Effect Measure

A quiet Sunday in America. Here’s something on being quiet from Richard Cohen in the Washington Post:

Pope Benedict XVI went late last month to that place where 1.5 million people, mostly Jews, were murdered — that memorial to the very worst in mankind, that factory whose sole product was death, and this is what he said: “In a place like this, words fail. In the end, there can only be a dread silence — a silence which is itself a heartfelt cry to God. Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this?”

Others have asked how the Vatican under Pope Pius XII could have remained silent during the Holocaust. Some have asked how the Polish church in particular could have remained silent even when Poles massacred around 40 Jewish Holocaust survivors in the city of Kielce. This was in July 1946, almost two years after the liberation of Poland. The police stood by. The army stood by. The church said nothing. Silence. Silence. Silence.


Now, though, Benedict has actually said something. He said more or less what I did after visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau — and before that, Treblinka, and afterward, Buchenwald and Terezin. He said what I said after reading a shelf of books on the Holocaust and listening to the stories of survivors: “Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this?” Only I put it differently. Where were you, God? I don’t think You were silent. I don’t even think You were there.

Religious people can wrestle with the pope’s remarks. What does it mean that God was silent? That He approved? That He liked what He saw? That He didn’t give a damn? You tell me. And what does it mean that He could “tolerate all this”? That the Nazis were okay by Him? That even the murder of Catholic clergy was no cause for intercession? I am at a loss to explain this. I cannot believe in such a God.

This is a God who was away from his desk or something and did not notice the plumes of human ash reaching to the heavens themselves. Is that what the pope wants us to believe? No, I think it is something even worse: If God was silent, who could blame the church for being silent, too? Is that what Benedict is saying? If so, he is continuing the tradition of saying nothing.

I know Holocaust survivors who are religious. I don’t understand it. I know others who feel that Auschwitz is proof that there is no God. I understand that. I am sure there are people who feel that way about Biafra or Rwanda or even Hurricane Katrina. I can understand all of that, too.

I give Benedict some credit. Not from him do we get the inane God of American optimism, the deity of American politics who is always compassionate and on our side and will make everything just wonderful if only we put our faith in him. This is the Chamber of Commerce God of George W. Bush and sometimes, when Bush talks that way, I want to scream “Auschwitz!” at him. Auschwitz! Mr. President, have you ever heard of Auschwitz? (Richard Cohen in WaPo via Axis of Logic)

Just another quiet Sunday in America.


  1. #1 C. Corax
    June 25, 2006

    Cohen suggests that Benedict XVI may be using God’s purported silence as an excuse for the Catholic Church’s silence. Could well be. “God” and other non-Christian gods seem to be the handiest excuses we have to avoid responsibility for our own behavior. I don’t question “God’s” silence–what did people expect, that suddenly a loud male voice in the sky, speaking what? German?, would order humans to stop cooperating with the atrocities? And until that order came, no one technically had to stop? C’mon! This was humans killing humans. Will we ever evolve enough to take responsibility for our own deeds? It’s almost like we’re perpetual two year olds, who drop and break a glass, then pout, “Stupid glass!”

  2. #2 standingfirm
    June 25, 2006

    I do not understand why people think that God was silent. God speaks to the hearts of those who will listen. Some stepped in to put an end to Nazi horrors. That is how God works, through His people.

    “All that is need for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing.” Edmund Burke

    When there is no faith in God there will be silence from God. Currently, one has to wonder how much true faith is out there in the world. There seems to be some lip service being paid to God, but true faith, where is it?

    Are you not hearing from God? Pray for faith, then you will hear from God. I hear him speaking volumes from the actions and words of a few faithful servants.

  3. #3 Ana
    June 25, 2006

    Well God has been pretty silent recently as well. As has everyone else in the West. And elsewhere too. Pretty much a habit, I d say.

    4,000,000 people died in the Congo.


    I suppose the idea is that those wars are just blackfellas (to borrow an Aussie word that I see on the net so I suppose it is acceptable speech – though it refers to other people) fighting it out amongst themselves, and is not an emblematic example of pure evil?

  4. #4 ericnh
    June 25, 2006

    I don’t get all these rules — “When there is no faith in God there will be silence from God”, “Pray for faith, and you will hear from God”. Sounds awfully trite and petty to me, almost human. Somehow I’d expect more from said Creator regarding his children (us). It only makes God sound like a greedy, insecure king who won’t tend to his subjects unless they pay him first. I can’t accept that. I would argue that God was silent simply because He doesn’t interfere with his creation, preferring to admire from afar. After all, although I set up (created) my fishtanks, I don’t require the fish to supplicate themselves to me to get food. I provide them with what they need and then sit back and enjoy them as they go about their business.

  5. #5 STH
    June 25, 2006

    I don’t get it either, ericnh–why is all this begging required? We’re supposed to pray for help when we have problems, so does that mean that this supposedly loving God won’t help us unless we beg sufficiently? I’ve heard people say we’re supposed to pray continuously. So this is a better use of our time than actually doing something constructive, like helping people? This God values constant groveling over relieving the suffering of others?

    And let’s not forget about omniscience. The God I learned about in Catholic school supposedly knows all the terrible things that are going to happen, but lets them happen anyway. To me, that makes him responsible for them, free will or not, in the same way I am responsible if I know my neighbor is building a nuclear bomb in his basement and I do nothing to prevent it.

    If this God exists, he does not deserve any “worship” from me.

  6. #6 Childs God.
    June 25, 2006

    It is the person who believes in a childs God who believes that God will interfere in daily affairs. The point of praying is to connect with God, not to gain action. The point is to reflect, and look to god to gain moral clarity.

    The comments above are typical of those who haven’t progressed deeply in religious life.

  7. #7 revere
    June 25, 2006

    cHilds god: I suppose, by implication, you are one of those (select few? many?) who have progressed deeply in religious life. Congratulations. If I said your views are typical of those who are deluded, would it be any different? It sounds like you know the right way to pray and everyone else, including those who pray daily but not in the “right” way, are in error. Typical.

  8. #8 slovenia
    June 25, 2006

    “If there is a God, he is a malign thug.”

    Mark Twain

  9. #9 reboho
    June 25, 2006

    Really, god is much to busy intervening in sporting contests and award shows to get involved in genocide. He, she, it is much too busy helping those who help themselves rather than waste time on the helpless. What a great god the god of the rich and powerful is.

  10. #10 STH
    June 25, 2006

    My point still stands, C.G. Why in the world should I desire to “connect” with a schmuck who can foresee all the terrible things that will happen and yet doesn’t lift a finger (or noodly appendage or whatever) to stop them? Rather than waste my energy on “progress[ing] deeply in religious life,” i.e., worshipping a being which is either non-existent or evil, I prefer to work for the good of beings that I’m pretty sure do exist and who occasionally do the right thing.

  11. #11 2together
    June 25, 2006

    C.G., please explain how one knows that they “have progressed deeply in religious life.” And since you have, what does God mean to you?

  12. #12 Ground Zero Homeboy
    June 25, 2006

    It’s a mystery.

  13. #13 baselle
    June 25, 2006

    The Holocaust was created by human action, the Holocaust had to be stopped by human action. Invoking a silent God is a craven excuse.

    And about the American tradition for exceptionalism…

    “…Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes…”
    A. Lincoln – Second Inaugural Address

    He understood.

  14. #14 revere
    June 25, 2006

    goksron: LOL. The Catholic Answer.

    baselle: So who is making the excuse? And who needs this God? What’s wrong with Buddha or some Hindu god? Wrong god? Or the Catholic god(s). Or Benedict/Ratzinger’s Silent God? Was he in error? Or the Protestant one. Or the Jewish one. Or the Muslim one? All the same? Or Geoerge Bush’s? Same as Lincoln’s. Both politicians, after all, and why shouldn’t they worship the same god?

    Or is the one you (or your parents) believe in the One True God?

  15. #15 anyone
    June 25, 2006

    To quote Archibald MacLeish in _J.B._:

    “If God is God he is not good
    If God is good he is not God
    Take the even, take the odd…”

  16. #16 tympanachus
    June 25, 2006

    To progress deeply in religious life ’tis best to stand with Bierce on:

    FAITH, n. Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.

  17. #17 traumatized
    June 26, 2006

    Ahh. Another E.M. sunday.
    I’ve been reading for several months now and cannot figure out why the Reveres choose banal fingerpointing for their sunday morning ritual. Sometimes I wonder if secular humanists actually put on dresses or suites on sunday morning to mock other’s rituals. Is there a meeting house I’m not aware of?

    It is criminally ignorant to act as though Bush II is some sort of mouthpiece for “Christianity”. Ditto for Benedicto XVI. Ditto for Osama bin Laden, Ariel Sharon, Gandhi, Michael Lerner, Jim Wallis, Martin Luther King Jr., and countless others who have asserted theological priniciples to justify their actions.
    Religion is not monolithic. Religious people have the same risk for being nutcases as secular humanists and atheists. And, importantly, secular humanists have the same burden of justification for their actions as religious people. I wish I could take that one to the pharmaceutical devolopers on a Sunday morning…

  18. #18 revere
    June 26, 2006

    trauma: Tut, tut. Sundays are for religion, of course. If none of the folks you mentioned would claim to spak for everyone (and for “God”) then we wouldn’t have our Sunday ritual. Of course religion isn’t monolithic. So why does each claim to be? If all there were to religion was each individual being spiritual or not privately without care to what others did the world would be a much better place. But that’s not religion, as much as some people here would like it to be. That’s fantasy. The fantasies of real religion are a reality that is coarse and crude and deadly.

  19. #19 Earl E.
    June 26, 2006


    Now that you are in the Scienceblog with a scientific focus—-I hope you will give up on the Sunday Sermonette. Many people, including the father of the real Paul Revere mentioned below—-may find your proud atheism and hatred of religions personally offensive and uninformed.

    “His (Paul Revere’s) father, Apollos Rivoire (or De Rivoire), was a Huguenot who had gone to Boston while still a boy as a refugee from religious persecution in France.”


    Or at least change your alias, please.

  20. #20 traumatized
    June 26, 2006

    Where have you read that all religions claim to be monolithic? Hinduism is pluralist at its core. The three big monotheist religions do have a theology of “the chosen group” at their core, but mounds and mounds of writings, thought and scholarship to understand how their own myth fits in with the others and with the growing secularist movement. Buddhist practice can’t even be understood as unitary.
    I accuse you of failing to put forth due effort to learn about how religious people come to their perspectives. If secular public healthers had actually spent some time doing this in the past, I dare say that worldwide immunization rates would be significantly better.
    I’m not saying you have to be religious. Some people have active south temporal lobes, some don’t. I’m saying that it is a waste of an advocates energy to lambaste religious people.

    BTW, I’m NO apologist for the pope and would shiver to be labelled an evangelical. I don’t even go to church. I am liberally educated though. And I lose patience with empiricists whose laboratories float above their colleagues ivory towers. There’s nothing wrong with learning about something before you set out to destroy it.

  21. #21 revere
    June 26, 2006

    Earl: When the “religious” folk of this country stop beating up on us who are godless, I’ll reciprocate. The revere sobriquet is a reference to his participation as a citizen member of the first Board of Health, not the religious views of his father, his profession as silversmith or his political activities during the Revolutionary War.

    trauma: The Hindus are a good example of the dissociation between theology and religion. Consider the vicious sectarian strife between Hindus and muslims in India and then wonder about the pluralism of Hinduism. Mrs. R. was raised as a Catholic and became a young adult before she realized all Catholics weren’t like Dorothy Day. In fact, practically no Catholics are like Dorothy Day. If they were, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. And most religious people are not thoughtful, tolerant or generous about other people’s religion unless they are just conventionally religious without content. That’s not forced on them by cherry picked theology. That’s the way the world is.

    To both Earl and trauma: It seems to be fine for those who are religious to extol the virtues of religion as much as they want but it isn’t fine to say (proudly) you are godless and criticize those who have made this world a worse place to live in through their religious beliefs. The religion we rant about here is not some private airy fairy personal belief that a lot of good people hold and which have either no effect on the world or a slightly positive one. It is the very concrete, nasty kind of everyday religion we rant about. Don’t you think that’s useful?

  22. #22 LibraryLady
    June 26, 2006

    Revere: I find I must now post something I have wanted to post many times before, and erased them before sending on. I so agree with Earl E. I came to your site to know about bird flu, and have tolerated the Sunday Sermonettes. In the beginning I found them upsetting for their tone and focus. I love my church and need my church. It is my guide for living my life. When I fail, it’s not my church’s fault. It hurts me to see you tear into Pope Benedict. It hurts me to see you so angry.

    revere: to fear, feel awe: to regard with deep respect, love, and awe; venerate. (Websters)

    Do you revere nothing?

    I also have wanted to comment about the choice of title “Sunday Sermonette”. Why do you, a professed atheist who has apparently rejected his Jewish religious roots, feel the deep need to ridicule Christians? Why “Sunday”, which is not the Jewish Sabbath? Why “sermonette”, which is not in the Jewish religious vocabulary as far as I know? Why not limit your criticim to Judaism, the faith you know best and reject most? Or is that too blasphemous, even for you?

    Why are you in “public” health? You certainly know “the public” attends synagogue, church, temple, and mosque. How do you reconcile your public health care and concern for us with your ridicule of who we are and what we believe? I have not been able to.

    I am wary of the benificence of a scientist toward those he regards as ignorant.

  23. #23 revere
    June 26, 2006

    LL: Thank you for your heartfelt dismay. I am not unaware that the Sermonettes upset some people. This is an opinionated blog and it isn’t just (or mainly) the Sermonettes that draw fire. Anything about Israel (the country, not the Jewish religion), guns, universal health care, etc., makes some reader upset. We write about them because they upset us, too.

    The original Sunday Sermonette came from James Wolcott’s blog over a year ago and I adopted it as have several other bloggers. I have been careful to qualify mine as a Freethinker Sunday Sermonette to be explicit. Why Sunday? Because we live in a Christian culture and Sunday is the day for religious observance (or reflection). Nothing more complicated and we think quite reasonable. Sermons are indeed part of the Jewish vocabulary, but that is quite immaterial. It is a serviceable English word with a non-sectarian meaning. It isn’t “yours.”

    Do we revere nothing? If we didn’t respect where you were coming from we could easily take this as an extremely offensive comment. Just because we don’t believe in your God (or any God) doesn’t mean we don’t have deep feelings of reverence, in our case, for human life and our fellow human beings, regardless of their color or religious beliefs. And that’s the nub of it for us. There is nothing better about someone who does or does not believe in God. Some are pretty decent people, some aren’t, and there are some of each in both camps. Professed religious beliefs and the labels that go with them are an artifical barrier between people wh would otherwise make common cause to make this a better world. We don’t need artificial barriers, whether they are race, gender, class — or religion. Our commitment to making this a better world for everyone is what takes the place of going to Church (this doesn’t imply that many who go to church also want to make this a better world, but it does situate what we do in that context). Thinking that not believing in your God makes us without deep feelings is not exactly tolerant and could and should be considered offensive, although we are not offended. It happens too often and life is too short. For us, doing good in this life is all there is. We don’t believe in an after life.

    Why don’t we just let it go and make you happy? Because we are making a point we believe needs making: it is OK to be an atheist, to be godless. We aren’t the ones who are creating sectarian strife in this world, it is the religious who do that in the name of whatever God they believe in. Why is it fine for anyone and everyone to mouth pious platitudes (and not a few intolerant remarks about atheists and those of other religions) but it’s not OK to say we are godless and criticize others who make mischief in this world in the name of religion?

    Regarding your Pope, the piece from WaPo I had this Sunday was not at all critical of the Pope. Indeed it gave him credit I don’t think he deserved. It was about something he explicitly addressed: God’ silence in the face of the horrors of the Holocaust. This was a silence in which the Church was complicit (as were many others) as is well known to all. When you fail, it isn’t your church’s fault, you say. What happens when your Church fails? Or is it infallible? Is this tolerant? Why doesn’t the Church keep silent about our views? Is just that we must keep silent about theirs?

  24. #24 M. Randolph Kruger
    June 26, 2006

    Okay, here is where the middle of the road begins for my right winger friends. It starts with the Sunday Sermonette. First throw the Constitution away and tell someone to quash their atheist /agnostic thinks because someone else thinks its wrong? I DONT THINK SO! Not on my shift you dont. These kinds of clamors gave rise to the Spanish Inquisition where the word “torque” came into being. Why? Because Inquisitor Torquemada in the NAME OF GOD would put people on the rack and pull their arms out of their sockets. You wanted to get rid of your enemies back then, you simply say you saw them doing devil worship. That included anyone who bucked anything truly scientific such as Galileo, Copernicus, Servetius…. etc. Those fires burned awful hot too.

    I also say that Judge Roy needed to put the Ten Commandments out on the front away from the entrance ways to the courthouse because the last thing that I want is my courts run by priests and scribes.I do want them to carry God in their hearts or the notion of it in as jurors and judges, and whatever religion or non religion in some cases, but not dictating it as a matter of public record or funding.

    Revere is not a nut case. I find him to be more sane than most. I respect him more than I do Teddy Kennedy I can tell you. And he surely respects me more than Dick Cheney. I can assure you that he cares about people more than either. LLady you have seen my rants about public health care and who is going to pay for them because Revere wants EVERYONE to get the benefit of it. This is not the tirade of someone who doesnt care. Just the opposite. On the contrary. Since none of us can prove or disprove the existence of God you can only act in the performance of Gods given tasks. You would be the first to say that a mission to Zimbabwe to help natives there is Gods work. Any difference if he goes to stamp out say Ebola for the Godless WHO? This guy didnt and doesnt provide anything but mostly proveable science. You provide a belief in your faith by doing those missions. That brings us back to the middle of the road because you feel the way you do and he the way he does.

    Revere is BY GOD a GREAT AMERICAN and he has performed as such by doing the things he does, providing the information his little group puts out. I dont think that God will judge him too harshly when the time comes. We are judged by our acts and I dont find him wanting from my deeply religious view.

    He is a godless wretch but really, aint we all?

  25. #25 tympanachus
    June 26, 2006

    LL: “~benificence of a scientist toward those he regards as ignorant.”

    It would appear that they are misinformed rather than uninformed though Bierce might be willing to throw you a small bone:

    IGNORAMUS, n. A person unacquainted with certain kinds of knowledge familiar to yourself, and having certain other kinds that you know nothing about.

    Keep at it Revere. It may restrict your audience but you cut a fine beneficent figure before the windmill.

    QUIXOTIC, adj. Absurdly chivalric, like Don Quixote. An insight into the beauty and excellence of this incomparable adjective is unhappily denied to him who has the misfortune to know that the gentleman’s name is pronounced Ke-ho-tay.

    When ignorance from out of our lives can banish
    Philology, ’tis folly to know Spanish.
    –Juan Smith

  26. #26 tympanachus
    June 26, 2006

    Revere: “Why Sunday? Because we live in a Christian culture and Sunday is the day for religious observance (or reflection).”

    MONDAY, n. In Christian countries, the day after the baseball game.

    MRK: “And he surely respects me more than Dick Cheney.”

    That may well be true but it’s a stretch. I ‘spect you’re better with a shotgun.

  27. #27 traumatized
    June 26, 2006

    Just to be on the record, I don’t give anyone trouble for being an atheist or a secular humanist. As long as their position is considered and their actions deliberate. When they get mean though, I’ll say something.

    You’ve clearly chosen to find “sectarianism” the cause of most major conflict in the world. Its hard to argue with that–especially with the whole Kashmir dispute.

    I explain most major conflicts in terms of wealth and poverty. Its all how you choose to draw those first nodes in your causal diagram.

  28. #28 sharpstick
    June 26, 2006

    For the record as well, I hold no animosity toward atheists. On the contrary, I have more than a passing interest in how individuals can arrive at such a firm conclusion given the complexity of all that surrounds us.

    I am distressed to learn however that my own beliefs may fall into the “airy fairy” category. It’s a phrase I’ve not encountered. Revere?

  29. #29 LibraryLady
    June 26, 2006

    Revere, MRK, Tymp: Thank you all for your replies, still very respectful, and Tymp still sending me to the dictionary. You all are so much smarter than I, I mean this seriously, no insult intended. I’m just an average person.

    Revere, I think for my own good I will not go to the Sermonettes anymore, but I do appreciate the time you took to explain your views. I do respect you, I just wish I could relax when I am around you. Life is too short to be tense all the time.

    Kreuger, I like your style of writing, you took the tension out of the situation, I appreciate it.

    Tympanachus, you gave me a chance to revisit Bierce. His short story “Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge” has haunted me for years.

    Will Revere have the same effect on this sensitive LibraryLady?

  30. #30 revere
    June 26, 2006

    trauma: I’m more a class explainer than race or religion, but the latter are tools used by those who benefit from poverty and exploit others. They also have independent lives and are worth battling on their own, IMO.

  31. #31 TwoCrow
    June 26, 2006

    I *like* the sunday sermonettes. They make more sense than most sermons, which only cause me to want to cover my ears and hum until its over.

  32. #32 revere
    June 26, 2006

    sharp: airy fairy is phrase that used to hurled at liberals by the hard nosed. Maybe not a good choice of words on my part. Regarding my “certainty” about atheism, it is more correct to say that religion isn’t a part of my life except insofar as it is the stuff of analysis of daily events that affect everyone. I consider religious institutions to be public health problems because of the effects they have on peoples’ health. Other than that I rarely think about it except when forced to by someone who doesn’t like it that it isn’t part of my life and I don’t want to partake of it.

    In my youth I was quite interested in mysticism and Mahayana Buddhism, although I was never a Buddhist. I just liked the vibes. I even started to learn Sanskrit. However organized Buddhism can be just as bad as all the rest and in the end it was how I lived my life that became more important to me. I believe most people are decent, but I also believe there are some very bad people out there, too. You can use the word evil if you want. Some of them are very respectable.

  33. #33 tympanachus
    June 26, 2006

    LL: “His short story “Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge” has haunted me for years.”

    Bierce was ever bit as good a short story writer (particularly ghost, war and the West) as Harte, Howells, Crane or Clemens.

    The Collected Writings of Ambrose Bierce with intro by Fadiman is the place to find it all. Oil of dog and especially My Favorite Murder are favs of mine. One of Gregory Peck’s last movies, Old Gringo was about Bierce. He’s the cynic’s cynic.

    Just had another look at Newman in Nobody’s Fool, mostly for the expression on his mug when Melanie G briefly exposes her very fine bosom. Newman’s Sully reminds me of Bierce. Newman is a hero of mine – still a competitive racer at 81 and a great philanthropist. Speakin’ of which, how ’bout Warren and Bill? A dandy model for the rest of these Repubecan business and political “leaders” now pillaging the country.

  34. #34 tympanachus
    June 26, 2006

    Must be to many links in that last attempt – held for moderation… Or maybe some kinda treyfe taint.

  35. #35 Mike
    June 26, 2006

    For many years I was an athiest, an Objectivist to be specific. Then I read a few books by Gerald Schroeder. It was then that I realized that Science and the Bible are one and the same. Each compliments/proves the other. The proof lies in quantum mechanics. Mr. Revere why not read some of these before you comment. They are: Genesis and The Big Bang, The Science of God and The Hidden Face of God. The author has a PhD. in nuclear physics as well as geology. These books are scientific. Put your intellect where your mouth is. I look forward to your reviews!

  36. #36 revere
    June 26, 2006

    Mike: I believe you have made these suggestions before. I appreciate your intent. In fact I am reading a text on quantum mechanics at the moment, but I will be very honest and say that I am not particularly interested in reading the books by Dr. Schroeder. I have dozens of books and even more papers piled up to read and religion is not of much interest to me. So it is a question of opportunity cost and reading his books is too expensive for me in that sense and I am too little motivated. I realize this may sound like I do not want to expand my horizons, and in this case it is true. Too many other dimensions I need to expand into first. This would be so far down the list I couldn’t see it from here.

  37. #37 revere
    June 26, 2006

    tymp: The commenting filter held your comments as junk (which they most emphatically are not). Moveable Type has a major comment spam problem so they ahve a robust filter in place. I have to check it often and free up comments (why some are held and others aren’t I’m not sure). So that is the explanation and I apologize for the weird comment problem. I did see it within the last few minutes and got it published as you see.

  38. #38 patch
    June 26, 2006

    Revere has trampled my garden many times, despite my pleadings he not do so.

    Sharpstick’s comments are words I’ve searched for many times:

    “For the record as well, I hold no animosity toward atheists. On the contrary, I have more than a passing interest in how individuals can arrive at such a firm conclusion given the complexity of all that surrounds us.”

    The complexity of EVENTS that surround us are included. Perhaps, God does not or can not interfere in that way. Free Will is critical, to Faith. Otherwise, we are simply robots.

  39. #39 Steph
    June 26, 2006

    I like the Sunday Sermonettes, too. I wish you people who didn’t like them would just not read them and stop going on about it.

  40. #40 wanderer
    June 26, 2006

    Patch: Revere tramples your garden? Like, he/they actually come over and stomp on your rhubarb?

    I admit that I’m one of the Godless, but I respect Revere’s right to question the church just as much as I respect my hardcore Christian fundie roomate (who I love)’s right to worry about my soul and keep what I consider hateful (anti-gay) literature around the house.

    Reveres – I’m behind you all the way.

    I’m surprised and impressed that Benedict tackled this. It’s a tough one. I think that the Shoah was what ultimately killed my faith – I met a man who survived the Shoah and Auschwitz, and an hour of conversation with him extinguished any faith I may have had.

  41. #41 Paul
    June 26, 2006

    I don’t know what this has to do with religion, actually. “Religio” is an old Roman word with a meaning that was privatistic, as in, “which god do you like?”

    For me, I teach in a department of religion at a university and I come here for the bleeding edge of public health policy, not for cosmic delicacies.

    I also am a Christian and was deeply moved by the piece posted today. I agree with my fellow Athiest friends about universal rationality. There is no other rationality for all of us or else we perish through sectarian fantasies.

    What Sunday Sermonettes argue about is a more comprehensive (divine or not) narrative why things happen the way they do. Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Muslims, or whoever have different explanations for why things happen. A democracy ensures that no sectarian group dictates this explanation.

    All religious people would say there are times when God is absent. There are certainly times when God is not. The Holocaust, for example. Also, the elephant in the room: why isn’t health the norm for all people? Is there a difference between sickness associated with age and sickness associated to pathogenecity? Aren’t virii evil, in other words? Why are there virii? They don’t live unto hemselves, no? They are not complete until they learn to live with their victim or kill her? Are virii good or bad?

    How about Revere telling us what is Moral and why?


  42. #42 revere
    June 26, 2006

    Paul: All good questions you ask. Proper to your discipline. As for me, I worry about what we can do to have a better world with happier, more satisfied people and less suffering. I don’t take suffering as a given. It is something to work to eliminate if we can. I don’t know if that has anything to do with morality or not. I take it for granted that people would rather be healthy than sick, so that’s enough.

    I rail about organized religion (and that’s my target, week after week, not religion or religious views that are private since they are none of my business) because I think it is a public health problem, like ignorance (I am not equating them), greed, poverty, infirmity, premature disability, etc. Like substance abuse, it needs to be dealt with because of the effects it has on our community. It separates people, sets them against each other, prevents them from loving each other. I don’t need it and wish it didn’t exist. As for whether god exists, not a meaningful question to me, really.

  43. #43 Paul
    June 26, 2006

    Yes, religions do seperate people. Just as there are people who like Baroque music and those who like the Grateful Dead (I actually prefer both). However, in the public health sphere which operates in the space of universal rationality, I don’t see what’s the problem of having a religion.

    Or, are you just referring to like the time I went to get a vasectomy and my doctor happened to work for a Catholic hospital. My doc was emabarresed and said he couldn’t help me. So I went to a different doctor. Rationality reigns… Not religion.

    Are there some public health issues stifled by religion that I’m not aware of? Let’s not start talking cliterodectimies…


  44. #44 revere
    June 26, 2006

    It’s not just that religion separates people. It is a barrier between people. That is something quite different. I don’t care if someone is a Red Sox fan and someone else is a Yankees fan (two interests not to be taken lightly) but rarely are they a bar to marriage or working together or many other things.

    Regarding religion and public health, I did a 5 part series on it at the old site, but suffice to say here I have a wide view of public health. It includes war and religious intolerance and bigotry as well as the many other things where religion and health are clashing in explicitly public health issues like reproductive health and autonomy, end of life, stem cells, etc.

    Religion, like many things, has mixed effects, but on balance I think the historical record is that it has caused far, far more suffering than many other institutions.

  45. #45 Paul
    June 27, 2006

    But before religion was an institution, it was a generalized rationality. Now, we have a shared universal rationality that has freed modern medicine to flourish. Healing used to be religious concept, just as warfare used to be conducted for “religious” reasons.

    Generalizing about religion commits a category error of using one brush to paint everything you deem undesirable with one stroke. The religions all promote human vitality. However, religious provincialism is what causes the suffering you refer to.

    In short, you are condemning Cubs fans for being Cubs fans. Anyone reading your very valuable blog is here for baseball. Sometimes, the Cubs can play very good baseball (just not this year). In any case, you have to have a team. As it is sometimes said, you can’t eat pie in general.

    Obviously, I’m not arguing here that Muslim scientists are better than Athiest scientists or Christian scientists. Science is science. It’s just that your Sunday Sermonettes do not point anyone in the direction of a useable narrative of why the world works in the way it does. You are very good at disclosing HOW it works.

    So, Science and Religion. Cubs and Sox, or, if you must, Red Sox and Yankess…


  46. #46 Thinlina
    June 27, 2006
  47. #47 Lori
    June 27, 2006

    Please do not stop posting the sermonettes. We lonely aetheists need someplace to rest our feet, it’s a hostile world out there. I personally yearn for just such rational discussions, which seem to be more and more rare these days. The country has turned into a giant tent revival, with speaking of tongues, laying of hands and handling of snakes. Ignorance abounds – why is there a question of whether or not a young girl should have access to a vaccine that may prevent her from getting a particularly painful and horrible cancer?

    Somewhere in that question, isn’t it implied that she deserves that fate if she “sleeps around”? Why are vulnerable people being told that condoms don’t protect against disease? Why can a rape victim be denied a contraceptive because of someone else’s religious beliefs? How can that person be allowed to remain in a position of dispensing medicine when this individual states that they will pick and choose what treatments they see fit, according to those same religious views? Why do we have museums where man and dinosaurs are shown cavorting together like Fred and Dino? Why was the Darwin exhibit desperate to find sponsors not afraid of religious backlash?

    I want to fall asleep, wake up, and discover that reason and logic have returned to my country.

  48. #48 revere
    June 27, 2006

    Lori: Have no fear. Sermonettes will continue. God willing (or not).

  49. #49 Steve
    June 27, 2006


    Would you call Hitler’s actions “wrong,” and if so, why? Or, to put it another way, where does your moral code come from?

    I’ve heard you say before that you don’t need any G/god to tell you what’s right and wrong. Very well then, on what principles do you make your moral conclusions, and why are those principles the correct ones?

  50. #50 revere
    June 27, 2006

    Steve: Hitler was not wrong, he was evil. So are some others, even those not considered such because they are on the winning side: Henry Kissinger, Donald Rumsfeld, George W. I’m not equating them with Hitler or with each other.

    I don’t understand your other question or what difference it makes. I don’t know why I think some things are right and others are wrong. My mother taught me to try to put myself in the other guy’s shoes and to do what was right. That’s the best I can do. I am not certain I always do the right thing, whatever that means. I try. That’s the best I can do.

    I am amazed at the obsession with certainty I hear from my critics on this issue. They want to know how I can be so certain there is no god. I’m not. I just don’t care. The rest of you, however, seem to be very certain about a lot of things which I think has no basis. That (your) God exists (how can you be so certain?), that (your) God is Good (how can you be so certain?), that (your) God cares (how can you be so certain?), that atheists are wrong (how can you be so certain?), that your moral precepts come from God and by implication that God is “right” about them (how can you be so certain? highly doubtful, just on the face of it, since there are so many gods).

    Why is certainty a burden I must bear? I’m as certain about the non-existence of God as I am that the sun will rise tomorrow. Maybe I’m wrong. I just don’t care and will not arrange my life to take that remote possibility into account.

  51. #51 Davis
    June 27, 2006

    I’ve heard you say before that you don’t need any G/god to tell you what’s right and wrong. Very well then, on what principles do you make your moral conclusions, and why are those principles the correct ones?

    Steve, you’re very close to making an argument that was dispensed with a long time ago, i.e., that morals come from god. Google “Euthyphro” — Plato elucidated the problems with the “morals come from god” idea, and his arguments are still just as strong today.

  52. #52 Paul
    June 27, 2006

    Lori: Hear, hear! The Sermonettes ought to continue.

    My observation is that they are mostly negative, anti-religious. (But I’m a new reader here, so I could stand correction). I was curious about whether there is a “positive” position was being put on offer. Atheism has a long and distinguished history going back to the Mechanistic Materialism of Baron D’Holbach and his coterie.

    Since this blog is devoted to the public good, this is a blog about public morality in health care. I was just curious to know the connection, if any, between Atheism and the normative moral voice of this blog (which I agree with, so far as I have read, and I’m a Christian). Why do Atheists and (some? most?) Theists agree on public health policy?


  53. #53 Lrod
    June 27, 2006

    Revere: Where does your instinct to do the right thing or your knowledge of what is the right thing or your desire to want to always do the right thing come from? You mention that your mother taught you to try and put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Where did she get that? Where does that wish, that desire, that sense of empathy come from? It certainly has lasted down through the ages of man. Does it come from a gene? If so, how has that gene possibly evolved, because, if would seem to me, to be one of the first genes to fall by the wayside in the evolution of man, as it would not seem to promote in any way, the dominance of our species? How does wanting to do the right thing promote the continuation of our species? How does having a conscience promote it? I know that it does not come from religion as it was there before religion even came about? Just wondering what your thoughts were?

  54. #54 Steve
    June 27, 2006

    I don’t know why I think some things are right and others are wrong. My mother taught me to try to put myself in the other guy’s shoes and to do what was right.


    If your mother had taught you very differently, would your personal moral code be very different? If she had been the type of person that taught you to value money above all else, would that have been as legitimate a moral code as the one she gave you? Or is there perhaps some moral fabric to the universe that makes targeting an ethnicity for extermination wrong in an absolute sense, wrong in every time and in every place, irrespective of the prevailing social opinion?

    If there were no objective standard upon which to make a moral determination of right or wrong (or good and evil if you prefer), then all systems of morality would have to be arbitrary. If they are abitrary, then I might as well pick any one of them that suits me best. I think that modern Swedish morality (for example) is superior to WWII Nazi morality, but in making that determination I must have some ideal standard of morality against which I compare them both. Lacking that, I lose the ability to evaluate the merits of competing moral systems. If I asserted that the Nazi way was the best way, on what grounds would you say that my moral system was flawed?

    I realize that even if you grant my assertion that there is an objective moral standard outside human opinion, it is not a proof of G/god. It does not get us that far.

    I do not mean to be demanding certainty from you. I certainly don’t demand it of myself.

  55. #55 Thinlina
    June 27, 2006

    And I started to be interested to hear your thinking, are there connections between cultural memes and the genes? 🙂
    What if God is after all genes’ way to keep the genes going on? What if to stay alive requires deep belief of a stronger, subjective/collective power? Not only cognitive rationalizing but also the belief in something, a kind of teologic meaning? Wouldn’t it then be utterly important to believe in at least a god? Or what if atheists are just genes’ way to wake discussion and after all strenghten the god’s attendance in speech? Maybe god has a kind of homeotic role in tertiary genetic function?
    What do you think? 😉

  56. #56 revere
    June 27, 2006

    lrod, Paul, Thinlina, Lori, etc.: I do a Sermonette each sunday to keep the flame of the godless lit and remind everyone that being godless is more common than the culture gives it credit for and not incompatible with being just like they are. I also think the excesses of religion (which is pretty much the SOP) are fair game to lampoon, satirize, criticize or whatever. We do it with politicians, countries, individuals, national and local policies, why not religion?

    Beyond that I am not interested in theology. I am interested in the philosophy of science and have written scholarly papers in that area but religion is of no particular interest to me now except as a threat to public health. I notice Steve likes to ask me a lot of questions about my beliefs but when I counter with questions of my own he is silent. Paul is friendly, detached, intellectual, but focused on questions that are of little interet to me (forgive me for saying this, as one’s own interests are always so, well, interesting, and it is hard to imagine they aren’t also interesting to others; it also sounds like an attempt on my part to stop the conversation, which is only partially true. We don’t have a lot more to say, although it is a subject much could be said about if one were so inclined).

    What strikes me about lrod’s and Steve’s questions is how uncomprehending they are that someone could actually believe what atheists believe, as if it is logically or psychologically impossible or some kind of weird mental parlor trick. There is a famous quip that we are all atheists, it’s just that I reject one more god than you do. Let me ask lrod and Steve, why they don’t believe in Mohammed? (or Buddha? or Shiva? or ?). How is that possible?

    Thinlina: There is a movement to rationalize religion as some kind of evolutionary trait that has some function useful for propagating the species. The same with altruism. I have no opinion (or interest) in any of that. It is certainly compatible with my views on religion (which are naturalistic) but, again, the subject just doesn’t interest me compared to other things (mathematics, thermodynamics, quantum theory, relativity, virology, etc., etc.). I also like to read spy novels, which interests me a lot more than reading theology. That’s just the way I am. Do I have to explain the reasons for these interests, too? Because I don’t know why I am interested in them. I just am.

  57. #57 revere
    June 27, 2006

    Steve: I have a question for you. This whole business seems to be very important to you. It must be more important than other questions, like what causes cancer or who the next President will be or you would be discussing those things instead. What is the source of your absolute measure of importance? What makes some things more important to you than others? Where did that sense of what is important come from? It must come from somewhere? Where?

  58. #58 stephenWells
    June 27, 2006

    Re: the question about possible connections between empathy and genetics. It’s perfectly possible, and I think likely, that there’s some genetic component to empathy; remember that humans are social animals, and populations whose genetics tend to enhance sociability and cooperation have a survival advantage over those that don’t. The idea that altruistic behaviour isn’t evolvable is an old canard wth no basis in fact.

  59. #59 Steve
    June 27, 2006


    I notice Steve likes to ask me a lot of questions about my beliefs but when I counter with questions of my own he is silent.

    That’s not a fair charge. I don’t recall ever failing to answer your questions. And even if I had remained silent after one of your questions, haven’t you made a point that your readers should not interpret a lack of response from you as an inability to do so?

    By the way, if there’s no objective standard of morality in the universe, I have no right to ask for fairness.

    Let me ask lrod and Steve, why they don’t believe in Mohammed? (or Buddha? or Shiva? or ?).

    The religions that have Mohammed, Buddha, and Shiva as their dieties make very different claims about the nature of God, sin, death, life, and redemption than does Christianity. I believe that Christianity is more consistent with the universe than are the others you mention. If you’d like a more detailed response, I can provide one, but it will take me some time to do the topic justice. To answer the question in a more personal way – I didn’t know every woman in the world before I chose to marry my wife. I simply formed a relationship with her that I didn’t want to lose. Such is the case with my religion. In that sense, I don’t feel the need to defend it against all others. But really the charge that you level is a more general one – you have a working belief that there is no God. The existence of any one of these dieties would disprove that.

    Regarding your question about where my sense of importance comes from:

    The question of where one’s moral code comes from is fundamentally different than the question of where one’s sense of “topical importance” comes from. I could say that my ranking of the importance of different topics was the result of a spreadsheet’s pseudo-random number generator, or my mother’s instruction, or whatever, and it wouldn’t have any effect on anything. Someone else could have a different opinion, and that’s fine with me. It’s my preference, nothing more. But when you or I make the claim that one action is morally superior to another, aren’t we saying something a bit more than “I prefer action 1 over action 2?” When I say that it was wrong for the Nazis to kill Jews, I’m saying more than just “I prefer that they wouldn’t have done that.” I’m saying “What they did was wrong and evil – it was a violation of the moral fabric of the universe” I do not care what any individual or any society thinks about it, I think it was wrong in an absolute sense. As a Christian, I believe it violated the image of God resident in all human beings. If I left the matter up to individual preference, then when someone said “Well, I think killing people is great” then that would be the end of any possible disagreement. The taking of innocent life is more than a matter of preference. And if you admit that it’s more than a matter of preference, then you must admit that there is an absolute moral code out there somewhere. And if there is an absolute moral code, then you’ve got to start asking yourself some very tricky questions.

  60. #60 Davis
    June 27, 2006

    And if there is an absolute moral code, then you’ve got to start asking yourself some very tricky questions.

    The fact that morality has evolved over time is fairly strong evidence that there is no absolute moral code. Or are you arguing that there is some absolute moral code out there, that we just haven’t found yet? That seems like a difficult position to defend (as does the position that morality has stopped evolving).

    Personally, I find the idea that empathy and the good of society motivate morality much more compelling. And there is clearly an evolutionary advantage for both those traits.

  61. #61 Steve
    June 28, 2006

    The fact that morality has evolved over time is fairly strong evidence that there is no absolute moral code.

    I couldn’t disagree more. In fact, I believe the “evolution” of morality over time is evidence in favor of the existence of an absolute moral code. If our societal sense of morality is progressing in some fashion, then it must be progressing in reference to some ideal standard. If it were completely unhinged from any objective standard of reference, then saying it is “progressing” would be impossible. We could only say that it is now different than it was; we could not say that it is now better than it was. If you agree with me that modern Swedish morality is superior to WWII Nazi morality, then there must be a standard against which both are measured. I am not claiming to have perfect knowledge of this ideal standard, though I do believe it is knowable, at least in part.

    I don’t think that altruism can be entirely explained by the evolution of the species. I understand that there is an evolutionary advantage to having a “herd” mentality, but altruism involves being unselfish even when it doesn’t benefit you in either the long or the short run.

  62. #62 Lrod
    June 28, 2006

    Revere: How did you extrapolate from my questions to you that I do not believe in Budha or Mohammed or Shiva or ? I believe in the majesty of science and the breathtaking beauty of our universe and the lifeforms in it. I also believe in your inner goodness and the correctness of your moral code. But scientifically, where does that come from?

  63. #63 revere
    June 28, 2006

    lrod: Excuse me for inferring something which I shouldn’t have (for Steve it turned out to be true as it would I think for most people, but you are the exception). However insofar as the things you believe in have contradictory positions, it isn’t clear to me what it means to “believe” in them or if it means anything except you respect all religions (which I don’t, obviously; but at least I am non-sectarian about it). I do respect every person’s right to have a private belief different than mine as long as they don’t care what I believe. Unfortunately the average religious person in the US seems to care a great deal that there are godless people around. A godless person could never be elected to a statewide or national office today just for that reason alone. That’s what I object to.

  64. #64 Roman Werpachowski
    June 28, 2006

    Some have asked how the Polish church in particular could have remained silent even when Poles massacred around 40 Jewish Holocaust survivors in the city of Kielce. This was in July 1946, almost two years after the liberation of Poland. The police stood by. The army stood by. The church said nothing. Silence. Silence. Silence.

    Nine people were hanged for the Kielce pogrom. Polish church expressed regret after it.

    There is an ongoing debate whether the pogrom in Kielce was not inspired by the communists.

  65. #65 phil
    June 29, 2006

    As someone who follows the teachings of Christ (I try anyway) I think it must be said the the failing wasn’t God’s, but the failing was on the part of those who claim to follow Christ (aka the ‘Church’). The majority of the Church in Germany went right along with Hitler’s ‘Kinder, K�che, Kirche’ (children, kitchen, church) ‘family values’ propaganda. Very few Christians in Germany at the time opposed Hitler’s agenda (Bonhoffer is a notable exception). The role of the Church should be to speak truth to power, but unfortunately, all to often the Church falls right in line with the political and monetary powers at any given time.

    So I suppose a better question might be: why wasn’t the Church speaking truth to power and opposing evil at the time of the Holocaust? And to bring it home to where we live now: why isn’t the Church in America speaking truth to power and opposing the evil of ‘preemptive’ war, environmental degradation and the oppression of the poor.

  66. #66 Earl E.
    June 29, 2006

    PHIL: I love your better question. God is in control, God
    never fails.

    It is we humans who fail to learn or listen to God’s word over and over and over again. There is nothing new under the sun, as of yet.

    Greed, political power, and persecution still rule—just as in the time of Christ. NOT because God failed, but because we have failed to love and listen.

  67. #67 Marissa
    June 29, 2006

    Some observations. I respect an atheist to be an atheist. Both Carl Sagan and Dick Feinman were atheists, men of science I very much respected. It is sad that evangelists feel the need to “convert” atheists in order to “save” them. And then, if that doesn’t work, damn them to hell as a threat. There are a million paths to God, not one. And each person can take an infinite amount of time to get there. I don’t belong to any religion; I am more of what you would call a spiritual person. I don’t need a church; it’s in my heart. Religion has mostly been about power and control and I haven’t seen that changing much in 2,000 years.

  68. #68 Ground Zero Homeboy
    June 29, 2006

    I find it most irritating that the benefits of religion are limited to humans. Grasshoppers need salvation too:


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