The Challenge of Neohumanism

We will soon be marking the first anniversary of Paul Kurtz’s  Neo-Humanist Statement, a charter for a way forward in the study and application of human values at a global level.

My own view of the new Institute for Science and Human Values is that, given Paul Kurtz’s intellectual restlessness, it was bound to happen.

The Institute is not so much a new creation but the culmination of his assessment of where other organizations have fallen short or have been driven by short-term thinking to harp on one string. The reduction of the humanist message to an ever-narrowing vision was not just unacceptable; it was the contradiction of the full-bodied humanism he had worked for throughout his career.

For Kurtz, this vision entailed two separate steps: the rejection of parochialism, exceptionalism (“nationalisms”),  and dogmatism.  (All three ideas are laid out and laid bare in the Statement.) And second, an honest evaluation of what we can do to create individuals and institutions that promote moral excellence.  We cannot move forward until we faithfully examine where we are and where we have gone wrong–where we stand in relation to what Bacon called the “idols of the tribe.”

Kurtz was touting the inevitability of the global community and the need for a new ethical regime to support it before many academics–certainly before most politicians–knew what the word  meant.  To understand this, his own intellectual biography comes into play.

In 1977 the profoundly smart American historian, Henry Steele Commager published a book entitled The Empire of Reason.  The book grew out of the intellectual climate of Columbia University where he taught from 1936 to 1956.  Columbia had become famous for either producing or giving refuge to the gurus of liberal democracy, loosely bound together in a confederacy devoted to the liberating power of the humanities and the power of ideas to change society.  In the American Century, Jacques Barzun, Joseph Campbell, John Dewey, Mark van Doren, Mortimer Adler, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr (Union), Moses Finley, Sidney Hook, John Herman Randall,  and Lionel Trilling–to stop only for breath–walked in the shadow of Lady Columbia.  Not to know at least some of the names in that list means that you may have missed the formative debate about the role of education in American democracy, one of the greatest debates in the history of the Republic. (That debate is still going on, by the way, and the ones least able to participate in it, tragically, are our legislators.)


Paul Kurtz took away from his War experience in Europe and his graduate days at Columbia a staunch faith in the capacity of democratic institutions to make people’s lives better in a world that was changing quickly: on the one hand, bringing people closer together through communication and, especially, education, but also into strained alliances and sudden conflicts, as a result of global shrinkage.

Post-war Europe: Boy eating lunch of bread and lard

To say in 1950 that America was a “shining city upon a hill” wasn’t what it meant when Ronald Reagan was handed the phrase for the GOP in 1987 .  The expression was first used, symbolically, of “America” by John Winthrop (quoting Matthew 5:14-16) in 1648, then by John Kennedy in 1961.  It did not mean that America was better and brighter than everyone else’s city, but that it embodied vision and hope, ideals of social liberty and equality, the absence of which, from the American intellectual perspective had caused two European wars and the deaths of millions.

I remember hearing the philosopher Isaiah Berlin in Oxford in 1986, responding to an edgy question about his oft-professed love for America at a time when America’s ante was especially low in Europe and Reagan-era anti-Americanism was practically a school of philosophy in it own right. Berlin after a pause said to the youngish, smuggish interviewer, “You weren’t around then.  You can’t imagine how unbelievably dark Europe seemed to us then.  The only light there was was coming from across the sea.”  It was that kind of perception that a whole generation of Americans brought back with them from Europe: that they had done something worthy.

The phrase that had circulated widely among New York intellectuals in the 1950’s, the immediate post-War decade, was the term “practical wisdom”(phronesis, φρόνησις) a classical ideal (especially in Aristotle’s thinking) that relates to how the knowledge (sophia) we acquire is translated into the good life through thoughtful action.  Werner Jaeger had given the term and the idea currency in  a book called Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture (1939-44). A pragmatist by temper, Commager thought the riddle about what was good for the mind, as mind, and what is good for the soul as virtue had been solved in the early American experience, where the story of the past was not valued for its defining and enduring permanence (as in Europe) but as a cautionary tale:

“While Europe looked toward ancient, stagnant civilizations like China’s, America looked at a horizon. True, the Old World had Goethe, Priestley, Kant – but the reality was that cities were put to the torch, nobles rode heedless over the fields of peasants, the Irish cotters starved to death….”

Americans, with “no King, no Court, no aristocracy, no body of laws, no professional army, no Established Church, no history, no tradition, no usable past” were required to invent a working society from the bottom up. Thomas Jefferson is exalted as the native philosophe embodying this development–a man who knew what the philosophes knew, but did not waste his time drinking coffee in the salon after he knew it.

Commager, as an historian, expressed the uniqueness of the “American way” in his own hyperboles, of course: The enlightenment in Europe,  was essentially theoretical rather than practical because it did not end in social or political amelioration (almost no European scholars agreed with him). But many of his conclusions about America wanting to create “a more perfect union” and references to the “pursuit of happiness” (not merely economic prosperity) were translated into important and defining differences between old Europe and young America in the early republic. Ideas like righting injustice, affirming human worth and diginity, and seeing government as a benevolent partner rather than an overlord in helping people to find the good life were there from the beginning. For all the hyperbole, Commager had managed to capture something important about the native humanism of the American spirit, which was always threatened not by a Europe emerging out of the dust of war but by nativism and isolationism, especially in its raw, loud, religious forms.

These were affirmative and optimistic ideas, coming soon after long centuries of religious warfare in Europe.  The general sense that religion could not be trusted to secure the enlightenment of men and women whose new fundamental identity was “citizen” and not “parishioner” or “layman”  was also there from the beginning, and a general distrust of priestcraft, popery, dogma, and supernaturalism is also there from the beginning.

This little bit of history is necessary to explain the background of the Neohumanist Statement.  Most of the names mentioned above would have called themselves “humanists,” or “ethicalists.” A few flirted with, then got disillusioned by, socialism and communism. Some were Jews by family tradition, some were Christians, some would have been reluctant to call themselves anything, other than pragmatists.

They had common concerns about religion in the story of western civilization (the Durants were a special case of this almost zealous commitment), but equally too much aware of the complexities of historical narrative to think that religion was the only problem human beings were likely to face or needed to overcome.  To oversimplify a body of work and thinkers who never formed a “club” (though the New York Intellecuals came close) they seemed instinctively aware that the problems we face are human problems, and to the extent that “religion in society” (a phrase popularized by Reinhold Niebuhr) can be identified as one of those problems, it has human solutions, too.

In his previous work, Paul Kurtz as the offspring of this movement has made the same point: the philosophy he once named “secular humanism” was his way of saying that humanism will always be non-dogmatic and must be naturalistic in its approach to the world.  We are real people, living in real time, dealing with real problems.  The resort to magical thinking is never an option.  We did not “make” this world–it was given to us to explain, interpret, and make our home; and religion is one of the ways in which we have tried to explain it to ourselves.  Now that science has arisen as a better explanation, people will have to judge for themselves, in honesty and charity, what the future of religion is going to be.  Yet in the Statement, this discussion emphasizes kindness and respect rather than hostility for creeds outworn.

But the Question of God, and the matter of religion, cannot dominate our thinking as humanists. Kurtz has written repeatedly that humanism is not atheism: it does not begin there, and it cannot stop there.  If the reality of global civilization is the rapid pace of change, discovery and kaleidoscopic power and economic shift, then there is simply no time to mourn the death of God.  There is too much to do.

Kant (in the Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View) once saw a defining element in human nature as its commitment to scientific discovery being out of all proportion to the lifespan, in which questions that were just being asked were not likely to find answers. This he found remarkably unlike the day-to-dayness of animals. It proved to him that even though we struggle to maintain the moral good in a nature that also bends toward “evil,” the good of knowledge drives us on–a temptation in its own right.

That fundamentally affirmative approach to discovery is essential to the neohumanist vision: it is not limited to what we can accomplish in our four score years and ten, but open to what we can begin to do and to learn.  This means that the question of God’s existence or the postulates of religious morality which dominated thought for so long, will not be at the center of the humanist project.

A narrow atheist agenda is as retardant to achieving the good life, as humanism understands that word, as a narrow theistic vision was in the twelfth century.  God no longer stands over us–this reality is not an argument.

And while it will always be important for the humanist to defend this assertion, and to remind the most ardent defenders of the religious world-view that their grip is gone, and that the age of faith is over, the real work is not in re-fighting yesterday’s battles as if they were new ones.

The real work, as Paul Kurtz has again reminded us, is always just ahead.

The Secular Core of Humanism, by Paul Kurtz

Paul Kurtz, PhD, is the founder of the Center for Inquiry, the Council for Secular Humanism, and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.  He is also the founder and for almost thirty years editor in chief of Free Inquiry and the Skeptical Inquirer.  The author of dozens of books and hundreds of articles, both learned and popular, Paul Kurtz resigned from the organizations he created in 2009 in order to devote himself fully to the ethical dimensions of secular and humanistic thought when the board of the Center decided on a militant atheist agenda unrelated to the historic strengths of the organization.  Dauntless, Kurtz founded the Institute for Science and Human Values and a new journal, The Human Prospect, which is now in circulation.

Kurtz’s Statement of Neohumanist Principles has now been endorsed by over a hundred of the world’s leading humanists, philosophers, scientists, and public intellectuals.

In this excerpt, Kurtz explains the difference between secular humanism and atheism, insisting that a key task of the nonreligious humanist must always be the free and critical examination of religion.


Secular humanism and atheism are not identical. One can be an atheist and not a secular humanist or humanist. Indeed, some thinkers or activists who call themselves atheists explicitly reject humanist ethical values (for example, Stalin, Lenin, Nietzsche, and others). Nor is secular humanism the same thing as humanism by itself; it is surely sharply different from religious humanism.

I should also make it clear that secular humanism is not antireligious; it is simply nonreligious. There is a difference. Secular humanists are nontheists; they may be atheists, agnostics, or skeptics about the God question and/or immortality of the soul. To say that we are nonreligious means, that is, that we are not religious; ours is a scientific, ethical, and philosophical life stance. I have used the term eupraxsophy to denote our beliefs and values as a whole. This means that, as secular humanists, we offer good practical wisdom based on ethics, science, and philosophy.

The term secular should make it clear that secular humanists are not religious. In contrast, the term religious humanism is unfortunate. It has been used by some humanists to denote a kind of moral and æsthetic commitment to a set of ideals and practices; but this is most confusing. Often it serves to sneak in some quasi-spiritual and/or transcendental aspect of experience and practice, aping religion.

Secular humanism is nonreligious. But this does not mean that it does not criticize the claims of religion; indeed, we have a moral obligation to speak the plain truth. There is a difference, however, between being antireligious—attacking religion or dismissing it cavalierly—and being willing to analyze religious claims and calling them to account for their lack of reliable empirical foundations. Biblical and Qur’anic criticism are essential to intellectual honesty and clarity; and so, secular humanists are able and willing to submit the claims of religion-particularly where these are relevant in the open public square-to critical scrutiny. To shy away from this would be dishonest.

Accordingly, secular humanists are nonreligious critics of religious claims, particularly where these intrude in public policies and beliefs. Surely theistic religions today attack secular humanists and naturalists without compunction. In contrast, secular humanists have a responsibility to truth, to respond and to present the outlook of secularists and the ethics of humanism in clear and distinct language.

Secular humanism is thus committed to science and reason as the method of evaluating all truth claims, whether arising in popular belief, scientific theories, or in moral, political, or religious claims. Similarly, secular humanists are sympathetic to skeptical inquiry-that is, the application of rational methods and empirical/experimental testing to all claims to truth. For that reason, too, secular humanists cannot understand why religious humanists so fear to step on the toes of their religious brethren. Similarly, secular humanists are critical of those contemporary skeptics who express trepidation about treading in religious waters. Surely, skeptical epistemology means that there is open season on any and all claims to truth; all are subject to empirical and rational scrutiny. Critical thinking should not be confined to paranormal claims alone, which might be considered safe to criticize. In principle, critical thinking should likewise be applied to religion, politics, economics, and morality.

What is central to humanism, in my view, is the ethical component; namely, humanists believe that:

  • Ethics is an autonomous field of inquiry, independent of theological claims, amenable to rational scrutiny, testing value judgments by their consequences.
  • Ethical values and judgments are relative to human interests, needs, desires, ends, and values; they are open to objective criticism and evaluation.
  • Fulfillment, realization, and maximization of human freedom and happiness are what humanists seek, both for the individual and the community.
  • Thus there are ethical responsibilities that humanists hold toward others within the community, on the interpersonal level, the level of the democratic society, and the planetary community as well.

Clearly, secular humanism is not equivalent to atheism—it is far more than mere unbelief, since it stands for affirmation and not merely negation. Similarly, secular humanism finds itself at odds with religious humanism, since its outlook is clearly nonreligious. It goes beyond any negative skeptical inquiry insofar as it seeks to provide a positive and affirmative alternative to customary moral and religious practices.



Theology and Falsification: The Hijacking of Antony Flew

Antony Flew at home in 2007

Antony Flew died on April 8, 2010 after a career that earned him the reputation of being one of the most acute critics of theology and theological discourse in the Anglo-American philosophical tradition.

The excerpt here, from “Theology and Falsification” (1950) represents Flew’s attempt to examine the statement “God loves us,” against the background of Christian theodicy–the belief that the goodness of God can be reconciled with the seeming contradiction that there is natural and moral evil in the world he created.  With his later essay, “The Presumption of Atheism” (1984) it is one of the most popular contributions to the philosophy of religion ever written.

Courted at the end of his life by a variety of evangelical Christian groups, and in declining health after 2003, Flew is sometimes represented as a “convert” to Christianity, specifically deistic theism, who came finally to accept the “complexity” arguments associated with the “intelligent design” proponents.  The history of this period was summarized in a 2007 New York Times feature by Mark Oppenheimer, “The Turning of an Atheist.”

Various individuals and groups have put forward letters and interviews from him to support their own view. None adds up to a coherent picture of Antony Flew’s state of mind after 2003.

My own take on the situation is very different, having known him and worked with him closely in Britain between 1991 and 1997, and remaining in close touch until 2006.

In 1996 Flew came to me asking if I would reprint in the Journal for the Critical Study of Religion, which I then edited, his essay “The Presumption of Atheism.” Since the article had been frequently anthologized (and pressed for space) I demured and asked him why.

The answer came a few days later in the form of a manuscript by a conservative, then little-known evangelical Christian philosopher, Douglas Geivett, entitled “A Pascalian Rejoinder to ‘The Presumption of Atheism’.” Flew asked for it to be included because he found the argument compelling. “Do you mean you think he’s right?” I asked. “No.” he shot back. “I am right. He is compelling.”

The essays were published in JCSR 2/2 (1997) as a matched set.  On receiving his copies, Flew phoned me to say that he was happy to have done Geivett the favour, but even happier that people would be able to judge the difference between the two positions.

Geivett’s friend and collaborator at the “Christian Research Institute,” Gary Habermas (whom Flew had debated in 1984 before 3000 people),  then began his long campaign to remodel Flew’s ideas under the pretext of a “discussion.”  Flew seemed to regard this interchange as an extended debate of the sort he enjoyed.  In CRI propaganda, however, Geivett contended that Flew’s new position was an evolving deism, “Historic deists [sic] were moving away from Christianity and toward atheism. Flew, however, seems to be moving in the opposite direction from his decades-long atheism.” It was the kind of life-changing experience that CRI craved in order to bolster its claims of being a Christian think tank.

While Flew regarded his involvement with the CRI and Geivett as a debate, not a process of conversion, he was becoming less good at it, and less clear and careful at sorting details. From 2004 onward,  following an interview with Habermas published in a Biola University journal Philosophia Christi, in which Flew appeared to reverse some of cirticisms of theism, the claim was routinely made that Flew was a Christian.  As time went on, Flew’s repeated attempts to clarify his position to concerned friends led to even greater confusion.  He was no longer able to extricate himself from the intellectual bondage of his Christian interpreters.

It has alays been my view that the Geivett-Habermas hijacking of Flew’s ideas during this period stands as one of the most shameful episodes in the history of philosophy since the trial of Socrates.   It was Tony’s willingness to engage positions no matter how inimical to the empiricism he embraced that characterized his life as a philosopher. His insistence that his own essay appear, unedited and unchanged, alongside that of Geivett was proof that he stood firmly by his views, and that Geivett’s ideas did not demand separate rebuttal.

By Antony Flew

Let us begin with a parable. It is a parable developed from a tale told by John Wisdom in his haunting and revolutionary article “Gods.”[1] Once upon a time two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle. In the clearing were growing many flowers and many weeds. One explorer says, “Some gardener must tend this plot.” The other disagrees, “There is no gardener.” So they pitch their tents and set a watch. No gardener is ever seen. “But perhaps he is an invisible gardener.” So they set up a barbed-wire fence. They electrify it. They patrol with bloodhounds. (For they remember how H. G. Well’s The Invisible Man could be both smelt and touched though he could not be seen.) But no shrieks ever suggest that some intruder has received a shock. No movements of the wire ever betray an invisible climber. The bloodhounds never give cry. Yet still the Believer is not convinced. “But there is a gardener, invisible, intangible, insensible, to electric shocks, a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves.” At last the Sceptic despairs, “But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?”

John Wisdom, "Gods"

In this parable we can see how what starts as an assertion, that something exist or that there is some analogy between certain complexes of phenomena, may be reduced step by step to an altogether different status, to an expression perhaps of a “picture preference.”[2] The Sceptic says there is no gardener. The Believer says there is a gardener (but invisible, etc.). One man talks about sexual behavior. Another man prefers to talk of Aphrodite (but knows that there is not really a superhuman person additional to, and somehow responsible for, all sexual phenomena).[3] The process of qualification may be checked at any point before the original assertion is completely withdrawn and something of that first assertion will remain (Tautology).

Mr. Wells’ invisible man could not, admittedly, be seen, but in all other respects he was a man like the rest of us. But though the process of qualification may be and of course usually is, checked in time, it is not always judicially so halted. Someone may dissipate his assertion completely without noticing that he has done so. A fine brash hypothesis may thus be killed by inches, the death by a thousand qualifications.

And in this, it seems to me, lies the peculiar danger, the endemic evil, of theological utterance. Take such utterances as “God has a plan,” “God created the world,” “God loves us as a father loves his children.” They look at first sight very much like assertions, vast cosmological assertions. Of course, this is no sure sign that they either are, or are intended to be, assertions. But let us confine ourselves to the cases where those who utter such sentences intended them to express assertions. (Merely remarking parenthetically that those who intend or interpret such utterances as crypto-commands, expressions of wishes, disguised ejaculations, concealed ethics, or as anything else but assertions, are unlikely to succeed in making them either properly orthodox or practically effective).

Now to assert that such and such is the case is necessarily equivalent to denying that such and such is not the case.[4] Suppose then that we are in doubt as to what someone who gives vent to an utterance is asserting, or suppose that, more radically, we are sceptical as to whether he is really asserting anything at all, one way of trying to understand (or perhaps to expose) his utterance is to attempt to find what he would regard as counting against, or as being incompatible with, its truth. For if the utterance is indeed an assertion, it will necessarily be equivalent to a denial of the negation of the assertion. And anything which would count against the assertion, or which would induce the speaker to withdraw it and to admit that it had been mistaken, must be part of (or the whole of) the meaning of the negation of that assertion. And to know the meaning of the negation of an assertion, is as near as makes no matter, to know the meaning of that assertion.[5] And if there is nothing which a putative assertion denies then there is nothing which it asserts either: and so it is not really an assertion. When the Sceptic in the parable asked the Believer, “Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?” he was suggesting that the Believer’s earlier statement had been so eroded by qualification that it was no longer an assertion at all.

Now it often seems to people who are not religious as if there was no conceivable event or series of events the occurrence of which would be admitted by sophisticated religious people to be a sufficient reason for conceding “there wasn’t a God after all” or “God does not really love us then.” Someone tells us that God loves us as a father loves his children. We are reassured. But then we see a child dying of inoperable cancer of the throat. His earthly father is driven frantic in his efforts to help, but his Heavenly Father reveals no obvious sign of concern. Some qualification is made — God’s love is “not merely human love” or it is “an inscrutable love,” perhaps — and we realize that such suffering are quite compatible with the truth of the assertion that “God loves us as a father (but of course…).” We are reassured again. But then perhaps we ask: what is this assurance of God’s (appropriately qualified) love worth, what is this apparent guarantee really a guarantee against? Just what would have to happen not merely (morally and wrongly) to tempt but also (logically and rightly) to entitle us to say “God does not love us” or even “God does not exist”? I therefore put to the succeeding symposiasts the simple central questions, “What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or the existence of, God?”


1. P.A.S., 1944-5, reprinted as Ch. X of Logic and Language, Vol. I (Blackwell, 1951), and in his Philosophy and Psychoanalysis (Blackwell, 1953).

2. Cf. J. Wisdom, “Other Minds,” Mind, 1940; reprinted in his Other Minds (Blackwell, 1952).

Cf. Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, II, 655-60.

3. For those who prefer symbolism: p = ~ ~ p.

4. For by simply negating ~ p we get p: = ~ ~ p = p.

Five Good Things about Atheism

Begin here.

Five Good Things about Atheism It seems I cannot win. When I chart the vague, occasional and ambiguous virtues of religion (mainly historical) I am accused of being intellectually soft. When I tell atheists they run the risk of turning their social solidarity into tent revivals or support groups I risk expulsion from the ranks of the Unbaptized and Wannabe Unbaptized. It is a terrible posi … Read More

via The New Oxonian

Scipio and the New Atheism

Mathilde‘s opens at 10 on Sundays, so Scipio and I usually meet at 9:55 sharp so that we can watch people scurrying to the service at First Church.  Scipio enjoys this much more than I do. Today a mother with two over-polished kids in tow pushed past us without saying excuse me.

Then she turned.  “What did you say?,” she said.

“Nothing,”  Scipio said, with that perfect little way he has of meaning something when he doesn’t mean it.  He looked at me slyly. “I didn’t say anything.  But you might have said ‘Excuse me’.”

“Actually,” she said, “I’m English. We normally say ‘sorry’ and slog on. So, sorry”

“I hear it now,” Scipio said. He did hear it because he tries hard to sound British, a habit he picked up from having attended a summer school session at the University of Leeds.

“So, sorry,” she said again, casting a faint smile, and rearranging her children on the sidewalk.

“I don’t mean to pry,” Scipio said a little menacingly, “but what actually goes on in there?”

“You mean church,” she said slightly amazed. “You’ve never been to church?”

“Oh sure,” he said, looking sideways at me for enouragement. “I went to my uncle’s funeral, but that didn’t count. I was only eight, so I thought church was all about people crying and sniffing floral bouquets.”  He laughed appreciatively, and expected her to laugh back at his little joke.

“Well, ” she said, “We sing a little, pray a little, listen a little, usually to some dreadful sermon about how we need to do more to alleviate poverty and teach our children about love and kindness. This lot could use a little of that.”

“Why do you sing?,” Scipio said, looking at me to nod in agreement at his line of questioning. “Can’t you do that in the car?”

“Well, last I looked it’s hard to get a hundred people in a Subaru. Besides, I like the words.  Look, you’re free to come along but I’m going to be late. Nice chatting,” and with that the small troupe was off and running toward the front steps.

“Pathetic,” Scipio said. “‘I like the words’ and she ‘prays a little‘ and listens a little‘.  What she’s really saying is that she likes talking to herself and having her kid’s brains washed out with  lies.  Soap, lye: hey that’s pretty good.”

“She’s not so bad,” I returned. “I pray a little before every class and hope that the students will listen a little.”

“Don’t start,” Scipio said.  “I know you agree with me about religion.”

By then the new barrista had arrived, leaned her bicycle against the wall, took off her helmet and let her hair fall freely over her shoulders. She was even lovelier in the sunlight, prettier than she seemed the day before.

“Hi guys. Be with you in a minute.” She went inside.

Scipio shook his head in a depressed kind of way.  “I used to think that religion was irrelevant,” he said. “But when you see smart-looking people demeaning themselves–it’s sick. It’s just sick.”

“I don’t know,” I said flatly, There are worse things you can be than a waitress.”

Scipio did not look amused. “You know who I meant.  And not just that, her kids have to drink the same poison.  If you ask me, parents who go to church should be required by family services to leave the kids at home and give them a course in logic.”

“Do they get to sing after they do their syllogisms?,” I said. “You mean that poison about kindness and caring about starving children in Bangladesh?”

“I mean that poison about God and Jesus and being saved and not having abortions and voting Republican,” Scipio said. “Probably being spouted by some guy who screws little boys.”

Canova, "feeding the Hungry"

“Wow,” I said. “So that’s what’s going on at the First Congregational Church in Marblehead.  You’re right. I’ll call 911.  Maybe no one notices because of all the singing.”

Scipio stood up very straight and looked at me as though he wanted to punch me.

“You know what’s wrong with you Cleanthes? You’re apathetic.  You don’t care that people are being taught rubbish.  You don’t care that religion is poisonous.  You don’t notice that the whole culture is sick and that religion is making it sick.”

To make him angrier, I feigned a yawn and looked at my watch.

“Scipio,” I began, “I don’t think you’re talking about religion. I think you’re talking about what you think about religion, which frankly isn’t very much. I think you’re talking about dogma–or something like that.”

The barrista had raised the shade, smiled through the window, and raised her hand with five fingers spread to indicate we would be standing outside having this discussion for five long minutes.

We were downwind from the church and the front doors were wide open. Two ushers were still allowing latecomers in. But the singing had begun.

I’d always liked hymns. I’ve always liked singing. I recognized this one from years before when it wouldn’t have been unusal for me to be standing inside joining in rather than outside having an unpleasant quarrel with an angry associate professor of psychology.

It was Lowell’s poem, Once to Every Man and Nation.  Congregationalists love to sing this. He wrote it to protest the United States war with Mexico in 1845.  If only we’d had a million more like him, I thought, the immigration issue would be off the table.  They had just arrived at verse two –

Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.

I was going to ask Scipio if he knew it, but even if he did he wouldn’t have said so, and the reference to God in the last line would have soured him on the idea that religion is an important force in social protest. He would have said something to spoil the majesty of the sentiment.  Probably that if God had any interest in the future he should have intervened in 1845.  I had a whole lecture in my head about that.  But by now Scipio was tapping his shoe and it was 10.15.

“Maybe you’re right,” I said.  “Maybe we should just shut them down, places like this.  Toxin factories.  I know if we did, wars would disappear and the economy would heal itself because we’d know that miracles don’t happen.  The schools would get better. I’l bet that if we’re being honest about it, our future depends on getting more atheists elected to congress and outing the ones who are already there. I always look forward to our discussions Scipio.  You’re always right about these big questions.”

He smiled appreciatively. “Well, maybe not shut them down. But tax them for sure. Make them pay for the harm they do–like cigarette sales.”


The barrista opened the door smiling slightly nervously. “Sorry guys,” she said, “The machines weren’t cooperating.”

“No problem” I said, “it was worth it just to see you smile. She smiled again.

“It’s way after 10,” Scipio said. “There’s hardly any time for me to enjoy a cup of coffee now.  I have yoga at 11.” He pushed past her and moved toward his usual table as far from the window as possible.  Scipio has a theory that watching people move past windows affects the optic nerve in unhealthy ways that may lead to early Alzheimer’s.  He’s never expanded.

The barrista and I were left on the sidewalk.  The children were being ushered down the front steps to the lower part of the church where they would color pictures of the prodigal son or the feeding of the 5000.

They would be told that this really didn’t happen, but that it’s a parable of why generosity to starving people is important.  At least that’s what I was taught.  The upstairs crowd, mainly young parents and old, probably wealthy, veterans of a lifetime of religion had moved on to a Whittier hymn, “Forgive Our Foolish Ways.” He  was a Quaker. He hated slavery.  Slavery was a sin, he thought.  That’s about all I knew of its history.

“I love that one,” said the barrista. “We sang it when I was a kid.”

“Me too” I said, “but don’t these people ever stop singing?”  She smiled again.

In the background, Scipio was calling out. “Oh Miss? Excuse me, Miss”

Scipio Returns: An Allegory

I met Scipio at Mathilde’s yesterday.  He was late and huffing–and amazing for a March day in Marblehead–was actually breaking a sweat.

He was carrying a load of blue books he said he hadn’t had time to grade over the spring break.

“You know,” I said with just a hint of disapproval, “It’s harder to do when there’s no time than when there’s a little time.”

He ignored me and looked toward the barrista.  She was new: long blonde hair, a runner–you could tell from the way her underarmor outlined her legs–and took an instant dislike to Scipio as soon as she saw him.  I guess some men would find her attractive.  Scipio did.

“You’re too obvious,” I hissed.  “It’s getting embarrassing to come here with you.  I think the last waitress left because you wouldn’t stop staring–what was her name…”

“Maria,” he said without a pause.

“Maria, right. She’s working at the Salvation Army Store on Boylston because she thought you were stalking her.”

“These tables are really too small,” Scipio said. “There isn’t room for my bluebooks on the top.”

He tried to focus on me, but his eyes wandered toward the counter, and inevitably settled on the barrista’s bulging calves.

“I suppose you got all your marking done,” he said with a slight curl on his lips.

“Every bit.  I don’t want to mix break and work.”

“You make no sense,” he said. “If you’re grading during break you’re working. So you’re mixing.  Make up your mind.”

Scipio has always been good at trying to change the topic from his faults to mine.

“So, I guess having the work hanging over you during a vacation isn’t a little distracting, a little getting in the way of fun- time distracting. A little Oh gosh, what can I put off now that will cause me infinite pain in a week distracting. You make up your mind.”

The barrista had arrived.  I ordered my usual.

“I just started,” she said, “excuse me if I don’t know what your usual is.”

“I’ll have a double espresso.  My friend will have bubble tea.”

Bubble tea?” she shot back. “Did you say bubble tea.”

“Exactly.  Double espresso for me.  My friend doesn’t believe in coffee after noon.”

She stood fast.  She looked first at me and then at Scipio.

“You fucking don’t believe in coffee? That’s amazing.  I don’t believe in God!” She had used the line before.  She waited for a look of surprise–any reaction at all.  None.

Scipio looked plaintively at me as though begging for instructions.

“I didn’t say I didn’t believe in coffee, strictly speaking” he said. “He did. I’d say I don’t believe in coffee after lunch”

“So you do believe in coffee?”  Disappointment at not getting a gasp about the God comment had now turned into teasing.

Scipio was melting.  She had him fixed in her blue eyes.  I could almost feel his resolve leaking away.

“I mean, coffee is fine for morning but it’s almost three o’clock. So I prefer bubble tea.  It isn’t that I don’t believe in it.  In principle it’s fine” He coughed and laughed at the same time creating a thread of scum in the corner of his mouth. “It’s just not good for me.”

“Why is bubble tea good for three o clock.” She positioned herself near his elbow, her thigh against his stack of bluebooks that by now were in danger of spilling onto the floor.

Scipio frowned. “Look Miss,” he said, using a word I have avoided for almost ten years, “I didn’t ask you why you don’t believe in God or the tooth fairy. Please don’t inquire after my drinking habits.”

She moved away, feigning a pout, then pivoted and looked squarely at me.

“So you, you believe in coffee?”

“I do,” I said. “With all my heart.  Why would anyone want bubble tea at three o’clock when there’s espresso on earth?” I tried to smile.

“Bubble tea’s more like the tooth fairy. I don’t believe in that either,” she said.

I was feeling a strange excitement at this development. Ten years coming to Mathilde’s, no one had shown the slightest interest in my usual. It didn’t matter what Scipio didn’t believe in after noon.

All that mattered is that I believed in something dark, concentrated, thick, bitter, and expensive. And it came with lemon peel and a tiny brown sugar cube to make it nicer.

“Can I have your number,” she said.  She didn’t mean it of course.  At least I don’t think she did.

But it was worth it just to see the expression on Scipio’s face.

The Orthodoxy of Just Not Believing in God

We seem to be witnessing the rapid development of atheist orthodoxy.

I say that as someone who has fallen prey to zingers used about the heretics in the fourth century Empire: According to my disgruntled readers, I am confused, angry, unsettled, provocative, hurtful and creating division, which in Greek is what heresy means.

The word ATHEOs (atheist) in Ephesians, 3rd century Papyrus 46

No one has come right out and said what this might imply:  that the New Atheists having written their four sacred books (a canon?) are not subject to correction.  I haven’t been told that there is nothing further to study, or that the word of revelation came down in 2005 with the publication of The God Delusion. I have been told (several times) that I am mixing humanism and skepticism and doubt into the batch, when the batch, as in Moses’ day,  just calls for batch.  Or no batch. I have been reminded (and reminded) that atheism is nothing more than the simple profession of the belief that there is no God, or any gods. Credo in Nullum Deum. And I have been scolded in response to my challenge for atheists to be better-read and less cute to the effect that “Many of us have read…Hitchens’s excellent The Portable Atheist.  But for Berlinerbrau [sic] that’s not nearly good enough.” An odd rejoinder since it is precisely Berlinerblau’s criticism that Hitchens’ anthology is not very good. And, much as I enjoyed reading its predecessor,  God is Not Great,  it isn’t.

When the first heretics were “proclaimed”  (as opposed to pilloried by various disgruntled individual bishops) in 325–when the Council of Nicaea “defined” God as a trinity–a particular heretic named Arius was in the Church’s crosshairs.  He believed that Jesus was the son of God, in an ordinary sense, if you can imagine it, and not eternal. The growing cadre of right-minded bishops, including his own boss, a man called Athanasius, was committed to the popular intellectual view that everything God was, Jesus was, so Jesus had to be eternal too.

Read our orthodox lips

Was Jesus always a son, Arius asked.  Yes always, they replied.  Was God always a father?  Yes, always, they said: God does not change.  Then what, asked Arius, is the meaning of terms like father and son?You are irredeemable and anathema to us, they replied. Once a group rallies around a position, in other words, it becomes very difficult to ask questions or blow whistles.  Just like academic politics.

To this day, the only bit of the Nicene creed Christians won’t find in their prayer books is the last clause: But those who say: ‘There was a time when he was not;’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ and ‘He was made out of nothing,’ or ‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’—they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.” It would spoil the family atmosphere to end the prayer on a rancorous note.

I have always felt that the more you know about the history of ideas, the less likely you are to be a true believer.  Studying science can have the same effect, but not directly (since science does not deal with religious questions directly) and usually (for obvious reasons) in relation to questions like cosmology rather than questions about historical evolution.

But that “challenge” kept me interested in history and to a lesser degree in philosophy, rather than causing me to throw my hands up and say “What’s the point?”  I did not become an historian in order to vindicate any sort of belief, religious or political.  But by becoming a historian I learned to recognize that all ideas, including God, have histories, and that the ideas of god in their historical context leave almost no room for philosophical discussions, however framed, about his existence.  In fact, even having taught philosophy of religion routinely for two decades, I find the philosophical discussion almost as dull and flat as the scientistic hubris of the new atheists and their disciples.

When I took up a position as a professor of religious studies in Ann Arbor in the 1980’s, students in the large-enrollment lectures immediately spotted me as a skeptic.  When I touched on biblical subjects, bright-eyed students from western Michigan would often bring Bibles and try to trip me up on details.  I would always say the same thing, after a few volleys: “We are not here to test your fidelity to the teaching of your church nor my fidelity to any greater cause. We’re here to study history. God can take it.”  I wish I had a better message after twenty-eight years, but I don’t.

There are two chief problems with orthodoxy–any orthodoxy.  Once it establishes itself, it kills its dissenters–if not physically, then by other means.  It got Arius (not before he’d done commendable damage however); it got Hus, it got Galileo, and it might’ve gotten Descartes if he hadn’t been very clever in the Discourse on Method by creating a hypothetical pope-free universe.

Scientific orthodoxies had fared no better until the modern era, the advantage of modernity being that science learned the humility of error before it began to be right.  It did not promote itself as timeless truth but as correctable knowledge. It would be remarkable if science, in its approach to religion, did not follow the same process, and I’m happy to say that in most cases it does.

For all the confusion about the new atheism attributed to me in the past few days, it seems to me that atheism is not science. It is an opinion (though I’d grant it higher status), grounded in history, to which some of the sciences, along with many other subjects, have something to contribute.

Almost everyone knows not only that the non-existence of God is not a “scientific outcome” but that it is not a philosophical outcome either.  So, if it’s true that at its simplest, atheism is a position about God, and nothing else, then atheism will at least need to say why it is significant to hold such a position.  It can’t be significant just because atheists say so, so it must derive its significance from other ideas that attach to the belief in god, ideas that nonbelievers find objectionable and worth rejecting. (The gods of Lucretius can’t be objectionable because like John Wisdom’s god they are not only invisible but indiscernible). Consequently, atheism can not simply be about the nonexistence of God; it must be about the implications of that belief for believers.

Some of those beliefs matter more than others.  For example, the belief that God created the world.  In terms of the number of people who believe this and the vigor with which they are willing to defend that belief, this has to be the most important idea attached to belief in God.

Atheists who care to argue their case philosophically,  will maintain that evidence of an alternative physical mode of creation defeats demonstrations of the existence of God.  In fact, however, the evidence is a disproof of explanations put forward in a creation myth; and that disproof comes from history long before it comes from philosophy and science. The evidence is nonetheless poignant. But it takes the question of God’s existence into fairly complex argumentation.

Biblical Cosmos

Atheists might also argue that belief in the goodness of God is contradicted by the existence of natural and moral evil (theodicy) or that belief in his benevolence and intelligence (design, teleology) is disproved by the fact that this is not the best of all possible universes. These quibbles are great fun in a classroom because they get people talking,  thinking and arguing.  But as you can see, we have already come a long way from the bare proposition that atheism is just about not believing in God, full stop.

This recognition is unavoidable because you cannot disbelieve in something to which no attributes have been attached–unless like St Anselm you think that existence is a necessary predicate of divine (“necessary”) being.  But that’s another story.  When I use the term EZ atheists, I mean those atheists who short-cut propositions and adopt positions based on a less than careful examination of the positions they hold, or hold them based on authority rather than on strictly rational grounds–an atheist who holds a belief to be irrefragably true only because she or he has faith that it is true.

Most atheists, of course,  do not establish their positions that way, e.g., Williams Hasker’s “The Case of the Intellectually Sophisticated Theist” (1986) and Michael Martin’s “Critique of Religious Experience” (1990) or the famous discussion between Basil Mitchell (a theist) and Antony Flew (an atheist) called “The Falsification Debate” (1955) provide important indicators about how the existence of God can be defeated propositionally.  No atheist who now swims in shallow water should feel overwhelmed by reading these classic pieces.

Recent articles by Jacques Berlinerblau and Michael Ruse have raised the broad concern that the effects of the “New atheism” might actually be harmful. Why? Because it creates a class of followers who (like the early Christians) are less persuaded by argument than by the certainty of their position.  It produces hundreds of disciples who see atheism as a self-authenticating philosophy, circumstantially supported by bits of science, and who, when challenged resort to arguments against their critics rather than arguments in favour of their position.  A common criticism of the new atheists is that their journey to unbelief did not provide them with the tools necessary for such defense, or that they have found polemical tactics against their critics more effective than standard argumentation: thus,  a critic is uninformed or a closet believer. Criticism becomes “rant,” diatribe, hot air; critics are “arrogant” and elitist, or prone to over-intellectualize positions that are really quite simple: Up or down on the God thing? Points of contention become “confusion,” “divisive”; motives are reduced to spite and jealousy rather than an honest concern for fair discussion–epithets that were used freely against people like Arius and Hus, especially in religious disputes but rarely in modern philosophical discussion.  The intensity with which the EZ atheist position is held might be seen as a mark of its fragility, comparable to strategies we see in Christian apologetics.

A year ago,  my position on this issue was less resolute: I would have said then that new atheism is just a shortcut to conclusions that older atheists reached by a variety of means, from having been Jesuits to having been disappointed in their church, or education, to reading too much,  or staying awake during my lectures. (Even I want some small credit for changing minds).

It is a fact that few people become atheists either in foxholes or philosophy class. But having seen the minor outcry against criticism of the New Atheist position by their adherents, I have come to the conclusion that Ruse and Berlinerblau are right: the new atheism is a danger to American intellectual life, to the serious study of important questions, and to the atheist tradition itself.

I have reasons for saying this.  Mostly, they have nothing to do with the canonical status of a few books and speakers who draw, like Jesus, multitudes of hungry listeners.  At this level, emotion comes into play, celebrity and authority come into play. Perhaps even faith comes into play. The bright scarlet A of proud atheism as a symbol of nonbelief and denial becomes an icon in its own right: The not-the-cross and not-the-crescent.  And again, as we reach beyond not believing into symbolism and the authority of speakers who can deliver you from the dark superstitions of religion, without having to die on a cross, we have come a long way from simply not believing.  That is what Professors Ruse and Berlinerblau have been saying.

But the real disaster of the new atheism is one I am experiencing as a college teacher.  Almost three decades back I faced opposition from students who denied that history had anything to teach them about their strong emotional commitment to a belief system or faith. Today I am often confronted with students who feel just the same way–except they are atheists, or rather many of them have adopted the name and the logo.

I say “atheist” with the same flatness that I might say, “evangelical,” but I know what it means pedgaogically when I say it.  It is a diagnosis not of some intellectual malfunction, but a description of an attitude or perspective that might make historical learning more challenging than in needs to be.  It means that the person has brought with her to the classroom a set of beliefs that need Socratic overhaul.


An atheism that has been inhaled at lectures by significant thinkers is heady stuff.  Its closest analogy is “getting saved,” and sometimes disciples of the New Atheists talk a language strangely like that of born agains. I hear the phrase “life changing experience” frequently from people who have been awakened at a Dawkins lecture, or even through watching videos on YouTube.  It would be senseless to deny that the benefit is real.  And it is futile to deny that leaving students in a state of incomplete transformation, without the resources to pursue unbelief–or its implications for a good and virtuous life beyond the purely selfish act of not believing–makes the task of education a bit harder for those of us left behind, in a non-apocalyptic sort of way.

I suspect this is pure fogeyism, but life-changing gurus have minimal responsibility after they have healed the blind.

I could site dozens of examples of the challenges the new atheist position presents.  Two from recent Facebook posts will do.  In response to a Huffington Post blog by a certain Rabbi Adam Jacobs on March 24, one respondent wrote, “Thanks Rabbi. I think I will be good without god and eat a bacon cheeseburger and think of you cowering in fear of the cosmic sky fairy…” and another, “This crazy Rabbi is completely right. Atheism does imply a moral vacuum, whether we like it or not. But that doesn’t mean that we can just accept the manifestly false premises of religion just because it would create a cozy set of moral fictions for us, which is what the author seems to be saying.”

The cosmic sky fairy, a variation presumably on Bobby Henderson’s (pretty amusing) Flying Spaghetti Monster, doesn’t strike me as blasphemy.  Almost nothing does. But it strikes me as trivial.  A student who can dismiss a serious article about the relationship of science, morality and religion, asked, let’s say, to read Aquinas in a first year seminar would be at a serious disadvantage.  A worshiper of Richard Dawkins who can’t deal with Aquinas because he is “religious” is not better than an evangelical Christian who won’t read it because he was “Catholic.”  That is where we are.

The second comment suggests that atheism is “de-moralizing,” in the sense that it eliminates one of the conventional grounds for thinking morality exists. The writer doesn’t find this troubling as an atheist, because he see the post-Kantian discussion of morality as high-sounding but fruitless chatter: “There is no higher justification for any moral imperative beyond ‘because I think/feel it’s better.'” –I actually happen to agree with him.  But I can’t begin a conversation at the conclusion. His honesty about the question is pinned to a view of atheism that, frankly, I cannot understand.

The essence of EZ atheism is this trivialization of questions that it regards as secondary to the entertainment value of being a non-believer, a status that some will defend simply through polemic or ridicule of anything “serious,” anything assumed to be “high culture” or too bookish.

I am not questioning the robustness of the movement, its popularity, or the sincerity of the followers.   I am not trying to make new atheism rocket science or classical philology. I have never suggested it belongs to the academy and not to the village, because I know that nothing renders a worldview ineffective quite so thoroughly as keeping it locked in a university lecture hall.  The idea that there is no God, if it were left to me, would be discussed in public schools and from the pulpit.  But it won’t be.  For all the wrong reasons.  When Harvard four years ago attempted to introduce a course in the critical study of religion into its core curriculum, its most distinguished professor of psychology, who happens also to be an atheist, lobbied (successfully) against it because it was to be taught as a “religion” course.  Almost no one except a few humanists  saw that atheism lost a great battle in that victory.  And it lost it, I hate to say, because the professor responsible sensationalised the issue as “bringing the study of religion into the Yard” rather than keeping it safely sequestered in the Divinity School.

I want to suggest that the trivialization of culture (which includes religion and religious ideas), especially in America where trivial pursuits reign, is not especially helpful.  And as I have said pretty often,  that part of this trivialization is the use of slogans, billboards, out campaigns and fishing expeditions to put market share ahead of figuring things out.  Truth to tell, there is nothing to suggest that these campaigns have resulted in racheting up numbers, increasing public understanding of unbelief, or advancing a coherent political agenda.  They have however potentially harmed atheism with tactics that simplify religious ideas to an alarming level (all the better to splay them) and by confirming in the minds of many “potential Brights” (Dennett) that their suspicions of atheism were well founded.  Adherents of the New Atheists need to make a distinction between success as a corollary of profits to the authors and the benefit to the movement or, to be very old fashioned, the ideals of an atheist worldview.

Julian Huxley

After a long time as a teacher, I am surprised to find myself writing about this.  I have often found myself thinking, “If only half my students were atheists.  Then we could get somewhere.  We could say what we like, just the way we like it.  We could follow the evidence where it takes us–no more sidestepping ‘awkward issues’ so as not to injure religious feelings.”

If only it were that easy:  I may spend the remainder of my time in the academy imploring the sky fairy to smile on my efforts and deliver me from orthodoxy of all kinds.

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?

Should Atheism be Studied?

Atheists have grown intellectually fat and lazy, enamored of the quaintness and minority rectitude of their opinion, careless about their targets and goals, gibberishical about their “values” and ideas, many of which are indistinguishable from anybody else’s liberal ideas. Except, perhaps the God part–the not-part.

Should Atheism be Studied? "Atheism is rather in the lip, than in the heart of man, than by this; that atheists will ever be talking of that their opinion, as if they fainted in it, within themselves, and would be glad to be strengthened, by the consent of others…." That is not a trick question. Atheism to have any intellectual standing in the world must be studied, like any other subject. The stumbling block for doing this, most atheists will allege, are those pesky Chr … Read More

via The New Oxonian