Atheism without the extras, please

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by Neil Godfrey

voltaireWhen Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and those absurdly provocative big bus advertisements for atheism burst on the scene I loved it. Wow! A loud voice shouting back at what had been a steady rise of conservative and fundamentalist religion’s popularity and even political influence — what a refreshing turnaround. So refreshing that at first I tried to overlook a few lines by both authors that betrayed a certain ignorance of the religious mind, but that could not last. It was Sam Harris’s End of Faith that disturbed me enough to want to do my bit to publicly share evidence-based understandings of the causes of Islamic and other terrorism. It hurt to see public intellectuals promoting both atheism and ignorance about religion and human behaviour in the one breath.

New Atheism enters the 21st Century straight from the 18th

This blanket attack on religion and the irrational in human behaviour was all very fine and wonderful and in may ways “a very good thing” back in the days of the Enlightenment. Écrasez l’infâme, crush the infamous, especially the clergy, Voltaire demanded in every letter. But the Enlightenment also ushered in a new wave of learning that has deepened our understanding of how humans work and even what religion actually is. It’s crazy to carry on the war cry of Voltaire and the other philosophes as if we have learned nothing about what makes people religious in the first place.

Of course we ought to do whatever we can to écrasez l’infâme wherever we can, but if our intention is to rescue our fellow creatures from bondage then it must follow that we do so with understanding, even some brotherly or sisterly compassion. If we don’t seriously make an effort to inform ourselves of what scientific research has been learning about religion, religious ideas, and human proclivities in these directions, then we risk sounding like ignorant bigots. Or maybe it’s healthy to temper our activism with good old common sympathy for our fellow creatures. I happen to be one of those who, on becoming an atheist and then looking around for a new sense of place in the world, concluded that we, all of humanity, are made of the same stuff, living on the same rock, all with the same fate, the same desires and needs, and that the best thing we can do in our short time here is to help make life a bit more comfortable for any and every one else we pass by. Many others had found this place long before I did and I know many others continue to do so.

Zeal for righteousness belongs to the cults. In modern parlance that phrase can be translated as devoted to principles. In one sense a principled life is (another) good thing, but principles also kill. Ideologies are grounded in virtuous principles. To live with a sense of common humanity, with compassion, is far better than a life focused on abstract principles.

The more I listened to Hitchens and Dawkins the more I felt that they were losing their compassion and understanding. It is too easy to sound like an brain dead bigot if we are too busy attacking religion to have time to learn something serious about it and why people embrace it.


ftbAtheism+ — the morality police, judge and hangman

Then there’s that break away from the New Atheists, the morality police. Merely attacking religion in the manner of the eighteenth century deists and atheists is not enough for these people. They need to attack morals, too. which in practice means attacking persons they deem to be falling short of the higher secular values atheists are supposed to be gifting to the world. I had not fully realized the nature or origin of this particular group of atheists until I read James Lindsay’s blog article, Atheism+: The Name for What’s Happening to Richard Carrier

I am reminded of the morality police in places like Iran today.

No, no, no. I do not want any of that righteousness, that principled zeal, that evangelizing, that never ending warfare with my atheism. Been there, done that. That was the life of the cult. That was the way of a screwed up life, if not my own immediately, certainly of others close to me. Holier than thou, comes to mind.

Yes. We all want a better world. No-one likes sexists, racists, homophobes, etc except other sexists, racists, homophobes, etc. But there are other ways, more productive ways, ways more likely to have a positive influence in the longer term, than vociferously preaching and judging and condemning.

And if Richard Carrier comes to mind at this moment, maybe that moral indignation and zeal to attack the wrong-doers is what has carried over into some of his more acerbic online treatment of scholars who really do do the wrong things. Unfortunately that reaction doesn’t work any better in the field of scholarly debate than it does in trying to legislate and police the morals of peers, readers, audiences, etc. What does work is the good old biblical injunction to repay wrong with a bit of goodness. Sure we do it with some sense of smugness, if only a bit. But one just loves to read rebuttals of scholars like Michael Goulder who with wit and gentle (not sarcastic) humour respond to critics who had angrily misrepresented their arguments.

There are better ways to make the world a better place than fighting irrational ignorance with righteous ignorance and moral failings with indignant condemnation.

Sure I am on the side of humanism, secularism and social justice. But I cannot see any reason to bind my involvement in those things with some sort of identity as an atheist. I am an atheist, of course, but that’s just like saying I’m a human being, or I have blue eyes or I wear a watch. Being an atheist just doesn’t come into the picture. It’s neither here nor there. I am not interested in trying to prove that “we atheists” can be “as good as” the God-squad. Let the devout play those childish games if they like, and if that’s partly what some of them are doing. They don’t interest me.




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60 thoughts on “Atheism without the extras, please”

  1. Exactly. It is the conflation of atheism with other social and political causes that is killing us. Atheists who are ‘out’ in public should limit their agendas to education about atheism itself, i.e. theological matters and separation of church and state – which of course entails matters like teaching ID in schools, etc. Atheists famously are iconoclasts. We reject the herd mentality. We are of all social stripes, political stripes and economic stripes – none of which have anything to do with being an atheist.

    I am a big fan of Richard Carrier, who is as left as left can be, and I am a big fan of Robert M. Price, who is almost as right as right can be. Sociopolitically, I am pretty squarely in the middle between them. So what? The fact that we are all three atheists (with apologies to Dr. Price, who may not quite self-identify that way) is entirely irrelevant to whatever other causes with which we identify ourselves.

    There is no atheist choir with whom to preach.

  2. I think an important problem of any atheist “movement” is that it is negatively defined; after you agree there is no God, what do you do then?
    The idea of introducing a number of social issues as part of the atheistic “movement” was probably an attempt to fill that vacuum, and as an attempt to answer what morals a non-believer should adopt.
    However as Kahneman would no doubt agree discussions about morals and moral worth (and in particular the moral outrage associated with the kind of progressive moral view adopted by the atheistic movement) is at odds with other values such as skepticism and reason. A skeptic might ask “why is so-and-so wrong” and I think that’s exactly the kind of attitude which is at odds with some progressive social views found within and outside the atheist movement. On top of that both sides of that rift seems to have people who are naturally attracted to drama and personal intrigue and has made livings out of it.

    I think there is still a place for an atheistic movement, however it should be more of a self-help network and as a mean to help those afflicted with mind-controlling cults. Seen in the bigger picture the important part is to defend critical and evidence-based thinking against all kinds of attacks, however I doubt that would make for a good conference topic.

  3. Consider yourself lucky that you weren’t around when the Atheism+ movement started. When I read, e.g., Richard Carrier’s own announcement of A+, it immediately struck me how totalitarian his language was. While it does seem to fit Carrier’s acerbic tone, reading other online pronouncements in the same vein were all very similar.

    I’m not a millennial, so I always considered myself a feminist in now I guess what’s called the “second wave” meaning. But this “third wave” reminds me of how much religious-like thinking permeates other forms of group identity. Indeed, it’s not religion per se that is the cause of a lot of the social problems that the Dawkins et al. New Atheists challenged, but the moralizing group-think. Which really drives the point home that people need to learn why we believe. Not just in religion, but other aspects of human life as well.

    Just because we are moving towards a religion-free world, doesn’t mean we’re moving towards a human irrationality-free world. The things that make religion seem irrational to us rarely have anything to do with the surface level religious beliefs but more with people being beholden to whatever identity and group identity that religious belief engenders; and those same irrationalities will remain even if the identity generating animus isn’t religion.

    For example, I’m pretty sure most atheists, when debating religious people, have encountered the “God is just a word for the order and beauty of the universe” style argument. They say that in one breath when they’re defending their religion — that god is just an inoffensive (and impotent) abstract concept and how can you be against love and beauty OMG?!?! — but later on they pray to the “order and beauty of the universe” to smite their enemies… or find their keys. They flip between one version when on the defensive and the other version when they no longer feel attacked or are on the offensive. If you think this particular brand of irrationality is restricted to religious belief… well, you haven’t encountered how “mansplaining” or “privilege” work in A+. One version’s definition is inoffensive, commonsensical, and completely incapable of furthering any specific agenda, and its other definition is used when on the attack to shut down debate.

    I make that point to neither condemn religious nor feminist people because we seem to use that formulation no matter what we’re defending. To think it was only restricted to religious belief is to operate under the assumption that religion is a unique human irrationality.

    I’m surprised you haven’t seen Jerry Coyne’s many laments about these millennial social justice types. They are a cancer.

  4. No, no, no. I do not want any of that righteousness, that principled zeal, that evangelizing, that never ending warfare with my atheism. Been there, done that. That was the life of the cult.

    Well I’ve been there, done that. As a hanger-on or Co-Worker with the WWCoG, a full fledged member of the Boston Church of Christ led by Kip McKean.

  5. mykeru’s Law:

    As any progressive movement grows & succeeds,the probability of it being co-opted by feminists and made all about their vaginas approaches 1.

  6. You express your feelings eloquently. Would you be willing to elaborate on your misgivings about Dawkins (I’m not interest in Carrier)?

    In particular what is it in Dawkins output that “betrayed a certain ignorance of the religious mind”, or that Dawkins is “losing [his] compassion and understanding”?


    1. The main difficulty I have is the harshness, the apparent lack of compassion for and understanding of those who do embrace religion. Of course we as secular rationalists can see the obvious irrationality at the core of religion, and I certainly know the damage it does to many individuals. But it’s misguided, to put it charitably, to suggest or infer the religious person is a bit of a cluck. The religious person knows his or her belief is not “rational” but something quite different. Just shouting out how irrational the belief is only demonstrates how lacking in understanding one is.

      I suggest the only religious people who are persuaded by such diatribes to surrender their faith are those who are already experiencing doubts for quite different reasons. Those who find use for the attacks are those who are predisposed to hear them and act on them. So they do have a place — they can help such people realize there is another world out there that they can join when they are ready.

      Dawkins demonstrates no awareness whatever of any of the serious research by anthropologists and psychologists into the nature of religious beliefs and practices. He seems not to be interested in making the effort to understand what it is that he wants to attack. He simply sees certain of its narratives as being opposed to science, his baby, and so therefore it is the enemy. That’s a simplistic, even fundamentally ignorant, perspective of the real nature of religion and misses entirely what it really means to many people. It is a condescending, misinformed, even contemptuous treatment of others who are not like him or who do not see things his way.

      1. Dawkins is, sadly, clearly losing his mind. The quality of his writing and thinking has declined precipitously in the last ten years, and it’s reflected in his almost stereotypical old-man crotchetyness. He’s far from the only one (Bill Bryson! No!)

        For Dawkins I would say, read the books, block the twitter feed.

      2. Thank you, I think that I now better understand what you meant.
        I agree that Dawkins approaches religion from a scientific angle; his main thesis is that God is a valid subject for scientific investigation; and this scientific investigation tells us that God – probably – doesn’t exist.

        Clearly, his interest is not how people feel about their religion. But can we therefore fault him with “contemptuous treatment of others”?
        In my view, that is confounding 2 separate issues: in so far as you would define God as an anthropologic, or psychological phenomenon, you would be right to blame Dawkins for ‘unnecessary roughness’. But most (all?) religious people don’t define their religion as something existing only in heir own mind; they see it as a universal phenomenon, existing outside themselves, and – most importantly – affecting our – physical and emotional – world directly. It Really Happened (or will at some time). And it that latter sense (affecting the real world) religion enters the realm where Dawkins’ science is applicable.

        The age-old dilemma is, that science affects our lives, in both positive and negative ways; the same chemical science can be used to manufacture medicine (and save lives) and make poison gas….Physics has enabled our transport over vast distances, and the atom bomb….
        Do we blame the chemists and physicists for their insensitive demeanor?

        I also understand that this debate (about the existence of God) evokes strong emotions, on both sides; and this can lead to abrasive discussions, or disrespectful behaviours. But it seems to me that Dawkins remains – mostly – on the more civilized side of this spectrum of utterings. E.g. to advertise that “God – probably – doesn’t exist” on a London bus does not sound inflammatory to me……

        1. Dawkins, Coyne, and co attack religion as a set of anti-scientific beliefs contrary to all we understand by norms of reality, science, reason, etc. But this is missing the point and infers the religious person is by definition irrational, ignorant, stupid, etc. They fail to grasp the root nature of religious belief and why people cling to it.

          Don’t get me wrong. I’m not going to defend religion or religious institutions. I know as well as most people the negatives they have brought to the world and countless individuals. But we need to respect the people who are devout and not appear to speak of them as idiots. In a post Enlightenment age where we are making great strides in understanding the world we need to take on board a little bit of what researchers have learned about religion and religious belief and why people are that way. It’s no good trying to treat an emotionally unstable person with outmoded attempts to exorcise demons from him in this day and age. (Not meaning to suggest religious people are emotionally unstable always, either :-/ )

          1. One problem I have as an atheist in a supposedly secular society is that biblical studies is still a religious institution. “Evidence” of people rising from the dead 2000 years ago would not be accepted as serious scholarship in any academic field except biblical studies.

            For instance, according to Herodotus’s Histories, the seventh century BC sage Aristeas of Proconnesus was first found dead, after which his body disappeared from a locked room. Later he was found not only to have been resurrected but to have gained immortality. Now, no classicist in the world would claim this miracle actually happened. Rather, it is understood that accounts like this can be chalked up to the fact that the ancients (like many today) were superstitious and gullible.

  7. All I have to add is that generally, movements are labeled as such from the outside, in retrospect, after they have achieved something of lasting value.

    Any group that labels itself a movement from its inception has my immediate skepticism.

    And always remember: advocates are ambassadors. If you’re going to put yourself out front leading the charge for a cause, you have to accept that your cause will be judged by the standard you set.

  8. Neil-

    I’m curious if you’ve read much of the pro-social justice side of atheism or are just basing this on anti-“SJW” polemics such as Lindsay’s blog entry? If you hadn’t “fully realized the nature or origin of this particular group of atheists until I read James Lindsay’s blog article”, have you bothered to read the other side’s writings to verify if Lindsay is representing it accurately?

    Do you really find, for example, Stephanie Zvan or Greta Christina (who Lindsay clearly loathes) “holier than thou” or comparable to Iranian morality police? Do you disagree with their positions, or are merely tone policing? Or is your familiarity with them primarily filtered through the likes of James Lindsay?

    Obviously I disagree with your characterization of social justice atheism, and I count myself a member of that tribe. I wouldn’t criticize you for wanting to do atheism “without the extras”, but signal-boosting the anti-SJ POV seems to be just as much an “extra” to your atheism as would a pro-SJ POV. Is James Lindsay innocent of “that righteousness, that principled zeal, that evangelizing, that never ending warfare”? If not, why does he get a pass?

    Lindsay primarily quotes Carrier himself on “Atheism+”, and you conclude (“And if Richard Carrier comes to mind…”) with your point about the difference between acerbic and polite responses to scholarly disputes. I don’t disagree with that point, but doesn’t this reduce to an admonishment of Carrier’s style and not to “Atheism+” in general? Or do you think this style is endemic to most (all?) pro-social justice atheists? (And not the other side?)

    I note that you don’t weigh in on the allegations against Carrier or how the social justice atheist communities have responded to it, and I don’t fault you if you don’t want to go down those rabbit holes. As such I’ll keep my own comments on the matter in my pocket, so to speak.

    1. I happily subscribe rss to several Freethought blog because I like to hear their perspectives. I enjoyed Greta’s book on death. I attempted to confine any comments relating to Lindsay’s comments to what I read in the post I cited. But I was not at all impressed by Greta’s justification for publicly attacking Carrier’s character.

      I am all for social justice and believe no-one can fault my dedication in that direction. But I am totally opposed to tribalism and I note that you count yourself “a member of [a] tribe”.

      Greta’s and FTB’s denunciations of Carrier in such a public manner reminded me of Carrier’s own very public denunciations of Shermer. To what end all these global denunciations?

      I am very open and willing to be shown wrong about Atheism+, so show me.

        1. I don’t understand the term “regressive atheism”. Nor can I imagine what I presume is its opposite would be — “progressive atheism”. I’m clearly missing something here. Can you clarify?

          1. The whole ‘regressive X’ thing seems to me a misnomer. Sure, there are tons of anti-feminists (or misogynists, to use an older term) in the theistic and atheistic worlds, but calling them out for their views isn’t ‘regressive’.

            1. Sorry, I’m still lost. This is a universe with which I am not familiar. What is meant by the term “regressive atheism”; who uses the term and to whom or what is it applied?

    2. Thank you for this. I read Neil’s post with dismay because he is one of the voices I value the most, in a sphere that I imagine he might wish to disavow, but what I will characterize in comment-box shorthand as progressive atheist.
      And you identify the issue correctly: signal boosting. Atheism+ so-called may be the wrong approach but its adherents, if not my “tribe” are my fellow travelers, and the voices arrayed against have if anything only strengthened that conviction.
      Carrier’s issues and how various persons have chosen to use their platforms to address them are a distraction from the fact that atheism -in terms of dissent from an oppressive status quo- is and needs to be understood as a social justice issue, and is quite rightly aligned with all other such.

      1. I don’t understand how atheism itself can be a form of “dissent from an oppressive status quo”. I cannot understand what it has to do with social justice, or how atheism might be part and parcel of making the world a better place. There are a lot of atheists I don’t like at all and who I think would be a disaster if they were involved in trying to reshape anything in the world.

        Is this an American thing, primarily? I sometimes get the idea that being an atheist is a bit of a deal in the U.S.

        1. ” I sometimes get the idea that being an atheist is a bit of a deal in the U.S.”

          It can be. A substantial fraction of my fellow citizens believe that our nation’s founders intended to create a Christian nation, notwithstanding considerable evidence to the contrary.

      2. Carrier’s issues and how various persons have chosen to use their platforms to address them are a distraction from the fact that atheism -in terms of dissent from an oppressive status quo- is and needs to be understood as a social justice issue, and is quite rightly aligned with all other such.

        I am having some difficulties understanding this sentence. Firstly, I might challenge why atheism needs to be understood as a social justice issue and not, say, as a scientific or philosophical conclusion. I don’t see a contradiction in not accepting God exists and at the same time being homophobic or racist on some other grounds. I want to add that I don’t really know what “social justice” is, exactly, and it is my impression the definition is a bit fluid.

        Secondly, even if I grant this then it is my impression that “social justice” is an umbrella term and it contains many positions that are not globally accepted by social justice activists and are sometimes in contradiction with each other. So it is difficult to understand how atheism can be aligned with “all other such [social justice issues]”.

  9. I never understood why authors like Hitchens thought they were making a big point by demonstrating there is bad stuff in religious texts. Everyone knows there is bad stuff in the bible. For example, God approves of genocide after genocide:

    In Joshua 6:20-21, God helps the Israelites destroy Jericho, killing “men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.” In Deuteronomy 2:32-35, God has the Israelites kill everyone in Heshbon, including children. In Deuteronomy 3:3-7, God has the Israelites do the same to the people of Bashan. In Numbers 31:7-18, the Israelites kill all the Midianites except for the virgins, whom they take as spoils of war. In 1 Samuel 15:1-9, God tells the Israelites to kill all the Amalekites – men, women, children, infants, and their cattle – for something the Amalekites’ ancestors had done 400 years earlier.

    This doesn’t mean a rational person in contemporary times would proof-text these texts and claim it is okay to commit genocide against one’s enemies.

    One’s own moral compass overrules the proof-texting of offensive biblical examples. On the other hand, the good stuff in the bible can inspire us to refine, or expand, the principles behind our moral compasses.

    1. I would dispute the notion that “everyone knows there is bad stuff in the bible”. In the US and Latin America, people learn about the bible as children, primarily through religious sources: church services, Sunday schools, religious schools, etc. These sources tend to present a highly sanitized, sweetness-and-light version of the bible. Few individuals are motivated to read the book for themselves, and those who try are quickly put to sleep by the chloroform-in-print of books like Numbers. So they grow into adults with the vague idea that the bible is a nice old book of stories about lions lying down with lambs and Jesus multiplying the loaves and fishes. People like Hitchens and Dawkins are necessary to shake these people out of their stupor. Hopefully there will be several such bomb-throwers every generation.

      1. Everyone knows God wiped out the whole world with a flood, and wiped out Sodom and Gomorrah, but rational people don’t proof-text these examples to justify wiping out people they have a problem with.

            1. Non sequitur. It doesn’t follow from the article that religious belief is rational, nor that it’s rational to hold irrational beliefs. Also you seemed to agree with me above – “fighting irrational ignorance with righteous ignorance”.

              I agree with the opinion that factual and religious beliefs are quite different, but I disagree with the impression they’re trying to make, that they are completely separate. Unfortunately they overlap a bit, hence all the problems. I’ve seen religious beliefs indirectly affect factual beliefs and reality too often, including a crank political conspiracy theory (with stats showing strong correlation between religiosity and support for the theory) and all dire political consequences for a whole country.

              1. No-one disputes the fact that cranks, mad-men and evil persons act on dangerous religious beliefs. I have discussed this process many times now and will do so some more. I have also discussed this sort of thing in the context of the research.

                No-one is saying that “religious belief is rational”, either. A much longer discussion is involved here. From the perspective of the believer it is very often quite rational to believe what they do.

                I cannot understand how one could ever justify fighting anything with “righteous ignorance”.

              2. I wasn’t referring to spectacular acts by crazed individuals.
                It seems like whenever there’s a talk about harm done by religion, people tend to think mostly of lunatics blowing themselves up. Something akin to Stockholm syndrome – “let’s be grateful, they could have killed us”.

                Meanwhile too much religion harms society in a number of ways, affecting freedom, wealth, laws, education, political stability. The big thing nobody seems to care about is indoctrination of little kids. All that done by those lovable, caring creatures acting together like a hive mind. The mechanics of their brains are interesting, but of little consequence.

                “Ignorance” is your assertion. Are you sure that’s not just a difference of opinion?

              3. What would you like to see? A society that outlaws religious beliefs? That finds a way to force parents not to teach their kids a religion. How would these things be done?

                What is your own religious background? (Do you know anything about my own background?)

                (I have never seen a religion harm society. Religion is what is expressed by people with their own motivations and interests, and I have seen many people do harm in the name of religious beliefs. But I hold those people responsible for their actions. They can’t fob the blame off onto “religion” or God or “the Truth”.)

              4. I’m all against forcing beliefs on individuals, that’s religious thing to do.
                I just express my opinions.
                By the way, did you know that there are parts of modern world where they still indoctrinate kids in public schools and kindergartens, sometimes without parents’ consent or knowledge?

                Our religious backgrounds are of little relevance in my opinion.
                I’m a natural born atheist. Of you I only know you used to be religious.

                Most Western countries underwent rapid secularization in the last 50 years or so, so people tend to forget.
                But not everywhere.
                I did see religion harm society first hand. That’s some form of knowledge, in my opinion at least as good as armchair psychology.
                It’s impossible to know everything, it’s difficult to make sense of all things you know. What one sees as ignorance might be something else.

              5. I get the impression you have not sought to understand the nature of religion or why people embrace it, or the relationships between beliefs and actions. I have posted on these topics in the past and hope you will have an opportunity and engage with posts when I do so again in the future.

              6. Do you always behave in all the ways that you believe you should behave?

                If not, why not?

                Maybe the link between beliefs and behaviour is not so clear cut.

              7. “I get the impression you have not sought to understand the nature of religion or why people embrace it, or the relationships between beliefs and actions.”

                Or maybe I don’t attach as much significance to those in this context.
                What religion does to individuals and society remains the same, regardless of the explanations.

                “Do you always behave in all the ways that you believe you should behave?
                If not, why not?
                Maybe the link between beliefs and behaviour is not so clear cut.”

                Not always, in most cases it’s because I’m lazy. Nevertheless, I often do behave the way I believe I should.
                I know the link is not so clear cut, but that’s inconsequential, because people sometimes do act on their beliefs.

                It’s very fortunate cigs don’t always cause cancer, but that’s still not a good reason to defend them.

              8. I asked:

                “Do you always behave in all the ways that you believe you should behave?
                If not, why not?
                Maybe the link between beliefs and behaviour is not so clear cut.”

                Your response:

                Not always, in most cases it’s because I’m lazy. Nevertheless, I often do behave the way I believe I should.

                I meant to respond earlier to the point being made here. Your response is interesting. Firstly, it tells me that beliefs do not have power over you but you have the power over them and you get to decide if you will act on them or not. Beliefs obviously can’t motivate a lazy person, as you testify, apparently.

                But if its laziness that stops you from acting on your beliefs then you are implicitly suggesting that it is your own will power and personal decision that leads you to act on your beliefs at other times.

                In other words, it is you who is responsible for your actions. You cannot blame your beliefs. Your beliefs are not responsible for what you do. You still have free will and must make a decision to act on them and you are free not to act on them, too.

                Might not the same be true for other people, even the religiously minded? Indeed, it is perverse beliefs in hell that cause many believers to live as emotional or mental wrecks as a result of guilt and fear over their failure to act on their beliefs.

                Very few of us in normal circumstances believe it is right to commit murder. If someone does belong to a weird sect that teaches that they should kill, and this is their belief, then the person is placed in a “double bind” of conflicting beliefs. I suspect most people in that situation would rationalize their way out of the belief that is going to cause them most stress. The point is, people, not abstract beliefs, must be held ultimately accountable for actions.

                But I am just touching the surface, of course. There are many facets to this question. I have often discussed some of those facets elsewhere and wish I had more time to post more all the sooner.

              9. So many I have spoken with who have the same approach to religion as you do see no need to inform themselves about what the research tells us about human behaviour and its relationship to beliefs, nor any need to inform themselves about religion, for the same reasons you have given here. In fact some of these same people have expressed open derision of the scholarship even though they have not read it for themselves.

                I think we owe it to ourselves, and to those we are opposing, to inform ourselves, to educate ourselves about what it is we feel so strongly about.

              10. “it is you who is responsible for your actions. You cannot blame your beliefs. Your beliefs are not responsible for what you do. You still have free will and must make a decision to act on them and you are free not to act on them, too.”

                Not so simple. That’s true only if the beliefs happen to be true.
                How about a police officer who shot a guy who drew a replica toy gun?
                How about a judge who convicted a guy, because the evidence was incriminating, and yet later it turned out he was innocent?

                They acted on false, but justified beliefs, hence no rational person holds them responsible for what they did.

                With religious people it gets even more complex, because their beliefs are neither justified nor likely to be true, but is a man who had been imprinted with false beliefs at the age of 4, when he couldn’t possibly resist, responsible for acting on those beliefs as an adult?

                Another point, causality is one thing, responsibility is another. If we’re talking about religion causing harm, we’re talking about causality. Religion is harmful if it causes harm, regardless if anyone is responsible.

                “Indeed, it is perverse beliefs in hell that cause many believers to live as emotional or mental wrecks as a result of guilt and fear over their failure to act on their beliefs.”

                Indeed. Religious beliefs are harmful, that what I’m saying all along.

                “So many I have spoken with who have the same approach to religion as you do see no need to inform themselves about what the research tells us about human behaviour and its relationship to beliefs, nor any need to inform themselves about religion, for the same reasons you have given here.”

                You play the ignorance card in almost every reply, did I give you any reason?
                I just don’t see how some of the information you’re pointing to is relevant. For example, what do reasons why people embrace religion matter in this context? Can any reason anyone embraces a bad thing make it a good thing, or vice versa?

    2. I agree with Glek also “everyone knows there is bad stuff in the bible”. Here in the US when atheists point out such things they immediately are suspect and the true believers cant believe its true.I believe this is part of the problem of why atheist are cast as evil people.The believers think the devil is using atheists to deceive them.

      “One’s own moral compass overrules the proof-texting of offensive biblical examples” The problem is some religious people cant or wont develop a moral compass and just let the bible take that over. That is were the danger comes in of course. But I will agree its better for them to pick and choose whats appealing to them per “ones moral compass”, sort of “buffet style”, then to swallow the whole damn thing.

      1. There will always be the individual eccentrics but by and large when social groups use the bible to justify moral positions they are usually selecting passages that buttress values they embrace as part of their social world already. So in a world where slavery is taken as part of the natural order, pro-slave texts are embraced. In a strictly patriarchal society, then patriarchal texts are found. “Luckily” the Bible contains something that can be found to support almost any point of view or ethical viewpoint.

    3. “This doesn’t mean a rational person in contemporary times would proof-text these texts and claim it is okay to commit genocide against one’s enemies.”

      Recently I had a talk with my co-worker (catholic). He said “Sure, Jews suffered a lot throughout history, but that’s only just punishment for killing our Lord Jesus.”

      Never underestimate human stupidity.

  10. “The more I listened to Hitchens and Dawkins the more I felt that they were losing their compassion and understanding. It is too easy to sound like an brain dead bigot if we are too busy attacking religion to have time to learn something serious about it and why people embrace it.”

    Compassion and understanding towards the religious people is a privilege of those living in secularized societies.

      1. Are people promoting the Ark and Noahs flood as real harming others? People who insist homosexuals are disordered? People who live believing Jesus will come back any day now? Where do you draw the line?

        1. I’d say every false belief has a potential to become harmful under some circumstances, and religions are very unlikely to generate any non-false beliefs.
          Of those mentioned, beliefs towards homosexuals, end of days and astrology obviously can and sometimes do harm people.

          There are also some indirect implications of false beliefs, for example:
          Karma – he’s got cancer, he must have deserved it.
          Life after death – what would you do with your last 100 bucks, if you believed the next day you’ll inherit a million? Now life seems less valuable, yours and others’.

          1. If I may interject for a moment — Surely it is equally true that every false belief has a potential to become beneficial under some circumstances. Every human being has the potential to become harmful under some circumstances regardless of belief systems.

            1. Unlike true beliefs, false beliefs act as false premises leading to false conclusions, they can make one do harm unintentionally. Unlike true beliefs, they can be harmful by themselves.

              That’s a huge systematic difference, it’s a mistake to defend false beliefs.

              1. I don’t think you’ve thought your views through. Even true beliefs can in different circumstances be a basis from which people unintentionally harm others. Beliefs need to be acted on to be harmful or beneficial. Beliefs by themselves can’t do harm. Actions do the harm. Do you think false beliefs are like those parasites that cause harm to their hosts? If so, would true beliefs be like good bacteria in their effects on persons? Have you investigated what the science has to say about the relationship between beliefs and behaviour?

              2. Everything can do harm sometimes.
                False beliefs are just way better at it than true beliefs.

                “Beliefs by themselves can’t do harm. Actions do the harm.”

                No. They’re just closer to the event in the cause-effect chain.

      2. “Would you have us demonize religious people carte blanche ? I prefer to save my hostility for those who actually do and plot harm to others.”

        False dichotomy. I wouldn’t, demonizing is at the opposite end of the spectrum. I just prefer calling a spade a spade, with no intent of hurting or protecting religious sensibilities.

        I was raised among religious people. I’m aware they usually don’t mean harm, and their condition is not all their fault, but the fact is, as soon as their numbers in a society exceed critical mass, harm is being done.

        When talking to them sure, let’s show compassion and understanding – for their and our own good, but between us I don’t see the need for such a requirement. If you feel compassionate that’s fine, if others don’t, maybe they have their reasons. To be honest your judgement seemed a bit system1-ish to me.

        1. I have been through my own demons with religion and know the evil it can do. I think you have specific scenarios in mind that I am not fully aware of. There are many places where religious believers greatly outnumber others and where everyone really does live normal lives.

  11. Very stimulating essay Neil, and commentary to follow. To me, this is internet discussion at its best.

    I know nothing of Carrier’s or Shermer’s alleged misbehavior, but males are programmed by evolution to seek sex wherever they can get it. They are only restrained by culture enforced by peer pressure. In most cultures the proscription of adultery, rape and other sexual improprieties is said to come from gods and is incorporated into religious doctrine. Atheists who reject the existence and authority of gods (as we all do) are inevitably faced with the question of morality. Do they retain the morality of the religion whose authority they have rejected, or try to replace it? There is law of course, but law is too clumsy, rigid, and, well, legalistic to substitute for morals. Atheism+ may not be the answer, and there may be no universal answer but it is not a question conscientious atheists can well avoid. If there are no gods, how do we determine right from wrong? Do we have a universally evolved moral sense, or must we base our answers on the consequences of behavior?

    As for the New Atheists, I agree that most seem not to have a clue about the consolation, inspiration, security, and sense of community that people derive from religion. And they have no conception, or even interest in how religion functions in a culture, interacting with other social institutions to motivate and restrain behavior. Gods are not real, ergo religion is bad seems to be their mantra.

    But in the case at least of some of the most prominent new atheists, there seems to be something more insidious at work. It was the 9/11 attacks that gave rise to New Atheism, and the NAs had no doubt that the cause of 9/11 was religion. “All religion is bad, but Islam is the worst” recurs throughout their writings. They seem oblivious to the fact, that as Osama bin Laden stated, the attacks were in response to western military and political attacks on Muslim countries and the continuing presence of western military troops there. Worse, the NAs have contributed to fear mongering in western countries about the existential threat of Islam to the “enlightened” values of the west. In the words of Sam Harris, we are “Sleepwalking towards Armageddon” if we don’t wake up to the threat of radical Islam. In promoting this apocalyptic view, they have provided support for the right wing neo-cons who assert that the US and its allies have the power, the moral authority and the duty to police the rest of the world. Christopher Hitchens was an outspoken proponent of the Iraq invasion. Others, while not outright supporting violence against Muslims, regularly ignore the violence that does occur (overthrow of governments, two Iraq invasions, Gaza invasion, support for brutal dictators) as a cause of Muslim attacks on the west. They highlight events and scenarios that provide implicit support for Brexit, Donald Trump, and the rise of xenophobia, especially Islamophobia. When did you ever hear a New Atheist analyze the immorality of Hindu scriptures, or attribute the treatment of the Rohingya Muslims to the doctrines of Buddhism, or, God forbid, examine the brutality of Marxist-Maoist atheism in China as a religious phenomenon. They slap Christianity on the wrist frequently, but the really bad things in the world, they attribute to Muslims and Islam. They claim to be attacking religious ideas (Islam) and not people (Muslims), but they are always at pains to insist that it is not just the radicals, but many, many Muslims who support things like stoning adulterers. And when Muslims do bad things, like suicide bombing it is always Islam that caused them to do it.

    This comment is already too long, but if anyone is interested, I’ll gladly illustrate my claims of the last paragraph with some recent posts of Jerry Coyne in his blog, WEIT.

  12. I have held off from The S Harris View of Things on Islam – which is testimony to this blog only. I am glad that I have b/c I see his view is faulty in that it is not nuanced enough.
    Enough: [!]- the position espoused by him is fundamentally correct. There is too much either/orism going on re this vexed question of religion [Islam at the moment unfortunately] EVEN by those requesting a patient understanding of the social worth of religion which should be patent -even as regards Islam.
    But once religion is gone, it is gone for good [no-one can tell me the US is religious at base].
    And those who say it is simply a virus are really saying ” why is’nt the rest of the world like MY world?” [The US usually.]
    When what they should be saying is ” let’s hope they catch up with MY world soon.”
    The difference between the two is: understanding [ie Compassionate democratic secularism.]

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