AHS reads: The God Delusion, part 5

In the final part of my series re-examining The God Delusion, I consider Dawkins’ positive case for atheism and reflect on the book’s impact on my personal atheism, humanism and secularism (AHS+).

Chapter 9. Childhood, abuse and the escape from religion

The chapter opens with an anecdote of the 1858 case of Edgardo Mortar. Edgardo was six years old when the local Catholic authorities discovered that the child of Italian Jewish parents in Bologna had been baptised by a nanny while unwell, and legally kidnapped him to be raised by a Catholic family. The case provides examples of everything Dawkins finds ridiculous, dangerous and unjust about religion: a magic spell being treated as if it means something, authoritarian religious authorities, otherwise ordinary people blinded to this horrific abuse by religion, and a warped concept of religious freedom being used to justify the abuse – all taking place in a not so distance past and within relatively mainstream religion.

Rather problematically, Dawkins seems to suggest some fault on the part of the parents as they could have in theory agreed to being baptised themselves in order to recover their child. From an atheist perspective the whole baptism idea is nonsense anyway:

“The Mortaras could not bring themselves to seize the opportunity offered by the meaningless rite of baptism. Couldn’t they cross their fingers, or whisper ‘not’ under their breath while being baptized? No, they couldn’t, because they had been brought up in a (moderate) religion, and therefore took the whole ridiculous charade seriously.”

This sort of thinking by some atheists is deeply problematic. The world would be a better place if everyone abandoned the irrational beliefs and faith-based thinking of religion. But religion is also part of people’s culture and heritage. Attempting to persuade people out of beliefs or harmful practices is one thing; stripping them of their identity is another. Had the Mortaras given in they would likely have continued to be subject to anti-Semitic prejudice while loosing the protection of their community and encouraging other such abuses.

In this chapter Dawkins argues persuasively that we need to better respect children’s rights to freedom of thought. But rights don’t exist in isolation. Children also have the right to a personal and family life; parents have the right (though not absolute) to raise their children as they believe is best.

Dawkins asks: “Even without physical abduction, isn’t it always a form of child abuse to label children as possessors of beliefs that they are too young to have thought about?” Perhaps, but the term “child abuse” may be too black and white, instead we should be exploring the difficult questions about the limits to parents’ ability to raise their children in accordance with their religion, which might be necessary to protect their independent rights.

This then leads into a section on physical and mental abuse, where Dawkins makes in my opinion some of the grossest missteps of the book. His reasonable point is that there are aspects of religious practice, including inculcating fear of eternal punishment, and restricting intellectual development, which a more enlightened society may view as analogous to child abuse. However, he ends up in a weird detour where he appears to minimise paedophilia and the impact of child sexual abuse. He suggests that the Catholic Church among others religious institutions are “unfairly demonized”.

There are legitimate points to make about whether society’s moral outrage at paedophilia may at times lead to those accused not having fair access to justice, treatment or rehabilitation. There may even be legitimate points to make about other less extreme religious abuses of children’s rights creating more overall harm, simply because they are more common. But this section is pretty embarrassing.

In Dawkins defence, this was written in a time where the extent of institutional child abuse perpetrated by the Catholic Church was only beginning to enter public consciousness. The Catholic Church and other religious institutions with endemic child abuse also put a lot of effort into encouraging the idea that this is a terrible problem of the past being dragged up, rather than a live issue. Throughout the world over the last two decades AHS+ groups have played a leading role in challenging clerical abuse. It was still disappointing to read this passage in such an influential book within the movement.

Dawkins also writes about his own experiences with what he described as mild child sexual abuse at school. He is a product of England’s elite private school system. This is a part of Britain’s establishment where bullying, racism, religion, sexual abuse and many other problematic practices are unfortunately normalised. Dawkins attitude in this section of the chapter is a reminder that getting rid of religious beliefs does not free one from all the baggage that comes with such socialisation.

In the rest of this section, Dawkins talks about various encounters he has had with people left traumatised by relatively mainstream religious indoctrination. In highlighting the very real harm this can do, Dawkins does a big service and shows how the new atheist movement was able to raise consciousness and start an important debate. But in a few of his less empathetic responses the reader gets the sense that Dawkins feels if people were just as smart as him and saw through the religious nonsense, that they would all be fine and this emotional harm would just disappear.

The chapter doesn’t take that wide an exploration of the potential abuses of children’s rights that are enabled by religion and its privileged role in society. So, both the sociological and philosophical engagement with this subject is a little shallow. But it is books like this and the atheist movement that have helped open up that debate. Dawkins draws heavily on ideas from psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, recounting a lecture where Humphrey considers some of the implications for parental freedom if we respect children’s rights to make up their own minds and whether this means some protection from indoctrination is needed.

“Parents, correspondingly, have no God-given licence to enculturate their children in whatever ways they personally choose: no right to limit the horizons of their children’s knowledge, to bring them up in an atmosphere of dogma and superstition, or to insist they follow the straight and narrow paths of their own faith.”

Dawkins explores issues like female genital mutilation and religious attempts to opt out of secular education, where the liberal impulses to respect other’s cultures and protect the vulnerable come into conflict.

Next Dawkins considers the “educational scandal” of Tony Blair’s New Labour government and their expansion of faith schools, through the city academies programme which laid the foundation for the later academy programme which have dramatically increased religious control of faith and non-faith state funded schools in England.

This section is now a little dated. Dawkins focuses on the example of the Emmanuel College in Gateshead and their teaching of creationism, which has largely been put stop to thanks to the campaigning of groups like The National Secular Society and Humanists UK. Again, we see the tendency from earlier in the book to focus on the evolution and creationist issue where Dawkins is most confident, rather than many of the other social problems caused by faith schools. For example, discrimination in admissions. Dawkins’ point is that religious indoctrination should be seen as an abuse of children’s rights that is enabled by societal privileging of religion: “They were being let down by their school, and their school principal was abusing, not their bodies, but their minds.”

That some forms of religious indoctrination are abuses of children’s rights seems to me undeniable. But there are difficult questions about where the line between appropriate, inappropriate and unacceptable religious inculcation should be drawn. That’s why a humanist or a secularist, rather than purely atheistic approach is needed to these issues.

Dawkins returns explicitly to the theme of consciousness raising towards the end of the chapter, and it’s probably his best example of it:

“At Christmas-time one year my daily newspaper, the Independent, was looking for a seasonal image and found a heart-warmingly ecumenical one at a school nativity play. The Three Wise Men were played by, as the caption glowingly said,’ Shadbreet (a Sikh), Musharaff (a Muslim) and Adele (a Christian), all aged four.’”

Dawkins points out the strains that many atheist groups go to avoid even the suggestion of childhood indoctrination. He invites the reader to imagine the caption with the religious labels imposed on these children replaced with political or philosophical ones “Shadbreet (a Keynesian), Musharaff (a Monetarist) and Adele (a Marxist), all aged four.” We have normalised the imposition of religious labels and all the associated baggage on children. Having had my consciousness raised to this I follow Dawkins’ advice and always refer to a “child of X parents” or “child of X background”, as these best respects their identity and freedom of thought.

At the end of the Chapter Dawkins has an aside on religious, or more accurately biblical, literacy: “I must admit that even I am a little taken aback at the biblical ignorance commonly displayed by people educated in more recent decades than I was.” It is a point that many atheists make, perhaps being defensive about being accused of wanting to wipe out religion. The point is simple, though I do think the moral panic about a lack of religious literacy is often overblown: religion has had a massive influence on our literary and cultural heritage which is worth understanding to remain connected to that heritage and relate to others.

Chapter 10. A much needed gap?

This chapter features a bit of a return to the evolutionary psychoanalysis of religion seen in earlier chapters. The point here is considering the psychological and other needs filled by religion and whether atheistic or humanistic ways of living could better fulfil these:

“But could it be that God clutters up a gap that we’d be better off filling with something else? Science, perhaps? Art? Human friendship? Humanism? Love of this life in the real world, giving no credence to other lives beyond the grave?”

The role of imaginary friends and inner monologues – and our occasional difficulty distinguishing the latter – are discussed. Dawkins argues that religion – again largely treating it as one phenomenon- has been used to fulfil four roles: “explanation, exhortation, consolation and inspiration”. There are some issues with this section. Firstly, I don’t think it addresses the positive or negative role religion as an organising social system plays. Secondly there is an asymmetric focus on these four needs. When he returns to his focus on exhorting science communication, Dawkins gives powerful examples of atheistic worldviews superior ability to explain the real world and the ability of that to inspire. The chapter doesn’t have as much to say about the consoling power of humanism, something the atheist movement still needs to be better at. The point that “Religion’s power to console doesn’t make it true” is itself true and easy to make but does not address the need for consolation in the first place.

The discussion of there being “no evidence that atheists have any general tendency towards unhappy, angst-ridden despond” is interesting and in the years since has been a highly researched topic within the sociology of religion and belief.

Dawkins ends this chapter and the book proper with a dicey section entitled “the mother of all burkas”. In preparation for this review, I listened to the book in audio format and winced at this subheading. His intent in this section to use the narrow slit of the Burka as a metaphor for restrictions on freedom of thought. Handled sensitively, this could be a powerful metaphor. Indeed, many women who have escaped oppressive forms of Islam have used that metaphor in deeply moving ways.

The burka is complicated and has different meanings to different people. There are complicated reasons why people may choose or not choose to wear it or not. It is a misogynistic tool for the oppression and control of women. It is possible – indeed, I would say essential – to be honest about this, while recognising, being appalled at, and challenging the ways in which racist attacks and discourse on the burka are used to marginalise and demonise Muslim women. Given all this baggage, it was clearly unwise of Dawkins to use it in this way, and it undermines an interesting section that is an ode to the beauty and potential for wonder in a scientific worldview.

Recap

In part one of this series, I introduced my interest in revisiting the book, and how Dawkins set out the ‘god hypothesis’. In part two I considered the book’s responses to arguments for the existence of a god. In part three I critiqued Dawkins’ exploration of the naturalistic roots of religion and morality. In part four, I reviewed Dawkins’ moral case against religion.

When I decided to launch this blog and start a new chapter in my personal atheist activism I wanted to revisit and reflect on some of my earlier influences, because I felt these might speak to others on a similar journey. Time and again on this re-read I found myself being pulled in two directions: that of fan and critic.

The Dawkins critic kept bumping on the book’s over simplicity. The Dawkins fan kept wanting to respond: yes, but that is a product of the book’s scope and the difficulty in introducing this to a populist audience with very little exposure to atheist arguments.

Ending this series, I feel a bit of a sense of freedom. Now I have revisited and processed my feelings about this part of the history of the atheist movement I can focus on the contemporary and the future. The atheist, humanist, secularist community can, has and should continue to do better than books like The God Delusion. But that doesn’t take away from how powerful and influential the book was. It’s like a problematic grandparent that we can look back on and criticise but also recognise our debt to.

Thanks for reading

Let me know what you thought of this article and if you want to hear more. I’m thinking of doing more reviews on books from an AHS+ perspective, are there any you’d like to see? Would you prefer books that are generally pro or anti atheist, humanist or secularist?

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Activism matters: Mandisa Thomas, Black Nonbelievers

Activism matters is a new interview series where we will be meeting activists and leaders working in a variety of atheist, humanist, and secularist spaces. This week I spoke with Mandisa Thomas, a founder and current president of Black Nonbelievers (BN). BN’s motto is “Walking by Sight, NOT Faith!” Their mission is to build community and provide support for black atheists and allies.

How did you become the founder and president of Black Nonbelievers?

When I first got involved in the secular community in January 2011, I experienced some challenges that fellow black atheists warned me about online. I spoke with the only other black person who was at a meet-up. I said that we should start something in the Atlanta area that specifically connected black people who are atheists or questioning religion in favour of leaving. That started as Black Nonbelievers of Atlanta. That person eventually stepped away to other projects. So, I assumed the role of president. We shortened the name to Black Nonbelievers when there were people looking to start similar groups in different cities. We wanted to become that foundational support for expanding.

And have you provided support for lots of groups?

We’ve had affiliates sort of come and go. At one point we were up to about 14, now we are at seven nationwide, across the United States. And yes, we have also worked with other organisations you know with their groups.

What’s the biggest or challenge that comes with the role?

Trying to get people to really understand that this is an organisation that needs to be sustained. That once you get what you need from it, there’s still a need to support it beyond that. You know it’s awesome to find those who don’t believe anymore and it’s understandable that individuals may have had challenges, and also trauma from leaving their church. But we are an organisation that in order for us to continue to provide the resources needed for those leaving religion, needs to be supported continuously.

What are some of the challenges or unique perspectives that come with being a woman of colour in a leadership position, in a movement where leaders seem to overwhelmingly be white and male?

Oh boy! Well, the challenges specifically our voices being taken seriously and heard the way they need to be. Because there is still this privilege that we’re dealing with, it becomes that much harder to be taken seriously in leadership. We’re often some of the last ones put in one of the first ones out. And if you are on a volunteer basis it’s expected that we’re supposed to just stay there. And we get a lot of moral support; you know we get a lot of people who understand the need for an organisation like ours.

But we still challenge and encounter this sense of anti-blackness, when it comes to actually financially supporting the work and actually putting us in the forefront of a movement that still needs to change and work on its diversity.

It sounds like there’s also like a financial undervaluing. Not just emotional or in terms of respect, but specifically a financial undervaluing of black activists?

Absolutely it is. Yes absolutely.

Black churches in America have traditionally provided a route to some level of political and community leadership for African Americans, despite wider disenfranchisement. Are there are any lessons there do you think for the atheist community, or models that can be drawn on and copied?

The only lessons that I think we can take is the sense of welcoming, being somewhat emotionally aware of what the members are going through. Now there are other secular organisations, other atheist organisations that are doing this. As far as the doctrine, which I contend has always been harmful and always will be, that sense of community comes at a cost, to one’s individuality. To make them conform. Certainly, when it comes to being more social, when it comes to being more engaging, being more hospitable, there’s a lot there is a huge lesson that the atheist community can take from this. And even with the work that Black Nonbelievers do, we understand that that that sort of engagement isn’t unique to the church. They may be a bit better at it. They’ve had more of a head start. But our social engagement doesn’t negate our advocacy for scientific and evidence-based principles. They can go hand in hand.

What’s been your proudest moment as president of Black Nonbelievers?

I’ve had a few. One of my proudest moments I would say this has happened a couple of times, when I have come across young people who were passing by our tables with their parents, particularly their mothers. These are mothers and daughters, and they’ve come by our table, and they when they asked about our organisation. They said wow like we’re not alone. But they are still isolated within their own families, within their own communities. And thinking that they’re the only ones who no longer believe as black folks. When they see our organisation, they know that there are more of us out here. They know that there’s a resource now that they can tap into, and other people that they can connect with.

Outside of that, I would say it was when we were featured on CBS Sunday Morning here in the United States. We were a part of a segment that spoke about more of the nonreligious community. And we were the representatives on that program.

And another one I would cite, is when we were invited to partake in a discussion with the Smithsonian’s National Museum for African American Culture. We were part of their ‘god talk’ series. So now we are reaching institutions who focus on the black community. Now we are considered among the leading black nonreligious organisations, that can offer and provide representation for our perspective.

Being an activist can be extremely draining training in terms of emotional labour, time and also lost opportunities in other ways. How are you sustained in what you do? In terms of the emotional energy as well as the practicalities of getting by.

Right well I will tell you that it is not easy. There are times where I have wanted to throw up my hands. I wanted to give up and say you know what it’s not worth it I’ll just continue working the job that I was working three years ago, before I resigned that position. But what keeps me going, is knowing that we are making a difference. that I am a part of making a huge difference in this community, especially for those who didn’t think we existed previously, and for our members who actually benefit from our existence.

I’m a wife, I’m a mother and so even in my everyday life things are already busy for me. But this is another aspect of my life that I’ve dedicated myself to. And it goes hand in hand, because I want my children to know that if there is something that is of importance to them, that they are passionate about, that they have the right to do so, and that no one has the right to discriminate against them or even anyone else due to their nonbelief.

We’re setting examples and paving the way for people who are coming behind us. So that it isn’t just simply about us. The people that I’ve come to know are in this community are like my family. They’re also they’re also an extension of family. We have built this camaraderie with each other. Sometimes you know we laugh, sometimes we commiserate, and we also work together. So, keeping those relationships have been very inspiring for me. And knowing that I’m not the only one out here doing this work.

What qualities do you think are needed to be an effective leader in this atheist humanist secularist space?

Certainly, passion and dedication. Also being consistent. You must be willing to consistently dedicate your time and enthusiasm. You have to be enthusiastic about what it is that you’re doing. Also being flexible that this isn’t necessarily a nine to five sort of thing. For most of us this is volunteer for me it is still volunteer, I’m working on changing that. You have to effectively know how to manage your time and also your space. So, there’s a lot that goes along to it. There’s a lot of practical skills that you have to have in order to be an effective leader.

You recently became a humanist celebrant. Does your activism inform your celebrantism?

Absolutely. Humanist celebrants are still a very underserved need in the in the community of nonreligious people who are leaving their churches and are looking for these services. Oftentimes they have to fight and face challenges with religious family members and friends. I performed my first wedding ceremony back in May, and the groom was one of our members he’s an atheist and the bride was still a Christian, even though she’s pretty progressive. But the family still was fundamentally Christian. So, there was a challenge of being able to assert our non-belief and humanistic principles in such a setting.

In my activism as an open atheist and as a leader of an organisation, I encourage people to speak up and stand up for themselves, as much as they can, and being a humanist celebrant allows us to do that. So, I would say that it was it was due to my activism that I eventually became a celebrant, and it is just another extension of my work.

What do you think atheist groups need to do to support the development of future leaders and activists and role models, particularly those from less well-represented backgrounds?

Take more seriously the challenges that marginalised individuals face. It’s hard not to bring up racial justice, racial discrimination, and economic injustice, if you are coming from a marginalised community. Not only in the United States but across the world. We are still vulnerable susceptible to other societal stigmas, and more secular groups would do well to acknowledge this and sufficiently listening to what we have to say. Also understanding how those stigmas can creep into those organisations, how subconsciously they may be perpetuating the very thing that we’re fighting against. Being more aware of how they’re treating the people of colour that are involved in their organisations. Understanding what the issues are, and not just expecting us to be more bodies in the organisation, actually take the necessary actions to improve your groups as well.

I’ve seen in AHS groups where there’s someone from an underrepresented group like a younger person a person of colour or a woman, their very unusualness in within those spaces means they can be bombarded with requests.

Absolutely you’re putting an extra burden on those people of colour to do the work that you’re supposed to do. If they want to be involved, then and to be more involved and greater. But don’t encourage them to be in leadership positions and when they get there you don’t take them seriously or listen to what they have to say.

I’ve experienced this even when I served on boards, is that they just wanted the people of colour there for optics to say hey we have a more diverse board. But when it came to the policies and structure that stayed the same. That also puts a burden, this added expectation, that often the people volunteering, that we’re expected to do all of all of this extra work, that we aren’t really going to get much support for, because they’re still supporting the overwhelmingly majority of white male voices.

What can AHS+ groups do to get from stage one which is the wanting representation to stage two which is the actually valuing those different voices once they’re in there?

The biggest thing is going to be accountability if there are people who are holding back progress then it needs to be addressed and if these people refuse to make the necessary changes, then they might need to be moved on. There are people who have been on boards for long period of time, they don’t think that these issues are important and they’re excusing the behaviours of people who don’t mean well. We’re still a movement that’s fighting for recognition and rights, but it doesn’t mean that we have to fight each other, and it also doesn’t mean that we can’t hold each other accountable.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to make activism either their career or a big part of their life? Particularly young person but new activists do not necessarily mean young people.

I would advise them to take a page from my playbook. If you are working, don’t just quit your job right away. Get involved with either your local and or national organisations. Participate and volunteer with them. You can go at a pace that is comfortable for you. Don’t just jump into this wanting to be a superstar. I’ve seen this happen and people have failed at it. Pace yourself, take your time, understand that you need to make an investment. This is a community that has been in place before you got there. It can have a pretty good return, if you put the time and effort in.

Also remember that it isn’t just about you, that you are going to need to work with other people. If there are skills that you are lacking, there’s always an opportunity for improvement. Treat it like it like you would your job. Even if you are a volunteer be on time and have that same love passion and level of dedication to it that you would in any other space.

Just be careful that you’re not burning yourself out and doing too much so quickly because there’s always a need for help and volunteers you can quickly be pulled into different directions, and you want to make sure you’re not doing to yourself. Make sure you’re pacing yourself.

If you think you have proven that you have what it takes to make this a paying career or being at the head of an organisation, then you may be able to potentially leave that other job and either become a part of another organisation or if you’ve built your own, and you have those skills to do that and you are able to tap into the community and get that support then do that. But make sure that you establish good working relationships, good connections, continue to work with people and always remember that it is about a community and not just you.

Thanks for reading

Let me know what you thought of this article and if you want to hear more. If you value this content and are able to financially support it, that would be great. Just a couple of pounds a month would help with hosting and other costs, and one day help expand our operations. If you are, or can recommend, an activist or leader in the AHS+ space who would like to be featured in a future interview in this series, please get in touch. Please join our community on Twitter and Facebook to help share the blog, and pass it along to anyone who may be interested.

Photo information: Mandisa at Juneteenth event via Black Nonbelievers Instagram

Activism matters: Tif Ho, Foundation Beyond Belief

Activism matters is a new interview series where we will be meeting activists and leaders working in a variety of atheist, humanist and secularist spaces. First up is Tif Ho, executive director of the Foundation Beyond Belief (FBB). FBB is a US based non-profit that seeks to end poverty and hunger, promote good health and well-being, and foster employment opportunities and economic growth in ways that exemplify humanist values.

Tiffany S. Ho, Executive Director, Foundation Beyond Belief

How did you become the executive director for Foundation Beyond Belief?

I have always worked with non-profits across various causes. And by coincidence, I was looking for new opportunities to make a difference while FBB was looking for a new Executive Director. It was a long process; I applied for the position at the beginning of July and came on at the end of September. But it was a good fit – for myself and (I hope) for the organization.

What drew me to FBB was its focus on humanism. I grew up in a Buddhist family, though a non-religious one; it’s more of a cultural thing for us. So as a non-religious person who values humanism, it was both a surprise and refreshing to see an organization apply this concept. And to see that, by doing so, they were able to do so much good for so many people in all these different countries. It was an opportunity to take my humanist values further, from doing good in my own life to making a difference through widespread impact.

FBB was founded in 2009. During this time, it’s gone through many phases, worked in a lot of areas, and created so much impact. Whether it was FBB’s founder, Dale McGowan or Noelle George – they did a good job in leading the organization through all these changes. So, when Noelle stepped down as executive director, it made sense to continue this legacy and hard work by once again reinventing itself to seek greater impact. And I think that the Board saw that coming in the form of spreading humanism to the greater public – which maybe informed their decision to move forward with a new Executive Director who wasn’t necessarily from the humanist community.

What is the biggest challenge that comes with the job?

Leading an organization is always a challenge, because it entails so much. My biggest challenges have been ensuring FBB is sustainable while balancing our responsibilities. It’s no secret that more than 60% of US non-profits operate with budgets of $500,000 or less (for atheist, secular, and humanist organizations, funding is particularly difficult.) That’s not a whole lot when you have so many people depending on you. The people we serve, and of course the donors who so generously fund us, the partner organizations who support our programs, and our wonderful board who works entirely on a volunteer basis – they all want to see impact. At the same time, FBB has a small team that works really hard and makes a lot of sacrifices in order to do good. But these are all things that are critical for FBB’s success; they help us run smoothly, grow, and create larger impact. So of course, I want to make sure that my team is fairly compensated for the work that they do. With a small budget, it’s difficult while trying to do right by all of these different groups.

My second big challenge is that FBB has been undergoing a restructuring, changing direction, becoming more focused, and trying to grow our impact. Historically, FBB has focused on a lot of different cause areas and has done some really good work. But we are a small organization with limited resources. So, we can either continue to work in many spaces but have less to give or do more in fewer spaces. Right now, we’re in a phase where we’re becoming more focused, so that we can allocate resources more effectively. We’ve made a lot of changes in the past year. We’ve changed our mission statement, relaunched the Compassionate Impact Grant, and launched the Food Security Project. We’re also reworking our Beyond Belief Network, Humanist Action Ghana, and Humanist Disaster Recovery programs. Most of all, we’re really set on building up our Beyond Belief Network volunteer teams, addressing food insecurity and measuring impact more effectively.

In my experience many leaders within charities working on many of the same areas as Foundation Beyond Belief are reluctant to be openly non-religious. Why do you think that is and what can be done to make being more open easier?

Religion is almost universal, though the form it takes changes across cultures. In the US, even though we are technically secular, there is a religious overtone that informs everything from laws to community relationships. Americans are becoming increasingly non-religious, it’s just that it hasn’t reached the point where it’s ok to be open about it, to talk about it as a critical part of a person’s identity.

Many leaders are reluctant to come forward and be open about their beliefs. We can change that by shifting the focus to common values and shared mission. When charities lead with their belief or non-belief, it automatically puts us on opposite sides. But when we focus on respect, collaboration and inclusivity, and get to know a person or organization on another level, we are able to build trust and long-lasting relationships. In turn, this creates the space for non-religious leaders to come forward with who they are and how it informs the ways in which they do good. In the end, we are working towards the same goals, trying to create a better world. So, when charities replace proselytization with respect, leaders can be more open about being non-religious, and people from all backgrounds can work together to do more.

Many atheists and non-religious people find it difficult to get involved in charities especially in areas where social support networks are weaker or religiously dominated. How can organisations like Foundation Beyond Belief and your experiences change that?

Organizations like FBB offer an alternative to charities bound together by shared religious beliefs. When people want to do good – but are faced with a lack of social support networks or religiously-dominated charities – it helps to know that there are organizations out there that share their same values and that they can connect with other people who seek the same goals, or start their own initiatives. FBB (and other organizations, including American Humanist Association and American Atheists) work to build those ties. We encourage local initiatives by providing networking, funding, and logistical planning. Charity doesn’t have to be dominated by religion, people don’t have to be tied together through belief. Instead, it can simply be about doing good.

Often leadership in atheist, humanist or secularist spaces has been associated with church state separation activism or challenging religious beliefs, what different types of leadership do projects like Foundation Beyond Belief provide an opportunity for.

In the past, FBB has offered opportunities to be involved in church/state activism. But that focus has shifted. Other national organizations, including some of our previous partners in secular activism projects, are better equipped to handle that type of work. We want to support them in doing so, while carving out our own path, and collaborating when our work overlaps.

Our current focus is in creating a respectful, inclusive space where atheist, humanist, and secular people are able to do good. We want to make sure that people can be open with who they are, participate in service events that they are passionate about, and create long-term impact. We offer opportunities for local leaders to start up their own projects, which align with the specific needs of their own communities. FBB empowers those leaders by providing networking, funding, and other types of support through our Beyond Belief Network. As we move forward, and new needs arise, FBB will continue to take the lead on and offer volunteer opportunities in service-based projects.

What qualities do you think are needed to be an effective leader in humanist spaces?

Being an effective leader requires an understanding of and an appreciation for people. Even though FBB is a remote organization, with our team located all over, I try to make sure that there is consistent facetime and one-on-ones through video chats. It’s important to get to know your team, what is important to them, and to invest in their growth. There’s never a one-size-fits-all approach; everyone is different, and every context is different. When you value your team, you are able to change your approach to fit that. In an organization, everything is interconnected – from programs to development to communications. Knowing how all those moving pieces fit together can help with decision-making and holistic solutions.

Specifically, in humanist spaces, an effective leader needs to be willing to work across belief lines and prioritize impact. It is a very fragmented space, with varying degrees of non-belief. There’s atheists, agnostistics, freethinkers, secularists, humanists, etc. And there can also be so much noise, with a lot of debate going on about what to call ourselves, who is right, what is the best way to do things. My policy at FBB is to stay above that. We are respectful of, maintain good relationships with, and work with all organizations in the space as long as they share the same values and goals of doing good. That’s our number one priority.

It’s important to allow room for mistakes, acknowledge those mistakes, and do your best to remedy it. I came from the startup world before FBB – and one of the things you learn there is that [controlled] failures bring more than continual successes. If you’re always succeeding, you keep doing the same thing until it no longer works – but by then you can’t pivot.

You’re currently doing a PHD in global leadership, with a focus on intersectionality and the experience of leaders from marginalised communities. What lessons do you think this holds for atheist, humanist or secularist communities?

Historically, the atheist, humanist, and secular communities have lacked diversity. But for the sake of sustainability, we need to reach new audiences. Continuity comes when we draw in younger generations, which are more diverse. To these communities’ credit, they have been working really hard to push Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives and activism. But there is still a lack of representation, which I feel keenly as one of the few (maybe only?) AAPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders) leaders in the space.

It’s really hard to make DEI impactful if you don’t know what someone else is going through. In fact, many DEI efforts take the form of elevating some groups over others, assuming homogeneity, and speaking for – rather than speaking up for – groups. We need to acknowledge shared experiences between marginalized groups, while also appreciating differences. Marginalized individuals are the best equipped to lead change initiatives for their communities. Our job is to centre internally led efforts rather than prioritize externally led efforts. FBB has been doing this by taking a step back and supporting efforts, rather than leading our own. For example, our Compassionate Impact Grant recipient advances locally led efforts in marginalized communities.

Also, it’s really important for marginalized leaders to work together, across gender/sexuality/race/ethnicity/culture, especially since there’s so few of us (particularly in the atheist, humanist, and secular communities). There’s this overarching narrative of groups fighting each other, fighting over resources. But a lot of groups do have shared histories and experiences (though not the exact same experiences), which have included collaboration and coalition-building (and yes, also a lot of clashing) as well. Many neighborhoods are a mix of marginalized groups; for example, my mom is an immigrant who grew up in a very poor and culturally-diverse area, where AAPI, Black, and Latino/a/x communities interacted frequently. Also, during the height of the BLM protests last summer, many AAPI communities showed up for Black communities; likewise, during the wave of AAPI hate that has been going around, many Black communities have stood by AAPI communities. Unless we understand this tangled web of shared histories, appreciate differences, and work together across backgrounds, it’s hard to get to the root cause of inequality and create real change.

What do you think atheist, humanist or secularist groups can do to support the development of future leaders and role models?

Making space for and looking towards the next generation. More representation, more transparent dialogue, and DEI efforts. We develop future leaders/role models by communicating shared values, encouraging intergenerational collaboration, and providing opportunities for them to participate in causes that they are most passionate about. Realistically, even though Gen Z is the most non-religious generation – I think that their focus is less on the lack of belief and more on creating impact. We need to take that into consideration and take a step back from our own priorities, giving them the opportunity to lead and bring unique perspectives.

What advice would you give to someone who feels that what they have to contribute could make a career in or lead an organisation focusing in this space?

My take is: go for it, and don’t get stuck. Many people who are just getting into this space may feel intimidated, because they feel that they don’t have the knowledge or skills. But they should never let that stop them. Everyone has something to contribute, so they should be confident in their capabilities and also be open to other perspectives as well.

Thanks for reading

Let me know what you thought of this article and if you want to hear more. If you value this content and are able to financially support it, that would be great. Just a couple of pounds a month would help with hosting and other costs, and one day help expand our operations.

If you are, or can recommend, an activist or leader in the AHS+ space who would like to be featured in a future interview in this series, please get in touch.

Please join our community on Twitter and Facebook to help share the blog, and pass it along to anyone who may be interested.

Photo information: Person in Red Long Sleeve Shirt Wearing Silver Ring, Thirdman

AHS reads: The God Delusion, part 4

In the penultimate instalment in my series re-examining The God Delusion, I consider Dawkins’ moral case against religion, how he believes this interacts with the moral zeitgeist and the role of moderate religion.

I have far weaker memories of the final chapters of the book, and was surprised that these two particularly felt so light. Despite having previously said that I’m more concerned with the moral than the intellectual failings of religion, the latter chapters didn’t feel as exciting when I first read them. Perhaps that’s an indication of how my personal atheism has evolved in the decades since.

Dawkins feels that in the previous two chapters he has thoroughly dismissed the idea that morality has its roots in religion. In this section of the book he challenges the related but importantly different claim that religion promotes morality. His focus will be on the two major negative manifestations of religion that the new atheist movement was a reaction to, extremist Christianity and Islamism. That these would be his foci makes perfect sense given the context he’s writing in but invites the obvious criticism of picking on easy targets. Though perhaps it only seems this way because we have had two decades plus of such books undermining the taboo against any criticism of religion.

Chapter 7. The ‘Good’ Book and the changing moral Zeitgeist

The chapter starts with some pop biblical criticism, featuring a whistle stop tour through the genocidal evil and god mandated rape of the Noha and Sodam stories, and the observation – shared by I would venture most informed religious believers – that the bible is not “inerrant source of our morals and rules for living”. Dawkins acknowledges that “irritated theologians” will point out that most Christians don’t take genesis literally, anymore. But this only reinforces his point that everyone takes a pick and choose it approach. No one does, or could, follow the Bible literally. Though a “frighteningly large number of people” profess to. Whatever moral standards we use for this picking and choosing, they must be separate to the text itself.

Dawkins shares reflections on his interactions with various evangelical leaders who drawing on biblical inspiration have a tendency to blame natural disasters on their ennemi du jour. While ‘sophisticated theologians’ and would agree Pat Robertson is a buffoon, he “would be harmless comedy, were he less typical of those who today hold power and influence in the United States”.

A significant portion of the chapter goes through some of the weird and, from our modern more humanistic perspective, profoundly immoral stories of the Bible. This is not just about playing to the atheist crowd; it makes the point that this supposedly great book is clearly a product of its time. Religious scholars may grasp the context and history of the Bible far more firmly, but the simple point that it is an ordinary human created book is easy to understand.

To object to critiquing the Bible from our modern moral standards, a fair position for a secular Biblical scholar to take, is to abandon the claim that its moral standards are timeless.

Dawkins moves on to consider some of the worst excesses of those who claim to be scriptural literalists. He discusses American Christian nationalists’ obsession with putting up ten commandment tablets on public sites, and the absurdity of asserting that they are part of or the basis for the nation’s laws. The same religious prohibition on worshiping other gods or idolatry motivates some of the worst cultural crimes of the Taliban and other Islamist regimes. That such claims or scriptural literalism are at odds with many religious traditions within all faiths, is barely commented on.

Moving on to consider the New Testament, Dawkins concludes that “the moral superiority of Jesus” proves his point, because the Jesus’s moral innovations as depicted must have come from outside the scripture. Even a great moral innovator, like any innovator, can find themselves left behind by progress. Dawkins is pretty uncritical of the idea that the Jesus character was at least a great moral teacher, a common conceit though based more on contemporary interpretation than the text itself.

Dawkins criticises “the central doctrine of Christianity: that of ‘atonement’ for ‘original sin’”, pointing out that it is in itself deeply immoral and that only the “ubiquitous familiarity” of Christianity just hides how plain silly it is, or would be to an outsider.

Paul’s innovation, which would likely not have been supported by the historical Jewish Jesus, was the universalisation of Christianity. Biblical commandments to “Love thy neighbour” were exclusively ingroup focussed and entirely consistent with biblical commandments to genocide, rape and enslave outgroup members. Paul expanded the Jewish concept of god to the concept of a god for all humanity.

From our modern more humanistic moral standard we expect moral standard to apply more or less equally to all of humanity rather than specific racial sub-sets. It is this standard that religious liberals bring to scripture to either pick and choose, or unconsciously re-interpret positive religious teachings.

Dawkins argues that despite this, scripture itself – his focus remains on the Bible specifically – encourages this sort of ingroup focused morality. He shares a social study by, Israeli psychologist George Tamarin. To summarise: a large number of Israeli school children were given an account of the battle of Jericho where in their god’s name the army of Joshua and the Israelites kill every living being in the city. When questioned on the morality of this heinous crime, 66% of pupils gave total approval. A different group of Israeli school children were “given the same text from the book of Joshua, but with Joshua’s own name replaced by ‘General Lin’ and ‘Israel’ replaced by ‘a Chinese kingdom 3,000 years ago’.” In this case 75% of pupils registered total disapproval. The impact of ingroup religious bias is clear.

Dawkins acknowledges that “wars, and feuds between religious groups or sects, are seldom actually about theological disagreements” citing examples of sectarian conflict “From Kosovo to Palestine, from Iraq to Sudan, from Ulster to the Indian subcontinent”. But he argues that religion provides the ingroup/outgroup labels and mechanism which maintain that segregation, including “labelling of children”, “Segregated schools” and “Taboos against ‘marrying out’”. This analysis compelling, but open to the criticism that it ignores or downplays other non-religious factors.

Dawkins moves on from the obvious fact that no-ones morality, “no matter what we may fondly imagine” is actually grounded in scripture, to consider how the ‘moral zeitgeist’ evolves. One potential criticism here is that Dawkins ignores or downplays the role that evolving religious traditions can play in the formation of this zeitgeist.

Dawkins believes that: “With notable exceptions such as the Afghan Taliban and the American Christian equivalent, most people pay lip service to the same broad liberal consensus of ethical principles.” I have three criticisms of this very humanist worldview. Firstly, it is only true in an extremely broad sense. To find near universal moral standards you need to be very basic. Secondly, as we have already seen, many problems arise the ingroup limiting of these morals, common but not exclusive to religion. Thirdly, the examples picked assume that only religious worldviews are reject this consensus.

Dawkins considers various atheist attempts to rewrite and improve on the Ten Commandments. The specifics don’t matter, but the point is again that we with the benefit of two thousand years of moral evolution can easily improve – and what ever our religious beliefs generally do improve – on the morality of scripture.

The chapter is rounded out with a section looking at the question which apparently “comes up after just about every public lecture that I ever give on the subject of religion”: “What about Hitler and Stalin? Weren’t they atheists?” This feels a little dated, perhaps as it’s such a bad argument that it so rarely gets bought up to attack atheists anymore. In the case of Hitler, whether or not he was an atheist is open to debate and the Nazi regime was explicitly a Christian supremacist one. Stalin was an atheist, but this wasn’t the motivation for his regime.

Chapter 8. What’s wrong with religion? Why be so hostile?

The chapter starts with Dawkins saying: “I do not, by nature, thrive on confrontation. I don’t think the adversarial format is well designed to get at the truth”. Dawkins does not come across as confrontational or aggressive in the book. His “reputation for pugnacity towards religion” owes to his Twitter personality, toxic parts of his fandom, and the general taboo against criticising religion. I agree with the strictly limited utility of adversarial formal debate. The obsession with this format in parts of the atheist community reflects, I feel a desire to stick with the easy but limited question of gods’ existence.

Dawkins rejects the taboo against criticising religion, arguing that it should be treated like any other harmful or wrong belief. He makes this case in the chapter by focusing on the harms of religion he’s most passionate about.

This is understandable, but means the analysis is limited in scope and the obvious retort from religious moderates is that what is criticised is not their religion. This whole section would have been a lot stronger if Dawkins had drawn on the extensive academic literature and research into religious and nonreligious views on moral, scientific and political issues.

His main concern is the potential of religious fundamentalism to subvert science. Dawkins responds to the critique that he is fundamentalist about science by arguing that he is passionate about scientific literacy, and that the potential of science to change its mind in the face of evidence – though not necessarily of scientists to do the same – makes it intrinsically different to religious fundamentalism. He waves away a simplistic view of cultural relativist positions. His view is that fundamentalist religion is directly attacking science and that moderate religion provides cover for this by “teaching children, from their earliest years, that unquestioning faith is a virtue”.

He argues that: “Such absolutism nearly always results from strong religious faith, and it constitutes a major reason for suggesting that religion can be a force for evil in the world.” This is where a more systematic study of religion’s impacts on scientific and moral opinion would be most welcome. As it is, the chapter justifies the opposition to extreme or absolutist religion that should be shared with religious moderates, but only makes an extremely limited argument for opposition to vast swathes of more moderate religious beliefs.

Dawkins moves on to his second biggest concern regarding fundamentalist religion: the violent enforcement of blasphemy taboos. It is here where his focus moves largely from American Christian extremism to Islamism. He goes through a litany of some of the most famous blasphemy cases of the period, where Islamic regimes or organisations have murdered people for the ‘crimes’ of blasphemy or apostasy. As he points out, at the time of writing blasphemy was still technically a crime in Britain. The last successful prosecutions were in the twenties, but the existence of the law meant that there were still attempts to bring prosecutions and use it to silence criticism of religious.

The third great evil Dawkins considers is fundamentalist religion and homophobia. The same problem applies, by focusing on the extreme he limits his case and allows more liberal religious people to rightly respond that this isn’t their religion. There is so much more robust evidence on the corelation between religiosity and homophobia which could be utilised.

He rightly points out that the UK’s history of criminalising homosexuality is recent enough to ensure we have “no right to be smug”. Surprisingly, he doesn’t make the point about more contemporaneous religiously motivated homophobia in the UK. He restricts his commentary again to Islamist regimes and extreme American Christianity. He also fails to make the point that the decriminalisation of homosexuality was directly linked to a cultural liberation movement which undermined traditional religious controls in society.

He quotes many American Christian leaders and their extreme homophobia and the penalties they would like to impose if limits on their power were removed. Critics will again say that he is picking on extreme examples, but that discounts how much power and influence these people have.

The final great evil Dawkins considers is religious opposition to – the obsession within some parts of Christian nationalism – abortion and birth control. Far more people die from the Catholic Church’s efforts to discourage condoms, but this aspect of the religious attack on reproductive choices is not covered.

Dawkins points out the hypocrisy in the tendency of American Christian extremists to support the death penalty and violence against abortion providers while labelling themselves ‘pro-life’. His argument for abortion rights is a utilitarian one focusing on the relative ability of a foetus or pregnant person to suffer, rather than a bodily autonomy focussed one.

These are four of the greatest societal evils caused by or aggravated by religion, that the modern atheist movement have been most active in opposing, along with many religious allies of a more humanist or secularist persuasion. In the final section of the chapter, Dawkins turns to the question of whether or how moderate faith supports such fanaticism.

This is a massive topic of debate within the atheist movement and there are many differing and nuanced views with strong arguments. But this is given short attention.

Dawkins main arguments are firstly that the comfortable liberal fiction that religious extremists are mad or that they are only using their religion as an excuse or don’t really believe is robustly countered by the evidence. However, the tendency of some atheists to downplay non-religious factors motivating religious extremism is equally problematic. Similarly, the suggestion that more liberal religious believers are less sincere also privileges one understanding of religion.

His second argument is that promoting faith as a virtue and belief without evidence – even less harmful beliefs – encourages the faith-based thinking of fundamentalism. His third argument, made in more detail earlier is the tendency of even liberal moderate religion to encourage potentially negative ingroup/outgroup dynamics. A fourth argument is implied: that religious moderated maintain taboos against criticising religion that protects more extreme versions.

Recap

In part one of this series, I introduced the series, my interest in revisiting the book, and how Dawkins set out the ‘god hypothesis’. In part two I considered the book’s responses to arguments for the existence of a god. In part three I critiqued Dawkins’ exploration of the naturalistic roots of religion and morality.

I hope you will join me for the final instalment where I will be responding to the book’s positive case for atheism and giving my final reflections on this series.

Thanks for reading

Let me know what you thought of this article and if you want to hear more. I’m thinking of doing more reviews on books from an AHS+ perspective, are there any you’d like to see? Would you prefer books that are generally pro or anti atheist, humanist or secularist?

If you value this content and are able to financially support it, that would be great. Just a couple of pounds a month would help with hosting and other costs, and one day help expand our operations.

Please join our community on Twitter and Facebook to help share the blog, and help pass it along to anyone who may be interested.

How not to respond to atheists, if you care about conversation

Plenty of thoughtful religious people and atheists have criticisms of the modern atheist movement. I want to improve my own criticism. So, when a Facebook friend shared a link to a free e-book by Bishop Robert Barron, I gave it a look.

The book is “Answering the atheists” and Barron is the auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Through his Word on Fire ministry he is, according to Wikipedia, one of the most followed Catholic figures on the internet including with more than 3.2 million Facebook followers. I say this not wanting to be accused of picking a weak strawman, the equivalent of a 13-yearold twitter atheist.

I’m always willing to listen to good faith social or political criticism of the atheist movement – that’s kind of my thing. Although I find apologetics absurd and usually irrelevant, they are fun to play around with. The point is that I didn’t know what to expect going in.

It turns out that the e-book was mainly an extended sales pitch. Signing for the book enters you into an aggressive email marketing campaign that is absolutely not made clear or GDPR compliant. Perhaps it’s harder to get to over 400,000 subscribers playing nicely.

Barron opens with a discussion of the existentialist movement, Sartre and Camus. A bit strange to think that this is the philosophical foundation of atheism, but you have to start somewhere. However, Barron’s purpose is to introduce early on the idea that these ‘good’ atheists “to their credit, they saw the deep sadness and feeling of emptiness that result from atheism”. To which I say, “Fuck you Bishop.”

This is a bigoted and dehumanising view of atheists that is all too common among religious apologetics, though very much diluted among most religious people. Imagine replacing that with any other religious group: ‘The Hindus, who don’t accept the existence of my particular god must have a deep sadness and feeling of emptiness, because after all my god is the only reason not to.’ Imagine the arrogance of an atheist who would assert that ‘As the Christian believes this world is a meaningless blink of an eye compared to the eternity of the next all Christians if they are really honest must be filled with a deep sadness and feeling of emptiness.

It is only religious privilege that means we are expected to tolerate such a view of atheists. It may not irk most of us in the same way, but Barron’s view of atheists is as dehumanising as any other form of bigoty. Homophobes believe that deep down gay people feel as broken, miserable or disgusting, because that’s how they imagine being gay to be. This worldview is threatened when confronted with gay people living happy fulfilled lives. The responses can only be to modify your worldview, claim this happiness is only a pretence or seek to make them feel broken, miserable or disgusting. This is Barron’s approach to atheists: assert that they must feel lesser than him, asserts that they really do  feel lesser even if they pretend otherwise, and treats them as lesser.

He says of the existentialist, being sure only to mention dead ones unable of responding, that “Even as they denied Him, they knew that God, by definition, is what the human heart desperately needs.” Except in his simplistic understanding of existentialism, even he seems to half understand that this isn’t true. Existentialists argue that the absence of absolute meaning allows space to create our own and to acknowledge it as our own creation.

The vast majority of atheists I have encountered in 15 years of engagement with atheist groups and thinkers don’t believe that there is a grand purpose to the universe. I have only read a tiny number of atheist, and have never encountered any in the movement, who do believe their atheism necessitates this hopeless view of life. The bishop says that it “is important that we Christians are able to answer the atheist’s best objections to God’s existence”. So why does her start with a dehumanising caricature of a position with virtually no traction in atheist culture and very little within atheist philosophy?

He criticises the “condescending and often snarky dismissal” of atheists. Again, I came to this book looking for a critiques of toxic aspects of modern atheism I’d be happy to discuss atheist snark. Nothing in this introduction suggests good-faith engagement with these issues on Barron’s behalf.

The rest of the short book is an edited transcript of a podcast episode. It would be even shorter if he could go a few minutes without promoting another of his products.

Barron starts by pointing out that “there’s not anything particularly new in terms of the arguments” of the ‘new atheists’. One could point out that this is because all the theistic arguments have been long debunked. I’m not sure there are many new arguments against the flat earth. Barron correctly points out the role of the 11th of September 2001 on modern atheist discourse and how this can be distorting.

Barron’s second critique is of the “vitriol” and “meanness” of atheist discourse. I’d be happy to discuss these if he hadn’t already demonstrated bad faith and wasn’t smearing all atheists. Perhaps he could point out a book by an atheist with similar prominence to his within the Catholic hierarchy which opens with a dehumanising caricature of all religious people.

He deploys a common rhetorical trope of holding up past atheist like “Sartre, or even Freud or Feuerbach” and claiming they were “highbrow” and they “took religion seriously” to imply the opposite of today’s atheists. He longs for his critics to be deferent to him, an expectation borne from privilege and entitlement.

“What do you say to someone who says there’s just no evidence?” asks the interviewer. The bishop is pleased the hear this is “the number one” argument from atheists because “it’s very easy to refute that”. By presenting any evidence? Of course not, by redefining it. Barron is correct to say that evidence is “a loaded term”, in the sense that evidence can encompass bad evidence such as a personal feeling or fourth-hand testimony. I would agree with him that a term like “rational warrant” may be better.

However, Barron’s problem is that the term “evidence’ implies that his god is a scientific hypothesis that can be empirically tested, which he finds absurd. Barron defines his god as not being “subject to the norms of the scientific method, because God is not a being in the world”. Here’s the problem, the existence of a god is an hypothesis, whether or not we are currently able to test it.

If a god existed and interacted with the universe then this could theoretically be demonstrated through the scientific method. Barron is correct that science does not prove a god doesn’t exist and that any atheist who says it does is silly. But science does prove that there is currently no evidence for the existence of a god and it’s a little bizarre that theists aren’t more concerned about that.

To be consistent, Barron would also have to refrain from attempting to make any scientific claims for the existence of his god and to refute the history of such claims within his own intellectual tradition.

I feel compelled to ask, if the bishop continues to hold his god belief despite accepting that empiricism does not support this, why not go a step further and hold the belief while accepting that philosophy doesn’t support the belief either?

He goes halfway to doing that when he argues that the existence of a god is “ontologically basic”. Nope. If you remove a genuinely ontologically basic concept such as #A equals #A or #A does not equal #Not-A, then ontology falls apart, they must be presupposed. That simply isn’t the case with the claim that a god exists, even if the claim were true. He uses a similarly bull-headed approach in the next question, responding to atheist criticisms of first cause arguments by asserting that his god simply isn’t subject to those logical contradictions, because… he says so.

Barron goes on to respond to Occam, whose argument he fairly summarises as “if all things can be explained through an appeal to natural causality then we don’t need God.”. It seems that if the bishop were really interested in the best naturalistic arguments against theism, then he would have started with this rather than the strawman scientism above. His response is to again assert that his god is more ontologically basic than discussions of nature.

Barron reveals that he thinks the problem of evil is the best argument against the existence of a god. Though he is quick to “clarify, it’s more emotionally compelling than intellectually compelling”. Don’t worry if that sounds like those “snarky” atheists, after all he also says “I don’t mean that in a condescending way at all.”

Given that he almost certainly scripted the questions – the interview is taken from his own podcast and most of the questions are stunted attempts to set him up with a plug for one of his courses thrown in – why didn’t he start with this?

Also, if he thinks that this is the most compelling argument atheists have, why does he (1) misunderstand it as a argument against god rather than an argument against a benevolent god and (2) not do the intellectual courtesy of quoting an actual atheist’s framing of the argument? I suspect the answer to both is the bishop’s desire for east strawmen.

He argues that his god allows suffering for the greater good, after all “No Hitler, no Maximilian Kolbe” I don’t swear a lot, so this is only my second “Fuck you bishop” of the book. Oh, and also ‘No Catholic Church’s two millennia of anti-Semitism, no Hitler, no Maximilian Kolbe.

Barron goes beyond arguing that if a god exists, they might have some reason for suffering, besides indifference or cruelty, or that there may be some reason that this god cannot use their powers to achieve these ends without the suffering. He asserts there is a reason, without demonstrating it.

He attempts to address this with a couple of analogies comparing our understanding of his god to children’s understanding of adults: “That’s like a beginning math student in sixth grade looking at Einstein’s most elaborate formulas and saying, ‘This is a bunch of nonsense. They’re just silly symbols on the page.’”

Barron argues that we cannot use our finite human understanding to criticise a god. A child may not understand everything a parent does, but that parent can demonstrate their own existence, and can attempt to demonstrate or explain their reasoning to the child. Barron is not just a generic theist, he is a bishop of the Catholic Church so feels comfortable making all sorts of very detailed and specific claims about his god, based on his finite human understanding.

I was pretty disappointed with this book. It was not in anyway a meaningful response to or critique of modern atheism. But perhaps I was just the wrong audience. I will attempt to untangle myself from the Bishop’s mailing list and move on. But when I write my next article for aimed at religious people seeking productive conversations with atheists, at least I will have a good example of what not to do.

Thanks for reading

Let me know what you thought of this article and if you want to hear more. If you value this content and are able to financially support it, that would be great. Just a couple of pounds a month would help with hosting and other costs, and one day help expand our operations.

Please join our community on Twitter and Facebook to help share the blog, and pass it along to anyone who may be interested.

Photo information: A picture from the atheist bus campaign by Dan Etherington, also illustrated on the front cover of the book

Halo Reach, Sisyphus and religious apologetics

Debunking apologetics can feel like a Sisyphean task but can be a fun intellectual exercise and sharpen your skills. Just remember apologetics are not relevant to most lived experiences of religion, and there are more interesting discussions to be had.

When I’m in the mood to relax and able to shut out the world for a bit, I put on an old favourite game on easy mode and an old favourite podcast – usually God Awful Movies. At the end of Halo Reach, when you have completed the storyline, you enter a level called Lone Wolf. Wave after wave of Covenant forces attack your character, who must keep fighting till they can’t any longer. Nothing you do will advance the story in any way. There are no more interesting challenges to solve, nothing new will come up, no matter the skill you use to dispatch scores of Grunts, Brutes and Elites, hordes of identical ones will take their place, until you are ground down and can’t go on. It’s positively Sisyphean.

If you wanted to introduce someone to the bright and expansive world of Halo, Lone Wolf would not be the place to start. It’s easy to see this level as pointless and impossible. But like Sisyphus pushing his boulder up the mountain for ever, we can reinterpret the story to find meaning; not in achieving an outcome, but in the value of the task itself. For instance, Lone Wolf could be seen as a training level that sharpens your skills for the wider game.

That brings me to (counter)apologetics and arguments for the (non)existence of gods. Religion and religious philosophers have made varied enriching contributions to human thought. Apologetics are perhaps the least of these. Religious ideas raise many genuinely interesting questions, but whether or not we should believe in a god isn’t one of them.

On this blog I generally take what I refer to as an assumed knowledge approach to certain basic questions. Normally I think there are more interesting things to discuss than apologetics, and whether or not religion is a human invention. But, inspired by some of my recent reading, I thought I’d go through responses to some of the most common religious apologetics. According to my high school religious studies textbook, these are the three classical ones.

These are categories rather than singular arguments, so I’m introducing each with a broad exemplar, and responding to categorical rather than specific errors with each type of argument.

Cosmological

P1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause for its existence.

P2. The universe began to exist.

C1. Therefore, the universe has a cause

The above formulation is the Kalam cosmological argument, named after ancient Islamic apologetics, popularised by William Lane Craig. All cosmological apologetics attempt to demonstrate that the universe was created by god, by contrasting this with the logical impossibility of an infinitely proceeding chain of causes.

It’s worth pointing out that even if it were logically valid (it isn’t) and its clauses were sound (dubious at best), this argument would only suggest that the universe has a cause, and additional even more spurious arguments are needed to suggest that this cause is a theistic agent.

P1 and P2 are chock-full of fallacies equivocational, compositional and factual. The argument attempts to use our intuitive understanding of everyday cause-and-effect, and everyday uses of language, to play a word game.

The term “everything” in P1 and its interaction with the term “universe” in P2 invites equivocation. In P1 it can be interpreted as “every[SPACE]thing” as in every item within the set of all things, or the set itself, as in Everything. This in turn leads to a compositional fallacy as the argument uses a claim about items within a set to make claims about the set itself.

Notice that in the penumbra between P1 and P2 the apologist smuggles in the assertion that a god is not subject to this causation. If we are to assert that god does not need a separate cause for its existence, then why not simply argue the universe (which has the advantage of demonstrably existing) doesn’t need a separate cause for its existence? The phrasing “Everything, which begins to exist…” is then really just a word game, as the apologist really means “Everything, apart from god, which exists…”

“Begins to exist” is perhaps the biggest equivocation in the argument. In P1 “Begins to exist” is used in an everyday sense. i.e. we might say that something within our universe (say a building) began to exist, because there was a point in the past where the components that now make it up (e.g. bricks, and mortar) were arranged in a different state. This sense of “Begins to exist” is confined to arrangements of components within our universe. But in P2 “Begins to exist” is used to describe the universe itself coming into existence.

In P2 we are forced to interpret “Begins to exist” as “has existed for a finite amount of past time”, which in turn forces us to interpret “universe” in P2 as our local space-time, as this cannot be applied to “universe” or “cosmos” in the sense of all possible space-time.

The definition of “cause” in P1 and P2 is kept deliberately vague because the apologist wants to follow this argument up by asserting that this “cause” is a theistic god. In the classical model of causality that governs our everyday lives, some past event acts on something to cause a change: at midnight domino one falls hitting domino two, causing it to fall at midnight and one second etc. But reality is more complicated than that. Quantum physics allows for energy and space time to pop into existence or change in ways not influenced by any preceding event.

We could address this factual error in the argument by redefining “cause” to encompass both events caused in the classical sense and events allowed for by the nature of reality. In which case the more parsimonious answer would be that the nature of reality allows for the existence of our local universe.

Teleological

Teleological arguments arrest that some aspect of the natural world is evidence of design. These are emotionally appealing because we live in very designed environments and have a natural tendency to assign agency to the appearance of design. These arguments can be extremely varied, but the most common formation is claiming that the existence of the world (Earth or the universe) and/or life is the product of design. Teleological arguments contrast the supposed design seen in nature with examples of non-design. The most well-known example is the watchmaker argument by the proponent of natural theology William Paley. In 1802 Paley put forward the watchmaker analogy, where someone picking up a watch abandoned on a beach would know that it was designed because of its complexity and function. Parley analogised that living beings, being far more complex, are evidence of a designer for nature. Parley’s reasoning is understandable but flawed. The discovery of evolution by natural selection provides the answer to how complex living systems come to be without a designer. Parley’s arguments continue to influence creationists of today who, unlike the nineteenth century clergyman, don’t have the excuse of the ignorance of their times.

There is a more fundamental error in Parley’s thinking which affects all teleological arguments. In the watchmaker analogy, Parley demonstrated that the watch is designed by contrasting it with undesigned i.e., naturally occurring things such as rocks. But to do so invalidates the argument that nature is designed.

Modern theologians try to get around this dilemma by comparing our supposedly theistically designed natural world to a theoretical undesigned one, but they have no basis for doing so. The only universe we have access to is our own, we don’t have examples of other designed or natural ones to compare it to.

There are other problems with the idea that the universe is finetuned for the purpose of life. We have no access to other universes, so we don’t know what universal conditions are possible. An infinitesimally small part of the universe supports life. This obviously matters to us, but if we step outside of our anthropic view, we could just as easily argue that the universe is fine tuned for the purpose of empty space.

The bigger problem with this view is that it gets everything backwards. As Douglas Adams said, it is like a puddle looking at the hole it sits in and concluding that the hole was made for it. The universe isn’t fine-tuned for life. Life is fine tuned for the universe. The life which exists within the universe is that which the natural conditions of the universe allow to exist.

Ontological

Paraphrasing Anselm of Canterbury:

P1. God is defined as the greatest possible being

P2. The concept of god as the greatest possible being exists in our mind

P3. A being which exists in the real world as well as in the mind is greater than one which exists only in the mind.

P4. If god exists only in the mind, then we could conceive of a greater possible being.

P5. But god is defined as the greatest possible being.

P6. Therefore god exists in the real world

Whereas the teleological and cosmological arguments at least try to address some grand question about reality and resort to word games only to hide their weaknesses, ontological arguments are nothing but word games. At the heart all ontological arguments seek to smuggle existence into their definition of god, in order to argue that god exists by definition.

A lot of the humorous refutations of the ontological argument floating around the Internet have fun by pointing out that you can define anything in this way. I used to enjoy my own ontological argument for the existence of Batman that I’m sure others have thought of:

P1. Batman is defined as the greatest possible detective

P2. The concept of Batman as the greatest possible detective exists in our mind

P3. A detective which exists in the world as well as in the mind is greater than one which exists only in the mind.

P4. If Batman exists only in the mind, then we could conceive of a greater possible detective.

P5. But Batman is defined as the greatest possible detective.

P6. Therefore Batman exists in the real world

Of course, that we are able to have some conception or definition of a thing does not say anything about whether that concept is coherent or maps to anything in reality.

The trick is in P3, where the argument assumes that existence is a necessary quality of “greatest”, which seems to make intuitive sense. But if that is the case then, asserting that god is defined as the greatest is the same as defining god as existing, which makes the argument circular. You might as well start and end with P1.

Whereas we can conceive of things which cannot exist in reality, and which may be greater in any number of ways than their nearest existing analogue. For example, we can mathematically describe a perfect circle which will always be more perfect than any circle which may exist in reality. We can conceive of infinity, which will always be greater than any number which could exist in reality.

Is there any point?

If you’re in the mood, then religious apologetics can be fun to play around with and sharpen your logical skills. If you encounter an argument which just seems wrong, then learning to recognise and describe the flaw will help you to think clearly about other arguments. Debunking apologetics can help others out of religion or impart the gift of doubt which is so effective at undermining toxic manifestations of religion. Apologists do their best to avoid admitting their arguments have been debunked, which can often force them into more and more absurd positions, which may undermine their authority on other issues.

The key thing to remember is that apologetics are not really that relevant to anyone’s lived experiences of religion. They are post hoc rationalisations for belief, so debunking them is not the best way to address the reasons why people believe in gods or why such beliefs are used for good or evil.

Thanks for reading

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AHS reads: The God Delusion, part 3

Welcome to part three in a five-part series re-examining The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. In part one, I introduced the series, my interest in revisiting it and how Dawkins set out the ‘god hypothesis’. In part two I considered Dawkins’ responses to arguments for the existence of a god and his contrast with the argument, that an agent god would be supremely unlikely. In this part I will be critiquing Dawkins’ exploration of the naturalistic roots of religion and morality.

Even if there were some supernatural foundation for religious belief or morality, i.e. even if an agent god got the ball rolling, religions and morality are complex socially constructed systems, which can be explained through naturalistic means. Religion would remain a social construct even if all the central theological claims of a particular religion were true. Even if a god’s morality existed, human morality would still be a human product.

One could simply argue that as the supernatural does not exist, anything that actually exists must have a naturalistic explanation. But there is an enormous gulf in satisfaction between knowing something must have an explanation, and having some idea of what that explanation is. In these chapters, Dawkins will explore what that might be.

Chapter 5. The roots of religion

Dawkins begins the chapter writing: “Everybody has their own pet theory of where religion comes from and why all human cultures have it.” (One could quibble over whether this depends on how you define “religion”) before moving, as we have become somewhat accustomed, to viewing the question through a Darwinian lens. This reflects his much clearer thinking and communication when it comes to Darwinian, rather than sociological or philosophical, explanations.

Dawkins reasons that as Darwinian evolution is a fact, any behaviour which is seemingly ubiquitous among a species should have a direct or indirect Darwinian explanation. Dawkins analogises religion to other complex and costly expressions such as mating dances or the tale of the peacock, which do not on the surface appear to make survival more likely but serve some evolutionary purpose.

“Religious behaviour is a writlarge human equivalent of anting or bower-building. It is time-consuming, energy-consuming, often as extravagantly ornate as the plumage of a bird of paradise.”

Dawkins argues that religion, or some set of instinctual behaviours which typically manifests as religion, is an example of The Extended Phenotype. This is seeing genes as leading to behaviours which influence the survival of other genes within an ecosystem, rather than an individual. Dawkins paraphrases Dan Dennett as pointing out that “the common cold is universal to all human peoples in much the same way as religion is, yet we would not want to suggest that colds benefit us.”.

Dawkins considers how “costly” (in the Darwinian sense) religious beliefs and practices are despite their ubiquity across very different human societies:

“Though the details differ across the world, no known culture lacks some version of the time-consuming, wealth-consuming, hostility-provoking rituals, the anti-factual, counter-productive fantasies of religion.”

Drawing on the work of Kim Sterelny, Dawkins considers examples of aboriginal hunter gatherer societies in New Zealand, Australia and New Guinea. Aborigines live in an extremely harsh environment where survival takes great skill and effort. Their cultural evolution has supremely well adapted them to this environment and led these cultures to place huge emphasis on understanding their biological environment. The Darwinian utility of this is obvious. But the same cultural evolution has led them to develop “destructive obsessions about female menstrual pollution and about witchcraft”, which appear to be positively destructive to their survival, and for which an immediate Darwinian explanation eludes us. I don’t know how good or problematic Sterelny’s anthropology is, but it seems this point could have been made without risking being drawn into or perpetuating tropes.

In search of this Darwinian explanation Dawkins first considers direct benefits of religion. He argues that it can be seen to provide a placebo benefit, by providing the illusion of explanation and comfort. While Dawkins believes this placebo effect may play a ”subsidiary role” in the ubiquity of religion, he does not believe it is a sufficient explanation.

Of course, there are direct benefits of religion for certain people. Most religions have clerical classes or positions. Wherever there is religion, there are people receiving direct benefits or special considerations because of it, furnishing them with resources which they have an incentive to invest in perpetuating that religion. This does not require those beneficiaries to be conscious or cynical scammers. Again, Dawkins clearly believes that this may play a subsidiary role, but is not a sufficient explanation.

Dawkins moves on to considering the potential impact of group selection. He paraphrases archaeologist Colin Renfrew’s argument that religions encourage in group loyalty and outgroup hostility which provides a survival advantage. However, such in group/outgroup dynamics are far more ubiquitous than anything that could be called religious behaviour. It’s not clear whether this dynamic could serve as a Darwinian foundation for the tendency to religion, and/or vice versa.

Dawkins considers a fictional, simplified example: “A tribe with a stirringly belligerent ‘god of battles’ wins wars against rival tribes whose gods urge peace and harmony, or tribes with no gods at all.”. In this case it wouldn’t be clear whether the religious belief would spur the tribe onto investing greater resources in war-making, or whether the greater cultural capital invested in war-making would encourage the religious belief.

Dawkins’ extreme scepticism of the utility of group selection explanations in the scientific/genetic sense, may prejudice him against the role of group selection in the sociological sense. In any case, he likewise places this as having a subsidiary role and being insufficient to explain the roots of religion.

Dawkins then moves on to consider what may be the strongest Darwinian explanation of religious tendency: that it is a by-product of something else. He begins with an explanation of what evolutionary by-products are. As with the best of his science communication, he builds up from a simple interesting example: insects fly to their deaths in candles and other lights, because their eyes have evolved to navigate with reference to light sources coming in from optical infinity.

Religion leads people to act in ways which appear counter to their best interests and to hold beliefs which appear irrational. To ask for a direct Darwinian explanation of this may be to ask the wrong question, and Dawkins argues we should explain some other propensity which may manifest as religion, but was selected for because it manifests in other useful ways.

The God Delusion being a piece of popular and accessible science communication, Dawkins is seeking to raise the readers consciousness to the possibility of a type of explanation, rather than defending a specific hypothesis. Nonetheless, the arguments he brings up our compelling.

Dawkins preferred hypothesis is to do with the education and survival of children. We are a social species whose children are born underdeveloped and require extensive rearing. Dawkins hypothesises that a biological propensity to trust parents and authority figures without question provides an evolutionary advantage. A child who believes their parents’ warnings about crocodile infested waters may be more likely to survive than a child who gathers empirical evidence to test this claim. Every freethinking liberal parent may turn into a Darwinian authoritarian when their child’s life is in immediate danger.

Dawkins argues that this mechanism may equally transmit false or useless beliefs. Obedience to authority is highly valued in many cultures particularly, though Dawkins does not make this point, in highly religious cultures. He does relate a “Horrifying in retrospect”, school sermon about a squad of soldiers so well drilled that they admirably marched into an oncoming train because they had not received their order to halt. Theirs’ was not to reason why.

As Dawkins points out, both educators and indoctrinators understand the “useful programmability of the child brain”.

Having drawn on the work of various anthropologists, Dawkins rounds out the subsection with a consideration of how “All religious beliefs seem weird to those not brought up in them.” Via Pascal Boyer, he shares the story of the Fang people of Cameroon, and their admittedly bizarre and complex beliefs about the night-time activities of witches. Boyer relates his experience at a dinner with a prominent Cambridge theologian who on hearing about these beliefs remarked “That is what makes anthropology so fascinating and so difficult too. You have to explain how people can believe such nonsense.

As Dawkins points out, the theologian in question likely holds a selection of mainstream Christian beliefs which are equally as absurd as those of the Fang, but our cultural blinders and prejudices make them seem more “acceptable”.

Continuing his search for potential Darwinian by-product explanations, Dawkins turns to “the important and developing field of evolutionary psychology”. I feel compelled to acknowledge that, while being a valuable and legitimate academic field, evolutionary psychology has been attractive to some of the cranky fringes of the atheist movement for its supposed ability to explain cultural issues in purely rational terms, without reference to sociology or philosophy.

Evolutionary psychology would suggest that the ubiquity of religion shows that humans have evolved mental architecture which supports the tendency towards religious thinking. By analogy, the ubiquity of the common cold suggest that humans have some infrastructure which supports its existence, not that the human respiratory system evolved specifically to support the common cold.

Drawing on the work of psychologist Paul Bloom, Dawkins argues that “children have a natural tendency towards a dualistic theory of mind”, and good empirical evidence backs this up. Bloom suggests this tendency is particularly prominent in younger children, who have not yet developed an adult theory of mind and understanding of agency. Children assign purpose and tend towards agency-based explanations of the world.

Dawkins draws on another psychologist, Deborah Kelema and her article “Are children natural theists” which he summarises as:

“Clouds are ‘for raining’. Pointy rocks are ‘so that animals could scratch on them when they get itchy’. The assignment of purpose to everything is called teleology.”

This natural tendency to imagine abstract minds and assign agency maps very well onto religious beliefs. In fact, I think the ability to empirically demonstrate this tendency and its exclamatory power is the best explanation of the tendency towards religious thinking.

The reasons we have evolved to see agency even where it does not exist, particularly in childhood where our empirical knowledge of the world is limited,  are obvious. Dawkins, drawing again on the work of Dennett and Bloom, calls this the intentional or design stance. Which are “useful brain mechanisms, important for speeding up the second-guessing of entities that really matter for survival, such as predators or potential mates”.

The classic example is that of our ancestors on the African Savannah seeing the leaves of a brush rustle. Possible explanations could be the wind or a predator creeping up on us. Humans with the predisposition to assume agency may occasionally find themselves wasting energy running away from non-existent predators. But those with a predisposition to not assume agency are more likely to be eaten, when they think they have just heard the wind.

Dawkins spends a significant portion of this subsection exploring potential Darwinian explanations for a tendency towards irrational thinking, which may in turn lead to a propensity for religious thinking. The empirical evidence for this is nowhere near as substantive as for the hyperactive agency detection thesis. It’s interesting enough but doesn’t really add to the central argument.

In a section entitled “tread softly, because you tread on my memes”, Dawkins considers how religion, or any cultural manifestation, may be replicated and evolved in a Darwinian sense, without being genetically based. This opens with the Oscar Wilde quote “Truth, in matters of religion, is simply the opinion that has survived.” Dawkins invented the term meme in an earlier book and has written more extensively elsewhere about meme theory.

Put simply, a meme is the cultural equivalent of a biological gene. Just as different genes are inherited and change over time, and these differences influence how well they are able to spread, ideas can spread in similar ways:

“Some religious ideas survive because they are compatible with other memes that are already numerous in the meme pool – as part of a memeplex.”

It is surprising that in this chapter on “The roots of religion” Dawkins has drawn on few empirical examples of the roots of specific religions. It may simply be that cases where we have the best empirical evidence are not always generalisable. Where religions have come about as a result of deliberate fraud, such as Mormonism or Scientology, we have the most complete and documented understanding of their roots. That doesn’t mean that the deliberate fraud hypothesis is best to generalise as an explanation of all religion.

We have outstandingly strong empirical evidence that humans, particularly children, have a tendency to trust authority figures, assume agency and utilise dualistic theories of mind. While this provides a general explanation for religious thinking, it does not adequately explain most specific religions.

Dawkins rounds out the chapter by considering one of the examples that we do have, which demonstrates how quickly these tendencies can drive the development  of religious beliefs and practices, given the right environment. The ‘cargo cults’ of Pacific Melanesia and New Guinea which appear to have evolved multiple times over the 19th and 20th century, though from the same background cultural matrix.

To summarise: islands in this area of the Pacific were invaded by white people with technology that the native inhabitants of these islands lacked the background knowledge or cultural references to understand. They witnessed these immigrants performing activities which they did not understand as any sort of useful work and witnessed the regular delivery of “cargo” from the sky. In an attempt to get in on this heavenly largess, the inhabitants began mimicking what they perceived to be the rituals to invite the cargo, they built their own airports, marched in formation much as the soldiers who inhabited the military airstrips would. This eventually led to the development of a clerical class. In the 1950s David Attenborough visited an island where the high priest claims to regularly speak by radio to the pilot of a cargo plane and interpret his will.

Chapter 6. The roots of morality: why are we good?

Dawkins opens the chapter with the consideration of the typical argument presented against atheists: “Many religious people find it hard to imagine how, without religion, one can be good, or would even want to be good.”

Personally, my response is to point out the empirical evidence that morality precedes and is separable from religion, and to point out that the question could be replaced with any unevidenced assertion: “If you don’t believe in the flying pink unicorn and their four-sided triangle of truth how can you be good?

Pointing out how often religion inspires immoral behaviour, as Dawkins will go on to do, does not seem to be the best response to the claim that religion is the foundation of morality. Dawkins shares some of his hate mail, the tone of which is familiar to anyone who has ever advocated atheism or even challenged religious supremacy in the public realm. Ironically, it is through an example of this hate mail, where someone is berating Dawkins that he should shut up and pretend that religion is true even if it isn’t, because the alternative is so immoral, that we see the core problem with the argument from morality. Even if we were to agree that a god belief was foundational to morality (it isn’t) that would say nothing about whether morality itself is a useful tool, or whether that god concept maps to reality.

As is to be expected given the book’s format, Dawkins turns first to considering the question through a Darwinian lens. As Darwinian evolution is a fact, and it is a fact that humans have a propensity towards creating moral systems, there should be a direct or indirect Darwinian explanation of this.

“Natural selection can easily explain hunger, fear and sexual lust, all of which straightforwardly contribute to our survival or the preservation of our genes. But what about the wrenching compassion we feel when we see an orphaned child weeping, an old widow in despair from loneliness, or an animal whimpering in pain?”

Cooperative behaviour is pretty much the definition of a social species, and the ability to understand a propensity to act to alleviate the suffering of members of our in group have clear evolutionary advantages. It is unsurprising that we see behaviour that can be described as a basic form of reality across all social species, and particularly in our close relatives. Species which have evolved in tandem, such as flowers and pollinating insects, or more complex examples such as humans and dogs, have a genetic tendency towards certain forms of cooperation, which may serve as some of the foundations for morality. In all such cases, mechanisms have evolved to punish those who do not cooperate.

Someone who does not understand how the utilitarian gene competition of natural selection leads to manifestations of altruism, does not understand how kinship and reciprocity serve as “the twin pillars of altruism in a Darwinian world, but there are secondary structures which rest atop those main pillars”.

In a Darwinian sense, our complex systems of morality, of social interaction, the appreciation of art music and beauty may be happily accidental by-products of other processes. This may not be satisfying if you start from the belief that morality was created especially for us.

Dawkins, and others, have written far more extensively on the evolution of morality, or more accurately the evolution of mental and social structures which serve as a basis for our morality, elsewhere. For a popular work of counter apologetics, it is simply enough to point out that there are good naturalistic explanations for the roots of morality.

Dawkins considers various empirical studies of moral norms, which he refers to as “moral universals”, though that term is a little problematic. It’s quite a brief overview, but it reminded me of studying basic moral philosophy and how useless and distracting God claims are from interesting real-world moral dilemmas. Dawkins draws on the work of biologist Marc Hauser who has undertaken extensive and genuinely cross-cultural research into responses to variations of the trolley problem. The details don’t really matter, but suffice it to say we have incredibly strong empirical evidence that certain basic moral predispositions are common across cultures and regardless of religion or belief. We should also point out that the ubiquity of these basic moral predispositions does not mean that they are the best possible moral approaches.

Dawkins concludes that:

“This seems compatible with the view, which I and many others hold, that we do not need God in order to be good – or evil.”

Theologians may counter with the claim that such ubiquitous moral predispositions are themselves a product of divine intervention, but without evidence of divine intervention being possible, such claims are profoundly unimpressive.

Dawkins expresses his frustration at the question “if there is no god, why be good?”. The question is actually circular, as it pre-supposes that god is the reason to do good. Without this presupposition, the second half of the question is a non sequitur. Dawkins flippantly responds to this question with what is effectively a critique of divine commandment theory, asking: “Do you really mean to tell me the only reason you try to be good is to gain God’s approval and reward, or to avoid his disapproval and

punishment?”. Theologians have all sorts of ways of attempting to wriggle out of or obscure their use of divine commandment theory.

Quoting Michael Shermer, Dawkins argues that this is a “debate stopper” because:

“If you agree that, in the absence of God, you would ‘commit robbery, rape, and murder’, you reveal yourself as an immoral person, ‘and we would be well advised to steer a wide course around you’. If, on the other hand, you admit that you would continue to be a good person even when not under divine surveillance, you have fatally undermined your claim that God is necessary for us to be good.”

I have previously critiqued such claims of “debate stoppers” and the simplistic idea that belief systems as complex as religions can be bought down by such simple rational argument.

Dawkins, like many atheists, thinks that the belief that a god is the only thing holding back rampant immorality, is a demeaning and anti-humanist position. However, he contrasts this view with examples where the temporary absence of policing has led to a breakdown in law and order. These are slightly beside the point and such anomalies don’t really tell us much about how northern order would function in a society designed with the absence of policing.

Again, Dawkins draws on empirical evidence showing that belief in an all-seeing supernatural police force in the sky, does not appear to make people more or less likely to follow the law. He does argue however that humanism as an atheistic moral system does encourage superior moral behaviour. I would tend to agree, but that is a more complex question.

Dawkins quotes from Sam Harris in his Letter to a Christian Nation: demonstrating that all sorts of behaviours we consider morally bad, principally crime, are in fact highly correlated with religiosity. This is problematic, because in a highly religious society such as the United States, and despite atheists being a marginalised community, the ability to be nonreligious is often correlated with positions of privilege.

Returning to the question of why one should be good without a god, Dawkins imagines a hypothetical apologist asking:

“If you don’t believe in God, you don’t believe there are any absolute standards of morality. With the best will in the world you may intend to be a good person, but how do you decide what is good and what is bad? Only religion can ultimately provide your standards of good and evil.”

He could have chosen to quote from any number of apologists making this basic argument. There are several critiques of this argument. Firstly it misunderstands the process by which societies come to moral consensus, and by which individuals exercise moral reasoning, and secondly it sets up the idea of “ultimate morality” as a way to smuggle in circular reasoning presupposing an ultimate moral arbiter, when such ultimate or cosmic morality is unnecessary for human moral systems.

Dawkins first points out that even if it were true that we needed a god concept to be moral, that would not imply that the god concept actually maps to reality. He also points out that theories of moral absolution can be based on nonreligious or naturalistic arguments. This and the remainder of the chapter, which considers very briefly determinist and utilitarian reality, perfectly undermines claims that god concepts are necessary for morality, but doesn’t build up a positive case for a secular or humanistic view of morality.

This sets up the next two chapters of the book. I hope you will join me for those in the penultimate, part four, of this review in a few weeks’ time.

Thanks for reading

Let me know what you thought of this article and if you want to hear more. I’m thinking of doing more reviews on books from an AHS+ perspective, are there any you’d like to see? Would you prefer books that are generally pro or anti atheist, humanist or secularist?

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Our drab religious anthem and anti-racism protests

Taking the knee against racism at Euro 2020 seems a better reflection of our national values than our national anthem: a hymn to a conquering sectarian monarchy.

England played Scotland on Friday in their second group game of the Euro 2020 football tournament. As they have in recent games, the England players joined by their Scottish counterparts agreed to take the knee before kick-off in a symbolic gesture against racism. As in recent games, this gesture was booed by a small number of racists.

There are substantive critiques of the knee protest. Gestures matter, but this one has been co-opted to fit within a framework with which the football authorities and sponsors are comfortable. While it has started important conversations it hasn’t so far led to substantive actions to address racism in football or beyond. However, protests against this protest against racism, have spread as it has been made a culture war issue.

Taking the knee has always been a bit of an awkward import into UK sport. Colin Kaepernick’s iconic protest of taking the knee before American football games worked, because he objected to being required to glorifying a nation steeped in racism. We don’t do the bizarre performative patriotism of insisting on the national anthem at every sporting event. Maybe we would if we had a decent one.

Many people feel more affinity to the symbolism of taking a knee for racial and social justice, than they do for our national anthem: God save our gracious queen etc. It says nothing about our people or the values millions of Brits identify with. As an atheist, I don’t want or need to beseech any deity’s help with my head of state’s health or nation’s sporting prowess. As a humanist I don’t want someone to “reign over us” As a secularist, I’m not sure I want a god to “confound their politics”, separation of church and state, and all that.

I find the excessively performative prayer by players, equally bizarre and more than a bit silly, though at least I can see a game in the pub without social pressure to participate in this. In either case, thanking god for a tap-in or making our national anthem a hymn to a conquering sectarian monarchy, I couldn’t imagine the effrontery of booing it. I’d like a new national anthem, but am not going to start a bloody culture war over it. I wouldn’t expect anyone to care if I boycotted the national team over it.

We like to pretend we’re a meritocracy. But celebrity, achieved through sporting success or media acumen, rare as it is, is one of the very few routes that provide people from ethnic minority or working-class backgrounds with a significant platform to speak out on social issues. There are certainly forms of neutrality and non-partisanship that institutions like football clubs would be wise to observe. But politics has always been interwoven with sport and football in particular. Calls to ‘keep politics out of football’ are normally calls to keep quiet about issues that people don’t like or are uncomfortable with. This is normally just a form of conservative ‘cancel culture’. There are significant issues with racism within British sport, particularly sport media and business, and any expectation that players should stay silent about this is political.

Thanks for reading

Let me know what you thought of this article and if you want to hear more. If you value this content and are able to financially support it, that would be great. Just a couple of pounds a month would help with hosting and other costs, and one day help expand our operations.

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Stop gaslighting LGBT+ people about religion

Happy Pride to all my LGBT+ readers and allies. The disproportionate contribution of LGBT+ people to atheist, humanist, secularist and similar groups is something we should all be extremely grateful for. At times, this disproportionate contribution has literally paid my wages and has greatly enriched the groups that have provided a home for me. Round the world and throughout history LGBT+ people have so often been on the frontline in the fight against theocracy and dogmatism.

When I was a younger, brasher atheist I used to wonder how any LGBT+ person could be religious. From a more mature position, I realise that faith identities and beliefs mean different things to different people, and many people are perfectly capable of reconciling these with LGBT+ identities or allyship.

In modern Western history virtually every organised campaign against the rights of lesbian, gay and bisexual people has been religious in nature. That is absolutely not to suggest that atheists, humanists, or secularist groups are completely free of homophobia. Though Western transphobia is also largely funded by religious groups, it has found far too warm a reception in some parts of our community. Though religiosity and homophobia are highly correlated, it would be an absurdly broad and unfair brush to paint all religion or religious people as homophobic. I was giving a talk a few years ago and during the Q&A a teenager shared her upset with her peers assuming Christians like her were homophobic. I’m sure she was entirely sincere, a good friend and ally. But the root of her discomfort was that she didn’t like people pointing out her group’s role in systemic oppression.

If people want to practice their faith or manifest their religious identity in more inclusive, humanistic ways then great. But LGBT+ people and their allies should not be policed or prevented from pointing out the systemic role of religion in their oppression. The fight for LGBT+ rights has almost always been a fight against heteronormative religious privilege.

The whole discourse on corporations co-opting Pride for pink washed marketing is important. Even if they are doing it for purely cynical reasons, is this still a sign of progress? Is performative allyship inherently good, bad, or neutral? Various accounts do a lot to expose this. At the moment, I’m following one which tweets about corporations’ rainbow rebrands along with details of their donations to anti-LGBT+ political causes in the US.

We should be just as critical of attempted pink washing by religious organisations. Any time a Church has a pride flag up, it’s great to see that they are trying to be inclusive. But I can absolutely guarantee with a tiny bit of research you could find they are affiliated or connected to an actively anti-LGBT+ group. Far too few will be open and honest about their religion’s role in homophobia. I’ve met many good and decent LGBT+ people of faith and sat in with religious LGBT+ groups. They do a lot of good work, but they also spend a lot of time and effort pretending that anti-LGBT+ bigotry has ‘nothing to do with religion’.

I get the strategic and practical reasons why ‘mainstream’ LGBT+ groups want to follow this same line. Ten, fifteen years ago, many ‘mainstream’ LGBT+ groups were pretending they didn’t support marriage equality, because they saw focusing on achieving civil unions as a pragmatic short term aim. This may have made strategic sense, but they were rightly called out on it, and it was a strategy which required more radical LGBT+ groups to push the envelope further.

LGBT+ groups have often sought acceptance by conforming themselves more closely to the values and expectations of ‘mainstream’ society. We live in a society where religion is extremely privileged, where taboos against criticism are valued and polite society is expected to pretend religion is never the cause of bigotry. LGBT+ people can choose to conform to these societal expectations, that’s fine, but they shouldn’t be expected to. There is clearly a lot of value in LGBT+ groups seeking and celebrating religious allies. But allyship based on the marginalised group protecting the feelings of their oppressors should not be immune from criticism. LGBT+ people have made a disproportionate contribution to atheist, humanist and secularist groups and vice versa, yet they constantly find themselves tone policed and marginalised to accommodate religious privilege.

The long history of anti-religious and anti-religious privilege messages at Pride should surprise no one, but these have increasingly been targeted, alongside anti-capitalist messages as part the depoliticisation and commercialisation of marches. Ex-Muslim groups and others have been targeted for protesting against religious homophobia.

Efforts to make Pride more inclusive for all groups including people of faith are great. But this can verge into silencing and marginalising LGBT+ people’s ability to talk honestly about their oppression. I love that as a straight ally, my LGBT+ friends make Pride inclusive for me. But I would hate for my comfort to be prioritised over their liberation.

With straight privilege, people are more likely to accept I have honest intellectual reasons for my atheism. I’m less likely to be told that my desire to live a nonreligious life is based on sexual ‘sin’. I’m less likely to have experienced religious based trauma and far less likely to be gaslit by well meaning ‘allies’ telling me that the religious homophobia I’ve encountered is not ‘real’ religion. Straight privilege makes leaving religion easier and a lot less burdened with internalised shame.

Perhaps it is this, along with a healthy dose of religious privilege, which drives the desperate need of the mainstream and many LGBT+ media to find, create or amplify any positive story of LGBT+ inclusive religion. Again, I’m all for celebrating moves towards equality in all quarters. But the disproportionate amplification of these stories often feels like gaslighting LGBT+ people and can be used by well meaning allies to delegitimise their experiences of religious based oppression. They remind my of Hollywood’s constant churning out of civil rights movies with white protagonists.

The worst historical example of this which helped motivate me to become an activist, was The Advocate making Pope Francis their 2013 person of the year. It set the model for a decade of gaslighting. Francis was photoshopped with “NOH8” face paint the rallying cry for marriage equality which came out of the Californian campaign against proposition eight. A disgusting misrepresentation of Francis’s dedication to fighting marriage equality and any other advancement of LGBT+ rights. The pull-quote “If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?” was presented as the sole evidence of his support for LGBT+ rights, when any honest reading shows this to be evidence of his self-righteous bigotry. He was saying they gay people should seek forgiveness for the sin of being gay, and the largest LGBT+ publication in the world debased themselves by carrying it on their front cover.

There are practical reasons to celebrate allies where you find them, but if we lower our expectations so far for religious people, then nothing meaningful is done to challenge the biggest structural cause of homophobia. The mainstream media don’t write fawning puff pieces when atheist, humanist or secularist leaders say something nice about LGBT+ people. Religious privilege shouldn’t allow people to play allyship on easy mode.

As atheist, humanist and secularist values spread, LGBT+ acceptance will only continue to grow, and eventually the average religious person will be as accepting as the average nonreligious person is today. Religious groups will rewrite history and highlight odd examples to pretend they were on the right side all along (after all, in every struggle there will be people from the oppressing group with the moral wisdom and courage to stand with the oppressed), but we shouldn’t make this easy or comfortable for them.

Thanks for reading

Let me know what you thought of this article and if you want to hear more. If you value this content and are able to financially support it, that would be great. Just a couple of pounds a month would help with hosting and other costs, and one day help expand our operations.

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Photo information: Person With Body Painting, Sharon McCutcheon

AHS reads: The God Delusion, part 2

Welcome to part two in a five-part series rexamining The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. In part one, I introduced the series and how Dawkins set out the ‘god hypothesis’. In this part Dawkins responds to common arguments for the existence of a god and contrasts them with his own argument, that an agent capable of acting as a god would be supremely complex and unlikely.

Chapter 3. Arguments for God’s existence

In Chapter three Dawkins considers the main theoretical arguments for the existence of a theistic, or more generic, god. I get a feeling that Dawkins is rushing through this chapter, and betraying his lack of interest in philosophical arguments, in an effort to quickly get back onto his preferred ground of scientific empiricism.

The easy criticism of this chapter is that Dawkins picks the simplistic arguments and gives them only superficial consideration. The easy defence follows that (1) he is writing an introductory book for a broad popular audience, not an academic work of counter apologetics, and (2) that the sophisticated versions of these arguments are no less vacuous.

When an atheist exposes the logical fallacy at the heart of one theologian’s simplistic argument, there will always be another more ‘sophisticated’ theologian along to make the argument more complex in an effort to better hide the same fallacy, and this goes on and on forever. Why then should an atheist not be allowed to save themselves some time and just address the simplistic version of the argument? If the theologian feels this unfair, they should stop trying to make their bad arguments ‘sophisticated’ and try finding a good argument. In any case I normally find apologetics a profoundly uninteresting distraction from religious debates which have some relevance to the real world.

As might be expected, Dawkins starts with Thomas Aquinas’s five ‘proofs’. Also, as to be expected, Dawkins points out that the first three of these (the unmoved mover, the uncaused cause and the cosmological argument) are actually the same argument which “rely upon the idea of a regress and invoke God to terminate it”, and in each the proposed terminator of this infinite regress is only made immune from that same regress through special pleading. Dawkins further points out that there is no reason to suppose that this special terminator should be a theistic god or any other conscious agent. He does not address how modern science calls into question the soundness of some of Aquinas’s clauses, something we can’t reasonably hold against the thirteenth century monk.

Dawkins quickly points out the fundamental logical problems with concepts of omniscience and omnipotence. I’m sure that ‘sophisticated’ theologians would take him to task, pointing out how they have redefined omniscience and omnipotence in an attempt to escape these internal logical contradictions.

Aquinas’s fourth ‘proof’, the argument from degree, Dawkins dismisses with a valid reductio ad absurdum. The argument from degree is that we notice there are different degrees of various things including  goodness. and that this implies there must be some entity which represents the maximal. Dawkins ignores, or doesn’t realise, the better response to the argument from degree, which is to point out that even if we do compare various things to a theoretical maximum, there is no reason to presume that this maximum is anything more than conceptual, let alone a conscious agent.

Aquinas’s fifth ‘proof’ is the teleological argument, better known as the argument from design. Given the centrality of evolutionary thought to Dawkins’ atheism, I expected a long refutation of this. In fact, Dawkins has written several far better books addressing the apparent design in nature.

From these a posteriori arguments Dawkins moves on to consider a priori arguments, beginning with the ontological, which he credits to St Anselm of Canterbury in 1078, and phrases thusly:

“Hence, even the fool (Anselm is referring to atheists) is convinced that something exists in the understanding, at least, than which nothing greater can be conceived. For, when he hears of this, he understands it. And whatever is understood, exists in the understanding. And assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For, suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater.”

Again, Dawkins largely addresses this through several valid reductio ad absurdum, but drawing on Hume and Kant does go on to point out some of the more obvious flaws in the argument. Namely that: the assertion that we can conceive of an ultimate being is questionable and the inclusion of existence as an aspect of perfection is circular. I do agree with Dawkins, that it would be bizarre for some great fact about the universe, which the existence of a god surely would be, to be revealed through word games.

Dawkins then goes on to state without bothering to refute “a hilarious half-dozen” arguments collected by the Godless Geeks website. Most ‘sophisticated’ theologians would probably agree these are silly. Though I feel compelled to point out that arguments such as “God loves you. How could you be so heartless as not to believe in him? Therefore God exists.” or “A plane crashed killing 143 passengers and crew. But one child survived with only third-degree burns. Therefore God exists.” are probably used by more of the faithful than Aquinas’s.

From these, Dawkins moves on to informal arguments starting with that from beauty. He points out that the existence of beautiful art, music and literature, even when inspired or financed by religion, says nothing about the existence of even a metaphorical god. He then spends a little time talking about arguments from personal experience:

“If you’ve had such an experience, you may well find yourself believing firmly that it was real. But don’t expect the rest of us to take your word for it, especially if we have the slightest familiarity with the brain and its powerful workings.”

Both theologians and legitimate biblical scholars may wince at Dawkins’ simplistic discussion of biblical contradictions in addressing the argument from scripture. But his point that fictional and mythologised text cannot be used as evidence of the truth of their own claims, is pretty simple when you get down to it. Dawkins’ criticisms of the Bible and by extension other ‘sacred’ texts may be surface level but serve the purpose of consciousness raising. If a religious person has been raised to believe that ‘sacred’ texts are unquestionable, even inartful questioning of those texts may raise their consciousness to the possibility that they themselves could question them.

Dawkins spends five pages considering the arguments from admired religious scientists. He points out that (1) scientists were far more likely to be religious in the past when professing religious belief was the only acceptable thing to do (2) many great scientists are religious in the purely naturalistic metaphorical sense he addresses in chapter one and (3) there are clear correlations between levels of education, scientific expertise, and irreligion.

Again, I feel compelled to bring up the double-edged sword of atheist pride(fulness). Dawkins does not consider sociological reasons why better educated people and those who perform better on IQ tests may be more likely to be atheists. If you have greater access to good quality education, you are probably somewhere where it is physically and socially less dangerous to be an atheist. Not everyone has the time or resources necessary to educate oneself about or fully consider religious and naturalistic arguments. Dawkins, memorably, would go on to point out that Muslim majority countries produce significantly fewer Nobel Scientists.

Dawkins rounds out the chapter by addressing Pascal’s wager and giving brief consideration to Bayesian analysis. Dawkins summarises the French mathematician Blaise Pascal thusly:

“You’d better believe in God, because if you are right you stand to gain eternal bliss and if you are wrong it won’t make any difference anyway. On the other hand, if you don’t believe in God and you turn out to be wrong you get eternal damnation, whereas if you are right it makes no difference. On the face of it the decision is a no-brainer. Believe in God.”

Dawkins makes the usual sensible criticisms of the wager: it can be applied to any unevidenced proposition one cares to think up, it doesn’t account for how vanishingly unlikely the possibility of a god actually existing is, and it doesn’t account for the negative costs of religion. Dawkins appears to miss that Pascal’s actual argument in the wager is that one should act as though they have faith in the hopes that they will be influenced by those around them or God’s grace to develop genuine faith. If (as Pascal believed) there were good independent evidence for a god (there isn’t) then the wager might be reasonable.

Bayesian arguments are those which try to make probabilistic arguments for the existence of a god by considering generally agreed (between theists and atheists) facts about reality and then attempting to compare whether they would be more or less probable in a world where a god does or doesn’t exist. Dawkins points out that these arguments are subject to the “GIGO principle (Garbage In, Garbage Out)” as the theist simply asserts that some variable is more likely in a world where their preferred god exists. I actually find Bayesian arguments for gods to be more interesting and epistemologically humble than the other arguments considered in this chapter.

Chapter 4. Why there almost certainly is no God

This chapter contains Dawkins central argument against theism and what he considers to be the best argument against the god hypothesis he has defined in chapter two, namely that: a theistic god i.e., a conscious agent created the universe and has some interest in human affairs.

Dawkins’ strategy is to take the argument from (apparent) design or complexity, which as an evolutionary science communicator he has dedicated decades to refuting and turning it on its head. He calls this the “Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit”, based on the creationist argument which misrepresents evolution as a random process of chance, where the odds of creating complex life is akin to the odds of a tornado in a junkyard assembling a Boeing 747.

Dawkins reasons that an entity such as a god with the power to create and manage the universe must be itself incredibly complex and therefore more improbable. Theologians reason that the complex appearance of design seen in nature suggests that there is a designer for the whole of nature. Dawkins understands that the complex appearance of design seen in nature is actually the result of simple natural processes, he therefore reasons that there must be simple natural processes for the whole of nature.

Dawkins believes that natural selection should serve as a consciousness-raiser to help us understand why a complex theistic god would be so unlikely. As he’s back on the topic of consciousness-raising, we are treated to another cringing jab at aspects of feminism he thinks are silly, namely “herstory”, before actually giving good examples of how feminist critique of language has helped expose hidden assumptions which may cloud our thinking.

“Natural selection not only explains the whole of life; it also raises our consciousness to the power of science to explain how organized complexity can emerge from simple beginnings without any deliberate guidance.”

Natural selection may be Dawkins’ central concern, but he points out how other fields of science should raise our consciousness to understand the absurdity of believing that the vast universe we inhabit a tiny part of was created by a conscious agent for our benefit. Dawkins, via Prof Peter Atkins, addresses the argument that a god could have worked their process of creation through processes such as natural selection, with a seemingly valid reductio ad absurdum where a lazy god allows natural processes to do all his work for him.

Dawkins spends a few pages on the creationist pseudoscience of irreducible complexity and supposed gaps in the fossil record. All of this is perfectly fine refutation of creationism and is both entertaining and informing science communication, but doesn’t add much to the point that a theistic god would have to be very complex.

Next Dawkins addresses the anthropic principle, at both planetary and cosmological scales. To sum up, theologians point to how unlikely the existence of either life on this planet or life in the universe itself is and suggest that this points to the existence of a god who sets things up this way. The anthropic principle flips this on its head. If life had not evolved on Earth, then we wouldn’t be here to be wondering why.

“The chance of finding any one of those billion life-bearing planets recalls the proverbial needle in a haystack. But we don’t have to go out of our way to find a needle because (back to the anthropic principle) any beings capable of looking must necessarily be sitting on one of those prodigiously rare needles before they even start the search.”

If I were to shuffle a deck of 52 cards before drawing out 13 spades, this would seem hugely significant to me. But it would be no less improbable than drawing any random selection of 13 cards. The existence of humans is naturally of supreme importance to humanity. But if we didn’t exist, it’s not like the universe would miss us. It is unfathomable arrogance to assume the universe was created for us, why not assume it was created for dung beetles, black holes, or interstellar dust?

Dawkins points out that some theologians like to go on and on about how unlikely the current setup of our local universe is, but that such probabilistic arguments are rendered meaningless by the anthropic principle, and by the fact that these theologians have no basis for their probabilistic claims. We don’t know how many potential universes there are or whether the conditions of our local universe really are free to vary.

For the cosmological version of the anthropic principle, Dawkins considers the religious physicist Martin Rees’s argument from six fundamental constants. Rees argues that there are six fundamental constants which must be exactly or pretty exactly their current values in order for a universe like ours to exist. A theologian would argue that a god would have to have set these values. Dawkins counters that a conscious agent capable of setting those values would have to be more complex and so it is far simpler to suppose some unconscious naturalistic explanation.

“How do they cope with the argument that any God capable of designing a universe, carefully and foresightfully tuned to lead to our evolution, must be a supremely complex and improbable entity who needs an even bigger explanation than the one he is supposed to provide?”

Dawkins is aware that theologians will respond that a god is a simple and parsimonious proposition. This could be defended in several ways: (1) by positing a purely first cause god rather than the theistic god Dawkins is addressing, (2) by special pleading that god is immune from the logical inconsistency that arises in being both supremely simple and supremely complex, or (3) simple obfuscation.

First, he considers the argument by the theologian Richard Swinburne who argues, unconvincingly, that a god who through conscious effort maintains the laws of physics throughout the universe is simpler than having to suppose explanations for why every component of the universe continues to obey the laws of physics. Another theologian, Keith Ward, is quoted in the ‘god is simple camp’ as saying:

“As a matter of fact, the theist would claim that God is a very elegant, economical and fruitful explanation for the existence of the universe. It is economical because it attributes the existence and nature of absolutely everything in the universe to just one being, an ultimate cause which assigns a reason for the existence of everything, including itself.”

Dawkins points out that Swinburne and Ward are positing an extremely complex agent and then, because they can describe it in simple terms, asserting that the thing itself is simple. Dawkins could have argued that this is an example of confusing the map for the territory.

Dawkins wraps up the chapter with “an interlude at Cambridge”, where he recounts the response to his argument from complexity at a Templeton Foundation conference on science and religion:

“I challenged the theologians to answer the point that a God capable of designing a universe, or anything else, would have to be complex and statistically improbable. The strongest response I heard was that I was brutally foisting a scientific epistemology upon an unwilling theology, if Theologians had always defined God as simple. Who was I, a scientist, to dictate to theologians that their God had to be complex?”

Dawkins effectively returns to his critique of NOMA from chapter two. He, and I agree with him, rejects the theologians’ claim that they have some special field of knowledge which is immune from the sorts of epistemology we may apply to other empirical or philosophical questions. Dawkins believes that by framing the god question as a hypothesis which (1) actually does represent the sort of god that theists claim to believe in and (2) is demonstrably improbable, he can move it to his own ground and defeat it. But I don’t think that’s how counter apologetics works. The best the atheist can do, and Dawkins does make a valiant effort in this chapter, is simply to continue to point out absurdities in god concepts such that theologians must retreat deeper and deeper into special pleading to defend their notions.

Dawkins addresses the claim by critical theologians, that his worldview – that theological claims can be put to the question as a scientific hypotheses – is stuck in the nineteenth century. He contends that this attack actually reflects poorly on theologians and their retreat since the nineteenth century from defending their positions through real-world epistemology, to defending their beliefs from the reach of that epistemology. This, one presumes, is what passes for banter at a Templeton Foundation conference.

Finally, Dawkins concludes the chapter and then sets up the rest of the book by considering some of the questions of religion atheists should address once the idea of a theistic god has been dismissed:

“Isn’t it consoling? Doesn’t it motivate people to do good? … Why, in any case, be so hostile? … where does it come from?” etc.

Those all sound like good questions, and I hope you will join again in two weeks’ time to explore Dawkins’ responses.

Thanks for reading

Let me know what you thought of this article and if you want to hear more. I’m thinking of doing more reviews on books from an AHS+ perspective, are there any you’d like to see? Would you prefer books that are generally pro or anti atheist, humanist or secularist?

If you value this content and are able to financially support it, that would be great. Just a couple of pounds a month would help with hosting and other costs, and one day help expand our operations.

Please join our community on Twitter and Facebook to help share the blog, and help pass it along to anyone who may be interested.