Posts Tagged ‘Atheism’

Bertrand Russell on belief in God

August 11, 2016


Is There a God? by Bertrand Russell (1952)

Woody Allen cast as a Dostoyevsky villain

February 9, 2014

Woody Allen’s ex-partner, Mia Farrow, and estranged son, Ronan Farrow, have revived accusations that he raped his seven-year-old adopted daughter, Dyan Fallow, some 21 years ago.  After having read Robert B. Weide’s analysis of the case, I think the accusations (not charges, because prosecutors never filed charges) are unproved.

woody.allen.nihilistGrace Olmstead, writing for the American Conservative, thinks he probably is guilty because this is the kind of thing that an atheistic nihilist would be likely to do.  She compared him to Dostoyevsky’s fictional Svidrigailov from Crime and Punishment who raped a mute 15=year-old girl because, as another Dostoyevsky character said, if God does not exist, all is permitted.  Other writers suspend judgment on Allen’s guilt, but say his philosophy is a justification for child abuse.

What do these writers say about the child abuse perpetrated by priests of the Roman Catholic Church, who were then protected by the church?  Were they atheists and nihilists?  I don’t think so.  I don’t think you can tell much about what people would do by the creeds to which they pay lip service.


The Woody Allen Allegations: Not So Fast by Robert B. Weide for The Daily Beast.

Defending the Case Against Woody Allen by Grace Olmstead for the American Conservative.

Woody Allen, Nihilist by Damon Linker for This Week.  Hat tip to Rod Dreher.

UN Report Blasts Catholic Church for Systematic Child Abuse Coverup, an interview of Kirsten Sandberg, chairperson of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, on the Real News Network.

I know that there are celebrities who’ve gotten away with sexual abuse of children for years.  I also know from personal acquaintance that innocent people can be falsely accused as a byproduct of martial or child custody disputes.  Based on what I’ve read, I think that Allen’s guilt has not been established, and that he is entitled to a presumption of innocence.

An atheist critique of Christopher Hitchens

June 23, 2013

An avowed atheist named Curtis White has attacked the late Christopher Hitchens for being unfair to religion.   He stated in an article entitled Christopher Hitchens’ lies do atheists no favors on the Salon web site this morning that Hitchens’ God Is Not Great is not only wrong, but dishonest.  He said Hitchens’ book was full of factual errors and failed to appreciate how much of culture, philosophy and civilization itself is embedded in religion—both valid criticisms.

Beyond this, White attacked Hitchens for his belief in individual reason and conscience, which is not a valid criticism.  White thinks reason and conscience are incoherent concepts, and no substitute for the authority of poetry and religion.  So he may be an atheist, but he is not a freethinker or a rationalist.

I’ve encountered this kind of anti-anti-religious polemic before, when people without definite religious beliefs themselves say atheists are out of line for attacking religion.

Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens

White did not mention the most important theme of God Is Not Great—that religion makes it possible to commit crimes with impunity.  Hitchens piled up example after example.   When the theocratic ruler of Iran took out a murder contract on an allegedly blasphemous writer, the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the chief rabbi of Jerusalem condemned the writer’s irreverence, not the instigation to murder.  Catholic clerics who helped instigate the Rwandan genocide were given sanctuary in France at the urging of the Vatican.

The Bush administration for supposedly religious reasons worked against use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS in Africa.  Muslim governments have sentenced people to death merely for renouncing Islam.  American religious fanatics bombed abortion clinics and murdered abortion doctors.  Religious Zionist settlers on the West Bank are a chief obstacle to a negotiated peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Hitchens claimed that his examples show that organized religion is all or mostly bad.  I don’t agree, but I think that he did show that religion provides a shield people to get away with things that anyone else would be condemned and punished for. Suppose a public school superintendent shielded a teacher who sexually abused little boys – you can imagine what would happen. Yet the Catholic hierarchy in the United States and Ireland for years protected pedophile priests and got away with it.

GodIsNotGreatUnfortunately, as White correctly noted, God Is Not Great was riddled with easily check-able factual errors.

Contrary to Hitchens, the Q document is not a lost book that formed the basis of the four Gospels. The Dalai Lama does not seek to return as hereditary ruler of Tibet. “Syntopic” is not the opposite of “apocryphal.”  Catholic Maryland in colonial times never barred Protestants from public office.  The Bible scholar Bart (not “Barton”) Ehrman was not the first one who found that early versions of Mark had no mention of meetings with the resurrected Jesus.  I think I could add more examples, if I had the book in front of me.

I think these mistakes were due to carelessness rather than intentional dishonesty, as White charges.  The errors do not affect Hitchens’ main arguments, but they do undermine his credibility.

Hitchens’ insistence that religion is all bad, and that opponents of religion are all good, forced him into strenuous intellectual contortions.  He had to explain away the evangelical Protestants who campaigned for abolition of slavery on the one hand, and the crimes of the atheist Stalin on the other, which he did not convincingly do and could not have done.

As White points out, our civilization and culture are a product of religion, even for atheists like Hitchens.  In Western civilization, without Christianity, there is no Dante, Chaucer, Milton, Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy or Flannery O’Connor, no Christmas carols or Negro spirituals, no Sistine Chapel or Chartres cathedral, no Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez or Archbishop Romero.

If I were better educated, I am sure I could make up an equivalent list for other civilizations.  I can’t imagine China without Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, India without Hinduism or the Muslim world without its core religion.

Religious congregations provide people with community, ritual, moral ideals and a way to understand their feelings of transcendence.  I have been impressed throughout my life by the simple, unpretentious goodness of ordinary religious people.  Hitchens was unable to acknowledge this.

But religious belief is not necessarily inspiring or consoling.  Hitchens wrote a chapter on the doctrines of blood sacrifice, vicarious atonement, eternal punishment and guilt for failing impossible tasks, which reflects my own experience.  I remember the sense of guilt I felt as a young teenage boy as I listened to Easter sermons about the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus, and how it was because of the sins of people like me that Jesus had to suffer a horrible death on my cross.  I heard about this every Easter. It was almost too much to bear.

I was freed by the use of reason, the strange metaphysical concept that, according to White, nobody can define.  For me, reason requires asking two questions: Does this make sense?  Does it contradict known facts?  It did not make sense to me that a loving Heavenly Father could be deterred from sentencing me to an eternity of pain only by the torture and death of someone else, and so I stopped believing it.

White contends that conscience comes from religious teaching, not the other way around.  I thought the same for many years, and it bothered me that I did not have any supposed religious foundation for my moral beliefs.  What changed my mind was reading Kierkegaard’s essay on Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac because he thought God commanded him to do so.  If Abraham not been willing, Kierkegaard wrote, then he would have put his love for his son and his personal moral beliefs ahead of belief in God.

Today’s world is full of people who believe that God has commanded them to kill, and, like Kierkegaard’s “knight of faith,” they put their faith in God ahead of their affections or their moral beliefs.  That kind of faith is evil.

White, who does not believe in God, affirms religion as the source of morality.  But if God does not exist, where do religion’s moral teachings come from?  They must come from human beings, based on their own individual thoughts and feelings.   So how would that be different from humanism?  I would respect White more if he weren’t so reticent about his own beliefs.

White’s Salon essay is a chapter of a newly-published book, The Science Delusion, which I haven’t read.   The title indicates it is a rebuttal of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion.  I have no quarrel with White if all he does is stress the importance of literature, philosophy and tradition, and defend them against foolish claims that science can replace them.   But based on the sample chapter, I think I would not like his book.

The Salon chapter is a vituperative personal attack based not on what Hitchens wrote, but on motives White attributes to Hitchens without evidence.  God Is Not Great was published in 2007.  Hitchens died in 2011.  White had plenty of time to attack Hitchens when he was alive to answer back.   But a living dog is always a match for a dead lion.

Click on Christopher Hitchens’ lies do atheists no favors for Curtis White’s full Salon article

Click on The real problem with Curtis White’s The Science Delusion for a review of White’s book.

Click on Taking on scientism’s big bullies: Hitchens, Dawkins and Pinker for another review of White’s book.


An atheist draws moral lessons from Bible stories

April 14, 2013

Herb Silverman, a retired professor of mathematics who lives in Charleston, S.C., is founder and past president of the Secular Coalition for America, which defends and promotes atheism.  He once ran for governor of South Carolina to challenge that state’s constitutional provision barring atheists from holding public office.

Openly being an atheist in the United States still takes moral courage, unless you’re in an academic or intellectual enclave shielded from society at large.  Atheists are subject to religious discrimination and even, in some places, physical violence.

Silverman was here in Rochester, N.Y., last week to address the Rochester Russell Set and promote his new book, Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt.  One part of the book I liked was Chapter 12, in which he tells the moral lessons that he as an atheist draws from well-known Bible stories.

The Creation of Eve

Herb Silverman

Herb Silverman

Humans and other species are social animals.  Solitude has its rewards, but do does the company of others.  It’s good to associate with people whose values you share.  Learn about other kinds, but recognize those with whom you can communicate well and trust.

Adam, Eve and the Snake

God makes blind obedience the supreme virtue, assuming ignorance is bliss.  God either lied or was mistaken when he said humans would die on the day they received knowledge.  So don’t blindly believe, even if you pay a price for independent thought.  Better to have freedom without a guarantee of security than to have security without freedom.

Cain and Abel

The first worship ceremony is followed immediately by the first murder, which shows we must not put our love and worship of a God above our love for human beings, especially when God’s favoritism can be so arbitrary.  Cain belatedly learns that humans should look out for one another, making each of us our brother and sister’s keeper.  God recognizes his culpability in the first murder, and puts a mark on Cain as a sign to those he meets that they must now do to Cain what Cain did to Abel.

Noah and the Flood

God learns that his expectations for humans were unrealistic and genocide solves nothing.  Never indiscriminately destroy the innocent along with the guilty.  God should have been concerned about a compliant Noah who showed no empathy for the lives of others.  Older doesn’t necessarily mean wiser, even with 600 years of experience.

The Tower of Babel

Leaders must not become as insecure as God, who prevented others from cooperating and moving upward together.  Also, there is value in diversity.  Each of us must decide when to go along with the crowd and when to set out on a road not taken.

Sodom and Gomorrah

CandidateWithoutaPrayerAbraham is morally superior to Noah, since he tried to talk God out of mass destruction.  It takes courage to stand up to authority, especially one bent on genocide.  God teaches the value of looking forward to a fresh start without dwelling on the past, but what he did to Lot’s wife for a brief look backward was, shall we say, overkill.  People in new and frightening environments are likely to act in ways formerly unthinkable.  Lot’s motherless daughters, believing all other men dead, chose what they thought was the most practical path for the survival of the species—make love, not war.

The Binding of Isaac

God tests Abraham, who fails the test.  Nobody should commit an atrocity, no matter who makes the request.  Abraham’s willingness to kill his son creates a dysfunctional family.  Neither Abraham’s son Isaac nor his wife Sarah ever speak to Abraham again in the Bible.  It is better to do good than have faith.

Jacob and Esau

We shouldn’t prey on the weaknesses of family members, as Jacob and Rebekah did.  On the other hand, a future leader should be a thinker and planner like Jacob, rather than prone to foolish choices, as Esau was.  Esau makes the wise decision to forgive his brother, rather than seek revenge.  Violence breeds violence.

Joseph and the Coat of Many Colors

As often occurs in families, Jacob picks up some of the bad habits of his father, and suffers for opening preferring one child over another.  We learn about degrees of horrendous behavior, with Judas appearing the most reasonable brother because he favors selling Joseph into slavery instead of killing him.  Joseph, similarly, feels the need to torment his brothers before eventually disclosing his identity and dropping trumped-up charges.  We learn in this fable not to flaunt a favored status, as Joseph does, and not to overreact with envy, as Joseph’s brothers do.

Judah, Onan and Tamar

Marriages arranged by authority figures for the sole purpose of increasing property can lead to death and destruction.  Couples should be honest with each other about their sexual relationships, which Onan was not.  Judah, at least, is willing to admit his error when confronted with proof.  Tamar is the most admirable character because she is not a hypocrite and attains her goal the only way possible in a culture ruled by men.

Click on Secular Coaltion for America for that organization’s web page.

Francis Spufford’s faith without belief

October 28, 2012

Francis Spufford is the author of the wonderful book, Red Plenty, a novelistic account of the failed Soviet economic reforms in the Khrushchev era.  It is interesting throughout and shows why the system was unreformable.  Now he has written a new book, Unapologetic, in which he defends Christianity against New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins.  The first chapter was published in The Guardian.

The atheist bus says: “There’s probably no God.  So stop worrying and enjoy your life.” All right: which word here is the questionable one, the aggressive one, the one that parts company with recognizable human experience so fast it doesn’t even have time to wave goodbye?  It isn’t “probably”.  New Atheists aren’t claiming anything outrageous when they say that there probably isn’t a God.   In fact they aren’t claiming anything substantial at all, because, really, how would they know?   It’s as much of a guess for them as it is for me.  No, the word that offends against realism here is “enjoy”.

I’m sorry – enjoy your life?  I’m not making some kind of neo-puritan objection to enjoyment. Enjoyment is lovely.  Enjoyment is great.  The more enjoyment the better.  But enjoyment is one emotion.  To say that life is to be enjoyed (just enjoyed) is like saying that mountains should only have summits, or that all colors should be purple, or that all plays should be by Shakespeare.  This really is a bizarre category error.

But not necessarily an innocent one.  Not necessarily a piece of fluffy pretending that does no harm.  The implication of the bus slogan is that enjoyment would be your natural state if you weren’t being “worried” by us believers and our hellfire preaching.  Take away the malignant threat of God-talk, and you would revert to continuous pleasure, under cloudless skies.   What’s so wrong with this, apart from it being total bollocks?  Well, in the first place, that it buys a bill of goods, sight unseen, from modern marketing.  Given that human life isn’t and can’t be made up of enjoyment, it is in effect accepting a picture of human life in which those pieces of living where easy enjoyment is more likely become the only pieces that are visible … …

… Suppose, as the atheist bus goes by, you are poverty-stricken, or desperate for a job, or a drug addict, or social services have just taken away your child.  The bus tells you that there’s probably no God so you should stop worrying and enjoy your life, and now the slogan is not just bitterly inappropriate in mood.  What it means, if it’s true, is that anyone who isn’t enjoying themselves is entirely on their own.  What the bus says is: there’s no help coming.  Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t think there’s any help coming, in one large and important sense of the term.  I don’t believe anything is going to happen that will materially alter the position these people find themselves in.  But let’s be clear about the emotional logic of the bus’s message. It amounts to a denial of hope or consolation on any but the most chirpy, squeaky, bubble-gummy reading of the human situation.  St Augustine called this kind of thing “cruel optimism” 1,500 years ago, and it’s still cruel.

A consolation you could believe in would be one that wasn’t in danger of popping like a soap bubble on contact with the ordinary truths about us.  A consolation you could trust would be one that acknowledged the difficult stuff rather than being in flight from it, and then found you grounds for hope in spite of it, or even because of it, with your fingers firmly out of your ears, and all the sounds of the complicated world rushing in, undenied.

via The Guardian.

Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, asserts, correctly, that there is no empirical or logical proof of the existence of God, and that as a scientific hypothesis, the Christian religion and other religions make no sense.  He has no sense of religion as a source of meaning and purpose in individual lives, or as a source of community.   What Dawkins has instead is a great sense of joy and (you might say) reverence in learning of the wonders of the natural world.

Spufford, surprisingly, agrees that the truth of Christianity is unprovable to those who don’t already have faith.   He wrote this for the New Humanist magazine.

We believe there is a God.  You believe there isn’t one.  Meanwhile, nobody knows, nobody can know, whether He exists or not, it not being a matter susceptible to proof or disproof.  The most science can do is to demonstrate that God is not necessary as a physical explanation for anything, which is very much not the same thing as demonstrating that He isn’t there.  So the natural, neutral, temperate position here would be agnosticism: a calm, indifferent not-knowing. … …

Religion isn’t a philosophical argument, just as it isn’t a dodgy cosmology, or any other kind of alternative to science.  In fact, it isn’t primarily a system of propositions about the world at all.  Before it is anything else, it is a structure of feeling, a house built of emotions. You don’t have the emotions because you’ve signed up to the proposition that God exists; you entertain the proposition that God exists because you’ve had the emotions.  You entertain the proposition, and perhaps eventually sign up to it, because it makes a secondary kind of sense of something you’re feeling anyway.

via New Humanist.

The question is whether you can have a solid religious faith without making assertions of objective fact.   Richard Dawkins in the preface to The God Delusion says the metaphorical faith of people such as Karen Armstrong, and by implication Francis Spufford, is beyond the scope of his book.  His argument is with religion as an assertion that revelation takes precedence over scientific fact.  This is not a straw man.   This is in fact what most Jews, Christians and Muslims believe.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution is compatible with Christian belief, but it still is necessary to believe that the human race is descended from one man and one woman who were guilty of original sin, and to believe that as fact, not metaphor.

One problem with Spufford’s religion of personal experience is that it does not speak to those who do not have the religious experience he speaks of, of whom I am one.   And most Jews, Christians and Muslims believe as they do not because of their subjective personal experience, but because they accept a certain religious revelation as objectively true.   This brings religion into Richard Dawkins’ field of fire.

Click on The trouble with atheists: a defense of faith for Spufford’s full article in The Guardian.

Click on Dear atheists… for Spufford’s full article in the New Humanist.

Click on Dear Christians… for a rebuttal to Spufford.

Click on The dream of a Communist utopia for my review of Red Plenty