The Templeton Foundation’s Big Bad (Really Bad) Questions

If you’re listening to the voices—
Those that no one else can hear,
Just a disembodied speaker
When no mortal soul is near—
If you’re listening to the voices
And you think they’re in your head,
There’s a Ph.D. with Templeton
Who thinks it’s God, instead.

If you’re listening to the voices
And you know that you’re alone
You could claim “hallucination”—
Such phenomena are known—
Or a slight misapplication,
An heuristic acting odd;
Or, it’s rational, says Templeton,
To think it could be God

These heuristics often help us;
They’re some helpful rules of thumb
We ignore them at our peril,
So denying God is dumb.
Hearing voices in the static
Seeing faces in a cloud
Why, of all the explanations,
“Cos it’s true!” is not allowed?

If you’re listening to the voices
And you think it’s just your mind
There’s another explanation
That we’d like to help you find:
If you want to say you’re hearing God
But logic says you can’t…
Call the Templeton Foundation
And they’ll offer you a grant

Sometimes I hate my aggregator. It’s one thing when I see ignorant comments in comment sections; it’s quite another when people who should know better are spouting ignorant nonsense; it is still worse when this spouting ignorant nonsense is precisely why somebody is giving them money.

So, yeah, the Templeton Foundation is behind “Big Questions Online“; the current Big Question is “Is Atheism Irrational?”, by Kelly J. Clark. It begins with a misunderstanding of the nature of atheism (which, as you know, is a privative category), conflating it with positive belief. It proceeds with an exploration of “belief in God” (rather than “belief in a god”), as if the perceptual heuristics he speaks of are all leading perceivers to observe the same thing, when in fact the people who claim to be listening to God disagree tremendously. He suggests at one point that atheists don’t see God because we, like autistics, have a cognitive deficit with regard to those heuristics:

If there is a God, one who occasionally speaks to people, then in at least some cases of unbelief, there may be a plausible scientific explanation. Autistic individuals lack, to varying degrees, the ability to impute thoughts, feelings, and desires to personal agents. This undergirds their lack of empathy, which hinders, to varying degrees, their ability to enter into normal interpersonal relationships. The loving parent may speak to them, reach out to them, and embrace them, but the autistic child may be incapable of recognizing and responding to them.

In short, some autistic individuals may be incapable of cognizing a personal God (if there is a God): some are as constitutionally incapable of recognizing a personal God as they are of recognizing a friend.

Recent studies demonstrate a correlation between atheism and autism—one is vastly more likely to be an atheist or agnostic if one is autistic. The higher up one is on the Autism Spectrum, the more likely one is to be an atheist.

(mind you, this does not explain those of us who came to our atheism after decades as believers) (also, I am really doing my best, but now failing, to not mention the correlations between schizophrenia and religious ideation)

And now, the crux:

According to a culturally influential narrative, religious beliefs are irrational because they are caused by unreliable cognitive mechanisms, whereas atheism is rational because it is the product of rational reflection on true beliefs. We have debunked a portion of the narrative: atheism, at least in some cases, is correlated with and mediated by a cognitive deficit.

Some atheism is the product of rational reflection. It’s not at all a requirement, though. Some disbelief in gods (depending on the gods) is shared with religious believers (I’m fairly certain Clark shares my disbelief in Thor). Some is an accident of birth. Some comes from an understanding of physics, or biology, or psychology–but only of one science, and not the others, or perhaps of all. There simply is no single path to atheism, so Clark’s “culturally influential narrative” is a straw man.

Yes, some people have personal experiences that are very moving, and in the absence of a complete understanding of the cultural, biological, and psychological factors involved, those people might rationally decide that their experience is evidence of a god. It would be, too, in precisely the same manner as the face in the clouds is evidence of a man in the sky, or that a tornado is evidence of an angry storm-entity.

But we do know about these cultural, biological, and psychological factors. It is not that the individual following personal experience is irrational, it is rather that he or she is missing the parts of the puzzle that would allow a natural explanation. Given their available evidence, they are quite reasonably arriving at a conclusion that just happens to be wrong when more evidence is brought to bear.

And while individual atheists may be rational, irrational, reasonable, or unreasonable, atheism itself, as a privative, is “none of the above”. This “Big Question”, strangely enough, has a very simple answer: “Mu“.


  1. machintelligence says

    Mu has the advantage of brevity, but “Your question is not well formed” works for me.

  2. Al Dente says

    One thing I find annoying with most theist apologetics is there’s never a definition of “gods.” Are they talking about a vague deist deity who set up the universe and then faded into the background, never to be seen again? Is their god a geezer with a flowing white beard who sometimes answers prayers, decides who wins “the big game” and has an unhealthy fascination with masturbation? Or are their gods something in between?

  3. Linda Grilli Calhoun says

    “If God is talking to all these people, how come He’s telling each one of them something different?”
    Arthur C. Clarke


  4. haitied says

    Aww someone is sciencing backwards again. To clear it up for you Al Dente: They speak of the vague god when they feel it’s convenient. Waggle the vague God around then take out the monotheistic God for the final takedown. . . If they get cornered it’s back to the slippery vague god concept.

  5. says

    First time I read the beginning of that last sentence “Waggle the vague God…” I analyzed if rather like ‘Puff the magic dragon’ and it struck me that ‘Waggle’ was a great name for a vague god.

    I still think it!

  6. says

    enjoyed the verse. I started hearing it to the tune of “Cool for Cats” for some reason

    Sciencing backwards – exactly what is done by sophisticated religinauts including those who are all sciencey and should know better. Very, very strange

  7. hexidecima says

    considering how TrueTheists can’t agree on what god is saying what and indeed, what it “really” means, to clam that atheists are unable to hear these god/s “but but they’re really there” is quite amusing.

  8. embertine says


    Hi Cuttlefish, I had occasion to write a Cuttlepoem recently and I thought I would share it with you:

    How lovely is the cuttlefish;
    Of colouration subtleish,
    She uses so that enemies won’t heed her.
    With eight arms and two tentacles,
    (Their suckers ridged with denticles),
    She is a very versatile Sepiida.

  9. cubist says

    I ‘heard’ this Cuttleverse to a different tune than al kimeea did: Tom’s Diner, by Suzanne Vega.

  10. Cuttlefish says

    Wow… al kimeea and cubist, you have collectively exploded my brain. I did not have either tune bouncing around my skull, but I can easily hear it to either of your tunes… and it freaks me out a bit that two such very different songs (I like both of them) fit my little verse… wow…

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