Joe Bob Parties With the Atheists

By Joe Bob Briggs | 05/30/2008


The biggest security guard I’ve ever seen in my life–this guy could work for Blackwater, and he’s got the coiled listening device spilling out of his left ear to prove it–has parked his burly self squarely in front of me, making it clear that I’d best slink back against the wall while the Rock Star of Atheism makes her entrance and a hundred entranced admirers take a collective breath, not quite believing they’re in her presence.

The exotically beautiful Ayaan Hirsi Ali travels with not one but two Blackwater types, part of a security contract supplied by the government of the Netherlands at the rate of two-point-five mill a year, and she’s clearly the main attraction at the opening-night fundraiser for the Atheist Alliance International, an umbrella group of 59 atheist organizations in 10 countries that have all come together in a spooky section of Arlington, Virginia, called Crystal City, which looks like some Nordic vision of the perfectly planned society–hermetically sealed high-rise apartment buildings, underground shopping malls, and claustrophobic hotels, with streets devoid of pedestrians but elaborately landscaped, like a Brobdingnagian potted plant.

AAI Poster

We’re all wedged into the Arlington Ballroom of the Crowne Plaza Hotel at an event that’s been sold out for weeks, with hundreds more tuning in on the Internet, and we’ve been warned not to pet the bomb-sniffing dogs. The heavy security is specifically the result of a fatwa declaring open season on Ayaan Hirsi Ali, but there’s a little paranoia even when she’s not around, perhaps because any well-placed explosive device in this low-ceilinged meeting hall could wipe out the entire sanhedrin of the atheist movement, and, after all, you never know what those abortion clinic bombers are likely to do next. Besides Ali, the assembled pantheon includes Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation), Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great) and Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell), which, if you’ve been paying attention, collectively amount to about 2 million New York Times best-selling copies during the past year with variations on the themes of “There is no God,” “Belief in God is a plague on society,” and “The religionists must be stopped.” So I guess there’s one other reason we need security: Any attack on the building would result in an extremely low afterlife quotient–we have to party now!

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Ayaan Hirsi Ali

At last Ayaan Hirsi Ali makes her entrance–she’s actually kind of bashful, so she sidles awkwardly toward her assigned table as Burly Two bumps off dawdlers like a human mine-sweeper, clearing a path through the cocktail jungle–and as her presence slowly dawns on people (there she is! she’s so slender! don’t pet the dog!), there’s a little wave of spontaneous applause and then a jostling for position for what will be a solid hour of effusive outpourings (“Thank you for your courage,” “I admire you so much,” “My family is Muslim and you give me strength”), mostly from women, many of them clutching Ali’s book Infidel, the story of her odyssey from Somalia to Saudi Arabia to Ethiopia to Kenya to the Netherlands as she evaded an arranged marriage, denounced the religion of her family, became a member of the Dutch Parliament, and made a film on the oppression of Muslim women with director Theo Van Gogh, who was knifed to death by an Islamic fanatic as a result. I notice a man in line who looks remarkably like Tom Wolfe–only to realize it is Tom Wolfe. He chats with her for about five minutes, and she looks alternately embarrassed and joyful. On this night, it’s good to be an atheist in Crystal City.

The next three days will be a combination political convention, pep rally, scholarly conference and gathering of fans–in their undergraduate exuberance some of the attendees are a little like the monomaniacs at science fiction conventions–and it’s obvious that for many of the celebrants they’re experiencing an epiphany, a sense of “It’s okay to be atheist” or “Wow, there are more of us than I thought.” The gathering, in both senses, has begun.

When Harvey Cox wrote The Secular City 43 years ago, he noted in passing that “the anti-Christian zealot is something of an anachronism today” because “the forces of secularization have no serious interest in persecuting religion. Secularization simply bypasses and undercuts religion and goes on to other things. It has relativized religious world-views and thus rendered them innocuous. Religion has been privatized.”

I didn’t spot Dr. Cox in Crystal City–although it’s the kind of event he would relish–but I would expect that even from his cloistered Harvard study there would be a sense of a culture shift. Just four years ago I spoke at a national convention of atheists in Boston, and it was a ragtag group of a few dozen that couldn’t even fill up the bar at a Logan Airport hotel. During the years when Madalyn Murray O’Hair was the most famous atheist in America (and we’re not just saying that because she was a fan of The Door), you always had the sense that the roots of her movement didn’t go much further than the storefront in Austin where she sold sloppily printed pamphlets and brochures. The favorite joke of Ellen Johnson, O’Hair’s right hand for much of that time and president of American Atheists today, was always that “organizing atheists is like herding cats.”

Sweeney and Downey
Julia Sweeney and Margaret Downey

What a difference a few best-sellers make. Mingling with the opening night audience are Matthew Chapman, great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin who normally makes his living writing screenplays and directing films but couldn’t resist writing a book about the recent “intelligent design” case in Dover, Pennsylvania; Greydon Square, the only known atheist rapper; Julia Sweeney, the former Saturday Night Live comedienne who has a one-woman show about “coming out” as an atheist; and our colleague Chris Harper, better known as “Pastor Deacon Fred,” who presides over the satirical Landover Baptist Church website when he’s not doing spot-on impersonations of a wildly deluded pulpiteer. And those are only the celebrities I noticed. Atheists are a brainy sort, so the room is also full of academics with multiple letters behind their names.

There’s a first-day-of-school feeling about the event, breathless, headed for the Finland Station. Part of it is anti-religion, but another big part of it is not so much fighting the religionists as establishing some new . . . uh . . . I can’t call it a religion because they don’t like that . . . some new . . . hmmm . . . belief system . . . Weltanschaung . . . ethical construct . . . well, anyway, some organized effort to herd the cats. There was much talk over the three days of emulating the civil rights movement and, even more to the point, the homosexual rights movement. Richard Dawkins noted a couple of times that the appropriation of the word “gay” had been the beginning of acceptance for that minority, and he invoked the old feminist concept of “consciousness raising” for the first time in decades. Daniel Dennett, whose day job is in the philosophy department of Tufts University, suggested that they get rid of the negativity of “atheist” (after all, it means “against theism”) and start calling themselves “brights.” His suggestion was met with less than universal acclaim, but he continued to press it, saying that, if “straight” is the opposite of “gay,” then the opposite of “bright” would be “super” (for belief in the supernatural). Of course, you couldn’t be bright without some kind of light source, and if we assume that it comes from within, then he’s already oriented the terminology so that illumination can’t come from any place that a religionist believes it comes from. But let’s not quibble!

In other words, this was not just a social event, it was an event full of planning, organizing, and . . . uh . . . well . . . again . . . I think I have to call it proselytizing. The atheists, you may be surprised to know, have a political action committee, and part of their lobbying efforts involve finding out which members of Congress are atheists. (There are 23 of them, according to the organizers, but only one is “out of the closet”–Pete Stark, a representative from California.) The policy of the group, articulated by Dawkins, is never to “out” an atheist, but to encourage them to publicly affirm their proud lack of superstition. And Dawkins is especially committed to programs that would educate children in an atheist-friendly way, since he believes that many of the most damaging superstitions are inculcated during the formative years of primary education.

My question about all this, from the outside looking in, was: Why now? Why, in the western civilized nations of the year 2007--in America yes, but especially in England--should there be this delirium over atheism? It’s not exactly a new movement. There have always been religionists on one side and atheists on the other, and in certain periods–I’m thinking of Alexandria in the 3rd century B.C., where the Jewish scholars mingled with the Neo-Platonists–the two sides have been intellectually grateful for one another. Even more recently, at the turn of the previous century, when Americans were decamping for London instead of vice versa, it was still possible for the decadent Swinburne-loving Ezra Pound to befriend T.S. Eliot, the American-turned-Brit who would become the most intellectually honest exponent of the Anglican church for the past 300 years. But those days are gone. Speaker after speaker made the point: this is war. There will be no accommodation with those “who believe in the imaginary man in the sky,” in the words of Daniel Dennett. “We seem to be having some impact [by being aggressive] in ways that decades of niceness have not,” said Dawkins. Theologians who would engage the atheists in a friendly manner are, in the words of one attendee, “enablers.” ”The moderate religious people,” said Dawkins, “make the world safe for the extremists.”

Whew! Heady stuff. And all this time I thought it had something to do with either Bush or the Christian Coalition or those strange little committees that tilt at Darwin in Appalachian fastnesses. But the main atheist books–all on sale at the makeshift lobby bookshop, with tables run by EvolveFish (get it?) and the Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science–are not about politics at all. These guys aren’t so much interested in the separation of church and state as the exposure of God as a fraud who will sometime soon, in the economy of evolutionary thought, be dispensed with entirely. It’s the ancient argument–as old, at least, as Rome–that all monotheistic religion, but especially Christianity, is not just false but immoral. It’s one thing to say God is an illusion, but the speeches of the weekend made it clear–God is also wicked, or at least the things done in his name are crimes against humanity and, by the way, unscientific.

AAI Convention

If they have a patron saint, it’s Darwin–I would have thought Einstein, or at least someone from physics rather than biology–but no, it’s Darwin to such an extent that “natural selection” analogies are de rigeur for every speaker. The always entertaining Christopher Hitchens, whose prose reads like an Oxford don writing for the New York Post, is their Thomas Paine, a literary flamethrower whose latest book reprises his famous savaging of Mother Teresa while taking us on a journey through most of the other theological abominations of past centuries, while Sam Harris serves as the more sober theorist of the movement, mainly because of his 2005 book The End of Faith, not his more recent screed Letter to a Christian Nation. Dawkins, darling of the PBS special and the good-natured quip, is an actual Oxford don who seems quite comfortable as the de facto archbishop of the movement. (A strange disconnect: None of these guys seem particularly perturbed about the state-sponsored Church of England, and in fact they seem to get on famously with all those daft Anglican divines who spend their lives writing impenetrably flabby tomes about 18th-century liturgical music.)

So, given that this group has serious intellectual pretensions–and here I thought it was going to be another weekend of drinking and making fun of televangelists, like the event in Boston–I had to sober up and figure out what schools we’re drawing from here. It’s hard to tell. If the purpose is not so much political as educational–the latest, most up-to-date assault on divinity, no matter which of its multifarious forms it takes–you would think someone would quote Hobbes or Locke sometime during the weekend. Nope, neither. (What kind of Brits are these?) How about Kant? Nope. How about–if just to refute them–Kierkegaard or Barth? How about that behemoth Nietzsche, since these debates tend to be centered in Germany and, after all, wasn’t he the first to declare God’s demise? Nope, there was none of this, not even from Dennett, the professional philosopher on the dais. Surely Dennett would feel compelled to address the “Death of God” theologians of the sixties, or the post-modernists like Vattimi and Caputo who go beyond Nietzsche to–dare we utter his name?–Jacques Derrida. No. Nyet. Negativo. (Derrida, by the way, was an Algerian Jew noted for the playful statement “Thank God I’m an atheist,” which would seem to me an excellent starting point for at least a seminar.)

Instead what we get is the god of Science. Not just the scientific method–although that was ever on display, with the assumption that if it can’t be proven by objective testing, then it has no reality–but the idea that the whole progress of the human race has taught us that our highest aspirations will be realized through deductive laboratory-type reasoning. In some ways history, for these men, begins with the Enlightenment, and their faith in progress could stir the passions of the most zealous Marxist. I would best describe them as scientific positivists. One of the most startling passages in Dawkins’ book The God Delusion has to do with his belief in the essential decency of humankind. I’m not sure of his point there–I think he’s denying original sin–but he seems to be of the opinion that most people, left alone, will co-exist in peace and harmony. Please give this man a tour of the Ellis Unit of the Texas Department of Corrections. Although he wrote a book called The Selfish Gene, he’s apparently not aware of the mundane brutality in abundant evidence on any episode of Cops.

Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say Dawkins believes that, if we could only get rid of religion in all its noxious forms, the result would be peace on earth and goodwill among men, as interpreted by the Linus speech in A Charlie Brown Christmas (minus the word “savior,” emphasis on the wise men and the awe of the shepherds, of course). Hence the convention’s opening lecture, hosted by Dawkins, was a presentation by University of Virginia psychologist J. Anderson Thomson on “this vexed question of suicide terrorism,” as Dawkins put it. Darwinian atheists would like to know: How is it possible for a member of the species homo sapiens to destroy his own life as well as other members of the species in the name of God?

J. Anderson Thomson
J. Anderson Thomson

To get to the root of the problem, the lanky, bearded, intensely professorial Thomson quickly reeled off all the terrorist acts of the past week, ran through a brief history of suicide terrorism (and I do mean brief--2,000 years in 60 seconds), then traced modern suicide bombings from 1981, when the Iraqi embassy in Beirut was attacked, showing a troubling upward trend that approaches 500 bombings per year worldwide in the new millennium. All of this to make the point that there are three underlying causes: 1) “male-bonded coalitionary violence” (the age-old tendency of “this band of brothers” to stage pre-emptive raids on the nearby village that’s larger and more threatening), 2) the universal capacity for suicide when there’s a feeling that the suicide will help the family, and 3) “religion as a cultural construct” (bingo!).

Since most of us can imagine situations in which suicidal violence would be attractive–to save the life of a child, for example, or to get rid of Hitler–the first two reasons aren’t that weird. So let’s focus on the third one. According to Thomson, “religion hijacks the human brain” just as a certain ant will become suicidal when infected by a parasite. (You’re not allowed to speak at this convention unless you have a Darwinian example.) To illustrate his point, Thomson ran through a list of not two, not three, but a couple of dozen reasons that the brain becomes actively deformed by religion, including “decoupled cognition,” “relationships with unseen others,” “reciprocal altruism” (the feeling of indebtedness), childhood credulity, deference to authority, the hijacking of the mother/infant relationship by another “attachment system,” romantic love (nuns who martyr themselves as “the bride of Christ”), “hyperactive agency detection,” “coalition psychology” (us vs. them), “transference” (the Dalai Lama, or Billy Graham, as a “kindly older brother”), an inauthentic moral feelings system, “altruistic punishment,” and “the most powerful mechanism of all”–kin psychology. You do it because your families, both your natural and your spiritual families, want you to do it. And when those families are led by a “charismatic leader” who has “authority without responsibility,” then the natural compassion of young males gets switched off.

Having set out to tell us how the brain becomes “hijacked,” Thomson succeeded, I thought, only in reminding us of how many ways we can be persuaded to do things that aren’t necessarily in our own best interests. In my case, for example, credit card companies and young women in stiletto heels have both, at various times, hijacked my brain.

But here’s the best part. In the question-and-answer session, Thomson is asked how we can stop the epidemic of suicide bombing, and his answer is “education, honesty and good leadership.” I don’t know what I expected him to say, but that was a letdown for me, not least because I would expect that all three are already being emphasized in the common schools of England, from which many of the suicide bombers have emerged. “My wish,” he said, “would be that high school psychology textbooks taught that human minds are vulnerable to supernatural beliefs.” Such an anti-climax! All that buildup and then the answer is to replace the madrassas with “use your noggin” classes. My mother was a primary school teacher for most of her life, and I can assure you that there are already plenty of state-mandated programs requiring the teaching of “Me-ology”–that’s a real term used in the public schools of Little Rock, Arkansas–as well as “Think For Yourself” in all its permutations (“Are You a Robin or a Bluebird?”), and that references to the supernatural have been unwelcome in the classroom at least since 1963.

At any rate, the convention was less about this sort of thorny atheist dilemma–there would be plenty of fat speakers fees available for that--than a sort of triumphal procession at the end of a very good year, with Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett and others parading into the Colosseum with booty and captives. Leading the cheers and setting the tone at the official welcome ceremony on Friday night was Atheist Alliance president Margaret Downey, an unfailingly good-humored Philadelphian who favors pearls and stylish hats and is best known for being the mother of a defrocked Boy Scout, drummed out of the organization for his atheism, a galvanizing event that resulted in her founding of the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia, which in turn led to her being named the atheist representative at several United Nations events. Take that, Lord Baden-Powell!

Joking about a myriad of technical problems on stage (“Is there a Jesus in the audience that can turn this microphone into three?”), she spent several minutes welcoming all the people who couldn’t get into the ballroom, including several hundred watching on closed circuit in other parts of the hotel, and several thousand viewing via the Internet, including the Oklahoma Atheists, a group of atheists at the University of Arkansas, some atheists meeting at a woman’s home in Atlantic City, and atheist groups in India and, for some reason, Iceland.

Downey and Poster

Downey talked about how it’s time for everyone to become tub-thumpers for “the atheist lifestyle,” which involves “the light of reason” and “the sense of pride we have about the conclusions we have reached–because atheism is a conclusion, not a belief.” With the audience warming to her pep talk, she went on to say that the atheist movement is “a solid force” for the first time in living memory, but that “the future of atheism depends on unity,” to which the whole room shouted “Amen!” (Yes, it’s corny, but it’s one of their favorite jokes.) After several more introductions and Pastor Deacon Fred’s impersonation of a froth-mouth creationist (“An open mind is the devil’s playground!”), everyone rose as one for a prolonged standing ovation as the man himself took the podium, looking lean and spiffy in a grey suit, playing the gentle warrior with his opening salvo: “We are in a propaganda war.”

Yes, it was Dawkins, apostle to the gentiles, bringing glad tidings from Corinth. “There is a new wave of reason. Our enemies, superstition and dogma, are on the wane.” To prove it, he cited “the unprecedented sales figures for atheistic books,” noting that his own The God Delusion had sold 1.25 million copies in one year in the English language, with 31 foreign-language editions yet to come. He then spent the rest of his time shooting down the critics who have appeared in the wake of this manifest success.

Richard Dawkins
Richard Dawkins

“Are we too aggressive?” he asked rhetorically. “Do we play into the hands of the creationists? I met Rothschild, the lawyer for our side in the Dover evolution case. He said ‘Thank God we didn’t call you as an expert witness.’ Are we shrill? Are we strident? I’ve been accused of ranting.”

Then, to prove how not shrill he is, Dawkins reads passages from The God Delusion, emphasizing their satirical nature, garnering generous laughter and ovations after each one. Conclusion: aggression is good for atheism. Dawkins then shows how desperate the religious opposition is. He plays several video clips of himself looking silly when asked questions about evolution–the clips are, of course, all phonies, posted on the web by the lunatic fringe, including one in which Dawkins supposedly says that Jews were tipped off to not going to work at the World Trade Center on 9/11.

He then talks about how often he’s asked “Why don’t you treat religious people with more respect?” and “How can you criticize religion if you’re not learned in theology?” and “Why do you always attack the worst of Christianity–why not my kind of Christianity?” and “Don’t you know that we don’t teach literally?”–indicating that he’s tired of hearing these arguments about the argument, and that they are all refusals to engage with basic premises, juxtaposing science against the supernatural. (Dawkins was the first of several speakers during the weekend who bristled at the constant admonition that they should be “nicer.” They see it as an evasion.)

Dawkins

Continuing with his “State of the Atheist Union,” Dawkins went on to outline three initiatives for the future, starting with politics. “In America it’s almost impossible to elect an atheist–but we can try. We’re starting the Out Campaign. Reach Out, Speak Out, Stand Out for reason. And Keep Out for religion.”

His second suggestion, oddly enough, was to teach comparative religion in the schools. “Teach religion in literature and language, the use of common idioms from religion. We have to raise consciousness about the tying of religious labels around the necks of children. There is no such thing as a Christian child or a Muslim child, but when you Google those terms, you can see how many times they’re used.” (The purpose of this initiative was not crystal clear to me, but I think he was saying that if everyone is ecumenical, then all extremist positions will be neutralized.)

And finally, said the arch-atheist, “we need to teach children to think. Think for yourself.” (All the speakers showed an inordinate faith in education, as though their theistic opponents simply needed more credit hours in the basic sciences to become upright rationalists.)

I’m assuming that Dawkins couldn’t have known how closely his three goals correspond to a typical rally of those scary “On Fire For Jesus” teenagers:

1) Speak out and stand up for Jesus, no matter what your secular friends say!
2) Know your Bible so you can share when people quote from secular books!
3) Don’t follow the crowd!

The only difference is that Teens For Christ would conclude with a group hug and hysterical girl-shrieks, whereas atheists are not, as a rule, huggers.

Dawkins closed with a reference to his film The Root of All Evil?: “Religion is not the root of all evil, but it gets in the way of the appreciation of truth, and that is an evil in itself.”

After his third or fourth standing ovation (I’m starting to lose count), Dawkins submitted to a brief question-and-answer session in which he was asked, as a scientist, to explain the difference between atheists and believers.

“We’re right!” he answers, to general laughter, then, more seriously: “At the behest of a vicar I’m acquainted with, I had magnetic fields put through my skull and the vicar did the same. It did nothing for me. The vicar said, however, that I was an ace responder to the EEG. We were looking for a neurological difference. Is there one? I suppose there could be, but I find that very unsatisfying.”

(This was a continuing theme of the weekend, by the way–the idea that someday, perhaps through such a Sherlock Holmes-style experiment, we will learn the scientific reason why some members of the species believe in God and some do not, because there’s no obvious “natural selection” benefit for believing in the God of the three monotheistic religions. There are, however, quite a few psychological benefits for believing in nature gods, the traditional gods of success, a distinction that I never heard anyone make.)

And so it went, through the rest of the weekend, with each celebrity atheist running through the main themes of his book but also talking about how good it feels–at last!–to be in a nice cozy room full of fellow atheists. “How strange,” said Sam Harris, “that a meeting like this is even necessary. That we live in a world where most people believe in an imaginary god. Twenty-four million people believe that Jesus will return with magic powers. And that belief affects our political discourse, our public policy, the teaching of science, and America’s stature in the world.”

Sam Harris
Sam Harris

And yet it was Harris–the handsome, smooth-talking American in his Al Gore-style sport coat–who became the first apostate! The Harrisy began as most heresies do, with a few simple offhand musings. Harris noted that he’s an atheist only by default. After writing The End of Faith he was constantly questioned about his own religious beliefs, and for a long time he didn’t give any answer. Eventually he started calling himself atheist because he thought it was becoming intellectually dishonest to say anything else. Still, he continued, he doesn’t think atheism should be a movement, and that perhaps the term itself is a mistake. “After all, did you have to be a non-racist? Atheism is not really a philosophy or a worldview. So we run the risk of being seen as a cranky subculture. And I think that could be a trap that is deliberately set for us. It allows people to reject our arguments without meeting the burden of actually answering them. We should not call ourselves anything. We should be under the radar.”

You could already sense the crowd starting to move toward the audience-participation microphone–this was a cold-water moment for those who had shown up to start the revolution–but then Harris went further to say that much in atheism was lazy: “We have to admit that Islam is quite a bit scarier than Christianity. So we are constrained to talk about Islam. To be evenhanded is bullshit. Some religions don’t have extremists.”

More murmuring. Moses is temporarily absent on Horeb–what’s this guy doing?

Harris

But Harris, it turned out, was saving his real bombshell for the end. He concluded his talk with a review of “the rich vein of contemplative literature” indicating that there might be some value to religious mysticism! “Our pleasures are fleeting,” he said, sounding a little like Billy Graham. “We enter into a search for happiness, a victory over boredom and doubt. So many people wonder: Is there a deeper form of well-being? Is happiness possible? This question lies at the periphery of all religion. And we love our answer. For many of us, that answer is No. And yet certain people are led to spirituality and meditation. If happiness exists, it should be available somewhere. Otherwise this life is a form of solitary confinement. So we have this rich vein of contemplative literature. Is it all psychopathology? Is it all a fraud? Perhaps there are alternatives to neurosis. . . . As atheists, we can be accused of purging the universe of mystery.”

I was stunned. Did I just hear the leading exponent of atheism in America, the guy who told Rick Warren what a crock his Jesus was, make some Ecclesiastes-style observations about the emptiness of day-to-day life and then say “haven’t you ever thought there must be more than that in life”? Isn’t that the traditional lead-in to . . . gulp . . . the altar call?

Well, yes. Yes, he did, and the atheists weren’t happy about it.

“But we have to unite under some sort of banner!” said Kelly of the “Rationalist Thought Squad,” almost pleading with him to take back his abandonment of the term atheist.

“I was very disappointed in your speech!” said another audience member. “You seem to believe in the supernatural!”

Harris backed off slightly. “Nothing I believe requires the supernatural. I was just pointing out that there is a range of human experience. There are mystical traditions within religion that we should investigate. I believe in the plasticity of the human brain. There’s the possibility of transforming moment-to-moment experience into something better.”

But Daniel Dennett wouldn’t let him off the hook. “I disagree with you violently,” said Dennett after making his way to the front of the room. “You say maybe it’s not psychopathology--about mysticism. I was courted by the transcendental meditation people. They have a history of more extreme contemplatives and ascetics. It doesn’t seem that they come back with anything interesting. Why isn’t it just one big waste of time and effort?”

Harris’ answer: “It’s nowhere written that anything is easily acquired or explored. Most of us can’t do it. It’s an inconvenient fact–that some desirable things are difficult to cash out. Losing the sense of subjective self, for example, is most common in Buddhism. Dropping the sense of self reduces anxiety, selfishness, fear. It creates compassion and empathy. Nobody says it’s easy. But the words of mystics can be separated from metaphysics. The people I’m talking about are moral athletes. They are the Tiger Woodses of spirituality.”

But Dennett continued to huff, and the issue was left unresolved.

Alas, that was to be the only real fistfight among the luminaries. Saturday night was much more of a lovefest, starting with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who basically summarized her book but still captivated the crowd with her charming asides: her chief influence as a young Muslim girl in Kenya was Nancy Drew novels, at age 16 she was “proud” of her decision to wear the full hijab, she turned from the Koran to Spinoza in her twenties only after learning about civil liberties and secular law in the Netherlands, and when she made her final break from Islam she still regretted leaving her family and her clan, especially since she suspects her brother to be a secret atheist. At the end of her adoring question-and-answer session (“I was disgusted by what Muhammad has to say in the Koran,” “In Islam any form of doubt is called atheism,” “I want to create dissonance for Muslim women”), Dawkins took the stage to say, “May I have your permission to nominate you for the Nobel Peace Prize?”–resulting in the most prolonged standing ovation, and the most prolonged blush, of the entire event.

Christopher Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens was an amusement of a different sort–first because he didn’t show up for his speech and several people had to go looking for him (“Check the bar!”), then because his thrown-together 19-minute talk was peppered with hysterical invective, as he described the “moon-faced Baptist preachers” and “smug smarmy rabbis” and “ghouls from Islamic organizations” he’d been forced to debate during the past year. Hitchens says most of them try to argue from some morally superior position, as though religion itself benefits society. “And yet there is this property of the supernatural–it attacks us in our core, despoils our sexuality, it is a source of misery, guilt, shame and immorality. And so my suggestion to you, when you encounter these people, is to say this: your antagonist has to make a moral statement that could not be made by a non-believer. Actually one was posted on my website. ‘Love your enemies.’ I don’t think that’s a moral statement. It’s immoral to say you love them.”

To make another point, Hitchens turned to Dawkins and asked “How long has the species been on the planet?” Dawkins shrugged at first, then ventured, “Three hundred thousand years.”

Hitchens

“Okay,” said Hitchens, “Let’s be generous to the young earth people and say 100,000. How can there be a belief that a loving God watched that human history, with its misery and gruesomeness–heaven watched that with folded arms for 94,000 years, and then said ‘It’s time to intervene’? Either there was a very bad design, or there was a wicked design.”

Hitchens was especially exercised–apparently he’d encountered it on talk shows–of the new Bush mantra about evolution: “Teach the argument! Let’s hear both sides!”

“First, there isn’t an argument. We don’t say let’s teach chemistry and alchemy. Let’s teach astronomy and astrology. A corollary of that argument would be that any church with a tax break has to teach Darwin in Sunday school.”

And lest he leave the podium without doing his most beloved trope, he used a question about Al Sharpton and the poor to say that not only are Sharpton and Jesse Jackson frauds, but Mother Teresa (you could feel the audience waiting for this one, like concertgoers waiting for the band to play its most famous hit) was “a hideous virgin and fraud and fundamentalist shriveled old bat.” It was around this time that he stuck an unlit cigarette between his lips, indicating that he’d like to wrap things up if he could.

Most of what I picked up about atheism, though, came not from the distinguished headliners but from the little backroom gatherings of the rank and file. There’s a New Jerseyan named David Silverman who, in the space of about 45 minutes, ran through every single argument against God, past and present, complete with answers to the most common challenges from Christians and other theists. This was immensely entertaining. Among his practical debating pointers: “When they say ‘You cannot deny the possibility of God,’ answer ‘You can’t deny the possibility of Zeus.’” “Point out their belief is Ignoratio Ergo Deus–‘I don’t know, so it must be God.’” “Oh, I hate it when they use the ontological argument! It’s a fake argument. It’s wordplay. The short answer is that a perfect being would not allow suffering to exist. All these arguments depend on God not being self-contradictory.” And on and on. My favorite: “The first religion was 100,000 years ago: Neanderthals prayed to bears.”

Silverman is a smart guy, and if I had to sum up the common characteristics of the people who gathered in Crystal City, that would be it: they’re smart. Atheism is for smart people. That’s both its strength and its weakness. It’s a trait they share with the Libertarian Party, by the way, which probably has a fair number of atheists among its adherents. I’m not sure you could be mentally retarded and also be an atheist. There’s no sense of responsibility for making “the least of us” part of the secret.

But it’s not just that they’re intellectuals. They’re also ghostbusters. They’re on a mission, and that mission, I would presume, is partly influenced by horrible experiences they’ve had with believers. Most of what the atheists say about religion is absolutely true. We don’t need to look any further than the Catholic sex abuse scandals–11,000 victims of 4,300 priests, and that’s only the ones we’ve been able to count–to find concrete examples of active evil done in the name of God. And it’s certainly not surprising if some of those victims leave the church and become atheists. What is surprising is what the atheists want to replace that with. Scientific positivism as a way of life doesn’t look any more secure or sexy than, say, trade-unionism. If all the churches, mosques, synagogues and ashrams disappeared tomorrow, what would be the defining belief that holds the atheists together in fellowship? Or would they have done their work at that point? Would they wither away like the ideal communist state, since this is basically a form of 18th-century anti-clericalism? Their faith in capital-R Reason ultimately seemed a little naive. Didn’t we just go through a whole century of challenges to science and reason, with questions about what we know, how we know it, and how we know what can be known. Forget the world wars and the nuclear arms race–did they miss the whole “Waiting for Godot” part in the middle? Encountering this sort of faith in human intelligence in 2008 is a little like visiting Wall Street and finding a 1920s-style industrialist who’s still investing in giant dam projects. We tried that already!

The O'Hares
Madalyn Murray O’Hair with Jon and Robin
Copyright ©2000 American Atheists, Inc.

There’s also an occasional dark side that emerges among the professional atheists. We saw it for years in the personality of Madalyn Murray O’Hair. But even if you make an exception for her–she was in many ways sui generis--there’s a certain joy in humiliating their opponents that wouldn’t be attractive to any jury. On one level it’s just a matter of knocking down the straw men of East Tennessee snake-handler cults. But even in academia, they can play dirty. For example, there’s a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University named Michael Behe who, from what I can tell, has pretty much earned the universal contempt of his colleagues. His own university puts an extensive disclaimer on the biology department website, making it clear that everyone thinks he’s a nut. He was called as an expert witness at the Dover “intelligent design” trial because apparently he’s the only academic who will speak up for it, even as a theory–and the judge dismissed his testimony as worthless. He’s the equivalent of the pimply-faced weakling in the schoolyard who has been beaten up so often that the bullies are starting to tire of the exercise. But not the Darwinists! They relish every appearance Behe makes. They lie in wait for him. They dogpile him. They make sure that not only does he lose his glasses, but someone crushes them underfoot, and then bends the metal on his dental braces in the bargain. They don’t just attack him in obscure journals of biology–they go after him in the popular press. Meanwhile, nobody is listening to him! He has zero support. You would think that, even in the year 2008, there’s some modicum of collegiality among tenured professors. (I thought this sort of venom was limited to Behe, but then I saw an exchange in the London Review of Books last fall after Jerry Fodor published an article called “Why Pigs Don’t Have Wings,” saying that some aspects of Darwinian adaptationism were being called into question. The article was fairly abstruse and specialized, but some kind of clarion call went out and Fodor was not just attacked–almost everything written in a book review gets attacked–but gang-tackled and head-butted by a dozen or so academics, Dennett among them, and those are only the ones that made it into print somewhere. There’s something about Darwinism that has to be fought out in the open, although, if you asked most people, they would probably say that, yes, we accept most of Darwin’s assumptions at this point.)

Daniel Dennett
Daniel Dennett

One of the most touching moments (for the atheists) and troubling moments (for me) came on the final evening of the convention, when Daniel Dennett was presented with the 2007 Richard Dawkins Award . . . by Richard Dawkins. (Yes, things were getting ridiculous by then.) In presenting the award, Dawkins told the story of a life-threatening illness that Dennett had suffered through the previous year. During Dennett’s time in the hospital, he was upset by the number of people who said “We will pray for you.” He thought the focus should be on the wonderful staff and technology available in the hospital, not on appeals to a fictitious force in outer space. Dawkins tells this story with great admiration, and the audience agrees–what a brave and honest man.

Dennett

The name for this is stoicism, and they’re committed to it. They don’t even realize that when people say “We will pray for you”–sometimes even non-religious people–it means they have run out of any other thing to say to you. They’re overwhelmed by the enormity of what you’re facing, and what they’re facing, and so they use this phrase to mean “I love you.” I think most people would instinctively know this. I can imagine few people on the planet who would be offended or upset by the offer of intercessory prayer. I don’t even think that most people offering intercessory prayer at a time like that intend to follow through on the prayer, at least not in any formal way. There’s a connection made at that moment, and it’s recognized by both parties as love. This may be the main reason atheism has no long-term legs. It has no cubicle for love.

On my final day of the convention, I decided to skip the “secular naming ceremony” of two young children–I take it this is one of the atheist initiatives designed to replace christenings–and instead I hopped on the Washington Metro and went to an exhibit at the National Gallery of Art. The Renaissance sculptor Desiderio da Settignano of Florence was being honored in an exhibition that required the cooperation of three countries, the Louvre, and the foremost art historians in Italy, and it was easy to see why. Working in marble in the middle part of the 15th century, Desiderio produced altarpieces, busts, tombs, Madonnas, and fireplaces, and he specialized in young children, especially boys, especially the child Jesus and the young John the Baptist, and in every case he did such fine chiseling that the marbled skin is preternaturally smooth and soft and . . . suddenly I’m hearing the voice of Christopher Hitchens . . . look at that sensuality, look at all the naked children, the man is a filthy perverted pederastic moron! And as soon as I had the thought, I couldn’t think of anything else as I walked past all the pieces in the show, trying to suppress a grin. Look at the catalog, if you get a chance. It’s true. Hitchens will agree with me. The man was a child molester.

Obviously, my brain had been hijacked by atheists.


Comments(103)

Anonymouse | 07:11 am on 6/04/2008

What else could an authentic Christian claim? We believe that Jesus Christ is God-incarnate and based on a fine little piece of literature called "the Bible" that Jesus said, "I am THE way, THE truth, and THE life, no one comes to the Father except through Me" (John 14:6). Those are definite articles there, indicating a thoroughly exclusive claim. A Christian would be hypocritical if he or she denied THE answer is Christ. It is a fairly robust exaggeration to say there is "no historical or real life evidence" for Christian Faith.

budda | 11:09 pm on 6/04/2008

My understanding is that THE answer is 42.

Anonymouse (Bobby B.) | 06:45 am on 6/05/2008

The answer to 21 + 21? What a thought-full reply.

BJ | 02:48 pm on 6/09/2008

Double black jack.

budda | 07:13 pm on 6/11/2008

Hitchhikers Guide To The Universe, you Vogon.

Cathy in Seattle | 05:04 pm on 6/26/2008

sigh. Douglas Adams.

Anonymouse | 07:00 am on 6/04/2008

Funny that the best these intellectual giants could come up wih about origins is that life was seeded here on earth by aliens or on the backs of crystals. I feel sooo threatened. See "Expelled." Rock on Ben Stein.

Onkel Adolf | 08:09 am on 6/04/2008

How come the white Christers allow JoeBob to mock them, and yet when he did a parody farce song about starving negroes in Africa the NAACP and John Wiley Price all but burnt Joe Bob in effigy?

luke h. | 09:43 am on 6/04/2008

...because we have a sense of humor?

(BTW, I'm also very amused that people like you continue to think that substituting the word "Christer" for "Christian" is somehow clever and/or insulting. It's pretty much the same frickin' word, buddy.) :)

RichardSRussell | 11:51 am on 6/04/2008

As one of the atheists who attended the conference, I thot Joe Bob did an even-handed and fair representation of the event.

Just a couple of comments.

It's not the case that all atheists are brainy. The majority of the world's atheists (people who don't believe in gods) are Chinese, and their IQs are all over the normal human spectrum. People are atheists for all sorts of different reasons (I could give you a list), and only 1 of them is "arrived at this position thru rigorous logic and examination of the evidence". Contrast this with "My priest raped me when I was a child, and I hate everything that has to do with religion. That's why I'm an atheist.".

According to the ARIS data, about 1 American in 7 says "none" when asked a fair question about her or his religion. They aren't all Oxford professors or best-selling authors. Most of them are just everyday, ordinary people who, for whatever reason, don't need religion in their lives.

The priest-rape victims, the Chinese who've been raised without religion, and the "nones" aren't the intellectuals, and they're not likely to show up at conferences like Crystal Clear Atheism, nor are they likely to get involved in any kind of formal atheist movement. (Indeed, many of the people who DO get involved in atheist groups tell us they resisted for years, because one of the benefits of disbelief was not having to go to meetings.)

OK, so that's 1 point I wanted to address -- like any movement, only the leaders and luminaries are the standouts; the rest are just ordinary folk.

The other point is what we as atheists are after. What do we want? It's really hard to pin this down, because we don't have the equivalent of a pope or a synod of elders or even a vote among the congregants on doctrine. That's because we don't HAVE any doctrine, no dogma, no creeds, no oaths, no professions of belief -- nothing except the single solitary attitude that we all share: "There are no gods.". Our political beliefs are all over the map. We come in all ages, shapes, sizes, colors, sexes, sexual preferences, ethnicities, etc.

So I speak pretty much for myself alone when I say that what *I* want is for people to wake up, smell the coffee, and realize that Jesus is just Santa Claus for adults, a widely shared but baseless fiction, no more. What I'd undoubtedly SETTLE for (and I suspect this is true of a whole flock of other atheists as well) is simple neutrality on the part of government (AKA "separation of church and state").

I spend a certain amount of my time proselytizing for the atheist point of view, but I'd really rather not. I'd rather not have to. The reason I can't just sit back and shut up, however, is because the religious loonies on the other side won't do the same. They insist on trying to take over everything with their brain parasites. If they'd just leave everyone alone, there probably wouldn't be an atheist movement at all. (Remember what I said earlier about not wanting to have to go to the meetings.)

But nooo-oo-o! They've gotta try to push prayers into locker rooms and legislatures, enshrine their own creeds and dogmas in marble on courthouse lawns all across the country, demand "spiritual accountability" from candidates for public office in this SECULAR nation (where the Constitution specifically says "No religious test shall ever be required for public office."), raid the public treasury for their idiot schemes of Biblical repentance from crime and abstinence-only sex "education", dumb down the science curriculum with their ignorant ancient mythologies, and in general just keep insisting "I'm right, everyone else is wrong, do it my way!".

I said that it's virtually impossible to find any single characteristic that atheists have in common beyond the raw fact of their atheism ("There are no gods."). But there's one thing that comes close: I doubt that there are very many atheists who aren't also advocates of church-state separation. As it happens, that's an attitude which we share with a great many theists, notably members of minority religions (like Jews and 7th Day Adventists) which have also been on the receiving end of mindless attempts to impose majoritarian religious conformity on the whole society.

So listen up, anyone who wants the atheist movement to shut up, go away, and wither on the vine. Here's how to make it happen: LEAVE US ALONE!

PeteAtomic | 07:45 pm on 6/06/2008

I certainly agree with your points on the seperation of church/state.

Karen H | 06:11 pm on 6/11/2008

Richard R wrote:

"What I'd undoubtedly SETTLE for (and I suspect this is true of a whole flock of other atheists as well) is simple neutrality on the part of government (AKA "separation of church and state")."

You know, I think a lot of Christians would like that, too. I think there have been offenses on both sides. When the state says a Catholic adoption service MUST let gay couples adopt through their service, even though it's against Catholic beliefs, it means state interference in the church's religion--mandating that the church must go against its teachings before it can operate. That adoption service ended up going out of business, to the detriment of that community, I'm afraid, and the state--or other organization--hasn't been able to take up the slack. Some Mennonites in Quebec say that if they don't put their kids in state-sanctioned schools--which are secular and don't have the religious teaching they want--instead of their own private schools, their children will be seized and put in foster homes. I mean, Mennonites, for heaven's sake! They're about as harmless as any kind of Christian I know--pacifists, hard-working, tremendously giving in relief aid, and committed to social justice.

I don't have objections to gays or the gay lifestyle; I tend to be liberal politically and I'm not Catholic. I don't think Canada has church/state separation in their constitution, so the government can force religious people to put their kids in secular schools if the government wants. But I do believe that church-state separation is a good thing, and it's not just been violated on the atheist's side. And I don't want something like what's happening to the Mennonites happening here in the U.S., regardless of whether people are atheist or religious.

I think one big problem is the heavy--and often ignorant--hand of the state on the private lives of their citizens.

budda | 07:04 pm on 6/11/2008

Great comments, Karen. Especially about the Mennonites. (I'm not, but I live in Menno/Ammo land) I agree with the caveat that, while I don;t want the state to tell me what to do anymore than anyone else, it wouldn't break my heart to see kids have to go to public schools. I don't want any institution teaching my kids about faith. That is my (any parents) job and I take it seriously.

Possibly my "Saved" (the movie) christian school experience has something to do with it.

Cathy in Seattle! | 05:14 pm on 6/26/2008

Well said!

Those who want to blur the lines between Church and State, or enable those who do, have got to expect that at some point those of us who like those lines well marked will push back on them.

David A | 11:57 am on 6/04/2008

Outstanding essay -- please carry on carrying on. Time to check out the bar...what a great line!

Eric | 12:13 pm on 6/04/2008

Finest kind, Joe Bob...finest kind!

Dawkin was interviewed heavily in the film "Expelled". (I think Ben Stein drifted quite a bit from his initial premise of the film but we'll leave that for another day). In the end, Dawkins admitted that there may just be a supernatural being. Ben Stein was smart enough to just grin and leave Dawkin's statement hanging in the air.

Another thing I noticed is if man is "basically good" then how do they explain the way in which they've persecuted people like Behe who suggest that there are other options to be explored and maybe neo-Darwinism is lacking in its explanations of the how and why? Why such vitriol? Why such vehemence? Why such actions that they say are born from "religious violence"? Pot...meet kettle.

Eric

P.S. Pet peeve time. Anonymous...if you don't have the balls to post your name then don't post. It's too easy to hide behind the curtain of anonymity isn't it!

Anonymouse (Bobby B.) | 12:34 pm on 6/04/2008

Hope this soothes your pet peeve. I dunno if it was for me, or what. But how much info do you need for my opinion to be valid? Besides, we had the same point of view (I thought).

Guy Gaduois | 12:33 pm on 6/04/2008

It seems that the Atheist and the Religious are both demanding their right to not be offended.
There is no such right - yet this is the real hinge point... wars, murder and every imaginable offense is generated based on one group demanding to not be offended by another. One group is willing to kill for their right to believe in God, another is willing to kill for their right not to believe in God. But both are simply fighting against their point of offense.
We can't all get along because everyone will at some point demand that you stop offending me.
If each group were more convinced and self contained of their own rightness, they would be unassailable and unoffendable. If unassailable and unoffendable, more peaceable.
Apparently, a separate peace is impossible, thus the cry for a more aggressive atheism - to what end? Where is the cap or constraint on that agressiveness? Who will dictate the level of agression? It is indeed a Pandora's Box in the truest sense for the Atheist. Now that a kinder, gentler atheism has been cast aside, and the intent is a noble pursuit of knowledge, what to do with the stubbornly ignorant?
It's interesting that the religious and irreligious have their own martyrs whom they venerate, revere but have nothing but alacrity for creating martys for the other side.

Siarlys Jenkins | 01:56 pm on 6/04/2008

OK, I propose a Unity Platform, to bring atheists and Christians of every IQ level together, except of course for Roman Catholic and other Orthodox dogmatists:

I was at a Wisconsin Synod Lutheran church I often attend, partly because there is a pastor I enjoy debating these things with, partly because I like the folks there, partly because there is a young man I play chess with, and unfortunately it was the Sunday that they recite The Athanasian Creed.

Now I am not enamored of The Trinity, but I cheerfully recite the Apostles Creed and sing "praise father, son and holy ghost" without any particular commitment that those concepts make "The Lord our God is One" into a triune split personality, BUT Athanasius was just too much for me to stomach. Of all the nonsense that has entered into the Gospels as they made their way through the world, nothing has done more damage than the attempt of Greek Philosophy to "interpret" what Jesus was talking about.

So can we all agree to detest and abhor the Athanasian Creed?

(I didn't think so.)

Chucky Jesus | 04:02 pm on 6/04/2008

Wow, I wish I could have been at this event! I knew O'Hair personally (in fact that picture is from the time I would have known them, Robin was just about that tall), and I would have loved to talk to anyone else who knew her. I admire the new generation of atheists celebrities -- more power to all of them!!

Amarie | 06:22 pm on 6/04/2008

Wow. Sounds like all they were missing was the white hoods. I wonder what they could burn on my lawn?... Maybe a giant pair of Darwin mutton chops. No, I guess a burning cross would be the most appropriate, after all. (btw, never will understand the significance of using that maneuver as making anybody look bad but the user, seriously, I don't get it)

Also, side note. Darwin said, "as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each thing, all corporeal and mental endorsements will tend to progress toward perfection." Okay, exhibit A, that didn't work out so well for Barney and his friends, and exhibit B, me

Jason | 12:03 pm on 6/05/2008

All in all, this sounds like a pretty fair-handed assesment of the event and it's speakers. However, some of Joe Bob's points & observations emphasize the problem with labeling these authors as spokespeople for atheism. Any time one of them (or any group of atheists, for that matter) declare that all atheists believe something other than that no god exists, they are overstepping their bounds. Strictly speaking one can believe wholeheartedly in the afterlife, ghosts, ESP, aliens and Bigfoot yet still be just as much an atheist as Dawkins or Hitchens. The problem is that many atheists - particularly the most famous atheists - happen to also be materialists & empiricists who tend to take things like evolutionary theory & scientific positivism to their extremes, and in turn those views are seen as common to all atheists. However, Sam Harris (though in some respects pretty over-the-top himself) is a good example of how concepts like spirituality have a home with atheists.

Just think about the wide range of ideas found in theism - from Christianity to Wicca to Scientology and everything in between - and remember that the range of thoughts & beliefs among atheists is just as varied. True, most atheists hold logic & reason very high and won't believe anything that isn't adequately proven (don't get me wrong; I'm not saying those are bad things!), but there always has been and always will be just one prerequisite for atheism - no belief in gods. Everything else is a matter of personal preference.

John C. Snider | 08:14 am on 6/06/2008

JB, interesting article and very thorough, although about 8 months late! Anyway, I don't know if this was intended as a joke, but you've got a photo of the WRONG Sam Harris. The guy in the brown jacket is singer Sam Harris, not scholar/author Sam Harris. Get yer Sam's straight!

Thanks!

MarkR | 12:42 pm on 6/11/2008

Even an agnostic still asks questions about reality and God, which Dawkins believes he understands both of entirely. His writings imply a steadfast belief that the only "knowledge" we can have must have length, width, and accessibility to sense experience--all else is simply fiction. He is the kind of thinker who reduces the most intimate friendship to a survival mechanism, thus draining it of any meaning in our life-world. Dawkins needs to realize that a phenomenon equally present in our life-world is religion, which can not simply be explained away as a mistake of a pre-scientific, infantile mind that lazily searches for meaning. Ludwig Feuerbach, the greatest athiest philosopher in my opinion, believes God to be a projection of the essence of man, and by projecting we grow apart from ourselves. But his critique was formed from an INTIMATE understanding of Christianity, not a simple and arrogant dismissal.

mountainguy | 08:16 pm on 6/11/2008

Mark: You said something very important. I respect Dawkins, I think he is one of the greates scientists for the las 25 years (even though I'm more on non-neodarwinist evolutionism - i.e. Jay Gould et al). But (even though I haven't read God's Delusion) Dawkins doesn´t seem to be very qualified in matters of philosophy-theology.

Mark Smith | 10:08 am on 6/12/2008

I'm not sure it's all that constructive to try and generalize about atheists when they, in all their variety and individuality, share only one relatively minor attribute in common: They think it's unwise to believe something when there's no real evidence to support it.

This kind of discussion always compels me to quote Carl Sagan: "Faith is belief without evidence, and why would you want to believe something if there's no evidence for it?" I think that's the real gulf here, but it's wrong to call it a gulf between believers and nonbelievers. Both sides are believers. One side prefers to have evidence for their beliefs, and the other side bases their beliefs on personal preference alone.

Belief based on evidence seems to me like a fairly straightforward principle to follow when you're using it to decide whether to buy new clothes, or whether the milk has gone bad, or when to cross the street safely. But when people who prefer to believe in the supernatural realize that no evidence supports it, they decide that evidence, which serves as such a handy guide to reality in everyday life, is in this case neither necessary nor sufficient. And even some of that group can comfortably dispense with most supernatural claims if they can make exception for their chosen religious ones.

As this article demonstrates, it's a lot harder to discuss areas of disagreement unless you first characterize them accurately.

that calvinist doug | 10:52 am on 6/12/2008

The assumption you make, however, is that the only acceptable evidence is that which we can measure or perceive in the physical realm. While my faith experience may not have hard evidence to show you, it is nonetheless very real to me. I have the experience (and enough evidence for me) within me, so how can I show that to someone else?

It's kind of like this: how can I show evidence that I love my wife? I mean, you can look at the fact that I live with her, have kids with her, tell you I love her, etc. But in the end, there is no hard evidence I can point to which "proves" scientifically that I love her. Nevertheless, I KNOW I love her.

budda | 11:35 pm on 6/12/2008

Very well put, Doug. That is where the disciplines break down. Philosophy and theology allow for experiential evidence, biology - not so much. They don't have love, they have biological attraction and chemicals and hormones.

What a sucky world it would be to live in where only what is laboratory tested and confirmed actually exists.

I think biologists are just jealous of us amateur theologians and philosophers always getting all the chicks.

that calvinist doug | 01:23 pm on 6/13/2008

Get all the chicks, huh? All I can say is, God made my wife fall in love with me...she's way to freakin' hot for my lame butt.

mountainguy | 11:59 pm on 6/14/2008

I agree with you. Maybe that's why me (a biologist) would like to study theology and philosophy (mainly continental philosophy).

Hucbald | 05:46 am on 6/19/2008

Yawn. Sounds like a support group for a maladjusted minority who just don't get the fact that they'll always be a minority, kinda like an Amway convention.

Being a natural philosopher in the field of music, I always ask atheists to name one great atheist composer, or even just a non-Christian one. Needless to say, they can't do it, because there isn't even an exception to prove the rule by my standards. So then I ask if they can name just a single great atheist poet or painter. Again, nada. Finally, any decent atheist artist at all. Nope. Unbelievably, none of them get it, even at this point. Whatever.

There is not a single quotient to the human mind, rather there are three: Intelligence, emotional, and spiritual. These knotheads simply have low SQ's (Or no SQ's).

I'm not kind to folks like this when I meet them, I must admit: I tell them that, spiritually speaking, they are mongoloid idiots. That usually ends the conversation, which is the desired result.

Process Deist | 02:43 pm on 6/21/2008

By your standards, would the following Atheist be considered Artists?
Johannes Brahms
A.C.L. Bizet
Beethoven
Mozart
Niccolo Paganini
Hector Berlioz

Process Deist | 07:35 pm on 7/16/2008

It has been about one month since my question.
Do you have an answer, Mr. Hucbald?

surreallous | 01:59 pm on 3/10/2009

Will get back to you after death

Anonymous | 02:10 pm on 8/13/2008

You misspell the word 'atheist' on the cover of your ridiculous little magazine. Laugh out fucking loud.

Anonymous | 06:04 am on 9/21/2008

Religious fanaticism, controller of minds by a history constructed by many but old, manipulators, extortionists, prepotent intolerant, enemy of the reason and the sanity, but dresses of but the beautiful word of the love thus are as they are the Christians of all the denominations and any other extremist religion.

Johnny Dangerously | 09:08 pm on 6/07/2009

Conspiracy theories, rhetoric, and
enough bile to choke a Blue Whale.

Do you actually have a point, or did you
get thrown out of your local X-Files
fan club?

and while we are on the subject:

"enemy of THE REASON and THE SANITY?"

THE REASON?

THE SANITY?

Apparently, grammar isn't your strong suit either.

Honestly, this kind of insane gibberish makes me wonder how far
modern education systems have fallen.

Edward T. Babinski | 06:29 pm on 9/22/2008

Hi Joe Bob!

Nice article. I'm a former Christian who wound up with more questions than answers. I have friends with all sorts of beliefs. I'm happy with a public square in which anyone can speak about their beliefs or those of others without throwing literal stones at one another. The internet at least allows every crank their own turf, a place to plant their name, their opinions, and their flag, "I claim this domain name for God, Darwin, or Krispy Chips!"

Polls reveal that in the U.S. "atheists" are at the top of the list of most despised groups, more despised than gays. However, most atheists have better or more pressing things to do with their lives than simply "be atheists." Same goes for most gays, or most people of any despised minority. Life takes up enough time all by itself without having to spend a lot of that time justifying one's metaphysical questions, or justifying ones sexuality. Though some people seem to find the time and energy to do so. But if neither group was not as despised within their culture there probably would be like you said, no real need for anyone to devote much time "defending" their beliefs or sexual preferences.

Even being despised, most "atheists" or people with religious doubts simply choose to keep them to themselves, even among churchgoing religious doubters.

It's the people with certainties who speak with the loudest voices, trying to take control of people's attention, or control of governments "for Christ," for "Reason," or whatever. However, all idealisms aside, most of the time I suspect governments are simply controlled by vageries of fate, economic ups and downs, disasters of nature or the stock market, vested corporate interested, deals made under the table, good old boy networks, the military industrial complex, huge lobbies like the AARP, the NRA, and the like, rather than by "God" or "Reason."

And then there's the knowledge of death, which really REALLY bugs a lot of people since we all have to live with it. Some people seem to be able to put death out of their minds by getting heavily involved in various religious beliefs, sometimes coupled with memorization of Bible verses, or via rituals of worship and prayer. I was like that myself once. But Christians keep dying, the saved and the unsaved keep dying. And the story of Jesus's resurrection is getting old. The N.T. is now older now than the O.T. was when the N.T. was first written, and still no more major miracles. Even the one in the Bible had Jesus enter Jerusalem to the applause of great crowds, making his post-rez exit from Jerusalem pretty darned quiet in comparison.

Well, good luck I say to everyone on this fragile life-boat hanging in space, this pale blue dot in the cosmos.

Scott Klarr | 05:35 am on 12/13/2008

Great report! I got a few laughs out of it :)

uben had | 02:49 pm on 12/30/2008

please continue with your captain obvious crusade. your time is best spent shouting at the moon.

Justify | 02:33 pm on 1/05/2009

Ayaan Hirsi Ali may be the world's preeminent Muslim anti-Islamist. Born into a strict Muslim tribe in Somalia, she fled to the Netherlands to avoid an arranged marriage and was eventually elected to parliament. After she made a film condemning Islamic radicalism, her coproducer Theo Van Gogh was murdered—and the killer warned Ali she was next. She now lives in hiding, but remains a major critic of radical Islam. I had no idea they were traumatic. All the girls around me were circumcised. We were all beaten. Arranged forced marriage is the Somali tribal culture and tradition. I knew no better. In a way, it's easier if you're just told what to do. This is why Muslim women send me letters saying life in America or Europe is more difficult than when they were with their families. For people from a clan society, survival as a way of life comes naturally. I've learned to suppress my emotions. It was thrilling and frightening. It also came at a high cost. I wouldn't change anything, except the death of Theo. Yeah. Every time I think about it. We all knew it was tense and there was an abstract threat. We just didn't know exactly what it was going to look like. I regret that we underestimated that. It just won't go away. It affects everything I do. I've become more patient. I've become more accepting that some things just won't change.

Anonymous | 10:21 pm on 2/06/2009

I was born and raised an atheist. My parents had different reasons for their non-belief: my father was forced to go to both Jewish and Catholic Sunday school as a lad and eventually decided that there was only one god- who did not exist, and my mother is an Asian-born Buddhist. She wasn't raised with a conception of a personal god in the first place, and she was really offended when nuns at a Catholic hospital where her mother was in Intensive Care tried to take advantage of her (my mom's) distressed emotional state to try to get her to join them as a co-wife of Some Invisible Guy.

We moved a lot when I was a child, and every time we'd be grilled on what denomination we belonged to. One fellow said straight what I think they all vaguely felt, "well, you gotta do something!" Baseball...

I got tired of the annual attempts to convert me, and I read the Bible, the Sequel, and as much commentary as I could find in order to defend myself from verbal assault. I have felt religion being thrust down my throat throughout my life in the US, whether intentionally or simply inconsiderately, but I do feel that responding in kind is not the answer. As long as the believers are willing to leave me alone, stay out of politics, and not take my taxes for their schools or other enterprises, I'm happy to leave them in peace.

surreallous | 01:54 pm on 3/10/2009

Belief and thought are not directly seen only manifested. According to the purely physical scientific method as used by atheists 'thinking' does not exist. Their increased discomfort with having a 'belief system' at least shows some level of awareness that their increasing intent is to make others believe as they do. Would be glad to leave atheists alone, too bad so many are intent on propagating their 'non belief' conclusions on others.

Gerald Fnord | 06:49 pm on 5/28/2009

> According to the purely physical scientific method as used by atheists 'thinking' does not exist.

This is not so, and does not follow in the least. What a pure materialist such as myself _does_ say is that thinking is done by brains, and every thought maps to a series of physical reactions. This does not demean thought, as it merely classes it with everything else that actually is, the sublime and wonderful and the crude and disturbing alike. Plenty of things at least seem to exist to the 'naturalist' without being seen, observed by their consequences (I've spent enough time staring at bubble-chamber films to assure you of this.) The difference lies in that between saying, 'I don't understand it, so God is doing it,' and 'Saying, I don't understand it yet, so let's see how much more I can understand without bringing in entities that I will never be able to describe well.'

> Their increased discomfort with having a 'belief system'
My discomfort with having any beliefs is similar to that I would have if I had a 'friend' who consistently gave me bad advice: I think I would be better-off without her, and any affection I might have for her stands in danger of steering me wrong. It has not increased to my knowledge....

I dislike the more obnoxious atheists because I dislike obnoxious anythings---perhaps a bit more because I hate unpleasant behaviour on the part of people with whom I basically agree. On the other hand, can the atheist assault on your sensibilities possibly compare with what I see, even in relatively secular Boston and Cambridge, where just today someone walked up to me and handed me a little piece of paper telling me that I would suffer forever if I didn't believe as she did...the most we atheists will do is to warn you that you will be living your life less abundantly if you believe the world not to be as it appears to be, and that we object to the part of that waste consisting of your interfering with our trying to get on with it, whether it is with Blue Laws, censorship, persecution of sexual minorities, persecution of entire genders, or blowing yourselves up for an Higher Purpose.

Anonymous | 08:17 pm on 4/21/2009

Please remove the picture on your page of Sam Harris. The Sam in the photo is singer/actor Sam Harris, not atheist author Sam Harris.

Anonymous | 09:01 am on 4/23/2009

JESUS IS AWESOME!!!!!!!! :D :D :D :D :D :D :D :D :D :D :D :D
he is the best thign that ever happened to me!!!!!

Gerald Fnord | 06:56 pm on 5/28/2009

A (non-bent) relative was a great fan of Italian Renaissance art, and assured me that a fair number of the artists were (among other attributes and habits) pæderasts in the habit of using their models for angels, even after a long hard day posing as putti.

More importantly: given that this was written by Joe Bob, and not Mr Bloom, where are the breasts, beasts, blood, and vomit-meter readings for this event? On a related note, I hope Mr Bloom's apparent conversion didn't keep Joe Bob from seeing and appreciating (e.g.) Grindhouse, not to mention (though I will) Lord of the G-Strings or Zombie Strippers....

Sean Damkroger | 03:05 am on 6/19/2009

Of course the appeal of Darwin to the atheists is that he set them free. Before Charles there was that nagging thing of "how are we here"? After him, the coup-de-tah of God was complete. Ironically Einstein opened up the can of worms yet again when he theorized (and luminaries like Hubble et. al. proved) that the creationists at least got it in part right. There was no matter, no time, nothing before "the Big Bang" which was what Genesis had said all along. That is, in point-of-fact the answer to your question Joe Bob, of why they worship, uh, revere Darwin over Einstein... Albert almost gave up the farm.

Your observation that the atheists don't really provide for man anything other than a lack of something is not lost on famous rationalists. Bertrand Russell noted famously at the end of his life that rationalism hadn't really added anything to his life and in reality had been kind of a black hole for anything positive or creative. His conclusion was that this is man's lot in life, a sort of sideways nod to Churchill's quote about democracy, that it's the worst form of government, but the only one that works. This has always been intensely hilarious to me that atheists (especially the lazy, like Hitchens) make a big show of contending that human suffering provides proof that God doesn't exists, while they quietly nod in unison that man's lot is to suffer. It is a new spin that Dawkins and others have placed on it that if all religion could be abolished suddenly world peace and general fuzzy feelings would ensue. I find it ironic that they blast religionists as being "close-minded" for their steadfast faith in God while they contemplate a fun-filled future where religion would be roundly silenced. You'd think they'd remember the Communists tried this with abysmal results and smartly shuffle that idea under the carpet, which leads one to question the overall "brightness" of this crowd that they instead shout that from the rooftops.

The one good thing that has come out of all this is the prevailing and growing sense of "aggression" that Dawkins promulgates as the reason for atheism's spread of late. That burgeoning anger and resentment may actually be the cause de celebre, but hate always backfires and ends up sabotaging such efforts. It's easy for Christians and other monotheists to note this phenomenon and attribute it to anger emanating from past, unsavory encounters with all things theistic, but this is foolhardy and counter productive. Being the minority that is on the receiving end of proclamations of their eternal toasting in Dante's fifth ring can elicit great consternation and flaming reaction in anyone even if they had previously been on the receiving end of copious happy experiences with religion and its adherents.

One thing about the observed "smart" status of the atheist crowd: it has been proven that people who are the most susceptible to cult activities are intelligent people. Only intelligent people can contemplate the outlandish as possible reality. So, it makes perfect sense that atheists would be an intelligent lot.

Da Tigster | 08:54 pm on 7/11/2009

Man, this isn't even an issue in the UK, despite Richard Dawkins. I don't think I've ever even heard Creation v Evolution talked about in an Anglican church - including the more evangelical ones.
I don't know any Christians who believe the earth was made in six days or who don't believe in some form of evolution.

Jack10 | 04:20 am on 2/24/2010

But i think this new atheism is not gonna work with people who thinks one day they will win a biggest blackjack bet and will roam through the city in a luxurious limo.

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