Video: How an Atheist Should Respond to Offers of Prayers

Mar 132012

In Sunday’s Philosophy in Action Webcast, I discussed offers of prayers for atheists. The question was:

What should I do when other people offer to pray for me? Sometimes my friends and family members offer to pray for me – whether because I’ve got some problem in my life or because they know that I’m an atheist. How should I respond?

My answer, in brief:

You should tailor your response to the context, but in most cases, you should be clear, firm, and kind in refusing the prayers of others.

Here’s the video of my full answer:

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Video: Revealing Atheism to Inquisitive Strangers

Dec 092011

In Sunday’s Philosophy in Action Webcast, I discussed revealing atheism to inquisitive strangers. The question was:

Should I reveal my atheism to strangers when asked? I work at a hospital. One night a patient asked me if I’m religious. I answered yes. He then asked me if I believed that Jesus Christ died on the cross for my sins. I answered yes. Then he took my hand and prayed for me. Immediately, I felt guilty, because I lied in answering these questions. In fact, I’m an atheist. The next day, I told the patient the truth, and he thanked me for my honesty. What should I have done in answering his original questions?

My answer, in brief:

Honesty is a virtue, and fully applicable here. So when asked personal questions by strangers, the proper response is to either answer the question honestly or decline to answer it.

Here’s the video of my full answer:

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Video: The Morality of Working for a Minister

Nov 152011

In last Sunday’s Philosophy in Action Webcast (Nov 6th), I discussed working for a minister. The question was:

Is working for a minister giving religion moral sanction? As an atheist, I once worked for an ordained minster who was the owner of a gallery. I became his manager when I made it clear that I was an atheist, but that I was a good framing manager. I don’t think I gave him a moral sanction for his irrationality by working for him under those terms. What do you think?

My answer, in brief:

An atheist shouldn’t want to endorse or assist religion, but that doesn’t preclude secular business relationships with religious believers.

Here’s the video of my full answer:

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What If God Disappeared?

Oct 242011

What If God Disappeared?:

(Yes, it’s a parody!)

Ricky Gervais, Atheist

Jan 202011

Last month, comedian Ricky Gervais published a statement in the Wall Street Journal entitled A Holiday Message From Ricky Gervais: Why I’m an Atheist. I’d heard that it was good, but when I read it, I enjoyed it more than I expected. Here’s a taste:

Why don’t I believe in God? No, no no, why do YOU believe in God? Surely the burden of proof is on the believer. You started all this. If I came up to you and said, “Why don’t you believe I can fly?” You’d say, “Why would I?” I’d reply, “Because it’s a matter of faith.” If I then said, “Prove I can’t fly. Prove I can’t fly see, see, you can’t prove it can you?” You’d probably either walk away, call security or throw me out of the window and shout, ‘’F—ing fly then you lunatic.”


The dictionary definition of God is “a supernatural creator and overseer of the universe.” Included in this definition are all deities, goddesses and supernatural beings. Since the beginning of recorded history, which is defined by the invention of writing by the Sumerians around 6,000 years ago, historians have cataloged over 3700 supernatural beings, of which 2870 can be considered deities.

So next time someone tells me they believe in God, I’ll say “Oh which one? Zeus? Hades? Jupiter? Mars? Odin? Thor? Krishna? Vishnu? Ra?…” If they say “Just God. I only believe in the one God,” I’ll point out that they are nearly as atheistic as me. I don’t believe in 2,870 gods, and they don’t believe in 2,869.

Christians, in fact, used to be called “atheists” by the pagan Romans, because they denied the existence of so many gods.

Of particular interest to me was just how small of a suggestion he required, as a young boy, to reject Christianity. But you can read the whole thing for that.

The follow-up — Does God Exist? Ricky Gervais Takes Your Questions — was even more fun. Here are my favorite bits:

Woody Allen is widely quoted as having once said: “You cannot prove the nonexistence of God; you just have to take it on faith.” Is being an atheist as unscientific a stance as believing in God? Isn’t it more intellectually honest to be agnostic?

Well Woody Allen was being facetious but makes a good point. Is being an atheist as unscientific a stance as believing in God? No definitely not. How can not believing in something that is backed up with no empirical evidence be less scientific than believing in something that not only has no empirical evidence but actually goes against the laws of the universe and in many cases actually contradicts itself?


People who believe in God sometimes have moments of doubt about their faith. Have you had any moments of doubt about your atheism?

Atheism isn’t a belief system. I have a belief system but it’s not “based on” atheism, it’s just not based on the existence of a god. I make none of my moral, social, or artistic decisions based on any god or superstitions. Saying atheism is a belief system is like saying not going skiing is a hobby. I’ve never been skiing. It’s my biggest hobby. I literally do it all the time. But to answer your question I am constantly faced with theories of God, and angels, and hell. It’s everywhere. But unless there is an ounce of credibility to it, I reject. I have to. You can’t lie to yourself. If you do you’ve only fooled a deluded person and where’s the victory in that?

To top it off, here’s Gervais mocking Genesis:

Like many atheists today, Gervais’ weakness is his acceptance of the morality of altruism. Yet he doesn’t seem as deeply committed to that as many of the new atheists, and overall, I came away impressed… and amused.

A Different Kind of Christmas Card

Nov 282008

Objectivist graphic designer John Powers has created these terrific “alternate Christmas cards”:

From the website:

Isaac Newton Christmas Cards

Celebrate reason and science on December 25th, instead of the same old bearded mystic!

I like to send Christmas cards, but as an atheist, I have had to limit myself to the hundreds of bland cards that neutrally say “Happy Holidays.” I decided that if it’s okay for (almost) everyone else to stamp, seal, and deliver their philosophy to me every Christmas, I’ll do just the same.

Sir Isaac Newton’s ideas helped to rescue mankind from drudgery and propel it into the space age. I am a lover of reason, and I love it unashamedly, and I want my friends to know it too. They will this Christmas. Yours can, too.


Outside: “On December 25th, a Savior was born. He revealed eternal Truth, bringing Joy to millions. He astonished the world with His command over Nature. He changed history forever.”

Inside: “Happy Birthday, Sir Isaac Newton. December 25, 1642 – March 20, 1726″.

Web site and greeting card designs are copyright © 2008 John Powers.

(John also did free web design for the FIRM site.)

Why the New Atheists Can’t Even Beat D’Souza: Morality and Life

Jun 092008

(Previous in the series: The Best and Worst in Human History, Science vs. Miracles, and The Gap in Religious Thought.)

In one of his debates with the “New Atheists,” Dinesh D’Souza talked about how religion demands that we move outside of ourselves and sacrifice, and alleged that atheists chafe under the moral rules of Christianity that hold them accountable. He went on to say atheism is a rebellion against that—that atheism is not really an intellectual revolt against unsubstantiated ideas, but a moral revolt against rules they simply don’t like being held to. While the New Atheists have a few sharp things to say to religionists on the moral front, their response has lacked the clarity and broad force of the fundamental response that needs to be delivered.

Values vs. Subjectivism

To begin with, D’Souza’s charges do have some merit because his opponents stumble badly with respect to the issue of values. Most secular thinkers subscribe to the idea that values are somehow arbitrary, relative, based in emotions like empathy or in “intuitions,” subject to a collective agreement of society or to the wishes or whims of the individual. In all its varieties, such subjectivism is open to criticism because there is, in fact, an objective basis for values: What makes something good or bad is that it furthers or frustrates the goals of some agent, and the most fundamental alternative any organism can face is life or death, existence or nonexistence as a living being. This is to say, life is the ultimate yardstick by which all subsidiary goals and alternatives are measured for their value-significance.[1] Sunlight and water are valuable to the plant, which turns its leaves and grows its roots to gain those things and maintain its existence. Nuts and shelter are valuable to the squirrel, as is avoiding hungry predators. And the same is true of people: the good is that which ultimately furthers our lives.

This perspective makes it clear that values are a factual concern, not a matter of arbitrary opinion or feelings or loose “intuitions.” Merely hoping, feeling, or asserting something is good can’t make it stand in a positive relationship to a life, any more than declaring 2+2=5 would make that so. The true and the good are determined by the facts of reality, and we avoid grasping the facts and acting accordingly at our peril. This is why any inwardly-focused, subjectivistic conception of values is necessarily bankrupt, a threat to human life.

But for those accused of rebelling against the moral absolutes of God, there is a silver lining to be enjoyed in this lesson: the religionists are themselves guilty of the sin of moral subjectivism. The essence of subjectivism is acting on whim—wishing, assuming, feeling, or declaring that facts will align themselves with thoughts and lives. Of course, this gets it exactly backwards: thoughts and lives must align themselves with the facts because facts are absolutes to be discovered, not declared. Merely hoping or asserting something is good doesn’t make it so, and it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about the whim of a lone subjectivist deciding what is good or bad, the whim of an entire civilization voting on it, or the whim of a “supernatural” mind decreeing it. So the religious who claim to have an absolute morality are really only subjectivists of a supernatural stripe. The trouble for them is that their sort of subjectivism is just as false as any other: God telling Abraham that it is good to slay his innocent son Isaac doesn’t make it good. His ordering the enslavement of entire peoples in the Old Testament doesn’t make that good. On and on—the bottom line is that calling poison “food” doesn’t make it nutritious, and pretending otherwise is to court destruction.

Determinism vs. Morality

Next, consider that we humans don’t automatically act in support of our lives like squirrels and plants do. We have the power to freely choose to harm ourselves, to do the wrong thing, to not pursue the values we know are required for our existence as living organisms. We don’t have instincts to tell us how to build shelter or to guide us in choosing food over poison—we have to learn those things, whether it means building a lean-to or erecting a skyscraper, and whether it means avoiding the wrong mushrooms or properly cooking a gourmet chicken dish to ensure it is not just tasty but safe. In fact, being the rational animal born without conceptual knowledge to act by, we have to learn everything we need to know about what furthers or harms our lives—and we have to choose to abide by that knowledge or perish.

This is especially important in the case of the most abstract, most fundamental knowledge that guides our choices and actions—the overarching principles which can help us to consistently pursue the values needed to maintain our existence and flourish over the span of an entire lifetime. These are moral principles like honesty, productiveness, justice, and integrity. Essentially, a proper morality consists of grasping these kinds of principles for the support of human life: i.e., recognize these basic facts and flourish, or evade them and suffer. Indeed, we need morality because we are conceptual animals. This is why moral codes have appeared wherever and whenever humans have appeared; the impact of moral values (both proper and improper) is tremendous precisely because of how fundamental they are to our existence, guiding us in myriad concrete circumstances great and small.

Just like any other matter of fact, we can approach morality rationally and scientifically, working to discover, validate, and teach each other about the relevant fundamental principles. Such a project is just as feasible—and just as challenging—as discovering and sharing the fundamental principles of engineering or economics. But of course this kind of development is only possible if we recognize the nature of the field in the first place, and this is another terrible weakness in the New Atheists and their scientific friends that prevents their giving a robust answer to the likes of D’Souza. The fashionable but unnecessary materialism and mechanistic determinism that is prevalent among them leads to the denial of the very fact that gives rise to morality in the first place: that we have volitional minds and our choices have life-and-death consequences. This denial has hobbled the scientific study of morality, leaving them looking in the wrong place and for the wrong thing. Notice the categorical error in such prominent programs as “evolutionary morality,” where researchers look for moral behavior in the actions of nonvolitional, nonconceptual animals like mice and birds. And in how they search for the roots of morality in evolved behavior “modules” in brains, neglecting the basic fact that the moral is the learned and chosen—not the inbuilt and determined.[2] A sound philosophical foundation would help them be more productive and less prone to these sorts of distractions and blind alleys.

Sacrifice vs. Life

Finally, there is the most disastrous error confusing the scientific study of morality and stopping the New Atheists from knocking D’Souza out of the intellectual ring: they may challenge the existence of God, but they uncritically accept the moral standard that Christianity has injected into Western culture. That is, they accept the moral standard of altruism, literally “other-ism,” a moral standard of sacrifice. This can be seen in various facets of their struggles to explain secular morality: they restrict the domain of morality to the social, they uphold sacrificial sentiments and principles of conduct, and they cite scientists who work to understand the biological basis for morality by searching for altruistic behavior in animals. (Though the scientists muddy the sacrificial core of the concept by also reflexively labeling life-serving, nonsacrificial social behaviors better characterized as cooperation, investment, and trade as “altruism.” Sacrifice means surrendering a higher value for a lower one or no value at all—not giving up a lesser value to gain a greater one.) Having assumed an altruistic standard of morality, the New Atheists and most secular thinkers are likewise led to the conclusion that determining the good merely comes down to determining who or what one has a duty to sacrifice to: neighbor, family, tribe, race, society, nation, leader, species, environment, god.

But sacrifice can’t be the proper standard of morality. In fact, it represents the inversion of a proper moral code because giving up values is inimical to life. Fully and consistently adhering to such a standard means a swift death, so anybody accepting the moral standard of sacrifice lives only through the inconsistency of compromising and diluting it, mixing in elements of its antithesis. But managing to survive poison by mixing it with food doesn’t render it part of a healthy diet, much less a central staple. Sacrifice per se is the opposite of the good, and seeking it is irrational, so the New Atheists will forever flail in trying to scientifically support or rationally justify such an approach to morality.

Genuine virtue consists in creating values, not in surrendering them—in focusing on reality and discovering a vaccine, in searching our spiritual nature and producing a play, in building a stadium, in raising a loving family, in digging a canal, writing a textbook, cooking a meal. This understanding drives the proper response to D’Souza’s charge of rebelliousness: Any healthy person armed with the correct perspective would reject the subjectivist moral code of Christianity and its enshrinement of sacrifice because it is fundamentally set against human life and happiness. Instead, we should seek a morality that is truly absolute, reality-based, scientific, and which rejects human sacrifice in its every form and degree as irrational.[3] We should seek a genuine morality of life.


  1. Ayn Rand demonstrated this in her essay, “The Objectivist Ethics,” which is explored in depth in the book, Viable Values: A Study of Life as the Root and Reward of Morality by Dr. Tara Smith.
  2. This is certainly not to say that evolutionary biology should stand mute on morality—values are rooted in the phenomenon of life, after all. I am arguing that scientists must take care to recognize the difference between the slate and what is written on it. For example, they might profitably investigate the evolutionary basis of what gives rise to and enables morality: the phenomenon of volitional, conceptual minds.
  3. For further investigation of such a morality, I recommend the bite-sized introductory book, Loving Life by Craig Biddle and its scholarly yet accessible big brother from Cambridge University Press, Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist by Dr. Tara Smith.

Why the New Atheists Can’t Even Beat D’Souza: The Gap in Religious Thought

Jun 022008

(Previous in the series: The Best and Worst in Human History and Science vs. Miracles.)

In his op-ed, “Taking aim at God, and missing,” Dinesh D’souza continues his counters to “New Atheists” such as Christopher Hitchens. This time we find him saying that “Thanks to the astounding discoveries of modern science, I think the God hypothesis has a lot more going for it today than it did in the eighteenth century.” What he considers convincing on this front is telling, so I’ll quote him at length:

Modern science has discovered that the universe, far from existing eternally, had a beginning. Not only matter but space and time itself came into existence around 15 billion years ago in the fiery burst that scientists term the Big Bang. The laws of physics themselves originated at that point, and those laws were inoperative “before” the founding moment. So what is the secular explanation for how the universe and its laws came into existence? Is there a natural explanation for nature’s own origin? If so, what is the evidence for it? Hitchens supplies no such theory and no supporting evidence. His rejection of the God hypothesis seems nothing more than an assertion of atheist dogma.

In recent decades, scientists have found innumerable ways in which our universe—not just our planet but the entire universe—is narrowly tailored to permit life. Change the variables of nature by an infinitesimal amount and this would be a very different universe without observers to perceive and study it. As physicist Freeman Dyson puts it, with an intended mystical touch, the universe behaves as though it knew we were coming! So why are the laws constructed in such a way that we are here to discover them? It’s possible that there is a convincing natural explanation, but Hitchens certainly does not produce one. Once again the God hypothesis seems unavoidable.

Now consider man, undoubtedly a product of natural selection, but also possessing qualities such as the ability to tell right from wrong that are unexplained by Darwin and his followers. … There is within us all a moral law that speaks to us gently but firmly, urging though not compelling us to do what is right… If natural selection cannot account for this moral law, where does it come from? I am not saying that science will never explain this, I am saying that science cannot explain it now. It seems much more reasonable, based on existing evidence, to believe that moral laws derive from a divine legislator than to embrace Hitchens’ promissory atheism: one day we’ll figure out a natural way to account for all this.

If only his opponents had the philosophical foundation to resist all those temptations for distraction in debate. In response to this sort of thing, they should be asking a simple question to expose a pervasive methodological problem in religious thought: Since when did not knowing the answer to a puzzle entitle us to go and make one up?

In fact, these sorts of arbitrarily asserted “explanations” pulled out of thin air should be simply dismissed out of hand—a principle long recognized in logic and law. When someone brings a baseless charge before a court, it is to be dismissed as beneath consideration (and could even earn penalties for wasting the court’s time). Likewise, when someone brings a baseless idea before a rational mind, it should be simply dismissed as beneath consideration. And D’Souza consistently relies on the logical fallacy of the “argument from ignorance,” taking peoples’ lack of knowledge around this and that as evidence in support of “the God hypothesis.” That is exactly the error that dishonest magicians rely on to convince gullible people that they are psychics and mediums and instruments of God. Not knowing how the guy did it is not itself evidence that he is actually a psychic or some sort of divine instrument—just as our ignorance of why the laws of nature seem so exquisitely fine-tuned is not evidence that “God did it.” In all such cases, our ignorance only constitutes evidence that we don’t yet understand something.

Sadly, D’Souza has a lot of company in these errors: history is littered with examples of something “supernatural” being arbitrarily asserted as the explanation, only to be retracted later as our knowledge expanded. Every gust of wind and bolt of lightning was a direct act of God. But then came Ben Franklin, and we no longer think about meteorology that way. The same thing happened with tornadoes and earthquakes: the Acts of God that insurance policies exclude used to be divine punishment, but with our current understanding the term is really a euphemism for natural disasters. And today, most people don’t consider themselves impious or afflicted with demons just because they catch the flu or get a nasty infection—they know it’s because of germs. The history of mankind has been one long account of religious explanation being crowded out by scientific discoveries and rational understanding. This pattern of poor thinking is so common that it even has its own name: the “God of the Gaps,” where a supernatural agent is cited as the reason behind something we do not understand. Here’s the clincher: just notice how it always goes one way—natural, rational explanations are never displaced by supernatural “explanations.”

What’s a bit humorous about D’Souza’s point is that we can even predict that advances in science will make this sort of sophistry all the more enticing and common. After all, you can’t wonder about the design of the inner workings of the cell until you find out there are cells and that they contain marvelous machinery, and you can’t explore the delicate interplay of cosmological constants until you have discovered those constants in the first place. So sure, if you let your thinking be corrupted by arbitrary God of the Gaps arguments from ignorance, then you’ll believe “the God hypothesis has more going for it today” in our impressive explosion of scientific progress.

D’Souza is a bright and scholarly fellow who certainly understands the basic principles of logic. And he is obviously well-read in the history of Western thought, which has seen the fundamental errors in these religious arguments exposed countless times through the ages. Yet he presents them again with a straight face. His opponents and fans alike should be asking another question as well: Why would the truth need the support of false arguments?

(Upcoming in the series: Morality and Life.)

Why the New Atheists Can’t Even Beat D’Souza: Science vs. Miracles

May 272008

(Previous in the series: The Best and Worst in Human History.)

Taking on “New Atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, Dinesh D’Souza explains that he wants to strip away a kind of pose: atheists, he says, present themselves as men of data and evidence, merely following where it leads, when in reality they are faith-filled dogmatists who only assume that there are no gods and that miracles are not possible. In his debate with Hitchens, he drove this home by asking his opponent to name just one scientific law which he knows has no exceptions. Hitchens admitted he couldn’t and had to stand there sheepishly while D’Souza crowed that he was leaving room for miracles even while denying them without investigation—that the atheist stance for science and against miracles is only based on faith in certain “metaphysical assumptions.” In his view, the real difference between scientists and theologians is that religious people have enough integrity to admit their beliefs are rooted in faith.

D’Souza’s effectiveness in exposing confusion and sowing skepticism illustrates how the New Atheists and most scientists lack an objective philosophical foundation. With a little training in the actual relationship between philosophy and science, they could explain how science is not perched atop blind faith in “metaphysical assumptions,” and they could articulate exactly why miracles should not be dismissed as merely improbable, or even as inherently unverifiable, but as outright incoherent. In fact, they would know the issue is as stark as this: if miracles are possible, then science isn’t.

To see why, let’s begin by looking at what a miracle has to be. We are not talking about just any improbable happening, and not even something which violates our current understanding of the world as expressed in scientific laws, like D’Souza tries to argue. The entire point of miracles is to provide evidence of divine intervention, and surprises which may only reveal a current lack of understanding can’t accomplish that: by that measure, even the tricks of magicians would count as miracles. Indeed, much of what we enjoy in our modern world would have been considered miraculous in previous times, from vaccines and medications, to cars, and the Internet and on and on. Yet none of these prove or even suggest a possibility that there is a God. No, a meaningful miracle is not merely something which would violate the laws of nature as we currently understand them, but something which would be a violation of any such law we could ever discover. That is, it would have to be a violation of lawfulness itself. That’s a tall order.

Causality and Identity

When we talk about how things act and what they do and why, we are talking about causality. As Aristotle observed some 2500 years ago, things act according to their natures (their identities). They act the way they do because of what they are—balls roll when pushed, and piles of dirt don’t. Eggs break when dropped because that is an expression of their identity as things with a brittle shell and goo inside, crashing against a hard floor. Action is an expression of identity, and to understand why and how things act the way they do, we seek to understand what those things are. We seek to understand their identities. So if an egg broke into song instead of a messy puddle, it wouldn’t be a normal egg—it would have to be something else. Because identities include capacities for action, we know and classify things by what they do, too.

The crucial thing to keep in mind about action being an expression of identity is that everything has identity merely in virtue of existing, not because of any dictate. Think of this as a law of existence, something true of Being itself. As Ayn Rand observed some 50 years ago: to be, is to be something—to be something particular, to be this and not that, to be capable of these actions and reactions and transformations, and not those. Or from the opposite perspective: to not be anything particular, is to simply not be. And this is not any article of faith or merely a “metaphysical assumption.” This is a philosophical axiom reaching below any will to the bedrock of existence itself, a self-evident truth that lies at the base of all truths and all thinking, a fact so absolute and inescapable that it is actually reaffirmed by any attempt to deny it.

It is this ironclad law of existence that tells us there are scientific laws to pursue in the first place. It is how we can have absolute confidence that we are in a position to plumb the depths of the world, that we can seek to understand the identities of the things which are acting and interacting in nature, and that it is worth working to understand it all in terms of ever broader and deeper principles. The fruitfulness of this pursuit can’t be denied: just look around and marvel at how our striving for a rational, scientific understanding of the world has improved our lives in countless ways.

And it is this very same law of existence that also guarantees there can be no miracles for us to pursue. If we were to somehow experience an “egg miracle,” it isn’t that we would have found something we thought was a regular egg that surprised us and needs more study. No, the very idea of miracles requires violating causality. It requires that a normal egg break into song. Or picking something from the Christian tradition: it requires a normal loaf of bread to break into 1000 servings. In short, a genuine miracle requires a thing to act against its own identity—to have a contradictory identity—to literally not be what it is, which is incoherent. Everything is what it is, and contradictions can only exist inside peoples’ confused thinking.


That is why it is one or the other, science or miracles. Accepting the possibility of miracles means rejecting the very basis of science; accepting the basis of science means rejecting any possibility of miracles. Indeed, to the degree that scientists entertain the possibility of miracles, they tragically undercut their own psychological motive and ability to pursue such knowledge: there is no point in looking for the laws of nature when existence isn’t actually lawful and there is no real understanding to be found. Even if scientists think they can be “practical” and approach the world as being “almost always lawful,” they are still fatally compromised because every surprise they meet could be a clue that an idea is in need of refinement or correction—or it could be an inexplicable miracle from the arbitrary will of God. The harder and more important the puzzle, the harder it will be to resist that nihilistic pull to simply throw up their hands and give up being a scientist to blindly assert that it must be an arbitrary intervention.

All of those potential advances lost to scientists giving up on science are a tragedy—and any effort spent repelling that call to give up is a waste. At the dawn of science, Francis Bacon said that “nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” Knowledge is power precisely because existence is in fact lawful, and every advance we’ve achieved up through the wonders of modern civilization is a brilliant testament to this simple truth.

(Upcoming in the series: The Gap in Religious Thought and Morality and Life.)

Why the New Atheists Can’t Even Beat D’Souza: The Best and Worst in Human History

May 202008

In the firefight between Christian apologist Dinesh D’Souza and “New Atheists” such as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris, the New Atheists are suffering serious damage. The tragedy is that D’Souza wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance if they had a strong philosophical grounding.

For example, several of the New Atheists point to the Inquisition and Crusades and Witch Trials of early Christianity, the deadly Jihad waged in the name of Islam today, and so on—and D’Souza agrees this is a terrible toll that religion is responsible for. But he goes on to argue that when you actually look at the numbers, this responsibility is minuscule in comparison to the slaughter of over 100 million by the atheistic regimes of the 20th century. So he contends it is obvious that “Atheism, not religion, is responsible for the mass murders of history.”

This point has devastated the New Atheists. They try to defuse it by arguing for some causal association between religion and those bloody regimes: if not explicitly by talking about the Catholicism in Hitler and Nazi Germany, then implicitly by gesturing to a “religious mindset” or some other vague influence of religion. But discussion of the Catholic connection to Hitler and Nazi Germany quickly turns into a back-and-forth of citations from competing historical experts. And while the dust is swirling over whether religion might be connected to that one part of 20th Century totalitarianism, D’Souza points to the explicitly godless Communist regimes. The New Atheists have been reduced to weakly objecting that the Crusades and Inquisition were done “in the name of” Christianity, while Communism and Nazism weren’t done in the name of atheism—but given all the references that can be made to those regimes’ explicit work to eradicate God, this approach is not convincing. The New Atheists are struggling because they aren’t able to frame the issue properly.

What Atheism Isn’t

First, consider that atheism is not itself an ideology; there is no such thing as an “atheist mindset” or an “atheist movement.” Atheism per se hasn’t inspired and doesn’t lead to anything in particular because it is an effect—not a cause—and there are countless reasons for a person to not believe in God, ranging from vicious to innocent to noble. The newborn baby lacks a belief in God, as does the Postmodern Nihilist, the Communist, and the Objectivist—but each for entirely different reasons having dramatically different implications. So lumping all of these together under the “atheist” label as if that were a meaningful connection is profoundly confused. Yet this is exactly what the New Atheists do and encourage: they talk about how there are so many atheists out there, and advocate their banding together into an atheist community to seek fellowship, foster cultural change, build a political voice, and so on.[1] But what would a committed Communist and an Objectivist have in common—regarding what they do believe, why they believe it, how that leads them to live personally, the sort of social system they would strive for in government? Nothing. They are polar opposites in principle and practice, across the philosophical board.

The New Atheists can’t rebuff D’Souza because he is actually following their own lead to associate them with brutal totalitarian regimes. And worse, that confusion makes it difficult to see the fundamental cause of the misery and bloodshed found across all of those failures of humanity—from the early Christian Crusades and Inquisition, through the 20th Century totalitarian regimes, up to the Islamic theocracies in the Middle East today. The important contrast is not atheism vs. religion, but rather rationality vs. irrationality.

The Wages of Irrationality

All of that bloodshed is a result of people rejecting reason as the way to do business in reality—which means rejecting our only means of peaceful and productive coexistence. Operating in the realm of reason, people are oriented to the facts, their means of dealing with one another is persuasion, and reality is the court of final appeal when there is disagreement. Take scientists, for example: necessarily focused on reason and reality, they resolve their scientific disputes with logic and by reference to facts. We don’t find them fragmenting into sects and breaking out into violence over their disagreements. Indeed, just the opposite happens: the body of scientific knowledge converges over time as disagreements are sorted out and facts are acknowledged. Their successes and this convergence don’t come from the use of guns and clubs, but from a commitment to reason and reality, facts and logic.

While it is easy to see brutes in totalitarian regimes reaching for a gun rather than peacefully persuading free minds, the connection to force may not be so obvious in the case of people of faith. Yet just as reason and freedom go together, so do their antagonists, faith and force. As Ayn Rand observed, “every period of history dominated by mysticism, was a period of statism, of dictatorship, of tyranny”—and she underscored this shared rejection of reason in identifying the two as species of the same basic animal: the brutes as “mystics of muscle,” and the faithful as “mystics of spirit.” To see how religious faith plays into the use of force, consider theologians in contrast to the scientists discussed above. Here we find ever-expanding divergence and fragmentation in their body of thought—just notice how religions and the denominations within them have multiplied through history. And we don’t see believers resolving disagreements over their articles of faith by persuasion and reference to the facts of reality—whether it is Muslims vs. Christians, Catholics vs. Protestants, Baptists vs. Mormons, or one part of a congregation breaking away from another. This is because articles of faith aren’t based on a grasp of the facts of reality, and so they can’t be explained or defended by references to the facts of reality. Since people of faith can’t resolve such differences using facts and rational persuasion, they are left with only one alternative: force.

Having it Both Ways

Besides trying to tar his opponents with the worst atrocities in history, D’Souza regularly tries to give Christianity credit for mankind’s positive strides. For instance, he argues in an op-ed that “Christianity has illuminated the greatest achievements of the culture” such as the rise of science, human rights, equality for women and minorities, ending slavery, and so forth. That “when you examine history you find that all of these values came into the world because of Christianity.” He contrasts Christianity and atheism, saying that these advances arrived in Christendom and by the hands of Christians—not atheists. And he uses this to score extra points in debate by asking his opponents what atheism has to offer humanity, other than the chance to undermine all that progress.

Once again, such a comparison is fundamentally confused. Recall that atheism is not itself an ideology and therefore doesn’t lead people to do anything in particular—good or bad. So again we need to approach the issue in terms that will actually shed some light. The illuminating question to consider is: What does reason offer humanity over faith?

Here we see a striking contrast. Every discovery, every invention, every new idea that guided every step we have taken up from the poor, nasty, brutish, and short lives of those who came before has been made possible by one thing: thinking. Revelation never delivered a vaccine or explained the rainbow. Faith never designed a building or fed a baby. Submission to authority never discovered a better social organization or put a man on the moon. The power of this-worldly reason did.

Even the broadest strokes of history make this clear: Mankind stagnated for a thousand years through the Dark Ages while the Christian faith reigned supreme. Then what changed? Mankind started to believe that this world matters and that we are worthy and capable of living in it. The suffocating grip of faith and otherworldliness began to loosen as more people turned to reason and reality, and the West clawed its way from darkness into the Renaissance and Enlightenment. It took this-worldly thinking to discover the methods of science—not scripture and revelation, which had been present for millennia. It took free minds aimed at the task of living on earth to ignite the Industrial Revolution and the Information Revolution, and to deliver every bounty in the explosion of progress that followed—not prayer and intercession, which have been with us for all time.

Correlation isn’t causation. Obviously, long-standing Christianity only accommodated the relatively recent changes that unleashed minds brought while its overwhelming authority eroded. We were delivered from the Christian Dark Ages despite Christianity, not because of it. Countless lives were made shorter and more miserable by its cruel stranglehold—and how much higher would we be flying now without its dead weight?

The New Atheists haven’t been able to slam-dunk D’Souza because they lack the objective philosophical perspective necessary to penetrate to the core of these issues. In this case, their struggles reveal a failure to genuinely appreciate how religion is not itself the fundamental problem—irrationality is. Religion constitutes just one form of unreason, and the only thing that makes it particularly noteworthy and dangerous is that it has at its heart an explicit, committed, philosophical attack on reason: extolling faith as a virtue.

(Upcoming in the series: Science vs. Miracles, The Gap in Religious Thought, and Morality and Life.)


  1. Sam Harris stands out as an exception to advocating atheists banding together under the atheist banner, though his rejection of the label appears to be more of a pragmatic move to avoid troublesome connotations than a principled avoidance of the basic mistake it represents.

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