Pharyngula

John Horgan criticizes Francis Collins for his defeatism in thinking that human beings will always be evil to one another:

Christians castigate atheists such as Richard Dawkins for propagating a dark, nihilistic view of human existence. But Dawkins is Pollyanna compared to Christians like Collins, who has so little faith in human reason and decency that he thinks we’ll kill each other until the end of time.

I’m not quite as optimistic as Dawkins—I don’t think that the disappearance of religion would necessarily or rapidly lead to an improvement in the human condition. I do think it is an essential start to the process, however; reason is the tool by which we will build a better future, and we must clear the interfering clutter of superstition to make a beginning of it.

Comments

  1. #1 Mikko Sandt
    January 22, 2007

    I’d say, based on experience, that rational atheism brings happiness, especially when it’s combined with rational egoism. However, cultural atheism (European atheism) only contributes to the generally downbeat climate here.

  2. #2 Bobryuu
    January 22, 2007

    OMG! Geek moment: “Pollyanna” is the word that Dawkins used to refer to himself in The God Delusion.

  3. #3 RickD
    January 22, 2007

    Comparing atheism vs. religion in terms of optimism.

    According to religions, all of the advances in the history of humans have occurred essentially by God’s grace. Moreover, God is a notably inscrutable entity, who finds a way to stay off the stage at exactly those times when humans are screwing things up worse.

    According to atheism, there is no God. All progress in the past has happened because of our greater understanding of our position. In spite of the many foibles and failures of the human species, over the long run the general situation has improved.

    I suppose if your existence is completely tied up in the promise of an afterlife of a perfect paradise, you would view any philosophy that rejected that premise to be “dark”. But I would disagree with that categorization.

  4. #4 Bronze Dog
    January 22, 2007

    I remember one line of “argumentation” I got with a Cretinist. He was essentially saying that all branches of science were “contaminated” with “Darwinism,” implying they were false. I pointed out that modern technology is reliant on the principles of nuclear physics that he explicitly said was “contaminated”. Essentially, I told him that if he was right about the “contamination,” it would mean that several human inventions work only by dumb luck or miraculous aid.

    Then he tried to claim that that accusation was a “confession” that I believed in a random universe.

  5. #5 Sonja
    January 22, 2007

    reason is the tool by which we will build a better future

    While I basically live my life by this notion, it is the most Pollyannish of all. Recognizing that there will always be a large percentage of people that are incapable of rational thought, does building a future with the tool of reason exclude too many people? Is this an inherently elitist proposition?

  6. #6 Stanton
    January 22, 2007

    Using the tool of reason in order to exclude or disenfranchise those who lack rational thought is an elistist proposition.
    Using the tool of reason in order to help people is never inherently elitist.

  7. #7 Macht
    January 22, 2007

    Dr. Myers,

    Can I ask you what you disagree with in the section of the interview with Collins that Horgan quoted? It seemed more realist than nihilist to me.

  8. #8 Tom
    January 22, 2007

    All of the disccussions on whether we would lead a kind and civi life without the use of any religious direction fails to note the existance of working commonly accepted social directions which are totally nontheistic. Take, for example, “Always leave your campsite a little cleaner than you found it.” No deity, no reason, no compulsion – yet the majority of campers follow it (my observation). It seems to work for individuals and small groups but falls apart as the group grows and is absent at the corporate and government level.

  9. #9 CJColucci
    January 22, 2007

    If the only thing keeping large numbers of people from robbing, raping, and killing is their belief in Someone Up There, I suggest that it is not in our interest to disabuse them of that belief. For other, more reasonable sorts, it is worth pointing out that it is a dangerous business in general to rest the case against robbing, raping, and killing on a dubious metaphysical construct.

  10. #10 natural cynic
    January 22, 2007

    Recognizing that there will always be a large percentage of people that are incapable of rational thought, does building a future with the tool of reason exclude too many people?

    According to whom? IMHO most people think that they are acting reasonably, even when they are not, according to my perception. And they would think that I am acting unreasonably when I perceive that I am acting reasonably. In this sense, most everyone acts in an elitist manner.

  11. #11 Greg Laden
    January 22, 2007

    Nat Cynic:

    Isn’t there a difference between thinking you are acting with reason and actually acting with reason? Isn’t that the whole idea of rationality? (Or am I misunderstanding you?)

  12. #12 Vic
    January 22, 2007

    What a crock. Practitioners of atheistic philosophies killed more people in the 20th century alone than in all so called religious conflicts in history.

    And you know it!

    Thats why you won’t post it.

  13. #13 J-Dog
    January 22, 2007

    Hey Vic – Hitler was a Christian. Dufus.

  14. #14 frostieb
    January 22, 2007

    I think Vic might be including Stalin too. However, I’ve never read that the people Stalin killed were killed because they were religious.

  15. #15 Bronze Dog
    January 22, 2007

    It’s my understanding that Stalin threw evolutionists in the gulags.

    Some of the stuff about Lysenkoism seems vaguely animistic to me.

  16. #16 Greg Laden
    January 22, 2007

    I don’t understand why Stalin being an atheist (assuming he was) means that Hitler killing 6 million people because of their religion, or the crusades, etc. etc. were OK.

    Is it being suggested that since there exists one kind of felon that the laws against felonies in general are senseless?

    If you listen to the discussion, no one (i.e, Dawkins, etc.) is saying that theists are responsible for all of the ills in the world. Just a good number of them.

    I sweartogod, throw Stalin in my face one more time, you betta start prayin…

  17. #17 Kseniya (Ukrainka)
    January 22, 2007

    *yawn*

    It’s the same old Stalin argument. It was Stalinism, not Atheism or Communism or Socialism, that killed all those people. Genocidal totalitarianism will dress itself in whatever garb that’ll get the job done. The Holodomor, for example, was intended to destroy Ukrainian nationalism in the name of political expediency, and had nothing to do with any other “ism”. It make no more sense to blame atheism for this than it does to blame Jesus for the Third Reich.

  18. #18 Bronze Dog
    January 22, 2007

    I think we should take the blame off of atheism for Stalin. Clearly, what’s at fault here is not collecting stamps. It’s obsessive hobbyists like non-stamp-collectors who are the problem, sitting in their homes, busy not collecting stamps.

  19. #19 Rey Fox
    January 22, 2007

    That’s an awfully grand and specific claim, Vic. Show your math.

  20. #20 stogoe
    January 22, 2007

    Wouldn’t it be stamp-non-collectors? A non-stamp-collector would describe a collector of things that aren’t stamps. A stamp-non-collector would describe a person who doesn’t collect stamps, and isn’t necessarily a collector of anything else.

  21. #21 Bronze Dog
    January 22, 2007

    Picky, pikcy. ;)

  22. #22 Kagehi
    January 22, 2007

    Problem with Vic’s position is just basic logic. Lets say we settled Mars and had a “sustainable” colony there (somehow), then some Buddhist came along and decided he was going to make everyone one with the universe by using the latest planet frying super weapon. He sets it off. A bit later the earth is a cinder and 6 ***billion*** people are dead. Do we then start babbling stupid shit about how “Buddhists are worse than even atheists”? Lets try scaling back the damage that the “technology used” is *capable* of doing, then adjust for “actual population numbers”, then make some valid argument about who has been worse? Nah, that makes too much fracking sense. Lets just take a time when there are 100 times as many people to kill, the weapons can kill 50 times as many people in one shot, and then claim its not the *complete* ideology of the totolitarian self serving egotistical asshole responsible, but how many times he got on his knees to kiss Jesus’ ass that determined how bad they where…

    You like kissing things Vic? Kiss mine. At least you can claim to have interacted with something tangible that way.

  23. #23 Chris
    January 22, 2007

    I suspect a society ‘built by reason’ would exhibit all the same foibles as the one we are currently living in. Because we are all irrational to a large degree (some more than others, obviously). Nobody thinks THEY’RE one of the unfortunates Sonja mentioned above who are incapable of rational thought. Our brains (well, MY brain anyway) are great at constructing rational excuses for irrational acts.

  24. #24 John H
    January 22, 2007

    Vic argues that certain regimes of the twentieth century were more bloodthirsty in nature than any of earlier times simply because more people were killed. His argument is flawed because he fails to take into account the human population explosion. The world population rose from 1,650 billion to over 6,070 billion during the twentieth century. Around 1750, when ideas of liberty and toleration were just beginning to advance, the world population was only 791 million. During the early Middle Ages it would only have been around 300 million. ( Figures from Wikipedia ).

    Vic fails to take into account the fact that there were far more people under the control of twentieth century tyrants such as Mao Tsetung, Stalin and Hitler than people ruled by despots in previous centuries when religious persecution was commonplace.

    The moral is that you must take all factors into account when comparing different sets of data.

  25. #25 Colugo
    January 22, 2007

    Should we be optimistic about the prospects for people treating each other better than they have in the past? Behavioral ecology, particularly as informed by life history theory, is a more useful approach than the old debates (‘Do most people need God in order to be good?’; ‘Was Hitler a Christian?’; ‘Who killed more – the religious or atheists?’ and so on).

    Violence is reduced as its costs are increased and its benefits are decreased. Under what conditions does this occur? Here are some big ones.
    1. Resource flows become larger and more predictable and mortality and morbidity are reduced and more predictable, promoting a risk-averse strategy (JS Chisholm, many others).
    2. Parents and other adults make larger investment in offspring because of greater payoff; increased embodied and extrasomatic capital (H Kaplan, Hill and others).
    3. People become embedded in ever-larger social networks beyond the immediate kin group, circle of altruism widens (from insider-outsider to more and more people brought into the group of insiders). Reiterated transactions and information storage makes ‘cheater detection’ and mechanisms of enforcement more effective.
    4. The state and other powerful institutions become more humane and conducive to liberty (facilitated by the above and their consequences – increasing social trust, civil society, valuation of human life, living standards, and a deeply embedded social contract.)

    At the risk of being accused of being a Pollyanna, let me review some actual long-term historical trends:
    Reductions in mortality and morbidity due to hygiene and other technological advances, increased standard of living due to increased energy utilization (White), markets, (Sen), social services and safety nets, and transnational cultural, medical, and economic networks. Increased democratization and human and civil rights.

    Admittedly, there has been less progress made in some categories than others, and many cases of stops and starts as well as severe regression, and for complex reasons different regions of the world have not progressed in this direction equally (note: not due to genetic differences). And the historical trends which give credence to optimism could collapse in a thermonuclear instant.

  26. #26 Kseniya
    January 22, 2007

    …there are 100 times as many people to kill, the weapons can kill 50 times as many people in one shot…

    Oh, right!

    *facepalm*

    It’s not the godless atheists who are to blame, it’s those amoral scientists.

  27. #27 Dan
    January 22, 2007

    Folks, the real problem is that no one has ever established beyond a reasonable doubt that Stalin himself was in fact an atheist. The simplest explanation for his suppression of religion and the doctrine of state atheism is that the churches were a direct threat to his political power, not that he had an ideological problem with their theologies. And no reputable historian gives credence to the claim that Hitler was an atheist, either.

    So in addition to being logically invalid, Vic’s squink is also factually unsound.

  28. #28 Mark UK
    January 22, 2007

    Stalin was Russian orthodox. He was a regular visitor of the small Orthodox church based within the walls of the Kremlin and he prayed regularly. But really, it is irrelevant. He did not kill all those people because he was religious.

  29. #29 Sonja
    January 22, 2007

    What would the reasonable person do? An absurd riddle for consequentionalists:

    Can bad men make good brains do bad things?

  30. #30 Correction
    January 22, 2007

    Its a world of a difference in saying that one has a fatalistical view of the human nature from saying that one has a depraved view of the human nature. The latter is more accurate. If Christians had a fatalistic view of human nature, then the doctrine of eventual human perfection would not exist. Every Christian believes that one day, this world will be rid of all evil and we will live in paradise. That does not sound like fatalism.

    Even if your analysis were an accurate portrayal of the Christian worldview, history has shown it to be true. For thus far, even in our advancement in technology and human understanding, the crime rate has not at all been effected by it. That is the problem with a worldview that has no moral standard.

  31. #31 David Marjanovi?
    January 22, 2007

    cultural atheism

    Please explain what you mean by this.

  32. #32 David Marjanovi?
    January 22, 2007

    cultural atheism

    Please explain what you mean by this.

  33. #33 Mena
    January 22, 2007

    Is it being suggested that since there exists one kind of felon that the laws against felonies in general are senseless?
    Remember the early days of the Bush incompentency when everything that he did wrong was ok because Clinton got a blowjob? Why wasn’t the Iran-Contra scandal not as big of a deal as Watergate was? I suspect that it’s because people are willing to look the other way when think of a famous or powerful person as someone they would like to know personally. There’s probably a bit of the country not being as conservative then as it is now. Wow, remember when it used to be a free country? You don’t hear that now, nor do you hear Leader of the Free World for some reason. ;^)

  34. #34 Greg Laden
    January 22, 2007

    Remember the early days of the Bush incompentency when everything that he did wrong was ok because Clinton got a blowjob?

    Few people have read the transcripts. It was not much of a blowjob.

  35. #35 Greg Laden
    January 22, 2007

    A non stamp collector is like an agnostic, or even a lapsed christian. A stamp non-collector is a conspiratorial individual who is out to get stamp collectors. Stamp non-collectors are the source of the problem, and have no morals. They will go to philately-hell.

  36. #36 Mike the Mad Biologist
    January 22, 2007

    PZ,

    I’m not sure pessimism, in the philosophical sense, is the sole purview of either atheists or the religious. Albert Camus, in the 40s and 50s, was a tenacious defender of philosophical pessimism (e.g., “The Myth of Sisyphus”).

  37. #37 erekose
    January 23, 2007

    “I sweartogod, throw Stalin in my face one more time, you betta start prayin…”

    Personally, I’ve never understood why they throw a dogmatic unfalsifiable belief system like Stalinist Communism in our faces when the French Reign of Terror is standing there as a perfectly good excuse to attack atheists and the enlightenment in general.
    Won’t work of course, but at least there would be an interesting discussion for once.

  38. #38 llewelly
    January 23, 2007

    erekose, Stalin was a bigger meanie.

  39. #39 llewelly
    January 23, 2007

    Greg Laden said:

    A stamp non-collector is a conspiratorial individual who is out to get stamp collectors.

    I thought a person who was out to get stamp collectors was a stamp-collector collector?

  40. #40 Russell Blackford
    January 23, 2007

    The percentage of people who die by violence is much lower than it used to be. I don’t know why folks want to claim the contrary and build some sort of argument on it.

    As for Hitler and Stalin … Hitler, at least, seems to have been some kind of supernaturalist. In any event, both were devoted to comprehensive, irrational belief systems. Not all such systems are supernaturalist ones. We should be opposed to all such systems whether they are supernaturalist or not, though the supernaturalist ones seem to be the bigger threat right now.

  41. #41 hoary puccoon
    January 23, 2007

    Stalin was educated in Russian Orthodox church schools, and there is good reason to believe that his education was a direct cause of his inability to see through Lysenko’s nonsense. If he had been given a solid grounding in genetics and evolutionary biology millions of Russian peasants would have been spared horrible deaths of starvation. I think it’s pretty hard to build a solid cause-and-effect case between religion or lack thereof and evil acts, but it’s very easy to see a connection between lack of scientific training and stupid acts. That’s why I consider creationism (including ID) a much more serious problem than what god or gods people do or do not claim they believe in.

  42. #42 James Hrynyshyn
    January 23, 2007

    ” I think it’s pretty hard to build a solid cause-and-effect case between religion or lack thereof and evil acts…”

    Exactly. But most theists don’t try to make excuses for the evil done in the name of a god. They do try to make the argument the religion is good thing and that without it the world would be a worse place. The problem with that argument, of course, is there is no evidence to support it. In fact, there are a couple of solide studies that effectively destroy the causal connection between religion and positive social correlates. See http://moses.creighton.edu/JRS/2005/2005-11.html and commentary at http://islandofdoubt.blogspot.com/2005/10/another-axiom-bites-dust.html. The studies don’t prove religion makes societies worse places to live, but they do deftly undermine the contention that religion makes life better.

  43. #43 Ford
    January 23, 2007

    Colugo –
    Very interesting post. Could you repost with actual citations and/or links rather than just researchers’ names? Ditto for Russell statement about decreasing violence.

  44. #44 Tukla in Iowa
    January 23, 2007

    Remember the early days of the Bush incompentency when everything that he did wrong was ok because Clinton got a blowjob?

    Early days? They still use that as an excuse!

  45. #45 Greg Byshenk
    January 23, 2007

    Sonja wrote:

    Recognizing that there will always be a large percentage of people
    that are incapable of rational thought, does building a future with the tool of
    reason exclude too many people?

    What exactly is involved in “recognizing” this supposed fact? It seems to me
    to be pretty plainly false, unless one is talking about a small percentage of the
    population — in which case it is hardly ‘elitist’. I know many people who do
    not in fact
    think rationally — at least about some matters — but that is
    not at all the same as being “incapable of rational thought”.

  46. #46 Macht
    January 23, 2007

    “The studies don’t prove religion makes societies worse places to live, but they do deftly undermine the contention that religion makes life better.”

    That Paul study is majorly flawed (as demonstrated by this response in the next issue of the JRS) and I think it would be unwise to use the study to make any point. The authors of the response showed that no conclusion can be made based on the Paul study due to his methodology and data.

  47. #47 Colugo
    January 23, 2007

    Ford:

    Here are a few books relevant to my previous post.
    (I am getting an error message each time I attempt to post tags or urls.)

    Chisholm. J. 1999. Death, Hope and Sex.
    Hill, K. and M. Hurtado. 1996. Ache Life History.
    Human Security Centre. 2005. Human Security Report 2005.
    Keeley, L. 1997. War Before Civilization.
    Sen, A. 2000. Development as Freedom.
    White, L. 1959. The Evolution of Culture.
    Wilson, M. and M. Daly. 1988. Homicide.

  48. #48 Krystalline Apostate
    January 23, 2007

    I thought a person who was out to get stamp collectors was a stamp-collector collector?
    Or a philato-fascist? ;)

  49. #49 Greg Laden
    January 23, 2007

    I thought a person who was out to get stamp collectors was a stamp-collector collector?

    It all depends on what you get from the word “get.”

  50. #50 Greg Laden
    January 23, 2007

    Personally, I’ve never understood why they throw a dogmatic unfalsifiable belief system like Stalinist Communism in our faces when the French Reign of Terror is standing there as a perfectly good excuse to attack atheists and the enlightenment in general.

    Plus, they have better names, like “Reign of Terror” and “Inquisition” and so on.

  51. #51 Mikko Sandt
    January 25, 2007

    David Marjanovi?:
    “Please explain what you mean by this.”

    Cultural atheism is European atheism – atheism based not on reason but on cultural tradition of not believing in God. As I have said before very few atheists know much about evolution. In fact, I really don’t think people here in Finland know that much more about evolution than Americans do – they just don’t believe in God the same way.
    You need to separate rational atheism from cultural atheism because both cultural atheism and religion are based on ignorance and misinformation. Cultural atheists just happen to be right – but not because they are smart.