Pharyngula

(This article is also available on Edge, along with some other rebuttals to and affirmations of Haidt’s piece.)

Jonathan Haidt has a complicated article on moral psychology and the misunderstanding of religion on Edge. I’m going to give it a mixed review here. The first part, on moral psychology, is fascinating and a good read that I think clarifies a few ideas about morality. The second part, though, where he tries to apply his insights about morality to the New Atheists*, fails badly. I can see where he has thought deeply about morality, but unfortunately, he hasn’t thought clearly about the New Atheism (and perhaps that isn’t entirely his fault. We’re “New”, after all, and I don’t think the structure and goals of these New Atheists have quite gelled yet.)

Let me do great and horrible violence to the part of his essay that I enjoyed; I’m going to abbreviate it savagely, just so I can move past it to the bits I want to argue with. Haidt makes the case with some sophistication that emotion and experience play a greater role in morality than has typically been credited—we don’t make decisions about what is right to do by cooly and objectively weighing evidence and alternatives, but instead make judgments rapidly and intuitively. Often the reasoning part of our morality comes after the fact, as an attempt to cobble together an intellectual justification for a moral position we’ve already taken on the basis of deeper biases. And finally, that morality is a tool that may very well have strong adaptive value in binding individuals in a society together and fostering cooperation.

He also provides a clear, simple definition for morality that I like very much.

Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, practices, institutions, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible.

That covers about half the essay, although Haidt does of course discuss it in considerably more depth. Read the whole thing, as they say, it’s worth it for his expertise in moral psychology.

Unfortunately, then he tries to bring these ideas about morality to bear in a criticism of the New Atheists, and there … well, the linkage simply disintegrates. Haidt makes many assumptions that he doesn’t justify (although this essay is obviously much shorter than his book; maybe the justifications are there) about both religion and the New Atheists that make his criticisms feel peculiarly irrelevant to me.

One deep flaw in his argument is an implicit shift in the target. He makes a good general definition of moral systems; religion is simply assumed to be a moral system; Dawkins and Harris criticize religion strongly; now, suddenly, Haidt starts treating the New Atheist arguments as an assault on moral systems. This is simply wrong. I’m all for moral systems, and I suspect both Dawkins and Harris would agree that a good moral system, especially as defined by Haidt, is essential. The argument is much narrower. Is religion a good moral system? (Our answer is no.) Are there significant aspects of religion that do not represent a moral system at all, and actually make social life more difficult? (Yes.) And can we erect a better moral system that is stripped of the supernatural and much of the pathological baggage that afflicts religion? (Yes, optimistically, but the implementation remains to be done.)

Haidt doesn’t even seem to recognize the possibility of these questions, let alone try to argue for different answers. He seems to have made them vanish, reducing them to tautologies, by equating religion with moral systems. This section reads like an unconscious echo of the tired canard that atheists are amoral — it lacks any appreciation of the fact that these New Atheists are all espousing moral behavior in a framework that simply rejects the false virtues of faith. This is especially odd since Haidt is also an atheist; it must be just the New Atheists who are the immoral ones.

We also get another familiar trope, that the New Atheists are just another religion with heresies and orthodoxies and unscientific thinking. I’m beginning to get the feeling that the New Atheists are really just the new outgroup, the bad Other on which the Old Atheists can now turn the same old tired arguments that theists used against us all, once upon a time. The sins are to be concentrated upon a vocal few, who may then be safely cast out.

Haidt’s argument in this case is particularly weak. It seems to rest largely on the fact that Dawkins dismissed the possibility of group selection favoring religion in The God Delusion. But Dawkins spent several pages discussing group selection models in the book, and is far from dogmatic in rejecting it: he says, “Those of us who belittle group selection admit that in principle
it can happen. The question is whether it amounts to a significant
force in evolution.” He also doesn’t merely dismiss it, but gives several reasons why he rejects it, with examples…it is false to claim as Haidt does that he dismisses “a credible position without reasons”. Now I’m certainly more sympathetic to the idea of group selection than Dawkins, but I’m also going to provisionally reject it here for another good reason that Dawkins discusses at some length — we don’t have any evidence that religion is adaptive in any way! If anyone wants to present the supporting evidence for group selection, it is most definitely not going to be using religion as an example. It’s too complicated, it’s too nebulous, we don’t even have good evidence that it’s a heritable attribute, and it’s all in a species that isn’t easily subject to testing.

If that part of the case is weak, though, the conclusion is monumental in its flabbiness, and collapses completely. Its ignorance of what the New Atheism is about is absolute.

Here’s the argument: Haidt says that “surveys have long shown that religious believers in the United States are happier, healthier, longer-lived, and more generous to charity and to each other than are secular people,” and then makes the case that we ought not to dismiss religion—it might well have something useful to tell us.

I’ve heard that same story often, and it does not convince. Note that the US is currently suffering the social and international consequences of its recent domination by the religious right, and that atheists are, if not an actively oppressed minority, a minority that is urged to be silent. I would be absolutely gobsmacked if surveys showed that we were happier than Christians about this state of affairs.

We also tend to be more isolated — how often have you heard the phrase, “I thought I was the only atheist around here!” — and we know that community is important to human health. There is no reason to assume that religion itself enhances health, or that atheism itself is a detriment: the difference lies in the minority status of one versus the other.

Similarly, atheists may not give as much for a very good reason divorced from the essence of their lack of religious beliefs: who are they going to give to? I am surrounded by requests for charity, and most of them are for religious organizations that I do not trust. There is a great deal of charitable giving that is assessed in these surveys as a moral virtue, but that I consider a moral detriment: why should I contribute to the construction of church buildings, the employment of priests, or the sending of missionaries to Africa? I question whether we should consider those charities at all; rather, they seem to be self-serving propaganda and oppression efforts.

These surveys that Haidt believes are evidence of a virtue in religion actually have a different meaning. They state that scattered individuals who are excluded from communities do not receive the benefits of community, nor do they feel willing to contribute to the communities that exclude them. It is community that benefits people, not religion. Unfortunately, in this same essay, Haidt apparently deplores the efforts by Dawkins to engage in consciousness raising and the building of a community of atheists, precisely the thing that I suspect would reveal the hollowness of those surveys and would give the godless those benefits of which we are mostly currently deprived.

Strangely, Haidt wants to claim that the New Atheists have been trying to close their eyes and deny the results of surveys that show the religious as happier and healthier. Note that I do not. I think the results of those surveys are weak and biased, and tend to be over-interpreted to favor the virtues of religion, but I’ll readily concede that yes, the Christian majority in America tends to be happy with its dominance and that they do have institutions to care for their own. I will also point out that Dawkins concedes this point as well, and adds an important caveat: “I wish it were not
necessary to add that such beneficial effects in no way boost the
truth value of religion’s claims.” And there we have a critical point, one that Dr Haidt overlooks entirely.

This is not an argument about whether the faithful are happier, or longer-lived, or more moral (I should point out, too, that Haidt’s own definition of moral systems that I liked so much does not include happiness or longevity in its terms). It’s about the truth of their claims. It’s about whether we should trust social institutions that are both founded on falsehood and lack mechanisms for correcting error.

I attended graduate school in Oregon at the time the Baghwan Shree Rajneesh had his commune in the state. On the news, we’d often see video of the smiling hairy guru going for his morning drive in one of his fleet of Rolls-Royces, and his acolytes would line the road, waving joyfully as he went by. They were ecstatic. If we are to judge the value and virtue of a “moral system” by the happiness of its followers, then the Rajneeshis were contesting for the pinnacle of radiant glee; interviews would always have them gushing over the Baghwan, and I’m sure that any survey would have shown them far exceeding the happiness quotient of us sullen, gloomy, miserable atheists.

Shall we assess the merits of any social institution by the professions of happiness of its followers? Is that what we want?

By my side right now, I have a small plush animal. If it were conclusively shown that beliefs in a god or religion were definitely beneficial in and of themselves, that humans needed this little kernel of worship in order to thrive a little better, and I said that my toy octopus was a god, lord and savior of us all, and if only you believed in him, you would gain an empirically demonstrable extra year of life and a quantifiable increase in your happiness, what would you do? Would you abandon one little piece of rationality and bow down before the toy? Would you even be capable of that level of credulity?

I would say that the New Atheists definitely would not, not even for an extra year of life (I don’t know about the rest of you; I’m beginning to be suspicious.) We couldn’t. I would also say we shouldn’t. There is more to our lives than the raw quantity of it, and bliss isn’t the ultimate goal of our existence — I think even the American religious who are the subject of those surveys might be a little aghast at the idea that the purpose of their belief was to help them cling to a life of hedonism for as long as possible. I would sacrifice a little happiness to know the truth, and I would find no consolation in a lie, no matter how cheerful that lie might be. I’m sure there was a time when I was extremely happy about Santa Claus, but that was long ago, and I have no desire to return to that state of blissful ignorance. I grew up. Most of us do.

Haidt closes his essay with another trite accusation. The New Atheists might help advance the cause of atheism, but it muddles up science with “moralistic dogma” and damages the “prestige of science” — we’re hurting the cause, that tiresome old whine. Oh, please, do buck up. The New Atheism isn’t about throwing away moral systems or introducing a new dogma, it’s about opening up a protected realm to inquiry and sweeping away old cobwebs, refusing to allow people to hide absurd ideas from criticism behind the foolish plea of faith. It’s much more compatible with the spirit of science to question the follies of the priests than to argue that because priests hand out charity, we should overlook the fact that they also claim that gods speak to them and tell them who is naughty and who is nice, and that the good boys and girls will receive magical rewards.

I entirely agree with Haidt that many religious people are good people, that religion has incorporated moral systems that contribute to people’s well-being, and that there are kernels of wisdom in religious thought. Where I disagree is that I see the superstition and dogma and error of religion as separable from those desirable elements — that religion is not synonymous with morality and is actually an unfortunate excrescence of the human condition that does not have to be and should not be respected.


*I have in the past, and will continue to object to the label “New Atheism” for many reasons. It’s becoming clear, though, that the label is going to stick, appropriate or not, so I’ll use it under protest. It’s sure going to look silly in 2050, though, when it’s the Old Atheism.

Comments

  1. #1 sailor
    September 12, 2007

    “Strangely, Haidt wants to claim that the New Atheists have been trying to close their eyes and deny the results of surveys that show the religious as happier and healthier. Note that I do not. I think the results of those surveys are weak and biased, and tend to be over-interpreted to favor the virtues of religion”

    They are very tenuous. Firstly you have to take into account those people who die because they wont get medical treatment because of their religion.

    Then you have to equalize the groups for social isolation. People who feel really socially isolated (a good isk factor for helath and happiness problems) may not have the drive to go and be religious.

    If you euqalize for these two things I would be amazed if consistent benefit on mood or health could be shown.

  2. #2 Sean
    September 12, 2007

    Could someone help me out here? I believe I missed the inception of this ‘new atheist’ meme and wiki does not provide a conveniently packaged answer.

    As defined by the people who use the term, what does it mean?

    With reference to ‘new’ in the label. A town I lived in got a second mall in the middle of the 1980s. Until the town’s first mall was leveled fifteen or so years later, it was always referred to as The New Mall. Confusing as hell to any resident newer than The New Mall’s construction.

  3. #3 Ed Darrell
    September 12, 2007

    Why should atheists give money to send missions to Africa? I can see a P. Z. Myers Center for the Distribution of Mosquito Netting and Malaria Treatment. Why not?

    Heaven knows, church-based hospitals probably aren’t going to be involved in passing out free nets. They’re in the business of healing sick people, not preventing health people from getting sick.

    And don’t get me started on the need for non-religious groups to pass out condoms, since so many religious groups prefer that children die from sexually-transmitted disease than protect the kids during sex.

  4. #4 Caucasian Jesus
    September 12, 2007

    Interesting that theists are generally more happy than their counterparts. After all, their divorce rates are higher. Whether a person is happy or not is largely dependent on the time and way a person is asked. Ask a Christian after church if he is happy, and it’s probably an overwhelming “yes!” Ask the same person after he sees a car wreck, and it’s probably a “no.”

    Now, in this case, atheists and theists are largely affected by the same negativity. But a theist might have more opportunity to falsely accuse himself of being generally happy because of his x daily/weekly exposure to a church service (even if he himself doesn’t subscribe to all of the organizations’ beliefs).

  5. #5 PZ Myers
    September 12, 2007

    I’m not sure where the “New Atheist” label came from. It might be this article by Gary Wolf in Wired.

    I’m also suspicious of the surveys that claim the religious are happier and healthier. There’s also a negative correlation between education and religiosity; all those poor people who have found the Lord are also happier and healthier than the rich? Well, maybe. I don’t have any evidence one way or the other, so I have to go with what the surveys say — but it doesn’t matter, for reasons I gave above.

  6. #6 Reginald Selkirk
    September 12, 2007

    b) The new atheists assume that believers, particularly
    fundamentalists, take their sacred texts literally. Yet ethnographies
    of fundamentalist communities (such as James Ault’s Spirit and Flesh)
    show that even when people claim to be biblical literalists, they are
    in fact quite flexible, drawing on the bible selectivelyâ?”or ignoring
    itâ?”to justify humane and often quite modern responses to complex
    social situations.

    Yes? Isn’t it legitimate to point out this hypocrisy?
    1)After all, fundamentalists claim to interpret the Bible literally, and to base their morality on it. If they’re not really doing that, then they are being inaccurate and dishonest.
    2) Religious people frequently state that nonreligious people cannot be moral without accepting God and the scriptures. This heightens the hypocrisy.
    3) Fundamentalists also use their alleged literal interpretation to justify some inhumane and non-modern behaviour, such as bigotry against gays.

  7. #7 True Bob
    September 12, 2007

    I would wager that slaves were (and are) less happy and healthy than the slave holders, and they don’t contribute so much to slave holders’ charities. There is quite a lens on those surveys. Call us the Jaded Reality-based Community.

  8. #8 Greg Peterson
    September 12, 2007

    There was an interesting article in the September 1 issue of New Scientist, “What Good is God?” that suggests that religion might have evolved after morality in response to a niche for greater social cohesion and certain behavioral refinements. Religion is sort of a mindhack–a shortcut to trust and self-control. But those things are available to us, albeit in a slower, more cautious form, without the baggage of superstition. And in recent years, we have seen over and again that religiosity is often a false advertisement for trustworthiness and moral behavior. Ask any child who’s been raped by kindly Father Pete O’File.

  9. #9 cyril
    September 12, 2007

    What about this for a project: instead of comparing happiness levels inside the weirdness that is the USA, try comparing religiousity vs. happiness by country. Same thing with regiousity vs. freedoms or religiousity vs. lifespan or child mortality. My sense is that the US is an outlier and that most countries leave religion behind as they modernize. Anyone know if this work has been done?

  10. #10 Mike
    September 12, 2007

    Whether a person is happy or not is largely dependent on the time and way a person is asked.

    For some reason I read this as “Whether a person is happy or not is largely dependent on the amount of time and the way a person is naked.”

    Strangely enough it still rings true.

  11. #11 rjb
    September 12, 2007

    I have to agree with you, PZ, about the problem with giving to charities. I tend to feel that giving locally is best, when I know something about the local work being done. Two groups to whom I have contributed to include Big Brothers and Big Sisters, which is a secular organization AFAIK, and Habitat for Humanity, which is a religious based organization, but one that actually believes in the principle that faith without works is dead.

    That being said, my local paper today had a piece on a new local home being built by HFH, and about half of the article was talking to volunteers about how their faith led them to volunteer, and that faith was necessary for their moral behavior. Reading this makes me less likely to be involved with them in the future, because it left me with the feeling that they wouldn’t accept my contribution of time and/or money if they knew that I was an amoral (or immoral) atheist.

  12. #12 Caledonian
    September 12, 2007

    The article is actually an argument against the importance of reason. What are generally referred to as “moral” decisions are made without reason, and in fact are usually incompatible with both reason and the interests (at least in the immediate, short-term interests) of the individual applying them.

    Religions are similarly a bunch of claims that people are supposed to accept and instructions that they are supposed to apply – without reasoning about them, and that are usually contrary to reason.

    If we reject religion because of its irrationality and ability to preserve and foster harmful claims and instructions, the argument suggests, we must also reject moral decisionmaking, because the same arguments apply equally to it. Since no one wants to reject “morality”, or at least people willing to reject the things the label is frequently applied to are rare, it follows that we must reject the arguments in favor of atheism.

    I think by this point you can guess what my response to this position will be.

  13. #13 Sean
    September 12, 2007

    Ok, quick skim of the linked article later. Thanks PZ.

    So any atheist who does not hush and be unseen, or at least label himself agnostic to avoid offending the religious, is now a New Atheist?

    I was a New Atheist twenty five years ago. Who knew?

  14. #14 Mike P
    September 12, 2007

    Extremely, extremely well said, PZ.

    Re: The “New” Atheism.

    There is certainly a surge in popularity in atheistica. All of Dawkins’ books, this website, Flock of Dodos, newspaper articles, etc. Atheist publications existed a decade ago, of course, but it wasn’t so visible. It was kind of swept under the rug of “outsider” philosophy, and atheists seemed more or less content to be outsiders. I know there have always been vocal atheists, but I’m talking about your average joe atheist strolling down the street, minding his own business, not believing in gods. So why this newfound vocalness?

    I think it has to do with the Intelligent Design movement. All of a sudden evolution is in the news, and atheism uses the public awareness of pull itself up by DI’s bootstraps. I’m not sure the New Atheism* would even exist if not for the high media exposure of the Kansas warning labels and the Dover trial. It cast an indirect spotlight on atheism, and now I think atheists are more willing to embrace it. Now, at least in the eyes of other rational people, scientists are the virtuous defenders of reason. Atheism is the next logical step from there.

    *I agree with PZ’s stipulation.

  15. #15 Che
    September 12, 2007

    The classic response to “Theists are happier than atheists.” is “And a drunk man is happier than a sober man. So what?”

  16. #16 Kristjan Wager
    September 12, 2007

    Here’s the argument: Haidt says that “surveys have long shown that religious believers in the United States are happier, healthier, longer-lived, and more generous to charity and to each other than are secular people,” and then makes the case that we ought not to dismiss religion–it might well have something useful to tell us.

    I find it somewhat noticeable that he only refers to surveys in the US, where atheists are a minority. Wouldn’t it be more relevant to compare secular and religious countries? Here, the results are quite different.

  17. #17 Steve_C
    September 12, 2007

    I’ve read about studies of people who are happy and healthy…

    Basically they have a warped world view and don’t worry… about ANYTHING.

    If they don’t come in contact with it… it doesn’t matter to them. Everything is SUPER.

    Sound alot like religious people, funny enough. “Why worry about anything? I’m going to heaven!”

    Their kids however…

  18. #18 justawriter
    September 12, 2007

    I’m comfortable with my own little personal heresy, ignosticism. It is a belief that your belief in a deity or afterlife has no bearing whatsoever on your behavior. God or gods are just irrelevant, to the point where religion is not a fit subject for discussion. (Churches, on the other had, are social institutions and have a great deal of influence on their members actions, and are fit subjects for discussion and analysis. But that ain’t god.) Morals are based on how people treat each other, their community and the world around them. There’s no need for a deity or associated trappings to tell me right from wrong. So god is worse than dead, he’s irrelevant.

  19. #19 Mike P
    September 12, 2007

    Che #15,

    Hey now, be careful with those wide brushes. That is totally unfair to drunkenness. It is much preferable to religion!

  20. #20 Patrick Quigley
    September 12, 2007

    I wish you wouldn’t give in and start using the phrase “new atheists.” I have been using the phrase “uppity atheists” ever since you suggested it, and I think that it is an effective bit of rhetoric.

  21. #21 Blake Stacey
    September 12, 2007

    Mike P:

    I think it has to do with the Intelligent Design movement. All of a sudden evolution is in the news, and atheism uses the public awareness of pull itself up by DI’s bootstraps. I’m not sure the New Atheism* would even exist if not for the high media exposure of the Kansas warning labels and the Dover trial.

    Plausible, as far as it goes; 9/11 and the continuing clash of organized religion and civil rights might figure in there too.

  22. #22 david
    September 12, 2007

    i read that whole piece, and all i could think was… “i want a toy octopus, dammit!”

  23. #23 Blake Stacey
    September 12, 2007

    As to the etymology of “the New Atheism”, I did find a prior instance in a 1994 fundagelical book, but I don’t think anybody actually noticed it.

    I dislike the term, too, which is why I stuck “the New Enlightenment” in my website’s tagline and why I employ the phrase “uppity atheists”.

  24. #24 caynazzo
    September 12, 2007

    I agree. Why not adopt the more literary Post Atheism?

  25. #25 H. Humbert
    September 12, 2007

    From Bob Altemeyer’s The Authoritarians:

    This chapter has presented my main research findings on religious fundamentalists. The first thing I want to emphasize…is that they are highly likely to be authoritarian followers. They are highly submissive to established authority, aggressive in the name of that authority, and conventional to the point of insisting everyone should behave as their authorities decide. They are fearful and self-righteous and have a lot of hostility in them that they readily direct toward various out-groups. They are easily incited, easily led, rather un-inclined to think for themselves, largely impervious to facts and reason, and rely instead on social support to maintain their beliefs. They bring strong loyalty to their in-groups, have
    thick-walled, highly compartmentalized minds, use a lot of double standards in their judgments, are surprisingly unprincipled at times, and are often hypocrites.

    But they are also Teflon-coated when it comes to guilt. They are blind to themselves, ethnocentric and prejudiced, and as closed-minded as they are narrowminded. They can be woefully uninformed about things they oppose, but they prefer ignorance and want to make others become as ignorant as they. They are also surprisingly uninformed about the things they say they believe in, and deep, deep, deep down inside many of them have secret doubts about their core belief. But they are very happy, highly giving, and quite zealous. In fact, they are about the only zealous people around nowadays in North America, which explains a lot of their success in their endless (and necessary) pursuit of converts. [emphasis mine]

    http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/

    It would seem the price of happiness is high.

  26. #26 SEF
    September 12, 2007

    try comparing religiousity vs. happiness by country. Same thing with regiousity vs. freedoms or religiousity vs. lifespan or child mortality. My sense is that the US is an outlier and that most countries leave religion behind as they modernize. Anyone know if this work has been done?

    Sort of:
    http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/statistics/some_findings.html

  27. #27 Callandor
    September 12, 2007

    My happiness changes all the time, day to day, event to event. I guess my moral system is shot to shit….

  28. #28 Mike P
    September 12, 2007

    Callandor,

    You could try listening to The Cure all the time. You’d be sad all the time, but at least it would offer you some consistency…

  29. #29 Keith
    September 12, 2007

    Whether a person is happy or not is largely dependent on the time and way a person is asked. Ask a Christian after church if he is happy, and it’s probably an overwhelming “yes!”

    Not necessarily. Having sat on a hard bench, being told in dull language that you’re a no good shit for an hour or more doesn’t make for happy folk.

    My wife and I, non churchgoers that we are, usually go out for lunch on Sundays. One day we were sitting at a table in a restaurant merrily chatting while waiting for the waiter. When he arrived he said, “You two obviously didn’t just come form church.”

    We asked how he could tell.

    “Because, you’re smiling.”

    Apparently, the Sunday lunch crowd is often surly and they tip poorly, too.

  30. #30 Tom Buckner
    September 12, 2007

    Frans De Waal, in Our Inner Ape and elsewhere, makes a good case that most of our moral/ethical attitudes are far older than any religion; all humans have basically the same ideas about how to behave because that’s how our ancestors survived for millions of years as social creatures. Reciprocation, cooperation, sharing, empathy, and an innate sense of justice exist in nonhuman primates (as do competition and selfishness). One good definition of moral behavior might be ‘not doing anything that could get me kicked out of the tribe.’ You don’t need an angry old man in the sky to scare you into behaving morally; the fear of ostracism will do nicely, since it’s almost impossible to survive alone for long. Chimps are not noted for their church attendance, but they manage to live together.

    http://www.amazon.com/Our-Inner-Ape-Frans-Waal/dp/1573223123

  31. #31 Greg Peterson
    September 12, 2007

    I am sure that I was happier as a Christian than as an atheist. Just as I feel sure I’d be happier if I believed there is treasure buried in my back yard as opposed to thinking there is not. Atheism is maturity. It means taking responsibility and making choices. It’s not death to happiness, nor even to transcendant joy. But we’re sitting at the adults’ table, and we’re aware of the destructive delusions being bandied about at the kids’ table, and that doesn’t have us rolling in puppies all the time. So what. Ignorance might be bliss, and unmerited confidence in nonsense might be orgasmic, but someone has to drive. In a culture where half the people aren’t concerned about global climate change cuz Jesus, he’s a-coming, we’re the designated drivers. Happy don’t enter into it, though it is accompanied by a more profound sense of wisdom and properness, which is satisfying in different way.

  32. #32 eyelessgame
    September 12, 2007

    Haidt says that “surveys have long shown that religious believers in the United States are happier, healthier, longer-lived, and more generous to charity and to each other than are secular people,” and then makes the case that we ought not to dismiss religion

    and

    We also get another familiar trope, that the New Atheists are just another religion with heresies and orthodoxies and unscientific thinking.

    These two misapprehensions would seem to cancel each other out…

  33. #33 Sastra
    September 12, 2007

    In his recent book God is Not Great, Christopher Hitchins asks a question which goes something like “Can you give an example of a moral action which a theist can justify which an atheist can’t?”

    It’s an interesting question, because of course anything which can’t be justified as fair, kind, or reasonable on secular grounds is going to be ruled out as an example. Atheists can’t justify forbidding gay marriage: atheists can’t justify honor killings; atheists can’t justify penalties for blasphemy. To which the atheist replies “well, good.”

    I think that people with and without religion pretty much reason about morality the same way. What religion provides, however, are different “facts” which can re-frame situations. I’ve often pointed out that if you were willing to grant every single one of the background suppositions of the 9-11 suicide bombers — agree that yes, Americans are evil tools of Satan and Allah wants them destroyed — then in that context what they did was noble and brave.

    You can have religious “facts” which lead to benign results: God is the source of all value, and people are valuable because they are all made in the image of God. And you can have religious “facts” which do not (at least from the standpoint of the world): some people are more in the image of God than others, and those who reject the source of all value have less value themselves. And, as PZ says, all such supernaturally-based claims “lack mechanisms for correcting error.”

    As for the other issue, I would guess that, if theists really do act more charitably than atheists, it might be put down to two factors 1.) The Santa-Claus Effect (you are being watched when you don’t know it) and 2.) the Church-Sign-Up-Sheet Effect (you are being watched when you do know it.)

  34. #34 Tom Buckner
    September 12, 2007

    Oh, and regarding happiness: I read a year or two ago about a mental health professional (psychologist/psyciatrist/something similar) who had recently raveled in that most religious of nations, Saudi Arabia. Now, Saudis traveling abroad let their hair down; we hear of them drinking, going to strip bars, and so on. Returning home they don their burnooses on the plane and put on their game faces for the five prayers a day and cold sobriety of a theocracy. This shrink reported that he was stunned by all the fidgeting, nail biting, toe tapping, sighing, and general restlessness of the people he encountered. He estimated that (if I recall) at least a third of Saudis were clinically depressed.

  35. #35 MAJeff
    September 12, 2007

    I agree. Why not adopt the more literary Post Atheism?

    I’d prefer post-theism. Better term, better world.

  36. #36 Steve_C
    September 12, 2007

    The Cure makes me very very happy actually.

  37. #37 Greg Peterson
    September 12, 2007

    I used to work for a pharmacy benefits management company, where it was widely known that Mormon antidepressant use was through the roof. It was something we had to keep in mind when bidding on insurance for organizations in Utah. So clearly just any religion can’t promise happiness. And have you ever heard a voodoo priestess whistle?

  38. #38 Sinbad
    September 12, 2007

    “Here’s the argument: Haidt says that ‘surveys have long shown that religious believers in the United States are happier, healthier, longer-lived, and more generous to charity and to each other than are secular people,’ and then makes the case that we ought not to dismiss religion–it might well have something useful to tell us.

    “I’ve heard that same story often, and it does not convince.”

    Let’s take a look.

    “Note that the US is currently suffering the social and international consequences of its recent domination by the religious right, and that atheists are, if not an actively oppressed minority, a minority that is urged to be silent. I would be absolutely gobsmacked if surveys showed that we were happier than Christians about this state of affairs.”

    The “we’re so presecuted whine” sounds no more convincing when you offer it than when D. James Kennedy offers it. Moreover, but for a few crazies, I don’t know anyone in the 21st C. USA whose general happiness is predicated upon his/her political status. Of course, since you don’t even try to support the charge with evidence, we don’t even need to get to my anecdotal sightings.

    “We also tend to be more isolated — how often have you heard the phrase, ‘I thought I was the only atheist around here!’ — and we know that community is important to human health. There is no reason to assume that religion itself enhances health, or that atheism itself is a detriment: the difference lies in the minority status of one versus the other.”

    I agree. You may be right, but without some evidence supporting your idea, both are plausible and justify the idea that religion ought not be dismissed outright, especially since the correlation between officially atheist governments and huge numbers of murdered citizens is incredibly high.

    “Similarly, atheists may not give as much for a very good reason divorced from the essence of their lack of religious beliefs: who are they going to give to?

    This is a monumental cop-out on at least two levels. Firstly, the research shows that religious people even give more to secular causes than secular people do: “Religious people are more generous than secular people with nonreligious causes as well as with religious ones. While 68 percent of the total population gives (and 51 percent volunteers) to nonreligious causes each year, religious people are 10 points more likely to give to these causes than secularists (71 percent to 61 percent) and 21 points more likely to volunteer (60 percent to 39 percent). For example, religious people are 7 points more likely than secularists to volunteer for neighborhood and civic groups, 20 points more likely to volunteer to help the poor or elderly, and 26 points more likely to volunteer for school or youth programs.”

    http://www.hoover.org/publications/policyreview/3447051.html

    Secondly, to suggest that there simply aren’t any (or enough) secular charities to give to is either laughably lazy or dishonest. For example and with no research at all:

    http://www.the-brights.net/action/brightsonly/secularist_charities.htm
    http://www.iidb.org/vbb/archive/index.php/t-81110.html
    http://www.iidb.org/vbb/showthread.php?t=109405
    http://richarddawkins.net/forum/viewtopic.php?=&p=112222
    http://www.wish.org/help/donate?sourceID=05GOMRC0809
    http://www.postmormon.org/exp_e/index.php/discussions/viewthread/2596/#35768

    The possibilites are far more than adequate for anyone who truly wishes to be charitable.

    “This is not an argument about whether the faithful are happier, or longer-lived, or more moral (I should point out, too, that Haidt’s own definition of moral systems that I liked so much does not include happiness or longevity in its terms). It’s about the truth of their claims. It’s about whether we should trust social institutions that are both founded on falsehood and lack mechanisms for correcting error.

    Modern atheism, which so often seeks to be a mere default position and to stand for nothing at all, even if correct, falls short (as the research indicates). How depressing to be defined by what you aren’t or by what you don’t believe. As Harvard University humanist “chaplain” Greg Epstein pointed out over the summer:

    “My problem with the atheists…is not that they’re saying God doesn’t exist. What I’m saying is we’ve got to build something.”

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/19140641/site/newsweek/

    Unless and until modern atheism deigns to try to “build something,” religion will likely continue to win lots of cultural battles, “correctness” notwithstanding.

    “I entirely agree with Haidt that many religious people are good people, that religion has incorporated moral systems that contribute to people’s well-being, and that there are kernels of wisdom in religious thought. Where I disagree is that I see the superstition and dogma and error of religion as separable from those desirable elements — that religion is not synonymous with morality and is actually an unfortunate excrescence of the human condition that does not have to be and should not be respected.”

    Unless and until atheists actually “build something” (which requires more than argument – it requires time, money, effort and sacrifice), I suspect that your hypothesis will remain entirely theoretical.

  39. #39 Sastra
    September 12, 2007

    No, Greg, I have never heard a voodoo priestess whistle, and darn good thing, too. When you hear the voodoo priestess whistle, that’s when little arms grow out of your neck and strangle you.

  40. #40 Fatboy
    September 12, 2007

    Re: MikeP at #14

    Actually, ID did have a lot to do with me becoming an atheist, so there’s one data point. I was a theistic evolutionist before, but all the brouhaha made me look at why I really believed what I did.

    The Internet had a lot to do with it, too. If the ID controversy had erupted pre-Internet, I would have been too embarassed to buy atheist books from the bookstore, or check them out from the library. But with the anonymity of the web, I was able to read all types of heretical writings.

  41. #41 Pan sapien
    September 12, 2007

    Brilliant response PZ.I loved it.

  42. #42 CalGeorge
    September 12, 2007

    I just want to make one point, however, that should give contractualists pause: surveys have long shown that religious believers in the United States are happier, healthier, longer-lived, and more generous to charity and to each other than are secular people. Most of these effects have been documented in Europe too. If you believe that morality is about happiness and suffering, then I think you are obligated to take a close look at the way religious people actually live and ask what they are doing right.

    Yeah, and if you become intoxicated or smoke weed all the time, you may also be happier than someone who does not live an anaesthetized life.

    What’s his point? What they are doing right is escaping reality! Is that going to be the new goal of life?

    If that’s the case, let’s legalize all the pleasure-inducing drugs.

  43. #43 bullfighter
    September 12, 2007

    Is religion adaptive? To be fair, I think that’s very plausible. It seems likely that religion has been advantageous in the past to human groups and societies. But the same is true of slavery. And war. And rape. (Without war and rape, inbreeding might have been disastrous.) That something was beneficial in the past is not sufficient evidence that it still is.

  44. #44 MJ Memphis
    September 12, 2007

    “This shrink reported that he was stunned by all the fidgeting, nail biting, toe tapping, sighing, and general restlessness of the people he encountered.”

    Toe tapping, you say? In a country full of hypocritical theocrats? Sounds like Larry Craig’s kind of place!

  45. #45 Anton Mates
    September 12, 2007

    Now I’m certainly more sympathetic to the idea of group selection than Dawkins, but I’m also going to provisionally reject it here for another good reason that Dawkins discusses at some length — we don’t have any evidence that religion is adaptive in any way!

    And even if it aided us in the past, why would that mean we should endorse it now? Cravings for sugar, salt and fat were adaptive for most of our species’ existence, but we still have to restrain them now. The fitness landscape changes.

    Moreover, even something which is adaptive in the present isn’t necessarily good. Very few people follow a moral code which recommends maximizing their reproductive potential above all else.

    We also tend to be more isolated — how often have you heard the phrase, “I thought I was the only atheist around here!” — and we know that community is important to human health. There is no reason to assume that religion itself enhances health, or that atheism itself is a detriment: the difference lies in the minority status of one versus the other.

    In support of this view, pretty much all the studies I’ve seen on the subject (such as those summarized here) find that regular religious attendance is correlated with happiness and health and giving. This has, so far as I can see, absolutely nothing to do with religious belief, other that in some cultures belief is a strong motivator for attendance. Studies such as this one provide evidence that belief, in itself, is a negative factor–countries with higher rates of belief also have higher rates of early mortality, homicide, STDs, abortions, and so forth.

    It’s all about the socializing.

  46. #46 Anton Mates
    September 12, 2007

    In his recent book God is Not Great, Christopher Hitchins asks a question which goes something like “Can you give an example of a moral action which a theist can justify which an atheist can’t?”

    It’s an interesting question, because of course anything which can’t be justified as fair, kind, or reasonable on secular grounds is going to be ruled out as an example. Atheists can’t justify forbidding gay marriage: atheists can’t justify honor killings; atheists can’t justify penalties for blasphemy. To which the atheist replies “well, good.”

    Sure they can. Huxley, who by our standards was certainly an atheist, justified penalties for blasphemy because he thought it was a rude and pointless disturbance of the peace.

    Likewise atheists could oppose gay rights because they think homosexuality is psychologically or socially damaging, and support honor killings on the purely moral ground that a woman shouldn’t shame her family.

    Most atheists don’t, of course, but it’s certainly possible. Most believers have a battery of secular justifications for their moral positions anyway.

  47. #47 SEF
    September 12, 2007

    On my link list next to that same Times article one are this link and that link.

  48. #48 MyaR
    September 12, 2007

    Hmmm, I’m much happier as an atheist than I ever was as a theist, although I was never a very good one. Well, I was an exceptional one on the outside, as I figured out in first grade that it was just better not to ask certain questions. Better to just give the response they wanted and go find books that, say, actually had something undogmatic to say about theology or science or whatever. I was unhappiest as an agnostic, actually, in that inbetween time.

    Completely unrelatedly (and probably unoriginally), I’ve been thinking about creationists’ fascination with abiogenesis. It seems that this might be a positive — they’ve figured out that biology=evolution (well, that biology only makes sense with evolution), and the origins of life are inherently biology (debatable, I think), therefore abiogenesis must be evolution.

  49. #49 Sastra
    September 12, 2007

    Anton Mates>

    Excellent point. You’re right, of course. I was trying to come up with some actual examples I’ve heard from believers (ok, the honor killing bit was made up.) I should have made it clearer that I was being a bit casual in my assumptions, and dealing with the usual situations. If, on the other hand, you have a secular reason for promoting or encouraging religious belief per se, then an atheist can even justify bizarre taboos and rituals from a secular ground. Technically speaking, there are even atheists who are in favor of uniting church and state (Straussians) because it makes citizens more compliant and willing to obey the government — not because it pleases God and encourages Him to smile down upon us.

    Given the same moral rule, is a secular justification stronger or weaker than a religious one? A religious justification is less arguable, I think– pro, or con. It makes a rule inflexible. But a secular justification is more persuasive to outsiders — and will eventually be used to explain the religious justification. Why does God want such-and-such? Well, can’t you see the good benefits?

    It’s when the good results can only be confirmed in the afterlife that we get into major trouble, I think.

  50. #50 George Atkinson
    September 12, 2007

    GB Shaw commented: “The fact that a believer is happier than a sceptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. The happiness of credulity is a cheap and dangerous quality.”

  51. #51 AnInGe
    September 12, 2007

    That those surveys show that theists are happier than atheists is an artifact of the surveys and is due to the fact that atheists are much better cooks than theists. This is explained by remembering exactly how those surveys are conducted. They are always done over the phone (much cheaper that way), and those phone calls are always made at dinner time when there is the greatest likelihood of finding someone (other than little three year old Suzy) at home. The interview is always conducted by some poor minimum wage loser who responded to a “Make Oodles of money in your spare time at home” advertisement in the back of Hollywood Stars magazine (primary readership being younger women without a life) or Miss Teen magazine (primary readership being older men without a life).

    These interviews contain several questions concerning the respondents religious convictions and their current state of happiness. Because atheists are generally very good cooks, their state of happiness is that they are pretty pissed at having their dinner interrupted. For the religious folk, the interruption is seen as a godsend.

    Understanding this survey process also explains why similar surveys show that only 10% of Americans are Atheists. 93.7% of Atheists are intelligent enough to know how to install a Tele-Zapper (and to even know that such devices exist). Only 24.6% of theists are capable of doing this. (Conducting the survey that produced these statistics was obviously a very difficult undertaking.) If those surveys included the disconnects (due to the Tele-Zapper) and the Hang-ups (due to people actually having lives) in the atheist column, we would get results much closer to reality and atheists wouldn’t feel so isolated.

  52. #52 Dale
    September 12, 2007

    “I would sacrifice a little happiness to know the truth, and I would find no consolation in a lie, no matter how cheerful that lie might be.”

    Ah, so you swallowed the red pill?

    Perhaps “redpills” can be another name for Atheists (secret decoding ring here). The analogy seems quite apt.

  53. #53 lockean
    September 12, 2007

    1) What’s the deal with sexual selection?

    It seems that some scientists treat natural and sexual selection as two distinct entities (as Darwin did), some treat sexual selection as a type of natural selection, and some (like this article) don’t treat sexual selection at all.

    Does anyone know of any general article written by a scientist about the contemporary epistemology of sexual selection?

    2) The best explanation of the well-attested happiness of the religious is what sociologists call ‘social capital.’ Basically, those who spend more time with friends and family are happier–whether they are going to church, playing cards or drinking. Those who mostly sit at home alone are less happy. It doesn’t have to do with what people believe; it has to do with how lonely they are.

    Social capital also correlates with education, income, and other factors, but the religious-group membership correlation is especially strong–probably b/c so many other types of groups are organized by, for and around churches.

    I highly recommend, Bowling Alone, by Robert Putnam, as a summary of the data on social capital.

  54. #54 Ryogam
    September 12, 2007

    When I was a believer, I certainly was more content, if not happy. Religion, at least of the Catholic Christianist type common among my peers, said two very comforting things:

    1. You can do any sin you wish, but as long as you regret it and confess to a priest, your place in heaven after you die will be safe. I hear many evangelicals say, “Accept Christ and you are guaranteed a place in heaven,” which is an even bigger “Get Out of Sin” card.

    2. When anything bad happens to you, it’s all part of god’s plan. Lose a job? Be happy, god’s got a plan. It will all turn out for the best, in the end. And when life doesn’t turn out for the best? Well, their already guaranteed a place in heaven, so who cares if the mortgage can’t be paid?

    No wonder religious believers are so happy. It’s the ultimate protection from reality.

    Comment 31 hit the target dead center. Giving up comforting false religious beliefs is simple maturity. It might not be fun, but it sure is liberating.

  55. #55 Scott Hatfield, OM
    September 12, 2007

    (admiring) I wish I had written some of the sentences in this essay. The passage discussing the worship of a plush toy was a pearl. Hope something like that makes it into print pretty soon, PZ.

  56. #56 Chris
    September 12, 2007

    Religion is sort of a mindhack–a shortcut to trust and self-control.

    Drop the “self” and I’ll agree. Religion is a system of mind control. It makes the congregation trust and obey the clergy – even while the same clergy is molesting the congregation’s children and burning their neighbors at the stake.

    It is no accident that one of the synonyms for pious is “God-fearing”. Do what the priests and scriptures say or God will punish you – that’s the central message of most religions (including the biggest and most successful).

  57. #57 uncle frogy
    September 12, 2007

    this has been posted before when the discussion was about happiness.
    From Bob Altemeyer’s The Authoritarians:

    This chapter has presented my main research findings on religious fundamentalists. The first thing I want to emphasize…is that they are highly likely to be authoritarian followers. They are highly submissive to established authority, aggressive in the name of that authority, and conventional to the point of insisting everyone should behave as their authorities decide. They are fearful and self-righteous and have a lot of hostility in them that they readily direct toward various out-groups. They are easily incited, easily led, rather un-inclined to think for themselves, largely impervious to facts and reason, and rely instead on social support to maintain their beliefs. They bring strong loyalty to their in-groups, have
    thick-walled, highly compartmentalized minds, use a lot of double standards in their judgments, are surprisingly unprincipled at times, and are often hypocrites.

    But they are also Teflon-coated when it comes to guilt. They are blind to themselves, ethnocentric and prejudiced, and as closed-minded as they are narrowminded. They can be woefully uninformed about things they oppose, but they prefer ignorance and want to make others become as ignorant as they. They are also surprisingly uninformed about the things they say they believe in, and deep, deep, deep down inside many of them have secret doubts about their core belief. But they are very happy, highly giving, and quite zealous. In fact, they are about the only zealous people around nowadays in North America, which explains a lot of their success in their endless (and necessary) pursuit of converts. [emphasis mine]

    sorry to copy the whole thing again but I think the reason “all of this” is coming up has a lot to do with ID and the resurgence of the Fundies. Also it has been the policy of the republican party since Reagan to exploit and pander to the the religious right for the exact reasons given in the above quote
    they are fearful and believe in authority.
    the description fits the Bush admin. to a T

    I think that the biggest problem with fundamentalist and science is the only thing that counts is authority. Facts do not have the weight as authority. Helps explain the ease in distortion and lies also why they go back to Darwin. No amount of facts can win an argument with people like that and there is no way to change their minds either.the argument is deeper and personal ,psychological because it really aint about evolution at all

    that happiness thing is interesting. what other studies have there been into what groups are happy or not. Is it only religious groups or is it some other quality of religious groups outside of belief that imparts this feeling of happiness. could it have more to do with social support, community than god?

  58. #58 Sastra
    September 12, 2007

    uncle frogy:

    What I get from creationists isn’t so much a sense that they love authority, but that they love being mavericks who buck authority. They think that the little guy, with just a bit of education, no training, and a pure heart, can cut through 200 years of scientific consensus and just figger out where those pointy-headed intellectuals go wrong. All you need to understand science is common sense — and evolution makes no sense!

    Creationist literature is filled with “read it yourself” and “figure it out for yourself” and “think for yourself” rhetoric. They’re not so much pulling authority as telling people to “take charge” of their own education and don’t just rely on what establishment scientists try to dictate to you. Show them what simple goodness and clear-headed thinking can accomplish, on its own. We’re telling you there are holes in evolutionary theory, but don’t take our word for it. Look for yourself, and see.

    And they do — or think they do. Pseudoscience is easier than real science, because you only need just a little understanding and there are lots and lots of appeals to intuition and what “feels” right. Creationists are like the uneducated fellow on the barstool at the back of the bar, refuting Einstein’s Theory of Relativity on the back of a cocktail napkin. Only, in their story, turns out he gets it right! It’s not so much authoritarianism, I think, as it is the Myth of the American Cowboy.

  59. #59 Pierce R. Butler
    September 12, 2007

    Tell us more about this wonderful salvific toy octopus!

    How can we find happiness, longevity and transfiguration without knowing in Whose Holy Name we are offering prayer and sacrifice?

  60. #60 Peter Holt
    September 12, 2007

    In his recent book God is Not Great, Christopher Hitchins (sic) asks a question which goes something like “Can you give an example of a moral action which a theist can justify which an atheist can’t?”

    In fact, Hitchens’ challenge has nothing to do with justifying actions, it has to do with actions taken.

    To quote from his appearance on the Hugh Hewitt radio program:

    You have to name a moral action taken or a moral statement uttered by a person of faith that could not be taken or uttered by a non-believer.

    This is quite different. Believers justify immoral actions all the time, for example, bombing abortion clinics.

    As to the rate of charitable giving, I would be deeply skeptical about such figures. Social desirability bias plays very strongly in such self-reporting. If the religious are capable of hugely exaggerating their church attendance,

    http://www.religioustolerance.org/rel_rate.htm

    then it follows that they are equally capable of exaggerating their charitable works. Perhaps this simply shows that the secular are more honest.

  61. #61 Brendan S
    September 12, 2007

    I have a problem with this charitable spending schtick. We hear this all the time. I’ve looked at three of these charitable giving studies, and there’s one thing these people seem to miss:

    GIVING MONEY TO THE CHURCH COUNTS AS CHARITABLE GIVING.

    Seriously. Dig into these reports sometime. You will find that usually about 50% of all charitable giving is to organizations who constier their purpose to be religious in nature.

    I’m willing to give you that Churches tend to make some donations to ‘real’ charitable causes, but, the church I grew up in, it was all spent on a huge organ, and the music program in general.

    I’ve sat down and tried to ‘correct’ for this bais, but it’s hard to do without access to the ‘raw’ numbers.

  62. #62 dae
    September 12, 2007

    Much of the Old Testament consists of stories that serve to justify barbaric acts committed against the enemies of the Jewish tribes of biblical times and perceived fifth columnists within their ranks. Historically religions have been used to hoodwink people to support whomever was lording over them. Religious morality tends to be a very thin veneer to cover the rampant hypocrisy of believers. It was the Enlightenment that led to the development of a modern moral sense. The overwhelming influence of humanistic moral philosophy transformed the reactionary nature of some religious systems, infusing them with a liberal humanistic perspective. It is absurd to attribute a modern moral sense to religion. Our modern sense of morality developed in opposition to religion over the past three centuries.

  63. #63 bladeScythe
    September 12, 2007

    Yes studies like that are being done. Here is an old one that does part of what your asking

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article571206.ece

    If you hunt around a bit you can find the actual paper.

  64. #64 Greg
    September 12, 2007

    So there are studies showing that religious people are, on average, “happier” than secular people.

    Is it possible to do a study on the religious people that are oppressed? The battered Presbyterian wife who, when seeking a divorce, is told by her minister that it is sinful and she should stay with her husband regardless (happened to a friend). The Catholic mothers past of unbaptized babies, tormented with the fear of eternal oblivion for their dead children? The teenager struggling with society, unable to keep from sex and drinking, and hating herself for doing un-Mormon things (acquaintance).

    We may not be as happy– but we do not voluntarily oppress ourselves in pursuit of fantasy.

    I won’t take any study about the “happiness” of religious people seriously unless they are careful about these types of religious people as well: the ones struggling with their faith, hurt by misplaced trust of authority and “knowledge.”

  65. #65 Bertok
    September 12, 2007

    I’m somewhat suprised no one has addressed sinbad’s comment, but I’ll leave that to those with more time.

    I think che (#15) put it quite concisely with his comment. Of course the anesthetized among us are more likely to be happy! I think the survey is an excellent example of biased interpretation. It’s as if we were to judge the quality of a painting on the happiness of the painter. Based on such criteria, Vicent’s “The Starry Night” would have long been forgotten. It’s a patently ridiculous conjecture of an explanatory variable based on the observed response variable. Correlation does NOT imply cause. This is an old, old mistake. Why on Earth is it still being made by college graduates?

  66. #66 Arnosium Upinarum
    September 12, 2007

    Promising bullshit almost always confers a kind of anticipatory “happiness” on the sufficiently gullible. You have to be receptive to it…

    Hypothesis: this variety of “happiness” may well be linked to measurably elevated levels of serotonin massaging the pleasure-centers of the brain during moments of anticipatory excitement: just THINKING about the arousing subject in question should elicit the response…if so, it would show that religion is also an addiction.

    Now if we can only pin down a definition of “happiness” that everyone would agree with.

    Me, I’m more inclined to regard the notion as synonymous with contentment or a heightened form thereof. Excitement isn’t happiness. That’s more like a neuro-physiological a response, not a higher state of mind that lives alongside concept and abstraction.

    PLEEEESE. Alright already. DON’T listen to the overindulgent prefix-fiends who think they are so clever to make a distinction out of thin air by time-stamping a word with a prefix like “neo”, “post’ etc. “New” is just as hideous, just without the academic sham. There isn’t any trend to distinguish, and these clowns are just cluttering an already over-cluttered mess of a language that is already tedious enough to speak or type out. Who are these guys anyway? What the heck do they think they are they doing? Ignore ‘em, please, otherwise we’ll be neck-deep in that slop of “neo-coinage” dreck.

    If one must, use it ONCE, then throw it away. Its JUST “atheist”. There is no “new”. Ugh.

  67. #67 Colin
    September 12, 2007

    I think it’s rather odd that Haidt took this perspective. I’ve read a bunch of Haidt and I’m usually a big fan of his work and writings, but this is rather strange and seems disconnected from his theories.

    His social intuitionist model of morality seems to point that religion is not necessary for moral systems. In his modal, the morals come from socio-emotional learning from subconscious observation of family and peers. Religion is only a cultural community in this equation and is adjunct to — and often overshadowed by — the influence of the surrounding culture.

    One could argue that Atheism and “New Atheism” gets much of it’s moral identity from Humanism; and thus is an excellent source of cultural guidance. However, even this might not really even be necessary.

    You can also look at the low church attendance of most Western “religious” people and point out that they aren’t really getting much socio-emotional guidance from any religious community. In fact, like irreligious people most of religious people’s moral learning is coming from the surrounding culture (family, school, neighborhood, government). And frankly, looking at some other parts of the world were women are subjugated and people live in fear of death squads, our western culture seems to be doing at least a halfway decent job of encouraging moral behavior.

  68. #68 True Bob
    September 12, 2007

    The only thing ‘New” wrt atheism is that it’s more visible. Thanks to teh internet tubes.

  69. #69 Kagehi
    September 12, 2007

    It should also be noted that its not always easy to “start” anything that does what religious groups do. The last time, for example, someone tried to come up with a secular version of Boy Scouts, various “concerned” parent groups hunted the guy trying it, until they could get enough people to lie about him, and enough “evidence” to convince a pro-religious judge to indict him for child molestation. Mind you, that was years ago, so there might have been someone successful since then… Can’t think of any though.

    The funniest case of this sort of thinking though had to be one I recently heard about (yep, it was Texas), where the state passed a law banning nudist camps for kids, **just in case** one of those horrible nudist groups decided to start one there. The fact that one of biggest nudist group in the country that runs those is Christian just makes this 100 times funnier…

    Charities that are non-religious are “often” either not active in pointing out how non-religious they are, due to fear of the drop in donations from the ones that think they are, or don’t last long, due to harassment from the good folks that think secular groups can’t be good people. The rare excepts are also truly rare in results, like the one lady that goes around providing people with “simple” pumps and filters, which may not be 100% as effective as expensive ones the big groups provide, but which don’t leave villages without water for 5 years, because what is a 50 cent part in the US can’t be replaced, due to the nearest town being 500 miles away, and the part costing 100 times what it did originally. But, you don’t hear much about such people. There are simply too many self promoting groups with agendas, who “look” like they are helping, when in reality they don’t bother to check on anyone they “help” after leaving, or worse, may intentionally not help as they should, so the village **needs** them to come back again. (Not that I would ever suggest any of them pulling something like that…)

    BTW. I know people on here watch Eureka, so why am I the only one defending out side here:

    http://forums.scifi.com/index.php?showtopic=2287436&st=40

    Lots of the same tired arguments, from “People like him are as bad as the fundies”, to, “When under stress, people just naturally pray.” Ugh!!!

  70. #70 TylerJames
    September 12, 2007

    Maybe someone already mentioned this, but what kind of metric are they using to determine one person’s happiness in relation to another? Is there any objective way to measure this? It must come from one’s subjective perception of one’s own happiness.

    And what about the fact that you are “supposed” to derive happiness from faith. If one of the faithful claimed to be unhappy then he must be “doing it wrong” and would be perceived by his peers to be less in tune with God. Nevermind that you don’t want to admit to God that his divine love is not enough to make you a happier person.

  71. #71 Anton Mates
    September 13, 2007

    I have a problem with this charitable spending schtick. We hear this all the time. I’ve looked at three of these charitable giving studies, and there’s one thing these people seem to miss:

    GIVING MONEY TO THE CHURCH COUNTS AS CHARITABLE GIVING.

    Arthur Brooks, at least, has discounted charity to primarily religious organizations, and still finds that American believers are more charitable to secular organizations than non-believers. He also argues, and I’m inclined to agree, that it’s silly to discount money given to a church just because someone else thinks the church’s activities are useless or self-serving. You could as easily write off contributions to any institution as non-charity. People give to Greenpeace to satisfy their own preference for having whales around; they give to Planned Parenthood because they like killing babies; they give to the ACLU to make sure it’ll be around to protect them from the ire of the majority; and so forth. If you’re going to define “charity” such that people of different political and religious views can agree on it, it has to be something like “giving money and time away to somebody, with no expectation of a direct return.” The policies and activities of the recipient can’t be relevant.

    (Of course, defined that way, it’s no longer an objectively good thing to be more “charitable.”)

    I have more issues with Brooks’ work in that he relies on self-reported data from phone surveys, and in that he sometimes defines his respondent categories in odd ways, as The Volokh Conspiracy describes.

  72. #72 DeWraith
    September 13, 2007

    Doh! I was engrossed in writing a Chemistry lab report and PZ picked that time to drop this nice nugget. So I’m late in getting in but here goes.

    About the New Atheist term. It began as the word “Neo-Atheist.” I hated it at first because it didn’t mean anything because being a “Neo-Atheist” is the same as being a “New Atheist” and unless you became an Atheist yesterday, you aren’t a “Neo-Atheist.” Then I realized it came to be used as a slur against Atheists who dared to stand up, be counted, and speak against religion and its evils. Oooohhhh, I was livid!

    Then I saw a nice trend and suggestion. The suggestion was to wrangle that new slur into a positive word. The trend was already moving. Slowly, it is becoming to mean a vocal Atheist who won’t back down. Some have suggested adding pro-active into the list or, another way, positively changing.

    So, I see it being used less to refer to angry Atheists and more about vocal Atheists. If all of us jump on this word and pervert it from the slur it began as to a badge of honor for us, then we won’t have to worry about it. Well, that’s the hypothesis anyway.

  73. #73 DeWraith
    September 13, 2007

    I just realized I can describe the Neo-Atheist term better.

    Neo-Atheist: anyone who refuses to play Calvinball with the theists.

    The guy who is the subject of this article IS playing Calvinball by bending backwards for the religiocrazies. Hence, he is NOT a Neo-Atheist.

  74. #74 Richard
    September 13, 2007

    The New Yorker has got a video up of a talk by Jonathan Haidt, which I think you might find interesting (he gives a brief, easy to understand overview of his research on morality). He then talks more about how this understanding of morality ties to politics (conservatism vs liberalism) rather than religion.

  75. #75 bullfighter
    September 13, 2007

    I just read the Brooks article to which Sinbad had linked. His study is questionable for a lot more reasons than Volokh mentioned.

    Brooks’ definition of “secular”, based entirely on infrequent religious service attendance, includes 26% of the total sample. The most optimistic numbers I’ve seen for nonreligious in any poll are around 14%, which means that about half (and possibly more) of the so-called “secular” were in fact religious people who rarely or never attend services. So which subgroup is driving the results?

    Peter Holt’s link to OCRT page about false self-reporting of attendance cites sources that estimate that, although about 40% Americans report that they attend services weekly, only 20% actually do. Brooks counts 33% of his sample among the “religious” based on weekly attendance; it would thus appear that a third of those are liars.

    Even more interestingly, the OCRT page cites Barna Group data that, while 17% report giving 10% or more of their income to their church, only 3% actually do. So we know from previous studies that self-reported giving is exaggerated. The usual explanation is that people say they do what they think they should do, not what they actually do. If the religious have a stronger sense that they should give more than they do, they will exaggerate their giving more.

    I think that’s enough to invalidate any conclusions from Brooks’ study, but, as a general rule, whenever you see a policy paper, don’t forget to check the sources and the context. This was published by the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank. It is true that Hoover is more credible than Heritage and AEI – not everyone at Hoover is a hack – but keep in mind that Dinesh D’Souza is a fellow there. As a further clue to author’s bias, note that Brooks approvingly quotes Robert Bork and Irving Kristol. I must say I would have more confidence in honesty and objectivity of a Vatican study on the same topic.

  76. #76 uncle frogy
    September 13, 2007

    Sastra #58

    thats what they say, think for yourself, but that is not what they do. they just parrot what their authorities say the same old myths, illogic, lies and fantasies over and over. like swatting ants. There is no new thinking there it is defending the faith only.
    In that they are the cowboy western hero defending the “good people” from the evil of science and the modern world (Satan) while at the same time utilizing as much as they can of the modern “godless” consumer world.
    I have more respect for people like the Amish who through their religion chose to remain in the 18th century without bothering outsiders. their religion is like other religions and unreal but their produce is top quality organic and people leave all the time. they may well fade away.
    the rest of the wackjobs need serious help.

    sorry for the tangent I should not even be writing or reading anything just now but I could not resist.
    may the universe spare us from the inqusition

  77. #77 uncle frogy
    September 13, 2007

    Sastra #58

    thats what they say, think for yourself, but that is not what they do. they just parrot what their authorities say the same old myths, illogic, lies and fantasies over and over. like swatting ants. There is no new thinking there it is defending the faith only.
    In that they are the cowboy western hero defending the “good people” from the evil of science and the modern world (Satan) while at the same time utilizing as much as they can of the modern “godless” consumer world.
    I have more respect for people like the Amish who through their religion chose to remain in the 18th century without bothering outsiders. their religion is like other religions and unreal but their produce is top quality organic and people leave all the time. they may well fade away.
    the rest of the wackjobs need serious help.

    sorry for the tangent I should not even be writing or reading anything just now but I could not resist.
    may the universe spare us from the inqusition

  78. #78 Anton Mates
    September 13, 2007

    Bullfighter,

    Brooks’ definition of “secular”, based entirely on infrequent religious service attendance, includes 26% of the total sample. The most optimistic numbers I’ve seen for nonreligious in any poll are around 14%, which means that about half (and possibly more) of the so-called “secular” were in fact religious people who rarely or never attend services. So which subgroup is driving the results?

    That sounds very similar to what Volokh says he did in his breakdown by political orientation–generally liberals and conservatives both reported significantly more charitable giving than moderates, but he split the “moderate” category, put more of them in with the liberal side, and reported it as a conservative/liberal difference.

  79. #79 bad Jim
    September 13, 2007

    What utter bullshit! Godless Europeans live longer than god-fearing Americans, enjoy better health, grow taller and take longer vacations.

    They’re whipping our ass when it comes to the pursuit of happiness. Maybe it’s not so much godlessness as socialism, but whatever it is we’d be better off with more of it.

  80. #80 reason
    September 13, 2007

    We should get Jonathan Haidt to reply shouldn’t we? PZ makes a good solid case, it would nice to see it addressed.

  81. #81 Russell Blackford
    September 13, 2007

    #42 “let’s legalize all the pleasure-inducing drugs”

    Since I support doing exactly that, this doesn’t work well for me as a reductio ad absurdum.

  82. #82 Arnosium Upinarum
    September 13, 2007

    DeWraith #73 says, “…The guy who is the subject of this article IS playing Calvinball by bending backwards for the religiocrazies. Hence, he is NOT a Neo-Atheist.”

    Clever.

    The trouble with these coinages is that a definition of the term must accompany its appearance before anyone knows what the preferred distinction originally implied means, unless its clear from the context.

    But by the time many people pick it up presuming everyone has the same idea of what it means, it takes a life on of its own, and the original meaning (such as it might have been) gets increasingly obscure and lost. After an initial appearance, for legitimately intelligible purposes, such coinages should be summarily shot. DON’T use them again unless you are willing to supply your own definition every time you use it.

    Why not just regard his tract as confused? If one wants to characterize the fellow, call him a “confused”. Atheists can be confused too. Modify the word to one heart’s content. Refrain from the fashionable temptation of making up a “word” (a “neoword”???) in an attempt to say what one means.

    For the sake of brevity the more recalcitrant, diabolically-minded or just plain lazy among us might be tempted to simply type the acronym for “New” or “Neo” Atheist: “NA”…of course, which might just as well be taken to MEAN “Not Applicable”, adding yet another layer of obscurity while simultaneously increasing the accuracy in a deliciously perverse way.

  83. #83 Steven
    September 13, 2007

    It is a bit sad to see an essay that is great for the first half but then terrible the second. It is as if he has put the second half of the essay in just to be contrary and perhaps rub some of the “NEW ATHEISM” movement onto his book.

    Atheism sells you know. Or am I being too cynical?

    I think not.

  84. #84 Steven
    September 13, 2007

    Just a little addition. At least they aren’t calling it the Neo-atheism movement. That would just be awful.

  85. #85 Arnosium Upinarum
    September 13, 2007

    TylerJames #70 says, “…what kind of metric are they using to determine one person’s happiness in relation to another? Is there any objective way to measure this? It must come from one’s subjective perception of one’s own happiness.

    And what about the fact that you are “supposed” to derive happiness from faith. If one of the faithful claimed to be unhappy then he must be “doing it wrong” and would be perceived by his peers to be less in tune with God. Nevermind that you don’t want to admit to God that his divine love is not enough to make you a happier person.”

    “Happiness” is often confused with “excitement”. I think excitement can be objectively measured (indeed, probably already has been quite frequently).

    Happiness, on the other hand, being an opinion subject to subjective interpretation, is not so easily pegged.

    As for people of “faith” in this country, I observe most of them do appear to be very jazzed up and excited over their chosen superstition.

    I also note what seems to be an INVERSE correlation between orthodoxy or fundamentalist zeal and happiness. Otherwise they wouldn’t complain nearly as much and as loudly as they do. They are not genuinely happy at all. They can’t stand anyone not going along with their views. They are generally miserable over it. Fundamentalism fosters UNHAPPINESS, as the existence of numerous intolerant hate-mongers from their ranks easily attests.

  86. #86 Dunc
    September 13, 2007

    I attended graduate school in Oregon at the time the Baghwan Shree Rajneesh had his commune in the state. On the news, we’d often see video of the smiling hairy guru going for his morning drive in one of his fleet of Rolls-Royces, and his acolytes would line the road, waving joyfully as he went by.

    Oh man, I’d forgotten about him! Definitely my all-time favourite religious guru… How his followers failed to get the joke is beyond me.

  87. #87 SEF
    September 13, 2007

    a “neoword”???

    Ironically making up a new word in order to exhort people not to do so. The already extant one being “neologism”.

  88. #88 Arnosium Upinarum
    September 13, 2007

    Steven – i think you have a good point there. It really IS kind of jarring to be reading smoothly along nicely laminar currents and suddenly hit that turbulence, isn’t it?

    How else to account for it besides a strangely selective disordliness in the mind…but you may have hit on a better, simpler explanation.

    I don’t think you’re being too cynical. I think you’re analysis may well be spot-on.

  89. #89 Arnosium Upinarum
    September 13, 2007

    SEF: Yes, yes, of course. Obviously. “Neologism” is the PROPER and legitimate word. But it has no fangs. To assist understanding I intentionally coined the annoying “neoword” to illustrate how UGLY the practice can be…you know, for effect?

  90. #90 Arnosium Upinarum
    September 13, 2007

    The tail end of that last response somehow got cut off:

    “Irony back to you…”

    so sorry.

  91. #91 greg laden
    September 13, 2007

    There it is again:

    Haidt doesn’t even seem to recognize the possibility of these questions, let alone try to argue for different answers. He seems to have made them vanish, reducing them to tautologies, by equating religion with moral systems

    The culturally ingrained presumption of the morality (as morality arises from and demands existence of, explains historically and even in an evolutionary framework) religion.

    Even people who spend their time thinking about these things, get paid for thinking about these things, can’t throw off this yoke.

    It’s like all northern and western European colonialist writing. The presumption of social, cultural, and evolutionary superiority is there even in writing that is supposed to be objective in this regard.

    It is truly astounding.

    Haidt ignores the issue of power. In our society today we have a kind of internal colonialism. Haidt characterizes the situation as New Atheists attacking the religious right, and the religious right is presumably just minding its own business.

    No.

    New Atheists are involved in a resistance movement. The fact that this entire drama is being played out in the framework of power relations cannot be ignored, but generally is. Haidt and the framistas both repeatedly make the same mistake of ignoring this.

  92. #92 Carlos
    September 13, 2007

    For a scientistic bunch, we all seem to be relying quite heavily on non-scientific reasoning, as evidenced by all the various dismissals of the happy religious surveys. They seem to be, if not quite faith based, at least highly biased towards personal perception against statistical measurements. “it seems to me…” “but I bet if you…” “I think you may be spot on…” “I also note what seems to be…”

    And to bullfighter:
    “I must say I would have more confidence in honesty and objectivity of a Vatican study on the same topic.”

    As indeed you should. That’s the most unfortunate thing about the New Atheists, that because they reject the first principles they are unable to “get” that these are very bright, sincere, and compassionate people, the polar opposite of the levied charge that there is a reverse correlation between education and religiosity. Everything coming out of the Vatican in terms of Social Policy is absolutely correct. And you should, if you only could, step past your prejudice and try to listen and understand.

  93. #93 Charley
    September 13, 2007
  94. #94 labmutt
    September 13, 2007

    Why should atheists give money to send missions to Africa? I can see a P. Z. Myers Center for the Distribution of Mosquito Netting and Malaria Treatment. Why not?

    Ed, PZ didn’t say ‘missions’, he said ‘missionaries’.

  95. #95 Russell Blackford
    September 13, 2007

    Wow, great comment from Carlos. I love satire.

  96. #96 Arnosium Upinarum
    September 13, 2007

    Carlos #91:

    What the heck are you sniveling about? Do you just enjoy picking at inconsequential nits, or are you just plain nuts working up a lather over some foolish notion that science requires the kind of certainty that religion claims in order to validate it?

    Believe it or not, uncertainty is part and parcel of scientific scrutiny, and is a feature of honesty. Integrity demands that we employ caution whenever we communicate, from reporting anecdotal observations based on APPARENT patterns to posing hypotheses that SEEM to make sense.

    What on EARTH makes you think that a person expressing their “personal perception” is somehow unscientific? That its somehow dishonorable to express ideas WITH all due respect for uncertainty? Scientists are people too, you know. Foibles and all.

    Its just that, as a group, I like to think we’re rather more careful about getting it right. You think any assertion that can’t be backed up with the certainty of evidence is bad form and somehow “unscientific”. Making assertions with certainty (as you insist) requires the relevant evidence to back it up, but posing suppositions isn’t in the least unscientific either.

    Sifting through all sorts of APPARENTLY screwy and SEEMINGLY improbable ideas is EXACTLY how real scientists settle on the right questions they’d like to answer in the first place – long before the experiment or analysis is performed. How else do you suppose real scientists work their way towards obtaining that precious evidence, hmmm?

  97. #97 bullfighter
    September 13, 2007

    Everything coming out of the Vatican in terms of Social Policy is absolutely correct.

    LOL. Either you are a nut, or you really hate the Vatican and are being too cleverly sarcastic for my simple mind. But I would take neither position. What I wrote was not a hyperbole. I really think the Vatican would be more scrupulous than our conservative think tanks, and any study it produced would likely be less biased. Obviously, that doesn’t imply that I would consider it a reliable and impartial source of information on this topic.

  98. #98 MAJeff
    September 13, 2007

    Everything coming out of the Vatican in terms of Social Policy is absolutely correct. And you should, if you only could, step past your prejudice and try to listen and understand.

    Absolute bullshit.

  99. #99 carlie
    September 13, 2007

    “Scientistic”?

  100. #100 Moses
    September 13, 2007

    Everything coming out of the Vatican in terms of Social Policy is absolutely correct. And you should, if you only could, step past your prejudice and try to listen and understand.

    Posted by: Carlos | September 13, 2007 8:32 AM

    Is this sarcasm, or just another appeal to authority? Such as:

    Examples of appeals to authority

    Referring to the philosophical beliefs of Aristotle. “If Aristotle said it was so, it is so.”

    Referring to the philosophical beliefs of Jesus, Muhammad, or any other religious figure. “If (religious figure) said it was so, it is so.” However, such an appeal may be based upon the belief that the speaker in question is holy and, by extension, inerrant.

    Referring to a sacred text. “If (the text) said it was so, it is so.” Like in the previous example, such an appeal may be based upon the belief that the sacred text in question is inerrant.

    Referring to scientific research published in a peer-reviewed journal. “Science (in the form of an article in a prestigious journal) says X, therefore X is so.”

    Referring to what one is told by one’s teacher and/or parent. “My teacher said so, therefore it must be so.”

    Believing something because it is attributed to an honored profession, as in “This doctor recommends (brand-name) aspirin” or “Bankers recommend that people have six months’ wages in a savings account”.

    Something must be true because a war hero says it.

    Something must be true because it is in the news.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appeal_to_authority

  101. #101 bullfighter
    September 13, 2007

    #92: Ah, but I am disappointed in Shermer, the Pontifex Maximus of Skepticism. He quotes one study for each “side” and both studies are junk science. I’ve already poked holes in Brooks in my comment (#75) and here, and I regret to say that I have no better opinion of Paul’s paper. (There is no symmetry in culpability, however: Paul financed his junk science from his own pocket, not from rich friends of Hoover.) So Shermer’s citations are no better than “he said, she said” by “random” people in the street which we usually see on TV shows that pretend to be serious.

  102. #102 Automath
    September 13, 2007

    I still think it’s a mistake to attribute any form of understanding to vague terms such as religious feeling or making out that morality evolved from religion without first trying to explode what this thing called religion is! If it is an innate emotional response? Then call it that! It isn’t the innate response that is religious; religion as well as other human disciplines just happen to use it.

    Although I do agree with Haidt when he says “Technology has changed our lives so we can live in new ways. We can now be moral without religion. We have developed other means of social control … such as laws, police forces and CCTV cameras.” or in other words we have progressed beyond a less primitive level of existence (in some societies at least).

    But I still think the greatest achievement has been the greater understanding of the self that can be realised when free from what has become predominated referred to as religion: maybe because it allows us to explore other possible solutions to the same questions. I’m of the opinion that we have the innate sense but that sense is programmed to be right or wrong by the meanings we accept to believe at the time.

  103. #103 AlanWCan
    September 13, 2007

    There is a nice rebuttal from Sam Harris over on the Edge. Michael Shermer is there too, but he’s pulling punches and being accommodating of foolishness in a way that Sam Harris refreshingly never seems to.

  104. #104 Janus
    September 13, 2007

    Wonderful rebuttal. May I suggest that you e-mail it to Edge so that it can be read by more people? Sam Harris’ piece is pretty awful compared to yours.

    Of course you’re not as well known as Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett, so you might think that Edge wouldn’t put your article on their website because of this. Maybe you’re right. Perhaps you could ask Dawkins to, uh, sort of “vouch” for you?

  105. #105 Bunjo
    September 13, 2007

    In his book “The Happiness Hypothesis” Jonathon Haidt says:

    “In all human cultures, the social world has two clear dimensions: a horizontal dimension of closeness or liking, and a vertical one of hierachy or status…
    … My claim is that the human mind perceives a third dimension, a specifically moral dimension that I will call “divinity”…. In choosing the label “divinity”, I am not assuming that God exists and is there to be perceived. (I myself am a Jewish atheist.) Rather, my research on the moral emotions has led me to conclude that the human mind simply does perceive divinity and sacredness, whether or not God exists. In reaching this conclusion, I lost the smug contempt for religion that I felt in my twenties.

    pages 183 – 184, chapter “Divinity With or Without God”, UK paperback edition.

    He goes on to say that while he feels his liberal values and the reduction in divine values in the western world have resulted in some good things (tolerance, equality etc) he has begun to see the richness that divinity adds to the human experience. You need to read the book to get the full meaning of his ideas. He points out that atheists can still be awed by nature, it just doesn’t need a god. However if the perceptions of the divine or sacredness are a part of human nature, scientists should accept that religiousity is as much part of human nature as sexuality or language. Since religiousity appears to be built in to humans, trying to do without it may work against our long term happiness.

  106. #106 Anton Mates
    September 13, 2007

    He points out that atheists can still be awed by nature, it just doesn’t need a god. However if the perceptions of the divine or sacredness are a part of human nature, scientists should accept that religiousity is as much part of human nature as sexuality or language.

    But these claims are contradictory. If atheists can get their “necessary” feelings of awe and sanctity without religion, then religiosity can’t be a fundamental part of human nature. Unless atheists aren’t human.

  107. #107 homunq
    September 13, 2007

    I see both Haigt and Pharyngula being uncharitably literal in interpreting the statements they want to criticize, and generous in their readings of those whom they’re defending. No clear fouls, but certainly a bias. So, the main question here is, who gets the benefit of the doubt? Religion or its critics? I’d say the benefit of the doubt should go with weight of numbers, so I have to give this round to Haigt.

    One unrelated critique of Haigt: he argues for 5 pillars of morality. But he’s left the most obvious one of all out. I think that just about everybody has moral norms related to the fact that doing something well is more moral than doing it poorly. “Well” gets a cultural definition, of course – different cultures put different emphases on beauty, efficiency, quickness, durability, etc. etc. etc. – but I can’t think of a single person who wouldn’t consider that there is a moral dimension to doing things well, and to me it certainly feels to me as if this is axiomatic and not just derived from its consequences in justice, loyalty, etc.

  108. #108 Anton Mates
    September 13, 2007

    Carlos,

    For a scientistic bunch, we all seem to be relying quite heavily on non-scientific reasoning, as evidenced by all the various dismissals of the happy religious surveys. They seem to be, if not quite faith based, at least highly biased towards personal perception against statistical measurements. “it seems to me…” “but I bet if you…” “I think you may be spot on…” “I also note what seems to be…”

    A number of cogent objections were raised against these surveys on this thread. Do you really think those objections have less force because the people raising them were willing to acknowledge their own uncertainty?

    Humility is not a weakness.

  109. #109 Anton Mates
    September 13, 2007

    I think that just about everybody has moral norms related to the fact that doing something well is more moral than doing it poorly.

    I don’t have any such norms, and I’d be somewhat surprised if most people do. Does anyone look at a serial killer or genocidal political leader and say, “Well, what they did was horrible, but at least they were really good at it, so props to them”?

  110. #110 PZ Myers
    September 13, 2007

    A lot of people seem to miss the point on the charity numbers. I’m not arguing with the numbers — suspect they’re right, although I think they’re also weak and over-interpreted.

    The question is WHY.

    The Christians and Haidt and other apologists for religion all seem to want to imply that it’s because the religious are just plain better people, but I don’t buy that for a second. The data don’t support that interpretation at all. Somehow, church-goers are better organized and better motivated to contribute to the kinds of efforts measured in these surveys — that’s real. Now what does it mean? Do we want atheists to be more like Christians in that way? How do we accomplish that, if so? What are the factors in religion that drive what may be a socially beneficial behavior? Is the only way to achieve that by believing in the sacred power of my toy octopus?

    One thing I’m sure of: the Christians and their fans here won’t even try to think of the answers. It’s enough to chant that Jebus makes them #1 in something.

  111. #111 Brownian
    September 13, 2007

    What about the theist kids who commit suicide because they’re gay and won’t be accepted for who they are by their local churches? Are they happier on average?

  112. #112 Julian
    September 13, 2007

    I find the label “New Atheism” trite, inappropriate, and slightly insulting as well. I’ve been an atheist since I was 11 or 12 (though I was raised to always analyze my thoughts and behaviors, so it was an idea around for longer than that) and I’ve been making the same arguments ever since. As far as my studies of history have found, they’re the same arguments atheists have been making as far back as the times of Plato and Democritus.

    The only thing “new” about atheism these days is that the internet’s been around long enough for most heathens to realize they aren’t the only ones out there and, in actuality, might really be a majority in a significant number of sub-populations.

  113. #113 melior
    September 13, 2007

    Playing hide-the-weenie with averages is fun!

    Does having more money equate with more happiness? Surveys are similarly mixed, but tend slightly towards yes. Does this show that poverty is immoral?

    Now, take the income differential from the rich and give it to the poor… bingo, you’ve raised the average happiness level! A new moral imperative?

  114. #114 Bunjo
    September 13, 2007

    Anton Mates #105:

    I think Haidt means the exact opposite. Humans have ‘built in’ values for sacredness/divine behaviour (ritual, cleanliness, moral outlook – aka religiosity) but this does not require religion or a god(s) to be expressed.

    Elsewhere in the book he suggests that evolutionarily generated instincts of disgust for blood, excreta, spoiled meat, eating scavenger animals, etc. contibute to the instinct for searching out the pure (divine values) and avoiding the polluted (base animal values). I have not yet checked the references in this section so I cannot confirm that this is not a ‘just so’ story, although it would explain both a great deal of our behaviour and how any particular religion could arise by codifying these feelings and rituals.

  115. #115 Calli Arcale
    September 13, 2007

    A friend of mine pointed this out to me; alas, I haven’t time to read it properly. First off, I’d like to say that I am not an atheist; I am a Christian. I might as well be upfront about that. But I have a tendency to get my dander up when I hear someone describe religion as a “moral system” or talk about how religion’s value is in instilling morals. I think neither is true. Certainly a great many religions talk about morals, and a great many of them have laws of some sort that address “moral” issues. But I think it is self-evident that morals go far beyond religion. And frankly, if they didn’t, it would be a sign that they are worthless. If a particular moral is good, then it shouldn’t require divine inspiration to tell us. We should be able to figure it out, just as we can figure out the physical properties of the universe. Even going by what the fundamentalists claim, if God gave us our brains, then surely He expects us to use them!

    The ultimate problem with religion is not it’s tendency to moralize, nor even it’s tendency to endorse superstition or things which are not substantiated. It’s ultimate problem is the tendency of religions to squash independent thought, by encouraging passive learning and branding people as heretics or even apostates for daring to disagree. The worst of all are the ones who suggest that doubt is the tool of the Devil. It isn’t. But being afraid of doubt — that’s the Devil at work, because that fear keeps us from questioning what we’re told and discovering when it is wrong.

    I do find that whether you believe in God or the Devil or not (I believe in the former but not the latter), religious teachings pertaining to them can sometimes still be useful as metaphors. For instance, in a very real sense, rejecting the Devil and all his empty promises means being intellectually rigorous. Skeptical. I see a terrible, tragic irony in the fact that so many religious institutions shun intellectual rigor, at the same time that they exhort their followers not to give in to temptation. They give in to the temptation of pride and don’t even notice.

    And that is why it galls me so much when some of these people have the nerve to say that religion is good because it provides a moral framework. What’s even sillier is when they go on to say that atheists (or even unchurched theists) are immoral, because you can’t have morality without religion. They seem to be admitting that their moral system is not universal, nor a fundamental part of the universe, even as they claim that it’s the only way to go. It’s preposterous logic, but they don’t notice that either.

  116. #116 uncle frogy
    September 13, 2007

    PZ said “Somehow, church-goers are better organized and better motivated to contribute to the kinds of efforts measured in these surveys — that’s real. Now what does it mean?”

    If the reason for the difference in charitable contributions and the “level of happiness” is not belief in a god.
    From what I understood of the survey the factor was “regular church attendance” as being religious no mention of those who believe and do not attend church or what religion or god was involved. It would appear that it is regular attendance and not the religion that is the important part here.
    Modern American society has been tending toward isolation. Dalily life is now much reduced to work commuting mostly driving alone on freeways 100′s of TV channels, internet and sleep add self medication and prescription drugs for a large number of lives. Is the groth in the internet and blogs, myspace etc. and everyone using cellphones a reaction a reaching out for comunity for contact?
    so what regular church attendance supplies is personal contact an extended family, We are a social animal and could not survive as a nuclear family in the “wild” any better than our close cousins could.
    So if I may state some questions
    How do we create a comunity where people have the personal interaction outside of work with other people?
    can such a comunity be created or will it have to evolve organicly?
    What are the requirments of such a comunity to exist?

  117. #117 uncle frogy
    September 13, 2007

    PZ said “Somehow, church-goers are better organized and better motivated to contribute to the kinds of efforts measured in these surveys — that’s real. Now what does it mean?”

    If the reason for the difference in charitable contributions and the “level of happiness” is not belief in a god.
    From what I understood of the survey the factor was “regular church attendance” as being religious no mention of those who believe and do not attend church or what religion or god was involved. It would appear that it is regular attendance and not the religion that is the important part here.
    Modern American society has been tending toward isolation. Dalily life is now much reduced to work commuting mostly driving alone on freeways 100′s of TV channels, internet and sleep add self medication and prescription drugs for a large number of lives. Is the groth in the internet and blogs, myspace etc. and everyone using cellphones a reaction a reaching out for comunity for contact?
    so what regular church attendance supplies is personal contact an extended family, We are a social animal and could not survive as a nuclear family in the “wild” any better than our close cousins could.
    So if I may state some questions
    How do we create a comunity where people have the personal interaction outside of work with other people?
    can such a comunity be created or will it have to evolve organicly?
    What are the requirments of such a comunity to exist?

  118. #118 Wolfhound
    September 13, 2007

    re:#71 “People give to Greenpeace to satisfy their own preference for having whales around; they give to Planned Parenthood because they like killing babies; they give to the ACLU to make sure it’ll be around to protect them from the ire of the majority; and so forth.”

    I like whales as much as the next person but I can’t say as I’ve ever had the pleasure of killing a baby. Perhaps I’ve been giving to Planned Parenthood for the wrong reason, like providing free and low-cost birth control to women who couldn’t otherwise afford it or the resultant unwanted baby if such birth control weren’t available.

    I think I’ll have to write them a letter requesting that they let me kill a baby myself, just to see if I like it well enough to tell them to earmark any future contributions from me for that express purpose.

  119. #119 MAJeff
    September 13, 2007

    What about the theist kids who commit suicide because they’re gay and won’t be accepted for who they are by their local churches? Are they happier on average?

    No, but their churches are.

  120. #120 Mark
    September 13, 2007

    RE Post #2 from Sean: I live in Huntsville AL, and I think I know of the “New Mall”. I was new to the area at the time and I had some trouble with it. Funny, how I now look to it with some nostalgic fondness, will it be the same for the “New Atheist” moniker which I also currently detest?

    -Mark

  121. #121 Sinbad
    September 13, 2007

    The Christians and Haidt and other apologists for religion all seem to want to imply that it’s because the religious are just plain better people, but I don’t buy that for a second.

    I’m a Christian (and a dufus to boot) yet I don’t buy it either (but I also don’t think that it’s Haidt’s view).

    Somehow, church-goers are better organized and better motivated to contribute to the kinds of efforts measured in these surveys — that’s real. Now what does it mean? Do we want atheists to be more like Christians in that way? How do we accomplish that, if so? What are the factors in religion that drive what may be a socially beneficial behavior? Is the only way to achieve that by believing in the sacred power of my toy octopus?

    All great questions.

    One thing I’m sure of: the Christians and their fans here won’t even try to think of the answers. It’s enough to chant that Jebus makes them #1 in something.

    Nonsense. As I noted in my post above:

    “Modern atheism, which so often seeks to be a mere default position and to stand for nothing at all, even if correct, falls short (as the research indicates). How depressing to be defined by what you aren’t or by what you don’t believe. As Harvard University humanist ‘chaplain’ Greg Epstein pointed out over the summer:

    “‘My problem with the atheists…is not that they’re saying God doesn’t exist. What I’m saying is we’ve got to build something.’

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/19140641/site/newsweek/

    “Unless and until modern atheism deigns to try to ‘build something,’ religion will likely continue to win lots of cultural battles, ‘correctness’ notwithstanding.”

    ….

    “Unless and until atheists actually ‘build something’ (which requires more than argument – it requires time, money, effort and sacrifice), I suspect that your hypothesis [that religion isn't necessary for these good results] will remain entirely theoretical.”

    Most foundationally, modern atheism needs to aspire to be more than a default position in order to succeed (many are so anxious to avoid a proof burden and risk losing a battle that they’re willing to concede the war for hearts and minds). It needs to build a real community and to become (and want to become) part of something bigger than individuals. It’s this (I think) that Haidt is getting at with his “third dimension” that he labels “divinity”. Paul Woodruff writes about it as well when he discusses the ancient (and not necessarily religious) virtue of reverence.

    http://www.oup.com/us/catalog/general/subject/Philosophy/EthicsMoralPhilosophy/?view=usa&ci=9780195157956

    The task isn’t an easy one — it’s much easier to destroy than to create after all. Do you really want to build something and, if so, have you counted the cost of doing so?

  122. #122 Norm Breyfogle
    September 13, 2007

    I’m an atheist, for all *typical* intents and purposes. But, beign ATYPICAL, and knowing the high flexibility of words, I can easily say – and I often do – that I believe in God … by defining “God” as the ultimately unknowable ground of all being, i.e., unqualified existence itself. Put another way, I recognize that no statement can be more absolutely true than “existence exists.” Therefore, existence is my “God.” Any “God” less than existence itself must be less powerful, less inclusive, less omnipresent, etc., than is “God” as I define the term. Any “God” other than existence is not absolute in any sense and is therefore not worthy of the designation.

    In other words, I thoroughly reject all literalistic religious beliefs.

    Still, I recognize the value of religious fiction as an art form capable of deeply moving me, if I interpret it METAPHORICALLY.

    Can I be respected by atheists, even though I claim that I believe in “God” (as I – and many millions of mystics – define that word)? To not be riduled by an atheist as illogical or in some other way inferior, must I reject all mystery and subjective indulgences of any kind? Must I become a Spocklike robot rejecting all art, emotion, and fiction as meaningless? Is only pure logic, math, and science meaningful?

    Obviously not.

    Therefore, the proper answer to the question, “Do you believe in God?” should be, “First define ‘God’ and then I’ll answer.” This semantic tactic leads the questioner into an examination of his or her own assumptions (e.g., his or her assumptions about the nature of God/ultimate reality), and it may open the door for their possible education via a reasonable discussion (as opposed to a merely rhetorical and often angry and close-minded throwing of labels at one another).

    The real problem isn’t theism per se, but *literalistic, superstitious* theism.

  123. #123 Anton Mates
    September 13, 2007

    Wolfhound,

    I like whales as much as the next person but I can’t say as I’ve ever had the pleasure of killing a baby. Perhaps I’ve been giving to Planned Parenthood for the wrong reason, like providing free and low-cost birth control to women who couldn’t otherwise afford it or the resultant unwanted baby if such birth control weren’t available.

    Nah, you’re obviously just too lazy to kill the babies yourself. That, or you think they can be more numerously and efficiently killed by a well-funded specialist organization, rather than by individuals like yourself haphazardly killing any baby which happens to wander by.

  124. #124 Ronald
    September 13, 2007

    Actually the charitableness argument is not so good as it sounds. A recent survey found almost the opposite:
    http://www.annfammed.org/cgi/content/abstract/5/4/353
    “Researchers from the University of Chicago and Yale New Haven Hospital report that 31 percent of physicians who were more religious–as measured by “intrinsic religiosity” as well as frequency of attendance at religious services–practiced among the underserved, compared to 35 percent of physicians who described their religion as atheist, agnostic or none.” (From here: http://pressesc.com/news/80931072007/atheist-doctors-more-likely-care-poor-religious-ones)

    On giving to charities, I know (because that has been researched) that 99% of anything I give to “starving peoples in Africa”(or any other slogan), will be useless. (It disappears into the pockets of corrupt officials, it makes people too dependent, they will die anyway albeit 2 days later &c) So I make the rational decision not to give to these kind of charities. I also do not have the need to give to “buy my way into heaven”, to put it bluntly.
    I also think that being politically active to try and change policies makes more sense in the long run (although I may be mistaken in that).

    As to the religious people are happier: if I were obligated to convert to any religion I would be quite a bit more unhappy than I am now.

  125. #125 Sastra
    September 13, 2007

    Ok, I was raised without religion, and did not go to church as a kid. I later attended Quaker for a year, and every now and then go to the Unitarian Fellowship. From what I can tell based on my own limited experience, reading, and talking to friends who are churchgoers, it appears to be common for churches to have all sorts of volunteer projects going on — sort of like service clubs. Food pantry twice a month; sign up to do Meals on Wheels; spring project to take down storm windows for the elderly; adopt-a-highway cleanup; bake sale for the homeless; speaker next week on poverty in South America, pass the hat — that sort of thing. See Nancy after the service if you can help out.

    You sign up to work and donate to good causes because there is immediacy, momentum, fellowship, and a kind of subtle peer pressure to not be a slacker.

    Is this correct? Are most churches like this? What are your experiences?

    If so, I would guess that any effect having to do with religious belief per se might have to be separated from the nature of churches themselves — perhaps with comparisons to seculars in clubs like Junior Women’s or Kiwanis.

  126. #126 Sastra
    September 13, 2007

    Norm Breyfogle wrote:

    Can I be respected by atheists, even though I claim that I believe in “God” (as I – and many millions of mystics – define that word)

    NO!!!

    Heh, just kidding. I understand your position, and used to do something very similar. It’s not a terribly bad idea, and there are some benefits that come along with taking the word “God,” using its traditional positive emotional connotations, but redefining it to make reasonable sense, so that you, too, can now say you believe in “God.”

    Real quick, a couple of the drawbacks are: you are using a common word in a rarified way that will frequently be misunderstood; and, as an atheist who accepts that belief in God is the desirable norm, you may end up promoting or supporting the view that explicit atheists — those who are more traditional cautious, or clear in their vocabulary than you — are somehow lacking in emotions, aesthetics, or appreciation.

    In other words, I think it’s a bit sloppy, a bit sneaky, and seems to abandon your own minority group … but I’ve little doubt your heart is in the right place. As I said, this stance isn’t unreasonable, and there’s a history behind it (ditto for the argument on calling humanism a “religion.”)

    I suppose you could call it a way of framing.

  127. #127 Norm Breyfogle
    September 13, 2007

    Sastra,

    I agree with you, except for the “sloppy”part, and your claim that I’m being less “clear” than a tradional atheist. In point of fact, the entire purpose of my position is to promote clarity and eliminate sloppy argument! If, as the religious claim, “God” is the ultimate truth, the ground all being, then God MUST equal existence. If one can accept this semantically logical position, then the literalistic anthropomorphism of traditonally superstitious attitudes opens itself up for reinterpetation as metaphor.

    Just reiterating myself, I know. And thanks for your recognition of the reasonableness of my position.

  128. #128 Thanny
    September 13, 2007

    It might be interesting to note that something like $50 billion dollars has been contributed to charity by two atheist individuals.

    That is by far the most charity ever given in the history of humanity combined.

    By two atheists. It’d be interesting to know how many know which two atheists they are.

  129. #129 Owlmirror
    September 13, 2007

    I disagree that calling existence “God” is not unclear.

    Pantheism is an understandable position to take, but precisely because people use the word “God” to mean an individual, personal entity that is the center of their religion; an entity that is separate from and is the cause of existence; that has opinions and desires and laws that it wants followed; an entity that punishes and rewards, and so on and so forth — all this means that saying “God” to refer to “existence” can only be unclear, both to those who follow some religion, and to those who reject religion.

    In Dawkins’ introduction to The God Delusion, he brings up the pantheistic god of Einstein and Spinoza, and says that that is not what the book is about. I think he has a point that when scientists and other philosophers (is mysticism a philosophy?) use the same word as cultists to mean something very different, only confusion can result.

    Or so it seems to me at this point in time. I may need to phrase that less confusingly.

  130. #130 Sastra
    September 13, 2007

    Norm Breyfogle:

    You make a clever argument, but I’m not sure it will do what you want. I have used “Existence” or “Reality” as Necessary Being when refuting the Ontological Argument, but go on to point out that any version of God which does not inherently contain any aspects of consciousness, intention, or values won’t really be what theists need God to stand for. The “Ground of Being” is only significant to them if it is infused with meaning — and that requires a deep attachment and similarity to ourselves.

    I suspect that any success in getting them to accept your semantically logical position will not result in them reconsidering metaphor, but just force them to shift the ground of debate over so the original issue is still the issue. Your victory, like your God, will only be semantic.

    Or, more likely, they’ll assume you really believe in God the way they do, with a slight but minor little confusion on your part.

  131. #131 AnthonyH
    September 13, 2007

    Greg Peterson (#31) wrote: “Atheism is maturity. It means taking responsibility and making choices.”

    Spot on, and very well put. Thanks for writing this. I think that this should be one of our main talking points.

  132. #132 Norm Breyfogle
    September 14, 2007

    Sastra,

    Changing anyone’s mind – any real education of any kind in fact – takes time and real effort, but I have in fact seen my argument do what I “want” it to do, with numerous people, over time. I myself am a prime example of this; I was a fundmentalist, fanatical, born-again christian in high school, but my openess to reason and debate and other povs did in fact radically change and mature my outlook, and the final levels of that maturity were achieved via my reading of the mystical pov as can be found in a wide variety of writers’ works, from Alan Watts to Wittgenstein to yes, even Bagwhan Shree Rajneesh … and many others, including many physicists.

    I can see and accept that my pov on “God” can be called unclear and confusing (as I indicated, words are very flexible, so I have no problem understanding where you’re coming from), but that’s because the concepts re ultimate truth, reality, consciousness, etc., are not simple concepts.

    Should we abandon the concepts of quantum mechanics or relativity or string theory just because they’re difficult for the typical person to understand? If philosophical outlooks are to be valid, doesn’t it make sense that they will necessarily reflect in some sense the esoteric, often counterintuitive and confusing quality of their scientific counterparts?

    And my “God” is not just semantic. Existence is the only undeniably absolute, ultimate truth. Isn’t that what the religious claim their God is? And, my pov on this is shared by millions of mystics – it’s not just something I made up all by myself.

    Still and all, I see your point. I just wanted to inject a different perspective on the above long-winded series of intelligent posts following professor Meyers’ blog.

    One more thing. This from you: “The ‘Ground of Being’ is only significant to them if it is infused with meaning — and that requires a deep attachment and similarity to ourselves,” is spot on, but the mystical pov, just like the scientific slant (with which it is entirely compatible), doesn’t necessarily contradict this. We all accept that meaning comes from ourselves, from consciousness.

  133. #133 Norm Breyfogle
    September 14, 2007

    Er, please excuse my mispelling, professor *Myers*.

  134. #134 Sharada N
    September 14, 2007

    Dear PZ Myers

    Excellent response. You hit the nail right on its bald head. I especially loved your response for why religious people are happier and contribute more to charity — something Sam had missed in his equally brilliant response — and your Rajneesh anecdote.

    I would say that the New Atheists definitely would not, not even for an extra year of life (I don’t know about the rest of you; I’m beginning to be suspicious.) We couldn’t. I would also say we shouldn’t.

    I’m totally with you. We simply couldn’t and jolly well wouldn’t even if we could, refuse to use our reason.

    Thanks for all the good work.

    Sharada
    Chennai, India

  135. #135 bullfighter
    September 14, 2007

    Norm:

    Should we abandon the concepts of quantum mechanics or relativity or string theory just because they’re difficult for the typical person to understand?

    No, but we should abandon them if they turn out not to be helpful for understanding reality. Specifically, if experiments fail to confirm predictions of string theory when the technology becomes available that will enable such experiments to be performed, then we should (and will) abandon string theory and turn to other paths to search for explanations of the world we observe.

    I generally support your position, but keep in mind that there is a point when the concept of God may become equally useless. Actually, I would say its usefulness depends on the listener. If it helps get your point across, by all means, use it. But always exercise judgment whether it will help illuminate the issues or obscure them.

  136. #136 bullfighter
    September 14, 2007

    Sinbad:

    “Unless and until atheists actually ‘build something’ (which requires more than argument – it requires time, money, effort and sacrifice), I suspect that your hypothesis [that religion isn't necessary for these good results] will remain entirely theoretical.”

    That’s nonsense. Atheists are no slackers at building. Most top scientists are atheists (of one flavor or another), so much tangible improvement in human lives over the last couple of generations was due to efforts of atheists. Atheists probably also contribute to other creative endeavours more than would be predictable based solely on their share in the population.

    It is not at all clear that atheists’ lack of cohesion or organization hinders their contribution to “building something”. Perhaps not caring about the god stuff makes it easier for atheists to cooperate with diverse people on causes that matter in the real world. Perhaps atheists are a force of harmony in the world of religious conflicts. And perhaps what shallow people like Epstein automatically label “destruction” actually builds more in terms of human fulfillment and dignity than it destroys.

    Those are all meaningful empirical questions along Dennett’s lines. And Haidt’s, too, before his derailment to uncritical freefall.

    It is very unfortunate that most Americans nowdays value busywork without evaluation of the usefulness of its results. By that silly measure, the cohesion, organization and communal participation in church groups automatically leads to a conclusion that they “build something”, and the non-religious don’t. But what if they are like an old lady knitting the same sock until it is 10 yards long and she runs out of yarn, and then takes it apart and starts all over?

  137. #137 Sinbad
    September 14, 2007

    Atheists are no slackers at building.

    Of course, but that isn’t the issue.

    Atheists probably also contribute to other creative endeavours more than would be predictable based solely on their share in the population.

    Be careful going down this road — women and blacks are disproportionately religious.

    Perhaps atheists are a force of harmony in the world of religious conflicts. And perhaps what shallow people like Epstein automatically label “destruction” actually builds more in terms of human fulfillment and dignity than it destroys.

    That you need the “perhaps” shows that atheism (as opposed to individual atheists) has not been part of or provided a meaningful alternative to religion as a matter of culture.

    It is very unfortunate that most Americans nowdays value busywork without evaluation of the usefulness of its results.

    Sociological studies of charity simply can’t make qualitative distinctions when it comes to charity (and note the research that suggests that religious people give more and volunteer more for secular charities than secular people do.

    By that silly measure, the cohesion, organization and communal participation in church groups automatically leads to a conclusion that they “build something”, and the non-religious don’t.

    Your (condescending?) evaluation of the quality of the community neither lessens its community status nor matters to the people who do value it. And that you don’t approve of what others have built isn’t evidence that you have participated in building something.

  138. #138 MAJeff
    September 14, 2007

    Sociological studies of charity simply can’t make qualitative distinctions when it comes to charity (and note the research that suggests that religious people give more and volunteer more for secular charities than secular people do

    Depends upon how the study is done and what techniques are used. We sociologists use plenty of qualitative methods. Less sweeping statements please.

  139. #139 Sinbad
    September 14, 2007

    Depends upon how the study is done and what techniques are used. We sociologists use plenty of qualitative methods. Less sweeping statements please.

    One could of course measure how efficient various charities are by comparing overhead expenditures or how quickly they respond in times of crisis or even how closely they adhere to the terms of their charter/mission, but unless you can propose an objective and useful methodology for determining that certain kinds of charities are better than others on account of the kinds of services provided, my point stands. Moreover, an individual donor may prefer non-religious aid to aid with a religious component, or economic development to relief, or many other possibilities. But do you really mean to suggest that it’s possible for an objective sociological measure to be undertaken to determine, for example, that economic development is somehow “better” than disaster relief (or vice versa)?

  140. #140 Paul Schultz
    September 14, 2007

    The very generous atheists are Bill Gates and Warren Buffett–but you left our Andrew Carnegie…

    also that U of C study does cut against the hypothesis that religiosity is correlated with charitableness…It does not matter–as pointed out..it is irrelevant to the key questions:

    Is charity something we should strive to have more of?
    If so, what is the BEST way to increase such charity?
    Even if religion is truly correlated with increase in charity–what is it about it that we can use without all the unpleasant side effects (intolerance, ignorance, etc.)

    As to the irrelevance of happiness, as a goal-per se—-on a sinking ship who would be happier- the ones acutely aware of the reality of the situation or the ones who believe in a magical fairy boat that will rescue them? Which group will be motivated to do something useful to improve the situation? Now how important is it which group is happier?

  141. #141 bullfighter
    September 15, 2007

    Sinbad:

    Your argument might make some sense against PZ, who has (at least for the sake of argument) accepted the raw results of the Brooks study. It makes no sense against me, as I have rejected Brooks’ results. I do not believe that atheists give less to secular charities than the religious do. The only way I’m ever going to believe that is if I see a reliable study that demonstrates it. Brooks’ study is certainly not reliable, as I have explained.

    Every side in this discussion needs to use “perhaps” because facts are largely unknown. Note that Dennett uses “perhaps” (or its synonym) and Haidt pretends he knows. I use “perhaps” and you pretend you know. It seems that defenders of religion could use some humility.

    Much of the rest of your comment makes too little sense to merit a response.

  142. #142 Sinbad
    September 15, 2007

    It makes no sense against me, as I have rejected Brooks’ results. I do not believe that atheists give less to secular charities than the religious do.

    You’re of course free to believe what you wish irrespective of evidence. Moreover, you may be correct that the Brooks research is wrong (even though his admitted surprise in the outcome militates against your assumption of bias). But unless and until you actually have evidence, your belief in the moral superiority of atheists is necessarily irrational and unfounded, right?

  143. #143 MAJeff
    September 15, 2007

    But do you really mean to suggest that it’s possible for an objective sociological measure to be undertaken to determine, for example, that economic development is somehow “better” than disaster relief (or vice versa)?

    I;m saying sociology is more than numbers, and it’s a field you obviously know little to nothing about.

  144. #144 MartinM
    September 15, 2007

    But unless and until you actually have evidence, your belief in the moral superiority of atheists is necessarily irrational and unfounded, right?

    Are you reading a different thread? Bullfighter certainly hasn’t claimed any such belief on this one.

  145. #145 Bruce
    September 15, 2007

    The problem with surveys is that the results depend on how the question is phrased, and surveys such as above generally fail to make a distinction between the two main non-theist categories:
    The larger group is people who are uninterested in the topic, or don’t think much about it. Because this is the larger group, the survey data is really about mostly this group. It doesn’t mean much, relative to this discussion.
    The smaller group is people such as ourselves, who are interested in and willing to think about theology or atheism, be it on web sites or humanist groups or whatever. We have a reasoned position, and we have an awareness of our position, and we have some basis for confidence in our position. We can get some philosophical satisfaction for living the “well-examined life”. In contrast, the larger group of non-theists (just like many theists) are not living “well-examined lives”.
    In other words, I know what I believe, and I have confidence in it. That is very unlike the majority of those uninterested in religion.

    Of course, the other factors mentioned above, such as socialization, are also important. But we can’t just assume that the survey’s division of people as atheistic is a single unified group. It is not.

  146. #146 MartinM
    September 15, 2007

    Did you know that when the Constitution says ‘no religious tests for office,’ it actually means ‘some religious tests for office?’

    Fascinating.

  147. #147 MartinM
    September 15, 2007

    Umm…wrong thread, obviously. Sorry.

  148. #148 Sinbad
    September 16, 2007

    I;m saying sociology is more than numbers….

    Of course.

    …and it’s a field you obviously know little to nothing about.

    You may be right, but your hand-waving claim without evidence does precisely nothing to establish that it is so.

    Are you reading a different thread? Bullfighter certainly hasn’t claimed any such belief on this one.

    Hello? Bullfighter says he doesn’t believe the (peer-reviewed) studies that show that secularists give less to charities (and even to secular charities) that religious people do. He’s entitled. But unless and until he has evidence, his (dis)belief is necessarily unfounded and irrational. It’s possible that I misread his statement as a claim to moral superiority when he merely intended charitable equivalence or some such, but he can speak for himself on that.

  149. #149 Anton Mates
    September 17, 2007

    Sinbad,

    Hello? Bullfighter says he doesn’t believe the (peer-reviewed) studies that show that secularists give less to charities (and even to secular charities) that religious people do. He’s entitled. But unless and until he has evidence, his (dis)belief is necessarily unfounded and irrational.

    He provided evidence, both in this thread and on his own blog.

    It’s possible that I misread his statement as a claim to moral superiority when he merely intended charitable equivalence or some such, but he can speak for himself on that.

    You did misread his statement. All he said was that he did not believe atheists gave less to secular charities than did believers. You first, apparently, converted this to “atheists give more to such charities than do believers,” and then to “atheists are morally superior to believers.” Neither of which was implied by anything he said.

  150. #150 OzAtheist
    September 18, 2007

    #33
    it might be put down to two factors 1.) The Santa-Claus Effect (you are being watched when you don’t know it) and 2.) the Church-Sign-Up-Sheet Effect (you are being watched when you do know it.)

    I like these factors but I think you could add another one.
    3.) Belonging to a group.

    I’d be very happy for someone to point me to an authoritative study – but I’ll go out on a limb here and state that most people like to belong.

    People like to belong to a group – motorcycle club, religious group (sometimes both) or whatever. It’s much easier to arrange charitable works from within a group that already exists. Therefore its not surprising that a lot of charities are religious based.
    But does this equate to them doing charitable works only because they are religious? Or do they get involved because they are already in a group that like doing things together?

    An example is the Bike Toy Runs, once a year large numbers of bike riders get together and donate 1,000s of toys to underprivileged kids. Now I don’t know how much altruism is in this gesture, but I do know that it was a lot easier to organise because there were already several bike clubs in existence.

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    August 28, 2008

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