Mark Dery on "evangelical" atheism

Culture critic Mark Dery has written a good ol' fashioned rant about "'evangelical' atheists" like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Although delighted by their strategy, Dery is disappointed in their seeming ignorance about American evangelical Christianity on more than a surface level. For Dery, the key to understanding why Christianity still "works" in the U.S. is by examining it, in proper context, as another strange subculture. From Dery's essay, titled "Devil's Advocacy":
Yes, the Enlightenment tradition of reasoned debate and the scientific method's appeal to fact trump evangelical Christianity's "faith-based" obedience to scriptural "truth," its cowering fear of the Deeply Disapproving Daddy in the Sky. Those points being eagerly granted, how much more interesting to excavate the historical, class-based, and economic roots of American evangelical Christianity, to understand it in all its oxymoronic complexity as a conservative counterculture. There is a reductionistic, black-and-white binarism to Dawkins and Hitchens arguments that, irony of ironies, replicates the very same Manichean dualism beloved of American fundamentalism.

(And no, I'm not echoing the sophistic argument, made with her usual blunt-trauma subtlety by Ann Coulter and with somewhat more nuance, on the left, by Chris Hedges. I'm not arguing that a dogmatic atheism is a fundamentalism by any other name; rather, I'm arguing that using the sledgehammer of reason to smash to smithereens religion's preposterous epistemology and its hypocritical morality leaves half the job undone. Conservative Christianity has little to do with theology and everything to do with the culture wars; making sense of it requires not just a rationalist-materialist critique but an ethnographic/anthropological angle of attack.)
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  1. I’m with Dery here because, as he points out towards the end of his post, much of American evangelical Christianity is truly extrabiblical. Much of what the evangelical movement believes is drawn less and less from the teachings of Christ and more and more from bestsellers from people like Joel Osteen–who, even though I’m not a strict believer of anything, I think is clearly heretical, but I digress.

    The thing about ‘Evangelical Atheism’ is that it blindly relies on some vague idea about ‘science’ as much as evangelical Christianity relies on vague ideas about what adherents are told about scripture (which, in my experience, is largely out of context, cherry-picked, and manipulated to fit a sermon on a single narrow topic).

    For proof, watch Dawkins’ BBC special, Root of All Evil. In arguments, he frequently cites ‘Science’ as blanket proof every time a Christian cites ‘Scripture’ as a blanket proof. Without specific examples, the argument goes nowhere.

    Both sides lack a reputation for robust, nuanced debating tactics. It makes me wonder why people actually believe that one side or the other is completely right.

  2. Science has the advantage that it is based upon evidence.

    The goal here is not to convert the evangelicals… it is to move the middle. People have been given a deep and abiding respect for positions held without evidence (things believed on faith), for ‘spiritual’ values, and for the truth(yness) of the Bible.

    “Those guys beat their wives, carry the clap, and your book advocates genocide” isn’t aimed at persuading evangelicals– they already know the Bible approves of genocide in Numbers 31 and indicates women are dirt all over the place. The aim is to dispel the undeserved respect these institutions hold. (Could anything other than a religion get away with the serial abuse found in the Catholic Church?)

    nd, bfr smn ccss th thsts, myslf ncldd, f ‘ncvlty,’ pls nt tht ths s cnsqnc f th nwrrntd cltrl ssmptns bt rspct fr rlgs pstns. Feminists have been coming off as uncivil since the late 1800s, but it has worked for them.

  3. I think many of these “New Atheists” conflate the political side of religion with the religion itself, which is a great disservice to thoughtful, intelligent religious people who don’t simply follow dogma, and question their own beliefs constantly, and don’t take the scriptures literally.

  4. Huh. I guess I’m a sophist, because I do tend to think that most of the “New Atheists” and their acolytes are fundamentalists by another name, complete with holy books, a smugness and condescension born of the knowledge of their personal salvation, and a screeching intolerance of heresy. BUT, I guess it’s something of an oversimplification, and like any analogy you can pick it to death if you try hard enough.

    Still, it’s an interesting read. It’s amazing that so many of “religion’s” self-appointed Inquisitors can’t distinguish between an individual’s belief and its larger social manifestation, or can’t grasp that there might be more than one social or political movement arising from something as big and diffuse as, say, Christianity. Or can’t understand that there might be a Catholic (or a few hundred million of them) who are just fine with birth control. Etc.

    Good for this guy for getting that, and for saying so. Of course, he’s got to prove he’s still one of the cool kids, so you get the obligatory taunts at “religion’s preposterous epistemology and its hypocritical morality”–ha, take that, um, Religion! (The unintended irony of that kind of bluster mixed in with Chick tracts is great.) But of all the self-important ranters about religion (pro and con) I’ve seen recently, this is easily the most nuanced.

    Anything that helps get the vast majority of us who coexist nicely out of the line of fire between Dawkins/Hitchens and Falwell/Robertson is fine with me.

    (PS: I’m an atheist. That means atheists who disagree with me should call me a traitor and theists who disagree with me should call me a useful idiot, NOT the other way around, please.)

  5. I don’t think it’s so far off; secular humanism is easily one of the biggest and most fierce religions of our time, despite the fact that it denies its Christian roots (morality around the individual). Dawkins & co don’t impress me much, they seem to be reactionaries who misunderstand the purpose of religion/spirituality and then attack it on that basis.

  6. Yeah, there was a time I leaned towards Atheism, until I realized it was populated by the same sort of manic fundamentalists one finds on the opposite side, like among the Creationists. Man, what a nasty, reactionary war that is! Dawkins, for instance, although an interesting writer, has serious unresolved issues to need to fight that war that badly. He and others helped me realize that affiliation of any sort is by default a violent act, both externally and internally. Thus I, for one, opted for an independent stance where I have the freedom to pluck my ideological valuables from wherever I need or want.

  7. Starcadia,

    Fair enough, but bear in mind that there are those of us who are proud to call ourselves atheists in the literal sense of the word–that is, not adhering to a theistic understanding of things–without going to Dawkins’ book-signings.

    That’s what really pisses me off about them–not just the intolerance and hypocrisy, but the fact that they’re muddying up what ought to be a totally innocuous (non)belief. They’re turning it into capital-A “Atheism,” a Big Issue about which you have to Take Sides in the Coming War for Truth.

    Wouldn’t you know it, it’s exactly the thing that pissed off my Christian friends about the televangelists of the 1980s (and beyond).

  8. As an atheist, I both agree and disagree with Dawkins and company. I couldn’t agree more with making the case, as they do, when religion is demonstrably false. Evolution is an excellent example– ID/Creationism is rubbish and DESERVES to be aggressively shot down. Gay rights are of particular concern, because the ancient morality that produced the biblical attitude towards homosexuality quite simply has as little place in the modern world as arbitrary stonings.

    At the same time, I have any number of friends who legitimately believe, and find comfort in those beliefs. I can’t see it as a positive social change to totally deny people the benevolent, personal relationship with whatever deity they believe in. I (firmly) don’t believe in any god, but I also don’t believe that it’s possible to fundamentally disprove the existence of a supernatural being. The evidence, in my opinion, is STRONGLY against it, but that doesn’t preclude existence.

    Religion is one helluva (helluva isn’t flagged in spellcheck!? and spellcheck is!?) influence on society, and it can be both positive and negative. Religion produces vast social services (the Lutherans, for example) and provides great comfort for many people. At the same time, religion produces great ignorance– especially towards science– and has, throughout history, been responsible for many, many deaths. These negatives deserve to be attacked, but we should be encouraging love for one’s fellow man and peace, the fundamental teachings of most religions.

  9. the spacebase:I’m with Dery here because, as he points out towards the end of his post, much of American evangelical Christianity is truly extrabiblical. […] The thing about ‘Evangelical Atheism’ is that it blindly relies on some vague idea about ‘science’ as much as evangelical Christianity relies on vague ideas about what adherents are told about scripture (which, in my experience, is largely out of context, cherry-picked, and manipulated to fit a sermon on a single narrow topic).

    Sometimes; not always. I consider my notion of Science very exactingly founded (via the Wallace/Dowe Vitanyi-Li papers) on the foundations assumptions of the Robbins Axioms, Zermelo-Fraenkel Set theory, and that the Evident Universe conforms to the Strong-Church Turing Thesis.

    However, I’d also agree that most of the Militant atheists are asses, and that the present language of atheism has large holes that prevent it from being used to effectively discuss very important areas of society.

    I think Troglodyte is pretty much on the right track; in that line, I’d recommend David Sloan Wilson’s “Darwin’s Cathedral”.

  10. Frankly, I’m not sure what Dery’s thesis is. Dawkins and Hitchens are British atheists who aren’t experts on American evangelicals? That’s news? One could complain equally that Daniel Dennett (who does seem to understand American evangelicals a bit better, since he is an American) isn’t an expert on Pakistan’s Shi’ite sects.

    Ironically, Dery seems to come close to saying what Dawkins and Hitchens do not — that we really shouldn’t take the evangelicals seriously. According to Dery,

    “The Dawkins/Hitchens question—What’s wrong with religion?—is far less illuminating than the question they might have asked: What are American evangelicals really talking about when they talk about religion? Following Tom Frank’s argument in What’s the Matter with Kansas?, I believe that Christian fundamentalism, American style (like its Islamic counterpart in the extremist madrasahs of the East and the Middle East), uses religion to articulate the social, political, and economic discontent and utopian fantasies of a certain segment of American society.”

    Frankly, if I were an evangelical I’d find *that* view far more demeaning. Ths s lk bm syng tht ppl clng t vrs vws nly s rslt f lngstndng cnmc cndtns. This trivializes what evangelicals really believe far more than do Hitchens or Dawkins’ contempt.

  11. Semiotix, I find it hard to believe you’re an atheist. “I’m an atheist. That means atheists who disagree with me should call me a traitor…”

    Atheism isn’t a religion or a cause. It’s a simple stance, which Christians just can’t comprehend (On Fundies Say the Dardnest Things, one classic excerpt was to the effect that Atheism was a front for Satanic Islam. That just completely made my day).

    And Starcadia, no one is asking for your allegiance. Richard Dawkins just thinks that as organized religion serves as a platform for evil, he should go ahead and try to dismantle it as forcefully as he can.

    And Thespacebase, the only people who I’ve found had issues with pop Christianity and Joel Osteen and “watered down McChurches” (a phrase I’m sure you use) are hardcore Christian fundamentalists. The general population would more take issue with bad stuff and hatred done in Christianity’s name. So I don’t believe that you’re “not a strict believer in anything”. Especially when you think “science” should be put in scare quotes and be called some sort of vague philosophy.

  12. the spacebase writes about Richard Dawkins:

    >In arguments, he frequently cites ‘Science’ as blanket proof every time a Christian cites ‘Scripture’ as a blanket proof. Without specific examples, the argument goes nowhere.

    Dawkins provides many very clear and detailed examples in his books. The Blind Watchmaker would be a good one to look at, for example. If you haven’t read this book, you are arguing your point against Dawkins from a position of ignorance. Saying he does not have specific examples is ludicrous, or at best ill informed.

    Unfortunately this is typical of those who criticize Dawkins. They conclude that he is “shrill” or “arrogant” or (even more rich) “bases his beliefs on faith,” without having actually read his work and understood his responses to those charges.

  13. I found Dery’s commentary tedious and boorish. He has no concept of common courtesy, and it shows in the way he parses his argument.

    Instead of discussing the Christian poseur’s poinephobia, he instead insults the entire faith by refering to the “Disapproving Daddy in the Sky.” This is one of those little insults that seems to exist solely online, where there are no serious consequences. For a man in Dery’s position to write like this is disappointing. Such language has destroyed any credibility he might have had.

    Personally, I couldn’t care less who or what you believe in. It’s not worth arguing over, because there’s no resolution to the argument. Either you have the desire and the drive to study this subject on your own and enlighten yourself, or you don’t. There is no room for bickering, at least not logically.

  14. The unquestioning belief that theism is the root of all evil is what makes atheism a religion. If one didn’t believe that, one would not be an atheist.

    This is part of what Semiotix was trying to say, and which you have proved so well.

  15. Someone up near the top of the thread wrote that feminists have been coming off as uncivil since the 1800’s and it has worked for them.

    I don’t know if I’d describe it like that. There is a price, when you take a stance that goes against the existing culture. Back before the 1800’s, what happened to feminists is they got burned at the stake.

    The price can be terrible, but being silent has its cost. So hurrah for those with courage.

    To admit you are a feminist, in whatever tone of voice, is to be judged strident. To voice aloud the fact that you are an atheist, will raise hackles. To dare to admit that you are proud of being an atheist is considered an affront to many who think nothing of announce their pride being members of their religion.

    I’m a fan of Dawkins. I’m grateful that he has the courage to stand up for what he does not and what he does believe in.

    My complaint, if you could call it that, is that he does not go far enough. I remember seeing a video of one of his talks, in which a young woman mentioned the anger she had about being raised as a christian. Dawkins seemed genuinely mystified by this. He doesn’t have the anger or the pain of one who, as a small child who was terrorized by being told he would be burned in hell by a raging god if he did not obey. (Some of us count that as child abuse.) He doesn’t know what it feels like to be told that masturbation is sinful, that birth control is wrong, that your body is not your own.

    And he can’t imagine what it is like to be told that there is an all-powerful deity who is some kind of super father, some giant male super male being, and you’re just a cobbled-together second-class citizen whose purpose is to be some kind of brood bitch.

    I don’t know if any guy can wrap his brain around what it feels like to be told that god is made in your brother’s image, but not yours.

    So rather than strident, Dawkins seems quite genteel and calm to me, a moderate.

    Take it from one who IS strident, who is a feminist and atheist both, and who knows full well the price society makes you pay for not keeping your mouth shut.

  16. Personally, I think the attitude of the so-called “Evanghelical” atheists stems from the sheer frustration of proving P(1) logically so that P(1)and only P(1) is true, then having someone (a theist) deny it with no justification whatsoever and having to repeat the process again when another theist denies P(2) and so on until the argument becomes “pointless” as someone said above.

    In layman’s terms its like reasoning with your children over and over again that chewing on hard candy rots their teeth, and they still do it, until you get fed up and say “No candy, no questions.” and then add a few mean words about how they dont listen to you.

  17. Bad Password said:
    “The unquestioning belief that theism is the root of all evil is what makes atheism a religion. If one didn’t believe that, one would not be an atheist.”

    How insulting — the only reason to be an atheist is as a reaction to the evils of religion.
    The only reason to be an atheist is reason itself. Logic. Facts. Rationality.
    Not being a member of a faith group (which may or may not be the root of some evil) may be a bonus for some, but is entirely ancillary.

  18. no justification whatsoever

    You mean a justification that’s unacceptable to you. The Scientologists and the Mormons and the Baptists all feel exactly the same way about converting you. Frustrated that you can’t see what they regard as patently obvious. Reason exists within a paradigm of reality. Use it on someone with a different paradigm and you’re just wasting your breath.

  19. Funny, I was just writing (passionatemind.org) about (or perhaps toward) a very similar sort of idea. The thing that the new atheists seem to miss (or are not interested in addressing) are the very real functions of religion in our society, and how we might meet those (often irrational) needs in a rational way. In other words, lets promote a better way of doing things as opposed to simply tearing down the objectionable way of doing things on principle and leaving there to bleed on the floor.

    As a practical matter in social activism, and as a point of effective rhetoric, promoting a superior replacement is often a better way to go than just destroying the thing you don’t like.

    Religion exists and is strong for a number of deep and powerful reasons. You won’t dislodge it without understanding those reasons, whether you intend to simply attack them more effectively, or subvert and/or replace them with better alternatives.

  20. AXIOM: God is greater than all other things.

    AXIOM: A thing that contains other things is not greater than its container.

    Therefore, God is the set of all things that are. (The more philosophically inclined will realize that God also contains all things that aren’t, but let’s save that for an advanced course.)

    PROOF: Touch your nose. OK, Simon says touch your nose! You just empirically proved that God exists.

    Hitchens and his ilk are so obsessed with their own false image of God (which is apparently drawn from the Bible) that they cannot recognize the one true God. It is both very annoying and very sad.

    I guess I will go console myself with some pickled daikon. I have a date to practice tefillin with Baruch Spinoza and Abner Kneeland later.

    –Charlie

  21. I believe it was expressed in a very entertaining manner in “Beware the Believers”:

    Ah, discourse in the internet age.

  22. One issue with Dawkin’s approach is that he, and many other atheists, make a moral equivalence that all religions are equally bad. This downplays the positive aspects of Christianity in our heritage whl ls dwnplyng th dngrs f slm. t wld b bttr t rlz tht n th rl wrld sm rlgns nd thr pltcs r bttr thn thrs.

  23. @#14: I’m an atheist, in the literal sense. I do not believe in god(s). I’ll swear it on a Bible, if you like. (Kidding!) I think Christians, to name just one religion, can easily comprehend such a thing. Obviously they don’t share my stance on it, by definition.

    When you say, “Atheism isn’t a religion or a cause. It’s a simple stance…” I agree. Wholeheartedly.

    The reason I get all het up about these “New Atheists” is that I tend to think that Dawkins et al are trying to make it a cause, and not a particularly attractive one. I really, emphatically, desperately don’t want to have my simple non-belief co-opted into (or confused with) a movement that so closely mirrors the objective and tactics of religious dominionists.

  24. @#17: no, it wasn’t what I was trying to say.

    The unquestioning belief that [GROUP] is the root of all evil is what makes [OTHER GROUP] a [WORD MEANING “BAD THING”].

    Pat Robertson and Chris Hitchens both demonize the Other, one perverting what he calls “faith” and the other abusing what he calls “reason” to do so. In reality, they’re doing what they damn well please in spite of, or perhaps because, it hurts other people. It’s ugly tribalism and it has fuck all to do with what Jesus or Plato said about this or that.

    Allison the Average Atheist and Thomas the Typical Theist, the middle 99%, get along fine in the culture I live in. In cultures where they don’t, it’s because someone told them that Other Group was bad/evil/stupid/crazy/irrational/sinful/morons/etc.

  25. “in the real world some religions and their politics are better than others.”

    HAH! DOUBLE HAH!

  26. “This downplays the positive aspects of Sikhism and Buddhism in our heritage while also downplaying the dangers of Islam and Christianity.”

    Fixed.

  27. It’s ugly tribalism and it has fuck all to do with what Jesus or Plato said about this or that.

    Religion is never about religion. It’s always about social control. I chant, pray and meditate, but I would never consider myself religious. For starters, to be religious I would have to agree to think what the group thinks. That’s just not going to happen.

  28. “organized” religion is evil. Believe whatever you want on your own time.

    I object to the term “atheism” . It is not an “ism”.
    Those who see the world as it is are just normal people without mental problems. sng “thsm” s jst rttn ttmpt by th clt fllwrs t c-pt nrml ppl nt thr scknss.

    “Atheism” might exist for those who recognize other isms and theisms, but then it is a religion as well.

    Don’t try to label me “atheist”. Don’t try to force me into your cult.

    Kill religion.

  29. Evolutionary game theory predicts that people should act like psycopaths.

    The current crop of atheism enters evangelical territory when they try to argue that this is not the case. Their argument that atheism can form a viable basis for ethical behaviour is incomplete, and they are trying to pretend that it is not.

    Madness? This is Sparta!

  30. #31 what evolutionary game theory are YOU reading, brother? Sociopathy is only viable in game theory models at a rate of about 1% of the population. Which, coincidentally, is about the rate we see in actual human populations (genetic-type sociopathy, not the environmental type, which can add another 2% or so).

    If you’d actually read any evolutionary game theory, you’d know it predicts a cooperation strategy for most of us – tit-for-tat, specifically – that is reflected by pre-market, reciprocal-gift-giving societies.

  31. Sorry, that was a bit rude – let me rephrase that – “The evolutionary game theory I’ve read predicts . . . “

  32. I’m an agnostic and, perhaps by definition, lazy. And you know what I say to zealotry of any stripe?: Relax, let’s have a beer.

  33. Semiotix: I hear ya. I honestly don’t remember [a]theism being as violent – and increasingly so – as it is today.

    #14: That’s what I’m talking about. Dawkins’ forceful approach only serves to feed the flames of those with differing (but not objectively better or worse) belief systems. It’s a game of reaction tag, and has become increasingly violent. Therefore, in my opinion, both/all sides are invalidated and should be given a time-out for a few decades to cool down and regain their senses.

    Atheism, once a beacon of objective rationality, is defeating itself by choosing to wrestle with monsters, and you know how that saying goes.

  34. I think it is important to realise that evangelicalism of any stripe is simply an hysterical reaction to the Other. Why do you think evangelicals have such trouble understanding other points of view? Look throughout history and you will always find some kind of fundamentalism arise from an incoherent culture that feels vaguely threatened. Surely this is the basis for the so called culture wars. I sympathise to some extent that there aren’t many programmes that deal with rural issues, but evangelicals still have their time on US chat shows, while good old dialectical materialists like me have to read books for suitably niched entertainment.

    Remember that intellectual atheists dwell in homogeneous ghettos similar to fundamentalist Christians, so of course this import from America, these evangelicals, are frightening. There were, when I last left London, at least three well known American evangelicals standing on busy thoroughfares with bullhorns deeply annoying all passers-by. So I suppose, as a culture, England had all its evangelicalism out of its system more than a century ago, and only people who don’t seem to recall how that all turned out want to revive it. I think Dawkins overestimate the threat a bit, and as for the US, she is lost; I’m used to it.

  35. First, I would like to state that I am a Christian. Not evangelical by any means, but I am sympathetic to their ideations. While I agree with Dery’s analysis of the shouting match that is Dawson-atheists vs. Dobson-evangelicals, I think that he underestimates one key idea. No amount of science can change a person’s faith. Faith is very personal, and anyone who bases faith on practicality will surely not have a well-developed faith. I am not saying that faith needs to be blind, but it surely can not be rationalized. My faith is not a comfort, though. I do not believe in God because it appeases my need for emotional depth. I believe in God because I know God. Kierkegaard came close when he described Christianity as requiring a leap of faith. I think he resorted to this idea because he could not conceive of something that wasn’t logical, but wasn’t illogical either. We all must remember, though, that basing a belief structure solely on science is a post-modern conundrum.

  36. My credence theory:

    Faith: There is no rational basis for me to believe it, but I will act as if it is true.

    Belief: It seems likely, if uncertain, so I will act as if it is true.

    Knowing: It’s true.

  37. No. I’m just referring to the subjective experience. I think that the nature of faith is what makes it so problematic. When your rational mind is greatly and obviously at odds with your choices, it messes you up. Besides being cranky, you’re almost forced to proselytize in order to shore up your internal dichotomy.

  38. #42 makes the excellent point that no amount of logical argument can change a true believer’s faith – if anything, attacking it makes it stronger. Religious faith is not based on a rational evaluation of evidence. It’s something akin to perception – think of Warren Quinn’s statement that no mere argument, no matter how cogent and unassailable, could ever convince him that his chair wasn’t there, against the evidence of his senses.

    However, #42 then enters the same territory as #31 – that only religious faith can be the basis for an ethical system.

    It would take books to fully explain why this is wrong. It is territory first covered by Socrates (if he was the first to cover it): is an act wrong because the gods hate it, or do the gods hate it because it is wrong? Most people, upon a close reading of the Old Testament at least, will go with the latter, which implies there is some objective standard of right and wrong that we, and any God or gods, can get at without recourse to religious principles.

    Saying that only religious faith can be the basis for an ethical system cheapens the work of philosophers like Nagle and Rawls, not to mention the compassion and good works of every atheist.

  39. Sister Y – I think you did nail the idea I was trying to assert… perception is very close to this concept. I hope, though, that I did not come across as stating that religious faith can be the only basis for an ethical system. But most people confuse faith for an ethical system. I have to admit that I do not understand atheism as a belief structure, but I do acknowledge that atheism does not confer any specific set of beliefs. I think that in some sense, we all (excluding agnostics) make some internal journey towards our own beliefs.

    Besides the obvious difference, atheist and theists differ in how they perceive good works and compassion. Atheists view these actions as good in and of themselves. They arise out of a personal calling. Theists view these actions as extensions of the “knowing” of God. I am not bound by restrictions. I guess in some sense I am a Perfectionist, but I do believe that I sin (defined as an action bringing me further away from God). If I truly know God, then my actions are extensions of him. I highly doubt, though, that many “Christians” ever truly think about faith as deeply as intellectuals do. I hope, though, that atheists, often intellectuals and rationalists, do not dismiss the arguments and claims of one believer. In the end we are both right. To you there is no God. To me there is. And we act accordingly. Maybe the afterlife will be an extension of this line of thinking. I encourage everyone, though, to view each side sympathetically and with tact. If atheists truly want to influence others, they should encourage them to think critically about their faith, not point to scientific arguments. Remember, there are many who masquerade as Christians, as Muslims, and as atheists. Truly religious people see the hypocrisy in their own as much as they see it in others.

  40. since the human soul is the most precious possible thing in all the universe, I’m putting mine on the market. Any religion wants it, barf up the cash, Highest bid gets it.

  41. I have to say I really enjoy a sensible discussion about this, and very much appreciate the various views here. It shows that we respect each other, and gives me faith that intelligence does indeed exist.

    It’s interesting and sad to me how the fundamentalist extremes are falling right into each others’ traps, to see how Creationists, for example, try to use scientific tactics to compete with (A)theists, and (A)theists use faith-based tactics when they compete. One sees regularly how the right makes up bogus “scientific” claims to further their agenda, and how the left insists that science can explain absolutely everything, which as far as I’m concerned reeks of faith.

    It’s as if we require this sort of sporting event to remind us we’re still vital as individuals, but by the very act of competing we annihilate the beliefs we defend so vehemently. Meanwhile we’ve all learned at least a few times that the real answer in cases like these is always – ALWAYS! – somewhere in the middle. How many times do we have to relearn that lesson before we make the break?

    Perhaps sports are more important to culture than rationality after all. :|

    The middle says there must be a (G)od, of sorts, one that we’re simply not capable of understanding, as the finite and limited lifeforms we are, which therefore requires faith to fill in the majority of the blanks. And science is the path towards filling in a few, if not many, but never most, and certainly not all, of those blanks.

  42. “The middle says there must be a (G)od, of sorts, one that we’re simply not capable of understanding, as the finite and limited lifeforms we are, which therefore requires faith to fill in the majority of the blanks.”

    NO. Before the God Industry got going there was Man.
    Some of us remember those days and prefer them. Why can’t all you priests and priest-paying enthusiasts find an island somewhere and leave us as we were?

  43. Sorry to offend you, Takuan. I use the term “God” very broadly. If I, personally, were to call it something I’d call it “Universe”, and even that surely comes nowhere near to encapsulating it. That’s where faith, in all shapes and colors, comes in, like I say, to fill in those truly massive gaps that humans will forever be incapable of comprehending.

    To assume that when a person uses the term “God” it necessarily implies some traditional, institutionalized version, and therefore a minimalized version, is a blunder. To sweep away the vast reality that exists beyond the limits of human comprehension is to do a profound disservice to our kind’s ability to wonder and imagine about the approximately 99.9999999999999999999999% of reality beyond our scope, which is to have true faith, the spice and magic of life, in that majestic something-other-ness that we, *all of us*, privately tremble to be intimate with but tragically can never even begin to know by any realistic standards. That is God.

    Not some dude with a beard.

  44. Gosh, a lot of really thoughtful comments here. I really agree with Semiotix’ take on it. It’s a pretty good rant, bt cms ff s cndscndng nd nhlpfl s tht whch h crtczs. I’m interested in his thesis, though, of evangelical Christianity as cultural expression. The struggle for identity in these black-and-white culture wars has lead for Christians themselves to distance themselves from evangelicalism at the same time they they are vaguely evangelical. Witness the emerging church movement.

    christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/february/11.35.html

  45. #47 – I see what you mean now – yes, I’d agree that atheism doesn’t, on its own, supply an ethical system. (Many religious folk are less circumspect than you, though, and would argue that a particular religion DOES supply an ethical system, complete with ends, values, allowed methods, etc.) Though I think most cultures – religious, atheist, or mixed – do have an ethical system built into them (though not necessarily complete, and not necessarily in the form of a set of rules). And apparently some rudimentary form of an ethical system comes standard with every human brain.

  46. I am atheist and a lot of people using straw man arguments here.

    Some fact checking: Could you point an exact quote of the atheists claiming that religion is the root of all evil? Because as far as I know no one would say that Ebola or polio are caused by Christianity or Islam.

  47. The spread of Ebola and polio,as well as every other disease is aided and abetted by organized religion.
    Take the encouragement of AIDS by the catholic church, forbidding condoms to the poor and uneducated.

    Typically, any in the village who begin to master medicine and cure/control of disease are labeled witches by the local priests. God loves suffering and human sickness since it brings in the tithe paying worshipers by the droves.

  48. Spacebase @4: Extrabiblical, sure. All those post-Millerite Premillennial Dispensationalist additions are heavily reembroidered religious fanfic: raise your hand if you’ve ever tried to find the Rapture mentioned in the Bible. Joel Osteen’s a feelgood life coach, not a preacher.

    And yeah, they cherry-pick scripture. What else can they do? Their leaders have seized on the dead-literal reading of Genesis 1-3 as a useful issue for drumming up support, but you can’t read the rest of the book with that degree of literalism. Between that and their historic insistence on the Bible as the wholly unmediated and sufficient Word, individual readers are left to flounder through a very complex body of writings.

    (I’ll admit, one of my private amusements is how often statements made by Bible-thumping lifestyle Christians betray a less-than-thorough acquaintance with the text. I was still shocked when Bush & Co. announced that the opening stages of the invasion of Iraq would be called Operation Infinite Justice. As I said in my weblog, how is it that in an administration that’s made such an ostentatious parade of its religious affiliations, not one person remembered Who has the trademark on that formulation? … The Bushies renamed it Shock and Awe after various religious groups complained. Too bad; by then I was looking forward to the inevitable headline, Crisis on Infinite Justice.)

    Anonymous @7, can’t argue with that.

    Semiotix @8:

    “It’s amazing that so many of “religion’s” self-appointed Inquisitors can’t distinguish between an individual’s belief and its larger social manifestation, or can’t grasp that there might be more than one social or political movement arising from something as big and diffuse as, say, Christianity.”

    How can you say that, just because they aren’t prepared to see any significant difference between Mormons, Moravians, Martinists, Methodists, Maronites, Mennonites, and Monophysites?

    It makes them extra-convincing in arguments.

    Antiglobalism @9, secular humanism is not a religion. Not at all. Not in the slightest. Not in any sense of the word.

    The misrepresentation of it as a religion was a tactic devised by certain Evangelical groups who wanted to shoehorn their own religion into the public schools. They first claimed that secular humanism was a religion, and then said that since the religion of secular humanism was being taught in the public schools, it was only fair to demand that their religion be taught there as well. Nevertheless, it is not a religion.

    Abb3w @14, please don’t use large blocks of boldface.

    Brian Carnell @15, I don’t think that has to be seen as demeaning. People have always used religion to articulate their social, political, and economic discontents and utopian fantasies. They’ve also articulated it via music, decorative desserts, and popular entertainment. What’s notable about religion is that it sometimes articulates other things as well.

    Melonbread @16:

    “Richard Dawkins just thinks that as organized religion serves as a platform for evil, he should go ahead and try to dismantle it as forcefully as he can.”

    The “just” in that sentence is kind of dizzying. Also, I don’t recall Dawkins or anyone else establishing that religion is a “platform for evil”; and it just plain doesn’t belong to him.

    “And Thespacebase, the only people who I’ve found had issues with pop Christianity and Joel Osteen and “watered down McChurches” (a phrase I’m sure you use) are hardcore Christian fundamentalists.”

    Wanna bet? I’ve aways had issues with watered-down pop religion, whatever the state of my own beliefs at the time; and I’m certainly not a hardcore fundie. I don’t think SpaceBase is either. You might want to back down on that one, maybe even express a little regret for the error.

    The hardcore fundies have a real knack for presenting themselves as (1.) a much bigger movement than they actually are, and (2.) far more representative of general belief than is the case. It sounds to me like you fell for their line, if you think they’re the only ones who object to cotton-candy religion.

    BadPassword @19, I don’t think it makes it a religion, though that strain of belief you describe warrants being called an ism.

    Pipenta @20:

    “Back before the 1800’s, what happened to feminists is they got burned at the stake.”

    Not in most times. Not in most places. Not for conscious or ideological feminism.

    The underlying issues persist. The way we think about the issues, what we do about them, and names we use, all have historical particularity. For instance, the American feminist movement came out of the Burnt-over District, right along with Mormonism, Millerism, Spiritualism, Fourierist utopian socialism, and the Oneida Colony.

    Buciuman @21:

    “Personally, I think the attitude of the so-called “Evanghelical” atheists stems from the sheer frustration of proving P(1) logically so that P(1)and only P(1) is true, then having someone (a theist) deny it with no justification whatsoever and having to repeat the process again when another theist denies P(2) and so on until the argument becomes “pointless” as someone said above.”

    I’ve seen that argument. The evangelical atheists insist on locating their argument entirely within the framework of their own belief systems. They aren’t well acquainted with the beliefs they think they’re arguing with, and they only listen to the reactions they get to see whether they contain further fallacies to attack. Also, they’re unnecessarily rude. So what happens? Mysteriously, and for no reason whatsoever, the theists they’re arguing with fail to give up their long-cherished beliefs on the spot. It’s so frustrating!

    The word I’d use for it is stupid, and I’m not talking about the theists. (They’re frequently stupid too, but we’re not analyzing them just now.) Science and religion are orthogonal. They address different questions, and use different methods to arrive at conclusions. Not only is there no structural reason for them to be mired in debate; if the two sides want to have a debate, they have to first build a common ground where they can hold it.

    To lift an argument from Graydon Saunders, the question is whether you want to demonstrate to your own satisfaction how right you are, or whether you want to be effective at persuading the other side to change their beliefs. Dawkins and his ilk are firmly committed to demonstrating how right they are to people who pretty much already think they’re right. It works about as well as ESL Commie-speak sloganeering works on trad conservatives.

    Antinous @23 is saying approximately the same thing only more elegantly, and Kennric @24 is amplifying the argument.

    Anonymous @25: Very nice. Mind, you haven’t settled the question of whether God is equal to or greater than the set of all things that are and are not. You’ve also relocated the standard set of arguments from “Does God exist?” to “What are the properties of God?” Still: very nice.

    Takuan @33:

    “‘organized’ religion is evil.”

    You know, people are always saying that, but they never go on to explain what’s so great about the disorganized sort. I’ve spent a lot of time around disorganized religion, and believe me it has a great many drawbacks. And since the religious impulse doesn’t give any evidence of going away, having an orderly and benevolent place to be religious is not such a bad thing.

    If we didn’t have organized religion at all, people would still have religious impulses, and some of them would start getting together to express them. After a while, there’d be organizations indistinguishable from what we now call religions. We cannot get rid of this thing. We can only express it well or badly. Trying to stuff religion down the throats of people who don’t want it, or using religion to meddle with secular politics, definitely falls on the “doing it badly” side of things.

    “Kill religion.”

    So very sorry; can’t be done.

    Buddy66 @37:

    “I’m an agnostic and, perhaps by definition, lazy. And you know what I say to zealotry of any stripe?: Relax, let’s have a beer.”

    To quote Joseph Smith, “This is good doctrine. It tastes good.” I could go for a good cold Holy Service right now — you, me, Antinous, Ben Franklin, and Takuan (if we pay for it).

    Antinous @46, what’s the term for “No matter how long I act like this doesn’t exist, it’s still there”? @48: It doesn’t make my rational mind cranky and prone to proselytize. It just makes me make jokes.

    Sister Y @49: The necessity of religion for ethics is simply not true. I don’t need Nagle or Rawls. I know too many primary-data counterexamples.

    Takuan @51, you’re peddling your soul elsewhere? I thought that was why we were buying you beer.

  49. All it takes if you want to cure the world’s fanatical religiosity is to rid the world of fear.

    Simple. The more anxiety people have, the more they will express superstitious beliefs. In this way, religion is very much like obsessive-compulsive disorder (or whatever they’re calling it now).

    If you read the sparse academic work of Leo Strauss (and more importantly, the work of his acolytes, such as PNAC) you see that their plan was to shake the ground underneath the population by creating one calamity after another, then quickly offer them religion and nationalism as a balm. In this way, you create an unquestioning source of cannon fodder for the wars that would then cement these groups’ power and enrich them. It was much the same plan that the Muslim Brotherhood had when they put together the precursors to Al Qaeda, and it has exceeded the expectations of both outfits. The dystopia that is our world is the result.

  50. ahem:

    organized religion is evil, kill it where ever it raises its venomous head. Kill it by not giving it any time, money, print, attention or worry.

    Disorganized religion is an amusing pain in the ass,laugh at it,sometimes with it and encourage it so it so doesn’t get organized.

    As to my soul, I am disappointed, but not surprised that any of the god-pimps out there have to a man not sent one penny my way. More proof they are all thieves and liars.

    I trust that clears things up, now WHERE IS MY MONEY!?

  51. I do not buy that, Takuan. Ebola is caused by a virus, not by religion. Religion could/can help to its spread but is not the source of it. Most of us atheists do not believe such thing as religion being the source of ALL evil.

    Being atheist means you have no dogma, you can change your mind if evidence is on the part of your contrary. Claiming one thousand times that atheism is a religion won’t make it one. Same for secular humanism.

  52. Theresa, I am still tripping out over the Burnt-over District – I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this. Any book recommendations?

    Also – I misspelled Nagel in the above post, sorry. Thomas Nagel, for those of you googling.

    Pope Ratzo, I fully expect the fear issue to be taken care of by that War on Terror I hear so much about.

  53. Dear Guidodavid
    (not an associate of Father Guido I trust?)
    I said religion AIDS AND ABETS DISEASE,not CAUSES IT.

    If you must slander me, libel correctly.

  54. OK, soryy about that. My point is that religion is not the root of evil, but certainly the trunk of that tree has some religion on it.

  55. Kennric@24: I think you’re probably right, which distresses me, because I can’t for the life of me think what those “deep and powerful” reasons are. It would be helpful to see them enumerated somewhere, if only so that those of us who apparently lack them can be educated. I mean, it’s not like I can just decide one day that I’m going to start believing in God. That doesn’t work any more than saying I’m going to start believing that things fall up. It might be convenient to be a believer; religious people supposedly live longer on average than disbelievers do. But that doesn’t make it possible to become so.

  56. I mean, it’s not like I can just decide one day that I’m going to start believing in God.

    It happens to some thousands of people every day. Unless you’ve found a heretofore unknown vaccine, you could wake up tomorrow and discover that you’re a Jehovah’s Witness.

  57. This brings to mind something I’ve thought about for a long while. It’d be interesting to have something that has all the positives of a church (not of the evangelical nature) but is not tied to religious philosophy…and I don’t think Unitarianism or similar Judeo-Christian attempts really count.

    The positives being things like community, social networking and local-oriented philanthropy. And, perhaps more importantly, having time set aside to focus on personal philosophy and self examination. I currently call this “showering” and “walking to work”.

    I’ll admit this is in no small part instigated by seeing my parents enjoyment of movie nights and book clubs with their church friends. Of course, since some of these friends are particle physicists and they have book clubs entirely oriented around the collision of religion and science, they would probably make a good template for this theoretical “non-evangelical church of atheism”.

    As one might expect, one of the many reasons I’ve never investigated anything like this is my lack of faith in my fellow man, played out in my belief that this would inevitably result in something akin to Scientology. Which this “evangelical atheism” most likely will. Yee Haw.

  58. guidodavid: Atheism set out to be a non-religion, but it became a religion anyway. Totally disappointing. Then again, any belief system that claims to be able to know, in the strictest sense, anything beyond the limits of our understanding is disappointing.

    I can understand a belief system based upon reason and empiricism alone, but I can’t understand how one can claim that they therefore apply to everything beyond the thin slice of reality humans have evolved to comprehend. Atheists in this way anthropomorphize the external world, and therefore appear to lack the reason they so dearly champion.

    Again, one can’t take an extreme view on universals (and atheism is extreme) without leaking logic, thereby exposing one’s intellectual deficit.

  59. @51
    How did W.S. Burroughs put it?
    “Every soul is worth saving, but not every soul is worth buying.”

    That’s not an insult, though. If anything, it might be proof positive you’re going to Heaven.

  60. It became a religion?
    Sure it has not become anything even near a religion.It is simply the belief that God does not exist. Inverting the question, how can anybody be CERTAIN that Odin, Bhaal, Osiris, Ganesh and Quetzalcoatl do NOT exist? Should we do Pascal wages about each of those? Shut them down to 365 gods, so we worship one every day? We assume that they do not exist, all of us in the case of gods of dead religions. Are all of us with intellectual deficients because we claim to know that Ishtar does not exists?

    Of course, some kind of creator might be possible, but that thing or person or force would not certainly be the Judeo-Christian YWHW.

    Please stop making straw man arguments. Could you really prove that we the non believers in gods are anthropomorphizing the universe just for assuming that no god created by men exists?

    A part of the key definition of religion is the belief in a god. Atheism might (even if I strongly would disagree with that) a dogma, a philosophy, an ideology. But, religion? Is like claiming a vegetarian meal has meat because the plant suffered and you are actually eating fruits of suffering, metaphorical meat. WTF?

  61. I’ve read Dery’s article through twice now, and I still can’t figure out what he’s trying to say.

    It seems like something along the lines of “my superstition beats your science, and my proof is that there are two atheists who are saying bad things about superstition”.

    All in all, it’s pretty dumb.

    Does anyone know if Dery was involved with this “Expelled” movie? Because he sounds just about as silly as that movie’s premise.

  62. Polio and Ebola aren’t evil. They’re horrible, but not evil, at least not in the universe as I understand it. Tsunamis and cyclones aren’t evil either. Shit, as they say, happens.

    Unless you believe in some kind of all powerful deity who inflicted these things on the creatures he made in his image. In that case, disease and weather and geological processes can be evil.

  63. I’d really , really like to. After I was done with the pliers and fire, I’d let you have Him next.

  64. Well, to me, regarding people as the center of my ethical universe, those horrors are indeed evil and must be stopped. To me evil does not needs to be sentient. But I agree that that is arguable.

  65. Ratzo @62:

    All it takes if you want to cure the world’s fanatical religiosity is to rid the world of fear.

    Simple. The more anxiety people have, the more they will express superstitious beliefs. In this way, religion is very much like obsessive-compulsive disorder (or whatever they’re calling it now).

    Well, aren’t you smart. After all these millennia of thought and study and striving; all the bodies of law and philosophy and mysticism that have tried to make sense of the breadth and variety of human experience; all the liturgies and disciplines and devotions held to by millions upon millions of people: you, lucky you! are the very first person to have figured out that it’s all dead simple — just a big ol’ anxiety management system that doesn’t work the way it should. And to think that all this time, the answer was right there in front of us, if only we’d had your insight.

    Hail, O pinnacle of the ages.

    Of course, your formulation there doesn’t come anywhere near explaining the religious impulse, the complexities of religious life, or the motivations of believers, much less the myriad ways religion has functioned in society.

    I don’t think you know much about religion. Be opposed to it if you want; but for god’s sake, have some idea what you’re opposing.

    If you read the sparse academic work of Leo Strauss (and more importantly, the work of his acolytes, such as PNAC) you see that their plan was to shake the ground underneath the population by creating one calamity after another, then quickly offer them religion and nationalism as a balm. In this way, you create an unquestioning source of cannon fodder for the wars that would then cement these groups’ power and enrich them.

    Let’s apply a little basic science: does this procedure work? It does not. Multiple devastating calamities followed by the offer of religion and nationalism may numb a man, or numb some men, but they don’t produce unthinking cannon fodder. If they did, the Vandals would have fallen into orderly ranks and marched off contentedly under the Roman eagles.

    For first-rate cannon fodder, you start with a lifetime of hard work, curtailed rations, and a firm and unchanging set of social patterns. When the young come of age, pick out the ones you want and train them until they could go through the moves with their heads shot off. Dress them identically, keep them away from civilians, and see to it that they eat, sleep, work, pray, and fight as part of the group.

    Result? They’ll be vastly more obedient than the equivalent number of undisciplined civilians, but they still won’t be mindless automatons. I offer as evidence my many-times-great-grandfather the Hessian deserter, who should have been cannon fodder but obviously had other ideas.

    If you break people catastrophically enough, especially when they’re young, you can remake them; but no matter what ideology you try to teach them, what they’re going to do is re-bond to each other. It’s going to be a deeply dysfunctional bond, but under the circumstances that’s hardly surprising. And if you ever decide to stop fighting, it will be difficult to assimilate them back into civil society.

    Now let’s consider statistical probability. Rulers and armies have existed for a very long time. If the formula for creating mindlessly loyal fighting drones were that simple, don’t you think some of our very clever ancestors would have figured it out, and made themselves the permanent God-Emperors of their part of the world? And yet, where we see semi-permanent dynasties of God-Emperors, what we see under them are not people being constantly thrashed to ribbons by successive catastrophes. We see order.

    It was much the same plan that the Muslim Brotherhood had when they put together the precursors to Al Qaeda, and it has exceeded the expectations of both outfits.

    Oh, so that’s why you’re proposing schemes of social control that have never worked before. You’re not actually trying to explain how things happen. You’re trying to present the Arab world as Other, as alien, and their motivations and thought processes as being unimaginably different from our own.

    Why are you swallowing this crap propaganda? It has no real underpinnings. It’s just an updated version of that hokey, racist old stereotype, the Despotic East, where unnumbered generations have toiled in hopeless oppression, enslaved by cruel rulers and mind-destroying mystical religions.

    You can see this appallingly self-satisfied notion of ours illustrated in beautiful allegorical detail “The Four Continents” by Daniel Chester French, which are the four 19th C. statuary groups in front of the old U.S. Customs House just off Bowling Green in Manhattan. The one you want is Asia, though for full effect you should compare it with the other three. “Asia” has everything your model requires: mindless submission to authority, indifference to human suffering and death, and inscrutably alien religious traditions that somehow demand all these things.

    Lowell Thomas would be embarrassed to be peddling this bunkum. I don’t know where you picked it up, but if I were you, I’d take it back there and put it down again.

    The dystopia that is our world is the result.

    The problems of the modern world are Al Qaeda’s fault? There’s only one possible reply: “Black Death in Europe, 1347; fall of Constantinople, 1453; Newtonian synthesis, 1687; Franklin, not until 1790. And which timeline are you from?”

    Sister Y @65: It’s no fault of yours. The U.S. school system has (had?) a bizarre policy of excluding religion whenever possible from the topics taught in American History. I’m all for keeping prayer out of schools, and that goes double for keeping religion out of science; but when you take religious movements out of U.S. history, you leave some gaping holes. When I was growing up, you could graduate from high school without ever hearing about the Great Awakening or Second Great Awakening.

    As for books about it, there may be an obvious choice, but I don’t know what it is. There are a lot of books and even more scholarly articles on the subject. Fawn M. Brodie’s No Man Knows My History is the best study of Joseph Smith, and includes some (I don’t know how much) material on the Burnt-Over District itself.

    Capn Barcode @68, you can’t just decide to believe, and theists can’t just decide to not believe. Meanwhile, what Antinous says is true: you can discover that belief has snuck up on you.

    GunterK @70, try the Society for Ethical Culture.

    GuidoDavid @73, not all atheists are dogmatic; but some atheists are so dogmatic that if I weren’t able to make out the specific words they were saying, I’d take them for blue light Baptists.

    Takuan: You know, I get along just fine with P.Z. Myers.

  66. Dear Sister Teresa:

    Unconvert or Die! We will have your soul! By reason,threats, pleading, black magic, double stuff Oreos and sheer persistence; you WILL be one of us!

    Resistance is Useless!

  67. Sure, atheism is no vaccine for dogma. But to go from there and claim that atheism is a religion or that atheists are wrong for criticizing factual claims of religious people is plain dumb. People can believe what they want, but that does not mean they are entitled to their favorite facts. Reality is the way it is, not the way we want it to be.

  68. It happens to some thousands of people every day. Unless you’ve found a heretofore unknown vaccine, you could wake up tomorrow and discover that you’re a Jehovah’s Witness.

    This is a dead commentary, but I’m going to ressurect it for the sake of saying that this is the scariest concept I’ve ever encountered.

    The stuff of nightmares.

    Atheism isn’t a religion.

    one “a system of beliefs relating to supernatural or superhuman beings or forces that transcend the everyday material world”

    two
    “A set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.”

    wikithree!
    “A religion is a set of beliefs and practices, often centered upon specific supernatural and moral claims about reality, the cosmos, and human nature, and often codified as prayer, ritual, and religious law. Religion also encompasses ancestral or cultural traditions, writings, history, and mythology, as well as personal faith and mystic experience. The term “religion” refers to both the personal practices related to communal faith and to group rituals and communication stemming from shared conviction.”

    While there are evangelical atheists preaching to everyone why they too should convert, I’ve never met one that has rituals to the god that isn’t there.

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