Need Atheism Offend?

Jesse Galef at “The Friendly Atheist” has a strong, well reasoned and provocative rebuttal to Herb Silverman’s assertion (at The Washington Post) that atheism need not offend. Jesse defines atheism as a statement, one that is either right or wrong, excludes other realities, and therefore has the capacity to offend. He’s quite right about that, and arguments to the contrary misunderstand the unique role and history of religious beliefs in human society.

I do not mean to suggest that atheism is a “religious belief.” We needn’t resolve that argument to answer this question, and so we would do best to postpone it for another day. What is beyond contention is that atheism will — and must — bump up against religious assertions. This truth stands regardless of how one’s atheism is framed in personal interactions. Indeed, whether expressed readily and frequently, or quietly held, the expression of one’s atheism implies the certainty of one’s belief in it, and will strike believers as “wrong.” Coexistence without offense or controversy is possible (and advised!), but like so many other things in life, it takes two to tango.

History is full of examples of the faithful taking offense, and then taking up arms, against those viewpoints, religious or scientific, that tend to disprove or work against their faith. The heretic’s intent is almost beside the point. Neither Copernicus, nor Galilelo, nor Darwin (maybe) were looking for a fight, but because the fact or appearance of questioning religion are both viewed by the faithful as anathema, offensive, and mortally sinful, they found a fight. For the truly “faithful,” a heretic’s mere existence is a provocation.

This problem is precisely the reason that atheism, or at least official agnosticism, represent attractive ideologies at the national level. The fathers of the Enlightenment understood religion’s abnormal capacity to generate controversy, and so struggled to avoid its establishment at the state level, as did the fathers of our country. Official pluralism, or official neutrality, are the only ways to avoid religious wars, but this solution fails to trickle down to the personal level. There, if you are an atheist, surrounded by theists, only your complete silence will prevent offense. Because self-censorship is unacceptable, the only solution is to politely broach the subject of one’s identity, avoid deliberate offense, and make clear that whatever offense is generated is wholly brought by the other side. Religious conflict is almost unavoidable — and this is a problem that John Lennon understood all too well:

Imagine [. . .] nothing to kill or die for;
and no religion, too.

Full disclosure: I’m not an atheist, but many of my friends are, and because I’ll more often than not agree with their positions, I share their interests. And, I’m fortunate enough to count Jesse and his sister among my good friends.



  1. Well said! It could be added that the idea to shut up just so that the religious do not feel “offended” about disagreeing with them is stifling conversation, and that it is also part of the privilege granted religion in public discourse – after all, can somebody claim to be offended when their beliefs about history or economics are criticized as being factually wrong? Of course not. “Offense” and “insult” are concepts with certain definitions, and it would be helpful to stick to them instead of confusing them with “disagreement”.

  2. I don’t think atheism necessarily needs to offend. Certain atheists, on the other hand, very often do, and seemingly do so merely for no other purpose than causing the offense, rather than actually adding something useful or interesting to the discussion.

    Unfortunately, between them and the religious fundamentalists, this cheapens the public discourse to the point where it by now seems pretty much worthless. So congratulations to them, I guess.

  3. Also, it should be noted that Copernicus in fact received support from a number of cardinals, that most of Galileo’s problems were caused by Church politics rather than theological concerns, and that the contemporary opposition to Darwin was fairly limited and much more a struggle between two factions inside the Church of England – when the real creationist opposition came, it was in the US and several decades later.

  4. “the expression of one’s atheism implies the certainty of one’s belief in it”

    I have to completely disagree with you there. Simply expressing a lack of belief does _not_ inherently imply ‘certainty’ at all. Atheism is broader than most people think and most atheists aren’t asserting “God does not exist!” they’re merely saying “the evidence that convinces you doesn’t convince me”.

    No ‘certainty’ implied there.

  5. Steve Jeffers · ·

    >Unfortunately, between them and the religious fundamentalists, this cheapens the public discourse<

    So your argument is that Christopher Hitchens being a bit boorish and a Christian terrorist backed by a Christian organization killing Doctor Tiller amounts to the same thing and so cancels out?

    The problem isn't atheists. The problem isn't even religious nutters. The problem is moderate theists tacitly or overtly siding with people who are or say they are co-religionists, blindly deciding that a bad Christian is better than a good atheist.

    If you look at, for example, the way atheists are treated in the US military. Then look at the way evangelists are … if you look at that for a mere moment, you'll realize your position here is unsustainable. The atheists are the good guys, voices in the wilderness and the victims and they're the ones with all your values but one. The evangelical Christians are sinister genocidal nutcases actually enacting their crazy plans. Case closed.

    Any Christian who has read a second book or thought about their religion for more than about a nanosecond or has any sense that democracy and the Enlightenment have things to offer has far more in common with Richard Dawkins than even a 'moderate' homophobic lying nutter – a Rick Warren, say. But American political policy is dictated by religious nutters claiming that they are the mainstream.

    Theists fly in the face of facts and logic, that's their job description. And that's why the American system was designed very specifically and carefully to keep them out.

    1. Thank you for illustrating my point so well. When your position is based on lumping moderates and extremists together in one big strawman, and on the belief that the everyone among the opponents “fly in the face of facts and logic”, no rational discussion can possibly take place.

      That’s a bit of a tragedy in a democracy, since as I believe Hannah Arendt put it, in the absence of a sound public debate, you get fickle moods but not sound opinions.

      1. Thanks for saving me the typing, lanfranc.

        1. Steve Atone · ·


          If you’re reading this site, you have way more in common with Richard Dawkins the big bad atheist than Rick Warren the Christian who pretended to weep at Obama’s inauguration.

          Yet, if you’re a Christian, politicians equate you with Rick Warren, assume that he speaks for you, that he’s a moderate. This would be Rick Warren who funds homophobic propaganda then denies it, Rick Warren who says that race and gender are God’s way of showing people their place in life.

          Atheists are not extremists, and insisting on separation of church and state is not some weird, recent atheist pipe dream.

          Oh, oh, do we express ourselves a little bluntly on message boards? It doesn’t exactly make us Operation Rescue, or C Street, does it? We are not the equal and opposite of that, or anything like it.

          If it’s about sides, then atheists are on your side. We really are. Read what Richard Dawkins says, read what Gary Hensley says (google: Gary+Hensley chaplain). Work out which is doing the most damage to everything you hold dear, decide which one chills you to the core.

      2. Steve Jeffers · ·

        Chances are, and you seem to demonstrate this, that you see it as atheists v fundamentalists as equal and opposite forces with you and everyone else in the middle.

        No. Atheists are not the ones flying planes into skyscrapers, murdering doctors, praying for the death of the elected President, infiltrating one of the two main political parties to further undemocratic aims or forcing their agenda on the armed forces.

        If you’re a Christian, all those things are being done in your name, by very cynical Americans who talk a lot about ‘new atheism’ and ‘atheist extremists’ and so on.

        As for the facts and logic thing – OK, this one’s easy enough: what do you consider to be the first factually accurate statement in the Bible? Do you discount entirely everything before that first factually accurate statement appears?

        1. Exactly – the difference between moderates and fundamentalists is not one of kind, but of degree.

          As moderate, liberal Christians, you may not go around advocating the murder of abortion doctors because you think your god whispered in your ear, but you’re only a few steps away from someone who could, when it comes right down to it.

          1. Steve Atone · ·

            I don’t think I’d go that far. But, pretty well by definition, if you’re a ‘mainstream’ Christian, your mindset is far closer to the evangelical nutters than it would be if you were an atheist. If your view of the world is in any way faith-based, you’re on the dark path.

            This is not an atheist v fundamentalist dispute. Primarily, and it’s exactly the same in the Muslim world, it’s a sectarian religious dispute caused by a conservative backlash against the modern civil rights movement.

            And the tactic Al Qaeda use is exactly the one most US Christians fall for – blaming the godless. Unconsciously or not – and it’s frequently and scarily not – a lot of Christians will accept, tolerate or at least not challenge anything, whatsoever, any other Christian does.

            The examples are so well known, they’re almost cliched. But imagine the uproar and crackdown if Tiller’s killer had been a Muslim. Imagine if ACORN had done what the Catholic Church did in, ooh pick one: Delaware. Unambiguous, premeditated, chronic evil.

            Now listen out for the politicians and media condemning those Christians … and keep listening. Now brace yourself for the flood of ‘they aren’t true Christians’ … the pro-life movement isn’t Christian? The *Pope* isn’t Christian?

            1. Using that same logic, if you’re an American, your mindset is probably closer to those American nutters than it would be if you were a European.

              Now, I don’t personally believe that. But it’s the same concept of collective guilt at work.

              1. Steve Jeffers · ·

                ‘But it’s the same concept of collective guilt at work.’


                In a democracy, we’re responsible for what’s done in our name.

                Moderate Republicans, say, have more to apologize for for Bush’s misrule than Democrats. Just as moderate Catholics are more culpable for the systematic abuses of their church than atheists.

                The ‘extremist atheist’ model just says something like ‘yeah, my priest raped those kids, but I’m not angry because atheists are just as bad’. That model doesn’t work. The model that works is ‘you know, I agree with those atheists that raping kids is bad, let’s do something about it’.

                And it’s absurd, but in America, now, you’ll have far more Catholics keeping silent than demanding reform in their church.

    2. I remain amused by the notion that these sorts of arguments are somehow supposed to convince anyone of anything. However, since it’s pure preaching to the choir (if you’ll excuse that phrase), and there’s no actual discussion happening, I feel no particular need to actually relate to it.

      However, let’s look into this a bit more:

      “what do you consider to be the first factually accurate statement in the Bible?”

      I suspect you do not quite realize how bloody complex the answer to that question actually is. When dealing with textual criticism, you can operate on a whole range of different levels of abstraction – literal accounts, narratives, allegory, apocalyptics, prophecies, etc.

      Take the story of Cain and Abel, for instance. Although obviously these two have never existed as distinct individuals, it seems entirely likely that the story should be interpreted as an archetypical narrative about early conflicts between nomadic herdsmen and settled agriculturalists. So it’s ‘false’ in the literal sense, but ‘true’ in the sense that it reflects something about the history of the culture of which it is a product.

      Same thing with the Flood – that never happened in literal reality, but could it reflect the early agriculturalists’ troubles with controlling rivers and irrigation systems? Perhaps, especially considering it mentions how Noah was the “first tiller of the soil” and the first to plant wine. Again, does this count as ‘true’ or ‘false’?

      So if we’re looking for literal truth, we’d probably have to get pretty far into the OT – off the top of my head, the Babylonian Captivity is reasonably historical, and that’s in 2 Kings, about a third in (assuming the Christian organization of the OT). But does that automatically invalidate everything before that as ‘false’? Of course not. They just have to be interpreted differently and in the right context, as cultural artifacts and narratives.

      Now, with all these things in mind, especially the distinction between different level of abstraction and interpretation, I’m going to actually answer the question. I consider the first factually accurate statement in the Bible to be,

      “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.”

      But understanding “factually accurate” in the allegorical sense – God as an Aristotelian/Aquinian First Cause that creates the universe – rather than in the literal sense.

      I hope this adequately answered your question.

      1. Steve Jeffers · ·

        “I suspect you do not quite realize how bloody complex the answer to that question actually is.”

        I suspect you couldn’t be more wrong about that if you tried. But see (3) below.

        “They just have to be interpreted differently and in the right context, as cultural artifacts and narratives.”

        Yeah. Or, once we translate that from Weasel, ‘the first third of the Old Testament, at least, are just stories’. They’re ‘true’ in the sense that this week’s episode of Smallville was ‘true’.

        That’s not denying that they’re powerful or influential or good poetry or any of those things. But they’re not facts, as anyone alive now would even loosely define the word.

        But thanks for answering the question.

        Now, all I was saying is that Christians need to make a leap of faith, that their position doesn’t depend on logic and known facts.

        So …

        Assuming there was a first cause, why would that need to be a god, let alone the one mentioned in Genesis? Seeing as the next few chapters get it so completely wrong, seeing as you say yourself that the next third or so of the book is just stories … why believe it over, for example, the pictures of the early universe scientists have taken using Hubble?

        The mathematical models of the early universe we have now aren’t perfect, but they do have predictive power, and those models have helped us to understand the observations. Facts and logic. No sign of fallen angels, parting of the waters or whatever. It’s a model that doesn’t need a God in it to make it work and would make far less sense if there was a God in there.

        So … if the first line (but, you say, not the second line, third line or anything in the next third of the book) is ‘factually accurate’ … which facts? How is “God did it” an ‘allegory’ for “There’s nothing to say God did it?”.

        OK. To save you the time, there are only three strategies for you here: 1) My religion is right, 2) my religion is at least helpful and 3) well, you’re just as wrong.

        In reverse order: no, seriously, I’m not, I’ve got *photos* of my version; no, it’s done nothing but distort and distract the discussion over the years; if that’s true then why did God go to all the trouble of making the universe look like pretty much the only one we can imagine that’s atheistic?

        1. Yeah, this is a “discussion” that’s been had millions of time before, and it never adds anything new whatsoever. So in the interest of preventing global warming, I think we should save some energy by not re-enacting that dance all over again.

          I expect you’ll think I only say that because I don’t have an answer; you may do that, because I don’t really care.

          1. Ah, I see, you also go “lalala…”

            1. It’s just that many years of hard-earned experience have finally taught me to avoid being this guy.


              1. Fine, nobody is forced to discuss, but as I wrote below it is a bit rich to accuse us atheists of not, and I quote, “adding something useful or interesting to the discussion” if you ignore that which we do, and to prefer instead to get cranky because somebody somewhere was not respectful enough.

              2. I don’t expect any particular respect for me as a person (although basic respect for your opponent should be a matter of course in any discussion), but I most certainly do expect respect for the complexities of the issues being discussed.

                Accusing someone of using “weasel words” when they try explain complex questions of Biblical hermeneutics, or confusing the subset of “crazy American evangelicals” with the superset “all Christians” does not reflect such respect. As a result, no actual discussion is taking place – just an exchange of cheap, rehashed polemics, which is a complete waste of everyone’s time.

              3. Interesting; I would rather respect a person than a belief.

                I assume that with the “confusing” remark you are alluding to the position of people like Harris and Dawkins that moderate theists make the world a safe place for their fundamentalist coreligionists. Now that is an interesting discussion I would like to have some day, as I am torn myself. On one level, it is obvious that this is a kind of slippery slope argument. Just as not every weed user ends up a heroin junky, just as not every first person shooter player runs amok a their school, so does not every bible school graduate blow up an abortion clinic. However! I have also met plenty of people who have been taught in their quite moderate religions that blind faith is an adequate answer if you are out of arguments, and that _is_ dangerous on several levels, not least because _that_ really makes any productive discussion about any issue whatsoever impossible. So that is really an interesting issue. Perhaps the solution would be for the new atheists to concentrate less on vilifying religion and more on promoting rationality – if the latter succeeded, religion would become nothing more but a quaint, politically irrelevant ritual anyway.

  6. lanfranc:

    Of course atheists do not add much to the discussion any more; of course many of the arguments do not convince and only preach to the choir. This is, however, not because they are bad arguments, but because they have been the same for decades:

    You establish burden of proof with the celestial teapot metaphor, you find there is simply no friggin’ evidence for gods, and all that is left is a god of the gaps. Darwin shoots down the argument from design, anthrophic principle that of fine-tuning, you realize that supernatural explanations have consistently been on the retreat for the last 2500 years so you can extrapolate that they will continue to do so, presto, no god except largely irrelevant deist shadow god remains intellectually coherent. I would say the only recent addition is physicists like Stenger showing that the universe itself looks exactly as it could be expected to look if it was not created (starting out with max entropy and summing up to zero energy), but the rest has been around forever. Is it the atheists’ problem that believers react with “lalala I can’t heeeeeeear you”? You expect us to invent a new golden bullet argument every five years just because the existing arguments are ignored?

    The point that those evil offensive atheists are trying to make today, then, is not that atheism makes more sense – that was established by the likes of Bertrand Russel at the very latest -, but that atheists should have the same rights to speak out in public discourse as theists, and that nevertheless the latter are still consistently privileged. Privileged, among other things, in that a pope or preacher telling all gays that they are depraved is considered normal, but an atheist telling Christians that blind faith is dangerous (duh) is considered insulting. As can be seen here, of course.

  7. ‘In a democracy, we’re responsible for what’s done in our name.’

    That’s a bizarre assertion, and flies in the face of every reasonable standard of culpability. In a democracy, you’re responsible for your own actions or inactions. But how could you possibly be responsible for events which you have neither any part in nor any chance to affect?

    Along the same lines of thought, should I start apologizing for the Holocaust as well? As a member of the ‘nordic race’, that was supposedly done in my name.

    Or is every single Muslim in the world responsible for 9/11? Because, you know, that was done in their name.

    Hey, I guess the Stone Age genocide on homo neanderthalensis was my fault, too, since I’m a homo sapiens. SO SORRY ABOUT THAT, I GUESS?

    While I’m at it, I’d also like to apologize for Slobodan Milosevic, ABBA, the extinction of the dodo, the sub-prime crisis, the demise of Britney Spears’s career, and David Beckham’s new beard.

    I’m sorry.


    1. Steve Jeffers · ·

      ‘But how could you possibly be responsible for events which you have neither any part in nor any chance to affect?’

      So you’re saying that if you voted for Bush you’re no more or less responsible for the consequences of the Bush administration than someone who voted against him?

      My point is precisely that moderate Christians *do* have the ‘chance to affect’. Moderate Catholics, say, should say or do more than they do in the face of the child abuse scandals. Instead, the prevailing attitude is a ‘my country, right or wrong’ one.

      Were moderate Muslims ‘responsible’ for 9-11? In no way shape or form, BUT they are the ones most able to defuse the threat of extremism. The risk, in the West, seems to be radicalized young men. I think the idea of ultimata and getting ‘community leaders’ to pledge allegiance to the flag is at the very best counterproductive. Muslims, as it happens, have been far more vocal at speaking out about extremism than Christians.

      We’re all complicit to an extent, yes. But, as an atheist who speaks up about it, yes, I’m less complicit in the crimes of Christian terrorists than Christians who don’t. Duh.

    2. I’m not sure why I need to point this out, but the difference is that if you voted for Bush, you actually took an action: You voted for Bush. That’s an action that you can be held responsible for.

      But if some guy decides to kill an abortion doctor half a world away from me – I don’t see what I could conceivably do to affect that. All I can say is that sort of thing doesn’t happen here, so I guess we’re doing something right that you guys aren’t. Sorry, but not my problem.

      Anyway, if you find your position leads to the conclusion that Desmond Tutu is complicit in murder, I would respectfully suggest it’s time to reexamine your position.

      1. Steve Jeffers · ·

        Congratulations on delaying your ‘well, that’s not a Christianity like my Christianity’ response so long, by the way.

        OK – if a Catholic goes to church, donates, sends his kids to Catholic schools that’s a ‘vote’ for that system. They are complicit, therefore, in the child abuse scandals. I’m not saying they abused kids – I am saying it’s indisputable that they *support* a system that sees kids abused. Now, Catholics have a pretty well-developed hierarchy of sins and so on. By their own rules they’re complicit, even before you need to invoke common sense.

        At the very least, it’s not *atheists* who are at fault here.

        There are a great many American churches abusing their position – the Mormons pouring money into homophobic campaigning. The evangelists … well, where do you start?

        Tutu is an example of why I’m right – at great personal risk, he spoke out. By speaking out, things changed. Now, find the evangelical preacher who’s spoken out as forcefully as Tutu on the Christian terrorism in the US. Find the Republican politician, even, who dares to say that evangelism has gone too and needs to respect the separation of church and state.

      2. Again, since I’m neither American, nor evangelical, nor Republican, I’m not sure what exactly it is that you expect from me. You want a condemnation of terrorism? Fine, I condemn terrorism. There.

        If you want more than that, you’ll have to direct your ire at the actual groups that you’re talking about. As far as hard-core evangelicals are concerned, we’re talking about people who believe that even most other Christian denominations – Methodists, Anglicans, not to mention Catholics – are the minions of the Devil. They don’t give a damn what people like me say.

        I’m sure that lumping us all together in one big, shapeless group of “Christians” or “theists” or whatever makes you feel better about yourself, but it does not adequately describe the problems or provide anything in the way of a solution. It’s just polemics.

  8. In partial response to a lot of this thread (except for the mass culpability stuff, which I’m not touching):

    I don’t think it’s reasonable to desire that all expressions of religious beliefs, or whatever, add “something useful or interesting to the discussion”. There’s a very important distinction to draw between speech meant only to cause offense and speech meant only to be offensive. Insulting someone to their face is meant to cause offense, while insulting someone to a third party is merely offensive. Insulting someone to their face just to cause offense is clearly pretty problematic in most circumstances, but it’s much less wrong to insult people to others (at least when they don’t have an expectation that you’ll speak well of them – so it can still be wrong to speak badly of friends behind their backs). We all do this all the time, and it’s one of the most common ways in which people bond and express community ties. It’s sometimes not pretty, but it does serve a valuable purpose.

    Many atheists almost certainly have, at one point or another, sought out believers to offend, but I can’t, off-hand, think of one whose public atheism could be consistently characterized in that way. Virtually all atheist offensiveness, and a great deal of fundamentalist offensiveness, seems to me to be of this latter type.

    To defend the most egregious example of atheist offense most could name, let’s look at PZ Myers’ Eucharist stunt. I think it’s clear that the primary audience for this was the group of atheists that read his blog, and I think it’s hard to deny that this served to build a sense of community among them. Myers’ stated motivation wasn’t simply to piss off Catholics, but to express solidarity with and support for a person who he saw as being punished far too harshly for appropriating a Eucharist. The message, as I understood it, was that atheists shouldn’t need to tiptoe around religious sensibilities (which seems to me to be a good message, or at least one worth expressing). The obvious comparison is to flag-burning, which I’d also defend as an appropriate form of speech if, for example, one wanted to signal that people shouldn’t have to be afraid of being seen as unpatriotic. I wouldn’t defend either if they were intended solely as a way of saying “ha ha [Catholics/Americans], this is what I think of your precious symbol” solely to offend [Catholics/Americans], but there are a plethora of meanings and purposes to most examples of offensive speech, and I see no reason to suppose that this would be an accurate characterization of Myers’ Eucharist desecration.

    I do find speech like “God sent Katrina to punish us for the gays” to be blameworthy, but even there it’s not the expression of the thought that I particularly object to – it bothers me much more that someone thinks it. Neo-Nazi marches are bad, but they’re not bad because they’re an offensive public display of political belief – they’re bad because the belief itself is rotten. The expression itself only seems to me to be blameworthy when, for example, they purposefully march through very Jewish areas (a criterion clearly not met by Myers posting on his own blog, though possibly met by fundamentalists speaking on the national news). People ought not to believe certain things (not that we should pass thought-crime laws, of course), but, given that people believe these things, I’ve a hard time saying that it’s wrong of them to express those beliefs unless particular care is taken to ensure that the mode of expression is offensive for no reason other than to cause offense.

    I also note that it ought to be possible to have a high-minded discussion of “is religion just a form of delusion?”, “are atheists blinded by their own sin?”, etc. Philosophers do this sort of thing all the time. Most people lack the ability to carefully argue for or against these positions and to hear the other side without becoming badly offended, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong for them to express their thoughts on the issues.

    In many ways, the cheapening of public discourse re: religion vs atheism is just a function of the debate moving to a popular level. Until recently, there simply wasn’t a public debate. Philosophers and other intellectuals went back and forth on this for a good long time, but there was simply no such thing as popular atheism. There was only room for it when (for all practical purposes) atheism won out among intellectuals about a hundred years back (it’s important to understand that Nietzsche was making a diagnosis, not an argument). The issues raised by this debate are ones that many people care passionately about, and they ought not to be gagged merely because they have little to contribute compared to Thomas Aquinas and Bertrand Russell. Sure, most discussion now is “worthless” from the perspective of anyone at all versed in the history of the debate, but that’s mostly only because the people who could be expected to produce the most interesting contributions tend to feel that this is a pretty settled area not worth exploring further. Philosophy of Religion, for example, is a pretty small subfield that gets relatively little respect at this point, and actually tends to serve more as a ghetto for those few publicly Christian philosophers than anything else.

    1. I don’t think one should necessarily be the next Bertrand Russell (of whom I’m a great fan, BTW) to participate.

      It would just be great if people would approach such discussions as actual discussions, rather than opportunities to display for all the world how much more {logical and rational|lovin’ the Lord} they are. And at least as far as the atheists are concerned, it would also be great if they’d take the time to review a few basic facts about the issues they’re talking about – such as the fact that there actually are a rather large number of different Christian denominations, many of which despise each other much more than they do the atheists. I mean, contrary to what my good friend Steve apparently thinks, this is not just a bad excuse for avoiding responsibility – it’s actual reality.

      As it is now, it’s mostly just rehashings of the talking points of Dawkins and his peers, and to be honest, those fine gentlemen don’t really bring a whole lot to the table when it comes to nuanced insights.

      1. I’d agree with all of that in principle, but I think there are a few reasons why it’s hard for most people to approach this kind of thing as a discussion. Because arguments for and against go back centuries, and because some very great minds devoted themselves to answering these questions, it’s the case for almost everyone interested in the subject that they can find arguments both for and against their own positions that they couldn’t themselves construct or refute (or, in many cases, understand). This means that how well most people can represent their side is just a function of how well read they are, and most of the time all participants are ill-equipped to even determine whose arguments are better. The upshot is that the average atheist or believer can’t come close to holding his/her own against a philosopher or theologian, or just against someone who’s read a lot of philosophy of religion. Discussion thus becomes less of a truth-finding exercise and more of a high school debate competition, or an exercise in digging up quotes. Because of the sheer amount of quality argumentation that exists out there, average people discussing religion looks a lot like average people discussing quantum mechanics – the obvious trump is expert opinion that neither participant really grasps (although one can find expert opinion on both sides of religion).

        The natural response to this is to deny that expertise matters. People can still have meaningful opinions, and they won’t have to defer to expert opinion, if there are no experts. Believers push faith, which makes everyone an expert by providing perfect access to the truth. Atheists push a naive positivism, which makes experts obsolete since it’s all just so simple. More generally, people fixate on a simplified form of some argument for their side and insist that it’s so clearly true that nothing can be said against it, and they can’t be convinced otherwise because they don’t really grasp the nuances of the arguments they’re embracing and certainly wouldn’t grasp the arguments against those. Thus all the rehashing of Dawkins.

        It’s hard because it’s a debate that many people want to participate in but which has already been done to death by much abler individuals.

      2. lanfranc:

        I have given the issue a great deal of thought over the years and remain unconvinced that it is, at its heart, complex. Either there is a higher planning intelligence behind our existence/the world/the universe, or it isn’t. Yes or no. Theism* or atheism. We can address that question based on evidence or philosophically, but the question remains very, very, simple. The only reason it appears complicated (to some people) is that the believer considers as arguments nonsense that even they quite reasonably would not accept as an argument in any other imaginable area of discourse. I mean, we can make the discussion about where I left my keys just as complicated as the one about religion if we just accept “I just know in my heart that goblins stole them”, “you have to see your keys as a metaphor, they are not really meant to open actual doors” or “silly positivist, keys are ineffable and your science cannot possible answer the question of their current location” as valid arguments, but hardly anybody would be addled enough to do so. The reason atheism offends is mostly that it applies the same standards of evidence and reason to the question of religion as to everything else, and some religious people can’t stomach not being privileged in public discourse.

        * Of course, for the believer it becomes more complicated also because even after having found a convincing case for the necessity of a planning intelligence in the universe, they still have to build a convincing case that this intelligence has to be called Jehova instead of, say, Tawûsê Melek, and that it abhors pork instead of, say, lettuce.

        1. Steve Jeffers · ·

          “We can address that question based on evidence or philosophically, but the question remains very, very, simple.”

          I’d agree with that. It’s not ‘simplistic’ to say that the Bible or the apostolic tradition, or that the teachings of Anglicanism are meant as statements of the nature of the world and how people should behave in it. Or odd to measure the claims of those churches against the way we see the world working.

          A lot of theology seems more like a smokescreen than an explanation. The fact that ‘why do bad things happen to good people?’ is a banal, cliched question doesn’t distract from the absolutely indisputable fact that no one’s ever come up with an answer that’s even enough to satisfy *them*, let alone skeptics.

          As scientists discover more and more about how the universe was created and man evolved, it’s very clearly at odds with any theistic account. The modern Christian response to the very complex, very consistent, very useful-at-predicting-stuff models scientists have is just to bolt a (‘which God helped along’) to it.

          It’s not some fiendishly cunning atheist trick to ask ‘where’s the evidence for that?’, it’s the very definition of fair to hold religious claims to the same standards as every other claim.

          Theology and science are sometimes presented as equal and opposite, lifelong disciplines and mindsets that laymen can’t fully understand. I’m not a theologian or a scientist. I have read a lot of theology and a lot of science books. The more science I read, the more I understand the world. The more theology I read, the more I think the whole discipline is nonsense.

          It’s not weird or unfair to demand clarity in expression, that writers support their claims or that if they make big claims they can provide some sort of basis for them. Theologians often resort to ‘well, it depends how you define terms’ … they very rarely go on to usefully refine those definitions.

          Modern Christianity is a very mild form of mystery religion, now. Its argument boils down to ‘we don’t know everything, God does’. There’s no attempt to actually uncover that knowledge, or even to say in concrete terms where the gaps in our knowledge lie. It’s literally happy to be ignorant. Even if the basic claim turns out to be right, it’s (1) unsupported and (2) abhorrent.

          ‘God created the universe’, ‘God can hear our prayers’, ‘God performs miracles’ … these are all very simple claims, not complex ones. They’re also scientific claims. I don’t think you *need* to get into the ins and outs of it. The problems with the very simple, basic, building block stuff are enough.

          Atheists can’t prove theists wrong – atheists hit the wall of the limits of evidence and language and human comprehension before Christ was born. We disproved it as much as it’s possible to disprove.

          All theists have to do to completely destroy atheism once and for all is present evidence that *a* god intervened *once* to affect the outcome of even a single quantum event. If they can show their gods moving a *proton*, it’s game over for atheists, forever. That every single attempt to do so isn’t just a forgery, but a blatant forgery only supports the theory that reality doesn’t back up religious claims. That I can see people reading this going ‘that’s such an unfair thing to ask of God’ when it wouldn’t be unfair to ask it of a *magnet* … well, I’m perfectly willing to accept I may be wrong to be an atheist, but I’d rather be wrong for good reasons than blindly, accidentally right.

      3. So once again, we dive into the trite old ontological question “DOES GOD EXIST Y/N?!?!” “I CAN HAZ EVIDENTZ Y/N?!?!”

        Completely worthless, because anyone invested enough to form an opinion on that is also invested enough not to be convinced otherwise by anything short of existential, life-changing experiences – and certainly not by some random discussion on teh Intarnetz. So there’s no changing of opinions, or even any particular interest in what the other side has to say. It is an argument for the sake of argument. It is evangelism (atheist or not). It is intellectual masturbation.

        Imagine how many other interesting aspects of the issue of religion and society that lie unexplored and wide open for dicussion – but that’s not going to happen, because everyone’s a missionary. Tragic.

        1. (And no, you can’t have evidence, not yours. And if there was evidence, it wouldn’t be faith. Duh. Yes, I know, totally irrational. And now, I’m going to go bask in that irrationality for a while. You hear me? Bask in it!)

          1. So, basically your position is one of special pleading… Got it.

          2. Special pleading? Hell no, I’m refusing to plead altogether.

            Whereas I note your position is the usual “I cannot relate to what this person is saying, so I can safely dismiss him.”

            I guess that’s understandable, though. To adequately understand my position, I’m afraid you’ll have to read this, this, and in particular this. This one would be very rewarding as well. (Please pay particular attention to the concept of the ‘leap to faith’.)

            Optional reading is Sartre and/or Camus, Thomas Aquinas, the major works of St. Anselm, and of course Stephen Jay Gould’s Rock of Ages. For extra credit, watch Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Beckett’s Godot, considering in particular the implications of an apparently absent God in an incomprehensible world.

            Good luck!

        2. Steve Jeffers · ·

          I would change my mind in an instant if the evidence demanded it.

          And the point is you *didn’t*. The evidence, all the evidence, is that the universe is godless. It’s not some split decision, 50/50, jury still out thing. It’s a 100/0 thing, so far. The moment it even becomes a 99.9/0.1 thing, you’re right and I’m wrong, utterly, finally and forever.

          Like I say, a 1 cent magnet can prove the existence of magnetism. In terms of great challenges, proving that a God exists ought to be up there with jumping over a sugar cube.

          It’s not atheists getting uppity when we say that. It’s not just that your Emperor has no clothes … you don’t even have a sodding *Emperor*.

          1. Yes, exactly. So instead of displaying some intellectual curiosity and trying to understand why there exists this significant group of otherwise completely ordinary people who believe these things, and why they do so, you just label is as ‘irrational’ and dismiss it altogether.

            I think that’s probably what aggravates me most about these ‘New’ or ‘militant’ atheists, or whatever we want to call them: When the very foundation of your professional training is to try to understand people from periods and cultures that are fundamentally different from your own, it’s very sad to see so many – probably generally quite intelligent – people wilfully indulge in that sort of intellectual lazyness. :-(

            But thanks for at least helping me clear that up, I guess.

            1. But most of the popular militant atheists, I wouldn’t call intellectually lazy.

              I’m not one, but I fully support militant atheists. I think it creates some safety for people to “not believe” freely, with these active people on the front line.

              And puts a little doubt/self reflection into religious persons, which I think is helpful.

              1. ^ This is basically where I am too, for what it’s worth.

            2. Steve Jeffers · ·

              I don’t ‘dismiss it’ at all, and it’s ridiculous to suggest that what marks out, say, Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett or McGinn is that they lack intellect or curiosity.

              A couple of posts up, you resort to Lolcats speech because you think it’s foolish to get hung up on whether God exists or not … and that’s exactly the sort of thing atheists find nonsensical about the modern, thinking Christian. The modern, thinking Christian has worked out that the God stuff’s actually all a bit silly and ‘gets in the way of the message’.

              We agree. Be nice to people, don’t kill them, don’t covert their oxen … and you can do all that without waving a magic stick at the Oggabogga idol, or whatever exactly as ridiculous ritual your particular religion demands.

              None of the claims of the purpose of religion – that it’s the truth; that it makes for more moral people; that it at least provides comfort makes much sense. If God exists, it doesn’t have to make sense, it’s God’s will (at which point, all rightthinking people would accept the existence of God and try to work out how to depose the crazy space tyrant). If he doesn’t exist, though, there’s no sensible or vaguely coherent reason to keep following him.

              The analogy here is with UFOs. A lot of people think they have had a close encounter. If they have, that’s literally one of the most incredible things that’s ever happened to the human race … but we can’t just accept it at face value, we need better evidence and there are all sorts of (apparently) better explanations.

              Regardless of the truth, there is certainly, without any shadow of a doubt, an interesting psychological aspect to it, and it’s very well worth studying why so many people attest to it.

              But, surely, it makes all the difference in the world if there *are* UFOs. The ‘truth’ of UFOs is relevant to the discussion? You’d agree that it’s an important data point?

              As for the ‘other cultures’ thing – Dawkins has the best analogy here. There are tribes in Africa who think the moon is a magic gourd forever just out of reach, and use it as a metaphor for the unreachable. Western scientists think it’s a big ball of rock three days’ rocket flight from here, and they think that because they’ve reached it. The African tribe is, now, wrong. It is probably useful for a society to have some sort of symbol for the unreachable, but that society needs to keep its records up to date.

              These things matter, particularly in a democracy. Facts and the ability to judge them matter. Is it a coincidence that, say, Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin spout nonsense they’ve been told without checking and that they are both recent converts to particularly crazy and uncritical, anti-intellectual branches of already crazy brands of (always vaguely crazy) Christianity? No. They have the mindset that makes them vulnerable to both. Even before you get to the indisputable fact that they’re been given their crazy talking points by coreligionists. Glenn Beck wasn’t crazy until he became a Mormon, the stuff he spouts is straight from the Mormon playbook, literally – it’s from The Five Thousand Year Leap.

              If you believe in God, you have the same mindset. You are on the same path, even if very few people go quite as far down it. And belief in God is the first and biggest step down that path.

              You’ve already swallowed the biggest slice of crazy pie those guys did. The rest is details.

            3. I certainly don’t think that Dawkins, Hitches, et al. lack intellect as such – I’m sure they’re brilliant people. But they do appear to lack the inclination (and probably the training) to understand the complexities of their chosen subject material. Just look at e.g. the ‘analysis’ (and I use that word in the most charitable sense) of Aquinas in The God Delusion – frankly, that stuff wouldn’t even pass in a secondary school philosophy class.

              More generally, you see the same thing in the incessant harping on ‘Christians’ or even ‘theists’ as in any way identifiable groups that can be generalised about. Such analyses seriously lack academic rigour, because, as I’ve pointed out earlier, these supersets are actually characterised by internal differences that are at least as great as those between ‘theists’ and ‘atheists’. These are facts too, but somehow they never seem to emerge amidst all the ontological patter about whether God exists or not. That’s why this is essentially a form of evangelism – the objective is not to achieve a precise and exhaustive understanding of the subject group, but just a search for polemics to use for attacks. Details that are not relevant to that message are ignored.

              I’m not particular surprised to see that sort of behaviour from a sensationalist like Hitchens, but from supposed academics such as Dawkins, Myers and Harris, it’s quite unacceptable.

              As far as Dawkins and his African tribe are concerned, I’ll contend that it’s utterly impossible to achieve any sort of understanding if your fundamental approach ab initio is “these people are wrong and crazy”. That’s a bit of a problem, because while facts are certainly important in a democracy, so is the ability to understand and accept people and groups that are different from oneself – since democracies are and must be diverse, heterogeneous societies.

              Also, I note that your position now leads to the conclusion that it is only details that separate Glenn Beck and Desmond Tutu. I find your ideas on this point intriguing, although I’ll respectfully pass on your newsletter.

              1. Steve Jeffers · ·

                Washing your hands of American evangelists and saying they don’t count as Christians because you’re not from the same country, then invoking Desmond Tutu doesn’t really make much sense, unless you’re writing from South Africa.

                As for the ‘lack of training’ – if someone tells me he’s got fairies at the bottom of the garden that give him the lottery numbers every week, I don’t need a PhD in fairyology and to have written four academic books on the subject to enter a discussion with him, and I certainly don’t need to start discussing what the fairies are wearing and which lottery.

                It’s *not* the details of religion, that’s the point. It’s the fundamental premise. The fundamental premise of theism isn’t even that gods exist, it’s not even that gods listen to prayers and favor their followers. The fundamental proposition of religion is that gods *affect outcomes of events*.

                Do you believe that your god or gods has or could affect the outcome of an event in the physical world? Simple question, with no room for prevarication: pick one from yes or no.

                If yes: it’s a scientific claim, within the realms of scientific enquiry, by definition. Please give a good example of a god or gods affecting the outcome of an event that stands up to modern scrutiny.

                People who have believed in gods have done great things – created great art, performed amazing acts of charity, done wonderful things. So have people without gods.

                One example of something happening that *must* have had a god doing it. This ought not to be a difficult test to pass.

                Now … come up with an example of something else you believe in that can’t pass that test.

              2. Steve, Steve, Steve. I thought we were just about to have the beginnings of an interesting discussion there, and now here we go back into the depths of ontology.

                Anyway, I’ve not said that American evangelicals are not Christians – that’s by no means for me to judge – and neither am I in any way going to take credit for Tutu’s accomplishments. I’m simply saying that when you’re talking about ‘Christians’ in general, your statements need to apply to both Beck and Tutu, and to a whole lot of other people, in order to be valid. That’s basic set theory.

                So again, are you or are you not arguing that it is only “details” that separate Beck and Tutu?

                Examples? Gee, I dunno. Death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, I guess. Also, Big Bang. Oh, and making saints out of sinners. Oh, wait, that last one is not scientific. Sorry about that, eh?

                Wow, just look at that. The crazy irrationality is practically radiating from me. There’s no telling what I might do. Why, I’m feeling just like Glenn Beck right now!


                1. Steve Jeffers · ·

                  OK … there are two completely different points in play here.

                  First of all, saints from sinners. No. There are people who do good things and people who do bad things, there are people that switch from one to the other. Religion at least partially inspired and justified apartheid, it was not all that inspired Tutu. For that matter, Mandela and the ANC were explicitly secular and many members were communists.

                  As with the origins of man and the universe, you can take God out of the equation and it all still works just fine. Personally, I don’t just think it’s a little offensive to credit God with the bravery of people, I think the obvious corollary of this is to ask ‘where was God when they set up apartheid, then?’. The answer, of course, is that both Christianity and apartheid were imposed on the country by the same set of people.

                  Ontology *is* important here. It’s crucial. You seem to be saying that the good people do is transmitted from God. Clearly that’s not the only possible source. It could be from the *idea* of God. Or it could be just because … well, some people are keen to promote social justice.

                  Slightly lighter example – does the athlete who prays he’ll win win because God beams down his favor, or simply because the athlete trained harder and has more ability than the other competitors?

              3. “I’ll contend that it’s utterly impossible to achieve any sort of understanding if your fundamental approach ab initio is “these people are wrong and crazy”.”

                I don’t think this is true. To make the obvious point, if the religious are, in fact, wrong and (at least narrowly) deluded, then one can of course only come to a complete understanding of the phenomenon by treating it as a wrong delusion. By far the most interesting question for any objective observer would be “what can have led these people to believe all of this fantastical nonsense?”

                I would agree with you that it’s not terribly helpful for atheists as a whole to present themselves as having less than no respect for religion, but this seems to me to parallel, say, the gay marriage debate. Perhaps it’s the case that gay marriage opponents are generally just expressing bigotry, and I certainly think that one can legitimately believe that this is so, but it’s probably not the best long-term strategy to do nothing but accuse gay marriage opponents of bigotry. There’s certainly a place for some well-positioned shaming, but everyday contact with people who disagree with you isn’t the right situation.

                1. Steve Jeffers · ·

                  I respect plenty of religious people – but I respect them for what they’ve done.

                  I’d say I respect Desmond Tutu, for example, *more* than a Christian would. If Tutu really did have an omnipotent supernatural force at his back the whole time, frankly why did it take him so long? In what sense would he be brave – it would be like standing up to a playground bully with a tank behind you.

                  There’s also a major tendency for Christians to point to the Tutus, the Bonhoeffers and so on and say ‘look what faith does’. OK … the whole point is that they are exceptional, even unique. There were many thousands of Christian clergy who supported apartheid, who enthusiastically backed Hitler and Mussolini.

                  ‘Respect’ is a slippery word here. Christians in the West are used to being treated as special because they are religious. ‘Man of faith’ is seen as equivalent to ‘virtuous’. Priests and churches are accorded special status. I don’t believe that.

                  When Christians say atheists ‘don’t respect’ them, they tend to mean that we treat them just like everyone else, not that we treat them any worse.

                2. There were many thousands of Christian clergy who supported apartheid, who enthusiastically backed Hitler and Mussolini.

                  Sure, and there were also thousands of clergy who, at great personal risk, opposed Hitler and Mussolini – such as those bishops and priests who distributed Mit brennender Sorge in 1937, or who hid Italian Jews in monasteries and churches in 1943. The point is that both the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ are part of the same superset of ‘Christians’ – they’re just people, for better or worse, and trying to paint the ‘good ones’ as “exceptional” is just as fallacious as saying the ‘bad ones’ are “not real Christians”.

                3. But I’m glad you respect Archbishop Tutu; that’s very reassuring. I guess this means you withdraw your “details” statement, though? Otherwise your position seems a little inconsistent.

                  1. Steve Jeffers · ·

                    I suspect if Desmond Tutu was born a thousand miles north, he’d have been a brave Muslim, a couple of thousand miles north east, he’d have been a brave Hindu.

                    His belief in his God almost certainly strengthened him, no arguments there. I don’t think his *God* strengthened him, though. And that’s not splitting hairs or being naive, that’s the crucial point here.

                    Again – the sportsman analogy: an athlete may find his inner strength through religious faith. Becoming a top class athlete demands certain mental frameworks. But he wins by applying himself, not by some transmission of angelic power from Heaven. In the end, as with everything else we know about, you can remove God from the equation and still get the sums to add up to the same thing.

                    You’re a Christian. Whatever you say here, you simply don’t believe that fooling yourself there’s a God is the same thing as there being a God. You, surely, think God has at least some form of non-psychological, external, independent existence – otherwise God would be quite a different type of God Delusion to the one Dawkins talks about.

                    Speaking of which … yes. Beck and Tutu have something in common, and that’s faith that God exists against all the evidence. Clearly they took different paths, to different effect (although I doubt Beck and his fellow travelers imagine it’s all that different), but they share the ability to see believing in something *because* of the lack of evidence as a virtue and a strength.

                    And *that’s* the God Delusion, that’s the behavior that in any other walk of life would be treated as the textbook definition of mental illness.

                  2. I wonder if you could be more specific about which textbook and which mental illness we’re talking about?

  9. Mike from Ottawa · ·

    “If your view of the world is in any way faith-based, you’re on the dark path. ”

    Yeah, because there is always Good, i.e. you, and Evil, i.e. them. Saves time when you don’t need to do more than apply a simple-minded litmus test, eh. Now where have I seen that technique before. Oh, but I know, when you do it is OK because you’re an atheist.

    1. Quick! Get him a fire extinguisher – his strawman’s on fire!

      1. Mike from Ottawa · ·

        Sorry, “That Other Mike” but I quoted one of your fellow atheists (‘Steve Atone’) above. Thus I’m not setting up a straw man, unless you’re saying atheists are, ipso facto, straw men. An interesting approach to defusing criticism. Otherwise, well, you’re either ignorant of what a straw man is or you aren’t honest enough to care whether what you say is true. Either way, you’re not much of an advertisement for the virtues of atheism. But thanks for providing me with another example of an atheist who feels criticism of his side is illegitimate just because, well, it is his side.

        1. The fact that you quoted him to start with doesn’t make your comment any less a strawman; and until you have the chops to be able to do it effectively, you should really lay off the condescension.

    2. I guess that was meant less as evil, but more as wrong. As somebody once wrote in another forum:

      “How can you objectively differentiate ridiculous belief systems from ‘normal’ religions? It’s clearly impossible, because religion is an anything-goes affair. Any belief is justifiable – no matter how silly, or evil. Rationality can’t penetrate once that label, ‘belief’, is applied.”

      And that is what makes belief or, properly put, faith so dangerous and, yes, a dark path. Accepting it as an argument completely forestalls any rational discussion.

    3. Steve Jeffers · ·


      The dark path isn’t ‘evil’, it’s ‘irrational’.

      If you have a model of how the world works that doesn’t fit the facts, evidence, logic or what happens, you adjust the model or you’re irrational. If you declare that the fact it doesn’t fit doesn’t matter, it still works, you’re delusional.

      That’s not some dig at religion, that’s just what the words mean.

  10. Just wanted to extend a hearty “Thanks” for this post, ACG. To a ‘militant atheist’ it is very welcome, indeed.

  11. Steve:
    Well, OK, sorry to hear your Google broke.

    My Google is fine, thanks, it’s just that when you mentioned a “textbook”, I was expecting an actual textbook, ideally the DSM-IV-TR. Of course, I don’t mind doing your home work for you. So if you go look up ‘delusions’ in the DSM, you’ll find, under the “Decision Tree for Delusions” in Chapter 2, the following:

    “A common error regarding the differential diagnosis in this decision tree is to assume that a belief that is unusual (at least from the clinician’s perspective) is necessarily a delusion. Such misattributions can be avoided through a careful application of the DSM-IV-TR glossary definition of delusion:

    A false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everyone else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary. The belief is not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the person’s culture or subculture (e.g., it is not an article of religious faith). When a false belief involves a value judgment, it is regarded as a delusion only when the judgment is so extreme as to defy credibility. Delusional conviction occurs on a continuum and can be sometimes be inferred from an individual’s behavior. It is often difficult to distinguish between a delusion and an overvalued idea (in which case the individual has an unreasonable belief or idea but does not hold it as firmly as is the case with a delusion).

    So as you can see, the diagnostical definition of a delusion specifically excludes significant cultural or sub-cultural beliefs, including religious ones (as does the resource you linked to above – did you even read that first?)

    More information on why this is the case is available in the relevant literature, which I’m sure will be available in a library near you, along with the DSM itself.

    Also, expecting that your answer will be something along the lines of “well, that’s just wrong“, I’ll note that the DSM-IV-TR is the most current standard diagnostic manual for mental illnesses, and represents the scientific concensus of the world-wide psychiatric community.

    1. Steve Jeffers · ·

      “So as you can see, the diagnostical definition of a delusion specifically excludes significant cultural or sub-cultural beliefs, including religious ones”

      Yes. Yes, I know. This is why I said:

      ‘And that’s the God Delusion, that’s the behavior that – ‘

      wait for it, wait for it

      ‘*in any other walk of life* would be treated as the textbook definition of mental illness.’

      Hang on, I’m an atheist, that means I’ve got to express myself in a uniquely strident way that involves a personal belittling. So … ‘that was in the resource you linked to above – did you even read that first?’. God’s balls, can you imagine a theist saying anything so rude?

      Theists can behave in a way that in every other circumstance would be treated as delusion. Or, rephrasing it slightly, if it wasn’t called religion we’d have to call it crazy.

      This irrationality can inspire a Tutu or a Beck. Part of the problem is that once you’ve allowed people to put aside rationality, once you decouple opinion from facts, it can allow just about anything.

      This has been a long thread. I started out by saying that religion, at least in part, can’t rely on facts and logic. You spluttered away at that, but you’ve just ended up saying exactly the same thing. It took you a while, you got there. I feel my work here is done.

      1. Yeah, that’s not actually what you said:

        Theists fly in the face of facts and logic, that’s their job description. And that’s why the American system was designed very specifically and carefully to keep them out.

        That’s quite a different statement from “religion, at least in part, can’t rely on facts and logic”. In fact, that’s a statement I can easily agree with, so I’m happy to see you’ve come around to my way of thinking and, at least on that part, I guess I feel my work here is done.

        I’m not quite sure what your point re: delusion is, though. Are you saying that the psychiatric consensus is wrong and a layperson like Dawkins is more qualified to define what a delusion is? I don’t think that’s usually how science works, is it?

        1. He’s saying that the epistemic standing of a religious claim is the same as that of something we’d think of as a delusion.

          He’s not necessarily saying that the character of a religious belief is identical to that of a delusion, and I’d certainly argue that it would be wrong to make that claim, but just that, as stand-alone claims, religious beliefs are only as well-grounded as delusions.

          He’s appealing to the intuition that “everybody else believes it” is not a particularly good reason to believe something, especially when you further have very good reason to think that everyone else only believes it because they too saw that everyone else believed it. He’s saying that the only reason psychiatrists don’t call religion delusional is that it’s widespread (and the DSM acknowledges this explicitly). That is, “theists can behave in a way that in every other circumstance [or, in a context where their beliefs aren’t widespread] would be treated as a delusion”. While he might agree that there are good medical reasons to keep them separate, he’s saying that there are no good epistemic reasons to do so.

          Regardless, there are perfectly good senses of “delusion” that would work here, though perhaps not any that might literally be termed “textbook”. I don’t find that Dawkins is at all unqualified to refer to a God “delusion” unless it’s clear that he’s arguing for the religious to go see psychiatrists about their condition. My impression has always been that he’s clearly using “delusion” as just something like “a fantastical, false, and firmly held belief”, which is pretty much the colloquial sense of the word, I’d say.

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