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Naysayers

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Illustration by David Johnson for Newsweek

A New Take on Atheism: Armed with evolutionary psychology and inflamed by the 9/11 attacks, these authors--Richard Dawkins (left), Sam Harris (center) and Daniel C. Dennett--treat belief in God as a superstition the modern world can no longer afford

Letter to A Christian Nation by Sam Harris

Breaking The Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel Dennett

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

"If there is no God, why be good?" he asks rhetorically, and responds: "Do you really mean the only reason you try to be good is to gain God's approval and reward? That's not morality, that's just sucking up."

The New Naysayers

In the midst of religious revival, three scholars argue that atheism is smarter

Sept. 11, 2006 issue - Americans answered the atrocities of September 11, overwhelmingly, with faith. Attacked in the name of God, they turned to God for comfort; in the week after the attacks, nearly 70 percent said they were praying more than usual. Confronted by a hatred that seemed inexplicable, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson proclaimed that God was mad at America because it harbored feminists, gays and civil libertarians. Sam Harris, then a 34-year-old graduate student in neuroscience, had a different reaction. On Sept. 12, he began a book. If, he reasoned, young men were slaughtering people in the name of religion—something that had been going on since long before 2001, of course—then perhaps the problem was religion itself. The book would be called "The End of Faith," which to most Americans probably sounds like a lament. To Harris it is something to be encouraged.
And next month the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins ("The Selfish Gene") weighs in with "The God Delusion," a book that extends an argument he advanced in the days after 9/11. After hearing once too often that "[t]o blame the attacks on Islam is like blaming Christianity for the fighting in Northern Ireland," Dawkins responded: Precisely. "It's time to get angry," he wrote, "and not only with Islam." . . .

Dawkins and Harris are not writing polite demurrals to the time-honored beliefs of billions; they are not issuing pleas for tolerance or moderation, but bone-rattling attacks on what they regard as a pernicious and outdated superstition. (In the spirit of scientific evenhandedness, both would call themselves agnostic, although as Dawkins says, he's agnostic about God the same way he's agnostic about the existence of fairies.) They ask: where do people get their idea of God? From the Bible or the Qur'an. "Tell a devout Christian ... that frozen yogurt can make a man invisible," Harris writes, "and he is likely to require as much evidence as anyone else, and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him that the book he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity who will punish him with fire for eternity if he fails to accept its every incredible claim about the universe, and he seems to require no evidence whatsoever." He asks: How can anyone believe in a benevolent and omnipotent God who permits a tsunami to swallow 180,000 innocent people in a few hours? . . .


 

Comments

I question the value of a society without God. Wait, wait... before some atheist angrily replies, with missonary-like zeal, let me explain: it's not that I feel a Godless society will be more prone for bad, only the atheist society will not make things better.

Take, for example, the movie Blood for Dracula. In the film, Dracula, who represent the old religion, searches for virgin blood in a society so corrupt there's no virgins. He's controling, he's evil. Then there's the groundkeeper, who represent communism and is, too, bad--he rapes under the hammer and sickle. The movie satirizes both sectarianism and secularism. Both can be abused and used for bad.

My point: it's ideals. That's where people are mislead; that's where people are controled. Society can be religous and be good or bad. And it can be secular and be good or bad. Ideals can let you down, whether they're religious or secular.

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"If there is no God, why be good?" he asks rhetorically, and responds: "Do you really mean the only reason you try to be good is to gain God's approval and reward? That's not morality, that's just sucking up."

Ok, the original "No God, no good" argument was pretty weak to begin with... and the people that are being good to get Gods approval havn't quite got the point. There are many reasons why being good is an excellent survival technique in evolutionary terms (be good and make people like you... less likely to get killed by them)...

However, the exsistance of a loving and gracious god, who knew I was comming along... is a much better reason to be a better person and try to share his love.... than as a way to spread my DNA to another generation.

And I still think anyone that blames Christianity or Islam for any of the recent advents are also missing the point. People rarely do anything thing like that for God, politics or the greater good of the world. They have their own agenda's that need fullfilling and God, politics etc are just an excuse. Ie. G.W. Bush did not attack Iraq because God wanted him to (though I'm pretty sure he said something similar at some point)... pretty much everyone here will agree that it was for love of money, power and glory.

As for how anyone can believe in a god that lets bad things happen? I'm not saying that natural (or un-natural) disasters are a good thing... but the Buddists and Exestentialists have some good reasons why suffering is essential for life. Also think about how little control you would have over life if there was a god that made sure that nothing bad ever happened.

Marco,

I don't see how that is consistent. You say that you question the value of a society without god and then go on to state that it doesn't matter if the society is religious or secular -- that the ideals can be let you down on both sides. By that reasoning how do you not also question the value of a society with [a] god(s)? Are we to just maintain the status quo in a world that is rife with religious discord and sectarian violence?

As I see it if the above is true and both secular and religious social structures can be led astray then one is still better off with the atheistic one. The godless one would likely have fewer mystic and superstitious ideas. Having read a bit so far in Harris' The End of Faith I would say this is a central point of his argument -- that not only are we better off without these superstitious ideas but that given our technological advances, particularly in weaponry, that they can no longer be afforded. While I agree that humans tend to be naturally xenophobic losing those mystical ideas would seem to raise the barrier to the formation of factions whose ideology presented suicidal self destruction to destroy those of opposing ideological camps as a good.

I think anything that allows you to shed personal responsibility for your own morality is dangerous. Fortunately the Christians that I know wouldn’t start murdering other people if the 6th commandment disappeared. They would continue to measure the act of murder against their personal morality as they do now. The point is that most Christians will generally only condone murder, overriding their own personal morality, on advice of their church. God has been on the side of most of the protagonists of most of the wars that I have observed.

Richard Dawkins makes a good point about the tsunami. I ask my more evangelical acquaintances about the morality of their God. Is He indifferent or cruel? "Mysterious ways" means you don't know. “Loving” is just bizarre. If you haven’t an answer for that simple moral question about your own particular god it’s a farce (not to mention dangerous) that you should be promoting your god as any sort of moral reference

I've read Harris and Dawkins and was very very satisfied with the article. I do feel they didn't give Dennett enough space, but I'm not one to judge quite yet as I'm just becoming familiar with him. It's quite nice to see the mainstream press picking up on these guys - I have a feeling that twenty years down the road we'll be looking back on these fellows in a good light.

I am an agnostic. I don't need God, not Christian, not Hindu, not Islam, not Buddist and not Jewish. But I don't believe that many people in this world can live with out believing in some sort of God. So how many ever correct and rational arguments are made by smart people against the existence of God, lots of people will go on believing in God.

It is wishful to think, if religion and God did not exist, the violence and wars will be lessened. Human beings are made for war. If there are only 3 people in this whole world, there will be two or more groups fighting against each other. It is the human nature, one can ameliorate it but not eliminate it.

Secular societies, think China, is no better. There is/was more violence in China than more religious India in the last 100 years. Hitler is a secular killer.

There is going to be war and violence irrespective whether people believe in God or not. God and religion are just tools used to gain power.

Yeah, you missed my point, mr. graham.

Sectarian violence would be replaced by secluar violence.

As for ideals. In general, they're harmless. However, they can blind us. Remember, Germany. That was secular, nationalistic, but secular in nature. Pol pot, Stalin and other communist leaders, who killed specifically in the name of antireligion.

If people will kill not for God, then their nation, or ideals, or other reasons. It's human nature that needs to change. The part of us that kills has little to do with God, or Marxism. It has more to do with ambition, fear and other basic human emotions. It's a part of us that we need to overcome slowly; it's programmed in our nature. You can't change that by taking away religion, or communisim for that matter.

Their are a lot of people who don't take their religion and foist it on others. Their our those who hold it to their hearts and don't use it for political and social ends. But there are always going to be people who do. And if you remove the sectarian methods of controling people, then secular ones will arise.

How is atheism smarter? Can a supposed atheist prove that God does not exist? Isn't the belief in a God just that; a belief? It, God, begins with an idea, and then grows into existence by belief. There are wise believers who know that good and evil is not a question for God because we ultimately control ourselves, through actions, and judgment; not a God. So the question must be asked: Can a theist prove God exists? No, but they’re allowed to believe and struggle with this conception of God.

Now it's censorship, Norm? Burn the books.

This is written as if the religious think their religions out.....oh no, that takes much more thought than blindly following........from the words of every christian (or any religion for that matter) when your religion fails to measure up to common sense world views, and everything we know about the world you "just gotta have faith"

Nazi Germany was not secular:

http://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php?section=library&page=paul234

http://www.secularism.org.uk/germanconcordats.html?CPID=276814b753e056d32918322c5d17a366

I never said that removing religion would stop anyone from killing or remove the ills of the world. I questioned your assertion that secular societies are less valuable.

I ask again, why do you not also question the value of a society that has a concept of god(s)? If these methods of controlling people, justifications for killing, etc will inevitably arise in both secular and sectarian societies why do you see less value in a secular society? Why not ditch the superstitious?

Nazi Germany was not secular:

http://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php?section=library&page=paul234

http://www.secularism.org.uk/germanconcordats.html?CPID=276814b753e056d32918322c5d17a366

I never said that removing religion would stop anyone from killing or remove the ills of the world. I questioned your assertion that secular societies are less valuable.

I ask again, why do you not also question the value of a society that has a concept of god(s)? If these methods of controlling people, justifications for killing, etc will inevitably arise in both secular and sectarian societies why do you see less value in a secular society? Why not ditch the superstitious?

Nazi Germany was not secular:

http://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php?section=library&page=paul234

http://www.secularism.org.uk/germanconcordats.html?CPID=276814b753e056d32918322c5d17a366

I never said that removing religion would stop anyone from killing or remove the ills of the world. I questioned your assertion that secular societies are less valuable.

I ask again, why do you not also question the value of a society that has a concept of god(s)? If these methods of controlling people, justifications for killing, etc will inevitably arise in both secular and sectarian societies why do you see less value in a secular society? Why not ditch the superstitious?

Sorry about the multiple postings. I kept getting Internal Server Error and the post didn't show up when I refreshed the thread.

Violence and aggression without rationale is madness in the secular world.

Violence and aggression with nothing else but a “God told me to do it” rationale is OK in the religious world.

I agree with Harris' assertion that the religious moderates are a major part of the 'religious problem.' They give the nut jobs a foundation and a christian majority with which they spread their idiotic hate and fear. They are the semi-willing hosts of these meme-mongers and mind parasites.

To answer your question...because I don't think it will change anything to do so.

We shouldn't throw away the Bible, only literal interpretations of it. It's an allegory. There's some evidence to suggest the authors didn't even intend for it to be taken literally. That it was written in code to preserve a different set of beliefs. Maybe we could protmote it with a surgeon's general-like warning on it's cover: warning taking this literally will lead to brain damage.

I totally agree with Maher when he mocks those who believe the flood literally happened. However, I don't agree that there's on significance in it as a story.

If you're implying that I think what happened in Germany will happen to us--as the rather large article defends aganist those who do--you twist my words.

I'm not saying what will happen in Germany will happen to us. I'm saying, Germany was an example of secular destruction.

As for the article. Many things in there are likely true. However, the churches' compliance with Hitler, who was intolerant of the Jewish religion, which he based on race and not religion, isn't the same thing as motive. They weren't trying to spred Christianity, but the Ayran race.

Plus, Hitler hated Stalin. It can be pointed to the fact that many Bolshevics were Jewish.

I didn't read the whole article, but will. It seems good. But I doubt it's trying to say that secularism is key to solving the world's problems. Only that's it's disproving the fact that Germany religion-free and hence caused awful destruction because it was so.

Dawkins and Harris continue to use arguments against religious fundamentalism and apply them to all people of faith, weakening their case and revealing their own bias against the very notion of god. The arguments they put forth only apply to the worst kinds of religious zealots, yet they put them forth as though people like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson are representative of all people of faith.

  • Compare God to fairies: There is orders of magnitude more anecdotal and secondhand evidence of God than fairies. But it's a cheap, easy comparison because neither can be conclusively proven. Granted, most people of faith never claimed God could be proven, so this is a straw man argument from the beginning.

  • Tell him that the book he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity who will punish him with fire for eternity if he fails to accept its every incredible claim about the universe, and he seems to require no evidence whatsoever: Most religious people would not make this claim, as they believe in things like nuance, allegory, and context. Only a small fraction of religious people believe their holy books are infallible, always meant to be taken literally, and not open to rational examination. But best to paint all your opponents in the worst possible light.

  • How could a benevolent and omnipotent God who permits a tsunami to swallow 180,000 innocent people...: This one is frigging pathetic. This assumes that if god exists, we as human beings can infer & understand his motivations, despite the starting position that he is omnipotent (and we are not). This makes as much sense as a newborn being able to understand and predict the actions of a grown adult.

The best (and only) 'argument' the atheist can make on logical grounds is simple: God can not be proven to exist, and that any belief held without proof should be recognized as such. OK, got that - what's next?

If Dawkins and Harris spent more time focusing on real issues (the fight against religious fundamentalism, separation of church & state, science in schools) and less time (figuratively) calling every religious person an idiot (and thereby setting up even the 'religious rationals' as their opponents), they might accomplish a lot more.

Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies, published by the Journal of Religion & Society, provides ample data to suggest that the more religious a society appears to be, is the more likely that society is to suffer from social ills. It's nice to see numbers that support one's intuition about the matter.

For my next batch of songs, I'd love to draw lyrical inspiration from these fellows. But there's something missing. What kernel of glory is worth praising in their messages? The beauty is in there, but I've yet to find it succinct enough for inspiration or songworthiness.

It was much easier being a Christian, when everything was glazed in mystical wonder.

"There is going to be war and violence irrespective whether people believe in God or not. God and religion are just tools used to gain power."

this is very true, however the difference is that people arent allowed to question god or religion. they are allowed to question every other person/organization that holds power.

JGraham, do you really think moving away from religion would change anything more than the name we torment and malign our fellow humans in?

Don't let Harris draw your conclusions for you. Do you think the death of faith would reform the vast multinational corporations whose heads are so jaded they are willing to subject millions to wage slavery and subhuman living conditions? Do you think the end of religion would stop governments denying the importance of the environment in favor of the status quo and healthy profits? If god did not exist, would we not still fight for the land where the grass is greener? Would the U.S. not still push an imperialistic agenda in the name of Democracy?

Removal of religion would, for humankind at large, simply constitute removal of one of the many pretenses used to manipulate the masses, and in its place equally effective means would arise.

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what, he's not an old man with a beard who likes herring and knishes? SURE he is. and he ain't all bevolent either, and doesn't always recognize us as the individual beings we like to think of ourselves as- or haven't you noticed? i agree w/anonymous: being against god because people kill in his name is just as foolish as being for god because you can't imagine any other reason to be good.

I see religion as a collective mental illnes. The more religious the person, the deeper the psychosis.

Secular societies, think China, is no better. There is/was more violence in China than more religious India in the last 100 years. Hitler is a secular killer.

Well, there entirely secular ideas that are just as absurd as those ideas based off of one faith or another. A person does not need god to be stupid and misguided.

Still, our society should not be governed by "faith" or "secularism" but by what makes sense from knowledge we gain through reason and the scientific method.

CogitoErgoDoleo said: "JGraham, do you really think moving away from religion would change anything more than the name we torment and malign our fellow humans in?"

My response: The mental habits that undergird faith and religion are strongly associated and causally interlinked with the tendency to believe and obey authority, and with the unwillingness to critically examine beliefs and accept or reject them purely on the basis of evidence. If you're a fan of rational, "reality-based" policy-making, and aren't a fan of authoritarian regimes, then you ought to prefer a skeptical society over a faithful one. A skeptical society is not necessarily an atheistic one (nor is an atheistic society necessarily a skeptical one), but they are positively correlated. Just look at the surveys of scientists -- science requires the habits of skepticism, and most scientists are not religious.

I see religion as a collective mental illnes. The more religious the person, the deeper the psychosis.

Did you bother to read my post, Leftbanker? You might consider those rhetorical questions.

Still, our society should not be governed by "faith" or "secularism" but by what makes sense from knowledge we gain through reason and the scientific method.

That--I can agree with. It's scarey and sad when society allows itself to be controlled by religious talk from the government--or entertainers. The United States shouldn't be religous or antireligious--the government, that is. But it's a tricky stiuation because many people--75 percent--are christian. And the poll-conscience know they can play constituents to this.

I have tried to debate people who envoke the name of God and you can't win when that happens. How can you debate God? These same people refuse to look at issue in anything but black and white.

Kevin,

Dawkins and Harris continue to use arguments against religious fundamentalism and apply them to all people of faith

It is simply not true, Harris for example addresses the issue here

If you would rather read than listen here is a pdf of the audio

Thanks to Norm for the provocation contained in this piece. Here's part of a response that I posted at length, here:

What if we were to treat god as an equal—how would our understanding of ourselves, Nature, and the universe transform? What ideas would we have to discard? This is the focus of what I call "proligion," but you can give it any name you like. In one of my books, I make the case that a certain well-known scientist with a lively libido and a pair of relativity theories was writing about such a god whenever he scribbled equations on a blackboard. He knew the value and true essence of physical form, and the perfection of Nature, as few others in his time knew it: after all, he could show you god, in the form of ideas and equations that said, "not merely is all not what it seems; nothing is what it seems."

Thanks to Norm for the provocation contained in this piece. Here's part of a response that I posted at length, here:

What if we were to treat god as an equal—how would our understanding of ourselves, Nature, and the universe transform? What ideas would we have to discard? This is the focus of what I call "proligion," but you can give it any name you like. In one of my books, I make the case that a certain well-known scientist with a lively libido and a pair of relativity theories was writing about such a god whenever he scribbled equations on a blackboard. He knew the value and true essence of physical form, and the perfection of Nature, as few others in his time knew it: after all, he could show you god, in the form of ideas and equations that said, "not merely is all not what it seems; nothing is what it seems."

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couldn't resist. found this quote from kes on the link norm provided."If someone on a team screws up, the proper behaviour is for the team to admit group responsibility and try to work together to correct a mistake, rather than just find a scape goat in the team member and ostracise him". so, seeing the human race as a "team", kes, how does this fit in with your views on israel and the jews? i know this is a little off topic (though not totally), but for those of you who have been following or involved in the recent squabbles on this blog about israels' right to exist, with kes being the most prominent of those against....valid question? btw, i found kes's statement to be eminently sensible and enlightened. i'm just wondering why he seems to make an exception for israel.

As to whether there is reason to suppose a secular society would be preferable to a religious one, I think the main reason to think so is that the efforts of those in a secular society would have to be focused on improving the present world, rather than attaining reward in the afterlife. A lot of the crappy stuff that goes on is due to people's willingness to sacrifice things on earth in name of improving their station in heaven.

The argument about Communist Russia is all too common, and not a good one. I have yet to see a direct argument that the horrors of Stalinism were due to atheism and not to power-seeking and the corruption of the Communist manifestation. Recall that Communist Russia was officially atheist only at first, when they were still idealistic that religion was stifling the potential of the proletariat (as the opiate of the masses). When things really started to suck, religion was allowed back in, precisely so that it could serve its function as opiate.

Kevin, good to see you again... Sorry I haven't gotten back to you -- the school year started and I got really busy all of a sudden. I'll write eventually...

"however the difference is that people arent allowed to question god or religion. they are allowed to question every other person/organization that holds power."

Really now? If that's indeed the case, by all means, go to Tehran and question authority. Or, perhaps, to a Bush rally. Or to China! Or North Korea.

Also, yes, skepticism is a good trait for humans to have, and it is one we want our societies to have, but elimination of religion is not going to magically engender it...

CogitoErgoDoleo said: "Also, yes, skepticism is a good trait for humans to have, and it is one we want our societies to have, but elimination of religion is not going to magically engender it..."

My response: As I said, an atheistic society is not necessarily a skeptical one, nor vice versa. But vigorously challenging the "belief in belief" (i.e. the notion that faith is a virtue), and thus hopefully prompting a wider dialogue on the subject (encouraging people to actually think and re-examine their assumptions), is one big step towards a more skeptical society. That is precisely what the three authors in the article are trying to do...

If -that- were their stated intent, J.D., they would not irritate me so much as they do. But instead they are actively attacking religions much as the religions themselves attack each other. They even have a habit (Or at least Dawkins) of setting up straw-men.

Dawkins and Harris continue to use arguments against religious fundamentalism and apply them to all people of faith

It is simply not true, Harris for example addresses the issue here

I'm not denying that Harris can at least distinguish between religious fundamentalists and moderates (or is there a specific quote in that interview that you think speaks better to my point?). He feels threatened by both (admittedly moreso by the fundies), and his arguments are clearly against religion as a whole, not religious fundamentalist people.

As many others have said, I believe it's naive to believe that the behavior of fundamentalists would significantly change if religion went away. I think they'd just find other reasons to hate.

PotShot,

Agree with about governing.

But what I don't understand is the zeal or the energy with which attack against religion is made. Religion/faith has its place in the society and important discussion should be what it should be. The question of whether God exists or not is less important question to the society (it may more important to the individual).

Agreed that post Sep-11th, the religion has taken a bigger role in American society but lessening it should be Atheist/Agnostic's role. But attacking the very fundamentals of the religion is not going to lessen the hold of the religion on the soceity, it will infact increase the hold.

Prasad said: "But attacking the very fundamentals of the religion is not going to lessen the hold of the religion on the soceity, it will infact increase the hold."

My response: I am not sure why you say that. Here in the West the hold religion has over the public mind has greatly slackened since the days of the Inquisition and the Crusades. Why do you suppose that is if not for the challenges to the very fundamentals that you speak of?

Read the "Answer to Job" by Jung. The best book on the subject, period.

I only read halfway down, but I caught a couple of posts that allude to the old belief that violence is inherent to human nature. I used to think that as well, because that's all I'd ever heard. But Howard Zinn put forth a pretty good argument to debunk that belief...I don't have the book in front of me and I'd hate to missquote Mr. Zinn, but it boiled down to: We can assume violence in human nature by looking back at a tumultuous history flecked with mass-murdering wars and genocide/ethnic cleansing. But all of those wars were perpetrated not by the masses, but by small groups of men in power. The masses were simply goaded and tricked into war. Before I muddle it up, I think Howard Zinn's point is that each person's sense of violence is a result of circumstances surrounding that particular person; that, if left alone, that person would never have inclination to violence against other people.

(Sorry Howard, I tried...)

The GOD loop hole. In time I have come up with a loop hole that shows it is actually better not to believe in God. If God is an omnipotent being and God is good over evil, then God would prefer Knowledge of Ignorance. Knowing that God created me as a curious and intelligent being, along with the fact that I need to use my experiences (science) to base my judgments upon, then God would not hold me liable for the lack of proof provided for God's existence.

Chew on that.

The idea that someone has to be religious to be a good person is not the idea that bothers me, it's the idea, whihc have proven itself false in my experience time and time again, that religious people are, in fact, good, or at least better than non-religious people. Let's face facts here, easily 70-80% of so-called "religious" people are just going along to get along. Just look at the catholic church, they make a lot of noise about the gays and how wrong it is, but are they going to mass excommunicate unrepentant sinners? NO! Why? Because it's not about faith, it's about POWER. It's a very simple equation, you provide them with the numbers and they provide you with the smug sense of superiority, see how nicely that works out?

a little light irony for a sunday...

i just bought tickets to see richard dawkins discuss The God Delusion at First Parish Church (!) in cambridge, mass.

http://www.harvard.com/events/press_release.php?id=1699

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