My story of faith

Andy says the Washington Post is asking for personal “spiritual stories”. They want it under 400 words, and they’re looking for “a time of crisis that tested your faith, the person who most influenced your beliefs, a life-changing event that shaped your spiritual identity, or a religious teaching or ritual that you find especially moving.” Awww, how heart-warming.

I sent mine in. I doubt that they’ll accept it, so I’ve put a copy below the fold.

My story of faith

When I was a young man, I was a regular member of the Lutheran church. I attended Sunday services, I went to Sunday school, I was a member of the choir, I was even an acolyte — I wore the funny robes and marched up with the minister to light the candles at the start of services. I signed up for confirmation classes and went every week. I read the Bible, I read the Lutheran catechism, I memorized the Nicene creed.

I also lived near the town library. I was there every day. I started reading Scientific American. Seriously, I’d read the whole thing, cover to cover, struggling with many of the articles, but it was worth it. I learned that the world was a wonder, and people could actually spend their lives trying to understand it. Science was like a laser that burned the superstition and empty rituals of the church out of my brain.

I suddenly realized something: in all the theological texts, in all the dogma I was committing to memory, there wasn’t even the tiniest fraction of the beauty and joy and truth I could find in one short article on insect biomechanics, or cytoplasmic transport, or recreational mathematics.

I walked away from the church, unconfirmed, with no regrets, and happy that I’d replaced the burden of dusty, dead authoritarianism with participation in the living world. Apostasy tastes sweet and satisfying, and I can thank a local library and the good scientists who published in Sci Am.


  1. says

    Thanks for admitting that your atheism is a matter of faith, PZ. Not many atheists have the guts to do that.

  2. says

    Just to be clear, I’m an atheist encouraging other atheists to write in, not some believer in fluffy feelgood magical myths looking to warm hearts. :)

  3. j says

    Jason, I think it was supposed to be ironic. Sending in a story about losing one’s faith instead of a heartwarming story about a crisis that strengthed one’s faith is irony.

  4. says

    I assumed no one would confuse you with a bible-thumper, Andy.

    By the way, where did I “admit” that atheism was a matter of faith? The request was for a story about a test of my faith. I wrote about a time that tested my Christian faith.

    It failed.

  5. Steve LaBonne says

    I was a good little Catholic till I was 12, when I suddenly realized that the stuff I had been brought up on was no different from any other body of mythology. I’ve been sane ever since.

  6. kmarissa says

    Who knows, they might publish it. They DO ask for “a life-changing event that shaped your spiritual identity, or a religious teaching or ritual that you find especially moving.”

    Just that yours was “moving” in a direction AWAY from religion.

    Oooh, maybe we should ALL send ours in! A flood of atheism…

  7. says

    Great story PZ, but you know it’s not going to get published. The unspoken qualifier is ‘but only stories that end up with you reaffirming your faith in spiritualism’. They might as well ask people to send in stories about how they fell for 419 scams, or how they joined a pyramid scheme.

  8. Steve LaBonne says

    No doubt that psilocybin study will find its way into the 2nd edition of Dennett’s book. ;)

  9. j says

    I was always an atheist, but my parents advocated religious tolerance. After reading the Bible and the Quran and talking to evangelical Christians, I abandoned religious tolerance.

    Guess I have no story of faith.

  10. Christopher Gwyn says

    Is it ‘faith’ to believe something supported by (or explicitly not contridicted by) objectively observable evidence? If the answer is ‘yes’ then Atheism is a Faith, if the answer is ‘no’ then atheism is not a faith.

  11. says

    Hum diddle diddle dum. Just realized that I’m browsing from a different computer today that doesn’t have the anti-troll killfile installed. I hop over and install it and begin merrily humming They Might Be Giants: “After killing Jason off and countless screaming Argonauts. . . .”

  12. Alexander Whiteside says

    “Thanks for admitting that your atheism is a matter of faith, PZ. Not many atheists have the guts to do that.”

    I don’t see how “Scientific American > Church”, or his other point, “science is beautiful” is equal in meaning to “Atheism is a matter of faith”.

  13. says

    PZ: not at all. By the way, my husband is a very rich Nigerian refugee and i am trying to find someone to help me get his money out of the country…

  14. flame821 says

    I think Kmarissa has a good idea.

    I would think that if they got a good number of atheists writing in about their positive ‘conversion’ to logic and reasoning – at the very lest it might encourage them to either publish a few or perhaps do a follow up article about the rise in atheism.

    I would love to remove atheism and liberal from the current list of socially unacceptable words. We need to take our language back from the thugs that keep changing their definitions. Once we start speaking the same language again than MAYBE we can have some reasoned debate and conversations with theists and conservatives and get America back on track.

  15. G. Tingey says

    NO, no, no …

    It’s JASON and the Arguments -yes it is, no it isn’t …

    ( Anyone else out there come across Les Barker? … )

  16. says

    My problem is that I wasn’t “converted” to logic and reason. I just grew up that way because my parents weren’t interested in filling their child’s head with Preprocessed Faith-o-Flakes. This godless-all-along attitude has stood the test of life, including the deaths of loved ones. Instead of a single conversion moment, a pointlike instant frozen on my personal timeline, I have a history of discovery. Maybe I could pick out a highlight and write it up in 400 words, but that’s not really what the WaPo is asking for. . . .

  17. PaulC says


    Thanks for admitting that your atheism is a matter of faith, PZ.

    Jason, thanks for conceding that faith is an inferior epistemological basis to reason.

    Not that there is anything unusual in that. If theists and atheists agree on one thing, it’s that faith is a pretty weak reason for believing anything.

  18. says

    I’d like a definition of the word “faith”.
    (I’m serious, I know my dictionary definition of “faith” and “belief”, but I need the english native speaker’s one)

  19. PaulC says

    PZ: I have no idea if WaPo would publish it, but I could see it running as a “This I believe” segment on NPR if you shoehorned it into the format. They ran a segment by Penn Jillete that was less circumspect about his atheism. True, they probably have some kind of atheist quota going on and have not run anything similar to my knowledge. I can picture WaPo also publishing you as “token atheist.” Go for it!

  20. George says

    “…a time of crisis that tested your faith, the person who most influenced your beliefs, a life-changing event that shaped your spiritual identity, or a religious teaching or ritual that you find especially moving…”

    … and we might condescend to publish your little story IF it passes muster with the corporatized, upper-crust, white Protestant, church-attending, superior editors of the Washington Post.

  21. PaulC says


    (I’m serious, I know my dictionary definition of “faith” and “belief”, but I need the english native speaker’s one)

    Belief is a more general concept. I can believe that my foot will hurt if I drop a brick on it. That’s not a matter of faith, but something with a substantial weight of evidence behind it (not to mention the weight of baked clay). I can believe that 2+2=4, and this one is even provable given an axiom system for the natural numbers. I have exceptionally good cause for that belief unless I want to start doubting my own rational capacity–and maybe I should, but that doesn’t leave me with a lot left to go on from there.

    Faith covers the set of beliefs that are not back up by anything else. Where it gets hairy is that even religious people will distinguish between “blind faith” (the bad kind that would cause you to decide it was a good idea to jump off a bridge if all your friends did it) and… err… some other kind of faith that is supposed to be good (and involves being “filled with the spirit” or some similar thing that isn’t really evidence in the traditional sense, because if it were then you’d have rational belief rather than faith). OK, that’s where I have to turn over the microphone to a religious person because 12 years of Catholic education never quited nailed that one down for me.

  22. says

    Since you brought up that earlier greasemonkey killfile script, Blake Stacey, I’ll plug my version, which works on all of, on anything that hosts comments on haloscan, on most livejournal pages, on the Panda’s Thumb, and on anything else I wanted to scrub trolls off of.

  23. says

    Having been brought up by largely rational Catholics who were also either accomplished musicians or scientists, I grew up with a sorta Jesuit mindset where the spiritual and scientific co-existed peacefully. Then, when my son was two, the double whammy of Srebenica following close on the heels of McVeigh’s fertilizer escapades in Oklahoma City pretty much sealed the deal for me against God. I figured any deity that either was powerless to stop senseless suffering or chose not to wasn’t worth my time. Now I’ve joined the ranks of recovering Catholics, along with, strangely, most of those musicians and scientists who raised me in the first place.

  24. Lya Kahlo says

    Thanks for admitting that you don’t know what the word “faith” means, Jason.

  25. dd says

    Thanks for the memory. Substitute Episcopal for Lutheran, and Sci Am as a gift from my parents about 6th or 7th grade, and I have pretty much the same story. I still remember an article from the first issue, dealing with the chemical basis for firefly illumination. Some of your readers will appreciate this joke — the chemical involved is called Luciferase.

  26. CrispyShot says

    Has anyone seen that bumper sticker:
    God WAS my copiliot, but we crashed in the Andes and I had to eat Him


  27. PaulC says


    Faith means believing something that is untrue or can’t be disproved.

    Sorry, that’s too restrictive. You accept something on faith if you don’t have a proof but believe it anyway. That doesn’t mean that it cannot be proved or refuted, just that you personally possess neither a proof nor a refutation. It also has nothing to do with whether the item in question is true. It could be true and possible to demonstrate with evidence, but if you belief it without having evidence, then your belief is a matter of faith as opposed to reason.

    In practice, faith is often applied to beliefs that are either untrue or unfalsifiable, but this is not a definition.

  28. says

    For me, it was kind of gradual: I always kept my religiousity fairly low, with my concept of God being, ironically, secular in outlook, with him favoring the spirit of the First Amendment, among other things. Needless to say, he was opposed to his presence in the Pledge and on our monies.

    Got to thinking about omnipotence: If God is incorruptible, he wouldn’t really be much of a person. If God is a person, absolute power corrupts absolutely. So I dumped the omnipotence for that reason, in addition to ye olde problem of evil.

    God got a large set of such downgrades over time. Then I thought to myself, “What purpose does he serve?” He was unnecessary, since materialist science covered all the big jobs just fine without him, and I didn’t need some big invisible babysitter (a job he’d be opposed to, Prime Directive, and all). So, either he was on par with the Parking Space Fairy, or didn’t exist. The latter was more dignified for the both of us.

  29. says

    I have always known gods are myths. I think it’s obvious to any child unless ‘converted’ to religion.

    My Mother (You notice I capitalize that, but not god? She is worthy of it.) was brought up in an English christian school run by nuns. She was about 9 years old. In a discussion of the fish in the sea that included pictures fisherman pulling huge catches from the ocean, she asked “What will happen once the fisherman have taken too-many fish?”

    Her answer? She was beaten with a ruler across the hands until all her fingers bled. She was locked in a closet for the day without water or a break for the restroom.

    How dare she question god’s bounty! Evil child!

    She says she remembers how clear it was to her even then that it was all fantasy and lies. She had suspected to that point, but how could so many important people be wrong? She knew that the only reason to answer her question with such abuse was because she had let a bit of the truth spill out.

    She was tested against faith that day, and won. Thanks, Mom!

  30. says

    Thanks for the definitions. I think I’d translate “faith” and “belief” with the same word, but there would be implicit meanings according to the context.

  31. PaulC says

    OK, since we’re doing personal statements here. I consider myself an agnostic rather than atheist. That means if God wants to talk, He’s got my number. Operationally speaking, this is doesn’t differ significantly from being atheist, nor did being a practicing Catholic really except for having to be places to do things at certain times.

  32. PaulC says

    Let me add that I agree with much of what PZ wrote. Religion and science both involve many wondrous things. The difference is that in science, you don’t have to devote a great deal of effort to pretending to see these wonders because they are really there and can be observed directly.

  33. evolvealready says

    I never got agnosticism, really. I found the idea not too disimilar to thinking: well there isn’t any really compelling evidence for sasquatch, or fairies, or unicorns…but ya never know! I do not believe they exist. I’m not agnostic about it. I am an a-sasquatchist, a-fairieist and a-unicornist. Also, I do not believe in god. I’m an a-theist.

  34. PaulC says

    Hey, if bigfoot wants to look me up, I’ll buy him a beer. I don’t really see why it matters whether I have some definitive view on bigfoot until I have to act on that view. I call this the lazy-evaluation approach to belief. I’m aware that my brain is filled with falsehoods and even contradictory beliefs, and that I’ll never get rid of them all, so I focus on the ones that actually matter.

    I probably wouldn’t spend any money looking for bigfoot. I might go on a bigfoot finding trip if it sounded otherwise amusing, though.

  35. evolvealready says


    Speaking of Scientific American…I just pulled the latest issue from my mailbox! Yippee!

  36. steve s says

    Has anyone seen that bumper sticker:
    God WAS my copiliot, but we crashed in the Andes and I had to eat Him


    Posted by: CrispyShot | July 13, 2006 12:32 PM

    I have, and it’s pretty badass.

  37. No Nym says

    Actually, what tested (and later ended) my faith was reading the Bible. I was a rather straight laced young Catholic, who was starting to question the Word. As a remedy some family suggested that I read the Bible. So I did. There’s a passage in the OT about two young girls who can’t find any suitable men, so they get their father drunk and…. You can imagine how this might have seemed to a rather straight laced Catholic. The rest of the OT was no better, in terms of the raping, the killing, the genocide…..

    Between the OT and the miracles of the NT, it was over.

  38. G. Tingey says

    Here’s mine – sent to Wash Post …

    I was brought up in the established Church of England – I can still see the same church tower from my front windows, but the local vicar was something of a fundamentalist.

    One day, he started preaching about the coming end-times (this was about 1960), and how there was an (unspecified) crack in the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and how one small earthquake could signal the end of the World. I remember thinking “is that right? Is that true? Where’s the evidence?”
    Then, next week, he started on about how the PLO (who are “respectable now, but Fatah was into terrorism then …) were the descendants of the Philistines (which I knew to be dubious) and how the Israelites were the “Children of god who would soon see the true way”
    I had jewish friends at school, who nearly hurt themselves laughing when I told them of this.
    About a fortnight later, I found out why my godmother, a district nurse, no longer went to church, especially that one.
    She was in the congregation one day, when the same vicar started a sermon on the subject of “The sins of the fathers shall be visited on the children” and she knew that there were people in the congregation who had what were then called “Mongol” (Downs’ Syndrome) children, and they were looking distinctly uneasy. She stood up in the middle of his sermon, denounced him, and walked out – this had been back in 1954.
    This information, and this christians’ preaching certainly started me thinking on the value of religion.
    Then, about a month later, he denounced evolution from his pulpit.
    I stopped going about a week later, and I’ve not been back.
    If religion rots your brain as badly as that, I wanted nothing to do with it.
    I’ve been a lot better without the crushing burden of irrationality ever since.
    And, since then we’ve had the US-led brain-dead moving in, and the Taliban, and the Irish xtians killing each other and …….

  39. ctw says

    “Belief is a more general concept.”

    to continue beating a dead (perhaps still-born) horse, it’s not clear to me that the belief process we tend to think of when we use the term “faith” is as evidence-independent as you (and many others) suggest. for example, yesterday I spent a fair amount of time tracking down some of the references posted by mr vargas in an earlier post, and found them all to be lengthy discussions of the “evidence” supporting the “truth” of the bible. to reiterate (from previous comments in this fora), I view belief in X as being essentially a conditional probability (not explicitly but implicitly calculated) of the truth of X given a weighted set of input “evidence” sources. some choose as input sources SciAm articles, writing/talks by established specialists, et al; others choose religious books, assertions by jerry falwell, the manifest wonders of nature, et al; and we all apply our own weights and compare the resulting conditional probability to our own belief thresholds. ie, I see the process as much the same with similar evidence source classes but different specific sources, weights, and thresholds.

    consequently, I try to be a little more accepting of the well-behaved who have “faith” (ie, evidence from sources to which I personally would assign low – typically zero – weight) because I consider that they do base their belief on evidence. it’s just that I consider them to be putting unjustifiably large weights on some very questionable sources or to have some remarkably low belief thresholds.

    this “idea” is my own creation based on no professional status or input, so I’ll abandon in a second given credible controverting evidence, or even cogent counterargument. I’ve floated it several times around here, and to date no one has challenged it – perhaps, of course, because it’s seen as too naive to warrant a response.

  40. No Nym says

    Why do so many people think that atheism is a kind of faith? Name one atheist who, upon seeing the body of Jesus Christ trace its endless orbit through our solar system, would not come to believe in the Assumption?

    Seriously, atheism is about evidence. When God, or Yaweh, or Elohim, or any of his buddies from Psalm 82 gets off his ass and comes down and knocks on my door, I’ll be open to the idea. It’s not that god is impossible, just that there’s no evidence. Faith is the opposite of this.

  41. steve s says

    here’s my email:

    I was about 8 years old and had become fascinated with science. It was amazing, knowing these behind-the-scenes mechanisms to things. The cycle of evaporation, condensation, rain, runoff, etc, was particularly neat because it was an endless loop. Same with the seasons. All you had to do was understand a few things and you had a powerful knowledge which could tell you rough things about the future, and this cycle would repeat itself through the millions of years. It was all really breathtaking, and powerful stuff. And so I distinctly remember one day when I asked an elderly relative where heaven was, and she told me ‘God doesn’t want you asking those kinds of questions’. And it hit me like a fist. This information was not like the science information. It doesn’t tell you anything, it’s of no use, and anyone can just make it up. And ever since, I’ve gotten my sense of awe and wonder from the world as we understand it through science, and not through old fairy tales.

    Steve Story
    (personal info redacted because of evil creeps like Davetard)

  42. Scott H says

    I loved Frac’s turn of phrase: “She was tested against faith that day, and won.”

    On the not-so-funny side, I know just what we’ll see when the letters are published: every crisis of faith involves suffering on the part of the writer or their loved ones. I’d be astonished if we see even one letter where someone’s faith was tested by hearing of AIDS in Africa, war in the Middle East or Chechnya, or any other amount of suffering which occurs safely far away.

    And we’ll be told this is inspiring stuff.

  43. George Cauldron says

    Jason’s confusion isn’t surprising. Wingnuts don’t do irony, or they think it’s the same thing as sarcasm.

    Also, they have so little basis for their beliefs, they assume it must be the same for everyone else.

  44. MYOB says

    By the time I was 5 years old I found something unsavory and unseemly about those people who went to church. I found it had an alarming ‘cultlike’ aspect to it that bothered me, and mind you that at five years old the word ‘cult’ was unknown to me.
    I still believed in the concept of a ‘fatherly figure’ who answered prayers, but the way the followers chose to respond and to act in reference to this fatherly figure bothered me more than the notion of actually believing.
    Since that time I have come to accept that the moment this subject becomes a matter of religion rather than faith the whole thing loses it’s meaning and is bastardized into something more to the liking of those who claim to be the worhippers than to that of the worshipped. Rather than man made in god’s image it became god made in man’s image and that is why I oppose it today.


  45. PaulC says

    No Nym:

    Actually, what tested (and later ended) my faith was …

    Oh, if that’s the question… what tested my faith is pretty simple. It was never science. That can coexist easily enough as far as I’m concerned.

    What strains my belief is that if you took a truly uniform random sample of the space of people around the world who purport to be religious, and are also decent, smart, and behave as responsible adults, you’d find that they agree on some basic ethics, but have wildly different views on allegedly important dogma.

    There are two ways to resolve this: One is that all of these seemingly nice people are wrong and are going to hell (or maybe just some sort of re-education camp in purgatory) and it’s my duty to spread my religion, which is the one true one. The other is that none of it makes a great deal of sense and is largely a matter of tradition. I was brought up to respect diversity, so the first resolution was not an option. I also thought it would be pretty improbable that I just happened to be lucky enough to be born in the correct tradition.

    The second option, on the other hand, seems to fit all the available data. Shared human beliefs usually have some reasonable basis, while those that differ arbitrarily can almost always be attributed to some kind of received wisdom spanning generations. If I think all these other people believe some weird stuff, I have to assume that they think the same about me.

  46. says

    We don’t go to God’s house anymore
    Saw the light and walked right out the door
    We don’t go to God’s house
    It’s more fun in the doghouse
    We don’t go to God’s house anymore
    — chumbawamba

  47. Alan says

    If *I* had written that essay, PZ, I could have started out with the same two paragraphs you did. I was so strongly influenced by Scientific American while growing up that I still am more proud of my own article in Scientific American than I am of my articles in Science.

    However, I would have diverged at that point and written that my insight into science assured me of a creator much wiser and grander than anything imaginable or creatable by mankind. I do not base decisions about faith in God on what I observe in human organizations such as a church – that kind of faith would have no more validity than faith in George Bush, Enron, or Hezbollah. Instead, my decisions are based on what I observe that has not been corrupted by the ignorance or arrogance of mankind. I have observed indescribably magnificent things in nature, and am certain that I see only a miniscule fraction of what is magnificent.

    All this humbles me to the point that I am driven back into Church, where I accept that I am a product of forces and intelligence that I will never fully understand, where I understand the difference between worshipping the creator rather than the created, and where those rituals are no longer empty. At work in my lab, I feel joy and privilege at often being the first person to see some bit of glorious truth about nature.

    Of course I work and study hard, but the ability to do those things was given to me, as was my education, skills, and position. Under these circumstances, it seems quite imprudent to assert, with an understanding of the universe as small as mine, that there is no “giver”.

  48. says

    I’m a process oriented person. I follow the processes of the natural world around me and watch how things work and change. I think it is this approach to life that differs from the faith-based approach. I don’t have “faith” that the world works the way it does, I simply know that it does. And I see no need for any “higher” power to direct that process. The process itself is the process itself.

    Religions are wonderful if taken as tools to produce psychological growth. But eventually, you inevitably grow beyond them if you follow them correctly. When you reach that point, the methodology and the belief used to get there aren’t needed anymore. The mythology is beautiful, but it is mythology. I think reading Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey was probably my turning point, realizing all these religions really pointed to the same thing.

    The other fascinating thing to me is the brain studies showing religion activates the amygdalya, the same area of the brain involved in love. Perhaps the real need for those who believe is to get their fix, their spiritual high. You can do the same thing with many different drugs, with physical activity, with sex. There are many, many paths. To say religion is the only acceptable one is very, very limiting.

  49. meridian says

    Technically, “atheist” just means “one who does not believe in God or gods” — it’s not specifically nonreligious.

    I consider Buddhism and Taoism to be atheistic religions because they have no deities. The whole idea that “atheists” are amoral, or immoral, is ridiculous twice over when that fact is considered.

    What the whole theism thing is about is ably explained today by Jesus’ General: Kim Jong-il, patron saint of the Glorious Conservative Christian Cultural Revolution

    … Christians are good citizens. We’re commanded by the scriptures to obey those that are in authority over us whoever they may be. — Franklin Graham

    Ultimately, this religion thing always boils down to who gets to play God-the-Father here on Earth. The fundies are infuriated by people who think for themselves. They couch it in moral terms to engage a knee-jerk reaction whenever possible.

    I was given the choice to continue practicing Catholicism or quit after my first Holy Communion. My dad was the head of a research lab for an East Coast chemical company, and while my mom is still a Catholic, she is wise enough not to push it on anybody else.

    To this day every time I have to be in a church for a wedding (or, worse, a funeral in which the dead person’s memory is supplanted by all kinds of Christ talk in the name of “comforting the afflicted”) it still gives me the creeps.

  50. PaulC says

    No Nym:

    Name one atheist who, upon seeing the body of Jesus Christ trace its endless orbit through our solar system, would not come to believe in the Assumption?

    Actually, based on my understanding (Catholic education), I would call that a disproof of the Ascension (nitpick: Assumption refers to Mary). Heaven is not supposed to be part of the observable universe. I grant that the distinction between heaven and outer space might not have been as clear at the time the New Testament was written.

  51. David Harmon says

    Hmm.. this topic does seem to be making the rounds. The thing is, I’ve *had* plenty of magical/mystical spiritual experiences, from synagogue to Neo-Paganism, and yes various drugs. I still occasionally do shamanic journeys. And yet I now consider myself atheist…. Because “experience” begs the question of “meaning”, and others as well. Also because the special effects didn’t actually seem to be helping other people solve their problems, let alone helping with mine. (What has helped? Psychopharm, Cognitive-Behavioral work, and NeuroPsych.) Indeed, among the Neo-Pagans it’s generally recognized that the magical experiences themselves can be addictive, with peculiar consequences.

    Oh, yeah — I’m with PZ on the wicked waffliness of the word “agnostic”. ;-)

    Other comments I’ve recently made on this topic:
    Cooment 15 at


  52. steve says

    The best definition of faith I know of is this:

    Faith is believing something to a degree of certainty which exceeds that warranted by the available evidence.

  53. PaulC says

    ctw: I half agree that “faith” can be based on some kind of secondary evidence. The problem as I see it is the basis for giving that evidence any weight in the first place. Any rational belief has to carry some implicit qualification: e.g., provided these observations were made accurately, provided our system of peer review is functioning, provided I’m of sound mind as I work my way through this argument. There’s no reason for anyone to accept one particular ancient tome as evidence of anything, particularly since there is nothing unique about it. There are many ancient sacred texts.

    So I think the matter of “faith” is still there in giving your own sacred text preferential treatment. That kind of faith is absent when one continues to insist on objective measurement and repeatability.

  54. Millimeter Wave says

    Whether or not it was intended as a simple troll, I guess you aren’t aware just how revealing your post was. You manage to fire off a stock talking point without apparently noticing that:

    1. You appear to be agreeing with us atheists that “faith” is generally pejorative
    2. There is nothing in PZ’s post which supports your claim. If you read it at all, it’s a reposnse to requests for stories about “events that tested your faith” with an account of how such a test was failed. Just how carefully did you read it before reaching for your list of talking points?

    did you really not get any of that?

  55. Erik says

    On the matter of Atheism as faith, I would ask Jason if my disbelief in Zeus, Odin, and Thoth is a matter of faith. If so, then by his definition, I suppose my faith is the same as his only I add the story of one more god to the pile.

  56. NatureSelectedMe says

    Steve, I think your definition sums up PZ’s faith. He has faith that science will puzzle out the mysteries.

  57. Steve Watson says

    I actually did write something like this recently (but it’s longer than 400 words, so I won’t bore you with it)(OK I lied: I’m too lazy to type it all in). The local Humanist Association, at our AGM, holds an “Undoctrination Ceremony” as part of which new members can tell the story of how they became an atheist (it’s pretty light-hearted). This year there were 5 of us giving our “anti-testimonies” ;-).

  58. PaulC says


    Faith is believing something to a degree of certainty which exceeds that warranted by the available evidence.

    Nobody took me up on it, but I’d like to repeat that religious people usually make a distinction between this view and what they value as faith. Anyway, as a Catholic, I was taught that merely accepting something uncritically was “blind faith” and not really the point (although for all that, probably enough to get you a ticket to heaven–you know, like an old peasant woman lighting a candle and saying her rosary). The kind of faith associated with saints was something achieved through contemplation. You don’t just say, OK, I believe this, but after long and disciplined practice, you find that you really do believe it. So it is thought of as the result of hard work rather than the lack of work.

    I don’t mean to suggest that it has value; I just mean to make a distinction between the rationalist definition of faith and the notion of faith as a virtue within religious tradition.

  59. Alex says

    I don’t like that Steve. From my experience, Faith is not only knowing something is true without any evidence, it’s knowing it’s true DESPITE the evidence. Very dangerous.

  60. Christopher says

    Atheism is not necessarily the same thing as materialism, though. My denial of God says nothing about my reasons for denying his existence. So in that sense, atheism is not a form of faith but rather a general matter of not finding any evidence–whether natural or supernatural–to believe in God.

    Materialism does though constitute a form of faith. Just as it’s impossible for those who believe in God to accept evidence that God does not exist, it’s also impossible for those who believe in materialism to accept evidence of the supernatural. I think of the Amazing Randi’s famous “reward” as a good example of this mindset. I.e., he will only believe in supernatural phenomena if he’s provided scientific evidence that it exists, which of course would render the phenomena “natural.” The faith–in the scientific method–is still there but just takes a different form from what we’re used to thinking about.

  61. Alex says

    I think you’re talking about rationalization. People have to rationalize their faiths, either introspectively or outwardly, in order to remain steadfast. Don’t confuse rational thought with rationalization. Many years ago the church rationalized that the Earth was at the center. Clearly irrational. The rational stance at that time would have been, “gosh, we don’t know where the Earth sits in relation to the other heavenly bodies”. But not knowing something is too uncomfortable for many people, clearly. So we make it up.

  62. PaulC says

    Alex, I agree that one property of faith is that strong faith is supposed to hold up against experience that would appear to contradict it. I think there is usually a loophole in that you’re not literally saying it’s true despite evidence but that you disbelieve the evidence. This can, of course, be taken to levels of absurdity, though mature religions tend to keep their beliefs unfalsifiable in order to avoid such contradictions.

  63. Christopher says

    I guess I got excited by the topic and didn’t realize this thread was mostly a response to the troll.

    Anyway, good essay and I hope the Post accepts it.

  64. says

    He has faith that science will puzzle out the mysteries.

    Where did he say that? That there’s no evidence for the existence of God doesn’t necessarily mean that science will one day be able to explain everything. It’s entirely consistent with atheism to believe that there may be some things beyond the ability of science to ever explain.

    As it is, though, science definitely manages to explain a heck of a lot more than religion does…

  65. says

    here’s what I submitted:

    I was raised in a liberal Lutheran church, and confirmed in it. Attended church, Sunday School, even other church-related activities.

    But as I worked my way through college, I developed a curiosity about religion and spent some time investigating several beliefs, and maybe more importantly, belief systems. during that time, while I fell away from organized religion, I certainly maintained a belief in the spiritual realm, and in God.

    But the religion part of it did not figure as heavily. In fact, when I got married, we did it in a Catholic church because it was very important to my wife’s mother. Critically important, and I figured it was a minor deal to make an old woman happy. “As long as God is there” I said at the time.

    My crisis occurred on September 11, 2001.

    I came into my office on that beautiful fall day to find my colleagues gathered around the TV, watching the disaster. Shortly after starting to watch the coverage, and after showing the poor wretches leaping to their deaths rather than burn, the first tower fell. Then the second.

    As I watched the second tower fall, I could feel the remnants of faith drain from my mind like water in a toilet. In the face of senseless tragedies like this, occurring all over the world, time and time again; with the characters on both sides claiming the Blessings of God, I could no longer maintain any pretense that God existed.

    It became painfully obvious that all of mankind’s evil, as well as the brilliant, stemmed from within ourselves.

    Since then, my parents have died, and atheism made it simple to be at peace. Since there was no ‘better place’ for them to be in, we could celebrate the lives they lived, the good things they had done, and the people they were. Their time is done, as all of ours will be, and it is up to each individual to make sure their time is valuable on its own merits.

  66. PaulC says

    Alex, I don’t think it’s so much a matter of rationalization as it is a process that a cynic would call brainwashing. The belief becomes so internalized over time that it is untouchable by reason. This can actually be a source of strength for people, provided it happens to be the right belief to have at the right time (e.g. I might be wrong about going to heaven, but maybe my martyrdom served some other useful purpose). Obviously, it can be an absolute disaster as well, particularly when people of “great faith” find themselves in a position to dictate the actions of an entire nation.

  67. says

    Just FYI, everybody: Trolls are attention whores, plain and simple.

    I’ve seen scores of them in chat rooms, and the pattern is always the same: Human relationships are turned around in their heads so that they can’t relate to others in any normal fashion.

    Somewhere earlier in a troll’s life experience, he learned that negative attention is better than being ignored. Being slapped down is painful, but at least it’s SOMETHING.

    Believe it: to a troll like Jason, a verbal punch in the face is indistinguishable from a hug.

    He practices the only way he knows to gain attention, and eventually he gets so good at it that he gets attention from everybody. A troll presented with an unwary audience can take over a chat room or discussion forum the instant he enters. Whatever the topic was before, HE becomes the new topic.

    Every time you feel the barbs of Jason, or any other online troll, ask yourself:

    Do I want to respond and help reinforce this sick personality trait? (Considering that it wounds both the person who has it AND the society around him?)

    Do I want to waste MY time on THIS guy?

    Any of you in the psychology fields, I can picture a fairly interesting book coming out of the subject of trolls. I’d like to know if the really toxic trolls get to where they can no longer feel affection at all. And considering that some of them might actually have no real human contact beyond the computer screen, I’d like to know what eventually happens to them.

  68. PaulC says

    FWIW: I’m not responding to Jason, though you will see exactly one brief reply above. I think it’s interesting to discuss what motivates people to believe whatever it is they believe.

  69. Alex says

    Paul, I like that “mature religions tend to keep their beliefs unfalsifiable in order to avoid such contradictions” statement. It always amazed me how, in reading these various blogs, how well the fervant religous use intellectual dishonesty in there debates, books, and discussions (rationalizations). It seems to me that your statement illustrates the fundamental use of intellectual dishonesty by those who can’t compete with the scientific method. I feel somewhat enlightend.

  70. No Nym says

    @ PaulC:

    Sorry, but Catholic theology is no escape. The fundies take a literal reading, which makes testable predictions, that Mary and Jesus are somewhere in orbit, either around the earth or on some longer orbit. I would expect their albedo to be low enough to exclude all but the most fortuitous discovery.

    And yes, my former Sunday school teachers would be angry at my confusing the Assumption and the Ascension, but I did get very bad grades in Sunday School.

    But my point isn’t about what a true Christian President might do with the Hubble, but rather that atheism per se is not a faith, since evidence of God would sway anyone fit to call themselves a scientist into believing. The debate over ID is about what counts as evidence.

    1) Look at this starfish, lying on the beach.
    2) Wow, how amazingly improbable!
    3) Therefore, God.

  71. George Cauldron says

    And considering that some of them might actually have no real human contact beyond the computer screen, I’d like to know what eventually happens to them.

    “The neighbors of the suspect all agreed, that he seemed very quiet and kept to himself.”

  72. Uber says

    All this humbles me to the point that I am driven back into Church, where I accept that I am a product of forces and intelligence that I will never fully understand, where I understand the difference between worshipping the creator rather than the created, and where those rituals are no longer empty.

    Which church and why that one over the gazillions of others.

    Heaven is not supposed to be part of the observable universe. I grant that the distinction between heaven and outer space might not have been as clear at the time the New Testament was written

    Heaven at the time of the writing was simply ment to be , well, the sky and that which was above it. Which is why Jesus ascended there. If it wasn’t observable or part of this universe he could have just…………..blip-gone.

  73. shargash says

    Faith and belief are fundamentally different concepts. A belief is a tenet, principle, or fact that one accepts as true. Faith is a possible basis for belief, but it is not, itself, belief. Reason and observation are other possible basises for belief.

    Beliefs based on reason and observation are subject to falsification. Beliefs based on faith are subject to conversion, but not falsification.

    As an atheist, I lack belief in a god. My beliefs are based on reason and observation. I have no faith that bears on the belief, one way or the other.

    Martin Luther had this to say about faith and reason:

    Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has: it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but–more frequently than not –struggles against the Divine Word.

    Reason must be deluded, blinded, and destroyed. Faith must trample underfoot all reason, sense, and understanding, and whatever it sees must be put out of sight and … know nothing but the word of God.

    To be a Christian, you must pluck out the eye of reason.

    Luther got the distinction right — faith stands in opposition to reason. Luther saw faith as superior, precisely because it cannot be falsified. Personally, I disagree with Luther.

  74. No Nym says

    hehe, I’m just sitting here thinking about the NASA press release announcing that Hubble will get another $30M in funding to start the hunt for the freeze-dried corpses of Mary and Jesus, floating in space. I would start with a high geo-synchronous orbit above Judea, assuming it wouldn’t have decayed after 1950 years or so.

    It would be a faith-based space initiative.

  75. evolvealready says

    “…as a Catholic, I was taught that merely accepting something uncritically was “blind faith”…”

    All faith is blind. Faith by definition is accepting something uncritically. Religious people may try to make a distinction between what they consider blind faith and the kind you really need to work at or practice, but there’s little difference ultimately. Sitting in a cave contemplating the existence of a greater being until you fall into some fast induced stupor, with a little stressful hallucinations thrown in, coming away from (surviving) that hard won experience with a new found appreciation of your faith doesn’t make it any less “blind”. Just sayin’.

  76. Christopher says


    But your decision to base your beliefs on reason is itself not subject to falsification. And that’s where the “faith” lies in this instance.

  77. says

    Offtopic to PaulC, so don’t feel you must respond in this thread, but:

    I consider myself an agnostic rather than atheist. That means if God wants to talk, He’s got my number.

    This statement indicates that you do not disbelieve in deities. At this point I have to ask you: do you disbelieve in anything? Think of all the logically possible but utterly bizarre statements to which our normal attitude is disbelief: for instance, the proposition “Ghana won the World Cup in 2006”. This is logically possible*, although there’s no evidence for it and lots of evidence against. Would you say “If the Ghanaian world champions want to look me up, I’ll buy them a beer”? No: if my guess is right, you simply disbelieve that proposition and in no way leave the door open for it, in word or action.

    My question is: if you have a different behavior in the case of deities existing than for crazy examples like this, what motivates that difference?

    (*yes, the explanatory chain that would allow this and similar possibilities boggles the mind, but we’re talking about logical possibility.)

  78. NatureSelectedMe says

    It’s entirely consistent with atheism to believe that there may be some things beyond the ability of science to ever explain.

    I don’t get the impression PZ shares that sentiment.

  79. Argh says

    “Has anyone seen that bumper sticker: God WAS my copiliot, but we crashed in the Andes and I had to eat Him

    Posted by: CrispyShot | July 13, 2006 12:32 PM”

    It’d be better if it was followed up by “And then I sued him for soliciting lewd acts”, or something more along those lines. Yes?

  80. PaulC says

    No Nym:

    he fundies take a literal reading, which makes testable predictions, that Mary and Jesus are somewhere in orbit, either around the earth or on some longer orbit.

    I remember way back (at the time still a practicing Catholic) seeing a TV evangelist rattling on about the “planet Heaven.” My impression has always been that Catholic teaching discourages that kind of thought (heresy!) more than it discourages atheism (a lack of faith).

    Fundamentalism has always made me uncomfortable, whereas atheism has always struck me as a natural hypothesis suitable for discussion among polite people. The only difference is that as a religious person I would have left open the possibility that faith would eventually intervene somehow refuting this hypothesis in my own mind (God still has my number as far as I know; let’s do Lunch). My understanding as a Catholic was that the big challenge of faith was the fact that atheism really is a conclusion consistent with evidence and reason; that’s why these are insufficient.

    Anyway, I agree that some people would consider Jesus in orbit to be a proof of the Ascension. I would consider it a proof that the Ascension as taught to me definitely did not happen. I would also attach a higher probability to Jesus’ abduction by space aliens based on this evidence than on the notion that he was on the way to planet Heaven as per Rev. Wacko Televangelist.

    I also accept your larger point that an atheist would revise beliefs in light of new evidence. I was just nitpicking about the specific evidence that you chose.

  81. Tulle says

    Well as I tell the Jehovah’s when they come calling, “I thank God every day for being raise an atheist”. They get a very confused look on their face. My dad left the church long before I was born. He would say they are nothing but a bunch of hypocrites. On Sundays when we would drive past a church he would say, “The som-singers are at it again”. I am much more forgiving to religious people than my dad. Even PZ is nicer to them than my dad was. I feel sorry for you that had to find a way to break away from the cult.

  82. ctw says

    as I understanding it, the distinction between “good” faith and “blind” faith is whether there is any evidence, even if questionable, on which to base a belief. but it would seem to be logically impossible for anyone to believe something for no reason at all, hence my attempt at unification, the essential motivation for which is that it may:

    – obviate the hoo-hah about “does science produce “truth” (AKA, “theory” vs “fact”)? answer: absolute? nah. some assertions with very high conditional probabilities of being beneficially treated as if they were true? you bet.

    – provide a common basis that facilitates dialogue between the rationally religious and the rationally irreligious (the irrational of either color are hopeless and are best dismissed out of hand)

    – avoid classifying people of “faith” as irreconcilably distinct from those without it, in particular, not worthy of dialogue.

    the goal, in my view, should be to reach as much accord as possible between the rational religious and irreligious as possible. if someone says, “my beliefs are based on faith and there’s nothing to discuss”, dennett argues that they have disqualified themselves from being taken seriously. but if they’re willing to proceed with discussion, isn’t it sensible to treat their arguments as serious even while adamantly disagreeing?

  83. shargash says


    I’m glad you put the word “faith” in quotes.

    I never made a conscious, single decision to base my beliefs on reality, as opposed to faith. Rather, it was an empirical process that occurred during my childhood. I learned that, when I saw a door and tried to walk through it without opening it, I felt pain. Thus, I learned to try to correlate my inner beliefs with external reality.

    I think it is a misuse of the word to describe this process as faith. Is the belief system itself falsifiable? Yes, if reality is falsifiable (or if I become insane).

    I believe all children go through this process. Most children (those from religious backgrounds) choose at some point (often at the amusingly mis-named “age of reason”) to partially abandon this empirically-based belief system in favor of a faith-based one.

  84. says

    CrispyShot –

    If you need that bumpersticker, you can get it at

    You can also get a Flying Spaghetti Monster emblem there.

    If you live in the Twin Cities, you can walk into the store on E. Lake Street.

  85. PaulC says


    At this point I have to ask you: do you disbelieve in anything?

    I have a lot of working assumptions that govern my decision making. Whether these are useful assumptions will eventually be borne out in practice if they effect my behavior. Other than that, I reserve the right to leave open anything that I want. It’s clear that my understanding of things will never be complete, nor even sound (e.g. not contradictory). Since I don’t go around pretending I have a sound epistemological basis for everything, why do you insist that I extend my firm decisions to anything that does not have a direct impact on my behavior.

    Operationally speaking, there is no difference between waiting for God to give me a phone call and being firmly convinced that he is definitely not going to give me a phone call. I don’t see any clear reason between insisting that I am doing one and not the other.

    As I noted, if bigfoot drops by, I will buy him a beer if he wants one (even if it’s a sasquatch-sized beer). That’d be pretty cool actually, and a good bit less scary that getting a phone call from God Almighty.

  86. forlorn hope says


    Recently Discovered Near-Earth Asteroid Might Be the Body of Jesus Christ

    NASA’s Near Earth Object Program Office
    Thursday, July 13, 2006

    A small near-Earth asteroid (NEA), discovered Monday night by amateur astronomers and subsequently tracked by the NASA-funded LINEAR asteroid survey has a strangely humanoid shape. There is no danger of a collision with the Earth during this orbit.

    The object, designated 2006 INRI, is roughly 2 meters long, and will skirt the Earth by a mere 50,000 miles, or about 1/4th the distance from the earth to the moon. Asteroid 2006 INRI’s point of closest approach with the Earth will be over Israel. Using a good pair of binoculars, the object will be bright enough to be seen during this close approach from areas of Europe, Asia and Africa. The closest approach will coincide exactly with the mid-term congressional elections in the United States.

    Further observations of 2006 INRI by amateur astronomers have sparked considerable debate online, as the original discoverer, Rev. I.M. Clymer from Boise, Idaho claims to be able to see the face of Jesus on the object. “I built my own observatory from scratch to give greater glory to God, and low and behold, He treats me to this!” said the 54 year old minister. Thousands of worshippers have flocked to his Boise compound to stare through the lens of his homemade, 8″ relfector telescope. Not all can see the face of Jesus, however.

    Local professor of astronomy Dr. A.T. Heist says that there is nothing unusual about 2006 INRI. “Really what we’re seeing is a bunch of well meaning people making a lot of noise about nothing. Jesus’ face pops up all the time, on cinnamon buns and tree trunks. This phenomenon is called “pareidolia,” or seeing faces and objects where none exists.” Dr. Heist says that in previous centuries astronomers thought they saw canals on the surface of Mars. Subsequent NASA missions have shown this to be a simple trick of the senses.

    Two Sides to the Debate

    But Clymer isn’t buying this argument. “What are the chances that a rock would be floating in outer space, on an Earth-crossing orbit, with the exact size, shape, and face of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ? Infinitely improbable, I think.”

    NASA scientists admit the object’s orbit is a bit unusual, “It’s not tumbling at all, and seems to have a slow rotation such that the ‘face’ people claim to be seeing is always pointed towards Earth,” said Dr. Equil Tyme. “However,” he said, “there are plenty of asteroids that look like potatoes or tennis shoes, and no one gets excited about those.”

    Jerry Flywell, a recent graduate of Credulous Bible College and head of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope program, says that he is lobbying Congress for more money to study the object in greater detail using the sophisticated instrument. “The Bible predicts that Jesus will be found in an orbit in outer space, and here we have this asteroid [2006 INRI]. As a person of faith and appointee of the Bush administration, I feel it is my duty to explore the possibility that this may in fact be the dessicated, freeze-dried corpse of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” Flywell says he is also looking into obtaining funds to search the nearby areas of outer space for the body of the Virgin Mary. “The New Testament clearly states that Mary went ballistic just a short time after her Son. If we find another asteroid, this one in the shape of a bereaved Virgin, we’ll have the clinching evidence for God’s loving grace.”

    Scientists are skeptical. “So what if we find another rock on a nearby orbit?” says professor of astronomy Dr. Eve I. Lfemynyst. “There are plenty of asteroids that get smashed to bits all the time, with the smaller pieces of the original flying on parallel orbits.”

    Clymer is unfazed. “Look, these women scientists can say whatever they want. It won’t diminish my faith in the Lord God. Besides, we’ll know soon enough, after the visitation of 2006 INRI grants us an extension for a Republican majority in Congress.”

    Some believers expect the asteroid to hit the earth, bringing about Armageddon. “There’s no chance of that,” says Clymer, “as Armageddon can’t happen until we have achieved a glorious victory in Iraq and rebuilt the Temple in Israel.”

  87. Christopher says


    I think you make my point quite well. The scientific method is well suited to describe the natural world, but the scientific method does not itself limit the universe to things that can be measured in the laboratory.

  88. JakeB says

    My path to being free of religous belief started when I was 12 and read some one of Heinlein’s books in which one of the characters talked about how loathesome the “good” guys in the Bible were. I read those parts of the Bible and thought, “dayamn.” I stopped going to church when I was a teenager, but I continued in agnosticism for a number of years. It ended (that is, I arrived at atheism’s shore and started walking inland) when I read _End of Faith_. Harris was utterly convincing to me (except that I think fundamentalists are usually craving to believe, rather than those who actually believe; they go to such lunatic extremes to ameliorate cognitive dissonance). The thing I noticed most of all afterward was how there was a minor sense of relief every time I walked by a church–well. that place has got nothing for me–for the first few months.

    (I add that a close friend of mine, who has been a Lutheran all his life, has more or less become an atheist because of his unwillingness to be associated with American Christians of today. I like to think of it as Huck Finn atheism.)

    As for the freeze-dried corpses, it puts me in mind of James Morrow’s great _Towing Jehovah_, in which a disgraced tanker captain is hired by a dying angel to tow the 2-mile-long dead body of God, which has landed in the Atlantic Ocean at 0’0′, north to the Arctic before it can decay too much. Along with the comic book _Preacher_, it’s my favorite religious fiction.

  89. DragonScholar says

    Looking over this discussion, I’m reminded of recent discussions I’ve had that the word “faith” has been hideously abused by its use in religion and in the American dialogue (really, if I hear the term “faith-based” spouted any more in saccharine speeches . . .)

    For instance, my wife is at work and I have faith she’s not cheating on me right now because I know her. I cannot prove it directly right now, but I have accumulated enough evidence to have faith as it were – an extrapolation. It’s “having faith” due to the evidence. (though if Johnny Depp walks into her office, all bets are off, I know my wife)

    However, I don’t do blind belief. Yet that gets called faith as well. One word, pulled in many different directions, making it virtually meaningless.

    I’m trying to figure out why trusting my wife (sans Depp) is the same as believing in an all-powerful being and a specific holy book in our language.

  90. PaulC says

    Pete: I should have finished reading your comment. FWIW, the Ghanian 2006 World Cup champions are also welcome to stop by. They’d need to have a pretty good story about how the media got this one so wrong. Sasquatch has an easier job; he just has to show up all big and hairy for me to re-evaluate the evidence. The Ghanian team would have to provide me with a story that contradicted available evidence–I can only imagine the conspiracy that would have to have occurred (I’m not a big sports fan, so I might be easy to fool, but I would also be aware of that, so maybe I wouldn’t be after all). As I also said, what I believe right now is not very important. The operational decision is whether to buy them all a beer. I’d probably do that anyway, just for their trouble.

  91. Koray says

    I have two things to say.

    If any of you abondoned faith because of what God did not do, you did it for the wrong reason. Being the creator of the universe does not have baby-sitting humans in the job description. This happens all too frequently as if people are pissed off at God and this is their way of getting back at Him.

    The only thing that matters is that communicating with a supernatural entity is not something one can experience by oneself and then convince others about it. This is not a news story: finding three reliable sources does not make it credible. The sheer number of religions in history should be enough to convince you that your fellow human beings enjoy fabricating this stuff. (You like science? There is a ton of research on how and why people lie. The stuff will make your eyes pop.)

    Secondly, agnostic vs atheist is a meaningless discussion. If you haven’t met Zeus, then you don’t know who/what Zeus exactly is (some refer to this as a semantic null). Then, we can’t even talk about whether Zeus (who?) may exist. Therefore, in my daily actions, the word Zeus does not pop in my mind, for I can’t do anything meaningful with it. OTOH, if you do believe in Zeus, I naturally seem to you acting as if I claim that Zeus does not exist. I am not saying that Zeus (who?) can’t exist.

    I also find it funny when people, who abandoned the books, but by themselves look at the nature in awe and immediately connect it to some (not necessarily Christian, Muslim, etc.) God. I’ll leave the logical flaw aside as it is just too easy to spot. But, why should such a creator be considered still around? Since you know nothing about him except his works (like those of Van Gogh), he may just as well be considered dead. For all (contemporary) intents and purposes, Van Gogh died not when his heart stopped beating, but when he finished his last painting.

  92. Humbert Dinglepencker says

    Check out James Morrow’s ‘The Eternal Footman’ – in which god has died (self-destructed) and his skull (the Cranium Dei) is in orbit directly above Times Square…

  93. Cyde Weys says

    I sent in my heart-warming story of faith (coming in at 398 words according to Word Count). I’m not publishing it here in case that would prevent The Washington Post from being able to publish it in their paper (maybe they need exclusive rights, who knows).

    By the way, can someone keep on top of this and notify us when these little snippets finally do get published, so we can see if any of our faith stories made it in there?

  94. Uber says

    Being the creator of the universe does not have baby-sitting humans in the job description.

    Not to be difficult but how can you possibly know enough about this to be certain this isn’t the case? And why wouldn’t it be so?

  95. Steve_C says

    Who in human resources put the ad in the paper?
    That’s what I want to know.

    “Omnipotent being needed to design and layout a new planet and several million organisms. A midlevel designer would be appropriate. More big picture than detail orientated. Interpersonal skills not required.”

  96. shargash says


    I would agree with the point you made in your most recent post. The scientific method (or rationalism in the more general sense) is agnostic about things that cannot be measured or otherwise detected. For myself, I do not believe in things for which there is no evidence (or at least I try not to), which is why I am an atheist.

    On the other hand, people of faith sometimes play a rhetorical game, a kind of “gotcha”, that goes something like this. First, they argue down to first princples. Then they claim that the rationalist accepts those first principles on faith. Thus, everyone is faith-based, and rationalism is no more “rational” than superstition.

    If that was the gist of your original point, then I do not agree. The axioms of a rational system are not accepted on faith. They are provisionally accepted and held only as long as they seem to correspond to reality. Thus, they are both empirical and falsifiable, the opposite of being based on faith.

    BTW, I’m fully aware of the limitations of the human mind as a reasoning device. This awareness makes me take anything said about my own (or anyone else’s) rationality and objectivity with a grain of salt. However, that same awareness leads me to gather as much salt as I can get my hands on whenever people start talking about things that have no manifestation in sensible reality.

  97. shargash says

    I never got agnosticism, really.

    quoth evolvealready.

    IMO, agnosticism is based on an error, the failure to distinguish between knowledge and belief. For example, I do not believe in a god (atheist), however I do not believe I have any direct knowledge about the existence of a god, or lack thereof (agnostic). I don’t think I’ve ever met an atheist that wasn’t also an agnostic, though I suppose it is possible that some atheists think they know for a fact all the things that don’t exist in the universe.

    I’ve always thought the guy who coined the term “agnostic” was just a coward who didn’t want to seem so extreme as those nasty atheists.

    Defn: atheist — an agnostic with balls.
    Defn: agnostic — someone who doesn’t know what they believe.

  98. NickM says

    “I also find it funny when people, who abandoned the books, but by themselves look at the nature in awe and immediately connect it to some (not necessarily Christian, Muslim, etc.) God. I’ll leave the logical flaw aside as it is just too easy to spot.”

    When “belief” gets to this point, it’s almost no different than deep respect for natural forces. Unlike religion, “belief” like this makes no predictive or normative claims (other than respect for natural forces, perhaps) and doesn’t seem to lead to any form of destructive behavior or cut off real avenues of rational thought, including the thought that all this might have no creator. It’s harmless.

    The problem I have is with people who think they know God’s shoe size because of what they read in some really old book.

  99. PaulC says


    The axioms of a rational system are not accepted on faith. They are provisionally accepted and held only as long as they seem to correspond to reality.

    The reason I accept rational thought as a basis for belief is pragmatic. If I were to reject it, there would be nothing left for me to go on. For instance, I can entertain the hypothesis that everyone has just been wrong about 2+2=4 every time they write out an axiomatization of the natural numbers in the same way people may consistently misinterpret some optical illusion. This is potentially instructive as a thought experiment, though clearly it’s unfalsifiable.

    However, when I consider the consequence of that hypothesis, there is not much more interesting to say. If my brain and everyone else’s are that messed up, then they are inadequate to derive any useful lessons from the hypothesis. So I hope that’s not the case and that 2+2 does in fact equal 4. Likewise if I’m a “brain in a box” in the lab of some higher intelligence, the game is rigged against me to start with. Sure, they’re laughing at me. Maybe they’re laughing a little less to know I’m aware of the possiblity; maybe they think that’s the most hilarious part of it all.

    So my view is that I’ll start with the working assumption that rational thought works and that I can carry it out to some degree in my brain. I’ll also assume that there is an objective, shared universe available to our fallible human senses and to greater degrees of accuracy given the right technology.

    Why should I have these assumptions? Well, it beats twiddling my thumbs all day. In effect, I don’t really worry much about truth in the abstract, although I do think that applying reason to evidence is the best tool we have for making good decisions. Plus, it’s what I’d be doing anyway.

  100. PaulC says

    I don’t see what cowardice has to do with anything, shargash. I am fairly comfortable with the idea that I could be an atheist, and as I said, I’m almost indistinguishable at a behavioral level. On the other hand, I was raised Catholic, and in fact, it’s doubtful that my brain is ever going to be purged of the possibility that some of the stuff I learned might be valid. So I have to say that while I don’t believe there is any empirically based rational argument for the existence of God, I would be lying if I told you that in my own brain the non-existence of God is an entirely resolved issue. Hence, I feel that the agnostic label fits my situation better.

  101. bmurray says

    Defn: atheist — an agnostic with balls.
    Defn: agnostic — someone who doesn’t know what they believe.

    So an atheist is a male agnostic?

  102. PaulC says

    Shorter me: I probably would be an atheist if I had been raised by atheists, all other things equal. But given my actual upbringing and how I suppose I would react to a religious experience, particularly in concordance with my upbringing, I’d be lying if I told you I was an atheist. I’m not sure how an atheist would react, but most likely the shock would cause me to revert back to being religious.

    “Agnostic” is a descriptive term that I use in an attempt to convey my mental state. I can “have balls” or “courage” or whatever, but I cannot force my mental state to be something it’s not.

  103. j says

    I really like this thread.

    I think that a major milestone in my atheist life was when I discovered internet blogging. Until then, I really thought I was part of a minute population; I didn’t know but a couple of people in my geographical region who shared my lack of faith. Now I’m not as afraid or discouraged anymore.

    I must be too new here to hate Jason. Why is everyone always mad at him?

  104. PaulC says


    I must be too new here to hate Jason. Why is everyone always mad at him?

    His specialty seems to be drive-by mud pies consisting of rightwing talking points. He makes his litte statement and disappears. Personally, I’m not mad at him; I think he’s sort of pathetic.

  105. NatureSelectedMe says

    Ah, well, it seems to me there’s not much to be gained by discussing your impression..

    AC, I don’t know if you’ve realized this yet, but a lot of discussion goes on in these threads. The more interesting ones have opinionated comments flying back and forth. An opinion is usually someone’s impression of the facts, no? But you don’t think anything is gained by that. My point was I don’t think I’ve read that PZ thinks some things are beyond what science can evar explain.

  106. sausage says

    I’d just like to say the thing and stuff.

    Theism > Faith
    Atheism > Faith
    Agnosticism > No Faith

    By atheism, I mean strong atheism. A person that says that there are definitely no gods is a strong atheist. They have nothing but faith to tell them that there are definitely no gods. An agnostic realizes that he will probably never know if there are or are not gods. He is honest with himself in his ignorance, not necessarily comfortable, but honest.

    If you say that you are an atheist because you have seen no reason to believe in gods, then you are really an agnostic and don’t realize it.

    And it’s terrible that while the word atheism simply means “without theism” and applies to the agnostic, people don’t hear it that way. So, in common parlance, agnostics shouldn’t refer to themselves as atheists, even though they are a type of atheist.

  107. says

    Nah, you got it backwards. If you say you’re an agnostic because you have seen no reason to believe in gods, you’re actually an atheist. I have never, ever heard an atheist declare that he knows absolutely for sure that god doesn’t exist. And, as you note at the end, agnostics are atheists by the literal meaning of the word.

  108. Koray says

    Uber: Your question is perfectly meaningful.

    I go by the common meaning of the word ‘creator’. It doesn’t necessarily imply baby-sitter to me. You can make a painting and give it to a friend, and not care what he does with it.

    I don’t think there is a religion out there that says “you don’t need to wear seatbelts or have firefighters because God will protect you from harm.”, so it’s absurd to scorn God after seeing the aftermath of Katrina, etc.

    Perhaps we need to dig deeper into why religions are invented. Maybe it is because the comfort the religion is supposed to provide (e.g. our army will be victorious because we are fighting the infidels, or I am not really going to cease to exist for there is afterlife, or God willing I will be through these tough times, etc.) conflicts with what one really experiences.

  109. steve says

    “don’t like that Steve. From my experience, Faith is not only knowing something is true without any evidence, it’s knowing it’s true DESPITE the evidence. Very dangerous”

    Well, my definition subsumes yours one, I’d say. If there is good evidence against a position and no evidence for it, and someone is certain that position is true anyway, then they believe to a degree of certainty which exceeds that warranted by the available evidence.

    I’ve been searching a long time for a good definition, and I’ve had this one for about a year now. Recently I’ve toyed with changing it to this:

    Faith is beliving something to a degree of certainty which _you know_ exceeds that warranted by the available evidence.

    My thinking is that If you aren’t cognizant that your certainty exceeds what’s warranted by the available evidence, maybe that’s not faith, just ignorance.

    As for the person who says that religious people make a distinction between this sort of faith and another sort, I say phooey. They _try_ to make a distinction, but they fail. What they really do is equivocate, and squirm and wiggle and try to do anything to get away from this definition of faith because it is obviously insane to embrace such a faith, and they don’t imagine themselves to be that dumb or that brainwashed. But they are. Every advocate of faith I have ever met or communicated with, ever.

  110. Jim says

    Sounds like it was easy for you PZ. I was raised a very mild Methodist (in a Southern Baptist community) and only attended Sunday school and a Vacation Bible School. I was 21 before I found the strength to reject the superstition and fear. The power of fear and guilt are scary. I loved (love) to read and have an inquiring mind. Eventually the whole scam just proved to much for me to believe anymore. I remember specifically worrying about my dad going to hell because he never went to church. (and I was supposed to be happy in heaven with my loving father burning in hell?) Man, what a relief to let it all go. I’m 55 now and have raised my kids to be guilt free atheist and they thank me (and my wife) often.

  111. says

    would be lying if I told you that in my own brain the non-existence of God is an entirely resolved issue.

    My point with this and the Ghanaian team is that we normally do not need to have things “entirely resolved” before we say that we disbelieve them.
    I think that in the everyday, normal sense of the word “disbelieve”, you disbelieve that Ghana won the world cup. I am sure you are being facetious when you say the Ghanaian champions are welcome to stop by — or you said it for rhetorical consistency, in the special context of this thread. You spontaneously volunteered that you keep the door open for a deity’s existence; I wonder whether you ever have done the same for pixies, Pallas Athena, the FSM, etc. The only sphere of discourse in which people make a point of leaving the door open for the bizarre, is the sphere of religion. While shargash’s style is crude, it is forgivable to wonder whether people self-identify as agnostics because of a residual attachment to their religious upbringing – they just can’t bring themselves to say they are “atheist”. I’m not criticizing you and I certainly don’t think that fine philosophical disagreements have anything to do with cowardice – just wondering, in a friendly way, what’s the explanation of your beliefs.

  112. PaulC says


    They _try_ to make a distinction, but they fail.

    Actually, if you read my initial posting, you’ll find that I said roughly the same thing.

  113. Alex says

    I guess I wanted to point out that it’s not merely lack of supportive evidence, but ignoring “negative” evidence – evidence to the contrary.

    If someone show me the geologic column and shows me a bunch of fossils but I don’t know geology, ignorance would keep me disbelieving evolution….as you pointed out. But if I am a geoligist and know the geo-column and understand fossilization and still deny evolution – that’s a shade of dishonesty.

  114. says

    Great story PZ.

    Science was like a laser that burned the superstition and empty rituals of the church out of my brain.

    And the collateral cellular damage is hardly apparent ;)

  115. PaulC says


    it is forgivable to wonder whether people self-identify as agnostics because of a residual attachment to their religious upbringing – they just can’t bring themselves to say they are “atheist”.

    Now I’m confused. Not only is it forgivable, I’m comfortable with that explanation and I already offered it. See:

    Under some counterfactuals someone like me would probably be an atheist, but to the best of my knowledge, I’m actually an agnostic and will probably remain one. I’ll still probably have moments where I wonder if some significant parts of the religion I was taught are true after all, whether my ancestors got it right, and whether I made a mistake. If I had never had that experience, it’s quite possible that my belief would be solidly atheist. I just don’t see this as a fine distinction. I am trying to present as accurate a description of my religiosity as possible.

    Granted, this is different from belief in bigfoot or the Ghanaian 2006 World Cup champions because I don’t have any stake in those issues. However, I still like the idea of beliefs as working assumptions and I also have a wide range of issues over which I am truly agnostic (or ignorant)–e.g. what’s the best kind of motor oil to use in a certain temperature; even given standard guidelines I might wonder if they could be improved. My state of knowledge about the world will always be incomplete. To some extent, my degree of comfort with that may also make me more of an agnostic in personality than those who would be more inclined to self-identify as atheists.

  116. poke says

    My family isn’t religious and, as far as I can remember, I’ve always been an atheist. My story sucks.

  117. Caledonian says

    I must admit that I’m somewhat bemused by the number of people who say they gave up belief in theism after personal tragedy.

    What in the world makes you people think that human beings are important enough for any other intelligence to bother with, much less ones that exist on the scope of gods? For all you know, there IS an intelligent and extremely powerful entity that’s concerned with humankind — and he’s a sadist.

  118. JakeB says


    “…Faith is the other Slayer…”

    How about,

    . . . Faith No More is the other Slayer . . .

    (not that they are, really)

  119. Stavro says

    Until I was 17, I was, or would have ended up, a fundamentalist christian. My mother is in most ways a fundamentalist, but a fairly tolerant one. Strangely, she accepts evolution. In hindsight I can see that the brainwashing I endured from earliest memory to teenage years was relentless.

    Anyway at the time, I was discovering that I was gay, and the period from 15 to 17 was tumultuous to say the least. I couldn’t reconcile what I felt was innate and permanent with what was written in the bible. I eventually realized, after a severe depression verging on suicide, that the contradiction pointed to a undeniable flaw in the whole dogma. From there, rationality took me the rest of way to realizing it was either all true, or all ridiculous.

    Long story short, I refused to continue going to church, which took some defiance since it was demanded that I go, and left it all behind like it was a 1 ton bag of bricks. In the years that followed, rationality and empiricism felt completely natural to me, and I would definitely say I have a much more mature atheistic position 10 years later. It just seems obvious to me that it’s better to understand reality the way it is than to maintain comforting fantasies of the way I would like it to be.

    As to previous comments about atheists asserting that there absolutely is no supreme being of some sort, I would concur that this is not part of my viewpoint. Why even ask the question of whether there is or is not? It’s moot since there is no empirical evidence one way or the other.

  120. George says

    I went to church growing up but gradually fell away from my religion (Episcopalian) as I came to realize that the whole system of Christianity just doesn’t hold water.

    I remember fleeing a course in college that looked at the bible as just another book, so I was a bit brainwashed even then. I thought the Bible deserved respect because it was old and contained a lot of wisdom.

    I suppose I clung to a belief in the ethical lessons presented in the New Testament for a long time after I gave up believing in any kind of deity.

    Today, I can barely tolerate books by writers who espouse a religion. I don’t find the Bible even remotely interesting as literature. I really resent all the brainwashing I was subjected to in school and church and think it’s appalling that religion is still on the rise.

  121. lee says

    Can’t believe no one mentioned not belonging to a religion(form intentional)is CHEAPER. Want to do something really religious–pick up a collection!

  122. says

    AC, I don’t know if you’ve realized this yet, but a lot of discussion goes on in these threads. The more interesting ones have opinionated comments flying back and forth. An opinion is usually someone’s impression of the facts, no? But you don’t think anything is gained by that.

    I don’t think anything is gained by arguing a statement based on your unfounded interpretation of what you think PZ believes, no.

    My point was I don’t think I’ve read that PZ thinks some things are beyond what science can evar explain.

    That’s not much of a point. I haven’t read that PZ thinks anteaters originated on Earth. But I’m not going to assume he thinks anteaters are from outer space just because he hasn’t explicitly said the contrary.

  123. Scott Hatfield says

    I’m afraid my thoughts are going to be lost in the desire of so many to share their personal ‘testimony’ of faith, or the lack of same. I think one of the more insightful things I read was from Donna, who noted that religions can be powerful tools for psychological growth, but that people tend to outgrow them.

    I’m a believer myself, but I definitely feel that I’ve outgrown religious conventions and I find myself empathizing with the epiphanies of those who have given themselves over to the clarity of doubt, as opposed to the fuzzy certainty often proferred in the pews.

    The distinction between faith and belief discussed by many posters intrigues me. Here’s a serious question, with no agenda, that I’d like to see discussed: could one believe in God without having faith in God?


  124. Kiwi Dave says

    Faith” is a fine invention
    When Gentlemen can see —
    But Microscopes are prudent
    In an Emergency.

    Emily Dickinson

  125. Ignignokt says


    Believing in god without faith is certainly possible. The deist philosophy of “natural religion” (vs. a revealed one) is probably a good example.


  126. says

    Actually, NatureSelectedMe, before our debate goes further, I think we ought to clear up what we’re debating, because it occurs to me that our whole disagreement may be founded on a misunderstanding.

    For my part, I am not saying that PZ believes there are some things science can never, even in principle, explain. I gave that as an extreme example of a belief not incompatible with atheism, not one that I thought PZ necessarily held, or one I hold myself. (Note that that’s not the same thing as believing that science may not “puzzle out the mysteries”–it could be there are some mysteries we’ll never puzzle out not due to any limitations on the scientific method, but due to our own failings, for example.)

    As for your part, I took your statement that PZ “has faith that science will puzzle out the mysteries” as another iteration of the “rationalism = faith” canard, as implying that trust in science is just another form of faith. Now, if I misinterpreted what you were getting at, and that’s not what you meant, then I apologize. If all you were saying was that PZ believes humanity will eventually understand everything, and that that belief this goes beyond what the evidence would seem to suggest–well, it isn’t clear to me that PZ has that belief, but short of PZ weighing in himself to clarify the matter there’s not going to be much of a way for us to settle it, and in fact, since you’ve been reading Pharyngula longer than I have, I concede there’s a case to be made that your interpretation of PZ’s beliefs may be more reliable than mine.

    So, again, if I misinterpreted what you were saying, and you weren’t trying to raise the old “science = faith!” argument, then I apologize for my misinterpretation, and let’s go ahead and let this drop.

  127. says

    I wish I knew more of the details of my fallout from Christianity, but the most prominent episode unfortunately took place at an age I have few memories of, so I will have to go on ‘faith’ that my mother is relating it correctly. With an absence of cheap child care around to support a working mother, I was routinely dropped off at a Baptist Sunday school. I came back home in utter disbelief at what they had been teaching. I wish I could remember it more clearly myself.

    We went to a milder Sunday school later, but despite the promise of candy afterwards, the love was already lost, and I spent time in my own head coming up with plausible ways to changing the words of the hymns to something more amusing.

    The thing I find bizarre is that it took slightly longer to shake belief in ghosts and witchcraft.

    I had that “what if I’m wrong” fear over me for quite a while afterwards, even though on a rational level none of it made sense.

    What finally starting removing those last vestiges of fear were a few factors:
    * Time (heals all wounds if you don’t pick at them)
    * Dares to heaven
    * The Old Testament
    * Creationists
    * Learning more about the world (heaven forbid!) – nature, different cultures, science
    * Learning about confidence scams, bias and statistics
    * Going out with a wonderful but very religious gal

    I also learned a bit about my birth family, finding out that amongst my various heritage were some of the first university students in Scotland, a minister who got kicked out of his church and started a new one, and a gal who annotated the Bible with her own thoughts (I’d kill to get my hands on it :)

    I’m an atheist cum laude, but I’d certainly ally myself in many causes with those of moderate faith and great reason. I don’t pretend to see a rational basis for even moderate faith, but when it comes to people and who they are and how they act, I just really care that they’re good people acting with real consideration towards others. I’ve met some pretty intriguing preachers, moderates the most of them. I’ve even been surprised with how much common ground you can find with many Jehovah’s Witnesses on the occasions they’re not showing up on your doorstep and letting you play with their ferrets. (They do seem occasionally markedly tortured, though, and that makes me sad)

    In general, I put the dividing line at why people are willing to help others out: is it to help the people, or help their souls. The latter are much harder to abide; it’s like showing up to get a “free gift” from a place that sells time-shares.

    You can’t even divide this out on a church-by-church basis. Even the relatively tolerant United Church had all shades of ugly-on-the-inside folks coming out of the woodwork on gay issues. It can be shocking when you find out how much of The Kool-Aid some people actually drank.

    Secular Humanism is the way to go. Staying as close to it as possible as a species is one of the few inoculations we have against the world trying to make Armageddon actually happen.

    Do it for humanity, people. Trying to make Jesus come back by making prophesies come true, threatening to destroy all the infidels, spreading lies about science, and using religion as a political tool are evil in the realest possible sense, in how they affect people.

    If the needs of the people can’t come first in your morality, then screw you.

  128. Ian H Spedding says

    shargash wrote:

    I’ve always thought the guy who coined the term “agnostic” was just a coward who didn’t want to seem so extreme as those nasty atheists.
    Defn: atheist — an agnostic with balls.
    Defn: agnostic — someone who doesn’t know what they believe.

    I think it is worth quoting again John Wilkins’ post from a previous thread on this matter:

    Posted by: John Wilkins | July 8, 2006 09:27 PM

    Huxley was worth three of any of us in terms of dealing with antiscience and ignorance. And his term, dear PZ, exactly explains and expresses my own considered views, whereas atheist does not, and indeed commits the listener to believing I have any kind of faith against any kind of religion. I’m almost sure that Scientology has no truth whatsoever and can be eliminated as a serious contender (insert irony tags here) but the general claims that there is a deity or a large number of deities is something I can neither confirm nor deny. Agnostic describes this view.
    I’ve read Thomas Henry Huxley, and we, sir, are no Thomas Henry Huxleys.

  129. says

    I had that “what if I’m wrong” fear over me for quite a while afterwards, even though on a rational level none of it made sense.

    Yeah…unfortunately, having only recently managed to come to terms with the irrationality of religion myself, I’m still at that stage. There’s still a part of my mind that asks “What if I’m wrong?”, even though rationally I realize that’s a question not worth seriously entertaining. I’m pretty sure in time I’ll get over it, though.

  130. Carlie says

    “My family isn’t religious and, as far as I can remember, I’ve always been an atheist. My story sucks.”

    Poke – you don’t know it, but you’ve just restated in reverse one of the most common fundie complaints (that was shared by me in my addled youth). A large component of trying to convert other people is to share one’s own conversion experience. Of course, the more exreme, the better. “I was the top drug dealer/drug user/whore in the city before I found Jesus!” sort of thing. Those of us who grew up in the church like we were supposed to were always embarrassed at our lame-o stories about how we were always there and decided to love Jesus when we were 7. We always griped how our stories sucked.

    My atheist story sucks, too. It was a long, slow, back-and-forth that didn’t finally tip the balance for good until I was past 30, but I can’t point at one moment of clarity that sealed it.

  131. 601 says

    a-faith-istic: Going to a casino understanding there is an 11% chance I’ll leave a winner.

    faith: Going to a casino believing I’ll leave a winner.

    Faith only applies to the unknown (prediction of future events). A theory makes predictions, theories are ranked by the success of their testable predictions. Thinking, feeling and acting on theories proportional to their rank is rational, otherwise it’s just faith.

    Faith only comes in blind, but as sophisticated pattern matching animals we look for theories for everything. This natural fear of chaos and the unknown needs to be accepted (fearlessly) or the trouble starts.

  132. Shyster says

    PZ, My path was a lot like yours. All you have to do is substitute Episcopalian for Lutheran. Where you went to science I went to literature and literary criticism. I went to my “priest” and asked him “why” questions and, with the bible in hand, some “you have to be kidding” questions. He got flustered and angry and I left. His wife was my English teacher and she assigned a book report on any book. I picked a book by Bertrand Russell. She called my mother to ask if she was aware that I was reading and reporting on a book by an atheist. My mother, to her credit, said, “So?” That was my last day in the church.

  133. David says

    I’m surprised that in a discussion that has been a lot about faith, nobody has mentioned Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. It’s a kind of meditation on faith and one, by the way, that is highly critical of the church of his time. It is well worth the difficult read. As you might know, Kierkegaard is considered one of the fathers of existentialism and for him, faith was the definition of the absurd – the notion that despite knowing that something was impossible (say in existentialist terms, that there is a “meaning” to life) that one steadfastly acted as if it was in fact possible. It is a kind of insanity, but I guess in existentialist terms it is an appropriate response to the world. I’m sure K is not in favor with the fundies, and I’m not sure where existentialism stands now after the pomo wars, but I always liked his take on things. I recommend his book to anyone, although, as I say, it’s a dense read. BTW I am a biologist, not exactly an atheist, but pretty tired of being told what’s right and what’s wrong by people who clearly don’t know.

  134. impatientpatient says

    Religions are wonderful if taken as tools to produce psychological growth.

    How does belief in something that isn’t there produce growth?

  135. says

    Hank Fox: My sister is in the psychology fields and has started to wonder about collecting all the DSM IV diagnoses she’d suspect from different classes of online forum participants …

  136. LiberalDirk says

    When you realise that people have been lying to you about religion you grow emotionally. Especially about controlling anger against fundamentalists.

    If I believed in God(*) I would recommend the creation of a tribunal for trying aforementioned deity for crimes against humanity.

    *Or Yahew, Allah, Pink Unicorn or Flying Spaghetti Monster or whichever deity deigns to claim lordship and dominion over all creation.

  137. impatientpatient says

    But eventually, you inevitably grow beyond them if you follow them correctly.


    Um…. I read the Road Less Travelled too…..

    And actually that is kind of what happened to me.

    But his whole point, and something that has unfortunately permeated the medical and psychological fields now, was that in order to understand the person you had to understand their religion.

    This does not translate so well into real life.

    As soon as you say I AM NOT RELIGIOUS there are a bunch of people who are offended and either want to convert you, or do not see you as a “whole” person. Trust me, I have lived there. Like I said in a previous post on another thread, the psychosocial model of disease is predicated on there being a spiritual component in one’s life, and this being a part of our biological and emotional and social and psychological well being. I beg to differ, and have. Unfortunately, this is not seen as a plus. Especially where my spouse was receiving care. (Probably because most of their pet treatments were based on pseudoscience and bullshit, and if you rejeceted god based on lack of evidence then you would reject their treatments on the same basis…but I digress).

    Scott Peck did have a point about understanding where people came from religiously, but now it has been bastardized to the point of interweaving religion(magic) into a whole lot of medical/scientific stuff and this is part of the reason why prayer studies and the like are being funded at the expense of real science. His point in many places was that religion misused was often dangerous to mental health, and that many psychological problems stemmed from harsh religious backgrounds. He favored a more benign view of God as evidenced throughout his writings, especially his fictional account of heaven and hell that was similar to CS Lewis’s in the Great Divorce. (Which pissed conservatives off all to hell..)

    The infighting among the religious as to the correct interpretation of scripture, the denial of science and the war mongering between different religions does lead me to think that religion should not have to be grown out of after one follows them “correctly”.

    Because there are always people who are not going to follow them “correctly” and in the name of Love and Compassion and Doing This For Your Own Good they will continue to scare others into believing lies.

    I do have a question though. If religion is a means of consolidating power and bases, then what will the world look like without it? Because even in China and the USSR where religion was repressed by the state, religion was able to “survive”.

    What does a world predicated on REASON look like? And since most of our views on ethics (in the west) are from a Judeo_Christian perspective, how do we go about ascertaining what will be kept and what will be tossed out? How do hundreds of years of art and literature done in the Christian Perspective fit into a world of Reason?

  138. sglover says

    I got corrupted by Sci Am, too — twice.

    Back in high school I read an article about hallucinogens that made me determined to try them at the first opportunity — a much more interesting and appealing seduction than, say, the wretched music of the Doors. I’ve never regretted the experience.

    Round about the same time, Sci Am featured some excellent pieces about the Cold War military balance. They effectively punctured (for me, anyway) the hysteria balloon then being inflated by outfits like the “Committee on the Present Danger” . Because of this, I’ve never been able to see genial Saint Ronnie as the demi-godlike strategic genius that I’m told he was. I still labor under the hateful, cynical notion that he was an empty-headed huckster.

    That must be the LSD talking, right?

  139. Josh says

    NoNym – you know the story about the girls getting their father drunk considered that to be a Bad Thing, right?

  140. says

    Until recently, I’ve never seen religion as being bad. Maybe it comes from being raised in an extremely liberal church. I was raised Methodist in Indiana (which, as you’ll see, wasn’t as bad as it probably should’ve been). Most of the kids my age spent out Sundays skipping the sermon and hanging out in the youth room, talking about SNL or making jokes. My youth group was great, it was basically a group of friends that got together and played games. It was more of a place parents could send their kids knowing they wouldn’t be exposed to drugs or anything in the inner city. In the summers, we’d go to Appalachia and help fix people’s homes.

    But I recall interacting with other churches on those summer trips, and boy, were those guys creepy. I went to a retreat one time, and one seminar was by a guy who told us masturbation was a sin because it was selfish, we should be giving ourselves to God. We sniggered at that, but when he told us he was a reborn (or something) virgin who had called the girl he’d slept with to apologize for defiling her, we left and went outside and played low-stakes poker to freak out the other attendees.

    I never really believed any of the fables they told us in Sunday school. I could (can) recite the ancient Greek myths better than anything in the Bible. I just thought it was a neat history lesson. Once I went to college, I went back to church once.

    Our church asks all it’s college attendees to give a summary of their 1st year at university and to explain how our time in the church had helped us prepare for it. I got up in front of a 1000-strong congregation and frankly told them all I was thankful for their teaching me tolerance, because I had seen some of the more rabid Christians, and that the non-Christians were just as ‘good,’ if not better, by our moral standards than any other Christians I’d ever met.

    That went down well, since I had several people come up after and say they’d had the same thoughts. Some people told me I’d come around and they gave me books on logic and faith, but I never bothered. I knew where my path lay.

    10 years after that, I’m definitely agnostic/athiest, whatever you want to call it. I’m more willing to believe something like “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” than the Bible. It’s interesting to study the Testaments like the Greek myths of my childhood, but nothing more than that.

    Anyways, there you have mine. Sorry if it’s long.

  141. ctw says

    scott hatfield:

    belated reply to your question (I had assumed this thread had died long ago – or maybe it had and was resurrected?)

    as indicated in my earlier comments, I question the sharp distinction others see between belief and faith. having thought some more about it (and having read several hundred somewhat related comments over at volokh conspiracy), I see more reason to do so.

    I think I see a difference between the seriously religious and the irreligious in the redundancy, both in space and time, which they require for their “faith” (or since I see them as equivalent in a process sense, “belief”). for example, I have “faith” in evolution based on no personal knowledge or experience. why? well, I have read dawkins, dennett, talk origins, phyrangula, the loom, various evolution-ID debates, the DI web site, and 100s – perhaps 1000s – of comments pro and con, and the overwhelmingly one-sidedness of the reason on one side and the foolishness on the other meets my spatial redundancy requirement. and since it seems that studies in various fields over 1 1/2 centuries have consistently produced results that are consistent with evolution, so is my requirement for temporal redundancy.

    I have also read numerous books, debates, websites arguing for the truth of christianity but have found that the only remotely potentially convincing argument (for someone else – I’m irredeemably damned) is historical – M, M, L & J plus paul and assorted scalawags (eg, josephus) say so. subsequent apologetics that I’ve read (admittedly, not much – my tolerance is very low since it typically is incomprehensible to me) offers no new evidence, just hand waving or reinterpretation of the same evidence. OK, but even taking them at “their word” (a big leap given questions about authorship, translation, editing, etc), what about some intervening evidence? god made this huge intervention two millenia ago and got so tired he couldn’t muster up at least some slightly less but still overwhelmingly convincingly action despite all that time to rest? so, neither my spatial nor my temporal reduncy requirements are met.

    not suggesting that this “proves” anything, but it might help explain the mystery (to me) why you (and others like you) and I (and others like me) who don’t seem very far apart in process, can be so far apart in outcome. perhaps we have different redundancy requirements of one or both types for that particular belief (aka, faith).

  142. PaulC says


    I have also read numerous books, debates, websites arguing for the truth of christianity but have found that the only remotely potentially convincing argument (for someone else – I’m irredeemably damned) is historical – M, M, L & J plus paul and assorted scalawags (eg, josephus) say so.

    I think this fits a little with something I was considering after some of yesterday’s discussion: if I’m seriously going to claim to be agnostic about God and but openly dismissive of bigfoot, what rational explanation do I have for making such a distinction? Though I would still maintain that I’m open to any evidence that would prove the existence of bigfoot or that Ghana actually won the 2006 World Cup, I don’t want to be disingenuous either: there’s a distinction in my own mind.

    The distinction between a possibility I might consider vs. one I would dismiss is that the former explains some body of evidence in need of an explanation. As far as I’m aware, there is no significant body of evidence better explained by the existence of bigfoot than by his absence. It’s even more clear to me that there is no evidence at all that would lead me to hypothesize that Ghana won the World Cup this year.

    By contrast, there are historical figures I respect as well as authority figures from my formative years that all took this God notion very seriously. That’s a body of evidence to explain: what the heck were all these people thinking?

    Without that, I would definitely say that my understanding of the observable universe and familiarity with the counterintuitive behavior of self-organizing systems is more than adequate to make it plausible to have all the wonders of the observable universe without any omnipotent, conscious being in charge of it all. And it is certainly no less beautiful for all that–quite the contrary in fact.

    Now, I think that body of evidence in favor of God–in effect numerous testimonials to that effect by people living and dead and apparently of sound mind when they said it–is probably explained by a combination of human fallibility, the persistence of tradition, the need for shared symbolism, etc. I don’t think that the existence of an actual God is the best explanation for why all these otherwise quite reasonable people have been religious.

    I also think that until quite recently–as recently as the time of Paley–our understanding of science did make it very hard to imagine complexity without conscious organization. Early attempts at naturalistic explanations, notably Lucretius, were insightful but not any more convincing than their rebuttals. So an intelligent, critical person might very well have accepted the existence of God as the most reasonable hypothesis.

    But due to my own historical circumstances–in which we as a species haven’t sorted out all the new information–the God hypothesis was already strongly entrenched in my mind before I had considered the above explanations. I am also well aware of my own fallability. So, while I think it is safe to say that there is no body of evidence best explained by the existence of God, I remain quick to add that I could be wrong. I may have been a poor student and missed something important that those before me understood. I also feel bad about having to contradict people for whom I have respect. It’s not just that I disagree about one little thing, but about something that may be deeply important to them. So under other circumstances I could be an atheist, but due to my particular circumstances, I think it is safe to say I’m agnostic.

  143. ctw says

    paul –

    I think belief thresholds might help. if it’s important to be “right”, ie, if acting as if something is true when it’s not may have adverse effects, you want to set your belief threshold high so as to minimize the possibility of a false positive. for example, whether bigfoot exists presumably is of no consequence to you, in which case you might set your belief threshold for bigfoot’s nonexistence relatively low.

    now, how much evidence do you actually have to support your belief that bigfoot doesn’t exist? if a lot, then your confidence (conditional probability given the evidence) will likely exceed comfortably your relatively low belief threhold. but my guess is that in fact you have very little supporting evidence (I’m engaging in some transference here – I’m only vaguely aware of what bigfoot is supposed to be, have essentially no evidence, and am guessing few others do as well), in which case your dismissiveness may be due as much – perhaps more – to a low threshold (indifference) as to high confidence (strong evidence).

    in the case of “god”, you may care quite a lot (in which case, we would diverge – I don’t). thus, your belief threshold will be much higher. but you apparently think the evidence is strong and supports a confidence level that clears it. so, perhaps you’re not dismissive in this case due not to lack of confidence but due to the importance of being right that is implicit in the high belief threshold.

    as a loosely related aside, I tend to think the fundies may have made a big mistake pushing religion to the fore after several decades of relative dormancy. being mostly indifferent to religion in general, I didn’t care about christianity in particular, didn’t know much about the supporting “evidence”, and had a live-and-let-live attitude. but having had the topic shoved down my throat of late by opportunistic politicians, IDiots, nitwit blog commenters, et al, I’m now hostile (altho only to the over aggressive and/or hypocritical, which is why I often preach here a degree of tolerance to those who are neither) and much less ignorant. hence, my belief threshold is still low, but my confidence is much higher. not that this makes any difference in my case since I have neither forum nor influence, but my guess is that there are many others in a similar situation who have one or both, and the last thing you want when you’re spewing nonsense is a well-informed opposition.

  144. melior (in Austin) says

    I can recall one tipping point in particular, though I’m sure there must have been several:

    When I was but a curiously inquisitive 12-year-old, in CCD class (Catholic ‘Sunday School’) one night the nun told us about a prophesy that as the End Times approached, there would be a push for all religions to unite and recognize that they were each merely different reflections of the same God’s Truth.

    For a moment I was quite excited by this, since it made a kind of brilliant sense to me, having struggled as all kids must with the conundrum of what God could have been thinking by cruelly confusing people (some of whom were friends of mine) by placing them in families that followed Other Religions that were Just Plain Wrong.

    Then, just as my hand went up to ask more about this intriguing idea, the nun warned us not to believe those claims because, are you ready for this, that was just Satan trying to lure people away from the One True Path. I was so disgusted I dropped my hand and don’t think I ever took another word seriously that came out of her mouth.

  145. Friso says

    I think I had it much easier than most people here, in that I live in the Netherlands and almost no one looks twice if you profess to be an atheist. Although I went to a christian school as a child (it was the best school in town), I never believed in god beyond the father-christmassy type you envision as a five-year-old. I look at a friend of mine, and his long and hard struggle to liberate himself of the fundie church he grew up in (we do have them here, they are just not as strident in public discourse) – and I realise how lucky I’ve been. Although I don’t doubt for a moment that I would have taken the same path he has, had our roles been reversed.
    My lack of faith has not been tested yet, but I find immense comfort in the thought that I am master of my own life.

  146. Chris says

    What’s the difference between God and Santa Claus?

    Most people, when they grow up, eventually stop believing in Santa Claus. They don’t generally become Santa-agnostics, either (at least not in any practical sense).

    Are you a Santa-agnostic? Why or why not? The evidence a five-year-old has for Santa is exactly as good as the evidence anyone has for God – people you trust tell you he’s real, and there are books about him that treat him as real. Some phenomena exist that could have been caused by him or by some “natural” cause. Both promise rewards for good behavior.

    I could complete the analogy by saying that anyone who believes in God isn’t really grown up, that you can’t reach spiritual (or, if you prefer, emotional) adulthood as long as you rely on a parent either on Earth or in heaven, but I’m not a psychologist so that might be going a bit too far. Then again, it might not.

    By contrast, there are historical figures I respect as well as authority figures from my formative years that all took this God notion very seriously. That’s a body of evidence to explain: what the heck were all these people thinking?

    Isn’t that exactly what Dennett is saying? There are possible explanations other than “It’s all TRUE!” and maybe we ought to look at some?

  147. PaulC says

    ctw: Actually I don’t care about being right about anything until there is a decision to be made based on it. Unless I were to go back to being a practicing Catholic, there would be almost nothing I would feel I need to do differently whether or not God exists, so in that sense the issue really doesn’t matter very much.

    I want to add, though I should not need to, that saying I’m agnostic is not intended to suggest that this is what anyone “should” be. If I said I was alcoholic or claustrophobic, nobody would think that I was recommending it. Nor would many people think they could talk me out it. Nor would people insist that I am really some other thing but reluctant to admit it; they’d take the claim at face value. I only expect this level of consideration.

    My situation can’t be as uncommon as all that, though it appears to be an outlier around here. For rational reasons, I find the arguments of my birth religion unconvincing. However, I don’t feel that it was any more terrible a force in my life than other things. Formal education and peer pressure were also quite painful and I was at times treated unfairly by all these formative processes. Growing up is a painful process.

    The main thing is that I have more stake in the issue of whether God exists than whether bigfoot exists because that is in fact how I was raised. I also have to deal with the fact that I come from a family that has been pretty seriously Catholic for generations. It’s not an easy thing to reject one’s background. I think I’m probably right, but I also think it’s forgivable for me to wonder if I just didn’t give it enough of a try and missed something important. Why did all these other people seem to get something that I did not? I have a possible explanation (see above) but it is a different issue to me than the existence or non-existence of bigfoot.

  148. PaulC says


    Isn’t that exactly what Dennett is saying? There are possible explanations other than “It’s all TRUE!” and maybe we ought to look at some?

    If you read any further in that post, you will see that I gave some and suggested that these were probably better explanations. My point was to draw a contrast between this issue and the existence of bigfoot.

  149. PaulC says

    ctw: I also want to comment that I don’t think there is strong evidence against the existence of God. It is really unfalsifiable. There is strong evidence against specific religious beliefs (e.g. that various superstitious practices work better on average than doing nothing–testable in a controlled experiment). Normally I would dismiss an unfalsifiable as unimportant. The difference in this case is the weight of importance given to this particular one by other people I was brought up to respect.

  150. Caledonian says

    Why do so many people consider ‘unfalsifiable’ a concept that is self-contradictory? It boggles the mind.

  151. PaulC says

    Caledonian: I have no idea why people think that or whether they do. However, it should be fairly clear from my comments that I never suggested any such thing.

  152. David Harmon says

    What I think some of the distinctionists on the “agnostic identity” team seem to miss, is that when someone says, “no, I don’t believe in X, but I’m sure there’s something that could change my mind” — that second clause probably applies to almost anything! It’s a statement about how the speaker’s mind works, not about X. Many of the self-described agnostics here might as well call themselves atheistic, and just “reserve the right” to change their minds at a future date.

    Scott Hatfield: “could one believe in God without having faith in God?”

    Well, Wiccan dealings with the gods, and shamans’ with their spirits, are on a close to “interpersonal” basis. It is understood that the gods or spirits are not absolute powers, but have their own limits and restrictions, which may or may not not be apparent to humanity — and then too, some fraction are hostile, ill-behaved, or just mischieveous.

  153. ctw says

    “I don’t care about being right about anything until there is a decision to be made based on it.”

    which is why I put quotes on “right” and defined what I meant by it in the second sentence. however, I actually would go a step further and guess that people who value intellectual honesty really do want to be “right” about strongly held opinions (high threshold, high confidence) if only to validate to themselves that they sincerely tried to gather evidence sufficient to justify them. it is clear to me that you are such a person.

    had I only read phyrangula, decided that there was no question but that evolution is a sound hypothesis, and subsequently discovered prof myers to be a charlatan, I’d be mortified, notwithstanding that no one would ever know since I have little occasion to discuss evolution. now, it may be that he is a charlatan (if so, a very, very good one). but altho I’d be disappointed to discover that to be the case, I’d feel that I had done the best I could, given my limitations, to gather evidence sufficient to warrant my high confidence in the hypothesis.

    I have little to say re atheism, agnoticism, etc. as with apparently many others in this forum, I simply don’t care enough to work through what is needed to address the question “do you believe in god?”, viz, what’s “belief” and what’s “god”? the former I’ve tried to address above, but perfunctorily (a euphemism for ineptly) and in a general sense. but so far, I’ve found no need for anything outside of the world we know, so I simply have no answer to the latter. I avoid “atheist” because, as stated many times here, one of the definitions attached to “atheist” by various despicable and/or ignorant types is “an aggressively held belief that there is no god”, none of which applies to me. I personally use “irreligious” if the need arises for self-labeling and leave it to the hearer to draw their own conclusions. to date, no one has ever responded one way or another to that label, which is fine with me.


  154. 601 says

    The case for “god created Man” may be lacking evidence, but the case for “Man created god” is overwhelming. Let’s just say, for kicks, someone wanted to control a large population as efficiently as possible. You must agree you couldn’t do better than this meme:

    1. Best imaginable reward if you follow the rules.
    2. Worst imaginable punishment otherwise.
    3. You must convince everyone else you meet.
    4. Cheating is impossible, don’t bother trying, or fess up.
    5. Proof is unavailable, have some faith.

    This is what kept me atheist (SciAm helped as well). I stand in awe of the boldness, but I suspect it evolved to this over time.

  155. Maezeppa says

    To the one who asked about the difference between ‘faith’ and ‘belief’.

    I think faith is the belief in something for which there is no evidence, particularly if it’s religous.

  156. jula says

    Is there any evidence that the world around you actully exist? and you are not just a brain in a jar?

  157. AlanW says

    Re: >I consider myself an agnostic rather than atheist.
    >wicked waffliness of the word agnostic

    I’m with Richard Dawkinds on this one and strictrly speaking consider myself agnostic about god the same way I’m agnostic about faeries, elves, and the easter bunny. Show me some evidence for any of these and I’ll happily change my mind. Hwoever, the weigth of evidence so far is in the lack of existence of them all.