Activism matters: Nick Fish, American Atheists

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 we spoke with Nick Fish, an experienced civil rights activist and president of American Atheists.

Nick Fish, president of American Atheists

How did you become President of American Atheists?

I’ve been working on secular issues for more than a decade now. Within American Atheists, I’ve served in a number of roles and have a level of familiarity with the history, people, and activities of the organisation that is incredibly helpful. But, as with any executive position within a non-profit organisation, the final decision lies with the board of directors. They set the direction and strategic vision and, when the position was being filled, they had to believe in my ability to execute that vision. Obviously, a big part of that decision from them was ensuring that there’s alignment between what I felt was the best way forward and what they saw.

What is the biggest (or if you’d prefer most surprising) challenge that comes with the job?

For any of us who’ve worked as front-line staff within the non-profit advocacy space, the transition into administration and oversight is sometimes challenging. I have always struggled on some level to give up control over the minutiae, and that challenge is only compounded when you’re in an executive role. Thankfully, I’ve been able to build a team that is both highly skilled and indulges me from time to time, so I know I can count on them to execute things incredibly well — and often better than I could myself — but also maintained the flexibility and freedom to get my hands dirty from time to time.

You became President of AA in 2018, following the removal of David Silverman. I don’t want to go back into the details of that scandal, but how have you rebuilt trust and accountability in AA leadership in the years since?

Everything comes back to the quality of the work we’re doing. We do everything we can to be good partners, good allies, and good advocates. We’ve spent a great deal of time and effort demonstrating that we’re committed to getting the work done, keeping our word, and being generous with our praise and amplification of our partners and allies. That goes beyond just our partners within the secular community and extends to our partnerships with organisations that we’ve built within the LGBTQ advocacy space, reproductive access space, and even within the interfaith community. We’ve worked very hard to demonstrate our expertise on religious equality issues and to show that we’re reliable partners others can count on.

How important do you think institutional leadership (as opposed to say leadership in terms of having a large platform) is to the atheist movement?

There’s sometimes a disconnect between who folks think of as leaders (often those who have big platforms or are the most “famous”) and who other advocacy organisations or politicians or civil society groups think of as leaders (the institutional leadership you mentioned). If the goal of our organisations is to accomplish things from a policy standpoint, that organisational and institutional leadership is vital. I don’t necessarily view those two types of leadership as in tension, however. I think having the humility to acknowledge that it’s impossible to be all things to all people is vital in the context of organisational leadership.

What do you want to achieve as president of American Atheists?

My primary goals are to continue to grow the organisation and legitimise our participation in American civil society. That means investing in grassroots leadership, giving resources to the people on the ground all across the country who are working every day to build strong communities that meet the needs of atheists in their area, and building relationships with potential partners and allies nationally to make it easier for our local leaders to connect with folks who share their values, even if they don’t share their religious views.

You’ve had previous leadership experience in other political organisations and non-profits, how does that translate into your role at American Atheists?

A couple of things: First, knowing that people bring their whole selves to politics and community organising. Very few people are truly single-issue voters or organisers, even if they might say they are. So, creating opportunities for members of our community to engage in activism — or service, or education, or community building — that speaks to them and scratches that proverbial itch is vital. It also contributes to our organisational mission of legitimising atheists and atheism. Seeing atheists engaged in all sorts of involvement in their cities and towns goes a long way toward ending the stigma too many atheists face, particularly in highly religious communities in our country.

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

You can’t be a leader in any space, but especially within our community, without a profound degree of humility. So many people we work with everyday have expertise and skills that we as leaders don’t. Learning how to defer to that expertise is one of the most important things you can do to improve your leadership. And beyond that, making sure people feel appreciated and valued in everything you do is the best way to retain outstanding people as members of your team. That means being generous with credit and praise and giving people the space to try new things without fear of failure.

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

Create opportunities for people to succeed. Empower people to try new things. Build a leadership team that represents the diversity of the community, but also think about who isn’t (yet!) in the room but should be. Examine why it may be that certain groups are underrepresented in your leadership — and in the rank and file of your organisation — and be purposeful in working to reduce that underrepresentation.

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?

I always encourage people to find opportunities for activism wherever they can and to not have tunnel vision on one particular path. The connections, skills, and experience you build by working in the private sector or for another non-profit or advocacy organisation will be invaluable in any capacity in our community, including as a volunteer. I would also encourage people to look into serving as board members, particularly if they have expertise on finance, governance, or oversight.

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: American Atheists Twitter header, group of activists with “thoughts and actions” sign.

Were the ‘Brights’ really the worst idea?

The suggestion in the early 2000’s that atheist rebrand themselves as ‘Brights’ is generally remembered as a short-lived embarrassment of incredible hubris. Is that a little unfair, and are there positive lessons to learn from the idea?

When researching my article on the history of different symbols used by various atheist, humanist, secularist and similar (AHS+) groups I was surprised to learn that The Brights were still around. Brights was an idea dreamed up by Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell in 2003. It was to be an identity label and social movement to appeal to the growing atheist community but identifying by a naturalistic worldview, rather than the negative lack of belief. Many prominent atheists gave the idea varying levels of support.

What is a Bright?

Looking at their small but seemingly still active online community is a bit like taking a trip back in time to the start of the last generation or two of the atheist movement. Like reading a teenage diary: incredibly cringy and embarrassingly self-serious, but also endearingly naive and hopeful.

They defined a “bright” as “a person whose worldview is naturalistic (no supernatural and mystical elements)” and a “Bright” as “a bright who has registered at this website in support of the egalitarian civic vision of the Brights movement.” Both nouns.

Among those who remember it a narrative has taken hold that Brights was always an evidently awful idea, an example of extreme hubris with a silly name that was always going to fail, not with a bang but a whispered pun. That may be a little unfair.

The more I looked into the Brights, the more I wondered maybe just a little bit if rather than failing because it seems silly, might it simply seem silly, because it failed? Through two decades in the atheist and wider AHS+ movement, I’ve seen every positive idea, whether it worked out or not, dismissed as silly by large parts of the movement. Including the idea of there even being a movement. How silly would a humanist naming ceremony be, if people didn’t decide to invest meaning in them? How easy would it be to make fun of ideas like Camp Quest and Sunday Assembly if they hadn’t caught on when they did and been successful?

Fair criticism?

The biggest criticism of the Brights idea was that it was arrogant, that it played into all the worse stereotypes of arrogant atheists. Obviously, there are many atheists who fit those stereotypes. But I have never seen any sort of identity label, organising or any other activity by the atheist movement that isn’t criticised as arrogant. Many atheists have internalised the idea that criticising religion is de facto rude or arrogant. Brights sounds horribly self-aggrandising. But might that be intrinsic in any positive identity label? It was mercilessly mocked by conservative anti-atheist columnists. But could those professional trolls really have been placated by another word?

One criticism is that Brights was uniquely arrogant, because it suggested that anyone else was dim. The Brights even suggested addressing this critique by calling people who did believe in the supernatural ‘Supers’. On the other hand, you could make this same criticism of almost any identity label used in the broad atheist and AHS+ space. “Rationalist” could imply others are necessarily irrational, “skeptic” could imply everyone else is credulous, “freethinker” or “woke” could suggest others are unthoughtful or mindless, “humanist” could dehumanise outsiders. The problem isn’t the relative arrogance of the word, but the way it is used.

Another criticism is that the term was destined to fail because it was consciously invented rather than evolving organically from the group it was meant to describe. That’s definitely a big part of the cringe factor. But it reminds me of a lot of the anti-social justice movement’s obsession with language they consider new or invented. In order for an idea to begin circulating, someone needs to have and suggest it.

There is something slightly comical about Paul Geisert brainstorming ideas then running into another room to tell his wife “I’ve got the word, and this is going to be big!” But the word secularism has a similar origin. As relayed by author Ray Argyle: In 1851 George Holyoake, having been imprisoned for blasphemy, wanted a new word to describe the political ideas he sought to promote. The new word Holyoake wanted would capture the essence of the ideas of separation of church and state and challenging the establishment power. Holyoake thought that atheism would never be accepted because of its negative connotations. So he sat up with a dictionary and created the term based on the Latin saecularis, meaning “worldly”.

A Bright legacy?

It’s interesting how many people who made fun out of the Brights idea supported Atheism Plus – an attempt to refresh the modern atheist movement as it entered its second decade, with more of a focus on social justice and humanism than anti-theism. Like Brights, the Atheism+ label was endlessly mocked by its critics long after it was no longer being actively promoted. Like Brights it failed to catch on as a label. But the legacy of Atheism+ can be seen in the large parts of the movement committed to a social justice-oriented atheism. Is it possible that the Brights idea has had some under the surface legacy in encouraging debates around positive atheist identification?

Debates over what WE should call ourselves have never disappeared from the atheist and wider nonreligious movement. Perhaps Brights failed because it was an attempt to treat identity as a singular noun, rather than an evolving process, with interconnected concepts and labels that come to the fore in different circumstances. The same criticisms could be made of those particularly evangelical about trying to make humanism THE definitive umbrella term and make humanist the primary identity noun.

I don’t think it’s likely, but perhaps someday Brights will be picked up again and incorporated into many people’s descriptions of their identity. Or atheists and others may gravitate towards some other label that hasn’t been (re)invented yet.

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: Defocused Image of Lights, Miguel Á. Padriñán

Activism matters: Dale McGowan, Raising Freethinkers

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 we spoke with Dale McGowan author of Raising Freethinkers. Dale has been one of the most prominent authors talking about humanistic approaches to parenting, and his activism has encompassed a wide range of humanitarian work.

How did you become a prominent writer about secular parenting?

I was at the end of my rope after 15 years teaching at a Catholic college and decided to try my hand at writing full time. The book that snagged me an agent, a humorous philosophical death-obsessed travel narrative, failed to snag me a publisher. I was an atheist raising young kids and finding no resources to help, so I asked my agent if he would represent a book on nonreligious parenting.

I hadn’t the chutzpah to write it entirely myself—my kids were too young—so I made it a compilation by 27 contributors including Richard Dawkins, Julia Sweeney, psychologists, educators, and everyday parents, including me. We were turned down by about 20 publishers, not for ideological reasons but because they were unconvinced of the market for such a thing.

We finally convinced a good publisher, and Parenting Beyond Belief became one of their top sellers. I spent about ten years on the speaking circuit.

How do you approach people about starting a project like that?

Most of the contributors were direct contacts by email, and because it was the first of its kind, responses were quick and positive. Julia Sweeney said yes in 90 minutes.

Do you find people regularly approaching you for advice, and if so, how do you handle it?

That was common for a while, and if the subject was in my lane, I would offer what I could. But I’ve spent a great deal of time deflecting questions on aspects of parenting unrelated to religion and irreligion.

What aspect of being an author do you find most challenging, or if you’d prefer most surprising?

I was not prepared for how doggedly publishers would want me to remain in my established topic area. I have other interests and bore easily, so this was challenging.

How do you know if an idea or a topic you have can make a book? Do you have any topics that didn’t work out or that your publishers discouraged you from pursuing?

I have proposed more books that went nowhere than I have published. Some were complete 50-page proposals that took months to produce. It’s my agent who typically stops an idea if he doesn’t think it has legs—probably six of those. But three others (one on the problematic gap between the evolution of culture and our brains, another on the emotional communication of music, and that humorous travel narrative) were actually shown around and had no takers.

Being a leader in terms of popularising or creating ideas is very different to institutional leadership. How might your approach have been different if you were say setting up an organisation to promote your ideas about secular parenting rather than doing it as an author?

That’s a very interesting question. Once you incorporate, I think it’s harder to be flexible in your ideas or to change course. Things calcify quickly, and more people are involved in decision making and brand protection. I would have tried to counter that tendency.

Do you think that secular parenting should be something established atheist groups focus more on supporting?

If they want to have any reasonable hope of growing beyond a fraction of the culture, yes. It starts as simple as offering childcare during their meetings.

Atheist and related communities have had some problematic prominent leaders. How you think it is best to encourage children to find positive role models and avoid similar authority figures?

It’s an opportunity to help them see that authority and prominence are themselves problematic. Prominent thinkers are conduits for ideas, and it’s the ideas that should be judged worthy of admiration (or not).

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

One of the most important at the moment is to recognize the incredible breadth of experience and perspective in the exploding secular demographic. Some are recently departed from painful religious trauma, but a greater (and rapidly increasing) number are just indifferent to religion, especially younger Millennials and Gen Z. Others are still yearning for the community and narrative aspects of religion, even though they haven’t a shred of remaining theistic belief. That’s why about 30% of the unaffiliated in the US flop right back to religious affiliation in a given year. Religion satisfies human needs beyond answering big questions. If we ever want to consolidate the cultural and political voice and power of the nonreligious, those of us who don’t especially feel those needs had better start acknowledging those who do. They greatly outnumber science-minded atheist introverts like me.

We need leaders who can think and talk beyond the atheist bubble of religious criticism and science, people who exemplify and celebrate a more broadly-engaged human life. And we also need people who experience that life from a perspective different to the straight white men (like me) who still dominate the leadership.

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

If the vision of a group is broader, more compassionate, more engaged with humanity, then the right people will be more likely drawn to the group and to leadership.

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?

Talk to diverse nonreligious people under 30. Learn what’s important to them and what isn’t, then bring that knowledge to your work. It’s radically different from earlier generations.

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: Raising Freethinkers podcast graphic, via Spotify

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?

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.

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 nonreligious, 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, agonistics, 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 of 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 from ingroup limiting of these morals, common but not exclusive to religion. Thirdly, the examples picked assume that only religious worldviews 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 whatever 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 criticises 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 simplistic utilitarian one focusing on the relative ability of a foetus or pregnant person to suffer, rather than a bodily autonomy focused 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.

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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 up to receive the PDF 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. They could respond be to modify their worldview, or maintain that view by claiming this happiness is only a pretence, or seeking 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 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 critique 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 long been debunked. I’m not sure there are many new arguments against the flat earth. Barron correctly points out the role of 11 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 an argument against god’s existance 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 easy 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 forever, 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 a god exists 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 an ancient Islamic apologist, and popularised by William Lane Craig. All cosmological apologetics attempt to demonstrate that the universe was created by a 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 claim 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 their core, 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

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: Empty Gray and White Concrete Spiral Stairs, Mithul Varshan

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 are 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, and are mistaken.

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 as it is also 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 law and 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

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