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.)


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?


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.”


“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.


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.


mountainguy | 06:37 pm on 5/30/2008

EXCELENT Mr Briggs. Greetings from Colombia.

Off course, "organized religions" have done a lot of damage. This is true. Off course atheists are pretty smart (not necessarily pretty and smart). But everytime I think about this "hollywood atheism" I think they are a strange kind of godless religion, lying over the "beatitudes" of english thinking (from darwinism to pragmatic utilitarism), and starting on a "foundational myth" known as "Enlightment". Maybe that's why they don't like Nietzche (very nihilistic?). They only quote Marx's "Religion is the opium of the people" (The rest of Marxism is a "dangerous" theory, and its totally against "humanism" and "libertariansm"). They only read evolution through the lens of neodarwinism (According to Dawkins, non-neodarwinist evolutionists, like Jay Gould, Lewontin, and me; are almost "heretics"). Postmodernism is very "obscurantist".

Anonymous | 12:10 am on 10/12/2009

"not necessarily pretty and smart"
Hey! I call straw man!
Why do you think there are so many photos in the article of the rather MILF-y Margaret Downey? Her excellent pre-frontal lobes?

Leigh | 02:59 am on 12/29/2009

Atheists... getting together to tell each other why there is no god. Why? Don't they have anything better to do?

So you don't believe in god... so what's that to me?

Just an excuse to get drunk and have a social circle-jerk. It's easy to preach to the choir, try convincing someone of a different view.

Atheism is apparently its own type of religion now... that's funny, and just a little sad. If we all go to our own respective heaven/ hell/ afterlife... do atheists cease to exist when they die? How depressing.

Hi John, miss you.

Anonymous | 06:55 pm on 5/30/2008

And before you start calling me "young-earth creationist", I want you to know that not all we evolutionists are necessarily noedarwinists.

Andy | 11:48 pm on 5/30/2008

Great article, Joe Bob. I was particularly intrigued by the paragraphs about David Dennett, how so many said they would pray for him. I think you're right, that many people say that the way many people say, "If there's anything I can do for you...." I may be wrong, but I suspect, like you, that many of the people who say they'll pray for you never do, just like a fair number of the people who say "if there's anything I can do" don't really mean it. It's the way many folks try to communicate caring, make themselves feel better and then make a graceful exit. I am a hospital chaplain. If I had a dollar for every time I've heard a patient or family member ask me to "say a little prayer" for them, I could pay off my mortgage. Are they sincere? Hard to say, but I suspect that, like Dennett's friends, it's a way to ask the minister to do something when you really don't know what to ask for and may not really mean, and you use the phrase "little prayer" so as to ask the chaplain to do something that you think a religious professional does but ask in such a way as not to appear TOO religious (God forbid!). And it's quite often people who claim no particular religious background or affiliation who ask me to say a "little prayer" (sometimes with a wink--no clue what that's about). I sometimes use the request for a "little prayer" as a teaching opportunity, telling folks that though prayer can be short, it's never "little", considering whom we're talking to. Oh yea, and I always pray with them. "Redeem the time", ya know!

Anyway, that all is a bit beside your point in those paragraphs, which is that atheism has no "cubicle for love". Very well-put! Now, of course, you probably raise all kinds of hackles among atheists saying that, but I think you're right! For all its institutional faults, abuses, sins and horrors which, you're right, are many (and without which there would be no such thing are "The Door", but I digress), what Christianity offers that nothing else does is a human face of God and love.

BTW, I've been thinking for a long time what Sam Harris said about atheism being lazy. I also think that about all the religion-bashing that is so fashionable now in comedy--it's lazy. It's taking cheap shots at too easy of a target. To steal a line from Chris Rock, it's like playing basketball with a retarded kid and calling him for double-dribble. Sure, there are practitioners of comedic religion-bashing that are better than others at it, such as George Carlin and Lewis Black (I used to put Bill Maher in with them, but he's guilty not only of the laziness of which I speak, but also of the "bullshit" of "even-handedness" of which Harris spoke), but it's still lazy.

JoshH | 12:32 am on 5/31/2008

Very nice sketch of these characters. I got an uplifting laugh reading about Hitchens (specifically "Check the bar!").

JoshH | 12:58 am on 5/31/2008

One little addendum, which hit me as the page was loading: those Ecclesiastes/Qoheleth-like "observations about the emptiness of day-to-day life" followed by "say[ing] 'haven’t you ever thought there must be more than that in life'” are unpopular anywhere. The idea that the concept that "life is meaningless" is part of what creates that very depth which something transcendent/numinous can fill is one that scares anyone, regardless of their religious belief (or lack thereof). It means that we as humans (to borrow a phrase from a song from my evangelical teen years) "are not as strong as we think we are."

The fact that it creates a bit of...nausea for Bruce Wilkinson in the same way that it does for Chris Hitchens (or anyone in between) is a pretty good sign that it's on the right track.

Mark Brux | 02:22 am on 6/07/2008

Great job, Joe Bob! Ah, Ecclesiastes! JoshH is spot-on about the ghost-in-the-machine haunting reality of life's existential dilemma being universally unpopular. As Pascal said, man is both great (strong) & wretched (weak).

The last 3 paragraphs really clinch the whole review, & offer a fitting /post-mortem/ on the whole ball of wax: Love & Art (& the one expressed through the other) really do show that human beings are, & are supposed to be, more than rational machines.

"Herding cats"! I love it! Sounds like (*Gasp!*) the same kind of difficulty had in the Body of Christ!

JoshH | 10:14 am on 6/07/2008

As a Quaker who's been a "clerk" of a few committees (think of "moderator" if you're Presbyterian or "chair" in other groups), I can say that "herding cats" is the exact description of such duties.

Siarlys Jenkins | 08:21 am on 5/31/2008

So, do people actually have time to read all this stuff? I had to scroll down pretty fast, because I do have a life to spend my day living. What is there about a bunch of people getting together for lengthy conferences about what none of them believe has any substance that makes it worth writing and reading about?

The Exegete could have handled it better: evolutionary biology is all laid out in the first two chapters of Genesis. What else is there to say?

Anonymous | 11:06 pm on 1/05/2010

Some of us like to read, yes. The discussion was about what goes on at an atheist convention (well, one of them), not your snarky summation.

southpaw | 11:23 am on 5/31/2008

Chaplain Andy says it's "lazy, too easy a target", hmmm... Did anyone else catch the irony of that? Especially coming from a Chaplain...

Andy | 08:23 am on 6/02/2008

I'm not sure I follow what you're getting at, southpaw. I wasn't trying to use irony. I was actually agreeing with Joe Bob, particularly where he said, "(The atheists are) 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."

Re. my mention of my work as a hospital chaplain, I was talking of my experience to respond to what Joe Bob said about Dennett's kvetching about people saying they'll pray for him, and to expand on it a bit. Otherwise, I don't follow what your point is in saying, "Especially coming from a Chaplain...".

southpaw | 06:42 am on 6/03/2008

Hi Andy,

My point is simply this... "WHY are we too easy a target?" And I use the word "we" very very loosely. I'm at the point where I think christianity is RETARDED. The atheists will indeed make gains if christianity means, I walk into a church with a knife sticking out of my back and the best I get is, "geez that's terrible, I'll pray for you." Or, "geez you should really pray for guidance about that."

Of course I'm using exaggeration to make this point, but my experience isn't too far removed from that. And I'm sure my experience isn't an isolated case.

If this little scenario is familiar to folks then OF COURSE we are easy targets, and we should be! And we will continue to be until book-smart christians, stop yapping and start DOING!

Sorry man, don't mean to be a buzzkill or disrespectful, I've just seen to much hypocrisy.

Andy | 08:43 am on 6/03/2008

Thanks for clarifying, southpaw. No apology necessary, and no disrepect taken.

Unfortunately, no, your experience isn't an isolated case, and taking your comments as exaggeration, you're right. There is indeed a great deal in Christianity, at least here in the West, that is very "retarded". That's the basic point of, and reason for, publications like the "Wittenburg Door" and its "Loser of the Month" and "Theologian of the Year" awards, and others like the Landover Baptist Church, Betty Bowers, and the Church of the Blind Chihuahua.

I too have seen a great deal of hypocrisy. On the other hand, I have seen a great deal of genuine, even selfless love, enough that it's still worth it for me to "dance with the one what brung me".


pigseye | 06:39 am on 6/01/2008

I thought al gore invented the universe.

H. Michael | 07:51 pm on 2/15/2009

Speaking of the universe, it is ironic that atheists are confronted moment by moment of their daily lives of the reality of the complexity of the universe. The very people who claim to only believe in what their senses show them, & yet are reduced by their closed philosophy of science (no supernatural explanations allowed) to having to say that the material universe came from nothing. An irrational statement & one that requires far more faith than a belief in a intelligent designer, which the evidence of the complexity of the universe (e. g. info contained in DNA structures of all living things) seems to point to logically. Dawkins, when confronted with the question who started all this in an interview with Ben Stein in the documentary "Expelled" could only say that perhaps some highly developed alien civilization started or designed it. So we see that Dawkins is not against all intelligent design just the one named God. I found this most amusing of the lengths of twisted logic of this so-called academic. Claiming to be wise, they became fools.If you want to see a video of this interview question check out:

Gerald Fnord | 06:15 pm on 5/28/2009

>An irrational statement ['the material universe came from nothing']

A 'statement' cannot be irrational unless it contradicts a predefined axiom or conclusion therefrom. Physics does _not_ say 'something cannot come from nothing'---it makes local statements about the stress-energy tensor that mean that mass-energy is locally conserved, but fully admits metrics (universes, in effect) where the sum total of energy increases---so within the context of modern physics the statement is not irrational, more just a description of the best with which we can come up.

>Dawkins, when confronted with the question who started all this (emphasis mine)

This is question-begging: it assumes that there was, and by necessity must be, a being (as indicated by 'who') for the Universe to exist. (And, in any event, I wonder which I would trust less: Ben Stein's even-handedness in editing, or Dawkins' ability to understand physics...I think they both come in last.)

Anonymous | 07:03 pm on 1/15/2010

Suppose a 'Supernatural explanation' is to be allowed in a there anyway for the advocate to rationally assess and explain to what degree Supernatural activity is present, what sort of Supernatural force/being is involved, or what level of Supernatural something is present, or what class of Supernatural Being is involved? Or do we assume all Supernatural 'intervention' or actions are ultimately the action of some Ultimate Top of The Supernatural Foodchain Omni-competent God?

The problem with any 'Supernatural' attribution is, this label essentially claims that the explanation is reserved from debate or investigation by mere mortals, it is beyond what normal human senses or intellectual has the power to see, assess or comprehend. This essentially puts the assertion of Supernatural agency beyond the realm of testable and debatable with anyone, except another Supernaturalist believer with 'special' abilities or tools by which to 'divine' the nature of the activity. The Supernaturalist always turn around and claims they happen to have a divinely given 'ruler' or Revelation which empowers the truly spiritual human to undersand, to even make judgments as to the nature of Supernatural activity, to discern what sort of supernatural being or influence is involved, and perhaps even enables the conduct of battle with lower, negative entities, in the name of higher, good one(s). Consider the astonishing 700 Club pronouncements by Pat Robertson that all of Haiti's troubles (and Hurricane Katrina) stem from those sinful ignorant black slaves having made a pact with the Second Most Powerful Supernatural Being, The Most Evil Being of All--Satan, in order to get the amazing power required to throw off their Christian European Colonist masters. That's not one we'll be able to corroborate in history books, or to replicate for scientific study and review...what or who would you possibly set up as a 'control group' in an investigation of the supernatural, and how? If this sort of problem is known to Christian leaders, that there truly is an Occupation of Ultimate Evil in Haiti or New Orleans, why aren't these great Christians like Rev. Robertson or the Catholic Church out their in force, confronting and exorcising the Devil, and reshaping their socio-economic reality to reflect real loving kindess and justice?

It seems to me that arguing about the nature of Super Nature is pointless, divisive, and always dilutes the impact of true Christian witness. If God's Children were occupied actually doing what Jesus declared confirms that a 'believer' actually is a True Child of God, they'd be focused on giving drink to the thirsty, food to the hungry, clothing the exposed, healing the sick, caring for widows and orphans, freeing the imprisoned and oppressed, settling legal battles before heading into court, turning the other cheek in heated arguments, and so on? If love covers a multitude of sins, if love of neighbor and God fulfills all of The Law of God, and if ultimate love casts out all evil, and this loving witness has been commanded to us to bring to all to the Ends of the Earth in order to bring about the Reign of God, should we ever be hearing messages of dispicable hate and demonization from the lips of any true Christian? No. If Christians understood the only comprehensible witness and illumination of their faith is their behavior, the visible evidence of changed human being participating in our world as a Child of God, and that being so occupied should be what provokes inquiry by others as to their motivation, there'd be a lot less time wasted debating, arguing, and arguments dividing one group off true believers from others. Ultimately, it's seems to me to be a tactical mistake to divide God's creation into Nature and Supernature.

Pierce | 03:03 pm on 6/02/2008

Check out the South Park episode about atheism. I don't really like the show, but that episodes speaks volumes about the long-term status of this type of aggressive atheism.

mountainguy | 06:29 pm on 6/02/2008

I agree with you; this episode talked (in its "particular" language) about "dawkinian atheism". I don't hate at all the show.

Josh K | 05:06 pm on 6/05/2008

Actually, I thought that particular Southpark was social commentary in the Jonathan Swift style. I felt the point of the episode was eliminating religion would not eliminate the differences between humans, and we'd find other reasons to kill each other.

Southpark occasionally hits one out of the park (heh heh); it just as often produces something that should have been flushed. I watch it for the hits, wince at the duds, and have to take a Brillo pad to my brain at their thuds.

SRebbe | 03:14 pm on 6/02/2008

how our brains become hijacked... nice blip.
my brain finds plenty of ways to get hijacked -- I don't need G-d for that. Jesus isn't my imaginary friend... or is that why they keep drugging me up?

TheDonQuixotic | 08:52 pm on 6/02/2008

I do alot of debate with atheists online, and though I disagree with many of them, find many rude, narrow minded and filled only with hatred for "religion", I do admire that many want truth. I think its disgusting how the majority of "christians" could be asked "Why do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God?" and the majority would not have an answer. Its sad. It seems on one side we have have madmen, and on the other stupid ones.

that calvinist doug | 09:48 pm on 6/02/2008

While on the one hand aggressive atheism is a bit unnerving to me, a believer, on the other hand, I just can't get that evangelistically worked-up about them. For one thing, they'll never succeed in making non-believers out of true-believers, and for another, I'll never succeed in arguing them into belief. The God which they don't believe exists is still in charge, whether they believe it or not. It never hurts to remind ourselves that Jesus told us to make disciples, not converts. If someone is open to the possiblility of the supernatural, then discourse is in order. If they're not, it's just a never ending circle jerk argument at the conclusion of which no one changes their mind. This is the same reason I've given up listening to debate-formatted radio and TV. What's the point?

budda | 11:20 am on 6/03/2008

Nice comments, doug. Very good stuff. Gave me something to think about.

SRebbe | 12:22 pm on 6/03/2008

true true. so the one side says this and the other side says this and they both use circular reasoning to get their point across and neither one goes in with an open mind to begin with....

*poof* behold, you are both one in the same. wait, I think that smacks of mysticism. or is it rationality back from Roman times and the Greek debate....

screw it, I'm outta here.... I have better things to do than listen to atheists and xtians scream at each other. or right-eous radio hosts beat down callers who boldly voice a difference of opinion.... just switch off, all of you.

fester60613 | 07:05 am on 6/04/2008

Doug - your point that "they'll never succeed in making non-believers out of true-believers" is very true.

Which leads me to wonder what the statistics might be: how many atheists (or agnostics or even apostate) were at one time true-believers? And what caused them to become former-believers? I'm sure there are as many reasons as there are former-believers.

If, as you say, churches (at least the ones that I'm fomerly-famliar with) had turned their efforts to making disciples instead of teaching hatred and intolerance, perhaps I'd still be a believer.

But even worse in my experience were the systemic abuses the deacons (who became deacons only by invitation of the current board of deacons - which seemed to be made up of the more well to do families of the church) visited on those church members and families they deemed "unacceptable" or "other" or just "strange".

Perhaps I grew up in a church that was exceptionally retarded in that it preferred politics over the Beatitudes, but I saw the evidence of that preference in every church I attended over the last 30 years.

And it was those preferences, those choices, those abuses that made me start to question the theology. And the theology became a mythology - one among many - and I chose to not believe any longer.

As you say, "what's the point?"

Karen H | 05:35 pm on 6/11/2008

"Which leads me to wonder what the statistics might be: how many atheists (or agnostics or even apostate) were at one time true-believers? And what caused them to become former-believers? I'm sure there are as many reasons as there are former-believers."

Three things I've noticed about atheists is that they often were raised by very strict, intolerant, religious parents who rejected questions of any kind, and often punished them for those questions. The children eventually either gave in or rebelled and allowed themselves to be cast out of their families. Extremists, in other words, breed extremists.

Less extreme atheists I know can point to one or two instances where traumatic events caused them to question, and their hurt and concern were either ignored or only given platitudes with little sympathy or understanding.

Then there are the ones who were raised by atheists--nice, laid-back atheists who were more agnostics than anything else.

I will say that I've also often seen fervent, even fundamentalist Christian believers come from extreme, intolerant atheist families.

Rejection, especially harsh rejection, reinforces atheistic beliefs.

So there's a range. But, this is merely observation, rather than statistics.

Anonymous | 05:01 pm on 6/26/2008

On the other hand, maybe those of us who are atheist and NOT brought up by crazed bible-thumpers are so because we've read too much history and science to let that particular myth free access to our minds anymore.

Can the existance of God be proved?
Short answer: No

This question will immediately lead believers to demand proof that there *isn't* a God.

I'll allow that as long as we can also include the Flying Spaghetti Monster and Odin. Prove the FSM didn't create you.

As long as we are going to indulge myths, I'm partial to Ceiling Cat.

Cathy in Seattle! | 05:03 pm on 6/26/2008

Anonymous no more: That's me yammering on above.

Anonymous | 05:09 am on 2/05/2009

Well I guess you dont believe in the air you breath either?

Gerald Fnord | 06:18 pm on 5/28/2009

If this page made you think, then Ceiling Cat is watching you cogitate.

ESFranklin | 06:56 pm on 1/23/2010

People are not so easily pigeonholed. Extremism may breed extremism in some cases, but that is certainly not consistent enough to generalize. I, for instance, like many other strong atheists, came from a relatively laid-back family who were mildly religious but certainly not extreme.

The key is: what makes someone turn away from theism? The difference between theists and atheists comes down to how each individual person decides what will be their criteria for belief. I was raised in a family where we were encouraged to apply critical thinking to solving problems. Others are just naturally inclined in that direction. People like us find it difficult to make the leap necessary to believe something based on anything other than concrete, reality-based evidence. If someone makes an assertion and wants me to believe it, they are going to have to show me the proof. Most people don't feel this way. Most people decide what to believe or not to believe based on other criteria - the credibility of the claimant, for instance, or how they feel about the likelihood of the claim based on their life experiences ("gut instinct"?).

My personality demands belief based on physical evidence, reason, and consistent logic. That, combined with my own natural curiosity, led me to study world religions as a teenager and young adult so I could better understand the god with which I had been raised (and in which I believed implicitly). After years of study, my search for answers about god and life's big questions (the nature of good and evil, the origins of existence, etc.) eventually led me to conclude, quite unexpectedly, that the entire idea of a god didn't make any sense, but that the universe without a god made perfect sense. Once I made the conceptual leap and discovered how everything else fell into place, it was a huge relief to be able to set aside the endless rationalizations for irrationality that my faith had demanded.

I wasn't traumatized by religion (a common assumption theists use to explain to themselves why anyone might not share their beliefs). Nor was I raised in an extremist family - my parents are believers, but in the most mild and pleasant way possible. No - in the end, I became an atheist because if I was going to be intellectually honest with myself, it simply made sense. Casting aside superstition and magic brought the real world into sharp relief, and I can appreciate it more now that I see it for what it is. I am a strong atheist because nothing over the years since I considered the possibility that there might not actually be a god has convinced me that faith is a reasonable way to achieve an understanding of truth. Wishful thinking may feel nice to people who are so inclined, but in a quest to understand reality, it only muddies the waters.

smg45acp | 10:34 am on 6/03/2008

Party on Joe!

I am quite amazed at the ignorance of the pro-evolution crowd.

Remember that for hundreds of years it was a "proven scientific fact" that spontaneous generation fully explained the origins of life.
You were considered a complete moron if you questioned spontaneous generation.

Then came Darwin who believed characteristics passed from parent to offspring by the environment. This was called "Acquired Characteristics" and was undebatably considered truth. You remember the old experiments where they would cut off the tails of mice for several generations believing that eventually the mice would be born without tails. It never worked.

Then the science of genetics came along and totally disproved yet another "proven scientific fact". Now they believe that we evolved through random genetic mutations. We are still looking for an example of even one positive genetic mutations, but you believe that countless billions and billions of them have taken place.

The more we learn about the complexity of DNA the more it looks like your latest "proven scientific fact" will fall by the wayside.

But this time they are completely sure that there are no holes in your theory.
Fine, believe what ever you want, but don't stand in the way of those that actually want to seek the truth. And if it happens to lead to "Intelligent Design" or even "Creationism" so be it.

PeteAtomic | 12:55 pm on 6/03/2008

'But this time they are completely sure that there are no holes in your theory.
Fine, believe what ever you want, but don't stand in the way of those that actually want to seek the truth. And if it happens to lead to "Intelligent Design" or even "Creationism" so be it."

It's science vs. magic. That's ultimately what this argument over intelligent design boils down to. Creationism is magic. That's what it is. It explains life from ignorance. That is, creationism explains the appearance of life as so complex, that it must have been designed by a god. That's magic. In fact, from the Merriam-Webster dictionary online, creationism fits the 2nd definition of magic, nail on the head:

2 a: an extraordinary power or influence seemingly from a supernatural source b: something that seems to cast a spell

Furthermore, science is progressive, and while human nature remains constant-- science & technology advance human life & human lifestyles to longer lifespans, and healthier lives. Religion is generally not progressive. When new evidence is presented, such as the Copernican theory on heliocentrism, or Darwin's evolutionary theory, it is denounced as against holy scripture.

that calvinist doug | 08:42 pm on 6/03/2008

Pete, if we are defining "magic" as supernatural, I have no intellectual problem in proudly admitting to being a magic proponent. It seems to me that simply admitting that there are limits to what our finite minds could ever explain is only logical. It's like the old adage that for every answer I uncover, I find two more questions. It never ends. That, to me, can logically lead to God. Sorry if my position strikes you as unsophisticated or unenlightened, but I'll hold to it despite whatever negative label someone wants to attach to me.

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

Hi Doug,

"It seems to me that simply admitting that there are limits to what our finite minds could ever explain is only logical.'

Sure. This is true. However, this is not what creationism is arguing.

"It's like the old adage that for every answer I uncover, I find two more questions. It never ends. That, to me, can logically lead to God.'

Perhaps. However, as an evolutionary biologist who was being interviewed on NPR made the point of saying-- you can argue about the interpretations of the fossils, and evolutionary science-- but, those facts still exist. People can disagree with fossil evidence, but it is still there. Now with the evolutionary process, it contains the most plausible explanation for life on the planet. Does this exclude god? No, of course not.

You say that questions lead you to god, possibly. OK. Then, if this is true, how does evolutionary science possible lead you to understanding god? Does that make sense?

"Sorry if my position strikes you as unsophisticated or unenlightened, but I'll hold to it despite whatever negative label someone wants to attach to me.'

I don't think religious people who hold on to creationism are particularily unsophisticated (nor you personally), as they are sadly blind to science. In honesty, it has been science's fault for not verbalizing evolution well enough.

Beyond all this: the bottom line for Christianity (or at least, certain parts of Christianity, as I don't know if Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans, Anglicans, etc. have a particular problem with evolution), is that as science continues to go deeper into evolutionary biology, is how will religion deal with it (?) History provides us with some great examples. The theory of heliocentricity-- that is, the sun, and not the earth, is the center of our solar system. This was big stuff in the renaissance. If religion denies evolution, as it did heliocentrism, the end result is not a weakening of science, but a weakening of religion. So, unfortunately for literalist Christianity, science is not going to wake up one day and deny everything it knows simply because a Pat Robertson character doesn't like it.

that calvinist doug | 08:11 am on 6/07/2008

Pete, I'll just make one point that I've been pondering lately. In the biblical creation story, the creation account picks up with the earth already in was simply covered with water (no land). There is no mention whatsoever regarding how it came to be there; I'm personally left to conclude that God created it, we're just not told how or how long he took to do it. Granted, the sun and moon (and by inference, the rest of the "heavenly bodies") weren't made until later in the account, but interestingly, light was already there before the sun!

All this is to say, I believe one can be an orthodox Christian and not hold necesarrily to 6-day creation (who knows how long a day was in this account anyway, since no sun was present?). Regardless of HOW he did it (the biblical account is mysterious and beautiful) I believe he DID do it. My argument for a creator stems more from the idea of a "first cause" than anything else. Any logical treatment of the subject requires a first cause. We can debate what that was, but there is no debate that nothing happens without a cause.

PeteAtomic | 07:45 am on 6/09/2008

"All this is to say, I believe one can be an orthodox Christian and not hold necesarrily to 6-day creation (who knows how long a day was in this account anyway, since no sun was present?). Regardless of HOW he did it (the biblical account is mysterious and beautiful) I believe he DID do it. My argument for a creator stems more from the idea of a "first cause" than anything else. Any logical treatment of the subject requires a first cause. We can debate what that was, but there is no debate that nothing happens without a cause."

Sure, people can continue to be Christians and also maintain evolution. They aren't mutually exclusive ideas. Sadly, an 'either' / 'or' argument is being made by some to enforce a kind of theological/dogmatic position. It's really harmful for Christianity, or at least, in those denominations, in the long run.

In physics, the research around M-theory, and cosmic 'dark energy' are really interesting. They're shedding some light (and adding more mystery) on the origins of our universe (or multiverse, as it may be).

minivet | 02:58 am on 4/16/2009

True science is comprised of three elements: A thing must be observable; it must be measurable; it must be repeatable. Carbon 12 dating goes back at least 2,000 years, but no further. If I am wrong on my figures I apologize and don't mind you sharing the latest data.

ESFranklin | 07:03 pm on 1/23/2010

Not true. Carbon dating works for things far older than 2,000 years. Carbon dating works nicely for things as old as a million years.

datawrangler | 08:01 pm on 6/04/2008

It's not really science vs. magic. More precisely, it's naturalism vs. supernaturalism. Naturalism starts with the premise that the natural world is all there is. Science has nothing to do with that. The scientific method leads a scientist to limit inquiries and conclusions to the natural world because that's all that can be measured and observed. That's not the same as assuming that's all there is. Supernaturalism, on the other hand, assumes the existence of something beyond the natural world. The scientific approach would allow for the possibility, but in the absence of hard evidence for or against, would draw no conclusions.

Seems to me there's a lot of non-scientific thought going on on both sides of the fence. We all need to step back and question our assumptions once in a while.


PeteAtomic | 07:13 pm on 6/06/2008

OK, I agree there to a point.

However, I would have to say that in the creationist side of the argument, the scientific method is not observed, and b) evolution is not a proof for or against the existence of a god.

ESFranklin | 07:13 pm on 1/23/2010

To be fair, in the absence of any kind of rational or consistent definition of "god", it becomes difficult to even evaluate any claims. No sooner does one christian propose some characteristics than another jumps up and moves the target by claiming additional or different characteristics for the entity. These adjustments are sometimes based on theological differences but in the context of discussions with an atheist, are often the result of someone's pet theory being logically inconsistent and technically impossible. The human capacity to "compartmentalize" so they can hold contradictory beliefs at the same time never ceases to amaze me. It's a talent I've never had.

The ID people manage to sidestep this entire argument with their god of the gaps - they refuse to define the deity at all, but merely posit the existence of one to explain anything humanity (or, more specifically, they) don't know yet. I think this comes from the strong human inclination to assume patterns in things so they can come to conclusions. Most people are terribly uncomfortable living with "I don't know the answer right now." Scientists deal with that discomfort by following up with "how can I find out?" This is more difficult and complicated (and potentially more frustrating) than the theist position, which is to immediately conclude "god must be responsible for that part." They may be fuzzy on the whole definition of what god might be, but they are quite comfortable using him to explain things for which they have no other answers.

Gerald Fnord | 06:32 pm on 5/28/2009

A very good point, especially given that an internal Discovery Institute spelled out that their larger and more important target was naturalism.

Science can't go forward with supernaturalism, because science is advanced precisely when a picture of the universe built-up using naturalism fails. My experience is that the world-views of those who accept supernatural adjuncts to the universe tend to be very resilient---even people who suffer a terrible tragedy that makes them question God tend to still believe that He is a loving, omniscient, and omnipotent God, and that the failure is theirs.

If you test a physical law and come up with a result you didn't expect, supernaturalism basically offers the dead-end of 'Someone [with a capital 'S'] jiggled the dial---of the apparatus or of the Universe itself.' Theology can get into complicated epicycles, like 'When would Someone deign to jiggle the dial,' but it basically stops there, with the universe as you knew it and the Someone who messes with it ad lib.

Naturalism, on the other hand, requires your understanding a universe conceptually bigger than the one you knew before. You give up the ability to say 'I absolutely know' in exchange for 'The best evidence so far indicates', but in return you get something the Pope lacks (at least ex cathedra): the power to fail, ask questions, and profit thereby, as illustrated by this handy visual aid:

1.) World-picture
2.) World-picture fails
3.) ???
4.) PROFIT!!!!

Anonymous | 01:47 am on 11/03/2008

hahahahahaahaha just because things are dis proven don't mean anything it's called trail and error.

Droslovinia | 12:16 pm on 6/03/2008

Nice article, Joe!

I'm always amazed at how the modernist worldview flails at any target it can find while it sinks into the tar pits. It seems that Christians aren't the only crowd of modernists who do this. How sad it must be to think that the universe revolves around your own perceptions - and you don't even have God to project them upon! Does this mean that they're going to be the generation that tries to get quantum theory out of our public schools?

JoshH | 11:08 am on 6/06/2008

Well,'s basically fundamentalism. Fundamentalism has at its root that grand modernist problem of people thinking whatever they think is something they've brought down from Mount f*cking Sinai and everyone else is wrong and must be flogged into believing it.

Richard Harty | 04:43 am on 6/04/2008

I think the new atheism is a reaction to a clear aggressive political and rude form of Christianity that we have suffered through called Evangelicals and Fundamentalists. I like Sam Harris because he does recognize the mysteries of the human experience. The assumption that this leads to a Christian God is simply ridiculous. I might contemplate the idea of something greater than myself and be awed by the deep mystery of life, but I am reasonably sure that IF there is a God of the universe, it is not the God of the Bible or any other religion.

What we know of the history of the natural earth and the history of Christianity from its inception the most reasonable observation, from what I have studied, is that Christianity is made up by a complex interaction of men and their thoughts and its answers have failed to completely address all the suffering on the planet just as every other answer.

The difference between Christians and most atheists is that the answer Christians offer is not open to change or debate in most cases, while I don't believe that you will find most atheists claiming to know THE answer no matter how strongly they may voice their OPINIONS.

The hypocritical thing is that Christians accuse atheists of being arrogant, all the while claiming to have THE answer with no historical or real life evidence that it is THE answer. Every answer we have is imperfect and as long as we can be honest about that, there is far more hope for improvement than a static, unreasoning, hold on some authority we place in the Bible and the story it tells us about a very flawed god.

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