What’s Wrong With Atheism – Lynn Brant

That question can be asked (and answered) in the same way as “what’s wrong with my eating an ice cream cone?” either from the point of view of a vegan or from the point of view on a hot July afternoon while standing in front of a Dairy Queen.  Lynn’t talk is in response to several best-selling books on atheism and another defending “the faith”.  To listen to his sermon click here. The script of the sermon is reprinted  below.


Lynn A. Brant
Emeritus Professor of Geology
April 2009

The question of “what’s wrong with atheism?” is similar to the question, “what’s wrong with an ice cream cone?”  The latter can be answered in the spirit of a vegan opposed to eating animal fat on health, ecological, and moral grounds – or in the spirit I would have on a hot July afternoon while standing in front of a Dairy Queen.

In the past few years, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens have all written best-selling books that are critical of religion and the supernatural.  They are sometimes referred to as “the new atheists”, and they have no use for a god or the religious beliefs arising from faith in a god.  But they confuse all religion with belief in the supernatural.  Religion and God need not be the same.

Religion is an integral part of the culture in which it exists.  It is a story, according to Ursula Goodenough (1998), that binds together that culture and makes sense of the larger universe.  It is a story that tells how things are (such as the origin of the world and how humans have come to be.) and which things matter (giving rise to morality and how to live).  William James’s definition, quoted in a recent issue of Newsweek: “Religion … shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they consider the divine.”  (I assume this would also apply to women!)

There have been many cultures throughout history and there have been many religions.  The stories have been modified and embellished over time and institutionalized with holy writings, holy places, and so on.  But as Loyal Rue (2005) points out in the title of his book, “religion is not about god.”  God does not have to be part of religion, which is counter to the usual view in our society that religion is all about a supernatural being.  As cultures mix and evolve over time, the religious stories evolve.  The stories are updated and holy texts are reinterpreted, while  other stories are simply ignored as they become irrelevant in the context of the changing culture.  The evolution of the stories becomes a source of tension between liberal and conservative thinkers.  And, of course, the mixing of cultures brings different stories into conflict, often with deadly consequences.

Sam Harris wrote The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (2004) and Letter to a Christian Nation (2006), in which he argues that faith in a supernatural god is both against reason and a threat to civilization. The End of Faith was published in the third year after the terrorism of September 11 and is, in part, a reaction to those events.  He lays out what he thinks are the reasons underlying terrorism and other evils in the world.  Basically he blames models of the universe based on supernaturalism originating in the dawn of human civilization.

“Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious.  In fact, “atheism” is a term that should not even exist.  No one ever needs to identify himself as a “non-astrologer” or a “non-alchemist.”  We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and their cattle.  Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.”

Harris simply ignores aspects of religion that are less extreme and harmful, and ones that, perhaps, have a legitimate place in a healthy culture.

Richard Dawkins, a scientist and author of other best-selling books, wrote The God Delusion (2006).  Dawkins covers many of the same points as Harris.  At the beginning of his book, he recognizes “a quasi-mystical response to nature and the universe” but distinguishes it from belief in a supernatural being out of which many religions arise.  Dawkins discusses this response to nature as expressed by several famous scientists then quotes Einstein as saying:

“To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness.  In this sense I am religious.”

Dawkins then adds:

“In this sense I too am religious … but I prefer not to call myself religious because it is misleading.  It is destructively misleading because, for the vast majority of people, ‘religion’ implies ‘supernatural’.”

The delusion Dawkins writes about is the God he describes:

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

Dawkins’s book centers around this concept of God and fails to include more modern and liberal interpretations found throughout much of modern Christianity.

Daniel Dennett, a philosopher, wrote Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (2006).  He makes an analogy between religion and a tiny parasite that infects the brain of an ant to make the ant serve the purposes of the parasite.  Many people serve the interests of religion under a spell of religious belief.  Religion becomes an entity that propagates itself through the minds of humans, an entity worthy of consideration as a natural phenomenon.  Although much of the world’s population believes that the best hope for the world is through their own religious traditions, there are those who believe the world would be better off without any religions.  Dennett claims there is a great “asymmetry” between the openness of atheistic thought and religious claims.  To many, the examination and criticism of religious ideas is sacrilege and an affront to believers.  Dennett advocates this very examination – not just of a particular religion, but religion in general.  But he asks another important question:
… are people right that the best way to live a good life is through religion?”

Dennett is, of course, asking this particularly of traditional religions.  Religion, he says, is an evolved entity (culturally evolved) that need not be good for people and society for it to survive.

“… people may well love religion independently of any benefits it provides them. … Religion is many things to many people.  For some, [religion provides] undeniable benefits of sorts that cannot be found elsewhere.  … Religion provides some people with a motivated organization for doing great things – working for social justice, education, political action, economic reform, and so forth.  For others, [religion is] more toxic, exploiting less savory aspects of their psychology, playing on guilt, loneliness, the longing for self-esteem and importance.”

“The current situation is scary – one religious fanaticism or another could produce a global catastrophe, after all.”

The last of these authors, Christopher Hitchens, wrote God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007) from a perspective of one who has been out in the world covering political and social events.  The sub-title of his book, How Religion Poisons Everything is a damning of all religions, including the “eastern” ones.  He has no more sympathy for Hindus and Buddhists than for the followers of the three great Abrahamic religions.

“Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children: organized religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience.”

The poisonous effects of religion are largely the results of abandonment of reason, “resistance of the rational.”   About himself and his co-thinkers he says this:

“Our belief is not a belief.  Our principles are not a faith.  We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason.  We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake.”

In wanting to throw out all religion and seeing it only as poison, Hitchens completely misses any possible benefits of religious community.  In looking at only the causes of bad effects, he could as well have written a book critical of international commerce and money as the root of all evil.

Many of us would agree with much of what the new atheists say in their books, but they leave out a lot.  They miss a side of religion that is not so hostile toward reason and human welfare.  Except for Dennett, most of what they say is a catalog of complaints against the supernatural.

John Haught is a highly regarded Catholic theologian, and he tried to respond to “the new atheists” with his own book, God and the New Atheism, A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens (2008).  But Haught fails to get at the problems of his adversaries.  He makes fun of and belittles the “new atheists.”  He claims that all atheists have a mind-set of “scientific naturalism” which holds that there is no god outside of nature.  His “scientific naturalism” is a boogeyman; it is neither scientific nor the mind-set lying behind all unbelief in the supernatural.  I find no particular enlightenment in Haught’s book.

In any argument involving a posited hypothesis, in this case that there is a supernatural God, the burden of proof ought to lie with those making the hypothesis.  Theists ought to argue the existence of God to those whom they wish to convince.  Those non-believers who are not convinced have no obligation to make an argument.  However, in this largely Christian culture it is assumed that it is the atheists who need to defend their position.  Not only do the atheists not need to make an argument against belief in a God, they may reject the God hypothesis for different reasons.  Haught not only wants a philosophical argument from the non-believers that can be compared and debated, but he also assigns to all atheists a “mind-set” which explains their viewpoint: “scientific naturalism.”

Is There Value in Religion?

By concentrating on the existence and characteristics of a supernatural God and the actions some people take on faith in that God, both Haught and the new atheists (except Dennett) gloss over the important question Dennett asks: “… are people right that the best way to live a good life is through religion?”  We can ask: 1) is there value in religion? and 2) is there value in religious communities?

If religion, as defined by Goodenough, is regarded as a story that tells how things are and which things matter, and further, that most of us have the capacity for feelings of awe and respect for nature, for life, and for the lives of those around us, then the answer to whether religion has value must be a “yes.”  Individuals as well as a culture cannot exist without stories.  There is no one among us who is “non-religious”.  The very outcome of the process of science is the telling of a story of how things are.  Stories cannot be excised from society any more than our minds can be cut out and cast into the ditch.  But stories range widely in what they tell.  The stories of astronomy differ from those of astrology.  The stories of creationists differ from those of science.  Some stories tell of a supernatural God, and others explain how things are without resorting to explanations involving such a god.  Religion need not be about God.  But which stories to believe?

A former minister here once idly speculated that we, perhaps, could develop a belief system based upon today’s science.  That would be fine, I told him, until the next issue of Science magazine (which is published weekly).  Our understandings of how things are and what matters are in constant flux.  Those who want a static, traditional religion are left behind as culture evolves.  Religious stories must also evolve if they are to have value.  But, some may claim, there must be some constant values and ethics, some absolutes, upon which we can base our lives.  Relativism surely cannot be a good thing, they say, and there is nothing new in the areas of ethics and values.  That this is certainly not the case is exemplified by the Bible’s description of God in the Old Testament (Dawkins’s unpleasant bully) compared to the loving and forgiving God of the New Testament and the non-personal concept of God among some modern, liberal theologians.

In other words, even for many Christians, some of the biblical stories are out of date. Religions are by necessity dynamic entities, but just how dynamic varies.  Whether religion leads the evolution of society or drags it down with outdated dogma also varies.  Indeed, in the nineteenth century some interpretations of Christianity supported the practice of slavery in the United States while, at the same time, others used Christianity to fight and help eliminate slavery.  Today, for instance, some religious groups support the rights and dignity of homosexual persons while others fight that same social movement in the name of religion.  We see the same in areas of environmental concern.  Based upon religious interpretations of the value of the earth and biosphere, groups have supported environmental actions with differing degrees of enthusiasm.

The current environmental movement is an example of part of the evolving cultural story.  We see part of this story – of how things are and which things matter – in the descriptions of nature that Thoreau saw around him in nineteenth century New England, “The Land Ethic” of Aldo Leopold, the poetic essays of Loren Eiseley, Rachel Carson’s call for concern in Silent Spring, and E.O. Wilson’s, The Creation.  Leopold’s conclusion to “The Land Ethic” is as religious as it gets:

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.  It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

In his Religion is Not About God (2005), Rue discusses some ideas pertaining to religious naturalism, and he quotes Margaret Atwood who says, “God is not the voice in the whirlwind.  God is the whirlwind.”  Rue says the central core of religious naturalism is:

“Nature is the sacred object of humanity’s ultimate concern.  Nature is the ultimate ground of natural facts, and eco-centric values are justified by the claim that Nature is sacred.”

In an attempt to denigrate environmentalists and some of their positions, their detractors sometimes refer to them as religious.  They are, of course, correct.  Those hurling the charge and those who might be offended assume religion is a bad word.  That some in the environmental movement may be considered misguided does not alter the fact that environmentalists tell part of the story of how things are (eg. loss of biodiversity, pollution, depletion of resources) and some of which things matter (eg. beauty, integrity, and stability of the biotic community).  But as Rue points out:

“… religious naturalists may affirm the sacredness of Nature and practice eco-centric piety sincerely, yet deep down they must know that religion is no more about Nature than it is about God.”

Quoting Rue again in his making the case that religion has to do with human welfare and not a god:

“The ultimate function of a religious tradition is to enhance personal wholeness and social coherence by nurturing the conscious and unconscious lives of individuals. … this ultimate function has both a therapeutic and a political focus. ”

Humble Curiosity

If religion is inescapable, is there any value in religious communities?  One of the “new atheists”, Daniel Dennett, seems to answer this in part by describing “spirituality” which could also be called “the religious”:

“If you can approach the world’s complexities, both its glories and its horrors, with an attitude of humble curiosity, acknowledging that however deeply you have seen, you have only just scratched the surface, you will find worlds within worlds, beauties you could not heretofore imagine, and your own mundane preoccupations will shrink to proper size, not all that important in the greater scheme of things.  Keeping that awestruck vision of the world ready to hand while dealing with the demands of daily living is no easy exercise, but it is definitely worth the effort, for if you can stay centered, and engaged, you will find the hard choices easier, the right words will come to you when you need them, and you will indeed be a better person.  That, I propose, is the secret to spirituality, and it has nothing at all to do with believing in an immortal soul, or anything supernatural.”

A lone guru sitting on a mountain top, or maybe a lone UU, might be able to accomplish the above in solitude, but none of us is a lone guru – or even a lone UU.  Each of us approaches the complexities of life and the world in the company of others.  We all live in a multitude of interconnected and nested communities in which we function as a society and obtain physical and emotional strength from each other.  A humble curiosity in the search for answers to life’s questions can form the basis of a religious community in which we share what we have found as we learn from others who are on the same type of quest.  There are religious communities that do that.  I like to think that, at our best, we are that kind of community.  This approach has value for the survival and welfare of each of us.

It is the attitude of certainty that is the enemy of humble curiosity.  Unwavering and unreasonable certainty is antithetical to science, education, art, and life.  It is unwavering and unreasonable certainty which makes some religious practices and beliefs so dangerous.  The attitude of humble curiosity in the face of great mystery is missing in much of religion – whether that has to do with a supernatural God or correct thinking about soil erosion.  To “know” God with certainty or to know with unreasonable certainty God’s will and to devote a life to carrying out that will can be unfounded and dangerous.  That attitude of certainty is what drives suicide bombers, bombs abortion clinics, and stands in the way of justice for those groups of persons who are out of favor with the accepted theology.  But the problem of certainty cuts both ways.  Atheism is often promoted or perceived as certainty that there is no God of any kind.

So, what’s wrong with atheism?  I do not subscribe to the supernatural, but I claim that we understand nature (the universe) very poorly.  We are a very long way from answering the ultimate questions about nature, such as why it exists.  We cannot describe nature’s limit, if such could be described, or its overall form, if that could be described in terms understandable to our minds.  We don’t even know what the universe is made of.  In the past few years physicists have concluded that “ordinary matter” is but a small part of it – the universe being mostly dark matter and dark energy – two “things” that are quite mysterious right now.  If the universe is the totality of what exists, how can there be something outside of it – the supernatural?  But there is the rub.  We really don’t know what’s on the inside.  To claim non-belief in the God of the Old Testament is easy, but atheism goes beyond that in saying no to anything lying outside our puny imaginations.  We might criticize belief in a particular god or form of god but we cannot rule out anything that might exist well beyond our imaginations.  That too must be approached with humble curiosity.

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