recent, Religion

Is Religious Belief in Decline?

On January 8, 1697, 20-year-old Thomas Aikenhead was hanged for blasphemy on the Gallowlee execution ground in Edinburgh. Two weeks earlier, he had been convicted of such grave crimes as questioning the historicity of Jesus Christ and the logic of the Trinity, and the authorities wanted his death to serve as a warning to other would-be dissidents.

In The Blasphemies of Thomas Aikenhead: Boundaries of Belief on the Eve of the Enlightenment, Michael F. Graham explains why his subject was taken to an “execution site reserved for those guilty of the most heinous crimes”:

For common thieves, murderers and even many witches, the Grassmarket below Edinburgh Castle would do. But this execution was far from typical. On the contrary, it was a smokeless auto-da-fé aimed at placating an obviously angry God, invoking new laws against blasphemy that would never be used with such force again.

Aikenhead was the last person executed for blasphemy in Britain, and in the century that followed his death, Edinburgh would become one of the most important intellectual centers of the Enlightenment. In the year 2019, it’s impossible to imagine a Western country so saturated with religious dogmatism that its justice system would condemn a young college student to death for questioning Christianity. The arguments against tyrannical punishments and religious absolutism made by Enlightenment thinkers such as Cesare Beccaria, Montesquieu, and David Hume deserve much of the credit for this progress, and the execution of Aikenhead was one of the events that created the conditions for radical social and political change in the West.

Aikenhead’s case is a powerful reminder that Western societies are far less religious than they used to be. To many people, this is an uncontroversial claim—we no longer torture and execute blasphemers, wage wars on God’s behalf, or regard natural disasters as divine punishments for human sins. Nor do we require citizens to observe a particular religion on pain of death—citizens in liberal democracies are free to worship (or not worship) without interference from the state. As Thomas Jefferson explained in Notes on the State of Virginia:

Our rulers can have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

But hasn’t the separation of church and state created the space for religion to flourish? That’s not what the data suggest. Even in the United States, which has long been an outlier in terms of religiosity among developed countries (as societies become wealthier, they tend to become less religious), more and more people are abandoning religion.

When Americans are asked about their religious faith, almost 23 percent of them check the “none” box—a proportion that rises to more than a third among respondents between the ages of 18 and 49. According to the Pew Research Center, the “nones” have increased dramatically in recent years and the upward trend looks likely to persist. While a lack of religious affiliation doesn’t automatically entail a commitment to materialism or atheism—a joint Pew/PBS survey found that “many of the country’s 46 million unaffiliated adults are religious or spiritual in some way”—plenty of indicators suggest that religious feeling is declining along with religious practice.

For example, the number of self-described atheists doubled between 2007 and 2014. Among these Americans, 92 percent say they don’t believe in God, 97 percent say they “seldom or never” pray, 94 percent say they don’t believe in heaven, and 95 percent say they don’t believe in hell. Meanwhile, the number of Americans who claim they don’t believe in God (but aren’t necessarily atheists) increased almost twofold between 2007 and 2014.

And as the proportion of “nones” increases, their level of abstract religious commitment decreases. Over the same seven-year period, disbelief in God among unaffiliated Americans increased from 22 percent to 33 percent, those who say “religion is not at all important” in their lives increased from 33 percent to 39 percent, the percentage who “seldom or never” pray increased from 56 percent to 62 percent, and disbelief in heaven and hell increased from 46 percent to 53 percent and 58 percent to 65 percent, respectively. These findings are consistent with other surveys: Gallup reports that the number of Americans who don’t believe in God jumped from 2 percent in 2001 to 11 percent in 2016, while belief in the devil, angels, heaven, and hell has fallen substantially.

Despite all the evidence that we live in an age of ascendant secularism, there will always be intellectuals who wave the data away and insist that the religious impulse remains as strong as ever. “Every human being worships something,” we’re told, whether it’s the movement of the planets, alien civilizations, a political cause, science, or even reason.

In New York Magazine, Andrew Sullivan writes, “Even today’s atheists are expressing an attenuated form of religion. Their denial of any God is as absolute as others’ faith in God, and entails just as much a set of values to live by…” In Quillette, meanwhile, Clay Routledge observes that a “deeper investigation into the religious nature of our species casts doubt on the view that science-centered secular culture can succeed without a space for the sacred.” And in his bestseller, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, Jordan Peterson argues that any atheist who isn’t a murderous, rapacious psychopath is, in fact, religious: “You’re simply not an atheist in your actions.”

These claims about the immutable religious character of individuals and society are built upon misleading and selective definitions of “religion.” Sullivan takes a particularly broad view of the word, describing “something we have called progress—a gradual ascent of mankind toward reason, peace, and prosperity—as a substitute in many ways for our previous monotheism.” He goes on to describe Steven Pinker, the author of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, as “one of the most religious writers I’ve ever admired. His faith in reason is as complete as any fundamentalist’s belief in God.”

This is simply a category error. As Pinker explains in Enlightenment Now: “We don’t believe in reason; we use reason (just as we don’t program our computers to have a CPU; a program is a sequence of operations made available by the CPU).” What does it even mean to have “faith in reason”? Don’t we all tacitly declare our commitment to reason the moment we make any argument? Does Sullivan disagree with Pinker’s claim that “reason is prior to everything else and needn’t (indeed cannot) be justified on first principles”?

Pinker’s argument that humankind has moved toward “reason, peace, and prosperity” relies not on faith, but on empirical evidence about rates of violence, wealth and poverty, life expectancy, human rights, education, and a vast range of other indicators of human well-being. What’s more, Pinker doesn’t have blind faith in the idea that these trend lines will inexorably rise—he repeatedly acknowledges the possibility of relapses and exceptions. If he had faith that Enlightenment values would prevail and the world would inevitably continue to improve, why would he claim that the “ideals of reason, science, humanism, and progress need a wholehearted defense”? Why would he bother writing Enlightenment Now in the first place?

When a fundamentalist Christian declares his immovable, unfalsifiable belief in God—a belief that cannot be disturbed by any rational argument or presentation of evidence – he’s explicitly rejecting reason. To collapse the distinction between contradictory concepts like “faith” and “reason” is to strip both words of meaningful definitions.

The same objection applies to the word “religion.” While I would agree with Sullivan’s point that many non-religious doctrines—such as social justice politics or nationalism—can seem religious in character and elicit zealotry in their adherents, he’s stretching the meaning of the word beyond the point of usefulness. On Sullivan’s view, shouting “Allahu Akbar” before blowing yourself up in a crowded street and writing a book about secular Enlightenment values are both expressions of religious conviction. One God is called “Allah,” while the other is called “Reason.” It doesn’t matter if you write a sermon or an attack on God—you’re engaging in a variation of religious exercise.

Sullivan rehearses the cliché that atheists have just as much faith in their worldview as the devout, and goes so far as to claim that they have a specific “set of values to live by,” although he doesn’t specify what those values are. While it’s true that atheists may converge on some issues (such as the scientific reality of evolution, the political importance of secularism, and the protection of civil rights for homosexuals), they are not bound by a rigid set of doctrines, rules, and punishments. Ever since the emergence of the “New Atheists,” it has become fashionable to claim that any robust criticism of religion is itself religious. But, as Sullivan demonstrates, just about anything can be religious if your definition is vague and capacious enough.

In his article in Quillette, Clay Routledge acknowledges the “gradual replacement of religious doctrines with rationalist, evidence-based methods for explaining the world,” but he argues that “explaining the natural world is only one of religion’s functions. Ultimately, religion is about the human need for meaning. This need is inherent, not learned. It is a fundamental component of the human condition.” This is why, despite all the data indicating an increasingly secularized West, he contends that “most people who imagine themselves as irreligious simply haven’t come to terms with their religious nature.”

Routledge emphasizes the growing popularity of beliefs he describes as “supernatural-lite,” such as UFO conspiracies and transhumanism, the adherents of which “dream of transcending mortality through medicine and bioengineering.” He also notes that many of the people who reject traditional religion are attracted to other “supernatural, paranormal, and related beliefs,” like “ghosts, astrology, clairvoyance, and spiritual energy.” Routledge points out that “infrequent church attendees are roughly twice as likely to believe in ghosts as regular churchgoers,” while belief in “supernatural-lite” phenomena is concentrated among young (disproportionately irreligious) adults and “places where secular liberals are predominant.”

While many of these beliefs are similar to religious commitments, religion has never had a monopoly on human irrationality and credulity. In Enlightenment Now, Pinker cites the historian David Wootton’s account of the average educated Englishman in 1600:

He believes witches can summon up storms that sink ships at sea. … He believes in werewolves, although there happen not to be any in England—he knows they are to be found in Belgium. … He believes Circe really did turn Odysseus’s crew into pigs. He believes mice are spontaneously generated in piles of straw. He believes in contemporary magicians. … He has seen a unicorn’s horn, but not a unicorn.

Wootton could have added the belief that the state-sanctioned murder of a curious college student would put God in a better mood. The list of superstitious convictions and fears that haunted our ancestors could fill thousands of pages, and many of these beliefs had no problem coexisting with religion (when they weren’t being nurtured or inspired by it).

Is Routledge contending that there’s a static level of religiosity and superstition in the world that simply manifests itself in different ways over time? Would he argue that we’re just as religious and superstitious as Wootton’s seventeenth century Englishman? If not, he has to admit that human beings have generally become more secular and rational overall, despite his claim that the “religion-shaped hole” in our lives can only be filled with ever-more superstition and pseudoscience.

As Pinker observes, we have so fully internalized the values of the Enlightenment and the discoveries of the Scientific Revolution that we don’t even recognize how secular our society has become. Yes, we may see the occasional uptick in certain supernatural-lite beliefs, but this is hardly the same as burning witches or hanging blasphemers. Routledge points out that people who view their lives as meaningful are healthier than those who don’t, but religion and superstition are not the only sources of meaning. He worries about the rise in supernatural-lite beliefs, but doesn’t explain how this poses a significant threat to “science-centered secular culture.”

He also agrees with Sullivan that people often replace religious belief with dogmatic faith in “various political cults”: “The more people abandon religious spaces to meet existential needs,” he writes, “the more likely they are to turn to extreme political tribalism, and to blur the lines between spiritual and secular pursuits.” But this extraordinary claim ignores the long (and often ugly) history of religious influence in politics. Far from being a bulwark against political tribalism, religion is one of the most powerful engines of it. Why does Sullivan think 81 percent of evangelical Christians voted for Trump? Why does he think abortion is the most radioactive subject in American politics? Would the Israel-Palestine conflict be more or less intractable if the belligerents dropped their mutually exclusive claims that God awarded them certain pieces of real estate in Jerusalem? Didn’t the people who condemned Thomas Aikenhead to die think they were doing God’s work?

Sullivan and Routledge argue that the religious impulse is innate. That may be true, but so is the cruelty and tribalism that can make a human being feel righteous as he puts the noose around an innocent man’s neck. Thankfully, we have one innate capacity that allows us to leave all these horrors behind: Reason.

 

Matt Johnson has written for Stanford Social Innovation ReviewEditor & PublisherAreo MagazineArc DigitalSplice TodayForbes, and the Kansas City Star. He was formerly the opinion page editor at the Topeka Capital-Journal. You can follow him on Twitter @mattjj89

178 Comments

    • Scroto Baggins says

      “Superb article.”

      No. It’s not. It’s garbage. You are bad at reading.

      This trousered ape got his history from a cereal box. He makes rafts of claims that are unsubstantiated (unfootnoted) “everybody-knows-that” straw-man myths about the role of religion, theism, and church in history that would make any real historian laugh his milk through his nose.

      There is some really good scholarship in this area, and this window licker knows none of it. Hence his being published on a micro-zine in the far corner of the Interweb amongst articles by feminists decrying deplatforming by trannies and an article by an undergraduate philosophy major about “a book he read.”

      He wouldn’t have even been published here if the editors weren’t always rubbing one out over their own atheism and needed fresh jerk off material.

      Author, don’t get your history from people like Stevie Pinker and Sham Harris. I know they are fun to agree with and say clever things every once in a while, but they are celebrity “intellectuals” who write books about popular culture and the inside of their own heads. They know little themselves and suffer pleonasm run amok and polymath delusions.

      All in all, this was a a superb reminder that he average IQ is 100.

      So sorry I checked back on this site. Every time, it makes me question my childhood decision to learn how to read. Fuuuuuck.

      • Frannie Quinn says

        “All in all, this was a a superb reminder that he average IQ is 100.”

        @Scroto Baggins:

        I was about to ask you if your team lost at footie or you have a chronic case of raging arshole, but then I realised something: You are EXTREMELY intelligent, aren’t you? IQ-wise, I mean. I analyse people’s writing, intelligence, and cognitive abilities as part of my job. I notice the signs by habit. If I can assume you dashed that last off, and putting it together with other things I have seen you write (many of them had words I had to look up and reasoning and word play that was frankly dazzling), I’m going to make a wild guess you have an IQ north of 150.

        Am I right?

        And assuming for a moment that I am …. if I may … I’m going to suppose you are frustrated a lot with other people’s thinking, maybe most of the time. I know something about this and the signs. I had a girlfriend whose daughter had an IQ of 160, and she was in near constant outrage that people couldn’t keep up with her. She couldn’t keep friends, since when they talked all she desired to do was bang her head on the table and strangle them. She took to drink fairly early and often because she said it helped her get away from her own mind. Her poor mum had to work hard to get her outlets so that she didn’t implode. She’s a surgeon now. They are all like that. 🙂

        Anyhow, if I’m right, you might want to consider finding a way to get around people more like you, people who move at your speed. I know they are few and far between, but it might help to feel less isolated. Cheers.

        • Scroto Baggins says

          You are correct. Well north of 150–and about some other things. Impressive induction.

          I will guess on my turn to play that you are a cognitive psychologist. I’ve had experience with a few of them and–don’t take this the wrong way–you guys sound a lot alike.

          Your point is well taken. I will try. However:

          I’m still going to use pages from Steve Pinker mediocritomes for toilet paper. His Isaac Newton hair isn’t fooling anyone. He’s the idiot’s smart person. SHOOOOOT! I’m staring to sound like Nassim Taleb, and I despise his pretentious rambling too. Enough!

          Good night.

          • Frannie Quinn says

            Oh dear! We do all sound the same, don’t we? 😂

            “Well north of 150” IQ is beyond remarkable, rare as purple gold, placing you in the borough of 1 in 20-100 million subjects. You are approaching the level of perception of the world that dreamed of relativity or the calculus. You don’t really live on the same planet as the rest of us, not really, since you see it all so differently, so try to cultivate patience. The rest of us do our best.😉

            If I may be so bold, I have been (trying!) to read a book by an American author you might enjoy: “God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss” by David Bentley Hart. He’s an Eastern Orthodox theologian, philosopher, and historian at Notre Dame University and one of the brightest and most educated writers I have ever read anywhere. Being quite honest, I only get half of what he says. But he addresses all these issues in a way I think you may find more satisfying and historically accurate. The title sounds like new age woo-woo nonsense, but it’s quite the opposite. Another one of Hart’s books that I found breathtaking is “Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies”, which is also not well named, since its not an attack on unbelief at all (he’s quite respectful) but really a correction to the simplistic historical myths around western christianity you talked about in regards to this article (and copiously footnoted too!)

            But I’m assuming without evidence you are at least somewhat open to the Christian world view. Forgive me if I’m mistaken. I only do that because of what you said, and because I have found in my adventures studying cognitive super-performers a surprising number of Christians (though not church-y, fundamentalist/creationist or biblicist literalists), many of them converts from agnostic or unbelieving families. I asked one gentleman I met, a honest to goodness rocket physicist with a IQ like yours, who he thought was the smartest person who ever lived. I expected him to say “Galileo” or “Darwin” or someone like that. He said, “Jesus of Nazareth or maybe William Shakespeare” without hesitation. One of the people with the highest measured IQ alive (200) lives on a farm in the state of Missouri in America, and he’s a devout Christian. So is Peter Thiel, the financier who founded PayPal and funded Facebook. These peculiar folk tend to keep their beliefs sub rosa, since they usually work in institutions and fields that are contemptuous of belief and don’t want to be lumped in with those who twist or misuse Christian ideas.

            Anyway, you are not alone, even if it sometimes feels like it. Cheers.

          • Scroto Baggins says

            I just downloaded *Atheist Delusions* and *God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss* for my Kindle.

            Hart looks pissed off in his picture, so he’s probably read Pinker. There may be something here.

            I knew about Thiel. I found Girard’s writings through him. I highly recommend *I See Satan Fall Like Lightening.* It may be the most insightful exegesis of the NT I have ever encountered.

            Happy trails.

          • dellingdog says

            Best article yet here on Quillette. We can see that IQ is more of a circle than a line. The higher you are, the closer to retardation, evidentally!

          • Stephanie says

            @Scroto:

            If I were to guess, you didn’t bite John Ashton’s head off over his two-word comment because you are so incredibly superior. I’d guess it’s because you were drunk, and probably depressed.

            Keep in mind having a high IQ or being depressed doesn’t excuse you being a dickhead. Try not to be a dickhead. At least not here, or people will hope you follow through on your adolescent threat to leave and not come back.

      • Matthias says

        @Scroto: “This trousered ape…”

        HA! C.S. Lewis. Well done. Nice to have you back, buddy.

        Oh boy. Another one of these peculiar attempts by laymen to transmogrify materialist physics into metaphysics via the alchemy of historical refurbishment. How fashionable. No milk out of the nose, but this historian did laugh.

        The author is not a serious person. Best not take it all too seriously. A better title would have been “I Want Belief to Be Declining: My Rationalizations and Guitar-Hero Philosophy.” But the author need not have been so bothered. Christianity and the church went on life support 500 years ago. He has no idea how vitiated and silly is the religion and belief he has experienced, hence his grand declaration of historical misperception and misattribution. The Pinker…. he he he… so cute when he “thinks,” like a Shih-Tzu looking at a sliding glass door.

        I tend to agree with Nietzsche (an actual philosopher), that we are subsisting on the corpse of our ancestors’ beliefs. The Christianity of today is just faint echos. And as Nietzsche further observed, when the corpse of Judeo-Christian morality is picked clean and those echos go quiet, we should have some unease about what might follow. The National Socialists were explicitly neo-pagan, and they didn’t quite fit The Pinker’s yapping optimism. A recrudescence of thoughtful moral Christianity seems unlikely. Who would lead it? The Mormons? The French? American evangelicals who know the Bible by reputation courtesy of Joel Osteen?

        It’s out of our hands. We just get to watch. I just hope The Pinker is still alive to gape open-mouthed as he perhaps meets “humanist” humanity for the first time, free of all that silly belief stuff. “Ohhhhh … ‘Holocaust’ means ‘burnt sacrifice’ … I get it now … We are all going to die, aren’t we ….”

      • Anastasia of Cambridge says

        “This trousered ape got his history from a cereal box.”

        Down, Baggins! Down! RELEASE! RELEASE!

        Good grief. Give the poor guy a break. It’s not his fault. He went to Stanford. He thinks he knows things about stuff. There really should be a sign in the comments section: “BEWARE ATTACK SUPER-GENIUS”

        And in defense of Steven Pinker, I have to say that I have seen him around campus occasionally, and in person, he does have MARVELOUS HAIR. Oh my god. It’s just luxuriant. It makes you want to touch it and then agree with him. It’s hypnotic.

    • Heath says

      “The fool says there is no God” Psalm 14:1. “that at the name of Jesus, Every knee will bow” Philippians 2:10-11

  1. GregS says

    “The more people abandon religious spaces to meet existential needs,” he writes, “the more likely they are to turn to extreme political tribalism, and to blur the lines between spiritual and secular pursuits.” But this extraordinary claim ignores the long (and often ugly) history of religious influence in politics. Far from being a bulwark against political tribalism, religion is one of the most powerful engines of it.

    The writer misses the point. Christianity gave us heretic hanging, witch burning and the Catholic vs Protestant wars – but then Communism gave us the Gulag and Nazism gave us the holocaust, all without the benefit of Christianity.

    I would think that there is something in the emotional side of the human mind that thirsts for the common element found both in belief and politics that is immune to reason – and religion is merely a manifestation of it.

    • A C Harper says

      Agreed. I think it is hard to cast one’s mind into the set of (say) a medieval person. The metaphor I suggest is that in many cultures god(s) were a hidden but powerful part of our existence just as electricity is today. People worshipped god(s) to keep everything in the world working properly, priests were power centres, regulating the flow of godicity to make sure it was delivered to the righteous, and the righteous delivered to god. The fate of one’s soul after death was a primary concern for many.

      As an example – around the time of the Black Death the Christians were divided into workers, priests, and warriors. The warriors couldn’t escape the spiritual consequences of killing people – except the priests were willing to be paid to use their prayer power to ease the warriors souls into a good afterlife. Which is why the Church became richer and richer. The Black Death was perhaps the beginning of the end of this ‘god is infrastructure’ though because no matter what prayers were offered or rituals practised the Black Death still killed, even those considered to be ‘holy’.

      So my argument contra Sullivan is that the very foundation of religious belief has changed considerably. God(s) made the natural world work and needed supplication to keep everything going. Such views are far less common today and it would be absurd to think that not praying to no god is needed to keep the world turning.

    • Pliny says

      I don’t think the writer missed the point – just maybe overstates the counterpoint a bit – and i say that as a practicing Catholic. Communism is not reason – it’s anti-reason because it claims it has all the answers and therefore dissent must be punished. I think that reason and religion can work very well together and did for centuries – the Catholic Church actively funded scientific inquiry – the much cited “persecution” of Galileo could only have happened withing such a context and he was never actually prevented from believing what he believed. Sullivan’s essay would have been better if he had cited partisan politics, identity politics and certain forms of new age quackery as the new substitutes for religion (and none of these areas have anything to do with reason or rational thought much of the time.

    • Nazis claimed to represent Christianity. Communism and Naziism/Fascism are two types of collective oppression, as are all religions that include a “policing” feature.

      • Charles Boyer says

        Hitler, a politician, gave lip service to religion. He also had other ambitions, and had plans drawn up by his head of ideology to extirpate Christianity after the war and replace it with a pseudo-pagan-nationalist-political cult. There were Nazi funeral and marriage rites to replace religious ones practiced throughout the war. Upper level Nazis took an atheists’ oath, becoming Gottglaubiger; Hannah Arendt writes about this in Eichmann in Jerusalem. When they first met Hitler gave to Mussolini an edition of the collected works of Nietzsche. So, your generalization seems based on a bit of confirmation bias.

  2. Alex Russell says

    What the religious, Nazis and Communists all have in common is the belief that they know the TRUTH. Once you know the truth you can rationalize and justify any action in support of the truth no matter how evil.

    The Enlightenment values rational thinking, and searching for the truth (among other important things). When you admit you might not have the final and best answer you are more likely listen to contrary opinions, and actually change your opinion. When you have some doubt about your beliefs it is much hard to justify killing and torturing those who disagree with you.

    as Steven Weinberg said: Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

    • Philip Tanzar says

      “What the religious, Nazis and Communists all have in common is the belief that they know the TRUTH.”

      Not true. Both Nazism (via Nietzsche) and Communism (via Marx) deny universal Truth, and are each the intellectual heirs of Machiavelli, who taught princes (and revolutionaries) that there is nothing above power. The Nazis and the Marxists used reason to justify their mass murders as “historical necessity,” necessary for the achievement of racial or classless utopias respectively, not the preservation of Truth.

      • Nazism and Communism were both ideologies which included a belief that the ideology was correct (racial for Nazism, class for Communism). In fact, Marxists use “historical” to mean an almost teleological movement towards a certain future. That seems very similar to the rapture to me. The Nazis simply wanted to populate a large part of the Earth with Germans (Hitler said that the Nazis would have been a failure if in a century hence there were not 250 million Germans). Whoever was on the land then coveted had to be eliminated (mostly Slavs and of course all Jews). In any case, there are many books written that both Nazis and Communists believed their ideology was TRUTH.

    • Paul says

      No, it only takes ideology for good people to do evil things. Worth reading the Gulag Archipelago.

    • Circuses and Bread 🇺🇸 says

      @Alex Russell

      “But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”

      Naaah, What you need for true evil is politics. You can’t lay 200 million plus killed through democide during the 20th century at feet of religion. Few if any of the notable political butchers of the last 100 years were particularly religious.

      • Saw file says

        @C&B
        Bingo…again! You rascal you..
        Politics, in it’s various historical forms, has caused much more’evil’ than “religion” ever has.
        Politicians (historical variants) simply use any currently available ‘religious’ factioning to further their own end goals.
        Religion is, in itself not often a problem, it’s the political schills for the power-broker’s that are the real problem with the religion influence issue.
        In the 20th century, the ideologues gradually and forcefully replaced (influence #’s whise) the religious, exept in the Muslim sphere of influence (rise of insane islamism).
        I have no idea idea what a lasting solution would look like….

    • Artie11 says

      If they are doing evil things, they are not good people.

      • Ghatanathoah says

        “Ultimately, religion is about the human need for meaning.”

        Really? I’m pretty sure religion is just as much, if not more so, about supernatural entities.

        I get really confused when people talk about religion as a source of meaning. They are making what I see as an unjustified leap from “belief in supernatural entities” to “meaning of life.” I don’t see how supernatural creatures give life extra meaning.

        I think if we lived in a world full of indisputable evidence for supernatural entities, the people who are very religious wouldn’t be satisfied. They would say that meaning comes from the “ultranatural” and the “supergods,” and that there has to be more to the mystery of consciousness than just souls.

        I can see how you could argue that God could help you find meaning, because if God is as wise as people say He could probably offer some good advice on that front. But the idea that God somehow intrinsically a source of meaning isn’t even wrong. To be wrong an idea has to make coherent sense.

        The idea of the supernatural is completely orthogonal to the concept of meaning, and it’s weird that so many people conflate the two.

      • Saw file says

        @Artie11
        Once you have defined “evil things”, in agreement with all the various leadership, of all the sect’s, of all the world’s religions (and throw ideology into the mix. Why not?) then we all will know what ” good people ” are.
        I can’t see any problems with that…..

      • Not true. Google the Milgram experiment – most people are capable of evil under the right circumstances.

    • Evander says

      ‘When you have some doubt about your beliefs…’

      Do you ever doubt the Enlightenment, Alex, or are you convinced that it was a Good Thing? What about Reason and the virtuousness of its historical record? What about the assumptions behind your use of terms such as good and evil?

      ‘When you admit you might not have the final and best answer you are more likely listen to contrary opinions, and actually change your opinion.’

      I’m going to assume you’re an agnostic then and not an atheist.

    • “But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion”

      Unfortunately religion can do this but so can any ideology which allows its adherents to justify and rationalise brutal self serving actions as morally justified and for some greater good.
      Historically religion has been the preeminent ideology which does this but political ideologies have also done so in the recent past. I do think religion is paticularily effective at this. There is a chilling (to me) interview with Tony Blair about the Iraq war in which he was asked whether he had any regrest or doubts about it. He answered by simply saying he had prayed for a long time before making teh decision. It was clear that in his mind this cleared him of any doubt or possibility of concern about the morality of a decision which affected millions of lives. The lack of any self doubt or uncertainty about the morality of the decision, simply on the basis that he had prayed was frightening to me. I want leaders who acknowledge such decisions are hard rather than ones who glibly discard any possible moral concerns.

    • Matthew N says

      Would you say that the Stanford prison experiment was a case of evil people or good people being drawn into evil practices? Religion need not be the only fulcrum to move men to evil acts; the human condition alone capably serves.

      • Saw file says

        Mathew N
        Hushhh now, Prisoner!
        Shshshshhh….now hand’s n knee’s crawl your exposed naked ass back into your box, to lap up your water and stale bread. Shshshhhhss…before I beat you and deny you more privileges! I am now your GOD! Clank…key click.
        Woo…hey y’ll…playback that vid. What y’ll think? Rate me, y’ll…..
        Such behavior is of course not religious.
        It is human. Power over other humans.
        Others in the experiment basically said, ‘fk this’, and withdrew.
        Are they the ones with a more solid religious background? I don’t know, because as for as the study went, they didn’t much address much of these various tiers of decliners.
        That aspect is worth a study, in it’s own.

  3. GregS,

    “… and Nazism gave us the holocaust, all without the benefit of Christianity”

    Not really true, Germany at the time was a highly Christian country (in a 1939 census 94% self-labelled as Christian), and Nazi ideology certainly “benefited” (if that’s the word) from Christianity.

    • GregS says

      Coel, I find the figure of ‘”94% self-labelled as Christian” a bit dubious. It reminds me of the 97% of scientists who wholeheartedly embrace the IPCC dogma of climate change. It smacks more of social signaling than reporting one’s beliefs. However, point taken.

      I tend to think that both Nazism and Communism had roots in Christianity, just as Christianity had roots in Judaism as well as Greco-Roman culture, and who know what roots Judaism or the Greco-Romans had. I am sure scholars more informed than I could say.

      Still, my point is that religion and politics are merely vehicles for structures that exist on the emotional side of the human character that will always find a way to express itself. In our age, it comes to the fore in the form of environmental madness and the carpet bombing of the countryside with spinning crucifixes;

      • There is no IPCC dogma of climate change they have a position based on evidence which many people do challenge and to which their response is to argue based on evidence. This is more or less the antithesis of dogma.

        Most scientists like me are not climate scientists and have not studied the evidence ourselves so when asked if they believe in climate change they are effectively responding based on a belief in the instituitions and process of science which have led to a broad consensus in the field and comparing that to the arguments against which are of generally very poor quality. Realistically that is all we have time to do unless we have a very strong interest or concern in some specific area.

        It seems to me that the evidence that climate change has resulted from human activity is very strong but there is a lot of room for scepticism about the predictions of climate models and for what the appropriate policy response is.

        No where in this do I see dogma what I see is the unsurprising fact that most scientists have faith in the scientific process and instituitions.

        • GregS says

          AJ, I could not disagree more.

          First let me say, that your view on climate change and mine are not that far off. The physics is rock solid, the temperature records and reconstructions are mildly dubious though helpful but the models are ridiculous. I mean anything that relies on economic projections for fifty years from now….. Well, let’s not say anything too cruel.

          As for the IPCC itself. It is not a dispassionate scientific organization. It is a political entity with a political mission. It does not select the best and brightest, it recruits its member from political appointments. It functions on a priori assumptions and that is why its projections burn too hot and its Summary for Policymakers does not reflect its science.

          It suffers from the same infliction as much of the environmental movement because it is a product of that movement and the infliction is religion. It is a belief system that justifies itself with science instead of a truth seeking system that uses science to see the way.

          • Saw file says

            @GreggS
            Yep
            I have done my best to inform myself on this serious human subject. All scientists, not just that moronic 98somthing #.
            I literally have no idea, as who to believe, so now it is neither.

            I do know which faction has been most been caught (blatantly) lying though.

            That fact is telling, especially considering their ideology.

            Shut down our current world?
            Not a option…
            Change it?
            Exactly how, and show the ramifications…
            Await the genius concenscious….
            After all, when has this method ever gone wrong before!

        • Stephanie says

          AJ, give the climate change literature a read. It’s astonishingly weak, and wrought with unrealistic assumptions.

      • Lightning Rose says

        I don’t put much faith (pardon the pun) in any “survey” of self-reported data, whether concerning beliefs, eating habits, personal vices or gun ownership. The reason is the obvious selection bias due to the survey respondents being self-selecting from the outset.
        If you don’t think details of your religious beliefs, health, sexuality or weaponry are details someone purporting to represent a corporate entity on the phone ought to know, you’re going to hang up and decline to share them. Particularly when they call in the middle of dinner.

        That leaves a self-selected cohort of people who basically want to trumpet their affiliation, or lack thereof, to said entity to put their influence behind the social movement in question. Therefore a religious survey is going to be heavy on committed evangelicals at one end of the spectrum, and avowed atheists on the other. Meanwhile, the vast majority in the middle who believe in keeping their private lives to themselves go unrepresented by “surveys.”

    • A complex question in fact.

      1.) Nazi racialism is alien to the Christian tradition and was informed by its contemporary scientific currents (biology, archaeology, physical anthropology), although Christian Anti-Semitism directed against Judaism (as a religion) was a long-standing, and given that Orthodox Jews define themselves biologically (descent from the mother), there was certainly a critique of Jewish exclusivity and ethnocentrism.

      2.) Christians attacked Judaism for its exclusiveness (Orthodox Jews define themselves biologically based on ancestry) and contrasted it to Christian universalism. Nazi’s basically copied Judaism to create an anti-Judaism, and unfortunately, they chose to mirror the worst aspects of Judaism. But it was a war for who got to be the chosen people, rather than universalism versus exclusive groups.

      3.) Nazi’s promoted what they called “Positive Christianity” but in true totalitarian fashion, the content of “Positive Christianity” was expected to conform to our 20th Century social justice warriors notions of political correctness.

      4.) There is little evidence that the Holocaust was public knowledge, as there are few records of the Holocaust and it was discussed among the party elite. The conduct of Einstatzgruppen was probably self-evident to those serving on the Eastern Front, but still, it wasn’t something you would get to read about in the Berlin papers. Further, at the time of the Holocaust (1942), we are talking about a totalitarian police state in the middle of a prolonged war for survival against half the world, the average person was worried about getting enough calories and not getting shot by the regime.

      I think Christianity was perhaps a necessary cultural condition for the Holocaust (because of the tradition of Christian Anti-Semitism), but not a sufficient condition. Racialism, and beyond even mere racialism, Hitler’s very dark view of racialism combined with imperialist fantasies of conquest and a total ruthlessness and disregard for human life (displayed in his callousness regarding his own soldiers on the Eastern front).

      • TarsTarkas says

        1. Agree. Nazism as practiced by the NSDAP was tribalist. Paul of Tarsus is the man responsible for freeing what became Christianity from its ethnic origins..
        2. Christians attacked Jews for many reasons other than ancestry, foremost among them envy and greed. The blood libel was just one of many excuses that were used to justify the attacks.
        3. A lot of the NSDAP leadership got into mysticism harking back to ancient German polytheism to justify getting around Christian universalism.
        4. Knowledge of the Holocaust was in many cased studiously ignored by those living in the vicinity of the camps, it took Eisenhower and other allied leaders marching the populace through the camps before to make the locals realize what had been going on behind the fences. For those who were aware of what was going on, the subhuman genetic trash nature of the inmates justified their treatment.

        IMO Christianity just happened to be the ‘official’ religion of Germany at the time of the Holocaust, just as Judaism was the ‘official’ religion of the Twelve Tribes when they began the extermination of the Canaanites.

  4. Stanley Ketchel says

    Back in the dark ages, I read Robert Ruark’s book, “Something of Value.” The title comes from the belief that If a man does away with his traditional way of living and throws away his good customs, he had better first make certain that he has something of value to replace them. We are throwing away our traditional way of living and customs that have served us for about 2,000 years, but so far, those replacement values don’t seem to be on the horizon.

  5. “Sullivan and Routledge argue that the religious impulse is innate. That may be true, but so is the cruelty and tribalism that can make a human being feel righteous as he puts the noose around an innocent man’s neck. Thankfully, we have one innate capacity that allows us to leave all these horrors behind: Reason.”

    This is a hilariously false final paragraph that completely reinforces the point the author wants to refute – ‘reason’ is being positioned as a utopian force capable of ending self-righteousness, murder and tribalism. How is this not obviously a faith in reason as the Good itself?

    Atheists continue to argue that the religious impulse is best embodied by the inquisition. Problem is, there does exist one set of ideas specifically about the crucifixion of the innocent – it’s not rationalism, it’s Christianity. Theologian James Cone argued that the lynching of black Americans in the 20th century was a modern day incarnation of the cross, likening the cross to the lynching tree. The political and power-mad incarnation of religion has nothing to do with the inherent truth of its symbols in relation to human suffering. If we forego the supernatural and see religion merely as a literary device, so be it. But to characterize it as tribalistic and murderous of the innocent is to characterize Pilate, not Christ.

    It is simply inane to imply that reason allows us to avoid crucifying the innocent. Where is the evidence for this? John Ralston Saul indicated quite clearly that “reason” was at the root of the technocratic bureaucracies which reduce individuals to wholly malleable machines at the mercy of unaccountable systems beyond their reproach. Today, the priests of reason such as Steven Pinker argue for blind magical thinking – a third way politics and a baseless optimism that utterly ignores the two deepest tail risks to human civilization, nuclear war and climate change. The entire *basis* of Pinker’s argument is that he has made reason the force of Good that permeates history, and he ideologically defines the past 300 years of capitalism and classical liberalism as the incarnation of reason itself on Earth. You can say it’s not his “God”, but he defends it like there is nothing above it, same as in this article, same as in all boring “logic and facts” atheist polemic. The fact remains that if banal utilitarianism and classical liberalism fail, so do this so-called “reason”, and what replaces it won’t be a dark age, but ideas far more impressive.

  6. Nate D. says

    I think a lot of people are nervous about dethroning Judeo-Christian principles because Reason has no codified morality. Christianity, in spite of its past failings, has been largely self-correcting (due to having a codified morality) and has served western civilization very well. Reason, on the other hand, has a morality that is firmly planted on thin air, and has been coasting on Christianity’s capital.

    Reason has been living in mom and dad’s basement, eating their groceries, driving the family minivan, and is still on mom and dad’s insurance and cell phone plan. Reason is now convinced his parents are dipshits and it’s time for him to strike out on his own.

    How will Reason perform in a society devoid of religiosity and the codified morality that organized religion provides? Could we not use reason to determine that human dignity is a figment of our imagination and that we should work towards the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life?

    • Robert Paulson says

      Exactly. Its stunning that people as smart as Harris and Pinker don’t realize this.

      As the author points out, reason is simply a tool. It that is so, then it has no innate morality, so then why should we expect a society guided purely on the basis of reason and science not look something like, say “Brave New World”, which used science to perfect a system of totalitarian control, all in the name of “humanist” values such as world peace and personally well-being.

      Just listen to people like Yuval Harari, who basically envisions a society were our understanding of the human brain has evolved to the point where we can simply make the equivalent of soma and that we should strive for a society where we have machines doing most of the manual labor and the masses are strung out on dope He sees nothing wrong with this since in his rationalistic view, we are nothing more than a pile of synapses and happiness is nothing but chemical potentials inside our head.

    • “I think a lot of people are nervous about dethroning Judeo-Christian principles because Reason has no codified morality.”

      Those — Judeo-Christianity and “Reason” — are not the only alternatives. There are also humanist values rooted in our humanity.

      • Evander says

        @Coel

        Naturalistic fallacy – or are you just being selective with your values? Cannibalism is no less human than altruistic self-sacrifice.

        • Those humanist values are even more clearly religious than plain old atheism. That’s because you need to make some pretty major assumptions about what they are and why we should accept them.

          It’s fine to argue that one religion is better or more true than another, but to pretend one isn’t a religion is just arrogant.

          • “Those humanist values are even more clearly religious than plain old atheism.”

            Not so, unless you’re using way to wide a definition of “religion”.

            “you need to make some pretty major assumptions about what they are and why we should accept them.”

            No, actually, you don’t need to make assumptions about “why you should accept them”, you can just decide for yourself whether you want to accept them.

      • Nate D. says

        @ Coel

        The problem with humanist values is that their authority rests on… humans. All you need to amend, revise, or omit those values is power. Christianity (and a few other organized religions) have a morality that was codified through “special revelation”. That is, it was given by God, a moral lawgiver whose power and authority cannot be trumped.

        If you tell a devout Christian that “love your neighbor and bless your enemies” is an unreasonable moral standard, he will say, “Sorry, man. I don’t make the rules. It’s hard to do (and I constantly fail at it), but it is what it is.”

        Special Revelation is an impossible pill for the non-religious to swallow, but it’s the bedrock of most religious moralities. It creates an arbiter that can’t be trumped by power and that is why it has served human progress so well.

        Sam Harris admits that his definition of “good” is a massive presupposition. His excuse is that all systems have presuppositions. But Christianity’s presuppositions are moored in Special Revelation, making them nonnegotiable. Sam’s presuppositions are, as I said, planted in thin air, and will be revised as soon as somebody with more power enters the game.

        • “The problem with humanist values is that their authority rests on… humans.”

          That’s a virtue not a “problem”.

          “That is, it was given by God, a moral lawgiver whose power and authority cannot be trumped.”

          Who says? By what authority is God the “moral lawgiver”? “God is the moral lawgiver because God says so” amounts to “might makes right” which is a non-sequitur.

          • Nate D. says

            @ Coel

            Thanks for the comment. I appreciate the discussion.

            “That’s a virtue not a ‘problem’.”

            This is really just an issue of one’s faith in humanity and becomes the divisive point where many camps diverge. Does humanity need God? (BTW, It’s interesting to note that this is the critical question proffered in the opening chapters of the Christian Bible.) Even many atheists acknowledge that the God of Christianity provides an important bootstrap and crutch for society – see Matthew Perry’s 2008 essay for The Times. Based on my reading of modern history, I don’t share your optimism that humans can be “good” without God. I don’t think humans can really even define “good” without a God that acts as an objective moral lawgiver. Time will tell, but in the mean time we all have to put our faith in something. (Scandinavia is still running on the fumes of its devoutly-Christian past. Give it 50 more years.)

            “Who says? […] which is a non-sequitur.”

            Someone has already answered this. God’s authority is based on his creatorship. It’s like asking the inventor of Chess why a knight can’t move like a bishop. “Who says?” would be met with an eye-roll. Furthermore, you actually proved my point, then called it a non-sequitor. Might DOES make right. I believe it (see my previous post). Science believes it (see Darwin). You believe it (see majority-based ethics). God believes it (see the Bible). Some people feel safer with that might in God’s hands. You want it in humanity’s hands.

        • Hi Nate,

          “God’s authority is based on his creatorship. It’s like asking the inventor of Chess why a knight can’t move like a bishop. “Who says?” would be met with an eye-roll.”

          A creator God can of course compel things to act as he wishes. But that doesn’t make those acts moral. There’s nothing “moral” about the knight moving like it does rather than like a bishop.

          “Might DOES make right. I believe it (see my previous post). Science believes it (see Darwin). You believe it (see majority-based ethics).”

          Science does *not* say that might makes right. Darwinian evolution is *not* morally prescriptive (that’s the naturalistic fallacy). And I don’t think that the majority wanting something makes it “morally right”, I’ve only said that it makes it popular.

          • Nate D. says

            @ Coel

            Honest question: Do you see morality as objective, subjective, or non-existent?

            Obviously Darwinian evolution is not morally prescriptive. That was tongue-in-cheek. No atheist claims it to be immoral when a lion kills a rival male in order to maintain access to a female. But the stronger male is “right” in the sense that no balance of justice is disturbed.

            Is it immoral for a man to kill a rival man for the same reason?

        • Hi Nate,

          “Honest question: Do you see morality as objective, subjective, or non-existent?”

          It’s subjective. Moral sentiments are a variation of aesthetic sentiments. Moral language is thus a report of whether we like or dislike something.

          “No atheist claims it to be immoral when a lion kills a rival male in order to maintain access to a female.”

          That’s because moral sentiments evolved to be about how humans interact with each other (and thus evolved to facilitate our cooperative way of life). A lion is not morally salient.

          “Is it immoral for a man to kill a rival man for the same reason?”

          Again, moral language is about what we like and dislike. So, to answer: Plenty of people will dislike such behaviour and want societies where such behaviour is suppressed. So yes, most people would regard it as immoral.

          • Nate D. says

            @ Coel

            I’m confused as to how your morality is subjective, yet you claim it isn’t rooted in a society’s majority view. Perhaps you’re claiming it’s personal, but then, the individual’s morality is primarily culturally inculcated.

            “Plenty of people will dislike [murder/crimes of passion] and want societies where such behaviour is suppressed. So yes, most people would regard it as immoral.”

            But, what about societies where such behavior is not suppressed, but praised? When Solzhenitsyn is trying to figure out how Russian communities so quickly turned into minefields of whispering informants that ratted out, plundered, imprisoned, and executed so many of its own innocent countrymen, he says,

            “Ideology—that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others’ eyes, so that he won’t hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honors.”

            Communist leaders simply taught the Russian people new “aesthetic sentiments,” Solzhenitsyn notes that this is why the Christians were usually the first to be hauled off to labor camps or dropped off in the middle of frozen wastelands – because Communist leaders could not reprogram their morals.

            Having subjective morals certainly increases your chances of being the clerk sitting behind the desk sending your countrymen to prison rather than the other way around – beneficial for sure, I guess. Solzhenitsyn warns us about reading of the Russian Gulags and thinking, “That would never happen here.” He reminds us that the line of evil runs through the heart of every man.

        • @Nate

          “I’m confused as to how your morality is subjective, yet you claim it isn’t rooted in a society’s majority view.”

          My view is that moral sentiments are a form of aesthetic sentiment. Thus someone saying “X is immoral” amounts to “I deplore X”. Such judgements are subjective, in that they derive from our value system.

          “Communist leaders simply taught the Russian people new “aesthetic sentiments,” …”

          Agreed. In my account of morals there is nothing to stop society going badly wrong, nothing to stop a harmful ideology taking hold. It might be nice if there were something to stop that, but, de facto, there isn’t.

          As for the claim that a belief in an objective morality based on Christianity can prevent it, I don’t think that is supported by the evidence. (For example, the Christian-dominated Middle Ages were far more violent and totalitarian than Western democracies today; and slavery prospered for much of the history of Christendom, including the most religious regions such as the American South; and Third Reich Germany being 94% Christian didn’t prevent their atrocities.)

          Indeed, a belief in an objective, God-based moral code is dangerous, since people can believe that their god wants them to kill. Societies going badly wrong generally requires a dangerous ideology that gives people moral licence to do harm; that can be communist, yes, but it can also be theological.

          • Nate D. says

            @ Coel

            Again, thank you for continuing the discussion. I was worried you were done with this thread. Your challenges are helping me parse through my own thoughts.

            It sounds like you and I are, philosophically, mostly on the same page. We diverge on what is the best way forward. My money is on objective Christian morality (divinely revealed and physically codified) that does not change, regardless of the sentiments of the global population. Your money is on a subjective morality. Though I think your money is on the wrong horse, I can respect your decision.

            “As for the claim that a belief in an objective morality based on Christianity can prevent it, […] Christian didn’t prevent their atrocities.”

            But Christianity DID stop these atrocities, hence my earlier statement that objective Christian morality is largely self-correcting. Martin Luther, Bonhoeffer, Wilberforce, Beecher-Stowe, and so on, and thousands upon thousands of other Christians used objective morals and cultural clout to right the ship and bring us where we are today. Objective morals gives us high branch to sit upon, where we can label feudal land ownership, slavery, and genocide as oppressive or evil. We cut that branch at our own peril. The only way you can label these things as evil is to borrow my worldview. You can’t say slavery is evil. The best you can do is admit that, personally, you don’t care for it.

            I give you the last word, if you are so inclined. Cheers, and thanks again for the thought-provoking discussion.

        • @Nate

          “But Christianity DID stop these atrocities, hence my earlier statement that objective Christian morality is largely self-correcting.”

          Was it “Christianity” that stopped the atrocities, or was it people, and were the people acting out of their theology or their humanity? It’s not easy to disentangle these things. But the difference between Wilberforce and the US Confederates was not that Wilberforce had the Bible but the Confederates did not.

          As I see it, belief in objective moral truths is dangerous since it produces moral certainty and moral arrogance — the belief that you are morally justified or even morally obligated to impose on others (ISIS being an extreme example). All of the really tyrannical ideologies (e.g. communism) felt that they had a moral obligation to impose, rooted in moral certainty. Another extreme example is the medieval practice of burning heretics at the stake; such acts can only result from a moral certainty that one is doing God’s will.

          As Europe and Scandinavia go post-religious, things are generally getting better in moral and human-rights terms (not getting worse, as the claim that we need an anchor of objective morals would suggest). And that post-religious ethos is based on a pragmatic, humanitarian working things out, with a touch of moral humility that we shouldn’t impose where we needn’t.

    • augustine says

      Well said, Nate D. The contest between theists and atheists is in morality, not reason per se. Neither side is resistant to shoddy reasoning. I think the practical motivation of atheists is that they do not want the judgment of any religion to exert power over their ability to choose freely, hence the attraction of libertarianism. They seem to give no serious thought to the problem of millions or billions of individuals conjuring their own private, personal morality, and how that is supposed to function across and within society.

      • “They seem to give no serious thought …”

        Yes we have.

        “… to the problem of millions or billions of individuals conjuring their own private, personal morality, and how that is supposed to function across and within society.”

        By reaching communal agreements, just as we do now. And it’s not that hard to do because we have a vast amount of “human nature” in common, and so can readily live as social animals. Places like Scandinavia, which are largely post-religious, do not start getting dysfunctional as religion declines, indeed they keep getting better and more harmonious. The correlation, instead, is that the more dysfunctional societies tend to be the more religious ones.

        • dellingdog says

          Coel is right. Scandinavia and Europe are closer to utopia. They will know how to handle all them rascals they imported using humanism. Then we will realize a truly multicultural diverse utopian society laughing at the backward folks that still believe in superstition like “boys” and “girls”.

    • Caleb says

      ‘He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”’ Luke 19:40

      ‘And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb / be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”’ Relevation 5:13

      Under a secular/atheist worldview (not “religion”…), nothing in nature (bears and rocks and people) has meaning or purpose. Under a Christian worldview (“religion”), everything’s purpose is to glorify the God who created it. The main goal of a Christian is to glorify God. So perhaps it could be argued that yes, a bear is Catholic?
      Personally I think that’s a stretch because a bear can’t believe in or accept a creed or whatever doctrines are considered necessary to be a Catholic, but I don’t think a bear would be considered atheist under their worldview. I’m curious what people of other religions think. I assume an animist would give a bear much more significance than a traditional monotheist.
      Another interpretation is that just by doing bear things, a bear is giving praise to God by acting the way it was created to act, and therefore is religiously more neutral?
      Anyway it’s a good question. To say simply “obviously not, it’s a bear; it can’t think” would be begging the question.

  7. What is essential is “killing authority”–the authority to take a life of another. Everyone acknowledges that they, qua individual, lack the right to kill, or even use violence or coercion on another. Outside of the true criminal, the ordinary person will only kill in the name of something higher. In what sense higher? Higher than human life. . . if human life had the higher value, then there would be no killing.

    Classically, religion supplied the rationale for executions and wars, which were conducted in the name of God. However, in these days, the executioners kill in the name of Democracy, Human Rights, Socialist Revolution, Racial Purity. A functionalist might claim that these are the names of the new, true gods of our Age, but I’m sure the atheist will correct him, that these names are only the name of “secular ideas”. Yet, so long as the State exists, and the executioners and soldiers invoke the names of the highest before they shed the blood of innocents, be assured that the true essence of religion survives.

    It is true that some of the minor cults (those around Jesus Christ) may or may not be peripheral to the game, and may disappear, but in the many geographical locales, the name of Allah is clearly alive and well-fed, as is the name of Buddha.

    • epistemologist says

      “Classically, religion supplied the rationale for executions and wars”

      Generally False. Occasionally True. It may have supplied “a” rationale but it does not supply “the” rationale. Consider the Trojan war. Consider the Holocaust. Consider the Cultural Revolution. None of these, nor many others was rationalized on religious grounds. When discussing anything quantification is essential to tracking the truth.

      • Point taken. The Romans were not fighting in the name of God.

        However, even in the Ancient World, we have the powerful testimony in the Old Testament histories of religious warfare in the capture of Canaan (although the actual history of the capture of Canaan is disputed), and certainly the wars of the Maccabees against the Seleucid Empire had a heavy G-D emphasis.

        Moving to the Middle Ages, the rise of Islam, you can’t say that Islam did not provide killing authority for Islamic Civilization, likewise, the Byzantines, and the Crusaders, as well as wars over who was really the Pope etc. All about evoking the One God in the justification of holy warfare, and in the execution of the deviants, heretic and apostates.

        So to be clear, historically speaking, monotheism has always been connected with killing authority and expansionist warfare and imperialism, paganism not so much. But “religion” in the Occident is all about monotheism (e.g. “killing authority”), and traditional monotheism has found “secular” competitors, who perhaps do a better job. But the job is essentially religious.

        • X. Citoyen says

          The much-celebrated atheist Christopher Hitchens had no problem mounting the pulpit for a crusade in the Middle East—and this after declaring religion to be source of all evil in the world. I guess crusades are only evil when “religious” people engage in them.

          • My point is that the Axial Age Religions (mostly monotheistic) were related to Axial Age Empires, and used as justification for wars of conquest without and purges within. With the rise of the Nation-State (after the 30 Years War), not so much, we kill in the name of Democracy, Human Rights, Socialist Revolution, Racial Purity.

            These are the new gods, representing something higher than life itself, for which we are willing to sacrifice ourselves and others. A god is something for which we make sacrifices, and for the ultimate god, we make the ultimate sacrifice. . . and what is religion about, if not sacrifice? A Priest is only as sharp as his knife.

            While Axial Age Religion, particularly in the Occident, has taken a beating, “secularism” is not an alternative to “religion”, it is a substitute religion in any functional sense.

          • X. Citoyen says

            I agree on the functional point, though not on the causes of wars and violence. The idea that people used religion to justify wars and violence is a modern fiction propagated by progressives to gullible children to convert them to the new cult. European history shows that internal and external wars have always had political or social causes, even when divisions were religious ones. The Overton window now and then is useful way to look at it.

            We acknowledge nowadays that there are limits on political discourse that we’ll accept from politicians, elites, and anyone else in the public eye. Step outside the limits of what’s acceptable (outside the Overton window) in a liberal democracy, and you will be hounded out of public life. Now, we like to pride ourselves on the fact that the persecution ends there. You can carry on believing your unacceptable political beliefs in private. Obviously, that’s not the case nowadays so much, but still.

            But we also have limits—every regime does. Even if a liberal democracy has larger Overton window than any other regime, it can only tolerate anti-liberal democratic movements that are small enough and weak enough to present no threat to it. Once that line is crossed—or starts to look like it’s being crossed to enough people in power—the unacceptable opinion will become a heresy and it will be prosecuted and persecuted. Political and media activists know this—if only intuitively—which is why they exaggerate the numbers and the extremism of their enemies and (for example) demand that social media companies shut them up. Just look at the coverage of the unspeakable groups.

            That brings us back to history. Contrary to the caricature created by people who know nothing of history, the Church has always had a broad Overton window when it came to theology, special vocations, modes of worship, etc., allowing considerable intellectual and theological diversity within it and its various orders; doctrinal questions have been debated since the early Church Fathers, and doctrines have changed over the years because of committed and open movements within the Church itself (e.g., Nicaea, the Counter-Reformation, the Second Vatican Council).

            Most heretics and especially heretical movements not only rejected the core dogmas of the Church, they always also contained radical and revolutionary political and social components, and more than a few were violent. Sure, some powerful people (e.g., the Medici, Borgia, etc.) co-opted the power of the Church as an institution for their own ends, but this happens in all ages and in all institutions. Witch crazes are a different story, but I don’t have all day.

            Anyway, I’m primarily concerned to refute the millennarian idea that all the world’s problems are caused by some one thing (religion, the Jews, etc.) that can be done away with and the world made new because this, as far as I can see, is the single most dangerous idea known to man.

  8. A bonfire of straw men.

    There are fundamental flaws that repeat through rationalist thinking and arguments. One is that the opposite of rational is irrational rather than the non-rational, intuitive, or associative. This latter perspective is supported by our scientific understanding of the left and right hemispheres of our brains.

    Our brains are fundamentally associative in function with an appendage that’s capable of creating highly simplistic rationalistic representations of the world – simple and practical enough for us to be able to cope. Rational thought is the process of basing the strength of a belief on the balance or ratio of the evidence available and rarely quantifiable (Will I take the bus?). There is no such thing as isolated, absolute truth or pure reason. Even mathematics has its priors (and friars).

    “As Pinker observes, we have so fully internalised the values of the Enlightenment and the discoveries of the Scientific Revolution that we don’t even recognise how secular our society has become.” Only partly true and equally true about the Christianity of Enlightenment philosophers. Reason wasn’t invented by them. Its application to our understanding of the natural world has advanced, with inevitable ups and downs, through the entire history of the human race.

    I think that Scientism is the religion the Enlightenment advanced. To defend this claim I take the climate debate as exhibit A. The magnitude (not reality) of the greenhouse effect is based on the assumption (article of faith) that no other mechanism can account for our atmosphere warming the Earth. This assumption can now, with reasonable certainty, be shown to be false. An alternative has been demonstrated.

    To avoid ambiguity, I’ll refer to that as the DSE and not go into the details further. I’m not trying to make a scientific point here but a religious one and pose a thought experiment. For those who believe in the greenhouse effect and its claimed repercussions, are you: (a) relieved and hopeful that I’m right, or (b) angry that I’m challenging your belief system.

    As Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris tried to address, there are two types of truth: one is the truth of things and the natural actions of mechanics – the truths of science. The other is the truth of outcomes of human actions – the truth of beliefs that guide us to better outcomes – the truths of religions and traditional values which have evolved over human history but have lost any rational underpinnings if they ever had any. Societies that held them survived.

    If the Enlightenment can be characterised as recognising an age of reason, then what we need is a further one to herald an age of wisdom.

  9. Denver says

    When Sullivan talks about faith in Reason, he doesn’t mean faith that the reasoning behind concepts that have been worked out. He means faith that Reason as a principle (as opposed to Faith or Love) will solve all of our problems and a society containing individuals who worship Reason will be a perfect one.

  10. Gregory Bryant says

    I was entertained by the paragraph that describes the beliefs of atheists. So… 92 percent say they don’t believe in God? Perhaps we can reword that. How about “8% of atheists don’t know what the word means”?

  11. Circuses and Bread 🇺🇸 says

    A good article, but the author misses the point on politics and its relation to religion. Yes, at times in the past, some religious traditions had influence on contemporary western politics, but those days are long over. The Cults of Politics have become ascendant complete with their own catechisms, rituals, dogmas and wild-eyed True Believers.

    • Amen.

      Religion, like politics, is about human nature. The separation of church and state redirected religion to its proper domain: the individual human… giving to God v. giving to Caesar. As a Christian I am called to forgive someone who robs me, but also, still as a Christian, I maintain the need for a good police force and judiciary/penal system. Michaelangelo’s God (fatherly/grandfatherly figure on the Sistine Chapel ceiling) or Newton’s or Einstein’s God follow the culture of the day, which inform and define both politics and religion of the day. The culture has been changing, still as Werner Heisenberg noted: “The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.”

  12. Caleb says

    ‘These claims about the immutable religious character of individuals and society are built upon misleading and selective definitions of “religion.”’

    I’m glad that the author points out how confusing definitions of “religion” can be, but he doesn’t clarify which definition he’s using. Most people assume a definition something like “an organized set of beliefs centred around a belief in the supernatural”. But some religions don’t have a well organized structure and some don’t have clear supernatural beliefs (e.g. Buddhism). I’m guessing something like this is the definition the author is using.

    Since a lot of ideas about religion in the West are based on Christianity, it might be helpful to look at what definitions they use, which is also somewhat inconsistent. At least in evangelical circles, I can think of two common definitions, used in different contexts. The more common and more relevant one is “A set of beliefs which answer the deep questions of life (e.g. Why are we here? Why is everything so messed up? How can we fix it? Where do we go after we die?)”

    This is the definition used in the context of saying everyone has a religion. Obviously, all traditional religions (“organized religion”) recognized by everyone answer these questions (God made us, sin entered the world, by following God, the new earth/heaven, etc.). But political ideologies also try to answer these questions in different ways (e.g. Progressives seem to have a very strict set of behavioural rules and believe all the problems in the world are caused by oppression). And modern Western culture has various secular “non-religious” answers to these questions. Vaguely spiritual people may have something like “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”, while those with a passion for Science and Reason (e.g. Sam Harris) may think we can think ourselves to answers to these questions. To me it seems that the human brain, while capable of great feats and amazing discoveries, is not completely rational and easily failed. If that is the case, are they putting irrational “faith” in Reason? See similar comments above. If we were to label this belief that science and reason can solve all our problems (and somehow provide a moral system for how and why to do that), I’m not sure what we would call it, but I can see why people see elements of religion in it.

    “When a fundamentalist Christian declares his immovable, unfalsifiable belief in God—a belief that cannot be disturbed by any rational argument or presentation of evidence – he’s explicitly rejecting reason.”

    I think most Christians either gain or justify their belief in God by what they consider to be reasonable arguments. Purely logical arguments for God, study of historical events, personal experiences, etc.
    I think most atheists either gain or justify their disbelief in God for the same reasons.
    How can we say which is more falsifiable or irrational? Neither can be definitively proved or disproved, and there are people who refuse to listen to the other side’s arguments on both sides.

    • Brent Swenson says

      This is a very astute observation. Voltaire’s injunction: “If you wish to converse with me, first define your terms” lies at the heart of nearly all arguments. Absent an agreed-upon definition of religion, the discussion becomes circular, rancorous or both. And I’m puzzled by the need of religious people to assign religious character to secular beliefs.

      So far as I am concerned a belief and dedication to one or more deities, combined with aspects of worship and/or ritual are sine quibus non for a religion. Other manifestations of belief are philosphies or mere predilections and opinions. Even potent leanings in a given secular direction do not qualify as religion without the aforementioned elements. You can respect the hell out of Jesus, Mohammed and Buddha but if you don’t believe and worship them as gods or representatives of gods, you are not participating in a religion.

      • Caleb says

        @Brent Swenson – Fair point. I think that’s an acceptable definition of religion, but it does require relabelling some “religions”, for example Buddhism is called a religion on Wikipedia.

        Religious people (at least Christians, I don’t know about people of other religions) need to assign religious characters to everyone’s beliefs because under their worldview, which they believe to be true, humans were created with a purpose, and that purpose was to glorify and worship God. People were *made* to do that. Regardless of whether or not a person accepts that this is their purpose, if it is true (as the Christian believes), then that is still what the person was made for and meant to do. If this is the case, then they have a craving for something to worship and praise above all other things. If they reject God, they will find something else. This could be false actual gods (other religions; idols in the Old Testament) or something else that is desired and “worshipped” (money, power, or in this case, Reason that will solve all our problems).
        A Christian obviously assumes God exists, so that affects everything else in their worldview. This is why you get people saying that atheists just don’t believe in God because they hate him for one reason or another. Their disbelief is so passionate, you see…

        Under an atheist’s worldview, God does not exist, and any reasonable person would be able to see that. So, to a religious person, it can seem that atheists think religious people must be irrational or have some other reason to reject the obvious truth, and this puts them in the way of the progress of Reason.

        I could be missing something because of my bias, but to me this seems to be why general culture pushes for religious people to keep their faith private (“keep your religion out of your politics”). This is logically impossible because your faith determines your entire worldview, and law and politics often have to do with morality. A Progressive atheist and an Evangelical Christian will have completely different sets of morality, both based on their worldview, and both of them consider their worldview to be just as rational and true. I think the push to keep religion out of politics (e.g. I see people saying it this way about abortion) is the main reason there is this “everyone is religious” pushback from Christians. Perhaps it could be argued in a better way that avoids the controversial definition of “religion”?

  13. Jim Gorman says

    If the precautionary principle is reasonable and is justification for eliminating fossil fuel use in the next 12 years, how does one then say that belief in God is not reasonable? It would seem to me that the precautionary principle also indicates one should believe in God and proclaim his ascendency, just in case!

    • This is Pascal’s wager.

      The problem with it in the modern world is which God or God’s should you believe in and proclaim the ascedancy of? Having decided that which interpretation/version of them should you believe and proclaim? Lastly how does one believe as an act of will if you actually doubt or think the evidence for one god is of no greater weight than that for any of the other beliefs around?

      • Caleb says

        @AJ – Correct me if I’m wrong, but you seem to assume that all gods are equally logical/illogical. Not all religions are created equally. If, theoretically, the claims of one religion were true, then clearly all the others must be fake (either someone wanted some fame or power or someone thought he had a handle on the true deeper meaning of the universe and was sorely mistaken). It should reasonably be possible to eliminate *most* of the fake ones with reason and evidence… Only if the position of atheism is presupposed can they all be equally ridiculous.
        Many of the logical arguments for God only work for a single omnipotent God outside of time and space. Older ideas about gods don’t really work, such as the ancient Greek gods that had physical bodies and lived on Mount Olympus and made the sun go around and formed the Earth together. Well, we can clearly tell that there are no physical gods around, and the Earth is far too advanced and interconnected to be made by gods fighting with each other or even just by gods that has faults and didn’t necessarily agree with each other about everything, etc. Perhaps this is why the later philosophers like Plato turned to monotheism. Anyway that’s just an example.
        Now let’s say you have gone through the logic and decided to be a monotheist. There are still a number of monotheistic religions to choose from. They all claim that God gave a message to humanity and acted in various ways on Earth, which seems like a reasonable proposition. Now you can compare the historical events and the various texts and see if any are logically coherent and consistent. For example if the Old Testament makes sense and fits with history, but the claims the New Testament makes about Jesus don’t seem to be true, then maybe the God of Judaism is the true one.

  14. Katabole says

    If religious belief in the Western tradition means belief in Christ, then yes, Christianity is declining in the West. But it is growing in China. And India. Atheism and Islam are both growing in the West, filling the void left by Christian believers. It is not surprising to see Islam’s current growth, as the only thing that ever stood against it were Christians. And Islam is not going to stop until all are conquered.

    Many Christian churches failed because they did not do what they were supposed to do: teach the Gospel. They taught human tradition and performed rituals instead of the Gospel, and their congregations collapsed. And historically, atheists have the continued habit of marginalizing Christianity, while simultaneously capitulating to Islam, unless some informed atheist wants to name a Muslim majority nation that allows atheist organizations to exist.

    Professor John Lennox in his book, “Gunning for God: Why the New Atheists Are Missing the Target”, claims atheism is a belief system in the religious sense. I categorize Islam as a non-religious cult.

    Many Christians do not categorize belief in Christ as a religion. They consider a personal relationship with Christ; reality. And faith, that is, trust in Christ, as both historically accurate. And ultimately reasonable.

    God is the best explanation why anything exists rather than nothing.
    God is the best explanation for the possibility of God’s existence.
    God is the best explanation for the origin of the universe.
    God is the best explanation for the fine tuning of the universe in order for life, including intelligent life to exist.
    God is the best explanation for a universe with laws.
    God is the best explanation for a universe that is rationally intelligible or comprehensible.
    God is the best explanation for an objective moral reality within humanity.
    God is the best explanation for existential choice or freedom to choose.
    God is the best explanation for the most powerful and noble of emotions, called love.
    God is the best explanation for humans asking questions of ultimate purpose.
    God is the best explanation for humans asking questions of ultimate justice.
    God is the best explanation for the problem of evil.
    God is the best explanation of the applicability of mathematics to the physical world.
    God is the best explanation for the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

    • Define what you mean by an “explanation”, and discuss how it differs from the usage of “explanation” in the sentence “A decrease in temperature is the best explanation for why liquid water changes into ice.”

    • Rusty says

      God is the best explanation if you’re intellectually lazy.

      • Evander says

        Atheism is the best excuse for human autonomy.

        See? We can both make smug, lazy claims.

    • God is not an explanation at all. It simply pushes the questions one step further away.
      If we accept God exists (for example the Christian God)

      most fundamentally

      Why does God exist?
      Why does God take the form he does?
      Why did God create our universe in the form it is in?

      This applies ot any God but for specific faiths there are inherent contradictions which can also be asked about.

      In the case of a christian god why if god is omnipotent and omiscient do painful and debilitating diseases exist, why are innocent people allowed to suffer. Why are young children allowed to be brought up only exposed to false gods and never informed about the true god?

      • Caleb says

        @AJ supposedly Alvin Plantinga has the best refuttal of the problem of evil: https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/warranted.pdf#page=378
        I’ve read that scholars have generally rejected it as a good argument, but I don’t know if that’s just Christians telling themselves that to make themselves feel better… Anyway there’s the book chapter if you’re interested in reading it.

  15. Evander says

    This essay is mistitled; it should be restated as ‘Is religious belief in decline in the US?’ Statistically, that seems so. But no account is given of causal factors. (It’s worth pointing out too that on a global scale, religious belief, not least of the Christian and Islamic kind, is on the rise. While the West ‘secularises’, the African continent and China are emerging as the new dominant centres of Christian faith. For the Reason advocates, for whom secularism is a self-evident good, I suppose these countries just need help from their Enlightened neighbours.)

    It’s also simply a cheerleading piece for the atheists’ favoured gladiators in the contemporary arena of narratives. Apart from customary genuflection to thoughtleader Steven Pinker, it consists of unrepresentative examples of Why Religious Faith is Bad for You – no engagement with the facts that certain faith (i.e. Christian) can correlate with human flourishing outcomes – a critique of Routledge’s persuasive point that nihilism, a natural consequence of a naturalistic view, gives people nothing to live by, which seems sociologically not to work for individuals or societies, again, using a basic measure of well-being and harmoniousness, and a nowhere justified claim that Reason is actually the panacea for all the religion-inspired horrors of human life – but, no, no, no, we don’t worship it at all.

    It’s difficult for nominal anti-dogmatists to confront the reality that they too are dogmatists.

    • Gordon Smith says

      Indeed – one could argue that atheism lacks diversity and is essentially the religion of the privileged white.

  16. Two comments: First, once one’s conception of religion is broad enough to include both classical Buddhism and classical Taoism, it is not so difficult to see various modern varieties of atheism as religious in nature.

    Second, Pinker’s narrow version of reason as a method one uses is not usually what people mean when they oppose reason to faith. Typically the opposition is framed in such a way that claims on behalf of reason (however defined) which are not themselves rationally supportable and are a matter of faith are made, this is particularly so when the advocates of “Reason” purport to be able to reason to conclusions in the imperative from premises in the indicative, to adduce morals from facts.

  17. A very persuasive article! I’m sure God has already read and heeded it and will therfore stop existing forthwith.

  18. Farris says

    “Aikenhead’s case is a powerful reminder that Western societies are far less religious than they used to be.”

    This statement conflates zealotry with religion. Most critics of religion are actually criticizing the practice of religion. Of course man makes a mess of the practice of religion. Killing in the name of Jesus is a mortal sin. The doctrine of Christianity would require forgiveness of Thomas Aikenhead.

    I would not presume to speak for Sullivan, Routledge or Peterson but it would appear they are not depicting reason as a religious entity but rather pointing to a man centered faith, as opposed to a god centered faith, where man is the originator of morality.

    The atheist has undying faith in the notion the science and religion are mutually exclusive. This ideal is unshakable despite evidence that many scientific discoveries have church origins. Many renown universities were founded and funded by churches. Is atheists preoccupation with religion an act of reason? The amount of time, energy, money and litigation atheists spend resisting something they believe does not exist is akin to a crusade.

    • “The atheist has undying faith in the notion the science and religion are mutually exclusive.”

      No, the atheist merely makes a judgment on the matter on the evidence.

      • Evander says

        “No, the atheist merely makes a judgment on the matter on the evidence.”

        And, as such, also makes an inductive leap, which is where the faith component of atheism comes in.

        I have made the judgement based on the evidence that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead.

        We both exercise faith based on evidence.

        • There is no “faith component of atheism”; judging on the evidence is not “faith”. And no, there is no substantive evidence that Jesus rose from the dead. That idea *is* a faith position.

          • Evander says

            Coel, I’ll try to make a good faith case to you that atheism involves an element of faith. That’s not to say it’s unreasonable faith, of course, since it’s faith based on evidence gathered from experience. But faith, belief, a commitment not based on certainty, but (supposed) probability.

            Empirically, you could say that there isn’t sufficient evidence for God, so that for practical purposes you will discount his existence and its implications for your life. That’s a reasonable position. Logically, however, given that you can’t disprove the existence of God, your commitment is to an empirical likelihood, not a demonstrated proof. To claim otherwise is to fall into the fallacy of ignorance – the inability to prove something thereby proves its opposite.

            As for evidence that Jesus rose from the dead: there are documents, written at the time, historical in nature, that claim that such a resurrection took place – the tomb was empty and people claimed to have seen Jesus.

            You can i) dismiss the possibility of miracles based on a presuppositional commitment that miracles don’t take place and so dismiss the account as inherently implausible; or ii) suspend your presuppositions, investigate the history, and concede, even if you disagree, that you’re faced with an evidential claim of an empty tomb, for which you’ve got to provide a more likely inference than resurrection.

        • Hi Evander,

          “That’s a reasonable position. Logically, however, given that you can’t disprove the existence of God, your commitment is to an empirical likelihood, not a demonstrated proof.”

          Sure, did anyone claim otherwise? We discount the idea of gods, owing to lack of evidence, just as we discount lots of other things for which there is little evidence.

          “As for evidence that Jesus rose from the dead: there are documents, written at the time, historical in nature, that claim that such a resurrection took place – the tomb was empty and people claimed to have seen Jesus.”

          All such claims depend on gospels that were written decades later (the first, “Mark” was likely written after the AD71 Roman-Jewish war), and those gospels are anonymous (we don’t know who “Mark” or the other authors were), they are not eyewitness accounts, and don’t even claim to be eyewitness accounts. There is not even any claim that the authors spoke to anyone who was an actual eyewitness. Further, the internal evidence is that the gospels are extended theological parables, not even intended to be historical accounts. Thus they have much the same historical standing as tales of King Arthur or Robin Hood.

          • Evander says

            “Sure, did anyone claim otherwise? We discount the idea of gods, owing to lack of evidence, just as we discount lots of other things for which there is little evidence.”

            You claimed there’s no faith component in atheism. Let’s agree on terms right away. By ‘faith’ I mean an inductive leap: an informed commitment, based on evidence, that isn’t provable. In a sense, I see the atheist position as reasonable. But it’s worth pointing out that it involves an inductive leap. That’s because so many atheists I’ve encountered parrot the rhetorical line of the major atheist representatives: that atheism and Christian theism differ in epistemological status; that the former is intellectually respectable and that the latter isn’t.

            My faith is grounded in text and history, and can thus be penetrated to criticism. It’s not some mystical property that shields me from the difficult work of confronting the world at the dimensions of thought and experience.

            I am a Christian because of the historicity of the Gospel accounts. Matthew and John were direct followers of Jesus. Mark was the protege of Peter, a direct follower of Jesus. Luke associated with the original disciples of Jesus. Luke opens his two-part account of the life of Jesus and the activity of the early church with a statement of historiographical method. (It’s one sentence that will take you less than a minute to read.) He states that he consulted Jesus’ closest friends and followers. Generically, these accounts are classified by scholars as biographical accounts, based in history, in order to describe the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. To claim that they have the same historical standing as medieval fiction is to betray an ignorance of genre and history and a denial of scholarly consensus.

        • Hi Evander,

          “By ‘faith’ I mean an inductive leap: an informed commitment, based on evidence, that isn’t provable.”

          But atheism doesn’t involve any of those things. All it involves is (quoting you): “Empirically, you could say that there isn’t sufficient evidence for God, so that for practical purposes you will discount his existence …”.

          “Matthew and John were direct followers of Jesus. Mark was the protege of Peter, a direct follower of Jesus.”

          You have no evidence at all for any of those claims.

          “Luke opens his two-part account of the life of Jesus and the activity of the early church with a statement of historiographical method. He states that he consulted Jesus’ closest friends and followers.”

          No he does not. He says that his gospel is based on teachings: “just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word”. “Handed down to us” implies that the “us” (people he could have talked to) does *not* include original witnesses. (One can also argue about whether the Greek here is properly translated as “eyewitnesses”.)

          “Generically, these accounts are classified by scholars as biographical accounts, based in history, in order to describe the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. ”

          Most scholars on this topic are Christians who believe that because it suits them. The evidence behind such suppositions is weak.

          • Evander says

            The ‘leap’ involved in atheism is of a negative kind, which I should have specified originally. Your experience leads you to conclude that there’s insufficient evidence for God, a proposition based on likelihood, as opposed to demonstrable proof. The commitment is reasonable – that is, based on the rationale of insufficient evidence – but it’s still a commitment not built entirely on proof. I think we might have exhausted this discussion point.

            John’s Gospel provides explicit self-reference to the author; the ‘dearly loved’ disciple of Jesus states that he is the author of the work. Matthew and his alias ‘Levi’ is referenced internally, too. Authorship of the Gospels is corroborated by Papias c. 130, Irenaeus late 2nd century, and the Muratorian fragment c. 170, which identify the traditional authors as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, as well as providing contextual background, e.g. that Mark was the interpreter of Peter.

            Luke speaks of direct access to eyewitnesses, i.e. people who saw and can testify to having seen Jesus alive after the crucifixion and burial. The original word literally means ‘one who saw directly i.e. without mediation’.

            You’ve quoted out of context. The raw material of his account is conversation with people who were best placed to describe the events that took place – people who engaged with Jesus directly.

            “Most scholars on this topic are Christians who believe that because it suits them. The evidence behind such suppositions is weak.”

            That’s a strikingly naive position. Historians accept that everyone has ‘subjectivity’. (Bias isn’t a respected term academically, being a crude construct.) But reliability isn’t compromised because of one’s subjectivity. All history is argument. You’re assuming that you can’t write to a commonly-accepted standard of objectivity about history which you believe to be true. Can you prove this point?

            In any case, on your view, history can only be reliable if it’s written about by people who have zero interest in the object of investigation – a position which, apart from its prejudiced epistemological assumption, disqualifies atheists from writing about the resurrection on the basis that they’re biased against it.

        • “The ‘leap’ involved in atheism is of a negative kind […] but it’s still a commitment not built entirely on proof.”

          But there is no “commitment”! All we’re doing is finding the evidence unconvincing and so lacking belief. That’s all.

          “John’s Gospel provides explicit self-reference to the author; the ‘dearly loved’ disciple of Jesus states that he is the author of the work.”

          No he doesn’t. The text says: “This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.”. The phrasing that “we” know that “his” testimony is true implies that someone else is writing about that disciple’s testimony.

          Of course one can claim that this is a roundabout way of referring to oneself, but that’s not what the text plainly says.

          “Matthew and his alias ‘Levi’ is referenced internally, too.”

          The text simply does not say that the people referenced were the gospel writer!

          “Authorship of the Gospels is corroborated by Papias c. 130, Irenaeus late 2nd century, …”

          Way too late to mean much. Especially as Christians then could have been making things up to bolster their religion. And we don’t even have that text by Papias, we only have a quote of it by Eusebius a hundred years later, or rather we actually only have copies of translations of Eusebius quoting Papias claiming (100 years too late) who the gospel authors were.

          “Luke speaks of direct access to eyewitnesses, i.e. people who saw and can testify to having seen Jesus alive after the crucifixion and burial. The original word literally means ‘one who saw directly i.e. without mediation’.”

          But he does not speak of “direct access to eyewitnesses”, he speaks of teachings “handed down” from those who “were originally eyewitnesses”. And the text does not say “eyewitness to Jesus alive after the crucifixion and burial”, it says more vaguely eyewitness to “the word”, meaning “the gospels”.

          “The raw material of his account is conversation with people who were best placed to describe the events that took place – people who engaged with Jesus directly.”

          That’s entirely supposition. It is not what Luke says.

          “You’re assuming that you can’t write to a commonly-accepted standard of objectivity about history which you believe to be true.”

          That’s not what I claimed. What I am saying is that Christian scholars’ “faith” causes them to go way beyond the actual evidence in arriving at their “consensus”.

          The basic fact is that we have zero accounts of Jesus’s supposed crucifixion and resurrection that even claim to be an eyewitness account written by someone who was actually there. We don’t even have any clear-cut claim to a second-hand account, that is, some writer stating that they’d talked directly to a named eyewitness. And we have nothing at all provably written within 30 years of the supposed events. That’s why Christians need faith.

          • Evander says

            Coel, you asked for evidence, I provided it, then you dismissed it based on your idiosyncratic readings of the text or on the fact that in your judgement corroborating documents were composed too late. I think you’re not genuinely opened to being persuaded. But thank you for the exchange.

            A parting thought: if I applied your standard of hyperscepticism to claims, following your death, that you existed, I could find a way to insulate myself from believing that you ever lived: people lied, video footage was doctored, multiple people answered my comments on this website.

            But if that’s your intellectual credo, so be it.

        • Hyperscepticism? People are welcome to browse the above remarks and decide whether it amounts to sufficient evidence that someone was seen walking around after their death.

          • Evander says

            To clarify: the evidence I refer to was regarding the authorship of the Gospels and their being reliable accounts of what happened, because that’s where discussion turned. You claim the Gospels are unreliable because there’s not sufficient authorial self-reference or contemporary collaboration with non-biblical sources.

            It doesn’t follow from either of these propositions that the New Testament documents are ipso facto unreliable. You want to probe their provenance. Fair enough. But I called your mentality hypersceptical because I think you’re applying unfair historical standards, as well as idiosyncratic readings, in relation to the documents. I’ll happily submit that assessment for the evaluation of other readers.

            We didn’t make it to discussing the reportedly empty tomb because the threshold of textual reliability wasn’t cross. A topic for another day, perhaps.

        • So you think I’m just being hypersceptic about the authorship of the gospels? Well, my position on that is fairly mainstream. For example the Wikipedia page for “gospel” says: “All four are anonymous (the modern names were added in the 2nd century), and it is almost certain that none were written by an eyewitness.”

      • Farris says

        “No, the atheist merely makes a judgment on the matter on the evidence.”—- He said faithfully.

        • Farris says

          “In truth, there are only two kinds of
          people; those who accept dogma and
          know it, and those who accept dogma
          and don’t know it.”

          G.K. Chesterton

          • augustine says

            “But there is no “commitment”! All we’re doing is finding the evidence unconvincing and so lacking belief. That’s all.”

            So your atheism consists of an absence of belief and an absence of commitment to that (non-)belief? It’s difficult to understand this non-committal stance in light of the ferocity of modern atheism and its self-assigned certitude.

        • “So your atheism consists of an absence of belief and an absence of commitment to that (non-)belief? ”

          Correct. In the same way I lack belief in unicorns but am not “committed” to that non-belief.

          “It’s difficult to understand this non-committal stance in light of the ferocity of modern atheism and its self-assigned certitude.”

          No, it’s quite easy to understand.The “campaigning” nature of atheism is not about theology and not about gods — it’s about social issues. It’s about too much privilege being handed to religious people, it’s about the non-religious being treated as second-class citizens, it’s about the harmful effects of religion on society.

          • augustine says

            Are you concerned about people who do believe in unicorns?

            “The “campaigning” nature of atheism is … about social issues.”

            This would seem to mirror the claim that science is, or should be, about originating applications that can make a difference in people’s lives.

            Both of these positions are an extension of, or distraction from, their true essence and function. You can tack on as many justifications as you like, but the basis of atheism is its stance against theism, and science is a method of understanding the material world. Aren’t those satisfying enough in both cases?

          • “Are you concerned about people who do believe in unicorns?”

            Nope, because they don’t demand special privileges in society and they don’t have harmful effects on society.

            “… but the basis of atheism is its stance against theism, …”

            Agreed. But the reasons many atheist **campaign** against religion is not to do with gods or theology, it’s to do with those social issues.

          • augustine says

            If atheists campaign, not on principle (atheism), but on something else, what relevance does the atheism part have on social issues? If you care about others and want to help your fellow man, why should your atheism be taken into account, by you or anyone else?

            btw You’ve demolished your own analogy of unicorn believers.

          • augustine:

            “If atheists campaign, not on principle (atheism), but on something else, what relevance does the atheism part have on social issues?”

            As I explained: “It’s about too much privilege being handed to religious people, it’s about the non-religious being treated as second-class citizens, it’s about the harmful effects of religion on society.”

            “If you care about others and want to help your fellow man, why should your atheism be taken into account, by you or anyone else?”

            It needn’t be and generally isn’t! But for the issue just listed, religion vs non-religion — and equal treatment of citizens regardless of whether they are religious — is relevant.

            “btw You’ve demolished your own analogy of unicorn believers.”

            No I haven’t.

          • augustine says

            Coel,

            Thanks for the clarification. I had not heard that argument for atheism before. I’m not convinced your justifications or goals have any bearing on atheism per se, but it is always good to know what ends another has in mind. You claim that:

            “it’s about the harmful effects of religion on society”
            “the non-religious being treated as second-class citizens”
            (and) “equal treatment of citizens regardless of whether they are religious”

            In the first claim you are presumably referencing all citizens– religion harms its own followers, harms followers of other religions, and harms the non-religious. In the second case you claim that the non-religious are explicitly harmed by the religious. Thirdly, you are positing “equal treatment” of all citizens regardless of religious standing.

            You disclaim atheism’s importance in some places and assert its relevance in others. Curiously, you leave out any reference to atheistic belief itself leading to harm. There is no reason to believe that an atheistic society would be more “just” or “equal” than a religious one, or another that manages to keep church and state officially apart. Besides, only a religious society could provide any meaning to “atheism” in the first place. The horrors of the 20th century should leave you without doubt of atheism’s perils and highlight man’s limits when he chooses to live egotistically, without faith and supplication.

          • augustine says

            This quote is appropriate to any number of threads on Quillette. It could apply equally to religious men or atheistic men:

            “Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions, and thus they necessarily have the same results.”
            –Machiavelli

          • @augustine

            “I had not heard that argument for atheism before.”

            It wasn’t an argument for atheism, it was an argument for being politically active about religion vs non-religion issues.

            “Curiously, you leave out any reference to atheistic belief itself leading to harm.”

            Atheism in itself is just an *absence* of a particular belief. In itself it doesn’t motivate or lead to anything; people are motivated by the beliefs they *do* hold, not beliefs they don’t hold.

            “There is no reason to believe that an atheistic society would be more “just” or “equal” than a religious one, or another that manages to keep church and state officially apart. ”

            Most atheists today support a pluralistic democracy with religious freedom and church-state separation.

            “The horrors of the 20th century should leave you without doubt of atheism’s perils and highlight man’s limits when he chooses to live egotistically, without faith and supplication.”

            Believing that one is in a personal relationship with the almighty creator of the universe sounds pretty egotistical to me. And yes, people who thought like that (e.g. Hitler) did indeed contribute to the horrors of the 20th century.

          • augustine says

            Coel,

            “Most atheists today support a pluralistic democracy with religious freedom and church-state separation.”

            Again, how is atheism– merely the absence of a particular belief– relevant to these ideas at all? Like many atheists, you assert that atheism makes no positive claims yet you are keen to describe its benefits. Are you arguing in good faith or trying to make a sale?

          • @augustine:

            “Again, how is atheism– merely the absence of a particular belief– relevant to these ideas at all? ”

            Those ideas do not derive from atheism but they are relevant in the sense that they’re the ones held by a majority of atheists these days, and so are the likely prospect as atheism becomes more prevalent.

          • augustine says

            Coel,

            Not any more likely than similar prospects under a largely Christian society. Unless you think ideas based in atheism are somehow immune from the vagaries of human nature. Maybe you believe that the best of human nature can only be realized in the absence of religion, and of transcendent belief? What evidence is there that this is a likely outcome?

            You maintain that atheism is merely disbelief in something yet continue to claim it has “relevance” beyond its main tenet. You are promoting atheism and at the same time denying it is anything other than conceptual in its significance. This strikes me as confusing and even contradictory.

          • Tome708 says

            “Privilege”. Seems I have heard that word applied elsewhere! It’s making more sense now. Destruction.

  19. X. Citoyen says

    Sweet, sweet irony.This piece opens with the “last” blasphemy trial the day after Lindsay Sheperd’s piece on the fallout from her very secular blasphemy trial. To be sure, Sheperd wasn’t burned at the stake. But she was threatened with firing and social ostracism if she didn’t confess and perform her contrition.

    Anyway, the category error is yours, not Sullivan’s. You’re confusing declining belief in (mostly) Christianity in the West with declining religious belief. The definition of religious belief doesn’t have to be so broad as to include anything, but does have to be logical. Taking your (mostly implicit) criterion—scientific knowledge or true and justified belief—then the vast majority of what you believe is not knowledge, but belief taken on faith or trust.

    You mock what people supposedly believed in 1600. Meanwhile, in 2019, alternative medicine—otherwise known as magic—is a multi-billion dollar business, Coast to Coast AM has 2.75 million listeners, and the pseudo-scientific declaration by “Particles for Justice” got the signatures of 4,000 physicists. Ah yes, Reason rules.

    • Indie Wifey says

      Yep. Add to that crystals minerals healing bracelets sports garb and game rituals powdered tusks and horns murky green supermeatavitavegimen (sp?) beverages; and then we have the hair industry non-existent 13th floors and black cats that languish at shelters

    • Farris says

      “While it’s true that atheists may converge on some issues (such as the scientific reality of evolution, the political importance of secularism, and the protection of civil rights for homosexuals), they are not bound by a rigid set of doctrines, rules, and punishments. “

      The author mentions evolution but the big hole in this article is the social sciences with their rigid set of rules and punishments. The wholehearted defense of how reason applies to the social sciences, as currently practiced, is missing because the argument simply can not be made.

    • D.B. Cooper says

      @Citizen X

      the vast majority of what you believe is not knowledge, but belief taken on faith or trust.

      This is an excellent point, and one that is all too often lost on far many, and therefore, bears repeating.

      Science is a mechanism or process for the acquisition or discovery of objective truth, knowledge and/or the justification for holding a true belief, e.g., empirical data. But, as you so usefully stated, this “truth” is actually something more like a belief grounded on faith, i.e., the problem of induction.

      Just to expand on this thought a bit, science is based on the idea that under the same conditions, everything (observations, data) should occur in the same manner, and if an event can be reproduced; then we (science) can claim to have knowledge about that event. But the problem arises because this knowledge is formed by drawing inferences from observations. And that inference is, once again, that given the same conditions things should occur as they have in the past. The reason this is a problem – and I might add, one that people such as the author, Mr. Johnson, doesn’t care or want to discuss – is that it’s not at all obvious (or self-evident) why one should presuppose all future events (given the same conditions) will, necessarily, occur in the same manner as past events. We just assume this is the case as if it is axiomatic or self-evident, but clearly, it’s not. We have no reason to do so. This reasoning is circular, since it presumes what it needs to demonstrate, where the claim and the proof support each other. That is, scientific knowledge essentially bootstraps itself, and therefore, its “truth” is a matter of faith, is it not? (No need to answer, that was rhetorical.)

      More generally, one could say that all truth claims about the ultimate nature of reality exist as a matter of faith. Take for example the radically different – and often opposing – claims of atheists (naturalist) and theists. Both are belief systems that make claims concerning the ultimate nature of reality. Both operate under the same “truth” conditions, e.g. burden of proof lies with the claimant, regardless of its positive or negative content. (Yes, despite what manner like to claim, you can, in fact, “prove” a negative.)

      To understand why all truth claims are based on belief, consider that all valid claims require premises, i.e., statements the claimant presupposes are true – a priori assumptions. Therefore, any claim one makes is, ultimately, grounded on a belief, or set of beliefs, one has already presupposed to be true – an axiom, if you will. At bottom, both the naturalist/atheist and the theist are seeking, each in their own way, to reconcile their world-view(s) with the reality that is; which, as you said, are ultimately contingent on the faith in the truth values of these premises.

      Does that mean we can’t ever know anything? Well, I would say that depends on what we mean by “know,” but with respect to scientific knowledge or epistemology (the theory of knowledge & justification) absolute certain is impossible; so, no, scientific knowledge can never claim with certainty to know-what-it-knows.

  20. Indie Wifey says

    I used to say this as regarded (organized religion) religious practice; this can now apply to all manner of leftist zealots:
    If it makes you a better person, have at it.
    If it makes you think you are a better person, go back to square one.

  21. augustine says

    “Western societies are far less religious than they used to be… —we no longer torture and execute blasphemers, wage wars on God’s behalf, or regard natural disasters as divine punishments for human sins.”

    If one is speaking of Christians, these things are long and well removed from everyday religiosity. We do, however, still practice many of the basic elements of faithful worship that do not entail these extremes. The title of this article should have been “Is American Religious Belief in Decline?” because the author excludes other religions, practiced here and elsewhere, that do actively incorporate the practice of these horrors and worse.

    A thought-provoking article in a few places but the “axe to grind” against religion overpowered any impartiality on offer.

  22. Tom More says

    Odd to pick the murder of some poor Scot and not say… the founding of the world’s first universities.. or music.. or the philosophical and theological foundations that explain why science took off in the west. And what of purpose? Meaning? Accidental byproduct of mindless matter in motion; the incoherent mechanistic model most unwittingly carry? I think that as intellectual death.. postmodernism.. continues to attack the western mind, people will turn to philosophers like Mortimer Adler or Ed Feser and perhaps for the first time understand the real import of the “form” in the word information. Theism is the only conceivable ground for reason itself. Narcissistic consumerism is working out so well… Lastly.. .if you really want to talk murder .. check modern atheism.. It puts all of history to shame in its enthusiasm for murder. Its almost impossible to find an intelligent atheist by the way; but this is predictable given the nature of this divine milieu.

  23. I’m not committing the naturalistic fallacy. What I’m saying is that the alternative to Judeo-Christian values is not “Reason”, it is humanistic values.

    • Evander says

      You say that humanistic values are rooted in humanity and are a legitimate – superior? – alternate moral basis for ethical life. Why prefer humanistic ‘values’ – inquiry, tolerance, etc. – among the other ‘values’ present in humanity, such as cannibalism and rape? You can’t simultaneously appeal to what is human as what is good and elevate your personal preferences from that group. To do the latter you need to appeal to something beyond what is human to justify your choice of (for example) tolerance as ethical and cannibalism as unethical. Appealing to what is human is appealing to what is the natural property of humanity and plainly an example of the naturalistic fallacy.

      You need to disclose the authority to which you appeal in choosing some human values and not others.

      As a Christian theist, I ground my appeal for ethics in the character and commands of God as disclosed in scripture.

      • “You need to disclose the authority to which you appeal in choosing some human values and not others.”

        There is no authority by which I do this. It is, however, the case that humans in general do prefer some human values to others, and that societies run on such humanistic values are the best to live in in the sense that they are the ones people prefer

        “As a Christian theist, I ground my appeal for ethics in the character and commands of God as disclosed in scripture.”

        Might makes right? Who gave God the right to decide what is morally right or wrong? If the answer is that God gave himself that right, why is that better than anyone else deciding things? After all, God could be a tyrannical monster (and if some traditional accounts of Christianity are correct, including everlasting torture post-death, then he certainly is a tyrannical monster).

        • Evander says

          You claim not to appeal to any authority… and then cite popularity as the determinative factor of what is moral.

          The answer is that God by virtue of being the Creator of the universe has an absolute right over creation. One scriptural analogy used to exemplify the status of the two is Potter and Clay. If it’s true

          On the Christian view, ultimate reality is God, because before material creation there was only God. The prevailing ethic is love of which only personal beings, not forces or principles, are capable; a reality which flows from God’s Trinitarian nature. On the naturalistic view, there’s only matter, and so an ethic of power naturally obtains.

          If you want to know what God is like, the place to look is the person of Jesus. You won’t find much in the way of tyranny; you’ll certainly find justice and forgiveness, though.

          • “You claim not to appeal to any authority… and then cite popularity as the determinative factor of what is moral.”

            I didn’t say that popularity determines “what is moral”, I merely said that popularity is a guide to the sort of societies that people want to live in.

            “The answer is that God by virtue of being the Creator of the universe has an absolute right over creation.”

            Both “might makes right” and “creation entails moral rights” are non sequiturs. And a “morally wrong” creator god is no less logical than a “morally right” creator god.

            “… the place to look is the person of Jesus. You won’t find much in the way of tyranny; …”

            So Jesus was wrong about hell then? He was wrong to say: “‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels […] These will go away into eternal punishment”.

            Condemning people to eternal punishment sounds utterly tyrannical to me. How about you?

          • Farris says

            @coel
            Matthew 25:31-46 is a peculiar reference for an atheist to cite.

            The passage concerns the fate of those at the end of time who never acknowledged God or believed in eternal life. The passage basically says those who have not acknowledged God will not receive eternal life. Since the atheists believes neither in God or eternal life why would he expect to encounter either?

            As for the claim this is tyranny, then anyone suffering the consequences of their actions or inactions is subject to tyranny. Personal responsibility for one’s conduct may not be in vogue but it remains a reality. Is the criminal in jail because of his misdeeds a subject of tyranny? Is expressing concern for the fate of nonbelievers evidence of doubt in atheism?

  24. Fickle Pickle says

    What if “official” institutional religiosity is a now a form of collective psychosis, especially in its right-wing or “conservative” forms? – The kind promoted by Edward Feser as a prime example.

    At last, and inevitably, the ancient self-appointed exoteric “religious” rulerships have failed, and “official” institutional christian-ism (along with all the other “great world-religions” of merely exoteric “religion-power”) has now been reduced to all the impenetrable illusions and decadent exercises that everywhere chaacterize previously privileged aristocracies in their decline from worldly power.

    Now exoteric christian-ism has been reduced to a chaos of power-and-control-seeking corporate cults and Barnumesque propagandists that “rule” nothing more than chaotic herds of self-deluded religion-consumers in the market place of whats-in-it-for-me consumerist religiosity.

    P T Barnum was of course wrong there are thousands of suckers born every minute.

    Therefore the myth (lie) of the cultural superiority of “official” institutional christian-ism has now come full circle. The “religious” mythologies of all the “world-religions” are not only now waging global wars with one another (like so many psychotic inmates of asylums for the mad, each confronting the other with exclusive claims of personal absoluteness), but the public masses of “religion-bound” people – who, all over the Earth, for even thousands of years, have been controlled in body and mind by ancient institutions of “religiously”-propagandized worldly power – are now in a globalized state of grossly bound “religious” delusion and social psychosis.

    • “Condemning people to eternal punishment sounds utterly tyrannical to me. How about you?”

      I reject the concept of “eternal punishment” as typically understood. I subscribe to more of a separation from God.

      But, overall, I reject that God condemns. We choose it ourselves by our actions. It really boils down to whether one sees it through a determinist lens or free will lens. Through a free will lens, reason makes sense. Sadly, most who have been weaned on the Protestant doctrines that (in-general) flowed from Augustine to Luther/Calvin only think in terms of a deterministic God. It’s roots are pagan, frankly.

  25. Fickle Pickle says

    Notice how humorless all the postings are, especially on the part of those promoting some form of traditional christian-ism.

    Notice too that the word love has not been used too.
    The longish post by katabole being a case in point. Does “proving” or Living the Truth have anything to do with GUNNING?

    What is the Truth?
    We live in God or the Radiant Transcendental Being. The Great One is our very Being. We inhere in the Blissful, Forceful Being of the Starry God, the Wonder, The Mystery, the Person of Love. This is our situation and our Destiny.

    The Great One spontaneously magnified Itself in the form of sexual beings, human beings, earth world, form and fruit and wall and space and star and sky and cloud and tree and life and death. The same Great One spontaneously takes all these forms, completely Free, completely Happy in all of these excesses. This is all The Great One, The Radiant Transcendental Being. The Great One creates nothing. The Great One IS everything. What a Paradox! What a Mystery! What a Wonderful Blissful Starry God!

  26. I agree with many things in this opinion piece, including some important criticisms it makes of popular opinions I agree are false. But it also contains significant errors, I think because the writer lacks training in the philosophy of science, science itself, language, and theology, all of which I happen to have taught. I will make just three points.
    1. The secular regimes of Nazism and various Communist states slaughtered far more heretics, including religious folk, in the name of science in the 20th century than Christians ever slaughtered other Christians.
    2. Falsifiability is “just a simple motto that non-philosophically-trained scientists have latched onto.” And non-scientists even more so! Falsifiability is not what makes the date of the Battle of Hastings in 1066 worth putting one’s “faith” in. Falsifiability is not what makes do unto others as you would have them do to you, a golden rule that is *secular* (broad, inclusive, of all religions, and none).
    3. Faith and reason are not in the least bit opposed. Reason gives one grounds to have faith in a proposition. Faith is trust in a coherent, i.e. rational or reasonable, set of beliefs. “Leap in the dark” faith *against* evidence is indeed often lunacy, but is more often a special case of trust in something reasonable at a higher level. “It seems crazy to me, but it’s policy, and the policy wonks normally get it right,” is a kind of faith against evidence in a specific, warranted by the general. Wordsworth thought faith of a kind *lead* to reason. “That monumental grace Of Faith, which doth all passions tame That Reason should control.” –Wordsworth
    I genuinely liked the criticisms this article made with which I agreed, and it’s unfortunate to focus on what I think is false.

    • “The secular regimes of Nazism and various Communist states slaughtered far more heretics, including religious folk, in the name of science …”

      The Nazi regime was not “secular”, it was steeped in religion. The Nazis even founded their own church (“the Deutsche Christen”) and their own Nazi theological institute! Hitler regularly spoke about God in speeches (examples below). Second, the Nazis did not act “in the name of science”. In the name of Nazi ideology, yes.

      “Hence this song [The German anthem] also constitutes a pledge to the Almighty, to His will and to His work: for man has not created this Volk, but God, that God who stands above us all. He formed this Volk, and it has become what it should according to God’s will, and according to our will, it shall remain, nevermore to fade!” (Hitler, speech, July 31, 1937)

      “I believe that it was also God’s will that from here a boy was to be sent into the Reich, allowed to mature, and elevated to become the nation’s Fuhrer, thus enabling him to reintegrate his homeland into the Reich. There is a divine will, and all we are is its instruments.” (Hitler, speech, April 9, 1938)

      “Besides that, I believe one thing: there is a Lord God! And this Lord God creates the peoples.” (Hitler, speech, February 24, 1940).

  27. mariankechlibar says

    The comparison of Reason to CPU is quite good and I will definitely use it in the future.
    That said, you can run all kinds of programs on the CPU efficiently, and you can use Reason to build efficient Dystopia, too. The Chinese Social Credit system comes to mind.

  28. Wentworth Horton says

    The topic of the existence or definitions of a “God” or Religion is a plaything for the too comfortable. Some find Jesus in their own way, others just fly the flag. It’s a boring question.

  29. Upstate says

    Humans seem to have a need to preach, a sort of preaching quota. In much of the secular west there has been a decline in traditional religious preaching, but it has been replaced by relentless secular preaching about the environment, diversity, social justice etc. This preaching comes from all directions; individuals, academia, the media, advertising, entertainment. The US has been subject to waves of mass religious hysteria before, and we are experiencing something similar now, complete with preaching against the devil, Trump. All we can do is try to avoid situations where we can be preached at, or at the very least have an escape route once the preaching starts.

  30. I figured this piece would ignite a firestorm in the comment section. Not disappointing. As expected there is well deserved pointing out of the failures and outright atrocities of Christianity through the centuries . Fair enough. Often overlooked is what Christians were like and how they behaved prior to the Romanization of the ‘church’ via the emperor Constantine. None of the so-called atrocities are attributed to original Jesus followers.

    It should also be noted the generally pacifist Jesus was consistently aggressive toward one societal element in 1st century Palestine – no it wasn’t the Romans, it was the Pharisees, the religious authorities.

    Jesus never intended for a powerful, wealthy juggernaut be erected in his name. The demise of the Roman Catholic and Protestant church is not the end of western Christianity, but a chance for a rebirth.

  31. Solomon Stavrov says

    The author falsify facts, claiming that “religion is one of the most powerful engines of it (tribalism)” because “81 percent of evangelical Christians voted for Trump?” What about Catholic Christians, who voted 50-50 in 2018? What about Jews, who voted 80% for Democrats? It is impossible to base life only on reason. We have a lot of irrational causes to behave in this or another way. This irrational is not necessary to be religion. For example, I do not think that non-religious Spaniards would agree to give up Madrid or Cordoba back to Arabs, because the latter are lead by religious believe that the whole Spain is Al-Andalus – a Muslim land.

  32. Brian Crowley says

    “Thankfully, we have one innate capacity that allows us to leave all these horrors behind: Reason.”

    Preach Brother Preach!!

  33. daniel kobb says

    “When a fundamentalist Christian declares his immovable, unfalsifiable belief in God—a belief that cannot be disturbed by any rational argument or presentation of evidence – he’s explicitly rejecting reason.”

    The observable universe is unimaginably ordered. It is perfectly reasonable to conclude that a super-intelligence was required to create this order out of chaos, or non-existence. When an atheist concludes that this order, beauty, life and his own consciousness add up to no evidence of an intelligent creator, that appears to be irrational. The theist rejects the atheist argument because is is *unreasonable.*

    Faith is belief in things we have not seen. We all believe in things we have not seen, but have concluded are true by a process of reasoning. We may disagree with each other, but the pejoratives are unhelpful.

  34. Rick Gibson says

    While Matt complained that Clay’s definition of Religion was to big, maybe Matt’s definition is too small? He may not be fully aware how large a role Religion played in the average person’s life in the past.
    Another way to look at it is to ask what needs did a religious community fulfill and what thing or things have taken it’s place? An example of this occurred after one of the mass shootings, when people began to repeat the mantra ‘policy not prayer’. I think this indicates something more than just the fact that people don’t believe prayer works, it indicates that the substitution seemed right to them. In the past, people would turn to their religion or religious community for comfort and support after tragedy. Not only for practical needs, but also in hopes of finding an answer to ‘why did this happen?’ and/or as a way to prevent this from happening again (through prayer or sacrifice). Today we turn to government not only for support of practical needs, but in hopes that the right ‘policy’ will keep the same tragedy from happening in the future.

  35. Mark Beal says

    Stop press! 92% of self-described atheists say they don’t believe in God!

    “Why does Sullivan think 81 percent of evangelical Christians voted for Trump?” A suggestion would be that given the choice between a Republican president and a Democrat one, they ran with the Republican – possibly while regarding both candidates as morally reprehensible.

    “Why does he think abortion is the most radioactive subject in American politics?” You don’t have to be religious to find abortion to be one of the most difficult ethical issues to wrestle with.

    And given that progressives have devoted their lives to making us all believe in seven impossible before breakfast, such as that men can become women and vice versa by wishing hard, I’d say that some kind of belief in magic is still prevalent, and that religious habits die hard, for on today’s left, racism, homophobia and xenophobia aren’t just considered reprehensible, they’re treated as sins, and those supposed to hold such views cast out as sinners.

    • One of the most astonishing people I ever met in the 90’s was an older feminist, atheist, progressive professor who was rabidly pro life. She made quite the case for life when people dared to challenge her. I had to admire her grit as she was no stranger to prolife rallies.

  36. Recommend the author read some Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn, and try again later. Blind “faith” in WOKE “religion” is “hanging” innocent college students as we speak. Naive piece.

  37. “There is no IPCC dogma of climate change they have a position based on evidence… ”

    No. The magnitude of the greenhouse effect really is based on an assumption (an article of faith) – that no other mechanism can cause the atmosphere to warm the Earth. See IPCC definition of Greenhouse Effect. This assumption has been shown to be wrong, but even without that it was still an assumption.

    The most significant, costly, and deadly scientific issue of this day really is superstition. Many people will die unnecessarily if denied access to coal fired power. Just today read that the African Development Bank is bucking the system and going to support coal. Many lives to be saved.

  38. G.R. Mead says

    Kant showed that reason cannot, even in principle, be made to necessarily come up with the moral system we have come to rely upon and enjoy in order to live our lives in peace and harmony, nor even one reasonably similar to it.

    He anticipated Kurt Godel who showed that mathematically: no system can be complete; every system of knowledge can propose actual truths that cannot be proved by the system that makes them capable of being stated.

    Reason is valuable, but inadequate; being necessary, yes, but not sufficient.

    Bottom line, the human organism is capable of far more and far greater things than mere reasoning.

    Too many fall short on both counts, however, I’ll grant you.

    • Dan Love says

      @G.R. Mead

      I agree with the gist of what you’re saying.

      Where did Kant anticipate Godel? This would be most interesting to me.

  39. DuppyConqueror says

    “reason is prior to everything else and needn’t (indeed cannot) be justified on first principles”

    Oh, so reason gets a special category of its own because it’s prior to everything else and so therefore can’t be subject to logical proof.

    Of course “being prior to everything else” isn’t part of the job description for Prime Mover.

    “When a fundamentalist Christian declares his immovable, unfalsifiable belief in God—a belief that cannot be disturbed by any rational argument or presentation of evidence – he’s explicitly rejecting reason.”

    This is simply a category error. As Paul Tillich says, God does not exist. The Ground of Being transcends the categories of essence and existence. To argue that God exists is to deny him.

    You don’t even have to be a believer to knock this stuff over.

  40. Lightning Rose says

    At least in the US, the majority of the cohort who believe themselves “post” religion are white, affluent, coastal residents college educated post 80’s. They think they’re too “smart” to need the traditions, teachings, and churches, even though the only part they’ve been taught is the literal surface suitable for the intellect of small children and not the deep, spiritual teachings and human truths that at one time great men learned as the ultimate Mystery underlying all traditions.

    How very interesting that the same “smart” set now have a new method of social-group bonding and signifying–public VIRTUE SIGNALING. Being cool used to be a BMW and Ray-Bans; being virtuous used to be singing loudly in the front pew. Now the ticket to “in” status with the Atlantic and New Yorker crowd is trips to Africa or Bolivia to photogenically assist the “needy;” notice its never in places like Bridgeport or Baltimore even though they all swoon for “diversity!”

    The uniform is Patagonia puffers and spray-on yoga pants, extra points for jogging and biking into self-inflicted fashionable emaciation and A-fib with the help of the daily kale-smoothie physic. While standing on line with NPR tote bag in all the approved places like Starbucks and Whole Foods, one MUST espouse loudly strident beliefs in global warming, imminent mass extinction, “fair trade,” veganism to “Save the Planet” ™, by lugging the vile vegetation out to the Tesla.

    Which is parked in the 4-car heated garage of an 8,500 square foot mansion, at least when it’s so-woke driver isn’t skiing in Vail or paddleboarding in St. Barth’s while taking classes in “yoga” and “mindfulness,” “chi” and “chakras,” and swallowing whatever “healers” like Gwyneth Paltrow dream up in the name of Health, which has replaced Enlightenment; ALL of which requires the 24/7 “fellowship” and fawning approval of their social media Greek chorus, but you understand they’re much, MUCH too “smart” for religion.

    We Deplorables snicker . . .

  41. Alexander Allan says

    What a terribly argument from the author. Firstly he contradicts himself:

    Initially the author says, quoting Pinker, “We don’t believe in reason; we use reason” then ends the article saying “Thankfully, we have one innate capacity that allows us to leave all these horrors behind: Reason”, which sounds to me like a belief in reason.

    Secondly reason, as he correctly points out, is a tool we use. All humans processes the ability to reason: It is the defining characteristic of humans which separates and raises us above the rest of the natural world. He never articulates what the goal of reason is, apart from saying that it enable us rise above “the cruelty and tribalism that can make a human being feel righteous”. But he gives no reason why cruelty and tribalism is wrong; he just presumes it and expect us to accept that. And this underlines the true purpose of reason: to seek what is good. However, in a solely materialist universe, which exists for no purpose as it was a process of pure chance, one must reject the existence of an objective good which we can seek through reason. For why would a universe, that atheist profess has no cause to exist, need an objective good when there is both no telos to its existance and, more importantly, to the humans that dwells within it. One can only discern that such atheists are delusional for seeking a universal good that is nonexistent and, as Jordon Peterson correctly points out, are “in fact religious”.

    The claim by Pinker et al, that reason existed only from the Enlightenment and prior too that there was just faith and belief is both factual incorrect and smacks of a Secularist Year Zero. It is also very stupid to dismiss classical and medieval philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle and St Thomas Aquinas as not been rational just because you disagree with the conclusions of their reasoning.

    Lastly the author argues that we are more rational now than before in the every growing secular West. However the evidence doesn’t support this claim: We now have secular iinstitutions claiming than a human’s gender is not biologically determined and at the same time arguing that men and women are the same and only social constructs have made them different, that truth is relative, all white men are oppressive, masculinity is toxic etc.. This is not rational thinking but it is secular reasoning, and it will get worse as secular reasoning is not rooted in an objective good, but is orintated around justifying individualistic feelings. Hence the ascendancy of feelings over reasoning in our increasingly secular society.

    • “The claim by Pinker et al, that reason existed only from the Enlightenment and prior too that there was just faith and belief is both factual incorrect and smacks of a Secularist Year Zero.”

      Does Pinker actually claim that? It smells like a strawman.

  42. I wonder if this proposition that there is an ‘unvariant amount of unfounded belief’ over time is a misreading of the strategy of ‘rational ignorance’.
    Most people find it does not offer ‘return on effort’ to enquire too deeply on things that their current state of knowledge allows effective living with. Or, once you know that Candidate A is a crook and you are not going to vote for zem, why ask any detail about zer policies??

  43. mblist says

    > As Pinker explains in Enlightenment Now: “We don’t believe in reason; we use reason
    >Thankfully, we have one innate capacity that allows us to leave all these horrors behind: Reason.

    What makes the author think that we would use reason for good?

  44. I’m an atheist, but do admit the problem of induction.

    Not sure how religion faith solves it though. Is that a thing someone believes?

    • Caleb says

      I just read about it so I may be misunderstanding it, but I think I have seen it as a religious argument before.
      For a theist, God is eternally consistent and never-changing, and can be counted on to be that and to keep his promises. As a result, we can expect his creation to be consistent and comprehensible. Early Christian scientists studied nature because they believed they could learn about the nature of God by studying his creation. Nature behaves consistently because its Creator behaves consistently. For a Christian as well, the Bible (the word of God) makes promises about the future that are expected to be kept, which imply that the world will behave as normal until those things happen. I assume other faiths have similar things.

  45. Loren says

    It seems to me that many people are finding themselves open to more fluid conceptions of terms like “God” and “heaven” than have historically been offered by the rigid dogma of organized religions. I wonder how many polls actually define those terms before giving people a yes or no option of whether or not they believe in their existence. I also wonder how many people, including atheists and recovering-Christians, consider in their rejection of religion the esoteric and philosophical conceptions of deity (however you name it). I was never raised religious or spiritual in any formal way, but I have found some of the writings of the early Judeo-Christian milieu (like gnosticism, hermeticism, apocryphal texts, etc.) to be very illuminating, giving the canonical texts allegorical and philosophical significance. This is all, of course, outside of any organized religious institution.

  46. How is religion defined? SJW is a religion that gives their lives “meaning” and purpose (to obtain power no different from medieval Christianity)

    • Caleb says

      Exactly. So much of this debate depends on that definition. If it is just “organized belief in the supernatural”, which seems simplistic to me, then we need a better word between “religion” and “worldview” for whatever it is that gives groups of people their drive and purpose and makes them strive for a common goal with such passion. Ideology? Cult? Dogma? They all have different connotations.

  47. No Sharia says

    The author makes a false assertion: that we no longer make wars on god’s behalf. We did it when we invaded Iraq on George Bush’s claim that he heard god tell him to go ahead.

  48. Andrew Lohr says

    So use “worldview” (Secular, Islamic, Christian, Hindu/ Buddhist, …) instead of “religion,” because we need a word for it. Most worldviews use reason, assigning it various places. Everyone has a worldview. Which is true? Which handles dissenters best? Christ died for sinners–if that’s not loving dissenters, what is? And rose up alive on the 3rd day, so that and other Christian miracles empirically falsify Secularism. Neither does the Gulag worldview, heirs of which run Russia and China, show secularism can be trusted to be nice, not that Stalin and Ayn Rand had the same–denomination?–of secularism.. Most people in the world would probably like to move to Christendom, which hints that the Prince of peace and President of presidents knows something about politics (read Rushdoony’s “The One and the Many.”)

  49. Roger Wilkins says

    A remarkably blinkered article that assumes elite opinions in Western Europe and parts of the USA are typical of the World. Look at countries like Hungary and Poland or even Russia, large swathes of sub Saharan Africa, and Central and South America for Christianity alone. Then add in Islamic countries, Hindu India etc etc. Religion is as powerful, if not more powerful and influential than ever. This author needs to get out more.

  50. David J says

    Religion is not the best word to use and a good case can easily be made – and a number of them have been made here – why such and such a thinker or worldview isn’t religious. Rather, it’s an issue about faith and about the unexamined assumptions which are made when something is or is not deemed evidence. I enjoyed this article, but disagree with much in it. The issue is far more profound than the way in which it is written about here.

  51. Ofinfinitejest says

    Many comments here are ridiculous, and if we distort the definition of religion to set aside ideas of worship of the supernatural then dialogue on this topic becomes worthless.

    There is no support for the idea that religious belief, properly defined, is something essential to humanity. It’s possible that there are some genetic behavioral patterns and thought tendencies–a kind of evolutionary psychological baggage–that tilt humans towards superstition or religion, however, it’s clear that not all humans are subject to this:

    http://freethinker.co.uk/2008/11/08/how-an-amazonian-tribe-turned-a-missionary-into-an-atheist/

    ~~ …he had traveled to the Amazon in the 70s to bring the tribe “the joy of faith” only to discover that they were a deeply contented people. In fact they seemed far better contented than he was.
    Tribe members asked the missionary whether he had seen or experienced any of the things he was telling them about. He had to admit that he hadn’t; that he was simply passing things onto them that were told to him by people who hadn’t seen or experienced them either.

    The Pirahas, he said:

    Believed that the world was as it had always been, and that there was no supreme deity.

    Furthermore they had no creation myths in their culture. In short, here was a people who were more than happy to live their lives without God, religion or any political authority.

    Despite Everett translating the Book of Luke into Piraha and reading it to tribe members, the Piraha’s sensibly resisted all his attempts to convert them.

    According to a report in the New Yorker:

    His zeal soon dissipated … Convinced that the Piraha assigned no spiritual meaning to the Bible, Everett finally admitted that he did not, either. He declared himself an atheist.

    The book concludes with Everett saying:

    The Pirahas have shown me that there is dignity and deep satisfaction in facing life and death without the comforts of heaven or the fear of hell, and of sailing towards the great abyss with a smile. And they have shown me that for years I held many of my beliefs without warrant. I have learned these things from the Pirahas, and I will be grateful to them for as long as I live. ~~~

  52. Mark A. Plus says

    The arguments for religious belief (RB) have changed because our beliefs about god have changed. If you argue that people benefit from RB in secular, empirical ways – that with RB they enjoy better health, less depression, more stable family lives and so forth – then you show a basically humanist value orientation. In other words, you view RB as a tool for making human life better in this world, independently of what the right RB allegedly does for you in the afterlife.

    This view would have struck traditional theologians like Augustine as fundamentally wrong-headed. They assumed that human life still sucks with RB, and that you have to place your hopes in the hereafter.

    If you have traveled this far from traditional theology in your apologetics for Christianity, especially, then you might as well ditch religion and head straight towards a humanist philosophy.

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