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, March 03, 2011

The problem with atheism, a Buddhist perspective

by Massimo Pigliucci
No, I have not converted to Buddhism. And yes, I am still an atheist. That said, I’ve been reading a book recommended by a friend of mine, Brad Warner’s Sex, Sin and Zen, which has given me the opportunity to run a little informal experiment about which I’ll tell you in a minute.
Warner is a Zen Buddhist monk, and the book is a light-hearted exploration of what Buddhism has to say regarding one of the things we care most about in life: sex. But this post, alas, is not about sex. Instead, it is about the reaction I got on my “official” Facebook page when I posted the following quote from the book (you can find the exact thread here):
Atheism, as rational and sensible as it is, will never be an adequate substitute for religion. It's like trying to substitute actual eating with a superbly argued essay on food.
The quote comes from a context in which Warner was discussing an article by Elisabeth Cornwell entitled “Why women are bound to religion: an evolutionary perspective,” which makes the commonsense argument that “in order for women to abandon religion and its securities, there needs to be something tangible to replace the support it offers.” Warner then goes on to explain that Buddha realized that “religion and spirituality were pretty much fucked up. But he also understood the very important role they play in human society. As Cornwell points out in her article on the evolution of religion, religion serves a need much, much deeper than anything the intellect can ever hope to reach.” And it is this passage that is followed by the quote I posted on Facebook.
I thought this was all obviously true, and in fact reflects a standing debate within both the atheist and secular humanist communities (they overlap, but they are most certainly not identical) to explain why religion — pace Nietzsche — is still very much alive and well in the 21st century. The response I got from my Facebook friends was somewhat surprising. There were more than 20 comments within a matter of minutes (35 as of the time of this writing), with 3,666 “impressions” (a number that Facebook provides to give you an idea of how many people have seen your post on their Wall —- the 666 figure is, I take it, just a coincidence).
If you scroll through the comments, two patterns emerge: first, most people missed what I thought was the obvious point of the quote (granted, I had the advantage of having read the full chapter, but still); second, the overwhelming majority of the posts were defensive to the utmost degree. Here is a sample:
"Avoiding wood alcohol, as rational and sensible as it is, will never be an adequate substitute for wood alcohol. It's like trying to substitute actual eating with a superbly argued essay on food."
"Whoever said that atheism is supposed to be a substitute for religion? I am an atheist and I do not want a substitute for religion. If I missed religion, I'd get myself some."
"This is a silly analogy. One could just as well say it's trying to substitute injecting yourself with syphilis with a superbly argued essay on not being a jackass."
"And I suppose that not collecting stamps is not a substitute for a hobby either..."
"If you really want baloney, you can still go to the supermarket."
"An aphorism can never be an adequate substitute for more complex writing. It is an argument from authority which uses a specific poetic approach to make the ideas more appealing."
"We're all born atheists. It' religion that's the substitute."
"Atheism does not contain ritual, ceremony, or practice, and so is not like eating."
"Avoiding poison, as rational and sensible as it is, will never be an adequate substitute for eating poison."
"Atheism could never be a substitute for religion, in the same way that not stamp collecting could never be a substitute for stamp collecting."
"This implies an unsubstantiated hunger that is not recognized by fulfilled agnostics."
You get the gist. There were, of course, also some readers who took the quote as an indication of a serious problem:
"Instead of substituting religion, if we start reflecting upon the need to fill the void it may get us some where... and in the process, hopefully, not fill the void with magic and wishful thinking."
"The bare thesis of atheism provides none of the social supports, ethical guidelines, or cosmological-metaphysical closure of religion. Humanism, however, can and does."
"There is a hole that needs filling (physical and metaphysical explanations, justifications for moral codes, social cohesion, sense of community, belonging, purpose, common goals, etc.) and religion just happened to develop in order to fill that hole."
"Atheism isn't in the business of replacing religion. Humanism is. Atheism is the demolition phase. Humanism is the new foundation."
The first set of quotes (and similar others on the thread) reflect an all too common reflexive attitude by several of my fellow atheists, a “(rhetorically) shoot first and understand later” sort of approach which is not exactly conducive to constructive discourse. This reflexive attitude seems to be based on two underlying assumptions: first, that whatever comes from religion must be bad, by definition; second, that atheists don’t need to do much more than point out how silly the other side is, and we are done. Both assumptions are highly questionable.
Without getting into a long history of both Western and Eastern thought — a history in which religions have played a major positive as well as negative role regardless of how much we would like them to play only a negative one — it seems to me undeniable that religions do indeed, as Buddha recognized and Warner re-articulated, fill a fundamental human psychological niche. That niche has to do not just with explanations of how the world works (an area in which science has steadily and inexorably overtaken religion even in the mind of many religious people), but with meaning, emotions, ethics, and the specter of final and total annihilation of the self.
It is these latter dimensions of the niche that most people refer to as “spirituality,” and neither science nor atheism can do a damn thing about them, unfortunately. Science can tell us which parts of the brain are responsible for our emotions, or are used when we engage in moral decision making, but that’s a completely different set of questions that has only a superficial bearing on the real issues.
Before you start furiously hitting your keyboard to pen long and angry responses to the above paragraph, please pause to think that nothing I am writing here can reasonably be construed as a defense of religion. But it is a (partial) explanation of why religion persists despite literally millennia of attempts by the secular-rational community to get rid of it. It is a fact that we better face and analyze, rather than run away from.
Which brings me to the second assumption that seems to underlie many of my readers’ responses: surely once we explain to people that there are no gods, once we break the spell to use my friend Daniel Dennett’s phrase, people will flock to atheism in droves and we’ll be done with religion once and for all. Hence the popularity in certain quarters of the New Atheists’ attacks on religion — as well as their abysmal failure to make a dent in the phenomenon of religion itself. To be fair, one can hardly expect a handful of books to change society (well, except for the Old Testament, or the Christian Gospels, or the Quran, or the Vedas, or the Theravada, or...), but the disheartening fact is that there really isn’t anything new in the New Atheism. As documented by Jennifer Michael Hecht in her super Doubt: A History we have been going at it for millennia, and yet religions persist, largely unperturbed by the barrage of rational arguments against them. Do you see why Warner is right, that we do have a problem?
The quotes from my Facebook responses which struck closest to what I think is a good analysis are those that present atheism as the first of two punches that the secular movement is attempting to deliver to the religious juggernaut, what philosopher Francis Bacon (in the context of how science works) called the pars destruens (the project of destruction). Bacon then argued that one doesn’t get very far by just demolishing things, one has to build something in their stead, what he termed the pars construens (the construction project). Here the pars construens can be played by secular humanism, which — unlike atheism — is a philosophy with positive values.
There are a couple of problems, however. I have already nodded at the most obvious one: not all atheists are secular humanists. This is because it is easier to agree on what we all do not believe than on what we do believe. Secular humanism, at least as presented in the various Humanist Manifestos, adopts a number of positions that are clearly reflective of European style progressive liberalism, which means that our libertarian friends (a sizable minority within the atheism movement), not to mention the comparatively few (in my experience) conservative atheists, immediately (and ill advisedly, in my opinion) jump ship. I know a good number of atheists who proudly distance themselves from secular humanism.
The other thing is, humanist groups and even humanist inspired congregations have been around for quite some time now, but they haven’t made much of a dent. Think of the American Humanist Association, the Council for Secular Humanism, the Society for Ethical Culture, the American Ethical Union, and even — to some extent — the Unitarians. I mean, it’s not like we haven’t been trying. But have you been at any meetings or platforms of any of these groups? They are usually attended by a small number of people, more often than not with a population characterized by an aging demographic. They are simply not going to be the response to religion that we are looking for, no matter how much good they do for the people that support them.
So we do have a problem, and we don’t seem to know what to do about it. Let me leave you with a few more thoughts from Warner — not because I endorse everything he says (I’m certainly not about to enlist as a Buddhist), but because it provides us with much food for thought, if we can manage to stop the damn knee-jerk reaction that is sure to powerfully present itself a few lines into his writings:
"A lot of people consider Buddhism a form of atheism. In a sense it is, in that it does not have a god in the usual sense of the word. We don’t have a deity figure. We don’t have a creation myth. We don’t fear reprisals from cosmic grandpa if we fail to worship him properly. Yet ... the universe in Buddhist terms is not dead matter or a cosmic void. It is a living, intelligent thing we all partake in. ... If God is a big ‘ol white dude in the sky who smites sinners and rewards football players, then I’m an atheist. If God exists outside the universe, I’m an atheist. If God cares more for one religion than another, I’m an atheist. And if God believes that women are inferior to men, I’m an atheist. ... I don’t worship God as an old man on a throne beyond the orbit of Jupiter, but I do worship the universe. The universe is more than dead matter. It’s more than insubstantial spirit."
Well, I don’t think the universe is any such thing, but clearly our message is much harder to successfully deliver. Is there any way around this, or is secularism forever destined to be a minority position among humankind?


  1. Epic troll, Massimo. LOL!!!

    I actually agree with you on most of this: atheism ain't a value system or life philosophy, and if you want those things (you should), then you'll have to look elsewhere. I might suggest starting with "How shall we live" by Peter Singer.

    But the quote is still a bad one, in the same way as "science can never comfort your dying grandma" is a bad quote. Sure, they're both true, but without further clarification the hidden inference (and the author's intended meaning) is toward "therefore, you should abandon atheism/science."

  2. I must agree with Ianpollock there, but also add that considering the source of the quote is also important. We know this is coming from a practicing Buddhist, therefore we can understandably assume that his meaning will be what Ianpollock stated. I think we may also assume that even if there was no attribution to the quote.

    However, if this quote was coming from a known atheist, would we assume the same thing? If Massimo said or wrote it, would we assume he was trying to convert us to religion?

  3. I get the impression that Buddhism postulates a universe even more more dead than Western materialism. Western atheists writes books arguing against "the god delusion," but Buddhists write ones arguing against "the self delusion." Buddhists reject the idea of a god because they question the theory of mind in general.

    1. Being a Buddhist, I can try to clarify. Buddhism teaches that the nature of things is mind, or that mental perceptions create our world. What we care about is what we tend to see. We ignore all else. Things do not have intrinsic self - we impute the concept 'table' onto a sensory impression. So the universe is seen in the more profound school - Shentong philosophy - as the union of awareness and emptiness. Emptiness is the intangibility and indescribability of, well, anything.

      Check out misterkel.wordpress.com for Buddha is an Atheist book and discussion.

  4. Perhaps because I still harbor many fond memories of my religious period (which occupied me for most of the 90's), this is a topic that's near and dear to my heart.

    Look, nowadays, I harbor about as much desire for a universe that's "a living, intelligent thing" as I do for a "cosmic grandpa." Neither belief has much going for it, empirically speaking, and any belief system that either clashes with or strays too far from scientific evidence has a credibility issue. More to the point, this issue detracts from my religious experience, leading me to seek out more secular alternatives (e.g. art, music, drama, etc.).

    That said, it's no more rational to expect atheists to be a monolithic group as it is to expect religious folks to be, and I probably have a lot in common with folks like Warner. So what if metaphysical doctrine isn't one of them?

    1. What evidence?

      Science so far has not produced a coherent theory for deciding what is and is not conscious, what can and can not think.

      Incoming signals come into the brain, they are turned into electric impulses that are then distributed through it and then out come outputs based on these signals, both signals received in the present and signals stored in the brain as what we know as memory.

      For something to exist that does not respond to other forces of nature is impossible or at least its existence would be irrelevant and forever unknowable. Why when materially all our brains are are things that receive inputs from nature and respond would this produce an experience of that but not for other forms of matter? I have never heard any coherent theory on this, so I assume that all matter has conscious awareness of some kind. Granted, this may be very simple and I use the word conscious in the broadest manner possible. Even if it experiences stimuli for only a moment only to respond and then forget it forever or even forget and then respond that's still consciousness of a sort because it is experiencing. Just like an Alzheimer's patient whose memory may have degraded to a similar point is still conscious even if it their conscious awareness is limited, it still exists.

  5. Great post, Massimo! I might not be a religious apologetic at all, but I think you're spot on with your point here.

    I think us atheists/scientists focus so much on giving explanations of the universe, where most people honestly don't care. Most people don't care how something work, as long as it works. Or how old the universe is. Before their time it simply doesn't matter. For a large number of people, even using infallible logic to show them where they've been going wrong isn't going to put a dent in their belief, which gives them the things you mention and not some "explanation" per se. Their lives simply aren't about achieving a logical, rational harmony that many of us find satisfying.

    So what can we do? I can't think of anything apart from giving the actual scientific explanations to young kids and hope that the belief that they settle on is as rational as possible. Otherwise humans will be humans in my book. Current religions might die out eventually (probably not), but anyone who thinks that the majority of the human race will ever be close to rational well... don't understand humans :).

  6. I think it's wrong to assume secularists need to provide people who leave religion an explicitly secular alternative to religion. Sure, some here and there is nice and good. But there is an existing secular culture that people can and should tap into -- and only by the advance of secular thought, not explicitly secular communities, will that culture expand.

  7. I think that expecting any single atheist/secular humanist/whatever philosophy to become dominant is as misguided as a believer expecting his "one true religion" to overtake all of the others. Even the officially atheist Chinese communist government has been unable to stamp out religion by violent acts such as killing Falun Gong practitioners to sell their organs for transplant. Diversity is the natural state of things, including in human culture. It should be no surprise that non-believers are also diverse in their thought and practices. It has always been misguided to try to homogenize cultural practices, yet humans keep trying to do it through law and war.

  8. BuddhaS are worshiped because of their virtuous deeds and wisdom, not because they possess any supernatural powers.

  9. Michael,

    In keeping with my prior comment, I agree.

    But, on the other hand, the fears that so often attend the idea of "losing one's religion" can be a huge mental obstacle to the advance of secular thought. In such cases, an explicitly secular community of some kind may be the only way to foster that ideal.

    In my case, I mostly found such support in virtual/online communities, starting with exposure to more liberal adherents in religious forums and then gradually increasing my exposure to secular (and skeptical) thought, while weaning myself away from religious involvement.

    So, I'm not necessarily suggesting that a physical church substitute is required, and even that kind of support may only be temporary - until one is able to stand on one's own two feet, totally free of religious affiliation, as I have been now for several years.

  10. The solution lies not in trying to teach obese adults to prefer a good meal to deep fried crap but in raising healthy eating individuals.

    We shouldn't compete with religion because we can't. They promise you everything (just pay in advance will you) and we promise nothing but what is directly accessible to them.

    The only way to marginalize religion is to reform education. We need new and better grown ups. Luckily, by placing the shiny turd that is the internet in front of humanity, good thinking will come from experiencing a lot of shit. Formalizing it in education will make humans more aware of what they have been eating when it's in front of them.

  11. Massimo:

    Since you had the advantage of having read the full chapter, please explain the point of the quote. So far I could not make it out from your post.

  12. Now Massimo. Lots of sniping at the wrong kind of atheists there, but you do some wrong kinding yourself. For instance:

    "the second assumption that seems to underlie many of my readers’ responses: surely once we explain to people that there are no gods, once we break the spell to use my friend Daniel Dennett’s phrase, people will flock to atheism in droves and we’ll be done with religion once and for all. Hence the popularity in certain quarters of the New Atheists’ attacks on religion — as well as their abysmal failure to make a dent in the phenomenon of religion itself."

    Come on. Nobody thinks people are going to flock to atheism in droves and then poof religion will vanish. And what abysmal failure to make a dent? Do you know that? Is it true? "New" atheists have had no effect at all?

  13. @ Michael De Dora
    I think it’s wrong to assume that the religious believe as they do for intellectual reasons. I very much doubt that many people turn to Catholicism, for instance, because they think transubstantiation is an intellectually sound idea – I doubt their thinking faculties are engaged much at all. Rather, I think what keeps believers faithful are warm fuzzy feelings inspired by the closeness they have with their religious community – that’s powerful shit.

    When it comes to debating the faithful, then, I think atheists often take the wrong approach altogether. It strikes me as fundamentally mistaken to attack a belief intellectually when believers don’t even believe for intellectual reasons: to renounce their faith isn’t, for them, merely to renounce silly, irrational beliefs; rather, it’s to reject their entire social network – friends and family. That said, I don’t think it’s appropriate to stop the intellectual onslaught of religious belief and other irrationalisms, but I do think it’s inappropriate (and remarkably misguided) to rely on the force of reason alone.

    You claim, Michael, that it’s wrong to assume that secularists need to provide an alternative to religious communities, yet then go to highlight secular culture as… an alternative? I think you may fundamentally misunderstand our social nature if think “only by the advance of secular thought, not explicitly secular communities, will that culture expand.” I think this presumes that “thought” is the primary driving force behind culture: all we need to do is just continue to spread the good news of rationality. Is that really your position, or have I misunderstood?

  14. Mark Plus is right. It is the Buddhist view of the mind (and the absolute faith in cause and effect) that means I can honestly view myself as a skeptic and also a Buddhist.

  15. Warner: "The universe is more than dead matter. It’s more than insubstantial spirit."
    Massimo: "Well, I don’t think the universe is any such thing."

    Our own intelligent exercise of cooperative and competitive strategies comes from an otherwise dead collection of universal matter, devoid of any inkling of the deliberateness of its ordered processes? Who knew?

  16. There's an important difference between a need for food, and the needs fulfilled by religion. The need for food is very well-defined, constant among all humans, and impossible to ignore. The needs fulfilled by religion, on the other hand, are very plastic, and vary from person to person.

    For instance, I have never felt the need for anything resembling spirituality, not now, and not when I was religious. Even if atheism were able to provide that, and provide it effectively, I would still ignore it. I do not know if I am in the minority in feeling this way, but I recognize the possibility.

    So what am I supposed to do about it? I can't do anything, because I don't feel the need, and don't even understand it. The people who can do something about it are the people who themselves feel the need. I sure hope some of those people are atheists!

    That's just one example. The broader point is that we need to recognize that not everyone needs the same things. If one person feels satisfied as an atheist, maybe that's because they don't need the same things as other people, or because their needs are plastic. We cannot assume that everyone would feel just as satisfied in the same position.

  17. Jeff,

    I said it was wrong to assume we need to build explicitly secular churches and social groups en masse to replace disappearing religion. There are plenty of church-like places and social groups that are secular -- but not explicitly -- that people can and should take advantage of. More will arise, or at least become apparent, as the culture becomes more secular, and I think the culture will only become more secular as secular thinking becomes more widespread. The ideas come first, not the communities. People might love the community they find at their church, but they wouldn't go if they didn't believe in God, etc.

  18. JCM,

    To be sure, I'm not arguing that we should be against the formation of explicitly secular communities. Heck, I work for an organization that tries to do exactly that (form secular communities). I just think it should be lower on our list of "things we need to do." The communities will come with the spread of the ideas.

  19. Massimo, I have to be honest, the quote you posted in Facebook, without any other comment on your part or explanation of context, got the kind of responses it deserved, I'm afraid. You do have a point that for some people, their psychological needs won't be filled without religion, but I think as religion continues to phase out, like it has n many countries already, that need will phase out and be replaced by a different sense of community, or rather, many different types of social communities and institutions.


  20. Michael: People might love the community they find at their church, but they wouldn't go if they didn't believe in God, etc.

    You'd be surprised by the number of atheist and agnostic church- and synagogue-goers that I've met, read, or listened to over the years. (Just to drop a couple of names that you might recognize: Robert M. Price and Ursula Goodenough.)

    For that matter, I attended synagogue long after I decided that I no longer believed in the God of the Hebrew Bible (in any of his variant portrayals), or much else that I read in it.

    Irrational? Perhaps, but that's the kind of animal I am.

  21. Wait, what? Robert Price goes to church? What kind of church?

  22. jcm, maybe it's irrational, but I've observed the same thing. Which of course speaks directly to the need Warner is talking about - even among (some) atheists!

    gralm, well, the point of the quote is that (most) people have a need that is emotional, not rational, and that therefore is not affected by rational or evidence-based arguments about the non-existence of gods.


    > Nobody thinks people are going to flock to atheism in droves and then poof religion will vanish. <

    Right, but why not? I mean, we got the arguments... This is similar to why people don't start believing in evolution, or climate change, just because the other side has the clear upper hand in terms of evidence.

    > what abysmal failure to make a dent? Do you know that? Is it true? "New" atheists have had no effect at all? <

    Ophelia, you know me better than that. Of course I'm not claiming that the new atheist books haven't had *any* effect. But I think it is rather uncontroversial that that sort of book largely caters to the converts. Nothing wrong with that, unless one begins to attach to the effort somewhat pompous labels, like "new" where there isn't much new.

    The NA's efforts are worthwhile, because we do need the rational discourse going. But the point of the quote and the post is that this isn't the sort of thing that will make a dent into the popularity of religious beliefs, which means that we need to come up with something else. That's all.

  23. When I realised that I had become an atheist, I removed myself from the local Neopagan community. This removed a couple of things from me: namely a community support network, and the feeling of transcendence that I felt when I performed rituals. I don't think that there was anything other than these two that I lost.
    I've regained those two, however, the first by joining a re-enactment group (which I would have done anyway, even if I had remained a Neopagan) and the second through Vivaldi, turned up very loud. One of my friends gets the same through U2, but I'm sure you get the gist.
    Our moral structure, in my experience, is taught to us by our parents, not through our religion. Rather, we seek out religious communities that most conform to our personal ideologies and our moral preferences. Of course, I may be biased in this last statement, as I've grown up in a society which offers free choice.

  24. It seems that Europe and probably even the US (Baylor religion survey) is evolving toward being less religious and as a consequence I imagine more humanistic. I think it is that as life gets better (more comfortable and safer), religion tends to fade into the background (weddings & funerals for a while) and maybe disappear completely. So I don't think we atheists/humanists are doomed to be forever in the minority.

  25. Michael,

    You mention that people wouldn’t go to church if they didn’t believe in God, but this doesn’t at all mean that they believe in God for intellectual reasons. Indeed, many Christians can’t even inform you about the basic details of their own church’s official beliefs. Consider even, that small children of devoutly religious parents have almost no intellectual understanding of concepts like God, heaven, hell, etc., yet they still, like their parents, fervently believe. This suggests to me, then, that religious ideas aren’t wholly evaluated on their intellectual merits – if they’re considered intellectually at all.

    So I guess it’s not really the claim that “ideas drive cultural shifts” that I find so objectionable; rather, I think it’s false that ideas rise and fall based on their intellectual merit alone. In that vein, I think building secular communities – vaguely similar to religious communities – actually is, and should be, a priority for atheists. You claim that communities will develop with the spread of secular ideas, but among those that value community above rational thought (which, let’s face it, is most people), the spread of secularism seems fairly doomed from the get-go. And I’m not convinced that that’s a false dichotomy. Even my own atheist “coming-out” story involved ditching my ultra-religious family for what I thought was right – that’s not an easy decision in the least. So if the choice people often face really is between high-minded ideals, or the familiar comfort of friends, family, and a religious community, then why shouldn’t we try to make that decision a bit easier? I certainly wouldn’t mind a cuddlier atheist community.

    I think it’s also important to note that the rest of the world is not NYC, and whatever grand secular culture you may have there, it’s definitely not present in all parts of the country. Echoing jcm, some of us have to go online to find like-minded people – and that’s not at all as satisfying as meeting and interacting face-to-face.

  26. Massimo:
    This piece is one of your better synthesized ones.
    I wonder, if you took a poll, how many of your subscribers are Atheists? Given the chasm of Belief vs Disbelief, how do you think discussions such as this one, as wonderful as I personally find them to be, reaches out to the religious? Let's hope Humanism (not just Speciesism) prevails!

  27. Roshan, I wish I had that kind of data on my readership. I know there are some non-atheists reading this blog, and several posts get reprinted in a number of places, including non-atheist blogs, so hopefully we'll keep the conversation going...

  28. Michael, when last I heard, Price attends an Episcopal church.

    Never underestimate the power of reinterpretation. It takes energy - more than it's worth for many of us - but some atheists are still emotionally invested enough to make the effort. (I believe this qualifies as one of what William James' "prudential" arguments for religious engagement.)

  29. Is there any way around this, or is secularism forever destined to be a minority position among humankind?

    Well I have always said the problem wasn't religion. Religion is just a symptom. The problem is human nature and until human nature changes there will be religion and secularism will be a minority position.

    Since you frame it as a 'problem' and not just a 'condition' a solution is implied and there is one. Find and found the best religion. A religion that has a minimal amount of what's bad about religion and a maximal amount of what is good. I don't think you could eliminate the bad, but minimizing is possible. Perhaps an ad in the paper for a charismatic leader will get you started. L. Ron founded a religion to make money. One could found a religion for more laudable goals.

    So will human nature ever change to favor a rationalistic worldview? If I could make accurate predictions I'd have Randi's million dollars. We live in an era of such vast potential changes with the rapidly growing fields of genetics, robotics and computers that it is really just too hard to tell what will become of us. One thing is pretty sure though. The future wont look like the present and if we last as long as the dinosaurs, well that would be a miracle.

  30. Well, I am among those who do not, have never, felt a religion-shaped hole in their life. Accordingly, I fail to see any problem with the first set of quotes. To give another parable, I do not need to find a substitute for watching soaps on television; I can just do without. There are actually some of us who do not see any evidence for your core assumption that there is a need for religion. Well, maybe it is an empathy issue, maybe I am defective in some way, and many other people are different. I certainly don't claim to understand how people can prefer wishful thinking to reality and special pleading to consistency to the degree that is necessary to prop up something that deserves to be called a religion. I tend to assume that it is simply a question of upbringing, of indoctrination. Some people hear from their parents, "yes, everybody dies, but it is not really bad, is it? We will just be as we were before we were born." And others observe their parents cringing at the mere thought of the transience of life, with "if there is no life after death, everything is worthless" repeated until it sounds self-evident. Change the upbringing, get rid of the perceived need.

    My second point: some of the things you seem to imply as falling under spirituality (always an annoyingly ill-defined term, used in ways as different as a general feeling of optimism to a sneaky euphemism for religious dogma) do not seem to deserve the name religion, and so you will probably find many atheists who will not bother about them. Some general hallucination of connectedness with the universe, for example, does not compel you to legislate against abortion or gay marriage, so who cares?

    About New Atheism, you should know that everybody including the NA themselves knows that the ideas aren't new per se. But where atheists previously fought for issues like not being burned at the stake and not being thrown out of university, we now have the momentum to actually question the privilege granted to religion in the public sphere and be heard by lots of people. Offense instead of defense. That is the "new".

    It is also bizarre to assume that we would be able to see a 50% increase in atheists or something like that a few years after those books came out, and to measure them as a failure if that did not happen. Would you have measured the impact of Das Kapital, the bible, or maybe even Ayn Rand's logorhea with that approach? Anyway, as a borderline historical materialist, I do not believe that merely putting your arguments out there will help anyway, even if you nicely dress them up with a pars construens. The real way to defeat religion and make people secularist (which is all we can hope for anyway) is to have a decent welfare state. Where you don't have that, people need to turn to their tribal or religious leaders for support in times of crisis, and they buy that support with following the tribal or religious rules. Where you have it, people to not need to follow those ridiculous and oppressive rules to survive, and they abandon them just fine on their own.

  31. This was a good post. I have a few comments as a humanist who grew up with religion that isn't touched on. I think that the psychoses is passed down as well. If children are raised in the same box as their parents and never have the will to leave it in search of a new paradigm, then religiosity perpetuates from generation to generation. If we are raised to "need" religion, then we will hold onto it until we find something else to replace that "need" with, as is pointed out in this statement "there needs to be something tangible to replace the support it offers.”. Religion is a crutch, when times get tough or tragedy strikes.

    The punishment/reward system that religion offers is also a stronghold over religionists and it keeps people tethered to their faith. Many religious human beings struggle with accountability and responsibility. "Give it to god" puts the brunt of responsibility onto a higher power so one doesn't have to accept blame or accountability of a situation or outcome, despite it being positive or negative. Why leave, when you get points for staying?

  32. To "good" Buddhists (and Hindus), my response is — karma is as offensive as hell: http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2011/03/karma-as-offensive-as-hell.html

    And, yes, Buddhism may be "atheistic." It's still HIGHLY metaphysical, above all, karma and reincarnation.

    1. Well, you really should pay attention to the 4 solaces in Kalama Sutta!
      Buddha was not asking to have blind faith for a newcomer.

  33. @Alex

    Like you I have never felt a hole in my life that a religion could fill. I find rituals, e.g even such harmless ones as graduations, distasteful. So here we are, a minority inside a minority.

  34. "Nothing wrong with that, unless one begins to attach to the effort somewhat pompous labels, like "new" where there isn't much new."

    Does anyone know who started the "new" thing? I thought it was guardian apologists who did it so they had a nice target to maul without offending any of those nice atheists who keep their mouth shut.

  35. downquark, good question, I'd be curious to know exactly how the label came about. Regardless, the interested parties certainly haven't distanced themselves from it, once the label began to be used.

    Alex, once again we agree on much, but not entirely. I am also among the "minority within a minority" that doesn't feel that whole. I doubt it has to do with empathy, I know several atheists with a hell of a lot more empathy than several theists. Still, that is why atheism will never go mainstream, at least not in our lifetime.

    > About New Atheism, you should know that everybody including the NA themselves knows that the ideas aren't new per se. But where atheists previously fought for issues like not being burned at the stake and not being thrown out of university, we now have the momentum to actually question the privilege granted to religion in the public sphere and be heard by lots of people. Offense instead of defense. That is the "new". <

    Oh give me a break. Nothing between the middle ages and Richard Dawkins? Atheism was vocal, published, and respected well before Dawkins and co. discovered it. Just think of Bertrand Russell's Why I am Not a Christian. Or you can go back all the way to Thomas Paine and Ingersoll. None risked burning at the stake, and all were widely popular.

  36. >downquark, good question, I'd be curious to know exactly how the label came about. Regardless, the interested parties certainly haven't distanced themselves from it, once the label began to be used.<

    Not really true. I have seen numerous discussions on what they should label themselves. Sam Harris wants distance from the word atheist. PZ Myers and Dawkins would rather embrace it. I don't know Dawkins' opinion on the "new" bit.

    In the Guardian comments there was a time where the atheists would strongly protest to the "new" bit. It was only used in the negative sense, like "scientism". I.E. A new atheist is any form of atheism that goes too far (whatever that was). But I have since stopped following those comments.

    I don't think the "new" bit is misleading anyone. The only thing that is new is the popularism of outspoken anti-religious sentiment.

  37. downquark,

    you are correct, Harris doesn't like the label atheism, but I think the "new" term is indeed misleading, and that not even being outspoken is new about the "movement." Frankly, NA appears to me to be the result of the coincidental success of a small number of books by formerly prominent authors (except for Harris), and I doubt there will be much of a follow up. But we shall see.

  38. >Frankly, NA appears to me to be the result of the coincidental success of a small number of books by formerly prominent authors (except for Harris), and I doubt there will be much of a follow up.<

    I would agree with that. I think it's also related to the rise of Islamic and American Christian style fundamentalism.

    But frankly, if you explained your views to an average person off the street they would probably label you as such.

  39. And I forgot. PZ Myers usually mocks the "New" thing. He get's clips of David Hulme and Bertrand Russel and declares them to be New Atheists.



  40. downquark, yes, but then again PZ is not one of the four horsemen (another appellative the authors in question didn't choose, but somehow seem to relish).

  41. Ok sorry, I didn't realise you meant that select few as opposed to the wider bloggers.

    Well we know Harris doesn't like it.

    I will have to rewatch my four horsemen discussion video to see if any mention it.

  42. I believe "New Atheism" was coined by Wired in 2006. Whenever I see people making fun of atheists for claiming to be "new" I just shake my head because it was the critics who made the term.

    But even given the origins, "new" is a relatively neutral term. I think that's why it's stuck.

  43. Buddha thought that the gods were useful, if one wanted material gain. You could sacrifice or perform a ritual, and the gods would give you material favour. He wasn't an atheist, he just didn't think the gods could help one achieve enlightenment. You had to do that, yourself. It is somewhat strangely, the same position that in modern times, 'spiritual' types take towards science.

    So yes, you can't replace religion with atheism, but I think that is because the definition of religion is overly broad and includes many things that aren't really implicitly religious.

    Atheists need to unpack modern 'religion' and separate the wheat from the chaff. Rationalism is NOT 'all there is' to being human.

  44. @Downquark Robert Ingersoll is another atheist (sadly, overlooked here in his U.S. home) between the Middle Ages and modern times.

  45. Loved this post. I've read most of Warner's stuff (but not his latest book) and find you two complimentary as exemplified in your closing:

    Warner: "The universe is more than dead matter. It’s more than insubstantial spirit."

    Pigliucci: Well, I don’t think the universe is any such thing,"

    On this point I tend to favor Warner's attitude which includes 'the observer' that seems lacking in your view. Perhaps you find no value in talking about sound, or anything really, as only making sense if there is both a source and *reception*. I know this view suffers credibility issues and is often dismissed as new age nonsense but if one avoids the silly non-scientific aspects (as Carl Sagan tried to do) I find this perspective on reality to be more compelling and rewarding.

  46. Like I said a year ago, Massimo, you are coming around. At some point you will reject atheism as being intellectually inferior to many of the ideas presented in both your post and comments. Maybe you won't come around to my ideas of information, but you will find something similar which separates Joe's wheat from your chaff.

    I give it 3-5 years, and bet a large bottle of a commercially sold potable of your choosing.

  47. I think atheists need to address the difference between "belief in God" (no good reasons) and "belief in the belief of God" (potentially plenty of good reasons). Disclosure: I first heard of this concept during a Dennett lecture. Most people do not go to church to drink the blood of their savior. Most go to enjoy the sense of community and shared values. You cannot underestimate hearing, "How is your wife? Still sick? Great News on your son's award!". Yes, you can get that from friends but I'm not convinced the overall experience is the same. Even if atheism wiped out the belief in God people would still want this form of fellowship. I think it is an ingrained trait. I have no idea how to get from this point to that point. Coming out of the closet as an atheist, especially to people who assume you are Christian with solid moral values, certainly helps.

  48. Joe, I'm with you (at least part way).

    Here's a quote that aptly sums up my thoughts these days:

    What we mean by "real" is what we need to posit conceptually in order to be realistic, that is, in order to function successfully to survive, to achieve ends, and to arrive at workable understandings of the situations we are in.

    - George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh, pg. 109

    Seen from this angle, rationalism is of largely instrumental value (akin to Hume's "slave of the passions" metaphor) - and so, perhaps, are religious and other non-rational pursuits.

    Paul, I think we heard the same Dennett lecture. His "belief in belief" hypothesis is not only plausible, it sums up a significant chunk of my life.

  49. Paul,

    > Most people do not go to church to drink the blood of their savior. Most go to enjoy the sense of community and shared values. <

    You know, I keep hearing this argument, and there may be some truths in it. But I'd like to see some empirical evidence to back it up. My experience, especially in the South, is that people go to Church for the reason they say they go: because they want to worship their God with fellow worshipers.

    I am a bit suspicious of Dennett's argument about "belief in belief," it just seems a bit too self-serving from the point of view of an atheist.


    > Perhaps you find no value in talking about sound, or anything really, as only making sense if there is both a source and *reception*. <

    Interesting you bring up that example, I discuss it often with my classes. Sound is generated by a combination of air waves and the receptors in one's ear (connected to specific brain structures). So, yes, without a receiver of a particular kind there is no sound. But that's no mystery, and in no way affords any points to mysticism or non-physicalism. Besides, even without receptors there is always air movement...


    > At some point you will reject atheism as being intellectually inferior to many of the ideas presented in both your post and comments ... give it 3-5 years, and bet a large bottle of a commercially sold potable of your choosing. <

    You are on my friend, and you're going to lose. Atheism isn't "inferior" (especially to any religion or mysticism), it's just incomplete and unsatisfying.

  50. Massimo

    That’s not a big list of dead authors. I agree that the atheism is not new. Part of what is new is that these current authors are in your face in the book shop and library.

    Forty years ago as a teenager becoming a Secular Humanist I had no idea there was Russell or Ingersoll or Paine or Hume. They were not in the bookshop staring me in the face. I doubt they were even in the bookshop. I only discovered Russell in the university library. Now there are many authors and titles on the book shelves.

    The other new thing is that the Secular Humanist movement is now connected by the internet. Sorry to state the obvious but where are we talking about this. This has made a major difference in the spread of ideas and debates. Before we had to have religious debates over the dinner table and upset our relatives. Now we can really explore ideas by debating people we don’t and never will know. This is very empowering.

    The tag new Atheist should be rejected. As I think should Atheist. Calling ourselves Atheist is allowing our opponents to define us. It also tells nothing much about a person except they are of a certain opinion on a certain subject. Secular Humanist says heaps about your worldview.

  51. Massimo said to Paul: My experience, especially in the South, is that people go to Church for the reason they say they go: because they want to worship their God with fellow worshipers.

    Do you always trust the reasons that people give to explain their behavior? If so, then I think you'll find (or forget) that the evidence from experimental psychology suggests that that's not a safe bet - even when the subjects' intentions are sincere.

    Still, I agree with you that that's what religious people often say. And, while Dennett's "belief in belief" hypothesis resonates with me, the reasons that he gave for it (if I recall correctly) are based on his personal experience with (philosophically trained) theologians, particularly those willing to admit (if only privately) their doubts about the religious beliefs themselves, while still standing up for them on pragmatic or prudential grounds. I used to do that myself (i.e. after I'd already consumed the forbidden fruits of philosophy and science) and have known others who (again, privately) admit such.

    So, while it may be "self-serving" for an atheist like Dennett to highlight and generalize from these special cases, he's not completely off the mark, IMO.

  52. jcm,

    no, I don't just trust what people tell me. However, it seems that Dennett's "evidence" is of the same type, and much more clearly undermined by the fact that he was talking to intellectually and philosophically sophisticated people. I do think he's off the mark as far as the general public is concerned, and that he is indulging in a significant amount of wishful thinking.

  53. Massimo,

    I'm not sure that Dennett intended to describe the way the general public thinks (as opposed to the way a particular segment of it thinks), but I admit that it's been a while since I heard that lecture (and I'm too busy to go fact-checking right now).

    I'll just say this much (at the risk of sounding like an elitist): I tend to give more weight to the arguments of "intellectually and philosophically sophisticated people", including religious ones, and "belief in belief" is an apt description of the kinds of pragmatic or prudential arguments that one (in my experience) tends to hear in religious intellectual circles. It's either that or the assertion that, since it's only a faith, one can't defend it rationally.

  54. jcm,

    I don't doubt Dennett is right about the intellectual circles. But *they* are not the problem. I have heard plenty of atheists going into denial mode by using the "belief in belief / it's all about community" argument. Sure, community has *something* to do with the success of religion, but you know, unitarians, ethical culturists etc. *also* offer community, and that doesn't seem to do the trick.

  55. Massimo:

    The "belief in belief" defense probably is not that common - and I say that partly because most of the religious folks that I've known over the years do not even attempt to defend their faith rationally - it's simply a fixture within the frame that they know.

    Still, I think it's fair game for atheist intellectuals (like Dennett and yourself) to focus their critiques on religious rationalism (such as it is), as it might even help to change some minds (Exhibit A: me).

    But I would agree that, to a large (and somewhat frustrating) extent, these atheist critiques have a very limited audience, because rationalism has long been a weak trend in religion, reserved mostly for clerical scholars and their well-educated patrons, who tend to live within the institutional bubbles that they created.

    That the influence of religion itself has waned as much as it has in our part of the world (and especially "across the pond") is remarkable. While I doubt that there is any simple causal relationship, I do recall reading that there is a strong positive correlation between a low rate of religious affiliation and a strong social safety net in public policy (as Alex suggested above). [Take that you atheist libertarians!]

  56. I can't help but wonder specifically what need is actually involved. For one, although there are common features in supernatural belief systems, one can't help but feel that different religions focus on different needs. For another, it's not clear why some of us just don't feel at all deprived by a lack of religion (not only with respect to atheists, but also wedding-wake Christians who rarely pay attention to religion much at all).

    Some possibilities:

    1) There's a major need that at least some people have that can't be settled other than by religion. If you raised an entire generation as atheists, some people would react to this either by becoming mentally ill or by inventing their own religions (it might be difficult to entirely distinguish one from the other).

    2) Religion has an enormous attraction for some people, but it's not a basic need. This is basically the addiction model of religion; people get hooked on it, and thereafter they feel like they desperately need it even though they would have been fine if never exposed to it.

    3) There's one sort of need that is the single overarching reason that people are religious, and if atheism could address that need in a different way, we could "win", supplanting religion.

    4) There are a variety of needs that religion is uniquely good at satisfying, and atheism can produce a competitor to religion (such as humanism) that will compete with religion.

    5) There are a variety of needs that religion was uniquely good at satisfying, but we are whittling away at them by providing alternatives for each need. Atheism needs to advance competitors for the individual needs, over time dissolving religion as its component functions are distributed amongst other ideas and institutions.

    I actually think that 5) is the closest to the truth, although obviously there could be hybrids or intermediate states between any of these. Both 5 and 2, however, imply that we don't need to replace religion with any one thing.

    If there's a single need that I think religion best serves, it's the desire for interaction with a supportive group with shared values and a sense of meaning. I think that this is probably why we see such tribalistic tendencies among early religions, and why religions even today tend to be associated less with abstract personal philosophies, than with one's own culture, background, or even ethnicity.

    But I think it is not only improbable, but undesirable that atheists can replace this sort of thing with an atheist version of religion. Not that I have anything against humanism, but I don't expect that everyone should join up, and I don't think that they necessarily should. I like humanist principles, but I have other priorities and don't get so much from the actual groups.

  57. It's hard for me to say exactly what should fill this gap. I can tell you that what has fulfilled that need in the past, for me personally, was academic/scholarly pursuits in school, geeky stuff (sci-fi/fantasy, and similar), volunteer work, LGBT activism, atheist (not humanist!) activism, amateur educational type clubs... I suspect that everyone would have different preferences.

    As for spiritual/numinous experience? I'm not certain that this is anything more than aesthetic experience plus perspective. It's thus really hard for me to understand how this would function as a single distinct need for other people. It's possible, certainly. But I'm fulfilled with taking hikes, making scientific investigations, listening to stirring music, occasional meditation... To be honest, even when I was religious, it was never the God part that gave me those feelings, but my interest in the universe at large, compared with social/aesthetic experiences like singing in large happy groups. I attributed these things as gifts from God, of course, but they weren't really based in my religious beliefs. Maybe atheists should just invent and sing our own gospel music?

  58. We're for the most part looking for a sense of order in the universe that we can trust our futures to. If we can be relatively certain of that order, we can afford to be less certain as to who or what's behind it.

  59. I strongly encourage everyone here to read "The Dream of the Earth" by Thomas Berry and "The Universe is a Green Dragon" by Brian Swimme. These begin to identify the New Story which must supplant religion - a story of the earth and the cosmos based upon the science which we currently understand, but giving us a story of life, meaning and purpose. I'm not saying we accept everything in these books, but they are seed for thought on our new task - understanding in this scientific era the story which religion attempted but ultimately fails to answer. We have new tools and new ways to understand our own story and the story of the world in which we live. Our job is to figure out the story.

  60. As a Buddhist, I think that the principal problem with Atheism is that it is illogical. Why? Because any actions which do not perform the function of bringing us closer to our goal are wrong, and to engage in them is illogical. What is this goal? Buddha said that we all have one main goal - to be happy and to be free from suffering. If we are absolutely honest with ourselves, we will agree that this is our deepest wish. We try to fulfil this wish by engaging in actions such as relationships, business, sport, aquiring possessions etc. But these actions often do not result in happiness - or if they do, it is a temporary, hollow happiness. It is not the deep, lasting happiness we all long for in our heart of hearts.
    Buddhist practices are the actual method for achieving this permanent inner peace, and hence, to be blunt, any actions which are not motivated by correct intentions are illogical.
    This is what I think is going on: Most westerners are very familiar with the basics of Christianity, and some are very familiar with it. They have been raised in Christian cultures and understand the religion well - knowledge they take for granted. Some come to question the concept of God as presented by Christianity, and arrive at many logical reasons why it is not reasonable to believe in a Christian God. Buddhists agree with these reasons and also reject the notion of a creator God.
    However, what I have found is that some people go beyond this logical rejection of God and develop a default position of rejecting 'religion' as if it were the same thing. Then, with this default view, they reject Buddhism because it is a religion, without the knowledge and familiarity which would normally be needed to reach such a conclusion. As evidence, see the comments of a contributor above who says that karma is 'offensive as hell'. In fact karma is as offensive as gravity. However most people are not familiar enough with Buddhist ideas and jump to incorrect conclusions which agree with their default starting opinion.
    To put it another way, it is like a sensible logical person looking at homeopathy, concluding it is invalid due to logical reasons, but then looking at science based medicine and immediately concluding that it too is invalid because of its superficial similarity.

  61. Christopher, the belief that our goal is "to be happy and to be free from suffering" is an admirable one, which is shared by many atheists that I've known. You are entitled to believe that Buddhism is a particularly rich source of information and (equally important) motivation with respect to the achievement of that goal, and you might even be right. (Admittedly, my personal experience of Buddhism is limited to what I've read, along with a brief period of independent practice in zen meditation techniques, which didn't take.)

    But, if you mean to suggest that such an achievement is incompatible with atheism (in general) or skepticism of karma* (in particular), then forgive me for saying that I find that suggestion to be both dubious and chauvinistic.

    * Speaking of which, have you read Stephen Batchelor's books (e.g. Buddhism without Beliefs or Confession of a Buddhist Atheist)? Apparently, not everyone experienced in Buddhism (Batchelor is a former monk) shares a belief in karma.

  62. jcm, Thanks for the message. Yes I acknowledge the appearance of arrogance that comes with being committed to a particular view. Believe me I am not arrogant, but I must follow the truth as I see it. btw, I think Stephen Batchelor fails most of the tests set out in Chapter 12 of Massimo's latest book! Best wishes Christopher.

  63. Christopher: It's been years since I've read Buddhism without Beliefs, and I admit that I've not yet read Massimo's book. But, from what I recall, Batchelor's critical approach to Buddhist doctrine (viz. that part which inherits from ancient Indian metaphysics) jibes quite well with Massimo's thinking (or at least more so than Warner's).

  64. "Is there any way around this, or is secularism forever destined to be a minority position among humankind?"

    No and yes. Well, at least until the end of the world, which is when I die. ;-)

    Anyway, one other thing you were spot on, at least in my experience, was when you describe the meetings to which the secular humanists and atheists and etc. go. The local Unitarian church has a secular humanist group, and they have even led service recently, I've heard. And yep, a small group of old people. Someone like me, mid 30s, is considered a youth there, let me tell you. We have a few non-religious groups here in Richmond, VA, the biggest being probably the RRNA. Some younger people show up every once in a while, but don't stay for long, usually (I'm an exception, if one could consider me "young"). A friend (about my age) tried starting a group for younger non-theists, and we get together for movies, going out and other such activities. But it hasn't gained much traction yet, and I suspect it never will. I guess being defined by a negative doesn't help indeed -- although you can feel the eagerness to vent against religion in many of the participants of all groups (young or old), but that does not last long. I don't have that anymore myself, been around these discussions for a while now -- RRNA, which I was one of the "founders", is almost 7 years old now, and we get together monthly. Several people say they just enjoy the companionship and being around people who won't look funnily at them (or worse) if they speak their minds. I guess that is one of the aspects of the "needs" that pure rational discourse by itself can't fulfill.

    As many above, I also don't know about the "religion-shaped hole", never had one, and probably never will. If the atheist social groups I enjoy disappeared tomorrow, I wouldn't feel any need to search for something else to attend. We just talk about whatever topic (not restricted to religion and the like, although it sure dominates the agenda).

  65. "In fact karma is as offensive as gravity."

    Except one is a force of nature and the other is an made up thing some people believe in. Your point then again was...?

    Anyway, your post is the thing that is actually completely illogical -- in the sense that it arbitrarily fixes the premises you need (as if they were truths with no need of justification) in order to get the conclusions you already had. Not good.

  66. J - thanks for the message. What I mean by karma being as offensive as gravity is that karma is simply a specific example of the law of cause and effect, where the causes are our actions and our experiences are the effects. It is like gravity in the sense that it is simply a blind, natural phenomena, free from the 'judgement' aspects which are a hangover from Christian thought, where if something bad happens it is because God is punishing you. When talking about Buddhism karma comes in for alot of criticism and I think this is for two reasons - firstly, it is probably the only thing your average skeptic knows about Buddhism, and secondly, it is very easy to get the wrong end of the stick. However a brief amount of research on the topic would rectify the situation. However, as the initial finding suits the skeptic's position, why look further!? One final point - scientists are not averse to proposing a solution which explains observations with no actual proof whatsoever: dark energy anyone?

  67. jcm, Thanks for the message. In Nonsense on Stilts, Massimo gives ways of deciding which 'expert' to side with when you are not intimately familiar with the subject matter - because in many cases you would need to become an expert yourself to make a proper decision. In terms of Stephen Batchelor, I believe the following test is the dealbreaker: look for agreement among experts. Is there general agreement amongst qualified experts, and where does the current person under consideration fit it?

    This line of reasoning turned me from being a man made climate change denier to thinking that probably it is real.

    As far as I can tell Stephen Batchelor is in a minority of one by holding the view that a belief in Karma is not needed to be a Buddhist. Karma may be considered 'baloney' by most of the people here, but surely we have to follow our own methodology when choosing who we are going to listen to?

  68. What's new in the new atheism is a strong strain of aggressive scientific materialism.

    Or perhaps "physicialism" is a better word.

    This is not the atheism of Ayer, Russell, Sartre, Camus, or (going further back) Hume (if Hume actually was an atheist and not some sort of deist).

  69. Some ancient philosophies seem to have responded to the same human need to find salvation from the danger and chaos of the world.

    The stoics agreed no harm could come to a good man, the sage is happy.

    And the Epicureans insisted the happiness of anf untroubled mind could be had in the face of any hardship, that most pains as not great and the great ones are fleeting.

    These are all untrue but reassuring beliefs.

    As is the belief that through our own efforts we can be guaranteed freedom from suffering - other than by suicide resulting in annihilation.

  70. Christopher: Sorry for the late response. Unfortunately, given the lost ability of interested readers to subscribe to particular threads on this blog and receive notice of updates (hint to moderators), it's unlikely that you'll see this reply. Nonetheless...

    Even as an outsider, I am aware that Stephen Batchelor is a minority among Buddhists. In fact, I'll go further and say that I would not blame insiders who argue that he's no longer even a Buddhist. At the very least, I suspect that even Batchelor would concede that his approach is unorthodox. What's more, in my note, I said that he is "experienced in Buddhism" and is a former monk, and I agree that doesn't necessarily make him an expert on the subject - nor, for that matter, does his roster of books on the subject (some of which are more scholarly than others).

    That said, is there anyone (say, an academic scholar of religion) whom you deem a qualified expert on Buddhism who: (a) is not him/herself an orthodox Buddhist believer (e.g. who shares your belief in karma or rebirth); and (b) finds fault in Batchelor's approach to the subject (e.g. shares the opinion that he doesn't know the subject well enough and/or that he misrepresents it)?

    I ask because, according to my recollection, the most common complaint about Batchelor is not that he's an amateur; rather, it's that he has the gall to criticize Buddhist orthodoxy, from the perspective of a modern scientific skeptic, while still arguing that Buddhism has something of value to offer.

  71. Typo correction: "...a qualified expert on Buddhism who: (a) is not him/herself an orthodox Buddhist believer (e.g. one who does not share your belief in karma or rebirth)..."

  72. Hi jcm. Thanks for the reply. As I have not read any of his books, I took the time to watch an interview with Stephen Batchelor where he spoke about his experiences. He took the huge step of getting ordained seemingly without understanding the basic fundamentals of the belief. He spent 5 years in turmoil before disrobing. My heart goes out to him, but if I wanted to choose a Guru, or someone to put some trust in, I would go for someone more circumspect. And I would definitely say he is an expert – or at least he ought to be after hanging out with the Dalai Lama and such like.
    I don’t know about academics who don’t believe in karma and do find fault with his views – I am not really concerned with the academia around Buddhism. I have the texts themselves, and authentic commentaries, and I spend what time I have with those, rather than the Oort cloud of comment surrounding it.
    But to be clear, to be a Buddhist means that you go for refuge to Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Going for refuge to these three objects means that you rely on them completely – but not blindly. You must question these objects and test them with logic – that way you develop meaningful faith. Critical thinking is essential. But here’s the thing – you have to look with an open mind and let the arguments breathe before you try to destroy them. In general , skeptics are too keen to get on with the debunking, and fail to grasp what it is they are disagreeing with.
    In Dharma teachings, it is very common to find things one disagrees with instinctively, and the majority of people come across one or two of these and drop Buddhism. Topics like the view that all our experiences have the nature of suffering, or that the brain is not the mind: it can put people off. I treated these things like a thought experiment. ‘What if the brain and mind were different? How could this be true? I found that although the logic of the arguments for saying the brain and mind were different things were sound, it took me a long time to *understand* it, due to my previous conditioning. I mean, even brain surgeons and psychologists use ‘mind’ and ‘brain’ interchangeably! It makes me smile Lol.
    But if we look deeper and see that these things are parts of an entire universal philosophy in which every part depends on every other part to make sense. That is why you simply cannot exclude chunks of the Dharma and still think it will work. In Buddhism this is known as the ‘Great Fault’ – for good reason. If Mr Batchelor is criticised by Buddhists, it ought to be for this reason.
    Anyway, I think this thread has run its course, so I wish you well, and perhaps if another appropriate topic pops up, I will throw in my thoughts. If you read this, I have enjoyed our communications.

  73. Christopher: I just wanted to let you know that I read your response, and I think I understand where you're coming from re: Batchelor.

    As long as I'm typing, I'll just add that: You may already know that there is a long tradition of mind/body dualism in the West (e.g. see Descartes), which hasn't held up very well in recent decades (e.g. given advances in cognitive science & neuroscience). Inasmuch as the mind/brain dualism that you attribute to Buddhism overlaps with the Cartesian claim, I admit that I'm strongly biased against it (that is, as a claim about ontological reality - as a metaphor, I'm quite sure that I use such language regularly myself).

  74. Ah, well - if you want to hang around for a chat about minds and brains, you are on to one of my favourite topics! *chuckle*

    The Buddhist view has certain advantages over straight cartesian dualism because of the associated beliefs in karma and the nature of reality. Basically, the mind is formless, but linked to the brain. Rather than the brain creating the mind, in actual fact the mind creates the brain. This is because all of the 'objects' we normally perceive, including our brains themselves, are simply appearances to mind, existing in a similar way to mirages. They definately exist: I am not saying things don't exist. But they definately do not exist in the way we normally think - i.e. truely independent chunks of matter separate from our mind. They exist as mere apperances to mind.

    The above may come across as special pleading, but it is not. The logic of the position is available to anyone willing to study it in plenty of books. I quite understand why most skeptics can't develop the wish to study enough to really understand, but that failure in fact can rather ironically lead them to employ the 'argument from ignorance' of I can't understand how karma can work, so it is false!

    Also, I take your point about mind/body problems not being solely attributable to Buddhism. In fact what Buddhism really is, is a set of universal truths expressed in a fairly culturally specific setting. In my own case, the setting of Tibetan mythology. But if you wanted to, I think you could set out a pretty good path to enlightenment using non religious terminology and imagery. AC Grayling's Good Book may be a start - must get a copy. Also worth a listen is this podcast with Sam Harris, who makes a good case for a scientific basis for morality. See

    Sam Harris's analysis is essentially Buddhist - science tells us that the 'right' thing to do is to avoid the biggest possible harm to all things. If we are going to do that, then we end up with what I started with - that it is the overriding wish of every single living being to avoid suffering and experience only pure happiness.

  75. Christopher: I agree that the mind and brain are different; albeit, for rather different reasons (i.e. based on my limited knowledge of cognitive science, linguistics, and neuroscience, in which the brain is viewed as a bodily organ, whereas the mind is an abstract concept, which is bound in the brain and is descriptive of some of its functions; e.g. see here).

    I also agree that the "argument from ignorance" is not much of an argument at all. However, it does not follow that skepticism of any particular claim is necessarily overcome through increased study of it. Sometimes, just the opposite phenomenon occurs.

    For example, I spent a significant part of my life studying the traditional texts of Orthodox Judaism (usually part-time, but in the original languages and with lots of assistance from local experts), and when I eventually lost my faith in the basic tenets of the religion, you know what I heard most often from other adherents? "You must be an ignoramus." (To be fair, most of them worded this message more politely.) Yet, they could never explain the relationship between the study and the faith. It was just assumed that the former shored up the latter (perhaps because most of them had been raised that way, whereas I was an adult convert). Yet, in my case, if anything, the reverse was true; i.e. the more time I put into the study (and, crucially, the broader my studies became, extending beyond just orthodox sources of scholarship), the more skeptical of the faith I became. [I suppose that's why I took up an interest in Batchelor - I felt like I had walked a similar path to his, although I no longer call myself a Jew, whereas he still appears to call himself a Buddhist.]

    That's just a little personal anecdote to explain where I'm coming from. I know Judaism much better than I know Buddhism. But it's at least a reasonable inference from my experience for me to say that I really doubt that further study of karma or rebirth will make me a believer in it.

  76. jcm - thank you for your message. I was very sad reading your post. I have been giving it much thought over the past few days about how to respond. I regard it as an absolute tragedy that someone who is obivously a logical and thorough person, but who also has a yearning for a meaningful spiritual dimension to their life, has had such an experience.

    For what it is worth, I do not believe you are an 'ignoramus', or however it was put. My view is, you were looking for something that, unfortunately, was not there.

    I am not going to write about how Buddhism is different etc. etc. All I will say is that you must recognise the non-sequiter in your argument: unsatisfactory study of one religion does not automatically mean that study of other religions will be unsatisfactory.

    As you have been so open with me, let me say that I believe that yearning will never go away. At the moment science and skepticism may provide an absorbing distraction, but I believe they can never fill the void. So, out of compassion, I would say to you - don't let this precious life go by without at least a brief examination of Buddhism. The tradition when makes the most sense to me is Kadampa Buddhism. Possibly the key thing that made me more than casually interested in Buddhism at the start was that Buddha said "Don't just believe these things are true simply because I say them. Test them yourself, with your own experience. Then decide."

    I hope you and anyone else reading this will forgive me. I fully appreciate that this is the last place one should try to 'recruit' converts. I don't do so lightly, and believe me when I say the very last thing I want to do is cause anyone any offence, especially you, jcm.

    Best wishes


  77. Christopher: Thanks for your kind words.

    While I certainly don't mind your endorsement of Buddhism, I think of myself as having already given it "a brief examination" (e.g. having read books & articles on the topic, and even practiced zen meditation techniques privately for several months). In fact, compared to other religious options (e.g. Islam and Hinduism), I think I've given it more than that, although it's never interested me enough to attend any local Buddhist events (e.g. there are weekly meditation services at a nearby dharma center). But, as an adherent, you may have a more demanding idea of what "brief examination" means in this case, and that's understandable.

    Also, while I would agree that scientific skepticism is not a substitute for religion, it is a big influence in my life (i.e. rather more than an "absorbing distraction"). If it weren't, I might still be an Orthodox Jew. And, if I craved religious affiliation strongly enough, I'm sure that I could find a local option that I find palatable (and affordable - dues payments are a material issue in these hard times). It hasn't happened, yet, and it may never, but I don't rule it out.

    All the best.

  78. Hi jcm. Thanks for the message, and thanks for taking my previous post in the spirit it was intended :-)

    Like Stephen Jay Gould said at the end of Questioning the Millennium: 'May we all make such excellent use of our special skills, whatever and however limited they may be, as we pursue the most noble of all our mental activities in trying to make sense of this wonderful world, and the small part we must play in the history of life'.

    Best wishes


  79. Why would you use the words Secularism and Atheism interchangeably ? For instance, in India, Secularism does not equate Godlessness; it's seen as being equidistant or show equal respect for all religions.

    Also, can you provide any links to articles that dwell on a human code of morality with no foundations on any religion. Even the best exponents of existentialists, like Sartre, couldn't show cohesive personal life choices that resonated with his belief "In fashioning myself, I fashion man". Most people - atheists & theists alike - aren't able to set enough goodness by practice. While theists shrugg of their fallibility as non-conformance to the ideal, atheists are under no obligation to be conforming to anything, at the first place, other than what's legal.

    It's a difficult subject indeed. I, for one, believe that a Secular society can exist in peace with religion if only tolerance is practised as a common virtue.

  80. Awesome post, sorry I am SO late getting here. But yeah, I CAN DIG IT (as we used to say).

    I am just now grappling with some of these issues, as a relatively new Buddhist.

    In August, I wrote a review of a book about old age, by Washington Post columnist Susan Jacoby, an atheist:


    ...and said almost the same things about people "needing" religion. When I emailed Jacoby and shared the review, she was rather flip. If you think religion will help old age, you're wrong, she replied. Oh, okay. Case closed.

    But it DOES help people, isn't that why people keep doing it? For people supposedly into "rational evidence"--atheists don't seem to want to look at THIS evidence, that people desire religions/spirituality and obviously feel comforted by it. You know?

    Anyway, thanks for the good read, suggesting real ideas for change and community.

  81. My definition proposal for "atheist", in Wiki Portal: