A Response to 3 Mistakes Atheists Make

This one’s by Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie from the Huffington Post.

The God Wars mostly bore me. In my younger days I enjoyed, at least for a while, the intellectual back-and-forth of the God debates. For me, these exchanges had a game-like quality, and it was fun to play the game. How can a student of religion ignore the rational argumentation of Nietzsche or the psychological insights of Freud? And from time to time, I still find myself intrigued by the God-debunking that serious atheists offer. When Richard Dawkins claims that biology and evolution demonstrate that God does not exist, I must take notice, even if his arguments do not work for me.

I don’t think Richard Dawkins has ever claimed that biology and evolution debunks the existence of a god. All biology and evolution do is state that there is a mechanism to life and how life works. What that also means is that human beings function along entirely natural processes.

It’s very hard to believe in a divine man when you know how poop is made. The magic of humanity is gone when you  know what a spleen is and how it works. But we see a new sort of magic. A magic of mechanism. Of electron transport chains. Bones don’t stop working if you know about osteoclasts and osteoblasts, what they lose in magical power, they gain in the capacity to be fixed. The moon being a celestial body that doesn’t affect our future doesn’t stop being beautiful. Neither does Neil Armstrong’s footprint or the science that put it there detract from the joy of a full moon lit landscape.

The world is a happier place where people do not make personal decisions on love, business and education based on the moon.

Advocates of atheism continue to appear, each new wave of thinkers reshaping what has come before. An example is Philip Kitcher, a professor of philosophy at Columbia University, who has written Life After Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism. While the book will not be out until October, Kitcher offered a preview of his thinking in an interview that he gave to the New York Times in May. The interview had its interesting points, and I look forward to reading the book. Still, what Kitcher has to say is ultimately neither new nor convincing. He makes the same mistakes that most others make who argue the case for atheism or secular humanism, and I hear in his words a tone that is closer to defensive desperation than confident conviction.

In the Kitcher interview, we see the three most common mistakes of those who argue for atheism.

Sure, let us look through them.

1. They dismiss, often with contempt, the religious experience of other people.

It is fine to use critical thinking and unalloyed reason to argue against God. Such arguments are legitimate, but they tell us nothing about the way that much of humankind experiences God, either in the course of regular religious observance or as an exceptional occurrence.

According to Professor Kitcher, research demonstrates that what people refer to as religious experience is either a psychiatric matter or a general feeling of uplift that is then related by the person involved to a religiously entrenched myth. What it is not, Kitcher affirms, is an encounter with the divine. Yet on what possible basis can he make such a claim? The professor has obviously never had a religious experience; but given that 85 percent of people on earth identify with a religious tradition and most believe in God, there is something both sad and arrogant about non-believers asserting with certainty that no one else is capable of a God encounter rooted in transcendence and holiness.

As do you. The good rabbi clearly doesn’t believe in the gods of other faiths. The personal experiences of those people are ignored by the Rabbi as much as we ignore his god. Are we to understand that he thinks those gods are just as real as his god but willingly ignores them? Or perhaps he simply doesn’t believe in the gods of other faiths and thinks them as imaginary or made up in the same way that we don’t believe in his god.

There is a secular event that I am part of that provides a near religious fervor to its adherents. Ally Fogg also is an adherent to my cult. Fights have broken out. People have died. Yet this is an entirely secular thing we both follow. I am talking about football.

Being part of something bigger, chanting for the men on the pitch kicking a ball around just feels good. You feel a rush through you as you chant the songs and elation when they score and depression when they lose. But this doesn’t mean there is a god of football or that the experience of elation is somehow lessened. I have had these quasi religious experiences through music, art and indeed football but I simply do not attribute any of those feelings to a divine being.

How you spin it is how your readers see it. You spin it as sad that we atheists cannot see behind the veil. That there is amazing and wonderful creature of love and light (and occasional atrocity) who we could detect if only we truly opened our hearts to his grace.

Just because 85% of people believe in something doesn’t make that real. Particularly since you are co-opting all religious belief under your banner when you know as well as I do that Hindu religious belief is considered as fake by other religious groups.

I mean the newspaper carries astrology sections, but that doesn’t mean that the moon being in uranus has any effect on your love life.

I repeat. There is no evidence for an actual god being responsible for whatever emotions a believer feels during a “divine encounter”. The Good Rabbi is aware of Jerusalem Psychosis  which is a form of mental illness brought on by someone who is mentally ill being subject to the ideas and influences of religion and believing. I mean really believing that they are on a mission for god. Part of the religious faith of Islam, Judaism and Christianity is it’s “messiah” figures and Jerusalem being central to them gives a large number of people who have this disorder a drive to go to Jerusalem and “do things” thinking they are the next messiah.

Yet I see no drive among the three religions of Jerusalem to embrace these messiah figures. Surely these people are touched by the same god? Or is it because they are mentally ill that their religious experience is so callously ignored.

The reality is that we like religious influences in our life as long as they are harmless and don’t change the status quo. We want to keep rehashing the 10 commandments. We want to keep hating the gays and stopping women from being independent. What we don’t want are these 1200 wannabe Messiah from telling us something new. I think the religious have realised that the difference between prophet and psychosis is just the presence of healthcare.

We aren’t saying that everyone who has a religious experience is mentally ill. We are just saying that people tend to have religious experiences that are rather normal. I was down, angels lifted me up. I was desperate, something lucky happened to help me out. Here is the thing? The good rabbi forgets the number of people who never have the luxury of such religious experiences.  The humans who never get lifted or flee their desperate situations. Often it is humans who are the angels who deliver humans from their demons.

And some people? Never get any such luck. For every young westerner whose  prayers are answered with regards to winning an Oscar there are countless people across the world whose prayers for clean drinking water and food are ignored. The gods move in mysterious ways. Probably due to all those holy spirits they are involved with.

Some spirits

2. They assert that since there are no valid religions but that religions do good things, the task of smart people is to create a religion without God — or, in other words, a religion without religion.

Kitcher is here saying the kind of things that we have recently heard from Alain de Botton and Ronald Dworkin. His argument is that since religion does a good job in promoting values, it should not be abandoned; instead, it should be “refined,” eliminating fundamentalist doctrines and transcendent facets of reality. What will remain is “soft atheism,” a system of advancing enduring values without the need for a belief in God, redemptive elements, or any of the mysteries that religion promotes.

Philosophers have made such proposals before, of course, but what they all have in common is that they do not work. Philosophy can do many things, but it cannot create deep loyalty, profound engagement, or a willingness to sacrifice for one’s beliefs. Religion, whether of the liberal or orthodox variety, does precisely that. And it does so by retaining those things that Kitcher proposes to jettison: a community of believers connected to the holy and convictions rooted in both ritual and faith. What Kitcher is offering is a vague kind of do-gooder’s club, and not only that but one based on fundamental dishonesty. While asserting his commitment to “refined religion” as his starting point, Kitcher admits that his goal is for the religious dimensions of his system to gradually disappear. But who would ever be interested in a religion that is not really a religion at all but, in his words, “a halfway house”? For Kitcher, the “religious” part of his secular humanism is mostly a marketing device, intended to recruit the masses but not to endure, and what it demonstrates is a profound disrespect for the intelligence and sensibilities of ordinary people.

Religion does good things, but one can be good without a religious belief.

And many “good” acts of religion have caused incalculable harm. Just look at the effect of Catholic and other Christian pro-life and pro-abstinence groups in Africa on the HIV epidemic. Or indeed in creating a paranoia of witch hunts.

It’s a mixed bag, the Rabbi doesn’t realise that. That there are religious charities that cause incalculable harm. With his Jewish roots? There is one he must know about.

Hamas. A lot of it’s popularity is due to the charity work that it does. You can do good things while doing bad things at the same time. After all? It’s members are deeply loyal, have a profound engagement with the faith and the people and are legendary for their willingness to sacrifice for their own beliefs.

We all admire the martyr burning at the stake for his intellectual beliefs or the paladin holding back the horde of immoral heretics. But we forget that one man’s paladin is another’s suicide bomber.

The problem with religion is that people can do evil while believing that they are good.

What we suggest is that we can do good things. We can provide the social safety net through secular social programs and the sense of community via other means. See the difference between me and the Rabbi is I think the imaginary being who tells us to kill gays is not integral to the system.

3. They see the world of belief in black and white, either/or terms.

Kitcher is struck by the incredible diversity of religious doctrines. A reasonable person, he suggests, would recognize that there is no way to distinguish doctrines that are true from those that are misguided. His conclusion is that religious doctrines have become “incredible,” and must be rejected in their entirety.

If there are 10,000 contrary religious doctrines, it does not follow that they all are false. But what is most important is the mindset that underlies his thinking: According to Kitcher, either you are a believer or you are not, and given the abundance of conflicting traditions, it is non-belief that makes the most sense. When it comes to religious doctrine, Kitcher, like others in the atheist camp, sees the world in terms of dichotomies: You are a theist or a non-theist, a religious person or a non-religious person.

But, of course, this is not the way that most people function. Some religious people are fanatical, but most are not. The world of belief, which includes a majority of the human race, consists of people who believe but are not always sure; who accept God some of the time but not all the time; and who know that theology is a matter of questions and uncertainties, painted in hues of gray.

Professor Kitcher offers a challenging thesis, but in the final analysis, he — and others like him — simply do not understand a central fact of human history: Drawing on their deepest experiences, most people instinctively reach out to God, and God in turn reaches out to them.

Which is bizarre since atheists are often associated with looking at the world through greys.

What the Rabbi forgets to understand is that “god” is just an entity used to explain away a difficult or inexplicable thing. Why do things fall to the ground? Gravity Fairy. What’s fire? A gift from a god.

The Rabbi’s god is the last voice that we heard in the dark. The rest are dead. Killed by light. By science. By education. Hell, we live in a modern world and we still have people who roam around abandoned houses claiming ghosts exist and running around on night vision cameras looking really scared of each other. All the science we have and some dumbasses still think ghosts exist. We landed on the moon and people still think that it has a magic effect on their love life.

For the majority of history people were ignorant and uneducated. With rising education we find a fall in belief and adherence to organised superstitions.

We get it. Most people who follow a religion are harmless but they do prop up systems of harm. And in the right situation, religion turns harmless people into a deadly force. When you think of Hinduism, you think of Gandhi, not the massacres of the riots of Hindutva. Those were ordinary men and women too.

You paint your theology in grey because it helps hide your god in uncertain terms. He cannot be nailed down and so is safe.

The fact is that we never needed a god to be good. We needed people. Your faith is built on people and a combined belief. If you think the bonds you made would not exist if not for a mythical being then I feel sorry for your friends.

Have faith in humans, we are real and we tend to be the ones who do the good things in life.


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  1. Kevin Kehres says

    Dear Rabbi:

    I do not dismiss “with contempt” what people claim are religious experiences. I explain them as being all-natural, “inside your own brain”, and completely subject to scientific investigation. We know where they are situated and which regions of the brains fire when religious experiences are being felt. We use something called “science” to do this — you might want to stop sacrificing pigeons and look into it.

    You cannot claim that a religious experience is the result of a real reaction with a single (ie, “your”) god. That’s because people of all stripes and backgrounds have religious experiences related to every god invented by man. People even have the same “religious” experiences with things such as est and other pseudo-religious nonsense. If there was only one god — as the Torah claims — then the religious experience would be only a representation of that particular (ie, “real”) god. The fact that it’s a common phenomenon representing multiple gods and non-gods is direct evidence that it’s not god-produced, but brain-produced.

    If you disagree with this, then talk to your local Hare Krishna convert about her religious conversion and then try to dismiss it by saying it wasn’t “real” and only YMVH is the true god. When you understand why this is a bad idea, you’ll then understand why your complaint is 100% invalid.

  2. says

    “Professor Kitcher offers a challenging thesis, but in the final analysis, he — and others like him — simply do not understand a central fact of human history: Drawing on their deepest experiences, most people instinctively reach out to God, and God in turn reaches out to them.

    Actually, what we don’t understand is how you justify asserting the highlighted text as a fact. Or how, in light of the myriad religions promulgated throughout human history that advanced claims drastically in opposition to yours, how you even justify the claim that it’s your god all these various theistic people were reaching out to.

  3. says

    How can a student of religion ignore the rational argumentation of Nietzsche

    Did he actually write that?? Perhaps Nietzsche’s argumentation sounds rational to a religious person, but to a philosopher accustomed to David Hume, Epicurus, and Sextus Empiricus, that’s gotta be some kind of sly joke.

  4. says


    Congrats Dr Avicenna! As the husband of a newly-minted doctor I have some idea of how hard you must’ve worked to get there. Kudos.

  5. says

    According to Professor Kitcher, research demonstrates that what people refer to as religious experience is either a psychiatric matter or a general feeling of uplift that is then related by the person involved to a religiously entrenched myth. What it is not, Kitcher affirms, is an encounter with the divine. Yet on what possible basis can he make such a claim?

    Wait, you just said he referred to research…and then you ask what basis?

    Also, the dismissal of atheists as having never had such experiences is pure fabrication. They have. Richard Carrier describes a very interesting experience in Sense and Goodness Without God.

    And, no, these experiences are not mere “emotions”. They are more like very vivid dream-like understandings, or drug induced states such as ego death, false detection of a life force, etc.

  6. Christian Giliberto says

    I think others’ have already done the work of responding to the Rabbi’s rather feeble claims pretty effectively, so I just want to add that his characterizations of Kitcher’s position seemed completely bizarre to me as well. Kitcher is one of my favorite living philosophers, and I read his work very regularly, including recent work on the religion topic[1][2] and the Rabbi’s Kitcher does not sound like the actual Kitcher at all. A tone of “defensive desperation?” If anything, I’d describe Kitcher’s tone as “patient almost to a fault.”

    Also, Kitcher’s ideas about what is good in religion are not the same as, say, Dworkin’s (which is much more akin to Kant’s “moral religion,” based around a form of ethical non-naturalism). Kitcher does not think we need a sort of “moral religion,” he thinks that ethics as such is a radically different, naturalistic, and democratic matter[3]. What he sees as of value in religion includes its abilities to provide structures and senses of community, charity, to inspire people to positive political action (although he knows it just as if not more often inspires negative political action), etc. And he sees religion as one of the few places that the oppressed have left for these things in a world of massive inequality, where the progressive left has been feeble for several decades, where social services are being gutted, where community spaces are being privatized or gentrified or both, etc. So Kitcher’s complaint (rightly or wrongly) is that when people are afraid to lose something when they give up religion, it is not enough to point out that actually a life without religion can be very existentially meaningful etc. etc. since that is a matter of individual affect and the feared loss is in large part social. As (in Kitcher’s view) right now there is no viable alternative for meeting these needs to religion, and in the absence broader social changes that would make religion less appealing (a great reduction in the economic precarity of most people’s lives, for instance) the best intermediate option is to try to provide for these needs with something a little more similar to a religion. No “dishonesty” or disrespect for people’s intelligence here.

    Moving away from Kitcher to the Rabbi’s case in general, as others have already shown, it is easy to dismantle. Religious experience is not very strong evidence of God unless one already assumed God exists, especially given the cultural relativity of most of these experiences, and the fact they can be totally non-theistic. I was a very serious Zen Buddhist for many years, where what causes the experience (such as an experience of mu) is irrelevant, it’s the character of the experience. And what does he think inspired lines like:

    “As the bare green hill,
    When some soft cloud vanishes into rain,
    Laughs with a thousand drops of sunny water
    To the unpavilioned sky!”

    Or many other non-theistic artists? Indeed, I think extent to which so-called religious experience is aesthetic is woefully underappreciated.

    That the vast majority of people have been “religious” in some sense is probably true, but epistemically irrelevant. The vast majority of people have believed all sorts of incorrect things. That the vast majority of people have “reached out to God” is unlikely, given the prevalence of non-theistic religions, polytheism, various forms of animism, etc. both throughout history and today. We atheists are often accused of being reductive and unnuanced in our treatment of religion, and yet time and time again (including here) it is the religious advocate being incredibly reductive, assimilating this very complex and diverse social phenomenon called “religion” to post-Medieval Abrahamic monotheism.

    Finally, while it does not “follow” – if by “follow” we mean “logically necessitates” – from the diversity of religious doctrines that they are all false, it does provide inductive evidence that they are for a variety of reasons.

    [1]Kitcher, P. 2011. “Challenges for Secularism,” in his 2011.Preludes to Pragmatism Oxford University Press
    [2]Kitcher, P. 2011. “Militant Modern Atheism,” Journal of Applied Philosophy 28:1-13
    [3]Kitcher, P. 2011. The Ethical Project. Harvard University Press

  7. mistertwo says

    “The professor has obviously never had a religious experience; but given that 85 percent of people on earth identify with a religious tradition and most believe in God, there is something both sad and arrogant about non-believers asserting with certainty that no one else is capable of a God encounter rooted in transcendence and holiness.”

    I was a Christian for 41 years (from age 11 in 1971 to age 52 in 2012), and I never had a religious experience. What’s more, back in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, nobody I knew had a religious experience except for the Pentecostals, whom most Christians thought of as members of a cult.

    In the last few years people have begun to attribute certain of their own thoughts to “God” or “The Holy Spirit,” when once they would have said these thoughts were there own. As an example, awhile back a friend posted an analogy using the then-current flooding near her home in Colorado and how it related to something religious. But instead of just posting her thoughts, she said she was thinking about it and “God gave me a word!” So when she thinks of something non-religious, she just thinks of it, but if it’s religious, well, it must have come directly from God.

    I suppose I was guilty near the end, too. I transitioned into a job from a contract position and, though I felt certain I would come out badly in the monetary department, the company actually did their best to make sure that I (and a whole lot of other people in the same situation) suffered very little negative impact. I publicly praised God for this. I wouldn’t have used the term “religious experience,” but I suppose that’s what I should have said. Looking back, I see exactly how it all happened, and there is one person in particular that I had to thank for his insistence that the company take care of us. (And I suspect that this really honest and caring person isn’t a believer, thought I’ve never heard him say anything about religion. Fortunately, that’s a subject that simply never comes up at my place of business.)

    So, yeah, these cases are anecdotal, but “that must have been God” does not constitute an actual religious experience.

  8. John Horstman says

    How can a student of religion ignore the rational argumentation of Nietzsche or the psychological insights of Freud?

    And he already lost me. Nietzsche is most interesting for his subjectivist models of self-construction (which I would never primarily describe as “rational”) and language/communication, and Freud was an almost entirely worthless hack.

  9. Crimson Clupeidae says

    [W]hat Kitcher has to say is ultimately neither new nor convincing.

    I find this the height of irony coming from a religious person.

  10. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    To Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie:

    Responding to point 1:
    I do dismiss the apparent hallucinations of people.

    If you can demonstrate with proper evidence that your apparent hallucinations are not hallucinations, then I will no longer be an atheist. However, the current evidence is overwhelming that they are hallucinations with simple natural causes. You cite how most people in the world are religious, and yet hold to radically different conclusions about religion. This is the best evidence we have that visions are hallucinations and should not be trusted, even by those who experience them.

    It is often said that your experience is good enough for you, but not good enough for me. That’s wrong. Your experience shouldn’t be good enough even for you. You should be able to look at the available evidence and conclude that your purported experiences are hallucination. It’s the only rational conclusion. For a full discussion of this topic, please see:
    >The Argument from “It Just Makes Sense to Me”
    By Tracie Harris

    Responding to point 2:
    Very few people in my group would characterize religions as mostly beneficial groups. In fact, most people in my group would characterize religion as a toxin and poison. Christopher Hitchens once said that religion poisons everything (and wrote a book on it). He’s much closer to the truth than you are. When someone has cancer, and you cure it, what do you replace it with? It’s a silly question. Similarly, I think atheists who ask what should we replace religion with are asking a silly question.

    Instead, we should emphasize and strengthen the non-religious aspects of our culture which are wrongly appropriated by religion, including charity, morality, and a sense of community.

    The only aspect that religion has a reasonable claim to is providing a sense of community via tribalism. Sense of community, and actual community, is a good thing. However, when it comes at the expense of tribalism, dogma, and rejection of science, it’s not worth it. Secular alternatives may be less effective, but we should pursue that route.

    And yes, all religion is a rejection of science and skepticism. No one has compelling evidence for any gods. (Or if they do, they haven’t brought it to the attention of scientific journals.) That means anyone who believes in a god does so for no good reason. Thus it’s a combination of ignorance and willful make-believe aka willful delusion.

    Note: As mentioned in point 1 – in most case, if your own personal religious experience isn’t good enough to convince me, then it shouldn’t be enough to convince you. You are a fallible human being with many cognitive biases and outright defects. You need to acknowledge this, and use the method of science to overcome those limitations, rather than embrace those defects.

    Also, specific point:

    Philosophy can do many things, but it cannot create deep loyalty, profound engagement, or a willingness to sacrifice for one’s beliefs.

    My fucking ass. Living in America, you might be familiar with the slogans “Give me liberty, or give me death!” and “Live Free Or Die!” (the official state motto of New Hampshire). See the associated history of this, and many other secular (and not so secular) movements, including nationalism and sports teams fans. Your assertion is patently absurd.

    Responding to point 3:
    This is a mishmash which borders on word salad.

    If there are 10,000 distinct religious doctrines, then it follows logically that all but 1 are false. That’s what the word “distinct” means (combined with a belief in a singular universal truth on matters concerning stuff in our shared reality). That means that there are natural causes for the other 9,999 religious doctrines. If all of those religious doctrines appear to have the same history, and proponents adopt near-identical defenses, then the only sound conclusion is that whatever natural explanations work for the 9,999 other religions also apply quite well to the last religion. So, it does “follow logically” that they’re all false. This is the best argument IMHO against the truth of religion.

    Now, if one of those religions was fundamentally different in history, defense, or evidence, then the above argument would not apply. However, Christianity is a religion like any other, and its evidence and defense is of the same character used to defend many other religions. Thus it’s false.

    I agree some people take their religion more seriously than others. That has absolutely nothing to do with whether the religion is true.

    Your conclusion:

    Drawing on their deepest experiences, most people instinctively reach out to God, and God in turn reaches out to them.

    Unjustified assertion. “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” – Christopher Hitchens. Furthermore, I actually have evidence that you’re wrong. Your experiences are real, but your understanding of your experiences is wrong. You did not experience god. You had a perfectly natural experience. Perhaps hallucination. Perhaps just a feeling of awe. But whatever it was, it was not having communication with a god.


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