The diversity of Diversity

Atheists are not popular. This comes as no surprise to us or anyone, really. As far as I can tell we are dead last in every U.S. poll in which we are included and explicit terrorists, Nazis, and the Westboro Baptist Church are not.

I suppose the cultural assumption that ‘you need God to be good’ should be explanation enough for our banishment from the realm of the acceptable (Would you want your sister to marry one? Would you want to be one? Nuh uh.)  But I keep running into a common plea that no, the problem is not really atheism. Atheism isn’t necessarily okay, of course … but after all it’s a free country and people have the right to believe what they want to believe. It takes all kinds. Just be nice and you’re okay.

No, the problem isn’t atheism itself – it’s atheists. But not all atheists. The tolerant believers discern critical distinctions in the group. There are Good Atheists who don’t manage to believe in God themselves but who still manage to show the courtesy to respect those who do. And then there are the ones like Richard Dawkins . The outspoken ones, the militant ones, the shrill ones who won’t shut up and try to blend in and instead write books and articles and letters meant for the general public. The stigma is focused like a laser on the atheists who act ‘just like fundamentalists’ by trying to convert people and thereby change their minds. The arrogant. The not-nice.


It’s an insidious trope which appeals to values like respect, acceptance, and inclusion: why would anyone be so  rude as to try to get other people to not believe in God? What about diversity? Diversity is good. We ought to let people be who they are.

Outspoken atheists then are disparaged even by those who claim to be “fine” with atheism because we are seen as breaking the social contract which values diversity and individuality. Atheists attack people’s deepest identity the way racists attack race or bullies attack those who are different than them. When you get right down to it — they’re bigots. Telling people their religion is wrong is being judgmental.

This is apparently a major charge made against us. I feel as if I see and read and encounter variations of it all around. I suspect most of us do. It’s a theme which seems to run more often through liberal communities than the conservative ones (which are usually just fine with the assumption that you can’t be good without God) but many of us live in such communities and engage regularly with those who seem so frustratingly on the edge of rationality.

So I’ve been attempting to figure out exactly what is happening and why,  working it out mostly here and there in parts and pieces. Since PZ gave me the keys while he’s away, though, I’ll take advantage and will to try to expand a bit, to see whether people in this forum think it makes sense. Because I think that, once again, theists are making a category error when it comes to religion. And they’re getting a lot of non-theists to go along with them because they are appealing to values which are essentially not religious, but humanist.

Bottom line, there is a sort of equivocation going on with the concept of “diversity”  – and it’s helping to fuel the general antipathy towards atheists.

Consider it this way: it might be said that there are two basic frameworks in which we value ‘diversity’ as a modern virtue. One of them is what I call the Diversity Smorgasbord. The other is what we can call the Diverse Problem-Solving Group.

The Diversity Smorgasbord is one where everyone brings their favorite “dish” – their preferences, their lifestyles, their values, their choices, and everything else that contributes to their identity, to what makes them them and not someone else. Maybe you bring a chocolate cake and I don’t like chocolate cake. That’s fine. No judgment here – it’s not a cooking contest. Take what you need and leave the rest.

It’s all good. Some people like living in the country and some people like living in the city. Some people are brown and some people are white. Some people prefer Star Trek over Star Wars and some people choose banking over a career in modern dance. Whatever floats your boat, whatever you love … whoever you are. A humanist society focuses on the rights and flourishing of the individual. The more diversity, the better.

That’s an important point. No right, no wrong – just different. Genuine tolerance demands that you accept people just as they are. Come into a Diversity Smorgasbord with the idea that you are going to criticize, debate, or set people straight and you’re a bully, a bigot, or both. That’s because the stakes of the argument are so inherently personal. If one person “wins,” then the other person loses in a battle for status and identity. You’re wrong to like the music you like. You’re wrong to love the person you love. You’re wrong to be the person you are. Because I’m better than you and you’re lower. In such a contentious atmosphere it is not safe to express yourself.

That is what we mean when we say someone is being “judgmental.”

So no. Trying to change someone’s mind in a Diversity Smorgasbord is seen as harmful, disruptive, and rude. You’re not supposed to do that (unless the other person can take it in good spirit and agrees to go along.) In a civil society we’re not just supposed to accept differences – we’re supposed to welcome them. Doing otherwise displays an unbecoming arrogance and insensitivity. It’s judgmental.

But then there is the Diverse Problem-Solving Group. The diversity here has a different purpose than allowing self-expression to flourish unhindered. In a problem-solving group individuals are united together on common ground: they share a problem. They’re trying to find an answer or a solution or an agreement reached. And this search for consensus can only be as good and open and honest as it gets if you have both an assumption of equality and a lot of diversity, a lot of contending ideas being sifted through and argued for and argued against to provide checks and balances against the tendency towards human error. The more diversity the better, yes – but not as the goal.

The ultimate goal is to find out what is right and what is wrong: solve the problem.  Judge. Not who is right — as if all anyone cared about was expressing their individual “opinion” and there it rests.  It’s the marketplace of ideas and so  there are winners and losers. But if you honestly care about the problematic issue then every defeat is a victory. You made a mistake and we all learned something – including you. Win-win.

For example: all the fish are dying in our lake. Why? Is the lake polluted? How? What should we do? Should we do anything at all? Arguments and evidence and ideas are bandied about and every time someone says “you’re wrong” and can prove it then we’ve got a healthy situation. The diverse group is making progress. They are finding a solution. There is no progress if nobody can make a mistake. You can shut down an idea … but you better not shut down a voice. That voice might be the very check and balance you need.

Assuming, that is, that you care more about discovering truth than you care about protecting your turf, your ego, and your identity.

And this I think is the crux of the matter when it comes to gnu atheism and the charge of bigotry: categorization. Where does the general category of “religion” go? “Religious beliefs?” When push comes to shove and we get right down to what religion actually is about — which Diversity Group does it go under?

You have already guessed. Yes, atheists place ‘religion’ in the Diverse-Problem Solving Group.

The religious place “religion’ in the Diversity Smorgasbord.

AND they put it in the Problem-Solving Group, too. It gets to be both. Such is the insidious, sneaking, self-referential nature of “faith” and the idea that what you believe about God is all going to come down to a reflection of the kind of person you are and the “choices” you make because of this.

Philosopher Stephen Law talks about “immunizing strategies” – mental tricks and tactics which follow bad ideas along in order to protect them from critical scrutiny (like a dowser suddenly and forever more insisting that dowsing ‘can’t be tested’ after a failed test.) If what a person believes about God is treated like a fundamental unit of self-identity then religion falls into the Diversity Smorgasbord and it can’t be touched. Try to change someone’s mind and you’re trying to take who they are away from them. “Differences” need to be respected here, not challenged. Don’t be judgmental.

And thus religion manages to ride to credibility and acceptance on the back of a general public agreement for harmony which is grounded in humanistic tolerance. No, we don’t want to be judgmental, do we?

Which would all be fine if all religion was and all spirituality entailed was a sort of aesthetic appreciation for nature and virtue and art. If religion were like knitting and it’s okay if you don’t knit or are allergic to wool then there would be no problem with the Smorgasbord approach. But it isn’t. Religion is a model of the world. It’s supposed to involve knowledge about the way reality works, how it’s set up — and what we ought to do about that. They look and observe and think and draw conclusions that the natural world is not a sufficient explanation. These are the religionists own standards: the meaning of life and the key to wisdom and understanding.

Whether God exists or not is supposed to matter. It’s an empirical conclusion which is supposed to be right … and atheism is supposed to be wrong.  It’s supposed to be wrong regardless of whether or not the atheist is “nice” enough to shut up and respect the rules of the Diversity Smorgasbord. The so-called Good Atheists are kidding themselves if they think the God-believers on the other side really, really have no problem with them because hey, it’s all a matter of taste, right? No. Not really.

The pious need to pick a horse and ride it. If religion is nothing more than a matter of taste, a personal inclination which expresses feelings and concerns – then stop the endless emphasis on God, God, God and how important it is that God exists and how important it is to believe in God. You don’t give a crap about whether it exists: you’re only going with what works for you as part of your identity. As Daniel Dennett puts it, you believe in belief.

But if whether your religion is actually true actually matters – then take religion off of the Diversity Smorgasbord and place it firmly in the Problem-Solving Group. Advance “the existence of God” as a proposed explanation for observations and enter an honest debate. Don’t suddenly shift back into the Smorgasbord when you encounter active resistance and demand respect for your private little “choice.” And don’t then slip right back into the Problem-Solving Group when you get together again with those seekers who have found the same solution you have. We atheists are in on the search, too. We are part of your group. We share the common ground. Win-win.

As I said above, I think there is more than just a desire for self-protection behind the back-and-forth equivocation in how believers want religion to be categorized. I think there’s a fundamental confusion which comes directly from entangling the concept of “faith” into how we derive conclusions about the supernatural.

When it gets right down to it religious faith isn’t “belief without evidence.” It’s believing on evidence which is insufficient to convince a low, narrow, arrogant, cold, heartless, closed-minded person – but which is sufficient to convince someone like you! It’s a personal commitment to always and forever spin the evidence in the “right” direction. Faith is the psychic mind call to the higher minds — those rare individuals with the deep, humble, warm openness of heart that allows them to connect with the divine and appreciate the sacred. Bypass reason — or at least curtail it. With faith, people are supposed to derive their conclusion (“therefore, God exists”) by drawing on their identity (“I want to be the kind of person who believes.”)

And this entire set-up screws not only epistemology; it screws the atheist. It removes us from the common ground of rational debate and places us in the situation of being a very sorry dish indeed on the Smorgasbord of Personalities. It takes away our reasons and arguments and forces not-believing-in-God into the role of self-expressive personal choice. And no matter how liberal and spiritual a believer may be, being the ‘kind of person” who doesn’t believe in God is not good. We have brought liver-and-onions to the Cake Table.

When religion is considered part of the Diversity Smorgasbord it doesn’t contribute to the harmony and tolerance of diverse viewpoints. On the contrary. Because ‘religion’ is supposed to be in the Diverse Problem-Solving Group – because it belongs in that group as long as the truth of the beliefs matter to the believer  — then this move only effectively shuts up a voice by shutting down dissent. It’s divisive. And it ends up being a form of bullying and bigotry itself.

It seems to me that using this conceptual model of diversity – the Diversity Smorgasbord vs. the Diverse Problem-Solving Group – has helped me clarify my thoughts somewhat and perhaps aided my understanding of the automatic hostility often directed towards atheists from people who don’t seem to fall into the usual You-Need-God-to-Be-Good crowd. The diverse diversities might even help explain some of the reasoning behind the anti-gnu atheists, the faitheists and accomodationists who would never, ever be so rude as to try to change another person’s religious beliefs. They’re letting the religious set the framework. They’re buying into the equivocation. And then they’re being reasonable, fair, tolerant, accepting, and good. They’re not judgmental.

No. I think we need to go back and look at categories. The religious have turned category error into an art form. Don’t let them get away with it. Solve a problem. Judge.

(from Sastra)


  1. nyqonly says

    Can I suggest a third category? It is akin to the smorgasbord (or perhaps part of it) – diversity as a truce. Religious freedom (and hence both religious tolerance and religious diversity) has come about in liberal-democracies as a result of religious conflicts. Those conflicts generally arose not because of cultural diversity necessarily but due to doctrinal splits. The great European Catholic-Protestant wars demonstrated two important issues 1. such doctrinal differences couldn’t be solved methodologically (neither side could win the war of ideas – which relates to your diversity-as-problem-solving) 2. the use of force to solve the doctrinal differences was extremely damaging. The need for religious tolerance predates these conflicts of course but Catholic-v-Protestant was a conflict that end up with neither side ruling the roost AND both sides finding themselves as persecuted minorities in some countries.
    Religious tolerance therefore can emerge from a cold war of powerful religious factions (Catholic v Protestant, Christian v Muslim, Shiite v Sunni). Agreeing not to fight can result in a degree of tolerance and diversity (although not necessarily religious freedom at an individual level).
    Consequently a ‘new’ player can be seen as disruptive and dangerous.

  2. mnb0 says

    Richard Dawkins is a weird example. Everyone who has watched him in a debate will agree that he is a very polite, well mannered and generally civilized debater – quite the opposite of say Sye ten Bruggencate. I don’t like The God Delusion, but in debates I would like him to see a little …. more militant.

  3. mnb0 says

    “I suspect most of us do.”
    I suspect most of you Americans do. I am a Dutchman living in Suriname, a very religious country. I don’t exactly keep my atheism a secret and I never have met such a charge.

  4. Frenzie says

    Fancy seeing you here?

    Anyhoo, as a Dutchman living in Belgium, a much less religious country, I can affirm that I’ve never had such a charge leveled at me on this side of the pond.

  5. laurentweppe says

    And then there are the ones like Richard Dawkins . The outspoken ones, the militant ones, the shrill ones who won’t shut up and try to blend in and instead write books and articles and letters meant for the general public

    Oh, sure, there’s Dawking unapologetically militant outspokenness…

    And also
    • His complacency toward the islamophobic far-right
    • His intellectually dishonest denial that it is a transparent attempt by white supremacists to use religion as a proxy for race and to disguise the fact that they intend to disafranchise millions of people who are not of european descent behind a simulacrum of secularism.
    • His willingness to repeat the lies of fundie christians or to fake erudition when it is convenient.
    • His love for false and dishonests dichotomies meant to justify tribalistic animosity (Religious people are either stupid fanatics or closeted atheists, therefore it’s okay to despise them all because they’re either morons or liars).
    • His glaring lack of moral fortitude which push him to use the old “You can’t really understand my deep and complex and subtle reasonning” rhetorical trick when some of his skullduggery earns him some well deserved backlash.
    • And last but not least, the fact that he so clearly revels in the hero worship offered to him by people who have the gall to claim that they are way more rational, coll headed, and free thinking than the masses.

    But sure, if he was less outspoken about being an insular scholar enamored with his reputation as the patron saint of anglo-saxon atheists with misplaced complacency toward ethnicist impostors and a tendancy to behave like a know-nothing-know-it-all outside is realm of expertise, it would not hurt: the UK already has one high-profile embarassing clown in the person of Boris Johnson, there’s no need to add more.

  6. Becca Stareyes says

    I’d say the ‘Problem Solving’ approach also requires the participants to not be egotistical. Consider science. Ideally, science can be formulated as trying to solve the problem of ‘we don’t know shit’. So people create ideas and test them and try to find an answer (or at least a better approximation). Ideally, you set egos aside and focus on the job. In practice, people tend to be attached to their own ideas, simply because they are theres. Moreover, being wrong at the wrong time (or right at the right time) might have implications for future funding. So putting all that aside is difficult — not impossible, but it requires being skeptical of one’s own motivations.

    The ‘Religion as Problem Solving’ has a bit of the same problem: many people feel invested in their religious belief or lack thereof, or might be concerned about the social factors of changing from a dominant religion to a non-dominant one (to no religion). Basically, if my social and familial ties depend on believing in the divinity of Jesus, I’m going to find it harder* to set that aside and focus on ‘but is it true’?

    It may be that the first step is to clear away as many of those social factors as we can… which in some ways requires working on the Religion as Smorgasbord model, because if it truly doesn’t matter if someone brings cake or pie or sticky rice or a dessert soup, one might have less invested in Favorite Dessert.

    * But not impossible, as I know folks here have done it. OTOH, I imagine a lot of folks here also value the social connections of knowing other atheists (or even ‘people outside the religion I was raised in’), and that made accepting atheism easier.

  7. Randomfactor says

    In the same way that some theists divide atheists in the good sort and the bad sort, I’ve decided that Christians can be divided into two basic groups.

    There are the ones who believe in a literal hell, and the good kind.

    In your classification system, the good kind have a firm enough grasp on reality to be problem solvers. It’s just the other 75 percent or so who give them a bad name.

  8. says

    I think you’re very much on to something with this distinction. Indeed, I think a basic equivocation is at the heart of all faith. I keep noticing this over and over again; multiple meanings of a single term, switching back and forth as the situation requires, usually without the believer even being aware of doing so.

    This is just another case of it; religion as “how I feel about the world” vs. religion as “how the world really is”. Pick whichever meaning is convenient at the time. I don’t even think they’re being dishonest about it, they just genuinely don’t realize that there’s any difference between the two. After all, it’s the same word, so it must be the same thing.

    I think it might be helpful to poke that soft spot and try to drive believers to pick a side. I feel like we often have a better handle on what the theists are actually saying than they do. Making them aware of this issue could be a good first step.

  9. anchor says

    Thank you for that excellent essay, Sastra. Well done.

    Yes, the categories. That is an anvil that needs to be soundly hammered and far more often than it is.

    The need to fulfill human curiosity in terms of understanding the world – in terms of science – is a motivation that is intimately allied to problem-solving and the quest to improve or refine ourselves and society. Without it, no problem may be recognized let alone understood well enough to be solved by the Problem-Solvers, and the Smorgasbord can have no foundation in anything remotely resembling a reference to the real world outside of mere human whim, let alone an exclusive claim to “truth”.

  10. says

    There are the ones who believe in a literal hell, and the good kind.

    In your classification system, the good kind have a firm enough grasp on reality to be problem solvers

    I’m not so sure. The fire and brimstone type tend to be the ones who are most likely to clearly pin their colors to the mast of “religion as a model of reality”. The “good ones” tend to be much more wishy-washy, which I personally find aggravating as hell. They may be more helpful in solving other problems, but I think they’re a very big problem with regards to this distinction in religion. They want to have religion matter and be central to society, but they don’t want to have to defend it.

    Give me a good fundy who’ll tell me I’m a devil worshiper. At least I know what he thinks of me.

  11. says

    Thank you for that excellent essay, Sastra. Well done.

    Seconded. It’s tricky to fill in for PZ, but I think you’re doing a nice job.

  12. says

    Idunno, I think the events of the last few years have proved that the atheist movement really is full of complete and utter assbags, so I can’t really get all worked up over how mean the theists are by not liking us. Maybe if we weren’t a movement that continually insists that narrow-minded, smug twerps like Christopher Hitchens were/are the world’s mostest brilliant thinkers, other people might be wrong for thinking we suck.

  13. Dauphni says

    I’d like to add my voice to the chorus of Dutchies here, as one who is living in the Netherlands. :p I have to say that I certainly don’t have to conceal my atheism in any way. Actually, it’s probably the default assumption these days that people don’t believe in any gods, and the religious are the exception rather than the norm, especially among the younger generations.

  14. says

    At least in Europe, where religion mostly keeps out of science though interfering in social matters, I don’t think the issue between religious people and atheists is an epistemological one, but the assumption of the moral high-ground or the right to impose the morality of an old text on others. Who cares if you want to keep your imaginary friend? Just don’t try to make me/society do what you think he wants.
    How you get from “X created the world” to “X defines what is good” has always baffled me, anyway.

  15. chigau (違う) says

    I’ve been a atheist (in Canada) for more than 40 years.
    I’ve never concealed it and I’ve never been part of a ‘movement’.

  16. anchor says

    “Idunno, I think the events of the last few years have proved that the atheist movement really is full of complete and utter assbags, so I can’t really get all worked up over how mean the theists are by not liking us”

    Yeah, right, the movement is absolutely chock full of them.

    You really have been keeping up with the events of the last few years, haven’t you? Got it all right on the beam, huh?

  17. Ulysses says

    So all of us atheists should move to the Netherlands. I’d consider it since the cuisine isn’t quite as bad as it’s reputed to be. I tried Zuurkoolstamppot and it doesn’t look or taste like vomit at all.

  18. profpedant says

    Another way to describe this is to assert that there are two kinds of truth: subjective truth (i.e. personal experience, beliefs, etc.) and there is objective truth (those things that are true regardless of what you believe). No one, other than the person believing a ‘subjective truth’ can prove a subjective truth wrong, all anyone can ever do is demonstrate that it is implausible/impossible for a specific subjective truth to also be an objective truth. A claim of objective truth can be proved wrong, or shown to be implausible. If a person is unable to accept that something he or she believes ‘could be wrong’* that belief is a subjective truth. If you can accept that idea that your belief might be wrong or thoroughly implausible you are concerned with objective truths no matter how bizarre your truth claims may be.

    * accepting that a belief ‘could be wrong’ includes plenty of room to assume that it is extremely implausible that your belief is wrong – all that is required is an acceptance of the possibility, not an acceptance of the plausibility.

  19. Dauphni says

    Ulysses @18

    So all of us atheists should move to the Netherlands. I’d consider it since the cuisine isn’t quite as bad as it’s reputed to be. I tried Zuurkoolstamppot and it doesn’t look or taste like vomit at all.

    Yeah, our cuisine got its bad rep from the practice of over-boiling pretty much everything many, many decades ago. Traditional Dutch dishes are generally solid and hearty, with a sort of earthy characteristic to them. They’re excellently suited to working long, hard days in the field. There’s also the typically Dutch varieties of fried snack foods. Then there are a lot of remnants of our colonial past in the cuisine as well, with a lot of dishes originating wholly or in part from Indonesia and Surinam, such as roti, bami or sate. More recently, there has been an infusion of Mediterranean cooking as well, first starting with Italian pastas and lately Middle Eastern styles have been making inroads as well thanks to the large (former) immigrant communities. Kapsalon is a great example of the integration of these cuisines, with its blend of Dutch, Middle Eastern and Indonesian elements.

    Tell me if I’m drifting too far off topic here…

  20. consciousness razor says

    Very well said, Sastra. This in particular makes me laugh:

    When it gets right down to it religious faith isn’t “belief without evidence.” It’s believing on evidence which is insufficient to convince a low, narrow, arrogant, cold, heartless, closed-minded person – but which is sufficient to convince someone like you!

    I do think we need to avoid an opposing tendency, of treating god-belief strictly as an empirical or metaphysical question, since it has (and needs) ethical implications and justifications as well. That also puts religion at a disadvantage, generally; but the point can get lost in the mess while framing it as an exercise in empirical, scientific problem-solving. You can argue the smorgasboard or potluck treatment also divorces a belief from its consequences, by pretending as if it were merely some isolated inconsequential fact about personal identity or preference. Not only can gods hide from every test (yet their miracles are all around us!), but beliefs about god also have no observable effects on reality.

    If you’re not following closely enough, they’re in a position to assert our common ground, while conveniently setting aside the differences as much as it suits them. “We’re all on the same side,” so long as you pretend along with them that the rest of their beliefs don’t exist, or else don’t do anything, or at the very least aren’t “being imposed on everyone else.” It becomes an awfully low bar to meet: as long as you don’t act like a totalitarian dictator, we’ll just agree to disagree. They don’t hate gay people, after all, not like those mean theists over there, so why would anyone ask them to defend their beliefs about gods, about the value of religious authorities, revelations, traditions and so on? Isn’t that end result (or some collection of specific belief claims they’ve selected) what really matters, more than the process of how they got there? Because this process … it doesn’t actually do anything, right?

    Anyway, I’m reminded of the last bit of David Albert’s review below, which I think is worth emphasizing even though I don’t think it contradicts anything you’ve said:

    And I guess it ought to be mentioned, quite apart from the question of whether anything Krauss says turns out to be true or false, that the whole business of approaching the struggle with religion as if it were a card game, or a horse race, or some kind of battle of wits, just feels all wrong — or it does, at any rate, to me. When I was growing up, where I was growing up, there was a critique of religion according to which religion was cruel, and a lie, and a mechanism of enslavement, and something full of loathing and contempt for every­thing essentially human. Maybe that was true and maybe it wasn’t, but it had to do with important things — it had to do, that is, with history, and with suffering, and with the hope of a better world — and it seems like a pity, and more than a pity, and worse than a pity, with all that in the back of one’s head, to think that all that gets offered to us now, by guys like these, in books like this, is the pale, small, silly, nerdy accusation that religion is, I don’t know, dumb.

  21. Pierce R. Butler says

    Spread the word, people: a massive outbreak of whooping wollygollies has struck Romania, and the entire nation must be sealed off immediately and indefinitely, visiting foreign professors and all.

    IOW: Bravo, Sastra! Encore!

  22. mikeyb says

    I’m convinced that Christians don’t believe in God per se, they believe in the Bible. What I mean is it isn’t any old god, but the god described by the Bible. Which is also interesting in that when you read the Bible in light of modern scholarship, you learn there is no coherent concept or description of god to be found in the Bible. Why should there be, it is a book written over hundreds of years, by a diverse set of authors with different concepts of who God is, how he works, how one is to worship, where one should worship, who is qualified to worship etc, etc. The massive contradictory nature of the Bible and the god of the Bible naturally leads to theology, which is the art of selecting and stitching together contradictory teachings into a coherent whole. The contradictory nature of the Bible also gives this god a sort of mystique, just as it is impossible to fit square pegs into round holes, this god must work in mysterious ways since it’s impossible to ever know this god in his massively contradictory guises. I’m convinced if the Bible became discredited in the eyes of most Christians, it would go further in undermining faith than understanding facts about evolution and the big bang. Why? What exactly could god refer to if it is not related to some definition in the Bible. Why would anyone posit such a being if not for some holy text like the Bible. Christians don’t learn about god, they memorize Bible verses. Christianity functions largely as an ideology, based upon selective interpretations of a contradictory set of texts, apart from that the concept of god largely is meaningless.

  23. smiley073 says

    Yes all those nasty gnu atheist threatening people who don’t believe with eternal torture, while those religious fundamentalists are just the nicest people.

  24. imthegenieicandoanything says

    Said before? I hope so!

    There is a need, as absolute as pretty much anything, to demand honesty from oneself and others before engaging in discussion as partners rather than rivals. Not to rage about it, but never allow conscious dishonesty to be allowed as a defense.

    The basic atheist’s position is that pretty much all religious claims are inherently dishonest, in that they are never based on objective facts. That’s what makes us so threatening to otherwise wonderfully honest believers. And it can – though MUCH, much less than the thin-skinned religious claim – make us darned snotty at times, and even blind to our our prejudices and ignorance, though until tempers have already flared this isn’t all that bad.

    Patience and openness, along with humor (esp. of the truly self-deprecating sort) will win out among good people (bad people simply need to be opposed). and the better angles of of humanity will win out, even when we have a variety of personal, not-provable, but very important beliefs (aliens, Jesus, intelligent mice, mind-reading, levitation, etc.) that we know are true – but only to ourselves. It’s the shared reality that we need to come to a working agreement on, and always continue to modify.

  25. Owlmirror says

    A while back, I was exploring Leah Libresco’s blog, and found this particular post: Epistemology for Time-Travelers, where she asks what one might do if you time-traveled from the future and told your past self that future you had converted. (I’ve been noodling on how that conversation might go for me, but haven’t had time to flesh it out.)

    One of the comments looked interesting in light of the above; it was a perfect example of conflating values and ideals with truth-claims about whether or not something actually exists:

    Strange question. The truth. I would wonder if the whole think was real. Was this Satan? Was I losing my mind? It would depend on what the faith was. Islam? Hinduism? I would do some research.
    Some cult? An ultra-traditionalist schism? I would try and broaden my reading. I think there is a certain mindset that converts to those. I almost think of it as a mental disorder rather than a mindset. I would try and prevent myself from getting that disorder.
    Atheism? Secularism? That would be the hardest. It would be like being told future-me cheated on my wife and abandoned my kids. How would you process that?

    (emph. mine)

    Really? Changing your mind about the existence of an invisible person with supernatural superpowers is just like breaking personal commitments to real people? Really?

  26. says

    Really enjoying your posts, Sastra — I hope we’ll see more of them in the future.

    I think your diversity model provides some good scaffolding for thinking about the issue. Your observation about category mistakes is especially incisive.

    Another aspect, also involving categories, is the lack of distinction between “respect” as a matter of civility and kindness in interpersonal interactions and respect for an abstraction or set of ideas. If you can treat me with personal respect while holding that my beliefs will send me to an eternity of suffering, I can treat you with respect while holding that your beliefs result in a less desirable world. Speaking out against a set of beliefs does not, by itself, demean the people who hold them or render them any less entitled to whatever basic level of interpersonal respect we get for our humanity.

  27. Azuma Hazuki says

    Sastra, you need your own blog when PZ gets back. This has been very thought-provoking, and has helped me to understand why some people believe in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary: they’re not using the same epistemological paradigm as we are.

  28. DLC says

    And let’s not forget that in these times, people are so polarized that anyone who does not agree with us in toto is and must be absolutely the Enemy and must then be dealt with.
    There is very little room for nuance.

  29. erik333 says

    If Dawkins is “militant”, what do you call religious nuts who actually kill people? There seems to be some equivocation problem when comparing writing books and killing someone in the street with meat-cleavers.

  30. Frenzie says


    Actually, it’s probably the default assumption these days that people don’t believe in any gods, and the religious are the exception rather than the norm, especially among the younger generations.

    That’s probably true, but the default assumption is atheism only in a very strict sense. It’s probably more like ietsism or some kind of New Age Buddhist spirituality.

    The Netherlands also has a Bible Belt. Just so you know.

  31. randay says

    mnb0, yes, Dawkins is one of the most polite atheists around, yet he has been called “shrill” when I have never heard him raise his voice.

    #12 – “Maybe if we weren’t a movement that continually insists that narrow-minded, smug twerps like Christopher Hitchens…” How wrong can you be? Hitchens was neither narrow-minded or smug. He was simply well-read and educated, yet he went to debate morons and ignoramouses–people who had some fame but not a clue. He knew that. We miss his sharp wit, verbal scalpel, and daring to directly call bullshit as what it is. I hope another Hitchens comes along before too long.

  32. Jeff D says

    Asher Kay (#30) raises an important distinction, which is just as important (and just as valid) as Sastra’s different types or models of “diversity”: There is a continuum or spectrum along which different types or degrees of “respect” can be arranged, from live-and-let-livel mutual tolerance (but without endorsement or agreement) at one end, to acceptance and reverence at the other end. Simon Blackburn wrote about this, and how simple pleas for “respect” can lead to “respect creep,” in his essay “Religion and Respect” in the anthology Philosophers Without Gods, edited by Louise Antony.

  33. says

    Portugal here. A country as tied to religion as much as possible (independence granted by the Pope, twice; hundreds of monumental churches built from theologically justitified colonial loot by kings and lords wanting to appease/dazzle the squalid God-fearing rabble; etc.), a country that lived half of the 20th century under a regime that saw «God, Fatherland and Family» as its fundamental “archetypes”, a country where even nowadays the weight of the Catholic church, of “alternative” denominations, and of organized superstition is felt every where and all the time. And yet…

    Being harassed for being an atheist is something that most of us never ever experienced. At most, some smarmy mellow-soft and hesitant chastising from your girlfiend’s jesuit uncle while her Catholic family cringes with embarrassment and gestures apologies… If ever an old styte priest dares to say «Don’t vote for that polititian, as he’s an unbeliever!», his cohort of rosary-mumbling old ladies will shrug and think he’s ready for replacement with a dashing young seminarist, abloom with tolerance and acoustic guitar skills. (Yet that was not always like that — there’s even a slang word, mildly derrogatory, for unbeliever: incréu.)

    Are there problems with organized religion meddling in public matters in this country or any other? Yes, of course. Is the main problem the harassment of atheists, their physical safety, their social acceptability? No, it is not. Apparently, that’s only a major concern in the United States and in third world countries. So, when you say things like «we are dead last in every poll» please, for the sake of diversity and to make everybody feel included, please add «in the United States».

    (Lurker here. Have been wainting to say this about every other post here in Pharyngula and in so many other US atheists’ blogs I read.)

  34. laurentweppe says

    Hitchens was neither narrow-minded or smug

    Not only was he both, he was also genocidal, capable of enormous bad faith and willing to put his talent as a wordsmith in the service of Cheney & co’s modern murderous neo-colonialism. Pretending that the people who do not want to follow De Montagnac’s exemple are the craven lackeys of muslim integrism (which is exactly what Hitchen did) is neither sharp nor daring wit.

  35. Sastra says

    Tuvalkin #37 wrote:

    So, when you say things like «we are dead last in every poll» please, for the sake of diversity and to make everybody feel included, please add «in the United States>>.

    You are completely right, of course. My apologies. It’s fixed now.

    Blogging is hard.

  36. steffp says

    I’m with you in that. Religion is a non-theme in Germany and the Scandinavian countries in which I lived and worked. The only countries where people were interested in my religion were Islamic ones, and, of course, the US (Two hours inside the country, and I was asked if I had found my lord Jesus). In all those cases being a believer in some kind of faith was presupposed, and my atheism let me drop out of all civil categories, which sometimes was pretty scary.
    As for the third world, beg to differ. Africa’s been proselytized by both Islam and Christianity for centuries, and belonging to a faith is often defining status. So, again, you’re often treated as a drop-out.
    Asia is pretty diverse. The Islamic countries often deny citizen rights for Atheists – you can’t marry in Indonesia if you’re not a believer – or criminalize them. In India you can be whatever you like, some of their religions don’t have gods at all, but there may be some discrimination by devout communities. In predominantly Buddhist countries – Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Singapore – Atheism in itself is not a problem, as Buddhism does not presuppose a god, it’s your ethic standards that are important. It is more your skeptic disbelief in ghosts and such that is seen as a bit weird.
    China and Japan – no problem at all.
    Can’t say anything about the Philippines and South & Central America, though.

  37. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    they’re not using the same epistemological paradigm as we are. – Azuma Hazuki


  38. Uncle Ebeneezer says

    Great post Sastra. People of faith love to inhabit both sets: using the fact that Jesus did X, or Mohammed did Y as justification for why they believe (and why any sane person should) but when confronted with the fact that the evidence suggests that the most quintessential events probably did NOT actually happen, then their faith becomes a choice and a way to live and yadda, yadda, yadda. The facts no longer matter. It’s annoying as hell.

    On a tangent, it’s been frustrating to see how much antipathy there is out there for atheists recently. I hang out at a lot of progressive political blogs, and there have been a number of occasions recently when the topic of the gnu atheists have come up. Even amongst a crowd that is predominantly agnostics, atheists and lapsed/cultural Jews/christians (people with not much belief in God) the outlook is much the same as you describe. Atheism is fine, atheists should be treated the same as anyone else, but damn those argumentative ones who want to Proselytize! to everyone and constantly mock anyone who doesn’t agree with them. Dawkins is defined by his misogyny and arrogance. Harris is the torture-loving, Islamophobe. And all of us Militant Atheists must by extension be misogynist, Islamophobe, Slyme-pit types. Now, I happen to agree with the criticisms of Harris and Dawkins, but I don’t judge either of them solely based on their blind-spots, and I don’t think that either of them represent the attitudes of all atheists. Despite the fact that there are any number of prominent atheists (many here on FTB) who have criticized these attitudes expressed by Harris/Dawkins, it’s simply easier for the faithful and accomodationists to point to them and say “atheists are jerks.” Again, it all seems to come down to the fact that any atheist who speaks up is bad. What is especially annoying is that this happens in an environment (liberal blogs) where presenting bad arguments lacking evidence is the ultimate sin. Climate-denialism, tax cuts raise revenue, and other ass-backwards arguments would be rightfully met with criticism, rebuttal, scorn and mockery. Yet when evangelists and Templeton types print endless op-eds making all sorts of ridiculous claims that not only defy evidence, but also often have negative implications on the public (degrading science, justifying gender and sexual orientation discrimination, anti-abortion etc.), those of us who choose to respond are the big meanies, and dude why can’t you atheists just respect others’ beliefs. Anyways, sorry for venting OT.

    Also too, agree that Sastra needs her own blog around these parts. Good stuff.

  39. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    I happen to agree with the criticisms of Harris and Dawkins

    That’s why I’ve stopped calling myself a new/gnu atheist. (Oh, and I also agree with those of Hitchens as a warmongering sexist.)

  40. stinger says

    You know, when I read a blog post written by someone living in a country other than the one I’m living in, and see a passage that references something local to them, I don’t immediately jump into their comments and cry, “But what about MEEEEEE?” The Internet is global, but every single blog post doesn’t need to be. In fact, when they aren’t, I learn more.

  41. says

    Sastra (at 10:27, #39), thank you. I understand this is an oversight, systemic as it is, and relatively easy to fix. That’s why I voiced that concern, because I was sure it would be heeded.

    Steffp (at 11:37, #40), well, “Third World” is a lazy phrase I probably should have not used. FWIW, I fully agree with your assessment. Let me add that societal onlook towards religion Latin America these days, I think, is similar to Southern Europe’s, and probably as diverse as it is.

    Stinger (15:24, #44). There’s a few problematic words in your comment, namely where you accuse me of «immediately jump»ing when I «read a blog post» that is not «about MEEEEEE» — suggesting that you sensed my complaint as something self-centered and exaggerated.

    However it is trivial to verify that this kind of complaints hardly ever registers, in Pharyngula and elsewhere, and that their effect is nill. Even in “liberal” U.S. media such as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Germany, for instance (not a backwater like Portugal, n.b.), gets mentioned more in the context of coprophilia jokes than of austerity policies, and even in Pharyngula Brazil (dito) is more often mentioned in the context of groin grooming than of environmental or other concerns.

    I think therefore that your remark, Stinger, is without merit. If you are an U.S. citizen, your privilege showing in full bloom (if you’re not, the diagnosis may be even less stellar). Either way, fuck off. Ou, melhor ainda: Vai-te foder. Com um piaçaba, usado. Do avesso. Cheers for diversity.

  42. stinger says

    I didn’t call any country either “Third World” or “a backwater”. And I didn’t propose sexual violence toward anyone with whom I disagreed. That’s the kind of remark that is without merit.

  43. says

    Stinger (23:57, #46): That’s right you didn’t do that; I did, for what it’s worth. …So, you have nothing else to say?

    (Correction to my comment of 21:43, #45: «your privilege »is« showing».)

  44. unclefrogy says

    If anyone knows a “religion” that does not say “my way or the high way” or some derivation of it I never heard of it.

    uncle frogy

  45. vaiyt says

    It doesn’t happen just with religion. In the namby-pamby world of the Diversity Smorgasbord of Ideas, bigotry and ignorance themselves are things to be tolerated. You have to accept that some people are intolerant or want to deny reality, it’s their opinion.

  46. David Marjanović says

    Christians don’t learn about god, they memorize Bible verses.

    ~:-| Over here, doing that fell completely out of fashion at least 100 years ago. I don’t know anyone on this continent who has memorized Bible verses.

    So when is Sastra getting her own blog at FTB? Soon, please.

    + 1

  47. Uncle Ebeneezer says

    @Nick Grotts, yes how did I forget Hitch. Talk about a person with the inability to admit when he was wrong. If you can stomach it, there’s a Bloggingheads episode with Hitch and Eric Alterman, where well after the Iraq disaster, Hitchens still adamantly argues that it was not a war of choice and that it was a success. It’s another side of a prominent atheist that I don’t enjoy being associated with (though his atheism stuff was fine, if a little over-the-top for my taste.)

    I have never really used the gnu-name either. What’s frustrating about the criticisms from outside of atheism is that it seems pretty apparent that the critics are just cherry-picking the worst attributes of a handful of well-known voices and extrapolating those attributes onto anyone who also believes in or practices vocal atheism. I have tried explaining to people that IMO, we are witnessing somewhat of a changing of the guards in atheism/skepticism, with people like Dawkins becoming less prominent as several other voices (many here on FTB) are becoming heard, giving us more diversity. But I’m sure in 30 years people will still be saying “well Dawkins was a misogynist!” while hand-waving away legitimate concerns of atheists.

  48. oldrasputin says

    I don’t usually comment, but just want to add my bass to the emerging chorus of voices demanding a Sastra blog. I’ve read your commentary at WEIT for years and have often found myself wishing you would just start your own blog – or website even. And today I noticed you writing posts here. What a pleasant surprise. I love your writing. Both your prose and your thinking are uncommonly lucid (or at least resonate particularly well with my own).

    This post helped clarify a few themes that have been playing in different variations in my own mind lately. You see, I’m one of those atheists who actually likes certain aspects of religion and I have long desired to see it give up the ghost (literally) on the whole I’m-trying-to-make-objective-claims-about-reality front and just admit that it’s all subjective and not really, you know… true. In other words, religion has failed dismally in its problem solving capacities and needs to belly up to the smorgasbord alongside art, literature, cuisine, and other (rightfully) celebrated cultural traditions.

    But I’ve strayed from my main point, which is: please spin-off into your own blog!

  49. meandmine says

    Thank you Sastra for this very significant post. I appreciate this distinction that you’ve made. While I see the temptation to begin discussing this point in terms of objective versus subjective truth I like the more common-terms way that you went about it. I will try, in future conversations with religious individuals, to push them on the distinction between a belief that is an opinion or personal choice with no serious consequences and a belief about the way the world works which should be used to solve problems.