Mending Fences, Part II – My Concern with Anti-Religious Atheism

July 12, 2010 | By | 28 Replies More

[Note: This is Part II of a series of posts being the title “Mending Fences”]

When Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the other “new atheists” first launched their attacks on religion a few years ago, I was delighted. After decades of relative silence, the mass media was finally giving some atheists a chance to present my view that virgins don’t have babies and that dead people don’t regain consciousness. Harris, Dawkins and other new atheists dared to argue in public that there is no sentient version of God; they reminded believers that all believers were atheists regarding Zeus, as well as all of the purported gods other than their own God. The writings of the new atheists energized considerable discussion, much of it thoughtful. Even a cursory review of the many websites and YouTube videos considering religion makes it clear that many teenagers and young adults have actively joined discussions triggered by the new atheists.

In the wake of this energized discussion, many of us became proficient at pointing out the hundreds of contradictions and absurdities in the Bible. We repeatedly called foul whenever we spotted theists cherry-picking the Bible (none of you are wearing clothes made of linen and wool, I hope!). We repeatedly reminded believers of Carl Sagan’s caveat that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. Many of us dug even deeper, studying the philosophy of science, so that we could clearly explain to believers that to be meaningful, claims had to be falsifiable. Not that these arguments actually convinced believers (at least, not in my personal experience), but they did serve to announce our view that religious claims must no longer be privileged—they shouldn’t be assumed to be true and that they must be put under the microscope (as Daniel Dennett urged in Breaking the Spell) like every other natural phenomenon. We made it clear that we weren’t convinced when believers attempted to explain their beliefs by reference to ancient apocryphal supposedly-sacred writings strewn with ambiguity and self-contradictions. Thanks to the arrival of the new atheists, all of these important issues started receiving unflinching media attention.

These past few years have been emotionally and intellectually exhilarating for skeptics of all stripes. Those of us who have maintained skeptical websites have become further energized and intellectually sharpened by reading each others’ posts and by carefully re-reading the Bible and the Koran armed with scalpels rather than intellectual queasiness. The books and media appearances of the new atheists, as well as the many websites by hundreds of newly awakened atheists, have created a community where there had previously been only isolated individuals. The work of the new atheists thus revealed to each of us that none of us was alone in scrutinizing and criticizing the supernatural claims of religions. Many energized atheists have boldly stepped out of their closets and started becoming vocal as a group, especially when believers callously asserted that all atheists are ipso facto immoral and hell-bound.

Somewhere during the past few years, it further dawned on me that atheists were victims of systematic bigotry. What else could you call it when, contrary to the facts, all of us were judged to be unstable, unpatriotic, untrustworthy or unfit at parenting? These charges were grossly unfair. Our “crime” was this: we dared to question Christian religions with the same degree of skepticism that Christians used when they questioned the teachings of Buddhists, Moslems and Hindus.

Over the past few years, in addition to realizing that we were part of a project much larger than ourselves, many of us went a step further and became vocally anti-religious. Many atheists (I was one) felt justified in aiming their own arrows at all preachers and all religious teachings. Encouraged by the new atheists, many websites of skeptics and atheists (including Dangerous Intersection) joined in the rock-throwing with gusto. These rocks have sometimes been aimed at all religions, all versions of faith and all people of faith. Many of these attacks characterized all believers as mentally undisciplined and/or naïve. Our intense outpouring of energy hostile to all religions was understandable given the many years during which atheists have been shunned or disparaged by politicians and the mass media.  This outpouring was also understandable in that moderate religions sat in silence while fundamentalists of all stripes spewed hatred and aggression.

Who among us doesn’t still feel the intense emotional sting when reminded of the following statement by George H. W. Bush, speaking as the Vice-President of the United States on August 27, 1987 (while running for President) :

“No, I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered as patriots. This is one nation under God.”

No wonder the new atheists counter-attacked with such vigor!

The writings of the new atheists didn’t merely attack the people who mindlessly characterized us as second-class citizens, however. Their attacks went much further. Sam Harris argued (again, this resonated with me) that as a result of their religious beliefs, all religions were absurd and dangerous and that all religious moderates have been giving cover and encouragement to the destructive practices of religious extremists. Similarly, Richard Dawkins argued that religious moderates make the world safe for fundamentalists by promoting faith as a virtue and by enforcing an overly pious respect for religion. In a 2006 interview published by Time Magazine, Dawkins, referring to fundamentalists, stated: “Why bother with these clowns?” Harris and Dawkins, joined by Christopher Hitchens and others of similar temperament, have attacked every sort of faith and every type of religion. In this article, I’ll refer to these writers and their supporters as the “anti-religion” new atheists.

Not all new atheists are “anti-religion” new atheists. For example, Daniel Dennett gets his well-considered points across clearly and forcefully without calling for the elimination of all religions. Instead, Dennett has proposed that parents may teach their children any religion they want, as long as it is not likely to close their minds:

A) through fear or hatred or
B) by disabling them from inquiry (by denying them an education, for instance, or keeping them entirely isolated from the world.

(See Breaking the Spell, p. 328 (2007).  Paul Kurtz, the “father of secular humanism,” is another example of a world-class skeptic who doesn’t bash all religions to make his points.

[Note:  Kurtz is also founder and chairman of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, formerly the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), the Council for Secular Humanism (publisher of Free Inquiry Magazine), and the Center for Inquiry.]

I agree with many of the arguments raised by many of the New Atheists, including many of the scientific and intellectual arguments raised by the anti-religion new atheists. I agree with them that the people who promote religions have a lot of explaining to do, and that they all fail miserably at explaining their supernatural claims. I agree with Daniel Dennett that it’s time to put religion itself under serious and sustained scientific scrutiny, and to let the chips fall where they may. I suspect that the scientific results will not be good for believers, since first-rate science has an extraordinarily long track record of being inconvenient to religious claims.

Though I have relatively few problems with the factual arguments raised by the new atheists, I am concerned that their slash-and-burn approach to religion is counterproductive to the long-term needs of those who are atheists. Attacks claiming that all religions are poisonous viruses remind me of the “Just Say No” approaches to drug addiction and sex education barked by politicians. All of these campaigns ignore the emotional, social, psychological and evolutionary factors that might explain the craving (to use drugs, have sex or join religious communities).

The anti-religion atheists seem to think that the believers simply need to think more, and then they will see the light. In other words, the anti-religion atheists present the “problem” as a one-dimensional deficit of analytical thought. They argue that religious belief is an abstract intellectual hurdle that can be remedied if only religious people would take the time to consider the evidence (and lack thereof). According to many of the arguments inspired by the anti-religion atheists, religious people are weak-minded or intellectually careless—they are essentially fools to believe the things they believe. The problem is thus presented as a simple one with a simple solution: believers need to open their eyes to reality and just say no to their wild fantasies. Maybe the anti-religion atheists don’t intend for their framing of the issue to look so simplistic but, based on many conversations I’ve had with believers, this is how the new atheist movement looks to many believers on the streets.

I’ve done some “soul” searching over the past few years and I have recently come to the conclusion that many of the free-wheeling attacks on religion by anti-religious atheists have been counterproductive to what should be our top priority: ending bigotry against atheists. Here are the biggest problems with the rhetoric used by the anti-religion atheists:

• There is no evidence that the sharpness of recent attacks on religious moderates has done anything other than seed distrust, making it more difficult for atheists to collaborate with religious moderates on pressing political and social issues on which we should be allies.

• By declaring all religions to be destructive “viruses,” the attacks confound, insult and isolate good-hearted believers who can plainly see that much good in the world (e.g., helping the poor and pushing for civil rights) has been accomplished by religious moderates who were inspired by their religious beliefs.

• These harsh attacks take aim at those who use a simplistic label (“religious”) that describes only a small sliver of the complex political, intellectual and moral views of believers.  Yes, they are self-proclaimed believers in “God,” but they have many other beliefs–many of them are closet skeptics who are in the process of losing their internal wars.

• Many anti-religious attacks don’t recognize any sense of proportionality. These attacks lash out at all types of “religious” people equally, including people who are conflicted about their religious beliefs and people who are barely religious at all, thereby isolating people who would otherwise be more receptive to our views.

• Many of the recent attacks on religion jump the gun to the extent that they claim, as undisputed scientific fact, that religion is not an evolutionary adaptation. A better approach is to recognize that the scientific examination of religion has barely begun and we still have a lot to learn.  I discuss this further down (also, consider the work of David Sloan Wilson).

I believe that atheists should adopt a new approach to religion focused on bringing down the temperature of the current clash. When we lecture and chastise all believers, we are being counterproductive. We should start with the obvious premise that all people react terribly to condescending lectures. Instead of attacking all religions, we should nurture dialogue with religious moderates and those who are conflictedly-religious and employ smarter PR in order to give atheism a friendlier face. Our arguments should be as smart, fact-dependent and unrelenting as ever, but we need to recognize that it’s going to take some time to plant our seeds and let them sprout. We need to be patient and compassionate, even when forced to deal with in-your-face hostility delivered by proudly ignorant fundamentalists. We need to be politically savvy, not just intellectually agile.

Should we nonetheless continue to question tenuous supernatural claims? Absolutely. In the long run, though, I don’t believe sharply worded attacks will result in a decrease of supernatural claims by religions. When attacked, Believers don’t tend to open their minds to new possibilities; rather, they retreat back to the safety of their traditional beliefs. I have yet to convince any religious believer that his or her faith is unjustified by evidence (though I have often tried to review the evidence with believers). Even those religions that are widely considered to be the most dysfunctional have a long history of bouncing back stronger when attacked. Based on the lack of past success in berating religious teachings, we should continue to expect an equal and opposite reaction to the extent that we combine our atheism with “anti-religion.”

In my personal experience, I’ve noticed that religious moderates are taken aback when caught in the crossfire between atheists and fundamentalists. Anyone doubting this is invited to randomly pick out a few people who describe themselves as “religious” and watch them get defensive when you mention Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris. Most of my religious acquaintances become concerned when they see the intensity with which atheists have been pushing back at all people of faith. They bristle that they are made out to be proxies for every type of religious fanatic.

By “religious moderate,” I’m referring to anyone who is not a fundamentalist. By fundamentalists, I’m referring to those people who lean strongly toward xenophobia, judgmentalism, misogyny, bible literalism, antipathy toward disciplined fact-finding, disinterest in self-criticism, and a quest to fill government leadership with people in their own image and likeness.   Alternatively, Jimmy Carter once offered this helpful definition of fundamentalist.  A caveat: the set of all believers (and, as I will argue later, non-believers as well) falls along a blurry continuum. When we take the time to get to know them carefully, it’s not always easy to determine who is who. That said, this chapter is a call to change the way atheists dialogue with all believers, especially religious moderates. I do recognize, though, that it is often extraordinarily difficult for atheists to have meaningful discussions with fundamentalists, who are often not open to any meaningful discussion. It gets so bad so often that it’s pointless to try to talk religion with a fundamentalist.  Note that I’m not saying that you should avoid them entirely.  They are often your neighbors, and you will like have much in common with many of them.  It’s just that it’s often not worth the trouble to discuss religion with them.  Their defenses are too high to allow any meaningful exchange.

An important part of my new approach is to acknowledge that believers are not all the same. There are stark differences among believers. For example, none of my religious moderate friends, neighbors, relatives and co-workers demonstrates any kinship with Christian fundamentalists. I’ve never seen any of my religious acquaintances consciously providing any sort of encouragement or intellectual cover to radical fundamentalists.  If anything, I have heard religious moderates expressing embarrassment and disdain at the antics of fundamentalist Christians (I didn’t hear these sorts of comments a few years ago, probably because I wasn’t listening).  My moderate religious friends and acquaintances disagree with virtually every moral and political position asserted by the fundamentalists, as well as large numbers of fundamentalist religious claims. Nonetheless, it has become fashionable for many atheists to disparage all religions and all people who follow any religion (just Google “religion” and “stupid” to see for yourself).

Rather than argue that moderates are giving cover to religious fanatics, my experience suggests that most religious moderates have equally been giving cover to atheists. For instance, I don’t buy anti-religionist claims that Unitarians have encouraged right-wing religious extremists. In my experience, most fundamentalists despise Unitarians. Who is giving cover to whom? Isn’t it more accurate to say that religious moderates have been serving as a buffer between strident atheists and religious fanatics, giving cover to atheists?

It is critically important to draw our lines carefully. In January, 2008 a sincere atheist (I’ll call him “Joe”) posted a comment at Dangerous Intersection indicating that he had no respect for anyone who believed in God. Joe wrote that all believers lacked intellectual integrity. I responded by asking Joe a hypothetical: If he had been an adult in the 1960’s and if Martin Luther King had invited him to march in the deep South, would he have been willing to march, even though Martin Luther King was a man of faith who drew much of his energy from his religious convictions? Joe responded that even though he strongly believed in the civil rights movement, he would not have marched with Martin Luther King. He claimed that he needed to be true to himself and that he simply could not respect anyone who was religious, because all religious people lack intellectual integrity.

I was disturbed to read Joe’s comment. I understand the extent to which many atheists are frustrated and even infuriated by many religious people and their practices, but I also realize that we share much in common with most religious people and that most of the people on this planet happen to be religious.

I often think of Joe’s comment. I find it sad and haunting, because most of the members of every social movement to which I belong are religious, and I’m proud to work with them on those positions we hold in common.  If for no other reason, atheists should consider working with believers in the spirit of simply trying to get important things done. This same attitude has been exemplified by E. O. Wilson, whose The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth (2006) is a call for science and religion to work together to save Earth’s degrading biodiversity.

If I were to concoct a utopia, I wouldn’t see the need to affirmatively establish any traditional American religions, which all too often seem to function as bureaucratic country clubs with steeples.  My utopia might resemble Scandinavia, where religions are more of a historical curiosity and not much of a political force. I happen to live in a real world country called the United States, however, where religions are ubiquitous and politically entrenched, and where many believers find deep comfort in religious teachings that confound me. What, then, is the best way to proceed?

Here is my position: A large number of church-going folks are politically aligned with most of the political and moral positions I hold for improving in my community. Therefore, many religious believers are my political allies, and they greatly outnumber us. We desperately need the religious folks as our allies in order to get anything done on a mass scale. We can’t afford to maintain any sort of broad-based “war” on all religion and all believers. Instead, we need to keep a narrow focus on what we’re really trying to accomplish in our communities, and to take care that we don’t antagonize the many religious people who are willing to remain our friends, co-workers and political allies. We must avoid ostracizing and antagonizing religious people who are willing to march with us to make the world a better place.


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Category: American Culture, Friendships/relationships, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (28)

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  1. Michael says:

    Even though you've decided to become polite, your position is still as fundamentally flawed as the religious folks you're talking about, because you are behaving just like the kind of fundamentalist that you criticize, trapped within a defective thought process.

    The wall between science and pseudoscience has always only been time: today's science is yesterday's pseudoscience, and the person who does not open his mind to the possibilities of things yet unknown, preferring only the currently proven, is living locked in the past, not the future.

    The problem with contemporary atheists is exactly the same as with fundamentalists: both sides seek to allow ONLY what they themselves currently understand as the truth; both sides preach that *their* understanding is perfect and complete. Living only within one's current logical limits makes one a follower, not an explorer.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Michael: I'm proposing a reason and an approach for working together with differently-believing people. What is your solution to my "flawed" proposal?

  2. Michael wrote:—"The wall between science and pseudoscience has always only been time: today’s science is yesterday’s pseudoscience, and the person who does not open his mind to the possibilities of things yet unknown, preferring only the currently proven, is living locked in the past, not the future."

    That sounds so close to correct most people would let it slide right by. But it's sophistry, no more. The difference between science and pseudoscience is evidence. Pseudoscience fails through experiment and lack of substantiating proof. By yesterday's science, you wouldn't be including, say, calculus? Gravity and the principles of motion? Boyle's Law? Maxwell's Equations? Yeah, those are a bit dated. Time maybe to really go to work on that perpetual motion machine and shove all this antiquated stuff in the same box with phrenology, homeopathy, and the theory of humours. Oh, wait…except Newton, Maxwell, Boyle, and such like did real science and made statements that withstand experimental tests, so I suppose yesterday's science is…still science.

    The problem with today's atheists (which ones? All of them? Isn't that lumping people together by category without considering differences? Anyway…) as I was saying, the problem with today's atheists is that, when we admit our atheism in certain contexts we are immediately beset by people eagerly intent on Doing Us Good by telling us how wrong we are. Most of us would never have presumed. (Some do, but that's the problem with making categorical statements about a broad group.) In order for them to assume we need to be educated about how wrong we are, they have to assume we are (a) uninformed (b) morons or (c) evil. All three assumptions are insulting. When challenged, we respond (some of us) by pointing out that those seeking to Do Us Good have no factual or empirical basis on which to assume their own position, and in fact the history of their position leaves much to be desired in terms of Doing Good.

    Maybe it's a chicken-and-egg problem, but that doesn't matter. Being repeatedly told that we are no different than the people who (some of them) contribute daily to the level of ignorance, pain, and hatred in the world is more than insulting and it would be nice if they would take Jesus' advice and pay attention to their own shortcomings instead of worrying about whether or not a few people who disagree with them are going to go to hell or teach their children about dinosaurs.

    Erich has decided to be polite. Again, there's heterogeneity here.

  3. Adam says:

    As a Christian (I guess you could call me a religious moderate), a proponent of social justice and an intellectually curious person, I have very much appreciated these "Mending Fences" posts. I have lots of non-religious friends with whom I shared much in common, including our shared responsibility to improve what we can in the world. It's nice to have you articulate from the "other side" what I'm feeling from our side. 🙂

    Thanks again; I'm looking forward to the rest of the series.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Mark: You've nailed it. The overall theme for my entire series could probably be "heterogeneity." Once we stop getting caught up in the labels, it's a whole new ball game. People who seem to be horrifically different based on religious labels might end up being more similar to people of different religions and starkly different than those of the same religion. This shouldn't be a difficult concept. Take a big room full of Catholics (or atheists, or whatever) and you'll often find (though not always) a rich diversity of social outlooks, political outlooks, personality types, intellectual development, appreciation of the arts, etc. etc.). My call is to take the time and energy to try to break through the labels and to appreciate the (often big) ways in which we can work together and the (often small) ways in which we differ. When I take the time to listen, I've often been shocked by how similar many believers are to many non-believers. Sometimes, one hour on Sunday and a big of confused lip service to traditional religious teachings is the all that divides believers from non-believers.

    It's also a lot more work. The end result, though, is that there is a possibility for the knitting of the social fabric between and among all kinds of ostensibly "different" people. What I am excited about is not really a new idea at all. It's simply a call to refocus on the American experiment–the melting pot. Religion is merely one of many kinds of differences that could (but doesn't necessarily need to) divide us.

  5. Ben says:

    Exceptionally well presented/written. For the record, I still consider myself of the Dawkins/Harris variety.

    "what should be our top priority: ending bigotry against atheists."

    I see it more accurately as religion vs science than religion vs atheism. I didn't get in this because of hurt feelings over bigotry or lack of notoriety, it was the attacks on science which got my attention. (Of course I would ever "do" anything against religion except post comments on the web).

    "In the long run, though, I don’t believe sharply worded attacks will result in a decrease of supernatural claims by religions."

    I think that is very debatable. In fact, I tend to agree with those who say that we need to attack from all sides. Just think, in a world without the Harris's and Hitchens's, that would leave only the "thoughtful atheists" to combat the Popes/Phelps's/Islamic Fundamentalists (etc).

  6. Ben says:

    "There is no evidence that the sharpness of recent attacks on religious moderates has done anything other than seed distrust, making it more difficult for atheists to collaborate with religious moderates on pressing political and social issues on which we should be allies."

    What about all of the new dialogue which has been spurred? And what sorts of "evidence" would you consider? Attacking religion by doing things such as writing articles, putting banners on buses, and even the occasional cracker desecration are vital to our cause — perhaps even the future of the planet/humankind.

    "good-hearted believers who can plainly see that much good in the world (e.g., helping the poor and pushing for civil rights"

    Are they really being good-hearted if they are just "being good" to avoid Hellfire? And if they aren't, then the words of an atheist may be exactly what they need (if they are indeed ready for the spell to be broken).

    Should the average parent shy away from teaching their children of the divinity of Jesus/Mohammed? Not sure if it's my business but I think that would (at the least) be a good direction to take. How else can we educate people about "not God" except by promoting science and atheism?

    "These harsh attacks take aim at those who use a simplistic label (“religious”) that describes only a small sliver of the complex political, intellectual and moral views of believers."

    If the foo shits, then don't wear it! 🙂

  7. Erich Vieth says:

    Ben: My guiding principles are these: A) what are we really trying to accomplish? and B) How do we best achieve our goals?

    In my opinion, the fault line is not religion versus science. Many top rate scientists claim to be religious. Albert Einstein was one of them. It becomes a definitional issue, then.

    I'm well aware that taking sharp jabs at someone who appears to be sputtering supernatural nonsense feels good. It really does. I've done this. But what does it accomplish? In my experience, it is often counter-productive to my overall goals. I try to avoid counter-productive tactics.

    I should make it clear that I'm not against signs on buses and billboards that promote the virtue and benefits of religion-free lifestyles. I'm convinced, though, that to be most effective, these messages need to be respectful of the intended audiences. I'm also convinced that any argument that can be made can be made effectively in ways that are respectful of the intended audience.

    One more thing, for now. I am not suggesting that any non-believer should ever (EVER) feel the need to pretend to agree with a religious claim. Virgins don't have babies. Dead people don't come alive. I've never suggested otherwise in thousands of posts on this blog or in person. But there is a huge difference between saying "That's idiotic" versus "There is no evidence for those claims." or "I don't believe those claims."

    There's a lot more to come in the coming installments. Hopefully, I will make myself clear that I'm not asking any atheist to give deference to any claim that is lacking in evidence. I'm suggesting that we respect many religious people, and that we can do that without respecting (or even feigning respect) for their religious beliefs.

  8. Erich,

    Einstein never said he was religious. Spiritual maybe, perhaps he even believed in a god, but I would bet you it was Spinoza's god, which for the religiously dedicated often equates to no god at all.

    On the other hand, it is very clear what we are fighting.

    And the sooner we bleed the venom from these monsters and take away their justifications, the quicker we can put them in asylums or prisons, whichever suits them best.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Mark: I meant to say that Einstein was spiritual rather than "religious." After reading your comment, though, I re-read one of his quotes. At a dinner party in Berlin, one of the guests publicly expressed amazement that the 50-year old Einstein might in fact be religious. Here’s what Einstein replied:

      Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible laws and connections, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in fact, religious.

      Now I do not speak or read German, and I don't know if this is an accurate translation. You'll see my source for the above quote here:

      Consider also that Einstein was annoyed by people who lacked a sense of awe:

      The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is a fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, it is as good as dead, a snuffed out candle. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man.

      Same potential problem in the translation.

      I agree that some religions are malignant, but not all. Unitarians, for example aren't noted for issues fatwas sentencing people to death for failing to fall in line (probably a bad example, since I struggle to understand what all Unitarians are supposed to believe in common).

  9. Michael says:

    Erich, I don't really see a "dialog" if the objective still remains simply to convert the other party, but in a less offensive way, rather than opening yourself to the possibility learning from him, as well.

    Evangelism is still evangelism if you yourself aren't as equally prepared to change your own mind as much you want the other person to.

    It sounds to me–correct me if I'm wrong–that you're just thinking of another angle to try to convert people to your superior way.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Michael: I haven't given up on teaching my world view. I suspect that most of us do that. What I am proposing, though, is that we don't all need to have the same meaning-of-life beliefs in order to work together make the world a better place. What I'm proposing is that we should work hard to move on, focusing on our commonalities, of which there are always many, rather than our differences (and we differ from each other in many ways), of which religion is but one. And religious labels are often wildly exaggerated to be reliable tokens for understanding how a person ticks. We need to dig down and through the labels.

  10. Michael says:

    Mark, you're taking the easy way out, by using examples that in retrospect you know worked your way. I'd rather make the probably more common comparison to people who around 1880 insisted that man would never be able to fly. My point is that progress is rarely (never?) made by people who decide something can't be done/can't be true and then don't bother to approach the problem.

    *Knowing* that something is impossible is not being smart; it's being arrogant. It means that you believe that your own mind and what it can currently conceive of is the ultimate arbiter of reality, and understands the boundaries of all experience and material. No real scientist believes that, I don't think.

  11. Michael,

    There's a difference between people claiming humans will never fly and those claiming flight is impossible. Obviously there were others who didn't accept that, but their rejection was based on a different interpretation of the facts, not prayer. In a word—science. Be that as it may, no—I'm addressing your assertion that only difference between science and pseudoscience is time. That implies (and maybe you didn't intend it this way) that given time all that is pseudoscience will be validated as science, or the reverse that anything that is science today (or yesterday) will eventually be proven to be not science. That is what I called sophistry and gave examples to counter.

    All things may be possible—I write science fiction, I must be open to that—but not in every way. In a bit over a century we have doubled average life expectancy. We did this through science, not prayer. People who claim to pray for such things might feel vindicated because life expectancy went up, but the causal relationship is unsubstantiated. THAT is a difference between science and religion.

    "Knowing" something is impossible is not something legitimate scientists claim. They are persuaded by the overwhelming improbability of something through the preponderance of evidence. But repeatedly explaining that makes for ponderous conversation, so shortcuts for the sake of brevity and moving the discourse along occur, thus claims that something is impossible.

    Of course, there's a bit of the pot and kettle and ultimate darkness in this, what with religious claims that a universe without a god is "impossible." Or that anything we do or discover or create is "impossible" without god. Or the "impossibility" of evolution without a primary creator.

    Superlative statements are always to be mistrusted. But—not necessarily from you—I've heard enough such claims from the religiously-minded to ease my conscience that I'm a bit more open-minded than that.

    As to easy ways out, I put it to you that one of the hardest things to do is to accept the finality of a conclusion that runs counter to a cherished belief once that belief is shown to be little more than wishful thinking. The history of science is filled with people of intellectual courage who have had to do exactly that, sometimes repeatedly.

  12. Michael writes:—"Evangelism is still evangelism if you yourself aren’t as equally prepared to change your own mind as much you want the other person to."

    It seems to me that what you mean is if Erich or I are unwilling to give credence to an idea that we have already found wonting, then we're being the equivalent of a televangelist who thinks Jesus is coming back next year and nothing will dissuade him—or us.

    At what point, may I ask, is it acceptable to move on from something that just never proves out? And upon moving on, are we always to be condemned as close-minded?

    I'm close-minded to the idea that the Earth is flat or is at the center of the solar system. (To my dismay I have found there are still advocates of both views.) I am close-minded to the idea that diseases are punishments from god (and we all know there are many advocates of this view). I am close-minded to the assertion that the Earth is only 6000 years old.

    Does this make me the equivalent to the fundamentalist who denies the actual age of the Earth, the position of the Earth in relation to the sun, or that AIDS is not a curse from god?

    As the man said (somewhere) my mind is not so open that my brains can fall out.

  13. Ben says:

    "It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it."

    Albert Einstein

  14. Ben says:

    Flying humans anyone?

  15. Ben says:

    If you open your brain too much… your mind might fall out.

  16. Erich Vieth says:

    The phenomenon of "backfire." Amazingly, corrective information can actually make a problem worse. This excerpt is from NPR's website:

    "We'd like to believe that most of what we know is accurate and that if presented with facts to prove we're wrong, we would sheepishly accept the truth and change our views accordingly. A new body of research out of the University of Michigan suggests that's not what happens, that we base our opinions on beliefs and when presented with contradictory facts, we adhere to our original belief even more strongly.

    The phenomenon is called backfire, and it plays an especially important role in how we shape and solidify our beliefs on immigration, the president's place of birth, welfare and other highly partisan issues."

  17. Kate says:


    My husband and I have been avid readers since seeing you speak at the Journey, and we're continually impressed and challenged by what you write. I generally agree with your post here, but would like to make one disagreement, which is the use of "biblical literalism" as an aspect of fundamentalist Christianity.

    I would argue that fundamentalists are more characterized by the inconsistent, out-of-context or arrogant application of the Bible.

    Inconsistent application would be those who argue more fiercely against homosexuality than about a straight man having an affair — picking and choosing what they want to use and stand on.

    Out-of-context application would be those who don't recognize that the Bible is made up of genres, and some are meant to be literal historical fact (Exodus, for example), while others were cultural law (most of Leviticus) or prophecy (much of the Old Testament) — plus many others. Applying them the same way is a concern.

    Finally, arrogant application would be those who believe that by saying the Bible is accurate and inerrant, they have to understand all of it perfectly, and act as that the possession of this knowledge makes them superior to those who do not.

    In the context of your post (and to emphasize that I’m not trying to get into a religious debate about the accuracy of the Bible!), I just want to point out that not all of us who believe the Bible to be the inerrant word of God possess the rest of those fundamentalist characteristics.

    Looking forward to reading more!


    • Erich Vieth says:

      Kate: Thanks for writing with your clarification. Once again, the deep theme of my posts resonates: All of us need to be extremely careful that we don't over-categorize. Thank you for parsing apart your version of literalism from fundamentalism. In my experience, believers fall on a long continuum of approaches to belief in scripture. In fact, I think we ought to do away with the phrase "believes in the Bible," because it obscures that there are numerous ways that people have claimed to find value/truth/lessons in the Bible. Hence the multiplicity of religious out there that are antithetical to each other in one or more ways, even though they all "believe in the Bible."

  18. Ben says:

    Kate, are you 100 percent sure that the Bible is inerrant?

    Do you understand that there MAY be a chance that you are wrong?

    It is possible that you are just cherry-picking the bible, just picking and choosing what you want to stand on?

    If I told you that the Koran was God's inerrant word, would you believe me, or would you just smirk and politely change the subject?

    (Yeah, you've been duped big time.)

    But don't be ashamed, if I was you I'd have been duped too.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Ben: There is another choice to believing something or smirking and politely changing the subject. How about respectfully disagreeing that the Koran is the inerrant word of God. From that point you could either discuss that difference with that person or you could move on to other topics.

      Again, I am not encouraging anyone to ever say that they believe something they don't believe.

      My foundational assumption is the good-hearted people can respectfully disagree, even on major issues, even when one of the people thinks that the other has "completely lost it" regarding a particular topic.

  19. Monica K says:

    Kate, thanks for your thoughtful reply on biblical literalism. You said it much better than I could have.

    Erich, I plan to keep reading. I am proud of what you are doing here to build bridges between people who have different beliefs and pointing out that we still have much in common.

  20. Ben says:

    On the incivility of atheists: “Tom Johnson” and Exhibit A

    (By Jerry Coyne)

  21. Roy Sablosky says:

    arrows … rocks … slash-and-burn

    I know these are meant as metaphors, but remember: we "new" atheists utterly eschew and vehemently oppose violence. All we are doing is writing and talking! If you want to see real rocks, arrows and burning, look to the other camp.

    it has become fashionable for many atheists to disparage all religions and all people who follow any religion

    Actually, it's much more fashionable to say what you just said.

  22. Roy Sablosky says:

    "Our top priority" should be "ending bigotry against atheists"?

    I am not so self-interested. The top priority of the atheists you are telling to quiet down is to save others from the horrors of religion. Perhaps you have forgotten about the stoning of "adulterers", and other atrocities too horrible even to mention. We haven't.

  23. Tony Coyle says:

    Great post, and lots of great comments. I find myself mellowing with age, but not so mellow I cry just thinking about Bambi.

    I see memetic value in religion, which is why I think it has remained so prevalent. There are many people who seem unable to cope with life without a 'comfort blanket' of some kind – religion provides that. There are also people who are overly shy or 'socially challenged' – religion gives them a 'required' and socially acceptable arena for meeting, sharing, and 'being human'. I also see people who enjoy authoritarianism – and whether their preference is 'top' or 'bottom', religion offers them a socially acceptable channel for their particular human vice.

    But none of these things are essentially religious – as most people would define the term. They are simply people being people.

    I hope and work for a world where the default tribal behaviors we have inherited (along with a tendency to baldness and presbyopia) are ameliorated and leveraged to foster healthy competition rather than unhealthy 'fear and loathing of the other'.

    Working and living as a New Atheist means (to me) to shine a light on bigotry, tribalization, authoritarianism, and fostering a respect for truth and investigation – wherever that may lead.

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