Apr 12

Books on Science and Religion #42: Wittgenstein, A. J. Ayer, and the Logical Positivists – Part One.

Stephen FribergTo 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

April 12, 2015


Newton’s statue in the chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge, home of Russell, Mc Taggart, and Moore.

It is tempting to say that Bertrand Russell represented the apex of British atheism. But two more thinkers – Ludwig Wittgenstein and A.J. Ayer – and a whole new philosophical movement – logical positivism – were waiting in the wings to take the stage. Nick Spencer, in Atheists: The Origin of the Species, sets the scene:

1927 was probably the high water mark of British atheism, or at least academic atheism, with [the atheists] [Bertrand] Russell, [John McTaggart Ellis] McTaggart and [George E.] Moore among the most respected philosophers in Britain. [But this ignores] the still more defiantly atheistic tone that academic philosophy took the following decade.

This defiantly atheistic tone – which also was mirrored in the United States – held that only science provided valid knowledge. All else – philosophy, ethics, morals, religion – had to bow down before science and acknowledge its authority.

This cultural atmosphere was that of my youth growing up on a college campus, even though it had long been acknowledged – even by logical positivists themselves – that logical positivism had failed to meet its own criteria. Much of what modern atheists say or think is a legacy of this refuted tradition, directly as is the case for A.C. Grayling, or indirectly as is the case for many others still under its sway.

logical positivismLogical positivism promoted the idea that much of philosophy – and perhaps all of theology and religious belief – was not verifiable. If something was not verifiable – if there were no ways to test ideas, propositions, statements, or hypotheses – then there was no way to make sense of them. If they were not sensible, that meant they were nonsense. Whether or not this nonsense had meaning varied from thinker to thinker – and the decade when you talked to them.

ayerajWittgenstein thought that there could be substantial and significant meaning to these non-sensible realities. A. J. Ayer, very young and very sure of himself in the 1930s, felt not. Metaphysics, religion – and even atheism – was meaningless, according to Ayer (see logical positivism):

Traditional metaphysics, with its abstract speculation about the supposed nature of reality, cannot be grounded on scientific observation, and is therefore devoid of significance. For the same reason, traditional religious claims are meaningless since it is impossible to state any observable circumstances under which we could be sure – one way or the other – about their truth.

The logical positivists themselves – much as Baha’is wanted to purge religion of superstition – wanted to purge philosophy of “metaphysics.” But, they felt that their ideas had broader applicability as well. Famously, the logical positivist philosopher of science Karl Popper described both Freudianism and Marxism as pseudo-sciences, holding that they were unverifiable even in principle. They advanced “propositions that are not open to the possibility of disproof” (see Freud and His Critics). In a similar vein, the Baha’i philosopher and mathematician William Hatcher criticized logical positivism as a pseudo-philosophy or pseudo-epistemology.

In Part One of this blog, we review the foundational contributions of Ludwig Wittgentstein to logical positivism and note his rejection of the concept that philosophy is all there is that has meaning.

Ludwig_Wittgenstein_by_Ben_RichardsLudwig Wittgenstein

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) – Bertrand Russell’s great student and protégé – was the instigator of the trend of thought that led to logical positivism. From an immensely wealthy and cultured Viennese family, Wittgenstein met Russell in Cambridge in 1911, intensely studying the foundations of philosophy and logic with him for two years. During the war years that followed and while serving in the Austrian army, he wrote out his conclusions – he considered them to be the solutions – to the major problems of philosophy. It was the famously concise – and enormously influential – Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

The Stanford Encyclopedia summarizes his thinking as follows (BTW, Wittgenstein is notoriously difficult to grasp):

The world is represented by thought  … Wittgenstein sees the world as consisting of facts rather than the traditional, atomistic conception of a world made up of objects. Facts are existent states of affairs … The world is precisely those states of affairs which do exist.

Tractatus_title_page_1922_HarcourtPhilosophy, therefore, is necessarily about thought and propositions about the facts and the states of affairs they represent. So, we have to understand thought and language and how it works. According to Wittgenstein, it is through “pictures”:

The move to thought, and thereafter to language, is perpetrated with the use of Wittgenstein’s famous idea that thoughts, and propositions, are pictures – “the picture is a model of reality.”

Philosophy, therefore, necessarily is about the language describing facts and the pictures we use to convey what we know – how we communicate, discourse, and discuss about those facts. These pictures, to be meaningful, must correspond to the way reality actually is – they must be isomorphic to reality (note: isomorphic means “corresponding or similar in form and relations”)

The logical structure of the picture, whether in thought or in language, is isomorphic with the logical structure of the state of affairs which it pictures.

To be meaningful then, the picture and propositions about the picture have to make sense – they have to be communicated in sensical language. According to Wittgenstein, only

“the proposition has sense; only in the context of a proposition has a name meaning”

This, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia, is what “provides the reader with the two conditions for sensical language”:

First, the structure of the proposition must conform to the constraints of logical form, and second, the elements of the proposition must have reference (bedeutung). These conditions have far-reaching implications … logic itself gives us the structure and limits of what can be said at all.

Wittgenstein concludes by telling us that some things can be said and some things not:

Having developed this analysis of world-thought-language [Wittgenstein] ends the journey with the admonition concerning what can (or cannot) and what should (or should not) be said, leaving outside the realm of the sayable propositions of ethics, aesthetics, and metaphysics.

philosophy now logoDoes this mean that Wittgenstein thought of ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics, religion, etc as lacking in meaning? This was not his conclusion. Indeed by most accounts, he was religious, albeit unconventionally. Stuart Greenstreet, in Wittgenstein,Tolstoy and the Folly of Logical Positivism in a recent issue of Philosophy Now, notes that Wittgenstein, although Jewish by family background, had embraced Christianity during the war because of Leo Tolstoy’s Gospel in Brief. In writing the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus after reading Tolstoy,

Wittgenstein had begun to feel that logic and what he strangely called `mysticism´ sprang from the same root. This explains the second big idea in the Tractatus – which the logical positivists ignored: the thought of there being an unutterable kind of truth that `makes itself manifest´. Hence the key paragraph 6.522 in the Tractatus: “There are indeed things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.”

In other words, not everything can be captured by philosophy – or by science. Here is how Greenstreet puts it:

In other words, there is a categorically different kind of truth from that which we can state in empirically or logically verifiable propositions. These different truths fall on the other side of the demarcation line of the principle of verification.
Wittgenstein´s intention in asserting this is precisely to protect matters of value from being disparaged or debunked by scientifically-minded people such as the Logical Positivists of the Vienna Circle.

ludwig-wittgenstein-260x340Wittgenstein made this clearer in several paragraphs in the Tractatus:

“Paragraph 6.41 The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is and happens as it does happen. In it there is no value – and if there were, it would be of no value. If there is value which is of value, it must lie outside of all happening and being-so. For all happening and being-so is accidental. What makes it non-accidental cannot lie in the world, for otherwise this would again be accidental. It must lie outside the world.”

“Paragraph 6.42 Hence also there can be no ethical propositions. Propositions cannot express anything higher.

“Paragraph 6.421 It is clear that ethics cannot be expressed. Ethics is transcendental.”

Greenstreet summarizes as follows: “all worldly actions and events are contingent (`accidental´)” but “matters of value are necessarily so, for they are `higher´ or too important to be accidental, and so must be outside the world of empirical propositions.” 

And Wittgenstein goes on to say that “Philosophy is not one of the natural sciences” (Paragraph 4.111); “It is not problems of natural science which have to be solved” (Paragraph 6.4312); “even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all” (Paragraph 6.52); “There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical” (Paragraph 6.522).

Comment and Summary

There is a lot to ask of Wittgenstein. If he is correct about philosophy not having anything to say about many of the larger truths of the world we live in, does that mean that theological proofs of the existence of God – or their refutation – don’t mean much of anything?

Is Wittgenstein consistent with what `Abdu’l -Baha says – in the Baha’i writings – about logical proofs of the existence of God?

The existence of the Divine Being hath been clearly established, on the basis of logical proofs, but the reality of the Godhead is beyond the grasp of the mind. When thou dost carefully consider this matter, thou wilt see that a lower plane can never comprehend a higher. … no lower degree can understand a higher, such comprehension being impossible.

There are many of this sort of question to ask. But the next time – instead – we will look at the emergence of logical positivism, perhaps the most influential soundly-repudiated philosophy of the modern world.

Next Blog

The next blog is Part Two of Wittgenstein, A. J. Ayer, and the Logical Positivists.


This is the 42nd 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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Apr 05

Books on Science and Religion #41: The Atheism of Bertrand Russell

Stephen FribergTo 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

April 5, 2015

Bertrand_RusselOne of the most fascinating and accomplished thinkers of the 20th century – and probably its most respected atheist – was the English philosopher Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell.

Lord Russell – from a very prominent and very old aristocratic British family – has a resume rarely equaled. Here are the Wikipedia summaries:

He is considered one of the founders of analytic philosophy along with his predecessor Gottlob Frege, colleague G. E. Moore, and his protégé Ludwig Wittgenstein. … His philosophical essayOn Denotinghas been considered a “paradigm of philosophy”... His work has had a considerable influence on philosophy of language, epistemology, and metaphysics.

Russell’s philosophical contributions alone make him one of the leading thinkers of the 20th century. But, he was also one of its leading logicians:

Honourable_Bertrand_RussellWith A. N. Whitehead he wrote Principia Mathematica, an attempt to create a logical basis for mathematics. His work has had a considerable influence on logic, mathematics, set theory, linguistics, artificial intelligence, cognitive science, and computer science (see type theory, type system).

These were just his technical achievements. He also was one of the century’s leading activists:

Russell was a prominent anti-war activist; he championed anti-imperialism and went to prison for his pacifism during World War I. Later, he campaigned against Adolf Hitler, then criticized Stalinist totalitarianism, attacked the involvement of the United States in the Vietnam War and was an outspoken proponent of nuclear disarmament. In 1950 Russell was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literaturein recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought“.

For Baha’is and like-minded thinkers, his belief in world unity and world peace – and his activism towards those goal – are exemplary. In The Expanding Mental Universe, published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1959 (the text can be found here), he described humanity as moving towards unity:

From a very early time, human beings have been divided into groups which have gradually grown larger, passing, in the course of ages, from families to tribes, from tribes to nations, and from nations to federations. Throughout this process, biological needs have generated two opposite systems of morality: one for dealings with our own social group; the other for dealings with outsiders

One bodyReligion, he tells us, teaches us to love our neighbors and desire their happiness.  These teachings, often ignored, are becoming a “condition of survival”:

But in the new world, the kindly feeling towards others which religion has advocated will be not only a moral duty but an indispensable condition of survival. … Human society as a whole is becoming, in this respect, more and more like a single human body; and if we are to continue to exist, we shall have to acquire feelings directed toward the welfare of the whole in the same sort of way in which our feelings of individual welfare concern the whole body and not only this or that portion of it.

Russell’s Search for Certainty

What was the nature of Russell’s atheism? And why is it still widely respected? More on Russell’s atheism latter as I consider the second question first.

John Russell

John Russell, 1st Earl Russell and Bertrand Russell’s grandfather. He served as Prime Minister on two occasions during the mid-19th century.

Clearly, much of the respect for Russell’s atheism is due to the extraordinary breadth and depth of his accomplishments. But equally clearly, it was the sincerity and integrity of his search for truth that has gained him our trust. Nick Spencer, in Atheists: The Origin of the Species, gives us some biographical background.:

Having lost his mother, father and sister before the age of three, Russell was brought up by his grandparents in an atmosphere that was stifling even by late Victorian standards. He abandoned his grandparents’ Christianity early and much of the rest of life, intellectual and personal, was spent in search of certainty.

Russell first looked to find this certainty in mathematics, launching on a search for “a mathematics of human behaviour as precise as the mathematics of machines” and for an ethics based on science, mathematics, and logic. It was very much a mystical – and spiritual – search:

In 1901, Russell had a quasi-mystical experience when staying with Alfred and Evelyn Whitehead. He recollected in his Autobiography feeling the ‘unendurable … loneliness of the human soul’, impenetrable to all except ‘the highest intensity of the sort of love that religious teachers have preached’. ‘Having for years cared only for exactness and analysis, I found myself filled with semi-mystical feelings about beauty … and a desire almost as profound as that of the Buddha to find some philosophy which should make human life endurable.’

principia mathematicaPhilosophy “which should make human life endurable” was – for Russell – mathematical and Platonic. It was about an abstract realm where “beauty, truth and goodness were to be located” that would offer “some temporary relief from the confusing pain of being human.”

The results that Russell achieved in his search for that philosophy, summarized in the monumental Principia Mathematica, were stunningly influential, but nonetheless fell short of what Russell had intended. The “Austrian logician Kurt Gödel conclusively proved not only that they had not done what they set out to do but, worse, that it could not be done. Certainty, of the type Russell sought, was impossible.”

He wrote in his autobiography that:

I have not had even the somewhat abstract God that Spinoza allowed himself to whom to attach my intellectual love … I am conscious that human affection is to me at bottom an attempt to escape from the vain search for God … I have loved a ghost.

Russell’s Atheism

Russell’s atheism is a problematic affair, with many claiming that he wasn’t really an atheist at all, but rather that he was agnostic.  (See, for example, Bertrand Russel the agnostic, one of seven excellent articles on Russell recently in the Guardian written by Clare Carlisle. Or see Was Bertrand Russell An Atheist or Was He Really an Agnostic? on the Bertrand Russel Society website. Or see Russell’s own thoughts – What is an Agnostic – where he seems to put himself in the agnostic category.)

Another problem is how poorly informed he is about religion, or perhaps it is better to say, how slapdash and unconcerned for fact and accuracy he was in his writings on the topic. Here is how Clare Carlisle puts in as she – charitably – summarizes his positions in Bertrand Russell on the science v religion debate:

Bertrand Russell did not consider himself an expert on ethics and religion, and it is true that his writing on these subjects lacks the originality and sophistication of his philosophical work on mathematics. His criticisms of religion are often similar – in essence if not in tone – to opinions voiced by contemporary atheists: he argued that religious beliefs cause wars and persecution, are moralistic and oppressive, and foster fear.

Russell Science and ReligionRobert Graves, the well-known English author and poet, puts it kindly, if rather more succinctly, in a 1957 New Republic review called The Atheism of Bertrand Russell and Julian Huxley:

Generous emotion often beguiles Russell into unsupportable statements. Thus he asserts that “millions of unfortunate women” were burned as witches by mediaeval Christians, when any historian could have warned him to strike three zeros off this estimate …  Again, as an example of senseless superstition, he cites the Deuteronomic ban on seething a kid in its mother’s milk. Brief enquiry would have shown that this was a practical rule, directed by the Temple authorities against participation in a heathen rite.

Even a perfunctory look at Russell’s Religion and Science bears this out. He makes careless statements that he should have known were false. Here is the what he says on the first page of his first chapter:

Between religion and science there has been a prolonged conflict, in which, until
the last few years, science has invariably proved victorious.

Of course, religion and science, as is now widely known, were never in any prolonged conflict. Rather, there was a strong push in the 19th and early 20th century by various authors promoting their own idea that there was prolonged sectarian or ideological reasons. Unfortunately, almost the whole of Religion and Science is marred by a stereotyped – and uncritical – exposition of a received point of view. Here we can probably excuse him on the grounds that he was simply a victim of the prejudices of the day and his class.

But in the very next sentence, he writes:

But the rise of new religions in Russia and Germany, equipped with new means of missionary activity provided by science, has again put the issue in doubt, as it was at the beginning of the scientific epoch, and has made it again important to examine the grounds and the history of the warfare waged by traditional religion against scientific knowledge.

Russel Why I'm not a ChristianThis is simply egregious and risible, suggesting as it does that Russell was unwilling to honestly face the political consequences of the materialism and the social Darwinism that appear to have been central to his then (1935) worldview.

So, what are his views – both atheistic or agnostic?  Here is how I summarize it, if that is possible:

1. Religions are untrue and harmful. Or as Graves puts it: “At the age of 86, Russell still boldly declares that, in his opinion, “all the great religions of the world, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, and Communism, are both untrue and harmful.”

2. Philosophical arguments attempting to prove the existence of God are wrong. Graves, again: “As a master of metaphysics, Russell has little difficulty in demolishing the stock Catholic philosophical arguments held to prove the existence of God: the First Cause Argument, the Natural Law Argument, the Moral Argument, the Argument from Design, the Remedying of Injustice Argument.”  However, if you read what he says about them, his arguments are very lazy.

3. Science replaces religion. He believed in an “almost utopian vision of scientific progress” and even endorsed eugenics, according to Clare Carlisle in Bertrand Russell on the science v religion debate.

4. Religion is based on fear.  Here is how he puts it in Why I am not a Christian:

Religion is based primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing – fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand. It is because fear is at the basis of those two things.

This is one of the hardest of Russell’s ideas about religion to swallow. Graves, in 1958, concludes that “The resentful hatred implicit in all Russell’s discussions of early religious and moral training suggests that he lived as a child under constant threats of hellfire, and as an adolescent under frantic obsessions of sexual guilt.”

Russell A free man's worship5. And, from the description of Russell’s interests and background above, we can safely conclude that much of Russell’s atheism – or agnosticism – stemmed from his belief that truth and certainty were to be found in mathematics and logic, not religion.

6. And finally, Russell seemed to be a victim of a materialism that saw the world devoid of meaning. According to Russell’s account in A Free Man’s Worship, written in 1903:

That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave … all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.

There is much more to say about Russell’s thought – and much more to explore in his fascinating spiritual and mystical side. But I’m at more than 2000 words, so I will have to leave much unsaid.

Next Blog

In the next blog, we consider Wittgenstein – that most marvelous and chameleonlike of philosophers – as well as Ayer and the logical positivists.


This is the 41th 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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Mar 29

Books on Science and Religion #40: The Atheistic Perspectives of Nietzsche

 Stephen FribergTo 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

Mar 29, 2015

Nietzsche1882Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) was one of the most influential cultural figures of the 20th century, an honor he shared with Freud. Atheism was an essential part of what he had to say. In Atheists: The Origin of the Species, Nick Spencer provides an overview of his atheism, which we review here.

Nietzsche continues to fascinate us, whereas Freud has lost much of his charm. For example, consider the uncritical panegyric that the usually reliable Stanford Online Encyclopedia of Philosophy offers us. Stanford’s Nietzsche is a romantic Dionysian guru-hero encouraging healing, creativity, and playful exuberance:

[Nietzsche] challenged the foundations of Christianity and traditional morality. He was interested in the enhancement of individual and cultural health, and believed in life, creativity, power, and the realities of the world we live in, rather than those situated in a world beyond.

Nietzsche, it seems, affirmed life and inspired people:

Central to his philosophy is the idea of “life-affirmation,” which involves an honest questioning of all doctrines that drain life’s expansive energies, however socially prevalent those views might be. … Nietzsche’s revitalizing philosophy has inspired leading figures in all walks of cultural life, including dancers, poets, novelists, painters, psychologists, philosophers, sociologists and social revolutionaries.

Read the rest of this entry »


Mar 22

Books on Science and Religion #39: The Atheistic Perspectives of Freud

 Stephen FribergTo 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

Mar 22, 2015

Freud and Nietzsche were two of the towering intellectual figures of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and their atheism was a major part of what they had to say. In Atheists: The Origin of the Species, the author Nick Spencer provides an overview of their influential points of view on religion. In this blog, we look at Freud. In the next, Nietzsche.

The Baha’i Writings have only very little to say about Freud and his methods. The only mention I have been able to find is the following from a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, head of the Baha’i Faith from 1921 to 1957:

Greatest-Name-Emblem2There is nothing in our teachings about Freud and his method. Psychiatric treatment in general is no doubt an important contribution to medicine, but we must believe it is still a growing rather than a perfected science.

As Bahá’u’lláh has urged us to avail ourselves of the help of good physicians Bahá’ís are certainly not only free to turn to psychiatry for assistance but should, when advisable, do so. This does not mean psychiatrists are always wise or always right, it means we are free to avail ourselves of the best medicine has to offer us.

Read the rest of this entry »


Mar 20

A Hero Goes into the West — from my personal blog

Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks

I was shocked and saddened to hear that one of my greatest heroes is dying.

I have experienced Oliver Sacks as a being of great wisdom and compassion. His work has been a blessing and an illumination to me as both as a writer and a human being, and has gifted me with many deep insights into the human spirit that have informed my own craft.

Anthropologist on Mars Dr. Sacks has written extensively about conditions that impact the way affected individuals experience the world—migraine, sleeping sickness, manic-depression, synesthesia, autism (it was through Sacks’ book An Anthropologist on Mars that I first “met” the indomitable Temple Grandin, who has become the face of autism for many people). But he has also lived with such conditions (prosopagnosia or face blindness, and the loss of his stereoscopic vision) and has written extensively about and chronicled these experiences as eloquently as any fiction writer has chronicled the epic adventures of her characters. An Anthropologist on Mars remains one of the favorite and most significant books of my reading and writing life. I highly recommend it to anyone who has not had the immensely moving experience of reading Professor Sacks’ work.

Though I understand that his adventure is, in many ways, just beginning, I mourn our collective loss of this great humanitarian intellect and selfishly wish we might be allowed to keep him just a bit longer.

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Mar 15

Books on Science and Religion #38: Nick Spencer’s ‘Atheists and the Origin of the Species’ Part 6

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

Mar 15, 2015


Manchester in the 1840s

In the last several blogs, we have been studying the history of atheism as outlined in the excellent and informative Atheists: The Origin of the Species, written by Nick Spencer, research director of the Christian think-tank Theos.

Most of the time, we have been studying the atheism of the intellectual elite – in Britain it was the atheism of the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, of Jeremy Bentham, the founder of modern utilitarianism, and of the not-quite-an-atheist Charles Darwin.

However, differently than was the case in France, Germany, and Russia, the strongest promoters of 19th century British atheism were not the elite thinkers, but rather working class intellectuals.

Most of us, if I judge correctly, are unfamiliar with working class movements in Britain in the 19th century, despite their enormous importance and their leading role in the English-speaking industrial societies of the world. The British working class was the first industrial working class in the same way that the British industrial revolution was the first industrial revolution.

Usually we have heard of Robert Owen, the founder of utopian socialism and the cooperative movement. Although a manager and visionary entrepreneur, he is mainly known for improved the working conditions of factory workers. But he also was a prominent atheist – more about his views later in the blog. And there were many other influential working class thinkers, writers, and intellectuals whose contributions were the equal of – or even more important than those of – the elite intellectuals we usually consider to everyone else’s exclusion. And many of them were atheists. Read the rest of this entry »


Mar 08

Books on Science and Religion #37: Nick Spencer’s ‘Atheists and the Origin of the Species’ Part 5

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

Mar 8, 2015

Why did atheism become a state religion in the Soviet Union Dead treeand not in, say, Britain?

Atheists: The Origin of the Species – by Nick Spencer – addresses this question by looking at the growth of atheism in 19th century pre-Soviet Russia and contrasting it with atheism in 19th century Britain.

Atheism has many causes and takes on many forms and colorations. Two causes in particular feature in the discussion of atheism in Russia versus atheism in Britain. One is what happens when a church or a religion become corrupt and ineffectual. The Baha’i writings describe this using the image of a tree. According to `Abdu’l-Baha, head of the Baha’i Faith from 1892 to 1921,

Religion has grown into a tree which has put forth leaves and branches, blossoms and fruit. After a time this tree has fallen into a condition of decay. The leaves and blossoms have withered and perished; the tree has become stricken and fruitless. It is not reasonable that man should hold to the old tree, claiming that its life forces are undiminished, its fruit unequaled, its existence eternal.

So people turn away, looking for something that is life-giving.

Russian Orthodox IconAnother cause, seen time and time again in these discussions, takes place when church and state become closely entwined and simultaneously oppressive, rigid, and intolerant. This was the case in France during the French Enlightenment and it was the case in 19th century Russia where the governing regime and the Russian Orthodox Church worked closely together and tolerated little or no dissent. Atheism, correspondingly, was particularly harsh in these environments. In contrast, 19th century Britain lacked powerful ecclesiastical institutions and was much more tolerant of different ways of thinking. Atheism, because of this tolerance, lacked targets and was unable to develop the same strong and powerful emotional response that it achieved in France, Germany, and Russia.

Russian Atheism

Karl Marx didn’t envision his ideas taking hold in Russia, the bulwark of orthodox Christianity. But things would change:

Marx’s ideas would transform Russian society far more than any in which he actually lived, but that was many years in the future. At the time, Russian atheism faced more determined opposition than anywhere else in Europe. Read the rest of this entry »


Mar 06

Los Angeles marks Education is Not a Crime Day

1041_09LOS ANGELES, 3 March 2015, (BWNS) — Over 1100 people gathered at the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles on Friday, 27 February to honor those Baha’is who have been denied the right to higher education in Iran.

“Education is Not a Crime – Live 2015″ was a major event for the “Education is Not a Crime” campaign launched in November 2014 by Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-Canadian journalist and filmmaker who was himself imprisoned in Iran in 2009. The campaign was inspired by the film “To Light a Candle”, a documentary made by Mr. Bahari.

“To Light a Candle” highlights the constructive resilience of Baha’i youth who have expressed their desire to pursue their education by developing an informal arrangement, called the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE), through which they could access university-level studies.

Over the course of the weekend in over 300 localities around the world, from the Antipodes to Canada, from the United Kingdom to Brazil, and India to the Netherlands, the film was screened. There have been numerous interviews with university lecturers who serve as volunteer tutors of BIHE students and the highlighting of the denial of access to higher education to the Baha’i youth of Iran. Articles and reports have been published on many websites including the Daily Beast, the Globe and Mail, Star Tribune, Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), the Irish Times, The Telegram, Pittsburg Post-Gazette, Amnesty International, and World Religion News.

At the Los Angeles event, it was announced that letters had been received from four members of the California congressional delegation – Karen Bass, Janice Hahn, Alan Lowenthal, and Edward Royce (Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives), emphasizing the importance of universal education and written in support of the event.

The evening featured a range of musical performances interspersed among narrative readings and live interviews with Baha’is about the persecution they had experienced in Iran, conducted by Mr. Bahari.

1041_00In a conversation on stage with the evening’s emcee, actor Rainn Wilson, Mr. Bahari commented that when he first learned of the story of the Baha’is he was “surprised by the way they resisted through education and nonviolence”. He added that “many people around the world need to learn from the Baha’is”.

Actress Eva LaRue performed an emotional dramatic narrative written by Alistaire Taylor.  It was based on the thoughts of Keyvan Rahimian – a Baha’i sentenced to 4 years imprisonment for his involvement with BIHE – as he was awaiting the call that would summon him to begin his incarceration.

In addition, Quattro Sound, a Grammy Award-nominated instrumental ensemble, performed an upbeat and rhythmic piece.

There followed an interview conducted by Mr. Bahari with Farideh Samimi, the wife of one of the eight members of the second National Spiritual Assembly (the national governing body of Baha’is) in Iran who were arrested, summarily tried, and executed in December 1981.

Actor Justin Baldoni recited a fictional narrative of a young woman named Behfar, who, in attempting to take university qualifying exams in high school, is refused permission to sit for the exams because she is a Baha’i. She then declares that the “government will never stop us from studying. Education is one of the 12 pillars of our religion”.

Mr. Bahari also interviewed Marjan Davoudi about being expelled from university in the early 1980’s. She said that the Dean of the university told her: “You are not human. You are lower than an animal. Get the hell out of my office.” Although heartbroken, she told herself at that time that she would never stop learning. She later had the opportunity to take correspondence courses with Indiana University, explaining that all of the materials, except for one original textbook kept in a central location, were photocopies. It took her twelve years to obtain her Bachelor’s degree from Indiana University.

Later, a touching narrative was read by actor Anthony Azizi which portrayed Sonia, a fictional Baha’i student, who was taught from an early age that Baha’is do not lie about who they are. She was put to the test when the receipt of her prize for best student in her high school was made conditional on her denying her Faith. She refused, lost her chance to go to university, and eventually enrolled in BIHE.

This was followed by one of three short clips from “To Light a Candle”. Mr. Bahari then added that the Iranian government will make every form of accusation against Baha’is, but the nature of its accusations are such that they actually increase the curiosity of Muslim youth about the Baha’i Faith.

The two-hour programme concluded with a lively and rhythmic musical finale featuring Ozomatli, Quattro Sound, Ellis Hall, and K.C. Porter – an appropriate way to end an evening that, though it had many somber moments, was also full of inspiring instances. Ultimately, it was a celebration of the Iranian Baha’i community’s resilience in the face of adversity.

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Mar 02

Books on Science and Religion #36: Nick Spencer’s ‘Atheists and the Origin of the Species’ Part 4

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 speciesAfter a three week hiatus, we return to the excellent and informative Atheists: The Origin of the Species, written by Nick Spencer, research director of the Christian think-tank Theos. We pick up where we left off – at the beginning of the 19th century. This means that we are covering territory we have covered before, namely in our look at Richard Olsen’s excellent history of science and scientism in the 18th century as reviewed in Books on Science and Religion #10, Books on Science and Religion #11, Books on Science and Religion #12, Books on Science and Religion #13, and Books on Science and Religion #14.

Early 19th Century Atheism in France

The French revolution is often thought of as the triumph of enlightenment atheist thought: it disenfranchised the Catholic church for several decades and cost several thousand Catholic clergy their lives. But it wasn’t atheism that emerge as the big victor, it was reason. Reason, rather than atheism, was the battle-flag of the French revolution.

When the revolutionary leader Pierre Gaspard Chaumette, president of the Paris Commune, publicly voiced his doubts about the existence of God, he was tried for impiety and guillotined. His crime? “Seeking to destroy all morality, efface any idea of the divine, and founding the government of France on the principles of atheism”. For the revolutionaries, or at least some of them, atheism “could be judged as much of a threat to morality by those who worshipped Reason as by those who worshipped God.” Read the rest of this entry »


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 tendencies 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.

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 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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