society, I do doubt that the basic point - the silliness in believing completely irrational things - is fundamentally different across the religions.

The more detailed moral aspect of criticising "western" and "non-western" religions might be different, and surely more could be said on behalf of the impact of religions in developing countries and their abuse by western society. In deeper argumentation, one might prefer rejecting western religions for their immoral impact on society and attempt to influence politics, promote inequality and oppose certain types of freedom, while one might oppose (in Mr. Asma's case "endorse") non-western religions for their ability to pacify and silence the poor and make us feel better about watching them suffer. The basic idea of believing something because it makes you feel good in some form or fashion is true for all religions and equally rejected by atheism. So let's not claim a huge gap where there is none.

11. quantheory - January 24, 2011 at 06:10 am

There are a number of flaws in this article. First off, it lumps the Four Horsemen together, which right off the bat is misleading. Dennett, for example, is interested mostly in the origins and effects of religions, and often talks about animism in much the same way that Asma does. He suspects strongly that we'd be better off without religion, but he thinks this is something that needs to be discussed rather than assumed for ideological reasons (and he acknowledges many benefits of religion). This is quite clear in "Breaking the Spell", although a lot of that book has the unfortunate feeling of trying to tiptoe around believers' sensitivities.

Asma also seems to be a missing the point of much of the more polemic stuff. The Horsemen (and what a terrible focus; they are not the world's only active atheists) generally focus on Western monotheism because those religions do the most damage. There may be a lot of animistic sects out there, but they are not coordinated on the same level, they are not doing the same level of damage due to toxic ideology, and fewer of their members are going to pick up "The God Delusion".

Then we have more and more little problems and errors. Bringing up the cautionary tale of communism, as if anyone had ever claimed that being an atheist made you invulnerable to being part of a dangerous movement. Calling animism the world's biggest religion, which is only true if you have a strong bias about what constitutes a discrete religion. "Most of the world" is also a problematic statement; continent-counting is less informative than looking at population, and population-wise the Abrahamics have near to half the world. And why count Latin American or African countries that are primarily Christian or Muslim by population as animist regions? Do Abrahamics somehow not count if they also believe in demons or evil spirits, or retain superstitions despite changing most of their worldview?

"An­i­mis­tic ex­pla­na­tions of one's dai­ly ex­pe­ri­ence may be ev­ery bit as em­piri­cal and ra­tional as West­ern science" is a particularly bad quote. That something "makes sense" or is "common sense" or intuitive has little to do with empiricism or rationality. Science has developed a diverse toolbox of methods for determining which hypotheses are simply good-sounding bunk. Animistic religion is not like this; it basically relies on being smart enough to fool oneself into believing, not being rational enough to admit that one has no clue. Accepting ignorance (for the moment) is in fact far more rational than feigning knowledge. In a sense, science's role in discarding bad ideas is even more important than its creative role in developing new ones (since the latter is something that humans are more likely to do anyway, it's really the former which requires more discipline).

And this is really at the heart of my problem with the piece: "an­i­mism is high­ly syncretic, adopt­ing any and all spir­i­tu­al be­liefs and prac­tices as com­ple­men­tary rath­er than compet­ing op­tions" This is neither a virtue nor a vice, nor does it excuse animism from potentially having the same problems as monotheistic religions. If animism doesn't put up any organized opposition to science, or doesn't commit atrocities on a grand scale, that's merely because animism is generally not organized on a wide scale at all (I would say that polytheistic gods, by the way, are not the same as animist spirits to the degree that they are percieved as powers felt around the world). Animist cultures are still vulnerable to cult leaders, con artists, and unscrupulous or self-deluding witch doctors and mediums, all of whom promise supernatural goods that don't exist. And these people are just as capable of generating oppression, discrimination, rape, and murder on the small scale as monotheistic religious leaders do on larger scales. Not to mention the constant clashes between local traditional medicines, often tightly interwoven with animist practice, and Western medicines that actually work. How many vile false cures for AIDS do we need, whether useless and providing the false belief that one is not contagious (special herbs, purification at a shrine) or outright harmful or evil (kill the witch who made you sick, sex with a virgin)?

Religion may be comforting, but it's not the only method of procuring comfort, nor is it always good to be comforted if you have a crisis that demands urgent action! For that matter, risking needless discomfort during a crisis may be better than risking the crapshoot of good and bad ideas provided by many peoples' local religion. What strikes me as pessimistic and patronising about these ideas (though Asma seems loathe to address the objection directly) is the idea that you have to choose between not believing false things and being emotionally fulfilled. Does Asma really think that there are a lot of people out there who can only have one or the other?

Frankly, I have very little interest one way or another in the practice of quite harmless or mostly symbolic ritual. Sometimes I'm quite fascinated with the various rites and myths that form an interrelated belief system. But I think that if people believe something that's clearly wrong about the world, it's worth trying some civil persuasion to convince them otherwise (and more impassioned persuasion in the case of more dangerous beliefs). I don't see why a belief being part of a religion should have an effect on this; how wrong an idea is and how potentially harmful it is would be the same either way. It just so happens that a lot of religious ideas tend to be especially wrong or bad, because they tend to be precisely the ones which are treated as unquestioned knowledge, and there's no way of weeding out the worst ones unless you can escape this view of belief as sacred and untouchable.

12. quantheory - January 24, 2011 at 06:33 am

I have to just say one more thing about the whole communism thing. It's not exactly consistent to criticize atheists for picking only on certain bad aspects of monotheism, and then keep dragging communism into the conversation. You apparently recognize that the New Atheists would not support oppressive regimes who attempted to exterminate belief by force. So it's a bit irritating to see this bit of waffling over something that happens to be the biggest and most unfair rhetorical stick we get hit with. Atheists get blamed for the Nazis, for non-existent-gods' sake! It would be nice to see a bit of criticism that could actually stick to the present movement and not drift into the repressive communist regime stuff, as if that's necessarily related to atheists raising concerns about science and human rights and religious warfare. Despite what most conservative monotheists apparently think, we've heard more than enough rhetoric about how New Atheism is going to produce another Stalin.

13. rvbcave - January 24, 2011 at 07:02 am

There is little difference between a whack-job healing evangelist and Richard Dawkins. Both think their way is "THE ONLY" way and the militant hysteria that both preach provide each with a decent living. Basic science textbooks teach that humility is one of the traits of a true scientist and a key component of the scientific method. Dawkins is so steeped in his abstract mind narrowing theories that he can look through a keyhole with both eyes simultaneously. His rectal-cranial inversion disorder has caused him to become a "flat earther".

I have a good deal of respect for Hitchens. His mind is open and he is a true scientist indeed.

14. lemonthyme - January 24, 2011 at 07:10 am

As touched upon in the last--realy clarifying & helpful--response,
one of the many gaps jumped in the article contains the truly ugly, hate-filled versions of animism practiced in many African cultures around the world.
The sole purpose of voodoo seems to be to cause harm to anyone you dislike for any reason.
The small scale of damage is principally because the practitioners are fewer, less organized, and less powerful than the masses involved in major recognized religions; also the dissatisfactions are concrete & personal rather than philisophical.
Although the complacency of so many people in the face of the massive suffering their own religions have caused over the centuries--with no end in sight--is staggering, there is still a special brutality in knowing your victim & taking part in murder to satisfy your pride, your greed, your sexual desire; or simply to eliminate an irritant.

15. mainiac - January 24, 2011 at 07:16 am

I have enjoyed both Dawkins and Hitchens for quite some time. To get a broad view on this phenomenon: there will always be hierarchy, mystical or that projected by a military. If the need for religion is so pervasive, shouldn't science find out the biological basis for this mystical need? Where in our brains is the "God" region? Can it be removed or enchanced for a more satisfying epiphany?

16. nosacredcow - January 24, 2011 at 08:12 am

Other than some of the criticisms previously mentioned the one thing that never ceases to annoy me is when articles such as this bring up the "Khmer Rouge in Cam­bo­di­a and the Red Guard in Chi­na" as examples of atheism run amok, so to speak.

Those two totalitarian groups had nothing to do with atheism in of itself but simply were about power. They used atheism as a tool to consolidate their power and eliminate opposition just as catholicism was used around the world to similar effect. (Of course the catholic apologia will deny this)

As to the rest, as long as there are societal ills, starvation, corruption etc, those affected will always require something to get them by. Whether it be an opiate like religion or animism or opium itself. One only has to look at where all three are most prevalent in this country and it is in the poorest states and areas.

Religion feeds on poverty. Without poverty religion is unnecessary.

17. quidditas - January 24, 2011 at 09:02 am

"But when peo­ple have their backs against the wall, when they are tru­ly help­less and hope­less, then grov­el­ing and ne­go­ti­at­ing with any­thing more pow­er­ful than themselves is a very hu­man re­sponse."

Ah, the genesis of many a bad romance.

18. alandente - January 24, 2011 at 09:04 am

'If the horse­men left their world of books, con­fer­ences, classrooms, and com­put­ers to trav­el more in the de­vel­op­ing world for a year, they would find some un­fa­mil­iar religious arenas'

Yeah! Why doesn't Sam Harris get out of his ivory tower and go and do some extensive research around the World into spiritual and religious practices??

Except that's exactly what he has done for decades. Oops. Maybe check his bio next time? Oh, and Hitchins (Praise be upon him - lol, jk) has spent many years of his life in many areas of the World and has a great many interesting observations re: religious practices. Do you always like to begin your articles with error-strewn generalisations?

Comment number 4- 'excommunicated himself'. Amazing how people of faith will bend over backwards until their vertebrae fuse to defend an irrational, archaic and incredibly harmful dogma. I suppose Galileo effectively 'tortured himself' when he came up with his astronomical theories as well? Gimme a f-ing break.

19. quidditas - January 24, 2011 at 09:05 am

Not that I mean to diminish the very serious subject of human delusion.

20. alandente - January 24, 2011 at 09:15 am

"Basic science textbooks teach that humility is one of the traits of a true scientist and a key component of the scientific method. Dawkins is so steeped in his abstract mind narrowing theories that he can look through a keyhole with both eyes simultaneously. His rectal-cranial inversion disorder has caused him to become a "flat earther".

I have a good deal of respect for Hitchens. His mind is open and he is a true scientist indeed." - RB Cave
-----------
Wow, where to begin with this abundance of idiocy?

1. Basic science textbooks do not teach 'humility', they teach good, peer reviewed scientific method. Basic books like 'The Bible' teach concepts like 'humility', which is amusing as it's anything but 'humble' to claim to know the mind of God.
2. Dawkins theories are both 'abstract' and 'mind narrowing'? I find his writings incredibly cogent and easy to follow, actually. Read 'The greatest show on Earth'. Even I could understand that!
3. 'Rectal-cranial Inversion'. I bet you thought that was a really clever turn of phrase. He's an Oxford Don, a genius in his field, and an excellent educator. Who are you to suggest these things? And how does suggesting he thinks with his digestive system further your argument?
4. 'He can look through a keyhole with both eyes'. Last time I checked, everyone can look through a keyhole with both eyes. You stand about 1 metre back to accomplish this. You don't have to be an Oxford Don to do it.
5. 'blah blah flat-earther'. Nice non-sequitor to finish.

21. alandente - January 24, 2011 at 09:35 am

6. Hitchins is not, and has never been, a 'scientist'. He's a journalist, editor and professional drinker and smoker. Do you even know who we're talking about here? Do you even understand what 'science' is?

22. sbseidman - January 24, 2011 at 09:43 am

I remember a comment that Jonathan Miller made many years ago about Azande beliefs in witchcraft. According to him, the Azande had no problems believing that bacteria caused disease. This knowledge didn't resolve the question of why the bacteria came to A rather than B; this was where witchcraft came in.

23. t_rey - January 24, 2011 at 09:48 am

It seems the conversation has turned, shall we say "less than civil", rather quickly. I'll just offer some observations and leave others to bicker away (or put my comments into disrepute).
1) It's not a mistake to group the "four horsemen" together. They are, more or less, highly representative of the New Atheism, which is characterized primarily by not only believing that religion is wrong, but arguing that belief in God (or gods) is harmful to society. In this respect they tend to "cherry pick" or only select examples and thought experiments, etc., that support their assumptions. One could find a more even handed approach in previous atheistic arguments or even in (Russian Orthodox) Dostoevsky's writing.

2) This is a bit of a generalization relying moreso upon my reading of Dawkins and Hitchens (I confess I haven't read widely, heard "debates" from the other two). Yet it seems that the primary target of the New Atheism is the charcature vision of Christianity (and to some extent Islam) based upon Middle Ages reasoning. Christianity has evolved (no pun intended). We are in a modernist/post-modernist era (yes I don't think it's completely post-modern) and most religions have adapted to the changing society. Christianity has rehashed their language to speak in terms of alienation and community (whereas before they spoke of seperation/sin/hell and the Church/obligations). Islam gives many people a sense of purpose to their life that they were previously without. Like it or not, there is a renewal of religious faith in Western Society that accepts a more diverse understanding than the dichotomy often set up by the New Atheists.

Please, as you attack me or each other, let's try to have some civility as we do so (there's no need for name-calling or caustic remarks).

24. rjsax - January 24, 2011 at 10:17 am

@ christof: I agree and was thinking the same thing, that Mr. Asma has a weak understanding of Catholicism. He also defines animism too broadly. The existence of sprites, gnomes, and other spirits is very much a part of Western tradition... and not just Druids or Transylvanians! Esoteric Christianity, Theosophy, Anthroposophy, and Rosicrucianism all are Western non-animist traditions that include these beings as a part of the spiritual world around us.
Further, the so-called "formidable philosophical acumen" of the Four Horsemen has already been met by the likes of William Irwin Thompson and, even earlier, Valentin Tomberg (both under his own name and as Anonymous author of Meditations on the Tarot) and many others. If more of you out there read these two guys, you would see the comedy that the Four Horsemen and their like really are. I am surprised that I have seen no one mention either of these authors, or others, as counterweights to the shriveled fruit of these hallowed (by whom, really?)Four Horsemen.

25. interface - January 24, 2011 at 10:17 am


"The Brazilian archbishop did not excommunicate the doctor. The doctor caused his own excommunication by performing the abortion. It's an automatic thing."


There's nothing remotely automatic about a deliberate human construct such as the rules of excommunication, which have nothing to do with anything except the board rules of Catholicism. The point is that, like all organized religions, it often serves itself rather than and sometimes at the cost of true spirituality or morality.

Atheism, Catholicism, animism, agnosticism, LDS, Islam, and on and on ad infinitum: they don't really matter in themselves, because at bottom line, it's not what you believe. It's how you live it that matters. The practice or use of any of them can be good and moral, or evil and destructive.

26. alandente - January 24, 2011 at 10:20 am

t-rey, when the point being pushed is that atheists need to spend more time among those from an animist creed and that they are at fault for not doing so, then it is a mistake (a huge mistake) to group 4 such disparate individuals together, isn't it? Especially when one of them, Sam Harris, has not only spent years researching a great many different belief systems and faith systems, but also himself differs from the other 3 in that he is much more open to ideas of 'spirituality'.

It is annoying to read these constant generalisations in the media, and also in online articles, of the 'new atheists' by people who do not appear to ever go to the great inconvenience of actually listening to what they say before commenting upon them.

It is very vogueish in so-called 'liberal' circles to simply write off the new atheists as angry, unfeeling, combative meanies. For me, the important thing is whether someone argues pursuasively and coherently- not whether they go out of their way to simper niceties to everyone around them...

27. henr1055 - January 24, 2011 at 10:50 am

I think the new athiests will be an excellent voice to keep people like the Archbishop in Brazil and his handlers in the Vatican in line also the lunatic funadmentalists who have mixed religion and politics much to the detrument of our world;

28. kpidcoc - January 24, 2011 at 10:55 am

"Religious ideas that encourage dehumanization, violence, and factionalism should be reformed or diminished, while those that humanize, console, and inspire should be fostered."

I've noticed that every I'm-not-Sam-Harris essay includes at least one recommendation that we do what it is literally impossible for us to do.

29. polosail51 - January 24, 2011 at 11:03 am

"Narrowness of world view" is the common denominator of relgion, East, West and in the jungle (sorry, no exceptions).
Religions are as much inventions as automobiles and the United Nations. As mental conveniences, they are created to fill in for missing acceptable explanations.
The "received" claims of religion are too elusive and nonsensical to merit discussion in any intellectual environment.
Given advances in understanding nature, primarily in the last 400 years, relgion is left to contradict and reject the implications of explanations for phenomena, essentially, and often the explanatons themselves.
Religion makes no unique or irreplaceable contribution to morality (taken as rules for treatment of others) or ethics (taken as guides for living a healthy personal life). Greek philosophers were certainly not grounded in religion of any current meaning of the term.
This would all be of little consequence if it were not the result of religion, East, West, and jugle alike, to devalue human life. Religion makes it easier -- and often is deliberately so designed -- to contemplate the death of others and in large cases to perpetrate death. That is the fatal contribution of convictions of an afterlife, as daily taught in the world of jihad. Though not the only one; e.g., refusal of medicine or transfusions for children.
Religion is not eradicable, and not eliminable going forward. But that fact of life does not make it less regettable for its millions of victims.

30. fizmath - January 24, 2011 at 11:15 am

The author claims that the Brazilian bishop did not act humanely. Humanely according to whose definition? That of godless heathens? How can Catholics get a better religion if it is the one true religion (which is one of its doctrines)? It is not a coping mechanism but rather the path to salvation. Most discussions of the not so new atheism miss the glaring fact that they are just plain wrong. I can find an error on every 2nd page in their books.

31. sherbygirl - January 24, 2011 at 11:17 am

lemonthyme, to quote you:

The sole purpose of voodoo seems to be to cause harm to anyone you dislike for any reason.

Really? You obviously don't know anything about voodoo. First, it isn't a spiritual practice in Africa, the voodoo practice is based on African systems, adapted by slaves in the New World, particularly Haiti. Voodoo dolls are a North American creation, specifically the Creoles in and around Louisianan. And voodoo, as it is practiced in Haiti is not just about revenge, it is about spirituality and giving thanks to the gods for whatever fortune (or misfortune) that has befallen you. I recommend you read a book or two on the subject; may I suggest Voodoo: The Search for Spirit by Laënnec Hurbon as a good place to start.

I don't know much about various (and they are numerous) African systems of spirituality, but I can assure you that they are not simply torture devices wielded by the grieved.

32. victoria12 - January 24, 2011 at 11:18 am

But... there ARE atheists in foxholes.

http://www.maaf.info/

33. 11223140 - January 24, 2011 at 11:37 am

Read Philip Wylie, "The Magic Animal," (1968). Ever the iconoclast, Wylie took religion AND science to task as part of his conclusion that man, with the evolved ability to both imagine and predict his death, developed the appropriate fear of death and created the notion of an afterlife...religion...etc. These new belief systems led of course to moral systems, all completely removed from the reality of man's existence as just another animal, the voluntary fall from grace with the natural world/order. He advocated for conservation of planet resources and a sober look at why we create religion long before these things became at all fashionable.

jimeddy

34. navydad - January 24, 2011 at 11:37 am

It always fascinates me how so many people ignore the basic problem with religious belief. Some folks focus on the content of different religious belief systems and some focus on the functions of religion. The real problem with religion is epistemological.

35. ehyslopm - January 24, 2011 at 11:44 am

I wish to support the comments of navydad. Indeed, religion tells us something interesting about the psychological tendencies of some people, but, other than the fact some people have faith and might be able to describe it, it's claims are not and never can be epistemological. I'm rather surprised how many well educated people posting on this forum refuse to accept this very basic point. The ad hominem attacks on the four horsemen are also a bit befuddling since these posters would probably chastise their students for engaging in similar behavior.

36. jlfuller - January 24, 2011 at 11:50 am

Animism? Why should special consideration be given to a beleif system that is way out on the fringe? Doing so seems to me to be an attempt to give it more attention than it deserves unless its advocates are promoting it. It certainly doesn't belong in the public school system. I never took a comparative world religions class but I doubt it would be found there either.

37. ejb_123 - January 24, 2011 at 11:53 am

I spent a portion of my life as a Christian ascetic, and now I am a proud "New Atheist." As far as I am concerned, I don't need to waste my time with religion, asceticism, celibacy, mediation, fasting, prayer, dietary laws such as no meat on Fridays during Lent, or any of the other things that religious people tend to focus on. I am quite happy now, as a secular and materialistic person. If some want to see me as "narrow-minded" because I don't believe in ghosts, or gods, or angels, or karma, or because I don't routinely fast, pray, say grace before meals, or spend my weekends in solitary wilderness retreats, that's fine with me.

38. jlfuller - January 24, 2011 at 11:59 am

navydad makes a point. Religion has a place but few are willing to relegate it there. By that I mean we should examine its origins, value and function as a social phenomenon but not mandate its study. Not in the public arena anyway. I am quite willing to let Catholics, Baptists, Mormons, Jews and so forth worship as they choose but I do not want my grandchildren to be forced to believe something because others believe that way. I am a relgious man but not everyone beleives as I do and I respect that. I hope others would see it that way too.

39. tyroneslothrop - January 24, 2011 at 12:02 pm

Dear Johnny 6,

This claim is simply false:

"The good professor is distorting the very semantics--the root meanings--of empiricism and reason, which are based on VERIFIABLE, COMPETITIVELY ASSESSED AND CHALLENGED, PEER-REVIEWED ***EVIDENCE***."

If you are going to make a claim about semantics and the "root meanings" of a given lexical item, you should probably actually engage with the both the history of meaning and with contemporary uses of a given lexical item. While it may feel like "empiricism" means "verifiable, competitively assessed and challanged, peer-reviewed evidence," it in fact has a rather different set of semantic meanings, both within academic traditions and in vernacular usage. Certainly, not everything that is "empirical" is "peer-reviewed." Do not conflate one understanding of "science" with "empirical" (nor for that matter "reason").

40. willismg - January 24, 2011 at 12:05 pm

I also grew up in "the projects". But unlike some of the commenters, I have also seen real poverty as experienced in places outside of the USA. To equate the poor here in America to those in the developing world is dispicable. The poor here in the USA typically have heat in the winter, TVs, food on the table, and many other amenities thanks to various government programs. Of course, there are "homeless" folks here in the States. But for many of these people, there are programs that could help them have a life that the truly poor in the third world would give their left n*t for.

Take a look around folks.

41. radiosaturday - January 24, 2011 at 12:09 pm

The problem with both the "new atheists" and the average fundamentalist (of any stripe) has much more to do with telling people what to believe than with whether or not he or she is right or wrong. Religiously affiliated or not, that's just rude.

Also, as Professor Asma notes, "religion," or at least the most distinctive aspect thereof (imprecating some non-corporeal entity more powerful than oneself or praying) is a distinct consolation to many. It may not be rational, but how is it less rational than finding some consolation in a beautiful poem or an elegantly-structured equation?

And thanks to 23 for the Dostoevsky shout-out. Everything's better with Dostoevsky.

42. twday - January 24, 2011 at 12:10 pm

There were so many flaws in this argument that it read like a religious text. Claiming that "the old saw there are no athe­ists in fox­holes'" "proves" anything is irrational. First, there are lots of atheists in foxholes. Hell, digging a foxhole might be the ultimate atheistic act, since that person clearly doubts the protection provided by the Kahuna. I've know a few soldiers who became atheists in their foxhole. Add my father's lifelong doubt that came to him as a gunnery officer on a WWII aircraft carrier and I'd say that "old saw" was invented by people who hadn't spent much time in foxholes.

43. groland - January 24, 2011 at 12:11 pm

I was amused by the comment that Christianity has evolved into a post-modernist version that no longer reflects the caricatures presented by Dawkins or Harris. I see little evidence for this.

One can visit the creation museum of natural history in Petersburg, KY for first hand view of the evidence underlying the biblical story of creation and the age of the earth, which is estimated to be about 6000 years. The museum is not some backwoods trailer with a few religious artifacts, rather it is a multi-million dollar establishment that receives tens of thousand of visitors every year, many of them school children.

Then of course there is the post-modern Catholic church, which still excludes more than half its members from positions of authority or leadership, i.e. women. It has strong views on sexuality even though its leaders claim not to actually engage in normal sexual practices. Sex is right up there with food and survival as our most basic biological instinct. Yet the church still deems itself a moral authority when it comes to something it has no understanding about.

We do not need to engage in caricatures when it comes to organized religion in the USA. Post-modernist indeed!

44. jlfuller - January 24, 2011 at 12:12 pm

If hope I am not going too far off topic here but I think this is a salient point. (BTW, I sure miss auto-spell check on this site.) Have you ever noticed how inflamed people get over religion? Even the mention of a word like Mormon or Evangelical prompts some folks to say the most outrageous things. It is like all common sense suddenly eludes them. In some venues one can't even discuss the topic in a tangential way without someone else exploding into an irrational verbal tirade devoid of relevancy. Why is that?

45. rjsax - January 24, 2011 at 12:22 pm

The Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) once said that the main problem with Modern Man is that he dislikes living with guilt, so he changes the moral/religious landscape to make himself feel "not guilty."

Ditto with most atheists, except that instead of feeling guilt (which some do in some way, since many come from religious homes), they are subconsciously mad or have an inferiority complex that they haven't figured out the whys and hows of religious-based morality, or can't see ethical and religious morality in any way except somehow mutually exclusive. Beyond that, they mix up the human practice of religion, and its reality (Meditations on the Tarot....)

I refer again to William Irwin Thompson and Valentin Tomberg....

46. jlfuller - January 24, 2011 at 12:24 pm

willismg's point is very interesting. I am retired now but in my working life I was a case manager in a governemnt agency. As such I was on the front lines of of what can only be described as a permannt underclass by virture of what governemnt has done. Religion, when it is actively practiced, is been a rare place of safety and sanity in an otherwise physically and psychologically dangerous world. But given governemnt can't require relgious practice I was not allowed to encourage clients to attend a church of some sort. That is OK if we are talking about healthy people, but when talking about the marginalized and disaffected anything is better than gangs, pimps and drugs. Many kids are lost when a little relgion could have given them somethng to believe in. It is a discussion we should be anxiously engaged in.

47. viwap - January 24, 2011 at 12:29 pm

Professor Asma: Thanks for an interesting article. I don't know enough to analyze all your points, even though I read Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris.

I declared my atheism at the age of eleven, while living in a Catholic Latin American country. Needless to say, I had a very difficult time, especially considering that in that country, most decent education rests in what I consider the for-profit sector of Catholic organizations, with curricula that include a hefty dose of indoctrination, which I was able to resist.

My point on religions is simple: believe what you want, but let it be your private thing. No religion in politics and public education (I know, I am a dreamer).

Coexistence is possible: I married a beautiful catholic girl 20 years ago, through the Catholic ritual in a performance worthy of an Oscar. We've managed our differences fine and our kids are familiar with our worldviews since they can remember.

48. jlfuller - January 24, 2011 at 12:42 pm

willismg is my kind of person. Life for people like him/her was founded on reality not some pie-in-the-sky notions of right, wrong and the nuances of political ideas. (I am projecting a bit here.) Life for survivors of the projects or poverty in general, is about safety and meeting one's most basic needs. Discussions of Mazlow's Hierarchy of Need or whether some political right has been abrogated are dropped in favor keeping the electricity on, finding something to feed the kids and finding a job. I love people like that. I tolerate people whose political ideas are different from mine and I loath people who lie in furtherance of the "greater good".

49. eumaios - January 24, 2011 at 12:46 pm

From the article: "The ubiq­ui­tous spir­it houses of­ten con­tain min­ia­ture carved peo­ple who act as serv­ants to the spir­its who take up res­i­dence there. The of­fer­ings can be in­cense or flow­ers or fruit or any­thing val­u­a­ble and pre­cious, but the spir­its are par­tic­u­lar­ly pleased by shot glass­es of whis­key or oth­er li­quors."

Now there's a religion that makes sense. The gods might be crazy, but they're not so crazy that they dislike whiskey. They are rational beings, and probably fun at parties. And if we can get enough gods and spirits drunk enough, maybe they'll pass out and leave us alone for a while. Sure, they'll eventually wake up--but can hungover gods really be much worse than the ones we already have?

50. katisumas - January 24, 2011 at 12:53 pm

CHRISTOF, I too grew up in a Catholic country, so I sure don't need Wikepedia to tell me what excommunication is.

In Catholicism, excommunication is the worst penalty. It means being kicked out of the Church, it means you can't repent for your sins according to the prescribed ritual of confession, so you can't undo them. It means no longer being able to practice your religion, and it also means in many places (rural Brazil?) being shunned by family and friends.

The Brazilian bishop excommunicated the doctor. There was nothing automatic about it. The bishop could have stated that the doctor acted under extreme circumstances to save the little girl's life and demanded that the doctor does penance through prayers as the incestuous rapist was no doubt asked to do. On the other hand, the bishop could have excommunicated the rapist for not only rape but incest. The prohibition against incest is a Church one, so if excommunication is indeed automatic, the father would have to have been excommunicated. But he wasn't as per the bishop's choice.

Excommunication is an act church leaders have to take, it has to be proclaimed, not unlike a fatwa in Islam, except that Islam doesn't have a central "all knowing" "infallible" authority as Catholicism does, so Muslims are not bound by fatwas like ALL Catholics are by excommunications.

The mother who was protecting her 9 year old child also was excommunicated by the bishop's freely chosen action. The bishop could have said, well this mother was doing what mothers are meant to do: protect their chidren. The little girl no doubt would have died, or at least be maimed for life if she had carried the pregnancy any further (and the twins fetuses would have died anyway because they would have been born way too prematurely) .Perhaps you need a refresher in human anatomy 101? Little girls dont have the physical capacity to carry a pregnancy to term, let alone twins, and they will be maimed if they tried.

Among other things they will not be able to have children when they reach adulthood, but they'll suffer much worse injuries. This poor raped child probably got pregnant even before she had her first period. If you need more info. I suggest you check out what sorts of injuries child mothers suffers, how many of them actually survive the birth, and what happend to their bodies. An example would be fistulas, I'm sure that's in Wiki too....

And you know, it's hard not to link the bishop's choice to the evil the Church did (and still does?) by hiding the molestation of children. Could this explain why the father only had to confess and do penance (perhaps twenty Hail Marys?) but the little girl didn't matter. Actually, I wouldn't be surprised if the child was accused of having tempted her poor helpless father.

Did the father do any jail time? I don't know how the law works in Brazil,but if it's influenced by rightwing Catholics he's still out there free to rape his children and probably other people's children. Why do I seem to recall that the doctor was put in prison? What did they do to the mother? Did they take her little girl away and put her in an even worse situation? Did they actually gave her back to her father???????

No matter how much hair splitting you do, the mother and the doctor are martyrs in the old Christian sense of the word, they were martyred by a church that claims to be Christian but often and, in that particular case, is no longer that, just a bureaucracy of ignorant self indulgent in their self righteousness, dictatorial old men for whom compassion is an empty word.

But worse, oh so much worse, the Church failed its most innocent member, the child, and, you by arguing as if she didn't exist, is failing her all over again.

51. rickrusselltx - January 24, 2011 at 01:12 pm

Anybody who thinks Western societies are no longer familiar with animism needs to explain that to the kids leaving cookies and milk for Santa.

52. 22080966 - January 24, 2011 at 01:19 pm

I thought the author's attempt to link athiesm w/ genocide was a significant flaw that underminded the rest of the article. Athiesm is simply stating that there is no god. It doesn't require anything else. Killing folks because you don't like their thoughts and beliefs is not inherent to an athieistic worldview. Current athiests don't have to apologize for past acts from sociopaths anymore than do [mono or poly]thiests.

53. ellenhunt - January 24, 2011 at 01:21 pm

I like to bring up Findhorn at times like this. And ask "What is consciousness?"

Answer to both, "No clue! But I know it when I see/hear/experience it!"

In a universe in which quantum events do not take form, but remain equipotential until observed, it is possible that consciousness is a basic quality of the physics of our existence.

And we who do not know the wonders of that, can only be the wonder itself for our flashing moment in eternity.

With all of our science, we need to also remember that our science is primitive and in the context of revolutions of understanding not having yet percolated into the common mind, it is quite unreasonable of us to presume we actually know what we do not.

54. quidditas - January 24, 2011 at 01:23 pm

"But... there ARE atheists in foxholes. http://www.maaf.info/"

I'm glad you brought the military up. It seems to me the advancing waves of anti-religious sentiment relentlessly promoted in the press since 9/11, to which the "New Atheists" added "scientific" imprimatur about mid-decade, alongside our subsequent escalation into total war against the Arab middle east (I suspect we're not done yet) is in itself enough to provide just cause for the concern expressed here by Asma--that we not project irrationalism onto populations in the developing world *merely* due to the existence of what he proposes are their coping mechanisms.

Meanwhile, while there has been lots of loose talk about religion and violence, there has very little public discussion about what evidence based research suggests are the causes of religious **radicalization.** This leads me to suspect that public information and discussion on this front is not nearly so politically useful to the obscenely militarized US and its corporate contract killers as the promotion of the irrational-violent religionist meme.

I would suggest a broader skepticism is due this environment.

55. quidditas - January 24, 2011 at 01:36 pm

"I thought the author's attempt to link athiesm w/ genocide was a significant flaw that underminded the rest of the article. Athiesm is simply stating that there is no god. Killing folks because you don't like their thoughts and beliefs is not inherent to an athieistic worldview. Current athiests don't have to apologize for past acts from sociopaths anymore than do [mono or poly]thiests."

Yes, but I would suggest that some of the "New Atheists," with their eliminationist stance against the residual beliefs of the current practitioners of traditional religions are suggesting just that, and it's based in the policing of *thought* not in the policing of *actions* in the name of a more just and peaceful world, which I think we all would tend to agree we would like.

(Or maybe not).

56. dboyles - January 24, 2011 at 01:38 pm

"Pow­er­less peo­ple turn to religion and find a sense of re­lief, which helps them psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly to stay afloat."

And powerless people also overmedicate themselves with cheap goods, the very products of science and technology. Availability of cheap goods stoppers the void rather than keeping it open, mobile, fluid, a source of questioning, thinking, artistic and literary production.

Consumer goods have "anima" no less than spirit trees: we are told they impart sex appeal if we apply them to our bodies (from designer jeans to tooth bleaching pastes), assuage anxiety if we assimilate them (antidepressants, high calorie processed foods), confer status if we acquire them(shiny new cars), enliven us if we saturate ourselves with them (portable and non-portable electronic entertainment devices).

Consumerism, via products made possible through science and technology, is the new opiate of the people. As jobs go overseas, as minds go on hold...

57. droslovinia - January 24, 2011 at 02:18 pm

WHen the "New Atheists" finally realize that their worldview IS a religion (not that there is a single thing wrong with that) do you think their heads will explode or something? The human tendency to name our experiences forces us into collective worldviews for which "religion" is the best description, even when that worldview eschews other peoples' perspectives. That's why it's so much fun to sit back and watch everyone bluster whenever this subject comes up. No one wants to admit that we're all in the same boat!

58. navydad - January 24, 2011 at 02:44 pm

"WHen the "New Atheists" finally realize that their worldview IS a religion (not that there is a single thing wrong with that) do you think their heads will explode or something?

No it is not. The distinction is not between "worldviews." It is between epistemologies. Do you get the difference?

59. reality_chick - January 24, 2011 at 03:04 pm

Many who claim to be Atheists also claim to be Humanists. Their claim to be both Atheists and Humanists is inconsistent, illogical, and misleading. The Atheists who claim to be Humanists are deluding themselves, because Humanism is actually just another 'irrational religion'.

A true Atheist sees Human intelligence and Human civilization with strict objectivity -- as an accidental product of nature with no particular value -- because all existence is strictly mechanistic and all values (including Humanism) are subjective, relative, arbitrary, and temporary.

The Humanists' reverance for human intelligence and human existence as a 'special case' makes Humanism a religion, and distinct from the purely mechanistic and materialistic philosophy of Atheism.

Dawkins and his Humanist co-religionists are NOT Atheists! For the true Atheist, all values are relative, temporary, and essentially and ultimately meaningless.

Contrary to Dawkin's Humanist claim, altruism is not always the most rewarding path in life. Selfish and narcisssistic individuals have often achieved the summit of health, wealth, power, privilege, prestige, and self-satisfaction in this world.

There are many true Atheists, who, recognizing the inherent meaninglessness of life and having no respect for Humanism, for strategic purposes falsely profess Humanism as a means of achieving economic and political advantage. They provide a minimum of charity to gain a maximum of wealth. Such true Atheists have achieved mastery of the world's economies, societies, and nations.

To Dawkins et al -- if you want to be a true Atheist, you must stop being a Humanist!

60. reality_chick - January 24, 2011 at 03:16 pm

To Dawkins et al -- if you want to be a true Atheist, you must stop being a Humanist!

But as a true Atheist you may falsely profess Humanism as a means of fooling others into supporting your selfish causes!

61. notexactly - January 24, 2011 at 03:29 pm

Reality chick: "Dawkins and his Humanist co-religionists are NOT Atheists! For the true Atheist, all values are relative, temporary, and essentially and ultimately meaningless."

No. Atheism merely means you don't believe in any god. That is all. If you choose to love people or hate people, if you choose to be generous or not, has nothing whatsoever to do with whether one believes in a god.

62. amnirov - January 24, 2011 at 04:00 pm

Religion is stupid.

63. stinkcat - January 24, 2011 at 04:02 pm

Well that settles it.

64. tekton - January 24, 2011 at 04:15 pm

The discussion of the relationship between science and religion seems to get particularly muddy when one is co-opted by the other - when science is made into a religion or religion is made into "science." The former is done by the atheists who, absent a supernatural God, position man as the arbiter of truth, hence making man into god. The latter is currently done by the young-Earth creationists, proponents of intelligent design, and the like. The two realms, the physical and the spiritual, clearly have implications for one another, but they are understood in different ways.

Apropos this relationship, Jesus pointed to the miracles He did - such as literally raising the dead, giving sight to the blind, healing the crippled, and the like, as proof that he is who he says he is. Miracles, the overriding of physical laws, are verifiable and reproducible evidence of the truth claims of Jesus Christ - an expression of the rootedness of the physical realm in the spiritual realm. I have personally seen and been involved with crippled people being instantly healed, blind people receiving their sight, deaf people starting to hear well, cancers disappearing, and so on, when the message of Jesus Christ is presented and received with faith, as it is in the Bible.

65. petrifiedadjunct - January 24, 2011 at 04:25 pm

"The Four Horse­men, their fans, and their en­e­mies all fail to fac­tor in their own pros­per­i­ty when they think a­bout the uses and a­buses of re­li­gion."

NOT - that prosperity, atheists know, is created by a religion that privileges itself over all; thus, much exploitation has been committed in the name of western religion/christianity.

"'Re­li­gion is the opi­ate of the masses.' It is the su­per­sti­tious as­pect of re­li­gion that usu­al­ly war­rants the drug met­a­phor."

NO - It is the requirement of active unthinking that equates religion with opiates.

"But the zeal­ous at­tempt, on the part of the Khmer Rouge in Cam­bo­di­a and the Red Guard in Chi­na, to root out this 'opi­ate' also root­ed out all the good stuff a­bout Bud­dhism that I've la­beled 'psy­cho­log­i­cal.'"

JUST LIKE THE CRUSADES. See how similarly oppressive governments and religions are?

"There is much good "med­i­cine" in Bud­dhism (just as there is much good in oth­er re­li­gions), but if the Asian Com­mu­nists found you prac­tic­ing it in the 1970s, you were as good as dead. And that form of mil­i­tant athe­ism should ring a cau­tion­ary note: Re­li­gion is not the only ide­ol­o­gy with blood on its hands."

NO, but it's the only ideology that insists it is not and never has been advanced through brutality and violence (as it will be again). As with any despotic regime, it lies.

"Pow­er­less peo­ple turn to religion and find a sense of re­lief, which helps them psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly to stay afloat."

NO - Powerless people who turn to religion ignore their responsibility to revolt. Powerless people who turn to religion do not find relief but enslavement. Better to take two aspirin or puff on something, not surrender a necessary sense of indignation if life is unfair. It behooves the whole for each to act on reason and logic, not fantasy and placating moralizing.

"Wheth­er it is Ca­thol­i­cism, Protestantism, Is­lam, Bud­dhism, or animism, the vir­tues can be re­tained while the vices are mod­er­at­ed."

NOT - If this were possible it would have happened long ago. Religions, ALL religions, are created by men to consolidate power and exert control. There is no virtue in that. None is possible.

66. rsmulcahy - January 24, 2011 at 04:33 pm

I really like #62 and #63, refreshingly concise. The way people write on and on in these comemnts, makes me think they get paid by the word. Anyway, the total weight (in lbs, not gravitas)of your verbiage is irrelevant to any truth value. I am on the side of the agnostics, my personal empiricism (Johnny 6 can piss off) tells me that I have encountered nothing in this world that can be explained by the presence of a monotheistic god. My eyes are open and I am ready for display of evidence, but it ain't going to the Shroud of Turin or a potato chip that looks like the virgin Mary. Sorry, I am drifiting into egoistic arguments like evryone else here. Here is my point for today: I laugh at all of you for thinking you can argue your way into an understanding of nature and reality. You know nothing and will die that way as will we all. Do you think the abstract nouns "empiricism" and "rationality" have external correlates in the real world? Well, they don't, certainly not within a humanistic perspective. They only have meaning within a human-centered universe and, ironically, the human beings using the vocabularly are at their core completely non-empirical and non-rational. I don't care what you all claim you are, I know what you are not. And what you are all not is capable of saying anything definitive on this subject. So, I suggest we move on.

67. rezonabil - January 24, 2011 at 04:34 pm

To johnny6 and the rest of new atheists followers: the article is not only excellent but makes a very scientific point for indeed there are consistent psychological effects of religious meditation (see Newberg's research, Harvard's research on Buddhism, University of Toronto, so on). Thus, the phenomenal content of religious experiences cannot be denied from a empirical point of view. Your comments reflect the ideology this article rightly criticized and so the provincialism you share with Dennett, Harris, Dawkins. I guess there is nothing to make you change your mind for you essentially luck of any academic insight to the issue, propaganda is more testy for you. I would like to see the four horsemen confronting some serious philosophical and scientific minds with real expertise in the field. For the moment I see them preaching for corporate left wing agenda never responding to substantial questions..
Go home, make some serious research and come back to post comments!

68. navydad - January 24, 2011 at 04:42 pm

"Religion is stupid."

Perhaps, but most religionists are not stupid. So (here we go again) how is it that intelligent people believe stupid things?

Most of us atheists understand that religious belief and practice serve many purposes and often serve those purposes well. Most of us recognize that religious people are not all delusional fools, even if their beliefs are delusions. Most of us atheists coexist with religious folks quite well and have little interest in trying to "convert" people to atheism. We just want religionists to stop trying to impose their beliefs and practices on us, and most important, to keep religion out of our laws.

Religion is like wine. Good wine in reasonable quantities can be a nice addition to life. Bad wine, or too much good wine, will cause harm. And of course, pure alcohol is poison.

69. ejb_123 - January 24, 2011 at 05:02 pm

reality_chick wrote in post 60: "To Dawkins et al -- if you want to be a true Atheist, you must stop being a Humanist!"

If you read Dawkins's "The God Delusion" carefully, you will note that Dawkins's views are not humanistic, but biocentric. In that respect, he has a number of things in common with that other atheist, Edward Abbey (know claimed to be an "earthiest," not an "atheist"). It seems to me that atheists have a much easier time being biocentric rather than anthropocentric. Theism, particularly the Abrahamic forms (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Ba'hai), tend to be way too anthropocentric for my tastes.

70. ejb_123 - January 24, 2011 at 05:04 pm

NB: That should read, "Edward Abbey (who claimed to be an "earthiest," not an "atheist")."

71. reality_chick - January 24, 2011 at 05:10 pm

notexactly wrote: "Atheism merely means you don't believe in any god. That is all. If you choose to love people or hate people, if you choose to be generous or not, has nothing whatsoever to do with whether one believes in a god."

I disagree. Humanism means placing a special value on human beings, whose lives we value and whom we treat with respect and compassion. The Humanist has essentially deified Humanity.

Dawkins and many other Atheists espouse and endorse Humanism -- but an ethical philosophy that 'deifies' Humanity is not at all essential to Atheism. Humanism actually contradicts and negates Atheism.

For a true Atheist the only logical reason to treat others respectfully is to avoid conflict or reprisal. Anonymous altruism serves no purpose for a true Atheist, who sees no special value in humanity.

Many people profess a belief in God or a religion but fail to practice the values of Humanism, in spite of the Humanistic teachings of their professed religion.

A reverence for humanity begs the question: what quality of humanity do we reverence? Do we reverence humanity simply because we are of the human species?

Is it the intelligence of humanity that we reverence? If so, we should value the life of a chimpanzee who communicates with American Sign Language over the life of a severely retarded human being. The life of a normal, intelligent cat should be seen as more valuable than that of a comatose and brain-dead human.

Since the Atheist does not recognize the existence of an immortal or transcendant soul, the Atheist should harbor no preference for soulless humans over soulless animals.

There are two main types of Humanism -- one type simply values intelligence, and recognizes that some animals are more intelligent, and therefore more valuable, than some humans.

The other type of Humanism places a special value on humans as a species, distinct from all other species.

For the true Atheist, no moral or ethical code has any relevance. The choice of a Humanist moral or ethical code is a deviation from Atheism into an irrational, values-centered type of belief.

Morals and ethics have no place in Atheism. The only ethics a true Atheist will practice are 'situation ethics'. An Atheist who practices Humanism has abandoned Atheism and 'found religion'.



72. groland - January 24, 2011 at 05:15 pm

Humanism is a moral code of ethics not an "irrational religion" as suggested by reality-chick. It defines good and bad based on the outcomes. Good is defined as that which maximizes happiness for the most number of people. Now you do not need God for this. In fact, Frans de Waal showed quite nicely in his seminal observations of great apes, that they share most of our most treasured moral traits, including reciprocal altruism, reward and punishment, and friendship and cooperativity. I would venture to guess that Chimps do not practice organized religion, but then again I am not entirely sure. Still, the idea that you need Religion to teach or profess morality is nonsense.

73. tekton - January 24, 2011 at 05:17 pm

The science/religion discussion seems to get muddy when one co-opts the other, when science is made into religion or religion is made into "science." The "new atheists" (there's really nothing new about the ideas) engage in the former in that they make man (and his science) the final arbiter of truth, hence elevating him to the status of god; the young-Earth creationists and intelligent design proponents engage in the latter. The two realms, the spiritual and the material, clearly impact one another, but are understood in different ways.

At the same time, Jesus Christ pointed to the miracles he worked, such as raising the dead, opening eyes of the blind, restoring hearing to the deaf, and the like, as proof (verifiable, reproducible evidence) that he is who he says he is. Miracles, which involve the overriding of natural laws by the action of supernatural power, are an expression of the rootedness of the physical realm in the spiritual. I have witnessed first-hand, and participated in the working of, such miracles as the message of Jesus Christ is presented and received in faith, as in the Bible; numerous documentations of miracles exist. I have also witnessed much wishful thinking and outright fraud in connection with so-called 'faith healing', but those don't negate the real thing.

74. quantheory - January 24, 2011 at 05:27 pm

reality_chick seems to have fallen into the common trap of equating selfishness with rationality.

Many atheists do believe in objective morality, but let's do a thought experiment, and say we just throw that out the window and everyone becomes a moral nihilist. Let's pretend everyone has agreed that there is no morality, only amoral facts about the universe. That doesn't mean that people /should/ be selfish, or that they /shouldn't/ be altruistic. That "should" would imply the existence of a moral standard to adhere to! Rather, even if everyone was a nihilist, it would be neither rational nor irrational to help others, or to help oneself, or to take any action whatsoever. Rationality would only apply to beliefs about the world or about how to attain goals; the goals themselves could not be rational. Even lacking any goals at all would not be more rational! People might still help others because they felt like it, or they had an innate psychological drive to do so. People might still form societies and organizations if they wanted to, or to advance any other arbitrary goal. They could even advance humanist causes, even while acknowledging that there was no moral imperative to do so. They could even punish people for not behaving the right way, even while acknowleding that their own standards of justice were fundamentally arbitrary or without objective meaning. You might not believe that this would happen, but if it did happen it would have nothing to do with how rationally people think.

75. navydad - January 24, 2011 at 05:33 pm

"If so, we should value the life of a chimpanzee who communicates with American Sign Language over the life of a severely retarded human being."

Since there is no such thing as a chimpanzee who communicates with American Sign Language, I'm not sure what the point of your comment is.

"For a true Atheist the only logical reason to treat others respectfully is to avoid conflict or reprisal. Anonymous altruism serves no purpose for a true Atheist, who sees no special value in humanity."

And please stop setting up and knocking down your atheistic straw men.

For someone who uses "reality" in your pseudonym, you seem to be pretty far removed from reality.

76. quantheory - January 24, 2011 at 05:38 pm

"they make man (and his science) the final arbiter of truth, hence elevating him to the status of god"

What? Every person is the final arbiter of his or her own personal beliefs. That's not about atheism, it's a clear fact about the world which is true whether or not there's a god. Atheists, even the gnu atheists, don't believe that science is infallible. Many of us even think that there are a ton of things that people will never find out. Does that sound like "the status of god" to you?

I think a lot of monotheists assume that, if someone doesn't believe in God, there must be something else up there to take His place. Like once you knock God off the top of the ladder of existence, something else has to go up there to take his place. They don't seem to realize that for many of us, the ladder doesn't go up that high, or in some cases, there's not really a ladder at all. Saying "there's no higher power than humanity" doesn't necessarily mean that men are gods. It could just mean that there are no ultimate powers of any kind.

77. mfortunato - January 24, 2011 at 05:39 pm

This discussion is all over the place. Part of the problem is that there are actually two kinds of theists and agnositics, and the two kinds are often muddled in our thinking.

Two kinds of Theists: (1) Theist1 believes in a proof of existence of a supreme being or beings, (2) Theist2 believes through "faith" that the null hypothesis is that a God exists and there is no correct non-existence proof.

Two kinds of Atheists: (1) Atheist1 believes in proof of non-existence of supreme being, (2) Atheist2 believes through "faith" that the null hypothesis is that there is no God and he has not found a correct existence proof.

There is only one kind of Agnostic: he believes that there is no correct proof of existence and no correct proof of nonexistence.

Far too often, Theist and Atheists of the second type are talking around each other, as they are looking at the same evidence and seeing the same things but they cling to their opposing null hypotheses. They don't disagree about anything "out there" -- they disagree in their axioms. No progress there.

78. tyroneslothrop - January 24, 2011 at 05:45 pm

Navydad,

As a linguist, can I just thank you for stating what shoud be an obvious point--something textbooks habitually get wrong--no chimpanzee (none) has been taught American Sign Language. No chimpanzee communicates via American Sign Language. Those that make the claim that chimpanzees communicate via American Sign Language do a disservice to the complexity of American Sign Language, to the complexity of its grammatical structuring.

79. mfortunato - January 24, 2011 at 05:45 pm

Can anyone recount Asma's proof that the fact/value distinction is "incoherent"? I would like to hear it.

80. polosail51 - January 24, 2011 at 06:20 pm

tekton #73 should either submit his experiences for review in a medical laboratory context or let a qualified psychiatrist study him.

81. ralandbeck - January 24, 2011 at 06:21 pm


The 'four horsemen' may in fact be riding out into the sunset to join their religious friends. For atheism is just the opposite side of the same coin and self deception. For humanity exists within an absolute and profound ingorance of that potential called God. And attempting to fill this vacumn of unknowing is little more than institution wishful thinking. On the one side, the self deception of 'theologial truth' veiled in the trappings of tradition, which deserves to be humiliated and buried, and on the other, the pretensions of scientific materialism who are without the very honesty of the model of knowledge they proclaim, to say we don't know! They must conclude an equally unprovable assumption. They may have to learn some humility.

For what science, religion, philosophy, theology, psychology, Hawkins or Dawkins thought impossible has happened. History now has it's first fully demonstrable, Christian proof for faith. And coming from outside all existing theologies, clearly has 'tradition' in the cross hairs. To test or not to test, that is the new question?

"The first ever viable religious conception capable of leading reason, by faith, to observable consequences which can be tested and judged is now a reality. A teaching that delivers the first ever religious claim of insight into the human condition that meets the Enlightenment criteria of verifiable, direct cause and effect, evidence based truth embodied in experience. For the first time in history, however unexpected or unwelcome, the world must contend with a claim to new revealed truth, a moral wisdom not of human intellectual origin, offering access by faith, to absolute proof, an objective basis for moral principle and a fully rational and justifiable belief! " The first proof of God for faith is called The Resurrection!

So the religious my soon find the 'apocalypse' crashing down upon their own heads, But how will those who have claimed to be of an Enlightenment mind respond? For this new teaching represents the means to finally reconcile science and those higher aspirations of humanity confused with religion. Yet if they are unable to appreciate this change in the historical faith paradigm, to one that conforms precisely to an evidence based criteria subject to test, by faith and confirmation, then their own 'claim' to rationality is no more valid nor better then those theological illusions they find so abhorrent.

A unexpected revolution appears to be under way. More info at http://www.energon.org.uk

82. tekton - January 24, 2011 at 06:22 pm


Yes, everyone decides for himself what to believe; in that sense, even the Psalms say of people, "you are gods." The distinction I made is based on whether we receive truth as an external (to us) reality on God's say-so, or whether, apart from any belief in an external authority, we decide for ourselves what truth is, depending perhaps on our culture, or situation, or any of a number of factors that can change with time and place. That's the position of "man as god" that I referred to.


In practical terms, humanity abhors a vacuum - of power. If God is "removed" (by our not acknowledging his authority) from the position of power, simple observation of human interactions and history shows that people will erect something else in that place. Not necessarily an all-powerful, all-knowing Creator of the universe (he's dethroned, after all), but something that acts that way as far as we're concerned, here on the Earth. Humans are 'wired' to believe in something bigger than themselves; that faith will find an object.

83. polosail51 - January 24, 2011 at 06:22 pm

tekton #64 -- ditto

84. zankou - January 24, 2011 at 06:32 pm

What a long, rambling, incoherent essay. It boils down to a crude religious utilitarianism, except that the author can't even bring himself to define how the utilitarian calculus should be applied in the real world. The author's view thus amounts to little more than that "religions which do good things are good and those which do bad things are bad."

Thanks for that piercing insight, which is pretty much the default setting that most people have anyways.

85. arthurc - January 24, 2011 at 06:36 pm

Many thanks for this quote, which I had not encountered before:

"The consolation of imaginary things is not imaginary consolation." (Roger Scruton)

To which I'll add:

Isn't it curious that the connotation of the word "disillusioned" is negative? Shouldn't we be grateful to be disillusioned?

Well, no...

:

86. pertinax - January 24, 2011 at 07:13 pm

reality_chick

You are, to my way of thinking, half right.

You are correct in thinking that Atheism does not ipso facto mandate Humanism.

But nor is there, surely, any reason for thinking that Atheism automatically mandates Egoism.

In the assumed absence of a deity or deities, the choice between Humanism and Egoism becomes essentially arbitrary. The Egoist can claim no greater logical rigour than the Humanist and vice versa.

Nor, by the same token, is the Humanist necessarilly more logical than the religious believer, who, similalrly, makes arbitrary choices of what to believe.

This is not, of course, an argument for religion, although it might be grounds for challenging the recurrent contemporary Humanist claim to greater objectivity.

The best that the Humanist can claim is to have taken up an arbitrary ethical position that is less opposed to current knowledge than is, for example, literal belief in the Book of Genesis.

The same claim can, however, be made by both Egoists and non-fundementalist religious believers.

navydad

I agree with you that the most significant issues raised by religious belief are epistemological.

Equally, the most significant issue raised by the lack of religious belief is the consequent absence of a logically-binding theory of ethical obligation.

Perhaps this is evidence of the inherent absurdity of the human condition.

groland

There is certainly considerable evidence of altruism amongst our fellow apes. But there is also evidence of inter-pack warfare, gang rape and the eating of their young by the pack males.

Why should one form of anthropoid behaviour be normative and not another?

Interestingly, our closest relative, the chimpanzee, seems to be considerably more aggresive towards its own species than our more distant cousin, the orangatang, let alone the wolf or the elephant.

Should we deduce from this a moral duty to be as aggressive as the chimp? If not, are we denying our humanity?

Can we really deduce an 'ought' from an 'is'?

87. ginaboots - January 24, 2011 at 07:59 pm

"In short, the reduction of human suffering should be the standard by which we measure every religion."

Most religious types won't defend this article, nor will they appreciate your Buddhist-flavored defense of their beliefs. This article is really just a advertisement for Buddhism--which was never really near the line of fire for people like Dawkins.

88. davidinnm - January 24, 2011 at 10:02 pm

Regarding the bad (including the countless and atrocious) things that people do in the name of religion...if all religion disappeared from the planet, would the grand inquisitor (or fill in the blank...) become a choir-boy?

Is the problem religion or that the things that humans do in the name of whatever is available to do things in the name of?

David in NM

89. neocultural - January 24, 2011 at 10:39 pm

Once again, a scholar that employs an essentialist portrayal of Buddhism that is problematic. Scholars such as Gregory Schopen, Robert DeCaroli, Carol Anderson, Donald Lopez, John Strong have argued that "Buddhism" is more a construction of "Western," Protestant, and textual biases, rather than naturally occuring Buddhist belief and behavior. Why? Read those scholars for answers in Buddhist studies. Moreover, read Pascal Boyer "Religion Explained," D. Jason Slone "Theological Incorrectness," and William W. McCorkle Jr. "Ritualizing the Disposal of the Deceased" for arguments against the straw man of Buddhism in Religious Studies, and the reasons why intellectuals still engage in these fruitless claims.

90. denis_joe - January 24, 2011 at 10:57 pm

Asma falls for the contemporary anti-modernist approach in this article. And as such, comes over as being patronising to those in the developing world. He seems to be saying 'if we could only live like these people with their anti - materialism'. An explanation for such an approach probably lies more in the fact that there is a greater concentration of poor people in these parts of the world, rather than the 'spiritualism' of Eastern religions.

The most obnoxious aspect of this article is the acceptance of the new atheist agenda. Dawkin, Hitchens, et al portray their crusade (for that is what it is) against religion (particularly Catholicism) as a liberal approach. Nothing could be further from the truth. The new atheist display an intolerance towards people who have a religious faith, equals that of any intolerance that you could find in the history of religion.

The visit to Britain by the Pope last year became an excuse for these people to laud their superiority of the 'stupid' Catholic believers (mainly of Irish descent). Self-publicist and middle-class lawyer Geoffrey Robinson led the call for the Pope to be tried in some court on human rights over crimes against humanity. The fact that a democracy recognises the right of the individual to hold religious views and that a central tenet of liberalism is tolerance of the view of others who you disagree with.

Science is, itself, being transformed into a type of religion and Dawkins call to 'trust in the science' demands a leap of faith such as any religion.

The new atheists are the particulary nasty aspect of the contemporary elite. They happily look down their collective noses at others for holding religious views but offer nothing, beyond some vague idea of trusting in the science, to replace those beliefs.

Asma, like other new atheists are not pursuing a humanist agenda. Humaists, such as the great liberal thinker John Stuart Mill recognised that haman9ity is a group of individuals with their own world views and that intolerance of those views only leads to the rise of tyranny. In this case that tyranny takes the form of elitist moralism.

91. graylibrary - January 24, 2011 at 11:14 pm

Please, please, puh-leez!!!

92. cwinton - January 24, 2011 at 11:16 pm

Humanity is like the proverbial lemmings rushing to the sea, evidenced here by incessant arguments extolling the merits and demerits of religion and rational thought, all the while ignoring the inexorable damage from massive overpopulation made possible by science and encouraged by religion.

93. lolwut - January 25, 2011 at 12:09 am

Dennis_Joe ""crusade (for that is what it is) against religion...Science is, itself, being transformed into a type of religion and Dawkins call to 'trust in the science' demands a leap of faith such as any religion."

Why is it that the religious *always* think the worst insult they can use against science is to accuse it of being a religion? And why are they always utterly oblivous to the irony?
Just the fact that religion can warp someone's intelligence and destroy their sense of humour that badly is proof enough of why it should be left in the dark ages.

94. reality_chick - January 25, 2011 at 12:58 am

groland (72): You misunderstand what I mean by 'religion'. I define all moral and ethical values as irrational and essentially religious. Humanism values humanity over other species and over selfish concerns; therefore Humanism is a religion.

quantheory (74) wrote: "Many atheists do believe in objective morality..." If they believe in objective morality, they have ceased to be Atheists and have become Humanists. By believing in objective morality, they have accepted an irrational belief system.

navydad (75) wrote: "Since there is no such thing as a chimpanzee who communicates with American Sign Language, I'm not sure what the point of your comment is."

tyroneslothrop (78) wrote: "As a linguist, can I just thank you for stating what shoud be an obvious point--something textbooks habitually get wrong--no chimpanzee (none) has been taught American Sign Language."

On the contrary: "Reading magazines is a favorite past time [sic] of the chimpanzees in Ellensburg, Washington. They turn the pages and comment on the pictures using American Sign Language (ASL)."
http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/2366646/the_chimp_and_human_communication_project.html?cat=8

"Washoe is a chimpanzee, currently living at the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute (CHCI) at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington. She was the first non-human to acquire at least some elements of American Sign Language (ASL). She was named for Washoe County, Nevada, where she was raised and taught to use ASL."
http://www.economicexpert.com/a/Washoe:chimpanzee.htm

See also:
http://www.cwu.edu/~cwuchci/research.html

Navydad wrote: "And please stop setting up and knocking down your atheistic straw men."

An Atheist is someone who does not believe in 'spirituality' -- in a God or an individual soul. Atheism posits a strictly mechanistic universe, and when self-styled 'Atheists' claim to have morals, ethics, or to be Humanists they have abandoned Atheism on favor of a moralizing value system.

I think that those who claim to be Atheists should act like Atheists, and not espouse morals, ethics, or Humanism. When Atheists get moralistic and ethical, they have accepted a sentimental value system, just like those 'irrational' people who believe in a soul. My message to Atheists is: if you espouse morals, ethics, or Humanism, I cannot consider you an Atheist, but a sentimental Humanist.

pertinax (86) wrote: "reality_chick: You are correct in thinking that Atheism does not ipso facto mandate Humanism. But nor is there, surely, any reason for thinking that Atheism automatically mandates Egoism."In the assumed absence of a deity or deities, the choice between Humanism and Egoism becomes essentially arbitrary."

Atheism not only does not mandate Humanism, the embrace of Humanism by Atheists amounts to a return to (or a failure to escape from) sentimental and irrational thinking.

pertinax (86) wrote: "...the most significant issue raised by the lack of religious belief is the consequent absence of a logically-binding theory of ethical obligation."

Humanism fills the gap between religious belief and mechanistic Atheism by sanctifying Humanity. But strict Atheism should not include sentimental morals, ethics, and Humanism.

95. pertinax - January 25, 2011 at 02:42 am

reality-chick

I agree with you that, when an Atheist adopts Humanism, she abandons the strict empiricism and logic of Science and adopts an essentially fideistic position.

But, unless, in so doing, she also proclaims a belief in a god or gods, there is no reason for saying that she has ceased to be an Atheist.

Atheism merely means disbelief in a god or gods. It does not mean rationality, logic or scientific empiricism, although these are all virtues that Atheists normally claim for themselves.

Nor does Atheism necessarilly imply Amoralism, even though there is no essential logical link beween Atheist cosmology and ethics.

An interesting question, albeit one I've never seen addressed, is whether, in a godless universe, we are under any obligation to be rational, logical or empirical.

The Karamazovian position that "If there is no God, then all is permitted" surely releases us from an absolute obligation to seek the truth, just as surely as it releases us from an absolute. obligation to pursue virtue.

96. pertinax - January 25, 2011 at 03:00 am

Dennis_joe

"The new atheist display an intolerance towards people who have a religious faith, equals that of any intolerance that you could find in the history of religion."

Steady on, old chap! Aren't you letting the hyperbole get away on you.

I'm no great fan of Dawkins et al, but I still find them pussycats compared to Torquemada or Osama bin Laden. Even Sam Harris has never literally shown anyone the instruments of torture!

97. bprnrao - January 25, 2011 at 05:10 am

Prof. Asma's article is to be seen I feel from how we are humanistic. This is to say whether you are an athiest or thiest you need to be humanistic. When I say humanistic you include every thing in that social, biological, psychological, economical, mangerial etc. (every thing you deal with).

The article can be expanded much to include many more things. This is also evident from the comments. Probably Dr. Asma can work on the idea. For this one may need to collaborate with many subject field experts with similar ideas.

There are things like what you say about modern physics which supports some of the things which were preached in the eastern philosophy. If we accept string theory it says our human limitations. Perception, consciousness, super consciousness etc. One of the brain scientist had a rare experience of loosing the 'I' ness (Stroke of insight which is available on website). SImilarly the concept of 'Nirvana' attained by ancient rushis of India. The author tells about Buddhism. There are many more things in Buddhism or in any religion which he can high light. Modern Science also supports some of these things. THese can be brought out in the article.

In medicine we can see much research on body-mind relationship. We can add to this soul - body-mind-soul. SOme of the portions of Dr. Asma's article may be attributed to this. The article can become more scientific if some of the sceintific discoveries with relation to death expereince, emotions and gene expression, parapsychology, extraterestrial life etc are taken into consideration.

The article mentions about microbes and natural events which were attributed to earlier to spirits are now given more rational things. There is also research on some of the things like prayer etc. Can we also talk of its results. In this context we can also take the cosmos and our present day understanding of cosmos and its limitations. THis may give an insight into how limited/big is our knowledge.

The author also mentions about machanistic theory. THis is the theory which made us to look every thing in parts and not in whole. We need to see te whole , integration of various things, influence of various factors etc.

Dr. Asma's article is interesting and there is much to debate on. I congratulate him for the article and he can bring out a book on the topic after much research (literature or interaction with many others in different fields particularly science and religion) on various things.

Dr. B.P.R.Narasimharao, Centre for Corporate Education, Training and COnsultancy, Indira Gandhi National Open University, New Delhi, India.

98. denis_joe - January 25, 2011 at 05:18 am

93. lolwut

Why is it that the religious *always* think the worst insult they can use against science is to accuse it of being a religion?

Initially I would say appearances. Both scientist and priest hold to a knowledge that will be 'mysterious' to the man on the street.

Moreso, today scientists are acting in the same manner as priests when it comes to preaching. One need only look at the manner in which health warnings, for example, tend to target the morals of certain behaviour and how this is backed up by 'the science' and come over as Papal edicts.

Environmentalism also use 'the science'to back up their claims. Substitute 'carbon footprint' for 'sin' and the resources are finite argument for 'the Apocalypse' and the similaririties are glaring in their stories.

Moreso, both religion and the message we get from 'the science' ignore humanity's ability to overcome problems.

By the way, I am a staunch athiest. I just believe that people have the right to religious practice.

97. pertinax

I'm no great fan of Dawkins et al, but I still find them pussycats compared to Torquemada or Osama bin Laden.

It is the crusade aspect that I was getting at. Though it wouldn't surprise me if Dawkins, et al, would propose the use of torture in order to create the secular utopia he seems to desire, if they thought that they could get away with it.

99. xpetzix - January 25, 2011 at 05:29 am

"To Dawkins et al -- if you want to be a true Atheist, you must stop being a Humanist!"


Hm. This is like saying "Hey, you, blossom, if you want to be a true blossom, stop being so nicely purple."

...because apparently you can't be purple AND a blossom.

100. alandente - January 25, 2011 at 07:42 am

It is interesting to note that the kind of strident, broad-sweep-of-the-brush comments and points made regarding atheists is exactly the kind of approach that the theistically religious bleat about whenever the slightly inconvenient revelations such as God's vicious hatred of homosexuality are brought up -

"oh, you can't judge all xtians/muslims like that, we're not all the same, are you some kind of bigot?" or "Just because the holy book says something like that, doesn't mean I take it literally (stupid)!".

And yet it's fine to characterise ALL atheists in certain ways ('Militant' etc.). Atheism isn't a religion. It's a single viewpoint on a single issue. Aside from the issue of 'is there a God' atheists do not necessarily have ANYTHING ELSE in common. We're not a cult, friends. We don't worship at Dawkin's feet, or revere 'Origin of Species' as divinely inspired.

The simple truth is that when someone has an unsustainable standpoint on an issue, such as the claim that God has been made known, they will seek to drag any sensible dissenters down to their level in the debate.

101. reality_chick - January 25, 2011 at 08:38 am

xpetzix wrote: "To Dawkins et al -- if you want to be a true Atheist, you must stop being a Humanist!"
Hm. This is like saying "Hey, you, blossom, if you want to be a true blossom, stop being so nicely purple." ...because apparently you can't be purple AND a blossom.

Some ideologies (such as Atheism and Humanism) are contradictory and in conflict with each other. One cannot realistically uphold two contradictory opinions at the same time. When someone claims to be an Atheist and a Humanist simultaneously, I think that they are endorsing contradictory ideologies.

According to the literature of the World Buddhist Preaching Association, Buddhism teaches that there is no God and no soul, yet the Buddhists also teach reincarnation, strict moral and ethical behavior, and compassion for all living things.

Except for the Buddhist doctrine of Reincarnation, the Buddhist teachings, which deny God and the soul, yet sanctify living things, are very much like the Atheistic Humanism of Dawkins and others -- who may be said to be practicing a form of Buddhism.

I see a logical contradiction in Buddhism. If there is no God and no soul, then who or what reincarnates and who or what experiences the world? Also, if there is no soul, what is achieved by showing compassion toward living things (including ourselves), which Buddhism teaches are nothing more than an aggregate of physical attributes with no real or permanent identity? These same questions may be applied to the Atheistic Humanists such as Dawkins and others, whose ideology (except for reincarnation) very much resembles Buddhism.

If consciousness is merely a chemical reaction (which will eventually cease to exist, both for the individual and the species) why make such a fuss over preserving and protecting it?

If I am actually no one, why should I pretend to be some one, or treat others as if they were some one?

102. greybloon - January 25, 2011 at 08:48 am

This argument doesn't even rise to the meaning of argument. All the author seems to be saying that if believing in ploglies makes you feel better, then let us believe in ploglies. To quote one of the "Horsemen", "intellectually disheveled".

103. reality_chick - January 25, 2011 at 09:10 am

alandente: You are correct that all Atheists are not identical in their beliefs, just as all religionists are not identical in their beliefs.
Nevertheless, both the religions and Atheism are based on core ideas which may be the subject of debate.

Dawkins represents a 'type' of proselytizing Atheist who intentionally attracts attention due to the vigor of his presentations and the insistence of his arguments. As such, Dawkins and other proselytizing Atheists make themselves 'fair game' for critique.

Dawkin's instructs me that I should see life and consciousness as a biological accident and a will-o'-the-wisp, yet Dawkins also asks me to worship life and consciousness as a kind of Holy Grail.

Having convinced me that life is merely an accident of biology and consciousness is merely a chemical reaction, Dawkins and the Atheist/Humanists have failed to convince me that I should want to protect or preserve either life or consciousness.

104. alandente - January 25, 2011 at 09:10 am

Reality-Chick, your argument makes no sense.

Firstly, it is entirely possible for people to hold conflicting views of reality. For example, an extremist muslim loves their daughter, but then burns her alive for dating a Hindu. The individual cannot be said to 'not love' their daughter, and yet burning someone alive is not an action that suggests that they love their daughter. The views 'I love my daughter' and 'I must kill my daughter' are conflicting, and yet can co-exist.

Secondly, atheism is the belief that there is no evidence for God. There is nothing in that belief that conflicts with humanism. The conflict arises from the extensions which you yourself draw from atheism, which you have decided conflict with humanism. It is entirely possible to not believe in a God, but to just believe that you should live a good life anyway. It's possible to read Camus and be so inspired by the concept of existential nobility so as to live a 'good' life, without the threat of divine retribution hanging over your head.

Why don't you come clean about your actual motives for what you're arguing? I'd be interested in hearing about that.

105. reality_chick - January 25, 2011 at 09:36 am

alandente wrote: "...it is entirely possible for people to hold conflicting views of reality."

Well, yes -- as long as they feel comfortable with cognitive dissonance!

Dawkins says that life is a biological accident and that and consciousness is merely a chemical reaction. Yet Dawkins also advocates altruism.

I see no advantage for the individual to practice altruism in the mechanistic world that Dawkins describes, where the individual has only a very temporary presence and no continuing existence.

Maybe that works for Dawkins, but it wouldn't work for me. I see no logical reason or personal advantage for the Atheist to practice altruism.

Speaking of contradictory ideologies, there are Zionist Jews who claim to be Buddhists while continuing to be Zionist Jews. Actually it is impossible to be a Zionist Jew and a Buddhist at the same time, because Buddhism rejects the concepts of a Chosen People and a Promised Land.

106. tyroneslothrop - January 25, 2011 at 09:49 am

Reality_Chick,

Washoe was not taught American Sign Language. Washoe was taught--at best--a handful of lexical signs. Washoe did not master the complex grammar of ASL. The give-a-way in the quote you cite is the "some elements of American Sign Language." What exactly does it mean to say that Washoe was taught some elements of ASL? It certainly does not mean that Washoe was taught ASL. ASL is a fully functional language. Washoe does not have command of a fully functional language. At best, Washoe was taught a trifle of lexical signs from ASL. That is not the same thing as teaching a chimpanzee ASL. It is condescending to equate the trifle of signs that Washoe may be able to produce with the actual language of ASL. Has Washoe shown the ability to produce relative clauses through subordination in ASL? This is a relatively straightforward process in ASL Has Washoe shown the ability to use facial expressions as grammatical markers (as is the case in most Sign Languages)? Washoe has not been taught ASL.

I should also note, so much of the chimpanzee language studies work is of dubious scientific quality. For example, this claim is shockingly misleading and false:

"Reading magazines is a favorite past time of the chimpanzees in Ellensburg, Washington. They turn the pages and comment on the pictures using American Sign Language (ASL)."

No chimpanzee has been taught to read. And looking at pictures is not reading. And producing a sign is not using ASL.

107. reality_chick - January 25, 2011 at 09:57 am

alandente wrote: "...atheism is the belief that there is no evidence for God."

Actually, agnosticism "is the belief that there is no evidence for God." Atheism is the belief that there is no God.

alandente wrote: "There is nothing in that belief that conflicts with humanism."

Yes there is. Having established that there is no God and no soul, Dawkins and other Atheists have advocated altruism and Humanism. Some here have pointed out that for an Atheist, altruism and Humanism are optional. Well, of course -- no matter what ideology a person espouses, they may always opt out of altruism and Humanism.

Assuming that there is no God and no soul, that life is a only biological accident and that consciousness is merely a chemical reaction, I find that altruism and Humanism have little cachet. Dawkins and the other Atheist/Humanists have failed to convince me that there is an advantage for altruism and Humanism in a mechanistic universe.

108. alandente - January 25, 2011 at 10:09 am

"... and so they (Dawkins and... those other atheists to whom I allude but never by name) must be wrong and there must be a God. And probably baby Jesus".

Did you leave that bit off the end, reality-chick...?

atheism is 'the rejection of belief in God or gods'. It is not a claim that there definitely is no God or gods. No one can claim that. Though I'm pretty sure there isn't.

109. reality_chick - January 25, 2011 at 10:10 am

tyroneslothrop: The staff at Ellensburg claim that some of their chimps have learned to use hundreds of signs from the ASL lexicon. I suggest that you read their studies, or visit their facility, if it interests you.

I mentioned the chimps at Ellensburg as an example of intelligence in animals. A chimp does not need to use any ASL, but merely peel and eat a banana, to show more cognitive skill than a severely retarded human. So your nit-picking about the details of the use or non-use of ASL at Ellensburg does not in the least diminish my point about intelligence in animals.

110. tyroneslothrop - January 25, 2011 at 10:17 am

reality_chick,

I have read some of their studies and find them wanting. It is not nit-picking to point out that the claims that chimpanzees have learned ASL are bogus. They have not learned ASL. They have--at best--learned a trifle of lexical signs. It is, again, condescending to those who actually know ASL, who create poetry in ASL, to suggest that a few mere lexical signs equals learning a language. It does not.

111. panacea - January 25, 2011 at 10:42 am

re #111:

Has anyone ever tried asking a deaf person to communicate with these chimps? ASL is the language of the deaf: they are best set up to evaluate the claim.

112. 22250655 - January 25, 2011 at 10:44 am

@quantheory's " I have to just say one more thing about the whole communism thing. It's not exactly consistent to criticize atheists for picking only on certain bad aspects of monotheism, and then keep dragging communism into the conversation. You apparently recognize that the New Atheists would not support oppressive regimes who attempted to exterminate belief by force."

might make some sense if were not for the fact that many of the posters on this thread criticize religion on the same thing grounds. And one has to recognize there is something to the argument on both sides in addition to "any stigma to beat a dogma." One does need to look at the historical realities related to religion and irreligion, and make a decision.

113. reality_chick - January 25, 2011 at 10:46 am

alandente wrote: "atheism is 'the rejection of belief in God or gods'. It is not a claim that there definitely is no God or gods. No one can claim that. Though I'm pretty sure there isn't."

What you have described above is agnosticism (which involves uncertainty), not Atheism (which is certain that there is no God).

According to Wikipedia:
"Atheism, in a broad sense, is the rejection of belief in the existence of deities. In a narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities. Most inclusively, atheism is simply the absence of belief that any deities exist."
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atheism

alandente wrote: "... and so they (Dawkins and... those other atheists to whom I allude but never by name) must be wrong and there must be a God. And probably baby Jesus". Did you leave that bit off the end, reality-chick...?

You have literally 'put words into my mouth' and you have deliberately misquoted me, alandente.

In reference to Atheists other than Dawkins, it is not necessary to create a list. The arguments that Dawkins makes are somewhat generic for many Atheists, which is why Dawkins has a large following.

I have an Atheist friend who has been making the same arguments as Dawkins ever since the 1960s, when we were both in our teens. I have also heard similar arguments from many other Atheists. Since Dawkins has presented himself as a spokesperson for scientific Atheism and Atheistic Humanism, it is appropriate to critique his arguments without mentioning by name a host of other Atheists.

For your information, I am not a Christian. Some of the core doctrines of Christianity contain intellectual and scientific fallacies, and the story of Jesus is obviously a myth with no historic basis whatsoever. The Sermon on the Mount and the Parables which are attributed to Jesus were recorded by an anonymous writer who was probably transcribing an oral tradition.

114. alandente - January 25, 2011 at 11:01 am

Oh reality_chick, you are funny... I like you. You're infuriating, but I like you...

'wikipedia'... disagrees with me on atheism. Well, you've clinched it then.

Even the quote from wikipedia is oblique enough to support both our suppositions, in fact. I am an atheist. I am 99% sure there is no God. I do not need you to tell me what I can or cannot believe based on your decisions, and the whirlwind that appears to be revolving around the inside of your head...

I did not deliberately misquote you at all. I suggested what you may have missed out. You can't misquote someone when you openly suggest something you think they may have wanted to say. That's not a misquote. Just give me a second while I look up 'misquote' on wikipedia...

And just for the record, I've never 'literally' put anything into your mouth. Nothing that I can explicitly remember, at any rate...

115. reality_chick - January 25, 2011 at 11:09 am

tyroneslothrop: I never claimed that the chimpanzees at Ellensburg mastered the whole corpus of ASL. I simply said that some chimps communicated using ASL. You have unfavorably compared the very limited use of ASL by the chimps at Ellensburg to the mastery of ASL by deaf people. I never compared the two. My point was simply that some chimps display more cognitive ability than severely retarded humans.

As I stated before, for the purpose of making my point the chimps don't need to use any ASL signs at all. Every time they peel and eat a banana they display more cognitive ability than many severely retarded humans.

tyroneslothrop, your fixation on the degree to which the chimps at Ellensburg are using ASL is an irrelevant sideshow in this discussion about Atheism. My second paragraph in this comment makes that clear.



116. kayelle - January 25, 2011 at 11:22 am

The thing is, the author sounds very sane about it, but not all people are.

For example, some people use their religion to justify not having their children have an operation or a blood transfusion. And in such cases I think we need to acknowledge that is is "just" religion, and not a reason to justify stupidity, nor a representation of the real world.. Same for using religion as an excuse for starting wars, or let's say, as an excuse to justify homophobia etc etc.

"Because the Bible/Torah/Q'uran says so" is not a reasonable justification for dangerous, hateful actions. And should not be tolerated as such.

Religion, by its very nature, is not a rational thing.
It is called "faith" for a reason.

You can prove that an apple will always fall downwards, you cannot prove that God(s) exist. .

I have no problem with people having their religion, praying, and living life according to certain codes.

I do have a problem if those codes infringe on the life of others, are used as justification for hatred, or are forced into law so that non-believers must follow it too.

Separation of church and state is a VERY good thing.

If you let a child die because of an unprovable belief, if you execute gay people because of a belief, if you go to war because of a belief...that should be seen as completely *unacceptable* by civilzed society.

This does generally seem to be more of a problem with monotheistic religions that in polytheistic, or animistic religions. In a lot of cases, religion is tied to tradition or is seen as a link to the forefathers, and of course that should not be eliminated. All in all, if we would eradicate religion altogether, the world would be a lot more monochrome. But we must always be careful that religion is not used as "The one and only Truth". And to say that no non-monotheistic religion ever went to war is also nonsense.

As some people before me, I'm also irked at the use of the word "empirical" in this matter. Mostly, the example is NOT empirical at all...

117. reality_chick - January 25, 2011 at 11:48 am

alandente wrote: "I did not deliberately misquote you at all."

alandente wrote: "... and so they (Dawkins and... those other atheists to whom I allude but never by name) must be wrong and there must be a God. And probably baby Jesus". Did you leave that bit off the end, reality-chick...?

You did misquote me. I did not write the above quote. You wrote it and you attributed it to me.

I quoted Wikipedia's definition of Atheism because it is a neutral and generic source for such definitions. I could have quoted Webster's or any other popular dictionary.

"1. the doctrine or belief that there is no god.
2. disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings."
(Dictionary.com)

"a. a disbelief in the existence of deity
b. the docrtine that there is no diety."
(Mirriam-Webster)

"Atheism, in a broad sense, is the rejection of belief in the existence of deities." (Wikipedia)

alandente wrote: "I am an atheist. I am 99% sure there is no God."

It appears that the Wikipedia definition of Atheism appropriately describes your Atheism, alandente. So why belittle me for quoting Wikipedia's definition of Atheism when it agrees with Mirriam-Webster and Dictionary.com?

"Whereas an atheist denies the existence of God or gods, an agnostic asserts that God or a First Cause is one of those concepts (others include the Absolute, infinity, eternity, and immortality) that lie beyond the reach of human intelligence, and therefore can be neither confirmed nor denied."
(Webster's Concise Multimedia Encyclopedia 1995)

An Atheist is certain that there is no God. An agnostic asserts that the question of God is unanswered and perhaps unanswerable.
An Atheist is not an agnostic!

118. marcintosh - January 25, 2011 at 11:59 am

I'm not so sure that Marx stated that. I think it's just widely attributed to him.

More importantly, when declining to indoctrinate our daughter, my older friend pointed out that guilt, though important, wasn't the basis for childhood piety.
The reason is control later in life.
Parents are sowing the seeds of control for themselves and other perceived "Persons of Authority" husbands, priests lay persons, government, doctors etc to take later on, the reins and exert their will on the now adult children.


Our family has still declined to indoctrinate her and have offered her the opportunity to choose a religion if she so chooses after she fully understands the ramifications of each brand of religion.
We have suggested to her that she not choose until after her college years.

119. undrgrndgirl - January 25, 2011 at 12:11 pm

i'm not beholding to any partiuclar religious tradition, but the idea that science can create moral individuals is laughable... i work for a humanist community and find individuals there to be very unethical - they will lie at the drop of a hat if it serves their needs and even in the face of contradictory emperical evidence... i have seen it over an over again with different people with and without postions of "power" within the community... it's really disgusting.

120. navydad - January 25, 2011 at 12:19 pm

"Dawkins and the other Atheist/Humanists have failed to convince me that there is an advantage for altruism and Humanism in a mechanistic universe."

And you have failed to convince me that you have a clue what you are talking about. So what?

121. reality_chick - January 25, 2011 at 01:05 pm

navydad: You have succeeded in showing me that you are hostile and uncivil, with no patience for polite debate. Perhaps that goes with being a military man.

122. navydad - January 25, 2011 at 02:53 pm

"navydad: You have succeeded in showing me that you are hostile and uncivil, with no patience for polite debate. Perhaps that goes with being a military man."

This is getting funny. Military man? Hah hah. So you concluded that I am a "military man" based on my online pseudonym? Your conclusion about me is about as valid as your conclusions about what "true atheists" must believe. For the record, the only uniforms I've ever worn were athletic uniforms.

And I actually do have patience for civil debate. I do not have patience for ignorance and shoddy thinking. Give us some civil debate based on facts and you'll get some patience.

123. heterodox - January 25, 2011 at 03:46 pm


Well... To say that this article has some issues is a bit of an understatement. I'm failing to even see the point of it to be honest. Let's say animism really is the biggest religion in the world and that all animists would be fine with the scientific study of morals. What does this have to do with the arguments of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett or the so-called "new atheist movement"? Are animists strongly affecting domestic & foreign policy, legislature, medical funding, scientific research, gay rights, sex advice, education, and the books that are chosen for our children's schools?

It should be obvious that the main driving concern behind the new atheism is not about which religion is the largest and if they believe in unsupported fairytales but rather has to do with what those beliefs may bring about. As Christopher Hitchens has essentially said (I'm paraphrasing), "Have your religion. Have your miracles and your virgin birth. Just keep it out of my life." This doesn't sound to me like someone aiming to eradicate all religion. Everyone that has been following the new atheism movement should know that the main issue is a concern of our world, global equality, happiness, and our physical and mental wellbeing. If animism suddenly starts hindering the progress of the developed world, and their beliefs include the belief that all infidels should be put to death to appease neak ta then we'll have an issue that needs addressing.

It's also wrong to lump Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens together since they each clearly have their own stance and opinions on these matters. They agree on a lot but not on everything.

In your article you state, "If the horsemen left their world of books, conferences, classrooms, and computers to travel more in the developing world for a year, they would find some unfamiliar religious arenas." Are you serious??

Have you by chance ever read much about Hitchens? As a journalist the man has been all over the globe. Or Harris who traveled Asia and spent years in meditative retreats. Or Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist who has no doubt traveled extensively. I fail to see how you can make such a statement.

To reiterate what I already said. I don't see any point to this article. If I had more time on my lunch break I'd have even more to say.

D.R. Towne

124. ejb_123 - January 25, 2011 at 04:17 pm

In a 2007 talk, "The Problem with Atheism," Sam Harris takes atheists to task about their narrow worldview concerning Buddhist and Christian meditation and contemplation. He writes that by rejecting these meditative, contemplative, and mystical experiences, atheists are "at a rhetorical disadvange," and that "[n]ot recognizing that such experiences are possible or important can make us [atheists] appear less wise even than our craziest religious opponents."

In the same talk, he writes approvingly of the person who "goes into solitude and trains himself in meditation for 15 or 18 hours a day, for months or years at a time, in silence, doing nothing else -- not talking, not reading, not writing."

He makes an interesting point that, from his atheist perspective, there is something transformative about devoting one's life to solitude, silence, and other ascetical disciplines and practices that too often these days are practices by only a few monks and nuns -- and that atheists, by rejecting these ascetical, mystical, contemplative, and meditative practices just because they are connected to religious traditions (particularly to Buddhist and Christian monasticism) lose out on some of the most important, profound, and insightful human experiences.

For a transcript of Harris's talk, see http://richarddawkins.net/articles/1702-the-problem-with-atheism

125. ejb_123 - January 25, 2011 at 04:19 pm

In a 2007 talk, "The Problem with Atheism," Sam Harris takes atheists to task about their narrow worldview concerning Buddhist and Christian meditation and contemplation. He writes that by rejecting these meditative, contemplative, and mystical experiences, atheists are "at a rhetorical disadvange," and that "[n]ot recognizing that such experiences are possible or important can make us [atheists] appear less wise even than our craziest religious opponents."

In the same talk, he writes approvingly of the person who "goes into solitude and trains himself in meditation for 15 or 18 hours a day, for months or years at a time, in silence, doing nothing else -- not talking, not reading, not writing."

He makes an interesting point that, from his atheist perspective, there is something transformative about devoting one's life to solitude, silence, and other ascetical disciplines and practices that too often these days are practices by only a few monks and nuns -- and that atheists, by rejecting these ascetical, mystical, contemplative, and meditative practices just because they are connected to religious traditions (particularly to Buddhist and Christian monasticism) lose out on some of the most important, profound, and insightful human experiences.

For a transcript of Harris's talk, see http://richarddawkins.net/articles/1702-the-problem-with-atheism

126. goxewu - January 25, 2011 at 04:52 pm

Re #120:

Upon request, I can furnish undrgrndgirl with a few testimonies that say, more or less, "I work for a large religious organization and find individuals there to be very unethical - they will lie at the drop of a hat if it serves their needs and even in the face of contradictory emperical evidence... I have seen it over an over again with different people with and without postions of 'power' within the organization and over its followers...it's really disgusting."

Or perhaps undrgrndgirl would prefer simply reading the newspaper ever once in a while.

127. rsmulcahy - January 25, 2011 at 05:13 pm

Hey navydad, you wrote:

"And you have failed to convince me that you have a clue what you are talking about. So what?"

I agree with reality chick. What the hell shows patience and civility with the above response? "So what?" is all you have to offer, you sound like a 5 year old. At least she is trying to make and support an argument. Are you too above it all to respond with a reasoned argument or just too dull. The latter I am assuming.


128. andrewb141 - January 25, 2011 at 05:15 pm

This article is typical of a certain brand of condescension towards people in low-middle income countries, in which even the most insidious, socially stunting local beliefs are held up as shining, humanitiy-affirming examples of "culture," and either exempted from external criticism or even defended vociferously. Just because the concept of supernatural spirits inhabiting the village, or the big tree down the road, or the gravel behind your house makes more sense to an illiterate Cambodian peasant than does a complex scientific explanation which requires some education to comprehend, does NOT mean that it is any less stupid.

Why is it that the same people who do such an effective job of holding our own culture accountable for its (many) flaws so easily accept anything that comes out of Africa and Asia at face value? You don't hear East coast American intellectuals defending the absurd beliefs of religious fundamentalists in Kansas, so why defend the equally absurd beliefs of animist farmers in Southeast Asia?

To me this attitude is no less racist and condescending toward non-Western peoples and cultures than is the "noble savage" of the 19th century.

129. navydad - January 25, 2011 at 06:35 pm

"I agree with reality chick. What the hell shows patience and civility with the above response? "So what?" is all you have to offer, you sound like a 5 year old. At least she is trying to make and support an argument. Are you too above it all to respond with a reasoned argument or just too dull. The latter I am assuming."

I guess I should explain what I thought was pretty obvious. Reality chick stated: "Dawkins and the other Atheist/Humanists have failed to convince me that there is an advantage for altruism and Humanism in a mechanistic universe." I assume she is implying that her failure to be convinced has some significance. My "reasoned argument" is that reality chick's failure to be convinced by something is irrelevant. Similarly, the fact that she has failed to convince me that she has a clue is irrelevant to whether or not she actually has a clue. That was the point of the "so what." But I don't expect you to understand since I am too dull to explain what I mean.


130. alandente - January 26, 2011 at 09:48 am

Reality_chick: 'I quoted Wikipedia's definition of Atheism because it is a neutral and generic source for such definitions. I could have quoted Webster's or any other popular dictionary'.

My point is that Wikipedia is a largely unregulated online dictionary, which is hardly reliable, and which is generally viewed as a bad source during debate. However, if you feel I belittled you, then I apologise. I certainly wouldn't want to make you cry (nb: I'm not attempting to 'put tears into your eyes' by saying that). The OED is a good source. Dictionary.com and wikipedia generally aren't seen as such... I feel like this is sort of stating the obvious here.

Choosing to believe that there is virtually no chance of there being a God, 'a disbelief in the existence of deity' is not the same as saying there definitely is no God. Frankly, I personally reject the standpoint of agnosticism as a concept- it is entirely illogical. It's like tossing a coin and calling that the coin will balance on its' edge. You either believe in a god by affirming as such, or you do not by default. No one has to affirm that they are 'Zeus atheists', or 'Zeus agnostics' (for those who want to be on the safe side, by refusing to believe in Zeus, but leaving the backdoor open for a last minute Olympic conversion).

Additionally, when it comes to many book-religion doctrines, agnosticism is worse than atheism 'You should be either hot or cold- God will vomit the lukewarm out of his mouth'. The doctrine of predestination, if believed, rejects the concept of agnosticism out of hand.

This still leaves your point that humanism and atheism contradict each other, which frankly does not stand up under logical critique. There is nothing in a humanist Worldview that requires belief in, or the acceptance of, a God. There is nothing in an atheist Worldview that requires an egocentric approach to life.

Lastly, since when did civility make anyone more correct? And since when did acting civilly make someone a morally good person? The most amoral of people are often incredibly good at avoiding causing offense in others, simply as a tool by which to manipulate people.

If you feel someone is uncivil, then you clearly aren't focussing on your argument enough.

131. ironysandwich - January 26, 2011 at 02:02 pm

Tell me, how exactly is talking about how "New Atheists" need to stop having a narrow world view any different than talking about how Jews need to stop being greedy or Muslims need to stop being wife-beaters?

The second poster brought up "no atheists in foxholes". No matter how you interpret that, it's a bigoted lie. What right do many of you posters criticising the atheists lack of "civility" have to criticize us, when the words so many of you post here are filled with nothing but uncaring unthinking bigotry?

132. slaughter01 - January 26, 2011 at 03:02 pm

Christof said: "The Brazilian archbishop did not excommunicate the doctor. The doctor caused his own excommunication by performing the abortion. It's an automatic thing. Moreover, excommunication is a poorly understood issue; it's not a damnation, nor is it absolute. It's simply a declaration that such a person may not be permitted to participate in the Eucharist."

Not so. The church and its officials created those rules, and they physically must deny him his participation in the Eucharist. What if the doctor showed up at another Catholic church where he wasn't known? He could still take part unless someone pointed him out.

133. dank48 - January 26, 2011 at 03:15 pm

Thanks to Panacea for the question about whether deaf people have been asked about signing chimps. Formally, I don't know. Informally, my daughter finds such "experiments" amusing. Some chimps have learned some signs. Big deal. There was an interesting article awhile back about a Border Collie that recognizes over a thousand English words and that can even pick out a previously unnamed toy from other, named but not mentioned toys. It's impressive, but nobody's claiming the dog can speak English.

Our Border Collies recognize some spoken English words and some ASL signs. They have the same motivation to learn that any dog has, and they're brighter than most. Neither of them has learned English; neither of them has learned ASL. Both languages are way beyond their capacity.

And Reality_Chick, the fact that you have solipsistically "defined" atheism, humanism, or whatever as meaning such and so is beside the point. The "definitions" you've listed have little or no connection with how the words are understood by the rest of the world. An atheist, who does not believe in the existence of God or gods, does not necessarily believe that belief can be proved and, if he or she has done any reading on the matter, probably realizes that all such proofs, one way or the other, have logical holes you could throw a cat through. That atheist probably would have little or no trouble believing in "a philosophy that usually rejects supernaturalism and stresses an individual's dignity and worth and capacity for self-realization through reason" (MWCD10).

Reality_Chick imo undercuts her own arguments with these private definitions. To festoon someone else's position with bogus interpretations shows nothing but one's own inability to face the implications of that position squarely and fairly. You don't want words put in your mouth; I don't blame you. Stop doing it to others, and they'll probably stop doing it to you. (Can't think where I heard that.)

134. reality_chick - January 26, 2011 at 05:04 pm

alandente: navydad dismissed my arguments without critiquing them. navydad's comment "And you have failed to convince me that you have a clue what you are talking about. So what?" is not a reasoned response but a form of ad hominem attack against me. navydad's comment to me is not a style of debate; it is verbal bullying.

The Oxford English Dictionary's definition of 'atheism' is practically indentical with the definition of 'atheism' found in Wikipedia, Webster-Mirriam, and Dictionary.com.

atheism: Disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a god. (Oxford English Dictionary)
http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/mathew/sn-definitions.html

So, after your insistence that only the Oxford English Dictionary is a reliable resource for common English usage, we find that all of the mainstream, popular dictionaries that I quoted agree precisely with the OED's definition of 'atheism'.

In my opinion, your insistence on the primacy of the OED was something of a time-waster in this discussion. My point in presenting the definition of 'atheism' from three popular dictionaries was to show that there is a general, widespread agreement about what the essential definition of 'atheism' is. The hallowed OED agrees precisely in its definition of 'atheism' with the three popular dictionaries that I quoted.

Based on the OED (and the other three sources') definition of 'atheism', it appears that 'atheism' is a rather simple and straightforward concept. However, 'atheism' can get complicated when we combine it with other ideologies and value systems -- such as Humanism.

The modification of Atheism by the incorporation of value systems (some of which appear to be more sentimental than logical) may reasonably bring into question whether the resulting combination is really Atheism. It appears that some Atheists subscribe to additional value systems which may be less objective than Atheism itself, and which may modify their Atheism into a philosophy which might be distinct from true Atheism.

Consider Buddhism, which teaches that there is no God and no soul -- but Buddhism also teaches the doctrines of Reincarnation, Karma, Right behavior (morality), Compassion, and Equanimity or Indifference (neutrality of values, or the scientific outlook). The Buddhist explanation is that the individual is not real, but only an aggregate of tendencies which persist through many lifetimes (reincarnations) and which eventually dissipate and cease to exist (like a ripple on a pond).

In my reading of Buddhism, I have not found an answer to this question: "If there is no God and no soul, and Equanimity or Indifference (neutrality of values or the scientific outlook) is a supreme virtue, what purpose is served by practicing Right behavior and Compassion?"

Perhaps the Buddhist answer is that the practice of Equanimity inevitably produces, or requires, Right behavior and Compassion. So far I haven't found a Buddhist answer to my aforementioned question. The Buddhists probably do have an answer to my question; I just haven't come across it yet.

Minus the Buddhist doctrines of Reincarnation and Karma, Buddhism resembles the Atheist/Humanist ideology of Dawkins and others. So I want to ask the same question of Dawkins and the Atheist/Humanists: "If there is no God and no soul, and Equanimity or Indifference (neutrality of values, or the scientific outlook) is a supreme virtue, what purpose is served by practicing Right behavior and Compassion?"

Perhaps Equanimity or Indifference (neutrality of values) are not supreme virtues for Dawkins and the Atheist/Humanists. Equanimity or Indifference (neutrality of values) is a fundamental part of the scientific outlook, so I would expect scientific Atheists (such as Dawkins) to adhere to it. So for me, Dawkins' espousal and endorsement of Humanism prompts the same question that I want to ask the Buddhists.

By the way, the word 'Humanism' indicates a philosophy that places a special value on humanity. Buddhist and other Eastern philosophies recognize animals as sharing with humans the attributes of consciousness, intelligence, and 'natural rights'. Why should an Atheist (or anyone) sanctify Humanity (or life itself), unless humanity, or intelligence, or life, possess an inherent nonmaterial value?

The issue that we are discussing has importance not only for our individual philosophies, but also for the way that our philosophies may influence public policy. As the commenter 'heterodox' stated above, aggressive and domineering partisan ideologies (such as religions) often strongly affect "domestic & foreign policy, legislature, medical funding, scientific research, gay rights, sex advice, education, and the books that are chosen for our children's schools."

I am in agreement with those who resent the overriding and oppressive influence that the practitioners of Christianity and Judaism have had on the domestic affairs and foreign policy of our nominally secular US democracy.

A majority of Atheists is not a guarantee of a secular utopia. As many have stated, human rights abuses were often committed by the officially-Atheist governments of the Soviet Union and Communist China, although the governments of the Soviet Union and Communist China both claimed to be Humanistic. The experience of the Soviet Union and Communist China demonstrate that tyranny and oppression do not need to be motivated by a metaphysical religion; an atheistic State religion will suffice.

Several Atheists on this forum have stated that for an Atheist, Humanism and other value systems are optional. Most societies, including the officially-Atheist Soviet Russia and Communist China, have claimed to be Humanistic and have maintained legal systems which (ostensibly) enforce the values of Humanism. Without Humanistic law and order, the egoists (both religious and Atheist) can do as they will against the interests of the body politic or public at large.

What constitutes Humanism? It depends on who you ask. The Chinese government's one child policy has enabled the Chinese to avoid economic disaster and achieve economic progress. Some critics claim that China's one child policy is a human rights abuse. In some States of India, the lives of cattle have been protected by law -- not as the property of humans but out of respect for the cattle themselves. Many nations have animal-protection laws based on compassion.

Atheism does not require Humanism, but maintaining social order usually requires a system of laws which may enforce Humanistic principles. But what about selfishness or altruism when no one is looking and there is neither risk of, nor advantage in, being seen?

The religious believer might say "I shall not steal because it would offend God and harm my relationship with Him."

The Humanist might say "I shall not steal because I refuse to harm my fellow man, out of principle."

The Atheist might say "I shall not steal because I might get caught and punished. There is no other logical reason not to steal."

The Humanism which Dawkins advocates sounds altruistic rather than pragmatic, much like Buddhist Right behavior and Compassion. That a public display of Humanism is pragmatic for the Atheist (or Buddhist, or anyone else) is obvious. What I question is that unobserved, anonymous altruism serves any pragmatic or logical purpose for the Atheist. Answers that present aesthetic reasons for altruism and compassion don't adequately answer my question.

This is a philosophical question I am asking; I don't pretend to have the answer. That's why I'm posing the question: "What logical reason or practical purpose is served for the Atheist who chooses to practice anonymous altruism, compassion, or generosity?"

Both the Buddhists and the Atheist/Humanists have adopted an attitude that reveres humanity and life and values altruism and compassion. That attitude appears to be sentimental (based on belief) rather than rational (based on scientific fact). Am I wrong?

135. reality_chick - January 26, 2011 at 05:40 pm

dank48: I never claimed that the Ellensburg chimps had mastered ASL or that they learned to speak English. You are creating a straw man when you say that I did.

I only said that the chimps were using ASL in their communications. If you disagree with that, you should take it up with the researchers at the Ellensburg facility. My original point was that some chimps (actually, it's most chimps) display greater cognitive skills than severely retarded humans. As I said before, every time a chimp peels a banana and eats it, the chimp displays greater cognitive skills than severely retarded humans. The chimps don't need to use ASL at all to prove my point.

dank48 wrote: "Reality_Chick, the fact that you have solipsistically "defined" atheism, humanism, or whatever as meaning such and so is beside the point. The "definitions" you've listed have little or no connection with how the words are understood by the rest of the world."

I did not invent the definition of 'atheism' that I
have been using. The definition of 'atheism' that I
have been using matches that of the Oxford English Dictionary, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Wikipedia, and Dictionary.com, all of which provide a near-identical definition of 'atheism'. If you do not agree with the definition of 'atheist' that I have been using, I suggest that you complain to the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

atheism: Disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a god. (Oxford English Dictionary)
http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/mathew/sn-definitions.html

"a. a disbelief in the existence of deity
b. the doctrine that there is no diety." (Merriam-Webster)
http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/atheism

Since my definition of 'atheist' agrees with the Oxford English Dictionary, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, and other popular dictionaries, as well as with common usage, I suggest that you should consider the possibility that it is not my definition, but your own definition of 'atheist' which is 'solipsistic'.

136. tekton - January 26, 2011 at 07:36 pm

@ polosail51 (comment #80, directed at my comment about miracles (#73):

"tekton #73 should either submit his experiences for review in a medical laboratory context or let a qualified psychiatrist study him"

Meaning if I don't do the former, then I should do the latter? That's a pretty big leap, and a pretty snarky comment. I'm quite fine, thanks.

The fact is, many of the miracles I have observed/participated in have been documented by medical records of the recipients (if you will) before and after: X rays, blood tests, hearing and vision tests, mobility tests, etc. Many don't particularly require verification by medical professionals: fingers gnarled by arthritis instantly straightened and functional, formerly crippled people suddenly leaping and running with ease (and doing so for years afterward), formerly deaf people suddenly hearing so well they have to plug their ears because the noise is so unaccustomed, formerly blind people screaming when they suddenly begin to see. If you really want to know more about the power of God and the miracles that can accompany the presentation of the message of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, there's opportunity. As I mentioned, miracles of this sort are an expression of the connectedness of the material and the spiritual.

137. lost_angeleno - January 26, 2011 at 09:04 pm

Over here in Comparative Mythology, we define a Mythology as that other guy's religion. And religious mythologies are generally story anthologies created by committees. Thus, religions are best read as well-imagined fictions. And boom, we're right in the middle of literature studies, where religion belongs. It's quite interesting and edifying to study them from this perspective. I recommend it.

138. dsmebane - January 27, 2011 at 12:50 am

The four horsemen would be better described as the four bishops. They are religious demagogues: they privilege their view of the infinite over all others, producing copious volumes of polemical theology; they impugn all of those who don't share their religious and philosophical ideas, as well as their religious compatriots who advocate a more moderate attitude; they favor both professional (within the field of science) and societal punishment for those who don't agree with them. Their legions of rabid followers likewise brook no dissent, and can be quite fervent, as the length and number of comments on this board attest.

139. reality_chick - January 27, 2011 at 12:59 am

lost_angeleno: The world's ancient mythologies are much more than mere literature. The fantastic fables of mythology are, more often than not, coded or metaphorical explanations of ancient cosmological theories, astronomy, and cyclic time.

Mythology began as an oral tradition and it became the world's earliest literature. Studying the ancient mythologies is one of the few ways we have to gain some understanding of how ancient civilizations and cultures believed the universe functioned.

Nearly all of the Greek and Egyptian myths have a cosmological or astronomical meaning, and the same may be said of most mythologies from throughout the world. The astronomy of the ancients is contained in their myths.

The study of Comparative Mythology should be pursued with scientific rigor and it is a misinterpretation to regard the mythology as merely fictional story-telling or religious fantasy. The myths are the cosmological theories, star-lore, and carefully-kept memories of cyclic time passed down from generation to generation by the most intellectual members of the ancient cultures.

The modern psychological (such as Jungian), folkloric (story-telling), and euhemeristic (pseudo-historical) interpretations of mythology utterly fail to identify or elucidate the real purpose of most of the mythology, which was to pass on the vitally important cosmological and astronomical lore of the culture.

The astronomer-priests who composed the ancient mythologies maintained an oral history of astronomical changes that gradually developed over centuries and millennia, which enabled them to describe the Precession of the Equinoxes in metaphorical, mythic terms long before Hipparchus.

The ancient mythologies also contain memories and predictions of cyclic, catastrophic climate change that particularly deserve study today.

140. byrdman1 - January 27, 2011 at 02:47 am

The dictionary definitions of atheism presented here state that it is a rejection of, or disbelief in, the existing of a god or gods. Nowhere in the definitions cited does it state that an atheist is certain that there is no god. Or do you have to be certain before you can reach a conclusion?

Is to disbelieve in something's existence to be certain that it does not exist?

141. demedici - January 27, 2011 at 03:20 am

My humble opinion, I didn't like this article. :)

The main flaw I saw was that he was arguing people in the developing world need their religion (animism) to stay sane and make sense of their chaotic existence. Without it, they would "drown." Couldn't it easily be argued that their religion is what is keeping them oppressed?

When you believe that the reason that you are impoverished and suffering is evil spirits running around over which you have no control, as the author suggests, you are more likely to accept your fate. But isn't that the problem?!

If impoverished populations want improver their condition, they have to reject the fate. If they realized there weren't evil spirits constantly torturing them (assuming there aren't), then they would have to find more rational enemies and obstacles to overcome, obstacles which, unlike evil spirits, could be overcome.

From what I understand, in the Dark Ages, Christianity functioned in this same role. It kept serfs and peasants content with their miserable existence and kept them in line because no matter how bad their life on Earth was, by obeying the law they could enjoy an eternity in Paradise.

Only when the serfs in Asia realize that they do have control over their existence, and are not the slaves of evil spirits, will they be able to rise up. The author argues that we should let them remain slaves.

142. reality_chick - January 27, 2011 at 10:33 am

byrdman1: Since the formatting of these comments permits no italics, underlining, or font colors, I will CAPITALIZE the relevant definitions of 'atheism' from the OED and Merriam-Webster Dictionaries for you to reexamine. See below.

I think that the OED and Merriam-Webster Dictionaries make it quite clear that an atheist is certain that there is no God. If you are looking for a a word that indicates uncertainty about the existence of God, look up the word 'agnostic'.

atheism: Disbelief in, OR DENIAL OF, the existence of a god. (Oxford English Dictionary)
http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/mathew/sn-definitions.html

"a. a disbelief in the existence of deity
b. the DOCTRINE THAT THERE IS NO DEITY." (Merriam-Webster)
http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/atheism

143. reality_chick - January 27, 2011 at 10:46 am

demedici: You have presented the most sensible criticism of the author's article that I have read in these comments.

In India, where 50% of the population is malnourished, the poor are being left behind by the economic boom that the upper and middle classes are enjoying. The Maoist Naxalite movement is growing steadily among the rural poor. The Naxalites promote the abandonment of traditional submissiveness in favor of class struggle.

144. byrdman1 - January 27, 2011 at 10:53 am

Reality_Chick

Thank you for your reply.

You have only bolded a part of each of the definitions and ignored the rest. Why is that? Do you think that only the parts of the definitions that you feel support your argument are 'relevant'? I think the whole wording of each definition is relevant, otherwise it wouldn't be included. I don't understand why you would ignore part of each definition.

The key word in the OED definition is 'OR'. So, it's disbelief OR denial of the existence of a god.

atheism: DISBELIEF, OR denial of, the existence of a god. (Oxford English Dictionary)
http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/mathew/sn-definitions.html

"a. a DISBELIEF IN THE EXISTENCE OF GOD
b. the doctrine that there is no deity." (Merriam-Webster)
http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/atheism

Nowhere in the definitions is it stated that an atheist must be certain that there is no god or gods.

I'd be interested on your thoughts to my questions: Do you have to be certain to reach a conclusion? Is to disbelieve in something's existence to be certain that it does not exist?

145. donald_smith - January 27, 2011 at 12:31 pm

In spite of all the comments both for and against religion, atheism, and agnosticism, I all boils down to issue of what you believe. Personally, I feel that religion came about due to fear of the unknown. If you do not have that fear, it is all moot.

146. reality_chick - January 27, 2011 at 01:10 pm

byrdman1: I don't think it changes the import of these two definitions of 'atheism' if we eliminate my capitalizations and examine the two definitions in toto. Disbelief and denial are very nearly the same thing. One might argue that 'disbelief' is passive and 'denial' is active. What is certain is that neither the 'disbeliever' nor the 'denier' believe in a God.

It appears to me that many people who claim to be Atheists are actually agnostics, because they decline to commit themselves decisively to the opinion that there is no God. Some people may be 'flip-flopping' between Atheism and agnosticism.

My point is that Atheism and agnosticism are two distinct positions, and we have two adequate and agreed-upon words for those two positions: 'atheist' (or 'atheism') and 'agnostic' (or 'agnosticism').

An Atheist believes (with certainty) that there is no God. An agnostic hasn't decided whether there is is or is not a God. The positions of the Atheist and the agnostic are distinct -- so a person may be an Atheist or an agnostic, but not both.

It inappropriately blurs the distinction between 'atheist' and 'agnostic' to say that there are Atheists who are 'not certain' of whether or not there is a God. Someone who is 'not certain' of whether or not there is a God is actually an agnostic, not an Atheist.

In a nutshell: if you think that you are an Atheist but you are not certain about whether or not there is a God, then you are not really an Atheist; you are an agnostic -- no matter what you choose to call yourself.

147. knightofni - January 27, 2011 at 02:00 pm

reality_chick,

You failed to answer byrdman1's question: "Do you have to be certain to reach a conclusion? Is to disbelieve in something's existence to be certain that it does not exist?".

You say that "Disbelief and denial are very nearly the same thing.'. No they're not! Do you believe in Zeus? Are you certain that Zeus doesn't exist? Would you consider yourself "atheist" when talking about Zeus?

Your definition of agnosticism is also flawed. Agnosticism is a position about knowledge. An agnostic says that some things are just unknown and unknowable. It is possible to be agnostic and atheist if one doesn't believe in a god, but doesn't claim to know that god doesn't exist, and considers the question of god's existence impossible to be answered.

148. byrdman1 - January 27, 2011 at 02:01 pm

Reality_chick

Thank you for not adopting a patronising tone this time.

I understand your argument, but I still disagree.

There is clearly a distinction between disbelief and denial, otherwise only one would be included in the dictionary definition. However, this was not really the point of my argument. I was responding to your highlighting of only selected parts of the definition; the reason for which I did not understand. I actually think that neither disbelief, nor denial, necessarily require certainty.

Do you have to be certain to reach a conclusion? Is to disbelieve in something's existence to be certain that it does not exist?

I think addressing these questions is crucial in addressing whether an atheist is necessarily certain that god does not exist. You seem to be insisting that you can only reach a conclusion when you are certain. What are your answers to these questions?

You state that, 'An agnostic HASN"T DECIDED whether there is is or is not a God'. If I were to accept your definitions, what is the correct term for someone who has concluded that, on the balance of probability, there is no god, but also accepts that they cannot be certain of this? They do not claim certainty, but they have reached a conclusion.

To describe he or she as not having decided whether there is or isn't a god would not be accurate, and so this person does not fit your definition of an agnostic. Unless, of course, you don't accept that the person has reached a conclusion at all.

I understand your efforts to keep the two terms distinct, but the way you have proposed to do this does not leave room for people to conclude that there is no god unless they are certain. The requirement of certainty is not stated in the dictionary definitions; it is something that has to be inferred from the perceived meaning of disbelief or denial.

The wikipedia article you quoted from earlier discusses at length the various positions that can be adopted within atheism and agnosticism. There are many possible positions on the existence or non-existence of deities that fall within the bounds of these two terms.

149. sasma - January 27, 2011 at 03:00 pm

A lot of online feedback is remarkably angry, hostile, and generally melodramatic. Every time I write an online piece I get an army of people calling me a "moron," or telling me I'm too smart for my own good, or I'm too stupid for my own good. People vent spleen and project all kinds of things onto the article and the writer. I find all this amusing and don't take it personally.

As a regular contributor to publications like SKEPTIC magazine, the SKEPTICAL INQUIRER and THE HUMANIST, I have received a lot of mail from vitriolic theists telling me I'll burn in hell for my atheistic views. Before the digital days, they were urgent hand-written letters with cribbed scrawling that ended at the bottom of the page and then turned sideways to continue up and around the margins. I have a whole file of these hilarious screeds. Now, I have a digital file of similar histrionic rants, only these are from the atheists.

Since I also got some very thoughtful and well-reasoned comments about my article, I will endeavor to respond and clarify my position. First, I'm actually a fan of some of Sam Harris's arguments (most of which are actually David Hume's and Bertrand Russell's arguments), and I also respect some of the important work by Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens.

There's a common confusion among my more melodramatic atheist readers that my criticizing them must make me a naive theist or an apologist for God. I don't really need to answer this, since my own six books and dozens of articles make my 20 years of skeptical agnosticism quite clear. A Democrat who criticizes another Democrat, does not automatically become a Republican. That said, I'm trying to help some otherwise very smart people (the Four Horsemen) appreciate an aspect of religion (a core aspect) that they have not properly addressed--namely, the emotional virtues of religion.

My argument is that religion, like art, has direct access to our emotional lives in ways that science does not. Yes, science can give us emotional feelings of wonder and the majesty of nature, but there are many forms of human suffering that are beyond the reach of any scientific alleviation. Different emotional stresses require different kinds of rescue.

A student told me recently of how his brother had been brutally stabbed to death five years ago. He and his whole family were utterly shattered by the loss. He told me that his mother would have been institutionalized if it were not for her belief that her son was in a better place now and that she would see him again.

For the more extreme atheist, all this looks irrational and therefor unacceptable. But I'm arguing something more delicate; yes, I agree, it's irrational, but that doesn't render it unacceptable or valueless. Why not? Because the human brain is a kludge of three major operating systems; the ancient reptile brain (motor functions, fight or flight types of instincts, etc.), the limbic or mammalian brain (emotions), and the most recent neocortex (rationality).

The new atheists are evaluating religion at the neocortical level -their criteria for assessing it is the hypothetico-deductive method. Now, I agree with them-religion fails miserably at the bar of rational validity. But we're at the wrong bar. The older brai-built by natural selection for solving survival challenges--was not built for rationality. Emotions like fear, love, rage, even hope or anticipation, were selected for because they helped early mammals flourish. Fear is a great prod to escape predators, for example, and aggression is useful in the defense of resources and offspring. Care or feelings of love (oxytocin and opioid based) strengthen bonds between mammal parents and offspring, and so on. Emotions are in many cases quicker ways to solve problems than deliberative cognition. Moreover, our own human emotions are retained from our animal past and represent deep homologies with other mammals (see the empirical work of Jaak Panksepp, father of Affective Neuroscience).

Now for we humans, the interesting puzzle is how the old animal operating system of emotions interacts with the new operating system of cognition. How do our feelings and our thoughts blend together to compose our mental lives, and our behaviors? Our cognitive ability to formulate representations of the external world, and manipulate them, is immersed in a sea of emotions. When I think about the heinous serial killer, my blood runs cold. When I call up the images of my loved ones in my mind's eye, I am flooded with warm emotions. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has shown that emotions saturate even the seemingly pure information-processing aspects of rational deliberation.

My argument is that religion helps people, rightly or wrongly, manage their emotional lives. And while it doesn't do very much for me and other skeptics (I prefer art), I would be very inattentive if I failed to notice how much relief and comfort it gave to other people. No amount of scientific explanation or socio-political theorizing is going to console the mother of the stabbed boy. But the irrational hope that she would see her murdered son again sustained her, according to my student. And it's reasonable to suggest that such an emotional belief may have given her the energy and vitality to continue caring for her other children (so we can imagine a selective pressure for such emotional beliefs at the "group" or "kin" level of natural selection).

People who critique such emotional responses and strategies with the refrain "But is it true?" are missing the point. I agree with the atheists: Most religious beliefs are not true. But here's the crux. The emotional brain doesn't care. It doesn't operate on the grounds of true and false. An emotion is not a representation or a judgment, so it cannot be evaluated like a theory. Emotions are not true or false. Even a terrible fear inside a dream is still a terrible fear. This means that the criteria for measuring a healthy theory, is not the criteria for measuring a healthy emotion. Unlike a healthy theory-which must correspond to empirical facts-a "healthy emotion" might be one that contributes to neurochemical homeostasis or other affective states that promote biological flourishing. The intellectual life answers to the all-important criterion: Is this or that claim ACCURATE? But the emotional life has a different master. It answers to the more ancient criterion: Does this or that feeling help the organism THRIVE? Often an accurate belief also produces thriving (how else could intelligence be selected for?). But frequently there is no such happy correlation. Mixing up these criteria is a common category mistake that fuels a lot of the theist/atheist debate.

Some people have suggested that my appreciation of emotional well-being (independently from questions of veracity and truth) is tantamount to "drinking the Kool-Aid" and "taking the blue pill" (from the Matrix scenario). But the real tension is not between delusion and truth-that's an easy one. The real tension is between the needs of one part of the brain (limbic) and the needs of another (the neocortical). Evolution shaped them both, and the older one does not get out of the way when the newbie comes on the scene.

Now many people have confused my attempts to describe and understand emotional religion as a defense of religion, when in fact I am really trying to defend the emotions. The new atheists tend to adopt the traditional dismissive view of emotions that one finds in neocortex-based neuroscience, cognitive science, and evolutionary psychology. My own view is heavily influenced by theories of embodied cognition and affective science (e.g., Antonio Damasio, Richard Davidson, and Jaak Panksepp in neuroscience, Mark Johnson in philosophy, etc.). There is nothing spooky, or mystical, or magical about the idea that the mind is more than just rational consciousness. I am simply acknowledging that the logical neocortex is built on top of a subcortical emotional mountain. Science and rationality are not best suited to navigate some of those crags and chasms of feeling, but other human cultural tools (like religion and art) can engage them effectively.

My description of animism was not an endorsement of it. I used this example to demonstrate two things-one, the emotional comforts religion can provide, and two, the way that empirical rationality must take its starting point from a specific CONTEXT. More importantly, my overall DESCRIPTION of emotional religion should also not be taken as a NORMATIVE endorsement. I agree with all the good folks who pointed out that it would be better to have a medical clinic in a poor village than a shaman. I said as much in the article. But until the medical clinic gets there, let's tolerate the shaman. And if the shaman is "in the way of" the coming clinic, then by all means let's campaign against him.

Ultimately, my goal in the article is to contribute to our UNDERSTANDING of religious people-like a Democrat tries to understand a Republican, or vice versa. I'm not yet in a position to make many substantial normative claims, but I'll venture this important provisional one. If you want to get rid of religion, you can't ARGUE it out of existence with rationality. Instead, you have to "feed" the hungry emotions something new as a healthier replacement. The emotional brain has a voracious and different dietary appetite than the rational brain. And until we create some new emotional superfood, religion will continue to feed it. But the emotions should not be seen as some inconvenient garbage-eating monster in the basement of the brain. The emotional life provides the vitality and the dynamism that we mammals require. Science itself would not be successful if it wasn't driven by the passions of inquiry. The passions of inquiry, however, will be cold comfort to certain sorts of suffering, and that is why we have other kinds of culture (including religion).

Stephen T. Asma

150. rsmulcahy - January 27, 2011 at 03:42 pm

God, what a moron. Just kidding Mr.Asma, just wanted you to feel at home in comments section.

However, I do think your model of evolutionary brain function is a bit simplistic. Yes, the functions of the three brain regions are generally as you describe them (though conflating the neo-cortex with "rationality" is a chuckler) but at first you make them sound like they have nothing to do with one another. And the tired three "operating systems" analogy is not helpful to to even begin understanding the complexity of brain function. You paraphrase a neuroscientist who argues,

"emotions saturate even the seemingly pure information-processing aspects of rational deliberation."

But who thinks the cortex is a pure information processor in the first place? Why seemingly? And to say that emotions "saturate" rationality is a good way of saying nothing. Can't we say that the rational brain saturates the emotional brain as well?
I just think you are being unclear, the neural circuits and feedback loops between these three "operating systems" makes the idea of separate brain functions ridiculous. Your map is so far removed from the territory it is meant to represent. I think you should not try to make arguments that this specific brain region is uber-rational and this one is pure emotion even if you are saying there are connections among them. I think you should apply the same skepticism about religion to our current understanding of the brain. Because this is the dark ages of neuroscience.
And as long as I am on about defining terms, I don't think it is accurate to say that the emotional brain helped mammals to flourish or that there are healthy emotions versus unhealthy emotions. That is a lot of humanistic projection onto a reality that cares naught for our subjective preoccupations with ourselves. Emotions did not help our mammalian ancestors "flourish," I don't even understand the use of that term in an evolutionary perspective. Emotions as they have evolved merely increase or decrease reproductive fitness at the individual level and a state of constant fear/anxiety and aggression (sexual and defensive) is generally what keeps mammals alive long enough to reproduce. So if by "flourish" you mean "reproduce" then I guess we agree. And, you can't decide what are healthy emotions based on what you would like our brains to look like, your brain doesn't care what you think. A healthy emotion leads to biological flourishing? I don't understand what that means. "Flourishing" is not a biological concept so I would drop it.

151. ejb_123 - January 27, 2011 at 03:53 pm

Stephen T. Asma wrote: "That said, I'm trying to help some otherwise very smart people (the Four Horsemen) appreciate an aspect of religion (a core aspect) that they have not properly addressed--namely, the emotional virtues of religion."

Religion may have emotional values, but as a former Catholic, I would argue that it is not one's emotions, let alone one's faith, is what is important. One's religion is made up of a group of ritual actions that people do, usually to appease God or the gods. A Catholic attends Mass, partakes in the Eucharist, fasts, prays, remains celibate (and sometimes also remains silent and in solitude) for various periods of life, recites the Rosary, abstains from meat during Lenten Fridays, and perhaps even mortifies the flesh. The letter of James in the New Testament goes even goes further, noting that true religion is taking care of orphans and widows and others less fortunate than ourselves. It is how people negotiate not only with the supernatural, but also with other people and non-human others (such as animals). Emotion has little to do with it -- that, I would argue, is more the realm of superstition than religion.

152. reality_chick - January 27, 2011 at 04:18 pm

byrdman1 wrote: "There is clearly a distinction between disbelief and denial, otherwise only one would be included in the dictionary definition."

Fair enough.

byrdman1 wrote: "Do you have to be certain to reach a conclusion?"

This hinges on the definition of what constitutes 'certainty' (can anything be certain?)and what constitues a conclusion. The word 'conclusion' indicates that a decision has been made and that the case has been closed. There can be 'certain conclusions' and 'uncertain conclusions'.

Both byrdman1 and knightofni are basically presenting the same arguments to me, which also conform to the definitions and discussion in the aforementioned Wikipedia article. I'll accept that as a victory for your argument, but I must say that what it shows is that an 'atheist' may hold one of several, and perhaps many, divergent views about a Supreme Being, a soul, the value of existence, and the nature of existence.

The Buddhists say that there is no God and no soul, yet they also believe in reincarnation and Karma. Obviously the Buddhist concept of atheism is quite divergent from the scientific atheists like Dawkins.

I have a friend who insists that he is an atheist but he has also told me that he might accept the idea of a 'universal consciousness'. Excuse me, but isn't a universal consciousness much the same as a Supreme Being?

Advaitist Hindus believe that there is a universal consciousness known as Brahman (essentially a God), which is permanent but that the individual consciousness is impermanent and it eventually merges into the Supreme Consciousness or Brahman. Would it be correct to describe the Advaitist Hindus as 'atheists'?

The Buddhists and the Advaitists hold very similar beliefs, but the Buddhists claim to be atheists and the Advaitists do not.

It appears that 'atheist' has an imprecise meaning and that 'atheists' may believe in a variety of things, some of which are quite distinct. Next time I meet an 'atheist', I shall have to ask them "Which type of atheist are you?"

153. ruritania - January 27, 2011 at 05:05 pm

Reality chick,
You are confusing a philosophical position (agnosticism) with a theological one (atheism vs. theism). Historically, most atheist/freethinkers have defined atheism as an absence of belief, not a belief that god does not exist. Here's the point: you can be agnostic,(not sure that god exists) and still choose to believe in a god, through faith. You can be agnostic (not sure that god exists,) and choose not to believe in god because it hasn't been proven to you. Most people who say, "I'm agnostic " are of the latter type and are actually atheists (they have no active, positive belief in god). I've read articles by self procalimed "agnostic" clergymen, so clearly the term only defines how you view the concept of god (provable or not), NOT how you act upon that view.

154. rsmulcahy - January 27, 2011 at 07:02 pm

You people (reality chick and the rest of you) are relentless, relentlessly self-absorbed that is, I see no desire to actually find a consensus on anything. You are as bad as an ideologically fractured Congress but with the added pathos of unresolved psychoanalytical issues. You are all a bunch of chattering monkeys in full ego defense mode, I don't care how esoteric you think your discussion is and how full of meaning and import your distinctions/hair splittings are. It is a lot psuedo-intellectual masturbation. Have the 153 postings to this article cleared anything up? Certainly has generated a lot of citing of the dictionary. And, of course, definitions of words in the dictionary are completely objective and have a complete correspondence/equivalence to that which exists in nature. Are you people playing scrabble or trying to have a meaningful discussion? The only one who wants to hear you bleet is yourself. I was an atheist until today, now I hope there is an angry, vengeful god who subscribes to the Chronicle and who is taking names.

155. evaluator - January 27, 2011 at 08:08 pm

nuff said

156. kraljevic - January 28, 2011 at 12:52 am

On atheism (of any flavor) and the exhibition of morality: if mutually beneficial behavior is selected for, we should be hard wired for such behaviors. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is as close to a universal behavioral admonishment as one can find. Being "good" feels good, to normal people of any stripe - literally, neurochemically. Non-sociopathic, non-pathological, and non-threatened people may do bad things sometimes; but then they feel bad or they rationalize their behavior to limit that pain. Most of the time, they choose or feel compelled to behave morally, in ways informed by their culture (which includes their religion or religious past, if they have one).

Non-religious and those religious who do not believe that their religion is the only path to the divine may turn inward or to various philosophies (including Hunanism) or to non-religious institutions or even other religious institutions for moral or ethical guidance. That doesn't negate their beliefs or lack thereof, nor does it necessarily introduce cognitive dissonance. Take good ideas where you can find them...

Promoting moral behavior is the logical thing to do, regardless of one's ideas about one's tenure or place in the universe. Why would atheists or any other sane person want else? (And ,no, identifying issues of relativism does not preclude one from coming to conclusions about how best to behave.)

Here's a questin for the new atheists, that just occurred to me, though: Most of the people persuaded will be moderate, rational people. Extremists will (almost) never be persuaded. Will not the result be the further radicalization of religious zealots as more moderating elements of their congregations are brought over? Will their success not lead to concentrating the poisonous part of religion, rather then eliminating it?

157. kraljevic - January 28, 2011 at 12:59 am

"...rather *than* eliminating..."

158. byrdman1 - January 28, 2011 at 02:59 am

rsmulcahy

I think we did clear some things up actually and I think you're being unfair. Reality-chick in particular has accepted an argument that she originally disagreed with and has clearly changed her position. Is this 'ego-defence'?

It's a shame that debate on the Internet upsets you so much. If we'd all known that we were upsetting you, I'm sure we would have all stopped immediately. I hadn't realised that this comments section is here to inform/entertain you personally, or at the very least that you're here to speak for everyone reading but not commenting. How humble of you. I wish I could trascend my ego like you.

Having now read your ego-free, non-self-absorbed post, and lovely sentiments, I feel thoroughly embarassed for engaging intellectualy (pseudo or otherwise) with strangers on the Internet.

Or were you on the wind-up? It's difficult to tell.

159. copesan - January 28, 2011 at 09:05 am

Religion is not just functionalist.

160. kraljevic - January 28, 2011 at 10:44 am

"Contrary to Dawkin's Humanist claim, altruism is not always the most rewarding path in life. Selfish and narcisssistic individuals have often achieved the summit of health, wealth, power, privilege, prestige, and self-satisfaction in this world." - Reality_Chick

This is what prompted my previous post. Self-satisfaction is the most hollow kind of satisfaction, and the summits you mention are pretty low when compared to the summits aimed at by Humanism or religion (at its best). I am talking about *normal* people, not narcissists or megalomaniacs. Yes, ego expansion in the domains you listed feels good; that's selected for, too. But if you can get their without caring for anyone else you are not normal. People *need* to love and be loved, not just admired.

As for the idea that atheists must choose to ignore ethics because they aren't able to objectively have values and remain atheist, that's nonsensical. Even the most rational person cannot simply decide that they are no longer subject to their biological/psycho-emotional selves. I recommend reading How We Decide, Mindset: The Psychology of Success, and The Moral Animal if you are under the impression that a lack of belief in a supreme being disqualifies one from establishing ethical grounds for conduct.

Afterall, given the fact that god has not posted any clarifying comments to this thread, aren't we all in the same boat? Aren't we all (by faith or reason or faith in reason or even by the necessities of the moment) deciding which lights will guide our behavior?

161. kraljevic - January 28, 2011 at 12:03 pm

tekton, would you throw your weight behind Islamic miracles, too? (http://www.miraclesofislam.com/)
How about Hindu miracles or animistic magic?

162. reality_chick - January 28, 2011 at 12:59 pm

rsmulcahy: I agree with byrdman1's response to you. The discussions that we have here help us develop our own thinking, and we do not require your approval.

I was taught in public school that atheism and agnosticism were two distinct categories of thought. I did not understand that atheism is merely the disbelief in a God, and not the beleif that there is no God. With the help of other posters on this forum, I now see that there can be Atheist/Agnostics, Atheist/Humanists, Atheist/Buddhists, Atheist/Taoists, Atheist/Hindus, Atheist/Christians, and even Atheist/Animists. (As long as the Atheist/Animist is 'uncertain' about the Nature Spirits he worships, he is an Atheist.) I tend to believe in a universal consciousness, but now I realize that I am also an atheist, because of my uncertainty about that belief.

For anyone who thinks I have gotten off-topic in my comments, here's a tie-in to the subject matter of the article: Atheists can also be Animists!

kraljevic: I cautiously agree with you regarding the 'feel good' aspect of altruism and the sentiments of 'normal people'. However, narcissism, megalomania, and garden-variety selfishness are also quite common. As past history and current events demonstrate, the behavior of many government officials, business executives, and other sucessful high-achievers often displays narcissism, megalomania, and a cunning and unscupulous exploitation and abuse of others. Often these behaviors are rewarded, not punished, by the society.

In my youth I spent a great deal of time with one such narcissistic megalomaniac, who was well-known for his intelligence, friendliness, charm, high energy, work ethic, and world-spanning curiosity and interests. He eventually became a wealthy globe-trotting entrepreneur with a rather low number on the Forbes list. (Lower means wealthier on the Forbes list.)

He owned and abandoned the most expensive superfund site in US history, leaving US taxpayers with a $200 million cleanup bill. He abandoned a similar disaster in Guyana. He has trafficked in African 'blood diamonds', hired mercenaries in Africa and elsewhere, cooperated with the notorious Myanmar dictatorship in a controversial project, and now his operations are global. During the current economic downturn he has prospered.

He is a family man, apparently loving and beloved. He is respected by people in high positions and he sits on various boards. He is widely admired for his business acumen, and as a guest speaker at conferences he preaches his financial Gospel to eager acolytes. He displays a minimum of philanthropy to distract attention from his maximal profits and the environmental and human rights abuses committed by his companies. One of his partners in cooperative ventures is a popular, glad-handing ex-POTUS, who likewise uses conspicuous charity as a cover for predatory Robber Baron activities.

Globally, the gap between the rich and the poor is widening rapidly, which provides proof that the narcissistic megalomaniacs are leading and driving the engine of civilization. In India, the middle and upper classes are enjoying unprecedented prosperity, while 50% of the population is malnourished and living below the UN's poverty line of an income of $1.25 per day. Throughout the world the middle classes worship the rich, the rich worship themselves, and the poor are out the door.

163. jason_streitfeld - January 28, 2011 at 03:32 pm

I see no evidence that all, or even most, of the "Four Horsemen" have failed to properly consider the emotional value religions can and often do provide. I don't see them all failing to understand the contextual constraints which define rationality. I don't see them unilaterally condemning all religions as useless.

Hitchens might be guilty here--I haven't read him enough to say one way or the other--but I'm sure Dennett is innocent of these charges, and I think Dawkins is, too. Harris also seems able to consider the good that has come from religions. Mr. Asma is attacking a straw man.

164. lost_angeleno - January 28, 2011 at 08:16 pm

reality(?)_chick: sooooo . . . we shouldn't be reductionists re. Mythology, because myths are really about astronomy and archaeology? ??? And what's this "mere" literature? Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Li Po, and Rumi would have something to say about that, I suspect (and note I use the quartet series, a very ancient form of syntax and dividing the world). Mythologies are very rich in very many ways, as I know from 30+ years in the field. My casual definition was JFF (just for fun), something we do in the field when we're not being ponderously pedantic. If it hasn't already been done, let me recommend Steve Prothero's "God is not One.
I smell the g*d Entropy settling into this thread.

165. djpresidente - January 28, 2011 at 08:23 pm

I think religious education should be required for everyone, especially the New Atheists and religious fundamentalists.

As a member of Asma's condescendingly-titled "moderate Jew, Christian and Muslim" category, I find the argument that religion can be rewritten to fit into a humanistic mindset for the good of the people disgusting, since this would patently untrue what many monotheistic religions claim: namely, that there religious story is universally true, or at least parts of it are.

If you doubt this claim, just look at what happened to the mainline Protestant denominations in Europe. With the rise of the New Historical approach, clergy were encouraged to believe that God existed or that Christ rose from the dead, since science and anthropology had proven these claims untrue (a gross misunderstanding of b

166. djpresidente - January 28, 2011 at 08:49 pm

Hit the submit button on accident. We continue...

...both fields, since good scientific inquiry shouldn't be interested in metaphysical claims that are inherently non-empirical and subjective). The result was in part that "religion" failed to meet the emotional needs of post-war Europeans. It was not only due to the rise of scientific method (which had actually occurred much earlier) that people stopped believing in God.

In fact, the "religion" that the New Aethists attack and fundamentalists defend had undergone quite a bit of humanist reshaping from its earlier forms. In many ways, Evangelicals in particular picked the fight with science before Richard Dawkins' mom held a pen.

I'm happy that Asma calls the New Aethists narrow in their thinking. He is too, if he believes that Latin America is primarily animalist or that fundamentalists are usually the orthodox members of their respective religions. Even by calling Buddhism a religion, he fails to flush out the great diversity within what is really an intense cluster of polytheistic and often mutually-contratictory religions that operate under a similar philosophical mindset, the likes of which is only crudely similar to western Stoicism.

As a guy who's just as much a Neo-Thomist as the next one, I'm also offended by the lack of knowledge and quantity of ignorant blanket statements about monotheistic religions that permeate both the article and the responses. For folks that don't believe in gods or really know much about what they might be about should they exist, you guys sure have a lot of things to say. For example, no one so far has acknowledged the role politics played in changing the scope of both Islam and Christianity. Indeed, people who believe Paul was the mastermind behind Medieval Christianity should read some of the history surrounding the Council of Nicea. Equally, those who (ethnocentrically) believe Islam inherently breeds violence should remember the history behind how the Sunni and Shiite sects came about. For that matter, you should study the history of near-eastern concepts of genealogy. And we're just beginning.

So I come back to my original proposal. If you want to be ignorant, keep your mouth shut. If not, go to seminary. God knows that if you read the Chronicle of Higher Education, you sure as hell have the means.

167. goxewu - January 28, 2011 at 11:29 pm

After 166 comments, probably nobody's reading anymore save rootin,' tootin,' two-fisted, tough-talkin' neo-Thomists who are somehow offended because a lot of people who argue the existence, or not, of "God," aren't familiar with the entire history of guesses at the number of angeles who can dance on the head of a pin.

So I probably won't offend many by indulging myself in a little analogy about why it's so maddening, as an agnostic leaning toward atheism, to argue with an academic religionist. The discussion runs in eerie reverse parallel with an old dirty joke, which I bowdlerize here for consumption by the pious:

A young man seeks to have sex with a young lady with whom he has a date. He consults a friend known to have clever ways in seduction. The friend tells him to hire a carriage and, surreptitiously, paint a small green spot on the horse's behind. The young lady will notice the spot and mention it. The conversation will proceed from the green spot to the spot being on the horse's behind, to behinds, to lovely behinds, to her lovely behind, to the young man's desire for it, and voilà!, mad, passionate lovemaking right there in the carriage.

The young man does as told except that, after a mile of carriage ride at dusk, the young lady says nothing. The young man stops the carriage, distracts the young lady, and surreptitiously enlarges the spot. Another mile, but no comment. Another stop, after only a half mile, another enlargement, so that now the painted green spot covers half the horse's behind. Still nothing, until, finally, the young man seizes the pot of paint and leaps from the carriage. Wild with frustration, he flings all of the paint over the horse's entire behind. He climbs back into the carriage and after horse has taken only a couple of steps, the young lady asks, "Pardon, but isn't this horse's behind all green?"

"Yeah!" shouts the young man. "Wanna f**k!?"

In arguing with my religionist friend, we begin with the equivalents of an alleged miracle that the whole horse's behind being green is something only "God" could produce. I refute that with some science of horse's fur color, light conditions, the psychology of perception, etc. My friend counters with the equivalent of a smaller spot. I more or less debunk that, and he proceeds to the equivalent of a small spot that just might not be explainable by science and reason. At the end of hours of argument about nature of horse hairs, the vagaries of moonlight, etc., I concede that there might--just might--be something unexplainable about the green color of two or three philosophical horse hairs. "Yeah!" shouts my friend, "Now don't you see that belief in Jesus Christ, his Virgin Birth, his coming back from dead to rise up to Heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father is the only way to prevent your soul from being cast for eternity into the lake of fire!?"

The point is that most of the people I've argued God with have, on the one hand, asserted that God existed because science and reason couldn't explain every event in every nook and cranny of the universe since the beginning of time. But, on the other hand, their "faith" leaps from those little pockets of uncertainty to take its place in the very concrete dogma, practices and traditions of very specific religious beliefs. Very narrow religious beliefs. And yet they're the ones going around and accusing atheists of have very narrow world views.

As I say to the Witnesses and Adventists occasionally at my door, "Fellahs, talk among yourselves, maybe include a few Jews and a Catholic and Hindu or two in the conversation, come up with consensus proposal and get back to me."

168. haleyron - January 29, 2011 at 02:25 am

It sculpted are looking very ancient and regional.These three sculpted are wrothy of praise.HCG Activator

169. pollyklein - January 29, 2011 at 09:38 am

"Monotheists" are no such thing!
All the major religions have many many separate gods.
Origin gods, prophet gods, angel and djin gods, ghosts,
ancestor spirits that you can appeal to ...

170. vicofnick - January 29, 2011 at 04:54 pm

"Atheists are the worst kind of fundamentalists!" - Mr. Deity

171. reality_chick - January 29, 2011 at 05:33 pm

l

172. marka - January 29, 2011 at 10:46 pm

Wow!! For an article that some considered unworthy of reading, it sure has stimulated a lot of discussion, writing, and back-and-forth. By that measure, a successful article in stimulating discussion.

For me, underscores truth that scientism is the opiate of the intelligensia.

Scientism, often coupled with atheism, is considered a religion - a belief system like any other. And yes, you can look at any number of dictionaries, encyclopedias, etc. - this is definitional (unless you are Thru the Looking Glass in Wonderland ... I get to make up my own definitions for words commonly used & understand by others).

There are competing axioms/assumptions that underlie any system - mathematics starts with some a priori understandings, or operating assumptions. Change those, and you shift the logic & conclusions that follow.

So .. much of the argument is 'my beliefs are better than others.' According to what measuring stick? And what if I don't agree with your measuring stick? By the way, I don't accept many of scientism's assumptions, and my 'default' for lack of proof seems different than many of the above commentators (there are very few 'facts', but plenty of reasonable guesses and operating assumptions that shift over time -- in 'fact,' scientific inquiry involves a constant reassessment and adjustment of said guesses and assumptions, including reject of previous 'facts').

Hmm ...

173. goxewu - January 30, 2011 at 08:54 pm

At least science, while it may not be able to prove everything, has a generally agreed-upon method ("the scientific method," falsifiability, verifiable-or-not predictions). And, generally speaking, hard-core biologists don't dispute the foundations of physics (or deny the contributions of Einstein and Bohr), nor do chemists say that paleontology represents the Coming of the Anti-Scientist, nor do geologists regard anthropologists as Fallen.

All that religion has--beside a long, wide and deep history (and even slavery has that), is that science hasn't proven everything. And with religionists what you get usually isn't some gentle, philosophical, "there might be something out there that science can't explain." What you get after the pseudo-philosophical veneer is scratched is usually a believer in a particular program of very specific and, by necessity (i.e., denying the claims of other religions), narrow religious beliefs. And how they got with any intellectual consistency from "science can't prove everything" to [pick your favorite Christian, Judaic, Muslim, Hindu, Zoroastrian, etc. tenet] is, well a mystery.

I admit that many atheists, in their certitude and abrasiveness, are unpleasant. But compared to, say, the veritable omnipresnece of such as Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, Oral Roberts, Robert Schuller, Pat Robertson, et al., over the years, I'm surprised that they're not nastier.

174. ian_parberry - January 30, 2011 at 11:39 pm

Zen is a refreshing change from other religions' - and now apparently atheism's - chronic case of verbal diarrhea.

175. danl19 - January 31, 2011 at 12:23 am

I take this as the central thesis of the article:
"Wheth­er it is Ca­thol­i­cism, Protestantism, Is­lam, Bud­dhism, or animism, the vir­tues can be re­tained while the vices are mod­er­at­ed. In short, the re­duc­tion of human suf­fer­ing should be the stand­ard by which we meas­ure ev­ery re­li­gion."

The second sentence I agree with, but isn't very useful. The first sentence is pretty far off base. While it is certainly possible a Catholicism in which people get their value from prayer, but without the church demonizing homosexuals, keeping condoms away from Africa and hiding pedophiles, there is no reason to believe this type of Catholicism will come to exist. All of the evidence points to the reality that the Catholic church wishes to keep with it's positions and actions on these issues, and there is nothing any outsider can do about it. The same is true for various other religions. We see that they have no interest in becoming the "not interested in religion as a source of morals or answer to questions of cosmology". This is not solely true of conservative churches, even very liberal religions are adamant that their religious book of choice is relevant to moral questions today, and supports "intelligent design" in the form of claiming that the order of the universe is evidence of a God. And they also aren't going to be persuaded by an atheists perspective as to what they should emphasize (they will listen and be more polite than the conservatives, and then decide to disagree).

So where does this leave us? The author mainly disagrees with Harris et al's position that we should aim for a world where religion is smaller and smaller until eventually non-existant, but rather try to guide religions to do good things and avoid the bad things. However unlikely it is that we remove religion from the world, it is even less likely that atheists somehow shape religions of others to do good and stop doing the bad.

176. kathrine9 - January 31, 2011 at 09:22 am

I love religions, especially animism - but there's only one problem and that is - people believe them.

177. renaissancehombre - January 31, 2011 at 11:10 am

When people are downtrodden they tend to take solice in having an all powerful imaginery friend. Unfortunately, this whole business of religion has morphed into a smug self righteous tool ofr oppressing the very people it claims to want to liberate.

For example, the reason Catholic popes and priests cannot have sex is to prevent the wealth of the church from being diverted back into the community. If the Catholic church liquidated it's holdings and used its vast wealth to alleviate poverty a great deal of suffering would end.

Why is it such a big deal to see through this scam? I maintain that the actual message jesus himself was driving at was that religion as an organized institution is a bad thing that hurts people and prevents is from being decent to one another. This message was too dangerous, so they killed him and then rather than try to bury the message they built it and warped it into the very think he was hell bent on opposing: another tool for oppression of the poor by the rich.

178. rsmulcahy - January 31, 2011 at 05:01 pm

Brydman1,

Not really sure what has been cleared up through this on-line debate, definitely fill me in. I never said I felt myself superior to or better informed than anyone else posting. I simply registered my annoyance with this topic thread and every other post on the Chronicle. They all end up with people arguing for themselves, not sure the truth value has much to do with the rhetoric. And especially with this topic, I find it laughable to see people getting all worked up about discussions centering on religion. You really think this is a "conversation" that will lead to changes in what anyone on this site believes. No, it is an opportunity for people to get annoyed with other people and feel smugly self-important for a moment. Look, I respect anyone who says they have a sincere desire to search for the Truth in this world but I have nothing but ridicule and disdain for anyone who thinks they know what that Truth is. And I think a lot of people like to get on the Chronicle and get all excited, "Look at what I believe." Great I looked at 177 posts and I see people believe all kinds of crazy things about theories, methodologies, standards of evidence. That's great, everyone should keep talking, maybe use all caps as a way of making sure others know how important your thoughts are. Is this the fate for the new social media, a lot of "sound and fury, signifying nothing?"

179. losergrad - January 31, 2011 at 08:37 pm

Especially troubling to me is the paragraph that begins: "Those who ar­gue that we must do away with all re­li­gion to set hu­man­ity on the true path gener­al­ly ac­cept some for­mu­la­tion of Marx's fa­mous argument: 'Re­li­gion is the opi­ate of the masses.'" Because Christopher Hitchens, one of the four horsemen, directly addresses those who misrepresent Marx's argument in his book _god Is Not Great_. (paperback pp.9-10) He provides the quotation in Marx's original context, which directly addresses the fact that religion can be paliative, stating that:

"Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions [...] Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers from the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and cull the living flower."

As Hitchens states, "those who offer false consolations are false friends." We don't offer a placebo. We strive to offer true consolation: understanding.

I've spent time in Latin America (which, by the way, is part of the West), and I've witnessed a preacher telling abused children that this is a vale of tears and that God is testing them. Nothing, to me, could be more despicable.

180. reality_chick - February 01, 2011 at 03:10 am

rsmulcahy wrote: "I see no desire to actually find a consensus on anything."

I don't think most people here expect to reach a 'consensus'. (Where is Al Gore when you need him?) It's just a discussion. We might not change our views here, but hopefully we'll learn something of what others think.

rsmulcahy wrote: "You are as bad as an ideologically fractured Congress but with the added pathos of unresolved psychoanalytical issues."

Congress should be ideologically fractured -- otherwise what is the point of having more than one political party? I actually wish that the Congress were ideologically fractured -- then we might see some opposition to US military aggression oversees.

rsmulcahy wrote: "You are all a bunch of chattering monkeys in full ego defense mode, I don't care how esoteric you think your discussion is and how full of meaning and import your distinctions/hair splittings are. It is a lot psuedo-intellectual masturbation."

That could be said of any presentation or any conversation. If you don't like conversations, you might consider becoming a Zen monk.

rsmulcahy wrote: "Have the 153 postings to this article cleared anything up? Certainly has generated a lot of citing of the dictionary. And, of course, definitions of words in the dictionary are completely objective and have a complete correspondence/equivalence to that which exists in nature."

The quotation of dictionary definitions was an attempt to identify the precise meaning of 'atheist', which is entirely germaine to the discussion. Should we all discard our dictionaries and instruct students to stop using dictionaries because they are not "objective" and do not "have a complete correspondence/equivalence to that which exists in nature?" I don't think so.

The problem with your criticisms,

181. reality_chick - February 01, 2011 at 03:20 am

rsmulcahy: The problem I see with your criticisms of the posts here is that, while some of your criticisms might have validity, it really sounds like you're questioning whether the debate should be taking place at all, or whether everyone should be privileged to particpate. You're not critiquing the specific arguments of others, or adding anything constructive to the discussion.

182. hildavcarpenter - February 01, 2011 at 11:03 am

I found the article informative about other countries cultures and customs. In reading some of the previous comments, I would say that some Catholic or Proestant stone throwers, fixed in a monoreligion for years, may have some difficulty seeing a different perspective?

183. trmills - February 01, 2011 at 12:32 pm

God (the God of the Jews and Christians) revealed Himself to people from the earliest times, asking them to believe in Him and and not animism. We can dismiss religion as worthless, and claim that we do not have a creator, but if there is indeed a God, we lie, and are answerable to Him for denying the truth about Him, which anyone engaging in this debate has had access to. I am so glad that God loves us enough that He came to buy back our souls and rescue us from our own sins- including sins of intellectual pride. Also, religion, if it is true, is not an opiate but a reality.

184. kategladstone - February 02, 2011 at 05:23 pm

Re:
"Has anyone ever tried asking a deaf person to communicate with these chimps? ASL is the language of the deaf: they are best set up to evaluate the claim." --

This should answer that:
"Boyce Rensberger is a sensitive and gifted reporter for the New York Times whose parents could neither speak nor hear, although he is in both respects normal. His first language, however, was Ameslan [another name for ASL/American Sign Language]. He had been abroad on the European assignment for the Times for some years. On his return to the United States, one of his first domestic duties was to look into the Gardners' experiments with Washoe. After some little time with the chimpanzee, Rensberger reported, 'Suddenly I realized I was conversing with a member of another species in my native tongue.'" -- Carl Sagan, THE DRAGONS OF EDEN. Chapter 5.

185. king_ahab - February 03, 2011 at 09:05 am

test

186. 11216800 - February 03, 2011 at 10:05 am

I found Dr. Asma's article very refreshing. What a human being believes and needs in times of emotional stress should be his/her own business. A belief in a spirit or a god can bring someone peace or comfort, so who are we to tell that person what he/she should or shouldn't believe in? If only there was such a religion as the "golden rule" (which charges us to treat / respect others as we would like to be treated / respected) the world might be a more peaceful place! Live and let live.

187. noumena2011 - February 04, 2011 at 12:57 pm

johnny6,

Some of your comments were problematic.

"The USA, for example, is a mostly poor country (only 1-2% holds the real wealth) with high rates of severe poverty, unemployment, homelessness, child death, and disease."

THE United States is NOT "a mostly poor country."

"I wish Professor Asma had visited some of the section 8 housing projects or homeless shelters that I grew up in, for heaven's sake.

What made me different is that I studied. I wasn't waiting for God to fix my problems."

What a grand, sweeping generalization about Section 8 residents and the homeless. Are they all waiting "for God to fix [their] problems"?

Congrats on the studying, which you mean to say other Section 8 residents don't really do.

Silly stuff.

188. jonwalksred - February 10, 2011 at 10:50 am

byrdman1: I couldn't agree with you more.

Reality_Chick: Why are you so focused on arbitrary definitions? If we really examine the question at large, objectively speaking, we must all be agnostics: NO ONE can claim certitude, regardless of whether you are the most devout theist or the most fervant atheist. I am honestly not sure why you are stuck on this menial and laborious point.

I would suggest to you (as I would Stephen Asma) that you further study the research, work and opinions of the so called "New Atheists" to gain a true grasp of their concepts. For example: Richard Dawkins uses a scale of 1 - 7; 7 being the most convinced atheist and 1 being the most pious theist; he rates himself as a 5 or 6. Christopher Hitchens has redefined the word for his own position: Anti-theist. And lastly, Sam Harris constantly acknowledges the implicit problems of labeling the position as atheistic.

So, rather than concentrating on definitions, why don't we look at the content of the article and the group of individuals it attempts to critique.

189. jonwalksred - February 10, 2011 at 11:27 am

187. noumena2011:

Your retort: THE United States is NOT "a mostly poor country." is way more problematic than the true theme of Johnny6's comment. We could reasonably argue that the truth lies somewhere between both of your statements, but we would certainly need to provide a little more supporting evidence than your statement!

Johnny6 raises an excellent point and to miss it, or cast it aside, shows either a lack of true consideration for the issue at hand, or a self-indulgence by way of the 'cheap shot'.

190. revgrant - February 10, 2011 at 01:24 pm

Haven't waded through all the comments above, but I want to raise a couple questions that I didn't see addressed in my skimming:
1. Can't get any 'ought' from an 'is.' Science tells us what is. To derive what we ought to do based on science is to smuggle in 'irrational' values.
2. If a convincing argument were possible to green light science telling us what is moral, I'll defer back to past attempts: doesn't it make anyone else tremendously apprehensive to learn that we are to behave in certain ways because "science proves it"? Seems to me we'd be replacing medieval western oppressive moral structures of the past for new scientific fundamentalist structures.
3. When left to binary--irrational and rational--the former is pejurated. Irrational is bad. However to reduce the human experience, ideally, to solely what scientists mean as 'rational' is reductive, incomplete, and dishonest. Humans know and feel hope, love, mind, and mystery. Digging even further in, we express ourselves metaphorically. The same sort of language use allows scientists to talk about theoretical subatomic particles and string theory and so forth allows us to talk about other matters that belong to what we can broadly term 'spiritual.'
4. In my tradition, Christianity, we believe that Jesus is the incarnate presence of the infinite God; incarnation radically meanns that it is only through the physical that the spiritual will be enacted. So of course spiritual experiences will be explained by physical, chemical processes; they just aren't reduced to them, but they lead to a transcendence that superceeds the physical.
5. Finally, 'irrational' faith and passions are on display in tone and substance in equal ways in the writings and personal public appearances of Dawkins, Hitchens, et al. Ironic, isn't it?

191. jonwalksred - February 11, 2011 at 02:37 pm

190. revgrant - February 10, 2011 at 01:24 pm:

1. How an earth does science "smuggle in 'irrational' values"? Presumably you, as with the majority of our species, rely minute-to-minute on innovations and conveniences that science has afforded us. However, when morality is mentioned, suddenly science is rendered incompetent and can, apparently, only lead us to "irrational values". Have you read Sam Harris' book: The Moral Landscape?

2. And your point here is what? Firstly, I have no idea what you mean by "new scientific fundamental structures". Secondly, should we replace bronze age (or "western oppressive moral structures") doctrine conceived by humans exhibiting the kind of fear, superstition and irrationality common at that time (and in underdeveloped nations today, as Asma posits) with science and reason: unequivocally, YES! Again, if you haven't already, please read Sam Harris' book: The Moral Landscape (with an open mind).

3. Science is not in the business of reducing human experience. Science uncovers new facts about the world in which we live, some of which may not give us the warm and fuzzies - too bad. However, no true scientist underestimates the emotions you describe. Instead, science attempts to understand them, aspiring to the cause of enhancing human well-being. Thankfully, in 2011, in most of the world, we rely on that science in situations such as the horrific Gifford shooting. For this, I am sure, the Gifford family are most grateful. We should all pay science the same homage.

4. I am all too aware of the many, fantastical beliefs within the numerous versions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, as well as the superstition found within most other religions or belief systems. This point is not worthy of further comment.

5. This statement is simply dishonest. I have watched hundreds of interviews/talks/debates and read hundreds of books/articles written by Dawkins, Hitchens, et al. and I have NEVER seen/heard "irrational faith" warranting mention in the same sentence as thinking that Jesus was born to a virgin, rose from the dead and will visit us again. Not to mention the fact that you, presumably, conduct yourself on a day-to-day basis according to the scripture that contains these fairy tales.

Look, everyone is entitled to their beliefs, regardless how far fetched, and I truly respect that; some people love Harry Potter. However, in the year 2011, why should we still be forced to acknowledge mono-theism as anything less than that. And the real problem isn't that we just acknowledge, we also placate, subsidise, fear and readily grant exception and impunity. Talk of a deity, a prime mover responsible for the first cell and laying down the path for evolution; talk of spirituality and metaphysics if you must, but critisizing science while arriving at an Abrahamic conclusion is a non sequitur and the ultimate Straw man.

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