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Scientific American

Rational Atheism

published September 2007 | comments (37)
An open letter to Messrs. Dawkins,
Dennett, Harris and Hitchens
magazine cover

Since the turn of the millennium, a new militancy has arisen among religious skeptics in response to three threats to science and freedom: (1) attacks against evolution education and stem cell research; (2) breaks in the barrier separating church and state leading to political preferences for some faiths over others; and (3) fundamentalist terrorism here and abroad. Among many metrics available to track this skeptical movement is the ascension of four books to the august heights of the New York Times best-seller list—Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation (Knopf, 2006), Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell (Viking, 2006), Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great (Hachette Book Group, 2007) and Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin, 2006)—that together, in Dawkins’s always poignant prose, “raise consciousness to the fact that to be an atheist is a realistic aspiration, and a brave and splendid one. You can be an atheist who is happy, balanced, moral and intellectually fulfilled.” Amen, brother.

Whenever religious beliefs conflict with scientific facts or violate principles of political liberty, we must respond with appropriate aplomb. Nevertheless, we should be cautious about irrational exuberance. I suggest that we raise our consciousness one tier higher for the following reasons.

  1. Anti-something movements by themselves will fail. Atheists cannot simply define themselves by what they do not believe. As Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises warned his anti-Communist colleagues in the 1950s: “An anti-something movement displays a purely negative attitude. It has no chance whatever to succeed. Its passionate diatribes virtually advertise the program they attack. People must fight for something that they want to achieve, not simply reject an evil, however bad it may be.”
  2. Positive assertions are necessary. Champion science and reason, as Charles Darwin suggested: “It appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity & theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds which follow[s] from the advance of science. It has, therefore, been always my object to avoid writing on religion, & I have confined myself to science.”
  3. Rational is as rational does. If it is our goal to raise people’s consciousness to the wonders of science and the power of reason, then we must apply science and reason to our own actions. It is irrational to take a hostile or condescending attitude toward religion because by doing so we virtually guarantee that religious people will respond in kind. As Carl Sagan cautioned in “The Burden of Skepticism,” a 1987 lecture, “You can get into a habit of thought in which you enjoy making fun of all those other people who don’t see things as clearly as you do. We have to guard carefully against it.”
  4. The golden rule is symmetrical. In the words of the greatest consciousness raiser of the 20th century, Martin Luther King, Jr., in his epic “I Have a Dream” speech: “In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.” If atheists do not want theists to prejudge them in a negative light, then they must not do unto theists the same.
  5. Promote freedom of belief and disbelief. A higher moral principle that encompasses both science and religion is the freedom to think, believe and act as we choose, so long as our thoughts, beliefs and actions do not infringe on the equal freedom of others. As long as religion does not threaten science and freedom, we should be respectful and tolerant because our freedom to disbelieve is inextricably bound to the freedom of others to believe.

As King, in addition, noted: “The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.”

Rational atheism values the truths of science and the power of reason, but the principle of freedom stands above both science and religion.

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37 Comments to “Rational Atheism”

  1. JesusFreak Says:

    Both some atheists and theists of the “fundamentalist” variety seem to be unable to see those with whom they disagree as anything other than stupid, deluded idiots. I have witnessed and been involved in many discussions online where atheists and/or theists do little more than call each other names instead of sincerely trying to listen to what the other “side” has to say, or explain their own position in a way that is not merely a rant against some imagined straw-man. Shermer seems to actually listen to what “they” have to say. Thank God for that! Anyway . . . I would like to suggest that “the principle of freedom” is foundational to both Christianity (if not religion in general, and despite much of “Christian” history)and Science, and not simply “above” them both. Neither could exist without some sense of “freedom” at their core. Science cannot “prove” God doesn’t exist any more than Christianity or any other religion can “prove” that God does exist. Just as there is bad science (ID for instance), there is also bad theology (ID for instance). The principle of freedom allows both science and religion to accept the other’s sincerety and engage in meaningful dialogue. As the atheist Einstien said, “Religion without science is lame; Science without religion is blind,” or something like that. I can’t help but think that science and religion need one another. The principle of freedom at the heart of each is where we may meet.

  2. John B Hodges Says:

    (JBH) Shermer’s essay angers me, for he is equating things that are different, and implying things that simply do not follow.

    Atheists who are so rude as to say “your religion is both false and harmful” are not committing wrongful deeds, not violating anyones rights or freedom. Nor are they violating anyone’s freedom of conscience. Nor, for that matter, are they being “intolerant”.

    It has rarely been the case that atheists, even the most bitter and militant, have been purely negative. The thrust of Shermer’s essay is to imply and insinuate that we should not be negative at all, ever, about anything religious. He implies that we should, like Darwin, keep our mouths shut about religion.

    People routinely say and write scathing, passionate, angry commentary on other people’s politics, sports teams, fashion sense, music, and tastes in food. Shermer is saying that we should not do this about religion. To do so, he implies, would not be dignified or disciplined, would not be tolerant, would not be respectful, would violate the freedom of conscience of the believers. Indeed, he implies, it would be predjudiced, equivalent to being racist. He implies that we should not even have critical THOUGHTS about religion, for this would “infringe upon the freedom of others”.

    I’m sure that Shermer would protest my interpretation of his remarks. But I would like him to be explicit, about what criticism of religion he thinks would be proper? Are we allowed to say, for example, that the god of the Old Testament is a being of horrific character? Are we allowed to say that religion has been the oldest organized swindle in the history of civilization? Mindful of the wisdom of offering a positive alternative (which philosophers and scientists have been doing for at least 2600 years), are we allowed to say anything negative at all about religion?

  3. John B Hodges Says:

    (Gene) wrote:
    After reading Shermer’s piece, I am unable to see how he is advocating against criticism of religion. All he is saying, as I read it, is that if we want religionists to tolerate [the existence of] atheists, we must tolerate the existence and practice of religion.

    (JBH) But, you see, he is writing his piece as a response to the books of Harris, Dennett, Dawkins, and Hitchens. Tell me, please, where any of these said anything that implied that religion should be outlawed? Early on, he mentions the policy of Darwin, who chose to keep his mouth shut about religion, because he felt it tactically unwise to make direct criticism of it. THEN, Shermer goes on to make these MORAL arguments, implying that the books of H, D, D, and H are not just tactically unwise but IMMORAL. Why would he bother to bring up the Golden Rule or Freedom of Conscience, unless he thought they were somehow relevant, in response to these books?

    > > >Michael Shermer wrote (opening snipped):
    > >>4. The golden rule is symmetrical. In the words
    > >>of the greatest conscious-ness raiser of the
    > >>20th century, Mart-in Luther King, Jr., in his
    > >>epic “I Have a Dream” speech: “In the process of
    > >>gaining our rightful place, we must not be
    > >>guilty of wrong-ful deeds. Let us not seek to
    > >>satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from
    > >>the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must
    > >>forever conduct our struggle on the high plane
    > >>of dignity and discipline.” If atheists do not
    > >>want theists to prejudge them in a negative
    > >>light, then they must not do unto theists the
    > >>same.

    (JBH) Tell me, please, where Harris, Dennett, Dawkins, or Hitchens have violated the Golden Rule? Or been guilty of “wrongful deeds”? Or, for that matter, “pre-judged” any particular theists?

    > >>
    > >>5. Promote freedom of belief and disbelief. A
    > >>higher moral principle that encompasses both
    > >>science and religion is the freedom to think,
    > >>believe and act as we choose, so long as our
    > >>thoughts, beliefs and actions do not infringe on
    > >>the equal freedom of others. As long as religion
    > >>does not threaten science and freedom, we should
    > >>be respectful and tolerant because our freedom
    > >>to disbelieve is inextricably bound to the
    > >>freedom of others to believe.

    (JBH) Tell me, please, why Shermer brings up THOUGHTS in this argument? HOW, even THEORETICALLY, could our THOUGHTS “infringe upon the equal freedom of others”? I once visited with a pagan group to educate myself about modern paganism. They had an ethical rule they called the “rule of three”, a supercharged version of the Golden Rule, which they interpreted as meaning they should not SPEAK OUT LOUD anything critical of anyone’s religion. But even they allowed themselves to have critical THOUGHTS. And, another question, why does supporting freedom of conscience require us to RESPECT others’ beliefs?

  4. Paul G. Louden Says:

    I agree – emphatically – with all that Mr. Shermer says here.
    In the last couple of years I have been happy to see that some very articulate and eloquent people have stood up and given of themselves to defend us all from the encroachment of these religious fundamentalists upon both science and our most basic political freedoms. The attacks of the religious fundamentalists have reached a level that I find not just disturbing, but truly alarming. I now feel compelled to get involved in this good fight. Again, I thank these men and women of ability and courage for their able defense – but most of all, I thank them for their inspiration and for making it clear to me that I am not alone in this sacredly human struggle.

  5. JesusFreak Says:

    One can be critical without being disrespectful, can’t one? Or is the problem that so many theists and atheists alike prefer to mock their opponents rather than engage? Or is it that the assumption of some atheists is that theists are not merely wrong, but stupid and delusional and deserving of ridicule (with the assumption of some theists being exactly the same towards atheists)? I am a theist, specifically Christian. I have friends and aquaintences who are everything from Wiccan to Atheist. We do not hate nor disrespect one another despite our engaging in often long, drawn out and quite heated discussions about the pros and cons and histories of our various beliefs. Why do so many, theist and atheist alike, feel the need to reserve the “right” to be, well, rude and derogatory? Do you really think that being so advances your – or any – cause?

  6. JesusFreak Says:

    Shermer writes:

    “Whenever religious beliefs conflict with scientific facts or violate principles of political liberty, we must respond with appropriate aplomb.”

    As a theist, I agree. This may be the one time when respect becomes almost impossible to maintain. A friend of mine (an agnostic at the very least, leaning towards atheism) has a girlfiend whose mother (a staunch Lutheran) has apparently taught her that Darwin “changed his mind” before he died and “repented” of evolution. This, of course, is a bald-faced lie. I am told that no amount of arguement, or just giving the facts, will change his girlfriends mind; she won’t even listen. I have told my friend that she is being willfully ignorant (actually, I said “stupid”), and asked him “Why the hell he wants to be with someone like that?” Turns out she is gorgeous, and my friend, despite his non-religiousness, seems to be as subject to the temptations of the flesh as anyone. The point is, I see no way to deal with this woman except to tell her that she is being . . . stupid. She is unlikely to take this respectfully . . .

  7. Thomas A Vance Says:

    I spent 12 years in Catholic school and unfortunately those religion classes turned into long discussions on philosophy and ethics, all boys high school, and turned lots of us intoif not atheists at leasr agnostics.
    I have always felt if there is a god he is within ourselves.
    Anyway tolerance couldn’t have been demonstrated more than by my dad. He married a german catholic and put all 7 kids through cath school and paid for all tuition. Every sunday he took us to church and waited outside readin the paper till we came out. If that ain’t tolerance I don’t know what is. He was skeptically agnostic like I have grown to be.

  8. Thomas A Vance Says:

    One more thing, the light comes on when people finally realize that one thing is true of all religions, SOMEBODY MADE IT UP. Once that realization comes it’s all over.

  9. Hasan Says:

    I guess we should not call ourselves anti-racists or anti-misogynists either, at least this is what the article suggests. And i am frequently disturbed by the term Militant Atheists. Atheists dont go up blowing up things and harming innocent people. Of course, that is not to say that all atheists have to be like that. Atheism is no ideology, and one be a saint while being an atheists or a devil too. However, the chances are that someone who reclines to the atheistic position based on the voice of reason – rather than under a cloak of ideology like communism – will be a generally more conscious of his or her deeds and would refrain from mindless acts of violence that are generally the exclusive domain of the religiously inclined. Or course, we are taking about religious extremists here, but these people really have a lot of support for what they do in their ideology.

  10. John Says:

    Dr. Shermer gave some good advice on how atheists should conduct themselves so as not to fuel the anti-atheist’s attacks and prejudices. Alas, I do not see that this will work for all religious people – in fact, it is futile to try with some who strongly object to atheism.

    I have tried building a bridge of understanding to Christian friends by pointing out that when it comes to Ahura Mazda or Allah we’re both equally atheist – they often take offense at this because it is comparing their (real) God to another’s false god. They see no irony in running down other religions while taking umbrage at sincere questioning of theirs. Some even complain that atheists are arrogant, derisive and insensitive to people’s beliefs – after being offended by the comparison of their true God to a false god.

    It is simply impossible to avoid offending some people – and allowing them to determine our actions is giving them far too much power over us. No amount of accommodation will help them see our point of view much less give credence to it so we might as well get on with it and call a spade a spade (gee, I hope that remark didn’t offend anyone ;)

  11. JesusFreak Says:

    John writes:

    “I have tried building a bridge of understanding to Christian friends by pointing out that when it comes to Ahura Mazda or Allah we’re both equally atheist – they often take offense at this because it is comparing their (real) God to another’s false god.”

    Many Christians (and a few atheists) do not seem to realize that the Romans in the first few centuries C.E. saw Christians as atheists because they would not worship or at the very least pay proper respect to the Roman (state) gods. “Pagans” (a term not in use for “non-Christian” at the time) felt that Christians irrationaly worshiped an invisible – and therefore non-existant – god. Many atheists see Christians just this way today, and many Christians see atheists this way as well! My, how the tables have turned!!!
    Personally, I have a few atheist friends. I do not find them to be intollerant or otherwise “opposed” to me in any way, other than simply not accepting my belief – or any belief – in God. Some of them would put it much stronger than that. The “bridge of understanding” between us is based almost exclusively in friendship and experiencial knowledge of “who we are,” and not in ideaology or theology (On the other hand, my theological understanding of God, Christ, and Spirit “requires” me to relate to them with love and respect. This does not mean I am insincere in my relationship with them; and they are as capable as anyone of love and respect.)

  12. Kurt A. Rose Says:

    Good discussion.

    I understand the need to be tactful when promoting an atheist veiwpoint, however I also understand the frustrations of the aforementioned authors (H, D, D & H). I think it is about time that atheists had the courage to openly criticize religion, especially considering that it has probably attenuated man’s progress by at least a thousand years (so many wars and murder-death-kills over the various flavors of ether!!).

  13. Ravinder Says:

    I think it is important to understand that humans by nature are “irrational”. That is how the evolution has shaped us. Whether or not it is desirable is a different question and needs a unceasing dialog and discussion with those who differ. What is more important is the interdisciplinary approach to tackle and understand the human behavior and motives. A rational discourse by mechanically invoking science and reasons can be pretty lame in addressing complex and challenging social issues. I am often embarrass by the irrationality of the rebuke as a tactic that many fellow atheists like Sam, Hitchen and Dawkin inflict on others. They outrightly dismiss and humiliate those who are against religion per se, but don’t quite agree with atheist’s ideology. Any alternate approach or empirical evidence suggesting that religion need not necessarily be the primary motive of certain human action (e.g. suicide bombing etc) would be greeted with utter contempt and disdain. You can see what “militant atheism is” in two conference held in the year 2006 and 2007 -called Beyond Belief 1 and BF2.
    Thanks to Michel Shermer for being courageous in rightly pointing out the fallacies in “Atheist” ideology which is not very different from religious fundamentalism.

  14. Wes Says:

    When I first read Shermer’s title, the word “Rational” immediately peaked my interest. My first thought was; about time someone utilized the word/concept of “rational” in the same context as “atheism”. I was soon disappointed. His discourse soon diverted to an argument of appropriatness of words/actions on the part of atheists. To have a “rational” attitude and approach to the world [Shermer alludes to this but seems to miss the importance of]; belief should be based upon “facts”. Any belief outside the domain of demonstrable fact is essentially irrational. To lead a rational life, one’s beliefs should be grounded on facts, not myths and undemonstrable concepts who even the religionist agree is “beyond knowable” from an empirical standpoint. Atheism is one attempt to develope a belief system that is founded upon demonstrable facts and from a “rational” standpoint is justifiably opposed to religion. Atheism has begun to receive the justified attention of the world and the sooner the world realizes and embraces the “rational” part of athiesm, the better for the human race.

  15. Monica Ackerman Says:

    I am an atheist, out of the close and proud of it. Am I militant? No. I am also a feminist. Am I militant? No. I do not march in parades, make speeches or waive banners. I do speak up and speak out when the occasion arises to make my position known and it is wise for me to do so. I move in circles which are riddled with religious people and Republicans and there are plenty of times when I have to keep my mouth shut like Charles Darwin. But my friends and family know who I am and that on my death bed I will not ask for a priest to hear my confession.

  16. Monica Ackerman Says:

    What I meant was “out of the closet” and that was the important part of my comment. All of us should be speaking out in whatever manner we usually communicate. THAT is the message. We need to be a known quantity. To be an atheist is an honor and a calling. It takes courage and commitment just to admit that you are one–in polite company. And watch for the fall out :)

  17. Kris Chugani Says:

    Among the many writers and thinkers I admire, Dr.Shermer and Dr. Carl Sagan have a special place in my brain. Their statements and thoughts revolve around and discuss almighty NATURE. Call it what you will (god, allah, yahweh, krishna) answers (all answers) are in NATURE. We only have to find them the way we did flint, fire, penicillin, wheat, the carrying power of air and the phenomenon of the rainbow. Like all creatures, humans have and make choices. I have never heard birds discussing religion,and they are truly free.

  18. Ravinder Says:

    Read Sam’s book carefully ‘end of the faith’ or listen to what Cristopher Hitchen fiercely advocates in many talks and debates. This is stuff that is typically found in any military handbook or manual. Only difference is that new atheists brought it into public day light. Why do you think Fox news would love to have these new-atheists in their show? Because they have construed a common enemy (in this case Islam) to go after. For time being, the serious differences over domestic issues and politics are retreated into back stage. This strange concurrence of new-atheists with present US administration and the religious-rights defy the very essence of conventional reasons and rationality that “atheism” is suppose to uphold. With all that military strength and technology, the “new-atheist” sentiments can be exploited to rationalized the unjust war. The new-atheists voice covertly lends a respectful credibility to the propaganda tactics of spreading fear among gullible public.

    The important question that we ought to be asking is: How can we take science, reasons and rationality to a level where it can alleviated needless suffering to make the world a better place to live? By and large the science and technology so far has only served the interests of rich and powerful. And that is regardless of religious orientations of the masters.

  19. Wes Says:

    Rational Atheism? I expected to to see substantive commentary on the “rationalism” inherent in atheistic beliefs; instead Shermer’s dialogue seems to regress to an argument of misconstrued tolerance by equating enthusiasm for atheistic beliefs with antireligiousness. After making referrence to the comment made by Darwin that arguments against religion has little effect upon the public, he goes on to propose the argument that the advancement of science will illuminate men’s minds. Unfortunately, most of the people are too busy “making ends meet” to even bother with making an attempt to understand scientific concepts and even further, how those concepts and discoveries should “rationally” effect their religious beliefs. The clergy count on that fact, that most people [in a sense] want to remain ignorant of science and/or cannot be bothered with it. It is far to easy to invent a god for their inability to explain pleasant/unpleasant life events. Thus, Mr. Shermer’s proposal that science in and of itself will enlighten men, is ultimately a fairy-tale. The truth of the matter is, most of the common people on the street have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the validity of science and rationality and [rational] atheistic spokespersons such as Dawkins et. al. are performing a public service.

  20. Robert Shannon Says:

    Some background: My last addiction was to religion. Even at 60 yrs of age into recovery I was stuck. When I was forced to find reality in my own life, it was apparent that the scientific approach was the only solid footing I could find. I raised all my kids in the christian church. I cannot change their minds, or those of my grandchildren. It all began too young, and as someone said before me here, there is no time for listening to what we secularists have to say. I believe Shermer’s advice is appropriate; we must rise above the clamor of the religious cacaphony, and carry our message of human concern by way of human contact, and behave in ways that rise above hatred of others because of what they believe. As concerns Shermer, Sagan, and numberous compatriots, I’ve not seen any hatred in their speech or writing about others, regardless of what those others may believe. And I too, with an occasional “slip,” have found myself less hateful of anyone as I move to higher ground. Obviously none of us condone inhuman behavior, but we don’t have to hate to bring about change.
    I am beholden to Stephen Hawking, whose book, “A Brief History of Time,” began to open my mind to “reality.” Thanks to all the rest of you who continue supply me with the science needed to KEEP that reality.

  21. Will Bishop Says:

    I have been an ateist for a long time. I have read several of the popular books on the subject. It has been clear to me that I shouldn’t admit being an atheist to everyone I know because of the risk of losing some friendships. Sometimes I wonder whether these friendships are worth keeping. I used to think that humanity was going to get beyond the religious wars of the past. With what we are now experiencing with the Muslim terrorists, it’s clear that we are not. I see the secular world of atheists having a real problem related to this. The Muslims have gone well beyond the idea of being able to bring their people together to reach a critical mass to form armies to further their cause, with their suicide bombers. I see us secular types in the extreme as unable to reach critical mass. We will probably sit and debate/discuss the issues related to our survival and probably come up with enough different conclusions that would prevent any kind of real critical mass from being formed. We know that societies/cultures that have a strong religion as a footing for their culture can much more easily and quickly be led to reach critical mass. My god is better than your god. A leader who says, our god is better than their god is easy to line up behind. This is serious business. It would be beyond tragedy if an enlightened secular society were destroyed by this kind of happening. What is comes down to is, can humanity evolve to get beyond savagery (the creatures from the movie Cocoon) before it destroys itself?

  22. Muhammad Siddiqui Says:

    Having read Richard, Michael,Christopher, Carl and others like minded persons, I feel enlightened and free to a degree difficult to experss, but on the other hand seeing pervasive irrationality ,conservatism and high credulity in the society I come from and even in my immediate family is depressing and infuriating. I think world faces a huge challange in creating a sense of rationality, appreciation of reason and science in the world of Islam.

  23. Malcolm Regnard Says:

    What is the purpose of religion? Without presenting the obvious steps of logical deduction, the purpose of religion is to secure a positive state of mind, a positive experience of existence.
    I do personally not identify myself as an atheist although technically I would be considered as such. The purpose of me being an atheist is that I want to secure a positive state of mind, a positive experience of existence.
    Religions and belief structures, which rest on the belief in a caring omnipotent, omniscient creator, the concepts of good and evil, an afterlife etc are all based on a rejection of reality and will therefore obliterate any possibility of a positive life experience. Denial is a negative perspective leading to negative emotions and actions, it is extremely energy costly and it does by itself only confirm the existence of what is being denied.
    The purpose of individual life is for it to live until it dies – absolutely nothing beyond this. If life leaves 60 million dead in its track through time it does not pause, turn around or even blink. That gives you a measure of your true value. This is reality. To deny reality is to imprison yourself in a negative experience of existence. I choose to be happy! I embrace reality with loving arms and thoughts!
    Consider the consequences of the embrace of reality! It eliminates the obvious emotions of rejection, which are fear, anger, hatred, envy, intolerance, sadness, depression. Just contemplate the impact such a mind-set would have on this world! I think John Lennon sang about this…
    I am an atheist – not an idealist! I see man anchored in his denial and destructive behavior and his insatiable hunger for more live will eventually lead to the end of man kind. Oh, well…

  24. Thanos5150 Says:

    When we talk of Creationism, really what we are talking about is whether or not the Hebrew/Christian God Yahweh/Jesus created man and the universe. It is not a matter of whether “a” God did this, it is a matter of it being “their” God. Atheism on the other hand, says there is no supreme creator of any kind. All we really know for certain is that the Biblical Gods are mythical characters and have no basis in historical or logical reality. That’s why they call it “faith”.

    With due respect to other religions, in the absence of a credible candidate for a God however, the problem I still have is that when I look at the universe; I see the atom as a perfect machine, DNA as computer code, I see large gaps in the evolutionary record and failings in it’s mechanism, not to mention a missing history of civilization that modern historians have yet to address. I am not an atheist, and am not religious, nor do I ambiguously believe in a “higher power”. But as to how our universe came in to existence and even the evolution of man, it seems reasonable to me that at least the possibility of an outside intelligent influence could well exist.

    Ponder this: we have gone from the Wright brothers to landing on the moon in less than 60 years. 40 years later we are sending probes all over our solar system, cracking genetic codes, making significant advances in computing and material science. When we look back on the last 100 years, where will we be in the next 100, or 1000 for that matter?

    Science is all but certain other universes and dimensions exist-what will we find there? Nothingness? If you wanted to fill this empty void with matter and life, what would you do? How about sending a super dense structure of machines, like the atom, that would conveniently explode in all directions upon insertion into the vacuum continually expanding to fill the void. These machines would conglomerate and synthesize into more sophisticated machines, such as planets, stars and galaxies, all of which would be mathematically predictable and expected.

    And some of these machines would be programmed with code, DNA, that would ever evolve into different life forms depending on the variables of whatever location it finds home. Some locations would have great potential, some would have very little, but regardless these “seeds” would spread throughout the universe whether on solar winds, comets, or the evolved space-faring travelers that would eventually arise.

    As Arthur C. Clarke once wrote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
    From magic comes superstition, from superstition comes religion, but in the the end, it is very likely just good science.

  25. T Shannon Doyle Says:

    I’m really concerned that this whole argument ignores the gulf between religion and a scientific, empirical approach to spirituality. It equates them both, if they even know the difference- throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    To be given the choice between theism and atheism is like being given a choice between feeling and thinking. Thinking types love to trumpet the clarity of rationalism, often straying into nihilism. Feeling types love the joy in intuiting a deep, ungraspable yet keenly felt spirit that would seem inherent to existence itself- sadly often projected into external fetishes of belief- straying into organized, theistic, belief/control structures.

    There is a tremendous gulf between organized religion and empirical spiritual growth. By ignoring this, Dawkins, et al make an error, along with the theists, that sadly offers no alternative between two reductionistic extremes.

  26. Sami Nousiainen Says:

    As a response to the “choice between religion and atheism = a choice between unfeeling intelligence and unintelligent feeling”

    I am a thorough atheist and an outspoken supporter of reason and rationality. However, rationality is in no way a way of life that denies emotion or even a sort of “spirituality” in any way. Rationality is required when analyzing things like the age of the planet, how life began and other such scientific questions. However, I doubt many supporters of intelligence and reason would tell me that my outright adoration and basking in the feeling of love that I feel for my spouse is silly or dangerous or deluded.
    When I stood upon the peak of the mountain Halti (the tallest point in Finland) and gazed upon the magnificient scenery of Lapland on a clear day, I felt an almost spiritual unity with the world around me, I felt more alive than I had ever felt before as I inhaled deep breaths of exhaustion after the laborous climb and got to reap the rewards of the hike on the top of the mountain. I doubt many rational people would call my experience wrong or utter nonsense.

    I have several friends who share my views (thankfully I live in a country where religion has become much more of a hobby thing for the minority) and I have not yet met a single -mature- person who has let rationalism and reason lead into nihilistic abandon. More often it leads to a fuller, more enjoyable life.

  27. David Cass Says:

    I think it is simple. If one is to believe; if an entire culture is to have a common belief; if that culture is prepared to die for that belief, then that belief should be rational. It should be provable in its truth; otherwise, why believe in it. The religious faiths I know about (all except Buddhism) offer no such truth. They are simply fairy taIes, as was previously stated, but these fairy tales were embraced a couple of thousand years ago as a way to make money. That, I can believe! Where else, besides in the castles of the oil sheiks, can you find the gaudy wretched excess owned and demonstrated by the Roman church!? It’s a business!! A business where fairy tales are sold as truth. And millions buy them as truth.

    You can call it what you will; Michael Shermer does a good job with his intelligent wit. But Richard Dawkins is the master at pointing out the utter nonsense of religious “infallibility.”

  28. bikerbright Says:

    Wow, there’s a lot of brough-ha here. I’m an anti-theist in the tradition of Chris Hitchens. How can I be expected to tacitly accept the assertions of clearly delusional people? All religion is fraudulent and most are dangerous. The sooner humankind rids itself of these corrupt institutions, the sooner we can get on with finding peace and prosperity for the peoples of the world. Before you go off on a rant against me, answer this question: If you had a paralyzing spinal cord injury which course of action do you expect would give you more hope of a cure, prayer or stem cell research? BTW, There’s no evidence that prayer has ever cured any real affliction.

  29. Enrico Says:

    I understand Mr. Shermer’s position, especially from a ‘tactical’ point of view. But I don’t completely agree about the advocacy of a “soft approach”.

    Drawing a line that limits the extent of a critic, or the strength of assertion of one’s ideas can be dangerous – especially when that line takes into consideration someone being offended.
    I clarify what I mean. I’m not against people expressing racist ideas, but I want the right to openly say that I despise them, and that I think the world would be better off without such people. I would never favor a law prohibiting the publication of horoscopes, but I want the liberty to say that I think that they are stupid and sometimes harmful superstitions. Some people feel hurt and offended when I tell them that the homeopathic preparations that they take are, in fact, just plain water: if I add that they are being fooled and are fooling themselves the offense really becomes serious for them.

    Some persons will probably feel offended by the fact that I am implicitly comparing racism, astrology and homeopathy to their belief in god. And it seems like the opinion of Mr’ Shermer is alike, and we should be very careful in granting equal status to the words of Einstein and to the words of Ratzinger. I’m sorry, I don’t.

    Hatred? A little bit, when people’s rights are taken away in the name of a religion, a superstition or an ideology.
    Bitterness? Yes, sometimes it feels bitter to know that people still lead their life according to racist ideas, middle ages superstitions, or bronze-age mythology.

  30. bikerbright Says:

    Here, here, Enrico. The emperor has no clothes.

  31. The Parisian Says:

    Like several others I was disappointed to read this, as well as surprised. If you have seen his TED talk you’ll know he makes fun of religious superstition too (“I guess they can only have one miracle per building”). But I digress. I want to point to a more fundamental issue: Shermer says atheists should be rational and goes on to advocate a soft approach that he says would be more effective. This is flawed. If “converting” the religious, so to speak, was the *only* goal his argument would work, but there are some people who also value such things as honesty and sharing their true views. Surely Shermer too cannot mean that we should simply manipulate in whatever way works best! He said no such thing of course, but his assumption that rational simply equals “what works” in this context is so simplistic as to be useless.

  32. Viral » Blog Archive » El cielo no puede esperar (2001) Says:

    [...] http://www.michaelshermer.com/2007/09/rational-atheism/#more-266 [...]

  33. Viral » Blog Archive » Por un ateísmo racional Says:

    [...] http://www.michaelshermer.com/2007/09/rational-atheism/#more-266Por Michael Shermer [...]

  34. Broughton Says:

    I’ve listened to Dawkins’ God Delusion unabridged audiobook twice. I’ve been an atheist for 30 years, but Dawkins almost drove me into the arms of the Christian right with his obnoxiousness. He went out of his way not only to offend religious believers, but to offend conservatives and Americans as well. His “Us vs. Them” strategy will fail because there are exponentially more of Them than Us.

  35. Martin Woodhouse Says:

    I would be more impressed with calls for rational (a.k.a. ‘moderate’) atheism if I were ever to see the admission, by atheists, that the reasoning — such as it is — behind their pretty firmly stated viewpoint is in fact exactly the same as for religion: sheer, blind terror and revulsion for another state of affairs which fits, absolutely rationally and equally well, the same observed facts.

    The gas chambers, it’s pointed out, are not comformable with the notion of an all-powerful, all-knowing God who is also proposed as being maximally good. Faced with the observed set of facts which have included, among much else, the separation of children from their parents as an administrative convenience before gassing them in separate chambers, the good-hearted atheist prefers no deny the existence of a divine supervisor of this state of affairs.

    Such a notion is indeed rationally based; but so is another proposed idea: that there exists an all-powerful creator God who is either wholly indifferent to, or indeed actively takes pleasure in, the distress of his creatures; a God Of The Gas Chambers, in fact.

    This notion appalls me, and doubtless appalls any other right-thinking person.

    But — as the rational atheist will be the first to remind us — being appalled by a situation does not mean that it does not exist. Revolting though it may appear, the observed facts fit as well with the notion of an all- powerful and remorselessly cruel deity as they do with the notion of no deity at all.

    Why, then, have atheists chosen the one belief over the other, in the absence of any argument whatever in favour of either? I put it to you that the answer is precisely the same for atheism as it is for optimistic religion: an absolute terror and revulsion for the idea that a God may exist in whose hands we all lie without recourse and who, in fact, delights in our pain and fear.

    It will not be until atheism recognises this — with the corollary that atheism is no more ‘rationally based’ than any other cult belief — that all of us can move the argument forward and out of its present cul-de-sac.

    There is of course nothing necessarily wrong with irrationally-based beliefs. It is just that atheism would do well to realise that it is just such a belief-system, like any other.

    With regards,

    Dr. Martin Woodhouse

  36. L&L Says:

    Dr Woodhouse, you put it well. I would add that the Carl Sagan quotation includes an assumption that atheists regularly make: that they see more clearly than theists. The human “I’m right” assumption isn’t exactly rational. Putting oneself on a pedestal of clear thinking is arrogant; how about a little humility, eh? It’s lacking on both sides.

    What strikes me with people like Dawkins et al is that they seem to have a very limited idea of God – anthropomorphic, an angry old man in the sky. That’s the idea of God I had for a long time and it revolted me; stories like the Flood, the wiping out of billions of lives, do indeed make this the God of the Gas Chambers. But what if those ideas of God are just ridiculous, nothing like the creator? I should add at this point that I am not Christian, nor do I follow any other religion. Belief in divinity, the creator, whatever you wish to call it, doesn’t mean one has to follow a religion.

    The other thing about atheism – at least the angry, vociferous variety that gets the headlines – is that it seems predicated on the notion that the material, measurable world is all there is. It seems one is not allowed to ask, “But what if it isn’t? What if there is more? What if you are wrong?” In the Dawkins brigade’s thinking, that makes one a veritable traitor and certainly lacking in intelligence. Look at his attacks on agnostics, or Stephen Jay Gould, for instance.

    Which brings me back to the original post. Yes, there is a good point in not just doing undergraduate name-calling in these matters. How is telling someone they are an idiot if they don’t agree with you going to get anyone listening? I’ve seen Dawkins described elsewhere as the school bully, the kid who proclaimed that all the kids in his gang are cool and everyone else is uncool. Is his labelling of “Brights” any different, really? Is saying belief shows you are essentially stupid or deluded not the height of arrogance? Look at all the most wonderful minds of history – most of them had some sort of theistic belief.

  37. DaveInNYC Says:

    Very refreshing post. I especially agree with, “Rational is as rational does”. I just got finished reading The God Delusion, and was dismayed at how the man who had written the Selfish Gene (a book which, frankly, changed my life) had seemed to have given up a piece of his rationality in order to convince others of a particular view. It seems that once someone decides to commit themselves to a particular cause (in this case, the spread of Atheism), they can get into an “ends justifies the means” mindset, parially throwing away what originaly led them to Atheism (i.e. rationality). Rationality may imply Atheism, but unfortunately Atheism does not imply rationality.