Neurontic on Battling God

Since I'm criticizing my SciBlings today, permit me a few words about this post from Orli over at Neurontic.

Orli is unimpressed with the recent glut of atheist books. She begins by reproducing a segment from a previous post:

Dawkins and Dennett simply cannot understand the impulse to cling to an antiquated belief system not grounded in fact. (They seem incapable of recognizing that religion, despite its myriad flaws, provides a type of moral succor in times of strife that science can't.) To convince the masses of the errors of their ways, they're using the only weapon at their disposal: logic. The irony, of course, is that faith is not grounded in logic. Reason is toothless in the face of belief.

I'm afraid I find a lot to criticize here. First, my impression is that Dawkins and Dennett have little trouble understanding the appeal of religion. Dennett in particular, in Breaking the Spell, devotes a considerable amount of space to the question of whether it's even appropriate to use reason to criticize religious faith. And the whole point of his book is to try to understand in great detail the origin of the religious impulse.

Second, the idea that faith is not grounded in logic runs counter to what most Christians claim. I know very few Christians who extol the virtues of blind faith. Their refrain is that Christian belief represents faith backed up by evidence.

And third, the picture of religious people standing with their hands on their hips, saying “Your puny logic is no match for my irrational faith!” is simply not accurate in my experience. Certainly there are some people who fit that description, but there are many others who hold their faith with far less passion. Books like those of Dawkins and Dennett can have a real impact on people who simply haven't been exposed to religious views different from those in their immediate community. Sadly, I think that describes many in the American South and Midwest. I've previously addressed some of these issues here.

Paragraphs like the one above are ubiquitous in the writings of the non-religious, anti-Dawkins camp, but I rarely hear similar sentiments echoed by religious people themselves. In a way, I think Dawkins and Dennett actually have more respect for religion than people like Orli. They have enough respect to take seriously the empirical claims made by various religons, to examine the evidence provided to back up those claims, and to engage religious people on the level of reason. They don't simply dismiss religious people as being immune to logic and reason.

But let's move on. After the quote given above, Orli writes:

This may sounds a little didactic (because it is). But my goal wasn't to defend religion, or to deny atheists the luxury of expressing their righteous indignation. My goal was to carve out a space for those of us in the middle: Non-believers who understand that faith can play a healthy role in the lives of others. Atheists who oppose evangelizing on principle, whether it's practiced by fundamental Christians or the Anti-God Squad. People more interested in building bridges of understanding then in fortifying their own position.

Dawkins et al are not evangelizing (which means specifically to preach the gospel, by the way). They are attempting to persuade. There is a big difference. All they are doing is putting on paper arguments they find persuasive on subjects they find important, and making those musings available to people in book form. For this they get dismissed as evangelists?

But the bigger point is that those bridges of understanding on which Orli is so keen will not come about because atheists sit on the side lines and allow various religions to promote their ignorant dogma unhindered. It's nice that Orli wants to be ecumenical and promote harmony, but I see all too little of that sentiment coming the other way. If the polls are to be believed, upwards of sixty percent of the American public believes that Orli's non-belief renders her unfit to hold public office. We live in a culture in which atheists are expected to be understanding and deferential towards religion, but a politician can blithely say that religion is essential for morality and not be criticized for it. It is not Dawkins who is preventing bridges of understanding from being built. Rather, it is the dominant religious culture in our society that has made no effort at all to be understanding of those who do not share their faith.

From here Orli goes on to discuss the argument, similar to the one I just made, that Dawkins and co. are pushing back against the dominant religious culture of our day. Eventually we come to this:

These are undoubtedly scary times for liberal secularists. And the commenter is right in saying that it's time for us to step up and make ourselves heard. In no way am I advocating rolling over in the face of attacks on the separation between church and state, abortion rights, gay marriage, and sex education. These rights must be vigorously defended. But that's not the primary goal of the New Atheists.

Pretty good, except for that last sentence. So what are the goals of the New Atheists?

Dawkins and those in his camp aren't interested in brokering a compromise with the other side to ensure that our basic rights are safe, and people on either side have the freedom to conduct themselves as they see fit. That wouldn't signify a victory in their minds. They want to catalyze a total ideological conversion. If everyone gave up god, we wouldn't have these problems to begin with, they argue. While this is a logically defensible position, it is completely unrealistic--a position destined not just to fail, but to breed contempt on both sides in the process.

Oh, dear sweet Orli. You intend this in jest, oui?

Look again at all of those issues mentioned in the previous paragraph. Why is the separation of church and state threatened? Why is it that homosexuals can't marry? Why are abortion rights and sex education under attack? Not because of atheists! No, in every case it's because of people's religious views. And not just crazy, fanatical, fire-breathing religious people, but also perfectly charming, pleasant, mainstream religious people.

Dawkins and co. would consider it a major victory indeed if we lived in a society in which religious people did not presume to make their faith the basis for public policy. Hitchens in particular states specifically that his intention is to promote secularism, not to eliminate religion. Orli is simply putting words in people's mouths when she suggests that nothing less than a total ideological conversion would count as victory. I'd be curious if Orli can back up with quotations her assertions concering what Dawkins and the others would regard as a victory.

Basic rights and liberty are not things you compromise to obtain. They are things you fight for against an enemy who does not want you to have them. And one, relatively mild, way you fight that enemy is by writing books in which you expose its beliefs for the delusions that they are.

And what does Orli suggest instead? On the one hand we're not supposed to roll over in the face of attacks against our basic rights and freedoms. But we're also not supposed to write books or speak out against the ideology underlying those very attacks. So what are we supposed to do?

When I see some evidence that any significant percentage of religious people share Orli's live and let live approach, I'll throw in with her. But for now I'm sticking with Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens. I think their approach is far more likely to bear fruit than anything Orli is advocating.


More like this

A few months ago, I wrote about my "issues" with the Dawkins/Dennett anti-religion campaign, which concluded: Dawkins and Dennett simply cannot understand the impulse to cling to an antiquated belief system not grounded in fact. (They seem incapable of recognizing that religion, despite its myriad…
I've been holding off on commenting about the anti-religion campaign being spearheaded by Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett for a number of reasons. But I find myself growing increasingly frustrated with it and I finally feel compelled to put in my two cents. Initially I hesitated to speak out…
Noted sockpuppet and sniveler Lee Siegel warns us that the new militant atheists may be closing the book on imagination. And for some reason the LA Times saw fit to publish this tripe. In the last few years, so many books have rolled off the presses challenging God, belief and religion itself (…
Matt Nisbet has been beating his favorite dead horse again. That's the one where he excoriates people like Richard Dawkins for being just so darn mean in his discussions of religion. In this post he praises Carol Tavris for echoing his favorite talking points, and in this one he praises Michael…

Well put. There are two things I disagree with here, though.
Thing 1:

Second, the idea that faith is not grounded in logic runs counter to what most Christians claim. I know very few Christians who extol the virtues of blind faith.

False dichotomy. Rob Knop would not characterise his beliefs aseither "grounded in logic" or "blind faith". Admittedly, though, he's the exception.
Thing 2:

Dawkins et al are not evangelizing [...]. They are attempting to persuade.

This suggests that Dawkins is trying to persuade theists to become atheists. I don't thing he's trying to do that. What he is doing well is persuading atheists to "come out", and that's a very good thing in itself.

By Pseudonym (not verified) on 12 May 2007 #permalink

Said nicely.

By The quantum pancake (not verified) on 12 May 2007 #permalink


Point taken about the dichotomy between blind faith on the one hand and logic on the other. I was merely pointing out, however, that most Christians don't hold their religious views by faith alone.

Dawkins mentioned several goals for his book, but one of them was persuasion. I don't have the quote handy at the moment however.

Blake and Quantum-

Glad you liked the post!

Sure. I did think it was a very nice summary. The triviality of my quibbles should be taken as agreement with most of what you said. :-)

By Pseudonym (not verified) on 12 May 2007 #permalink

Jason, here is an example of Dawkins stating plainly that his aim is persuasion. (Preface of Delusion, p5-6)

If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down. What presumptuous optimism! Of course, dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads are immune to argument, their resistance is built up over years of childhood indoctrination using methods that took centuries to mature (whether by evolution or design). Among the more effective immunological devices is a dire warning to avoid even opening a book like this, which is surely a work of Satan. But I believe that there are plenty of open minded people out there: people whose childhood indoctrination was not too insidious, or for other reasons didn't 'take', or whose native intelligence is strong enough to overcome it. Such free spirits should need only a little encouragement to break free of the vice of religion altogether. ...

According to his biographers, Charles Darwin was deeply by the implications of his theory. What amazes me is that today's front line defenders of Darwinism---Dawkins, Hitches, Dennet, etc---seemed to think that Dawrinism and the abolition of religion from the planet will solove all of our problems. They seem oblivious to the negative implications of Darwinism. Darwin was troubled; why aren't these people troubled like their leader?

By Fred Hudson (not verified) on 13 May 2007 #permalink

According to his biographers, Charles Darwin was deeply troubled by the implications of his theory. What amazes me is that today's front line defenders of Darwinism---Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, etc---seem to thik that Darwinism and the abolition of religion from the planet will solve all of our problems. Unlike Darwin, they seem unaware of the negative implications of Darwinism. Darwin was troubled; what aren't these fine troubled like their leader? This is not to say that Dawrinism isn't true; it is, but it is to say that the implications are very disturbing.

By Fred Hudson (not verified) on 13 May 2007 #permalink

Dawkins responds to his critics. Blogging on this will be mandatory:
How dare you call me a fundamentalist

The right to criticise 'faith-heads'
Richard Dawkins
From The Times
May 12, 2007
The hardback God Delusion was hailed as the surprise bestseller of 2006. While it was warmly received by most of the 1,000-plus individuals who volunteered personal reviews to Amazon, paid print reviewers gave less uniform approval. Cynics might invoke unimaginative literary editors: it has "God" in the title, so send it to a known faith-head. That would be too cynical, however. Several critics began with the ominous phrase, "I'm an atheist, BUT . . ." So here is my brief rebuttal to criticisms originating from this "belief in belief" school.

Fred Hudson -

Why are the implications of "Darwinism" (whatever that may be) so much more disturbing than the "implications" of Relativity, or the Germ Theory of disease, or Quantum Mechanics, or Statistical Thermodynamics, or any other prevailing theory in science and engineering?

Just what are the negative implications of evolution ( I presume that's kind of what you mean by "Darwism)? That it doesn't explicitly invoke god to bring about change? Perhaps you'd like your mechanic to invoke god when diagnosing a problem with your car - it's the same principle, after all.

Seems that when religion makes empirical claims about how the world works we get nothing but stagnation, ignorance, and oppression. Galileo is but one example.

By ZacharySmith (not verified) on 13 May 2007 #permalink

From the aforelinked Dawkins essay:

Most Christians happily disavow Baal and the Flying Spaghetti Monster without reference to monographs of Baalian exegesis or Pastafarian theology.

I love it!

Dawkins and co. would consider it a major victory indeed if we lived in a society in which religious people did not presume to make their faith the basis for public policy.

Well said Jason. If the believers treated their views like astrologers do, we wouldn't be having this discussion. And as was clear from Bill Maher's defense of the French, so many of our political conflicts, especially the really arcane ones, are driven by the religious.

The crucially important factor that the writings of all these 'New Atheists' have in common is an attack against the whole idea of faith itself. They no longer want it to be the case that being a 'person of faith' is something that is proudly announced; neither do they want it to be the case that once something - often of a political nature - is (conveniently) declared to be a 'matter of faith', that this something is therefore automatically accepted or condoned or at least carries more weight than it otherwise would.

Above all, they don't want religion to be above criticism. The fact that their perfectly civilised arguments have caused such a commotion is evidence that, until now, religion has largely been above question in polite society. You can see this also in the panicked reactions of the 'don't rock the boat'-type atheists who seem to be even more upset than the theists.

Yes - they're stirring things up. But they need to be stirred up.

By Ian B Gibson (not verified) on 13 May 2007 #permalink

" Darwin was troubled; what aren't these fine troubled like their leader?

Because, Fred, Darwin isn't our leader, lord, king, priest, or prophet. He was an important scientist.

And I don't know what this 'Darwinism' is of which you speak. Sounds a bit like some sort of political ideology or religious cult involving these previously mentioned (imaginary) followers of Darwin. Seems to belong to the same (imaginary) space as Newtonism, Galileoism, Einsteinism, Wegenerism, etc. Here in the real world we have evolutionary biology. If you feel that this has negative implications that people should be concerned about, perhaps you would like to explain what they are?

Getting back to the logic-faith issue (even if it's not a dichotomy) I'd say that to me the appeal of religion is it's illogical audacity. I would not call my "faith" blind. Nor would I really call it "faith", because I question and wonder more than I accept. Atheism is more logical, and it's far easier to make a case for intellectually. And yet, religion "fits" somehow. Whether it fits because it's "real" in any way, or whether it fits because of some psychological "need" in me is entirely beside the point. I am happier post-conversion (I was an atheist until I was almost 30) than I was before. I am also more connected to my community, more inclined to do something about the needs of other people (I cared, but never contributed to disaster relief or programmes to relieve poverty before). And I feel more committed to the liberal ideals I was raised on.

Religion is a choice. In my case, it's a choice to try to follow the example of a person who may or may not have lived a couple thousand years ago in Palestine. It shouldn't be about blind faith. It should be about building a relationship with something more than just yourself. It should be about connectedness and community.

Humans are prone to be blind followers. Religion, politics, whatever people choose to use to manipulate people. Most political systems are deeply flawed, both in the way they function, and the way they are designed to function. But that doesn't mean they should be abolished. Religion is no worse than politics - both have been used as tools for mass murder and personal enrichment, both have been used to disseminate lies and fool both the gullible and the discerning. The fact that I deeply admire Al Gore and would love to see him run for president doesn't mean that I am unaware of his flaws or that I am unaware of how little any one person, even the US president, can achieve. It's illogical to put your faith in anyone or anything. But we're humans, we do it. And having been a deep cynic, I'd say this is more fun.

First of all, the term Darwinism is in common useage. I could give you a long bibliography where the term is commonly used by evolutionists. The term by no means insinuates something whacky.

Darwinism is synonymous with evolution via natural selection as outlined by Charles Darwin. I use the term Darwinism when I am concerned with the philosophical implications of evolution rather than evolutions itself.

What I object to is the sunny opinion that all we have to do is to accept evolution in society and do away with superstitious religion and everything will be better. Darwinism means evolution, but it also means a comprehensive world view. Some of the implications of the Darwinian world view I find disturbing.

Let me if Ive got this right.

The universe began approximately 13.7 billion years ago in what we call The Big Bang which came from a singularity. So far, science can take us no further back than the singularity.

After the initial period of what cosmologists call inflation, the universe gradually assumed the form in which we see it today.

The earth was formed approximately 4.5 billion years ago. Life began (we still dont know how) 3 to 3.5 billion years ago. We homo sapiens came along about 200,000 years ago and modern homo sapiens about 20,000 years ago.

We are here because of the passage of a long period of time, luck, and massive death. The extinction rate in nature is 99%. And we are here only because of the demise of reptiles, which allowed the flourishing of mammals.

I do not find this world view comforting. The odds are that one day we humans will be extinct, probably long after we are all dead, but still we are all on a slow train to nowhere.

At this point Ill mention one other thing. Weve all experienced and talked about the tragedy at Virginia Tech. Do you think evolution provides any comfort to the survivors of the victims of this massacre? Do you think anyone was reading The Origin of Species at any of the funerals? Well, neither do I.

By Fred Hudson (not verified) on 14 May 2007 #permalink

You are right. Hey, you know what would be really comforting - to pretend the Virginia Tech massacre never happened. Poof! Gone!

We've all experienced and talked about the tragedy at Virginia Tech. Do you think evolution provides any comfort to the survivors of the victims of this massacre?

Perhaps if everybody realized there was no comfort to be had from homilies such as "it was God's will" or "they are in a better place", then more would be done to prevent such tragedies in the future. One of the lessons of evolution is to learn from mistakes.

I do not find this world view comforting. The odds are that one day we humans will be extinct, probably long after we are all dead, but still we are all on a slow train to nowhere.

Fred Hudson,

Why should the universe give a flying fig what YOU (or any of us) would consider "comforting"? It just IS, and reality is not determined by what we do or do not find comfortable in terms of "implications." You don't have to like it, but to simply deny reality because you personally find it aesthetically displeasing is the height of absurdity.

Death waits for all of us; it's an unpleasant prospect for most of us, but we don't have a choice about whether it will happen or not. The same goes for our culture, our species, and eventually our planet, our sun, and our universe. Yes, it's disquieting to think about. But given the physical laws of our universe, we just don't have a choice. Reality does not care what we think of it; it just is what it is, and we have spent many centuries gradually getting to the point of being able to understand some of its mysteries and make sense of its workings. Rejection of what we finally DO learn about it, especially on grounds of what you personally find "comforting" or not, is either stupidity, insanity, or both.

Let's see, that master of ceremonies in The Restaurant at the End of the Univese put it something like this, just as everyone is sitting around waiting for the final moments of the universe to tick away: "I know that when you go home to your own eras, you'll all strive to live good lives, even fight terrible wars for what you know to be right. It really gives one hope for the future of all lifekind -- except, of course, we know it hasn't GOT ONE!" (Wild laughter from the audience at the joke.)

Ah, that cynical Brit wit. Uncomfortable, but so, so true.

~David D.G.

By David D.G. (not verified) on 14 May 2007 #permalink

Fred Hudson -

You've totally missed the point. First of all, what the hell do the VT shootings have to do with Darwin? OK, maybe evolutionary theory can't tell us why an unstable person snapped and went on a killing spree... can religion do any better? (Spare the pablum about "being enslaved by the devil" or "he listened to too much AC/DC" or some other worthless crap.)

OK, maybe "Origin of Species" is not the first choice to be read at a memorial service. Niether would any Chemistry, Physics or Engineering text, or a book an plumbing for that matter. Did anyone read from a Chilton's auto service manual? You are creating a false dichotomy.

So the Universe is a place that operates according to laws that don't care whether you like them or not. Tough shit.

Water freezes at 32°F, gravity pulls things back toward the surface of the earth, and life on this planet is the result of a long process of evolution. That's just how it with it.

By ZacharySmith (not verified) on 14 May 2007 #permalink

You misunderstand what I am saying. I am AFFIRMING reality just as you are. I am NOT denying reality. What I am reacting against is people like Dawkins, Harris, & Hitchens who seem oblivious to the inherent pessemism in the Darwinian world view. The reality that we must face is very depressing. As we fight against creationism in favor of a scientific world view, let's be honest and admit that it's not a pretty picture. Ultimately there is very little comfort in this non-caring universe.
Read Philip Roth's latest book, Everyman, for a graphic portrait of a man dying without God. All the man without God is left with is memories and the physical bones of the dead. This is reality, but it's grim reality, and that's just my point. All I am saying is let's acknowledge the grim reality along with congratulating ourselves on having the correct scientific world view as opposed to our creationist misinformed friends.
Another good book is Living with Darwin by Columbia philosopher Philip Kitcher. This is the only writer I have found who faces up to the challenge that a Darwinian world view gives us.
An evolutionary world view is correct, it's reality, but I do not find it uplifting when I recognize the massive death, the waste, and lack of purpose and direction.
The Darwinian/evolutionary view of things is ultimately one of horror.

By Fred Hudson (not verified) on 14 May 2007 #permalink

Fred Hudson,

I'm sorry if I misunderstood your position somewhat, but I fail to see why you find rationalism a poor alternative, aesthetically speaking, to religion; it's not as if aesthetics get to be considered for something like this anyway. We don't get to (honestly) call the planets' orbits circles instead of ellipses just because we consider circles aesthetically more satisfying for some reason; they really are ellipses, and that's all there is to it. (Hey, that particular example might not be that disquieting to you or me, but 400 years ago this was a very disturbing notion to a lot of people!)

I especially disagree that the mindset you insist on calling "Darwinian" is "ultimately one of horror." That may be your personal take on it, but I don't see it that way at all -- ultimately one of futility, perhaps, but no more than that.

Personally, I think that you are taking this whole issue way too negatively. Yes, the final picture is, in some senses, bleak. So what? As I said before, it just IS. To me, there is some serenity in knowing that whatever matters, matters on its own merits, rather than on some cosmic balance scale.

On the other hand, if you want to find a worldview that is "ultimately one of horror," I think you could hardly do better than religion -- including Christianity. The God of the Bible is the ultimate evil, sadistic, narcissistic, mad tyrant, and his punishment of eternal torment for all of humanity (for breaking rules that we were MADE to break, as he would have known, being omniscient and all) except for a sycophantic few (whose main requirement is to accept a gruesome human sacrifice by God to Himself through Himself in the form of His own Son to atone for disobedience by someone by then dead for ages and whose descendants were being held accountable for it -- huh?) is a concept I find truly horrifying and revolting (and confusing!), not to mention "uncomfortable." Where is there any "comfort" to be had in this worldview, really? It is nothing but brutality, bewilderment, and blackmail!

Do you know where I get comfort concerning this worldview? From the knowledge that there is nothing at all in reality to support it. I think that the rationalistic worldview (or "Darwinian" worldview, if you insist on calling it that, though I think it is a gross misnomer) is quite a fair sight more comforting than anything the Christian religion offers -- and the best part is, it is demonstrably REAL.

~David D.G.

By David D.G. (not verified) on 14 May 2007 #permalink

"The Darwinian/evolutionary view of things is ultimately one of horror."

Have you never seen a newborn child and mother together for the first time? Been proud of a child taking a first step? Watch a tended garden grow? Been amazed at a bird in flight?

That there are brutal, nasty components to existence does not lesson the inherent beauty that is there as well. The positive things that are part of our existence are just as much a legacy of our evolutionary past as the brutish. It seems that without those polar opposites that neither would have any power to move or inspire us.
During a time of tragedy, personal or public, would I want someone reading the Origin of Species to But no less than I would want someone reading me the Bible. Neither would give me as much comfort as having family and friends there supporting and caring for me, letting me lean on them for support. Something that has nothing to do with religion, views on the afterlife, views on gay marriage but everything to do with our evolution as social primates.

"The Darwinian/evolutionary view of things is ultimately one of horror."

Shorter: Wah! I want my sky daddy!

Lack of purpose, direction? These are words that creationists use to attack evolution. We live as we always have, with the future of species in mind, with the health of our children first and foremost in our thoughts. We do what we can to leave the world a better place than we left it.

There is no difficulty in understanding that for so many, but it seems Fred is suffering from a distinct lack of the future, which is why so many have to use the crutch of faith.

By Jay Kanta (not verified) on 14 May 2007 #permalink

"What I object to is the sunny opinion that all we have to do is to accept evolution in society and do away with superstitious religion and everything will be better"

uh huh.

Perhaps you can direct us to a person who has this opinion so we can investigate why s/he thinks that.

I think many people have an opinion that

a) if we can stop people from killing each other in the name of religion that would be agood thing and

b) that lying hypocritical busy-bodies who push their religion on others should not be given voted in for president, congress, school board or dog-catcher.

Fred -

I don't really understand why evolution is such a horror. In part this may be because I also happen to be religious, but I don't think it is. Even before I embraced my faith, I was filled with nothing but awe and wonder at the remarkabkle notion that is evolution. I mean to me, it is amazing and quite beautiful that over the course of billions of years the universe evolved - just the idea of billions of years is aweinspiring and quite awesome to me. Add to that the evolution of life, on this and probably many other planetary bodies - possibly even outside of planetary context, and it just becomes even more exciting.

I actually find the relative insignifigance of the human race, in the larger scheme of things, very comforting. While I would like to see the human race grow and flourish, it is nice to know that whatever damage we do, is relatively insignifigant on a cosmic scale. I think your problem is one of personal perspective, not due to any inerent conclusion of the implications of evolutionary theory. Certainly the conclusions that I draw, from the same understanding are vastly different from your own.

"And we are here only because of the demise of reptiles, ' sssshhhh, don't thell the turtles. "which allowed the flourishing of mammals." - now shown to be incorrec thinking.

"I do not find this world view comforting. . .but still we are all on a slow train to nowhere." Where did you expect to get off the train? in heaven? Do you think the universe cares about you? quick help me pray to god that "lazy Larry" comes in first in the fifth at Aquaduct cause I've got tyhe rent money on em...

"to the inherent pessemism in the Darwinian world view"

read up on existentialism. you have to create your won meaning in life

"[My religion is] to try to follow the example of a person who may or may not have lived a couple thousand years ago in Palestine"

It seems strange to me that neither Christians nor non-believers often enough emphsize the distinction implicit in this statement. The criticism of irrationality only applies to the "accept the crucified and resurrected Jesus as my Lord and Savior" version of Christianity; you can't be a consistent rationalist and buy the whole Christian dogma. But anyone can buy the "follow the example of a person ..." (as recorded in the NT, possibly edited to eliminate some of the Jefferson/Russell objections). This distinction underlies my favoritism for two answers to "Are you a Christian?": "I try to be" and "You'll have to ask my friends and neighbors".

Failure to make this distinction is the main criticism I might offer of the books of the "four horsemen" (the latest of which - by CH - I haven't read). Christians of the latter type might be more sympathetic if the focus were on those of the former type. Or maybe not - being neither, my perspective is no doubt quite flawed. But it seems worth a try.

- Charles

As a counterargument to my own comment, I might note that in an interview with Stephen Prothero by a cleric whose name I missed, the latter criticizes as "ignorance" a quote from "End of Faith" something to the effect that believing that Jesus was born of a virgin, crucified and resurrected, and can be accessed in body and blood via consecrated wafers and wine is irrational. But rather than countering the assertion (it's metaphorical, symbolic, whatever), he only makes fun of the quote as if it is totally ridiculous. But isn't that precisely what a very large bloc of Christians does believe?

- Charles

Fred Hudson said: [T]he term "Darwinism" is in common useage. I could give you a long bibliography where the term is commonly used by evolutionists...I use the term "Darwinism" when I am concerned with the philosophical implications of evolution rather than evolutions itself.

Please supply links to use of the term "Darwinism", in the manner you suggest, by scientists studying evolutionary theory. I predict it is going to be a very thin list. "Darwinism", as is sometimes used by non-American scientists, is used to distinguish between those who share Darwin's emphasis on natural selection as THE driving force of evolution (Dawkins), vs those who favor others (Gould).

But here in America, the "common usage" of terms like "Darwinism", "evolutionist", "materialist", etc., is nothing more than IDer/creationists (and their lackeys like Ann Coulter) attempting to poison the well of evolutionary science by making it appear to be just another ideology. It is intellectually dishonest equivocation, and nothing more.

Personally, I like that they do this. It alerts me to the fact that crankiness is sure to follow without having to wade through all their drivel.

I have to agree that I don't really think the terms "Darwinism" or "evolutionist" really mean anything, outside the context of those who wish to demean the acceptance of evolution. Both imply some sort of philosophical/religious belief. I am a theist with Christian, universalist and distinctly deist leanings. I accept evolutionary theory, the same way that I accept gravitational theory and germ theory. Nothing that I accept from my understanding of science, is philosophical in nature, though my understanding of science does have an influence on my religious and philosophical leanings.

Let me try and respond as best as I can.

To les - I have no interest in a Sky Daddy. I'll leave the Sky Daddy to you. As Laplace might say, "I have no need of that hypothesis."

To the Science Avenger - I don't have time here to list the books I've read (pro-evolution and not ID)that use the term Darwinism, but please google the word. You'll see numerous references including, for example, the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy. I do agree with you that Darwinism usually refers to those who believe with Darwin (like most prominently Dawkins)that natural selection is the primary driving force in evolution.

To Kevin - I KNOW the universe doesn't care about me, and that's why I refer to the horror of evolution (even I am a firm evolutionist and in no way am I a creationist). Also, I've read a lot of existentialist literature and would consider myself a Sartrean existentialist. As much as possible, I like to think I am condemned to freedom and I create my own meaning in life by my choices even though a lot of naivete is involved.

My take on Dawkins and Harris is that they are saying in effect that if we could only do away with religion and faith, this would be a wonderful world. We could all turn into Western Europeans and that would be a good thing. I have no desire to be a Western European. This is pie-in-the-sky nonsense.

To Collin - I like what you have to say. Your point-of-view is as good a summary as we have. Your attitude is the best that we can do.

To DuWayne - Evolution is a horror because (among other things) of the 99% extinction rate in nature, the massive death that came before us, the fact that most animals die by being eaten alive by other animals, and the disease, famine, and other natural disasters that have befallen us from the beginning, and the fact that we are all headed for individual death and ultimately the species is headed for extinction. Is this enough because I could go on and on.

My take on Dawkins and Harris is that they are saying in effect that if we could only do away with religion and faith, this would be a wonderful world. We could all turn into Western Europeans and that would be a good thing. I have no desire to be a Western European. This is pie-in-the-sky nonsense.

To Jay - Maybe I do suffer from a distincy lack of the future. Be that as it may, the crutch of faith is not available to me.

By Fred Hudson (not verified) on 14 May 2007 #permalink

Fred -

Wow, I geuss you really do have a fairly signifigant extestenial crisis going on. Truly and honestly, I am quite sorry to read what you have to say. I have to admit that I really don't have a fear of death and dying, while in part this can be attributed to my faith, I did't have those fears at the height of my embracing a more secular humanist philosophy.

I would highly reccomend you read Sagan - though A Candle in the Dark would not be high on the list, nearly everything else he has written is really usefull. I find it tremendously comforting to consider that everything that I am (sans-soul, which I do believe in), is made up of cells and bits that were witness to the very beginings of the universe and will eventually bear witness to the end of everything.

I am also (as are you) made up of parts and bits that were around when bits of the cosmos coalesced into this planet we call home. They were around and even may have been, single celled organisms, bouncing around in the primordial soup, where life as we know it, first took hold. Said parts may have been part of the first trilobites, maybe even collosal megalodon (my son's favorite).

Parts of us bore witness to the first, tiny mammals, trying to eak a small living, on a world dominated by monster reptiles, an unlikely group to survive for long. Yet eventually they not only survived, but grew to dominate and rule the entire planet, after the giant reptiliads failed to adapt to massive climate changes.

Death, certainly there has been and will be death on massive scales - so what? Without it new life would never have a place to take hold, no room would exist for subsequent generations and new or evolving species. Indeed, without massive extinctions, mammals with critical thinking - the ability to operate and consider, beyond our next meal and shelter, would never have existed.

Turly, I would not waste life on fearing death. I make the most of what I have and the thoughts my mind produces - especialy when coupled with the thoughts, ideas and knowledge I have been blessed to have read and heard. Ultimately, death is life. This was a point driven home recently, when my pastor was blessed with another grandson, during the funeral for his father. Whether one is religious or not, believes there is a soul or not - there is continuity.

I also love to imagine what the various bits of me experienced between the foundations of our universe and the foundations of our planet - or even what they experienced before our universe ever was. It may be impractical, in a material sense, but even from a secular humanist perspective, it can be very theraputic and quite invigerating. "We are all starstuff."


I did not ask for a list of works that used the term "Darwinism". I asked for a list of works that used it the way you used it:

"I use the term 'Darwinism' when I am concerned with the philosophical implications of evolution rather than evolutions itself."

that wasn't an attempt to poison the well a la Coulter. If there aren't any, and I suspect their nummber approaches zero, I suggest you not use it that way. You will give the impression that you are being less than intellectually honest.

Based on your writing here, I'd conclude your definition of "evolution" is "everything undesired in nature", because it certainly doesn't bear much resemblence to what I've seen in the science.

For example, evolution implies none of the events you attribute to it in your retort to Duane above (animals being eaten alive, etc.). All of that could be the case in a created universe too. Evolution is about the awe-inspiring (to me anyway) story of how limited genetic variation and lots of breeding over very long periods of time created us and everything around us. Attributing anything else to it is intellectually unwarranted.

Fred, I hope you'll reconsider using "Darwinism" in the philosophical sense given above - it can only muddy the waters and help those who try to turn folks against science by convincing them that it necessarily involves embracing an empty, or even evil, moral nihilism (something falsified by this very thread). There surely is some other term?

Otherwise - {walks over and gives Fred a hug}. Reasoned argumentation aren't always that useful with this sort of thing, as you yourself basically point out. Fwiw, all I can say, echoing DuWayne, is to strive to focus less on the end of things (whether at the individual or species level) than on the fact that we have things to end. Fear or dislike of death implicitly includes a love (or at least attachment) to life. That our species will one day go extinct requires that we're here now: that this is an sad thing insists that we are valuable.

Not saying this will help, mind you . . .

I do think there's an issue here, in that those of us who are atheists perhaps don't always spend enough time talking about what gives us meaning, etc., rather than just letting it implicitly hang around as a backdrop?

On the one hand, I do think that scientific evidence can change a person's mind (it changed mine). On the other, the biggest stumbling block for religious believers when it comes to science is the fact that they have been told and have believed that they must choose between science and their faith. It thus seems to me that the only way to get many of those opposing evolution to stop doing so is to demonstrate to them that this is a false antithesis, that the Bible itself (for example) does not require them to reject the evidence for evolution.

I thus think that presentations of the evidence within the Bible itself that it is not inerrant and cannot be taken literally will accomplish more than presentations of the scientific evidence.

Fred -

It also occurs to me that something else I find quite comforting might be worth considering.

Consider that the human race and our proto-human ancestors, are relatively young. While I have heard people make the assertion that we have effectively stalled our evolution, I am far from certain that we have. I mean, we only have thousands of years in the form we now have. There is no reason to assume that we have nowhere to go from here - especialy when on considers the fairly dramatic changes we ourselves have made to the environment.

I can easily imagine that several millenia from now, our ancestors could well look back on us in a very similar manner to the way we look back on our most recent protohuman ancestors. It seems quite plausible to me, that rather than facing extinction, our race faces ascendancy to something greater than ourselves.

Dan S. -

I think to an extent your right that atheists don't always spend enough time considering what gives us meaning. But I don't know that all that many really worry about it, beyond being an implicit backdrop, as it were. My dad, as an example, finds meaning simply in doing - I would imagine it is the same for many atheists. It's that way for a lot of theists too, really.

I think Carl Sagan was a brilliant one for addressing just that, without really trying to. I saw him in Ann Arbor, MI twice, once when I was eight and again when I was eleven. Seeing him the second time, I discovered for the first time, that it was possible to experience the wonder of the world and the universe around us with the same awe and joy that I experienced with my faith. But without the fear inherent to many peoples experience of religion.

The thing I took away from my experience with Sagan and reading Dragons of Eden, was a great joy in having evolved the ability to reason beyond aquiring our most basic needs for survival. Joy not just in the aweinspiring universe and the world around us, but joy in our ability to consider the universe and the world around us.

I am reminded of a joke:

A science professor was lecturing to a large class, and announced "Some cosmologists predict that the universe will end in 22 billion years." There was a gasp from the back of the room and a frightened voice asked "What was that? When will the universe end?" The professor repeated "In 22 billion years." Came a relieved voice: "Oh thank Goodness! For a moment there I thought you said 22 MILLION years!"

Bottom line, we measure the meaning of our lives from the standpoint of how we live and experience our own lives, and we concern ourselves with the legacy we leave our immediate descendents. The cosmic perspective is really a somewhat artificial, academic perspective which we learn to take, and learn to care about.

My take on Dawkins and Harris is that they are saying in effect that if we could only do away with religion and faith, this would be a wonderful world.

No, as I recall they both take pains to say they don't think this. My take is that they believe that a moratorium on promoting the existence and higher value of an unlikely supernatural realm will improve things here in this realm. I see it as similar to trying to argue against pseudoscience. True, even if ESP and alternative energy medicines were no longer believed in, that might not in itself solve our political situations or find a cure for cancers. But it clears away a lot of unnecessary debris.

In matters of faith and religion, it is logical to be illogical. Irregardless there is scitenfic evidence, as powerful as evolutionary science (which has plenty of missing gaps)that demonstrate scientifically that Christ existed in a certain period of time and certain region. This was demonstrated on the Shroud of Touran ( his burial robe) which had his image engrained in the cloth in such as way that such a techology was immpossible to exist for that era. Pollen was foiund on the Shroud marking its existence during the period Christ lived. etc. etc.

By David Bates (not verified) on 28 Feb 2008 #permalink