About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Chatting with atheists

I just spent five days on a cruise from New York City to Canada, hosting three roundtable discussions on behalf of New York City Atheists, one of the most active groups of its kind in the United States. Each discussion was based on a simple question I posed to the group, limiting my role to providing a short introduction to the question, and then facilitating the ensuing discussion. It worked beautifully, and you can try it at home even if you are not a pro, unlike what they say in car commercials.

The first question was: “What's wrong with the New Atheism?” The term “new atheism” has been used by some mainstream media outlets during the last year or so to label the spate of recent books in open (some would say defiant) defense of atheism: Daniel Dennett's “Breaking the Spell,” Sam Harris' “Letter to a Christian Nation,” Richard Dawkins' “The God Delusion,” and Christopher Hitchens' “God is not Great.” Naturally, a group of atheists could not be expected to see much wrong with a significant output of books defending their philosophical position, but there were in fact doubts expressed by some about whether the specific arguments (e.g., in Dawkins' claim that the “God hypothesis” is scientifically testable) or general tone (especially Harris' and Hitchens') were on target or helpful to the movement in general. More broadly, there doesn't seem to be much radically or qualitatively “new” about the new atheism: while surely the science bearing on debunking specific religious claims (such as those advanced by creationists or supporters of Intelligent Design) is in fact more sophisticated than it was in the time of, say, Voltaire, the basic philosophical and moral reasons for rejecting religion remain the same – and they are as justified as ever.

The second question I posed to the members of New York City Atheists was: “Does science inform your meaning of life?” The philosophically sophisticated among the readers of this blog will immediately smell an objection to the question itself, raised originally by David Hume and known today as the naturalistic fallacy. The idea, Hume said, is that one cannot logically derive an “ought” (i.e., a conclusion about values) from an “is” (i.e., a matter of fact). Yet, in recent decades philosophers themselves (e.g. Quine) have begun to question the rigidity of the fact/value distinction, and one could reasonably argue that knowledge of the world may well influence the way we see ourselves, and therefore the meaning we attach to what we do. Indeed, the classic example – which turned out to be a common experience among the discussants – is the sort of scientific revolution that Copernicus and Galilei brought about: by showing convincingly that, as a matter of fact, the earth is not the center of the universe and that human beings are not the pinnacle of creation, these two scientists have profoundly altered our value systems. As a result of their discoveries, Copernicus and Galilei have helped us to develop a slightly more humble view of ourselves and a better sense of respect for the rest of the biosphere. After all, if science really had no influence on questions of meaning, one would have to wonder what all the fuss is about when creationists get so upset at the mention that the earth is billions, not thousands, of years old.

The final question was: “So, you are an atheist: what happened?” It turned out that my own experience was similar to that of many people present there, in that we have all encountered some well-meaning Christian who assumed beyond doubt and without a shred of evidence (as they are prone to do in a variety of circumstances) that there must have been some major trauma in the life of someone who has decided to abandon God. Besides the obvious observation that we are, in fact, all born atheists and become religious only after a culturally and historically specific process of early indoctrination, there is actual sociological research that illuminates the question. In “Amazing Conversions,” Altemeyer and Hunsberger show that typically it is the transition from non-religious (which doesn't necessarily mean atheist) to born-again that is catalyzed by a traumatic event. Apparently, people's emotions are overrun by the impact of the event and they seek solace in some sort of new belief, no matter how improbable it may be. The transition from believer to atheist, on the other hand, usually takes years, and is characterized by a much more deliberate process of inquiry, often including the reading of a variety of books on science and philosophy.

Needless to say (but I will say it anyway), I am keenly interested in reading the opinions of readers of this blog on any or all of the three questions. Anyone out there?


  1. Anyone out there?

    Sure. Hi!

    Question the first: I don't have a problem with the "new atheism", and in fact I quite enjoyed reading The God Delusion; I haven't yet read the others on that list, though a good friend of mine has read the others (I think) and highly recommends the work of Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris.

    I like Dawkins' argument that the God Hypothesis is scientifically testable, using the statistical form of proof/disproof that is so widely used in modern science. A really small p-value counts as evidence, to me at least.

    Question the second: Unlike lots of other people, I don't spend much time musing on the meaning of (my) life. Shorter-term concerns, on the order of one year or less, occupy my mind far more. So, I'll tentatively say "yes" in that I try to base my day-to-day decisions on practical issues and approach daily questions from a scientific perspective. That may be mostly a result of my on-going training as a scientist.

    Question the third: Nothing happened. Unlike most other atheists I know, I never had a "deconversion" experience, and I have no memory of ever being religious or of highly valuing faith. One of my strongest childhood memories is of being in a church in England (Christian, but I do not recall the denomination - something big and main-stream-ish, probably Anglican), brought there against my wishes as I was staying with a friend and his parents took me along. I can remember during one of the prayers, when everyone except the cleric was silent, thinking about how bored I was and doubting the existence of any God to hear my thoughts, or the prayers of those around me. I would have been about 10 years old at the time.

    So, asking "what happened" is the wrong question in my case. I suspect my condition is relatively rare, though.

    I just spent five days on a cruise from New York City to Canada

    WHERE did you go? I'm quite sure you're aware of the size of the country. Five days from New York on a ship could take one to quite a range of locations in Canada. I'm curious as to where the final stop of this cruise was.

  2. Question One: I don't have a problem with the "new atheism" either. I consider myself more moderate than say Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens, but they do more than I could ever do to get atheism on the radar screen of public discourse and maybe make more people comfortable with outing themselves as atheists.

    Question Two: Maybe in some ways science informs my outlook on life.

    Question Three: I was raised Catholic and I turned away from it in my early college years because it didn't seem right to me that women or married men couldn't be allowed to be priests. I read more about history and different relgions, and for a while I believed in a god that we could have a direct relatinship with and that all of the religions were wrong because they were divisive and acted as barriers to communing with the divine. But as time went by, it became evident to me that the god I thought I could have a relationship with was simply a creation of my own mind. In other words, I thought, if God exists and is a just and compassionate being, then it must have these qualities. I came to the conclusion later in my college years that there was probably nobody there who cared about us.

    It was very disheartening for me at the time but I got over it and I am doing fine without religion.

  3. Question 3: My deconversion was extremely difficult and painful, and climaxed with me leaving the seminary. In my case it was initiated by trauma, but I wouldn't say that I decided not to believe in God because of that trauma. The event shook me up, and afterwards I felt the need to question my views on everything, including religion. Over the period of about 18 months the questioning eventually led me to discard my belief in God.

  4. I'm not sure what "new" atheism is, but I just read Christopher Hitchens' "God is not Great" and thought it was lovely polemic. It cheered me up immensely. But I'm not living in New York; I'm in a small town in the rural midwest, where as a non-believer I have to be careful of what I say at all times. Locals are sure that if a person lives here, they have a regular "church home", most likely a Baptist one, and are in agreement with the Statement of Faith of that sect. There is an "artsy" sort of bunch in the area, but they are "spiritual seekers" and I'd better not have anything to say about THAT, either. Irrationality is the local core value. Your discussion cruise sounds like something from another planet. Beam me up, please.

    As far as 'science' informing my meaning of life, if you mean rationality, it's a goal for myself. My education was in mathematics and computer science, which has given me an unfortunate tendency to regard consistency and rational behavior as positive attributes. I have learned in my life not to look for it in others. Saves a lot of grief (and pointless argument.)

    What happened: I was raised a Roman Catholic (not in the midwest.) As a teenager, I started going to the iHop when my mother thought I was at Mass. Eating pancakes with strawberries and whipped cream seemed more relevant.

  5. Question three: would it sound too flip to say I joined the library? I was old enough to get my “young moderns” card at age 14, and from there I devoured all the books I could find on astonomy, everything from Patrick Moore to Jeans and Eddington. And of course I got a good dose of intellectual history too- the travails of Galileo, for example. One day while reading The Universe and Dr. Einstein by Lincoln Barnett it simply occurred to me (with what I would call an audible thought) that “Your God is too small”. At that point I became a deist, and have never retreated beyond that point. For most of my life I was content to call myself an agnostic, but I am now reinvestigating the whole question. In between there was a period when I became interested in various forms of religion, and I also at one point joined AA, and embarked on the recommended quest for a “higher power”. But I could never satisfy myself with my own conclusion , because my Unitarian sports model never seemed to be the sort of thing that others were interested in, or were referring to when they spoke of God. At the end of all this (in my 50’s) I decided to reinvestigate and thought I should concentrate on two gray areas: parapsychology and evolution, and these are the areas I am still looking into. I was once very interested in Bergson, and also read quite carefully Darwin Retried by Norman Macbeth, a creationist book which even Gould reluctantly praised. But I now see little point in philosophizing about evolution, just let the scientists do their job. As for ID, Behe’s examples of Irreducible Complexity could be worthwhile objections (I am sure Darwin would have treated them fairly), but the answers that are available seem to be as good as the answers Darwin came up with when he considered the human eye. As for parapsychology, it’s hard to find anything to really sink your teeth into. I am still not sure what to call myself, but perhaps Russell had it right when he said that to the man-in-the-street he would seem an atheist, whereas to other philosophers he would seem an agnostic.

    I had a few things to say about question one as well, but I started arguing with myself, and that seems to be a bad sign, so I’ll save it for another time.

  6. Hi Mass --

    I haven't read any of the New Atheist writings; I'm pretty much head-down in life right now. Having not read Dawkins, I don't know what schemata he provides for testing the god hypothesis, but I have one thought on the issue. Why cannot we detect god's energy? All creative agents emit energy, right?

    As for your second question: science informs my sense of meaning. Knowing that I am a product of evolution causes me to regard the rest of life with respect. Knowing that I live in the galactic sticks gives me a sense of wonder, and place.

    What happened with me was: I lived in Iran in the '70s, where I
    was exposed to religions other than the Southern Baptism in which I was raised. That started the questioning: who's right? And when the revolution happened, I couldn't reconcile a good God with the evil I'd witnessed. After a few years of searching, I assumed responsibility for myself. Traumatic? In part.

  7. 1) I don't have any objections to the writings of the "new" atheists. Yes, the tone of some of their writings may only serve to further alienate some believers, but at the same time may be exactly what others needs. There is room for more than one approach. Also, like you mentioned in the post, I don't much care for the "new" designation, but then again I don't care for the term "bights" either.

    It is encouraging that all these books have been well received in terms of sales and as Hitchen's muses may give reason to be optimistic about a possible change in the "zeitgeist" with respect to non-belief.

    However, I will note that I sometimes worry that the on-line atheist community (especially the new recruits, or those who have not read as much about it) in their exuberance and new found confidence may lose sight of the fact that reason, secularism and individual liberty is more important than atheism. In other words I would rather live in a secular society filled with religion than an atheist society that is not free. Obvious, but worth remembering.

    Atheism is merely the absence of belief, it is not a philosophy to live by or a means of self-identification.

    2) Science informs my perspective of the Universe that I live in and the body/brain that my conscious inhabits. So it helps to lay the constraints for how I see the meaning of my life. In other words, it does not directly inform my life's meaning which also depends heavily on morality and ethical ideas/philosophies, but it helps me to determine when my perceived meaning conflicts with reality.

    3) I was raised Roman Catholic, but there was always an appreciation of science and math in my house. My "de-conversion" started very slowly and without trauma probably in high school and I became more atheist/agnostic over a period years which lasted into my mid '20s. I read lots of books and writings in the years after college (thanks to the Internet) which solidified my non-belief. Although I no longer believed and I considered myself a freethinker and a rational skeptic, I was not very "anti-religion" until 9/11. That, as it did for so many, made me for a time an angry more outspoken atheist.

  8. I bogged down half way through The God Delusion, and have read only snippets of the others. I can sympathize with those who feel that the "New Atheism" is extremist. Its tone is certainly calculated to antagonize. My primary complaint, though, is that none of the big guns seem to take any account of basic human psychology or recognize that logic and science aren't going to convince very many people.

    It's probably the scientific outlook that most informs my life.

    And nothing happened. I wasn't brought up in any religion, and have never found any reason to resort to one.

  9. “So, you are an atheist: what happened?”

    Nothing bad I think, but in the process to be an atheist, to think of death has been the most difficult thing to overcome for me, I use this thinking of death in a possitive manner to do all things that are building my happiness, at the end I hope to see my life and to be very pride of it if ever I was looking for it that always want. This I think is much better that any one "paradise".

  10. khtujOn Q1: I love the New Atheist writings, but I'm naturally pugnacious anyway and relish books that put the boot into arrant nonsense such as theism. (I've read all the books Max mentioned, and have also read AC Grayling's "Against All Gods", Victor Stenger's "God-The Failed Hypothesis", Harris's "The End of Faith", David Milne's "Atheist Universe", Michel Onfrey's "Atheist Manifesto", and a few more besides. All highly recommended.)
    Yes, science informs my life insofar as a knowledge of how the world really is (formed-NOT created, note!-approx. 4.5 billion years ago, not the centre of the universe, or even of the solar system, etc.) affects my decision-making process. How could it not?
    Q3: I get the same diatribe all the time from theists, who think I must have been buggered by a RC priest or something for me to be "anti-god". (Ha!) In fact, I don't think I was ever a believer; certainly, I remember wrestling with the question of first cause (Who created god?) when I was five years old; I hypothesised that there were strings of magic flying around (I imagined them as glittering intangible snakes--a typical child's imagination), and two collided to create god. Then I thought maybe two collided to create a magic man who created god (kind of like Chronos giving birth to Zeus), at which point I realised that there could never be a starting point for all this. I certainly never believed there was a big sky fairy watching me. Christopher Hitchens says that 20% of us are born without the divine impulse, and that religion to us is just so much white noise. He counts himself in that 20%, and so do I.
    Christine: one of the things Hitchens learned on his book tour was that in the Bible Belt, many people mistakenly believe themselves to be the only atheist in town. You may have more like-minded people locally than you know.
    Max, when's the next tour? Can I come?

  11. Damn, our Richmond Reason and Naturalism Association (RRNA) only meets at an Italian restaurant... A great one tough, great food, nicest people, we get a round for the ~20 of us, I wonder what they think of us and our crazy talk there... Prontos is the name, if you're ever down here in VA, pay them a visit. :-)

    “What's wrong with the New Atheism?”

    Nothing. I see the point of those who say it angers and alienates some people, but who cares? I don't think that's bad after all. The people who will be anger are mostly those who would be anyway even if you just mention you're an atheist or something like that. Every "movement" or "cause" needs its high visibility, radical elements to draw some attention and heat. And out of heat eventually comes light. Or fire. :-)

    And as I've said before in RRNA meetings and probably here too the blacks did not get their rights by "being nice", the women didn't improve their standing in society by "being nice", even the gays got much further up society's scale than they used to be, and they did not get there by "being nice" and quiet and reasonable. And so on.

    “Does science inform your meaning of life?”

    So, I am "philosophically sophisticated", then... Not by a long shot. Specially after I read the rest of that part, and I saw that yes, science does inform us to a certain extent on things regarding meaning. But I still think the "naturalistic fallacy" objection applies in many cases.

    “So, you are an atheist: what happened?”

    Again, nothing. Or, maybe, everything. I grew up in a Brazilian Catholic family, in a big city (São Paulo). There, I know nobody who goes to church. That's the style, you know, baptisms, weddings, and that's it. My parents believe in god and all that, but are probably what you'd call "non-practicing" Catholics. But I guess it's all a matter of personality more than information and education alone. Sure, you're much more likely to reject superstition if you do have those things. But so many people DO have those things, even way more than I or other atheists I know do, but they still believe in the big daddy in the sky baloney. I did get access to rationalist and scientific writing from an early age, due to my own interest (my parents are simple people, so to speak, who were never in contact with science, even in school). I asked for Sagan's "Cosmos" book when I was about 8 years old -- I was fascinated by the TV series, which was shown there at that time. And I was crazy about the children stories written by a Brazilian author from early to mid 20th century, Monteiro Lobato. He was kind of a positivist, I think, and valued science and education to great extents. His stories would tell you what was know at the time about how petroleum forms, for example. Or geography. Or math and Portuguese. Or greco-roman mythology (he was big on classical stuff too).

    So basically, like thebrummell and others, I have never really believed, or even cared for a long time. When I finally did care enough to question myself to "what am I?" (late teens, I believe), I just noticed I could not believe those things, they make no sense and that's how the world is.

    Now, speaking for others. In our RRNA meetings we have spoken about this "conversion moment" thing, and I don't recall any traumatic story, really, among the 30 or so stories I might have heard over the years. It was always "never needed/ never made sense/ never believed", or "believed, then slowly changed" because "finally read the Bible/ things don't fit/ don't make sense after all". The only problem that seems to show its ugly head more frequently is that of acceptance by family, friends and/or coworkers AFTER the "conversion" (or should we say "reversion" as the Muslims do, since we're all born atheists?), and the pain it sometimes can cause.

  12. Another thing, to break one awfully long post in two awfully long posts: the testing of the "god hypothesis".

    Well, to me it seems people mix things up here. By what I remember of Dawkins writings, he is mostly talking about testing the claims of religions, and not the existence of god(s). That's an important distinction to me.

    Because if someone is stupid/hardheaded/ whatever enough to say the Universe is ~6000 years old, that only shows... what? That some people are completely out of touch with anything remotely reasonable. If you assume that god can only exist if this loony religion (or some other) is completely true, then yes, by testing religions' claims you are testing the existence of god. But I do not think that needs to be the case at all. It's perfectly possible that god(s) (or aliens in Andromeda) exist but no religion that exists or has ever existed or will ever exist knows anything about such god(s). Then what?

    And any god worth its salt will be SUPERnatural, right? It won't play by our merely-mortal rules, right? It will be able to stay there and not be noticed if it wants too, or make the Universe in such a way that you wouldn't see anything indicative of god's existence even if you tried. How do you test for THAT type of irrational, out-of-the-world thing? The same way you test for the Invisible Pink Unicorn, methinks.

    That's why I say that, strictly speaking, I'm an agnostic atheist...

  13. Regarding the New Atheism. I have not read any of the recent books, however I am familiar with the main jests of their arguments from shorter articles, interview, reviews, etc.. After reading criticism of Harris by Taner Edis over at the Secular Outpost (also see his article in this month's Free Inquiry): and also criticisms by Atheist Ethicist Alonzo Fyfe of Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens, I have been persuaded that they oversimplify alot of issues.



    Harris may be somewhat correct in his arguments that religious moderates provide cover for religious extremists, in attempting to make religious belief immune from criticism. However, I think some atheists are beggining to paint religious believers with to broad of a brush. We need to see distinctions among their various stripes.

    Second question. First, I think we can put value on the pursuit of knowledge, and derive meaning from that pursuit of knowledge. Which I think is a little different from saying that scientific knowledge somehow dictates some specific trancendant "meaning of life" to us. The latter of course would be wrong. Does that make any sense?

    Finally, I am an atheist, what happened? I was raised in a very strict religious home, Jehovah's Witnesses! As I recall, starting at about 14, I started doubting the beliefs that I was told I had to believe. Certainly part of it was simple teenage rebellion and wanting to get off the "straight and narrow" path and on to a "funner path". But alot of it was intellectual. I simply started to think that none of this stuff could really be true. Somehow I had come across Corliss Lamont's book on humanism, read it, and said "Thats what I am, a humanist".

    The traumatic part were the battles I fought with my parents to be who I wanted to be. I refused to go to church, and they attempted to force me. This came to the point of near violence with my father. I moved out of the house at 16, worked to support myself while I stayed in high school, but barely graduated because of all this.

  14. 1. For me the writings of the New Atheists are very important. I am not from the midwest but am stuck here, and as someone else noted it can be difficult to challenge assumptions of faith. For whatever their particular flaws, the books as a whole are inspiring and a breath of fresh air to those of us really on the "front lines" of this cultural divide. I can tell you that seeing Dawkins at a lecture nearby was like a rock concert for atheists and agnostics. The details of his comments were less important than the "permission" to hang out together for one night and see we were not alone. For me, that aspect of the new atheists is far more important than the details of any of the books. Putting the scarlet A sticker on my car here is not a meaningless or entirely safe act.

    That said, of course all have flaws in some way (what book doesn't). Dawkins is very much guilty of scientism (as you call it in Denying Evolution) and is naive to the point of silliness about philosophical matters. Harris tends to oversimplify, but what preacher of jeremiads does not? Dennet is overly laborious, as is the wont of philosophers. Hitchens is a jerk, but in this book at least he is "our" jerk, and that is itself refreshing in the same way that Franken is a nice antidote to Limbaugh, even if Franken doesn't improve the public discourse. Hitchens is also, of course, by far the best writer of the bunch and a treat to read whenever one agrees with him.

    A naturalistic worldview is important to me in many ways, and in terms of the atheist issue it mostly affects me in terms of laying bare the essential silliness of the "god hypothesis." I also have always enjoyed science despite my status as a Humanities guy, so it probably informs my perspective in ways I have not (yet) bothered to fully identify.

    I was brought up a modernist protestant. It never did much for me, but when I lived in places not dominated by evangelicals I did not much worry about them. My definite, and defiant, stance as an atheist has everything to do with living and teaching in a place dominated by poor education and much religion. In particular, the damage that I see that religion does to the basic level of knowledge and awareness of my students appalls me. I also see an urgency and level of importance in this "culture war" that has forced me to take sides in a more open way than I felt I had to in other places. So - no trauma except the trauma that I see everywhere around me done in the name of god.

  15. Michael Shermer's open letter to the "new" atheists can be found here.

  16. My concern is the "new journalism" which seems to assign a strong Christian to review each or all three of these books.

    Each review seems to be based on an agenda to trash the author and the book, just like a theater review where one sees the play and wonders if the reviewer saw the whole play, these book reviews seem to reek of the possibility that the reviewer did not really read the book with an open objective mind.

    If the papers would assign a Moslem to critique Christian events and atheist writers to critique both then I will ignore the "new journalism"

  17. I think the new atheism is great. I doubt any sort of backlash is going to make religious types dislike atheists more than they already do. On the other hand, I think the books may embolden more atheists to come out, and that can only be a good thing. Also, while Dawkins' book (which I admit I haven't read) seems more like a retread of something like G.H. Smith's "Atheism: The Case Agaist God," Dennet's book is more of a contribution to our understanding of religious belief itself, thus the most valuable of the three, and the least inflammatory. Dawkins' book is a start, as a sort of bulldozer to the rotted hulk of religion, but Dennett's book lays the foundation to build something better in its place.

    I think that Hume was (partly) wrong. I think science can inform moral debates such as the issue of abortion. I find Richard Carrier's argument on the Secular Web very persuasive, i.e. that what we call a personality cannot begin to exist until the cerebral cortex of a fetus begins to develop. Through science, we now know when that happens, and thus can make a more informed decision about when abortions should be allowed. DNA evidence tells us how closely we are related to other animals and should force people to re-think how we treat our distant cousins. Maybe I've missed the point of Hume's argument, but it seems like we OUGHT to treat chimps well, because they ARE related to us.

    Anyway, on to #3. I wasn't really raised religious, and after talking about the subject with my father and grandfather, it seems that a certain freethinking tendency runs in the Talbott bloodline. Anyway, I've always been kind of a science lover, but when I got to high school I thought maybe I should give this religion thing a fair shot. So, I started going to a baptist church w/ some friends from school. Needless to say, after about a year I hadn't been convinced of anything. Then I started reading books on my own, and went from being merely agnostic to confidently atheist.


  18. disposable_americanSeptember 04, 2007 11:00 PM

    First question: IMHO (OK maybe not so humble), there's nothing wrong with the New Atheism except that repulsive term. The only New thing is that books arguing the non-believer's perspective can be successful in the popular non-fiction market. And as far as atheism is concerned I don't know why we need a special term for folks who don't make a distinction between not buying into the god beliefs of the Abrahamic religions (which is what all the current fuss is about) and not buying into all of the other god beliefs in recorded history. As Dawkins would say, Christians, Jews and Muslims are all atheists when it comes to Zeus, Odin or (your god here) - some of us just go one god further.

    I loved The End of Faith, The God Delusion and Stenger's God - The Failed Hypothesis. I haven't read Dennett's stuff yet. Yes, if you're a believer the authors get in your face. So what? Those of us who aren't believers have delusional, batshit religious crap shoved in our face 24x365 as if it were self-evident truth. Our point of view is openly marginalized without a second thought in our so-called pluralistic, secular society. We're so repulsive to mainline society that they would rather elect a gay, Muslim president (note - I make this comparison because of how other folks feel about gays and Muslims, not how I do) than someone who either rejects Bronze Age tribal mythologies as a life philosophy and refuses to put on a public act to cynically pander to those who do.

    So some believers (and even some non-beleivers) may be put off by the tone of Harris and Dawkins. Well cry me a f***ing river. It isn't Dawkins, Harris, Dennett that are saying that religious believers are unfit to hold public office or are not even citizens (ala Bush the elder). It isn't non-believers that are pretentiously inserting their argument into high school graduation ceremonies because no one could possibly object.

    By social convention religionists have been allowed to place a rather heavy thumb on the scale of intellectual discourse by ruling critical examination of their beliefs as impermissible. All Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens and Dennett are doing is, quite sensibly, calling bullshit on that convention and hauling religious beliefs into the light where we can get a good look at them. If religionists are so confident that they're right then what's the problem?

    If what they believe in is so compelling, so self-evident and so righteous then what do they have to fear? It's comical to hear them whining about how they're under attack by secularism. It's as if they're offended that there's anyone who dares have the audacity to find fault with their teachings and say so in public.

    They're like Microsoft, living in fear that if anyone at all is exposed to a non-Redmondian piece of software that their entire empire will tumble. Well, yes that might happen, but if it does it's because your empire lacked the substance you claimed for it and could be preserved only by the artificial suppression of more deserving alternatives.

    Second Question: I'm not a philosopher or a student of that discipline but I do take the point about how an is doesn't imply an ought. However, for me science does inform what meaning I can find in life. Science tells us quite a bit about the nature of our existence, the impermanence of things, the role of chance and the place of our species in the great order of things. I take from all of this not a small bit if guidance on how to live my life.

    Third question: I received the standard Roman Catholic indoctrination in my youth but I guess you could say it never took. The story religion told never added up for me and as soon as I deduced that there would be no parental repercussions (early teens) I ditched religion for good. I had only been putting on a pretense for some time before that so it wasn't a great leap. I guess skepticism was something that came naturally to me.

  19. Sorry for the delay in contributing.

    1. The New Atheism. While provocation is not my style, these people are making an impact. I appreciate this confrontative challenge to religion and belief. I wish they had a different sense of tact in making their uncompromising points, but it takes a certain imperfection of character to boldly enter and remain in the fray.

    My knowledge of philosophy is cursory. However, it seems to me that insights from the sciences should be able to alter the discussion of God from what was accesible to philosophers from ancient times and even those of the recent past. Yet I admit that I am the type whose eyes glaze over when reading tracts on epistemology.

    2. Does science inform my meaning of life? Yes. Having already incorporated an atheistic and existentialist philosophy in early adolescence, science continues to reinforce my personal philosophy. In a different vein, it also gives me insight into my "altruistic" actions, which is a large part of how I define myself and the "meaning" of my life as seen by others.

    3. What happened? I just remember questioning the God of Bible stories as a child, and then questioning the broader "more sophisticated" God concepts in adolescence. Reading works by "adults" who shared my skepticism (Voltaire, Joseph Heller, Camus, others) validated my atheism as not being simple adolescent musings, and helped me to overcome in my own mind those criticisms that I simply was too immature and unsophisticated to understand the concept of God.

  20. I haven’t read the books discussed, but I have read other works by these writers. I tend to prefer the “more flies with honey” approach, but I have to say, at least these guys are getting the issues out there to the general public. It’s been some time since that happened.

    One thing that does bother me is when these guys (or even Rational Response Squad) get characterized as “militant” atheists. Last I checked, Dawkins isn’t advocating flying airplanes into churches. Hitchens hasn’t suggested a holy war with Christians. They wrote books critical of religion. Big deal.

    If these guys are militant then what are Pat Robertson, Fred Phelps or Ken Ham?


  21. Question 2:

    I guess science informs my meaning of life in that I try to keep abreast of what science learns about the human condition and I try to take that into account when thinking about the meaning of life.

    Question 3:

    I was Catholic and “converted” to atheism, but not through some traumatic event. I just eventually decided, after struggling with faith for a very long time, to admit that I didn’t believe. For a long time I thought I “had to believe in something” and I prayed often that God would “show me the way”. Once I realized it was O.K. to not believe, my life got a lot better.


  22. I don't have much to add to Q1&2, but in regards to Q3 I have found that my experience is somewhat different than others, in that it was not informed directly by science or an objection to my faith's views on, say, homosexuality or miracles. Until about the end of high school, belonged to a "liberal" and "sophisticated" episcopalian church. Since the bible could essentially be interpreted any way we wanted, there was never a problem inserting science or cherished beliefs into faith. Perhaps ironically, it was studying the humanities (history and cultural anthropology) that made me seriously question belief in god. It became clear how "man-made" religion was and studying other religions and cultures made me realize that there was no way to reject their faiths without rejecting my own. Consequently, I fell back into deism, believing that all the world's religions were not to be taken literally and were perhaps approaching some underlying reality. Deism and liberal theology are easy because it doesn't make any strong claims about reality and doesn't offend most people, but eventually it just became too obvious there was no god at all. I had never read anything from public atheists like Russell or Dawkins, but having read many since then, it has only confirmed what I arrived at myself. And, of course, there was no major crisis in my life that precipitated atheism.

  23. 1) You want to know what's wrong with the "New Atheism"? People who should have better sense keep asking stupid questions like "What's wrong with the New Atheism?". [rim shot!!]
    "New Atheism" is a contrivance : a false moniker meant to marginalize atheists from public discourse and to set wedges between them. Why assist with the framing and perpetuation of this pseudo issue?

    2) Science does more to dissuade me from subscribing to readymade claptrap as regards "my meaning of life" than in informing any teleological declarations. I tend to favor mythologist Joseph Campbell's take on the issue (to quote from dim memory/paraphrase):
    "People are more in need of a sense of being alive; of living fully in the moment, ...of being in possession of their lives ... than in needing a 'meaning of life' , per say."

    3) Raised catholic in an Irish catholic neighborhood in NYC. I was very religious and though I wouldn't admit it, I wanted very much to become a priest or religious and tend to "people's most important needs"--[read as "messiah complex"/desire to please the adults in my life].
    Still, even as a young person, there were "things that didn't quite add up". I attributed this to my lack of understanding. After all, no modern american would turn their lives over to a convoluted and contradictory belief system. Right?
    So if I just persisted... I went as far as the seminary door with the intent of finding our how it all fit together into some coherent whole before I admitted to myself it was a just a lot of baloney [Which was quite a big turnaround for the little suck-up to authority/conventionalism I was at the time]. Investigated about a half-dozen other religions... found them similarly lacking. Became a deist... found out the "first cause" argument didn't hold up ... became an atheist.

  24. Let me just add a reading recommendation to the list of books related to the so called New Atheists. I suggest you take a look to Victor Stenger's 'God: the failed hypothesis' which seems to have impressed Dawkins himself. It has a less passionate tone than God's Delusion (no doubt the writing is a bit dull but not the content) and some reader could like this.

  25. The first question is important. I agree with "Alan" and with Shermer as referenced by "J" above that atheism itself is less important than liberty.

    It's also less important than kindness, and the "new atheism" as I understand it isn't characterized by kindness.

    Question two: science provides the best approach I know to understanding the universe. Other disciplines may foster a sense of its meaning if it has one.

    Question three: as with "thebrummell", nothing happened to me. Atheism just made more and more sense as I continued to think about it.


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