S., a frank and intelligent man, told me as follows how he ceased to believe:-
He was twenty-six years old when one day on a hunting expedition, the time for sleep having come, he set himself to pray according to the custom he had held from childhood.
His brother, who was hunting with him, lay upon the hay and looked at him. When S. had finished his prayer and was turning to sleep, the brother said, ‘Do you still keep up that thing?’ Nothing more was said. But since that day, now more than thirty years ago, S. has never prayed again; he never takes communion, and does not go to church. All this, not because he became acquainted with convictions of his brother which he then and there adopted; not because he made any new resolution in his soul, but merely because the words spoken by his brother were like the light push of a finger against a leaning wall already about to tumble by its own weight. These words but showed him that the place wherein he supposed religion dwelt in him had long been empty, and that the sentences he uttered, the crosses and bows which he made during his prayer, were actions with no inner sense. Having once seized their absurdity, he could no longer keep them up.
~Tolstoy, quoted in William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience
“This is a kind of madness of the will in psychic cruelty that has absolutely no equal: the will of man to find himself guilty and reprehensible to the point that it cannot be atoned for; his will imagine himself punished without the possibility of the punishment ever becoming equivalent to the guilt; his will to infect and make poisonous the deepest ground of things with the problem of punishment and guilt in order to cut off the way out of this labyrinth of “idees fixes” once and for all; his will to erect an ideal – that of the “holy God” – in order, in the face of the same, to be tangibly certain of his absolute unworthiness. Oh, this insane sad beast man! What ideas occur to it, what anti-nature, what paroxysms of nonsense; what bestiality of idea immediately breaks forth when it is hindered only a little from being a beast of deed!…All of this is interesting to the point of excess, but also of such black gloomy unnerving sadness that one must forcibly forbid oneself to look too long into these abysses. Here there is sickness, beyond all doubt, the most terrible sickness that has thus far raged in man”
~Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality
“If believers think atheism is a religion, then they need to provide a definition of religion that applies both to supernaturalism and its denial. Any definition of religion that includes atheism will either deny the inherent supernaturalism of religion or end up describing religion as a social grouping of some kind.”
~John Loftus, The Outsider Test of Faith
I rarely read fiction, but when I do, I hope it’s as interestingly intelligent as Goldstein’s 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. Part of the appeal, to me at least, is that Goldstein fills her fictional world with intellectuals and academics from elite East Coast universities who are continuously having conversations peppered with high-level concepts ranging from philosophy, science, to game theory and beyond. I’m a sucker for novels of this sort in part because it lowers my feelings of guilt for indulging in fiction. The book has some bad reviews on amazon I’m guessing because of the protagonist (a “famous” atheist), the intellectual content, and the target audience. Knowing the academic buzzwords will probably go a long way towards rendering Goldstein’s work enjoyable, but I imagine for many it will still come off as pretentious. I never got that feeling, but then again, as an academic atheist philosopher interested in the psychology of religion, I probably instantiate the Platonic form of Goldstein’s target audience. For a novel that revolves around New Atheism, I was pleasantly surprised that the theological discussions were always at a respectably high level of sophistication and the arguments for and against God’s existence were never dumbed down (quite the opposite!). The protagonist is often described as an “atheist with a soul”, and accordingly I think the book itself deserves a similar description: Intelligent Fiction for the Atheist’s Soul.
Wait for the end!
h/t: Debunking Christianity
In a recent piece at The Guardian, Tanya Gold argues that secularists need to acknowledge the fact that religion can be a positive psychological force in people’s life. She says:
I know that religion can save. I know plenty of people who are better, and happier, for a belief in God.
As an atheist, I have absolutely no qualms with this statement. In fact, anyone who has studied the cognitive science of religious belief shouldn’t be surprised in the least that religion is psychically soothing for many people. But the interesting question is why. Scientists who study the neurological and evolutionary foundations of religious belief have reached a consensus that in a very real sense the tendency for religiosity and supernatural thinking is hard-wired in the human brain from birth. We are as Justin Barrett argues “Born Believers”. Given our innate dispositions, is it any shocker that Gold knows “plenty of people” who are happier on the basis of their belief in God? From a strictly evolutionary point of view, this statement has a surprise value equivalent to someone saying “I know plenty of cats who are happy chasing mice”. If it is psychologically natural for people to engage in religious and supernatural modes of thinking, then, ceteris paribus, we should expect that it makes people happy to think in a way that is most natural for them.
On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that it’s psychologically normal from an evolutionary perspective for parents to treat their step-children differently than their biological children, but it’d be absurd to argue for the maintenance of the psychic status quo if being mean to their step-children provided a dollop of psychic release. I don’t think in the least that the ill treatment of step-children is comparable with religious belief, but the general lesson is that we are not (and should not) be shackled to our evolutionary past simply on the basis that doing what comes natural often makes us feel good. If parents can overcome their genetic programming and lovingly care for adopted children with zero genetic relation without feeling psychic turmoil, then surely it’s possible for people to live nonreligiously without psychic turmoil as well.
The believer might retort that even so, because the majority of humans do in fact receive psychological benefits from their belief atheists are on the losing end of this argumentative strategy. But of course the atheist could simply respond by saying “Give it time!” Just because religion has been a part of our species’ psychological baggage for eons, can anyone be so confident that this will never change? Though the growth of secularism has not been as rapid as was once predicted by our Enlightenment forefathers (who were largely ignorant of our evolutionary past), it would be foolish to nevertheless ignore a slower but steadily increasing trendline towards secularism and humanism, especially in the most well-educated and developed countries. Can anyone confidently assert that human religiosity will be just as strong in 1,000 years as it is today? A million? Given everything we know about natural human dispositions, secularists are undoubtedly playing the long-game when it comes to enacting a momentous sea-change in public opinion towards religion. But as Homer said, “The fates have given mankind a patient soul.”