Living Without Religion

The new atheists (aka EZs, News) to put it bluntly are taking heat.  Worse, they are taking it from some very smart,–dare we say– bright people. Florida State University philosophy Professor Michael Ruse writes.

“So my conclusion is that if someone argued that the New Atheists have a religion — or perhaps better, are religious (because of their atheism) — I don’t think I would want to say that they are completely wrong. The obsession with the topic, the nastiness, and other things like near mystical veneration of the leaders — look at the Dawkins website if you don’t believe me. But at the moment, I am not inclined to use the religion label. To me, New Atheism is more a philosophy than anything else. I don’t mean this as praise; but then, if I called the New Atheists religious, I wouldn’t be saying that as a term of criticism.”

Ruse, elsewhere, says this:  “I think the New Atheists are a disaster, a danger to the wellbeing of America comparable to the Tea Party.  It is not so much that their views are wrong—I am not going to fall into the trap of labeling those with whom I disagree immoral because of our disagreements—but because they won’t make any effort to think seriously about why they hold their positions about the conflict between science and religion.”

Jacques Berlinerblau

Close behind, but with more literary oomph, Jacques Berlinerblau who heads the Jewish Studies program at Georgetown University, summarizes his opposition to the News this way:

“American atheists—a thoughtful, diverse, and long-suffering cohort—have seen this all before. Atheism has never been a force in American politics or cultural life and a lot of it has to do with poor choices and leadership. In fact, atheism is still trying to dig out from the self-inflicted damage caused by its mid-century embrace of American communism. That was followed by Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s carnivalesque and tragic reign of error. New Atheism is just the latest bad idea to grab the steering wheel.  The News are not just a disaster to American life, they are “a disaster and a danger to the well being of atheism in America.”

At some point (how about now) it must occur to the controversialists that key opposition to their agenda is not coming from religious zanies but from people, like Ruse, who are not believers at all and others, who if they are believers, have a lot of explaining to do before they get their baptismal certificates renewed.

On the other hand, it is not clear that the EZs are listening, at least not directly, to their critics, because their royalty checks and speaking fees are talking too loud.

Berlinerblau hits the nail on the head when he observes that “what is fascinating about the New Atheists is their almost complete lack of interest in the history and philosophical development of atheism. They seem not the least bit curious to venture beyond an understanding that reduces atheist thought to crude hyper-empiricism, hyper-materialism, and an undiscriminating anti-theism.”  –It is almost as though they believe that to the extent atheism has a history (i.e., that it has been hanging on the bough for several hundred years, probably longer if you go back to classical adumbrations), it is too easy to explain away its radical, exciting, and mind-blowing newness.   (Jacques doesn’t actually say this last bit: I did, and thus want credit for completing the thought).

And then there is this:  “Atheism” may not be a good word to describe the EZs.  Their critique involves God, but it’s really not directed at belief, or the grounds for belief.  It’s directed at believers and at the disembodied essence they prefer to describe, oceanically, as “religion.”


The mode of critique is lodged somewhere between “Stupid Pet Tricks”- and “Bushisms”-style humor, a generation-based funniness that thrives on ridicule as a worthy substitute for argument: Blasphemy contests, Hairdrier Unbaptisms, Blowgun-slogans (“Science flies you to the moon, religion flies you into buildings”), and my latest personal favorite, Zombie Jesus Jokes (“He died for your sins; now he’s back for your brains”). The message of the Four Horsemen, now conflated into one big message, is that religion has been nothing but retardant and deserves nothing but contempt.  The message of their EZ followers is as controlled as a post-car-smash pig-fest.

For all the activity, there isn’t much evidence that it means anything. While in olden days atheists (who preferred to call themselves philosophers and–even–theologians) started with postulates because they saw the postulates as errors in a reasoning process (Aquinas: “Therefore, that God exists is not self-evident.” [ST, 1.Q2] –I know schools in Georgia where he could still be fired for saying that.)  EZs begin with the postulators, who are obnoxious and stupid. They are able to do this because (as Berlinerblau sees) without historical tribute to pay they  can throw slogans and mud around, hoping that at least some of it will coalesce into a rational critique or a policy agenda—except…“New Atheists don’t have the foggiest idea how to achieve their political goals. And one sometimes wonders if they are actually committed to figuring it out. At present, their preferred mode of activism consists of alienating liberal religious people who share their views on nearly all these issues.”


I would add to that two other projects: (1) ensuring that there is no such animal as a liberal religious position (Harris’s absurd ahistorical view) and (2) poaching statistics to make it seem as if their ranks are much larger than they are, vires in numeris. Berlinerblau mentions Dennett’s 2004 Brights Manifesto where statistics about people who might best be described as uninformed or intellectually hazy are turned into “27 million would-be Brights” who are poised for political action.  “That figure was clearly off. The only question was whether it was off by 20 million, 25 million, 26 million, or more.”

My own naivete about the deliberate sensationalism of the EZ atheist movement was profound.  At the beginning, having seen Dawkins worthily opposed  in debates at Oxford in the 1980s, I thought the discussion was an earnest attempt to enlarge the atheist perspective, that books that were extended polemics about the evils and ignorance of religion would lead to better books and better discussion.  What we got instead was the debate script without the rebuttal.

But, as it soon became clear, the only people who the News wanted to debate, or wanted to debate them, were preposterous self-promoters like William Lane Craig and John Lennox; serious “theists” (and loads of skeptics and critics of religion) had better things to do, and it became a mark of dishonor in the Academy to take News too seriously.  There were exactly three topics in their pannier bag: the existence of God, the creation of the world (cosmology and evolution), and the resurrection of Jesus. The answer to all three by the way is No.  An early and surprising vote of no confidence in Dawkins’s approach to (or failure to engage with) theology came in a 2006 London Review of books article from former Oxford colleague Terry Eagleton: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.”  It has always been a sore spot for the News that the charge of amateurism has stuck, even though they defended vigorously the right of scientists to pronounce on the existence of a being who doesn’t exist anyway.

The iconic status of the News made any criticism, after a while, blasphemy to their followers; critics could be written off as mean-spirited or simply envious of the success the writers enjoyed.

Instead of discussion we got books and more books by people who didn’t seem to recognize that Dostoyevsky (and Tolstoy, Freud, Camus,  Ionesco, Eliot, Simone de Beauvoir, Samuel Becket, Smetana,  Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood) had explored the ramifications of the post-God universe for the better part of a century, and even then were building on a crisis that was already fledgling in the nineteenth century.

Can you name one artistic movement, one literary school, or one serious poet, dramatist or musician of the past century who has not been affected by (or embraced) the death of God as angst, anxiety, ennui, nausea and chaos? Neither can the News.  Their skill was solely in making naive readers and listeners believe that they had discovered for the first time a situation that had been the status quo of western civilization for most of their lives.

Camus: Sisyphus or Prometheus? You choose

Instead of reflecting their superior knowledge of the artistic and literary contours of the twentieth century (the state of affairs Lippmann described in 1929 as the “acids of modernity”) the EZs wanted to locate society’s major cultural crisis in the backwater churches of Slicklizard, Alabama.  When you consider that three of the four basked in the glow of Oxford bona fides, the almost anthropological fascination with American backwardness is not surprising.  In America, unlike England, the atheist agenda could be approached with something like missionary zeal. Besides, that’s where the money was.

In the middle of it all the “Good without God” craze was born, copping a title from Paul Kurtz’s book originally titled Eupraxsophy: Living without Religion and then released in 1994 under the title Living without Religion.  In the book, Kurtz made no bones about the fact that atheism, even if implied in the secular humanist position, cannot be the end of the story.

“…I think that the term ‘humanism’ is crucial, because humanism is an effort to suggest that if we reject God and proclaim that ‘God is dead,’ we need to affirm human worth. The chief aim of humanism is to create the conditions for the good life here and now, and beyond that to build a global ethics for the world community. The purpose of humanism is to realize and fulfill all the things of which we are capable, and to advance human freedom. Accordingly, there is a positive agenda of humanism which is constructive, prescriptive, and ethical. Therefore, at the very least, we need to say that while we are atheists, we are also humanists. Humanism has a basic cognitive aspect, and it involves a commitment to rationalism. Again, the rationalist position is cerebral and intellectual–it is committed to the open mind, free inquiry and skepticism.”

For Kurtz, it is less that the individual “becomes” an atheist than that modern society operates on rational principles, principles which, if they are followed faithfully exclude the possibility of a traditional belief in God and absolutely exclude the possibility of dogmatism and supernaturalism as contrary to freedom.  No follower of the existentialists as such, Kurtz nevertheless believed that the role of humanism begins in the constructive work that “the modern situation” imposes on all of us. We are world-makers and the shapers of destiny on this planet.

This implied an educational task, outreach, a movement.  But it was not to be a movement that garnered support from people who had simply been trained to think religion was evil.  It was a movement based on the twin premises that “religion” and “atheism” do not automatically embody the rational principles of secularism and humanism, the great intellectual gifts of the Enlightenment.  It required fine tuning, this message–a high wire act.  For that reason it did not get the credit it deserved in a country addicted to one hit wonders. It was Nietzsche’s man on a rope, extended precariously between the good that God once represented and the evil that would ensue if courageous people did not act in his absence.

When Good without God and assorted bus and billboard campaigns (modeled on atheist awareness drives in Britain) started three years ago, the architecture of discussion changed dramatically.  It moved from what Kurtz would have called exuberance (a joyful response to the challenge of seeking wisdom and finding happiness, eudemonia from self-discovery—a tradition that takes us back to the Greeks) to self-defense.

The unstartling result was that atheists glommed onto the rhetoric of victimization that had been imported from various rights movements, on the most superficial of grounds:  As women, gays, blacks, and other marginalized groups had fought for recognition in spite of the social obstructions they faced, atheists could claim that religion offered no monopoly on virtue.  The case was easily “proved”:  Look at religious violence.  Look at the way religious people interfere in politics.  Look at the imbecility of the religious right.  Look at the anti-science campaigns of the fundamentalists.  That is, essentially, all the EZs looked at.

But unlike the groups which had legitimate claims to exclusion on the basis of unalterable conditions or status, atheists were asking to be judged by what they did not believe, not who or what they were. The whole pretext was absurd. And unlike the marginalized, their undeclinable position was such that they could not claim simple equality to the religious majority.

Their binary approach to reality admitted of only right or wrong–God (1) or No God (0).  For that reason, it was difficult for the EZs to admit that religions promote virtue, since their view of  belief was that religions were merely coercive and that all rely on a primitive command ethic that has never evolved and never been modified in two thousand years.

Afraid that they fatally wounded themselves with the frat-party atmosphere of Blasphemy Day 2009,  the living without religion branch of EZism, sponsored by a radically transformed Center for Inquiry adopted a more suppliant tone, while still insisting it had not been neutered.

One popular myth is that the nonreligious are immoral, or at least that they can’t be relied upon to be as good as those with religious beliefs. If you know any nonreligious people (and almost everyone does…), you already know this is not true. Human decency does not depend on religious belief. There are good believers and good nonbelievers; there are wicked believers and wicked nonbelievers. You can’t predict a person’s moral character just from knowing his or her metaphysical beliefs.

Another prevalent myth is that the lives of the nonreligious are empty, meaningless, and dominated by despair. This, too, is false. The nonreligious experience the same range of emotions, sentiments, and sensations as the religious. They are joyful and sad; they feel sympathy and disgust; they experience pain and pleasure. They have aspirations; they are concerned about others. They love and are loved.

One reason this myth persists is many religious believers see their god or their faith as the basis for emotions such as hope, caring, and love. We don’t deny that the religious may find inspiration in their beliefs—but our religious friends should not presume that accepting their beliefs is necessary for a fulfilling life.

We who are nonreligious lead meaningful lives without reliance on the supernatural. Moreover, we believe anyone can find meaning in a life that is human-centered and focused on the here and now instead of the hereafter.  Some people have parted ways with traditional god beliefs intellectually but hesitate to give up their faith because they’re afraid of what life might be like without the beliefs and practices they have found so comforting. They’ve heard myths about the nonreligious, and they may think these myths are all they have to go on.

I’m pretty sure that whoever wrote this had never read the most prattlingly self-serving of all the speeches Shakespeare gave to any of his characters, Shylock in Merchant of Venice.  But it is the same genre:  Confronted with the evidence of his excesses Shylock immediately turns his personal vice into a discourse on antisemitism:

“Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that?” The Merchant of Venice,  Act III Scene I).

Confronted with the reality of excess (and fishing for a message that might appeal to the unchurched and the wavering Brights and “Nones”), the atheists at CFI now claim to care about your heart.  We care, we love, we hope, we bleed.  Just like you Christians.

Almshouse: the Church and Care of the Poor

I am happy that atheists care about caring, loving, hoping and the full range of  human emotions.  But is there really a general movement  afoot to tar atheists as emotional defectives?  The subject they are changing is not whether they have the same basic feelings  as religious persons, but why in this latest plea for attention they have adopted Shylock’s position toward their adversaries.

This is not a real question by the way: it is an assertion.  I want to suggest that these campaigns are not about ideas but broadening a financial base–and an admission that the anti-religion volume was pumped up way too high to attract the attention of anyone.

But the campaign suffers not just from wooden prose, defensive tenor, and a lack of pizazz: it also reveals that distressing ignorance that Berlinerblau detects in the atheist movement.  “You can’t predict a person’s moral character just from knowing his or her metaphysical beliefs.” Sure you can: the “metaphysical” ideas of a terribly religious person who felt that he was receiving instructions from a god named Chaos and who wanted to advance his plan for liberation by killing people, and those of a terribly warped unbeliever who felt the same way, didn’t use the term god, but targeted people according to their religious views might be relevant in assessing moral character. That is not an extreme example: it is the metaphysics of most genocides since the Middle Ages.


Or this “One reason this myth [that the lives of the nonreligious are meaningless] persists is many religious believers see their god or their faith as the basis for emotions such as hope, caring, and love.” I frankly don’t know any religion that would put it quite that way, though I do know religions that make ample room for hope, caring and love as correlates of a loving God.

It grieves me of course to say that the most eloquent example of this sentiment comes from a religion. In the most famous discourse on the subject (1 Cor 13) St Paul doesn’t mention God at all, and makes faith a decidedly inferior virtue:

“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”

St Paul

All of which brings me back to Berlinerblau’s central point: an atheism that moves from intellectual respectability to Mission Accomplished-pride (Dawkins: “Dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads are immune to argument”) and then to begging for status is a humiliating outcome for a once-proud tradition. It’s what Allister McGrath projected in 2004 when he said that under the new atheist regime, exciting possibilities have been rendered dull.  We only know what they don’t believe.

But it has only itself to blame. It has been disrespectful if not downright dumb about its history and origins and rude to its conversation partners. Skeptics who have their doubts about religion are also smart enough(like Sartre’s aunt) to be skeptical of atheism.  The recent upward trend in criticizing new atheism suggests only that it has boiled down to marketing strategies, and that people know it. People know that the shop window is empty.  The organizations, having not much to sell except the signs above the shop will try Commando-tactics one day, Victimization the next (I am trying to remember the date of the death of the last atheist martyr), and Misunderstood the day after.  The closest analogy are the versatile rain dances of the Quapaw Indians in Missouri. On the up side, overhead is low when you’re not actually making anything.

Empty windows, lots of signs?

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92 thoughts on “Living Without Religion

  1. Reading this is like listening to Jacqueline du Pres playing Elgar. It’s stirringly profound, like the sea. It’s so incisive, elegantly eloquent and true. Including most aptly, Shylock, and probably one of the exquisite and moving pieces of New Testament text from St Paul. I’m reminded sadly of Pink Floyd and I already hear some EZs chanting in choral disharmony: ‘We don’t need no ejukashun’. Maybe not the old system, but definitely a new education is needed. Surely the most worthwhile campaign to be undertaken now, one that would sing with pizazz, is one which proposes and installs university programmes in the teaching of the history of humanism and the history of atheism. This is an absolute necessity and there is, I know, alot of potential support within the university system.

    (I’m fascinated on the ‘conservative’ translation of agape as ‘charity’ – it sort of misses the point really. You can dutifully perform charitable works without love)


  2. Sure, and all that matters, arguments pro/contra the existence of god, or pro/contra creationism, is simply ignored. There is no rationality in being dogmatic, neglecting the possible evidences or reasons that could be part of a body of premises for a certain conclusion. Those “new atheists” are anything but rational, disparaging the serious and rational atheist.
    Nice post!! =]

  3. My argument as a secular humanist has been only with theologians or representatives of organized religion who have attacked my naturalistic views of man and nature in an effort to convert me, or who have invoked religious dogma in support of dubious social proposals. This they have every right to do, just as I have to make a critical response. Nonetheless, although I reject all religious faith, I have a profound respect for the role of religion in personal human experience. This recognition and respect has grown over the years. I have never sought to dispute or to deprive anyone of his or her religious faith although on occasions I have been invited to discuss it.”

    – Sidney Hook, 1989, a highly distinguished secular humanist and American philosopher and persistent critic of religious fanaticism who stood arm-in-arm with Paul Kurtz in the founding of the Council for Secular Humanism in 1980.

    I wonder, how would Hook — this man who did so much for secular thought and causes — be greeted by the PZ Myers’, Jerry Coyne’s and Ophelia Benson’s of today? I suspect that he would be tarred with the pejorative broad brush of “accommodationist” and then told by PZ (and his slew of loyal “fans”) to F-OFF. I mean, that is exactly the kind of treatment Kurtz himself has suffered on the blogosphere.

    • Nathan, good thought there. Agreed that the likes of Hook would probably be marginalized today with exactly that word.

      Another interesting thing, speaking of, is the politicization of at least some Gnus, such as PZ claiming there are no conservatives in the movement.

      Really? Both Hitch and Harris were/are clear neocons in foreign policy, and Harris’ semi-amateur venturings into neuroscience could be used to conservative ends just as much as liberal ones.

  4. “My argument as a secular humanist has been only with theologians or representatives of organized religion who have attacked my naturalistic views of man and nature in an effort to convert me, or who have invoked religious dogma in support of dubious social proposals. This they have every right to do, just as I have to make a critical response. Nonetheless, although I reject all religious faith, I have a profound respect for the role of religion in personal human experience. This recognition and respect has grown over the years. I have never sought to dispute or to deprive anyone of his or her religious faith although on occasions I have been invited to discuss it.”

    – Sidney Hook, 1989, a highly distinguished secular humanist and American philosopher and persistent critic of religious fanaticism who stood arm-in-arm with Paul Kurtz in the founding of the Council for Secular Humanism in 1980.

    I wonder, how would Hook — this man who did so much for secular thought and causes in the 20th century — be greeted by the PZ Myers’, Jerry Coyne’s and Ophelia Benson’s of today? I suspect that he would be tarred with the pejorative broad brush of “accommodationist” and then told by PZ (and his slew of loyal “fans”) to F-OFF. I mean, that is exactly the kind of treatment Kurtz himself has suffered on the blogosphere.

  5. The “new atheist” movement if it means anything stands for three simple premises:

    1. There is no good reason or evidence to believe in the supernatural, God or any specific claims of mono-theistic religion.

    2. Religion (mono-theism) is not only not the last word in ethics but is in many ways immoral. That today we need to find an ethics and justify it in ways that are not premised in scripture or revelation.

    3. That the world will generally go better when people and societies are committed to, reason, evidence, liberty, tolerance, secular movements etc.

    The new atheists are not really new (and they never claimed this) Bertrand Russell pretty much said all that needed to be said for this “movement”.

    Fancy quotes and condescension aside from this author, he has not really grasped the three above principles that the “new atheist” movement stand for. This is evident in that none of his article makes specific reference to any of the books of the key “new atheists.”

    My recommendation, is one “new atheist” Sam Harris recommends, we don’t even need words like atheism or anti-theism, they are actually counter-productive, what we need is simply reason, evidence and to point out bullshit when we encounter it.

    • @Michael. I agree with (1). As for (2), mono-theism and religion are not convertible terms. As for (3) I am inclined to think this, but there is no proof of it. I hope that I have grasped at least some of these principles and apologize for using fancy words. Re. evidence: I am a fan of WK Clifford, but I am also a bigger fan of William James who opposed Clifford as being facile. I am not a fan of Sam Harris.

      • Utilitarianism was sadly naive and impossibly over-simplistic a century and a half ago when John Stuart Mill was advocating it; today, Sam Harris re-heating Mill’s leftovers is simply appalling. (“Why can’t people just be good?” “Well, Sam, one great big problem with that is that everybody can’t agree about what’s good and what’s bad. Do you see what I’m driving at?” Sam doesn’t see. He’s either never read Nietzsche nor anyone influenced by Nietzsche conception or morals or he’s damnably thick, or quite possibly both. He might not even know who Mill was: he never uses the term utilitarianism and he acts like he thinks he thought it up all by himself.)

  6. Love the Shylock quote. It is spot on. In fact, given their apparent inability to understand the wisdom of Shylock, I have often referred to the “EZs” as having about as much maturity as eighth-graders, except that that would be an insult to eighth-graders. It’s as if they were keeping some dirty little secret without sharing it with the rest of the class, in hopes of staking a claim of superiority. Or, to follow up on your reference to St. Paul, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” (1 Corinthians 13:11, KJV.) The “News” need to grow up.

    The other thing that bothers me here (OK, there are a bunch of things that bother me, so I’ll just pick one) is what I see as the false premise that the atheists (and some Humanists too) use to suggest, if not insist, that rationality begets morality. Behavior derives first from a survival strategy – fight or flight, lie or be truthful, share or be selfish, etc. Then comes the genetic predisposition, followed by environmental influences, including the cultural and social settings. If the Ezs really want converts (and that objective presents an interesting topic in and of itself), then they need to offer an alternative that accounts for those factors and then structure an alternative in such a way that the religionists can come out winners by way of a painless conversion.

    They really ought to ask, John Lennon notwithstanding, how much better would the world be if we could imagine no religion? Without an answer to that, there will be no sale.

  7. I’m still on board with the idea of an inclusive secular society. Also, I still think historical context and philosophical awareness help ground a position rationally. But I still feel like there is a short, easy, simple atheism that isn’t being given enough credit by you and also by mainstream society. So I’m speaking up because I think it deserves more protection from all faiths and lack of faiths. Let’s see if I can make that point stick.

    There’s more to a person than being without a church or being a person who doesn’t pray. But a person without a church, who doesn’t pray is already outside of the mainstream society. If they actually stated, “I’m an atheist, I have no belief but I know some good friends who have got plans on Sunday,” then arguably they’ll have an Obama of a time getting elected. It took a black person of Obama’s intellect to be president. People with Bush’s experiences are a dime a dozen although they don’t all come with a one term president father. In other words, we already have to try harder in some way to make up for being atheists in the simple way. We’ve got to be quieter or louder. Nobody says atheists sound as loud as the dogmatics and really means it. What folks mean is that all the dogmatics are right because the speaker has the correct balance of dogma. The speaker is still denouncing atheism.

    New Atheism has it’s problems. And you can see it because New Atheism is more visible than communism and somehow we’ve managed to keep it less scary. There’re either too many of us or not enough McCarthies this time around.

    I might not be an old atheist or a real humanist, but I’m one of the people that would delude themselves into thinking we’re taking heat in such a way that Humanists are looking more reasonable than ever. Humanists haven’t gotten more reasonable. We’re just illustrating that New Atheists can nonviolently get more extreme.

    I don’t think rhetoric a la Glenn Beck is correct. But you can’t fault me for wondering where the atheist Rush Limbaughs are. Do you know how many Libertarians I run into who thing “In God We Trust” has always been on our currency? We might need history lessons but we can google what our founding fathers really thought and we do from time to time.

    We are outnumbered by self identified believers of “Christian Science”. Surely, you can grant us that we are better than those folks, more practical than Mennonites, and still more rational than the Latter Day Saints who have none of the mystery of Jesus plus even greater ethical dilemmas than “did we understand enough of our own history to take a stand?” Each of those categories are single items on the census paper that out number self described atheists. I argue, that regardless of the reason for being an atheist, being an atheist is intrinsically smarter than those positions I’ve listed. So, while we can improve atheists, all of those people would improve by being ignorant atheists because it would save so much baggage. Being an atheist for all it’s faults is still more like an opinion and less like a reason to keep two strangers from marrying.

    Even if we stop growing now, we’re still better than many of the alternatives. We’ll be there voting for the Humanist Senator, we know how much non-believers need that kind of support. Don’t overlook our representatives.

    • I spotted another glitch in my statement. Mormons outnumber atheists. The other two categories do not. So please strike “Each of those categories are single items on the census paper that out number self described atheists.” from your consideration. It’s patently incorrect after all.

  8. Are the so-called new atheists (a media-coined term) an intellectual movement deserving an intellectual critique? Not really. They are a popular movement deserving a popular critique. That, then, is the most appropriate context in which to judge them. Ask not how well they know their Albert Camus but how well they know their Saul Alinsky.

    The new atheist polemic isn’t as concerned with philosophical abstractions or historic details as some may think. Nor is it truly aimed at powerless religious liberals and “mainliners” whose popular voices were drowned out long ago by the noisy evangelicals. (Remember, in these United States close to half the population avows young-earth creationism and less than a quarter accepts a fully naturalistic evolution. That’s the religious-philosophical-political reality that lives outside the cloister of the academy.) Rather, the new atheist polemic is concerned with helping ordinary people (1) to break free of conservative faith if they want to and (2) if they don’t want to, to at least understand that the godless are here to stay.

    A better comparison would be to match the new atheists with Act Up, a group also criticized for its tactics but whose work nonetheless made a difference. In this wise the new atheists say to average Americans, “We’re here, we’re godless, get used to it.” And the message is resonating with the young.

    Viewed this way, it’s easy to see why the new atheists aren’t recruiting or even addressing ivory tower atheists. The latter have an important role to play, to be sure. But it isn’t in the streets or on the barricades.

    • Excellent response Fred, and doubtless meritorious. But it misses the point that Dawkins, and Dennett and lesserly Hitchens and Harris live in ivory towers and have espoused an atheism for Brights, not the masses. They must therefore be subject to intellectual judgement, don’t you think?

      • The term “Bright” (as in “shiny” not “smart” by the way) is itself an appeal to the common person. It was coined to serve in the same positive way that “gay” has served. But it really hasn’t gotten the traction hoped for. Hence the return to “atheist.” And although Dawkins is from the ivory tower, he’s retired now. Moreover, philosophical atheism is really outside his field. (How narrow a thing is a Ph.D.) Thus in this context he’s a popular writer and speaker, at the forefront of a growing popular movement, and clearly effective at it.

  9. Let’s grant that some people need the confrontative punch of the new atheists to outgrow simplistic childhood faiths. And let’s grant that the new atheists thus serve a useful social function. As long as the rest of us can keep saying that humanism is much more than atheism, and therefore much more important to articulate, improve, and promote.
    There are so many ethical issues where we are needed — in terms of sexuality, militarism, genderism, fair wealth distribution, intellectual freedom. These are areas where religions are typically all over the place. And once people realize that (via education in history and comparative religion) the mystique that religion is good or necessary begins to fade.AS more people begin to see that problems are best solved by reasoning and evaluating consequences (rather than intentions and divine commands), the improved society that ensues will be self-justifying.

    • That’s how I feel about it. I certainly do not want the various outposts of non belief to give up and become New Atheists. The experiment for each little-a atheist tribe is different.

      I envy the science atheists because I think science is awesome. But I’m actually not one of them. I’m a different white collar engineer type. I’m not in the labs or the universities.

      Quite frankly, I had to be an atheist at one point before my dad would consider untangling a really warped variation of Christianity. Simply being outspoken affects other people and grants them options they may not have acknowledged.

      Just like I wouldn’t deliberately undercut the Humanists, I think the Universalists and other coexistence churches are an excellent set of experiments. And I know we’ve benefited from social justice movements of churches in the past.

      I’d like to find a way to give the average Christian a way to have their faith and their natural science. And then, a lot of my faith based stereotypes will have no motivation behind them. I don’t mind people trying to answer different ethical questions. And I don’t mind capturing some of our best practices in sound bites either.

      • The thing is, is what both of you are saying is precisely consistent with what New Atheists say.

        In a debate with Chris Mooney over at Point of Inquiry PZ Myers said much the same thing – he felt that a multitude of approaches would work better than one.

        Greta Christina, a major voice in the so-called New Atheist movement, has this as a running theme of her talks on what New Atheism can learn from the LGBT movement.

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  13. Sam Harris declines to call himself an atheist and is focused on understanding the brain science behind belief. I’d call the first act as non-promotional the second rational. He also has responded to all public challenges of his attempt at science-based humanism in his “Moral Landscape” argument. It would be nice for you to recognize recent history when demanding those you criticize expound ancient history. I know as a former captive Calvinist who logically concluded that self-hatred essential from an inference to Reformed Theology, Dr. Harris’s “Letter to a Christian Nation” was therapeutic. I think your invitation to further atheist study inspiring but unlike my prior religious commitment I don’t see the necessity for doctrinal ordination necessary to oppose those who wish to make their privileged superstition public moral ground.

    Also (and this is delivered with sincerity) do you have a book? Might this atheist purchase it? If not, why not? I’d think one who holds the thin scholarship of the New Atheists (a title provided by Robert Wright BTW and none of the considered News) as horrible would offer his book-form reply.

  14. So what are we talking about here? What is the post talking about? Who exactly are the EZs? The Notorious Four, or their followers, or both, or other? I can’t tell. One minute the NF or an individual of them is under discussion, but the next minute it’s just unidentified EZs.

    I ask because there’s an enormous amount of generalization in the post, and I haven’t got a clue what it’s based on. Nailing down the subject might be one step to figuring that out.

    Or you could just say. What is all this generalization based on? Who are these people and how do you know they all match the description you give of the supposed EZs?

    Nathan Bupp apparently knows who they are: they’re PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne, and me – which is highly flattering of course, but surely incomplete. You can’t have written this long, searching post just to tell off those three people, can you?

    At any rate, what I wonder is, how do you know all this? How do you know “the new atheists aka EZs” do and say and know or don’t know all the things you say they do and say and know or don’t know?

  15. I read your post, I read Berlinerblau, and I read Ruse. How is your or their criticisms of new atheists any more intelligent and respectful than the new atheists’ criticisms of religion? Because you cite Shakespeare? Haven’t you just defined new atheists as those individuals whose actions you don’t like? It is all seems pretty circular.

    • @Michael: Can you tell me why you are placing criticism of religion is apposition with criticism of religion. Can you tell me which religions, and what bits of religion you have in mind–assuming that you do not think religion is a metaphysical essence?

  16. I think Sam Harris is pretty fascinating to follow because he stumbles on things that are not banner New Atheist issues. For example, he took some flack for suggesting that we can’t simply dismiss the experience of a person who hides away in a cave for a year and meditates. No one is suggesting the cave man has a divine RSS feed to God’s blog, but Sam did suggest the experience of the cave man was worth more than easy dismissal. The experience of meditation was worth investigating scientifically. Being a brain guy, he’s closer to a look at why people think what they think in a more than rhetorical way. I like him.

  17. Dear readers: Or at least three of you. “How do you know?” is an epistemological question. I’d suggest Descartes for starters and build from there. The question about labeling, which I take to mean the distinction between News and EZs is included in the 1st sentence: “The new atheists (aka EZs, News) to put it bluntly are taking heat.” Not sure you need clearer identification than that. I also assume it might be OK for a disciple of new atheism to call himself or herself a New or honorary Gnu or however you want to style it without getting a certificate. But I’m puzzled about the assumed kickassedy of the question How do you know? when this piece and the pieces by Ruse and Berlinerblau are about effects of a movement or trend. I suppose one way to know something like that would be to look at the evidence, or maybe the level of discussion, or the outrage engendered by criticizing the work of DDHH. I’ll try to deal with some of this in a further blog today.

    • I’m not assuming any kickassedyness – and for the record, I have no illusions about my ability to kick your ass! To put it mildly. But I really don’t know how you know what you claim to know about a bunch of people, especially when I don’t know who they are.

      Now if you mean the movement – that clarifies, but on the other hand, it doesn’t work to anthropomorphize the motives etc of a movement. Are you sure you’re not having it both ways? I rather think you are.

      I just really don’t share your admiration for the Berlinerblau post; I think it’s godawful. It’s worthy of a comment on a busy nooooo atheist blog; the busier ones include some rowdy comments. Much of your commentary on the noooo atheists seems to be aimed at rowdy commenters, which seems like aiming a bit low.

      • “aiming a bit low.”

        But these are exactly the people being drawn into this noooo movement. They constitute the “followers” of the quartet I frequently mention. The tone and temper they exhibit on these blog sites is legendary now. These precisely are the people that make a large chunk of this movement. They are the people who tell Paul Kurtz to F-OFF, and call erudite essays by Berlinerbrau and Hoffmann “shyte.” THIS LEVEL OF DISCOURSE IS a part of what the new atheist movement has wrought.

      • “THIS LEVEL OF DISCOURSE IS a part of what the new atheist movement has wrought.”

        Do you know that? Do you know, for instance, that it’s not what the internet has wrought? Or that it’s not what a combination of the internet and anonymity has wrought? Comments, especially anonymous ones, are often rough almost anywhere you look.

        “New” atheism has spread: there are more people involved: in any large group of people, there will be some rude ones. It is just barely possible that “new” atheism did not cause rudeness all by itself.

    • Please, actually tell us how you know. Pointing us to Descartes seems like a delaying tactic so that when we finally get back to you the argument has gone stale.

  18. To amplify a bit – at risk of being even more annoying, since you want us to take a break while you obviate criticism -

    But I’m puzzled about the assumed kickassedy of the question How do you know? when this piece and the pieces by Ruse and Berlinerblau are about effects of a movement or trend.

    I don’t think I buy that. Ruse and Berlinerblau are both highly personal – albeit vague at the same time. They talk about new atheists as well as new atheism, and I think there’s more of the former than the latter. It’s like ranting about feminists as opposed to feminism. It does make a difference.

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  20. @ Eric: Except for perhaps sorting out this sentence: “You provide virtually no evidence, and what evidence you do provide is selected from fringe elements of the “new” atheist phenomenon,” you must have said it all. But I have to demur: I do not regard this as a condemnation of anyone (except perhaps tactics that flow from the New Atheism, for which the News themselves are probably not responsible.) I do see the trend as highly troubling and agree with Berlinerblau and Ruse that harm is being done.

  21. @Bruce, I have a lot of respect for Greta Christina but would you really say her voice is a New Atheist voice? I wouldn’t. She covers non belief, alternative sexual orientations, alternative lifestyles, and feminism. What she covers is very relevant and I agree with a lot of what she says, but I think the variety of topics she covers takes her out of the umbrella of New Atheism and puts her in a special category.

    I don’t want to take away from anything she says. But I dispute the idea that she is considered major in the realm of New Atheism.

    • Very few of the so-called “New Atheists” deal only with religion. We tend to turn against religion because we have other concerns that religion impacts on.

      For me for example, my main concern with religion is that as a South African, I live in a country where evangelical churches set up camps that will pray people’s AIDS away, we have traditional healers providing hijackers with muti, the odd occassional witch hunt, people who believe success is a matter of appeasing the spirits etc…

      Ophelia Benson deals heavily with feminism and gender rights and PZ Myers does a fair bit on biology. Realise even Richard Dawkins’ main body of published work was about evolution.

      Greta Christina’s posts on “Atheism and Anger” are classic rallying cries. She was also a respected figure in the argument between Jerry Coyne and PZ Myers on whether atheism is a disproveable hypothesis.

      I would say she is highly influential within the movement and thus yes I consider her a major player.

      • I’m used to seeing Greta in a different perspective. I think she is relevant to atheism. I’ve never thought of her as a New Atheist. I’m considering it now.

      • Bruce, please sort out for me the difference between these very broad knock on implications of atheism and the claim that atheism is ONLY about not believing in God, which of course is absurd on the face if it. You cannot have it both ways: asserting atheism is limited to one doctrine, but then saying all these agendas can be bought in under it. It’s simply chaotic.

      • But Bruce didn’t say the other things that atheists do are part of atheism; he said atheists do more than just atheism.

        I do things other than atheism. I watch the EagleCam; I eat chocolate; I listen to music. I’m an atheist but when I eat chocolate I’m not eating atheist chocolate.

        Atheists are not identical to atheism.

      • @Ophelia eating chocolate: Good for you. But the point trivializes the point: positions have entailments. It is preposterous that anyone would want to be an atheist in relation to a meaningless value-free deity. I don’t think eating chocolate is one of those entailments and neither do you.

      • Not only is “the claim that atheism is ONLY about not believing in God” far from absurd (it’s simplistic, perhaps, but it is the actual meaning of the word), neither is it “preposterous that anyone would want to be an atheist in relation to a meaningless value-free deity”. A meaningless, value-free deity is the first sort of deity I’d want to distance myself from. And I thought that was your point too – that because some religions have values, they so shouldn’t be dismissed. Why quote Paul otherwise?

        Yes, I’m an atheist, and I’m also a democrat, a republican (using international meanings, not the American political party meanings), a liberal, and internationalist and so on. These do not flow from my atheism, but they do interact with my ethical values. I’m not really sure my atheism does entail much; I think my empiricism may entail atheism, however.

        I am, for that matter, ‘anastrological’ too, if you see what I mean – I have no belief in astrology. All this really entails is mild disgust at the money a few people make out of it, often from people who are in some difficulty and could spend their limited resources looks for better advice elsewhere. I have similar disgust for those who make money from religion, or who use it to force their prejudices on society.

      • We agree on much of this, except the bit about why anyone would reject gods. There have been proposals about gods being synonymous with what “is”–though I find such proposals meaningless (as you can’t reject what is) you normally find atheists rejecting attributed notions about God as a way of unloading the whole concept. i think this is a valuable way to proceed. So we don’t disagree about that. But if we agree about that, you have already ranged beyond the idea that God is a value free term and into other territory.

      • I’ve been thinking about Greta as a New Atheist and I still feel like there is something different than Sam, Meyers, Dennet, Dawkins, and Hitchens (you can include Sherman, Mehta and others if you’d like) versus Greta. Most of the New Atheists are barely feminists if they would identify as such. I expect fewer New Atheists to be gay. And even fewer to be polyamorous.

        I don’t want it to be an all white suburban movement forever, but New Atheism has this quality right now. New Atheists are still learning how to keep gender equality issues from hamstringing their fight against more backwards believers.

        From this perspective, Greta is one of the most dissimilar New Atheists. I don’t know if I’d call Ophelia Benson a New Atheist either. I don’t want to uninvite them from parties. They bring a nuance to the table. But they are something different and they deserve to be seen that way. If more New Atheists were like Greta, I think things would be very different.

        Lumping and splitting people from movements is petty except when we consider what the average New Atheist is that people are arguing for or against. There might be a reasonable social justice oriented Scientologist somewhere, but that’s not the example I’ve been disagreeing with ever since science fiction got religion. People do identify with movements while being more than the prototypical member. And in that sense, I can include these people as contributors. But an argument for someone like Greta isn’t like an argument for Dawkins, it requires four heads talking about four different things at once. But approving of Dawkins is a simple thing which isn’t nearly so ambiguous.

      • Ophelia can speak for herself, but I think there are new atheist tendencies for sure. As for Greta, I am going out on a limb (again) to say that I find her approach crude–and by that I don’t mean unintellectual, just uninspiring. This is based entirely on what I have seen of her, but if I DID have to name a name as epitomizing EZ in the negative, it would be her–entertainment. I am not saying that EZ is crude, but it can become simplistic, especially at the interpretative level. For example. Dawkins’ book was OK, though many have commented that it was a work about (or against) theology written by a scientist. Hitchens’ was journalism, always savoury,and late to the game. Harris’s exploratory, too general and somewhat immature (but that doesn’t make it evil) and Dennett’s had ambitions of being popularly serious. Those are different categories, from which the phenomenon of new atheism arises. Of all of them, I like Dennett’s least (review here:, the same issue wherein Dennet’s review of The God Delusion appears) but my only criticism was that the book is “untidy,” both in structure and in purpose. I have never said these works should not be taken seriously. Which brings me back t Greta, who I don’t think can be taken seriously.

      • The use of Ophelia is an analogy for seeing my evaluation of the New Atheists. Mixing feminism and atheism is a different beast even if the atheism is New Atheism. Mix more positions, and the relationship to New Atheism is stranger still.

        Maybe I’m discussing sub-themes. The four horsemen related science and atheism prominently. And when the mix is between atheism and something else, I feel like we’re talking about something different.

    • @Jeff: I am going to assume from your question that the answer is Nothing. What is it about simple non-belief (Just that with nothing else attached) that makes it better, because this discussion is not about ethics, causes, choices and lifestyles: it’s about atheism qua atheism.

  22. While I don’t agree that harm (at least not much of it) is being done, I do think the general point is well taken that there is a notable difference between the popular polemic of the new atheists and the scholarship of the various university disciplines that touch on the same subject. If some commentators here need to be regaled by a train of specific evidence for that distinction, they either haven’t been paying much attention or are tone deaf. And the same goes for those who might fail to see the difference between the polemical “God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins and the philosophical “God and Philosophy” by Antony Flew. Each is worth reading by its audience. Each has its place. But those audiences and places simply aren’t the same.

  23. “The new atheists (aka EZs, News)”

    The derivation of ‘news’ is obvious but you’re the first person I have seen use it, but ‘EZ’ is completely foreign to me. Did you just make it up? What’s it supposed to mean?

  24. Do you have an exam I can take to see if I know enough to call myself an atheist? This is a turf war among academics – philosophers claiming one doesn’t know enough philosophy, theologians claiming one doesn’t know enough theology and so on. It is a strategy to shut up people with whom one disagrees – come back when you have read these five books, then five more – like Heracles and Eurystheus.

    • I suppose if you claim that God is a very small topic because he does not exist, it follows that suggesting ways to approach the topic of atheism is largely irrelevant. I do not accept that view. I have no idea what reading, convictions or experiences led you to atheism. I assume they were significant because I believe that atheism is a significant position.

      • Why should one need to be led to atheism?
        Surely it is the default position if one has not been indoctrinated?

      • That would make an interesting study but if it were true, and anthropologists would strongly disagree, where did ancient tribal societies develop the idea. It may be true that particular dogmatic expressions of religion can’t arise “automatically” but religion, alas, from what we know, has been the default position for a very very long time. That doesn’t make it “true” anymore than the geocentric universe was “true” and believed for a long time. But in strictly historical terms, it’s a myth that atheism is a default position.

      • Yes, but that’s _obviously_ because people ask “Why?” and religious explanations were the best available.

        The continuing promulgation of religious beliefs is not down to their truthfulness, accuracy, or usefulness but to the fact that the previous generations cling to the answers given to them by their own parents when children ask “Why?”

        Thus in reply to “I have no idea what reading, convictions or experiences led you to atheism.” my children can simply say “You’ve got it backwards, I was simply not indoctrinated with pre-scientific beliefs about the nature of reality”

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  28. Here in Australia I meet more apatheists than noisy atheists, new or old. Apatheists just can’t be bothered with the whole god or atheist palaver and would not read beyond the first sentence of Joseph Hoffman’s finely crafted post (what’s an EZ anyway?). I suspect the ranks of apatheists will continue to grow steadily with or without the noise of the new atheists. And I would say it is indeed hard to predict a person’s values from their metaphysics. For example, Australia’s prime minister is an atheist with surprisingly conservative social views, nothing like the liberal views frequently associated with atheism in its new & noisy, or old & quiet forms.

  29. rjosephhoffmann

    As Ophelia said – my point is that nobody is only about atheism, and nor is opposition to religion.

    So for example I oppose the Catholic Church’s handling of pregnancies that will kill the mother. That is not atheism but as an atheist I have no respect for the Catholic Church’s authority to silence my opposition – so there is nothing stopping me from voicing my concerns.

  30. Oh my: diatribe, witch hunt, thoughtless, no evidence, fringe, furious, empty rhetoric, semblance of argument. I shall try in future to shape my arguments without the use of emotive language.

  31. I start with a conservative assumption, that gods and naturalism are “small” enough topics to entitle the intelligent 12 year old to decide for atheism, as they/we often do. This conditions my view on the optionality (but not the desirability) of further education in the dark arts of philosophy and theology. Put simply, I learned to ride a bike without deep knowledge of gravitation in the formal sense, though what knowledge I possessed was deep enough to keep me from falling off.

    The lesson applies to the theists and the feeble arguments defending their right to claim expert knowledge in the dark arts, which expertise is being ignored by EZs. This is a variation on the Courtiers Reply. Since we don’t know what we don’t know, we don’t know what we do know. I’ve been exasperated for some time by the willingness of accommodationists to resort to cheap shots like this. First of all, the willingness of atheists to decide for atheism is not a denigration of all knowledge beyond that sufficient to decide about a gods existence. I’ve read a number of the relevant books by Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett, and they are not shallow, nor are they ignorant about subtleties. Where they differ most from the “courtiers” is not knowledge of theological/philosophical refinement, but rather how these fine points affect the cases we face in the world, such as the role religion plays in politics and education, and how it contributes to the level of violence and repression around the world.

    Many accommodationists agree about these problems, but not what to say about the cause of them. Hence the clumsy intersection of accommodation with truth, between the unspoken agreement between the atheist camps about, and the, ah, artificial disagreement the accommodationist strategy imposes on one side.

    By keeping the level of hostility high, one side poses as the friend of theists, warning that there are bad atheists out there, don’t listen to them, they call you creeps and imbeciles. It won’t work. Theists have more respect for atheist hardasses than they do for their false friends. They pay attention to what Dawkins and Harris are saying, not to the “helpful” interps from accommodationist translators.

    Please stop telling theists that EZs are insulting them. Let them decide how insulted they are.

    • Much of what you say here is agreeable. I do not agree that theists (whoever that is) have respect for atheist hardasses. That a bit like saying that Blacks knew where they were with racists in South Carolina, but more puzzling because most people who are religious wouldn’t know what you mean by calling them “theists” and have little to say about atheism except that they aren’t. Second, the motive of criticism is usually to call attention to excesses within a movement that might do the cause harm. I’ve said that my worry about EZ atheism is that we are now at that stage: my criticism has nothing to do with “telling theists that EZs are insulting them.” I am not addressing theists,and I am not a friend, or a false friend. As to the books, they’re not in the shop window here because this is about the outflow from their reception and interpretation.

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  34. Where does it say in the atheist handbook that one must read “Dostoyevsky (and Tolstoy, Freud, Camus,  Ionesco, Eliot, Simone de Beauvoir, Samuel Becket, Smetana,  Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood” in order to discuss atheism? One of the few things remotely “new” about the new atheists is not that they are ignorant of the literature on the “angst, anxiety, ennui, nausea and chaos” about the death of god, but that they explicitly reject this pessimistic attitude. In fact, there are many reasons to think theism produces just as pessimistic of an outlook, if not more so than atheism.

    Also, how would it be either praise or criticism to call “new atheism” philosophy? Nevermind Ruse flips from callimg it philosophy but religious, then back again, exactly what is wrong with it being philosophy? Of course it is! It is an answer to a philosophical question, in this case, “does god exist”. Just like every “ism” is the same thing, empiricism is a yes to the question “is all knowledge derives from sense experience”.

    So for someone, especially philosophers whom are criticizing others for lack of argumentative rigor, to refer to positions like empiricism or materialism in a derogatory tone without giving actual arguments as to what is wrong with those positions is just absurd, it poisons the well.

    • I do not regard atheism as a philosophical school, ancient or modern. It is arrived at as a position towards a specific question, through some of these others isms you mention. Nor do I say that any of the writers I listed in the essay are required reading; I am saying they were the status quo of the intellectual tradition before there was a new atheism and that the new atheism passed rather abruptly over that reverting to older and in many cases hackneyed arguments for the existence of God. But to be fair, as time goes by there will be new reasons esp from the sciences that will make the proposition God exists less plausible, and I am certainly interested in those arguments, as well as in the older ones.

      • “that will make the proposition God exists less plausible”

        How much less plausible does it need to be before one is allowed to be an atheist without considering 2 millenia of religious apologia?

      • I don’t understand the emotive use of “is allowed to be”–are you saying that being informed about the history of argumentation has no bearing on the question, or that shortcutting is permissible, and if so when and of what sort? And where has anyone ever said that religious apology (theology?) is all that needs to be considered?

      • I don’t understand the emotive use of “is allowed to be”

        Yes, we should try to be less emotive :-)
        But I was basically standing up for the right to be EZ (i.e correct but ignorant)

        are you saying that being informed about the history of argumentation has no bearing on the question

        The question of whether god exists or is man made?

        And where has anyone ever said that religious apology (theology?) is all that needs to be considered?

        Apologia is all that stands between religious belief and the devastating critique that science and reason (and according to Wade, philosophy) present to it.

        But anyway, the conversation has moved on now.
        I was just reading your “5 Goods things about atheism”.
        Much more interesting!

    • To help shed a little more light on this issue, perhaps this excerpt from an upcoming post on my blog will be of interest:

      “The paradox here is that atheists must concede the existence of God before they can deny it.
      So, we have books like “The God Delusion.” “God is not Great,” and “God, The Failed Hypothesis.” The authors are not just taking on God, they are taking on religious theology itself; setting it up as a foil to be dissected and torn asunder. God thus becomes an ad hominem. Folks don’t like ad hominems, especially when directed at the object of their deeply felt belief. It’s hard to talk reason to somebody who’s already pissed off before the conversation begins.

      “In his article on About.Com, “Is Atheism an Ism? Atheism is No Religion, Philosophy, Ideology, Belief System,” (, Austin Cline argues that atheism is not a religion, or an ideology, or a philosophy, or a belief system, or a creed, or even a worldview. Cline concludes with this prescient observation:

      “Christian theism has so dominated Western culture, politics, and society that there have been few sources of religious or theistic resistance to this domination. At least since the Enlightenment, then, atheism and atheistic groups have been a primary locus for freethought and dissent from Christian authority and Christian institutions.

      “What this means is that most people engaging in such resistance have ended up being pulled into the sphere of irreligious atheism rather than into an alternative religious system. Atheism doesn’t have to be irreligious nor does it have to be anti-religious, but cultural trends in the West have caused atheism, irreligion, and opposition to religion to be drawn together in such a way that there is now a high correlation among them.

      “As a consequence, atheism tends to be associated with being anti-religion rather than simply the absence of theism. This leads people to contrast atheism with religion rather than with theism, as they should. If atheism is treated as the opposite of and opposition to religion, then it will be natural to assume that atheism is itself a religion — or at least some sort of anti-religious ideology, philosophy, world view, etc.”

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  37. I do have one bone to pick with one segment of this piece, and it’s where Hoffmann criticizes defending the emotional range of secularists, when he asks rhetorically:

    But is there really a general movement afoot to tar atheists as emotional defectives?

    Uhh, yes there is, and in a newspaper column nearly a decade ago, before the word “Gnu” was around, I riffed on Shylock myself to write just such a column. (It appeared in the religion section of The Dallas Morning News.)

    In fact, after claims that atheists must be immoral, the claim that they must be emotionally soulless is probably the second one raised by conservative religious apologists and general defenders of conservative religion.

    The general thesis is that without being able to be grateful to a creator deity, one just can’t appreciate a sunset, or a Beethoven quartet, in the same way that a true believer can.

    And, even, some non-fundamentalists still believe some myths about atheism. For example, how else could Americans say they’d be even less likely to elect an atheist as president than a gay unless bias against atheists weren’t widespread?

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