The Washington Post had a ‘conversation’ on a very stupid question:

Do you believe in heaven or hell? If not, why not? If so, who’s going there and how do you know?

It’s a stupid question, because the only sensible answer is “no” and “because there is no evidence for it, nobody has been to either place and come back to tell us about it, and everyone who makes claims about them is using them as a carrot-and-stick to compel you to obey them”. Unfortunately, What the WaPo did was gather a bunch of gullible theobabblers, and it’s a collection of the most absurdly pious garden mulch this side of the Crystal Cathedral. It’s got short essays from the Dogmatic A-hole Brigade (Chuck Colson and Cal Thomas) to a swarm of blithering churchmice who squeak out vacuous promises of eternal love.

It’s uniformly awful, with one exception: the token nonbeliever, Susan Jacoby. She doesn’t believe in either heaven or hell.

But I certainly do believe in purgatory. Purgatory is wondering whether the human race in general, and my fellow Americans in particular, will ever grow up enough to realize that we ought to treat one another decently simply because of our common humanity—not because we are looking forward to being entertained by harpists among the clouds or are terrified of eternal flame.

That’s the only one worth reading in the whole bubble-headed, mindless collection. It’s also the one that gathered the most comments. That should tell everyone something right there—shouldn’t we all be tired of the empty promises and delusional fantasies of the theologically inclined by now?

(via gnosos, who has a shorter summary of many of the articles)


  1. #1 Mark Nutter
    June 28, 2007

    Hidari, I notice you don’t cite any evidence to support the claim that secularism/atheism is more likely to raise suicide rates or encourage suicide attacks. (More likely than what?) As for the Tamil Tigers, I don’t think anyone is arguing that religion is the only reason people commit suicide attacks. But religion most definitely is a factor in many suicide bombings, especially against innocent civilian targets, and needs to take its share of the blame.

    And let’s not forget the role of religion in defining what it was about American foreign policy that Mohamed Atta hated so much. Would there even be an Israel for Islamists to hate, if it were not for the millenial obsession of American fundamentalists and evangelicals? Not to mention, of course, the role of the Jewish religion in defining Jewish ethnicity and Zionism.

    Just because there are suicide bombings that do not involve religion, that does not mean that there is no suicide bombing that does. Religion is in this up to its neck, and it is misleading to deny it. There are other factors too, and these also deserve consideration, but that does not make religion innocent here.


  2. #2 bernarda
    June 28, 2007

    It reminds me of Joe Hill’s song with line “pie in the sky”.

  3. #3 Bravo
    June 28, 2007


    It wasn’t just a trollish comment. I genuinely wonder. People seem to take it for granted that common humanity is the basis of morality. I don’t see this.

    “It should be a modern goal to strive to extend this empathy towards all fellow members of our species.” Where does this “should-ness” come from? Why “should” we try to extend sympathy? What normative reason do we have to do so?

  4. #4 b_nichol
    June 28, 2007

    According to the bible, how many humans have actually been “taken” up to heaven? Or sent to hell or purgatory?
    Answer: none, nada, rien, zip, …

  5. #5 PalMD
    June 28, 2007

    Interestingly, it isn’t necessary for most people to have a written code of ethics in their pocket to know how to act humanely. Lots of evo literature on that, but, regardless, proscription, punishment, etc, shouldn’t really have to be a part of it–EXCEPT we do need written laws to make certain society functions. Not everyone agrees on everything…hey, it ain’t a theocracy…yet.

  6. #6 cureholder
    June 28, 2007

    I found this comment from Cal Thomas hilariously stupid:

    >>>Scripture repeatedly teaches the existence of a literal Heaven and a literal hell. Whether you believe depends on whether you think God is telling the truth and His Word is reliable.<<<

    I like how he skips over the particularly ludicrous portion of this claim, namely that “scripture” actually IS the word of god. Whether you believe, according to Thomas, is a function of how reliable you find that “word,” not whether that word exists or not.

  7. #7 David Marjanovi?
    June 28, 2007

    Bravo, think of your own long-term self-interest. Reciprocal altruism.

    And then behold the fact that it’s innate. In the words of Abraham Lincoln: “If I do good, I feel good. If I do bad, I feel bad. That’s my religion.” Natural and sexual selection against assholes, I presume.

  8. #8 David Marjanovi?
    June 28, 2007

    Bravo, think of your own long-term self-interest. Reciprocal altruism.

    And then behold the fact that it’s innate. In the words of Abraham Lincoln: “If I do good, I feel good. If I do bad, I feel bad. That’s my religion.” Natural and sexual selection against assholes, I presume.

  9. #9 David Marjanovi?
    June 28, 2007

    But we have no grounds for criticizing religious believers. Their beliefs just help their group cohere.

    We criticize the side effects.

  10. #10 T_U_T
    June 28, 2007

    “No reason at all.”
    “No reason at all.”
    Where do you people get such a weapon-grade B/S ? Are you really ready to give in to the “atheists have no morality” nonsense or what ?
    Bravo, what’s wrong with you ? Are you a fundamentalist trying to turn your misconceptions about nonbelievers into a self-fulfilling prophecy ? Or perhaps a straussian ?

  11. #11 Bravo
    June 28, 2007

    Nope – genuine atheist here. I don’t think you can get ethics from naturalism. Naturalism is true. Thus, no ethics.

  12. #12 Bravo
    June 28, 2007

    That just seems like a very tenuous basis for morality. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think so.

    You can’t really make any reply to the Machiavellian who says do what you want as long as you can get away with it. Appearances are what matter, not what you actually do. If you can be “bad” and no one stops you, you have no reason not to be “bad.” Trying to be “good” is just following the herd mentality.

  13. #13 T_U_T
    June 28, 2007

    errata : convinced convinced convinced
    too much coffee and no sleep

  14. #14 Bravo
    June 28, 2007

    Right. No good, no bad, no right, no wrong. Only individual preference.

  15. #15 T_U_T
    June 28, 2007

    Bravo, could you tell us the difference between concrete things and abstract concepts ? and also the difference between the word and its meaning, please.
    I’ll then explain why both the “queer” and the “open question” are little more than silly word games based on conflating them.

  16. #16 mojojojo
    June 28, 2007

    That makes no sense to me, as there is no univesality of the “moral impulse” unless one can first define morality. Unless one simply defines morality as behavior, no matter the behavior, then the whole concept of moral impulse is a no sequitor.

    As others have pointed out, you are conflating an abstract concept or principle (morality) with concrete examples of that concept (moral behavior).

    Since we are discussing rhetorical devices, I’d classify yours as highly “circular logic”; no wonder you are so dizzy. Oh, and that’s “non sequitur.”

  17. #17 T_U_T
    June 28, 2007

    PZ, you seem to underestimate the magnitude of Bravo’s wrongness.
    On his no_up_no_town_bizarro_world there would be no hope even if we were in fact immortal

  18. #18 Brownian
    June 28, 2007

    “It’s reasoning in the same vein. Not evidence of any sort.”

    Then I don’t understand how you came to assert the following:

    “Trying to be “good” is just following the herd mentality”

  19. #19 T_U_T
    June 28, 2007

    Your use of the phrase “ONLY a result” is a value judgment too. Precisely the thing you say is not possible. So you argument undermines itself just like if you screamed “I’m mute!”

  20. #20 T_U_T
    June 28, 2007


    “is a result of” is a factual statement

    “is ONLY a result of” is an evaluative statement – you assign a value inferior to something else to it.
    You say is not enough in some sense, so you have to have some criteria to evaluate .

    And to the X wants kill Y,

    morality is an evolutionary strategy for a social animal.

    And it is an empirical fact that the strategy “kill her if you
    like” is utterly inferior no matter what short term gains you could have from the murder. On the long run it has been shown to be self-defeating. And in evolution, that is the only thing that does count.

  21. #21 T_U_T
    June 28, 2007

    Basically because you are subject to it too.

  22. #22 thwaite
    June 28, 2007

    I don’t understand why people think it is good that the human race as a whole continues into the future.
    …well, hell, when the Dalek fleet shows up, we won’t enlist you… and never mind the endogenous ecological threats to humanity.

    Say, have you been reading John Gray’s Straw Dogs: thoughts on humans and other animals lately?

    I don’t believe you’re giving due weight to the evolutionary argument and tomes I cited above. We are what we are – and even if for some reason we don’t choose to be that any more, we do well to know in detail what we are.

    Tell me what reason this person would have [to respect social norms in the absence of immediate punishment], if you think I’m wrong.

    The evolutionary punishment isn’t immediate, but tends to prevail: the logic in Miller’s MATING MIND is that murderers and other bad actors aren’t popular (which is mostly true) and will have fewer offspring. Snip from p.330:

    When we favor kindness in courtship, we are favoring a real personality trait… In the leading “five-factor” model of personality, one of the factors is “agreeableness.” …[includes] compassionate, loving sincere, trustworthy and altruistic. …When people are asked to rate personality features as positive or negative, the agreeableness feature always tops the chart. …Also, agreeableness appears to be moderately heritable, so agreeable parents tend to produce agreeable children.
    By looking for sympathy during courtship, people may also be trying to avoid psychopaths. True psychopathology (“antisocial personality disorder”) is very rare, occurring in less than 1 percent of the population, but psychopaths account for a very high proportion of murders, rapes, assaults and other serious crimes. Psychopathology is basically the absence of sympathy. There are fewer female psychopaths [they tend to be poor mothers] …

  23. #23 Stephen Wells
    June 28, 2007

    We tend to get a lot of theists complaining that atheism removes an absolute ground for morality; whereas the truth is there never was any such absolute ground, certainly not in religion. It’s a bit like complaining that roast beef doesn’t taste good compared to ambrosia, the nectar of the gods. There is no such thing as ambrosia, and the roast beef is delicious.

  24. #24 thwaite
    June 28, 2007

    So, yeah, in a way it’s personal preference, but combined with a recognition of what’s more likely to work out best for everyone in the long run. – Glenn

    Basically yes – an ESS, ultimately for the children.

    Say I don’t want to have offspring. – Bravo

    This is actually my personal choice: no progeny, for both genetic considerations and some idealisms. Humans are unique like that – able to forego reproduction voluntarily. (I’ve had several dozen classes of academic ‘progeny’ – that’s not entirely irrelevant.)

    But it doesn’t mean I’m immune from all the physical and mental ‘whisperings within’ (curse you, Barash) which evolved to favor kids, including the social proclivities suited to mate choice and to decades-long pair-bonds for their maturation.

    I re-read the target article here (just for grins) and realized that there is a ‘hell’ even for evolutionary naturalists: it’s a failure of reproductive success, be it genetic or ‘memetic’.

    Wasn’t it Haldane who speculated that a moral philosopher-bee in any social species would have a very different take on what’s normative?

  25. #25 truth machine
    June 28, 2007

    The discussion of morality here is remarkably ignorant, especially for a bunch of naturalists. We’re well behaved towards other people because our parents and others in our society trained/indoctrinated/programmed us to be so, it being in their interests to do so. If they did their job properly, then we’re good little machines who have an internal ethics. The reason we should be well behaved toward others is because we want to — that’s what we value, because we were crafted to value it. But it seems that there are a lot of naturalists who are really dualists, resisting the fact that they are machines and thinking of themselves as being sui generis. Odds are that Bravo is a libertarian — a result of poor programming.

  26. #26 Bravo
    June 29, 2007

    Here’s the problem with many vocal atheists today. They seem to be unreflective logical positivists, to think that all beliefs must have clear evidence and deductive proofs showing why those beliefs are true. I would respond (somewhat glibly) “Show me irrefutable evidence and deductive proofs for the belief that all beliefs should be based upon irrefutable evidence and deductive proofs.”

    I think I have been guilty of the same sort of stance regarding morality and moral theorizing.

  27. #27 Numad
    June 29, 2007


    I’m sorry, but that type of paradox is perfectly useless beyond simply recognizing them.

  28. #28 Bravo
    June 29, 2007

    You talk like all of those things actually matter.

  29. #29 truth machine
    June 29, 2007

    You talk like all of those things actually matter.

    They matter to me because I’m built that way. As for “actually” mattering there’s no such thing, but you’re too bloody stupid to see that you truck in the very sort of absolutism that you say you’re skeptical about.

    Ok, I really gotta go.

  30. #30 thwaite
    June 29, 2007

    I do not think that anyone thinks that celibacy is a good thing ;) -T_U_T

    No, but self-restraint from progeny is now an unqualified good thing, given the fullness of human population now. And even social constraints against progeny can be justified, as in China. So more of us should be choosing the naturalistic ‘hell’ I mentioned above, of reducing if not eliminating our genetic reproductive success. Most of the developing world isn’t choosing thus.

    Celibacy itself is neither good nor bad, but is uncommon and not a genetically heritable trait, though it seems to be a recurring meme.

    I mentioned a scenario of normative ethics in a self-aware social insect, which I thought due to Haldane. Perhaps him, but also Darwin:

    I do not wish to maintain that any strictly social animal, if its intellectual faculties were to become as active and highly developed as in man, would acquire exactly the same moral sense as ours. In the same manner as various animals have some sense of beauty, though they admire widely different objects, so they might have a sense of right and wrong, though led by it to follow widely different lines of conduct

    and then

    If … men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters, and no one would think of interfering

    These quotes are from DESCENT OF MAN, 1st ed’n, as quoted in Helena Cronin’s THE ANT & THE PEACOCK.

  31. #31 Anton Mates
    June 29, 2007

    of course the odds against the DNA molecule having developed by accident on it’s own have been calculated to be approximately 1 with 40 thousand zeros after it to 1 against…

    Learn, my child.