The Modest Case for Atheism

Quite good article at, which kicks off by making an important distinction that most people unfamiliar with atheism overlook. In a nutshell: Contrary to popular belief, very few atheists are certain (in the mathematical sense) that God does not exist; rather, we believe that the very notion of there being a God is implausible. Since it is unsustainable to hold implausible beliefs, we are atheists. It really is that simple.

Most of the time people have this impression that atheists are absolutely certain about the non-existence of God since they claim to know that God does not exist, however this impression is misleading. While there are atheists who claim to be absolutely certain that God does not exist, not all atheists are like this. Most atheists are not committed to the view that the non-existence of God is some kind of axiomatic or self-evident truth… What most atheists would agree is that the belief in the existence of God is implausible, hence unreasonable belief. Most atheists do not feel compelled to produce and reproduce absolute proof that God does not exist; it would be self-defeating and futile to even try. This is because most things in life cannot be shown to be true by absolute proof, especially in science.

The Fireplace Delusion

The Fireplace Delusion – Fascinating as a piece of science, and also as a metaphor for considering what we grapple with when contemplating religion.

Reshared post from +John Poteet

Normally I think Sam Harris is an asshole; except sometime he nails it.

Embedded Link

The Fireplace Delusion :
Sam Harris

Sam Harris, neuroscientist and author of the New York Times bestsellers, The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, and The Moral Landscape.

Collins vs. Dawkins

Last month, my Wired subscription came bundled with an add-in magazine: Geekipedia, claiming to be a complete compendium of “people, places, ideas and trends you need to know.” Whatever. Corny premise, but it’s actually a pretty good read, covering topics from artificial intelligence to the Hadron collider to Zillow.

Coming to the “F” section over a plate of curry the other day, was surprised to find an entry titled “Faith Smackdown,” wherein ex-atheist Francis Collins (former head of the Human Genome Project) and biologist Richard Dawkins (“aka Darwin’s Rottweiler”) go head to head on a few key logic points.

Faith Smackdown

Round 2
Collins: “God is outside of nature, at least in part. Science is only really valid in investigating nature. So science is essentially forced to remain silent on the subject of whether God exists or not.”

Dawkins: “Here we have a beautiful explanation for how life comes about… and then Francis Collins and others want to smuggle God back in and say, ‘Oh, well, natural selection was God’s way of doing it.’ He chose the method that made him superfluous. Why bother to postulate him at all, in that case?”

The inclusion of this embarrassingly brief summary of theist/atheist arguments in the Geekipiedia seems to imply that the recent popularity of public conversation about atheism is somehow attached to geek culture – something I would not have guessed (I thought it was more a Salon thing). Wired has reduced the discussion even further by hooking up a hokey JavaScript voting mechanism that lets readers click the thinkers’ heads to vote on who won each round. Puh-leeze.

Interesting debate – but would love to see it extended to a few thousand words.

Music: Electrelane :: You Make Me Weak at the Knees

Those Fanatical Atheists

For the Ottawa Citizen, Dan Gardner asks just what is supposed to be so radical about Dawkins’ and other popular atheists’ views. Is it what they’re saying, or how they say it?

But just what is the core of Dawkins’ radical message? Well, it goes something like this: If you claim that something is true, I will examine the evidence which supports your claim; if you have no evidence, I will not accept that what you say is true and I will think you a foolish and gullible person for believing it so. That’s it. That’s the whole, crazy, fanatical package.

Why does fighting for sense and sensibility in full public view make someone a radical? Why do some claim that atheists are just as fundamentalist as the fundamentalists?

This is completely contrary to how we live the rest of our lives. We demand proof of even trivial claims (“John was the main creative force behind Sergeant Pepper”) and we dismiss those who make such claims without proof. We are still more demanding when claims are made on matters that are at least temporarily important (“Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction” being a notorious example).

Or is it, as I suspect, the mere fact that they’re saying it all? The strange truth is that questioning religion is still equated with the crossing of a cultural taboo — even (strangely) among agnostics.

We’ve had this discussion here before, but the “fundamental” difference bears repeating: Fundamentalists ask us to accept metaphysical claims without evidence; atheists ask us to question everything — even atheism.

Re-published with public comments on

Music: Deep Rumba :: Si! No!

More on The God Delusion

Seems like you can’t shake a stick lately without stumbling on a discussion about “the new atheism.” Kids’ birthday parties, water cooler conversations at work, barbershop, discussion lists. Sparked by the release of new books by Harris, Dawkins, and Dennett, all of a sudden it’s OK to talk about atheism. We’ve had some great conversations here recently on the subject, but it seems like the topic is bottomless.

In a recent Wired cover story, the state of modern atheism was compared to that of homosexuality slowly emerging from the closet a few decades ago. When pressed, many people who publicly claim agnosticism turn out actually to be atheists afraid of offending the present company. Because to declare yourself an atheist is to say “All that stuff that means more to you than anything, that belief system you hinge your life upon? I reject it entirely.” In other words, it’s not polite to declare yourself an atheist. That’s what the “new atheists” want us to move beyond.

Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, does an amazing job in this BBC interview of summarizing the views of contemporary atheism in ten minutes. Dawkins is extraordinarily well-spoken and charming, though some theists will no doubt find him strident.

Dawkins also has a great essay up on Yahoo: Why There Almost Certainly Is No God. Also worth listening to him describe the stunning predictive capacity of quantum theory to a Christian. If you’ve got an hour to spare, catch NPR’s interview with Dawkins. I found it fascinating and illuminating; a friend found it annoying.

iSquub is struggling with the paradox of feeling agnostic but agreeing with Dawkins’ line of reason:

Still, to me the most gripping part of this discussion keeps boiling down to that one thing: why is he an atheist, and I an agnostic? Why do I care? The god I’m agnostic about makes no perceivable difference in my life, yet I get frustrated when Dawkins uses what is pretty much an identical chain of reasoning to the one I use but suddenly leaps to an entirely different conclusion.

My take is that, for many of us, this is not a matter of being committed to agnosticism, but rather of not being prepared to make a positive statement that it’s insensible to base our personal or political lives on what amounts to myths. When quantuum theory can make predictions about our world with breath-taking accuracy while the story of the Trinity can make none, what are we waiting for? As Harris says, in no other field of human endeavor are we so willing to accept with indifference the possibility that an outrageous claim might have merit (as agnostics are). We’ve accepted agnosticism as safe and non-committal. It’s not impolite to be an agnostic, and agnosticism allows us to walk on the razor’s edge. Why not stand up and say “Fairies aren’t real?”

Perhaps agnosticism is just a “well, maybe” sort of allowance that we give. An allowance we would not allow in any other field of discourse when evidence is shaky.

Lighter side: Dawkins on Colbert. And recently called Dawkins one of the sexiest men alive. On the other side, Francis Collins’ The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief promises to present equally convincing reason in the opposite direction. I’m interested.

I was going to link to Dawkins’ interview with fallen angel Ted Haggert, but YouTube has “Removed the content at the copyright holder’s request.”

Oh, and Daniel Dennett recently had a brush with death (to which he says “Thank goodness!”)

Music: Talking Heads :: The Book I Read

Flying Spaghetti Monster

My post on Sam Harris a month ago raised some interesting discussion on the subject of whether it’s even logically consistent for an atheist to call themselves that. Many people immediately assumes that atheism means one core thing: The positive declaration that there is no god. But there are several strains of atheism, and many of the most prominent atheists do not subscribe to “strong” atheism. Good interview in Salon with “Darwin’s rottweiler,” Richard Dawkins. Asked “Why do you call yourself an atheist? Why not an agnostic?”

Well, technically, you cannot be any more than an agnostic. But I am as agnostic about God as I am about fairies and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. You cannot actually disprove the existence of God. Therefore, to be a positive atheist is not technically possible. But you can be as atheist about God as you can be atheist about Thor or Apollo. Everybody nowadays is an atheist about Thor and Apollo. Some of us just go one god further.

n.b.: The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster came about originally as as a response to the Kansas School Board.

Music: The Mountain Goats :: Dinu Lipatti’s Bones

Irrational Respect

What are fundamentalists protecting when they protest stem cell research? A three-day-old human embryo is a cluster of 150 cells, with no brain or nervous system, while the brain of a housefly consists of approximately 100,000 cells. More suffering is visited upon this world when you swat a housefly than when a three-day-old embryo is destroyed. And for this, we prevent a person with 3rd-degree burns covering her body from having new skin grown for her, or a leukemia patient, or paralyzed person from having a second chance. All for the sake of a blastocyst. What is the role of religion in this madness?

300,000 people across Africa die of AIDS every year. Most of those lives could be saved through the widespread use of condoms. And yet Catholic priests across Africa preach to their congregations that condom use is morally wrong. The priests therefore take at least some responsibility for preventable deaths. In the words of author Sam Harris, this is “genocidally stupid” behavior. What is the role of religion here? Is it helping or hindering humanity?

Harris has been on my mind all week. First a Newsweek article covering him and other influential atheists, The New Naysayers turned my head. Then I caught a 30-minute talk he gave to Pop-Tech 2005, The Future of Ideas (podcast). Found that so fascinating I also listened to a much more detailed, 90-minute version (MP3) of the talk I found via the Long Now Foundation.

What is it about religion that prompts us to “respect” others’ beliefs? How is it that a priest can become so convinced he can walk on water that he drowns trying, and still we consider religious beliefs beyond criticism in ways we don’t in any other field of human endeavor? Paraphrasing Harris: “If I stood in front of you and claimed that the Holocaust never happened, you would be under no obligation to respect my beliefs just because they’re my beliefs. You would demand proof. And, if I did a good enough job of proving my case, you would be expected to agree with me. But with religion, it’s different. People can make virtually any metaphysical claim they like, no matter how preposterous, and their beliefs will be ‘respected.’ Why? And more importantly, what kinds of harm does this intellectual double standard — this strange and irrational social acceptance of religion — inflict on societies? Why do even secularists and moderates respect religion, and where is this blind spot taking us?” (Harris speaks about this danger in all religions – he’s not on an anti-Christian jag).

I differ with Harris on this point of respect. Or maybe I just feel conflicted about it. There are religious people in my life for whom I hold tremendous respect, even though I can’t begin to understand their position, how they arrived at the point of religion. Because I know they’re rational, kind people, their religious beliefs don’t “diminish” them in my eyes in the slightest. I understand Harris’ point, but I also don’t feel tempted to stop respecting their beliefs.

Harris’ voice is calm and rational, yet he pulls no punches. He is compelling in ways many will not be prepared for. Those whose religious sensibilities are offended by intellectual challenge should steer clear, even though they undoubtedly would find clearings in the meadows Harris paints that they never expected to find.

I’ve been grappling with the question of whether I’m an atheist or agnostic for a decade, and with questions of faith on and off for a decade before that. Though some of Harris’ stuff is old ground, he covers so much territory, and covers it so well, that I find myself wondering whether it’s time to come to terms with the question once and for all.

What does it take to declare yourself an atheist? What kind of bravery does it require to put yourself so far outside the mainstream? How many people declare themselves agnostic rather than atheist because it’s less “offensive” to family and friends? Why is it that it’s almost impossible to imagine even the most warm, compassionate, ethical, intelligent atheist being elected to a public office? (“Even an openly homosexual candidate has a better chance of being elected to public office than an admitted atheist.”) Would an enlightened society be truly respecting of everyone else’s religious beliefs, or would it not have any?

Music: Wayne Shorter :: House Of Jade

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