Feb 23

Books on Science and Religion #35: A Final Round of Pausing and Considering

Stephen Friberg

http://www.amazon.com/Atheism-For-Dummies-Dale-McGowan/dp/111850920XTo believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Feb 22, 2015

religion and science the basicsOver the last 35 weeks, we have been looking at the modern literature on science and religion. So far, we have looked at 13 books. Four of them (Religion and Science: The Basics; Logic and Logos; Science and Religion in Quest of Truth; The Great Partnership) argue strongly in favor of having both science and religion. Six of them argue – usually vehemently – in favor of keeping science and jettisoning religion (The God Argument; Atheism for Dummies; God and the Folly of Faith; God: The Failed Hypothesis; Not By Design; The Meaning of Human Existence). And three of them provide overviews and perspectives on scientism, atheism, and modern thinking related to these topics (Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe; Atheists: The Origin of the Species, and The Modern Mind).

Logic and logosGenerally speaking, the books arguing against religion – the several books by Victor Stenger, the book by Anthony Grayling, the book by McGowan – do a poor job at making their case. Like the New Atheist books by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett, they are excellent at conveying the antagonistic feelings and antipathies towards religion of their authors. And sometimes, yes, they provide a convenient enough rehashing of arguments from philosophy that are sometimes taken to show religion to be wrong. But these books are almost uniformly unconvincing and lacking in solid and believable argument. (The book by E.O. Wilson is the exception, but perhaps it is because Wilson appropriates all of religion’s best stuff and makes it sound like he – and science – invented it).

Why! Why do the arguments against religion that these books provide come across as fanatical, illogical, anti-intellectual, or just plain irrelevant? Is it that we have heard them for so long that we have become inured to them? Or is it that those that embrace both science and religion have upped their game to such a degree that those making the arguments against religion look tired and old-fashioned in comparison?

41gig2OS1YL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Both, I think. Here I argue two additional points: that those arguing against religion fall into the trap of labeling – of labeling those who believe in religion as “the other”. They lump all believers together and demonize them, not realizing that the primitive evolution-induced religious tendencies they argue against are not true religion. And they fail to realize that they have fallen victim to the same tendency they decry in others.

Atheism as Prejudice

As I have indicated before, I think that reasonableness, rationality, objectivity, and intellectual fairness are mainly, if not exclusively, on the side of those arguing for both science and religion. I don’t mean that all those who don’t believe in religion are unreasonable, irrational, unobjective, or intellectually unfair. Its only those whose views morph into ideology and fanatical belief – as had happened for many in the 20th century – that raise concern. In other words, the problem with atheism, much as is the case for religion, is fanaticism and extremism directed at others, not personal belief and persuasion.

The-Great_PartnershipThose who argue vigorously and passionately against religion, like Victor Stenger, A.G. Grayling, Lawrence Krauss, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins, and those who are argue against belief in God and hold that religion is intrinsically evil, are making arguments that are attacks on people. They are arguing against the validity of people’s belief in God and that, in turn, means that they are arguing for the stupidity and cupidity of those who allow themselves to entertain such beliefs. Surely, there is validity to some argumentation of this sort – there are religious nuts and terrorists aplenty in modern times. But such extremism and fanaticism exists in many different ways and for many different causes, not just religion. It attaches itself to many ideologies. Religious extremism, if body counts over the last several hundred years are taken as an indicator, is much less dangerous than extremism of the scientific type as manifested in social Darwinism and, communism, or in nationalism and colonialism, or in other popular ideologies that roil the world.

God_The_Failed_HypothesisTo repeat, the crux of the aggressive atheist argument, it seems to me, is that that those who believe in God are deluded and fooled by their own ignorance, the manipulation of priests, and their own innate tendency to believe. In a modern evolutionary guise, this view holds that those who believe in God are deluded by a tendency to ascribe agency to a supernatural cause on the basis of inherited evolutionary traits. In its extremist form, the argument is that those who believe in God are simply ignorant and have been manipulated. But labeling a whole group of people this way is no different than racism, or sexism, or any other kind of ism. It essentially holds that those who believe in God are unreasoning beings, stupid and manipulated, views that echo almost precisely how earlier Europeans tended to view colonials, or people from non-European races, or the poor, or the disadvantaged, or women, in centuries past.

We have to ask: how are these views different from views that portray all who think or act differently than one does oneself as being inherently evil – as the other?

atheism for dummiesMany educated thinkers agree with much of what the atheists believe, but think it wrong thing to paint religion and belief in God as deluded, evil, and ignorant. To think in such a strong and hateful way, as many of my parent’s generation came to understand, betrays a fanaticism and a fundamentalist and ideological mindset. My parent’s generation remembered the havoc wrecked by extreme belief – not from religion, but in many cases against religion – and were not always lucky enough to live through the wars and persecutions that such beliefs engendered.

And the World has Changed: The Advance of Knowledge Favors those who Acknowledge Religion

GodandFollyThis leads to the final point..

In the modern world, we now have much more knowledge about religion, much more knowledge about science, scientism, materialism, and science-based creeds, and much more knowledge about the history of religion than that had by enlightenment atheists, by 19th century social Darwinists, by Marxists, by colonialists, and by materialists of all persuasions.  We know much more than they did and we are not persuaded by blanket claims that religion is bad because some people have used it badly.  We are more sophisticated than that now.

Another thing: the arguments are no longer just about Christianity. Modern thinkers are increasingly familiar with other religions and fewer advance the view that Christianity is the only valid religion or hold to such purely Christian points of view as the idea that miracles are the proof of the existence of God. Much as science is a moving target, so too is the understanding of religion.

Atheists: the origin of the speciesBecause of the increasing sophistication of thinkers they oppose, Dawkins, Harris, and others insist that moderate and reasonable thinkers are not the truly representative of the religious urge. This suggests to me like they are conceding that they lack the knowledge of religion and sophistication about theology and metaphysics possessed by educated moderates and that they are trying to sidestep refutations of their views by capable and sophisticated thinkers. Or perhaps they are inadvertently taking a step towards recognizing that there is a difference between true religion and “evolutionary” religion (i.e., belief based on innate tendencies to believe).

Rather than insisting that religion is what the extremists or the gullible believe, we need to look both at religion’s strengths and its weaknesses. This, rather than uninformed claims to the effect that religion is inherently wrong or evil, is a step towards the truth.

Next Blog

In the next blog, we will continue our review of the history of atheism.


This is the 35th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valle

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Feb 16

Books on Science and Religion #34: More Pausing and Considering

Stephen Friberg

To believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Feb 15, 2015

There is website called You May Be a Fundamentalist Atheist If… that is both funny and disheartening. It has a list of entries that capture much of the flavor of online conversations about religion, atheism, science and religion. Personally, I’ve been on chat groups where even the slightest indication that you are in favor of religion can lead to furious attacks on your character, your integrity, and your mental capacities. (Of course, it goes without saying that atheists have found themselves in similar positions on some strongly pro-religious sites.)

Blake Dante HellHere are some representative quotes. You may be a fundamentalist atheist if:

You say things like, “I can’t tolerate religion because religion is intolerant. And no type of intolerance should be tolerated.”

You believe the astronomical size of the universe somehow disproves God, as if God needed a tiny universe in order to exist.

You think you arrived at your position because you are a free-thinker who rationally weighed the evidence, and then freely chose atheism over theism. YET, you also believe that your thinking and actions are nothing more than the FIXED reactions of the atoms in your brain that are governed by the Laws of Chemistry and Physics.

You think that religious wars have killed more people than any other kind of war, even though the largest wars of the last 200 years (World War I and II, Civil War, etc.) had no discernible religious causes.

The distinguished British philosopher and educator A. C. Grayling takes strong objection to the characterization of some atheists as fundamentalist. In “Can an atheist be a fundamentalist,” he writes that atheism is “a philosophy, or a theory, or at worst an ideology” and that therefore it cannot be fundamentalist because it isn’t a religion. Fair enough. But he ruins the effect by following up with an intemperate attack on religion that seems to be the very personification of what people mean by fundamental atheism:

256px-AC_GraylingWhat would a non-fundamentalist atheist be? .. one who does not mind that other people hold profoundly false and primitive beliefs about the universe, on the basis of which they have spent centuries mass-murdering other people who do not hold exactly the same false and primitive beliefs as themselves – and still do?

Christianity is a recent and highly modified version of what, for most of its history, has been an often violent and always oppressive ideology – think Crusades, torture, burnings at the stake, the enslavement of women to constantly repeated childbirth and undivorceable husbands, the warping of human sexuality, the use of fear (of hell’s torments) as an instrument of control, and the horrific results of calumny against Judaism.

These views are basically the same those advanced by d’Holbach and other anti-religious atheists France 250 years. And they are completely out of touch with the findings of historical and religious studies. Grayling even claims that “no wars have been fought, pogroms carried out, or burnings conducted at the stake, over rival theories in biology or astrophysics.” Astrophysics, no, but is he uninformed about social Darwinism, communism, fascism, and colonialism and the extraordinary loss of life – in the tens or hundred’s of millions of men, women, and innocent children – that it has entailed?

Why are these “fundamental atheist” views, views both profoundly anti-intellectual and at odds with what we know about the world, so often voiced with such extraordinary vitriol? Certainly, it is easy to become incensed about Islamic terrorism – provided that you don’t know much about the last two hundred years of history of colonialism, the extraordinary history European occupation of Islamic countries, and Western military campaigns during the last twenty years. But the antagonism to religion seen in many “fundamentalist atheists” is far beyond what a reasoning observer of the current scene would expect.

baron_dholbachTwo of the things that are occurring, in my view, are as follows:

  1. One is a rearguard response to the failure of irreligion and materialism to transform the world, a failure now apparent everywhere.This is a response of anger and frustration over failure of a system of thought that seemed foundational to many.  It strikes me that it is much the same as that which inspires modern Islamic anti-western theologies and appeals so strongly to disenfranchised Muslim youth.
  2. The other is the failure to follow the systematic methods of science, a failure that was characteristic of the rise of modern scientism and that still characterizes its approach. Science in the 19th century enjoyed such incredible prestige that pronouncements in its name – often on very vague and speculative grounds – were accepted as if they were proven scientific fact. The failure to distinguish between scientific fact and scientific fiction is at the basis of much “fundamentalist” atheist belief.

A Legacy of Distrust

It seems to me that those who rail so strongly against religion – the new Atheists, angry secular humanists like Steven Pinker, Victor Stenger, A.C. Grayling, and their equally impassioned co-workers – are part of an intellectual rearguard action stemming from the leftover dreams of the enlightenment and powerful 19th and early 20th century visions of the world as a secular paradise free of the baneful effects of religion. (Whereas once the devil reigned as the king of evil, religion is now deemed his modern replacement – this upgrade seems to have struck some thinkers as more intellectually respectable.)

Their opposition – a legacy of a time when the rise of modern industrialization, the rapid growth of technology, and a veritable explosion of scientific creativity was accompanied by a widespread rejection of religion – now comes across as dogmatic, ill-informed, lacking in logic, and unobjective. And it is derisively scornful and dismissive of religion, its history, its core beliefs, and the multifold forms it takes.

industrializationAgain and again, what strikes me is the unwillingness to recognize the near-universal role of religion in the affairs of the world throughout all of history. And they fail to see the extent to which their own perspectives and views fall into the category of blind belief and religious fanaticism. Yes, among these thinkers there are some apparent exceptions to the rule. Daniel Dennett, many say, wishes to study and understand religion. But he writes with the same scorn and derision about religion as used by French ancien regime philosophes accustomed to veiling their hatreds and antagonisms.

Jonathan Sacks, writing in The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning, describes their approach too well:

Atheism deserves better than the new atheists, whose methodology consists in criticising religion without understanding it, quoting texts without contexts, taking exceptions as the rule, confusing folk belief with reflective theology, abusing, mocking, ridiculing, caricaturing and demonising religious faith and holding it responsible for the great crimes against humanity.

Religion has done harm; I acknowledge that candidly … But the cure of bad religion is good religion, not no religion, just as the cure of bad science is good science, not the abandonment of science.

The critics of new Atheism, even the moderate “old” atheists, are coming around to the same point of view. Some too are calling the new, populist, best-selling versions of atheism fundamentalist atheism or evangelical atheism and see it as following the same methodologies, the same spirit of intolerance, the same lack of openness to reason, and the same ideological fixedness that they see in religious fundamentalism.

And this stands to reason. Atheism and materialism – world dominating creeds and ideologies that came of age in the 19th century – have run through both their rise and fall. The later, thanks to the information age, is plain to see. Yes, on one hand, atheism and materialism has played a major role in the shaping the modern world, especially the European and American versions of it. And this role has included seminally important contributions in all aspects of human life. But on the other hand, the “moral vacuum” of the 20th century, and the untold deaths, disruption, and misery that make up the century’s death toll is no longer veiled by history. Thanks to the television and internet, all can see the results.

scientific methodIgnoring the Scientific Method in the Name of Science

I’m puzzled and alarmed by how the materialists, atheists, secular savants, and the like-minded we have been reading or reading about have ignored the basic fundamentals of science, especially the need for empirical validation of hypotheses. Rather than recognizing that most of the inferences they had drawn about the social world – the world of day-to-day life – are speculative theses, not scientific facts of proven validity, they ignore the need for test and confirmation.

Social Darwinists – from Darwin’s time to E.O. Wilson and the 21st century evolutionary psychologists – have been among the worst of the offenders. (Communism, of course, was the very worst.) By social Darwinism, I mean the application of ideas derived from evolutionary science to social phenomena – national policy, health, economics, and so no.

By no means is social Darwinism automatically a bad thing. Think of the extraordinary progress made in medicine and health care that derives from an understanding of evolution and the related areas of genomics, ideas inspired by evolutions.

But, social Darwinism also means things like scientific racism – some of the greatest scientists of the 19th and first half of the 20th century believed that there were distinct subspecies of humankind that had evolved competitively, Amazingly, shockingly, and certainly altogether unscientifically, they believed that Northern European – the British, Germans, French, and white Anglo-Saxon Americans – were shown by science to be the superior breed. And this morphed into eugenics – the idea that undesirables (meaning the weak, the infirm, the mentally handicapped, and those who were non-Northern European races such as southern European, Jewish, Slavic, and other non-northern European races and nationalities) had to be prevented from having children (or in the case of German eugenics, just prevented).

Clearly, these were conclusions unsupported by any scientific evidence or any empirical results. My guess is that much that pertains to materialism, atheism, and the like are just surmises, wild-eyed guesses, prejudiced enthusiasms, bigotry, or ideas concocted for political or material gain. If they were to be investigated scientifically – if standards of scientific proof were to be applied rigorously – many of them would just dry up and blow away.

Next Blog

In the next blog, we will continue our review of the history of atheism.


This is the 34th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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Feb 08

Books on Science and Religion #33: We Pause and Consider

Stephen Friberg

To believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Feb 8, 2015

It is week #33 of our review of the modern literature on science and religion – and a good time to pause and take a perspective.

I want to consider two things in today’s blog:

  1. The basic question that this literature seems to be addressing, and
  2. The impression that this literature conveys that logic and reasonableness seems mainly on the side of those who embrace both science and religion.

The Basic Question

The underlying question that this literature is almost always addressing seems to be the following:

What is the best way to achieve significant and important goals of health and good functioning for ourselves, for our families, for our communities, for our societies, for our environment, for all the life on the planet, and for progress of the world of humanity?

QuestionBoth the books for the unity of science and religion and the books against the unity of science and religion – the later exclusively being against religion as opposed to being against science – pose this question, sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly. This a significant point of unity! At issue, then, is the best way to achieve these goals.

The argument, it seems clear enough, boils down to something very simple. Should we have religion or not? (There is never an argument in the literature we are reading against having science. Even arguments against evolution are not arguments against science! This can be seen by looking at both creationist and intelligent design arguments against evolution – both are framed in terms of questioning the correct scientific description.)

The Dalai Lama, in his wonderfully-entitled Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World, summarizes the anti-religion arguments splendidly. Let me quote him at length:

… as science began to advance rapidly in Europe, there was a move toward greater rationality. And this rationality involved, among other things, a rejection of what came to be seen as the superstitions of the past. For many radical thinkers from that time to our own day, the adoption of rationality has entailed a rejection of religious faith. The French Revolution, which expressed so many of the new ideas of the European Enlightenment, is a good example of this, with its strong anti-religious element.

Of course there was also an important social dimension to this rejection. Religion came to be regarded as conservative, tied to tradition, and closely associated with old regimes and all their failings. The legacy of this history, it seems, is that for more than two hundred years, many of the most influential thinkers and reformers in the West have viewed religion, not as an avenue to human liberation, but as an obstacle to progress. Marxism, one of the most powerful secular ideologies of the twentieth century, even denounced religion as the “opium of the people”—with tragic consequences, as communist regimes forcibly suppressed religion in many parts of the world.

Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole WorldAccording to the Dalai Lama, we must look to recent European history to understand the arguments against religion:

It is a result of this history, I feel, that in the West the idea of secularism is so often understood as being antagonistic toward religion. Secularism and religion are often seen as two opposing and mutually incompatible positions, and there is considerable suspicion and hostility between the followers of the two camps.

The arguments against religion, viewed thus, are understandable:

While I cannot accept the suggestion that religion is an obstacle to human development, I do feel that, in the context of history, anti-religious sentiments may be understandable. History teaches the uncomfortable truth that religious institutions and adherents of every denomination have been involved in exploitation of others at some stage or another. Religion has also been used as a pretext for conflict and oppression. Even Buddhism, with its doctrine of nonviolence, cannot escape this charge entirely.

The conclusion I come to is that the arguments against religion are best understood as arising from historical circumstances that led to those making the arguments concluding that religion was out of date and a barrier to progress.  Add to this the underlying tendency to demonize those whom you are opposed to – a fault that Europeans religious and anti-religious alike seem to be especially prone to – and you have the essence of the case against religion. The rest is conjecture, ideology, theorizing, and brainstorming interpreted by those doing the brainstorming as scientific fact.

The Impression that Logic and Reasonableness Seems Mainly on the Side of Those who Embrace both Science and Religion

In the literature we have been reviewing, what stands out is the reasonableness and logic of those authors, often distinguished scientists, who embrace both science and religion. They tend to have humanitarian and world-embracing perspectives, a familiarity with the diversity of the world’s religions, knowledge of the world’s sciences, informed perspectives on the history of the interaction of the two (meaning that they typically understand the different strands in the enlightenment and in various bifurcations and movements in the religious traditions of the world.) And this same breadth of perspective is often found in the moderate atheists and materialists who maintain an objective and open-minded approach towards social and individual phenomena that may not be fully to their taste but whose reality they want to understand.

Does this sound too positive? Am I being too selective in my reading?

Dalai LamaThis is the 21st century and I am describing the thinking of people who are informed and comfortable with all parts of the human experience – science and religion, spiritual needs and material needs – in an age that has witnessed a century of chaos, war, and disintegration associated with the rise and enormous influence of materialist ideologies. This is a time that sees continuing and growing failure to address material inequalities, racial inequalities, religious inequalities, and environmental problems, an age that is witnessing the spread of a consumer culture that praises selfishness and desire as a social good.

And this is an age where – through the internet, through the unprecedented expansion of learning and scholarship, through the streams of refugees and the diasporas from broken and war-torn regions – we have more access to knowledge and information than we ever have had before. And it is also an age that has an inexhaustible hunger for spiritual growth and an age that has rediscovered religion (both the good and bad of it!).

We are in a different time.  We now know enough, including enough history, to recognize that the faults of religion that once so incensed people were very real, but also artifacts of the time and the place. And the systems of government and governance that replaced religion and affiliated religious systems were often much worse than what they replaced.

Those who reject religion, it seems to me, see it monolithically, as if it were somehow one big concrete thing where religion everywhere were the same. This simply isn’t true. There are many, many flavors and types of religion. People can even make religion out of science! Or they believe that belief in God is illogical and conclude that it forces people to be illogical. But this simply isn’t true. The world’s greatest scientists have believed in God and they have proven themselves logical. Or they believe that science has proven that all of life is material and that belief in God is the view that reality is more than what is material, therefore wrong. But, science has not proven that, it is only a surmise, a belief.

Rejection of religion may well be valid as a personal option. But when a thinker goes further and decides that everyone else must accept their personal conclusions as valid universally, then they are trespassing into the realm of imposing belief on others. It was precisely this in 18th century religion that so incensed people.

For all these reasons, those who reject religion as wrong are making a different argument than those who reject religion privately.  They are making the same claim, in essence, that those who persecute people who don’t believe “correctly” are making – they are attempting to enforce ideological purity.  And it is this imposition – with all that it entails of fanaticism, illogic, and demonization – that gives such a strong impression of lack of logic and reasonableness.

Next Blog

In the next blog, we will continue our review of the history of atheism and the book


This is the 33rd in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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Jan 26

Books on Science and Religion #32: Nick Spencer’s ‘Atheists and the Origin of the Species’ Part 3

Stephen Friberg

To believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Jan 25, 2015

Atheists: the origin of the speciesIn the previous two weeks (here and here) we looked at the history of atheism as described in the excellent and informative Atheists: The Origin of the Species, written by Nick Spencer, research director of the Christian think-tank Theos.

Given the relevance and importance of the book and the topic, we are moving slowly through the wealth of material in the book. Today we examine the influence of two influential British non-believers, David Hume (1711 – 1776) and Edward Gibbon (1737-1794). Their views still inform modern discussions of religion.

But before doing so, I would like to bring in a perspective from the Baha’i Faith.

Progressive Revelation and The Rise of Atheism

The Baha’i Faith holds that religion is progressive.

The great founders of religion – Moses, Krishna, the Buddha, Christ, Mohammed, Baha’u’llah – each bring guidance that builds on what has come before and that responds both to the needs of the time and the readiness of the people to whom their guidance is addressed.

The effect of their teachings are dynamic and organic, involving growth, maturity, fruition, and decay. In the stage of decay, religion, like a tree without sap, retains its structure and form, but the life-bestowing vitality no longer flows and its leaves and fruits are no longer forthcoming.

But each religion promises its return and revitalization. A new teacher comes – a new Manifestation of God appears – and instigates a new cycle of progress and advance. The Manifestations are the main impetus for spiritual progress. They are the bringers of spiritual springtimes, and the great religions – and much of the world’s great cultures – coalesce around their guidance and thought.

According to the Baha’i writings:

The fundamental principle enunciated by Bahá’u’lláh, the followers of His Faith firmly believe, is that religious truth is not absolute but relative, that Divine Revelation is a continuous and progressive process, that all the great religions of the world are divine in origin, that their basic principles are in complete harmony, that their aims and purposes are one and the same, that their teachings are but facets of one truth, that their functions are complementary, that they differ only in the nonessential aspects of their doctrines, and that their missions represent successive stages in the spiritual evolution of human society. (Shoghi Effendi)

The advancement and progress of religion is not always a pretty thing. `Abdu’l-Baha (1844 – 1921), the head of the Baha’i Faith from 1892 to 1921, used the analogy of the four seasons:

Hiroshige BridgeThe spiritual world is like unto the phenomenal world. They are the exact counterpart of each other. … When we look upon the phenomenal world, we perceive that it is divided into four seasons; one is the season of spring, another the season of summer, another autumn and then these three seasons are followed by winter …

When Christ appeared in this world, it was like the vernal bounty; the outpouring descended; the effulgences of the Merciful encircled all things; the human world found new life. Even the physical world partook of it. The divine perfections were upraised; souls were trained in the school of heaven so that all grades of human existence received life and light.

But this spring was followed by summer, fall, and then winter:

Then by degrees these fragrances of heaven were discontinued; the season of winter came upon the world; the beauties of spring vanished; the excellences and perfections passed away; the lights and quickening were no longer evident; the phenomenal world and its materialities conquered everything; the spiritualities of life were lost; the world of existence became life unto a lifeless body; there was no trace of the spring left.

The decline and failure of religion that precipitated the rise of atheism and decline of religious vitality in Europe, from this perspective, are a natural part of the progress of religion. Like a phoenix, religion dies and is reborn. The winter of disbelief precedes the springtime of renewal.

British Atheism in the Enlightenment

Last week, we looked at the atheism and the antireligious doctrines of philosophes of the French enlightenment. Some of them, like d’Holbach, castigated religion – especially Judaism – at considerable length and with considerable fanaticism. The French enlightenment – often regarded as moderate, reasonable, life-enhancing, democratic and an agent of positive change – was, as it is clear to see, shot through with an irrational, uninformed, prejudiced, and immoderate thread of thought targeted at religion and those who embraced it.

The British in the 18th century had their unbelievers, but they were neither bitter nor fanatic like their French counterparts. And although they were severely critical of Christianity, they seem to have fallen short of the French model. One of them, David Hume (1711 – 1776), is widely considered to be one of the greatest modern philosophers. And the other, Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), is considered to one of the greatest of Britain’s historians and, like Hume, one of the greatest stylists of the English language (for example, he was the favored exemplar for Shoghi Effendi (1897-1957), head of the Baha’i Faith from 1921 to 1957.) But they don’t seem to have totally rejected religion.

david-hume-philosopher-high-resolution-portraitDavid Hume

Hume, writes Spencer, was the “first great hero of British atheism.” Although hostile to Christianity to his deathbed, it seems that he wasn’t an atheist. Apparently he was what would later be called agnostic, much as my parents and their generation saw themselves. Despite that, he shared many of the opinions of the French philosophes:

He wrote against enthusiasm and its ‘raptures, transports, and surprising flights of fancy’. He wrote against superstition, its genesis in ‘weakness, fear, melancholy, [and] ignorance’, and its manifestation in ‘ceremonies, observances, mortifications, [and] sacrifices’. He wrote against clergy, dedicating a lengthy footnote to the hypocrisy of the clergy in his essay ‘Of National Characters’. He wrote against supernatural agency as a factor within human history.

But whereas the French philosophes wrote with an obvious prejudice and an extraordinary relish for confusing opinion for fact, Hume was sophisticated in argument and a thinker who remains deeply and widely influential. As a result, he was – and still is – widely effective in undermining arguments for religion. For example, he argues against miracles as a proof of Christianity’s validity:

Hume’s central argument was ‘that no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish’. The quality of the testimony was crucial and, in Hume’s opinion, no example from history passed muster. No miracle was attested ‘by a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned good-sense, education, and learning … [and] of such credit and reputation in the eyes of mankind’, as to be prove credible.

This was a high hurdle for a religion such as Christianity, that was not only ‘first attended with miracles’, but ‘even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one’. … Faith was fine, so long as you were prepared to take leave of your sense.

Like the French philosophes, “at the heart of his anti-Christianity there burned a moral critique, an indignation at the hypocrisy of the pious.” But, Spencer argues, Hume, the great skeptic, was skeptical of metaphysics as well, and “never entirely convinced by atheistic arguments”:

Philosophical reasoning was important – Hume spent many years engaged in it – but it could not offer the secure metaphysical or moral foundations that some claimed for it. Habit, experience and custom, not reason, governed humans’ understanding of the world, themselves and the way they should live. ‘Since morals … have an influence on the actions and affections, it follows, that they cannot be derived from reason’. Such scepticism would not allow him simply to replace theology with philosophy, revelation with reason, or religion with science in the way that many in D’Holbach’s coterie did.

Edward GibbonAnd when Hume was charged with heresy, he was defended by his British friends, among them many clergy, in a 18th century Britain that possessed a spirit of religious moderation.

Edward Gibbon

Like Hume, Gibbon was comfortably well off. And like Hume, he was a historian, writing the famously influential The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Wikipedia describes it as “known for the quality and irony of its prose, its use of primary sources, and its open criticism of organized religion”.

Like some of influential social Darwinists (and Nietzsche) in the the 19th century, Gibbon believed that the ethical and moral values of Christianity weakened the competitive spirit:

Romans, he believed, had become effeminate, unwilling to live a tougher, “manly” military lifestyle. In addition, Gibbon argued that Christianity created a belief that a better life existed after death, which fostered an indifference to the present among Roman citizens, thus sapping their desire to sacrifice for a larger purpose. He also believed that Christianity’s comparative pacifism tended to hamper the traditional Roman martial spirit.

Finally, like other Enlightenment thinkers and British citizens of the age steeped in institutional anti-Catholicism, Gibbon held in contempt the Middle Ages as a priest-ridden, superstitious Dark Age. It was not until his own era, the “Age of Reason,” with its emphasis on rational thought, it was believed, that human history could resume its progress.

Of course, much of what he believed has fallen prey to subsequent scholarship. But, in many ways, such as his use of source materials, subsequent scholarship built on his methodologies. And Gibbon was one of the first to study the progress of religion, including its decline and fall: “It was philosophic history of this nature, in which cause and effect were demonstrably determined by human agency, or accident, rather than divine providence or intent that animated Gibbon’s masterwork.”

According to Spencer;

Christianity for Gibbon became a historical phenomenon to be studied like any other, which he did, to wide public consternation, in Chapters 15 and 16 of The Decline. Gibbon undermined the authority of the miracles and beliefs through which Christianity had spread in a way that sounded much like the traditional Protestant attack on Catholicism: ‘The sublime and simple theology of the primitive Christians was gradually corrupted; and the Monarchy of heaven, already clouded by metaphysical subtleties, was degraded by the introduction of a popular mythology, which tended to restore the reign of polytheism’.

Like the philosophes, Gibbon was happy to offer his opinions as the truth, and to cynically deploy wit, irony, ridicule and innuendo. Except that he was better at it than the philosophes, and a good historian that could provide a convincing historical framework for his views. And because he recognized that the fall of civil institutions, government, and civilizations was not simply due to the evils of religion (the favored view of French ‘rational’ philosophes), he was ultimately more convincing. And, of course, Gibbon was British – more pragmatic and less prone to infatuation with metaphysical ‘certainties’.

Next Blog

In the next blog, we will continue our review of the history of atheism and the book Atheists: The Origin of the Species.


This is the 32nd in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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Jan 19

Books on Science and Religion #31: Nick Spencer’s ‘Atheists and the Origin of the Species’ Part 2

Stephen Friberg

To believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Jan 18, 2015

atheists the origin of the speciesLast week, we posted the first part of a several part review of an excellent and informative book called Atheists: The Origin of the Species. Written by Nick Spencer, research director of the Christian think-tank Theos, it is a must-read book if you want to be knowledgeable about atheism.

The issue of atheism – or more precisely, the aggressive, self-confident rejection of religion in the name of progress and of science – resonates very personally for me.

Purpose, Science, and Belief – A Personal Journey

I grew up on a college campus in New Mexico near Los Alamos National Laboratories, Sandia Laboratories, and Trinity Site where the atomic age was born. (The first atomic bomb was exploded thirty five miles from my childhood bedroom window.) I also grew up in a world of science that was very aware of advanced nuclear weaponry and that had an educated and sophisticated rejection of religion. We didn’t call it atheism. To us it was agnosticism – atheism was for zealots – and it was part of the mental furniture of the time. Religion seemed wholly doubtful – a refuge for the uneducated, or at best a tradition from the past.

trinity site

Trinity Site

But I could find no purpose in a world that seemed fixated on war and military technology. And how could I do physics – which I loved – if it was to be used for weapon-building? What was the purpose I could live for?

After becoming a Baha’i and realizing that work in the spirit of service was worship, I was able to go back to school and start a career. Unfortunately for me, belief in God wasn’t easy. Could I – or should I – believe in God if science said that it wasn’t valid to do so?

Years later, and after a lot of study, it became more than abundantly apparent to me – as it has become clear to many other scientists and academics – that it simply wasn’t true that science was opposed to religious belief. It was a lie – or at best an idée fixe.

But it was a lie that had several different consequences. On one hand, it was a lie that supported and inspired the worst and most barbarous episodes of our world’s history – governments killing their own people, European colonial domination and exploitation of much of the globe, a corrosive and murderous racism paired with a cruelly unforgiving social Darwinism, wars of destruction where civilian populations were a primary target, and extraordinary tyrannies. As Atheists: The Origin of the Species puts it, “atheist societies populated with new men (and the occasional new woman) in Russian, China, Albania, North Korea and elsewhere ended up humiliating, enslaving and killing on a scale that made previous religious wars look like a playground scuffle.”

On the other hand, this great lie unleashed some of the greatest and most creative minds of the last two hundred and fifty years to new heights of creativity – creating world-transforming new sciences, new technologies, new and radically more powerful medical systems, new forms of government, widespread literacy, and powerful forms of social activity. The scientists and academics I grew up had some good reasons for their pride – yes, extraordinary and great things were done – and their antipathies to religion – yes, much of it was old and superstitious, dominated by antiquated structures of governance from the past, and yes, sometimes barbarous and out-of-date.


But even the good old-fashioned, positive, scientific-mind-set type of atheism – one which had inspired a great creative burst of growth and vitality – was necessarily followed by aging and arteriosclerosis. The analysis and criticisms that it so frequently brought to bear on the religions of the world were, obviously, equally relevant to atheism, agnosticism, materialism, and scientism.

And that is the story that we are exploring here.

Atheism in the Enlightenment

In part 1 of this review, we talked about the beginnings of modern atheism in Renaissance and Reformation Europe. We now continue by examining the beliefs of Enlightenment thinkers such as the atheist Jean Meslier’s, the philosophe and encyclopidest Denis Diderot (1713-1784), the atheist Baron D’holbach (1723 -1789), and the materialist Helvetius (1715-1771). These thinkers were extremely critical of religion, indeed fanatically so, but at the same time they could be extraordinarily gifted as productive thinkers, philosophers, and writers.

Almost all of the views that we associate with modern atheism were built up by them. D’Holbach’s The System of Nature (1770) and Good (or Common) Sense, or Natural Ideas vs. Supernatural Ideas, for example, is a sourcebook of almost the whole corpus of the ideas of New Atheism, albeit one that is 250 years old and developed in the context of a decaying royalist France.

baron_dholbachMeslier’s Memoires, published and promoted by Voltaire, set the style for these thinkers:

‘Know, my dear friends that everything that is happening in the world concerning the cult and the adoration of gods, is nothing but error, abuse, illusion, mendacity, and betrayal’. On one side, the priests terrify their flock into political obedience on pain of eternal damnation. On the other, princes enforce religious order, give priests ‘good appointments and good revenues, and maintain them in the vain function of their false ministry’. Trapped between them, bullied, terrified, docile, the people suffered.

Like Kant, these French philosophes were extremely anti-Semitic. In many ways, their anti-Semitism informed their opinion of Christianity:

Meslier’s hatred of Israel was strong … The Hebrews were a ‘vile and miserable little people’, circumcision ‘despicable and ridiculous.’ His attack on the New Testament was hardly more moderate. Jesus … came more to mislead than to save men. His call for self-renunciation was no more than a grotesque form of self-mortification. The crucifixion was ‘guilt sacrifice … in its most revolting, barbaric form’, little better than ‘gruesome paganism’.

The benefit promised from Christ’s sacrifice was entirely illusory. At least the people of Israel received substantive promises from God, albeit false ones. Christians had, and continued to content themselves with, ‘imaginary goods, imaginary victories, an imaginary redeemer, and by consequence a redemption that is itself only imaginary’. Christ’s disciples were common and ignorant men’.

As an antidote, Meslier promoted libertinism, utilitarianism, materialism, anarchism, and an early form Marxism, but he lacked the sophistication of thinkers that were to follow in his footsteps.

EncyclopedieThe extraordinarily productive Denis Diderot, an accomplished writer, an anti-Christian, and an early proponent of materialism, was the editor of the hugely influential 17-volume, 18,000-page, 20-million word Encyclopedia, writing many of the 70,000 or so of its articles. Through means frequently devious, Diderot promoted his “subversive” skepticism:

For example, Christianity, the relevant entry informs the reader, ‘may be considered in its relation either to sublime and revealed truths, or to political interests’, which it immediately goes on to explain as meaning either ‘the felicities of the other life, or to the happiness that it may procure in this one’. Calvinists, we are told, borrowed a portion of their errors from the heretics who preceded them, to which they added new ones.

A factual and respectful entry on the Bible is followed by short entries on the Arabic, Armenian, Chaldean, Coptic, Ethiopian, Gothic, Greek, Latin, Muscovite, Oriental, Persian and Syriac Bibles. The entry on Priests is self-consciously vague, explaining that it refers ‘to all those who fulfill the functions of religious cults established by the different peoples of the world’. This then enables a discussion of corrupt priests, who ‘knew how to turn the good opinion they had fostered in the mind of their fellow men to their advantage’, the examples given being of pagan priests, the impression given a broader one.

Almost as prolific as Diderot – and with the added benefit of extraordinary wealth – was Paul-Henri Thiry (Baron D’Holbach), the most uncompromising atheist of his time. He hated religion in general and Christianity specifically:

D’holbach wrote some of the most uncompromising tracts of the radical Enlightenment. They were written, copied, printed and distributed under strictest secrecy. People discovered with them could be, and sometimes were, pilloried, flogged and branded. … The context helps explain their tone of relentless, angry mockery and sarcasm.

According to D’holbach, religion was simply the result of superstition and ignorance, accepted through custom alone, and defenceless against serious thought. Faith is the opposite to reason, repeatedly described as a form of blindness (blind submission, blind belief, blind trust, blind commitment, etc.), demanding the abandonment of common sense and submission to corrupt ecclesiastical authorities. Faith demeaned and degraded. Man-made gods, which were merely personifications of nature, and religions altered them according their needs. This not only stupefied people but justified horrendous and/or irrational practices such as circumcision, ritual cleansing, eating prohibitions and baptism. …

D’holbach’s take on the Old Testament drew heavily on Meslier. The biblical Jews were a nation of thieves, brigands and bandits, stupid and superstitious, ignorant and intolerant, unreasoning and unhappy, the mockery of other nations and for good reason. Their institutions enslaved them, their God was cannibalistic … Jesus [was] a vile craftsman, a skillful phony, an Egyptian magician, not merely a God for the poor but a poor God. … Christianity was little more than a schismatic Jewish sect, sharing all the faults of its parent, but adding viscous factionalism, life-denying Platonism and strange pagan customs into the mix.

helvetiusD’holbach popularized the idea that religion is evil. Spencer argues that “D’Holbach’s attack was, at heart, an ethical one. Christianity’s defective morality, he contended, was based on its defective, cruel, capricious, ferocious, bloodthirsty God.” God was “simply wicked” and his followers were “morally retarded.”

God, according to D’holbach and his circle, should be replaced by nature:

Man was a purely physical creature, his life constructed via his senses. His good was to be found in self-love and the pursuit of happiness, and only those things useful in the goal of achieving happiness were of value. …  ‘public utility… [became] the principle on which all human virtues are founded, and the basis of all legislations’. Humans were naturally sociable and naturally good. They needed no supernatural intervention to encourage virtue. On the contrary, it was precisely supernatural intervention that distorted natural virtue.

Goodness would be the default position were it not for the ignorance and superstition bred by religion. … humans were predisposed ‘to love one another … [and] live in peace’, tendencies destroyed by belief in the tyrannous God of Christianity.

Atheism alone could liberate mankind for the happiness that was naturally his.

Although D’holbach views are frequently laughably naive, especially in light of evolutionary thinking, they were a prod to a creativity whose consequences – sometimes barbarous in the extreme, sometimes exemplary – are widespread today.

First, many in D`holbach’s circle believed, progress “required the death of religion.” Next “there was a need for good government.” Finally, there was a need for good education, including the need to take children away from religious educators and their parents (Spencer writes that: “The need to remove children from religious educators [even, when necessary, their parents] would become a recurring theme in atheist rhetoric over the next 250 years.” Helvetius, one of the proponents of this view, was labeled by Isaiah Berlin as “as one of his six enemies of human liberty”.)

Associated with these views were perspectives that held that men and women were just “natural machines” lacking free will.  According to Hevetius,”beliefs and motives were irrelevant.”  D’Holbach saw free-will as “a theological con-trick, necessary for the heaven, hell and the gross system of bribery and threat they supported but indefensible otherwise. Human thought and action were in principle explicable through the study of the brain, nervous system and senses within, and the forces of education, custom and government from without.”

Some Thoughts

Much of what is modern is recognizable in nascent form in the thinking of these Enlightenment atheists. Their rejection of religion and the forms of government associated with it – they saw royal rule as a big part of the problem – forced thinking about the proper forms that government should take. Their thinking about the restructuring of education had similar consequence lead to the modern education system. So the atheistic rejection of both religion and government was, in many ways, an extraordinary event that preceded a revolution in human affairs that was brought about in large part by ideas sparked by atheist thought.

But, the extraordinary naivety of the atheists about human nature – their utter inability to recognize that the excesses that they saw in religion were, as we would say now, hardwired into us by evolution and are destined to show up by default whenever spiritual development is neglected – is painfully obvious in retrospect. And an understanding of the damage caused by materialistic moralities – the idea that pleasure and utility are the end all, be all of life – was beyond their ken. Particularly corrosive was their abuse of science – taking highly speculative and unwarranted assumptions and treating them as if they were scientific fact. And the idea that their highly idiosyncratic and cynically self-serving interpretations of religion was anything other than speculative and uninformed opinion casts them in a very poor light.  Basically, it betrays them as strangers to objectivity with regards to important aspects of human social, political, and spiritual practice.

Next Blog

In the next blog, we will continue our review of the history of atheism called Atheists: The Origin of the Species written by Nick Spencer, research director of the Christian thinktank Theos.  It looks like there is much more to be explored!


This is the 31st in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.


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Jan 16

Bahá’í Imprisoned and Tortured in Yemen

Hamed Kamal bin Haydara with his family, before his imprisonment.

Hamed Kamal bin Haydara with his family, before his imprisonment.

NEW YORK, 16 January 2015, (BWNS) — In a betrayal of justice, authorities in Yemen have indicted Hamed Kamal bin Haydara, a Yemeni national, of being a spy for Israel and converting Muslims to the Baha’i Faith.

These charges come at the start of the second year of his imprisonment.  Throughout this time, Mr. bin Haydara has been held without charge and has endured various forms of torture as well as intense psychological abuse.

Mr. bin Haydara’s wife, Elham, told Reuters News Agency that her husband had been subjected to severe torture during his imprisonment in order to extract a confession, which the authorities have failed to get.  As a result, Mr. bin Haydara is now suffering from chronic health conditions.

“The charges against Mr. bin Haydara are baseless and nonsensical and come after over a year of mistreatment, including solitary confinement, during which, privately, the authorities have repeatedly admitted their religious motives for the imprisonment,” said Bani Dugal, principal representative of the Baha’i International Community to the United Nations.

“Mr. bin Haydara is a well-respected and sincere family man who has not broken any laws. Baha’is do not proselytize as a matter of principle, and all native Yemenis who have joined the Baha’i Faith have done so of their own conviction,” Ms. Dugal added.

“The accusation of spying for Israel is a grotesque distortion of reality,” said Ms. Dugal. “The historical circumstances that led to the establishment of the administrative and spiritual center of the Baha’i Faith occurred well before the existence of the State of Israel.”

“Obedience and loyalty to one’s government is a central principle in Baha’i teachings and the notion that Baha’is would engage in espionage is utterly absurd,” said Ms. Dugal.

“Baha’is have been part of Yemen for decades and are known throughout the Arab region, indeed the world, for their peaceful nature and attitude of selfless service to society.”

Ms. Dugal added: “The Baha’i International Community condemns this unlawful action against Mr. bin Haydara and calls for his immediate release. The charges are entirely fabricated and are without a shred of evidence.”

These comments come amid accusations by the authorities that Mr. bin Haydara is not a Yemeni national and has forged his name to enter the country.

Mr. bin Haydara was in fact born on Socotra Island in Yemen and has lived in the country as a citizen. His father, a physician, moved to Yemen from Iran in the 1940s and was granted Yemeni citizenship by the Mahra Sultan of Qishn and Socotra, in recognition of his sterling service to the poor in society. Citizenship was naturally and rightfully passed down to his son. The Sultan gave Mr. bin Haydara’s father his Yemeni name as an honor and in recognition of his respect for his adopted country.

“Mr. bin Haydara is a devoted husband, a father of three young girls, and loyal citizen of Yemen,” Ms. Dugal continued. “But perhaps the most ironic and telling element of this indictment is that the authorities have condemned Mr. bin Haydara for ‘demonstrating high moral standards’, through which he has won the confidence of his fellow citizens.”

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Note: When Ms. Dugal speaks of the historical circumstances that caused the center of the Faith to be established in Haifa before Israel existed, she refers to the exile of Bahá’u’lláh (Founder of the Faith) to the prison city of Akka, which is across the bay from Haifa. This occurred in the late 1800’s; Israel became a nation in 1948.

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Jan 11

Books on Science and Religion #30: Nick Spencer’s ‘Atheists and the Origin of the Species’ Part 1

Stephen Friberg

To believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Jan 11, 2015

This is the first part of a two part review of an excellent new book on atheism. It tells us atheism’s history, talks about its causes, describes its importance, and reminds us that atheism has a distinguished record of important accomplishments.

atheists the origin of the speciesThe book is Atheists: The Origin of the Species and is written by Nick Spencer, research director of the Christian think-tank Theos. It is a must have if you are building a library on science, religion, faith, and reason. Spencer’s argument is three-fold: (1) atheism is best understood “in social and political terms”, (2) from “the outset, atheism was a constructive and creative phenomenon, and (2) we need to “talk about atheisms rather than atheism,” i.e., “a family of atheisms.”

Spencer starts his story in the Renaissance, arguing that the building blocks for an atheistic worldview were in place very early, but that “it took the massive theological, epistemological and political crisis precipitated by the Reformations to gather those blocks and turn them into a foundation.” 18th century France was where “the first openly and unapologetically atheist arguments” were put forward and atheism became a full-blown creed. It was in France where a “rigidly authoritarian Catholic ancien regime … created deep wells of moral indignation on which atheists could draw.” Britain was more tolerant, moderating atheism’s influence. The separation of church and state in the United States effectively sidestepping it almost entirely. The 19th century was the “moment to be alive as an atheist”.

Here great systems of though rubbed shoulders, explaining the past, inspiring the present and predicting the future, putting religious belief in its right place, and then transcending that place, moving people on to a truer understanding of historical progress, a better grasp of economics, or a more rational form of ritual and practice … [as] progress predicted the death of God as humanity moved into broad, sunlit rational uplands.

In the 20th century “atheism faced and created problems previously hidden or unimagined.” Nietzsche showed atheists to be hypocrites, the logical positivists “gleefully hammered home the final nail in the coffin of God-talk,” only to find “that God hadn’t been in the coffin in the first place. And

the experience of two world wars left many in Europe, particularly in France, doubting the humanist credentials of atheism. … Attempts to build atheist societies populated with new men (and the occasional new woman) in Russian, China, Albania, North Korea and elsewhere ended up humiliating, enslaving and killing on a scale that made previous religious wars look like a playground scuffle.

berlin destroyed“Atheism came out and came of age”, Specter writes, “and it wasn’t pretty.”

European Culture, Christianity, and Atheism

“Religion, in the form of Christianity,” Spencer points out, “was the foundation of European culture … Belief in God determined the way people lived, the way they were governed and the way they structured society.” Christianity was all pervasive, legitimizing government, communities, kings, and justice. It was the foundation of society. It was not just another intellectual activity. It was this structure, not philosophy and not science, that was the cause. Atheism

had only a limited amount to do with reason and even less with science. The creation myth [of atheism] is an invention of the later nineteenth century, albeit one with ongoing popular appeal. In reality … modern atheism was primarily a political and social cause, its development in Europe having rather more to do with the (ab)use of theologically legitimized political authority than it does with developments in science or philosophy.

Even though atheism is ‘parasitic’ in that it is defined by what it is against, it had to “construct as well as destroy,” thus a central theme of the book:

Precisely because Christianity was the foundation, the walls, the streets and the public order of European civilization, atheism was faced with the need to construct a different earthly city if the destruction of the existing one was ever going to be successful.

The Beginnings of Modern Atheism

Spencer dates the beginnings of modern atheism to the Renaissance – both to its politics and to its fascination with ancient Latin and Greek humanism. Politically, the reformation launched the wars of religion where Protestant and Catholicism fought for supremacy, but it also brought about the ‘realpolitik’ in Italy that we associate with Machiavelli (1469 – 1527) and his influential treatises on politics (e.g., The Prince). From the backward-looking humanism of the Renaissance, leading European thinkers of the time learned about skepticism (sometimes called Pyrrhonism). And the authority of the bible was undermined as leading religious scholars indulged in bitter battles about whether or not it was reliable and whether or not it was best translated literally as was the contention of Luther and the Protestants.

220px-Portrait_of_Niccolò_Machiavelli_by_Santi_di_TitoWith Machiavelli leading the way, with skepticism and classical humanism providing new models for thinking and social organizations, with religious battles over sacred texts poisoning scholasticism, and with religious wars throughout Europe causing slaughter and chaos, European thinkers began to downplay the ideological side of religion and to emphasize natural proofs for belief in God and the validity of religion. For example, Rene Descartes (1596–1650), widely considered the first of the modern European philosophers, substituted his famous cogito for scholastic versions of the proof of the existence of God.

This started a kind of ‘slippery slope’ slide toward atheism, with the materialist philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), writing in The Leviathan, and the pantheist philosopher Spinoza (1632 – 1677) both advancing ideas widely considered as atheistic. Spinoza, for example, rather airily dismissed all of the Hebrew Bible as due to the good – or bad – humor of the Jewish prophets. But both Hobbes and Spinoza proposed systems of government, thought, worship, and economics to override those grounded in Christianity, illustrating the extent to which atheism could be a positive and creative force as well as negative one. Pierre Bayle’s (1647-1706) skeptical Dictionnaire Historique et Critique captured much of the anti-religious and critical perspectives being voiced about at the end of the 16th century. In become very controversial and very popular. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the

Dictionnaire historique et critique was among the most popular works of the eighteenth century. The content of this huge and strange, yet fascinating work is difficult to describe: history, literary criticism, theology, obscenity, in addition to philosophical treatments of toleration, the problem of evil, epistemological questions, and much more. [Pierre Bayle’s] influence on the Enlightenment was, whether intended or not, largely subversive.

The Enlightenment

Unable to obtain much of a foothold in England and Germany in the 18th century, atheism took root in France where “royal absolutism and ecclesiastical authority” were closely tied together. Exacerbating the situation was a French Catholic Church that “was gloriously wealthy, owning close to ten per cent of land, exercising the right to tithe over most of the rest, enjoying significant tax exemptions, and nourishing popular hostility to Protestants.”

MeslierThe Frenchman Jean Meslier, who spent the whole of his life as a priest, was perhaps the first undoubted atheist of modern Europe. Famously – or infamously – his “long and uncompromising” Memoire left to posterity after his death in 1729 denounced every aspect of Christianity and Judaism. They were ‘nothing but error, abuse, illusion, mendacity, and betrayal. Christianity was ‘gruesome paganism’ and Christ’s disciples were ‘common and ignorant men.’ Anticipating much of what was to characterize modern atheism, he condemned the church’s glorification of suffering, and urged what we now call a liberal view of sex, aspects of materialism, and a kind of early form of communism.

Denis Diderot (1713-1784), editor of the famed Encyclopedie, Baron D’Holbach (1723 -1789), Voltaire (1694-1778), d’Alambert (1717-1783), co-editor of the Encyclopedie until 1759, Helvetius (1715-1771) and the Scotsman David Hume (1711-1776) shared many of Meslier views, but were also extraordinarily gifted and productive thinkers, philosophers, and writers, compiling and publishing almost all of the views that we associate with modern atheism between them. In particular, D’Holbach’s The System of Nature (1770) and Good (or Common) Sense, or Natural Ideas vs. Supernatural Ideas are a compendium of almost all of the ideas from New Atheism We will pick up on these topics in the second part of this review next week. For now, we consider the critical reception in the (mainly British) press.

The Reviews

Atheists: The Origin of the Species has gotten good reviews. Julian Baggini, an atheist writing in the Guardian, notes that:

Atheism is now sometimes discussed as though it began with the publication of Richard Dawkins’s ‘The God Delusion’ in 2006.To put these recent debates – or more often than not, flaming rows – in some sort of perspective, a thorough history of atheism is long overdue.

The godless may not at first be pleased to discover that the person who has stepped up to the plate to write it comes from the ranks of the opposition. But Nick Spencer, research director of the Christian thinktank Theos, is the kind of intelligent, thoughtful, sympathetic critic that atheists need, if only to remind them that belief in God does not necessarily require a loss of all reason.

Michael Robbins, an American poet who has made poetry hip again, writes in Slate that:

Nick Spencer begins his spirited history of atheism with a fairy tale. Once upon a time, people lived in ignorant superstition, offering sacrifices to monsters in the sky. Then some clever folks used special weapons called “science” and “reason” to show that the monsters had never really existed in the first place. Some of these clever folks were killed for daring to say this, but they persevered, and now only really stupid people believe in the monsters.

Spencer’s point, of course, is that this received wisdom is naive nonsense—it gets the history of science and the nature of religious belief wrong, setting up an opposition between reason and faith that the church fathers would have found rather puzzling. … Few historians take this myth seriously, but it retains its hold on the vulgar atheist imagination. To believe it requires the misconception that religion exists primarily to provide explanations of natural phenomena. (“You seriously believe in God?” “Well, how do you explain thunder?”)

Tom Brown, writing in the Curious Animal Magazine, says:

The dust had barely settled on the carnage of 9/11 before some commentators were calling faith to account. “To fill a world with religion […] is like littering the streets with loaded guns,” wrote the Oxford academic Richard Dawkins. “Do not be surprised if they are used.” The American neuroscientist Sam Harris, meanwhile, started writing his bestseller ‘The End of Faith’ the very next day, in which he claimed, “We are at war with Islam” and not just the extremist wing.

As Nick Spencer points out, such broadsides against religion are nothing new, but it’s certainly the post-9/11 rise of religious fundamentalism – and the subsequent backlash – that gives this comprehensive new study its impetus. Just as the so-called New Atheists (Dawkins, Harris and, later, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett) introduced a whole new audience to anti-religious arguments after the collapse of the Twin Towers, so Spencer feels the time is ripe to set atheism in its proper context.

Can we hope that Spencer’s approach is the wave of the future?

Next Blog

In the next blog, we will finish our review of the history of atheism called Atheists: The Origin of the Species written by Nick Spencer, research director of the Christian thinktank Theos.


This is the 30th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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Jan 05

Some Baha’i Science and Religion Activities for 2015

Stephen Friberg

To believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Jan 4, 2015

We are starting a New Year! Traditionally, this is the time for planning for the coming year.

Below is a list of upcoming science and religion activities that I know of that Baha’is and their friends will be involved with in the year to come. If you know of any more events or activities, please send comments with the relevant information.

National and International Baha’i Science and Religion Activities

Wilmette InstituteWilmette Institute Course on Science and Religion

The Wilmette Institute, now in its 20th year, will hold two science and religion activities this year. One activity is a nine-week course on Science and Religion scheduled from Nov 20, 2015 to Jan 8, 2016. We promise that information on the course will soon be up and available at the Wilmette Institute website.

Plans are to prepare a book for the course – Science and Religion; and an Unfolding World Civilization - and then develop it for publication. Currently, the book’s chapter list looks like as follows:

  1. Introduction
  2. An Overview of the Baha’i Principles on Science and Religion
  3. Baha’i Proofs of the Existence of God
  4. Science and the Baha’i Faith
  5. Cosmology, Matter, Creation, and Spirit
  6. Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution
  7. Origins of the Modern Discourse on Science and Religion
  8. Building Community with Science and Religion

books and pen graphic

The other science and religion activity is a Wilmette Institute 20th Anniversary Talk entitled “Science and Religion,” which will be a live broadcast Sunday, November 15, 2015 (1 p.m. CT; 12 noon MT; 11 a.m. PT; 7 p.m. UK, 8 p.m. Western Europe). Details of the broadcast should be up soon.

Common Ground Blog: Science and Religion, Faith and Reason

We expect the Common Ground Science and Religion, Faith and Reason blog – the blog that you are reading now – to continue full steam ahead in 2015.

Would you like to write a blog for us? We would be very appreciative and will gladly, if you want, help with any or all aspects.

ABS Science and Religion Special Interest Group

The ABS Science and Religion Special Interest Group (SIG) is an agency of the Association for Baha’i Studies – North America (ABS). Its goals include promoting “a sound understanding of the Cause in academic circles, to demonstrate its relevance to the study of social issues, and to stimulate an appetite for learning within the Bahá’í community generally.” To do this, SIGs are encouraged to promote networking, to mentor students, to “encourage, inspire, and facilitate individual and collaborative Baha’i scholarship”, and to support an “outward-oriented focus” with a university emphasis.

In a recent letter about the ABS, the Universal House of Justice, the elected nine-member council that heads the Baha’i Faith, commented and gave some suggestions as to direction and activities:

  • ABS North AmericaThe principle of the harmony of science and religion, [if] faithfully upheld, will ensure that religious belief does not succumb to superstition and that scientific findings are not appropriated by materialism.
  • Give consideration to insights that have contributed to [our] community’s progress … Perhaps the most important of these is learning in action; the friends participate in an ongoing process of action, reflection, study, and consultation in order to address obstacles and share successes, re-examine and revise strategies and methods, and systematize and improve efforts over time.
  • The Association may find it useful to explore fresh approaches with some simple steps that can grow in complexity.
  • Small seminars could be held to assist individuals from certain professions or academic disciplines to examine some aspect of the discourse of their field.
  • Special interest groups … could have gatherings to intensify their efforts. Periodic communications or follow-up meetings could be arranged to increase the effectiveness of the participation of these groups of individuals in aspects of the discourse in their chosen fields.
  • Continued exertions must be directed toward preparing and disseminating articles, periodicals, and books.

This means that the ABS and the SIGs, including the ABS Science and Religion SIG, are presented with both great opportunities and with challenges. Possibilities this year include activating the SIG website, group consultations on what the SIG can do both internationally and locally (see below), holding a webinar’s, and sponsoring blogs and discussion groups.

ABS Annual Conference, Orange County, Southern California

orangeCountyThe ABS will hold its 39th Annual Conference in Orange County, Southern California, on August 6 to August 9, 2015 – details will be released soon. The conference is always features exciting and excellent talks and is a place to meet old friends, make new friends, and learn new things..

Science and Religion Conferences

Conferences on science and religion in the United States and around the world include:

An interesting related conference is the

Northern California Baha’i Science and Religion Activities

San Jose Baha’i Center Science and Religion Talks

The San Jose Baha’i Center hosts a Baha’i Family School most Sundays at the San Jose Baha’i Center, 945 Willow Street, San Jose, CA 95125. Over the last six years, there have been six or so hour and a quarter Sunday presentations on different aspects of science and religion.Currently, two sets of presentations are planned for this year and more are likely. The first set will be held later this month:

Beyond Materialism – The Next Steps. 10:30 – 11:45 AM Jan 18 & 25, 2015, Stephen Friberg

The 19th century was bedazzled by the rising light of science and materialism. Religion seemed to be fading away, replaced by something that many people – including many leaders of thought – considered to be much better. But that was the 19th century, and this is 21st century. What we know of religion, of science, and the affairs of the world is much vaster and much greater than can be contained by the blithe and narrow generalities of a nascent materialistic worldview, one that, despite it successes, has brought so much destruction in its path.

In these two talks, we consider what we might do to address some of the problems of the 21st century, drawing on the Baha’i teachings and Silicon Valley technology as inspiration.

How We Know What We Know. Time and date to be determined. Maya Bohnhoff.

Mountain ViewMountain View Science and Religion Meetings

For the last year and a half or so, we have been having informal Science and Religion meetings in the Mountain View area, gathering together in people’s homes and talking about science and religion. Typically, we review one or several topics and then discuss one of the topic at length. Attendance usually runs to 10 to 15 people and discussions can continue to quite late. Our favorite topic is consciousness – what is it, how it can be explained, and how it relates science to religion and vice versa.

For the coming year, the Mountain View Science and Religion meetings will be held every two months with the first meeting in January.

Northern California ABS Science and Religion SIG Consultation

Northern California with its plethora of tech and science companies and world class universities (Stanford, UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, UC San Francisco, the Jesuit-based University of Santa Clara and San Francisco University, and the Graduate Theological Union with its many colleges and centers), offers many science and religion resources that can and should be explored.

Currently, we are making plans to have a San Francisco area consultation on the message from the UHJ about the role of the ABS Science and Religion SIG in our local area.

Next Blog

In the next blog, we look at an interesting and informative book focused on the history of atheism called Atheists: The Origin of the Species. It is written by Nick Spencer, research director of the Christian thinktank Theos.


This is the 30th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature – here we skip the literature and talk about the future. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.


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Dec 29

Books on Science and Religion #29: Atheism for Dummies Part 2

Stephen Friberg

To believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

[This is the 2nd of two blogs looking at Dale McGowan’s book Atheism for Dummies.]

Dec 28, 2014

The MIT Technology Review recently published an article called How the Internet is Taking Away America’s Religion. It describes a dramatic rise in those who have no religious affiliation – the “nones” – in the United States:

Back in 1990, about 8 percent of the U.S. population had no religious preference. By 2010, this percentage had more than doubled to 18 percent. That’s a difference of about 25 million people, all of whom have somehow lost their religion.

internet-300x300Allen Downey, whose Religious Affiliation, Education, and Internet Use is the source for the MIT article, claims the increase in the number of “nones” (meaning those who say “none” when asked for their religious affiliation) is statistically and causally correlated with three factors: (1) the changes in religious upbringing in American homes (20%), (2) the increase in the number of college students (5%) and, (3) the dramatic rise in the use of the internet (25%). The remaining 50% is due to “other factors”. (For additional details, see “Nones” on the Rise from Pew Research.)

Religion Among the Millennials – also from Pew Research – accredits most of these changes to millennials in the 18 – 29 age bracket:

By some key measures, Americans ages 18 to 29 are considerably less religious than older Americans. Fewer young adults belong to any particular faith than older people do today. They also are less likely to be affiliated than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations were when they were young. Fully one-in-four members of the Millennial generation – so called because they were born after 1980 and began to come of age around the year 2000 – are unaffiliated with any particular faith.

What these reports show is that there is a large rise in the number of people – especially young people – in the United States who lack a connection with religion. And these people – not always, but often – no longer belong to the extended communities that religions and churches provide. Often, they are alone and isolated.

Atheism, Irreligion and Ritual

christmasIn Religion Without God, a recent New York Times op-ed column, T.M. Luhrmann, a Stanford professor who studies the way that people experience God, tells the story of her mother. She “is the daughter of a Baptist pastor and the black sheep, theologically speaking, of her family. She wants to go to church, but she is not quite sure whether she wants God.”

For Christmas, her mother goes to a Unitarian Universalist church where God is not mentioned. Other like her go to Sunday Assembly meetings, started in England by two atheists. They draw “thousands of people to events with music, sermons, readings, reflections and (to judge by photos) even the waving of upraised hands.”


Luhrmann answers that “part of the answer is surely the quest for community.” We will get to this later when we look at Atheism for Dummies. But first, consider what Luhrmann says about why rituals like a Christmas worship service are so important. They “change the way we pay attention as much as — perhaps more than — they express belief. … ritual focuses your attention on some moment and deems it worthy of respect.”

Rituals have very real effects – they work – says Luhrmann:

Moreover, these rituals work, if by “work” we mean that they change people’s sense of their lives. It turns out that saying that you are grateful makes you feel grateful. Saying that you are thankful makes you feel thankful. To a world so familiar with the general unreliability of language, that may seem strange. But it is true.

Religion is fundamentally a practice that helps people to look at the world as it is and yet to experience it — to some extent, in some way — as it should be. Much of what people actually do in church — finding fellowship, celebrating birth and marriage, remembering those we have lost, affirming the values we cherish — can be accomplished with a sense of God as metaphor, as story, or even without any mention of God at all.

MassMy guess is that this is only partially true – it is hard to maintain discipline if you believe your topic is a sham. And it strikes me that it is unlikely that it will be effectively passed to offspring.

Interestingly, the Baha’i Faith emphasizes the importance of avoiding rituals, seeing them as an “outward form” easily mistaken for inner truth and the cause of superstition and dissension. `Abdu’l-Baha, in Paris Talks says that

Forms and rituals differ in the various churches and amongst the different sects, and even contradict one another; giving rise to discord, hatred, and disunion. The outcome of all this dissension is the belief of many cultured men that religion and science are contradictory terms, that religion needs no powers of reflection, and should in no wise be regulated by science, but must of necessity be opposed, the one to the other.

The Baha’i faith has a minimum of rituals. Here is how Shoghi Effendi, the head of the Baha’i Faith from 1921 to 1957, characterizes it:

The Faith … is free from any form of ecclesiasticism, has neither priesthood nor rituals, and is supported exclusively by voluntary contributions made by its avowed adherents.

Atheism, Community, and Lack of Community

Atheism for Dummies by Dale McGowan – as I pointed out in Books on Science and Religion #28: Atheism for Dummies – is not an effective advertisement for atheism, or at least the traditional type of atheism that appeals to reason, toleration, science, rationality, intellectual knowledge, and a sense of responsibility for the future.

atheism for dummiesIt is, however, effective at addressing evangelical atheism, a term that can be applied to the views of atheists like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris and their adaptation of evangelical sales techniques. This form of atheism seems to be persuading Christian evangelicals to abandon their faith. But there is a price. Those who have converted from evangelical to atheism have very often severed their connections – sometimes vital human connections – with their churches, their church-based communities, and given the American propensity to move away from family for education and work, often from their families as well.

How many people are we talking about here?

In absolute terms, the numbers of atheists in the United States is small. According to Pew Research (“Nones” on the Rise) atheism belief rates increased from 1.6% of the US population to 2.4% of the US population since the beginnings of new Atheism, i.e., about 2.5 million. But whether or not more people were convinced of atheism’s merits or whether they felt more comfortable coming “out of the closet” is hard to tell. Wikipedia in Demographics in Atheism estimates that “atheists comprise around 2% of the world’s population and the irreligious (non religious) a further 16%”. Worldwide growth in atheism is balanced by the growth in religion in formerly communist countries.  But even those numbers feel wrong.  Many in the United States and in Europe are nominally Christian – at least they will say they are if asked – but church attendance is often very low and a secular spirit predominates.

What does McGowan suggest that atheists do?

  • First of all, he suggest that atheists get acquainted with the worldwide atheist movement.  Learn about atheism, study its history, recognize the diversity within the movement.
  • Learn about morality – what is it? – what does it mean to be good? And recognize that you be good without God.
  • See the world naturally. I think that he means to avoid superstition and escape from dogma, setting aside outdated dogma.  But, he also seems to be, evangelically, suggesting that you internalize evangelical atheist dogmas – materialism, anti-theism, and the like. It does raise the suspicion that instead of encouraging you to think openly, rationally, and scientifically, he is encouraging you to replace one dogma with another.
  • Recognize that you are living in a religious world. Learn about religion, make peace, don’t battle unwisely, learn how to live with others. This is very important and is meaningful for someone who experiences are very limited and who is from a strongly evangelical community rather than a secular or educated background. But, it does suggest that McGowan is unaware that we live in what is essentially a secular world, one where religion plays only a very limited role.
  • Get the best from religion, discard the rest.  He suggests an embrace of community, recognizing the importance of commemorations, rituals to mark life transitions, and holidays, an understanding for the need for wonder and transcendence, learning how to deal with hardships and loss, and volunteering and serving.

And finally he offers information, addresses, suggestions for joining like minded people in supportive organization.  Clearly, many of these suggestions are worthy of a hearing and maybe even important for those in transition.

But it has a strong out-of-the-frying-pan-and-into-the-fire feeling to it to me. There are many organization where belief or lack of belief plays no part – most community organizations, volunteer organizations, and NGOs for example. There is no need to go to groups that embrace an ideology or quasi-religious atheism unless pre-occupied with the topic.  And those organizations help create disunity rather than healing the wounds that religion can sometime create.

So I have a decided ambivalence about many of his suggestions, even while recognizing that they may be good for some.

Next Blog

In the next blog, we talk about yet another book on science and religion.

. …………………………

This is the 29th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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Dec 22

Books on Science and Religion #28: Atheism for Dummies

Stephen Friberg

To believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Dec 21, 2014

For the next two blogs, I look at the fascinating Atheism for Dummies by Dale McGowan, by turns an interesting and a frustrating guide to one aspect of the topic – the embrace of atheism by those fleeing fundamentalism.

atheism for dummiesBefore I get to McGowan’s book, I want to offer some criticisms of modern atheism. It seems to me that it is a combination of materialism, anti-intellectualism and science-writing treated as if it were religious doctrine.

And before I describe the positive things in McGowan’s book, I want to say some critical things about his reasoning, his anti-intellectualism, and the approach he uses. I think it hides the true reasons why people turn to McGowan’s type of fundamentalist atheism.

Atheism and Unreason

It has been said that humans were born to believe – evolution made us so.

Clearly, there is something to such a view. But there is a rub: to the extent that it is true, it applies equally well to beliefs about in materialism and to an embrace of secularism as it does to religion.

It we look at atheism and materialism as a faith, then we can also look at it from the perspective of the history of a faith. And it looks something like this: The 19th century was the heady age of the dawning of atheism and materialism, the 20th century was the age of its fruition (communism, logical positivism, Arabic socialism, and all that), and the 21st century is the age of disillusionment, the age of the loss of faith. (Simplistic? Yes, but helpful nonetheless.)

And accompanying this loss of faith? Could it be a stubborn, unreasoned grasping at creeds that once seemed so clear and solid? Is this why modern atheism is so irrational, so unfriendly to objectivity, so at odds with the scientific spirit it claims to embrace?

Consider the writings of A.C. Grayling, Stephen Pinker, Lawrence Krauss, Victor Stenger, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins. In the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, their methodology “consists in criticising religion without understanding it, quoting texts without contexts, taking exceptions as the rule, confusing folk belief with reflective theology, abusing, mocking, ridiculing, caricaturing and demonising religious faith and holding it responsible for the great crimes against humanity.” This isn’t a sign of strength, confidence, or certainty – it is a failure to engage or to cope.

In contrast, those who embrace both science and religion seem confident and comfortable with scientific ways of thinking and comfortable with religion, combining a ready awareness of religion’s foibles with an embrace of its strengths and an acknowledgement of its extraordinary diversity. Something happens when science and religion come together.

superhumanPerhaps a diagram conveys more than words.

Consider the traditional physicist’s vision of reality as diagrammed to the left. Newton would be comfortable seeing things this way. At the bottom of the diagram, there is the reality of matter – the stuff of stars, of interstellar space, of minerals, of rocks, and of the ocean. Next and above there is the reality of living things, something that includes the reality of organic things – which are made of matter – and the reality of various types of plants and organisms. Higher in complexity are animals. They incorporate the reality of matter, organisms below animals, as well as the realities of the animal kingdom. Above that – incorporating the human, animal, plant, and material realities – is the world of human reality. And above that? The superhuman reality (super means above). It includes the realities of the material world, the plant world, the animal world, the human world, and in addition, a reality that transcends the human world. [Note: This is only a picture, so don’t worry if the details are a bit off according to modern biology].

The materialist’s world – the atheist’s reality – is a truncated version of this larger picture embraced by those who admit to both science and religion. For the materialist, the superhuman world is out of bounds – it is inadmissible. (If you’re a materialist, this raises some interesting questions. Does money, something often without a material reality, actually exist? If so, where?)

Contrast this truncated perspective with the views of the science and religion crowd. This crowd willingly entertains the idea that there may be a reality above the human or animal kingdom – they aspire to a larger and much grander picture of reality. There is, of course, no money-back guarantee that every resulting vision is going to be better or more wonderful than any given materialist’s vision, but it is clear that the materialist’s views are necessarily much more limited in scope.

And there are implications to this. Materialists aren’t open to a bigger picture of things. One effect is that they are forced by their belief system into viewing religion in a cynical way – they must see it as a story, as an invention, as a lie, as a primitive grasping at scientific facts, or at best as a convenient fiction.

But the other side of the coin is that if materialism is indeed a belief system, then it is likely to be embraced and defended in the same way that religious belief systems are defended. What this means is that all the bad things – the lack of reasonableness, blind adherence to outmoded creeds, the whole body of accusations thrown at the religious and the religions be it justly or unjustly – also applies to those embracing materialism as a belief system. And indeed, the history of 19th and 20th centuries, especially the tragic experiences of Germany, Russia, and China, strongly suggest that materialism is such a belief system, one much more terrible in its consequences than anything the modern religious terrorist can implement. All religious-inspired tragedies pale into insignificance when confronted with the immensity of the horrors wrought in the 19th and 20th centuries by materialist faiths.

santa clausDale McGowan, as an atheist and a materialist, holds to this mold – I describe some of the ways below. But the interesting thing about McGowan’s book is not his philosophical expositions – which are uniformly flippant and unpersuasive – but rather his discussion of the need for community for those who find themselves embracing the atheist creed. But that is the topic for next week’s blog.

What Atheists Do and Don’t Believe

Atheism for Dummies is part of the renowned Dummies series. It’s author, Dale McGowan, is a former professor of music now active as an inspirational speaker for atheist and humanist organizations, a writer, and the director of a charitable organization.

McGowan paints atheists as open and questioning people who have freed themselves from blind belief. In Chapter 3, he explains why people are attracted to atheism. Promisingly, he starts out by invoking Santa Claus:

As the child grows and learns more about the world, the answers become less satisfying, and the urge to know the truth starts to overtake the will to believe. That’s when the direct question comes at last: Is Santa real?

By offering a universe that cares for everyone after all, and by canceling death, the idea of a loving God solves many of the deepest human problem. When it comes to God, the will to believe can be so overwhelming that most people never cross the threshold into the will to actually find out. Whatever doubts they have are easily shooed away by the religious equivalents « magic corn.

This, of course, sounds convincing. It is true that ideologies – and religious belief systems that have collapsed into ideologies – do serve as a way to avoid thinking. He continues:

Those who are able to cross that threshold find that they’re able to revisit the many questions they had shooed away so easily while their will to believe was strongest — questions about good and evil, meaning and purpose, life and death — and to see them in a whole new light. Many end up coming to the conclusion that the God hypothesis just doesn’t fare well in that light, and that it’s much more likely that humanity lives in a natural universe with­out gods.

But notice the ideological flourishes – “the God hypothesis”, “a natural universe without gods.” And it is striking that he doesn’t mention – and perhaps fails to understand – that many have gone or will go through the reverse process – i.e., starting from an atheistic childhood in the Soviet bloc, China, and other like-minded parts of the world, and coming to realize that religion is not what sometimes all-powerful authorities decreed it to be.

His discussion of confirmation bias, and his failure to recognize that the concept applies equally well to those under the spell of materialism, brings the point home:

Confirmation bias is the human tendency to see things the way you prefer, and it’s the single biggest obstacle to getting at the truth in any area of life. It leads people to notice and accept evidence that seems to support their beliefs while ignoring evidence that contradicts it.

That’s one of the central problems many people notice when they first begin to look closely at religion — that the claims and conclusions of the faith so often play to the preferences of the faithful in a really big way.

Confirmation bias10 commandments – of course – is a two-way street, and it can also cause both atheists and religionists to see only what they want to see. And very often what atheists see is very simplistic. I notice it again and again: a writer’s view of religion becomes frozen in time at a certain point, typically in their youth, when they see religion a certain way and reject it. From then on, they absolutely refuse to learn anything more about religion except derogatory or negative things.

McGowan’s take on the Hebrew Bible provides an excellent illustration of how simplistic beliefs can strongly color the way atheists see things. Read the Bible, he urges, and

… in the middle of Genesis, you’ll encounter the stories of two fathers and their children. Both fathers behave with astonishing cruelty toward their kids and – here’s the thing – both are immediately praised and awarded by God. Worse than that, God even ordered one of those cruel acts.

He then argues, on the basis of some extraordinarily labored interpretations, that the new Testament “commands to kill homosexuals, disobedient children, and nonbelievers, and to enslave and kill the people of neighboring countries.”  Of course, it does no such thing.

Given that the Hebrew Bible is a collection of stories written down by priests over a period of hundreds of years that tell about the evolution of God’s relationship with the Jewish people through extremely troubled and cruel times, why does McGowan insist on such an uninformed and extremist literalist reading and thus such skewered interpretations? It’s hard not to conclude that he is in thrall to confirmation bias.

Atheist for Dummies on Evolution

When McGowan comes to evolution, things don’t get any better. After a really short explanation of natural selection, he then concludes that it proves that belief in God can be abandoned. Here is his argument:

Evolution uprooted the tree of traditional religion in several ways. But perhaps the strongest blow was to the argument from design. For thousands of years, everyone from theologians to the person in the street found the complexity of life to be the strongest argument for the existence of God. Now a powerful, simple, natural explanation was available, one that presented fewer problems than an uncreated Creator.

william blakeIn The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins described the importance of evolution to atheism. Before Darwin, an atheist may have said, “God’s a poor explanation for complex biology, but I don’t have a better one.” That’s a pretty unsatisfying position to be in. But Darwin’s theory made it possible to be what Dawkins called “an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” The single most compelling reason to believe in God could finally be set aside with confidence.

The logic of this argument is straight-forward:

A. People believe in God because of the argument from design.

B. Darwin found an argument that doesn’t require design

C. Therefore there is no need to believe in God.

And knocking it down is even more straight-forward:

Counterargument A. There is little or no evidence that the argument from design was meaningful for anybody outside a few educated folks in early 19th century England, so people, generally-speaking, don’t believe in God because of the argument from design.

Counterargument B. Contrary to what many people think, Darwin’s evolutionary mechanism – random variation and natural selection – is indeed a design argument. Ask any modern internet entrepreneur – or even an economist – and they will tell you that if you want to design a phenomenally successful system like Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or a capitalist economy, create one that use large numbers (of people, things, stocks in your mutual fund) and then introduce selection processes. It’s an extremely effective way to design certain types of systems.

Variation and selection using large populations is not only an extraordinarily successful way to design things, its essential to our modern economies. So, evolution is indeed an argument from design, just not a Newtonian argument for design.

Counterargument C. So if neither A nor B is true, C doesn’t follow. And unfortunately, we can’t say that two negatives  add up to a positive. You can believe if you want, but there is no logic, philosophy, or science that supports your belief.

And of course, the idea that a natural explanation – evolutionary or otherwise – of how life and humanity came into being somehow undermines belief in God is simply not true – nor is it all that informed or even rational. Indeed, the ready availability of rational natural explanation of things – the Book of Nature as opposed to the Book of God – has long been a bulwark of religious belief.

But, as I said, McGowan’s arguments for atheism are unconvincing. His real strength is in addressing the needs of people who have left the social network provided by religious communities and have found that they are missing something very important.

Next Blog

In the next blog, we talk about some of the positive features of Atheism for Dummies.


This is the 28th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.


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