Category Archives: Atheism

Christopher Hitchens DID NOT Convert on His Deathbed!

Christopher Hitchens

I just read David Frum’s recent piece in the Atlantic, “Betraying The Faith of Christopher Hitchens.” The article provides a scathing review of the Christian apologist Larry Taunton’s new book: The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist. Frum’s takedown of Taunton is so devastating that I will let the aforementioned article speak for itself. (Frum is a well-known conservative political commentator and former speechwriter for American President George W. Bush.)

Taunton’s book claims that Hitchens was considering converting to Christianity at the end of his life. (Taunton’s outrageous claim provides evidence for the idea that people generally believe what they want to believe despite all evidence to the contrary.) He bases this astonishing claim on his interpretation of a few conversations he had with Hitchens. Not only is this evidence anecdotal, but it contradicts Hitchens’ very public and forceful claims to the contrary. At the end of his life Hitchens could not have been more direct in rejecting the idea of a deathbed conversion as the videos below show.

Viewing any of the above videos should put Taunton’s nonsense to rest. As for Hitchens’ views of religion in general, they are set out clearly in his magnum opus:  God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. The idea that Hitchens would reject his lifelong views at the end of his life is preposterous. Taunton may wish that Hitchens had converted in order to make Taunton feel good about his own irrational beliefs, but wishing does not make it so.

Of course religious stories about the deathbed conversions of atheists and agnostics are legendary. Thomas Paine, atheist and a prominent figure in the American revolution, was said to have had such a conversion. End of life conversions stories have also been told about the great philosopher David Hume and the contemporary philosopher Antony Flew. The most famous deathbed conversion story is that of Charles Darwin, but even the religious site Answers in Genesis acknowledges that this story isn’t true.

All of these conversion stories express the sentiment of the aphorism “there are no atheists in foxholes.” The idea is that in times of extreme stress or when facing death people are more likely to believe in, or hope for, divine help. But there are problems with the aphorism. First, the aphorism isn’t true, for clearly many people die as atheists. Second, even if the aphorism were true and foxholes were populated exclusively by theists, that says nothing whatsoever about whether theism is true. Moreover, if true the aphorism really reveals that the source of religion is fear. And that doesn’t reflect well on religion, although it has made it a very profitable endeavor.

The reasons that motivate the religious to believe in deathbed conversions are obvious. Some believers just can’t accept that others are reject the gods; some find atheism threatening because it causes believers self-doubt; and others hate that they can’t force heathens to agree with them. But whatever the reasons, believers often find comfort by telling themselves that atheists convert at the end of their life.

But this is all so pathetic. Even if Darwin, Hume or Hitchens converted at the end of their lives—which they didn’t—so what? This would have no bearing on the truth of theism. Apollo, Zeus, Allah or Yahweh either exist or they don’t. If theists are really confident about their beliefs, why would they care that others convert? Are believers so insecure in their beliefs that they must invent stories about other people agreeing with them? Surely these deathbed conversion stories appeal to believers because believers have doubts.

But perhaps the deepest reason these false deathbed conversion stories resonate with believers is that help believers repress what to them is a terrifying idea—that that most of what passes for their cherished belief is just superstitious nonsense.

Atheism as Intellectual Snobbery?

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, March 24, 2015. )

Just a few brief remarks about Emma Green’s recent piece in the Atlantic, “The False Equation of Atheism and Intellectual Sophistication.” Green says: “Theirs [atheists] is a subtle assertion: Believers aren’t educated or thoughtful enough to debunk God, and if they only knew more, rational evidence would surely offset faith.”

Reply: The fact is that religious belief declines with educational attainment, particularly with scientific education.1 Studies also show that religious belief declines among those with higher IQs.2 Stephen Hawking, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins are not outliers, and neither are Bill Gates or Warren Buffett. Surveys of scientists as a whole show religious belief among them to be small compared to the general populace, and surveys of the members of the national academy of sciences, comprised of some of the most prestigious scientists in the world, show that religious belief among them is practically non-existent.3 The most recent and comprehensive study of professional philosophers shows that less that 15% are theists.4

This does not show that theism is false, but the correlation between education, particularly scientific education, and the lack of religious belief is strong.

Green says: “And this is where the intellectual snobbery comes in … [they believe that] Because intellectual history trends toward non-belief, human history must, too.”

Reply: Human history is trending toward non-belief, at least in Western civilization in the last few hundred years. The decline of the influence of religion in Western culture since the 17th century is one of the most significant changes in history. And the trend will continue in the long run. Are we really to imagine that in 1,000 years or 10,000 years our technologically-modified descendants will believe in gods? That in Yahweh or Allah they will find their answers? This belief strains credulity. (For more see my recent post: “Transhumanism and the End of Religion.”)

And why is disbelief in ascendance? Adam Gopnik summarized it succinctly in his recent New Yorker piece:

What the noes, whatever their numbers, really have now … is a monopoly on legitimate forms of knowledge about the natural world. They have this monopoly for the same reason that computer manufacturers have an edge over crystal-ball makers: The advantages of having an actual explanation of things and processes are self-evident.

The only caveat to offer is that the cosmos mysterious, so we all should be fallibilists. Thus I do agree with Green in one respect—since none of us can be completely certain of what’s true there is no need for snobbery.  ____________________________________________________________________

1. http://freakonomics.com/2011/04/25/does-more-education-lead-to-less-religion/

2. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/religious-people-are-less-intelligent-than-atheists-according-to-analysis-of-scores-of-scientific-studies-stretching-back-over-decades-8758046.html

3. http://www.stephenjaygould.org/ctrl/news/file002.html

4. http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2013/04/29/what-do-philosophers-believe/

American Gods and European Atheism

What follows are a few excerpts from a lectured entitled:  Attack of the Atheists” by Reverend James Kubal-Komoto, Saltwater Unitarian Universalist Church, Des Moines, Washington, April 1, 2007. It provides some interesting information about religion. (I can’t find the original lecture on the internet, but I took these notes when the lecture first appeared.)

… there was a fascinating study released by Baylor University last fall titled American Piety in the 21st Century, and unlike most studies, which only ask very basic questions about people’s religious beliefs, this one went further in-depth.

One of its main findings is that while most Americans say they believe in God, Americans really believe in four very different kinds of Gods. Some Americans (31.4 percent) believe in an “Authoritarian God” who is very angry with the sins of the world and regularly supernaturally intervenes in the affairs of the world. You might think of this as Pat Robertson’s God. Another group (23 percent) believes in a “Benevolent God” who also regularly supernaturally intervenes in the affairs of the world, but is less wrathful and more of a positive influence. You might think of this as Oprah’s God. Another group (16 percent) believes in a “Critical God” who is not happy about the affairs of the world, but doesn’t intervene, preferring to mete out rewards and punishments in the next life. You might think about this as the “Wait until your father gets home!” God. Finally, another group (16 percent) believes in a “Distant God.” Individuals who believe in this sort of God tend to think of God as a cosmic intelligence which set the law of nature in motion at the beginning of time, but neither intervenes in the affairs of the world nor cares about them. You might think of this as Thomas Jefferson’s God.

And guess what? Which one of these Gods people believe in does have a lot to do with how they live their lives. It also has a lot to do with how people believe about all sorts of other things such as sexual morality, politics, the environment, the “war on terror,” discrimination of all sorts, whether God favors the U.S. in world affairs. And if you’re wondering, those who believe in an angry, intervening “Authoritarian God” tend to have the values most divergent from many of us in this community.

Other research studies show that people who believe in a personal God who loves them and also loves everybody else—a theology similar to many of the early Universalists—tend to be less judgmental, more compassionate, and more involved in social justice making than others, and these are qualities I greatly admire, and the world might be a better place if there were more people with this kind of belief in it.

… [ the reverend now turns to another issue.]

For example, why is it that some countries in this world tend to be very religious while in other countries traditional religiosity seems to be on the decline? Why is it that in many European countries, atheism is at an all-time high? What explains this variability better, evolutionary adaptation or social changes?

Well, in 2004, the United Nations commissioned a Human Development Report, which ranked 177 nations on a “Human Development Index” which measures societal health according to indicators such as life expectancy at birth, adult literacy, per capita income, and educational attainment. According to this report, the five highest ranked countries – – Norway, Sweden, Australia, Canada, and the Netherlands – – also are countries that have the lowest degree of traditional religiosity. All of the top 25 countries on the list have low degrees of traditional religiosity.

In fact two scholars – – Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart – – have found that high rates of individual and societal well-being are the leading factor in predicting a country’s degree of traditional religiosity.

In other words, when people have access to quality medical care, education, and jobs that pay enough money to live comfortably, they tend to be less traditionally religious.

What about the United States? Aren’t we one of the most religious countries in the world? Yes, we are. But the sad truth is that we also lag behind many other developed nations in terms of individual and societal well being. In many ways, the United States can be a scary, unpredictable place to live. Is it any wonder that lots of folks believe in an angry, punishing, authoritarian God?

Finally, if we’re truly concerned about some of religion’s negative effects in this world, let’s try to figure out to the best of our ability the root causes of these negative effects. It seems to be that the best evidence suggests they result from fear, from hopelessness, from despair, from need, and it doesn’t seem that simply labeling them as irrational or delusional is the best course of action. (In some ways, attacking people’s religions that we may find irrational is like attacking people for poor eating habits during a famine.) It seems the best thing we can do to moderate or mitigate the dangers and excesses of religion in this world is to work toward a world of love and justice.

In other words, we won’t make the world better by getting rid of bad religion, but we may get rid of bad religion by making the world better. From my perspective, Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris confuse the symptoms with the disease, and bad religion is the symptom, not the disease …

No, religion is the human quest for connection and meaning, and this being on this quest is part of what it means to be human. But in a more loving and just world a lot of religion might look different than it does today, and that wouldn’t necessarily be bad thing.  So may it be. Amen.

This might be the best sermon I’ve ever read.

Absurd Arguments Against Atheism

I recently came across a poorly argued piece in The Huffington Post’s religion section entitled, “The Three Mistakes Atheists Make.” Yes, it is easy for a professional philosopher to find fault with a philosophical piece written by a non-professional, but this article was so poorly reasoned and so rife with fallacies of informal logic that I felt obliged to critique it. Certainly those predisposed to accepting the article’s premises will find it comforting, but any critical thinker, including those sympathetic with the Rabbi’s views, would find it woefully inadequate.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie bases his critique on a brief interview of Philip Kitcher about his forthcoming book, Life After Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism. The interview was conducted for the New York Times by Professor Gary Gutting, a philosopher at the University of Notre Dame. So while the book is not yet out, and Rabbi Yoffie has not yet read it, he dismisses it based on one brief interview.  (I briefly summarized and commented on the Kitcher-Gutting interview in a previous post.)

Now Philip Kitcher is the John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University and one of the most notable and respected living philosophers. Thus it is unlikely that the Rabbi’s brief remarks refute the thorough, subtle, and sophisticated argument of a book which he has not read. Moreover, deeper thinkers than Rabbi Yoffie who have actually read the book have responded differently. To his credit Professor Gutting, who one suspects would not be sympathetic to an atheistic argument, says: “This is the most philosophically sophisticated and rigorous defense of atheism in the contemporary literature. Life After Faith provides an informed and responsible statement of the secular humanist viewpoint.”

And praise of Kitcher’s erudite sophistication has come from other intellectuals as well. The Jewish author Leon Wieseltier, the child of Holocaust survivors and fluent Hebrew speaker, argues:

Philip Kitcher has composed the most formidable defense of the secular view of life since Dewey. Unlike almost all of contemporary atheism, Life After Faith is utterly devoid of cartoons and caricatures of religion. It is, instead, a sober and soulful book, an exemplary practice of philosophical reflection. Scrupulous in its argument, elegant in its style, humane in its spirit, it is animated by a stirring aspiration to wisdom. Even as I quarrel with it I admire it.

Professor David Hollinger, the Preston Hotchkis Professor of History emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, asserts: “This book is a deeper and more convincing critique of traditional religious belief than anything written by the New Atheists. Kitcher deals conscientiously with every objection to secular humanism and shows why each one fails.”  The Cambridge educated Kwame Anthony Appiah, who holds of a joint professorship in both law and philosophy at New York University maintains: “Philip Kitcher takes seriously the challenge of showing how, without a belief in the transcendent, we can still live lives that are rich with meaning, because they are thoroughly committed to the pursuit of what is good and beautiful and true.”

Now it is true that these rave reviews from intellectuals across a wide range of ideological positions do not count definitely against the Rabbi’s brief arguments, but they do count strongly against his generally dismissive tone. The Rabbi claims that Kitcher makes three common mistakes that atheists typically make: 1)They dismiss, often with contempt, the religious experience of other people; 2) They assert that since there are no valid religions but that religions do good things, the task of smart people is to create a religion without God — or, in other words, a religion without religion; 3) They see the world of belief in black and white, either/or terms. Let me briefly respond to each of these claims.

Regarding claim #1 – (They dismiss, often with contempt, the religious experience of other people.)

Rabbi Yoffie begins by suggesting that religious experience is immune to the classic arguments against the existence of gods. While it is true that such critiques do not refute religious experience, he omits that there are strong arguments against these experiences as well. As Kitcher points out in the interview biological, psychological, and social reasons can be provided to convincingly explain these experiences.

Yet the Rabbi interprets this to mean that Kitcher is “asserting with certainty that no one else is capable of a God encounter rooted in transcendence and holiness.” I assure you that Kitcher is making no such claim. As good a philosopher as Kitcher knows there is nothing logically impossible about the source of religious experience being something supernatural. What he is saying is that an inference to the best explanation makes it much more likely that their origin is some natural, psychological phenomena. As for it being unlikely that the source is a divine entity, the Rabbi says “… on what possible basis can he make such a claim?” Of course the answer is obvious. Kitcher makes that claim based on the increasing ability of science to explain so-called religious and mystical experiences.

Furthermore, even if such experiences aid the Rabbi in his belief, they provide only soft or subjective justifications for belief. They can never by their very nature provide hard or objective justification. So while religious experience may justify belief for the experiencer, they never  justify it for those who doesn’t have the experience. I am not justified in believing anything based on your subjective, psychological experiences, especially when they claim something extraordinary like “I was talking with Zeus last night.”

Regarding claim #2 – (They assert that since there are no valid religions, and yet that religions do good things, the task of smart people is to create a religion without God—in other words, a religion without religion.)

Philosophers don’t simply assert that there are no valid religions. Less than 15% of contemporary philosophers are theists  primarily because the traditional arguments for the existence of gods have been found wanting and because science has provided convincing alternative explanations for religious phenomena.

As for the claims of Kitcher, Dworkin, de Botton and others that we should promote values without fundamentalism and supernaturalism, Yoffie responds that such proposals don’t work. He argues:

Philosophy can do many things, but it cannot create deep loyalty, profound engagement, or a willingness to sacrifice for one’s beliefs. Religion, whether of the liberal or orthodox variety, does precisely that. And it does so by retaining those things that Kitcher proposes to jettison: a community of believers connected to the holy and convictions rooted in both ritual and faith.

This would come as quite a surprise to the citizens of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, The Netherlands, France, Germany and others countries where religious belief has virtually disappeared but which are generally regarded as the best countries to live in. Countries with strong social safety nets, little economic inequality, low rates of incarceration, infant morality and crime, high levels of educational attainment, and generous family leave policies, mandated vacation time, and universal health care. That we need religious belief to have good societies is an absurd claim, one repudiated by the evidence.

Regarding claim #3  (They see the world of belief in black and white, either/or terms.)

While Kitcher rightly notes that the incredible diversity of religious doctrines makes it unlikely that any one religion is true, (there are about 41,000 denominations of Christianity in the world alone), Yoffie responds: “If there are 10,000 contrary religious doctrines, it does not follow that they all are false.” Well it doesn’t follow that they are all false, unless you are a religious exclusivist. In that case only one would be true and all the others false. (And I’d bet you think the true one is the one you believe in!) Yet if you are a religious universalist, if you think that all religions are different paths to the same mountaintop, then they can all be (somewhat) true. But Kitcher probably wouldn’t disagree. He is simply pointing out is that the discrepancies about religious beliefs suggests that any particular religious belief is unlikely to be true, and religious claims are dubious.

Now at this point Yoffie employs the classic fallacy of the straw man—arguing against an easily attacked position that your opponent doesn’t hold. He concludes:

Kitcher, like others in the atheist camp, sees the world in terms of dichotomies: You are a theist or a non-theist, a religious person or a non-religious person. But, of course, this is not the way that most people function. Some religious people are fanatical, but most are not. The world of belief, which includes a majority of the human race, consists of people who believe but are not always sure; who accept God some of the time but not all the time; and who know that theology is a matter of questions and uncertainties, painted in hues of gray.

It is patently absurd to suggest that Kitcher doesn’t realize that a multiplicity of religious views exists. Surely Kitcher wouldn’t be surprised, nor would he recall his book, because the good Rabbi has informed him that there are agnostics, process theologians, death-of-god theologians, fundamentalists and more. But it is Rabbi Yoffie’s conclusion that finally gives away his position:

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

There you have it. For the Rabbi it is simply a fact that people reach out to Yahweh, Zeus, Apollo, and Thor and the gods in turn respond. His argument, it turns out, is circular. He is saying that arguments against the existence of the gods don’t work because the gods exist!

The Case for Soft Core Atheism

(This article was reprinted in Humanity+ Magazine, June 26, 2014)

I would like to summarize and comment on the May 15, 2014  New York Times interview of philosopher Philip Kitcher by the philosopher Gary Gutting on the topic of “The Case for Soft Atheism” It is closely connected with the issues in my previous post, “Modern Cosmology Versus Creation by God.” Here is an abridged version of the conversation.

G – You “take religious doctrines to have become incredible.” Why do you say that?

K – “The most basic reason for doubt about any of these ideas is that … nobody is prepared to accept all of them.” They are often contradictory and can’t all be true. Moreover if you had been brought up in a different culture you would probably have different beliefs, so how can you say that your views are the correct ones?

G – Perhaps it’s not doctrines but religious experiences that are important, and many of these experiences are similar across cultures.

K – Experiences, even if they are similar, are not independent of doctrines. Moreover so-called religious experiences are easily confused with all sorts of psychological experiences that have psychological or biological causes.

G – So you reject all religious doctrines but “resist the claim that religion is noxious rubbish to be buried as deeply, as thoroughly and as quickly as possible.” Why ?

K – I advocate a soft atheism which recognizes that religious doctrines are not literally true but that some religious practices and concern for social justice are worthwhile.

G – So you think that atheists like Dawkins only refute unsophisticated religious claims?

K – Yes. Religions based on promoting humanistic values reject a literal interpretation of many of their doctrines are immune from much atheistic criticism. And by not considering the stories and metaphors of other religions literally either, you don’t have to choose between them, since they all may have some values in common.

G – So you will tolerate this refined religion?

K – Yes but eventually I would like to religion morphing into, and being replaced by,  a kind of secular humanism. I don’t ignore religion, but I do want it to gradually disappear.

G – You don’t believe religious accounts of a deity but you don’t exactly say they are definitely false either. Why don’t you just say you’re an agnostic rather than an atheist?

K – Conflicting religious doctrines show that we can’t describe this supposed reality so we should “reject substantive religious doctrines, one and all, even the minimal ones …” I think theism is false, hence I call myself an “a-theist.”

G – But just because we can’t describe deities it doesn’t follow that they don’t exist. We can’t completely describe what a banana tastes like or what being in love is like but we don’t conclude that they don’t exist.

K – I think we know a lot about bananas and love. I reject theism rather because”I start from the idea that all sorts of human inquiries, including but not limited to the natural sciences, have given us a picture of the world, and that these inquiries don’t provide evidence for any transcendent aspect of the universe.” Of course our picture of reality is incomplete, but when people make fantastic claims about the existence and actions of ghostly beings without evidence, it isn’t dogmatic to reject such assertions.

G- What of religious experience?

K – There are adaquate scientific explanations them thus “referring such experiences to some special aspect of reality is gratuitous speculation.” These experiences testify to the religious ideas in a culture, not to any transcendent reality.

G -But there are respectable arguments for the existence of gods.

K – The arguments are all deeply problematic and at most are supplements to faith.

G – “I agree that no theistic arguments are compelling, but I don’t agree that they all are logically invalid or have obviously false premises.”

K – I believe that religion at its best should not defend dubious metaphysical doctrines but focuses on human problems. Let us then be inspired by the humanism in religion. “The atheism I favor is one in which literal talk about “God” or other supposed manifestations of the “transcendent” comes to be seen as a distraction from the important human problems — a form of language that quietly disappears.”

CommentaryKitcher’s position is reminiscent of Dewey’s view that religion must disappear but the religious attitude is worthwhile, an idea I first encountered more than 40 years ago. I’ll let Dewey speak for himself while silently nodding my agreement.

If I have said anything about religions and religion that seems harsh, I have said those things because of a firm belief that the claim on the part of religions to possess a monopoly of ideals and of the supernatural means by which alone, it is alleged, they can be furthered, stands in the way of the realization of distinctively religious values inherent in natural experience. For that reason, if for no other, I should be sorry if any were misled by the frequency with which I have employed the adjective “religious” to conceive of what I have said as a disguised apology for what have passed as religions. The opposition between religious values as I conceive them and religions is not to be abridged. Just because the release of these values is so important, their identification with the creeds and cults of religions must be dissolved.

As I have stated many times in this blog the replacement of religious superstition by scientific rationalism will benefit us and our descendants. In the end such considerations lead to the promulgation of secular humanism and eventually to transhumanism. Looking around the world today, a better future can’t get here fast enough.