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The Secular Right Blog:

Some of our readers might be interested in checking out the recently established Secular Right blog, which seeks to demonstrate that atheism and secularism are compatible with being on the political right. Among the contributors are Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute (who wrote a much-debated article on atheism and conservatism in 2006), John Derbyshire, Walter Olson, and Razib Khan.

Although one of the four contributors (Olson) is more libertarian than conservative, the main focus of the blog seems to be on the latter. After all, few doubt that one can be both an atheist and a libertarian. Many of the most influential libertarian thinkers of modern times were atheists or agnostics (e.g. - Milton Friedman, F.A. Hayek, and Ayn Rand). Although there are also some highly religious libertarian intellectuals, including some of my co-bloggers here at the VC, few if any libertarian theists doubt that an atheist can be just as much a libertarian as they are.

With conservatism, the issue is much more contestable. On balance, I think it logically possible for a person to hold conservative views on political issues for reasons that have no connection to religion. However, many conservatives do seem to believe that there is a close connection between their political views and their religious ones; some also hold that one can't be a "real" conservative without also being religious. Prominent conservative writer Richard John Neuhaus wrote a well-known 1991 article in First Things, "Can Atheists be Good Citizens?" arguing that atheists not only can't be conservative, but cannot even be "good citizens" at all (unfortunately, I haven't been able to find this famous article online, perhaps because it dates to the pre-internet era). Of course close connections between religion and political ideology can be found elsewhere on the political spectrum as well, as witness the example of Marxist "liberation theology." In the modern US, however, conservatives are more likely to emphasize such connections than either libertarians or liberals.

Ultimately, whether conservatism is compatible with atheism depends to some degree on one's definition of "conservative." If to be conservative means to hold right-wing positions on various political issues, then atheists can be just as conservative as anyone else. If, on the other hand, conservatism is defined in part by having a religious foundation for one's political views (as Neuhaus, among others, contends), then they can't.

UPDATE: As commenters point out, Neuhaus' article arguing that atheists can't be good citizens is available here.

ColumEx (mail) (www):
Unfortunately, I think there's a tendency among many on the right to regular revise (and restrict) the definition of "conservative." The Reaganite Republican Party had more than enough room from the libertarian to the pure social conservative, despite the fact that those two might agree on precisely zero issues--aside from the idea that the government should be no larger than necessary to provide basic services. Once conservatives took power, however, the social wing of the party decided that the definition should change.

Can you be an atheist and fit their classification? No, I think not.

An atheist won't tend to seek to enforce a moral code on his neighbors because he feels no incentive to expand his code. He is not tasked by an Almighty to spread the Word, so he'll keep It to himself.

But is an atheist a conservative in the classical sense? Maybe. But I think he can also be a liberal in the classical sense, which is what conservatives of today should seek to become. Rather than moralists, let us proclaim the morality of allowing every man and woman to live as he and she believe is right.

And I say this as a deeply religious libertarian Republican.
12.2.2008 2:21am
joe h (mail):
The article seems to be online (here) at firstthings.com
12.2.2008 2:37am
Rich Rostrom (mail):
ColumEx: "An atheist won't tend to seek to enforce a moral code on his neighbors because he feels no incentive to expand his code."

There are and have been millions of militant, coercive atheists. The entire Communist movement, to begin with.

"the morality of allowing every man and woman to live as he and she believe is right."

Does that include such "personal choices" as slavery and bastardy?

And I say this as a deeply agnostic conservative Republican.
12.2.2008 3:06am
LM (mail):

Among the contributors are Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute (who wrote a much-debated article on atheism and conservatism in 2006), John Derbyshire, Walter Olson, and Razib Khan.

Is there anything lonelier than a right wing atheist Brit?
12.2.2008 3:24am
Perseus (mail):
A good citizen is able to give an account, a morally compelling account, of the regime of which he is part. ...Reasons must be given. They must be reasons that draw authority from that which is higher than the self, from that which is external to the self, from that to which the self is ultimately obliged. ...Fortunately, the overwhelming majority of Americans—and, I believe, the majority of our intellectual elites, if put to the test—are not atheists of any of the varieties we have discussed. They believe that there are good reasons for this ordering of the civitas, reasons that have public purchase, reasons that go beyond contingent convenience, reasons that entail what is just, the laws of nature, and maybe even the will of God.

Neuhaus's emphasis on grounding the true and the good on that which is higher than the self and his mention of the laws of nature suggest that one could be a follower of the philosophic tradition of natural right/law--and even a Kantian--and not be an "atheist" by his standards.
12.2.2008 5:07am
David M. Nieporent (www):
The Reaganite Republican Party had more than enough room from the libertarian to the pure social conservative, despite the fact that those two might agree on precisely zero issues
They agreed at a minimum on the fact that the Soviet Union was evil.
12.2.2008 5:43am
NicholasV (mail):
As an atheist, should I take Neuhaus' contention that I can't possibly be a good citizen to suggest that I should stop trying? I mean, what's the point in going to the effort of trying to be a good citizen if it's fundamentally impossible?
12.2.2008 6:15am
Grant Gould (mail):
Did the Methodists ever stop holding that the First Amendment doesn't apply to atheists?

There's plenty of room in the rightist coalition for atheists; all they have to do is pretend not to be atheists. This is after all the traditional rightist solution: Keep it in the closet so as not to scare the children and/or the faithful.
12.2.2008 7:03am
A. Zarkov (mail):
"Is there anything lonelier than a right wing atheist Brit?"

Yes the intellectual right wing secular Jew.

The liberals hate him for obvious reasons; many of the right wingers hate him because he's Jewish. The orthodox Jews don't care for him too much either, along with the fundamentalist Christians. But the intellectuals really hate him because he sees through their crap and they know it. Joe six pack hates him because he seems elitist. The communists, the fascists, and the Muslims would like to kill him for a variety of reasons. Most Jews don't like him because he's not liberal.
12.2.2008 7:11am
Smokey:
Is there anything lonelier than a right wing atheist Brit?
Maybe a right wing atheist American. At least the Brits have more company.

Organized religion requires and instills a moral code on its followers [the Ten Commandments, etc]. That is a good thing for both society and for the individual.

"Thou shalt not steal" means little if only the law is concerned; occasions often arise where stealing can be done without the law or anyone else knowing who the thief is. Is that the world we want to live in? You don't have to worry about a devout believer ripping you off, law or no law: "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you."

What is the moral code of atheists? I don't mean your personal belief system, but a specific moral code. Answer: there is none. Yet atheists are also believers.

A true belief that God does not exist is itself a belief system, not much different that a religion, but without a stated moral code. Those who demand proof of the existence of God are apparently unaware of the contradiction: they can not prove the existence of a Creator either.

Religion accepts God on faith. If proof were necessary, religion would not be necessary.
12.2.2008 7:23am
hawkins:

I think it logically possible for a person to hold conservative views on political issues for reasons that have no connection to religion.


Like bigotry and closed-mindedness? (sorry, I couldnt resist)


Prominent conservative writer ... arguing that atheists not only can't be conservative, but cannot even be "good citizens" at all


Apparently I was spot on
12.2.2008 7:50am
Tracy W (mail):
Organized religion requires and instills a moral code on its followers [the Ten Commandments, etc]. That is a good thing for both society and for the individual.

Depends on the moral code. The Spanish Inquistion was not a good thing for the individuals who fell under suspicion. The Al-Qaeda moral code was not a good thing for those individuals who happened to work in the World Trade Center or the Pentagon or who got on the wrong flight.

You don't have to worry about a devout believer ripping you off, law or no law: "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you."

No, I only have to worry about a devout believer torturing me to death. "But it's for the good of your soul! I'd like you to do it to me if our conditions were reversed!"

Atheists have done nasty things in the name of non-belief, see the Communists. But religious believers have done nasty things in the name of belief. Have you ever studied any history?
12.2.2008 7:58am
Eli Rabett (www):
More to the point is there any place in the Republican party for a secular atheist (and what, pray tell is a non-secular atheist).

And Zarkhov, stop whining.
12.2.2008 8:05am
Loophole1998 (mail):
Here's my problem... I can't help it that I'm an athiest!

I want to believe that there is a god looking over things and making sense of it all, but I just don't.

For various reasons, the evidence forces my mind to believe otherwise. (One of the main reasons for this is the fact that, at a minimum, millions of religious adherents must be wrong simply due to the fact that their beliefs are mutually exclusive. If the majority of them are necessarily wrong, it's not a big stretch to conclude that they are all wrong).

Is it possible for a person to consciously decide to believe point A, when the evidence leads him to believe point B? Can a person trick their own mind? Or is faith (and the lack thereof) an immutable characteristic? If so, am I forever doomed to be a "bad" citizen because of a characteristic beyond my control?

By the way, I do follow the laws (both natural and state-sponsored).
12.2.2008 8:12am
JB:


Organized religion requires and instills a moral code on its followers [the Ten Commandments, etc]. That is a good thing for both society and for the individual.


It is possible to have a strong moral sense without believing that God told you what is right, or that breaking it will lead to punishment from a divine source.

Conscience is internal. If it were irreproachably proven tomorrow that Jesus Christ (Moses, Muhammad, Buddha, whoever) never existed or was a torturer of babies, would you start stealing, murdering, and lusting after your neighbor's wife? If so, then you are merely a slave to a doctrine, and the moral code you have been instilled with is merely a mechanical set of commands. If not, then you must admit that you do the right thing because you know it's right, not because your religion tells you. That you recognize the good in your religion because it is on balance good, not vice versa.

For people who separate morality and theology, it is often confusing that others don't. Conscience is internal, and I for one need no carrots and sticks from a putative omnipotent, sapient being to make me be an honest, functioning member of society. I've seen enough religious believers lie, cheat, and steal with equal frequency to their unbelieving neighbors to know that religion doesn't make someone good or bad, it just provides a strong justification to act as one would anyway. Which is a wonderful thing, if your conscience is strong, but is not essential to having a strong conscience in the first place.
12.2.2008 8:26am
Hmmm.:
Glad to learn I am "logically possible." If a professor thinks I am, therefore I am?
12.2.2008 8:36am
Matt_T:
There are and have been millions of militant, coercive atheists. The entire Communist movement, to begin with.

Not to derail too much, but for all communism's protestations about doing away with religion, all it did was relocate worship to the state. I don't see that "atheism" taken in anything other than a cramped definition is compatible with the communist regimes thus far.
12.2.2008 8:45am
Matt_T:
A true belief that God does not exist is itself a belief system, not much different that a religion, but without a stated moral code.

Atheism is not the belief that the supernatural does not exist; atheism is the absence of belief in the supernatural. Some atheists, myself included, believe that God does not exist, but that's the default position in the absence of any evidence. If you can't perceive the difference between the two ideas, I suggest you read more explanations of atheism - Richard Dawkins summarizes the distinction quite well.

Those who demand proof of the existence of God are apparently unaware of the contradiction: they can not prove the [I assume you meant non-]existence of a Creator either.

Nor should they. I mean no offense, but perhaps you should take an introductory logic course at your local university and find out who bears the burden of proof with regard to the idea "X exists".
12.2.2008 8:51am
Al Maviva:
It is very much possible for an individual to be atheist and conservative, but it isn't possible to have conservatism generally without faith. The bedrock of conservatism is faith and the notion that God is one of the ultimate sources of authority, or if one rejects Burke then it is at least a useful and hallowed tradition, and faith is one of those traditions that conservatism generally holds in high regard and worth fighting for. It has respect in conservatism because 1) belief in god, at least to the extent of Jefferson's theism, is right, we believe; 2) though it can cause problems, religious faith has generally been of much benefit and very useful in order society and restraining destructive urges (despites some very violent spasms); and, 3) we believe in the permanence of the good and useful things, and since religious faith is a good thing overall and lasting, one of the ur- good things, we think it should be preserved. These are generalities of course, but I believe they are a fair characterization of conservatism broadly.

Ultimately the project of creating a strongly secular conservatism - some on the right are now talking about how best to drive out the fundamentalist Christofascists and us raving dual-loyalties papists - is probably doomed to failure the way Hitchens' and Orwell's attempts to stir up a decency-based political left that is free from tyrannical impulses inherent to Marxism is doomed to fail whenever it is tried. Religion, at least the religions sprung from the God of Abraham, is in the genetics of conservatism, and if you take that out the beast may stumble on for a little bit but the conservative beast will probably be doomed to fail, having lost one of its key components. You might as well discuss purging conservatism of people who revere tradition and dislike radical change. It may work for some individuals like the brilliant Heather MacDonald, but for the average Joe conservative, probably not so much. You would probably have an easier time divorcing notions of natural law from conservatism, than divorcing it from religious faith.
12.2.2008 8:57am
NaG (mail):
I think it is possible for an atheist to be a conservative. Just because you don't believe in God doesn't mean that you necessarily throw out all of the moral teachings that religion offers. Obviously, quite a bit of religious teaching (thou shalt not kill, et al.) makes objectively good moral sense. And while the atheist would come to that conclusion without the cattle prod of being "God-fearing," the atheist may realize that others might not be similarly equipped, and thus would need the presence of God to be compelled to do good. In that case, the atheist conservative would not oppose religious influence or teaching.

There are a good number of Jews that are atheists -- some say the number is roughly 50 percent. Most of those atheist Jews still consider themselves Jews, still respect and follow the teachings of the Torah, and support wholeheartedly the state sponsorship and promotion of religion through Israel. That doesn't mean that everyone will agree on what is kosher, so to speak (there's that old saw about four rabbis having five opinions...), but it certainly seems to indicate that atheism and conservatism can mix.
12.2.2008 8:58am
Arkady:
@ Perseus


Neuhaus's emphasis on grounding the true and the good on that which is higher than the self and his mention of the laws of nature suggest that one could be a follower of the philosophic tradition of natural right/law--and even a Kantian--and not be an "atheist" by his standards.


Indeed. Neuhaus's conception of atheism, of the kind he finds objectionable, is so narrow that, in his lexicon, the term in 'atheist' is a synonym for 'nihilist'. And thus his argument that atheists, so understood, cannot give an account (justification) for the political in terms of the transcendent is trivially true, a tautology. And I trust we all know about tautologies and implication. And I further trust that we can all see, then, the question-begging nature of his piece. The question Neuhaus begs is this: Why would a justification of our political order that does not rely on the transcendent, however construed, be insufficient?


A good citizen does more than abide by the laws. A good citizen is able to give an account, a morally compelling account, of the regime of which he is part. He is able to justify its defense against its enemies, and to convincingly recommend its virtues to citizens of the next generation so that they, in turn, can transmit the regime to citizens yet unborn.


He gives no reason at all, that I can see, why such an account cannot given that eschews the transcendent.
12.2.2008 9:01am
HipposGoBerserk (mail):
"You don't have to worry about a devout believer ripping you off, law or no law"

But how is one to identify the true believers in a world rank with hypocrites?

HGB
12.2.2008 9:14am
Al Maviva:
By their acts will you know them, Hippos.
12.2.2008 9:17am
speedwell (mail):
Gosh, it would be just super if the claim of religion to set the morals of its followers was true. But as we all see, believers do whatever they damn well please. It's just convenient that in Christianity believers get a free pass because God has pre-forgiven their sins against other people. (The permission or cooperation of the other people so sinned against appears to be completely unnecessary.)
12.2.2008 9:23am
Houston Lawyer:
Clearly a lot of non-believers have conservative views. The real issue is how do they justify their views other than out of nostalgia for the way things used to be. Secular and religious conservatives would generally agree on how things should be, but probably not on why.
12.2.2008 9:25am
Kotter:
Re religious and atheist conservatives?

Is the question whether athiests can embrace government coersion of conduct that may be rooted in religion?

I think, yes, sometimes.

Or is the question whether religious can embrace small government when it comes to refusing power to the state to conform conduct to religious beleifs?

To some extent, but often, not happily.
12.2.2008 9:41am
NowMDJD (mail):
It depends on what you mean by conservatism.

If you mean a set of political positions (e.g., giving free play to the market, favoring a strong defense policy), then of course. Such stances are compatible with classical liberalism, with libertarianism, with conservatism, with certain radical religious positions, etc.

But if, by conservatism you mean a belief that people are bound by community and tradition, that the status quo is probably better than an alternative designed by conscious human effort, and that institutions should be changed only for pressing reasons, then possibly an atheist cannot be a conservative in a society that has religious grounding.

Prof. Somin's question, therefore, calls not for an explanation, but for a definition-- i.e., a definition of the term "conservative." He says as much. The question, therefore, is relatively uninteresting.


But if
12.2.2008 9:59am
Tim J. (mail):
Matt_T said:
Not to derail too much, but for all communism's protestations about doing away with religion, all it did was relocate worship to the state. I don't see that "atheism" taken in anything other than a cramped definition is compatible with the communist regimes thus far.

and then immediately turned around and said:
Atheism is not the belief that the supernatural does not exist; atheism is the absence of belief in the supernatural.

It seems to me that the only way to keep these statements consistent is to claim that the Communists had a belief in the supernatural, which is just plain untrue.

You can cling to a broad, largely contentless definition of atheism that you feel avoids putting any burdens of proof on you if you want. Or, you can define certain atheist tenets that would somehow exclude the Communists. But you can't have it both ways.
12.2.2008 10:03am
gasman (mail):
Again the question of morals requiring a god.
Morals are what a man does when no one is looking based upon his own internal impression of right and wrong acts.
The theist generally believes that his every act and thought is under scrutiny by a final judge and arbiter of his ultimate destination. Given those terms you'd think that this would be a very easy to spot group of people.
Yet, can you really tell the theists apart from the atheists on the basis of behavior? I think the answer, disturbing as it might be for theists to admit, is no.
12.2.2008 10:04am
ruralcounsel (mail):
So are we to conclude that God's laws and moral instruction are just random choices, or there is some actual pragmatic value to them? Are they good moral laws because of who gave them to us, or were they given to us because they were good?

If the moral code handed down by one's religion is useful and pragmatic, then why wouldn't an athiest or agnostic agree to that code, regardless of it's supposed origin?

Why should the origin of a good idea/moral code/law make any difference?

Sounds like a Trademark problem to me!
12.2.2008 10:13am
BubbaZ:
A true devout believer will not do wrong? Ok, a true, devout believer = Eric Rudolph.

You want a world full of Eric Rudolphs? No thank you.
12.2.2008 10:13am
GTT:
I read the article. Neuhaus isn't a very good writer. The article is full of postmodernist name-dropping and name calling a-la standard culture-wars nonsense. No normal human really gives a shit who Richard Rorty is anyway, and if a normal human read his books, would think he's an asshole. So why bother. Why does anyone care about blowhards like Rorty and blowhards like Neuhaus arguing over completely irrelevant bullshit? They both should be stuck in a room together with a bottle of whiskey and a pair of baseball bats.

The test for a good person is not whether they have some external religious force (or other force) pushing them to do good things or not. He quotes Locke:

"Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all."

Bullshit. The measure of a good person is that they actually do the good and right thing the first time, without needing to be pushed into it, a-la the Prodigal Son story.

The Prodigal Son story is just that, a story for helping people that are screwing up come back get a hold of themselves. However, let's not forget the brother that didn't screw up. Successful society relies on the great mass of people acting like the brother, doing the right thing the first time out.

The argument about atheism vs. citizenship is really a utilitarian one, a distraction, and a silly one at that. The real argument is really whether folks are raised to think of others as they think of themselves. When saying Grace in my house growing up, my father has always started this way:

"Dear heavenly Father, bless this food to our use, and us to Thy service and make us ever mindful of the needs of others..."

The important part is in italics, and that my father said it often and raised us this way. If other folks aren't all caught up in the religious stuff, but act and raise their kids according to the italicized section above, then they are thinking of concerns higher than themselves.

Arguments to the contrary are a throwback to the elementary schoolyard: "nyah nyah, you dirty atheist, you can't be in my special club."
12.2.2008 10:17am
Anderson (mail):
or was a torturer of babies

On some views of hell and original sin, this is actually quite an orthodox Christian position.
12.2.2008 10:19am
Al Maviva:
The real issue is how do they justify their views other than out of nostalgia for the way things used to be

I think that's actually a very valid strain of conservative thought and you don't give it the weight it deserves. Traditionalism, authority, natural law, faith, and pragmatism (and maybe some mysticism) seem to me to be the main strands of traditional conservative thought. Modern conservatism welds classical liberalism or a restrained form of libertarianism onto that base, but it's a philosophical newcomer, not really taking off until the likes of Nock and Hayek and others of their ilk came along. Conservatism isn't really a philosophy, it's a critical outlook that contains those motivations or strands of thought. I don't think tradition is the strongest argument for a conservative to rely upon in any given case, however the argument of tradition plus pragmatism - it's what we've always done plus it's worked pretty well - is a strong argument in many instances where a successful system is being subjected to re-design for no apparent reason other than restlessness. (A surprisingly common motivator, I believe). A strong belief in the merits of tradition furthermore stands against willy-nilly change coming from the "Change is good!" progressives and radical right. Change isn't always good, it has to stand on its own merits, and reading out traditionalists from conservatism is about as silly as notions of reading out religious conservatives.
12.2.2008 10:21am
Anderson (mail):
to claim that the Communists had a belief in the supernatural, which is just plain untrue

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. -- Clarke's Law.

Now, when one believes that History is guiding human outcomes to a foreordained paradise, and that its laws are mysterious but known to the hierarchical elite, whom the rest of us must obey even to the sacrifice of our own lives ...

... is that ideology really distinguishable from religion?

The difference boils down to the *claim* that History is not unknowable, just unknown, and that its laws can be discerned. However, given that there's little to no evidence for any such laws, belief in such laws amounts to belief in the supernatural, regardless of claims to the contrary.
12.2.2008 10:23am
Virginia:
It's possible for an atheist to be conservative. I've known plenty of conservative atheists. What isn't compatible with conservatism is the sort of hostility to one's own society's traditional religious beliefs and institutions that one often sees among liberal atheists. Conservative atheists whom I have known have at least some modicum of respect for Christianity; they just don't subscribe to its ultimate truth claims.
12.2.2008 10:24am
Fallwell:
If common isms like captalism and American exceptionalism are embraced in one's religion, than it would probably be easy to mesh with like minded atheists.
12.2.2008 10:26am
Oren:

Just because you don't believe in God doesn't mean that you necessarily throw out all of the moral teachings that religion offers.

One can make this even stronger still -- I don't believe in God but I do believe that society evolves to continues idea that work. The ten commandments (say) are part of a working system of values that has sustained society and one discards them at great peril.
12.2.2008 10:27am
U.Va. Grad:
Smokey wrote:

Yet atheists are also believers.

A true belief that God does not exist is itself a belief system, not much different that a religion, but without a stated moral code.


If this is your definition of an atheist, then almost no one is an atheist. Not even Richard Dawkins.
12.2.2008 10:27am
resh (mail):
I just want to know if I as a free-agent conservative can marry another atheist? I'd post this query at a paleo site, but I'd rue the group apoplexy.

Moreover, I realize that the gay community has first dibs here, but can we at least get in line? Stick us behind the trickle-down economists of yore, if you must....
12.2.2008 10:32am
In Buenos Aires (mail):
Some of the comments here fail to think through different meanings of "atheist." I for example have no doubt that the ancient Jewish/ Christian myths about magic dragons and giants and Godletts -- cherabim, seraphim, angels, arc angels, and magic mind reading godmen -- are myths. Ancient legends. Every culture has them.

The fact that I know your magic stories are as silly as all the other primitive magic stories does not mean I do not believe in virtue and truth. It only means your magic stories are incredible.
12.2.2008 10:41am
Tim J. (mail):
The difference boils down to the *claim* that History is not unknowable, just unknown, and that its laws can be discerned. However, given that there's little to no evidence for any such laws, belief in such laws amounts to belief in the supernatural, regardless of claims to the contrary.

Anderson, you've just hit on why so many end up regarding atheism as a religion. Once put into practice, or propounded by anyone, it inevitably gets various unprovable tenets attached to it. Such is the condition of all worldviews.

But really, if you stretch "supernatural" to include adherence to a particular economic/political theory, the word loses any usefulness, and no one ends up being an atheist.
12.2.2008 10:44am
Al Maviva:
are myths. Ancient legends.

Science is how we explain things we can understand. Myths is how we explain things we can't. Sometimes myths are a good approximation or a reasonable phenomenological explanation of how things happen - e.g. 'the sun rises in the East.' Sometimes they aren't. For a lot of people, having some explanation of how things happen is better than sitting there in the dark crying that it's entirely unknowable. A workable explanation that isn't literally true can be pretty useful, so long as it's kept in proper perspective, a working explanation of what is to us, right now, unknowable.
12.2.2008 10:54am
Matt_T:
You can cling to a broad, largely contentless definition of atheism that you feel avoids putting any burdens of proof on you if you want. Or, you can define certain atheist tenets that would somehow exclude the Communists. But you can't have it both ways.

OK, I should refine my terms. Replace "supernatural" with "transcendent": communism and other forms of forced collectivism attach a certain mysticism and infallibility to the state only seen elsewhere attached to gods, etc. And I don't see that this definition attempts to shift the burden of proof: People claiming X exists always must prove it, and people skeptical of that claim need not do anything until proponents of X have made their case. That's one of the foundations on which western logic rests.
12.2.2008 10:56am
Kotter:
Atheism is a religion. Talk about streaching meanings to uselessness.
12.2.2008 10:57am
trad and anon (mail):
Atheism is not the belief that the supernatural does not exist; atheism is the absence of belief in the supernatural.
As an atheist, I'd like to point out that neither of these things is accurate. I know it's become common among atheists to try to rebrand atheism as the absence of belief in God, but that is not what the vast majority of people mean by the term, myself included. Claiming that "atheism" "really" means "absence of belief" is just a semantic shell game.

Nor is atheism an absence of belief in the supernatural, or an affirmative belief that the supernatural does not exist. In our culture, belief in a god or gods and belief in the supernatural generally are often confused, but you can have the latter without the former. You can deny the existence of any gods and yet believe in (e.g.) reincarnation, magic, or astrology.
12.2.2008 11:04am
Anderson (mail):
But really, if you stretch "supernatural" to include adherence to a particular economic/political theory, the word loses any usefulness, and no one ends up being an atheist.

Not so. Communism had the pretense of a science without the substance. For one thing, when you're sent to a gulag for debating the merits, that's not terribly scientific, though it's plenty religious.

So the issue isn't "adherence to a theory," but rather, superstitious adherence to a mystical ideology without any basis in experiment or fact.

Another way to put this is that works on dialectical materialism would not have passed the test proposed at the end of Hume's Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance, let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.
12.2.2008 11:06am
Anderson (mail):
Conservative atheists whom I have known have at least some modicum of respect for Christianity; they just don't subscribe to its ultimate truth claims.

It keeps the peasants from stealing, in other words.
12.2.2008 11:07am
Sarcastro (www):
Because only irrational faith makes people disagree with me, I present

Liberal-Religions:

Atheism
Communism
Marxism
Global-warmingism
AbortionIsASacrimentism
Surrenderism
Gayness
Unitarianism
12.2.2008 11:09am
Fromen:
You can even be a member of a Church, who attends regularly and not believe in God. Prechers rail against it, all the time.
12.2.2008 11:10am
Portland (mail):

I read the article. Neuhaus isn't a very good writer.


I have to disagree. I also read the article, and the author strikes me as a good writer selling a bad idea. As nonsensical as the idea is, he makes a pretty skillful pitch. Of course, it's definitely academic in tone, which is not to everyone's taste.

Zarkhov: While I feel for your tribe, I do think the degree of influence they enjoy somewhat undermines the case for sympathy as compared to someone who is really getting it from all sides -- like a Palestinian Christian, say.
12.2.2008 11:10am
bornyesterday (mail) (www):
I'd say that the leftovers of the McCarthyism of the 50s and the rise of the Religious Right in the 80s is what has led to this idea that you can't be both conservative and not religious (leaving aside atheist or not since I don't know how many times I've read/heard the discussion of what 'atheist' actually means.) The McCarthyist idea of rooting out communists and communist sympathizers led to a demonizing of non-believing Americans, whether they were communists or not. The rise of the Religious Right, elevated the role of evangelical Christian dogmatic morality and the associated social issues to the forefront of the Republican party's platform. But along with that elevation, the idea that the only way you could believe that way was through a belief in the Christian Bible somehow became very common as well. As the Republican party is the nominal party of socially conservative America, if your focus isn't on those same social issues or if you don't profess a religious backing for your stances on those issues, it becomes much harder to be a traditional conservative when the members of the party which you supposedly identify with reject you.
12.2.2008 11:12am
Fromen:
Sarcasto: you forgot United Church of Christism
12.2.2008 11:13am
The Unbeliever:
Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.
Have fun with that. But after the proverbial librarian sweeps away the ashes from the lobby floor, and turns to his numbers-oriented and experiment-filled stacks of books, he'll find the Ethics section remarkably barren (save for a stray volume espousing strict utilitarianism, maybe).
12.2.2008 11:15am
Whadonna More:

Rich Rostrom

There are and have been millions of militant, coercive atheists. The entire Communist movement, to begin with.



Communism (by any useful definition) does NOT require atheist beliefs. That certain totalitarian systems called themselves both communist and athiest doesn't change that.

Stalin and Mao could have easily adopted Christianity the way crusading Popes and various cults have and reached the same result.
12.2.2008 11:16am
Sarcastro (www):
Fromen don't be silly, those UCC guys are all faking it. They're all secret atheists or Muslims, just like most high school teachers.
12.2.2008 11:17am
trad and anon (mail):
For that matter, why not add:

Keynesianism
Bailoutism
Medicare
12.2.2008 11:18am
trad and anon (mail):
Communism (by any useful definition) does NOT require atheist beliefs. That certain totalitarian systems called themselves both communist and athiest doesn't change that.
Indeed. See liberation theology.
12.2.2008 11:20am
Observer:
I would go one or two steps further than Ilya and say that it is even possible to be an atheist and a theocrat. It is not inconsistent to believe that religion is not true while also believing that society would be better off for all sorts of reasons under religious than under secular rule.
12.2.2008 11:25am
Aultimer:
Sarcastro,

Not quite. I'm admittedly in a political minority, but I'm a RealConservative(tm) Unitarian. Now, the Quakers...
12.2.2008 11:26am
Sarcastro (www):
Aultimer Nixon was born Quaker.
12.2.2008 11:26am
Oren:
Born a Quaker, didn't govern like one.
12.2.2008 11:34am
The Unbeliever:
Communism (by any useful definition) does NOT require atheist beliefs.
I may have to disagree with you there. I don't want to make the full argument here, but the "scientific" cast that Communism takes for itself must be divorced from any religious/mystical/transcendant framework in order for it to have any internal consistency.
That certain totalitarian systems called themselves both communist and athiest doesn't change that.
Uh, OK, but what happens if every Communist system takes the atheist mantle as a core part of its beliefs? Surely you can't take your position and simultaneously condemn religion as totalitarian based on the movements associated with them?

Someone call the NYT, we may have just accidentally pardoned the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition.
Stalin and Mao could have easily adopted Christianity the way crusading Popes and various cults have and reached the same result.
Well, no, because then it wouldn't be Communism, now would it? We would call it a name with a religious flavor, like jihad or something.

The simple fact of the matter is atheism enables certain belief systems and totalitarian structures modern thinkers find (dare we say it!) demonstrably evil, just like religion does. Removing religion from the equation simply does not make the world a better place, no matter how much Richard Dawkins whines while living and publishing in a country founded by Bible-clutching adventurers.

(One might wonder that since totalitarinism in its various forms happens with or without religion, someone may want to consider the uncomfortable idea that it may be a very common trait of human nature, that there is something inherently base, controlling, and power-hungry in the nature of Man. And it's funny which belief systems--and notably, which political belief system--already takes that as a core tenet informing its moral and political ideology.)
12.2.2008 11:34am
ForWhatItsWorth:
What a bunch of clap-trap. The logic is so faulty a touchy-feely flaming liberal would see it without even trying.

I was in the military for 25+ years, I served proudly and well. I think that would qualify me as a decent citizen of this country, no? I was and still am an ATHEIST! I swore my oath to an idea called the U.S. Constitution not to any person or personality, corporeal or otherwise. The *higher power* is YOU and all other citizens of the U.S., my family, my friends, my fellow military men and women to whom and for whom I was responsible. I didn't swear to or by the equivalent of a supernatural *mist*

I can turn this whole thing around quite easily: Those who swear to something that is non-existent are bound to nothing and cannot possibly be good citizens due to this. In fact, caring more about an imaginary friend than you do your real, flesh and blood neighbor just punctuates that.

Oh, and there most certainly ARE atheists in foxholes..... I was not alone.

What an insulting screed! Neuhaus is a moron. I would love to meet the man and have him tell me and my compatriots what terrible citizens we were and are.

Oh, and I am a card-carrying republican, in case that was ever a question.
12.2.2008 11:46am
CJColucci:
I just read the Neuhaus piece. If there is a God, would He please give me my three minutes back?
12.2.2008 11:48am
Bama 1L:
I also read the article, and the author strikes me as a good writer selling a bad idea.

Neuhaus's writing is so much fun on the level of sentences and paragraphs that one can lose sight of how appallingly absurd or--worse--banal his conclusions are.

Shorter Neuhaus:
Can atheists be good citizens? I knew this atheist philosopher who was a good citizen, but come to think of it he wasn't an atheist--he believed in philosophy! In fact, practically no one who claims to be an atheist is actually an atheist, because to be an atheist you have to believe in Nothing. To be a good citizen you need to do more than live justly in society; you need to justify the society with reference to Something. But atheists believe in Nothing! Having redefined atheism and good citizenship so that no actual person fits into either category, I reluctantly conclude that atheists cannot be good citizens.

For another of Neuhaus's reluctant conclusions that he must hold the position you'd have expected him to, see Is Mormonism Christian? in the March 2000 Public Square.

In the next issue of First Things: Fr. Neuhaus laments that the Green Bay Packers are not strong contenders to win the World Cup for the next decade or so, because the stripping of the public square has caused football to mean different things to different people. Joseph Bottum continues to wonder if the Republican party is ever going to get around to banning abortion, a theology student weighs in on technical issues of bioethics citing only Robby George, and an eccentric associate minsiter expresses admiration for the Catholic Tradition while not abandoning the tenets of his Protestant tradition. Isn't First Things worth your money as well as your time? Subscribe today!
12.2.2008 11:50am
whoever:

The test for a good person is not whether they have some external religious force (or other force) pushing them to do good things or not.


I have always liked "I care not a whit for a man's religion if it makes no difference in how he treats his dog".

[I may be misremembering the quote, for in googling to find the source I only found:

I care not for a man's religion whose dog and cat are not the better for it - Abraham Lincoln]
12.2.2008 11:53am
Tim J. (mail):
Stalin and Mao could have easily adopted Christianity the way crusading Popes and various cults have and reached the same result.

Could have. They didn't, though, so it hardly seems relevant.
12.2.2008 12:03pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):
I don't find the notion of atheist conservative particularly startling. I was one in my youth. I have known a number of conservative atheists--and in my experience, they tend to be pretty careful not to go out of their way to insult Christianity. Why? Perhaps it is just good manners, or because they recognize that for many people, a belief in God restrains their behavior a bit. (Not enough, unfortunately.)

Oh, by the way, whoever gave Eric Rudolph as an example of a believer is incorrect. He was a Nietzchean, and he was emphatic that he was not a Christian.
12.2.2008 12:04pm
Tim J. (mail):
Another way to put this is that works on dialectical materialism would not have passed the test proposed at the end of Hume's Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

Ok, so now you've expanded the definition of atheism to require adherence to certain writings of Hume's. We're still way past the claim that it is merely the absence of a belief in the supernatural. And frankly, I don't see what justifies your expansion of the definition in that direction.

And all of this in a desperate attempt to deny that the Communists were atheists, when it is apparent and well-known that they were. They may not have been secular humanists, but that's a rather different thing isn't it?
12.2.2008 12:26pm
Bama 1L:
Oh, by the way, whoever gave Eric Rudolph as an example of a believer is incorrect. He was a Nietzchean, and he was emphatic that he was not a Christian.

While Rudolph has emphatically denied that he adheres to the Christian Identity movement, he has acknowledged an identity as a Christian, specifically as some sort of lapsed Catholic who opposes abortion and, while preferring Nietzsche, does see the Bible as a source of authority for some of his beliefs.

There is a website to which I will not link (OK's TOS, after all) that posts Rudolph's jailhouse manifestos; it's easy enough to find and read for yourself, or follow the link from Rudolph's Wikipedia page.
12.2.2008 12:27pm
Smokey:
Matt_T:

Atheism is not the belief that the supernatural does not exist; atheism is the absence of belief in the supernatural. Some atheists, myself included, believe that God does not exist...
See?

Aristotle wrote about the necessity of a Prime Mover; a Creator that started everything. Later, Thomas Aquinas refined the concept, which states in essence that we were created. Hard to argue that, isn't it?

So, what created us? Our parents. What created them? And so on.

Eventually, you get back to the Big Bang. But what created that? Don't try to dodge the question by saying something like "a quantum fluctuation." Because that begs the question of what created the quantum fluctuation. Cosmologists are already discussing what came before the Big Bang.

So eventually we are forced to concede the existence of a Prime Mover, which began everything. It didn't happen by chance, either -- what created "chance"? We can play this game all day, and we're still confronted with cause and effect.

I'm not trying to convince anyone, because everyone's view of reality is their own. But I'd like to hear someone's explanation of how we exist now, without something starting things.
12.2.2008 12:29pm
SSFC (www):

Communism (by any useful definition) does NOT require atheist beliefs. That certain totalitarian systems called themselves both communist and athiest doesn't change that.


What would be a useful definition of communism, then? It may be awfully marxist (historically speaking) of me to say this, but shouldn't communism be judged and defined by the way it was practiced historically, and the effects of that practice in the real world, rather than defined by what it is in theory?

You appear to be fine with judging and defining religion by its manifestations through history. Why is communism special?
12.2.2008 12:30pm
Tim J. (mail):
I know it's become common among atheists to try to rebrand atheism as the absence of belief in God, but that is not what the vast majority of people mean by the term, myself included. Claiming that "atheism" "really" means "absence of belief" is just a semantic shell game.


Agreed. I miss the atheists of the previous century, who would boldly proclaim "God is dead" and declare that Nietzsche had crushed traditional morality. Modern atheists seem like such wusses in comparison.
12.2.2008 12:30pm
nathan wagner (mail):

unfortunately, I haven't been able to find this famous article online, perhaps because it dates to the pre-internet era


It may date from the pre-web era, but I assure you that
the internet was alive and well in 1991.
12.2.2008 12:34pm
jweaks (mail):
Certainly atheists can be conservatives, but the base their conservatism rests on is different than what most agree is the basis of conservatism. Their belief in "Ordered Liberty" is based on what they reason to be best and not on transcendent values such as unalienable Rights endowed by the Creator.
12.2.2008 12:40pm
Sarcastro (www):
Ima gonna make a Catholic Communism like Tolstoy, and then no one will know what to call it.

In the confusion about how to discuss my uprising, no one will be able to act. Thus, I will rule the world!
12.2.2008 12:44pm
FredC:
Or you could make a communism like the one in the New Testement book: The Acts of the Apostles
12.2.2008 12:49pm
Thales (mail) (www):
In response to Neuhaus's preposterous article, I'm tempted to write one asking whether religious people can be good citizens . . . but unlike him I am not irrationally prejudicial.
12.2.2008 1:00pm
gasman (mail):

In fact, practically no one who claims to be an atheist is actually an atheist, because to be an atheist you have to believe in Nothing.

What utter rubbish. The ability of theists to string together coherent thoughts seems sorely limited. Atheist means a=not , theist = believer of god. Thus an atheist is one who does not believe in god. It is completely unrelated to belief in everything or nothing.
Atheism at its core can be understood by theists in examining their own belief system regarding the santa clause. Theists are (almost all presumably) a-santaclausists, It does not mean that they Believe that their is no santaclause, but merely that as they became old and wise (age 7 or so) they saw that there was no longer evidence to support a claim of a man flying around the globe with reindeer and presents. They recognized alternative explanations that did not require supernatural powers and acceptance of santa existence based on accepting the word of apparently learned authorities (parent).
12.2.2008 1:11pm
Thales (mail) (www):
What gasman said. Or to put it another way, what is the difference between a religious belief and a superstition?

I'll foreshadow: Sound of crickets chirping.
12.2.2008 1:18pm
ForWhatItsWorth:
Smokey: ".....Aristotle wrote about the necessity of a Prime Mover; a Creator that started everything. Later, Thomas Aquinas refined the concept, which states in essence that we were created. Hard to argue that, isn't it?...."

No, actually it isn't hard at all. You and they *assume* that there was something *created.* That is strictly an assumption on your part.

Energy exists, did exist and will always exist. It wasn't created and it cannot be destroyed. Only its form changes. Now, if you think that energy is god, then fine, but talking to your odd electrical outlet isn't likely to evoke any meaningful answers.
12.2.2008 1:24pm
R Nebblesworth:

I know it's become common among atheists to try to rebrand atheism as the absence of belief in God, but that is not what the vast majority of people mean by the term, myself included. Claiming that "atheism" "really" means "absence of belief" is just a semantic shell game.



A semantic shell game? Or is it what the word actually means? But after all it is just a silly definitional game, so you should just concede and go by how the atheists define it.
12.2.2008 1:26pm
Thales (mail) (www):
Anderson: I love the reminder of the Hume quote (Hume's Fork, as it is often called), which is especially ironic in light of the fact that because he was an atheist, no respectable university would give him tenure, so he worked as a librarian.
12.2.2008 1:26pm
Fiddler:

The ten commandments (say) are part of a working system of values that has sustained society and one discards them at great peril.


Well now let's see...

ONE: 'You shall have no other gods before Me.'

Don't see the difference, really, of one god over another as it doesn't have a thing to do with specific core values that are as much a part of any longstanding faith as another (e.g., stealing, murder, adultery, etc., ALL are condemned by every religion and god--as much by Allah as by Jehovah and on and on--that's been around longer than, say, 10 years).

TWO: 'You shall not make for yourself a carved image--any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.'


Carving's out. Check. Wait... what really does that have to do with core values sustaining society?

THREE: 'You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.'

Again, what does this have to do with sustaining society?

FOUR: 'Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.'


Ahem. Which Sabbath? The Saturday one or the Sunday one? Aw forget it--don't know, don't care. Who honestly doesn't leave the house except to show up at church on a Sunday anymore anyway? Notice anything about the gradual erosion of Sunday blue laws in this country? Isn't it better for society, for the economy, if we can shop every day of the week?

FIVE: 'Honor your father and your mother.'


Depends on the mother (or father); you honestly think the children of an O.J. Simpson, a Stalin, a Mao should *honor* those people?

SIX: 'You shall not murder.'
SEVEN: 'You shall not commit adultery.'
EIGHT: 'You shall not steal.'

These I've conceded. They're basic for any society that's going to avoid armed conflict for more than six months. On the other hand, I don't see how these seem somehow less important just because you take God out of the equation; they're every bit as important to an atheist who understands that, for his own survival, he's better off not doing these things and expecting same from his neighbor in kind.

NINE: 'You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.'

TEN: 'You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor's.'

Again, these are OK--they fit the profile for Commandments 6, 7, and 8 as valuable for sustaining a society that actually works. But these are not injunctions exclusive to Christianity or Judaism or even religion in general.

So... I've discarded half of your Ten Commandments and yet I think any society would be sustained just fine on the other half alone. What peril exactly do you see resulting from discarding the first five?? And no, I'm not doing this to be contrary for it's own sake, but to prove a point: the Ten Commandments, something originating in a religion, aren't in fact special. They just appropriated 5 sound judgments about human behavior that pretty much any secular philosophy of ethics (let alone religion) worth it's salt would acknowledge as basic to working societies, then tacked on another five that were entirely unnecessary for society but that maintain order *within the community of the faithful as it relates to the propagation of the faith itself*. Christianity &Judaism don't have a monopoly or any claim to originality when it comes to taking not lying and not stealing and not murdering and on an on as sound injunctions for civilized man to live by.
12.2.2008 1:36pm
Alan P (mail):

Conscience is internal. If it were irreproachably proven tomorrow that Jesus Christ (Moses, Muhammad, Buddha, whoever) never existed or was a torturer of babies, would you start stealing, murdering, and lusting after your neighbor's wife?


Actually, modern research shows (at least in the ways we know them) that Moses almost certainly never existed, Jesus is highly questionable with only scant outside references from Josephus and Tacitus that are ambiguous at best, Buddha possibly existed but most Buddhists don't really care as his physical existence is not particularly significant to them, and Mohammed almost certainly did exist although much of what he is supposed to have done (i.e. travel to Jeruselem and ascend from there to heaven) is extremely unlikely to have happened as we understand the physical world.

None of the above has any impact on how I lead my life.
12.2.2008 1:51pm
RebelRenegade:
'Communism (by any useful definition) does NOT require atheist beliefs'

Jim Jones showed that.

Smokey> What created the Prime Mover?
12.2.2008 1:53pm
Anderson (mail):
Thanks, Thales. You might enjoy this bit from a letter of Hume's:

I could wish your friend had not denominated me an infidel writer, on account of ten or twelve pages which seem to him to have that tendency: while I have wrote so many volumes on history, literature, politics, trade, morals, which, in that particular at least, are entirely inoffensive. Is a man to be called a drunkard, because he has been seen fuddled once in his lifetime?
12.2.2008 1:57pm
RebelRenegade:
A lot of No True Scotsman in here.
12.2.2008 2:00pm
ForWhatItsWorth:
RebelRenegade: "....Smokey> What created the Prime Mover?...."

Let's alter that excellent question: "WHO created the Prime Mover?"

Whaddaya think? :) :)
12.2.2008 2:21pm
Bob Goodman (mail) (www):
Thos who seek and are good at gaining influence don't derive their ethics from their religion, they derive their religion from their ethics. If God told them something they didn't like, they'd get themselves another god. Religion is their tool for transmitting their ethics to the suckers.
12.2.2008 2:27pm
whit:
1) heather macdonald is brilliant. her work debunking the myth of racial profiling is good stuff
2) conservatism most definitely does not require a belief in god. otoh, conservatism generally recognizes the benefits of religion, as non-governmental voluntary institutions that help regulate behavior and civilize people... in a DEMOCRATIC SOCIETY (islamofascism thus notwithstanding). i am pretty confident that a fair # of conservatives that go through the rituals are agnostics/atheists at heart (brain), but favor the institution.

many liberals, contrarily, make the (silly and unsupported) claim that religion is the root of all evil, has done more harm than good, bla bla. that would be (imo) inconsistent with conservatism.
12.2.2008 2:40pm
Dave N (mail):
I knew a UCC minister who once preached a sermon entitled "The Atheism of Christianity"--in Salt Lake City of all places.

The point of his sermon was that a reason the Romans persecuted the Christians was because the Christians were "atheistic" in denying the deism of the Roman gods. The Romans were pretty much "live and let live" when it came to religion as long as you didn't attack their historic ceremonial gods. The early Christians did.

In any event, though I am not an atheist, I am very liberal in my theological views, even if I am fairly conservative in my political views. I do not see a conflict.
12.2.2008 2:56pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
The guys at The Daily Duck and its associated blogs have been doing it for years and they consider that they are doing it better. I agree that they are, although I am not a conservative or libertarian.

www.dailyduck.blogspot.com
12.2.2008 2:58pm
Sean O'Hara (mail) (www):

Eventually, you get back to the Big Bang. But what created that? Don't try to dodge the question by saying something like "a quantum fluctuation." Because that begs the question of what created the quantum fluctuation. Cosmologists are already discussing what came before the Big Bang.


You could quite easily replace "Big Bang" with "God" in that sentence and have the same problem. Either the universe is an infinite regression with no beginning, or somewhere along the line there was an acausal event. Occam's Razor says that it's more logical to assume the Big Bang is that event than to manufacture a hypothetical being as the First Cause.

And science supports this -- attempts to model the early universe break down as they approach the Big Bang because the math suggests that time itself didn't exist before that point -- making it a very literal acausal event.
12.2.2008 3:05pm
whit:

The ability of theists to string together coherent thoughts seems sorely limited. Atheist means a=not , theist = believer of god. Thus an atheist is one who does not believe in god.


that's a semantical wank. it says nothing about ATHEISTS. it only speaks to the WORD "atheist".

the reality is that there are atheists who

1) don't believe in god. they are called weak atheists, to distinguish from

2) claim there is no god.

the former (1) are not in a religion. the latter are.

both types CLEARLY exist. semantical wanking says nothing about atheism as practiced/believed, only about the origin of a word we use to describe a group fo people (and who self-describe) that encompass a rather broad spectrum, as noted.

if i was talking about 2nd year college students (we call them sophomores) and you started in a semantical wank about the roots of the word which essentially mean "wise idiot" would that add anything to the discussion about what a particular sophomore at the school WAS?

no
12.2.2008 3:08pm
LM (mail):

What created the Prime Mover?

It's Prime Movers all the way down.
12.2.2008 3:24pm
Bama 1L:
I'm trying to think of a non-God value of X of which it would be meaningful to distinguish between those who don't believe in X and those who believe there is no X.
12.2.2008 3:29pm
MarkField (mail):

I don't want to make the full argument here, but the "scientific" cast that Communism takes for itself must be divorced from any religious/mystical/transcendant framework in order for it to have any internal consistency.


What you say is true of Marxism, but not of communism generally (which pre-existed Marx). And even then, while Marx insisted that his theory was divorced from any transcendant framework, that doesn't mean we have to think he was right.


It may be awfully marxist (historically speaking) of me to say this, but shouldn't communism be judged and defined by the way it was practiced historically, and the effects of that practice in the real world, rather than defined by what it is in theory?


People do that with Christianity all the time, so it seems fair to apply the same test to Marxism. You might want to keep in mind Chesterton's point that the problem with Christianity was that it had never been tried. Marx would say the same.
12.2.2008 3:41pm
Duffy Pratt (mail):
Bama IL: How bout the division between realists and formalists in mathematics. Realists believe that numbers are real entities, and that the statements about numbers are true or false without regard to the way people think about them. Formalists, intuitionists, and other groups of mathematicians don't believe there is any :"reality" underlying math.

You might also draw a similar distinction between Platonists in general as opposed to, e.g., empiricists. The debate is stronger, however, in math.

Or you could bring it to a more basic level in math: there are people who believe in Cantor's theorem (proving that real numbers are not countable), and others who reject, don't believe, in this theorem.
12.2.2008 3:49pm
CJColucci:
The five year-old's response to the Prime Mover or First Cause argument, "Well then, who made God?," remains unanswered.
The broader question, "why is there something rather than nothing?," may be misguided. For some reason, we assume that nothingness is the default condition and somethingness has to be explained. Why? Has anyone here had an experience of Nothingness? No. But we've all experienced Somethingness. We've all experienced change from one form of Somethingness to another form of Somethingness. It's true that we've never seen Something come from Nothing, but that's because we've never seen Nothing. We have no basis for assuming that Something can't come from Nothing, and that's all we're doing, assuming. But maybe the assumption is right and Something can't come from Nothing. If so, given that we have no experience of Nothing and plenty of experience of Something, the most plausible inference is that there was always Something and never Nothing. hence, nothing to explain.
12.2.2008 3:54pm
JDB (mail) (www):

What created the Prime Mover?

Rush. See Hold Your Fire. Ged be praised!
12.2.2008 4:00pm
Smokey:
It's Prime Movers all the way down.
I read that before I saw who wrote it, but I instantly knew who wrote it.

Good one, btw. [For the multitude who don't know, it refers to turtles.]

I am not going to get into a religious dispute. People will believe what they want to believe. But the Prime Mover argument is interesting. It has been thought about and discussed for more than two thousand years by educated people who didn't have video games, TV, comic books graphic novels or the internet to distract them, unlike some folks here who throw out a hasty conclusion and think they've scored an unassailable point [yes, that was genuine snark].

The Prime Mover created time, and so is eternal and beyond cause and effect. In fact, it makes no sense to say that anything came before or after the Prime Mover; everything we experience is simply a manifestation of the PM, which is unconstrained by time or causality.

I've mentioned previously that Wikipedia is unreliable unless it's covering math, cosmology or quantum physics [anything outside the political realm]. That said, this article on the cosmological argument could possibly answer some of the questions above.

Maybe someone will be like Saul on the road to Damascus, and the scales will fall from their eyes. Or not.
12.2.2008 4:33pm
MarkField (mail):

How bout the division between realists and formalists in mathematics. Realists believe that numbers are real entities, and that the statements about numbers are true or false without regard to the way people think about them. Formalists, intuitionists, and other groups of mathematicians don't believe there is any :"reality" underlying math.


If you haven't read this book, you should.
12.2.2008 4:49pm
Smokey:
And speaking of religion...
12.2.2008 4:50pm
CJColucci:
But the Prime Mover argument is interesting. It has been thought about and discussed for more than two thousand years by educated people who didn't have video games, TV, comic books graphic novels or the internet to distract them,

All very true. And what actual progress has there been to show for all that effort? After 2000 years of work, you'd think they'd have ironed out the kinks in the argument.
12.2.2008 5:06pm
ForWhatItsWorth:
Smokey: "...I am not going to get into a religious dispute. People will believe what they want to believe."

No need for a debate, but I would like to clarify one thing: As an atheist, I don't *believe* anything about a superior power, god, whatever. Believers seem to have a difficult time understanding who it is that is *believing* and who it is that isn't. You assume the existence of god and then you think that atheists *believe* he/she/it doesn't exist. That is not quite correct.

When you think something exists without a shred of evidence, then that is *belief.* The fact that I *don't believe* in the existence of something for which there is no evidence makes me a non-believer, not a believer.
12.2.2008 5:55pm
Perseus (mail):
because he [Hume] was an atheist, no respectable university would give him tenure, so he worked as a librarian.

More accurately, because Hume was an exoteric atheist, no respectable university would give him tenure.
12.2.2008 6:03pm
Smokey:
ForWhatItsWorth:

I think that our existence is a pretty big 'shred of evidence' that something started the whole thing. You don't, and that's OK with me. I'm not out to convert anybody.

Can we leave it at that?
12.2.2008 6:04pm
ForWhatItsWorth:
Smokey, yes we can! :) :)
12.2.2008 6:14pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
"You could quite easily replace "Big Bang" with "God" in that sentence and have the same problem."

Not quite. The Big Bang is not normally thought of as a non-physical event. Even if we don't understand exactly what caused it (yet); it's still part of what we think of as the material world. Not so for a supreme being. The supreme being is that cause which itself does not have a cause-- to many that's the defining attribute of a supreme being. Such a being would be non-material in the normal sense.


If the universe turns out to have enough mass so it ultimately collapses, and then goes bang again, then we have an oscillating universe with no beginning or end, and it would seem that the prime mover argument goes away.
12.2.2008 7:33pm
Michael B (mail):
"Prominent conservative writer Richard John Neuhaus wrote a well-known 1991 article in First Things, "Can Atheists be Good Citizens?" arguing that atheists not only can't be conservative, but cannot even be "good citizens" at all ..." Ilya Somin

Well, whatever. I would hope otherwise but if that is in fact how you'd characterize Neuhaus's essay, an appropriately textured and often tentative reflection that decidedly does not reduce to such a simplistic formulation, then there is little to say. For example, the philosophical and social/political depth invoked in a three or four thousand word essay of this type can only be alluded to, not explicated at length. Though that is one general example only.

Given such a point of departure it's not surprising that so much of the subsequent commentary consists, ironically, of little more than glib pieties. Though there are exceptions of note.
12.2.2008 7:48pm
Fub:
Smokey wrote at 12.2.2008 4:33pm:
The Prime Mover created time, and so is eternal and beyond cause and effect. In fact, it makes no sense to say that anything came before or after the Prime Mover; everything we experience is simply a manifestation of the PM, which is unconstrained by time or causality.
Insofar as these statements assign attributes to the "Prime Mover" ("PM created time, etc.), they are statements of Cataphatic Theology. They are subject to the objection, even by those who believe in some transcendent basis or cause of our and the universe's existence, that they inherently limit any God or Prime Mover that they attempt to describe. That is, anything "eternal and beyond cause and effect" cannot be understood or described by any finite set of attributes, including those.

The alternative, and currently much less widely subscribed , view (in Christianity at least) is Apophatic theology, introduced into the Christian tradition by Dionysius the Areopagite. It does not attempt to describe what God is, but what God is not.

So someone who argues "The Prime Mover is not God" is not necessarily an atheist.
12.2.2008 7:49pm
Duffy Pratt (mail):

but that's because we've never seen Nothing.


This statement is demonstrably false. I've got close to 800 channels on my cable system, and often there is Nothing on. I think many others have also had this experience. Thus, its pretty clear to me that most people have seen Nothing, and seen it on a regular basis.
12.2.2008 8:05pm
Thales (mail) (www):
"I'm trying to think of a non-God value of X of which it would be meaningful to distinguish between those who don't believe in X and those who believe there is no X."

X=the Higgs particle?
12.2.2008 9:11pm
Smokey:
Fub, thanks for the links; very interesting. I've been reading for the past 45 minutes. The links led me to Divine Simplicity, which was also interesting.

But you know, of course, that you can never trust those Areopagites. And the psuedo-Areopagite fakers are even worse!

[*Sheesh* I'm getting as bad as Sarcastro. Well... not quite.]

Zarkov:
If the universe turns out to have enough mass so it ultimately collapses, and then goes bang again, then we have an oscillating universe with no beginning or end, and it would seem that the prime mover argument goes away.
The latest info we have is that the universe's expansion is accelerating, which rules out endless oscillation.

Oh, well, back to the drawing board.

On a related note, how long will it be before the U.S. military has an Atheist Chaplain? And would the Muslim Chaplain declare jihad?
12.2.2008 9:14pm
Thales (mail) (www):
"More accurately, because Hume was an exoteric atheist, no respectable university would give him tenure."

I smell something . . . what is it . . . I believe that's the distinct aroma of Straussian!
12.2.2008 9:24pm
Ricardo (mail):
Well, whatever. I would hope otherwise but if that is in fact how you'd characterize Neuhaus's essay, an appropriately textured and often tentative reflection that decidedly does not reduce to such a simplistic formulation, then there is little to say. For example, the philosophical and social/political depth invoked in a three or four thousand word essay of this type can only be alluded to, not explicated at length. Though that is one general example only.

There is very little philosophical depth in the article. It spends most of its length spelling out a taxonomy of atheism, talks about the most extreme type of atheist in the form of Richard Rorty and other po-mos and insisting that philosophy has no rebuttal to the existence (he doesn't like this word so maybe "presence" or "being" might be better) of the "God of Abraham."

Only at the very end do we get to the central claim: atheists cannot be good citizens because they cannot make a moral defense of liberal democracy. This claim has no real argument to back it up aside from name-dropping Rousseau, Locke and Madison (remember, he spent the past 2000 words impressing us with his knowledge of intellectual history rather than developing an argument).

A simple claim like this deserves a simple retort: atheists do indeed make moral claims about the rights and obligations of living with fellow humans that go beyond contingent self-interest. Neuhaus can engage the arguments of any moral philosopher at any major research university in North America or the UK if he disagrees.
12.2.2008 9:30pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):
Concerning Rudolph's beliefs, this quote from a USA Today article is pretty clear:

"Many good people continue to send me money and books," Rudolph writes in an undated letter. "Most of them have, of course, an agenda; mostly born-again Christians looking to save my soul. I suppose the assumption is made that because I'm in here I must be a 'sinner' in need of salvation, and they would be glad to sell me a ticket to heaven, hawking this salvation like peanuts at a ballgame. I do appreciate their charity, but I could really do without the condescension. They have been so nice I would hate to break it to them that I really prefer Nietzsche to the Bible."
12.2.2008 10:05pm
CJColucci:
Duffy Pratt, when you're right, you're right.
12.2.2008 10:52pm
Bama 1L:
Less math and less physics, please!
12.2.2008 11:04pm
Smokey:
Bama 1L:
Less math and less physics, please!
Yes!!

Feelings are what counts.

Emotion trumps all, dontcha know. Logical thought is so 20th Century.
12.2.2008 11:29pm
Oren:
Smokey, I would hold any conclusions until we get a better idea about what the WIMPs are and how they actually work.

Cosmology is a tricky science (did it for a while, got out because eventually they stopped paying me to think about deep questions) because you have to be very clear about your priors. Almost invariably, when someone has a problem with your cosmological argument, they don't attack your logic, math or method (in the case of numerics/simulation/perturbation theory) but assail your priors as untenable.
12.3.2008 12:11am
Oren:

It spends most of its length spelling out a taxonomy of atheism ...

Because such a taxonomy is central to his point. The distinction between relativist/nihilist atheism and the other species allows him to single out that particular (and, in his opinion, very harmful) strand as being antithetical to democracy.
12.3.2008 12:21am
Ricardo (mail):

It spends most of its length spelling out a taxonomy of atheism ...


Oren: Because such a taxonomy is central to his point. The distinction between relativist/nihilist atheism and the other species allows him to single out that particular (and, in his opinion, very harmful) strand as being antithetical to democracy.

Such a taxonomy would be useful to his point if he had arguments to back up his contention. Neuhaus does say that he considers relativist atheism (what he calls the atheism of unreason -- in contrast to the Enlightenment-inspired atheism of reason) "is much the more dangerous because the more insidious." He doesn't say other forms of atheism are OK. In fact, the whole point of the article is exactly the opposite. Again, to quote from the piece:

"There is the atheism of Enlightenment rationalists who, committed to undoubtable certainty, rejected the god whom religionists designed to fit that criterion. There is the practical atheism of Laplace, who had no need of "that hypothesis" in order to get on with what he had to do [lists other forms of atheists]... Can these atheists be good citizens? [emphasis added]" Later on, of course, he answers his question in the negative.

So although he develops this taxonomy, he later lumps all atheists together in saying they cannot be good citizens. Nowhere does he qualify this by saying that Enlightenment rationalists or "Laplacian" atheists can be good citizens but other kinds cannot. He is hoping readers will latch onto Richard Rorty and Nietzsche as villains and forget the sweeping and absurd nature of his central claim ("these atheists" cannot be good citizens). It is bait-and-switch dressed up as erudite argument.

As icing on the cake, he starts out saying Sidney Hook was a good citizen with the following explanation, "Sidney Hook was not really an atheist. He is more accurately described as a philosophical agnostic, one who says that the evidence is not sufficient to compel us either to deny or affirm the reality of God." But wouldn't Hook also qualify as a Laplacian atheist: one who lives under "the assumption that we can get along with the business at hand without addressing the question of God one way or another"? Since such an atheist is one of "these atheists" who are not good citizens, I would like to see Neuhaus split this particular hair.
12.3.2008 12:57am
Friedrich (mail):
Smokey: you are incorrect that cosmic acceleration rules out all cyclic models of the universe. This is an active area of research in cosmology, some of it inspired by string theory. See e.g.
Cyclic Model in Wikipedia.

Sean Carroll is a cosmologist who has thought about many of these issues in a scientific way. For his critique of the cosmological argument, see here. He's also proposed what I think is an extremely interesting solution to the problem of entropy and the arrow of time, which is a physics problem that's sort of related to this question.

My own (not entirely original) thought is that "Why is there something rather than nothing?" is a meaningless question. Non-existence is not a logical possibility. The statement "the universe does not exist" has no logical value, just like the statement "this statement is false."
There can't be "no universe." The fact that we can measure the time that has elapsed since an apparent initial singularity doesn't mean that the universe requires a "prime mover."

More interesting is the question Sean Carroll addresses in the second link: is it "natural" for our universe (i.e. its underlying mathematical structure and initial conditions), out of all possible universes, to be the way we observe it?
12.3.2008 2:13am
whit:

This statement is demonstrably false. I've got close to 800 channels on my cable system, and often there is Nothing on. I think many others have also had this experience. Thus, its pretty clear to me that most people have seen Nothing, and seen it on a regular basis.



they even made a TV show about Nothing.

it was called seinfeld.
12.3.2008 2:22am
whit:

You assume the existence of god and then you think that atheists *believe* he/she/it doesn't exist. That is not quite correct.



you are speaking (out of ignorance) about what other atheists think

some atheists DO think, in fact claim they KNOW god does NOT exist.

there is a term to describe this . it is called "strong atheism".

others are weak atheists.

just because you may not believe that, don't assume that others don't. plenty do.
12.3.2008 2:25am
dhdcnr (mail):
Neuhaus's article seems to (absurdly) conflate belief in God with belief in objective truth and/or morality. Since those without the latter belief cannot be good citizens, therefore those without the former belief cannot be good citizens.

I mean, what would he say if Sidney Hook were convinced by the argument from evil and then 'converted' from agnosticism to atheism? Would Hook cease to be a good citizen? Come on.
12.3.2008 6:17am
Smokey:
Oren, I have no hard and fast conclusions. I'm like everyone else here, just trying to figure things out -- an impossible task, I know.

Our knowledge is like a balloon. As it increases, the balloon expands. But what is unknown -- the space outside of the balloon -- increases as our knowledge increases. The unknown always gets bigger the more we find out.

Anyway, I'll concede your point if it turns out the universe cycles non-stop. But that, to me, seems too simple an explanation.

My own view is that everything that is possible occurs; Everett's unfalsifiable many worlds hypothesis, only more so. All possibilities are equally real; other realities seem unreal to us, but that's only because we're finite, and see only our reality [which, per Plato's analogy, is only a dim reflection of Reality, and like the folks chained to the cave wall, we acquire prestige by correctly guessing what's going on based on the shadows cast].

See, there are no gaps in Reality. Everything possible happens, even things that to us appear to be a paradox. There is no bright line dividing one reality from another, like Newton's infinitesimals. One blends smoothly into another, all part of the whole. But we're finite and see only what appears to be our reality [and someone whose reality precludes a Prime Mover is not wrong, that is their reality. But everyone's reality is a tiny peek at the Truth, and none of us is close to knowing that].

Even so, our own small bit of reality is much, much larger than the parochial, common point of view. Physics Prof. Brian Greene of Harvard explains the current inflationary view of the universe by showing that even by very conservative mathematical estimates, if the inflated universe following the Big Bang were the size of the Earth, our observable universe [~13,700 million light year radius] would be much smaller than a grain of sand. Due to expansion, which accelerates with distance, everything beyond 13.7 billion light years is unknowable to us. But it's still there.

Since the universe we inhabit is so immense [infinite in all directions, as Prof. Freeman Dyson says], then it seems to me that in an infinite reality, somewhere along the line a PM would have to exist, because everything possible happens. My own view, of course, is that a PM is the creator of this and the infinite number of other realities, some so foreign to our finite minds that we can never comprehend them. Anything possible, no matter how strange, must exist, and that existence is just as real as ours.

That's how I see it, and no doubt I have everything wrong, at least in the details. But it's fun to speculate, because we're made to wonder.
12.3.2008 6:59am
Lucius Cornelius:

"Is there anything lonelier than a right wing atheist Brit?"

Yes the intellectual right wing secular Jew.

The liberals hate him for obvious reasons; many of the right wingers hate him because he's Jewish. The orthodox Jews don't care for him too much either, along with the fundamentalist Christians. But the intellectuals really hate him because he sees through their crap and they know it. Joe six pack hates him because he seems elitist. The communists, the fascists, and the Muslims would like to kill him for a variety of reasons. Most Jews don't like him because he's not liberal.


Let's see, I am an intellectual (JD and LLM) right-wing secular Jew. I worked for the Christian Coalition for a year and a half. I am a member of a State Defense Force (formerly known as National Guard Reserve). I'm straight. I'm white.

I guess that makes me a straight, white, male, Jewish, conservative,secular, member of the military who is assisting the Christian right. My very existence is probably an affront to many people.
12.3.2008 9:19am
ForWhatItsWorth:
Whit, not sure where you are coming from. Read that post again after reading smokey's and you will see that you misinterpreted what I said.

The discussion was about "belief." Atheists don't "believe" anything with regard to a superior power. No evidence of existence, therefore pretty likely it doesn't exist. *I* am a atheist. I don't "believe" anything with regard to a god's existence and that was the point.

Believers are the only people who believe. Atheists don't "believe." Belief is based upon "faith," not upon any fact. Is that clearer? I was trying to say that atheists (like myself) don't "believe" god doesn't exist........ there is no evidence whatsoever of the existence, so the only people who "believe" are those who hold faith that he/she/it/does.

Belief has nothing to do with atheists....... that was my point.
12.3.2008 10:37am
ForWhatItsWorth:
Whit, additionally, those who say they KNOW there is no god are making a logical mistake. To the point: Absence of evidence is by no means evidence of absence....... but it certainly isn't evidence of presence, either (the latter being what "believers" believe...... they think that the use of faith trumps evidence..... it doesn't, of course).

Anyone saying they KNOW that a supernatural power doesn't exist are making the same mistake that the "believers" make. There is no evidence of absence..... and no evidence of presence. We can explain our universe, easily, without the need for a supernatural power anywhere in it. Since there is no evidence that a supernatural power is present OR required, it is quite likely that there is NO supernatural power, but I cannot say that I KNOW a supernatural power doesn't exist. I can only state what the evidence (or lack thereof) indicates.
12.3.2008 10:48am
Thales (mail) (www):
"Less math and less physics, please!"

Hey, I think you brought algebra into it.
12.3.2008 2:36pm
Duffy Pratt (mail):
We can explain our universe, easily, without the need for a supernatural power anywhere in it.

You think so? Two objects attract each other in a relationship that involves the mass of each object, and the distance between them. The Newtonian law of gravity describes this interaction with some precision. But it doesn't explain it. Now, tell me why these two objects pull on each other. Or tell me how it happens. Give me some explanation. There isn't any, supernatural or otherwise. (I suppose one could say that God wants it to happen, and leave that as the explanation for why there is a gravitational force. Or, you might adopt Leibniz's theory of monads, and assign a kind of intelligence or will to all objects. But science doesn't even attempt to explain why there is such a thing as gravity, or how two objects can act upon each other at a distance.)
12.3.2008 4:41pm
Michael B (mail):
"There is very little philosophical depth in the article. It spends most of its length spelling out a taxonomy of atheism, talks about the most extreme type of atheist in the form of Richard Rorty and other po-mos and insisting that philosophy has no rebuttal to the existence (he doesn't like this word so maybe "presence" or "being" might be better) of the "God of Abraham." Ricardo

If your construal were any more superficial the typeface of your comment would have simply evaporated, leaving a blank space.

Even on the simplest level, that of reading comprehension, when I indicated "the philosophical and social/political depth invoked in a three or four thousand word essay of this type can only be alluded to," you apparently don't know what "alluded to" means in this context. Your comment concerning "name-dropping" is similarly reflective of a glib, simpleton-like incomprehension.

Somewhat less superficially, the "taxonomy" you refer to, while not a complete mischaracterization is nonetheless secondary to the fact that it is less a taxonomy than a beginning of a conversation, wherein a certain intellectual terrain, a texture and a depth, needs to be grasped on its own right before any more serious engagement and response can be offered.

You exampled the comment concerning glib pieties, nothing more.
12.3.2008 4:56pm
Bill McGonigle (www):
Boy, there's been a lot of work in the past couple hundred years on reasons to behave morally that don't require a hierarchy of supreme power.

Game theory, capitalism, free markets, bottom-up economics, wisdom of the masses, democracy, emergent behaviors - these all relate the idea that when people behave well all benefit.

In fact I'd argue that leaving God out of it makes for a stronger system. If you take the original idea that God grants rights to all people and we then give up certain of those rights to the Government in return for protection, the only thing that keeps the Government from turning tyrannical is the existence of God. Stalin and Mao seemed to understand this.

If instead, you realize that it takes millions of people making smart decisions to keep our society working smoothly then you have to maximize the freedom of each of those actors to get the best possible outcome. Each imposition on those actors brutishly eliminates a possible beneficial outcome in an incomprehensibly complex system, so to the extent that such restrictions aren't essential to the defense of rights required by us of our government, they only act to society's detriment.

Or, y'know, like Jesus said, "be nice to each other."
12.3.2008 9:59pm
Opher Banarie (mail) (www):
Is it true that if there was no G-d there would be no athiests?
12.5.2008 5:00pm