How peculiar — I’ve gotten several requests in email to comment on this plaint from Theodore Dalrymple, a fellow who doesn’t like those “New Atheists” like Sam Harris and Dan Dennett. It’s peculiar because I’m here at a conference with Sam Harris and Dan Dennett (and others who do not consider themselves “New Atheists”)— should I just ask them what they think? Actually, if anyone wants to pass along any brilliant questions that I can use to dazzle the luminaries with my insight, go ahead, toss them into the comments.

It’s one of those annoying opinion pieces by an unbeliever who wants to make excuses for belief: the premise is “To regret religion is to regret Western civilization.” It contains many strange arguments, like this one.

The thinness of the new atheism is evident in its approach to our civilization, which until recently was religious to its core. To regret religion is, in fact, to regret our civilization and its monuments, its achievements, and its legacy. And in my own view, the absence of religious faith, provided that such faith is not murderously intolerant, can have a deleterious effect upon human character and personality. If you empty the world of purpose, make it one of brute fact alone, you empty it (for many people, at any rate) of reasons for gratitude, and a sense of gratitude is necessary for both happiness and decency. For what can soon, and all too easily, replace gratitude is a sense of entitlement. Without gratitude, it is hard to appreciate, or be satisfied with, what you have: and life will become an existential shopping spree that no product satisfies.

For my own part, I think Western civilization was built on the talent and hard work and ideals of its people, and that if you stripped religion from its greatest artists and heroes and leaders and thinkers, they still would have been great.

I detest the argument about gratitude. It’s a deep error: we should exult in our life and a community of purpose that we build, but there is no one to be grateful to, and displacing our sense of obligation to our human aspirations onto a nonexistent deity represents an abandonemnt of rationality. And the reduction of reason to a mere “shopping spree” or feelings of entitlement is simply the old canard that atheists are amoral hedonists in more high-falutin’ pious language.

You can all discuss this for a while. I’m going to go listen to philosophers and historians explain the Enlightenment to me.


  1. #1 Lassi Hippeläinen
    October 31, 2007


    I far as I can tell, there are three reasons for the development of religion:
    1. To explain what goes bump in the night
    2. To alleviate the fear of death
    3. To compel people to behave

    You just confirmed my theory that religion was invented at a stone age campfire, to keep the kids close.

  2. #2 uncle frogy
    November 1, 2007

    when I hear “western Civilization” I remember a quote I may not get completely correct. When asked about western civilization Gandhi said he thought it would be a good idea.

    I tend to go nuts in these discussions. I have no idea what is meant by most of the terms used, seems to me that there are no agreed meaning for all participants. If we were discussing cranial nerves or gill slits or granite or combustion or oak trees we would know what we were talking about. In these threads one person seems to mean one thing while another seems to mean something else all using the same words. I like the question how do we know anyone believes anything just because they say so. I would add how do I know what the —— you mean by that anyway. what is belief or unbelief?
    keep it going these are important questions and I must admit I kind of like going a little nuts anyway!

  3. #3 David Marjanovi?, OM
    November 1, 2007

    With regards to Dalrymple’s “graditude”, Myers says “there is no one to be grateful to”. But why does one need to be grateful to anyone in order to feel gratitude? Why is it so unthinkable, for example, that someone could be grateful towards an inanimate object like the cosmos?

    Because it makes no sense.

    You seem to have confused “happy” with “grateful”.

    For example, it is safe to say that the extremes of socialism and libertarianism have been historically falsified.

    Ouch! The extreme is communism, not socialism.

    Aah, the great myth of the “proven” track record of AA. For sure.

    P.S. Theodore Dalrymple is a right wing nutjob.

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    Please, this refers in particular to the USofA. Not to western Europe. I can give you countless examples of famous, respected and reverred people who have been very clear about their atheism.

    Really? I can’t think of any.

    But probably that’s because it’s simply not considered newsworthy what anyone believes in or not. (Well, except if they’re Muslim. Erm.)

  4. #4 David Marjanovi?
    November 2, 2007

    So all you have to do is die and I’ll see you then Mooser. I’ll wave at you or something so you’ll spot me. I’ll be with the crowd not being thrown into the lake of fire.
    Simple eh? And I don’t have to prove anything you’ll do it all by yourself.

    Not exactly a repeatable observation, which is what would be required for science.

    But I don’t expect coherent thinking of someone who is too stupid to sleep.

    The many of people tortured & murdered over the many years by men such as Stalin (athiest), Hitler (Athiest), Pol Pot (Athiest), the many Popes (pretend Christians)

    Stalin: Communist. Believed, religiously, in doing the best for the future of mankind. Communism is a salvation religion, with the only major difference to Christianity that its kingdom is of this world.
    Hitler: You don’t know what you’re talking about. The man was a devout Christian, even though what he believed in was a quite bizarre distortion of Christianity.
    Pol Pot: See Stalin.
    Any pope: Meet the “No True Scotsman” fallacy.

    It’s already been done (Crucifixion) and you don’t accept it and the funny thing is that Jesus told us about exactly this situation!

    That proves it then.

  5. #5 David Marjanovi?, OM
    November 2, 2007

    Communism is driven by a mythic imperative, and myths can be entirely secular, scientific, and “rationalist.” They can be either moderate or extremist – that is, apocalyptic, Utopian, and eliminationist. A religious myth can be moderate. A secular myth can be extremist.

    Er… yes. I said nothing against that. Except the “scientific” part: myths cannot be scientific by definition. And indeed, there are holy scriptures in communism which must not be questioned, complete with different denominations fighting over the correct interpretation… Again, all that’s missing is the afterlife: only Kim Il-sung, who is still president of North Korea, has so far got one. Oops, I forgot Mao’s apotheosis: some people in China sacrifice things like oranges to Mao in temples. It probably helps that Chinese gods are not automatically assumed to be omnibenevolent.

    Should regular science declare the nonexistence of God and the soul?

    Nope, because they aren’t falsifiable. OK, I haven’t read Stenger’s book, but I can’t see how he can falsify a sufficiently ineffable deity.

    Atrocities arise when the mythic imperative instills in believers a sense of mission that is both fanatically dire in its urgency and dangerously intolerant of any rival worldview.

    I agree.

    There is no need to redefine Communism as a religion. Where is the supernaturalism, much less the theism?

    I don’t define communism!

    The supernatural is in there, though. For example historical inevitabilities like the march of progress from the slaveholder society over the feudal society, the capitalist society, and the socialist society to the communist society. Or the creed that all problems between the nationalities had been solved in the best possible manner — heresy against that point was punished, at least in Yugoslavia and the USSR. Or the miracles that reading the Little Red Book was supposed to work: things like increased harvests. All those things had to be taken on faith.

    Stalinism, Maoism and Kimilsungism go very far towards theism, outright reaching it in some Maoist cases (see above).

    If it is both, then atheists ought to engage in a self-critique of any unwarranted metaphysical certainties of their own.

    I’m an apathetic agnostic, muahah. B-)

    Marxism and Objectivism are twin rationalist ideologies, however dubious their rationalism in the vernacular sense.

    Maybe they should be called rationalist but not rational: they claim to hold rational thought in the highest regards, but don’t apply it to some of their core concepts.