Jan 26

Books on Science and Religion #32: Nick Spencer’s ‘Atheists and the Origin of the Species’ Part 3

Stephen Friberg

To believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Jan 25, 2015

Atheists: the origin of the speciesIn the previous two weeks (here and here) we looked at the history of atheism as described in the excellent and informative Atheists: The Origin of the Species, written by Nick Spencer, research director of the Christian think-tank Theos.

Given the relevance and importance of the book and the topic, we are moving slowly through the wealth of material in the book. Today we examine the influence of two influential British non-believers, David Hume (1711 – 1776) and Edward Gibbon (1737-1794). Their views still inform modern discussions of religion.

But before doing so, I would like to bring in a perspective from the Baha’i Faith.

Progressive Revelation and The Rise of Atheism

The Baha’i Faith holds that religion is progressive.

The great founders of religion – Moses, Krishna, the Buddha, Christ, Mohammed, Baha’u’llah – each bring guidance that builds on what has come before and that responds both to the needs of the time and the readiness of the people to whom their guidance is addressed.

The effect of their teachings are dynamic and organic, involving growth, maturity, fruition, and decay. In the stage of decay, religion, like a tree without sap, retains its structure and form, but the life-bestowing vitality no longer flows and its leaves and fruits are no longer forthcoming.

But each religion promises its return and revitalization. A new teacher comes – a new Manifestation of God appears – and instigates a new cycle of progress and advance. The Manifestations are the main impetus for spiritual progress. They are the bringers of spiritual springtimes, and the great religions – and much of the world’s great cultures – coalesce around their guidance and thought.

According to the Baha’i writings:

The fundamental principle enunciated by Bahá’u’lláh, the followers of His Faith firmly believe, is that religious truth is not absolute but relative, that Divine Revelation is a continuous and progressive process, that all the great religions of the world are divine in origin, that their basic principles are in complete harmony, that their aims and purposes are one and the same, that their teachings are but facets of one truth, that their functions are complementary, that they differ only in the nonessential aspects of their doctrines, and that their missions represent successive stages in the spiritual evolution of human society. (Shoghi Effendi)

The advancement and progress of religion is not always a pretty thing. `Abdu’l-Baha (1844 – 1921), the head of the Baha’i Faith from 1892 to 1921, used the analogy of the four seasons:

Hiroshige BridgeThe spiritual world is like unto the phenomenal world. They are the exact counterpart of each other. … When we look upon the phenomenal world, we perceive that it is divided into four seasons; one is the season of spring, another the season of summer, another autumn and then these three seasons are followed by winter …

When Christ appeared in this world, it was like the vernal bounty; the outpouring descended; the effulgences of the Merciful encircled all things; the human world found new life. Even the physical world partook of it. The divine perfections were upraised; souls were trained in the school of heaven so that all grades of human existence received life and light.

But this spring was followed by summer, fall, and then winter:

Then by degrees these fragrances of heaven were discontinued; the season of winter came upon the world; the beauties of spring vanished; the excellences and perfections passed away; the lights and quickening were no longer evident; the phenomenal world and its materialities conquered everything; the spiritualities of life were lost; the world of existence became life unto a lifeless body; there was no trace of the spring left.

The decline and failure of religion that precipitated the rise of atheism and decline of religious vitality in Europe, from this perspective, are a natural part of the progress of religion. Like a phoenix, religion dies and is reborn. The winter of disbelief precedes the springtime of renewal.

British Atheism in the Enlightenment

Last week, we looked at the atheism and the antireligious doctrines of philosophes of the French enlightenment. Some of them, like d’Holbach, castigated religion – especially Judaism – at considerable length and with considerable fanaticism. The French enlightenment – often regarded as moderate, reasonable, life-enhancing, democratic and an agent of positive change – was, as it is clear to see, shot through with an irrational, uninformed, prejudiced, and immoderate thread of thought targeted at religion and those who embraced it.

The British in the 18th century had their unbelievers, but they were neither bitter nor fanatic like their French counterparts. And although they were severely critical of Christianity, they seem to have fallen short of the French model. One of them, David Hume (1711 – 1776), is widely considered to be one of the greatest modern philosophers. And the other, Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), is considered to one of the greatest of Britain’s historians and, like Hume, one of the greatest stylists of the English language (for example, he was the favored exemplar for Shoghi Effendi (1897-1957), head of the Baha’i Faith from 1921 to 1957.) But they don’t seem to have totally rejected religion.

david-hume-philosopher-high-resolution-portraitDavid Hume

Hume, writes Spencer, was the “first great hero of British atheism.” Although hostile to Christianity to his deathbed, it seems that he wasn’t an atheist. Apparently he was what would later be called agnostic, much as my parents and their generation saw themselves. Despite that, he shared many of the opinions of the French philosophes:

He wrote against enthusiasm and its ‘raptures, transports, and surprising flights of fancy’. He wrote against superstition, its genesis in ‘weakness, fear, melancholy, [and] ignorance’, and its manifestation in ‘ceremonies, observances, mortifications, [and] sacrifices’. He wrote against clergy, dedicating a lengthy footnote to the hypocrisy of the clergy in his essay ‘Of National Characters’. He wrote against supernatural agency as a factor within human history.

But whereas the French philosophes wrote with an obvious prejudice and an extraordinary relish for confusing opinion for fact, Hume was sophisticated in argument and a thinker who remains deeply and widely influential. As a result, he was – and still is – widely effective in undermining arguments for religion. For example, he argues against miracles as a proof of Christianity’s validity:

Hume’s central argument was ‘that no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish’. The quality of the testimony was crucial and, in Hume’s opinion, no example from history passed muster. No miracle was attested ‘by a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned good-sense, education, and learning … [and] of such credit and reputation in the eyes of mankind’, as to be prove credible.

This was a high hurdle for a religion such as Christianity, that was not only ‘first attended with miracles’, but ‘even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one’. … Faith was fine, so long as you were prepared to take leave of your sense.

Like the French philosophes, “at the heart of his anti-Christianity there burned a moral critique, an indignation at the hypocrisy of the pious.” But, Spencer argues, Hume, the great skeptic, was skeptical of metaphysics as well, and “never entirely convinced by atheistic arguments”:

Philosophical reasoning was important – Hume spent many years engaged in it – but it could not offer the secure metaphysical or moral foundations that some claimed for it. Habit, experience and custom, not reason, governed humans’ understanding of the world, themselves and the way they should live. ‘Since morals … have an influence on the actions and affections, it follows, that they cannot be derived from reason’. Such scepticism would not allow him simply to replace theology with philosophy, revelation with reason, or religion with science in the way that many in D’Holbach’s coterie did.

Edward GibbonAnd when Hume was charged with heresy, he was defended by his British friends, among them many clergy, in a 18th century Britain that possessed a spirit of religious moderation.

Edward Gibbon

Like Hume, Gibbon was comfortably well off. And like Hume, he was a historian, writing the famously influential The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Wikipedia describes it as “known for the quality and irony of its prose, its use of primary sources, and its open criticism of organized religion”.

Like some of influential social Darwinists (and Nietzsche) in the the 19th century, Gibbon believed that the ethical and moral values of Christianity weakened the competitive spirit:

Romans, he believed, had become effeminate, unwilling to live a tougher, “manly” military lifestyle. In addition, Gibbon argued that Christianity created a belief that a better life existed after death, which fostered an indifference to the present among Roman citizens, thus sapping their desire to sacrifice for a larger purpose. He also believed that Christianity’s comparative pacifism tended to hamper the traditional Roman martial spirit.

Finally, like other Enlightenment thinkers and British citizens of the age steeped in institutional anti-Catholicism, Gibbon held in contempt the Middle Ages as a priest-ridden, superstitious Dark Age. It was not until his own era, the “Age of Reason,” with its emphasis on rational thought, it was believed, that human history could resume its progress.

Of course, much of what he believed has fallen prey to subsequent scholarship. But, in many ways, such as his use of source materials, subsequent scholarship built on his methodologies. And Gibbon was one of the first to study the progress of religion, including its decline and fall: “It was philosophic history of this nature, in which cause and effect were demonstrably determined by human agency, or accident, rather than divine providence or intent that animated Gibbon’s masterwork.”

According to Spencer;

Christianity for Gibbon became a historical phenomenon to be studied like any other, which he did, to wide public consternation, in Chapters 15 and 16 of The Decline. Gibbon undermined the authority of the miracles and beliefs through which Christianity had spread in a way that sounded much like the traditional Protestant attack on Catholicism: ‘The sublime and simple theology of the primitive Christians was gradually corrupted; and the Monarchy of heaven, already clouded by metaphysical subtleties, was degraded by the introduction of a popular mythology, which tended to restore the reign of polytheism’.

Like the philosophes, Gibbon was happy to offer his opinions as the truth, and to cynically deploy wit, irony, ridicule and innuendo. Except that he was better at it than the philosophes, and a good historian that could provide a convincing historical framework for his views. And because he recognized that the fall of civil institutions, government, and civilizations was not simply due to the evils of religion (the favored view of French ‘rational’ philosophes), he was ultimately more convincing. And, of course, Gibbon was British – more pragmatic and less prone to infatuation with metaphysical ‘certainties’.

Next Blog

In the next blog, we will continue our review of the history of atheism and the book Atheists: The Origin of the Species.


This is the 32nd in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

www.pdf24.org    Send article as PDF   

Jan 19

Books on Science and Religion #31: Nick Spencer’s ‘Atheists and the Origin of the Species’ Part 2

Stephen Friberg

To believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Jan 18, 2015

atheists the origin of the speciesLast week, we posted the first part of a several part review of an excellent and informative book called Atheists: The Origin of the Species. Written by Nick Spencer, research director of the Christian think-tank Theos, it is a must-read book if you want to be knowledgeable about atheism.

The issue of atheism – or more precisely, the aggressive, self-confident rejection of religion in the name of progress and of science – resonates very personally for me.

Purpose, Science, and Belief – A Personal Journey

I grew up on a college campus in New Mexico near Los Alamos National Laboratories, Sandia Laboratories, and Trinity Site where the atomic age was born. (The first atomic bomb was exploded thirty five miles from my childhood bedroom window.) I also grew up in a world of science that was very aware of advanced nuclear weaponry and that had an educated and sophisticated rejection of religion. We didn’t call it atheism. To us it was agnosticism – atheism was for zealots – and it was part of the mental furniture of the time. Religion seemed wholly doubtful – a refuge for the uneducated, or at best a tradition from the past.

trinity site

Trinity Site

But I could find no purpose in a world that seemed fixated on war and military technology. And how could I do physics – which I loved – if it was to be used for weapon-building? What was the purpose I could live for?

After becoming a Baha’i and realizing that work in the spirit of service was worship, I was able to go back to school and start a career. Unfortunately for me, belief in God wasn’t easy. Could I – or should I – believe in God if science said that it wasn’t valid to do so?

Years later, and after a lot of study, it became more than abundantly apparent to me – as it has become clear to many other scientists and academics – that it simply wasn’t true that science was opposed to religious belief. It was a lie – or at best an idée fixe.

But it was a lie that had several different consequences. On one hand, it was a lie that supported and inspired the worst and most barbarous episodes of our world’s history – governments killing their own people, European colonial domination and exploitation of much of the globe, a corrosive and murderous racism paired with a cruelly unforgiving social Darwinism, wars of destruction where civilian populations were a primary target, and extraordinary tyrannies. As Atheists: The Origin of the Species puts it, “atheist societies populated with new men (and the occasional new woman) in Russian, China, Albania, North Korea and elsewhere ended up humiliating, enslaving and killing on a scale that made previous religious wars look like a playground scuffle.”

On the other hand, this great lie unleashed some of the greatest and most creative minds of the last two hundred and fifty years to new heights of creativity – creating world-transforming new sciences, new technologies, new and radically more powerful medical systems, new forms of government, widespread literacy, and powerful forms of social activity. The scientists and academics I grew up had some good reasons for their pride – yes, extraordinary and great things were done – and their antipathies to religion – yes, much of it was old and superstitious, dominated by antiquated structures of governance from the past, and yes, sometimes barbarous and out-of-date.


But even the good old-fashioned, positive, scientific-mind-set type of atheism – one which had inspired a great creative burst of growth and vitality – was necessarily followed by aging and arteriosclerosis. The analysis and criticisms that it so frequently brought to bear on the religions of the world were, obviously, equally relevant to atheism, agnosticism, materialism, and scientism.

And that is the story that we are exploring here.

Atheism in the Enlightenment

In part 1 of this review, we talked about the beginnings of modern atheism in Renaissance and Reformation Europe. We now continue by examining the beliefs of Enlightenment thinkers such as the atheist Jean Meslier’s, the philosophe and encyclopidest Denis Diderot (1713-1784), the atheist Baron D’holbach (1723 -1789), and the materialist Helvetius (1715-1771). These thinkers were extremely critical of religion, indeed fanatically so, but at the same time they could be extraordinarily gifted as productive thinkers, philosophers, and writers.

Almost all of the views that we associate with modern atheism were built up by them. D’Holbach’s The System of Nature (1770) and Good (or Common) Sense, or Natural Ideas vs. Supernatural Ideas, for example, is a sourcebook of almost the whole corpus of the ideas of New Atheism, albeit one that is 250 years old and developed in the context of a decaying royalist France.

baron_dholbachMeslier’s Memoires, published and promoted by Voltaire, set the style for these thinkers:

‘Know, my dear friends that everything that is happening in the world concerning the cult and the adoration of gods, is nothing but error, abuse, illusion, mendacity, and betrayal’. On one side, the priests terrify their flock into political obedience on pain of eternal damnation. On the other, princes enforce religious order, give priests ‘good appointments and good revenues, and maintain them in the vain function of their false ministry’. Trapped between them, bullied, terrified, docile, the people suffered.

Like Kant, these French philosophes were extremely anti-Semitic. In many ways, their anti-Semitism informed their opinion of Christianity:

Meslier’s hatred of Israel was strong … The Hebrews were a ‘vile and miserable little people’, circumcision ‘despicable and ridiculous.’ His attack on the New Testament was hardly more moderate. Jesus … came more to mislead than to save men. His call for self-renunciation was no more than a grotesque form of self-mortification. The crucifixion was ‘guilt sacrifice … in its most revolting, barbaric form’, little better than ‘gruesome paganism’.

The benefit promised from Christ’s sacrifice was entirely illusory. At least the people of Israel received substantive promises from God, albeit false ones. Christians had, and continued to content themselves with, ‘imaginary goods, imaginary victories, an imaginary redeemer, and by consequence a redemption that is itself only imaginary’. Christ’s disciples were common and ignorant men’.

As an antidote, Meslier promoted libertinism, utilitarianism, materialism, anarchism, and an early form Marxism, but he lacked the sophistication of thinkers that were to follow in his footsteps.

EncyclopedieThe extraordinarily productive Denis Diderot, an accomplished writer, an anti-Christian, and an early proponent of materialism, was the editor of the hugely influential 17-volume, 18,000-page, 20-million word Encyclopedia, writing many of the 70,000 or so of its articles. Through means frequently devious, Diderot promoted his “subversive” skepticism:

For example, Christianity, the relevant entry informs the reader, ‘may be considered in its relation either to sublime and revealed truths, or to political interests’, which it immediately goes on to explain as meaning either ‘the felicities of the other life, or to the happiness that it may procure in this one’. Calvinists, we are told, borrowed a portion of their errors from the heretics who preceded them, to which they added new ones.

A factual and respectful entry on the Bible is followed by short entries on the Arabic, Armenian, Chaldean, Coptic, Ethiopian, Gothic, Greek, Latin, Muscovite, Oriental, Persian and Syriac Bibles. The entry on Priests is self-consciously vague, explaining that it refers ‘to all those who fulfill the functions of religious cults established by the different peoples of the world’. This then enables a discussion of corrupt priests, who ‘knew how to turn the good opinion they had fostered in the mind of their fellow men to their advantage’, the examples given being of pagan priests, the impression given a broader one.

Almost as prolific as Diderot – and with the added benefit of extraordinary wealth – was Paul-Henri Thiry (Baron D’Holbach), the most uncompromising atheist of his time. He hated religion in general and Christianity specifically:

D’holbach wrote some of the most uncompromising tracts of the radical Enlightenment. They were written, copied, printed and distributed under strictest secrecy. People discovered with them could be, and sometimes were, pilloried, flogged and branded. … The context helps explain their tone of relentless, angry mockery and sarcasm.

According to D’holbach, religion was simply the result of superstition and ignorance, accepted through custom alone, and defenceless against serious thought. Faith is the opposite to reason, repeatedly described as a form of blindness (blind submission, blind belief, blind trust, blind commitment, etc.), demanding the abandonment of common sense and submission to corrupt ecclesiastical authorities. Faith demeaned and degraded. Man-made gods, which were merely personifications of nature, and religions altered them according their needs. This not only stupefied people but justified horrendous and/or irrational practices such as circumcision, ritual cleansing, eating prohibitions and baptism. …

D’holbach’s take on the Old Testament drew heavily on Meslier. The biblical Jews were a nation of thieves, brigands and bandits, stupid and superstitious, ignorant and intolerant, unreasoning and unhappy, the mockery of other nations and for good reason. Their institutions enslaved them, their God was cannibalistic … Jesus [was] a vile craftsman, a skillful phony, an Egyptian magician, not merely a God for the poor but a poor God. … Christianity was little more than a schismatic Jewish sect, sharing all the faults of its parent, but adding viscous factionalism, life-denying Platonism and strange pagan customs into the mix.

helvetiusD’holbach popularized the idea that religion is evil. Spencer argues that “D’Holbach’s attack was, at heart, an ethical one. Christianity’s defective morality, he contended, was based on its defective, cruel, capricious, ferocious, bloodthirsty God.” God was “simply wicked” and his followers were “morally retarded.”

God, according to D’holbach and his circle, should be replaced by nature:

Man was a purely physical creature, his life constructed via his senses. His good was to be found in self-love and the pursuit of happiness, and only those things useful in the goal of achieving happiness were of value. …  ‘public utility… [became] the principle on which all human virtues are founded, and the basis of all legislations’. Humans were naturally sociable and naturally good. They needed no supernatural intervention to encourage virtue. On the contrary, it was precisely supernatural intervention that distorted natural virtue.

Goodness would be the default position were it not for the ignorance and superstition bred by religion. … humans were predisposed ‘to love one another … [and] live in peace’, tendencies destroyed by belief in the tyrannous God of Christianity.

Atheism alone could liberate mankind for the happiness that was naturally his.

Although D’holbach views are frequently laughably naive, especially in light of evolutionary thinking, they were a prod to a creativity whose consequences – sometimes barbarous in the extreme, sometimes exemplary – are widespread today.

First, many in D`holbach’s circle believed, progress “required the death of religion.” Next “there was a need for good government.” Finally, there was a need for good education, including the need to take children away from religious educators and their parents (Spencer writes that: “The need to remove children from religious educators [even, when necessary, their parents] would become a recurring theme in atheist rhetoric over the next 250 years.” Helvetius, one of the proponents of this view, was labeled by Isaiah Berlin as “as one of his six enemies of human liberty”.)

Associated with these views were perspectives that held that men and women were just “natural machines” lacking free will.  According to Hevetius,”beliefs and motives were irrelevant.”  D’Holbach saw free-will as “a theological con-trick, necessary for the heaven, hell and the gross system of bribery and threat they supported but indefensible otherwise. Human thought and action were in principle explicable through the study of the brain, nervous system and senses within, and the forces of education, custom and government from without.”

Some Thoughts

Much of what is modern is recognizable in nascent form in the thinking of these Enlightenment atheists. Their rejection of religion and the forms of government associated with it – they saw royal rule as a big part of the problem – forced thinking about the proper forms that government should take. Their thinking about the restructuring of education had similar consequence lead to the modern education system. So the atheistic rejection of both religion and government was, in many ways, an extraordinary event that preceded a revolution in human affairs that was brought about in large part by ideas sparked by atheist thought.

But, the extraordinary naivety of the atheists about human nature – their utter inability to recognize that the excesses that they saw in religion were, as we would say now, hardwired into us by evolution and are destined to show up by default whenever spiritual development is neglected – is painfully obvious in retrospect. And an understanding of the damage caused by materialistic moralities – the idea that pleasure and utility are the end all, be all of life – was beyond their ken. Particularly corrosive was their abuse of science – taking highly speculative and unwarranted assumptions and treating them as if they were scientific fact. And the idea that their highly idiosyncratic and cynically self-serving interpretations of religion was anything other than speculative and uninformed opinion casts them in a very poor light.  Basically, it betrays them as strangers to objectivity with regards to important aspects of human social, political, and spiritual practice.

Next Blog

In the next blog, we will continue our review of the history of atheism called Atheists: The Origin of the Species written by Nick Spencer, research director of the Christian thinktank Theos.  It looks like there is much more to be explored!


This is the 31st in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.


PDF24 Creator    Send article as PDF   

Jan 16

Bahá’í Imprisoned and Tortured in Yemen

Hamed Kamal bin Haydara with his family, before his imprisonment.

Hamed Kamal bin Haydara with his family, before his imprisonment.

NEW YORK, 16 January 2015, (BWNS) — In a betrayal of justice, authorities in Yemen have indicted Hamed Kamal bin Haydara, a Yemeni national, of being a spy for Israel and converting Muslims to the Baha’i Faith.

These charges come at the start of the second year of his imprisonment.  Throughout this time, Mr. bin Haydara has been held without charge and has endured various forms of torture as well as intense psychological abuse.

Mr. bin Haydara’s wife, Elham, told Reuters News Agency that her husband had been subjected to severe torture during his imprisonment in order to extract a confession, which the authorities have failed to get.  As a result, Mr. bin Haydara is now suffering from chronic health conditions.

“The charges against Mr. bin Haydara are baseless and nonsensical and come after over a year of mistreatment, including solitary confinement, during which, privately, the authorities have repeatedly admitted their religious motives for the imprisonment,” said Bani Dugal, principal representative of the Baha’i International Community to the United Nations.

“Mr. bin Haydara is a well-respected and sincere family man who has not broken any laws. Baha’is do not proselytize as a matter of principle, and all native Yemenis who have joined the Baha’i Faith have done so of their own conviction,” Ms. Dugal added.

“The accusation of spying for Israel is a grotesque distortion of reality,” said Ms. Dugal. “The historical circumstances that led to the establishment of the administrative and spiritual center of the Baha’i Faith occurred well before the existence of the State of Israel.”

“Obedience and loyalty to one’s government is a central principle in Baha’i teachings and the notion that Baha’is would engage in espionage is utterly absurd,” said Ms. Dugal.

“Baha’is have been part of Yemen for decades and are known throughout the Arab region, indeed the world, for their peaceful nature and attitude of selfless service to society.”

Ms. Dugal added: “The Baha’i International Community condemns this unlawful action against Mr. bin Haydara and calls for his immediate release. The charges are entirely fabricated and are without a shred of evidence.”

These comments come amid accusations by the authorities that Mr. bin Haydara is not a Yemeni national and has forged his name to enter the country.

Mr. bin Haydara was in fact born on Socotra Island in Yemen and has lived in the country as a citizen. His father, a physician, moved to Yemen from Iran in the 1940s and was granted Yemeni citizenship by the Mahra Sultan of Qishn and Socotra, in recognition of his sterling service to the poor in society. Citizenship was naturally and rightfully passed down to his son. The Sultan gave Mr. bin Haydara’s father his Yemeni name as an honor and in recognition of his respect for his adopted country.

“Mr. bin Haydara is a devoted husband, a father of three young girls, and loyal citizen of Yemen,” Ms. Dugal continued. “But perhaps the most ironic and telling element of this indictment is that the authorities have condemned Mr. bin Haydara for ‘demonstrating high moral standards’, through which he has won the confidence of his fellow citizens.”

=========== ========== ===========

Note: When Ms. Dugal speaks of the historical circumstances that caused the center of the Faith to be established in Haifa before Israel existed, she refers to the exile of Bahá’u’lláh (Founder of the Faith) to the prison city of Akka, which is across the bay from Haifa. This occurred in the late 1800’s; Israel became a nation in 1948.

PDF24 Creator    Send article as PDF   

Jan 11

Books on Science and Religion #30: Nick Spencer’s ‘Atheists and the Origin of the Species’ Part 1

Stephen Friberg

To believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Jan 11, 2015

This is the first part of a two part review of an excellent new book on atheism. It tells us atheism’s history, talks about its causes, describes its importance, and reminds us that atheism has a distinguished record of important accomplishments.

atheists the origin of the speciesThe book is Atheists: The Origin of the Species and is written by Nick Spencer, research director of the Christian think-tank Theos. It is a must have if you are building a library on science, religion, faith, and reason. Spencer’s argument is three-fold: (1) atheism is best understood “in social and political terms”, (2) from “the outset, atheism was a constructive and creative phenomenon, and (2) we need to “talk about atheisms rather than atheism,” i.e., “a family of atheisms.”

Spencer starts his story in the Renaissance, arguing that the building blocks for an atheistic worldview were in place very early, but that “it took the massive theological, epistemological and political crisis precipitated by the Reformations to gather those blocks and turn them into a foundation.” 18th century France was where “the first openly and unapologetically atheist arguments” were put forward and atheism became a full-blown creed. It was in France where a “rigidly authoritarian Catholic ancien regime … created deep wells of moral indignation on which atheists could draw.” Britain was more tolerant, moderating atheism’s influence. The separation of church and state in the United States effectively sidestepping it almost entirely. The 19th century was the “moment to be alive as an atheist”.

Here great systems of though rubbed shoulders, explaining the past, inspiring the present and predicting the future, putting religious belief in its right place, and then transcending that place, moving people on to a truer understanding of historical progress, a better grasp of economics, or a more rational form of ritual and practice … [as] progress predicted the death of God as humanity moved into broad, sunlit rational uplands.

In the 20th century “atheism faced and created problems previously hidden or unimagined.” Nietzsche showed atheists to be hypocrites, the logical positivists “gleefully hammered home the final nail in the coffin of God-talk,” only to find “that God hadn’t been in the coffin in the first place. And

the experience of two world wars left many in Europe, particularly in France, doubting the humanist credentials of atheism. … Attempts to build atheist societies populated with new men (and the occasional new woman) in Russian, China, Albania, North Korea and elsewhere ended up humiliating, enslaving and killing on a scale that made previous religious wars look like a playground scuffle.

berlin destroyed“Atheism came out and came of age”, Specter writes, “and it wasn’t pretty.”

European Culture, Christianity, and Atheism

“Religion, in the form of Christianity,” Spencer points out, “was the foundation of European culture … Belief in God determined the way people lived, the way they were governed and the way they structured society.” Christianity was all pervasive, legitimizing government, communities, kings, and justice. It was the foundation of society. It was not just another intellectual activity. It was this structure, not philosophy and not science, that was the cause. Atheism

had only a limited amount to do with reason and even less with science. The creation myth [of atheism] is an invention of the later nineteenth century, albeit one with ongoing popular appeal. In reality … modern atheism was primarily a political and social cause, its development in Europe having rather more to do with the (ab)use of theologically legitimized political authority than it does with developments in science or philosophy.

Even though atheism is ‘parasitic’ in that it is defined by what it is against, it had to “construct as well as destroy,” thus a central theme of the book:

Precisely because Christianity was the foundation, the walls, the streets and the public order of European civilization, atheism was faced with the need to construct a different earthly city if the destruction of the existing one was ever going to be successful.

The Beginnings of Modern Atheism

Spencer dates the beginnings of modern atheism to the Renaissance – both to its politics and to its fascination with ancient Latin and Greek humanism. Politically, the reformation launched the wars of religion where Protestant and Catholicism fought for supremacy, but it also brought about the ‘realpolitik’ in Italy that we associate with Machiavelli (1469 – 1527) and his influential treatises on politics (e.g., The Prince). From the backward-looking humanism of the Renaissance, leading European thinkers of the time learned about skepticism (sometimes called Pyrrhonism). And the authority of the bible was undermined as leading religious scholars indulged in bitter battles about whether or not it was reliable and whether or not it was best translated literally as was the contention of Luther and the Protestants.

220px-Portrait_of_Niccolò_Machiavelli_by_Santi_di_TitoWith Machiavelli leading the way, with skepticism and classical humanism providing new models for thinking and social organizations, with religious battles over sacred texts poisoning scholasticism, and with religious wars throughout Europe resulting in slaughter and chaos, European thinkers began to downplay the ideological side of religion and to emphasize natural proofs for belief in God and the validity of religion. For example, Rene Descartes (1596–1650), widely considered the first of the modern European philosophers, substituted his famous cogito for scholastic versions of the proof of the existence of God.

This started a kind of ‘slippery slope’ slide toward atheism, with the materialist philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), writing in The Leviathan, and the pantheist philosopher Spinoza (1632 – 1677) both advancing ideas widely considered as atheistic. Spinoza, for example, rather airily dismissed all of the Hebrew Bible as due to the good – or bad – humor of the Jewish prophets. But both Hobbes and Spinoza proposed systems of government, thought, worship, and economics to override those grounded in Christianity, illustrating the extent to which atheism could be a positive and creative force as well as negative one. Pierre Bayle’s (1647-1706) skeptical Dictionnaire Historique et Critique captured much of the anti-religious and critical perspectives being voiced about at the end of the 16th century. In become very controversial and very popular. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the

Dictionnaire historique et critique was among the most popular works of the eighteenth century. The content of this huge and strange, yet fascinating work is difficult to describe: history, literary criticism, theology, obscenity, in addition to philosophical treatments of toleration, the problem of evil, epistemological questions, and much more. [Pierre Bayle’s] influence on the Enlightenment was, whether intended or not, largely subversive.

The Enlightenment

Unable to obtain much of a foothold in England and Germany in the 18th century, atheism took root in France where “royal absolutism and ecclesiastical authority” were closely tied together. Exacerbating the situation was a French Catholic Church that “was gloriously wealthy, owning close to ten per cent of land, exercising the right to tithe over most of the rest, enjoying significant tax exemptions, and nourishing popular hostility to Protestants.”

MeslierThe Frenchman Jean Meslier, who spent the whole of his life as a priest, was perhaps the first undoubted atheist of modern Europe. Famously – or infamously – his “long and uncompromising” Memoire left to posterity after his death in 1729 denounced every aspect of Christianity and Judaism. They were ‘nothing but error, abuse, illusion, mendacity, and betrayal. Christianity was ‘gruesome paganism’ and Christ’s disciples were ‘common and ignorant men.’ Anticipating much of what was to characterize modern atheism, he condemned the church’s glorification of suffering, and urged what we now call a liberal view of sex, aspects of materialism, and a kind of early form of communism.

Denis Diderot (1713-1784), editor of the famed Encyclopedie, Baron D’Holbach (1723 -1789), Voltaire (1694-1778), d’Alambert (1717-1783), co-editor of the Encyclopedie until 1759, Helvetius (1715-1771) and the Scotsman David Hume (1711-1776) shared many of Meslier views, but were also extraordinarily gifted and productive thinkers, philosophers, and writers, compiling and publishing almost all of the views that we associate with modern atheism between them. In particular, D’Holbach’s The System of Nature (1770) and Good (or Common) Sense, or Natural Ideas vs. Supernatural Ideas are a compendium of almost all of the ideas from New Atheism We will pick up on these topics in the second part of this review next week. For now, we consider the critical reception in the (mainly British) press.

The Reviews

Atheists: The Origin of the Species has gotten good reviews. Julian Baggini, an atheist writing in the Guardian, notes that:

Atheism is now sometimes discussed as though it began with the publication of Richard Dawkins’s ‘The God Delusion’ in 2006.To put these recent debates – or more often than not, flaming rows – in some sort of perspective, a thorough history of atheism is long overdue.

The godless may not at first be pleased to discover that the person who has stepped up to the plate to write it comes from the ranks of the opposition. But Nick Spencer, research director of the Christian thinktank Theos, is the kind of intelligent, thoughtful, sympathetic critic that atheists need, if only to remind them that belief in God does not necessarily require a loss of all reason.

Michael Robbins, an American poet who has made poetry hip again, writes in Slate that:

Nick Spencer begins his spirited history of atheism with a fairy tale. Once upon a time, people lived in ignorant superstition, offering sacrifices to monsters in the sky. Then some clever folks used special weapons called “science” and “reason” to show that the monsters had never really existed in the first place. Some of these clever folks were killed for daring to say this, but they persevered, and now only really stupid people believe in the monsters.

Spencer’s point, of course, is that this received wisdom is naive nonsense—it gets the history of science and the nature of religious belief wrong, setting up an opposition between reason and faith that the church fathers would have found rather puzzling. … Few historians take this myth seriously, but it retains its hold on the vulgar atheist imagination. To believe it requires the misconception that religion exists primarily to provide explanations of natural phenomena. (“You seriously believe in God?” “Well, how do you explain thunder?”)

Tom Brown, writing in the Curious Animal Magazine, says:

The dust had barely settled on the carnage of 9/11 before some commentators were calling faith to account. “To fill a world with religion […] is like littering the streets with loaded guns,” wrote the Oxford academic Richard Dawkins. “Do not be surprised if they are used.” The American neuroscientist Sam Harris, meanwhile, started writing his bestseller ‘The End of Faith’ the very next day, in which he claimed, “We are at war with Islam” and not just the extremist wing.

As Nick Spencer points out, such broadsides against religion are nothing new, but it’s certainly the post-9/11 rise of religious fundamentalism – and the subsequent backlash – that gives this comprehensive new study its impetus. Just as the so-called New Atheists (Dawkins, Harris and, later, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett) introduced a whole new audience to anti-religious arguments after the collapse of the Twin Towers, so Spencer feels the time is ripe to set atheism in its proper context.

Can we hope that Spencer’s approach is the wave of the future?

Next Blog

In the next blog, we will finish our review of the history of atheism called Atheists: The Origin of the Species written by Nick Spencer, research director of the Christian thinktank Theos.


This is the 30th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

PDF24 Creator    Send article as PDF   

Jan 05

Some Baha’i Science and Religion Activities for 2015

Stephen Friberg

To believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Jan 4, 2015

We are starting a New Year! Traditionally, this is the time for planning for the coming year.

Below is a list of upcoming science and religion activities that I know of that Baha’is and their friends will be involved with in the year to come. If you know of any more events or activities, please send comments with the relevant information.

National and International Baha’i Science and Religion Activities

Wilmette InstituteWilmette Institute Course on Science and Religion

The Wilmette Institute, now in its 20th year, will hold two science and religion activities this year. One activity is a nine-week course on Science and Religion scheduled from Nov 20, 2015 to Jan 8, 2016. We promise that information on the course will soon be up and available at the Wilmette Institute website.

Plans are to prepare a book for the course – Science and Religion; and an Unfolding World Civilization - and then develop it for publication. Currently, the book’s chapter list looks like as follows:

  1. Introduction
  2. An Overview of the Baha’i Principles on Science and Religion
  3. Baha’i Proofs of the Existence of God
  4. Science and the Baha’i Faith
  5. Cosmology, Matter, Creation, and Spirit
  6. Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution
  7. Origins of the Modern Discourse on Science and Religion
  8. Building Community with Science and Religion

books and pen graphic

The other science and religion activity is a Wilmette Institute 20th Anniversary Talk entitled “Science and Religion,” which will be a live broadcast Sunday, November 15, 2015 (1 p.m. CT; 12 noon MT; 11 a.m. PT; 7 p.m. UK, 8 p.m. Western Europe). Details of the broadcast should be up soon.

Common Ground Blog: Science and Religion, Faith and Reason

We expect the Common Ground Science and Religion, Faith and Reason blog – the blog that you are reading now – to continue full steam ahead in 2015.

Would you like to write a blog for us? We would be very appreciative and will gladly, if you want, help with any or all aspects.

ABS Science and Religion Special Interest Group

The ABS Science and Religion Special Interest Group (SIG) is an agency of the Association for Baha’i Studies – North America (ABS). Its goals include promoting “a sound understanding of the Cause in academic circles, to demonstrate its relevance to the study of social issues, and to stimulate an appetite for learning within the Bahá’í community generally.” To do this, SIGs are encouraged to promote networking, to mentor students, to “encourage, inspire, and facilitate individual and collaborative Baha’i scholarship”, and to support an “outward-oriented focus” with a university emphasis.

In a recent letter about the ABS, the Universal House of Justice, the elected nine-member council that heads the Baha’i Faith, commented and gave some suggestions as to direction and activities:

  • ABS North AmericaThe principle of the harmony of science and religion, [if] faithfully upheld, will ensure that religious belief does not succumb to superstition and that scientific findings are not appropriated by materialism.
  • Give consideration to insights that have contributed to [our] community’s progress … Perhaps the most important of these is learning in action; the friends participate in an ongoing process of action, reflection, study, and consultation in order to address obstacles and share successes, re-examine and revise strategies and methods, and systematize and improve efforts over time.
  • The Association may find it useful to explore fresh approaches with some simple steps that can grow in complexity.
  • Small seminars could be held to assist individuals from certain professions or academic disciplines to examine some aspect of the discourse of their field.
  • Special interest groups … could have gatherings to intensify their efforts. Periodic communications or follow-up meetings could be arranged to increase the effectiveness of the participation of these groups of individuals in aspects of the discourse in their chosen fields.
  • Continued exertions must be directed toward preparing and disseminating articles, periodicals, and books.

This means that the ABS and the SIGs, including the ABS Science and Religion SIG, are presented with both great opportunities and with challenges. Possibilities this year include activating the SIG website, group consultations on what the SIG can do both internationally and locally (see below), holding a webinar’s, and sponsoring blogs and discussion groups.

ABS Annual Conference, Orange County, Southern California

orangeCountyThe ABS will hold its 39th Annual Conference in Orange County, Southern California, on August 6 to August 9, 2015 – details will be released soon. The conference is always features exciting and excellent talks and is a place to meet old friends, make new friends, and learn new things..

Science and Religion Conferences

Conferences on science and religion in the United States and around the world include:

An interesting related conference is the

Northern California Baha’i Science and Religion Activities

San Jose Baha’i Center Science and Religion Talks

The San Jose Baha’i Center hosts a Baha’i Family School most Sundays at the San Jose Baha’i Center, 945 Willow Street, San Jose, CA 95125. Over the last six years, there have been six or so hour and a quarter Sunday presentations on different aspects of science and religion.Currently, two sets of presentations are planned for this year and more are likely. The first set will be held later this month:

Beyond Materialism – The Next Steps. 10:30 – 11:45 AM Jan 18 & 25, 2015, Stephen Friberg

The 19th century was bedazzled by the rising light of science and materialism. Religion seemed to be fading away, replaced by something that many people – including many leaders of thought – considered to be much better. But that was the 19th century, and this is 21st century. What we know of religion, of science, and the affairs of the world is much vaster and much greater than can be contained by the blithe and narrow generalities of a nascent materialistic worldview, one that, despite it successes, has brought so much destruction in its path.

In these two talks, we consider what we might do to address some of the problems of the 21st century, drawing on the Baha’i teachings and Silicon Valley technology as inspiration.

How We Know What We Know. Time and date to be determined. Maya Bohnhoff.

Mountain ViewMountain View Science and Religion Meetings

For the last year and a half or so, we have been having informal Science and Religion meetings in the Mountain View area, gathering together in people’s homes and talking about science and religion. Typically, we review one or several topics and then discuss one of the topic at length. Attendance usually runs to 10 to 15 people and discussions can continue to quite late. Our favorite topic is consciousness – what is it, how it can be explained, and how it relates science to religion and vice versa.

For the coming year, the Mountain View Science and Religion meetings will be held every two months with the first meeting in January.

Northern California ABS Science and Religion SIG Consultation

Northern California with its plethora of tech and science companies and world class universities (Stanford, UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, UC San Francisco, the Jesuit-based University of Santa Clara and San Francisco University, and the Graduate Theological Union with its many colleges and centers), offers many science and religion resources that can and should be explored.

Currently, we are making plans to have a San Francisco area consultation on the message from the UHJ about the role of the ABS Science and Religion SIG in our local area.

Next Blog

In the next blog, we look at an interesting and informative book focused on the history of atheism called Atheists: The Origin of the Species. It is written by Nick Spencer, research director of the Christian thinktank Theos.


This is the 30th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature – here we skip the literature and talk about the future. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.


PDF24 Creator    Send article as PDF   

Dec 29

Books on Science and Religion #29: Atheism for Dummies Part 2

Stephen Friberg

To believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

[This is the 2nd of two blogs looking at Dale McGowan’s book Atheism for Dummies.]

Dec 28, 2014

The MIT Technology Review recently published an article called How the Internet is Taking Away America’s Religion. It describes a dramatic rise in those who have no religious affiliation – the “nones” – in the United States:

Back in 1990, about 8 percent of the U.S. population had no religious preference. By 2010, this percentage had more than doubled to 18 percent. That’s a difference of about 25 million people, all of whom have somehow lost their religion.

internet-300x300Allen Downey, whose Religious Affiliation, Education, and Internet Use is the source for the MIT article, claims the increase in the number of “nones” (meaning those who say “none” when asked for their religious affiliation) is statistically and causally correlated with three factors: (1) the changes in religious upbringing in American homes (20%), (2) the increase in the number of college students (5%) and, (3) the dramatic rise in the use of the internet (25%). The remaining 50% is due to “other factors”. (For additional details, see “Nones” on the Rise from Pew Research.)

Religion Among the Millennials – also from Pew Research – accredits most of these changes to millennials in the 18 – 29 age bracket:

By some key measures, Americans ages 18 to 29 are considerably less religious than older Americans. Fewer young adults belong to any particular faith than older people do today. They also are less likely to be affiliated than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations were when they were young. Fully one-in-four members of the Millennial generation – so called because they were born after 1980 and began to come of age around the year 2000 – are unaffiliated with any particular faith.

What these reports show is that there is a large rise in the number of people – especially young people – in the United States who lack a connection with religion. And these people – not always, but often – no longer belong to the extended communities that religions and churches provide. Often, they are alone and isolated.

Atheism, Irreligion and Ritual

christmasIn Religion Without God, a recent New York Times op-ed column, T.M. Luhrmann, a Stanford professor who studies the way that people experience God, tells the story of her mother. She “is the daughter of a Baptist pastor and the black sheep, theologically speaking, of her family. She wants to go to church, but she is not quite sure whether she wants God.”

For Christmas, her mother goes to a Unitarian Universalist church where God is not mentioned. Other like her go to Sunday Assembly meetings, started in England by two atheists. They draw “thousands of people to events with music, sermons, readings, reflections and (to judge by photos) even the waving of upraised hands.”


Luhrmann answers that “part of the answer is surely the quest for community.” We will get to this later when we look at Atheism for Dummies. But first, consider what Luhrmann says about why rituals like a Christmas worship service are so important. They “change the way we pay attention as much as — perhaps more than — they express belief. … ritual focuses your attention on some moment and deems it worthy of respect.”

Rituals have very real effects – they work – says Luhrmann:

Moreover, these rituals work, if by “work” we mean that they change people’s sense of their lives. It turns out that saying that you are grateful makes you feel grateful. Saying that you are thankful makes you feel thankful. To a world so familiar with the general unreliability of language, that may seem strange. But it is true.

Religion is fundamentally a practice that helps people to look at the world as it is and yet to experience it — to some extent, in some way — as it should be. Much of what people actually do in church — finding fellowship, celebrating birth and marriage, remembering those we have lost, affirming the values we cherish — can be accomplished with a sense of God as metaphor, as story, or even without any mention of God at all.

MassMy guess is that this is only partially true – it is hard to maintain discipline if you believe your topic is a sham. And it strikes me that it is unlikely that it will be effectively passed to offspring.

Interestingly, the Baha’i Faith emphasizes the importance of avoiding rituals, seeing them as an “outward form” easily mistaken for inner truth and the cause of superstition and dissension. `Abdu’l-Baha, in Paris Talks says that

Forms and rituals differ in the various churches and amongst the different sects, and even contradict one another; giving rise to discord, hatred, and disunion. The outcome of all this dissension is the belief of many cultured men that religion and science are contradictory terms, that religion needs no powers of reflection, and should in no wise be regulated by science, but must of necessity be opposed, the one to the other.

The Baha’i faith has a minimum of rituals. Here is how Shoghi Effendi, the head of the Baha’i Faith from 1921 to 1957, characterizes it:

The Faith … is free from any form of ecclesiasticism, has neither priesthood nor rituals, and is supported exclusively by voluntary contributions made by its avowed adherents.

Atheism, Community, and Lack of Community

Atheism for Dummies by Dale McGowan – as I pointed out in Books on Science and Religion #28: Atheism for Dummies – is not an effective advertisement for atheism, or at least the traditional type of atheism that appeals to reason, toleration, science, rationality, intellectual knowledge, and a sense of responsibility for the future.

atheism for dummiesIt is, however, effective at addressing evangelical atheism, a term that can be applied to the views of atheists like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris and their adaptation of evangelical sales techniques. This form of atheism seems to be persuading Christian evangelicals to abandon their faith. But there is a price. Those who have converted from evangelical to atheism have very often severed their connections – sometimes vital human connections – with their churches, their church-based communities, and given the American propensity to move away from family for education and work, often from their families as well.

How many people are we talking about here?

In absolute terms, the numbers of atheists in the United States is small. According to Pew Research (“Nones” on the Rise) atheism belief rates increased from 1.6% of the US population to 2.4% of the US population since the beginnings of new Atheism, i.e., about 2.5 million. But whether or not more people were convinced of atheism’s merits or whether they felt more comfortable coming “out of the closet” is hard to tell. Wikipedia in Demographics in Atheism estimates that “atheists comprise around 2% of the world’s population and the irreligious (non religious) a further 16%”. Worldwide growth in atheism is balanced by the growth in religion in formerly communist countries.  But even those numbers feel wrong.  Many in the United States and in Europe are nominally Christian – at least they will say they are if asked – but church attendance is often very low and a secular spirit predominates.

What does McGowan suggest that atheists do?

  • First of all, he suggest that atheists get acquainted with the worldwide atheist movement.  Learn about atheism, study its history, recognize the diversity within the movement.
  • Learn about morality – what is it? – what does it mean to be good? And recognize that you be good without God.
  • See the world naturally. I think that he means to avoid superstition and escape from dogma, setting aside outdated dogma.  But, he also seems to be, evangelically, suggesting that you internalize evangelical atheist dogmas – materialism, anti-theism, and the like. It does raise the suspicion that instead of encouraging you to think openly, rationally, and scientifically, he is encouraging you to replace one dogma with another.
  • Recognize that you are living in a religious world. Learn about religion, make peace, don’t battle unwisely, learn how to live with others. This is very important and is meaningful for someone who experiences are very limited and who is from a strongly evangelical community rather than a secular or educated background. But, it does suggest that McGowan is unaware that we live in what is essentially a secular world, one where religion plays only a very limited role.
  • Get the best from religion, discard the rest.  He suggests an embrace of community, recognizing the importance of commemorations, rituals to mark life transitions, and holidays, an understanding for the need for wonder and transcendence, learning how to deal with hardships and loss, and volunteering and serving.

And finally he offers information, addresses, suggestions for joining like minded people in supportive organization.  Clearly, many of these suggestions are worthy of a hearing and maybe even important for those in transition.

But it has a strong out-of-the-frying-pan-and-into-the-fire feeling to it to me. There are many organization where belief or lack of belief plays no part – most community organizations, volunteer organizations, and NGOs for example. There is no need to go to groups that embrace an ideology or quasi-religious atheism unless pre-occupied with the topic.  And those organizations help create disunity rather than healing the wounds that religion can sometime create.

So I have a decided ambivalence about many of his suggestions, even while recognizing that they may be good for some.

Next Blog

In the next blog, we talk about yet another book on science and religion.

. …………………………

This is the 29th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

PDF Creator    Send article as PDF   

Dec 22

Books on Science and Religion #28: Atheism for Dummies

Stephen Friberg

To believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Dec 21, 2014

For the next two blogs, I look at the fascinating Atheism for Dummies by Dale McGowan, by turns an interesting and a frustrating guide to one aspect of the topic – the embrace of atheism by those fleeing fundamentalism.

atheism for dummiesBefore I get to McGowan’s book, I want to offer some criticisms of modern atheism. It seems to me that it is a combination of materialism, anti-intellectualism and science-writing treated as if it were religious doctrine.

And before I describe the positive things in McGowan’s book, I want to say some critical things about his reasoning, his anti-intellectualism, and the approach he uses. I think it hides the true reasons why people turn to McGowan’s type of fundamentalist atheism.

Atheism and Unreason

It has been said that humans were born to believe – evolution made us so.

Clearly, there is something to such a view. But there is a rub: to the extent that it is true, it applies equally well to beliefs about in materialism and to an embrace of secularism as it does to religion.

It we look at atheism and materialism as a faith, then we can also look at it from the perspective of the history of a faith. And it looks something like this: The 19th century was the heady age of the dawning of atheism and materialism, the 20th century was the age of its fruition (communism, logical positivism, Arabic socialism, and all that), and the 21st century is the age of disillusionment, the age of the loss of faith. (Simplistic? Yes, but helpful nonetheless.)

And accompanying this loss of faith? Could it be a stubborn, unreasoned grasping at creeds that once seemed so clear and solid? Is this why modern atheism is so irrational, so unfriendly to objectivity, so at odds with the scientific spirit it claims to embrace?

Consider the writings of A.C. Grayling, Stephen Pinker, Lawrence Krauss, Victor Stenger, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins. In the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, their methodology “consists in criticising religion without understanding it, quoting texts without contexts, taking exceptions as the rule, confusing folk belief with reflective theology, abusing, mocking, ridiculing, caricaturing and demonising religious faith and holding it responsible for the great crimes against humanity.” This isn’t a sign of strength, confidence, or certainty – it is a failure to engage or to cope.

In contrast, those who embrace both science and religion seem confident and comfortable with scientific ways of thinking and comfortable with religion, combining a ready awareness of religion’s foibles with an embrace of its strengths and an acknowledgement of its extraordinary diversity. Something happens when science and religion come together.

superhumanPerhaps a diagram conveys more than words.

Consider the traditional physicist’s vision of reality as diagrammed to the left. Newton would be comfortable seeing things this way. At the bottom of the diagram, there is the reality of matter – the stuff of stars, of interstellar space, of minerals, of rocks, and of the ocean. Next and above there is the reality of living things, something that includes the reality of organic things – which are made of matter – and the reality of various types of plants and organisms. Higher in complexity are animals. They incorporate the reality of matter, organisms below animals, as well as the realities of the animal kingdom. Above that – incorporating the human, animal, plant, and material realities – is the world of human reality. And above that? The superhuman reality (super means above). It includes the realities of the material world, the plant world, the animal world, the human world, and in addition, a reality that transcends the human world. [Note: This is only a picture, so don’t worry if the details are a bit off according to modern biology].

The materialist’s world – the atheist’s reality – is a truncated version of this larger picture embraced by those who admit to both science and religion. For the materialist, the superhuman world is out of bounds – it is inadmissible. (If you’re a materialist, this raises some interesting questions. Does money, something often without a material reality, actually exist? If so, where?)

Contrast this truncated perspective with the views of the science and religion crowd. This crowd willingly entertains the idea that there may be a reality above the human or animal kingdom – they aspire to a larger and much grander picture of reality. There is, of course, no money-back guarantee that every resulting vision is going to be better or more wonderful than any given materialist’s vision, but it is clear that the materialist’s views are necessarily much more limited in scope.

And there are implications to this. Materialists aren’t open to a bigger picture of things. One effect is that they are forced by their belief system into viewing religion in a cynical way – they must see it as a story, as an invention, as a lie, as a primitive grasping at scientific facts, or at best as a convenient fiction.

But the other side of the coin is that if materialism is indeed a belief system, then it is likely to be embraced and defended in the same way that religious belief systems are defended. What this means is that all the bad things – the lack of reasonableness, blind adherence to outmoded creeds, the whole body of accusations thrown at the religious and the religions be it justly or unjustly – also applies to those embracing materialism as a belief system. And indeed, the history of 19th and 20th centuries, especially the tragic experiences of Germany, Russia, and China, strongly suggest that materialism is such a belief system, one much more terrible in its consequences than anything the modern religious terrorist can implement. All religious-inspired tragedies pale into insignificance when confronted with the immensity of the horrors wrought in the 19th and 20th centuries by materialist faiths.

santa clausDale McGowan, as an atheist and a materialist, holds to this mold – I describe some of the ways below. But the interesting thing about McGowan’s book is not his philosophical expositions – which are uniformly flippant and unpersuasive – but rather his discussion of the need for community for those who find themselves embracing the atheist creed. But that is the topic for next week’s blog.

What Atheists Do and Don’t Believe

Atheism for Dummies is part of the renowned Dummies series. It’s author, Dale McGowan, is a former professor of music now active as an inspirational speaker for atheist and humanist organizations, a writer, and the director of a charitable organization.

McGowan paints atheists as open and questioning people who have freed themselves from blind belief. In Chapter 3, he explains why people are attracted to atheism. Promisingly, he starts out by invoking Santa Claus:

As the child grows and learns more about the world, the answers become less satisfying, and the urge to know the truth starts to overtake the will to believe. That’s when the direct question comes at last: Is Santa real?

By offering a universe that cares for everyone after all, and by canceling death, the idea of a loving God solves many of the deepest human problem. When it comes to God, the will to believe can be so overwhelming that most people never cross the threshold into the will to actually find out. Whatever doubts they have are easily shooed away by the religious equivalents « magic corn.

This, of course, sounds convincing. It is true that ideologies – and religious belief systems that have collapsed into ideologies – do serve as a way to avoid thinking. He continues:

Those who are able to cross that threshold find that they’re able to revisit the many questions they had shooed away so easily while their will to believe was strongest — questions about good and evil, meaning and purpose, life and death — and to see them in a whole new light. Many end up coming to the conclusion that the God hypothesis just doesn’t fare well in that light, and that it’s much more likely that humanity lives in a natural universe with­out gods.

But notice the ideological flourishes – “the God hypothesis”, “a natural universe without gods.” And it is striking that he doesn’t mention – and perhaps fails to understand – that many have gone or will go through the reverse process – i.e., starting from an atheistic childhood in the Soviet bloc, China, and other like-minded parts of the world, and coming to realize that religion is not what sometimes all-powerful authorities decreed it to be.

His discussion of confirmation bias, and his failure to recognize that the concept applies equally well to those under the spell of materialism, brings the point home:

Confirmation bias is the human tendency to see things the way you prefer, and it’s the single biggest obstacle to getting at the truth in any area of life. It leads people to notice and accept evidence that seems to support their beliefs while ignoring evidence that contradicts it.

That’s one of the central problems many people notice when they first begin to look closely at religion — that the claims and conclusions of the faith so often play to the preferences of the faithful in a really big way.

Confirmation bias10 commandments – of course – is a two-way street, and it can also cause both atheists and religionists to see only what they want to see. And very often what atheists see is very simplistic. I notice it again and again: a writer’s view of religion becomes frozen in time at a certain point, typically in their youth, when they see religion a certain way and reject it. From then on, they absolutely refuse to learn anything more about religion except derogatory or negative things.

McGowan’s take on the Hebrew Bible provides an excellent illustration of how simplistic beliefs can strongly color the way atheists see things. Read the Bible, he urges, and

… in the middle of Genesis, you’ll encounter the stories of two fathers and their children. Both fathers behave with astonishing cruelty toward their kids and – here’s the thing – both are immediately praised and awarded by God. Worse than that, God even ordered one of those cruel acts.

He then argues, on the basis of some extraordinarily labored interpretations, that the new Testament “commands to kill homosexuals, disobedient children, and nonbelievers, and to enslave and kill the people of neighboring countries.”  Of course, it does no such thing.

Given that the Hebrew Bible is a collection of stories written down by priests over a period of hundreds of years that tell about the evolution of God’s relationship with the Jewish people through extremely troubled and cruel times, why does McGowan insist on such an uninformed and extremist literalist reading and thus such skewered interpretations? It’s hard not to conclude that he is in thrall to confirmation bias.

Atheist for Dummies on Evolution

When McGowan comes to evolution, things don’t get any better. After a really short explanation of natural selection, he then concludes that it proves that belief in God can be abandoned. Here is his argument:

Evolution uprooted the tree of traditional religion in several ways. But perhaps the strongest blow was to the argument from design. For thousands of years, everyone from theologians to the person in the street found the complexity of life to be the strongest argument for the existence of God. Now a powerful, simple, natural explanation was available, one that presented fewer problems than an uncreated Creator.

william blakeIn The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins described the importance of evolution to atheism. Before Darwin, an atheist may have said, “God’s a poor explanation for complex biology, but I don’t have a better one.” That’s a pretty unsatisfying position to be in. But Darwin’s theory made it possible to be what Dawkins called “an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” The single most compelling reason to believe in God could finally be set aside with confidence.

The logic of this argument is straight-forward:

A. People believe in God because of the argument from design.

B. Darwin found an argument that doesn’t require design

C. Therefore there is no need to believe in God.

And knocking it down is even more straight-forward:

Counterargument A. There is little or no evidence that the argument from design was meaningful for anybody outside a few educated folks in early 19th century England, so people, generally-speaking, don’t believe in God because of the argument from design.

Counterargument B. Contrary to what many people think, Darwin’s evolutionary mechanism – random variation and natural selection – is indeed a design argument. Ask any modern internet entrepreneur – or even an economist – and they will tell you that if you want to design a phenomenally successful system like Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or a capitalist economy, create one that use large numbers (of people, things, stocks in your mutual fund) and then introduce selection processes. It’s an extremely effective way to design certain types of systems.

Variation and selection using large populations is not only an extraordinarily successful way to design things, its essential to our modern economies. So, evolution is indeed an argument from design, just not a Newtonian argument for design.

Counterargument C. So if neither A nor B is true, C doesn’t follow. And unfortunately, we can’t say that two negatives  add up to a positive. You can believe if you want, but there is no logic, philosophy, or science that supports your belief.

And of course, the idea that a natural explanation – evolutionary or otherwise – of how life and humanity came into being somehow undermines belief in God is simply not true – nor is it all that informed or even rational. Indeed, the ready availability of rational natural explanation of things – the Book of Nature as opposed to the Book of God – has long been a bulwark of religious belief.

But, as I said, McGowan’s arguments for atheism are unconvincing. His real strength is in addressing the needs of people who have left the social network provided by religious communities and have found that they are missing something very important.

Next Blog

In the next blog, we talk about some of the positive features of Atheism for Dummies.


This is the 28th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.


PDF Printer    Send article as PDF   

Dec 19

My Friend Mycroft, Part Three: Mycroft on Religion


Mycroft Holmes

Having discussed the role of science in the life of humanity, my atheist forum friend Mycroft turned to the subject of religion. The points of view were thus: Mycroft=science is a savior; Me=science is a tool for the exploration of reality

Mycroft wrote: “The major organized belief systems are incoherent. Half of mosaic, christian, and muslim theology over the last millennia is devoted to the task of belatedly producing some kind of consistency—often by declaring something impossible a “mystery”, or adding afterthoughts.”

Now, I had never disagreed with Mycroft about the incoherence of some organized belief systems. The irrationality of some of the beliefs I held when I was younger are what led me to look for truth and value both in the scriptures that were supposed to form the basis of my beliefs and beyond.

But here’s the thing: The belief systems current in many religious communities today are no less irrational than our political belief systems, our personal belief systems, our pseudo-scientific belief systems. They are no less irrational than any other area in which human beings make things up to explain, rationalize and make themselves comfortable with cognitive dissonance in a world that seems to change too fast to keep up with.

There is a difference, however, between what the scriptures that we claim to believe say and what we interpret them to say filtered through societal factors and personal desires. Over the valid objections of atheists and others (including religious people), we also extend the pronouncements of scripture into areas they were not intended to address.

The Book of Genesis was viewed by the people to whom it was given as a symbolic history of the Jewish people, not as a literal, material history of humankind. This is why the story of Lilith and the idea that “sons of God” married the “daughters of men” didn’t raise a red flag for Jewish scholars. Only later was the metaphorical account wrested out of that context by non-Jews and taken as a literal creation account and thereby held to be in opposition to scientific theories of evolution.

These days, Genesis is more often taken by believers to be an “age appropriate” metaphor for the creation of life than it is a literal description of that process. The fact that two separate thumbnail sketches of creation appear in the same book with two different timelines that the authors never thought to reconcile is more than suggestive of this. Nor is Genesis the only creation story in existence that is meaningful to huge chunks of humanity, and it makes no sense to insist that it is or that—taken as a metaphorical model—it usurps the role of science. It is not science. It is human beings trying to describe for posterity something they barely have the language to describe.

“But Mohammad,” Mycroft countered, “gave three different versions of the origin of man (he was made from clay, from water, from “semen of despised water”).”

With all due respect to Mycroft’s obvious intelligence, this statement is, to me, an example of the human tendency toward binary thinking. To illustrate, there is a point in the Gospels at which Jesus is trying to describe to His disciples what the Kingdom of God is like. He says it’s like a tree growing from a tiny seed and then that its like a woman kneading leaven into flour.

Many questionsThere are at least two ways to approach this statement.

  1. One can say “Well, which is it? It can’t be both.”
  2. One can choose a description, and take it materialistically, supposing that Christ meant God would physically plant a tree somewhere on earth that would hold all the planet’s birds or turn into a woman and literally knead the leaven of the kingdom into the earth.
  3. One can recognize that a material example is being used to describe something non-material, and can ask “what do these two similes have in common?” What they have in common is that that both the growing of the tree and the kneading of dough are organic processes that take time.

So, what does Muhammad’s use of these elements (one of which is biologically apt) have as a common thread? They are all physical elements that have long been associated with the human body—clay and water; solid substance and fluids—and which every human body is composed of.

Metaphors are also used in scientific literature for the same reason that they are used in religious revelation: we lack the capacity to directly understand the thing we are describing. Scientists talk about stars being born in “cocoons of interstellar gases”, of “black holes”, of “super strings”, of “fields”. Science uses the word “noble” to describe certain gases that do not combine with others. These words are used differently than in a non-scientific setting, but imagine what might happen if someone reading scientific literature took those metaphors literally and believed that stars are like butterflies and are born in cocoons afloat in space, that the phenomenon we call a black hole is really black and really a hole, that there are strings floating in fields (like the Elysian fields or Uncle Fred’s corn field, perhaps) in the void of space, and that some gases are literally more noble than others and therefore the other gases venerate them.

Luis and Walter Alvarez

Luis and Walter Alvarez

In a scientific setting, after the initial shock of a new paradigm being set, it is deemed rational to adjust one’s worldview to incorporate new information. Think of the uproar over Luis and Walter Alvarez’s theories about the KT boundary and dino die-off before it became the new paradigm. I would think that my friend Mycroft and others who share his worldview would be gratified to see religious thought being similarly refined and adjusted by the new discoveries we make about our world and ourselves. Alas, such is not the case. What is considered rational behavior in one context is seen in the other as irrational dithering.

In the Bahá’í scriptures, Bahá’u’lláh (the Prophet-Founder) and Abdu’l-Bahá (His son and appointed interpreter) have written copiously about reason and the importance of the acquisition of knowledge both spiritual and scientific. Religion is revealed in these writings as an organic thing, meant from its very inception to evolve even as mankind and everything else evolves. I doubted that principle once upon a time, and that doubt caused me to study the scriptures I had grown up with in a far more comprehensive and rational way than I had before. I read the biblical texts—especially the words of Christ—with an eye to extracting information. I realized, as I never had before, that Christ (and indeed, Buddha, Krishna, Muhammad and other claimants to divine revelation) had also tried to frame the teachings of Their faiths as part of an evolving process.

“Religion must be living, vitalized, moving and progressive. If it be non-progressive it is dead. The divine institutes are evolutionary; therefore [their] revelation must be progressive and continuous. ..Sciences of former ages and philosophies of the past are useless today.  Ancient laws and archaic ethical systems will not meet the requirements of modern conditions… In view of this, shall blind imitations of ancestral forms and theological interpretations continue to guide the spiritual development of humanity today? Shall man gifted with the power of reason unthinkingly adhere to dogma which will not bear the analysis of reason?” — Abdu’l-Bahá, Foundations of World Unity p. 83

When it came to my discourses with Mycroft, I was bemused to discover that he—the atheist—was the one who insisted that all scripture must be taken literally and that evolution was a non-starter.

Irony can be pretty darned ironic.

Create PDF    Send article as PDF   

Dec 17

Hateful propaganda sparks concern for Baha’is of Rafsanjan

1031_03NEW YORK, 16 December 2014, (BWNS) — Against the backdrop of increasing economic pressures, a recent anti-Baha’i demonstration and a hateful speech delivered by a cleric have raised concerns for the safety of the Baha’is of Rafsanjan, a city in Iran.

Hojatoleslam Abbas Ramezani-Pour, the Friday prayer Imam of Rafsanjan, declared in a speech at the end of November that, according to religious fatwas, Baha’is are “unclean” and that it is “forbidden” to conduct business and trade with them.

“The rightful wishes of the people, which are that they [the Baha’is] should not be in this city, must be realized,” Mr. Ramezani-Pour stated.

“This Imam has, in fact, called for the Baha’is to be expelled from Rafsanjan,” said Ms. Bani Dugal, the principal representative of the Baha’i International Community to the United Nations. “Such negative remarks by a known cleric in the city are extremely worrisome and show a deep level of discrimination.”

“The closure of businesses in that city and the economic harassment of Baha’is are already causing immense hardship for Baha’is there,” said Ms. Dugal

Several days before the speech of Mr. Ramezani-Pour, an anti-Baha’i demonstration was held in front of the governor’s office in Rafsanjan.

Reports from pro-Iranian government media allege that these demonstrations were spontaneous and initiated by the local population. However, photos show instead a clearly planned event, using pre-printed placards obviously prepared in advance. Some placards read “The Baha’is are inherently unclean”, and others “no room for faithless sneaks in Muslim bazaars”.

“Hateful remarks and the dissemination of falsehoods against the Baha’is in Iran are not new”, said Ms. Dugal. “But these incidents are ominous because of past occasions where statements by religious leaders and efforts to incite hatred against a certain group led to serious consequences.”

For example, on 24 August 2013, Mr. Ataollah Rezvani, a well-known Baha’i in the city of Bandar Abbas was shot and killed in his car.  It is of note that a few years before his murder, the Friday prayer Imam had incited the local population against the Baha’is, referring to them as “un-Islamic.”  He further called on the people of the city to “rise up” against the Baha’i community.

Of course, Baha’is are not the only group to be identified from the pulpit.  More recently, the Friday prayer Imam of Isfahan gave a provocative speech in which he stated that warnings were no longer enough in the fight to ensure the proper use of the Hijab – or the head scarf – by all women; force and violence were now necessary.  Shortly after his address, several women had acid thrown at their faces for not wearing what the authorities regard as appropriate attire whilst out in public in the city.

“The statements of clerics in Iran have an influence on the thoughts of those who follow them”, said Ms. Dugal. “Where is the government? Can the complicity of the government be seriously denied?”

In October of this year, 50 Baha’i shops were closed in the city of Kerman, 23 in Rafsanjan and six in Jiroft – all in the same province. In recent months, an increase in the number of closures of Baha’i businesses and shops shows a coordinated plan for inflicting further pressures on the Baha’is of Iran.

● A business closure in July resulted in 20 locals in Ghaemshahr being left jobless.

● In September 2014, a Baha’i in Yazd whose business license had been refused despite her repeated representations to the Public Places Supervision Office (PPSO), was told by a director of the PPSO in Yazd Province that he had received a circular from the higher authorities instructing his office not to issue a business permit to any Baha’i applicant and that this would be undertaken gradually, presumably in an effort to prevent adverse publicity in the international media.  It should further be noted that, at one point in her efforts to retain the business, she was advised by the local trade union to have it registered under the name of a Muslim.  When she did so, the individual concerned was threatened by PPSO officials, who pressured him, albeit unsuccessfully, to sign an undertaking pledging that neither the Baha’i nor any of her Baha’i colleagues would ever show their faces inside the store.

● In August 2014 it was reported that three veterans, who had been prisoners of war and who were receiving the pension to which they were entitled had been summoned to the Veterans’ Affairs Foundation and told that if they did not write their religion as Muslim, their pensions would be stopped.  They refused to recant their faith and are now receiving no pension.

● In October 2014, it was reported that business licenses of four Baha’is in the city of Yazd were not renewed.

● In November 2014, in Isfahan, the residences of a number of Baha’is who were working from home were entered by agents of the Ministry of Intelligence and the work areas ‘sealed’ to indicate no further work could be done.

PDF Converter    Send article as PDF   

Dec 14

Books on Science and Religion #27: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on Science and Religion

Stephen Friberg

To believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Dec 14, 2014

I’ve just read Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ 2012 book on science and religion called The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning. I strongly recommend it. It resonates very strongly with what I have learned about the relationship between science and religion, says things eloquently that many have of us been struggling to voice for years, and brings to bear a powerful, fascinating, and enlightening rabbinical perspective that draws on a three thousand year tradition that precedes and underlies Christianity, Islam, and the Baha’i Faith.

Sir-jonathan-sacksDr. Sacks, the leading Rabbi in the United Kingdom until his retirement in 2013, is a philosopher by training. He did his studies at Cambridge and at Oxford where his PhD was under the moral philosopher – and atheist – Bernard Williams. Also, he is the author of some 22 books, recipient of many awards for those books, and was knighted by the British government. A gifted story teller, he brings an easy erudition to his topics and is a sought-after public speaker. He brings the Hebrew Bible alive – somehow capturing a feeling that the last 3,000 years was just yesterday.

The Great Partnership, in some ways, is a direct engagement with New Atheism and its attacks on religion. Here is an example of how he answers those attacks:

If the new atheists are right, you would have to be sad, mad or bad to believe in God and practise a religious faith. We know that is not so … To believe in God, faith and the importance of religious practice does not involve an abdication of the intellect, a silencing of critical faculties, or believing in six impossible things before breakfast. It does not involve reading Genesis literally. It does not involve rejecting the findings of science.

Debates about science and religion, he notes, have always been with us, but the current debates have

… been waged with more than usual anger and vituperation, and the terms of the conflict have changed. In the past the danger – and it was a real danger – was a godless society. That led to four terrifying experiments in history, the French Revolution, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and Communist China.

The-Great_PartnershipToday the danger is of a radical religiosity combined with an apocalyptic political agenda, able through terror and asymmetric warfare to destabilise whole nations and regions …

The result is dangerous assault on religion when believers and non-believers should be united:

This is one fight believers and non-believers should be fighting together. Instead the new atheism has launched an unusually aggressive assault on religion, which is not good for religion, for science, for intellectual integrity or for the future of the West.

Schooled in the atheism of old, he challenges the methods and prescriptions of the new:

Atheism deserves better than the new atheists, whose methodology consists in criticising religion without understanding it, quoting texts without contexts, taking exceptions as the rule, confusing folk belief with reflective theology, abusing, mocking, ridiculing, caricaturing and demonising religious faith and holding it responsible for the great crimes against humanity.

Religion has done harm; I acknowledge that candidly … But the cure of bad religion is good religion, not no religion, just as the cure of bad science is good science, not the abandonment of science.

But the book is much more than a response to New athiesm. It is a tour-de-force overview of the relationship between science and religion in light of the entire tradition of western reason and Abrahamic monotheism. I excerpt below.


Consider two creation stories, one drawing on science, the other on religion.


The scientific creation story tells us that the universe was created 13.7 billion years, that our planet formed 4.5 billion years ago, that life appeared not long after, that it grew in complexity through evolutionary processes, and that it brought homo sapiens into being. The religion creation story tells us that God created the universe because of His love for us so that we could know Him and love him. He sent guidance to women and men everywhere through his Prophets and through those who were wise, teaching humanity so that it would mature, and allowing even mistakes and great evils so that we could learn and advance towards the kingdom of God.

Consider them each, Sacks instructs us:

Two rival views, each coherent and consistent, each simplified to be sure, but marking out the great choice, the two framing visions of the human situation. One asserts that life is meaningless. The other claims that life is meaningful. The facts are the same on both scenarios. So is the science that explains the facts. But the world is experienced differently by those who tell the first narrative and those who tell the second.

One of the stories looks for meaning, Sacks tells us, “and that is no small thing, for we are meaning-seeking animals.” And while seeking for meaning includes embracing science, it goes further:

Science is the search for explanation. Religion is the search for meaning. Meaning is not accidental to the human condition because we are the meaning-seeking animal.

To believe on the basis of science that the universe has no meaning is to confuse two disciplines of thought: explanation and interpreta­tion. The search for meaning, though it begins with science, must go beyond it. Science does not yield meanings, nor does it prove the absence of meanings.

athensAlthough it’s not important in the overall context, I don’t fully agree with his definition of science. I think that it is more than a search for facts and explanations. Rather it is the systematic use of reason for whatever one chooses (consider, for example, the culture of learning and the ongoing cycle of reflection and action in Baha’i communities around the world – that is the application of the scientific method in community growth and development).

Athens and Jerusalem

Athens vs. Jerusalem. Left-brain vs. Right-brain. Reason vs. intuition. Individualism vs. group-orientation.

We invoke these dichotomies to talk about very real differences between people, groups of people, cultures, nations and civilizations. Sacks talks about the origins of modern western civilization as the marriage of Greek rationalism and Jewish monotheism:

JerusalemGreece and Israel in antiquity offer us the sharpest possible contrast between a strongly left-brain and a strongly right-brain culture. They were both widely literate societies, with a high regard for study and discipleship. They both valued the academy and the sage. 

But their cognitive styles were different … They valued different things. The Greeks worshipped human reason, the Jews, divine revelation. The Greeks gave the West its philosophy and science. The Jews, obliquely, gave it its prophets and religious faith.

These two great cultures – both having escaped from the spell of myth – united in Christianity:

The unique synthesis of Athens and Jerusalem that became Christianity led to the discipline of theology and thus to the intel­lectual edifice of Western civilisation between the fourth and seventeenth centuries. It was a wondrous achievement, a cathe­dral of the mind. It brought together the Judaic love of God and the Hellenistic love of nature and human reason.

It was … a wondrous creation – but it was as much Greek as Judaic. … It combined left-brain rationality with right-brain spirituality in a single, glorious, overarching structure. We may never see its like again.

The scientific age emerged from this great synthesis. But it has lost its way. It has lost the love of God, its pursuit of meaning,  and its religion. To be morally literate in this modern age, you have to understand the consequences:

Knowing what happened in Russia under Stalin, in China under Mao and in Germany under Hitler is essential to moral literacy in the twenty-first century. These were programmes carried out under the influence of ideas produced by Western intellectuals in the nineteenth century to fill the vacuum left by a widespread loss of faith in God and religion.

Holocaust-JewsThe Holocaust

There is no better illustration of the situation we find ourselves than the Holocaust.

The Holocaust did not take place long ago and far away. It happened in the heart of rationalist, post-Enlightenment, liberal Europe: the Europe of Kant and Hegel, Goethe and Schiller, Beethoven and Brahms.

The problem is not only the insidious anti-semitism of the great continental philos­ophers:

Voltaire called the Jews ‘an ignorant and barbarous people, who have long united the most sordid avarice with the most detestable superstition’. Fichte wrote that the only way of making Jews civi­lised was to amputate their Jewish heads. Immanuel Kant spoke privately of Jews as ‘the vampires of society’ and argued for the ‘euthanasia’ of Judaism. Hegel took Judaism as his model of a ‘slave morality’. Nietzsche accused Jews of giving the world an ethic of kind­ness and compassion which he saw as the ‘falsification’ of natural morality, namely the will to power. Schopenhauer … spoke of Jews as ‘no better than cattle’ and ‘scum of the Earth’.

It is inherent in the intrinsic lopsidedness of science:

First, there is something intrinsically dehumanising in the left-brain mentality. The scientific mind lives in detachment, analysis, the breaking down of wholes to their component parts. The focus is not on the particular – this man, that woman, this child – but on the universal. Science per se has no space for empathy or fellow feeling.

None of this is to say that scientists are not compassion­ate and loving human beings: surely they are. But when science is worshipped and religion dethroned, then a certain decision has been made to set aside human feelings for the sake of something higher, nobler, larger. From there it is a short distance to hell.

image_of_godClearly. science by itself is inadequate:

For the sake of human dignity, science must be accompanied by another voice. Not in opposition to science, but as the humanising voice of what once we called the soul. There is no greater defence of human dignity than the phrase from the first chapter of the Bible that dared to call the human being ‘the image of God’.


It is hard to do justice to the fullness and completeness of this book. I’ve only the space to reference a few of Rabbi Sacks’ topics. I can only hope that I’ve shared enough to make you want to go to a library and borrow a copy – or better yet, buy it for your own library. It is that good.

I give the last word to Sacks:

Religion and science, the heritages respectively of Jerusalem and Athens, products of the twin hemispheres of the human brain, must now join together to protect the world that has been entrusted to our safekeeping, honouring our covenant with nature and nature’s God – the God who is the music beneath the noise; the Being at the heart of being, whose still small voice we can still hear if we learn to create a silence in the soul; the God who, whether or not we have faith in him, never loses faith in us.

Next Blog

In the next blog, we talk about Atheism for Dummies.


This is the 25th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

Fax Online    Send article as PDF   

Older posts «