Category Archives: Atheism

William Tyndale, hero of atheism

On this day, October 6th, in the now distant year of 1536, William Tyndale was burnt at the stake. It is recorded that his executors had the mercy to strangle him beforehand, but that they botched the job, and that he revived to consciousness as the flames took hold. What was Tyndale’s crime, worthy of such an extreme punishment? He wanted people to think for themselves.

Established religions are about power and control, and the Catholic Church had long realised that they could control people by telling them what God wanted. Thus they didn’t want the people to read the Bible and to think for themselves about what God wanted. The Church insisted that they stood between the people and God, and that only they could interpret God’s will. Thus they kept the Bible in Latin so that the people could not read it. As early as the 1380s John Wycliffe had translated parts of the Bible into English, but the mere possession of a copy merited the death sentence. Continue reading

Children matter as children: why Dawkins did not say that child abuse is “zero bad”

In his new autobiography and and in interviews Dawkins has been recalling his childhood. He recounts one episode, when aged about 10, of what he described as “mild” sexual abuse by a school teacher, and said that others in the class had suffered the same. Based on his many conversations with his classmates back then, especially after that teacher committed suicide, Dawkins suggested: “I don’t think he did any of us lasting damage”. The wording here is tentative, but he has since accepted that he was somewhat presumptuous, and that he can’t fully know the long-term outcome for his class mates. Continue reading

Yes, Theos, secular law is both possible and desirable

The Theos think-tank have posted an article “Is Secular Law possible?” that follows hard on the heels of the Chief Rabbi’s denunciation of Europe’s progress towards secularism (see replies by Jerry Coyne, the Heresy Corner and myself). At root the Theos article is making the same claim, that Judeo-Christianity is needed for the health of society.

In discussing whether secular law is desirable, the writer — lawyer, university lecturer and Christian David McIlroy — produces three definitions of secular law.

The first he calls “secularist” law and says it means law that is “free from any religious influence whatsoever”, law that is indeed opposed to religion and seeks to root it out, in which “religious voices are silenced and anti-religious views are imposed”. Clearly that is a strawman, and not something that any secularists actually advocate (past communists may have liked totalitarianism, Western secular atheists don’t).

McIlroy’s second attempt is even more bizarre, he suggests that the “dominant interpretation” of secular law is law that “seeks to take no moral stances whatsoever, to rely on no contentious claims about the nature of human beings, about morality, or about values”.

Sigh. How does one respond to this? It is of course another strawman, and, worse, it’s the standard religious claim that doing without religion equates to doing without morality. McIlroy spends a lot of time arguing that a society and a law without morals and having no values is unworkable. Really? Who’d’a’ thunk it? I never would have guessed! Continue reading

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s “refutation” of atheism and the naturalistic fallacy

Writing about the Chief Rabbi’s recent attack on atheism has led me to reading more of his writings. His article in The Times from 2010, proposing a “refutation” of the “New Atheists”, is not recent, but it reveals so clearly a flaw common in religious thought that it is worth a rebuttal.

The religious often accuse atheists of their own worst faults. For any biases or misunderstandings that are common among the religious, one can be sure that they will attribute the very same to atheists. And, as I said in my previous post on Rabbi Sacks, the religious are suckers for the naturalistic fallacy. They readily leap from “this is the case” to “it must be good that this is the case”.

Indeed, Abrahamic theology requires them to make the leap, since they believe in a god that is omni-good, omni-wise and omni-capable; thus anything and everything must be their god’s will, and thus it must be good. Much theology is an exercise in scheming up reasons why a good god would have created the universe as we see it.

So steeped are the religious in this way of thinking that they attribute the same to atheists and scientists. If, for example, they see Dawkins arguing that genes are selfish, they interpret him as lauding selfishness as a good thing. If they see Dawkins writing that our surrounding universe is one of “blind, pitiless indifference” they then regard atheism as heartless and nihilistic. They do not draw the conclusion that humanist atheists actually draw, that since there are no gods to look out for us, then humans need to look out for each other. To the religious, human morals and empathy could not arise from humanity, but can only exist as an echo of a much greater love and morality embodied in a god.

So to Rabbi Sacks’s “refutation” of atheism, which he regards as “worth genuine reflection”. It goes like this:

The first point: if you are a Darwinian, what matters is reproductive success. The rest is mere froth. Forget God, faith and the other relics of a believing age. We are here to pass on our genetic heritage to the next generation. A person is just a gene’s way of making another gene. The bottom line is reproduction.

From there he notes that the most secular countries (such as Europe) have lower birth-rates, whereas more religious countries have higher birth-rates. This he sees as a contradiction to the Darwinian imperative, and thus as a “refutation” of “new atheism”, which he regards as “based on neo-Darwinism”. He says that atheists should want as any people as possible to be religious, since that would increase birth rates. Continue reading

Chief Rabbi Sacks is thoroughly wrong on atheism

Is Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks worth rebutting? Jerry Coyne has already done so, but Sacks is influential so let’s join in. Atheism has “failed” according to Jonathan Sacks, writing in The Spectator.

I love the remark made by one Oxford don about another: ‘On the surface, he’s profound, but deep down, he’s superficial.’ That sentence has more than once come to mind when reading the new atheists.

Well that’s nice, nothing like starting with a gratuitous insult! I hope he doesn’t think that we atheists find religious “thinkers” profound. (Oh look, I can do snark also.)

Future intellectual historians will look back with wonder at the strange phenomenon of seemingly intelligent secularists in the 21st century believing that if they could show that the first chapters of Genesis are not literally true […] that the whole of humanity’s religious beliefs would come tumbling down like a house of cards …

Does Sacks seriously think that any atheist actually thinks that by refuting literalist religion one can vanquish all religion. Does he really? Is that the superficial level of debate at which Sacks thinks? This is straw-manning, attacking a straw-man version of your opponents because you can’t deal with their actual beliefs.

Whatever happened to the intellectual depth of the serious atheists …

Oh it’s all there Rabbi Sacks! And much of it drives the ongoing and remarkable progress of science, which is pretty much atheistic nowadays. The fact that you fail to recognise intellectual depth in atheists is your limitation not theirs. Continue reading

Einstein the atheist on religion and God

In his autobiography Prince Hubertus zu Löwenstein recounted that, at a charity dinner in New York, Einstein had remarked:

There are yet people who say there is no God. But what really makes me angry is that they quote me for the support of such views.

This story was published in 1968, which was 13 years after Einstein’s death, when he could not comment on the veracity of the quote. Löwenstein was a Catholic activist, decorated by the Pope for his services to the Church, and the autobiography’s title, “Towards the further shore”, indicates its apologetic intent. Was Löwenstein accurately reporting Einstein? We don’t know, though he is hardly a disinterested party and the quote is thus suspect. What we do know is that many people, as shown by this example, want to deny that Einstein was an atheist.

Such claims also circulated when Einstein was alive. In 1945 Einstein received a letter from Guy Raner, saying that a Jesuit priest had claimed to have persuaded Einstein to abandon atheism. Einstein replied (letter to Guy Raner, 2nd July 1945):

I have never talked to a Jesuit priest in my life and I am astonished by the audacity to tell such lies about me. From the viewpoint of a Jesuit priest I am, of course, and have always been an atheist.

Another example comes from 1954, the year before Einstein’s death. A correspondent had read an article about Einstein’s supposed religious views, and wrote to Einstein asking whether the article was accurate. Einstein answered:

It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.    [letter 24th March 1954, from “Albert Einstein: The Human Side”, edited by Helen Dukas and Banesh Hoffmann, Princeton University Press. Hereafter “AE:THS”]

Despite the above, many people point to Einstein as a rebuke to atheists, a supposed example of a preeminent scientist flatly rejecting atheism. People who are prepared to accept that Einstein lacked belief in a personal god, nevertheless insist that he was not an atheist, and that he did believe in a god of some sort. Continue reading

Britain’s 10 worst violations of religious equality

Religious equality — the idea that people should not be treated any more or less favourably because of their religious opinions — is a fundamental principle in any modern liberal democracy. It is written into the American Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights. Everyone is agreed on it. Aren’t they?

Well no, unfortunately not. Owing to Britain’s long heritage of religious privilege there are still many instances of the state treating the non-religious less favourably. Here are the ten worst violations of religious equality in the United Kingdom today:

(1) Admission to taxpayer-funded schools: Even though the non-religious pay the same taxes as the religious they have worse access to taxpayer-funded schools. This is actually deliberate and legal. The government put special exemptions into the 2010 Equality Act enabling “faith” schools to treat pupils unequally according to their parents’ religion. About a quarter of state schools are “faith” schools, and often a non-religious family can only send their children to one if it is undersubscribed, even if they live next door.

The government’s excuse is that such schools do well and are popular. Well yes, schools that get to pick their pupils can indeed do well (as private schools show). Study after study has found that “faith” schools use their power of selection to pick middle-class pupils with strong parental support. Parents want such a peer group for their children, so these schools tend to be oversubscribed, and that gives the school more choice in selection, and hence the feedback produces popular schools with good exam results. Being oversubscribed also means that such schools can both expel problem children and not have to take children expelled from other schools. When corrected for the differences in pupil intake, “faith” schools do not do any better.

The non-religious family doesn’t get to play this game since non-“faith” schools don’t get to pick pupils. This is a racket that only the religious can take advantage of. It even extends to provision of school transport. Even worse, religious discrimination is now spreading to non-“faith” schools! Continue reading

On sexism, Ophelia Benson, Michael Shermer, hyperbole, and my stumbles into the Rift

Why are atheists “militant” (as we are so often described)? Because we object to being treated as lesser humans just because we don’t believe in gods; because we don’t want the state to give extra privileges to the religious and treat us as second-class just because we are atheists. And speaking up, seeking only equality, gets us labelled as “militant”. Unfortunately, such is the history of religious privilege that most Western societies are still far from having a genuine secularism that treats everyone equally (and don’t even ask about the Islamic world).

Another privilege running through the history of most societies is male privilege. This is diminishing (at least in the West) and it has diminished largely because of the “militant” women who speak up and demand equality, that they not be treated any less favourably just because of their gender. Any atheist who supports secularism must — if they have any consistency — applaud them and fully support the equality of women. Unfortunately, such is the history of male privilege that most Western societies have still not arrived at full equality for women (and don’t even ask about the Islamic world). Continue reading

Hitler despised atheism as much as Pope Benedict does

In my first post on this blog I wrote a lengthy piece analysing Nazi theology and racial ideology, showing that it was religious, creationist and opposed to Darwinian evolution. Since that piece is somewhat long I thought I’d produce a succinct ‘sound bite’ version of Hitler’s views on religion and atheism. Repeating this is unfortunately necessary, since, as exemplified by Pope Ratzinger, Christians all too often tell the lie that Hitler was an ‘atheist’, a claim arrived at by Christian logic: “the Nazis were nasty; atheists are nasty; therefore the Nazis were atheists”. Despite this claim, repeated so often that even some atheists think it must be true, Hitler despised atheism almost as much as Herr Ratzinger does.

“Hence this song [The German anthem] also constitutes a pledge to the Almighty, to His will and to His work: for man has not created this Volk, but God, that God who stands above us all. He formed this Volk, and it has become what it should according to God’s will, and according to our will, it shall remain, nevermore to fade!” (Hitler, speech, July 31, 1937, Essential Hitler, p161)


“Besides that, I believe one thing: there is a Lord God! And this Lord God creates the peoples.”  (Hitler, speech, February 24, 1940, Essential Hitler, p499)

Continue reading

Militant Fundamentalist Agnostics and the meaning of atheism

Religious literalists and creationists can be annoying, and liberal believers whose theology is entirely apophatic can also be annoying; however anyone who espouses atheism on the internet will soon encounter an even more annoying group: the Militant Fundamentalist Agnostics.

The what? Surely that’s a contradiction in terms?! Sadly not, the Militant Fundamentalist Agnostic, while pretending to complete ignorance of gods, will confidently assert the central dogma of the agnostic faith, and cling to it tenaciously. Their one dogma is the claim that atheists make dogmatic assertions about the non-existence of gods. And hence, by declaring themselves to be free of such unwarranted, beyond-the-evidence assertions, they feel themselves superior, not only to the believers, who have no proof of their deities, but also to the atheists, who have no proof to back up their supposed claims of certain non-existence.

It is pointless trying to argue with the Fundamentalist Agnostics, telling them that, no, atheists usually do not make dogmatic assertions of non-existence. Such a correction undermines the very core of the agnostic identity, and will be rejected with fervour. If an agnostic once accepted that atheism is not about making categorical non-existence assertions, then they’d have no good reason to call themselves agnostics. They might — oh the horror! — have to consider whether they themselves might be (I shudder to write the word) atheists! Continue reading