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October 30, 2005

Useless Atheism

Marshall Brain, the guy behind the HowStuffWorks.com site and its attended media ancillaries, has decided to prove to everyone once and for all that God does not exist, therefore helping the lot of us to get rid of that nasty, distracting God and allowing us to focus on the really important stuff, like, I don't know, rocket cars to the moon or a gum with flavor that's actually long-lasting, and not just an extra thirty seconds of vaguely fruity tang at the tail end of your chewing experience. Thus: Why Does God Hate Amputees, which uses amputation as a central conceit to prove that God doesn't exist, and that people are wasting their Sundays sitting in a pew.

Leaving aside the fact that a God who orders his followers to hack off part of their children's genitals as a handy sign of religious identification clearly likes amputees just fine, here's a tip for atheists: The problem is not that people believe God exists. The problem is that people want to use God as an excuse to do damn fool things. The two are entirely separate issues. Where atheists rather charmingly get things backward is by assuming that by getting rid of God, people will stop doing the damn fool things they say God wants them to do. As if they won't find some other excuse.

Surprise! They will. Take, if you will, the 20th Century (please). What do Hitler's killing 9 million Jews, Gypsies, gays and political opponents, Stalin's starving of 25 million of the Soviet Union's own citizens for political ends (and sending 1.5 million to the gulags), and Pol Pot's presiding over the Cambodian autogenocide of up to 2 million people all have in common? If you say "Why, not a trace of a religious rationale on the part of those committing crimes against humanity, that's what," you'd be entirely correct (note, however, that many of the victims were targeted wholly or in part because of their religion). The Rwandan genocide was not manifestly an issue of religion either, as the Tutsi and the Hutu largely share the same faith. Didn't stop the Hutu from hacking up 800,000 Tutsi (and some inconveniently moderate Hutu as well) in the space of just 10 days.

Pound for pound, death for death, ruin for ruin, if you want to plot the destructiveness of secular and religious conflicts and movements in the last 100 years, I'm pretty sure you'll find the religion-free ones have got the religiously-motivated ones beat, hands down. The reason should be obvious to an atheist: because God is not the one who wants people to do damn fool things; people want to do damn fool things, and they go looking for the excuse that will provide them what they need to do that damn fool thing. Sometimes, it's "God wants this." Sometimes it's not. Getting rid of God won't stop people from doing damn fool things, it'll just make them look for another way to get it done. Bullies and demagogues are notable for using whatever excuse is expedient and popular. God happens to be expedient and popular. It's no surprise that He gets used. When He is no longer expedient or popular, the demagogues and bullies will move on to something else. The net amount of human-to-human atrocity and conflict will likely remain the same thereafter.

The same God that Fred Phelps allegedly worships is worshiped by the members of the Metropolitan Community Church; the same God whose more unsavory adventures in the Old Testament are used to justify abject hate is the same God worshiped by the Church of the Brethren; the same God that some say is leading us into battle against the heathens in the Middle East is the same one prayed to by the Quakers. Some people would see this as an example of how God can't exist, since so many people believe so many contradictory things about the same entity. I tend to see it as a reflection of the desires people bring to the human need for spirituality and fellowship. God is many things; one of those things is a mirror.

Disposing of the God of the Quakers or the Brethren or the MCC-- even if one could, which one cannot -- is not something I see as either useful or desirable. These people do no harm in their worship, and their faith and their works in their faith have done immense good, as have the works in faith of many good people. The flip side of this is that we have to endure the God of Fred Phelps and the God of the Intelligent Designers as well. But this is where a useful atheist -- which is to say, a person of good conscience -- will spend his time combating those who are using their religion as an excuse to act to the detriment of society, rather than wasting his time in teleological debates that he can no more definitively conclude than can those who hold the opposite opinion.

As almost all of you know, I am an agnostic; I rather seriously doubt that God exists, or if He does, that She is actively concerned whether one eats shrimp or has sex with a member of one's own sex, or chooses sides in a football game like a celestial bookie. I even doubt It hopes we all love another as we would love ourselves, thought it's a nice thought. I rather profoundly doubt that anyone else knows whether God does these things either. But I could be wrong, which is why I say I'm agnostic rather than atheist. I don't know. It does me no harm if other people believe other than I; what matters is what people do with that belief. If they use it to enrich their lives and to do good for others, than agnostic though I am, I will happily celebrate their faith and believe that their belief is an excellent thing. If they use it to justify their hates and fears and to make others wallow in their self-satisfied ignorance of the world, well, naturally, I'm going to have a problem with that.

Marshall Brain thinks he's on to something by aiming to disprove the existence of God; what he's doing is akin to looking at the smoldering remains of a house brought down by shoddy wiring and suggesting the solution to the problem is to expunge electricity from the land. You can make the argument that electricity is the problem, I suppose; rather more useful is to suggest the problem is an idiot electrician. Even more useful is to do what you can to make sure that particular idiot electrician doesn't get any more work.

Posted by john at October 30, 2005 10:53 AM

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Tracked on October 30, 2005 05:11 PM

Comments

Kevin Q | October 30, 2005 03:00 PM

I enjoy watching a certain type of atheist trying to argue logically against faith.

faith
n.

- Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.

But if you think about it logically, it just doesn't make any sense.

Which part of the definition of "faith" did you not understand?

From this page: http://whydoesgodhateamputees.com/your-delusion.htm
"To a normal person, it is easy to see what is going on. All of these stories -- Santa, [John] Smith, Mohammed and Jesus -- are fairy tales. All four of the stories are equally delusional."

So what? What does that prove? It's not an answer, it's just knocking down somebody else's answer. It's just mean-spirited. That site is like the teenager who tells the 6 year olds that Santa doesn't really exist. It's just trying to make people feel crappy, with nothing to fill it's place.

Though, to be fair, it's probably better than telling people, "The stuff you believe in is crap, so you should believe that I'm God, instead, and give me all your money."

Nice post.

K

mythago | October 30, 2005 04:06 PM

For "certain type of atheist", read "atheist whose understanding of 'religion' is limited to having grown up around Christians who were jerks, and what s/he reads about the Middle East every morning in the newspaper".

Laurie Mann | October 30, 2005 04:18 PM

I'm on the atheist side of agnosticism - I don't think you can prove God either way.

Jim Winter | October 30, 2005 04:23 PM

I believe in God because of this man.

http://www.jokaroo.com/funnyvideos/fartingpreacher5.html

I'd believe God so loves the world if he'd just do the same thing to Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.

Martin Wagner | October 30, 2005 04:48 PM

First off, John, don't fall into the trap of making blanket generalizations like "the problem for atheists is etc.," as if all atheists thought in lockstep with this guy or any other atheist. This is as off-base as people who tar all Christians or blacks or Jews or any other group with a single brush, as if one point of view represents the opinions of all.

Speaking as a self-described strong atheist, I'd say that most atheists would agree in large part with this statement you make: "The problem is not that people believe God exists. The problem is that people want to use God as an excuse to do damn fool things." I personally would strongly disagree with your following remark, "The two are entirely separate issues." This is like saying, "The problem is not that people overeat. It's that when they overeat, they get fat. The two are entirely separate issues." Oh, I think the relationship between the issues is clear. And I think that human beings' propensity to believe in things that do not exist — not just gods, but UFOs, Bigfoot, and psychic powers — is a big problem, a towering problem. How could widespread irrationalism, the inability on the part of millions to distinguish fantasy from reality, not be a problem?

However, on you go with your blanket generalizations and straw men. "Where atheists rather charmingly get things backward is by assuming that by getting rid of God, people will stop doing the damn fool things they say God wants them to do. As if they won't find some other excuse." Again, I know virtually no atheists who think what you say atheists think here, and many, including myself, who fully understand that the world's problems won't magically go away if you take away someone's invisible friend. Give us a little credit for reason, John.

The problem as I and many other atheists see it is not simply the belief in a God or gods; it's that the very process of religious faith, of holding up the act of believing supernatural or similar outlandish claims without regard to evidence as the highest possible human virtue, stifles rationalism and critical thinking. And without good critical thinking skills, a person is apt to make any number of dumb decisions. As you point out.

You can't just yank belief in God out by its roots (even if such a thing were sociologically possible) and expect the world to change for the better. The only way to wean people from their superstitions and irrational beliefs is through a long process of education and development of critical thinking skills, as well as an appreciation for life in the here and now and an understanding that we are all in this together and to make it work we have to set aside the divisive ideologies that religion can foster.

Anyway, if you want to know what atheists think about things, try asking us (instead of, you know, telling us what we think). And don't take the opinions of one guy as representative of all.

As for disproving the existence of any gods — or at least any kinds of gods that could possibly matter — the Problem of Evil does that much more handily than this nonsense about amputees.

mythago | October 30, 2005 05:08 PM

As for disproving the existence of any gods — or at least any kinds of gods that could possibly matter — the Problem of Evil does that much more handily than this nonsense about amputees.

And again with the "all religions are like my vague understanding of Christianity" thing. Plenty of religions--Hinduism, Buddhism come to mind--do not have the Christian "Problem of Evil".

This is also why you believe faith and reason cannot coexist. Pop into a Reconstructionist synagogue sometime and pass that on, would you?

Martin Wagner | October 30, 2005 05:43 PM

And again with the "all religions are like my vague understanding of Christianity" thing.

Ah, another guy with the "I'm going to tell you what you think" problem. What is it about being atheist that makes folks feel justified in taking that stance about you, I wonder?

I think my understanding of Christianity is a tad better than "vague," thank you, due to my own upbringing and extensive study on the subject. I was raised Baptist until giving it up in my college years. I've read over a hundred books over ten years on the history of Christianity, Christian apologetics and their rebuttals and re-rebuttals, including Aquinas and Augustine. I hosted an atheist TV talk show for four years, too, on which I debated ministers and apologists live. And you don't do that sort of thing with only "vague" knowledge. So try finding out a bit about someone's background before you assume what someone's level of knowledge is.

That Hinduism doesn't have Christianity's P.o.E. doesn't make their gods any less imaginary or more worthy of worship. Even if your religion includes gods that encourage evil, like Kali, why would any rational person ever revere them?

As for your final suggestion, as I don't have time (or frankly, the interest) to "pop into" a Reconstructionist synagogue, let's make it easier and you can just give me some good examples of how reason and faith can co-exist. Arguments go a lot farther than snark, you know. Or do you? I'd hate to tell you what you know.

John Scalzi | October 30, 2005 05:47 PM

Martin Wagner:

"First off, John, don't fall into the trap of making blanket generalizations like 'the problem for atheists is etc.'"

A blanket generalization? I merely dispensed a tip.

However, in my experience talking with athiests, many make the fundamental error which I note. If you say that most atheists don't make this error, swell, although I don't see much evidence of that, and I suggest to you I probably know as many atheists as you do. I see the error being made with rather depressing frequency, which is why I point out Mr. Brain as an example.

"This is like saying, 'The problem is not that people overeat. It's that when they overeat, they get fat. The two are entirely separate issues.'"

No.

It's like saying "the problem is not that people eat. It's that when they overeat, they get fat." The first part of the statement posits a thing. The second part of the statement posits a bad use of the thing. You're equating a belief in God with a bad use as part of your premise; however, this is not in evidence, any more than eating is in itself a bad use of food. Eating is one thing; overeating is another. Believing in God is one thing; believing God wants you to do idiotic things is another.

"Again, I know virtually no atheists who think what you say atheists think here."

Mr. Brain appears to, for one. And as I've said, I've met quite a few personally I do. Perhaps they are not as teleologically advanced in their atheism as you are, but there it is. Naturally, I celebrate the idea that you have thought about your atheism on a more sophisticated level. Would more atheists did so; I am for now unconvinced, based on experience.

However, your prejudices against religion are the same as Brain's. There's nothing inherent in the process of religion that forces the "act of believing supernatural or similar outlandish claims without regard to evidence as the highest possible human virtue, stifles rationalism and critical thinking." Lots of perfectly rational and critically thinking people are also spiritual and religious; conversely a belief in a God and/or the practice of a set of belief does not mean one has abandoned logic or critical thinking. Indeed, I can think of one religious expression that was grounded in these very qualities: Deism, which I'm sure you know was very popular with our founding fathers. You may reasonably argue that you don't find many deists hanging about these days, but that's neither here nor there for dispensing with your thesis. Out it goes.

Likewise, I personally know scientists who see the scientific exploration of the universe as a quest to know the mind of God the Creator; to explore this universe with anything less than one's full intellect strikes them as well-nigh sinful. One could easily argue the belief in God in these cases fosters rationalism and critical thinking.

"The only way to wean people from their superstitions and irrational beliefs is through a long process of education and development of critical thinking skills, as well as an appreciation for life in the here and now and an understanding that we are all in this together and to make it work we have to set aside the divisive ideologies that religion can foster."

Oddly enough, replace "religion" in this statement with "politics" or any other number of nouns which reflect human communal activity, and it works equally well. Which suggests two things. The first is that issue is not religion (or politics, or other human communal activities), but what we choose to bring to bear in our practice of these activities that matters.

The second is that it seems that you do appear to believe the straw man argument and generalization you're decrying me for making, which is that atheists believe that once we've weaned people from their nasty religion habit we'll all be better off. I doubt it. We'll be as we ever are, except that people will have materially-rooted reasons for doing whatever idiotic things they are doing rather than spiritually-rooted ones. Practically speaking, I don't see that as that much of an improvement.

John Scalzi | October 30, 2005 06:14 PM

As a tangent: Anthony Flew, a notable atheist who became a deist. So that's at least one hanging about. I suppose it's not unlike deciding to be a Whig.

skylion | October 30, 2005 06:14 PM

To my mind, it isn't necessary to disprove the existance of god/s or of any mythology who's principle make-up is a basis of faith; you either have it or you don't. This is religious and dogmatic faith we are talking about here, not faith in it's most general, and ultimately useful of terms.

I cannot recall who made the quote, but "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." So far, I have seen no evidence come from any religious circle that can make it's claims empirical. The greatest of debates is whether or not faith should be able to beat reason or vice versa, or how much a mix you need to keep it all sane.

Martin Wagner | October 30, 2005 06:50 PM

There's nothing inherent in the process of religion that forces the "act of believing supernatural or similar outlandish claims without regard to evidence as the highest possible human virtue, stifles rationalism and critical thinking."

Is God not supernatural (to believers, I mean)? Don't most religions (except, I know, Buddhism and some others) ask adherents to accept the existence of invisible, universe-creating deities on faith, and pay obeisance to these deities? Don't these selfsame religions vilify unbelievers for their unbelief? Is this not inherently forcing the act of believing supernatural or similar outlandish claims without regard to evidence, and portraying this behavior as virtuous? What am I missing?

You're equating a belief in God with a bad use as part of your premise; however, this is not in evidence, any more than eating is in itself a bad use of food.

However, I have powerful evidence that food exists, and none whatsoever that any gods exist. The question then becomes, what sorts of benefits necessarily derive from believing in invisible magic beings, that could not be derived equally as well from a non-religious view of life? I don't see any, really. Happiness, a personal sense of meaning, direction, appreciation for the world around you, love of family and friends — these are things enjoyed by atheists as readily as by the religious. All that religion adds that I can see is a "security blanket" belief that one is being looked after by some mystical parent figure, and that one will enjoy some kind of existence after death, usually a very nice one if one is sufficiently devout. You could argue that these beliefs are in and of themselves harmless, but, from my perspective, as they encourage delusion and magical thinking, they can't be conducive to ideal mental health. And, quite often, they lead to the sense of entitlement and superiority associated with fundamentalism and fanaticism. "I'm one of God's chosen people and you're a worthless sinner."

Remember that what is at the core of Christian belief is the innate worthlessness of man, that we are born into sin, have "fallen short of the glory of God," and deserve an enternity of hell simply for being alive, unless we repent and turn to Christ. So yes, in a Christian context, I do equate belief itself with bad use as a premise, since the belief is de facto misanthropic. In the context of other religions that might not have such misanthropic roots, my attitude toward the simple act of belief might not be as damning, though I admit I haven't studied other religions as much as Christianity.

Lots of perfectly rational and critically thinking people are also spiritual and religious; conversely a belief in a God and/or the practice of a set of belief does not mean one has abandoned logic or critical thinking.

Since we're offering our own experiences here, my experience with these kinds of believers is that they are awfully selective about how they apply their critical thinking skills. Certainly even the average Christian, not only those with Ph.D's, would be as sensibly skeptical as any atheist if you were to tell them that, say, drinking Mountain Dew will make you fly, or that your cat is from Neptune and teleports home every night. But I've found that many of them don't include "an invisible, all-powerful being created the universe from an act of will, expects us to worship him on a regular basis, and will punish us with eternal torment and anguish if we do not accept his existence on faith and remain sufficiently devout" on their list of Claims Deserving Strong Critical Scrutiny. I've even had educated Christians tell me they don't question their faith the way they question other claims. I'd put this all down to memetics, which is a whole other discussion, but there you go.

Indeed, I can think of one religious expression that was grounded in these very qualities: Deism, which I'm sure you know was very popular with our founding fathers. You may reasonably argue that you don't find many deists hanging about these days, but that's neither here nor there for dispensing with your thesis. Out it goes.

Except that wouldn't be my argument. My argument would be that Deism is simply "god of the gaps" and thus intellectually vacuous and not particularly rational.

Likewise, I personally know scientists who see the scientific exploration of the universe as a quest to know the mind of God the Creator; to explore this universe with anything less than one's full intellect strikes them as well-nigh sinful. One could easily argue the belief in God in these cases fosters rationalism and critical thinking.

Does it foster the kind of critical thinking that allows them to consider the possibility there may be no "God the Creator"? How, from a scientific standpoint, do they propose God as a falsifiable hypothesis? What would these scientists consider disconfirming evidence of God's existence? What form do they propose a non-God-created universe would take? And if belief in God is a necessary part of the use of one's full intellect, why stop there? Why not include Zeus, Odin, Thor, and Q from Star Trek into the pot of possibilities, just so we make sure we haven't left any out?

Oddly enough, replace "religion" in this statement with "politics" or any other number of nouns which reflect human communal activity, and it works equally well. Which suggests two things. The first is that issue is not religion (or politics, or other human communal activities), but what we choose to bring to bear in our practice of these activities that matters.

Again, here I'd agree with you, and most atheists of my acquaintance would too. Not every Muslim is a suicide bomber and all that. The only difference in approach I would take here is to suggest that, between politics and religion, the latter has greater fuel for abuse, as, unlike mere politics, religion puts the added weight of the Creator of the Universe's Official Seal of Approval on whatever crazy crap you're doing. This creates a level of fanaticism no mere political system could really match, though some, to be honest, have come close.

The second is that it seems that you do appear to believe the straw man argument and generalization you're decrying me for making, which is that atheists believe that once we've weaned people from their nasty religion habit we'll all be better off. I doubt it. We'll be as we ever are, except that people will have materially-rooted reasons for doing whatever idiotic things they are doing rather than spiritually-rooted ones. Practically speaking, I don't see that as that much of an improvement.

I think there's a communication/clarity problem here. What I thought you were assuming was that all atheists believe that if we could poof religion out of existence instantaneously with a magic wand, suddenly the world would be a rationist utopia faster than you could say "Spinoza". If this wasn't in fact what you were saying, sorry.

Atheists, generally, do think the world would be better off if fewer people (or even no people) held irrational beliefs. And we do think that to wean someone off these beliefs through education would be to their benefit. I hold this opinion as confidently as I do that it would be to someone's benefit to wean them off booze or heroin. Believers will naturally disagree with atheists' assessment of religion as comparable to those things. But there you are. Surprise. Atheists just don't think well of religion. Comes with the territory.

Do atheists realize that people find plenty of secular reasons to have conflicts with one another? Of course. But with less irrationalism in the world overall — particularly that involving invisible gods sanctioning your every prejudice and mad act — such conflicts might be less uncontrollable, not nearly so destructive in the long term. Look at the major crises in the world today — not just the War or Terror, but Northern Ireland, the Sudan, and others — and somewhere you'll see the grinning visage of religion. As Sam Harris puts it in his flawed but often incisive book The End of Faith, by the time you finish reading this, someone in the world will have died because of what someone else believes about God. Surely, humanity can do better.

PS: I've been observing with interest the strange saga of Antony Flew. Personally I consider him not only confused but an outright dissembler.

Anyway, enjoying the conversation!

Martin Wagner | October 30, 2005 06:56 PM

I seem to have screwed up that Anthony Flew link. Here it is in case the hyperlink doesn't work.
http://www.secweb.org/asset.asp?AssetID=369

snowcrash | October 30, 2005 07:05 PM

gods that encourage evil, like Kali

twitchY'know, there's more to the old girl than what you saw on Temple of Doom.

Really.

Scott Lynch | October 30, 2005 07:06 PM

A blanket generalization? I merely dispensed a tip.


How does a "tip" disallow a "blanket generalization?" You dispensed your tip as part of a blanket-generalization statement. Come on, John. You would skewer this rhetorical disingenuity like a Musketeer on speed if someone else tried to put it in play.


You didn't type "some atheists," "certain atheists," or "many atheists." You just typed "atheists"-- before you even got to "useful atheists" several paragraphs in, you blanketed us/generalized us/whatever-your-preferred-verb-is'd us twice:


here's a tip for atheists:


and


Where atheists rather charmingly get things backward is by assuming that by getting rid of God, people will stop doing the damn fool things they say God wants them to do.


I'm not going to attempt to argue that a great many atehists don't think like that. Hell, you can judge my opinion of many of my fellow atheists by the fact that I ran screaming from my one and only attempt to participate in organized "freethinker" activism, and will almost certainly never, ever go back before the sun burns out.


But you didn't say "many" or "some" or "certain," John. You just said "atheists." You left yourself no wiggle room with your statements. I'm not shooting you down for lack of good intentions or otherwise valid points. But it is hard to try and appreciate the message when the phrasing is condescending from the get-go.


chibent | October 30, 2005 07:08 PM


Thank you, Mr. Scalzi.

As a Christian, I greatly appreciate people who understand that my faith does not automatically mean I am a slavering, violent bigot. My beliefs are not the same as those of the crusaders, or Fred Phelps, or G. W. Bush, and I thank you and everyone else who does not lump me in with them.

Martin Wagner | October 30, 2005 07:15 PM

twitchY'know, there's more to the old girl than what you saw on Temple of Doom.

Hey, don't tell me, tell the Thugees. (Well, they're gone, but you know...) Any goddess who wears children's corpses as earrings isn't someone I consider Miss Congeniality.

Kevin Q | October 30, 2005 07:38 PM

Martin said, on the topic of scientists as people of faith:
Does [atheism] foster the kind of critical thinking that allows them to consider the possibility there may be no "God the Creator"? How, from a scientific standpoint, do they propose God as a falsifiable hypothesis?

A question for clarification:
Let's say that I have a PhD in cellular biology. I work in a university lab, and I spend all day figuring out how staphylococcus adapts to triclosan. I apply all of my critical thinking to solve this question. Do I also have to apply my critical thinking to gravity? Or the dark matter debate? Or fluid dynamics in weather systems? No. I take it on faith that they will continue to work as I expect them, and that there are other people questioning it. Why can't I also take my god on faith? If I can take science on faith, why not religion?

Thanks,
K

John Scalzi | October 30, 2005 08:22 PM

Picking among the Martin Wagner's comments:

"What I thought you were assuming was that all atheists believe that if we could poof religion out of existence instantaneously with a magic wand, suddenly the world would be a rationist utopia faster than you could say 'Spinoza'. If this wasn't in fact what you were saying, sorry."

It was indeed not what I was saying; that would indeed require magical thinking in itself.

"Look at the major crises in the world today — not just the War or Terror, but Northern Ireland, the Sudan, and others — and somewhere you'll see the grinning visage of religion."

Or not. You'll have to explain to me what the Iraq component of the War on Terror initially had to do with religion; it was pretty much straight up an issue of the current president trying to cut the balls off the guy who messed with his dad, with no significant religious overtones of note. And for every Sudan there's a Nepal, where currently there's a bloody ongoing political rebellion that is ostensibly about ideology and not religion. Also, of course, even superficially religious wars are often about something else, too, usually land; the great European medieval religious wars (the Crusades and the pocket wars surrounding the Reformation and Counter-reformation) had significant real estate aspects which ought not be overlooked if one wishes to understand them. One could equally say that wherever one looks one sees the grinning visage of ideology, or politics, or opportunism, and so on.

"The only difference in approach I would take here is to suggest that, between politics and religion, the latter has greater fuel for abuse, as, unlike mere politics, religion puts the added weight of the Creator of the Universe's Official Seal of Approval on whatever crazy crap you're doing."

It's an interesting theory, which is rather unfortunately disproven by (historically) recent despots from Hitler to Kim Il-Jung, whose political ideologies include created irrational cults of personality whose influence rival those of religions -- no God required, and no "almost as bad" qualification needed.

"Does it foster the kind of critical thinking that allows them to consider the possibility there may be no 'God the Creator'?"

You'd have to ask them. Some of them read here, so maybe they'll pop in and explain themselves.

Were I a person of faith who was also a person of reason, however, I suppose my answer to that would be to say proving or disproving the existence of God is neither necessary or sufficient to understand the universe. Even if it were proved the universe does not need a God to exist, it does not prove He does not exist; it merely proves He does not need to exist for the universe to have occurred. If it were proved that God does exist, the universe still clearly operates under certain rules; his definitive existence neither obviates the need to understand these rules nor makes it desirable to stop exploring them.

The driving force here would not be to prove or disprove God per se, but to understand the universe as it exists. Discovering the universe works fine without God won't be a horrible discovery to a scientist with faith; it would rather suggest God's a pretty slick designer. However, as noted, this belief in a God wouldn't get in the way of understanding the universe in complete a fashion as possible.

"My argument would be that Deism is simply 'god of the gaps' and thus intellectually vacuous and not particularly rational."

That's not a particularly cogent understanding of Deism, however, merely one that allows you to dismiss it out of hand. Deism as I understand it is not some proto-ID thing whereupon one says "It's too complex to have happened naturally, therefore it's proof of God"; it's more of a "damn, that's a pretty complex puzzle God's put in front of me to solve. Well, guess I'd better get to it." There's a rather substantial difference between the two.

"However, I have powerful evidence that food exists, and none whatsoever that any gods exist."

That immaterial (so to speak), because the thing under discussion need not have physicality to exist. God certainly does exist -- as an idea, and as an idea can be used well or poorly. You certainly have powerful evidence that the idea of God exists, which is enough for this discussion.

"Is God not supernatural (to believers, I mean)?"

Yes, but that in itself does not imply that everyone who chooses to have faith in God (or follows a religion) abandons all sense and reason in doing so. The Jews famously debate God; the Brethren (who I mention in the primary article) are charged to use their own good sense to guide them; Muslims understand that Jews and Christians are "people of the book" and are charged to leave them in peace to practice their religion -- and for most of the history of Islam did just that (The Muslims who controlled Jerusalem prior to the Crusades were far more tolerant than the Christians who would later occupy that city).

The examples you pose of religions being bad actors are not universal, which is a point worth repeating again and again, nor again, does the supernatural core of a religion necessarily imply antagonism to rationality; one can very easily argue that religions can see the supernatural as complementary to the natural (and rational) rather than in opposition.

Scott Lynch:

"Come on, John. You would skewer this rhetorical disingenuity like a Musketeer on speed if someone else tried to put it in play."

Clearly you did not see my tongue in my cheek, there, Scott. (Which is why I followed the statement with "However..." -- I was switching rhetorical gears.)

Scott | October 30, 2005 08:36 PM

Religious scientists don't need to posit God[s] as a falisifiable hypothesis because they're not dumb. If I'm a biologist who believes in God, why would that belief intrude in my work? The dissociation of religion and work is very easy. It's no different from the way a factory worker believes in God and welds cars together. Do you think that the average religious factory worker thinks God is important to them pulling the lever to press steel? Does religion intrude on the fry-cook at McDonalds? Can he cook a hamburger without his belief in God making his life difficult?

For the record, if you think that the problems in Northern Ireland are primarily about religion you're using a very short-sighted read on the situation. Yes, religion plays a roll, but mostly as an excuse like what John was talking about. The English intervene in NI politics "because the Protestants there are in trouble." You know... not because they were a massive imperial power or anything.

Martin Wagner | October 30, 2005 08:41 PM

Kevin:

First, you've misquoted me (or may have just made a typo). You placed the word "atheism" in brackets in my original sentence, when "theism" is what was being referred to. I was referring to the scientists John says he knows who are motivated to do science from their belief in God.

If the conclusions you reach about how staphylococcus adapts to triclosan are reached by performing experiments and observing and documenting the results of those experiments, followed by publishing your results for peer review, then you are not taking science on faith.

I've heard other believers try to make connections like this between observed phenomena and belief in their god, attempting to argue that both involve faith, and I find it quite bizarre. It seems to me that, like these believers, you are failing to understand the varied forms faith takes and where faith is applied to experience.

A Christian once pointed out to me that it was foolish of me not to have faith in God, since I have "faith" that the sun will come up every morning. So since I exercise "faith" in one aspect of my life, it was "irrational" of me not to go whole hog and apply it across the board, to encompass accepting his god's existence.

I pointed out gently that my "faith" in the sun's rising was based on a lifetime of observing its doing so, empirically, coupled with my understanding of basic astronomy, history and physics. And that I had no comparable evidence for the existence of a supernatural deity. This guy was doing what I see lots of believers do: confusing faith with what could more aptly be termed trust. When you have direct evidence of a natural event happening with reliable regularity, to expect it to continue happening is a form of trust in your knowledge of the world, your observations and the conclusions you have drawn from them. This is a very different thing than the "faith" that religion asks you to have in the existence of invisible magic beings, that no one whose claims could in any way be verified has ever observed. I continue to be surprised that so many theists don't understand the distinction.

Faith is something that can apply in entirely secular situations, it's true. One could say, "I have faith in my ability to do my job well," or, "I have faith in my friends and loved ones." But this is not the same kind of faith that gives us gods and angels and demons. Faith has a wide latitude of definitions. But not one of them applies to the rigorous methodologies of science, whose conclusions derive entirely from observations of the natural world.

Martin Wagner | October 30, 2005 09:09 PM

In response to both John and Scott:

John: I suppose my answer to that would be to say proving or disproving the existence of God is neither necessary or sufficient to understand the universe. Even if it were proved the universe does not need a God to exist, it does not prove He does not exist; it merely proves He does not need to exist for the universe to have occurred...

Scott: Religious scientists don't need to posit God[s] as a falisifiable hypothesis because they're not dumb. If I'm a biologist who believes in God, why would that belief intrude in my work? The dissociation of religion and work is very easy. It's no different from the way a factory worker believes in God and welds cars together.

Both you guys are basically right, in that science really has nothing to do with the question of God or gods. Science involves observing natural phenomena, and thus the supernatural does not apply: leave that to the metaphysicians and philosophers. But anyway, John, you brought up that you had religiously-motivated scientist friends, so my questions were basically trying to get at how, in your words, they engaged in the "scientific exploration of the universe as a quest to know the mind of God the Creator." If you don't know, fair enough, I was just intrigued.

It should also be mentioned that it's been politically motivated religious extremists in this country who've been trying to get scientific validation for thier religious beliefs, such as ID. The working scientific community would be only too happy if these clowns would shut up and go home, but now as 50 years ago, there's that vocal contingent among believers who insist their beliefs are more "scientific" than science's actual observations. As Scott correctly points out, in the real world a biologist's religious beliefs should not intrude on his work.

John — re: deism. As I understand it, deism was a movement that accepted the notion of god as the explanation for the universe, but rejected the notion that god intervenes in the universe or human affairs. So it seems it was a way for 18th century intellectuals to reject religion and its doctrines while avoiding being condemned as filthy heathens. Also, considering the limitations of scientific knowledge of the day, back then God was indeed probably the most rational explanation for the universe's existence. (Newton thought so, anyway.) By today's standards, I feel confident in tagging deism as "god of the gaps" unless it has some greater intellectual depth I haven't seen. I mean, the god of deists could be Q from Star Trek or some other highly advanced aliens. And when you get right down to it, what's the difference between a highly advanced alien with vast powers you cannot comprehend, and a god, other than how you choose to feel about him?

Finally:
....one can very easily argue that religions can see the supernatural as complementary to the natural (and rational) rather than in opposition.

I'm sure they do indeed see it thus. In practice it doesn't often seem to work out that way.

Kevin Q | October 30, 2005 09:13 PM

Martin:
My bad on the typo, I meant "theism." But since that didn't trip you up, I can reply to your reply.

I think you missed the point of my question, though. You said: I pointed out gently that my "faith" in the sun's rising was based on a lifetime of observing its doing so, empirically, coupled with my understanding of basic astronomy, history and physics.

But did you go out, get PhDs in astronomy, history, and physics, perform quantum physics experiments to understand how atoms behave in the heart of a star, perform astrophysics experiments to understand the effects of gravity on stellar bodies, and read Greek mythology to understand Helios' trip across the sky? No. (At least, I assume not. Correct me if I'm wrong.) You trusted the person who told you about physics, history, and astronomy, and you trust that what they told you is correct.

My point is, if you can take something on faith (or trust), why can't I? Just because it's not what you believe? I think John's done a fairly good job suggesting that religion is not the source of all of life's woes. Why do I have to question that part of my life, and believe what people tell me about science?

K

Kevin Q | October 30, 2005 09:16 PM

Martin, scientists can have faith in God because for them, God isn't the answer. God's the question.

K

Martin Wagner | October 30, 2005 09:18 PM

John: You'll have to explain to me what the Iraq component of the War on Terror initially had to do with religion; it was pretty much straight up an issue of the current president trying to cut the balls off the guy who messed with his dad, with no significant religious overtones of note.

On Bush's part, sure. But don't forget that there's a gang of folks called Dominionists who have the ear of the administration, many of whom are moist with glee at the thought of a mideast conflagration as the precursor to the good old Second Coming. Their degree of actual influence on policy might be argued, but it cannot be said that there's no religious component informing the policy decisions of the current White House.

Martin Wagner | October 30, 2005 09:24 PM

My point is, if you can take something on faith (or trust), why can't I? Just because it's not what you believe? I think John's done a fairly good job suggesting that religion is not the source of all of life's woes. Why do I have to question that part of my life, and believe what people tell me about science?

You should question anything that you think raises a legitimate question, whether it stems from religious or scientific sources. My point was that the kind of trust one places in direct observation, or the proven expertise of those with more experience and education than you in a particular discipline, is not the same as the kind of faith religion asks you to have in order to believe in its unobservable supernatural claims. Many believers I've argued with conflate the two as if they were indistinguishable. Sorry if this was in any way unclear.

Martin Wagner | October 30, 2005 09:29 PM

Martin, scientists can have faith in God because for them, God isn't the answer. God's the question.

[snark] Replace word "God" in the preceding with any of the names from this list, see if statement's intellectual substance is improved, shake head. [/snark]

Couldn't resist. (annoying smiley)

RooK | October 30, 2005 09:40 PM

Pardon the interjection, but I'd just like to comment that I think zealots of any stripe are rarely worth spending the time matching each rant with reason. But I must give you kudos for the effort, John.

John Scalzi | October 30, 2005 09:46 PM

No zealots here so far, in my opinion. People with strong views, yes.

minishorts | October 30, 2005 11:03 PM

I think there's a lot of mindless nitpicking in the comments here... I never thought that exacting key-words were necessary to bring out what a blogger was trying to say.

Hell, when I bite into a piece of bread, i hardly bother about the dropping crumbs. But apparently *some people* here do.

Karl | October 30, 2005 11:46 PM

It seems that many of the most militant atheists assume that the only real believers are those who assume a God that continually meddles with the physical world. Many Christians believe in a concept of God that has little to no conflict with a scientific worldview. I don't have a problem with people believing like that, even though I consider myself to be some kind of soft-core atheist. I only get pissed off at the Christians that propogate harmful, self-perpetuating belief systems. Live and let live.

Anonymous | October 31, 2005 12:20 AM

I am your god. Bow down _after_ me. It's just my style.

mythago | October 31, 2005 12:57 AM

Ah, another guy with the "I'm going to tell you what you think" problem

I can only go by the knowledge you display in your arguments, Martin.

And what you're displaying is that you don't really know much about "religion". I'll take your word that you know a lot about Christianity. The great irony is that you, like Christians, see the entire world of religion through the lens of that faith.

That Hinduism doesn't have Christianity's P.o.E. doesn't make their gods any less imaginary or more worthy of worship

Your statement was that the "Problem of Evil" disproves the existence of gods (or at least 'any that matter,' which is a neat but rather unpersuasive loophole). The "Problem of Evil" doesn't in fact exist in many religions, nor does it disprove the existence of gods in those religions.

In other words, you're taking attacks on the weaknesses of Christianity, applying them to other religions, and playing Procrustes by parenthetically noting exceptions or simply ignoring them.

as I don't have time (or frankly, the interest) to "pop into" a Reconstructionist synagogue

Of course not. In America, being a vocal atheist largely means fighting with evangelical and fundamendalist Christians; you don't have much time to waste on any other religions when you've got to keep up on your Christian-book reading. Besides, it's not as though anyone will notice if you dismiss any theological complexity with a hand-wave.

Anonymous | October 31, 2005 05:16 AM

And what you're displaying is that you don't really know much about "religion".

Okay, inform me of where my knowledge of "religion" is lacking and we'll go from there.

Your statement was that the "Problem of Evil" disproves the existence of gods (or at least 'any that matter,' which is a neat but rather unpersuasive loophole).

What's unpersuasive about it? The whole point of worshiping gods, it seems to me, is that worshipers expect these beings to either benefit their current lives, or provide them with idyllic afterlives, or both. If the worshiper didn't believe their god provided these benefits, then they wouldn't be worshipers. The god in question and its religion would cease to exist. So for a god to be worth worshiping, it has to matter, unless you can point me toward a religion whose adherents are pointedly insouciant about their deity. (Deism isn't a religion, so i doesn't count.)

Vis-a-vis Christianity, the P.o.E. demonstrates that its God is indifferent to evil or incapable of doing anything to prevent it. Though you're right that the argument was constructed as a Christian argument, I see no reason why it couldn't apply to any god human beings have created throughout time. You might justify worshiping Amon-Re or Shiva or Harvey the Rabbit because the P.o.E. "doesn't apply to them," but if those gods don't do any better a job at keeping the world safe from harm (earthquakes, hurricanes, war, school shooters, cancer, Garth Brooks albums) than Christianity's God, than I can't see the justification. It's just another pitiful, security-blanket belief in a magic invisible friend.

In other words, you're taking attacks on the weaknesses of Christianity, applying them to other religions, and playing Procrustes by parenthetically noting exceptions or simply ignoring them.

Fair enough, present me with an exception that provides a rational justification for worshiping the god of a religion other than Christianity and I'll consider it and respond.

In America, being a vocal atheist largely means fighting with evangelical and fundamendalist Christians; you don't have much time to waste on any other religions when you've got to keep up on your Christian-book reading. Besides, it's not as though anyone will notice if you dismiss any theological complexity with a hand-wave.

Nice try. What I actually did was ask you a direct question, which you have dodged with yet more condescending snark. As I said before, arguments go a lot father than snark. The question was, since you think I'm off-base in my opinion that reason and faith don't mix well, can you give me examples of how the two can co-exist? Save this whole "I'm going to state a position then decline to back up my position, instead insisting that the other guy has a problem if he won't do the legwork necessary to bring himself around to my position" thing for the evangelicals and fundamentalists.

Martin Wagner | October 31, 2005 05:18 AM

Don't know why my last post listed me as "anonymous" (I'm sure I filled the name tags), but it was me.

Kevin Q | October 31, 2005 08:37 AM

Martin:
Scientists can have faith in Freya because Freya isn't the answer. Freya is the question. /smiles

Vis-a-vis Christianity, the P.o.E. demonstrates that its God is indifferent to evil or incapable of doing anything to prevent it.

Please forgive my ignorance, but how does this argue against Christianity (or any other religion)? Isn't the point of Christianity that God will take care of you in the afterlife, not this life? Sure, some people believe that praying to God will get you good things in this life, but why does their warped understanding get all the attention?

Also, to return to something I asked in my first comment, isn't "disproving" the existence of gods just pissing in people's Cheerios? You're trying to take something beautiful and nice from people's lives, and you have nothing to replace it with. Why?

K

Primate | October 31, 2005 08:53 AM

"The question was, since you think I'm off-base in my opinion that reason and faith don't mix well, can you give me examples of how the two can co-exist?"

A good example has already come up multiple times. There are members of the scientific community who view exploring the physical universe using reason as an application of their faith. After all, God made naming the animals the job of humans, which suggests that exploring the rest of the universe and coming up with words to describe how it works is a divinely mandated act. Now, there have been plenty of Christians who got cranky as data started coming in that didn't match the book of Genesis back in the late 19th century, but this never stopped a large contingent of scientists with a faith in God from exploring the universe. Atheists have also made contributions, but it is unfair to minimize the contributions of those that had some sort of faith in a higher being. After all, God told them to do it. And since their interest has helped improve the lives and health of humanity, I would have to judge it as a good mix.

"Is God not supernatural (to believers, I mean)? Don't most religions (except, I know, Buddhism and some others) ask adherents to accept the existence of invisible, universe-creating deities on faith, and pay obeisance to these deities? Don't these selfsame religions vilify unbelievers for their unbelief? Is this not inherently forcing the act of believing supernatural or similar outlandish claims without regard to evidence, and portraying this behavior as virtuous? What am I missing?"

Its statements like this that make some of us wonder just how good your grasp is on the breadth of theology. The major western religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) only account for roughly 2 billion out of the world's 6 billion people. These three religious are notable for having the most rigid "I'm right, you're not, so you're going to hell" attitude that seems to be a major source of your "religion is bad" attitude. However, that attitude is not universally shared even within those religions, and so not all try to vilify non-believers. Some of them think that people can only be saved through gentle coaxing. Some believe that only a limited number can actually be saved, so there's no point in roughing up the sinners. Some believe that only a limited number can be saved, but it’s really important to make the offer to people to save them, causing them to periodically revise upward the number of people that will actually make it to heaven (Faith can co-exist with logic, but when it doesn't - wow!). A strong belief that there are only true followers and heathens does not strongly correlate with a need for discriminating against the heathens. Indeed, it can be a strong reason to be extra nice to them, just in case they can be saved.

When you get outside of the major western religions, the need to vilify non-believers shrinks even more. Hinduism (1 billion plus followers) see itself as an aspect of truth as filtered through local culture. So, for the most part, they see no reason to try and convert people, or to even try to establish coherent theological positions that fractures it into distinct traditions that would parallel Catholic/Orthodox/Protestant Christianity or Orthodox/Reform/Liberal Judaism or Sunni/Shiite Islam. It has also found itself just as functional without the Indian caste system as it was with it, denying the argument that a weakening of faith was needed to eliminate a discriminatory practice that was culturally intertwined with that faith.

But enough about the inadequate connections between religion and being mean to other people for the moment. Let's switch to your basic understanding of a non-Christian faith. Even in its most extreme form, Buddhism (over half a billion, but hard to isolate for reasons that follow) does not deny the existence of gods. At worst, they think the gods cannot help you escape to Nirvana and leave behind the cycle of suffering and reincarnation that defines this universe. So, some Buddhists think that there's no point in worshiping gods. However, there are plenty of other Buddhists who think that worshiping the various Buddhas and/or gods can help you reach Nirvana. On top of that, it is not unusual to find followers and leaders of both positions worshiping at the exact same temple at the exact same time as part of the same religious institution. In fact, Buddhism often finds itself sharing the faith of its parishioners with local religions without causing conflicts (Shinto in Japan, Daoism and Confucianism in China). That drove the Christian theologians crazy when they started asking the Buddhists what they believed. The Christians had codified their disagreements into discrete groups, and they found it baffling that the Buddhists didn't see any point in doing that.

To them it was as baffling as you seem to find the idea that religion promotes bad behavior in humans to the same degree that non-religion does. You're not alone. Plenty of religious people believe that non-religion is a major source of bad behavior while faith is the major source of good things. However, I believe that it’s people that are the problem, not a strong faith in the existence or non-existence of God.

Still, atheists are the only ones who argue that religion is bad for humanity. Not all atheists, of course, but John was correct in directing his comments in the direction of the community, since only that community makes that particular argument. Atheists, who already understand that religion can be a form of the problem rather than the source, are free to join John in criticizing the other atheists who think religion is itself the problem.

Primate | October 31, 2005 08:57 AM

Kevin, they don't think religion is a good thing. They think it's a bad thing. So they see getting rid of religion as a good thing that should be done quickly.

I think religion is only as good as the people who practice it, so neither eliminating nor spreading it will help humanity. So today, I'm defending faithful despite the fact that I don't share in their faith.

snowcrash | October 31, 2005 09:40 AM

Hey, don't tell me, tell the Thugees. (Well, they're gone, but you know...) Any goddess who wears children's corpses as earrings isn't someone I consider Miss Congeniality.

1. That's akin to describing the Klan as the norm belief for Christianity.
2. Partially symbolism. Really. Trust me on this. And if you were even aware of the symbolism, you'd begin to understand Hinduism's rebuttal to the PoE.

As someone who's an atheist by way of agnosticism by way of Hinduism, I gotta say that John's line of thinking is pretty accurate as to why I got out of the religion game. Philosophically, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam have a great deal going for them. If only they didn't have absolute retards as the most vocal of their proponents...

Avdi | October 31, 2005 10:10 AM

Marshall Brain isn't any relative of Oolon Coluphid, is he?

Martin Wagner | October 31, 2005 10:58 AM

Please forgive my ignorance, but how does this argue against Christianity (or any other religion)? Isn't the point of Christianity that God will take care of you in the afterlife, not this life? Sure, some people believe that praying to God will get you good things in this life, but why does their warped understanding get all the attention?

Considering that virtually all Christians pray, you seem to be implying that virtually all Christians have a "warped understanding" of what their God is supposed to do for them, or not. This would certainly seem to be grim news for Christians. Perhaps you ought to be about telling them they shoudn't be praying, and correcting their warped understanding. Let me know how it goes.

In any event, I don't think the point of Christianity is simply that God takes care of you in the afterlife. To Christians, the point of Christianity is that it's nothing less than the inviolable guidebook for how to live this life. You will forever hear Christians claiming that it is impossible for unbelievers to be moral or have worthwhile goals, to love their neighbors or family members, to value virtually anything. Moreover, having Christian faith supposedly bestows superpowers. This kind of thing is, of course, stupid and insulting. But the point is that to a Christian, Christianity isn't just about the afterlife, it's about this one too.

Also, to return to something I asked in my first comment, isn't "disproving" the existence of gods just pissing in people's Cheerios? You're trying to take something beautiful and nice from people's lives, and you have nothing to replace it with. Why?

You call reason "nothing"? Sorry to hear it.

I suppose, to some, believing in invisible magic beings translates to "something beautiful and nice". But there's a process in life called "growing up." We don't think it's too strange for a small child to believe in Santa Claus, and for someone that young, you could even say that belief in Santa is a beautiful and nice thing. But if you met a 35-year-old man who believed in Santa, you wouldn't say it was beautiful and nice. You'd say that person probably needs professional help. From my perspective, God is just Santa Claus for adults. But I can see how that would be hard for someone to understand if they equate replacing superstition with reason to replacing "something beautiful and nice" with "nothing."

For the record, I'm not out to actively deconvert anybody. I really don't care what nonsense someone believes (however much I may wish they were more sensible depending on the level of the particular belief's unreason), as long as they don't see fit to use that belief as a justification to ban my speech, burn me, lynch me or crash an airplane into my building. Buy hey, if you want to ask me what I think about your gods, I'll happily tell you.

Martin Wagner | October 31, 2005 10:59 AM

Snowcrash:

Philosophically, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam have a great deal going for them. If only they didn't have absolute retards as the most vocal of their proponents...

But don't you think that says something about what those beliefs really have going for them...?

Anonymous | October 31, 2005 11:01 AM

Martin, you beat me to the punch on most of what I was going to say. Your comments are spot-on. Do you have a blog? Mine is at http://www.nemorathwald.com/

I have talked about the intersection of faith and reason to more people than I can count. In every case when someone claims that their reason and their faith are in harmony, I've seen one of two things.

The first kind are the cheaters. They use a double standard where they hold you and me to the standard of reason but they can cop out with faith any time they are proven wrong. Christian apologists, creation scientists and new-age neopagans usually are in this category.

The second kind are "in-the-closet atheists" even to their own minds and pretending not to be atheists. They claim to be a person of "faith" but in reality their "faith" is so re-defined in Orwellian double-speak that it really plays no true role in their truth-finding and decision making, and they operate as a reasonable person and do not cheat or cop out with faith. Name any person of faith John Scalzi speaks approvingly of, and I'll bet you dollars to donuts they are of this type.

The scientists we have been discussing are among these closet atheists. The practice of science is the practice of atheism. Think about it. If the universe exists contingent on the will of a person (God), gravity could aim downward tomorrow, the speed of light might be violated at God's whim on alternate Thursdays, and so forth.

Natural scientific laws stay the same because of the blindness and indifference of nature. In other words, Nature is not a person; to say Nature is God is just doublespeak. To say something happened naturally is synonymous with saying it happened unintentionally. Science is putting atheism into practice.

John Scalzi | October 31, 2005 11:15 AM

Anonymous writes:

"The scientists we have been discussing are among these closet atheists."

I doubt that.

Just because you cannot conceive of how religion can exist with reason, does not mean others have the same problem.

Martin Wagner | October 31, 2005 11:41 AM

Primate: Good feedback. Here are some reponses quickly.

Now, there have been plenty of Christians who got cranky as data started coming in that didn't match the book of Genesis back in the late 19th century, but this never stopped a large contingent of scientists with a faith in God from exploring the universe. Atheists have also made contributions, but it is unfair to minimize the contributions of those that had some sort of faith in a higher being.

True. Case in point, Isaac Newton. I think that, in those days, those scientists were brilliant men working with the best level of information they had. And, as their religion was woven into the fabric of their culture, it obviously informed their approach to science and in fact greatly inspired it. To know the mind of God, as Newton put it (I think). These men cannot also be fairly blamed for failing to consider philosophical or scientific ideas that had not yet been developed in their day. Before such watershed advancements as, say, the germ theory of disease, DNA, quantum physics, etc., there were numerous lacunae where it still made perfectly good sense to apply one's religious beliefs to fill those gaps. But you're right, this doesn't denigrate the real advancements made by scientists who happened to be religious.

Its statements like this that make some of us wonder just how good your grasp is on the breadth of theology.

I hoped I made it clear the bulk of my study had been focused on Christianity.

The major western religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) only account for roughly 2 billion out of the world's 6 billion people. These three religious are notable for having the most rigid "I'm right, you're not, so you're going to hell" attitude that seems to be a major source of your "religion is bad" attitude.

Well, that is a third of the world's population, and not to be sneezed at. When you have that bulk of humanity adopting an "I'm saved, you're a sinner" attitude, you could be looking at the downfall of civilization. Sounds melodramatic, but it only took 19 Muslim radicals to bring down the towers and change the direction of world history.

Anyway, in reply to the rest of your post, I never denied that there are more benign religions (like Buddhism and Wicca) than than Islam or Christianity. From an epistemological standpoint I don't consider those beliefs to have any stronger a rational basis, but hey, if those folks are happy contemplating their navels or communing with nature, I say, enjoy!

As to the reason atheists tend to be the ones beating the "religion is bad for people" drum, and why conversation threads like this one seem to go on and on with no resolution: It's been my experience that atheists and believers do explore these issues in fundamentally different ways, coming from entirely different starting points, and each finds the other's views near impossible to relate to.

I finally read the "amputee" piece in full, and I think it's a fine example of what an atheist would consider a perfectly sensible rebuttal to the whole silliness of belief in an all-powerful deity, while at the same time, entirely missing the point of why people worship that deity. As Kevin put it in his very first reply, you can't argue logically against faith.

But you know, I've had similar discussions with believers. One woman who called our TV show asked us what we thought about devout believers who pray for a loved one to recover from cancer, and that person does. My response was to question why God would play favorites. Doesn't God love us all? Why would one person's mother or child or spouse be deserving of a miracle cure, but not all the other patients on the same hospital wing? Aren't their families praying too? "I hadn't really thought of it that way," she said. Believers and atheists just come at these questions from entirely different angles.

The believer is aghast that the atheist cannot see the beauty in his beliefs, while the atheist shakes his head that the believer can't shake himself free of such fantasies and be more rational. Often we argue right past one another. I think this has a lot to do with the fact that for atheists, most of the intellectual and emotional modules, if you will, that are fed and satisfied by faith for the believer, have been replaced by others we think are better. Having gone through the process of examining religion and rejecting it, we look to more practical, real-world things (friendships, career, arguing different philosophies) to provide the sense of fulfillment believers get from their faith.

So while God (or whomever you worship) plays a central role in the life of a believer, the atheist considers recourse to the supernatural in life's decision-making processes to be as pointless as wearing scuba gear to dance class. You couldn't have two more diametrically opposed ways of looking at the world if you tried. So maybe it's true that we're pissing in your Cheerios if we say, "Hey, the world would be better off if fewer people believed this crap." Atheists should understand why believers not only don't understand that we're just expressing a sincere opinion, but get righteously pissed off as well. It can be hard to communicate meaningfully through a language barrier.

Martin Wagner | October 31, 2005 11:50 AM

Anonymous, I have a blog but it's career (film) oriented and not an atheism blog. I'll be sure to have a look at yours though.

I do disagree with one statement of yours: The practice of science is the practice of atheism. No, actually, science simply ignores God entirely. It's like this. Suppose you're doing an experiment where you're mixing yellow and blue liquids to see what color you get. If, 19 out of 20 tries, you get green liquid, you can predict, using the proper methodologies of science, that on your 20th try you'll get a green liquid.

But if you suddenly add into the mix the possible existence of an invisible deity who can do anything at will, even violate the understood laws of nature, then all bets are off and you cannot predict a thing. There's no way to rule out the likelihood that this God might not get playful and on your 20th try, give you a liquid that's purple with beige polka dots and glows in the dark.

And so science just doesn't consider God in any capacity when examining natural phenomena. This is a different thing than atheism, which is a specific philosophical position rejecting belief in deities.

Many scientists do happen to be atheists, and will tell you that the scientific method is incompatible with religious belief. But it is not accurate to say science itself is an atheistic enterprise. It is simply a secular one.

Kevin Q | October 31, 2005 12:13 PM

"If you yourself to an ideal, you become something else entirely." Where is the reason? Maybe with faith, you can move mountains.

Does reason tell you how to live your life? Machiavelli was a reasonable person. Should we live life like he suggested? Like Pol Pot? Having faith that there can be perfection in the universe gives you something to aim for. It's just disappointing that all too often, the target of that aim is other people.


K

(And I know this is going straight into the spam filter. Sorry about that.)

Martin Wagner | October 31, 2005 12:34 PM

No, but it's probably going into the "Kevin's blowing a gasket" filter. Settle down, dude! Take a deep breath. When you start up with throwing villains like Pol Pot in atheists' faces, you're getting pretty desperate. That'd be like me saying "Oh, Christian family values, like Andrea Yates? Catholic traditions, you mean like fucking boys?" Pretty lame, dude.

No, reason doesn't "tell you how to live your life." Reason is for people who have outgrown the need to be told. Reason is a tool that helps you make decisions by thinking sensibly. Not every non-religious movement is de facto rational simply because it's non-religious. Look at definitions 4 and 5. Do you really think Pol Pot used reason? How? I certainly don't. I think he used a fanatical ideology. I don't see Machiavelli as reasonable either, I see him as opportunistic.

A guy like Ben Franklin, now, there's a man of reason.

And I don't see how throwing a bunch of religious paintings at me repudiates the value of reason or shores up your equation of reason with "nothing". But then, since you seem to think Pol Pot was a "reasonable" man, it's obvious you don't know what reason is or does. You're scrambling.

Kevin Q | October 31, 2005 12:55 PM

Martin,
Earlier in my comments I posited the existence of a religious microbiologist. For the record, that's not me. At best, you could probably describe me as a lapsed pagan law student. As a law student, I like arguments.

I think what I'm looking for in your arguments is the "why." Why be atheism? Because it's reasonable? But so much of life defies reason. Do you marry the person who would provide the best counterpart to your strengths, or do you marry the person you love, even if you can't explain why?

There's a great human need to belong to groups larger than ourselves. A family, a village, a political party, a religion. What does atheism have to offer humanity, other than a flat denial?

What I said earlier about god being the question, I meant. And it ties in to the art I linked to. Sometimes, the belief that we work for something larger than ourself can drive us to become greater than we thought possible.

Why atheism?

K

John H | October 31, 2005 01:01 PM

I used to consider myself an out-and-out atheist: I couldn't imagine any 'supreme being' that would intentionally create this mess of a world we live in.

As I've gotten older I've become more of an agnostic. Mainly because I can't explain how the pre-bang universe came to be, so I acknowledge that there might be someone or something out there that led to our being here. I'm still of the opinion that if He (or She, or It) exists, they haven't the foggiest idea that we're here. It could be that we're part of some bad science experiment sitting on a shelf, or that our universe sprang up from the mold growing on a leftover tuna fish sandwich.

The point is: we don't know, and have no way of knowing. Atheists believe there is no God (or Gods), but that is really a matter of faith on their part because proof is as elusive for them as it is for theists. Atheists want proof that God exists before believing; theists want proof that God doesn't exist before abandoning their belief. Two sides of the same coin in my opinion...

Matt Arnold | October 31, 2005 01:16 PM

Sorry for posting anonymously last time. It was an oversight.

"Just because you cannot conceive of how religion can exist with reason, does not mean others have the same problem."

That's not what I'm saying. I'm not speaking about my imagination, I'm making an observation about Brother Guy Consolmagno and hundreds of others just like him who I have personally spoken with. I am very familiar with Brother Guy from his appearances at ConFusion. In fact, I had him in mind. This is experience talking. I've dialogued with the best of them, and everything I said before sprung from the experience of scratching their surface.

Terry Karney | October 31, 2005 01:31 PM

Please forgive my ignorance, but how does this argue against Christianity (or any other religion)? Isn't the point of Christianity that God will take care of you in the afterlife, not this life? Sure, some people believe that praying to God will get you good things in this life, but why does their warped understanding get all the attention?

Considering that virtually all Christians pray, you seem to be implying that virtually all Christians have a "warped understanding" of what their God is supposed to do for them, or not. This would certainly seem to be grim news for Christians. Perhaps you ought to be about telling them they shoudn't be praying, and correcting their warped understanding. Let me know how it goes.

Well, not all prayer is asking for something to be given. The Jesuits have a motto, "all for the greater glory of God." They use this to dedicate everything they do as an act of prayer. From baking bread, to teaching physics. An act of thankfulness that a world with such wonders in it exists, and they are present to partake.

None of that style of belief requires one to ask (nor expect) a deity to intervene on one's personal life.

In any event, I don't think the point of Christianity is simply that God takes care of you in the afterlife. To Christians, the point of Christianity is that it's nothing less than the inviolable guidebook for how to live this life. You will forever hear Christians claiming that it is impossible for unbelievers to be moral or have worthwhile goals, to love their neighbors or family members, to value virtually anything. Moreover, having Christian faith supposedly bestows superpowers. This kind of thing is, of course, stupid and insulting. But the point is that to a Christian, Christianity isn't just about the afterlife, it's about this one too.

Yes, for many Christians there is the sense that this life must be lived with care (after all both Jesus direct words, and the verses in Revelations, say that people will be judged by what they do; opinions differ on just what one ought to do, but the teaching is pretty plain).

But nothing in those teachings (with the possible exception of Jesus' comment that the gifts of the father's table were not meant to be fed to dogs) requires one to be foul, scornful, nor even proud; by comparison, to those who do not believe.

Earlier you discarded those who are faithful to two ideas, one that a deity exists and two that they could practice good science (and some interpolation of your total comments also leads me to infer that you are scornful of anyone with a devout belief; the moreso if that belief inorms how they lived their lives, which seems a nasty thing to say about Archbishop Romero, but I digress) and the problem is that you seem to conflate a belief in God, (which is an act of faith; though as neither God's existence, nor presence can be proved, nor falsified, atheism is a leap of faith as well) with an abandoment of all reason.

Which is patently absurd; as your use of Newton brings to the fore. Comparmentalising is a human trait, but isn't needful, as has been pointed out, looking to see how God made the universe can be an act of devotion. A faithful adherence to finding it out can be (for one who seeks that truth as a means of worship) the highest call. To diminish one's deity by hiding that deity's work would be a form of evil-doing.

So, good science, logical thinking and reasonable treatment of others are not needful corrolaries of deep faith.

TK

John Scalzi | October 31, 2005 01:37 PM

Matt Arnold:

Yes, I pointed to him specifically because I knew you were likely to have met him (I recognized your URL). I don't believe, however, is that your modeling of these folks' internal thought processes on the subject is probably not accurate. As Brother Guy notes in the interview linked:

"I think it was Francis Bacon who said that God sets up the universe as a marvelous puzzle for us to get to know him by getting to know how he did things. By seeing how God created, we get a little sense of God's personality. And that means, among other things not going in with any preconceived notions. We can't impose our idea of how God did things. It's up to us to see how the universe actually does work."

Which doesn't sound in the slight bit atheist to me, closeted or otherwise.

Andrew Wade | October 31, 2005 01:39 PM

Is God not supernatural (to believers, I mean)? Don't most religions (except, I know, Buddhism and some others) ask adherents to accept the existence of invisible, universe-creating deities on faith, and pay obeisance to these deities? Don't these selfsame religions vilify unbelievers for their unbelief?

Yes, yes, and no. Your Christians may vary; the ones around this part don't vilify unbelievers. And they don't make a big deal of how one comes to believe either; I get the feeling that being convinced of the existance of God due to the evidence (such as it is) is perfectly fine.

Remember that what is at the core of Christian belief is the innate worthlessness of man, that we are born into sin, have "fallen short of the glory of God," and deserve an enternity of hell simply for being alive, unless we repent and turn to Christ.

Curiously, I don't think I've ever run across that particular belief in the flesh before. I've run across Christians that believe that most people, atheist or otherwise, are pretty ok. Sinners yes, but not worthless or deserving of hell. Quite a few of them don't even believe in the existance of hell. And I've run across Christians that believe that everyone, even those that have repented and turned to Christ, deserve an eternity in hell. Christians make it to heaven, but not because they deserve it. I've been told by one such person that I hate God (news to me), but to be fair, I suppose I do hate his conception of God. I'm not a fan of abusive fathers, heavenly or otherwise.

RooK | October 31, 2005 01:45 PM

John said: No zealots here so far, in my opinion. People with strong views, yes.

Actually, I must confess to skimming the comments. I was referring to this Marshall Brain person on the OP, though upon reflection I wonder how much his statements are just contrived for shock value.

Karl | October 31, 2005 02:02 PM

Martin Wagner wrote:
To Christians, the point of Christianity is that it's nothing less than the inviolable guidebook for how to live this life. You will forever hear Christians claiming that it is impossible for unbelievers to be moral or have worthwhile goals, to love their neighbors or family members, to value virtually anything.

This clearly demonstrates an ignorance of much Christian thought. Lots of Christians do not think of God as a physical force or agent. However, the militant atheist typically writes these people off:

Anonymous wrote:
The second kind are "in-the-closet atheists" even to their own minds and pretending not to be atheists. They claim to be a person of "faith" but in reality their "faith" is so re-defined in Orwellian double-speak that it really plays no true role in their truth-finding and decision making, and they operate as a reasonable person and do not cheat or cop out with faith. Name any person of faith John Scalzi speaks approvingly of, and I'll bet you dollars to donuts they are of this type.

It makes for a cleaner argument. First say that only fundamentalists believe in a real concept of God. Then make a point of showing how silly they look.

I have spent many hours arguing with the "secret atheists" and I was surprised at how serioius they are about their faith. It's surprising how much they believe despite how well their beliefs integrate with a materialist perspective. It isn't reasonable to write their beliefs off as nothing. A great number of Christians see God as mystery and do not make many (if any) claims that intrude upon science. I don't see how it is reasonable to complain about these sorts of people.

I think a better approach is to encourage people to moderate their beliefs where obviously wrong rather than attempting to get people change everything that they believe. Besides, the "secret atheists" are already mostly on your side. They probably hate fundamentalist religion just as much as you. Why not see them as part of the team rather than insult them? Showing respect and care for people on the other side will encourage more change than bashing people over the head with a 2x4.

Matt Arnold | October 31, 2005 02:17 PM

John,
Remember that dollars-to-donuts bet I proposed earlier? I lose.

But in any case I'm not talking about internal models. I'm talking about behavior. When talking to me, or when deciding my fate in the voting booth, or holding public office, will this person cheat and cop out and pull the faith card? Or will they play fair and reason with my mind and the evidence I present? When they carry out their responsibilities, converse, or have dealings with the world outside their head, will they don the evidence-ignoring hat or the reason hat from moment to moment as they defend their interactions? Whether or not swapping the hat is deliberately, consciously calculated for their advantage is not my point; it's still too convenient for them.

Martin,

"And so science just doesn't consider God in any capacity when examining natural phenomena. This is a different thing than atheism, which is a specific philosophical position rejecting belief in deities."

Sure, if you're just talking about the dictionary. But atheists and agnostics end up functionally doing the same stuff.

All the same stuff, that is, except for proselytism. Have you noticed that?

If you just argue from the dictionary an agnostic is someone who doesn't know whether there is a god, and an atheist is someone who's sure. But we don't live in a dictionary. In the world we live in, most agnostics are chillin' with their god-believing buddies looking at this pretty knife which has been polished and hung up on a wall as a soul-enriching decoration. While the atheists are the ones who've pulled that very same knife from between their ribs more than once, and don't take kindly to the Quaker or Unitarian's pretty knife on the wall any more than a Jew takes kindly to a Swastika.

I acknowledge a weapon can be used by a harmless person in a harmless way. Small consolation when I'm pulling the knife from between my ribs. I acknowledge that when somebody can't use God as a weapon they'll just use something else. We'll worry about that when it comes. But you always try to first disarm your opponent of whatever it is they happen to be weilding against you at this moment. That's what makes me decide not to call myself an agnostic. Describing atheism as "useless atheism" seems to be missing what the atheist is finding it useful for.

John Scalzi | October 31, 2005 02:34 PM

Matt Arnold:

"I'm talking about behavior. When talking to me, or when deciding my fate in the voting booth, or holding public office, will this person cheat and cop out and pull the faith card? Or will they play fair and reason with my mind and the evidence I present?"

Some of that will certainly depend on how they view their faith. A great many Christians and Christians denominations can and do make a distinction between their private beliefs and their public actions, as of course do many people of faith who choose to make a distinction between private and public spheres. Naturally one wishes to encourage this sort of thinking.

"Describing atheism as 'useless atheism' seems to be missing what the atheist is finding it useful for."

Eh. I recognize what the atheist in question was finding it useful for. I simply question that it is in fact, useful, at all.

I must admit to being lost on the whole "knife on a wall" thing you've got going there. You do seem to be suggesting that saying one is an agnostic is a weaker rhetorical and/or logical position than saying one is an atheist. If so, well, of course, I disagree.

Matt Arnold | October 31, 2005 03:15 PM

John, the more I think about the Second Amendment/ gun rights metaphor for atheists and agnostics, the more sense it makes to me. Bear with me for a moment.

The gun-weilding criminal in the bad neighborhood is like Fred Phelps-- and me ten years ago-- and 90% of the Christians I grew up with: "God said it, I believe it, that settles it." When somebody's gotten shot, or their kid has gotten shot, and they live in a neighborhood full of irresponsible gun violence, they aren't really interested when an inflexibly Second-Amendment-toting gun enthusiast from a posh and safe suburb tells them guns are good because of how much fun it is to hunt deer and go to shooting ranges.

Sane and responsible gun recreation is like sane and responsible religious recreation. They would never use a gun for what it's really for: shooting people. A reasonable god-believer would never use gods for what they are really good at: insulating a belief against all challenge behind a wall of authority.

And then their kids sitting in church are like kids who pull the shoebox down from the closet shelf, and when they turn to fundamentalism later in life (fundamentalist churches are growing by leaps and bounds) they don't know how to use faith without abusing it. Sorry if I'm sick and tired of it, but if only we can inspire doubt and challenge and self-reflection in the comfortable religious world, we'll mitigate the problem.

An agnostic is like somebody who doesn't like or own guns but who hangs out with peaceful gun users so much you're out of touch with the fact that there is a war going on in the streets of another neighborhood. Their social approval is not helping. Somebody like me sees religion and says "why are you gun nuts at gun shows fetishizing stuff that puts holes in people?"

Scott | October 31, 2005 03:28 PM

Only skimming since last I read... because... you know, this is long.

What's unpersuasive about it? The whole point of worshiping gods, it seems to me, is that worshipers expect these beings to either benefit their current lives, or provide them with idyllic afterlives, or both. If the worshiper didn't believe their god provided these benefits, then they wouldn't be worshipers.

This may be true, but it's off-base. A sizeable majority of Jewish law is about how Jews should act towards other human beings. Practicing Jews follow these laws because they believe that they describe a proper, meaningful, and just ethical code which is based on a proper and meaningful moral foundation.

And no, they don't follow it "because it's the word of God" and only the incorrect among them will use that as a defense of their behaviors. Most of Jewish law is written by men (dead, smart, studious men) interpretting relatively simple declarations about morality. You might not believe the chapters of Talmud on compensation for wrongfully killed cattle...

Regarding afterlife in Judaism, and whether they do it "for that". Well... everybody comes back in the messianic era... but it's the "righteous" that will appreciate the way the world is then. Train yourself through right action to appreciate a life of righteousness. It's almost Randian... if you love what's good for you (and everybody), life is a lot nicer.

ALSO, regarding predictability with science.

The presence of an omnipotent God who still takes action on Earth doesn't throw anything out the window. Why not? Because predictions are only predictions. Single contrary observations do not end a theory's life. If this God figure acted so frequently that nobody could reach consensus science would be in a bit of a pickle. Verifiability by repetition of experiments loses it's minty fresh flavor. But guess what! Even if God were to act that way, frequently in front of they eyes of scientists, God hasn't.

And that sort of God is necessarily different from the God that Martin rejects. Which is a God that has no impact on the physical world. When God does start having such an impact (in a way that is detectably in violation of physical law) scientists would need to adjust their comprehension of physical law to accomodate, because God is (at that point) physical. Science would (need to) develop a branch involved in knowing God's mind... and it'll be a tough area if God turns out to be a whim-worshipping jackanape, but pretty easy if God's a Randian hero. (This is getting discursive, and straying into a problem of free will, which I don't have the energy for today).

John Scalzi | October 31, 2005 03:59 PM

Matt Arnold:

"An agnostic is like somebody who doesn't like or own guns but who hangs out with peaceful gun users so much you're out of touch with the fact that there is a war going on in the streets of another neighborhood."

Uh, Matt, you do read this site, don't you? Are you under the impression that I, agnostic though I am, have any sort of tolerance for the sort of religious nutjob you describe? Making the intellectual determination that it is impossible to either prove or disprove the existence of God doesn't make one a dogmatic doormat. Also, I would say that if one's reasons for self-describing as an atheist are based on dogmatic positioning rather than rationality, those are bad reasons.

I don't necessarily buy the whole religion=gun thing, but I suppose if one is going to use that metaphor, then perhaps an agnostic would note that just because someone doesn't have a problem with someone who owns a gun for hunting and for self-defense doesn't mean he tolerates the jackass running around in the mall with a semi-automatic -- and in this case, the responsible gun owner (who doesn't appreciate being lumped in with the semi-automatic jackass) is probably like to side with him rather than the guy with the semi-auto.

Also, in this metaphor, the agnostic may not like or own guns, but that doesn't mean he's not totally excellent with a blade.

Matt Arnold | October 31, 2005 04:44 PM

"Uh, Matt, you do read this site, don't you? Are you under the impression that I, agnostic though I am, have any sort of tolerance for the sort of religious nutjob you describe?"
It's easier to get high on God in America because of Guy Colsagnamo and his ilk telling us faith is the drug of choice for sophisticated and intelligent people. And it's easier to be a Bro. Guy because of the thousands of agnostics telling them they're OK. I guess it's too distant of an effect to notice, because you are two or three steps removed from the faith junkie. Posts like this one today, in the aggregate, lead to the culture we have, and that culture leads to the very same faith abuses which you then lament. I believe that matters to you, and pointing out something more you can do about it.

But I apologize for preaching to you, seriously. You are a cool guy. I'm just explaining why I'm a zero-tolerance teetotaler about this issue.

Since you seem to be asking for more clarification about my positioning, I'll say this. You could call me an agnostic in that I don't know if the First Cause of the deists and the philosophers exists. I see that as unknowable. You could even call me a weak pantheist for kicks and giggles, since I believe that the universe is a self-contained system. You could even call me a weak polytheist since I find it possible that mythological gods "exist" in the human hindbrain as a kind of evolutionary common psychology. But I do know, for a fact, that the god I was raised believing in does not exist, from a point of view of factual evidence, and neither do most proposed gods exist. That realization has nothing to do with strategy. So I have a whole range of self-naming choices, all of which are true from a certain point of view.

Martin Wagner | October 31, 2005 05:25 PM

Kevin: I think what I'm looking for in your arguments is the "why." Why be atheism? [sic]

Because I don't feel there is sufficient evidence to believe in any gods. Show me some and I will cease to be atheist.

There's a great human need to belong to groups larger than ourselves. A family, a village, a political party, a religion. What does atheism have to offer humanity, other than a flat denial?

You misunderstand what atheism is. Atheism is simply the disbelief in any gods...and nothing else. Most atheists are in fact part of the other kinds of groups you mention; being atheist, which only means that you don't believe in deities, does not preclude participation in other kinds of groups. And atheism is not something people "join" because they hope it will "offer" them something. That's what religion is for; people looking for things real life isn't giving them to their satisfaction. The things in my life that I look to, to offer me warm fuzzy goodness, are almost all the other things you mention: family, friends, hobbies, career.

If you don't believe in any gods, an atheist is just what you are.

Sometimes, the belief that we work for something larger than ourself can drive us to become greater than we thought possible.

Implicit here is the assumption that this "something larger" must be a deity. It can be many things. There are many things in life that inspire me to become greater than I am. All are real, and none are invisible magic beings.

Why atheism?

Let me pose something to you. Do you believe in Zeus? Thor? Shiva? Odin? Bast? Any of the gods on that big Wikipedia list? Yes? No? Why? If not, you are an atheist in regards to those gods.

Explain to me why you don't believe in those gods, and you will likely have the explanation why I don't believe in yours. The difference in my atheism and your atheism (assuming you are a monotheist) is the degree of precisely one god.

John H: Atheists believe there is no God (or Gods), but that is really a matter of faith on their part because proof is as elusive for them as it is for theists. Atheists want proof that God exists before believing; theists want proof that God doesn't exist before abandoning their belief. Two sides of the same coin in my opinion...

A misinformed opinion, if I may be so bold. Atheism is not a faith position, and I will explain why. It has to do with the matter of burden of proof, which always rests with the person claiming the existence of the thing in question. Furthermore, there is the old axiom that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

If Farmer Brown comes to you and tells you that a UFO landed in his pasture last night, it is not your job to prove to him that it didn't happen. It's his job to prove to you that it did. If he fails to prove his claim to you, you are entirely justified in choosing not to believe his claim. You are not making a leap of faith that no UFO landed in his pasture; you are making a common sense rejection of an extraordinary claim based upon the claimant's failure to meet his burden of proof.

Likewise, if a theist claims to me that there's an invisible magic being who created the universe, and who listens to prayers and has an eternal paradise awaiting his worshipers after their deaths, and he fails to meet his burden of proof, I am justified in remaining an atheist until such time that burden is met. No faith position has been taken by me, as I am not advancing an opposing positive claim to defend, simply rejecting his unsupported one.

You also make the common mistake (hell, John even made it in his original post) of misunderstanding the distinction between atheism and agnosticism. Since so many people — even many atheists — make this mistake, now's as good a time as any to add it to the curriculum.

Atheism and theism are terms relating to what a person does or doesn't believe regarding gods. Gnosticism and agnosticism are epistemological terms; they refer to what someone thinks can be known or not known about gods, regardless of one's belief stance.

There are basically four positions to take, and a single person can take more than one depending on what kind of deity is being proposed:
1) Gnostic theist: Believes in God and claims God's existence is knowable.
2) Agnostic theist: Believes in God but states one cannot know with certainty.
3) Agnostic atheist: Does not believe in God but states one cannot know with certainty.
4) Gnostic atheist: Does not believe in God and claims God's non-existence is knowable.

I would describe myself as agnostic atheist in most situations. I don't claim certain knowledge that nothing could possibly exist that could possibly be called a god. Though in cases where a particular religion's deity is so poorly defined as to be intellectually indefensible (imho, Christianity), I'd consider myself a gnostic atheist. If some odd fellow pointed to the sun in the sky and told me, "That's my god. I worship it," I'd have to consider myself a gnostic theist in regards to his god (though I'm sure I'd disagree with his assessment of the sun's deific qualities).

You may find, as I have, and as George H. Smith once put it, "scratch the surface of a Christian and you will find an agnostic." I've had many Christians admit to me they don't know either, but, for whatever reason, they have decided they do believe. Most believers I've encountered, even devout Christians, actually qualify as agnostic theists. Pat Robertson would probably call himself a gnostic theist. There is a distinction to be made between what someone says they know and says they believe, and the distinction is often blurred.

Terry: the problem is that you seem to conflate a belief in God, (which is an act of faith; though as neither God's existence, nor presence can be proved, nor falsified, atheism is a leap of faith as well) with an abandoment of all reason.

Well, let me clarify. I don't think theists abandon all reason, nor do I think the abandonment of all reason is a necessary consequence of theism. I hope I made that clear in earlier posts, if not, sorry. My experience has been that even the most rational theists I've met choose not to apply the strong reason they apply in almost every other aspect of their lives to their religious beliefs. And while it's my opinion that theism itself isn't rational, I don't think all theists are irrational in all areas of their lives simply because of their theism.

Will reply to Scott's post in a little bit. Looks like a good one.

Good discussion points from everyone! Haven't had this much fun online since...well...I quit the TV show!

John Scalzi | October 31, 2005 05:45 PM

Matt, I have to say I don't find your suppositions very persuasive.

You want as a given that religion is fundamentally damaging, which is a supposition which I disgree with, for reasons amply discussed in the article and the thread. I would certainly agree that some religions are damaging, but not all.

You want as a given that there's something wrong with people being told (per Brother Guy) that one can have faith and reason in one's life side by side. I find this bad philosophically, again for reasons amply noted, but more to the point I find it bad practically, as the vast majority of Americans are religious in some way and are not inclined to abandon their faith; therefore, if one wishes to see these things purely tactically far better to suggest to them they can have both rather than to make them choose one or the other, since it's very likely you won't like what they would choose.

You appear to suppose that religious liberals or moderates need or desire acceptance from agnostics, or that they are somehow enabled by such acceptance, which I find unlikely in the extreme. Moreover, as someone who knows the history of religious revivalism in the US dating back to the time of Mathers Increase and Mather, I would suggest to you that at no time in our cultural history have agnostics been the lynchpin to a "culture leads to the very same faith abuses which you then lament." Indeed, if any group is going to counteract the abuses of the religious right, it ought to be the religiously liberal and moderate, as their own beliefs and practices are as trod upon as anyone's, and also, there are more of them.

Further, I disagree rather emphatically with your apparent supposition that tolerance of people's beliefs is somehow fundamentally unsound for the culture, or that the cure for the intolerance of the religious is the intolerance of the non-religious. There is a reason that freedom of religious expression and the separation of the church and state are encoded into our Constitution, and something rather poetically satisfying that they are both located in the same Amendment.

snowcrash | October 31, 2005 06:17 PM

Martin Wagner:But don't you think that says something about what those beliefs really have going for them...?

No. As previously stated, I don't believe that the Klan is representative of Christianity's message, or the Thuggees representative of Kali worship, so I certainly don't consider these vocal minorities as anything other than obsessed/ manipulative/ gullible.

John Scalzi | October 31, 2005 06:46 PM

Martin Wagner:

"You also make the common mistake (hell, John even made it in his original post) of misunderstanding the distinction between atheism and agnosticism."

I did no such thing.

An agnostic believes it is impossible to know whether there is a God. An atheist disbelieves or denies the existence of God or gods. The meaning of the words is right there in the construction of the words themselves.

Your construction of why atheism is not a faith position is sophistry, as the inability for someone to prove the existence of God does not mean God does not exist, merely that this person cannot produce proof (or rather more widely, that God's existence cannot be proved). The best you can hope for in this particular construction is an agnostic outcome, rather an an atheistic one.

Likewise, posing the question "Is there a God?" to an atheist would oblige him to say "no," at which point one could ask him to defend his position, which places him in the same boat as the fellow who answers "yes." Asking an atheist whether there is a God does not imply there is a God, any more than asking if there are unicorns implies that there are unicorns.

By your categorizations, I would be an agnostic atheist, as I doubt the existence of God, and believe His existence can neither be proven nor disproven. However, that label is inaccurate, as it suggests that I am primarily atheistic and secondarily agnostic, just as the label "African-American," implies American first, African second, and like that label its value is more as a political signifier than an accurate description of the person (go back far enough, and every US citizen is an African-American).

I am not an agnostic atheist; I am an agnostic. No modifier is needed as the word accurately details my position on the matter. As a personal opinion I find people who claim to be atheists have a belief that is no more supportable that those who claim to be theists, even if my own opinions on the matter are more consonant to their position than to those with theistic leanings.

Anonymous | October 31, 2005 08:42 PM

An agnostic believes it is impossible to know whether there is a God. An atheist disbelieves or denies the existence of God or gods. The meaning of the words is right there in the construction of the words themselves.

And so is the distinction. One has to do with belief, the other with knowledge. I'm not sure I understand where you think I'm wrong on pointing this out.

Your construction of why atheism is not a faith position is sophistry, as the inability for someone to prove the existence of God does not mean God does not exist, merely that this person cannot produce proof (or rather more widely, that God's existence cannot be proved). The best you can hope for in this particular construction is an agnostic outcome, rather an an atheistic one.

The inability of someone to prove the existence of an advanced species of telepathic flying gerbils on Neptune does not mean that telepathic flying gerbils on Neptune do not exist, merely that this person cannot produce proof. Meanwhile, while the person claiming their existence goes about finding whatever proof he can, you're right, I will take an agnostic position on the matter. If the person continually and repeatedly fails to meet his burden of proof no matter what evidence he procures, I can safely also take an atheistic position and say I don't believe this person's claim, due to his failure to meet his burden. Note, though, that there's nothing about adopting an atheistic position that prevents me from changing my mind should conclusive evidence finally appear. Again, what is the problem, and why is this sophistry?

Likewise, posing the question "Is there a God?" to an atheist would oblige him to say "no," at which point one could ask him to defend his position, which places him in the same boat as the fellow who answers "yes."

Well, having actually been asked this question more times than I can count, I can tell you what I would answer, which is not quite what you think I'd be obliged to answer: "Please define this being clearly first, and I'll give you my opinion." The thing about God or gods is, no believers seem to be able to come up with definitions that are uniform or coherent. Different believers seem to have different ideas.

When you say "cat" or "dog" or "giraffe" to me, I know what kind of being you're talking about. But "God"? It's iffy, and it's partly that iffyness that informs my disbelief. Is God bigger than a breadbox? Is it humanoid, the classic image of a man with a big grey beard, or otherwise? Is God alive, and if so, is he alive in the sense we understand "alive" to mean? Does he have metabolic processes? Does he need to eat or sleep? If not, is he some kind of "spirit" being? Then define that. What sort of environment does he live in? Etc., etc. Help me understand.

Now, ultimately, you're right, this line of questioning does lead to me saying "No" in the end, but the point is this is a little Socratic thing I do to help the believer understand why I refrain from belief in a being whose nature he cannot explain in a cogent manner. Am I really in the same boat as the believer if I say "No" after failing to get clear answers about what sort of being his God is? I can't imagine how.

Asking an atheist whether there is a God does not imply there is a God, any more than asking if there are unicorns implies that there are unicorns.

True, but then why do you think the atheist's gotten himself into trouble by answering in the negative?

By your categorizations, I would be an agnostic atheist, as I doubt the existence of God, and believe His existence can neither be proven nor disproven. However, that label is inaccurate, as it suggests that I am primarily atheistic and secondarily agnostic, just as the label "African-American," implies American first, African second, and like that label its value is more as a political signifier than an accurate description of the person (go back far enough, and every US citizen is an African-American).

Heck, use the term "atheist agnostic" if you're worried about matters of primacy. (BTW: they aren't my categorizations.) I don't see any indication, semantically or otherwise, that one position is obliged to be held more strongly than the other simply by the order of the wording, or the fact that the terms I listed only try to distinguish one's beliefs from their knowledge claims, instead of conflating them.

I admit I've never seen the term "agnostic atheist" compared to "African-American," but I can see where you might think it's similar and might imply a person is one thing first and the other lesser. I disagree with that interpretation, though I understand where you're coming from with it.

I am not an agnostic atheist; I am an agnostic. No modifier is needed as the word accurately details my position on the matter.

Well, far be it from me to tell you what your position is (I'll leave that game to theists)! But you do finish this paragraph by saying "my own opinions on the matter are more consonant to [the atheist] position than to those with theistic leanings," which sounds kind of like atheism to me. Not to suggest you're doing a Clintonesque "depends what the meaning of 'is' is" dance here. But unless I miss my guess you might just be (like millions of people) deeply troubled by the label "atheist," which has (thanks to the efforts of theists everywhere) a lot of negative associations with it.

Atheism doesn't require some kind of intractible, Madalyn O'Hair-ish "there is no God and fuck all you stupid Christians" position. It merely means "I don't believe," and nowhere is there a tablet from Sinai saying that a declared atheist isn't allowed to someday say, "Oh look, compelling evidence for a deity. I am now no longer an atheist." Atheism also doesn't imply any attitude. Just as all Christians aren't wild-eyed evangelicals who shout their love of Jesus from the rooftops and lob Molotovs at abortion clinics, not all atheists are sign-waving loud-mouthed Ten-Commandments-monument picketers.

I suppose I could go into another set of distinctions — between "soft" or "weak" atheism, and "hard" or "strong" atheism, but I'd hate to be accused of sophistry. I just point out these distinctions because a lot of people like to think agnosticism is some convenient and safe "out" that lets you not have to take a position on the matter of gods either way. It isn't quite like that. Everyone takes a position, even if it's as low on your personal list of mental priorities as your opinion on, I don't know, which are the best TV sitcoms or pizza toppings.

Anyway, don't think I'm asking you to embrace a term if you don't care for it. I'm just trying to clarify why I make the distinctions I make.

As a personal opinion I find people who claim to be atheists have a belief that is no more supportable that those who claim to be theists...

What is the unsupportable belief you think I have?.

Martin Wagner | October 31, 2005 08:42 PM

Goddammit. Came up anonymous again. That was me above.

Martin Wagner | October 31, 2005 09:09 PM

Once more with feeling (I don't know how I missed this when repsonding to Terry Karney): though as neither God's existence, nor presence can be proved, nor falsified, atheism is a leap of faith as well...

I will demonstrate once again why this is not so, through a little play I've written, with apologies to that fine, late atheist Douglas Adams.

Believer: I believe that the universe was sneezed out of the nose of the Great Green Arkleseizure.
Atheist: Interesting. Can you prove that?
Believer: No, the Great Green Arkleseizure's presense can be neither proved nor falsified.
Atheist: Then, as I can see no rational basis for belief in this being, I choose not to.
Believer: Ah-ha, gotcha! As the Great Green Arkleseizure's existence can be neither proved nor falsified, you have made a leap of faith in not believing in him. Your position is just as faith-based as mine!
Atheist: It is!?
Believer: Yup!
Atheist: How?
Believer: It...well, it just is.
Atheist: But you're the one who proposed this being's existence. I've proposed nothing. I just listened to your proposal, asked you for evidence, which you then admitted you couldn't provide. And you think my decision not to believe you is based on faith?
Believer: Indeed, as you cannot prove this being doesn't exist, therefore it's existence is just as likely as its nonexistence.
Atheist: So, you want to assert the existence of a being, present no evidence for it, then demand that I prove you wrong?
Believer: Yeah, why not?
Atheist: Because it's a logical fallacy, for one thing.
Believer: This isn't about logic, it's about faith!
Atheist: Well, you're right about that part, anyway....

And so it goes.

Kevin Q | October 31, 2005 09:30 PM

Here, let me take a whack at that play:

Believer: I believe that the universe was sneezed out of the nose of the Great Green Arkleseizure.
Atheist: Interesting. Can you prove that?
Believer: No, the Great Green Arkleseizure's presense can be neither proved nor falsified.
Atheist: Then, as I can see no rational basis for belief in this being, I choose not to.
Believer: Ah-ha, gotcha! As the Great Green Arkleseizure's existence can be neither proved nor falsified, you have made a leap of faith in not believing in him. Your position is just as faith-based as mine!
Atheist: So?
Believer: So you have faith in something, too!
Atheist: Yes. So what?
Believer: So why can't I have my faith, and you have yours?
Atheist: Alright.
Believer: Wanna go grab a beer?
Atheist: Sure.


See? Isn't it better when we all get along?

K

Scott | October 31, 2005 09:35 PM

There is a subtle point of difference between not believing in something, and believing in its absence.

The former may be an athiest, or an agnostic, depending on their other proclivities, the latter is necessarily athiest.

And a Christian is not "an athiest about Hindu gods." They are a thiest with other beliefs. Athiest pretty strongly covers all the Gods, not a particular hypothetical (at least unless you feel like context dropping, which I suggest here only as a warning against doing it, not because I think it's a good move for you)

Scott | October 31, 2005 09:36 PM

And I should learn to spell [a]theist if I want to continue in this coversation.

John Scalzi | October 31, 2005 10:17 PM

Martin Wagner:

"And so is the distinction. One has to do with belief, the other with knowledge."

They're both about belief, actually. One believes there is no god (or gods), however one wishes to define the term, the other believes there is no proof one way or another.

"Am I really in the same boat as the believer if I say 'No' after failing to get clear answers about what sort of being his God is?"

Well, yes. You just want credit for how long it takes you to get on board.

Also, as an aside, it's not in evidence that people who believe in God cannot describe Him in a cogent manner. People who think poorly on the matter may be easily flummoxed, but a serious theological thinker probably will not.

Let us also note that your mouth-breathing species of evangelist fundamentalist will often posit a god by using a series of positions that are easily disproved and discarded, particularly if they want to take a sideswipe at evolution on the way. Taking a torch to these formulations of God is indeed of a net benefit to humanity, and as you note at some point it's perfectly reasonable to suggest to these folks that you're going on the assumption they have their theological heads up their eschatological asses until shown otherwise. More subtle thinkers on God, I suspect, will avoid the obvious traps and present a rather more interesting challenge.

"But you do finish this paragraph by saying 'my own opinions on the matter are more consonant to [the atheist] position than to those with theistic leanings,' which sounds kind of like atheism to me."

And yet it's not. I suspect there is no god but make no claim to have knowledge of that one way or the other. It's agnosticism, straight up.

"Atheism doesn't require some kind of intractible, Madalyn O'Hair-ish 'there is no God and fuck all you stupid Christians' position. It merely means 'I don't believe...'"

I don't believe the suggestion that all atheists are foamy-mouthed jerks has been put out there. And I'm as content to let atheists not believe as I am to let religious people believe; it does me no harm.

"I will demonstrate once again why this is not so, through a little play I've written, with apologies to that fine, late atheist Douglas Adams."

However, once again your dialogue requires the believer to make the first move. A dialogue that opens with a would-be philosopher declaring there is no God would not necessarily follow the same script, or have the same outcome.

"I just point out these distinctions because a lot of people like to think agnosticism is some convenient and safe 'out' that lets you not have to take a position on the matter of gods either way."

I can't speak regarding others who call themselves agnostic, but as I noted earlier in this thread, my agnosticism doesn't keep me from having very strong opinions on matters on the subject of god(s). I call myself an agnostic because it's the most accurate label for me.

Primate | November 1, 2005 07:25 AM

John is dead on right. The doubt that the divine can proved or disproved is a third way that goes with believing in the divine and disbelieving in the divine. That doubt is the position of the agnostics. Atheists actively believe there is no divine. So, at least three entirely different attitudes can be reached merely on the existance of the divine alone.

And for the record, noting that the world sucks doesn't disprove the existence of God, since it also may mean that God's just an jerk. Theologians have spent at lot of headsweat on this one over the years, with some entertaining results.

Matt Arnold | November 1, 2005 09:29 AM

"Taking a torch to these formulations of God is indeed of a net benefit to humanity..."

That's Marshall Brain.

John Scalzi | November 1, 2005 10:04 AM

Yes, but his torching is needlessly indiscriminate.

Matt Arnold | November 1, 2005 11:45 AM

First off, I have no reason to care. Smart religious people can take care of themselves. The book is not intended for them, and if their feelings are hurt, it's a small price to pay. Letting them be a human sheild in front of those who need to be told the contents of the book would be stupid.

Secondly, earlier you talked about the first amendment. To my knowledge, at no point did I or Martin Wagner or Marshall Brain say anything about making stupid forms of religion illegal. In your blog post, what you objected to was fixing their ignorance. That's all we're doing. If smart religious people happen to step into the line of fire, who cares. It is scientifically proven by studies that a society with less religion in it is happier by almost any standard. Rather than go into all the details of the studies at length here, I'm picking this up on my blog:
http://www.nemorathwald.com/

John Scalzi | November 1, 2005 12:16 PM

Matt Arnold:

"The book is not intended for them"

Oddly enough, Mr. Brain does not appear to make the same subtle distinction you make. When he writes "We can eliminate God from our society because God is meaningless" he doesn't say "well, except for the God of smart religious people." It appears that Mr. Brain meant his book for everybody. I will agree that Mr. Brain seems to have gone under the assumption that people who are religious are fundamentally irrational in most things, but as noted before, this is not actually in evidence.

"If smart religious people happen to step into the line of fire, who cares."

However, there's a difference between smart religious people stepping into the line of fire because they choose to do so, and smart religious people being in the line of fire because the weapon of choice is both indescriminate and scattershot. Brain's book as far as I can see is the proverbial axe to kill the equally proverbial fly. There are better ways to accomplish the Mr. Brain's presumed goal of the improvement of society. A good start might be making allies of the rational yet religious people rather than considering them expendable collateral damage.

"It is scientifically proven by studies that a society with less religion in it is happier by almost any standard."

Yes, Soviet Russia was a lovely place to be.

Also, it's not "scientifically proven," as the fellows who put together the study themselves acknowledge: "This is not an attempt to present a definitive study that establishes cause versus effect between religiosity, secularism and societal health. It is hoped that these original correlations and results will spark future research and debate on the issue." Even the title of the study emphasized correlation, and as most people know, correlation is not causation.

Mr. Brain's hostility toward God and religion in a general sense (or yours, for that matter) does not mean that his solution to the ills of society, namely the expunging of God, is either smart or desirable, or will have the effect he (and, it appears, you) seem to believe it will.

Matt Arnold | November 1, 2005 01:11 PM

You make an important point that it's not scientifically proven, and correlation is not causation. Given the blance of the evidence, I will still lean toward the lessening of theism as a solution which, while not overwhelmingly conclusive, is merely more likely to improve the world than the alternative of leaving the "supply chain" in place for hardcore faith junkies.

But even leaving behind the question of societal effects, more importantly, it improves the life of the individual. Your mileage may vary, but switching what subcultures I hang out in has led to a dramatic improvement in my personal quality of life. You've probably never had to deal with hardcore faith addicts every day, which is probably why you have been content to remain an agnostic instead of studying insatiably for years until one resolves the issue, and writes a gentle but incisive work like "Why God Hates Amputees" as an act of tough love to take one's life back from the church. This path comes with my highest customer satisfaction recommendation, for what it's worth.

John Scalzi | November 1, 2005 01:36 PM

Heh. Well, I'm glad you've enjoyed it. I find it less fulfilling, but as you note, mileage varies and so forth.

Karl | November 1, 2005 02:25 PM

Matt Arnold:
Given the blance of the evidence, I will still lean toward the lessening of theism as a solution which, while not overwhelmingly conclusive, is merely more likely to improve the world than the alternative of leaving the "supply chain" in place for hardcore faith junkies.

Yeah, but atheism is a drug of choice for many hardcore faith junkies. A religious faith junkie converted to atheism just becomes an atheist faith junkie. Most of the outspoken athests online come across as faith junkies. The key is not the belief system but a willingness to suspend judgment and be gracious to other perspectives.

gentle but incisive work like "Why God Hates Amputees"

...like trying to repair a Swiss watch with a breadknife. It comes across neither as gentle or incisive.

For what it's worth, I would categorize myself as an agnostic atheist according to proposed metric above. I'm married to a faith "junkie", My kids are faith "junkies", and have a wide circle of friends mostly consisting of faith "junkies" varying from fundamentalists to evangelicals to creationists to charasmatics to mystics to liberals. They are all decent people and, aside from a few exceptions, most of them do not hold beliefs that I would consider harmful. I think that being their friend makes a bigger difference to their perspective than getting into an argument (though I do love a good argument when they are game for it).

Cathy Raymond | November 1, 2005 09:29 PM

One poster wrote, above:

"How could widespread irrationalism, the inability on the part of millions to distinguish fantasy from reality, not be a problem?"

Of course that's a problem. But that (or so it seems to me) cuts to the heart of Mr. Scalzi's argument. Even if you destroyed (as opposed to proving the irrationality of) all religions, you would *still* have widespread irrationalism; it would simply take other forms.

MattArnold | November 1, 2005 11:23 PM

Karl, there is a world of difference between trust as expressed by those who are secular and faith as defined in the world's holy books and traditions.

First of all, an appropriate type of trust is that which is retracted when someone is proven un-trustworthy, but when faith is tested it's supposed to hold fast.

Second, the trust we place in each other is an efficiency tool in order to grease the wheels of our interactions, and should not be overdone, but we are told the more faith we have, the better.

Third, just as currency is supposed to be exchangable for gold on demand, the trust we place in experts is supposed to be exchangable for the evidence. Asking to see the evidence for one's self and make up one's own mind based on it is supposed to be welcomed, not considered a disloyalty.

Other than those differences, faith and trust are simply acting in ignorance when the limits of knowledge leave no alternative, and hoping for the best. We're all born ignorant but we're supposed to never stop growing out of it. For this reason, the same is true of faith. Ignorance makes faith necessary to survive, but this situation is a necessary evil, because the more you learn for yourself, the less you have to take somebody else's word for it. If you know something from experience and reason, you no longer need any faith to hold to it. So faith is inescapable at first, but should minimized as much as possible.

Karl | November 2, 2005 12:31 AM

Hi Matt,

I'm not sure how that ties in with what I said. I used to be a devout evangelical Christian so I am well aware of the distinction between faith and trust. I agree that it's best to eliminate ignorance and to base our understanding of the world on things that we can objectively verify. I distrust the faith-based approach too and think that it's best, wherever possible, to challenge our own assumptions about the world and try to develop ways to objectively verify our beliefs. As subjective, emotional creatures, that's not always easy or relevant but it's something I attempt. I more or less agree with your beliefs.

I disagree with the approach that has been proposed for approaching Christians and challenging their faith. For one, there are many Christians for whom the arguments do not engage the basis of their faith. Secondly, the approach seems so antagonistic that most Christians will write it off without looking at it. I'm glad to be antagonistic with people that already are antagonistic (they shut up pretty fast around me) but I'm not looking for a fight.

The key, I think, is to attempt to neutralize the people that are being harmful. Use a sniper rifle rather than a sawn off shotgun. The broader the claim (all religion is wrong and evil) the harder it is to support. Instead, I would attack the harmful aspects of Christianity, such as those who believe that we're evil and that God is going to send most of us to a hell of eternal torture unless we say a magic prayer. Most Christians don't have beliefs that are this extreme. Showing respect and demonstrating that atheists can lead peaceful, loving lives goes a long way to falsify the idea that we're all evil and worthy of hell.

Karl
http://freehand.diary-x.com

Matt Arnold | November 2, 2005 09:24 AM

Perhaps I misunderstood you. You said, "Yeah, but atheism is a drug of choice for many hardcore faith junkies." Going back, I can see how you might have meant they are addicted to faith in The Socialist State, or in some expert, or in horoscopes, or this or that. It's true that non-theism in and of itself does not entail the automatic absence of this problem, although they do correlate by and large. What I thought you meant was the tired old sophistry that it takes more faith to be a non-theist than it does to be a theist.

There is a whole spectrum of drug use, from the responsible and self-controlled social drinker to the casual dabbler to the person who's just starting to have a problem, to the hardcore junkie who'd stab somebody for a hit of the drug. And believe me, Karl, you are incorrect when you say your wife is a faith junkie. Highjackers, suicide bombers and cultists living in sealed compounds are faith junkies. Your wife would not be married to an agnostic if she were one of those.

Karl | November 2, 2005 12:20 PM

Hi Matt,

What I was meaning was that some atheists treat atheism like a religion in and of itself, view others as outsiders, evangelistically attempt to convert everyone to their opinion, and derive personal satisfaction in their superiority. They probably don't intend to sound that way but to the casual observer it sounds like a religion. I can understand their philosophical position but I think that their attitude does not help their cause.

Matt Arnold wrote:
What I thought you meant was the tired old sophistry that it takes more faith to be a non-theist than it does to be a theist.

While I think that it does take some faith to assume that there is no God, I think that it's an easier and more reasonable assumption than the other way round. That's a pretty subjective judgment though. It certainly takes more faith (implicit or explicit) to believe in a detailed concept of God that has an obvious impact on our lives. It depends on the concept of God.

It seems that we more or less understand each other.

Eric VanNewkirk | November 2, 2005 04:45 PM

"However, once again your dialogue requires the believer to make the first move. A dialogue that opens with a would-be philosopher declaring there is no God would not necessarily follow the same script, or have the same outcome."

Sigh.

Okay, try this:

Atheist: I see no evidence that there is any god or gods, and have no personal need to hypothesize a god in order to explain the universe. Because there is no evidence for which a deity is a necessary explanation, I decline to believe that there is a deity based on the principle of parsimony and would have to say that there is no such being. Of course, I cannot prove a negative and absence of evidence is not evidence of absence—it is possible that God exists despite the lack of evidence, just as it is possible that aliens routinely abduct people and create crop circles, that bigfoot roams the Pacific Northwest, and it’s possible that John Edwards talks to dead people. Still, given the lack of evidence, I’ll stick with being an atheist until someone can convince me otherwise.
Believer: Yeah, well, I believe that the universe was sneezed out of the nose of the Great Green Arkleseizure.
Atheist: Interesting. Can you prove that?
Believer: No, the Great Green Arkleseizure's presense can be neither proved nor falsified.
Atheist: Then, as I can see no rational basis for belief in this being, I choose not to.
Believer: Ah-ha, gotcha! As the Great Green Arkleseizure's existence can be neither proved nor falsified, you have made a leap of faith in not believing in him. Your position is just as faith-based as mine!
Atheist: It is!?
Believer: Yup!
Atheist: How?
Believer: It...well, it just is.
Atheist: But you're the one who proposed this being's existence. I've proposed nothing. I just listened to your proposal, asked you for evidence, which you then admitted you couldn't provide. And you think my decision not to believe you is based on faith?
Believer: Indeed, as you cannot prove this being doesn't exist, therefore it's existence is just as likely as its nonexistence.
Atheist: So, you want to assert the existence of a being, present no evidence for it, then demand that I prove you wrong?
Believer: Yeah, why not?
Atheist: Because it's a logical fallacy, for one thing.
Believer: This isn't about logic, it's about faith!
Atheist: Well, you're right about that part, anyway....

Mr. Wagner, thank you for your posts. And thanks to all for interesting (if sometimes frustrating) debate.

Personally, let me add that, as an atheist, I have no idea why it would be worthwhile to try to disprove the existence of a deity. I don't think that religion is the source of all evil, and there is much to be admired in some displays of religious faith. Certainly one can say that Christianity has been the fuel for a great deal that is commendable and noble in Western culture. On the other hand, religious faith is not rational. And I'd also add, on a personal note, that my tolerance for other religious views has sadly waned as the Religious Right has become more strident and aggressive against non-Christian freedom of conscience and speech, and against the teaching of science in the classroom. But that, perhaps, is another subject.

John Scalzi | November 2, 2005 05:06 PM

Eric VanNewkirk:

"Okay, try this:"

Heh. No offense, Eric, but another atheist writing the script isn't exactly what I had in mind there, particularly one who offers up such an initial gout of verbiage that Believer in the script is more likely to respond "Uhhh... okay," and then sidle away. Let's have a believer take a whack at the script and see where he or she ends up.

Matt Arnold | November 2, 2005 09:03 PM

"Personally, let me add that, as an atheist, I have no idea why it would be worthwhile to try to disprove the existence of a deity.
...
And I'd also add, on a personal note, that my tolerance for other religious views has sadly waned as the Religious Right has become more strident and aggressive against non-Christian freedom of conscience and speech, and against the teaching of science in the classroom. But that, perhaps, is another subject."

It's not another subject. You answered your own question.

Matt McIrvin | November 2, 2005 11:37 PM

While I freely admit that I cannot prove the existence or nonexistence of God, I call myself an atheist rather than an agnostic for a variety of reasons.

First, "agnostic" has a popular connotation of "one who is wavering between belief and nonbelief and could perhaps be easily persuaded to adopt your God with the right argument", which is neither true nor something I want other people to think.

Second, "agnostic" has a technical meaning of "one who believes that knowledge of whether God exists is logically impossible." While I don't know whether God exists, I am not about to pronounce this knowledge logically impossible. Indeed, I believe that it is possible that it is impossible to know whether or not it is possible to know that God exists (especially if God does not in fact exist), though it may be impossible to know whether it is possible to know whether it is possible to know that God exists. Granted, actual use of the word in this sense is rare except among historians of philosophy, so it is a weak reason.

Third, when I try to avoid reasoned argument entirely and think about what I do believe in, or at least have hunches about, regardless of whether I can support it with arguments or not (as Raymond Smullyan once said, this can be hard for somebody who is accustomed to reasoned arguments to do), what comes up bears little resemblance to any personal God, so I think it's fair to say that what faith I have is atheistic. John mentioned that this puts me in a position as unsupportable as that of a theist, but (unlike many atheists, I suppose) I'm perfectly satisfied with being in a position as unsupportable as that of a theist. If theists have no problems paying attention to unsupportable faith, why can't I?

John Scalzi | November 3, 2005 08:39 AM

Matt McIrvin:

"I'm perfectly satisfied with being in a position as unsupportable as that of a theist. If theists have no problems paying attention to unsupportable faith, why can't I?"

No reason at all, of course, and I'm pleased to see you recognize it.

Re: Agnostic being perceived as "wavering" -- I can see that, although I tend not to have that issue, and can generally clear things up quickly when I do. I don't think agnostics have it worse from evangelical types than atheists, though. I think evangelicals would prefer to testify in front of an atheist because it's more of a challenge.

Matt Arnold | November 6, 2005 11:08 AM

"No reason at all, of course, and I'm pleased to see you recognize it."

I hope Mr. McIrvin intended this as satire to point out a double standard commonly employed by religious people against rationalists. Whether practiced by atheists or theists, claiming to have knowledge one does not have is wrong.

Sam | November 6, 2005 01:30 PM

Many of the questions raised in Scalzi's original post and these comments are covered on this page:

http://www.whydoesgodhateamputees.com/qa.htm

Brian | November 14, 2005 05:39 AM

What to do with atheists like this one:
http://www.betterhuman.org ?

This gentleman proposes the use of oppression
to cleanse the world of religion.

John Scalzi | November 14, 2005 06:29 AM

He's a bit of an ass, then, isn't he?

Eric | November 21, 2005 06:44 PM

One of the principles of christian morality is that god is the source of morality, and adherents are encouraged to follow those guidelines. Actually, most are indoctrinated from an early age to believe that morality only comes from god (well, actually, through the religious leaders who claim to speak for god).

It's this abdication of morality to somebody else that is the problem - if I choose to adopt whatever somebody else says as "morality", they obviously have control over how I act.

Your assertion is that, absent religion, people would find other ways to do this. This same effect is certainly present in nationalism, but given that nationalism often lines up on religious lines, it's hard to separate the two. In certain circles, "My country right or wrong" is as strongly held as any religious belief.

Having said that, I think it's harder to motivate the average person with nationalistic appeals because the indoctrination that kids are given around patriotism is much lighter than that around religion. Kids are encouraged to support their country, but they are not told on a weekly basis that they will go to hell if they do not support their country.

Or, to put it another way, "they're infidels" is a far more powerful call to action than others. I don't know the details of Stalin or Pol Pot, but given the history of anti-semitism in Germany and it's involvement with religion (Martin Luther, anyone?), it's disingenous to say that there is no religious component there. There's a *huge* religious component there.

For my money, if there are N ways of getting people to do bad things, reducing that to N-1 is a good thing.

idiot | November 30, 2005 02:04 PM

i am an idiot and i am lead by richard simmons

Eric R. Ashley | December 26, 2005 12:37 AM

Problem of Evil for Christians is resolved by Human Freedom, and by the Universe being Finite.

Since Science is the daughter of Christianity, because Christianity posits a rational and benevolent universe, and commands study, and good stewardship, I find the notion that Science is naturally hostile to Christianity to be a hijacking of Science.

While, yes, the God of the Bible does intervene physically, aka miracles, He also does it rarely. If he were to do it frequently, it would destroy human freedom, and science.

There's also reason to believe that more people have been slain by atheists than by Christians. About 200 million in the last century can be attributed to atheists (although I should subtract about 15 million for Hitler who was a pagan.)

Now, to be fair, part of that is industrialization. Lots easier to machine-gun people than to hack them down with a sword athough the Hutus proved it doable.

The God of the Bible claims that he wants people to test him.

But once you've tested him, and seen the proof then he wants you to have faith. Even if he does seemingly vile things to you. People have been rescued by miracles through faith, and people have died horribly by faith.

If you posit that death by torture is the worst thing that can happen to a person, and that there is no cause that is worth suffering that fate, then yes, God is a big, mean sadist who likes to pull the wings off butterflies. But, in a world that believes in nothing beyond themselves, freedom, justice, and a whole lot of other grand things would be non-existent. And if you acknowledge that freedom might be worth a firing squad, then its not much of a step to acknowledge that the Good, of which Freedom is a mere noble subset of that greater Good is worth dying for.

And there is abundant proof. Its been said that if the Ressurection was brought before a court that it would be proven. Abundant eye witnesses in many places, times, and groups do help after all. It would probably be a pretty easy case.

There's other proofs. Great numbers of them.

But, and here's the big thing, like in Iraq, we have two groups of intelligent people who look at the same data, and see totally different things. Why? I suspect its because of what is in their heart. The notion that neocons are neocons because they are stupid, or that theists are so because they are not rational is pathetic and narrow-minded. Those who hold such views ought to be ashamed of themselves.

Now, this post bounced around a bit, but hopefully, its followable. And since I'm really busy, I'm not going to get into a long-drawn out arguement here, with replies bouncing back and forth, because as important as educating strangers is, taking care of the kids is more important. But feel free to do your worst...

Eric R. Ashley | December 26, 2005 12:45 AM

And let me clarify quickly...if God were to heal all the amputees the moment after it occurred, that would infringe on the freedom of the machete-wielder, the drunk driver, the train engineer who did not do his job, the safety researcher who ten years before chose to avoid studying trains to focus on writing sensational and fact-free articles for good bucks.

And ultimately, we are always going to make mistakes. There is no perfect plan, because the universe is finite. Even angels make mistakes. God, being Infinite, does not. But as long as you are not infinite, no matter the degree of glory and power you possess, you're going to make mistakes. Whether its juggling stars, or juggling clods of dirt, eventually you drop one.

Truthteller | January 8, 2006 11:11 PM

The fundamental problem with having a meaningful debate with the religious is that you run up against the intellectual and psychological constructs that are necessary to maintain their "belief" in the first place.

The basis of their beliefs are typically a circular, self-referencing morass that require a truncation of rationality.

Q "How do you know there is a God?"
A "The Bible says so."


Q. "How do you know the Bible is valid?"
A. "Because the preacher and my parents told me it is."


Q. "How do they know it's valid?"
A. "The Bible says so."

I use this Christian-based example, but the exercise is largely the same whatever their religion.

Those who are religious seem to come by this affliction predominantly either by indoctrination from birth or they "find God" at some later point when they feel something is missing from their lives.

No doubt the former is the most prevalent. The child is brainwashed with this propostion of "belief in God" long before they have the congnitive capacity to question it. And of course, throughout much of history, refusal to embrace "God", or even to question some or all of the premise could earn severe penalties.

And burning at the stake wasn't the only angle to the great protection racket of religion - The fire and brimstone crowd will tell you that non-belief will result in eternal damnation of your soul. That's certainly a sound basis upon which to believe in something, ain't it?

So, what is "God"? Answers will be all over the map. And ultimately, we're told, one can't fully grasp the nature of "God", it's beyond the comprehension of man. Okay, so how do we know this? Well, because those who have the inside track tell us so. Answers to questions like these inspire the most ludicrous forms of mental gymnastics to try and explain away the numerous and obvious logical flaws in the proposition of "belief in God".

If someone who's devoutly religious says they want to have a "serious debate" about religion, they're lying to you and themselves. Ultimately, no matter what you say to someone who's devoutly religious, no matter how completely, irrefutably and definitively you shatter every premise. No matter what inescapable corner you back them into, ultimately they'll escape to - "I don't care, I believe anyway". Logic and reason mean nothing to them because they've already subordinated it to maintain their beliefs. Debating with someone like this on the basis of logic is an exercise in pointlessness because to them, logic and reason are not the ultimate standards. I see some comments on here bear this out in blazing technicolor.

The only way for those afflicted with religious belief to be "saved", is to come to an epiphany on their own and it takes a unique person to finally see the folly of religion, and for the right reasons, not just because they're angry because of a particular unhappy event. They have to see it for the intellectual nonsense that it is.

Ultimately, we're told that we need "faith". I.e., belief in the absence of evidence. This is part of the true poison of religion. They're asking you, in essence, to denounce the efficacy of your mind, to abdicate the requirements of reason and logic, to believe in this "something" that nobody can exactly describe to you.

This is where certain Bible thumpers will chime in "Ah, but in science, not everything is known and certain propositions are accepted without being able to fully prove them".

The difference, of course, is enormous. The focus of science is to gain and refine knowledge, using the senses and reason logic. Good science requires that disproven ideas be tossed out as new knowledge is gained. A premise is accepted only as long as it hasn't been disproven.

However, religious "faith" requires that we do an end-run around such requirements. We're told in fact, that our senses are inadequate to ascertain the true nature of the Universe. (How they know this, is never quite explained)

Now, belief in God doesn't mean someone is fundamentally a brainless goober. Certainly there are otherwise intelligent people who profess to believe in "God". But I don't care how intelligent someone is, their intellect is thwarted to some degree as long as they continue to profess this belief.

Scalzi says:

"The problem is not that people believe God exists. The problem is that people want to use God as an excuse to do damn fool things. The two are entirely separate issues. "


Actually, no they're not at all separate. They're inextricably linked. If we accept "belief" in an entity that isn't defined in the first place, there's nothing at all inexplicable that there are those who take this amorphous "belief" and use it to justify just about anything.


He mentions Hitler. When he says there was "not a trace of religious rationale" in Hitler's actions, I'm afraid he, like many don't really understand the subject matter. Religion demands that one give themselves over to some greater, collective "other", and those who act as its representatives. In Nazi Germany, Hitler was the center of that "other".


"Where atheists rather charmingly get things backward is by assuming that by getting rid of God, people will stop doing the damn fool things they say God wants them to do. As if they won't find some other excuse."


This statement illustrates some of what I've pointed out. "Getting rid" of God, presupposes that this God was there to begin with. I still await proof of this. Further, he says those things that some say "God wants them to do" are "damn fool", really? Based on what criteria? How/Where are you able to determine any more definitively that God *didn't* tell them to do these things?


"It does me no harm if other people believe other than I; what matters is what people do with that belief. If they use it to enrich their lives and to do good for others, than agnostic though I am, I will happily celebrate their faith and believe that their belief is an excellent thing. If they use it to justify their hates and fears and to make others wallow in their self-satisfied ignorance of the world, well, naturally, I'm going to have a problem with that."


What Scalzi doesn't get is that what he calls "justifying hate and fear" isn't a universal concept. The faith of some tells them that killing certain other inhabitants of the planet, *is* "doing good". Their beliefs tell them that doing certain things to others that Scalzi finds reprehensible, is totally acceptable. Their belief can in fact do plenty of harm.


What's the difference between their "self-satisfied ignorance" and yours?


Yes, I believe murdering people on the street is wrong, but I don't need religious tenets to tell me this. Hitler didn't believe in the sanctity of individual rights, nor do Islamic terrorists.

This is a huge subject and I've hit some highlights here, but anyone who wants some excellent reading on the subject, two books to read:

Atheism:The Case Against God - by George Smith If you claim religious belief, I double-dog dare you to read this book from cover to cover.

The Ominous Parallels - by Leonard Peikoff. A must read if you truly want to understand the Nazi Holocaust and its implications today. After reading it, tell me if you still believe religion had nothing to do with the Holocaust.

Sean Sinjin | February 6, 2006 12:02 AM

Hi friends,

Despite accusations of my being an ‘ass’, I can quite assure you that my promotion for oppressing religion falls under the same altruistic motivations that most people would use to justify the oppression of illicit chemical abuse. Religion is a virtual ‘narcotic’ and it is quite altruistic to help prevent a fantasy-abuser from falling into this ethereal-addiction. Please review my BetterHuman.org weblog for a great many entries on this perspective.

Kind regards,
Sean Sinjin

BetterHuman.org Authenticity Code:
976820c3-cb56-46d4-91d8-5c8e106d9cf2

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